Pierre Assouline ‘Sigmaringen’


In uniform, obedience is a virtue. It avoids going against authority. There are those that command and those that obey, and not only the Prussians.I know no other master than the prince, no other loyalty than to the Hohenzollern, no other house than the castle.***


As the book begins, in August 1944, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a part of the German aristocracy, are evicted from their 900 year old castle by the Führer at a half days notice to make way for the exiled Vichy government. The prince was able to negotiate that his Major-domo should stay in place with his staff to serve the new inhabitants and to ensure the integrity of this 380 room castle. So begins this very particular version of Upstairs Downstairs related by the Major-domo Julius, described in the opening quote.

Sigmaringen soon fills with the Vichy government, from the president, Marshal Pétain and his prime minister Laval, their ministers and a militia force in the castle overlooking the town, to a thousand or so french civilians in the town itself. Julius shows us through his eyes this pathetic circus, Pétain, who occupies the Prince’s apartments on the seventh floor, realising that he is in fact a prisoner as shown when Cecil Von Renthe-Fink, arrives for a meal with the Marshal, Von Renthe-Fink who had been Pétain’s “guardian angel” in Vichy, as Pétain tells Julius:


Excuse me Marshal, but Mr. Von Renthe-Fink has just arrived, he is in the antechamber. Maybe you know him……Do I know him? He followed me around for two years at the Hôtel du Parc!
Mr. Von Renthe-Fink is here for dinner and…..
I don’t remember having inviting my jailor to dine with us. He will dine alone.***


Laval, who occupies the royal apartments on the sixth floor spends the eight months preparing his defence whilst Julius has to organise the castle so that Pétain and Laval, who cannot stand each other, should never meet.

The ministers as for them, are divided into two clans, the passive and the active clan, the one looking to continue the simulacrum of government and the other planning their escape. Julius must organise things so that these two groups never meet either. And then there was Céline, the famous author of “Voyage au bout de la nuit”, but a confirmed anti-semite.

The upstairs-downstairs view of events is present throughout, with the servants being made up of the original German retinue, interspersed with some of the french exiles. As the allies advance, rumours abound, are their spies present? How will the Germans fight back? An example of two views follows during a conference given by the head of the belgian fascists, Léon Degrellé:


Upstairs:

Mr Degrelle claims to have information on the subject. Secret information, of course, he couldn’t reveal his source. He could only certify that in underground laboratories and hidden factories, brilliant german scientists were putting the final touches to terrifying arms of destruction:
“Vulcans forges! You’ll see! In the meantime, you can already see the devastation reaped by the Panzerfaust, the poor man’s weapon. Do you realise? A 50 Pfennig stovepipe blowing up tanks worth 25 million!
He gloated. His audience refrained from applauding…

Downstairs:

At the end of the evening, once the guests had rejoined their apartments, I lingered in the kitchens as two valets gave their versions of the conferences……imagine, he was on stage with all the chiefs, in the middle of explaining why Germany can’t lose the war, with his “Don’t be afraid to be true French and at the same time Europeans…. Europe will perish or will live on!” and his “It’s a soldier telling you this…. We’ll be the first in Brussels, be the first in Paris… Vive la France!”….
And then Céline, who was in the central aisle, he stopped, he stared him in the eyes, he shrugged his shoulders and then he walked off, he turned his back on him and left saying out loud: “Who is this complete idiot who won’t even look good on the gallows with that fools face?”***


This is also a book about Julius himself. Who is behind the impassive exterior? Can he be coaxed back towards showing his feelings? I felt a glossary of the ministers and their positions would have been an interesting addition for the reader.

First Published in French as “Sigmaringen” by Gallimard in 2014
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sous l’uniforme, obéissance fait vertu. Il évite même de s’opposer à l’authorité. Il y a ceux qui commandent et ceux qui obéissent, ep pas seulement chez les Prussiens. Or je ne me connaissais d’autre maître que le prince, d’autres loyauté que les Hohenzollern, d’aure maison que le château.

Pardon, monsieur le maréchal, mais M. Von Renthe-Fink vient d’arriver, il se trouve dans l’antichambre. Peut-être le connaissez-vous….Si je le connais? Je l’ai eu sur le dos pendant deux ans à l’Hôtel du Parc!
M. Von Renthe-Fink est là pour dîner et…..
Je ne me souviens pas d’avoir invité mon geôlier à notre table. Il dînera seule.

