As has become my practice, it’s time for my annual mid-summer reading report back – short reviews of some of the books I have read so far over the summer holidays. Without further introduction, in no particular order they are as follows:
Total Chaos, Jean-Claude Izzo
I’d never heard of Jean-Claude Izzo, the founder of the ‘Mediterranean noir movement’, until a friend recommended him to me after the attacks in Paris last November. My friend claimed not only were his books good crime reads, they provided a unique insight into the Islamic community in France. I wasn’t disappointed. Total Chaos, the first of Izzo’s so-called ‘Marseilles trilogy’, combines crime fiction smarts with a fascinating examination of immigrant politics in the French port city.
Fabio Montale grew up on the streets of Marseilles with two close childhood friends, Ugo and Manu. Fabio become a cop whose career is going nowhere as a result of his unfashionable focus on preventing crime rather than just cracking heads. Ugo and Manu became criminals. When his two friends are killed in violent circumstances, Fabio investigates what led to their deaths. He discovers his friends where bound up in a complex web of criminal power plays that involve organised crime, the National Front and veterans of France’s various imperial entanglements abroad. The bodies start piling up and, if he is not careful, Fabio’s could be one of them.
The central plot of Total Chaos is deftly handled if not especially innovative. What really sets this book apart is the depiction of Marseille and its diverse population, a place, as Fabio puts it, ‘whose 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 you need to see.’ Izzo’s portrayal of the city’s disaffected young immigrants from Africa and the Middle East is also excellent. These people and their parents are victim of neo-liberal policies that have deprived them of even the most basic opportunities for economic advancement at the same time as the police target them as troublemakers and malcontents.
Total Chaos was first published in 1995, when France was experiencing economic problems and cities like Marseille were particularly hard hit. I can’t imagine things have got any better. And, whether you are talking about France or Australia, when times are tough, the easiest scapegoat is the migrant who has different coloured skin. As Fabio describes the mindset of many French people:
‘There were already quite a fair number of Arabs around in those days. Blacks, too. Vietnamese, Armenians, Greeks, Portuguese. But it didn’t cause any problems. It had started to be a problem with the downturn in the economy and the rise in unemployment. The more unemployment there was, the more people became aware 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 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! The people of Marseilles didn’t really believe that, but they’d been made to feel afraid.’
I will definitely be checking out the next two books in the trilogy, Chourmo and Solea.