The prize was announced by the Goncourt panel of literary bigwigs at the chic Drouant restaurant in Paris.
The adventure story, a reflection on the heritage of France’s colonial history in Indochina and Algeria, beat stiff competition from authors including Haiti’s Lyonel Trouillot.
“This is a rare book by a writer who will leave his mark, a completely disconcerting book, an unexpected book on this particular subject handled in this way,” said the Goncourt jury’s president Edmonde Charles-Roux.
Jenni, 48, is the antithesis of last year’s provocative winner, France’s best-known living writer Michel Houellebecq, who won for his bestselling satire “La carte et le territoire” (The Map and the Territory).
“Ever since I completed my studies 20 years ago, I’ve written several things that didn’t work,” Jenni said. “So I said to myself that I would always remain a Sunday writer, just as there are Sunday painters.”
“I’m extremely proud and happy to go like that from my first novel to this prestigious prize. This is the recognition of five years of work,” Jenni said, admitting he never dreamed of winning the coveted award.
“I didn’t even think that I would be published, so I could hardly dream of the Goncourt. I was a little resigned to anonymity,” he said.
“But it’s not because you don’t do concerts that you can’t play the piano.”
Jenni sent his 700-page manuscript to only one publisher, Gallimard, who swiftly agreed to publish the book, which has already sold more than 56,000 copies.
He said he had no intention of giving up his job teaching biology at a high school in the eastern city of Lyon and he would see what his pupils had to say about the prize.
Books that win the coveted Goncourt Prize go on to sell on average 400,000 copies.