26 November 2015

Paris 2015: Alfons Mucha, 5e arrondissement

Alfons Mucha LOC 3c05828u.jpg
24.7.1860 ICANCICE  14.7.1939 PRAGUE PRAHA
1896 – 1903'

6 rue du Val-de-Grâce. A link to a post I made early last year on the reconstruction of Georges Fouquet's jewellery shop in the Musée Carnavalet – the artistic work of which is by Mucha – is here.

Paris 2015: Jean Guéhenno, 6e arrondissement

1890 – 1978


The plaque is on 35–37 rue Pierre Nicole, in the 6th arrondissement, and the quotation 'Les peuples, comme les hommes, se mesurent à leurs rêves' is from La France dans le monde (1946). Jean Guéhenno was born in Fougères, Ille-et-Vilaine (35) from a modest background: his father was a shoemaker, and Jean had to leave school at the age of fourteen to work in a shoe factory, an experience which the self-educated writer describes in his autobiography Changer la vie : Mon Enfance et ma jeunesse (1961). He was elected to the Académie française in 1962.

23 November 2015

Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde (2015)

In the Francophone world Boualem Sansal has for some time now been well known for his masterly use of language, for his harsh criticisms of Algeria since independence in 1962, and for his courage in speaking out against Islamist extremism. He is a major writer in French, although he is little known in the English-speaking world. I rather think things will change when his 2084 – a kind of update of George Orwell's 1984 – comes out in English translation, assuming (ahem) that it's a good translation.

This is Sansal's seventh novel, and certainly his best. But it's as if all his other novels have been leading up to this: he's covered the past and the present, so here's the future. What he can write after this is beyond me, but then of course that's of no importance here.

2084 : La fin du monde begins with an avertissement, a warning: the reader must ward against thinking that there's any truth here, everything's invented, the characters, the events, everything, and the proof of this is that the story is set in the distant future which in no respects bears any resemblance to our own. It's a work of pure invention, the warning continues, and the world of Bigaye described doesn't exist and there's no reason why it should exist in the future, just as the Big Brother imagined by Orwell in 1984 didn't exist at any time and has no reason to exist in the future. We are told (with an obvious wink) that we should sleep well in the knowledge that all this is fiction and that everything is under control. Yes, of course.

There are some evident similarities between 1984 and 2084: both are dystopias describing totalitarian worlds, both have a shadowy all-powerful leader who subjugates the people, both are in an apparently unending state of war, both have thought police, both are brutal, both have contradictory mottoes, both have a central character who is discovering the nature of and the flaws in the system, both have an underclass which is in certain respects free from the general tyranny, both have a language that seeks to reduce communication to a minimum and indeed destroy independent thought, etc. But there are major differences.

The huge empire described in 2084 is a dictatorship, although not a criticism of  a political system as Orwell's novel intended, but of religious extremism: it is a theocracy, a world ruled by a perceived god. The empire is Abistan, named after the ruler Abi, who is the 'Delegate' of the god Yӧlah – yes, there's a huge temptation to draw analogies, but this is complete fiction remember. What is described is a post-apocalyptic world, that after the wars, in which there is largely emptiness outside the capital, Qodsabad. And despite the title, this is not 2084: 2084 is the date the world began, perhaps when Abi was born, but no one seems certain and anyway the real function of the state is amnesia and submission. (Does that last word suggest Houellebecq? Oh, this is way beyond Houellebecq.)

Abilang (which conjures up Orwell's Newspeak or novlang in French) is the language used here, and the novel is peppered with its neologisms: mockba for mosque, mockbi for imam, Gkabul or livre d'Abi for Qu'ran, the men wear burnis and the women burniqabs, and so on.

Amnesia rules: 'History has been rewritten and sealed by the hand of Abi. [...] For the New Era generations, dates, the calendar, History had no importance, no more than a gust of wind in the sky, the present is eternal, today is always here'. Ati is the Winston Smith character at the beginning just released from a distant sanatorium (suggestions of Mann's Magic Mountain in reverse), and he discovers the truth behind the regime, seeks with his friend Koa and finds that there is certainly life elsewhere, that there are frontiers that can be crossed, that all is not as the lies of Abi would have everyone believe. But what can he do against the religious steamroller?

The System is all-powerful. To Orwell's 'War is peace', 'Freedom is slavery', 'Ignorance is strength' have been added Abistan's own insane vintage: 'Death is life', 'Lies are truth', and 'Logic is absurd'. Abistan's police bomb and murder wholesale, the inhabitants are subject to regular religious health checks and killed if they don't conform to the norm, neighbours must constantly spy on each other, and women are secondary citizens for men to whip.


My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin
Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand
Boualem Sansal: Harraga
Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis
Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux
Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares

21 November 2015

Philippe Labro: Le Flûtiste invisible (2013)

The invisible flautist (or flutist) of the title is culled from a quotation of Albert Einstein's, in which he said that everyone and everything dances to the invisible flautist's music. Chance, things over which we have no control, can and indeed do play a great role in deciding the future for us, can overturn our lives. This theme is taken up in this novel, which is a in three parts: 'Bye Bye Blackbird', 'La Ligne de mire' ('The Line of Fire'), and 'Le Regard de Toma' ('Toma's Look').

In 'Bye Bye Blackbird' the narrator happens to be heard whistling the eponymous song by an elderly man who has very profound memories of it. He invites the whistler for a drink, and the narrator is spellbound by Frédéric's story of his sea voyage to New York after World War II, on his eventual way to Boston, where he has earned a bursary to Harvard. Frédéric was a twenty-year-old virgin at the time, an affliction he claims was normal in those days. But it is at the end of the story that he loses his virginity, although only after being teased through great frustration for several days by a beautiful American girl nicknamed Blackbird, or Blackie, who likes playing the song on her wind-up gramophone. But that's the end of the affair and she won't allow him to see her after the journey. And forever after Frédéric remains unsatisfied, going though four divorces and many women.

'La Ligne de mire' concerns Rick, a man who collars the narrator in a bar and informs him that during the Algerian war, when he was very young, one of his jobs was to kill the narrator. He had him in his line of fire but for some reason he couldn't pull the trigger. After the tale they part, and later Rick – down on his luck – finds employment with two photographers of trouble spots. But they're killed in Vietnam and Rick is left with the very valuable pictures they've taken, and he invites the narrator to his agency's private showing of them. The narrator attends and the woman sitting next to him becomes the woman of his life.

'Le Regard de Toma' concerns the narrator's neighbour Toma, a Jew who was born in Hungary, which he escaped from when the Russians moved in in 1956: but that wasn't chance, it was his own ingenuity that did that. The chance part came some years before when he managed to escape from being sent to a Nazi concentration camp: twice. On the first occasion it was a result of changing floors from the brickworks building where he was living with his mother – the Nazis only took the people on the other floor. And then on another occasion he was in a stifling and vile-smelling cattle truck packed in with many others on the way to Auschwitz, only there's trouble in Vienna and the train is re-routed, it's the end of the war anyway and time for the Nazi troops to flee and leave the prisoners to find their way home.

