Pierre Assouline ‘Sigmaringen’


In uniform, obedience is a virtue. It avoids going against authority. There are those that command and those that obey, and not only the Prussians.I know no other master than the prince, no other loyalty than to the Hohenzollern, no other house than the castle.***


As the book begins, in August 1944, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a part of the German aristocracy, are evicted from their 900 year old castle by the Führer at a half days notice to make way for the exiled Vichy government. The prince was able to negotiate that his Major-domo should stay in place with his staff to serve the new inhabitants and to ensure the integrity of this 380 room castle. So begins this very particular version of Upstairs Downstairs related by the Major-domo Julius, described in the opening quote.

Sigmaringen soon fills with the Vichy government, from the president, Marshal Pétain and his prime minister Laval, their ministers and a militia force in the castle overlooking the town, to a thousand or so french civilians in the town itself. Julius shows us through his eyes this pathetic circus, Pétain, who occupies the Prince’s apartments on the seventh floor, realising that he is in fact a prisoner as shown when Cecil Von Renthe-Fink, arrives for a meal with the Marshal, Von Renthe-Fink who had been Pétain’s “guardian angel” in Vichy, as Pétain tells Julius:


Excuse me Marshal, but Mr. Von Renthe-Fink has just arrived, he is in the antechamber. Maybe you know him……Do I know him? He followed me around for two years at the Hôtel du Parc!
Mr. Von Renthe-Fink is here for dinner and…..
I don’t remember having inviting my jailor to dine with us. He will dine alone.***


Laval, who occupies the royal apartments on the sixth floor spends the eight months preparing his defence whilst Julius has to organise the castle so that Pétain and Laval, who cannot stand each other, should never meet.

The ministers as for them, are divided into two clans, the passive and the active clan, the one looking to continue the simulacrum of government and the other planning their escape. Julius must organise things so that these two groups never meet either. And then there was Céline, the famous author of “Voyage au bout de la nuit”, but a confirmed anti-semite.

The upstairs-downstairs view of events is present throughout, with the servants being made up of the original German retinue, interspersed with some of the french exiles. As the allies advance, rumours abound, are their spies present? How will the Germans fight back? An example of two views follows during a conference given by the head of the belgian fascists, Léon Degrellé:


Upstairs:

Mr Degrelle claims to have information on the subject. Secret information, of course, he couldn’t reveal his source. He could only certify that in underground laboratories and hidden factories, brilliant german scientists were putting the final touches to terrifying arms of destruction:
“Vulcans forges! You’ll see! In the meantime, you can already see the devastation reaped by the Panzerfaust, the poor man’s weapon. Do you realise? A 50 Pfennig stovepipe blowing up tanks worth 25 million!
He gloated. His audience refrained from applauding…

Downstairs:

At the end of the evening, once the guests had rejoined their apartments, I lingered in the kitchens as two valets gave their versions of the conferences……imagine, he was on stage with all the chiefs, in the middle of explaining why Germany can’t lose the war, with his “Don’t be afraid to be true French and at the same time Europeans…. Europe will perish or will live on!” and his “It’s a soldier telling you this…. We’ll be the first in Brussels, be the first in Paris… Vive la France!”….
And then Céline, who was in the central aisle, he stopped, he stared him in the eyes, he shrugged his shoulders and then he walked off, he turned his back on him and left saying out loud: “Who is this complete idiot who won’t even look good on the gallows with that fools face?”***


This is also a book about Julius himself. Who is behind the impassive exterior? Can he be coaxed back towards showing his feelings? I felt a glossary of the ministers and their positions would have been an interesting addition for the reader.

First Published in French as “Sigmaringen” by Gallimard in 2014
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sous l’uniforme, obéissance fait vertu. Il évite même de s’opposer à l’authorité. Il y a ceux qui commandent et ceux qui obéissent, ep pas seulement chez les Prussiens. Or je ne me connaissais d’autre maître que le prince, d’autres loyauté que les Hohenzollern, d’aure maison que le château.

Pardon, monsieur le maréchal, mais M. Von Renthe-Fink vient d’arriver, il se trouve dans l’antichambre. Peut-être le connaissez-vous….Si je le connais? Je l’ai eu sur le dos pendant deux ans à l’Hôtel du Parc!
M. Von Renthe-Fink est là pour dîner et…..
Je ne me souviens pas d’avoir invité mon geôlier à notre table. Il dînera seule.

