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Crime fiction from Québec: Cloudy by the end of the day by Jacques Côté

April 23, 2017 10 comments

Cloudy by the end of the day by Jacques Côté. (2000) Original French (Québec) title: Nébulosité croissante en fin de journée. 

Nébulosité croissante en fin de journée is set in Quebec City in 1976 just before the Montreal Olympics and it’s the first installment of the Lt Daniel Duval series. Duval is a thirty-six-year-old widower living with his teenage daughter Michelle. He used to work in the Montreal police force, the SQ (Sécurité du Québec). He relocated to Québec after his wife’s death.

His partner is Louis Harel, a fat man whose personal life clashes with Duval’s. Duval runs marathons, takes care of his daughter and generally lives a quiet and healthy life. Harel gorges himself with cakes, he’s married but unfaithful and he’s now infatuated with a dancer/junkie. Duval is more respectful and intellectual than Harel. We’re in 1976, feminism is in full force and it’s another difference between the two men: Duval is a modern man, he acknowledges women’s rights and respects their fight for equality. Harel is a womanizer who objectifies women but still fell in love with his mistress Sandra. He’s the kind of man who can’t take care of himself after a divorce because he can’t iron, cook or clean after himself. The Duval/Harel duo resembles the John Kelly and Andy Sipowicz duo in the first seasons of NYPD Blue. Harel is irritating and gets on Duval’s nerves but there’s a real bond between the two.

Now that we know the detectives a bit better, the plot. When the book opens, we are introduced to a troubled young man with a big chip on his shoulder. H. has a long past as a delinquent and comes from a broken home. He lost his parents when he was a child; they died in a car accident and he went to live with his aunt. His cousin Paul was like a brother to him and H. never recovered from Paul’s death that happened during a car chase with the police. H. is fascinated by cars, speed and car wreckages.

H. got a diploma in mechanics in prison and he’s on probation working in a garage. But the other employees pick at him, he’s only doing menial tasks and he’s not using his skills as a mechanics. He gets humiliated one time too many, he fights back and gets fired. This pushes him over the edge.

He wants revenge for all the wrongs in his life and starts shooting at cars from a bridge over the boulevard Duplessis, the ring of Quebec City. Cars drive fast on this motorway and the shootings lead to car crashes. And H. loves watching car crashes, the sirens of the firetrucks and ambulances arriving on site. H. signs his crimes with 1000 Bornes game cards. He feels powerful and in control of other people’s lives.

Duval and Harel have to track down the killer who shoots at random and plays cat and mouse with them. The plot is classic crime fiction with policemen chasing after a dangerous killer. I wasn’t impressed by the plot but I loved the setting and the language.

Jacques Côté attended Quais du Polar and I had the opportunity to ask him questions about this series. I asked why he set his books in 1976. He said that he loves US crime fiction from the 1970s, the clothes and the music of that time. He wanted to give life to Quebec City in this decade.

He also said once that Quebec people are Francophones with a North American lifestyle. It stayed with me and came to my mind when I visited Québec last summer and it struck me as true when I read his book. There’s this familiarity mixed with differences. The architecture, the cars and the lifestyle make you feel like you’re in America and yet everything is in French. In appearance, it’s Anglo-Saxon and yet, you feel you’re in France when Duval can’t go to the Saint-Sacrement hospital because they’re on strike. (!!)

The French in Nébulosité croissante en fin de journée is different from the French from France, obviously. I expected a lot of different words and expressions because Quebec speakers still use old French words that we don’t use anymore but still understand. French people know Quebec Francophones as purists who refuse to use English words in their French, to protect the language. I didn’t expect all the English words or expressions I found in this novel.  I asked Jacques Côté about it and he said he did it on purpose to reflect the 1970s language. The fight to keep the French devoid of English words started after the 1970s. He also mentioned that it is a way to differentiate social classes. The working class uses a lot more of English words in their French than the upper classes.

