As subdivisions or departments of bigger publishers, imprints break up monolithic companies, give space to individual editors to stamp their list with a defining character and originality, and reassure authors that they are not disappearing into the corporate ether. The MacLehose Press is an independently-minded imprint of Quercus Books, founded by Christopher MacLehose and publishing the very best, often prize-winning, literature from around the world; mainly in translation but with a few outstanding exceptions as English language originals.
“La vie est belle, le destin s’en écarte
Personne ne joue avec les mêmes cartes
Le berceau lève le voile, multiples sont les routes qu’il dévoile
Tant pis, on n’est pas nés sous la même étoile.”
IAM – Nés sous la même étoile [Born Under the Same Star]
Although a thriller, Arab Jazz is really about muddled identities, lives destroyed by religious extremism, and dysfunctional families coexisting in fragile racial harmony in impoverished neighbourhoods. The narrative travels between the ungentrified 19ième arrondissement of north-east Paris, home of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killers, and Brooklyn, with its Sephardic and Hasidic synagogues and kosher diners. Karim Miské’s debut novel excellently translated by Sam Gordon is a good, very ‘real’ read.
Documentary film-maker and thriller writer, Karim Miské was born in the Ivory Coast 51 years ago. His father was a Mauritanian Muslim and his mother a French atheist. The interviewer from The Independent asks if he “set out to write a thriller; or a social commentary in thriller form?” Miské considers this to be a false distinction: “For me, crime writing is the best way to put society – the world – in front of a mirror . . . A crime has been committed. It has to be solved. In the process, the book uncovers the complexity and cruelty of the world which produced the crime. The investigators expose, layer by layer, a deeper truth’.”
Ahmed Taroudant, a dazed-and-confused young secular Arab is reading on his balcony when something drips on to his djellaba. It is blood. “A motionless foot is hanging two metres above him. It sits at a particularly obtuse angle to the ankle, itself patterned with a kind of geometric henna tattoo.”
Gorgeous air hostess, Laura Vignola, is the victim of a gruesome staged killing. “An uncooked pork joint sits on a white porcelain late, bathing in a red liquid, a black-handled kitchen knife stabbed through its middle . . .” She had received “fifteen stab wounds to the vagina [and had] pig’s blood smeared on her.” Detectives Jean Hamelot and Rachel Kupferstein set out to track down the killer, (or killers), and find themselves enmeshed in a melting pot of friendships and hatreds, misery and hope, and intrigue . . . involving psychotic Salafist preachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Moroccan and Tunisian Jews, radical Judaism, fundamentalist Christianity, international drug dealers and corrupt cops. Offset by a mish-mash of food, music and superstition.
“Islam has been such a burden on him despite the fact his mother never taught him about it or imposed it on him in any way.” Ahmed is your Everyman French North African, trying to muddle through life. He is no fool although he plays it at times, to protect himself. He sees a shrink and is addicted to crime fiction. His complexes are more endearing than disturbing, and unsurprising, considering his schizophrenic mother is locked away in a psychiatric hospital.
His friends, their attitudes and irritations − even his weed dealer sitting on a moth-eaten sofa − could just as well be in London W10 or N19. His asides are familiar: “He can’t bear it when the news is on: violence piercing him through the walls, even if he can’t decipher the words. The rhythm, the frequency, the tone . . . All of it is aggressive, deceitful. Ads are too shouty.”
Ahmed is more of an exception than the rule though, since many of the guys he was at school with have gone the way of religious nutterdom. Mourad, Moktar, Alpha and Ruben were once providers of “pure energy and fun” as hip-hop group “75-Zorro-19”. Their sisters seem to fare better and are less easily swayed than their brothers; seeing through the dangerous demagoguery. “It’s still a mystery to them. Why the boys and not us? At what point did they start crossing over to the dark side?” I am reminded of Céline Sciamma’s film, Bande de Filles [Girlhood].
It turns out that Laura’s murder and ensuing killing spree all happen because of three partners in crime hustling little blue pills, “Godzwill”, for big-time profit. Their toxic web extends from Brooklyn to the nineteenth in Paris and into the Netherlands. Stronger than MDMA, their candy is, “Nothing like acid where the high is so intense it makes you lose the power of speech. Not like coke either which makes you think you’re clever than everyone else . . . No, they are God. This is a monotheistic drug.”
The way in which policy-makers have consistently disregarded the shifting ethnic landscape of France, and continue to pursue policies of segregation, has led to a lack of assimilation and social problems worsened by poverty, ignorance and racism. Along with the perceived injustices of Big Business “getting away with global murder and we are crushed” as a former Black Panther recently put it to me in the café down Golborne Road where some of the 7/7 bombers hung out. Fertile soil into which fundamentalists can plant their seed.
Drugs and God make for a dangerous mix. They often work together. The global cocaine trade is funding North African Jihad, Afghan opium fuels Taliban insurgency and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam engaged in the smuggling of drugs, arms, gold.
As Deepak Chopra puts it: “Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for people who have already been there.”
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Arab Jazz by Karim Miské trs. Sam Gordon | Maclehose Press | 2015 £8.99 304pp PB | ISBN: 978-1-84866-439-5 | Winner English PEN Award