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Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven! by Chahdortt Djavann

July 21, 2017 6 comments

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven by Chahdortt Djavann (2016) Original French title: Les putes voilées n’iront jamais au paradis.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven by Chahdortt Djavann was our Book Club choice for July. Chahdortt Djavann is a French female writer born in Iran in 1967. According to her bio on Wikipedia, she was arrested in 1980 for participating to a march against the religious power in Iran. She was incarcerated and beaten up. She came to France in 1993, learnt French by herself –now you’re in awe of her—by reading text books, Gide, Maupassant, Camus and Romain Gary –now you know I can only have a soft spot for her. She studied in a very famous school of sociology and did her memoir about religious indoctrination in the school system in Iran. Her PhD thesis was about writing in another language, a study based upon the works of Ionesco, Cioran and Beckett.

This quick bio gives you the picture of a highly educated woman, someone who suffered early of being a woman in a world dominated by men, someone who’s deeply against religious extremists and profoundly fond of literature.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven uses fiction to write about prostitution in Iran. The book opens with the murders of women in the streets of Teheran. Women are found assassinated and the police and passersby quickly assume that they are hookers. Djavann shows how this deduction is based on nothing factual, only on the fact that these women were alone on the street and so they must be loose women.

Un rien fait de vous une pute, dans cette contrée. Femme, dès qu’on vous remarque, pour quelque raison que ce soit, vous êtes forcément une pute. Une femme vertueuse est une femme invisible. Un tchador noir que rien ne distingue des autres tchadors. Un tchador seul, sur une route déserte, si austèrement fermé qu’il soit, se fait remarquer, il s’y cache donc une pute. A little nothing tags you as a hooker in this country. Woman, as soon as someone notices you, whatever the reason, you must be a hooker. A virtuous woman is an invisible woman. A black chador that nothing differentiates from other black chadors. A lonely chador on a desert road, no matter how austerely closed it is, is noticeable. Therefore there’s a hooker inside.

This is the first glimpse of the Iranian society and its treatment of women.

Djavann describes several murders, several women whose corpse nobody claims and the murders go on while good people approve of the murderer’s actions. After all, he’s cleaning the streets of vermin. And the reader discovers that if one kills someone who’s considered as mahdourodam (worthless), then it’s not a murder. But only a mollah highly qualified in religious matters can decide whether the life of the victim was a human worth living or not. This law is of course appalling for a Westerner.

Djavann quickly sums up the position of women in Iran. They are things to be owned, to be married off, to be disposed of:

Les femmes sont les biens des hommes de leur famille et elles restent jusqu’à leur mort sous tutelle masculine. Women are the property of the men of the family and remain under male guardianship until they die.

Hmm, isn’t that a definition of slavery?

Spinning off this true story of murdered women in Teheran, Djavann starts exploring the condition of women and the importance of prostitution in Iran. Instead of writing an essay, she decides to write snapshots, fake interviews in order to give a life, a voice and a face to these women. We’ll read vignettes but we’ll also follow the fate of two girls who are twelve years old when the book opens. They are named Zahra and Soudabeh. Both are beautiful. They are best friends but get separated at twelve when Zahra is married off by her father to a much older man. We’ll follow their parallel fates and see how they’ll end up as prostitutes.

This is a strange novel, style wise. It mixes a bit of journalism, very crude language, legal explanations and fiction. After each snapshot where a prostitute describes her awful life, there’s a little paragraph about the city where she lives. Each time, it’s a very old city, with a lot of culture and Djavann seems to silently call out to us and say “How? How can such an old spot of culture become such a barbaric place?”

When Djavann describes the women’s experiences, she uses very crude language. It’s violent and uncomfortable but she probably found it necessary to convey the pure violence done to these women.

This goes further than the usual criticism you can read about Iran. In Satrapi’s comic books or in Nahapétian’s crime fiction, you see that women are not independent, that they need to cover themselves, that there are a lot of things they cannot do and that the mores police tracks down the rebels and the breaches to Islamic laws.

