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A Fly’s Wing by Aníbal Malvar. A stunning Spanish crime fiction novel.

May 1, 2017 22 comments

A Fly’s Wing by Aníbal Malvar (1996). French title : Comme un blues. Translated from the Spanish into French by Hélène Serrano.

Aníbal Malvar wrote A Fly’s Wing in Galician and it was then translated into Castillan. The French translation I’ve read is based upon the Castillan version.

Madrid, winter 1996. Carlos Ovelar is at home when his ex-wife’s husband calls him on the phone. His daughter Ania is missing. She’s 18 and he doesn’t want to tell his wife that their daughter disappeared. So he doesn’t want to involve the police. But why would he call his wife’s ex to investigate their daughter’s disappeance? Because of Carlos’s past life as an agent of the Spanish secret services, the House. He was hired by his father who was at the head of the House during the tricky years of transition between the Franco era and democracy. Carlos feels that he shouldn’t accept this job and keep working on this photography business. But his only encounter with Ania was memorable enough to push him into action. He accepts and goes back to his native Galicia to start digging. Ania’s father gives him the keys to Ania’s apartment, thinking Carlos would be the first to know if she came home.

Carlos hasn’t been back to Galicia for twenty years and this trip brings back memories. He soon discovers that Ania is probably involved in the local cocaine drug trafficking. He wants to find Ania, even if it means that he ruffles some feathers or needs to cash in some favors from former colleagues of the House. He keeps on investigating even if he stumbles upon the ghosts of his married life and his years at the House or if it confronts him to his unhealthy relationship with his father.

A first murder implies that Ania is deep into a highly dangerous organization. Why does Carlo’s father show up at Ania’s place out of the blue? Why is the Old Man meddling in this? What’s in it for him?

The drug dealing plot brings us to the 1996 Galicia. More than the end of the journey for pilgrims, Santiago de Compostela is a hub for drug trafficking, tobacco and arms smuggling. The place doesn’t ooze with Christian feelings. Malvar is a journalist and he’s known for his articles about the terrorist group ETA and about drug trafficking. His plot is plausible, well drawn. He might have even heard of this quote during an investigation for a paper:

Une fois, un junkie m’a affirmé que le monde n’était qu’une hallucination que Dieu se serait tapée en pleine overdose de coke. Dieu y serait resté, mais le monde aurait survécu à l’hallu, devenue éternelle. Once, a junkie told me that the world was only a hallucination that God would have had while overdosing on cocaine. God wouldn’t have made it but the world had survived and the hallucination went on forever.

Carlos reflects on his past with the House and his relationship with his father and former boss. The two are intertwined. The Old Man was the head of the House when a coup threatened the young Spanish democracy, on February 23rd, 1981. The Old Man orchestrated this putsch to prevent a real one from Franco’s old supports and rally the people around their new democracy. This was new to me and I found this part very interesting. I never considered what happened in Spain in these early years after Franco’s death and how the old guard must have clutched the armpits of their chairs to remain in place.

Carlos delves into his past and Malvar gives life to Spain in the early 1980s. Franco died in 1975. The young democracy is trying out its fragile wings. The House has to find new occupations for their agents

Au début des années 80, la Maison s’était concentrée sur les stups et le terrorisme, une fois les franquistes tardifs convaincus que les facs ne regorgeaient plus de trostkystes et de stalinistes, mais de gens occupés à étudier et à baiser. In the early 1980s, the House focused on drug traffiking and terrorim as soon as the last Franco supporters got convinced that unis weren’t full of Trotskists and Stalinists but only full of people occupied with studying and fucking.

It is the beginning of la movida and people start to breathe, to party to shrug out of the heavy clothes of Francoism.

