Here is our list of top 5 French reads creating a buzz across the Channel. New year, and news could be better from France. Over 600 small businesses have been destroyed or damaged in Paris alone since the yellow vests protests at the end of last year. President Macron’s open letter to French citizens seems to have done little to quell dissent; ditto for his tour of the regions in an attempt to get Mayors and their communities to share what’s on their mind. The EU’s political landscape is set to change after the elections in May 2019. Thank goodness for books, films and music offering an essential breath of fresh air!
Candide Meets Pagnol in the Indian Ocean . . .
Dérangé que je suis (Disturbed, that I am) Ali Zamir (Le Tripode)
The Francophone African writer, Ali Zamir, who hails from The Comoros in the Indian Ocean, won three prizes with his first novel, Anguille sous roche (Eel Under Rock). His third novel is being hailed as his best yet. Disturbed, that I am, is an exuberant stream-of-consciousness monologue; a tragi-comic feast of cinematic imagery, word games and lyricism. Zamir’s idols range from Victor Hugo and Alfred Jarry to Cheick Hamidou Kane, Ahmadou Kourouma and J.M. le Clézio.
Dérangé is a docker on the island of Anjouan, one of The Comoros. Finding enough work in his patched-up clothes with his rickety trolley to feed himself is a daily struggle. “Indeed. We defied chauffeurs and truck drivers with our carts as we chased after the biggest deals on offer on the quayside. It was nuts, for sure. But we did it all the same. We went for it with a kind of bold madness which led down the road to depravity without us even realising.” His deadliest foes are an evil trio of dockers: Pirate, Pistolet and Pitié.
One morning, as he is on the lookout for a new client with lots of baggage, Dérangé meets a dazzling woman who is a destroyer. She engages him in a senseless challenge against the evil trio and his life is turned upside down. Mocked and conned, he is a lost soul, all the while offering wisdom in his sweet obliviousness.
Feminist Noir . . .
Mamie Luger (Granny Got Her Gun) Benoît Philippon (Equinox, Les Arènes)
“Let’s just recap the events so far. You sheltered two murder suspects on the run, you spent the best part of the morning firing at my men, you shot your neighbour twice and seriously wounded him, you’re in possession of an illegal weapon and now you confess to killing a man. A Nazi, granted, and a rapist, but still it’s laying it on a bit thick.”
Berthe Gavignol is 101 years old and as feisty as can be, despite her skinny frailty. She is arrested and interrogated by Inspector Ventura after shooting her neighbour in the buttocks. It turns out that the cellar of her thatched cottage in the Auvergne harbours a number of buried bodies, not just of her beloved moggies, but of a Nazi who tried to rape her in 1942, and her first husband, the owner of a flourishing hardware store which she took over after he was listed as “missing in action”. Who else lies buried down there?
Viscerally written in superb vernacular French, Mamie Luger is a colourful, unusual piece of feminist crime fiction. Berthe’s father was cannon fodder killed in World War One, in Verdun, so she was brought up by her mother and grandmother. Her narrative about making do in an impoverished rural community, and being expected to put up with hyper-masculine sexist men – “they’re the monsters, not me” – small town gossip and hypocrisy is oddly compelling. Berthe is a daunting force of nature yet endearing.
An intense love affair with a Black American GI offers a rare moment of happiness; while her second marriage, in 1946, to a Sicilian restaurateur, means hunger is a thing of the past. His speciality is pasta della bella Mama. Foodies will love references to “le clafoutis auvergnat”, “la tarte auvergnate au boudin noir” and “la gnole”, the local hooch guaranteed to give you one hell of a hangover.
Mamie Luger flies in the face of the usual crime fiction which exposes the seamy side of foreign places. Entertaining, funny and sad in equal measure, it is a feminist Bluebeard. Berthe’s anger at authority and the bourgeoisie is yellow vest territory. French feminist Noir such as this is just the ticket for grey January days.
The Death of Print Media . . .
Kiosque, Jean Rouaud (Grasset)
For seven years, from 1983-90, Jean Rouaud, the author of Goncourt-winning novel, Fields of Glory, helped “P.” to run a press kiosk in the rue de Flandre in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. “Despite his past as an agitator, and his strident declarations, after a beer or two, he showed rigorous honesty in his business affairs.”