I know it’s a paradox but I thought you needed to speak English very well to fully understand Jacques Côté. There are all these English words but more importantly all these expressions that are literally translated from the English. I knew the English under this French, so I understood but I’m not sure a French would understand them otherwise. Here are a few examples:

  • La salle de lavage se trouvait à dix mètres des casiers. In English, The laundry room was ten meters away from the lockers. In French from France, La buanderie se trouvait à dix mètres des caves. The expression salle de lavage is the literal translation of laundry room and the exact French word for it is buanderie.
  • He uses the French word pot for pot (weed) while in France we’d say herbe. Weed means mauvaise herbe in French and un pot is more a jar or a tin.
  • Il avait dormi profondément et n’avait pas entendu le damné store qu’il voulait remplacer par un voile. In English, He had slept soundly and hadn’t heard the damned blind that he wanted to replace with a curtain. In French from France: Il avait dormi profondément et n’avait pas entendu ce sacré store qu’il voulait remplacer par un rideau. You see here that the English swear word damned is replaced by the French damné, a word that exists but is only used in the religious sense in France. Ironically, the French equivalent of damned as a curse word is sacré, which means sacred. One religious word for the other!
  • Il voulut aller au Towers mais il se rappela que le juge lui avait interdit d’aller dans ce magasin à rayons. In English, He wanted to go to Towers but he remembered that the judge had forbidden him to go to this department store. In French from France, Il voulut aller à Towers mais il se rappela que le juge lui avait interdit d’aller dans ce grand magasin. Magasin à rayons is the literal translation of department store. I don’t know why Quebec speakers don’t use the word grand magasin for department store. This word exists since the 19th century, think of Au Bonheur des dames by Zola.

I find all these details fascinating and I loved tracking them down. I’m happy to have a Quebec edition of Côté’s book. Some French publishers ask to Québec writers to amend their books to better suit the French public. I don’t agree with this. I wouldn’t want a Quebec character to speak like a Parisian. It would sound artificial and it’s disrespectful for the author. We need to respect the diversity of the Francophony, it keeps the French language alive.

The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis

April 9, 2017 27 comments

The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis. (2014) Original French title: En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule.

Edouard Louis was born in 1992, he wrote The End of Eddy when he was 22. It is an autobiographical novel. Edouard Louis changed his name from Eddy Bellegueule to Edouard Louis when he changed of social class. He used to be Eddy Bellegueule, child of a poor working-class family in Picardie. He is now Edouard Louis, PhD in sociology. And, very important, he’s gay, was gay as Eddy, is gay as Edouard.

The End of Eddy opens with a punchy sentence: I have no happy memories of my childhood. The décor is there, you know you’re in for a lot of miserable anecdotes. And indeed, the first chapter is about with Eddy being bullied in collège (school you go to between 11 and 15) by two boys who call him a faggot. It’s a violent scene that throws the reader head first into the dark swimming-pool of his childhood memories.

His parents have five children. His two older siblings come from his mother’s first marriage. He has a younger brother and a younger sister. At the beginning, his father works in a factory and his mother stays at home to raise the children. When his father loses his job due to backaches problems, his mother starts working as a home help. He says that from early childhood he knew he was different and that he’s always been pegged as gay. He describes his life in his village in a poor neighborhood. It’s an environment where men and women have defined roles, where being a man means being tough. They don’t look into their feminine side. Being a man means playing and watching football, joking around with buddies, being tough, not going to the doctor unless you’re on death bed. In a word, and to match their language, you don’t behave like a pussy. They spend time at the pub, they drink, they fight. Women bear with them but wouldn’t want them differently. There’s a social context that make the story repeats itself: early pregnancies, early marriages, dropping out of school, poor education, poor jobs. Poor people generation after generation.

The social portray pictured in The End of Eddy is a mix of Angela’s Ashes, Billy Elliot, a film by Ken Loach and La vie de Jésus by Bruno Dumont. (Nothing to do with religion, this last one, and everything to do with a character named Freddy and living in a similar context as Eddy) Well, you see the picture. My problem was that Edouard Louis is not as plausible as the other references I mentioned. The global picture rings true but I found that he went too far. Some details don’t seem plausible for the time (we’re in the 1990s, early 2000):

Régulièrement je me rendais dans la chambre des enfants, sombre puisque nous n’avions pas la lumière dans cette pièce (nous n’avions pas assez d’argent pour y mettre un véritable éclairage, pour y suspendre un lustre ou simplement une ampoule : la chambre ne disposait que d’une lampe de bureau. (p26) I used to go to the children room, dark because there was no light in this room. (We didn’t have enough money to install a real lighting, to hang up a sheen or even a light bulb. The room only had a desk lamp)

I’m sorry I find it hard to believe that in the 1990s, in France, you don’t have a light bulb. I would have believed that his parents had trouble paying their electricity bill or that they never bothered to install a light bulb but no light bulb because it’s too expensive? No way.

In the chapter entitled Laura, he says his parents don’t have the telephone and then in the next chapter, he says his mother would call him at home when his parents were out and he was staying home alone. So, where’s the truth? I find hard to believe that they didn’t have a landline.

