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The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy – Highly recommended

October 27, 2018 21 comments

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy (1945) Original French Canadian title: Bonheur d’occasion.

Gabrielle Roy (1909-1983) is a Canadian novelist born in Manitoba. She moved to Montreal and started to live as a freelance journalist while writing her debut novel, Bonheur d’occasion, whose English title is The Tin Flute. It was published in Québec in 1945 and won the prestigious Prix Femina in 1947. It was translated into English and published by an American publisher. It was a great success when it came out, enough for Gabrielle Roy to go back to Manitoba to be away from all the noise. It was made into a film in 1983.

Bonheur d’occasion is set in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood in Montreal, in 1939-1940. Saint-Henri is a francophone area located near the Lachine Canal and the Atwater Market. It’s a working-class neighbourhood, not far from the Saint-Laurent and its industrial harbour. It is crowded, full of smoke from factory chimneys, noisy from cargos horns and trains transporting goods in and out of Montreal. Gabrielle Roy gives us a vivid picture of the area, here in the warm summer night:

C’était un soir langoureux, déjà chaud, traversé incessamment du cri de la sirène, et qui baignait dans l’odeur des biscuiteries. Loin derrière cet arôme fade, une haleine d’épices chassée par le vent du sud montait des régions basses au long du canal et arrivait par bouffées sucrées jusqu’à la butte où Saint-Henri se hausse de quelques pieds.

It was a sultry night, hot already, constantly pierced by ship horns blasts and bathing in the scent of biscuit factories. Far behind this bland aroma, a spicy breath came from the lower regions along the canal, pushed by the southern winds. It arrived in sweet puffs up to the hill where Saint Henri stood, a few feet above.

She takes us through the blocks, from winter to summer, entering into restaurants and cafés, cinemas and poor lodgings. When the book opens, we’re at the beginning of the winter 1939-1940 and the plot stretches until the summer 1940.

The protagonists are a gallery of young people and the Lacasse family. Jean Lévesque is a young man, an orphan who works in a foundry. Jean is ambitious and studies at night to have a promotion and better himself. He wants out of poverty. Emmanuel Létourneau is friends with Jean. He comes from a wealthier family and just joined the army. Then there’s the Lacasse family. I suppose they’re a typical family from Saint-Henri. The mother, Rose-Anna is around forty and pregnant with her eleventh child. Her husband Azarius is a carpenter by trade but there’s no work in his profession. He’s been working on and off, unable to hold a steady job, always chasing one grand scheme after the other. Each business endeavour ends in a failure and poverty sinks its teeth deeper in the family’s flesh.

The Lacasse are dirt poor, a poverty that is almost a character in the book with its overwhelming presence. Here’s Rose-Anna thinking:

Elle, silencieuse, songeait que la pauvreté est comme un mal qu’on endort en soi et qui ne donne pas trop de douleur, à condition de ne pas trop bouger. On s’y habitue, on finit par ne plus y prendre garde tant qu’on reste avec elle tapie dans l’obscurité ; mais qu’on s’avise de la sortir au grand jour, et on s’effraie d’elle, on la voit enfin, si sordide qu’on hésite à l’exposer au soleil.

She remained silent and kept thinking that poverty was like a disease that sleeps inside of you and doesn’t give you too much pain as along as you don’t move around too much. You get used to it, you end up forgetting its presence if you stay put, with it lurking in the dark. But as soon as you put it in bright daylight, you get afraid of it, you see it eventually, so sordid that you hesitate to expose it to sunlight.

Florentine, the eldest of the Lacasse children, is 19 and working as a waitress. She gives almost all her wages to her mother to help supporting the family. Her brother Eugène decided to enlist, thinking that the army was a way to have a steady pay, to be fed and clothed and see a bit of the world.

We follow basically two threads in Bonheur d’occasion. The first one is the story of the young people. Jean flirts with Florentine; he’s attracted to her and repulsed at the same time. She represents what he wants to leave behind. Being with her is acquiring an anchor in Saint-Henri and settling for a life of poverty or at best of barely scraping by. And Jean wants better for himself. Florentine is slowly discovering herself, boys and seduction. She wants to be young and careless but the financial situation of her family holds her back and eats her youth. She gets a lucid vision of her parents’ marriage, their inability to leave poverty behind. She wants better for herself too.

Rose-Anna is the most poignant character. Deeply in love with her husband, she’s not blind to his flaws but she forgives him everything. Meanwhile, she drives herself sick with worry. She counts money in her head, plans each and every spending. She keeps her little Daniel out of school because he doesn’t have clothes warm enough to go to school during the winter. She doesn’t sew fast enough for all her children to be properly clothed all the time. Moments of happiness are rare and it’s a miracle she doesn’t surrender to despair. Her children keep her going, she has no choice but to take care of them.

We’re in 1939-1940 and the war in Europe is a distant but permanent background noise. Young men have new opportunities in the army and the poor ones see it as a chance. They enlist out of idealism like Emmanuel or to be fed and clothed like Eugène and other Saint-Henri kids.

