Hannelore Cayre ‘La Daronne’

—I was paid in cash by my employer, The Home Office, who therefore declared no taxes…..its pretty scarey when you think of it, the translators on whom National security depends, IMG_1114the very same that translate the plots hatched by islamists in their cellars and garages, should be clandestine workers with no social security and no pension. Quite frankly there are better ways to ensure incorruptibility.***

Lets get the translation in first, ‘La Daronne’ is French slang for mother, my best equivalent would be the cockney rhyming wersion ‘The finger and thumb’.

Hannelore Cayre who’s First book ‘Commis d’office‘ meaning ‘Duty Counsel’ in English was released as a film in 2009, serves us this time an excellent piece of French Noir centering around Patience Portefeux, a hard working ageing police translator/interpreter with an uncertain future ahead of her, as the initial quote tells us these translators really were paid cash in hand, and how she becomes ‘La Daronne’.

—It was the end of July, the sun was burning up the sky; The Parisians were all heading for the beaches, and I was beginning my new career, Philippe my fiancé and copwas just taking up his new position as head of the drug squad of the 2nd unit of the DPJ…
I was really happy for him, but back then I was still just a simple police Translator/Interpreter and hadn’t yet got one point two tons of hash in my cellar.***

Cayre’s inside knowledge of the judicial process in France gives us little details such as prisoners speaking with the outside world using Playstations to avoid being listened in on, or the description of the dealers with two phones, the bizzness and the halal to avoid being eavesdropped on but being unable to keep their calls segregated and being blown within hours.

I read this book in two sittings, and thoughroughly enjoyed if from start to end, I firmly recommend this book if your French is up to it, if not watch out for or plebiscite a translation.

First Published in French as “La Daronne” in 2017 by Métailié
*** My translation

Karine Tuil ‘L’insouciance’

—She still thinks that I was the one that caused us to split up when we were at Princeton, when it was in fact she that left me! IMG_1106She left me because she preferred to form a couple with a black, a man with a brilliant future ahead of him, a Harvard degree – and black like herself!***

In Karine Tuil’s latest book, ‘Frivolity’***, The question of identity is the very lynchpin of existence, from the very first quote proposed by Tuil:

—Liberté, égalité, fraternité (Freedom, equality, brotherhood), promote all of these values, but sooner or later, the problem of identity appears.
—Aimé CÉSAIRE, Negro I am, Negro I will remain. Interviews with Françoise Vergès***

The question of identity is the underlying link as we follow this intricately interlocking story between the different protagonists:
—Osman Diboula, a black social worker who had become a political adviser to the president following his role in intervening for the families of two adolescents during and after the riots following their accidental  electrocution whilst hiding from the police.
—Romain Roller a career soldier, who had known Osman when he was a troubled adolescent and with his help had been saved by the army and is now coming back from Afghanistan after a traumatic tour of duty.
—Marion Decker, a journalist from a poor background and the second wife of the richissime François Vely.
—François Vely, a rich business man whose Father, Paul Levy, after fighting in the resistance and being deported changed his name from Levy to Vely:

—At the end of the war,Paul Levy had changed the order of the letters in his name and removed his biblical Christian name in order to improve his integration into French society, his assimilation, to reinvent himself maybe, so what? My identity is purely political, Levy/Vely liked to repeat. Paul Vely the great conscience of the left, the committed intellectual, that was important, that defined him far more than the identity that had been pressed on him, like a mask whose contact he had never accepted.***

Through events of considerable violence each of these characters has his identity questioned and we are shown the difficulty and pain involved in changing one’s identity.

—Vely, who due to his wealth finds himself out of touch with his own image and the effects of negative publicity on his life. He then discovers that he cannot escape his Judaity.
—Roller who through the post traumatic stress after his return from Afghanistan is unable to go on mission and loses his identity as a soldier.
—Decker, who has left the poverty of her adolescence and is married to Vely,  is torn by a relationship with Roller which would lead her back to a life closer to the insecurity of her youth.
—Diboula who falls out of favour with the President and discovers the drug of politics, its mechanisms and also that with social mobility there is no going back:

—Don’t believe that loyalty is the rule in politics. It’s the exception. The rule is betrayal…all the art of politics was to create power relationships to protect you from betrayal.***

The book takes all of these questions and bringing these characters all together shakes out four solutions: the end of frivolity.

