Excerpt

Chourmo

Jean-Claude Izzo, translated by Howard Curtis

The following is an exclusive excerpt from the newly reissued second volume of French crime writer Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy,Chourmo. In the following passage, we meet a motley cast of characters, and see Izzo’s trademark mixture of good food, the beautiful sea, and socially engaged politics.

There’s nothing more pleasant, when you have nothing to do, than to have a snack in the morning and sit looking at the sea.

As a snack, Fonfon had made an anchovy purée, which he’d just taken out of the oven. I’d come back from fishing, and was feeling happy. I’d caught a fine bass, four bream and a dozen mullet. The anchovy purée added to my happiness. I’ve always been happy with simple things.

I opened a bottle of Saint-Cannat rosé. The quality of Provençal rosés was getting better every year. We drank, to whet our appetite. The wine, from the Commanderie de la Bargemone, was delicious. Beneath your tongue you could feel the warm sun on the low slopes of the Trevarese. Fonfon winked at me, and we started dipping slices of bread in the anchovy purée, seasoned with pepper and chopped garlic. My stomach was aroused at the first mouthful.

“God, that’s good!”

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“You said it.”

It was all you could say. One more word would have been one word too many. We ate without talking. Gazing out over the surface of the sea. A beautiful autumn sea, dark blue, almost velvety. I never tired of it. I was constantly surprised by the attraction it had over me, the way it called to me. I’d never been a sailor or a traveler. I’d had dreams, adolescent dreams, of sailing out there, beyond the horizon. But I’d never gone very far. Except once. To the Red Sea. A long time ago.

A beautiful autumn sea, dark blue, almost velvety. I never tired of it. I was constantly surprised by the attraction it had over me, the way it called to me.

I was nearly forty-five, and like many people in Marseilles I liked stories of travel more than travel itself. I couldn’t see myself taking a plane to Mexico City, Saigon or Buenos Aires. I belonged to a generation to which travel meant something very particular. Liners, freighters. Navigation. The rhythm of the sea. Ports. A gangway thrown onto the quay, the intoxication of new smells, unknown faces.

I was content to take my boat, the Tremolino, with its pointed stern, out beyond Ile Maire and the Riou archipelago, and fish for a few hours, wrapped in the silence of the sea. I didn’t have anything else to do. Go fishing, when the mood took me. Or play belote between three and four. Or a game of pétanque with aperitifs as the stake.

A well-ordered life.

Sometimes, I’d set off along the calanques, the rocky inlets that line the coast: Sormiou, Morgiou, Sugiton, En-Vau, and so on. I’d walk for hours, with my rucksack on my back, sweating, breathing hard. It kept me in shape. It allayed my doubts, my fears. My anxieties. The beauty of the calanques reconciled me to the world. Always. And they really are beautiful. Saying it is nothing, you have to see them. But you can only reach them on foot, or by boat. Tourists always thought twice about it, which was just as well.

Fonfon got up about a dozen times, to serve his customers. His regulars, guys like me. Old guys especially, who weren’t put off by his bad temper. Or even by the fact that you couldn’t read Le Méridional in his bar. Only Le Provençal and La Marseillaise were allowed. Fonfon was an old Socialist Party activist. He was broad-minded, but not so broad-minded that he could ever tolerate the National Front. Especially not here, in his own bar, where so many political meetings had been held. Gastounet, as the former mayor was familiarly known, had even come once, with Milou, to shake hands with the Socialist activists. That was in 1981. Then disillusionment had set in. And bitterness.

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Fonfon was an old Socialist Party activist. He was broad-minded, but not so broad-minded that he could ever tolerate the National Front.

One morning, Fonfon had taken down the portrait of the President from over the coffee machine and had thrown it in the big red plastic trash can. We’d heard the glass breaking. From behind his counter, Fonfon had looked at us, one after the other, but nobody had breathed a word.

