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Spanish Lit Month : No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza

July 31, 2017 10 comments

No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza (1990) French title : Sans nouvelles de Gurb. (Translated by François Mespero. Original Spanish title: Sin noticias de Gurb)

Lucky me, this year, Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu and Richard is extended to August and to Portuguese Literature. Since I’m on holiday in Spain and Portugal, I’m more than happy to participate. This billet is my first about Spanish literature this year. Don’t count on me to write a billet on a book by Javier Marias, I’m not a fan. But like last year with Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub, I picked up two crazy books, No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza and One Way Journey by Carlos Salem. I loved Salem’s Swimming Without Getting Wet and I wanted to read another one by him. But that will be another billet.

First published by instalments in El Païs, No Word From Gurb is a novella by Eduardo Mendoza. It is the diary of an alien who landed in Barcelona from his planet. He’s accompanied in his mission to explore the planet Earth by his partner Gurb. In order to explore our world inconspicuously, they pick a physical appearance in a catalogue. Gurb went out looking like Madonna and went missing. The book was written in 1990, you can imagine the kind of attention he must have brought to himself walking around looking like Madonna.

The unnamed narrator and author of the diary decides to leave their spaceship to look for Gurb. From the 10th to the 24th of this month, we follow our narrator in his adventures in Barcelona. And it’s huge fun as he explores both the city and human condition.

As mentioned before, we’re in 1990, two years before the Barcelona Olympic Games and the city is a work in progress. Traffic is horrendous and dangerous as the Narrator soon experiences:

8h00 Je me matérialise à l’endroit dénommé carrefour Diagonale-Paseo de Gracia. Je suis écrasé par l’autobus n°17 Barceloneta-Vall d’Hebron. Je dois récupérer ma tête qui est allée rouler à la suite de la collision. Opération malaisée du fait de l’affluence des véhicules.

8h01 : Ecrasé par une Opel Corsa

8h02 : Ecrasé par une camionnette de livraison

8h03 : Ecrasé par un taxi

8h04 : Je récupère ma tête et je la lave à une fontaine publique située à quelques mètres du lieu de la collision. J’en profite pour analyser la composition de l’eau locale : hydrogène, oxygène et caca.

8:00 I materialize myself at a place named crossroads Diagonale-Paseo de Gracia. I am run over by the bus n°17 Barceloneta-Vall d’Hebron. I have to fetch my head that rolled away after the collision. Difficult action because of the flow of vehicles.

8:01: Run over by an Opel Corsa

8:02: Run over by a delivery truck

8:03 : Run over by a taxi

8:04: I fetch my head and I wash it in a nearby public fountain. I take advantage of the task to analyze the local water: hydrogen, oxygen and poo.

They are some roadworks everywhere, museums are closed for renovations and when the Narrator wants to buy an apartment, the realtor asks him if he wants to buy one in the Olympic Village. The whole city runs around the upcoming event.  Mendoza gently mocks the city council of Barcelona.

La pluie de Barcelone ressemble à l’activité de son Conseil municipal : elle est rare, mais quand elle tombe, elle est d’une brutalité stupéfiante. The Barcelona rain looks like the activity of its city council: it is rare but when it happens, it is of a stupefying brutality.

One of the local councilors encourages the Barcelona inhabitants to trade their car for a bike to improve traffic in the city center. Our Narrator comments:

Peut-être les gens se serviraient-ils davantage de bicyclettes si la ville était plus plate, mais c’est un problème insoluble car elle est déjà entièrement construite comme cela. Une autre solution serait que la municipalité mettre des bicyclettes à disposition des passants dans la partie haute de la ville, ce qui leur permettrait de se laisser glisser très rapidement jusqu’au centre, presque sans pédaler. Une fois au centre, la même municipalité (ou, en son lieu et place, une entreprise concessionnaire) se chargerait de mettre les bicyclettes sur des camions et de les renvoyer dans la partie haute. Ce système serait relativement peu coûteux. Maybe people would use their bikes more often if the city were flat but it’s an intractable problem because it’s already built that way. Another solution would be that the city put bikes at the disposal of people living in the highest part of the city. They could glide quickly to the city center, almost without pedaling. Once in the city center, the municipality (or a private company) would load the bikes on trucks and bring them back to the upper neighborhoods. This would be a cheap system.

