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The Speech by Fabrice Caro – hilarious, bittersweet and spot-on

May 1, 2019 5 comments

The Speech by Fabrice Caro. (2018) Original French title: Le discours. Not available in English

Fabrice Caro is better known under his penname Fabcaro and for his BDs. (comic books) I recently posted a billet about Zaï Zaï Zaï Zaï, one of his most successful BD albums.

Le Discours (The Speech) is his second novel. We’re in Adrien’s head, he’s currently sitting through lunch at his parents’ house with his sister Sophie and his future brother-in-law Ludovic. He’s heartbroken because he recently broke up with Sonia. Their relationship lasted one year and she left him 38 days before. He’s sitting there, alone with his misery when Ludo asks him to give a speech at his and Sophie’s wedding. Poor Adrien doesn’t dare to refuse and he starts panicking about The Speech.

The whole novel is set during one Sunday meal and Adrien is going through breakup angst. Shall he text Sonia? What to text? And after it’s sent, when will she answer? He checks out his phone, goes to the power room to regroup and look at his messages. He’s on pins and needles and overanalyzes everything. He reminisces the stages of their relationship, how they met, how they were together and when things started to fall apart. It rings true because Adrien is going through spot-on little details and his pain is palpable to the reader. It’s one aspect of Caro’s novel. It’s bittersweet, funny at times because of Adrien’s self-deprecating sense of humor but my heart went out to him. Poor Adrien.

While his whole being screams of pain because of his breakup, he manages to engage in the small talk around the table and to worry about The Speech. His mind wanders and he imagines himself at the wedding, speaking in front of everyone. He writes drafts of his speech in his head and it varies according to the tone and the topic of the conversation at the table. These parts are hilarious.

The third aspect of the novel, the one that interested me the most is the family dynamics. The parents regularly invite their children to share a meal. The siblings wouldn’t spend time together otherwise. Sophie takes Ludovic to her parents’ house but Adrien never brings any girlfriend. The meal is like a perfectly orchestrated symphony with each family member knowing their role, their score and playing their usual part. It’s classical music, not jazz and impro is not allowed. Each member sticks to their score. The dishes are a family tradition. The repartition of tasks between the parents and the children are set. At the table, each guest plays his role, brings his topics and share their news.

It’s also a perfect picture of the French middle class with perfunctory meals where nothing important is said but they still glue the family together. The affection is there, deep but silent. Fabrice Caro was born in 1973 and Adrien is forty. Author and character are from the same generation and have reached a stage in life where parents start ageing. The roles are shifting, children feel the need to take care of their parents, they realize their parents won’t be there forever. Here, Adrien remembers a time he drove them to diner at Sophie’s.

Sur le trajet, ma mère, assise à l’arrière, m’avait demandé de rouler moins vite parce qu’elle avait un peu le mal de mer, et j’avais repensé au vomi sur l’auto-stoppeur, et cette inversion des rôles m’était apparue comme le symbole d’une tristesse infinie, une preuve tangible de plus que j’étais entré dans la seconde moitié de ma vie qui consiste à faire pour eux ce qu’ils ont fait pour moi dans la première moitié : m’inquiéter, les chérir, les épargner, rouler moins vite pour éviter qu’ils ne vomissent. On the way, my mother, sitting in the back, had asked me to drive slower because she had motion sickness. I recalled throwing up on a hitchhiker and this reversal of our roles seemed like a symbol of utter sadness. It was another proof that I had entered the second half of my life, the one that consists in doing for them what they did for me during the first half: worry about them, cherish them, spare them and drive slower so that they wouldn’t throw up.

Adrien also remembers his thirtieth birthday. Another breakup and he had come to his parents’ house to find solace. Although his parents did not provide any tangible comfort, the fact that this house exists, with his teenage room intact, his craft done in school on the kitchen wall is already something. He may make fun of himself and his successive breakups, softly joke about his parents’ routine and decoration, his childhood home remains a safe haven. Even if he’s forty, it eases his pain to think that in time of need, this is a place he can turn to. His parents will welcome him. Even if he knows they won’t give him advice because they won’t have heart-to-heart conversations, he knows they love him and show their affection differently.

