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Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel – Superb and surprising

January 2, 2020 28 comments

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel (2005) Original French title: La petite fille de Monsieur Linh

Before writing anything about Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel, let’s talk about the French and English titles. In French, it is La petite fille de Monsieur Linh. Since there is no hyphen between “petite” and “fille”, it means Monsieur Linh’s little girl and not Monsieur Linh’s granddaughter. The English publisher chose Monsieur Linh and His Child and I wonder why they picked “child” instead of “little girl”. But back to the book.

Monsieur Linh is an immigrant from Vietnam, probably one of the boat people. We never know exactly where he comes from. He left his home after his family was attacked. He’s an old man and he’s disoriented by his journey. He arrives in France and everything is strange: the language, the food, the city, the smells. He is sent to a refugee center where there are other families from his country. An interpreter comes from time to time to talk to him and help him out with the administrative duties.

He settles into a routine, goes to the park nearby and becomes friends with a widower, Monsieur Bark. They can’t talk to each other with words because one is a native French speaker and the other only knows his mother tongue. But somehow, they speak the same language of sadness and loneliness. Monsieur Linh has left his country and his family is dead. Monsieur Bark mourns his wife and doesn’t have any children. Their common need for company brings them together on this bench morning after morning. Somehow, they communicate and bring each other some much needed warmth.

All along the text, Monsieur Linh has his little girl with him. He travelled with her, never left her alone and he dotes on her. She’s his link to his country, to his past and his family.

La petite fille de Monsieur Linh is a perfect novella, as striking as Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman-Taylor although their theme is different. They have the same way of building a story up to an unimaginable denouement. And in both books, the clues that lead to the ending are scattered along the pages, the reader just overlooks them. The construction of this tale is perfectly executed.

The other outstanding quality of Claudel’s novella is his compassionate tone. We are in Monsieur Linh’s head and we witness his puzzlement with his new life. He seems to have arrived in Calais or Dunkirk. He’s cold, the city smells, there are a lot of automobiles everywhere. The food is strange, except when his fellow refugees feed him at the center. He doesn’t know what to do anymore and his only goal in life is to take care of his little girl. Although he’s traumatized by the war and his journey to France, he won’t let go because she needs him.

Philippe Claudel imagines Monsieur Linh’s feeling and makes the reader “experience” the pain of being a war refugee. It means leaving a country without preparation and without a real will to emigrate. It’s not a choice, it is imposed on him by dreadful circumstances. The reader feels empathy for these refugees.

I remember the arrival of boat people refugees when I was a child. For us, it meant changing from a tall grumpy French dentist with huge paws and no patience for children fears to a tiny Vietnamese dentist with agile embroiderer hands and a calming presence. I can tell you that his customer base grew quickly.

Not surprisingly, La petite fille de Monsieur Linh is taught in middle school. It’s short, easy to read and has obvious qualities to build the character of tomorrow’s citizen.

Very highly recommended. Lisa also reviewed it here.

PS: Sorry to be blunt, but the cover of the English edition is ugly. There’s no other word for it.

Figurec by Fabrice Caro – Appearances are deceitful

December 15, 2019 4 comments

Figurec by Fabrice Caro (2006) Not available in English

Figurec is Fabrice Caro’s debut novel. His first love is BD (comics) with an offbeat sense of humor. He has a knack for picturing our world, our quirks and inconsistencies. You’ve heard about him twice this year on this blog, first when I blogged about his BD Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï and then when I wrote about his latest novel, Le discoursFigurec is a first bridge between his BD and novels, Le discours is more accomplished.

Now the book and how can you sum up a book like Figurec?

The first chapter is an “Act 1, Scene 1” of a theatre play. The second chapter is a man attending a funeral and who thinks:

L’enterrement de Pierre Giroud m’a énormément déçu, c’était une cérémonie sans réelle émotion. D’accord, il y avait du monde, bien plus qu’à celui d’Antoine Mendez, mais tout cela manquait de rythme, de conviction. Même la fille de Pierre Giroud –du moins celle que je supposais être la fille de Pierre Giroud—n’était pas très en verve. Elle hésitait en permanence entre une pudique retenue et des sanglots bruyants de qualité très médiocre. Le résultat était assez caricatural, sans nuances. Pierre Giroud’s funeral was a stark disappointment. It was a ceremony devoid of real emotion. OK, there were a lot of people, a lot more than at Antoine Mendez’s funeral but this one lacked rhythm and conviction. Even Pierre Giroud’s daughter –or at least the one I assumed was Pierre Giroud’s daughter –wasn’t in brilliant form. She was always between modest self-restraint and loud sobs of poor quality. The result was caricatural, without proper nuance.