Djavann depicts a society who objectifies women in the most literal sense. Prostitution is widely spread. Men seem obsessed by sex, abusing their employees and housekeepers. Women are defenseless, they have nobody to turn to. Temporary marriages are a vast hypocrisy, allowing men to legal adultery. Women cannot do the same, of course. Here’s what she writes about adultery:

L’adultère est un crime dont le châtiment en Iran est la peine de mort, y compris pour les hommes, même s’ils ont droit à quatre femmes officielles. Parce que, selon la charia, lorsqu’un homme commet l’adultère, il déshonore non pas sa femme mais un autre musulman en lui volant, violant son bien : mère, sœur, femme, fille ou nièce. In Iran, adultery is a prime punished by death penalty, even for men and even if they are entitled to four official wives. Because, according to the sharia, when a man commits adultery, he doesn’t dishonor his wife but another Muslim by stealing and raping his property: mother, sister, daughter or niece.

Djavann doesn’t generalize but shows how the Islamic laws in place are so idiotic and humiliating for women that it stuns you silly. She explains the legal arguments behind some rules and everything is warped. Zealots and extremists bend religious texts to their will and only use them in their own interest. Djavann denounces a system based upon hypocrisy and enslavement of the female population. And one can only wonder: what are these men afraid of? What do they fear will happen if they consider their women as partners, as equals? The laws she mentions are all in favor of men and of their impunity. They can do whatever they want, it doesn’t count, there will be no repercussions.

This appalling vision of Iran is hard to reconcile with a country that cherishes poetry and has such a rich artistic tradition. The men she describes here come from all social classes and prostitution is institutionalized like it was in Paris in the 19th century. On the one hand, women are covered from head to toe and on the other hand men seem more obsessed by sex than in the West.

From a literary point of view, I think that the style is not polished enough to make of this novel a true literary object. I thought that the hookers’ voices sounded sometimes too educated to be plausible. I struggled with the crude language and I don’t consider myself as prude. But some passages could be porn if they were not a description of legalized rape and violence. I found it tiring sometimes. However, the message is important, I learnt things and shying away from the vulgarity of the descriptions meant looking the other way and refusing to acknowledge the abuse of these not-so-fictional women. Plus, I’m certain this vulgarity is not gratuitous but serves the purpose how showing how these women are debased.

In the end, I did not always enjoy the ride but I’m glad I read it.

Harmonics by Marcus Malte

July 15, 2017 12 comments

Harmonics by Marcus Malte (2011) Original French title: Les harmoniques. Not available in English.

Last year, I read The Boy by Marcus Malte and I was blown away by the virtuosity and musicality of his prose. The Boy was Malte’s first attempt at literary fiction after writing a few crime fiction novels. I wanted to try his earlier work and decided to read Harmonics.

Harmonics is set in Paris where the young Vera Nad was murdered or more precisely, she was burnt alive. Mister is a jazz pianist in a night club in Paris. Vera used to come and listen to him play. They bonded over music. Mister was falling for her when she died and their budding relationship was crushed too. Mister is not satisfied with the police’s version of Vera’s murder. He’s restless and wants to dig further and understand what happened to her. He embarks his friend Bob on his journey. They’re a weird pair, the Parisian pianist and the Chti philosopher/taxi driver.

Vera was from ex-Yugoslavia and soon the two friends realize that her death has something to do with her community here in France. Mister doesn’t know much about Vera’s past and he wonders why he’s so infatuated with her that he can’t let go. The investigation progresses. Mister and Bob discover that Vera was in the besieged Vukovar in 1991 during the civil war that destroyed Yugoslavia. She was ten at the time and she lived through the traumatic three-month siege of this multicultural town by the Serb army.

Harmonics is the exploration of Mister’s love for Vera, of Vera’s past and a vivid recollection of the Vukovar siege. The novel opens with a play list of jazz pieces. Each song becomes an interlude, a moment when we hear Vera’s voice. It’s in italic in the book, a pause in the novel, like rests on a partition. Music and war are interlaced in the novel, because music is rooted in Mister’s being, because war left an indelible mark on Vera’s soul, because jazz is the musical bridge between these two beings.

The title of the book is explained in this dialogue between Mister, Bob and Milosav, a young man who brought decisive help in the investigation:

Mister dressa un index.

– Les harmoniques…dit-il

Milosav leva les yeux au plafond, s’attendant peut-être à en voir surgir des créatures extraterrestres.

– Harmeûniques? C’est quoi, harmeûniques?

– Les notes dernières les notes, dit Mister. Les notes secrètes. Les ondes fantômes qui se multiplient et se propagent à l’infini, ou presque. Comme des ronds dans l’eau. Comme un écho qui ne meurt jamais.

