Eric Vuillard ‘Une sortie honorable’


This may seem odd, but there had never been a french settler established in Cao Bang, no district, european social life, not a single enterprising trader, not a single hotel owner in search of adventure, not a single person to pave the way, no one…..The Cao Bang Mining Company was created in 1905; and in order to function only needed a few european engineers and foremen, that’s all, and a military outpost to protect themselves.***


This book, my first read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022, is written by Eric Vuillard, the 2017 winner of the prix Goncourt for ‘L’ordre du jour’ which took us to a secret meeting in the Reichstag leading to the financing of the 1933 elections and the petty negotiations between the different people present setting history on its unstoppable path to war. Here Vuillard takes us to an initial meeting in the National Assembly and the inevitable consequences of greed, leading to war in South East Asia. What are the french interests in Indochina? As he explains illustrated here in the opening quotes, it was not a question of a colony and the difficulties of communities living alongside one another, in both Cao Bang where the initial battles took place up to Diên Biên Phu where the french army was defeated, there were no settlers.

Vuillard takes us to a debate over the Indochina ‘situation’ in the house and through descriptions of the different political actors arguing to support the venality of the business interests, and of Mendès-France spelling out in detail that France had neither the means nor the real will to keep Indochina at all costs, he swiftly gives us a panoramic view of the political situation. Mendès, and the truth of course, are not welcomed in the assembly.


The truth” continued Mendès, his face showing no emotion, almost sad, “in a moment where so many other worries weigh on us, we do not have the means to impose the military solution that we have pursued for so long now in Indochina****


Vuillard takes us through the inevitable failures and the gross incomptence of the military commanders appointed by Paris, leading to a modern military power being overcome by peasants. He also introduces the American connection, including De Lattre de Tassigny’s visit to the US and the loaded questions prepared for him.


“Can you tell us why Indochina Is important for we Americans?”
As usual, the question seems abrupt, but in reality it is made to measure. It would seem to have been written by the Army communication department. And in spite of this De Lattre gets bogged down, he can’t find his words. At this moment any word will do, any tiny forgotten word, even a spasm, a sigh…….Then, as if appearing from below the waterline, the General takes a deep breath and adds “that Indochina is the keystone of South-East asia and that this keystone is surrounded….”.****


The description of the CIA and in Particular Dulles’s visit to Paris should leave the reader speechless:


Bidault opens the door without knocking, crosses the room, tripping on the carpet, and sitting on a chair opposite the secretary of state, seemingly overwhelmed: “do you know what Dulles just said to me?” Schumann looks looks at him confused: ” He offered me two atomic bombs to save Diên Biên Phu”****


A strong start to the 2022 prix de Rochefort, and for anyone unfamiliar with these events in history a must read moment!

First Published in french as “Une sortie honorable” in 2021, by Babel

The quotes as read in French before translation

Cela peut sembler curieux, mais il n’y a même jamais eu, un colon français établi à Cao Bang, nul quartier, nul vie sociale européenne, pas un commerçant entreprenant, pas un hôtelier aventureux, pas un seul premier de cordée, personne……La société des mines de Cao Bang avait vu le jour en 1905; et pour fonctionner, elle n’avait besoin que de quelques ingénieurs, de contremaîtres européens, c’est tout, et pour se protéger, il lui fallait un poste militaire.

“La vérité, reprit Mendès, le visage clos, presque triste, “dans un moment où tant d’autres soucis nous accablent c’est que nous n’avons pas les moyens matériels d’imposer en Indochine la solution militaire que nous y avons poursuivie si longtemps.”

“Pouvez-vous nous dire maintenant quelle est l’importance de l’Indochine pour nous Américains?”
Comme d’habitude, la question a quelque chose d’abrupt, mais en réalité elle est faite sur mesure. On dirait qu’elle a été rédigée par le service de communication de l’armée. Et pourtant de Lattre s’embourbe, il cherche ses mots. À ce moment, n’importe quel mot ferait l’affaire, un tout petit mot oublié, un spasme même, un soupir….Alors, comme s’il jaillissait brusquement hors de l’eau, le général reprend sa respiration et ajoute “que l’Indochine est la clé de voûte du Sud-Est asiatique, et que cette clé de voûte est encerclée…”

Bidault ouvre la porte sans frapper, traverse la pièce, trébuchant sur le tapis, et s’asseyant sur une simple chaise face à secrétaire d’État, l’air accablé, bredouille: “Savez-vous ce que Dulles m’a dit?” Schumann le regarde, désorienté: “Il m’a proposé deux bombes atomiques pour sauver Diên Biên Phu”

