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20 Books of Summer #13 : Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia – A masterpiece

August 22, 2020 13 comments

Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia (1971) French title: Le Contexte. Translated from the Italian by Jacques de Pressac, revised by Mario Fusco.

After my trip to Sicily and after reading The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia, I bought his novel Equal Danger. (Il Contesto, literally translated as Le Contexte in French) This book was made into a film directed by Francesco Rosi, with Lino Ventura as the main character. Equal Danger made a lot of noise when it was published. It is a thinly veiled attack towards the Italian political scene, on both side, the party running the country and the opposition.

Inspector Rogas investigates a series of murders. All the victims are judges. The more Rogas digs into the judges’ personal lives, the more he unveils muddy relationships between the judges and the political milieu. Nothing is fully honest, nothing is clean. The dice of the political game are loaded, just like they are in Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu.

Equal Danger is built as a crime fiction novel and written as a parody. It is a mix between Candide and political crime fiction. Sciascia blends the two genres perfectly and his book is like a literary bombshell thrown at the Italian ruling class.

The beginning is humorous, as we see Rogas start his investigation, tackle politics and navigate between what he wants to do and what his hierarchy wants him to do. We root for him and hope he’ll beat the system at its own game. But will he?

In the afterword, Sciascia says that he kept this book in his drawer for two years before publishing it, probably because when he started to write it, he was amused but when he was finished, he didn’t feel like laughing anymore. And that’s how I felt as a reader too.

Very highly recommended.

Termination by Petros Markaris – the trilogy about the Greek crisis

March 4, 2020 16 comments

Termination by Petros Markaris. (2011) French title: Le Justicier d’Athènes. Translated by Michel Volkovitch.

As far as I know, Le Justicier d’Athènes by Petros Markaris is not available in English. According to Wikipedia, the original Greek title of this book is Peraíosi, a word that Googles translate into Termination. I don’t know what the English title of this book would be, so we’ll use Termination. The French publisher chose to entitle it Athens’s Righter of Wrongs.

Termination belongs to the Kostas Haritos crime fiction series, and within this series, it is included in a trilogy about the 2010 Greek financial crisis. Each book exposes one angle of the Greek collapse. The first one, Liquidations à la Grecque (Overdue Loans), is about the banking system. The second one, Le Justicier d’Athènes (Termination) is about tax collection. The third one Pain, Education, Liberté (Bread, Education and Freedom) is about politics. There’s a conclusion in Epilogue meurtrier, a book I haven’t read yet.

So Termination is about taxes: Haritos has to investigate a murder and attempted murders of rich people who maneuvered to escape taxes or simply don’t pay them. And the Greek administration doesn’t put a lot of energy into recovering the money. We’ve all heard about that in the newspapers. Markaris imagines a murderer who threatens tax evaders and does not hesitate to kill if they don’t pay their bill to the Greek State. He substitutes himself to the tax administration agents and has his own way to collect the cash.

The plot is interesting and the reader does want to know who set up this unorthodox recovery agency but the most important part of the book isn’t there. Once again, crime fiction is a window to a country’s backyard.

Termination, like the Ikonòmou I read recently, pictures the despair and the struggles of the Greek people. The book opens on a triple suicide: three old ladies took their own lives because they didn’t have enough money to survive and didn’t want to burden their families. There will be two other deaths like this, people committing suicide because they had lost faith in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if Markaris had picked these stories in the newspapers.

In Haritos’s family, the daughter Katerina is seriously contemplating to leave her husband behind and go abroad to find a job. She’s a lawyer and her husband Pharis is a doctor in one of Athens’ public hospitals. They don’t have any children yet but he doesn’t earn enough money to support them both and she can’t find a paid job in her field in Greece. Their parents help them with the groceries, and, like in the Ikonòmou, we see that the family unit is tightknit and people help each other.

Yound people start emigrating again and it depresses Haritos as it reminds him of old days:

« Nous voilà revenus au temps de l’émigration. » me dis-je. L’homme partait d’abord en Allemagne, trouvait du boulot, s’installait puis faisait venir sa femme. Les enfants restaient avec les grands-parents. Et avant cette époque des Gastarbeiter, même chose. L’homme s’exilait en Amérique et en Australie, puis sa famille le rejoignait. Dans le cas de Katerina, c’est la femme qui s’exile mais peu importe. Ce qui compte, c’est que nous sommes revenus au point de départ. Nous faisons un bout de chemin, et après quelques années, tout repart de zéro. Nous n’arrivons jamais à garder le terrain gagné. Nous faisons toujours marche arrière et ça recommence. Heureusement, Phanis et Katerina n’ont pas d’enfants, que nous aurions eu à élever. On se console comme on peut. “We are back to the emigration days”

The man left for Germany first, found a job, settled there and made his wife come to. The children stayed behind with the grandparents. And before this time of Gastarbeiter, same thing. The man would exile himself in America and Australia and his family would join him there. In Katerina’s case, it is the wife who exiles herself but whatever. What matters is that we are back to square one. We move forward and after a few years, things start over again. We never manage to hold on what whatever progress we’ve made. We always go back and start all over again. Fortunately, Katerina and Phanis don’t have any children, that we would have had to raise. You got to find solace where you can.

Sobering.

Markaris portrays a country where politicians are corrupt and let influential people “forget” about their tax obligations, where tax evasion is a national sport for the rich and where the tax administration turns a blind eye to overdue taxes or false declarations. I don’t know the details about the Greek-EU crisis –I heard there’s a good film about it, Adults in the Room by Costa Gavras—but Markaris gives a good idea of its effects on common people.

Now, despite its dark topics, Termination isn’t grim, thanks to Markaris’s sense of humor. Athens is still a giant traffic jam, most of the time and Haritos spends hours maneuvering his SEAT on its busy streets. Athens is also the theatre of constant demonstrations, people protesting against the hardship. Here’s a funny scene from the book:

Quand nous approchons de l’avenue Patission, la circulation reprend, accompagnée d’une clameur venant de Polytechnique. En débouchant sur la place Omonia, on croit quitter le désert du Sahara pour la forêt amazonienne. Les voitures tournent en rond, klaxonnent frénétiquement, les conducteurs cherchent désespérément une sortir. Au centre de la place, des touristes en rade avec leurs bagages contemplent le chaos, terrifiés. Ils ne comprennent visiblement pas comment, partis pour les Cyclades, ils ont atterri dans cette jungle.

– Des Allemands, sans doute.

– Comment le sais-tu ?

– Les Français et les Italiens sont plus habitués. Les Allemands sont tout de suite perdus. Ils croient qu’on va les bouffer. Ils n’ont pas compris que nous autres, nous ne bouffons pas les étrangers. Nous nous bouffons entre nous.

