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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.

Sad to be back in the office after the holidays? Have a good laugh with Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan.

September 4, 2016 15 comments

Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan. (2006) Not available in French. Translation tragedy. 

When I woke up that Sunday after getting fired Marlene was dead. I was in a salty bed and two detectives were staring down at me. Three hours later I was jerking off in a police station bathroom. It was not the resurrection I’d been hoping for.

Neilan_ApathyIsn’t that a promising setting? Meet Shane a professional drifter who moves around a lot, shies away from responsibilities and roots. He tries to fly under the radar but this time he failed. He’s in custody because a woman, Marlene, is dead and he’s the police’s favorite suspect. He starts recalling the flow of events that brought him there and we’re introduced to a menagerie of characters: Doug, the dentist who faints on his patients while they’re on his chair. Marlene, his deaf assistant who loves karaoke. Gwen who likes rough sex with her boyfriends. The janitor’s wife who needs sex services. The janitor, who needs his wife to be serviced.

And Shane finds himself mixed in their lives. He’s Doug’s patient and befriends Marlene on his frequent trips to the dentist. A former college rugby player, Gwen picks him as a boyfriend and he lets himself be tackled in her rounds of TLC.

“Oh my god, Shane!” she said, and hit me with an open field tackle of a hug that lifted me off my stool and cracked two of my ribs. I saw her coming at the last second and braced myself. Otherwise I would’ve been paralyzed for life.

Since he can’t pay his full rent, the janitor in his apartment complex asks him into shag his wife every Tuesday. Shane doesn’t enjoy it but he complies, gets his a discount on his rent and comments with a deadpan sense of humor.

Still, after a few Tuesdays, just from sheer repetition, the sex had marginally improved. We were still dead fish being swung by an off duty clown, but we weren’t just any kind of fish. And even if we weren’t two majestic salmon, glistening in the sun as we leaped up a waterfall into the mouth of a huge fucking grizzly bear, we were at least tuna. Someone, somewhere would be glad to catch and eat us.

Under Gwen’s recommendation, Shane starts as a temp among the support staff in the insurance company she works for, Panopticon Insurance. Now have you noticed? If a character must have a boring job, they’re either an accountant or work for an insurance company. Imagine what a writer would do with an accountant working for an insurer. Perhaps nothing because their character would be in a boredom-induced coma. Or it would be the ultimate modernist novel. Stream of unconsciousness. Zzzzzzz.

Anyway, back to Shane and his temp job at Panopticon because that’s the funniest part of the novel. His job is to alphabetize contracts but soon he specializes in what we call in French “vertical filing” ie, putting things straight into the trash. So our Shane has a lot of time on his hands and he divides it between making miniature gallows with paper clips and perfecting the art of sleeping in the restrooms.

It was early on, before I knew the physiology of sleeping on a toilet bowl and its effects, and what I needed to do to counteract them: how long to hold on to the quadriplegic bars before trying to walk on my own, how to maximize my momentum without tripping over my dead legs, how to use my lack of balance to my advantage, which I never really figured out. It was all a matter of timing and rhythm, like tap dancing. In those first few days I knew how to shuffle ball step, but I was wearing the wrong shoes.

He makes cutting remarks on Panopticon, the cubicles, the team’s manager Andrew, his colleagues and makes fun of corporate life in general and management techniques in particular.

The boss’s name was Andrew, but he didn’t like the term boss. He referred to himself as the team facilitator.

It is absolutely hilarious, especially when Andrew organizes a “cube warming” party when their department gets a brand new cubicle or when Shane describes Inspiration Alley, the row between the cubicles. It’s covered with inspirational quotes from great leaders to uplift team spirit. As Shane says

If Tolstoy were alive today and working as a temp at Panopticon Insurance, he’d say that all insurance companies are the same, then throw himself through an eighteenth-story window and plunge to his death in a hail of glass and shattered dignity. I worked on the eighteenth floor, but the windows were too thick.

Shane’s professional wanker. Apathy is his way-of-life, an art-of-life, even. It’s his driving force and nothing can sway him. He’s completely whacked and he’s one of these characters totally oblivious that something’s seriously wrong with them. But you get to know his brand of crazy around a comment here and there.

He looked at me the way my mom did the time she caught me officiating the wedding of Mr. Potato Head and He-Man. I had just said, “You may kiss the bride,” and when I looked up she was standing in the doorway. I was fourteen years old, and I was not wearing any pants.

