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Portuguese lit: The Memorables by Lídia Jorge

September 10, 2017 19 comments

The Memorables by Lídia Jorge (2014) French title: Les Mémorables. Translated by Geneviève Leibrich.

Elle serrait contre elle la copie des plans dessinés par la main de celui qui, trente ans plus tôt, avait mis en marche cinq mille hommes contre un régime décrépit, un de ces régimes si long et si séniles qu’ils laissent du fumier sur la terre pour plusieurs siècles. She held to her chest a copy of the maps designed by the man who, thirty years before, had led five thousand men against a decrepit regime. It was one of those long and senile regimes that left manure on earth for several centuries.

“She” is Ana Maria Machado, a young Portuguese journalist who works for CBS in Washington DC. The five thousand men mentioned in this quote are the military men who participated in the coup d’état on April 25th, 1974 in Lisbon, the one that led to the Carnation Revolution and the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship.

After reportages in war zones, Ana Maria’s boss asks her to go back to Lisbon and film a documentary about the Carnation Revolution and the miracle of this peaceful revolution where the military takes power to bring democracy to their country.

Ana Maria is reluctant to go back to Lisbon where she has unresolved issues with her father, Ántonio Machado, a famous political editorialist whose column always proved to be insightful. He was also close to the people who did the revolution. Ana Maria needs a crew for her mission and rekindles a working relationship with Margarida and Miguel Ângelo, two reporters she knew in journalism school.

Ana Maria decides against telling her father about her project, mostly because she doesn’t want him to interfere with her vision of the events. In Ántonio’s office, she borrows a picture taken on 21st of August 1975, in a restaurant, the Memories. This picture portrays all the people who were decisive participants in the revolution and close witnesses of the events. This photo will be the Ariadne thread of the documentary.

Ana Maria and her friends want to reconstruct the minutes this 25 of April 1974 and understand what everyone did and when. They will go and interview these key actors or their widow to discover what they did that day, how they felt, how they lived afterwards and how they reflect on the revolution, thirty years later.

Lídia Jorge autopsies the military coup that brought democracy to her country but more importantly, she questions what happened to the major players of the Carnation Revolution. Her book was published in 2014, for the fortieth anniversary of the 25 of April 1974 events. Ana Maria writes her story six years after she did her documentary and what she narrates happened in 2004, for the thirtieth anniversary of the revolution. Symbolic years. Time and remembrance are important in her book.

I wanted to read about the Carnation Revolution and it gave me a better vision of what happened and how extraordinary it was to have such a smooth transition to democracy. Lídia Jorge points out two disconcerting facts about these events: one, the major actors of the military coup were never properly thanked and none had a glorious career after that. And two, they were forgotten from the public. This is very different from what Petros Markaris describes about Greece in Bread, Education, Freedom or what Yasmina Khadra writes about Algeria in Dead Man’s ShareBoth Markaris and Khadra explain how the actors of the country’s liberation cashed on their being on the right side, either during the decisive demonstration against the Greek regime or against the French. In these two countries, these men became untouchable heroes, grabbed on power and didn’t let it go.

According to The Memorables, no heroes were born from the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. Ana Maria knew the men on the photo because her parents gravitated in their circle. Margarida and Miguel Ângelo had to research them. Lídia Jorge wants to celebrate them, to remind them to the Portuguese and show how ungrateful the Republic was towards them. None of them benefited from their act.

In addition to the questioning about the place they have in the Portuguese collective memory, Lídia Jorge muses over the impact of living through such historical events. How do you go back to normal after that? How does one leave their glorious days behind and go on with a mundane everyday life? How do you survive to the I-was-there-and-part-of-it syndrome? There is a before and an after the 25th April 1974 for all the Portuguese who were old enough at the time to grasp the importance of this day, but for the people who prepared the coup and succeeded, how does the rest of your life measure up to this? (I’ve always wondered how Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr survived to being a Beatle)

Ana Maria’s personal story is also linked to the 25th of April. That day, her mother, Machado’s lover, was supposed to fly back to her country, Belgium. The beginning and the excitement of the Carnation Revolution convinced to stay in Portugal. So, Ana Maria’s existence is also an outcome of the revolution. As mentioned before, her parents were close to the new power and knew the key players. Coming back to Lisbon is a personal journey for her. She’s estranged from her father and never saw her mother again after she divorced her father when she was twelve. She doesn’t want him to ask questions about her current assignment and therefore avoids asking questions herself. They live together but barely talk to each other. This added a dimension to the novel.

