“L’Été Circulaire” or “Summer of Reckoning” by Marion Brunet

In the picturesque setting in  and around Cavaillon, the “capital of the cantaloupe melon” and gateway to the Luberon in Provence, sixteen-year-old schoolgirl Céline, too pretty and promiscuous for her own good, has got pregnant, but refuses to divulge by whom, not even to her more savvy sister Jo, let alone to her father Manuel when he tries to beat the truth out of her.

Described on the cover as a “policier” or crime novel,  but really more of a psychological drama, one  could dismiss this as a light potboiler,  when in fact it conveys a vivid sense of place, a telling portrayal of what it feels like to be an adolescent, and the convincing development of a wide range of different characters, arousing sympathy for all of them despite their all to evident flaws.

There is the hard-working, hard-drinking builder Manuel who finds it easier to express frustration and rage through his fists.  Despite his own family having migrated from Spain, he feels no empathy with the Arab migrants a few pegs down the pecking order, which feeds his resentment of the youth Said who drives a hard bargain fencing the antiques Manuel steals to supplement his income.

Then we have his wife Séverine, steered too young into a shotgun marriage,  claiming to be content with her lot but destabilised by a single friend’s apparently more glamorous lifestyle together with the shock of becoming a grandmother at thirty-four.

The undercurrents are gradually exposed and clues dropped.  As Céline’s pregnancy becomes more obvious, relationships with her school-friends change. Accustomed to admiration, she becomes an object of curiosity and mockery. “Making herself useful” on her grandparents’ farm, it seems that her grandmother, surprisingly tolerant of her pregnancy, is mostly disappointed to learn that the child will not be  boy. Her childhood innocence is fractured further by the knowledge that her grandfather has employed migrants without papers so that he can avoid paying them by turning them over to the police when their seasonal work is done.

Jo, who surprises her teachers with her academic ability, “given her background”, puzzles her father by her desire to watch plays at the nearby Avignon Festival, but  is soon disillusioned by the privileged, casually  friendly  group of middle-class young people she encounters.

Summer of Reckoning by [Marion Brunet, Katherine Gregor]

Gradually building to a dramatic  climax, the novel ends as it began at the annual summer fair, at which, beneath an apparently rather similar surface, much has changed in what the English translation of the title aptly calls  “A Summer of Reckoning”.

“Ça Raconte Sarah” or “All about Sarah” by Pauline Delaboy-Allard: Crazed Love

Ca raconte Sarah (Double t. 121) (French Edition) by [Pauline Delabroy-Allard]

The narrator  whose name we never learn, so I shall call her “N”,  is a Parisian teacher with a young daughter, abandoned recently by her husband,  who gets embroiled in an intense love affair with Sarah, a talented violinist who plays in a string quartet at international concerts. Extrovert, capricious, out to shock, Sarah cuts a striking figure with her distinctive, mysterious beauty,  nose hooked like a bird’s beak,  green eyes the colour of malachite, or absinthe, hooded like a serpent’s – this gives a flavour of the book’s extravagant flow of words to describe her in minute detail. Quite what Sarah sees in the comparatively ordinary N, whether she genuinely reciprocates the passion, is never made clear, but it seems neither woman has been involved in a lesbian relationship before.

All About Sarah by [Pauline Delabroy-Allard, Adriana Hunter]

The novel succeeds in depicting an obsessive love, at times mixed with hate in the first part, followed in the second half by the intense grief of an irretrievably lost love, evoking a bizarre sense of relief  mingled with guilt. This is achieved by continual repetition of incidents and phrases with a hypnotic effect, often like the variations on a musical theme.

The prose switches between a poetic flow and dry definitions incongruously inserted in the text to create some contrived, heavy-handed,  metaphors as when Sarah, having stated, “I think I’m in love with you”, strikes a match, which gives off the odour of sulphur, followed by a definition of sulphur, “symbol S”, followed by a description of Sarah, “symbol S”. Another occurs in Trieste where N, who has taken  refuge alone, is troubled by an intense moaning which turns out to be the local wind, the bora, “which drives people mad”, but in her increasingly demented state, N observes, “I know it isn’t the wind, but its you, Sarah who is howling…you’ve found me and your will not leave me in peace”.  At this point the novel takes on hints of a gothic horror tale.

