Didier van Cauwelaert ‘Un aller simple’

“I started in life as a child found by accident. Stolen with a car as it happens. An Ami 6 of Citroën heritage. So they called me Ami 6 so as not to forget. Well these are my origins so to speak. As time went on they shortened it to Aziz.”***

After my mother in law died, I picked up a few of her books, this one ‘One Way’, priced at 89,00F from 1994, it’s going back a bit but I think I may have bought if for her. Incidentally it won the Prix Goncourt that year.

Aziz Kemal (see the opening quote), brought up in Marseilles by gypsies that found him in a car they’d stolen, had no identity papers, nothing new there, where he was brought up nobody did, but nobody got caught, except this time Aziz did, and at his own wedding.

Aziz is then expelled to Morocco, back then they imagined he would be accompanied by a cultural attaché to help him reintegrate Morocco. (Bless them, no flights to Rwanda for processing back then!) Except of course neither he nor the attaché had ever been to Morocco.

When pushed by Jean-Pierre Schneider, the young attaché about where he comes from, he makes up a story about a village in a secret valley, Irghiz and so begins their journey.

Must say I enjoyed this book, are they both looking for something, besides this non existant village? Well of course they are.

First Published in french as “Un aller Simple” in 1984, by Albin Michel

Translated into English by Mark Polizzotti and published in 2003 by Other Press

***My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

J’ai commencé dans la vie comme enfant trouvé par erreur. Volé avec la voiture, en fait. Une Ami 6 de race Citroën. Alors on m’a appelé Ami 6 en souvenir. Ce sont mes origines, quoi. Avec le temps, pour aller plus vite, c’est devenu Aziz.

Pascale Roze ‘Fighter Zero’

In the morning, even before the sun rises, the fighter gets underway . Kitted out in black, it’s deadly load strapped to its underside, it starts up. The engine roars in the silence of dawn. The propeller spins. The plane shakes, lights out, rolls down the runway, lifts its nose and begins to climb.With a constant thrust it climbs to five thousand metres and levels out. The sun has risen. From the sea and from the sky the fighter is visible in every direction. My name is Laura Carlson. I was born on the 10th of January 1944 in New York. My father died on the 7th of April 1945 in Okinawa. ***

So begins Pascale Roze’s 1996 Goncourt prize winning novel, as Laura Carlson tells us of her life, of a father she never new, of her mother, a war widow left with nothing in a foreign land, forced to move back into her parental home in the ironically named Charity street with her baby daughter Laura. Her mother never really recovered from losing her husband, when Laura’s grandparents let her mother out, she would drink to excess and go to servicemen’s clubs looking for a man, any man and then come home drunk. Faced with this her tyrannical grandmother kept her mother sedated and locked in and in this state her mother didn’t speak to her or anyone else for the best part of eighteen years for which Laura could not forgive her, so that in her own words:

In the morning, even before the sun rises, the fighter gets under My childhood was grim. The appartement was grim, my grandparents were grim and my mother sank into a grim silence. ***

So, onto the main line of the story, as Laura grows up no one speaks to her of her father, at school for one year, she gets to know her only childhood friend, Nathalie, who’s family has just been forced to leave Algeria during the war of independence. Nathalie pushes Laura to investigate her fathers death and from the date of his death and the ship on which he was stationed, she learns that they were attacked by a Kamikaze and that he must of died in this attack.

The key point in this story occurs when Nathalie gives her a book written by a Kamikaze before his death, called Tsurukawa shortly before Nathalie’s family move back to Northern Africa. Laura is clearly perturbed and begins hearing the roaring noise of an engine in her ears at random moments of day or night and persuades herself that it is Tsurukawa’s Zero heading towards her. As she begins her studies in Paris, she meets and has a long term relationship with Bruno a student musician. Their relationship is interrupted when Bruno is called up and Laura’s mental state regresses, one day when Bruno is with her in Paris we understand that she is now mixing up Bruno and Tsurukawa:

