Bold and brave, way­ward and mag­nif­i­cent

A French slacker makes a rev­e­la­tory jour­ney in this im­mense, im­por­tant, blood-drenched and in­tox­i­cat­ing opus with an am­bi­tious theme: war and the ways in which the French per­pe­trated it The French Art of War

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Eileen Bat­tersby Poem Lani O’Han­lon RUTH McKEE BRIAN MAYE FRANK MacGABHANN

By Alexis Jenni, trans­lated by Frank Wynne At­lantic, £16.99

Some­times one shock­ing vis­ual im­age will fi­nally shake even the lazi­est, most ap­a­thetic, self- ab­sorbed cynic out of an all-en­com­pass­ing stu­por. In the case of the un­named nar­ra­tor of Alexis Jenni’s spec­tac­u­lar de­but, The French Art of War, a graphic, 612-page block­buster ex­posé of his coun­try’s squalid past – in­clud­ing Vichy, In­dochina and the rape of Al­ge­ria – wake-up time for him oc­curred when, pre­tend­ing to be ill, he skived off work and stayed in bed to watchtele­vi­sion with his then girl­friend.

In­stead of choos­ing a box set, how­ever, he tuned into news cov­er­age of the Gulf War. Prior to that, he ad­mits, he had given only min­i­mal con­sid­er­a­tion to the French army: “We won­der why they do it, this tainted job steeped in blood and death.”

That slick lit­tle ob­ser­va­tion re­veals a great deal about the acidic nar­ra­tor, the kind of guy who spe­cialises in re­flex rhetoric. On notic­ing that se­vere snow­storms were af­fect­ing the part of France from which he came, he op­por­tunis­ti­cally pre­tends to have gone home and in­forms his em­ploy­ers he is trapped. “I phoned the of­fice 300 me­tres away and claimed to be 800 kilo­me­tres away amid the white hills be­ing shown on the news. Ev­ery­one . . . knew I was from the Rhone, the Alps.”

En­trails

In ad­di­tion to be­ing a liar, he re­gards France as vi­o­lent, racist and ag­gres­sive, a coun­try which ex­ists mainly through its lan­guage: “France is the French lan­guage.” He is also dis­turbed and has a fren­zied ap­proach to life. Ex­actly why he de­stroyed his wife’s care­fully-planned din­ner party by pre­sent­ing their hor­ri­fied guests with the barely-cooked en­trails of as­sorted an­i­mals is not quite ex­plained.

Vi­sions he ex­pe­ri­ences while gaz­ing at dis­play cab­i­nets con­tain­ing frozen meat sug­gest all is not well with him. Else­where, a bril­liant comic se­quence fea­tures his at­tempts to pur­chase, at an all-night phar­macy in racially tense Lyons which ap­pears in dan­ger of be­com­ing be­sieged, med­i­ca­tion for his sore throat. “In France we know how to hold a first-rate protest march,” he muses.

The meat is a clue and leads Jenni to his pre­vail­ing theme: the ut­ter dis­re­gard for life and the speed with which peo­ple re­duce oth­ers to lumps of flesh. This is an im­mense, im­por­tant, blood-drenched and in­tox­i­cat­ing opus with an am­bi­tious theme: war and the ways in which the French per­pe­trated it.

Even more po­tent is the re­al­i­sa­tion that Jenni is con­fronting the ease with which hu­mans cease be­ing hu­man. The nar­ra­tor sets the scene by re­call­ing his messed-up life in the 1990s, which then ac­quires some level of di­rec­tion through a chance en­counter with a much older man, a sol­dier who had served France through­out his life re­gard­less of his moral doubts: “There were only com­rades and en­emy meat.”

It would be easy to dis­miss the nar­ra­tor as yet an­other smart Alec Every­man ready to sneer at the world – “The big news on TV was Op­er­a­tion Desert Storm, a code name straight out of Star Wars, cooked up by the scriptwrit­ers of a spe­cial Cabi­net” – but he the war se­quences, are so vivid one would think that Jenni, a bi­ol­ogy teacher with a lu­cid grasp of his­tory, had ac­tu­ally served in a war.

Al­ready recog­nised as an out­stand­ing trans­la­tor from French and Span­ish, Sligo-born Frank Wynne’s work on this dense, cu­ri­ously sym­phonic text amounts to a mirac­u­lous feat and con­veys the tonal con­trasts which are cru­cial in a work draw­ing so heav­ily from known and con­tentiously re­ported fact.

It soon be­comes clear that aside from the chore­ographed set pieces at the din­ner party and the all-night phar­macy, the nar­ra­tor is merely a con­duit – in­creas­ingly ir­ri­tat­ing, but no mat­ter. He tells the story of Salagnon’s life, from school­boy trans­lat­ing his Latin texts to el­derly sur­vivor en­dur­ing his mem­o­ries and the ghastly pic­tures in his head. Yet he had a re­lease: he con­tin­ued to sketch and paint, and even made pen­cil draw­ings while in bat­tle – a homage, per­haps, to Ger­man artist Otto Dix. Jenni is good on vis­ual de­scrip­tion of jun­gle ter­rains, foul con­di­tions, rot­ting corpses and the detri­tus of war but far less con­vinc­ing on the art which sus­tained Salagnon, who had even been taught brush work by a Chi­nese mas­ter in Hanoi.

