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In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

May 22, 2016 22 comments

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff French title: Dans le jardin des martyrs nord-américains. Translated by François Happe.

WolffThis collection of short stories is another great find by the French publisher Gallmeister, although they had already been published in France before. According to Tobias Wolff’s page on Wikipedia, he worked at Syracuse University with Raymond Carver and had Jay McInerney in his graduate writing program. I’m not sure I should have read that, now writing this billet is a bit daunting.

Tobias Wolff wrote these twelve stories between 1976 and 1981. In appearance, each story is very different from the others. It can be a couple witnessing their neighbors fighting again, a hunting party, a professor at a literary conference, an old married couple going on a cruise. But the more you read, the more you make out a pattern. They all have something in common. The narrators are stuck in their frame of mind and sometimes miss the obvious. Things and people aren’t what they look like. Several stories are told from the perspective of someone who looks down on others. Most of the stories are set in the north west of the United States (Washington State or Oregon) or Canada (British Columbia).

In the first story, Next Door, a couple listens to their neighbors fighting. They think the man beats his wife but they don’t do anything. They think about their flower beds on which the furious neighbors is now peeing on. As the story progresses, it reveals the flaws of this lifeless couple. And the reader wonders who they should feel sorry for: the fighting but passionate neighbors or the quiet but living dead couple?

In An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke, the said Professor Brooke always acts as if he’s sure of himself, of his place in the world and of his value. He doesn’t hesitate to demolish someone publicly if he thinks he has better arguments, for the sake of the discussion. He looks down on his colleague Riley because he imagines he had an affair with a student and yet he still acts like a good Christian and family man. Brooke is judgmental, he just believes that the student who went out of Riley’s office in tears cried because of their breakup. Then Brooke meets Ruth at a poetry symposium he attends with Riley. And he realizes that he too can behave in such a way that people could misjudge him…

Each story is a little gem for its characterization, its style and its plot. They’re multi-layered, pointing out our small flaws, our little lives. They pierce beyond the surface of what we show to the outside world and how sometimes we manage to keep up appearances. They show the pettiness, the manipulation and the cruelty of human interactions. They put a light on the toll that the quotidian takes on us, making us care for unimportant things instead of focusing on the essential. They dig into the existential questions that linger in our heads.

Highly recommended.

Saturday news

May 21, 2016 20 comments

I guess I was a bit MIA these last two weeks. So what have I been up to? So busy at work that it left me too drained to switch my computer on at night, away during the weekend and helpless in front of the unread blog entries that pile up in my inbox. I think I have more than 150 unread posts and I’m not sure I’ll be able to catch up. My list of “upcoming billets” increases and my priority will be to tackle this pile. Sorry.

I was on a surprise trip to Barcelona, so thanks for the book recommendations I received after my request on Twitter. I discovered our destination at the registration desk in the airport so I couldn’t take my copy of Nada by Carmen Laforet with me. I’ll read it later. Stu recommended Marks of Identity by Juan Goytisolo. The Times of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda (In French, La place du diamant) came highly recommended and is on now on the wish list. Guy suggested Calling Mr King by Ronald De Fao since part of it is set in Barcelona. I’ve been through the Paris and London parts of the book and now I’m in New York. So far, I find it excellent. It’s so funny and sad at the same time.

The dates for the next Quais du Polar festival have been released. It will be on March 31rd, April 1 &2, 2017. In case you’d like to plan a trip to Lyon during this amazing crime fiction love fest, you are now aware of the dates. Most of the conferences can be heard in English too. You can listen to the conferences of this year’s edition here.

I accidentally discovered that Book Around the Corner is listed in the Hidden Gem category at Sacha’s ANNUAL BLOGGERS BASH AWARDS. Someone must have sent my name for me to get this nomination. Thanks to the blogger/reader who suggested to include Book Around the Corner in this contest. Go have a look at Sacha’s post, it’s an opportunity to discover new blogs in various fields. While browsing through the categories and lists, I saw that a few blogging friends were among the nominees. Marina Sofia is also nominated Hidden Gem. Jacqui and Cleo are nominated in the Best Book Review while Tony is in the Best Overall Blog. Whoever wins this, I think it’s a nice initiative. It must take a lot of time to organize and follow up, so thanks to Sacha for devoting some of her time to these awards.

Last but not least, today was Christmas in May as the postman delivered a parcel of books to me.

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I’m going to have so much fun with this Duane Swierczynski marathon. Aren’t the covers gorgeous? I’m looking forward to reading Stripper Lessons by John O’Brien as I loved Leaving Las Vegas so much. The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower and Bad Attitudes by Agnes Owens are new to me but the blurbs sound very promising and they were on my wish list. Many thanks to the friend who sent them over here.

And last but not least, my daughter had to read Antigone by Jean Anouilh in school and she loved it. It’s a classic read for collège. (In France, school from 11 to 15 years old.). Oddly, I never read it, probably because my literature teacher of that time was more of a hardcore Corneille and Racine fan. *shudder* My daughter asked me if I wanted to read too and I’m never going to turn down an opportunity of mother-daughter bonding over literature. It beats conversations about makeup and clothes. So expect a billet about Antigone in the near future.

