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Don’t Be Afraid If I Hug You by Fulvio Ervas. Lovely

April 16, 2016 6 comments

Don’t be afraid if I hug you by Fulvio Ervas (2012) French title: N’aie pas peur si je t’enlace. Translated from the Italian by Marianne Faurobert.

ErvasFulvio Ervas lent his writing skills to Franco Antonello, an Italian father who decided to take his autistic son Andrea to a road trip in America for his eighteenth birthday. They first rode from Florida to Los Angeles on a Harley Davidson. Then, they alternated between car and plane to travel from LA to Arraial d’Ajuda, Brazil.

Ervas spent a year talking with Antonello to write this book. It is the story of an extraordinary adventure, of a solid father and son relationship but also of the difficulty to be a parent of a child who is different. It is a wonderful mix of road stories, interaction with people and moments between Andrea and Antonello.

Antonello doesn’t sugarcoat things. Traveling with Andrea is difficult. He’s unpredictable, he has limited autonomy and needs things to be orderly. Antonello’s biggest fear is to lose him somewhere. At the same time, his attitude, his spontaneity and his unique way to relate to people is also a treasure. I’m not sure Antonello would have met all these people along the way if he hadn’t been with Andrea who always attracts attention and goes towards people without apprehension. He walks on the tip of his toes and the title of the book comes from the T-Shirts that Andrea’s parents made for him. These T-Shirts say “Don’t be afraid if I hug you”. You see, Andrea is a hugger. He hugs people to get to know them, to know what they have in their belly. His parents got him these T-Shirts to help people know it’s just a thing he does. And along the trip, Antonello keeps rushing and yelling “autistic kid” to passersby that Andrea calls out to or touches on a whim.

Road_trip_ErvasAndrea has been diagnosed with autism when he was three. Antonello never complains but calmly explains how hard it was to accept the diagnosis, how complicated it is to cater to a child with special needs on a daily basis. He shares his worries about the future: what will become of Andrea when his parents are gone? Andrea has limited communication skills that Antonello tries to nurture and make bloom. In the rare moment he gets him to communicate through a computer, Andrea lets us see the pain of being locked up in this illness. It is very poignant. There’s a lot of suffering on both sides but there’s also a lot of love. Antonello loosens up as the trip progresses and both probably came home with a lot of memories and a stronger bond.

My only regret about this book is the absence of Andrea’s mother. We never hear anything about her and I wonder if she wanted to stay out of it. They barely mention calling home or preparing the trip with her.

On the sightseeing side, the trip in North America was easy to picture. The trip in South America was harder to imagine but left me with vivid images. They had some dangerous experiences with nature or local police and military. But all the way, they met people who opened their doors, helped them, welcomed them into their home. They weren’t afraid of these strangers. In our Western culture, we live in fear. Who would welcome a stranger into their home these days?

This is not a very literary book. It is well written and it sounds truthful. It is the right tone to tell someone else’s story. Fulvio Ervas managed to take a back seat in this trip, leaving Antonello being the driving voice with Andrea speaking shotgun.

I leave you with a quote from the book, one I think is universal:

Je comprends que chacun d’entre nous, pour naviguer sur le cours de sa vie, se fabrique tant bien que mal ses propres rames, la seule chose qui importe vraiment étant de ne pas s’en server pour flanquer des coups sur la tête de son prochain. I understand that each of us clumsily makes their own oars to navigate on the stream of their life. The most important thing is to not use them to beat the crap out of the next guy.

 

The Hands: an Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr

April 8, 2016 31 comments

The Hands: an Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr. (2015) Not available in French (yet)

My billet about Stephen Orr’s excellent novel, The Hands is long overdue. I should start with a summary of the plot but Stephen Orr sums it up better than me:

Bundeena was marginal country. It could carry cattle, sparsely. To Trevor, this was where Australia became desert, where man—following the east-west railway, before it seriously set its sights on the Nullarbor—had given up on agriculture. Most men, at least. Except for them: sixth-generation Beef Shorthorn producers who’d wrestled with the land for 130 years. This was country that hadn’t asked for farmers but had got them anyway. On the southern edge, the railway line, and to the north, nothing. They had neighbours to the east and west, but they might as well have been living in New Zealand.