He watches the funeral as if he were watching and commenting a theatre play or a soccer game.

After this funeral, the narrator goes to diner at his friends Julien and Claire’s place. We learn that he dines with them five times a week but they don’t seem to mind. He likes them but still thinks he’s mooching off them and at the same time bringing entertainment in their otherwise dull marriage. For fun, Julien collects original 45s that were #1 at the Top 50 French chart in the 1980s and his enthusiasm about his latest find is puzzling, but who are we to judge someone else’s passions?

Our narrator also goes to diner at his parents’, a diner that his successful younger brother and lovely girlfriend attend too. His parents worry about him because he won’t settle down and doesn’t seem to grow up. He feels like a failure compared to his brother.

Our narrator is a would-be playwright and the “Act Something / Scene Something” inserted in the novel remind us his attempts at writing his play and his true goal in life.

After the first few pages, the reader feels that they’re spending time with a weird narrator, a sort of loser who attends funeral for fun, takes advantage of his friends, makes his parents believe he’s a writer-to-be when he just bums around. At this stage we think we’re just with a pathetic and nutty character.

Things get strange when a man approaches him at a funeral and asks him whether he belongs to Figurec too. That’s where the off-the-wall story takes you to a parallel world of false pretense where you don’t know who is who and what to think. All this is wrapped up in Caro’s unique brand of humor and talent for alternate universes.

A fun and disconcerting book. Next week I’ll see the theatre version of Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï and I can’t wait to see how the director translated this BD to the stage.

Slaves by Kangni Alem – Disappointing.

November 24, 2019 2 comments

Slaves by Kangni Alem Original French title: Esclaves Not available in English.

Slaves is a historical novel by the Togolese writer Kangni Alem. It relates the story of the slave trade in the 19th century on the Slave Coast of West Africa. After a quick foreword, the book starts in 1818 when the king of Dahomey Adandozan is deposed and his rival becomes the King Guézo (1818-1858). Adandozan was trying to oppose to the slave trade. Guézo has an alliance with the Portuguese governor Francisco Felix de Souza and their only aim is to get rich. They sell slaves to Brazilian landowners to have free workers on their plantations.

The master of rituals Sakpatê unwillingly participates to Adandozan’s dismissal. He is seen as unreliable and his wives and children are sent to plantations in Cuba.

He is sent to Recife in Brazil where he is renamed Miguel. There, he becomes a Muslim under the patronage of another slave and chooses the name Sule. He learns how to read and write.

After a slave upheaval in the plantation, he is sold to another master in Salvador de Bahia. He becomes a respected house slave but he keeps a distant relationship with a man who intends to lead a slave rebellion and take the power in Bahia. The plot is revealed and the repression is bloody. Sule is sent back to Africa and he chooses to go back to the city where Adandozan is said to be buried.

Kangni Alem writes this novel with a purpose: he wants to confront the hypocrisy of the Europeans who benefited from the slave trade and of the African powers of the time who got rich by selling their people or war prisoners. Neither of them can reject the responsibility of slavery to the other’s face. They are accomplices and they knew what they were doing.

I enjoyed the historical side of the book. It is something I was vaguely aware of but I never took time to dig further. I wasn’t so engaged with the Sakpatê/Miguel/Sule, though, probably because the structure of the book felt stuffy and artificial.

The prologue was set in 1841 and it was about a ship leaving England to Sydney, a vessel that was used to transport slaves to Brazil. It is said to be cursed and indeed, it is mysteriously shipwrecked in the Sydney Bay. The rest of the story is split in small chapters with titles similar to the ones you may find in 19th century literature. It fit with the times of the novel but it felt artificial.

The prologue made me suspicious about the book because I suspected anachronisms. One character alludes to the Loch Ness monster, something that became popular in the 1930s. Another mentions Texas as being part of the USA but in 1841, Texas was a Republic. A character hates Lincoln for his abolitionist views. I’m not a specialist of US history but I’m not sure that Lincoln was a famous abolitionist in 1841.

And then there were typos – irritating but it can happen – and grammar mistakes—unforgivable—the worst one being ‘Il surviva’, which is as bad as writing ‘He stealed’ instead of ‘he stole’.

All this went in the way of my reading and while the substance of the book was interesting and pushed me to read a bit about the Kingdom of Dahomey, the form got in the way of its message. Or it belongs to another literary culture and I read it with my biased Western eyes and I’m totally unfair to this novel because I missed the point.

