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Monday, June 1, 2015

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo

Europa Editions, 256 pages, $15 (c1995)

When each chapter has a title beginning with the words “in which,” as in, for instance, “In Which There are Some Things You Can’t Let Pass,” one can assume that there’s an interesting ride ahead. “Total Chaos” is the first in what has been billed the “Marseilles Trilogy.” Jean-Claude Izzo crafted a noir-inflected, jazz poem, and a look at the French port city of Marseilles, seen through a lover’s — Izzo was an ardent fan of his home city — eyes.

Izzo paints his city for us. It has the bright hues of the Mediterranean and the dark shadows of the immigrant world. Placed in Marseilles of the 1990s, the recession has hit the enormous immigrant communities especially hard. The waves of foreign people have produced citizens who are neither French nor a part of the culture they or their families fled. In times of economic stress, racism finds fertile ground, Izzo’s story says.

Here is Izzo’s Marseilles, through Montale’s eyes:

Marseilles isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared. It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.

Fabio Montale, our police detective hero, comes from such an immigrant family. He grew up with other outsider kids in a ghetto. Now there are many Arab and African immigrants in various ghettos as well, and they are part of a tribe lost to the uncertainties of Marseilles. Written before 2001, “Total Chaos” presages the inequities and vilification Arab communities face. Izzo presents a passionate look at prejudice.

As a kid growing up in the ghetto, there are only two major ways out: crime or the military. One of Montale’s childhood friends chose crime, and he died because of it. Ugo, Montale’s other best friend, came back from traveling the world to avenge Manu's death. Not surprisingly Ugo, too, meets a violent and excessive end.

Although Montale chose the military and then police work, he hesitates only briefly before embarking on an investigation that may result in a resolution that skirts proper procedure. In between swilling his Lagavulin and listening to American jazz, he uncovers the criminal world that Manu embraced. There are locals. There are foreigners. There is a rich, barely tapped field of drugs, prostitution, and illegal firearms. But mostly there is a demand made on his honor to avenge his friends.

And there are women. Ah, les femmes. Montale may have a simple and sterile personal life when he is not working, but he has a dizzying number of women who are attracted to him. Alas, he cannot return their affection because his “ideal” woman, he fears, may not exist.

Izzo has given us a work of grace and beauty that rests in a hard-edged, violent environment.

P.S. To hold a book by Europa is to hold a work of art and sensory satisfaction.

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