Ali Zamir ‘Dérangé Que Je Suis’

We even gave our hand carts the names of athletes. And not just anyone. Real world champion athletes like Usain Bolt, LaShawn Merritt or even Michael Johnson….you could read on the front of my cart the name of an athlete I’d heard of. I didn’t know how to write his name so I wrote it as I heard it. In a single word, alternating upper case with lower case letters : CaRleWis.***

Ali Zenir’s tragi-comic story of a docker is set on the island of Anjouan, also known as Nzwani, part of the Comoros Union in the Mozambique channel. This book read for the Roman De Rochefort, tells the story of Dérangé, a humble docker who each day heads to the docks with his hand cart looking for work and hoping to earn enough to be able to eat that day. In the colour and mayhem at the docks, to show their speed and to stand out from the crowd, the dockers give their hand carts names as illustrated in the opening quote.

As the book begins, Dérangé is trussed up in a confined space, plagued by flies and there is no doubt he will die. He then tells us his story, of the three famous dockers, the Pipipis:

It was at the international port, Ahmed-Abdallah-Abderemane de Mutsumaque, that I first met Pirate, Pistolet and Pitié. The Pipipis as they were known.***

It was the Pipipis who had the other three carts in the opening quote, we learn of the precariousness of their situations and the risks they take running between the cars and trucks with their hand carts. In this short book, Dérangé who doesn’t have a particularly high opinion of himself is chosen by a woman, in preference to the Pipipis to unload her husbands goods from a boat, and then needs to negotiate with the Pipipis to get their help as there is too much work for one poor docker. As the work is terminated, they goad him into racing, the next day, three times around the port with their carts., as he says to them before accepting the race:

They laughed at me as if I was a macaque in their eyes. I decided there and then to ask them the question I’d been dying to ask: What do I have to gain in measuring myself against you ? Stupidity?***

There are two other strands to this story, one being the woman , the wealthy wife of a dangerous trader who wants Dérangé for his body, and who takes it on herself to hold the money of the bet for the race, thus enticing the four racers back to her house to pick up their prize money. And Dérangé’s neighbour, Casse Pied (pain in the kneck), a man known and feared who you wouldn’t want to cross and from whom the Pipipis had stolen some bananas:

Pistolet abruptly interrupted Pirate: “he’s Someone who doesn’t show an ounce of pity: he’s got a heart of stone.The proof is, so help me God, he dared to rip his wife’s genitals with his teeth like a cannibal!”***

Dérangé (deranged) seems to be one of the least deranged people in the story. The Title means of course two things (Dérangé is who I am, and I am deranged) Ali Zemir uses a wide vocabulary to take Dérangé through this story and its many risks back to the point of departure. This is a story without a pause, beginning quickly and then accelerating. Unique.

First Published in French as “Dérangé que je suis” in 2019 by Le Tripode.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

On donnait même à nos chariots des noms d’athlètes. Et pas n’importe lesquels. Des vrais champions du monde d’athlètisme comme Usain Bolt, LaShawn Merritt ou encore Michael Johnson…On lisait sur la devanture de mon chariot le nom d’un athlète dont j’avais entendu parler. Je ne savais pas comment l’écrire. donc, dérangé que je suis, je l’avais écrit comme je l’entendais. En un seul mot, et en lettres majuscules alternées de miniscules: CaRleWis

C’est donc au port international Ahmed-Abdallah-Abderemane de Mutsumaque j’ai rencontré pour la première fois Pirate, Pistolet et Pitié. Les Pipipi, comme on les surnommait.

Ils se riaient tous de moi comme si je n’étais qu’un macaque à leurs yeux. Je me décidais de but en blanc à leur poser la question qui me brûlait mes lèvres: “Qu’est ce que je gagnerais en me mesurant à vous? La stupidité?

Pistolet interrompit brusquement Pirate: “C’est quelqu’un qui n’éprouve pas la moindre pitié: il a un coeur de marbre. La preuve, Dieu m’en préserve, il a osé déchirer par ses dents la partie génitale de sa femme comme un cannibale!”

Joseph Ponthus ‘Back to the production line’

The factory has got to me
I only ever call it my factory
As if the simple temp that I am amongst so many
others owns in any way the
machines or the fish or the shrimp

This is Joseph Ponthus’ first published book, read for the Roman De Rochefort prize, and there can be no doubt that what is described in these pages, written in verse, represent actual episode lived by Ponthus. He tells us of working on production lines as a temp in the food industry in Brittany, beginning in fish transformation factories which seem hard until he describes his missions in an industrial slaughterhouse.

