Fundamentally, this is political.

Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Fatale is under 100 pages long, and that’s including a Jean Echenoz afterword. By page two the protagonist has coolly murdered a man without hesitation or warning. Soon after she’s on a train out of town, she’s dyed her hair blonde and she’s carrying a briefcase full of money. That’s the thing with Manchette, he doesn’t mess around.

Fatale

Love that cover.

Here she is, still on the train. She’s ordered food:

Next she lifted the cover of the hot plate, revealing a choucroute. The young woman proceeded to stuff herself with pickled cabbage, sausage and salt pork. She chewed with great chomps, fast and noisily. Juices dripped from the edge of her mouth. Sometimes a strand of sauerkraut would slip from her fork or from her mouth and fall on the floor or attach itself to her lower lip or her chin. The young woman’s teeth were visible as she chewed because her lips were drawn back. She drank champagne. She finished the first bottle in short order. As she was opening the second, the pricked the fleshy part of a thumb with the wire fastening, and a tiny pearl of scarlet blood appeared. She guffawed, for she was already drunk, and sucked on her thumb and swallowed the blood.

Next she’s rubbing banknotes on her naked body while sniffing choucroute and champagne. She’s an animal, unrestrained. Come morning though, as the train pulls into the small town of Bléville, “she had retrieved all of her customary self-assurance”.

In Bléville she claims to be a young widow, interested in buying a large property. She’s pretty and she has money. In no time at all she’s part of Bléville society such as it is. All the worse for Bléville.

Manchette’s work is always political. Aimée, as the woman now calls herself, is a predator disguising herself among the capitalist classes as one of their own. Is she really disguised though, or is she simply an example of their philosophy taken to an extreme? Aimée is buttoned-down, controlled and manipulative. When she’s not working though she’s an animal, her frenzy of unrestrained consumption punctuating her dispassionate search for more to consume.

Bléville is a tediously typical small French town with little to particularly recommend it. The town’s bourgois-elite guard their privileges closely, smugly comfortable and resentful of those just below them on the social ladder (who else do they have to fear after all other than those who could most readily take their place?).

The town’s rich take Aimée as one of their own. She blends in, attending their parties. In her spare time though she practices martial arts and prepares herself. She’s all business.

Lying in her hot bath, she opened the crime novel she had bought. She read ten pages. It took her six or seven minutes. She put the book down, masturbated, washed, and got out of the water. For a moment, in the bathroom mirror, she looked at her slim, seductive body. She dressed carefully; she aimed to please.

Aimée isn’t the only outsider. Baron Jules is a local, but outside the town’s rigid social heirarchy. He’s privileged by birth, but has no money. He detests the town’s old guard and he knows their secrets. He’s perfect for Aimée, who aims to bring chaos and to profit from the creative destruction that ensues. Baron Jules has never known how to strike back against the class he both belongs to and loathes. Aimée though, the perfect capitalist, can find profitable use for a man who spends his day trying to live outside of capitalism.

It’s not long before Aimée’s at the centre of the town’s tensions. As she observes to herself, it’s always the same (she’s done this before). “Sex always comes up first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes.”

Bléville has its old crimes, like everywhere else. One of those old crimes involves the local canned goods factory and a poisoning incident that led to the deaths of a “baby, two or three old people, along with thirty or so cows”. The incident was a major local scandal:

Many solid citizens pretended to be appalled; quite a few, out of stupidity, really were appalled.

Business, however, continued.

This is a blackly funny book. Aimée regularly passes a sign that exhorts the locals to “KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN!” It’s a case of be careful what you wish for, because Aimée’s passion for profit is going to wash right through and carry the town’s corruption with her. She is the logic of bourgois greed made hungry flesh.

This being Manchette it’s no spoiler to say that the final section of the book turns into a tightly-written bloodbath. Then again, how could it not? The locals can’t compromise with Aimée any more than an ailing company can compromise with a vulture fund that’s just bought up a majority holding of its stock. Aimée is liberating moribund assets so that they can be more productively deployed elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean the people currently holding those assets like it any.

I haven’t (couldn’t) read the French original, so I can’t of course say how faithful this translation is. It reads smoothly though and the sheer punch of the novel suggests that not too much has been lost crossing over into English. Certainly if I saw Nicholson-Smith’s name on the front of another book I’d count it as a positive. The NYRB edition also comes with an excellent afterword by Jean Echenoz, as I mentioned above. It sheds light on the text (not least that Bléville could be roughly translated as “Doughville”, making the town’s name a shout-out to Hammett), and is a very welcome addition. It’s also welcome to have it after the book, as opposed to Penguin who have a tendency to put essays up front even though they naturally tend to contain massive spoilers.