Benoît Vitkine ‘The Wolves’


Faithfully. Once again he takes the blue textbook in his large hands, places it on the embers where it instantly bursts into flames. He films it. Faithfully. He sends the video to the number he’d been given.
He had just saved the Bitch once again. Just as she’d asked him. The textbook, the old lady that implicated her. No longer existed.***


Benoît Vitkine’s timely novel introduces us to a gloves off version of The Ukraine in this political thriller treating the 30 days between the election of the new president Olena Hapco and her taking office. Vitkine tells us of how fortunes were made in the post Soviet era, here in The Ukraine, but the same recipe applied to any of the ex-Soviet states. Hapco was less ready as the Soviet system collapsed and so needed to be quick, brutal and know how to make allies and deal with enemies.

Hapco is elected on a reform ticket, but pretty soon it’s clear that she needs to negotiate with the Oligarchs, as Russia tries to tie her down, described in her meeting with the Russian ambassador. First she has a call with Vladimir Putin who speaks in riddles, as usual, leaving the unpleasant messages to his underlings, with the ambassador explaining how they will trap and control her. They have been spying on her for decades, including choices she had made, to avoid being crushed, that could be viewed as treason. She knows that they have the means, via the tv stations of certain Oligarchs controlled by the Kremlin , to make it known, before they tell her what they expect her to do:


You can be reassured, the project that we have prepared is perfectly favourable to you! Our idea is to revalue the terms of the contract for the transit of the gas that we sell to the Europeans. In simpler terms, to increase your dividends from the transit of the gas in the pipelines that crosses your territory ……The increase in tarifs for the transport of russian gas in ukranian pipelines, as seductive as it sounds, is an illusion. The money will only make a handfull of crooked, kremlin controlled intermediaries rich, creating as many russian agents in ukranian affairs.****


But if there is one thing Hapco has learnt the best form of defence is to attack. What do the Russians hold against her? Can she neutralise the threat? Can she play the Oligarchs against each other? Can she get out of the trap that is set for her before she officially takes office? These are the questions that Vitkine, one time correspondant of’Le Monde’ in Moscow and laureat of the Albert Londres prize, takes us through whilst at the same time painting a vivid picture of The Ukraine and its people.

First Published in french as “Les Loups” in 2022, by Les Equinox
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Fidèlement. Il reprend le cahier bleu dans ses grands mains, le dépose sur les braises, où il s’enflamme instantanément. Il filme. Fidèlement. Il envoie la vidéo au numéro qu’on lui a indiqué.
Il vient de sauver la Chienne, une nouvelle fois. Comme ell le lui avait demandé. Le cahier, la vieille l’incriminaient. Ils ne sont plus.

Mais rassurez-vous, le projet que nous avons conçu vous êtes parfaitement favourable! Notre idée est de revaloriser les termes du contrat de transit pour le gaz que nous vendons aux européens. En clair d’augmenter les dividendes que vous percevez pour le transit par les tuyaux situés sur votre territoire……L’augmentation des tarifs de transit du gaz russe dans les gazoducs ukrainiens, aussi séduisante soit-elle, est une illusion. L’argent ne servira qu’à enrichir une poignée d’intermédiaires véreux aux ordres du Kremlin, qui constitueront autant d’agents de la Russie dans les affaires ukrainiennes.

Tierno Monénembo ‘Le terroriste noir’


The Valdenaires were the first ones to set eyes on him, Mister—the father and his son—it was the time of year when meadow saffron blooms! They were out gathering golden chanterelles when suddenly the son let out a yelp, surprised by what sounded like an animal having its throat cut. He closed his eyes and pointed at a dark and disturbing heap sprawled in a thicket of whitebeams, where the earth seemed a bit less muddy. The father started, ran over, large beads of sweat bathing his face, then quickly regained his composure. “Calm down, Etienne, it’s only some poor black man.” “A German spy, then!” “The Germans haven’t got any more Negroes, and that’s what started this war…. Come along, son!”


