“How the Hell Did It All Come to This?”: The Political Noirs of Jean-Patrick Manchette




IN THE INTRODUCTION to the English edition of the French noir writer Jean-Patrick Manchette’s unfinished last novel Ivory Pearl (La Princesse du sang, 1996), Manchette’s son Doug Headline makes the case that, after a significant break from writing fiction — he began writing Ivory Pearl in 1989, more than seven years after his last novel, The Prone Gunman (La Position du tireur couché, 1981), had been published — his father’s literary goals had shifted. Headline explains that after a great deal of acclaim and commercial success in the 1970s, his father found he could not “keep walking down that same path without repeating himself. […] He therefore felt obligated to search for a new form, and a new field, for fear of losing his soul.”

That new form, begun with Ivory Pearl but envisioned as a trilogy, would, had Manchette lived to finish it, “fuse noir fiction, spy thriller, and political history.” He’d been inspired and influenced by John le Carré’s Smiley books, and by Ross Thomas. Manchette himself laid out a vision for the trilogy, which he was calling “People in the Wrong Time,” in an interview in 1991, two years into his work: “My bold project is therefore to pick up on history in those years and to continue on through the sixties, May 1968, the seventies, etc. If I had to give it a general theme, it would be something along the lines of ‘How the hell did it all come to this?’”

Manchette’s words suggest, subtly, that his earlier novels — six of which have been translated into English in the last couple decades — are somehow lacking in terms of political gravitas. Presented with Manchette’s self-professed ambitions and a certain amount of context, the idea that he was moving to something broader is impossible to ignore as you read any of these earlier novels after having read Ivory Pearl. And yet, while it’s tempting to go along with Manchette’s own assessment of his work and thematic trajectory, I also think it’s possible that Manchette was selling his earlier work a bit short in terms of political heft.

Indeed, all of Manchette’s novels pose that same question — “How the hell did it all come to this?” — with relentless insistence. Take Fatale (1977), for example, a novel that is, on its surface, a simple story about a heartless killer named Aimée, who uses her charm and beauty to manipulate an entire small town so that she can rob it blind and slaughter its corrupt bureaucrats in the process. It reads a bit like Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), chronicling the insatiably misanthropic actions of a character who does what she does merely because it’s the only thing that satisfies her. Manchette paints her as, well, a femme fatale, a woman seemingly born to take advantage of men that she’ll inevitably kill. But what isn’t discussed — not by the omniscient narrator nor by Aimée herself — are the reasons behind her actions, the state of the world in which she lives, and the impact of those conditions on women. Is she the victim of a grotesque, cartoonish version of capitalism run amok, or is she its greatest practitioner and advocate? Is she taking up the mantle of corporate greed, or avenging its crimes? Is the distinction even important, considering the death and destruction she sows?

Or consider The Mad and the Bad (Ô dingos, ô châteaux!, 1972), a novel that obliquely confronts the burdens placed on the weaker members of society and the failure (i.e., the unwillingness) of the capitalist system to take care of them. The story itself unfolds in a fishbowl, focusing on an orphan, his mentally unstable nanny, his greedy uncle, and the ailing contract killer the uncle hires to eliminate his two dependents. Manchette never suggests that the story is a grand metaphor for anything at all, but he does offer hints about his characters’ assigned roles in the very real society they’re drawn from. And with 3 to Kill (Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest, 1976), Manchette narrows his focus even more to follow a desperate, down-on-his-luck middle-class man whose life is upended when he randomly witnesses a murder and becomes the killers’ new target. Manchette uses politico-economic realities and struggles as a mere backdrop, as an engine for motivation in a world of overgrown materialism and misplaced entitlement.

There are, of course, substantial differences between Ivory Pearl and all of the older novels in terms of scope — spatially, temporally, and thematically. Even in the 200-odd pages Manchette produced before his death, the plot spans several decades and crosses the oceans multiple times, drawing in characters from a broad range of subversive organizations representing several points on the political spectrum. It’s a complex story involving unseen operators, their ruthless “assets,” and decades-long plots to manipulate people, markets, and entire nations. With this sort of wide-angle approach, there can be a tendency to flatten characters, to turn them into agents of purpose and little else. Manchette does no such thing. Ivory Pearl, the enigmatic photographer-mercenary at the center of the story, is as fully formed a character as any in Manchette’s novels, evincing a calculating, remorseless devotion to the task at hand, but also an unspoken appreciation for the larger factors at play in the world around her, as well as a certain degree of morality. She is no simple killing machine in the vein of Jason Bourne; she fights and kills out of necessity, for the sake of survival. Manchette’s goals with Ivory Pearl and the trilogy beyond might have been to make a grand political point, but it was obviously still important to him to maintain his characters’ humanity, no matter which side he placed them on.

In fact, throughout his work, politics and personal are always intertwined. The lives of his characters, even if these characters happen to be strictly apolitical, are always shaped by political forces. But Nada (1972) — recently published by New York Review Books Classics and translated, like all the novels mentioned here, by Donald Nicholson-Smith — represents something different within Manchette’s pre–Ivory Pearl oeuvre, in that its plot is overtly political, revolving around a communist-anarchist group’s kidnapping of an American diplomat. Here he brings the complex issues of post–World War II politics very close to the surface — but not quite to the surface. As always, he deftly keeps generalizations at bay and crafts a novel that exposes, critiques, but, most importantly, entertains.

