Tuesday, February 11, 2020
Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles
Most of my Mediterranean crime fiction reading has involved the island of Sicily. I've read a lot of Leonardo Sciascia and several of Andrea Camilleri's novels. But until recently I hadn't read any of the writers considered to be exponents of the current now known as "Mediterranean noir".
That changed a couple weeks ago when I read the most recent Massimo Carlotto novel, Blues for Outlaw Hearts and Old Whores, a book featuring his ex-convict private detective Marco Buratti, aka The Alligator, and followed that up by reading Jean-Claude Izzo's Garlic, Mint & Sweet Basil. Izzo, I suppose, with his Marseille trilogy, is the one who really put Mediterranean noir on the map. But before diving into those three books, I figured I'd get to know Izzo by trying this collection of essays he wrote, and it did not disappoint.
To begin with, if a writer ever loved a city, his home city, it's Izzo. In one way or another, every essay in the book discusses Marseilles and what it means to the writer. He himself is the child of an Italian immigrant father and a woman of Spanish descent. As a child in Marseilles, though born there, he was classified as an immigrant. Izzo writes beautifully about the melange of people that make up the city and how (he was writing when the right-wing and immigrant phobic National Front was on the rise in France, particularly southern France) he believes in Marseilles as a place of openness and possibility:
"That is why I love this city, my city. She is beautiful because of that familiarity, which is like bread to be shared by all. She is beautiful only because of her humanity. The rest is just chauvinism. There are plenty of beautiful cities with beautiful monuments in Europe. The world is full of beautiful harbors, beautiful bays, magnificent ports. I am not a chauvinist. I am a Marseillais. That means I am here, passionately so, and from everywhere at the same time. Marseilles is my world culture. My initial world education."
He also lays out what drives him to write crime novels and how that drive ties into what he sees going on in the world around him:
"Writing crime novels is not another form of activism. It's just a way of conveying my doubts, my anxieties, my joys, my pleasures. It's a way of sharing. Apart from my opposition to the National Front, I'm not trying to say we must do this or we must do that. I just tell stories. If it spurs some people to join a group, so much the better. Montale [one of his main characters] doesn't belong to any party. He has values. He doubts. He's a lone wolf. But he does believe in a certain number of things."
In Garlic, Mint, & Sweet Basil, you get to read about the things Izzo believes in, and he shares his wide range of interests with you. He talks about the light in Marseilles, the city's history, how the sea looks at certain times of day or night depending on the weather. He discusses
neighborhoods he loves and how crime fiction on the Mediterranean links back to ancient Greece and the play Oedipus Rex. He describes bars he enjoys frequenting and quotes his favorite poets writing about the city he loves. He talks about food in Marseilles, as opposed to food in Provence as a whole, and how it reflects the city's unpretentiousness. He has brief, individual essays on garlic, mint, and basil -- as his title states. Izzo's mind is curious and his intellect expansive, and for a short book, Garlic, Mint, & Sweet Basil packs in a lot. It's a lovely read and definitely has whet my appetite for his trilogy.