lunes, 30 de noviembre de 2015

Old Masters

Old Masters [Alte Meister] (The University of Chicago Press, 1992)
by Thomas Bernhard [translated from the German by Ewald Osers]
Austria, 1985

For whatever reason--poor timing, a bad attitude, a fatal case of been there, done that ism mayhaps, who knows?--the insult machine known as Old Masters really wasn't doing it for me until about a third of the way into the indignities.  After that, I kind of wondered WTF I possibly could have been disappointed about early on.  The concluding salvo in Bernhard's bilious, ranting arts trilogy, Old Masters slyly links an art criticism-laced conversation about Tintoretto's The White-Bearded Man held by two old friends at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum with a series of Karl Kraus-like mudballs lobbed at Vienna's true Kultur: e.g. "Viennese lavatories are altogether a scandal, even in the lower Balkans you will not find a lavatory which is quite so neglected" (80).  While the final pages of the work take an unexpectedly-warm-for-Bernhard detour to touch on the importance of love and friendship in this, "our age of chaos and kitsch" (154), insult meister need not be deterred from reading this uplifting Austrian Jonathan Livingston Seagull because the abuse heaped on targets as diverse as the vagaries of the Austrian justice system ("not just arbitrariness but a perfidious machine for grinding human beings" [109]), sculptors ("those brutal common proletarian men of violence with their chisels" [110]), and the common Austrian himself  ("a common Nazi or a stupid Catholic" [122]) proves that Bernhard's defamation ammo is of the same high caliber as usual.  Consumed, with the child-like delight one usually associates with the consumption of the humble ice cream cone, in honor of the German Literature Month V festivities perpetrated by Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy's Literary Life.

Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989)

miércoles, 25 de noviembre de 2015

Les chercheurs d'os

Les chercheurs d'os (Éditions du Seuil, 1984)
by Tahar Djaout
Algeria, 1984

Tahar Djaout was only 30 at the time of the publication of Les chercheurs d'os [The Bone Collectors, unavailable in English] and all of 39 the year he was assassinated by Islamist extremists.  While this depressing biographical note certainly colored my reading of the novel, it'd be a mistake to attribute the novel's emotional power to any sentimentality on Djaout's part: Les chercheurs d'os is a wrenching affair but also a low-key one that's understatedly told.  To help explain the significance of the title, I should probably begin by mentioning that the narrator of the work is a young teenage boy who sets out with a distant relative, Rabah Ouali, in search of the remains of the older brother who had perished three years earlier fighting "l'armée d'occupation" ["the army of occupation"] (140) during Algeria's war of independence against the French.  The ensuing travelogue gives the boy a chance to comment on all of the new sights he's taking in upon leaving his Kabylie village for the first time and gives Djaout a chance to rue the continuing famine and poverty and other aftereffects of the war during the boy's quest for the "os martyrs" ["martyred bones"] of his older brother (44).  Highlights.  As might be expected from a "simple" but convincing first person narration, Djaout is a master of voice and nuance.  At the very least, the older brother's explanation to his younger brother concerning his reasons for joining the resistance--"Le sang est parfois nécessaire" ["(The shedding of) blood is sometimes necessary"] (106)--rings particularly true within the confines of a fictive space which also muses on French military abuses in an evenhanded and non-partisan way.  In one of the more memorable scenes from the novel, for example, Rabah Ouali tells the young narrator about his discovery of a dropped or discarded letter from a father in mainland France which had been sent to the army commander occupying the main characters' village.  The gist of the letter?  The father warns the son not to bring shame upon his "famille très respectable" ["very respectable family"] by perpetrating cruelties on the very people whose country he was occupying so "arbitrairement" ["arbitrarily"]--a perspective which surprises  Rabah Ouali because he never knew "des étrangers" ["outsiders"] existed who shared this view of their land (41).  Great anecdote.  While not a highlight per se, I was also very taken by Djaout's restraint and subtlety.  In a novel ostensibly devoted to the search for and repatriation of the "cadavres héroïques" ["heroic cadavers"] (70) of the fallen and in a novel in which man and boy earnestly discuss whether death arrives and whispers "Je suis la mort" ["I am Death"] to its victims (153), I was hardly expecting to be so won over by non-flashy prose that instead trades in the currency of an almost picaresque-like immediacy (sans the jokes, of course).  Djaout was supposedly murdered, by the way, for having "wielded a fearsome pen that could have an effect on Islamic sectors," a cowardly act to be sure but a cowardly act that proves that even cowardly murderers might know a thing or two about literary criticism from time to time.