Le discours is a lovely book and a nice picture of how families get together. Of course, you can read Caro’s description of Adrien’s family dynamics and think they’re pathetic. There’s no deep conversation, Ludo sounds like a jerk, Sophie and Adrien have nothing in common except a childhood in this house and with these parents. I didn’t take it that way. I just thought that going through these rituals is how this family expresses their affection. They’re not touchy-feely but they’re there for one another in times of need. And in the end, that’s what matters the most.

Adrien has a wicked sense of humor and sees everything through biting humorous goggles. It’s self-deprecating sometimes and it borders on sadness. Often, the comic side of the book comes from Adrien’s wild imagination. His mind wanders from a banal topic or sentence. He starts thinking out of the box, exposing the ridicule of something and his thoughts get crazy and out of the usual paths. It’s huge fun, and it’s Caro’s brand of humor, the one that made me laugh so much when I read Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï. Adrien has also a devilish sense of observation. His thoughts are sarcastic and hugely entertaining.

Le discours is a sad and a funny book at the same time. This combination makes it deep and light. Adrien’s feelings, the description of the family meal and his depiction of his relationship with Sonia, everything rings true. It isn’t bleak but it doesn’t discard Adrien’s raw pain under fake jolly farces. It’s a lot more subtle than that.

Warmly recommended.

And Then, Their Children by Nicolas Mathieu – Prix Goncourt 2018

April 28, 2019 8 comments

And Then, Their Children by Nicolas Mathieu (2018) Original French title: Leurs enfants après eux.

And Then, Their Children is my translation of the title of the Prix Goncourt 2018, Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu. As far as I know, it’s not available in English yet but it will probably be translated soon, being the winner of the Goncourt. I’ll use the French title in my billet.

Nicolas Mathieu was born in Epinal in 1978. Epinal is a town in the Vosges mountains, part of the former Lorraine region in France. (Administrative regions have changed in 2016) This region was made of four départements, Meuse (where Verdun is), Meurthe et Moselle (Nancy), Vosges (Epinal) and Moselle (Metz). These four départements have a long and different history. Nicolas Mathieu comes from the Vosges and his novel is set in Moselle.

The Moselle département is close to the borders of Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium. It was the Lorraine part in the Alsace-Lorraine loss of the 1870 war, the one featured in La Débâcle by Zola. This means that it was under German administration from 1871 to 1918. This has left traces in today’s society, with a different social security regime, two additional public holidays and various legal specificities. The Moselle département has also cultural differences with its neighbors. It’s more of German culture, with a patois coming from old German. It’s also a département half-industrial, half-rural. The industrial part is one of those traditional industrial areas we’ve had in all Western countries and that have collapsed after coal mines, iron mines and steel industries closed down. In the early 20th C, lots of immigrants came to work here and the Italian and Polish communities were the most important ones. Later came people from Spain, Portugal and North Africa.

Leurs enfants après eux is set in the Fensch valley, an area near Luxembourg and that was rife with steel industries until the 1980s. (For French readers, that’s where Florange is) It was a very populated area with cities that grew with the factories and were made to accommodate their needs. It bears the traces of old capitalism, the one in which the workers’ lives were arranged by the factory like houses, sports clubs, libraries, summer camps and sometimes food. It shaped the landscape with pipes, railroads and street names. (Steel Street, Plant Street, Blast Furnace Street…) In the 1980s, the plants shut down, lay-offs were everywhere. Unemployment skyrocketed. People aged fifty and more were put in pre-retirement. Large noisy plants became industrial wasteland, quiet steel monsters becoming ruins. Meanwhile, Luxembourg’s economy thrived with the financial industry and French workers started to cross the border and work there. Today, there are between 60 000 and 100 000 French employees in Luxembourg.

