Book one in the Marseilles Trilogy.
“The Marseilles trilogy may be the most lyrical hard-boiled writing yet.” —The Nation
Ugo, Manu, and Fabio grew up together on the mean streets of Marseilles, where friendship means everything. They promised to stay true to one another and swore that nothing would break their bond. But people and circumstances change. Ugo and Manu have been drawn into the criminal underworld of Europe’s toughest, most violent and vibrant city. When Manu is murdered and Ugo returns from abroad to avenge his friend’s death, only to be killed himself, it is left to the third in this trio, Detective Fabio Montale, to ensure justice is done. Despite warnings from both his colleagues in law enforcement and his acquaintances in the underworld, Montale cannot forget the promise he once made Manu and Ugo. He’s going to find their killer even if it means going too far.
In Izzo’s novels, Marseilles is explosive, tragic, breathtakingly beautiful and deadly. Asked to explain the astounding success of his now legendary Marseilles trilogy, Izzo credits his beloved native city: “Essentially, I think I have been rewarded for having depicted the real beauty of Marseilles, its gusto, its passion for life, and the ability of its inhabitants to drink life down to the last drop.” Fabio Montale is the perfect protagonist in this city of melancholy beauty. A disenchanted cop with an inimitable talent for living who turns his back on a police force marred by corruption and racism and, in the name of friendship, takes the fight against the mafia into his own hands.
“Like the best noir writers—and make no mistake, he is among the best—Izzo [...] digs deep into what makes men weep.” —Time Out, New York
** This extract is from Total Chaos published by Europa Editions. To purchase, move your curser mid-lower page and click on the link to a retailer.
I crouched by the body. Pierre Ugolini. Ugo. I’d only just arrived on the scene. Too late. My colleagues had been playing cowboys. Shoot to kill: that was their basic rule. They followed the General Custer principle that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. And in Marseilles, everyone—or almost everyone—was an Indian.
The Ugolini file had landed on the wrong desk. Captain Auch’s desk. In a few years, his team had gained an evil reputation, but it had proved itself. People turned a blind eye to its occasional mistakes. Cracking down on organized crime was a priority in Marseilles. The second priority was maintaining order in the north of the city, where the suburbs were full of immigrants and the housing projects had become no-go areas. That was my job. But I wasn’t allowed any mistakes.
Ugo was a childhood friend. Like Manu. He was a friend, even though he and I hadn’t talked in twenty years. Ugo dying so soon after Manu cast a shadow over my past. It was something I’d tried to avoid. But I’d gone about it the wrong way.
When I found out that Auch had been given the job of investigating why Ugo was in Marseilles, I’d put one of my informers on the case. Frankie Malabe. I trusted him. If Ugo came to Marseilles, it was obvious he’d go to Lole’s, in spite of all the time that had passed. And I’d been sure Ugo would come. Because of Manu, and because of Lole. Friendship has its rules, you can’t avoid them. I’d been expecting Ugo for three months. Because I too thought that Manu’s death couldn’t be left open. There had to be an explanation. There had to be a culprit. Justice had to be done. I wanted to see Ugo, to talk about that. About justice. I was a cop and he was a criminal, but I wanted to stop him doing anything stupid. To protect him from Auch. But to find Ugo, I had to see Lole again, and since Manu’s death, I’d lost track of her.
Frankie Malabe had been efficient. He’d hung out at the Vamping, spoken to Lole. But he hadn’t passed his information on to me until a day after he’d offered it to Auch. Auch had the power, and he was tough. The informers were scared of him. And being the scumbags they were, they tended to look after their own interests. I should have known that.
My other mistake had been not going to see Lole myself the other evening. I can be a bit of a coward sometimes. I couldn’t make up my mind to just show up at the Vamping after three months. Three months from the night following Manu’s death. Maybe Lole wouldn’t even have spoken to me. Or maybe, seeing me, she’d have gotten the message. And then Ugo would have gotten it, too.
Ugo. He stared up at me with his dead eyes, a smile on his lips. I closed his eyelids. The smile remained. It wouldn’t go away now.
I stood up. There was a lot of bustle around me. Orlandi stepped forward to take photos. I looked down at Ugo’s body. His hand was open. The Smith and Wesson lay on the step, like an extension of the hand. Orlandi snapped him.What had really happened? Was he getting ready to shoot? Had there been the usual warnings? I’d never know. Or maybe one day in hell, when I met Ugo again. Because the only witnesses would be those chosen by Auch. The people in the neighborhood would keep shtum. Their word wasn’t worth anything. I turned away. Auch had just made his appearance. He walked up to me.
“I’m sorry, Fabio. About your friend.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
I went back up Rue des Cartiers. I passed Morvan, the team’s crack shot. A face like Lee Marvin. A killer’s face, not a cop’s. I put all the hatred I had into the look I gave him. He didn’t turn away. For him, I didn’t exist. I was a nobody. Just a neighborhood cop.
At the top of the street, a group of Arab kids stood watching the scene.
“Get lost, boys.”
They looked at each other, then at the oldest in the gang, then at the moped lying on the ground behind them. The moped abandoned by Ugo. When he was being chased, I’d been on the terrace of the Bar du Refuge, watching Lole’s apartment building. I’d finally decided to make a move. Too much time had passed. The risks were getting greater every day. There was no one in the apartment. But I was ready to wait for Lole or Ugo for as long as it took. Ugo had passed just a few yards from me.
“What’s your name?”
“Is that your moped?”
He didn’t reply.
“Pick it up and get out of here. While they’re still busy.”
Nobody moved. Djamel was looking at me, puzzled. “Clean it, and then hide it for a few days. Do you understand?”
I turned my back on them and walked toward my car. I didn’t look back. I lit a cigarette, a Winston, then threw it away. It tasted disgusting. For a month, I’d been trying to change from Gauloises to Virginia cigarettes, to alleviate my cough. In the rear-view mirror, I made sure the moped and the kids were gone. I closed my eyes. I wanted to cry.