We’re in 1990. I don’t know if this existed somewhere. However, I know that in 2005 the city of Lyon, which is about as flat as Barcelona, signed a contract with JC Decaux to provide free bikes around the city. It is well-known to Lyon inhabitants that people ride bikes down from the Croix-Rousse neighborhood but never up and that trucks need to bring the bikes up there. Visionary Narrator, it seems.

The Narrator also interacts with different people in Barcelona, a café owner and his wife, a concierge, his neighbors and various salespeople in shops. Once he gets acquainted with a corporate executive and Mendoza makes fun of the business frenzy in Catalonia.

Besides exploring Barcelona’s way-of-life, the Narrator also experiences human condition. He takes colloquial expressions at face value and it gives hilarious deadpan entries in his journal, like this one:

8h05 : J’essaye de rentrer chez moi en traînant des pieds. Ou l’expression (courante) ne correspond pas à la réalité, ou alors il existe une méthode que je ne connais pas pour traîner des deux pieds en même temps. J’essaye de laisser traîner un pied et de faire un saut en avant avec l’autre (pied). Je me retrouve à plat ventre. 8:05: I try to go home, dragging my feet. Either the common expression doesn’t correspond to reality or there is an unknown-to-me method to drag both feet at the same time. I try to drag one foot and to leap with the other at the same time. I end up sprawled on my stomach.

The whole novella is peppered with funny moments like this, the contrast between the action and the serious tone creates a fantastic comical effect. I loved his attempts at hitting on his pretty neighbor or his ideas to get acquainted with his neighbors or his obvious love for human food.

This is a book that we’ll make you laugh and unwind. There’s no artistic purpose to this novella, it’s fun for fun’s sake. In other words, it’s a perfect Beach & Public Transport Book.

 

Theatre: The Play That Goes Wrong, an ode to whodunnits and prop masters

July 30, 2017 4 comments

I have been to the theatre Saint Georges in Paris and seen The Play That Goes Wrong by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shield. It has been adapted in French by Gwen Aduh and Miren Pradien under the title Les faux British. It’s a farcical murder mystery play that won the Molière Prize in 2016. It is the most prestigious prize for theatre in France.

The Play That Goes Wrong is a catastrophe comedy. The plot is about the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society (in French, L’association des amis du roman noir anglais) who decides to produce a play based on a classic 1920s whodunnit. It’s the parody of a murder à la Agatha Christie investigated by a Sherlock Holmes wannabee. The setting of the play is funny in itself with all the references to classic murder mystery books. It turns out to be a total disaster because this drama society is completely unable to produce a play. The decors fall down, actors have accidents and must be replaced by other amateurs who don’t know the text. Everything turns into a circus show and we laughed so much our jaws hurt.

The props for the fake play were excellent. We even received flyers advertising it when we entered the theatre. The president of the association came on stage and explained their project and how he was acting as the director. He listed the amateur actors and their real-life professions. All along the show, actors played the roles of amateur actors playing in a whodunnit. Quite a performance.

But beyond the farces à la Mr Bean, I saw this play as a tribute to theatre directors and prop masters. Why? During the play, as the English title suggests it, everything goes wrong because this amateur company is ill-prepared regarding accessories and props. For example, there’s a painting on the mantelpiece of the chimney in the living-room. At the beginning of the play, it’s the portrait of a man. As it keeps falling down, the prop woman replaces it by a painting of a dog. This one remains hung but when someone points at the painting to show a picture of their father, they’re pointing at …a dog! Later, accessories are misplaced or missing. A character needs to fetch a key and there’s no key where he’s supposed to find it.

