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The Nation: "The Marseilles Trilogy may be the most lyrical hard-boiled writing yet."

Dark Paradise

"Marseilles is paradise. They respect me here. I'm not a wog." That's the voice of an Algerian soldier fighting for France in Rachid Bouchareb's 2006 World War II drama Indigènes (released here under the terrible title Days of Glory). Fifty years after VE Day, the opposite could be spoken by nearly any of the contemporary Arab and Algerian characters in the hard-boiled novels that form Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy. The Arab youths who endure suspicion and harassment from the cops and the prejudice of the native non-Arab French, who are the target of violence from the far-right National Front and the fool's game of fundamentalist Islam: almost all of these kids feel like wogs.

And yet, as Izzo writes of his native city, Marseilles is a kind of paradise. The three books that make up his trilogy--Total Chaos, Chourmo and Solea--can be read as an extended love letter to the city. Izzo, son of an Italian father who had immigrated there, spent most of his life in the city. His output wasn't vast. It included the trilogy, two novels--The Lost Sailors and The Sun of the Dying (the latter will be brought out later this year by Europa Editions)--and a book of short stories. He was one of those rare writers lucky enough to be popular with critics as well as the public, though nothing surpassed the popularity of the trilogy, which was written from 1995 to '98. Izzo never got a chance to build on the acclaim and popularity of the books. In 2000 he died of cancer at the age of 55.

In the trilogy, Izzo describes the city as an ever-unfolding flower of sensual delight, a place where natural glory, the sun and the shimmering presence of the Mediterranean exist side by side with the man-made glories of a polyglot city. At times the progress of Izzo's story might be nothing more than the movements of his hero, Fabio Montale, as he drifts from one of the city's pleasures to the next. "There's nothing more pleasant," begins Chourmo, "when you have nothing to do, than to have a snack in the morning and sit looking at the sea."

It's a measure of how often paradise is delayed that Fabio almost always has something to do. The Marseilles Trilogy is Fabio's story, and as with all disillusioned idealists, which is to say almost all classic heroes of detective fiction, it's the story of a romantic. Fabio starts out as a cop in Total Chaos, the kind who tries to take on the role of good liberal social worker. By the end of the book, in which he investigates the murders of a boyhood friend and a young Algerian girl (whom Fabio has befriended and fallen in love with), this good cop, who has solved the case, is nonetheless so disgusted by the corruption of the force that he quits and restricts himself to his little seaside bungalow, content to fish and spend time with his elderly neighbor, Honorine:

And one day I woke up and realized I'd lost all my power. I'd been disowned by the anti-crime squad, the narcotics squad, the vice squad, the illegal immigration squad.... I'd become just a neighborhood cop who didn't get any important cases.... I wasn't the kind of cop who would shoot a punk in the back to save a colleague's skin, and that meant I was dangerous.

But of course, Fabio keeps getting pulled back in, as much by his own nature as by the fact that, in each case, a woman he loves needs him. In Chourmo, it's Fabio's cousin Gélou, who comes to him when her son disappears. And in Solea, it's Babette, a journalist and occasional lover who effects her own disappearance when a story she's working on causes the Mafia to begin hunting her.

Each of these cases is intimately bound up with Fabio's past, none more so than the murder at the beginning of Total Chaos, a death that leaves Fabio the last survivor of a trio that spent their adolescence pulling stickups. He called it quits after a druggist was left paralyzed in one botched job; his buddies didn't.

But the constant evocation of the past in these books serves to highlight the present and the changed city that Fabio loves too much to leave. "Marseilles is a city of exiles," Fabio says in Chourmo. "It'll always be the last port of call in the world. Its future belongs to those who arrive. Never to those who leave." The trilogy might be summed up by an argument that Fabio, whose parents were from southern Italy, has with Gélou after she tells him that she and her husband weren't crazy about the fact that her son's girlfriend is Arab. "What were you afraid of?" Fabio harangues her:

That this Arab girl would stick out like a sore thumb where you live? For fuck's sake, Gélou! Don't you remember what your father was? What they called him? Your father, and mine, and all the nabos? Harbor dogs! That's right! And don't tell me it didn't hurt you, the fact that you were born there, in the Panier, among the harbor dogs! And now you talk to me about Arabs!

