Jean-Baptiste Del Amo ‘Règne Animal’


—When the husband falls ill for the first time, she hopes at first for a respite. But like those ephemeral insects whose sole aim from the moment of their metamorphosis is to 1411E409-F4C6-4E28-A543-05BA15AA58C7reproduce then to bury their eggs in fresh waters and wetlands, his desires increase in regularity and intensity, maybe he senses the seriousness of his illness and tries instinctively to perpetuate the flaws of his breed and his bloodline.***


Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s Animal Rule*** is a history of à French family farm in two parts, from the early 20th century through the First World War and the return of the soldiers and then picking up again in the 1980’s. The first part being a story of everyday violence, verbal, mental and physical in a subsistance farm near The French Pyrenees. Del Amo’s language is meant to dehumanise the characters, the woman in the first part is known only as the genitrix or later as the widow, we see her having several miscarriages alone in secret and feeding the foetuses to the pig before going to the chapel to pray for forgiveness. The man is the husband or the father. The farm animals as with the people exist to reproduce and to survive, see the opening quote.

Each year the farm has a pig which the young girl, Eléonore, takes daily into the woods to feed on roots and chestnuts and which is slaughtered in the autumn to allow them to live until the spring. Life and then death, by killing animals or when the people in their village die is such an obvious and regular part of life that at the outbreak of the First World War, all of the men were used to killing to live, the war they imagined would just be a continuity of this and on top of this they would be fed.

Life moves quickly in these rural societies and when the husband falls ill he fetches a nephew to do the work of the farm, the nephew is not accepted by the genetrix but when the husband dies her position threatens to change radically, afterall the farm now exists due to the work of the nephew and the daughter, and she didn’t ever have any feelings for her husband anyway:


—She had always been jealous of the severity of widows and mourning seems gentle to her, as is the frail demeanor she likes to show, hinting at a deeper pain that can’t be eased, an open wound which lifts and transcends her.  Also dressed so in black, she reflects, she will retain her authority over the child and the nephew on whom she is dependent following her husbands death.***


Eléonore marries her cousin, the nephew who comes back from the war scarred and psychologically damaged. The link between the two parts of the book is Eléonore and her son Henri, it is now the 1980’s and a key moment where the family falls apart completely. If you thought disfunctional families were limited to urban areas, welcome to this fucked up rural family. The subsistance farm has become a pig farm with hundreds of pigs reared in horrifying conditions, Henri has brought up his sons, Serge and Joël to have no feelings but contempt for the pigs with Henri, secretly dying of cancer and becoming obsessed with one of his pigs falling apart mentally, Serges thoughts express the families relationship with the pigs:


—Serge doesn’t answer. Henri doesn’t normally talk this kind of rubbish. An animal is an animal and a pig much less than an animal. It’s what his father has taught him and what the pig farm confirms every day. This pig that they look after, mark, wipe down and wank can look at them with the contempt of a lecherous and idle emperor, he’ll finish up in the slaughter house like all the other pigs just as soon as one of his blood line will have taken his place and his semen weakened.***


I’m not sure I still want to eat pork products after this story (ok, yes I do).

First published in French as ‘Règne Animal’ by Gallimard in 2016
***My translation

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Eric Faye ‘Eclipses Japonaises’


—During the first lessons, they wanted to hear her talk about her earliest childhood…they insisted on her teaching them nursery rhymes….in total 5D3DD7A7-8259-45DB-A603-3D2209016298seriousness they repeated the songs after her until they knew them by heart, they drank in her childhood. Had she stumbled into a lunatic asylum?…one day looking at their uniforms, Naoko thought that maybe she was teaching killers nursery rhymes***


Éric Faye brings us here in Japanese Disapearances*** A novel based on the true story of state kidnapping by North Korea of a number of Japanese citizens that went unknown for 25 years or more as in the 1970’s and early 80’s almost incredibly, small groups of North Koreans surprised isolated young Japanese near the coast, popped sacks over their heads and rushed them onto boats. Since nobody imagined this state of affairs, they were often assumed drowned or having run away from home and the isolated incidents were not connected.