Gabrielle Roy takes us in a neighbourhood where people have little hope to climb the social ladder. They are in the claws of poverty: they don’t get a good education, they suffer from malnutrition and the adults are hit by a high unemployment rate. This is the end of the 1930s, after all.

Bonheur d’occasion is an apt title for this novel as it has a double meaning in French. It means both second-hand happiness and occasional or fleeting happiness. It’s exactly Florentine’s and Rose-Anna’s reality. Their happiness never shines as something brand new but always seems to be on borrowed time from their everyday life. And it’s fleeting. It must be caught quickly before it vanishes, like this happy outing at the maple grove during maple syrup season for Rose-Anna or this special day with Jean for Florentine. Each moment of happiness seems to cost double in unhappy consequences.

Gabrielle Roy with kids from Saint-Henri in1945. From Wikipedia

Although Bonheur d’occasion sounds bleak, it’s not, thanks to Gabrielle Roy’s excellent prose. She roots for her characters and the reader can feel her affection for them, for the small people of Saint-Henri. She’s never judgemental and the dialogues in colloquial French Canadian give a special flavour to the characters’ interactions. As in Tremblay’s prose, there are a lot of English words in their French and I had a lot of fun with the language.

English expressions are transformed into French ones. Boyfriend and girlfriend become ami de garçon et amie de fille.  You give yourself a lot of trouble becomes Vous vous donnez bien du trouble instead of Vous vous donnez bien du mal.

English words are imported into French. At the restaurant, I’m going to order you some chicken becomes Je vas t’order du poulet instead of Je vais te commander du poulet. “Order” comes directly from “to order” and should not mean anything in French.

And as always, there’s this unbelievable tendancy to invert genders on words when they come from the English language. In French, une tarte (a pie) is feminine, so is une tourte (also a pie). So why does it become un pie in Québécois? Une fête (a party) becomes un party?

I really love the French from Québec and their imaginative way of changing English words into French or blending them into their French. It shows that the French language is more flexible than we think. I wonder how English translators fare with this, though. Do they put the English words in italic?

Bonheur d’occasion is great literature, a wonderful book about a working-class neighbourhood in the 1940s in Montreal. I don’t know if it’s often read in Québec and in anglophone Canada but it should be. I’m afraid it’s a Translation Tragedy, though. According to Wikipedia, there is no integral English translation of Bonheur d’occasion. When I looked for The Tin Flute on online bookstores, I noticed that there is no ebook version of it, at least not in English. I can understand that it’s not on American readers’ radars. But what does it mean about anglophone Canadians’ regard for Québec literature? Beyond the literary aspect, Bonheur d’occasion is a window open on Montreal during WWII, on the Saint-Henri neighbourhood, it should be seen as classic Canadian literature and be widely read.

Very highly recommended.

PS : Again, I’m puzzled by the English cover of The Tin Flute. Where does this coffee cup come from and what does it have to do with the book?

Terra Australis by LF Bollée and Philippe Nicloux. A graphic novel about the settlement of a penal colony in Sydney

October 26, 2018 4 comments

Terra Australis by LF Bollée & Philippe Nicloux (2013) Original French title: Terra Australis.

French Bande Dessinée* is a very lively art with a wide range of albums. Terra Australis relates the colonisation of Australia. LF Bollée wrote the scenario and Philippe Nicloux did the illustrations.

Terra Australis opens on a beautiful plate showing the nature in the Sydney area and the prologue which follows is from the Aborigines’ point of view. The voiceover is from a man who participates to the rite of passage into adulthood for young adolescents. For a while, there’s been a boat anchored in the bay. A ship full of white people with strange customs, people who disturb the peace and our voiceover hopes that they will soon leave forever. Of course, we know they’re here to stay.

After this prologue, Terra Australis is divided in three books, Distant Lands, The Journey and Bandaiyan.

In Distant Lands, we’re in Europe and we see different forces at work, the ones that slowly lead to the project of sending convicts to Botany Bay and found a new colony there. Botany Bay, near Sydney is where James Cook first landed in Australia in 1770.

We see how the penal system in England has reached a turning point: the prisons are full and the public executions do nothing to decrease the crime rate. The colonies in North America are lost, a new deportation plan has to be defined. Lord Sydney, Home Secretary in the Pitt government is in charge of this project. He knew Captain Arthur Philipp from previous missions and roped him into leading the First Fleet to Australia and become the first governor of the new colony.

The authors change from point of view and show us the convicts’ side and the hopelessness in their lives, how they went from small crimes to deportation to an unknown land.

The fleet leaves England on May 13th, 1787. The journey was very risky: tempests, lack of food, epidemies and scurvy are among the highest risks. It’s a mixed crowd of sailors, soldiers and male and female convicts. The journey is long enough for relationships to develop, for babies to be born on board. Arthur Philipp makes an inventory of the convicts’ skill and regrets that they don’t have more peasants, fishermen and other useful skilled workmen to start a town from the ground.

