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Thérèse, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay – Montreal in 1942

September 27, 2020 12 comments

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay (1980) Original French (Québec) title: Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saints-Anges.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is the second volume of the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal. Michel Tremblay wrote a six books saga about the French-speaking working-class neighbourhood of Montreal, the Plateau Mont-Royal. We discovered a few families in the first volume, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant.

In the first volume, everything happens in one day, May 2nd, 1942. In this one, the story is spread in the four days before the religious gathering, la Fête-Dieu. We are in June 1942. Thérèse, Pierrette and Simone are best friends and attend together the catholic school of the Saints-Anges. The book opens to a very special day, Simone is back to school after her operation. She used to have a harelip and now she’s pretty. It’s a big day for her and her friends.

Tremblay weaves several story threads into a vivid tapestry of these four days.

One strand is related to the religious community who runs the school of the Saints-Anges. The headmaster is Mother Benoîte des Anges. She’s a despotic and cruel to the sisters she manages and is supposed to guide. She’s unkind to the pupils and contemptuous in her interactions with their families. It is well-known that she lacks a lot of basic human qualities but she’s good with managing the school’s budget, so she stays.

Tremblay shows us the relationships between the sisters, how each of them has her place and her reputation. Some are good friends, some may be more than friends and some barely tolerate each other. They live in a close circle and have to make do with everyone’s temper and specificities. They all live in fear of Mother Benoîte and the only one who dares to confront her is Sister Sainte-Catherine.

Tremblay shows us a catholic school with a headmaster whose behaviour is in total contradiction with the New Testament. Mother Benoîte summons a trembling Simone in her office to berate her: her parents say they’re too poor to pay their subscription to the school magazine and yet they can afford Simone’s operation. She must bring the money the next day. Instead of being happy for the girl, she only thinks about money. The truth is that Simone’s doctor arranged for a surgeon to take her as a pro-bono case. Her parents would never have been able to afford the operation. The scene where the doctor and Simone’s mother confront Mother Benoîte is sublime, the revolt of poor people who do as best they can and do not need more humiliation than the more already inflicted on them by poverty.

In that time the Catholic church had the same hold on French-Canadians as it had on Irish people. I don’t think it had the same power in France at the time, not with the strong anti-clerical movement in the French society.

Another thread is the friendship between Pierrette, Thérèse and Simone. Tremblay pictures the games, the relationships between the pupils, their interactions with the nuns. We see them in class, preparing the Fête-Dieu, a big parade, slightly ridiculous but very important to them. Who’s going to play Mary? Who’s going to be the hanging angel? This is childhood in its universal form and characters in the make. Thérèse is the leader and she’s a bit calculating. Simone is insecure and got her insecurity from her harelip. Now that she feels pretty, her confidence is growing. Pierrette is the kind one, the peace maker.

Boys and flirting make their appearance in the girls’ lives. Simone’s brother adores Pierrette and follows her with his puppy-love. It’s funny and lovely. Thérèse too, has an admirer. Hers isn’t a puppy. He’s a wolf named Gérard. He’s 21 and is obsessed with Thérèse, following her, staying near the school gates to watch her. Tremblay brings in this dark thread and I trembled for Thérèse, hoping nothing would happen to her.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is a vivid picture of these four days of 1942. It sends direct punches to the Catholic institutions and the way they mistreat the people they should take care of. Their lack of compassion is shocking. It brings us to Montreal in 1942, into a poor neighbourhood and their attaching inhabitants. I was happy to be reunited with Thérèse, Pierrette, Simone and their families.

I love French from Québec and I had a lot of fun observing Tremblay’s language. It’s full of English words inserted in French sentences and I don’t always understand how they came with the gender of the words. Some English words have been translated into French. For example, Tremblay mentions un bâton de hockey, the literal translation of a hockey stick, aka une crosse de hockey. He also says un bat de baseball (direct use of the English word) when we now say une batte de baseball. Tremblay’s French is a delight and an homage to his origins. Contrary to Mother Benoîte, Tremblay loves these struggling families. Highly recommended.

