Alice Zeniter ‘Comme un empire dans un empire’

Traders now buy zero-days on the market and companies sell them on, all in total secrecy. As Antoine didn’t understand the word, L explained that a zero-day was an error in a program that nobody had yet found and for which as a consequence, there was no patch… sum up, said L, capitalism has taken over coding.***

Alice Zeniter’s latest novel covers the world of today through two protagonists whose lives meet and their meeting then transform them. The first is Antoine, a backroom boy and speech writer for a socialist member of parliament in these post-socialist days where the Socialist Party no longer represents even a moderate portion of the electorate and Antoine, all too aware of this, just doesn’t know what to do:

The party is a dead animal in whose stomach you can still shelter but it is now beginning to smell and to become cold. It makes no sense to spend your whole life within it today. That way of shaping politics is dead and I know no other. I don’t know what to do.***

And L, who lived through the early period of the internet hackers, was part of Anonymous and saw the system fight back, break some and then jail the leaders. L lives in two worlds, the Within and the Flesh-world; she prefers the Within, the virtual. The experience with the Anons and the constant fear has kept her from attacking large corporate entities but she has her enemies, the people she defends others against, the abusers of women. When her live in boyfriend/hacker is arrested early one morning, for attacking a large corporate entity her world starts to fall apart.

L begins to see people following her. Are these people linked to her Elias her boyfriend or to the women haters she has been fighting for her female customers, or is it all in her head? She no longer knows. Antoine, whom she has met at a party she did not mean to attend, decides to save her and arranges for her to leave Paris and live with a friend of his in a sort of commune in a caravan with other missfits behind the friend’s farmhouse in Brittany. So opens a phase of renewal, an appreciation of the world around her, the Flesh-world she despises up to this point.

Who do these two people become, does L leave her previous life, or at least put it in perspective, become less paranoid? Does Antoine continue to work for an ideal, a party, an elected representative of the people he no longer believes in? Or does their meeting make them both better, stronger? Do you believe in fairy tails? Well read this book. As usual Zeniter doesn’t dissapoint.

First Published in French as “Comme un empire dans un empire” in 2020 by Flammarion.*** My translation

Des courtiers achetaient désormais à la bourse des zero-days et des firmes les revendaient, le tout dans le plus grand secret. Comme Antoine ne comprenait pas le mot, L expliqua qu’un zero-day était un défaut dans un logiciel que personne n’avait encore décelé et pour lequel, par conséquent, il n’existait aucun correctif……Pour résumer, dit L, le capitalisme s’était emparé du codage.

Le parti est un animal crevé dans le ventre duquel on s’abrite encore mais ça commence à puer et à refroidir. Ça n’a plus aucun sens de passer une vie entière à l’intérieur aujourd’hui. Cette façon de faire de la politique est morte et je n’en connais pas d’autre. Je ne sais pas quoi faire.

Arnaud Cathrine And The Anonymous Project ‘Andrew est plus beau que toi’

Arnaud Cathrine has put together this marvelous book from a selection of amateur colour slides from the 1940’s through to the 1970’s chosen from Lee Shulman’s Anonymous Project, a large private collection of anonymous Kodachrome slides. He has imagined a story linking these images and as the story moves on we don’t initially realise that the images of the recurring characters, the brothers Andrew and Ryan Tucker are never twice of the same persons. The story he tells us is a story of California from the 1940’s through to the 1980’s and of the different life trajectories of the two brothers.

The story is told in alternating chapters by the two brothers beginning with their fathers arrival in California just before the outbreak of the war and the meeting with their mother in Santa Monica. The marvelous images at every page of the book give us a full immersion into working class homes, which seem by today’s standards to be sparse. The two brothers take different roads as Andrew discovers his attraction to men, take this photo with his first boyfriend:

As things become more difficult at home Ryan advises him to move to San Francisco where he meets his life partner. Capturing the post war tensions, his father refuses to see him from then on, even to his death.