They will arrive in Botany Bay on January 17th, 1788. Arthur Philipp soon realises that there is not enough fresh water in Botany Bay and settles the penal colony a little further, in Port Jackson.

Bandaiyan depicts the first year of settlement in Port Jackson, the organisation of the colony and the first encounters with the Aborigines.

LF Bollée and P. Nicloux have managed to relate the political project behind the colonisation of Botany Bay and show what a dangerous adventure it was for all the participants. As mentioned before, the Aborigines’ point of view is considered, too.

Nicloux’s drawing are a marvel of details: clothes, cities, faces, landscapes, with a few images we understand who the characters are, what they go through and where they are. The whole book is in black and white and it suits the story. The authors have a balanced vision of the colonisation of Australia. The convicts are true to life: poor people, uneducated, sometimes violent and vulgar. They do not look like William Thornhill from The Secret River by Kate Grenville. They are more like the convict characters in For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke.

They also show the disagreement between the officers and the different points of view towards convict and Aborigines. Some believe that force is the only thing that works while Arthur Philipp is more open to discussion and more human.

It is a great read, a beautiful book and I hope it will be published in Australia soon. I have only one slight criticism: I knew about Arthur Philip, Lord Sydney, James Cook and the foundation of Australia. For readers without this previous knowledge, it would have been useful to have a quick biography of the main historical protagonists.

Terra Doloris is the sequel to Terra Australis and I have it already.


Bande Dessinée or BD: a French expression with no direct equivalent in English. It covers comics and graphic novels.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting

August 13, 2018 11 comments

I For Isobel by Amy Witting (1990) Not available in French.

I think I should create a “Guy Recommends” category on this blog because I have read and loved a lot of books recommended by our fellow blogger Guy Savage.

I For Isobel by Amy Witting is one of those and again, I read a book I loved.

It is an Australian book set in Sydney. It’s difficult to say exactly when but my guess is the 1930s. When I read Amy Witting’s biography on Wikipedia, I thought there were a lot details that were alike between Witting’s life and Isobel’s, the main character of this novella. And since, Amy Witting was born in 1918 and our character’s nineteen for the longest part of the book…

The book opens with a very sad sentence:

A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’

We then get acquainted with Isobel who lives with parents who both despise her. Her mother is particularly nasty and bitter. She could do something for Isobel’s birthday, at least a cake or a little celebration but she doesn’t. She takes pleasure in torturing her daughter and refusing to acknowledge her birth day. Not celebrating a child’s birthday is particularly hard on them, it’s silently telling them that they don’t matter, that their birth was not a happy moment to remember. And that’s how Isobel feels about it.

Later, Isobel’s father’s death push them into poverty, mostly because her mother is too proud to ask for assistance and/or find work. She’s this kind of women, the ones who think they deserve better that what they have in life and refuse to accept circumstances that they judge beyond them.

Isobel feels awkward, like she never knows how to behave properly. Whatever she does, she gets scolded by her mother. She’s either “not enough” or “too much” but she never achieves to act in accordance with her mother’s expectations. She never knows what kind of response her attitude will trigger. She’s a brilliant child and she understands that her mother’s not right but she doesn’t know how to formulate it properly in her head.

The only moments when she’s perfectly happy is when she’s alone with her books and gone far away from her life thanks to the writers’ imagination. Books are her parallel universe, her safe haven:

Bed was Isobel’s kingdom; it was always a comfort to arrive there at last, and tonight particularly, she burrowed and snuggled and with a sigh of pleasure slid behind the curtain of the dark into her private world.

When she’s barely 18, her mother dies too and she starts to work at company in Sydney as a typist. Her aunt finds her a boarding house and settles her in her new life. New job, newfound freedom and new people to get used to, from the girls in the office to the other boarders. By chance, she meets students who are studying English and make her discover new writers.

Isobel has difficulties to interact with other people. She feels inadequate, thanks to her abusive upbringing. She lacks confidence, never knows how to behave or how to make small talk.

Isobel knew that what was tolerated in other people was not forgiven in her. She very much wished to know why this was so.

This is a coming of age novella, one where a young woman is slowly learning who she is and what she wants from life. She only knows that books will play a significant part it her life. She also feels like an outsider because of her love for books, at least until she meets this group of students who share her passion for reading.

I For Isobel is a very sensitive portrait of a young girl who was dealt with a bad set of cards. Her youth lacked of family love and her young adult self is unfinished because of that. An important part of a child’s usual education is missing: how to relate to others, how to grow confident in yourself thanks to the assurance that your parents love you unconditionally. She learns by trial and error but she has problems to come out of her shell, to live with others instead of just observing them through a self-built glass wall.

As a side, Witting also brings to life the Sydney of that time, the boarding house, the office work and small things about the working-class way-of-life.

It’s definitely I book I’d recommend to other readers. You’ll find other reviews by Guy here and by Lisa, here. This is another contribution to Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sadly, I don’t think that I For Isobel is available in French, so in the Translation Tragedy category it goes.