M. (Léon) Degrelle (le chef des fasciste Belges) disait détenir des informations sur le sujet. Des informations secrètes, naturellement, dont il ne pouvait revel la source. Il pouvait juste certifier que dans des laboratoires enfouis sous terre et des usines cachées, le génie scientifique allemand mettait au point de terribles armes de destruction:
“Les forges de Vulcain! Vous verrez! En attendant, voyez déjà les ravages causés par le Panzerfaust, l’arme du pauvre. Vous vous rendez compte? Un tuyau de poêle de 50 Pfennig qui fait sauter des tanks de 25 millions!”
Il exultait. Son public se retenait d’applaudir….

À la fin de la soirée, une fois que les invités eurent regagné leurs appartements, je m’attardai en cuisines car deux valets racontaient leur version de ces conférences…..Imaginer qu’il était à la tribune avec tous les chefs, en train d’expliquer pourquoi l’Allemagne ne pouvait pas perdre la guerre, avec des “N’ayez pas peur d’être des vrais Français tout en étant des Européens… L’Europe périra ou elle vivra!” et des “C’est un soldat qui vous parle…. Nous serons les premiers à Bruxelles, soyez les premiers à Paris….Vive la France!”…..
Alors le Céline, qui était dans l’allée centrale, il s’est arrêté, il l’a regardé fixement dans les yeux, il a haussé les épaules puis il a rebroussé chemin, il lui a tourné le dos et il est reparti en disant très fort: “Quel est ce roi des cons qui ne fera même pas un beau pendu avec sa gueule de jean-foutre?”

Nancy Huston ‘Fault Lines’


One thing my parents agree on is that no one should hit me, smack me or give me any type of corporal punishment. It’s because they’ve read a lot of books where beaten children become violent parents, abused children become paedophiles and children who have been raped become whores and pimps. So they say that it’s always important to talk and talk and talk, to ask a child why he’s behaving badly and to let him explain before showing him gently how to choose to act in a more appropriate manner next time. Never hit him.***


We met Nancy Huston at a book event in Massy back in 2012 along with Mohamed Kacimi. It only took me two years to read the Kacimi but despite the fact that she had dedicated her book it took me eight years to get around to reading this powerful work. A couple of words on Nancy Huston, she is Canadian and writes in French and English, she also translates her own books, a not so common feat.

Onto the book, Huston tells us the story of a family spanning four generations, it couldn’t span five, and the impact the previous generations have on the next generations, the sudden shifts in the tectonic plates of their family’s history that shakes their life. She tells the story backwards as we see the effects before we learn of the causes. In the four generations there are four narrators, with each narrator being six years old at the time of the events he relates, the story begins then with Sol, a child of the twenty first century living in California who tells us in the opening quotes about his education. The two seismic events in his six year old life are the operation he has to remove a benign birth mark from the temple region of his head and the visit to Munich with his parents, his grand mother and his great grandmother to visit this latest’s sister.

His father Randall’s life is up ended in 1982 when his mother Sadie, a converted Jew insists on taking her family from Manhattan to Haïfa as she pursues her doctorate studies concerning the second world war. His father Aron, did not want to leave Manhattan. Randall  quickly picks up Hebrew and befriends a Palestinian girl at his school, but this is the time of the war in Lebenon and the Sabra and Shatila massacre where the Israeli Defense force at best stood by and did not intevene. These were confusing times for this intelligent six year old who wanted to show his mother, Sadie, that he understood what was happening around him:


I really liked the moment where Samson is so angry with Delilah for her treachery the he pushes apart the columns of the temple until the building colapses killing everybody. “It’s just like the human bombs in Israel at the moment!” I say, proud to show granny that I know a little bit about her country, but she shakes her head as she says: ” No, not at all, it’s really not the same thing at all!”***


We then follow Sadie in 1962, the year she leaves her strict grand parents in Toronto to live with her mother, Kristina, who is on the brink of becoming a famous singer, singing with sounds but not words, In Manhattan. Sadie is a very insecure child partly due to her grandparents who’s favourite dish is “culpability” as Kristina tells her, and Sadie also has a birthmark but on her bottom. Sadie’s life begins to settle into normalness, as she tells us of her sunday mornings spent with her stepfather, Peter, a Jew, in delicatessens. And then one sunday when Peter is away a stranger turns up speaking with a heavy accent and she hears her mother speaking in a foreign language. Her life is blown apart by what happens.

And finally back to Kristina’s story and the sounds without words.

