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Overdue loans by Petros Markaris

February 23, 2016 15 comments

Liquidations à la grecque by Petros Markaris (2010) Not available in English, sadly. Orginal title: ληξιπρόθεσμα δανία which means, according to Google translate: Overdue loans.

Markaris_LiquidationsLiquidations à la grecque is the first opus of a crime fiction trilogy about the Greek financial crisis. This one is about the banking system. The second one, Le justicier d’Athènes, is about tax evasion. The last one, Pain, Education, Liberté is about the Greek elites. I didn’t read them in the right order and started last year with the third volume.

Liquidation à la grecque pictures the police officer Charitos and his family, his wife Adriani and his daughter Katerina. The novel opens to her wedding to Phanis, a physician who works at the local hospital. She’s out of law school and is job hunting. The wedding is a success but Charitos worries about the bill as the economic crisis settles in Greece. As a policeman, he’s on the State’s payroll and their bonuses are being cut. He’s really starting to worry about his finances.

Later, Charitos is called to a crime scene: a man, Zissimopoulos was beheaded with an antique sword. He was gardening in his house set in a quiet neighborhood, the murder seems to have been well prepared. The victim is the former director of the Greek Central Bank. He wasn’t really appreciated by his staff and Charitos soon discovers that he was involved in shady transactions. The murderer signed his crime with the letter D on the victim’s chest.

Charitos is convinced this is a common murder but his colleague Stathakos convinces their boss that it’s probably a terrorist attack. Another victim appears, same MO. Mr Robinson was a British citizen and the director of the Greek subsidiary of the First British Bank, a bank specialized in hedge funds.

For Charitos, it’s clear, the mysterious murderer is after the heads of the Greek banking system. Literally and figuratively.

We see Charitos navigate between his field work on the case and the delicate politics with his hierarchy, his colleagues and the press. Markaris uses crime fiction to tell about the Greek society and to analyze the current economic crisis. Sometimes we feel sorry for the Greek people as the collapse of their economy affects more the poor and not the elites who led them here. Sometimes we are irritated by their reactions to the measures asked by the EU when the said measures are only to stick by basic rules. Like complying to VAT laws in shops or collecting taxes properly.

It’s interesting to read about common people’s way-of-life. The traffic jam in Athens seems horrendous. I laughed at how not buying a German car was a political statement. Charitos settled for a SEAT, as it’s a Spanish brand and Southern Europe countries have to stick together. Only SEAT is owned by Volkswagen… I enjoyed Charitos’s casual descriptions of his wife’s cooking and the family dynamics. They have to adapt to their daughter being married. We also see how the situation deteriorates and how the people’s living conditions are affected. Athens is swamped by demonstrations. At some point, one of Charitos’s neighbors tries to kill himself because he’s ruined.

Liquidations à la grecque is not as good as Pain, Education, Liberté and I suspect that the author has a better understanding of the role played by the Greek elites in the catastrophe than in the workings of the financial system. Charitos is lost in the world of finance and the explanations he gets are rather light. Markaris is not at ease to explain speculative finance or maybe he didn’t want to go into too many details for the reader. In any case, the explanations sound a little vague…and a bit too light for my liking.

Despite this little flaw, I enjoyed Liquidations à la grecque and intend to read the other volume of the trilogy.

 

Preparing for Quais du Polar 2016

February 20, 2016 32 comments

Quais_polar_logoThe festival Quais du polar will be from 1st to 3rd of April in Lyon, France. In French, polar is a generic and affectionate term to call crime fiction. Quais is probably a reference to 36 Quai des Orfèvres where the Parisian police have their headquarters and to Interpol’s headquarters located 200, Quai Charles de Gaulle in Lyon. L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Police is also in Lyon. It’s the school where police officers and commissaires are trained. So the city that hosts Quais du polar is also the headquarters of famous police institutions. But Quais also means river banks and the other reason why Quais is included in the name of the festival comes from the geography of Lyon. Indeed, the river Rhône and the river Saône run through Lyon and the city centre is called the Presqu’île (peninsula) as it is between the two rivers. The city is really shaped by its two rivers. So, Quais du polar is an apt name for a festival that celebrates crime fiction in Lyon.