Tahar Djaout (1954-1993)

martes, 17 de noviembre de 2015

L'homme à l'envers

L'homme à l'envers (J'ai Lu, 2015)
by Fred Vargas
France, 1999

Stupid ending and previsible villain aside, Fred Vargas' L'homme à l'envers [literally Inside-Out Man but Englishized as Seeking Whom He May Devour] was still an otherwise intelligent and entertaining enough page-turner that I wouldn't hesitate to read another of her Commissaire Adamsberg mysteries or to give a try to her so-called Three Evangelists series or even both.  Intelligent and entertaining?  The proof is in the pudding, dude.  For most of the whodunit/"roade-mouvie" (182), Vargas is sufficiently understated and amusing to get away with spinning an audaciously farfetched story in which characters actually debate whether an enormous wolf or an actual werewolf is at all responsible for a series of barbaric wolf attack-like slayings across France.  No mean feat!  Pros: Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is appealingly enigmatic as the intuition- rather than logic-based crime-solving star of the show, and both the Parisian Commissaire and his love interest and even the minor characters are all way more subtly drawn/believable than the narrator Dino in Alberto Moravia's Boredom or the overwrought mother-in-law Fay in Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter (two supposedly "good" books I totally hated and now no longer need to review, thank you very much).  Cons: Although I jotted down a fair amount of new to me French vocab to look up during my time with the novel, I didn't take note of any cool lines to share with you here and my emphasis on characterization above probably should be construed as damning with faint praise.  Bottom line: OK, serviceable prose, not as dumb as most thrillers.  Wait, did I just say a fucking werewolf?!?

Fred Vargas

sábado, 14 de noviembre de 2015

Meursault, contre-enquête

Meursault, contre-enquête (Actes Sud, 2015)
by Kamel Daoud
Algeria, 2013

"Aujord'hui, M'ma est encore vivante" ["Mama is still alive today"] (11) intones the narrator at the outset of Meursault, contre-enquète [The Meursault Investigation] in words that clearly echo but just as clearly subvert the familiar opening lines of Albert Camus' L'étranger.  The subversive narrator of this postcolonial call and response almost three quarters of a century in the making?  Haroun, a now 70-something Algerian who claims to be the brother of "l'Arabe" gunned down on the beach by the French Algerian protagonist of the 1942 best seller that inspired this counter-inquiry into l'affaire Meursault.  So how does what Haroun refers to as "un crime commis dans un livre" ["a crime committed in a book"] (27), a book itself described as a "mensonge sublime" ["sublime lie"] (58), morph into such fascinating intertextual reading matter? To begin with, beyond the expected settling of scores with L'étranger's author on literary accounts--"As-tu vu sa façon d'écrire?" ["Have you seen his style of writing?"], he asks.  "Il semble utiliser l'art du poème pour parler d'un coup de feu!" ["He seems to use the art of the poem to speak of a gunshot!"] (12); for sloppy ethnocentrism--"On le désignait comme l'Arabe" ["He's called the Arab"], Haroun says of his murdered brother Moussa, "même chez les Arabes.  C'est une nationalité, 'Arabe', dis-moi?  Il est-où, ce pays que tous proclament comme leur ventre, leurs entrailles,qui ne trouve nulle part?"  ["even among Arabs.  Tell me, is 'Arab' a nationality?  Where is it, this country which everybody claims as their womb, their heart, but which can't be found anywhere?"] (148); and for the perhaps much greater crime of having become famous for the writing of a book about a murder in which he couldn't even be bothered to mention the name of "l'Arabe" whom he had killed under a blinding sun, Haroun goes off script so to speak and dialogues not just with the author of L'étranger but with Algerian history and memory.  One particularly juicy example of how his rambling monologue intersects with Algerian history and lit in such delightfully messy ways is that Haroun expressly politicizes the situation by mocking Meursault and his kind for never really belonging in or to Algeria in the first place.  "Le meurtre qu'il a commis semble celui d'un amant déçu par une terre qu'il ne peut posséder" ["The murder which he committed resembles that of a lover deceived by a land which he could not possess"], we read.  "Comme il a dû souffrir, le pauvre!  Étre l'enfant d'un lieu qui ne vous a pas donné naissance" ["How he must have suffered, the poor guy!  To be the child of a place which did not give birth to you"] (13).  On that note, this is probably a good time to point out how Haroun's strange gendered topography of both Oran ("cette ville a les jambes ouvertes vers la mer, les cuisses écartées, depuis la baie jusqu'à ses hauteurs, là où se trouve ce jardin exubérant et odorant" ["this city with its legs open to the sea, thighs spread, from the bay to its hills, there where this exuberant and fragant garden is located"]--a garden which he has just compared to a woman's vagina! (22)--and Algiers ("vielle actrice démodée de l'art révolutionnaire" ["an over the hill, old-fashioned actress of the art of revolution"] (62) frames Algeria as a once desirable female fought over by possessors and possessed.  Whatever the character's views on whether this "woman" was really worth fighting over, the salient point is that Haroun--who, to be fair, also admits to loving Oran at night "malgré la prolifération des rats" ["despite the proliferation of rats"] (59) in what seems like a mischievous reference prompted by another Oran-situated novel by the name of La peste--suggests that even though "chasser tous les Meursault" ["hunting all the Meursaults"] (92) was an explicit strategy of Algeria's quest for independence, the anti-intruder violence didn't cease after all the Meursaults were pushed into the sea.  In fact, "La mort, aux premiers jours de l'Indépendance, était aussi gratuite, absurde et inattendu qu'elle avait l'avait été sur une plage ensoleillée de 1942" ["in the days following Independence, death was as gratuitous, absurd and unexpected as it had been on a beach bathed in sunshine in 1942"] (115).  In other words, et voilà!