Through his writing we live with him the exhaustion and the mind numbing days measured by the continual advancement of the production lines. He tells us of the nobility of the workers ensuring against the odds that the lines are never brought to a halt but also in contrast the futility of many of the tasks in under-maintained factories.

The work isn’t so hard
Empying twentyfive kilo crates
to fill other twentyfive kilo crates
We may seem like cartoon characters
But its a factory
And you build your muscles.***

As the story goes on everything outside of his time and energy consuming factory becomes peripheral to his life, even his wife and his dog. We get the feeling of someone on a treadmill fighting to stay on as the physicallity of his job slowly destroys his articulations, as life is reduced to the counting of the minutes between cigarette breaks, of working day in day out at whatever hours the machines require, of passing each working moment under basic neon light.

You leave behind your sleep yet again full of dreams
of the factory
to plunge back into another night
Cold artificial and lit by neon.***

And then there is the absurd, the managers and sales people that cannot really comprehend the work in their own factories, illustrated by the folloxing quote, where after a week pushing quarters of beef in a freezer along ill installed rails, requiring lifting the carcasses to advance and thus moving four hundred kilos a day every day, the monthly accident figures are put on the notice boards with a positive poster:

The one that made us laugh for a month

A female production operator from the red
offal section ‘the less I carry the better I feel’
I remember that the morning that poster was
put up
How we Laughed
And we laughed
And we laughed***

This is a book about life, about the will to go forward in the battle that is life, Joseph Ponthus has given us a unique look behind the curtains at the factory and its workers.

First Published in French as “À la ligne” in 2019 by La Table Ronde.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

L’usine m’a eu
Je n’en parle plus qu’en disant
Mon usine
Comme si petit intérimaire que je suis parmi tant
d’autres j’avais une quelconque propriété des
machines ou de la production de poissons ou de

Le boulot n’est pas si dur
Vider des caisses de vingt-cinq kilos
pour remplir d’autres caisses de vingt-cinq kilos
Certes on dirait des Shadoks
Mais c’est l’usine
Et ça fait des muscles

On sort du sommeil encore marqué de rêves
Pour replonger dans une autre nuit
Artificielle froide et éclairée de néons

Celle qui nous a fait rire un bon mois

Une opératrice de production piéceuse aux abats
rouge disant ‘moins je porte mieux je me porte’
Je me souviens que le matin où l’affiche avait été
On se marrait
On se marrait
On se marrait

Sarah Chiche ‘The Obscure’

I know you, he said in perfect french with a hint of an accent which let me know he was a German speaker. You’re the woman who, yesterday afternoon in the Volksgarten, threw herself on the man who had just slapped a child.***

Sarah is married to Paul, an intellectual and writer whose theme of study is the approaching apocalypse, wars, global warming, growing population and strain on resources, and she is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst and they live in Paris. As the book, read for the Roman de Rochefort begins, she has come to Vienna to write about the conditions with which migrants are treated in the refugee camps and it is quickly clear that she is emotionally emerged in and drained by her visit. As she visits a gallery, a tall distinguished looking man talks to her about having seen her the previous day as illustrated in the opening quote.

Although happily married to Paul, she quickly begins an all consuming relationship with Richard K, a renowned musician and German speaker, a language banned from her home life as she was a child, and quickly the relationship brings out the dark side, boiling beneath the surface, of Sarah. Who are we, how are we affected by our younger life and the lives of our parents and grandparents. How much empathy can a woman have for a mother that systematically beat her, as her mother says to her:

I want to thank you…
Thank me? But why?
Because you lived through things that a child of your age should not normally have to live through. You heard things a child shouldn’t have to hear. You saw things that scared you. You were, of all of us, the most courageous because your heart is pure.***

Sarah’s father died as she was young, Sarah’s grand father had been interned in Buchenwald where he had survived and seen and lived things that altered his perspective on life, which then later included incest amongst other things. We learn that Sarah’s great grandmother and her grand mother were interned in Saint Anne’s a notorious mental health clinic, as was her mother, the very hospital in which Sarah now works. As Sarah keeps her continued relationship with Richard K a secret from her family and as she battles with her past and her worries that she too could follow in their footsteps she also tells us of the fight within the hospital with the Freudians, essentially over compassion:

For years I’d explained, in articles and in reading notes, why the scientific, intellectual, clinical and therapeutic prestige of psychoanalysis had irredeemably waned…. we were taught, in a fascinating mixture of complacency and ignorance but also highly cultured, that autism was a psychosis resulting from a bad relationship with the mother and therefore, if a certain child was autistic it was in all probability because his mother was very cold towards him…., in spite of all of the learned studies, which already at that time, had very clearly identified the mutations on the genes responsible for the communication between nerve cells and shown that difficulties in the autistic spectrum had a genetic component and that hormones such as melatonin and ocytocin played a non negligeable role.***

This is the second book in my reviews that refers to the Winterreise, the first being Eins Im Andern By Monica Schwitter, the verse referenced here is a beautiful verse, about carrying on with life and not lamenting come what may:

Fliegt der Schnee mir ins Gesicht,
schüttl’ ich ihn herunter.
Wenn mein Herz im Busen spricht,
sing’ ich hell und munter.
Höre nicht, was es mir sagt,
habe keine Ohren;
fühle nicht, was es mir klagt,
Klagen ist für Toren.
Lustig in die Welt hinein
gegen Wind und Wetter!
Will kein Gott auf Erden sein,
sind wir selber Götter!

This was not an easy book to follow, as I read it over three weeks I lost the thread repeatedly, between her mother Ève, her grandmother (Ève?)Lynne, and Her great grandmother Cecile, and the story being told by several of the women.

First Published in French as “Les Enténébrés” in 2019 by Les Éditions Du Seuil.
*** my translation

The poem translated into both French and English taken from the internet follows

Que m’aveugle la neige,
Je la secoue d’un geste,
Que s’épanche mon cœur
Et je chante à tue-tête.
Jamais je ne l’écoute,
Je fais la sourde oreille,
Et j’ignore ses plaintes,
Seuls se plaignent les sots.
Courons gaiement le monde
Contre vents et marées,
S’il n’est de dieux sur terre,
Nous serons dieu nous-mêmes.

The snow flies in my face,
I shake it off.
When my heart cries out in my breast,
I sing brightly and cheerfully.
I do not hear what it says,
I have no ears,
I do not feel what it laments,
Lamenting is for fools.
Merrily stride into the world
Against all wind and weather!
If there is no God on earth,
We are gods ourselves!

The quotes as read in French before translation

Je vous reconnais, dit-il dans un français parfait avec une pointe d’accent qui me fait comprendre qu’il est germanophone. Vous êtes la femme qui, hier après-midi, dans le Volksgarten, s’est jetée sur un homme qui venait de gifler un enfant.

Je voudrais te remercier, lui dis-je.
Me remercier? Mais pourquoi?
Parce que tu as traversé des choses qu’un enfant de ton âge ne doit normalement pas traverser. Tu as entendu des choses qu’un enfant ne devrait pas entendre.Tu as vu des choses qui t’ont fait peur. Tu as été de nous tous là plus courageuse,parce que ton cœur est pur.

pendant des années j’avais expliqué, dans des articles, dans des notes de lecture, pourquoi le prestige scientifique, intellectuel, clinique et thérapeutique de la psychanalyse s’était irrémédiablement étiolé….on nous enseignait, dans un fascinant mélange de suffisance et d’ignorance mais aussi de haute culture, que l’autisme était bien une psychose résultant d’une mauvaise relation avec la mère et donc, si tel enfant était autiste, c’était parce que très probablement sa mère était trop froide…..,au mépris de toutes les études savantes, qui a l’époque déjà, avaient très clairement identifié des mutations sur des gènes impliqués dans les communications entre cellules nerveuses et montré que les troubles du spectre autistique avaient une composante génétique et que les hormones comme la mélatonine et l’ocytocine y jouaient un rôle non négligeable.

Pascal Garnier ‘Moon in a Dead Eye’

A SECURE GATED COMMUNITY There’s nothing quite like knowing you’re protected and secure. With a dedicated caretaker-manager on site 365 days of the year, our residents can enjoy total peace of mind.

