“I’m sorry mate”, said his colleague. “My son broke his finger playing handball”.
“No problem” Melchior reassured him as he did up his safety belt. “I listened to a bunch of old people to pass the time”.
“I’ll bet all they talked about was the war”.
Melchor turned towards him.“How did you know”?
“Don’t talk rubbish”, said Sirvent.
“Here, the old folks don’t talk about anything else. As if nothing else has happened here in Terra Alta in the last 80 years”.***
This book, my third read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021, and my second by Javier cercas after ‘Outlaws‘ follows the main protagonist Melchor, who identifies his life with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and in particular, not to Jean Valjean but to Javert. Not the man who must choose between “Staying in heaven and becoming a demon or going back into hell and becoming an angel” but “the pretend bad guy, and pretend bad guys are the real good guys”. He even names his daughter Cosette.
Just for a change(heavy sarchasm) the story follows two distinct time lines, the present in Terra Alta and the past which has moulded Melchor. In the present, the story begins with an atrocious murder, the owner of the largest company in the area, Francisco Addel and his wife are sadistically tortured to death in their home, enough to shock the police at the death scene as illustrated below. In Terra Alta everyone knows everyone and the enquiry soon becomes bogged down and the task force eventually gets re-deployed. In the second time line we learn that Melchor much like Jean Valjean has been in prison and then with false paperwork was able to become a policeman, following a shooting incident where Melchor puts to good use the training he had working for a Cartel, he shoots dead four terrorists, making him famous, the police who had begun to realise his paperwork was suspect ensure his legitimacy and send him into the isolated Terra Alta until things quieten down.
Goma watches them all for a moment then points to a puddle of sticky stuff on the floor.
“Can anybody explain to me what this is”?
“The patrolman who came in with me vomitted”, Melchor answers.
“He wasn’t the only one”, adds deputy inspector Barrera. “Except that the others were more discreet”.***
This is a story of meanness, of cupidity and of revenge. And what if Javert once again had to choose, would he arrest the killer or let him go? throw into the cauldron the murder of Melchor’s wife.
Cercas keeps our attention and leaves enough doubt about Melchor’s choices.
First Published in spanish as “Terra Alta” in 2021, by Booket
Translated into french by Aleksandar Grujicic and Karine Louesdon and published as “Terra Alta” by Actes Sud in 2021
*** my translation
The quotes as read in French before translation
—Je suis désolé, mec, dit son collègue. Mon fils s’est cassé un doigt en jouant au hand.
—Pas de souci, le rassura Melchor en bouclant sa ceinture de sécurité. J’ai écouté un groupe de vieux, ça m’a fait passer le temps.
—Je parie qu’ils parlaient de la guerre.
Melchor se tourna vers lui.
—Comment tu sais ça?
—Arrête tes conneries, dit Sirvent. Ici, les vieux ne parlent que de ça. Comme s’il ne s’était rien passé en Terra Alta ces quatre-vingts dernières années.
Goma reste un moment à les observer puis montre du doit une flaque d’une matière pâteuse qui souille le sol.
—Quelqu’un pourrait m’expliquer ce que c’est?
—Le patrouilleur qui est entré avec moi a vomi, répond Melchor.
—Il n’a pas été le seul, ajoute le sous-inspecteur Barrera. Sauf que les autres ont été plus discrets.