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The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo – What a blast!

February 15, 2022 29 comments

The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo. Total Kheops (1995) Chourmo (1996) and Solea (1998). Original French titles: Fabio Montale (Total Kheops, Chourmo and Solea)

Les belles journées n’existent qu’au petit matin. J’aurais dû m’en souvenir. Les aubes ne sont que l’illusion de la beauté du monde. Quand le monde ouvre les yeux, la réalité reprend ses droits. Et l’on retrouve le merdier.Beautiful days only exist in the early morning. I should have remembered that. Dawns are only the illusion of the beauty of the world. When the world opens their eyes, reality takes over. And we’re back in deep shit.

I just spend two days visiting Marseille and I took The Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo as a traveling companion. What a marvelous idea it was! I am not going to describe the plot of each volume, that would be too long and useless. I want to give you the flavor of the books and the irresistible urge to get them and read them on the spot.

Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000) was born in Marseille in family of Italian and Spanish immigrants. His mother was born in a working-class area of Marseille, Le Panier. He was a member of the Communist party from 1966 to 1978. He was a journalist, a poet and a writer. It’s important to know his background to understand his character, Fabio Montale.

Fabio Montale is in his forties. When the first book opens, his childhood friend Ugo got killed when he himself killed a gangster to avenge the death of their other childhood friend, Manu. The three of them were thick as thieves when they were young, in the figurative and the literal way. They parted after a break-in at a pharmacy that turned bad. Manu chose a career in crime. Ugo left the country. Fabio went to the army and later joined the police force. They were all in love with Lole, the only girl of their group.

The volume go from this settling of scores, from organized crime to the presence of the Mafia in the South of France, in the Var (Toulon), Alpes Maritimes (Nice) and Bouches-du-Rhône (Marseille) departments and through the raise of racism and religious extremism. The plots of the three books are suspenseful and you want to keep reading to see what will happen next. As often in good crime fiction, the best is on the side, though.

At the end of Total Kheops, I thought that Montale was a lot like Connelly’s Bosch. He’s a maverick and compassionate investigator. He loves music, especially jazz. He’s single, lives in a house with an incredible view. He loves his town. But unlike Bosch, Montale loves to fish and lives in a cabin by the sea. He inherited it from his parents, which explains why his neighbor Honorine is over seventy and treats him like her son. In the next volumes, the comparison isn’t so obvious, Montale takes off as a character and becomes unique.

Music plays a capital role in Montale’s life. It’s soothing, raging, uplifting, consoling. A haven through life’s storms, a constant blankie to pick him up or pacify him. The books are named after songs. Total Kheops comes from a rap song by IAM, a group from Marseille. It means total mess, in their language. Chourmo comes from a word from Provencal patois and is a song by Massilia Sound System, another group from Marseille. And Solea is a piece by Miles Davis. Like there’s a Harry Bosch playlist on Spotify, you’ll find a Fabio Montale one too. It’s made of jazz, French, Arab, Italian, Cuban music. It’s a melting-pot of sounds and influences, the spitting image of Marseille, in sounds.

Like Los Angeles in the Bosch series, Marseille is a character itself in the Fabio Montale trilogy. Izzo has lived all his life in Marseille, except for a mere two years in Saint-Malo. He knows the city in and out and his love for this multi-cultural, blue-collar city pours off the pages of his trilogy. It gives us evocative descriptions of the weather and the town.

Il a fini par pleuvoir. Un orage violent, et bref. Rageur même, comme Marseille en connaît parfois en été. Il ne faisait guère plus frais, mais le ciel s’était enfin dégagé. Il avait retrouvé sa limpidité. Le soleil lapait l’eau de pluie à même les trottoirs. Une tiédeur s’en élevait. J’aimais cette odeur.It rained, eventually. A violent storm, and brief too. Furious, even, as Marseille has them in the summer sometimes. It wasn’t cooler but the sky was clear, at least. It was limpid again. The sun was lapping up the rain on the sidewalks. A warmth came off them. I loved this scent.

I walked around the city, knowing of the streets, some restaurants and bars, some places sounded familiar, thanks to Izzo’s books. Izzo was also a poet, his first literary love. It gives a flavor to his writing as his poetic sensitivity applies to his descriptions of his beloved city but also to Montale’s love interests and hypersensitivity.

