In Chourmo, the second book in Jean Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy, ex-cop Fabio Montale gives us more food, more drink, more music, more women, more of the aura of Marseilles.
As reminiscence and regret erode the carpe diem present of Fabio’s world, flaws in his own character become more pronounced.
The sensual pleasures and camaraderie of Total Chaos have distilled to more than diversion in Chourmo; they’re all that’s left to make life worth living when dreams dissolve. Beauty, food, music and “chourmo” counterbalance racism, brutality and transnational criminals as the noir gets darker.
Chourmo, we’re told, is a Provencal word derived from chiourme, the rower in the galley, a term taken over by young music fans to describe mingling and unifying: “you weren’t just from one neighborhood, one project. You were chourmo. In the same galley, rowing. Trying to get out. Together.”
Why escape? In some ways, Fabio has the life. He lives in Les Goudes, a small fishing village on Marseilles’ outskirts. He works a few hours in a bar owned by his friend Fonfon. He’s’ fed – mouth-watering regional meals of local foods by his next-door neighbor, Honorine. He has a boat and has little to do but fish, eat and drink while the love of his life, Lole, is away visiting her parents.
Leaving Marseilles is impossible for Fabio. Stuck in his rut, he’s as in love with memories of Marseilles as he is with his memories of its women. He says his problem is he can’t give up the past. Lole once told him:
“Coming to terms with life meant coming to terms with your memories. …. It was pointless to question the past. It was the future you had to question. Without a future, the present is nothing but chaos.”
Chaos in Chourmo is introduced by one of the many women of his life. His beautiful cousin Gelou who once kindled his adolescent desires, comes knocking on his door asking for help, drawing him back into Marseilles’ dark underside and triggering memories and regrets. Gelou has seemingly escaped her class; she’s driving a Saab, carrying a Louis Vuitton bag, and skiing in the Alps; she married and is living elsewhere.
But her 16- year old son, Guitou, has disappeared – and is likely in Marseilles. She believes he may have made arrangements to meet Naima, a Marseilles young woman he fell in love with the previous summer. They’re star-crossed lovers. She’s an Arab and her brother is an Islamic extremist; his stepfather, Alex, who beats him, hates Arabs and must not know.
Fabio finds Gitou too late; he’s been murdered along with a high profile Algerian historian who had fled his country when threatened with death by radical Islamists. Fabio will seek their murderers and try to find and protect Naima in a plot that will once again bring him into conflict with organized crime as well as Islamic fundamentalists.
Along the way, we encounter more of Marseilles’ racial mixture, a despicable gypsy, Saadna, and a beautiful manipulative Vietnamese woman named Cuc, whose story of seeking a better life parallels that of Gelou.
When Fabio served as a cop, he and a youth worker named Serge worked together to get kids some help, much to the dislike of those in his department who believed in taking a tougher stance. Fabio sees Serge killed and discovers that he was on a similar quest. When questioned by the police about his connection to Serge, Fabio learns Serge was possibly a pedophile.
And that’s where Fabio’s own troubling character gets ever more troubling for this reader. Not only am I uneasy about Fabio falling for anything in a skirt, often calling falling “love” and even fantasizing about his cousin, but Fabio overlooks Serge’s possible pedophilia, also confusing it with making children happy.
A conversation with his friend Loubet:
“‘He had a real faith in mankind, without God’s help. The kids were his life.’
‘Yeah and maybe he loved them just a little too much, eh.’
'What of it? Even if it was true. Maybe he made them happy.’
My attitude toward Serge was the same as with all people I loved. I trusted them. I could even accept it when they did things I didn’t understand. The only thing I couldn’t tolerate was racism I’d spent my childhood watching my father suffer from not being treated like a human being, but like a dog. A harbor dog. And he was only Italian.”
That’s about all Fabio has to say though earlier he did concede that Serge reminded him of “a priest.” Fabio’s easy dismissal of the possible pedophilia will likely jar anyone who has feelings about the sexual exploitation of children – particularly children the predator is supposed to be helping though many others must have ignored such predation for it to have happened. What bothers me is that Izzo introduces the topic, but does almost nothing with it. So one asks why. Perhaps to underscore Fabio’s shallowness? Or to show his casual attitude mixing love and sex? My guess is because Izzo is making it up as he goes along and tosses ideas in and then only develops some. He intuits rather than plans his story.
As for the Fabio’s hatred of racism, what do we make of his description of the gypsy Saadna:
“Saadna and I made no secret of our hatred for each other. He was the archetypal gypsy. Non-Gypsies were all jerks. Every time a young Gypsy got into trouble, it was of course the non-Gypsies fault. For centuries, we’d persecuted them. We were only there to cause them problems. We’d been invented by the devil, to piss off God the Father who, in his infinite goodness had created the Gypsy in his own image.”
If you substitute any type – Arab, Italian, whatever in place of the word gypsy, you get a stereotype or an “archetype” that sounds pretty racist, both from Saadna’s point of view and Fabios'.
What mitigates some of the problems of Izzo’s writing – so many underdeveloped ideas and characters who serve little purpose, some cluttered reflections, major diversions and Fabio’s character flaws-- is the full arc of the trilogy. It’s as if Izzo writes without direction, but makes discoveries along the way. He raises the same questions a reader might and responds to them in each next book. Though neither tight, nor completely satisfying, what emerges is worth reading, particularly for the view it gives of Marseilles.
Fabio’s condition in Chourmo seems best summarized by a passage:
I lit a cigarette and closed my eyes. I immediately felt the gentle warmth of sun on my face. It felt good. That was all I believed in. These moments of happiness. These crumbs from the world’s plenty. All we had was what we could glean here and there. There were no more dreams left in this world. No more hope. And kids of sixteen could be killed for one reason or another. In the projects, coming out of a dance hall. Even in someone’s house. Kids who’ll never know the fleeting beauty of the world. Or the beauty of women.
In Solea, this bleak view gets bleaker; noir, blacker. Fabio confronts how he’s loved and lost the too many women of his life, and he comes up wanting. No longer will carpe diem serve as way to get by. As all that’s worth living for gets taken away, Fabio will grapple with what’s worth dying for.
More comments on Solea to be composed……