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Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

November 5, 2017 16 comments

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (2015) Original French title: Petit Piment.

Mabanckou’s novel Black Moses opens like this:

Tout avait débuté à cette époque où, adolescent, je m’interrogeais sur le nom que m’avait attribué Papa Moupelo, le prêtre de l’orphelinat de Loango : Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. Ce long patronyme signifie en lingala « Rendons grâce à Dieu, le Moïse noir est né sur la terre des ancêtres. », et il est encore gravé sur mon acte de naissance… It all began when I was a teenager, and came to wonder about the name I’d been given by Papa Moupelo, the priest at the orphanage in Loando: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko. A long name, which in Lingala means ‘Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors’, and is still inscribed on my birth certificate today…

(Translation by Helen Stevenson)

With a name as long as this, a nickname was inevitable, Petit Piment it is in French (Little Pepper), Black Moses in the English translation. The tone of the book is set, the tone of a storyteller who captivates their audience with their tales. How much is true, how much is invented on the spot is debatable. Petit Piment starts the story of his life from his childhood at the orphanage to present time.

Petit Piment has spent all his formative years at the orphanage in Loango, Congo. Papa Moupelo visits the orphans every week until the Marxist revolution hits the country. The orphanage’s director is a fervent admirer of the new president and the orphanage must become a show room for the new power. Exit Papa Moupelo and his mild catechism. Welcome to zealots with the president’s Marxist gospel. Our narrator Petit Piment recalls everyday life at the orphanage with energy and vivid images. The routine, his friends, the staff with a special mention to Niangui who was like a mother to him. As the old staff is progressively replaced by new and obedient staff spewing off Marxist maxims, the orphanage becomes less of a home.

Arrive the twins Songi-Songi and Tala-Tala. They quickly become the masters of the dormitories, bullying the other orphans into submission. Somehow Petit Piment manages to remain in their good graces. When they decide to evade from the orphanage to go to the economical capital of the country, Pointe-Noire, Petit Piment trails after them. What kind of future does he have in Loango anyway?

So they leave the orphanage, totally ill prepared for the outside world. They never learnt any trade and nothing was made to prepare them for their adult life. From the way Petit Piment talks about his quotidian at Loango, he has no expectations, no idea of what his life could be after the orphanage. It’s no surprise that Petit Piment and associates become partners in crime. Young offender is their career in Pointe-Noire. Their quotidian is now made of violence, bathed in drugs and mixed with prostitution.

I enjoyed Petit Piment as a dark coming of age novel set in the tradition of oral storytelling but I was very disappointed by the ending. Until the last forty pages, I thought it was pretty good, even if it wasn’t as political as expected. I thought I’d read more about the new Marxist power and its impact on the Congolese’s lives. This thread is a bit left aside after Petit Piment left the orphanage. I thought Petit Piment was an engaging character and I enjoyed the Congo setting as I’m always curious about life in other countries.

But the ending seemed blotched. It felt like Mabanckou was on a deadline and didn’t know how to get out of his own story. He found a dubious way out that clashed with the rest of the novel. I’m sure that what he writes about, errand young gangs in Pointe Noire, is a sad reality. I would have liked something more political and the ending drifted too much from the beginning and middle of the book to be saved by great characterization or chiseled prose.

And indeed, Mabanckou’s prose is a special territory in francophone literature. It’s like the Amazonian forest, luxuriant, colorful. Full of exotic images and new ways with the French language. Like in Black Bazaar, I had fun digging out Brassens references in the text. For example, here’s an excerpt from the song La mauvaise reputation.

Quand je croise un voleur malchanceux,

Poursuivi par un cul-terreux;

Je lance la patte et pourquoi le taire,

Le cul-terreux se r’trouv’ par terre.

Je ne fais pourtant de tort à personne,

En laissant courir les voleurs de pommes ;

When I run into an unlucky thief

Chased by a hick

I stick out my foot and why keep it quiet,

The hick finds himself on the ground

Yet I don’t do harm to anyone

By letting apple thieves have a run. 

Translation from the site Brassens With English

And here’s a paragraph by Mabanckou (p133 of my French paperback edition)

Et quand d’aventures je croisais un voleur de mangues ou de papayes poursuivi par un cul-terreux du Grand Marché, je courais après le poursuivant, je lançais aussitôt ma petite patte d’emmerdeur, le cul-terreux se retrouvait par terre tandis que le délinquant, à ma grande satisfaction, prenait la poudre d’escampette et levait son pouce droit pour me remercier. And when I happened to run into a mango or papaya thief chased by a hick from the Great Market, I ran after the chaser, stuck out my pain-in-the-neck’s little foot and the hick found himself on the ground while the petty thief, to my great satisfaction, took off and gave me the thumbs up to thank me.

