"In the beginning is the book. And that moment in which Cain kills his brother Abel. In the blood of this fratricide, the Mediterranean gives us the first noir novel." When it comes to Euro-Noir, I reserve a special place for the work of Jean-Claude Izzo. He's not only a soulful writer, both honest and perceptive, but I actually learned French from painstakingly reading Chourmo, Total Chaos, Solea, three novels that feature Izzo's alter-ego protagonist Fabio Montale. Followed by his two other novels Lost Sailors and Sun For the Dying (all translated and published by Europa) and the stories in Vivre Fatigue. That was back in the mid-1990s. By that time, I'd had a few years of classroom French, but I didn't know much about the language at street level. Particularly as its spoken in the Midi. Not that I actually learned vernacular French as such, because few if any outsiders are able to accomplish that. But from Izzo's books I was able to get an inkling of it. What's more, I began to gain an appreciation and knowledge of French politics, particularly in that region, with its mix of cultures, particularly when it comes to Arab and gypsy cultures. Reading Izzo's novels in French was a slow process, and no doubt meant some of the nuances embedded in those narratives and his characters were lost on me. Nevertheless, the meaning, politics and atmosphere of those books were clear. And the struggle was well worth it, causing me to fall in love with Izzo's characters and the city as he describes. But to this day I've avoided reading Izzo's novels in translation. It's simply a matter of not wanting to let go of that feeling and that discovery.
So Garlic, Mint & Sweet Basil is the first Izzo book I've read in translation, ably done by Howard Curtis. A relatively short book- just over a hundred pages- it's comprised of short essays- most no more than three pages long, mostly about Marseilles, a place, according to Izzo, that has long-welcomed immigrants and outsiders. A city situated literally and figuratively on the edge of Europe, looking out as it does on the Mediterranean and North Africa in particular. With its cultural mix, class consciousness and encroaching corporatisation, it's a perfect city for a certain type of noir sensibility.
No doubt about it, Izzo, like his protagonist Fabio Montale, feels that he has less in common with French culture than with the Mediterranean mix encompassing his city. So not only do we get essays on Marseilles culture, but on the origins of Mediterranean noir as well as a short story featuring Fabio. Part Italian, part Spanish, Izzo definitely knew his noir fiction, no doubt having read more than his fare share of Serie Noire and Rivage novels. So it's not surprising that he places James M. Cain on a par with Camus and Conrad.
These are all lyrical pieces that allow Izzo to speak from the heart about the state of his beloved city, from its cuisine to how its being affected by private capital, multinationals, the IMF, oligarchs, plutocrats and kleptocrats. As Izzo says, "The annual world income of transnational criminal organizations is in the region of a thousand billion dollars, a figure equivalent to the combined gross national product of those countries categorized as low-income." But Izzo was never one to wallow in despair, but saw Marseilles, with its cultural mix, as Europe's last hope. This is an evocative and touching book- there's even a short section listing Montale's favorite places in Marseilles, his favorite books and music- that read like a series of love letters. Moreover, it comes with a wonderful introduction by one of my favorite Italian crime writers, Massimo Carlotto (his books, like Poisonville, which I reviewed here, are also published by Europa) in which he compares Izzo to the other great French polar writer Jean-Patrick Manchette:
"But compared with Manchette, who does not believe in direct political action inasmuch as he believes it is ineffective and doomed to failure, and who limits himself to using noir as an instrument with which to read reality, Izzo goes further. His use of the noir genre is not limited simply to description but penetrates deep into the heart of the incongruities, leaving room for sociological reflection and for a return to his generation's collective memory, and above all, gives sense to the present day."
Novelist, essayist, poet, activist, Izzo died aged 55 in 2000. I wish his life and this book had been twice as long.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.