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Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou

May 25, 2017 11 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 16 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.

Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé. Extremely powerful.

March 19, 2017 16 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heed the Thunder by Jim Thompson. The billet

March 10, 2017 18 comments

Heed the Thunder by Jim Thompson (1946) French title: Avant l’orage.

That was all there was to life: a gift that was slowly taken away from you. An Indian gift. You started out with a handful of something and ended up with a handful of nothing. The best things were taken away from you last when you needed them worst. When you were at the bottom of the pot, where there was no longer reason for life, then you died. It was probably a good thing.

Heed the Thunder takes us Verdon, Nebraska at the turning of the 20th century in a valley beautifully described by Jim Thompson as mentioned in my previous billet.

The book opens on Mrs Dillon coming back to Verdon with her seven-year old son Bobbie. Her husband in gone but we don’t know how. Did he die? Did he leave her? Mrs Dillon’s maiden name is Edie Fargo and she’s back in her hometown where the Fargo clan is influential. The head of the family is old Lincoln Fargo. He’s married to Pearl, a churchy person, someone who blindly follows her clergyman. Lincoln is a disillusioned old man with not much trust in life or appetite for it anymore. He can be brutal but he’s not that bad. And to live his whole life with his wife mustn’t have been easy.

The Fargos have four children, Edie, Myrtle, Grant and Sherman. The father was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War and his sons have inherited names from generals.

Edie is back in town after her marriage collapsed. She has lost her husband, in a literal sense. She doesn’t know where he is. But life goes on and she has a mischievous and clumsy boy to raise. After staying a bit with her parents, she runs a hotel and tries to make a living for her and her son.

Myrtle is married to Alfred Courtland, an Englishman who ended up in Verdon. She’s proud of her husband’s refined accent and loves sipping five-o’clock tea. Her marriage gives her a feeling of superiority even if Courtland has a mediocre job at the local bank owned and run by Philo Barkley, Lincoln’s brother-in-law.

Grant is dressed like a dandy. He used to work for a newspaper in town but lost his job. He’s now living off his parents. He’s idle, he begs for drink money and he’s in serious lust with his cousin Bella Barkley. They have a torrid and illicit affair behind their parents’ back. Bella is beautiful and demanding, she’s the femme fatale of the novel.

Sherman is a farmer married to Josephine. They have six children. Josephine is far from the clichéd farmer’s wife who helps with chores, handles the kids and takes care of the house and of everyone’s stomach with fantastic cooking. No. Josephine is obese, unkind and almost useless in the kitchen.

An engaging crowd, aren’t they? Well, you’re in a novel by Jim Thompson, which means that you are as far from a book by Willa Cather as Little House on the Prairie is from a film by Quentin Tarentino.

We’ll follow the Fargos’ fate in the span of seven years, up til 1914. Heed the Thunder refers to WWI and probably the Great Depression. Thompson shows how all the signs of the changes that will lead to the Great Depression are already there. Sherman is experiencing the changes in agriculture. A salesman from a big firm goes from farm to farm to sell agricultural machines. This is the turning point towards mechanization of agriculture. Sherman buys machines through a credit purchase. He starts feeling obliged to use the machine he’s bought and secure revenues to pay back his loans. He gets credits on his future crop and this forces him to keep cultivating wheat when he would have liked to promote variety to let the land rest. Sherman is the symbol of farmers who enter into a deadly cycle.

Thompson also shows the slow switch from carriages to cars and trucks. A local orphan who was the target of mockeries became a lawyer and a politician. Through his rise, we see the corruption of local politicians who are sold to railroad companies. He will be the one to promote the construction of new roads. In Paul Claudel’s analysis about the Great Depression, he mentions the huge crisis in the railroad industry. A lot of companies are not profitable because they can’t make a good return on investments and they have a hard time improving the efficiency of the service.

Heed the Thunder shows the life of the Fargo family members during seven years. And life is not kind to them. Thompson distances himself from any postcard vision of life in the countryside. None of the Fargos are likeable. They’re rude, stingy and uneducated. Grant is borderline crazy. Sherman does his best but fails as a father and as a farmer. Edie tries to sort herself out but is a bit overwhelmed with Bobbie’s energy. And Myrtle drapes herself is her husband’s aura of higher civilization, until he proves to be as bestial as the others.

Verdon is a closed community, not a close-knit one. It’s a dark novel that only makes you want to go to Verdon for the landscape, certainly not for its human clan. This book resonates with The Duck Hunt by Hugo Claus. I’ve read it earlier and my billet will come soon.

Heed the Thunder also describes the interaction between the immigrant communities. The Germans are well appreciated but the people from Eastern Europe are to be avoided. Religion separates the groups and Catholics are not as welcome. The pot has not quite melted to fabricate Americans yet.

Thompson’s style is sumptuous, proving he’s so much more than a banal crime fiction writer. He uses a lot of slang words from the countryside and purposely makes a lot of grammar “mistakes”. It gives a feel of the place, of the time and of the lack of education in this village. It was a bit difficult for me to follow at times but I managed.

Heed the Thunder is different from other books by Jim Thompson like The Killer Inside Me. But the dark side of humanity is there too, just as the stifling atmosphere of rural life. It seems to produce monsters, not rosy-cheeked plump matrons who shower kids and neighbors with cheerfulness and warmth.

Highly recommended.

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf

February 20, 2017 17 comments

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Cool Million by Nathanael West

February 5, 2017 25 comments

A Cool Million by Nathanael West (1934) French title: Un bon million ! Translated by Catherine Delavallade.

west_englishA Cool Million by Nathanael West relates the trials and tribulations of young Lemuel Pitkin in America and in 1934. Lemuel Pitkin lives peacefully in a village in Vermont with his mother when their landlord threatens to evict them from their cottage unless they can buy their mortgage out. Lemuel decides to consult with Mr Shagpoke Whipple, former president of the USA and current owner of the local bank.

Mr Whipple talks Lemuel into going to New York to get rich. He’s a firm believer of the American Dream and he’s certain that Pitkin will succeed if he works hard enough. He’s even ready to give him the starting capital for this venture, 30 dollars with a 12% interest rate and guaranteed by a collateral on the Pitkin cow. Generosity and faith have a cost.

Lemuel leaves Vermont but not before saving Miss Prail from a rabid dog and fighting with the local bully. Lemuel is naïve and he’s soon the prey of thieves and con men who frame him. He spends time to prison while being innocent and eventually arrives to New York.

I’m not going to retell all his ups and downs and will forward to the moment he is reunited with Shagpoke Whipple in New York. Indeed, Whipple’s bank went bankrupt and he’s as poor as Pitkin now. But he still has faith in the grand American dream and he’s certain his luck will come and that he can count on his reputation as a former president and former banker to turn things around.

Lemuel trusts in Whipple and attaches his fate to his. Follows a journey where the two of them show us New York during the Great Depression, meet with a frustrated poet who turns to trashy entertainment, go West to find gold, come in contact with Native Americans…

west_frenchNathanael West mocks and knocks over pillars of America’s history. He’s like a kid engaged in a tin throwing game where great founding myths of America are the tins. Pitkin and Whipple come from New England. Business comes first and everything can be monetized. Fortune belongs to daring people and exploiting others through prostitution or some muddy business schemes is part of the game as long as it brings in money. The myth of the West with the gold rush, battles with Indians and its itinerant shows is taken to pieces.

I mentioned a tin throwing game because West is playful. A Cool Million is a satire, not a pamphlet. He puts forward his ideas through the ridiculous and yet appalling destiny of Lemuel Pitkin. In that respect, A Cool Million is a lot like Candide by Voltaire. (A tall order, I know. Here’s my billet about Candide, to refresh your memory about it if need be.)

Lemuel is as naïve and trusting as Candide. He looks up to Wipple just as Candide looks up to Pangloss. They both believe in their mentor’s vision of life. While Candide has faith in Pangloss’s famous dogma “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Lemuel blindly believe Whipple’s vision of the American Dream, that a pauper can become a millionaire thanks to hard work combined with luck. Here’s Wipple’s profession of faith:

“America,” he said with great seriousness, “is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost.

Whipple genuinely believes in it himself despite how poorly America treats Pitkin. Like Candide, Lemuel’s journey will show him the troubles of the world. He was sheltered in his village, he’s now exposed to the consequences of the Great Depression. A Cool Million was written in 1934 and it is a testimony of the atmosphere of the time. Through Lemuel, we’ll see poverty in New York, the consequences of the economic crisis and the political trends of the time.

Shagpoke Whipple is a former president of the USA, a former banker and a firm believer that one’s fate can take a turn for the best as he explains it to Lemuel here:

“You expect to keep a bank again?” asked Lem, making a brave attempt not to think of his own troubles. “Why, certainly,” replied Shagpoke. “My friends will have me out of here shortly. Then I will run for political office, and after I have shown the American people that Shagpoke is still Shagpoke, I will retire from politics and open another bank. In fact, I am even considering opening the Rat River National [bank] a second time. I should be able to buy it in for a few cents on the dollar.” “Do you really think you can do it?” asked our hero with wonder and admiration. “Why, of course I can,” answered Mr. Whipple. “I am an American businessman, and this place is just an incident in my career.

Mixing business and politics, now where have we heard of that again? And true to his word, Shagpoke Whipple turns to politics, using the trends of the time to his benefit. And what’s trending in politics in the 1930s? Antisemitism and the fear of communism. Whipple ends up founding a new party, the National Revolutionary Party, a party that is openly anti-Semite and anti-communist and that uses unemployment of workers and the struggles of the middle class in general to gain audience.

When a large group had gathered, Shagpoke began his harangue. “I’m a simple man,” he said with great simplicity, “and I want to talk to you about simple things. You’ll get no highfalutin talk from me. “First of all, you people want jobs. Isn’t that so?” An ominous rumble of assent came from the throats of the poorly dressed gathering. “Well, that’s the only and prime purpose of the National Revolutionary Party–to get jobs for everyone. There was enough work to go around in 1927, why isn’t there enough now? I’ll tell you; because of the Jewish international bankers and the Bolshevik labor unions, that’s why. It was those two agents that did the most to hinder American business and to destroy its glorious expansion. The former because of their hatred of America and love for Europe and the latter because of their greed for higher and still higher wages.

I swear I’m not making this up. I wonder if we shall be terrified of the parallel we can make with present times because all this led to WWII. West describes the temptation of fascism, how easy it is to convince the masses in times of economic depression and how ready people are to blame a scapegoat for their troubles. Reading this in February 2017 is chilling. Despite West’s light tone, I wasn’t laughing anymore. As I said in my previous billet about Claudel’s reports on the Great Depression, comparing is not reasoning. But still, it’s hard not to, especially when I read this passage, where Whipple’s talking to the crowd:

“This is our country and we must fight to keep it so. If America is ever again to be great, it can only be through the triumph of the revolutionary middle class. “We must drive the Jewish international bankers out of Wall Street! We must destroy the Bolshevik labor unions! We must purge our country of all the alien elements and ideas that now infest her! “America for Americans! Back to the principles of Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln!”

Any resemblance with a Dutch-cheese faced president is purely accidental. And bloody frightening because the 1930s was the decade of totalitarianism.

The conclusion of the book was like receiving a bucket of cold water straight in the face:

Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism and International Capitalism. Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again American.”

The country was delivered from sophistication. I suppose we must hear that the country was free of intellectuals, journalists, and all the thinking class, the one that won’t buy anything not based on facts or that values free thinking and the right to contractict. A Cool Million is a satire turning to dystopian fiction. Usually, when you read dystopian fiction, you have the comfort to think it’s still fiction. Here, you’re not that comfortable. In French, we say rire jaune (to laugh a yellow laugh) when we laugh hollowly. In other words, the way things are said are funny, but the substance is not funny at all. According to the events of the last couple of weeks, I’m afraid we’ve entered a four-year time of orange laugh, that I’ll also call a Beaumarchais laugh: I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of being obliged to weep.

I think A Cool Million should join 1984 on the best selling lists. Highly recommended.

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki

December 18, 2016 20 comments

I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki (1905) French title: Je suis un chat. Translated by Jean Cholley.

Disclaimer: I read I Am a Cat in French and will use the French transcription of Japanese names. It may be different from the one in English translation. I translated the quotes from the French and let the original French for readers who can read it and enjoy the professional translation from the Japanese.

L’étude des humains ne peut progresser si on ne choisit pas un moment où ils ont des ennuis. A l’ordinaire, les hommes sont justes des hommes : ils présentent un spectacle banal et sans intérêt. Mais quand ils ont des ennuis, toute cette banalité fermente et se soulève par la grâce de quelque fonction mystérieuse, et on voit alors se produire soudainement un peu partout des événements étranges, bizarres, insolites, inimaginables, en un mot des choses qui sont d’un grand intérêt pour nous, les chats. The study of human nature cannot progress if one doesn’t choose moments where men are in trouble. Usually, men are just men. They play a trite and uninteresting show. But when they’re in trouble, all this triteness ferments and lifts itself by some sort of mysterious feature. One can suddenly witness all kinds of strange, bizarre and unbelievable things. And these things are of great interest for us, cats.

soseki_chatNatsume Sōseki (1867-1916) is a Japanese writer. He spent three years in England, spoke English very well and had a good knowledge of British literature. He was a teacher of English literature in Tokyo. He lived during the Meiji era (1868-1912). At the time, Japan stopped being an isolated country and opened to the world. It resulted in a lot of changes in politics, in economy, in mores and touched the whole society. It was a major change and it is important to have it in mind while reading Natsume Sōseki.