As you can see if you compare the two French texts, Mabanckou replays the song’s scene with several words borrowed to Brassens. Cul-terreux is not a word we use a lot anymore and when I saw it, I immediately thought about Brassens. That part was fun to me but probably lost in translation. To anglophone readers: do you have footnotes about this in the novel or notes by the translator about Mabackou’s language?

So, if you’ve never read Mabanckou, I’d recommend Black Bazaar first and this one only if you enjoyed his style.

Other reviews : Tony’s at Tony’s Reading List and Philippe’s at Les Livres que je lis. And I’m sure there are other ones as Black Moses was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

In Lisbon by Philippe Besson

October 15, 2017 15 comments

In Lisbon by Philippe Besson (2016) Original French title : Les passants de Lisbonne.

Quand viendra le printemps,

Si je suis déjà mort,

Les fleurs fleuriront de la même manière

Et les arbres n’en seront pas moins verts

Qu’au printemps dernier.

La réalité n’a pas besoin de moi.

Fernando Pessoa

Je ne suis personne.

When spring comes,

If I’m dead already,

Flowers will blossom the usual way

And trees won’t get less green

Than the spring before.

Reality does not need me.

 Fernando Pessoa

I’m nobody.

Philippe Besson is a writer I’m really fond of. I don’t know how else to say it. He never lets me down and there are a few books by him that I haven’t read yet but I don’t want to rush to read them. I like to know they are out there and that if I need a safe bet, I can turn to this list and pick one. So, I’m going to enjoy reading them slowly. Philippe Besson has an English translator but not all of his novels are available in English. I loved Un homme accidentel which seems to be only available in Polish besides French. En l’absence des hommes has been translated into English and in other languages. The English title is In the Absence of Men and it’s a good introduction to Besson. I’ve also read De là, on voit la mer but I liked it less than the others. This brings us to Les passants de Lisbonne, another one that didn’t make it into English. I will come back to the title later.

Mathieu and Hélène stay at the same hotel in Lisbon. They are both alone, carrying around a heavy sadness that brings them together. They start talking and sharing their life stories. Besson imagined that The Big One had happened and that Hélène’s husband Vincent, who was on a business trip in San Francisco, died when his hotel collapsed. Grief made Hélène flee Paris at some point and she ended up in Lisbon. Mathieu had a long-distance relationship with Diego who is from Lisbon. He went back and forth between Paris and Lisbon. That was until he arrived from Paris to find their apartment in Lisbon empty, save from a breakup letter.

These two grieving souls will end up spending time together, talking, walking into the city, trying to move on with their life. Mathieu feels guilty when he rehashes his relationship with Diego because he thinks a broken heart is not as hard as losing a husband in such terrible circumstances.

Elle résume : « Ainsi, nous avons cela en commun, un disparu. »

Même s’il a écouté son raisonnement, il envisage encore de lui concéder que leur solitude n’est pas comparable, que la mort l’emporte forcément sur la rupture amoureuse, qu’on ne met pas sur le même plan un époux emporté par un cataclysme et un amant qui s’enfuit. Par politesse, il devrait donc admettre une forme de défaite si les chagrins se livraient un combat. Pourtant, il accepte de la rejoindre. Un disparu est un disparu. Peu importent les circonstances de la disparition. A la fin, ce qui compte, c’est qu’on est seul, affreusement seul. Dépareillé. Démuni.

She sums it up “So, we have this in common. A lost one”.

Even if he had listened to her reasoning, he still contemplates to concede that their loneliness is not comparable, that death obviously wins over breakups, that a husband who died in a cataclysm doesn’t compare to a lover who ran away. Out of politeness, he should admit a sort of defeat, if their griefs were in a duel. But he accepts to join her. A lost one is a lost one. Whatever the circumstances of the loss. In the end, what counts is that one is alone and terribly lonely. Mismatched. Helpless.

Hélène is a convincing character when she retells the shock of the catastrophe, the waiting and all the administrative nightmare that followed, on top of her pain. It could be trite, whiny and theatrical. It’s not, because Besson manages to stay on the right tune and choosing Lisbon was certainly not a coincidence. Portugal is known for the concept of saudade and for Fado music, both linked to melancoly. No city in Europe looks as much as San Francisco as Lisbon does. Look at the narrow streets,

The historic cable car,

The Ponte de 25 Abril

From Wikipedia by Vitor Oliveira

It seemed the right city to be in for Hélène to work through her grief. Mathieu helps her tame her pain and she helps him navigate through his. They are both passing in Lisbon. Their acquaintance is deep but fleeting. The title of the book is Les passants de Lisbonne. It is difficult to translate into English because, as often, the French has more meanings in one word than the English. Un passant means a passer-by and that’s what Mathieu and Hélène are, from a practical point of view. They walk around Lisbon. But passant also encapsulates the idea that they are transient in the city as foreigners and in each other’s lives as strangers. Their moment together is a parenthesis in their lives and they remain aware that the world goes on around them.

