Iegor Gran ‘Competent Departments’

We should have neutralised Pasternak for good. Back in the good old days….the valiant Tcheka…the NKVD….I don’t understand why we put up with it.
What a dumb fool he is!
We have to be tactically astute, declares Pakhomov. We can’t just go in all guns blazing when the eyes of the world opinion are on you……the international interest of the foreign media have created an invisible protective dome around Pasternak.***


Iegor Gran takes us back in time to Moscow in the 1960’s and illustrates this schitzophrenic period by the true story of his parents and the five year hunt for his father by the eigth section of the KGB, responsible for anti-soviet propaganda.

This is a time, following Krouschev’s recognition of Stalin’s crimes, where we follow the life of lieutnant Evgueni Feodorovitch Ivanov as he tries to find out who is hiding behind the name of Adrien Tertz, a jewish name, and is publishing in the West, first in French and then in Russian. His writings criticising the Soviets are too precise and could only come from within the USSR. Tertz begins by quoting the union of Soviet writers:


Socialist realism is the fundamental method in soviet literature and in soviet literary criticism. It requires of the artist a true historically tangible representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Amongst other things it should contribute to the ideological transformation and of the education of workers in the spirit of socialism.***


Siniavski and the French diplomat that helps him get his works out of the USSR laid down at the beginning, the strategy that allowed him to write for so many years, a Jewish name, hints of links with both Poland and Lenningrad that had Ivanov well off track in his hunt.

The main choice of Iegor Gran to reverse the vision and to write the story not from his father’s point of view but from Ivanov’s liberates the author to show the contradictions from within, for instance Gagarin’s first space flight and his hero’s welcome contrasting with his reward being a state secret, if the West were to get their hands on the clothing list he was granted as a hero, they would understand the state of things for the Soviet Peoples, as Gran points out the list was signed in person by Krouschev:


Coat mid-season – 1 off
Light summer coat – 1 off
Raincoat – 1 off
Suits – 2 off (one light, one dark)
Shoes – 2 pairs (black and light)
Shirts white – 6 off
Hats – 2 off
Ties – 6 off
Gloves – 1 pair
Handkerchiefs – 12 off
Socks 6 pairs
Underpants, vests – 6 off
Electric razor – 1 off***


As Ivanov laments, if only they could have found Adrien Tertz quickly, the Soviet Union was in a state of constant flux following the death of Stalin, each change affecting the resources and morale of the KGB, Krouschev denounces Stalins crimes, Stalin’s body is removed from the mausoleum he shared with Lenin and buried secretly, Krouschev is “retired” and throughout all of this the eigth section is unable to find Tertz. Meanwhile Siniavski knows he will be caught, sometime, he just doesn’t know when as months turn into years.

Iegor Gran then through his narrator tells us of the french and Italian, communist parties, the hope of whose victories kept the KGB hardliners in check, of the Nobel literature prize for Pasternack for the Dr. Zhivago that was forbidden in the USSR, as illustrated in the opening quote, of the eigth section often finding illegal copies on raids of the intelligentsia.

I particularly liked the raid on Siniavski’s house when his mother after years of preparation was more than a match for the officers, telling them when they revealed that her husband was in the Lubyanka of her relief to find out that he wasn’t with another woman. And of course when she quickly places her young baby, Iegor Gran, in Ivanov’s hands before he could avoid it.

He gives a sense of the time in history to the story and brings Ivanov to life as a complex character. Their very hunt for Tertz and his imprisonment bring the light of the western media on an otherwise little read author. This is an engaging book that will do well and would deserve a translation.

First Published in French as “Les services conpétents” by P.O.L in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

On aurait dû neutralisé Pasternak définitivement. Au bon vieux temps… La valeureuse Tchéka… Le NKVD…Je ne comprends pas pourquoi on tolère.
Quelle brute épaisse, celui-là!
Il faut être tactiquement astucieux, affirme Pakhomov. On ne peut pas y aller à la hache quand les yeux de l’opinion internationale sont braqués sur vous…….l’attention des médias étrangers à créer autour de W Pasternak un dôme de protection invisible.

Le réalisme socialiste est la méthode fondamentale de la littérature et la la critique littéraire soviétiques. Il exige de l’artiste une représentation véridique, historiquement concrète, de la réalité dans son développement révolutionnaire. En outre, il doit contribuer à la transformation idéologique et à l’éducation des travailleurs dans l’esprit du socialisme.

