William Gardner Smith “The Stone Face”

Where would he go? He asked himself the question though he knew the inevitable answer—even though repugnance swept through him whenever he thought of it. Back to the States—not because he liked it, not because his antipathy to that country and its people had changed, not because he felt any less anger or bitterness or frustration at the mere thought of living there again, but because the Lulubelles were there, America’s Algerians were back there, fighting a battle harder than that of any guerrillas in any burnt mountains. Fighting the stone face.

This book, my ninth read for the Roman de Rochefort this year was originally written by Gardner Smith and published in 1963. Gardner Smith had himself moved from Philadelphia to escape racism in 1951, joining a thriving community in exile in Paris. Unlike his protagonist Simeon Brown who at the end of the book seems to know he must move back to the US, illustrated above, Gardner Smith stayed and eventually died in Paris.

Simeon Brown leaves the US to avoid committing the irreparable, killing someone, all his life he had been subject to the violence of the racist, from having his eye gouged out as a young child through random acts towards him as a young adult. As a child he had shown he had character and a certain recklessness as illustrated by the knife game:

Holding the knife like a dagger in his right hand, Simeon turned up the palm of his left. Everyone watched in amazement as he raised the knife high over the open palm. “What in hell you gonna do?” He inhaled deeply, thought of Chris and brought the knife down hard into his palm. The boys gasped; the girls squealed. The knife trembled in the palm. He had not flinched. For a moment he let the group stare at the upright knife, then pulled it brutally out of his hand. “Goddam!” a boy whispered admiringly. The girls rushed toward him. “Simeon, you’re crazy!” He let himself be led away, allowed his hand, now covered with blood, to be washed, spread with iodine and bandaged. “Goddam! Goddam!” the boys kept repeating. Simeon smiled. He was a man.

Living in Paris he makes three important friendships, first of all with Babe, another black man enjoying being treated normally, as an American in Paris but not wanting to see how the Algerians were being treated in France, like the negroes in the US. He has made a philosophy of looking the other way because, at least in part, the French authorities could expel him at any time:

“Forget it, man. Algerians are white people. They feel like white people when they’re with Negroes, don’t make no mistake about it. A black man’s got enough trouble in the world without going about defending white people.” But he was not convincing, even to himself.

The second friend he makes is Maria, a Polish Jew, survivor of the camps, a would be actress who no longer wants to see racism but to live her life. His third friend is Hossein, an Algerian member of the FLN, a man that reasons with him and lifts the curtain in Paris for him to see behind the scenes.

The further north the bus moved, the more drab became the buildings, the streets and the people. Cheap stores selling clothes, furniture, kitchen utensils: “Easy terms, ten months to pay!” Cafés became dimmer, the streets narrower and noisier, more and more children filled the sidewalks. Men out of work, with nothing to do and no place to go, stood in sullen, futile groups on street corners. Arab music blared from the dark cafés or from the open windows of bleak hotels. Then suddenly, police were everywhere, stalking the streets, eyes moving insolently from face to face, submachine guns strung from their shoulders. It was like Harlem, Simeon thought, except that there were fewer cops in Harlem.

Hossein then leaves to fight in Algeria where he is killed, leaving Simeon with the choice between being more like one of his three friends with the choice being evident for him as illustrated in the opening quote.

Published in English in 1963, republished as a New York Review Books Classic in 2021

Translated into French by Brice Matthieussent and published in 2021 by Christian Bourgois.

The quotes as read in French before translation.

Où irait-il? Il se posa la question, même s’il connaissait la réponse inévitable –et même si, chaque fois qu’il y pensait, il se sentait submergé de répugnance. Il rentrerait aux États Unis –pas parce que cette idée lui plaisait, pas parce que son antipathie envers ce pays et ses habitants avait changé, pas parce qu’il éprouvait moins de colère, d’amertume ou de frustration à la seule perspective d’y vivre à nouveau, mais parce que les Lulu Belle étaient là-bas, que les Algériens de l’Amérique étaient là-bas et qu’ils menaient une lutte plus dure que celle de n’importe quelle guérilla dans n’importe quelle montagne desséchée. Ils se battaient contre le visage de pierres.

Le prenant dans sa main droite comme une dague, Simeon tourna la paume de son autre main vers le haut. Tout le monde le regarda avec stupéfaction lever le couteau au-dessus de la paume offerte. « Bon dieu, mais tu fais quoi? » Il prit une grande inspiration, pensa à Chris et abattit violemment la lame dans sa paume. Les garçons en restèrent bouche bée;les filles crièrent. Le couteau tremblait, fiché dans sa paume. Il n’avait pas flanché Un instant, il laissa le groupe ébahi regarder le manche dressé, puis il l’arracha brutalement de sa main. « Merde alors!« lâcha un garçon admiratif. Les filles se ruèrent sur lui. « Simeon, t’es complètement barge! » Il se laissa entraîner, avec sa paume maintenant ensanglantée; puis il permit qu’on la nettoie, qu’on la bande. « Putain! Putain! » répétaient les garçons. Simeon sourit. Il était un homme.

