Faïza Guene’s Bar Balto is a whodidn’tdoit. Joel ‘The Rink’,because his head was smooth enough to skate on, the opinionated racist owner of the local bar in a dead end Paris suburb is found dead in a pool of his own blood early one morning and like an Agatha Christie everyone had a reason to hate him. As he describes himself
For years I’ve played the on-hand shrink. Spent whole evenings listening to them whingeing on about their shitty problems and dishing out their dirty jokes. My bar would make a mental-health ward look like a tea room. I used to try raising the level of conversation, but it never got any higher than the dole.
The book is organised into chapters which each represent the monologue of a suspect speaking to the investigators whom we never meet and who have no voice. Each of the suspects is a character study of the mix of people living in this poor suburb at the end of the commuter line where nothing ever happens and who have a link to the Balto. Each of the suspects has a nickname which describes them through an activity or a physical attribute, Joel ‘the rink’ for instance or Tanièl, aka Tani, Turkey Boy or Lazy Bugger.
Faïza Guene’s character studies are each handled in two separate chapters where she brings these people to life, we understand that they are all preoccupied with their fight for day to day survival, that they all harbour a dream and that none of them has the time or inclination to plan a murder, we then learn about their interrelationships with each other and their petty jealousies and grievances and how they suffer from and handle the way others perceive them, racism, poverty, unemployment and loneliness.
The story is told almost entirely, at least in the French edition, in realistic slang (a real challenge for the translator). For instance in the English version as Taniel says
I’m not Turkish…..It’s jarrin’, all this ‘Turkey Boy’ stuff. When we go for a kebab at the station, my boys pack me off to talk in Turkish if the chef messes up our order, but shit, I don’t even speak that language. Then again, I don’t speak Armenian either. They’re jealous because I’ve banged Magalie, the blonde girl from Acacia Street. They were all sniffing her out. Especially Ali. He’s new around here but he’s Muslim and from Marseille, so he gets respect. He can’t get enough of taking the piss out of people. I ain’t no fool, I know he does it to take the attention off him. In the looks department, you see, Ali’s butterz.
Without wishing to analyse or criticise the translator, as already mentioned this book must be a challenge for a translator, taking the last sentence from above as an example, in French “Il faut dire que niveau physique, Ali, c’est chaud” seems to me to ring much truer. This book was a fun read, but if you can it should be read in French.
Faïza Guene herself was born and lived in a northern Paris superb and Bar Balto published in 2008 was her third book at the age of 23.
This was an easy going, quick read which I enjoyed.
First published in French as Les Gens du Balto by Hachettes Littératures in 2008
Translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone as Bar Balto and published by Chatto and Windus in 2012