He’s fucked-up and can’t help stealing saltshakers wherever he goes:

I was stealing saltshakers again. Ten, sometimes twelve a night, shoving them in my pockets, hiding them up my sleeves, smuggling them out of bars and diners and anywhere else I could find them. In the morning, wherever I woke up, I was always covered in salt. I was cured meat. I had become beef jerky. Even as a small, small child, I knew it would one day come to this.

(Btw, if you ever want to get rid of a French guest: serve them beef jerky with root beer and Jello as a dessert. They’ll run away quickly.)

Being in Shane’s head is fun. He might be totally immature and crazy but he makes spot on observations about humans. I chuckled, laughed out loud at his outrageous comments. The scenes in Doug’s office are hilarious. The corporate part put me in stitches. The story comes together in the end, the reader gets the whole picture and sees how fate framed Shane.

I loved everything in Apathy and Other Small Victories. The crazy plot. The amazing characters. Neilan’s punchy style and impeccable sense of humor. It’s going to be on my best-of-the-year list, I’m sure.

I read this thanks to Guy, who picked it after Max Barry mentioned it as a fantastic read. Check out Guy’s review here. Highly recommended in case of depressing weather, hard times at work, dire need of a good laugh.

 

Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot by Duane Swierczynski

August 29, 2016 10 comments

Hell & Gone (2011) and Point & Shoot (2013) by Duane Swierczynski. Not available in French. (So far. So it goes in the Translation Tragedy category)

 What was that old saying? It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye? Hardie supposed the fun and games were over. Now it was something else.

Swierczynski_hell_gone

And something else it is.

I have read Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot by Duane Swierczynski almost one after the other. There are the two last books of the Charlie Hardie trilogy. The first one is Fun & Games and my billet about it is here.

In the first episode, poor Charlie Hardie happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and crosses path with a secret organization, The Accident People, who are specialized in killing people through what looks like an accident. Charlie Hardie is a tough guy. The Accident People are so impressed with his resilience and toughness that they decide they they want him to work for them. Hardie isn’t really on board with the idea so they don’t give him a choice. They kidnap him, drug him and ship him to in a high security prison somewhere. Soon, Hardie discovers he’s supposed to be the warden of highly dangerous criminals. And there’s a catch: if he tries to escape, it will trigger a death mechanism and everybody will die. And Charlie Hardie isn’t a killer. So a warden he becomes and he needs to manage a team of lethal guards. Hardie is a lone wolf. He used to work for the Philadelphia Police Department as a “consultant”, being a real cop wasn’t his thing. He worked closely with a police officer, Nate, and he was the one with the social skills in the duo. Hardie is not a leader, he’s a Pitbull who never gives up. Despite his desperate position, he still plans on escaping and doing whatever it takes to get out.

Hardie needed to gain their trust somehow, put them at ease. He couldn’t escape if his own staff was keeping a closer eye on him than the actual prisoners.

God help him…

He needed to hold a staff meeting.

This gives you a taste of Swierczynski’s brand of prose. Punchy, straight to the point and laced with tons of humor. The whole book is a fast paced adventure as Hardie discovers the ins and outs of the prison and the personality of the prisoners. It’s hard to know who to trust. There are new developments all the time and it’s a highly enjoyable ride.

In Point & Shoot, Hardie has been sent in orbit around the Earth. The Accident People again. This time he’s keeping something precious in a satellite. He’s trapped there for a year at least and he can observe his wife Kendra and kid through a weekly live feed. He must stay on duty for twelve months otherwise his wife and kid will have “an accident”. He can’t say he’s comfy in his in-orbit shoe box.

Ordinary life up here in space was a Black & Decker funhouse of pain.

Things change when his avatar lands on the satellite and makes them fall into the Pacific Ocean. How will they survive? Is this man trustworthy? Are Kendra and Charlie Junior in danger?

You’ll know more if you read the book. We learn more about the criminal organization that holds Hardie prisoner, why he’s so resilient despite all the beatings, drugging and other awful things that happen to his body. His mind is unreachable. He’s stubborn as hell and never gives up. He’s got a one track mind and protecting his wife and son is his only goal.

He’s an engaging character because his moral compass remains stable. He’s tough physically but also mentally. He remains human, not a superhero. It is through little observations that the reader sympathizes with Hardie’s predicament.