There are a lot of examples like these. It’s really funny for the spectator but it also shows how much fine-tuning theatre requires to run smoothly. It emphasizes on how much the set, the costumes and the various props participate to the show. Contrary to cinema, there is no doing over the scene if something’s missing. The set must stay in place, be solid enough and yet easy to transfer from one theatre to the other. Things must be at the right place at the right time for actors to use them. For me, this is the serious (and maybe involuntary) message of The Play That Goes Wrong. It helps the spectator to realize how much work is done behind the scene and how much practice it requires. And of course, since the string of catastrophes is masterfully orchestrated, it is a praise for this director and crew.

Has anyone seen it too?

Christiane Taubira & Feminism

July 28, 2017 8 comments

Christiane Taubira is a French politician from the overseas department of French Guiana. She was minister of Justice from 2012 to 2016 and was instrumental in the law authorizing same sex marriage in France. She’s very literate, in love with literature in general and poetry in particular. Toni Morrison is one of her favorite writers because they share the heavy history of slavery and of the oppression of women.

She was invited by the director of the theatre festival in Avignon. He asked her to pick literature excerpts to make a performance during the festival. She accepted and she gave an interview to Télérama at the end of June to talk about the festival, her immense love for literature, her opinion that a politician should always be literate and rely on books to learn new things and keep in touch with the society. She’s a vibrant feminist and I wanted to share her answer to this question about the texts she selected for the show.

Journaliste: Sur quels thèmes portent les textes que vous avez choisis?

Sur les femmes, notamment: leur regard sur la planète, leurs conquêtes, ou les formes de discriminations qu’elles subissent. L’inégalité hommes-femmes est à mes yeux la matrice de toutes les discriminations. Une fois celle-ci éliminée, les autres –fondées sur des préjugés ou des faits culturels– s’écrouleront. Tant que nous n’aurons pas installé psychologiquement et intellectuellement cette nécessaire égalité au sein de nos sociétés, tant que les lois et les faits toléreront le sexisme, nous donnerons prise aux autres inégalités…

My translation:

Journalist: What do the texts you picked talk about?

About women, among other things. About their vision of our planet, their conquests, or the kind of discrimination they suffer from. Inequality between men and women is the mother of all inequalities. Once this one is eradicated, the others– based on prejudice or on cultural facts– will crumble. As long as we have not psychologically and intellectually settled this necessary equality in our societies, as long as laws and facts will tolerate sexism, there will be room for all the other inequalities…

Thought-provoking, isn’t it?

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver

July 24, 2017 4 comments

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver. (1989) French title: Une île sous le vent. Translated by Michèle Levy-Bram

Homeland and Other Stories is a collection of twelve short-stories by Barbara Kingsolver. It was first published in 1989. Set in different States, they all have a literary family tie. Most of the stories have a female narrator, a little girl or a woman. They all feature characters and families from the working class and fathers and partners are often absent or useless. They explore the central place that women occupy in life and the ambivalence of motherhood.

In Quality Time, Miriam is a single mother with a five-years old daughter, Rennie. Miriam is a working single mother. In other words, she’s a master at scheduling and organizing tasks to fit everything in her already packed agenda: chores, work, driving Rennie here and there, taking care of a million of tiny details that make everyday life. Her head is constantly populated by an army of sticky notes to make sure everything is taken care of. Rennie wants for nothing but Miriam worries and feels guilty. “Do I spend enough quality time with my daughter”, she wonders. Does that sound familiar? Kingsolver subtly reminds busy mothers that kids are easier to please than we think and that they don’t expect to live with Wonder Woman. Some things aren’t as important as they seem.