When we reach Patission avenue, the traffic resumes, along with a clamor coming from Polytechnic. When you arrived on plaza Omonia, you’d think you’d just left the Sahara Desert to enter the Amazonian forest. The cars were going in circles, honking their horn at anyone, the drivers desperately looking for a way out. In the middle of the plaza, tourists left there with their luggage are contemplating the chaos, terrified. They really don’t understand how they ended up in this jungle on their way to the Cyclades.

– Germans, without any doubt.

– How do you know?

– The French and the Italians are used to it. The Germans always feel lost. They believe we’re going to eat them. They haven’t understood that us Greek don’t eat foreigners. We eat each other.

Don’t we French know everything about strikes, demonstrations and street chaos!

It is a pity that Termination isn’t available in English. It’s not an outstanding book as far as crime fiction technique is concerned but it’s a good alliance between a crime plot and social criticism, which is also why I enjoy reading crime fiction.

Recommended.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry: I took the French leave

December 21, 2019 13 comments

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (1991) French title: Un si long voyage. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry was our Book Club read for December. Let’s be honest, I couldn’t finish it. It’s a book set in 1971 in Bombay, just before the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. It tells the story of a modest family during these troubled times. It sounded fine on paper.

In reality, I abandoned the book because I never really engaged in the family’s fate and I got tired of reading sentences with foreign words I didn’t understand and getting lost in the political undercurrent of the story. I read 187 pages out of 441.

I am miffed that the publisher didn’t include any kind of foreword or footnotes about the political context of the country and the family. Here’s the first sentence of the book:

The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda.

Of course, I had no clue of what Ahura Mazda was and I continued reading. After a while and an internet research, I realized that Gustad was Zoroastrian. I imagine that it’s crucial in the novel since the main character is neither Hindu nor Muslim. A footnote would have been welcome.

Then, there were numerous sentences like these ones:

The bhaiya sat on his haunches beside the tall aluminum can and dispensed milk into the vessels of housewives.

Run from the daaken!

The malik says go, sell the milk and that’s all I do.

These poor people in slum shacks and jhopadpattis….

He recited the appropriate sections and unknotted the kusti from around his waist.

Wait, I am filling the matloo.

You see what I mean? And there are no explanations in the French edition and none in the English one either. We don’t even know to which language these words belong to. I’m all for using local words if they are specific to a context but please, explain them to me the first time they are used.

I also guessed that, when Gustad spoke about political issues, there were subtitles for knowledgeable readers that totally escaped my notice. I could live with that if I didn’t have the feeling that writing about this specific political context was a reason for the author to write this book. Another frustration.

It’s all on me, I suppose. Such a Long Journey is rated 3.95/5 on Goodreads, it has won literary prizes and the blurb was promising. In the end, it wasn’t a good match for me. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts about it if you’ve read it.

PS: It has always amused me that in French, to take the French leave is filer à l’anglaise, which means to take the English leave.

The Débâcle by Emile Zola – A reading debacle for me

June 10, 2019 16 comments

The Débâcle by Emile Zola (1892) Original French title: La Débâcle.

I read La Débâcle by Zola along with Marina Sofia and I have to confess that I’ve been a terrible reading companion. We agreed to post our billets on May 31st and I only finished reading it today. I must say that I have the Kindle version and I realized too late that the book was more than 600 pages long.

La Débâcle is the 19th opus of the Rougon-Macquart series and it is about the 1870 Franco-Prussian war. It results in the fall of Napoléon III and the Second Empire, the beginning of the Third Republic and the formation of the German Empire. It is a catastrophic war for France as the country lost the Alsace-Moselle territories and nursed Revanchism. It sowed the seeds of hatred that fed WWI. As mentioned in my billet about Leurs enfants après eux by Nicolas Mathieu, I come from Alsace-Moselle, where most of the battles occurred and that was annexed to Germany until 1919. This piece of history resonates in me and I was interested in reading about this war which, to this day, in never taught in school.

In La Débâcle, we follow Jean Macquart and Maurice Levasseur during the whole war. They belong to the same regiment, become friends and will support each other. There is not much character development in La Débâcle, the war is the main character, a bloodthirsty ogress that devours her children. The novel is an implacable condemnation of war.

Zola depicts the stupidity of the generals who led the war and commanded the soldiers. He shows an inefficient commandment, unable to make decisions, useless when it comes to military strategy and losing ground because of its sheer incompetence. Zola’s novel is very graphic: he describes the exhaustion of the soldiers who move around aimlessly, the massacre on the battle field, the deaths, the agony of horses, the killing of civilians, the hunger of prisoners, the ambulance and care of wounded soldiers. In a very cinematographic way, he is like a war reporter, writing about the theatre of operations and in the heart of the action. He draws a precise picture of the consequences of war on civilians, the carelessness of the commandment with the life of their soldiers. 139 000 French soldiers and 41 000 German soldiers died between July 19th 1870 and January 28th, 1871. A bloodshed, there’s no other word for it.

Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series, he wants to tell the story of the Second Empire. It’s not surprising that Jean and Maurice are part of a regiment that followed the Emperor and fought in Sedan, where Napoléon III capitulated, fled to Belgium and ended the Second Empire. We hear about the battles in Alsace and Moselle through the papers but the characters do not participate to this part of the campaign.

Zola’s aim is commendable but I think he said in 600 pages what Joseph Roth would have said in 300. The descriptions are too long. In the first part, the soldiers walk, walk, walk and look for food, and cook and eat. Sure, it shows pretty well the state of the army and its mismanagement. The generals don’t get along, can’t agree on a strategy, have feel of the land, have inefficient intelligence and don’t know where the enemy is. They make the troops walk around aimlessly, they wear them out, physically and mentally. Did we need so many pages to get the picture? Certainly not.

I know the region; I could follow the soldiers’ journey but I wonder how foreigners manage to read this and not get lost. Maybe they get the same feeling as the soldiers: they feel rushed around from one place to the other.

The second part in Sedan is awful. The descriptions of the massacres and the deaths are very graphic and again, way too long. We follow the artillery, the cavalry, the infantry, the civilians. Thank God Sedan is not beside the sea and there were no planes yet or we would have had to go through the description of the battle on the water and in the air as well.

The third part is easier to read, it shows the aftermath of the rendition of Sedan, the presence of Germans in the country, gives news about the Alsace-Moselle front, the war progresses, the loss is inevitable. There are a few pages about La Commune de Paris but while the events were probably known to Zola’s contemporaries, it’s not so obvious for today’s reader and I didn’t get much out of it.

