It was Catherine from the wonderful Blog du Polar de Velda (if you read French and like crime fiction, this site comes highly recommended) who introduced me to author Marcus Malte in Lyon four years ago. I read two or three of his books (none of which have been translated into English yet) and found them all very different from each other, quite dark, highly imaginative and experimental.
In the meantime, he has won the prestigious Prix Femina with his novel Le garçon (which I haven’t read yet, but you can read Emma’s review), so here’s hoping at least that will get translated. However, in Lyon this year, I picked up one of his earlier books, Les harmoniques, which makes full use of his love of music, especially jazz. Malte is frequently described as a ‘noir’ author, but this book had moments of hilarious fun, almost farce-like, which surprised and enchanted me. Moreover, it did nothing to detract from the rather serious subject matter, proving that it’s not always grim and tortuous which is memorable or worthy. (Oscar selection committee, take note! How could you ignore ‘Hidden Figures’ so badly?)
The subtitle of the book is Beau Danube Blues (Beautiful Danube Blues) and this is a hint of the European tragedy that lies at its heart. It starts off with a chapter that resembles jazz improvisation, with two people talking (we have no idea who they are at first), and musical interludes between their words.
‘Believe it or not, there was a time when I thought I was immortal. But I fear that has gone. For good.’
‘That’s called wisdom.’
‘I’d rather call that giving up.
‘Wisdom includes giving up.’
This might seem like a pretentious and unnecessarily difficult way to hook a reader into a novel, but if you move on to the next chapters, you realise it gives you a good insight into the two main characters: Mister and Bob.
Mister is a jazz pianist and one of his favourite fans, beautiful young Vera, has just been murdered and burnt alive. The police has arrested two suspects, who have confessed to the crime, but Mister is convinced there is more to it than meets the eye.
Bob is his friend and favourite taxi driver, a mighty unusual one, former philosophy professor, prone to enigmatic quotations and only occasionally charging his clients. Together, they set out to discover the truth about Vera’s death. In due course, they discover more about her life: she came to France to study theatre, but she was originally from the Balkans, from the Croatian town of Vukovar, where in 1991 an 87 day siege was followed by a whole-scale destruction and ethnic cleansing of the town by the Serbian army. But what could this long-gone war have to do with her present-day murder?
We never get to see Vera herself, she is dead at the outset of the novel, but we do see her through other people’s eyes and through short, poetic chapters, very much like musical interludes, which seem to delve into her mind, although they are in the third person:
This war which she escaped but which she carried everywhere with her. In her head. Secretly. Even in the most tender moments.
They come across a series of paintings of Vera in an art gallery and decide to visit the artist Josef Kristi, a strange, reclusive character, to find out more about the relationship between Kristi and the model. Although the artist tells them a little about Vera’s past, they don’t quite believe he is not involved in her death, so they decide to do some very amateurish surveillance. What follows is a very funny scene, where they end up in the middle of a field of beetroots (or maybe turnips or potatoes or pumpkins, they are not quite sure), just opposite the Kristi house. Mister fears they are too conspicuous, but Bob says they can always claim that they are waiting for a pick-up truck. And then a farmer passes by and stops to see what these incompetent investigators are up to… I was giggling all the way through this scene.
There are serious and dangerous moments too: they get involved with nasty and brutal people, some of them in positions of power, and make some unlikely allies – a blind, elderly accordeon-player and a young, tone-deaf singer. While this is not a plot-driven book, the build-up of tension was working well until about the last 100 pages, when it all descends into a lengthy explanation and is wrapped up too quickly, as if the author had lost interest.
But the crime element is not the main reason to read this book: it is a wonderful piece of rhythmic and musical writing, with many passages designed to be read out loud (as the author did, with musical accompaniment, in Lyon. You can read Emma’s thoughts about the event here). It is a melancholy look at all the ‘forgotten’ towns and victims, and a reminder that the consequences of war rage on long after the conflict is officially over. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am always curious to see what Marcus Malte writes next: he is most certainly not an author to be pigeon-holed.
This fits in well with the #EU27Project, since it is written by a French writer, deals with a recent conflict in Croatia and reminds us of the purpose of the EU.