Loin d’eux, des enfants naissent et d’autres meurent, des bombes explosent dans des capitales et des routes sont tracées au milieu des déserts, des maladies frappent et des hommes sont sauvés, l’espérance de vie augmente et la famine aussi, on raconte des histoires extraordinaires dans les journaux, le monde continue. Far away from them, children are born and others die. Bombs explode in capital cities and roads are built through the desert. Illnesses strike and some people are saved. Life expectancy increases and famine too. Extraordinary stories are told in newspapers; the world goes on.

Their whole time together, their encounter, their shared time at a moment in their lives where they are the most vulnerable is precious and big for them but nothing in the grand scheme of the world. Besson does not belittle their pain but still puts it in perspective. His sensitive writing makes of Les passants de Lisbonne a lovely and poetic novel about love, loss and healing in a lovely city.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven! by Chahdortt Djavann

July 21, 2017 6 comments

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven by Chahdortt Djavann (2016) Original French title: Les putes voilées n’iront jamais au paradis.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven by Chahdortt Djavann was our Book Club choice for July. Chahdortt Djavann is a French female writer born in Iran in 1967. According to her bio on Wikipedia, she was arrested in 1980 for participating to a march against the religious power in Iran. She was incarcerated and beaten up. She came to France in 1993, learnt French by herself –now you’re in awe of her—by reading text books, Gide, Maupassant, Camus and Romain Gary –now you know I can only have a soft spot for her. She studied in a very famous school of sociology and did her memoir about religious indoctrination in the school system in Iran. Her PhD thesis was about writing in another language, a study based upon the works of Ionesco, Cioran and Beckett.

This quick bio gives you the picture of a highly educated woman, someone who suffered early of being a woman in a world dominated by men, someone who’s deeply against religious extremists and profoundly fond of literature.

Veiled Hookers Will Never Go to Heaven uses fiction to write about prostitution in Iran. The book opens with the murders of women in the streets of Teheran. Women are found assassinated and the police and passersby quickly assume that they are hookers. Djavann shows how this deduction is based on nothing factual, only on the fact that these women were alone on the street and so they must be loose women.

Un rien fait de vous une pute, dans cette contrée. Femme, dès qu’on vous remarque, pour quelque raison que ce soit, vous êtes forcément une pute. Une femme vertueuse est une femme invisible. Un tchador noir que rien ne distingue des autres tchadors. Un tchador seul, sur une route déserte, si austèrement fermé qu’il soit, se fait remarquer, il s’y cache donc une pute. A little nothing tags you as a hooker in this country. Woman, as soon as someone notices you, whatever the reason, you must be a hooker. A virtuous woman is an invisible woman. A black chador that nothing differentiates from other black chadors. A lonely chador on a desert road, no matter how austerely closed it is, is noticeable. Therefore there’s a hooker inside.

This is the first glimpse of the Iranian society and its treatment of women.

Djavann describes several murders, several women whose corpse nobody claims and the murders go on while good people approve of the murderer’s actions. After all, he’s cleaning the streets of vermin. And the reader discovers that if one kills someone who’s considered as mahdourodam (worthless), then it’s not a murder. But only a mollah highly qualified in religious matters can decide whether the life of the victim was a human worth living or not. This law is of course appalling for a Westerner.

Djavann quickly sums up the position of women in Iran. They are things to be owned, to be married off, to be disposed of:

Les femmes sont les biens des hommes de leur famille et elles restent jusqu’à leur mort sous tutelle masculine. Women are the property of the men of the family and remain under male guardianship until they die.

Hmm, isn’t that a definition of slavery?

Spinning off this true story of murdered women in Teheran, Djavann starts exploring the condition of women and the importance of prostitution in Iran. Instead of writing an essay, she decides to write snapshots, fake interviews in order to give a life, a voice and a face to these women. We’ll read vignettes but we’ll also follow the fate of two girls who are twelve years old when the book opens. They are named Zahra and Soudabeh. Both are beautiful. They are best friends but get separated at twelve when Zahra is married off by her father to a much older man. We’ll follow their parallel fates and see how they’ll end up as prostitutes.

This is a strange novel, style wise. It mixes a bit of journalism, very crude language, legal explanations and fiction. After each snapshot where a prostitute describes her awful life, there’s a little paragraph about the city where she lives. Each time, it’s a very old city, with a lot of culture and Djavann seems to silently call out to us and say “How? How can such an old spot of culture become such a barbaric place?”

When Djavann describes the women’s experiences, she uses very crude language. It’s violent and uncomfortable but she probably found it necessary to convey the pure violence done to these women.