The relationship takes its course in a kind of vacuum in which N’s daughter, the ex-husband who wants partial custody, the interim Bulgarian boyfriend, colleagues at work  who might be wondering what is afoot remain ciphers, blank slates. Rather than become irritated by the implausibility of all this,  one has to assume that the focus on the love affair to the virtual exclusion of everyone else is intentional to heighten its  claustrophobic intensity. However, it becomes so extreme and long drawn out that I never really felt myself engaged in it. Perhaps a more tightly written novella would have made more impact.

It seems that, herself obsessed by Margaret Duras, author of “Hiroshima mon Amour”, the author tried to portray a passionate affair in imitation, perhaps appearing a little pretentious and “pseudo-literary” in the process.

We know from the prologue that the love is doomed, since the N  is lying in bed with her love as she  dies – but at the end of the novel we are left wondering whether Sarah really did die, and if so how, while N’s fate is also ambiguous. Sarah  certainly seems to be mentally unstable,  and the love affair seems to drive N into a state of madness, so that at the end she in a sense becomes Sarah, in  what seems a circular narrative. It seems that the author wishes to leave the interpretation of the novel open to each individual reader.

Le Mystère Henri Pick (The Mystery of Henri Pick) by David Foenkinos: picking over the traces

Ambitious young Parisian book editor Delphine Despero falls for moody young writer Frédéric Koskas, but despite her efforts in getting his first novel published quickly amid much hype, it proves a flop. On a visit to her parents in Brittany, the couple are intrigued by the local bookstore to which writers bring novels rejected for publication, where they discover a literary masterpiece written by one “Henri Pick”, who turns out improbably to be the recently deceased manager of the local pizza restaurant, recalled by his wife and daughter as neither a great reader nor known to write more than an occasional shopping list. The publicity storm created by this threatens to blow off course if not capsize the lives of all concerned.

At first, I found this book lightweight and contrived, and was motivated to read on only by the fact it was my book group choice, which at least served to improve my French. I was mildly irritated by the unnecessary footnotes which interrupted the flow, but more so by the pretentious tendency to write knowingly about the world of publishing, the pain of the writing process, and to name-drop shamelessly writers and books which a reader needs to be excessively “well-read” to appreciate. I suppose some of the Wikipedia-swallowing digressions are interesting, as in the poignant description of the real-life photographer Vivian Maier who worked for a year as a New York nanny, producing and storing thousands of Cartier-Bresson type photographs, sometimes without even developing the film, which remained undiscovered and unrecognised in her lifetime.

I am also uneasy about authors who, far from denying that characters bear any resemblance to living persons, actually include very much alive celebrities in their books – including in this case Jean-Paul Enthoven who by chance ironically figured in the press over his rejection of his Raphael’s overly autobiographical novel the day before I encountered him in this quirky novel.

Although my initial reaction has not fundamentally changed, at some point the whimsical humour did strike a chord with me – I think at the point when a character is dumped by his lover for scraping her Volvo car not once but twice, and thereafter is obsessed with Volvo cars, which he discovers are all without exception scratched. Foenkinos also succeeded in arousing my curiosity as to who really wrote the masterpiece.

I realised eventually that it is unimportant that “The Last Hours of a Love Story” somehow linked to the death of Pushkin sounds pretty unlikely to become a bestseller, and is probably intended to parody the publishing world’s hyping of often mediocre books. “The Mystery of Henry Pick” is really a series of psychological studies: the vitriolic book critic who finds himself friendless when he loses his job and comes to realise that he has been venting his own frustration over his inability get published; the woman whose impulsive affair with a stranger helps her to see how she has allowed her life to go awry. It is all about how and why people manipulate situations, fail to communicate with each other, or at some point come to take stock of how they have lived, all this conveyed through often humorous insights.

With talk at one point of “making a Biopick”, this novel lends itself to be made into an entertaining film, as has been the case. The setting in Crozon on the west coast of Brittany must also have boosted its tourist trade.

“Désorientale” (Desoriental) by Négar Djavadi – Culture shock

Disoriental by [Négar Djavadi, Tina Kover]Born into an Iranian family of intellectuals who opposed the regimes of both the Shah and Khomeini, author Négar Djavidi arrived in France aged 11 after crossing the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback with her mother and sister. This gives an authentic ring  and some autobiographical elements to her acclaimed first novel.