Back at the station house, I was told about Zucca. And the killer on the moped. Zucca hadn’t been an underworld boss, but he had been a vital linchpin, with all the bosses dead or in prison or on the run. Zucca’s death was good news for us, the cops. For Auch, anyhow. I immediately made the connection with Ugo. But I didn’t tell anyone. What difference did it make? Manu was dead. Ugo was dead. And Zucca wasn’t worth shedding any tears over.
The ferry for Ajaccio was leaving the harbor basin. The Monte d’Oro. The only advantage of my shabby office in the station house was that I had a window that looked out on the port of La Joliette. The ferries were almost the only activity left in the port. Ferries for Ajaccio, Bastia, Algiers. A few liners too, doing senior citizen cruises. But there was also still quite a bit of freight. Even now, Marseilles was the third largest port in Europe. Far ahead of its nearest rival, Genoa. The racks of bananas and pineapples from the Ivory Coast piled at the end of the Léon Gousset pier seemed to guarantee Marseilles’ future. A last hope.
The harbor had attracted serious interest from property developers. Two hundred hectares to build on, a sizeable fortune. They could easily envisage transferring the port to Fos and building a new Marseilles by the sea. They already had the architects, and the plans were progressing well. But I couldn’t imagine Marseilles without its harbor basins, or its old fashioned boathouses without boats. I liked boats. Real boats, big ones. I liked to watch them setting sail. I always felt a twinge of sorrow. The Ville de Naples was leaving port, all lit up. I was on the pier, in tears. On board, my cousin Sandra.With her parents and her brothers, they’d stopped off for two days in Marseilles, and now they were leaving again, for Buenos Aires. I was in love with Sandra. I was nine years old. I’d never seen her again. She’d never written me. Fortunately, she wasn’t my only cousin.
The ferry had turned into the Grande Joliette basin. It glided behind the cathedral of La Major. The setting sun gave the gray, grime-incrusted stone a degree of warmth. At such times, La Major, with its Byzantine curves, looked almost beautiful. Afterwards, it reverted to being what it had always been: a pompous piece of Second Empire crap. I watched the ferry move slowly past the Sainte-Marie sea wall and head for the open sea. For tourists who’d spent a day, maybe a night, in transit in Marseilles, it was the start of the crossing. By tomorrow morning, they’d be on the Île de Beauté. They’d remember a few things about Marseilles. The Vieux Port. Notre Dame de la Garde, which dominates it. The Corniche, maybe. And the Pharo Palace, which they could see now to their left.
Marseilles isn’t a city for tourists. 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.
The ferry was now just a dark patch in the setting sun. I was too much of a cop to take things at face value. There was a lot I couldn’t figure out. Who’d put Ugo on to Zucca so quickly? Had Zucca really ordered the hit on Manu? Why? And why hadn’t Auch collared Ugo last night? Or this morning? And where was Lole at the time?
Lole. Like Manu and Ugo, I hadn’t noticed her growing up, becoming a woman. Then, like them, I’d fallen in love with her. But I had no claims on her. I wasn’t from the Panier. I was born there, but when I was two years old, my parents moved to the Capelette, a wop neighborhood. The most you could hope for—and it was a lot—was to be good friends with Lole.Where I’d really been lucky was in being friends with Manu and Ugo.
At that time, I still had family in the neighborhood, on Rue des Cordelles. Three cousins: two boys and a girl. The girl’s name was Angèle. Gélou, we called her. She was grown up. Almost seventeen. She often came to our house. She helped my mother, who was already bedridden most of the time. Afterwards, I had to walk her home. It wasn’t really dangerous in those days, but Gélou didn’t like to go home on her own. And I liked to walk with her. She was beautiful, and I felt proud when she gave me her arm. The problem started when we reached the Accoules. I didn’t like to go into the neighborhood. It was dirty, and it stank. I felt ashamed. Most of all, I was scared stiff. Not when I was with her, but when I walked back alone. Gélou knew that, and it amused her. I didn’t dare ask my brothers to walk back with me. I’d set off at a near run, eyes down. There were often boys my age at the corner of Rue du Panier and Rue des Muettes. I’d hear them laughing as I passed. Sometimes they whistled at me, as if I was a girl.
One evening, at the end of summer, Gélou and I were coming up Rue des Petits-Moulins. Arm in arm, like lovers. Her breast brushed the back of my hand. It drove me wild. I was happy. Then I saw them, the two of them. I’d already passed them several times. I guessed we were the same age. Fourteen. They were coming toward us, smiling maliciously. Gélou tightened her grip on my arm, and I felt the warmth of her breast on my hand.
They stepped aside as we passed. The taller one on Gélou’s side, the shorter one on my side. He shoved me with his shoulder, and laughed uproariously. I let go of Gélou’s arm.
He turned in surprise. I punched him in the stomach, and he bent double. Then I pulled him back up with a left full in the face. An uncle of mine had taught me a bit of boxing, but I was fighting for the first time. The boy was on the ground now, trying to get his breath back. The other one hadn’t moved. Neither had Gélou. She was watching, scared, but delighted too, I think.
I walked up to him. “So, spic, had enough?” I said, threateningly.
“You shouldn’t call him that,” the other one said, behind me.
“What are you? A wop?”
“What’s it to you?”
I felt the ground disappear beneath my feet. From where he lay, he’d tripped me up. I found myself on my back. He threw himself on me. I saw that his lip was cut, and he was bleeding. We rolled over. The smell of piss and shit filled my nostrils. I wanted to cry. I wanted to stop fighting and lay my head on Gélou’s breasts. Then I felt myself being pulled violently to my feet and slapped on the head. A man was separating us, calling us punks, telling us we’d end up in the joint. I didn’t see them again until September, when we found ourselves in the same school, on Rue des Remparts, doing vocational classes. Ugo came up to me and shook my hand, then Manu did the same. We talked about Gélou. They both thought she was the most beautiful girl in the neighborhood.