Orr_HandsA perfect quote. We’re in Bundeena, Australia, with the Wilkies, an extended family who lives on a farm. Murray and his sister Fay. The next generation, Trevor and his wife Carelyn and Chris, Fay’s disabled son. And the next, Aiden and Harry, Trevor and Carelyn’s children. As you can guess from the quote, they raise cattle in a very isolated farm.

It’s becoming harder and harder to make a living off the farm. The region has been experiencing several years of severe drought. No water means no grass, which means no water and no food for the cattle, which means no fat cattle to sell and less money. Add to it the decrease of the price on the meat commodity market and you see that the Wilkies’ situation is grim.

But it’s a family business, the place where the family settled after emigrating from another country. They’d rather bleed on this land than go somewhere else. Trevor is not a fool. He’s well-aware of their predicament and torn about what to do:

Trevor Wilkie was at a dead-end. He could feel every gram, every tonne of the farm collapsing on top of him. Every steer, every cow, every calf. Every person: Murray, wheezing, distantly; Fay, clutching her perch; Aiden, who was still a long way from finding his path. And Harry, unsure what to think about anything. It was always going to come to this, he thought.

The Hands is also a remarkable novel about the difficulties to be a farmer. The Wilkies’ problems are set in Australia but in France too, it’s complicated to live from the land. It’s hard work and the market prices are so low that the farmers barely scrape by. In our Western world, we give more money to the people who take care of our money than to the ones who produce our food. What does it say about us and our values?

The Hands also gives an idea of life on a farm in the Australian outback. Orr describes perfectly the landscape:

Trevor studied the long, grey strip in front of them. He followed it half-way to the horizon before it was consumed by haze. By then it was blood red, pulsing and shifting across the desert. He could tell it was alive, held in place by nothing more than a million distance markers. There was saltbush and bluebush and dead shrubs that looked the same as the living ones; a rest-stop with a single bin, but nothing else, as if this too was some forgotten skeleton.

The farm is so isolated that it’s 600 kilometres away from the closest city. For a French, 600 kilometres is quite a distance. I live in Lyon. Within 600 kilometres, I’m still in France if I go West but North or East, I can be in Switzerland, in Italy, in Belgium or in Germany. It’s very difficult to imagine 600 kilometres of nothingness or to think that you can own a farm where you can be three hours from home and still be on your property. The Hands gives a vivid picture of all this and of the life in autarky it implies. I knew about the School of the Air.  And yes, it’s a famous Australian icon. Harry can’t believe his school is as famous as the Sydney Opera but it is. I wasn’t surprised about it but the novel shows how hard it is on the children. They have a corner in the house that is the “school corner”. They’re supposed to be in school when they’re in this corner but it is still a challenge to concentrate and it’s harder to make a link between what they learn and their daily life. And then, there’s health. In the following quote, Fay is ill and Trevor is on the phone with a nurse or a doctor:

Trevor found a pad and pen and asked, ‘What number’s that?’ ‘Sixty-two.’ ‘Sixty-two, three times a day, for seven days?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay, thanks.’ He hung up. Carelyn already had the medical kit out. She was sorting the ointments, dressings and plastic vials full of dozens of types of pills; checking the bold numerals designed to make sure no one gave the wrong medication. She found the pills: 62. ‘Right.’

They have a kit of medicine and the first step is self-medication with the help of an online physician. And then, in case of emergency, they have The Flying Doctors: ‘A heart attack,’ someone said. ‘The Flying Doctor’s gonna land on the road.’

And there’s the deadly climate. The heat is unbearable and murderous. People can get lost in the desert and die without crossing anyone’s path and get help.

But The Hands is more than a statement about life on a remote farm in a harsh climate. It is also a wonderful literary novel about a complicated and flawed family. Murray acts like a patriarch but he doesn’t have the personality that should go along with such a role. He carries the traditions and the painful past of the family around his neck like a dead albatross. He’s pigheaded and in his mind, there was no other career choice possible for Trevor than taking over the farm. And in Murray’s head, his grand-sons will continue the story. The problem is that Murray is toxic and dictatorial. He plays on guilt, he’s selfish and just plain mean. Aiden, who’s seventeen at that point, can see his flaws:

Aiden studied his grandfather’s arms, his neck, his grey sideburns, and thought, Yes, it’s all someone else’s fault, isn’t it? The word was with Murray and Murray was the word. Not for the first time, he could feel himself starting to hate his grandfather. There wasn’t much love or compassion in him. He was a sort of farmer shell, a hollow man full of regrets and knowledge and skills he couldn’t use any more, except as a sort of walking opinion that no one wanted to hear.