The next volume is centered around another family member, Edouard.

PS: I should set up a contest about the ugliest cover ever. The Québec cover is a bit dark but true to the book. But tell me, who would buy Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel on impulse with this ugly and silly cover?

Sator by Alain Le Ninèze – Judaea in Roman times

September 22, 2020 12 comments

Sator or the Riddle of the Magic Square by Alain Le Ninèze (2008). Original French title: Sator ou l’énigme du carré magique. Not available in English.

Sator by Alain Le Ninèze is a historical fiction novel set in Judaea in 62-67 AD. At this time, Nero was the emperor of the Roman Empire. The narrator of Sator is Lucius Albinius Piso, based upon the historical figure Lucceius Albinus. He was the Roman procurator of Judaea from 62 til 64 AD.

When the book opens, he’s in Jerusalem in times of unrest. His uncle the senator Balbus Piso – based upon Gaius Calpurnius Piso – is in Rome. He’s under the scrutiny of Poppaea Sabina, the Roman Empress married to Nero. Poppaea demands that Piso solves the mystery of the Sator Square, a word square used by early Christians. He asks for his nephew’s help.

Piso is a Roman senator secretly converted to Christianism. At the times, Christians were persecuted by Nero and his life is in danger. He also asks for information about Jesus’s death.

As the book progresses, we see Lucius investigating Jesus’s death, meeting with witnesses of the crucifixion and wondering what really happened. He also digs into the Sator riddle, discussing it with Jewish scholars. Meanwhile, he exchanges letters with his uncle who keeps him informed of his fate in Rome. The situation there deteriorates quickly as Nero becomes more and more crazy and despotic.

The Great Fire of Rome happens, Christians are murdered and Balbus Piso decides to participate to a conspiracy to assassinate Nero.

In Judaea, things deteriorate as well. The Jews rebel against the Roman rule and Lucius Albinus fails to prevent a war. He refuses to break the law and is dismissed by Nero. We see a procurator not really into his task, struggling to be the armed arm of an emperor he doesn’t respect anymore. He’s happy to be demoted and goes to live in the household of a retired centurion who married a Jewish lady and settled in Jerusalem.

Le Ninèze’s Lucius Albinus is a lot more human than his actual counterpart, according to the portray depicted on Wikipedia. No big deal. This is a historical novel and Le Ninèze imagines a humanist procurator who doesn’t want to use force when it’s not needed.

It’s a first-person narrative and Lucius addresses to us. It is strange to have a character tell you that he went to the Mount of Olives, that he now shares the outcome of his interviews with soldiers who guarded Jesus’s grave after he died or with people who attended his trial. Lucius takes you to a time where all this was recent history or event contemporary. I was raised a Catholic and hearing Lucius Albinus investigate this as a journalist put things at human height, stripped of the aura brought by religious rituals. It’s a strange feeling.

Le Ninèze also shows that there were a lot of messiahs at the time and that the communities in Jerusalem had trouble coexisting in peace. (Greeks against Jews, radical Jews against moderate Jews, all against the Roman occupant) The region was always bubbling with rebellions and attacks.

Le Ninèze left a lot of footnotes to give the source of the events he describes. He mostly used the Evangiles, The Wars of the Jews by Flavius Josephus and The Histories by Tacitus. It was an interesting read. I enjoyed reading about Judaea at the time. I liked being in Lucius’s company and I had fun watching him unravel the Sator Square riddle. (or at least find his own meaning)

PS: The Sator Square includes the word Tenet and it has something to do with Christopher Nolan’s film, in case you’re wondering.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante – adultery and adolescence in Colorado in the 1920s

September 20, 2020 18 comments

Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante (1938) French title: Bandini. Translated by Brice Matthieussent. (He’s Fante’s main French translator)