I have the feeling that he exaggerates details to make the picture more gruesome and miserable. The passages about the filth in houses around him is too much to be true in France in the 1990s. He wrote this when he was 22, and it might explain why he overstates his case when it’s about his family. It’s too soon after he left.

Something else bothers me. I think he downplays his own achievements in school. He writes: J’avais dix ans. J’étais nouveau au collège. (I was ten. I was new at the collège.) But the normal age to start collège is eleven. So, either the novel is inaccurate and he was indeed eleven at the time or he really was ten. If he started collège a year earlier, knowing the French school system, he was probably scouted by his primary school teachers. It means that he was brilliant in school. It is confirmed when he gets in a good lycée (high school) after collège. In the French public school system, where you live defines where you go to school. It’s possible to go to another school only if there’s an academic reason to it. So, if Eddy Bellegueule got in this other lycée, which was not the one he was supposed to go according to geography, it simply means he had outstanding grades on top of his acting skills that got him into the theatre program. All along the book, he downplays this side of his life. He must have had the school system (teachers, school directors…) on his side. They must have helped him out along the way and it’s not mentioned in the novel.

I found the social portrait too harsh and not nuanced enough and I had the feeling that he twisted the facts to give a darker image of his social background, out of spite.

The most interesting and plausible part of The End of Eddy is his inner life as a gay living in an environment where it was shameful. I think the real poignant part of the book is his struggle to conform. He wants to please his parents, he wants to have friends. At the beginning of the book, I found his statements a bit caricatural, like here:

Mes goûts aussi étaient toujours automatiquement tournés vers des goûts féminins sans que je sache ou comprenne pourquoi. J’aimais le théâtre, les chanteuses de variétés, les poupées, quand mes frères (et même, d’une certaine manière, mes sœurs) préféraient les jeux vidéo, le rap et le football. P26 My tastes were almost always automatically feminine oriented. I didn’t know or understand why. I liked theatre, variety singers and dolls when my brothers (and in a certain way even my sisters) preferred video games, rap music and football.

As the novel progresses though, his life as a gay in a homophobic environment rings true. I felt sorry for him and what he describes sounds plausible, unfortunately. Living and going to school in an area where a man is a tough guy, it doesn’t live a lot of room for boys who are different. I think this part makes the book worth reading.

A word about the title. In French, the title is “En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule” which is different from The End of Eddy. The actual translation would be To Break Away From Eddy Bellegueule. The end of Eddy Bellegueule who became Edouard Louis doesn’t happen by chance. It’s deliberate and the English title doesn’t let this on.

Something else. I understand why Eddy Bellegueule changed his name into Edouard Louis. A first name like Eddy is hard to wear in his new social circles, it really sounds like your parents picked it on TV. It gives away your social background and since he wanted nothing to do with it… But there’s more. Bellegueule means handsome mug and in French, avoir une belle gueule is a colloquial way to say that a man is handsome. The association of Eddy and Bellegueule is hard to live with, even without a chip of your shoulder regarding your origins. It sounds like Johnny Halliday or Eddy Mitchel or Mike Brant, all singers who started in the 1960s when producers made singers change their French names into American names because it was cool.

The End of Eddy was published in English recently, I’ve seen several reviews on other blogs. Even if he irritated me a lot at the beginning because I thought he was laying on it thick about his family’s actual and intellectual poverty, I was convinced by his description of his feelings as a gay in this environment.

PS: You can also read Grant’s review here

And I wish that the French publisher mentioned in a footnote that the song Eddy sings in chapter “La porte étroite” is by the French singer Renaud.

Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé. Extremely powerful.

March 19, 2017 16 comments

Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé (2006) Translated by Adriana Hunter. Original French title : Eldorado

Eldorado opens on the streets of Catania, Sicily. Captain Salvatore Piracci is in the Italian navy and he commands the Zeffiro. He spends his time between Catania and Lampedusa, protecting European borders and rescuing immigrants who arrive to the coasts of Sicily. He’s on leave, going home after a walk at the fish market when he realizes someone is following him. A woman says that she wants to talk to him. He lets her in his apartment and she reminds him that he rescued her two years before. She was on a boat coming from Beirut. The smugglers’ crew had embarked migrants in Beirut and had left the boat on lifeboats, condemning the migrants to a sure death. The Italian navy had found them and Captain Piracci had seen her off the ship. She remembered him when she saw him by chance in Catania. She wants him to give her his gun because she wants to go to Syria and kill the person who got the migrants’ money, chartered this ship and gave the crew the order to leave. Piracci relents and gives her his gun. He won’t be the same after this encounter and will start questioning his mission and his role in the whole immigration flux.