From his “balcony on the street” a slice of France parades before him. That of immigrant Paris (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lebanese, Yugoslav, Turkish, African, Argentinian); of sports fans reading Paris-Turf or Tiercé Magazine, dreaming of winning at the races; 1960s anarchists or post-1968 libertarian utopians digesting L’Humanité; a survivor of the Shoah, the only reader of a Yiddish pamphlet; art students and mothers snatching a few minutes on the school run to grab a magazine; failures, dreamers and the regulars . . . Over and beyond its carnival of characters, Kiosk is an elegant and beautifully-written personal reader’s memoir, a cultural pot-pourri reflecting a time when print was still king and real news held sway.
Yiddish Glory . . .
Bear Street (La Rue de l’Ours) Serge Bloch & Marie Desplechin (L’Iconoclaste)
“I have wanted to tell this story for many years. I was twenty the first time I was gripped by the desire to do so. I had just started Art School. My father grumbled about it being a place for junkies.
“I was only twenty and they were still alive. They had to have their say. I was stumped.
“Life took up a lot of time. I told other stories instead. ‘You should keep your drawings,’ my father said. ‘They might be worth something one day.’
“Now he has gone. Almost all of them have gone – leaving as my legacy, a calf’s head made of plaster, a star-shaped lamp and a skill for creating illustrations that might just be worth something and memories.
“I was born into a Jewish family in Alsace, ten years after the war, in what could now be considered to be a parenthesis of history, or geography. In less than a century, the city where I grew up had swung back and forth between being French and German. Without even moving country, my parents and I were not born in the same territory. We did not speak the same mother tongue. My ancestors were not killed wearing the same uniform.”
Bear Street tells the story of a family that was part of the Jewish community of Central Europe which has all but disappeared. For little boy Serge growing up in 1960s Colmar, his existence revolves around the synagogue, school and his parent’s kosher butcher’s shop. Aunt Thérèse, known as Loulou, greets customers from behind the counter. Uncle George does the accounts in the back room. Sylvain, Serge’s father prepares the meat, in his so-called “laboratory” across the small courtyard. Butchery is the nucleus of the Bloch family, passed down from father to son through the generations. The arrival of the big supermarket chains heralds a retail apocalypse.
Bloch’s illustrations are in the vein of Sempé who is best known for the series of children’s books he created with René Goscinny. An evocative and elegiac hymn to the Jewish working-class culture that has enriched France, Bear Street brings alive a lost world. The drawings and text complement each other perfectly with heart and wit.
The book has an evocative and nostalgic quality reminiscent of the Broadway hit and movie, Fiddler on the Roof, based on Tevye the Dairyman and his Daughters by Sholem Aleichem about Jewish life in a village in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia at the turn of the 20th century.
Man’s best friend to the rescue!
Mrs Halberstadt’s Dog (Le Chien de Madame Halberstadt) Stéphane Carlier (April 2019, Le Tripode)
“I had written a book that no one was reading. My novel, Into Winter, published five weeks previously, came in at 475 758 on Amazon (I was totally obsessive about this ranking system which I checked at least thirty times a day, almost without realising).”
Baptiste has the blues. He spends most of his days loafing about in a scruffy fleece and Y-fronts. His studio which reeks of old cabbage looks as though a hurricane has hit it. His just-published novel has tanked, his girlfriend has dumped him to move in with their boring rich dentist “friend” in his stupendous suburban villa, and Madame Halberstadt from next door foists her overweight pug, Croquette, on him when she goes to hospital for an operation on her cataracts.
“He was like ET. Or a principled old snob who is nevertheless a decent person rather like Angela Lansbury in Arabesque. I was not a dog lover.”
Bizarrely, the pug heralds a change of fortune. Baptiste’s book gets a review and rises up to 88 001 on Amazon, and he is invited to do a reading in a regional bookshop. Walking Croquette is a great way to flirt and he meets the girl of his dreams in Bricorama, (the French Homebase), so he stops spying on his ex. And his lonely, embittered mother becomes much nicer when she finds out that he is dog-sitting. She finds an unusual use for the creature . . . but will Baptiste’s luck hold?
Quirky and hilarious, Mrs Halberstadt’s Dog is a bittersweet comedy about the writing life which takes a stand against image and reality, loneliness and the need for companionship. It is a perfect read for fans of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, or lovers of cinematic comedies like Chacun Cherche Son Chat.
The author of five novels, Stéphane Carlier has worked as a freelance journalist for France-Soir, Gala and L’Express, and for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He lives in Lisbon.
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