Roxanne Bouchard ‘Nous sommes le sel de La mer’

Gaspésie is a land for the poor whose only wealth is the sea, then the sea dies. It’s a jumble of memories, a country which shuts its gob, and so doesn’t upset anyone, a land of misery with only the open sea as comfort. And so we hung on like men with nothing. Like fisherman that need to be consoled.***

“We Were the Salt of the Sea” , by Roxane Bouchard was my first book read this year for the Readers Prize at the Quai du Polar in Lyon this year. This a book about a remote fishing village in Quebec, at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence river. A land of fishermen before the sea fish, the cod and the Mackerel became rare, emprisoning the older villagers as the community ages and the younger generations tries to make the switch to tourism, as illustrated in the opening quote.
I will admit that the writing, trying to convey the local vernacular nearly lost me, the writing can only do half of the work and I don’t really have a reference in my mind for the musicality of this particular way of speaking allowing me to do my half of the work, I was further confused by the Hiiii before every sentence spoken by Cyrille, thinking it was his way of speaking ( but before every sentence), only learning at the end that he had trouble breathing. But with Vital always saying “saint-ciboire-de-câlisse?” With every sentence and Renaud beginning every sentence with “j’m’en vas vous dire rien qu’une affaire,” I confess I found this off putting.

But I persevered through the first thirty pages, and what chance, this is a marvellous book!
Set mostly in the modern day but with a couple of flashbacks to the seventies. As the book begins back then, a woman is giving birth alone on a yacht, a sailor on another ship in the dock hears screaming and comes aboard, helping to finish the birth.
Forward to the present day as a drowned dead body is caught early one morning:

“Hiiii…Hi youngster! So you came in the end! — Well yeah! — Well we’re not going straight away. — what do you mean? What’s up? — It’s Vital. Hiiii… You who likes that, fishing stories, well you’re gonna get one! — I don’t follow. — Seems he caught a someone drowned in his net…. Hiiii…. S’what he said on his VHF radio.”***

We soon learn that the dead body is Marie Garant, a woman in her sixties who’s home is here but spends her life sailing around the world and only coming back every few years for a short stay. Why was the detective from the City, Montréal, chosen to investigate in this village where everyone knows everyone and the coroner decides from the start that this must be an accident, she must have hit her head on the boom and fallen overboard. Who is the young woman Catherine Day that turned up around the time of the “accident” and is asking questions? Nearly all of the protagonists are of a similar age to Marie Garant. And why does she always go back to sea, as Cyrille tells Catherine:

Exoticism is a trap, doc, temporary entertainment for amateur photographers that make a scrapbook of their lives.***

The facts, or the memories of this story: another sea death when every fishing family has lost someone at sea, this is not an unusual event, are slowly, almost reluctantly distilled over 300 pages as Roxanne Bouchard slows the story down to the speed of the sea.
This is a clear possible winner.

First Published in French by vlb éditeur in 2022.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

«La Gaspésie, c’est une terre de pauvres qui a juste la mer pour richesse, pis la mer se meurt. C’est un agrégat de souvenirs, un pays qui ferme sa gueule pis qui écœure personne, une contrée de misère que la beauté du large console. Pis on s’y accroche comme des hommes de rien. Comme des pêcheurs qui ont besoin d’être consolés.»

«Hiiii… Salut la p’tite! T’es venue, finalement! — Ben oui! — Mais on partira pas tout de suite. — Comment ça? Qu’est-ce qui se passe? — C’est Vital. Hiiii… Toi qui aimes ça, les histoires de pêche, tu vas en avoir toute une! — Je comprends pas. — Ça a l’air qu’y’a ramassé un noyé dans son filet… Hiiii… Y l’a dit dans sa radio marine.»

L’exotisme, c’est un leurre, doc, un divertissement temporaire pour les amateurs de photos qui font du scrapbooking avec leur vie.

Celeste Ng ‘Our Missing Hearts’

We know who caused all this people were beginning to say. Ask yourself who’s doing well because we’re on the decline, fingers pointed firmly east, look how China’s GDP was rising their standard of living climbing, Over there you’ve got Chinese rice farmers with smartphones one congressman ranted on the house floor, over here in the US of A you got Americans using buckets for toilets because their water’s turned off for non payment. Tell me how that’s not backwards, just tell me.