So, La Débâcle is a painful read because it’s too long, too descriptive but what Zola writes is accurate despite the pomposity and the prejudice against the Second Empire. I know that because this weekend I visited the Museum of the 1870 War and the Alsace-Moselle Annexation in Gravelotte. It’s a bilingual museum (French and German) that retraces the 1870 war in Moselle. Gravelotte was one of the battle sites, a place where the combats were so fierce that there is a popular expression that says “Ca tombe comme à Gravelotte:” (It’s dropping like in Gravelotte), to say that it’s pouring. It is a fascinating museum, well stocked and very educational. Historians confirmed what Zola describes. There’s even a painting by Lucien Marchet, based upon a chapter in La Débâcle, the battle of Bazeilles:

Zola’s novel helped me realize that the 1870 war was the last one with cavalry battles and the first industrial one, where soldiers were sent to a sure death. They were killed by shells, the French had bullet cannons and Zola writes about trenches. I thought that the French army had learnt nothing about this war if we consider the beginning of WWI: the soldiers were still wearing red pants, noticeable from afar and turning them into easy targets. The whole army was ill-prepared for modern war. I also wondered what Zola would have written about WWI if he had been alive to see it.

Zola’s book ends on a hopeful note, the idea that this debacle is also the beginning of a new order, the Third Republic. The hopeful note in the Gravelotte museum is that Robert Schuman who was born in Luxembourg as a German citizen in 1886, went to school and university in Germany, became French in 1919, lived through WWI and WWII and became one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community, the starting base of the EU. We, Europeans, needed two more devastating wars to stop fighting against each other. Slow learners, that’s what we are. Let’s hope we are not forgetful too.

Please read Marina Sofia’s reviews Zola: The Débacle Readalong and The Debacle of Zola’s Vision of the Paris Commune.

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth – German Lit Month – Wunderbar

November 18, 2018 17 comments

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth (1938) French title: La crypte des capucins. Translated from the German by Blanche Gidon.

Nous avions tous perdu notre position, notre rang, notre maison, notre argent, notre valeur, notre passé, notre présent, notre avenir. Chaque matin en nous levant, chaque nuit en nous couchant, nous maudissions la mort qui nous avait invités en vain à son énorme fête. We all had lost our position, our rank, our house, our home, our money, our worth, our past, our present and our future. Each morning when we got up, each night when we went to bed, we cursed death who had invited us in vain to her grand party.

The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) is a sequel to The Radetzky March (1932). You don’t need to have read the first one to read the other but both feature the same Trotta family. The Radetsky March takes us from the 1860s to 1916, the year the Emperor Franz Joseph died. Roth pictures the tragic fate of the Trotta family, a fate that is linked to the slow death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He shows how rotten the Empire had become and how ready to collapse it was.

Then The Emperor’s Tomb pictures the Trotta family after the collapsing due to WWI, during the fragile First Austrian Republic up to the Anschluss in 1938.

It begins in April 1914. Franz-Ferdinand Trotta is 23. He’s young, idle and spends his nights drinking and partying with his friends. He’s living a dissipated life and barely sees the sun because he only lives at night. He’s influenced by his friends, he wants to fit in so badly that he represses his true self. He doesn’t openly court Elisabeth, one of his friends’ sister, because it was not fashionable to be in love. He’s carefree to the point of carelessness. He’s totally unprepared for adult life and he’ll have to grow up quickly because his life is about to change.

Franz’s father has just died and left some money to Joseph Branco, a cousin of the peasant branch of the Trotta family, the one still living in Slovenia. Branco is a farmer during the summer and a travelling chestnut seller during the winter. Franz-Ferdinand welcomes him with open arms, somehow glad to be with someone who is a link to his countryside roots.

During his winter travels around the Empire, Branco has befriended a Jewish coachman from Galicia. His name is Marès Reisiger and he has a son who wants to study music in Vienna. Franz calls for a favor and the young man gets in his music school.

A bond is formed between Franz, Branco and Reisiger, strong enough for Franz to go to Galicia during the summer 1914. That’s where he is when WWI starts. He comes back to Vienna to join his regiment, marries Elisabeth in haste and in fear of not coming back and leaves town. He quickly asks to change from his designated regiment to a less prestigious one to be with Branco and Reisiger. They are quickly captured by the Russian army and spend the whole war in a prisoner camp in Siberia.

Back to Vienna, Franz tries to adapt to the new reality of his life. Everything he knew has fallen apart. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is dead. His wife is a stranger. His mother is ageing and declining. He has no trade and is unfit to earn any money. His fortune is vanishing quickly, due to poor investments and the economic situation of the country.

Franz is a disarming, charming and yet infuriating character. His candidness is endearing and he doesn’t try to hide his flaws. He’s not class-conscious and doesn’t look down on Branco. He never makes fun of him, even when he takes him to breakfast in a posh café in Vienna and he asks for soup because that’s what he eats at home. He’s not ashamed of him and he even envies him in a way. Branco knows his place in the world, in the society.

Franz partially died when the empire fell. He’s a man from the past and he has trouble adjusting to the moving reality. Roth describes a feeling of disorientation and loss. Franz has lost his identity. He feels “ ‘extraterritorialised’ from the land of the living.” Franz is nostalgic of monarchy made of different countries and people, patched up into an empire through administrative and everyday life landmarks, like the railway stations and the post office. There are no borders and things feel familiar everywhere he goes. You could say that it is the beauty of colonialism seen from the side of the colonizer and that the people of the Austro-Hungarian empire certainly didn’t feel that way. But Roth argues through Franz that the Empire collapsed because it failed to see that the people from the Slovenia, Galicia, Romania, etc. were its wealth thanks to their diversity. Vienna made the mistake to turn to their German roots instead of embracing the vitality and diversity of the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Interwar period in Vienna sounds similar to the Interwar period in Budapest described in books by Zsigmond Móricz or Dezső Kosztolányi even if the description of the political context is not the aim of their books.

Contrary to The Radetsky March, The Emperor’s Tomb is a first-person narrative. Franz talks to us, bares his soul and lets us in. He shows his helplessness. He knows he’s not equipped to survive properly in this new world. He tries to stay afloat  and live one day at a time. He’s oblivious to the changing political context, he’s too focused on what he lost. He’s like the frog who is in a water bucket and the temperature of the water increases, increases, increases and the frog is dead before it realized it was time to leap out of the water.

The Emperor’s Tomb is really moving even if I wanted to shake Franz and urge him to live his live instead of suffering through it. But Franz, like the monarchy he was born under, is an oak with old roots. And oaks, like Lafontaine told us, do not bend like reeds when the wind is too strong. They get uprooted and die.

There would be a lot more to explore about this book, about its form and its substance. I didn’t write anything about its style but it was exceptional. I have read The Emperor’s Tomb in an excellent French translation by Blanche Gidon who knew Roth when he was exiled in Paris in the 1930s. My paperback edition includes a good foreword by Dominique Fernandez and a touching afterwords by Blanche Gidon about her last meeting with Roth and her take on The Emperor’s Tomb. There’s an English translation by Michael Hoffman, and I heard from you all that he’s a good translator.

