This is the first volume of a projected quartet, by an author whose experience includes a taste for American crime series such as The Wire. It’s hard going. I don’t think the problem here is the translation: it’s Louatah’s ambition to set his scenes by conjuring up two Algerian immigrant families first seen joining together at a ‘mixed’ wedding, but there are too many characters, not well enough delineated. They’re in St. Etienne, in central France (where Louatah was born); the families are very large (the Nerrouche clan merits a genealogical table); and some of the tensions revolve around identifying yourself as Arab or as Kabyle. This won’t surprise anybody, in our world of vast migrations. The quartet has had rave reviews; this first volume is set over a long day, in St. Etienne and in Paris, before and during a national election for President of France. Part of what has made the book’s name is that he catches the period before the recent terrorist horrors, when there was all to play for.
Evidently, if you’re French, or, indeed, Algerian, or Beur (second or, now, third, generation immigrant), you’ll recognize a lot of the specificities of what’s going on, and not just at the wedding, where the master of ceremonies reads out the names and sums of the cheques which have been given to the bride and groom. If not, you at least have a sense of big weddings and the tensions which come when too many people think it’s all about them and their own scripts. Louatah has an eye for post-industrial depression–it could be the French northeast, famously troubled, but St. Etienne has much better weather–and it’s where he grew up. Technically, most of the book is setting the foundations for what’s to come in future volumes. There is a crime, indeed, there’s an odour of crime throughout. But it’s not evidently crime fiction, or, at least, not yet, and I’m not sure I can face three more volumes. So what has ignited such praise from French reviews? I think it may be that this is the first time there’s been a Ferrante-like (not very like) attempt to set a story in an area of France that gets a bad press from local (and, indeed, national) papers for the failure of immigrants to blend in. Nothing new here. Even in the third generation since large numbers of indigenous Algerians fled their newly free country, there hasn’t been an easy truce with the French citizens of this area, whose prejudices are strong. Immigrant children are sent to less good schools, and to vocational courses rather than any of the paths that lead to success in the hierarchical culture that is French education. Immigrants have, among other things, large numbers of children, which rather frightens the locals. It’s a good, unexpected, feature that the Kabyle and Arab families vote; the book is set in the immediate run-up to a National Election. Sarkozy is recognizable, though names have been changed to protect the guilty (I quote Dragnet, from American crime shows). He is the incumbent, facing a popular and successful politician of Algerian descent. Chaouch is Kabyle, married to a Jewish wife. Shadowy figures (such as the loathesome Sarkozy) are proxies for actual French politics and elections. Above all, the social map is described by a writer who works from inside, so there are fewer clichés than often fill French crime fiction, though the split between parts of the family who stay on the strait and narrow and those who turn to crime is a cliché of clichés. As the books continue to appear, everything may make more sense, or, at least, be easier to read than this opening of a family saga cum socio-political thriller.
Savages: the wedding (The Saint-Etienne Quartet, 1) by Sabri Louatah, Corsair