In parallel to Piracci, we get acquainted with Soleiman who lives in Sudan. His brother Jamal has arranged for them to leave Port-Sudan to go to Europe. We will follow his journey.

Eldorado is a powerful book. It shows two sides of the illegal immigrants coming to Europe. With Piracci, we see the exhaustion of the Sicilian people confronted with misery and death on a daily basis. The cemetery in Lampedusa is not big enough to bury all the corpses that are found in the sea or on the beaches. Piracci isn’t in an enviable position: on the one hand, he rescues people, snatches them from the sea and on the other hand, he gives them to the police to have them put in camps. The repetition of the job weighs on him and the woman’s request sets him off and pushes him to change his life.

With Soleiman, we see the desperation of the migrant. Laurent Gaudé describes the heartbreak of leaving one’s life behind to jump into the unknown. Here’s Soleiman with his brother Jamal before they leave their hometown:

Je contemple mon frère qui regarde la place. Le soleil se couche doucement. J’ai vingt-cinq ans. Le reste de ma vie va se dérouler dans un lieu dont je ne sais rien, que je ne connais pas et que je ne choisirai peut-être même pas. Nous allons laisser derrière nous la tombe de nos ancêtres. Nous allons laisser notre nom, ce beau nom qui fait que nous sommes ici des gens que l’on respecte. Parce que le quartier connaît l’histoire de notre famille. Il est encore dans ces rues des vieillards qui connurent nos grands-parents. Nous laisserons ce nom ici, accroché aux branches des arbres comme un vêtement d’enfant abandonné que personne ne vient réclamer. Là où irons nous ne serons rien. Des pauvres. Sans histoire. Sans argent. I gaze at my brother who stares at the plaza. The sun sets down slowly. I am twenty-five years old. I will live the rest of my life in a place I know nothing about and that I may not even choose. We are going to leave our ancestors’ graves behind. We are going to leave our name, this beautiful name that makes of us persons that people respect here. Because the neighborhood knows our family’s story. On the streets, there are still old men who knew our grandparents. We will leave our name here, hung to the tree branches like a child clothe that was abandoned and that nobody came to claim. Where we go, we’ll be nothing. Poor people. Without history. Penniless.

They know their life is a sacrifice and still think it’s worth trying, not for them, not even for their children but for their grandchildren.

Nous n’aurons pas la vie que nous méritons, dis-je à voix basse. Tu le sais comme moi. Et nos enfants, Jamal, nos enfants ne seront nés nulle part. Fils d’immigrés là où nous irons. Ignorant tout de leur pays. Leur vie aussi sera brûlée. Mais leurs enfants à eux seront saufs. Je le sais. C’est ainsi. Il faut trois générations. Les enfants de nos enfants naîtront là-bas chez eux. Ils auront l’appétit que nous leur auront transmis et l’habileté qui nous manquait. Cela me va. Je demande juste au ciel de me laisser voir nos petits-enfants. We won’t live the life we deserve, I said in a low voice. You know it as well as I do. And our children, Jamal, our children will be born nowhere. Immigrants’ children where we’ll be. Ignorant of their country. Their life will be burnt too. But their children will be safe. I know it. This is how it is. It takes three generations. Our children’s children will be home in that country. They will have the appetite we’ll pass on to them and the skills that we lacked. I’m OK with it. I just ask God to let me see our grand-children.

Through Piracci, the woman and Soleiman, we see the horror of the trafficking behind the journeys and the different ways the smugglers take advantage of the migrants. We see the horror of the journey and the determination and hope in the migrants’ eyes.

Gaudé questions the toll that this takes on the migrants and how they change during their trip from their country to the doors of Europe. But he also depicts the toll it takes on the Sicilians.

Gaudé’s prose is magnificent. I read his novel in French and I can only hope that my translations did him justice. The English translator is Adriana Hunter and I remember other bloggers praising her translations. So, the English version should be good. Gaudé’s style is simple and heartbreaking. Short sentences that convey well the person’s mind and their surroundings. There’s no pathos and yet the emotion is real. He’s not angry or protesting, he makes you go down from the impersonal version you read in papers or hear on the radio to show you this issue on a human level. I read this tucked in a lounge chair on my terrace on this sunny spring day. Safe and healthy. Lucky. Gaudé took me by the hand and seemed to tell me “Look, this could be you in their place. You were only born in France by accident. How would you survive this? What scars would it etch on you?”