Three engaging short stories in one novel. Fine, although I couldn't help feeling that there was some artificiality about the whole thing, as if the author had had three stories hanging around and decided to turn them into a novel. Maybe I'm just cynical.

19 November 2015

Laurent Gaudé: Le Soleil des Scorta | The Scortas' Sun (2004)

Laurent Gaudé's Goncourt-winning Le Soleil des Scorta (translated as The Scortas' Sun) is set in the Pouilles area in the south of Italy, mainly in the (imaginary) village of Montepuccio. Gaudé, whose wife is Italian, is particularly fond of this area.

The novel begins like a spaghetthi western, with Luciano Mascalzone riding into the deserted Montpuccio after fifteen years in prison, although he's on a mule rather than a horse. Throughout his imprisonment he dreamed of making love to Filomena Biscotti, although he fully realises that when he's done so he's fated to die because of it. The back of the book calls his action a rape, although it certainly doesn't read so: he goes to Filomena's house, she accepts her destiny, and willingly accepts him into her bed. But just before Luciano dies from a stoning by the villagers, he learns that Filomena died years before, and he's in fact made love to her almost identical younger sister Immolacolata.

Le Soleil des Scorta takes the reader through five generations of the same family, and the product of the sexual relationship between Luciano and Immacolata is Rocco, a baby who isn't wanted in Montepuccio, isn't wanted at all and the villagers want to kill him, but he's saved by the curé and is brought up in the neighboring village.

Rocco takes the surname of the family that brought him up – Scorta – and as a mature person returns to Montepuccio, where he is feared because of the violence he inflicts on others, because he makes his money by taking anything he wants. He marries a deaf and dumb girl whose name is unknown to anyone so is just called La Muette, or the silent woman. And when Rocco's time to die comes he gives his fortune to the church, on the condition that each member of the Scorta family will receive an extremely lavish funeral and tomb, as if to indicate the importance of the family.

And so Rocco's sons Domenico and Guiseppe and his daughter Carmela are in effect disinherited, they have to begin life afresh. But an attempt to leave for New York is aborted for Carmela at Ellis Island, where she learns that she can't be accepted because of an infection. Her brothers won't allow themselves to be separated from her, so they are as if fated to return to Montepuccio, being denied the chance to become rich. But they make a little money on the return journey and buy a shop where they can sell cigarettes, the first of its kind in the village.

But La Muetta has died and the new curé has chosen not to bury her properly, incurring the wrath of the Scortas. And the wrath of their friend Raffaele, who becomes an honorary Scorta, the brother of the others, in spite – the reader learns later – of his love for Carmela. He helps unearth La Muette to give her a fitting burial.

And Raffaele kills the curé. He strips him naked in the countyside, leaves him to the relentless, merciless sun that burns, the sun that allowed Luciano to ride into Montepuccio, at a time when everyone else was sheltering inside from it. The time of day, the narrator says, 'when the lizards dream of being fish', when they too sweat. But Montepuccio keeps the people a prisoner: they're psychologically if not physically, even genetically, anchored to their geographical fate.

Carmela's son Elia is given the choice by his uncle Domenico – not by his father, a fleshless character who goes off to meet his death fighting in Spain for the fascists – the choice of returning to Montepuccio (after a necessary exile in the next village), or (with money offered) of breaking the family mould and leaving for Naples or Milan. No, young Elia says he must return to Montepuccio.

Some years later Elia falls helplessly in love with Maria Carminella, a girl from a rich family, but who is a free spirit, a kind of feminist, who will only marry Elia if he has nothing. Elia feels forced to burn down the family business, which he does so he and Maria can begin life – as did Domenica, Giuseppe and Carmela – with nothing.

The cycle of struggle, of acceptance of fate, of being rooted to the family, to the village, is broken by Elia's daughter Anna, who will leave for the north, for a decent education and a home away from the burning sun.

After Friday 13: What Paris is Reading: Ernest Hemingway: Paris est une fête | A Moveable Feast (2009; original edition 1964)

At the moment of writing, Ernest Hemingway's Paris est une fête (A Moveable Feast in the original English) stands (after just three days in the top one hundred) at number two on the best-selling list of books in France: the reason for the sudden popularity is not the usual one, that it's on a school or college syllabus, but because a seventy-seven-year-old woman – Danielle – mentioned the importance of it on BFMTV when she was briefly questioned on the attacks on the Bataclan and other places. The clip went viral: such is the nature of social networks that the book is now selling five hundred copies a day.

A Moveable Feast was originally published in 1964, although the original text – which must surely be the one Danielle read – was restored by Hemingway's grandson Seán in 2009 (and translated into French in 2011): this edition is considerably bigger than the first edition, which was published posthumously and wasn't even finished when Hemingway died. In fact it didn't have a title: the expression 'a moveable feast' doesn't appear in the book, but was a phrase that Hemingway had used to describe Paris to A. E. Hotchner. It was Hemingway's widow Mary who chose that title.

The book was written decades after Hemingway's stay in Paris between 1921 and 1926, and is really a series of mainly literary reminiscences, of the author remembering his relationship in Paris with such writers as Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, etc. The English title refers to the way the joys of Paris can be carried around in the memory, although this nuance is inevitably lost in the French translation.

I'm not too sure how many of Hemingway's sudden band of supporters will actually read this book, but that's not exactly the point: Paris est une fête, I suspect, is being bought on the strength of its title as well as Danielle's favorable words about it: the book is being adopted as a healing symbol, and that can't be at all bad.

My post earlier this year on Hemingway's house in Key West, Florida:

Ernest Hemingway in Key West

17 November 2015

Yann Queffélec: Les Noces barbares | The Wedding (1985)

Yann Queffélec's Les Noces Barbares is in three parts: Part I describes the circumstances of the birth of the main character Ludovic (shotened to Ludo), and his first thirteen years; Part II details his life at the Centre Saint-Paul; and the brief Part III concerns the events after his flight from the home.

There are many instances of kindness towards Ludo in Les Noces Barbares: his mother Nicole's cousin Nanette showing great concern and love for him; his step-father Micho caring for him in spite of very trying situations; the understanding and good nature of Fine, the home cook; Monique and Bernard's kindness towards Ludo when he goes to Le Forge village, and so on. But overwhelmingly, Ludo's life is filled with animosity, even hatred towards him, and most of it comes from his mother.

Inevitably, there are good reasons that to a certain extent mitigate Nicole's behaviour. Nicole, only thirteen but 'nearly fourteen' and looking eighteen, falls for Will, an American soldier based at a nearby camp in the Bordeaux area. It's the end of the war and Will's returning home, although Nicole is expecting to marry Will in the not-too-distant future and join him in the States. Her parents are bakers and they can't exactly ignore their daughter's evidentally bright-looking future.

But when the sexually innocent Nicole is expecting a happy final evening with her intended her life falls apart: Will is not only very drunk but brutally rapes her, and even allows two of his friends to do the same. The next day he gives her money and calls her a prostitute.

And as this is rural France in the 1940s, prostitute is more or less how Nicole comes across to her parents: the paradox of victimhood is that the victim becomes victimised. Nicole understandably sees herself as soiled, and of course the product of this horrific relationship – the bastard whose father is unknown – is the incarnation of this night of hell, and Ludo will continue to be a thorn in her flesh all her life. Her parents feel much the same about Ludo, who is forced to spend his first seven years shut up in the family attic.