Sometimes, I wanted to strangle Murray for the path of destruction left by his actions and his biting words. He crushes Trevor’s self-confidence. He’s not helpful on the farm. He’s mean with his disabled nephew. He’s set in his ways and would rather crush his family than change his mind. The life in autarky exacerbates the relationships between the family members. Nobody has a place to breathe out and interact with other people. They are on each other’s backs all the time. The children grow up with no friends. The adults can’t go out and socialise. The elders don’t have contacts with people from their generation. It’s stifling. They can only find sometime alone in the nature surrounding the farm.

I’ve always wondered how it felt to grow up and feel obliged to take over the family business, to work with your parents, be it on a farm or in business. Do you manage to come out of your skin and have a work relationship and leave the parent-child one behind for a couple of hours? How do you not feel trapped by family expectations? In her excellent review, Lisa explores the relationships between men in rural areas. It is a fascinating and decerning way of analysing The Hands.

For French readers, sorry but The Hands is not available in French. Yet. But now it is listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. I hope Stephen Orr will win this prize because then there’s a better chance that this book gets translated.

And last but not least, I send a big thank you to Lisa for recommending The Hands to me when I asked about books set in Perth. Whispering Gums also reviewed it here, with a bonus post here.

PS: Somewhere in the book it’s written: ‘In France they’re drinking at twelve,’ she said. ‘In France, children do what their parents tell them.’ Just to be sure that it’s clear for everyone, I want to set things straight: it’s a character speaking and it’s not true. Twelve-year-olds don’t drink in France.

Quais du Polar 2016: Three days to celebrate crime fiction in Lyon

April 3, 2016 21 comments

That’s it, my three days at Quais du Polar are over. I had the pleasure to spend most of it with Marina Sofia and we had a great time wandering in the giant book store settled in the chamber of commerce and attenting conferences. I’m going to miss her next year.

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There were 120 writers invited, around 50 panel debates, exhibits in museums, 10 independant bookstores, a treasure hunt in the city, a murder party and lots of other activities around crime fiction and police investigations. Sessions were at the chamber of commerce, in a nearby church, in the city hall, at the opera, at the theatre. Lots of places were involved to welcome the visitors. Here is a picture about Lyon turning into crime fiction city:

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DSC_2310I went to visit the police academy in the outskirts of Lyon. This is where the commissaires are trained. After a presentation of the school and a moment in the in-house museum, members of the CSI team gave us a demonstration of how they gather clues on a crime scene. There was a mock appartment with a murder in the kitchen and we were above the appartment, on a footbridge that allowed us to see what was happening below. One police officer was performing the tasks of collecting clues and securing the crime scene while another was with us explaining what his colleague was doing. It was fascinating to see how they proceed on location, to hear about the precautions and the tools they use. It was a friendly visit and we had the opportunity to ask questions and chat with a future commissaire.

Part of the fun is to attend conferenced. I went to several sessions in different locations. The atmosphere was friendly with nice banter between the writers. One was about the place of femme fatale in crime fiction. Another one was the translation contest I wrote about.

I went to hear Jo Nesbø, Arnaldur Indridason, Oliver Norek, Sara Gran, Deon Meyer and Craig Johnson talk about their recurring characters. Each explained how they came with this character, how they stayed with them. Olivier Norek is a former police officer turner writer and he explained that his character and stories are based on his experience. Deon Meyer seemed impressed to be on stage with someone who had the actual experience of what he wrote about. We were in a chapel in the city centre, transformed into crime fiction conference room.

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I heard three writers from Québec talk about French- Canadian crime fiction, their love for the French language and the difficulties they have to get published in France. Can you believe that French publishers ask them to wipe away the Quebec vibe from their style? I know they use different words and expressions in Québec and I sure don’t want a character from Québec to speak like a Parisian. I expect them to speak differently and that’s part of the charm.