A now old lady, Germaine, tells the story of the african troops who fought in the second world war for France through the story of one such, Addi Bâ who, after having been abandoned as France signed the armistice and escaping from a German camp was discovered by Étienne in a thicket of white-beams in a small village in the Lorraine, as described in the opening quote. We learn of the difficult cohabitation of the locals with the Germans who take nearly all of their produce leaving them hungry, and their reaction as hinted at in the following quote which refers to the saint Bartholomew pig feast, a reference to the slaughter of the saint Bartholomew, a famous massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572, meaning of course here that they slaughtered all of the pigs to prevent the Germans getting them:


As for young Etienne, I might have seen him once or twice trotting around with a bunch of other kids who would pass through here heading up to the hilltops to gather chestnuts. I wouldn’t really meet him until the Saint Bartholomew Pig Feast.***


Slowly Addi gets to know everyone in the villages and local countrside, before becoming a key element in looking after and training the young men in the “maquis” and then eventually being betrayed to the Germans, by who? we never find out, too many possibilities:


It reminded us of the time he fell from his bike, sir, because he was near death and everyone in Romaincourt was wathching, inspite of the dogs, inspite of the hostility of the Jerrys who were striking out with their rifle butts and jabbering on, excitedly as we’d never seen before: –Der schwarze Terrorist! Der schwarze Terrorist! The black terrorist! The black terrorist!***


This was a interesting book treating a major, and forgotten subject of what happened to the colonial troops “les tirailleurs sénégalais” at the armistice, here Addi Bâ who was recognised only in 2003 with the “médaille de la résistance”.

First Published in french as “Le terroriste noir” in 2012, by Le Seuil *** my translation
Translated into English by C. Dickson and published in 2017 as “The black Terrorist” by Diasporic Africa Press

The quote as read in french before translation

Cela nous rappelait la fois où il était tombé du vélo,monsieur, puisqu’il était au bord de la mort et que tout Romaincourt assistait à la scène, malgré les chiens, malgré l’animosité des Boches qui distribuaient des coups de crosse et hachepaillaient, excités comme on ne les avait jamais vus:
–Der schwarze Terrorist! Der schwarze Terrorist! Le terrorisre noir! Le terrorisre noir!

Anthony Doerr ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’


What his mother and sister distribute among the men, the honey and preserves, the pickled cabbage and the trout, the sheep’s cheese, the dried venison, comprises almost all of their food for the winter. Many of the men wear cloaks and daggers like woodsmen, whilst others dress in cloaks of fox fur or camel hide and at least one wears ermine with the teeth still attached, most have daggers attached to girdles about their waists and everyone speaks of the spoils their going to win from a great city in the south.


Books are fragile, they die, so little of the literature from ancient Greece has reached us, and that often copied and re-copied or translated. But books can free us, change our perceptions, even give us a reason to live. In this tale, Anthony Doerr rells us of such a book, a fictitious work by Antonius Digenes, Cloud Cuckoo Land, its journey to us and through to the future, of librarys and mankinds vain attempts to assemble all knowledge. We discover Cloud Cuckoo Land and its influence on a number of people in this intertwined tale.
We pick up the story and the first of our characters at the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453, we meet Omeir as the army moving towards this city with the unpenetrable walls at the moment that he is engaged and the immensity of the tasks they must catty out as illustrated in the opening quote

We meet Anna, a seamstress living in what has become an almost illiterate city just before the arrival of the Ottomans, of her learning to read from a dying and drunken Greek living in their city walls, of her finding books in a forgotten and crumbling monastry and selling them to Venitians who have come in search of knowledge for their libraries. As she reads one of the codexes to her dying sister we learn of Ethan the goatheard and his journey in the fantastic old tale and the peace it brings her sister.


She has grown quicker at deciphering the tidy left leaning script inside the old codex and by now can lift lines off the page without trouble. Whenever she comes to a word she does not know or lacunas where mould has obliterated the text she invents replacements, Ethan has managed to become a bird at last, not the resplendent owl he hoped but a bedraggled crow. He flaps across a limitless sea searching for the end of the earth, only to be swept up by a water spout. So long as Anna keeps reading Maria seems to be at peace.


Through Anna and Omeir, the story reaches modern day, being uncovered in the Vatican library. The only timeline where the link with the book is not apparent is that of Konstance, travelling on an interstellar spaceship leaving the Earth behind to implant life on a faraway planet with her family and a group of other passengers, and of course a computer containing “all the knowledge of the world”:


Konstance stands in the library atrium touching the place on her work suit where mother stitched a pine seedling four years before, mrs flowers’ little dog stares up at her and wags his tail, he is not real, the desk beneath her fingertips feels like wood, sounds like wood, smells like wood, the slips in the box look like paper feel like paper, smell like paper, none of it is real.