M. (Léon) Degrelle (le chef des fasciste Belges) disait détenir des informations sur le sujet. Des informations secrètes, naturellement, dont il ne pouvait revel la source. Il pouvait juste certifier que dans des laboratoires enfouis sous terre et des usines cachées, le génie scientifique allemand mettait au point de terribles armes de destruction:
“Les forges de Vulcain! Vous verrez! En attendant, voyez déjà les ravages causés par le Panzerfaust, l’arme du pauvre. Vous vous rendez compte? Un tuyau de poêle de 50 Pfennig qui fait sauter des tanks de 25 millions!”
Il exultait. Son public se retenait d’applaudir….

À la fin de la soirée, une fois que les invités eurent regagné leurs appartements, je m’attardai en cuisines car deux valets racontaient leur version de ces conférences…..Imaginer qu’il était à la tribune avec tous les chefs, en train d’expliquer pourquoi l’Allemagne ne pouvait pas perdre la guerre, avec des “N’ayez pas peur d’être des vrais Français tout en étant des Européens… L’Europe périra ou elle vivra!” et des “C’est un soldat qui vous parle…. Nous serons les premiers à Bruxelles, soyez les premiers à Paris….Vive la France!”…..
Alors le Céline, qui était dans l’allée centrale, il s’est arrêté, il l’a regardé fixement dans les yeux, il a haussé les épaules puis il a rebroussé chemin, il lui a tourné le dos et il est reparti en disant très fort: “Quel est ce roi des cons qui ne fera même pas un beau pendu avec sa gueule de jean-foutre?”

Thomas Cantaloube ‘Requiem pour une République’

Quai des Polars 2020: Books shortlisted for the readers prize, Number 6

Sites to visit linked to this proud event unfortunately now cancelled.
Emma, Marina-Sofia and the official event site Quai des Polars In order to support this event, hopefully I’ll manage to write articles on all six of the short listed thrillers and propose my winner before the official announce on the 4th of April.

In order to reach the largest readership possible for this attempt, I have created a website to publish my six articles and to propose my winner ****in French*** please go to my French website and don’t hesitate to make it viral

Thomas Cantaloube has set this story in the shameful years at the start of France’s Vth republic, The real life shady characters that had been part of Vichy’s pro-nazi government and had avoided the post-war purification in large numbers had been in positions of power since the war and still were in these 1959 to 1961 years in France, represented here by Maurice Papon who as secretary general for the police in Bordeaux during the war had been responsible for the deportation of more than 1600 Jews and was later found guilty of crimes against humanity in 1998. Here as in real life he was in charge of the Paris police with his fictional deputy Jean-Paul Deogratias. The story is told through the converging lives of three characters, a young policeman, Luc Blanchard, an ex-maquisard and small time criminal Antoine Carrega and finally Sirius Volkstrom, French but of partly German ancestry who had made money under the nazis and was now a payed killer:


The paths of Deogratias and Volkstrom had crossed in Nîmes in the autumn of 1940. The first was an unknown paper pusher at the Gard Préfecture, under the orders of one of the most zealous officers of Vichy, the prefect, Angelo Chiappe. Within a few months he had made himself indespensable to the representative of Pétain’s government. He quickly became his right hand responsible for intelligence, raids and deportations….A zeal that he later put to use for other officers of the French state and then for the republic, passing like many others, between the wires of the purification sieve.***


The period had three main tensions, the Algerian war of independance, fought mostly in Algeria but with activity in France organised by the FLN, France which already had a large number of Algerians working in the factories. Any idea of action in Paris was violently surpressed by the Paris Police. The second tension was due to De Gaulle having decided to pull out of Algeria and the attempted putsch by senior generals followed by the more than 2000 killed by the right wing organisation the OAS (l’Organisation de l’Armée secrète) who were against leaving Algeria. The third tension was around the fact that France was testing it’s new atomic bomb in the Algerian desert. (for the anecdote, and part of the story, the fourth and last bomb in the series, Gerboise verte, was exploded hurriedly to avoid it coming into the generals’ hands). Cantaloube captures the moment in this book with everyday events such as rounding up arabs, possibly involved in crimes but with no evidence:


— And you Malek, you know why you’re here? — No sir, the policemen didn’t tell us. — Are you two taking the piss! Blanchard had changed to his “booming voice”, the one his more experienced colleagues had advised him to use when he was questioning Arabs: You’ll see, as soon as you raise your voice and sound annoyed, they’ll tell you everything.***