Ryan on the other hand meets his wife to be, shown in this photo titled by Arnaud Cathrine “Come near her and I’ll crush you”

An interesting way to give life to these 90 or so photos, as for instance their mother has a secret liaison with the neighbour who then dies in a car crash or their childhood friends move away and always these remarkable photos.

First Published in French as “Andrew est plus beau que toi” by Flammarion in 2019

Michel Houellebecq ‘Submission’

I was hungry and what’s more I felt like shopping for something to eat, a blanquette de veau, hake cooked with cervil, a berbère moussaka; meals for the micro-wave, reliable in their insipidness, but with  colorful  packaging…not ill intended and the feeling to be taking part in a deceptive collective, yet egalitarian experience.***

In this book from 2016 by Houellebecq, in a near future the narrator, a bored university lecturer at Paris-Sorbonne, in between having affairs with his students is watching his life drift past, as it would seem is the whole country, in passive dissatisfaction. A perfect idea of his character is given by the opening quote.

Houellebecq picked up well on the mood of the nation with regard to the existing political landscape as was confirmed afterwards by the election of Emmanuel Macron, as  the narrator introduces us to election night:

I’ve always liked presidential election evenings; I even think that with the exception of football world cups, they were my favorite television programs. There is obviously less suspense, elections obeying to the singular narrative disposition of a story whose outcome is known from the first minute.***

But in this election night Houellebecq puts the Muslim brotherhood, a little like Hitler in his time, in a position of force to form a coalition government with the socialists. And as the book goes on he imagines the changes this could bring about, accepted apathetically by the electorate. Let us take the narrators profession as one of the examples he presents:

The republican school system stays as is. Open to everyone – but with much less money, the education budget will be divided by three at least, and this time the teachers won’t be able to save anything, in the curant economic climate any budget cuts will be certain to obtain large approval. And in parallel a system of private muslim schools will be put in place. Obviously in next to no time public schooling will equal low cost schooling.***

Houellebecq as other authors in dystopian novels plays on the readers fears as the narrator loses his job because his university becomes the Islamic university of Paris-Sorbonne and he is not Muslim (but no panic, the university is payed for by the Saudis and he is well paid off). He plays on arrangements to make polygamous mariages legal as the narrator’s colleagues become Muslim to keep their jobs, at three times the pay level, including wives found for them by the administration and  he imagines changes to our shopping centres:

Inside the shopping centre, things were more nuanced. Bricorama (DIY) was uncontested, but Jennifer (adolescent clothes) certainly wouldn’t last long, they sold nothing that would suit an islamic teenager. Secret Stories  on the other hand, that sold cut price branded underwear, had nothing to worry about: the success of similar shops in merchant galleries in Riyad and Abu Dhabi was incontestable…..dressed in impenetrable black burkas during the daytime, when the evening comes rich Saudi women are transformed into birds of paradise.***

This book was well received by the critics I, however, was uncomfortable with it, I found it quite simply plays on readers prejudices, and wouldn’t recommend it, look elsewhere for dystopian futures and imagine, maybe optimistically, that populations everywhere take an active interest in the way their countries are governed.

First Published in French as “Soumission” in 2015 by Flammarion
Translated into English as “Submission” by Lorin Stein and published in 2016 by Vintage
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

J’avais faim et plus encore j’avais envie d’acheter à manger, de la blanquette de veau, du colin au cerfeuil, de la moussaka berbère; les plats pour micro-ondes, fiables dans leur insipidité, mais à l’emballage coloré et joyeux… aucune malveillance ne pouvait s’y lire, et l’impression de participer à une expérience collective décevante, mais égalitaire.