Why such a long introduction? You need a bit of background to understand Leurs enfants après eux.

The 2018 Prix Goncourt tells the life of three people during their formative years in four remarkable summers, all symbolized by a song.

1992, Smells Like Teen Spirit. Anthony is 14, Stéphanie is 16 and Hacine is 16 too. Anthony is killing time by the local lake with his cousin. They decide to steal a canoe to cross the lake. They get acquainted with Stéphanie and her cousin. Anthony is attracted to Stéphanie who doesn’t give him the time of day. Hacine is part of a group of adolescents who is into marijuana trafficking and small delinquency.

We’ll follow them during three other summers: 1994, You Could Be Mine. 1996, La Fièvre, by NTM, a French rap group. 1998, I Will Survive, the totem song of the French soccer team, the one who won the FIFA World Cup with its Black-Blanc-Beur team.

The main character is Anthony, a typical child of a working-class family that could come out of a Ken Loach film. His father is self-employed after he lost his job. His mother works as an entry-level employee. They live in a housing development and work hard to pay their mortgage. Stéphanie comes from a richer family, she lives in a bigger house. Hacine lives in a council flat with his father. The three of them represent the social classes of the city. Their lives intersect during these summers, leaving indelible marks on their lives.

Nicolas Mathieu describes the formative years of these three adolescents and their backgrounds. It’s a picture of the French society, the one of the Yellow Vests and the roundabouts. It shows the class system and the fact that, despite de country’s moto claiming Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, equality is an illusion. Not everyone has the same chance to achieve their potential, especially working-class children. Stéphanie’s parents know the codes to help her make the best of the school system. Anthony is average and lacks parental incentive to work harder in school. Hacine is on his own, his father doesn’t speak French well enough. Each of them dreams of leaving.

Nicolas Mathieu paints an accurate picture of working-class and middle-class life in France. It’s a good depiction of its pop culture, its way-of-life and its ups-and-downs. He shows the end of the dream of the Post-war economic boom. Now, the social ladder is broken. Children remain at the same level as their parents or go down and people make do. We see how one generation reproduces the life of the previous one. In that respect, Leurs enfants après eux is a brilliant book. Nicolas Mathieu is the same age as Anthony. It’s his generation and I liked that he put the spotlight on this world, one that is far from the Parisian salons but makes most of the population of this country.

I didn’t like the undercurrent idea of the end of the book. Nicolas Mathieu hints that if you stay in your hometown, live the life of your parents, you failed. The ones who didn’t manage to escape are losers. My question is: why should “escaping” be the goal? What would happen if everyone tried to leave? Where would they go? Populate the Parisian suburbs? Why is having a small life in a little province town a prison? I thought that the tone was a bit judgmental in the end. I wonder how the Parisian literary elites read this. Like anthropologists?

Leurs enfants après eux was a rather emotional read for me. I come from Moselle, from a town like the Heillange of the book, not in the Fensch valley but from a nearby one. I know the place where Leurs enfants après eux is set. I kept seeing the places in my mind eye. I’m from the same generation as Anthony, Stéphanie and Hacine. I “escaped” through the school system and thanks to parents who pushed for school achievements and paid for education. Nicolas Mathieu comes from this world too and “escaped” the same way, thanks to parents who paid for a private school. Even if it’s not his own story, it’s based on people around him and on his own experience. It shows the classes who come out bruised and battered by liberal capitalism.

Leurs enfants après eux is written in spoken language, one that reflects the social classes it describes. It rings true but lacks the regionalisms you’d expect from people of the Fensch valley. I noticed it because it’s my home but it’s not visible for other readers. I guess it wouldn’t have brought anything to the story anyway.

I’m happy that Leurs enfants après eux won the Prix Goncourt because it pictures real life and the prize will ensure it gets a lot of readers. It’s a political novel in the best sense of political, like books by Richard Russo, songs by Bruce Springsteen or films by Ken Loach.