2016 is the 12th season of the festival and I hope the series Quais du Polar will have many seasons. Last year, it attracted 70 000 visitors and, from what I’ve seen, writers were enchanted. My post about the 2014 and 2015 editions are here and here. Quais du polar is a mixed festival: there’s a huge bookstore in the magnificent building of the Chamber of Commerce, where writers come and sign their books, conferences, a whodunit promenade throughout the city and other activities.This year, the festival will show off Francophone crime fiction with writers from France, Québec, Switzerland, Gabon and Togo.

Quais_polarAs last year, I bought a subscription to the festival. It’s not mandatory but it helps accessing to the conférences; it costs 30€ and comes with a free book. The access to everything is free, the festival relies on volunteers. Paying a subscription is also a way to help them. The free book is Tout le monde te haïra by Alexis Aubenque. To be honest, it’s not a book I would have picked myself as it is a thriller and it is set in Alaska. I’m a bit wary of writers who write crime fiction set in another country as theirs. But I’ll give it a try.

The web site has not been updated yet with the detailed program of the festival but the guest writers are already listed. You can have a look here: Invités Quais du Polar. If you do have a look, please let me know who you’d like to meet if you were attending. It’s always nice to have pointers.

Johnson_camp_mortsPeace_1974Meanwhile, I will be reading some writers who will be participating to Quais du Polar. I’m delighted to see that Craig Johnson will be there. He was already present in 2014 but now I’ve started his Longmire series and I hope I’ll be able to talk to him. My billet about the first volume of the series, Little Bird, is here and I will write soon about the second opus, Death Without Company. I’m happy to report that I found it as good as the first one. I love the atmosphere of Durant, Wyoming and Longmire’s personality, colleagues and friends. I will also read 1974 by David Peace, a book that has been on my shelf for a while. #TBR20 is still on and it will make up for the three books I bought for the occasion.

Ferey_ZuluI decided to read Zulu by Caryl Férey. He’s a French writer and the book is set in Cape Town, South Africa. I know, my buying this not exactly consistent with my previous my comment on Alexis Aubenque. I can’t explain why I have a better feeling about Zulu. Or perhaps I’m not so thrilled to read a book set in Alaska because the place reminds me of Sarah Palin, the dreadful Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, horrifying working conditions on fishing boats described by Iain Levison and oil spills.  Zulu got multiple prizes, so I’m curious. It sounds like a compelling story with incursions into local politics and sociology. Crime fiction is a great medium for that. It is available in English, if anyone’s interested.

Levison_toutI also purchased Ils savent tout de vous by Iain Levison. I’ve already read his Working Stiff’s Manifesto. I’ve heard his interview on France Inter and his last book sounded interesting. Wanna know the funny thing about it? It’s been written in English but you can only find it in French because it’s only been published in France. The guy’s publisher is French and Levison refuses to publish his book in the US. So, here I am, perfectly able to read the original but forced to read it in translation. I wish it were published in parallel texts or one after the other in an omnibus edition.

Niel_hamacsThe last one is Les Hamacs de carton by French author Colin Niel. He’s an engineer specialized in environmental issues and he has lived several years in French Guiana. He created a series set in this overseas department with a main character named Capitaine Anato. Les Hamacs de carton is the first volume of the series. *sheepish* French Guiana only means three things to me: Amazonia, Christiane Taubira and the penal colony where Dreyfus and Henri Charrière (Papillon) were sent. I’m curious to learn more about the place.

I hope I’ll have time to read these books before the festival. If you’re interested in Quais du Polar, you can come to Lyon for the weekend. The city is beautiful and the atmosphere during the festival is special. If you’d like to come but can’t, you can follow Quais du polar on Twitter : @QuaisPolar or on Facebook.

Lyon

Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien. (Wow)

February 14, 2016 22 comments

Leaving Las Vegas by John O’Brien (1990) Translated into French by Elisabeth Guinsbourg, revised by Hélène Cohen.

I read Leaving Las Vegas last December and it’s still vivid in my mind. That in itself means something. How many times do we struggle to remember a book we read a few weeks ago? Leaving Las Vegas didn’t fade away, it left a lasting impression on me. Now if you wonder if it has anything to do with the eponymous film with Nicholas Cage, the answer is yes.

