To be found in the smallest room in the house
1. Michel Tournier
To be found in the smallest room in the house
1. Michel Tournier
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.
THE CLERK. – So lets fill it out together. first off; “Did you ever denounce anyone during the occupation?
RASMUSSEN. – What sort of denonciation?
THE CLERK. – Did you ever denounce a Frenchman to the Germans?
RASMUSSEN. – No.
THE CLERK. – Good Frenchmen to bad Frenchmen?
RASMUSSEN. – What do you mean by good or bad?
THE CLERK. – It’s quite clear. Resistants to collaborators.
RASMUSSEN. – And what about the others then?
THE CLERK. – What others?
RASMUSSEN. – Those that were neither one or the other?
THE CLERK. – I don’t see what you mean.
RASMUSSEN. – It’s quite clear.***
Alexis Ragougneau’s first novel not directly in the crime genre, Niels, was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, Ragougneau writes for the theatre and this novel lets him explore the world of the theatre in Paris during and just after the occupation. Rasmussen, who had worked with his friend, Jean-François Canonnier producing plays in the Olivier theatre in Paris before the war, and is now a Danish resistant receives a letter the day of the German capitulation telling him Cannonier is to be judged for collaboration.
As Rasmussen returns to Paris to try to understand what had happened during the war years, he brings an outsider’s view to proceedings. The opening quote tells us of his visit to the “Front national du théatre, La Scène française” set up to purge the world of theatre after the war and of the polarisation of society, you were either one of us or one of them.
Rasmussen discovers that in this polarised world, it is the victors that write history, but that during the occupation, the lines of separation were not clear, hence there was a certain scramble for position in the aftermath and his friend, finally a smallfry, had little hope of a fair impartial trial, that for writing tracts at the wrong time, when others had already turned their vests, he now risks his life. as the following exchange between Rasmussen and Cannonier’s lawyer tells us:
– And Jean-François? What are his chances?
-Difficult to say. The President who is judging him held the same position under Vichy.
– That should help him shouldn’t it?
– You must be joking! former Vichy magistrates only have one idea in head, to establish an unquestionable reputation by condemning as many collaborators as they can. As for the jurors, the have to have shown their nationalist fervour, that’s to say they are either resistants or victims of the occupation.***
Ragougneau criticises the famous actors and producers of the period, explaining that in the social events organised to promote the world of the theatre and the cinema, the exact same people are present during the occupation as after, with the exception of the Germans. He also takes a shot at a holy cow, Louis Jouvet, the great man of pre-war theatre who from 1941 to 1945 took his troop on a tour of South America, should he have remained and resisted?
Mr. the great actor goes off with the Marshal’s subventions and comes back to the General’s benediction.***
This is a complete novel, far more complex than I have been able to show here and worth a read, not yet available in English.
First Published in French as “Niels” by Viviane Hamy in 2017
*** my translation
The quotes as read in French before translation
LE GREFFIER. – Alors nous le remplirons ensemble. Primo: “Avez-vous fais des dénonciations pendant l’occupation?”
RASMUSSEN. – Quel genre de dénonciations?
LE GREFFIER. – Avez-vous dénoncé des Français aux Allemands?
RASMUSSEN. – Non.
LE GREFFIER. – Des bons Français aux mauvais Français?
RASMUSSEN. – Qu’est-ce que vous appelez bon ou mauvais?
LE GREFFIER. – C’est pourtant clair. Les résistants contre les collabos.
RASMUSSEN. – Et les autres, alors?
LE GREFFIER. – Quels autres?
RASMUSSEN. – Ceux qui n’étaient ni l’un ni l’autre?
LE GREFFIER. – Je ne vois pas de quoi vous parlez.
RASMUSSEN. -C’est pourtant clair.
– Et Jean-François? Quelles sont ses chances à lui?
-Dificile à dire. Le président qui le jugera était déjà en place sous Vichy.