Faye tells us the stories of some of these people with romanced names, here for instance Naoko Tanabe who was kidnapped when she was 13 years old in 1977 near her home in Niigata or of Setsuko Okada kidnapped at 20 in 1978 from the island of Sado. No clear reason for these kidnappings seem obvious, other than that they could. Through these two illustrations we quickly understand the situation of total hopelessness in which they find themselves, isolated from the population, living through the continual North Korean doctrination, mostly unaware of other cases of kidnapping, forced to change their names and to police everything they say with no hope of leaving, hence the quote from Dante’s Inferno at the beginning of the book:


—Abandon all hope you who enter here


We learn that Naoke, still at a young age is asked to teach North Korean military to act and to seem Japanese as in the opening quote, yes, it’s not a country where they could just go to Japan to learn this. One of Naoke’s  « students » who is captured alive after bombing à Korean Air flight killing all of the passengers and crew tells the investigators of Naoke, but this information is kept secret thus neither her family or other families suspect anything for two more decades.

The North Koreans did not just kidnap Japanese and some had fates similar to  Setsuko Okada, who was cook and then married to an American deserter, Jim Selkirk in the book, who disappeared from the DMZ between the two Koreas in 1966.

We learn of the unlikely way a journalist puts together the story and the civil pressures of the families of these victims on the Japanese government to negotiate with (and of course to pay) North Korea to recuperate some of these victims. And of course after so many decades some had died and some did not come back.

The interest lies in the truth behind the book.

First published in French as ‘Éclipses Japonaises’ by Éditions Du Seuil in 2016
***My translation

Andrée A Michaud ‘Bondrée’


—The children had long since been put to bed when Zaza Mulligan, on Friday the 21st of July, started up the forest path leading to her parents chalet humming Aimg_0860 Whitet Shade of Pale driven on by Procul Harum alongside Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in the sparkling lights of the summer of 67. She’d drunken too much but she didn’t care.***


Welcome to Boundary Pond, a lake on the Quebec, Maine border, which picked up the name of Bondrée from Pierre Landry a long since dead trapper. In this book about the great out doors around the lake and its surrounding forest, Peter’s forest, Michaud manages the feat of presenting us with a closed set up mystery. At the outset of the story Zaza Mulligan is found dead after having her leg sectioned in one of Pierre Landry’s old bear traps, and after investigation by the American detective Stan Michaud the enquiry returns an accidental death but Michaud has his doubts:


—Life reorganized itself around this absence and everyone, except for friends and family as well as cops like himself, unable to hold back the ghosts, would forget that in this space, filled by absence, there was once a young girl. It had to be so, the game didn’t allow the participation of the deceased.***


And then the second death in similar circumstances leaves no doubt, there is a killer out there. Michaud shows us the tired and haunted detective, The mix of holiday makers around the lake, part American and part Québécois, only managing a few words of each other’s language as well as several chapters narrated by the young Andrée Duchamp, no longer a child but not yet an adolescent:


—I’d only seen my mother in such a state at the death of her father grand-dad Fred. For weeks after papys funeral, she just disappeared at any time. Her body was still there bent over the sink or over the kitchen counter, but the essence of my mother was gone. Her hands hung in the air in front of her, our questions slid from her ears and it needed for her to drop her knife or her potato for her to re-enter her body. These absences scared me, because the false grimace that froze her looks belonged to a stranger that I wouldn’t have wanted to cross in the dark.***


And who is Little Hawk, an erstwhile friend of, and who had been taught more than twenty years previously to trap by, Pierre Landry and who finding Landry hung in his hut swore that:


—Nobody, ever, will touch my son, my daughter, my father or my brother.***


Michaud, who manages to have a detective with her surname and a narrator with her christian name, much like Agatha Christie before her, even though we know all of the families around the lake, keeps us guessing till the end.

First published in French as ‘Bondrée’ by Les Éditions Québec Amérique in 2013
Translated into English by Donald Winkler as “Boundary” and published by No Exit Press in 2017
*** My translation

Bérangère Cournut ‘Née Contente À Oraibi’


—I was told, in order to make me a daughter of her clan and because I peed on her the first time she took me in her arms, an aunt called me at first Honawpaahu, Bear-who-sprays-like-a-fountain. IMG_1292Then as on that day I laughed with my mouth wide open, another baptised me Tatatitaawa, She-who-greets-the-sun-with-a-smile……In the following weeks, I ceased peeing on people, wrapped tight in my willow cot like all new borns….which is why I remained Tatatitaawa.***


Born Happy At Oraibi: This is the story of a young American Indian girl, a Hopi, a people who live in the Arazona desert, a people who scrape out a living in this inhospitable area and we are plunged into her life and, through it, the Hopi’s complex belief system, so thoroughly linked to their surroundings and the natural world.

The Hopis live in this arid desert, so hot in the summer and so cold in the winter, dépendant on the meagre harvest for survival, we are with Tatatitaawa, of the butterfly clan, as she grows up in this happy but small community in Oraibi at the third Mesa with at the centre Itangu, the oldest woman of the clan. We are with her as she changes her name at key stages of her life.