Manteau demi-saison – 1 unité
Manteau léger d’été – 1 unité
Imperméable – 1 unité
Costume – 2 unités (un clair, un sombre).
Chaussures – 2 paires (noires et claires).
Chemise blanche – 6 unités.
Chapeau – 2 unités.
Cravate – 6 unités
Gants – 1 paire.
Mouchoir – 12 unités.
Chaussettes – 6 paires.
Slip, maillot de corps – 6 paires
Rasoire électrique – 1 unité

Mahir Guven ‘Big Brother’


Finally they took us to a Greek that nobody knew. “Here it’s 100 percent Halal” said the red head. I felt like answering: “because it’s only 97 percent elsewhere?” But ok, I kept my joke to myself. It wasn’t the right time to ruin the atmosphere, I was too hungry and the risk of my sandwich disappearing due to a bad joke was too high, seeing how unfriendly he seemed. Even for the sauce they fucked us around. Ketchup, mayonnaise and the rest he decreed haram. Only the harissa was allowed. Fuck… I don’t mind harissa, but it gives me ring sting, and afterwards it’s like Palestine in the toilet for two days.***


Mahir Guven’s first novel, ‘Big Brother’, winner of the Goncourt prize in the first novel category is a breath of fresh air. The story told by two narrators, for the most part the big brother and occasionally the kid brother is a story about nuances, about lives in the difficult suburban towns on the wrong side of the périphérique in greater Paris. The story is told in the language of the streets and an 8 page glossary of words and phrases is given at the end of the book. The family at the centre of the story came to France with their French mother and Syrian communist father in the 80’s. After their mother’s early death they were raised by their father, a taxi driver brought alive by Guven both in the language, broken French and in the authoritarian, communist, anti-clerical character.

The boys however lived in a mostly poor neighbourhood populated largely by North African and African Muslims, and undergo pressures from the integrist part of this population as described here, on their way back home from football practice:


Two huge blokes appeared. Like the genie from Alladin’s lamp. Six and a half feet tall, with enormous hands, and enormous stomachs and beards as well. A white djellaba on one, a beige kamis for the other and a book under their arms.***


The two men persuade them to come over to the mosque at Aubervilliers. The Pharos’. The Egyptian immam where the kid brother discusses religion with them whilst the older brother can only think of food as shown in the opening quote until they are taken to a cafe.

In the present day, the big brother tells us of his life as he tries to survive, working as a driver for one of the platforms in competition with Uber, about their relationship with the existing taxis, epitomised by his father, how they were well paid in the early days and how this turned to exploitation afterwards:


To keep your steak, you need an advantage over the others. Either you are more discreet, or you have a certificate or a skill. In my case I have nothing to protect my job. All tou need to do is to buy a whistle and flute, a phone, then to obtain a quick certificate to get behind the wheel…. Obviously all the desperate cases flooded into the sector. The most extreme examples are the bros just out of slammer. An electronic bracelet doesn’t stop you getting behind the wheel. It’s the only job possible, no need for a CV. The platforms don’t give a damn about your past.***


We slowly learn of the story’s drama as the kid brother, the clever brother who has trained to be a male nurse disappears, after trying to go to Syria to help the wounded and the poor with Doctors Without Borders, he eventually leaves with a Muslim organisation where he slowly learns that the border between aid worker and active fighter is thin. But the story is that of his decision’s effect on those that stay behind as his brother is pressed into service for the interior ministry:


Ever since Charlie and the 13****, we were living a new love story with the pigs. Drugs, burglaries, car theft weren’t sexy enough for them.***
**** Charlie Hebdo and the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali


But what would happen should the kid brother come back, which he does? The older brother goes to see a lawyer to understand what are the implications, of course not telling the lawyer, the brother of Younès the convert, that he was actually already back:


For my brother, it was complicated, to begin with the cops have to catch him. And to arrest him, they first need to suspect my kid brother of going to Syria, then they have to find him. After, so that he goes to prison, the courts would need to prove he took part in a jihadist or terrorist organisation. That’s under normal conditions. But today, one single proof of a trip out and back from Syria is enough to lock him up. Because except for journalists and some humanitarians, nobody goes to Syria by accident.***


This was my second exceptional book in one month! But it will certainly be a difficult book to translate.

