Philippe Jaenada ‘Manaccora Beach 16h30’

Three woman about fifty years old, friends on holiday (“like it used to be”), passed in front of me and headed into the bushes on the path marked by the Virgin (icy, silent). 7EC49A5E-0453-48DB-B942-FDD46E1901DBIt made no sense rushing into the forest, they’d never make it out alive, but was it better to stay here and no longer be able to breathe? How many people out of ten, trapped in a room on fire on the fifth floor, jump through the window?***

Earlier this year I had tried to read ‘La Serpe’ by Jaenada, 500 pages where I had first come across his writing style, in telling his story he regularly goes of at a tangent talking about different events in his life outside of the scope of the story at hand and after 120 pages the actual subject of the book had not really been broached and, unusually, I just gave up on the book. After talking with my librarian, I went back to this earlier book, with as many digressions but only 250 pages long for which the style seems to work.

The story which really happened to Jaenada in Italy on holiday is of a forest fire that traps hundreds of people on Manacora beach. Jaenada and his family  fled on foot from their rental apartment ahead of the fire to this beach from which there was no way out from more than 30 kilometers of forest along the beach that was being burnt to a cinder, there was one footpath leading into the burning forest ahead of the fire which some people took, nothing was heard from them again as illustrated in the opening quote.

Jaenada’s digressions about his life work well here as we follow him in this life changing event, after escaping when they were sure they would die, life’s worries are put into perspective.

I am not a fan of this particular style of author-centric writing.

First Published in French as “Plage de Manaccora, 16h30″ in 2009 by Grasses& Fasquelle.
*** my translation


Julia Deck ‘Sigma’

Alexis Zante is one of the 35 vice-presidents Of the Bergson Bank. In order to reach the top, in theory he would need to eliminate the president and his 34 counterparts. 89B22E5D-3CCF-4198-BC85-B462A1FBB3B0But as with the world of finance itself this line of thought is purely speculative because of the total separation between the objects and the abstract system that governs them.
A man, he explains to me whilst bringing his fingertips together, harvests a ton of wheat. Six months earlier this ton had been bought by another person who had himself sold it on before the plant had begun to grow out of the ground. In the mean time, others will have gambled on the variation of its sales price, taken out insurance on the evolution of the stock markets and these insurances themselves will have been grouped together in packages by investment funds. When the traders have unloaded them on their clients no one will have the slightest idea what he has bought, if the ton Han actually been delivered and who had eaten the bread.***

Julia Deck has put together a spoof story about espionage  and intervention in Switzerland centering around the worlds of finance, art, investment and ideas. The objective of the mysterious organisation behind the action, Sigma, is to prevent the subversive ideas that a painting, once thought lost but which may have been discovered, from affecting society, they tell us about one of the best ways of neutralising a work of art:


You have commissioned our organisation to fight against undesirable works of art. When it proves to be impossible to eliminate them at their source, we arrange for them to go into museums, where their ability to harm our interests slowly peters out. No major work of art escapes our organisation.***

This story is full of interesting characters and situations, the actress, Pola Stalker, balancing choices of films for popular cinema favoured by Sigma, and arthouse works for her image, or of the professor, Lothaire Lestir, à specialist In neuroscience who lectures that the inequality in society between men and women can be traced to the fact that in their lifetimes a woman has on average 32 times less orgasms than a man and preaches equality, for which Sigma believes that despite their hatred of revolutionary ideas, this one is too far from being applicable so no action is needed.

Each of the characters has a private secretary and each of these are employed covertly by Sigma, Has Alexis Zante found the missing monochrome painting? Where could you hide a monochrome? Can Elvire, the gallery owner obtain it? Can she use her sister Pola Stalker to seduce Zante? like any true spy story there are twists, seemingly innocent deaths and an explosive ending, after all humans under pressure are unpredictable. This book was fun and was read quickly.

First Published in French as  “Sigma” in 2017 by Les Éditions De Minuit.
*** My translation

Luc Lang ‘Au Commencement du septième jour’

Ringing, deafening his ears…What time is it? What? 4h in the morning? It’s a private call. Hello?….Yes?95509ADC-1BA7-4A8D-8A86-43E06D04F0D6 A deep voice, commanding, presents himself, the gendarmerie, Saint-Eustache-la-Forêt, what? Saint-Eustache-la-Forêt in Normandy, I’m terribly sorry to wake you at this time of night, Camille Texier is your wife?….at the A&E in Bolbec….a car accident, we wanted to notify you as soon as possible.***

Thomas is married with two children and a loving wife, Camille, he works as a programmer in a company which he and his friend Dom helped their joint friend Drincourt to start up and begin to make profitable. The two parents live full professional lives and have little time for their children whom Dana their African “auntie” helps to look after. Time did I say, Thomas’s main project is to work on a software solution linked to a bar code reader enabling companies to know what their off site employees are doing at every moment throughout the day, a wonderful device allowing companies to optimise the use of their employees and helping the employees prove their worth to their companies.