The novel opens with Sera, sitting on a sidewalk on Las Vegas Boulevard.

Sucking weak coffee through a hole in the plastic lid of a red and green Styrofoam cup, Sera sports a place to sit down. She has been walking around now for at least two hours and wants desperately to rest. Normally, she wouldn’t dare hang around this long on in front of a 7-11, but the curb looks high, and having recently accumulated a fresh coat of red paint, not too dirty. She drops down hard on the cold curb and hugs her knees, bending her head into the privacy of the dark little crave created by her arms. Her eyes follow the stream of light running between her two thighs, down to where it concluded in black lace, aptly exposed by her short leather skirt.

She throws back her head, and her dark brown hair fans around her shoulders, dances in the turbulence created by a passing Sun Bus; a window framed profile begins to run and vanishes in a cloud of black exhaust. In the red gloss of her recently applied lipstick there is a tiny reflection of the glowng convenience store sign, its cold fluorescent light shining much too white to tan or warm the beautiful face appealing beneath it. She modestly lowers her knees, only to have the black blazer fall open as she leans back in her elbows, revealing her small breasts under a sheer lace camisole. Making no effort to cover herself, she turns her head; her dark green eyes, protected by long mascara-laden lashes, scan up and down Las Vegas Boulevard.

Tadatadatacheeda tacheek tacheek sheeka she catches on her lips an unrefined tune, already in progress. All but inaudible, composed clumsily out of fragments overheard in casino lounges, it nonetheless seems to guide the passing traffic, coercing the rumble and whine of the street to perform in symphony with the slide and twirl that exist in her head. Across the street—not yet over the shiver, nor to the goods—a dormant construction side, populated with skeletal cranes raising adolescent towers, stands smugly, silently, and in dubious approval. It wears the gree and blue hues of the night. It knows not whence it came. It will lend her the benefit of the doubt. It will accompany her on the long, hard, painful ride in a car filled with chums. Sera’s arms are weak, but her pulse is strong. She smacks shut her lips and waits for a trick.

O'Brien_Leaving_Las_VegasIt’s a long quote, I know but it’s the only one I’ll be able to include in this billet, since I have the book in French and thus rely on the English kindle sample for original quotes. But apart from this practical issue, it serves my purpose. Now you know why I was hooked from the first page. Sera sits there, the city bustling around her and she wants to hide for a moment but can’t. She’s a hooker and dresses accordingly: she can’t hide. Either her top is revealed or her bottom. She’s so surrounded by the noise, the lights, the music that they become part of her and she becomes part of the city.

The first chapters are dedicated to Sera, her life as a lone prostitute in Las Vegas. The night we meet her will leave her bruised and battered both physically and emotionally.

Then we’re leaving Las Vegas for Los Angeles where we get to know Ben. He’s an alcoholic and he’s about to move out to Las Vegas for purely practical reasons: there, one has access to alcohol round the clock. He knows it’s the end of the road for him and he wants to spend his last weeks as easily as he can.

Ben and Sera meet and find in each other the compassion and human warmth they both need. Sera doesn’t try to save Ben. She doesn’t judge him. She stands by him. And Ben is past judging anyone. He knows what she does for a living and sees her as a human being, as an equal. That alone is a gift for Sera. Her life story is heartbreaking but what impressed me more was O’Brien’s description of alcoholism.

If you weren’t convinced that alcohol is a drug, read Leaving Las Vegas. We’ve all read books with drunkards as main characters. Post Office by Bukowski or Under the Volcano by Malcom Lowry are examples. Even if these books don’t shy away from the ugliness of alcoholism, none of them pictures the sheer physical dependency on alcohol the way Leaving Las Vegas does. Think more about books and films about heroin addicts. This is how John O’Brien paints alcoholism. Ben needs an alcohol fix at regular intervals. His life in Los Angeles revolves around alcohol. Which one to drink first thing in the morning without throwing it up. How to deal with an upset stomach and make it accept the substance. Where to drink in the mornings without catching too much attention. Where to drink in the afternoons. Where to drink at night. How to hide drunkenness not to be thrown out of the bar. Where to buy alcohol at night before it is forbidden by law. How to judge the quantity of alcohol to have at home to go through the night once it’s not allowed to buy some more until the next morning. It’s awful. Terrifying.

