Bread, Education, Freedom by Petros Markaris

July 30, 2015 2 comments

Bread, Education, Freedom by Petros Markaris (2012). French title: Pain, éducation, liberté. Translated from the Greek by Michel Volkovitch.

J’ai envie de monter les escaliers quatre à quatre. Mais l’immeuble a un ascenseur. Et le Grec moyen prend toujours l’ascenseur. A la réflexion, ce qui nous a démolis, c’est un ascenseur trop rapide.

I want to leap up the stairs. But the building has a lift. And the average Greek always uses the lift. On second thought, an exceedingly swift lift is what destroyed us.

Someone lent me this crime fiction novel by Petros Markaris just as the last big crisis between Greece and the EU took place.

Markaris_painBread, Education, Freedom was written in 2012 and it opens on 2013 New Year’s Eve. On January 1st, 2014, Greece will come back to the Drachma, leaving the Euro behind. Markaris describes the changes it does to people. Of course, that’s dystopian fiction and this has not happened.

Superintendant Kostas Charitos has just learnt that he won’t get any wages during the next three months. The Greek State cannot pay them anymore. Everybody is still present at the station, doing their job, though.

As the head of the crime squad in Athens, he’s called to the scene when Yerassismos Demertzis is murdered. When the police arrive on the premises, a construction site near the Olympic Games stadium, they start investigating. A phone set on the victim’s body rings and a recorded message says the slogan “Bread, education, freedom”.

This is the slogan used by the students who fought in the Athens Polytechnic Uprising in November 1973. This uprising was repressed by the Regime of the Colonels but the people supported the students and it eventually led to the end of the regime.

The victim was a key figure of this movement. When a second victim appears, following the same modus operandi and also an important participant of the uprising, Charitos wonders who is trying to kill heroes from the Greek revolution.

Petros Markaris was born in 1937; he was an adult during the dictatoship of the Colonels and witnessed the birth of Greece’s new democracy in 1974. The plot of this novel is straightforward. Don’t expect sophisticated twists and turns. It’s still a fascinating read because it gives you a picture and an analysis of today’s Greece on several aspects.

First there’s a glimpse in Charitos’s private life and Markaris describes how the Greek society lives with the massive economic crisis.

And then, there’s the in-depth analysis of the reasons of the crisis. Bread, Education, Freedom is the last volume of a trilogy about the economic crisis in Greece. This one focuses on the generation who instigated the fall of the Colonels. According to Markaris, their aura is so great that they are untouchable. They trusted powerful positions in the country, becoming entrepreneurs, deans and heads of unions. They took the power and created networks of clients by granting positions and favors. Their revolutionary past is such that they cannot be criticized. Their ideology is the leading voice of the country and there’s no credible opposition, as the right wing is suspect of complicity the the old regime.

Markaris describes something close to what Khadra says about Algeria in Dead Man’s Share. The leaders of the fight against the colonizer or the dictator that ruled their country earned so much prestige in that battle that they can do whatever they want. They took advantage of their past to cash in public works contracts or influential positions in the administration or the unions. The power was confiscated by people whose competences were assessed through their record during the fight for democracy. They made a dictatorship fall to replace it by an oligarchy based on credentials during the uprising and not based on actual competences.

They got drunk on power and the country’s got a bloody hangover.

If someone who’s totally clueless about the importance of literature asks you “What’s the use of literature?”, lend them this novel. Sure, it’s not the greatest piece of literature from a stylistic point of view. It’s not innovative in that sense but it fulfills another purpose. Markaris helps you understand his country and gives you another vision of the crisis that shatters Greece than the one you hear about in the media. For some reason, I can’t read non-fiction. I’ll never read a lengthy essay about Greece’s economical collapse and the reasons why it happened. So I’m glad that writers like Markaris are up to the challenge and decide to use crime fiction to make us see the situation through different lenses.

Bread, education, freedom enlightened and entertained me. It left me a bit desperate for the Greeks and firmly decided to read the two other novels of the trilogy to learn more about the two other reasons why Greece has reached this terrible cul-de-sac. Markaris sees hope in the younger generation and believes that hard times feed creativity and will force Greek’s youth to start again on the right footing. Let’s hope so.

