Novel on legacy of Algerian war wins France's richest prize



A powerful account of what happened to an Algerian "harki" family who sided with the French during the country's war of independence won France's most lucrative book prize Thursday.

"The Art of Losing" by 31-year-old Alice Zeniter had already won three major awards, and had been shortlisted for the prestigious Goncourt and Femina prizes for its portrait of a family caught on the wrong side of history.

Zeniter -- herself the granddaughter of a "harki" -- beat Veronique Olmi's "Bakhita" to the Students' Goncourt prize, which almost guarantees its winner a boost in sales of half a million copies in France alone.

Both Olmi's real-life story of a Sudanese slave girl who became a Catholic saint and "The Art of Losing" have been publishing sensations of the year in France.

Critics praised Zeniter's novel for the delicacy and grace with which it broaches the rarely told story of a group that is seen as the biggest losers in the bloody nine-year war, which still dogs relations between Algeria and France.

While as many as a quarter of a million Algerians worked or fought for the French during the war which ended in 1962, only 42,000 harkis were given refuge in France.

"Algeria called them rats, traitors, dogs, unclean apostates and bandits," Zeniter wrote.

"France sewed their mouths with the barbed wire of the camps in which it would rather not have welcomed them," she added, describing their miserable fate as a choice between exile and the threat of death in their homeland.

The story turns on a young Parisian artist who has to go to Algeria for work. Her father, who left the country as a child, refuses to talk about his birthplace, and all she knows of her grandfather is that as a colonial soldier he helped liberate France from the Nazis.

Zeniter, whose father was born in the Kabyle region of Algeria, and whose grandfather was considered a harki for supporting the French, said that while working on her novel, she had come upon many such "secret pockets where we put all those whose trajectories embarrass us".