Tag Archives: Howard Curtis

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (tr. Howard Curtis)

First published in French in 1995, Total Chaos is the first book in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, a modern classic of Mediterranean Noir. It’s a crime novel with a socio-political edge, set in a city where violence, racism, social deprivation and corruption all come together to form the perfect storm, as reflected in the book’s title. 

The novel opens with a quest for revenge. Ugo has just returned to Marseilles, the city of his youth, to avenge the murder of his childhood friend, Manu – a hit that had been ordered by Zucca, a key player in the local underworld. Unfortunately for Ugo, the organised crime unit are on his tail; and when he makes a move on Zucca, a standoff with the cops swiftly follows.

Enter Fabio Montale, a neighbourhood cop who knew Ugo and Manu back in the days of their youth when all three were busting gas stations and drug stores for easy money. It was only when one of their holds-ups went horribly wrong that Fabio decided to get out, eschewing a life of crime for a spell in the army, and subsequently the police. Now Fabio finds himself standing over the body of Ugo, shot dead by Captain Auch’s unit in their crackdown on organised crime.

From this point onwards, the novel is narrated by Fabio, a wounded soul with a strong social conscience.

Ugo’s death was weighing on my mind. I felt suffocated. And alone. More alone than ever. Every year, I ostentatiously crossed out of my address book any friend who’d made a racist remark, neglected those whose only ambition was a new car and a Club Med vacation, and forgot all those who played the Lottery. I loved fishing and silence. Walking in the hills. Drinking cold Cassis, Lagavulin or Oban late into the night. I didn’t talk much. Had opinions about everything. Life and death. Good and evil. I was a film buff. Loved music. I’d stopped reading contemporary novels. More than anything, I loathed half-hearted, spineless people. (pp. 48–49)

Although Fabio isn’t officially on the case, he makes it his business to try to work out what happened to Manu, and ultimately to Ugo, the pull of their old childhood friendships proving hard to resist. There are many loose ends to be followed up, leads to be chased down. For instance, how did Ugo find out that Zucca had ordered the hit on Manu? Who told him? How did Auch’s team know that Ugo was back in Marseilles? When did they start tailing him? And did the police knowingly allow Ugo’s hit on Zucca to play out, thinking it would be to their advantage? These are just some of the key questions that remain to be answered.

As Fabio sets out on his mission, we follow his progress through the streets of Marseilles, complete with the sights, smells and tastes of this multicultural city. Racial tensions are rife, even amongst the different groups of immigrants. “Too many Arabs. That’s the problem,” reflects an Armenian shop owner following a run-in with some street kids.    

“Before, you bumped into an Arab on the street, he’d say sorry. Now he wants you to say sorry. They’re arrogant, that’s what they are! Shit, they think this is their home!”

I didn’t want to listen anymore, or even argue. It’s sickened me. I’d heard it all before. (p. 58)

The picture is further complicated when another individual goes missing. Leila, a languages student and close friend of Fabio’s, is found dead a few miles outside Aix-en-Provence, much to our protagonist’s distress. Like many others in the city, Leila was from a migrant family – an Arab whose father and younger brother now live in Marseilles. At first, the two sets of crimes appear to be quite separate from one another; but as Fabio digs deeper, the storylines begin to intertwine.

Two things in particular mark this novel out, elevating it to something over and above the norm. Firstly, there is Izzo’s portrayal of Marseilles, a visceral, earthy place – a cultural melting pot with a character all of its own. Honour plays a central role in the city, frequently proving itself to be a matter of life and death.

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. (p. 39)

The novel is infused with the pungent aromas of the city, particularly the local dishes and other regional specialities. There are frequent references to herbs and spices (mint, basil, thyme, cumin and coriander), seafood (bream, bass and cod cheeks) and local wines/spirits (rosé, pastis and cassis). 

Secondly, but no less importantly, there is the characterisation. In Fabio, Izzo has created a compelling individual, a fully fleshed-out character for the reader to invest in. Like Izzo himself, Fabio is the son of immigrant parents, a representative of the interethnic mix that characterises Marseilles.