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin – A must-read

July 26, 2015 20 comments

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965) French title: Face à l’homme blanc.

book_club_2For July, our Book Club had picked a collection of eight short stories by James Baldwin, Going to Meet the Man. Written between 1948 and 1965, these short stories were first published in magazines and totally blew me away. This is going to be one of my best reads for 2015. For those who wouldn’t know, James Baldwin is an African-American writer, born in Harlem in 1924. He was gay and struggled with the two prejudices of being black and gay in America. He left New York in 1948, settled in Paris and spent most of his later life in France. It’s important to know these biographical elements to understand his short stories. Here’s the list of the stories.

  • The Rockpile
  • The Outing
  • The Man child
  • Previous Condition
  • Sonny’s Blues
  • This Morning, This Evening, So Soon
  • Come Out the Wilderness
  • Going to Meet the Man

The Rockpile and The Outing feature the same characters, young black men in Harlem at the end of the 1940s. They show the life of the black community in Harlem, the codes, the importance of religion. If you’ve ever attended a service in Harlem or read a book by Chester Himes, this will ring a bell. Baldwin gives such a vivid picture of his neighborhood and of the complexity of being homosexual in this context.

After a moment, Johnnie moved and put his head on David’s shoulder. David put his arms around him. But now where there had been peace there was only panic and where there had been safety, danger, like a flower, opened.

All the stories give us an insight of what it was to be black in America in that time. Some are set in the South, some in New York and one in Paris. This Morning, This Evening, So Soon is the most powerful story of the collection as it encapsulates all the others and dissects the condition of Afro-Americans. In this story, the narrator is black, American, from Harlem, living in Paris and on the verge of going home. He’s a successful singer, he’s married to a Swedish woman, Harriet and they have a son together, Paul. Baldwin uses the French word to describe Paul, he’s a métis, which means mixed-race.

It’s their last moments in Paris and the narrator is worried and wary. He remembers how life was for him back home and he’s afraid to go back. He’s been living in Paris for twelve years and he fears that he’s forgotten to behave like a black man in front of Whites in America. He explains that twelve years in Paris have liberated him from the ingrained attitude he used to take in front of a White. When his sister comes to Paris and gets acquainted with Harriet, it’s the first time she can speak to a white woman as her equal. He describes the proper attitude to have to stay out of trouble: a white person expects a Black to be stupid and respond with obsequiousness. Any attitude out of this line might be perceived as rebellious and the consequences of rebellion are too hard to tempt fate and not comply. Our narrator isn’t sure he can pull off the right attitude anymore.

In several stories, Baldwin also describes love relationships between Blacks and Whites and the prejudices attached to them. White men have preconceived ideas of black women: they don’t respect them and there’s this presumption of them being slutty. Black women may be tempted to date a white guy to climb the social ladder faster but it has a cost. The other way round, white women who would marry a black man have a tough life because it’s seen as degrading. In This Morning, This Evening, So Soon, the narrator is worried for his white wife Harriet. He wonders if she’ll be exposed to harsh racism for marrying him. They’ve lived peacefully in Paris, she doesn’t know what life will be in the USA.

The stories go from 1948 to 1965. The first stories are full of resignation. They show the discrimination against Blacks in housing, at work and the difficulty to step out of the comfort of Harlem. The black outsiders, the ones who try to make their life among the Whites are in survival mode and never really fit in. The last story, Going to Meet the Man was published in 1965. The fight for civil rights is ongoing and the Blacks stop submitting to fate. With this short story, we spend an uncomfortable time in the mind of a white policeman in a state of the Deep South. The Blacks are fighting for their rights; he starts having insomnia. He has more and more difficulty witnessing atrocities and taking part to the repression. Through him, we saw how racism is embedded in his mind since childhood.