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen – Vietnam before WWII

June 23, 2019 7 comments

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen (2002) French title: Le Brodeur de Huê Translated by Sylvie Servan-Schreiber.

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen was our Book Club read for May. Kien Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1967 to a Vietnamese mother and an American father. Kien Nguyen left Vietnam, spent some time in a refugee camp in the Philippines and arrived in the USA in 1986. He became a dentist and The Tapestries is based on his grandfather’s story. It’s his second novel.

The Tapestries opens on a wedding day, in the Hue citadel, in 1916. At the time, Vietnam was a French colony named Indochina. Ven is getting married to a groom she has never seen since a matchmaker organized the wedding. She is given away by her grandfather to the rich Nguyen family. She will discover that her groom, Dan, is seven years old. She’s 23 and has been chosen by her in-laws as a free nanny.

Soon after the wedding, Master Nguyen is accused of treason and hung. Ven manages to save Dan. The Judge Toan who was in charge of arresting the whole family takes the opportunity to confiscate all the Nguyen’s wealth. Their beautiful estate is ransacked and Ven and Dan will have to find a way to survive. Ven decides that the best place to hide Dan is to have him hired in the lion’s den as a servant.

We’ll follow the fate of these two ill-matched spouses, Ven’s devotion to Dan, Dan’s romance with his enemy’s daughter, his resilience and his newfound happiness in the art of embroidery.

I guess it’s supposed to be an ode to a beautiful romance, a fresco of the end of the Vietnam empire and traditional way of life, a picture of the French colonization and imperial Vietnam, before WWII and the long years of war against the French (1946-1954) and the Americans (1955-1975)

It could have been an excellent novel but for me it was a tedious read. The characterization wasn’t subtle enough. The bad were very nasty. Ven was very devoted. Dan was very good. The romance was corny and implausible, even if it’s supposed to be true since it’s based on Nguyen’s grandfather’s life. I’m not a huge fan of revenge stories where a character has to hold a grudge to honor their family. I’m with Gandhi, An Eye for an Eye will make the whole world blind. And Dan seemed to agree with that too.

Then I thought that the writing was clunky. The descriptions of the Vietnamese customs and landscapes were interesting but they showed it was a book intended for Western readers. They wouldn’t have been part of a real Vietnamese book. To make a long story short, it was a disappointment.

I find that books set in a country but written by authors who have emigrated are hard to pin down. Sometimes they are not written in the author’s native language, like Aki Shimasaki’s, Gao Xingjian’s or Peter May’s novels. I always wonder if their vision of their native country is distorted by their emigration and their new country. Do they romanticize their native country? How in touch are they with it and its current atmosphere? The Tapestries is a historical novel, how does Nguyen view the history of Vietnam and what’s the accuracy of what he describes?

I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you’re really looking for an easy read with a touch of exoticism but you could have that with the Calhoun series by William G Tapply.

Has anyone read it too? If yes, did you like it?

Bitch Creek, Gray Ghost and Dark Tiger by William G. Tapply – Three soothing crime fiction books

June 16, 2019 12 comments

Bitch Creek (2004), Gray Ghost (2007) and Dark Tiger (2009) by William G. Tapply. French titles: Dérive sanglante, Casco Bay, Dark Tiger. Translated by Camille Fort-Cantoni and François Happe.

A lady working for the publisher Gallmeister recommended William G. Tapply to me. I started with Dark Tiger, then went on with Bitch Creek and felt compelled to read Gray Ghost. In three months. I never read three books by the same writer in three months, unless they’re a trilogy.

These three books are the beginning of a crime fiction series and reading them in the right order would be reading Bitch Creek first, then Gray Ghost and finally Dark Tiger.

Set in Maine, the recurring character is Stoney Calhoun, a fly-fishing guide / “amateur” sleuth. Calhoun is in his late thirties and five years before the action of Bitch Creek, he lost his memory in a lightning strike. He woke up in a hospital with no memories. He doesn’t know anything about his past. He assumes that he used to work for the government since they gave him a hefty sum after his accident, but they never told him what he used to work on. He has no clue about his personal life either, just that heading to Maine and settling in an isolated cabin in a rural area felt right. He now works at a fishing equipment store, takes clients to fishing trips and makes fishing flies for the store to sell. He’s involved with the store owner, Kate Balaban. However, their relationship poisoned by guilt since Kate’s husband, Walter, is slowly dying in a nursing home. Walter is aware and OK with Stoney and Kate’s relationship but it’s not easy anyway.