« Oublie ça, mec. Les Algériens sont Blancs. Ils réagissent comme les Blancs quand ils sont avec des Noirs, ne t’y trompe pas. Un Noir à déjà assez de problèmes sur les bras pour ne pas se mettre à défendre des Blancs. » Mais il manquait de conviction, même pour se convaincre lui-même.

Abdulrazak Gurnah ‘Paradise’

They were met by a young man called Khalil who came rushing out of the shop at the front of the bungalow with garrulous cries of welcome. He kissed Uncle Aziz’s hand reverently, and would have kissed it again and again if Uncle Aziz had not pulled his hand away in the end. He said something irritably, and Khalil stood silently in front of him, his hands clasped together as he struggled to restrain himself from reaching for Uncle Aziz’s hand. They exchanged greetings and news in Arabic while Yusuf looked on.

This book, read for the Roman de Rochefort and written by the Nobel prize winner Gurnah tells us a story of East Africa at a pivotal moment. The arrival of the European powers and their modern weapons, forcing the locals under their rule, and the effects of this on the trade of the Arabs. In this precise case, of Aziz who lives from the age old trade with the interior of the continent, and who provides work and wealth for the villagers around him. The changes in the balance of power force the traders to take greater risks to find new sources of ivory and animal skins deeper in the continent.

‘There wasn’t much longer to wait. After Amir Pasha came Prinzi, the German commander, and he made war at once and killed the sultan and his children and any of his people that he could find. He placed the Arabs under his heel at first the chased them away. The foreigner ground them down so thoroughly that they could not even force their slaves to work on their farms anymore.’

Aziz as a money lender, living on the coast, when he cannot be repaid accepts if necessary people, usually children from the villages in the countryside. At the start of this story “uncle” Aziz comes away from a village with the young Yussuf who does not understand that he has been ceded to Aziz by his parents, illustrated by his arrival at the walls of Aziz’s villa.

This book then describes the voyages of Aziz and his caravan in the hinterlands the people they meet and the risks they take. It also shows the inner power of Aziz and his standing up against these people.

The air was sharp under the mountain, and the light had a purple tint which Yusuf had never seen before….Behind the mountain, he was told by the others who had been here before, lived the dusty warrior people who herded cattle and drank the blood of their animals. They thought war honourable and were proud of their history of violence. The greatness of their leaders was measured by the animals they had acquired from raiding their neighbours, and by the number of women they had abducted from their homes.

Abdulrazak Gurnah manages to recreate a time, the pressure and the people and persuade us of their reality.

First Published in French by Gallimard in 2023.

The quotes as read in French before translation

Un jeune homme sortit précipitamment de la boutique qui se trouvait sur le devant de la maison, et vint à leur rencontre avec des protestations volubiles de bienvenue. Il baisa la main d’oncle Aziz, et aurait continué indéfiniment since dernier ne l’avait retirée en prononçant quelques mots d’un ton irrité: « Assez, Khalil ! » Khalil resta immobile, serrant ses mains l’une contre l’autre comme pour se retenir de saisir encore celle de son maître.

« Peu de temps après le départ d’Amir Pacha est arrivé Prinzi, le commandant allemand; il a livré bataille au sultan, l’a tué lui, ses enfants et les membres de sa famille. Les Arabes ont été contraints de se soumettre, et humiliés à un tel point qu’ils ne pouvaient plus forcer leurs esclaves à travailler dans les champs.’

L’air était vif sur la montagne, et la lumière avait un reflet violet que Yusuf n’avait pas vu auparavant….Derrière la montagne, d’après ceux qui y étaient déjà allés, vivaient des guerriers qui élevaient du bétail et buvaient le sang de leurs animaux. Ils pensaient que la guerre était honorable, et étaient fiers de leur passé de violence. Le mérite des chefs était évalué d’après le nombre d’animaux qu’ils avaient capturés au cours de razzias chez leurs voisins, et de femmes qu’ils avaient enlevées.

Le Mage du Kremlin ‘Giuliano Da Empoli’

—That’s where you are wrong, Vadim Alexeïevitch, you’ve let yourself be persuaded by westerners that an election campaign consists of two teams of economists arguing over a PowerPoint file. This is not the case: in Russia power is something different.