Baldwin_Going_ManJames Baldwin describes people who live on edge. They live in fear. They are afraid of white people, of having the wrong attitude, of being seen as antagonistic in spite of them. In their mind eye, they constantly look over their shoulder, it’s like an instinct for survival. They have the impression that they live at the Whites’ mercy, that the law isn’t on their side. It’s like living in a dictatorship where the arbitrary is king. And yet, he’s not angry or rebellious. He’s analyzing with incredible lucidity and precision the damages done by racism on a psyche. The characters aren’t free. They are not free of being themselves when they go out of their neighborhood; they have to control themselves to fit in; they live with a strong and rooted fear. I’m white. I’ve never read any writer who could make you understand and feel so well what it is to be victim of racism and how deeply it affects the soul of the persons who are ostracized for the color of their skin.

Baldwin has a knack for psychological insight. He x-rays the black psyche and he manages to bring it to the reader, to make them see through other people’s eyes. I understood why James Brown’s singing Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud was a strong message. That is an accomplishment in itself. It is associated with a sensible analysis of the American and French societies and with a strong sense of place. Paris comes to life like in a book by René Fallet and New York is stunning as in Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos.

Blocks and squares and exclamation marks, stone and steel and glass as far as the eye could see; everything towering, lifting itself against though by no means into, heaven. The people, so surrounded by heights that they had lost any sense of what heights were, rather resembled, nevertheless, these gray rigidities and also resembled, in their frantic motion, people fleeing a burning town.

The factual and moving description of the indelible marks that racism carves on someone’s soul will certainly stay with me. It is set in the USA and it is about African-Americans. But France doesn’t have a spotless record. The narrator of This Morning, This Evening, So Soon who lives in Paris says that the North-Africans immigrants are his kindred spirits. And he was right at the time (1960, in the middle of the war in Algeria) and unfortunately, he would be right today. Because, let’s face it, Islamic terrorism feeds the temptation to condemn someone on their “Arabic” looks. Because the police control you more often when your face says your family has roots in North Africa. Because the frequency of these controls leave permanent damages on someone’s identity. Because snide comments of ordinary racism you hear in the office, in your friend or family circle sometimes or on the streets are like a rampant disease, ready to spread further. And let’s not forget how hard it is for Christiane Taubira to be a black and female minister of justice.

I think Going to Meet the Man is a must-read for white American readers. It is also a must-read for white Europeans. We all need to face our history and our everyday life attitude.

If you’re not convinced yet that it’s worth breaking a #TBR20 oath, here’s a last quote, a taste of Baldwin’s marvelous style. It’s about jazz music.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order in it as it hits the air. What is evoked on him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

Danish humour

July 26, 2015 14 comments

Little treatise of the privileges of a mature man and other nocturnal thoughts by Flemming Jensen (2011) Not available in English, I think. French title: Petit traité des privilèges de l’homme mûr et autres réflexions nocturnes. (Translated from the Danish by Andreas Saint Bonnet.)

Aveu réalisteLe quotient intellectuel global sur terre est constant.

Il n’y a que la population qui augmente

Realistic confessionThe global intellectual quotient on earth is steady.

Only the population increases.

The narrator of Jensen’s chronicles is a mature man. His bladder doesn’t last a full night now, so he has to get up at night and he takes advantage of these nocturnal moments to think and have a little snack. Because, as he says,

Bon sang, si on n’avait pas le droit de se faire un casse-croûte nocturne, pourquoi y aurait-il de la lumière dans le frigo ? Damn it, if you weren’t allowed to have a nightly snack, why would there be light in the fridge?

JensenSnacking at night is an art. He’s on a diet so he has to be silent not to wake up his wife and be wise in what food he eats so that she doesn’t realize there isn’t as much left as should be. He explains how he sneaks out of their bedroom, lurks into the kitchen, doesn’t use the light bulbs but candles to avoid detection. The whole ritual is hilarious.

Our narrator will discuss light philosophical matters, talk about his children and grand-children, the EU, the war in Irak, religion, TV shows and all kinds of topics that go through his mind. Jensen has a great sense of humour, I laughed out loud lots of times. He’s famous in Denmark for his one-man-shows and his sketches for the TV and the radio. The reader can feel it in the way it is written. It could be a one-man-show. (For French readers, it sounds like a show by Gad Elmaleh.)

It’s full of funny passages, aphorisms, rants and hilarious suggestions.

Sur la foi.Les gens très religieux pèchent tout autant que nous autres. Leur religion leur interdit simplement de le savourer. About faith.Very religious people sin as much as us. Their religion forbids them to take pleasure in it, that’s all.

