Home > 2010, 21st Century, Crime Fiction, Gabon Literature, Otsiemi Janis, Polar, TBR20 > Life Is a Dirty Business by Janis Otsiemi

Life Is a Dirty Business by Janis Otsiemi

February 18, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Life is a Dirty Business by Janis Otsiemi (2014) Original French title: La vie est un sale boulot.

Janis Otsiemi is a crime fiction writer from Gabon who writes in French. He was invited at Quais du Polar last year and he will attend this year too.

otsiemi_vieLife is a Dirty Business opens with Chicano being released from prison in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. He was convicted for a murder he didn’t commit. It happened when he and three accomplices tried to rob a store and one of them ended up shooting down the owner of the shop. Chicano was arrested, went on trial and was condemned to several years of prison. He kept his mouth shut and never denounced the real culprit. What good would it have done? It was like becoming a living target for people who would have avenged for the man he would have put in prison. Better to be alive in prison than dead. Chicano is quite surprised to be released, actually, because he hadn’t done his time in prison. He got to understand that they set him free because of an administrative mess-up; somehow his name came up in the list of prisoners pardoned by the president of Gabon.

Chicano is not turning down this chance and he’s decided to live an honest life now. He’s heading to town to find out what his former girlfriend Mirna has become and start a new life with her. Unfortunately, she has moved on and is pregnant with another man’s child. When Chicano went to her neighborhood, he met his former friends and accomplices. They are working on a new robbery and are missing a person to do it. Their aim is to steal the pay of soldiers in a military camp when it arrives by truck on payday. They explain to Chicano that they have inside information, that it’s an easy job and easy money. And Chicano could use money to start his new life, so he accepts to participate.

rOf course, things don’t go as well as expected and for Chicano, life in prison was an easiet life that the one he just set himself up for.

The plot is classic noir fiction, with a guy with a shady past who tries to turn a new leaf but succumbs to one last fatal crime. It is the same kind of plot as in Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella. Efficient and time-tried.

I wanted to know how things would end up, even if I wasn’t optimistic for poor Chicano from the start, but the most enjoyable part of La vie est un sale boulot was discovering Libreville. Unlike Dernier refrain à Ispahan, this book is written by a local writer and it’s not written for a Western public. I loved the language and it was a fantastic opportunity to explore the variety of the French language offered by the Francophone world. You all know that French from Québec is different. French from Africa is different as well and I loved seing my language alive and vivid under Otsiemi’s pen. The French publisher, Jigal Polar added useful footnotes to explain words and expressions that a French reader wouldn’t understand. I don’t know much about African literature and it made me want to explore this part of Francophone literature.

Crime fiction is also often a good way to write about the unpleasant side of a country. It deals with crime and its darker side. La vie est un sale boulot is no exception. If what Janis Otsiemi describes is real, then there’s no need expecting anything good from the police. Here, they are corrupt and part of the crime world. They don’t really fight against crime, they take advantage of their job and status to benefit from crime. I’ve seen books where the police look the other way not to disrupt organized crime because somewhere they’re linked to the power in place. But here, they make money the same way that the criminals they’re supposed to chase do. Incredible and sad for the Gabonese people if it’s as bad as what Otsiemi describes. It was eyes-opening for the sheltered Westener that I am, another reason why it was worth reading.

While La vie est un sale boulot is not exceptional, Otsiemi does a good job and I’m glad a French publisher brought him to our attention. I’m sorry but this is not available in English. If you can read French, it’s worth trying out.

  1. February 19, 2017 at 2:49 am

    Sounds like a good one, Emma but since it’s not available in English, I won’t read it. Are you going to the Quais du Polar this year?


    • February 20, 2017 at 2:26 pm

      Yes, I’m going. It’s on March 31st, April 1&2.


      • February 20, 2017 at 6:02 pm

        Do you know the author line-up yet?


        • February 20, 2017 at 9:28 pm

          Yes. The list is here.

          I hope I’ll have time to write a post about it but I’m not sure.

          Liked by 1 person

          • February 21, 2017 at 2:54 am

            Some of heard of and some I haven’t. I recommend Zygmunt Miloszewski by the way


  2. February 19, 2017 at 9:46 am

    I agree, crime friction can be a good way of highlighting the underbelly of a country or region. It shows a different side of the local culture/environment. Did you hear this author talking about the book at last year’s QdP?


    • February 20, 2017 at 2:27 pm

      I didn’t have the chance to hear him talk but he signed my copy of La vie est un sale boulot. I’ll try to hear him talk this year if he participates to a pannel.


  3. February 20, 2017 at 2:59 pm

    I think there’s a long tradition of crime fiction as moral fiction, criticising the society it represents. This sounds very good and it’s a shame it’s not available in English.

    Re his innocence, in many jurisdictions being part of a group engaged in a crime does make you equally guilty if part of the group then goes further than the common intent and commits murder. It can however be a very unfair law as it’s led to things like people being done for murder when they were simply driving and had no idea the murder had even occurred until after it was over.


    • February 20, 2017 at 9:36 pm

      It’s interesting to discover other countries through crime fiction. I suppose you have a better chance to find an African crime fiction book if it comes from an English-speaking African country. Have you ever read one from Ghana, for example?

      About his innocence and the law you mention about being guilty of murder by association. I’m not aware of such a law in France. As far as I know crime law is “personal”. You cannot be held responsible for a murder done by someone else. I think that only the person who killed someone can be charged of murder. It doesn’t mean that the other members of a group of criminals get off scot free, though. I’ll ask around, it’s an intriguing question.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 21, 2017 at 4:32 pm

        Nothing from Ghana, I’ve read a bit of African fiction now but not crime funnily enough.

        Re the legal issue, it’s become pretty controversial in the UK. There’s been incidents of kids who were pressured into driving a car by a gang then getting prosecuted for murder when one of that gang then kills someone, even though the unfortunate driver didn’t even know anyone present was armed.

        I think the idea was that if you and your friends go to rob a bank and in the process someone gets killed by one of your fellow robbers, well you did agree to take part in a violent crime and it should have been obvious that someone dying was a potential outcome. Just because you didn’t personally pull the trigger doesn’t mean you don’t share some of the blame for what happened.

        I have some sympathy with that idea, but in the UK at least it seems to have been too broadly implemented. There’s to me a world of difference between being one of three armed robbers and you’re just not the one who pulled a trigger, and being some poor kid who has no real idea how deep you’re in trouble until someone pulls a gun. As you say, it’s an intriguing question.


        • February 22, 2017 at 9:44 am

          Re the legal issue.

          I’ve asked a lawyer, she says it works the same way in France. I don’t know how it’s used in court, though.
          The concept is understandable but it leaves a lot of gray areas. Food for crime fiction writers!


  4. February 20, 2017 at 3:05 pm

    I see you are working your way through the books we bought together at QdP last year. This was the author with the great dress sense and colourful hat, wasn’t he? I enjoy discovering a country through crime fiction too.


    • February 20, 2017 at 9:30 pm

      I am working on the TBR and yes, I’d like to kill last year’s Quais du Polar TBR before going and buying new books.

      Yes, he was the man with the colourful hat. He’ll be there this year too.


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