First Published in French as “Grand Frère” in 2017 by Editions Philippe Rey
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

À la fin ils nous ont emmenés dans un grec que personne connaissait. “Ici c’est 100 pour cent halal” a dit le rouquin. J’avais envie de répondre: “Parce que ailleurs’ c’est 97 pour cent?” Mais bon, j’ai gardé ma vanne pour moi. Pas le moment de plomber l’ambiance, j’avais trop faim et le risque que le sandwich s’envole à cause d’une mauvaise blague était très élevé, vu l’antipathie du gars. Même pour la sauce, il nous a cassé les couilles. Ketchup, mayonnaise et toute les autres, il les a décrétés haram. Seule la harissa était autorisée. Putain… J’aime bien la harissa, mais ça m’arrache le trou du cul, et après c’est la Palestine dans la cuvette pendant deux jours

Deux types immenses sont apparus. Comme des génies d’Alladin. Un mètre quatre vingt dix chacun. Des mains énormes. Leurs ventres et leurs barbes aussi. Djellaba blanche pour l’un, kamis beige pour l’autre un livre sous le bras

Pour garder son steak, il faut avoir un avantage par rapport aux autres. Soit être plus discret, soit avoir un diplôme ou une compétence. Dans mon cas, y avait rien pour protéger ce job. Suffisait de s’acheter un starco****, un téléphone, de passer un petit diplôme et de prendre le volant….Forcément tous les morts de faim se sont engouffrés dans le secteur. L’exemple ultime c’est les rheys**** sortis de taule.Le bracelet électronique, ça empêche pas de pousser la pédale. C’est le seule job possible, pas besoin de CV. La plate-forme en a rien à foutre de ton passé.

**** french slang (verlan) for costard, itself slang for costume, i.e. suit

**** french slang (from Arabic) for brothers

Depuis Charlie et le 13, on vivait avec les keufs**** une nouvelle histoire d’amour. La drogue, les cambriolages, les vols de voitures c’était pas assez bandant pour eux.

**** Charlie Hebdo and the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali

**** french slang (verlan) for flics, itself slang for cops or pigs

Pour mon frère, c’était compliqué. Déjà, il fallait que la volaille l’attrape. Et pour le serrer, fallait d’abord que les flics aient des soupçons sur un séjour en Syrie du petit, puis qu’ils le trouvent. Après, pour qu’il aille en prison, la justice aurait à prouver sa participation à un mouvement djihadiste ou terroriste. Ça c’est dans les conditions normales. Mais aujourd’hui, une seule preuve d’un départ et d’un retour de Syrie suffisait à le faire mettre en cabane. Parce que, à part les journalistes et certains humanitaires, on allait plus au Cham**** par hasard.

**** Cham: Syria. The ancient name of Syria is Bilad-el-Cham, which means Country of Cham, Noah’s son.

Ali Zamir ‘Dérangé Que Je Suis’


We even gave our hand carts the names of athletes. And not just anyone. Real world champion athletes like Usain Bolt, LaShawn Merritt or even Michael Johnson….you could read on the front of my cart the name of an athlete I’d heard of. I didn’t know how to write his name so I wrote it as I heard it. In a single word, alternating upper case with lower case letters : CaRleWis.***


Ali Zenir’s tragi-comic story of a docker is set on the island of Anjouan, also known as Nzwani, part of the Comoros Union in the Mozambique channel. This book read for the Roman De Rochefort, tells the story of Dérangé, a humble docker who each day heads to the docks with his hand cart looking for work and hoping to earn enough to be able to eat that day. In the colour and mayhem at the docks, to show their speed and to stand out from the crowd, the dockers give their hand carts names as illustrated in the opening quote.

As the book begins, Dérangé is trussed up in a confined space, plagued by flies and there is no doubt he will die. He then tells us his story, of the three famous dockers, the Pipipis:


It was at the international port, Ahmed-Abdallah-Abderemane de Mutsumaque, that I first met Pirate, Pistolet and Pitié. The Pipipis as they were known.***


It was the Pipipis who had the other three carts in the opening quote, we learn of the precariousness of their situations and the risks they take running between the cars and trucks with their hand carts. In this short book, Dérangé who doesn’t have a particularly high opinion of himself is chosen by a woman, in preference to the Pipipis to unload her husbands goods from a boat, and then needs to negotiate with the Pipipis to get their help as there is too much work for one poor docker. As the work is terminated, they goad him into racing, the next day, three times around the port with their carts., as he says to them before accepting the race:


They laughed at me as if I was a macaque in their eyes. I decided there and then to ask them the question I’d been dying to ask: What do I have to gain in measuring myself against you ? Stupidity?***


