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

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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

Thierry Dancourt ‘Les Ombres De Marge Finaly’


—The Yvelines is still wrapped in night, and despite this, she notices as well that the sky is almost blue. She closes her eyes, raising her face towards the star studded sky, IMG_1290thinking to herself that each and every day over the last few weeks, the snow has been burying Plaisance Gardens, the garden, the pool, the villa and with it the portrait of the young woman with the blue eyes, so completely that for the present one no longer hears of these things.
The star light from another age falls on Marges eyes. It’s what gives them their grey colour, grey with a hint of blue, on that night.***


Thierry Dancourt’s latest book ‘Jeu De Dames’ (probably a play on words, meaning draughts or checkers but also literally a ladies game) has just been published to very good reviews, leaving me wanting to get to know this writer’s work, and so I decided to begin with one of his earlier books, ‘Les Ombres de Marge Finaly’, once again more than one meaning, the shadow that Marge Finaly has left on Pierre Meilhac’s life, as well as maybe the shadowy side to Marge Finaly.

This book begins with a surprise meeting in Paris between Pierre, the main protagonist, and Marge some fifteen years after their last meeting. Dancourt’s beautifully descriptive style takes us back to the end of the sixties where he slowly unravels for us the story of  Marge and her group of friends, none of whom seem to work, and the large but rundown  country property near Paris, Plaisance Gardens, left to Marge after the death of her parents, where they seem to live or at least to meet in order to while away the endless weekends together. The reader can feel the decadence of the moment, from Dancourt’s description of the ‘car pool’ with amongst others the Renault Prairie, shown in the photo, or the Lancia Gamma, or the Pall Malls and Week Ends that Marge and her friends smoke, or his marvellous description of looking into Marges eyes as the snow slowly buries Pleasance Gardens in my opening quote.

Following this chance meeting, Pierre slowly meets Marge’s old friends that she no longer sees in order to better understand what happened in that summer fifteen years earlier, how he had been used and the mixed relationship that Marge had with him, when after the sting, replacing him to get valuable antique papers from his employers private museum, Marge runs away with him, Pierre still did not know why and the disappears for fifteen years. I can’t resist quoting one of Dancourt’s descriptions of Plaisance Gardens to finish:


—The villa came into sight, little by little, white, grey in places…..the roof terrace whose clear line, which whilst underscoring the horizontal rhythms, was interrupted by the volumes of the stairwell, the magestic smokestack of the transatlantic liner that this house, built in 1927, didn’t fail to evoke, yes, but a transatlantic liner cruising on a strange soft, delicate green english ocean, a green but raging sea what’s more, because the depressions in the lawn, sometimes quite deep  especially towards the bottom of the property, plunging into the hollows, slipping from vue, reappearing then disappearing completely once again and so, buffeted, shaken, a nutshell in the swell, it seemed so fragile, so vulnerable, so lost.
Thus I discovered  Plaisance Gardens.***


First published in French as ‘Les Ombres De Marge Finaly’ by La Table Ronde in 2012
*** My translation

Karine Tuil ‘L’insouciance’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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 did 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
Translated into English by Sam Taylor  and published as ‘The Seventh Function of Language’ by Harvill Secker in 2017

*** My translation