We hear of Soyal, when her father and the other men leave their house when the days are shortest and the nights are longest in order pray with the priests and .to call back the sun and of Lakon when the women fast at the end of the cycle in November to pray for rain. We hear of her father who sometimes roared like thunder in the house, but as her mother says, who would complain at the sky for thundering before it delivers us water.

Besides the stories of Hopi celebrations and prayers, births and deaths, we discover Walpi on the first Mesa where Tatatitaawa’s father’s clan, the Grey Bear come from and of the quarrel between her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister of the Black Bear tribe who she believes to be a two-heart who has stolen and given birth to her nborn child.

This is a book with succeeds in giving the reader a glimpse of the Hopi culture and helps the reader to begin to feel its rhythm.

First published in French as ‘Née Contente à Oraibi’ by Le Tripode in 2016
*** My translation

Thierry Dancourt ‘Les Ombres De Marge Finaly’


—The Yvelines is still wrapped in night, and despite this, she notices as well that the sky is almost blue. She closes her eyes, raising her face towards the star studded sky, IMG_1290thinking to herself that each and every day over the last few weeks, the snow has been burying Plaisance Gardens, the garden, the pool, the villa and with it the portrait of the young woman with the blue eyes, so completely that for the present one no longer hears of these things.
The star light from another age falls on Marges eyes. It’s what gives them their grey colour, grey with a hint of blue, on that night.***


Thierry Dancourt’s latest book ‘Jeu De Dames’ (probably a play on words, meaning draughts or checkers but also literally a ladies game) has just been published to very good reviews, leaving me wanting to get to know this writer’s work, and so I decided to begin with one of his earlier books, ‘Les Ombres de Marge Finaly’, once again more than one meaning, the shadow that Marge Finaly has left on Pierre Meilhac’s life, as well as maybe the shadowy side to Marge Finaly.

This book begins with a surprise meeting in Paris between Pierre, the main protagonist, and Marge some fifteen years after their last meeting. Dancourt’s beautifully descriptive style takes us back to the end of the sixties where he slowly unravels for us the story of  Marge and her group of friends, none of whom seem to work, and the large but rundown  country property near Paris, Plaisance Gardens, left to Marge after the death of her parents, where they seem to live or at least to meet in order to while away the endless weekends together. The reader can feel the decadence of the moment, from Dancourt’s description of the ‘car pool’ with amongst others the Renault Prairie, shown in the photo, or the Lancia Gamma, or the Pall Malls and Week Ends that Marge and her friends smoke, or his marvellous description of looking into Marges eyes as the snow slowly buries Pleasance Gardens in my opening quote.

Following this chance meeting, Pierre slowly meets Marge’s old friends that she no longer sees in order to better understand what happened in that summer fifteen years earlier, how he had been used and the mixed relationship that Marge had with him, when after the sting, replacing him to get valuable antique papers from his employers private museum, Marge runs away with him, Pierre still did not know why and the disappears for fifteen years. I can’t resist quoting one of Dancourt’s descriptions of Plaisance Gardens to finish:


—The villa came into sight, little by little, white, grey in places…..the roof terrace whose clear line, which whilst underscoring the horizontal rhythms, was interrupted by the volumes of the stairwell, the magestic smokestack of the transatlantic liner that this house, built in 1927, didn’t fail to evoke, yes, but a transatlantic liner cruising on a strange soft, delicate green english ocean, a green but raging sea what’s more, because the depressions in the lawn, sometimes quite deep  especially towards the bottom of the property, plunging into the hollows, slipping from vue, reappearing then disappearing completely once again and so, buffeted, shaken, a nutshell in the swell, it seemed so fragile, so vulnerable, so lost.
Thus I discovered  Plaisance Gardens.***


First published in French as ‘Les Ombres De Marge Finaly’ by La Table Ronde in 2012
*** My translation

Yasmina Khadra ‘Morituri’


—There are two hundred yards from my block of flats to the garage where I park my car. Before I covered them in a few strides. Today it’s an expedition. IMG_1287Everything seems suspicious to me. There is danger in every step, sometimes I’m so scared I think of turning back.
The caretaker is a good man. He feels sorry for me. To his way of thinking I’m as good as dead.***


If you watched and liked the recent thriller ‘Cairo Confidential ‘ by Tarik Saleh then now is the moment to go back in time to Khadra’s Morituri (Those who are about to die) set in Algiers in the early 1990’s during the Algerian civil war and published in French in 1997. Behind the name Yasmin Khadra hides Mohammed Moulesouhoul who was an Algerian army officer and wrote under this pen name to avoid censorship.