With his strong principles and firm belief in social justice, Fabio is considered to be something of an anomaly within the Marseilles police – more akin to a youth counsellor or social worker than a hard-nosed cop. Much of his time is spent in the projects, operating within a society that is becoming increasingly intolerant. It is here that the youths of the neighbourhood hang out, typically sons of immigrants with little in the way of jobs, hopes or futures to look forward to. Instead, they ride the trains, listening to rap music, using the walls and windows of the carriages as tom-toms, beating in time with the pulsating rhythms.

The kids were a bit confused. I guessed they didn’t have a leader. They were just fooling around. Trying to annoy people, to provoke them. For the hell of it. But it might cost them their lives. A bullet could so easily go astray. I opened the paper again. The one with the ghetto blaster started up again. Another started knocking on the window, but not so loudly this time. Testing the water. The others were watching, winking, smiling knowingly, nudging each other with their elbows. Just kids. (pp. 73–75)

At heart, Fabio is something of a loner, a man who tends to retreat into his own territory – perhaps more comfortable with his own rules and codes than those of a shared partnership. Nevertheless, there are various significant women in Fabio’s life: from the sex-worker, Marie-Lou, to the freelance journalist, Babette, to an old flame, Lole, a woman whose relationship history also encompasses Manu and Ugo. Moreover, there is the sense of guilt Fabio feels over Leila, the Arab girl who clearly wanted to take things further when the pair were together a year or so earlier. Despite being attracted to Leila, Fabio was mindful of holding back, fearful of getting involved with someone so young and emotionally vulnerable. Now Fabio is left wondering what would have happened if their relationship had gone further at the time. Maybe Leila would still be alive with a promising life ahead of her? It’s impossible to tell…

In summary, then, Total Chaos is a terrific noir, a compelling opening to a trilogy with a visceral sense of place. Highly recommended to loves of crime fiction with a sociological edge.

Total Chaos is published by Europa Editions; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Krull House by Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

For a book first published in 1939, The Krull House remains remarkably relevant to the Europe of today, frighteningly so. In this brilliant, tightly-wound novel, Simenon skilfully illustrates the destructive effect that suspicions and prejudices against outsiders can have on an insular community – all executed in the author’s characteristically economical prose.

The story focuses on the Krull family who live in a modest house on the edge of a rural French town, just by the lock of a canal. Cornelius Krull, the father of the family, was born in Germany but has spent most of his adult life in France, having settled in the town several years earlier following a period of wandering. In spite of his time in France, Cornelius has never learned to speak French, choosing instead to communicate in an odd dialect only his immediate family can understand.

While Cornelius spends most his days weaving baskets in the adjoining workshop, his wife, Maria runs the Krull’s grocery and bar, aided in this capacity by her eldest daughter, Anna. Also residing at the house are the Krull’s other children, twenty-five-year-old Joseph, a shy, nervous boy who is studying to be a doctor, and seventeen-year-old Liesbeth, a keen pianist.

Even though the Krulls have lived in the area for several years, they have struggled to integrate and are considered by the locals to be rather dubious outsiders. The French community shun the Krull’s shop-cum-bar, preferring instead to frequent other establishments, typically those run by fellow natives or naturalised immigrants such as the Schoofs. (While the Schoofs are also German by origin, many of the locals believe them to be Dutch on account of their name.) Consequently, the Krulls must survive on business from passing travellers – mostly bargees and the runners who serve them.

Into this rather delicate environment comes Cornelius’ nephew, Hans, who arrives seeking shelter, supposedly from the prevailing political environment in Germany. In contrast to the ‘French’ Krulls, Hans is a ‘pure’ Krull – loud, cocky and supremely self-confident. Virtually from the start, The Krull family are suspicious of Hans – and rightly so. It’s not long before the new arrival reveals himself to be a liar and a libertine, preying on the vulnerable Liesbeth at the earliest opportunity and extorting money from the Schoofs under false pretences. Furthermore, Hans refuses to keep quiet about his German heritage, drawing attention to it as he makes his mark on the community.