La vraie vie reprenait ses droits chaque soir. Madrid commençait à respirer la liberté, la movida, le poing et la rose. Il y avait une révolution madrilène qui ne révolutionnait que la nuit, et c’est d’elle qu’allait naître la postmodernité. La nuit était le creuset libertaire du futur imminent. Les policiers s’efforçaient de se faire discrets et le fascime ordinaire ne gueulait plus en chemise de nuit au balcon. La rue bouillonait de futur. Real life was taking over. Madrid started to exhale freedom, la movida, the fist and the rose. There was a Madrilene revolution that only revolutioned at night and postmodernity would emerge from it. The night was the libertarian pot cooking up the imminent future. Policemen made themselves scarce and ordinary fascism was no longer yelling in pyjamas from balconies. Streets bubbled with future.

Apart from the crime plot and the reflections about the young Spanish democracy, A Fly’s Wing explores the complex relationship between Carlos and the Old Man. Carlos was hired by his father when he was the House’s commandant. The Old Man is a high powered secret agent, someone who has all the strings to make history. And in his book, making history is worth all the sacrifices, including manipulating his son and killing his chance at happiness. A Fly’s Wing is also the story of their twisted relationship. Carlos is in a love-hate relationship with his father and he can never shake his hold on him.

Le problème, avec nos aînés, c’est qu’ils seront toujours plus vieux que nous; ça leur accorde une autorité fictive, on se sent comme des mômes à côté d’eux. Mon vieux était là, en train de me faire la leçon, les pieds sur la table et la bouteille de whisky à la main, bourré comme un coing et fier comme un seigneur. Mes quarante et quelques balais me sont tombés des mains et le môme que j’étais instantanément redevenu n’a pas eu la force de les ramasser. Je supposer qu’ils étaient trop lourds. The problem with our elders is that they’ll always be older than us. It grants them some fictional authority and you feel like a kid besides them. My old man was here, lecturing me, his feet on the table, a bottle of whisky in his hand, drunk as a skunk and as proud as a king. My forty and some years fell from my hands and the kid I instantly became again wasn’t strong enough to pick them up. I suppose they were too heavy.

His father is controlling and manipulative. He shows an unhealthy interest in the women in Carlos’s life. Susanna, his ex-wife. Ofelia, his girl-friend during his years at the House. And now Ania, the missing teenager. The Old Man’s actions ruined Carlos’s life. He roped him into a career he wasn’t ready for, sabotaged his son’s love life and didn’t behave as a father. Carlos came out of these years bruised and battered. He never recovered from his years working in the secret services.

Mon passé est un cimetière bourré de gens que je n’ai pas su aider. Certains cadavres respirent encore. Ce sont eux qui me font le plus mal. Il y en a d’autres que j’ai à peine connus, mais dont les yeux s’ouvrent et me regardent dès que j’éteins la lumière. Il y a tellement de fantômes autour de moi que parfois, j’ai peur de me découvrir immortel. My past is a cemetery full of people I failed. Some bodies are still breathing. Those are the ones who hurt me the most. Some of them I barely knew but their eyes open and look at me as soon as I shut the lights out. There are so many ghosts around me that sometimes I’m afraid I might be immortal.

He carries his ghosts around, invisible balls and chains.

A Fly’s Wing is a breathtaking equilibrium between the crime plot, the portrayal of pivotal years in Spain’s recent history and Carlos’s angst and personal story. All this is written in an evocative prose. Carlos’s voice sounds like a voice over in an old movie. I think it’d go well with Ascenseur pour l’échaffaud by Miles Davis, even though the book comes with a playlist. It’s available on the publisher’s website and it’s not exactly Mile Davis.

Atmospheric is the operating word to describe Malvar’s brand of prose. It’s true in the literal sense of the word, the weather is a huge part of the book. It’s winter in Galicia and it rains all the time. Carlos drives in downpours, his stakeouts are full of humidity and it gives a dramatic twist to the burial scene of the novel. It reminded me of Marlowe in rainy LA. In fact, it’s like Chandler’s manna hover over Malvar’s pen and Marlowe is giving Carlos a friendly hug. Ania is the femme fatale of the book, even if she’s absent. She weighs on the story and reminded me of Laura by Vera Caspary. You see this is one fine specimen of classic noir.