I have read Eldorado in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down. Literature has no political power. She only has the power to expand the reader’s humanity, to let them experience things and feelings that are foreign to their daily existence. Political power in not in literature, it’s in the reader’s hands. I thought about all the people voted or are tempted to vote for a party or a politician who advocates an inward-looking and racist attitude. I wish that all these people read this luminous novel. I believe that after reading Eldorado, if these readers have in an ounce of compassion for other human beings, they will be ashamed of their past or future ballot paper. That’s where literature’s power lays.

PS: This is the second time I’ve read a book by Laurent Gaudé. The first one was Sous le soleil des Scorta, and you can read my billet hereEldorado didn’t win the Prix Goncourt but that’s probably just because Laurent Gaudé had already won it with Sous le soleil des Scorta and a writer can’t win the Prix Goncourt twice.

My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti

March 18, 2017 11 comments

My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti (2008) Not available in English French title: Ma vie de pingouin. Translated from the Swedish by Lena Grumbach.

After finishing A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I was so upset that I needed a fluffy book. Katarina Mazetti is one of my go-to writers when I want nice feel-good novels. I’ve already read The Guy Next Grave or Benny & Shrimp for English readers and its follow-up Family Grave. I’ve even seen the theatre adaptation of Benny & Shrimp. I also indulged in the Linnea Trilogy (Between God and Me, it’s Over; Between the Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, It’s Over and The End is Only the Beginning) which I didn’t like as much as Benny & Shrimp.

So, after the very depressing Cool Million, My Life as a Penguin seemed a good reading choice, and it was.

My Life as a Penguin starts in the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport where about fifty Swedish passengers are embarking on a flight to Santiago in Chile where they are to embark on a cruise in Antarctica. Wilma has never really left Sweden and she’s struggling to get to the right gate at the airport. Honestly, anyone who’s ever flown out of this Parisian airport feels her pain. Tomas is already there, brooding but willing to help Wilma. Alba is in her seventies, she’s already travelled a lot and she loves observing humans and animals. Wilma, Tomas and Alba will be our main narrator during the cruise.

All the travelers have a goal with this trip. You’d think the first aim would be to see the world and enjoy nature but no. Wilma sees it as a challenge and we discover why later in the book. Tomas decided for a trip to Antarctica to commit suicide. Alba wants to observe the flora but also the fauna of her fellow travelers. A couple of women are there to catch men. A few men are birdwatchers and really intend to see the local birds in their natural habitat.

You’ll find what you’d expect in a book where people who don’t know each other have to live in close quarters. They observe each other, gossip, interact. Friendships blossom, couples get together. Wilma’s voice is warm and I wanted to find out why she embarked on such a cruise, what her story was. Tomas is depressed because his wife left him and moved out to California with her new husband. With her living so far away with their children, Tomas doesn’t get to see them as much as before and he feels like he has lost his children too. Wilma always sees the glass half full and Tomas always sees it half empty. Their opposite vision of life fuels their interactions. Here’s Tomas thinking about Wilma’s attitude:

Et puis elle a une attitude tellement positive devant tout, c’est merveilleux et risible à la fois! Si Wilma se retrouvait en enfer, elle déclarerait tout de suite qu’elle adore les feux de camp et demanderait au diable s’il n’a pas quelques saucisses à griller. And she has such a positive attitude towards everything; it’s wonderful and at the same time ludicrous. If Wilma ended up in hell, she’d immediately declare that she loves camp fires and would ask the devil if he didn’t have sausages for a barbeque.

Alba is a quirky character; she’s never without her beloved notebook where she gathers her observations of human nature and writes a comparison between people and animals.

I also enjoyed reading about their excursions in Antarctica. The weather was fierce and far from the usual sunny cruise. I liked that Katarina Mazetti didn’t choose a setting in the Caribbean or more plausible for European travelers, a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a way to avoid clichés and it was welcome.

Katarina Mazetti writes in a light mode, always on a fine line between serious and humorous. Her tone suggests that even if life is tough sometimes, difficulties are better handled with a bit of courage and a healthy sense of humor. Even if it’s not an immortal piece of literature, I was curious about this group’s journey and was looking forward to discovering how the trip would end for all of them. Would it be a life-changing experience or just another holiday?