And finally without going into any details on the specific crimes in the book, the following comments by Deogratias set the scene for this book which can be read as much for the period where many of the events are true as for the well put together story itself:


as far as the police go, we dont risk anything, everything’s good. From the press side, we’re probably ok, we’ll break a few fingers if we have to. The unions and the commies are the problem but their boys, when it comes down to it, they couldn’t care less about the Arabs. On the other hand what worries us , are the judges and lawyers. De Gaulle wants to play it by the rules, we’re a republic, we respect the laws and all that. So, we’re going to have to work a little on the fringes.***


First Published in French as “Requiem pour une République” in 2019 by Gallimard.
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Les routes de Deogratias et de Volkstrom s’étaient croisées du côté de Nîmes, à l’automne 1940. Le premier était un obscur gratte-papier à la Préfecture du Gard, sous les ordres d’un des plus zélés auxiliaires de Vichy, le Préfet Angelo Chiappe. Il ne lui avait fallu que quelques mois pour se rendre indispensable à l’émissaire du gouvernement pétainiste. Il était vite devenu son bras droit chargé du renseignement, des rafles, des déportations… Un zèle qu’il mettrait ensuite au service d’autres agents de l’État français puis de la République, passant, comme de nombreux autres, au travers du tamis de l’épuration.

—Et toi Malek, tu sais pourquoi tu es ici? — Non m’sieur, les policiers nous ont pas dit. — Vous vous foutez de ma gueule tous les deux! Blanchard était passé à sa «grosse voix», celle que ses collègues plus expérimentés lui avaient conseillé d’utiliser quand il interrogeait des Arabes: Tu vas voir, dès que tu te mets à hausser le ton et à prendre l’air énervé, ils se déballonnent

sur le plan de la police, on ne craint pas grand-chose, on est solides. Du côté de la presse, ça peut aller aussi, on leur cassera quelques phalanges s’il le faut. Les syndicats et les cocos vont nous emmerder, mais leurs gars, à la base, ils n’ont rien à secouer des Arabes. Par contre, ce qui nous préoccupe, ce sont les juges et les avocats. De Gaulle veut nous la jouer recta, on est en République, on respecte les lois et compagnie. Du coup, il va falloir travailler un peu en marge.

Quai des Polars

As we all know, or imagine, the book fair, the ‘Quai des Polars’ programmed for the beginning of April in Lyons, France has been cancelled this year. This fair concentrates on thrillers and for more background try Emma or the official website.

In order to do my bit for this situation I’ve decided to read and to blog on the six books preselected for the readers’ prize due to be announced on the fourth of April and to announce my favorite. Only 15 days left, can I do it?
I managed to find the pre-selected books on the official website, see below. If anyone is interested in joining in, please go ahead, I may even blog in French as well!

Malamorte Antoine Albertini (JC Lattès) 358 pages.
Ah, les braves gens ! de Franz Bartelt (Le Seuil) 263 pages.
Requiem pour une république de Thomas Cantaloube (Gallimard) 544 pages.
Le Dernier thriller norvégien de Luc Chomarat (La Manufacture de Livre) 206 pages.
Les Mafieuses de Pascale Dietrich (Liana Levi) 152 pages.
Après les chiens de Michèle Pedinielli (L’Aube) 224 pages.

Caryl Férey ‘Paz’


“She had begun with the classic sites such as Meetic,and had only met fools. blokes that turned up late or others full of talk that wanted to skip the niceties and get down to business, blowhards, emotionless, husbands paying in cash, machos pretending to be messed up, it was all too weird. img_1978Gradually Diana had gone for Tinder. At least things were clear: a flick of the finger to the right you stay, to the left you’re gone. A straightforward relationship instead of love and a near guarantee to get laid. In her forties she didn’t have time to hang around in bars, her friends were hooked up, or she’d already slept with them, she knew all of their friends and had sworn never to go out with a journalist again.”


Paz is Ferey’s latest Roman noir, set in modern Columbia, and as he explins, scratch anything set in modern day Columbia and you’ll find the past is waiting to erupt. The book begins with mutilated bodies turning up in cities before an election and the police trying to keep the lid on events. The story centres around the Bagader family. Quiet, intense, secret Lautaro the head of the police, his father Saul, the interior minister and his brother Angel, who dissapeared years ago. As the first bodies appear, so badly mutilated, resembling some of the worst events of the terror known as the “Violencia” years earlier as with American money and support, the year’s long “Plan for Colubia” pitched the army against the FARC and also against the drug lords and their militias.