First Published in French as “L’insouciance” in 2016 by Gallimard
*** My translation

Tanguy Viel ‘Article 353 of the code of criminal procedures’

—Article 353 of the code of criminal procedure: the law does not hold magistrates accountable for the means by which they come to a conclusion, nor does it describe the rules on which the full satisfaction of proof should depend;IMG_1076 the law requires them to question themselves in quiet withdrawal and to search their consciences sincerely for influence the evidence brought forward against the accused and the means of the defence has had on them. The law asks of them but one question, which encompasses the full weight of their responsibility: Do you have a firm belief?***

Tanguy Viel tells us here a universal story of gullibility where a crooked property developer, Antoine Lazenec appears in the working class far western French port of Brest. Here in an essentially poorer city in France, the lack of loose money has not prepared them for Lazenec. The events are preceded by the naval arsenal, the city’s largest employer, closing down and the employees getting lumped sum severance payments, loose cash in an otherwise frugal community.

The story is told by Kermeur, in an almost monologue to the magistrate, and who after being layed off by the Arsenal, was the gatekeeper of the “Chateau”, a beautiful municipally owned property on a cliff top overlooking the bay and at the same time the property that was to be developed by Lazenec and leads to the final act of the magistrate questioning the events in the light of Artticle 353 of the code of criminal procedure shown in the opening quote.

The story opens with Kermeur in a small boat, a Merry Fisher, the very type of boat Kermeur had dreamed of bying for himself, well off of the coast, throwing Lazenec overboard to certain death and calmly sailing back to port. Kermeur later describes to the magistrate the effrontery  of Lazenec:

—From here I’d say it alost looks like a real chateau. Yes, that’s right, he replied. It’s almost a shame to demolish it. Demolish? I said. And whilst I was still taking in his answer, at that same time he had begun to walk back towards the quays , whilst I was trying to tell him that I hadn’t understood that from the model, it had seemed to me quite the opposite, the chateau…Yes, but what can you do, he said, the project is evolving, and you’ll see, Kermeur, it’ll look a lot better like that.***

Lazenec is a type of character that since the banking crisis of 2007-2008, we have become accustomed to. Lazenec has no shame, not only does he never begin the actual building work but he continues as time goes on to sign up more people from the peninsula as investors, I mean he must be for real? As the swindle becomes too obvious to ignore, the town mayor, Le Goff, realising he has severely indebted the commun in the investments is the first to act:

—I think you could still here it the following friday, the bullet, under the black umbrellas surrounding the grave, ricocheting off of the walls of the bell tower for at least three days bouncing off of the swing of the death knell before now whistling down the alleys of the cemetery***

The judge asks Kermeur why he and the other people who were cheated didn’t group together to take him to court, but of course nobody wanted to admit that they had been so easily cheated. The strength of Viel’s writing is to describe the events surrounding the disintegration of the lives touched by Lazenec leading to the question asked of Kermeur by his son:

Do you intend winding up like Le Goff?

And of course the magistrate’s final reflection in the light of the article from the code of criminal procedure.

First Published in French as “Article 353 du code Pénal” in 2016 by Les Editions de Minuit.
*** My translation

Jean-Christophe Duchon-Doris ‘L’embouchure du Mississipy’

—Most high, most powerful, most invincible and victorious prince Louis the Great, by the grace of God, king of France and of Navarre, img_1070fourteenth of this name, take possession of this country of Louisiana, seas harbours, ports, bays, adjacent straights and all of the nations, peoples, provinces, city’s towns, villages, mines, minerals, fish, streams, rivers, within the length and breadth of the aforementioned Louisiana***

As I was on a trip to New Orleans, I thought I would pick up a French historical novel about the City and thus came across this ‘Mouth of the Mississipy’ by Duchon-Doris in my local lending library. The story is set in the first years of the eighteenth century as the d’Iberville brothers from New France have been sent to form a settlement by King Louis XIV, the vast region of Louisiana having been claimed for king Louis in an earlier expedition by Cavelier de La Salle in the 1680s whose speech at the moment of claiming it is given in the opening quote.