Then the older Micho – an easy-going mechanic who has made a great deal of money – offers to take Nicole as his wife and is very willing for Ludo to join them, along with Tatav, Micho's son from a former marriage that ended in the unfortunate death of the wife. He isn't bothered that Ludo is a little odd, slow, taciturn and shows a behaviour pattern that would perhaps be diagnosed as autistic today – unfortunately, in less enlightened times Ludo is considered by many to be a bit mad. Nicole of course will never accept him and has never shown any affection for him. The marriage doesn't progress but regress, and Nicole is only relieved when the reminder of her hellish night is despatched to Saint-Paul, where she will never visit him.

At Saint-Paul the régime is harsh and the inmates are strictly segregated by sex, not even allowed to speak to the opposite sex. The place is run by the nurse Hélène Rakoff, who has had a tragic love affair and is consumed by jealousy for anyone else who is enoying a relationship, or for that matter enjoying themselves at all: hence the strict segregation, the twisted bitterness, the verbal violence, threats of sending rebellious 'sheep' to a madhouse, giving the inmates sedatives at night, etc. Ludo, though, lives for his mother coming to see him at the home, to visit him on Sundays like many of the others children's parents.

The crunch comes when Ludo – now sixteen – has begun a sexual relationship with the hare-lipped Lise. The odious Odilon discovers this, tells Rakoff about it, and instead of meeting Lise at their secret love den, Ludo meets a very angry Rakoff in bizarre military drag: and Ludo is the mad one?

And so Ludo must escape from this madhouse, which he does and for a short time is happy and free, living in a wrecked ship on the beach, buying food from the nearby village, making friends with the little girl Amandine. Another negative point about Saint-Paul is that it wasn't near the sea, and water is like a premonitory device in the novel, with for instance several references to submarines. It's in the wreck where Ludo will meet his mother for the final time, when he'll become so excited that he'll kill her, and walk out into the sea to his own death with her body in his arms. This won this the Goncourt for 1985, and I can understand why.

15 November 2015

Paris 2015: Panaït Istrati, 8e arrondissement

'Entre 1922 et 1930, dans cette maison,
l'écrivain roumain


a écrit ses oeuvres majeures de réputation
mondiale : Kyra Kyralina, Codine, Mikail,
Oncle Anghel, Les Haïdouks, Nerantsoula'

This plaque is at 24 rue de Colisée. Panaït Istrati (as he is written with the dieresis in French) was born in Brăila, Romania, but wrote in French. His mother worked as a laundress, and his smuggler father was killed by coast guards when he was a baby. Before becoming established as a writer Istrati was a pastry cook, a locksmith, a road worker, a dockworker, a mechanic, a sandwich-man, a domestic, a house painter, etc. He attempted suicide in Nice in 1921, and two years later his literary hero rescued him. Romain Rolland had Itrati's first book, Kyra Kyralina, published in Europa. Oncle Anghel (1925) was his big break, and he published twenty books in a decade before dying of tuberculosis in Bucharest.

Paris 2015: George Courteline, 12e arrondissement

LE 25 JUIN 1958
LE 25 JUIN 1929'
Square Courteline in the 12th arrondissement at the junction of Avenue de Saint Mandé and Boulevard de Picpus. Unfortunately I couldn't get a close-up of the bust as the sun was shining directly on it. Courteline was a playwright and novelist born Georges Moinaux and the son of the writer Jules Moinaux. Something of a practical joker, he invented the conomètre or idiomètre supposedly designed to measure a person's stupidity. A regular of l'Augerge du Clou for several years, he used his simple contraption there. Below are two photos of his grave in the Cimetiére du Père-Lachaise which I took in 2011 and included elsewhere.

Philippe Claudel: Le Rapport de Brodeck | Brodeck (2007)

Philippe Claudel's Les Âmes grises (Grey Souls) is in part a criticism of war, but Le Rapport de Brodeck (simply translated in English as Brodeck) is a scathing indictment of it. Although the novel doesn't specifically give the time in which the novel is set we know it's after the end of the nineteenth century, and although there are a number of oblique references to World War II – the persecution of minorities, occupation of foreign territories, the group leader with the forename Adolf, the concentration camps, Pürische Nacht, even the use of the German language – no country is mentioned by name. Similarly, although a number of geographical locations are given and have Germanic names, they are all fictional creations, and the village where virtually all the action takes place is unnamed: Claudel certainly has Nazism in mind, but by being unspecific he's broadening the canvas, making general remarks about human behaviour.

As with Les Âmes grises, the narrative shifts easily between different times, filling in blanks in the present by returning to the past, often with chilling graphic descriptions. Slowly, relentlessly, a picture emerges from the chaos, only to be kind of turned on its head at the end, although more of that later.

The narrator is Brodeck, the man who's asked – or more accurately told – to write a report absolving the villagers from blame for (en masse) killing l'Anderer, or the outsider, the strangely dressed man who doesn't give his name and who comes to live in the village after the war. I use the expression 'en masse' advisedly because throughout the novel references are made to the nature of crowd behaviour, such as when Brodeck says 'The truth is that the crowd itself is a monster': the crowd dehumanises, infantilises. Brodeck socialises, but stays away from the crowd, although he, er, has his own 'family': Fédorine, the old woman he came to the village with originally; his wife Emélia; and his daughter Poupchette, who isn't biologically his but a product of Emélia being raped when he was in the camp.

The crowd doesn't like outsiders, and there are for a time two crowds in the village: the villagers themselves and the group of invaders who come to stay there temporarily just to let the locals know who's boss now. Brodeck has experienced their murderous behaviour before, which is why he fled from the town where he was being educated and retreated to the village where he had lived before, and Emélia flees with him. But both Brodeck and Emélia are outsiders, or Fremdër as the invaders call them, and Fremdër are not unlike Jews. As an outsider, Brodeck (but strangely, not Emélia) is one of the two people the villagers decide they must be cleansed of. So Brodeck joins the long train journey to the camp, where he'll be made to wear a dog collar and walk on all fours, clean out the shit troughs and get covered in it, but hang on for two years until the end of the war, only retaining his sanity and his will to live by the thought of returning to the village to rejoin Emélia.

But Emélia has been raped along with three other outsider girls and left for dead, and although she survives she's lost her senses and her voice. Perhaps. Brodeck writes his report, the mayor Orschwir (one of Claudel's frightening authoritarian figures like Mierck and Desinat in Les Âmes grises) who's ordered him to write it throws it in the fire after reading it: what is important is forgetting, forgetting that l'Anderer's horse and mule have been killed, forgetting l'Anderer himself has been murdered because he was the Other, because he was different, because he could read into the villagers' inner selves.