This goes further than the usual criticism you can read about Iran. In Satrapi’s comic books or in Nahapétian’s crime fiction, you see that women are not independent, that they need to cover themselves, that there are a lot of things they cannot do and that the mores police tracks down the rebels and the breaches to Islamic laws.

Djavann depicts a society who objectifies women in the most literal sense. Prostitution is widely spread. Men seem obsessed by sex, abusing their employees and housekeepers. Women are defenseless, they have nobody to turn to. Temporary marriages are a vast hypocrisy, allowing men to legal adultery. Women cannot do the same, of course. Here’s what she writes about adultery:

L’adultère est un crime dont le châtiment en Iran est la peine de mort, y compris pour les hommes, même s’ils ont droit à quatre femmes officielles. Parce que, selon la charia, lorsqu’un homme commet l’adultère, il déshonore non pas sa femme mais un autre musulman en lui volant, violant son bien : mère, sœur, femme, fille ou nièce. In Iran, adultery is a prime punished by death penalty, even for men and even if they are entitled to four official wives. Because, according to the sharia, when a man commits adultery, he doesn’t dishonor his wife but another Muslim by stealing and raping his property: mother, sister, daughter or niece.

Djavann doesn’t generalize but shows how the Islamic laws in place are so idiotic and humiliating for women that it stuns you silly. She explains the legal arguments behind some rules and everything is warped. Zealots and extremists bend religious texts to their will and only use them in their own interest. Djavann denounces a system based upon hypocrisy and enslavement of the female population. And one can only wonder: what are these men afraid of? What do they fear will happen if they consider their women as partners, as equals? The laws she mentions are all in favor of men and of their impunity. They can do whatever they want, it doesn’t count, there will be no repercussions.

This appalling vision of Iran is hard to reconcile with a country that cherishes poetry and has such a rich artistic tradition. The men she describes here come from all social classes and prostitution is institutionalized like it was in Paris in the 19th century. On the one hand, women are covered from head to toe and on the other hand men seem more obsessed by sex than in the West.

From a literary point of view, I think that the style is not polished enough to make of this novel a true literary object. I thought that the hookers’ voices sounded sometimes too educated to be plausible. I struggled with the crude language and I don’t consider myself as prude. But some passages could be porn if they were not a description of legalized rape and violence. I found it tiring sometimes. However, the message is important, I learnt things and shying away from the vulgarity of the descriptions meant looking the other way and refusing to acknowledge the abuse of these not-so-fictional women. Plus, I’m certain this vulgarity is not gratuitous but serves the purpose how showing how these women are debased.

In the end, I did not always enjoy the ride but I’m glad I read it.

Harmonics by Marcus Malte

July 15, 2017 12 comments

Harmonics by Marcus Malte (2011) Original French title: Les harmoniques. Not available in English.

Last year, I read The Boy by Marcus Malte and I was blown away by the virtuosity and musicality of his prose. The Boy was Malte’s first attempt at literary fiction after writing a few crime fiction novels. I wanted to try his earlier work and decided to read Harmonics.

Harmonics is set in Paris where the young Vera Nad was murdered or more precisely, she was burnt alive. Mister is a jazz pianist in a night club in Paris. Vera used to come and listen to him play. They bonded over music. Mister was falling for her when she died and their budding relationship was crushed too. Mister is not satisfied with the police’s version of Vera’s murder. He’s restless and wants to dig further and understand what happened to her. He embarks his friend Bob on his journey. They’re a weird pair, the Parisian pianist and the Chti philosopher/taxi driver.

Vera was from ex-Yugoslavia and soon the two friends realize that her death has something to do with her community here in France. Mister doesn’t know much about Vera’s past and he wonders why he’s so infatuated with her that he can’t let go. The investigation progresses. Mister and Bob discover that Vera was in the besieged Vukovar in 1991 during the civil war that destroyed Yugoslavia. She was ten at the time and she lived through the traumatic three-month siege of this multicultural town by the Serb army.

Harmonics is the exploration of Mister’s love for Vera, of Vera’s past and a vivid recollection of the Vukovar siege. The novel opens with a play list of jazz pieces. Each song becomes an interlude, a moment when we hear Vera’s voice. It’s in italic in the book, a pause in the novel, like rests on a partition. Music and war are interlaced in the novel, because music is rooted in Mister’s being, because war left an indelible mark on Vera’s soul, because jazz is the musical bridge between these two beings.

The title of the book is explained in this dialogue between Mister, Bob and Milosav, a young man who brought decisive help in the investigation:

Mister dressa un index.

– Les harmoniques…dit-il

Milosav leva les yeux au plafond, s’attendant peut-être à en voir surgir des créatures extraterrestres.

– Harmeûniques? C’est quoi, harmeûniques?