Salagnon had watched his vile fa­ther col­lab­o­rate with the Nazis and, hav­ing been trained to kill as a teenager with the Re­sis­tance, iron­i­cally at­tempts to re­tain some hu­man­ity. Through­out much of his life, a shad­owy un­cle, also a sol­dier who had de­voted his en­ergy to learn­ing to re­cite Homer, had in­flu­enced Salagnon’s think­ing and sub­se­quent ca­reer. While the nar­ra­tor’s se­quence tails off into an­gry, di­gres­sive dis­course, the war se­quences, par­tic­u­larly con­cern­ing Al­ge­ria, are spell­bind­ing. There are echoes of Ca­mus as well as De­nis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sym­pa­thizer. Al­though nei­ther as el­e­gant nor elo­quent as Mathias Énard’s Com­pass, The French Art of War is bold, brave, mag­nif­i­cent and re­pel­lently way­ward as well as con­ver­sa­tional – dif­fi­cult to put down and im­pos­si­ble to forget.

Eileen Bat­tersby is Lit­er­ary Cor­re­spon­dent and au­thor of Teeth­marks on my Tongue By Char­lotte Ram­pling Icon Books, £12.99

Only at the end of this short, un­usual mem­oir do we learn why it was writ­ten. One un­usual as­pect is that it is not clear in places whether it is the ghost­writer, Christophe Bataille, or Ram­pling her­self who is speak­ing. An­other is that it is not chrono­log­i­cal and tells noth­ing of her glit­ter­ing screen ca­reer. It is mainly about her child­hood and youth, as the daugh­ter of a Royal Ar­tillery colonel By Sjón Scep­tre £8.99

Open­ing with a graphic scene of oral sex and clos­ing with pen­e­trat­ing philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions, Moon­stone is quite a ride. Its hero, Máni Steinn, is a lost and lonely boy in Reyk­javik. As the Span­ish Flu spreads through the city and the first World War plays out in Europe, he per­forms sex­ual favours for lo­cal men in se­cret for the price of a ticket to the cin­ema, his place of refuge. We see the city through erotic mo­ments, pe­cu­liar vi­gnettes and ele­giac mem­ory; the book reads like a silent film, dream­like and frag­men­tary. Moon­stone teases the in­tel­lect with­out self-con­scious­ness, and asks the big ques­tions while re­main­ing play­ful. The bare prose and ex­plicit scenes con­trast with the poetic ge­om­e­try of the whole, the del­i­cate, un­laboured prism of metaphor that the reader un­wit­tingly in­hab­its. (who won a gold medal in the 400m re­lay at the 1936 Ber­lin Olympics), whose ca­reer meant his fam­ily led a peri­patetic life. She was very close to her only sib­ling, her sis­ter Sarah, who died by sui­cide at 23. “My sis­ter died a vi­o­lent death. I saw my fam­ily sink into si­lence. I took flight and be­came a stranger among strangers,” she writes, which may ex­plain her de­tached, dis­tant per­son­al­ity. At the end of the mem­oir, she writes, con­cern­ing Sarah: “It seems that these words were not the hard road but a poem that was reach­ing out for you.” Poetic in places, yes, but in other places not par­tic­u­larly in­spir­ing writ­ing.

A Gift from Dark­ness – How I Es­caped with my Daugh­ter from Boko Haram

BY Pa­tience Ibrahim and An­drea C Hoff­man, Trans­lated by Shaun White­side Lit­tle Brown, £13.99

This is a heart-wrench­ing story of evil. Pa­tience, a young Nige­rian mar­ried woman, es­capes twice from the clutches of Boko Haram. While in their hands she ex­pe­ri­ences and wit­nesses un­speak­able bru­tal­ity when she re­fuses to con­vert to Is­lam. Some who con­vert be­come sui­cide bombers and cast sus­pi­cion on all es­capees, in­clud­ing Pa­tience. She is preg­nant and must con­ceal the pregnancy as she, in their eyes, is car­ry­ing an “in­fi­del” and has seen what hap­pened to oth­ers in her sit­u­a­tion. Af­ter the sec­ond es­cape Pa­tience gives birth alone in a field and calls her daugh­ter Gift. This re­viewer is not sure how much of Pa­tience’s words are hers or An­drea Hoff­mann’s; not for the faint-hearted.

Moon­stone: the boy who never was

Who I Am

‘This tainted job steeped in blood and death’: a French sol­dier called up to fight in the Al­ge­rian war and his fam­ily, De­cem­ber 1956. PHO­TO­GRAPH: MICHEL DESJARDINS/ GAMMA-RAPHO VIA GETTY IMAGES

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