A nation’s troubled legacy born of brutality
In May, new French President Emmanuel Macron took his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on a tour of the Gallery of Great Battles at Versailles. Opened in 1837, its specially commissioned paintings celebrate nearly 15 centuries of French triumphs, from Clovis to Napoleon’s victory at Wagram in 1809. Nothing about Moscow? Putin might have wondered.
An altogether different traverse of national military history occupies Alexis Jenni’s superb first published novel, The French Art of War, which won the Prix Goncourt in 2011.
The novel opens in 1991. The unnamed narrator watches the Gulf war on television (a war French theorist Jean Baudrillard jestingly argued never happened) as he drifts out of his job and heads home to Lyon. There he encounters an elderly painter, Victorien Salagnon, who is a 23-year veteran of wars, as a youthful member of the Resistance, then in colonial conflicts in Vietnam and Algeria. A bargain is struck: if the narrator animates and reshapes Salagnon’s stolid memoirs, he will teach him to paint.
In The French Art of War, there are commentaries that contain the narrator’s own story, not only his interactions with Salagnon and his wife Eurydice, whom he rescued from the Hades of Algiers, but of the breakdown of his own marriage and then a strange, perhaps only imagined, late love affair.
These alternate with six sections called novel that relate Salagnon’s life as a soldier as the narrator has reconstructed it. Apparently very different stories — domestic and martial — become the more powerful through their connection.
On the one hand is the melancholy, intelligent narrator who initially had gone back to Lyons “to put an end to things” but who then establishes a traditional, outwardly comfortable bourgeois existence with a good job, a flat and a wife called Oceane (alike “beautiful”) that he destroys, maybe out of disgust at the surfeit in his life. On the other is the reserved war veteran Salagnon, for whom “painting save my life and soul”, whose voice the narrator assumes to tell the exemplary story of the last of the French colonial wars and of the “splintering” country that is their legacy.
Throughout the novel Jenni speaks urgently: “By 1939 France was in excellent shape to fight the battles of 1915”; its soon occupied populace made themselves as small as possible “to give no purchase to the winds of history”.
Cracking up, the narrator ruefully recognises that “I am gradually uninstalling myself”. Of the racial division in France that is principally the issue of its colonial past, the novel has much to say: “Race in France has substance but no definition”; “the French all collude in using the word ‘they’ ”.
If the pieds noirs (displaced European Algerians) “are our guilty conscience”, the French are also angrily agitated by the Muslims who have settled among them: “two black veils floated past with people inside them”, “two shrouds with eyes”. In such passages, the note of exultant pessimism has much in common with Jenni’s great contemporary among French novelists, Michel Houellebecq, another Goncourt winner and controversialist.
The French Art of War works on a much broader historical canvas than Houellebecq has ventured, proceeding, however, not so much chronologically but by vignette. Thus Jenni salutes Paul Teitjen, secretary-general of police in Algiers, who quietly insisted on listing the names of all those taken into custody by the army, usually to be tortured. This is “a census of the dead”, fit and grisly counterpart to the arrest of “24,000 men without knowing what a single one of them had done”.
The massacre of French civilians by the Germans at Porquigny is one of Salagnon’s earliest memories of war. His own instruction in painting comes from an Annamese aristocrat in Hanoi: lessons that end when the old man is butchered. There are set-piece accounts of bloody and bungled ambushes in Vietnam and Algeria.
The narrator’s life also is punctuated by nightmarish incidents: the ghastly dinner party that he contrives to end his marriage, the queuing at a locked all-night pharmacy, the uncovering of a cemetery in waste ground near the once-prized tower blocks where he spent his childhood.
One implication of The French Art of War is that the nation has not yet woken from its dream of imperial eminence, one of the fictions spun by Charles de Gaulle, “the greatest liar of all time”, whom the narrator ironically dubs The Novelist.
Student of history, the narrator is also a devotee of war films. How much of his memories of Apocalypse Now are instinct in his description of the journey that Salagnon takes up river in Vietnam? Another film is explicitly mentioned, although some readers will already have thought of it. This is Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965), which had been long banned in France. The narrator finds the film as false as any fabrication by de Gaulle: “packaging history and handing the military republic of Algeria the basis for its myths”.
By contrast, what he fashions from Salagnon’s memoir asks to be granted a moral and emotional integrity, for all that one terrible question is long begged. When the narrator finally asks “did you torture?”, Salagnon’s