What can I say about my response to The Memorables? Honestly, sometimes I found it very tedious to read. When I read Dubliners, I wondered Do you need to be Irish to love Dubliners by James Joyce? because there were so many precise political details in the short stories that I felt I was missing vital clues in the stories. I felt the same here and I wondered if I needed to be Portuguese to fully understand the meaning of The Memorables. All the historical characters mentioned in the novel through a nickname are pathetic in the interviews with Ana Maria and her friends. It’s puzzling. They all have issues and are eccentric. How real are they? It made the book difficult to read and I don’t know how much is true and how much comes from the novelist’s licence. On top of that, Ana Maria is not exactly a warm character and it’s hard to root for her. And that’s probably the major problem I had with The Memorables. I was never fully engaged in the reporters’ quest. It could have been suspenseful and it wasn’t, except for the last 100 pages when Ana Maria uncovers her father’s secrets.

All in all, I’m glad I read it but it was not an agreeable read. I’d love to hear about your response to it. Alas, this is not available in English so none of my English-speaking followers will have read it. So, I’d be glad to hear from French and Portuguese readers who might have read it.

Street Art in Lisbon. Salgueiro Maia, member of the MFA, the “Armed Forces Movement”

Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

June 30, 2017 10 comments

Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník (2001) French title: Europeana. Une brève histoire du XXè siècle. Translated from the Czech by Marianne Canavaggio.

Patrik Ouředník is a Czech writer born in 1957. He emigrated to France in 1984. He translated Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau and Samuel Beckett into Czech. Despite his excellent French and his living in France, he still writes his books in Czech. I understand that it must be hard to write in another language but I wonder why his books are not self-translated into French.

I bought Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century after reading Ouředník’s literary UFO, Ad Acta. As its title says it, Europeana is a subjective/objective history of Europe in the 20th century. Why subjective/objective? Subjective, because Ouředník decides which facts he relates and in which order. Objective because all the facts are true, no fake news to make the buzz here.

To give you an idea of his style and his tone, here’s the first page of the book. (English translation by Gerald Turner)

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again.

The 150 pages of the book are made of the same cloth. Europeana is the accumulation of odd and random facts. They are told in this playful tone but some of them are dreadful. Ouředník covers the twentieth century in all aspects. He mixes singular information, excerpts from surveys and historical facts. It blends sociology and history. It puts the stress on all kinds of events that built the 20th century in an organized / disorganized kind of way. It questions the idea of history, how we tell it, how we highlight some facts and not others and how this choice affects the global picture that we have of an era. Ouředník does not concentrate only on politics and wars but also on the changes in mores, on progress in science. He reminds us that art and pop culture are part of our history.

His being from Eastern Europe brings another angle to Europe’s history. He doesn’t gloss over the brutal communist dictatorships in Eastern countries and that’s fortunate. Despite mentioning culture, science and mores, the 20th century remains a century of horrors. It’s full of mass killings and dictatorships. Italy, Spain and then the Nazi plague followed by the Communist cholera. Totalitarianism bloomed in this century, leaving millions of victims in its wake. This is not new. What’s new is how he assembles facts and how he lines them up like beads on a necklace. It’s almost absurd, ludicrous and it’s not a surprise coming from a man who translated Rabelais, Jarry and Beckett.

It looks absurd but everything is true. We’re not reading Ubu Rex a king we know never existed. We’re reading true facts. In this age of Brexit and Fake News, Europeana is a good way to remember why the EU was created and why journalism and facts matter.

I have one reservation, though. I enjoyed reading Europeana and it’s good to read it in small doses because the number of facts becomes overwhelming after a while. It’s also a reminder that the accumulation of information saturates the brain. Things blend and we lose our capacity to absorb what we read and process it. We lose our ability to be upset, to oppose to Something because it’s soon pushed to the back of our mind by other information. Now, I’d be totally unable to quote exact facts from the book. Either we consider it’s one of the book’s weakness or we consider that it’s one of its strengths because it shows how limited we are in remembering data.

Has anyone read Europeana too? If yes, what did you think of it?