There are two other strands to this story, one being the woman , the wealthy wife of a dangerous trader who wants Dérangé for his body, and who takes it on herself to hold the money of the bet for the race, thus enticing the four racers back to her house to pick up their prize money. And Dérangé’s neighbour, Casse Pied (pain in the kneck), a man known and feared who you wouldn’t want to cross and from whom the Pipipis had stolen some bananas:


Pistolet abruptly interrupted Pirate: “he’s Someone who doesn’t show an ounce of pity: he’s got a heart of stone.The proof is, so help me God, he dared to rip his wife’s genitals with his teeth like a cannibal!”***


Dérangé (deranged) seems to be one of the least deranged people in the story. The Title means of course two things (Dérangé is who I am, and I am deranged) Ali Zemir uses a wide vocabulary to take Dérangé through this story and its many risks back to the point of departure. This is a story without a pause, beginning quickly and then accelerating. Unique.

First Published in French as “Dérangé que je suis” in 2019 by Le Tripode.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

On donnait même à nos chariots des noms d’athlètes. Et pas n’importe lesquels. Des vrais champions du monde d’athlètisme comme Usain Bolt, LaShawn Merritt ou encore Michael Johnson…On lisait sur la devanture de mon chariot le nom d’un athlète dont j’avais entendu parler. Je ne savais pas comment l’écrire. donc, dérangé que je suis, je l’avais écrit comme je l’entendais. En un seul mot, et en lettres majuscules alternées de miniscules: CaRleWis

C’est donc au port international Ahmed-Abdallah-Abderemane de Mutsumaque j’ai rencontré pour la première fois Pirate, Pistolet et Pitié. Les Pipipi, comme on les surnommait.

Ils se riaient tous de moi comme si je n’étais qu’un macaque à leurs yeux. Je me décidais de but en blanc à leur poser la question qui me brûlait mes lèvres: “Qu’est ce que je gagnerais en me mesurant à vous? La stupidité?

Pistolet interrompit brusquement Pirate: “C’est quelqu’un qui n’éprouve pas la moindre pitié: il a un coeur de marbre. La preuve, Dieu m’en préserve, il a osé déchirer par ses dents la partie génitale de sa femme comme un cannibale!”

Antoine Wauters ‘Pense aux pierres sous tes pas’


Only the old folks were wary of Bokwangu, William Bénoni Bokwangu, not only was he like the others but he wasnt worth wasting the the smallest mililitre of saliva talking about him. We want actions, they mumbled. Otherwise it’ll be like Karajogzu (responsible for a regime of terror which tore apart the people for fifteen years) or, worst, like Léonescu who preceded Desgotgiu and sent a third of the population to the camps.
The year after, Bokwangu decreed that every farm owning more than ten animals would undergo “adjustments”, even though everyone knew perfectly well that meant “new taxes”. We’d been through this so often; you couldn’t fool us again.


Antoine Wauters takes us to an imaginary country where the sonority of the names reminds the reader of Romania, in this country repressive dictatorships follow one after the other and the people, especially the older ones expect nothing good of the new leader Bokwangu who seems to want to take a mostly agricultural country and replace it with supermarkets and shopping malls.

Marcio and Leonora are twins of about twelve years old, brought up by their parents on a farm where working from dawn till dusk is not enough to pay the state taxes, to sell all of their produce to the state and to survive, where they can’t be scolarised as they are needed to work. They live in isolation, where the pressure put on them has stifled their parents feelings:


Above all twins, don’t make our mistake. Don’t have children!
To which Paps reacted with humming cries coming from him like a swarm of insects, cries that had him thumping the walls and shouting out loud, cursing this dogs life which was going to kill him.
Poor Paps.
Rotten life.
Country gone to the dogs.


But you can’t stiffle young life and the twins, in their isolation, who were always close grow closer than they should until one night their father finds them in the hayloft, confirming his fears and decides to separate them, sending Leo away with her uncle Zio:


At the back of the hay loft, we lied on our backs and looked at the stars through a crack in the roof. That was good too. From time to time his tongue touched me , my cheeks and my mouth, my hands, and then it slipped lower like a caress which sometimes speeded up to show me the light, the beauty and this hot monster eating our bellys.


