Jean-Claude Izzo's novels make brilliant use of musical allusions in portraying France's ethnic divisions
About a third of the way through Lost Sailors, the most recent English-language translation of the late Jean-Claude Izzo's gritty crime fiction, I felt as if I couldn't go on reading without hearing a Duke Ellington album from the early 60s. At this point in the novel, Captain Abdul Aziz is stranded on a freighter in the derelict port of Marseilles with his life in disarray. Political turmoil in his native Lebanon has never made life easy, but his real problem is his inability to prioritise his family over life at sea, a life among pirates, prostitutes and sailors.
"He had lain on his bunk, listening to Duke Ellington, Money Jungle, one of his favorite albums," Izzo writes. "Ellington playing in a trio with Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. The album included the most sublime version ever of Solitude. But the track [Aziz] particularly liked was Fleurette Africaine. He had played it four times, then had fallen asleep, exhausted, when Caravan started up."
I put down the book, logged onto iTunes and bought the album.
It was well worth the $12.99 I spent, but that wasn't surprising. Izzo, who died in 2000 aged 55, remains an erudite, evocative guide through the realms of jazz, salsa, hip-hop and Gianmaria Testa. The rhythms of Ruben Blades help Fabio Montale, hero of Izzo's celebrated Marseilles Trilogy, take it easy, "dispelling my anxieties and soothing my pains."
But popular music doesn't merely provide ambient background noise for the author's seductive fiction. Hip-hop by artists like MC Solaar, who had once "taken part in a rap writing workshop with the kids in the projects", is a cathartic expression of youth among France's marginalised minorities. "What they sang about was the lives of their friends, on the street or in the joint. And how easy it was to die. And how many kids ended up in mental hospitals."
Music, it turns out, is vital to Izzo's unusual take on France's troubled ethnic divisions. His prose probes the vicious cycle of immigration, unemployment, poverty, crime and racism that afflict contemporary France, offering an empathetic portrait of jaded young Arabs who try "to annoy people, to provoke them" for "the hell of it". "They had only to switch on the TV news to realize that their fathers had been fucked over and that they themselves were going to be fucked over even worse."
There are no available solutions to the ubiquitous hate that plagues Izzo's cruelly fragmented world, but the one thing that provides hope is music. His characters listen to Lili Bonice, a Jewish Algerian singer who "mixed musical styles" and had all of North Africa dancing to his rumbas and tangos. The titles of his bleak Marseilles Trilogy - Total Chaos, Chourmo and Solea - are drawn respectively from IAM, a hip-hop act that blends French beats with lyrics inspired by Middle Eastern culture; an anti-racist movement championed by the Marseilles reggae band Massilia Sound System, the Marseilles reggae band that encouraged the city to embrace its own diversity; and a Miles Davis track infused with the musically polyglot flamenco of Andalusia.
Izzo's soundtracks offer a border-crossing antidote to the xenophobia that blights present-day Europe.
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