Check-point by Jean-Christophe Rufin – To fight or to survive?

This is my review of Check-point by Jean-Christophe Rufin

Unsure what course to pursue, Maud is certain only of her need to avoid a conventional lifestyle and to conceal any sexual attraction beneath baggy clothes and unflattering glasses. She has joined a group of four men on a mission to transport two lorry-loads of aid to civilian victims of the war in Bosnia. Her colleagues are a diverse bunch: the pot-smoking Lionel, ill-equipped to lead the group; Alex and Marc, two ex-soldiers with experience of fighting round Krajina, their destination in Bosnia; finally, the morose middle-aged Vauthier, older than the others. The one thing these men share in common seems to be a mutual suspicion, justified in that each has a different ulterior motive for the journey. Apart from their hostility, the main source of tension is at first the succession of checkpoints which they have to cross, never quite sure what reception they will receive from soldiers who may be Serb, Croat or Bosnian Muslim – to explain their purpose, Lionel relies on repeating “pomoć”, the Bosnian for “help”.

As the plot builds up to a dramatic crescendo, with vivid descriptions of the snow-covered landscapes through which they labour, the author uses the conflict within the group as a microcosm for the destructive futile struggle in Bosnia. He develops their characters to show them wrestling with shifting emotions. Since Rufin is well-known for his international humanitarian work, it is not surprising that he also weaves in ethical debates over the pros and cons of giving aid, and the causes and effects of war. He is interested in the “mental frontiers” which have to be crossed as well as the physical checkpoints. In transporting aid, are people just salving their consciences? What do “victims” really need – to fight or to survive? How much point is there in providing food and clothing to keep them warm, when what they really want are weapons to fight the enemy, even at the risk of sacrificing their lives? Yet providing arms only feeds violence, and who is to decide on what side justice lies? Why do different groups hate each other so much?

Rufin’s novels seem quite varied in their settings and plots, but all that I have read show him to be a good storyteller, particularly in this case when he keeps the plot tight and clear. As might be expected from a writer so concerned with morality, villains seem to get their just desserts, but he does not seek to conceal the human shortcomings of the rest of the group.

My only criticism is of the rather patronising epilogue which tells us what we are supposed to make of the novel, rather than let us deduce it for ourselves, no doubt each drawing something different from it. The main point of interest in the epilogue is that the story was inspired by the author’s visit to Krajina, where he happened to note that a Bosnian refugee girl had clearly fallen in love with the young French UN soldier who was helping to protect her. I also thought that, although Rufin explores Maud’s conflicting thoughts effectively, he also shows her slipping into slightly stereotyped “female behaviour”, which I have noticed in some of his other work, but this is a small point.

Highly recommended overall.

Losing a country; L’Art de Perdre by Alice Zeniter


This is my review of  L’Art de Perdre by Alice Zeniter.

This saga covering three generations of an Algerian Kabyle family whose lives are torn apart by the struggle for independence from colonial rule which forces their reluctant migration to a France prepared to give them only a grudging reception, provides the clearest insight into a piece of recent history for which the repercussions still make an impact.

The novel begins and ends with Naïma, the superficially liberated young woman employed in a Parisian gallery selling modern art. From the outset she appears unfocused, continually feeling that her life is out of control. This seems in part due to her ignorance about the “real” Algeria, of which relatives old enough to remember living there are remarkably reluctant to talk, the lack of French being a further barrier in some cases.

The book is divided into three parts, one for each generation. Returning from military service in France during World War Two, Naïma’s impoverished grandfather Ali comes across an olive press which he can use to establish a successful business, making his family one of the two richest in his village. Wary of independence movements like the ruthless FLN, Ali has no desire to collaborate with the French soldiers trying to maintain security, but when a colleague is murdered for having continued to accept a pension from France for his war service, Ali knows he no longer has a choice. The most minimal degree of cooperation with the French falsely brands Ali as a “Harki” (one of the native Algerians who fought for France in the War of Independence from 1954 to 1962), so that eventually emigration to France seems the only option.