Celeste Ng brings us a dystopian novel of a society turned inward on itself following a terrible depression and riots, The USA. The first step is to identify a scapegoat, China as illustrated in the opening paragraph. The second step is to create “entirely justifiable laws” to protect all Americans from un American ideas, PACT:

PACT “Preserving American Culture and Traditions”, a solemn promise to root out any anti-American elements undermining the nation…..Investing in America, funding for new initiatives to monitor China, and new watchdog groups to sniff out those who’s loyalties might be divided, rewards for citizen vigilance, information leading to potential troublemakers and finally, most crucially, preventing the spread of un-American views quietly removing children from un-American environments, the definition of which was ever expanding.

And the third step is then as described above, to remove children from homes considered anti PACT, often by denunciation .

Celeste No tells us this story through the eyes of Bird Gardner, a third generation descendant of Chinese immigrants. Bird is brought up by his father, not to make waves, to avoid trouble. We soon learn that his mother, an insignificant Chinese American Poet left him and his father one day without saying goodbye when he was nine years old. One day, Bird who has no friends at school meets a new pupil, Sadie, who lives with foster parents and who has moved several times, Sadie had, for a school assignment chosen to investigate families who’s children dad been taken under PACT and was soon after, herself, placed with foster parents and no longer knew where her own parents were.

We slowly learn that Bird’s mother left home to protect Bird after a piece of wild chance, a PACT protestor was killed and the photograph taken of her showed her with a copy of Margaret Miu’s poem Our Missing Hearts, the protestors begin using this phrase to represent resistance to PACT, and so Margaret Miu quickly becomes an enemy, a wanted person. We then learn the story of Margaret, whose own parents had tried to not make waves:

PACT was decades away but her parents felt it already, the eyes of the neighbourhood scrutinising their every move. Blending in they decided was their best option. So after she was born they dresses her in pink corduroy overalls and Mary Janes, tied ribbons in her pig tailed hair. When she got older they would buy her clothes off of the headless mannequin at the department store. Anything it wore she wore. Surreptitiously they studied the neighbourhood children and bought Margaret what they saw, Barbies, a Dream House, a cabbage Patch kid named Susana Marigold, a pink bike with white streamer handles, a toy oven that baked brownies by the light of a bulb: suburban camouflage from the Sears’ catalogue. Her father saying the stick hits the bird who holds its head the highest.

As one day Bird finds a hidden message and runs away to find his mother, she is preparing an audacious action to ensure that the taken children should not be forgotten.

First published in English by Penguin Press in 2022

Claire Keegan ‘Small Things like These‘

‘Your day was long,’ Furlong said. ‘What matter,’ she said. ‘That much is done. I don’t know why I put the cake on the long finger. There wasn’t another woman I met there this evening who hadn’t hers made.’ ‘If you don’t slow down, you’ll meet yourself coming back, Eileen.’ ‘No more than yourself.’ ‘At least I’ve Sundays off.’ ‘You have them off but do you take them, is the question.’

This book shortlisted for the Booker 2022, was a slow description of life, family and place, a precise description of a period in time, capturing the community and leading us to see the pressure of the church on everyday life, how the Laundries could have existed. Keegan gives us a little hope by putting a decent man, Furlong, at the centre of the story.
How nice to find here the idioms and way of speech that I assosciate with Ireland, illustrated in the opening quote.

Furlong, who runs a fuel stuffs delivery business, coal, peat, wood and has developed ‘good Protestant habits; was given to rising early and had no taste for drink’ had reached the stage in life where he started to wonder what life was about, when he will soon be tested:

Lately, he had begun to wonder what mattered, apart from Eileen and the girls. He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any kind of headway and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.

Delivering early one very cold morning to the convent on the outskirts of town he goes unannounced to the coal house whose bolt was difficult to undo due to the frost and finds a young woman locked in from the outside for more than just the night, lead on the cold floor with her excrement around her. He takes her in to the convent where the mother superior gives him tea as the young woman is cleaned up and fed, she must have got locked in for a prank he’s told.
When Furlong goes back to town he is aware of the pressure to conform, to let things be. People would not understand him if he did anything. Mrs Kehoe the shop keeper warns him that they’re all a one the nuns and priests and to be careful, that the only good education available to his own children is with the teaching nuns.