It is a family saga covering four generations of an Iranian family  over more than a century of dramatic political and cultural change from exotically named feudal lord  Montazemolmolk living in the northern region of Mazandaran, with his harem of more than fifty bickering wives to grandson Darius, a dissident intellectual whose writing against first the Shah and then Ayatollah Khomeini forces him into exile in Paris with his family, including daughter Kimiâ, the narrator.

Much of the story is related in the form of flashbacks or imagined reconstructions of anecdotes Kimiâ has heard about her relatives, recalled as she sits, clutching a tube of sperm, in the waiting room of a Paris fertility clinic. This rather clunky plot device adds to the reader’s frequent confusion over the large number of often thinly sketched characters, like the brothers of Darius who are referred to by numbers 1 to 6 (there is a list of key family members at the back which you could miss until too late) and continual lengthy digressions.  The approach is deliberate in that the author has explained when interviewed her aim to portray the fragmented, kaleidoscopic nature of memory. Although this has received critical praise, I found the abrupt switches in her thoughts, usually expressed in dense exposition, quite hard to take. A stream of consciousness  can be very powerful, but in this case the continual change of subject is further disrupted when Kimiâ becomes an intrusive narrator,  justifying or apologising for an abrupt switch of topic:  “Allow me before it’s too late, before the storm of the Revolution rises and invades my story, to return to my resemblance to Grandmother”.  Dramatic events are undermined by a lack of subtlety,  even giving them an incongruous pantomime quality, as in the continual foreshadowing of  “L’ÉVÉNEMENT” (“THE EVENT”).

Continually being told what to think, trying to keep track of the characters as they flit in and out, mentioned in passing, I rarely engaged with any of them. The author is  by profession a script writer, so I am surprised that she did not make more use of scenes with dialogues which would have enabled the characters to reveal themselves, open to interpretation as we do in real life. The details of the occasional footnotes to provide a condensed history of events could have been woven into the story, or included as an introduction at the outset.

Kimiâ is “disoriented” in more than one sense: not only the abrupt cultural change from Teheran to Paris via an arduous trek led by people smugglers, but also confusion over her sexuality. Predicted by her tealeaf reading grandmother to be a boy, she acts and feels like one, imagining herself growing up to be a man. Her period of extreme teenage rebellion in Paris, dressing as a punk, drinking and smoking joints in shared squats after her perplexed mother has thrown her out is therefore a way of taking refuge in a world where her background is of no interest and she is not judged. She ends up in a relationship with a woman, but desperate to have children fathered by a man who will take an interest in his children, and able to provide the kind of cultural context she has lost in exile.

Although I think a heavily pruned version of the story with fewer characters would have been much more effective and allowed more space to develop some interesting ideas, perhaps the style is in the tradition of Iranian storytelling, so that an oppressively large cast of relatives bound in a love-hate relationship, and strong ties of mutual support and obligation, somehow co-existing with harsh judgement and rejection e.g. of homosexuality (to the extent of denying its existence), serve to provide the necessary insight into Iranian life.  By contrast, Kimiâ’s  adult world of punk and pop groups and artificial insemination for lesbians using sperm from an HIV positive man,  is not really typical of the West, and is a rather extreme example of the contrast between the freedom of the West and the conservatism of Iran.

There are some interesting comparisons e.g. whereas the Paris clinic is tense and silent, in Iran people would be so engaged in chatting that they would not notice when their turn to be seen arrived!  When the mother of Kimiâ’s partner  confuses Iran with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Kimiâ sees this as the result of living in Belgium, a reassuring, peaceful place where everyone’s the same, after living for generations free of problems without any immigration or mixing: “no need to concern oneself with other people,  nor to be afraid of them, nor question their presence”.  This of course shows a lack of knowledge and understanding on both sides!

Although I read this in the original French, I believe the English translation is very faithful to it.

Hiver à Sokcho or Winter in Sokcho by Elsa Shua Dusapin – “When the rain-hammered sea rises like spikes on the spine of a sea urchin”

I did not expect to be so gripped by this choice for a French book group, which has also been highly praised in its English translation.

