Med Noir at the Morgan Library
On the 27th of April 2007, four exponents of Mediterranean Noir met at the Morgan Library in New York for a public reading and discussion held as part of Europa Editions’ weeklong series of events dedicated to Med Noir at the PEN World Voices festival. The evening’s event was to be moderated by Alice Sebold. The following text was prepared by Sebold and Europa Editions staff as a template for the introductory presentation and Q&A. Unfortunately, Alice Sebold was unable to attend, and the presentation and moderation of the event was entrusted to Colin Harrison, whose erudition concerning the subject made for a fruitful and interesting debate.
What distinguishes noir from the traditional mystery genre? And of particular interest to tonight’s event, apart from setting and the languages in which it is written, what makes Mediterranean noir so Mediterranean?
The French writer and editor Patrick Raynal, says the following about noir:
“We can broadly define noir writing, noir inspiration, as a way of looking at the world, at the dark, opaque criminal side of the world, shot through with the intense feeling of fatality we carry within us arising from the fact that the only certainty we have in life is that we are one day going to die.”
A fatalistic vision of the world, then, which leaves no room for the Hercule Poirots and Sherlock Holmes’s of classic mystery fiction—reassuring busybodies who tenaciously go about solving the crime and restoring what crime has temporarily taken away: the world’s natural, harmonious order. “The butler did it!” they tell us—“thank God it wasn’t one of us”—and now everyone can go back to their predictable lives. In traditional mystery fiction, crime is seen as an aberration, something that renders the world temporarily off kilter. But in noir, there is no policeman, inspector, or constable, who neatly solves the case and puts everything back in its proper order. In noir, crime is not an aberration. Chaos reigns supreme both before and after the investigation. The outcome of the cases, whether solved or not, has no bearing on the general contextual chaos.
The noir novel, far from offering an escape from life’s disorder and unpredictability, far from simulating a remedy for this disorder, as does the mystery novel with its methodical investigations and final comforting revelations, admits life’s volatility, “investigates” the mechanisms of chaos, and recounts stories of men and women who either succumb to the chaos of existence or manage to survive it.
The “noir vision” also puts a characteristic spin on the nature of this chaos: chaos is provoked not only by the inherent randomness of everyday life; not only by the “normal” human emotions that catalyze all literary fiction; no, this chaos is also, and perhaps above all, aggravated by crime, criminals, and criminality.
In Europe, it was a French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette who first described crime’s entry into contemporary life. About Manchette, the Italian author Valerio Evangelisti says:
“Manchette delineates criminality’s arrival into the otherwise ordinary arenas of political and economic power and describes how this criminal element starts to impregnate everyday life. Given these changes in the social fabric, the genre we refer to as noir essentially stops being a simple literature of escapism and becomes a penetrating comment on contemporary times.”
So noir is fatalistic, it admits chaos, like much literary fiction, but it also says that at the root of this chaos, or at least at the root of some of it, are crime and criminality.
But where does the Mediterranean fit into all this? Is Mediterranean noir no more than a setting change for a genre that already existed elsewhere? Is it simply crime with sunshine and blue seas? Hard-sunbaked, rather than hard-boiled?
There is no school of Mediterranean noir. There are no manifestos, no literary luminaries expelling writers from the group because they are not this, or they are too that. But while there may be no school of Med Noir, nor manifestos, some time in the early 1990s a handful of authors begin writing crime novels with certain, specific characteristics in common. These writers come from France, Spain, Italy, from Greece, Israel, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco; they set their novels in port towns, frontiers, sun-drenched cities marked by dramatic class and racial divisions, melting pots like Naples, Marseilles, Algiers, and Barcelona. There are differences between these novels, of course: just as there are differences between their authors and their settings. But their similarities are perhaps more striking than their differences.
The reader response to these books is immediate and overwhelming, particularly in Italy and France, where Mediterranean Noir abruptly enters the social, political, and cultural debate.
Among these pioneering writers, there is one who, in a few short years, wrote three books that in many ways seemed to consolidate the aspirations of the Mediterranean noir movement.
Jean-Claude Izzo cannot be considered the founder of Mediterranean Noir, and without a manifesto of Mediterranean Noir against which to measure him, he cannot be considered its leader or even its best example. But there was something about his Marseilles Trilogy—published in France between 1995 and 1998—that crystallized what had been disparate, that gave other authors, both his contemporaries and his successors, a point of reference.
