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Port Folio Weekly: "Jean-Claude Izzo's France, in his acclaimed Marseilles Trilogy, lies so far off the tourist track you might think you're in the Bronx or Detroit."

Date: Feb 28 2007

French Lessons

Jean-Claude Izzo’s France, in his acclaimed Marseilles Trilogy, lies so far off the tourist track you might think you’re in the Bronx or Detroit. Here, in these noir mysteries, you’ll not visit noted museums or bucolic vineyards, but high-rise public housing in North Marseilles riddled by gang violence, drugs, and alienation, with a rap music soundtrack and corrupt, racist cops.

North African and Arab émigrés reside there now, replacing the previous generation of Italians. Like the family of Fabio Montale. A violent street thug turned violent yet compassionate cop. A man who loves his Marseilles, its cuisines, its wines and its women—as well as justice. Even if he has to mete it out himself because he can’t trust his colleagues or the system to do it.

Montale’s the creation of Jean-Claude Izzo, who penned the Marseille’s Trilogy—Total Chaos, Chourmo, and Solea—in the 1990s, then died in 2000 at age 55. Pity. For whatever his novels lack in sophisticated craft (his frequent flashbacks can confuse the reader; his staccato prose at times seems affected), they make up for in Mediterranean flavor, a gritty weltanschauung and a compelling sensuality.

Montale, the working-class sybarite, is forever digging into sardines, anchovies, grilled fish, garlic, olives, bread, tomatoes, salt cod, and bouillabaisse, and washing it all down with copious amounts of wine, pastis, and brandy. He’s listening to music—Arab, Italian, French, American. He’s savoring the sea and the bluff-like calanques from his small fishing boat, launched from his shack just south of Marseilles. He’s appreciating women—all races and ages.

However, his embrace of the physical world seems but a valiant yet vain effort to refute death and loss, which forever haunts him and threatens to engulf him: lost love, lost family, lost friends. Also the loss of his beloved Marseilles as he once knew it, to self-serving developers and corrupt politicians, to fanatical Islamists and the National Front, to the Mob and modernity. No wonder he drinks so much.

Like the Arabs in the projects, Fabio Montale searches for social identity. An ethnic Italian ostracized in his youth by the larger French society, at loggerheads with many of his fellow cops, and wrestling with his own conflicted desires, he seeks something solid to anchor him. The best he can do is return to his rustic home, inherited from his parents, and Marseille’s cuisine for sanctuary. But that temporary respite does little to assuage Montale the cynic, who in the end holds little hope for himself or his benighted species.

But for the reader, Montale holds great promise, and is as far from Miss Marple as a sleuth can likely get. Not squeamish about using lies, violence, or his sexuality to get what he needs to solve his case or exact vengeance, Montale comes as a dark knight errant, fighting the world, city hall and himself. The fact that these battles won’t be won doesn’t detract from the somber pleasure the reader takes in tagging along on his quixotic quests.

For all his flaws and toughness, Montale remains soft at his core, sensitive, emotionally crippled, alone. Sadly we will see the last of him when the final installment of the trilogy, Solea, appears in English this spring.

But between now and then, those who have yet to meet Fabio Montale and travel with him through his fading, ancient, and beloved port city, have a grand tour waiting. And, ultimately, it may make you appreciate the Louvre and peaceful Bordeaux vineyards more than ever.

By Rick Skwiot