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

December 23, 2016 14 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

145_surete_quebec

Spanish Lit Month: Tango for a Torturer by Daniel Chavarría

July 24, 2016 20 comments

Tango for a Torturer by Daniel Chavarría (2002) French title: Le rouge sur la plume du perroquet. Translated by Jacques-François Bonaldi. Original Spanish title: El rojo en la pluma del loro.

Chavarria_frenchTango for a Torturer by Daniel Chavarría is my second read for Spanish Lit Month. I wonder why the English title isn’t the exact translation of the original one, like in French. It is actually The red on a parrot’s feather. It is a cryptic title but it is explained by the end of the book. I’ve had this one on the shelf for a while and Spanish Lit Month was a perfect opportunity to read it and contribute to Richard’s and Stu’s event and add to my #TBR20 project. A way to kill two parrots with one stone.

Aldo Bianchi is an Argentinean from the Italian diaspora in Argentina. He emigrated to Italy during the Argentinean dictatorship and now owns a profitable construction business in Italy. His business brings him to Cuba where he falls in lust with a voluptuous prostitute, Bini. She has a child’s mind in a woman’s body and Aldo appears to be infatuated. His friends Gonzalo and Aurelia are worried about him. They are also Argentinean and live near Aldo in Italy. They knew his ex-wife and his breakup and they are afraid to see Aldo in the claws of a gold digger who could never adjust to Aldo’s life and circle in Italy.

Aurelia organizes Gonzalo’s sixtieth birthday party in Cuba. Aldo attends the party with Bini who eventually meets his friends. But more importantly, he gets the confirmation that Alberto Ríos and Triple-O are one person. And Aldo has a score to settle with Triple-O. He wants justice for the past.

Indeed, Triple-O is from Uruguay and he was a sadistic torturer during the Uruguayan dictatorship and then moved his activities to Argentina. He was trained by the CIA and ran a sinister secret prison in Buenos Aires. He was a brutal torturer, taking pleasure in torturing and killing people. He’s now hiding in Cuba under a fake identity.

But Aldo recognizes him and will plan his revenge thoroughly to be sure he won’t miss him.

chavarria_englishTango for a Torturer unfolds Aldo’s plan to frame and catch Triple-O. It is a fantastic crime fiction novel with the reality of the Condor Operation and the Dirty Wars as a background. I only know the basics about the history of Latin America in the 1970s and early 1980s. There were useful footnotes in my paperback and I went to Wikipedia afterwards. Triple-O’s activities are true to life. The details are based upon what really happened even if the names are slightly changed. Chavarría is a former Tupamaro, he knows what he’s writing about.

The book is focused of Aldo’s plan but there are also a lot of descriptions of Triple-O’s life under his Alberto Ríos identity. When you know exactly the extent of Triple-O’s horrific actions, it is unsettling to see him live a normal life. He’s not remorseful at all and he lives a comfortable life out of the money he stole from his victims. All he cares about is being safe and healthy. He knows hitmen are after him for his past but he feels safe in Cuba and enjoys himself. On the contrary, Aldo stills suffers from the aftermath of the torture. He’s successful and rich but never recovered from his past. And honestly, how could he? And this difference in their peace of mind points out the injustice of it all or maybe just shows who’s the better human.

I read that Tango for a Torturer has the same frame as Le Comte de Monte Cristo, a book that Chavarría admires. I didn’t notice it, probably because Cuba is so far away from France that it never occurred to me to look for a French reference. But the two books do have similar storylines.

It could have been a bleak book but it’s not, probably because it is set in Cuba and the setting breathes life into the story. It prevents the book from becoming only a man hunt and a cold revenge. Bini’s character and her family bring Cuba into the plot. Bini is a bit of a scatterbrain. She loves to drive even if she doesn’t have a license and she has her way to make men lend her the wheel. She’s full of life, with no education or manners. She’s dirty poor, her parents didn’t give a damn about her and she had to fend for herself from a very young age. She enjoys sex, goes after men, after what she wants. She’s also very religious and Chavarría gives details about religious beliefs in Cuba. He also describes the landscape, the climate and Havana. All this contributes to turn the book into something more than a classic crime fiction novel.

This is a tremendous read. The plot is well-constructed, it’s educational, lively and it has a purpose. It made me want to read about the Dirty Wars and know more about what happened. It also means that here, in the pages of this crime novel, lies a memorial to all the innocent people who died and disappeared under these brutal dictatorships.

