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I expected a chef, I got a four stars chef

July 9, 2011 16 comments

L’homme aux cercles bleus by Fred Vargas. 1996 English title: The Chalk Circle Man

The Chalk Circle Man is the first novel of the Adamsberg series but one of the last translated into English. I’d rather read them in the right order so I started with this one. Commissaire Adamsberg has just been appointed to a Parisian police station (5ème Arrondissement, i.e. le Quartier Latin). In this volume, we discover Adamsberg world, personal history and his way of thinking without thinking, loving without loving and solving crimes with a slow voice and an incomparable coolness. We guess that he and Inspecteur Danglard will be an complementary and efficient duo.

Now the plot. A strange man draws blue circles around inanimate objects on the sidewalks inParis. He does it at night, chooses random objects and draws a circle around them. Is it a sort of work of art pointing at our consumer society? Is it the work of a maniac? From the start, Adamsberg smells cruelty behind this and carefully keeps watch. No crime has been committed so far but he expects a murder. So he’s more resigned than surprised when the first corpse is found.

As always I’m not good at writing about crime fiction. I can’t even describe Adamsberg, Danglard or the side characters. However, after spending a great time reading it, I wondered why I liked this one and couldn’t finish Michael Chabon’s book the other day. But first, I have to say that I don’t read a writer’s biography before reading his/her book. I love diving into a book clean of any prejudice or assumption about the writer; I want to meet his/her work before meeting him/her. I hadn’t heard of Chabon when I bought his book; it just seemed right up in my alley. This is why I didn’t know he had won the Pulitzer price in 2001 or that he was a champion of creative writing classes when I started reading his book and at the same time thinking of a recipe, an idea I used for my post.

I wouldn’t say Chabon is a bad writer, not at all and btw, who am I to judge? I thought it was well-written, with a complex plot, unusual characters but it sounded fake to me. As we say in French “La mayonnaise n’a pas pris”, literally, “the mayonnaise didn’t thicken”.

On the contrary, Vargas doesn’t sound fake and I marvel at the chemistry she creates between her work and her readers. Talk with a French reader about books. At a moment, he/she will ask “Have you read Fred Vargas?” Whatever your answer, he/she will follow by a “Oh how I love Adamsberg!” So it’s not only me. How does she do it?

In appearance, Vargas’s book didn’t make me think. But now, if I let my mind wander, it does address a lot of issues in such light touches that it reaches you. Cruelty and how it is intrinsic to human nature. Love. Loneliness. Parenthood. Handicap. Pride. It reaches you in spite of you, like a drizzle of issues. You don’t realise what’s happening until you’re wet. Is that the clue, the difference between Chabon and Vargas? She’s more profound than him? I’m not sure.

Fred Vargas works as a researcher. She never graduated in literature. I don’t think she’s taken writing classes. Writing isn’t her job. Writing is her hobby and maybe a necessity. The idea lingers in my mind, flows back and forth in tidal waves and brings back Reiner Maria Rilke and his letters to Franz Kappus. It carries along Rilke’s ideas about writing as a necessity, as something personal you have in you, something you have to do to be yourself, something that gives away who you are.

And that’s it. I didn’t feel Michael Chabon was giving me something personal through his book. I feel Fred Vargas does. In my eyes, he’s a gifted craftsman, she’s an artist. I have nothing against craftsmen but I prefer artists.

 

Those Who Are About to Die Greet You, by Fred Vargas

July 19, 2010 6 comments

 Fred Vargas is the pen name of a French author of crime fiction. Some of her books featuring her recurring character Commissaire Adamsberg have been translated in English, but not this one so far. Those who are about to die greet you – in latin Morituri te salutant – is the sentence the gladiators used to say to the Emperor as the fight in the Coliseum was about to begin. How does that phrase become the title of a crime fiction book?

Ceuw qui vont mourir te saluentThe plot starts in Paris when an unlisted drawing of Michelangelo appears on the art market. A famous art expert, Henri Valhubert, suspects it was stolen from the Vatican library. He thus flies to Rome, where his son Claude is studying and where his beautiful and mysterious wife Laura and her childhood friend Cardinal Vitelli come from. He has just enough time to visit Cardinal Vitelli to give him hints on the subject before being murdered in Rome. The investigation is officially lead by the Italian inspector Ruggieri, shadowed by a French special agent Richard Valence.

The story is well lead and the protagonists are all odd and unusual. Claude forms a triumvirate with two friends nicknamed Tiberius and Nero. They are named after three of the five emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Ancient Rome and as their famous homonyms, have quite a temper. This explains the title of the book. Laura is the typical feminine character of such books: beautiful, mysterious and slightly poisonous. Richard Valence has the role of the private detective, with his own moral rules and bruised soul while the police officer is slightly ridiculous.

Fred Vargas has a literary style of her own and though she did not invent something new in literature, her gift for creating characters and her sense of original dialogues are real. Hear Richard Valence and Tiberius talk:

  – What do you see when you look at the ceiling of this room ?

–  My inner mind

– And how is it?

– Opaque

  Or Tiberius to Richard Valence again:

 “If I could give you some advise before leaving you, it would be to take care of your eyes. They are beautiful when you put something in them”

I still haven’t understood the subtle difference between genres in crime fiction and though I am reading “A handbook for literary terms” to improve my vocabulary, crime fiction was not considered worth including in such a book by the author. So I won’t venture to tell in what kind of crime fiction genre it fits.

However, it is good entertainment and well written, which is basically what one can expect from crime fiction. I have also read The Three Evangelists and liked it too. This one is available in English, if by chance someone is interested in discovering this writer after reading this review.

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