In Algeria caught between corruption and Islamic fundamentalism, where the police are fair game, inspector  Llob is asked to find the rich powerful Ghoul Malek’s daughter, Sabrine (Ghoul’s name is a play on words meaning the Ogre). Not an easy task, I mean who would take the risk of being seen talking to a policeman, a dead man walking, and risk his life. As Llob pursues his enquiry, we learn that an ‘Abou Kalypse’ (apocalypse) is orchestrating the murder of famous writers and entertainers, well those that are left, they have always been fair game for the fundamentalists.

Khadra sets the scene, there is no hope such as here for instance:


—As of now, in my country, a stones throw from the point of no return, there are children gunned down simply because they go to school and girls who are beheaded in order to scare the others.***


As the enquiry advances further and one of his team is tortured to death by the terrorists after straying into a known zone at risk where his father had died, Llob tells us:


—We have become used to the terrorist’s inconceivable abjectness, they have been known to kill a mother with the sole purpose of ambushing the son the day of the burial and to kill a cop in order to mow down his colleagues come to pay their respects at his tomb***


This is a quick read and if you are looking for signs of hope, well there are some, for instance Llob’s partner, Lino, who is scared to inaction at the start of the book, when pushed to his very limits, lets his pent up anger pull him out of his stagnation.

First published in French as ‘Morituri’ by éditions Baleine in 1997
Translated into English as ‘Morituri’ by David Herman and published by Toby Press in 2003
*** My translation

Faïza Guène ‘Un homme ça ne pleure pas’


—Because learning the language, respecting the state institutions, assimilating the country’s culture by cherishing its famous authors, marching for the glory of the nation, img_0748all of that is nothing compared to swallowing raw minced meat with an egg yoke and sauces squashed in.***


Faïza Guène brings to us in this book, for which she benefitted from an Algerian Cultural Ministry Residency program, a story of the difficulties of second generation integration in France. Her character observation and humour, which I discovered in Bar Balto, is further developed here in ‘Men don’t Cry***’. The humour here is however of a much more bitter kind which initially disturbed me but in retrospect well serves the subject matter of families being stretched to breaking point and torn to pieces by the challenges of integration, put in Brexit terms the difference between hard integration and soft integration.

The story is told by the youngest child Mourad who is ten years old at the outset and tells us how his older sister Dounia rebels against her family in adolescence and one day leaves home never to return, the ‘hard integration’. He tells us of two other forms of integration, of his second sister Mina who accepts an arranged marriage and lives in France in an updated continuity of her parents way of life, and we then live Mourad’s coming of age and his decisions leading to a ‘softer integration’.

Years later as Mourad’s father suffers a stroke, he confides in Mourad his wish to see Dounia again before he dies. Mourad who then leaves his home in Nice to teach in the Paris suburbs meets up again with Dounia and the real subject of the book, the confrontation of the two visions of integration takes place. The role of the mother, wanting to control everything acting through emotional blackmail is shown:


—I thought again of my conversation this morning with my mother. I’d phoned the house just to see how things were?
—My heart is broken! Torn apart! I thought you were dead! I’m so dissapointed. Don’t you think I’m worth a phone call? Do you know that I sleep with your photo? The one where you wear a blue shirt and have your brace…I thought you understood the value of a mother…***


Dounia  is drawn as a not particularly generous caricature of Fadela Amara, the founder of the French association ‘Ni Putes ni soumises’ translated into English as ‘Neither Whores nor Doormats’. The confrontation between views is brought to a head at a dinner party where Dounia’s politician companion argues with Mourad:


—Forbidding the veil at school seems to me to be totally justified! I can’t even imagine that that could be brought into question!
I was livid
—Its because you have a personal problem with the veil
—Not at all! I’ve a personal problem with those that stop women from being free!
—But that’s exactly what you do in forbidding the veil at school! You can’t say to people: “Be free in OUR manner, there is only one way to be free, it’s ours!” I find that absurd! And it doesn’t work! It creates a feeling of injustice! You say you’re defending women, have you thought of the number of women who have had to leave school because of this law! They have had to forget their ambitions, their only chance to get away from this very archaic system that you think you’re fighting…”***


An interesting, even dark story of the trials of everyday integration of an Algerian family in France, but most of the family issues are true of many integration stories I believe.

First Published in French as “Un homme, ça ne pleure pas” in 2014 by Fayard.
***My translation