About halfway through Total Chaos, author Jean-Claude Izzo references director Marcel Pagnol’s immortal Fanny trilogy. Those three movies are about an epic love affair—love found, then lost, then resoundingly reclaimed—and in them the breezy, feisty port city of Marseilles is as much of a character as any human. The cast of this 1950s triptych is all-white, all-French (there is one Jewish supporting character, and, yes, he gets picked on), and although the movies contain heartbreak and death, the plot rushes along on an undeniable current of humanism and optimism.
If Total Chaos—the first in the neo-noir Marseilles trilogy to be translated by Europa Editions—is any indication, Izzo has created a series that is every bit Pagnol’s equal and opposite. Whereas Fanny’s lover Marius was called to life (and away from her) by the majestic sea, Izzo’s cop Fabio finds decidedly less buoyant inspiration: he only reluctantly begins to live his life after his only two friends are killed. And whereas Pagnol’s film featured a homogenous, happy Marseilles that bordered on slapstick, Izzo’s novel features a Marseilles full of simmering anti-Arab racism. It’s a place of ugly piled on ugly, a city that grasps tourists with both hands, but warns them against straying too far from the Francophone parts of town.
The story, which is pieced together throughout the novel as Fabio mulls over the shambles of his life, is thus: as teens, Fabio, Ugo, and Manu were three immigrant sons up to no good in Marseilles. Despite the fact that Fabio was Italian and Ugo and Manu Arab, they loved each other. But they also knew their semi-criminal adolescent antics couldn’t be prolonged indefinitely, and each responds to the call of maturity differently: Fabio joins the military, going overseas and earning the instant hatred of Ugo and Manu. Manu stays in Marseilles and gradually becomes more and more of a criminal. Ugo travels the world, living from day to day and becoming the only one of the three to see their collective childhood fantasies through.
When Fabio comes back from his three year tour, he becomes a cop; if joining the military didn’t alienate him enough from Manu and Ugo, becoming an officer definitely does the trick. It’s not long before Manu is dead, and when Ugo comes back three months later, he wants revenge. Ugo gets it, but winds up killed in the process. As with all noir, something doesn’t add up, and Fabio finds himself unable to rest until he gets to the bottom of the matter—or dies in the process.
Noir is a strange genre in that even its greatest fans will admit that it’s a lowbrow guilty pleasure. Like a dirty slumlord, noir lives off a set of tired clichés, and Total Chaos has them all: the existentially empty protagonist who finds his vocation in vengeance, the strong vixens who are his moral base, his counterpoint, and possibly his undoing, the gangsters who have virtually unlimited powers and a reach that extends into almost every sector of society; the snappy, over-the-top exchanges, the cops and criminals strong-arming one another in a test of wills, the shootouts, the corpses, the all-night benders. Yet for all that, Total Chaos is undeniably literature.
Part of this is due to Izzo’s amazing characterization, Exhibit One for which is our justice-seeking cop Fabio. Izzo takes a convention of noir—the lost soul who finds himself in vengeance—and packs it with enough realism to make it utterly lifelike. Most noirs would take Fabio’s emptiness as a given, but Izzo creates a compelling backstory to explain it. He links it to Fabio’s immigrant experience, his disenchantment with the corruption he finds on the police force, and his repeated failures with women. As the story progresses, Fabio’s increasing obsession with revenge isn’t taken as inevitable. Quite the opposite, it’s a strange new presence in Fabio’s life, one that he strains to understand and reconcile with. Perversely, it becomes a sign of hope: it’s the lever by which Fabio effects a long overdue wrangling with his childhood. Perhaps the best way to pay tribute to Izzo’s characterization of Fabio is to say that stock phrases you’d find in any noir, things like “I don’t believe in anything” or “I couldn’t accept that the case was closed,” sound completely authentic coming out of Fabio’s mouth. They’re not conventions plugged in for convention’s sake, they’re the exact thing you’d expect Fabio to say.
The other way Total Chaos transcends the confines of noir is in the mature, nuanced way it grapples with the Arab and African immigrants that are becoming a bigger and bigger story in France, and in Europe as a whole. Izzo originally wrote this series in the ’90s, a full decade before movies like Dirty Pretty Things and books like Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, and now he’s looking like a prophet.
The story of France’s impoverished, disenfranchised dark-skinned population exploded in a big way in November 2005, when Parisian riots broadcast the story of minorities in France like Hurricane Katrina did for minorities in the United States. Additionally, French artists have increasingly shown some willingness to begin discussing these matters. A recent, excellent French documentary broadcast to 8 million homes on France’s state-financed television station explored what really happened on the night of October 17, 1961 when Algerian immigrants peacefully marched for greater rights and ended up beaten, 200 of them slaughtered. (For decades, the French government denied any wrongdoing, and it is only recently that the truth has come out.) Cache, a recent French film, examines the same theme. It explores the life of a well-to-do Parisian as he comes to terms with the past he has tried to forget; it turns out that his parents adopted a Muslim boy orphaned by the events of the October 17th march. The wealthy Parisian (then a child) got his parents to reject the Muslim interloper, and he’s lived with the guilt of it ever since.
These films are fine forays into postcolonial guilt and immigrant/nativist friction—issues that Europe is only now beginning to deal with—but Izzo has them all beat. As a port city, Marseilles has long been a beacon for immigrants, especially from across the Mediterranean, and Izzo portrays it as the rich mélange that it is; but he also continually reminds us that if you think these people all live in harmony, you’re dead wrong. More than that, he shows us the specific ways each side gets through the day—the rationalizations native French use to justify their prejudice against their immigrant fellow-citizens; the ways that the Arab population sticks together and effects reprisals on the French authorities when the racism gets just a bit too blatant; and, of course, the difficulties decent people like Fabio face (from both sides) when they try to simply treat the natives and immigrants as equals.
Izzo also gives us a rich understanding of the immigrant population of Marseilles. He takes us into their homes and businesses, describing the intricate tapestry of familial and economic relationships. He gives voice to the immigrants, drawing them as criminals, small businessmen, hustlers, wage-slaves, and students. He hints around at the various politics—from communist to fascist—that the immigrants participate in. And, significantly, he portrays the double-edged relationship of immigrants and police, realistically rendering the difficult “one step forward, two steps back” dance as the two sides try to interact and forge a better understanding.
Perhaps most importantly, Izzo reminds us that many of these “immigrants” aren’t really immigrants: as daughters and sons of the first wave of migrants, they’re every bit as much of a citizen as a native Frenchman. This is key, and may provide much of the reasoning behind why artists are now looking so deeply into postcolonial guilt and ethnic strife. Perhaps with the first wave of immigration, some double-standards (unjust as they are) are to be expected. But now, after being in France for so long, the immigrants must ask themselves, Why haven’t things gotten better for us? And the nativists must begin to reconcile with the fact that these people are here to stay and that French policies are partly responsible for the poverty that pervades many of the immigrant communities.
But for as deeply as Izzo dissects this issue, he makes damn well sure to give us the gripping plot that any self-respecting noir lover would expect. Total Chaos is a noir through and through, but it feels so real that it reminds us that the clichés of noir were originally drawn from real life. It was only after noir became a genre unto itself that these clichés took on a life of their own, spinning off a parallel noir universe. Congrats to Izzo then, for successfully inserting noir back into the reality from which it came.
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