Lautaro, whose wife had died in a FARC bombing and who had then headed up one of the groups fighting the FARC on the ground, and is now head of the police is emotionally damaged goods, one night as usual he brings back a woman chosen from Tinder, “wearing the number 12 shirt” as he refers to her, Diana, from the opening quote. They know nothing about each other, he the head of police and she a commited investigative journalist.

Pressure builds up on Lautaro to end the violence, he doesn’t know if the drug lords or the FARC soldiers who refuse the negotiated peace are responsible for the wave of killings, with some of the bodies appearing to have injuries that suggest that they have been thrown live from planes. He can investigate the drug lords but is unable to appear in the FARC areas of Columbia.

Lautaro decides, without telling his father, to recontact his brother, who we learn had originally dissappeared to fight against the government and had been captured by the special forces. But at the same time Diana manages to track down Angel…….

Setting this intriguing story in Columbia required a great deal of work on the recent history of this country and once again after “Mapucho” or “Zulu”, previous books by Férey this was gripping from start to end and the 500 pages allows a deep dive into the recent history of this country.

First Published in French as “Paz” in 2019 by Gallimard (Série noir)
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Elle avait commencé par les sites classiques, genre Meetic, et n’avait rencontré que des cons. Les types arrivaient en retard, d’aures baratinaient pour passer directement au dessert, des vantards, des pisse-froid, des mariés qui payaient en liquide, des machos masqués qui jouaient aux esquintés, c’en devenaient tordant. Avec le temps, Diana avait opté pour Tinder. au moins les choses étaient claires: un mouvement d’index à droite, tu restes, à gauche tu disparais. Un rapport simple à défaut d’amour, et un maximum de coups assurés. Les quadras comme elle n’avaient pas le loisir de traîner dans les bars, ses amis étaient en couple, ou elle avait déjà couché avec, elle connaissait tous leurs proches et s’était juré de ne plus sortir avec un journaliste.

 

Tahar Ben Jelloun ‘Marriage of Pleasure’


For once, this evening I’m going to tell you a story of love, an overwhelming impossible love, lived fully until their last breathe by each of these characters. But as you will see, behind this miraculous story there is hate, contempt, wickedness and cruelty. Its normal, that’s how people are. I preferred you should know so that nothing would surprise you.***


In the city of Fès in Morocco, each spring, a storyteller sets up his equipment and waits for a crowd to form, this is how Ben Jelloun’s tale of three generations of a Marocain family begins, and then to further warn us and thus distance us from the substance of the story , he tells if of its contents as illustrated in the opening quote. The story then pulls us in. The storyteller, Goya, tells us of a pious and upright merchant in the 1940’s, Amin, whose father and grandfather before him, have for generations made the two week trip to Dakar in Senegal by train then wagon and finally by camel where they passed several months negotiating spices and had contracted pleasure marriages whilst there. Amin who wished to respect the rules of Islam then consults the Moulay Ahmad, a professor of theology:


Moulay Ahmad reassured him. He quoted verse 24 of the sourate “women” : “you have the obligation to use your wealth to marry honourably and not to live in common law. It is a requirement that you hand over the arranged dowry to she with whom you have entered into marriage…” in other words, it is legal for a man away from home for long periods, to enter into a marriage of “pleasure”, “of enjoyment”, “of well being”, which guarantees the wife a dowry and the respect of the one she marries. God established this to fight against prostitution.***


This is the the basis of the story, each time Amin goes to Senegal he contracts a “pleasure marriage” with Nabou, a young Peul, with whom he discovers a sexual freedom and satisfaction he has never known with his first “white” wife the Lalla Fatma. After one trip he cannot imagine leaving her and decides to bring her back to Fès as his second wife. Goya in several parts of the story lets us understand how difficult this may be, he tells us of the slave market in Fès that was active until a few decades prior to the story, of the way the peasants from the land when they fall on hard times are used as unpaid cooks and helpers by the méchants of Fès, of stories of other African wives that are brought back to Morocco and used as sex slaves and how even the well meaning men have no stay over the way the first, “white” wife runs the house. As if to confirm this as Lalla Fatma says:


You’ve brought into this house, misfortune, evil and discord, you want to marry a servant, a negress whose skin colour betrays the darkness of her soul, but does she even have a soul? I wonder. And finally you’re a disappointment, do whatever you will! I’ll take care of my children’s education, I’ll keep them away from that wicked, stinking thing. You’re neither the first nor the last to risk a family for a negress allied to Satan. God is great.***


Nabou then gives birth to twins, one black and one white, Hassan and Houcine. From the treatment of Nabou and that of her sons we follow the differences in racial treatment of her two sons, of Houcine’s integration and of Hassan’s difficulties. Discrimination seem to improve with time over the decades until the wheel comes full circle and faced with the mass migration across Marocco of Africans towards Europe, the attitude to these darker skinned Africans hardens until one day Nabou’s grandson and Hassan’s son, Salim, is rounded up with other people of the same skin colour and deported to Senegal where after some time discovering his grandmother’s roots he sets off on foot for Europe.