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre

May 6, 2018 8 comments

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre. (2017) French literature, not available in English. (Yet)

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre will probably end up on my 2018 best of. Meet Patience Portefeux, 53, a widow with two grown-up daughters, with a boyfriend in the police force, and a mother in a nursing home. She’s an underpaid translator from the Arab for the French department of Justice.

As a translator and interpret, Patience spends hours and hours translating and transcribing conversations between drug dealers and other criminals. She also spends hours at the Law Courts, assisting during hearings and questionings. She struggles financially: her daughters are in university, the nursing home costs an arm and a leg, her job pays indemnities instead of wages, which means no retirement money.

So, one day, she seizes an opportunity and crosses the red line and uses what she hears during her job to hijack a huge quantity of marijuana. She becomes La Daronne, the boss of a small dealing network. (In French, daronne is a slang word to say Ma.)

I was waiting for the paperback edition to read La Daronne, a book that won a prize at Quais du Polar last year. I started to read it while I was standing in line at this year’s festival. I can’t tell you how long I waited, I was too engrossed in the story to complain or get impatient. I was waiting for Hannelore Cayre to arrive and sign her books. We chatted a little bit, she was stunned by the line of readers waiting for her. But after reading La Daronne, I’m not surprised that readers wanted to meet her.

Like I said, I was caught in her book from the first pages. Everything drew me in: Patience’s sharp tone, her unusual background, the other characters around her, the original story and the plausibility of it. Contrary to Arctic Chill, this plot doesn’t sound like déjà vu.

Patience sounds real. She has the problems of her age: she’s sandwiched between university costs and nursing home costs, between her daughters and taking care of her ageing mother. The descriptions of the nursing home are vivid, spot on, crude but without pathos. I loved Patience’s irreverence. Political politeness is not her middle name and I loved it. See an example:

J’ai mis une bonne semaine à la repérer [une aide-soignante] vu que dans mouroirs, c’est comme dans les hôpitaux ou les crèches : il n’y a pratiquement que des Noires et des Arabes qui y travaillent. Racistes de tout bord, sachez que la première et la dernière personne qui vous nourrira à la cuillère et qui lavera vos parties intimes est une femme que vous méprisez ! It took me a week to spot her [a nursing auxiliary] because in old people’s houses, it’s like in hospitals and creches: almost all the employees working there are Blacks or Arabs. Racists of all sides, you’d better know that the first and the last person who will feed you with a spoon and wash your private parts is a woman you despise!

If you want to imagine the tone of this book, its dark humor, its bluntness and its exploration of French society’s dirty corners, think of Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes.

La Daronne is a fast-paced trip into Patience’s life but also a journey into the quotidian of small criminality seen from all sides: the marijuana drug dealers’ ecosystem, the policemen’s never-ending work to catch them and the judicial system to judge them.

Hannelore Cayre is a criminal lawyer. She knows perfectly the ins and outs of the French judicial system. What she writes about the translators’ status is true. And so shocking. Imagine that the Department of Justice, the one in charge to enforce the laws of this country cannot afford to pay social charges on the translators’ work and found a trick to avoid paying them. How is that even possible? Especially when you know that private companies have to check every six months that the suppliers with which they do more than 5000 euros of business per year have paid their social security charges. Imagine the paperwork. And the same politicians who impose these useless checks to the private sector turn a blind eye on the Department of Justice employing only freelances to avoid social costs because of budget issues? Truly, I’m ashamed of the way this country treats its judicial system and of how little money we put in this crucial pillar of our democracy.

But back to Patience. Knowing all this, can we really judge her for crossing moral lines? Hannelore Cayre puts an unflattering light on this corner of our world. It’s eye opening, refreshing, new and engaging. This is the real France, not the postcard one.

It’s a Translation Tragedy book, at least for the moment. I saw that her previous books have been translated into German, this one might make it too.

A last quote, just for the pleasure of it.

Dehors, c’était l’automne. Il pleuvait tous les jours comme sur les planètes inhospitalières des films de SF, alors qu’à la télé les infos diffusaient des reportages pour apprendre aux gens à faire des garrots en cas de membre arraché par une bombe. Outside it was autumn. It rained every day like in inhospitable planets in SF movies. On TV, the news flash broadcasted reportages about how to do a tourniquet in case someone lost a member during a bombing.

Welcome to France after the Islamic terrorist attacks…

Spada by Bodgan Teodorescu – A stunning political thriller

March 25, 2018 10 comments

Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu. (2008). Not available in English. Translated from the Romanian by Jean-Louis Courriol.

Le problème, ce n’est pas cette affaire, c’est la politisation de l’affaire. C’est que Ràdoulescou, soutenu par Nénisor Vasilé, veut transformer une banale enquête policière en un conflit ethnique risquant d’affecter ma crédibilité à l’étranger et de me déstabiliser à l’intérieur. The problem doesn’t come from this case but from its politicization. The problem is that Ràdulescu, helped by Nénisor Vasilé, wants to change a mundane criminal investigation into an ethnical conflict that might threaten my credibility abroad and destabilize me at home.