The air was sharper now, without his coat, and he felt his self-preservation and courage battling against each other and thought, once more, of taking the girl to the priest’s house – but several times, already, his mind had gone on ahead, and met him there, and had concluded that the priests already knew. Sure hadn’t Mrs Kehoe as much as told him so? They’re all the one.

A straightforward forward story that captures the moment in time, 1985 just before the religious scandals of the nineties.

First published in English by Faber and Faber in 2021.

Patrick Radden Keefe ‘Say Nothing’

One Summer day in 2013, two detectives strode into the Burns Library. They were not Boston detectives. In fact, they had just flown into the country from Belfast, they were working for the serious Crime Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland….The detectives had come to collect a series of secret files….The recordings were now officially evidence in a criminal proceedings. The detectives were investigating a murder.

So, in the summer I was offered this book by my daughter and her beau. Was Gerry Adams a member of the provisional IRA as he denies, this is the question at the heart of this thick, well researched book which sets out the geography of “The Troubles”, the book does a minimum on the origins, treated either way in great detail elsewhere. There are two starting points for this work, one historical, the “disappearance” of Jean McConville, a mother of ten from her home in the Divis flats, a public housing complex in West Belfast, and a second more recent event, as described in the opening quotes of the recordings of key actors in the Provisional IRA made after the peace agreements.

Secondly, the recordings: there was as in any terrorist organisation an Omertà in place, no one would talk about anything, but the Burn’s library in Boston was able to persuade the ageing, once active terrorists that their testimony would be safe and would be useful for historical research, a shaky assertion that was proved wrong. But the people that spoke on tape were bitter about the way things had turned out and weren’t motivated only by historical reasons.

Firstly the “dissapearance” of Jean McConville: there were very few “disappearances” during the troubles, the Provisionals preferring leaving the corpses in view for intimidation. McConville, a widowed mother of ten, living in the Divis flats, was suspected of being an informer. On What and to whom?
One of the things that the recordings made clear is that the Provisionals were themselves, as an organisation, riddled with informers.

The two key testimonies came firstly from Dolours Price, who was the leader of the group that bombed the Old Bailey based on her own analysis and insistance as the first woman to join the Provisionals:

It was a case study in strategic insanity:the Irish were blowing up their own people in a misguided attempt to hurt the English, and the English hardly even noticed. It bothered Price. ‘This is half their war’ she would say to Wee Pat McClure, the head of the Unknowns, as they sat around call houses between operations. ‘Only half of it is our war. The other half is their war, and some of it should be fought on their territory’. She became convinced that a short sharp shock – an incursion into the heart of the Empire – would be more effective than twenty car bombs in any part of the North of Ireland’.

And secondly from Brendan Hughes, the officer commanding D company of the Provisionals, whose direct commander was Adams and who had been in Long Kesh together, Adams and Hughes were close as when he turned up in a flat afterHughes had been shot:

That Adams had come personally meant a great deal to Hughes, because it was risky for him to do so. According to the Special Branch of the RUC, Adams had been commander of the Ballymurphy unit of the Provisionals, and later became the officer commanding of the Belfast brigade – the top IRA man in the city. He was a marked man, more wanted by the authorities than even Hughes.

For anyone who recognises the current trend for implausible denial, ‘ if I don’t admit to it…..’ Putin’s habitual defence for instance, Adams’ defence to accusations of his implication in the Provisionals will come as no surprise:

Gerry Adams, meanwhile, angrily contested Price’s claim, noting that she was a ‘long-standing opponent of Sinn Féin and the peace process’. Price was suffering from ‘trauma’, Adams pointed out, adding, ‘there obviously are issues she has to find closure on for herself.’ It was the same criticism Adams had levelled at Hughes, who he characterised as having ‘his issues and difficulties’.

Lives up to the hype.

First published in English by William Collins in 2018

Quai du Polar 2023 and we’re off

It’s that time of year again, Quai du Polar is back and for the “Prix des Lecteurs”, on the 12th of January, the following 5 books are in the running for 2023.