Kamel Daoud

Thanks to The Modern Novel blog for introducing me to Meursault, contre-enquête just over a year ago in this review here.  Thanks to Frances of Nonsuch Book for reading Daoud's novel with me this past week.  Her review can be found here.

jueves, 12 de noviembre de 2015

Total Khéops

Total Khéops (Folio Policier, 2014)
par Jean-Claude Izzo
La France, 1995

Ils étaient de Marseille, marseillais avant d'être arabes.  Avec la même conviction que nos parents.  Comme nous l'étions Ugo, Manu et moi à quinze ans.  Un jour, Ugo avait demandé: << Chez moi, chez Fabio, on parle napolitain.  Chez toi, on parle espagnol.  En classe, on apprend le français.  Mais on est quoi, dans le fond ? >>
- Des Arabes, avait répondu Manu.
Nous avions éclaté de rire.
(Total Khéops, 257)

Il y a vingt ans, Manu, Ugo et Fabio étaient copains d'enfance dans le quartier des immigrés à Marseille.  Manu et Ugo sont devenus escrocs.  Fabio est devenu flic.  Quand Manu et ensuite Ugo sont tués dans un court laps de temps vingt ans après, le seul survivant des trois, Fabio Montale, mène une enquête criminelle pour savoir qui a tué ses vieux amis et se retrouve soudain dans le milieu d'une guerre des gangs entre le crime organisé, des ripoux marseillais, et des truands locaux.  Une rude tâche, bien sûr!  Un très bon policier raconté avec brio et beaucoup d'energie et marqué par une quantité prodigieuse de l'argot, Total Khéops c'est une introduction géniale à l'oeuvre du marseillais Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000).  Stylistiquement, Izzo utilise des phrases courtes à la James Ellroy pour accélér la vélocité de sa prose avec succès.  Il aussi excelle dans l'art de la petite phrase: << Une gueule à la Lee Marvin.  Une gueule de tueur, pas de flic >> (73).  Même si tout le monde sait que le romancier était un créateur d'ambiance par excellence, j'ai été très impresionné par ses descriptions méticuleuses sur la nature de la transformation de Marseille au cours des années: << Le sol était jonché de sacs d'ordures éventrés et il s'élevait des rues une odeur âcre, mélange de pisse, d'humidité et de moisi >>, commence un tel passage.  << Seul grand changement, la rénovation avait gagné le quartier.  Des maisons avaient été démolies.  Les façades des autres étaient repeintes, en ocre et rose, avec des persiennes vertes ou bleues, a l'itallienne >>  (51).  Quant à ses idées, Izzo se donne beaucoup de mal pour faire voir á Marseille dans toute sa complexité.  En d'autres termes, cela explique l'attention de l'écrivain à l'intersection du crime et de la corruption policière et au sujet du racisme, et caetera.  Devant le cadavre d'Ugo, par exemple, Fabio parle de comment << mes collègues avaient joué les cow-boys.  Quand ils tiraient, ils tuaient.  C'était aussi simple.  Des adeptes du général Custer.  Un bon Indien, c'est un Indien mort.  Et à Marseille, des Indiens, il n'y avait que ça, ou presque >> (71).  Autre part, Fabio parle de << la saloperie humaine du monde >> (252) avec le pessimisme d'un flic de longue date et décrit avec force détails comment Marseille est devenue la ville auquelle la fin du monde avance à cause de la haine et de la violence sans contrainte: "Il n'était nul besoin d'armes nucléaires.  Nous nous entre-tuerons avec une savagerie préhistorique >> (282).  Cela dit, dans un roman qui se concentre sur le racisme à la France en général et à Marseille en particulier comme autre exemple de << la connerie humaine >> (98), je suis encore pris pour dépourvu pour rencontrer cette réflexion déchirante sur l'exil dans une scène où un pere avait appris que sa fille avait été violée et tuée: << Mouloud venait de perdre la deuxième femme de sa vie.  L'Algérie n'était plus son pays.  La France venait de le rejeter définitivement.  Maintenant il n'était plus qu'un pauvre Arabe >> (140).  Époustouflant.

Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000)

Total Khéops paraît dans La trilogie Fabio Montale de Jean-Claude Izzo (Paris: Folio Policier, 2014, 43-304).