Izzo quickly became both a symbol and a spokesperson for Mediterranean Noir. Before his death in 2000, he made two memorable affirmations about the origins and genesis of the genre. Each, in their own way, was controversial.
The Bible, he claimed, is the world’s first noir novel.
“That moment in which Cain kills his brother Abel. In the blood of this fratricide, the Mediterranean gives us the first noir novel. There may well have been other murders before this, but this one is written down, and established forever the singular problem of mankind: that crime is the driving force which, over the centuries, will govern relationships between people.”
Izzo went on to claim that other examples of Mediterranean Noir can be found in the Greek tragedies, and Greek epics, particularly in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which begins with what he calls “a classic noir opening.”
In short, Izzo affirms that the origins of all Mediterranean literature are black; they are noir.
But for reasons that are not yet understood, Mediterranean literature turns its back on noir for centuries. Noir’s return to the Mediterranean is relatively recent. Writing about this homecoming of the prodigal genre in the pages of a French newspaper, Izzo makes his second controversial claim: “the contemporary Mediterranean crime novel is reborn with The Stranger by Albert Camus.”
The recasting of one of contemporary world literature’s most canonical texts into a model for a genre that has always been considered second-rate caused as much furor as his claim that the Bible is the world’s first noir novel.
2. Questions for Massimo Carlotto, Yasmina Khadra, Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, and Carlo Lucarelli
Q: What did Izzo see in Camus’ novel that led him to think of it as a noir novel, and specifically as a Mediterranean noir novel?
Q: Camus’ work vacillates between nihilism and conscious rebellion; or perhaps his oeuvre represents a reconciliation of nihilism and rebellion. Can these two words—nihilism and rebellion—also be applied to contemporary Mediterranean noir?
Q: There are nineteen different countries with shorelines on the Mediterranean, each with their unique culture and history: Is it possible to speak of a single Mediterranean culture? And is it possible to speak of “Mediterranean literature” as if it were a single, indivisible literature? (If so, what are some of its abiding characteristics?)
Q: Is Mediterranean crime and violence so different from the crime and violence we find in other parts of the world? Can crime be classified according to the geographical region in which it occurs?
3. Alicia Giménez-Bartlett
The novels of Alicia Giménez-Bartlett represent a bridge between traditional mystery and noir. Though in many ways classic whodunits, Alicia Giménez-Bartlett’s novels also reveal a decidedly noir vein. The noir vein is evident in her portrayal of her adopted city—hers is a Barcelona where it is often raining, a Barcelona of back alleys and dark streets; a Barcelona that few tourists, and perhaps few inhabitants of Barcelona, ever see. But the noir vein emerges even more compellingly through the rich characterization of her two principal protagonists, Inspector Petra Delicado and Sergeant Fermin Garzon.
The characterizations we find in mystery fiction are often flat—the appeal of these novels being the crime, the suspense, the investigation itself, the whodunit factor, and not their insight into the interior worlds of their protagonists. But Giménez-Bartlett’s novels are shot through with passages that take us into their protagonists’ most intimate places.
Very early in the game, the author signals to us that the minutiae of these two personalities will play an important role in the series. In a moment of whimsical word play that proves impossible to render in translation without changing the names of her characters, Giménez-Bartlett names her principal protagonist, Petra Delicado. Piedra is the Spanish word for stone: so the Inspector is as hard as stone. But Petra Delicado is a delicate stone. Beneath the hard-as-rock professional persona is fragility, brittleness, and delicateness. And her sidekick, Fermin Garzòn is all that his name suggests: a garcon, a young boy, with his boyish passions, his frequent sulking, and his boyish romanticism. But when push comes to shove, Fermin Garzon is also firm, steadfast, dependable.
The dualism present in these two personalities makes for a dynamic relationship. They often seem like an old married couple, as they negotiate each other’s moods, anger one another with seemingly banal gestures or comments, and struggle to find a functional balance between their personal and professional lives.
(Rosemary Herbert in the Washington Post) “Inspector Petra Delicado and Sgt. Fermin Garzon prove to be one of the more engaging sleuth teams to debut in a long time.”
Q: Quite a lot has been written about Petra Delicado, but how would you describe her? What kind of a woman is Petra Delicado?