Sometimes all Hardie wanted in the world was the opportunity to stretch. A real stretch, where you can reach your hands to heaven and you can feel the vertebrae pop. Such a stretch was impossible in this claustrophobic tin can. And taking a leak? Back on Earth, guys were blessed with the ability to find a semi-hidden spot, unzip, and let it fly. Up here Hardie had t contort as he were doing yoga in a closet. If the vacuum seal wasn’t tight, then he’s enjoy the sensation of his own gravity-free piss droplets smacking into his face.

He’s the good guy put in impossible situations and he fights against the monsters.

Swierczynski_point_shootThese books are off the charts action movies. I wonder why nobody turned them into films. There’s so much material here. I love Swierczynski’s sense of humor, his style and his crazy ideas. He even gave the surname of his French translator to the French character in Hell & Gone. It’s an unusual surname, Aslanides, I knew she was her translator for France and I asked him if it was an allusion to her and it is.

I’m so sorry to report to French readers that this trilogy isn’t translated into French. It’s available in ebook and in English. Unfortunately, it means you won’t have the paper books with their gorgeous covers.

Many thanks again to Guy for pointing Duane Swierczynski in my direction. I will definitely read other books by him. Here are his reviews of Hell & Gone  and of Point & Shoot

 

Spanish Lit Month: Exemplary crimes by Max Aub

July 20, 2016 20 comments

Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub. (1956) Original Spanish title: Crímenes ejemplares. French title: Crimes exemplaires. (Translated by Danièle Guibbert.)

Après, ici, n’importe quel malheureux petit mort, ils l’appellent cadavre. But then here, any tiny little dead body, they call it a stiff.

This is my first participation to Spanish Lit Month organized by Richard and Stu. I started with Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub.

aub_crimes_exemplairesMax Aub was born in 1903. His mother was French and his father German but he adopted the Spanish language when his family moved to Valencia in 1914. After the Spanish Civil War, he moved to Mexico where he remained until his death in 1972. He worked as a salesman, he was the one who ordered Guernica to Picasso for the Republican Government and worked with André Malraux. Among other things.

Exemplary Crimes is a Literary UFO, one of those books that don’t belong to a pre-defined category. In France, it won the Grand Prix de l’Humour Noir in 1981 and that says a lot about it. It is a cultural and literary prize created in 1957 that rewards works of black humour. Raymond Queneau used to be in the jury and my dear Quino also won it in 1981, in the Comics category.

So what is Exemplary Crimes exactly? It is a collection of 130 assassinations, all done in good faith according to their perpetrator. Each is described by a phrase, a paragraph or a page maximum. Each is the confession of the murderer who tells how or why they killed their victim. They all have what they consider a good justification for their deed. They don’t feel guilty or they try to convince themselves that their victim deserved it. Sometimes it’s written in a very candid tone:

Je l’ai d’abord tué en rêve, ensuite je n’ai pu m’empêcher de le faire vraiment. C’était inévitable. I first killed him in my dreams and then I couldn’t help myself, I killed him for real. It was inevitable.

It can be almost poetic in its twisted way…

– Plutôt mourir! me dit-elle. Et dire que ce que je voulais par-dessus tout, c’était lui faire plaisir. I’d rather die, she said. And me, I wanted to please her above all.

Or sometimes they’re totally unapologetic in front of an imaginary jury at their trial:

Qu’est-ce qu’ils veulent de plus ? Il était accroupi. Il me présentait ses arrières d’une manière si ridicule et il était à ma portée de manière si parfaite que je n’ai pu résister à la tentation de le pousser. What more do they want? He was crouched. He presented me with his rear-end with such a ridiculous manner and he was within my reach so perfectly that I couldn’t resist the temptation to push him.

Indeed, what is there to understand? Isn’t that obvious to anyone? Others will show you that there was no other way out. Their victim called it upon themselves.

Pourquoi essayer de le convaincre ? C’était un sectaire de la pire espèce, comme s’il se prenait pour Dieu le Père. Il avait la cervelle bouchée. Je la lui ai ouverte d’un seul coup, pour lui faire voir comment on apprend à discuter. Que celui qui ne sait pas se taise. Why try to convince him? He was a sectarian of the worst species, as if he were God himself. His brain was clogged up. I opened it for him all at once, just to teach him how to talk things out. Ignorant people should shut up.