Then she left. The poor thing. His mother –the poor thing. It worked a despair in him that made his eyes fill up. Everywhere it was the same, always his mother –the poor thing, always poor and poor, always that, that word, always in him and around him, and suddenly he let go in that half darkened room and wept, sobbing the poor out of him, crying and chocking, not for that, not for her, for his mother but for Svevo Bandini, for his father, that look of his father’s, those gnarled hands of his father’s, for his father’s mason tools, for the walls his father has built, the steps, the cornices, the ashpits, the cathedrals, and they were all so very beautiful, for that feeling in him when his father sang of Italy, of an Italian sky, of a Neapolitan bay.

John Fante (1909-1983) was born in Boulder, Colorado. His parents were Italian immigrants. He’s well-known for his Saga of Arturo Bandini, Fante’s alter ego. Including Wait Until Spring, Bandini, I’ve now read three out of the four books of the saga. I loved it as much as The Road to Los Angeles and Ask the Dust.

In Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Arturo is 14. His life revolves around his parents, his siblings and school. It’s winter in Colorado in the 1920s. We see how this winter is a turning point in Arturo’s life. He’s growing up, he’s losing his illusions about marriage and sees his parents in a different light.

Arturo’s father, Svevo, is a mason and bricklayer. There aren’t a lot of construction works at this time of year and he’s currently out of work. The family barely survives. Meat is rare, the children clothes are always too small and the Bandinis have debts at the local shops.

Arturo is fourteen, still a child in some aspects but getting the vision of an adult on others. He loves his parents and sees what a strange couple they make. His mother Maria is blindly in love with her charming womanizing husband. She’s also a Catholic devout, living rosary in hand, going to church every Sunday and feeling so proud that her sons are altar boys. His father Svevo doesn’t care about religion, likes to drink and gamble with his childhood friend from Italy. It’s a bone of contention between the two:

Svevo had said, if God is everywhere, why do I have to go to Church on Sunday? Why can’t I go to the Imperial Poolhall? Isn’t God down there too? His mother always shuddered in horror at this piece of theology, but he remembered how feeble her reply to it, the same reply he had learned in his catechism, and one his mother had learned out of the same catechism years before.

This winter, Arturo will see his parents in a new light. When Maria’s mother announces one of her dreadful visits –she despises her son-in-law and never misses an opportunity to let it known –Svevo leaves the house and doesn’t come back. We see him stay with a rich mistress. Maria is so depressed that she neglects the children.

Arturo is torn between his two parents. He understands why his father would want to escape. Svevo is the sole breadwinner and bears the weight of providing for five. He doesn’t have a stable job. He never earns enough, he’s always in debt and never has a break. Seen from Svevo’s point of view, this affair sounds more like a holiday from the worries and the poverty than a true love story. He stays with her for a while, in a house where he doesn’t have to worry. As a young adolescent, Arturo is also secretly proud that his working-class father managed to seduce such a rich lady.

But Arturo also understands how heartbroken his mother is, how in love she is with Svevo and how betrayed she feels. He hates his father for it. Svevo may bear the burden of earning enough, she bears the brunt of raising the children, scraping by all the time. She’s the one who struggles to feed everyone with the little money that she has. There’s a heartbreaking scene at the butcher’s, we see how humiliating it is for her to go there without enough money and buy the cheapest meat possible.

Arturo becomes the underground middleman between the two. He threatens his brother with bodily harm if he tattles to his mother that they’ve seen their father with another woman. Arturo knows it’ll burn the bridges between his parents, and that their mother would not recover or take her husband back. And they need their breadwinner.

Arturo knows that the family needs that their parents patch things up.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini means that things will get better in the spring, when the construction works resume, when Svevo finds a job and brings money home again. They have to live through the hard Colorado winter.