In the first book in the series, Petra Delicado has just left behind a successful career as a lawyer to become a cop. She admits to a longing for reality, a desire to dirty her hands in the real world and to escape the false world of the well off and well meaning. But she does not leave that world behind all together. She remains a cultured woman: she listens to classical music; she spends her weekends going to art exhibitions; she contemplates taking her holidays in a monastery where she can read all day and not have to talk to anyone; she continually makes literary references and allusions, leaving her less learned colleagues at a complete loss.
Here is this dualism again—Petra Delicado is hard as rock, yet sensitive and fragile; her daily dealings are with violence, murder, crime, yet she listens to classical music, and reads fine literature.
Dualism, according to Italian publisher Sandro Ferri, is also one of the dominant characteristics of Mediterranean Noir itself. In an article on the history of Mediterranean noir, Ferri writes:
“Authors and their literary inventions look upon the cities of the Mediterranean and see places that have been broken, battered, and distorted by crime. There is always a kind of dualism that pervades these works. On one hand, there is the Mediterranean lifestyle––fine wine and fine food, friendship, conviviality, solidarity, blue skies, and limpid seas––an art of living brought almost to perfection. On the other hand, violence, corruption, greed, and abuses of power. There is sadness in these books, and a sense of longing for what the Mediterranean could have been: Khadra’s Algeria disfigured by violence, corruption and fanaticism; Izzo’s Marseilles devoured by the greed of property developers and the racism of the National Front; Carlotto’s Italy insulted by a justice system that doesn’t work.
The story of this sea is blue and black . . . “
Q: Does Petra Delicado embody this Mediterranean dualism? Is she caught between the blue and the black of Mediterranean life?
Q: Is there a degree to which, like the cities of the Mediterranean themselves—their citizens unable to fully enjoy the good life, unable to appreciate and take pleasure in the centuries of artistic and cultural production that is their rightful patrimony, because violence, corruption, greed, and abuses of power get in the way—Delicado’s cultured pastimes leave her cold, as if they no longer sustain her as they perhaps once did; as if her work has left her inured to the pleasures that the Mediterranean life style would otherwise offer her?
This reading is from the second book to be published in English in the Petra Delicado series, entitled Prime Time Suspect. As the title suggests, Petra Delicado and Fermin Garzon’s investigation involves the world of television and the media. A popular gossipmonger named Ernesto Valdes has been found murdered. In this book, Delicado is not only mired in the world of crime and violence, but also in the equally repugnant world of muckraking journalism.
Reading: Alicia Giménez-Bartlett
Closing Questions: Alicia Giménez-Bartlett
Q: Both Delicado and Garzon have been divorced, Petra Delicado more than once if I remember correctly. Are they ill suited to matrimony? Does their work bear on their ability to maintain relationships? Is this another aspect of “the good life”—marriage, family, intimacy—that they cannot enjoy because of the damage their daily dealings with crime have caused them?
Q: They very often seem to be flirting with each other: is there a romantic element to their relationship?
4. Carlo Lucarelli
The Mediterranean is not just a geographical region but also a metaphor for convergence, exchange, conflict, and clashes of ideas, peoples, and interests. In the same way, a frontier is both a physical reality—though an “invented” physical reality—and a metaphorical divide.
Carlo Lucarelli’s De Luca trilogy is set on the frontier between “two Italys” in the last years of the Second World War when Italy was divided geographically into the Allied-controlled south and center, and the north, where the last vestiges of the fascist regime had founded the Republic of Salò. Italy was at war with herself, her population divided into those who had supported and fought for the fascists and those who had been part either actively or indirectly of the Resistance. The frontier between these two Italy’s was a shifting physical reality, but also an emotional and ideological divide that extended into the family, the community, the institutions, and even into single individuals.
We meet Commissario De Luca in Carte Blanche, the first volume in the trilogy. He is investigating the murder of a man named Vittorio Rehinard, a shady member of the political elite with powerful connections on both sides of the political chessboard. Given the victim’s connections, the case is bound to have all kinds of political repercussions. Indeed, De Luca is encouraged by his superiors to guide the investigation in a specific direction, his enquiries are constantly impeded, his life is threatened, and his collaborators are murdered.