This book, read for the Roman de Rochefort and written by Da Empoli before the Russian invasion of Ukraine was written to give us insight into what Putin’s Russia had become and to try to explain its logic. Da Empoli has chosen to tell us the story through the eyes of the « Wizard of the Kremlin », come from the world of television production and giving us the idea that everything is a production.

Vadim Alexeïevitch Baranov ties together everything that happens in Russia since the 90’s, he is present when Berezovsky presents this unknown man from the security establishment to him, the latest in a number of prime ministers, thinking that he will be able to control him:

Berezovsky had asked me to meet him at the FSB headquarters, what used to be the KGB. He welcomed me with a wide smile in the dark mausoleum of the entry hall as if he was in the lounge of his house Logovaz. He seemed perfectly at ease in this sinister setting, and, at the same time he couldn’t resist the temptation to try to scare me. « Do you know what the Muscovites used to say about the Loubianka back in the days of the USSR? That it was the tallest building in the city because from’its cellars you could see Siberia.

Baranov tells us of the rise of the Oligarchs in the 90’s through his ex school friend, Khodorkovsi who wants and gets Baranov’s girlfriend,and the incidentally of their fall:

Mikhaïl began regularly coming around to our house. He turned up alone or accompanied by young girls selected from the four corners of the empire for the clarity of their skin and the geometry of their features. He picked us up in his Bentley, or his Jaguar, or in an enormous Mercedes, and took us out to the best Géorgien restaurants in town.

But the main aim is of course to give us insights into the way Putin works, the opening quote for instance, should be no surprise, elections, first in Russia, shouldn’t be left to such a random process as presenting competing ideas and choosing. What Putin was trying to establish at the time is of no surprise in retrospect, A sovereign democracy where Putin controls everything:

A sovereign democracy, that was the objective. To manage it we needed men of steel, capable of ensuring the primary function of any state, to be capable of both defence and of attack this elite already existed. It was the siloviki, men from the security forces. Poutine was one of theirs…. He placed them one by one in positions of command. At the head of the state, of course, but also at the head of private enterprises, which he took back one by one from the hands of the speculators from the nineties. Energy, raw materials, transport, communications. Men from the security forces replaced the oligarchs in every sector.

Baranov tells us of the way Putin, referred to throughout as the Tsar, doesn’t give direct orders but sets out a framework then sits back and waits. He tells us of his meetings with Evgueni Prigogine and the directions he, as a producer, gives Prigogine to interfere in the American elections, as in judo, the opponent is far too large, you must use his own hatred for his opponents against him, just fan the flames. He also reminds him that of course he shouldn’t worry about being caught, that is the whole point of the operation, in being caught that will project much more power than you actually have.

And a last one for the road, when Baranov explains to the local militia in the Russian occupied areas of the east of Ukraine that war is a process, that the whole point is that the war is never over, that the aim is not to conquer but to cause chaos, to illustrate that you can’t trust the west. This strategy may have been outed in the last six months since the book was published.

First Published in French by Gallimard in 2023.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

—C’est là que vous faites erreur, Vadim Alexeïevitch, vous vous êtes laissé convaincre par les occidentaux qu’une campagne électorale consiste en deux équipes d’économistes qui se disputent autour d’un dossier en PowerPoint. Ce n’est pas le cas: en Russie, le pouvoir c’est autre choses.”

Berezovsky m’avait donné rendez-vous au siège du FSB, l’ancien KGB. Il m’accueillit tout sourire, dans le sombre sépulcre du hall d’entrée comme s’il se trouvait au salon de la maison Logovaz. Il semblait parfaitement à son aise en ce lieu sinistre et, en même temps, il ne résistait pas à la tentation d’essayer de me faire peur. “sais-tu ce que disaient les Moscovites de la Loubianka à l’époque de l’URSS? Que c’était l’immeuble le plus haut de la ville car de ses caves on voyait la Sibérie….”

Mikhaïl se mit à fréquenter assidûment notre maison. Il se présentait seul ou accompagné de jeunes filles sélectionnées aux quatre coins de l’empire pour la luminosité de leur teint et la géométrie de leurs traits. Il nous embarquait dans sa Bentley, ou sa Jaguar, ou dans une énorme Mercedes, et nous conduisait dans le meilleur restaurant géorgien de la ville.

Une démocratie souveraine, tel était l’objectif. Pour le réaliser, nous avions besoin d’hommes d’acier, capables d’assurer la fonction primordiale, de tout état: être une arme de défense et d’attaque. Cette élite existe déjà. C’était des siloviki, les hommes des services de sécurité. Poutine était un de leurs…ils les a placés un à un dans les positions de commandement. Au sommet de l’état, certes, mais aussi à la tête d’entreprises privées, qu’il a récupérées une à une des mains des affairistes des années quatre-vingt-dix. L’énergie, les matières premières, les transports, les communications. Les hommes de la force ont remplacé les oligarques dans tous les secteurs.