Well, that’s all, folks. I hope you’re all having a nice weekend. Normal service of book billets will resume soon.

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Zulu by Caryl Férey

May 6, 2016 18 comments

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.

The Dance of the Seagull by A. Camilleri. Thoughts about the unusual French translation

May 1, 2016 27 comments

The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri (2009) French title: La danse de la mouette. Translated from the Italian by Serge Quadruppani.

Camilleri_mouetteI went on holiday in Sicily and it was the perfect opportunity to read a book by Andrea Camilleri. He’s a crime fiction writer, the father of the commissario Montalbano series. The Dance of the Seagull is the fifteenth book of the Montalbano series. It didn’t matter much that I hadn’t read any of the previous ones.

In this episode, when Montalbano arrives at the police station in Vigàta, he discovers that inspector Fazio is missing. It seems like he was investigating shady business in the habour when he went MIA but nobody knows exactly what he was working on. Is it smuggling, arm or drug dealing? Montalbano is worried about Fazio and starts digging while dodging bullets from his superiors as he doesn’t want to reveal that he’s in the dark regarding Fazio’s work. Montalbano is upset enough about Fazio’s disappearance to forget all about his long-distance girlfriend Livia who comes from Geneo to visit him.

And that’s all I’ll say about the plot. It’s my first encounter with Montalbano and again we are drawn to a set of characters and a location. Montalbano is this middle-aged police officer, grumbling, eating fantastic food in trattorias and riding shotgun instead of driving as often as possible. He only follows the rules when absolutely necessary, not hesitating to forget some of them when it’s convenient.

It was a nice read, I can’t say that the plot was extraordinary but it came second to the setting and the translation. The most fascinating aspect of the book was its translation.

The French translator, Serge Quadruppani, wrote a foreword to explain his translation choices, backed up by the publisher. Camilleri’s language is specific to Sicily and to him. He peppers the book with Sicilian dialect. He uses a lot of regionalisms and his syntax is special because of the Sicilian setting. He also tweaks the spelling of certain words to give back the Sicilian accent. Therefore, the original text has a specific flavor for the non-Sicilian Italian. The French translator and the publisher decided to transfer this experience into the French text. This is why we find in the French translation: strange syntax, Sicilian words, French verbs with a bizarre spelling, regionalisms from the South East and creative spelling to transpose an accent. Serge Quadrippani chose to make his French translation sound like person from Marseille who would be of Italian origins. It works. There’s a similarity between the South East of France or Corsica and Sicily. The Mediterranean landscape is similar and the city of Palermo reminded me of Bastia in Corsica.

For example, Montalbano introduces himself with Montalbano sono, which has been translated into Montalbano, je suis or in English, Montalbano, I am. It’s strange in French but it sounds like the original. That’s for syntax oddities. Then Quadrappani twisted some French verbs to match the original. When Camilleri writes aricordarsi instead of ricordarsi, the French verb se rappeler becomes s’arappeler.

Here are two examples of the first pages and the comparison with the English translation by Stephen Sartarelli. I’ll underline the oddities in French, for foreign readers.

Souvent par chance, il dormait comme ça jusqu’au matin, si ça se trouvait, il faisait tout ça à la file, mais certaines nuits au contraire, comme celle qui venait juste de se passer, au bout d’une paire d’heures de roupillon, il s’aréveillait sans aucune raison et il n’y avait plus moyen d’aréussir à retrouver le sommeil.

Often he was lucky enough to sleep through till morning, all in one stretch, but on other nights, such as the one that had just ended, he would wake up for no reason, after barely a couple of hours of sleep, unable for the life of him to fall back asleep.

The word roupillon is more nap than sleep and it’s more spoken language than sleep is. See also the a before the verbs réveillait and réussir.

Mais il n’avait aucune envie de s’amontrer de mauvaise humeur devant Livia quand elle arriverait. Il fallait passer une heure en rousinant.

Le voyage du matin lui avait réveillé un solide ‘pétit.

But he really didn’t want to be in a bad mood when Livia arrived. He had to find some distraction to make the extra hour pass.

The morning drive had whetted his appetite a little.

The English doesn’t sound like the French at all. We have another a before a word, the verb rousiner that I had to look up and ‘pétit instead of appétit. The English is flat and factual. Of course, it is a lot easier to do that with the French language, with it being so close to the Italian. It sure isn’t as simple in English. The French sounds like the South, cicadas, characters by Pagnol and a man who speaks like a blue collar.

In the end, what impact did it have on this reader? It is well done, consistent throughout the novel. It is commendable that the publisher agreed to it and went out of the usual path. After a while, I got used to it.

For a French from the North, it reminded me of the sun, the holidays. Reading this while visiting Sicily made me appreciate Quadruppani’s creative translation even more. It enhances the sense of place. However, it’s hard to connect this type of style with crime fiction, with investigations and criminality. But one can argue that it’s probably the same for an Italian from Milan who reads Camilleri.

I would love to hear someone else’s experience with reading Camilleri in French or in the original, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment. Messages in French are welcome too. For readers who are fluent in French, I would recommend to try this out, for the good time with the story but also for this curious translation.

Sicile

 

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 22 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.:-)

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