Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chourmo and Solea

"Had I, without realizing it, become permanently unhappy? Believing as I did that the small joys of everyday life were enough to make you happy, had I given up on my dreams, my real dreams?"

--Jean-Claude Izzo, Solea

Both Jean-Claude Izzo's weaknesses and strengths as a writer are magnified in the two final volumes of the Marseilles trilogy, Chourmo and Solea.

In Chourmo (Provençal slang for galley slave, the Marseillais equivalent of the American "homeboy"), Izzo's antihero ex-cop Fabio Montale discovers connections between organized crime and fundamentalist Muslim organizations operating in the housing projects of northern Marseilles. Montale, who resigned from the police force at the end of the first book in the series, Total Chaos, is unwillingly dragged back in the world of cops and criminals to investigate the murder of his cousin's son, the assassination of a social worker, and the disappearance of a college student with whom he had once contemplated an affair.

In Solea (the title is taken from the final track on Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain album) Montale is the unwilling recipient of computer discs containing the results of an investigation by his journalist friend Babette into the Mafia. She has detailed the penetration of organized crime into the highest political and economic levels of France, and indeed the global economy. Soon hit men are on her trail and start pressuring Montale to tell them her whereabouts. Only instead of grabbing Montale and making him talk, they start murdering his acquaintances and friends one by one.

In fact, the violence levels in both books are implausibly high; most professional criminal gangs don't go around murdering random civilians, which can bring them unwanted attention. The vivid descriptions of bodies after heinous acts have been committed on them also seem pretty gratuitous. It's as though Izzo doesn't want to be accused of getting too literary, and so periodically has to rub our faces in some gore.

Or sex. Chourmo reaches a low point in this regard, with an inscrutable but irresistible Vietnamese Dragon Lady who ruthlessly beds every man she thinks she can use. But Solea doesn't stint in this regard, either. One of the greatest mysteries in the trilogy is why so many beautiful women in Marseilles seem to find a middle-aged, semi-alcoholic ex-cop to be so sexually mesmerizing.

But the genre aspects are the price you pay for what's really distinctive about this series, which is its depiction of the chaotic sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Marseilles in all their multiethnic glory. Izzo describes in loving detail the typical foods and wines of Provence that his characters consume with such delectation. And he also limns the clash and melding of cultures, styles, and traditions that makes contemporary Marseilles both so vibrant and so ridden with conflict and despair.

Izzo also captures a certain attitude in his characters that might best be described by Antonio Gramsci's formula "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." Seeing the corruption, injustice and hopelessness of the world all too clearly, and yet living for whatever moments of human connection and pleasure they can find. Izzo portrays this attitude as ultimately the only honest one, and yet he also shows its limitations, as when Montale muses on why he'd never wanted to be a father:
"I'd never wanted a child. With any woman. I was afraid I wouldn't know how to be a father. It wasn't that I couldn't give love, it was just that I didn't think I could teach a child to trust in the world, in me, in the future."
What's distinctive about the books as crime novels is that the real perpetrators, who direct and profit from these vast criminal networks, remain out of sight and out of reach of the hero's retribution. Meanwhile, the effects of their decisions are visited with crushing weight on Montale, his friends and acquaintances, and all those who try to eke out some small degree of happiness from their daily lives. Corruption and criminality are pervasive among those who wield power, justice is unobtainable, and the truly guilty are can never be touched.

Solea ends on a deeply ambiguous and pessimistic note. My friend Robin Walz has suggested that Izzo may have known as he was writing the book that he had only a short time to live; he died of cancer only two years after Solea's publication. To me, the ending seemed inevitable, and of a piece with the portrait of Montale's world portrayed from the first pages of Total Chaos. But even though I knew where the trilogy was heading, such is Izzo's skill and the vividness of his characters that I was happy to go along for the ride.

Europa Editions and expert translator Howard Curtis should be commended for making these novels available to an English-speaking audience. If you're a fan of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, James Ellroy, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán or Paco Ignacio Taibo II, you should find in Jean-Claude Izzo a kindred spirit.

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