Firstly in the video you see the name of the product: NUXITEMPO, as if it were the title of a film. Then the name of the manufacturer: NUXILOG. accompanied by an epic musical score of the sort with which you can imagine a child being rescued in the wild Pacific Ocean….Then à voice which announces: In five years time 50% of you employees will be nomad. Wherever you are, improve your traceability!***

In the first part of this three part book, Thomas’s life explodes, as we learn of his wife’s car accident in the opening quote, and we examine the circles of deeply engrained lies Thomas doesn’t even realise he is living. What was Camille doing on this lonely country road in the early hours of the morning? How did she have such a dramatic accident on a straight stretch of road where you could see for miles in every direction? Whilst Camille lies in a coma,  Thomas investigates the accident and he discovers that there were things he didn’t know about his wife, at the same time his job becomes more precarious as his once friend Drincourt shows no empathy or understanding towards the effects of his private life on his professional performance. On a personal side Thomas tries to protect his children from the dramatic events concerning their mother, but where does protection end and confiscation begin, a question he will be forced to face by his son.

The book then jumps ahead a few months to the summer when Thomas and the children are on holiday at his brothers house high in the Pyrénées, where his much elder brother, Jean is a goatherd living a pastoral life in the family farm. We learn that Camille, although coming out of her coma, died soon after without ever recovering.
The children fit in well and are enjoying the chores on the farm but we sense a closeness that cannot be and a difference in visions of the world between the two brothers as illustrated by the following conversation:

Hang on brother, stop there. Why do you think I don’t have more than 180 goats?
I guess that over that number it’s a change of scale, you can no longer control the population, whereas with my solution, no need for extra staff….
You don’t get it do you? I don’t go above that number, because I wouldn’t know them: Their names, there characters, their habits….180 is already the upper limit. Doesn’t interest me to have more, but go on Thomas what would I do with your system? What would…
You’d manage! I’d install the apps for you, I’d ensure the computer maintenance, the updates, the….
You really expect me to spend my time in front of a screen, “managing” my goats temperature curves, their blood analyses and population curves? I’d call them up by Skype?***

In the summer, Thomas pushes his brother much against his will to take him up into the mountains to see the place his father was found dead after a fall, and then at Christmas Jean suddenly throws their mother out of his house, off of the farm, Thomas doesn’t understand, there is a deeper family story he is unaware of, knows nothing of.
The answers lies later, in the third part of the book, no spoilers here, when Thomas visits his estranged sister, Pauline who lives in The Cameroun following the death of his brother Jean found after a fall at the same place as his father. All becomes clear, the dark family secrets are revealed to Thomas pushing him to act quickly.

Throughout the book, Luc Lang brings to life the different lives and locations, from the hospital in Rouen to the prison cell in the Cameroun, from the café in Paris and the overindulgence in alcohol under pressure of work to the kinship necessary to live in the remote farms of the Pyrénées, slowly revaluing to Thomas the false strings holding his life together.

First published in French as ‘Au commencement du septième jour’ by Stock in 2016
***My translation

Pierre Lemaitre ‘Cadres Noirs’

David Fontana
Note FAO Bertrand Lacoste
Subject: Business game “Hostage Crisis” —Customer: Exxyal

As per our agreement, update on the situation.
For the commando, I’ve engaged two associates I’ve worked with many times before and can vouch for.
To play the parts of the Exxyal customers, I’ve chosen two men, a young Arab and a Belgian actor about fifty years old.41BEE058-A535-40C7-96E5-D234CB571A90
For the arms I’ve gone for
— three Uzi machine guns (weighing less than three kilos, firing up to 950 9mm rounds per minute);
—two Glok 17 Basic pistols (635 grams, same calibre, 31 shot chargers);
—two Smith & Wesson pistols
All of the weapons will of course be loaded with blanks…..
The selected managers, minus their cell phones and personal objects will be kept in an office and interrogated one at a time. the scenario allows the possibility to leave the hostages alone for a few minutes to evaluate their ability to organise themselves, or even to organise their resistance as you’ve requested. The head of the commando will carry out the individual interrogations following the instructions of the examiners.
The evolution of the business game can be followed by cameras”***

Alain Delambre 57 years old has been out of work for 4 years, having halted the work already engaged on his kitchen when he lost his job, he and his wife have been living in a temporary situation and slowly slipping further and further into poverty, looked down on by his son in law and pitied by his daughter. He is at wits end, scraping by with demoralising jobs when one day as he is bent over his foreman kicks him in the ass, he rebels, dropping him a headbutt and walking away from the only money keeping them afloat. Things don’t end there as the company decides to take him to court for GBH to obtain damages and the witnesses, all afraid to lose their jobs, won’t speak up.