A twenty-five-year-old narrator whose name we never learn, so I shall call her “N”, returns from studies in Seoul to her home town of Sokcho, a seaside resort more dead than alive in the winter snows near the grimly surreal border zone with North Korea. N seems to feel a perpetual “outsider”, through being only half Korean, her father a French engineer “passing through” of whom she has no memories. Since the author is also half-Korean and half-French, one has to hope that this is not too autobiographical.

Into the rundown hotel where she skivvies for the grumpy Park, there appears Kerrand, a successful creator of graphic novels, with the added attraction of being French, who immediately uses N to help him buy art materials and guide him around. From the outset they are drawn to each other: both introverted, troubled and unfulfilled, which drives Kerrand to drift round the world seeking a purpose for the cartoon hero who may be his “alter ego”, while N tries to avoid facing up to her feelings by burying herself in routine tasks and clinging to the mantra that “her mother needs her”. Although on the same wavelength when discussing Kerrand’s art, they find it impossible to express, perhaps even acknowledge their emotions, as they keep making tentative advances and then withdrawing, always out of phase.

I admire the deceptive simplicity with which the author subtly conveys so much in such a short novel, with chapters rarely more than two pages, written in a clear style, switching between minute description and a kind of poetry to create vivid pictures. It is necessary to read every word to avoid missing some vital point.
Unable to predict the ending, I was not surprised that it proved ambiguous and in some respects sad, yet still somehow the right outcome of this skilfully crafted novel.

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Reading between the lines, N’s incongruous engagement to the self-absorbed male model Jun-Oh, seems most likely to be a failed attempt to ward off her mother’s continual badgering for her to get married. Repressing her frustration, N’s at times almost bulimic stuffing of food to please her mother indicates her mental distress. Portrayed as a robust character less in need of help than her daughter, her mother runs a fish stall and takes pride in her cuisine, including her licence to remove the poison-filled liver from the puffer-fish, a Korean delicacy. Food, particularly of a fishy nature, plays an important role in this book as it does in Korean life.

We are given an intriguing insight into Korean life outside the westernised bubble of Seoul: the celebration of Seollal, the Korean New Year; the social life round the jjjmjilbang, or segregated Korean bathhouse; the “haenyeo”, hardy female divers with the unfamiliar (to us) range of edible creatures they cull from the sea.
Since Kerrand is keen to be driven to the border with North Korea, N visits it for the first time, because “only the tourists come here”. “Forbidden to leave the marked track, forbidden to raise one’s voice, forbidden to laugh” they pass through no man’s land “beige and grey as far as the eye can see”, where N can only tell that the grey-uniformed figure behind the souvenir counter is alive from the blink of her eyelids. The threat from the North even extends to the beach where a summer tourist who strays over the border risks being shot by an enemy machine gun.

N guides Kerrand round the Buddhist temple at Naksan, prompted by the stone statues to relate the folktale of the serpent which the dragon, guardian of the spring, must find to make the tortoise, guardian of the winter, cede his place.

Many phrases stick in the mind: “Pavane of dead leaves in the wind” or a striking description of fishermen preparing to catch squid: the slow rhythm of their boats on the swell, the switching on of bulbs attached to cables stretched from poop to prow to attract the molluscs, the pagoda at the end of the jetty from which N can watch their “light traps part towards the open waters, a slow and proud procession, the Milky Way of the sea” – all much more beautiful in the original French.

The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus: Winning knowledge and memories in the conflict between life and the plague

La Peste (French Edition) by [Albert Camus]Published in 1947, this French classic is often taken as a metaphor for the French resistance in its courageous but futile fight against the Nazi occupation. Those who have rushed to buy it in 2020, cannot fail to be taken aback by the similarities to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Set in the Algerian town of Oran, the central character is Doctor Rieux who galvanises the authorities into action through his insistence that, however unlikely a rat-born bubonic plague may seem, there is no time for reflection and waiting for official confirmation. Unless one acts immediately as if it were the plague, there is a risk that half the town’s population will die.

