Engaged Pessimism

Explaining her reasons for turning to the roman noir when in her fifties, after decades of teaching history at a university in Paris, Dominique Manotti points to François Mitterrand. His presidency, she has said, sounded the death knell for hopes of a radical transformation of French society. Fiction, though, offered her an alternative form of resistance – if only as a stubborn refusal to let things lie. Now aged 78, Manotti has written a dozen novels on subjects ranging from football corruption and factory protests to police violence and oil trading, mostly set in contemporary France. To better appreciate her work, it is useful to understand why it was the noir genre she chose rather than the policier, or detective novel. In a talk she gave at the University of Bari in 2009, she explained this well:

In ‘traditional’ detective fiction, a crime (or more than one crime) takes place and creates a rupture in the order of things. An unacceptable disorder – an unacceptable transgression – takes place at the start of the novel. An investigator (or more than one) carries out an investigation, which results in the discovery of the culprit(s) and the restoration of order. The detective story is by definition an ordered novel. Evil exists, but in the end, order is restored. You have scared yourself, but you can sleep soundly. The crime is an individual act, which is explained through personal motives and relationships.

The detective novel is steeped in psychology, and even psychiatry when you have the character of the serial killer, which is the new archetype of this kind of fiction. The noir novel, however, roots its crimes in the particular social circumstances in which they are committed. It is no longer the individual alone who is the criminal but the world of suffering, misery, violence and corruption in which we live which produces criminal individuals, this world that law and justice cover up without ever addressing. The reestablishment of order, if it takes place at all, is never more than a fragile reestablishment of an appearance of order and peace. Disorder is the true state of this tragic world. We are poles apart from any kind of edifying literature. The noir novel seems to use the same codes as detective fiction, and reuses the same characters such as the detective, but it does so with a very different scope: crime and disorder are not accidents that can be remedied. Disorder is at the very heart of social organization; it is its irreparable truth.

And it is this way of seeing things that strikes me as better adapted to the understanding of my time. It seems to me that we are living in a world that has a heightened awareness of the crisis it faces, a world that sees the imbalance and loss of control, and therefore the danger.

This goes some way to accounting for the general darkness and despair that hangs over Manotti’s novels. One could call it an engaged pessimism. She writes novels to call out what she considers unacceptable in society, but she has few expectations that what she details in her books will go away. Much of the time she is also drawing from fact, and these true stories have all ended badly, as is the case for Marseille 73, her thirteenth and latest novel which was published last year.

Manotti is the pen name of Marie-Noëlle Thibault, born in Paris in 1942. She was a student in 1968 and describes the shock of France’s bloody involvement in the Algerian war for independence as the key event that oriented her towards a life of political activity. At university she joined the French Communist Party and went on to do a doctorate in economic history. For many years she taught history at Vincennes, where she was a union leader and worked on the journal Les Cahiers de mai. She published her first roman noir in 1995.

Manotti has a recurring detective, Inspector Daquin, whom she is clearly fond of and who we in turn warm to as readers. He is a classic noir character: a flawed and brilliant outsider, sensitive but with a violent streak. He is the same age as Manotti but unlike her played no role in 1968 – all we learn is that he was ‘out of the country’ at the time. By giving Daquin no association with a period that for her was crucial, Manotti distanced herself from her protagonist, perhaps to avoid caricature, or loading him with too much partisan baggage. Daquin is also gay and has a tormented past, which comes back in flashes throughout the books, as in the following extract from KOP from 1998. The style is typical Manotti – little bursts of biographical detail about her characters, infrequent but enough to give us a clear sense of each of them, with a curious switching between third and first person that lends immediacy to the scene:

Daquin enters the main hall of the hospital of Lisle-en-Seine. He is at once overcome by anxiety. All through his childhood, the spectacle of his mother, high on drugs and alcohol, a very slow decline, a medically assisted suicide. Since then, a badly managed fear of the world of doctors. And then Lenglet, his old friend, dead from AIDS, in hospital, just two years ago… Sam (the journalist). Surprised to see his face so drawn, in this harsh light. I had forgotten already.

Five of Manotti’s books have appeared in English so far, and more have German, Italian and Spanish versions. In France, it was her 2008 novel Lorraine Connection which first reached a wide audience. It is one of her strongest books, its power perhaps deriving from her own experience as a union leader. The novel is inspired by a real incident: the fire that broke out at the Daewoo factory in Mont St Michel in 2003, which was blamed on trade unionists protesting ahead of the factory’s closure. Manotti did not believe the official account and so decided to investigate – the novel was the result. Among her other notable works are Bien connu des services de police from 2010, which won France’s most prestigious crime-writing prize. Dedicated to her students in the Saint-Denis college where she had taught for many years, the novel was inspired by the wave of police violence in the suburbs in 2005. Another accomplished novel, L’honorable société, co-written with a fellow noir author Hervé Albertazzi – penname DOA – and originally intended to be a television series, was published the following year. It follows a group of environmental activists who witness a murder and become embroiled in a political cover-up.

In Marseille 73, Manotti returns to a time and place she had already visited in a previous novel, Or noir from 2015. The earlier book had dealt with the oil boom and rise of traders in the 1970s, featuring Daquin aged 27, just starting out in his first post with the Marseille police department. In Marseille 73 Daquin is with us again, but this time Manotti concentrates on a specific set of events in 1973. She says she was inspired to write the novel after learning about the wave of assassinations that had taken place that year in France, when some 50 people were killed in six months. The murders were targeted hits on Arabs, with 20 or so killed in Marseille alone. The deaths however were brushed under the carpet – Manotti only found out about them decades later. Typical of her modus operandi, she investigated. The novel appeared two years later.