As retirement arrives, people can be coaxed into looking for ideals. Here Martial and Odette, happy until now living in Suresnes, close to Paris, find that the people around them and their local references are changing, their friends are moving house, some have died, they have heard rumours of people being robbed at cash machines, their local market store holders have retired, and so with this background they let themselves be seduced into selling up and moving to the south of France, to Les Conviviales, a retirement village, see the opening quote. Except that things are rarely as they seem as they are the first to arrive in winter:

Martial compared the photo on the cover of the brochure with the view from the window. It was raining. It had rained almost every day for the past month. A slick of water shone on the Roman-tiled roofs of the identikit ochre pebbledash bungalows, each fronted by a matching patch of Astroturf-green lawn. At this time of year, the regimented rows of broom-like shrubs provided neither leaves, nor flowers, nor shade. All the shutters were closed. The fifty or so little houses were lined up obediently on either side of a wide road, with gravel paths leading off to each home. Viewed from the air, it must have looked something like a fish skeleton.

This begins as a satire on seeking change, as the village only ever attracts five people, Martial and Odette the first arrivals and then Maxime and his wife Marlène, and finally Léa. Pascal Garnier then slowly investigates these people living in their gated village in the middle of nowhere, each of them having their own quirkiness, for instance Léa who has been given the house by her former employers family after her death to get rid of her and as she admits to Nadine, the village social secretary, she now cannot move as the houses are unsaleable. As she and Nadine are preparing supper one evening we understand that Léa has absences:

The wine had made them a little drunk. They spontaneously moved to tutoiement.
You must have a good laugh watching us, right?
I admit that sometimes I have trouble not laughing.
The other day for instance, when Marlène……Léa… What are you doing?…
Léa was smiling, Her eyes were empty, as she filled the salad bowl with anything at hand, peelings, her keys, her purse……Nadine watched her, eyes wide open….
Léa let herself be led to the sofa. No sooner was she sat down than she closed her eyes and fell asleep. She was still smiling.***

As the story moves on, a camp of gypsies, the grain of sand, move next to the gated community and from then on things spiral out of control with the true sides of each of the residents shining through until the explosive end. A well written satire, don’t let anyone sell you a hapiness package for your retirement!

First Published in French as “Lune captive dans un oeil mort” in 2009 by Zulma.
Translated into English by Emily Boyce and published as “Moon in a Dead Eye” in 2013 by Gallic Books
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Le vin les avait rendues un peu pompette. Spontanément, on était passé au tutoiement.
Tu dois bien t’amuser à nous observer, non?
J’avoue que parfois, j’ai du mal à me retenir.
L’autre jour, par exemple, quand Marlène a…. Léa?… Qu’est-Ce que tu fais?…
Léa souriait, l’œil vide, en remplissant le saladier de tout et n’importe quoi, les épluchures, ses clés, son porte-monnaie….Nadine la regardait faire, les yeux ronds….
Léa se laissa conduire jusqu’au canapé. À Peine fut-elle assise qu’elle ferma les yeux et s’endormit. Elle souriait toujours

Luc Chomarat ‘The Latest Norwegian Thriller’

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.

Antoine Wauters ‘Pense aux pierres sous tes pas’

Only the old folks were wary of Bokwangu, William Bénoni Bokwangu, not only was he like the others but he wasnt worth wasting the the smallest mililitre of saliva talking about him. We want actions, they mumbled. Otherwise it’ll be like Karajogzu (responsible for a regime of terror which tore apart the people for fifteen years) or, worst, like Léonescu who preceded Desgotgiu and sent a third of the population to the camps.
The year after, Bokwangu decreed that every farm owning more than ten animals would undergo “adjustments”, even though everyone knew perfectly well that meant “new taxes”. We’d been through this so often; you couldn’t fool us again.

Antoine Wauters takes us to an imaginary country where the sonority of the names reminds the reader of Romania, in this country repressive dictatorships follow one after the other and the people, especially the older ones expect nothing good of the new leader Bokwangu who seems to want to take a mostly agricultural country and replace it with supermarkets and shopping malls.

Marcio and Leonora are twins of about twelve years old, brought up by their parents on a farm where working from dawn till dusk is not enough to pay the state taxes, to sell all of their produce to the state and to survive, where they can’t be scolarised as they are needed to work. They live in isolation, where the pressure put on them has stifled their parents feelings:

Above all twins, don’t make our mistake. Don’t have children!
To which Paps reacted with humming cries coming from him like a swarm of insects, cries that had him thumping the walls and shouting out loud, cursing this dogs life which was going to kill him.
Poor Paps.
Rotten life.
Country gone to the dogs.