Bruno seemed to be getting back to normal, or at least had recovered the will to work, he spent his whole leave seated at his desk. I preferred him like this. I could once again begin to admire him. And I told myself that an arrangement might be possible between Tsurukawa and him. ***

And then later she tells him:

I said that when we made love, it was now Tsurukawa who took means that he ravaged me. ***

As the book reaches its climax, Laura drives her car faster and faster along a road, trying as Tsurukawa had explained, to keep her eyes open to the last second. Then she awakes in hospital and looks at the photos of Tsurukawa and of her father:

For the first time I really looked at them and thought of my whole life. My name is Laura Carlson. I don’t know who that man is who has his arm around mum’s waist. I put the photos down next to Tsurukawa’s diary and compared them. I don’t know which of Andrew Carlson or Tsurukawa Oshi is my father. ***

First Published in French as “Le Chasseur Zéro” in 1996 by Albin Michel.
*** my translation

Pierre Lemaitre ‘Trois Jours et une Vie’

-Émilie looked more and more like her mother with whom she still had a strong emotional bond, there was nothing more important for her. img_0977That she ended up looking so much like her was not so surprising, Beuval was, after all, a town where the children grew to look like their parents as they waited to take their place.***

Welcome to Beauval, A French backwater. Lemaitre chooses this setting for his first book since his Goncourt prize of last year where he examines the fragility of childhood with this ‘what if?’ book. What would your childhood, your life even, become if you did the unthinkable?

Antoine, is a solitary boy of twelve years old, his German father just upped and left one day leaving him to be brought up alone by his mother. Antoine has built a tree house in the forest which he has shown to Emilie, his neighbour’s daughter who was not impressed, sometimes Rémi Desmedt, The six year old son of one of his neighbours follows him out into the forest to be with him but his only real friend is the Desmedt’s dog. Then one day before Christmas in 1999 the dog is seriously injured by a hit and run driver in the village and Antoine watches on as Mr. desmedt gets his gun and casually kills the dog, putting it in a black plastic bag at the bottom of the garden. This is the crucial action at the beginning of the book, Antoine is beside himself with grief and most especially with pent up anger.

This was the winter of 1999, the winter of the great storm in northern France where trees were ripped up and whole forests were flattened, it is during these events that Remi’s body goes unfound for the three days of the title. Rumourmongers go into overdrive in the small village and Antoine is devastated with worry, he decides to both run away and to kill himself with pills in his own confusion. Lemaitre picks up the story after the suicide attempt:

-He opened the door to his desk and his papers he’d left there were missing, he had to know, he half opened the door to his room and crept silently down the steps to the ground floor where  he could hear the whisper of the television, he moved on to to the doors in the hall, screwing his face up, he slowly opened the top drawer, both his passport and his parental authorisation to leave the country were there on top, tidied away in their place, he was sure his mother had hidden away his pills that were on his bed side table and put away the back pack which was clearly there for him to run away, put his passport and his savings account book away. What did she think Antoine was running away from? What did she really know? Probably nothing but then again she probably knew what counts.Had she any idea how Antoine was tied up with Remi’s disappearance.***

In this short book Lemaitre captures this French village as did Edward Louis in ‘En Finir avec Eddy Bellegeule’ although the violence is more latent, but only just. Antoine leaves the village as he gets older hoping to never come back, then some years later, his mother has an accident:

-The enquiry was never officially abandoned, but no one was actively looking for Rémi Desmedt any more. It was an irrational attitude but he felt they this village itself represented the danger he felt and only existed when he came near.***

This is a cruel story in many ways as fate cleverly traps Antoine. This book is a departure from his thrillers, a study of people and situations, there are no bad people, only those who are trapped or who turn a blind eye.