It’s not the book of the century but it’s entertaining and funny. Sometimes we just need a good laugh.

Literary escapade: Elsinore

July 22, 2015 10 comments

I have seen Hamlet on stage once. It was a modern version where Hamlet ended up naked while Rage Against the Machine was blearing to get you in the mood, I guess. Teenagers had come with their teachers and were giggling at the nakedness. I can’t say it’s my best experience in a theatre. I’m French, so I’ve never studied Shakespeare in school, I discovered his plays by myself afterwards. This probably explains why I thought Elsinore was as real as the Sleeping Beauty’s castle. I assumed that Shakespeare had invented a place, outside of his own country, to be sure not to offend his queen with his plays. Imagine my surprise when I realized that Elsinor actually existed and was a mere thirty minutes away from Copenhagen where I was headed for a long weekend.

So I bought a bilingual edition of Hamlet, brought it with me to Denmark and started to read the play on the way to Elsinore. I love those bilingual editions by Folio. On the left page, you’ve got the original text and on the right page, you have the French translation. You can follow the text line by line, it’s very useful and relaxing as you can switch to French when Shakespearian English becomes too difficult.

052_Elseneur

I am not going to review Hamlet. Really, what could I say that has not been said?

066_ElseneurLet’s talk about Kronborg castle in Helsingør (Elsinore in Danish). Kronborg castle was improved by King Frederic II at the end of the 16th century. In 1629, a fire destroyed part of the castle and King Christian IV had it renovated. What we see today in the castle mostly pictures King Christian IV’s times. This means it didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s times but older parts are preserved, like the door on this picture.

I understand that Hamlet comes from a Danish old legend, reported by the French writer François de Belleforest in his book Histoires prodigieuses in 1582. Then Thomas Kyd made a play out of Belleforest’s tale and it gave Shakspeare the idea to write Hamlet. This explains why it’s set in Denmark and Kronborg was, in Shakespeare’s times, where the King of Denmark used to live. It is established that Shakespeare never set a foot in Elsinore but Shakespeare has his sculpture engraved in the castle’s wall anyway. And the marketing team at Kronborg castle plays the Shakespeare card as much as possible. They organise Shakesperian tours on the premises.

084_Elseneur_Shakespeare085_Elseneur_ShakespeareAs for me, I like to imagine that Shakespeare had at least seen paintings or drawings of Elsinore or that he had read about it. Here’s the terrace where Hamlet is supposed to have met with his father’s ghost.

082_ElseneurAnd here’s a general view of the castle. Even if Shakespeare never went to Elsinore, it’s still a nice visit to do and a great opportunity to read Hamlet.

054_Elseneur

Days of Combat by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

July 18, 2015 12 comments

Days of Combat by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. (1976) French title: Jours de combat. Translated by Marianne Millon.

This is my second contribution to Spanish Language Literature Month, hosted by Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog. 

Paco Ignacio Taibo II was present at the book festival Quais du Polar. I have a signed copy of Jours de Combat and now I wished I had read one of his books before meeting him. I have tons of questions for him. Days of Combat is the first volume of the series featuring the PI Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. I’m afraid it’s OOP in English but other volumes of the series are available.

Taibo_combatWe’re in Mexico and Héctor Belascoarán Shayne has just left his wife and his job to get a PI license and start his own investigation business. He shares offices with a plumber, Gilberto Gómez Letras. He’s still questioning the financial viability of this adventure but he was tired of his old life. He worked as a foreman in a factory before he left his tidy life behind. The catalyst of the change is the series of murders committed by a serial killer who leaves messages as the Cervo. (At least, that’s how it’s translated into French, “brain” with a spelling mistake. I supposed it could become “brayne” in English)

In a city where the police are corrupt and useless, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne decides to chase this strangler. Three threads are fascinating to follow in this first opus of the series. First, we get acquainted with Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, his life, his thoughts and his family. Then of course, we follow the investigation and the unusual PI methods that belong to Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. And last, he takes us all over Mexico, to the point that the city becomes something fundamental in the novel.