But you can’t stiffle young life and the twins, in their isolation, who were always close grow closer than they should until one night their father finds them in the hayloft, confirming his fears and decides to separate them, sending Leo away with her uncle Zio:

At the back of the hay loft, we lied on our backs and looked at the stars through a crack in the roof. That was good too. From time to time his tongue touched me , my cheeks and my mouth, my hands, and then it slipped lower like a caress which sometimes speeded up to show me the light, the beauty and this hot monster eating our bellys.

Leo finds herself in a very different situation at Zio’s farm where the constant state pressure has not wiped out Zio’s humanity but where tbe state ratchet keeps turning, Marcio is then left alone to run the farm as his parents Mams and Paps leave for a state sanitorium and he makes the dangerous trip accross a desert to rejoin Leo, nearly dying on the way. Eventually Zio rebels:

But Uncle continued, his eyes shining. He slaughtered his animals one after the other and seemed out of control.
It lasted a while. Then he stopped what he was doing and looked at us maliciously.
You’re dying of hunger, right? Me too. Well since I refuse to pay the taxes….
He puffed on his blood covered pipe.
….we’re going to eat my animals!
He looked at us, the bugger:
Because if you dont have any animals, you dont pay any taxes do you?

A story full of hidden references and not without humour, there’s even a happy end.

First Published in French as “Pense aux pierres sous tes pas” in 2019 by Verdier
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Seuls les vieux se méfiaient et que Bokwangu, William Bénoni Bokwangu, non seulement était comme les autres, mais ne méritait pas qu’on gaspille le moindre millilitre de salive en évoquant son cas.
On veut des faits, marmonnaient-ils. Sinon, ce sera comme Karajogzu (responsable d’un régime de terreur ayant éreinté le peuple pendant quinze ans) ou, pire, avec Léonescu qui avait précédé Desgotgiu et envoyé un tiers de la population dans les camps.
L’année suivante, Bokwangu décréta que toute ferme possédant plus de dix bêtes serait soumise à des “ajustements”, même si tout le monde savait très bien qu’il s’agissait de “nouvelles taxes”. On en avait tellement mangé; on ne nous la faisait plus.

Surtout jumeaux, ne faites pas notre erreur. N’ayez jamais d’enfants!
A quoi Paps répondait par des cris stridulants sortant de lui comme des nuées d’insectes, des cris qui lui faisaient cogner les murs et hurler de plus belle, en maudissant cette chienne de vie qui allait le faire crever.
Pauvre Paps.
Pauvre vie.
Pays de chiens.

Aux trois quarts du fenil, on s’est allongés sur le dos et on a regardé les étoiles par une fissure dans le toit. Ça aussi c’était bon. De temps en temps, sa langue venait se poser sur moi, sur mes joues et ma bouche, sur mes mains, puis elle glissait plus bas comme une caresse qui quelquefois accélèrerait pour me parler de la lumière, de la beauté, et de ce monstre chaud qui nous dévorait le ventre

Mais Zio continuait, les yeux brillaient. Il abattait ses bêtes les uns après les autres et paraissait hors de contrôle.
Ça dura un moment. Puis il stoppa son geste et nous regarda avec malice.
Vous crevez de faim, n’est ce pas? Moi aussi. Alors comme je refuse de payer les taxes…
Il tira une bouffée sur sa pipe couverte de sang.
….on va manger mes bêtes!
Il nous regardait, le bougre:
Car pour celui qui n’a pas de bêtes, il n’y a plus de taxes, n’est ce pas?

Nathalie Azoulai ‘The Spectators’

On the 27th of November 1967, in all of the other houses in France, activities picked up again shortly after the conference. The television is switched off, people go out shopping, get on. For most of the French, nothing serious has has happened besides a few statements about foreign affairs which don’t concern them directly. England, the East, Quebec. Nobody makes the connection between a speech and everyday life, nobody understands the implications, considers them as more than particles in suspension particles that won’t fall and that will end up disappearing. But they know that it has already happened. Over there. They know that a speech by a head of state can be transformed in a few months, without being noticed, into measures, into farewells, into suitcases filled in haste.***