And that’s Spada in a nutshell. We’re in Romania in 2008, one year after Romania joined the European Union and the speaker in this quote is the president of the country.  There’s a killer loose in the streets of Bucarest. He kills with precision, flawlessly and the police have not a clue about who he could be. The only thing they know is that all the victims are from Roma minority and all have a police record. They are criminals of all sorts, young thugs, pushy debt collectors, pimps, drug dealers and whatnots. The population of Bucarest doesn’t mourn their deaths. The police are hopeless, due to a shocking lack of means and motivation. The press takes up the case and it’s all over the place.

Spada is not focused on the resolution of the crimes and finding out who the murderer is. Spada is focused on the political treatment of it. The current president is under pressure from all parts. The elections for presidency come in a few months, he has to save face in front of the European Union leaders, the opposition sees it as an opportunity to improve their image and the leaders of minorities take advantage of it to further their cause.

Spada shows how all sides of the political game want to benefit from these unsolved murders and how the politicians in power maneuver to save face, to nip in the bud all potential consequences of this on their upcoming political campaign. The opposition impersonated by Ràdulescu sees in this debacle a way to promote their candidates and press on the inefficiency of the president. Spada also zooms on the leaders of the minorities in Romania, Roma and Hungarian communities and shows how they’re ready to use the situation at their own advantage and puff up to gain more political influence. Spada puts in broad daylight how the leading political parties manipulate the extreme right party to stir up trouble, to create some panic and steer the voters towards them. Spada also demonstrate how difficult the exercise is for the president, tacking between his home strategy and his need to respect some political correctness not to upset leaders from the West.

All the tactics, secret meetings and plans show a country where corruption is massive, a country where methods from the Communist era are not forgotten. We’re only 20 years after the fall of Caucescu. It’s a lot and not that much at the same time.

Spada brilliantly pictures how easy it is to manipulate people. We see how a population is quick to believe the worst of the Roma minority, how fast immoral politicians can turn a people against the ones they treat as second-class citizens, the ones that are “others”, “not like them”. Unfortunately, you don’t need a strong wind to fan the flames of fear and hatred. People naturally shy away from complex realities and they are always drawn to simple messages, even if simplistic thinking leads to violence and exclusion.

If I had read Spada in 2015, I would have looked at it like a novel set in a country with a rather young democracy, a country that has still work to do to get rid of the old guard and old fashioned ingrained methods. But I read it in 2018, after the Brexit referendum was launched for selfish political reasons, after the appalling pro-Brexit campaign and all the hatred that emerged afterwards. I read it after the election of a racist president in the US, after the extreme right parties have had frightening breakthroughs all over Europe. Hatred, the fear of “others”, of alterity and its use for base political tactics is what Spada is all about. As concerned Western citizens, we have to read this.

Marina Sofia tells me that Spada means dagger in Romanian. It’s the weapon used by the killer. It’s also the instrument used by the politicians and their cliques to slash the clothes of a fragile but oh so necessary democracy.

Highly recommended. Translation tragedy, unfortunately.

PS : Explanations about the French cover of the book. In French, a panier de crabes (literally a basket of crabs) is what you call in English a vipers’ nest. That’s a good image for the president’s entourage and the whole political/press small world described in this book. But in my opinion, it’s also a perfect drawing to picture the cancer of corruption and the lust for power of all the players of this dirty game.

Spanish Lit Month: One-Way Journey by Carlos Salem

August 6, 2017 11 comments

One Way Journey by Carlos Salem 2007 (Original Spanish title : Camino de ida). French title: Aller simple. Translated by Danielle Schramm.

Dorita mourut pendant sa sieste, pour achever de me gâcher mes vacances. J’en étais sûr. J’avais passé vingt de nos vingt-deux années de mariage à lui inventer des morts fantasmatiques. Et quand enfin cela arriva, ce ne fut aucune de celles que j’avais imaginées. Mettant de côté les attentats les plus divers, les poisons et les piranhas dans la baignoire, qui étaient surtout des exercices innocents de réconfort, j’avais toujours su qu’elle mourrait avant moi et dans un lit. Mais je ne pensais pas que ce serait comme cela dans une ville inconnue, dans un hôtel qui mentait d’au moins une étoile, et de façon si soudaine. Dorita died during her nap to finish off ruining my holiday. I knew it. I had spent twenty out of our twenty-two years of marriage inventing her fantastical deaths. And when it finally happened, it was none of the deaths I had imagined. Setting aside various attacks, poisons and piranhas in the bathtub, which were only innocent outlets, I had always known she’d die before me and in a bed. But I never thought it would be in a strange town, in a hotel that lied upon at least one star and that it would be so sudden.