In his sharpness, Hans soon realises how the French Krulls are perceived by the locals, a situation that strikes him as somewhat ironic given their length of tenure in the town. In some respects, Hans believes the Krulls have tried too hard or too little to integrate, thereby failing to strike a more acceptable middle-ground.

Hans laughed, realizing how strange it was for the Krull family to be making their way through the crowd attending the fair. Not only had they just come out of a Protestant church rather than a Catholic one, not only did Uncle Cornelius barely speak French, but everything about them, even Joseph’s resigned smile, was alien to the things that surrounded them. (p. 20, Penguin)

Hans’ arrival acts as a catalyst, stirring up the undercurrents of tension within the town to dramatic effect.

When the body of a young woman is found washed up in the canal, the shadow of suspicion soon falls on the Krulls, prompting unrest within the community as malicious rumours begin to spread. The girl was assaulted and strangled, murdered on a night when some of the Krulls had been out and about in the neighbourhood. Even though Joseph may not have been directly involved in the girl’s murder, he had been seen following her on a number of occasions – not only on the evening in question but at other times too. In his naivety and inexperience with others, women in particular, Joseph has developed a habit of skulking about at night, spying on young lovers to observe their rituals and behaviours, hoping against hope to establish a connection.

All too soon, the situation escalates, and unrest turns into hostility. A pushy friend of the victim makes her presence felt at the Krull’s, pointing at the house and making comments to her friends.

There she was, just opposite the house, on the other side of the street, accompanied by two girls and a young man who all worked in the same shoe shop. She was making no attempt to pass unnoticed, or to pretend to be busy with something else. On the contrary! She was gesticulating, pointing at the house, then at one of the upstairs windows, nobody was quite sure why.

Because from the kitchen, they couldn’t hear what she was saying. They could only see. (p. 90)

Stones are thrown at the Krull’s windows; hateful slurs are painted on the shop’s shutters; a dead cat is found outside the door. Ultimately, a violent mob descends on the family’s property, pushing back against the police as the animosity spirals out of control.

Amid all the chaos, Liesbeth reveals her fears to Hans, recounting some of the prejudices the family has had to face over the years. While Hans lacks any sense of decency and moral fibre, he does share the Krulls status as a foreigner, a position which gives him some understanding of how it feels to be shunned by a community.

[Liesbeth:] ‘People have been so awful to us!’

[Hans:] ‘Why?’

‘Because of everything! Because we’re foreigners! At school, the children called me the Kraut. and the teacher would say to me in front of the whole class: “Mademoiselle, when one receives a country’s hospitality, one has to double the duty to behave well.” […]

‘Anna was even less lucky. She was almost engaged to a very respectable young man, the son of the justice of the peace who owns the house with the two balconies opposite the church of Saint-Léonard. When his father found out, he sent his son away to continue his studies in Montpellier and swore that he would disown him if he married my sister…What can we do? Mother never hits back. She’s friendly to everyone. But I know it upsets her when neighbours, people like the Morins, who live just next door, prefer to put their hats on and go shopping somewhere else.’ (pp. 104-105)

As far as Aunt Maria sees it, The Krull’s only hope is for Hans to leave the district; if the interloper disappears, surely the police will believe he is the murderer, leaving the rest of the family free from suspicion? However, things are not quite that straightforward in reality – something the Krulls are about to discover all too painfully.

The Krull House is a short novel, but an extremely powerful one. Simenon really captures the sense of unease that can develop in a close-knit community; the way difference often leads to resentment and mistrust; how migrants may be made to play the scapegoat when things go wrong. There is a strong sense of dread running through the narrative, a feeling that only escalates as the novel reaches its devastating conclusion.

Eighty years on, this feels like a timely and prescient read, a vital story for our troubling times. Very highly recommended – not just for fans of Simenon, but for anyone interested in societal issues too.

The Krull House is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Game for Five by Marco Malvaldi

Earlier this year I read (and loved) Marco Malvaldi’s The Art of Killing Well, a delightfully playful and witty mystery set in the Tuscan countryside in 1895, published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Malvaldi has also written the Bar Lume mysteries set in present-day Italy, and Game for Five (published by Europa Editions, World Noir) is the first novella in this series.