A book about violence barbary and the energy of the narrators despite this, at the age of 6 and after. If you can find it, read it!

First Published in French as “Lignes de Faille” in 2006, in France by Actes Sud
Translated into english by Nancy Huston and published as “Fault Lines” by Black Cat in 2008
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Une chose sur laquelle mes parents sont d’accord, c’est que personne ne doit me taper, me fesser ou m’infliger toute autre forme de châtiment corporel. C’est parce qu’ils ont lu beaucoup de livres où on voit les enfants battus se transformer en parents violents, les enfants abusés en pédophiles et les enfants violés en putes et macs. Alors ils disent que c’est important de toujours parler, parler, parler, demander à l’enfant quelles sont les motivations pour sa mauvaises conduite et le laisser s’expliquer avant de lui montrer, gentiment, comment faire un choix plus approprié la prochaine fois. Ne jamais le frapper.

J’apprécie surtout le moment où Samson est tellement furieux contre Dalila pour sa trahison qu’il pousse les colonnes du temple jusqu’à ce que l’édifice s’écroule sur lui en tuant tout le monde. “C’est comme les bombes humaines en Israël en ce moment!” Je dis, fier de montrer à mamie que je connais un peu son pays, mais elle secoue la tête en disant: “Pas du tout! Ce n’est pas du tout la même chose!”

Luc Chomarat ‘The Latest Norwegian Thriller’

Quai des Polars: short list book 1.

Sites to visit linked to this proud event unfortunately now cancelled.
Emma, Marina-Sofia and the official event site Quai des Polars In order to support this event, hopefully I’ll manage to write articles on all six of the short listed thrillers and propose my winner before the official announce on the 4th of April.

In order to reach the largest readership possible for this attempt, I have created a website to publish my six articles and to propose my winner ****in French*** please go to my French website and don’t hesitate to make it viral



You can bet on the next work of Grundozwkzson being a hybrid product, available only in digital form, with links that will steer the reader towards video extracts and creating crowdfunding for anything based on the text. You could even imagine a sufficiently controlled filing hierarchy allowing each reader to create his own ideal thriller, deleting such and such a person, raping and torturing such and such a girl, the book, the film, the game merging together into a single interactive product with maximum and immediate profitability.***


Dr Flknberg the profiler, Olaf Grundozwkzson the Nordic crime sensation, writer of The Eskimo and inspector Bjornborg and his detective Willander of the police force who are too short staffed to do anything except follow the procedure, well with these characters you know you’re in Scandinavia. In this, Luc Chomarat’s latest book, read for the Roman De Rochefort, the French editor Delafeuille, with his industry is disarray due to the impact of digital publishing, has been sent to Danemark by his traditional company to sign up Olaf Grundozwkzson, the biggest thing in Scandinavian thrillers, for all translation rights in the French speaking world, where he is in competition with Gorki who has a very “modern” vision of the “product” as illustrated in the opening quote.

In this satire on nordic thrillers, Delafeuille soon realises that he himself is in just such an interactive product as he discovers that both the story and exerpts from the book have the same sentences. He finds himself meeting Inspector Bjornborg who represents the boring Scandinavian police:


Bjornborg went back to his Volvo fleet car. As he slid behind the wheel, he felt an overwhelming weariness come upon him. The enquiry was going nowhere, and even that didn’t help him to see clearly. In reality, enquiries didn’t actually advance, but neither did they in Nordic thrillers. They are often rather large laboriously written books. As for the cop’s wives waiting for them when they get home, and the relationship between them, well that too was like real life. In short there was no way out.***


And he soon finds himself working to solve the cases of the beautiful blondhaired girls being violently murdered in Copenhagen along with Sherlock Holmes. When they realise that they are protagonists of the story they decide to try to get an interview with Grundozwkzson with Holmes writing to him:


I’m writing to our friend. I’m proposing to interview him at his home on a certain number of subjects, the Nordic thriller, his personal works, the Change to digital form, etc. I’m flattering him a little That should interest him.
I don’t really understand. Why should he see us?
I’m using the old procedure of the Trojan horse. You see: I’m signing with a fantasy name, Ulla Ogsen, which sounds both Scandinavian and erotic, I’m quickly creating a pretty realistic false profile of a journalist, to which I’m attaching the photo of a silicon enhanced Ukrainian porn star.
It’s a crude trap.
He’ll fall for it old boy because his fantasies are as simplistic as my methods.***


Chomarat takes us through all of the clichés of the Nordic thriller, the violent deaths of beautiful young women this in countries famous for fighting for feminine equality, the pointless deadends to the story, the profiler obsessed by sex, the police force with no budget, the extreme climate eventually causing the main protagonists to be isolated from the world. Even the name of the book, “The Eskimo”. I liked the moment of realisation that something was wrong, if they were in Scandinavia trying to sign the rights for the French translation, as Holmes points out why was the story they were discovering already in French?