In the present day, Zeno, an 80 year old Korean war veteran is putting on a school play called Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes when Seymour, a disturbed adolescent, worrying about the planet comes into the library with a bag packed with explosives:


He remembers how it felt, his whole body taught when he sprung the lid off the crate of pawpaws old grenades for the first time, all that latent power, never before has someone articulated his own anger and confusion like this. Wait they said, be patient they said, technology will solve the carbon crisis. In Kyoto, in Copenhagen, in Doha in Paris they said we’ll cut emissions we’ll wean ourselves off hydrocarbons and they rolled back to the airport in armour plated limos and flew home on Jumbo jets and ate sushi at 30000 feet in the air while poor people choked on the air in their own neighbourhoods. Waiting is over, patience is over we must rise up now before the whole world is on fire.


Why take explosives into a library? who are all of these characters and how are the present day and the future linked, I’ll give you a guess. Get this wonderful read and find out.

First Published in English as “Cloud Cuckoo Land” in 2021 by Fourth Estate

Quai du polar 2022: And The Winner Is

Quai du Polar 2022: So here we are, with the event on time this year, I’ve had time to read all six of the short listed thrillers, img_0271-1 Here then is my “official” Winner. Let’s see if the event jury get it right on the 4th of April……………

Olivier Bordaçarre Appartement 816 (L’Atalante) 160 pages. France is entering its 30th straight month of isolation for its inhabitants. A book with a certain humour, A more interesting read than I had at first imagined .

Max Izambard Marchands de mort subite (Rouergue) 352 pages. A political thriller set in central Africa, if you want your thriller to inform you, within the bounds of fiction then this is it. I enjoyed the read and would love to see the film

Hervé Le Corre Traverser la nuit (Rivage) 320 pages. Jourdan, police commander tries to hold it all together working nights in Bordeaux, some of the criminals are pretty messed up. An easy read


Elsa Marpeau L’âme du fusil (Gallimard) 192 pages. The straightforward life of the country, with its unwritten rules known to all, a subtle story in this no frills community.


Gabrielle Massat Trente grammes (Le Masque) 450 pages. Yannick’s body is rejecting his second liver, if you ask me his second liver should be rejecting Yannick! I like my crime with a dash of credibility,

Michèle Pedinielli La patience de l’immortelle (L’Aube) 224 pages. Nothing is over telegraphed, but as the story goes on, lead after lead head nowhere as Diou looks for the killer of a journalist in corsica. Really not sure that this book is better than last year’s selection by the same author.


And finally, I’ve gone with:
Max Izambard Marchands de mort subite (Rouergue).

 The official event site Quai du Polar

 

Gabrielle Massat ‘Trente grammes’

Quai du Polar 2022: Books shortlisted for the readers prize, Book read Number 6

Gabrielle Massat : Trente grammes (Éditions du Masque)


The truth is, Yannick, that you dont want to see us kill each other, right? Aslanov is like a father to you, and me, I’m the love of your life. From your point of view we’re in a Shakespearian drama.***


I’ll keep this short, Yannick, who works for a russian mafia person, Aslanov, handling his money laundering through works of Art scheme is found by his lover Phoenix, part Ouzbek, part Russian in a near critical state after being force fed 30 grammes of paracetamol, to make it look like a “suicide”. so here are the two charachters from the opening quote.
Yannick, then, is a main character who, after a liver transplant, drinks, takes drugs and seeks out a different partner each night for “wild” sex. Yannick’s body is rejecting his second liver, if you ask me his second liver should be rejecting Yannick! Well last years “detective” was blind. How about sex with the detective as here:


I can’t decide if I should be happy or worried about your invitation. Then I remembered your appetite for oral sex and decided to be overjoyed. Yannick looks her over, amused. To be more accurate, the climbing hall isn’t the lie that Boussaïdi serves up to her husband and her two adolescent kids to justify her absences, only a part of the truth:***


Yannick’s brother, Olivier is wheel chair bound after a car accident and his lover Phoenix works as Aslanov’s assassin. After selling a stolen “Bacon” to Mboyo, the nigerian Drug queen of Toulouse, Yannick comes up with the idea of getting a fake painted, authenticised and destroyed, enter Darya, russian of course, who inhabits the painter in order to create the fakes. here this means Francis Bacon, a very disturbed painter.