This was my second contribution to Caroline’s and Lizzy’s German Lit Month. I had The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth on my shelf and I’m happy that Lizzy’s readalong pushed me to read it at last.

Portuguese lit: The Memorables by Lídia Jorge

September 10, 2017 21 comments

The Memorables by Lídia Jorge (2014) French title: Les Mémorables. Translated by Geneviève Leibrich.

Elle serrait contre elle la copie des plans dessinés par la main de celui qui, trente ans plus tôt, avait mis en marche cinq mille hommes contre un régime décrépit, un de ces régimes si long et si séniles qu’ils laissent du fumier sur la terre pour plusieurs siècles. She held to her chest a copy of the maps designed by the man who, thirty years before, had led five thousand men against a decrepit regime. It was one of those long and senile regimes that left manure on earth for several centuries.

“She” is Ana Maria Machado, a young Portuguese journalist who works for CBS in Washington DC. The five thousand men mentioned in this quote are the military men who participated in the coup d’état on April 25th, 1974 in Lisbon, the one that led to the Carnation Revolution and the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship.

After reportages in war zones, Ana Maria’s boss asks her to go back to Lisbon and film a documentary about the Carnation Revolution and the miracle of this peaceful revolution where the military takes power to bring democracy to their country.

Ana Maria is reluctant to go back to Lisbon where she has unresolved issues with her father, Ántonio Machado, a famous political editorialist whose column always proved to be insightful. He was also close to the people who did the revolution. Ana Maria needs a crew for her mission and rekindles a working relationship with Margarida and Miguel Ângelo, two reporters she knew in journalism school.

Ana Maria decides against telling her father about her project, mostly because she doesn’t want him to interfere with her vision of the events. In Ántonio’s office, she borrows a picture taken on 21st of August 1975, in a restaurant, the Memories. This picture portrays all the people who were decisive participants in the revolution and close witnesses of the events. This photo will be the Ariadne thread of the documentary.

Ana Maria and her friends want to reconstruct the minutes this 25 of April 1974 and understand what everyone did and when. They will go and interview these key actors or their widow to discover what they did that day, how they felt, how they lived afterwards and how they reflect on the revolution, thirty years later.

Lídia Jorge autopsies the military coup that brought democracy to her country but more importantly, she questions what happened to the major players of the Carnation Revolution. Her book was published in 2014, for the fortieth anniversary of the 25 of April 1974 events. Ana Maria writes her story six years after she did her documentary and what she narrates happened in 2004, for the thirtieth anniversary of the revolution. Symbolic years. Time and remembrance are important in her book.

I wanted to read about the Carnation Revolution and it gave me a better vision of what happened and how extraordinary it was to have such a smooth transition to democracy. Lídia Jorge points out two disconcerting facts about these events: one, the major actors of the military coup were never properly thanked and none had a glorious career after that. And two, they were forgotten from the public. This is very different from what Petros Markaris describes about Greece in Bread, Education, Freedom or what Yasmina Khadra writes about Algeria in Dead Man’s ShareBoth Markaris and Khadra explain how the actors of the country’s liberation cashed on their being on the right side, either during the decisive demonstration against the Greek regime or against the French. In these two countries, these men became untouchable heroes, grabbed on power and didn’t let it go.

According to The Memorables, no heroes were born from the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. Ana Maria knew the men on the photo because her parents gravitated in their circle. Margarida and Miguel Ângelo had to research them. Lídia Jorge wants to celebrate them, to remind them to the Portuguese and show how ungrateful the Republic was towards them. None of them benefited from their act.

In addition to the questioning about the place they have in the Portuguese collective memory, Lídia Jorge muses over the impact of living through such historical events. How do you go back to normal after that? How does one leave their glorious days behind and go on with a mundane everyday life? How do you survive to the I-was-there-and-part-of-it syndrome? There is a before and an after the 25th April 1974 for all the Portuguese who were old enough at the time to grasp the importance of this day, but for the people who prepared the coup and succeeded, how does the rest of your life measure up to this? (I’ve always wondered how Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr survived to being a Beatle)

Ana Maria’s personal story is also linked to the 25th of April. That day, her mother, Machado’s lover, was supposed to fly back to her country, Belgium. The beginning and the excitement of the Carnation Revolution convinced to stay in Portugal. So, Ana Maria’s existence is also an outcome of the revolution. As mentioned before, her parents were close to the new power and knew the key players. Coming back to Lisbon is a personal journey for her. She’s estranged from her father and never saw her mother again after she divorced her father when she was twelve. She doesn’t want him to ask questions about her current assignment and therefore avoids asking questions herself. They live together but barely talk to each other. This added a dimension to the novel.

What can I say about my response to The Memorables? Honestly, sometimes I found it very tedious to read. When I read Dubliners, I wondered Do you need to be Irish to love Dubliners by James Joyce? because there were so many precise political details in the short stories that I felt I was missing vital clues in the stories. I felt the same here and I wondered if I needed to be Portuguese to fully understand the meaning of The Memorables. All the historical characters mentioned in the novel through a nickname are pathetic in the interviews with Ana Maria and her friends. It’s puzzling. They all have issues and are eccentric. How real are they? It made the book difficult to read and I don’t know how much is true and how much comes from the novelist’s licence. On top of that, Ana Maria is not exactly a warm character and it’s hard to root for her. And that’s probably the major problem I had with The Memorables. I was never fully engaged in the reporters’ quest. It could have been suspenseful and it wasn’t, except for the last 100 pages when Ana Maria uncovers her father’s secrets.

All in all, I’m glad I read it but it was not an agreeable read. I’d love to hear about your response to it. Alas, this is not available in English so none of my English-speaking followers will have read it. So, I’d be glad to hear from French and Portuguese readers who might have read it.

Street Art in Lisbon. Salgueiro Maia, member of the MFA, the “Armed Forces Movement”

A Cool Million by Nathanael West

February 5, 2017 28 comments

A Cool Million by Nathanael West (1934) French title: Un bon million ! Translated by Catherine Delavallade.

west_englishA Cool Million by Nathanael West relates the trials and tribulations of young Lemuel Pitkin in America and in 1934. Lemuel Pitkin lives peacefully in a village in Vermont with his mother when their landlord threatens to evict them from their cottage unless they can buy their mortgage out. Lemuel decides to consult with Mr Shagpoke Whipple, former president of the USA and current owner of the local bank.

Mr Whipple talks Lemuel into going to New York to get rich. He’s a firm believer of the American Dream and he’s certain that Pitkin will succeed if he works hard enough. He’s even ready to give him the starting capital for this venture, 30 dollars with a 12% interest rate and guaranteed by a collateral on the Pitkin cow. Generosity and faith have a cost.

