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
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.”
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