Iphigénie by Jean Racine – Unexpectedly modern

April 24, 2019 10 comments

Iphigénie by Jean Racine (1674)

Picture by Hélène Builly

After I Took My Father On My Shouldersbased on the classic The Aeneid, I saw another classic, Iphigénie by Jean Racine, directed by Chloé Dabert, inspired by the eponymous play by the Ancient Greek tragedian Euripides.

The plot of Iphigénie comes from an episode of The Illiad. The Greeks are on their way to Troy and they’re stuck in a harbor because there is not enough wind to sail to Troy.

The Greek army is posted there, restless, eager to go to war. The king Agamemnon is there with his troops, along with Achilles and Ulysses. The oracle says that a princess must be sacrificed to appease the goddess Diana and have favorable winds. Only Iphigénie, Agamemnon’s daughter, seems to fit the bill.

Ulysses has convinced Agamemnon that the reason of State prevails and that Iphigénie’s death is necessary. Agamemnon has given in and has summoned his wife and daughter to join him at the military camp under the pretense of hastening her wedding to Achille. Now he regrets this decision and wants to delay their arrival.

Photo of the set by Victor Tonelli

The whole play is about Iphigénie and her death: is it necessary? Should Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter? Must Achille accept the death of his betrothed for the sake of war and glory? Must Iphigénie accept her fate as a princess?

To be honest, I’m not a great fan of Racine. (Or Corneille) It’s hard for me to relate to what their characters live. Here, the director Chloé Dabert chose a sober décor, modern but neutral enough to be timeless. The actors were dressed in today’s clothes but she didn’t overplay the modernization. It helped me see how modern the text is.

Agamemnon’s dilemma is between his duty as a leader and his feelings as a father. But he’s also haunted by other demons. Is the war against Troy worth it? Is going to war because Helen left her husband a fair cause? Winning this war would mean a lot of fame for Agamemnon and this perspective feeds his ego. It made me think about how WWI started with the alliances between countries. It reminded me of the war in Irak, based on fake information that were more a pretext to start a war and give a son the opportunity to finish his father’s business than anything else. Are wars based upon fair causes?

Achille is torn between his love for Iphigénie, his loyalty to Agamemnon who leads the army and his personal quest for glory. Iphigénie is the most dignified character of the play. She remains a princess through and through, ready to do her duty and sacrifice her life.

The striking part of the play is the oracle and its power. The crux of dilemma stems from the oracle’s sentence and no one challenges what it says. They believe it’s true and are ready to make a great sacrifice to please the gods. They think it’s worth it, even if the gods are always thirsty, even if the demand is horrible. I mulled over the terrible acts people are ready to commit because they think their god demanded it. Blind obedience to messages from gods is a recipe to disaster and there are enough examples to illustrate this fact. (In my opinion, blind obedience to anything is a recipe to disaster.) This questioning is still part of today’s world, even if this play was written in the 17th century.

Photo by Victor Tonelli

Iphigénie is also a stunning character. She’s like a ball thrown from one player to the other, her weak and ambitious father, her fiancé in search of military glory, her fierce mother Clytemnestre and her rival Eriphile, who’s in love with Achille and wants her out of the way. She keeps her dignity all along, putting duty before her wishes and her fears. In the play, women are clearly pawns and victims of a world ruled by men. They are trump cards that the men decide to play or not and Iphigénie’s life depend on it.

Chloé Dabert’s direction builds a bridge between the text and us. We watch a play written under King Louis XIV, set in Ancient Greece and based upon a play written by an Ancient Greek tragedian. And yet it speaks to us. The powers at stake, war, glory, ambition, pride, religious beliefs are still at play in our century. The desire to conquer, to get revenge over a rival, to abide by religious commandment are rooted in Western culture. And unfortunately, they still rule the world.

For French readers, if this play comes on tour in your city, you might want to get tickets, it’s a good way to get acquainted with this classic. For foreign readers, there might be versions on YouTube or in any case, you can read the play.

Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah – a chilling and highly recommended novella

April 23, 2019 11 comments

Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah (2016) Original French title: Tropique de la violence.

We, French from mainland France, tend to ignore what happens in the overseas territories. Away from the voters’ sight, away from the politicians’ preoccupations. There’s a huge scandal about a pesticide in used banana plantations in Martinique and Guadeloupe that’s barely spoken about. The pollution is widespread, it’ll stay for a long time and will heavily affect the health of the inhabitants of these islands. In Tropic of Violence by Nathacha Appanah, we are in another overseas French territory, Mayotte.

It’s an archipelago near in the Mozambique Channel, near the Comoros Islands and Madagascar. It has 256 000 inhabitants and in 2009, a referendum was organized and Mayotte became a French overseas département. It means that, from a legal and administrative point of view, living in Mayotte is like living in any département of mainland France. Mayotte became part of the EU. One of the consequences is that it faces a huge influx of illegal migrants from Madagascar and the nearby Comoros Islands. It creates tensions between the local population and the newcomers. They are too numerous for the island to absorb and integrate these additional inhabitants.

Tropic of Violence opens with Marie’s story. She’s a nurse in France and falls in love with a fellow nurse, Chamsidine. He’s from Mayotte and they both move to Mamoudzou, the prefecture of Mayotte. Their marriage falls apart and Marie tells us how her adoptive son Moïse came to live with her. Moïse’s mother, an illegal migrant who arrived on a boat in Mayotte one night, abandoned him to Marie. Moïse has wall eyes, one green and one black and in the local popular belief, it means that he has jinn eyes. He has something to do with jinns and he brings bad luck. Marie trades divorce papers with Chamsidine against a recognition of paternity and she gets to keep Moïse and raise him as her son.

He’s a preteen when he starts asking questions about his identity and hanging out with the wrong crowd in school. He’s already rebelling when Marie suddenly dies of a stroke. He finds her in their kitchen and instead of asking for help, he leaves the house and joins a gang led by Bruce, the king of Gaza, a shantytown in Mayotte. He reigns over a people of homeless kids and organizes band thefts and drug trafficking.

We follow Moïse’s fate as he becomes Mo and lives under Bruce’s commandment. He obeys like a well-trained pet. He quickly looses his humanity and Appanah shows the degradation of body and mind under harsh living conditions. Not enough food. No place to sleep. No place to feel safe and relax. No place to shower. No clean clothes. The dehumanization process is implacable.

Moïse becomes Mo and this new and shorter version of his name is symbolic. He becomes a shorter version of himself as poverty and violence strike. He’s no longer Marie’s little boy, the one who used to live in a loving household.

Tropic of Violence is a powerful book. Appanah switches of point of view between Marie, Moïse, Bruce and the representative of France. (Educators, police forces, politicians) They all live on the same territory but their daily lives are so different that they could be living on different planets. The ending is bleak and moving.

The shantytowns really exist in Mayotte. As I said before, there’s a major problem of violence on the archipelago. The locals are exasperated. There aren’t enough public services to cope with the incoming illegal immigration. People die trying to reach Mayotte in makeshift boats. It’s Lampedusa in the Indian ocean.

Out of sight, out of mind. French people never hear of the overseas territory unless there’s a riot, a strike and a blockage. That’s how I knew about this issue, there was a general strike in Mayotte in 2018. Nathacha Appanah transforms a faceless problem heard on the radio into a personalized one with Mo. And that’s one answer to the timeless question “What’s the use of literature?” Well, it gives a face to human dramas and forces us to look them in the eyes.

Tropic of Violence is a political novel but also a symbolic one. Moïse is the French for Moises and it is not a common name for a French child. Like Enée in J’ai pris mon père sur les épaules, it’s a meaningful choice. There must be a parallel between Moïse and Moises.

In the Bible, Moises is a clandestine baby as Pharaon had commanded that all male Hebrew children born would be drowned in the river Nile and his mother placed in an ark on the river. He is rescued from the Nile by Pharaon’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian.