Not that Fonfon kept his views hidden after that. Nor did he hold his tongue. Fifi-Big-Ears, one of our belote partners, had tried to explain to him the previous week how Le Méridional had changed. Sure, it was still a right-wing newspaper, but on the liberal side. And anyhow, outside Marseilles, the local pages were the same in Le Provençal and Le Méridional. So there was no point in making so much fuss . . .

They’d almost come to blows.

“Look, a paper that made its name inciting people to kill Arabs makes me sick. I feel dirty just looking at it.”

“Damn! We can’t even talk to you!”

“My friend, that’s not talking. That’s raving. Look, I didn’t fight the Boches to hear your crap!”

“Oh, no, here we go again,” Momo had said, trumping Fonfon’s ace of clubs with the eight of diamonds.

“Nobody’s talking to you! You were with the riffraff who fought for Mussolini! Count yourself lucky I even let you in here!”

“Nobody’s talking to you! You were with the riffraff who fought for Mussolini! Count yourself lucky I even let you in here!”

“Belote,” I said.

But it was too late. Momo had thrown his cards on the table.

“Well, I can go play someplace else.”

“All right then. Go to Julien’s. At his place, the cards are red, white and blue. And the king of spades wears a black shirt.”

Momo had left and hadn’t set foot in Fonfon’s bar again. But he didn’t go to Julien’s. He just didn’t play belote with us anymore. And that was sad, because we liked Momo. But Fonfon was right. Just because you were getting old was no reason to keep your mouth shut. My father had been just like him. Worse, maybe, because he’d been a Communist, and in the world today Communism was nothing but a cold heap of ashes.

Fonfon returned with a plate of bread rubbed with garlic and fresh tomato. Just to soften up the palate. Another good reason to drink more of the rosé.

The harbor was slowly waking up with the first warm rays of the sun. There wasn’t the same commotion here as there was on the Canebière. Here it was just a background hum. Voices, bursts of music. Cars setting off. Boat engines being started. And the first bus arriving, and filling up with school kids.

When summer was over, Les Goudes, only half an hour from the center of the city, reverted to being a village of six hundred people. Since I’d come back to live in Marseilles, a good ten years before, I hadn’t been able to settle anywhere but here, Les Goudes. In a small cottage—two rooms and a kitchen—that I’d inherited from my parents. In my spare time, I’d fixed it up as best I could. It was a long way from being luxurious, but eight steps led down from my terrace to the sea, and my boat. And that was a whole lot better than waiting to find paradise.

Unless you’d walked all the way here, you’d find it impossible to believe that this little sun-baked harbor town is an urban district of Marseilles, the second largest city in France. It feels like the end of the world. Half a mile away, at Callelongue, the road turns into a white, stony path, and the vegetation becomes sparse. It was from there that I set out on my walks. Through the Vallon de la Mounine and the Plan de Cailles to the Cortiou and Sormiou passes.

The boat from the diving school emerged from the fairway, heading for the islands of the Frioul. Fonfon watched it go by, then turned to me and asked, solemnly, “So what do you think?”

“I think we’re going to get screwed.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about. With him, it could be the Ministry of the Interior, the Islamic Salvation Front, or President Clinton. Olympique Marseilles’s new coach. Or even the Pope. But my answer was almost certainly the right one. Because the one sure thing was that we were going to get screwed. The more they droned on about society, democracy, freedom, human rights and the rest of it, the more screwed we were. As sure as two and two make four.

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s what I think too. It’s like roulette. You keep betting, but there’s only one hole and you always lose. They always trick you.”

“But as long as you’re betting, you’re still alive.”

“These days, you have to play for big stakes. And I don’t have enough chips anymore, my friend.”

I finished my drink and looked at him. His eyes were trained on me. The big purplish rings below them accentuated the thinness of his face. I hadn’t noticed Fonfon get old. I wasn’t even sure how old he was. Seventy-five, seventy-six. Not as old as all that.

“You’re going to make me cry,” I said, as a joke.