Our main character, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne comes from mixed origins. His father is Basque and his mother is Irish. He was born around 1944 and is freshly divorced from Claudia. The divorce is was difficult. He has a sister, Elisa who’s coming home after spending several years in Canada and a brother, Carlos, who’s an active unionist. The siblings are reunited in this novel and start to get each other again. Belascoarán Shayne also meets the girl with the ponytail who will obviously become a recurring character in the series.

Héctor Belascoarán Shayne is a detective who relies on psychology and understanding of the killer’s motivations. If I had to compare him to another famous investigator, I’d choose Commissaire Adamsberg, the policeman in crime fiction books by Fred Vargas. In Days of Combat, instead of looking for material clues, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne decides to bait the killer by participating to a TV show on famous stranglers in crime history. It’s a game like Jeopardy. If he answers the questions correctly, he keeps playing and wins a prize. He’s not there for the prize, though. He’s there to tease the strangler, to tempt him to get out of the woods and above all, let him know he’s on his trail.

I won’t tell more about the murders and the investigation. I said earlier that Mexico plays an important part in the novel. Following Belascoarán Shayne all around Mexico gives us an idea of the city. The novel is atmospheric and the strong impression is enforced by the author’s gift for descriptions.

Le soleil tapait là-haut et l’idée romantique que le soleil l’accompagnerait toute la journée l’abandonna peu à peu, peut-être malgré lui. La ville était une flaque d’asphalte dans laquelle nous transpirions tous. The sun was hitting hard over there and the romantic idea that the sun would accompany him his all day long left him progressively, perhaps in spite of himself. The city was a pool of asphalt in which we were all sweating.

But Mexico is a hard city to live in. The police are inefficient and violence is part of everyday life.

La ville se nourrit de charogne. Comme un vautour, comme une hyène, comme l’urubu si mexicain qui se repaît des morts pour la patrie. Et la ville avait faim. Aussi les faits divers dégoulinèrent-ils une nouvelle fois de sang, ce jeudi-là : un accident entre un autocar de ligne et le train de Cuernavaca qui avait fait seize morts, un homme criblé de balles par sa femme « pour qu’il n’emmène plus jamais son copain voir les putes », une vieille femme poignardée pour trois cents pesos à la sortie du métro, la répression d’une grève dans la colonia Escandón, dont le bilan se soldait par deux ouvriers blessés par balle et une femme d’un quartier proche intoxiquée par les gaz. The city feeds itself on corpses. Like a vulture, like a hyena, like the so-Mexican urubu that feeds on people who died for their country. And the city was hungry. Therefore the news trickled down with blood that Thursday. An accident between a coach and the train to Cuernavaca with a death toll of sixteen people. A man riddled with bullets by his wife “so that he will never again bring his friend to the whores”. An old woman stabbed for three hundred pesos at the metro exit. The repression of a strike in the colonia Escandón, whose casualties were two workers hit by bullets and a woman in the neighbourhood, intoxicated by fumes.

Mexico sounds like a bloodthirsty ogre intent on devouring its children. At the same time, Paco Ignacio Taibo II shows its liveliness, the streets, the restaurants, the people.

Days of Combat is a novel with a strong sense of place people with unusual characters. After reading it, I want to know more about Belascoarán Shayne, what will happen to him and his family. But I also want to know more about the Mexico he pictures. Political criticism seeps through the lines, which always interests me. It’s crime fiction that aims to be more than a quick read about an investigation. And it succeeds. Highly recommended.

PS: Guy has reviewed several books of the series:

Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier

July 16, 2015 19 comments

Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier (2009) French title: Lune captive dans un œil mort.

Moon in a Dead Eye is my second Pascal Garnier and what a delight it was.

Martial and Odette are freshly settled in a gated community in the South of France. They used to live near Paris and they sold their house and left everything behind for this place. Only they are the first settlers. Pioneers of a new genre, they look at the rain falling down on their dream and hope for the arrival of new neighbours to break their loneliness and start activities at the brand new clubhouse. There are fifty houses in the complex and they are the only inhabitants. Pioneers, I tell you.

Martial has trouble adjusting to his new life. The house is full of furniture that smell new and Odette is on a mission to add as many trinkets as necessary to make this place feel like home.

