Monday, April 16, 2012

Josh Reviews the Marseilles Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo

Jean Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy was recommended to me following my review of “A Sun for the Dying” last year on this blog. As I finished the first novel, “Total Chaos,” I made the decision to wait until I finished “Chourmo” and “Solea” to write my review. Count this review as five, six and seven for my Europa Challenge this year.

Izzo’s noir masterpiece occurs over several years in the city of Marseilles (hence its name) with a plot that centers on the life of Fabio Montale, a lifelong resident. Its story is one of the city itself, taking place at the crossroads of the past and future, hope and despair, tragedy and small joys. Montale is a fixture within the grittier side of Marseilles, a regular at the bars, known for his work with the police as the officer who headed the unit responsible for cleaning up the largely immigrant ghettos of Marseilles.

Each book finds Montale pitted against villains seen and unseen. Innocence is fleeting, everyone is flawed and everything is in flux. Izzo’s novels show us the simmering, racially tinged anti-immigrant sentiments flowing through southern France. They show us the impact those groups, old and new are having. The intersections of competing interests such as France’s National Front Party, the mafia, Arab immigrants combine to wreck a maelstrom of havoc onto Montale’s increasingly complicated life. The details he interweaves on streets, directions, restaurants, bars, food and music manage to convince the reader that they, like Montale, can barely take the city but still could never leave. Izzo’s own love for his city could not be more apparent, although sadly so too can his disappointment and anger over the direction he sees it taking.

“Total Chaos” introduces us to Montale through his involvement in solving the murder of his two best friends. Being noir, the body count quickly escalates. In fact, it’s a wonder there’s anyone left to run Izzo’s Marseilles considering how many of his characters bite the bullet. The plot becomes somewhat serpentine, and as much as I tried to keep up, I still fell behind. It depends on whether you prefer to be the omniscient reader or an in the trenches reader. The former will beat their head against the wall quickly, as some revelations are made to us only by Montale himself, showing that when Montale plays his cards close to the vest he won’t even tell the reader until he has to. What is apparent, however, is Izzo’s love for the sea. For Montale, it heals, balances and provides the life he so often feels seeping out on the streets of Marseilles. More importantly, the sea is immune from the poison of the streets. Is justice served in “Total Chaos?” It depends, really on what justice really is. Montale’s victories in Izzo’s works never come without a cost many would argue is disproportionate to the gain.

“Chourmo” brings a now retired Montale to his cousin’s aid when her son disappears. This story parallels and dovetails another that hits equally close to home for Montale. It was just as confusing at times as “Total Chaos,” but thankfully equally rewarding. Recurring characters and locations made me feel as if I had simply been away during the time between the two books only to be welcomed back with a mix of joy and regret that I too had been unable to escape Marseilles in its glory and its sadness. As Montale delves deeper into his investigations, he begins to peel back the layers of corruption and crime he sees as devastating to Marseilles, and thus, to himself as well. Holding to his moral code becomes more and more difficult. I had the sense that Izzo was attempting to express his own feelings of weariness and powerlessness against the tide of change sweeping Marseilles. Like “Total Chaos,” Montale finds solace in the sea- a theme we see repeated. Also as in “Total Chaos,” his victory comes at such a personal cost. Knowing there was one more book, frankly I worried what else Izzo could do to Montale.

Not to worry, in “Solea” things start out pretty bad and get worse from the get-go. This final chapter’s plot is simpler, streamlined and just plain depressing, but in a good way. All of Montale’s friends and acquaintances from the first two books (those that survived) are present plus a few new ones. They are sucked into Montale’s efforts to help his friend evade the Mafia and save his own skin in the process. Suffice to say, things do not go well. I’m glad I read the trilogy back to back, as I think it gives an extended view of Marseilles as a city and of Izzo’s views on his city. Other reviews have called his trilogy a love letter and I have to agree. A tragic love letter, from a partner who is unable to stay yet equally unable to go, Izzo’s final work only offers hope in two of its characters. I won’t say which, to do so would spoil the plots of more than just “Solea.” Outside of them, this novel is just heartbreaking beginning to end. Even the sea begins to lose what healing nature and peace it provided in the first two books. Izzo obviously cares deeply for his city, but his story seems to say that the best hope for the future, if there’s any will be in the memories of the old and not in the activities of the young. As much as a terrifying pursuit of Montale and his friends as it is a takedown of the corruption and filth seeping out of every nook and cranny of Marseilles, Izzo somehow had me at the end as he brought the trilogy to a conclusion no reader really wants but the only ending one can really imagine.

This is heavy stuff, not for the faint of heart and not for the queasy. Nobody comes out unscathed. More than that, it’s genius. Montale and Marseilles completely arrested my attention and took hold of me as few others have. Izzo’s skill at both conveying his own senses and feelings for his city as well as bringing you to the same place is brilliant. I could physically feel the oppressive heat in “Solea,” the claustrophobic streets in “Total Chaos,” the ratty apartments of the Arab immigrants in “Chourmo,” and above all Izzo’s love for the sea in all three works. Europa’s editor in chief mentioned in an email that publishing Izzo’s trilogy with Europa is one of his proudest accomplishments. I can see why.