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Mostly Fiction: "Férey’s nightmarish vision of South African crime creates a whole new kind of hell."

Date: May 10 2010

Europa Editions, a New York based publisher founded in 2005, first came to my attention a few years ago through one of their noir titles. I really enjoy Europa’s Italian crime novels written by Massimo Carlotto, Jean Claude Izzo, and Carlo Lucarelli. There’s a predictable level of quality here that makes me return to Europa and peruse their titles regularly. My attitude towards publishers is similar to my attitude towards film directors–experience has taught me that some directors and some publishers consistently produce work that I’m interested in.

And this brings me to Zulu, from French crime writer, Caryl Férey, a novel in Europa’s World Noir series. The novel concerns Ali Neuman, a middle aged police detective who’s the head of Cape Town’s Crime Unit. As a child, Neuman witnessed the vicious murders of his father and brother, and he’s haunted by memories of their hideous deaths. Now damaged but not brutalized–an important distinction–Neuman sees the detritus of crime every day–homicides, rapes, kidnappings, and then there are the country’s social problems: a catastrophic explosion of AIDS and the vast, still unbreachable chasms between the rich and the poor. The pressure is on to “clean up” Cape Town’s image for the forthcoming 2010 World Cup in order to meet the world’s scrutiny:

“The potential economic gains were enormous—there was talk of creating 125,000 jobs, if the homicide rate could be reduced by fifty per cent—and the country, which at a time of globalization was experiencing the biggest growth in its history, needed foreign investors. Especially now, when South Africa was getting ready for the biggest media event on earth, the World Cup, due to take place in 2010—four billion viewers for the final matches, a million supporters who had to be kept safe, all the TV coverage, the interviews. The whole world would be watching, and South Africa simply could not afford the terrible image it had. Who wanted to invest in a country branded the world’s most dangerous place? The financial backers had to be reassured at all costs.”

Crime becomes personal to Neuman when his elderly, blind mother is attacked. She lives in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township. Overcrowded with squatters and the homeless, Khayelitsha “had become a buffer between Cape Town, ‘the most beautiful city in the world,’ and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.” Khayelitsha is overrun with crime, gangs, AIDS, and the Nigerian Mafia who “control the main drug networks:”

“It wasn’t the poor who attacked security guards with bazookas, it wasn’t the unemployed who had killed the director of Business Against Crime the previous year. They were dealing with a wave of organized crime, gangs small or large, linked to Mafias, gangs with sophisticated infrastructure similar to those of the Mob in the USA in the thirties. The police were corrupt, or even in collusion with the criminals, the justice system was ineffective, the government was doing nothing.”

Labouring under a sense of obligation, Neuman becomes involved in tracking down the boy who mugged his mother, but he’s sidetracked when the body of a brutally beaten young white woman is found. Neuman finds himself investigating both crimes: the high profile murder of a rich white girl who was recreation slumming in a world she didn’t understand, and the relatively unimportant mugging of Neuman’s mother, a helpless, poor black woman. Neuman traverses both the slums and the guarded, gated communities of the rich–both worlds are fraught with their own dangers. In the world of the affluent white businessman, Neuman faces prejudice and politics. In the case of the slums, where “the luckiest live in containers,” Neuman has to decipher his own Zulu traditions.

Zulu certainly isn’t going to do much for South African tourism. In fact, if you had plans to go, you might find yourself canceling your tickets. Férey’s nightmarish vision of South African crime creates a whole new kind of hell. The stark contrasts between the fetid, corrugated iron lean-to shacks in shanty towns and the coastal mega-mansions of Cape Town accessible only through toll roads scream that this world cannot last. I read a lot of crime and noir, but Zulu, while an intense gripping read is relentlessly bleak in its presentation of all sorts of sick new ways of murdering people. Given the territory–the backdrop of South Africa’s bloody history, this is to be expected. I tend to prefer my crimes to be off-page or at least “clean,” and by that I mean no torture. Some of these scenes are detailed, so be warned.

By Guy Savage

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