Odette, elle, colonisait les lieux avec une détermination de missionnaire. Chaque fois qu’ils allaient en ville elle ne manquait pas d’en rapporter une chose, un objet, utile ou décoratif, un tapis de bain, un vase, un enrouleur de papier toilette, une monstrueuse cigale de céramique jaune et noire… Odette, meanwhile, was colonising the place with missionary zeal. She could not go into town without bringing some useful or decorative object back with her: a bath mat, a toilet-roll holder, a hideous black and yellow ceramic cicada… (translation by Emily Boyce)

For non-French readers, these « hideous black and yellow ceramic cicada » are typical tourist crap beach merchants sell along the shore during the summer. It’s as Provence as lavender, Marseille soap and Provence table cloth. These cicada look like this:

cigaleand if you’re unlucky, it makes cicada noise as well. For a French woman, the mental image is immediate and screams beauf, which has no direct translation and is a slightly derogative way to say archetypal lower-middle-class Frenchman.

Garnier_LuneArrive Marlène and Maxime Node. Neighbours, at last. Odette and Martial speculated about them and were looking forward to meeting them. Like in American series about hell in the suburbs, they welcome them with warmth and intend to be friends. After all they have to live in close proximity. Well, you’re still in France though because they don’t bring pie, only start with a little customary chat before going back to their house, laughing, gossiping about Maxime’s teeth being an ad for his dentist and celebrating by opening a bottle of champagne and a can of foie gras.

We see the two couples settling in a routine until a fifth person moves in another house. They wouldn’t be friend if they weren’t neighbours, so the distraction is welcome. Léa is alone and it’s not clear to the others why she chose to live here. They speculate. Is she a widow? Is she a spinster? Their mission is to include her in their little group.

Meanwhile, Martial still feels out-of-place, out-of-time.

Oui, c’était comme de vivre en vacances, à la difference près que les vacances avaient une fin alors qu’ici, il n’y en avait pas. C’était un peu comme s’ils s’étaient payé l’éternité, ils n’avaient plus d’avenir. Yes, it was like living on holiday, the only difference being that holidays came to an end. It was as though they had bought themselves a ticket to the afterlife; they no longer had a future.

But Odette is determined to make the most of her new life. She pushes the developer to hire someone to take care of the clubhouse and entertain them now that they’re numerous enough. Madeleine joins them once a week. Deep down they all know moving there was a mistake but they refuse to acknowledge it, otherwise they’d fall apart.

All the characters are pathetic in their own way. They have a past, they’re not so young anymore and their motivations to leave their house, their friends, their neighbourhoods behind are incomprehensible. They’re looking for security. Odette and Martial’s first months on the property are creepy enough to make you run to the hills. After the Nodes arrive, they are set on socializing at any cost and it’s like they’re in a perpetual summer camp for grown-ups. Only it gets tiring. Only they’re not children anymore but ageing.

Pascal Garnier shows very well how hard it is for Martial to settle in a new place, how he misses his habits in his old neighbourhood, how everything seems forced and new. He also pictures masterfully  how hell is other people, as Sartre pointed out in Huis-Clos. They have to live together and as they’re all retired, they are at home all the time and bump into each other repeatedly. Womanizer Maxime has a crush on Léa, he’s a little obnoxious and Marlène talks incessantly about her son, the lawyer. Odette and Martial are in this together, finding comfort in each other’s company. They are good together and they were chasing a dream of the South, as if life were easier, funnier under the sun.

Moon in a Dead Eye turns paranoid and gory at some point but I won’t reveal how and why. For that, you’ll have to read the book. I recommend it for its wacky sense of humour, Garnier’s poetry in his writing, for the characters who come to life and seem to come out of the pages to meet you. They are middle-class couples who dreamt of a sunny retirement, who looked for an escape to find a not-so golden prison.

Garnier describes the gated community and the artificial life it creates. People live in their world and are cut off of real life. Part of feeling alive is feeling a member of a community. And a healthy community has people from all ages, all backgrounds. Martial misses little things: small talk with the baker, having a café at the downstairs bar, being part of the hustle of a living neighbourhood. They’re living in an alternate world where children are banned and strangers have to be formally admitted at the gate. Moon in a Dead Eye is French to the core. Garnier has this nasty sense of humour so so French and usually directed at the bourgeoisie.