Zhang Yueran ‘L’Hotel du Cygne’

She couldn’t believe it. She had intended to extort a little money from her employers before leaving them. She knew plenty about them, They had a lot to risk if she decided to denounce them. If it should worry Chen Wen then what could be more normal than giving her a little something to keep quiet? But Chen Dongliang had wanted to kidnap the child…..he’d prepared everything to mistreat their hostage, even to never return him to his parents alive.***

The “Swan Hotel” is my sixth book read for the Prix du roman de Rochefort this year, and it was quite some surprise, this is a layer cake of of corruption and greed in modern, one child China. The initial premise is that a very rich couple with no time have a child, a boy, Dada, who is looked after almost full time by a minder, Yu Ling. Yu Ling after 10 years living in Beijing and looking after Dada faithfully and well is like everything else in her employer’s life, a throw away item.

Yu Ling and her accomplice/lover, Dongliang plan to kidnap Dada and ask for a ransom because after all these years living in her employer’s house she knows a thing or two about their business that she thinks they would be willing to pay to keep quiet. They plan their picnic and drive away with the boy. During their picnic, they hear on the radio of Dada’s grandfather being charged with corruption and of his father being arrested. Dada’s mother is abroad and it is pretty clear she won’t be coming back any time soon. So much for the blackmail. They decide to drive the boy back to his house. After a few days Dongliang is unreachable and Yu Ling suspects the worst:

She went into his room and pounced on his bag. no credit card. She let out a short laugh, her legs shaky. Two years earlier, Dongliang and her had gone to the bank together to pick up the credit card, and Dongliang had insisted that the password should be their birth dates. To think that she had even asked him, smiling, which date she should put first….***

The fridge is well stocked and Yu Ling has nowhere to go so she stays to look after Dada with no idea how things will work out. And then Huang Xiaomin turns up at the door, Dada’s father’s mistress who also has no money and nowhere to go, the relationship between the two women is initially strained but they slowly recognise the despair in each other. Dada, the only child, abandoned, still remains the one to obey:

“Can you do something for me? Dada would really like some cheesecake, would you go and buy some? I’ll give you the address.” “You can do it yourself , answered Huang Xiaomin, I promised Dada that I’d play with him.” “I need to take care of him. If you don’t want to go I’ll let you sort that out with Dada.” “Well then, would you rather play together? We can have cake another time!” cooed Huang Xiaomin stroking the childs hair. “I want to eat cheesecake first, we can play afterwards” answered Dada firmly.***

A refreshing view of chinese wild west capitalism and its effects on the people around it, no harmony here.

First Published in chinese.

Translated into french by Lucie Modde and published by Zulma in 2021

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Elle n’en revenait pas. Elle avait pensé extorquer un peu d’argent à ses employeurs avant de les quitter. Elle en savait long sur eux, ils risquaient gros s’il lui prenait l’envie de les dénoncer. Si la chose suffisait à inquièter Chen Wen, quoi de plus normal qu’elle lui donne une compensation pour l’inciter à se taire? Mais Chen Dongliang avait voulu kidnapper le petit…..il avait tout préparé pour maltraiter leur otage, voire ne jamais le rendre vivant à ses parents.

Elle entra dans sa chambre et se jeta sur sa sacoche. Pas de carte bleue. Elle lâcha un petit rire, les jambes vacillantes. Il y a deux ans, Dongliang et elle étaient allés récupérer cette carte à la banque ensemble, et Dongliang avait insisté pour que le mot de passe soit leurs dates d’anniversaire. Dire qu’elle lui avait demandé en souriant quelle date mettre en premier…

“Vous pourriez me rendre un service? Dada à très envie de cheesecake, vous pourriez aller lui en acheter? Je vous donne l’adresse.” “Tu n’as qu’à le faire, répondit Huang Xiaomin, j’ai promis à Dada que je jouerais avec lui.” “Je dois m’occuper de lui. Si vous ne voulez pas y aller, je vous laisse régler ça avec Dada.” “Bah alors, tu veux qu’on joue plutôt? On mangera du gâteau une autre fois!” roucoula Huang Xiaomin en caressant les cheveux de l’enfant. “Je veux d’abord manger du cheesecake, on jouera après” répondit Dada d’un ton ferme.

Doan Bui ‘La Tour’

In the fifties, the Italy 13 project was launched with the aim to completely renew the 13th arrondissement, a working class area in the south of Paris, and to make it the ideal “contemporary living environment”. It’s designers planned building 55 tower blocks, in the area that used to be the Gobelin’s goods station. This was to be known as the Olympiades as it was supposed to create a sort of idealist sporting community within the city. There would be parks, an ice rink, a swimming pool, shops, happiness within easy reach. It had all been planned before the 70’s oil crisis, a glorious time when we still dreamed of progrès, of territorial conquests in economic terms and also in space. ***

First Published in french as “La Tour” in 2022, by Grasset.