And when she replies, "My blood's Italian. Italians aren't Arabs," Fabio explodes. "The South isn't Italy. It's the land of the wops. You know what the people in Piedmont call us? The Mau Mau. That includes niggers, Gypsies, and all the wops south of Rome!"

For all the attraction that crime fiction has for those of us who still read for plot, it's curious that when we find a writer whose voice we respond to, a hero we care about, the action becomes almost secondary. Izzo is a sharp, complex plotter, but he can't resist indulging in descriptions of the pleasures the city offers. Food and music are integral. The sections on the proper way to desalt cod and the right wine to accompany a midmorning snack of anchovy puree; the recipe for lasagna sauce to dress a fennel-stuffed bass: these are not digressions, not the cutesy gourmand asides that cozy up other mysteries. These passages are the living essence of the book, Proustian cues that summon Fabio's past, conjurations of the flavors, literal as well as figurative, that still haunt him. Each description of food or cooking is lovingly, tantalizingly drawn out, meant to convey a particular mixture of brininess and just-caught freshness, as well as the sense of pleasure that, like a good wine, comes with a long finish. "We launched on a major survey of foreign cuisines. Considering the number of restaurants between Aix and Marseilles, it was likely to take us many months.... Top of our list was the Mille et une nuits.... You sat on pouffes and ate from a big brass platter, listening to raï. Moroccan cuisine. The most refined in North Africa. They served the best pigeon pastilla I've ever tasted." Fabio, who narrates the books, even describes sex in terms of spices. For Izzo, those descriptions are a lover's testimony, whether the object of his ardor is Marseilles or one of the women by whom Fabio tries, doggedly but often futilely, to do justice.

If Izzo uses food to stand for the city's sensuality, he uses music to bring to life its ethnic jumble. The sounds wafting--or blaring--out of bars and clubs and radios and stereos come across less like a battle in which every voice is fighting to be heard than a din in which every voice finds the freedom to speak up. The glut of music may be the only real democracy in the city. The Arab and Algerian youths listen to Marseilles rappers IAM and the fabulous MC Solaar. "Marseilles was a place where people liked to talk a lot," says Fabio. "Rap was just talk, and lots of it. Our Jamaican cousins had brothers here. The rappers talked the way people talked in bars. About Paris, the centralized state, the decaying suburbs, the night buses. Their lives, their problems. The world, seen from Marseilles." 

Rap isn't Fabio's music, but nearly everything else is. Among his touchstones are Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain, Dylan's Nashville Skyline, Sonny Rollins's The Bridge and Mongo Santamaría. Gypsy songs play in bars. Salsa provides the soundtrack for a night Fabio spends dancing with Marie-Lou, the prostitute who's his sometime lover. And the defeatist romantic melancholy that increasingly takes over the trilogy as it works toward its awful, devastating ending--a mood that can be traced right back to the 1937 film Pépé le Moko--is represented by the chansons of the anarchist singer-composer Léo Ferré (and occasionally by his contemporaries Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel). In Chourmo, Fabio finds an Algerian veteran beaten in his home, the old man's war medal, the symbol of belief that he would be accepted by the country he fought for, shoved into his mouth. The two of them find an unexpected connection in their shared love of Lili Boniche, the Algerian-Jewish singer whose music, with its African, Arab, Spanish and chanson influences, is its own melting pot. When the elderly gentleman hears the name, Fabio observes, "The old man smiled. For a moment he was lost in thought, lost, I was sure, in a place where life was good." And the music is verbal, too:

As a child of the East, she considered that the French language was becoming a place where the migrant could draw together strands from all the lands through which he had passed and finally feel at home. The language of Rimbaud, Valéry and René Char would crossbreed, she asserted. It was the dream of a generation of North African immigrants. You already heard a strange kind of French spoken in Marseilles, a mixture of Provencal, Italian, Spanish and Arabic, with bits of slang thrown in. Speaking it, the kids understood each other perfectly well. At least on the streets. 