As you can read from this opening quote, a Spanish lady, Dorita Rincón suddenly died in her hotel room in Marrakech (Morocco) while she’s on vacation with her husband Octavio. And Octavio is not sorry that his wife passed away. His first reaction to her death is relief and a refreshing sense of freedom because she controlled his every move. However, he’s afraid to be accused of murder. This explains why, instead of calling the authorities and taking care of the formalities, he procrastinates and decides to have a drink and enjoy his newfound freedom.

He stumbles upon an Argentinean con artist, Raúl Soldati. Soldati is in Marocco for business. He tried to sell ice-cream to Bedouins but his business venture went bankrupt because he couldn’t pinpoint where to set up his ice-cream truck, with Bedouins being nomadic and all. Now, he’s unattached and he takes Octavio around town, crashing parties and posing them as rich guys. At some point, they steal money and documents from a Bolivian official to pay their way. They will later realize that they stole forged dollar bills.

Octavio and Soldati get to know each other and wallflower Octavio explains his predicament to flambloyant Soldati. With the ice-cream business, Soldati owns a refrigerated truck and they decide to go back to the hotel to take Dorita’s body and bring her back home to Barcelona. Problem: when they arrive at the hotel, Dorita’s body is gone and they have the Bolivian officials chasing after them.

Soldati and Octavio barely make it out of the hotel, take Octavio’s car and leave Marrakech to escape their attackers. They start driving through the Atlas. On the way, they meet a man who says he’s Carlos Gardel, the famous Argentinean tango singer.

Gardel wants to go to Spain with them, in order to kill Juglio Iglesias. Soldati, an amateur tango singer who put Gardel on the logo of his ice-cream business, is in awe. Octavio doesn’t know what to think, because Gardel died in a plane crash in 1935. How can he be alive and living in Marocco? Is he the real Gardel or a crazy fan who pretends to be him? Octavio makes a decision:

J’étais persuadé que c’était bien lui, pour aussi insensé que cela paraisse, que c’était bien Carlos Gardel qui renaissait de l’oubli pour tuer Julio Iglesias coupable du crime impardonnable d’avoir enregistré un disque de tangos.

I was sure it was him, even if it was insane. I thought he was really Carlos Gardel, somehow coming back to kill Julio Iglesias who was guilty of recording an album of tango songs.

You may think that he’s so upside-down that he decides for suspension of belief. The three of them embark on a hilarious road trip, full of twists and turns and of colorful encounters. It’s funny as a Monthy Python film and as surreal as Arizona Dream.

Apart from the zany developments and spicy dialogues, this trip soon becomes an initiatory journey for Octavio. They go from funny adventures to chases, meeting with incredible people along the way. Octavio reacquaints himself with his true self. Without Dorita’s imposing figure, he reflects on his life, on what he wanted to be as a child.

Cette nuit-là, je dormis dans ma voiture, réchauffé par la couverture et le whisky que m’avait donnés Soldati. J’avais le .38 dans la main et, sur le siège d’à côté, mon enfance oubliée me tenait compagnie. Je serais pianiste, pompier, pirate, explorateur. La seule chose qu’ils me laissèrent faire fut le piano. Et encore. Il n’y avait pas d’argent en trop à la maison, mais mon père rêvait pour moi de quelque chose de mieux qu’une usine d’après-guerre pour charnego.

(1) un charnego est un Espagnol travaillant en Catalogne. 

That night, I slept in my car, warmed by the blanket and the whisky Soldati had given me. I had the .38 in my hand, and on the passenger’s seat, my childhood was riding shotgun and keeping me company. I would be a piano player, a fireman, a pirat, an explorer. The only thing they let me try was the piano. Barely. There wasn’t much extra-money at home but my father dreamed of something more for me than a post-war factory for charnegos (1).  

(1) a charnego is a Castillan worker in Catalonia.

The more he’s away from Dorita and the constraints of his old life, the better he feels. He adjusts to his crazy trip, chooses to trust Soldati and Gardel, remains open to new people. He wakes up from a sleepy and policed life. Salem’s book is entitled One-Way Journey because Octavio is told that life is a one-way journey. There’s no going back, only going further and this trip is the same. Octavio is slowly learning that it’s time for him to enjoy the ride.

Besides Octavio’s coming-to-life, there are also thoughts about tango and fame. Carlos Gardel died when his career was at its peak. He never sank into oblivion. He remained young and famous in the mind of the Argentinean people. Carlos Salem was born in Buenos-Aires in 1959 and has lived in Spain since 1988. He knows both countries and Gardel belongs to his DNA as an Argentinean. In the book, Gardel is nostalgic of Argentina. He misses the food and specific customs of his country. One-Way Journey is also a melancholic tale about exile, self-imposed or not.

As you must have guessed by now, I loved One-Way Journey. It’s a fun read, with a fast-paced story and an incredible style. Salem has an excellent sense of humor, a knack for burlesque and his own way with words. I love his style, sharp and imaginative. He can pull off a vivid description in a few words:

Il avait une moustache fine, la peau sombre, et essayait de rentrer un ventre qui était en train de gagner subrepticement la bataille. He sported a thin moustache, had a dark skin and was trying to pull in a stomach which was surreptitiously winning the battle.

