Alexis Jenni is a painter living in Lyon who published his first novel in 2011. This 700 odd page mammoth work surprised the French literary world by winning the prestigious Goncourt in 2011.
L’Art français de la guerre is a work that tries to analyze France’s present through the lens of its sticky colonial past. The book is split between two voices. The first is of a young man, the narrator, who lives in Lyon and sees the country being split apart by nationalism, racism and a deep distrust towards the Other. The other voice is that of an ex-captain (Victorien Salagnon) of the parachute division of the French army during the French war in Vietnam and the Algerian war. Recruited into the Resistance as an adolescent, he lives through all three wars as an active participant. However, Victorien lives through these wars not just as a soldier, but also as a painter, using his talent to paint his fellow soldiers, the landscapes and scenes from the war itself.
Guilt, shame, horror, disappointment and anger run through the book as Alexis Jenni splits wide open the can of worms that is colonial history. The injustice and complete dehumanization that made colonialism possible infects everything that it touches. The decolonization wars are a theater of inhuman acts and atrocities committed by young men who have bought into the idea of the inferiority of the Other.
Alexis Jenni connects this bloody past to the problems of the present. He posits that the wounds of the colonial past are way too recent and way too deep for them to heal. Both sides- the colonized and the colonizer-still look at each other with contempt and distrust and this manifests itself in today’s society as racism and xenophobia.
The writer’s prose is evocative and image-laden, as you would expect of a painter. However, there are times that the book could get a little repetitive and perhaps, could have been edited with even more rigor. (Rumor has it that Jenni’s first draft ran into 1000 pages!) Despite this weakness, L’Art français de la guerre is an essential read for anyone interested in reading about colonialism and history. At the end of the book you might want to find your own local Paul Teitgen (find out who he is) and put up a statue for him!