First Published in French as “Trois Jours et une Vie” in 2016 by Albin Michel
Not yet translated into English as ‘Three Days and a Life’ *** My translation

Ian Manook ‘Yeruldelggar ‘

Yeruldelggar is the police Commissioner from Oulan Bator imagined in this first crime fiction book of a short series imagined by Ian Manook (real name Patrick Manoukian).image

Manook wanted to create a world for his series, and far from being an artifice he manages to bring to life a region, a believable way of life, historically so different to ours but in the rush towards a modern way of life, recogniseable yet fragile as whole swathes of Mongolian mining rites are sold amid large scale corruption.

In this story Yeruldelggar is confronted with two seemingly unrelated crimes, the suspicious death of a young girl Murdered 5 years earlier, just found buried with her tricycle At Khentii in the Steppe and a particularly violent murder of three Chinese businessmen found dead and mutilated in a storehouse in Oulan Bator.

Amid the tragedy that is his own life, Yeruldelggar, his young female partner, Oyun, and the female medical examiner, Solongo, take on the Chinese businessmen who treat Mongolia as theirs and the rich Koreans drawn to Mongolia by the mineral riches the wealthy Mongolians with their own agenda and as always the corrupt police serving the money. Manook tries to describe the ageing ex-Soviet style city of Oulan Bator with its legions of poor, yet still drawing people from their traditional outdoor way of life on the Steppe and he contrasts the whole of this with the traditional respectful way of life of the nomad families. And all of this with a touch of dry humour.

A short extract will best give an idea of the way Manook handles the story:

You made me come here, three hours on this track from Oulan Bator for a pedal sticking out of the ground?
–No Commisioner, it’s for the hand!
–The hand? What hand?
–The hand under the pedal, Comissioner.
–What? There’s a hand under this pedal?
–Yes, Commisioner, there, under the pedal, there’s a hand! Without getting up, Yeruldelggar turned to look up at the district policeman. Was he making fun of him? But the policeman’s face was perfectly straight, with no sign of humour. No trace of intelligence of any sort. His face showed nothing but respect and his awareness of the limits of his own capability.
To stop himself from blowing a gasket, Yeruldelgger turned his attention to the object whose presence was now becoming more dramatic. The end of a small pedal was sticking out of the ground at a slight angle to the horizon, but now with a hand underneath!
–And how do you know that there’s a hand underneath?
–Because the nomads dug it up Comissioner, answered the police officer.
–Dug it up! ? What do you mean they dug it up? said Yeruldelgger in silent anger.
–They dug it up Comissioner. They scraped around it and took it out of the ground. When the children who were playing saw the pedal sticking out of the ground they dug around it to free it and as they dug they found the hand.
–A hand? They’re sure? A real hand?
–A child’s hand, yes Comissioner.
–A child’s?
–Yes Comissioner, A little hand. The size of a child’s.
–And where is it now this child’s hand?
–Underneath Comissioner.
–Underneath? Underneath what?
–Underneath the pedal, Comissioner.
–You mean they re-buried it? They re-buried the hand?
–Yes Comissioner. And the pedal as well Comissioner…
Yeruldelggar looked up at the family of nomads in their brightly coloured deels still sat around in a group against the deep blue sky. They were looking at him, nodding their heads with large smiles on their faces showing their agreement with the district police officer. He turned his neck once again to look up at the district cop.
–They re-buried everything! I hope you asked them why!
–Of course Comissioner: so as not to contaminate the crime scene…
Yeruldelggar froze to be sure he had heard right.
–So as not to what!?
–So as not to contaminate the crime scene, repeated the district police officer with a touch of pride in his voice.
–So as not to contaminate the crime scene!!! Where did they get an idea like that?
–In CSI Miami. They told me that they always watch CSI Miami and that Horacio, the chief investigator always says not to contaminate the crime scene.
–CSI Miami! shouts Yeruldelgger.***

Manook gives the chapter titles which are the last phrases of that same chapter, as the book goes on the reader anticipates how the story can get to this short phrase.

A page turner for the 400 pages and a huge success here in France with the follow up due out soon

First published in French as Yeruldelggar by Albin Michel in 2013
*** My translation


Sascha Arango ‘The Truth and Other Lies’

Henry, the rich happily married and much loved writer of best sellers has a problem that will push his smoothly oiled life off imagetrack, a personal drama, his mistress and editor, Betty, is pregnant.