The expeditions take place during a time of religious rivalry between the Roman church and the Reformed church and rivalry within the camps between the Jésuites, who by the purists are accused of making concessions with the faith in order to get if adopted in far flung lands, and one of these purist groups, the “Missions étrangères” backed by Madame de Maintenon.

In this story, Guillaume de Lauteret expecting to become the Paris prosecutor finds his fiancée’s mother arrested under order of the king but with no explanation.  In trying to discover the truth they learn that the father of  Delphine, his fiancée, had been involved in an expedition to Louisiana where he had until recently be supposed dead, as they then learn:

—Listen to me, he said. I’ll be quick. There are always two versions to a story. In the first, your father is dead. He killed by Mr. Cavelier de La Salle in 1687 after an ugly quarrel. He was tried and executed immediately afterwards by the survivors of the expedition. In this version, your mother is imprisoned.
—In the second version, seventeen years later, when the Sire d’Iberville is leading a new expedition to the mouth of the Mississippi , in the name of the king, the settlers are attacked by a man who kills five of them and is recognised by M de La Salle’s old aumônier as your father.***

img_1069
Map showing the expeditions to Louisiana

So begins the story that will lead them on an adventurous expedition to Louisiana with the d’Ibervilles looking to discover the truth about Delphine’s family. A pleasant story mostly read in the plane.

First Published in French as “L’embouchure du Mississipy” in 2004 by Julliard
*** My translation

Andreï Makine ‘L’Archipel d’une autre Vie’

—At night, from here on we saw the fire lit by the fugitive.normally he lit three, several metres from each other which prevented a successful attack.img_1061 It would have been easy to catch him sleeping, but next to which fire? A night attack against an armed man was too risky. And our orders were strict: he had to be kept alive to allow him to be punished in an exemplary fashion to terrorise the other prisoners..***

Andreï Makine takes us on a journey through the Taïga with a diverse group of Soviet era conscripts in the pursuit of a fugitive  which at the slow speed of an awakening brings the central character, Pavel Gartsev, to see the times he lived in, to lead him to question himself and then finally leads him in the continued and extreme pursuit of an ideal on the archipelago of the title, the Chantar islands off of the eastern coast of the Soviet Union.

—In my youth I often thought back to the hermits  of the Chantars. At one point their exile seemed incomprehensible, even frightening. To cut oneself of from society, to shut oneself off entirely in the ice, on a small island surrounded by a  raging ocean! To refuse the spectacle of life, its emotions, its rivalry! I was then at the age where I was blinded by diversity and intoxicated by the number of different postures. Where changing roles gives the illusion of freedom. Where multiplying yourself through thousands of relationships is interpreted as having a rich life.***

The story concerns a group of soviet citizens in 1953, in the final months of Stalin’s life, taking part in a survival exercise in the Taïga in the event of an American nuclear attack. Five of them are seconded to pursue, apprehend and bring back an escaped prisoner from a soviet camp. In theory a simple task for five well equipped Soviet soldiers against a poor weakened prisoner. Makine takes us down the well worn road of totalitarianism, the nominal army chief and the real chief, his political commissar, the ambitious soldier sucking up to the commissar and the soldier who has himself spent time in the Gulag before being totally cleared. Nothing new here, it is however entirely believable.

As the chase is drawn out, with the prisoner proving himself able to live in the Taïga and the soldiers, extenuated and slowly dropping out of the chase due to injuries, the remaining pursuers discover that the prisoner, so skilfully evading them is a woman:

—The fact that the fugitive was a woman completely changed our outlook. Before, we felt a certain compassion for this barefooted fugitive. He was what could happen to any one of us in these unpredictable and terrible times in which we lived. But to be faced with a woman changed everything for us. She had humiliated, even diminished us. We were the real victims! Tossed around in this endless Taïga. Our honour had been questioned. Diminished by a girl who could shoot better than us, walked bravely, pushed back our attacks keeping her composure. On top of this when she could have killed us, she had chosen not to!***