Sa voix shuntait elle aussi à mesure qu’il parlait. Bob plissa les paupières. Il observait son ami avec attention. Il ne voyait pas encore où celui-ci voulait en venir.

– Ce qui reste quand il ne reste rien, dit Mister. C’est ça, les harmoniques. Pratiquement imperceptibles à l’oreille humaine, et pourtant elles sont là, quelque part, elles existent.

(…)

– Il n’y a pas que la musique, dit Mister, qui produit des harmoniques. Le bruit des canons aussi. Qui sait au bout de combien de temps elles cessent de résonner?

Mister lifted a finger.

“Harmonics”, he said

Milosav looked at the ceiling, as if he were expecting aliens coming down from there.

“Harmoonics? What is harmoonics?”

“The notes behind notes.”, Mister said. “Secret notes. Ghost waves that multiply and propagate infinitely or almost infinitely. Like ripples on a pond. Like a never-ending echo.”  

His voice shunted too when he talked. Bob squinted. He observed his friend attentively. He hadn’t understood yet where he wanted to go with this.

“What remains when there’s nothing left, Mister said. That’s what harmonics are. Almost imperceptible to the human ear, and yet, they are somewhere, they exist.”

 (…)

“Music is not the only thing that produces harmonics”, Mister said. “The sound of cannons does too. Who knows when they stop resonating?”

And that’s the crux of Malte’s argumentation, the one that goes beyond the crime investigation. What are the invisible damages done by war? How long do they affect the people who lived through it.

I had the opportunity to talk to Marcus Malte at Quais du Polar. I gushed about The Boy and he told me, “This is different”, in a way that meant, “I hope you won’t be disappointed”. Well, I disagree with him. Several themes that are key in The Boy are already in Harmonics. Music and war. The way music brightens our lives. The absurdity and sheer cruelty of war and its psychological damages.

I loved Harmonics too, even if I think the ending is a bit sketchy. It is one of those crime fiction books that makes you question the value of the boxes literary fiction and crime fiction and wonder why they should be mutually exclusive.

I picked Harmonics among Malte’s other books because he was giving a literary concert based on it at Quais du Polar. What’s a literary concert? It’s a performance where the writer reads chapters of his books and between chapters, jazz musicians performed the songs from the playlist. I urge you to check it out here even if you don’t speak French. It is a magical experience, especially with a book like this one. It stayed with me and I could hear him read when I reached the chapters that were included in the concert.

Malte obviously has a wide musical, literary and crime fiction cultural background. They all mesh and create a unique opus. In an interview, Marcus Malte said that this book is constructed around music, as a noir ballad. The book has 32 chapters like the 32 tempos in jazz standards, 12 parts in italic like the 12 tempos of blues standards.

I read Harmonics a few months ago and it stayed with me, like a lingering melody. For example, there’s a tragi-comic scene in the métro in Paris where Mister meets Milosav, who will later help him with the investigation. It starts in a really comical way with Milosav attempting to earn money in the métro with his blind father by playing music. The father plays the accordion while Milosav belts out lyrics, out of key. I immediately thought of this scene the other day in Paris when I saw musicians like them in Paris.

My billet cannot do justice to the depth and quality of Malte’s prose. It’s poetic, funny, elegant and chic. It all falls into place in an impeccable manner. Du grand art.

I am sorry to report that Harmonics is not available in English. In the Translation Tragedy box it goes. Malte won the prestigious Prix Femina for The Boy. Hopefully he’ll catch the attention of an English-speaking publisher. For another review, here’s Marina-Sofia’s.

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore

July 6, 2017 6 comments

The Supremes at Earl’s-All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore (2013) French title: Les Suprêmes. Translated by Cloé Tralci

They are three. They are black. They are girlfriends. They live in a small town in the south of Indiana. They were in their twenties in the 1960s. They were a team. They were nicknamed The Supremes. Their names are Odette, Clarice and Barbara Jean. They meet every Sunday after church at Earl’s-All-You-Can-Eat dinner. It’s been their spot for ages, they hung out there as giggling teenagers and kept coming with their husbands along the years.

Odette is not a delicate and flushing cattleya. Physically, she’s a chubby woman with wild hair and  an awkward sense of fashion. Mentally, she’s a strong, opinionated and capable woman. She sounded more like a Denise to me. She doesn’t beat around the bush and while it might irritate others, she’s precious for it. Because Odette takes charge. She calls a spade a spade and makes people talk. She states the obvious, meddles if needed and she exposes things. She’s the one who’ll ask the questions nobody dares to ask but need to be asked. She helps people get and sort things out.