Game for Five takes us to Pineta, a fashionable seaside resort near Pisa. Here we meet Massimo, long-suffering owner of the Bar Lume and unofficial guardian to four old-timers in their 70s and 80s who spend their days winding one another up and playing cards at the venue.

IMG_1759

One of the most delightful aspects of this novella stems from Malvaldi’s descriptions of the characters and the banter between the main players. At an early stage in the story, we are introduced to the four elderly gentlemen, each of whom has his own individual habits and mannerisms. Ampelio, who also happens to be Massimo’s grandpa, is like a child who has escaped from the watchful eye of his mother, always on the lookout for ice cream and unsuitable drinks – unsuitable for both the sweltering heat, and his state of health. In this scene, we get a sense of the other characters and their activities at the bar:

The first to open his mouth is retired postal worker Gino Rimediotti, who looks all of his seventy-five years, and who now says, as he usually does, “I’m fine with anything. As long as I don’t play in a pair with him there.”

“Listen to him! As if it’s always my fault…”

“Yes, it is your fault! You never remember what cards have been dealt even if they bite you.”

“Gino, listen, I’m fond of you, but someone who winks like he’s swallowed gravel the way you do should just keep still, OK? When you’re dealt a three anyone would think you’re having a heart attack. Even the people inside the bar know what cards you have.”

The name of the fourth man is Pilade Del Tacca. He has watched seventy-four springs glide pleasantly by and is happily overweight. Years of hard work at the town hall in Pineta, where if you don’t have breakfast four times in a morning you’re nobody, has formed both his physique and his character: apart from being ill-mannered, he’s also a pain in the butt. (pg. 24, Europa Editions)

Life in this small town is disturbed by news of a murder. Very early one morning, a local guy discovers the body of a young girl dumped in a parking-lot trash can by the side of a wood, and he stumbles into Bar Lume to raise the alarm. Having spent the night at the disco, the man is as drunk as they come, so Massimo accompanies him to the crime scene, confirms the presence of the body and calls the police. Into the fray comes the insufferable and bumbling Inspector Fusco, a man who Massimo and Dr. Carli, the police doctor in attendance, consider ‘prickly, arrogant, pig-headed, conceited and vain.

Game for Five is a hugely enjoyable book full of wry humour, and much of the story’s wit derives from the interactions between characters, especially those involving the inspector. Here he is interviewing Massimo about events on the night in question:

“Right, you live in the city. Simone Tonfoni, the person who found the body, maintains that he entered your bar at 5.10. Can you confirm that?”

“Yes.”

“After he entered, he says he phoned this station to report finding the body. The officer on duty at the switchboard thought it was a joke and hung up. Then…”

“Then I asked him to show me where the body was. We went to the parking lot, I saw the scene, went back to the bar and –”

“Please just answer my questions and don’t interrupt,” the inspector said calmly. “Did you phone the station at 5.20 A.M.?”

“Yes.”

“Did you go back to the parking lot immediately after the phone call?”

“Yes.”

“Was the scene of the crime exactly as it had been the first time?”

“Yes.”

“Did you wait for the police to arrive, without leaving the spot?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure about what you’re telling me?”

“Yes.”

“Is yes the only word you know?”

“No.” (pg. 42)

It’s not long before the old-timers at Bar Lume start gossiping about the murder, speculating – often rather wildly – on events and possible suspects. Nevertheless, Inspector Fusco could probably do a lot worse than pay a visit to the bar should he wish to get to the bottom of the case:

“You know the neat thing about this whole business, my dear Massimo? It’s that the town already knows more than the inspector. Firstly, because Fusco is a fool” – all those present nodded in unison – “and secondly, because if something happens in this town, to someone from the town, then someone else must know something about it. Maybe someone who saw something but doesn’t know what it meant. In my opinion, Massimo, Fusco should come to the bar and talk to all the people who drop in here, then go to see all the women in their homes, then go to the market, and so on. Nobody’ll go straight to him…” (pg. 39)