Who is Harry? Where does he come from? How does he come to the decision to kill his mistress?

Sascha Arango’s first book is a slow but twisted thriller, if you scratch the surface Harry has no recorded past but as the pressure begins to build up on Harry an old school friend tracks him down. We know from the outset that Harry does not write the books, the source of his wealth, these are written by his strangely reclusive wife, Martha, Will he risk everything he has and tell his wife?

As the tension builds up around Harry we understand that he is remarkably good at absorbing pressure, he and Highsmiths Tom Ripely are made of similar metal, seemingly unsure at first then decisions taken, acted upon and results accepted. As for his reaction to learning of Betty’s pregnancy:

‘I’ll drive home and tell my wife everything.’ ‘Really?’ Henry saw the astonishment on Betty’s face; he was surprised himself. Why had he said that? Henry wasn’t given to exaggeration; it hadn’t been necessary to say he’d tell Martha everything. ‘What do you mean, everything?’ ‘Everything. I shall quite simply tell her everything. No more lies.’……. ‘And what if she forgives you?’ ‘How could she?’ ‘And the baby?’ ‘I hope it’s a girl.’ Betty hugged Henry and kissed him on the mouth. ‘Henry, you can be a great man.’ Yes, he could be a great man…..It would be the end of all trust and harmony between Martha and him—but it would also be an act of liberation. He would no longer be an unprincipled bastard, no longer have to be so ashamed of himself. It had to be done. Truth before beauty—the rest would sort itself out. He put his arms around Betty’s slender waist. A stone was lying in the grass, big enough and heavy enough to inflict a lethal blow. He had only to bend down to pick it up.

and then his decision, when being followed by his school friend, to stand in the middle of the road at the exit of a bend forcing an accident and knowing which choice the classmate would make, to hit him or to swerve over the cliff.

If you’ve missed Highsmith you could do worse than to read Arango.

First published in German as Die Wahrheit und andere Lügen by Bertelsmann Verlag in 2014
Translated into French by Dominique Autrand as La Vérité et Autres Mensonges and published by Albin Michel in 2015
Translated into English by Imogen Taylor as The Truth and Other Lies and published by Simon and Schuster in 2016

Eliette Abécassis ‘Une Affaire Conjugale’

‘Don’t get mad get even’ I was sometimes told as a youth, French writer Eliette Abécassis went through a divorce and then channeled her experience and imagefrustrations into this emotionaly charged novel and I hope for her that her real life divorce was less toxic than this breakdown of the relationship between Agathe and Jérôme Portal, this realisation of just who the former partner really is followed by the slow descent into isolation and fear lived by Agathe. If her real life husband was like Jérôme then this powerful novel laying facets of him open for all to see goes some way to getting even!

I listened to this novel, not yet translated into English, as an audio book and found myself wishing my daily commute was longer as I waited impatiently for my next episode.

The male point of view of an acrimonious divorce has been presented in several works, not the least of which was Kramer vs Kramer, Abécassis chooses to present us a view from the female side, which could be interpreted as bitter and unjust, but the whole point is that this is a partial view seen through the eyes of an isolated and insecure wife going through hell. Although narcissistic perverts are a very particular behavioural case, I have met some, I don’t think needed to be one here, the female view point was I believe strong enough alone. The story is further enhanced by the role of modern technology in the surveillance of one’s partner. We all leave a virtual trace behind us everyday, E-mails, Facebook, Twitter, SMS, Dating websites, Porn sites etc. All of which can be accessed to help the lawyers put together the partner’s profile.

In this book, Agathe unexpectedly learns of her husband’s hatred for her as he accidentally pocket dials her and then when she discovers that he has had girlfriends at their flat whilst she was out she decides to ask for a divorce, and this is when the real subject of the book begins.