Set in Paris in the early 1970s, in the frustrating aftermath of May 1968, when students and unions took to the streets en masse in order to demand institutional change, Nada tells the story of a loosely connected group of leftists, called Nada, seeking to spark revolution by taking a midlevel American diplomat hostage. From the very beginning, it’s obvious that it’s a ragtag affair, orchestrated by inexperienced paramilitaries whose zealotry, they hope, will carry the day. We’ve all seen this movie before. A writer of lesser skill, with less appreciation for nuance, might draw these characters with broad, cartoonish strokes, and the plot might devolve into parody. (In the 1980s, when he’d stopped writing crime novels, Manchette translated a fair amount of American noir into French, including books by Donald E. Westlake, whose Parker novels — about an oddly moralistic thief who assembled similarly ragtag crews for each new job — toe this line between noir and parody with astonishing mastery.) Manchette, however, understands not only his characters’ goals but their complex motivations — some conscious, others not. He understands the impact that the system they abhor has had on them, and thus understands their anger, their ability to justify their crime.

There is Treuffais, a schoolteacher just boiling with disdain for his bratty, uninspired students and their petit-bourgeois parents. In his introductory scene, after a futile discussion of Arthur Schopenhauer, he calls one of his students a “stupid shit,” complains to himself, aloud, about the influence the boy’s father has, and then threatens a moped rider with a knife on his way home. Some days later, he punches an older colleague and then slaps the school’s director in a frenzied, violent scene in the teachers’ lounge. It’s obvious that he’s miserable in his job, frustrated with his lot in life. Manchette describes the angry young man’s frenetic movements with a halting style, perfectly capturing his sense of indignation at the entire world. When the now-unemployed teacher pushes his cheap car too hard and breaks the clutch, Manchette writes:

The young man got out, opened the hood and surveyed the damage. There was a book and stationery store fifty meters away. Treuffais made his way there. A wooden sign urged “Be Like Everyone — Read France-Soir.” Treuffais cleared his throat and directed a gob of mucus onto the stack of newspapers.

There is Épaulard, the elder statesmen of the group and the last to be recruited. He is a stranger who came highly recommended for his experience on missions like these, but is very clearly a broken man just trying to avoid having to pay the price for his past crimes. Though he initially balks at the idea of joining the plot, he reconsiders after a taste of that old excitement. In a somewhat hokey scene for a Manchette novel, he contemplates shooting himself in the head while facing himself in a mirror. Deciding not to “off himself,” he says, “What the hell, why not?” to his own reflection. Later on, when the crew is hiding in a country house with their hostage, Épaulard manages to catch the eye of the group’s only woman, the femme fatale, but things don’t go according to plan:

Épaulard undressed with a certain nervousness, then lay down with Cash, proved to be increasingly nervous, and everything was over quickly. Épaulard seethed with shame and disappointment. After a moment or two he tried again. He thrashed about for a long time. His efforts were fruitless. Cash pushed him aside gently. With his face in the pillow, Épaulard panted like a mule and ground his teeth.

Then Cash “caressed his cheek sweetly, but Épaulard sensed her disappointment and there was nothing for it.” It’s fair to read Épaulard’s sexual performance as an analogue for his entire life — one of romanticized ambitions that turned out to be frustrating and “fruitless.” The political has obviously taken its toll on the old man.

There is Meyer, a stoic sort in a volatile marriage who seems to have become involved in the mission for lack of anything better to do. He is the logical product of a system that has failed in its promise of personal fulfillment through hard work. After the abduction has taken place and gone somewhat wrong, he says, “I was sick and tired of life as we live it, yes, and something had to give. Maybe I’d have killed my wife. Or robbed a gas station. But this … what we did? No, never.” The idea that he equates killing his wife with robbing a gas station is appalling enough, but the idea that he sees either as a cure for ennui lands the real blow, just as Manchette intended.

There is D’Arcy, the alcoholic and downtrodden fatalist, whose addiction is portrayed as a minor handicap, something the others view with a mixture of sadness and sensible acceptance. Of Treuffais, who has defected from the group, D’Arcy says, “He’s an intellectual. All his life he’ll continue to eat shit and say thank you and cast blank ballots. But modern history doesn’t give a rat’s ass about shit eaters.” And while he’s on the subject, “Modern history created us, which only shows that civilization is on the eve of destruction one way or the other. And believe you me, I’d sooner finish in blood than in caca.” The cynicism and bleak hopelessness of D’Arcy’s words fit neatly into the noir tradition, but the context in which they’re uttered is more unmistakably political, distinctly postwar.

Manchette’s characters are men and women who have been thoroughly beat down by capitalism and the false promises of democracy. The lasting impact of Nada, and of all Manchette novels, owes to the author’s skill at portraying the assault of the political on the personal, without ever making it explicit. The reader is always aware of larger forces working behind the main plot, molding the individual characters and their relationships to each other. The author does not condemn them any more or less than society does. He merely asks: How the hell did it all come to this?

¤

Tom Roberge is the co-owner, with Emma Ramadan, of Riffraff, a bookstore and bar in Providence, Rhode Island. Prior to that, he was the deputy director of Albertine, a French-language bookstore in New York, and director of marketing and publicity at New Directions Publishing.

 

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