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QDP Day #3 : The Unfaithful by Dominique Sylvain

April 5, 2020 16 comments

The Unfaithful by Dominique Sylvain. (2018) Original French title: Les Infidèles

This is Day 3 of Marina’s and my Quais du Polar and I’m a little late with my billet. Isolation or not, I’m still quite busy. Before diving into The Unfaithful by Dominique Sylvain, let me share Guy’s review of The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre and Andrew’s review of In the Name of Truth by Viveca Sten. Manue thanks Guy and Andrew for your participation to our virtual Quais du Polar. It was great to have you on board.

Now let’s go back to Dominique Sylvain and her great novel.

Alice Kléber runs the website lovalibi.com: she sells stories and alibis to people who cheat on their spouse. She fabricates fictitious seminars, night work sessions and other professional emergencies for people who need an excuse not to go home. She makes up excuses and provides her client with material evidences of the thing they were supposed to be at.

Alice lives in an isolated home in Burgundy and suffers from the aftershock of an aggression. She doesn’t feel safe and uses a lot of coping mechanisms. She’s also convinced she’ll die young and soon and it impact her way-of-life and her decision making process. Alice is single and very fond of her niece Salomé, a young journalist who works for TV24. She sees her as her heir and she feels close to her.

Problem: Salomé is found dead in a trash can near the hotel La Licorne, in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. Salomé had decided to do a reportage on these unfaithful people, to understand why they do it and buy services to her aunt. Did that lead to her death? Does her boss at TV24 know something? Or is it someone from her personal life?

Commandant Barnier and his partner lieutenant Maze are in charge of the case. All the people around Salomé are under investigation. Is the murderer lurking in the shadows, ready to strike again?

Said in a few words, the plot is quite simple but the book stands out. Its flavor comes from Sylvain’s brand of writing and her knack for characters. She imagines unique characters. They have their quirks but are not caricatures. They sound real and interesting with their unusual profession or their singular personal lives.

Alice is special, with her questionable business. She seems tough but she’s not that much and howls for love. Her niece is very important to her and she longs to have someone who loves her and has her back. But Salomé isn’t the innocent and punchy young woman that her aunt wants her to be.

Salomé’s boss, Alexandre Le Goff has an unusual family, with his wife Dorine and her slightly handicapped brother Valentin living with them. They draw a lot of attention. Valentin works as a janitor at TV24 and has a crush on Salomé.

Even the cops are special. Instead of two cops with clashing personalities who need to work together anyway, Dominique Sylvain imagined a partnership between two men who are attracted to each other. Maze is stunning and openly gay. Barnier is married with a son, his marriage is in a bad shape and he doesn’t understand his sudden fascination for his colleague.

Dominique Sylvain has a wonderful writing voice. I enjoyed her descriptions of Burgundy, the dialogues between the characters and her original images in her prose. I wanted to know who had killed Salomé and I enjoyed the ride, like a gourmet in a good restaurant.

Unfortunately, Les Infidèles is not available in English but another of her books, Passage du désir has been translated as The Dark Angel. I recommend it warmly and my billet is here.

PS: Dominique Sylvain is from Lorraine and it slips into her writing when she says :

“Elle agrippe Alexandre aux épaules et le secoue comme s’il était un mirabellier plein de mirabelles bonnes à manger”.

She takes Alexandre by the shoulders and shakes him up as if he were a mirabellier tree full of mirabelles ready to be eaten.

The mirabellier tree is typical from Lorraine and produces mirabelles, small yellow plums that are very sweet and juicy.

QDP Days #2 : At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier – Discover Lyon in 1921 and the first CSI lab in the world

April 4, 2020 11 comments

At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier (2013) Original French title : La nuit, in extremis. Not available in English.

This is Day 2 of Marina’s and my Quais du Polar.

Today is about At night, in extremis by Odile Bouhier. It is the third instalment of a series set in Lyon, with professor Hugo Salacan and commissaire Kolvair as main characters.

We’re in 1921 and Anthelme Frachant gets out of prison. Commissaire Kolvair knew him from their war years and knows that he killed Bertail, another soldier and a friend of Kolvair’s. Kolvair suspects that he will kill again and decides to follow him. He takes a room in the same boarding house as Anthelme. During his first night there, Kolvair leaves his room in the middle of the night, overwhelmed by withdrawal symptoms and goes out in search of his next cocaine dose. Kolvair lost a leg in the Great War and suffers from phantom pain. He also has PTSD. Cocaine has become a coping mechanism and that night, it saves his life, in extremis. Indeed, while he was away, Anthelme slaughtered everyone in the boarding house.

