Zulu by Caryl Férey

Zulu by Caryl Férey (2008) Original French title: Zulu

Ferey_ZuluI picked Zulu by Cary Férey in preparation to the crime fiction festival Quais du Polar. He was invited again and I wanted to try one of his books. Other readers warned me that Zulu was rife with violence. It is, especially towards the end. For some reasons, it bothered me less than the violence in 1974 by David Peace. Perhaps it’s because I braced myself for it after the comments other bloggers had left. Or perhaps it’s because I expected violence from a book set in South Africa in 2008.

So what is Zulu about? Ali Neuman is a black man, now chief of the homicide branch of the Cape Town police. As a child, he was traumatized by what he witnessed during the war that the Inkatha militia led against the ANC. Even his mother, the only other survivor of his family doesn’t know what he endured.

As an adult, he represents the law in a society at war against violence and battling against the AIDS epidemic. The starting point of the novel is the murder of a young white girl, Nicole Wiese. She was slaughtered after ingesting a drug with frightening powers. The investigation will lead Neuman and his two colleagues Dan Fletcher and Brian Epkeen on the path of greed, madness and unadulterated violence.

Férey describes a society undermined by gangs who are heavily armed and ready to anything to defend their territory and their power. The country may have initiated a reconciliation process but the criminals from the past didn’t all pay for their crimes, nor did they change their mindset. The mental Apartheid still exists. Some methods from the past survive and have been passed to others. Drugs are a way to control the mob. We follow the investigation in the poor neighborhoods where kids are snatched in drug trafficking, where too many of them are orphans because of AIDS. It also shows the violence against women.

Neuman is a flawed character with one redeeming quality: he’s a good son. His mother is ageing and he tries to protect her as much as he can. But she’s a free spirit, she goes wherever she wants in her unsafe neighborhood and even when she’s mugged, she’s still not afraid. She puts her nose where it doesn’t belong and Neuman rightfully worries.

Brian Epkeen is also a tortured soul. He has a grown-up child, David but they don’t get along. His ex-wife Ruby divorced him a while ago and he still loves her. It doesn’t prevent him from being a womanizer. His past functions during the Apartheid regime gave him useful skills for his current job.

Neuman and Epkeen are reckless. They have nothing to lose. They know violence, it’s part of their bones. Dan Fletcher is the one with the wife and kids, the one who needs to stay alive and come home to his kids and wife, the one who has fear gripping his guts when he’s on dangerous grounds. And he’s right to be afraid.

Férey pictures a brutal city, in a country where the authorities struggle to contain violence. There’s so much misery, so many basic needs to fulfil in poor neighborhoods (education, drinkable water, safety). And yet, nature is magnificent, a reminder of the stupidity, the vanity and the evanescence of human activities.

Some of the violent patterns had me thinking about reconstruction after a time of violence, be it on the national territory or abroad. It reminded me of France after colonial wars, WWII and of the police force in 1974: what do you do with policemen who were on the wrong side or policemen who used to be in the military and used methods like torture in Africa during colonial wars? If you fire everybody, then you don’t have a working police force anymore. How do you eradicate racism from them, how do you make them drop these methods? How did it work in Argentina or Chile after the dictatorships fell? And in general, what does the new power do with the people who supported and lived off the previous regime?

Caryl Férey is French. So yes, the legitimate question is: how much of this is accurate? At Quais du Polar, he explained how he writes his books. He moves for a while to the country where the book is set. Then he reads, a lot. Thesis and essays. He said that he read a thesis about AIDS and women in South Africa. Some of the second characters were inspired by the interviews used as material for this thesis. He joked saying that beyond the doctorate’s teacher and family, he’s probably the only other reader of some of those thesis but that he loves them for the goldmine of information that they are. He also researched the politics, the history, the customs and the culture of the country. The book gives explanations about the fight of the ANC and the militia they faced against them. It was a quasi-civil war. Férey gives information about zulu rites and the different ethnic groups in the country.

Does is work? Well, I’ve never lived in South Africa, so I’m not sure my opinion matters. I’ll give it anyway because why write a blog if you can’t force-feed others with your opinion through a post? I think Férey’s book is amazing. It is extremely violent but I don’t think this violence is gratuitous. And I shudder to think he might not have invented all of the violent things he describes in Zulu. The sense of place, the pace, the description of neighborhoods, of behaviors, it all rings true. It’s dark, awful but strangely, it doesn’t sound as hopeless as 1974.

