Alice Zeniter ‘Comme un empire dans un empire’


Traders now buy zero-days on the market and companies sell them on, all in total secrecy. As Antoine didn’t understand the word, L explained that a zero-day was an error in a program that nobody had yet found and for which as a consequence, there was no patch…..to sum up, said L, capitalism has taken over coding.***


Alice Zeniter’s latest novel covers the world of today through two protagonists whose lives meet and their meeting then transform them. The first is Antoine, a backroom boy and speech writer for a socialist member of parliament in these post-socialist days where the Socialist Party no longer represents even a moderate portion of the electorate and Antoine, all too aware of this, just doesn’t know what to do:


The party is a dead animal in whose stomach you can still shelter but it is now beginning to smell and to become cold. It makes no sense to spend your whole life within it today. That way of shaping politics is dead and I know no other. I don’t know what to do.***


And L, who lived through the early period of the internet hackers, was part of Anonymous and saw the system fight back, break some and then jail the leaders. L lives in two worlds, the Within and the Flesh-world; she prefers the Within, the virtual. The experience with the Anons and the constant fear has kept her from attacking large corporate entities but she has her enemies, the people she defends others against, the abusers of women. When her live in boyfriend/hacker is arrested early one morning, for attacking a large corporate entity her world starts to fall apart.

L begins to see people following her. Are these people linked to her Elias her boyfriend or to the women haters she has been fighting for her female customers, or is it all in her head? She no longer knows. Antoine, whom she has met at a party she did not mean to attend, decides to save her and arranges for her to leave Paris and live with a friend of his in a sort of commune in a caravan with other missfits behind the friend’s farmhouse in Brittany. So opens a phase of renewal, an appreciation of the world around her, the Flesh-world she despises up to this point.

Who do these two people become, does L leave her previous life, or at least put it in perspective, become less paranoid? Does Antoine continue to work for an ideal, a party, an elected representative of the people he no longer believes in? Or does their meeting make them both better, stronger? Do you believe in fairy tails? Well read this book. As usual Zeniter doesn’t dissapoint.

First Published in French as “Comme un empire dans un empire” in 2020 by Flammarion.*** My translation

Des courtiers achetaient désormais à la bourse des zero-days et des firmes les revendaient, le tout dans le plus grand secret. Comme Antoine ne comprenait pas le mot, L expliqua qu’un zero-day était un défaut dans un logiciel que personne n’avait encore décelé et pour lequel, par conséquent, il n’existait aucun correctif……Pour résumer, dit L, le capitalisme s’était emparé du codage.

Le parti est un animal crevé dans le ventre duquel on s’abrite encore mais ça commence à puer et à refroidir. Ça n’a plus aucun sens de passer une vie entière à l’intérieur aujourd’hui. Cette façon de faire de la politique est morte et je n’en connais pas d’autre. Je ne sais pas quoi faire.

Literary Quotes (1) Tournier

To be found in the smallest room in the house

1. Michel Tournier

Café amer au point de n’être plus buvable. Un grand brame. Deux grands brames. Aucun soulagement. La seule consolation de la matinée est d’ordre fécale. Je fais inopinément et sans la moindre bavure un étron superbe, si long qu’il faut qu’il s’incurve à ses extrémités pour tenir dans la cuvette. Je regarde attendri ce beau poupon dodu de limon vivant que je viens d’enfanter et je reprends goût à la vie.
La constipation est une source majeure de morosité. Comme je comprends le Grand Siècle avec sa manie de clystères et de purges! Ce dont l’homme prend le plus mal son parti, c’est d’être un sac d’excréments à deux pattes. À cela seule une défécation heureuse, abondante et régulière pourrait remédier, mais combien chichement cette faveur nous est concédée
 
 
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Hervé Le Tellier ‘The Anomaly’


Mayday received Air France 006. Can you confirm the transponder code 7700?
The voice, in which a clear incomprehension can be heard, repeats:
Air France from Kennedy Approach, confirm the transponder is on 7700.
You did say Air France 006?
Affirmitive, Air France 006 mayday. I confirm the transponder is on 7700, we’ve come through a huge hail cloud, the windshield is cracked, the radome is probably damaged….
Air France 006 mayday, from Kennedy Approach. This is Air Traffic Control, what is your captain’s name please?
Markle sits there mouth wide open. No controler in his whole career has ever asked him a pilot’s name.***


This Goncourt winning book asks the question, if I was faced with myself how would I react? Would I welcome my other self ? Would I try to dominate my other self? Or would I try to annihilate my other self?