Can you picture this man? I can see him perfectly, physical appearance and misplaced pride in one sentence.

I’m sorry to report that One-Way Journey is not available in English. Definitely a Translation Tragedy. Someone needs to publish Salem in English, really. I vote for Duane Swierczynski’s publisher. There’s something in common between Octavio’s crazy trip and Charlie Hardie’s insane adventures. I dream of a panel at Quais du Polar where these two were in the same room. For readers who can read in Spanish, the original title is Camino de ida. Apparently, it’s only been translated into French, so francophone readers can get on their knees and thank the publisher Actes Sud for taking a chance on Carlos Salem and bringing his books to our attention.

One Way Journey by Carlos Salem is my second contribution to Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month, hosted by Stu and Richard.

PS: I can’t resist this last quote for the road.

Jorge Luis me regardait comme regardent les chats, sans compromettre leur sagesse avec nos folies. Jorge Luis [a cat] looked at me the way cats look at us, without compromising their wisdom with our follies.

A Fly’s Wing by Aníbal Malvar. A stunning Spanish crime fiction novel.

May 1, 2017 23 comments

A Fly’s Wing by Aníbal Malvar (1996). French title : Comme un blues. Translated from the Spanish into French by Hélène Serrano.

Aníbal Malvar wrote A Fly’s Wing in Galician and it was then translated into Castillan. The French translation I’ve read is based upon the Castillan version.

Madrid, winter 1996. Carlos Ovelar is at home when his ex-wife’s husband calls him on the phone. His daughter Ania is missing. She’s 18 and he doesn’t want to tell his wife that their daughter disappeared. So he doesn’t want to involve the police. But why would he call his wife’s ex to investigate their daughter’s disappeance? Because of Carlos’s past life as an agent of the Spanish secret services, the House. He was hired by his father who was at the head of the House during the tricky years of transition between the Franco era and democracy. Carlos feels that he shouldn’t accept this job and keep working on this photography business. But his only encounter with Ania was memorable enough to push him into action. He accepts and goes back to his native Galicia to start digging. Ania’s father gives him the keys to Ania’s apartment, thinking Carlos would be the first to know if she came home.

Carlos hasn’t been back to Galicia for twenty years and this trip brings back memories. He soon discovers that Ania is probably involved in the local cocaine drug trafficking. He wants to find Ania, even if it means that he ruffles some feathers or needs to cash in some favors from former colleagues of the House. He keeps on investigating even if he stumbles upon the ghosts of his married life and his years at the House or if it confronts him to his unhealthy relationship with his father.

A first murder implies that Ania is deep into a highly dangerous organization. Why does Carlo’s father show up at Ania’s place out of the blue? Why is the Old Man meddling in this? What’s in it for him?

The drug dealing plot brings us to the 1996 Galicia. More than the end of the journey for pilgrims, Santiago de Compostela is a hub for drug trafficking, tobacco and arms smuggling. The place doesn’t ooze with Christian feelings. Malvar is a journalist and he’s known for his articles about the terrorist group ETA and about drug trafficking. His plot is plausible, well drawn. He might have even heard of this quote during an investigation for a paper:

Une fois, un junkie m’a affirmé que le monde n’était qu’une hallucination que Dieu se serait tapée en pleine overdose de coke. Dieu y serait resté, mais le monde aurait survécu à l’hallu, devenue éternelle. Once, a junkie told me that the world was only a hallucination that God would have had while overdosing on cocaine. God wouldn’t have made it but the world had survived and the hallucination went on forever.

Carlos reflects on his past with the House and his relationship with his father and former boss. The two are intertwined. The Old Man was the head of the House when a coup threatened the young Spanish democracy, on February 23rd, 1981. The Old Man orchestrated this putsch to prevent a real one from Franco’s old supports and rally the people around their new democracy. This was new to me and I found this part very interesting. I never considered what happened in Spain in these early years after Franco’s death and how the old guard must have clutched the armpits of their chairs to remain in place.

Carlos delves into his past and Malvar gives life to Spain in the early 1980s. Franco died in 1975. The young democracy is trying out its fragile wings. The House has to find new occupations for their agents

Au début des années 80, la Maison s’était concentrée sur les stups et le terrorisme, une fois les franquistes tardifs convaincus que les facs ne regorgeaient plus de trostkystes et de stalinistes, mais de gens occupés à étudier et à baiser. In the early 1980s, the House focused on drug traffiking and terrorim as soon as the last Franco supporters got convinced that unis weren’t full of Trotskists and Stalinists but only full of people occupied with studying and fucking.

It is the beginning of la movida and people start to breathe, to party to shrug out of the heavy clothes of Francoism.