But I knew he wasn’t joking. It was a major effort for him to open the bar every morning. He couldn’t stand the customers anymore. He couldn’t stand being alone anymore. Maybe one day he wouldn’t be able to stand me anymore either, and I was sure that worried him.

“I’m going to quit, Fabio.”

He made a sweeping gesture to take in the whole of his bar, a vast room with twenty-odd tables, table soccer in one corner—a rare specimen from the sixties—and a zinc and wood bar counter, which Fonfon polished carefully every morning. And the customers. Two guys at the counter, the first engrossed in L’équipe and the second peering at the sports results over his shoulder. Two old guys, almost facing each other, one reading Le Provençal, the other La Marseillaise. Three school kids waiting for the bus, telling each other about their vacations.

Fonfon’s world.

“Come on, you’re talking crap!”

“I’ve always been behind a bar. Ever since I arrived in Marseilles with my poor brother Luigi.”

“I’ve always been behind a bar. Ever since I arrived in Marseilles with my poor brother Luigi. You never knew him. We were sixteen when we started. At the Bar de Lenche. Then he became a longshoreman, and I carried on. The Zanzi, the Jeannot bar at the Cinq-Avenues, the Wagram on the Vieux-Port. After the war, when I had a little money, I settled here. In Les Goudes. It felt good here. That makes forty years.

“We all used to know each other. One day you’d be helping Marius repaint his bar, the next day he’d be giving you a hand to fix up the terrace. You’d go fishing together. Honorine’s husband, poor old Toinou, was still around. The things we caught! We’d put it all together and make huge bouillabaisses. One time at my house, another time at someone else’s. With the women and children. Twenty or thirty of us there were, sometimes. We had a good laugh! I’m sure your parents, God rest their souls, wherever they are, still remember.”

“I remember, Fonfon.”

“Yeah. You always made a scene, because the only thing you’d eat was soup with croutons. No fish. Your poor mother was so embarrassed.”

He stopped speaking, lost in memories of “the good old days.” I was a worm in those days. I’d pretend to drown his daughter, Magali, in the harbor. We were the same age. Everyone thought we’d get married. Magali was my first love. The first girl I ever slept with. In the blockhouse above the Maronnaise. In the morning they bawled us out because we hadn’t come home till after midnight.

We were sixteen.

“That was a long time ago.”

“That’s what I’m saying. You see, we each had our own ideas. We bawled each other out, worse than fishwives. And you know me, I was as bad as any of them. I’ve always been loud. But all the same, we had respect. Nowadays, if you don’t dump on those who are poorer than you, they spit in your face.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Close down.”

“Have you talked to Magali and Fredo?”

“Don’t make yourself out to be stupider than you are. When did you last see Magali here? Or the kids? For years now, they’ve been playing at being Parisians. With all the things that go with it, the car and everything. In the summer, they prefer to get their asses tanned in Benidorm or Turkey or on some island or other. This is just a place for deadbeats like us. As for Fredo, maybe he’s dead. The last time he wrote me, he was going to open an Italian restaurant in Dakar. The blacks have probably eaten him alive! You want a coffee?”

“I’d love one.”

He stood up. He placed his hand on my shoulder and leaned toward me, his cheek brushing against mine.

“Fabio, put one franc on the table, and the bar is yours. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought.”

“Fabio, put one franc on the table, and the bar is yours. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought.”

“You’re not going to spend the rest of your life doing nothing, right? Money comes and goes, but it never lasts. I’ll keep the cottage, and when I die you just make sure they put me next to my Louisette.”

“You’re not dead yet, dammit!”

“I know. So you still have time to think about it.”

He left me and walked to the bar before I could say another word. Not that I knew what to say. His proposition had left me speechless. So had his generosity. But I couldn’t see myself behind a bar. I couldn’t see myself anywhere.

I was waiting to see what the future would bring.

__________________________________

From CHOURMO by Jean-Claude Izzo, translated by Howard Curtis. Used with the permission of the publisher, Europa Editions. All rights reserved.




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