Delambre an exhead of Human Resources is then unexpectedly called for an interview for a manager‘s job in a large petrochemical firm. How far is he ready to go to obtain security? How low is he ready to stoop to put all the odds on his side? Further than you or I could imagine.

The opening quote tells us something of the imagined selection process, an inhuman test for sure, but what would happen if Delambre were to find out that the dice were loaded and that he had no chance to get the job, and if he knew of the selection process? Well anything could happen and as the hostages are humiliated, Delambre acts but even as we think we understand what has happened as the selection process reaches it’s climax, Lemaitre holds back a twist.

An excellent thriller by a major French author not yet translated into English.

First published in French as ‘Cadres Noirs’ by Calmann-Levy in 2010.
*** My translation

Denis Guedj ‘The Parrot’s Theorem’

The combination of Roman disinterest for things of the mind and the Christian hostility to knowledge not dependant on God or his saints had tragic consequences for the survival of the sciences. The first to suffer the effects was Hypathie, the first great female mathematician in history…7D6756F0-5E15-43C9-A0F7-3F02B50ADF03
One day in 415 AD, the population, prepared over a long period of time by the Patriarch of Alexandria, rushed her charriot, pulled her to the ground, stripped her and dragged her to a sanctuary. She was tortured using razor sharp oyster shells before being burnt alive….
Lea looked towards him, she was pale Mr. Ruche blamed himself for giving too much unnecessary detail.
“A single female mathematician in the whole of antiquity and she’s tortured and burnt to death!”
And in total seriousness, she muttered:
“And we wonder why there aren’t more women studying maths.”***

Denis Guedj was a French novelist and a professor of the History of Science at Paris VIII University and wrote a number of books to try to bring maths to adults. In his Parrot’s Theorem, Guedj sets a murder mystery in a framework to present the history of mathematics from its early beginnings with the Greek mathematicians up to the 1990’s and the demonstration of Fermat’s  Last Theorem.

Pierre Ruche is a retired librarian, in his eighties and confined to a wheelchair living in his converted garage in Paris and he has given over his house to Perrette
And her three children that PIerre hasn’t really got to know since they’ve been living next to him. The story begins with two seemingly unconnected events, Firstly Pierre receives an unexpected letter from the Amazon adressed to him using the name πr, from an ald frind Grosrouvre that Pierre hadn’t seen since the war and learn that the two Had been well known students at the Sorbonne together:

Mr Ruche was reading philosophy; Grosrouvre, maths. While there, both began to write. Ruche published a much-admired essay on being; Grosrouvre wrote a highly acclaimed thesis on the number zero. They were inseparable –other students jokingly called them ‘Being and Nothingness’. When Sartre published his essay some years later, Mr Ruche suspected he had stolen the name, but he couldn’t prove it.

The second event takes place when Max, Perrette’s youngest son, who is deaf, saves a rare Parrot from two gangsters and brings it back to the house.

Grosrouvre sends Pierre Ruche his rare mathematical library before he is found dead in his burned library in Manaus, in trying to solve the mystery of why Grosrouvre should be killed, by whom and why he should send his rare library from Manaus to Paris we embark on a voyage of discovery of the history of mathematics, the initial quote about Rome being typical of the treatment, and pierre Ruche discovers the close links between mathematics and philosophy as well as getting to know the family he lives next to. The centuries of the advancement of mathematics in Bagdad were unknown to me, in the importance or in the scale as the following quote concerning the Beit al Hikma (the House of Knowledge) shows:

—The importance of the house of knowledge came from its translators. There were dozens who came from all over, working on manuscripts coming equally from everywhere. The exceptional diversity of the languages from which the translation took place made up a learned Babel: Greek, Sogdian, Sanskrit, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Copt…..
In the huge calligraphy workshops, armies of scribes worked nonstop. The works, written in Arabic now, began to fill the the bookshelves of the House of Knowledge. The number of copies increased! Everything was ready so that through these works, newly available, the knowledge collected from elsewhere should spread throughout the immense Arabic empire.***

If you are interested in the history of mathematics, this is a light introduction, and what is the probability of the parrot and Grosrouvre being connected? well mathematically speaking highly improbable but not impossible.

First published in French as ‘Le Théorème du Perroquet’ by Seuil in 1998
Translated into English by Franck Wynne as “The Parrot’s Theorem” and published by St Martin’s Press in 2000
*** My translation

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

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