Clarice is a piano teacher, one who had a great talent that went to waste when she abandoned her career to get married to Richmond. He dazzled her. He’s a womanizer, a professional flirt and sometimes a boy in a man’s body. And after decades of marriage with him cheating on her, Clarice is still dazzled. She accepts her fate as a scorned woman and lets it slide, even if it hurts a lot. Her attitude is consistent with her education and her childhood. Her father was the same and her mother taught her that the only respectable attitude was to turn a blind eye to it. Her friends know but won’t talk about it.

To me, Barbara Jean was like a black Norma Jean. Too pretty and attractive for her own good. Struggling with a complicated childhood and raised by a mother who was almost a prostitute. She’s the one who married Lester, a much older man. She went for financial and emotional security and with her past, who could blame her? She made her choice and stood by it. She’s the one who had the most tragedies in her life.

As the book progresses, we learn more about their life, present and past. They are ordinary women, none of them is a Helen of Troy, someone men start wars over. They are us, middle-class people with their small lives. They’re in their fifties now. The children are gone, health issues make appearances. These three working women are in a new chapter of their lives.

Through them, Moore portrays the story of the black middle-class. He doesn’t make it about being black but with details here and there, we see the life of black people in this era. You’re white, you don’t work for a black man. You’re a black girl, dating a white guy is so off-limit that it’s impossible to conceive, even in more advanced cities of the North. You’re the first black baby to be born in a hospital, you make the front page of the newspaper. Some neighborhoods are not for you. You might come from a poor background, your black bourgeois mother-in-law-to-be accepts you immediately because the color of your skin is light brown and that’s the criteria that matters the most. Subtle but telling details.

Moore gives us a vivid picture of this small town and this group of friends. The Supremes is about friendship and the things you say and the things you don’t, to keep the peace. It’s about marriage and the things that happen in a couple that are invisible from outside. It’s about the dramas of life, loosing a child, trusting a spouse and being sick. But it’s also about delighting in small daily pleasures and have your friends around when things get tough. The characters are lovely, I wanted to hear about them, to know what would happen to them. They felt like acquaintances.

The Supremes at Earl’s-All-You-Can-Eat is a great book that celebrate friendship and the warmth and the treasure it is in our lives.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

June 14, 2017 14 comments

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald (2013) French title : La bibliothèque des cœurs cabossés. Translated from the Swedish by Carine Buy.

As mentioned in my previous billet about The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus, after reading A Cool Million and the said Duck Hunt, I was in dire need of a feel-good novel. So during a visit to a bookstore, I got myself The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald.

The blurb is made for bookworms. Sara Lindqvist is twenty-eight years old and lives in Haninge, a small town in Sweden. She’s a book lover and started a correspondence with Amy, another booklover who lives in Broken Wheel, Iowa. They’ve been discussing books and life for two years when the bookshop where Sara works goes belly up. Amy convinces the now unemployed Sara to come and stay with her for a few weeks. Sara organizes her trip but when she arrives in Broken Wheel, it’s the day of Amy’s funeral. What to do now?

She decides to stay and gets acquainted with the villagers, an odd bunch of people who stayed in their declining hometown. Broken Wheel progressively lost its inhabitants, then its school and the buildings on Main Street have lost their luster. It’s now a sleepy town that will wake up with the arrival of this foreigner who decides to use Amy’s books to set up a bookstore on Main Street. Sara wants to use Amy’s library to convert Broken Wheel to literature.

Ahem.

Lucky me, I read this at a time when my tolerance for approximate prose and clichéd characters was exceptionally high. I’m so tired after work that I welcomed the reprieve. I finished it despite its 500 pages, its nice but unreal characters, the description of corn fields and the tepid plot. It says a lot about my fatigue.

Conclusion: Two years of correspondence between Sara and Amy and yet for me, nothing to write home about. I do enjoy fluffy books from time to time but this one wasn’t good enough. Good fluff is hard to write too.

Other review: Claire from Word by Word read it too and is more positive than I am about it. Her review is here.

Caribou Island by David Vann

June 5, 2017 21 comments

Caribou Island by David Vann (2011) French title : Désolations. Translated by Laura Derajinski.