  • Nous étions le sel de la mer de Roxanne Bouchard – Éditions de L’Aube
  • Le Blues des phalènes de Valentine Imhof – Éditions du Rouergue
  • L’affaire de l’île BarbeSurin d’Apache 1 de Stanislas Petrosky – AFITT Éditions
  • Pas de littérature ! de Sébastien Rutés – Éditions Gallimard
  • Héroïne de Tristan Saule – Le Quartanier Éditeur

I’m not sure if “in the running” means Shortlist, but I’ll soon find out.

If you decide to read these books before the event to outguess the jury, let me know!

Négar Djavadi ‘Arène’

Sam’s brain thinks ahead at full speed. It’s out of the question for her to give him this chance, then have to watch his devilish efficient demonstration of how to do it, dropping a little comment on the way such as: « at one time or another you have to know how to get things done. We’re not going to wake him up softly with a cup of tea! » a phrase she could quickly translate as « what the fuck are you up to, Baydar, stood there whispering sweet nothings in his ear! »***

This is Négar Djavadi’s second book, Arène, as in the Arena in Ancient Rome. The real leading role in this book is the forgotten Eastern arrondissements of Paris, centred here on Belleville, where the different housing estates have been forgotten by the politicians, they are poor, with an economy based on drug trafficking and tit for tat killings between the young gang members of the different estates, added to this are the many migrants sleeping in the streets.

A young man dies on the bank of a canal and the powder keg explodes.

Djavadi tells this story through a huge cast of characters, firstly from the point of view of Benjamin Grossman, in charge of the sector « France » of BeCurrent, the primary competitor of Netflix, back from Los Angeles and visiting his childhood home in one of these housing estates. In between being a person of major importance for the local entertainment industry and being unknown on the streets of Belleville, and his culture shock coming back to this from LA. Grossman may be responsible for the death, having pushed the young man, thinking he had stolen Grossman’s phone, the man, Issa Zeitounï, falls awkwardly and bangs his head before getting up and walking away.

There is the young policewoman Baydar, of Turkish origin, already disowned by her family for joining the police, illustrated in the opening quote, under pressure from her macho team mate, Dalloz and who finds Issa by the banks of the canal, thinks he is a drugged migrant, shakes him and then ceding to the pressure, kicking him to try to get a response, before discovering he is dead.

There is Camille a young sixth form student and video activist who films Baydar and edits her video to show the police not even leaving the local people alone when they are dead but kicking their corpses:

Like everyone on Twitter, Camille is after popularity and followers. Anyone who would sign up to a social network without these aims would be relegated to being a third class citizen, an”Invisible”, a “Beggar”, condemned to a long stay in the hold with the rats and other forgotten people.***

And then there is Stéphane Jahanguir Sharif, an observer of society, as his Twitter handle goes, who’s part in the drama is to use his followers to whip up dissent, and his trusted supporters on the ground to lead the violence.

There wouldn’t be a story without a tragedy as things get out of hand, there will be winners and losers but few will be indifferent, and of course the local politician tries to shine.

There were a lot of characters, requiring concentration to follow all of the strands of this story, looking at how little it can take in our on line society to whip up violence. I would read this book again.

First Published in French by Levi in 2020.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Le cerveau de Sam anticipe à toute vitesse. Hors de question qu’elle lui laisse cette opportunité, puis le regarde achever sa démonstration, redoutablement efficace, balançant au passage une petite phrase du genre: « À un moment, il faut savoir en découdre. On va pas se l’jouer pensionnat chic, réveil en douceur et compagnie! » Phrase au qu’elle se dépêcherait de traduire par: « qu’est-ce que tu fous, Baydar, plantée là, à lui susurrer des petits mots doux à l’oreille! »

Comme tout le monde sur Twitter, Camille court après la popularité et les followers. D’ailleurs, s’inscrire sur un réseau social sans set objectif vous reléguerait très vite au rang de citoyen de troisième classe, un Invisible, un Gueux, condamné à un séjour prolongé dans la cale parmi les rats et les autre oubliés.

Anne Tyler “French Braid”

How did anyone really know what was really going in their kids lives. He had long ago accepted that his experience of fatherhood was not what he used to envision, the girls and he got along thank heaven but girls were more a mother’s business and so he couldn’t take much credit for that. David on the other hand, for some reason he and David had never seemed quite in step with each other.

