It's an icy winter in Paris, but Rico, the destitute protagonist of A Sun for the Dying
, knows how to survive on the streets. He has a decent "crash pad", a vacant building whose Madagascan security guard buys him coffee and croissants, and thanks to his bookish comrade Titi, his only friend, Rico wanders around the French capital with shreds of hope and dignity.
Titi has shown him that it's better to throw away soiled clothing instead of wasting money on it at the launderette, and that buying alcohol from the same bars and shops helps you limit your daily wine consumption to a safe number of gallons.
But when Titi dies in a metro station on a particularly frigid night, Rico's illusion that he "could still pull through, could still lead some kind of life on the street", is shattered. Nostalgia for a faded lover coaxes him to a distant city, Marseilles.
Rico's destination won't come as a surprise to readers of Jean-Claude Izzo's books, which are deservedly becoming international cult classics.
The southern Mediterranean port, a place that contains "all the smells of the Maghreb, Africa, Asia merged into a single smell, as heady as happiness", is the setting of the author's acclaimed Marseilles Trilogy, a series of sophisticated crime novels that grapple with present-day Europe's racial and religious tensions.
Izzo, who died in 2000, is considered to be the father of the Mediterranean Noir movement, and A Sun for the Dying, which has been translated into atmospheric American English, is his final novel.
While it possesses the hallmarks of Izzo's gritty noirs - terse, poetic prose, for example - Rico's hypnotic journey to Marseilles is markedly literary in scope.
As he escapes Paris, flashbacks describe his plunge from soldier in Djibouti to vagrant afflicted by pleurisy. After losing his wife and son to divorce, Rico relentlessly drank and lost his job as a travelling salesman.
A few shallow love affairs later he was on the street, sickened by the "flaccid piece of flesh" between his legs.
Despite being haunted by nightmare versions of his past, as he makes his way southward he discovers short-lived solace in Mirjana, a young prostitute from Sarajevo who once studied French literature. The two share the type of bond "that unites, somewhere between rage and despair, those who have been rejected. Excluded."
Mirjana's family was killed in the mass murder that accompanied the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the narration of her horrific past, although stilted at times, exhibits Izzo's fastidious attention to the overlooked truths about globalisation. The author's view of the modern world's ruthlessness has evolved.
His criticisms no longer verge on collapsing society into simplistic dualities - with evil French government on one side and immigrants and other outcasts on the other. Instead, Rico's odyssey highlights that the oppression and suffering that define society are universal - they're not confined to certain nations, races or religions.
It's not that Izzo turns a blind eye to the racial inequality that plagues Europe. In fact, when Rico finally reaches Marseilles, he meets Abdou, an orphaned Algerian teenager whose parents were casualties of political violence.
Abdou - who turns out to be the novel's narrator - fled Algiers in a ship's engine room, where his face was grossly disfigured. The boy will eventually be deported, and his "future wasn't here, or at home. Or anywhere else."
He spends his days placating social workers and smoking joints until he befriends Rico, who is now approaching death.
Before dying, Rico doesn't encounter his lost love in Marseilles, and sinister news of his family torments his final hours. But for an instant, he becomes a father figure to Abdou.
The connection between these characters offers an ember of hope in this psychologically intense, evocative indictment of social cruelty.
by Hirsch Sawhney