I loved A Fly’s Wing and it will probably belong to my year-end list. It lingered on my mind. I was enveloped in its prose and I think that the French title of the book is aptly chosen as it sums up its atmosphere. The original title, Ala de mosca means A Fly’s Wing. It refers to the type of cocaine that is at the centre of the trafficking. The French title is richer, at least for a French reader. Comme un blues means Like a blues song. And Carlos is blue and he’ll always be a bit down because of his past. In French, bleu / blue has also another meaning. Un bleu is a rookie and that’s what Carlos remains compared to his father. Despite the passing years, he’s still a naïve beginner when it comes to shady dealings.

A Fly’s Wing is a fantastic piece of literature and I’m so grateful that Asphalte éditions picked this and brought it to the French public. I’m sorry to report to Anglophone crime fiction lovers that this little gem of Spanish literature is not available in English. In the Translation Tragedy category it goes.

To end up with a merrier tone, since I’m French and we probably have a cheese for every occasion, here’s the cheese St Jacques de Compostelle that I bought when I was reading this.

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.

Quais du Polar 2017: Day #3

April 2, 2017 26 comments

Today was the last day of Quais du Polar 2017. This morning, we walked around the ground floor of the great book store. It is set in the great hall of the Chamber of Commerce, I suppose the stock exchange was here, the space suits this activity. As you can see, it was crowded and very busy. I wonder how many books were sold over the weekend.

This is only a fourth of a big bookstore.

This gives you an idea of the height of the building. This patio has a second floor with rooms.

I had the chance to talk to Dominique Sylvain and got her book Passage du désir. It called to me with its quote by Emile Ajar (Romain Gary) and its writer comes from the same region as me. It’s the first instalment of a series, so we’ll see. Marina Sofia introduced me to the Romanian publisher Bogdan Hrib and I came home with the book Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu. It’s a political crime fiction novel and I usually enjoy those. It’s going to be an opportunity to read something about Romania.

I attended a great conference by Michel Pastoureau at the Chapelle de la Trinité.

He’s an historian specialized in the history of colors. Since Quais du Polar’s color code is red and black, the interview was about the history and symbolism of the color red. I won’t relate everything he talked about but will concentrate on two ideas, the switch from red to blue as a preferred color and the origin of the French flag.

In Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, red was an important color and blue wasn’t used a lot. It changed at the beginning of the Middle Ages and blue became an important color. It came from a need to picture heavenly light as opposed to earthly light. Artists started to use the color blue for heaven while normal light was white or yellow. Then the Virgin Mary started to wear blue dresses on paintings and kings of France (Philippe Auguste, Saint Louis) wore blue clothes. It became fashionable. And red, a color much fancied until then lost its first place as a great color.

About the French flag. As you probably all know, the French flag comes from the Revolution and is blue/white/red. In school, we all learnt that it looks like this because white is the color of the monarchy and it’s squeezed between the colors of the city of Paris. Actually, this is inaccurate. The French flag comes from the American flag. After the 1776 American revolution, in Europe, the people who supported the ideas conveyed by this revolution started to wear blue/white/red ribbons. So, when the French Revolution decided upon a new flag in 1794, it went for the same colors as the American flag. And since the Dutch had already horizontal strips, they used vertical ones. And since the American flag comes from the Union Jack, I guess France has a flag based upon UK colors. Weird story, right?

It was a fascinating conference, Michel Pastoureau is a wonderful speaker. He knows how to tell anecdotes and the public was drinking his speech.

After that, I went to listen to David Vann discuss with a journalist about his books. It was set in the room that was the former Tribunal de Commerce. (Trade Court)

He explained how he wrote his books. Sukkwan Island was written in two phases. The first part was written in 17 days when he was in a sort of writing trance on a boat trip from Los Angeles to Hawaï. The second half was written after. I haven’t read the book but it’s a significant piece of information to understand the book.