But De Luca insists that his job is to investigate a homicide and find the murderer. Period. He is a policeman, a technician, not a politician, and certainly not a political puppet. At times, his insistence that he is a policeman not a politician seems less an act of courage than an act of desperation. Surrounded by chaos, De Luca has a small slice of solid ground under his feet: he is cop; there has been a murder; his job is to find the killer. He clings to this grain of certainty for dear life.
De Luca does indeed manage to skirt the political repercussions of his case, and he solves the murder.
However, having extracted a confession from the murderer, as he is triumphantly taking his suspect in to be charged, De Luca is suddenly forced to go on the run himself.
Q: Exactly what is it De Luca is running from?
Q: If it is true that De Luca is simply a policeman doing his job without political allegiances and associations, why is it that he, of all people, should be forced to run?
“You don’t ask a policeman to make political choices, you ask him to do his job well.” (De Luca in Carte Blanche) Q: Do you mean to suggest that someone doing a job like De Luca’s, a policeman, is excused from making political, ethical choices?
When The Damned Season opens, De Luca is on the run. He’s avoiding large towns, sticking to country roads, trying to get south under an assumed name, bearing false papers. Unluckily for De Luca he runs into a zealous member of the Partisan Police, a man named Leonardi, who recognizes him. Leonardi is a novice cop with lots of ambition. He realizes that the former underground that gave him the job of town cop may not remain in power for long; he also knows that if he solves the case, with De Luca’s help, he’ll get to keep his job no matter who comes to power. He threatens to expose De Luca, and exposure would mean certain death. Most probably at the hands of a man named Carnera, formerly a local hero of the Resistance.
De Luca may be one of the most stressed-out policemen in the history of police procedurals, and in the passage that Lucarelli is going to read for us from The Damned Season, we see him suffering a kind of nervous breakdown. He barely has time to recover when he is thrown into the company of Carnera and his cronies.
Closing Questions: Lucarelli
In the reviews of the De Luca trilogy that have appeared thus far, there are two distinct readings that reviewers make. On the one hand, historical; on the other, psychological.
(Austin chronicle) “Clearly an effort to come to grips with an uncomfortable history.”
(Philadelphia Inquirer) “So Carte Blanche, while ostensibly—and rather effectively—a police procedural, is really, deep down, a character study . . . De Luca . . . is a man both pursuing and pursued. And that makes him one of the more interesting figures in crime fiction.”
Q: Here is this frontier again: on the way, the De Luca trilogy is a study of a very particular time in Italian history, or it is fundamentally a character study. Or perhaps it is both. What is this trilogy? Would you agree that it is a mapping of De Luca’s psychic terrain? Or is it essentially a historical investigation?
5. Yasmina Khadra
In 1988 a man named Mohammed Moulessehoul, an officer in the Algerian army, was brought before a military tribunal. He had at that time published several novels and short stories in which he criticized the regime, the fundamentalist opposition, and at times the military itself. He had fallen foul of the military hierarchy and he was being pressured to stop writing; as he later put it: “the situation was becoming unbearable.”
His wife suggested a solution: that he publish under her name. Thus the author went into hiding—Mohammed Moulessehoul became Yasmina Khadra—while the man continued his military career. In the early nineties Mohammed Moulessehoul left the army and went into clandestine exile in France. His, or her, popularity continued to grow and in 2001 he announced to the world that the writer known as Yasmina Khadra was in fact the man, Mohammed Moulessehoul.
The French intelligentsia was shocked and dismayed. Not only was Khadra a man, but he was an army officer. Instead of a frightened, oppressed Algerian woman, they got a soldier-novelist. As Giles Tremlett wrote in The Guardian a couple of years ago: “Moulessehoul not only crafted black, bitter novels of rural violence and hellish urban decadence but, when not writing, practiced violence himself. Some people still cannot forgive him.”
Q: Writing under an assumed name and keeping your true identity secret, while very clearly a necessity at the time, must also have afforded you a degree of intellectual and creative freedom, a certain autonomy: do you find it difficult to feel that same level of freedom now that Yasmina Khadra’s true identity is out in the open?
Q: What did your military career brought to your writing? Was the author Yasmina Khadra disassociated from the army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul? Or did they feed off one another, learn from one another, comfort one another? What did your writing bring to your military career?