But Brodeck can't forget, either what men do to others or what he's done to men. Or women, such as the young woman and her baby who died in the stinking train going to the camp, from whom Brodeck and Kelmar took her water so they could survive at their expense. Anyway, he's done his job and it's time to go, time to leave the village.
So he carries Poupchette off, carries Emélia off, carries Fédorine off while pulling the cart along, and when he looks back the village has gone, as if it never existed. Retake – this is beginning to sound like La Moustache. He carries all three and pulls the cart and the town ceases to exist? What? Earlier on in the book Brodeck has said – very oddly – that it suits Orschwir to pretend that Emélia and Poupchette don't exist. And then towards the end of the novel Brodeck tells the story of the poor tailor Bilissi, a story which Fédorine told him when he was a young boy and which takes the ground from under your feet, leaving you with nothing to cling to, what you saw before you perhaps wasn't entirely real. The tailor's mother dies first, and then his wife, and he picks up his daughter, sings her a song, feeds her and kisses her without noticing that his lips have met the air, and his daughter has never, ever existed. Yep, Claudel too takes the ground from under your feet. Dazzling, terrifying.

My other post on Philippe Claudel:

Philippe Claudel: Les Âmes grises | Grey Souls

13 November 2015

Paris 2015: Père-Lachaise Columbarium #4: Sunsiaré


Sunsiaré de Larcône is Suzy Durupt's assumed name. She was a model and an actor who was very interested in Julien Gracq and wrote one novel: La Messagère (1962). She died in a car crash in the 'Hussard' Roger Nimier's Aston Martin and is the subject of Lucien d'Azay's biography À la recherche de Sunsarié: une vie (2005).

Paris 2015: Père-Lachaise Columbarium #3: Georges Conchon


Georges Conchon travelled a great deal, especially in Africa. He wrote over twenty books and a number of screenplays, and his Goncourt-winning L'État sauvage (1964) – set in an African country under colonial rule – he adapted into a film directed by Francis Girod.

Paris 2015: Père-Lachaise Columbarium #2: Alain Pacadis


Although Alain Pacadis's Un jeune homme chic only scraped into Frédéric Beigbeder's highly idiosyncratic one hundred books at number 99, Beigbeder calls it 'a cult book by the greatest punk critic in the universe'. It is also Pacadis's only book as such, although a collection of his articles was published in 2005 by Denoël: Nightclubbing : Articles 1973-1986. Beigbeder claims that the suicide of his mother threw Pacadis into existential anguish, the world of hard drugs and dandyism, and adds that the homosexual heroin lover would probably have died of AIDS if he hadn't requested his transsexual lover to strangle him.

Paris 2015: Père-Lachaise Columbarium #1: Jean-Paul Aron

The writer, epistemologist and historian Jean–Paul Aron (1925–88), who was the nephew of Raymond Aron. Aron wrote a few works for the theatre and two novels (La Retenue (1962) and Point mort (1964)), but the bulk of his writing was non-fiction, such as Essai sur la sensibilité alimentaire à Paris au XIXe siècle (1967), Le Mangeur du XIXe siècle (1973), Qu’est-ce que la culture française ? (1975), and (with Roger Kempf) Le Pénis et la démoralisation de l'occident (1978).

Paris 2015: Cimetière de Bougival #2: Georges Avenel

Georges Avenel (1828–76) was the brother of the writer Paul Avenel (1823–1902) and spent much of his life researching the French Revolution. Notably, he published Anacharsis Cloots: l'orateur du genre humain and the unfinished Lundis révolutionnaires 1871-1874, nouveaux éclaircissements sur la révolution française à propos des travaux historiques les plus récents et des faits politiques contemporains.

Paris 2015: Cimetière de Bougival #1: Émile Richebourg

1833 – 1898'

Émile Richebourg is now virtually forgotten, although he was once a very popular writer. His novels were serialised in Le Petit Journal and Gambetta's La Petite République and both publications benefited greatly from his contributions. Richebourg – who was born into a modest family – earned a considerable amount of money from his novels, which seem to have been particularly welcomed by women. He told Émile Zola that he was the great literary novelist, whereas Richebourg was the great popular novelist. He lived with his wife in Bougival on the Route de La Celle St Cloud, in a house which he named 'La Charmeuse' after his novel Andréa la charmeuse.

He wrote a great number novels, including Les Amours de village, Les Millions de Monsieur Joramie, La Fille maudite, La Dame en noir, Jean Loup and Coeurs de femmes.

11 November 2015

Gilles Sebhan: Tony Duvert: L'enfant silencieux (2010)

In 2008 the writer Tony Duvert died at the age of sixty-three at his home in Thoré-la-Rochette, Loir-et-Cher. He had been dead for more than a month and the situation was only drawn to the attention of the fire brigade when it was noticed that his mail was overflowing from his letter box. Not that many people were writing to him: the bulk of it was probably only junk mail and bills. And yet in 1973, at the age of twenty-eight, Duvert's novel Paysage de fantaisie won the Prix Médicis and it seemed that he was due to have a dazzling career. Roland Barthes had been in no small way responsible for Duvert winning the prize, and the experimental book was well-known for its similarities to nouveaux romans in terms of structure and style. Noted critics – such as Bertrand Poirot-Delpech in Le Monde, Madeleine Chapsal in L'Express, and Claude Mauriac in Le Figaro – piled praise on Duvert, all of whose novels were published by the prestigious Minuit. But he is now all but forgotten. Gilles Sebhan's book – as much a homage as a biography – sets out out to unravel the mystery.

Tony Duvert was gifted child, with an intelligence and an understanding way ahead of his years. In spite – or perhaps to some extent because of this – Duvert paradoxically never grew up. Adulthood he viewed as a kind of Fall and he saw most mothers as guilty of enormous legal crimes to their children. Duvert was expelled from his college for having a sexual relationship with a(n older) boy. His parents sent him to a psychiatrist who believed that homosexuality is a curable illness: it had a profound and lasting effect on him.

Duvert championed the liberty of sexual expression, particularly the freedom of child sexuality, and he obviously expressed his ideas through his writing. Jérôme Lindon of Minuit first published Récidive (1967) when Duvert was twenty-two, although because he recognised the potential fiery reactions that this (and subsequent earlier publications) might have he issued them under subscription only, and for a brief time found Duvert another occupation as director of the journal Minuit.

In the early 1980s the child sex abuse case named 'L'Affaire Coral' in Aimargues (near Nîmes) exploded onto the front page, as of course did the horrors wrought by AIDS. Duvert had a very simple place to retire to – a family house in Thoré-la-Rochette. From 1989 he wrote no more: it was a kind of professional suicide, although his death was from natural causes. No one in the village seems to have been aware that he had been a writer, although after his death at least one of his books was being circulated around the houses.

Philippe Delerm: Quiproquo (1999; repr. by Motifs 2005)

Philippe Delerm's Quiproquo is either a short novel or a longish short story, I'm not too sure which, but needless to say it highlights the author's pointillist style, emphasising the tiny aspects of life, often enriching them with a magical (or occasionally negative) power.

Here we have the narrator – from Normandy – moving to Picardy to work as a journalist on Le Réveil Picard. He takes the opportunity to go for the weekend in the south, in Agen, to cover the budding local young tennis player Valérie Pascal's performance. As his old Renault has finally given up on him he has to go with the insufferable Pascal family, and on arriving there the father seems to have arranged what everyone should do and more or less orders that following a shower the journalist shall join him in the bar. The narrator – bored rigid by the Pascals and no doubt sick of writing about tea parties and the like – just takes a shower, changes his shirt, picks up his sac à dos and makes journalism part of his past.