Last but not least, I attended a panel debate with Olivier Truc, Colin Niel, Naïra Nahapétian, Parker Bilal and Caryl Férey who all write crime fiction in specific places. Truc’s hero is in Lapland, Niel’s capitaine is in French Guiana, Nahapétian writes books set in Iran, Parker Bilal intends to picture Egypt from 1998 to 2011 and Caryl Férey wrote books set in South Africa, New Zealand or Argentina. It was fascinating to hear how they gather relevant information for their books. For all, it’s a mix of personal experience and research. Caryl Férey joked about reading obscure thesis to gather knowledge and material about the country of his next book. We were in the Grand Salon at the city hall, where there is more gold on the walls and ceiling than in an Italian roccoco church.

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And of course, the festival was an opportunity to chat with writers, ask questions and get books signed. My TBR increased this weekend. Here are my new acquisitions:

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I trust the publisher Gallmeister, they never disappoint: if they picked Jon Bassoff, then it’s a good book. Jacques Côté is from Québec, so I’m interested in discovering Montréal from a non-touristy angle. Sara Gran spoke so well about her character, Claire DeWitt, that I’m looking forward to meeting this unusual female PI. I wanted to read another volume of Craig Johnson’s series and he’s very friendly with readers and fellow writers.

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I’m curious about Jax Miller’s book and she was also very open to discussion with readers. She seems to have created a kickass female character and I am intrigued. I picked a book by Naïra Nahapétian. She’s from the Armenian community in Iran but has lived in France since she was 10. Her books are set in Iran and I’m interested in discovering this country through her books. I knew I’d want to read the second volume of Niel’s series in French Guiana. Janis Otsiemi is from Gabon. Reading one of his books will be a way to read about his country. I tend to pick crime fiction books that have more texture than just the plot.

Have you read and / or reviewed one of these books? Links to your reviews are welcome.

The festival was great and the atmosphere very relaxed. Writers seem happy to be there, to participate to debates, to meet eager readers and see each other. Last year, 20 million of crime fiction books were sold in France, in a country of 67 million inhabitants. I think it’s quite impressive, especially for a country that has libraries in every town. It means that more than 20 million of crime fiction books were read, if you take into account libraries and people lending books to each other.

I don’t know the 2016 figures yet, of course. But last year, 70 000 people came to the festival and 30 000 books were sold in three days. We’ll see how it went this year but I bet it’s even more. I’ll end this enthusiastic billet with a big thank you to the organizers and volunteers of the festival, it was fascinating and well-organised. A real pleasure.

Well, now my literary weekend is over and it’s time to go back to my non-literary job & life.:-)

Quais du Polar #6: Translation contest

April 2, 2016 7 comments

Quais_polar_logoI’ll write a post about my days at Quais du Polar once the festival is over. Meanwhile, I want to share with you the fantastic session I went to this afternoon. It was a translation contest organized by the ATLF, the association of French literary translators. There were a lot of people waiting to enter the conference room. More than what the translators expected. The rules of the translation contest are simple: two translators translate the same text by Craig Johnson and confront their translations in his presence. Here we had Sophie Aslanides, Johnson’s “official” translator and Charles Recoursé, an outsider. The translation contest is a way to put forward the inevitable subjectivity of a translation.

Craig Johnson’s novels are successful in France. He made a short introduction to the session, reminding the public that a good translation matters and that a bad translation makes a bad book. He can’t judge the quality of the French translation by himself since he doesn’t speak French but he assumes it is good. Why? Because the French critics of the book reported that the book was full of humor. He said that if Sophie Aslanides managed to give back the humor, then the rest can’t be bad.

He mentioned that his translator knows the US well and it shows in her work. He also reported that working on the translation with her –mainly by answering her questions—made him realize what was difficult to translate into French, like references to football or baseball. It was interesting to hear his side of the translation story.

I’m not going to detail the discussion about differences between the translations but I want to share with you what I learnt about translating from the English to the French language.

I don’t work in the literary world so I am clueless about the workings of the author/publisher/translator triangle. So I was quite surprised by the weight of the publisher on the translation. They approve of significant translation decisions such as choosing the present tense instead of the passé simple. They will highlight (and reject) repetitions in the text even if the original used the same word several times. (Apparently the English language bears repetition better than the French). They may impose translation rules, like whether they expect proper nouns to be translated. This is how a Mrs becomes a Madame or stays a Mrs or how Mount Rushmore becomes Mont Rushmore…or not.

The session was also an opportunity to point out common difficulties in translating English into French. The most obvious one is to choose between vous and tu to translate you. Once the decision is made, the next one is “When do I move to tu between characters that started out with vous?” Charles Recoursé said he usually waits for a significant even to happen: the characters have sex, they share confidences, they bond after a fight or traumatic events. In any case, it is thought through.