– Les notes dernières les notes, dit Mister. Les notes secrètes. Les ondes fantômes qui se multiplient et se propagent à l’infini, ou presque. Comme des ronds dans l’eau. Comme un écho qui ne meurt jamais.

Sa voix shuntait elle aussi à mesure qu’il parlait. Bob plissa les paupières. Il observait son ami avec attention. Il ne voyait pas encore où celui-ci voulait en venir.

– Ce qui reste quand il ne reste rien, dit Mister. C’est ça, les harmoniques. Pratiquement imperceptibles à l’oreille humaine, et pourtant elles sont là, quelque part, elles existent.

(…)

– Il n’y a pas que la musique, dit Mister, qui produit des harmoniques. Le bruit des canons aussi. Qui sait au bout de combien de temps elles cessent de résonner?

Mister lifted a finger.

“Harmonics”, he said

Milosav looked at the ceiling, as if he were expecting aliens coming down from there.

“Harmoonics? What is harmoonics?”

“The notes behind notes.”, Mister said. “Secret notes. Ghost waves that multiply and propagate infinitely or almost infinitely. Like ripples on a pond. Like a never-ending echo.”  

His voice shunted too when he talked. Bob squinted. He observed his friend attentively. He hadn’t understood yet where he wanted to go with this.

“What remains when there’s nothing left, Mister said. That’s what harmonics are. Almost imperceptible to the human ear, and yet, they are somewhere, they exist.”

 (…)

“Music is not the only thing that produces harmonics”, Mister said. “The sound of cannons does too. Who knows when they stop resonating?”

And that’s the crux of Malte’s argumentation, the one that goes beyond the crime investigation. What are the invisible damages done by war? How long do they affect the people who lived through it.

I had the opportunity to talk to Marcus Malte at Quais du Polar. I gushed about The Boy and he told me, “This is different”, in a way that meant, “I hope you won’t be disappointed”. Well, I disagree with him. Several themes that are key in The Boy are already in Harmonics. Music and war. The way music brightens our lives. The absurdity and sheer cruelty of war and its psychological damages.

I loved Harmonics too, even if I think the ending is a bit sketchy. It is one of those crime fiction books that makes you question the value of the boxes literary fiction and crime fiction and wonder why they should be mutually exclusive.

I picked Harmonics among Malte’s other books because he was giving a literary concert based on it at Quais du Polar. What’s a literary concert? It’s a performance where the writer reads chapters of his books and between chapters, jazz musicians performed the songs from the playlist. I urge you to check it out here even if you don’t speak French. It is a magical experience, especially with a book like this one. It stayed with me and I could hear him read when I reached the chapters that were included in the concert.

Malte obviously has a wide musical, literary and crime fiction cultural background. They all mesh and create a unique opus. In an interview, Marcus Malte said that this book is constructed around music, as a noir ballad. The book has 32 chapters like the 32 tempos in jazz standards, 12 parts in italic like the 12 tempos of blues standards.

I read Harmonics a few months ago and it stayed with me, like a lingering melody. For example, there’s a tragi-comic scene in the métro in Paris where Mister meets Milosav, who will later help him with the investigation. It starts in a really comical way with Milosav attempting to earn money in the métro with his blind father by playing music. The father plays the accordion while Milosav belts out lyrics, out of key. I immediately thought of this scene the other day in Paris when I saw musicians like them in Paris.

My billet cannot do justice to the depth and quality of Malte’s prose. It’s poetic, funny, elegant and chic. It all falls into place in an impeccable manner. Du grand art.

I am sorry to report that Harmonics is not available in English. In the Translation Tragedy box it goes. Malte won the prestigious Prix Femina for The Boy. Hopefully he’ll catch the attention of an English-speaking publisher. For another review, here’s Marina-Sofia’s.

The Snuff-It Princess by Kââ – Crime fiction

June 25, 2017 10 comments

The Snuff-it Princess by Kââ (1984) Original French title: La princess de Crève. Not available in English.

I bought La princesse de Crève by Kââ at Quais du Polar. I was drawn to the great cover and the play-on-word in the title. Indeed, La princesse de Crève is a reference to the famous novel La princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette (1678) The best translation I can come with is The Snuff-it Princess, since the verb crever in this context is a slang word for to die.

My copy of La princesse de Crève is a new edition of Kââ’s 1984 crime fiction novel or polar. I’d never heard of Kââ as a writer. According to Wikipedia, it’s the pen name of Pascal Marignac who also wrote under the names of Corsélien and Béhémoth. Kââ is a reference to the python’s name in The Jungle Book.

La princesse the Crève is a roadtrip/chase classic crime fiction. It’s told at the first person by an unnamed narrator. From the context, we can guess he’s a white man in his late thirties or early forties. He’s literate, amateur of good wines and connoisseur of fire arms. He’s a criminal with principles who has the right connections in organized crime circles. As we say in French, he’s not an altar boy but still acts according to his own moral code.