Mother and daughter relationships are also at stake on Islands on the Moon. The title of this story is the name of the trailer park where Magda and Annemarie live, separately. Magda is forty-four and she got pregnant with Annemarie when she was sixteen. Annemarie always believed that her birth was like a huge rock in the middle of Magda’s way in life. Annemarie has a nine-years old son, Leon. Magda is a militant mother, an environmentalist who brought her daughter to marches and who made and repaired things instead of buying them. Annemarie resented it and craved normalcy. Magda’s eccentricity weighted upon Annemarie and the two never found a working channel of communication. This is why they live in the same trailer park but aren’t on speaking terms. Annemarie is thrown off after Magda called her to say she was pregnant and needed someone to accompany her to her amniocentesis. Annemarie is pregnant too and had not told her mother yet, she feels that Magda steals her thunder, again. Will this reunion help them find a way to each other?

In several stories, an accident or a sudden death remind the characters that they are mortal. Life is short, nothing new here. Mostly this event pushes the characters to mull over parenthood and the implicit pact that you make with your child-to-be. As a parent responsible for a child’s wellbeing, you’re not allowed to be reckless anymore. You have to do as much as you can to stay alive until your child is grownup. In Blueprints, Lena is allergic to wasp stings. At 37, she was seriously thinking of having a child with her husband. After an anaphylactic shock and coming very close to die, she decides it’s too risky for her to be a mother. She’d worry all the time about leaving an orphan behind.

In Kingsolver’s world, society should be organized around taking a good care of children. Their needs prevail. It doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t have lives or should make great sacrifices but that the care of children must be taken in consideration first. Children are a priority but not an excuse to avoid difficult decisions and they are more adaptable and resilient than we think. This is what the narrator in Stone Dreams discovers when her daughter Julie gives her permission to make a tough decision regarding her marriage.

These stories also explore the lot of the working class, of the minorities. They are all set in small towns in California, Kentucky, Arizona, New Mexico or Tennessee. One of the stories I liked the most was Why I Am a Danger to the Public. Vicky lives in Bolton, New Mexico and her life is a permanent fight. She’s a single mother with two children, her husband abandoned them soon after the second’s birth. She’s of Mexican origin and works in a mine. She has to fight to earn enough to raise her children. She has to fight for her rights as a Latino, as a woman working among men, as a worker and as a single mother. In the story, she’s leading a tough strike against Ellington, the company who owns and runs the mine and Bolton. Kingsolver shows us all the dirty tricks Ellington plays to break the strike and get rid of disobedient workers. It’s done with the support of the local police, more interested in helping the rich getting richer than about respecting laws. I’m sure that what Kingsolver describes is real. This is not the first time I read about the police working in favor of the powerful of the town. The last example was in Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller.

Kingsolver is a soothing writer. She looks at the world with benevolence but she’s not naïve. She’s not trying to convince us that all for the best in the best of all worlds. She chooses to look at the good in people and she attaches a great importance to our link to nature. As in some of her other books, one story features Cherokee Indians.  She’s interested in their view of the world and their traditions because they offer an alternative to our model. I like that she focuses her literature on social classes that don’t have a voice. She sounds like someone at peace with herself and her characters reflect this. They might be lost sometimes but their inner compass is never totally broken.

Homeland and Other Stories is a lovely book, one to read after a depressing one. Kingsolver doesn’t write about an idyllic world. She writes about ours, with its hurdles and joys but in such a way that you feel better.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven! by Chahdortt Djavann

July 21, 2017 6 comments

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven by Chahdortt Djavann (2016) Original French title: Les putes voilées n’iront jamais au paradis.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven by Chahdortt Djavann was our Book Club choice for July. Chahdortt Djavann is a French female writer born in Iran in 1967. According to her bio on Wikipedia, she was arrested in 1980 for participating to a march against the religious power in Iran. She was incarcerated and beaten up. She came to France in 1993, learnt French by herself –now you’re in awe of her—by reading text books, Gide, Maupassant, Camus and Romain Gary –now you know I can only have a soft spot for her. She studied in a very famous school of sociology and did her memoir about religious indoctrination in the school system in Iran. Her PhD thesis was about writing in another language, a study based upon the works of Ionesco, Cioran and Beckett.