It was after midnight by the time I got back home. I lived outside Marseilles, at Les Goudes, the last little harbor town but one before the string of rocky inlets known as the calanques. You go along the Corniche, as far as the Roucas Blanc beach, then follow the coast. La Vieille Chappelle. La Pointe Rouge. La Campagne Pastrée. La Grotte-Roland. A whole bunch of neighborhoods that were still like villages. Then La Madrague de Montredon. That, seemingly, is where Marseilles stops. After that, there’s a narrow, winding road, cut into the white rock, overlooking the sea. At the end of it, sheltered by arid hills, the harbor of Les Goudes. Less than a mile past there, the road stops. At Callelonge, Impasse des Muets. Beyond that, the calanques: Sormiou, Morgiou, Sugitton, En-Vau.Wonders, every one of them. You won’t find anything like them anywhere else along the coast. The only way to reach them is on foot, or by boat, which is a good thing. Eventually, you come to the port of Cassis, and the tourists reappear.
Like almost all the houses here, my house is a one-storey cottage, built of bricks, wood and a few tiles. It’s on the rocks, overlooking the sea. Two rooms. A small bedroom and a big dining room cum kitchen, simply furnished, with odds and ends. A branch of Emmaus. My boat was moored at the bottom of a flight of eight steps. A fisherman’s boat, with a pointed stern, that I’d bought from my neighbor Honorine. I’d inherited the house from my parents. It was their only possession. And I was their only son.
The whole family used to come here on Saturdays. There’d be big plates of pasta in sauce, with headless larks and meatballs cooked in the same sauce. The smells of tomatoes, basil, thyme, and bay filled the rooms. Bottles of rosé wine did the rounds amid much laughter. The meals always finished with songs, songs by Marino Marini and Renato Carosone first, then Neapolitan songs. The last was always Santa Lucia, sung by my father.
Afterwards, the men would start playing belote. They’d play all night long, until one of them lost his temper and threw down the cards. “Put the leeches on him!” someone would cry. And the laughter would start all over again. There were mattresses on the floor. We shared the beds. We children all slept in the same bed, crosswise. I’d rest my head on Gélou’s burgeoning breasts and fall asleep happy. Like a child, but with adult dreams.
My mother’s death put an end to the parties. My father never again set foot in Les Goudes. Even thirty years ago, coming to Les Goudes was quite an expedition. You had to take the 19, at Place de la Prefecture, on the corner of Rue Armeny, and travel as far as La Madrague de Montredon. From there, you continued in an old bus whose driver had long since passed retirement age. Manu, Ugo and I started to go there when we were about sixteen.We never took girls there. It was just for us. Our hideout. We took all our treasures to the house. Books, record albums. We were inventing the world. A world in our own image, to match our own strengths. We’d spend whole days reading Ulysses’ adventures to each other. Then, when night fell, sitting silent on the rocks, we’d dream of mermaids with beautiful hair singing ‘among the black rocks all streaming with white foam.’ And we cursed those who’d killed the mermaids.
Our taste for books came from Antonin, an old second-hand bookseller, an anarchist, whose shop was on Cours Julien.We’d cut classes to go see him. He’d tell us stories of adventurers and pirates. The Caribbean. The Red Sea. The South Seas...Sometimes, he’s stop, grab a book, and read us a passage. As if to prove that what he was telling us was true. Then he’d give it to us as a present. The first one was Conrad’s Lord Jim.
That was where we also listened to Ray Charles for the first time. On Gélou’s old Teppaz. It was a 45 of the Newport concert. What’d I Say and I Got a Woman. Fantastic.We played the record over and over again, at full volume, until Honorine finally cracked.
“My God, you’re going to drive us crazy!” she cried from her terrace, her fists on her fat hips. She threatened to complain to my father. I knew perfectly well she hadn’t seen him since my mother died, but she was so furious, we believed she was quite capable of doing it. That calmed us down. And anyhow, we liked Honorine. She always worried about us. She’d come over to see ‘if we needed anything.’
“Do your parents know where you are?”
“Of course,” I’d reply.
“And didn’t they make you a picnic?”
“They’re too poor.”
We’d burst out laughing. She’d smile, shrug her shoulders, and leave. She understood us. She was like our mother, and we were the children she’d never had. Then she’d come back with a snack. Or fish soup, when we slept over on Saturday night. The fish was caught by her husband Toinou. Sometimes, he’d take us out in his boat. Each of us in turn. He was the one who gave me my taste for fishing. And now, I had his boat, the Trémolino, beneath my window.
We came regularly to Les Goudes until the army separated us. We were together at first, during training. At Toulon, then at Fréjus, in the Colonial Army, among corporals with scars and medals up to their ears. Survivors of Indochina and Algeria who were still spoiling for a fight. Manu had stayed in Fréjus, Ugo left for Nouméa, and I left for Djibouti. After that, we weren’t the same anymore. We’d become men. Disillusioned and cynical. Slightly bitter too. We had nothing. We hadn’t even learned a trade. No future. Nothing but life. But a life without a future is worse than no life at all.
We soon got tired of doing shitty little jobs. One morning, we went to see a Greek guy named Kouros, who owned a construction business in the Huveaune valley, on the road to Aubagne. We weren’t very keen, but this was one of those times when we had to make up our losses by working. The night before, we’d blown all our funds in a poker game. We had to get up early, take a bus, fake our way out of paying, scrounge smokes from a guy on the street. A real nightmare of a morning. The Greek offered us 142 francs and 57 centimes a week. Manu went white. It wasn’t so much the pitiful wage he couldn’t swallow, it was the 57 centimes.
“Are you sure about the 57 centimes, Monsieur Kouros?”
The boss looked at Manu as if he was an idiot, then at Ugo and me.We knew our Manu. It was obvious we’d gotten off to a bad start.
“It isn’t 56 or 58, is it? It’s really 57? 57 centimes?”
Kouros confirmed that. He really didn’t get it. He thought it was a good wage. 142 francs 57 centimes. Manu landed him a well-placed punch. Kouros fell off his chair. The secretary gave a cry, then started screaming. Some guys charged into the office. A brawl. It was a good thing the cops arrived when they did, because the fight wasn’t going our way. That was it, we told each other that night, we had to get serious. We had to start working for ourselves. Maybe we could reopen Antonin’s shop. But to do that, we needed money. So we made up our minds. We’d hold up an all-night drugstore. Or a tobacco shop. Or a gas station. That was the only way we could put a bit of money together. We’d done plenty of shoplifting. Books from Tacussel on the Canebière, records from Raphaël’s on Rue Montgrand, clothes from the Magasin Général or the Dames de France on Rue Saint-Ferréol. It was like a game. But we didn’t know anything about holdups. Not yet. We’d soon learn. We spent days working out how to do it, searching for the ideal place.
