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No Tomorrow by Jake Hinkson – A great polar

February 17, 2019 6 comments

Not Tomorrow by Jake Hinkson (2015) French title: Sans lendemain. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

I discovered Jake Hinkson at Quais du Polar and here’s the short biography he gave them for the festival’s website: I was raised by Christian fundamentalists in the mountains of Arkansas. I used to smuggle forbidden crime novels into Bible camp. If Jim Thompson had knocked up Flannery O’Connor in a cheap Ozark motel, I would be their offspring.

Now that you aware of this, you won’t be surprised that Hell on Church Street was a disturbing story set in a Christian fundamentalists’ community in Arkansas and that No Tomorrow is also (mostly) set in Arkansas and that a fundamentalist preacher plays an important part in the story. No Tomorrow starts like this:

The person being warned against going to Arkansas is Billie Dixon. We’re in the summer 1947 and she works for a B-movies studio in Hollywood. She’s in charge of selling or renting their films to local theatres in Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee. She’s trying to sell films in a part of the Bible Belt.

As you can imagine, Billie Dixon doesn’t take this friendly advice and drives to Stock’s Settlement, Arkansas. The name of the town itself sounds like rural America. She discovers that the town is under the rule of a preacher, Henshaw. He is against cinema and Claude Jeter, the owner of the only movie theatre in Stock’s Settlement is out of business. There’s no way he can rent films to Billie’s employer.

She decides to go and meet Henshaw in a futile attempt to convince him that films are harmless entertainment and that he should allow them in Stock’s Settlement. This is how Billie Dixon meets her femme fatale, Amberly Henshaw. She’s the preacher’s wife and seems imprisoned in her religion-driven life. Bille and Amberly are attracted to each other and have one-afternoon stand.

It will be enough for Billie to come back to Stock’s Settlement to see Amberly again and get entangled in her predicament. Clearly, the preacher is in the way of their relationship and how convenient could it be if he died?

Imagine a lesbian affair in 1947 in Arkansas, a place where homosexuality was a criminal act at the time. (According to Wikipedia, homosexuality was a criminal act in Arkansas until 2002. In France, it was decriminalized in 1981.) Imagine the small town atmosphere and the contrast between Billie’s Hollywood life and Amberly’s life in Stock’s Settlement, a place where they’d rather have a mentally challenged elected sheriff flanked by his sister as a secretary than actually elect the sister as sheriff, something impossible because she’s a woman.

No Tomorrow is a great reading trip, taking you in the realm of classic Hollywood, neo-noir, with murders, road trips and femmes fatales. I think that the French cover reflects the atmosphere of the book, a polar that crime fiction aficionados will probably like. I don’t know if the designer of the American cover actually read the book. It totally lacks the vintage atmosphere that is at the core of Hinkson’s novel. If you saw the two covers in the bookstore, which one would draw your attention?

I read No Tomorrow in one sitting, like you watch a good movie. It won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France in 2018 and Jake Hinkson is published by Gallmeister. As always, Sophie Aslanides’s translation is outstanding. She always manages to transfer the American language vibe into French.

Highly recommended.

An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot – About the Paris Commune of 1871

December 30, 2018 25 comments

An Open Wound by Patrick Pécherot (2015) Original French title: Une plaie ouverte.

*Sigh* A missed opportunity, that’s what An Open Wound is. Patrick Pécherot supposedly wrote historical crime fiction here. The setting is Paris, back and forth between the Paris Commune of 1871 and 1905. Here’s what Wikipedia sums up about the Paris Commune:

The Paris Commune was a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from 18 March to 28 May 1871. The Franco-Prussian War had led to the capture of Emperor Napoleon III in September 1870, the collapse of the Second French Empire, and the beginning of the Third Republic. Because Paris was under siege for four months, the Third Republic moved its capital to Tours. A hotbed of working-class radicalism, Paris was primarily defended during this time by the often politicised and radical troops of the National Guard rather than regular Army troops. Paris surrendered to the Prussians on 28 January 1871, and in February Adolphe Thiers, the new chief executive of the French national government, signed an armistice with Prussia that disarmed the Army but not the National Guard.

On 18 March, soldiers of the Commune’s National Guard killed two French army generals, and the Commune refused to accept the authority of the French government. The Commune governed Paris for two months, until it was suppressed by the regular French Army during “La semaine sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) beginning on 21 May 1871.