This quick bio gives you the picture of a highly educated woman, someone who suffered early of being a woman in a world dominated by men, someone who’s deeply against religious extremists and profoundly fond of literature.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven uses fiction to write about prostitution in Iran. The book opens with the murders of women in the streets of Teheran. Women are found assassinated and the police and passersby quickly assume that they are hookers. Djavann shows how this deduction is based on nothing factual, only on the fact that these women were alone on the street and so they must be loose women.

Un rien fait de vous une pute, dans cette contrée. Femme, dès qu’on vous remarque, pour quelque raison que ce soit, vous êtes forcément une pute. Une femme vertueuse est une femme invisible. Un tchador noir que rien ne distingue des autres tchadors. Un tchador seul, sur une route déserte, si austèrement fermé qu’il soit, se fait remarquer, il s’y cache donc une pute. A little nothing tags you as a hooker in this country. Woman, as soon as someone notices you, whatever the reason, you must be a hooker. A virtuous woman is an invisible woman. A black chador that nothing differentiates from other black chadors. A lonely chador on a desert road, no matter how austerely closed it is, is noticeable. Therefore there’s a hooker inside.

This is the first glimpse of the Iranian society and its treatment of women.

Djavann describes several murders, several women whose corpse nobody claims and the murders go on while good people approve of the murderer’s actions. After all, he’s cleaning the streets of vermin. And the reader discovers that if one kills someone who’s considered as mahdourodam (worthless), then it’s not a murder. But only a mollah highly qualified in religious matters can decide whether the life of the victim was a human worth living or not. This law is of course appalling for a Westerner.

Djavann quickly sums up the position of women in Iran. They are things to be owned, to be married off, to be disposed of:

Les femmes sont les biens des hommes de leur famille et elles restent jusqu’à leur mort sous tutelle masculine. Women are the property of the men of the family and remain under male guardianship until they die.

Hmm, isn’t that a definition of slavery?

Spinning off this true story of murdered women in Teheran, Djavann starts exploring the condition of women and the importance of prostitution in Iran. Instead of writing an essay, she decides to write snapshots, fake interviews in order to give a life, a voice and a face to these women. We’ll read vignettes but we’ll also follow the fate of two girls who are twelve years old when the book opens. They are named Zahra and Soudabeh. Both are beautiful. They are best friends but get separated at twelve when Zahra is married off by her father to a much older man. We’ll follow their parallel fates and see how they’ll end up as prostitutes.

This is a strange novel, style wise. It mixes a bit of journalism, very crude language, legal explanations and fiction. After each snapshot where a prostitute describes her awful life, there’s a little paragraph about the city where she lives. Each time, it’s a very old city, with a lot of culture and Djavann seems to silently call out to us and say “How? How can such an old spot of culture become such a barbaric place?”

When Djavann describes the women’s experiences, she uses very crude language. It’s violent and uncomfortable but she probably found it necessary to convey the pure violence done to these women.

This goes further than the usual criticism you can read about Iran. In Satrapi’s comic books or in Nahapétian’s crime fiction, you see that women are not independent, that they need to cover themselves, that there are a lot of things they cannot do and that the mores police tracks down the rebels and the breaches to Islamic laws.

Djavann depicts a society who objectifies women in the most literal sense. Prostitution is widely spread. Men seem obsessed by sex, abusing their employees and housekeepers. Women are defenseless, they have nobody to turn to. Temporary marriages are a vast hypocrisy, allowing men to legal adultery. Women cannot do the same, of course. Here’s what she writes about adultery:

L’adultère est un crime dont le châtiment en Iran est la peine de mort, y compris pour les hommes, même s’ils ont droit à quatre femmes officielles. Parce que, selon la charia, lorsqu’un homme commet l’adultère, il déshonore non pas sa femme mais un autre musulman en lui volant, violant son bien : mère, sœur, femme, fille ou nièce. In Iran, adultery is a prime punished by death penalty, even for men and even if they are entitled to four official wives. Because, according to the sharia, when a man commits adultery, he doesn’t dishonor his wife but another Muslim by stealing and raping his property: mother, sister, daughter or niece.

