A na­tion’s trou­bled legacy born of brutality

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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