One evening, we went to Les Goudes for Ugo’s twentieth birthday. Miles Davis was playing Rouge. Manu took a package out of his bag and put it on the table in front of Ugo.
A 9mm automatic.
“Where did you get it?”
Ugo looked at the gun, but didn’t dare touch it. Manu laughed, then put his hand back inside his bag and took out another gun. A Beretta 7.65.
“Now we’re all set.” He looked at Ugo, then at me. “I could only get two. But that’s no problem. You’ll do the driving. When we go in, you stay in the car, be our lookout. There’s no risk. The place is deserted after eight o’clock. The guy’s an old man. And he’s alone.”
It was a drugstore on Rue des Trois-Mages, a side street not far from the Canebière. I was at the wheel of a Peugeot 204 that I’d stolen that morning on Rue Saint-Jacques, in the rich part of town. Manu and Ugo had rammed sailor’s bonnets down over their ears and had put scarves over their noses. They leaped out of the car, just like they’d seen in the movies. First the old guy put his hands up, then he opened the cash register. Ugo collected the money while Manu was threatening the guy with the Beretta. Half an hour later, we were drinking at the Péano. On us, guys! Drinks all round! We’d bagged one thousand seven hundred francs. Not bad for the period. The equivalent of two months working for Kouros, including the centimes. It was as easy as that.
Soon, our pockets were full. Money was no object, and we blew it on girls, cars and parties. We’d end our nights with the gypsies in L’Estaque, drinking and listening to them play. Relatives of Lole and her sisters, Zina and Kali. Lole often went out with her sisters now. She’d just turned sixteen. She’d stay in a corner, huddled and silent, with a vacant air. Hardly eating, and drinking only milk.
We soon forgot about Antonin’s shop. We told each other we’d see about that later, that it was OK to have a good time for a while. And anyway, maybe the shop wasn’t such a good idea after all. What kind of money would we make? Not much, seeing how poor Antonin had ended up. Maybe a bar would be better. Or a night club. I went along with it. Gas stations, tobacco shops, drugstores. We covered the region, from Aix to Les Martigues. We once even went as far as Salon-de-Provence. And still I went along with it. But I was becoming less enthusiastic. It was like playing in a rigged poker game.
One evening, we did another drugstore. On the corner of Place Sadi-Carnot and Rue Mery, not far from the Vieux Port. The druggist made a move. An alarm went off. There was a gunshot. From the car, I saw the guy fall to the floor.
Manu got into the back seat. “Step on it,” he said.
I drove to Place du Mazeau. I thought I could hear police sirens not far behind us. On the right, the Panier. No streets, just steps. On my left, Rue de la Guirlande, a one-way street. I turned onto Rue Caisserie, then Rue Saint-Laurent.
“Are you crazy or what? It’s a rat trap this way.”
“You’re the one who’s crazy! Why did you shoot him?”
I stopped the car on Impasse Belle-Marinière. I pointed to the steps between the new apartment buildings.
“We split that way. On foot.” Ugo hadn’t yet said anything.
“There must be five thousand. It’s our best job ever.”
Manu left via Rue des Martégales, Ugo by Avenue Saint-Jean, me by Rue de la Loge. But I didn’t join them at the Péano as usual. I went home, and vomited. Then I began drinking. Drinking and sobbing. Looking at the city from the balcony. I could hear my father snoring. He’d worked hard all his life, and suffered a lot, but I didn’t think I’d ever be as happy as he was. Lying on the bed, completely drunk, I swore on my mother, whose picture I had in front ofme, that if the guy pulled through I’d become a priest, and if he didn’t pull through I’d become a cop. I was talking crap, but it was a vow all the same. The next day, I enlisted in the Colonial Army, for three years. The guy didn’t die but he didn’t exactly pull through either: he was paralyzed for life. I asked to go back to Djibouti. That was where I saw Ugo for the last time.
All our treasures were here, in the cottage. All intact. The books, the record albums. And I was the only survivor.
I made you some foccaccia, Honorine had written on a little piece of paper. Foccaccia is made with pizza dough, filled with whatever you like, and served hot. Tonight, the filling was cured ham and mozzarella. As she had every day since Toinou died, three years ago, Honorine had made me a meal. She’d just turned seventy and loved to cook. But she could only cook for a man. I was her man, and I loved it. I sat down in the boat, with the foccaccia and a bottle of white Cassis—a Clos Boudard 91—next to me. I rowed out, in order not to disturb the neighbors’ sleep, then, once past the sea wall, I started the motor and set course for Île Maïre.
That was where I wanted to be. Between the sky and the sea. The whole bay of Marseilles stretched in front of me like a glow-worm. I let the boat drift. My father had put away the oars. He took me by the hands. “Don’t be scared,” he said, plunging me into the water up to my shoulders. The boat tipped in my direction, and I had his face above mine. He was smiling. “Good, huh?” I nodded, though I was still very nervous. He plunged me back in the water. He was right, it was good. That was my first contact with the sea. I’d just turned five. I remembered the incident as having taken place near Île Maïre, so that was where I went every time I felt sad. The way you always go back to your first image of happiness.
I was certainly sad that evening. Ugo’s death was weighing on my mind. I felt suffocated. And alone. More alone than ever. Every year, I ostentatiously crossed out of my address book any friend who’d made a racist remark, neglected those whose only ambition was a new car and a Club Med vacation, and forgot all those who played the Lottery. I loved fishing and silence. Walking in the hills. Drinking cold Cassis, Lagavulin or Oban late into the night. I didn’t talk much. Had opinions about everything. Life and death. Good and evil. I was a film buff. Loved music. I’d stopped reading contemporary novels. More than anything, I loathed half-hearted, spineless people.