An amusing satire read in one day.

First Published in French as “Le Dernier Thriller Norvégien” in 2019 by La Manufacture de Livres
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Il y a gros à parier que le prochain opus de Grundozwkzson sera un produit hybride, lisible exclusivement sous forme numérique, avec des liens qui permettront de diriger le lecteur vers des extraits vidéo, et de générer automatiquement du crowdfunding pour toute forme dérivée du texte. On peut même imaginer une arborescence suffisamment maîtrisée pour permettre à chaque lecteur de créer son thriller idéal, supprimer tel ou tel personnage, violer et torturer telle ou telle fille. Le livre, le film, le jeu se fondront en un produit unique, interactif, à rentabilité maximum et immédiate.

Bjornborg rejoignit sa Volvo de service. En se glissant derrière le volant il sentit une lassitude sans nom lui tomber sur les épaules. L’enquête n’avançait pas, et même cela ne l’aidait pas à y voir plus clair. Dans la réalité, les enquêtes n’avançaient pas effectivement. Mais dans les polars Nordiques non plus. C’étaient souvent des assez gros bouquins, à l’écriture laborieuses. Quant aux épouses de flics retrouvaient à la maison et aux rapports qu’ils entretenaient avec elles, cela aussi ressemblait fort à la vraie vie. Bref, il n’y avait pas d’issue.

J’écris à notre ami. Je lui propose de l’interviewer chez lui, sur un certain nombre de sujets, le thriller nordique, son œuvre personnelle, le passage au numérique, etc. Je le flatte un peu. Cela devrait l’intéresser.
Je ne comprends pas très bien. Pourquoi nous recevrait-Il?
J’utilise le vieux procédé du cheval de Troie. Voyez: je signe d’un nom fantaisiste, Ulla Ogsen, qui sonne à la fois scandinave et érotique. Je crée très rapidement un faux profil de journaliste assez vraisemblable, auquel je rajoute une photo de pornstar Ukrainienne siliconée.
C’est un piège grossier.
Il va tomber dedans, vielle branche, parce que ses fantasmes sont aussi rudimentaires que mon procédé.

Emmanuel Carrère Limonov


That the police or the army should be corrupt, it’s to be expected. That human life is worth little, that’s the Russian tradition. But the arrogance and the brutality of the representatives of power when ordinary citizens hold them to account, the certitude they have in their own impunity, that’s what neither the mothers of soldiers, those of the children massacred at the school in Breslin, in the Caucasiens, nor the families of the victims of the Doubrovka theatre could not accept.


At the death of Anna Politkovskaïa, the french journalist Emmanuel Carrère who was already in Russia was hurried over to Moscow to cover events and, attending a rally on the 31st of the month protesting in favour of article 31 of the constitution stating that Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets, there are, as always, more police than protestors and frequent arrests as referred to in the opening quote. At the rally, Carrère notices Limonov whom he had met years earlier in Paris.

In the days to come as he is working on the death of Politkovskaïa, Carrère is lead to put into question the views he had of this minor dissident from the Breznhev era who had been expelled from the USSR and had turned his experiences surviving with little or no money, living, amongst other places in Harlem, into a first book, his own version of “On The Road”, telling amongst other things of his homosexual relationships with down and out black men, which he managed to get published in France as “Le poète russe préfère les grands nègres.” Which I won’t translate (It was later published in English as “It’s me, Eddy”, and was published years later in Russia, see the cover at the start of this article. Limonov then moved to France and as Carrère describes his appearence:


We were right in the middle of the Punk surge, he claimed Johnny Rotten, the leader of the Sex Pistols, as his hero. He had no qualms about calling Solzhenitsyn an old fart. It was refreshing, this new wave dissidence, and Limonov was from the outset the darling of the small parisien literary world.


After the fall of the Soviet Union, Limonov thought of himself as a revolutionary and wanted to be involved in the war in former Yougolsavia if possible fighting for the Slavs, which gave a whole other view to the west of Limonov:


We saw him in a documentary on the BBC, shooting up a besieged Sarajevo under the watchful eye Radovan Karadzić, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs and an acknowledged war criminal.


So a decade or so later when running through Politkovskaïa’s articles he discovers a whole new view of Limonov, Carrère decides to plungeinto detail and write this book about Limonov, leaving no stones unturned:


Running through a compilation of articles by Anna Politkovskaïa, I discovered that she had, two years earlier, followed the trial of thirty nine militants from the national-Bolchevik party who were accused of breaking into and vandalising the headquarters of the presidential administration, crying out “Poutine out!”. For this crime, they had received long prison sentences and Politkovskaïa defended them with vigour: courageous young people, honest, alone or almost in giving confidence in the moral future of our country.
I couldn’t believe it. It had all seemed clear to me, unquestionable: Limonov was a terrible fascist at the head of a militia of
skinheads. But now, a woman, who since her death was unanimously considered to be a saint, spoke of him and of them, as heroes in the fight for democracy in Russia. Elena Bonner was saying the same thing on the internet. Elena Bonner! Sakharov’s widow, the great scholar, the great dissident, the great moral conscience, the winner of the Nobel peace prize.


Carrère’s book allows us to re-visit modern history, from Breznev through to the end of the Soviet Union, the chaos that followed, through to Putin’s Russia. All of this crossed with Limonov’s life, and Carrère’s own, and this is the interest of this superb biography.

First Published in French as “Limonov” in 2011 by P.O.L
Translated into English by John Lambert and published in 2015 as Limonov by Penguin.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Que la police ou l’armée soient corrompues, c’est dans l’ordre des choses. Que la vie humaine ait peu de prix, c’est dans la tradition russe. Mais l’arrogance et la brutalité des représentants du pouvoir quand de simples citoyens se risquaient à leur demander des comptes, la certitude qu’ils avaient de leur impunité, voilà ce que ne supportaient ni les mères de soldats, ni celles des enfants massacrés à l’école de Beslan, au Caucase, ni les proches des victimes du théâtre de la Doubrovka.

On était en pleine vague punk, son héros revendiqué était Johnny Rotten, le leader des Sex Pistous, il ne se gênait pas pour traiter Soljenitsyne de vieux con. C’était rafraîchissant, cette dissidence new wave, et Limonov à son arrivée à été le coqueluche du petit monde littéraire parisien.

On l’a vu, dans un documentaire de la BBC, mitrailler Sarajevo assiégé sous l’œil bienveillant de Radovan Karadzić, leader des Serbes de Bosnie et criminel de guerre avéré.

En parcourant un recueil d’articles d’Anna Politkovskaïa, j’ai découvert qu’elle avait deux ans plus tôt suivi le procès de trente-neuf militants du parti national-Bolchevik, accusés d’avoir envahi et vandalisé le siège de l’administration présidentielle aux cris de “Poutine, va-t’en!”. Pour ce crime, ils avaient écopé de lourdes peines de prison et Politkovskaïa prenait haut et fort leur défense: des jeunes gens courageux, intégres, seuls ou presque à donner confiance dans l’avenir moral du pays.
Je n’en revenait pas. L’affaire m’avait paru classée, sans appel: Limonov était un affreux fasciste, à la tête d’une milice de skinheads. Or voici qu’une femme unanimement considérée depuis sa mort comme une sainte parlait de lui, et d’eux, comme des héros du combat démocratique en Russie. Même son de cloche, sur internet, de la part d’Elena Bonner. Elena Bonner! La veuve de Sakharov, grand savant, grand dissident, grand conscience morale, prix Nobel de la paix.

Luc Lang ‘La Tentation’


I mean, has he got a job? besides toting a gun?
It’s not like that! He’s a business man. He works hard.
That’s convenient. Business. It spares you the details. Aquisitions, sales, mergers, take-overs, sucking dry, bankrupting, opening, closing, dividing up, selling off. What a tough job…..
My poor dad, you just haven’t got a clue.***


Luc Lang’s Temptation, winner of the “Prix Medicis”, tells a story of the birds coming home to roost, what is it about Francois’ family? As the story opens, Francois, a surgeon and highly experienced hunter is out in the mountains close to the french italian border hunting a buck he has been following for several years and at the moment of pulling the trigger, a lack of concentration and his high tech rifle puts a bullet in the animals thigh, missing its heart. He then makes an unnatural decision, he tracks the animal, takes if back to his mountain lodge, removes the bullet and lets the animal go. Is he secretly sick of killing these animals?