In Tropic of Violence, Marie adopts him when his birth mother arrives in Mayotte after a shipwreck. Rescued from the water. His birth mother is an illegal migrant, from a people not welcome in France and tracked by the police. Marie—another biblical name—is like royalty on the island. She’s white and comes from mainland France. She’s a nurse at the local hospital and has a comfortable life. Moïse is adopted in a privileged home and raised like a French little boy. Marie’s death throws him back to his people and its suffering.

So far so good, I can see the link between Moïse and Moises. But then I’m blocked. After Moïse leaves his house and joins Gaza, I don’t see the reference between Moïse and Moises anymore. So, if anyone has a clue about that, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

I didn’t include any quote in my billet but I could have. Appanah’s style is haunting, like her story. I think Moïse will stay with me, probably because the fate of children is more striking like in Small Country by Gaël Faye. The different points of views give a lot of power to the scenes she describes and they engage the reader in the story. It’s not surprising that Tropic of Violence won the Prix Femina des Lycéens in 2016 just like Small Country won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. Highschool students recognized something important in these two political novellas who involve preteens.

Theatre: I Took My Father On My Shoulders by Fabrice Melquiot – a contemporary play

April 20, 2019 2 comments

I’ve been swamped by work lately and I didn’t have time to share my thoughts about three theatre plays worth seeing.

The first one is J’ai pris mon père sur les épaules by Fabrice Melquiot, directed by Arnaud Meunier. (I Took My Father On My Shoulders) It’s a contemporary play, written for this director. The author and the director wanted to produce a play about the French working class and today’s France.

We are in a council flat in a suburb. Roch lives with his grownup son Enée. They are unaware that they are both involved with their gorgeous neighbor, Anissa. She loves both men and can’t make her mind between the two.

After an introduction by Anissa, the play opens on a scene where Roch comes home and said he bought some meat as it was on sale and now, they have to cook it. A banal scene in appearance but Roch’s clothes, the décor of the apartment and the fact that meat is rarely affordable tell us that we are in a poor household. The two men barely make ends meet. They get along fine, have a good father and son relationship and Roch is like Enée’s rock.

So, when Roch calmy announces that he has cancer, Enée is shaken up. The play depicts Roch’s illness, his relationship with Enée, Anissa, his friend Grinch and their neighbors Bakou, Céleste and Mourad. We are in a banlieue, with its council flats, its kebab restaurant and its inhabitants of mixed origins.

Photo by Sonia Barcet

They represent today’s French society. A black woman, Céleste. A Muslim of North African origin, Mourad. An older man with his loneliness, Grinch. They have low paid jobs. They feel left behind, not represented by politicians and institutions anymore. They make do and hope for a better future, as far as Anissa and Céleste are concerned. Even if it’s not easy. Grinch is crippled by loneliness and there’s a very moving scene where he explains how he’ll find himself a nice woman to live with.

Roch’s health deteriorates and this patched up family knits a love and friendship safety net around him and Enée.

It’s a powerful play, often spot on to describe today’s France. It was written before the Yellow Vest movement but the people featured in this play belong to the social class that feeds the movement. They come from the same world as the characters in the last Prix Goncourt, Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Matthieu. (upcoming billet about this one) It’s as if the French literary world rediscovered the need to give them a voice.

I Took My Father On My Shoulders is loosely based upon The Aeneid by Virgil. The title comes from the second book of The Aeneid, when Aeneas (Enée in French), leaves Troy with his father Anchises on his shoulders. Enée is not a common name in French and if a character is named like that, it’s an obvious reference to Virgil. Like The Aeneid, the play is split in two parts. The first one tells Roch’s fight against cancer and the second is about a trip that Enée will take with his father. I thought that the second part was weaker than the first and that it was superfluous. But that’s a minor flaw.