This weekend I was at Vincennes for Festival America where I attended Viet Thanh Nguyen’s intervention about his America and as the hour went on I wondered whether Doan Bui was there due to the similarities between his and her worlds.

This book, was my fifth read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022, and is centred around the thirteenth arrondissement in Paris well known as the Chinese area. But of course it is much more subtle than this, first of all of course not all of South East Asia is China! Doan Bui through a multiple story of people living in the Olympiades described in the opening quote. As money got tighter in the seventies, the rink, pool and shops were sacrificed and the hoped for upper middle classes never came. The Olympiades were slowly filled with poor immigrants and refugees. Doan Bui tells us of two Vietnamese families, the Truong family, Boat people fleeing Vietnam to finally arrive in these tower blocks and of Victor’s childhood friend *** who left Vietnam years earlier on a scholarship and lives in the Paris suburbs. The Vietnamese are not the radical lefts idea of refugees shown here by Alice, Victor’s wife’s reaction to the socialists coming to power in ‘81:

The left wingers were resolutely secular…. They preferred refugees compatible with their ideals, Iranians for example fleeing religious dictators or South Americans, Chileans escaping from Pinochet or Argentinians persecuted by the Perons. All of the dictatorships in South America were supported by the great American Satan, they welcomed old Nazis, in short it was the super Bingo of evil, what’s more the Argentinian and Chilean refugees were alluring, tall, dark haired, as opposed to the tiny Asian refugees. The left wingers were right to be reticent. Later these same tiny Asians voted as one for the RPR: Chirac was their idol. In May 1981, the day of Mitterand’s election, they collapsed, amazed to see the crowds in fervour at the Bastille. “These stupid French, they cheer on the communists, well they’ll get re-education camps, we’ll see if they still like the reds as much!” Shouted Alice.***

Doan Bui examines the different people living in this “Tower of Babel”, Victor’s daughter Anne-Maï, growing up in France as Viet Thanh Nguyen had in America, and dreaming of being blond, of Ileana the Romanian pianist, now an exiled nanny, looking up her own daughter on her smartphone each night; a sad story here. Of Virgil from Senegal, with no papers, living in one of the underground garages (all of which are inhabited by people who don’t officially exist) and his growing business of writing stories for the refugees that are more realistic to the French administration than their own sad stories. Of Clément so obsessed with the great replacement that he is mentally challenged and thinks he’s Michel Houellebecq’s dog.

A fun but informative book as each of these characters crosses others. The Vietnamese stories reminded me a little of the stories of the arrival of the different characters in Viet Thanh’s book “The Sympathisers” without the spy story.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Dans les années 50, le projet Italie 13 vit le jour. Il visait à rénover en profondeur le 13e arrondissement, quartier populaire du sud parisien, et à en faire la quintessence de « l’habitat moderne ». Ses concepteurs prévoyaient d’ériger 55 tours, là où se situait jadis la gare aux marchandises des Gobelins. L’ensemble avait été nommé les Olympiades car il devait reproduire une sorte de phalanstère sportif dans la ville. Il y aurait des parcs, une patinoire, une piscine, des magasins, le bonheur à portée de main. L’ensemble avait été pensé avant le premier choc pétrolier, glorieuse époque où l’on rêvait encore de progrès, de conquêtes territoriales, économiques et spatiales.

Les gens de gauche étaient résolument laïcs. Les curés, les églises, toute cette bondieuserie : très peu pour eux. Ils préféraient les réfugiés politiquement compatibles, les Iraniens par exemple, fuyant la dictature religieuse ou les dissidents d’Amérique du Sud, Chiliens pourchassés par Augusto Pinochet ou Argentins persécutés par le couple Perón. Toutes ces dictatures en Amérique du Sud étaient soutenues par le Grand Satan américain, elles accueillaient les anciens nazis, bref, c’était le super bingo du Mal, et puis les réfugiés argentins ou chiliens étaient séduisants avec leur haute taille et leur chevelure sombres, contrairement aux réfugiés asiatiques gringalets. Les gens de gauche avaient raison de se méfier. Plus tard, ces mêmes Asiatiques gringalets votèrent en masse pour le RPR : Chirac était leur idole. En mai 1981, le jour de l’élection de Mitterrand, ils s’effondrèrent, affligés de voir à la télévision la foule en liesse à la Bastille. « Ces idiots de Français, ils applaudissent les communistes, on va leur en donner des camps de rééducation, on verra s’ils aiment autant les roses ! » cria Alice.