In I Am a Cat, the narrator is an unnamed feline and it is a first-person narration. This device reminded me of Lettres persanes by Montesquieu who used Persans characters to question the French society. They wrote letters to each other and could wonder at customs, point out ridicules and inconsistences without being offensive. They had the right to be puzzled, they were foreigners. The same thing happens here with the cat. He portrays his master and his family and friends and relates the life in this house in a neighborhood in Tokyo. Natsume Sōseki gives a vivid description of a cat’s mind. Our furry narrator explains how he shows affection to his master to be fed and how he enjoys walks in the garden, naps in the sun. He relates the sensitive politics between the cat population of the quartier. There’s a hilarious passage where he retells his first attempt at catching mice. As a reader, you really feel like you’re looking at life through cat’s eyes. He has a smart mouth and doesn’t refrain from using it to mock humans like here:

Un miroir est un alambic à vanité et en même temps un stérilisateur d’orgueil. Aucun objet n’excite plus un imbécile qui se tient devant lui avec la tête pleine de suffisance. Les deux bons tiers des malheurs qui restent dans l’histoire, malheurs soufferts par des orgueilleux qui se sont trop vite crus supérieurs, et malheurs infligés à leurs victimes, sont dus aux miroirs. A mirror is a vanity still and at the same time a pride sterilizer. No other object gets an imbecile as worked up just by standing in front of it, their head full of self-importance. A solid two-thirds of the tragedies that remained in history are due to mirrors, both the tragedies suffered by proud people who thought themselves as superior and the tragedies inflicted to their victims.

There are a lot of other examples. In addition to ironic thoughts about humans, the cat-narrator tends to think out of the box, as you can see here:

On peut croire qu’il y a une grande différence entre tomber et descendre mais elle n’est pas aussi importante qu’on le pense. Descendre, c’est ralentir une chute, et tomber, c’est accélérer une descente, voilà tout. One may think there is a big difference between falling and going down but it’s not as obvious as one thinks. Going down is slowing down a fall and falling down is accelerating a go down, that’s all.

That was for the atmosphere. Time to describe a bit more the household that took on this kitten.

Our little friend lives in Professor Kushami’s house. He’s married and has three daughters, all under 10 years old. His house is where his friends Meitei and Kagetsu gather. They talk about all and nothing. According to the cat, Kushami is rather ridiculous. He’s not a very good husband and he doesn’t care much about his daughters. He’s surrounded with books and seems to be barely average as a teacher. I Am a Cat is a comedy of manners, it could be a theatre play because everything is centered in the house. Kushami probably shares traits with Natsume Sōseki. Like Kushami, he was an English teacher and had chronic stomach aches—he died of stomach ulcer. It is true that there are a lot of laughable things about Kushami. But he’s also someone who doesn’t gamble, cheat on his wife or bends to the will of others. He’s not interested in money and would rather cling to his principles and his dignity than give in to powerful and wealthy neighbors. I loved reading about the decoration of the house, the display of the rooms, the kitchen, the dishes, politeness and all kinds of details about life in Japan at the time. My edition included useful but noninvasive footnotes.

Kushami’s woes with his wife, neighbors or friends are described in such a funny tone that I laughed a lot. Marriage is a target in I Am a Cat. The author and Kushami are not too fond of the institution which is more a necessary burden than a love match. And our cat observes:

Ce couple a abandonné le caractère fastidieux des bonnes manières avant sa première année de mariage ; c’est un couple super-marié. This couple has abandoned all fussy good manners before their first year of marriage ended. They’re a super-married couple.

Not exactly a glowing advertising for the institution. Natsume Sōseki uses comedy to amuse the reader but he still reflects on human nature. The cat-narrator compares humans and cats.

Le monde est plein de gens qui agissent mal tout en se croyant dans leur bon droit. Ils sont convaincus de leur innocence, ce qui part d’une candeur plaisante mais la candeur n’a jamais supprimé une réalité gênante. The world is full of people who behave badly while believing they’re in their good right. They are convinced of their innocence, which stems from a pleasant candidness but candidness has never made an embarrassing reality vanish.