Your writing can be fairly neatly divided into two categories: one the one hand, your early novels, including the Superintendent Llob trilogy, that are clearly noir; on the other, your later novels that cannot really be defined noir. But in a 2005 interview in the Guardian you said:
“All my literature takes place in that space—it deals with that which has not been attended to […] When there are two perspectives, there’s a better chance of understanding.”—Yasmina Khadra
Q: In what way does noir serve this goal, or this need, to examine that which had not been attended to? To present two perspectives?
Reading: Yasmina Khadra
Closing Questions: Yasmina Khadra
Q: Again in the Guardian article from several years back, you say: “In every man there is a monster that sleeps." What is the monster that sleeps in Superintendent Llob?
Q: (from The Guardian) "We are living in an age where much of the media coverage of the Orient is lies and fabulation, driven by an ideology that Arabs are barbarous, Westerners civilized. The soldiers who drag Arab women from their beds at night, however, have nothing on Neolithic man... In the end, the novel is a tool, an instrument, which makes truth accessible. Only fiction tells the truth." What is the truth that these novels in particular, the Superintendent Llob trilogy, want to share with us?
6. Massimo Carlotto
Massimo Carlotto also makes a claim on truth. His watch phrase, the affirmation by which he is widely known in Italy, is: “I only write true things.” A shocking affirmation when one looks at what he writes. He has also affirmed that Mediterranean Noir is foremost a literature of truth. Because the truth plays such a large role in his work, his books can be seen as belonging to a hybrid genre, mixing biography, autobiography, reportage, history, social documentary, and fiction.
In order for us to know a little more about Massimo Carlotto, I would like to invite him to read from his most recent book, The Fugitive, a book that tells the story of a man on the run from a prison sentence for a crime he did not commit—the man’s name is Massimo Carlotto.
Reading: Massimo Carlotto
Q: Can you give us a brief explanation of the legal difficulties that made it necessary for you to go on the run?
Q: Since the publication of The Fugitive, you have published a dozen noir novels in as many years. You have said, “Noir is the only literature capable of narrating the story of Italy today.” Is noir truer than other kinds of fiction? Or does it focus on a specific kind of truth?
Q: Why has noir assumed this role of social and political reportage? Is there something unique to the Italian situation that makes noir the most suitable literary form in which to tell Italy’s story? Aren’t there other, more suitable, kinds of writing—non-fiction, journalism, history?
Q: You only write true things; your characters are real people; but you have also admitted that these true stories must be modified in order to conform to the expectations that readers of fiction have. How do you decide when you are deforming truth too much to fit into the fictional form? Or is the opposite true: do you find you have to bend the form of the novel to fit the truth?
Q: Earlier I quoted Valerio Evangelisti on Manchette, describing how in the 60s and 70s criminality began impregnating the worlds of politics and big business, and through them the everyday lives of average people. But is the opposite also true: have politics and large-scale political or historical events affected crime? For example, what changes have the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the rise of religious fundamentalism, or globalization itself, had on crime?
Q: Nineteen different countries share the Mediterranean coastline. (Italy, France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Malta, Crete, Cyprus.) The populations of nine of these countries are Islamic. The Mediterranean has long been, and still is, a place of exchange—cultural, political, ideological, religious, scientific—but also a place of conflict, a place where these same forces clash. It is a region where the Muslim and Judeo-Christian worlds meet and clash. Does Mediterranean Noir address this particular situation? Can Mediterranean Noir as a genre be considered a imagined space where these divergent beliefs and cultures meet?
Q: Is the Mediterranean Noir novel more political and politicized than its American and northern European cousins? If so, why?
Q: Can noir be considered an instrument of socio-political change?
Q: Is the success of noir in Italy (and Europe in general) explained by some inherent difference in the writing—is it better than noir in other countries?—or has it to do with context and readership and the expectations of readers?
Q: The general context of many Mediterranean Noir novels is marked by an apparent and complete lack of faith in institutions: the government, the law enforcement bodies, the justice system, the media, schools, hospitals…etc. There seems to be a general sense of having been betrayed by these institutions. Lucarelli, you have spoken explicitly about this. I quote: “Every time a crime of a certain importance is committed in our country […] there’s always someone who tries to hide the truth … We have often discovered that those involved in sidetracking the investigation are members of the police force, the secret service, in short, people who work for the state.” Is this lack of faith in institutions widespread in your countries? Or is it an aspect of Mediterranean life that you have intentionally exaggerated to create tension in your novels?