He hitches to the bus station in Agen, decides that Beaumont-de-Lomagne is probably too big, but Camparoles (with an esse, as opposed to with the real Camparole) sounds small enough. And in fact it is: it may not be the prettiest of places, but it's the south, with its heat and light and hospitality, its leisured way of looking at life. This'll do for him, so he throws his phone in the Gironde and carves out a new existence.

His first problem is finding somewhere to stay, but his luck's in when he meets the Tarentini family: Albert and Maria – originally from Italy – bought a farm and started raising a family in France; on Albert's death Maria sold up and opened an auberge in Camparoles and developed it into a café-theatre (the Quiproquo Théâtre) where the (now adult) children Stéphane and Alicia can exercise the acting gene that is within them. Maria has built the business into a successful one, with tourists and even people from Agen coming to visit.

The narrator falls in love with the place so much that the family allows him to stay at the auberge for a small sum in return for a few odd jobs – sort of quid pro quo. Initially he also works in an orchard and sells the produce with some of the seasonal workers on Barsac market. Shortly afterwards he drops the fruit job and joins the acting troupe on a permanent basis and things really are idyllic. He even begins a relationship with Alicia but of course it can't last.

The first blow is the death of Maria, which devastates the group but life must carry on – it's what she'd have wanted. But on the same night that Maria died a Parisian theatre director saw Alicia's acting and was very interested: she has to follow her dream. It's not Stéphane's dream, and the narrator's principal dream is of course already in Camparoles, so he stays with Stéphane and the café-théâtre continues regardless.

My other posts Philippe Delerm:

Philippe Delerm: La Première Gorgée de bière
Philippe Delerm: Les Amoureux de l'Hôtel de Ville

9 November 2015

Roland Topor: Le Locataire chimérique | The Tenant (1964; repr. 2011)

Roland Topor's Le Locataire chimérique (lit. 'The Chimerical Tenant') is translated into English as The Tenant, which is also the title of Polanski's 1976 film version of the novel: I think the reasoning must be that 'chimerical' is far too uncommon an English word for its use to be acceptable here.

This is quite an amazing book which I would hesitate to fit into any genre: it's not horrifying enough to fit into the horror category, but it's certainly too horrifying to fit into the humour category, although much of it is humorous (if mainly in a horrifying way). It is full of suspense, but mainly of a psychological nature: it appears to be an account of a man being driven mad, or driving himself mad, and that is very close to the truth, although there's a twist right at the end.

Trelkovsky is a young guy who has to find a new room and moves into one that he's not entirely happy with mainly because the W.C. is a fair way from it, but he has limited funds and accommodation isn't too easy to find. He learns that a girl, Simone Choule, was the previous tenant and for an unknown reason threw herself from the window and through the glass roof below. She's not dead but in bad shape, so he goes to visit her in hospital to find out if there's any possibility of her wanting to go back to her old place. In hospital he meets her friend Stella, with whom he strikes up a casual friendship, and later that day finds out that Simone has died.

Right from the start Trelkovsky strikes a bad note: he invites his friends from work in to celebrate his move, but they make such a noise that everyone in the building complains. From then on everything begins to go bad, and it seems that everyone is strongly against him.

To get an idea of how hypersensitive a person Trevelsky is (or has become), these few sentences – taken from about the middle of the novel – provide a good example: they describe the occasion when he sees Stella again with some of her friends and wants to talk to her, but he's unsure of how to approach her:

'What should he say? If he simply called her "Stella", wouldn't she find that too familiar? What would her friends think? And some people hate having their names called in a public place. Nor could he shout "Hey!" or "Hi!", that was too brash. He thought of "Excuse me!" but that was no better. Clapping his hands? Rude. Snapping his fingers? That was all right for waiters, but come on! He decided on coughing.' (My translation.)

And this is a girl he'd left the hospital with, had a drink with, went to the cinema with and whose generous breasts he eagerly investigated under her bra during the film, and who had no objection to his fondling her. (And incidentally, when he does renew his acquaintance with Stella they end up having sex the same day, but I should be ploughing on with the basics of the story.)

Things get increasingly worse for Trelkovsky, is the book in a nutshell. The animosity of the tenants and the owner M. Zy increase, and he's criticised for making the slightest noise. When his room gets burgled – his whole past taken from him, as he sees it – M. Zy hates the idea of him reporting it to the police and risk giving his business a bad name. His friends laugh at his seriousness and things get to such a state that he has no more social life, and wonders if he's going mad.

Certainly he's got a serious persecution complex, and he's obviously hallucinating about seeing Simone through the W.C. window in bandages, and this idea about the neighbours wanting him to turn into Simone, puting make-up on him, wanting him to kill himself, is plain crazy. So in desperation he escapes to Stella's place, and she welcomes him, but then he suspects she's in on the persecution game too so he steals what little money he can find of hers to stay in a hotel. And then – catastrophe – he's hit by a car, only has a few bruises, but is forced to return to his former accommodation, and in despair joins Simone by jumping out the window.

But she's not dead. She? Oh yes, that's what the nurses call him, and then there's Stella at his bedside saying 'Simone, Simone, do you recognise me?' Er, so was this all a dream in a coma? Or, as we know that 'Trelkovsky' also suffered from gender confusion, is he just Simone's alter ego, maybe a clue as to why she killed herself?

The above cover drawing is by Topor himself. Below is a link to my other post on him:

Roland Topor's grave, Montparnasse

8 November 2015

Philippe Claudel: Les Âmes grises | Grey Souls (2003)

Les Âmes Grises (unsurprisingly translated as Grey Souls) is narrated – twenty years later – by the policeman assigned to the murder case of the ten-year-old Bourrache girl nicknamed Belle-de-Jour. This happened in France in 1917, in a small town which is probably very near Verdun, and certainly injured soldiers and the sounds of the war are an important part of the backcloth here.

The narration is very jerky, switching backwards and forwards all the time between different dates, challenging linearity. It begins, for instance, with the murder of Belle-de-Jour, and later moves to another death which preceded it: that of Lysia Verhareine, which is officially recorded as a suicide. Lysia brings the war element closer into the book as she has found work as a teacher in the small town only a few kilometres from the war zone, where her lover is and where he will die shortly afterwards.

Lysia had been living in the small house in the grounds of the widower Pierre-Ange Destinat's 'castle': Destinat is one of the main characters and the public prosecutor who without any show of pity – indeed without showing any emotion at all – sends criminals to their death and then goes to lunch at Bourrache's restaurant, where he has a seat that Bourrache keeps especially for him. (One of Claudel's examples of class prejudicing the ordinary person.)

The judge Mierck – whose name sounds like something you wouldn't want to get on your shoes and whom the narrator calls a pète-sec (lit. 'dry fart' but meaning a haughty authoritan figure) – also has his own seat there, although the legal pair don't exchange pleasantries as they hate each other. Mierck is, well...