Oh the irony. Some try to be rational…

Il m’avait mis un morceau de glace dans le dos. Le moins que je puisse faire était de le refroidir. He had put an ice cube in my back. The least I could do was to ice him off.

…or to explain how exasperated they were when they committed their crime. They try to show how their victim pushed them over the edge with their obnoxious behaviour.

Et jusque dans la salle de bains : et ci et ça et autre chose. Je lui ai enfoncé la serviette dans la bouche pour qu’elle se taise. Elle n’est pas morte de ça, mais de ne plus pouvoir parler: les paroles ont éclaté à l’intérieur. And even in the bathroom: and this and that and blah blah blah. I shoved a towel down her throat to shut her up. She didn’t die from this but from not being able to talk anymore. The words burst inside of her.

Some premeditated their crime and regret more getting caught than killing someone. I loved this one, it reminded me of Olivier Norek, a French crime fiction writer who is also a police officer.

Je l’ai empoisonné parce que je voulais son siège à l’Académie. Je ne pensais pas qu’on le découvrirait. Mais il y a eu ce romancier de merde et qui de surcroît est commissaire de police. I poisoned him because I wanted his chair at the Academy. I didn’t think they would find out. But there was this crappy novelist who’s also a superintendent.

Imagine the investigation in the corridors of the Academy and the crime investigator turned writer who unearths a crime in a community who supposed to be very civilized.

I read Exemplary Crimes during the football UEFA Euro 2016 in France and I couldn’t help chuckling when I read this one:

C’était comme si c’était fait ! Il n’y avait qu’à pousser le ballon, avec ce gardien de but qui n’était pas à sa place…Et il l’a envoyé par-dessus le filet ! Et ce but était décisif ! Nous nous foutions complètement de ces putains de minables de la Nopalera. Si le coup de pied que je lui ai balancé l’a envoyé dans l’autre monde, qu’il apprenne au moins à shooter comme Dieu le demande. It was almost done! He just had to push the ball, with this goalie who wasn’t in his place…And he sent it over the net! And this was a decisive goal! We didn’t give a damn of these bloody losers from Nopalera. If the kick I threw his way sent him into the other world, let him learn how to shoot as God requires.

Thankfully, I don’t think any football player met the same fate during the competition.  I also thought about all the guns circulating in the USA when I read this short one:

Je l’ai tué parce que j’avais un révolver. J’avais tant de plaisir à le tenir dans ma main ! I killed him because I had a gun. I had so much pleasure holding it!

Chilling.

A last one. A husband was killed because he broke the household’s precious soup tureen.

Je ne l’ai pas fait avec le pic à glace. Monsieur, non, je l’ai fait avec le fer à repasser. I didn’t do it with the ice pick. No Sir, I did it with the flatiron.

We’re far from glamourous Sharon Stone and her Basic Instincts. We’re closer to shrew territory or to Susanita’s mother in Quino’s comic strip at best. Plus soup was involved, which brings me back to Quino too.

I had a lot of fun reading this and I highly recommend it as a summer read. For French readers, it’s like reading a book by Desproges. For English speaking readers, I’m sorry to report that it is not available in English. Another Translation Tragedy. However, the texts are short and it can be a good way to practice your French or your Spanish if you feel like it.

PS: I did the English translations the best I could. I hope they reflec the tone of the original.

The human inside me

May 31, 2016 10 comments

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Fao. (2011) Translation tragedy: it’s not available in French.

Calling Mr King is an quirky little book. We are in the mind of an American hit man who is based in Great Britain. He works for an entity called The Firm. When he receives a phone call for Mr King, he knows it’s time to report to the headquarters and take instructions for his next job. When the book opens, he’s back home in London after a rather messed up contract in Paris. He knows he did a poor job and that he probably raised suspicion in his bosses’ head. The truth is: he’s lost his concentration and his magic touch. Do you think he’s actually growing a conscience? Not at all!

I’d been getting a little tired of the steady work, one job after another. No real chance to rest. Here I was traveling from city to city, country to country, and I never had time just to relax and maybe see a few of the sights. That’s the problem with being too good at your job, too talented—you’re always in demand. And it’s hard to say no. It’s not very professional. And it’s also not very wise. You don’t want to be labeled “difficult” or “unreliable” in this business. No, not in this business. It just isn’t healthy. There weren’t too many challenges anymore. I had to admit it. I had gotten so good at my work that the job was becoming somewhat routine, maybe even a little stale. The targets and locations were different but the job was still the same. And things always ended the same way. They had to. I need a bit of a rest, I thought, I have to slow down. I wonder how they’d feel about a brief vacation.