Air France 006, piloted by captain Markle on one of his last flights before retirement, comes through a momentous storm and carries out an emergency landing on the 10th March 2021. As the book slowly develops we zoom in on a number of people whose only link was to have been on this flight. There is Blake, a meticulous and successful french contract killer. There is Lucie Bogaert a successful film editor who has been slowly courted by the older architect, André, but who after her trip to New York becomes disillusioned with André, at the end of this chapter the police come to fetch her.

There are a number of other characters, notably Victor Miesel an unknown writer who on his return from New York writes a hugely successful book called ‘The Anomaly’ and Fehmi Ahmed Kaduna, alias Slimboy a little known rapper from Lagos who writes a world wide hit, ‘Yaba Girls’ on his return from New York.

And then in June, as illustrated in the opening quote, Air france 006 piloted by captain Markle appears out of nowhere in a clear sky, the same pilot, the same plane and the same passengers, Markle is passed from Air Traffic Control to Special operations FAA then to NORAD and is guided to a secret airforce base for landing.

The strength of the book is not to deal with how or why but to follow the people as they are prepared for and then brought to meet their other selves, and so yes, how will they react? What will they do? For instance Slimboy June hasn’t known the success of Slimboy March. Victor Miesel hasn’t written a successful book and Lucie June is still in love with André. And what about Blake?

This highly enjoyable book explores the worlds of a dozen or so passengers on this flight. And how was the US able to react so quickly when Air France 006 June appeared and what is the protocol 42?

First Published in French as “L’Anomalie” by Gallimard in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Mayday reçu Air France 006. Pouvez-vous confirmer le code transpondeur 7700?
La voix, où l’on décèle une profonde incompréhension, répète:
Air France de Kennedy Approach, confirmez le transpondeur sur 7700. Vous dites bien Air France 006?
Affirme, Air France 006 mayday. Je confirme transpondeur sur 7700, nous avons traversé un gros nuage de grêle, le pare-brise est fissuré, le radôme est sûrement défoncé….
Air France 006 mayday, de Kennedy Approach. Ici Air Traffic Control, quel est le nom du commandant du bord, s’il vous plaît?
Markle reste bouche bée. Jamais de toute sa carrière aucun contrôleur ne lui a demandé le nom d’un pilote.

Julia Deck ‘Private Property’


I knew about Annabelle’s hot pants. She had a whole collection, which she wore with high heels when she spotted a sucker at the agency. I’d also noticed to what extent hot pants make the person that wears them amusing, and just how much the listeners suddenly credit then with inimaginable wit.***


The Cardarecs are a middle class hipster Parisian couple, with middle class aspirations, to move from Paris, but not too far, to be able to benefit from more space, to get out doors a little but not to leave their Parisian lifestile behind. in this book read for the Roman de Rochefort.

He, Charles, a long term hypochondriac that she, the narrator, an architect, with their social consciences buy into a new eco-district in the suburbs, energy-neutral, low waste footprint etc. only to find that it doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Any small set back sends Charles scuttering for his bed. The walls of the houses are paper thin, and the self-sufficient energy system has been under-sized. The Cardarecs could have made a go of it in spite of all this had it not been for their neighbours, the Lecoq family.

In this short sharp concise writing style Julia Deck tells the story of the neighbours from hell, Annabelle from the opening quote, young thirty something and her husband Arnaud, partying loudly into the early hours and eventually annoying the whole neighbourhood. After Charles complains about them in an informal neighbour’s meeting the Lecoq family cat is found dead and cut in half down in the trench in the street meant to bring gas to their houses. Then Annabelle dissapears.