Anthelme turns himself to the police and Kolvair finds him at the prison’s asylum. The question is Will Anthelme be judged for his crimes or will it be considered that he lacks criminal responsibility, due to mental illness? The alienist Bianca Serragio thinks that he is schizophrenic, an illness that doctors still investigate and try to define. Will she be able to convince Public Prosecutor Rocher that Anthelme cannot be hold accountable for his actions and that he must be placed in an asylum instead?

At night, in extremis is more a novel about Lyon, the 1920s than a true crime fiction novel. With the murderer known from the beginning and without any actual police investigation, the plot centers around the city, the times and the personal lives of the characters.

Lyon is where the cinema was born. It is also a scientific cluster for forensic science. Lyon had the first CSI lab in the world. Indeed, Edmond Locard (1877-1966) studied with Alexandre Lacassagne, a pioneer in forensic medicine. (See Lacassagne in action in my billet about The Rhône Murders by Coline Gatel) Both are from Lyon. In 1910, Locard set up the first CSI lab in the attic of the Palais de Justice in Lyon. He researched graphology, fingerprinting methods, ballistics and toxicology. He coined the Locard’s exchange principle, still used in today’s forensic science. His statement is that “Every contact leaves a trace”. His Traité de police scientifique is a seven-volume methodology of forensic science still in use in today’s CSI departments.

Kolvair believes in CSI and works with forensic scientists. Odile Bouhier evokes the famous lab in the attic. Her alienist, Bianca Serragio works at the Bron asylum, now known as Le Vinatier hospital. It was founded in 1877 and they still have some of the 19thC buildings and a big park. It’s also a reknown psychiatric hospital in France. Bianca Serragio is doing research in psychiatry, looking for ways to improve diagnosis and cures. The Rorschach test dates back to 1921 and Bianca believes it will help. Odile Bouhier depicts times of great scientific breakthroughs in criminology and psychiatrics.

This historical setting is interesting and piqued my curiosity. Since the crime plot was easily solved, the reader’s attention is focused on the characters’ personal lives.

Kolvair battles against demons inherited from the Great War and his liaison with Bianca is his safe place. Bianca has to fight for a field that needs recognition and being female doesn’t help. Forensic scientist Badou is orchestrating a hasty marriage of convenience because someone blackmails him, and threatens to reveals his homosexuality. His bride knows his sexual preferences and goes into this marriage with her eyes open. Professor Salacan’s children need extra-care, one has trisomy 21 and another is diabetic. This is how I learnt that in 1921, in Toronto, J.J.R. McLeod was conducting research and experiment on insulin.

Bouhier’s novel shows a city with a strong scientific community, but the novel felt unfinished, pieces are not stitched together well-enough. I had trouble remembering all the characters. There are too many of them for a 280 pages book. IMO, the writer should have either stuck with Kolvair and his PTSD or written a longer book, to give herself time to develop everyone’s personal lives and personalities.

It was a nice read for the local setting, the picture of Lyon in 1921. It spurred me to browse through several Wikipedia articles about Locard, Le Vinatier and other scientific facts and I always love to learn new things.

Many thanks to M. who gave me this book before moving back to America.

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel – Superb and surprising

January 2, 2020 31 comments

Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel (2005) Original French title: La petite fille de Monsieur Linh

Before writing anything about Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel, let’s talk about the French and English titles. In French, it is La petite fille de Monsieur Linh. Since there is no hyphen between “petite” and “fille”, it means Monsieur Linh’s little girl and not Monsieur Linh’s granddaughter. The English publisher chose Monsieur Linh and His Child and I wonder why they picked “child” instead of “little girl”. But back to the book.

Monsieur Linh is an immigrant from Vietnam, probably one of the boat people. We never know exactly where he comes from. He left his home after his family was attacked. He’s an old man and he’s disoriented by his journey. He arrives in France and everything is strange: the language, the food, the city, the smells. He is sent to a refugee center where there are other families from his country. An interpreter comes from time to time to talk to him and help him out with the administrative duties.

He settles into a routine, goes to the park nearby and becomes friends with a widower, Monsieur Bark. They can’t talk to each other with words because one is a native French speaker and the other only knows his mother tongue. But somehow, they speak the same language of sadness and loneliness. Monsieur Linh has left his country and his family is dead. Monsieur Bark mourns his wife and doesn’t have any children. Their common need for company brings them together on this bench morning after morning. Somehow, they communicate and bring each other some much needed warmth.

All along the text, Monsieur Linh has his little girl with him. He travelled with her, never left her alone and he dotes on her. She’s his link to his country, to his past and his family.

