Chourmo by Jean-Claude Izzo

By | on April 1, 2013 | 0 Comment

chourmoFabio Montale, the detective hero of Total Chaos, lives in Les Goudes, a sort-of harbor enclave removed from central Marseilles. You could be excused for thinking it’s an isolated village but it’s actually an urban district of the city. It seems remote but it isn’t. Like Fabio, who seems remote but he isn’t. Private but not remote. Both the village and the man.

He lives in a small cottage, two rooms and a kitchen, that he inherited from his parents. The house is plainly furnished. But eight steps down from the front door is the dock where Fabio keeps his fishing boat. The house may be small, and if that seems claustrophobic to you, consider that the ocean, where Fabio loses himself fishing, contains him in an isolating grandeur.

Since Total Chaos, the first book in the noir Marseilles trilogy, Montale has left the police force where if you’re truly human, or humane, you burn out fast. What is he doing instead? Like his countryman, Montaigne, he has occupied himself with the business of living. Seeing his friends, fishing, enjoying the great city of Marseilles, and sampling a bewildering variety of French provincial wines, all of which I’ve never heard of, and all of which sound exquisite, perhaps because I’ve never heard of them.

I’m sitting at the same table called envy with respect to the seductive regional cuisine that’s prepared with such TLC. Fabio doesn’t have confidence in anyone who doesn’t love good food. If you’re not a foodie, you’re not to be trusted.

Fabio’s lover, Lole from the first volume, is out of town for the duration of this noir. She had family business but also she wanted some space of her own. Izzo’s characters can love their privacy. Removing the emotional stability from Fabio’s life gives Izzo the opportunity to have his ex-detective drift between people more winningly, like a unmoored skiff that’s being pushed back and forth by the tide.

Fabio’s beautiful cousin Gelou, a childhood friend,  provides the waves. Her son Guitou, by her first husband, has disappeared upon his arrival in Marseilles and Fabio is nominated to look for him. Because of a neat flash of prologue, we don’t have to look. The boy arrived by train and went to stay at the house of a schoolmate. This was really a scheme to sleepover with his girlfriend.

That night the kid’s in bed with his lover in a strange house. They hear alarming noises. Guitou, wanting to show himself as a responsible boy/man in front of his girlfriend, leaves the bed and heads for the bedroom door to investigate. Opening that door ends his life. What he sees kills him. What could he have seen? And what will happen to a young woman left behind?

Fabio heads for his old police beat, the ghetto of North Marseilles, to unravel the case. The North Marseilles projects define “nowhere” in Marseilles civic space. Shops, restaurants, anything nice, is always some distance away. All that’s near the projects are the projects, filled with impoverished immigrants, mostly Arab.

Fabio’s gauzy, south-of-France semi-retirement sounds so seductive, right? It’s bisected by two harsh sets of crazies: Arab fanatics and thuggish nativists. Those are the “go back where you came from” fuckheads. These two radical groups are so extreme that they meet at both ends. Add organized crime, increasingly encroaching on the city, to the stewpot.

“Chourmo” is a Provençal word derived from “chiourme”, the rowers in a galley. What it seems to mean is: “We’ve all been screwed together so, welcome to the club!”

Some lines from Fabio:

“I was sure I’d never really understood anything in my life.”

“I was too afraid of losing and so I always lost”.

The port city of Marseilles retains the lives of all the people who have ever lived there; who have had the habit of turning their backs on the sea that has nurtured them. When they go on vacation they are more likely to head north than south. The past seeps through Fabio, like he’s a living museum of all the people he has known. And he soaks up so much sun and darkness from the streets, that he becomes those streets.

Chourmo, book number two in the Marseilles Trilogy after Total Chaos, releases from Europa Editions this summer. Solea, the last volume in the series, also pubbing this summer, will be reviewed later. Fabulous summer reads!

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