Patrice Gain ‘Le sourire du Scorpion’

Quai du Polar 2021: Books shortlisted for the readers prize, Number 5

Patrice Gain: Le sourire du scorpion (MOT ET LE RESTE)

You don’t start your life over, you carry on with it, sometimes with other interests, often with other people, but you can’t delete the past. Life is the sum of many varied experiences, good or bad, delightful or dull, and the last one we add to the pile will bring it all down and life will end there.***

People’s lack of knowledge of what is for me the recent past can still easily surprise me, as here when we discover that one of the main protagonists had belonged to the Scorpions, a paramiltary group in the Bosnian war and the people around him had never heard of the war, or of Radko Mladic and so on. In this story, a family, Tom and his twin sister Luna, their parents and a friend they had met camping, Goran, are out rafting on the Tara in Montenegro. Patrice Gain instills a feeling of anxiety in the story and in one of the dangerous stretches they capsize, the twins and their mother are separated from Goran and their father. Goran makes it back to them but the father is presumed drowned and his body is not found. Goran then helps them, is on hand when they need him, and slowly replaces the father.

The family live all year round in a converted lorry, carrying out seasonal work with the children not really staying in any school for very long. The story is narrated by Tom who then starts an apprenticeship the year after his father’s death, he tells us of Goran entering their lives, of their mother falling under Goran’s influence, of his close sister moving away and avoiding them, and of being alone as his mother and Goran dissapear without warning at first for weeks on end and then longer. Tom is dissorientated living alone in the lorry in the mountains, often cold not understanding the events around him. One weekend, exceptionally, Luna comes back with some of her new friends:

Luna had never seemed so beautiful as at that moment. An outline that matched to perfection the sudden aridness of the area. The lads and girls enjoyed themselves and the evening was so vibrant. It was hot and it went onlate into the night. The farm hadn’t known such fervour in a long time.***

Tom seems surprised when Sule, a Bosniac he works with recognises Goran. One night Sule with a group of Bosniacs are looking for Goran at the lorry, they question Tom roughly, Tom who never knows where Goran and his mother are, and when they say Goran would never leave anything to chance, that he chose them, and that he specifically chose them because they were homeless dropouts, Tom is taken aback for the first time by this vision from outside, by the realisation that this view of the situation, but especially the fact that they live on the margins of society is true.

Of course Goran is much worse than Tom can imagine. This uncomfortable story is based on the true life events of a genocidal criminal arrested in Lyon in 2011.

First Published in French as “Le sourire du scorpion” in 2020 by MOT ET LE RESTE.
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

On ne refait pas sa vie, on la poursuit, avec d’autres horizons parfois, d’autres personnes souvent, mais on n’efface pas le passé. Une vie n’est que l’empilement de tout un fatras de choses, bonnes ou mauvaises, goûteuses ou fades, et la dernière que l’on pose sur le tas fait s’écrouler l’ensemble et elle s’arrête là.

Luna ne m’est jamais apparue aussi belle qu’à cet instant-là. Une silhouette qui s’appariait merveilleusement avec l’abrupte aridité des lieux. Les gars et les filles ont exulté et la soirée a été très animée. Il faisait chaud et elle s’est étirée tard dans la nuit. La ferme n’avait pas connu pareille ferveur depuis bien longtemps.

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