Friday, July 22, 2011

Total Chaos, by Jean-Claude Izzo

Europa Editions, 2006
originally published as Total Khéops, 1995
translated by Howard Curtis
248 pp.

Note: Yes, I'm supposed to be reading Sweet Money by Ernesto Mallo, but I needed to make an initial entry for the Europa Challenge Blog before the month runs out.   On to the review of this book.

Marseilles isn't a city for tourists. There's nothing to see. Its beauty can't be photographed. It can only be shared.  It's a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see.  And you realize too late, that you're in the middle of a tragedy.  An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.

First in a collective set of works known as The Marseilles Trilogy, Total Chaos falls into the neo-noir category, which is more modern and literary in character while sharing many of the same characteristics of classic noir.   There is nothing cutesy at all about this novel. It is a gritty, down and dirty kind of story that is set in a Marseilles of the 1990s.  It is also, like many other translated crime fiction novels, steeped in the politics, social issues and economic realities of the day.  While this can be off-putting for some readers, for me, it only enhances the setting and sense of place of these works, resulting in a much more believable and realistic end product.

The story is told through a mix of current action and through the main character, Detective Fabio Montale, who spends a great deal of  time reflecting on his past.  Two of his childhood friends, Manu and Ugo, have been murdered. In their youth, all three boys, from immigrant families, got caught up in the criminal life, but after a druggist was shot during a robbery,  Montale, who didn't have the stomach for this kind of life,  made a vow that if the druggist "pulled through", he'd become a priest; if not, he'd become a cop.  After leaving Marseilles for a stint in the Colonial Army, Montale returned to Marseilles, where he did become a cop; Manu and Ugo graduated to the full-time life of the criminal underworld.  But now, despite the past and the fact that he had virtually alienated himself from his two friends,   those old bonds lead Montale to step in to find out who killed Ugo, who had returned to avenge Manu's death and had then himself been killed. As he sets about investigating their deaths, he is stunned when the daughter of a friend is killed -- and discovers that there is a link between all of the crimes.  But this is not a police procedural novel -- it's noir, which often consists of action that is like watching two trains about to collide -- you know that it's going to be bad, but you just can't pull yourself away. And as Montale gets closer to the whys and the whos, he finds himself not only in danger, but in a downhill skid in both his personal and professional life.

And if the crime story was the meat of the book, it would be good, but much like other books out there on the market or on library shelves. However,  Izzo draws the reader deeply into the neighborhoods of the city of Marseilles, from the cuttlefish pizza and the street music to the longstanding pressures and mistrust brought about by fears based on immigration.   He portrays Marseilles as a vibrant mix of cultures -- Italian, African, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Armenians and Portuguese to name a few.  Then, of course, there are the French.  But it's also be a place where racism and prejudice are sparked by  a "fear as old as the city," (lately augmented by the xenophobic National Front party), starting with a
downturn in the economy and the rise in unemployment.  The more unemployment there was, the more people became of the immigrants.  And the number of Arabs seemed to be increasing along with the unemployment! In the Sixties, the French had lived off the fat of the land. Now they had nothing, they wanted it for themselves! Nobody else was allowed to come and steal a crumb. And that's what the Arabs were doing, stealing our own poverty off our plates.
 Izzo notes that no one really believes this, but states that people of Marseilles found themselves in somewhat of a stranglehold based on these fears, not being able to "think straight," or see how to "reinvent themselves the way they'd always done."  And the police weren't helping ... while Montale believes in community policing, his boss makes it patently clear that the politically, there were "higher dividends" to be made by fanning the flames.  As he tells Montale, community policing, outreach and prevention were all "crap". Considering the corruption and racism that runs through Montale's department, this is no surprise.

But at the same time, the reality of life for the bulk of  immigrants like those from the Middle East was along these lines:

Fear of Arabs had made the people of Marseilles flee the downtown area to other neighborhoods away from the center where they felt safer....The Arabs had regrouped downtown. They'd taken over from the whites who'd fled, who'd washed their hands of Cours Belzance and Rue d'Aix, and all the narrow rundown streets between Belzunce and the Alles de Meilhan and the Saint-Charles railroad station. Streets full of hookers. Buildings unfit for human habitation, flea-ridden hotels. Successive waves of immigrants had passed through these streets, until redevelopment had pushed them out to the suburbs.  The latest redevelopment was happening now, and the suburbs had moved to the very edge of the city. Septiemes-les-Vallons, and out toward Les Pennes-Mirabeau. They were farther out all of the time, until they'd be out of Marseilles altogether.

But the kicker is that despite all of the ugliness,  Montale (and obviously Izzo as well) loves Marseilles, and believes that life is more than the hatred, racism and violence -- that it is a place where "people liked to live, to have a good time. That happiness was a new idea every day, even if the night ended with some strong-arm guy checking your identity."  And he is quick to note that the "immigrants" are more likely the sons or daughters of immigrants, native French citizens in their own right.  Izzo's beautifully captured the scene: the neighborhoods that stick together against outsiders, the fear-driven prejudice and above all,  the contradictions that exist in this society. Time and again he comes back to the point that in many cases, the practices established by  local  politics, police, business owners etc., are what continue to keep the immigrant population down at heel, both economically and socially, leading many to seek material gain (or simply make a living) through crime.  

As a novel, Total Chaos definitely has all of the classic traits of any noir story and they work.   Montale is surrounded by the beautiful buxom babes that provide him comfort and assistance. He has a fine affinity with the booze. He's had it as a cop and takes on avenging his dead friends and trying to be a friend to the down and out as a way of finding some meaning in his otherwise empty life, and meanwhile, finds peace in his boat in the sea.  As a character he becomes real through his love for the city and through his disgust at the system.  There's also the morally-bankrupt, Mafia-type gangsters who run not just the backstreets of the city, but have their claws into the more sophisticated joints as well.  The system, including the cops, is corrupt.  But what keeps it from becoming just another novel full of crime-ridden clichés is the city of Marseilles and the"total chaos"  of life there.  It's a good novel, although at times it is difficult to follow and relies on a couple of coincidences that as a rule, rankle me as a reader of crime fiction. The end comes quick and heavy, as if Izzo reminded himself that "oh yeah. I also have a crime I need to see through to the end." And I disliked a couple of Montale's female cohorts -- they didn't come across as very realistic people and they were annoying.   But despite those niggles, I enjoyed the book, not so much for the crime element, although  it serves my intermittent need for the guilty pleasure of edgy and gritty noir.  For me the illumination of  a small specific slice of life was an eye opener, a piece of France I'd never read about.  Total Chaos is not a novel for cozy readers, to be sure, but people who enjoy more hardboiled crime fiction, a cop with an existentialist crisis, and a sense of place that never stops might like this one.

crime fiction from France

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