Sounds like the hit man has a little meltdown and I dare say, he’s a little burnt out. He’d like to rest but while he’s enjoying a few R&R days in London, he’s called to another job. This time, the mark is a man who lives in his country house in Derbyshire. The trip out of town leads our hit man to take an interest in Georgian houses, imagining living in one someday. He gets the work done in Derbyshire but he took risks and The Firm sends him back on vacation in New York, before sending him on a delicate job in Barcelona. We follow him in the cities, we get to know him, his present and his past. He speaks about his job as an ordinary occupation.

But the truth is that a man in my profession can experience crummy working conditions too. He can get fed up with bosses just like anybody else. When you come down to it, all of us, in whatever line of business, have to work with or report to some bastard.

Dear God, you’d think he’s about to go on strike. He knows that what he does as a living is weird but he constantly refers to it because it’s been his quotidian for so long. He kills, that’s all he does. He knows that it messes up with his life and his head. Having this time for himself, time to push the “pause” button on his professional life gives him a chance to think about his choice of career. He knows his life is not normal. His profession prevents him from having a normal life and he’s painfully aware of it. (Jesus, I also thought, what memories I have. Other people remember girlfriends and great dates, promotions, terrific vacations, first love, and all that crap. I remember dead bodies in cities around the world.)

This is unsettling especially because the reader grows rather fond of him. We tend to forget that he’s not a regular Joe, that the hit man is ingrained in him. See how he reacts when he learns that his bosses don’t plan on giving him a weapon during his stay in the Big Apple!

I protested. They couldn’t leave me defenseless. I was always on call. You never knew. “All right, all right,” the boss said. “I suppose they’re like condoms with you people. You don’t know if you’ll use them but it’s best to have one or two just in case.” That wasn’t exactly the way I thought of it, but I agreed with the general idea.

In addition to the insight into his mind, it also gives you an idea of De Fao’s funny style. The phone calls he receives tether him to The Firm. A phone cord as an umbilical cord. And now, he’d like to cut it. But how?

We follow our character in London, New York and Barcelona and through his growing angst. He wonders who he really is, after spending years abroad, after years in thisd business.

I knew that I confused people any way I was. I mean, I wasn’t English, but I wasn’t really American anymore either. I think this dawned upon me one day about a year or so ago when I was buying a Tube ticket. In telling the man in the booth my destination, I suddenly realized I was speaking with an English accent.

The confusion the character feels about his identity shows in the random use of British words like bloody, chap, mate

Our man’s stay in New York City is also an opportunity for him to go back to his hometown, upstate New York. He realizes everything has changed, that nobody knows him anymore and this sorts of erases his existence. He doesn’t have a real existence in London either, as his profession requires that he remains inconspicuous. His visit to his hometown opens the door to memories of his childhood and his family. His father was a sicko who was a gun fanatic, always shooting at targets, still or alive and his mother was obsessed with housework and “was a real churchgoer. And in her handbag she kept a whole collection of cards that had pictures of Jesus and Mary, something like baseball trading cards for the devout.” As he deadpans his parents were Two strange people, one sicker than the other—a woman who wanted everything clean, and a man who wanted everything dead.

Seen from this perspective, no wonder he’s emotionally challenged and he grew up as well as he could. Now he muses, as he sees a dad playing with his son and a kite:

I wondered how I would have turned out had my old man taken me kite flying instead of animal hunting. I wondered if I would have grown up to be a kite flier instead of a professional killer. Yes, I wondered what I would be like today had my father been a kite-flying dad instead of a gun-happy son of a bitch. Then again, I hadn’t followed in his footsteps completely. I knew my guns, of course, but I really wasn’t a mean bastard at heart. Yes, I thought, except for my somewhat destructive occupation, I was really a pretty decent sort.

Well, a decent sort who kills in cold blood. His moral compass is still not wired as ours.