One evening he receives a short sharp SMS from Olivier telling him that Antoine Riva had accepted his invitation to the Opening Night. At the time, Yannick could no longer remember why he had been so set on meeting up with the Expert, then it came back to him, and he gets another crazy message from Darya/Francis and says to himself that he’ll come back to it later.***


Enough! This was a long book, and as improbable as last year’s, The taste of my mother’s lipstick, This book really did not please me, I like my crime with a dash of credibility, hope they stop choosing the same authors for multiple years…..

First Published in French as “Trente grammes” in 2021 by Éditions du Masque.
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

La réalité, Yannick, c’est que tu ne veux pas nous voir nous entre-tuer, n’est-ce pas? Aslanov est un père pour toi, et moi, je suis l’amour de ta vie. De ton point de vue, on est en plein drame shakespearien.

Je n’arrivais pas à décider si je devais me réjouir ou m’inquiéter de ton invitation. Puis je me suis souvenue de ton appétence pour le sexe oral et j’ai décidé de me réjouir. Yannick la détaille, amusé. Pour être tout à fait juste, la salle d’escalade n’est pas le mensonge que Boussaïdi sert à son mari et ses deux ados pour justifier ses absences, seulement une partie de la vérité:

Un soir, il reçoit un SMS laconique d’Olivier lui annonçant qu’Antoine Riva a accepté l’invitation à son vernissage. Sur le coup, Yannick ne se rappelle plus pourquoi il voulait tant rencontrer l’expert, puis ça lui revient, et il reçoit un autre message délirant de Darya/Francis et se dit qu’il verra ça plus tard.

Michèle Pedinielli ‘La patience de l’immortelle’

Quai du Polar 2022: Books shortlisted for the readers prize, Book read Number 4

Michèle Pedinielli : La patience de l’immortelle (L’éditions de l’aube)


Letizia is dead, it doesn’t make any sense. Because I only know ne Letizia, she’s Jo’s niece, the daughter of his sister Antoinette. But Jo’s niece, his sister Antoinette’s daughter, is a magnificent young woman who has no reason to die.I sometimes come across her face on the television when the regional news are on when by thumb zaps onto France 3 Corsica where she is the news anchor, well dressed in her suit, as if to hide her juvenile face.***


Diuo, from last year’s selection for the same prize, well they are faithful to their writers, this is one of two writers who were also present last year, is asked by her ex husband Jo to go to Corsica to investigate his niece’s death. Letizia from the opening quote is found in the boot of her car, in the middle of nowhere in Corsica, shot at close range and then burned with the car, presumably to destroy any clues. Well when a journalist is shot dead you look into their investigations which is what Diou does, whilst the police warn her off and question the person she was due to meet that night, an isolated sheep farmer. Where the police get short shrift, Diou, who lived on the Island at the beginning of her first marriage to Jo is able to get some information, although she gets no help from Antoinette on from Antoinette’s sister in law , Diane who with her grown up son Pasquale lives with Antoinette after her husband is shot dead in a hinting accident, and as often in Corsica, the perpetrator was never found. And then Letizia husband goes missing:


Nothing special happened on my first morning alone, until I walked into the bar. I sat down at the same table, Ange brought me a coffee without sugar and didn’t leave at once. “Jean Noel has disappeared.” I dropped my tablet I was getting out of my bag. It fell on the cup making a terrible mess, the owner grabbed his tea towel to mop up whilst I tried to limit the mess. Without a word, he went back to his percolator and returned with a new espresso. I was still there mouth wide open.***


Nothing is over telegraphed, but as the story goes on, lead after lead head nowhere, swindles to make money from previously non constructible land or drug trafficking involving Diane and Pasquale lead nowhere. Diane tries to see Antoinette but is always sent away by Diane.


I get back in the car to cross the village up to Antoinette’s house. I must stop thinking of it as Antoinette’s house because it’s Dianes’s house too. Speaking of the devil….The pigheaded one is sweeping out the yard. She looks up seeing me coming. Before I could even open my mouth to say hello, she marks her territory. “You can’t see Antoinette, she’s in bed. She’s been resting since the police left. – They told you about the case? – No.” As if I could expect anything else. Suddenly I realise, almost with joy: Diane isn’t the incarnation of Colomba, but of Cerberus, the dog guarding hell.***


I’m really not sure that this book is better than last years selection, Après les chiens, and since last year’s didn’t win…..