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf

February 20, 2017 17 comments

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf (Volumes 1 to 3) (2014-2016) Original French title: L’Arabe du futur.

sattouf_1A colleague recently lent me the comic books The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf. Before going further and tell you about it, I’m going to introduce a new French word: bande-dessinée, or BD. This is the French word for comic books. Literally, it means drawing strip. I like it better than comic book because BD sounds neutral. Comic book conveys the idea that what you’re going to read is funny. But not all comic books are funny. So, BD it will be on this blog.

Back to The Arab of the Future. Riad Sattouf is the son of a Syrian man, Abdel-Razak Sattouf and of a French woman, Clémentine. They met in Paris when Abdel was working on his thesis at La Sorbonne. Riad was born in 1978 and The Arab of the Future is a BD about the author’s childhood in different places in the Middle East. Its subtitle is A Youth in the Middle East.

Abdel is convinced that pan-Arabism will be the future of the Arab people. He wants to teach at university and doesn’t want to stay in France. He first accepts a position in Tripoli (Libya), where Gaddafi is in power. Abdel is in awe of Arab dictators because he thinks they will bring modernity to their people, because he sees them as manly and powerful. He believes they will improve people’s lives.


The Arab of the Future
is told through Riad’s eyes and in these three volumes, he’s a child. He describes everything with candor and as children do, he takes things as they are. They are his normality and us, as adults, cringe at what he describes. Sattouf the author manages to mix the description of life in these countries with Riad’s personal life with his family.

sattouf_2The Sattoufs remain in Libya from 1978 to 1984. They live under Gaddafi’s rule and Riad describes his daily life. Houses belong to the government and don’t have locks. Anyone can settle in a house even if someone’s already living there. As a consequence, Riad’s mother never lets their apartment unattended. Anyone could come and claim it and they’d be homeless.

After a few years, they move to Syria, in Abdel’s village near Homs, Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. Riad has now a little brother, Yahua.  He’s and he gets acquainted with his Syrian family. He explains the mores, the politics in their family and the relationship between siblings and cousins. Abdel is happy to live near his mother despite his rocky relationship with his older brother. Clémentine settles in this remote village that lives a century behind compared to France or even to Damas. The water looks strange, power goes out for hours in the day and she cooks on some portable stove. They have no decoration in their home and she’s stuck there. She doesn’t speak Arab and cannot communicate with her in-laws. She cannot work, of course, so she stays at home, takes care of the house and children and teaches French to Riad.

Riad describes his life as a child. He learns how to speak Arab in school and with his father’s family and French at home. We see how he plays games with the neighboring cousins and a good part of the book is dedicated to his first year in school. Clémentine didn’t want him to go to school in Ter Maaleh, the village they live in but Abdel insisted. He wants Riad to be a good pupil and become the Arab of the Future. We readers discover what school is like in a dictatorship: experiencing corporal punishment, singing the national anthem every morning and learning how to worship the president.

As a little boy, Riad was blond. Of course, he’s the only blond person around and his hair color is a problem for him. The other pupils think he’s Jewish and nothing can be worse than that in Syria. He’s not at ease in school and he’s afraid of bullies.

The second volume goes from 1984 to 1985 and the Sattoufs are still in Syria. They settle there and through visits to acquaintances and rich relatives, we discover another side of Syria’s dictatorship. We also go to Homs and see how Abdel buys contraband goods to furnish their home and improve their comfort.

The third volume goes from 1985 to 1987. There’s more about life in Ter Maleh. Riad grows up, he understands the conversations of the adults. He relates how poorly women are treated. One of his aunts is killed by a family member because she was pregnant without being married. She was a widow and had previously been married by her parents to a much older man. Women of this generation didn’t go to school and one of Riad’s aunt pretends that she can’t read when she obviously learnt how to read as the same time Abdel did.

sattouf_3Abdel’s family doesn’t understand why he chose to live in this godforsaken village when he could live in France. Trips to France are organized and Riad is filled with wonder when he goes to the supermarket. He visits his maternal grand-parents in rural Brittany. He learns how to catch crabs by the sea.

Oddly, I made a connection between the peasants of Brittany and the ones in Syria. Clémentine’s family is one generation ahead of Abdel’s. Clémentine’s mother is apparently the result of the French Republic’s school system. She came from poor peasant family, studied in school and went to Paris to work in a post-office. She came back to Brittany when she retired. Seen through Riad’s young and innocent eyes, visiting old illiterate Breton peasants is a lot like visiting old illiterate Syrian relatives. Except that in Syria, the illiterate relatives can be Abdel’s siblings, like his sister.

For Riad, this is normal life. He lives in the two cultures and he adapts. When he’s in Syria, the background of the BD is pink. When he’s in France, it’s blue. These are two worlds that never collide; his grand-parents never saw each other. He makes the difference between the two but he likes both. He wants to be a good Syrian pupil to please his father and studies French with his mother.

It’s more complicated for his parents. Riad lives in two cultures and Abdel lives between two cultures. He wears a suit at the university and a jellaba at home. He’s an atheist but his mother bugs him relentlessly about religion and following the rules. It’s hard for him to promote modernity and respect traditional ways of life in order not to offend his family. It must have been hard for him to see his dream of living in a modern Syria fall apart under the blows of reality. The regime is a dictatorship. Corruption is the norm and everything can be bought, even what he worships more than anything else, education and diplomas.

And what about Clémentine? In her mind, she lives in French. She celebrates Christmas and Riad’s the only child in Ter Maleh that Santa Claus visits. Everything is so far away from French culture that I wonder how she survived. She can’t connect with anyone because she doesn’t speak Arab. She’s at home all the time and she can’t work. She must have been very much in love with her husband to accept these living conditions and this atmosphere. Sometimes I wanted her to rebel, to demand to leave this backward village and at least live in Damas. And sometimes, she does rebel. And Abdel tries to bring a bit of France to her.

All these ingredients make of The Arab of the Future a fantastic read. I loved it. It’s educational and not judgmental. It doesn’t sugarcoat barbaric traditions and shows real life in Libya and Syria’s dictatorships. Riad is a casual observer and we readers read between the lines. It’s extremely well staged, not to mention a sweet sense of humour.

I could write pages about it and for you, there’s only one way to go now: get it and read it. The first two volume have been published in English by Metropolitan Books. Thanks to them for bringing this wonderful BD to the English-speaking public.

Life Is a Dirty Business by Janis Otsiemi

February 18, 2017 14 comments

Life is a Dirty Business by Janis Otsiemi (2014) Original French title: La vie est un sale boulot.

Janis Otsiemi is a crime fiction writer from Gabon who writes in French. He was invited at Quais du Polar last year and he will attend this year too.

otsiemi_vieLife is a Dirty Business opens with Chicano being released from prison in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. He was convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. It happened when he and three accomplices tried to rob a store and one of them ended up shooting down the owner of the shop. Chicano was arrested, went on trial and was condemned to several years of prison. He kept his mouth shut and never denounced the real culprit. What good would it have done? It was like becoming a living target for people who would have avenged for the man he would have put in prison. Better to be alive in prison than dead. Chicano is quite surprised to be released, actually, because he hadn’t done his time in prison. He got to understand that they set him free because of an administrative mess-up; somehow his name came up in the list of prisoners pardoned by the president of Gabon.

Chicano is not turning down this chance and he’s decided to live an honest life now. He’s heading to town to find out what his former girlfriend Mirna has become and start a new life with her. Unfortunately, she has moved on and is pregnant with another man’s child. When Chicano went to her neighborhood, he met his former friends and accomplices. They are working on a new robbery and are missing a person to do it. Their aim is to steal the pay of soldiers in a military camp when it arrives by truck on payday. They explain to Chicano that they have inside information, that it’s an easy job and easy money. And Chicano could use money to start his new life, so he accepts to participate.

rOf course, things don’t go as well as expected and for Chicano, life in prison was an easiet life that the one he just set himself up for.

The plot is classic noir fiction, with a guy with a shady past who tries to turn a new leaf but succumbs to one last fatal crime. It is the same kind of plot as in Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella. Efficient and time-tried.

I wanted to know how things would end up, even if I wasn’t optimistic for poor Chicano from the start, but the most enjoyable part of La vie est un sale boulot was discovering Libreville. Unlike Dernier refrain à Ispahan, this book is written by a local writer and it’s not written for a Western public. I loved the language and it was a fantastic opportunity to explore the variety of the French language offered by the Francophone world. You all know that French from Québec is different. French from Africa is different as well and I loved seing my language alive and vivid under Otsiemi’s pen. The French publisher, Jigal Polar added useful footnotes to explain words and expressions that a French reader wouldn’t understand. I don’t know much about African literature and it made me want to explore this part of Francophone literature.

Crime fiction is also often a good way to write about the unpleasant side of a country. It deals with crime and its darker side. La vie est un sale boulot is no exception. If what Janis Otsiemi describes is real, then there’s no need expecting anything good from the police. Here, they are corrupt and part of the crime world. They don’t really fight against crime, they take advantage of their job and status to benefit from crime. I’ve seen books where the police look the other way not to disrupt organized crime because somewhere they’re linked to the power in place. But here, they make money the same way that the criminals they’re supposed to chase do. Incredible and sad for the Gabonese people if it’s as bad as what Otsiemi describes. It was eyes-opening for the sheltered Westener that I am, another reason why it was worth reading.