A fair number of women had found that attractive. I hadn’t been able to hold on to any of them. It was always the same story. No sooner had they settled into our new life together than they’d set about trying to change the very things they liked about me. “You’ll never change,” Rosa had said when she left, six years ago. She’d tried for two years. I’d resisted. Even more than I had with Muriel, Carmen and Alice. And I’d always find myself alone again one night with an empty glass and an ashtray full of cigarette butts.
I drank the wine straight from the bottle. Another one of those nights when I wondered why I was still a cop. Five years ago I’d been assigned to the Neighborhood Surveillance Squad, a unit of untrained cops given the job of keeping order in North Marseilles. I had plenty of experience, and I could keep a cool head. Just the guy to send to the front line when the shit hit the fan. Lahaouri Ben Mohamed, a seventeen-year old, had been shot dead during a routine identity check. The anti-racist organizations had protested, the left-wing parties had mobilized their members. The usual thing. But he was only an Arab. No reason to care too much about his human rights. In February 1988 on the other hand, when Charles Dovero, the son of a taxi driver, was gunned down, the city was in turmoil. Goddammit, this one was a Frenchman. This time, the police had made a real mistake. Something had to be done. That was where I came in. I took up my post with my head full of illusions. I was going to explain, to persuade. I was going to find answers, preferably good ones. I was going to help. That was the day I’d started down what my colleagues called the slippery slope. The day I’d started to become less of a cop and more of a youth counselor or social worker. Since then, I’d lost the trust of my superiors and made myself a fair number of enemies. True, there hadn’t been anymore mistakes, and petty crime hadn’t increased, but the tally was nothing to boast about: no spectacular arrests, no big media stunts. Routine, however well managed, was just routine.
The reforms—and there were lots of them—increased my isolation. Nobody new was assigned to the squad. And one day I woke up and realized I’d lost all my power. I’d been disowned by the anti-crime squad, the narcotics squad, the vice squad, the illegal immigration squad. Not to mention the squad waging war on organized crime, led so brilliantly by Auch. I’d become just a neighborhood cop who didn’t get any important cases. But, since the Colonial Army, being a cop was the only thing I knew. And nobody had ever challenged me to do anything else. But I knew my colleagues were right, I was on the slippery slope. I wasn’t the kind of cop who could shoot a punk in the back to save a colleague’s skin, and that meant I was dangerous.
The message machine was flashing. It was late. Everything could wait. I’d just had a shower. I poured myself a glass of Lagavulin, put on a Thelonius Monk album, and went to bed with Conrad’s Between the Tides. My eyes closed. Monk kept going, solo.
I drew up in the parking lot of La Paternelle. A largely Arab housing project. It wasn’t the toughest, but it certainly wasn’t the best. It was barely ten o’clock and it was already very hot. The sun had free rein here. No trees, nothing. Just the project, the parking lot, and a patch of waste ground. In the distance, the sea. L’Estaque and its harbor. Like another continent. I remembered a song by Aznavour: Poverty isn’t so hard in the sun. I don’t suppose he’d ever been here, to this pile of shit and concrete.
It wasn’t long after I’d first arrived in the projects that I rubbed shoulders with the three groups who stand out from the crowd and freak people out, not just people downtown, but people in the projects too: the punks, the junkies and the dropouts. The punks are teenagers with a long experience of crime behind them. Holdup men, dealers, racketeers. Some, although barely seventeen, have already done a couple of years in the joint, with several years ‘conditional discharge.’ They’re young, tough and scary, and they’ll use a flick knife at the drop of a hat. The junkies, on the other hand, aren’t looking for trouble. It’s just that sometimes they need cash, and to get it they’d pull any stupid stunt. Whatever they get, they have it coming. Just showing their faces is tantamount to a confession.
The dropouts are cool guys. They don’t do anything stupid, and they don’t have a police record. They’re enrolled in vocational courses, but never attend, which suits everybody just fine: it reduces class numbers and allows the college to hire extra teachers. They spend their afternoons at FNAC or Virgin. Scrounge a smoke here, a hundred francs there. They’re resourceful, and clean. Until the day they start dreaming of driving a BMW, because they’re pissed off taking the bus. Or they’re suddenly ‘inspired’ by dope and start shooting up.
Then there are all the others, the ones I discovered later. A whole mass of kids who have no story other than that they were born here. And that they’re Arabs. Or blacks, or gypsies, or Comorans. High school kids, temporary workers, the unemployed, public nuisances, the sports fans. Their teenage years are spent walking a tightrope. A tightrope from which they’re almost all likely to fall. Where will they land? Punk, junkie, dropout? Nobody knows. It’s a lottery. They’ll find out sooner or later. For me it’s always too soon, for them it’s too late. In the meantime, they get picked up for trivial offences. Riding a bus without a ticket, a fight on the way out of school, petty shoplifting from a supermarket.
These were the kind of things they discussed on Radio Galère, a talk radio station I listened to regularly in the car. I waited now for the end of the show, with the car door open.
“Our old folks can’t help us anymore, dammit! Take me, for instance. I get to eighteen, I need fifty or a hundred francs on a Friday night. It’s only natural. There are five of us.Where do you think the old man’s going to find five hundred francs? So, then what happens, I don’t say me, but...my brother for example, he has to—”
“Pick someone’s pocket!”
“That’s no joke!”
“Right! And the guy who gets his money stolen sees it’s an Arab. And straight away he joins the National Front!”
“Even if he isn’t a racist, man!”
“It could have been, I don’t know, a Portuguese, a Frenchman, a gypsy.”
“Or a Swiss guy! Shit, man! There are thieves everywhere.”
“Just your luck that in Marseille, it’s more likely to be an Arab than a Swiss guy.”
Since the neighborhood had become my beat, I’d collared a few real gangsters, and a reasonable number of dealers and holdup men. Caught them red-handed, chased them through the projects or out along the beltway. Next stop Les Baumettes, Marseilles’ biggest jail. I had no pity for them, no hate either. But I did have my doubts. Whoever the guy is, he goes into the joint at eighteen, his life is screwed up. When I was doing holdups with Manu and Ugo, we didn’t think about the risks. We knew the rules. You play the game. If you win, fine. If you lose, too bad. If you don’t like it, you might as well stay at home.
The rules were still the same now. But the risks were a hundred times greater. And the prisons were overflowing with minors. Six minors for every one adult. A figure I found really depressing.