First Published in French as “La patience de l’immortelle” in 2021 by L’éditions de l’aube.
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Letizia est morte. Ça n’a toujours pas de sens. Parce que Letizia, je n’en connais qu’une, c’est la nièce de Jo, la fille de sa sœur Antoinette. Mais la nièce de Jo, la fille de sa sœur Antoinette, est une magnifique jeune femme qui n’a aucune raison de mourir. Je croise son visage parfois à la télévision à l’heure des informations régionales quand mon pouce zappe sur le canal de France 3 Corse où elle présente les journaux, vêtue d’un tailleur strict, comme pour faire oublier son visage juvénile.

Ma première matinée solitaire n’a pas été remarquable, jusqu’à ce que j’arrive au bar. Je me suis installée à la même table, Ange m’a apporté un café sans sachet de sucre et n’est pas reparti tout de suite. « Jean Noël a disparu. » J’en lâche la tablette que j’étais en train de sortir de mon sac. Elle tombe sur la tasse, ça fait un bordel monstre, le cafetier saisit son torchon pour éponger pendant que je tente de limiter les dégâts. Sans un mot, il retourne à son percolateur et revient avec un nouvel expresso. Je n’ai toujours pas refermé la mâchoire.

Je reprends la voiture pour traverser le village jusqu’à la maison d’Antoinette. Il faut que j’arrête de penser à «la maison d’Antoinette» parce que c’est aussi celle de Diane. Speaking of the Devil… La Raidissime est en train de balayer dans la cour. Elle lève la tête en me voyant arriver. Avant même que j’aie ouvert la bouche pour la saluer, elle édicte sa loi. Tu ne pourras pas voir Antoinette, elle est couchée. Elle se repose depuis que les policiers sont repartis. — Ils vous ont donné des informations sur l’enquête ? — Non. » Comme si je pouvais m’attendre à autre chose. Soudain, ça me saute aux yeux presque joyeusement : Diane n’est pas l’incarnation de Colomba mais celle de Cerbère, le chien qui garde les enfers.

Elsa Marpeau ‘L’âme du fusil’

Quai du Polar 2022: Books shortlisted for the readers prize, Book read Number 5

Elsa Marpeau : L’âme du fusil (Gallimard)


I was at home, I’m in my element, with my son, engaged in teaching him about nature, flora and fauna, teaching him the most beautiful subject, the world about us, as it is, the world the cracks beneath your feet, that’s covered with leaves, that’s crossed by streams – not the one we created, heavy, suffocating under layers of concrete and asphalt, the city that smothers you, the city that screeches, the noise of horns, car motors, of people shouting on the pavements, where no one breathes because the true city is underground in the metro.


Philip lives in a small hamlet in the deep in the counryside, he doesn’t work and spends his days waiting for his wife to come home from work and his son Lucas to come home from school, not much to keep him going except the camaraderie with his few friends and most important of all to his eyes, to initiate his reticent adolescent son to the ways of the country in contrast to city life as illustrated in the opening quote. But the arrival of a stranger from the city will change everything. Julien’s city charm will seduce some, Philip for instance and repulse others, mostly his friends.


The arrival of a Parisian in our backwater was far from normal. For him to windup here, either he had relatives in the area, but we would have known, or he was hiding. But from what, from who? I’d made my mind up to find out. To learn how he earned a living, what he was hiding , what he was up to.***


Philip is troubled by Julien at first, wants to understand why he is there and finally invites him to dine with him and his friends, in a hamlet you know your friends your whole life and know everything about them, this is the contrast Elsa Marpeau brings to the story, a contrast that is not particularly flattering for either Philip and his friends or Julien. Guns are of course commonplace in a hunting community and We learn or begin to understand the pull hunting has on Philip.


The parcelling out of land in country towns shows the foolishness of private property – parcels of 1 meter square in size, slicing across your land, belonging sometimes to a bloke living kilometers away…..It’s one of the reasons I like hunting: hunting relies on other laws, other rules, territory extends beyond administrative aberrations – the land isn’t parcelled out, isn’t divided up, the land remains indivisible.***


Julien doesn’t seem to work and wins regularly at poker with the friends after dinner, Lucas warns his father that he has seen Julien cheating but Philip does nothing, basking in the fact that Julien is his friend. But as things begin to go wrong and the book reaches its climax, the worst possible end awaits Philip.

The straightforward life of the country, with its unwritten rules known to all, sometimes harsh, where alpha males still rule comes into collision with the cupidity of city life. Elsa Marpeau has written a subtle story of what initially seems a straightforward no frills community.