Debates over the policies and outcome of the Commune had significant influence on the ideas of Karl Marx, who described it as an example of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

The pretext of the plot is that Dana, a participant in the Commune of Paris has been sentenced to death in absentia for a murder on the Haxo street during the Paris Commune. In 1905, Dana is still missing and no one knows where he is or if he’s still alive. Rumors say he might be in America.

Dana was part of a group of activists during the Paris Commune, a group of historical figures (Courbet, Verlaine, Louise Michel, Vallès) and fictional characters like Marceau, the man who wonders what has become of Dana.

So far, so good. Good blurb, excellent idea for a book. Its execution was a death sentence for this reader. There are so many things that went wrong for me that I abandoned it, despite a genuine interest in reading about the Paris Commune.

The layout of the book:

Different typos to help the reader know where they are: normal for relating the Paris Commune in 1871, italic for the quest in 1905 and normal with another font to write about the murder. Tedious. I wonder how it turns out in audio book. I hate this device: the writing should be good enough to make the reader understand they’re back in time or moving forward or changing of point of view. It’s a lazy way to overcome the difficulty of changing of time, place and narrator.

Losing the plot line

The investigation to discover what has become of Dana should be our main thread except that we have a hard time figuring out it’s supposed to be the plot line. Thank God for the blurb. It’s not a real and methodical investigation so, right after I finally got it was the purpose of the book, I lost sight of it.

Missing key elements on the historical events. 

The Paris Commune events are told in short paragraphs with their date, to give the reader a chronology of the movement and its fall. Fine. But, as a reader who knows next to nothing about the Paris Commune (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) I didn’t understand how it happened, who were Communards, the ones fighting against the Thiers government. Thank God for Wikipedia.

Mixing historical characters with fictional ones. 

Except for the obvious ones, I couldn’t figure out who were real participants and who were literary characters. I don’t know how much Verlaine was involved in the Paris Commune or if it’s true that his wife was one of Louise Michel’s pupil. I suppose it’s true.

The style

The last straw that broke my reader’s back was the style. At times some sort of lyrical prose overflowing with words and at other times, half sentences, almost bullet points. Add to the mix, embedded verses by Verlaine when a paragraph features the poet, like here:

Il faudrait questionner Courbet, savoir ce qu’il peint d’un modèle. Ou Verlaine. Son rêve étrange et pénétrant n’est jamais tout à fait le même ni tout à fait un autre.

Patrick Pécherot, Une plaie ouverte, p141

Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et pénétrant

D’une femme inconnue, et que j’aime, et qui m’aime,

Et qui n’est, chaque fois, ni tout à fait la même

Ni tout à fait une autre, et m’aime et me comprend.

Paul Verlaine, Mon rêve familier.

And the language is uneven, moving from one register to the other, often using argot from I don’t know what time. 1871?

I tried to soldier on but I was at the end of my rope page 166, out of 318. I say I gave it a good shot. Like the one Dana gave to Amédée Floquin, the man he murdered? I guess I’ll never know whether he actually killed him or if he’s still alive in 1905. The style is really what made be abandon the book, it grated too much. I was still learning things about the Paris Commune (with Wikipedia on the side) but the style was too unbearable for me to finish the book.

That’s a pity. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, maybe I’m too demanding, I don’t know. An Open Wound won a literary prize for crime fiction, Le Prix Transfuge of the best Polar. I fail to see how this book is a polar at all but I’m not proficient in putting books in literary boxes.

The good thing about aborted read is that I got to browse through the list of books that are based upon the Paris Commune. I need to read La Débâcle by Zola, at least I know the style will be outstanding. There are poems by Victor Hugo, L’Année terrible. There’s L’Insurgé by Jules Vallès and Le Cri du peuple by Jean Vautrin, that was also made into a BD by Jacques Tardi. And Tardi is a reference in the BD world.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion – Entertaining

December 24, 2018 14 comments

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. (2013) French title: Le théorème du homard.

This month, I’m supposed to read Dead Souls by Gogol before my next Book Club meeting. I am too tired to concentrate on it and so far, I haven’t been able to go further than page 2. Yes, it doesn’t sound good. So, I’ve been reading easy books for the sake of entertainment. I had The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion on my kindle and it seemed the right time to get to it.