I’m with Pascal Garnier on this one. I’ll never understand how someone would willingly go and live in a place full of dos and don’ts and that regiments the presence of children. I’d suffocate. And let’s not speak of being forced-fed with silly activities at the clubhouse and being obliged to socialize with neighbours all day long. *shudder* I also don’t see myself leaving all my friends behind, my everyday life to chase after a dream of eternal sunshine in the South. Why would I want to move to a ghetto for senior citizens? I’d rather live downtown, near a cinema, a bookstore, a library and a bakery, with free access to family and friends. The rest is futile preoccupations, which leads me to recommend you Guy’s insightful review of Moon in a Dead Eye.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

July 10, 2015 14 comments

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (2011) French title: Les frères Sisters.

My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its content ceasless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might just do as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal?

DeWitt_SistersEli Sisters is the one talking. With his brother Charlie, he’s part of a duo of hitmen, the Sisters Brothers. We’re in Oregon and California at the time of the Gold Rush. The Sisters Brothers are on their way to San Francisco to kill Hermann Kermit Warm. It’s a job, they have no idea why the man is to be eliminated but they have no qualms about their mission. In appearance, at least.

We’re following the two brothers on their journey. Eli is our narrator and his rather candid voice needs to be reconciled with the killer curled up inside him and ready to attack if needed. Charlie is the leader and Eli follows him blindly because he doesn’t know anything else. They had a difficult childhood and their sticking together is their only way to have a family.

But now, they seem to be drifting apart. Eli would like to settle down, get married, open a shop and leave violence behind. Charlie is in a totally different place:

But yes, just as I longed for the organized solitude of the shopkeeper, so did Charlie wish for the days of continued excitement and violence, except he would no longer engage personally but dictate from behind a wall of well-armed soldiers, while he remained in perfumed rooms where fleshy women poured his drinks and crawled to the ground like hysterical infants, their backsides in the air, shivering with laughter and brandy and deviousness.

What an evocative description. You can imagine Charlie in the back room of a seedy saloon, clicking his fingers and having minions at his beck and calls while easy girls are all over him. This quote is representative of deWitt’s craft. He managed to mix the codes of westerns, demystifying the adventure and coupling it with a character who’s searching for a meaning to his life. The trip from Oregon to San Francisco is full of funny moments in the wilderness. Eli’s horse is slow and silly, they come by a haunted house, Eli gets a rash, discovers the usefulness of toothbrushes, they meet up with strangers, they fight, they camp and Patrick deWitt winks at us, saying “Remember all the classic scenes in western and see what I make of them”, like here:

Short, late-winter days, and we stopped in a dried ravine to make up camp for the night. You will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels: Two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and singing harrowing songs of death and lace. But I can tell you that after a full day of riding I want nothing more than to lie down and sleep, which is just what I did, without even eating a proper meal.

This picaresque novel is full of humour and I had a lot of fun reading it. It is a strange combo of humour, violence, adventure, thoughts about life set in a vivid picture of California in the 19thC. Eli’s a funny narrator…

Charlie’s door was locked and when I knocked he made a guttural sound communicating a desire for solitude.

…even candid sometimes. The reader tends to forget he’s killed a lot of people, that the Sisters Brothers are famous for their track record as cold-blooded gunmen. It’s hard to reconcile Eli, the man self-conscious about his weight, longing for conjugal bliss, generous to horses, women and kids with the professional killer he is. He cares deeply about Charlie, even if the feeling isn’t always requited.

An important part of the book is linked to the Gold Rush and the way the possibility to be rich encouraged all kinds of weird adventures. I don’t want to tell too much about that part because it would spoil the book to others.

I’m not a great fan of westerns but this modern version is worth reading. DeWitt did something new, mixing light and deep, cartoonesque descriptions with soul searching moments. He dances on the edge of sadness and comedy. He calls to our common references about the American West and it works. It’s a page turner, well-written, endearing and entertaining.

Recommended.

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