First Published in French as “L’Âme du fusil” in 2021 by Gallimard.
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Le découpage des terres, dans les villes de campagne, révèle l’ineptie de la propriété privée – des parcelles d’un mètre carré de large, striant votre terrain, appartiennent parfois à un gars qui loge à des kilomètres de distance….C’est une des raisons pour lesquelles j’aime la chasse: la chasse, c’est d’autres lois, d’autres règles, des territoires qui s’étendent au-delà des aberrations administratives – la terre ne se parcellise pas, ne se découpe pas, la terre reste indivisible.

L’arrivée d’un Parisien dans notre trou perdu n’avait rien de naturel. Pour qu’il atterrisse ici, c’est soit qu’il y avait de la famille, mais on l’aurait su, soit qu’il se cachait. Mais de quoi, de qui? J’étais fermement décidé à l’apprendre. À savoir comment il gagnait sa vie, ce qu’il venait dissimuler, ce qu’il mijotait.

j’étais chez moi, dans mon domaine, avec mon fils, chargé de lui apprendre la nature, faune et flore, lui apprendre le plus beau des enseignements, le monde autour de nous, le vrai, celui qui craque sous les pieds, qui se couvre de feuilles, qui dévale les cours d’eau – pas celui qu’on a créé, plombé, étouffé sous des couches de béton et d’asphalte, la ville qui t’asphyxie les tripes, la ville qui beugle, brouhahas de klaxons, de moteurs de voiture, de gars qui gueulent sur les trottoirs, où plus personne ne respire parce que la vraie ville citadine est sous terre, dans le métro.

Emma Stonex ‘The Lamplighters’


When they built these towers they made sure our bedrooms faced the coast, a lighthouse keeper retires to his bed feeling his beacon settle on home and they want your beacon there, img_3150they don’t want you getting ideas about the sea beneath you, quieter and deeper than it’s safe to know. a keeper’s in bed, that’s when his memories grow bigger than he is and he needs the land, to be sure it’s there, the way a child listens for his father’s footsteps in the middle of the night. We’re all tied to the land.


Back in 1972 the three men living on the Maidan rock, Aurthur the PK (Principal Keeper), Bill his assistant and their junior, Vince the Young first time keeper, dissapear. Based on a true event Stonex tells us that all the clocks in the tower were stopped showing the same time and that the door was locked from the inside. The story oscillates between events in 1972 and events in the “present day”, 1992 as a writer of maritime fiction takes it on himself, by talking to the bereaved widows, to get to the roots of what happened back then. The opening quote helps to show something of the true loneliness that life, something that back then before the internet and cell phones, that over time could exercise on the keepers who could spend up to three months at a time on duty.

The tower life, of course, attracts men with a reason to live this life, from the PK who had never recovered from his only son’s drowning, to Vince hoping to avoid a life of crime with thisoffering a way out and from Aurthur who believes that living prolonged periods with two other people is “as good as it gets”:


Occasionally it strikes me how much time I spend with men i’d otherwise have nothing to do with. At home I don’t make friends easily, I don’t have the knack. People come and go there’s no time, can’t find a way in. Here it isn’t a choice, we learn to live together in a narrow column with no way out, men become friends, friends become brothers. For “Only Children” this is as good as it gets, when I was a boy I heard it as “Lonely Children”. I thought it was that through to when I was fourteen and saw the right thing printed on a medical pamphlet.


Through the women’s stories and their secrets, through Helen, Jenny and Michele, Stonex tells us of their grief, of their not knowing and why events drove them apart. Beginning by the backwards and forwards in time to let us see some of the pressures, from the shady Trident House that runs the lighthouses and gives no information on what might have happened, to the fact that the company provided housing so that even on land the keepers, and their wives lived next door to each other, sometimes passing long periods at home whilst their neighbour was away, she paints the picture, the background to those events.

In this slow moving, classy, well told whodunnit Stonex leads us on to her imagined final scenes in both 1972 and twenty years later. A story I would warmly recommend.

First Published in English as “The Lamplighters” in 2021 by Picador

Olivier Bordaçarre ‘Appartement 816’

Quai du Polar 2022: Books shortlisted for the readers prize, Book read Number 3

Olivier. Bordaçarre: Appartement 816 (L’Atalante)


I’m 1m71; I weigh roughly 75 kilos; I was born on the 2nd of November 1989 at 7.30 in the morning; I live at number 9 rue Emmanuel-Bronstin; I’m 41 years old; I wear size 41 shoes; my Sanipass number is 1891178283712 33; according to my bill from Ravi, I’ve eaten 81 125 gram tins of tuna (10.12 kgs) and 50 750 gram tins of chick peas (37.5 kgs) since the start of the Total General Isolation. That’s to say one tin of tuna every two days for six and a half months; one tin of chick peas every four days.


