Thursday, June 01, 2006

“Marseilles isn’t a city for tourists,” says Fabio Montale, the cop who narrates Jean-Claude Izzo’s sensationally readable mystery, the start of an internationally famous trilogy and the first of his books to be published here. “There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared. It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.”

Death has already overtaken the first of three men in their 40s who bonded as boyhood friends in the streets of one of the French port city’s roughest areas and then 20 years ago went their separate ways because of the love each one felt for a younger girl, Lole. Manu, whose family emigrated from Spain, stayed in Marseilles and made his living as a criminal until he was shot down in the street a few months before the start of the book, probably in a professional killing. Ugo, originally from Naples, returns from his own criminal life in Paris to avenge his friend’s death, and is killed by the police after committing a violent public assassination. Now Fabio is left to sort out the end of his own boyhood hopes and dreams – a job that involves digging into both the intricate worlds of high crime and political corruption.
Izzo’s book is full of fascinating characters, tersely brought to life in a prose style which manages (thanks to Howard Curtis’ shrewd translation) to be both traditionally dark and completely original. But above and around them is the major character: the city of Marseilles, a looming example of how environment shapes peoples’ lives.
“Reading Izzo’s novels, you’re bound to cry sooner or later,” said Le Monde when Total Chaos was published. You may also cry when you read that Izzo died at the age of 55 in 2000 – too early, but at least long enough to know how much readers valued his work. All thanks to the new Europa Editions for this beautiful paperback original – and for their plans to publish the last two volumes of Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy in the months ahead.