Due to his involvement in the discovery of the corpse, Massimo gets drawn into the investigation. He soon realises that Fusco has jumped on the obvious suspect – a young boy who had been seeing the victim – despite the absence of a clear motive or any evidence linking this individual to the crime scene. While Massimo longs for a quiet life and would prefer to leave matters to the authorities, the more information he uncovers, the more the case niggles away at him. Underneath Massimo’s slightly weathered exterior lurks a natural empathy for others, and he takes it upon himself to talk to those who knew the dead girl in an attempt to solve the crime. Aided and abetted, of course, by his grandpa and fellow frequenters of the Bar Lume.

Game for Five is great fun. It’s an enjoyable mystery, but what really elevate this book, making it such a delight to read, are the characterisation and different shades of humour Malvaldi brings to the narrative. As I mentioned earlier, each of the old-timers comes with his own individual idiosyncrasies and ways to infuriate to others (many of which are unconstrained by political correctness). Inspector Fusco is well-drawn, as is Dr. Carli, the police doctor. And as the novella progresses, Malvaldi reveals more of Massimo’s character adding depth to our image of the protagonist. The banter amongst the old-timers and their exchanges with Massimo are a joy: some scenes are pure comedy; others peppered with slightly sardonic wit. And the interactions between Massimo and the inept Inspector Fusco bristle with prickly humour.

All in all, Game for Five is a thoroughly enjoyable book. The mystery is resolved, but you’ll have to read the book to discover how much of a part Massimo plays in the outcome. My edition comes with an endorsement from Andrea Camilleri on the rear cover, and I can see Game for Five appealing to fans of the Inspector Montalbano series.

This post is my contribution to to Petrona Remembered, a blog dedicated to honouring the memory of blogger Maxine Clarke, a passionate advocate of crime fiction. You can read more about it by clicking on the link.

Game for Five is published in the UK by Europa Editions, tr. by Howard Curtis. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

The Art of Killing Well by Marco Malvaldi (tr. by Howard Curtis)

Pellegrino Artusi, the protagonist of Malvaldi’s delightful story set in 1895, is a successful textile merchant with a serious passion for good food. When he meets the Barone di Roccapendente while taking the waters at an Italian spa, he receives an invitation to spend a weekend at the baron’s castle in the Tuscan countryside. Having travelled around Italy collecting and assembling recipes for his cookery book, Artusi is looking forward to a weekend of fine food and a boar hunt in the company of the baron.

IMG_1494

Alongside the baron, the castle is inhabited by his three children, Gaddo, Lapo and Cecilia, his mother, Nonna Speranza, a couple of old spinsters and an assortment of household staff. As they await the arrival of the baron’s guest, we begin to get the measure of this family – squabbling and sniping are commonplace. With the exception of Cecilia, who is bright, kind and perceptive, the baron’s family are an eccentric bunch. Here’s Lapo, a vain, foolish and arrogant fellow, as he speculates about Artusi’s character:

“…A merchant who likes good food. He’s a man who accumulates. Money in the bank, and fat on his belly. You’ll see. They’ll have to call us to prise him out of the bathtub, assuming he knows how to use one.”

“What are you saying, Signorino Lapo?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me. He is from Emilia-Romagna, after all. Coarse people” – he bit off the end of his cigar and spat it out – “who think only about eating, working and accumulation possessions.” (pg. 9, MacLehose Press)

The baron’s eldest son, Gaddo, is prone to delusions of grandeur and foresees a promising future for himself as a famous poet. When Gaddo hears that a ‘first-rate man of letters’ will be arriving at the castle for the forthcoming boar hunt, he assumes it can be none other but Giosue Carducci, the ‘Great Poet’ and Gaddo’s idol. Consequently, the appearance of Pellegrino Artusi, a mere cookery writer, comes as a major blow to the baron’s eldest son:

‘It was enough to make on beat one’s head against the wall.’ (pg16)

Malvaldi’s writing is full of biting wit, and the narrative contains some wonderfully sharp observations on each of the principal players. In this scene, Artusi, following his arrival at the castle, joins the baron’s family for dinner:

The one eating listlessly was Gaddo, who might have the sensitivity of spirit to appreciate beauty but was now busy casting sidelong glances at the self-styled man of letters as the latter stuffed himself with pie, his white whiskers moving up and down in time to the rhythm of his jaws.