One of the pities of Izzo's early death is that it deprived us of continuing to read him on the question of Arabs in Europe. His conclusions refuse the unexamined assumptions of both right and left and fail to satisfy either extreme, making his voice all the more valuable--and necessary.

As the exchange between Fabio and Gélou suggests, Izzo is alive to--and disgusted by--the prejudice that exists toward Arabs. His realization that, for many young immigrants, crime is not just a more profitable life but possibly the only work open to them puts his work in line with classic muckraking liberal melodrama. As a cop, Fabio is hounded by the fact that by the time he's aware of kids in trouble, it may be too late for them. They, and their parents, are caught between being immigrants in a land where you are despised and where no real opportunity awaits and a homeland that leaves you feeling just as much of an outcast. An Algerian man returns home in Total Chaos only to find that "Algeria wasn't his story anymore. It was a story that didn't interest him. The empty, neglected shops. The land, parceled out to former mujaheddin and left uncultivated. The deserted villages, turned in on their own misery." 

There's an echo of this in Chourmo, of finding the foreign in the place that is supposed to feel like home. The young Arab girl whom Gélou rejected as a suitable girlfriend for her missing son has an older brother who has adopted Islamist militancy. He forces his mother to serve him with her eyes lowered and throws his sister out of the house because she's dating a non-Arab boy.

Had Izzo lived, he'd have had to navigate the line between the right wing's emboldened prejudice toward Arabs in the wake of 9/11 and the left's predilection for classifying people who stand up to the misogyny and homophobia of Islamism as tools of the right. The depth of feeling in the trilogy, the hatred of bullying in all its forms and most of all the tenderness with which Izzo writes of women suggest he'd have been more than up to the task. Someone as in love with Marseilles's multiplicity of culture as Izzo was could never fall for separatist rhetoric, no matter what progressive clothes it disguises itself in. The unattainable dream that haunts the Marseilles Trilogy is the pursuit of pluralism.

The Marseilles Trilogy may be the most lyrical hard-boiled writing yet. And if Izzo has earned a place in the ranks of the finest hard-boiled writers, it's worth noting that he's done it while largely avoiding the shining angel/femme fatale polarities of the genre. Even the women who turn out to be duplicitous are extended compassion, a willingness to comprehend the logic of their actions. Women found to be liars are, in detective fiction, usually treated as the most treacherous of creatures. By contrast, here is how Izzo writes of one woman who has just confessed her lies: "The most important thing, though, was that, free now of lies, [her eyes] were no longer indifferent. They'd become human. Full of pain, but also full of hope." The rest are written of so tenderly that their departure, sometimes just the threat of their departure, leaves wounds in stories that are already bleeding from the departure of others.

As the trilogy moves into the final book, the pleasures the book offers--food, music, sex, camaraderie, the pull of the sea--are increasingly overtaken by the dark undertow that has been waiting all along. Solea takes its name from the final track of Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain, one of the series of great albums Davis made in collaboration with arranger Gil Evans. Davis's trumpet, playing over Evans's steady, relentless orchestral pulse, the sound of a growing storm that will not break, is an insistently, even defiantly lonely sound. Sometimes it cries out in a single sustained note, sometimes it dies down in a muted passage that could be the muttering of a heartbroken man. It's anguished and discordant, soaring and battered, not so much accompanied by the music underneath as fighting it. Davis sounds as if he wants to join that music, and as if he knows he can't. As the piece rolls toward the end of its twelve-plus minutes, the drums become more prominent, and they could be a march into battle or honors played as a coffin is lowered into the ground. In his liner notes to the album, Nat Hentoff characterized it as possessing "the 'deep song' of flamenco and the cry of the blues." Whatever it is, it's the music of the Marseilles Trilogy, as vast and alluring and annihilating as Fabio's beloved Mediterranean, where the story comes to its close. But if novels need a written, instead of a musical, coda, the last lines of Godard's Pierrot le fou, spoken by characters who are already ghosts, will do:

“She's found again/ What?/ Eternity/ It's the sea... run away/ With the sun”

[from the October 22, 2007 issue]
This article can be found on the web at

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