J’aimais depuis toujours les soirées d’élections présidentielle; je crois même qu’a l’exception des coupes de mondes de football, c’était mon programme télévisé favori. le suspense était évidemment moins fort, les élections obéissant à ce dispositif narratif singulier d’une histoire dont le dénouement est connu dès la première minute.

l’école républicaine demeurerait telle quelle, ouverte à tous – mais avec beaucoup moins d’argent, le budget de l’Education nationale sera au moins divisé par trois, et cette fois les profs ne pourront rien sauver, dans le contexte économique actuel toute réduction budgétaire sera certaine de rallier un large consensus. et puis parallèlement se mettrait en place un système d’école musulmanes privées. Evidemment, très vite, l’école publique deviendra une école au rabais.

A l’intérieure du centre, le bilan était plus contrasté. Bricorama était incontestable, mais les jours de Jennifer était sans nul doute comptés, ils ne proposaient rien qui puisse convenir à une adolescente islamique. Le magasin Secret Stories par conte, qui vendait de la lingerie de marque à des prix dégriffés, n’avait aucun souci à se faire: le succès des magasins analogues dans les galeries marchandes de Riyad et d’Abu Dhabi ne s’était pas démenti….Vétues pendant la journée d’impénétrables burqas noires, les riches Saoudiennes se transformaient le soir en oiseaux de paradis.

Alice Zeniter ‘The Art of Losing’

At the start of the Algerian war Ali hadn’t understood the independentists’ plan. He saw the French army repressions as terrible consequences which the FLN in their blindness hadn’t envisaged. img_1384He had never imagined that the strategists of the liberation had predicted and even hoped for them, knowing that they would make the French presence detestable in the eyes of the people. The strategists of Al Qaïda or of Daech have learnt from previous wars and they know that killing in the name of Islam will provoke a hatred of Islam and over and above this a hatred of dark skin, beards and head scarves leading to violence… it’s not collateral damage as Naïma thinks, it is precisely this their aim; that the situation becomes unsupportable for all of the European dark skinned populations and that they will be obliged to join them.***

Alice Zeniters sweeping novel of three generations of a family, of Naïma’s grandfather forced to leave Algeria for France at the end of the war of independence with his wife and children, of Naïma’s father Hamid, uprooted as a child from Algeria, and the silence around his life and then Naïma herself, living without understanding her roots. Zeniter applies some modern day perspective on Al Qaïda or Daesch as illustrated in the opening quote.

She examines Ali’s life in the first third of the book, taking time to set the scene as at the beginning of the war of independence Ali is a respected figure in his remote native village in Kabylie, where two separate generations of soldiers, those having fought for France in the First World War and those having fought for France in the Second World War met regularly at their association building, drawn by shared memories amongst the age groups and differences between the two groups. Slowly the FLN, a group that seem to have no real power, -how could they against the French occupier whose army Ali had seen close up, – appear in small numbers and then after a high profile FLN massacre the Army appear:

For the first time in Ali’s village, a column of jeeps arrive full of French soldiers with faces full of anger. They drive the villagers out of their houses striking them with their rifle butts. They make them lie on the ground, hands above their heads as they overturn and search the interiors, smashing jars and slashing beds. they are so brutally erratic that it’s clear that they dont know what they are looking for.***

The army then take Ali’s brother, Hamza, and two other villagers prisoners, but only Hamza returns, thus dividing the villagers into two camps, those loyal to Ali and those loyal to his local rivals, the Amrouche family:

In the early hours Hamza makes his own way back, shaken but uninjured. He had been neither beaten nor injured. He’d spent a night in a cell and he’d been let out twelve hours later with no explanation.
Back in the village Hamza tells the story of his detention over and over, slowly as if in the telling some sort of answer or clue would appear. Hamza insists that when they let him leave the barracks he was alone, he
didn’t see anyone else. At first they tell him he was lucky, they congratulate him. But as time goes by, as the absence of the two men ….. they start to look at him with suspicion muttering if he made it back he must have talked. But of what?
The rumour spreads through the village and is then amplified by the Amrouche

The pressure is then increased on the villagers when the FLN instruct the war veterans to refuse their pensions from the French government. Akli, a veteran from the first World War insists that he cannot accept this, a question of honour, otherwise he will have fought as a slave. When Akli is subsequently murdered by the FLN, Ali, who is full of angry at the death of his friend, is led to the barracks by the army captain but refuses to help him:

