Spring is almost ready to spring, or so we hope! It seems to come earlier in England than in other parts of the world, but this week my pictures take me to France. Paris and other French cities may not have quite as many green spaces as London does, but it’s always a pleasure to discover some of them, however small. French gardens may be famous for their severe geometric precision, but this is the more natural, unkempt style.
As promised, the final instalment of this year’s edition of the Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon will include some quotes and discussions from the panels I attended. This year, there is also a fabulous innovation: you can find podcasts of practically ALL the debates on this link. Most of them are in French or English or a mix of the two, but there will be occasional Spanish or Icelandic. So you too can listen to all these great events now! [Have I told you how much I love the organisers of this festival?]
- Cityscapes in Crime Fiction: Richard Price (NY), Michèle Rowe (Cape Town), Donato Carrisi (Rome), Carlos Zanón (Barcelona), Walter Lucius (Amsterdam)
MR: Cape Town is still a very wild place, dominated by nature and geography. It has seven microclimates from one end of the city to another, it is heavily dependent on weather, and I love describing how the politics of inclusion/exclusion has been partly created by its geography. For example, townships in beautiful areas were eradicated, handed over to the wealthy, and its inhabitants were dumped elsewhere. My husband calls the city ‘crime with a view’. But in fact, the whole country of South Africa is built on crime, looting, pillaging throughout history. Crime is perhaps the only possible narrative. And yet I meet fantastic people, living in very difficult circumstances with great courage and hope, despite the corrupt government, and that makes me dream that things will still work out in the end despite the odds.
RP: New York City is all about the violence of real estate. Like water, real estate rises to the top and people get washed away, and places like Harlem have succumbed to greed and are catering only to people who have money. The biggest crime fighter in the city is the crane, but gentrification is like sweeping with a broom but no dustpan. The town centre may be safer, but it just spreads crime and violence further afield. The crooks are not the pickpockets, but the developers in their $4000 suits.
CZ: My latest book ‘I Was Johnny Thunder’ is about a failed musician, who goes back home to live with his father, although he is middle-aged. But what I wanted to show is that the people around him, who played by the rules and believed in economic boom, haven’t really succeeded either. Your neighbourhood can become a prison, because it really marks your identity, but you also have the choice to leave. Sometimes.
WL: Amsterdam was a mess 30 years ago. It had a huge crime rate, red light district, junkies, but it also had a genuine sense of community and felt authentic. Now all that has disappeared, it has been sanitized and has become like an open-air museum for tourists. The real old Amsterdam doesn’t exist anymore. I write about immigrants in my books, because I feel that the Dutch don’t really accept that we have become a multicultural society.
DC: Although Rome houses the Vatican City, it is not a sacred city like Jerusalem or Mecca. Rome has multiple souls, including a wicked one. In fact, it is a world headquarters for Satanists – although they may be very different, much more subtle, than the clichés you may have about them. The world’s biggest criminal archives are in the Vatican, because it contains all the sins which people have confessed to their priests. The priests could not absolve them directly, so they sent them to Rome, where they were carefully catalogued. Today, there are profilers helping the police, based on their intimate knowledge of sins and what drives people to commit crimes.
2. Femmes fatales: Philippe Jaenada (France), Jax Miller, Sara Gran (US), LS Hilton (UK), Dolores Redondo (Spain)
With the exception of L.S. Hilton, who tries to present the POV of a real femme fatale in her book ‘Maestra’, the other panelists were somewhat offended that they were asked to talk about this topic and that the panel was almost entirely female. However, they did their best to say something insightful about this.
SG: I just write about a female subject, rather than a female object. I write about a human being, so I don’t think at all about stereotypes. The femme fatale is the eternal object of desire, so she has to be distant, she can never be fully rounded.
LSH: I try to describe the POV of the object of desire. She plays around with the codes and deliberately turns herself into an object, but doesn’t end up getting punished. I get a little tired about being asked if I wanted to write a feminist heroine.
JM: My protagonist simply refuses to be a victim. She may be flawed, a killer, a drug addict, but she is above all a mother and doesn’t care about her appearance.
DR: I hate that women in noir seem to be reduced to one of three roles: victim, prostitute or traitor. I wanted to write about this very strong community of women I have known in the Baztan valley, who have taken over the household when their men went abroad to work, a real matriarchy.
PJ: I wrote about a real-life criminal, Pauline Dubuisson, who was accused in the 1953 of killing her unfaithful lover in cold blood. She was presented as a femme fatale, but in actual fact she was ‘fatalised’ by society, the last victim of patriarchy perhaps. She was always described as beautiful, but also a slut, but in fact she was just a normal-looking person, who wanted to finish her studies before getting married. She was judged by a jury composed almost entirely of men, and it was probably the one woman on the jury who saved her from the guillotine.
3. Recurring Heroes: British Classics : Sophie Hannah (Poirot), Anthony Horowitz (Bond and Sherlock Holmes), Michel Moatti (Jack the Ripper), Cecil & Brunschwig (Holmes in BD), John Lawton (Cold War spies, à la John Le Carré)
SH: I’ve loved Agatha Christie since I was 12 and always thought she was a genius, but was fully aware I wasn’t like her and couldn’t write like her. So I created the character Catchpool to explain why there would be a slightly different style of presenting Poirot. But I most certainly wanted to respect the rules of the universe I was writing in. The next Poirot novel is called ‘Closed Casket’ and will be out later this year.