Don Tillman is a professor of genetics at the university of Melbourne. He’s single, almost forty, never passed the first date stage and now wishes to get married. His friends Gene and Claudia tried to set him up with friends but to no avail.

He decides to set up a very detailed questionnaire to find the perfect wife. This is how he starts The Wife Project. When Gene sends Rosie to Don’s office as she has a question related to genetics, Don misunderstands her coming to him and thinks that Gene sent her after she applied to The Wife Project.

Don starts taking interest in Rosie’s search for her biological father. He gets invested in what becomes The Father Project. Rosie inserts herself into his life, and although he dismissed her as a valid candidate for The Wife Project, he slowly discovers that science cannot solve everything.

Don is the narrator and we understand from the start that he has an IQ higher than everyone, that he has trouble interacting with people, that he painfully lacks social skills. His life is organized by the minute on a white board and he aims at maximizing his time for everything. Scientific thinking is his only way of thinking. He’s rational and has trouble with spontaneity and non-analytical behaviours and responses.

Gene and Claudia tried for a while to assist me with the Wife Problem. Unfortunately, their approach was based on the traditional dating paradigm, which I had previously abandoned on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences. I am thirty-nine years old, tall, fit and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income as an associate professor. Logically, I should be attractive to a wide range of women. In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing. However, there is something about me that women find unappealing. I have never found it easy to make friends, and it seems that the deficiencies that caused this problem have also affected my attempts at romantic relationships.

This is typical of Don’s voice.

At the beginning of the novel, he replaces his best friend Gene to be the speaker at a conference about Asperger’s syndrome. His reaction to the public and the few words he says about the content of the conference leads the reader into thinking that Don has Asperger’s syndrome. But it’s never said directly and that was clever of Simsion. He avoids further criticism about inaccurate psychiatric details and Don isn’t pigeonholed as someone with a disorder but just as someone odd. Rosie brings spontaneity into his life and breaks his routine, throwing him out of his comfort zone. Her presence disrupts his life and forces him to come out of his self-built shell.

The Rosie Project reminded me of Addition (2008) by another Australian writer, Toni Jordan. In Addition, Grace, the main character has OCD and a life with a lot of rules and habits, just like Don.

The Rosie Project is tagged as a “feel-good” novel. If the narrator and the writer were female, I bet it would be tagged as chick lit. I suppose that, like Addition, it a romcom with an unusual character, one who’s socially inapt but still loveable. Don’s deadpan tone is quite entertaining and he finds himself in situations that become comical. His vision of life is endearing as he tends to take everything at face value. Since he has trouble understanding non-verbal messages, he has difficulties in social settings. Lots of miscommunication happen. Rosie has her own issues and interacting with matter-of-fact Don isn’t easy for her either. He doesn’t know how to sugar-coat things, he always speaks his mind and he can be hurtful. Unintentionally.

The Rosie Project won several prizes and I suppose that in its category, it’s a good book. It’s easy to read and written in a good style. It’s a perfect distraction, an excellent Beach & Public Transport book. It’s also a novel that reminds us that it takes all sorts to make a world and that we shall accept people the way they are and not always try to change or improve them or make them enter into some socially accepted standards.

For another review, see Lisa’s here (She also mentions Addition) and Sue’s here.

Half Life by Roopa Farooki – A lovely journey back to full life.

December 16, 2018 6 comments

Half Life by Roopa Farooki (2010) French title: Le Temps des vrais bonheurs. Translated by Jérémy Oriol.

It’s time to stop fighting, and go home. Those were the words which finally persuaded Aruna to walk out of her ground-floor Victorian flat in Bethnal Green, and keep on walking. One step at a time, one foot, and then the other, her inappropriately flimsy sandals flip-flopping on the damp east London streets; she avoids the dank, brown puddles, the foil glint of the takeaway containers glistening with the vibrant slime of sweet and sour sauce, the mottled banana skin left on the pavement like a practical joke, but otherwise walks in straight line. One foot, and then the other. Toe to heel to toe to heel. Flip-flop. She knows exactly where she is going, and even though she could have carried everything she needs in her dressing-gown pocket – her credit card, her passport, her phone – she has taken her handbag instead, and she has paused in her escape long enough to dress in jeans, a T-shirt and even a jacket. Just for show. So that people won’t think that she is a madwoman who has walked out on her marriage and her marital home in the middle of breakfast, with her half-eaten porridge congealing in the bowl, with her tea cooling on the counter top. So that she won’t think so either. So she can turn up at the airport looking like anyone else, hand over her credit card, and run back to the city she had run away from in the first place.