Ben lets himself die of alcoholism. He’s like a person with terminal cancer. Nothing can be done for him anymore and he just wants to end it as best he can. Las Vegas is that place for him. And Sera is his last companion.

Leaving Las Vegas is the gut-wrenching novel of two lost souls. They are swallowed by an artificial city whose main occupation is amusement and thriving on activities that are illegal in other States. Las Vegas is like the cupboard where you push all the mess in an attempt to let your guests think your apartment is clean and tidy. But Ben and Sera also find acceptance in Las Vegas. Here, in the cupboard of America, nobody pays attention to them. Nobody judges them. They have a right to be.

John O’Brien would know about Ben’s addiction. He was destroyed by alcoholism and committed suicide in 1994.

Highly recommended.

Agostino by Alberto Moravia

February 8, 2016 12 comments

Agostino by Alberto Moravia (1945) Translated from the Italian by Marie Canavaggia

Moravia_AgostinoI’m late to post about January’s Book Club choice. It was Agostino by Alberto Moravia.  We had already read Contempt and decided to read another one. Agostino is a novella about adolescence. Agostino is 13 and he’s spending his holidays at the beach with his widowed mother. We don’t know how his father died. The war, maybe. Agostino’s mother is never named. She’s still young and attractive. At the beginning of the holidays, she’s centered on her son and he enjoys spending his time with her. They take a boat and go swimming and he’s proud to be seen in her company.

Then she meets a young man and he accompanies her to her daily boat tours and swimming sessions. Agostino becomes a third wheel and he resents his mother for it. He witnesses the change in her behaviour: she’s flirting with the young man and has attitudes he’d never seen in her. Agostino starts seeing his mother as a woman and not as a mother only.

Agostino is terribly upset not to be his mother’s first interest any longer. He needs to share but mostly, he needs to accept that she’s a woman, that her life as a woman is separate from her life as a mother. She’s no longer asexual. He notices her body and starts feeling uncomfortable in situations that were normal to him before. He’d like her to be more modest when he comes to her room. She’s unaware of his uneasiness and she should change her behaviour to take into account that her boy is turning into a young man.

This holiday forces on Agostino the separation that needed to happen. He’s growing up, it’s also time for him to have a life independent from his mother. This first attempt at autonomy is done through joining a gang of young local boys who hang out around the beach.

This will be educational on several levels. First, they don’t come from the same social background. Agostino comes from a rich family; he lives in a mansion and has no idea of how privileged he is. He takes money for granted and when he mixes with these local boys coming from poor fishermen families, he’s confronted to other social references. They don’t have the same vision of life. They don’t live by the same rules. Violence is part of their life, fighting with each other, struggling to survive and starving attention. They’re more comfortable with their bodies.

Second, they are less sheltered, more mature and more knowledgeable about facts-of-life. They will reveal to Agostino what relationship his mother has with the young man. They will make fun of his innocence but will still do his sexual education. They will be eye-opening for him and trigger his leaving his childhood behind.

13 is a delicate age with a maelstrom of emotions and thoughts. Agostino still wears short pants but his mind is moving on. He’s puzzled and innocent at first but he catches on quickly. He doesn’t have a father figure in his life and that affects his relationship with his mother. (Hints at psychoanalysis are rather obvious in the novel) It explains why he’s suddenly discovering that she’s more than a mother, that to other men, she can be a lover. He was content; this new awareness disturbs the harmony of his life. This summer is about finding a new equilibrium to go forward.

I won’t tell too much about this incredible novella. I’m amazed again at how much Moravia can pack in a hundred pages. The style is subtle and evocative. I was there, on the beach, imagining the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, the sun, the heat, the cabins on the beach, the little boats. It’s very cinematographic with short but spot-on descriptions. The quick change in Agostino is masterfully described. He’s 13, on the fence between childhood and adolescence. The invisible hand of time pushes him to the side of adolescence. That doesn’t go without scratches on his soul.

Honestly, seeing how short this is, there’s no excuse for not reading it. If you need further assurance that this is an amazing read, please have a look at reviews by Guy and Jacqui.

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