La petite fille de Monsieur Linh is a perfect novella, as striking as Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressman-Taylor although their theme is different. They have the same way of building a story up to an unimaginable denouement. And in both books, the clues that lead to the ending are scattered along the pages, the reader just overlooks them. The construction of this tale is perfectly executed.

The other outstanding quality of Claudel’s novella is his compassionate tone. We are in Monsieur Linh’s head and we witness his puzzlement with his new life. He seems to have arrived in Calais or Dunkirk. He’s cold, the city smells, there are a lot of automobiles everywhere. The food is strange, except when his fellow refugees feed him at the center. He doesn’t know what to do anymore and his only goal in life is to take care of his little girl. Although he’s traumatized by the war and his journey to France, he won’t let go because she needs him.

Philippe Claudel imagines Monsieur Linh’s feeling and makes the reader “experience” the pain of being a war refugee. It means leaving a country without preparation and without a real will to emigrate. It’s not a choice, it is imposed on him by dreadful circumstances. The reader feels empathy for these refugees.

I remember the arrival of boat people refugees when I was a child. For us, it meant changing from a tall grumpy French dentist with huge paws and no patience for children fears to a tiny Vietnamese dentist with agile embroiderer hands and a calming presence. I can tell you that his customer base grew quickly.

Not surprisingly, La petite fille de Monsieur Linh is taught in middle school. It’s short, easy to read and has obvious qualities to build the character of tomorrow’s citizen.

Very highly recommended. Lisa also reviewed it here.

PS: Sorry to be blunt, but the cover of the English edition is ugly. There’s no other word for it.

Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar – and before, their mothers

December 18, 2019 7 comments

Fatima, or the Algerian ladies at the park by Leïla Sebbar (1981) Original French title: Fatima ou les Algériennes au square.

Fatima ou les Algériennes au Square by Leïla Sebbar is not available in English and it’s a shame. Set in La Courneuve in end of the 1970s, this novella describes the lives of immigrants from North Africa in the suburbs around Paris.

Fatima and her husband belong to the first generation of immigrants from Algeria. They came for work and they intend to go back to the country. Meanwhile, the children grow up in France, go to school and are on the bridge between two worlds. They want to be as French as the others but at home, they are summoned to be Algerian, Muslim and to remind themselves that their country is Algeria.

Dalila is the oldest daughter and she loves sitting by her mother on the bench at the square near their apartment building. The women meet at the square and share news about friends and relatives. From one afternoon to the other, it’s like a feuilleton for Dalila. Sometimes she dares to ask about someone in particular. The Algerian ladies stick together and never really learn French. They often come from poor villages and are illiterate. These meetings at the square are their network and support system.

In her novella, Leïla Sebbar perfectly describes the life of this first generation of immigrants. They struggle with the language and their children learn it quicker than them. Their mastering the language reverses a bit the power in the family. The parents cannot talk to teachers properly. The children can read administrative documents and are propelled in the adults’ world because they have to help their families. For the parents, everything is different and they had to adapt to a new country, with different customs. Leïla Sebbar also describes very well the condescension of the French and their racism.

The author is very thoughtful and delicate in her descriptions of their lives. She doesn’t hide the clash of cultures, the violence in the couples and the strict control that fathers and brothers have on the girls of the family. Dalila would like to be like other French teenagers but fashionable clothes and make-up do not agree with her father. He can be vocal and violent about it and the responsibility falls down on her mother.

She captures very well the atmosphere of the time and she reminded me a lot of things from my own childhood. She tells the fights between communities and neighborhoods. She shows that these girls are studious in class and see school as a key to a better future. It’s a path to independence, if their parents don’t marry them too young. The boys are the kings of the house and they take power because they are male and are more at ease in France than their fathers. We see a culture where men have all the power and don’t hesitate to use it.

We also see families torn apart by immigration: the parents’ only dream is to go back to Algeria and the children’s only dream is to settle in France and be like the others in school. The parents have not yet understood that they would not go back because their children and grandchildren would stay in France and because, whether they fight against it or not, they slowly lose contact with their former lives in Algeria.

Fatima is the generation before the one featured in Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu.

Fatima ou les Algériennes au square was published in 1981. Native French and Algerian immigrants live under the false impression that the Algerians’ presence in France is temporary, just to earn money before going back to Algeria. Both sides acknowledge too late that, contrary to what they thought, these immigrants were in France to stay. It might explain the loose ends in the assimilation process.