Another tricky thing is the translation of gerund, like in this sentence: I continued to breathe deeply and sat there waiting for I’m not sure what. It is tempting to use the “participe present” in French and say en attendant for waiting, but it can be heavy. Sophie Aslanides explained that she tries to refrain from using the participe present form.

Two other difficulties weren’t surprising given how hard these notions are to get when you’re French and learning how to speak English. The first one would be the representation of space. It’s all these down, up, through, toward, forward words that are difficult to learn and equally difficult to translate. The second difficulty relates to the description of a someone’s position. For example, Cragi Johnson wrote I lowered myself into a three-point position which can’t be translated literally. Both translators say that in cases like this, they do the movement and wonder how to say it in French. It’s also the case when a character stands out the door, when in French we don’t have an exact equivalent to stand.

I had also noticed that the French version of an English text is always longer than the original. I learnt that it’s called “foisonnement” and that in average the French text is 15% longer than the English one.

This translation contest also showed that having a recurring translator is an asset, that translating a few pages out of the blue is not easy. Some of Sophie Aslanides’s choices were due to her familiarity with Craig Johnson’s novels. She knows the characters, the atmosphere of the books, she has spent time in Wyoming and knows the setting of the novels. She capitalizes on her experience.

I was amazed at the details she researches. For example, she chose to translate crow into corbeau and not into corneille because contrary to corneilles, corbeaux walk and the text mentioned footprints. The excerpt was about a peyote ceremony. Sophie Aslanides explained how she checked previous translations of such ceremonies for her translation to be consistent with whatever previous notion the reader might have of a peyote ceremony. This is so thoughtful.

My enthusiasm about this translation contest probably shows in my billet. I didn’t know that the publisher had a word to say in the translation and I was truly fascinated by the information Sophie Aslanides and Charles Recoursé shared about their work and the process of translating a book. Before starting this blog, I was never concerned by the work of the translator. They were a sort of ghost writer necessary to read foreign literature. I started to wonder about it when got used to putting quotes in both languages in my billets and when I struggled to translate phrases myself when I didn’t have a professional translation on hand. Then my English improved and I could better spot poor or old-fashioned translations. This session helped me understand better the wonderful work the translators do to open us the window to other literatures and set us free to explore other cultures. Thanks guys.

Quais du polar #5: Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace – 1974 shades of Noir.

March 28, 2016 24 comments

1974 by David Peace (1999) Translated by Daniel Lemoine.

Quais_polar_logoNineteen Seventy-Four is the first novel of the Red Riding Quartet by David Peace. The four books are set in Yorkshire between 1974 and 1983.

Edward Dunford is a rookie journalist, just hired as North of England Crime Correspondent at the Yorkshire Evening Post. The book starts on Friday 13 December 1974. Eddie’s father has just died and he’s attending a press conference at the Millgarth Police Station, Leeds. Little Clare Kemplay has been missing since the day before on her way back from school. Soon, her body is found in a nearby alley. Edward makes a connection between this murder and the murders of two other little girls. Jeanette Garland missing since 1969 in Castleford. Susan Ridyard missing since 1972 in Rochdale, in 1972.

Peace_1974Eddie starts digging. His colleague Barry Gannon is on a big case that he calls the Dawsongate. He’s investigating shady transactions in the construction business owned by John Dawson. He’s on the verge of getting the evidence he needs. He gets murdered on December 16th. Eddie inherits of his material.

Who is the link between the three murdered little girls? What was Barry about to reveal?

Ambitious Eddie will follow leads and from informative phone calls, to strange visits and police tips, he will start his journey to hell. Corruption is wherever you look. Among the police. Among the press. Among the powerful men of the territory. Eddie will be in the cross-fire between the three, trying to save his career and his life while attempting to discover the truth about these horrible acts.

Everything happens between December 13 and Christmas Eve. David Peace installs the nervous pace of his literary style from the first paragraphs:

‘All we ever get is Lord fucking Lucan and wingless bloody crows,’ smiled Gilman, like this was the best day of our lives:

Friday 13 December 1974.

Waiting for my fist Front Page, the Byline Boy at last: Edward Dunford, North of England Crime Correspondent; two days too fucking late.

I looked at my father’s watch.