Following this discovery, they try much harder to capture her, talking about all of the the things they dream to do to her in order to regain their lost masculinity. It is at this point that Gartsev slowly begins to question what they are doing. The Soviet machine is unforgiving and if they do not bring her back then helicopters and troops will be sent after her which explains her choice of the most remote uninhabited point of the USSR as her destination:

—The words of Pavel came back to me with their calm certainty: follow day after day, a woman that has no knowledge of you as you have no knowledge of her destination, to live only for the unending journey, not to ask anything of the other. For a short moment the exciting madness of this dream Intoxicated me***

The story is told by a narrator that had met Gartsev in the Taïga and came back many years later looking for him, this part of the story was of no interest to me. An interesting book but not one of Makine’s best

First Published in French as “L’Archipel d’une autre Vie” in 2016 by Seuil
*** My translation

Magyd Cherfi ‘Ma Part de Gaulois’

—Try to imagine the day when you find yourself in your history lesson face to face with a drawing representing Charles Martel who has just beaten the Arabs at Poitier!img_1051
He, Charles sat bolt upright, proud, blond, straight haired, and his horse majestically arched crushing the ragged looking Arabs, yelling, curly haired, mouths wide open and all at once we said “that’s us!”

Magyd Cherfi, The lead singer of The group Zebda, brings us in this book from 2016 the story of his life up to the point where he leaves home and his “Cité” in the north of Toulouse in the early 1980s where he lived in a poor neighbourhood of mostly first generation North African immigrants and their children.

In this lively well told story of a young adolescent torn between his home life, mostly unchanged from the way life had been in the Kabyle mountain areas of North Africa and his school life that did not recognise the immigrants as being anything but French sharing a deep rooted history over many thousands of years (Gaulois). We can imagine their confusion from the opening quote where they start to understand how they are painted in the imagination of the people that live around them.

I will sum up the book here through three excerpts from the book, first of all the everyday violence to keep the women in their place, Magyd with some friends has set up a structure to offer after school support to the younger kids in the neighbourhood, particularly in French and a theatre group, allowing the young girls their only hope of spending time out of their homes, this first quote concerns a lively and independent minded girl Bahia whom Magyd had given Zweig’s Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman to read, she bursts into the theatre group:

—Her face was carnage. Her two lips were split, literally detached from her mouth and all that was left of her nose was a purple mess. Her cheeks looked as though they had been sliced with sharp stones and blood flowed from her two eyebrows into her eyes.
—Later in her hospital bed she would tell us that they pounced on her simply because she was reading a book. Her father and brother had torn her to pieces for a book.

The second episode in the book concerns the French presidential elections of 1980 where a socialist would win for the first time, in the build up to this There was a general excitement amongst the intellectuals, the working classes and the poor and so Magyd did not understand the reaction to this possibility in his neighbourhood:

—They say Mitterrand is going to win.
—Mouhel (Misfortune) he said involuntarily…..
—We’ll be deported like dogs, we should have expected it, said my mother, we should have left of our own accord, that way we would have avoided another humiliation….

Magyd then discusses this reaction with his friend and left wing activist Samir And all becomes crystal clear:

—Mitterrand? But he hates Arabs
—How can you claim such things? I don’t understand ….
Everywhere people were getting out maps, memorising secondary routes to Rabat, Alger, Tunis….
—It’s not the left that scares them, it’s Mitterrand!
—What?
—You need to understand the basics, for them he’s still the minister for the Algerian war, brother…..he legitimised torture in the name of the Republic…..
—What?
—Yep! For the old uns, the criminals aren’t the army, the orders came from Mitterrand, he was the one that kept the guillotine running….oh yes, from 54 to 57 listen to this, he refused to pardon any of the FLN militants condemned to death.
—But he wants to abolish the death penalty!
—And that absolves him of his crimes?

Magyd takes us through his difficult adolescence towards his mother’s dream of him obtaining his baccalaureate (end of school exam giving access to universities in France), where he would be the first person in his cité to reach this educational milestone which he manages. His description of how this is received in his home and in his neighbourhood is well worth the read and as anyone coming from an immigrant background will know, with an education you can become an engineer or a doctor! But as we know, he becomes the lead singer in Zebda.

First published in French as ‘Ma Part de Gaulois’ by Actes Sud in 2016

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 c’est of 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 Dieb 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