My mother was not real. She was an early dream, a hope. She was a place. Snowy, like here, and cold. A wooden house on a hill above a river. An overcast day, the old white paint of the buildings made brighter somehow by the trapped light, and I was coming home from school. Ten years old, walking by myself, walking through dirty patches of snow in the yard, walking up to the narrow porch. I can’t remember how my thoughts went then, can’t remember who I was or what I felt like. All of that is gone, erased. I opened our front door and found my mother hanging from the rafters. I’m sorry, I said, and I stepped back and closed the door. I was outside on the porch again.

You said that? Rhoda asked. You said you were sorry?

Yes

Oh, Mom.

It was long ago, Irene said. And it was something I couldn’t see even at the time, so I can’t see it now. I don’t know what she looked like, hanging there. I don’t remember any of it, only that it was.

This is the first page of Caribou Island by David Vann. We jump in tragedy right from the start, without any time to test the literary waters of the novel. Irene is Rhoda’s mother. She’s been married to Gary for thirty years. They met in California where Gary was working on a thesis about Anglo-Saxon early literature. They went to Alaska for a summer and never left. They built their life there, Irene as a kindergarten teacher and Gary working the odd jobs here and there while leaping from one failing project to the other. Living in Alaska was Gary’s dream, his vision of living in nature, like the sentimental version of the Vikings in the Anglo-Saxon literature he used to study. Their house in on a lake, rather far from the closest town. It takes forty minutes to Rhoda, who works in town as a veterinarian’s assistant, to come and visit her parents.

Irene and Gary are retired now and Gary’s new project is to build a cabin on Caribou Island, an island on the lake near their house. He intends to move out of their cozy home to live in this cabin. Irene doesn’t approve of this project but she thinks that if she opposes to it, Gary will leave her. And that’s unacceptable to her. Her mother committed suicide after her husband left her and Irene never saw her father again. She won’t stand to be abandoned again. She’s ready to endure anything to keep Gary.

This project becomes a battle of will between the two. Irene’s body rejects her submission to it by inflicting her blinding headaches. Gary won’t exempt her from working on the cabin and she keeps nailing wood, pulling and carrying logs and sawing woods. All this in atrocious weather because of Gary’s lack of planning. He started to build a cabin for the winter in Alaska, in mid-August, without any blueprints or schedule. You just need to read Maria Chapdelaine to know that starting such a project in Alaska so late in the summer is plain stupid.

We follow Irene and Gary’s crazy project but we also hear about their children, Rhoda and Mark. Rhoda lives with Jim, a dentist who is ten years older than her and who loves pancakes with peaches for dinner. She craves for security and is ready to settle for Jim as long as he seems reliable. Mark looks like a loser. He lives in his unfinished house by the lake, not far from his parents. His girlfriend Karen and him love pot, they live on the edge of society and Mark makes a living on fishing ships. In the end, I wondered which one of them was the most adjusted. Rhoda is ready to accept a lot for material security and her dreams of a normal life. Mark just does as he pleases but seems reliable at work and supports himself and Karen. Mark and Karen don’t need much and have chosen their lives. Between Rhoda and Mark, who’s the happiest of the two?

The main characters and the main plot thread of the novel remains Irene and Gary battling with the elements and their logs to build a lopsided cabin that Gary dreams of and that Irene dreads. Landscapes and the weather are key characters in Vann’s novel. It reminded me of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson. Caribou Island is sad but less bleak and depressing than Housekeeping. The books have the dreadful weather in common. Wind, rain, cold. More wind, more rain and more cold.

David Vann gave a one hour long interview at Quais du Polar this year. I attended his talk with a French journalist. He mentioned landscapes as an important literary tradition in American literature. He also said that he shared details of his life because they have a direct link with his writing. David Vann was born on an island in Alaska in 1966. He said it was a dark island, with one hundred miles per hour winds, six meters of rain per year. He explained that it was overcast and rainy all the time, that they saw the sun two weeks per year. It was isolated and his main activities where fishing and hunting. His personal knowledge of the Alaska landscape and weather is obvious in Caribou Island. It feels real, coming from experience, from the guts.