French Braid begins with an everyday story of girl invited to meet boy’s family. Nothing out of the ordinary here, just life made up of many small details, As Serena and James head back to Baltimore by train Serena glances across the station and sees a man that makes her think of her cousin Nicolas, but how could she not recognise him?

She happened to notice a young man in a suit who had paused to let the cart roll past him. “Oh,” she said. James looked up from his phone. “Hmm?” “I think that might be my cousin,” she said in an undertone. “Where?” “That guy in the suit.” “You think it’s your cousin?” “I’m not really sure.” They studied the man. He seemed older than they were, but not by much. (It might just have been the suit.) ….. “It might be my cousin Nicholas,” Serena said. “Maybe he just resembles Nicholas,” James said. “Seems to me if it was really him, you could say for certain.” “Well, it’s been a while since we’ve seen each other,” Serena said. “He’s my mom’s brother David’s son; they live up here in Philly.”

Anne Tyler then takes us back in time through two generations of Serena’s family, to her grandparents and their young children and we observe their lives in much the same way as we had seen Serena’s first meeting with James’s parents, through the small details and we learn to see the impact of seemingly small events on people’s lives, for instance on Serena’s grandfather Robin’s reflection late in his life, illustrated by the opening quote.

Hidden in the various interactions is a day when Nicolas’s father, David, was a young boy which could be seen as one of many moments leading to his father’s reflections later in life, here is a quote as Mercy, Serena’s grand mother wanted time for herself and Robin takes responsibility for his son, but maybe in the sixties fathers didn’t understand so easily the complexities of their sons as Robin has a sink or swim view of learning to swim:

She was no stranger to water, but after a few yards or so she stopped swimming and stood up. “Come on out” Robin called to her but she said “I don’t want to get my hair wet” she had the kind of hair that took forever to dry, thick, wavy with ringlets spilling from a chignon piled high on top of her head. She said “I was thinking, I might go and fetch my sketch pad and take a little walk in the woods, can you keep an eye on David?” “Sure thing” Robin said, I’ll teach him how to swim”.

My first experience of Anne Tyler’s writing didn’t disappoint, slow moving family drama with points of denial, like many families.

First published in English by Knopf in 2022

Percival Everett ‘The Trees’

Delroy jumped a little when Brady appeared behind him. “Good Lord Almighty!” Brady said. “Goddamn! Is that Junior Junior?”
“I think so,” Delroy said. “Any idea who the nigger is?”
“None.”
“What a mess,” Brady said. “Lord, Lordy, Lord, Lord, Jesus. Looky at that. His balls ain’t on him!”

“I see that.” “I think they’re in the nigger’s hand,” Brady said. “You’re right.” Delroy leaned in for a closer look.

“Don’t touch nothing. Don’t touch a gawddamn thing. We got ourselves some kind of crime here. Lordy.”

The book shortlisted for the Booker this year, didn’t pull be in by the title and I didn’t recognise Percival Everett, but what a book! How to start describing it?

The book begins in Money Mississippi, with two gruesome murders in short succession, both related. First there’s Junior Junior found dead by two local policemen Brady and Delroy as described in the opening quote. The “person of colour“, hope I got that right, found in the same room as Junior Junior is clearly well and truly dead, with his head smashed in, both bodies are taken to the local morgue. Soon after the coloured persons body is found to be missing, no longer in the morgue drawer.

Then the book takes on a surreal form when the same corpse is found next to Junior Junior’s brother in law, Wheat’s dead body with Wheat’s “nuts” in his hand. As each of the family and the policemen’s characters are drawn, we find ourselves in a caricature of poor white people in small town Mississippi (or I hope it’s a caricature). From Wheat’s wife, Charlene, known even to her young kids by her CB handle, Hot Mama Yeller to the mortician Rev doctor Fondle addressing a KKK meeting:

We got ourselves a situation white brothers, I’m afraid what we’re looking at is a real nigger uprising two of our own brothers lay dead and the killing nigger is on the goddamn loose.

Then the second layer of the book sets in as 2 MBI agents (yes , Mississippi bureau of investigation), both black are sent to investigate, and are not exactly welcome and the FBI sends a female black agent and together are able to realise that the locals still think it’s the 1930’s.