Calling Mr King could be renamed The Blues of the Hit Man. Except that it’s much more than that. The other fantastic aspect of this odd book is the character’s dive into architecture and art. When in London, he started to read books about Georgian houses. On leave in New York, he resumes his study and hangs out in bookstores, public libraries and museums. This leads to hilarious moments, like here when he goes to a book shop and an employee comes to talk to him.

It was another one of those knowledgeable clerks I seemed to be attracting lately. Now that I was growing vaguely intellectual, I was becoming a kind of nerd magnet. Christ. Then again, I tried to sympathize. The world had grown so stupid that people with brains were desperate for brainy company.

He discovers the pleasure of studying, of reading, of finding solace in books. He’s supposed to stay put in his hotel but he can’t. And he starts carrying his books around.

I found it dull to stay in my hotel room and read, so I took my books out with me each day. I took them with me the way I took along my gun. You might say the gun and the books were traveling companions.

Books are becoming equal to his gun, which is a pretty important shift in his mind set. He never goes out without his gun, even if it means he has to wear a jacket thick enough to conceal his holster in the smoldering heat of a New York summer. And now, he can’t go out without his books. He reads in parks, in cafés, in restaurants. New practicalities take precedence over his meal choices.

Now that I had become a reader I usually ordered food I could eat with just a fork, leaving my other hand free to hold a book or turn the pages.

Does that ring a bell to you? It definitely does to me. One of the great joys of the kindle: it remains open on the table. His journey towards culture began with an interest in Georgian houses. One read leading to the other, he visits the Met again and again and the reader is privy to his candid thoughts about paintings.

The paintings were more my cup of tea. Some of them, anyway. They certainly had enough, so you were bound to find at least a few things you liked. I wasn’t big on the Italian stuff, the religious pictures in general, with all these saints and angels flying about. They were usually flying about Jesus Christ, who was usually dying, dead, or coming back from the dead. Who in hell ever dreamed up this hammy character? Christ, give me a break. All I know is if you kill somebody he stays killed. I’d like to see old Jesus survive a few shots from a .45.

Again, we’re brought back to his actual self, a killer. His exploration of Barcelona and his new acquaintance with Gaudi’s architecture brought funny moments and I laughed out loud more than once. (This Gaudí character definitely had a thing for snakes, serpents, and assorted reptiles. And he was, of course, a total nut for tiles.) He’s so funny in his naïve comments about people and sights that I can forgive him for calling us French “frogs” all the time. “Go choke on a snail” is what he’d like to yell at a Parisian taxi driver. His enthusiasm for art is contagious. His newfound thirst for knowledge and culture is endearing. Just when you warm up to him a little too much, he says something that reminds you who he is and what he does for a living. Like here, when he plays tourist in Barcelona:

I approached the Fuster. It was less of a production than the Arabian wedding cake. The guide said that it recalled a Venetian mansion. I myself couldn’t say. I had never been to Venice. I was supposed to go there on a job once, but the mark ended up in Rome instead.

I loved Calling Mr King, it will probably make my end-of-year list. It’s one of those books you’d like to buy for all your friends.  It made me laugh and think. I loved the promenades in Paris, London, New York and Barcelona. The sense of place is incredible, I felt like I was exploring the cities with the character. It’s well-written, in a witty style with perfect description of the cities, and insights about the hit man. It rang true.

A big thank you to Guy for recommending Calling Mr King. You can find his review here. Sadly, this little gem of a book is not available in French. Hence a billet filled under Translation Tragedy. However, for French readers who enjoyed the ring of Calling Mr King, I’ll recommend Nager sans se mouiller by Carlos Salem. I think it has the same vibe. That’s another Translation Tragedy because it’s not available in English.

Quais du polar #4: Cardboard Hammocks by Colin Niel

March 23, 2016 13 comments

The Cardboard Hammocks by Colin Niel (2012) French title: Les Hamacs de carton.

Quais_polar_logoColin Niel is a French crime fiction writer who works as an environmental engineer and is specialized in the preservation of biodiversity. He worked in French Guiana several years and started a crime fiction series set in this overseas department and whose recurring character is capitaine André Anato.

