Paris at twilight. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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French revolutions: the eerie prescience of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s detective fiction

An attentive reader of Marx, Herbert Marcuse and Guy Debord, Manchette used his novels to offer diagnoses of societal ills.

The Mad and the Bad
Jean-Patrick Manchette. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
NYRB Classics, 184pp, $14.95

Fatale
Jean-Patrick Manchette. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
Serpent’s Tail, 98pp, £8.99

The Gunman
Jean-Patrick Manchette. Translated by James Brook
Serpent’s Tail, 154pp, £7.99

The tense mood of Paris following the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks echoes that of the French capital in the 1960s. Then, too, the city was marked by both the reality and the nervous anticipation of violence. That decade opened under the shadow of a colonial war with Algeria and closed with the street riots of May 1968. It was a period when many had their political consciousness shaped, including Jean-Patrick Manchette, growing up in the Paris suburbs. Manchette, an erstwhile contributor to Charlie Hebdo, started the decade as a committed leftist activist and finished it equally dedicated to change but having abandoned direct action for the more oblique tool of the detective novel, channelling 1960s anti-authoritarianism through his inventive approach to genre fiction.

Over the next two decades, Manchette emerged as a distinctive voice in French writing for his socially attuned and stylish, swaggering novels. In addition to his columns for Charlie, he had a prolific career as a screenwriter and translator but he is best known for his uncompromising fiction. After his death from cancer in 1995, Manchette is still cited by heavyweights from Jean Echenoz to Michel Houellebecq for his fusion of radical politics with taut plotting but is little read in the English-speaking world.

This looks likely to change following the reissue in translation of three viscerally enjoyable novels: The Mad and the Bad, Fatale and The Gunman. The last of these has also been adapted into a film by Pierre Morel, starring Sean Penn and Javier Bardem. Three to Kill, starring Colin Firth, in advanced movie development, is also based on a Manchette book.

An attentive reader of Marx, Herbert Marcuse and Guy Debord, Manchette used his novels to offer diagnoses of contemporary societal ills. He rejected physical violence but his writing is brutal: a character has a blade plunged into his heart on the first page of one book. He used the detective story as an assault weapon to draw the reader’s attention to the state of the world or as a channel for “violent social intervention”.

When they were first published in the 1970s and early 1980s, when French detective fiction was largely concerned with conservative tales of neutralised subversion and restored order, Manchette’s novels came as a shock. Influenced by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, he evokes a recognisably more ambiguous contemporary world, in which bad guys are as likely to be cops, capitalists or the clergy as lurking in the sleazy Pigalle shadows. His protagonists are liminal figures: the alienated, the mentally disturbed or, as with the average executive of Three to Kill, ordinary people caught up in circumstances beyond their control. For Manchette, like Debord, it is the upper echelons rather than the underworld that are viewed with most suspicion.

Such suspicion pervades The Mad and the Bad, which tells the story of the wealthy architect Michel Hartog. Following a family bereavement, he is awarded guardianship of his nephew, Peter. Nonplussed by this arrival, Hartog employs the beautiful Julie – recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital – as the child’s nanny. Quickly, the pair are the focus of a kidnapping led by the psychotic Thompson, whose bloodlust drives him to eat living animals. Julie, however, is made of tough stuff and the bulk of the novel recounts the pair’s flight from the killer and his bumbling henchmen.

The tension never lets up but Manchette’s main skill lies in how his plots subtly extend to shrewd social analysis. The Mad and the Bad becomes a consideration of contemporary “madness” and “badness” that points out the pernicious influence of money on morality and mental well-being and, pre-empting the psychologist Oliver James’s work on “selfish capitalism”, it explores a relationship between commodity fetishism and illness. This is highlighted by one of the book’s cinematic set pieces: a shoot-out in the aisles of a supermarket that eerily prefigures the Hyper Cacher siege. An orgy of consumerism is transformed into one of bloody destruction or, as Manchette describes it, “a madhouse”. Ironically, it is the mentally ill Julie – a poor outsider, a former patient at the more conventional kind of “madhouse” – who is best adapted to survive.

The Gunman is just as brutal and similarly politically and morally engaged. A near-first-person narrative technique borrowed from Hammett draws the reader close to Martin Terrier – but never close enough to know what is going on behind his calculating blue eyes. Terrier is a soldier-turned-hitman working for a shadowy organisation known as “the Company”. He wants to retire but his handler, the shadowy American Cox, leaves him with no option but to take one final high-profile job. Terrier kills “only for the money”. The son of a scrap metal merchant, he has a chip on his shoulder, having been shunned by the family of his childhood sweetheart because of his poor social standing. Again, Manchette showcases the noxious influence of cash.

Aimée, the hit woman heroine of Fatale, is, like Terrier, ruled by an ambiguous mix of mercantile and moral preoccupations. In the corrupt, middle-class Bléville (“Dough Town”), she launches into a series of assassinations, taking out industrialists, doctors and engineers. It’s hard not to share Manchette’s glee in orchestrating the systematic destruction of la bourgeoisie.

For all their politics, Manchette’s books are great, anarchic fun. His prose, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith and James Brook, is as precise as a sniper’s bullet, often cased in black irony. In the supermarket shoot-out of The Mad and the Bad, one of Thompson’s goons is set alight: “His legs were frying and he caught the smell of bacon emanating from his burnt skin.” Ultimately, we are all consumable products in Manchette’s world.

His descriptions of dress and decor add a pleasing note of 1970s Gallic kitsch: Thompson stalks his prey in a fetching “white turtleneck and an oak-brown sports suit”. Striking, too, is Manchette’s obsessive attention to consumer brands. Guns and cars become Colts and 2CVs and the novels are filtered through a haze of Gitanes smoke, strong booze and classic jazz.

Despite their period touches, these novels pack an intense contemporary punch. Whether the pro-Charlie street mobilisations throughout France will inspire a wave of writers whose critique is as trenchant and as readable as that of Manchette remains to be seen. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism