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A Mediterranean city is really my culture
on 15 December 2007
Jean-Claude Izzo, like footballer Zidane, is a native of Marseilles. He was born in Marseille in 1945. Because he was the son of Spanish and Italian immigrants, Izzo was streamed into vocational school where he trained to be a lathe operator. After serving in the military he returned to Marseilles where he eventually turned to writing. His books have been remarkably successful in France and have been the subject of films and t.v. shows. He died, at age 54, in Marseilles.
"Total Chaos" is the first volume in the aptly-named "Marseilles Trilogy". The second, Chourmo, and third, Solea (Marseilles Trilogy)complete the triloy. There are two primary characters in Total Chaos. The first is Fabio Montale. Montale is a cop. The child of immigrants, Montale had a hard life growing up on Marseilles' mean streets. He ran with a "bad-crowd" a crowd that included the two friends. Manu and Ugu, with whom he shared a bond cemented by petty thefts and days spent in an around the harbor. There is also the girl, Lole, who they all loved in one way or the other. Montale escaped his childhood, joined the army and ended up a cop. The others never left escaped the life they were born into. That life results in Manu and Ugu both being killed. Montale spends the rest of the book seeking answers to the question of who killed Manu and Ugu and why. He is a cop and that is what he does. Montale knows there is no justice in the criminal justice system. He knows that life is nasty brutish and short. He knows that, even as intimate as his feelings for his city are that generations of immigrants to Marseilles from around the world (particularly now from the Middle East) are treated in much the same way as the children of Sicilian immigrants used to be treated. Montale (and Izzo of course) is both cynical and fatalistic but, nevertheless, he plods on.
The other primary character is Marseilles itself. I think it fair to say that Izzo loved his native place. Izzo's love for Marseilles imbues Total Chaos almost to the point of consuming it. However, Izzo's feeling for his city does not preclude his viewing his love through rose-colored glasses. Izzo's love for Marseilles is not the puppy love that a teenager has for his first real girl friend. No, Izzo's feelings are more those of someone who has lasted through a long marriage, who has hurt and been hurt. He sees the flaws and the pain but still can see the beauty and the passion.
I very much enjoyed "Total Chaos". This is noir, Marseilles style. While Izzo is a bit more expansive in terms of setting out in print the thoughts and feelings of his characters than a Georges Simenon for example, he does not get excessively florid. He is terser than most and that is to his credit. Izzo also provides some nice atmospherics. His references to both food (its preparation and its consumption) and to music (Montale's taste in jazz and music in general s both provocative and scene-setting) add some very nice touches to the writing. At the end of the day I think a reader's feeling about Total Chaos will depend on whether or not they like the idea of a city playing a central role in the story. It worked for me. Izzo does a remarkably good job of giving the reader a sense of place. You can almost feel the dark streets and smell the aromas of the cafes in the harbor as you read the book. In that sense Total Chaos reminded me of Naguib Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street (Everyman's Library) which left me feeling I'd actually been to the alleys in Cairo Mahouz wrote about with such passion. Comparing any writer to Mahfouz is higih praise.