Guy Savage has reviewed Fatale, here, and has as ever some great insights – particularly on the politics. He’s also got a great quote regarding the town’s newspapers that I wish I’d thought to write down myself. I also found online a very interesting review from a blog I wasn’t previously familiar with, here, which is also good on the politics and on some of the background around the novel and Manchette himself.

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27 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir

27 responses to “Fundamentally, this is political.

  1. leroyhunter

    “Aimée is liberating moribund assets so that they can be more productively deployed elsewhere” – great stuff.

    I loved this. NYRB have another Manchette due, I am watching like a hawk for it.

  2. Awesome review. I too like the cover; there’s a weird camera angle going on there.

    It doesn’t sound unlike the Pascal Garnier books I’m currently reading, which have been newly-translated for the first time. French; short; noir-ish; violent. Sounds great, will def check it out. :)
    T.

  3. Great cover indeed.
    Bléville means Doughville and I’m sure the reference to Hammer is intentional.
    About names: Aimée means Loved, which is kind of ironic considering the character.
    Jules is a Christian name, kind of working class for me. I have trouble imagining a baron named Jules. It’s also slang to say boyfriend. (Old-fashioned, don’t start asking about a girl’s jules today)

  4. Thanks for the link, Max. I too am waiting for the next book from this author.

  5. Leroy, another Manchette? Brilliant. He really is a writer worth reprinting.

    Tomcat, I’ve got a Pascal Gariner thanks to a review by Stu and others. The A26. I’m looking forward to it, and yes I can see why this might remind you of that.

    Emma, thanks for the notes on names. Baron Jules, yes, I can’t recall now if he’s a literal baron or not. His character having an odd name though would actually fit the character.

    Guy, thanks for putting me onto this. It’s a great read.

  6. Laurence Pritchard

    Looks great. This is certainly on my list. I read Lac by Echenoz, that was very good, kind of abstract noir, if such a genre exists, and if it doesn’t, well, it should.
    Who’s the Italian crime writer who’s on the run in South America? He writes noir. (I mean the author literally is on the run; accused of terrorist/in the Red Brigade I think? He lived in Paris for a bit)

  7. Laurence Pritchard

    Got it: Cesare Battisti

  8. leroyhunter

    That’s funny Laurence – had never heard of Battisti, but reading your question “Who’s the Italian crime writer on the run?” I immediately thought of Massimo Carlotto. He is in fact no longer on the run, but how odd that there are two Italian crime writers with the same predicament.

  9. I thought you were going to say Massimo Carlotto, who I should read more of because he’s a remarkable noir writer. I think he spent some time on the run in South America for similar reasons. I didn’t know Battisti. What’s he written?

    I have an unread Echenoz which I should get to (as I should so many things). I do expect to enjoy it.

  10. Laurence Pritchard

    It’s interesting because, yes, the lives of Carlotto and Battisti are not that different. They both spent some time in France didn’t they? I think there was some kind of amnesty for wanted communist terrorists under Mitterrand.
    Battisti has been accused of several murders which he denies, spent some time in France, and is now in Brazil. Fred Vargas is a supporter.
    I don’t think any of his novels have been translated into English and not sure if they’re any good, or that his reputation overshadows them. This, of course, could not be the case, they might be great. It’s worth googling a picture of him though; he certainly looks the part, like some actor from a 70s Jean-Pierre Melville film. I’ll pick up one of his books as I can read French; not sure if there’s a standout one.

  11. Uncanny! I just started reading this yesterday!!

  12. Hurrah Literary, that means my hideously slow blogging rate has made it surprisingly timely! I’ll look forward to your thoughts.

    Carlotto can write by the way Laurence, at least on the strength of the one of his I’ve read. Shamefully, I don’t think I’ve seen any of Melville’s movies.

  13. Laurence Pritchard

    That’s Carlotto added to the pile.
    I’d highly recommend Melville’s Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge. But they’re all very good. Lots of long scenes with no dialogue and actors such as Belmondo, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura.

  14. acommonreaderuk

    It sounds just up my street. Those little French towns were just asking for it weren’t they! Emma’s comments are interesting and it’s good to know there are other books available by Manchette.

  15. I was especially wowed by the imagery of Aimée’s training sequence. The girl’s dangerous, though I’m quite curious to see what a “chest expander” looks like. Hopefully, it’s some condensed form of a bench press. :)

  16. I can see that I’m going to have to subscribe to this NYRB series…

  17. Great review, Max. This sounds tremendous and I have a copy on my shelf so I’ll have to get to it soon! Loved Manchette’s ‘Three to KIll’ and the way a seemingly ordinary guy gets sucked into the dark underbelly of a criminal world.

    ‘The Prone Gunman’ is also on my radar as there’s a film on the way. Have you read that one?

  18. A chest expander is a sort of springed resistance device with a handle on each end. You compress it and it builds strength, or something. I think they’re archaic now.

    Jacqui, I have a review of Three to Kill here (in fact I’ve covered all three Manchette’s now). Three to Kill is probably the best, but they’re all worth checking out. Lisa, if you read them I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.

    Acommon, in Manchette’s world the smug bourgoisie are asking for it…

  19. I’m going to make a serious dent in my TBR – and then when I have 1/2 an empty shelf, I will subscribe guilt-free!

  20. Good plan Lisa! Make the dent first definitely.

  21. acommonreaderuk

    I have never heard of this so was interested to read about it. I agree about Penguin’s “introductions” which you can’t read before the novel for fear of spoiling it. In any case I find them rarely of much interest. Just a way of putting the prices up I think

  22. Penguin have an issue that often what they’re selling in the classics range is available free or very cheaply from other sources.

    So, essays, introductions, copious end-notes. They’re often very useful if you’re actually studying a book, but I can find that sometimes they over-annotate which can interrupt flow if you’re simply reading. The Penguin edition of Dubliners has an insane amount of endnotes, I’d recommend it to someone reading the book as part of a university course but for someone reading it for their own interest it’s just too much.

    Generally I do dislike having massive spoilers in introductions. Is it so hard to put the essay at the back if it discusses critical plot developments that the author likely wanted the reader to discover at the point they arose in the book? Obviously it doesn’t much matter for plotless novels, but most novels aren’t plotless, particularly most pre-20th Century classics.

  23. Well, I’ve now read ‘Fatale’ and what a brilliant little book it is. Manchette’s the real deal, isn’t he? ‘Three to Kill’ is top notch and I think I might love ‘Fatale’ even more! The initial scenes you mention in your review make for a terrific opener. I love the way Manchette pitches us straight into the action, hooking us from the get-go.

    There’s just something about Aimee’s character, too; her confidence, her efficiency, her sheer magnetism. You’re right to describe her as a predator and animal: ‘her frenzy of unrestrained consumption punctuating her dispassionate search for more to consume’. I noticed quite a few references to meat threaded through the narrative; there’s the choucroute Aimee devours on the train, she eats a tin of corned beef at some point and they crop up in the descriptions of one or two of Bleville’s capitalists, too (Lindquist, the realtor, is described as having a ‘long head with a balding pate the colour of rare roast beef’). Very smartly done, I thought, and it adds to the feeling of Aimee hunting down her prey.

    I also like the socio-political aspect of Manchette’s work and there are some neat illustrations of the social hierarchy in Bleville. There’s a great scene where the town’s main players arrive at the Grand Café de l’Anglais for lunch; one by one, the men arrive and congregate in the brasserie’s back room where much drinking and back-slapping ensues. The two highest-ranking capitalists (factory owners Lorque and Lenverguez) and their wives are last to arrive and after a few handshakes they head upstairs to take lunch on the balcony away from the others. The remaining guys are stationed in the back room of the Café where they ‘were obliged, in order to inspect the factory owners’ party, to peer over their glasses and beer mugs and hold up their chins, which gave them a weak and furtive look.’ As a scene it paints a picture of some of the politics and hierarchy at play; in fact it’s the same one in which Sinistrat says ‘This has nothing to do with personal matters…Fundamentally, this is political’, the quote you’ve pinpointed as the title for your excellent review.

    The finale’s great, too; so tightly written, as you say, and a terrific ending to a gem of a book. Roll on the next Manchette.

  24. Nicely caught with the meat references Jacqui. Spot on I think in terms of how it really reinforces that image of her as predator and the town as prey.

    Nice catch too on the party. It’s funny, given how much his writing includes shocking scenes of violence Manchette is in some ways a fairly subtle writer. Perhaps subtle isn’t right, but he’s very effective and his prose has a scalpel-like precision.

    Roll on the next Manchette indeed. Glad you liked it.

  25. Thanks Max…and I still have The Prone Gunman to go!

  26. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)

    Whenever I visit your blog, Max, I always wonder why I left it so long between visits. Excellent reviews; I’m leaving with a fistful of recommendations to go and investigate. This one sounds particularly interesting (perhaps it’s the brevity that appeals at the moment). I really like darkly humorous books that take ideas to their extreme conclusion (ala American Psycho) and this sounds like another great example. I’ll definitely look it out.

  27. Thanks Matthew. This is a good one, and a great palate cleanser too between longer books. Let me know what you think if you read it, and feel free to link back.

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