Official reactions are all too familiar, such as the “Prefet” who is terrified of using the word “plague” even in a meeting behind closed doors, but fears even more accusations of failure to deal with the crisis. Rieux notes wrily how the first warning posters are rather small, pasted in “discreet” corners” in an attempt to “keep the lid” on public anxiety. “Specially equipped” wards for plague victims are created by giving other sick patients lower priority. The “serum” flown is in short supply and gets less effective over time, and the attempts to develop a vaccine take months to succeed. Eventually there’s even a lack of coffins, but with commerce killed by the plague, there are plenty of unemployed men to dig the graves.

As the spring arrives with the usual baskets of scented roses for sale, the plague subsides, only to surge back, forcing official declaration of the epidemic and sealing of the town. Individual reactions merge into a common sense of fear and separation from the outside world, with everyone bound by the same restrictions, such as the prohibition of sending letters, as possible sources of infection. A restaurant crowded with customers since this is a convenient way of obtaining food gives a false sense of normality -panic breaks out when someone abruptly flees from the scene, vomiting. The isolation camps eventually set up are like “different planets” from which distant sounds of the town compound the sense of rejection.

Camus pulls no punches when it comes to describing the night train transporting bodies for mass burial, or characters fighting for their lives. Nothing is omitted: the attacks on locked gates by those frantic to escape, the looting of houses set ablaze, imposition of curfews, fear of prison sentences because of the high death rates there, the rapid burials with minimal funeral rites.

Initially masking their fear with jokes, the inhabitants develop over time the mind-set of prisoners who dare not speculate on their release date, reduced to dwelling on their past. Outsiders clumsily express their “solidarity” but are powerless to share in a suffering they cannot really envisage.

Rather like Isaac Newton who apparently recommended powdered toad mixed with toad vomit to avert the plague, people turn in desperation to quack remedies and superstition, clearing pharmacies of menthol pastilles rumoured to protect again contagion, and more consoled by wearing charms than going to mass. This is hardly surprising since the grim Father Paneloux preaches that the plague is a punishment for sin, until the sight of an innocent young child dying in agony triggers a crisis of doubt in his own faith.

“One gets tired of pity when pity is useless”: the pragmatic Rieux finds relief in hardening his heart against emotion. Voicing the author’s existentialist views on the essential absurdity of the world, “it is unimportant whether events have a meaning or not”. What matters is how people react to them. His fight against the plague has proved to him that in mankind there is generally more to admire than to despise.

Events play out against the backdrop of a strong sense of place, and striking images, often involving the sun, wind, dust and the sea: at the peak of the crisis, the deserted Algerian town is “a silent assemblage of massive, inert cubes” that “white with dust… sonorous with the cries of the wind, groaned like an island of misery……The inhabitants blamed the wind for transporting the plague”.

This is not a chronicle that ends in definitive victory. The plague is portrayed as a kind of living beast, or malign being, only subsiding when it has for the time being exhausted itself or achieved what it set out to do. In the aftermath, all most people want is to behave as if nothing has changed, but the plague cannot be forgotten, even when the disrupted services have been restored. The wise Rieux knows what the crowds coming to celebrate the end of the plague do not: the bacillus carrying the plague never dies, but waits patiently, for the day when “for the misery and instruction of man” it awakes the rats and sends them to bring death to a carefree city.

I agree with a reviewer who found the style so analytical and objective that it was hard to develop strong empathy for any of the characters as “flesh and blood individuals” apart from Rieux.

Yet perhaps because I read it during the “coronavirus lockdown”, this novel made a huge impression on me. So well written in the original French, lending itself to translation without a loss of its power, wide-ranging in its insight, it repays reading more than once to absorb it fully.

“Cheri” by Colette: a question of age.

Cheri (Vintage Classics) by [Colette]

Although I read this in French, I bought the English version featured here to help me cope with some of the more obscure passages in the original French, and as a translation it captures the spirit of the classic novel.

With her wry wit, strong sense of place, concise, vivid descriptions and minute dissection of her characters’ shifting emotions, Colette was a talented writer, even if her novels now seem dated, perhaps in particular this novel set in the Paris of the idle rich around 1900. Too handsome for his own good, both neglected and indulged from birth by his ghastly mother Charlotte, a courtesan who has done well for herself, Chéri (aka Fred!) has for six years been the lover of her rival and friend of a sort, the beautiful, high class “tart with a heart”, Léa, twenty-four years his senior. So what will happen when Charlotte marries him off to a “suitable” young girl? Does Chérie love Léa mainly as the caring mother he never had? Does Léa love Chérie as a means of keeping at bay the physical decline into old age which she does not want to face? Is this the tragedy of two people who, beneath all the banter and bickering, have a genuine love for each other, more than just intensely physical, yet the great difference in their ages makes it impossible for them to make a permanent life together?