He also said that he grew up among eleven women of different generations who all had horrible dating experiences. Their vision of men was not stellar and he explained that it feels natural to him to write from a female point of view. I thought that the men in Caribou Island were pathetic and childish. Gary is cruel to Irene and dreams irrealistic dreams. He’s selfish and totally unprepared for his new venture and he dares to complain about Irene’s lack of enthusiasm. Mark distances himself from his family, he doesn’t want to get involved and would rather flee than fight for anything. Jim is like a kid in a grownup body, taking advantage of Rhoda’s kindness and practicing evasive behavior at Olympic level. Who would like to be saddled with any of them?

David Vann also explained that his books are based upon Greek tragedy canvasses. They are set in one place, in a limited period of time and with one major plot thread. This is why he works with a close-knit set of characters. Family is the most important thing in life and the closest people are the ones we love the most and the ones that can hurt us the most. We only need one person to break us and this is why side characters are nice but not necessary. To move the plot forward, a taboo needs to be broken or something life changing is about to happen and they’ll have to deal with the consequences. Here, Irene and Gary are supposed to move out to the cabin on Caribou Island. These elements are enough to cook an explosive drama, which is exactly the case in Caribou Island.

I think that the French cover of the book is excellent: Irene and Gary are like a pair of cissors. They face each other, they are attached forever and spend their time going away from each other and coming close again. This is a typically American novel with its character attracted to life as a pioneer, life in the woods, facing nature on their own. I’ve never encounted anything like this is a European novel.

Caribou Island is a powerful novel, one that will move you and irritate you. Everything is well designed, the setting, the plot, the style. And yet it feels natural. David Vann is an inspired writer, not one who prepared his first novel in creative writing class. There’s a force in his prose and in his characters that comes from deep inside him and the reader can feel it.

Impressive and highly recommended. I read this along with Guy and I’ve been a bad reading partner. I was supposed to publish this billet on May 31st but real life went in the way. Sorry again, Guy.

Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou

May 25, 2017 27 comments

Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou (2009) Original French title: Black Bazar 

Il soutient que l’Africain a été le premier homme sur la Terre, les autres races ne sont venues qu’après. Tous les hommes sont donc des immigrés, sauf les Africains qui sont chez eux ici-bas. He says that the African man was the first man on Earth and that the other races only came after. Therefore, all men are immigrants except African people who are right at home.

Mabanckou is a writer I’d wanted to read for a long time and if I had to tag Black Bazar with something I’d say energetic and refreshing.

The main character is Buttologist, a Congolese dandy who lives in Paris. He’s brokenhearted after his French girlfriend of Congolese origin left him to go live in Congo with a musician he nicknamed The Mongrel. In French, Buttologist is named Fessologue and he got his nickname because of his fondness for female butts. The Mongrel is L’Hybride.

Buttologist pours his thoughs into his journal, Black Bazaar and that’s how the reader has access to his inner mind. We hear about his relationship with Original Color and the trail of sorrow she left behind. We meet with his friends at Jip’s, a bar in the Halles neighborhood in Paris. (That’s where the Beaubourg museum is.) His friends are also immigrants from Africa and they chat about everything. He introduces us to Congolese fashion and teaches us about his community. He lives in a tiny studio in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, near the Château d’Eau metro station. We walk around with him, see his interaction with the shopkeeper L’Arabe du Coin. He shares his thoughts about his life, about being black in Paris, about the French language. His life changes when he meets Jean-Philippe, a famous author from Haiti, probably Laferrière literary doppelgänger. Buttologist starts to write as well.

Black Bazaar is not a book made for summaries and Cliff Notes. It’s too full of life. The best of the experience lays in Mabanckou’s incredible virtuosity with the French language. He knows it inside and out and plays it effortlessly. His style is full of quirks, twists and innuendos. It sounds simple but it’s not.

Un Blanc qui apprend du tam-tam, c’est normal, ça fait chic, ça fait type qui est ouvert aux autres cultures du monde et pas du tout raciste pour un sou. Un Noir qui bat du tam-tam, ça craint, ça fait trop retour aux sources, à la case départ, à l’état naturel, à la musique dans la peau. C’est pas pour rien que les Européens s’intéressent comme ça au tam-tam. C’est pour comprendre comment les choses se passaient chez nous quand il n’y avait pas d’autres moyens de communication que celui-là.

A white guy who learns how to play tom-tom, it’s normal, it’s chic, it says “I’m a man open to the other cultures of the world and I’m not racist at all”. A Black man who plays the tam-tam, it sucks, it’s too much back to his roots, back to square one, back to his natural state, back to having the beat. It ain’t surprising that Europeans are interested in tom-tom that way. It is to understand how things went in our country when we had no other means of communication.

