Thursday, 2 January 2014

Corruption and the new France in the dark The Marseilles Trilogy

From The Week of December 16th, 2013

Corruption is a cancer that, when unchecked by the will to do good, spreads malignantly through the body of society, devouring virtue at every turn until civilization is simply a wasteland of broken dreams. Other crimes, other sins, lack this power to spread and infect. They are either regulated by the good around them, or quarantined into small ghettos where such behavior is, if not normative, then certainly expected. But corruption cannot be confined in this way because of its most potent weapon, the communication to the minds of the good that they are fools for playing by society's rules, that only dupes refuse to partake of the sweet fruit of all of corruption's temptations. No other form of wickedness can so swiftly convince the good to do bad, a truth made abundantly clear in Jean-Claude Izzo's engaging trilogy.

In the late 1990s, at the dawn of modern Europe, life in the French port city of Marseilles, the first city of the third world, is difficult and divisive. Not only are jobs relatively scarce, making rife the exploitation of the vulnerable, poverty and the influx of immigrants have created fertile soil for the racist National Front to bed down and nurture their cruel plots against all those who do not look like them. But underneath the drumbeat of the Front's marches, beyond the screeds of their pamphlets, is an even deeper threat from Italy, a Mafia culture that threatens to reach out and worm its corrosive tentacles into every aspect of European life.

Fighting a one-man war against these threats, which are as foul as they are pervasive, is Fabio Montale, a cop come reluctant crusader who has lived all his life in this dirty city of discontent. A hoodlum in his youth, he found his way onto the side of justice when he could no longer stomach the nihilism of criminality. And yet, while Fabio finds purpose with the police, he does not find peace. For they, in their own way, are just as corrupt as the world they seek to marginalize. Isolated in his quiet quest to keep the Mafia and the national Front from ruining Marseilles, Fabio is ill-prepared for the lengths they are willing to go to win, against him and against the world they want to own. Killing his friends, or even just people seen with him is nothing. What will Fabio have to surrender to continue on the path of righteousness? And does he have the right to endanger those closest to him to fight a war he cannot win?

Adventures through the racist and corrupt underbelly of this French city, The Marseilles Trilogy is as riveting as it is sloppy. Mr. Izzo, whose work helped create the genre of Mediterranean Noir, of which this trilogy is a stalwart, has created a gritty and wine-soaked world that more-or-less operates at the behest of organized crime. These syndicates, in penetrating governments and the police, have largely sheltered themselves from mainstream prosecution, allowing them to conduct their consequential business well outside of the light of day. This cunning investment has short-circuited resistance against them, leaving it to individual journalists, policeman and social crusaders to fight against a monolithic machine they have no hope of destroying.

Which leads us to Mr. Izzo's most singular and effective creation, the battered and beleaguered Fabio Montale, a man who staggers from crisis to crisis without plans, without hope, and certainly without any reasonable expectation of victory. Fabio is aware of all of these truths. And yet, miraculously, despite the pain this world has caused him, he persists in pursuing it precisely because of what said world has cost him. This may be insane; it's most certainly foolhardy; and it will someday, undoubtedly, get him killed. But whatever flaws of character Fabio may possess -- a closed-off heart, an inability to relate to the women he loves --, he is not a coward. He introspects. He reminds himself of what others deserve and he uses this motivation to deal small defeats to a darkness that will endure until long after he is gone.

the Marseilles Trilogy is rich with detail, with chaotic streets and crowded bars, with cynical racism and elicit drugs, with new music and old loves, all of which provide a rich tapestry around its reluctant hero, Fabio. But for all its sensory hedonism, for all that its leading man is worthy of the silver screen, its plots leave a great deal to be desired. At practically every turn, Mr. Izzo falls back on the old chestnut of the murdered woman Fabio could have loved to galvanize him into action. This an effective trope, one that has withstood the test of time, but when overused so blatantly, it gestalts into a writer's crutch that, when kicked away, leaves no other foundation upon which the tale can rest. Moreover, the resolution of these stories are so dizzyingly swift that they are in no way clear or coherent. The author's reluctance to grant Fabio any major victories is understandable in light of his overall message, but his manipulations, to keep Fabio from anything like triumph, is too readily apparent. The reader is never allowed to feel as though his conclusions are organic outcomes of real scenarios.

Nonetheless, The Marseilles Trilogy and the genre in which it has found such a profitable home, is a valuable work that not only speaks to the challenges faced by lone crusaders and large institutions trying to resist the infestations of crime, but to the kind of society that results from allowing the wielders of corruption to operate with relative impunity. These lessons grant these works their potence and their passion. (3/5 Stars)

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