Joséphine (an ordinary person – at least, as ordinary as you're likely to find in this novel) introduces the idea of greyness: 'Les salauds, les saints, j’en ai jamais vu. Rien n’est ni tout noir, ni tout blanc, c’est le gris qui gagne.  [...]. T’es une âme grise, joliment grise, comme nous tous…': 'Bastards, saints, I've never seen any. Nothing is completely black, nor completely white, grey is the winner. [...]. You have a grey soul, really grey, like all of us'. Sorry, but I don't buy that one: it's not at all nuanced.

Mierck, for instance, is the kind of man who regards the dead young Belle-de-Jour with equanimity and orders eggs on-the-spot because he's hungry. When – and here's class coming in again – he learns from Joséphine that Destinat was talking to Belle-de-Jour at around the time and place of her death he defends a man of his kind even if they hate each other and dismisses outright the idea of the public prosecutor being a murderer. And he – along with the almost equally gruesome Matziev (even if he did illegally support the innocent Dreyfus) – plucked two innocent scapegoats from out of the air and blamed them for the murder of Belle-de-Jour. Two deserters, these were, just your average cannon fodder, one of whom hangs himself because he knows his time's up anyway, and the other one a simple Breton lad who is tortured until he confesses to a murder he didn't actually commit, and is then executed. (In fairness, the Breton was far from innocent and thought he was guilty because he actually did rape – and kill – a ten-year-old girl, but not Belle-de-Jour.)

How can we compare Lysia's 'greyness' – say, wishing thousands of soldiers dead in return for a few moments with her lover – with the 'greyness' of the monster (and it certainly looks like Destinat, but the ending's left open) who killed Belle-de-Jour, or for that matter with the 'greyness' of the narrator himself who smothered his baby to death because it had 'killed' its mother: there's a world of difference between thinking and doing.

I could go on and talk about themes in the novel, such as flowers, writing, eccentrics, even shit (and there's a lot of the fecal matter here, either daubed on walls as the Marseillaise, or just left on doorsteps) but I think I'll leave it this time round. This is the first time I've read a Philippe Claudel novel and I shall be reading more of him – there's a lot of interesting stuff here. And incidentally le jour de gloire était arrivé for Claudel with Les Âmes grises because it won the Prix Renaudot for 2003.

My other post on Philippe Claudel:

Philippe Claudel: Le Rapport de Brodeck | Brodeck's Report

7 November 2015

Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin (2011)

Rue Darwin is the final book in the six-novel Romans 1999–2011 collection, and although it's tempting I'll be making a pause of a week or so before reading his latest and only other novel, 2084: you can have too much of a good thing, and it's time for me to take stock of Boualem Sansal.

This novel is the most autobiographical of Sansal's, and is in some respects the most difficult to get to grips with: it doesn't have the familiar long digressive rants about the troubled history of Algeria or the present political situation there, although the content necessitates the usual flashbacks, and the confusion which appears to be endemic in Algeria is mirrored by the narrator's confusion about his own life, indeed about his identity.

The narrator is Yazid, whose mother has just died. He decides that he must return to Rue Darwin, where he was brought up for some time with her and his step-father and his younger step-brothers and step-sisters in a very humble home in Belcourt, Algiers.

Yazid is the only remaining member of the family now living in Algeria: his mother  has just died in Pitié Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, where she was flown from Algiers a short time before. Her other sons and daughters – with the exception of Hédi who has been brainwashed by djihadism and whose whereabouts are unknown – were at her bedside although they only saw her in a coma: there's Souad (now Sue), who's a teacher at the University of Berkeley, California; Moundia (now Munya), who's in communication in Canada; Karim (now Karym) who lives in Marseilles; and then there's the rich and powerful Nazim (now Nazym), who's a businessman in Paris.

Yazid wasn't actually raised as a child by his mother but by his grandmother Djéda, or Lalla Sadia, an immensely rich woman who owned a brothel next to her home in an Algerian village. She has contrived to adopt Yazid, who subsequently lives in some splendour and then one of the prostitutes – Farroudja – kidnaps him at the age of eight and he joins his mother and his step-siblings. Although it's nowhere near as simple as that.

Dauod – who like Yazid's brothers and sisters has a westernised name change to David – begins to suddenly develop in importance towards the end of the novel. He was one of the brothel children and was a young friend of Yazid's, so Yazid tries to seek him out when he goes to Paris. It's there that he learns from David's friend Jean that he died of AIDS some year before, although Yazid doesn't tell his (real) mother that Daoud was a homosexual when he returns to Algiers: at the end he learns that his biological mother is in fact Farroudja, whose other son was Daoud, so the 'brothers' and 'sisters' Yazid spent his late childhood and adolescence with have no apparent genetic relation to him. Confusing? Yes, that's the narrator's point: this is Algeria.

My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde
Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand
Boualem Sansal: Harraga
Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis
Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux
Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares

5 November 2015

Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand, ou Le journal des frères Schiller (2008)

Le Village de l'Allemand, ou Le journal des frères Schiller is the other novel of Boualem Sansal's which has been translated into English, and the same book appears to bear two different titles: the understable The German Mujahid and the oddly titled An Unfinished Business. It is based on a true story that Sansal once heard.

In 24 April 1994 there is an Islamic attack in the very remote Algerian village of Aïn Deb, in which a forty people die, two of them being the mother and father of the Schiller brothers of the sub-title. The brothers are in fact two narrators who take it in turns to tell the story, although one of them – Rachel – is dead and his notes are being used by Malrich, or rather by the lycée teacher Mme Dominique G. H., who was keen to re-write Malrich's efforts in 'good French'.

The brothers' German father Hans married an Algerian woman and spent the rest of his wife in the small Algerian village of Aïn Deb, never leaving it, and where he was very well respected. But he had the foresight to realise that the Algerian-born boys would need a decent education so sent them to live with their uncle Ali and aunt Sakrina in a high-rise housing estate in Nantes, France. Rachel was a successful engineer until circumstances led to his dismissal, and was thirty-three on his death on 24 April 1996. Malrich, on the other hand, is about nineteen and seems on first appearances to be something of a loser, hanging around with other kids and having no burning interests or ambitions.

Then Rachel is found dead in his garage, and the police chief later hands Rachel's diaries to Malrich, saying that it's in his interests to read them. Malrich devours them, as in them he discovers not only the reason for his brother's suicide but the devastating truth behind his father's seclusion in Aïn Deb. The novel alternates between Rachel's diary and Malrich's thoughts on it, or his account of his activities with his friends.

Rachel's detective work soon reveals the terrifying truth about his father. At first he can't understand why he has been registered and buried with a false name, and his mother under her maiden name. To find out, it takes a hazardous journey back to Algeria, back to his village, to the old house, and papers that reveal that Hans Schiller was a prominent Nazi, who – though the production of the lethal chemical Zyklon B – was indirectly responsible for the deaths of many thousands of innocent people in the death camps of Germany, Austria and Poland.

Rachel becomes obsessed, reads large numbers of books about the systematic destruction of the Jews, visits places his father went, such as his univeristy, the extermination camps, tries to track down his old Nazi friends. Quickly, his obsession and his closeness to insanity lose him his job, his wife, and in the end his life. There are no digressions as such here, only a long and very painful account of the practical and psychological logistics of gassing the equivalent of a villageful of people to death every day in the Nazi slaughter chambers. Rachel choses not only the same day and exact time to die as his father, but the same method: death by gas.

