Jean-Claude Izzo

Fabio Montale - Disallusioned Policeman, Marseille, France
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"Chourmo"

(Reviewed by Tony Ross SEP 30, 2006)

Chourmo by Jean-Claude Izzo

Those who haven't read Total Chaos, the first book in Izzo's Marseille-set trilogy, needn't worry that they are missing crucial information. This second book (whose title is a slang term referring to the slaves who rowed in Roman galleys and is used to express the sense of solidarity felt by those in the slums), picks up the life of Fabio Montale about a year after the events of Total Chaos and only refers to them in passing. Since being drummed out of the corrupt Marseille police force following that adventure, Montale has been mostly sipping wine at home while watching the sea, or out fishing on his little boat. This tranquility is broken when his beautiful cousin Gelou, whom he hasn't seen for twenty years, comes seeking his help.

It seems her teenage son has gone missing and probably came to Marseille to meet an Arab girl he became sweet on. Alas, a prologue shows the reader the tragic outcome of this assignation, and it doesn't take Montale long to discover that the boy was shot to death -- possibly in connection with the killing of an exiled Algerian intellectual. Meanwhile a social worker who spent a lot of time in the projects and was a friend of Montale's is killed before his eyes in a drive-by shooting. It's the book's one significant weakness that these two seemingly unrelated victims both happen to have ties to Montale, since this coincidence is what allows the plot to unravel in the manner it does.

As in Total Chaos, things get very convoluted very quickly as Montale runs around Marseille getting entangled with all kinds of characters. There are racist cops, fundamentalist Algerian immigrants with ties to the civil war back home (the book was originally published in 1996), a cruel junkyard owner, a Vietnamese vixen, a struggling heroin whore, and various mafia bosses. The coincidence noted above puts Montale in the driver's seat, as he's the only person with the access to all these different strata who has the drive and desire to put all the pieces together. With a rather sympathetic police detective backing his play, Montale runs amok, disrupting the plans of several groups of people in his desire to get at the truth.

Like his protagonist, the author was born and raised in the seedy city of Marseille, and watched it turn from a Southern European melting pot to a post-colonial melting pot of 1.5 million people. Like his protagonist, he had a front-row seat (as a journalist) to the major social and economic shifts of the last several decades, and the xenophobia they have engendered.

As in Total Chaos, Izzo conveys a very Gallic sense of disenchantment and fatalism. It's a complicated portrait of a city, loving and nostalgic, yet sad and angry. In that sense, the book works much better as a social portrait of a city than it does as a crime story. I'd really recommend it much more to those with an interest in Southern France or who might be visiting Marseille, than I would to crime buffs. It would also, along with the film Hate, be useful for those seeking to understand the last year's Paris riots.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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"Total Chaos"

(Reviewed by Tony Ross SEP 30, 2006)

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo

This first in Izzo's popular Marseille Trilogy (followed by Chourmo and Solea) is an unflinching portrait of France's southern port, dressed up in the trappings of a crime story. Make no mistake, it is a crime story, but despite the gritty local color and bloody action, the story is suffused with a sense of ennui, isolation, and loss -- not unlike the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. The protagonist is Fabio Montale, a disillusioned policeman whose two oldest friends, Manu and Ugo, are killed within days of each other. Twenty years earlier they were growing up together in a rough neighborhood, thick as thieves, chasing girls, and headed for a steady life of crime. But Montale didn't see any future in it and opted out, first serving overseas in the Army, and then joining the police force.

Now, he's left to pick up the pieces after Manu is killed by one of the various mafias vying for control of the city's vice, and Ugo returns from Paris only to be killed by the police in what looks to be a set-up. A subplot of almost equal importance involves the disappearance of Leila, a beautiful, bright young Arab that Montale has a chaste love for. She's only one of the many, many beautiful women that seem to hover around Montale in various forms (friend, lover, mother, hooker). In this regard, the story is a cliche, the tough loner cop who can never allow himself to truly love. In any event, the two various story strands intertwine, but the plot is so totally convoluted as to defy explanation. This is something I've found with a good deal of crime novels from outside the U.S. and U.K., they tend to be either very stripped down and simple, or totally tangled and labyrinthine. However, in this case, the actual plot is of much less importance than the tone and the setting.

Like his protagonist, the author was born and raised in the seedy city of Marseille, and watched it turn from a Southern European melting pot to a post-colonial melting pot of 1.5 million people. Like his protagonist, he had a front-row seat (as a journalist, not a cop) to the major social and economic shifts of the last several decades, and the xenophobia they have engendered. Here, he takes the reader deep into the world of Italian and Sicilian mafia, Arab ghettos, corrupt cops, pimps and prostitutes of all persuasions, and a very Gallic sense of disenchantment and fatalism. It's a complicated portrait, loving and nostalgic, yet sad and angry. In that sense, the book works much better as a social portrait of a city than it does as a crime story. I'd really recommend it much more to those with an interest in Southern France or who might be visiting Marseille, than I would to crime buffs. It would also, along with the film Hate, be useful for those seeking to understand the recent Paris riots.

Note: The novel was made into a film in France under its original title, Total Kheops, but it is not available in the U.S. There was also an Italian television miniseries called Fabio Montale based on the trilogy. A recent Hollywood film that shows some of the seedy side of modern multi-ethnic Marseille is The Good Thief, which is a loose remake of Melville's Bob le Flambeur.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Marseilles Trilogy:

  • Total Chaos (Total Kheops 1995; 2005 in U.S.) (also released as One Helluva Mess in 2000 )
  • Chourmo (1996; September 2006 in U.S.)
  • Solea (1998; June 2007 in US

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Jean-Claude IzzoJean Claude Izzo was born in Marseilles, France in 1945. His father was an Italian immigrant and his maternal grandfather was a Spanish immigrant. He excelled in school and spent much of his time writing stories and poems. But because of his “immigrant” status, he was forced into a technical school where he was taught how to operate a lathe.

In 1963, he began work in a bookstore. He also actively campaigned on behalf of Pax Christi, a Catholic peace movement. Then, in 1964, he was called up for military duty in Toulon and Djibouti. He worked for the military newspaper as a photograph and journalist.

He was a poet, playwright, screenwriter and novelist who achieved sudden fame in the mid-1990s with the publication of the Marseilles trilogy.

He died in 2000, of cancer, at the age of 55 years old.

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