He gave us a lot of background information about his childhood in Alaska, his family and his personal history because all of this gives us a better understanding of his novels. Again, I won’t retell everything, you can replay this lecture on the Quais du Polar website. It was a fascinating hour with him. He’s an agreeable fellow, he’s been a teacher, so he’s articulate and used to speaking in public too. Plus, he has a great sense of humor. He said he never thinks too much about what he writes and then he comes to France and discusses his books with journalists who ask pointed questions and he has a new view of his work. 🙂 Here, the journalist knew his work very well and was able to fuel the discussion with intelligent questions.

It was a delightful hour where he explained his work, talked about American literary tradition and described how his books are influenced by Greek tragedies. I’m really looking forward to reading Caribou Island.

And that was the end of the festival for me. I had a lot of fun, bought great books, had the chance to chat a bit with some writers and attended great conferences. The literary concert was truly marvelous.

Although they probably won’t read this, I would like to thank the team who organized this festival and all the volunteers who were everywhere to ensure that things run smoothly. I found the writers happy to be in Lyon, smiling and glad to meet their readers and to be part of this giant celebration of crime fiction. Several of them were serial attendees, like Ron Rash (fourth time), Caryl Férey or David Vann. They all seem to enjoy it as much as the public does.

Quais du Polar 2017: Day #2

April 1, 2017 14 comments

Today, the weather wasn’t as nice as yesterday and we started our crime fiction fun fest in the rain. Marina Sofia and I attended a conference entitled “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”, according to the famous word by Flaubert. David Young (UK), Ron Rash (US) and Caryl Férey (France) were in this panel as writers of books featuring women as central characters. The journalist in charge of this discussion was Michel Abescat and he was well prepared. He had obviously read several books of each writer and had imagined a series of question around the theme. In my opinion, Caryl Férey and Ron Rash were the most fascinating of the three to describe their creative process.

Ron Rash explained that he started to write Saints at the River with a male narrator but ended up making of Maggie the narrator. He said that after 40 pages into the novel, the man’s voice wasn’t convincing and Maggie’s voice imposed itself. Landscapes play an important role in his books and he confided that he viewed them as feminine. This reminded me of the discussion we had about the quotes by Jim Thompson I published recently.

He also talked about how he writes. He doesn’t find himself interesting enough to be the clay of his novels. He’d rather write about less boring people and he aims at creating memorable characters. The characters are the central piece of his books, before the story. He sees himself as some sort of phone tower that would capture stories that are in the air and that would plug on the right frequency to catch the voices of the characters. His characters inhabit him and express themselves through his pen. He said he’s “feeling, thinking their thoughts” and that he tries to wipe himself away in order to give himself totally to a character. In the end, he writes to understand what it feels to be human, what it means to be in this world.

Caryl Férey is a genuine guy who has a great sense of humor, a lot of presence on stage. He’s the antithesis of PC, which I love. He explained that he now prefers to write scenes that involve women. He also wants to write about oppressed people and since women are often among them, he’s interested in creating strong female characters. He was a bit provocative and said that men are more cavemen and that introducing female characters in his books obliged him to write with more finesse. And since his heroines wouldn’t fall in love with douchebags, he had to draw more sensitive male characters too.

Caryl Férey also talked about his creation process. He travels a lot. People he met through his travels influence his characters. His description was a lot like listening film directors when they explain the choice of an actor or an actress for a role. They often say “As soon as he/she entered the room, I knew he/she was the incarnation of the character”. Férey agreed with Rash about being inhabited by his characters during the writing of the book. He becomes a medium to pour them onto the page. He went as far as saying that he once fell in love with one of his characters, “as stupid as it may sound”, he acknowledged.