First Published in French as “Le Marriage de Plaisir” in 2016 by Gallimard
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Une fois n’est pas coutume, ce soir je m’en vais vous conter une histoire d’amour, un amour fou et impossible pourtant vécu jusqu’au dernier souffle par chacun de ses personnages. Mais comme vous le verrez, derrière cette histoire miraculeuse, il y a aussi beaucoup de haine et de mépris, de méchanceté et de cruauté. C’est normal. L’homme est ainsi. Je préférais que vous le sachiez pour que vous ne vous étonniez de rien.

…Moulay Ahmad le rassura. Il lui cita le verset 24 de la sourate “Les femmes” : “… il vous est loisible d’utiliser vos biens pour vous marier honnêtement et non pour vivre en concubinage. C’est une obligation pour vous de remettre la dot convenue à celle avec laquelle vous aurez consommé le mariage…” Autrement dit, il est légal, pour un homme absent de son foyer pour de longues périodes, de contracter un mariage “de plaisir”, “de jouissance”, “de bien-être”, qui garantit à la femme une dot et le respect de celui qui l’a épousée. Dieu a institué cela pour lutter contre la prostitution.

Tu as fait entrer dans cette maison le malheur, le péché et la discorde, tu veux épouser une domestique, une négresse dont la couleur de peau trahit sa noirceur d’âme, mais a-t-elle une âme? Je me le demande enfin tu es décevant fais ce que tu veux moi je m’occuperai de l’éducation de mes enfants je les tiendrai loin de cette chose mal faisant, mal odorant, tu es ni le premier ni le dernier à mettre en péril toute une famille pour une négresse alliée de satan. Dieu est grand.

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

Erri De Luca ‘La Nature Exposée’

–As you can see it is a piece of art worthy of a renaissance master. Today the Church would like to restore it to its original form. Which means removing the drape.FullSizeRender
I examine the contrasting stone cover, which seems well attached at the hips and to the naked skin. I tell him that in removing it the nature will inevitably be damaged.
–what nature?
–The nature, the genitalia, that’s what we call male or female nakedness where I come from.***

Erri De Luca’s short book read in French as La Nature  exposée or in English as Nature Revealed*** is the story of a man who values people and shared experiences. The main protagonist lives in a mountain village in the north of Italy, this mountain village has always been situated on a crossroads, a route between the north and the south, as he describes the women of his village:

–Our village isn’t a village for women. They have all left for the towns, married or not. Traditionally they possess a beauty that comes from the passage of migrant populations. They have caravans in their blood.***

So in this isolated village where he has lived all of his long life and where everyone knows the business of everyone else, he carries on the age old business of guiding migrating populations across the Alps. He feels however a certain solidarity with these people forced from war afflicted countries to search a new life far from home and who are exploited at each step of their way. He quietly takes their money and then once over the mountains he returns it, until, after a grateful migrant mentions this act in a book, changing his village life totally as the other mountain guides learn of this treachery:

–The blacksmith and the Baker no longer greet me, the worst snub in the country village expelled from the list of living.

Forced to leave his mountain village he leaves for Genoa and takes up residence in a boarding house which serves meals each evening, once again a point of passage where he meets hard working migrant workers from Northern Africa who either work on the boats or in the marble quarry and feels comfortable with these people,  one of whom gifts him the marble needed for the ‘Nature’. As he looks for work he is chosen, because of his humility, to carry out the work of sculpture hinted at in the opening quote, where he must sculpt a penis for Jesus. I’ll leave you here with this story only to say that in empathy with the subject he goes to extremes:

As if, to be able to interpret a Muslim or a Jewish character, an actor asked to be circumcised in order to blend into the role: taking the Stanislavsky method to its extreme limit.

First Published in Italian as “La Natura Esposta” in 2016 by Feltrinelli.
Translated into French by Danièle Valin as ‘La Nature Exposée’ and published by Gallimard in 2017
*** My translation