The novel opens on Barnabé, a six-years old Maroon boy who lives in the remote village of Wetisoula on the river Maroni. The Maroon community in French Guiana represents 70 000 people out of 244 000 inhabitants in the department. They don’t acknowledge the border between Guiana and Suriname, each country being on one bank of the river Maroni. Wetisoula is a fictional village, populated by Maroon people and located nearby Apatou.

guyanne_frLittle Barnabé wakes up early and runs to the river to get cleaned up for the day. He’s surprised that his friend Tobie isn’t awake yet as they usually compete to see who’ll be up first. He decides to go and fetch him and finds him dead in his hammock. Tobie’s mother Thélia and his brother Justin are dead too. In their sleep. Thélia’s husband, Fernand, is a gold panner and he usually doesn’t stay with his family. He visits them as often as possible.

The village is only reachable in dugout canoe and this is how capitaine Anato and lieutenant Vacaresse arrive on the scene. From the outside, nothing obvious shows the cause of  Thélia and her children’s deaths. They seem peaceful. Thélia was a hardworker and a farmer; she grew different vegetables and Vacaresse soon discovers that she also grew cannabis. Does this production have a link with her death? Anato decides to leave Vacaresse in the village to investigate further. He goes back to Cayenne to try to find out where and how Thélia sold her crops, the legal and the illegal one.

Fernand leads Anato and Vacaresse towards Olivier Degricourt, a man who works in a garage in Cayenne and who knew Thélia. Olivier and his partner Monique had befriended Thélia and her children and used visit them in Wetisoula. But Fernand knew that Thélia was afraid of Olivier. When Anato finds him, Olivier flees before Anato has even the chance to talk to him. What does he feel guilty about?

A few days after the Wesitoula murder, Véronique Morhange is found dead in a park in Cayenne. She was a civil servant working for the administration that delivers identity papers. The cardboard hammocks of the title are the suspension folders that Véronique Morhange uses to keep track of the files of people who fill in applications to get French identity papers. The procedure can be complicated, especially for people who were born in remote places where getting documents such has birth certificates is a problem.

Are these crimes related? Anato and his team investigate.

Niel_hamacsI found his book fascinating on every aspect. Colin Niel writes a thick plot around these murders, describes aspects of life in French Guiana and draws attaching characters. The story behind the murders is well drafted and the reader is eager to know what happened. There is a real sense of place in this polar coming from the author’s life in French Guiana. I enjoyed reading about the funeral rites and other customs of the Maroon community. He explains them but not with too many details that you forget about the plot and think he digressed too far. Because let’s face it, you are here to read a good story and unwind, not read an essay about the history of the Maroons in French Guiana. I also found his descriptions of place, of the vegetation and local food interesting. The text is livened up with local words and my edition includes a useful glossary. I don’t know much about this overseas department and I was glad to learn about it. It was a bit strange to feel at the same time in a familiar place (this is France and the local institutions are here to prove it) and in a totally strange country because the geography and the local history is so far away from our life in mainland France.

And last but not least, the characters are likeable and I want to see them again. Anato is an odd character and I’m curious to see how Niel will develop him. He comes from the Maroon community but has never lived in French Guiana. He’s lived all his life near Paris and after his parents’ tragic death in a car accident, he asked to be transferred to Guiana. He’s in a strange place: he looks like a local but doesn’t know anything about local life. He’s estranged from his family and he’s trying to build a relationship with them. He lost his feeling of belonging to a place, to a family, to a community. He’s a bit adrift and has trouble connecting with his team. He’s new and his men don’t know what to make of him. He needs to earn their respect. His lieutenant Vicaresse has also a scar in his personal life and his stay in this Maroon village might have triggered something in him. The third man of this team of gendarmes is Girbal, who helped Anato with his investigation in Cayenne. He’s harder to pin down; it’s difficult to say if his methods of investigation are the mark of an intuitive investigator or of a skiver.

The Anato series has two volumes (so far) and I will read the next one with pleasure. I’m sorry to report that it is only available in French and that it goes in the Translation Tragedy category. Any Publisher interested?

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy

December 26, 2015 12 comments

The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (1888) Not available in French. (Sorry)

The cinema was invented in Lyon by the Lumière brothers. But what made their fortune was actually photography. They were inventors who registered more than 170 patents and in 1881, they created the instantaneous photograph plaque called the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues. Before this invention, people had to stay still for about five minutes before the photography was taken and the photographer needed to be a specialist capable of handling a complicated process. With the Plaques Étiquettes-Bleues, photography became simple and accessible to amateurs. You only had to slip the Plaque in the camera and you were ready to take a picture. This invention was so revolutionary that it spread within two years after it was marketed and it resulted in the creation of many photography studios.

