Sneaking in right at the end of the annual celebration of all things French, here’s my contribution to Paris in July, hosted by Readerbuzz and Thyme-for-tea. It may be called Paris in July, but includes anything French, hence I finally read a book that’s been on the shelves too long, set in Marseilles! It’s also my 10th book for this year’s #20BooksofSummer22.
Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo
Translated by Howard Curtis
The first in Izzo’s celebrated Marseilles Trilogy, Total Chaos was first published in 1995, then the English translation by Curtis, who has translated all three, ten years later. Izzo, who died in 2000 aged only 55, was born and bred in Marseilles, his immigrant parents, Spanish mother and Italian father giving him his distinctive family name. A poet, screenwriter and playwright as well as novelist, it was this trilogy of noir novels set in his home city that was his biggest hit.
Manu, Ugo and Fabio grew up together in the mean streets of Marseilles. Although their friendship endured over the years, they went their separate ways. Manu and Ugo became involved in the city’s underground and now, twenty years later Ugo has returned to the city…
You were back in Marseilles because of Manu. To take out the son of a bitch who’d killed him. […]
You weren’t after the guy who’d whacked Manu. A hitman, for sure. Cold and anonymous. Someone from Lyons, or Milan. Someone you wouldn’t find. The guy you were after was the scumbag who’d ordered the hit. who’d wanted Manu killed. You didn’t want to know why. You didn’t need any reasons. Not a single one. Anyone attacked Manu, it was like they’d attacked you.
The old trio had been reduced to two. Ugo is staying with Lole, the woman they both had loved, and we follow him in this opening prologue as he gathers information on Manu’s killer getting ready to exact his revenge. The prose goes between Ugo’s thoughts told in the second person, then back to the normal third person narrative. He set off to ‘put a cat among the pigeons’, to flush out his quarry but ends up dead, caught in a police trap.
Might as well end in Marseilles. He turned towards the two young cops. The ones behind him couldn’t see that he was unarmed. The first bullet ripped open his back. His lung exploded. He didn’t feel the other two bullets.
All that within the first dozen or so pages! Two are now reduced to one – and we finally meet Fabio Montale, a cop.
I crouched by the body. Pierre Ugolini. I’d only just arrived on the scene. Too late. My colleagues had been playing cowboys. Shoot to kill: that was their basic rule. They followed the General Custer principle that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. And in Marseilles, everyone–or almost everyone–was an Indian.
With Fabio taking over the narration, we are now to be fully immersed in pure hard-boiled, darkest noir.
Fabio is such an interesting character. As a cop, his immigrant heritage (similar to Izzo’s) makes him an outsider, not one of Captain Auch’s squad of nationalist shoot-first cronies. Marseilles is such a melting pot of a city, being the main French port on the Mediterranean. It has big problems of rivalry between the various gangs and nationalities, who have their own areas. Fabio has worked as part of the Neighbourhood Surveillance Squad in North Marseilles for five years now – trying to keep the peace – finding himself more of a social worker than a policeman.
Although unlucky in love, Montale is a commitment-phobe, his closest friends are mostly strong women. From the gypsy Lole, to prostitute Marie-Lou with whom he has a casual thing, to best friend journalist Babette. They are all intriguing, well-written, and care for Fabio. Then there is Leila…
Leila is the eldest child of Mouloud, an Arab who’d arrived in 1970 with many others lured to the new projects by the promise of jobs building Marseilles’ new infrastructure that didn’t really materialise, leaving them all out of jobs. Fabio has been friends with Mouloud for some time, ever since he had to caution his other children who got into an argument with a shopkeeper who sold them an inferior product. Mouloud is extremely proud of Leila though, who is working hard, studying at university in Aix. Fabio is a bit of a surrogate father to Leila, who is considerably younger than him, restraining himself for falling for her, just looking out for her. Leila, meanwhile, is rather keen on Fabio; a slightly difficult relationship.
Mouloud is in distress – Leila has gone missing. Fabio swears he will do everything he can to find her. And thus his course is set, as finding out what happened to her will put him in danger from those responsible for the death of Manu too.
Total Chaos is dark and relentless. Marseilles’ underbelly is seedy, grim and a very dangerous to be. Fabio not only has that to contend with, but also his declining reputation as a soft cop amongst the hard nuts of the police force. That he and any of his friends survive (which isn’t really a spoiler for Fabio is the trilogy’s main character, well, apart from Marseilles itself) is frankly a miracle. It is clear that Izzo loves his city in all aspects of its character.
You’ll note that in my review I’ve gone for the older spelling of Marseilles–with an ‘s’, rather than the modern without it–as this is translator Howard Curtis’ choice. Curtis, whose translations from French and Italian are always good, gets the style of izzo’s short, snappy sentences perfectly. A foreword in the form of a Eulogy for Izzo written by Massimo Carlotto (another noir author I must read more of) gives a wonderful flavour of the author.
I just loved this novel – and can’t wait to get to the other parts of the trilogy. Don’t just take my word for it, see what Marina Sofia thought of these books here.
Source: Own copy from the TBR. Europa Editions paperback, 256 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.