His wife who is in love with him is unable to spend time with him, she goes from religious establishment to religious establishment from silent retreat to silent retreat. His son Mathew has become rich, the alpha male in the money markets and has hitched his sister Mathilde up with one of his shady clients as illustrated in the opening quote of a discussion between François and his daughter Mathilde. Mathilde who turns up unannounced at the hunting lodge with her partner, Loïc, after a shooting and he in the near dark mistakes the very buck François had saved for a gunman. Why is is daughter mixed up with this man? Blind to the danger? Now hunted.


And he kills the deer to close the cycle…..
Are you back with your deer again! Whereas François had shot his share, of deer, throughout his time as a hunter, and that it disgusted Mathilde, as a child, the assassination of all of those nice animals, the blood, the empty eyes, the deer and the boar, she wanted to be princess Mononoke.***


In the midst of the turmoil he receives an urgent call from his son at his hotel to come and get his wife as they, Mathew and his top mmodel wife, need to leave, then arrived at the hotel, amidst more family revelations he draws Mathew aside:


Well, Mathew, are you going to come out with it?
What? What are you….?
Who is he for god’s sake your Loïc? Your client. Mathilda’s bloke?
What the hell, it’s some sort of obsession you’ve got! you’re stuck in the same groove since yesterday….I should never have…..
He’s at the lodge with your sister.
Oh! She brought him to meet you then. She must have really wanted you to meet him because she hates the lodge in winter.
The problem Mathew, is that he’s got a large calibre bullet in his thigh, that he’s going around with a gun, that Mathilda is scared out of her mind and that your guy doesn’want me to take him to hospital. Do you understand now?***


François’ world of hard work and skill to get on is being replaced here by the temptation of easy money and no concience. He doesn’t seem to realise that his own life as a hunter, the instant gratification of the kill, deciding on life and death, may have been one of the reasons for his families demise, leading to this climax as the cheated come looking for Loïc.

Wonderful descriptions of nature and of this family in free fall.

First Published in French as “Tentation” in 2019 by Stock
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Et il abat le cerf pour achever le cycle de….
Tu remets ça avec ton cerf! Alors que François en avait tiré, des cerfs, durant toute son existence de chasseur, que ça dégoûtait Mathilde, enfant, i’assassinat de toutes ces bêtes gentilles, le sang, le regard fixe, les yeux éteints,des chevreuils, des biches, des sangliers, elle voulait devenir une princesse Mononoké

Je veux dire, il a un métier? A part manier le flingue?
C’est faut! C’est un homme d’affaires. il travail beaucoup.
c’est commode. Faire des affaires.K Ca évite d’entrer dans les détails. Acheter, vendre, fusionner, absorber, assécher, ruiner, ouvrir, fermer, démembrer, revendre. c’est dur comme métier…
T’es dépasser mon pauvre papa.

Dis donc, Mathieu, tu va cracher le morceau?
quoi? De quoi tu….?
C’est qui, nom de dieu, ton Loic? Ton client, le mec de Mathilde?
Putain, mais c’est une obsession! T’es toujours en boucle depuis hier…. J’aurais jamais dû t’en…..
Il est au relais avec ta soeur.
Ah! Elle te l’a présenté alors. Elle y tenait, tu vois, parce que le relais, l’hiver,elle déteste.
Le problème Mathieu, c’est qu’il a une balle de gros calibre dans la cuisse, qu’il se balade avec un gun, que Mathilde est terrorisée et que ton gus ne veut pas que je l’emmène à l’hôpital.Est-ce que tu saisis?

Caryl Férey ‘Paz’


“She had begun with the classic sites such as Meetic,and had only met fools. blokes that turned up late or others full of talk that wanted to skip the niceties and get down to business, blowhards, emotionless, husbands paying in cash, machos pretending to be messed up, it was all too weird. img_1978Gradually Diana had gone for Tinder. At least things were clear: a flick of the finger to the right you stay, to the left you’re gone. A straightforward relationship instead of love and a near guarantee to get laid. In her forties she didn’t have time to hang around in bars, her friends were hooked up, or she’d already slept with them, she knew all of their friends and had sworn never to go out with a journalist again.”