‘To get things right, you’d need to start by divorcing and then get married. You don’t know your partner when you make love. You don’t know him when you have a child with him! All that leads you down the false route of life and not of that of knowledge. No, the only true way to know your partner is to divorce him. Then you get to fully learn of his human, psychological and moral qualities, you have access to his true essence. Before, I thought I knew my husband’***

The procedural side of the novel, explaining that they needed to keep living under the same roof until the divorce was announced even in this particular case of extreme hatred and danger so as not to endanger the guard of the children, was particularly chilling.

Agathe is a financially independent woman who does not realise until the divorce proceedings that her husband had never invested any money in their marriage. (he ran a start up which never made a profit) It is supposed, but never exploited, that he has been stashing money away in Switzerland. This is one of many cases of Agathe waking up to what was really happening in her marriage and asking herself how could she have been so naive.

First published in French as Une Affaire Conjugale by Albin Michel in 2010
***My translation

Antonin Varenne ‘Trois Mille chevaux Vapeur’

Antonin Varenne is a future great writer whose previous two books ‘Bed of Nails‘ and ‘ Losers Corner‘ have been published in English by MacLehose Press. His latest and greatest book ‘Trois Mille Chevaux Vapeur’ or ‘Three Thousand Horse Power’ in English was released in France in April last year.


This story follows Arthur Bowman, initially an English private soldier working for the East India Company, on his life changing Odyssey beginning with his and his group’s initial capture and torture over a four month period in the Burmese jungle, their return to London and their inability to come to terms with what had happened to them illustrated mainly by Arthur’s despair.

A series of terrible murders then begin where the victims are killed in the same fashion as Arthur and his group were tortured, leading Arthur to deduce that the murderer was one of the few survivors of their ordeal.

The book follows Arthur on the trail of murders from mid 19th century London to New York and the long trail to San Francisco. The reader follows the metamorphosis of Arthur from unquestioning soldier through to a person capable of forgiveness.

This book is at the crossroads between being a thriller and an adventure story, set in several very precise moments in history, from the demise of the East India Company through to the wagon trains to the west and the American civil war.

Greed and survival are the two major themes ever present throughout the 700 pages. From the writing style through to the subject matter this is a book almost written for the English speaking world. The descriptive skill had me feeling I was present in most of the places in which the story was set.

Highly recommended, come on MacLehose, get this one translated.

First published in French as Trois Mille Chevaux Vapeur by Albin Michel in 2014

Alessandro Baricco ‘Without Blood’

Baricco’s short Book “Without Blood” takes place in an unnamed Latin country after an unnamed civil war, maybe Spain, maybe Southern America. At the end of the war vengeance is in the air.image In the first half of the book Nina, an eight year old girl lives through the violent murder of her family whilst hidden below the floor boards, the role of her father in the dirty war is mentioned.

During the attack Nina is discovered by the young Tito who, feeling sorry for the young girl and thinking the rest of his band would kill her, gives the all clear and leaves her hidden, only to be devastated when the building is then wilfully destroyed by fire.

Fifty years later as Tito is an old man, a lady he just knows is Nina presents herself to him. All of the other people present that fateful day have been since killed. We are then shown two contrasting interpretations of Nina’s life, before under lifelong crippling guilt Tito accepts the fate Nina has prepared for him and Nina must decide between revenge or pardon, her choice comes in the last page of the book.

This carefully written book reminded me in its blurred edges and descriptive manner of Dino Buzzati’s Tartare Steppe. An easy read.

First published in Italian as Senza Sangue by Rizzoli in 2002
Translated into English by Ann Goldstein and published in 2004 by Knopf
Translated into French by Françoise Brun and published in 2003 by Albin Michel

Amélie Nothomb ‘The Book of Proper Names’

I had a large hole in my racket, Amélie Nothomb, a very prolific French language writer from Belgium. “People either love her or hate her” I was told, I am here to confess that after reading “Robert des Noms Propres” I neither hate her nor love her, this was simply an unusual story, well worth reading.image This is the romanticised story of the Belgian singer RoBert, Amélie Nothomb manages to tell the story with the child at the center as she grows from a foetus to a singer

Plectrude’s life story begins with her 19 year old pregnant mother blowing a hole in her father’s head to “protect” her soon to be born child, she then gives birth to Plectrude in prison before committing suicide.