The opening paragraph of Half Life by Roopa Farooki has in itself most of the key elements of her novel. This is Aruna’s point of view.

It’s time to stop fighting, and go home is a verse of a poem by a minor Bengali poet, Hari Hassan. Hassan is dying in a hospital in Kuala Lumpur and reflects on his life. His last wish is to see his estranged son one last time. Hassan looks back on his love life, on past friendships and on the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. He and his best friend weren’t on the same side. He will be the second voice of Half Life.

Aruna read this verse in a collection of poems by Hassan that her childhood friend turned lover gave her. Jazz, that’s his name, lives in Singapore and will be the third voice of Half Life.

Aruna has been in London for two years after she fled from Singapore, leaving Jazz behind, never looking back, never contacting him again. She got married to Patrick, a doctor who works in a local hospital. She’s bipolar and struggles with her illness. Her tone is rather detached, as if she goes with the flow of her life without being truly engaged in it. Her description of her relationship with Patrick is quite harsh and I pitied him a bit. But is Aruna a reliable character? Is Patrick as oblivious as she thinks?

Jazz has stayed in Singapore, has a new girlfriend and tries to move on from Aruna. He doesn’t speak to his father Hari Hassan anymore and doesn’t know he’s dying in Kuala Lumpur. Aruna’s departure was brutal after they discovered a disturbing fact about Jazz and her. They grew up together, their parents living in the same neighborhood, two Bengali kids in school, looking alike and linked by a strong bond. Their relationship moved from deep friendship to lovers. Until a family secret shattered their love bubble.

And then Aruna left. Abruptly. Just like she does this very morning in London, leaving her husband, their flat and their life behind in the middle of breakfast. It’s time to go back to Singapore, see Jazz again and look for the answers behind the secret they discovered. It’s time to stop hiding, to learn the truth to finally heal.

The good part of writing billets about books I read a few months ago is to assess what stayed with me. If I don’t read my notes or reread passages of Half Life by Roopa Farooki, I’m left with a bittersweet impression of a main character, Aruna who goes on a few days journey to put together the puzzle of her identity and her life. It will take her three days and three nights.

I didn’t like her very much at the beginning, I thought she was cruel to others and quite selfish. But maybe she felt so bad that all her strength was used to keep living her everyday life, work, interact with Patrick, his family and friends. Perhaps it consumed all her energy and left nothing to reach out to other human beings around her. Nothing left to give. Selfishness in survival mode.

Jazz and Hassan need closure. Jazz does to move on, to have Aruna in his life as a friend and not as a partner. Hassan wants to die in peace and reconcile with his son and his best friend.

Half Life is what these three characters have been living. Hassan has forever been cut in half after the civil war that brought the creation of Bangladesh. His former life was in Pakistan. His heart was in Bangladesh. Aruna and Jazz cannot live a full life without a new foundation to their relationship. They have to move back to friendship because they need each other. Without this, they only engage half way in their life and current relationships. It’s time Aruna gives more credit to her feelings for Patrick. (In a way, she reminds me of Marguerite Duras in The Lover.) It’s time that Jazz invests in his relationship to June. Their partners deserve it. Half life also refers to geography. For the three characters, half of their life is in another country.

I enjoyed the setting, the descriptions of Singapore and of Aruna and Jazz’s childhoods. It brought me to places I’ve never been to. Farooki’s writing is fluid, with a pleasant melody, one that stays with you and makes you remember fondly of this unusual story and its engaging characters.

PS: According to her biography on Wikipedia, Roopa Farooki has moved from corporate finance and advertising to literature, a brave and radical change of career that she can be proud of.

PPS : I’m sorry but again, I prefer the French cover to the Anglo-Saxon one.

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin – French Noir

November 27, 2018 4 comments

Heatwave by Jean Vautrin (1982) Not available in English.

Jean Vautrin (1933-2015) was a writer and a scriptwriter. Heatwave was our Book Club pick for November and it was a stark contrast to The Ice Princess, the crime fiction we read the month before.

Heatwave opens on a runaway criminal, Jimmy Cobb who has attacked a bank in Paris. He’s in the Beauce countryside, the agricultural region near Paris. There are large flat fields there and nowhere to hide. The police are after him and he’s digging a hole in a field to hide his loot from the robbery. He’s dressed in an elegant suit and it draws the attention of eleven-years old Chim. He sees him from his hiding place and decides to steal the money and hide it somewhere else.

Chim comes from the Morsang farm, the closest house. That’s where Jimmy Cobb decides to hide when the police’s chopper starts making rounds above his head.

The Morsang farm is the home of a violent and mostly uneducated family. Horace Maltravers married Jessica to take over the farm and its vast estate. His drunkard brother Socrate lives with them. Horace has a grownup daughter from a previous marriage, Ségolène. She’s not right in her head and a total nympho. She keeps assaulting men around her. Jessica had Chim with a seasonal farmhand before her marriage to Horace. Three employees work on the farm, Saïd from Algeria, Soméca Buick from an African country and Gusta Mangetout.

At the Morsang farm, they all have issues, except the employees. Horace is extremely violent and volatile. He hates Chim. Socrate could be sensible if drinking had not changed him into a useless slob. Jessica has locked herself into her housework, bringing cleanliness in the house since she can’t have a safe and sane home. Ségolène is creepy, always trying to corner males employees. They are all horrible in their own way. Horace and Ségolène clearly have mental health problems. Socrate and Jessica try to survive in this environment in their own way. And Chim is damaged for life.

The novel is a man chase, the police being after Cobb and the inhabitants of the farm willing to take advantage of his presence for their personal gain. Will Cobb get out alive of the farm? Will the police catch him or will the Morsang inhabitants get to him first? The whole novel happens in the span of two days.

Heatwave is a polar written in the pure tradition of classic Noir in bad French translations. In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the American crime fiction was published in the famous Série Noire. They were published quickly, translated in a way to respond to the French public, sometimes without much respect for the original text. If passages were too long, they were cut to keep the book within a certain number of pages. Thick argot was used, some of which got old quickly and is incomprehensible today.

Heatwave was written in this Série Noire tradition. It’s a polar à la San Antonio. It’s full of play-on-words, of twisted French and old-fashioned gangster way of speaking. When I started to read it, right after The Emperor’s Tomb I felt disoriented.

Heatwave is written in a style that requires a bit of adjustment from the reader. It’s also a succession of quick vignettes that betray Vautrin’s experience with cinema. It felt stroboscopic. It was like entering a nightclub and needing a moment to adjust to the place, the noise, the dark and the flashing lights. At first, you’re overwhelmed. Then, once you’ve been here for a while, you get used to it and you start seeing details, enjoying the décor and having fun. The reader must reach page 50 to get accustomed to Vautrin’s brand of writing and to start enjoying the atmosphere and the inventive style. It’s better to read Heatwave in a few sittings or the process of adjusting to the ambiance is to be done each time. Among the horrible argot, we can find poetic descriptions of the landscape,

Vingt-deux heures cinq

C’est l’heure des exhalaisons soudaines. Au moindre souffle de la brise, les odeurs voyagent à dos de pollen ou de petit lapin. Chiendent, blé tendre, coquelicots, fleurs neuves, les senteurs de la nuit sortent de terre. Elles remercient le soleil

10 :25 pm

It’s the time for sudden exhalations. With each breath of breeze, scents travels on pollenback or on rabbitback. Couch grass, common wheat, poppies, new flowers, the night’s scent come out of the earth. They are thankful for the sun.

and quirky descriptions.

It’s also extremely violent. Gunshots, torture and violence to women. I was also bothered by the descriptions of Saïd and Soméca Buick, full of clichés coming from colonial France. Maybe it was tolerated in 1982, twenty years after the war in Algeria and decolonization but now, it’s shocking. And I’m happy to be shocked because it means that things have improved.

I thought it was rather unrealistic as far as police procedural is concerned. The GIGN intervenes. They’re Special Operations in the gendarmerie, elite corps who come in touchy situations. They don’t show their face to cameras and don’t give their names. And here, they introduce themselves as country gendarmes do. But I guess accuracy is not the point of the book.

I don’t know what to think about Heatwave. It’s obviously classic noir, written into a tradition. The gangster jargon used here and there felt like a pastiche, a will to follow the Série Noire rules. It is a pity that Vautrin tried too hard to do that because when his own writing dominates, it’s powerful with clear-cut descriptions, sharp portrays and poetic descriptions of the landscapes.

Heatwave is not available in English but it has been made into a film directed by Yves Boisset. The lead actors are Lee Marvin, Miou-Miou, Jean Carmet and Victor Lanoux. I won’t be watching the movie because I have a better tolerance to violence when it’s written than when it’s on film. When I read, I manage to block images from flooding my head, something I can’t do with films.

For foreign readers curious about Vautrin’s style, I would recommend to check out the sample on Amazon, you’ll see what it sounds like.

The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg

November 25, 2018 13 comments

Our Book Club had picked The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg for October. It’s the first volume of the Erica Falck series. We are in Fjällbacka, during the winter and Alexandra Wijkner was found murdered. She was discovered by Erica Falck, a former classmate who is back in her hometown to tidy her childhood home after her parents were killed in an accident. Erica is a writer of biographies. She’s on a deadline to finish her book and working in Fjällbacka, far from the distractions of Stockholm works for her. She doesn’t have any family left there, her only sister lives in Stockholm too.

The plot centers around the personality of the victim, her loveless marriage to Karl Erik, her relationship with her parents and the strange events that happened in her early teenage years. Erica and Alexandra were best friends until her family suddenly moved out without telling goodbye to anyone. Has Alexandra’s murder anything to do with her past and how is the powerful Lorentz family involved in this story? That’s the murder plot.

The police in charge of the investigation is led by an insufferable chief called Bertil Mellberg and the inspector actually doing the ground work is Patrik Hedström, also a former schoolmate of Erica’s. He used to have a huge crush on her when they were younger.

Erica gets involved in the investigation, while finishing her book, starting to write a new one about Alexandra’s murder and dealing with her sister’s problems and her terrible brother-in-law. Meanwhile, Patrik and Erica get reacquainted and their relationship hops on an uncontrollable sleigh of soppiness, with fluttering hearts, ovaries in overdrive and cooking-is-the-way-to-a-man’s-heart seduction moves.

I found the story easy to read, not very original but entertaining even if I have guessed a key element in the mystery. And believe me, this is not a good sign because I never try to solve the murder when I read crime fiction, I have more fun enjoying the ride. The mystery part was OK but déjà vu, in my opinion.

The other elements around the investigation have been done before too. Erica’s sister is victim of domestic violence and the romance is too cheesy for my tastes. I guess it’s so successful because you can relate to Erica who is an average citizen. The only fun character is the awful chief of police. For the rest, I had the feeling that it lacked characterization and that the plot was too weak. It doesn’t compare well to other series like the ones written by Anne Perry, Louise Penny or Fred Vargas.

I’d say it’s good for a train journey or a plane trip but nothing to write home about.

Now a word about the French translation. I thought it was weird. Sometimes the syntax leaped out of the page. But what surprised me most were old-fashioned expressions like se lever à l’heure du laitier (to get up with the milkman), the use of baise-en-ville to describe the overnight bag Erica takes for her date with Patrik. tata instead of tatie (auntie), casse-croûte instead of sandwich. The translators are Lena Grumbach and Marc de Gouvernain. I’ve already read translations by Lena Grumbach since she also translates Katarina Mazetti but I never noticed anything about her translations, so I wonder if this old-fashioned vocabulary was in the original. Strange.

His Kingdom by Han Han – caustic Chinese lit

October 18, 2018 9 comments

His Kingdom by Han Han (2015) French title: Son royaume. Translated from the Chinese by Stéphane Lévêque.

This year our Book Club has decided to expand its horizon and read foreign fiction from countries we rarely read from. The first book meeting these new criteria is His Kingdomn, a contemporary book written in 2015 by Han Han, a famous Chinese blogger/author/rally racer. Yes, he’s all that and he was only born in 1982.

We are in Tinglin, a little fictional town in the South East of China. Zu Xialong works as a groundskeeper and has a lot of free time. What he loves most is to drive around Tinglin at high speed on his Japanese moto. He’s young, single and has yet to lose his virginity because each time he’s close to sealing the deal, his partner has her period. He has a crush on Ying with the sultry voice and bad reputation but he only catches the attention of the young Niba, a highschool student who’s been infatuated with him for a while. This is Xialong in a nutshell.

We follow Xialong in his wanderings around Tinglin, his interactions with Niba and Ying and his various small rebellious acts. His various trips in the city are an opportunity for Han Han to describe and make fun of the Tinglin life. It’s a town probably modeled on existing Chinese small provincial towns.

The officials from the Party who run Tinglin have authorized big corporations to come and set up huge factories. As a consequence, the city attracts lots of workers from other areas of China, suffers from pollution and is overcrowded with infrastructures that are not ready for so many inhabitants. The locals become landlords to the newcomers and the economy of the area goes upside down.

Han Han’s descriptions of wild industrialization are often comical and full of humor. See what happens at the end of the working day:

C’est une route nationale mais il y a tellement d’usines implantées dans le coin qu’elle est remplie de piétons à la sortie du travail. La police de la route a été obligée de mettre en place une déviation à cette heure-là, ce qui fait de cette route la seule nationale de Chine dont une section a été transformée en rue piétonne. It’s a main road but there are so many factories settled in the area that it is full of pedestrians after work. The traffic police had to arrange a detour at this hour and now this road is the only main road in China with a pedestrian section.

The pollution resulting from the factories is part of Tinglin, a price to pay to the god of economic development. It becomes a permanent fixture, it’s in the landscape and Han Han points out how the inhabitants are so used to it that they embrace it.

La lumière du crépuscule est magnifique, le ciel rougi par la pollution a des reflets pourpres, il souffle une petite brise acide. The light at sunset is beautiful. The sky turning red because of the pollution has crimson glints. A slight acid wind is softly blowing.

Poetic descriptions of the landscape are just another way to mock the good people of Tinglin. Critical minds are not a blossoming species in this town.

Xialong is a rather pathetic character, full of dreams but riding on an empty tank when it comes to make his dreams come true. He’s still a rebel to the general atmosphere of obeying blindly to the Party, bowing in front of apparatchiks and buying all the official speeches.

Sometimes he seems lazy but he’s ready to work his butt off to earn extra-money and repair his precious bike. He takes a second job in a thermometer factory, at the end of production line. He’s quality control and has to check that all the thermometers ready to be shipped actually show 37°C when used in live conditions.

Basically, Xialong tests the thermometers on himself, a job he can only perform well if he doesn’t run a fever. Han Han explains how Xiaolong improves his productivity by putting as many thermometers as he can in his body at the same time, even wishing to be a woman, you know, for the extra hole. Han Han’s dry wit makes fun of Xialong’s inventiveness to improve his job performance.

Pour son travail, il enfile son jean devant derrière, la fermeture éclair côté fesses afin de pouvoir plus facilement se fourrer les thermomètres dans le cul. When he goes to work, he slips into his jeans with the zipper on his backside in order to have a better access to stick the thermometers in his ass.

Han Han selected the most ridiculous job for Xiaolong, only to enforce the comic effects and still denounce the stupid work cadences.

Han Han also picks on Party officials and their ludicrous policies to promote culture and encourage companies to build factories in their town. I wonder how he’s allowed to write such an abrasive caricature of local politics. He mocks the empty and long speeches that they deliver.

On ne peut imaginer tirade plus creuse que celle du secrétaire du Parti, au point que l’on pourrait supprimer des passages entiers sans altérer le sens de l’ensemble. One cannot imagine more boring monologues than the Party secretary’s. Whole passages could be cut out without altering the global meaning of the speech.

There are hilarious passages about the codes to respect for speeches. Some stylistic devices are a must in every speech. They are expected, weighed, compared and officials observe each other and take notes of fellow speakers’ achievements.

Mais un fonctionnaire qui entend quelqu’un utiliser une formule de rhétorique est pareil à un toxicomane profond qui en voit un autre sniffer un rail. A civil servant who hears someone use a rhetorical phrase is like a full-in junkie who sees another junkie blowing coke.

I could go on with other excerpts of Han Han’s caustic writing. I enjoyed my time with Xialong, even if he really sounds like a useless bum. Han Han’s style isn’t extraordinary but who knows how many innuendos and puns are lot in translation.

I liked his caricature of small-town China and his critical vision of high speed economic development. Some elements are dystopian or even fantasy, like in Murakami’s Kakfa On the Shore. I was happy to read a Chinese book that was not a historical novel set during the Empire or another opus about the Cultural Revolution.

It was a good pick for me, I enjoyed his brand of humor.

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