AH: I was initially suspicious about accepting to continue the Sherlock Holmes cannon – was it all about the money? But of course it was also a childhood dream come true, because I received the complete Holmes as a birthday present when I was 17 and that’s what made me write crime fiction thereafter. I’d also dreamt of writing a Bond film, but kept getting turned down, which is why I had to invent Alex Rider. Of course, the attitudes of Bond – who hates women, gays and foreigners and kills all of the above – is not acceptable to us today, so I had to give it an ironic nudge.
JL: I came late to Christie, and still haven’t read any Sherlock Holmes, I have to admit. I did rather like Fleming, but also Sayers and Allingham, so I wanted to create the amateur cop but update him within the Cold War context, hence my creation of Frederick Troy.
Cecil: Our inspiration was Arsene Lupin, who has one volume dedicated to his arch-enemy, Herlock Sholmes. We like to stay within the Sherlock Holmes cannon, but exploit the gaps and push the envelope a bit, for instance, we suggest that Moriarty didn’t really exist, that he was just a figment of Holmes’ imagination (his tortured self, perhaps).
At this point I realise that this post is getting terribly long and I still have three debates to summarise, so I will leave the rest for tomorrow. Expect a Part 4 therefore!
Once a week I will wallow a bit in nostalgia and write a post about a favourite author (past or present), someone who really influenced me as I was growing up. However, I won’t stick with the obvious choices such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath and all the paraphernalia of the adolescent girl. At least not at first. Not until I run out of lesser-known writers, who deserve much wider recognition. I may not feel quite the same about them now as I did during my adolescence, but I cannot deny they have contributed to me as I am (and write) now. Today’s chosen author has a double significance, as she is Japanese. What better way to pay tribute to the courage and resilience of the Japanese people one year on from the earthquake and tsunami?
I discovered Tawara Machi while I was studying Japanese at university. We were struggling to understand and translate the famous haiku and tanka poems written over a thousand or more years of Japanese literary history, so our teacher introduced us to the contemporary poet Tawara Machi. A young school teacher and translator of classic Japanese waka poetry, she is credited with single-handedly reviving the tanka form, which had fallen out of fashion compared to its shorter, flashier cousin, the haiku. In less than six months, her 1987 debut volume of poetry entitled ‘Sarada no kinenbi’ (Salad Anniversary) sold nearly 3 million copies in Japan and gave birth to the so-called ‘salad phenomenon’ of a young writer being crowned as rock star, TV celebrity and serious intellectual all at the same time.
A few nights ago I was searching for a book of poetry to read before bedtime and I cam across an English translation of ‘Salad Anniversary’ by Juliet Winters Carpenter, published by Kodansha International in 1989. I probably hadn’t opened it in 10-15 years, and perhaps you need to read it as a young person to fully savour the somewhat whimsical and very personal ruminations of a young woman in love. Yet, once again, these short poems captivated me with their freshness, intimacy, flashes of inspiration. Some have objected that Juliet Carpenter’s translations are a bit too sparse and dry (you can find an exploration of alternative translations here), but I find they capture the succinct charm of the original, and the spirit of that everyday observation that suddenly reminds us of the universal.
I became curious: what had happened to Tawara Machi? Was she ever able to live up to her early reputation? Well, after quite a bit of digging around on websites of the world, I have discovered the following:
She sold more than 7 million copies of her first poetry book worldwide – almost unheard of for a volume of poetry, let alone a debut volume by a poet writing in a language not widely spoken all around the world. Somehow, she survived the furore and stayed remarkably sane. She stopped teaching two years or so after her fabulous success and became a full-time writer, while also hosting her own TV and radio shows, translating from the Japanese classics, being a judge on tanka poetry competitions and so on. She has published several other volumes of poetry, including one entitled ‘Pooh’s Nose’ (after the birth of her child) and ‘Street Corner of Capitalism’ (about economic stagnation and urban alienation). You can see and hear her reading some of her recent poems on YouTube. (translations are below in the comments section), or access Quentin S Crisp’s lovely readings of his translations of her poetry as part of a Soutbank Centre project back in 2007.
I am relieved that the story has a happy ending, that her early success (and incredible pressure on her to top that) has not killed off her creativity. She may never again achieve that cult status, but the quality of her poetry, most critics agree, remains high. I just think it’s a pity that she is not more widely known outside Japan, although I have to admit so much of Japanese poetry (both classic and contemporary) is extremely difficult to translate, because of its allusive, elliptical nature and constant self-references.
Here are some of my favourite poems by her:
‘Call again,’ you say and hang up/ I want to call again right now.
Late afternoon/ you and I gaze at the same thing /as between us something ends.
Like getting up to leave a hamburger place/ that’s how I’ll leave / that man.
Now that I wait for you no more,/ sunny Saturdays and rainy Tuesdays / are all the same to me.
To live is to reach out your hand/ The baby’s hand/ grabs Pooh’s nose.
Today a voice has joined his smile/ like a black and white film/ changing to colour.
A certain street corner of capitalism/ The tissues one accepts and receives when needed.
(the last with thanks to From Tokyo to the World, spreading the word for Japanese culture)