Djavann doesn’t generalize but shows how the Islamic laws in place are so idiotic and humiliating for women that it stuns you silly. She explains the legal arguments behind some rules and everything is warped. Zealots and extremists bend religious texts to their will and only use them in their own interest. Djavann denounces a system based upon hypocrisy and enslavement of the female population. And one can only wonder: what are these men afraid of? What do they fear will happen if they consider their women as partners, as equals? The laws she mentions are all in favor of men and of their impunity. They can do whatever they want, it doesn’t count, there will be no repercussions.

This appalling vision of Iran is hard to reconcile with a country that cherishes poetry and has such a rich artistic tradition. The men she describes here come from all social classes and prostitution is institutionalized like it was in Paris in the 19th century. On the one hand, women are covered from head to toe and on the other hand men seem more obsessed by sex than in the West.

From a literary point of view, I think that the style is not polished enough to make of this novel a true literary object. I thought that the hookers’ voices sounded sometimes too educated to be plausible. I struggled with the crude language and I don’t consider myself as prude. But some passages could be porn if they were not a description of legalized rape and violence. I found it tiring sometimes. However, the message is important, I learnt things and shying away from the vulgarity of the descriptions meant looking the other way and refusing to acknowledge the abuse of these not-so-fictional women. Plus, I’m certain this vulgarity is not gratuitous but serves the purpose how showing how these women are debased.

In the end, I did not always enjoy the ride but I’m glad I read it.

Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller

July 17, 2017 8 comments

Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller (2015) French title: Les infâmes

I have a signed copy of Freedom’s Child by the bubbly Jax Miller who attended Quais du Polar last year. I’m going to reassure non-French speaking readers right away: this book is available in English. It was even written in English! Yay!

Freedom Oliver used to be Vanessa Delaney. She lives in Painter, Oregon and she used to live in Mastic Beach, New York. She used to be the mother of Ethan and Layla. They are now named Mason and Rebekah and were adopted by a preacher and his wife in Goshen, Kentucky. There are a lot of “used to” in Freedom’s life since she’s been living under the Witness Protection program for eighteen years. Her husband, Mark Delaney was murdered. First accused of killing him, Vanessa is later released and her brother-in-law Matthew, Mark’s brother, is convicted of the crime.

Freedom is a waitress in a bar, she tends to drown her sorrows in alcohol and follows her children’s life from afar, thanks to Facebook.  She doesn’t live, she survives.

Two simultaneous events will break her shell of a life. After 18 years in prison, Matthew is released and wants to take revenge. He managed to learn where Vanessa was hidden and with the help of his brother Luke, he intends to kidnap Freedom’s children to get to her. The other event that puts Freedom’s life upside down is that Rebekah goes missing. Now Freedom is on a mission, she’s determined to travel from Oregon to Kentucky to find her daughter. Mason, Rebekah’s brother, is also on his way. He is estranged from his adoptive family because their views on religion differ. As the book progresses, we discover that Virgil and Carol Paul, the adoptive family, have founded a cult and are convinced that God speaks to Virgil and gives him instructions.

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot.

Freedom’s Child follows several subplots and strands and they all join nicely in the end. I enjoyed Miller’s style, her vivid descriptions of places, like here in Kentucky:

About forty minutes after leaving the Bluegrass, Mason and Peter enter the Goshen Police Department, a one-room jail that dates back to the 1800s with a pillory and whipping post on the small patch of grass in front of the building, a reminder that Goshen held fast to outdated diligence and iron-fisted penalties to criminals and sinners alike, as far as modern law would allow.