Béatrice Commengé ‘Alger, rue des bananiers

The word war had still not been pronounced. France hasn’t been at war for twelve years: that was the official story. A rebellion wasn’t a war. And the army come over from France to put down the rebellion wasn’t a war time army. The dead and the wounded in the cafés weren’t war victims . Everything was ok.***

Opening quote remind you of anything contemporary? Well so it should, if you don’t give it it’s name all is well, remember the Indian Mutiny? In this book, my fourth read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022, Béatrice Commengé, going through her father’s books, mostly about Algeria, decides to investigate her own family’s relationship with Algeria, she herself left one year before independence as a soon to be teenager. Commengé juxtaposes her happy childhood memories growing up in France’s Algerian colony, mostly unaware of the events taking place leading up to independence and her family over four generations. Could they possibly not know of the violence on which l’Algerie Française was built, that their land had been taken from someone else and that these people had fought for more than one hundred years for their land as in the following extract describing a village close to her great great grandmother Jeanne’s address in 1860:

The colony had already known catastrophes. On the right bank the village of Maison carrée, — a brand new name, like Fort-de-l’Eau, had developed. Even the soil was new, reclaimed from the marshes, and bit by bit planted with vineyards and orange groves. Good crops. Cleaned of any past lives. Even the name of the tribe who lived on these lands thirty years previously had been forgotten, the Ouffia, or Aouffia, the night of the 6th to 7th of April 1832 had been forgotten when the duke of Rovigo had assembled the two hundred and ninety five horses of his cavalry, backed up by two infantry squadrons with the orders to exterminate anyone resisting their attack, without discrimination of age or sex. How many were there of the El Ouffia to warrant such force? The disagreement over the numbers still goes on today.***

No she concludes, Jeanne had not forgotten the Ouffia, she had no idea of their previous existence.

As the violence closes in on Algers, her child’s knowledge of events comes to the fore when De Gaulle tells the people of Algers (for people read Europeans) that he has understood them, “Je vous ai compris”, à somewhat famous quote here in France:

Three days after Father’s Day, the 18th of June , the head of the école Dujonchay gathered all of the pupils in the yard. She explained to us that we were celebrating an anniversary, that of “l’appel du général de Gaulle, the 18th of June 1940”. The very same de Gaulle. She reminded us that he had saved France in creating the Resistance and that now he was going to save French Algeria.***

A necessary book told from an unusual angle, but full of names and dates, not making it a favourite of mine for the prix du “Roman”.

First Published in french as “Algers, rue des bananiers” in 2020, by Editions Verdier.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Le mot guerre n’était toujours pas prononcé. La France n’était pas en guerre depuis douze ans: c’était là l’histoire officielle. Une rébellion n’était pas une guerre. Et l’armée venue de France pour combattre la rébellion n’était pas une armée de guerre. Les morts et les blessés des cafés n’était pas des victimes de guerre. Tout allait bien.

Trois jours après la fête des Pères, le 18 juin, la directrice de l’école Dujonchay a rassemblé tous les élèves dans la cour. Elle nous a expliqué qu’on fêtait un anniversaire, celui de “l’appel du général de Gaulle, le 18 juin 1940”. Le même de Gaulle. Elle nous a rappelé qu’ils sauvé la France en créant la Résistance et qu’il allait maintenant sauver l’Algérie française.

La colonie a déjà connu ses catastrophes. Sur la rive droite s’est développé le village de Maison-Carrée — un nom tout neuf, comme Fort-de-l’Eau. Même la terre est neuve á Maison-Carrée, conquise sur les marécages, et peu à peu plantée de vignes et d’orangers. De belles cultures. Nettoyée de toutes vies passées. On a oublié jusqu’au nom de tribu qui vivait là trente ans plus tôt, les Ouffia, ou Aouffia, on a oublié la nuit du 6 et 7 avril 1832 où le duc de Rovigo a réuni les deux cent quatre-vingt-cinq chevaux de sa cavalerie, épaulés par deux compagnies d’infanterie avec ordre d’exterminer tous ceux que résisteraient à l’attaque, sans distinction d’âge ou de sexe. Combien y avait-il d’El Ouffia pour nécessiter tant de bras armés? La dispute sur les chiffres dure encore.

Elizabeth Strout ‘Oh William’

As we drove along the road—again almost no other cars were in sight—William said, “I’m sorry for all that crap I did in our marriage, Lucy.” He kept looking straight ahead at the road, he seemed relaxed as he drove, his hands were at the bottom of the steering wheel. I said, it’s okay, William, I’m sorry for how weird I got.” And he nodded slightly and kept on driving. We have had this conversation—almost exactly that—for a number of years since we separated, not frequently, but every so often it pops up: a mutual apology. This may sound strange, but it is not strange to William and to me. It is part of the fabric of who we are. It seemed completely right that we should say this now.