What has this to do with Boualem Sansal's usual attacks on Islamism? Quite a lot, according to Sansal. Malrich is of course a great deal younger than his brother, although old enough to understand, old enough to read and re-read his brother's writings, to read the books he's left, to teach his Muslim friends about the Nazi atrocities they are obviously too young to know about. Plus there's an inevitable analogy to be made between Nazism and Islamist extremism: forty people in Aïn Deb have had their throats slit, and much closer to home the emir, on the instructions of the imam, has strung up young Nadia, bound her naked and used a blow torch on her. Malrich and his moderate friends are ordinary Muslims, a little westernised around the edges naturally, they represent the voice of sanity in a mad, threatening world, and they very strongly condemn this barbarity. A tremendous, harrowing read.

My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde
Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin
Boualem Sansal: Harraga
Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis
Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux
Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares

4 November 2015

Boualem Sansal: Harraga (2005)

Harraga, I believe, is one of only two of Boualem Sansal's novels that have been translated into English. Bizarrely, two English-speaking reviewers have described it as spoiled by 'poor storytelling'. The reviewer of one of them – in the Independent – incorrectly states that Sansal published the book in French 2006 and incorrectly suggests that he started writing following his dismissal from his government post: he in fact began writing in the 1990s, partly as a result of being encouraged to do so by his writer friend Rachid Mimouni (1945–95). The same reviewer nevertheless calls the translation 'generally excellent', although I very much doubt that she read it in French too, which would have given her a very good reason to speak of the merits of the translation – if not, then although it may be possible to guess in places if a translation is badly done, it is impossible to tell if a translation is well done without a decent knowledge of both texts: there can be a huge difference between an excellently written translation and an excellently translated book!

Enough ranting, and its probably needless to say that I read this in the original French. Harraga literally means 'road (or route) burner', and specifically refers here to the number of (young in particular) people escaping from the horrors of Islamist rule. In the introductory page 'Au lecteur' (which inevitably reminded me of Baudelaire again) the narrator states that this is a completely true story with true names and dates, etc, telling of the misery of a world of lost faith and values. The protagonist is the thirty-five-year-old paediatrician Lamia, who lives alone in a house in Algiers: her father died of a poor heart, which was enough to finish off her mother shortly after, her elder brother Yacine is killed in a car crash, and her younger brother Sofiane has decided to escape to Europe for a proper life (OK, for a life – period).

In her teens Lamia was enticed by the charms of an older man who ditched her after use, and speaks of no other man coming into her life, which seems to be dead, and she is filled with depressive – almost insane – suicidal thoughts. Until, that is, the highly inappropriately dressed Chérifa, sixteen and heavily pregnant by (of course) an older man who has dumped her after use, knocks on her door after being sent by Sofiane (who isn't the father). Lamia's life now begins, and in a short time she is treating Chérifa as a mother would, very swiftly developing a love of her.

Unfortunately Lamia's motherliness is a little too stern, and Chérifa thinks she isn't wanted, so leaves, and Lamia falls into an even deeper depression. And then Chérifa, even more pregnant, returns and lights up Lamia's life again, although the girl disappears once more and can't be can't be found. Until her life changes when she receives a phone call from a nun in the Notre-Dame-des-Pauvres convent. There Lamia weeps over Chérifa's simple grave, but leaves with baby Louiza (yes, another Sansal adoption), named after a long gone school friend of hers. Her life as a mother – in fact her 'real' life – begins.

But not before some very strong insults spoken to the understanding sisters about the nature of the barbarians in Algeria, whom she calls 'wicked, hateful, satanic and dirty'. When the mother superior advises Lamia to moderate her language for her own good, the outspoken but tactful Lamia replies that she knows when to be a hypocrite when it's necessary.

Dazzlingly written, Harraga is told throughout in the first person and although the novel doesn't contain the verbal fireworks of his other works, there are two very long hallmark digressions: one to describe the motley history of Lamia's house, and another when Lamia watches a television programme on harragas, who are noted for losing their lives when trying to cross the Mediterranean, and where many of them could easily be Sofiane.

My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde
Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin
Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand
Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis
Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux
Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares

1 November 2015

Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis (2003)

In my post below on Boualem Sansal's Le Serment des barbares I mentioned his fondness for quoting from books. More than halfway through his third novel, Dis-moi le paradis, a character changes the chorus of Baudelaire's 'L'Invitation au voyage' –  'Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté, | Luxe, calme et volupté' (roughly 'Over there, there is nothing but order and beauty, luxury, peace and voluptuousness') to 'Ici, tout n'est qu'est que désordre et mocheté | Lucre, drame et vanité' (roughly 'Here, there is nothing but disorder and ugliness, greed, catastrophe and vanity.') My main point is not the intertextuality which characterises Sansal's books, not even that inevitably the desperate situation in Algeria is being satirised, but the fact that the two lines of verse are so funny. And Sansal's humor is particularly highlighted in his third novel. But what better place to set the framework of such a work than a bar, where so many people relax telling funny stories? (Yes, of course it's deadly serious too, but that's not the point: Sansal can find a funny way to describe anything.)

The bar in question here the Bar des Amis in Bab El Oued in Algiers, which is run by Ammi Salah. Here Tarik, who's a medical doctor in the capital and known to all of the customers simply as Doc, tells the best stories and the book is full of his words. He tells of how he drove his two cousins Farida and Romyla (on two separate journeys) from Algiers to M'Sila, where the sisters' mother has died.

There are of course many digressions of many pages to describe various characters and situations, but the narrative essentially operates between a number of flashbacks related by Doc, punctuated by returns to the bar. M'sila is hit by a cholera epidemic, inevitably bringing to mind both García Márquez's El amor en los tiempos del cólera (Love in the Time of Cholera) and Camus's La Peste (The Plague), and it's well known that Camus's plague of rats stands for the Nazi activities during World War II. At great risk to their lives, several of the characters later set off from the ravaged M'Sila to the remote M'Cif, where they also tend to those in a tribe stricken by cholera. And then they are about to have their throats slit by a rival tribe but are saved in the nick of time. Does this sound like a shaggy dog story?

Well, speaking of dogs, when they were on their way back from Algiers airport they had to stop to eat something in Palestro as Doc said they were so hungry they could have eaten off the head of a scabby dog, and then says – the olive oil bottle being empty – that the waiter instead used a liquid that seemed to have come from a sump oil container. What do we make of this mad talk?

One thing to make of it, of course, is that there's (as Doc admits at the end) a lot of exaggeration in this, although surely he has to exaggerate to prove a point? At one point Doc punningly mentions 'Tonton chez les Gaulois' and certainly at times this novel has the flavor of a cartoon. 'Le gnome', similar to a deformed gnostic genius from the Talmud and cabbalistic literature and 'adopted' by the family in M'Sila, has cartoonish traits too. A modern Rabelais in north Africa?

And what of the little boy whom Doc 'adopts' after seeing him forlorn in a corner of the crummy restaurant, who causes Doc's wife to leave home, whom Doc discovers bears the forename of Boudmediene after the detested Algerian dictator, who seems somewhat nihilistic until he perks up and asks Doc to tell him about paradise, thus giving the book its title? A literary relation to the mad boy in the hollow tree?