For a French –and I suspect for a European in general— this is a very American novel. There’s the Witness Protection Program for once but mostly, it’s Goshen, its sheriff and its preacher than seem so outdated that you wonder if they are plausible characters. Jax Miller describes Goshen as…

A place so backward that the pursuit of justice became its own version of injustice, as seen in the occasional lynch mob that seeks their own righteousness by back-alley vigilantism like beatings and chasing out of town. A place where God’s grace became a weapon of suppression and acquiescence used by men in authority, big fish in small ponds who have nothing to do better than sit at home, boost their own egos, and jerk off to their own power trips.

Not where you’d want to go on holiday. Goshen and Virgil Paul reminded me of Hell on Church Street by Jake Hinkson, a very dark novel with a religious serial killer set in Arkansas. I don’t know how Americans see Kentucky, but hick seems to be often associated to its town names. Kentucky is the state that Kingsolver’s character Taylor leaves behind in The Bean Tree. She keeps repeating there’s nothing to do in Kentucky where Kingsolver herself was born and raised. And here Jax Miller doesn’t help Kentucky’s reputation. You sure don’t want to cross path with Virgil Paul, a sociopath that could only be born in the Bible Belt. These preachers are a genuine American species, there’s nothing like this in France or they’re considered as a cult.

I noticed that the Delaney brothers are named after the Evangelists, Luke, Mark, Matthew and the preacher’s last name was Paul. We have the four of them and they are dangerous and unbalanced criminals. The last and disabled Delaney brother is named Peter, and he’s the most humane one, the one who’ll help Freedom and in a sense, he had the keys to her paradise. Some things might be a bit too obvious and after reading Leaving Las Vegas, I’m not sure Freedom is a convincing alcoholic. That said, this is Jax Miller’s debut thriller and I’m sure she’ll polish her skills in the future. I did enjoy the ride and rooted for Freedom all along.

PS: For the anecdote, I’ll say that describing something as eggshell white doesn’t work at all for a French. Here, eggs don’t have white shells!

Harmonics by Marcus Malte

July 15, 2017 12 comments

Harmonics by Marcus Malte (2011) Original French title: Les harmoniques. Not available in English.

Last year, I read The Boy by Marcus Malte and I was blown away by the virtuosity and musicality of his prose. The Boy was Malte’s first attempt at literary fiction after writing a few crime fiction novels. I wanted to try his earlier work and decided to read Harmonics.

Harmonics is set in Paris where the young Vera Nad was murdered or more precisely, she was burnt alive. Mister is a jazz pianist in a night club in Paris. Vera used to come and listen to him play. They bonded over music. Mister was falling for her when she died and their budding relationship was crushed too. Mister is not satisfied with the police’s version of Vera’s murder. He’s restless and wants to dig further and understand what happened to her. He embarks his friend Bob on his journey. They’re a weird pair, the Parisian pianist and the Chti philosopher/taxi driver.

Vera was from ex-Yugoslavia and soon the two friends realize that her death has something to do with her community here in France. Mister doesn’t know much about Vera’s past and he wonders why he’s so infatuated with her that he can’t let go. The investigation progresses. Mister and Bob discover that Vera was in the besieged Vukovar in 1991 during the civil war that destroyed Yugoslavia. She was ten at the time and she lived through the traumatic three-month siege of this multicultural town by the Serb army.

Harmonics is the exploration of Mister’s love for Vera, of Vera’s past and a vivid recollection of the Vukovar siege. The novel opens with a play list of jazz pieces. Each song becomes an interlude, a moment when we hear Vera’s voice. It’s in italic in the book, a pause in the novel, like rests on a partition. Music and war are interlaced in the novel, because music is rooted in Mister’s being, because war left an indelible mark on Vera’s soul, because jazz is the musical bridge between these two beings.

The title of the book is explained in this dialogue between Mister, Bob and Milosav, a young man who brought decisive help in the investigation:

Mister dressa un index.