I owe this one to Guy (again!) and his review is here.

PS: This is the second time this year that I read a book linked to Argentina’s history. The other one was Three Horses by Erri de Luca.

 

Piazza Bucarest by Jens Christian Grøndahl

September 13, 2015 9 comments

Piazza Bucarest by Jens Christian Grøndahl (2004) Translated from the Danish by Alain Gnaedig.

Raconter n’est pas seulement conserver des souvenirs mais aussi en éliminer. Narration doesn’t only preserve memories, it also eliminates some.

Grondahl_Piazza_BucarestPiazza Bucarest won the Prix Jean Monnet de Littérature européenne in 2007. The list of the prize winners seems interesting to explore and it rewards a work of European fiction that was translated into French. I can understand why it won this prize: it’s set in Denmark, Italy and Romania and in a way deals with a page of European history, the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

Scott is a photographer from New York who settled in Denmark. In 1988, he flies to Bucarest for a reportage. It is before the fall of the Caucescu regime and he decides to marry his guide, Elena, to help her flee Romania. Their marriage doesn’t last and she eventually leaves him. Scott is devastated by her departure, so when, years later, he receives a letter addressed to Elena at their old home, he asks the narrator to find her and bring it to her.

The narrator shares a special bond with Scott as Scott used to be married to Vicky, the narrator’s mother. Vicky was quite young when the narrator was born and Scott is six years younger than her: the age difference between Scott and the narrator isn’t big. The two men are rather close.

Scott is a quiet man who ended up in Denmark by chance. He was on a trip in Europe in 1966 when he received his papers to go to Vietnam. He decided to stay in Denmark and marrying Vicky helped him out. He’s not very forthcoming and Elena never really confided in him. The narrator will be the first to hear the story of her life when he finds her in Italy.

I wasn’t enthralled by this novel although it has literary merits. Scott is too contemplative, too passive, I wanted to shake him up. The narrator is a writer, like Grøndahl and sometimes I’m tired of novels where the main protagonist is a novelist. Elena’s story is banal but in an unusual environment. I don’t want to reveal too much about her as discovering her past is part of the interest of the novel.

The narrator tries to reconstruct Scott’s feelings for Elena and the ins and outs of their failed marriage. He’s following leads from former conversations with Scott, time spent with Elena. He tries to guess what happened even knowing how futile it is. No one can understand someone else’s marriage or love relationship.

This European trip to find Elena is an opportunity for him to mull over Scott and Elena who have one thing in common: they both left their country and family behind. It is a reflection about freedom, exile and literature. Elena is ready to make a lot of sacrifice for the freedom of the West. Is it worth it? Is it as freeing in real life as it is on paper? Grøndahl gives us a tentative answer.

La liberté ne donne aucun sens mais des possibilités, cependant, elle nous offre, entre autres, le choix de les saisir ou non. Liberty does not give any meaning to life but it opens opportunities. However, among other things, it gives us the choice to seize them or not.

And how do you live in your new country? How do you adapt to it? What kind of relationship do you keep with the country you left? Elena doesn’t elaborate and the narrator contemplates her position, tries to imagine hers and Scott’s situation. Elena may not voice her thoughts about exile but she’s not as quiet about the place of literature:

Elle [Elena] répliqua qu’elle n’était pas écrivain, mais que si jamais il lui prenait l’idée d’accabler le monde avec un livre de plus, ce serait parce qu’elle aurait un message, une interprétation radicalement nouvelle de la place de l’homme et de l’Histoire, et non pour convier les lecteurs à admirer à quel point j’étais doué pour remuer les tourments de mon nombril avec une cuillère à thé. She [Elena] said that she wasn’t a writer but that, if it ever occurred to her to burden the world with another book, it would be because she has a message, a totally new interpretation of the place of humanity and History and not to invite the readers to admire to what extent I was gifted to stir my navel’s turmoil with a teaspoon.

That’s the crux of the literary matter, right? Elena is too ambitious. Who wouldn’t find writing daunting if your book had to bring a totally new interpretation of the place of humanity and History? Phew! That’s quite a challenge. Who’s up for that? And there’s a wide range of possibilities for books between explaining the grand scheme of the universe to readers and observing one’s navel under a microscope.

I can’t help thinking Grøndahl is a bit self-deprecatory here and the narrator’s books are actually his. I haven’t read any of his other novels but this one rather fits the description. If Grøndahl had literary cousins, I think they would be Modiano, Noteboom, Kundera and possibly Marias. His cousins would be European, not American. In my opinion, this is a trend in European literature. While these novels are often beautifully written, full of marvelous exploration of the fleetingness of life, of memories, they also often leave me unsatisfied. I don’t like to generalize but the characters are often in the same social circles as the writer: journalists, writers, university teachers, artists. No corporate executives, shop owners or plumbers in these books. They dig deep in the characters’ psyche or angst and they feel a bit disconnected with real life. I had this impression with Piazza Bucarest and with Dimanches d’août by Modiano. They are good books, ones that give you a long list of artistic quotes but whose plot is fuzzy a few weeks after you’ve read them. Does that ring a bell to you?

Have you read Grøndahl and what do you think about this last quote?

 

‘Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table,’

August 22, 2015 31 comments

Still Life by Louise Penny. (2005) French title: Nature morte. Translated into Quebec French by Michel Saint-Germain.

In the twenty-five years she’d lived in Three Pines she’d never, ever heard of a crime. The only reason doors were locked was to prevent neighbors from dropping off baskets of zucchini at harvest time.

I bought Penny_Still_LifeStill Life by Louise Penny after reading Caroline’s review here and it’s been on my TBR since 2012. Then Louise Penny was signing books at Quais du Polar this year and it reminded me I needed to get to her book soon and it fit nicely in my #TBR20 project.

Still Life is cozy crime fiction of the good sort, the kind you’d want to take on a long flight to forget you’re squeezed in coach or one you’d save to read it curled up on the sofa by a nice fire on a cold and foggy winter day. It is also the first volume of a series featuring Armand Gamache, Chef de la Sûreté du Quebec.

Now the plot. The sweet old lady Jane Neal is found dead in the bucolic village of Three Pines, located a couple of hours from Montreal. She was killed in the woods by an arrow. It’s hunting time and the first question is: is it a hunting accident or a murder?

Jane was well respected in her village and almost everyone was fond of her. She was a bit eccentric: she loved painting but never wanted anyone to see her art and she also never let anyone past her kitchen in her house. Jane gets killed just after one of her paintings had been chosen for a local art exhibition, Arts Williamsburg but before the list of the selected artists was announced officially. Jane’s work raised controversy and the committee picking artists for the show. Does this event have something to do with her sudden death?

Her death strikes her friend Clara Morrow really hard as Jane was like a surrogate mother to her. Clara is a struggling artist, married to Peter, a painter whose art is rather highly priced but who doesn’t paint fast enough to make a decent living out of it. Clara and Peter were on the committee who approved of the painting for the art show and they were also hosting a diner with their friends the day the choice was made and only two days before Jane’s death. If it is a murder, is the murderer someone from the village?

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is in charge of the investigation and starts digging around, chatting with the villagers, Jane’s friends, settling an office in the old station, sleeping at the local B&B. His approach relies on science and evidences, observation and understanding of human nature. He’s perfectly aware that his investigation will play havoc with the villagers. The questions he asks will unearth secrets, including some that aren’t relevant for the investigation, they will make people look at each other differently. Gamache sticks to his principles, tries to see the best in his team and is committed to coaching rookies. This first volume starts to explore the characters of the police team: Jean Guy Beauvoir, Gamache’s second in command, Yvette Nichol, the rookie and Isabelle Lacoste, experienced but not as much as Beauvoir. It’s going to be nice to see how Louise Penny will develop them, especially Nichol and Gamache. Readers who like Thomas Pitt, the policeman in Anne Perry’s books will like Armand Gamache and vice-versa. The two men could be cousins.

Penny_nature_morteBeside the plot and the investigation, I enjoyed Still Life for Penny’s style, the setting in Quebec and her observations on human nature and on her country. Louise Penny is Canadian and anglophone. She writes in English and her books were translated in Quebec French before being available in France. I have the original version, though. At Quais du Polar, she explained that the French publisher Actes Sud kept the Quebec French translation instead of re-working it into French. Hearing that, I almost regretted to have the English version, just to have the pleasure of reading a book set in Quebec, in French from Montreal and not from Paris. In the end, the English version proved to be a delight with all the French words included in the text to give back the Quebec atmosphere. It enforces the sense of place and it works well like in these short examples:

Nichol waved toward the back seat while negotiating Blvd St Denis to the autoroute which would take them over the Champlain Bridge and into the countryside.

Or

Clara and Myrna stood in line at the buffet table, balancing mugs of steaming French Canadian pea soup and plates with warm rolls from the boulangerie.

The vocabulary sometimes gave me a lovely impression of outdated times. Chef de la Sûreté (Chief Inspector) propelled me to the Ancien Régime and police under Louis XV. The French-speaking characters had rather old-fashioned names like Armand, Reine-Marie or Yvette.

I wonder what Louise Penny thinks of the title of the French translation, Nature morte. I guess she discussed it with her translator. Still life is a genre of painting and since painting is in the center of the plot, it makes sense. And in French, when you discuss painting, a still life is a nature morte. However, in English, still life conveys another meaning, if you put aside the reference to painting and it is explained in the book by Myrna, the local bookseller.

I think many people love their problems. Gives them all sorts of excuses for not growing up and getting on with life.’ Myrna leaned back again in her chair and took a long breath. ‘Life is change. If you aren’t growing and evolving you’re standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead. Most of these people are very immature. They lead “still” lives, waiting.’ ‘Waiting for what?’ ‘Waiting for someone to save them. Expecting someone to save them or at least protect them from the big, bad world. The thing is no one else can save them because the problem is theirs and so is the solution. Only they can get out of it.’

Nature morte (literally “dead nature”) doesn’t convey this meaning at all as this expression is attached to painting and nothing else. So part of the depth of the title is lost in French. Honestly, I don’t know what else the title could have been, though. 

The investigation and the description of Three Pines and its inhabitants are combined with thoughts about the relationship between anglophones and francophones in Quebec. Some anglophones characters say they feel out of place sometimes. I don’t know if it’s true but it intrigued me. I also thought that the following observation…

It was, reflected Gamache, one of the fundamental differences between anglophone and francophone Quebecers; the English believed in individual rights and the French felt they had to protect collective rights. Protect their language and culture.

…seems relevant for France as well. The protection of collective rights is the source of social security and collective pension schemes. Indeed, in France, you don’t pay for your own pension plan, you pay for the people who are retired now and the next generation will pay for you. We also want to protect our language, our way-of-life and our vision of the world.

In other words, Still Life is a solid cozy mystery with more depth than a book by Agatha Christie. It mulls over the impact of a police investigation on a community and lets the reader see glimpses of the society it is set in. Recommended.

Dead Man’s Share by Yasmina Khadra.

June 7, 2015 17 comments

La part du mort by Yasmina Khadra 2004. English title: Dead Man’s Share translated by Aubrey Botsford

Disclaimer: I had to translate the quotes myself and I found it rather difficult. So be nice to my clumsy efforts.

En Algérie, les portes du salut sont aussi imprévisibles que les trappes du non-retour. Question de baraka. Ou vous l’avez ou vous ne l’aurez jamais. In Algeria, the doors to redemption are as unpredictable as the no-return doors. Question of luck. Either you have it or you don’t.

I read La part du mort by Yasmina Khadra a couple of months ago and I have to say I don’t remember much about the plot. But to be honest, the plot is not the most important thing in this book, which is odd for a crime fiction novel. Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul. It is made of his wife’s two first names. He was an officer in the Algerian army during the civil war in the 1990s and he had to hide his identity as a writer because of censorship. His wife supported him and signed all the publishing contracts in her name, on his behalf. Read more about his life, here in French and here in English.  I’m afraid it’s a lot more detailed in French than in English.

Khadra_mortWe’re in Algeria, on the verge of the civil war of the 1990s. Llob is a superintendant at Alger’s police department. Professor Allouche, an old acquaintance who manages a psychiatric ward asks him to come and visit him. He’s worried because one of his patients has been reprieved by an official commission and he’s free to go. Professor Allouche thinks a dangerous murderer is about to get lose on the Alger streets. He asks Llob to intervene to prevent a crime. At the same moment, Llob is concerned about one of his men, Lino. He’s been seen all over Alger on the arm of an unsavory woman, former girlfriend of an apparatchik. Lino is totally infatuated with her and spends too much money to cater her every whim. She’s close to several Algerian statesmen and this puts Lino in a dangerous position. Llob will have to do something about it.