In Bitch Creek, Tapply sets up the décor and the characters for his new series. We get acquainted with Maine, Stoney, his dog Ralph – named after Ralph Waldo Emerson – and Kate. Calhoun is a competent fly-fishing guide and he loves his quiet life in his cabin, with his dog and Kate. He gets the occasional visit from a mystery man who ensures that he has not regained any memories.

When his best friend Lyle is murdered during a fishing assignment that he filled in for Calhoun, Stoney starts poking around and investigating. He discovers that he has buried knowledge of police work, he knows what to do and not do, he has muscle memory for fights. He is a great help for the local sheriff who investigates the murder.

In Gray Ghost, Stoney is out on the water in Casco Bay with a client when they discover a dead body on one of the bay’s island. He’s roped into participating to the investigation again, officially seconding sheriff Dickman. Forgotten skills resurface again, giving him pieces of his past.

In Dark Tiger, a government operative was found dead in the north of Maine at Loon Lake. The mysterious visitor bullies him into taking a position as a fishing guide at Loon Lake and investigate the death of their agent.

I loved the Calhoun series. Honestly, I’ve never been fishing in my life and I don’t see myself doing it any time soon. I’m urban, I work as a corporate executive. As my work life turned into an out-of-control high-speed train, I felt drawn to Tapply’s books and that probably explains why I read the three in three months. Tapply was a New Englander and passionate about fishing. He knows what he’s writing about and the reader can feel it. Bitch Creek is where Stoney’ cabin is set, Dark Tiger and Gray Ghost are fly-fishing baits.

Tapply has an intimate knowledge of fishing trips and of the New England countryside. As a European, I was sometimes disoriented by the names of the cities in Maine. Dublin, Madrid,  Portland don’t conjure up images of rural Maine. Tapply gives the right amount of descriptions in his books, frequent enough to take you there and learn about the landscape and the history but not too long and too erudite to bore or lose you on the way. He took me there with his words, like Craig Johnson takes you to Absaroka country in Wyoming.

Being with Calhoun in Maine was so far away from my daily life that it provided an easy and immediate escape. It soothed me. Calhoun is a very likeable character who lives a slow life, takes time to enjoy the creek around his house, spends his time in quiet places where he can catch fish. He doesn’t fish for catching preys, photograph them and brag about the size of the fish he caught. He fishes as a communion with nature. I enjoyed visiting him and witness his touching and humorous relationship with his dog and his on-and-off and yet deep relationship with Kate. (I think dog lovers will enjoy these books too.) Stoney feels real. He’s a placid, reasonable man who enjoys his solitude, a few genuine relationships in his life and tries to live a tranquil down-to-earth life. I guess he allowed me to hop off the high-speed train for a few hours.

I’m sad about Tapply’s untimely death in 2009. There will be no more episode to this series and no Calhoun comfort read for me.

As usual, the Gallmeister books have gorgeous covers and outstanding translations. I’m repeating myself I know, but what can I say, it’s a repeating performance on their side. Not surprisingly, I much prefer the Gallmeister covers to the American ones. The Gallmeister illustrations show both the crime setting and the fishing theme of the series and the American ones give off a creepy vibe that I didn’t feel in the books, even if the crimes were horrible.

I’ve seen that Tapply had written another series, the Brady Coyne mysteries. Has anyone read it? Is it worth exploring too?

The Song Is You by Megan Abbott – Aspartame Noir.

April 6, 2019 5 comments

The Song Is You by Megan Abbott (2007) French title: Absente. Translated by Benjamin Legrand.

Megan Abbott was at Quais du Polar a few years ago and I had the opportunity to talk to her and she signed my French copy of The Song Is You. It was time for me to finally read it.

The book opens in 1949, in Hollywood. An ambitious starlet, Jean Spangler leaves her home to go to a night shooting at a studio. She never comes back. The only thing that was ever found was her handbag in a park. The case is closed quickly by the police and remains unsolved.

Then we’re in 1951. Pushed by Jean’s friend Iolene, the journalist Gil Hopkins starts investigating Jean’s disappearance again. Jean was involved with actors who had violent and degrading parties and possibly with the mafia.

Gil Hopkins is a journalist turned into a well-known PR person for a studio in Hollywood. He spins stories for a living, in order to keep the studio’s actors out of bad press. He benefited of Jean’s disappearance in a way because he was the one who helped her studio erase any link between her and them that night.

Gil Hopkins (Hop) is a troubled character, a womanizer who drove his wife into the arms of his best friend. A man attracted by Hollywood’s fake lights like a moth to a flame. He has money to buy fine clothes but at what price for his integrity? Of course, he drinks a little too much and spends too much time in bars. He’s handsome, has a real talent for spinning stories and feeding them to the press. He knows how to swim in muddy waters.