I found this quite hard to read in the original French, because of the old-fashioned vocabulary relating to the past culture and fashions of the day, so had to resort to an English translation to check on a few points. For instance, “pneumatiques” turned out to be the “petits bleus” telegrams sent round Paris in metal tubes (via the sewers!).

Apart from Léa and the unfortunate young wife Edmée, the characters are fairly unappealing, not least the petulant, capricious Chéri, clearly unfulfilled, bored and desperately in need of some useful occupation. The dialogues are often quite funny, and the emotionally charged climax in which Léa and Chéri finally express themselves honestly is powerful and revealing, but there is a shallowness to their lives which is rather depressing. Since Colette’s own life was clearly often driven by strong physical passions, I have probably not interpreted the book in the way she had in mind.

An intriguing footnote is that Colette herself had an affair in her late forties with a teenage step-son, I believe after having written this book which perhaps enacts a long-held personal fantasy. This relationship apparently inspired “Le Blé en Herbe, which I would recommend more. The work by Colette which I most admire is the semi-autobiographical, “La Naissance du Jour”.

“Un brillant avenir” by Catherine Cusset: “bitter sweet”

Un brillant avenir (Folio t. 5023) (French Edition) by [Cusset, Catherine]

As an opening hook, the portrayal of Helen, an elderly woman frustrated by her husband’s dementia but traumatised by his sudden death and apparent suicide, may not seem at all compelling. It turns out to be a family saga, with the focus on Helen, née Elena in post-war Communist Romania and destined to marry Jacob, a handsome young Jewish man, in the teeth of the ingrained anti-semitism of Ceaușescu’s bigoted, inward-looking regime, which drives her to seek emigration first to Israel and then the United States to obtain a better future for her adored only son, Alexandru.

Written in a clear and simple style, with a strong focus on the minutiae of daily life, this novel feels very authentic, but too often also banal, even boring. This contrasts with the complexity resulting from the decision to alternate chapters back and forth in time, which proves a little disjointed and confusing at times, giving the reader the benefit of additional insight into events, but at the cost of destroying some of the potential for dramatic tension.

Although Helen is not a particularly likeable character, given to emotional, hysterical, manipulative behaviour, the author develops a detailed character study which enables one to empathise with her at many points in the story and to understand the forces which have shaped her. The same applies to her French daughter-in-law Marie, much more laid back and unconsciously thoughtless with a sense of entitlement born of a more relaxed and free upbringing. The tension between the two women and the relationship which they eventually achieve weaves a strong thread through the narrative.

For me, this reads like a series of short stories based on the same characters, which gradually caught my interest through a few striking incidents. For instance, there is the irony in how, having battled and plotted to get married, Helen and Jacob commit the same error as her parents in trying to prevent their son Alexandru’s marriage to Marie, because she is French, so it is assumed will take their son away to a distant land where he will find it harder to realise his “brilliant career”. Then there is the poignant moment when Helen, in the violent grip of labour, waits in a taxi en route for the hospital while her mother takes an inordinate time to appear: it as this point that Helen decides that her adopted mother cannot, as rumour has it, be her birth mother, since the latter would never let her suffer in this way. Another striking scene is when, having taken advantage of Jacob’s Jewishness to escape to Israel, Helen realises that her precious son is destined for a spell in the Israeli army, where her overactive imagination leaves him in no doubt that he will either be killed or maimed. There is also a convincing and moving portrayal of widowhood.

The novel seems to contain “jewels” of insight and observation, together with some realistic experiences, set in a somewhat tedious paste.

“Mourir sur Seine” – a tall ship tale

Mourir sur Seine: Best-seller ebook (ROMAN) (French Edition) by [Bussi, Michel]

This is the third novel by Michel Bussi which I have read partly as a relatively painless way of practising my French, but also because I was so impressed by the originality and ingenuity of “Nymphéas Noirs”.