The one eating briskly and noisily was Lapo, who preferred beautiful things of flesh and blood rather than on walls, and was now watching his sister and thinking that if she didn’t dress like a penitent she might almost look like a woman, and then it might actually be possible to find her a husband and get her out of his hair – with that female arrogance of hers, she was always finding fault with him. (pg. 19)

I could continue, but you get the picture, I’m sure.

The story is punctuated by extracts from Artusi’s diary, which he pens at the end of each day; here’s an excerpt from the cookery writer’s musings on his first evening in the company of this rather idiosyncratic family:

The baron was as gracious as always, as if we were at Montecatini taking the waters; but over the rest of the family, if this were a letter and not a diary, it would be appropriate to draw a veil. One of the two sons, Gaddo, seems to hate me for no apparent reason. But at least he limits himself to sarcasm, which is more than can be said for his younger brother, who has accused me almost openly of being a usurer. As for the distaff side, the baron’s daughter is probably not a bad person, but I fear she is much too clever for the rest of the family, except perhaps for the dowager baroness, Speranza, who sends shivers down one’s spine at the mere sight of her; then there are the two old maids of the family – there always have to be old maids in these places… (pg. 31)

Artusi retires to bed hoping the atmosphere will improve during his stay, especially with the prospect of a boar hunt on the agenda. But the following day gets off to a dramatic start; the residents are awakened by a bloodcurdling scream as Nonna Speranza’s nurse discovers a body — that of the baron’s butler, Theodore — in the castle’s cellar. Having examined the butler’s body, the local doctor suspects foul play, and the police are called to the scene. At first, the attending inspector, Artistico, is irritated at being summoned by the doctor, and once again, Malvaldi adds a bitterly comic tone to the proceedings:

Ispettore Artistico’s first reaction when the doctor had sent for him had been one of annoyance. To tell the truth, the doctor had always rubbed him up the wrong way: firstly because he was a socialist, secondly because he was one of the most boring and pedantic people he had ever known, and last but certainly not least, because every time the inspector was out walking with his daughter and met the doctor, the doctor invariably kissed her hand in the most brazenly lecherous manner imaginable. More than once the inspector had been on the verge of cutting short this greeting by thrashing him with his stick. He had even imagined himself scalping the doctor and running off with his beard as a trophy. (pg. 52)

However, once the inspector surmises a murder may have been committed, he relishes the prospect of investigating a noteworthy case. At long last Artistico has a real murder on his hands – after all, his only other murder involved the killing of the baker’s donkey! That’s all I’m willing to give away about the plot, except to say there are a few unexpected (often hilarious) developments to come over the course of the investigation.

I loved The Art of Killing Well with its sparkling wit, sideswipes at the nobility and cast of eccentric characters. It’s a hugely enjoyable, playful story, and Malvaldi writes with much charisma and verve. There are several references to food and a sprinkling of Italian politics, too. Pellegrino Artusi was an Italian silk merchant and gastronome in real life, and he self-published his cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, in 1891. The Art of Killing Well finishes with a short series of Artusi’s recipes, and I was delighted to find more of his writing on my own bookshelves: Exciting Food for Southern Types by Pellegrino Artusi (published by Penguin Books).

IMG_1506

I devoured The Art of Killing Well in a couple of sittings, and it left me craving a plate of wild boar washed down with a nice glass of Chianti Classico. An excellent book – highly recommended.

The Art of Killing Well is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

Ten by Andrej Longo, tr. by Howard Curtis

I’ve been reading this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist (along with a group of book bloggers chaired by Stu) and this post covers my thoughts on another of the longlisted titles.

Image

Andrej Longo’s Ten consists of a series of hard-hitting short stories set in Naples. Each story takes one of the Ten Commandments as its theme and we see regular working-class people struggling to get by in the face of temptations and challenges that come their way.