9 a.m0 and no bugger had been to bed; straight from the Press Club, still stinking of ale, into this hell:

The Conference Room, Millgarth Police Station, Leeds.

The whole bloody pack sat waiting for the main attraction, pens poised and tapes paused; ht TV lights and cigarette smoke lighting up the windowless room like a Town Hall boxing ring on a Late Night Fight Night; the paper boys taking it out on the TV set, the radios static and playing it deaf:

‘They got sweet FA’

‘A quid says she’s dead if they got George on it.’

Khalil Aziz at the back, no sign of Jack.

I felt a nudge. It was Gilman again, Gilman from the Manchester Evening News and before.

‘Sorry to hear about your old man, Eddie’

‘Yeah, thanks,’ I said, thinking news really did travel fucking fast.

‘When’s the funeral?’

I looked at my father’s watch again. ‘In about two hours.’

‘Jesus. Hadden still taking his pound of bloody flesh, then.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, knowing, funeral or no funeral, no way I’m letting Jack fucking Whitehead back on this one.

‘I’m sorry, like’

‘Yeah,’ I said.

It’s a long quote but it gives the atmosphere of the novel in a nutshell. The ingredients are there. Eddie mourning his father but in competition with the star journalist Jack Whitehead. The fake camaraderie between the journalists. The show delivered by the police. The interdependence between the police and the press. The demands of Hadden, Eddie’s boss.

The loose use of punctuation gives a staccato rhythm to the book and it will follow us for the whole ride. I have to admit: Thank God I had this one in translation. I was already fairly lost in French, I can’t even imagine what it would have been in English. It’s a first person narrative, so we’re with Eddie the whole time. It’s violent because the methods of the police are made of beating and torture. There’s an urgency to the story that keeps you breathless. We’re walking in the dark with Eddie, trying to weave the threads of information together to create the tapestry of events. Not easy before computer and cell phones times.

I know that Nineteen Seventy-Four is loosely based upon the real case of the Yorkshire Ripper. I’m French and was still in diapers in 1974. I know nothing about this case. Just like I knew nothing about the Lucan case when I read Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark. I did a bit of reading on Wikipedia. This serial killer murdered prostitutes, not little girls. Fiction is mixed with facts. Edward Dunford is from Osset, like David Peace. The investigation on the Yorkshire Ripper was done by Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield who was highly criticized for his handling of the case. Here, George Oldfield is the name of the Chief Superintendent in charge of the investigation. I’m sure there are other parts of the novel that borrow to the real case. Does that bother me? Not really because it is not a novel about this case. It’s a novel about a similar serial killer and Peace probably used the information about the Yorkshire Ripper to give back the atmosphere of the time, the way the police worked and how the whole intelligentsia of West Yorkshire holds themselves together through shared secrets.

Nobody had interest in shaking the whole system and Eddie is a willing pawn. He’s not a likeable character either. Women are means for sex, however damaged they might be, he’s in this mainly for his own advancement and his competition with Jack Whitehead for the title of best crime journalist. He’s not a noble character fighting to right wrongs in a corrupt world. And yet he continues.

This is Noir, very very Noir fiction and Peace’s style makes it worth your time. Granted it’s not an asset for the Department of Tourism of West Yorskshire, even if it is set 40 years ago.

For another review, have a look at Max’s excellent post here.

 

Quais du polar #4: Cardboard Hammocks by Colin Niel

March 23, 2016 12 comments

The Cardboard Hammocks by Colin Niel (2012) French title: Les Hamacs de carton.

Quais_polar_logoColin Niel is a French crime fiction writer who works as an environmental engineer and is specialized in the preservation of biodiversity. He worked in French Guiana several years and started a crime fiction series set in this overseas department and whose recurring character is capitaine André Anato.

The novel opens on Barnabé, a six-years old Maroon boy who lives in the remote village of Wetisoula on the river Maroni. The Maroon community in French Guiana represents 70 000 people out of 244 000 inhabitants in the department. They don’t acknowledge the border between Guiana and Suriname, each country being on one bank of the river Maroni. Wetisoula is a fictional village, populated by Maroon people and located nearby Apatou.

guyanne_frLittle Barnabé wakes up early and runs to the river to get cleaned up for the day. He’s surprised that his friend Tobie isn’t awake yet as they usually compete to see who’ll be up first. He decides to go and fetch him and finds him dead in his hammock. Tobie’s mother Thélia and his brother Justin are dead too. In their sleep. Thélia’s husband, Fernand, is a gold panner and he usually doesn’t stay with his family. He visits them as often as possible.