Part Two covers Ali’s experience of making a living in France, stripped of his prosperity and status, segregated in a forest lumber camp or a grim urban apartment block, sadly estranged from his bright eldest son Hamid who takes the first opportunity to abandon what seem like the shackles of his Kabyle identity, even to the point of marrying a French girl. In Part Three, a work project provides the impetus for Naïma, who is one of Hamid’s daughters, to cross the Mediterranean to visit Algeria for herself. Will it be dangerous to visit the isolated village where some relatives still live? Will she be accepted? Will anything remain of the old way of life? Will she gain any emotional relief from the experience?

Immersed as I was in this long novel, some sentences seem too protracted and complicated, a measure perhaps of the author’s obvious intellect, as she explores in depth her characters’ varied and multi-faceted motivations and reactions to events. Alice Zeniter’s heritage as the descendant of a Harki, with an Algerian father and French mother, enables her to provide the vital hallmark of authenticity, although I have heard her declare in an interview that she does not identify particularly with Naïma, but prefers as an author to observe all her characters objectively from a slight distance.

The author is a gifted story-teller, with the power to convey a strong sense of place, and to develop realistic characters. I liked the well-chosen quotations at the start of each section (“Les jeunes n’accepteront plus ce que les parents ont accepté” – “Il n’est pas de famille qui ne soit le lieu d’un conflit de civilisations”), and the snippets of history, fruit of her obviously thorough research, are useful in explaining the background. The many different and shifting viewpoints are woven skilfully into the story, to help one understand the choices people made and the price they paid for this in each case.
The title is taken, perhaps surprisingly, from the French translation of a poem by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”, which contains the lines:

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.”

As an Algerian friend tells Naïma, “You can come to a country without belonging to it…You can lose a country…..Don’t play at being an Algerian if you don’t want to come back to Algeria, What would be the point of that?

This is the kind of novel one is sad to finish, which stays in the mind and influences one’s thinking on a subject

Ne Lâche pas ma Main – Don’t let go

This is my review of Ne Lâche pas ma Main by Michel Bussi.

On holiday in the French tropical paradise of Réunion, Liane Bellion disappears from her hotel room, leaving only evidence of a struggle. As the damning evidence against him mounts, her husband Martial decides to go on the run with the couple’s pampered but bright six-year-old daughter Sopha. This being a novel by Michel Bussi, Martial is unlikely to have murdered his wife, but is unable to prove his innocence, plus he could well have committed some other crime, or be about to do so.

In the same vein as Bussi’s excellent “Nymphéas noirs”, this novel has a remarkably convoluted plot in which the reader can be sure of nothing, except that the author is capable of switching from corny mawkishness to moments of brutal violence or tragic fate from which no character may be spared. Once again, he develops a strong sense of place, in this case a volcanic island with some striking landscapes of deep craters, lava fields encroaching on fields of sugar cane and palm-fringed beaches, scenic tourist spots, which he describes in detail along with the local vegetation and birdlife – all of which can be checked on google images. Even the route Martial takes can be located on “street view”, and the Hotel Alamanda at Saint-Gilles-les-Bains exists in reality.

Bussi also fleshes the story out with details of the social background: the Créoles, descendants of slaves and still exploited as cheap labour in the hotels, the Zarabes, muslims of Indian origin like the driven police officer, Captain Aja Purvi, and the Zoreilles, the “top dogs” from the French mainland.

This is a page-turner until the accumulation of implausible plot twists becomes too much to swallow and by then it is too late to give up. There is also the odd dud scene, such as the clunky debate on the effects of rum on the local population conducted by the hypocritical drinking mates of unlikely police lieutenant Christos. Even more toe-curling are the sex scenes with his voluptuous lover Imelda.