Leo finds herself in a very different situation at Zio’s farm where the constant state pressure has not wiped out Zio’s humanity but where tbe state ratchet keeps turning, Marcio is then left alone to run the farm as his parents Mams and Paps leave for a state sanitorium and he makes the dangerous trip accross a desert to rejoin Leo, nearly dying on the way. Eventually Zio rebels:


But Uncle continued, his eyes shining. He slaughtered his animals one after the other and seemed out of control.
It lasted a while. Then he stopped what he was doing and looked at us maliciously.
You’re dying of hunger, right? Me too. Well since I refuse to pay the taxes….
He puffed on his blood covered pipe.
….we’re going to eat my animals!
He looked at us, the bugger:
Because if you dont have any animals, you dont pay any taxes do you?


A story full of hidden references and not without humour, there’s even a happy end.

First Published in French as “Pense aux pierres sous tes pas” in 2019 by Verdier
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Seuls les vieux se méfiaient et que Bokwangu, William Bénoni Bokwangu, non seulement était comme les autres, mais ne méritait pas qu’on gaspille le moindre millilitre de salive en évoquant son cas.
On veut des faits, marmonnaient-ils. Sinon, ce sera comme Karajogzu (responsable d’un régime de terreur ayant éreinté le peuple pendant quinze ans) ou, pire, avec Léonescu qui avait précédé Desgotgiu et envoyé un tiers de la population dans les camps.
L’année suivante, Bokwangu décréta que toute ferme possédant plus de dix bêtes serait soumise à des “ajustements”, même si tout le monde savait très bien qu’il s’agissait de “nouvelles taxes”. On en avait tellement mangé; on ne nous la faisait plus.

Surtout jumeaux, ne faites pas notre erreur. N’ayez jamais d’enfants!
A quoi Paps répondait par des cris stridulants sortant de lui comme des nuées d’insectes, des cris qui lui faisaient cogner les murs et hurler de plus belle, en maudissant cette chienne de vie qui allait le faire crever.
Pauvre Paps.
Pauvre vie.
Pays de chiens.

Aux trois quarts du fenil, on s’est allongés sur le dos et on a regardé les étoiles par une fissure dans le toit. Ça aussi c’était bon. De temps en temps, sa langue venait se poser sur moi, sur mes joues et ma bouche, sur mes mains, puis elle glissait plus bas comme une caresse qui quelquefois accélèrerait pour me parler de la lumière, de la beauté, et de ce monstre chaud qui nous dévorait le ventre

Mais Zio continuait, les yeux brillaient. Il abattait ses bêtes les uns après les autres et paraissait hors de contrôle.
Ça dura un moment. Puis il stoppa son geste et nous regarda avec malice.
Vous crevez de faim, n’est ce pas? Moi aussi. Alors comme je refuse de payer les taxes…
Il tira une bouffée sur sa pipe couverte de sang.
….on va manger mes bêtes!
Il nous regardait, le bougre:
Car pour celui qui n’a pas de bêtes, il n’y a plus de taxes, n’est ce pas?

Nathalie Azoulai ‘The Spectators’


On the 27th of November 1967, in all of the other houses in France, activities picked up again shortly after the conference. The television is switched off, people go out shopping, get on. For most of the French, nothing serious has has happened besides a few statements about foreign affairs which don’t concern them directly. England, the East, Quebec. Nobody makes the connection between a speech and everyday life, nobody understands the implications, considers them as more than particles in suspension particles that won’t fall and that will end up disappearing. But they know that it has already happened. Over there. They know that a speech by a head of state can be transformed in a few months, without being noticed, into measures, into farewells, into suitcases filled in haste.***


The starting point of Nathalie Azoulai’s ‘Spectators is a seemingly anodyne speech given in November 1967 by the General De Gaulle to the nation, we assist with an unnamed family, a thirteen year old boy his parents and his baby sister and we slowly pick up the tension from the boys viewpoint as we understand that they are exiles from an unnamed Middle Eastern country as described in the opening quote. The story slowly unravels, distorted by the boys vision, as told by a third person narrator, with his father rarely we get to know his mother, obsessed by the Cinema and the great actresses of Hollywood’s golden age through her discussions with Maria her Portuguese seamstress. She tells her of the different actresses and the background stories gleaned from her ancient copies of ‘Photoplay’ such as of Vera Miles, Hitchcock’s first choice to play in Vertigo and who would have had a very different career had she not fallen pregnant and been replaced by Kim Novak. Or of Cora who starred in 1946 in The Postman Always knocks twice, Cora is of course Lana Turner. She tells Maria of the marvellous dresses they wore on screen as she shows her photos of the dresses and asks Maria to make them. In line with this his mother had not wanted the television the had bought just before De Gaulle’s speech:


On the way back she rants, sighs, doesn’t stop saying that she hates television, that’s it’s letting the devil in the house, she prefers the cinema. From now on she’ll see the films without having to leave the home, says his father, in her nightgown if she wants to. And why not in slippers ? A film should be watched dressed to go out and with make up on she replies sharply. She will never accept to be so lowered before all of these impeccable actresses.***


During De Gaulle’s speech there is a question of a war, probably the six day war and his father tells his mother that if they win the war he will buy her the dress of her dreams. Later Pepito, Maria’s son asks him if they are Arabs to which he replies no, Pepito, who doesn’t understands then insists asking, but you do come from an Arab country to which he answers yes. We then slowly learn of their forced exile, and how in the two suitcases they were allowed to take she had tried to take her entire collection of Photoplay. Finally of the doctor she had met before leaving who she nicknamed Flynn. It was then no surprise that the boy tried to understand things:


There you are, for us France is finished! His father lets out.
Don’t say such foolish things, says his mother.
How do you leave a country you love so much but where you are so hated? he asks.
And there, it’s as if the television was suddenly turned off. His two parents turn towards him and give him such as if to turn him to stone.
Taking no notice, he continues: when do you know when it’s time to leave? you know because you’ve already done it.***


This is the story of a boy trying to understand his families complicated life, he had himself been born in France and we finish by understanding his mother’s obsessions, an enigmatic book.

First Published in French as “Les Spectateurs” in 2018 by P.O.L.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sur le trajet de retour elle peste, soupire, ne cesse de dire qu’elle déteste la télévision, que c’est le diable dans la maison, qu’elle préfère le cinéma. Elle verra désormais les films sans avoir à sortir de chez elle, dit son père, en chemise de nuit même si elle veut. Et pourquoi pas en chaussons? Un film ça se regarde habillée et maquillée, cinglé-t-elle. Jamais elle ne supportera d’être ainsi diminuée face à toutes ces actrices pimpantes.

Le 27 novembre 1967, dans toutes les autres maisons de France, les activités reprennent dans la minute qui suit la fin de conférence. On éteint la télévision, on sort faire des courses, on vaque. Pour la plupart des Français, rien ne s’est produit de grave que quelques déclarations sur des dossiers de politique étrangère qui ne les concernent pas directement. L’Angleterre, l’orient, le Québec. Personne ne fait le lien entre un discours et la vie de tous les jours, personne ne capte les incidences, ne les considère autrement que comme des particules en suspension qui ne retomberont pas et finiront par disparaître. Mais eux savent que c’est déjà arrivé. Là-bas. Ils savent qu’un discours de chef d’État peut se transformer en quelques mois et sans qu’on y prenne garde, en mesures, en adieu et en valises remplies à la hâte.

Voilà, pour nous, c’est fini la France! lâche son père.
Ne dis pas de bêtises, dit sa mère.
Comment quitter un pays qu’on aime tant mais où on vous hait tant? demande-t-il.
Et là, c’est comme si la télévision s’éteignait d’un seul coup. Ses deux parents se tournent vers lui et lui lancent un regard qui cherche à le pétrifier sur place.
Sans se troubler, il reprend: quand est-ce qu’on sait qu’on doit partir? Vous savez, puisque vous l’avez déjà fait.

Agnès Desarthe ‘The Chance of their Lifetimes’


She speaks English. At least she had learned it at her Lycée. But today she realises, now that they will be here for a year, maybe, in a country where it is spoken, that she knows it very little. She muses that there is the same difference between the language that she thought she knew and that spoken here as between a middle aged woman as she wakes in her worn nightdress, her feet in her husbands oversized slippers, and the same woman with her face made up, her hair arranged and wearing high heels. She asks herself which of these two women resembles the English she had once learnt in her lycée.***


The story opens with Hector, Sylvie and their fourteen year old adolescent son Lester flying from Paris to North Carolina where Hector has obtained a teaching post for one year, which could maybe be prolonged at a local university. The story told in the third person concentrates on Sylvie, and tells of Lester and Hector as observed by Sylvie. Sylvie had married Hector, quite a bit younger than her, and from a relatively well off bourgeois family where the wife was not expected to work, in moving from Paris and her life to North Carolina where she knows no one, Sylvie becomes introspective, firstly thinking about her life to date, playing on her age relative to Lester’s:


She has more or less decided to be her son’s grandmother. It wasn’t her idea, but that of a woman on the bus….”Hey young man”, the woman had said, leaning towards Lester, you are lucky to have such a young granny”….Of course Sylvie didn’t lie to the administration, nor on the forms to be filled out for the school or the town hall. It was only during informal encounters, at the park, at shows, with people she didn’t know and wouldn’t meet again,that she used this version of their relationship. She didn’t refer to Lester as “my son”, she said “my little one” or “my boy.”***


And then on her imagined difficulty in communicating with the world around her, as illustrated in the opening quote. We follow Sylvie as she initially gets lost in the streets in which she lives where she has no reference points and as she eventually finds a means of expression through a pottery class. In parallel her charismatic son gathers around himself all of the marginal pupils at his school that are excluded from the usual groups and who follow him almost like a religious leader without any of their, much to occupied parents noticing. And her womanising husband doing much the same with the female teachers at the faculty. All of this to the background of the Paris terrorist attacks.

There are two awakening calls, the first as the plumber unblocks the washing machine pipes to find they are blocked by a large number of intertwined condoms and in trying to ease her suspicions tells her that they’re maybe her son’s. As she realises what this discovery means, she feels something agreeable as it explains a number of incongruous observations, such as the cutlery not being in its usual place. The second is when the varying neighbours, noticing that their children can no longer be reached on their cell phones, discover the influence of Lester on their children and take the children’s explanations of being touched by Lester literally.

This is a slow moving introspective study of Sylvie and how the choices she has made in life have shaped her and of her hidden inner strength.

First Published in French as “La chance de leur vie” in 2018 by L’Éditions de l’Olivier.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Elle parle anglais. Du moins a-t-elle appris cette langue au lycée. Mais elle se rend compte aujourd’hui, à présent qu’elle s’installe pour un an, peut-être, dans un pays où cet idiome circule, qu’elle ne la connaît que très peu. Elle songe qu’il y a la même différence entre la langue qu’elle croyait maîtriser et celle que l’on parle ici, qu’entre une femme plus toute jeune, au réveil, vêtue d’une chemise de nuit usée, les pieds dans les savates trop grandes de son mari, et la même, maquillée, coiffée et chaussée d’escarpins. Elle se demande à laquelle de ces deux femmes ressemble l’anglais appris autrefois au lycée.

Elle a plus ou moins décide d’être la grande-mère de son fils. L’idée n’est venue d’elle, mais d’une femme dans le bus….”dis donc mon bonhomme”, avait lancé la dame en se penchant vers Lester, tu en as de la chance d’avoir une mamie aussi jeune”….Bien entendue, Sylvie ne mentait pas à l’administration, ni sur les fiches à remplir pour l’école ou la mairie. C’était seulement lors des rencontres informelles, au square, au spectacle, face à des inconnus qu’elle ne reverrait jamais, qu’elle avait recours à cette version de leur filiation. Elle ne désignait pas Lester en disant “mon fils”, elle disait “mon petit” ou “mon garçon.”

Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam ‘Aracadie’


On the dance floor, Daniel opens his eyes wide, frantically trying to attract my attention. he must have noticed Maureen’s hand dissapearing into the front of my jacket.
-Do you know him?
-yeah we live together.
-He’s your flatmate?
-No
How can I explain things to Maureen in between Sean Paul and Drake? That Daniel isn’t a flatmate, or a brother, not even really a friend?
-He’s your botfriend?
He could have been. If I’d followed Arcady’s insistence, we would have slept together, Nellie and I. Alone at first and then together with Arcady afterwards. That was the idea. Anyway, one of the ideas that sprouted from the fertile brain of my mentor.***


Bayamack-Tan’s story of a sect seen from the inside as completely normal by Farah who arrived at Liberty house at the age of six with her parents and her grandmother, fleeing modernity and its electro-magnetic waves which left her mother in a permanent state of weakness and were welcomed by Arcady. On top of this story of a free love community living in the hills in south eastern France and comprising weakened people from the margins of society and rich old ladies who basically subsidised the community, is grafted the story of Farah’s adolescence as she discovers and comes to live with her own story, discovering her MRKH syndrome “This condition causes the vagina and uterus to be underdeveloped or absent, although external genitalia are normal”

We follow Farah as she discovers sex with Arcady at the age of fifteen for one summer before the events which cause her to leave Liberty house. Life in Liberty house is built around the community with ideals of sharing, until a migrant hides in their grounds and steels some of their food, when Farah discovers the limits of their ideals. This is the event which pushes Farah and her friend Daniel to leave the community, there are no young adults in the community, they all choose to leave when the reach the age of about sixteen.