We are clearly in “Strange Fruit” country where a very old lady has kept a record of the more than 7000 negroes Lynched in the south with less than 1% of the people involved being questioned and much less being convicted, this is proposed by any definition as being a genocide, where the only way to remember them is to keep saying their names.

Then the killings get out of hand as more and more white people are killed. Even Trump has a cameo appearance.

An excellent idea to mix a murder mystery, farce and difficult to swallow facts.

First published in English by Influx Press in 2022

Shehan Karunatilaka ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’

When did you last see him?
Weeks ago at a press gathering, said he was quitting the war zone, I thought fair enough.
Johnny should have played poker, he could lie with his eyes, his nose and his teeth
What do you know about Center?
Heard the name, think it’s some aid organisation, which could mean a number of things.
So you know them?
Not really, CNTR could be raising funds for political groups or procuring weapons for militant ones, could be genuinely helping the innocents, hard to know who’s what these days, does your papa Stanley know you’re going around playing detective Columbo?………
Do you know what’s in those five envelopes?
I don’t need to, I can guess there’s two wars going on which means a lot of ugly things get photographed.

This book was originally chosen because it was on the Booker long list, but the after much prevarication by the time I came around to reading it, it had already won the prize!
This book then, really, and in every way, will lead you into a new world, or should that be worlds.
The book begins with Maali waking up with another one of his hangovers, but he and we soon discover that he is in fact dead and is in an in between world for seven moons, or days. The narrator is then the spirit of Maali Almeida.

Maali doesn’t remember how he died, and we slowly learn about him as at first we understand that he was a war photographer and fixer in Sri Lanka in the 1980’s and that he has some potentially explosive photographs hidden in five envelopes under his bed.

Maali was a gambler, living swathes of his life in casinos where with an ability to calculate odds he more or less survives from night to night, he uses the casino to meet people for his missions but also the two loves of his life, Jaki, who he explains gambling odds to and then moves in with and through her D.D or Dilan her cousin who Maali tries to lead out of the proverbial closet. Dilan’s father Sydney is an important minister in the Sri Lankan government. Maali is missing so Dilan goes looking for him, initially to Johnny from the British Embassy from the opening quote.

We learn of the wars in Sri Lanka, of the Tigers, but also the JVP who want to overthrow the state, of the Indian peacekeeping force of the UN and the US, each with their own role to play as illustrated by the following discussion between Sydney and Dilan

We are talking about letting foreign devils meddle in our affairs.
Didn’t your excellency the president invite the Indian army in, are they angels?
I voted against that Dylan, you know this. Don’t bite your nails man how old are you?
The UN forensic team had been invited by Rajahpaksa to train our local authorities on identifying bodies against the records of the missing, meanwhile the CIA were rumoured to be training our torturers.

The choice of dead bodies and atrocities to photograph are legion, only access remains a problem, as the book moves forward we learn that Maali has been carrying out a balancing act, working for the army but also for the international press, through Johnny but also through CNTR from the opening quote and that there are any number of groups that may have wanted to kill him.

In the in between Maali meets many people he has photographed but also the Mahakali, a powerful spirit made from thousands or spirits which it seems to have absorbed (a visit to Wikipedia would be useful here).
Maali’s spirit meets the torturers and the « palace » they operate from and is lead to think about dehumanising the people that are tortured and killed:

When the mahakali comes to a stop you leap off of its back and watch it melt into shadows cast by this ugly building at the base is the face of a pole cat it gives you the same disgusted look that all dead animals give you
« What are you looking at ugly? »
I get it, animals have souls, you dream, you do things for pleasure, you feel happy and sad, you understand pain and grief and love and family and friendship, humans don’t acknowledge this because it makes it easier to carve up the ones we find tasty, which isn’t you but that’s neither here nor there. I am profoundly sorry. The pole cat looks surprised or hungry or annoyed or you don’t know it’s a pole cat.
Screw your apology it says before vanishing into the mahakali’s flesh.
There are good reasons humans can’t converse with animals except after death because animals wouldn’t stop complaining and that would make them harder to slaughter. The same may be said for dissidents and insurgents and separatists and photographers of wars. The less they are heard the easier they are forgotten.

So who did kill Maali, and will he decide to be reborn?
I would say the Booker jury got this one right.

First published in English by Sort of Books in 2022

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.