I translated this essay from the award-winning author Dominque Manotti in honor of Aurélien Masson, director of La Série Noire at Gallimard. Part I appeared in the proceeds of NOIRCON 2016. Masson received the David Goodis Award at the conference in Philadelphia.
My arrival at the crime fiction imprint Série Noire was a story of affinities and of friendship before being a literary choice. I had already published several novels, some in the prestigious Rivages Noir collection, when I had a devastating accident, which had put my life in danger and made writing very difficult for me. A certain kind of joie de vivre in the surge of imagination and the writing had broken in me. It was necessary to recover it, and it wasn’t easy. This is when a friend had me meet Aurélien. He’s a publisher who succeeds in convincing you that he chose to work with you, you personally, because he likes what you write. Really. And he goes out of his way to prove it to you. He was always available to read successive drafts, to point out weaknesses in the narrative and writing, betting on the final success, without ever doubting, or rather without ever showing that he doubted. I needed his certainties, at this moment of my life. At the same time, he knows how to be unobtrusive, how to adapt himself to his author’s choices and rhythms. Does such and such a remark not persuade me? Very well, we won’t talk about it anymore. I remain a master of my ship. Thank you, Aurélien. We are going to sail towards new adventures. (Photo credit: Thibault Stipal)
Detective novels (policiers) and crime novels (noir) are literary families, close yet distinct; close, because both have chosen crime as an analytical tool, a scalpel that they use to scrape down to the bone and strip bare individuals and societies. Both have wagered that the truth of a society, of an individual is said by what it does not say, its deviations or its margins. But if the tool is the same, the author’s view of the object is very different. For simplicity’s sake, in the police procedural or thriller, the investigation enables the identification of one or several troublemakers, the bad people and deviants, the different. The struggle between Good and Evil is never far off. At the end of the story, the bad one or bad ones are identified and punished, order and safety are restored; the reader can sleep peacefully. In this sense, the policier is a literature of entertainment.
The noir novel tells quite a different story, the scalpel of the crime reveals a human nature and a social machine both infinitely complex. The criminal individual is not the barbarian, the monster, the embodied Evil, he is the blood brother of the author, the reader, he speaks about them, he is not outside humanity, he is encapsulated in a set of complex and solid social relationships. He is not an isolated individual, easily ‘expunged’, but one of the cogs in a complex social machinery, one of the instruments used in the maintenance of law and order, one of the relays in the mechanisms of power. All the characters, and the reader with them, are committed ‘in a dubious fight.’ Noir is not Manichean. And, if by any chance, order is restored at the end of a crime novel, the author and the readers are aware that it’s only the temporary recovery of appearances.
This place of crime and of criminals at the heart of the functioning of our society is neither new nor a recent phenomenon. To wit, it’s enough to evoke the role of the Sicilian mafia starting in the 19th century, whom the big property owners used on the island to make complacent the landless farmers, the criminal role of the organizations in the management of the French colonies, or after that, the gangsters in the western conquest in the United States. To better understand, and finally admit, this intimacy, this alarming permeability of society to murder and criminals, it is necessary to remember the impunity of the Nazi officers and their henchmen after the war (only about fifty leaders were tried at the end the war), the collusive silence which protected them and the ease with which they converted back to being peaceful and law-abiding German citizens, or converted into American scientists; and, finally into indispensable elements of the defense of our civilization against the Soviet Union.
Thus, if the noir authors delve into history, the past, it is not for the pleasure reconstituting it, but to find facts that have resonance with the present. With a subjectivity claimed, they dive into the past to reconstitute the present, to give depth to their narratives of the present age; they are historians of the present. And reading crime novels helps us understand the particularly dark present in which we live. In these last days, the archetypal criminals are jihadists of the Islamic State. Our politicians rage against them, depicting them as monsters, their dogged persistence in claiming that they represent absolute Evil, that they are outside humanity –what they intend to be a purely symbolic measure, the withdrawal of nationality. It is counterproductive and stupid, a waste of time whose only function is to give them a clear conscience. It would be more effective to remedy immediately the multiple and structural failures within our police and intelligence agencies. The jihadists belong to humanity; we cannot do anything about it. If we want to fight them effectively, it would be better to find a way to understand how, in a universe in the process of globalization, so many of these western jihadists or Baathists are saturated with western culture and appropriate it partially to turn it against the West and build their ‘heroic narrative’. And to understand that the network of wars and powers in which they are locked in the Middle East on fire are like the Nazis who had built an orchestrated narrative that used very widely for itself the European culture of which they were children, and had created a culture for themselves through networks complicated with influences, with alliances, and power. These mechanisms are not new. And, in this story, we are not any more the representatives of absolute Good than they are representatives of absolute Evil. We are, and they are also, this Middle East on fire, captive to multiple networks, more or less ancient and mastered by wars, massacres, and alliances. If there are no ‘monsters’, let us not forget what St. Paul said, either: “There is not a righteous man, not even one” on this earth. St. Paul, the first author of the noir novel?
© Translation from French: Gabriel Valjan