Besides the drama between Maria and Svevo, we also see Arturo’s school life and his relationship with his siblings. He can’t stand his righteous brother Federico. Arturo’s temper is more like his father’s but he’s still under his mother’s influence. Religion instills a deep fear of sins and makes him sweat. He doesn’t like going to church or being an altar boy but it makes his mamma happy. He’s also desperately in love with Rosa, who is in his class and looks down on him. Fante describes his life as a poor student in a Catholic school.

All this is packed in 266 pages, in a novel full of creativity. Fante writes about hardship and poverty but keeps his sense of humor. I suspect that he hates pitying looks and that irony is a weapon against unwanted pity.

Fante was 29 when he wrote this novel. In the foreword of Wait Until Spring, Bandini, he explains that he never reread it after it was published. Maybe it was too painful. Maybe he was afraid to find it lacking. I think it’s a very fine piece of literature.

I still have to read the fourth book of Saga of Arturo Bandini, Dreams from Bunker Hill. You’ll hear more about Fante on this blog soon since our Book Club’s choice for September is West of Rome, a bundle of two novellas, My Dog Stupid and The Orgy. Looking through my shelves, I realized I’ve already read the French translation of The Orgy. I’ve also read Full of Life. Fante was a fashionable writer in France in the late 1980s when they go published in the 10/18 collection.

Fante also wrote the script of Walk on the Wild Side, the film made out of Algren’s book. Published in 1956, I hope to read Algren’s novel for the 1956 Club, after reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.

PS : This was Book #19 in my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

20 Books of Summer #18: The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson – Longmire #5

September 16, 2020 8 comments

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson (2009) French title: Dark Horse. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

Dark horse: noun

1 a: a usually little-known contender (as a racehorse) that makes an unexpectedly good showing. B: an entrant in a contest that is judged unlikely to succeed.

2: A person who reveals little about himself or herself, esp. someone who has unexpected talents or skills.

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson is the fifth volume of the Longmire series of crime fiction books set in Wyoming. I was happy to read the definition of dark horse because it explains a lot about the title and how fitting and multilayered the book is.

In this volume, Sheriff Sandy Sandberg of the Campbell county transferred his prisoner Mary Barsad to the jail in Absaroka county, Longmire’s jurisdiction.

In appearance, it’s a straightforward case. Wade Barsad was found dead with six bullets in his body. He and his wife Mary owned a ranch where she raises horses. She used to compete in racehorses and is very attached to her horse, Black Diamond Wahoo Sue.

Wade had set the horses’ barn on fire before going to bed, while the horses were trapped in the building, burning them alive. Incredibly cruel. Mary confessed that she killed him for this. See, straightforward.

But, locked in Longmire’s jail, Mary refuses to eat and the sheriff starts interacting with her to coax her into eating her meals. Things don’t add up and Longmire goes undercover in the town of Absalon, 40 souls to investigate this murder.

Being undercover in Wyoming and in a town of 40 inhabitants is a challenge. It turns out Wade has made enemies in town, due to shady dealings.

He came from the West coast, knew nothing about ranching still purchased a ranch. Longmire remarks: “He hated animals, and he hated the West? That kind of strikes me as odd for a fella who buys a ranch in Wyoming.”

What pushed Wade Barsad to settle in Wyoming? Why did have to move?

Did Mary really kill him? Longmire is on the killer’s trail while digging into Wade’s past and business to understand what lead to his death.

As usual with this series, the sense of place makes the salt of the book. Details like this one when Longmire arrives at a bridge that workers are dismantling, contribute to the feeling.

I topped the hill and pulled the gunmetal Lincoln Town Car alongside the Pratt truss structure. There weren’t very many of them in the Powder River country, and the few bridges that were left were being auctioned off to private owners for use on their ranches.

Apparently, even old bridges can be monetized and auctioned. I’m always surprised by the deals made between the State and the people on practical matters. It probably is better for the State’s budget to sell the bridge than to cover the costs for destroying it. It’s like asking the ranchers to cut the grass along the roads to keep it for their cattle. It’s such a different mentality than the French one.

