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

Laurent Binet ‘La Septième Fonction du Langage’

-In the beginning, philosophy and science worked hand in hand together up until the 18th Century, in order more or less to counter the church’s  obscurantism….then from the 19th Century…continental philosophy….became more esoteric, more and more free style, more and more spiritualist.image
-Whilst the English and the Americans remained faithful to a more scientific idea of philosophy, what we call Analytical Philosophy.***

Earlier in the year I took one for the team when I read Blanco Calderon’s ‘The Night’  a crime story with more than just a background in linguistic theory and the different theorists in South America and in the world. Well in spite of the wonderful write-ups I have seen, the nightmare is back, a crime novel with more than just a background in linguistic theory where the two main protagonists, Simon Herzog and Pierre Bayard probably the only fictitious characters in the book become mixed up in a farcical search for a document describing the 7th function of language (don’t worry the other six are explained), an understanding of which would permit the person who masters it to manipulate his audience, and for which the French semiotic philosopher, Raymond Barthes, has been killed.

I could not work up an interest to care about who were, and what were the relationships between Foucault, Sollers, Kristeva, Sartre, Derrida, Cixous,Todorov, Althusser, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari, Debray, Roman Jackobson, Umberto Eco, Chomsky, J-Kahn,  Jack Lang, Laurent Fabius, Serge Moati, Régis Debray, Mitterrand and Giscard and thus to understand or care about the satire concerning them. As I put it When I read the Blanco Calderón:

-So if you are a linguistic theorist, this is the crime story for you. Otherwise like myself you may find this a particularly hard slog.

I would add that if you are particularly interested and versed in the 1970’s Paris Philosophy microcosm you may enjoy this book.

The story beginning in Paris, takes in spies killing with poisoned umbrellas, Bologne and the characters are there for the explosion destroying the main railway station as the characters flit around the world to offer historical situations and people for the purpose of the author’s satire.

I should point out here that this review goes against the opinions of most, or even all, of the other write-ups I’ve seen.

First published in French as ‘La Septième Fonction du Langage’ by Grasset in 2015
*** My translation

Tristan Garcia ‘Faber, The Destroyer’

-We were middle class children from an average western country, two generations after winning a war, one generation after a failed revolution. We were neither rich nor poor, we didn’t miss the aristocracy, we had no utopian dreams and we didn’t care about democracy.image Our parents had worked but only ever in offices, schools, for the postal services, in hospitals, administrative work. Our fathers wore no overalls or ties, our mothers no aprons or pantsuit. We had been brought up on books, films, music – with the promise of becoming individuals.***

Tristan Garcia, a philosopher and writer, is forging a solid reputation, with his books being nominated for or gaining prizes, culminating with last year’s ‘7’ winning the ‘Prix du Livre Inter’

The opening quote sets the scene in the mid 90’s the generation that had known the events of May ’68, and influenced the way France went after, were in their late 40’s and the youth of the country that had been brought up by these very people to believe in freedom and individualism were discovering the hard economic facts, nobody owes you anything.

The book builds up to two periods, the first is the social conflict of 1995 where month long strikes, partially powered by the students at Lycées brought about the downfall of the then right wing government, replacing them by the socialists who then, amongst other things, in order to better share opportunities brought in the 35 hour week. Centering on events and people at a Lycée in a French town. The second period is the present day (2012) and the reckoning between the protagonists of that time.

Faber appeared one day in primary school in the lives of two children, Madeleine and Basile, Garcia describes in realistic detail the humiliation and pain involved in the bullying, and using brain not brawn frees them both and they both then spend their school years almost in adoration of Faber, to give one example:

-It was our place, lead down, we spoke about the week at school,  of our teachers, of our parents and of all those we called “the others”: our own generation for which we had only scorn. The “others” we’re either sheep or jerks. And then Faber spoke to us about the future which sounded wonderful to us.***

Fast forward to Faber my Bing from being a brilliant student at school to becoming a dissatisfied student, slowly putting distance between himself and his two friends who never accepted this culminating in Faber, although not in his senior year, taking a leading role in the student strikes in 1995, through the euphoria to the ultimate defeat.

-In the turmoil of the two or three weeks of the strike, here is the first scene that comes back to me: Faber in the process of goading on the group of undecided lycéens at nine in the morning. Climbing on the railings of the main gate, he had pulled himself above the teeming masses : bags on the floor, sitting in a circle, whistling and smoking, parents demanding that the lycée should be opened. He was sitting on the spikes at the top of the railings like a fakir, and in perfect balance he opened his arms to address us. Maybe he finished with his ass bleeding, but he smiled. He was magnificent. I already imagined him as head of state.***

Things go rapidly wrong for the three friends from here, Faber, due to a dramatic event, forced to leave, living for fifteen years as a marginal and Madeleine and Basile making what they can of their lives. So then begins the second part of the book, which involves revenge, deceit, and a whole new reading of events around Faber’s other friends and the jealousy of Madeleine and Basile, as Faber says:

-A small provincial town, sleeping through the modern world is a thing of beauty…..But when it wakes up it can be nauseating.***

A well written book, but not the one, in view of the subject,I would choose to translate into English.

First published in French as ‘Faber le Destructeur’ by Gallimard in 2013
*** My translation

Catherine Cusset ‘Indigo’

-You’re a pain in the ass you know
that had surprised her, since Deb nobody had used these words on her and he had pronounced it with the same intonation as Deb as if she had been reincarnated in Raphael but without the friendship….image
-it’s funny you should use those words, I had an American friend who use to say just that to me in French; you’re a pain in the ass
-it must be true then he chuckled, are you no longer friends?
-She killed herself six months ago
-You were that much of a pain in the ass?***

Catherine Cusset’s novel takes place in the south of India, an area where France has historical links via its trading posts in Mahé and Pondichery, and around a cultural festival organised by the Alliance Française in Trivandrum. The story concerns four French people and their reasons for being at the festival. Charlotte, late forties,  who lives and works in New York, leaves her husband and children for a week to come to this festival trying to find a sort of internal peace that has escaped her since the suicide, in India, of her friend Deb. Roland Weinberger, an egocentric successful sixty something author living with a much younger Italian, he too is there for another reason, to try to meet the only woman that had ever left him. Raphael, who has written a very troubled autobiography concerns nag abuse as a child but he has changed all of the names and then Finally Gerlaldine who lives in India, is married to an Indian and works for the Alliance Française, she is the organiser of the festival.

The festival takes place the year after the terrorist attacks in Bombay amid heightened security. As time moves on the protagonists slowly lose their bearings, Gerladine is drawn to Raphael whom she recognises from her youth where she had a holiday home near his family home in Brittany and recognises his family from his book.

-The car followed the deserted road towards Trivandrum, towards her apartment towards her happy and peaceful life which she had just brushed aside for a minute of absolute happiness as you would impulsively pull a cloth from a table, adulteress, there was something old fashioned about this name, even melodramatic they made her smile, because she had brushed nothing aside, the two realities coexisted without contradiction, she was Joseph’s mother, the Muslim wife of Intiaz and she was also…….the woman who had just made love with this man twenty five years later.***

Roland who has lived his life so far, discarding women when he is ready to move on in life, is drawn to this one woman who discarded him as a young man and goes to the town she lives in to meet her. He is at first annoyed to see that she has not come to the meeting but sent her mother instead, and of course it’s not her mother…..

The book ends with a tragedy, with one of the four drowning, but you will need to read to discover.

This book is a slow study of character and interaction, Which I listened to on audio and which happily shortened my commute.

First published in French as ‘Indigo’ by Gallimard in 2013
*** My translation