Lemuel leaves Vermont but not before saving Miss Prail from a rabid dog and fighting with the local bully. Lemuel is naïve and he’s soon the prey of thieves and con men who frame him. He spends time to prison while being innocent and eventually arrives to New York.

I’m not going to retell all his ups and downs and will forward to the moment he is reunited with Shagpoke Whipple in New York. Indeed, Whipple’s bank went bankrupt and he’s as poor as Pitkin now. But he still has faith in the grand American dream and he’s certain his luck will come and that he can count on his reputation as a former president and former banker to turn things around.

Lemuel trusts in Whipple and attaches his fate to his. Follows a journey where the two of them show us New York during the Great Depression, meet with a frustrated poet who turns to trashy entertainment, go West to find gold, come in contact with Native Americans…

west_frenchNathanael West mocks and knocks over pillars of America’s history. He’s like a kid engaged in a tin throwing game where great founding myths of America are the tins. Pitkin and Whipple come from New England. Business comes first and everything can be monetized. Fortune belongs to daring people and exploiting others through prostitution or some muddy business schemes is part of the game as long as it brings in money. The myth of the West with the gold rush, battles with Indians and its itinerant shows is taken to pieces.

I mentioned a tin throwing game because West is playful. A Cool Million is a satire, not a pamphlet. He puts forward his ideas through the ridiculous and yet appalling destiny of Lemuel Pitkin. In that respect, A Cool Million is a lot like Candide by Voltaire. (A tall order, I know. Here’s my billet about Candide, to refresh your memory about it if need be.)

Lemuel is as naïve and trusting as Candide. He looks up to Wipple just as Candide looks up to Pangloss. They both believe in their mentor’s vision of life. While Candide has faith in Pangloss’s famous dogma “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Lemuel blindly believe Whipple’s vision of the American Dream, that a pauper can become a millionaire thanks to hard work combined with luck. Here’s Wipple’s profession of faith:

“America,” he said with great seriousness, “is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost.

Whipple genuinely believes in it himself despite how poorly America treats Pitkin. Like Candide, Lemuel’s journey will show him the troubles of the world. He was sheltered in his village, he’s now exposed to the consequences of the Great Depression. A Cool Million was written in 1934 and it is a testimony of the atmosphere of the time. Through Lemuel, we’ll see poverty in New York, the consequences of the economic crisis and the political trends of the time.

Shagpoke Whipple is a former president of the USA, a former banker and a firm believer that one’s fate can take a turn for the best as he explains it to Lemuel here:

“You expect to keep a bank again?” asked Lem, making a brave attempt not to think of his own troubles. “Why, certainly,” replied Shagpoke. “My friends will have me out of here shortly. Then I will run for political office, and after I have shown the American people that Shagpoke is still Shagpoke, I will retire from politics and open another bank. In fact, I am even considering opening the Rat River National [bank] a second time. I should be able to buy it in for a few cents on the dollar.” “Do you really think you can do it?” asked our hero with wonder and admiration. “Why, of course I can,” answered Mr. Whipple. “I am an American businessman, and this place is just an incident in my career.

Mixing business and politics, now where have we heard of that again? And true to his word, Shagpoke Whipple turns to politics, using the trends of the time to his benefit. And what’s trending in politics in the 1930s? Antisemitism and the fear of communism. Whipple ends up founding a new party, the National Revolutionary Party, a party that is openly anti-Semite and anti-communist and that uses unemployment of workers and the struggles of the middle class in general to gain audience.

When a large group had gathered, Shagpoke began his harangue. “I’m a simple man,” he said with great simplicity, “and I want to talk to you about simple things. You’ll get no highfalutin talk from me. “First of all, you people want jobs. Isn’t that so?” An ominous rumble of assent came from the throats of the poorly dressed gathering. “Well, that’s the only and prime purpose of the National Revolutionary Party–to get jobs for everyone. There was enough work to go around in 1927, why isn’t there enough now? I’ll tell you; because of the Jewish international bankers and the Bolshevik labor unions, that’s why. It was those two agents that did the most to hinder American business and to destroy its glorious expansion. The former because of their hatred of America and love for Europe and the latter because of their greed for higher and still higher wages.

I swear I’m not making this up. I wonder if we shall be terrified of the parallel we can make with present times because all this led to WWII. West describes the temptation of fascism, how easy it is to convince the masses in times of economic depression and how ready people are to blame a scapegoat for their troubles. Reading this in February 2017 is chilling. Despite West’s light tone, I wasn’t laughing anymore. As I said in my previous billet about Claudel’s reports on the Great Depression, comparing is not reasoning. But still, it’s hard not to, especially when I read this passage, where Whipple’s talking to the crowd:

“This is our country and we must fight to keep it so. If America is ever again to be great, it can only be through the triumph of the revolutionary middle class. “We must drive the Jewish international bankers out of Wall Street! We must destroy the Bolshevik labor unions! We must purge our country of all the alien elements and ideas that now infest her! “America for Americans! Back to the principles of Andy Jackson and Abe Lincoln!”

Any resemblance with a Dutch-cheese faced president is purely accidental. And bloody frightening because the 1930s was the decade of totalitarianism.

The conclusion of the book was like receiving a bucket of cold water straight in the face:

Through his martyrdom the National Revolutionary Party triumphed, and by that triumph this country was delivered from sophistication, Marxism and International Capitalism. Through the National Revolution its people were purged of alien diseases and America became again American.”

The country was delivered from sophistication. I suppose we must hear that the country was free of intellectuals, journalists, and all the thinking class, the one that won’t buy anything not based on facts or that values free thinking and the right to contractict. A Cool Million is a satire turning to dystopian fiction. Usually, when you read dystopian fiction, you have the comfort to think it’s still fiction. Here, you’re not that comfortable. In French, we say rire jaune (to laugh a yellow laugh) when we laugh hollowly. In other words, the way things are said are funny, but the substance is not funny at all. According to the events of the last couple of weeks, I’m afraid we’ve entered a four-year time of orange laugh, that I’ll also call a Beaumarchais laugh: I hasten to laugh at everything, for fear of being obliged to weep.

I think A Cool Million should join 1984 on the best selling lists. Highly recommended.

The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth

November 12, 2016 38 comments

The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth (1932) French title: La marche de Radestky. Translated by Blanche Gidon and reviewed by Alain Huriot.

roth_radetskyThe Radestky March is the second book by Joseph Roth that I’ve read. (My billet about Hotel Savoy is here.) It was published in 1932 and it’s famous for describing the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Roth was Austrian and I think that Embers by Sándor Márai is the Hungarian counterpart of Roth’s Radetsky March.