Johnson always aims at deconstructing western clichés, like here:

“You know, one of the worst images perpetrated on society is the idea of a cowboy with a gun—you give a real cowboy a choice between a gun and a rope and he’ll take the rope every time, because that’s how he makes his living. No self-respecting cowboy makes a living with a gun.”

I guess it makes sense.

I won’t go into details about the personal lives of the characters, to avoid spoilers. Longmire’s daughter Cady is back to her life in Philadelphia, the election for sheriff is coming up and Longmire’s right arm Vic is true to herself.

I read The Dark Horse in the car, during a long drive during the holidays and it was a perfect Beach & Public Transport book. Tight plot, charming characters, a good sense of humor and little reflections dropped here and there:

I thought about how we tilled and cultivated the land, planted trees on it, fenced it, built houses on it, and did everything we could to hold off the eternity of distance—anything to give the landscape some sort of human scale. No matter what we did to try and form the West, however, the West inevitably formed us instead.

My next Craig Johnson will be Junkyard Dogs.

PS : Another ugly cover for the English edition. It looks like a kid’s book.

20 Books of Summer #17: The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy – Budapest in 1913

September 13, 2020 6 comments

The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda by Gyula Krúdy (1933) Translated by John Bátki. Not available in French, as far as I know.

Everyone lived their lives, only Rezeda lived in a dream.

Gyula Krúdy wrote The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda in 1933, the year he died. The book opens at a New Year’s Eve party at the Hotel Royale in Budapest, one or two years before the Great War. Even if some birds of ill omen talk about the war, the atmosphere is light and the tone set on futility.

Back then we lived in an era when the description “virtuoso of love” may have ranked higher than Royal Councillor or any such pre-war honors that gentlemen ambitioned to attain.

The star of the evening is a certain Fanny Tardy, wife of a fashionable journalist nicknamed Nine. Kázmér Rezeda is a rising journalist and writer, he’s handsome, well-mannered and quite successful with the ladies. Fanny believes that she should take a lover and her eyes are set on Rezeda. He nicknames her Fruzsina Kaiser and that’s how Krúdy names her for the rest of the book.

She’s a force to be reckoned with and she’ll make all the overtures and steps needed to start a liaison with him. Rezeda is no match against such determination and surrenders. We see him unattached and bending over backwards to be available whenever Fruzsina is free. Krúdy takes us to pre-Great War Budapest and Rezeda is his young alter ego. He lives in a boarding house run by a Madame, a place where a lot of fellow journalists rent rooms too.

Fruzsina moves him into a room where she can meet him more discreetly, a hotel famous for hosting illicit couples. Krúdy describes their affair with a lot of humor. The sentiments professed sounded staged and I felt like Fruzsina was more into having an affair with a pretty and rising journalist than into Rezeda himself.

Her social standing demanded that she have a lover. She picked him. He was putty in her hands. I don’t think he actually fell for her; he just went along with the ride. No deep feelings are involved and Fruzsina seems to stage love scenes from novels or paintings, in an attempt to live the full liaison experience. And Krúdy observes his character with amusement, after his mistress organized an outing to Crown Woods for a tryst:

But the actual scene of lovemaking left precious few memories to sweeten the times to come. “You must be a Nymph or a Faun to properly enjoy making love in the great outdoors. These sylvan deities are used to the forest floor, the grass, the fallen leaves and those ants that take you by surprise; but we, mere mortals with sensitive skins, can’t really enjoy even a tumble in the hay!” thought Rezeda.

Rezeda seems to attract female attention without actually looking for it and several amorous adventures follow. If he weren’t so detached, you’d think of him as a victim of predatory women. One even cornered him at her own party to have her ways with him.

