At the start of Chourmo
45 year old now retired cop Fabio Montale has left Total Chaos
behind him: looking out at the sea, he's happy do be doing nothing, with no real ambitions. But this is Marseilles, and just as he can never escape the beloved city he can't escape its seedy and dangerous side.
The book actually starts with a Prologue, teenagers Guitou and Naïma getting together for their first intimate night in the house of a friend. In a nice touch, Guitou immediately gets his pockets picked at the train station on the way to his rendezvous: there's no easy path to happiness in Izzo's Marseilles. Things get a bit better (the night together is a success) and then much worse: Guitou and the other person staying at the house wind up dead.
As it happens, Guitou is the youngest son of Fabio's cousin, Gélou, and when he goes missing she begs Fabio to help her find him. Fabio finds out soon enough that it's not simply a case of the boy running away, but of murder. And, of course, it gets worse: almost as soon as he sets out to find the boy an acquaintance of his, a youth worker (with a bit too much of a penchant for the youths ...) is killed in front of him.
Fabio is a melancholy guy, and he can't understand why we (or at least everybody in Marseilles) can't just get along. He sympathizes with the outsiders (his Italian roots make him an immigrant who understands what the Arabic immigrants are going through) and understands why the youths act as they do. But he's also hardnosed when he has to be -- even ruthless, when push comes to shove (as it will in the climax).
is a somewhat strange mix of street-thriller and social novel. The ills of society are obvious at every turn, from a police force that almost invariably takes the wrong approach to the far reach of the Mafia (which turns out to reach very, very far), to the lack of opportunity for so many of the youths and immigrants in Marseilles -- leading, among much else, to a resurgence of increasingly militant Islam. (This 1996 novel already had a good take on many of the French troubles that bubbled over in 2005.)
And then, of course, there's chourmo
: He smiled. "And there's the chourmo. Know what that is ?"
I knew. Chourmo, a Provençal word derived from chiourme, the rowers in a galley. In Marseilles, we knew all about galleys. No need to kill your mother and father to find yourself in the galleys, just like two centuries ago. No, these days, you just had to be young, whether you were an immigrant or not. The name has also been appropriated by "not so much a fan club as a friendship club". And there's that whole chourmo
-spirit: You weren't just from one neighborhood, one project. You were chourmo
. In the same galleys, rowing ! Trying to get out. Together. Fabio can relate, and it's the sort of thing that gives him hope -- something he can use, because as he goes about his business, trying to find out what happened to Guitou, he certainly encounters a lot of brutal ugliness.
Izzo is no wide-eyed romantic (though he definitely has a small streak in him), and the knotted case that slowly unfolds here shows how pervasive the worst of society is. The betrayals and the hatred -- even (or especially) within families -- runs very deep, and accepting the unacceptable and turning a blind eye to a great deal is far too common a practise. And yet Fabio keeps that tiny touch of optimism, of believing things can be set right again (as he rows with the others in the galley ...).
It's an interesting mix of the bleak and the hopeful, and Izzo does a good job in presenting characters compromised by society and necessity (as well as a couple of people who are simply evil). Chourmo
is another love-letter to Marseilles, warts and all (emphasis on the warts), and a solid atmospheric thriller. The crime elements are a bit convoluted -- as usual, the path to figuring everything out is a complicated one, and involves a great many people -- but Izzo also offers some nice twists.
Fine escapist reading.
The Complete Review