‘I wrote it to resist forgetting’, she said in an interview published on her website. This is a simple way to summarize all her work. She uses fictional form to expose the real mechanics of power and corruption. ‘Warning’, she wrote at the start of Lorraine Connection, ‘This is a novel. Everything is true and everything is false.’

Marseille 73 is ultimately an indictment of France under Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing, the presidents who came after 68 and who sought to erase the inglorious events of that period. These include the activities of the OAS, or L’Organisation armée secrète, the clandestine and murderous French paramilitary group that carried out terrorist attacks in Algeria in the last year of the war. De Gaulle had granted amnesty to its leaders in 1968, and by the 1970s they were being reintegrated into the police force and the army. Meanwhile, the racism of the Front National was on the rise.

The novel opens with an order made by the French government in 1972 that set the stage for the subsequent wave of violence the following year:

In the fall of 1972, the French government decided to control the immigrant population much more strictly than it had done until then. The Marcellin-Fontanet circular requires immigrants who wish to come to France or who already reside there to have an employment contract and to have adequate accommodation in order to be able to obtain a residence permit and thus be ‘regularized’. Eighty-six percent of immigrants present on French soil suddenly switch from the category of ‘unofficial workers’ to ‘illegal workers’ and overnight a new category, that of the ‘sans-papiers’ is created – making them candidates for expulsion from France in the summer of 1973.

In Grasse [a town near Marseille] as elsewhere, foreign workers feel threatened. They do not have work contracts or decent housing. On 11 June 1973, they protested in Grasse’s old town, where many had been housed in slums, and over the following days they decided to strike, calling for job contracts and better housing. At night, the city walls were covered with black and white posters reading: ‘Stop uncontrolled immigration’, signed under the new decree.

The Grasse mayor refused to meet with the workers and instead called in the riot police to crack down on protests, which they did with brutal enthusiasm. The local, non-Arab population was also spurred to action and a special anti-immigrant committee was created.

The declared objective is ‘to get rid of the thousand idlers who undermine the good reputation of the city’. The mayor tells the press: ‘these immigrant protests are absolutely scandalous and undermine public order. It is no less scandalous that they are not more severely repressed’. He adds, ‘It’s very tedious, you know, to be invaded by them’.

After this sobering prologue, the main story of Marseille 73 begins with the brutal murder of a bus driver, a real case that followed several targeted killings of immigrant workers in Marseille and dozens more deaths across the country. In the novel, Daquin discovers that the investigations carried out so far have been woefully inadequate. Generally the crimes were dismissed as instances of ‘settling scores between rival gangs’, regardless of whether the victims had criminal records. Then a particularly shocking murder takes place: a 16-year-old Algerian, Malek, is shot three times as he waited on the street for a friend. As Daquin looks into it, he discovers the initial investigations have been botched and that no real attempt is being made to find the killers – prompting him to quietly pursue the leads himself.  

The story is compelling as fiction, but it is shocking when considered as drawn from fact. Daquin’s investigation focuses on the killings, but he goes on to discover the disturbing truth about the police force – rife with racism and former OAS members – who saw Marseille as round two of the Algerian war. Marseille 73 details all of this as well as the rise of the far-right groups that legitimised anti-immigrant sentiment. It is interesting to learn that in the 1970s the media had not yet started to demonize the Front National; instead there was a generalized complacency by reporters to covering the wave of violence towards Arab communities. The police, meanwhile, are portrayed as operating more like a mafia, with decisions made in dark bistros and business considerations looming large over promotions within the force. Daquin can only rely on a few trusted colleagues and the family of the dead teenager, who are portrayed in stark contrast to the police. We also gain insight into how immigrant workers organized strikes over the lack of justice for the killings.

True to her definition of the noir genre resolving nothing by the end of the story, Marseille 73 offers no satisfactory final scene in the drawing room with the perpetrator of the crime exposed and moral order reestablished. Daquin’s investigation does manage to put a police officer in jail – the henchman Picon, Malek’s killer. But on his first night locked up he dies. The official report says it was a heart attack, but everyone involved in the case knows it was an inside job: Picon was killed by his fellow officers, who feared that he would expose their corruption to save himself once he stood trial. When Daquin asks Malek’s family if they want to push for a conviction of Picon’s killers, they dismiss the idea of getting real justice for their son  – Picon’s conviction was the best they could hope for. In France, Malek’s father says, the legal system tells us that as North Africans ‘our lives are worth nothing’.

One does not read Manotti’s novels for subtle psychological portraits or the cool literary style found in the best noir fiction. Her prose is closer to being ‘cinematic’, as it was described by one French reviewer. The action moves along swiftly; we have few inner thoughts of characters but a great deal about their environment and about their interactions with each other. Marseille 73 is a fine example of this, but its subject matter is particularly unsettling and important. Algeria continues to cast a long shadow in France decades after the end of the war, and much still remains unsaid or hidden from view. Manotti employs her training as a historian to unearth the facts, and the techniques of noir to chip away at shameful events that we should not be allowed to forget.

Read on: Emilie Bickerton on the autofiction of Fatima Daas.