So, off to England in August, don’t do this every year – the expensive month. Picked up Oh William in the first days, and this is my first experience of Elizabeth Strout. I’ve added the opening quote which I think illustrates her deceptively simple writing, and as in this example hitting the mature relationship bang on as seen by Lucy in this conversation with her ex husband William.

This book investigates a moment in Lucy’s life, her childhood through the parallels with her mother in law’s equally poor and unloved life, leading to her abandoning her husband and especially her young daughter, William’s previously unknown half sister, this whilst ostensibly helping William to come to terms with this discovery.

This discovery of her mother in law’s abandoning her daughter actually seems to bring Lucy to a greater compassion and understanding for this overwhelming lady that when she was alive seemed so, unlike Lucy, assimilated to the moneyed class.

An easy read for what is an introverted style of writing, makes me think a little of Annie Ernaux, perhaps more subtle.

First Published in English as “Oh William” in 2021, by Random House

Didier van Cauwelaert ‘Un aller simple’

“I started in life as a child found by accident. Stolen with a car as it happens. An Ami 6 of Citroën heritage. So they called me Ami 6 so as not to forget. Well these are my origins so to speak. As time went on they shortened it to Aziz.”***

After my mother in law died, I picked up a few of her books, this one ‘One Way’, priced at 89,00F from 1994, it’s going back a bit but I think I may have bought if for her. Incidentally it won the Prix Goncourt that year.

Aziz Kemal (see the opening quote), brought up in Marseilles by gypsies that found him in a car they’d stolen, had no identity papers, nothing new there, where he was brought up nobody did, but nobody got caught, except this time Aziz did, and at his own wedding.

Aziz is then expelled to Morocco, back then they imagined he would be accompanied by a cultural attaché to help him reintegrate Morocco. (Bless them, no flights to Rwanda for processing back then!) Except of course neither he nor the attaché had ever been to Morocco.

When pushed by Jean-Pierre Schneider, the young attaché about where he comes from, he makes up a story about a village in a secret valley, Irghiz and so begins their journey.

Must say I enjoyed this book, are they both looking for something, besides this non existant village? Well of course they are.

First Published in french as “Un aller Simple” in 1984, by Albin Michel

Translated into English by Mark Polizzotti and published in 2003 by Other Press

***My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

J’ai commencé dans la vie comme enfant trouvé par erreur. Volé avec la voiture, en fait. Une Ami 6 de race Citroën. Alors on m’a appelé Ami 6 en souvenir. Ce sont mes origines, quoi. Avec le temps, pour aller plus vite, c’est devenu Aziz.

Mariette Navarro ‘Ultramarins’


—Captain, the pump seems to be adjusting its rhythm, it’s doing it to…..well to, don’t take me for a fool, to play music. Captain, do you hear me?
—I don’t take you for a fool.
—A regular rhythm, changing with the weather. What’s unbelievable is that it doesn’t always slow down. If there was a failure, it would slow down. But here, no, sometimes it speeds up too.

This book, my third read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022, has a mystical theme, a cargo ship with a disreet female captain and a skeleton crew is crossing the Atlantic Ocean. In this ultra connected world where cargo ships and their proress are tracked by satelite, the captain takes the unheard of decision to stop the ship and to let all of the crew except herself, lowered in boats, go for a swim. No other ship comes near them in this time and the captain intends to make up for lost time before arriving at their destination. All takes place as imagined but there seems to be some doubt about the number of crew members, weren’t there only 20 who went swimming?


They laugh.
But all of they are thinking of the number, 21, at the strangeness of the sound of this number. It should be said that there are a lot of new, very young, ones this time, you can mix them up, they look the same these young muscular boys who thought they were going to discover America or conquer the world.****


Slowly the story takes on it’s mysterious form, firstly with the mysterious 21st passenger and then in the weather with the sensitive captain accepting the strangeness as first in this tropical area a mist descends upon them:


As if she had to feel it, feel it through her skin to understand what is happening to her, she pulls the metal door towards herself and exits. She wants to feel the consistency of the mist, to know it’s temperature. There, that’ll be her swim.****


And then, as illustrated in the opening quote, the ship itself seems to take on the mystical shape of the story, could it be the 22nd crew member?

A short poetical story, advancing at the slow but unstoppable speed of the ship itself into the unreal.

First Published in french as “Ultramarins” in 2021, by Quidam
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Comme s’il fallait en passer, toujours en passer par la peau pour comprendre ce qui lui arrive, elle tire vers elle la porte métallique et sort. Elle veut sentir la consistance de cette brume, et connaitre la température. voilà, ce sera sa baignade à elle.