– Cela devrait jouer en sa faveur, non?
– Vous plaisantez! les magistrats vichystes ont pour principal souci de se refaire une virginité en condamnant du collabo à la louche. Quant aux jurés, ils doivent avoir fait la preuve de leurs sentiments nationaux, c’est-à-dire qu’ils sont soit résistants soit victimes de l’occupation.
Monsieur le grand acteur s’en va avec les subventions du Maréchal, puis s’en revient avec la bénédiction du Général.
In the morning, even before the sun rises, the fighter gets underway . Kitted out in black, it’s deadly load strapped to its underside, it starts up. The engine roars in the silence of dawn. The propeller spins. The plane shakes, lights out, rolls down the runway, lifts its nose and begins to climb.With a constant thrust it climbs to five thousand metres and levels out. The sun has risen. From the sea and from the sky the fighter is visible in every direction. My name is Laura Carlson. I was born on the 10th of January 1944 in New York. My father died on the 7th of April 1945 in Okinawa. ***
So begins Pascale Roze’s 1996 Goncourt prize winning novel, as Laura Carlson tells us of her life, of a father she never new, of her mother, a war widow left with nothing in a foreign land, forced to move back into her parental home in the ironically named Charity street with her baby daughter Laura. Her mother never really recovered from losing her husband, when Laura’s grandparents let her mother out, she would drink to excess and go to servicemen’s clubs looking for a man, any man and then come home drunk. Faced with this her tyrannical grandmother kept her mother sedated and locked in and in this state her mother didn’t speak to her or anyone else for the best part of eighteen years for which Laura could not forgive her, so that in her own words:
In the morning, even before the sun rises, the fighter gets under My childhood was grim. The appartement was grim, my grandparents were grim and my mother sank into a grim silence. ***
So, onto the main line of the story, as Laura grows up no one speaks to her of her father, at school for one year, she gets to know her only childhood friend, Nathalie, who’s family has just been forced to leave Algeria during the war of independence. Nathalie pushes Laura to investigate her fathers death and from the date of his death and the ship on which he was stationed, she learns that they were attacked by a Kamikaze and that he must of died in this attack.
The key point in this story occurs when Nathalie gives her a book written by a Kamikaze before his death, called Tsurukawa shortly before Nathalie’s family move back to Northern Africa. Laura is clearly perturbed and begins hearing the roaring noise of an engine in her ears at random moments of day or night and persuades herself that it is Tsurukawa’s Zero heading towards her. As she begins her studies in Paris, she meets and has a long term relationship with Bruno a student musician. Their relationship is interrupted when Bruno is called up and Laura’s mental state regresses, one day when Bruno is with her in Paris we understand that she is now mixing up Bruno and Tsurukawa:
Bruno seemed to be getting back to normal, or at least had recovered the will to work, he spent his whole leave seated at his desk. I preferred him like this. I could once again begin to admire him. And I told myself that an arrangement might be possible between Tsurukawa and him. ***
And then later she tells him:
I said that when we made love, it was now Tsurukawa who took means that he ravaged me. ***
As the book reaches its climax, Laura drives her car faster and faster along a road, trying as Tsurukawa had explained, to keep her eyes open to the last second. Then she awakes in hospital and looks at the photos of Tsurukawa and of her father:
For the first time I really looked at them and thought of my whole life. My name is Laura Carlson. I don’t know who that man is who has his arm around mum’s waist. I put the photos down next to Tsurukawa’s diary and compared them. I don’t know which of Andrew Carlson or Tsurukawa Oshi is my father. ***
First Published in French as “Le Chasseur Zéro” in 1996 by Albin Michel.
*** my translation
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
I’ve been meaning to read Marie NDiaye’s ‘Trois Femmes Puissantes’ since it won the Goncourt in 2009 with a certain apprehension, this was a major work of literature that had been favourably compared to Toni Morrison. The book’s title tells us of the strength of the three main characters, Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba developed in three novellas where this strength, their self belief is put into perspective by their isolation and their fragility amid a certain mystical background.