We are happy for Plectrude as her Aunt takes her in and raises her as her own beloved child, she grows in these circumstances into an exceptional young dancer at the Paris Ballet school where she succumbs to anorexia as a young adolescent, to the point of damaging her own bone structure and thus losing her dream. This is one episode in an eventful life and my description does not do justice to Nothomb’s detailed story as she leads us and Plectrude through adolescence to the key dramatic point of her life and it’s resolution.

We are placed in the position as observers of people’s stupidity, as we watch, powerless, the events unfold. The fairy tale life that the young girl lives (being allowed to eat whatever she wants dressing as a fairy and drifting through early life) is then reactivated as she finally leaves adolescence for a happy ending.

First published in French as Robert des Noms Propres by Albin Michel in 2002
Translated into English by Shaun Whiteside and published by Faber in 2005

Pierre Lemaitre ‘Au revoir là-haut’

Changing genre is no mean feat as recently J K Rowling has shown, here Pierre Lemaitre successfully obtains France’s most prestigious literary prize the ‘Prix Goncourt’ at his first attempt.


Pierre Lemaitre has seven crime thrillers of renown published here in France of which his early trilogy based on the detective Camille Verhoeven, which are already translated into English by Frank Wynne and published by MacLehose Press

I read parts of the book and listened to the whole audio book , which is written in such a way as to suggest an oral story with the narrator cutting in from time to time to give comments, pushing Lemaitre to read the audiobook himself.

‘Au revoir là-haut’ was published at the end of 2013 and coincides with the centenary of the first world war. The book covers the end of the trench warfare and deals with:

-The feeling of the French soldiers, “Those that thought the war would be over soon are all long dead. Killed by the war. So Albert was pretty sceptical when rumours of an armistice started circulating in October. He took no more notice than he had of the initial propaganda which explained, for instance, that the German bullets were so soft that they just squashed up against their uniforms like over ripe pears, causing great laughter amongst the ranks. In the last four years Albert had seen a stack of soldiers laugh themselves to death after being hit by a German bullet.”***

-The mixing of the well to do upper classes with the poor working classes (officers and soldiers), “The officer stared at him, gave a sigh of discouragement and slapped him in the face. Albert instinctively protected himself. Pradelle smiled a wide smile that said it all… When he pronounced his name, Maillard, he insisted on his unpleasant way of pronouncing the last syllable making it sound worthless, full of scorn as if Maillard meant dog shit or something of the like.”***

-The severely facially disfigured soldiers seen for the first time in warfare (‘les gueules cassées’ in French) and the use of drugs such as morphine and heroin at the time during the war for injuries and on the black market post war.

-Then finally two enormous swindles one of which according to Lemaitre is based on a true story, up to you to guess which one of the two.

The three main protagonists are linked by dramatic events which take place in the last days of the war contrasting utter self interest in one character to pure altruism in the second character, both stemming from wealthy backgrounds. The third character from a working class background becomes a pawn in the future of these two eventual swindlers, taking an active part in one of the schemes.

Two of the most remarkable sights during a visit to France for anyone interested in the First World War are the huge military cemeteries spread over a large part of North Eastern France and the various war memorials to be found in every town or village in France, the least generous of which that I have seen and is referenced in the book is of a cockerel standing on and scratching a German army helmet. These two sights are the subject matter for the swindles.

The last one hundred years has caused such change in social relationships that, realising this is a thoroughly believable set of situations, I, whose life has spanned more than half of this time, still need to ask is it possible people related to each other in such a way?

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The Great Swindle: First published in French by Albin Michel as ‘Au revoir la-haut’ in 2013
Translated into English by Frank Wynne and to be published by MacLehose Press in November 2015
***Book read in French, my translation with excuses to Frank Wynne