Ils rient.
Mais tous ils pensent à ce nombre, 21, à l’étrangeté du son de ce nombre. Il faut dire qu’il y a beaucoup de nouveaux cette fois, de très jeunes, on s’y perd, ils se resemblent, ces petits gars musclés qui croyaient qu’ils allaient découvrir l’Amérique ou conquérir le monde.

—Commandante, on dirait que la pompe ajuste son tempo, qu’elle en joue, pour faire…… pour faire, ne me prends pas pour un fou, pour faire de la musique. Commandante, vous me recevez?
—Je ne vous prends pas pour un fou.
—Un rythme régulier, qui varie avec le temps. Ce qui est incroyable, c’est que ça ne ralentit pas toujours. Si c’était une panne, ça devrait ralentir. Mais là, non, parfois ça accélère aussi.

Emmanuelle Fournier-Lorentz ‘Villa Royale’


We had no money, as Victor pointed out to me one evening as I moaned about not having a television. “Don’t hold your breath waiting for some in the near future,”..”to begin with, haven’t you noticed that we still don’t have any furniture?”
mother had bought a red plastic table, that was on sale, for the kitchen but we only had one chair. Charles had come across a flowery matress in the street that we used as a sofa on which we ate our breakfast on rainy days.***


This book, a first by this promising author, is my second read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022. Palma, a yound child at the outset is the narrator of this strange story of a family, her mother, Victor, Palma’s younger brother and Charles her older brother. Palma tells us of her earliest memories of looking out of the back window of their car at the asphalt disappearing behind them, much like their childhood. The book begins with the family leaving their house in Rue Chauvelot, Paris and moving to the Reunion Island, in a seemingly hurried manner. This first house move, if a little disorienting, arriving in the tropics, slowly reveals their precarious state of affairs, as Victor notices in the opening quote.

The children are not yet aware of the exact state of their affairs, thinking that as things haven’t worked out that they can just move back home. but of course they hadn’t just moved for a better opportunity as they grow to realise:


Charles continued:
It’s very simple. We’ll go back, mum. Your’ll look for work, Lakushka will look after us, everything will be fine….. To tell the truth, it’s a relief for me.
“And where will we live?”
“Well, Rue Chauvelot.”
My mothers eyes widened.
“We don’t have the house in Rue Chauvelot any more.”
“It’s been sold?” I asked.
I saw mum hesitate.
“It’s been seized”, she answered, her eyes lowered to her cigarette.***


As time goes on they seem to only stay in one place for a few months at a time, their mother always books them into a new school but sometimes they come home and for nearly no reason they throw everything into the car and they’re off again, as Palma later remarks:


Moving three times a year neither effaces our names nor hides our trace. As the car reached the first bare fields surrounding the village, we knew that the act of fleeing with this smell of fresh snow would cling to us. Afterwards it can’t be shaken off.****


As the book advances we learn the reasons for their lifestyle and the effects it has on them, especially on the two boys and was there a reason for their father to commit suicide? An ambitios and original first novel./span>

First Published in french as “Villa Royale” in 2022, by Gallimard
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Nous n’avions pas d’argent, comme me l’avais fait remarquer Victor un soir où je me plaignais de ne pas avoir la télévision. “Ne t’attends pas á ce qu’on ait sitôt.”..”tu n’as pas remarqué? Premièrement, on n’a toujours pas de meubles.”
Ma mère avait acheté en solde une table en plastique rouge pour la cuisine, mais nous n’avions qu’une chaise. Charles avait dégoté dans la rue un matelas à fleurs qui faisait office de canapé sur lequel nous prenions le petit-déjeuner les jours où pleuvait.
“Ensuite, nous n’avons pas de téléphone, ce qui, tu l’as remarqué aussi, ne déplaît à personne.”

Charles à repris:
C’est très simple. On rentre, Maman. Tu chercheras du travail, Lakushka nous garderas, tout ira bien…. À vrai dire, ça me soulage.
— Et où allons-nous vivre?
— Eh bien, rue Chauvelot.
Ma mère à écarquillé les yeux.
— La maison de la rue Chauvelot, on ne l’a plus.
— Elle a été vendue?” ai-je demandé.
J’ai vu l’hésitation de ma mère.
— Elle a été saisie”, a-t-elle répondu, les yeux baissés sur sa cigarette.

Déménager trois fois par an n’éfface ni nos noms, ni notre trace.
Lorsque la voiture a atteint les premiers champs pelés qui entouraient le village, nous savions que la fuite, avec son odeur de neige fraîche, s’accrochait à nous. Ensuite impossible de s’en défaire.