I Took My Father On My Shoulders could have been bleak but it’s not because the friendship and love between the characters make up for the gloom brought by Roch’s cancer. The text is empowered by a company of excellent actors. Philippe Torreton plays Roch and he’s a natural, the trademark of a great actor. He never shouts but is always heard. He speaks on stage like he’s chatting with friends but has a perfect diction. I go to the theatre frequently. I’ve come to the conclusion that outstanding actors are the ones who are on stage and don’t seem to be acting. You watch them and it’s like they’re living their real life.

Torreton isn’t the only gifted actor here. Rachida Brakni, who plays Anissa is excellent as usual. Vincent Garanger is a true to life Grinch. Maurin Ollès holds his own as Enée, a character often on stage with the master Torreton. The other young actors Federico Semedo, Bénédicte Mbemba and Riad Gahmi were on a par with the more seasoned actors. (And it must be intimidating to play with Torreton and Brakni)

Even if it was a little too long, I Took My Father On My Shoulders is a good play written by a living playwright and for a director who wanted to bring our attention to a certain part of the population. It’s served by an excellent set of actors. For French readers, if this play is on tour in your city, it’s worth buying tickets.

Zaï Zaï Zaï Zaï by Fabcaro – Many a true word is said in jest

April 14, 2019 11 comments

Zaï Zaï Zaï Zaï. A roadmovie. by Fabcaro (2015) Not available in English

At the Bron Literary Festival I attended the interview of Fabrice Caro (Fabcaro is his nom de plume as a BD author) and laughed so much when I saw excerpts of his BD album Zaï Zaï Zaï Zaï that I rushed to buy it. I kept giggling, laughing, chuckling all along this short little gem.

A man –Fabcaro’s doppelgangler—is at the checkout in a supermarket when the cashier requests his loyalty card. He doesn’t have it. He tries to explain that he left it in his other pants but he’s taken by security as if he were a thief. He bolts out of the store and is now on the run. The reader sees both his travels and how society responds to this news.

We see him hitchhike, call home to tell his wife and daughters where he is…He decides to go and hide in Lozère because he imagines that it’s so isolated that they don’t have TV or radio. It’s a reference to American road movies and it become ridiculous in France because we don’t have the American wilderness as a dramatic effect. No. We only have country roads and small villages.

In parallel to the man’s run, we see the circus in the country and how society is carried away by such a tiny event. Perfectly coiffed reporters are sent on location and have nothing to report to their news channel and still talk endlessly. The authorities have to deploy police forces or they’d be considered as inefficient. Artists have their say and create a temporary group to write and sing a charity single. TV channels organize talk shows to discuss the pros and cons of having one’s loyalty card.

We also see the reaction of the man in the street: hasty condemnations in what we call “conversation de bistrot”, which would probably be “bar talk” in English. Mothers who won’t let their kid go out because a criminal is on the run…People who want to deport this BD author to where he belongs…Brussels.

The root of the whole thing is absurd and the absurdity of it all is hilarious. Of course, in real life, forgetting one’s loyalty card doesn’t engender all these extreme reactions. Fabcaro said it was an image for identity papers. It’s a way to show the life of a clandestine and how easy a regular person can become one. See what happened in the UK in the last two years with migrants from the 1950s who were in the Empire at the time and didn’t need papers, who settled in Britain, never knew they needed papers and were suddenly denied a passport and swept away in all kinds of administrative nightmares.

Choosing a loyalty card is also spot on because our Western societies try to make us believe that we are what we consume and that if we are not a consumer, we do not exist. Loyalty cards are your ID as a consumer. And identity papers define you and prove your existence.

This is why Zaï Zaï Zaï Zaï is the perfect illustration of the saying Many a true word is said in jest.

The absurd and hilarious ending explains the title of the album. Zaï Zaï Zaï is a gimmick in the popular oldy song Siffler sur la colline by Joe Dassin. It’s available on Youtube for curious readers. It’s also the lyrics told by Jean-Pierre Bacri in the film On connaît la chanson.

Now, I can’t wait to read Caro’s novel, Le discours. I’ve heard it’s a lot of fun too.

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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