Paz is Ferey’s latest Roman noir, set in modern Columbia, and as he explins, scratch anything set in modern day Columbia and you’ll find the past is waiting to erupt. The book begins with mutilated bodies turning up in cities before an election and the police trying to keep the lid on events. The story centres around the Bagader family. Quiet, intense, secret Lautaro the head of the police, his father Saul, the interior minister and his brother Angel, who dissapeared years ago. As the first bodies appear, so badly mutilated, resembling some of the worst events of the terror known as the “Violencia” years earlier as with American money and support, the year’s long “Plan for Colubia” pitched the army against the FARC and also against the drug lords and their militias.

Lautaro, whose wife had died in a FARC bombing and who had then headed up one of the groups fighting the FARC on the ground, and is now head of the police is emotionally damaged goods, one night as usual he brings back a woman chosen from Tinder, “wearing the number 12 shirt” as he refers to her, Diana, from the opening quote. They know nothing about each other, he the head of police and she a commited investigative journalist.

Pressure builds up on Lautaro to end the violence, he doesn’t know if the drug lords or the FARC soldiers who refuse the negotiated peace are responsible for the wave of killings, with some of the bodies appearing to have injuries that suggest that they have been thrown live from planes. He can investigate the drug lords but is unable to appear in the FARC areas of Columbia.

Lautaro decides, without telling his father, to recontact his brother, who we learn had originally dissappeared to fight against the government and had been captured by the special forces. But at the same time Diana manages to track down Angel…….

Setting this intriguing story in Columbia required a great deal of work on the recent history of this country and once again after “Mapucho” or “Zulu”, previous books by Férey this was gripping from start to end and the 500 pages allows a deep dive into the recent history of this country.

First Published in French as “Paz” in 2019 by Gallimard (Série noir)
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Elle avait commencé par les sites classiques, genre Meetic, et n’avait rencontré que des cons. Les types arrivaient en retard, d’aures baratinaient pour passer directement au dessert, des vantards, des pisse-froid, des mariés qui payaient en liquide, des machos masqués qui jouaient aux esquintés, c’en devenaient tordant. Avec le temps, Diana avait opté pour Tinder. au moins les choses étaient claires: un mouvement d’index à droite, tu restes, à gauche tu disparais. Un rapport simple à défaut d’amour, et un maximum de coups assurés. Les quadras comme elle n’avaient pas le loisir de traîner dans les bars, ses amis étaient en couple, ou elle avait déjà couché avec, elle connaissait tous leurs proches et s’était juré de ne plus sortir avec un journaliste.

 

Mahir Guven ‘Big Brother’


Finally they took us to a Greek that nobody knew. “Here it’s 100 percent Halal” said the red head. I felt like answering: “because it’s only 97 percent elsewhere?” But ok, I kept my joke to myself. It wasn’t the right time to ruin the atmosphere, I was too hungry and the risk of my sandwich disappearing due to a bad joke was too high, seeing how unfriendly he seemed. Even for the sauce they fucked us around. Ketchup, mayonnaise and the rest he decreed haram. Only the harissa was allowed. Fuck… I don’t mind harissa, but it gives me ring sting, and afterwards it’s like Palestine in the toilet for two days.***


Mahir Guven’s first novel, ‘Big Brother’, winner of the Goncourt prize in the first novel category is a breath of fresh air. The story told by two narrators, for the most part the big brother and occasionally the kid brother is a story about nuances, about lives in the difficult suburban towns on the wrong side of the périphérique in greater Paris. The story is told in the language of the streets and an 8 page glossary of words and phrases is given at the end of the book. The family at the centre of the story came to France with their French mother and Syrian communist father in the 80’s. After their mother’s early death they were raised by their father, a taxi driver brought alive by Guven both in the language, broken French and in the authoritarian, communist, anti-clerical character.

The boys however lived in a mostly poor neighbourhood populated largely by North African and African Muslims, and undergo pressures from the integrist part of this population as described here, on their way back home from football practice:


Two huge blokes appeared. Like the genie from Alladin’s lamp. Six and a half feet tall, with enormous hands, and enormous stomachs and beards as well. A white djellaba on one, a beige kamis for the other and a book under their arms.***


The two men persuade them to come over to the mosque at Aubervilliers. The Pharos’. The Egyptian immam where the kid brother discusses religion with them whilst the older brother can only think of food as shown in the opening quote until they are taken to a cafe.