When her body shows up on waste ground Charles is suspected and arrested, Arnaud the husband had been out all night with Patrick Lemoine, a neighbour who avoids going into too much detail about their evening out and as the narrator tells us:


Ok, Lemoine had never been able to get it up, it was a miracle that he had managed to knock her up, and that twice. And what’s more he had doubly lied. It most definitely wasn’t a coincidence that he’d come across Arnaud Lecoq at the Voltigeur the evening Annabelle had dissapeared. They had arranged to meet there and to go on to a private club where they had accidently met some time before and found that they had something secret in common.***


First Published in French as “Propriété privé” by Les Éditions de Minuit in 2019
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Je connaissais les microshorts d’Annabelle. Elle en possédait toute une collection, qu’elle assortissait avec des talons compensés quand elle avait flairé le gogo à l’agence. J’avais également noté à quel point les microshorts confèrent de l’esprit à celle qui les portent, et combien leurs auditeurs les créditent soudain d’une verve insoupçonnée.

Oui, Lemoine avait toujours bandé mou, c’était un miracle qu’il l’ai engrossée par deux fois. Et puis il avait doublement menti. Ce n’était absolument pas une coïncidence s’il était tombé sur Arnaud Lecoq au Voltigeur le soir de la disparition d’Annabelle. Les deux hommes s’étaient donnés rendez-vous. Ils étaient convenus de se rendre ensemble dans un club privé où ils s’étaient croisés par hasard quelques temps plus tôt, se découvrant par la même occasion un point commun inavoué.

Claudie Hunzinger ‘Les Grands Cerfs’


The economic impact for the Rhineland can be summarised as follows: 1 deer shot = 1260 euros saved for the timber industry.***


Years ago, Nils and Pamina, still students take the radical decision to move to the mountains and live on a high prairie cut of from the world in this book read for the Roman de Rochefort. Sure each year at set times they heard wild life noises and discovered their young trees had been massacred in the morning, but then Léo arrived, maybe an ex-military man, wanting to know if he can set up an observation post on their land and then for ten years not much happens.

Léo tells Pamina of the stags he observes and of which he takes photos, of Wow of Apollo, of Arador and of Geronimo. Léo who has observed these animals and knows them has given them names to personalise them. Slowly Pamina is pulled into the story until one day she gives in to a whim and goes to the observation point. She slowly learns that observing these animals is 99% waiting and 1 % observation, she is drawn in to Léo’s tales and marvels at these wonderful creatures. As she gets to know more about them, of their world, of their vocabulary, antlers, horns, velvet, moult and feels she knows them, of their life cycle, the animals begin to be shot, the wonderful Wow and the old clever Arador.

Claudie Hunziger renders their lives real to us, their growing antlers, shedding their velvet by impact with the trees, rubbing their antlers up against the trees to give them a finish, colour, rubbing up against a nut tree for instance to give an antler a gold colour. She tells us of the nights where they fight for ascendancy, of their mating and of then losing their antlers, their moult until the cycle begins in the spring. She tells us of their surviving the hunger of winter in the snow, eating tree bark.

Léo brings Pamina into contact with the forestry commission and the hunters who together “regulate” the “stock” of deer and learns of the future for the deer as shown in the opening quote from the representative of the commission. He explains to her that the forestry commission who regulate the livestock, auctioning of bracelets, the right to kill a deer, are only interested in the timber the forest produces:


He presented himself, what’s more, as a representative of the forestry commission responsible for implementing the national policy which is to ensure the regeneration of the forest and of its financial returns. That is to say to favour coniferous trees, silver firs, spice trees, Douglas firs, the woody species the most chewed by stags, eaten if you like……And that that required a population of deer reduced to a strict minimum.***


And of course what the hunters really want are the antlers, the stags are their real prey. Pamina lives this as her personal window onto the sixth great extinction which is now underway.

If you didn’t know about the life of stags before you read this, you certainly knew more afterwards. This was written passionately.

First Published in French as “Les grands cerfs” by Grasset in 2019
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

L’impact économique pour la Rhénanie Palatinat se résume ainsi: 1 chevreuil tiré = 1260 euros d’économie pour l’industrie forestière.

s’est d’ailleurs présenté comme un agent de l’ONF chargé d’appliquer la politique nationale qui est de veiller à la régénération des forêts et à leur rendement financier. C’est à dire de veiller à privilégier les conifères, sapins pectinés, épiceas, douglas, espèces ligneuses les plus “abrouties” par les cerfs, bouffées, quoi…. Et que ça passait par un peuplement de cervidés réduit au minimum

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.