There is a lot packed up in this simple paragraph. First it resonates with Dany Laferrière’s comments about his meetings with white girls in Montreal in How To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. Mabanckou seems to say that when a white man plays the tom-tom, he seems open minded and when a black man does, he seems to be looking for his past. Neither the white man or the black man is seen as simply someone who enjoys playing the tom-tom. There has to be a meaning behind it or more precisely, our cultural background puts a filter on what we see.

Then, there’s the brilliant style. I tried to translate this paragraph as best as I could but a lot of things are lost in translation. It is difficult for me to give back the tone and the register of Black Bazaar. In French, I’d qualify it as highbrow colloquial. The use of ça instead of cela reveals spoken language. Then he makes play on words with casual expressions. Retour à la case départ is the French way to say Back to square one on board games. But in French, a case is also the word used for African huts. So, for a French, it sounds like back to African huts as well. And then, there’s la musique dans la peau which I translated as having the beat. That’s a cliché about black people but in French it has an additional meaning. The literal translation of la musique dans la peau would be to have music in your skin or in English, you’d probably say in your blood. But blood is red for everyone when someone’s skin can be of different color, so the French has another layer. And on top of it, La musique dans la peau was a hit song by Zouk Machine in the 1980s. It was a group of black ladies from Guadalupe singing zouk songs.

This is Alain Mabanckou for you: intelligent colloquial language laced with cultural references and punchy thoughts about the relationships between blacks and whites and the world around him. I could quote other paragraphs with embedded Brassens lyrics or references to Césaire or Dany Lafferière. Writers like Mabanckou keep the French language alive. If books had buddies, Black Bazaar would be friends with A Moveable FeastHow To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, Going to Meet the ManAsk the DustPost Office or with The Lonely LondonersBlack Bazaar would be in good company, not with Montaigne and La Boëtie but it would be “friends first”, like in Brassens’s famous song Les Copains d’abord.

NB: Black Bazaar is full of characters with colorful nicknames. I have read Mabanckou in French but had a look at the English version of names coined by the English translator Sarah Ardizzone.

This picture was taken in Bordeaux and it reminded me of Black Bazaar, the book I was reading at the time.

 

Elle by Philippe Djian

May 14, 2017 18 comments

Elle by Philippe Djian (2012) Original French title: “Oh…”

Philippe Djian is probably my favorite contemporary French author. I’ve followed him since his first successes in the 1980s. I loved Échine when I read it then, I got attached to the characters and loved his sense of humor. I have read most of his books and you can find billets on my blog about Vengeances (Not available in English), Incidences (Consequences) and Impardonnables (Unforgivable). “Oh…” won the Prix Interallié in 2012. Elle is already available in UK and will be released by Other Press in the USA on May 23rd.  It is translated by Michael Katims.

Several of his books have been made into a film, 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue), directed by Beineix, Impardonnables, directed by André Téchiné or Incidences, directed by the brothers Larrieux. And last but not least, “Oh…” (Elle) was made into a film by Paul Verhoeven. The film won a Golden Globe Award in Best Foreign Language Film and a César. Isabelle Huppert plays the main character, Michèle and won the Golden Globe Award and the César for Best Actress. Now that I’ve read the book, I want to watch its film version.

Philippe Djian loves American literature and especially Raymond Carver. He indirectly introduced me to John Fante and “Oh…” opens with a quote from A Piece of News by Eudora Welty : It was dark outside. The storm had rolled away to faintess like a wagon crossing a bridge.

“Oh…” is a first-person narrative. We’re in Michèle’s head. She’s in her mid-forties, has been divorced from Richard for three years. They have a twenty-three years old son, Vincent. When the book opens, Michèle has just been raped in her own home by a stranger. He was waiting for her in her house.