Farah, ill prepared for the outside world meets Maureen who comes to terms with her sexuality, but as the opening quote shows explaining Liberty house to the outside world would be no easy thing. How does life at Liberty House then develop? Do things end well? Well you would need to read the book but expect no surprises.

The book was well received, but I found it a hard read.

First Published in French as “Arcadie” in 2018 by P.O.L.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sur la piste, Daniel ouvre des yeux ronds et m’adresse des signaux frénétiques. Il a dû remarquer que la main de Maureen a disparu dans l’échancrure de mon smoking
-Tu le connais?
-ouais. On habite ensemble.
-C’est ton coloc?
-Non
Comment expliquer ça à Maureen entre Sean Paul et Drake? Que Daniel n’est ni un coloc, ni un frère, ni même à proprement parler un ami?
-c’est ton mec?
Il aurait pu l’être. Si J’avais suivi les objurgations d’Arcady, nous aurions couché ensemble, Nellie et moi. Seuls d’abord et avec Arcady ensuite. C’était ça l’idée. Enfin, l’une des idées qui jaillissent du cerveau fertile de mon mentor.

Jean-Christophe Ruffin ‘The Hanging Man from Conakry’


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

Monica Sabolo ‘Summer’


Mother had put out a table cloth and layed a box on my sisters plate….My sister let out a cry of surprise as she unfolded the scarf,2D670B9D-EF27-49E3-81B3-FE3B8160C0ED whose bluebird seemed more alive than ever, then she stood and took my mother in her arms…… I had the feeling that I had watched a heartbreaking ritual, as if my mother had offered her youth and her beauty to her daughter.***


Monica Sabolo presents us a story of the disappearance one summer day soon after her nineteenth birthday, at a family party on the shores of Lac Leman, of Summer Wassner, in this story read for the “Roman de Rochefort”. As Benjamin, Summer’s brother, five years younger than her, years later, slowly unfolds the tale of the mystifying dissapearance of his sister from her ideal family, a dissapearance which utterly destroys his own life and that of his parents, we slowly realise that Benjamin is, despite himself, an unreliable witness, as he relates key moments of the story, such as his own frustration when his father buys an aquarium for Summer:


My father loved water as well….For her ninth birthday, he bought Summer an aquarium with a complex system to filter and to add oxygen to the water and which hummed continually…..two folding chairs were placed just in front , and that’s where I found Summer and my father, sometimes early in the morning, absorbed in watching an illuminated under water forest.***


We must remember that in spite of the maturity of Benjamin the narrator, at the time of the events, on Summer’s ninth birthday here for example, Benjamin was only four years old. He is nonetheless haunted by this day as we slowly realise from the dreams he relates to his psychiatrist which we initially assume refer to Lac Leman from whose bank she dissapears:


Summer is there. She’s wearing a blue night shirt, which floats around her like wings or fins, the smooth  oscillations of a skate.***


This story is narrated by Benjamin, after he suffers an unexpected nervous breakdown, as he says he has barely consciously thought of his sister in years. He is forced to revisit the unsolved events, talking to certain of the people present that day, Jill his sister’s closest friend and his own ex-lover, and his parent’s closest friend of the time, Marina Savioz. Benjamin is slowly brought to question his own certitudes of the idyllic life of their rich family living on the shore of Lac Leman. There are certain clues such as his mother’s  reaction when his father’s friends compare her to the pre-adolescent Summer:


“They look like sisters”,  called out dad’s friends, as they moved towards them on the loose gravel in light dresses, and mum blushed, pushing back a strand of hair which was coming loose from her poneytail…..It’s true that mother looked like an adolescent, with her lean look, the way she smoked, a certain tendency to provocation.***


As Summer moves into adolescence her relationship with her mother becomes, naturally, strained with the story of the scarf, illustrated in the opening quote, epitomising the rift, a scarf which has great sentimental value for Benjamin’s mother and which Summer is always stealing until one day she hands it over to Summer, only for Summer to no longer want it.
Slowly as the family secrets are stripped away by the different people that Benjamin finally takes it on himself to visit, he forces himself to see the secret he has been hiding from himself all these years.  He then confronts the inspector that had been charged with the case with something he remembered the inspector telling him years before:


“you once told me that you always find people eventually, they leave a trace, didn’t you?”
“Its true, nearly always, yes”***


This is a powerful well written story of loss, trust and betrayal I recommend it.

First Published in French as “Summer” in 2017 by JC Lattès.
*** 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