Most of the characters seem somewhat overdrawn: ageing hippy Christos, with his grey pony-tail, smoking pot he has confiscated from Imelda’s borderline-criminal teenage son Nazir; Imelda herself, a Creole Miss Marple to out-class the detectives, but not wise enough to avoid having five children by different feckless men, nor keep clear of danger in her sleuthing; Aja Purvi, humourless in her single-minded ambition, throwing the furniture round in bursts of unprofessional frustration, exploiting her long-suffering husband’s seemingly inexhaustible good will as he somehow combines a teaching career with caring for their two daughters.

The slightly jokey tone perhaps makes one take the occasional bloody murder too lightly. The strongest aspect of the book is the creation of a sense of tension as Martial and Sopha maintain their freedom against the odds. The only subtle relationship in the book is the complex bond between the two as Martial tries to connect with the daughter whose care has always been provided by his overprotective wife, with the constant nagging suggestion that Martial may in fact be even more of a monster than the police believe.

This reads best in the original French and proves a good source of vocabulary for a foreign reader. For the reasons given above, it is not as effective as “Nymphéas noirs”.

Des Hommes – The Cost of Denying the Past

This is my review of  Des Hommes by Laurent Mauvignier.

Of all the novels on the fraught topic of the struggle for Algerian independence from France, this is unusual in its focus on the trauma of young men sent out to fight a colonial war without understanding the situation into which they were thrown and unprepared for the violence they were about to witness and perpetrate. The English title of “The Wound” for this novel, to be found in the opening quotation from Genet (“As for your wound, where is it?……”) seems more apt than the original one of “Des Hommes” (“Men”) in that it suggests the long-term mental injury they suffered, but were often unable to relieve by talking about it. Perhaps they felt instinctively that those who had not shared their experiences would never understand, or they repressed memories too shameful, painful or shocking to express, or simply lacked the words to confide in others. Yet “Des Hommes” is also a meaningful title in conveying how a group of males may tend to interact, responding to an attack with aggression, also using it as a means of avoiding expressing emotion.

Starting with “afternoon”, this novel covers a twenty-four hour period split into four sections, but also makes extensive use of flashbacks and recollections to reveal the lives of two cousins from a rural French community: Bernard, nick-named “Feu-de-Bois”, a dishevelled alcoholic who sponges off his long-suffering sister Solange, and Rabut who narrates parts of the story. Both in their sixties, the cousins were called up to fight in Algeria in the early ‘60s, but have never spoken about this part of their lives which clearly haunts them both. For Rabut, Algeria has an unreal dreamlike quality, alien and exotic in its sunshine, scenery and Arab culture, shocking in the incidents of brutality.

The fragmented, stream of consciousness style can be very powerful, but also hard to follow, particularly if one is reading it in the original French as a foreigner. The opening pages are particularly obscure as we see Feu-de-Bois antagonising his whole family by a particularly crass action, before “going off the rails” in what seems like a racist attack. Rabut seems to have some empathy with his cousin, yet it becomes apparent that there is also a deep-seated hostility between the two men. The explanation for all this is gradually revealed in an impressionistic novel with a strong sense of place – one can see the fields in the snow versus the desert barracks – , minute descriptions of physical sensations, snatches of dialogue and intense action, or sharp flashes of insight in all the bleak obliqueness.

I found it necessary to read up some background history to understand the book better, and some aspects could have been developed more fully, like the invidious position of the Harkis, native Muslims who volunteered as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War. Yet perhaps Mauvignier is more interested in the feelings aroused by a colonial war in which one does not have a stake, rather than the details of the Algerian conflict in particular. This is likely to be a novel which divides opinion over its distinctive style, unusual structure and inconclusive plot. It repays rereading, is somehow absorbing without being a conventional page-turner, but certainly gives food for thought over the psychological impact of the Algerian War, particularly on individuals, ordinary French people caught up in it.

Le Petit Piment

This is my review of  “Le Petit Piment” by Alain Mabanckou .