The village is only reachable in dugout canoe and this is how capitaine Anato and lieutenant Vacaresse arrive on the scene. From the outside, nothing obvious shows the cause of  Thélia and her children’s deaths. They seem peaceful. Thélia was a hardworker and a farmer; she grew different vegetables and Vacaresse soon discovers that she also grew cannabis. Does this production have a link with her death? Anato decides to leave Vacaresse in the village to investigate further. He goes back to Cayenne to try to find out where and how Thélia sold her crops, the legal and the illegal one.

Fernand leads Anato and Vacaresse towards Olivier Degricourt, a man who works in a garage in Cayenne and who knew Thélia. Olivier and his partner Monique had befriended Thélia and her children and used visit them in Wetisoula. But Fernand knew that Thélia was afraid of Olivier. When Anato finds him, Olivier flees before Anato has even the chance to talk to him. What does he feel guilty about?

A few days after the Wesitoula murder, Véronique Morhange is found dead in a park in Cayenne. She was a civil servant working for the administration that delivers identity papers. The cardboard hammocks of the title are the suspension folders that Véronique Morhange uses to keep track of the files of people who fill in applications to get French identity papers. The procedure can be complicated, especially for people who were born in remote places where getting documents such has birth certificates is a problem.

Are these crimes related? Anato and his team investigate.

Niel_hamacsI found his book fascinating on every aspect. Colin Niel writes a thick plot around these murders, describes aspects of life in French Guiana and draws attaching characters. The story behind the murders is well drafted and the reader is eager to know what happened. There is a real sense of place in this polar coming from the author’s life in French Guiana. I enjoyed reading about the funeral rites and other customs of the Maroon community. He explains them but not with too many details that you forget about the plot and think he digressed too far. Because let’s face it, you are here to read a good story and unwind, not read an essay about the history of the Maroons in French Guiana. I also found his descriptions of place, of the vegetation and local food interesting. The text is livened up with local words and my edition includes a useful glossary. I don’t know much about this overseas department and I was glad to learn about it. It was a bit strange to feel at the same time in a familiar place (this is France and the local institutions are here to prove it) and in a totally strange country because the geography and the local history is so far away from our life in mainland France.

And last but not least, the characters are likeable and I want to see them again. Anato is an odd character and I’m curious to see how Niel will develop him. He comes from the Maroon community but has never lived in French Guiana. He’s lived all his life near Paris and after his parents’ tragic death in a car accident, he asked to be transferred to Guiana. He’s in a strange place: he looks like a local but doesn’t know anything about local life. He’s estranged from his family and he’s trying to build a relationship with them. He lost his feeling of belonging to a place, to a family, to a community. He’s a bit adrift and has trouble connecting with his team. He’s new and his men don’t know what to make of him. He needs to earn their respect. His lieutenant Vicaresse has also a scar in his personal life and his stay in this Maroon village might have triggered something in him. The third man of this team of gendarmes is Girbal, who helped Anato with his investigation in Cayenne. He’s harder to pin down; it’s difficult to say if his methods of investigation are the mark of an intuitive investigator or of a skiver.

The Anato series has two volumes (so far) and I will read the next one with pleasure. I’m sorry to report that it is only available in French and that it goes in the Translation Tragedy category. Any Publisher interested?

Business Is Business by Octave Mirbeau

March 19, 2016 9 comments

Business is Business by Octave Mirbeau (1903) French title: Les affaires sont les affaires

Mirbeau_AffairesBusiness Is Business is a play by Octave Mirbeau. It’s French and dates back to 1903 but unfortunately, it’s still relevant more than a century later.

We’re in a chateau in the suburb of Paris, probably in the West, in a property that now belongs to Isidore Lechat. It’s called Vauperdu and was allegedly built under Louis XIV. Isidore Lechat is a businessman and a parvenu. He has a knack for business, doesn’t shy away from playing dirty to achieve his goals. He’s formidable and vulgar, intelligent but whimsical. He has that business acumen that some people have; they’re able to get what will work, will be trendy, will make him money. His net worth is 50 million of francs.