In the present day, the big brother tells us of his life as he tries to survive, working as a driver for one of the platforms in competition with Uber, about their relationship with the existing taxis, epitomised by his father, how they were well paid in the early days and how this turned to exploitation afterwards:


To keep your steak, you need an advantage over the others. Either you are more discreet, or you have a certificate or a skill. In my case I have nothing to protect my job. All tou need to do is to buy a whistle and flute, a phone, then to obtain a quick certificate to get behind the wheel…. Obviously all the desperate cases flooded into the sector. The most extreme examples are the bros just out of slammer. An electronic bracelet doesn’t stop you getting behind the wheel. It’s the only job possible, no need for a CV. The platforms don’t give a damn about your past.***


We slowly learn of the story’s drama as the kid brother, the clever brother who has trained to be a male nurse disappears, after trying to go to Syria to help the wounded and the poor with Doctors Without Borders, he eventually leaves with a Muslim organisation where he slowly learns that the border between aid worker and active fighter is thin. But the story is that of his decision’s effect on those that stay behind as his brother is pressed into service for the interior ministry:


Ever since Charlie and the 13****, we were living a new love story with the pigs. Drugs, burglaries, car theft weren’t sexy enough for them.***
**** Charlie Hebdo and the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali


But what would happen should the kid brother come back, which he does? The older brother goes to see a lawyer to understand what are the implications, of course not telling the lawyer, the brother of Younès the convert, that he was actually already back:


For my brother, it was complicated, to begin with the cops have to catch him. And to arrest him, they first need to suspect my kid brother of going to Syria, then they have to find him. After, so that he goes to prison, the courts would need to prove he took part in a jihadist or terrorist organisation. That’s under normal conditions. But today, one single proof of a trip out and back from Syria is enough to lock him up. Because except for journalists and some humanitarians, nobody goes to Syria by accident.***


This was my second exceptional book in one month! But it will certainly be a difficult book to translate.

First Published in French as “Grand Frère” in 2017 by Editions Philippe Rey
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

À la fin ils nous ont emmenés dans un grec que personne connaissait. “Ici c’est 100 pour cent halal” a dit le rouquin. J’avais envie de répondre: “Parce que ailleurs’ c’est 97 pour cent?” Mais bon, j’ai gardé ma vanne pour moi. Pas le moment de plomber l’ambiance, j’avais trop faim et le risque que le sandwich s’envole à cause d’une mauvaise blague était très élevé, vu l’antipathie du gars. Même pour la sauce, il nous a cassé les couilles. Ketchup, mayonnaise et toute les autres, il les a décrétés haram. Seule la harissa était autorisée. Putain… J’aime bien la harissa, mais ça m’arrache le trou du cul, et après c’est la Palestine dans la cuvette pendant deux jours

Deux types immenses sont apparus. Comme des génies d’Alladin. Un mètre quatre vingt dix chacun. Des mains énormes. Leurs ventres et leurs barbes aussi. Djellaba blanche pour l’un, kamis beige pour l’autre un livre sous le bras

Pour garder son steak, il faut avoir un avantage par rapport aux autres. Soit être plus discret, soit avoir un diplôme ou une compétence. Dans mon cas, y avait rien pour protéger ce job. Suffisait de s’acheter un starco****, un téléphone, de passer un petit diplôme et de prendre le volant….Forcément tous les morts de faim se sont engouffrés dans le secteur. L’exemple ultime c’est les rheys**** sortis de taule.Le bracelet électronique, ça empêche pas de pousser la pédale. C’est le seule job possible, pas besoin de CV. La plate-forme en a rien à foutre de ton passé.

**** french slang (verlan) for costard, itself slang for costume, i.e. suit

**** french slang (from Arabic) for brothers

Depuis Charlie et le 13, on vivait avec les keufs**** une nouvelle histoire d’amour. La drogue, les cambriolages, les vols de voitures c’était pas assez bandant pour eux.

**** Charlie Hebdo and the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali

**** french slang (verlan) for flics, itself slang for cops or pigs

Pour mon frère, c’était compliqué. Déjà, il fallait que la volaille l’attrape. Et pour le serrer, fallait d’abord que les flics aient des soupçons sur un séjour en Syrie du petit, puis qu’ils le trouvent. Après, pour qu’il aille en prison, la justice aurait à prouver sa participation à un mouvement djihadiste ou terroriste. Ça c’est dans les conditions normales. Mais aujourd’hui, une seule preuve d’un départ et d’un retour de Syrie suffisait à le faire mettre en cabane. Parce que, à part les journalistes et certains humanitaires, on allait plus au Cham**** par hasard.

**** Cham: Syria. The ancient name of Syria is Bilad-el-Cham, which means Country of Cham, Noah’s son.