Fatima was written was before the foundation of the association SOS Racism (1984) and the marches against racism towards . I was too young to march but in school, a lot of us wore the pin Touche pas à mon pote (Don’t touch my friend) It was the time of awareness: these families where here to stay; their children went to school with the children of their age and France was their country. Leïla Sebbar perceived that and Fatima and Dalila are the representative of two generations and she shows a turning point for the immigrant communities.

Fatima made me understand how much they hoped that their stay would be temporary, in what frame of mind Fatima and her husband were. As a child, it never crossed my mind that Mohammed in my class could move “back” to Algeria. Unfortunately, the assimilation didn’t go as well as it should have. When you have curly brown hair in France, some people still feel entitled to ask you of what origin you are, as if you weren’t French.

It is a pity that this brilliant novella has not been translated into English. I think that it has a British follow-up in Brick Lane by Monica Ali. This quote in Ali’s book could come from Sebbar’s novella.

‘But behind every story of immigrant success there lies a deeper tragedy.’ ‘Kindly explain this tragedy.’ ‘I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family.

Figurec by Fabrice Caro – Appearances are deceitful

December 15, 2019 4 comments

Figurec by Fabrice Caro (2006) Not available in English

Figurec is Fabrice Caro’s debut novel. His first love is BD (comics) with an offbeat sense of humor. He has a knack for picturing our world, our quirks and inconsistencies. You’ve heard about him twice this year on this blog, first when I blogged about his BD Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï and then when I wrote about his latest novel, Le discoursFigurec is a first bridge between his BD and novels, Le discours is more accomplished.

Now the book and how can you sum up a book like Figurec?

The first chapter is an “Act 1, Scene 1” of a theatre play. The second chapter is a man attending a funeral and who thinks:

L’enterrement de Pierre Giroud m’a énormément déçu, c’était une cérémonie sans réelle émotion. D’accord, il y avait du monde, bien plus qu’à celui d’Antoine Mendez, mais tout cela manquait de rythme, de conviction. Même la fille de Pierre Giroud –du moins celle que je supposais être la fille de Pierre Giroud—n’était pas très en verve. Elle hésitait en permanence entre une pudique retenue et des sanglots bruyants de qualité très médiocre. Le résultat était assez caricatural, sans nuances. Pierre Giroud’s funeral was a stark disappointment. It was a ceremony devoid of real emotion. OK, there were a lot of people, a lot more than at Antoine Mendez’s funeral but this one lacked rhythm and conviction. Even Pierre Giroud’s daughter –or at least the one I assumed was Pierre Giroud’s daughter –wasn’t in brilliant form. She was always between modest self-restraint and loud sobs of poor quality. The result was caricatural, without proper nuance.

He watches the funeral as if he were watching and commenting a theatre play or a soccer game.

After this funeral, the narrator goes to diner at his friends Julien and Claire’s place. We learn that he dines with them five times a week but they don’t seem to mind. He likes them but still thinks he’s mooching off them and at the same time bringing entertainment in their otherwise dull marriage. For fun, Julien collects original 45s that were #1 at the Top 50 French chart in the 1980s and his enthusiasm about his latest find is puzzling, but who are we to judge someone else’s passions?

Our narrator also goes to diner at his parents’, a diner that his successful younger brother and lovely girlfriend attend too. His parents worry about him because he won’t settle down and doesn’t seem to grow up. He feels like a failure compared to his brother.

Our narrator is a would-be playwright and the “Act Something / Scene Something” inserted in the novel remind us his attempts at writing his play and his true goal in life.

After the first few pages, the reader feels that they’re spending time with a weird narrator, a sort of loser who attends funeral for fun, takes advantage of his friends, makes his parents believe he’s a writer-to-be when he just bums around. At this stage we think we’re just with a pathetic and nutty character.

Things get strange when a man approaches him at a funeral and asks him whether he belongs to Figurec too. That’s where the off-the-wall story takes you to a parallel world of false pretense where you don’t know who is who and what to think. All this is wrapped up in Caro’s unique brand of humor and talent for alternate universes.

A fun and disconcerting book. Next week I’ll see the theatre version of Zaï, Zaï, Zaï, Zaï and I can’t wait to see how the director translated this BD to the stage.

Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre

December 7, 2019 4 comments

Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre. (2014) Original French title: Pas pleurer

This is my second mini-billet to vanquish the TBW –To Be Written— pile. I think there is a reason why Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre stayed so long on my TBW. I don’t quite know how to write a billet about it and I kept procrastinating. Before diving into the book, one has to wonder how the French title that means No Crying or Don’t Cry became Cry, Mother Spain. The answer to that question is in Simon’s review of the book, here.

Lydie Salvayre is French but her parents were Spanish immigrants. In Pas pleurer, she comes back to her mother’s youth and how the Civil War in Spain changed her life forever. Her mother is named Montserrat Monclus Arjona, “Montse”, and she came from a small village in Spain. She and her brother José went to Barcelona in 1936, to help the Anarchist movement. An adventure and some bitter disappointments later, they are back to their village. This short time in Barcelona changed Montse’ life forever. In comparison to the liveliness and modernity of Barcelona, their village seems frozen in the Middle Ages with its rigid social hierarchy. Peasants remain dirt poor and under the rule of rich families. These immutable social rules remind me of what Mouloud Feraoun describes in The Poor Man’s Son. The 1936 Anarchist movement in Barcelona meant to take down these walls made of smothering traditions and free the country of rigid social conventions and religious constraints.

Lydie Salvayre shows how the hope of a revolution, of a new world with more social justice reached even small villages. Through Montse’s story, we see how Franco’s followers took over and the divides that this conflict created in communities. We see the personal fate of a young woman who embraced life in Barcelona and had to live with the repercussions of her actions. We see how women are often the first victims of conflicts and of society’s rules. We also understand how powerful the resistance to change can be, how inexperienced the young revolutionaries were. People’s fear of change always works in favor of the ones who preach immobilism.

In parallel to her mother’s story, Lydie Salvayre shares her reading of Les grands cimetières sous la lune, the non-fiction book in which Georges Bernanos relates the horror of the Spanish Civil War in Mallorca and how the Catholic Church was complicit of massacres. He was living there when it happened and had a front seat to it. I tried to read Bernanos almost three years ago but I couldn’t finish it. I didn’t like his tone, I didn’t know the people he was pointing at and it was more a pamphlet than calm-and-collected non-fiction. I missed the subtexts. I wished Bernanos had been more like Orwell.

Cry, Mother Spain is a poignant homage of a woman to her mother. Lydie Salvayre transcribes her mother’s creative French, the outcome of learning the language when she left Spain. She’s sometimes crude, sometimes funny as she mixes words. It’s the love of a daughter who gives her mother’s life a chance at eternity through literature. Cry, Mother Spain won the Goncourt prize in 2014 and it put the 1936 Civil War under mediatic lights.

I really recommend Simon’s review, which is a lot more thorough than mine and makes excellent justice to the book.

Literary escapade: Proust and the centennial of his Prix Goncourt

September 29, 2019 17 comments

In 1919, Proust won the most prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt for the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Gallimard was Proust’s publisher.

To celebrate this centenary, the Gallerie Gallimard in Paris set up an exhibition around this event. Did you know that Proust’s win was a scandal at the time?

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower was in competition with Wooden Crosses by Roland Dorgelès, a book about the trenches and WWI. The public was in favor of Mr Dorgelès and his patriotic novel. (I’ve never read it, I can’t tell anything about it)

Proust was considered too old for the prize. There have been arguments about the Goncourt brothers’ intentions when they made the prize for a “young talent”. Who’s young, the writer or the talent? Proust was too rich and the 5000 francs of the prize would have been better spent on a poor writer. Proust was too involved in the high society, even if at the time he wrote In Search in Lost Time, he was mostly living in solitude. Proust was too odd with his strange living habits, his book was too verbose and he did not fight in the war.

There were a lot of arguments against his winning but none of them were about the literary quality of his novel. And the Académie Goncourt, in charge of picking the winner, concentrated on the literary aspects of the book.

After the 1919 Prix Goncourt was awarded, the press went wild against Proust. The exhibition shows a collage of press articles of the time, all coming from Proust’s own collection.

According to Thierry Laget, who wrote Proust, Prix Goncourt, une émeute littéraire, (Proust, Goncourt Prize, a literary scandal), the violence and the form of the attacks against Proust were like a campaign on social networks today. I might read his book, I’m curious about the atmosphere of the time and what Laget captures about it.

There was a wall about Gaston Gallimard who founded what would become the Gallimard publishing house in 1911. Gallimard convinced Proust to let them publish In Search of Lost Time and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower was Gallimard’s first Prix Goncourt.

The exhibition displays the letter that the Académie Goncourt sent to Proust to officially inform him that he won. I found it simple, unofficial looking.

There were two previously unreleased drawings of Proust like this one by Paul Morand in 1917. It was made at the Ritz and it represents Proust, Morand and Laure de Chévigné, one of the women who inspired the Duchesse de Guermantes.

And the other one was of Proust on his death bed in 1921.

It’s a small exhibition that lasts only until October 23rd, rush for it if you’re a Proust fan and are in Paris during that time.

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