It’s at moments of misfortune that we remember we are all exiles (Total Chaos, p. 98)
I first read about Marseilles when I was around 10 years old and someone gave me the Persian translation of The Count of Monte Cristo. Although Chateau d’If has become a tourist attraction on the strength of its prominence in that great adventure novel, what stuck with me were the brief harbour-side scenes of Marseilles. And then I read (I am ashamed to admit) Désirée, which for a romantic little adolescent living through a revolution unforgettably invoked another revolution. And although most of it took place in Paris, again it was the early scenes in Marseilles, the home of the French Revolution, that stuck with me. And of course as kids just as we knew The International, we could hum The Marseillaise (even if I didn’t know the French lyrics).
And then I visited the city, and its reality, the fact that it has managed to resist the disneyfication that has been the lot of the always-too-twee Paris, makes it all the more attractive. As my pals David and Clare say, Marseilles is the kind of city we think of when we all fantasise about a convivial urban life. It is of course wracked by poverty, unemployment and racism and now by being captured by the horrifying Front National. But it is a port city in the way it invokes port urbanism: “ethnic” or religious homogeneity is not the first thing you think of when you see such port cities. Belonging to the city in such coastal cosmopolitan urbanism often trumps belonging to the “nation”. And it is this tension -this cosmopolitanism which is also so very obviously embedded in a colonial history and a racist present- that makes Marseilles so fascinating.
And such tensions in sun-drenched Mediterranean need a poet, someone who can exalt the place without turning away from the stench of shit and decay and racism that can pervade even in the glory of sea-side living. That eulogist is Jean-Claudi Izzo who died in 2000 at the age of 54, having begun writing his famous trio of noir novels about Marseilles only after he had turned 50 (thanks Elliott for introducing me to him).
I have a theory (perhaps half-assed) that in the global North, detective (and other “genre”) novels can be far more directly political than ostensibly “literary” novels (and I hate these generic distinctions, but let’s stick to them since the force of commercial categories seems to also carry into reviews, appreciation, etc). This is partially because “genre” novels are impelled forward by plot and this very forward-moving force allows for politics to not just act as background but as the stuff of the story itself. Even more important, the fact that genre fiction is not subjected to a dressing-down by “serious” critics who love nothing more than to scorn overt expression of politics in novels, gives some breathing room to political authors to write politics into their detective fiction.
On this count, Izzo doesn’t disappoint. His trio of Mediterranean noir novels, Total Chaos, Chourmou, and Solea, sketch anti-Arab racism, police brutality, postcolonical melancholia, the inexorable rise of the National Front, and the embeddedness of Mafiosi in global economies in a gritty, direct and affecting way that pulls no punches and doesn’t feel didactic. Beneath the coruscation of Mediterranean waves, the feeling of sunny sweaty heat, the mistral, an intense love of amazing Marseillaise food (not just Provencal but also North African, Italian, and Spanish), music (including rai, reggae and Arab hip-hop), and beautiful women, lie vicious places of darkness in which those who have power step on the necks of those who don’t.
And amidst, around, above, beneath it all is the sea. Izzo writes about the sea as both the transcendental sublime, and as a real place of work, rest, leisure, and exploitation – and of concrete, stinking, real-world death. And sometimes both at the same time (“I’d never gone to the sea on a freighter. I’d never sailed to the other side of the world. I’d stayed here, in Marseilles. Loyal to a past that didn’t exist anymore” Solea, p. 71).
He has a sense of how the work in the ports happened, happens and will (or no longer will) happen. Izzo writes about an immigrant who came to Marseilles in the early 20th century:
He was twenty, and had two of his brothers in tow. Nabos -Neapolitans. Three others had gone to Argentina. They did the jobs the French wouldn’t touch. His father was hired as a longshoreman, paid by the centime. ‘Harbor Dogs,’ they were called -it was meant as an insult. His mother worked packing dates, fourteen hours a day. I the evenings, the nabos and the people from the North, the babis, met up on the streets. They pulled chairs out in front of their doors, talked through the windows. Just like in Italy. Just like the good old days (Total Chaos, p. 21).
And this is the port of the future:
Euroméditerranée was supposed to be the “new order” for Marseilles. A way for it to return to the international stage, through its port. I had my doubts. The Brussels technocrats who’d concoct the project were hardly likely to have the future of Marseilles at heart. They were only interested in regulating port activity. In changing the face of the Mediterranean between Genoa and Barcelona. But in Europe as a whole, the ports of the future were already Antwerp and Rotterdam.
We were being tricked, as always. The only future being mapped out for Marseilles was to be the leading port for fruit in the Mediterranean. And for international cruises. That’s what the current project was basically looking toward. A huge construction site was rising in the eastern harbor basin, an area of half a square mile. A business park, an international communications center, a teleport, a tourism college… A godsend for the construction industry (Chourmo, p. 210).
He has acute descriptions of the legacy of colonialism. One of his baddies, a National Front thug
was born in Algeria. He joined the paras very young, and soon became an active member of the OAS. In 65, he was in Tixier-Vignancourt‘s security team. When his man did so badly in the election, he turned away from official activism. He went back to the paras, then became a mercenary. Fought in Rhodesia, in the Comoros, and Chad. In 74, he was in Cambodia, as a military advisor to the Americans fighting the Khmer Rouge. After that, Angola, South Africa, Benin. He fought alongside Bechir Jemayel’s falangists in Lebanon. […] I had known guys like him in Djibouti. Cold-blooded killers. The whores of imperialism. Its lost children. Let loose in the world, full of hatred for having been the ‘cuckolds of history,’ as Garel,my chief warrant officer, had said one day. (Total Chaos, pp. 169-170).
And the portraits he draws of the desperately impoverished northern suburbs into which the North African immigrants are consigned are vivid, acute, full of rage. His Arab characters are not condescended to. There are no uniformly good collective categories of peoples, at least not on the basis of place of origin, though there are uniformly bad collective categories of bad people. He judges collective categories, if at all, based on politics and profession: National Front or Mafia thugs are bad; the police are bad more often than honest; the bar-keepers are all good. His good characters are sympathetic and feel real. And Fabio Montale, his protagonist, is a sea-loving, womanizing, cynical, drunken gourmand who has persuaded me that I need to visit Marseilles again.
Postscript – I forgot to add that in recent history what made Marseilles a major Mediterranean port was the opening of the Suez Canal… The connections are interesting and to be pursued later.