To be honest, I wasn’t interested in discovering what happened to Jean Spangler and I abandoned The Song Is You after reading half of it. I figured that if I wasn’t hooked by a crime fiction novel after 150 pages, then it was probably time to spend my precious reading time on something else. It didn’t help that the translation had some mishaps, mostly frenglish translation. Completed cannot become complété in French. And executives are cadres, not exécutifs.

The Song Is You is a tribute to Chandler but to me it remained aspartame Noir. It reconstructs the atmosphere of Hollywood in the golden age. All the details are probably accurate but it lacks the feeling of the writer who actually lived that time. It’s well-crafted but it’s not the same. It is also based on a true story and I think it might even be a cold case. It’s hard not to think of it as a reference to The Black Dahlia.

I felt like Megan Abbott was slipping into someone else’s shoes instead of using hers. Although he’s a lot less detail oriented about Hollywood, I preferred Jake Hinkson’s Not Tomorrow. It is set in the 1940s but he doesn’t try to create another Chandler or another Cain. He made the setting his own and wrote a book with his own voice. He didn’t try too hard to respect some Noir codes.

So, I left Hop in Hollywood and hopped on another crime fiction trip with Les suppliciées du Rhône by Coline Gatel.

Away From Men by Pascal Dessaint – excellent crime fiction set in Toulouse

March 28, 2019 4 comments

Away from Men by Pascal Dessaint. (2005) Original French title: Loin des humains. Not available in English.

Last year at Quais du Polar, Pascal Dessaint was signing books at a stand and I asked him to recommend one of his books to me. He picked his fourteenth book, Loin des humains, saying it would give me a good idea of his work. Pascal Dessaint lives in Toulouse and according to his bio on Wikipedia, he loves to hike and is passionate about environmental causes.

Loin des humains is set in Toulouse and was published in 2005. The action takes place in September 2004, one year after the heat wave of 2003 and three years after the AZF tragedy. On September 21st, 2001, the chemical factory AZF exploded near the city center of Toulouse. The blast was of 3.4 on the Richter scale, 29 people died and 2500 were wounded. Two thirds of the windows of the city of Toulouse were destroyed. Needless to say, it left scars on the city and its inhabitants.

The book opens on Jacques Lafleur who decided to tackle the bramble branches that have invaded his sister Jeanne’s garden. He’s there with a pair of pruning shears when his murdered taps on his shoulder…

This will cost Capitaine Felix Dutrey his last days of holidays. His colleague Marc calls him to come back early and lead the investigation about Jacques Lafleur’s murder.

While the police are doing their job digging in Lafleur’s life, Rémi, who works in waste collection center finds Jacques Lafleur’s journals. They date back to the summer 2001. He starts to read them voraciously and Lafleur’s words and way of life make a certain impression on him. When he hears the news about Lafleur’s murder, he decides to act…

Loin des humains is a well-crafted crime fiction novel. Jacques Lafleur is quite a character. He’s a wanderer, a hiker, a bum. He travels and hikes. He usually come back to France to spend a few weeks at his friend Mariel’s place in Ariège. She’s a nurse who lives in a remote house in the mountains. His journal of the summer 2001 was written there.

Jacques came back to Toulouse in September 2001 and stayed with his sister Jeanne since the AZF tragedy. Their brother Pierre also lives in Toulouse with his wife Valérie and their son Quentin. Pierre is a snake specialist and has a vivarium full of dangerous snakes in his backyard. Jacques and Pierre have a complicated relationship. They used to be close but don’t seem to be on speaking terms when Jacques’s death happened. Why?

Loin des humains is a well-written and multi-layered crime fiction novel. The point of view shifts between the police team, Rémi’s and Jacques’s diaries. The police team (Félix, Marc and Magali who has just come back from her personal tragedy) always speaks in the first person, embarking the reader on their side. Rémi’s chapters are told by a omniscient narrator. And Jacques’s voice is conveyed by his journals. It gives the reader clues about the dynamics between the siblings. Jacques hikes in Ariège and it Dessaint writes beautiful pages about the nature there. Remember, he loves to hike too.

The whole book has a great sense of place, Toulouse and the nature in Ariège are part of the characters’ DNA and influence their lives. The police team characters are developed enough for the reader to get attached to them. I liked Félix’s voice, his life on a boat on the Canal du Midi and his relationship with Elisa. Rémi’s looming presence adds to the plot. And the siblings are odd enough to pick the reader’s interest.

Really, who wanted Jacques Lafleur dead?

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