The book opens at the battle of Solferino where the Austrians fight against the French in 1859. France was ruled by Napoléon III at the time and it’s a victory for the French. The Austrian emperor Franz-Joseph I is on the battlefield and he’s about to do something stupid that could get him killed by a French sniper. Lieutenant Trotta sees it coming, throws the emperors to the ground and saves his life. Franz-Joseph ennobles Trotta who becomes Baron von Trotta and Sipolje, the small village he comes from. (Now in Kosovo). This distances Trotta from his family and his origins and pushes him to a social class where he feels he never belongs. It cuts this branch of the Trotta family from their roots.

Later, von Trotta discovers in a school text book how the story of the battle of Solferino is taught to the children. It is grossly embellished and he decides to appeal to the emperor to have the facts straightened up. But the emperor leaves it as it’s told, which disgusts von Trotta from the military. Therefore, he will not let his son go to military school and he makes him become a civil servant. The young M. von Trotta ends up prefect in the district of W, in Moravia. His short marriage gives him a son, Carl Joseph, who is actually the main character of the novel.

The Radetsky March is a remarkable book. From a literary point of view, it’s extremely well written. Roth describes the family relationships, the education in the military circles and the lack of warmth in this education. Prefect von Trotta loves Carl Joseph but he’s totally unable to show affection. And this is also a trait that Márai points out in Embers. Carl Joseph is enrolled to military school upon his father’s decision. His father never imagined to ask him what he wanted to do with his life. Carl Joseph is not cut out to be an officer as he has no military skills. He can’t ride a horse properly, he’s hopeless with topography and other military disciplines. He can’t choose his career. He has this cumbersome aura that prevent people from really befriending him. He feels awkward with his comrades and he has trouble bonding with people from his generation. He only becomes friend with older men and his lovers are almost mother figures. I won’t tell you too much about the plot and his life but poor Carl Joseph is not up to other people’s expectations. He’s incredibly lonely and he lives his life like a fish out of water.

The heritage of his grand-father weighs on his shoulders. He’s the grand-son of the hero of Solferino never just himself. And this inheritance burdens him with other people’s expectations. He’s the offspring of the hero of Solferino and there is a consensus that he inherited his grand-father’s courage. But his grand-father’s greatness was grossly exaggerated in text books that minded more of propaganda than of historical accuracy. So, Carl Joseph measures his actions against the shadow of a man who never really existed.

Le sous-lieutenant Trotta ressemblait à quelqu’un qui n’a pas seulement perdu son pays, mais aussi la nostalgie de son pays. The sub-lieutenant Trotta looked like someone who not only had lost his country but also the nostalgia of his country.

I pitied him for these heavy expectations and because he lacked the character and intelligence he would have needed either to rebel and choose his path or shine in the path that was chosen for him. In older French translations of books, European names are often translated and this edition of The Radestky March is no exception. As a consequence, Carl Joseph was Charles-Joseph for me. The more time I spent in Charles-Joseph’s company, the more I thought of Charles Bovary. The two men have something in common, both being pushed in a career for which they have no taste and no gift. They’re slow, they’re lonely and lack of social skills. They’re not bad people, just stupid.

The Radetsky March also portrays the decay the Austro-Hungarian empire. Roth describes very well the hypocrisy of the military circles. The military are drilled to respect rules, as stupid as they can be. They follow an honor code up to blindness and refuse to see the obvious. The army is disconnected from the world and unaware of the upcoming changes and challenges.

Ils étaient nés en temps de paix et ils étaient devenus officiers en s’adonnant paisiblement aux manœuvres et aux exercices. Ils ne savaient pas alors que chacun d’eux, sans exception, rencontrerait la mort quelques années plus tard. Aucun n’avait alors l’ouïe assez fine pour entendre tourner les rouages énormes des moulins secrets qui commençaient déjà à moudre la grande guerre. La blanche paix de l’hiver régnait dans la petite garnison. Et, comme une draperie noire et rouge, la mort flottait au-dessus de leurs têtes dans la pénombre de l’arrière-boutique. They were born in a time of peace and had become officers by peacefully devoting themselves to parade grounds and exercises. None of them suspected that they would die a few years later. None of them had keen hearing and heard the wheels of huge secret mills turning and already grinding the Great War. The white winter peace has settled on the small garrison. And, like a black and red drape, death was flying upon their heads in the dark corners of the back shop.

The officers do their routine, gamble and drink. They’re isolated and most of them don’t have a family. They keep to themselves. Roth makes fun of them and their blind respect to tradition and their propensity to fret about tiny details. The overall picture gives an idea of an army unfit for the upcoming battles.

The empire is also cracking under the demands for more rights for the minorities. It is a mosaic of people who no longer want to live together. Minorities push at the seams of the old imperial clothes and the old emperor Franz Joseph I sounds totally unfitted for his position. See what Roth puts in Chojnoki’s mouth, a Polish rich man who lives near Carl Joseph’s garrison:

Sceptique, moqueur, sans crainte et sans scrupules, Chojnicki affirmait communément que l’Empereur était un vieillard étourdi, le gouvernement une bande de crétins, le Reichsrat une assemblée d’imbéciles naïfs et pathétiques, il disait l’administration vénale, lâche et paresseuse. Les Autrichiens de souche germanique dansaient la valse et chantaient dans les guinguettes, les Hongrois puaient, les Tchèques étaient nés cireurs de bottes, les Ruthènes étaient des Russes travestis et des traîtres, les Croates et les Slovènes des fabricants de brosses et des marchands de marrons et les Polonais dont il était, des jolis cœurs, des coiffeurs et des photographes de mode. Skeptical, derisive, bold and unscrupulous, Chojnicki often said that the Emperor was a forgetful old man, the government, a bunch of cretins, the Reichsrat, an assembly of naïve and pathetic morons. He said that the administration was venal, weak and lazy. Austrians from German origins waltzed and sang in guinguettes, Hungarians stank, Czechs were born flatterers, Ukrainians were Russian in disguise and traitors, Croats and Slovenes were brush makers and chestnut sellers and Poles, as himself, were flirts, hairdressers and fashion photographs. 

Prefect von Trotta has no idea of how to deal with the nationalist upheavals in his district. The central power of the country doesn’t know what to do. The old emperor is cristallised in conservatism and lacks of political insight.

It is the end of the reign of Franz Joseph I who is a central character of the book. He’s the deus ex-machina of the novel. It’s a cheeky literary device, to use such a historical figure that way, but it works. The emperor puts in motion the change of social class of Trotta. He refuses to change the narration of the text books despite Trotta’s request. He will intervene several times when the von Trottas need him. The emperor is like a father figure to them.