About first person narratives vs third person narratives. Both said it is more powerful to write first person narratives. Férey says that he rarely does, he’d rather write third person narratives and alternate narrators. Each narrator has their own style which may be a problem for Férey as a writer. When several third-person narrators meet, whose voice shall take over and tell the scene?

He also said that as a writer, he’s never off the clock. Musicians might think in sounds, painters in colors, he thinks in words and stories.

Both Rash and Férey are fond of poetry and they say it influences their writing. Rash explained that the last editing of his book consists in him listening to the sound of his sentences and polishing their sound, their rhythm. He wants to add another layer to his writing to enhance the reader’s pleasure. Férey pointed out that since poetry is not expected in crime fiction, he likes adding some to the mix.

To be honest, David Young seemed a little off compared to the others. His answers were interesting but his creation process seemed less artistic and less interesting to me.

This was a very good conference and you can watch it on replay on the Quais du Polar website, if you’re interested.

After that, I decided to attend a literary concert about Marcus Malte’s novel, Les harmoniques. This consisted in Malte being on stage with a jazz singer and a guitarist/double bassist.

Sorry, the picture isn’t good but at least, it gives you an idea of the setting.. Marcus Malte is on the left.

Malte told excerpts of his novel and between these excerpts, the musicians played songs related to the book. Les harmoniques, which I haven’t read yet, is deeply linked to jazz music. There’s a playlist at the beginning of the book and part of this playlist was played on stage. What a treat, really. Malte was well-prepared. He almost knew his text by heart and his narration was perfectly in tune with his words, with the music. The music agreed with the words, the words agreed with the music. Being there was a chance, a gift these talented artists gave to the public. It was set in the amphitheater of the Opera, away from the crowd, in a soft atmosphere. Jazz and crime fiction have a long common history and this literary concert was a marvelous experience. I can’t tell you how lucky the public was to attend such a performance, and for free. You can listen to it in replay here. It seems to be a very atmospheric book and I can’t wait to read it.

I rushed to the Chapelle de la Trinité, grabbing a sandwich on my way to meet with Marina Sofia and attend a conference entitled Exiled, locked away, tortured but alive: when pens become one with the wind of freedom. The participants were Víctor del Árbol (Spain), Marc Fernandez (France/Spain), Zygmunt Miloszewski (Poland) and Qiu Xiaolong (Chine)

All write about oppression and the dark corners of their countries. Miloszewski decided to write a book about domestic violence against women. Qiu writes about China. Fernandez wrote a novel about the stolen children of the Franco regime, a similar story to what happened in Argentina. Del Árbol writes about the hidden wounds of the Spanish Civil war and the Franco years. Miloszewski declared that patriotism means loving the glorious pages of one’s country’s history and being ashamed of his dark pages. Nationalism forgets to be ashamed of the dark pages. Del Árbol wants to address the issues that have been swept under the carpet to give the defeated a voice. He says that the vanquished, here the Spanish Republicans, were ashamed to have lost and had to stay silent. They were forgotten. Qiu explained that in China in the 1980s, graduate students from university were given jobs that they had to accept, whether the job was their cup of tea or not. This is why his main character, Inspector Chen reluctantly became a police officer. People have their future stolen by dictatorships or as Imre Kertesz perfectly described it, they became Fateless. The discussion was interesting, never going into actively promoting one’s last book but genuinely building on their work to foster the debate.

This was my last conference of the day. I then went into the giant bookstore. I wanted to talk to Jacques Côté, whose book I’ve just finished. I was glad to have answers to some questions I had about his book. I had books signed by Ron Rash, Megan Abbott and Víctor del Árbol. I bought a bande dessinée for my husband and books to give to other readers. And went home, tired but happy.

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.

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

December 23, 2016 14 comments

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (2007) French title: Sous la glace.

