Arcadia Books, 2014
originally published as L'evasion, 2013
translated by Amanda Hopkinson & Ros Schwartz
"If I want to try and salvage our past, there's only one thing left for me to do. Write novels."
In the little bio blurb at the front of this novel it says that Dominique Manotti's
"gritty Euro noir novels tell the story of France's modern social evolution, for better and worse..."and personally, I think it's most excellent that crime fiction provides the means by which she can do this. I was speaking to someone just the other day about how crime novels, when done well, serve as the perfect vehicle for illuminating a country's social, economic and political issues. Here, in Escape, the author looks back to Italy's "Years of Lead," and to a contemporary (late 1980s) community of political refugees, now emigres in France, and one woman in particular who is prompted by the publication of a novel to seek out the truth. There are really two major points in this novel: truth and perception, both sides of the same coin, if you just think about this for a moment. It is an excellent book, one that will keep you fascinated as you work your way through the maze of different realities within.
In Escape, Filippo is a young prisoner in Italy whose cellmate and "only friend", Carlo, has spent hours and hours talking to him about his past as a member of the Red Brigades. Filippo is on scene doing his job in the bin room (that's garbage cans for American readers) when Carlo makes his escape. Thinking it's probably better to escape with him than to risk more time for aiding and abetting, he joins his friend in a dumpster that's being hauled out and finds himself free. The escape has been well planned -- a car is waiting, a man and a woman are there to take Carlo away. Instead of allowing Filippo to join them, Carlo eventually hands him a bag and an address in Paris and tells him they're parting company and that Filippo should find Carlo's Paris friend, Lisa Biaggi, and tell her what happened. Filippo feels "orphaned," and that Carlo's ditched him, but decides to go to Milan via mountain paths, through the "godforsaken landscape," finally reaching the city of Bologna. There, while sitting at a cafe, he reads that Carlo has been shot and killed during a bank robbery in Milan, and he also finds an earlier paper that states that Filippo, "common prisoner" was a "key accomplice in a meticulously planned jailbreak," and that he could possibly be held accountable for the two deaths that occurred during the bank robbery. Off he goes to Paris, where Carlo's friend Lisa gets him a job and a place to live, but then wants nothing more to do with him. After a while, the tedium of being a night watchman starts getting to him, and he starts thinking: first about Lisa, who blames him for Carlo's death, and then about her friend and his landlady, Cristina, who doesn't know he exists:
"For those two women, Carlo's a prince and I'm a piece of shit. They helped me because Carlo asked them to. Fair enough. But Carlo doesn't belong to them. They don't know him. The closeness of being in jail, the breakout, the dangers, the ordeal we went through together, that's our story, Carlo's and mine, not theirs.Filling in Lisa's face into one of his doodles, he thinks
"Before Carlo died, as he set off for his final battle, he said to me, "Tell Lisa." I've got to tell it. How? Put my trust in Carlo, listen to my memories, let his words come out. And when I have my whole story nice and tight...Those two will come to understand that Carlo is mine, not theirs, and that he never did belong to them. A story of men."Night after night Filippo works on that story until it becomes not only a novel, but a bestselling one that exceeds the publishers' expectations. It's a novel that embellishes Filippo's own role vis à vis his friend Carlo and creates a "Carlo faithful to himself, more real, a Carlo he could legitimately love." It also transforms Filippo into a hugely public persona, a larger-than-life figure who as time goes on, will draw the attention of opposing factions, leading to some startling consequences.
This novel is very much about the nature of truth, controlling the narratives of truth, and about perception. The history behind the Years of Lead are still highly controversial, and throughout the novel the author examines how political maneuvering and collusion among different right-wing groups, the secret service and others led to terrorist acts that were blamed on left-wing groups like the communists, the idea being that if there's enough violence and death in the streets, people will have had enough and call for more conservative elements to maintain order. Great for conservative politicians and for economic "progress," but the real facts are kept under tight control and history is rewritten, while the truth is buried.
At some point, though, the reality needs to be "salvaged." And how better than in a novel? It's a brilliant idea on Manotti's part, and I have to say that while Escape is not a conventional crime novel in any stretch of the imagination (a huge selling point for me), it's an excellent story that fuses past with present, reality with lies, politics and the personal. It also makes me want to go read everything Manotti has written in the crime arena. Super book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.