Il [von Trotta] aimait l’Empereur qui était bon et grand, supérieur et juste, infiniment lointain et tout proche, particulièrement attaché aux officiers de son armée. Mourir pour lui aux accents d’une marche militaire était la plus belle des morts, mourir au son de la Marche de Radetzky était la plus facile des morts. He [voon Trotta] loved the emperor who was good and great, superior and fair, aloof and close, especially attached to the officers of his army. To die for him to the sound of a military march was the most beautiful death, to die to the sound of the Radetsky March was the easiest death of all.

Franz Joseph I had one of the longest reigns in Europe. He was in power from 1848 to 1916. I was in Vienna last September and there was an exhibition about him, sinc 2016 is the centenary of his death. It was explained that there are plenty of images of him since he had his portrait done at least once a year since his childhood. His mother groomed him to ground his power on a cult of personality. See a sample of these images.

00_images_franz-joseph_i

I thought that this exhibition was very complacent, only showing the good side of the man. I regretted that there was no attempt to put in perspective the decisions he made. After all, he was very conservative and probably made poor choices along the way, like everybody else. I was ill at ease in this exhibition, feeling too much blind praise and nostalgia in it and not enough critical mind at work. Here’s Roth about Vienna:

On voyait déambuler, dans la large Ringstrasse, les habitants de cette ville, joyeux sujets de Sa Majesté apostolique, tous laquais de sa cour. La ville tout entière n’était que la gigantesque cour du château. You could see the inhabitants of this city stroll on the large Ringstrasse. They are the happy subjects of His Apostolic Majesty, all lackeys of the court. The whole town was actually the gigantic courtyard of the castle.

There was a cult around the Habsburg family and I’m not sure it’s deserved. This was my second visit to Vienna and my impression of the city center is that it still participates to the cult of the Habsburg family. In the comments written in the museums, in St Stephen cathedral, I felt an unhealthy nostalgia for lost grandeur. When in London, I didn’t have the impression that the city was turned into a museum longing for the Victorian era. In Vienna, even my children got sick of hearing about the wonderful Sissi and the great Maria Theresa. I loved that Joseph Roth didn’t follow this line of thinking. He is irreverent and critical, maybe because he was an outsider, as a Jew from Galicia.

The Radetsky March is a wonderful read for its literary merits (not obvious in this billet since I had to translate the quotes), for its humor, for its characterization and its insight on the Austro-Hungarian empire. A must read to understand Europe’s past and if possible to be coupled with Márai’s Embers.

2016_german_lit_monthThis billet about The Radetsky March is my contribution to Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month. Incidentally, November is the month to celebrate the end of WWI and Franz-Joseph I died on November 21st, 2016.

 

 

Bread by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad

November 1, 2015 12 comments

Bread by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad 1939. French : Le pain by Toufic Youssef Aouad. Translated from the Arabic by Fifi Abou Dib.

Le pain et la liberté. Un homme peut-il s’en passer ? Bread and freedom. Can one live without them?

 

aouad_painOur Book Club choice for October was Bread by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad. It’s the English translation of the French title and this novel is not available in English. If you want to read something by Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad I can recommend the excellent Death in Beirut.

Before talking about the book, it’s important to know a few historical facts because Bread is set in Lebanon in 1916. I hope I’m getting this right. During WWI the Ottomans ruled Lebanon and had arrived in the area in November 2014. They were established in Aley and Jamal Pasha was the governor at the time. There were upheavals against the Ottomans, from Lebanese and Arabic groups who fought for Lebanon’s independence. The Ottomans hung some of these fighters on May 6th, 1916 in Aley. During summer 1916, Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca started the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. From 1915 to 1918, there was a terrible famine in the Mont-Liban area. 120 000 to 200 000 people died from starvation. The famine was mostly the consequence of the blockade on wheat declared by Jamal Pasha. You can find an article about this here.

Bread is a militant novel written in a poetic style. It’s one of the first Lebanese works of fiction. We’re in Saqiet-el-Misk, where the main source of income came from the immigration to America. Sami Assem is a nationalist militant who fights against the Ottoman occupation. He’s been noticed by the power and he’s now hiding in a cave in the mountains. His lover Zeina brings him food and the last news of the country. But he gets impatient and decides to go out to regroup with other militants. Unfortunately, he kills a deserting soldier on the way and is captured. He’s sent to prison in Aley. The Ottomans make the people believe he and his warden escaped from jail and were killed. Zeina is desperate and decides to take action, even if it means getting closer to an Ottoman governor who fancies her…

It is an extremely interesting novel from an historical point of view. With my French-centric vision, 1916 is the year of the battle of Verdun. Bread showed me a bit of what was happening while the French poilus were in the tranchees. With the famine, people live in survival mode. Black market strives; some sell their house to get get and buy bread, some women sell their body to put food on the table. Some collaborate with the Ottomans, and some join secret groups to fight against the enemy.

The most difficult parts to read were about the famine. One of the characters is a little boy, Tom. He lives with his mother, his grand-father and his harlf-sister Zeina. His mother Warda neglects him and Zeina, his half-sister feels responsible for him.  As mentioned before, at some point, she leaves him behind to join the revolt. He fights to survive and eat and finds himself in the city among beggars. Men patrol in the city to take away the corpses of those who starved. Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad describes an awful scene:

Il y avait là une femme, étendue sur le dos, envahie de poux. Un nourrisson aux yeux énormes pendait à son sein nu. L’un des hommes la poussa du pied et attendit…Tom e mordit les doigts et fit un pas. La tête de la femme était renversée et ses cheveux épars. De sa poitrine émergeait un sein griffé et meurtri que l’enfant pétrissait de ses petites mains et pressait de ses lèvres, puis abandonnait en pleurant. There was a woman, lying on her back, covered with lice. An infant with huge eyes was hanging to her naked breast. One of the men pushed her with his foot and waited…Tom bit his fingers and stepped forward. The woman’s head was tipped back and her hair was sparse. From her bosom jutted out a scratched and battered breast that the infant kneaded with his tiny hands and squeezed with his lips, then gave up and cried.

Terrible scene to read. I can’t imagine what it was to live it.

There’s a lot to think about in this novel. It describes the revolt of the Lebanese and the Arabs and the discussions between Sami Assem and some Arabic fighters already show the differences between them. They are fighting against the same enemy but not for exactly the same reasons. The tensions between Christians and Muslims are already palpable.

From a literary point of view, I think that the characterization of the novel is a little weak. I would have liked to know more about the characters, their motivations, their psychology and their past. The style is very poetic at times, like here when he pictures the advancing Arabic army:

Sur la vaste terre, dans l’immense plaine qui n’a pas de frontière et que la lune recouvrait d’un fabuleux dais d’argent, sous la coupole d’un bleu pur où scintillaient des milliers d’étoiles, une caravane avançait entre ciel et désert. On the vast land, on the immense plain that has no border and that the moon covered with a fabulous silver canopy, under the pure blue dome where thousands of stars sparkled, a caravan moved forward between heaven and desert.