Natsume Sōseki was born with the Meiji era and he observes the transformations of the Japanese society. I Am a Cat includes lots of thoughts about the rapid changes in the society. It impacts every area of life: relationships between men and women become less formal, Western ways of doing business become the norm. New hobbies appear. I knew that baseball was a popular sport in Japan and I thought it dated back to WWII and the occupation of Japan by American troops. Actually, Japanese people started to play baseball during the Meiji era. All things Western were fashionable and the prerequisite was “West is the best” and this bothered Natsume Sōseki. Even if he’s open to Western culture, he criticizes the blind acceptance of Western ways.

La civilisation occidentale est peut-être progressive, agressive, mais en fin de compte, c’est une civilisation faite par des gens qui passent leur vie dans l’insatisfaction. La civilisation japonaise ne cherche pas la satisfaction en changeant autre chose que l’homme lui-même. Là où elle diffère profondément de l’occidentale, c’est en ce qu’elle s’est développée sur la grande assertion qu’il ne faut pas changer fondamentalement les conditions de l’environnement. Si les relations entre parents et enfants ne sont pas les meilleures, notre civilisation ne tente pas de retrouver l’harmonie en changeant ces relations, comme le font les Européens. Elle tient que ces relations ne peuvent pas être altérées, et elle recherche un moyen pour restaurer la sérénité à l’intérieur de ces relations. Il en va de même entre mari et femme, maître et serviteur, guerrier et marchand, et également dans la nature. Si une montagne empêche d’aller dans le pays voisin, au lieu de raser cette montagne, on s’arrange pour ne pas avoir à aller dans ce pays. On cultive un sentiment qui puisse donner satisfaction de ne pas franchir la montagne. Et c’est pourquoi les adeptes du zen et du confucianisme sont certainement ceux qui comprennent le mieux cette question dans le fond. On peut être tout-puissant sans que le monde tourne comme on veut, on ne peut ni empêcher le soleil de se coucher, ni renverser le cours de la rivière Kamo. On n’a de pouvoir que sur son esprit. Western civilization may be progressive and aggressive but in the end, it’s a civilization built by people who spend their life dissatisfied. Japanese civilization does not seek satisfaction other than by changing men themselves. The biggest difference with the Western civilization is that the Japanese civilization grew on the assertion that the environment cannot be changed. If the relationships between parents and children are not ideal, our civilization does not look for harmony in changing the relationships like Europeans do. It considers that these relationships cannot be altered and it searches for a way to restore serenity inside these relations. It is the same for relations between men and women, master and servant, warrior and merchant and even in nature. If a mountain prevents you from walking to the neighboring country, the Japanese will arrange not to have to go to this country. They will cultivate a state of mind that finds satisfaction in not getting over the mountain. This is why the adepts of Zen and Confucianism are probably the ones who understand this matter the best. One can be the most powerful person on Earth but the world still won’t bend to their wishes. One cannot prevent the sun from setting, change the course of the River Kamo. One has only power over their own mind.

This quote is fascinating when you think it dates back to 1905. Not all the flaws of our Western civilization come from the landslide of consumer society. The roots were there before mass consumption and globalization. The part about the mountain reminded me of our visit to Bluff, Utah. The Mormons who founded this community used dynamite to carve their way through the mountain and arrive there. It’s called the Hole in the Rock trail. It baffled Native Americans that humans could destroy nature like this. It would have baffled their Japanese contemporaries as well.

I Am a Cat is an excellent read because it is multilayered. It’s funny, with an unusual narrator and under the lightness, there’s a real purpose to decipher a rapidly changing society. I Am a Cat is the perfect example of why we should read translations. I know that the Japanese language is far from the French and a lot of wordplays were probably lost in translation. But I don’t mind. It’s good enough in French and style is not everything. I Am a Cat allowed me to learn about Japan and its culture. Reading familiar things about human nature reminds us that whatever the culture we have things in common.

Highly recommended.

Natsume Sōseki died on December 9th, 1916. It is a coincidence but this billet will be my way to celebrate the centenary of his death. Jacqui recently reviewed The Gate. The atmosphere seems different, more melancholic. Her excellent review is here. Many thanks to Tony who recommended this in the first place.

PS: A word for French readers. I have the paper edition of Je suis un chat and it’s printed in a very small font. It’s available in e-book so I would recommend that version.

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