The French Art of War

Written by (trans. Frank Wynne) Alexis Jenni
Review by Edward James

This is a long book translated from the French, with a forbidding title by an author who is prodigal with words. Don’t let this put you off! This is a marvellous book, which conveys the experience of war as most of the world has known it over the past seventy years better than any book I have read.

This is not the clash of mighty armies, but ‘low intensity’, ‘asymmetrical’ warfare in which modern armies with helicopters and armoured vehicles grapple with ‘insurgents’ moving by bicycle and donkey. Specifically, the book deals with the French colonial campaigns in Indo-China and Algeria in the 1950s and the maquisard uprising against the Germans in southern France in 1944. However, the experience holds true for most post-war campaigns fought by the French, British, Americans and others against local forces in distant countries. Jenni shows it all: sweat and fatigue, boredom and excitement, terror and triumph, camaraderie and horror. By the time readers finish the book, they will feel they have fought in these wars themselves.

The story is structured as a reminiscence by an elderly veteran telling his story to a younger man, who turns it into a novel in return for art lessons (the veteran is a talented artist). The chapters of the novel are interleaved with ‘commentaries’ by the narrator, describing his own life in the 1990s and the environment in which the veteran lives his final years, a world of run-down social housing, racial tension and right-wing extremism.

The section on the maquisard uprising is told from the viewpoint of the insurgents; the Indo-Chinese and Algerian sections are from the viewpoint of the occupying army. The veteran’s sympathies are with the ‘natives’, and the narrator sees the current ills of France as the inhumanities of colonialism imported into the homeland of the ex-colonials’ power.