Fortunately, Izzo doesn’t stick to postcard Marseille full of sea, sun, local soap, pastis and wonderful cuisine. He also writes about its darker side, the rampant criminality, the corruption of the politicians, the collusion between organized crime, politicians, the police and other administrations. He describes the raging unemployment that feeds racism, fuels resentment and raises candidates for organized crime, drug trafficking, religious extremists and extreme-right political parties. He can only deplore the extremist and violent path that his beloved city seems to take.

The trilogy is set at the end of the 1990s and Montale is in his forties. His parents are dead and his best friends too. He’s nostalgic of his youth and also understands that these 1990s are the end of an era. The post-war society doesn’t exist anymore and the witness of his youth are almost all gone. His old neighbords, Honorine and Fonfon, are the last generation of the Marseillais you have in Pagnol’s plays. Honorine has even a Pagnol name, typical from the South. They speak with the Marseille accent, something that is transcribed in Izzo’s dialogues. For a tourist like me, she sounds like sunshine, cicadas and holidays (I wonder what the translators of these books did about that.)

The 1990s were my formative years. Highschool, business school, first job, meeting the man who’ll become my husband, starting our life together. That decade was busy and self-centered. For Montale, the 1990s are the end of the communist dream (and thankfully the end of the communist nightmare for Eastern countries), the final collapse of old industries and the defitinive take-over of money and capitalism as a leading power over the world. It’s the decade of the war in Yugoslavia, the massacre in Rwanda and the terror of the FIS in Algeria. From Marseille, right on the other side of the Mediterranean. With inevitable repercussions in France. He also describes the settling of the Mafia in the South of France.

It’s also the last decade before 9/11, before other wars and the bloom of the digital revolution. We’re pre-smartphones, digital services and all that will come with the 21st century. Montale’s melancholy is a black echo to the end of the century.

The sadness is tempered by an indomitable joie de vivre. Life cannot be too bad as long as there’s the sun, the sea, good food, good music and pretty ladies. Women are Montale’s Achilles’ heel. He admires them and loves them. He attracts them but never really recovered from Lole. His failed love life torments him.

But Montale is also a bon viveur –how did the French bon vivant turned into the English bon viveur, I wonder. He loves good food and I wish there were a cookbook of all the recipes of Honorine’s cuisine along with a Fabio Montale wine list. Maybe it exists somewhere. Like music, food is a soothing balm to his soul. Honorine’s cuisine is a like an umbilical cord to his childhood. Another blankie.

I turned the last page of this trilogy with sadness, like I was leaving a friend behind. I love the South of France too and that’s probably why this passage felt like a little dig:

Du ciel à la mer, ce n’était qu’une infinie variété de bleus. Pour le touriste, celui qui vient du Nord, de l’Est ou de l’Ouest, le bleu est toujours bleu. Ce n’est qu’après, pour peu qu’on prenne la peine de regarder le ciel, la mer, de caresser des yeux le paysage, que l’on découvre les bleus gris, les bleus noirs, et les bleus outremer, les bleus poivre, les bleus lavande. Ou les bleus aubergine des soirs d’orage. Les bleus verts de houle. Les bleus cuivre de coucher de soleil, la veille de mistral. Ou ce bleu si pâle qu’il en devient blanc.From the sky to the sea, it was an endless variety of blues. For the tourist, the one who comes from the North, the East or the West, blue is always blue. It’s only afterwards, if you take the time to observe the sky, the sea, to caress the landscape with your eyes, that you’ll discover the grey blues, the black blues, the ultramarine blues, the pepper blues, the lavender blues. Or the eggplant blues of stormy nights. The green blues of swell. The copper blues of sunsets, on the eve of a mistral day. Or this blue so pale that it’s almost white.

I beg to differ, Fabio. I’m a tourist from the North and the East but I know the variety of blues. I know how beautiful the landscapes are, how radiant the sea can be and how different the light is from one season to the other. That’s why I keep coming back, in all seasons. February smells like mimosa. April often smells like rain and wind. July and August give off the heady scent of pine trees heated by the sun and salt from the sea. October fights against the upcoming cold season and spreads a last hooray of sunshine, warmth and summer scents.

Go and rush to The Marseille Trilogy. You won’t regret it. No translation tragedy here. The only tragedy is Izzo’s untimely death that deprived us of more books. Fucking cancer.

PS: There’s a TV adaptation of the trilogy with Alain Delon as Fabio Montale. I would have prefered Gérard Lanvin. I’m not sure I want to replace my mental images of the book with the ones of the series. I’m not inclined to watch it.

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