For Sansal and for many more in Algeria, paradise is quite the reverse of modern Algeria, and at the end of the novel Doc relates the depressing history of the country, including the history of M'Cif and M'sida. He entrusts his words with, er, the writer. Another amazing book from Boualem Sansal.

My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde
Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin
Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand
Boualem Sansal: Harraga
Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux
Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares

Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux (2000)

L’enfant fou de l’arbre creux (lit. The Mad Boy in the Hollow Tree) is set in the present day in the Algerian prison of Lambèse, where two prisoners – the French 'visitor' Pierre Chaumet and the Algerian Farid – are threatened with the death sentence. Outside in the yard – although only perceived by Pierre – is a mad boy chained to a hollow tree where he sleeps. Sansal has said that the prison represents Algeria itself, where the inhabitants are imprisoned by the system. And the blind boy – only perceived by Pierre because only outsiders have the ability to take full consciousness of a reality that doesn't belong to them – represents the Algerian people. Pierre and Farid have a long time to talk about their lives, and this is the main content of the book.

Some readers were – perhaps a little understandably – somewhat discouraged by Sansal's Le Serment des barbares because of its digressive nature and its tendency to rant. L’enfant fou de l’arbre creux is, as can expected, still a very strong criticism of post-independent Algeria, but is more firmly rooted to 'conventional' narrative, far less given to long digressive passages. But the obvious love of language and the supremely rich vocabulary and poetic means of expression remain.

Farid's story is soon told: he got caught up Islamist killers.

Pierre's story is much longer. He was brought up in France not by his biological parents but the medical doctor Hector Chaumet and his wife Marie-Madeleine: his father died before he was born and his mother Aïcha (who is now in a psychiatric hospital) left him in the care of the Chaumets three months after his birth. Pierre was born Khaled El Madauri, and at the age of thirty-seven has clandestinely returned to find out about Khaled, to discover his origins, learn the truth about his father's death.

In his search, Pierre takes along '22 long rifle' Salim to Vialar (now called Tissemsilt), which is three hundred kilometres from the capital. The hospital director is a drunkard who trades in selling patients off for as much as he can get: according to the taxi driver who carries Pierre and Aïcha away, psychiatric patients sell for a premium because their 'owners' can make money by turning them into beggars. Possibly Sansal is exaggerating here, but at least the general point he's trying to make is clear. And as Pierre discovers the truth about his father's death, he discovers too much, hence the mess he's now in.

Sansal continues his task of revealing the atrocities, the violence, corruption, ignorance, the internecine conflicts within modern Algeria. And the way he tells his story is spell-binding.

My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde
Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin
Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand
Boualem Sansal: Harraga
Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis
Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares

30 October 2015

Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares (1999)

I suspect that a major reason why Gallimard brought out this collection of all of the six novels that Boualem Sansal published before this year's 2084 is because they imagined that he'd win the Goncourt, and certainly it was a big shock for many people this Tuesday to learn that 2084 didn't even make it to the Goncourt's third selection. We may never know why, although it has been suggested that Sansal is perceived as an Islamophobe, which doesn't square with reality: he simply doesn't like Islamic excesses.

The six novels contained in this volume of more than 1200 pages tight pages are Le Serment des barbares (1999), L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux (2000), Dis-moi le paradis (2003), Harraga (trans. as the same title) (2005), Le Village de l'Allemand, ou Le journal des frères Schiller (trans. as An Unfinished Business) (2008), and Rue Darwin (2011). Also here is an informative Preface by Jean-Marie Laclavetine, plus an even more informative potted and illustrated history of Boualem Sansal's life, with the history of Algeria from 1940 up to the present day.

Sansal married a Czechoslovakian but a new law required that children of 'mixed' marriages be taught the Islamic religion. Sansal sent his two daughters back to Czechoslovakia to their maternal grandparents. The marriage ended in divorce in 1986, Sansal saying that his personal life had been ravaged by Islamists.

Sansal was also responsible for what he euphemistically calls the 'restructuring' (for which read privatisation) of the Algerian economy,* although in the same year his third novel was published he was dismissed from this post: he had gone too far in his criticisms of the chaos-ridden country Algeria had become in the years following its independence from France in 1962.

*Unfortunately Sansal is far from being a friend of socialism and sees it as outmoded, whereas many of us in western Europe have seen exactly how chaotic and socially unjust, for instance, the privatisation of public utilities actually is. In an interview, Sansal interrupted his interviewer because he used the expression 'selling off' ('brader') in relation to privatisation and claimed that the word was a hangover from the days of socialism. Enter 'restructuring', then, which to me seems almost to smack of the Orwellian 'Newspeak' Sansal so detests.


But on to the first novel, Le Serment des barbares, which is a runaway train, or a whirligig, a linguistic roller coaster in which Sansal seems to be going out of his way to show his considerable learning on his sleeve. 'Rabelaisian' is one of the words that are often used to describe his work, and this novel (perhaps in particular, as I haven't yet read the rest) is a wonderful display of verbal pyrotechnics, using often very long digressive sentences often soaked in polysyllabic words, or Algerian words or terms both common and less common, or slang words, words for the love of words, often clothed in literary allusions.

All this to describe the chaos that Sansal now sees as Algeria, the political divisions within the country, the arabisation, more frequently the mindless violence, the wholesale slaughter, the misrule, the horror of daily existence. Perhaps most of all, the manufacture of ignorance: Sansal sees a triple illiteracy: the loss of French, the mis-teaching of Arabic, and the death of Kabyl and other native languages.

There's a detective story at the root of Le Serment des barbares, and the book begins in a cemetery, where two very different people are being buried: the very rich Moh who's a kind of godfather, and the poor Abdallah Bakour, both of whom have been violently murdered: the ageing police officer Larbi's job is to pursue the investigation into the Abdallah killing.

As Larbi makes his enquiries throughout the book – between the various tangents that Sansal digresses into – we inevitably learn about Abdallah's past. Until the year after Algerian independence he had been an agricultural worker for a French family in Algeria, and when they moved back to France he continued to work for the family: bosses had died and others taken their place, but he was still greatly respected by the family in his new home and had more or less been thought of as one of the family. He had refused to accept money to upkeep the family tomb when he returned to Algeria at the age of sixty-five, but maintained it freely, living in a very modest home near the Christian cemetery. He is in fact a kind of symbol, his double identity standing for the possibility of tolerance, bringing the torn parts of the country together.

Alas, Larbi – mockingly referred to as both Maigret and Columbo – is too good at his job. He knows there's something wrong, knows it defies common sense that this harmless, humble soul should be assassinated as if he's a gang boss, so what's it all about? He gnaws away at it, a dog digging up a bone, digging, now... it couldn't be that drugs and weapons are buried in the tombs and Abdallah...? Too late, cop.

This is a rant, but it's a hugely powerful one, a tour de force, a kind of masterpiece. Boualem Sansal enters the world of Francophone fiction like a verbal steam roller.

My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde
Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin
Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand
Boualem Sansal: Harraga
Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis
Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux