Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Cuban cop and socialist noir

Havana Black is the 4th of Leonardo Padura's novels about Detective Lieutenant Mario Conde of Havana (it's a tetralogy, but there is a 5th novel, Adios Hemingway, published in translation as by Leonardo Padura Fuentes, the author's full name--the 5th novel is different in structure and atmosphere from the other 4). The 3rd novel in the tetralogy has been published as Havana Red--no word on whether the 1st two in this "seasonal" series will make it into English. Havana Black started me wondering about the social setting of noir fiction in general. Surely, noir is a Capitalist form of art. The classic statements of noir relied on greedy capitalists and bureaucrats and on a free-market of crime and morality at street level. But there could hardly be a more "noir" atmosphere than the Communist Cuba of Padura's novels. Here the deprivation of the common people is enforced by socialist structural mandates rather than not-so-benign neglect (as would be true in democratic noir. But the darkness is even more enveloping, along with the pessimisn and despair--there's a hurricane coming and Conde keeps wishing for it to wipe things clean, an ongoing metaphor that overlaps the end of the novel, with the hurricane just arriving. Conde, this time, is investigating the murder of a former Cuban (now emigre) bureaucrat who had been in charge of distributing the property expropriated from the fleeing Cuban middle class after the revolution. The decadence of morals that was the theme of Havana Red here shifts into a decadence of politics, with the expropriators expropriating the state's newly stolen property. The consequeneces of that decadence are still reverberating in the Cuba of recent decades, in Padura's novel (originaly published in Spain in 1998). Padura's language, though, relies on a rich and allusive indirection rather than the terse, stripped-down language of classic pulp-era noir. Padura is often nostalgic and poetic in his evocation of Cuban despair. He is no less pessimistic about Miami's Little Havana, as well. His detective, his Cuba, and his noir fiction are all stuck in a politiical trap: on the one hand the decaying Cuba of the embargo and on the other hand the soul-less emigre community of fat, rich Miami. In perhaps a symbol of the situation, more than in a clue to the crime, the former Cuban, former bureaucrat's body is found not only murdered but castrated: perhaps Cuba continues to grab hold of the emigres in just that way, preventing them from moving forward creatively into a new world by their nostalgia for a Cuba that no longer exists (and will not exist even if Fidel is pushed aside, since the past is past). The complex metaphor is echoed in a complex and layered writing style. The novel does not flow easily, in the style of pulp noir, but slowly, in a layered prose that includes history (not only of Cuba's 50-year Communist experiment, but also of the Spanish colonial era, South America in the post-colonial era, and even Chinese history), current social reality (the shortages and difficulties of today's Havana), and the life story of Mario Conde in its Cuban revolutionary context of deprivation and total state control. There are echoes and insinuations of The Maltese Falcon and even adventure novels like King Solomon's Mines, as well as a reflexive joke concerning the main character's inability to conceive of himself as a literary character (and the novel itself rounds off with a reflexive flourish, the Conde tetralogy eating its own tail, so to speak). Ultimately, this novel is about Conde himself, as the representative of a "lost generation" of Cubans who stayed on, neither willing to leave nor endorsing the revolution. The reflexevity, the melancholy, and the rich style of the writing are all in the service of that portrait of a generation.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Jakob Arjouni

There have been a number of German crime novels translated recently (from Bitter Lemon Press and others), and I thought I'd go back to one of the first German noir novels to be translated, Jakob Arjouni's Happy Birthday, Turk! Arjouni's novel predates the marvelous Violetta, by Pieke Bierman (set in Berlin in the first days after the Wall came down). Philip Kerr's noir series set in Nazi Germany have been around a while, but Arjouni's Detective Kayankaya is definitely the senior noir detective of German crime fiction, at least as translated into English. And Kayankaya is definitely a noir anti-hero, of the classic variety. He's pretty good in a fight but is ultimately on the losing end of the violence around him. The clients for his private detective business are the outsiders, not the insiders, of the German miracle (in the case of this first novel they are Turkish immigrants, like Kayankaya himself (the detective is, like the author, a German citizen who speaks no Turkish). The plot wanders through the underground drug and sex trade of Frankfurt and winds its way back to the immigrant community: one of the strengths of this short novel is its unsentimental view of all segments of the German society in the '80s. It's a short book, but pared down to essentials rather than leaving anything out. The terseness suits the noir genre as well as the straight-ahead character of the first-person narrator-hero. At the end, Kayankaya is battered, has a clear moral view that is tangential to the legalities of the murder he's supposed to be investigating, and single-minded in maneuvering his enemies toward some kind of justice. Rereading Happy Birthday, Turk! was if anything more rewarding than reading it the first time, and I'm motivated to continue with the next 2 Kayankaya novels, the only ones translated, as far as I know. Arjouni has a couple of other books in translation, but one is short stories that are apparently fables of a sort and a novel of Berlin that includes crime and criminals but is really a "rootless youth" novel rather than noir.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Breaking my own rules: new Pelecanos novel

My rule is that I only review non-U.S. crime fiction here, but I'm going to break my own rule for a novel that is not only based in the U.S., it's based in my own neighborhood. George Pelecanos lives in and writes about the same neighborhood, from suburban Maryland to the city of Washington, that I live in and work in. So if I'm breaking the rule, I'm breaking it all the way, shifting from distant lands to my own back yard. The Night Gardener is Pelecanos's best novel so far. I started reading his books after he'd published 4 novels, a trilogy about a private detective and a stand alone noir thriller that recalled the great days of pulp noir (Shoe Dog). One of the pleasures of reading them was seeing familiar streets and places through the lens of noir fiction, but his books had considerable power from the beginning, as noir and as portraits of the Capitol area. Powerful though they were, Pelecanos's earlier novels (not only those first four but throughout the first half, roughly, of his output) shared a common structure: a troubled good guy becomes disillusioned with the ability of the forces of law to deal with a criminal, and he assembles a group of friends to take justice into his own hands, vigilante style. The books typically ended with a bloodbath, and along the way there was much incidental material about popular music, bars, and drunks, as well as an atmosphere of despair. The Night Gardener has a shoot-out toward the end, much like the earlier novels, but the incident only resolves one of the plot lines, and is related to revenge in the drug trade, not the act of an avenging (flawed) hero. And this is the first book in which Pelecanos seriously investigates the world of homicide police (as well as the first book, apparently, that is based on research with a police force, DC's Metropolitan Police). The book is complex and compelling, dealing with a murder that for several reasons conjures up memories of an earlier murder spree that was never solved and thus pulling together two retired cops and a working detective who were at one of the crime scenes related to that earlier murder. None of the details fo the story adhere to a stock plot, and the resolution is satisfying without being cliche (the solving of the contemporary murder is particularly nuanced). There are flaws, to my mind, in Pelecanos's writing that are also evident here: some of his family men are a bit smug about family life, as is the narrator. And there's a strain of homophobia that is ineffectively countered here by a couple of politically correct speeches by leading characters--not enough to overcome Pelecanos's portrait of a couple of gay or gay-ish characters. The only positive gay character is dead. And Pelecanos is very self-righteous about redevelopment of the city and its suburbs, editorializing about the kinds of bars he likes and dislikes, the kinds of development he disapproves of, and so forth. But you can't say he hides his opinions, and if you step into his world, his stories are compulsively readable. If you haven't read his work, this most recent one is a good place to start--it recapitulates a number of his themes but in a more effective way than he's done before. Perhaps he's taken some lessons from the excellent HBO noir-detective series The Wire, for which he's been a producer and writer.

Friday, August 04, 2006

New Sicilian crime novel

With Rounding the Mark, Andrea Camilleri steps more closely into the territory of Leonardo Sciascia. Like Sciascia, Camilleri in this novel uses actual events to bracket his story and takes an explicit stand on national politics. But Camilleri's tone is very different overall. For Sciascia, much is unspoken; he uses little dialogue, mostly describing and implying events in the narrator's voice. At the time Sciascia was writing, that stance was an explicit metaphor of Sicilian realities, in particular the famous "omerta," the vow of silence with which the mafia imposed its own principles and its own place in Sicilian reality on everyone else. Camilleri's Sicily has changed, at least somewhat. A great deal of any Camilleri novel is dialogue, and there is much discussion of current realities, even those of the mafia. The newest of the Commissario Montalbano series, Sicilian police procedurals, is out in English. The Italian title is more literally "rounding the buoy," actually. As has previously been the case, this book revolves around the sea, seafood, trafficking (of goods and people), and Montalbano's friends and cohorts. Though the crime is very dark, and the mood, health, and personal life of Montalbano are all dark, the tone is typical of the series: light, often comic, and always concerned with food. One of the contributors to Montalbano's black mood is in fact the closing of his favorite trattoria. It's in the interplay of the ensemble (here it's Augero and Fazio plus the irrepressible Catarello from the police, plus a Swedish woman who's been in a few of the previous novels) and their conversation that provide the comedy. The plot, also as usual, moves in fits and starts, less a logical investigation than an accumulation of events and facts that eventually leads to a satisfying conclusion. In this case, as in some but not all of the others, there is a police raid that has almost James Bond overtones, though with more human than superspy in terms of the characters' capabilities and motives. Camilleri's novels are short, enjoyable, and offer a window on coastal Sicily, all very good things. I'm beginning to get a little tired of the English translator, Stephen Sartarelli's use of dialect to mimic the Sicilian dialect of the Italian original: there's no real equivalent in English, and the result makes Catarella in particular sound like a hillbilly from Brooklyn. But the Italian and Sicilann phrases and the dishes in the trattoria (helpfully explained in the notes) are a delight, and the series moves ahead at full speed with Rounding the Mark.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Italian noir, late fascist era

Carte Blanche is the first novel of a trilogy set in Northern Italy at the end of the Fascist era. Commisario De Luca, the hero of the trilogy, has recently transferred from the political police to the regular police, but politics continues to intrude on his investigation of the murder of a well-connected but shadowy Fascist, and De Luca becomes involved with a fortune-teller, the underworld, the falling government, and the pursuing partisans. There are echoes of The Conformist, but Lucarelli's sleep-deprived cop is more self aware than Moravia's Fascist agent, and the novel refers more to classic noir fiction than to Moravia. Plus De Luca is at the Northern periphery, not the Roman center, of Fascism, keeping things at street level rather than the marble halls and ballrooms (or mission to Paris) familiar from readers of Moravia's novel or viewers of the Bertolluci movie based on it--though the linkages among sex, drugs, and violence are prominent features of Lucarelli's novel as well as Moravia's. Carte Blanche is, in spite of its complicated plot, very short and moves very fast. Not having seen them, I'm guessing that the 2 sequels will round out the story, and that the trilogy is in effect a novel in three sections--but the vagaries of the publication of novels in translation don't allow us to see the whole story yet. What we do have in English now, thanks to Europa Editions, is a fascinating glimpse into one of Italy's most troubled eras, and into a character whose origins is suggested in Lucarelli's fascinating introduction. This novel is quite different from the Inspector Grazia Negro series by Lucarelli (two of which have been translated), which are serial killer thrillers set in Bologna (I've talked about them previously in this blog). A brief preview of an upcoming post: Rounding the Mark, the new Montalbano story by Andrea Camilleri, is out in English now, and a copy is waiting for me--so you'll see something about Sicilian noir soon.