Zulu was made into a film by Jérôme Salle. Forrest Whitaker is Ali, Orlando Bloom is Epkeen and Conrad Kemp is Dan Fletcher. I haven’t seen it and I don’t plan to. I won’t be able to stomach the violence I’ve read if I see it on screen.

  1. May 6, 2016 at 7:35 pm

    I was curious to see how you would get on with this book… I thought it was depressingly accurate about some things (the burning rubber tyres was a very popular way of torturing and killing people in South Africa both during apartheid and afterwards, for instance). So really hard-hitting and violent, but not illogically or gratuitously so. I would love to hear what Deon Meyer or Margie Orford or Lauren Beukes or other South African writers think about it.

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    • May 6, 2016 at 7:48 pm

      That’s the problem of knowing how much he researched thing before writing. You can’t help thinking everything is pretty accurate and wow, I can’t imagine what it is to live near such violence.
      I wondered the same thing: what would Deon Meyer or Lauren Beukes think about Zulu? Both have been to Quais du Polar and there’s a chance that they had the opportunity to chat with Caryl Férey.

      Like

  2. May 7, 2016 at 9:14 am

    I watched the movie. I saw it was on Netflix and without knowing what it was, I picked it and almost didn’t get through. So depressing. Unfortunately, a lot is accurate. I read a bit about it later.
    So, not a book for me but I’m sure it’s very good.

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    • May 7, 2016 at 2:50 pm

      I wonder if the film is as graphic as the novel. It’s depressing, I know. I’m not so surprised that it’s accurate. Caryl Férey seemed to have done his homework before writing Zulu.
      It’s a very good book but as we say in French: il faut avoir le coeur bien accroché.

      Is it a good film?

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      • May 7, 2016 at 3:40 pm

        I didn’t like the movie but only because it was so violent. I’d say that it’s good otherwise.

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  3. May 7, 2016 at 10:22 am

    I’ve read quite a bit of South African fiction but mostly set in the period before the ending of apartheid so this would be an interesting new angle.

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    • May 7, 2016 at 2:54 pm

      I think I’ve only read Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. I recommend it.
      Now I want to read a book by Deon Meyer. Crime fiction is such a good way to read about a country.

      Like

      • May 8, 2016 at 12:12 pm

        So right Emma. I learned a lot about Ghanian fabric patterns from a crime story by a local author

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        • May 8, 2016 at 8:44 pm

          Who was this author?

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  4. May 7, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    It does sound very good, and it sounds like the author takes their research seriously so that’s definitely something. Living there would help.

    I agree it would be great to hear what Beukes or Meyer thought.

    Is there an English translation?

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    • May 7, 2016 at 3:22 pm

      Yes, there’s an English translation.

      Like

  5. May 7, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    Superb review Emma.

    The questions raised by this book seem so relevant to our current world.

    Férey’s method of research sounds so interesting. One has to give him an “A” for effort at least.

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    • May 8, 2016 at 8:16 pm

      Thanks Brian.
      It’s a thought-provoking book beside the thriller.
      I like to know that Férey researches thoroughly his subject before writing.
      He’s got book set in New Zealand and in South America.

      Like

  6. May 8, 2016 at 8:32 am

    Excellent review, Emma. It does sound very good, horrifyingly accurate in many respects. Probably not one for me on account of the violence, but as ever I do appreciate your review.

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    • May 8, 2016 at 8:43 pm

      Thanks Jacqui.
      I understand your reservations. I’d already bought it when other readers warned me about the violence. I’m not sure I would have bought it otherwise.
      Still I don’t regret reading it.

      Like

  7. May 11, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    I read this and liked it, but even though I read a lot of crime, this one stuck out for its violence. I didn’t know that there was a film made of it, but like you. I’d pass on it too. I watched Beasts of No nation which I thought was excellent, and on the reverse end of that, I don’t think I could read the book.

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    • May 20, 2016 at 10:30 pm

      It is violent but it’s still an excellent book. I see you wouldn’t want to see the film either. Just thinking about watching some of those scene on a big screen freaks me out.

      Like

  1. November 29, 2016 at 1:12 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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