The starting point of Nathalie Azoulai’s ‘Spectators is a seemingly anodyne speech given in November 1967 by the General De Gaulle to the nation, we assist with an unnamed family, a thirteen year old boy his parents and his baby sister and we slowly pick up the tension from the boys viewpoint as we understand that they are exiles from an unnamed Middle Eastern country as described in the opening quote. The story slowly unravels, distorted by the boys vision, as told by a third person narrator, with his father rarely we get to know his mother, obsessed by the Cinema and the great actresses of Hollywood’s golden age through her discussions with Maria her Portuguese seamstress. She tells her of the different actresses and the background stories gleaned from her ancient copies of ‘Photoplay’ such as of Vera Miles, Hitchcock’s first choice to play in Vertigo and who would have had a very different career had she not fallen pregnant and been replaced by Kim Novak. Or of Cora who starred in 1946 in The Postman Always knocks twice, Cora is of course Lana Turner. She tells Maria of the marvellous dresses they wore on screen as she shows her photos of the dresses and asks Maria to make them. In line with this his mother had not wanted the television the had bought just before De Gaulle’s speech:

On the way back she rants, sighs, doesn’t stop saying that she hates television, that’s it’s letting the devil in the house, she prefers the cinema. From now on she’ll see the films without having to leave the home, says his father, in her nightgown if she wants to. And why not in slippers ? A film should be watched dressed to go out and with make up on she replies sharply. She will never accept to be so lowered before all of these impeccable actresses.***

During De Gaulle’s speech there is a question of a war, probably the six day war and his father tells his mother that if they win the war he will buy her the dress of her dreams. Later Pepito, Maria’s son asks him if they are Arabs to which he replies no, Pepito, who doesn’t understands then insists asking, but you do come from an Arab country to which he answers yes. We then slowly learn of their forced exile, and how in the two suitcases they were allowed to take she had tried to take her entire collection of Photoplay. Finally of the doctor she had met before leaving who she nicknamed Flynn. It was then no surprise that the boy tried to understand things:

There you are, for us France is finished! His father lets out.
Don’t say such foolish things, says his mother.
How do you leave a country you love so much but where you are so hated? he asks.
And there, it’s as if the television was suddenly turned off. His two parents turn towards him and give him such as if to turn him to stone.
Taking no notice, he continues: when do you know when it’s time to leave? you know because you’ve already done it.***

This is the story of a boy trying to understand his families complicated life, he had himself been born in France and we finish by understanding his mother’s obsessions, an enigmatic book.

First Published in French as “Les Spectateurs” in 2018 by P.O.L.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sur le trajet de retour elle peste, soupire, ne cesse de dire qu’elle déteste la télévision, que c’est le diable dans la maison, qu’elle préfère le cinéma. Elle verra désormais les films sans avoir à sortir de chez elle, dit son père, en chemise de nuit même si elle veut. Et pourquoi pas en chaussons? Un film ça se regarde habillée et maquillée, cinglé-t-elle. Jamais elle ne supportera d’être ainsi diminuée face à toutes ces actrices pimpantes.

Le 27 novembre 1967, dans toutes les autres maisons de France, les activités reprennent dans la minute qui suit la fin de conférence. On éteint la télévision, on sort faire des courses, on vaque. Pour la plupart des Français, rien ne s’est produit de grave que quelques déclarations sur des dossiers de politique étrangère qui ne les concernent pas directement. L’Angleterre, l’orient, le Québec. Personne ne fait le lien entre un discours et la vie de tous les jours, personne ne capte les incidences, ne les considère autrement que comme des particules en suspension qui ne retomberont pas et finiront par disparaître. Mais eux savent que c’est déjà arrivé. Là-bas. Ils savent qu’un discours de chef d’État peut se transformer en quelques mois et sans qu’on y prenne garde, en mesures, en adieu et en valises remplies à la hâte.

Voilà, pour nous, c’est fini la France! lâche son père.
Ne dis pas de bêtises, dit sa mère.
Comment quitter un pays qu’on aime tant mais où on vous hait tant? demande-t-il.
Et là, c’est comme si la télévision s’éteignait d’un seul coup. Ses deux parents se tournent vers lui et lui lancent un regard qui cherche à le pétrifier sur place.
Sans se troubler, il reprend: quand est-ce qu’on sait qu’on doit partir? Vous savez, puisque vous l’avez déjà fait.