What at first seems like memories of a childhood spent in a Congolese orphanage gradually becomes more surreal, proving by the end to be a kind of fable. A savage indictment of the brutal, corrupt, superstition-ridden and hypocritical regime of Congo-Brazzaville, it employs irony, farce and imaginative, no-holds-barred verve to make its point. The narrator Moïse, nicknamed “Petit Piment” for his unorthodox method of dealing with a couple of bullies, befriends a fellow pupil called Bonaventure in the orphanage that mirrors the failings of the wider society of which they are both victims. Whereas Moses becomes more aggressive over time, pursuing a life of crime in order to survive, Bonaventure remains naïve and detached, yet both are eventually judged mad in a crazy world.

The novel has an authentic ring, perhaps because the author grew up in Pointe-Noire, the coastal town he describes so vividly. I like the flights of fancy as when Mabanckou reeks off a list of particular food preferences by region, each deplored by all the rest: the Lari eat caterpillars, the Vili adore shark, the Tékés go for dog, and the northern tribes consume crocodile, despite regarding the reptile as sacred. Later on, the author’s imagination runs riot with various remedies supplied by a local healer to cure Petit Piment’s mental problems: cricket’s urine, green mamba’s blood, toad’s saliva, elephant hair mixed with kaolin and sparrow droppings.

I found the style hard-going at times: initially slow-paced, with too much repetition and explanation of events in somewhat unrealistic dialogues as when, sent to the school infirmary to give Moses his medication, assistant Sabine Niangui launches into a lengthy, intimate description of her early life. Events often seem disjointed, and new characters tend to be introduced too abruptly only to disappear as suddenly. Together with the casual violence and frank approach to bodily functions, this may reflect the reality of an orphan’s life, or the general state of affairs in the Congo, but the very prolific Mabanckou does not seem to have the time or inclination to fine-tune his work. Towards the end it is as if he has lost interest in the story, bringing it to a rapid, neatly contrived yet also open-ended conclusion.

Some may enjoy the picaresque inventiveness, but having made its point about the Kafka- meets-1984 state of the Congo, it did not hold my interest, as anything more than an opportunity to practise reading in French.

Le Premier Homme

This is my review of  “Le Premier Homme” by Albert Camus .

When forty-year-old Jacques visits his father’s grave, he is taken aback by the realisation that he was only twenty-nine, far younger than his son is now, when killed in the First World War. The compulsion to find out more about his father takes Jacques back to Algiers where he was brought up, but the visit fails to provide many clues as to what his parent was really like. Jacques realises that he will never know his father, who will remain a mystery resulting from his poverty, being one of the anonymous masses despatched in waves to develop North African territory between the sea and the vast expanses of desert. So Jacques must be self-sufficient, “le premier homme”, learning to grow up without a sense of roots and recollections from the past.

The book develops as a moving account of Jacques’ childhood in a close-knit but impoverished family, starved of opportunity, lacking books, newspapers, even a radio, too busy in the struggle to survive to communicate much or reflect life. He craves the affection of his widowed mother who is clearly proud of him, but cannot express her emotions. Isolated by her deafness and illiteracy which means she can only earn a living as a cleaner and washerwoman, the nearest she gets to escape is to sit by the window, watching the world go by. A brief attempt at romance is destroyed when her brother beats up the suitor who threatens the family unit. Jacques’ formidable grandmother’s belief in character- building includes sending him out at the night to catch a chicken in the coop before forcing him to watch its execution. At thirteen, he is denied the pleasures of roaming free in his summer holidays by her insistence on his earning money in the accounts office of a hardware store.

At first I was disappointed to find that this fictionalised autobiography of Albert Camus, in which he sometimes reverts to the characters’ original names, is incomplete – an unedited stream of conscience found at the scene of his fatal car crash, a draft which so dissatisfied him that he intended to burn it. My initial impressions were of a disjointed, often banal and indigestible read, with long sentences in interminable paragraphs of I counted up to eight pages.