La vraie vie reprenait ses droits chaque soir. Madrid commençait à respirer la liberté, la movida, le poing et la rose. Il y avait une révolution madrilène qui ne révolutionnait que la nuit, et c’est d’elle qu’allait naître la postmodernité. La nuit était le creuset libertaire du futur imminent. Les policiers s’efforçaient de se faire discrets et le fascime ordinaire ne gueulait plus en chemise de nuit au balcon. La rue bouillonait de futur. Real life was taking over. Madrid started to exhale freedom, la movida, the fist and the rose. There was a Madrilene revolution that only revolutioned at night and postmodernity would emerge from it. The night was the libertarian pot cooking up the imminent future. Policemen made themselves scarce and ordinary fascism was no longer yelling in pyjamas from balconies. Streets bubbled with future.

Apart from the crime plot and the reflections about the young Spanish democracy, A Fly’s Wing explores the complex relationship between Carlos and the Old Man. Carlos was hired by his father when he was the House’s commandant. The Old Man is a high powered secret agent, someone who has all the strings to make history. And in his book, making history is worth all the sacrifices, including manipulating his son and killing his chance at happiness. A Fly’s Wing is also the story of their twisted relationship. Carlos is in a love-hate relationship with his father and he can never shake his hold on him.

Le problème, avec nos aînés, c’est qu’ils seront toujours plus vieux que nous; ça leur accorde une autorité fictive, on se sent comme des mômes à côté d’eux. Mon vieux était là, en train de me faire la leçon, les pieds sur la table et la bouteille de whisky à la main, bourré comme un coing et fier comme un seigneur. Mes quarante et quelques balais me sont tombés des mains et le môme que j’étais instantanément redevenu n’a pas eu la force de les ramasser. Je supposer qu’ils étaient trop lourds. The problem with our elders is that they’ll always be older than us. It grants them some fictional authority and you feel like a kid besides them. My old man was here, lecturing me, his feet on the table, a bottle of whisky in his hand, drunk as a skunk and as proud as a king. My forty and some years fell from my hands and the kid I instantly became again wasn’t strong enough to pick them up. I suppose they were too heavy.

His father is controlling and manipulative. He shows an unhealthy interest in the women in Carlos’s life. Susanna, his ex-wife. Ofelia, his girl-friend during his years at the House. And now Ania, the missing teenager. The Old Man’s actions ruined Carlos’s life. He roped him into a career he wasn’t ready for, sabotaged his son’s love life and didn’t behave as a father. Carlos came out of these years bruised and battered. He never recovered from his years working in the secret services.

Mon passé est un cimetière bourré de gens que je n’ai pas su aider. Certains cadavres respirent encore. Ce sont eux qui me font le plus mal. Il y en a d’autres que j’ai à peine connus, mais dont les yeux s’ouvrent et me regardent dès que j’éteins la lumière. Il y a tellement de fantômes autour de moi que parfois, j’ai peur de me découvrir immortel. My past is a cemetery full of people I failed. Some bodies are still breathing. Those are the ones who hurt me the most. Some of them I barely knew but their eyes open and look at me as soon as I shut the lights out. There are so many ghosts around me that sometimes I’m afraid I might be immortal.

He carries his ghosts around, invisible balls and chains.

A Fly’s Wing is a breathtaking equilibrium between the crime plot, the portrayal of pivotal years in Spain’s recent history and Carlos’s angst and personal story. All this is written in an evocative prose. Carlos’s voice sounds like a voice over in an old movie. I think it’d go well with Ascenseur pour l’échaffaud by Miles Davis, even though the book comes with a playlist. It’s available on the publisher’s website and it’s not exactly Mile Davis.

Atmospheric is the operating word to describe Malvar’s brand of prose. It’s true in the literal sense of the word, the weather is a huge part of the book. It’s winter in Galicia and it rains all the time. Carlos drives in downpours, his stakeouts are full of humidity and it gives a dramatic twist to the burial scene of the novel. It reminded me of Marlowe in rainy LA. In fact, it’s like Chandler’s manna hover over Malvar’s pen and Marlowe is giving Carlos a friendly hug. Ania is the femme fatale of the book, even if she’s absent. She weighs on the story and reminded me of Laura by Vera Caspary. You see this is one fine specimen of classic noir.

I loved A Fly’s Wing and it will probably belong to my year-end list. It lingered on my mind. I was enveloped in its prose and I think that the French title of the book is aptly chosen as it sums up its atmosphere. The original title, Ala de mosca means A Fly’s Wing. It refers to the type of cocaine that is at the centre of the trafficking. The French title is richer, at least for a French reader. Comme un blues means Like a blues song. And Carlos is blue and he’ll always be a bit down because of his past. In French, bleu / blue has also another meaning. Un bleu is a rookie and that’s what Carlos remains compared to his father. Despite the passing years, he’s still a naïve beginner when it comes to shady dealings.

A Fly’s Wing is a fantastic piece of literature and I’m so grateful that Asphalte éditions picked this and brought it to the French public. I’m sorry to report to Anglophone crime fiction lovers that this little gem of Spanish literature is not available in English. In the Translation Tragedy category it goes.

To end up with a merrier tone, since I’m French and we probably have a cheese for every occasion, here’s the cheese St Jacques de Compostelle that I bought when I was reading this.

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