“There was a burning sensation inside me. It was gaining ground, like the fire in the hills. The acres of my life were going up in smoke.”
-------Fabio Montale in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Solea
In Solea, the final book of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, former cop Fabio Montale, who narrowed reasons for living in the last two books narrows them even more. Life and love have passed him by. Love-of-his-life Lole has left. He considers dying, while all about his beloved Marseilles, wildfires burn.
Izzo, a left-wing journalist turned noir writer achieved almost instant success in 1995 with Total Chaos. He followed that with Chourmo in 1996, and Solea in 1998, just two years before his death from lung cancer 2000, at age 54. Solea has been recently reissued as part of Europa Noir editions.
Solea, a fast read at mere 200 or so pages, takes its title from a type of flamenco music that to paraphrase Wikipedia is improvised, solemn and full of intimate pain and despair. “Even if the singer has a previous plan, it is often altered on the spur of the moment,” the online encyclopedia states.
The description confirms what I’ve felt about Izzo’s own composition technique and makes sense. He admires improvisation and jazz. Fabio listens to Miles Davis’ own “Solea,” in the course of the novel.
Yet in Solea plot structure is far simpler and more inevitable than previous books. Fabio’s friend and former lover, the journalist Babette has spent years digging up dirt on the Mafia and is almost ready to go public with an expose. She has information about money laundering that includes legitimate politicians, police and corporations on a global scale. The Mafia wants what she has. Pursued, Babette is in hiding. She contacts Fabio. The Mafia hitman, in turn contacts him as well. The hitman will start killing off those Fabio loves until Fabio locates and delivers Babette. Behind the Mafia are the cops – including a smoking hot Captain Helene Pessayre.
In Chourmo, Love-of-his-life Lole was away. (Maybe Izzo wasn’t sure if he might use her again). In Solea, she got smart; she’s conveniently left Fabio for another man and Marseilles for another place. (Maybe Izzo didn’t want to have to endanger her or worse, kill her off.)
In the meantime, Fabio’s off pursuing other women. Her departure was an occasion for brooding:
“Lole’s departure was more than just something that made me unhappy, it was my great tragedy. But it may be that she had left because of my way of life. My attitude to life. I’d spent too long without really believing in life. Had I without realizing it, become permanently unhappy? Believing as I did that the small joys of everyday life were enough to make you happy, had I given upon my dreams, my real dreams. … I’d stayed here in Marseilles. Loyal to a past that didn’t exist anymore. To my parents. To my friends who were gone. And every time a friend died, it made me all the more reluctant to leave. I was trapped in this city.”
He nurtures a flicker of hope in love and the future when he meets Sonia, and has a variation on a one-night-stand, but, in what has become typical Fabio style, he falls passionately, regretfully in love with her – and what might have been.
Thank God, Captain—call me Helene -- Pessayre calls him on his approach and attitude with women. What a relief that someone finally does. Short-lived relief. Holy Moly, just when I thought a woman could resist him, Helene admits she “wants” him too.
Oh well. A kind of hopelessness permeates the book with a climatic ending that leaves just a tiny bit of room for possible future change.
Aside from the women, and the food, and the music -- all a little less present than previously, a serious vein of journalism runs through the novel.
Babette has written: “Organized crime is inextricably interwoven with the economic system. The opening up of world markets, the decline of the Welfare State, privatization, the deregulation of international finance and trade: all these things have tended to favor the growth of illegal activities as well as the internationalization of a rival criminal economy.
Helene Passayre is of like mind. She also suggests a book to Fabio: “Faith and Credit: The World banks Secular Empire.” And notes at the book’s end cite official documents and articles that were used as a basis for the book’s analysis of the Mafia.
While my reading of the trilogy, focused more on the internal and intimate life of Fabio, others will read these books for the commentary on world economics, poverty, and Marseilles’ criminal nexus. It seems not much has changed in Marseilles since Izzo wrote.
When I think of Marseilles, I will have a slightly clearer view of it – a beautiful place, of great light, strong herbal odors, great food and blends of music, a place where the Mistral wind blows. I will see a harbor, where many peoples and cultures meet, including the criminal. Almost as if I had visited it once.