About ten kids were chasing each other, throwing stones as big as fists. “As long as they’re doing that, they aren’t doing something stupid,” one of the mothers had told me. What she meant by ‘something stupid’ was something you called in the police for. This was just the junior version of the OK Corral. In front of Block C12, six Arab kids, aged from twelve to seventeen, stood talking. In the few feet of shade offered by the building. They saw me coming toward them. Especially the oldest of them, Rachid. He started shaking his head and making blowing noises, convinced that just my being there meant the hassles were starting. I had no intention of disappointing him. “Open air classes today?” I said, to no one in particular.
“It’s teachers’ day, monsieur,” the youngest of them said. “They have classes for each other.”
“Yeah, to see if they’re good enough to stuff our heads with their shit,” another kid said.
“Great. So I guess this is kind of like your practical work right now?”
“What do you mean?” Rachid said. “We ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong.”
For him, school was long over. Expelled from vocational college, after threatening a teacher who called him a moron. A good kid, all the same. He was hoping for an apprenticeship. Like a lot of kids in the projects. That was the future, waiting to go on some kind of course, whatever it was. It was better than waiting for nothing at all.
“I didn’t say you were, I was just asking.” He was wearing a blue and white tracksuit: the colors of OM, the Marseilles soccer team. I felt the material. “Mmm. Brand new.”
“It’s paid for. My mother bought it for me.” I put my arm around his shoulders and pulled him away from the group. His friends looked at me as if I’d broken the law. They were ready to scream.
“Look, Rachid, I’m going over there to B7. You see? Fifth floor. To Mouloud’s apartment. Mouloud Laarbi. Do you know him?”
“Yeah. What about it?”
“I’ll be there... oh, maybe an hour.”
“What’s it to me?”
I walked him a few more steps, toward my car. “Now, this is my car. Nothing amazing, I can hear you say. I agree. But I like it. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to it. I wouldn’t even want it to get scratched. So I’d like you to keep an eye on it. And if you have to go take a leak, get one of your buddies to take over. OK?”
“I’m not the super.”
“Get in some practice. There may be a job for you there.” I squeezed his shoulder a bit harder. “Remember, Rachid, not a scratch, or else...”
“Else what? I’m not doin’ nothin’. You can’t accuse me of nothin’.”
“I can do anything I like. I’m a cop. Don’t forget that.” I ran my hand down his back. “If I put my hand here, on your ass, what’ll I find in your back pocket?”
He freed himself quickly. He was on edge. I knew he didn’t have anything. I just wanted to be sure.
“I don’t have nothin’. I don’t touch that shit.”
“I know. You’re just a poor little Arab being harassed by a stupid cop, right?”
“Didn’t say that.”
“You think it, though. Keep an eye on my car, Rachid.”
B7 was no different than the other blocks. The lobby was filthy, and stank of piss. Someone had thrown a stone at the light bulb and smashed it. And the elevator didn’t work. Five floors. Climbing them certainly wasn’t taking a stairway to Paradise. Mouloud had called last night and left a message. Surprised at first by the recorded voice, he’d said ‘Hello’ a few times, then left a silence, and then spoken his message. “Please, Monsieur Montale, you must come. It’s about Leila.”
Leila was the eldest of his three children. The others were Kader and Driss. He might have had more, if his wife, Fatima, hadn’t died giving birth to Driss. Mouloud was the immigrant dream personified. He’d been one of the first to be hired for the Fos-sur-Mer site, at the end of 1970.
Fos had been like Eldorado. There was enough work for centuries. They were building a port that would welcome enormous methane gas tankers, factories to produce steel for the whole of Europe. Mouloud was proud of taking part in this adventure. That’s what he liked, building, constructing. He’d molded his whole life, and his family, in that image. He’d never forced his children to cut themselves off from other people, to keep clear of the French. All he’d asked is that they avoid bad company. Keep their self-respect. Acquire decent manners. And aim as high as possible. Become integrated in society without denying either their race or their past.
“When we were little,” Leila told me one day, “he made us recite after him: Allah akbar, la ilah illa Allah, Mohamed rasas Allah, Ayya illa Salat, Ayya illa el Fallah.We didn’t understand a word. But it was nice to hear. It reminded us of all the things he’d told us about Algeria.” It had been a happy time for Mouloud. He’d settled with his family in Port-de-Bouc, between Les Martigues and Fos. They’d been ‘kind to him’ at the town hall and he’d soon obtained a nice public housing unit on Avenue Maurice Thorez. The work was hard, and the more Arabs there were, the better it was. That was what the veterans of the naval shipyards, who’d all been taken on at Fos, thought. Italians, mostly Sardinians, Greeks, Portuguese, a few Spaniards.
Mouloud joined the CGT. He was a worker, and he needed to find a family of workers, to understand him, help him, defend him. “This is the biggest,” Gutierrez, the union organizer, had told him. “When the building work’s finished,” he’d added, “you can go on a course, learn to handle steel. Stick with us, and you’ve got a job in the factory for sure.”
Mouloud liked that. He believed it, with a kind of blind faith. Gutierrez believed it too. The CGT believed it. Marseilles believed it. All the surrounding towns believed it, and built one housing project after the other, along with schools and roads, to welcome all the workers expected in this Eldorado. The whole of France believed it. By the time the first ingot of iron was cast, Fos was already nothing more than a mirage. The last great dream of the Seventies. The cruelest of disappointments. Thousands of men out of a job. Mouloud was one of them. But he wasn’t discouraged.
He went on strike with the CGT, occupied the site, fought the riot police who came to dislodge them. They’d lost, of course. You can never win against the arbitrary decisions of the men in suits. Driss had just been born. Fatima was dead. And Mouloud had a police record now as an agitator, and couldn’t get any real work. Just little jobs. Right now, he was a packer at Carrefour. Minimum wage, after all these years. But, as he said, ‘it was an opportunity.’ Mouloud was like that, he believed in France.
Mouloud had told me his life story in my office at the station house one evening. He told it proudly. He wanted me to understand. Leila was with him. That was two years ago. I’d taken Driss and Kader in for questioning. A few hours before, Mouloud had bought some batteries for the transistor his children had given him. The batteries didn’t work. Kader went down to the drugstore on the boulevard to change them. Driss went with him.