I became hooked at the point where Jacques is taken under the wing of primary school teacher M. Bernard, the father figure when he needed one, who sees the boy’s potential and goes out of his way to prepare him for the entrance exam for the lycée, his escape route from a life of grinding poverty, not to mention charming the boy’s grandmother into letting him continue his studies when he could be contributing to the family’s meagre earnings. It is fascinating to see how schools have changed: overhearing Jacques called a “teacher’s pet”, M.Bernard readily admits this, announcing it is the least he can do for comrades killed in the war to favour one of their deserving offspring. When, as honour among pupils requires, Jacques beats up the boy who has mocked him, and the parents complain, Jacques is mortified to be forced to stand in the corner of the school yard for a week with his back to the ball games he loves. M. Bernard sidles up and gives him permission to look across to where the other boy is being punished in the same way.

There are wonderful descriptions of the oppressive, prolonged heat of Algiers in the long summer months, suggesting the germ of the idea for “L’Étranger”, or the joys of childhood, as when Jacques brandishes a palm branch to revel in the feeling of the wind vibrating through his body. A recurring background theme is the effect of colonisation where a centralised French cultural curriculum is imposed without any concessions, together with the uneasy relationship between Arabs and residents of French origin. Also, Jacques’ intense introspection, examining issues from all angles foreshadows Camus’s philosophical writing in later life, as in “La Chute”. In short, this book is not only a vivid portrayal of the life of a bright but emotionally repressed boy in a poverty-stricken but close-knit family, but also a key to the literary works which brought the author fame and criticism.

It repays rereading to tease out the mass of insights and ideas. Invaluable for any student of Camus and his work, the power of its spontaneous flow compensates to some extent for the lack of editing.

Le Grand Meaulnes – Caught between dream and reality

This is a review of “Le Grand Meaulnes” by Alain-Fournier

Some of the cult status of this classic must stem from the poignancy of the author’s death at the outset of the First World War, aged only twenty-seven.

The autobiographical aspects are spread between the two main protagonists. The narrator François Seurel is, like Alain-Fournier, the son of teachers in rural Solonge. Augustin Meaulnes, the charismatic, shambling, undisciplined youth awash with adolescent hormones who falls obsessively in love with Yvonne de Galais, the young woman he has met only briefly in a remote country estate to which he is subsequently unable to find his way back, mirrors Alain-Fournier’s fateful chance meeting in Paris with the “young woman of his dreams” who was to haunt him for the rest of his life. Alain-Fournier’s additional troubled liaison with another young woman, a seamstress living in Bourges, portrayed as a bleak place in comparison with the magical estate, also provides material for Meaulnes’s later escapades, and a contrast to the purity of his idealised relationship with Yvonne. .

“Le Grand Meaulnes” is often cited as the ultimate novel on adolescence, the irony being that the generations of teenagers reading it at school will probably not appreciate this at the time. As a pre-boyfriend girl with no brothers, I could not understand Meaulnes at all. Forty plus years on, I recognise at once the truth of his moody, restless nature, continually testing boundaries, quite beyond the capacity of schoolmaster Seurel to control, so he simply resorts to overlooking Meaulnes’s misdemeanours. Meaulnes brings excitement into the dull, lonely life of the much more sensible and considerate François. Yet Meaulnes in turn suffers from the even greater follies and fantasies of Yvonne’s over-indulged, unstable brother Frantz. Meaulnes is self-absorbed, in love with the idea of being in love rather than with a real person, bound by a sense of honour without being able to see how this may hurt the one he claims to love the most.

When obliged to read this for A Level, I found it intolerably sentimental, wallowing in romanticism, perhaps an inevitable postscript to the style which dominated the C19. Decades on, I am still irritated by the continual implausible coincidences and improbable plot contrivances, although these may seem permissible in what amounts to a fairy tale grounded in the reality of French rural life which itself was about to be disturbed by a major war, and destroyed by C20 change. Yet I also now appreciate the poetic clarity and exquisite fluidity of the writing, the vivid evocation of the countryside and the simple, at the time no doubt seemingly unchangeable, long vanished way of life. Alain-Fournier has succeeded in his desire to create a dreamlike quality, particularly evident during the fateful wedding party which Meaulnes gatecrashes by chance at the mysterious estate .

Recommended to read in French, perhaps a little disappointing in English.