I know everybody’s doing end-of-year posts and all but I’m not quite ready to let 2016 go yet. 2017 is still one week away! So, I’m writing another billet.

penny_fatal_graceLast year I read Still Life by Louise Penny and enjoyed it so much that I bought the second instalment in her Armand Gamache series, A Fatal Grace. Armand Gamache is the head of the investigation department in the Sûreté du Québec. As in Still Life, A Fatal Grace is set in the fictional village of Three Pines. It’s located in Québec, in the Eastern Townships, the part of Québec between Montreal and the American Border.

The villagers are preparing Christmas in quaint Three Pines and the festivities include a traditional curling tournament on a frozen lake. A newcomer to Three Pines named CC de Poitiers is murdered during this tournament, electrocuted on the lake. CC de Poitiers had managed to alienate the village against her, her spineless husband and her neglected and unhappy daughter. CC neglects her daughter and openly treats her bad. She has a lover, Saul, that she brought around Three Pines for the holidays. She just wrote a self-help book and is convinced she will be famous and successful. She doesn’t hesitate to trample on everyone who’s on her way to success. But nobody ever thought she could be murdered, especially in these circumstances.

No. It was almost impossible to electrocute someone these days, unless you were the governor of Texas. To do it on a frozen lake, in front of dozens of witnesses, was lunacy. Someone had been insane enough to try. Someone had been brilliant enough to succeed.

Armand Gamache comes from Montreal to solve the case. He’s accompanied by his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Gamache is rather happy to visit Three Pines and reacquaint himself with Clara and her husband Peter or Gabriel and Olivier, the gay couple who operate the B&B.

It is a classic whodunit but the setting does everything. It’s Christmas time and the descriptions of Québec at this time of year make you want to hop on the next flight and see it by yourself.

Everyone looked alike in the Quebec winter. Like colorful marshmallows. It was hard to even distinguish men from women. Faces, hair, hands, feet, bodies, all covered against the cold.

Armand Gamache is an engaging character, a middle-aged chief inspector who’s been married to his wife for a few decades.

They’d both swelled since they’d first met. There was no way either would get into their wedding clothes. But they’d grown in other ways as well, and Gamache figured it was a good deal. If life meant growth in all directions, it was fine with him.

Thankfully for him, his private life is stable and he’s good at solving crimes. However, he made himself enemies in the Sûreté du Québec in a previous case. These bigwigs are still after him and not against using inside intelligence and underhanded methods to undermine his reputation. This plot thread started in Still Life, goes on in Fatal Grace and is not solved. This is something Louise Penny shares with Anne Perry: a brilliant and humane investigator in a stable relationship but not always in the good graces of his hierarchy. Gamache is one of these intuitive investigators that make the salt of this brand of crime fiction.

Gamache was the best of them, the smartest and bravest and strongest because he was willing to go into his own head alone, and open all the doors there, and enter all the dark rooms. And make friends with what he found there. And he went into the dark, hidden rooms in the minds of others. The minds of killers. And he faced down whatever monsters came at him. He went to places Beauvoir had never even dreamed existed.

Louise Penny writes in English but her prose reflects the geography of her novels and a lot of French words are laced in her English prose. And for a French speaking reader with English as a second language like me, it’s a delight. You find expressions like a one-vache village (in full English, a one-cow village) or sentences like I don’t mind tea,’ Clara raised her mug to them, ‘even tisane. (tisane means herbal tea) or they drove over the Champlain bridge and onto the autoroute (autoroute means motorway) I don’t know how Anglophone-only readers deal with this but for me, it’s a pleasure and it reflects how closely interlaced the two worlds and the two languages are in this part of Québec. But some habits are definitely French:

Gamache held the chair for Em and looked after the young man going to the cappuccino machine to make their bowls of café au lait.

They’re drinking café au lait in bowls. Typically French and French Canadian, apparently. Last Christmas, we had an Australian student at home. She was glad to see that, as she had learnt in French class back in Perth, we really do drink coffee and tea in bowls in France!

A Fatal Grace is a good read for a winter afternoon around Christmas and I’ll continue with the series.

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