“You don’t know how to use them, that’s all.”
“Yes I do,” Kader replied. “It isn’t the first time.”
“You Arabs always think you know everything.”
“It’s not very polite of you to say that, madame.”
“I’m polite when I want to be. But not to filthy Arabs like you. You’re wasting my time. Take your batteries. They’re old ones, anyhow, and you didn’t buy them here.”
“My dad bought them here earlier.”
Her husband came out of the back of the store with a hunting rifle. “Tell your lying father to come here, and I’ll make him swallow his batteries.” He threw the batteries on the floor.
“Get out of here, you sons of bitches!”
Kader pushed Driss out of the store. After that, things happened very fast. Driss, who hadn’t said a word so far, picked up a big stone and threw it at the window. He ran off, followed by Kader. The guy came out of the store and fired at them, but missed. Ten minutes later, a hundred kids were besieging the drugstore. It took more than two hours, and a van of riot police, to restore calm. Nobody dead, nobody injured. But I was furious. Part of my mission was to avoid calling in the riot police. No riots, no provocation, and above all no mistakes.
I’d listened to the druggist.
“Too many Arabs. That’s the problem.”
“They’re here. You didn’t bring them. Neither did I. But they’re here, and we have to live with them.”
“Are you on their side?”
“Don’t be a pain in the ass, Varounian. They’re Arabs. You’re an Armenian.”
“And proud of it. You have something against Armenians?”
“No. Nothing against Arabs either.”
“Yeah, and what’s the result? Have you been downtown lately? I have. It’s like Algiers or Oran. Stinks just the same.” I let him talk. “Before, you bumped into an Arab on the street, he’d say sorry. Now he wants you to say sorry. They’re arrogant, that’s what they are! Shit, they think this is their home!”
I didn’t want to listen anymore, or even argue. It sickened me. I’d heard it all before. The local far-right newspaper Le Méridional printed hateful crap like that every day. Sooner or later, they’d written once, the riot police and their dogs will have to be called in to destroy the casbahs of Marseilles...One thing was sure: if nothing was done, all hell was going to break loose. I didn’t have any solutions. Neither did anyone else. We just had to wait and not resign ourselves. Wager on Marseilles surviving this latest racial mix and being reborn. Marseilles had seen it all before.
I’d sent them all on their different ways, with fines for ‘public disorder’ preceded by a little moral tirade. Varounian was the first to leave.
“We’ll get you and cops like you,” he said as he opened the door. “Soon. When we’re in power.”
“Goodbye, Monsieur Varounian,” Leila replied, disdainfully. He gave her a filthy look. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard him mutter the word ‘bitch’ under his breath. I smiled at Leila. A few days later, she called me at the precinct house to thank me and to invite me to have tea with them on Sunday. I accepted. I liked Mouloud.
Now, Driss was an apprentice in a garage on Rue Roger Salengro. Kader was in Paris, working in his uncle’s grocery store on Rue de Charonne. Leila was at college, in Aix-en-Provence, and was just completing a master’s in French language and literature. Mouloud was happy again. His children were settling down. He was proud of them, especially his daughter. I understood how he felt. Leila was intelligent, confident and beautiful. The image of her mother, Mouloud had told me. And he’d showed me a photo of Fatima, Fatima and him in the Vieux Port. Their first day together in years. He’d gone to Algeria to fetch her, to bring her over to Paradise. Mouloud opened the door. His eyes were red. “She’s disappeared. Leila’s disappeared.”
Mouloud made tea. He hadn’t heard from Leila in three days. That wasn’t like her, I knew. Leila respected her father. He didn’t like her to wear jeans or smoke or drink aperitifs, and told her so. They’d argue about it, shout at each other, but he never imposed his ideas on her. He trusted her. That was why he’d allowed her to take a room at the university residence in Aix. To be independent. She phoned every two days and came to see him on Sundays. Often, she slept over. Driss left her the couch in the living room and slept with his father.
The thing that made Leila’s silence worrying was that she hadn’t even called to tell him if she’d gained her master’s or not.
“Maybe she failed, and she feels ashamed... She’s in her room, crying. She doesn’t dare come back.”
“You should go find her, Monsieur Montale. Tell her it doesn’t matter.”
He didn’t believe a word he was saying. Neither did I. If she’d failed her master’s, she’d have cried, sure. But hiding away in her room, no, I couldn’t believe that. Plus, I was convinced she’d gained her master’s. Poetry and the Need for Identity, her thesis was called. I’d read it two weeks earlier. I’d thought it was a remarkable piece of work. But I wasn’t one of the judges, and Leila was an Arab.
She’d taken her inspiration from a Lebanese writer named Salah Stetie and had developed some of his ideas. Her concern was to build bridges between East and West, across the Mediterranean. She pointed out, for example, that Sinbad the Sailor in the Arabian Nights recalled certain elements of Ulysses in the Odyssey, especially his ingenuity and his mischievousness.
What I liked most was her conclusion. As a child of the East, she considered that the French language was becoming a place where the migrant could draw together strands from all the lands through which he had passed and finally feel at home. The language of Rimbaud, Valéry and René Char would crossbreed, she asserted. It was the dream of a generation of North African immigrants. You already heard a strange kind of French spoken in Marseilles, a mixture of Provençal, Italian, Spanish and Arabic, with bits of slang thrown in. Speaking it, the kids understood each other perfectly well. At least on the streets. At school and at home, it was another story.
The first time I went to see her at college, I found the walls covered with racist graffiti. Insulting, obscene graffiti. I’d stopped in front of the most laconic: Arabs and blacks out! I’d assumed the law faculty, some five hundred yards from there, was the fascist stronghold, but clearly, human stupidity had reached French language and literature now! In case anyone hadn’t gotten the point, someone had added: Jews too.
“It can’t be a pleasant atmosphere to work in,” I said to her.
“I don’t see them anymore.”
“Yes, but they’re in your head, aren’t they?”
She shrugged, lit a Camel, then took me by the arm and led me out of there.