In the first story we meet a teenage boy who wants to keep his head down and stay on the right side of the tracks. But he gets caught up in trouble during a night out with his girlfriend, the consequences of which will set his life on a different trajectory. Another story centres on a talented singer who becomes too ambitious and greedy. We follow his rise and fall into a life of drugs and debt – in the end his only way out is to become a guinea pig, thereby enabling his dealer to test the safety of each batch of coke:

I get off at the terminal. I lean on the wall to stop myself from falling and drag myself to where there’s an open space. I sit down in the sun or the rain, it’s all the same to me, and I wait, leaning against a pillar, like the others. I wait for them to bring the syringe, already filled, look for a vein that still has room, and put the needle in. And they wait to see the effect it has, and whether you live or die. (p. 34-35)

The mafia are never very far away — to the fore in some stories, in the background in others — and we see how people have grown accustomed to living their lives under this shadow:

Maybe Ricardo was right. Maybe like he said, to avoid asking myself too many questions, I’d stopped taking any notice of what was happening around me, the mountains of rubbish in the street, the murders, the bag snatching, the parking attendant who asks for money even when there’s a meter. I’d got used to keeping my eyes down to avoid trouble, paying so that I could drive my lorry in peace, without them slashing the tyres or breaking the windows. Maybe it was it was like he said but I didn’t want to admit it. (p. 113)

All this might sound rather grim, but some of these stories capture moments of love and longing. In one of my favourite stories from the collection, ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’, a woman longs to spend a Sunday with her husband but is unable to because her man can only find work in Rome. He returns on a weekly basis, but always Tuesdays, never at the weekend:

We’d been living like this for thirteen years. Seeing each other only on Tuesdays. Just so we could pay the mortgage and provide for the kids as they grew. But now the mortgage was almost entirely paid off. And the kids were grown. They were working now, making a living for themselves. I know there’s never enough money. But I could look for a job. Anything. Just as long as he came home in the evening and slept in our bed. Just as long as we could spend one Sunday together every now and again. Go for a stroll somewhere, without counting the hours, without feeling that time was slipping through our fingers. A Sunday together like everybody else. (p. 50)

Longo is a critically-acclaimed writer of short stories as well as pieces for the theatre, radio and cinema. When he isn’t writing, Longo works as a pizza-maker in the city of Naples and he draws on his understanding of the city to great effect in this collection. He takes us through the backstreets and clubs of the city, into the homes of its inhabitants and in doing so gives us a real sense of the place, its culture and social landscape. Knives and guns seem common place here and it’s an environment where kids and teenagers often have to grow up ahead of their time to survive.

Stu has already talked about how this collection illustrates what great short stories can do; they give us a slice of the world as we glimpse people for the briefest of moments. One of the things I liked about these stories was their directness and raw honesty. Longo’s prose is quite stripped back but he quickly creates a sense of tension and atmosphere as he pulls us into these individuals’ lives.

I also liked the shifts in tone, mood and pace across the stories. We experience flashes of violence, situations with a pulsating sense of urgency, but there are times when the pace shifts down a gear as characters reflect on their regrets, their hopes and fears.

One of the reasons I wanted to get involved in shadowing the IFFP was to discover exciting examples of world-lit with a real sense of place, fiction that vividly captures the voice and the essence of a specific location and/or culture. And that exactly what Ten delivers.

Ten is one of three collections of short stories longlisted for this year’s IFFP. The other collections are Revenge by Yoko Ogawa and The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (and one could also argue that Andrei Makine’s Brief Loves That Live Forever reads as a series of interlinked stories). As for Ten’s chances in the IFFP, I’m at the halfway point in reading the longlist so it’s a little difficult to tell at this stage…but it’s an excellent collection of stories and one which I’m very glad to have discovered.

Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed this collection: Stu, Bellezza, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was originally published as a guest post on Stu’s blog (20th March 2014) and Stu has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

Ten is published in the UK by Harvill Secker.

Source: personal copy.