As they were leaving the barracks the interpreter, as if disappointed, said: you didn’t push him too hard… The officer looked at him with a mocking smile:
Why push? They saw him come in here, he spoke with me. He’ll soon understand that that’s enough to compromise him, and then he’ll help us.***

The army captain‘s cynical understanding of the situation is then confirmed as Ali, who is suspected after his visit to the barracks, comes to realise:

Nothing is sure, as long as we’re alive everything can be changed, but once we’re dead the story is set in stone and it’s he who does the killing that writes the story. Those killed by the FLN are traitors to the Algerian nation, and those killed by the army are traitors to France. Whatever had been their lives counts for nothing: death decides everything…the silence he had chosen that morning with the captain carries no weight because the FLN will decide for him that he is a traitor, if they decide to cut his throat from ear to ear. And all the honour he has shown will be washed away with the single movement of a blade designating him as a traitor.***

And so Ali and his family’s future is decided, he becomes a harki, as he and is family escape with many others as defeat becomes inevitable in 1962. And so begins a decade of wandering from one “temporary” refugee camp to another, an unwanted embarrassment in France, until they are settled in a small industrial town in Normandy.

This first part of the book is the story that is never passed down, Ali is too proud and speaks little or no French, his wife none at all, but what of Hamid? We follow Hamid’s life, an intelligent youth taught in French schools, and as so many other immigrant‘s children, the only one in the family or even the community that can communicate with the French administration. He is slowly choked by this life and leaves for Paris at eighteen, learning to silence his past as he has been taught, the very mention of the date they left Algeria is enough to tell the other Algerians that he is the son of a harki, a story illustrated after many nights drinking in a bar owned by a Kabyle:

One evening whilst praising the country of their birth, a little groggy from the beers he’d drunken, he naively answered, when asked that he’d arrived in France in ‘62.
(the bar owner’s) smile disappeared at once.***

Hamid has always been silent on his past to both his wife and daughter. Algeria becomes a dream for some of the third generation, some of Naïma’s cousins but she has no real feeling for it, fifty years later none of the family has dared return, the following quote from the then President of Algeria illustrates the feelings:

“The conditions are not yet right for the visit of harkis, it needs to be said. It’s exactly the same as if you asked a member of the French resistance to take the hand of a collaborator.”
Abdulaziz Bouteflika, Algerian President
14th June 2000.***

The final part of the book studies Naïma, the same age as Alice Zeniter and after visiting Algeria for work and understanding that in the countryside feelings still run high for the harkis, the grandchildren are treated as guilty for their grandparents crimes that they do not even understand and, what is more, that her Algerian family suspects that after all this time she has come to claim the house.

Zeniter finishes with Elizabeth Bishops poem, The Art Of losing of which two verses are quoted below:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
So many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.***

First Published in French as “L’Art de perdre” in 2017 by Flammarion.*** My translation

Jean-Christophe Ruffin ‘The Hanging Man from Conakry’

Aurel, with a quick glance at the group, sized them all up. With the exception of the African, all the others were Whites, over fifty, bulging stomachs, eyes glowing with alcohol. They were dressed in Hawaïen shirts unbuttoned down to the waist with either swimming trunks or shorts beneath. They mostly wore flip-flops or had slipped barefoot into old moccasins.***

Jean-Christophe Ruffin, member of the “Académie Française” and ex-French Ambassador from west Africa, winner of the “prix Goncourt” in 2001 tries his hand here with a murder mystery, making the journey from Goncourt to mystery in the opposite direction from Pierre Lemaitre, where his descriptions are as interesting as the mystery itself which opens early one morning with the discovery of a dead white body hanging from the top of the mast of one of the yachts anchored out in the small port of Conakry in the Republic of Guinea and with the arrival of the unlikely investigator Aurel Timescu of the French consular service described by his boss to the other members of the Conakry yacht club as:

A Romanian, imagine that, and the awful accent he speaks with. He’s such a walking catastrophe that I don’t know what to give him to do. I’ve relegated him to a cupboard. Literally. Without a telephone or a computer. You might well ask me why we keep him? It’s not as if we haven’t tried all of the tricks. All of his bosses have wanted to get rid of him, me included. But he’s a career civil servant, so there’s nothing one can do.***

Aurel the anti-hero is culturally at odds with the other ex-pats present in Conakry,as can be understood from his first visit to the yacht club to question the Europeans present about the dead man as he quickly sums them up illustrated in the opening quote. Aurel was brought up in the Romania of Ceaucescu and has thus developed a resilience the others could not begin to imagine, typified by his arrival at the port that morning:

It was midday when the chauffeur drew up at the entry to the marina where Aurel, a member of the French embassy’s consular service who, despite his small frame and thin limbs, needed to expend a great deal of energy to extract himself from the car. It was a two door Clio, the service’s smallest and most knocked about car, the only one his boss, the Consul General would allow him to use. Aurel acted as though it were a luxury sedan car, he tilted the passenger seat forward and lowered himself onto the rear seat, designed for a young child. He settled himself in with dignity, his knees tucked under his chin and his head wedged up against the roof. He descended from the car with the same air of importance, after all Severe was one of the titles of Roman emperors, as was Felix, incidentally. Aurel had never forgotten this lesson from history: dignity and happiness are sovereign attributes. Each one of us can seize upon them if he wishes. It was thus, with dignity and joy that the consul advanced towards the club-house, through the two rows of palm trees standing to honour him. ***

As the story unfolds and wrapped and ready solutions are proposed to him, concerning robbery, Aurel never loses from sight the key point for him, why would robbers come for the money and then take the time to hoist the dead body up the mast? As Aurel finally understands the intricacies of the situation his years under Ceausescu leave him with all of the necessary experience to extract a confession! Read in the Summer break.

First Published in French as “Summer” in 2018 by Flammarion.
*** my translation

Thomas B Reverdy ‘Il était une ville’

Reverdy is no newcomer to dramas set in faraway worlds, after his last work, ‘Les evaporés’ (Those spirited away), published in 2013 and set In Japan, ‘Il était une ville’ (There was a city) is an ambitious book with three story lines set in a post apocalyptic Detroit, except that the apocalypse which is the background for the book actually took place!

In the presentation of the book Reverdy’s editor explains that ‘he tells us what love is in the times of catastrophe’***


Reverdy takes us to Detroit in 2008, where Eugene, a young manager with an already chequered past, is sent to Detroit by his Corporation (Either as a punishment or as a last chance) to lead a multi-national team on a project that can never realistically see the light of day.

Reverdy shows us from several view points the central theme of the book,

” ….. And this is also what is at stake in human society. Run, we don’t know how to do anything else. And when things start to go wrong, we accelerate – what else can we do ?….At the precise moment of their fall, all civilisations seem to be like headless chickens”***

With the Corporation that continues to imagine grandiose solutions in spite of its own inevitable demise, forgetting about its different teams along the way.

With Detroit where “You had to carry on buying houses, cars, filling your supermarket caddy, but there weren’t any more jobs”.***

With the City Police where due to the bankruptcy of the city administration they no longer have the adequate equipment to do their job whilst the mayor of the city is forced to resign after the murder of an ex call girl brings to light  his sex parties and fraud on a massive scale.

With more than seventy youths who go missing over a period of several months without the police being notified in a shrinking city (Detroit actually shrinks by one third of its population) and who are found living together in the abandoned city center.

In this chaos, Reverdy shows us some people that care and gives us a story of love and hope that does not seem out of place.

The ravages of capitalism on Detroit shown in this book do not seem so very different from that shown on Moscow by Makïne in ‘A Woman Loved’

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Published in French in 2015 by Flammarion
***My translation