When the book opens, our narrator is sitting at a terrace, on a look-out. Mr de Warny is going to cross the border between France and Switzerland with 150 000 francs hidden in the trunk. And our narrator and his accomplice have decided to block De Warny’s road and steal the cash before he gets to Switzerland. Everything goes according to plan and they manage to pinch the money right under Roman Markos’s nose, the man behind the money laundering business.

Our narrator decides to let things cool off and chooses to hide in Bruges, Belgium. He’s having dinner at a restaurant when he meets Michelle. She’s on her own. She’s the archetype of the femme fatale, a stunning blonde with smoldering eyes. She captures his attention, he chats her up only to realize that she has hitmen after her. After putting the pieces of the jigsaw together, he understands that Markos’s men are after her. He wonders if it has anything to do with him stealing the money near Switzerland. He decides to help her escape her killers, knowing his life is at stake since he took the gangster’s money.

Who is Michelle and why does she have this string of killers chasing after her? I won’t tell more about the plot. Suffice to say that La princesse de Crève is a road trip from Belgium to the South of France and even Italy. The death toll keeps increasing along the way as more hitmen pop on their road. Michelle and the narrator are constantly on the run and escaping a painful death.

I can’t say I loved La princesse de Crève. It’s well-written but there were too many corpses, too many gun fights and too many precise references to firearms I know nothing about. The constant chase was tiring in the end. There was too much action and not enough insight on the characters’ psychology. I felt like I didn’t belong to the right gender to enjoy it. All this admiration for weapons was too much testosterone for my tastes. It’s as if the genre needed landmarks to meet virility requirements. And yet, as chauvinistic as this description sounds, it’s not. Women have a good place in the novel, Michelle is not a wallflower, she has spunk. And two of the hitmen are lesbians, quite daring for 1984.

You can’t forget that La princesse de Crève was written in the 1980s. Of course, there are these constant stops at cafés to get a phone, the models of the cars used during this roadtrip/chase are well-known cars from this decade. They smoke all the time and everywhere. They pay in francs and it’s strange now that we’re used to euros.

What felt truly dated is this narrator without a past or a future, as if he were born for this moment, this plot. The reader doesn’t know much about him, he’s a bit of a hologram. We only see him in action and we draw a portrait in our head. He’s literate and never vulgar. He enjoys female company and casual sex but doesn’t objectify women. He’s a little romantic and while he never has qualms about shooting an enemy, torture is not his MO. Recent crime fiction doesn’t work that way anymore. Authors create series and the subplot about the main character’s private life is as important as the crime plot. We are used to this now and I missed it. Despite a clever writing, La princesse de Crève lacked substance on the characters developments.

Perhaps it just didn’t work for me and I shouldn’t have expected more than easy entertainment from this book.

Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou

May 25, 2017 28 comments

Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou (2009) Original French title: Black Bazar 

Il soutient que l’Africain a été le premier homme sur la Terre, les autres races ne sont venues qu’après. Tous les hommes sont donc des immigrés, sauf les Africains qui sont chez eux ici-bas. He says that the African man was the first man on Earth and that the other races only came after. Therefore, all men are immigrants except African people who are right at home.

Mabanckou is a writer I’d wanted to read for a long time and if I had to tag Black Bazar with something I’d say energetic and refreshing.

The main character is Buttologist, a Congolese dandy who lives in Paris. He’s brokenhearted after his French girlfriend of Congolese origin left him to go live in Congo with a musician he nicknamed The Mongrel. In French, Buttologist is named Fessologue and he got his nickname because of his fondness for female butts. The Mongrel is L’Hybride.

Buttologist pours his thoughs into his journal, Black Bazaar and that’s how the reader has access to his inner mind. We hear about his relationship with Original Color and the trail of sorrow she left behind. We meet with his friends at Jip’s, a bar in the Halles neighborhood in Paris. (That’s where the Beaubourg museum is.) His friends are also immigrants from Africa and they chat about everything. He introduces us to Congolese fashion and teaches us about his community. He lives in a tiny studio in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, near the Château d’Eau metro station. We walk around with him, see his interaction with the shopkeeper L’Arabe du Coin. He shares his thoughts about his life, about being black in Paris, about the French language. His life changes when he meets Jean-Philippe, a famous author from Haiti, probably Laferrière literary doppelgänger. Buttologist starts to write as well.

Black Bazaar is not a book made for summaries and Cliff Notes. It’s too full of life. The best of the experience lays in Mabanckou’s incredible virtuosity with the French language. He knows it inside and out and plays it effortlessly. His style is full of quirks, twists and innuendos. It sounds simple but it’s not.