Trademark features of his works seem to be a strong sense of place to which one can readily relate from firsthand experience, or simply by googling images, and development of some historical theme to trigger or embellish a modern-day crime. In this case we have the Seine at Rouen as the setting for the excitement and visual feast of the “Armada”, the five yearly display of sailing ships from around the world which draws millions of visitors. This is a cue for tales of the pirates, buccaneers-cum-explorers from the past with their “chasse-partie” codes of honour, and dreams of utopia to be funded by booty which too often ended up lost overboard or stolen, to tantalise modern treasure hunters. Added to the mix are the quaint half-timbered houses of Rouen’s historic centre, including the macabre symbols of the plague carved into the ancient beams of the “aître” of Saint-Maclou, together with, in nearby Villequiers in a meander of the Seine, the statue of Victor Hugo, head in hand, and the remarkable stained glass church window portraying pirates boarding a ship.

With the Armada in full swing, a charismatic young Mexican sailor is found stabbed to death, his body marked with five curious tattoos (of a tiger, shark, crocodile etcetera), and branded with a hot iron. Led by Commissaire Gustav Parturel, who had banked on a crime-free period in which to enjoy the Armada with his two young children, the police make heavy weather of what soon becomes an escalating conundrum. Due to a mixture of foolhardy risk-taking and improbable luck, highly sexed journalist Maline Abruzze obtains vital information to help them to identify the arch-villain and avert a worse tragedy.

This may well sound a little hackneyed and corny. Certainly, the characters tend to be either stereotypes like the irascible Parturel whose family life has broken down under the pressure of his devotion to solving crime, or highly caricatured, such as the impossibly handsome Olivier Levasseur (named after a pirate ancestor, needless to say), Director of Press Relations for the Armada, whom the supposedly liberated Maline sets out to seduce before he can take the initiative himself.

The highly contrived and at times rather tediously written plot with its stilted dialogues relies heavily on coincidences, people arriving simultaneously at the same spot, or on highly implausible events which it would create too many spoilers to reveal. It is formulaic in revealing early on a mysterious puppet-master with a female accomplice, and in following the clichéd path to a climax in which he brags about his crimes (just in case we had failed to work them out) with arrogant complacency before carrying out his planned coup de grâce.

The novel seems to be mainly highly rated, presumably by those who in their addiction to crime thrillers are prepared to overlook these shortcomings, but I think that my secondhand copy of “Maman à tort” may well be my last Bussi novel.

“Le Monte-charge” or “Bird in a Cage” by Frédéric Dard: the fickle finger of fate

Le monte-charge (FREDERIC DARD) (French Edition) by [DARD, Frédéric]

Four years after his mother’s death, narrator Albert Herbin returns to her flat in which he has not set foot for six years and is filled with nostalgia for his childhood and their close relationship. What is the reason for his long absence? Why has he not cleared the place, even to the extent of removing a dead branch from a pot? Why is he so alone, half wanting to be recognised and half fearing it as he wanders the local streets while everyone else is celebrating Christmas? Daring to enter a post restaurant, his attention is drawn to the small child and attractive woman at the adjacent table who reminds him of his past love Anna – but how did she come to die?

As the details of Albert’s life are revealed, he is drawn inexorably into a fateful series of events which make him accessory to a serious crime, but how will it all end?

Bird in a Cage by [Dard, Frédéric]

Reminiscent of Hitchcock, this is one of the most ingenious just about plausible plots I have come across, full of twists leading to an unpredictable outcome, sustaining a powerful sense of anticipation and tension, yet managing at the same time to develop characters, create sympathy for those who have committed horrific acts, and conveys a strong sense of place. Even the abrupt, ambiguous open ending is masterful when you come to reflect on it.

The French title is a play on words, linking the “monte-charge” or cage-like lift, which plays an important part in the tale, to the Christmas tree trinket of a little velvet bird in a spangled cage which Herbin buys on an impulse. This has been translated in the English version as “Bird in a Cage” which has a further double meaning which it would be a spoiler to explain.

The French is so clear and expressive that I imagine it translates easily into a compelling read in English, all contained in a short, well-constructed story which could be read in a single sitting. Made into a film in the 1960s, the book has a cinematic quality, although I think it must lose some of its tension, subtlety and irony in the process.