The plot is interesting to follow but the book is fascinating for its picture of Algeria. It dissects the workings of the Algerian State. It shows the corruption, the inability to build a democracy after the independence. The picture is not pretty. The house seems rotten to the core. Former FLN fighters took the power and confiscated it. Their aura as independence heroes makes them untouchable. You don’t criticize a war hero. Khadra digs back to the year 1962 and the massacres of Harkis, the Algerians who were pro-French during the war. When the French left the country in 1962, most of the Harkis were left behind.

The country’s new found independence is built on blood. The war was ugly and its immediate aftermath just as much. The novel is full of thoughts about violence, its link with human nature. Khadra tries to understand its raw power.

On tue pour ne pas chercher à comprendre. C’est l’aboutissement d’un échec, l’émargement d’un désaveu. Le meurtre est l’inaptitude de l’assassin au raisonnement, l’instant où l’homme recouvre ses réflexes de bête fauve, où il cesse d’être une entité pensante. Le loup tue par instinct. L’homme tue par vocation. Il se donnerait toutes les motivations possibles qu’il ne justifierait pas son geste. One kills to avoid looking for explanations. Killing is the ultimate failure, the signing of a retraction. Assassination is the murderer’s inability to think, the moment a man resorts to his wild beast’s reflexes and ceases to be a thinking entity. Wolves kill by instinct. Men kill by vocation. Mankind could find themselves all the reasons they’d want, nothing can justify their killing.

There’s a lot of soul searching by Llob. He was a member of the FLN army too. His job puts him in contact with political power and with the small people. He sees the former fighters take advantage of their position in the country and get rich on the back of the country they fought for. He deplores that illiterate and undereducated men are in a position to exercise power. He sees the people on the streets struggle to have a decent life. Khadra brings Alger’s streets to life, like here:

C’est un gamin d’une douzaine d’années, maigre comme ses chances. Il porte un pantalon fripé, un tricot pourri et une bonne partie de la misère nationale sur les épaules. Les garçons comme lui sont légion. It’s a twelve years old boy, as slim as his chances. He’s wearing creased trousers, a rotten jumper and a good dose of the national misery on his shoulders. Boys like him are legion.

Llob is an interesting policeman with a fulfilling private life. That’s a change, as far as crime fiction is concerned. He’s been married to Mina for years, they have children and a peaceful family life. Llob is also an opportunity for Khadra to reflect on the place of women in the Algerian society.

Je me suis souvent demandé ce qu’il serait advenu de moi si Mina ne m’avait pas épousé. Elle est plus que ma femme, elle est ma belle étoile à moi. Rien que de la sentir près de moi me remplit d’une incroyable assurance. C’est fou comme je l’aime mais, dans un pays où l’interdit dispute au harem les palpitations de notre âme, il serait encore plus fou de le lui déclarer. I’ve often wondered what would have become of me had Mina not married me. She’s more than my wife, she’s my own lucky star. Just to feel her beside me fills me with an incredible dose of assurance. I’m crazy about her but in a country where social constraint and the image of harem fight against each other for the fluttering of our souls, it would be even crazier to make her that declaration.

Kind of sad, seen from my side of the Mediterranean.

I’m not sure Khadra is a real crime fiction writer. I think the genre allows him to voice his thoughts about Algeria at the time. It’s really well done and it’s a healthy read for French people. It’s an opportunity for us to read about the war in Algeria from the other side. It was an ugly war, one that left terrible scars on both sides and too much remains untold. Ironically, Khadra writes in French, the language of colonization is the one he chose to express his talent. I don’t know if his speaking Arabic brings something to his use of the French language but I loved his style. I have many quotes like this one:

Lorsque Bliss vous accueille sous le parvis du paradis, comprenez que l’enfer a déménagé. When Bliss welcomes you under the porch of paradise, you know that hell has moved in.

It’s even better in English when you throw the meaning of bliss in the middle of it.

I bought La part du mort by Yasmina Khadra at Quais du Polar thinking it was the first in the Llob series when it’s not. I was mistaken because it’s written on the back of the book, so please Folio, correct this for the next edition.

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