Un Blanc qui apprend du tam-tam, c’est normal, ça fait chic, ça fait type qui est ouvert aux autres cultures du monde et pas du tout raciste pour un sou. Un Noir qui bat du tam-tam, ça craint, ça fait trop retour aux sources, à la case départ, à l’état naturel, à la musique dans la peau. C’est pas pour rien que les Européens s’intéressent comme ça au tam-tam. C’est pour comprendre comment les choses se passaient chez nous quand il n’y avait pas d’autres moyens de communication que celui-là.

A white guy who learns how to play tom-tom, it’s normal, it’s chic, it says “I’m a man open to the other cultures of the world and I’m not racist at all”. A Black man who plays the tam-tam, it sucks, it’s too much back to his roots, back to square one, back to his natural state, back to having the beat. It ain’t surprising that Europeans are interested in tom-tom that way. It is to understand how things went in our country when we had no other means of communication.

There is a lot packed up in this simple paragraph. First it resonates with Dany Laferrière’s comments about his meetings with white girls in Montreal in How To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. Mabanckou seems to say that when a white man plays the tom-tom, he seems open minded and when a black man does, he seems to be looking for his past. Neither the white man or the black man is seen as simply someone who enjoys playing the tom-tom. There has to be a meaning behind it or more precisely, our cultural background puts a filter on what we see.

Then, there’s the brilliant style. I tried to translate this paragraph as best as I could but a lot of things are lost in translation. It is difficult for me to give back the tone and the register of Black Bazaar. In French, I’d qualify it as highbrow colloquial. The use of ça instead of cela reveals spoken language. Then he makes play on words with casual expressions. Retour à la case départ is the French way to say Back to square one on board games. But in French, a case is also the word used for African huts. So, for a French, it sounds like back to African huts as well. And then, there’s la musique dans la peau which I translated as having the beat. That’s a cliché about black people but in French it has an additional meaning. The literal translation of la musique dans la peau would be to have music in your skin or in English, you’d probably say in your blood. But blood is red for everyone when someone’s skin can be of different color, so the French has another layer. And on top of it, La musique dans la peau was a hit song by Zouk Machine in the 1980s. It was a group of black ladies from Guadalupe singing zouk songs.

This is Alain Mabanckou for you: intelligent colloquial language laced with cultural references and punchy thoughts about the relationships between blacks and whites and the world around him. I could quote other paragraphs with embedded Brassens lyrics or references to Césaire or Dany Lafferière. Writers like Mabanckou keep the French language alive. If books had buddies, Black Bazaar would be friends with A Moveable FeastHow To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, Going to Meet the ManAsk the DustPost Office or with The Lonely LondonersBlack Bazaar would be in good company, not with Montaigne and La Boëtie but it would be “friends first”, like in Brassens’s famous song Les Copains d’abord.

NB: Black Bazaar is full of characters with colorful nicknames. I have read Mabanckou in French but had a look at the English version of names coined by the English translator Sarah Ardizzone.

This picture was taken in Bordeaux and it reminded me of Black Bazaar, the book I was reading at the time.

 

Elle by Philippe Djian

May 14, 2017 18 comments

Elle by Philippe Djian (2012) Original French title: “Oh…”

Philippe Djian is probably my favorite contemporary French author. I’ve followed him since his first successes in the 1980s. I loved Échine when I read it then, I got attached to the characters and loved his sense of humor. I have read most of his books and you can find billets on my blog about Vengeances (Not available in English), Incidences (Consequences) and Impardonnables (Unforgivable). “Oh…” won the Prix Interallié in 2012. Elle is already available in UK and will be released by Other Press in the USA on May 23rd.  It is translated by Michael Katims.

Several of his books have been made into a film, 37°2 le matin (Betty Blue), directed by Beineix, Impardonnables, directed by André Téchiné or Incidences, directed by the brothers Larrieux. And last but not least, “Oh…” (Elle) was made into a film by Paul Verhoeven. The film won a Golden Globe Award in Best Foreign Language Film and a César. Isabelle Huppert plays the main character, Michèle and won the Golden Globe Award and the César for Best Actress. Now that I’ve read the book, I want to watch its film version.

Philippe Djian loves American literature and especially Raymond Carver. He indirectly introduced me to John Fante and “Oh…” opens with a quote from A Piece of News by Eudora Welty : It was dark outside. The storm had rolled away to faintess like a wagon crossing a bridge.

“Oh…” is a first-person narrative. We’re in Michèle’s head. She’s in her mid-forties, has been divorced from Richard for three years. They have a twenty-three years old son, Vincent. When the book opens, Michèle has just been raped in her own home by a stranger. He was waiting for her in her house.

Je me suis sans doute éraflé la joue. Elle me brûle. Ma mâchoire me fait mal. J’ai renversé un vase en tombant, je me souviens l’avoir entendu exploser sur le sol et je me demande si je ne me suis pas blessée avec un morceau de verre, je ne sais pas. Le soleil brille encore dehors. Il fait bon. Je reprends doucement mon souffle. Je sens que je vais avoir une terrible migraine, dans quelques minutes. I must have scraped my cheek. It burns. My ja hurts. I knocked a vase over when I fell. I remember hearing it shatter on the floor and I’m wondering if I got cut with a piece of glass. I don’t know. The sun is still shining outside. The weather’s good. Little by little, I catch my breath. I feel an awful migraine coming on, any minute. (translation by Michael Katims)

This very first paragraph sets the tone of the novel. Michèle is cold and detached. She speaks as if she has a permanent out-of-body experience. She’s living her life like voice over. Michèle does not react how you’d expect a woman to react after a rape. She doesn’t collapse, she doesn’t go to the police. She doesn’t say anything, she goes on with her life even if she thinks about it and feels a bit insecure in her house.

Along the pages, we get acquainted with Michèle and her family and friends. She and her best friend Anna have created an agency that produces scenarios for TV shows and for the film industry. Michèle reviews scenarios, meets with writers and takes on their work or not. Unfortunately, Richard writes scenarios that Michèle has constantly refused to promote because she thinks they’re not got enough. To say it strained their relationship is an understatement. Although they got divorced, Michèle and Richard still have a strong relationship. They see each other often and Richard still feels protective over Michèle. When she realizes that Richard is in a steady relationship with Hélène, she gets jealous, even if she has no right to be since she initiated the divorce procedure.

Their son Vincent has just moved in with his girl-friend Josie who’s pregnant with another man’s child. Michèle can’t understand why Vincent wants to stay with Josie and raise this baby as his own. Richard thinks Vincent shall live his life as he pleases but Michèle is convinced he’s too young to make such a decision. There’s also Michèle’s mother, Irène. She dresses like a hooker and has made her goal to live off men. Michèle does not approve of her last boy-friend and is horrified to hear that Irène got engaged to this man.

Michèle is a controlling woman and it stems from her past, a past I won’t disclose to avoid spoilers. She is controlling and since she pays for Vincent and Irène’s rents, it is hard for them to shoo her away and it comforts her in her idea that they are not adults and need supervision.

When this rape occurs, Michèle is trying to end the affair she’s been having for months with Robert, Anna’s husband. She’s also getting acquainted with her neighbor, Patrick and introducing him in her close-knit circle.

This is the setting for a novel that take us through thirty days in the life of a complicated woman. Thirty days full of darkness, haunted by tragedies and bad memories, where sex and death are constant companions.

I think Michèle’s character will shock people with a stereotyped vision of women. If you see her through the lenses of Judeo-Christian morality, she’s doomed. She has an affair with a married man who is also her best-friend and business partner’s husband. This is a triple off-limits man. She loves Vincent but hates motherhood and doesn’t hesitate to remind him how awful her delivery had been. Here’s Michèle commenting on her feelings for her son.

Je n’ai rien caché à ce garçon de l’enfer où m’avait précipitée sa venue au monde, mais je ne lui ai jamais dit quel amour insensé j’ai éprouvé pour lui—que j’aime toujours de tout mon cœur, sans doute, Vincent est mon fil, mais tout finit par tiédir au fil du temps.

 

I hid nothing from this boy and always told him that his birth cast me into the depths of hell. But I never told him the burning love I felt for him—I still love him with all my heart, undoubtedly, but everything cools off with time.

(my translation)

She’s not a stellar example of motherhood. She’s cold and detached. Remorse is not in her vocabulary. She’s harsh in her interactions with other people. Her reaction to her rape is not what society expects from her. Lots of her traits makes her a misfit. But she’s not a monster. She’s fragile as well, fate has dealt her a shitty hand at a crucial moment of her life and she went on as best she could.

Djian’s novel is a tour-de-force. Everything is set for the reader to hate Michèle but they can’t. He manages to balance her character and his writing full of short but pointed sentences gives Michèle a clear and audible voice. He doesn’t judge and his writing is such that this reader didn’t judge as well. I was ill-at-ease, shocked but I never judged her. I thought it must be awful to have someone like her in your family but nothing more. To be honest, I could see Isabelle Huppert in Michèle. I even wondered if Djian thought about her when he wrote the book.

In my opining, this is one of Djian’s best books. I’m not competent enough to analyse this further but there’s something about classic tragedy here. Everything is set to lead to the denouement. It is definitely Djian’s current trademark. It’s dark but not bleak. It flirts with crime fiction.  Djian doesn’t hesitate to take controversial routes and not every reader will enjoy it. But I did. Immensely.

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