Some other war scenes reminded me of this painting, El Tres de Mayo, by Goya:

Goya

It’s about the war against Napoleon in Spain. The novel is very graphic and gives the reader an overview of the atmosphere at the time.

Tawfiq Yusuf ‘Awwad wrote his novel 25 years after the events. He was born in 1911 and comes from the Mont-Liban area, from a village called Bharsaf. It’s one of the three villages mentioned in his novel with Bikfaya and Saqiet-el-Misk. In his introduction, he says that he remembers seeing the Ottoman soldiers come to his village. He was only three in 1914 and of course he didn’t understand what it meant. This novel is a way to let these events known and remembered. I think that he wanted to show what families had to do for their children and what the martyrs of the independence endured.

Dead Man’s Share by Yasmina Khadra.

June 7, 2015 17 comments

La part du mort by Yasmina Khadra 2004. English title: Dead Man’s Share translated by Aubrey Botsford

Disclaimer: I had to translate the quotes myself and I found it rather difficult. So be nice to my clumsy efforts.

En Algérie, les portes du salut sont aussi imprévisibles que les trappes du non-retour. Question de baraka. Ou vous l’avez ou vous ne l’aurez jamais. In Algeria, the doors to redemption are as unpredictable as the no-return doors. Question of luck. Either you have it or you don’t.

I read La part du mort by Yasmina Khadra a couple of months ago and I have to say I don’t remember much about the plot. But to be honest, the plot is not the most important thing in this book, which is odd for a crime fiction novel. Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul. It is made of his wife’s two first names. He was an officer in the Algerian army during the civil war in the 1990s and he had to hide his identity as a writer because of censorship. His wife supported him and signed all the publishing contracts in her name, on his behalf. Read more about his life, here in French and here in English.  I’m afraid it’s a lot more detailed in French than in English.

Khadra_mortWe’re in Algeria, on the verge of the civil war of the 1990s. Llob is a superintendant at Alger’s police department. Professor Allouche, an old acquaintance who manages a psychiatric ward asks him to come and visit him. He’s worried because one of his patients has been reprieved by an official commission and he’s free to go. Professor Allouche thinks a dangerous murderer is about to get lose on the Alger streets. He asks Llob to intervene to prevent a crime. At the same moment, Llob is concerned about one of his men, Lino. He’s been seen all over Alger on the arm of an unsavory woman, former girlfriend of an apparatchik. Lino is totally infatuated with her and spends too much money to cater her every whim. She’s close to several Algerian statesmen and this puts Lino in a dangerous position. Llob will have to do something about it.

The plot is interesting to follow but the book is fascinating for its picture of Algeria. It dissects the workings of the Algerian State. It shows the corruption, the inability to build a democracy after the independence. The picture is not pretty. The house seems rotten to the core. Former FLN fighters took the power and confiscated it. Their aura as independence heroes makes them untouchable. You don’t criticize a war hero. Khadra digs back to the year 1962 and the massacres of Harkis, the Algerians who were pro-French during the war. When the French left the country in 1962, most of the Harkis were left behind.

The country’s new found independence is built on blood. The war was ugly and its immediate aftermath just as much. The novel is full of thoughts about violence, its link with human nature. Khadra tries to understand its raw power.

On tue pour ne pas chercher à comprendre. C’est l’aboutissement d’un échec, l’émargement d’un désaveu. Le meurtre est l’inaptitude de l’assassin au raisonnement, l’instant où l’homme recouvre ses réflexes de bête fauve, où il cesse d’être une entité pensante. Le loup tue par instinct. L’homme tue par vocation. Il se donnerait toutes les motivations possibles qu’il ne justifierait pas son geste. One kills to avoid looking for explanations. Killing is the ultimate failure, the signing of a retraction. Assassination is the murderer’s inability to think, the moment a man resorts to his wild beast’s reflexes and ceases to be a thinking entity. Wolves kill by instinct. Men kill by vocation. Mankind could find themselves all the reasons they’d want, nothing can justify their killing.

There’s a lot of soul searching by Llob. He was a member of the FLN army too. His job puts him in contact with political power and with the small people. He sees the former fighters take advantage of their position in the country and get rich on the back of the country they fought for. He deplores that illiterate and undereducated men are in a position to exercise power. He sees the people on the streets struggle to have a decent life. Khadra brings Alger’s streets to life, like here:

C’est un gamin d’une douzaine d’années, maigre comme ses chances. Il porte un pantalon fripé, un tricot pourri et une bonne partie de la misère nationale sur les épaules. Les garçons comme lui sont légion. It’s a twelve years old boy, as slim as his chances. He’s wearing creased trousers, a rotten jumper and a good dose of the national misery on his shoulders. Boys like him are legion.

Llob is an interesting policeman with a fulfilling private life. That’s a change, as far as crime fiction is concerned. He’s been married to Mina for years, they have children and a peaceful family life. Llob is also an opportunity for Khadra to reflect on the place of women in the Algerian society.

Je me suis souvent demandé ce qu’il serait advenu de moi si Mina ne m’avait pas épousé. Elle est plus que ma femme, elle est ma belle étoile à moi. Rien que de la sentir près de moi me remplit d’une incroyable assurance. C’est fou comme je l’aime mais, dans un pays où l’interdit dispute au harem les palpitations de notre âme, il serait encore plus fou de le lui déclarer. I’ve often wondered what would have become of me had Mina not married me. She’s more than my wife, she’s my own lucky star. Just to feel her beside me fills me with an incredible dose of assurance. I’m crazy about her but in a country where social constraint and the image of harem fight against each other for the fluttering of our souls, it would be even crazier to make her that declaration.

Kind of sad, seen from my side of the Mediterranean.

I’m not sure Khadra is a real crime fiction writer. I think the genre allows him to voice his thoughts about Algeria at the time. It’s really well done and it’s a healthy read for French people. It’s an opportunity for us to read about the war in Algeria from the other side. It was an ugly war, one that left terrible scars on both sides and too much remains untold. Ironically, Khadra writes in French, the language of colonization is the one he chose to express his talent. I don’t know if his speaking Arabic brings something to his use of the French language but I loved his style. I have many quotes like this one:

Lorsque Bliss vous accueille sous le parvis du paradis, comprenez que l’enfer a déménagé. When Bliss welcomes you under the porch of paradise, you know that hell has moved in.

It’s even better in English when you throw the meaning of bliss in the middle of it.

I bought La part du mort by Yasmina Khadra at Quais du Polar thinking it was the first in the Llob series when it’s not. I was mistaken because it’s written on the back of the book, so please Folio, correct this for the next edition.

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