Levy_Romance2In other words, without the Lumière brothers, The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy wouldn’t be the same. Now imagine what would become of the Bennett sisters if they lived in 1888 and their father died while they were still unmarried. Amy Levy seems to explore this idea.

Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis Lorimer belong to small nobility and are single when their father dies. They discover that they have no fortune left and their family think that the only solution for them is to split, two going to live with friends of the family, the Devonshires,  and the two others being shipped to the part of the family established in India. But Gertrude, the brain of the four, comes with another idea. She has consulted a friend of their father’s and she determined to open a photography studio in London and earn their keep through their trade. Now you see my point about the Lumière brothers.

Lucy supports Gertrude immediately. Phyllis, the youngest one, has no objection but Fanny isn’t so easily convinced.

“Oh, Gertrude, need it come to that—to open a shop?” cried Fanny, aghast. “Fanny, you are behind the age,” said Lucy, hastily. “Don’t you know that it is quite distinguished to keep a shop? That poets sell wall-papers, and first-class honour men sell lamps? That Girton students make bonnets, and are thought none the worse of for doing so?”

Despite the opposition of their aunt, Mrs Spratt, and Fanny’s wariness, the project comes through. Their friends Constance and Fred Devonshire support them as they acquire a former photography studio and start their business.

A few days afterwards the Lorimers found themselves the holders of a lease, terminable at one, three, or seven years, for a studio and upper part of the house, known as 20B, Upper Baker Street.

(I noted that leases are one, three or seven years while in France, it’s three, six or nine years)

The four sisters are very different. Fanny is the old fashioned one, the less able to change her ways and be helpful. She can’t help in the studio, she can’t take care of the house and soon her sisters accept that poor Fanny is more a liability than an asset.

As Lucy had said, Frances Lorimer was behind the age. She was an anachronism, belonging by rights to the period when young ladies played the harp, wore ringlets, and went into hysterics.

Gertrude is the leader. She puts aside her literary ambitions to run the business, take the pictures, go to other studios or private homes to take photos and earn money. She’s not always comfortable with what she’s doing, like going to a man’s house without a chaperone but she knows she can’t be picky. Lucy is her real partner, sharing the workload, the worries about the bills and the customers. Phyllis is the youngest sister. She’s a pretty girl, a bit immature and rather selfish.

So basically, the business in on Gertrude and Lucy’s shoulders. Through their friend Constance, they get acquainted with a young man living across their street. Mr Jermyn hires them to photograph his work, introduces to his friends and acquaintances and soon becomes a familiar fixture of their new life.

They began to get glimpses of a world more varied and interesting than their own, of that world of cultivated, middle-class London, which approached more nearly, perhaps, than any other to Gertrude’s ideal society of picked individuals.

Business picks up, leading to choices and a new way-of-life. What will become of Fanny, Gertrude, Lucy and Phyllis?

You can imagine a bit of their fate if I tell you that in Austen’s world, Gertrude would be Lizzy, that Lucy reminded me of Jane, that Phyllis acted like Kitty and that Fanny would be Mary. Constance sounds like Charlotte.

While I enjoyed following the adventures of the Lorimer sisters and their shop, I missed the sharp analysis of the condition of women provided by Gissing in The Odd Women. Gissing’s novel was published in 1893, only five years after The Romance of a Shop. Levy’s book is unconventional. It pictures women who refuse to become nannies, teachers or governesses. They reject the idea to depend on family and be at the mercy of relatives who would have them at their beck and call because they put a roof above their heads. They take their life into their own hands and start a business. It lacks propriety in their world and sometimes, the daily business hurts their ingrained good manners. But Gertrude doesn’t mope or whine. She takes action. And she does the exact opposite of what is expected of her sex.

The shop part of the book was interesting to follow and I would have liked to read more details about the operations. I’m always interested in how business was made in the 19thC. The romance part was a bit too much for my tastes but it was still an agreeable read. It is as if the writer didn’t dare going as far as having female characters who chose a career and gave up the dream of being a wife. In Levy’s world, getting married is still the most enviable option for a woman. Opening a shop is a necessity but not a choice. In Gissing’s world, he hints that women should have the choice not to marry and have a fulfilling career for themselves.

Thanks to Guy for giving me this novel and you can read his excellent review here for Part 1 and here for Part 2

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