In the first novella Norah a successful lawyer arrives in Senegal, without knowing why, at the request of her father who she has not seen for twenty years. This is the opening of the three stories relating these women’s experiences in their personal journey between Senegal and France, Norah was born in France but lived a childhood trauma as her father ran back to Senegal tearing her younger brother from her, her sister and her mother for ever.
‘Their father, in answering the phone one day to their grieving mother who told him she would borrow the money to buy airline tickets in order to come to see her son at his house since he refused to send Sonny to her on holiday, said if I see you turning up here I’ll cut his throat and then my own in front of you’***
Norah discovers that Sonny is now in prison for murder and her father wants her to drop everything and to defend him. As the mystery slowly unfolds and Norah questions herself for having left her own daughter behind with her partner, she reconsiders her own life and her relationship to her father through the first of a series of related Anthropomorphic images within the book. She feels she can see and smell him as a large vulture perched on the flame tree outside her bedroom window looking in with his wings folded under his shirt.
The story ends with both Norah and her father perched high up in the flame tree, giving the image of a possible reconciliation between a them.
The strong woman in the second Novella, Fanta, is never present except through the thoughts, words and actions of her husband, Rudy. Fanta is at at a different point in her personal journey between Senegal and France. From a modest background in Senegal she had become a teacher and had met Rudy, a not entirely stable character who was teaching in Senegal. Rudy had lived a traumatic incident as a child in Senegal when his father after killing his Senegalese business partner then committed suicide, forcing Rudy and his mother to return to France in poverty. Coming back to Senegal for him was proving something to himself but especially to his mother.
When Rudy loses his job through an incident at the school he proposes to take Fanta back to France with him where she can teach and live with him, nothing is planned or researched they just up and go, Rudy who has no resources moves back to the countryside near his mother and Fanta’s teaching credentials are not recognised in France.
We pick up the story after a particularly violent dispute between Rudy and Fanta as Rudy incapable of holding down a job or understanding the difference between a plan and a dream has slowly forced Fanta into a corner with no way out and as in the first story a series of anthropomorphic images of Rudy being attacked by a buzzard which he is persuaded is Fanta and which scratches his forehead.
The third strong woman, Khady Demba is still in Senegal at the time of the novella, this story is by far the saddest, following the death of her husband leaving her childless and thus a worthless mouth to feed in the eyes of her husband’s family, where she slowly becomes invisible in their eyes in order to survive. When one day without warning she is sent of with a man who is supposed to take her to a far off land from which she will have to send back money, Khady herself knows nothing of the world outside of her village and thus begins a long tragic journey.
After fleeing the people taking her when she see’s the state of the boat supposed to take her from the Senegalese coast she teams up with a young man Lamine from whom she learns,
‘what she needed to keep in mind was that the trip could last months, years as was the case for one of Lamine’s neighbours who reached Euorope, whatever exactly Europe was and where it was she put off learning until later, five years after setting out’***
Despite a seriously injured leg in the escape from the boat Khady and Lamine set out across the desert where they are robbed of their remaining money by the military before in order to pay for a meal and then later to gain a little money to go further, Khady is prostituted out by the cafè owner then robbed of her meagre gains and abandoned by Lamine. Throughout all of this she keeps proudly in mind that she is Khady Demba. As time goes on she wishes she could
‘soon acquire an unfeeling mineral body with no desires and no needs which would only be a tool to serve an intention she didn’t yet know but which she would be forced to come to terms with’***
This novella ends in a refugee area near a fence once again in a mystic fashion as Khady falls from a ladder trying to cross the fence
‘And then abandoning, letting go, falling softly backwards and then thinking that the essence of Khady Demba, less than a breeze hardly a movement of air, was certainly not to hit the ground but to float……Its me, Khady Demba, she thought at the very moment her head hit the ground and with her eyes wide open she saw a grey bird with long wings gliding slowly above the fencing, it’s me Khady Demba she thought with a dazzling revelation knowing that she was this bird and that the bird knew it’***
Why did I put off reading this book for so long?
First published in French as Trois Femmes Puissantes by Gallimard in 2009
Translated into English by John Fletcher as Three Strong Women and published by MacLehose Press in 2012
Changing genre is no mean feat as recently J K Rowling has shown, here Pierre Lemaitre successfully obtains France’s most prestigious literary prize the ‘Prix Goncourt’ at his first attempt.
Pierre Lemaitre has seven crime thrillers of renown published here in France of which his early trilogy based on the detective Camille Verhoeven, which are already translated into English by Frank Wynne and published by MacLehose Press
I read parts of the book and listened to the whole audio book , which is written in such a way as to suggest an oral story with the narrator cutting in from time to time to give comments, pushing Lemaitre to read the audiobook himself.
‘Au revoir là-haut’ was published at the end of 2013 and coincides with the centenary of the first world war. The book covers the end of the trench warfare and deals with:
-The feeling of the French soldiers, “Those that thought the war would be over soon are all long dead. Killed by the war. So Albert was pretty sceptical when rumours of an armistice started circulating in October. He took no more notice than he had of the initial propaganda which explained, for instance, that the German bullets were so soft that they just squashed up against their uniforms like over ripe pears, causing great laughter amongst the ranks. In the last four years Albert had seen a stack of soldiers laugh themselves to death after being hit by a German bullet.”***
-The mixing of the well to do upper classes with the poor working classes (officers and soldiers), “The officer stared at him, gave a sigh of discouragement and slapped him in the face. Albert instinctively protected himself. Pradelle smiled a wide smile that said it all… When he pronounced his name, Maillard, he insisted on his unpleasant way of pronouncing the last syllable making it sound worthless, full of scorn as if Maillard meant dog shit or something of the like.”***
-The severely facially disfigured soldiers seen for the first time in warfare (‘les gueules cassées’ in French) and the use of drugs such as morphine and heroin at the time during the war for injuries and on the black market post war.
-Then finally two enormous swindles one of which according to Lemaitre is based on a true story, up to you to guess which one of the two.
The three main protagonists are linked by dramatic events which take place in the last days of the war contrasting utter self interest in one character to pure altruism in the second character, both stemming from wealthy backgrounds. The third character from a working class background becomes a pawn in the future of these two eventual swindlers, taking an active part in one of the schemes.
Two of the most remarkable sights during a visit to France for anyone interested in the First World War are the huge military cemeteries spread over a large part of North Eastern France and the various war memorials to be found in every town or village in France, the least generous of which that I have seen and is referenced in the book is of a cockerel standing on and scratching a German army helmet. These two sights are the subject matter for the swindles.
The last one hundred years has caused such change in social relationships that, realising this is a thoroughly believable set of situations, I, whose life has spanned more than half of this time, still need to ask is it possible people related to each other in such a way?
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The Great Swindle: First published in French by Albin Michel as ‘Au revoir la-haut’ in 2013
Translated into English by Frank Wynne and to be published by MacLehose Press in November 2015
***Book read in French, my translation with excuses to Frank Wynne
Jérôme Ferrari’s book ‘The sermon on the fall of Rome’ a ‘Goncourt Prize winner’ which has now been translated into English by Geoffrey Strachan is a book of many layers centred on a village in Corsica (which could be a village in any disappearing rural community), following one family from the first photo ever taken in the village at the end of the First World War, where all of the family were present except the central character of the first layer, Marcel, up to tragic events in the present day and the death of Marcel. A perspective is drawn using excerpts from St. Augustine’s Sermon on the fall of Rome. On the 24th August 410, an army of Visigoths sacked Rome, causing amongst other things a large number of refugees to flee towards North Africa Tell me more
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