– Les harmoniques…dit-il

Milosav leva les yeux au plafond, s’attendant peut-être à en voir surgir des créatures extraterrestres.

– Harmeûniques? C’est quoi, harmeûniques?

– Les notes dernières les notes, dit Mister. Les notes secrètes. Les ondes fantômes qui se multiplient et se propagent à l’infini, ou presque. Comme des ronds dans l’eau. Comme un écho qui ne meurt jamais.

Sa voix shuntait elle aussi à mesure qu’il parlait. Bob plissa les paupières. Il observait son ami avec attention. Il ne voyait pas encore où celui-ci voulait en venir.

– Ce qui reste quand il ne reste rien, dit Mister. C’est ça, les harmoniques. Pratiquement imperceptibles à l’oreille humaine, et pourtant elles sont là, quelque part, elles existent.

(…)

– Il n’y a pas que la musique, dit Mister, qui produit des harmoniques. Le bruit des canons aussi. Qui sait au bout de combien de temps elles cessent de résonner?

Mister lifted a finger.

“Harmonics”, he said

Milosav looked at the ceiling, as if he were expecting aliens coming down from there.

“Harmoonics? What is harmoonics?”

“The notes behind notes.”, Mister said. “Secret notes. Ghost waves that multiply and propagate infinitely or almost infinitely. Like ripples on a pond. Like a never-ending echo.”  

His voice shunted too when he talked. Bob squinted. He observed his friend attentively. He hadn’t understood yet where he wanted to go with this.

“What remains when there’s nothing left, Mister said. That’s what harmonics are. Almost imperceptible to the human ear, and yet, they are somewhere, they exist.”

 (…)

“Music is not the only thing that produces harmonics”, Mister said. “The sound of cannons does too. Who knows when they stop resonating?”

And that’s the crux of Malte’s argumentation, the one that goes beyond the crime investigation. What are the invisible damages done by war? How long do they affect the people who lived through it.

I had the opportunity to talk to Marcus Malte at Quais du Polar. I gushed about The Boy and he told me, “This is different”, in a way that meant, “I hope you won’t be disappointed”. Well, I disagree with him. Several themes that are key in The Boy are already in Harmonics. Music and war. The way music brightens our lives. The absurdity and sheer cruelty of war and its psychological damages.

I loved Harmonics too, even if I think the ending is a bit sketchy. It is one of those crime fiction books that makes you question the value of the boxes literary fiction and crime fiction and wonder why they should be mutually exclusive.

I picked Harmonics among Malte’s other books because he was giving a literary concert based on it at Quais du Polar. What’s a literary concert? It’s a performance where the writer reads chapters of his books and between chapters, jazz musicians performed the songs from the playlist. I urge you to check it out here even if you don’t speak French. It is a magical experience, especially with a book like this one. It stayed with me and I could hear him read when I reached the chapters that were included in the concert.

Malte obviously has a wide musical, literary and crime fiction cultural background. They all mesh and create a unique opus. In an interview, Marcus Malte said that this book is constructed around music, as a noir ballad. The book has 32 chapters like the 32 tempos in jazz standards, 12 parts in italic like the 12 tempos of blues standards.

I read Harmonics a few months ago and it stayed with me, like a lingering melody. For example, there’s a tragi-comic scene in the métro in Paris where Mister meets Milosav, who will later help him with the investigation. It starts in a really comical way with Milosav attempting to earn money in the métro with his blind father by playing music. The father plays the accordion while Milosav belts out lyrics, out of key. I immediately thought of this scene the other day in Paris when I saw musicians like them in Paris.

My billet cannot do justice to the depth and quality of Malte’s prose. It’s poetic, funny, elegant and chic. It all falls into place in an impeccable manner. Du grand art.

I am sorry to report that Harmonics is not available in English. In the Translation Tragedy box it goes. Malte won the prestigious Prix Femina for The Boy. Hopefully he’ll catch the attention of an English-speaking publisher. For another review, here’s Marina-Sofia’s.

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