While La vie est un sale boulot is not exceptional, Otsiemi does a good job and I’m glad a French publisher brought him to our attention. I’m sorry but this is not available in English. If you can read French, it’s worth trying out.

Last song in Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian

February 11, 2017 19 comments

Last song in Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian (2012) Original French title: Dernier refrain à Ispahan.

nahapetianI bought Dernier refrain à Ispahan by Naïri Nahapétian at Quais du Polar last year. It is a crime fiction novel written by a Franco-Iranian author. Naïri Nahapétian left Iran in 1979 when she was 9 and when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran. She came to France with her family and became a journalist. She goes back to Iran regularly and has started a crime fictions series set in Iran. Dernier refrain à Ispahan is the second book of this series.

The book opens with a crime. The singer Roxana is murdered in a theatre in Ispahan. Women are not allowed to sing in public in Iran and Roxana is back in her hometown after living for decades in the US. She was a very popular singer when the Shah was still in power and moved to California after the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded. She was secretly working on a show with two other singers, Shadi and Nadia. There’s a good chance that her death is linked to this project.

Two recurring characters of the series become involved in solving the crime. The first one is Narek, a Franco-Iranian journalist who was staying in Iran for professional reasons. The second one is Mona. She was Roxana’s friend, they grew up in the same neighborhood and were good friends. Mona is a midwife and she operates a clinic who helps women with gynecological issues and everything around that. Her mission includes helping prostitutes.

The modus operandi of the murderer mirrors the lyrics of one of Roxana’s most famous song:

Dans un royaume où les ignorants son trois, un homme a volé la voix des femmes. Il a emporté leur chant, semé des tulipes sur leur chemin ; et la joie s’en est allée. In the kingdom where ignoramuses are kings, a man stole the women’s voices. He took away their singing, scattered tulips in their wake and joy deserted the place.

This intrigues Mona and pushes her to dig further.

Out of the two characters, Mona has the strongest voice and is the most likeable. I found Narek a little thin. Mona raises her teenage daughter alone and doesn’t know if her husband is alive or not. He was summoned to the police station one day and never came back. Her work is her way to express her feminism and we discover the condition of women through her eyes. Her life in unconventional for her country and it’s not easy to keep living it. She’s a bit of an outsider, just like Anne Perry’s character Hester in her William Monk series. (Hester runs a shelter for prostitutes in Victorian England).

In his review about Three-Card Monte by Marco Malvaldi, Max from Pechorin’s Journal wrote something I totally agree with Some crime novels are about the crime. Some only have a crime to give the characters something to do. Dernier refrain à Ispahan belongs to the second category. The plot is suspenseful but the context of the murder and the setting were the most interesting parts. Dernier refrain à Ispahan is a window on the Iranian society and the condition of women. Naïri Nahapétian shows all the little things that are controlled to ensure that men are not in contact with women who are not their wife. I’ve always thought that the concept of hiding women not to trigger men’s lust was terribly offensive for men. The underlying idea is that they cannot interact with a woman without getting horny, as if they were only animals in heat. Isn’t that insulting?

Despite all its qualities, Dernier refrain à Ispahan remains a book written by a Western writer. Sure, Naïri Nahapétian gets the ins and outs of her country of origin. She knows Iran well, she understands its culture and I’m sure that what she writes is accurate. We do have a good sense of place, contrary to Alexis Aubenque’s rendition of Alaska. But her book is written for a French readership. It’s not the same as reading a translation of an Iranian book who was written for a local audience. It’s not as genuine and for me, it is French literature set in Iran and not Iranian literature. And that makes all the difference. So if you can recommend an contenporary Iranian novel, please leave a message in the comment section.

Recent political events pushed me to take this novel off the shelf. Tony from Tony’s Reading List had the same urge with Iraqi’s literature and you can find his review about Iraq +100 – Stories From a Century After the Invasion by Hassan Blasim, here. Reading books from these banned countries seems futile and yet, if literature weren’t powerful why would dictators always ban books?

Dernier refrain à Ispahan is not available in English. If someone’s interested in everyday life in Iran, there’s this wonderful film, Wadjda, about a girl who wants a bicycle even if girls are not allowed to have one. A good movie to show to our Western teenagers.

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