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Zulu by Caryl Férey

May 6, 2016 19 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.

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