Krúdy looks back to his youth with a bit of nostalgia but above all, with a lot of humor. His Rezeda self is a young man who glides in life, taking new development with stride and not bothering about tomorrow. People talked about an upcoming war at the New Year’s party but it doesn’t worry him. He’s a we’ll-cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it kind of person. He’s centered on foolish matters of the heart, on writing his feuilleton and turning his papers on time.

Krúdy writes a brilliant picture of Budapest at the time, of the society he kept. His tone is caustic at times, pointing out changes in mores.

The apartment of a Budapest lady of that time was quite unimaginable without a telephone (another channel for her “social life”), but Fruzsina needed daily telephone conversations for nurturing her liaison as desperately as a flower needs daily watering by the gardener.

The correspondence kept up by gentlewomen of yore, those marvelous, ten-page love letters, were now replaced by the telephone, which dealt with all things that a few years earlier had to be arranged by the way of missives.

Each era has their technology leaps, eh? I’m sure that Fruzsina would have been all over social media these days. No need to rant, people haven’t changed much, they just adapt to the technology they have.

The pages at Johanna’s brothel/boarding house are funny and take us among the journalists of the time. Krúdy wrote for the famous Nyygat and was part of this crowd.

The Charmed Life of Kázmér Rezeda is a picture of a world doomed to disappear and the Great War accelerated the process.

According to Wikipedia, Krúdy wrote 86 novels, thousands of short stories and thousands of articles that haven’t been all listed. Only ten novels are available in French and the same number in English, but not the same books. I read this one in English and there’s no French translation. A translation tragedy.

Other billets about Krúdy’s work: The Adventures of Sindbad and N.N. I also have Le Compagnon de voyage on the shelf.

20 Books of Summer #16: Last concert in Vannes by Hervé Huguen – A Breton crime fiction novel

September 9, 2020 2 comments

Last Concert in Vannes by Hervé Huguen (2009) Original French title: Dernier concert à Vannes.

During my holiday in Brittany, when I visited the book village Bécherel, I discovered the publisher Edition du Palémon. It’s a Breton publishing house focused on regional books and local crime fiction. If you’re abroad and want to read Breton crime fiction, their books are available in ebooks on their website. They even have three translated into English. They seem to have fifteen authors of their own on their catalogue.

I wonder why I’ve never heard of Palémon before. I picked up Last Concert in Vannes by Hervé Huguen and Hide-And-Seak in Ouessant by Françoise Le Mer which I haven’t read yet.

Last Concert in Vannes is first book of the Commissaire Baron series and it has 17 titles already. The book opens on a scene where Commissaire Baron is woken up in the middle of the night because there’s been a murder. I couldn’t help thinking about Bosch’s first appearance in The Black Echo, especially since Baron likes jazz music too.

Francine Rich’s husband found her body in their house. He’s a photographer and had gone for the weekend to take pictures. They were getting a divorce and Francine had rented an apartment in downtown Vannes.

Stéphane Arbona is the guitar player of the rock band Why Not. They had a gig at a bar, the Jack’s Potes. After the bar closed, he found a woman on the parking lot, arguing with a man. Her name was Corrine and he decided to drive her home. He went up to her apartment but they only had a drink. Now Stéphane wants to see her again but when he looks for her, she seems to have vanished.

Eventually someone connects the dots and realize that Francine and Corinne are one person and that she had well-kept secrets. The victim was also a poisonous person for people around her, her husband, lovers or colleagues. Baron digs into her past and uncovers the dirt until its muddy trail takes him to the murderer.

Last Concert in Vannes is an honest polar, in the cozy crime category. We follow Baron and his team when they investigate Francine’s murder but we also see what happens for Stéphane Arbona. A former convict, he tries to start over and doesn’t always make the best choices.

I thought that Baron was a promising character and Huguen’s style and plot were good enough to catch my attention. I kept reading to know who had killed Francine. I thought that sometimes his style was a bit old-fashioned in the choice of words. Who still calls a computer a micro instead of ordinateur or cell phone un cellulaire instead of a portable? The Brittany setting wasn’t that important, I don’t think it gave to the book a special sense of place.

All in all, it was an entertaining read.

20 Books of Summer #15: Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou – An ode to James Baldwin

September 6, 2020 11 comments

Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou. (2007) Original French title: Lettre à Jimmy.

Alain Manbanckou wrote Letter to Jimmy in 2007, for the twentieth anniversary of James Baldwin’s death. It is an essay, a letter to a writer and a man he admires immensely, someone he feels close to. You don’t see it in the English translation but this letter is written with “tu” and not “vous”. It’s a letter addressed to Jimmy, not James, a “tu”, not a “vous”.

Mabanckou says it all started with a picture of Baldwin that he bought in Paris at a bouquinist on the banks of the Seine. It was in the late 80s, which means that Mabanckou was in his twenties. You can say that Baldwin influenced him early in his life.

Letter to Jimmy takes the reader on a journey through Baldwin’s life, his literary work and his essays. Manbanckou explains where Baldwin came from and how it influenced his thinking. He never knew his biological father and was raised by David Baldwin, a preacher who wanted his son to be a preacher too. This will be the material for Go Tell it on the Mountain (La Conversion, in its French translation)

Baldwin was born in 1924 and David Baldwin’s mother lived with them and she was a former slave.

N’importe quel Noir américain est attaché à l’histoire de l’esclavage. Sauf que Barbara Ann Baldwin est là, et l’histoire se lit non pas dans les manuels, mais dans les yeux baissés de la vieille femme.

Any Afro-American is linked to the history of slavery. Except that Barbara Ann Baldwin is here and history is not in school text books but in the old woman’s downcast eyes.

To James Baldwin, the history of slavery was in front of him when he was growing up. His father hated white people. James Baldwin will not follow this road because his white teacher noticed his intelligence and took him under her wing. (What we owe to primary school teachers! Thinking of Camus here.)

We follow Baldwin to Paris, we see his own thinking develop and set free from his influences like Richard Wright. Mabanckou explains how Baldwin wanted out of the Black Writer box. He didn’t want to write books only about the condition of Afro-Americans or with black characters. Giovanni’s Room is the perfect example of this. Yes, he’s a black writer but it doesn’t mean he must write only about black characters.

We go back to the USA and see Baldwin’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Mabanckou branches out and reflects on the fight against colonialism that Africans went through. He also broadens the issue and reflects on being black in France. This section of the book complement Christiane Taubira’s Slavery Explained to My Daughter. They are in agreement.

James Baldwin in 1969 by Alan Warren. From Wikipedia

Mabanckou pictures very well Baldwin’s unique standpoint. His brand of opposition lies in healthy indignation. Hatred and systematic opposition are not constructive. They burn bridges and leave ashes. Angelism is another pitfall. It’s cowardice and Baldwin’s essays are not gentle. They are documented punches aimed at facing the truth and moving forward. This is also Taubira’s approach and one I can relate to.

In the end, Baldwin shaped Mabanckou’s mind. He found in him someone who was brave enough not to take the easiest route, to stand up for himself and had humanism as a guiding light. Baldwin came out and wrote about homosexuality in 1956. He fought for civil rights and never fell for violent theories. He never let his personal experience foster hatred. His bright intelligence and insight meant a clean, direct and nuanced thinking.

We are in dear need of nuanced thinking these days, so reading Letter to Jimmy is a way to remember that such thinkers exist and that, alas, what Baldwin wrote is still accurate. Besides Go Tell It to the Mountain, I’ve also written billets about If Beale Street Street Could Talk and Going To Meet the Man. My next one will be Giovanni’s Room. 

PS: Letter to Jimmy opens with a foreword featuring Mabanckou lying on Santa Monica State Beach and feeling Baldwin’s presence. I know I’m obsessed, but it sounds like the incipit of Promise at Dawn, especially in French since Gary lies on the sand on a beach in Big Sur, which is not translated as such in English.

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