The play opens in the gardens of the chateau. Madame Lechat is sitting outside with her daughter Germaine. It’s 6pm, they’re waiting for Isidore to come back from his business day in Paris. Madame Lechat is anxious because her husband always brings home unexpected guests. She wonders if she’ll have enough to serve a proper diner. From Germaine’s replies and comments, the spectator quickly understands that she despises her father’s money and especially the way he earnt it.

Isidore is a ruthless businessman, earning money is his goal, even if it means bulldozing people. He’s unstoppable when he wants something. He despises culture and intellectuals. He’s friends with politicians. He bought a newspaper. And now he wants to go into politics and be elected as a député. (MP) Does that ring a bell? He’s been to prison, went bankrupt and recovered. He seems to fall back on his feet each time and to have seven lives, like a cat. Perhaps that’s why he’s named Lechat (The Cat). He’s restless and greedy. He wants more every day.

Mirbeau_LechatOf course, it’s hard to see Isidore Lechat and not think about Donald Trump, Berlusconi or Bernard Tapie if you’re French. He’s also a theatre soul mate of Zola’s Aristide Saccard, the main character of La Curée.

The play revolves around Isidore and he’s taught a lesson about the cost of his business choices on his family. He’s proud of his son Xavier, who lives the happy life of a rich heir, mingling with people at the Jockey Club. (This is a very elitist club in Paris. In Proust, Swann is a member of this club) Isidore is new money who’d like to slip into old money’s shoes. But it’s not so easy. He wants to destroy the aristocracy and yet copies their customs. One of his aristocratic neighbors makes fun of him and tells him money is not enough, there’s a spirit to it, that he should invent new customs instead of mimicking the aristocrats. He doesn’t know what to do with Germaine who recoils from him; he’d love to marry her to an aristocrat but it’s not in the cards.

Madame Lechat comes from the same background. She knows all his flaws but supports him. She doesn’t have a conscience either and doesn’t share her daughter’s reservations about the means used to get this rich. When she complains that she never knows whether she needs to organize a diner, Germaine points out that she’d better consider that she’ll have guests and be ready every night. Madame Lechat argues that Isidore might come back alone and then, what about the food? When Germaine replies that she can always give the food away to the poor, Madame Lechat is offended. You don’t feed the poor with chicken. This exchange is representative of the Lechat couple. They’re both greedy and have absolutely no compassion for the poor. They’d rather chase them away. They reminded me of these bourgeois in the 16th arrondissement of Paris (the richest one) who are currently signing petitions against the foundation of a shelter for homeless people in their neighborhood. Their shocking lack of humanity was all over the papers. What a shame. They should be grateful for their circumstances and give back to the less fortunate.

There are fascinating exchanges about money, about getting rich and live with all this money. Mirbeau depicts a despicable character in Isidore but remains fair on two levels, his genuine love for his children and the fact that his wealth attracts all kinds of crooks who attempt to take advantage of him. Madame Lechat says she feels that she doesn’t belong in this mansion. She doesn’t feel at home but on holiday, in a property that belongs to someone else.

There’s a lot to chew over in this play. It’s disgruntling to know who Isidore looks like. He’s one of these businessmen who flirt with illegality to get ahead but have such charisma that people like them anyway. He’s one of these politicians who get reelected time and again even if their character is doubtful or if they had trouble with the law. Yes, Mirbeau drew a very believable tale and nailed a type of character that still exists today.

Mirbeau_DecorThe play was directed by Claudia Stavisky who did an amazing job. The actors were excellent and physically matched their characters. Madame Lechat was played by Marie Bunel, a classic blonde beauty. François Marthouret was a fantastic Isidore Lechat with his moustache and his loquacity. The clothes of the actors displayed their social status. The smarmy business men in their suits with their hair slicked back on their head. The aristocrats with classic clothes that scream old money and old values. Isidore’s outfit that tells “I’m expensive” but lacks class. The décor was well chosen, with high French doors to picture an old building and allowed scenes indoors and outdoors.

This was my first Mirbeau; now I’m curious about his Journal d’une femme de chambre. (Journal of a Chambermaid)

Highly recommended.

PS: I think the cover of the play is not good. Indeed, the man on the picture is Count Robert de Montesquiou, who was the inspiration for Charlus is In Search of Lost Time. This man was a dandy, elegant, cultivated and gay. Nothing to do with Isidore Lechat.

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