“One day we’ll get people to take our rights seriously. I vote, and that’s the reason why. And I’m not the only one anymore.”
“Your rights, maybe. But you’ll still have the same face.”
She turned to look at me, with a smile on her lips and a gleam in her dark eyes. “Oh, yeah? What’s wrong with my face? Don’t you like it?”
“It’s a very nice face,” I stammered.
She looked like Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris. Same round face, same long, curly hair, only hers was black. Like her eyes, which were looking deep into mine. I went red.
I’d seen a lot of Leila these last few years. I knew more about her than her father did. We got into the habit of having lunch together once a week. She talked to me about her mother, who she’d barely known. She missed her. Time didn’t help. In fact, it only made it worse. Every year, when Driss’s birthday came around, all four of them had to find a way of getting through it.
“I think that’s why Driss has become, not bad exactly, but aggressive. Because of that curse. He has hatred in him. One day, my father said to me, ‘If I’d had a choice, I’d have chosen your mother.’ He said it to me, because I was the only one who could understand.”
“You know, my father said that too. But my mother pulled through. And here I am. An only child. It can be lonely.”
“Death is a lonely business.” She smiled. “It’s the title of a novel. Have you read it?”
I shook my head.
“It’s by Ray Bradbury. A detective story. I’ll lend it to you. You ought to read more contemporary novels.”
“They don’t interest me. They lack style.”
“This is Bradbury, Fabio!”
“OK, maybe Bradbury.”
And we’d launch into long discussions about literature. The future teacher and the self-taught cop. The only books I’d read were those we’d been given by old Antonin. Adventure stories, travel books. Poetry, too. Long forgotten Marseilles poets like Émile Sicard, Toursky, Gérald Neveu, Gabriel Audisio, and my favorite, Louis Brauquier.
The weekly lunch wasn’t enough anymore, and we started meeting one or two evenings a week. Whenever I wasn’t on duty, or she wasn’t baby-sitting. I’d go to fetch her in Aix, and we’d take in a movie, then go have dinner somewhere.
We launched on a major survey of foreign cuisines. Considering the number of restaurants between Aix and Marseilles, it was likely to take us many months. We gave stars to those we liked, black marks to those we didn’t. Top of our list was the Mille et une nuits, on Boulevard d’Athenes. You sat on pouffes and ate from a big brass platter, listening to raï. Moroccan cuisine. The most refined in North Africa. They served the best pigeon pastilla I’ve ever tasted.
That evening, I’d suggested Les Tamaris, a little Greek restaurant in a calanque called Samena, not far from my house. It was hot, with a thick, dry heat, typical of late August. We ordered simple things: cucumber salad with yoghurt, stuffed vine leaves, taramasalata, spicy kebabs grilled on vine shoots with a drizzle of olive oil, goat’s cheese. All washed down with a white Retsina.
We walked on the little shingly beach, then sat down on the rocks. It was a glorious night. In the distance, the Planier lighthouse revealed the cape. Leila laid her head on my shoulder. Her hair smelled of honey and spices. She slipped her arm beneath mine and took my hand. I shivered at the contact. I wasn’t quick enough to free myself from her grip. She began reciting a poem by Brauquier, in Arabic.
The shadows and the mystery are gone,
The spirit fled, and we are poor again;
And only sin can give us back the earth,
That makes our bodies move and sigh and strain.
“I translated it for you. I wanted you to hear it in my language.”
Part of that language was her voice. A voice as sweet as halva. I was moved. I turned my face to her, slowly, so that her head stayed on my shoulder and I could get drunk on her smell. I saw a glimmer in her dark eyes, the reflection of the moon on the water. I wanted to take her in my arms and hold her close and kiss her.
I was well aware, and so was she, that our increasingly frequent encounters had been leading up to this moment, and it was a moment I dreaded. I knew my own desires only too well. I knew how it would all end. In bed, then in tears. I’d never known anything but failures, one after the other. I was looking for a woman, and I had to find her, if she existed. But Leila wasn’t her. She was so young, and what I felt for her was only desire. I had no right to play with her. With her feelings. She was too good for that. I kissed her on the forehead. I felt her hand caress my thigh.
“Will you take me home with you?”
“I’ll take you back to Aix. I think that’s best for both of us. I’m just an old fool.”
“I like old fools.”
“Let it go, Leila. Find someone who isn’t a fool. Someone younger.”
On the drive back, I kept my eyes on the road. We didn’t look at each other once. Leila was smoking. I’d put on a Calvin Russel tape that I liked a lot. It was good to drive to. If I could, I’d have crossed the whole of Europe rather than take the turnoff that led to Aix. Russel was singing Rockin’ the Republicans. Leila, still without speaking, stopped the tape before Baby I Love You.
She put in another tape that I didn’t know. Arab music. An oud solo. The music she had dreamed of for this night with me. The sound of the oud spread through the car like an aroma. The peaceful aroma of an oasis. Dates, dried figs, almonds. I risked a look at her. Her skirt had ridden up her thighs. She was beautiful, beautiful for me. Yes, I desired her.
“You shouldn’t have done it,” she said just before she got out.
“Shouldn’t have done what?”
“Let me fall in love with you.”
She slammed the car door. Not violently. But there was sadness in the action, and the anger that goes with sadness. That was a year ago. We hadn’t seen each other since. She hadn’t called. I’d brooded over her absence. Two weeks ago, I’d received her master’s thesis in the mail, and a card with just four words: “For you. So long.”
“I’m going to find her, Mouloud. Don’t worry.”
I gave him my nicest smile. The smile of the good cop you can trust. I remembered something Leila had said, talking about her brothers. “When it’s late, and one of them hasn’t come home, we get worried. Anything can happen in this place.” Now it was my turn to be worried.
Rachid was alone in front of Block C12, sitting on a skateboard. He stood up when he saw me come out of the building, picked up his skateboard, and vanished into the lobby. I supposed he was telling me to go fuck myself and my mother. But I didn’t care. When I got to my car in the parking lot, I saw it didn’t have a single new scratch.
** This extract is from Total Chaos published by Europa Editions. To purchase, move your curser mid-lower page and click on the link to a retailer.