University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Historians are not always the best readers of novels set in historical contexts. They are prone to getting bogged down, policing them for inaccuracies. However, historians can get more from novels when they ask if they allow exploration of questions of historical importance that historians are unable to address adequately on their own. This can be a variant of asking for a book the author did not write, but thinking about such unwritten books can be revealing as well.
Alexis Jenni’s first novel, L’Art français de la guerre, received the Goncourt Prize in 2011 for its graceful prose and its affirmation of a humanist ethic that condemns racist delineations of the Other. The narrator of the novel is a lost soul living in Lyon whose life is changed when he meets a veteran of what Jenni refers to as the “twenty-year war.” This protracted conflict began in occupied France and spanned Indochina and Algeria. This experience is evoked by characters in the novel as the wandering, warring and homecomings of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The veteran, Victorien Salagnan, is a gifted artist and the narrator takes painting lessons from him. In the process, Victorien recounts his life while the narrator records it. Drawing had allowed Victorien to escape the brutality of war; translating Victorien’s life into fine prose offers the narrator an escape from the banality of his own life. Victorien’s groundedness, through rooted in trauma, is what postcolonial Euro-French males like the narrator lack, Jenni argues. For the novel is very much about males. Though the narrator has a number of relatively acquiescent girlfriends, the only female character to receive much attention is Eurydice, a pied-noir painted with the brush of a Harlequin romance. Eurydice falls in love with Victorien while he is serving in World War II, losing her virginity to him in his hospital bed. He writes to her for twelve years without ever receiving an answer, but when they meet again in wartime Algiers, she abandons her husband and pursues a passionate affair with him.
The core of L’Art français de la guerre lies in Victorien’s military experiences. These will feel familiar to readers. Victorien’s grandfather is an eccentric racist and his father a shopkeeper who has the teenaged Victorien doctor his records to allow him to circumvent restrictions during the Occupation; after Liberation his father gets forged documents to show wartime support of the Resistance. Victorian joins the maquis, eager to embody a France different from his father’s. His unit discovers a massacre reminiscent of Oradour-sur-Glane. Victorien confronts populations in Indochina and Algeria, who are clear about one thing: they don’t want the French. Neither side recognizes the other’s humanity. The French torture with abandon and kill captured soldiers; they set booby traps with grenades. However, during the Battle of Algiers Victorien is one paratrooper who doesn’t like the culture of terror. He is thus presented as something of a moral character, marked by Zen perspectives imparted by a Vietnamese aristocrat with whom he studied painting during his service there. That Victorien emerged from the colonial wars opposed to the racism that defined them may be the victory that his name evokes.
The novel is marked by the frequent reappearance of characters in new settings. The German officer who ignored Victorien’s faulty bookkeeping (but not his Latin homework) during the Occupation also participated in the village massacre. He then turns up in Indochina as a member of the Foreign Legion, torturing prisoners, asking questions in French, “the international language of enhanced interrogation.”(413) Victorien’s commanding officer notes that the German works “without qualms,” but, anticipating Algeria, he adds that the French would soon be able to do so as well (415). In an ethnically diverse suburb of today’s Lyon, Mariani, Victorien’s buddy from Indochina and Algeria, has formed a fascistic group of youths that goes by the acronym GAFFES (Groupe d’Autodéfense des Français Fiers d’Être de Souche). GAFFES members fortify an eighteenth-floor apartment with sandbags and enjoy taking potshots at pedestrians below. They mean to resume the twenty-year war that France had lost. Contrasting these youths’ relation to Mariani and the very different relationship between the narrator and Victorien is a central theme of the book. “Colonial rot,” a recurring term in the novel, permeates postcolonial French society. It is demonstrated in the militarization of the municipal police–inspired by paratroopers’ gear and practices– and the fruit of Mariani’s consultation with the mayor. This is the “art de la guerre” which has persisted in France. (255)
L’Art français de la guerre is a good read, with a number of powerful depictions of horrific events like the Viet-minh destruction of a mobile bordello operated by the French or the blood, feces and vomit in the interrogation center in Algiers. Jenni’s accounts of war are well researched and force historians to contemplate not just the ideologically messy, but the physically revolting, aspect of colonial wars. It is undeniable that contemporary France displays elements of “colonial rot” and Jenni’s characters focus in particular on the legacy of Algeria. The narrator explains that “the pieds-noirs were in miniature what France is today, all of France, France in a panic, contaminated in its very language by colonial rot.”(460) Colonial use of violence to repress the population was what was repatriated in 1962. (486) GAFFES is “the ghost party [parti fantôme] that came back in the boats in 1962.”(616) The narrator estimates that ten percent of the French population consists of Algerian war veterans, Algerian expatriates and pieds-noirs; and that they are “marked directly by the stain of colonialism [flétrissure coloniale], and it is contagious.”(469) Each war, he philosophizes, had found a place for the killers of the previous war, but what of the last war, that of Algeria?
What questions of interest to historians does the novel raise? Jenni is concerned with a France marked by its wartime and colonial past but he could have probed further the psychology and culture of the veterans of France’s twenty-year war, not least because its leaders evoke their experiences at every opportunity. As a novelist he could have analysed these characters beyond these individuals’ self-perception. And no group evoked French macho fantasies during this twenty-year war more than the paratroopers; an exploration of their psychology would have been of real value. Jonathan Littell pursued such a project in his Goncourt Prize winning 2006 novel, Les Bienveillantes, which took the form of a memoir by a Nazi SS officer. That Littell was not as successful as some believe does not mean that Jenni, given his more historically plausible account, could not have been.
Some of the most revealing passages occur in the first part of the novel, when the narrator presents his own troubled psyche through the social and racial dynamics of an all-night pharmacy or his creation of a grotesquely inappropriate meal from a collection of bizarre purchases at ethnic markets. That the narrator appears more together after he has absorbed the revelations of Victorien’s life makes his reflections in the second half of the book less engaging. Though L’Art français de la guerre will be read primarily for Victorien’s wartime experiences and their legacies, the book may be of greater interest to historians in its efforts to get inside the postcolonial Euro-French mindset, which is more complex than the want-to-be brutes of GAFFES might suggest. The narrator came of age after these wars and is only aware of how distanced he feels watching the Gulf War on television (while attempting to make love), a war different in nature from those that preceded it. For the physicality of making war and making love are primary themes of L’Art français de la guerre. The historian might then ask why and how both are made to characterize postwar French history.