Didier Martin, simple accountant seems to be holding it all together, even if he is writing his diary in small print on the wall of his apartment where he lives with his wife Karin, his adolescent son Jérémy and his dog. He had to go through his diary to be sure of the facts, France is entering its 30th straight month of isolation for its inhabitants, the last six months have been IGT, Total General Isolation, that is to say Didier, his family and his dog have not been able to leave their apartment at all for the last six months. The detail in his diary entries concerning himself and his diet illustrated in the opening quote tells us something of the strain he is under and the following quote tells us of how his mind is telling him that isolation is normal, maybe even beneficial to fight against….loneliness.


You have to accept the evidence, living with your times is necessarily living without movement. Without flow we can do everything with a simple internet connection. It’s exactly what is happening with Rezo isn’t it? Aren’t we in touch with our friends, our families? We can see each other, talk to each other, exchange information, help each other get over problems. Thanks to the virus, digital connections have replaced all of our actions from everyday life and saved people from loneliness.***


Food is delivered by drones, which also ensure the rules are followed and waste is evacuated in plastic bags without human intervention. But as you can imagine the situation in a strain on interpersonal relations within the family, his son Jérémy is an asshole, his wife doesn’t always agree with him and his dog pisses and shits on the balcony floor that he has to clean up every time ( why only him you might ask):


I wouldn’t mind making other efforts, write inside our kitchen cupboard doors, for instance, or on the closet walls behind the shoes, but, when I propose something that goes a little in her sense looks at me silently and the walks off. Discussion is impossible. I asked her, then, once and for all (and Im writing it down in black and white today), not to shout any more. She’s free to express herself, she can criticise me as she wishes, I’m not totally opposed to dialogue, but without shouting. Without shouting. Otherwise. It just isn’t possible. We wont be able to carry on like that. The three of us live together in this apartment, we can’t do that without rules.***


Didier does some pretty normal things under the circumstances and evacuates the body parts in the plastic waste bags. At the end of the IGT it would seem that a large number of people in France are “missing”.

A book with a certain humour, the deliveries being taken over by a company named after the largest river in North America, Mississippi, for instance. A more interesting read than I had at first imagined but again this would not be my choice for the winner.

First Published in French as “Appartement 816″ in 2021 by L’Atalante.
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Je mesure 1 mètre et 71 centimètres; je pèse 75 kilogrammes environ; je suis né le 2 novembre 1989 à 7 heures 30 minutes; j’habite au numéro 9 de la rue Emmanuel-Bronstin; j’ai 41 ans; je fais du 42 de pointure; mon numéro de SaniPass est le 1891178283712 33; d’après les factures récapitulatives du site Ravi, j’ai mangé 81 boîtes de thon de 125g (10,12 kg) et 50 boîtes de pois chiches de 750g (37,5 kg) depuis le début de l’Isolement Général Total. C’est-à-dire une boîte de thon tous les deux jours pendant six mois et demi une boîte de pois chiches tous les quatre jours.

Il faut forcément se rendre à l’évidence. Vivre avec son temps, c’est vivre désormais sans mouvement. Sans circulation. On peut tout faire grâce à une simple connexion Internet. C’est bien ce qui se passe au niveau de Rezo, non? Est-ce qu’on n’est pas en lien avec ses amis, sa famille? On peut se voir, se parler, échanger des informations, s’aider à surmonter un problème. Grâce au virus, le numérique a pris le relais sur l’ensemble des actions de la vie courante et sauve les gens de leur solitude.

Je veux bien faire d’autres efforts, écrire à l’intérieur des portes des placards de la cuisine, par exemple, ou sur les murs du cagibi derrière les chaussures, mais, quand je fais une proposition qui irait un peu dans son sens, Karine me regarde sans rien dire et elle s’en va. Quand je fais un pas en avant, elle me fauche. Comme elle l’a toujours fait. Elle s’en va. La discussion est impossible. Je lui ai demandé, donc, une bonne fois pour toutes (et je l’écris aujourd’hui noir sur blanc) de ne plus crier. Elle est libre de s’exprimer, peut tout à fait critiquer ce que je fais, je ne suis pas fermé au dialogue, mais sans crier. Sans crier. Sinon, ça ne va pas être possible. On ne va pas pouvoir continuer sur ce ton. On vit à trois dans cet appartement, cela ne peut pas se passer dans ces conditions.