Je me suis sans doute éraflé la joue. Elle me brûle. Ma mâchoire me fait mal. J’ai renversé un vase en tombant, je me souviens l’avoir entendu exploser sur le sol et je me demande si je ne me suis pas blessée avec un morceau de verre, je ne sais pas. Le soleil brille encore dehors. Il fait bon. Je reprends doucement mon souffle. Je sens que je vais avoir une terrible migraine, dans quelques minutes. I must have scraped my cheek. It burns. My ja hurts. I knocked a vase over when I fell. I remember hearing it shatter on the floor and I’m wondering if I got cut with a piece of glass. I don’t know. The sun is still shining outside. The weather’s good. Little by little, I catch my breath. I feel an awful migraine coming on, any minute. (translation by Michael Katims)

This very first paragraph sets the tone of the novel. Michèle is cold and detached. She speaks as if she has a permanent out-of-body experience. She’s living her life like voice over. Michèle does not react how you’d expect a woman to react after a rape. She doesn’t collapse, she doesn’t go to the police. She doesn’t say anything, she goes on with her life even if she thinks about it and feels a bit insecure in her house.

Along the pages, we get acquainted with Michèle and her family and friends. She and her best friend Anna have created an agency that produces scenarios for TV shows and for the film industry. Michèle reviews scenarios, meets with writers and takes on their work or not. Unfortunately, Richard writes scenarios that Michèle has constantly refused to promote because she thinks they’re not got enough. To say it strained their relationship is an understatement. Although they got divorced, Michèle and Richard still have a strong relationship. They see each other often and Richard still feels protective over Michèle. When she realizes that Richard is in a steady relationship with Hélène, she gets jealous, even if she has no right to be since she initiated the divorce procedure.

Their son Vincent has just moved in with his girl-friend Josie who’s pregnant with another man’s child. Michèle can’t understand why Vincent wants to stay with Josie and raise this baby as his own. Richard thinks Vincent shall live his life as he pleases but Michèle is convinced he’s too young to make such a decision. There’s also Michèle’s mother, Irène. She dresses like a hooker and has made her goal to live off men. Michèle does not approve of her last boy-friend and is horrified to hear that Irène got engaged to this man.

Michèle is a controlling woman and it stems from her past, a past I won’t disclose to avoid spoilers. She is controlling and since she pays for Vincent and Irène’s rents, it is hard for them to shoo her away and it comforts her in her idea that they are not adults and need supervision.

When this rape occurs, Michèle is trying to end the affair she’s been having for months with Robert, Anna’s husband. She’s also getting acquainted with her neighbor, Patrick and introducing him in her close-knit circle.

This is the setting for a novel that take us through thirty days in the life of a complicated woman. Thirty days full of darkness, haunted by tragedies and bad memories, where sex and death are constant companions.

I think Michèle’s character will shock people with a stereotyped vision of women. If you see her through the lenses of Judeo-Christian morality, she’s doomed. She has an affair with a married man who is also her best-friend and business partner’s husband. This is a triple off-limits man. She loves Vincent but hates motherhood and doesn’t hesitate to remind him how awful her delivery had been. Here’s Michèle commenting on her feelings for her son.

Je n’ai rien caché à ce garçon de l’enfer où m’avait précipitée sa venue au monde, mais je ne lui ai jamais dit quel amour insensé j’ai éprouvé pour lui—que j’aime toujours de tout mon cœur, sans doute, Vincent est mon fil, mais tout finit par tiédir au fil du temps.

 

I hid nothing from this boy and always told him that his birth cast me into the depths of hell. But I never told him the burning love I felt for him—I still love him with all my heart, undoubtedly, but everything cools off with time.

(my translation)

She’s not a stellar example of motherhood. She’s cold and detached. Remorse is not in her vocabulary. She’s harsh in her interactions with other people. Her reaction to her rape is not what society expects from her. Lots of her traits makes her a misfit. But she’s not a monster. She’s fragile as well, fate has dealt her a shitty hand at a crucial moment of her life and she went on as best she could.

Djian’s novel is a tour-de-force. Everything is set for the reader to hate Michèle but they can’t. He manages to balance her character and his writing full of short but pointed sentences gives Michèle a clear and audible voice. He doesn’t judge and his writing is such that this reader didn’t judge as well. I was ill-at-ease, shocked but I never judged her. I thought it must be awful to have someone like her in your family but nothing more. To be honest, I could see Isabelle Huppert in Michèle. I even wondered if Djian thought about her when he wrote the book.

In my opining, this is one of Djian’s best books. I’m not competent enough to analyse this further but there’s something about classic tragedy here. Everything is set to lead to the denouement. It is definitely Djian’s current trademark. It’s dark but not bleak. It flirts with crime fiction.  Djian doesn’t hesitate to take controversial routes and not every reader will enjoy it. But I did. Immensely.

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