The book’s title references James Ellroy’s novel ‘White Jazz’ (the main protagonist’s favourite crime read), but this is a very different kind of story.
It’s not just Arab music in the 19th district of Paris, it’s also mosques, Jewish barbers, black youths hanging out on street corners, Armenian shopkeepers, Turkish kebab shops… It’s this frenetic bustle of people which documentary film-maker Karim Miské potrays so well in his first novel Arab Jazz. And it’s at this level – capturing the sounds, smells, food, jargon, eccentric characters – that the book succeeds. The crime thriller element of it is secondary – and those who are expecting a thundering ride of a rollercoaster mystery will be disappointed. However, it succeeds as a fascinating social study into the roots of fundamentalism (of whichever religious stripe) and the urban turmoil of present-day Paris.
Ahmed Taroudant has all but retreated from normal life. He tries to go out as little as possible, stocking pasta, crackers and a few bottles of wine in his flat, which is by now so full of books that he can barely find his way to the fridge. He never knew his father, his mother is in a mental hospital and he himself is clinically depressed. His only two joys in life are: buying crime fiction in bulk from an Armenian second-hand bookshop and his pretty neighbour Laura. Laura is an air hostess and he looks after her orchids when she is away on her frequent travels.
Then, one evening, he finds Laura killed and displayed in a grotesque fashion, strung up above his balcony. There are disturbing elements to this murder which suggest it may have been a religiously motivated killing. Ahmed is terrified he will be a prime suspect, but the shock jolts him out of his lethargy and he starts collaborating with the police to find the real culprits.
You could argue that Miské leaves no stone unturned in his quest for diversity: the two main investigators are Jewish and Breton, and there is a steady parade of imams, rabbis, Jehovah’s Witnesses, blacks, whites and everything in-between in the pages of his book. We find out relatively early on who the baddies are, certainly before the police do, and it all becomes a bit of an international conspiracy with drug links. From that point of view, I did not find the plot hugely exciting.
However, the local colour and atmosphere kept me reading on. I have a soft spot for the 19th arrondissement, as we stayed there during our most recent holiday in Paris. It contains the beautiful park Buttes-Chaumont (featuring in the latest series of ‘Spiral’ too), as well as multi-ethnic shops and restaurants, which give it a cool, happening vibe for tourists. Beneath the scrubbed up veneer, it has its fair share of social problems and the author does not shy away from those. Above all, I enjoyed the relationships between the young people who grew up in the same area, went to the same schools, formed a hip-hop band together and then lost hope and started listening to hate-filled preachers.
Talk about great timing: MacLehose Press publishes this just as the Charlie Hebdo and subsequent Paris attacks turned the spotlight onto the French capital. The debates will rage on about the causes of radicalisation of Muslim youth in France, but in his book and interviews, the author makes clear that not much has changed since the banlieues (suburban) riots in 2005. If you live in those ghettos, ‘your chance of getting a job if you are a young man is very limited. That is true if your name is Mohamed. It is probably also true if your name is Michel.’ The one slender glimmer of hope is in the friendship across racial and religious divides between the young girls in the neighbourhood