Nada by Jean-Patrick Manchette (tr. by Donald Nicholson-Smith)

I think I have Max (at Pechorin’s Journal) to thank for introducing me to Jean-Patrick Manchette, the French novelist, screenwriter and translator credited with reinvigorating the crime genre in the 1970s and early ‘80s. As an author, Manchette was instrumental in developing the ‘néo-polar’ noir, a strand of crime fiction characterised by an engagement with political and social radicalism. Before starting this blog, I read three of Manchette’s novels, Three to Kill, Fatale and The Prone Gunman, all of which I would thoroughly recommend. (Max and Guy have written about them in detail, so do check out their reviews if you’re interested in discovering more.)

Nada, Manchette’s fourth novel, is the tense and gripping story of a kidnapping that turns sour. Like this author’s other books, there’s a strong political edge to the narrative, highlighting the corruption that remains endemic within the country’s authorities.

The Nada of the book’s title relates to a criminal gang – an ill-assorted bunch of revolutionaries, intellectuals and disaffected alcoholics – who decide to kidnap the US Ambassador to France during his weekly trip to a Parisian brothel. It’s not entirely clear what the Nada collective hopes to achieve from this stunt – revolution, money, notoriety, martyrdom? – maybe it varies for different members within the group. What is evident though is the unmistakable air of self-destruction hanging over the mission, which seems destined to implode, virtually from the very start.

Central to the gang is Andre Épaulard, a fifty-year-old trained killer with links to the Communist Resistance, stemming from the time of Germany’s Occupation of France. At first, Épaulard is somewhat reluctant to join the group but is finally lured in through a connection with one of the other members. A lone wolf at heart, Épaulard is also the one most likely to stay focused when the situation blows up. By contrast, Buenaventura Diaz is something of a hothead, a professional revolutionary from Catalonia in Spain – liable to go rogue at any given moment.

Also of significance is Treuffais, a disaffected philosophy teacher in his mid-twenties who loathes the college establishment, particularly the bourgeoisie with their conventional middle-class attitudes. As the group’s resident intellectual, Treuffais is responsible for drafting the Nada manifesto; and while not an active participant in the Ambassador’s abduction itself, he remains a vital connection to the group as the aftermath unfolds.

Completing the group are D’Arcy, the gang’s alcoholic driver; Meyer, a somewhat aimless waiter whose role in the mission appears somewhat unclear; and Veronique Cash, a gritty young woman whose farm will be used as the gang’s main hideout.

D’Arcy left the building carrying a screwdriver with a set of interchangeable heads. He stopped at the end of the street to toss down a double Ricard in a dive, then walked on to Place de la Concorde and thence towards Place de l’Étoile. He inspected the parked cars. Not far from the Petit Palais, he came upon a Consul station wagon with an open window. He got into the vehicle and spent a good ten minutes hot-wiring it and unlocking the steering wheel. He set the car in motion, merged into the still fairly heavy traffic, made a detour so as to get onto Rue de Rivoli westbound, found a parking space, popped in for another double Ricard and went back up to Épaulard’s. (p. 57)

There is a brutal efficiency to Nada as it hurtles towards its inevitable destination at a lightning-fast speed. The writing is tight, pared-back and relentless, clearly portraying a world caught up in the politics of corruption. And yet, there is a touch of facetiousness in Manchette’s prose, a mordant note of humour which accentuates the absurd.

Meyer wanted to shoot himself or just go to work – it was hard to say which. He looked at his watch. Two fifteen. Just time enough to avoid being late. (p. 16)

“I’m a murderer,” said D’Arcy.

“Settle down,” said Épaulard. “You ran down an American agent and knocked out a cop. That’s all.”

“I killed that cop.”

“With a slingshot?”

“I killed him,” D’Arcy repeated calmly. “I want to drink myself to oblivion.” (p. 67)

When the Ambassador’s abduction comes to light, the police see an opportunity to dictate the narrative, even at the expense of preserving the victim’s life. In essence, the desire to pin the blame on the terrorists seems to trump any other, more humane considerations – thereby highlighting how the story is likely to play out, especially in the media.

What’s interesting about this novel is how it feels at once both modern and a product of its time – particularly in its depiction of the authoritarian corruption that characterises the era. A reflection perhaps on life in the early ‘70s, the period following the civil unrest triggered by the Paris uprising of ’68 when students and unions alike were pushing for significant change. Nevertheless, there is a strong sense of fatalism running through the narrative, an acceptance of there being little point in trying to transform political policy, irrespective of means. Each member of the Nada gang has their own individual frustrations with the system, fuelling their sense of desire to gain redress or retribution for their grievances.

In summary, then, Nada is a ruthlessly efficient noir with a strong political edge, the kind of fatalistic narrative destined to end in frenzied self-destruction. Recommended for fans of Simenon and Leonardo Sciascia, both of whom have also been published by NYRB Classics.

30 thoughts on “Nada by Jean-Patrick Manchette (tr. by Donald Nicholson-Smith)

  1. MarinaSofia

    I’m a huge fan of Manchette, so much is implied, parsed to the bone, left out… and a sombre view of humanity, overall. Reminds me quite a bit of Melville’s films. Thank you for reminding me I have a huge volume of all his noir novels, including Nada, with brief introductions to each from his diaries. I haven’t seen the Chabrol film adaptation of Nada though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Melville is a great reference point! He would have been the ideal choice to direct a Manchette adaptation had he lived a little longer. Ah, well…c’est la vie. I’d be interested to see Chabrol’s take on this one, not that it’ll be easy to find these days. If you do happen to come across it, please let me know. There’s an interesting review of it here from the time of its release – something of a mixed bag it seems, but some adrenaline-fuelled moments nonetheless! https://www.nytimes.com/1974/11/07/archives/screen-chabrols-the-nada-gang-is-at-playboythe-cast.html

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    Just looked to see what he said about Nada in a preface to the Spanish language edition a decade or so after writing the book and he says that, although the novels is reasonably competent in terms of action and plit, he considers his treatment of politics to be superficial and outdated. He wasn’t too easy on himself, was he? 🤣

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right, it’s very *me*. Sciascia is an excellent writer, and to be fair, his range is probably broader than Manchette’s; nevertheless, the political aspect of Nada is interesting. I couldn’t help but think of the Baader-Meinhof Gang as I was reading it…another militant group that was active in the 1970s.

      Reply
  3. Julé Cunningham

    I love a good noir every once in a while especially when societal ills are looked at through their lens. Your wonderful description of Manchette reminds me a little of Gene Kerrigan’s work, though with a different writing style.

    Reply
      1. gertloveday

        And I could definitely be described as faint hearted I used not to be but have softened up over time
        Did you see a new biog of Barbara Pym has just been released It sounds excellent!

        Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Oh, what a shame! I’ll check to see if there will be a recording available to view after the event. As for your COVID jabs, that great news. The Oxford/Astra Zeneca jab is doing a lot of the heavy lifting here, I have to admit…

              Reply
  4. 1streading

    I’ve only read one Manchette (Fatale) and keep meaning to get round to others. NYRB seem to be doing a great job of making him available in English – there’s a new one out in August!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, so I believe. Funnily enough, Veronique Cash, the girl in the Nada gang, is a kind of prototype for Aimée from Fatale – so you might find Nada an interesting read from that perspective!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fatale is my favourite Manchette, but as I was just saying to Grant above, Nada’s Veronique Cash feels like a forerunner for the character of Aimée. She has the same kind of attitude, if you get my drift…

      Reply
  5. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  6. Max Cairnduff

    Three to Kill, my first, remains my favourite. I’d missed this one so I’m glad to see your review. Love Marina’s comparison to Melville.

    He’s a rather nihilistic writer isn’t he? This sounds like it particularly brings that out.

    Anyway, not sure it sounds top drawer Manchette, but second drawer Manchette remains very good and I’ll be picking this up.

    Nice review as ever!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! Nihilistic is spot on. There’s a real sense of ‘life is meaningless, so fuck it’ about this. You’d like it, I think, even though it is second tier. As one might expect, there’s virtually no down time here, so it’s perfect if you looking for something lean and mean. Funnily enough, it had passed me by as well until I saw it on one of Ian Curtin’s books-of-the-year Twitter threads. Always a great sign, I think!

      Reply
  7. buriedinprint

    Not a name I recognize/remember but I would certainly be interested. At the very least for better understanding the role played in revitalizing the genre. When you realise that you’ve read related books, but pre-blog, are you a little disappointed? Or pleased that you needn’t suss out all the URLs and get tempted to reread the earlier ones? :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I’m actually quite tempted to read two of Them: Fatale and Three to Kill as they’re still my favourites. Not for while, but maybe in a few years’ time. Manchette is an excellent writer, but you have to be up for something that’s very lean and mean. There’s a brutality here that won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but if you like noir then he’s definitely worth trying.

      Reply

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