(Dominique Jeannerod & Daniel Magennis, 9 June 2015)
French author and documentary filmmaker, Karim Miské recently came to Belfast as part of the Belfast Book Festival, to read and answer questions about his debut novel Arab Jazz (winner of the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière and the English PEN award for writers in translation). We managed to detain him long enough to put some questions of our own to him.
You attended a journalism school in Dakar. Why there in particular?
Because my father was Mauritanian. It was an inter-African school open to West African nationals. I thought it would be interesting. At the time I was at university in Paris but I wasn’t very well adapted to university. I found a journalism school to work better for me. I found it interesting because, as it was an inter-African school, and there were students from all over West Africa, it was also a way for me to look at the world from the point of view of a southern country, which strongly changed my perspective. I grew up in Paris and went to the Lycée Henri IV, which was a good school in Paris. Even though the environment I grew up in was a politicised, ‘Third-Worldist’ one, it was entirely French. Being there [in Dakar] with all these West African students was a way for me to alter my perspective a bit.
Would you say you felt –and still feel more at ease in Senegal then?
No, not more at ease – it was an interesting experience, but it wasn’t my world. I mean to say, it was interesting to have my view of things de-centred. It was a country from different worlds – it was both an Arab and an African country – my father had Arab or Berber origins. But it was also a central-African country and so very different from the Maghreb. Although I feel at ease there, it’s not my world, not my home.
How would you describe your ties to Mauritania and your African heritage ?
De facto I have two nationalities because my father is Mauritanian. I haven’t ever really taken any steps to obtain Mauritanian nationality; I was born abroad and have never registered there, but if I could be Mauritanian if I wanted to be. But it’s not really my society… I’ve been there on holidays and made films there.
How did you become an author of crime fiction – it’s not your principal occupation ?
No – I’m principally a documentary film maker. I trained as a journalist but quickly became a documentary maker. I only worked as a journalist for two, maybe three years at most and I’ve been making documentaries for twenty-five years now. I think being a filmmaker calls for a form of objectivity, although there is always a degree of subjectivity – in the process of making a film, you will always have your own views on things. Even so you’re not going to say everything that enters your head, it’s not an exercise of invention, so I’m not able to say exactly what I think or what I feel about the people I encounter or film. I have to respect them and not try and tell my own story or impose my own world view. Just before I began writing Arab Jazz, I made a film called Born Again, about Jewish, Christian and Muslim neo-fundamentalists in France. That was a quite a unique experience for me as a non-believer – I’m not at all a religious person. But I’m making a film, I have to be open and not judge. If I did it would be a dishonest film, a loaded film, which wasn’t my intention – my goal was to try and understand who these people are, what they think and how they see the world. After having made the film however I felt that I needed to regain some of my own subjectivity and that’s how I came to write a novel. I didn’t consciously start it, rather just began to write and it began to appear by itself. It was a way of moving to other subjects and I’d always wanted to write. I never consciously said to myself that I was writing a detective novel, but I do read lots of crime literature and it’s probably the genre which is the closest to me and my sensibilities. So it came out quite naturally as a detective novel, even if I didn’t consciously set out to write one.
I began writing the novel about a month or two after the film was finished and I spent about five years writing the novel – I worked on some other films in between. Making films really is a full time job and I didn’t really manage to write at all when I was making films. As a creative enterprise, it takes over entirely. I wasn’t really able to write in the gaps in between either, I had children, which takes up time…
How did it work ? Did you just each time pick up your story where you had left it?
It depended – usually when I went back to it, I returned to the beginning. Except for when I was nearing the end and I’d written a lot… but I wrote the beginning quite a few times. It was a process of transformation; revising, revising, revising….
I didn’t have a plan. Which was likely one of the reasons it took so long to write. I was like the police in the novel, discovering as I went along.
Arab Jazz is your first novel, had you attempted any others before that?
No. I had attempted to write some short texts, sometimes fiction, sometimes non-fiction. I wrote a piece in 1997, it was autobiographical, for a collective book called Le livre du retour, in which each author told the story of travelling to their country of origin. I retold my trip to Mauritania when I was 15. That was my first literary text. I had tried to write things here and there, like many people do, but I stopped each time. Strangely though, when I began to write Arab Jazz, I had only written a couple of paragraphs and I felt that I was going to finish the novel. From the beginning I knew I wouldn’t stop this one, even after such a short time.
Why write a detective novel? You said it is the literary form you feel the closest to…
Yes, I’ve always read lots of detective fiction. It’s less vertiginous than writing other genres. But again I wasn’t really conscious of writing a detective novel until it had been finished. For me, it was just a novel. It’s something of an arbitrary definition, I feel. A Balzac isn’t so far from the Série Noire… At the time of Balzac it didn’t exist of course, but we call Balzac a novelist, not a crime novelist.
I also think there is a parallel between detective fiction and documentaries. In a way, the detective novel is the pursuit of evidence by other means. Both require you to rid yourself of pretense. I find my role as documentary film maker to be that of someone who holds a mirror up to contemporary society, so it can be better understood and facts can be established. It gives a meaning to things, but without taking them away from their context. What I especially like about the documentary – at least, in the style of documentary I make, the essay-film – is that it’s quite minimalist. A dishonest documentarian could lead people to believe certain things, although, to an extent, that’s much the same as journalism. It necessitates a relationship between the facts and an interpretation, whatever it may be. I think that in crime fiction, you give raw facts, which have to be interpreted. Necessarily, everyone is a suspect and the aim is to get rid of the lies. Everyone has things to hide, everyone has motives. I think the documentary shares similarities with that.
Do you see writing Crime Fiction as a sort of investigation of a suppressed collective memory ?
Yes, and of course, you enter into combat once you present or reveal a particular truth. I’m not naive or a mystic – I don’t believe in the truth – I mean to say a certain truth of facts. A very interesting novel in this respect is Meurtres pour mémoire by Didier Daeninckx. That was the first time I’d heard of 17 October ‘61 – that terrible night when the French police drowned hundreds of Algerians in the Seine. Daeninckx fulfills the role of historian and there are lots of people who learned about these events this way.
Indeed, many learnt there about the role of Maurice Papon, who was at the centre of the deportation of French Jews during the Second World War and then had Algerians killed during protests in Paris against the Algerian War of Independance. Yet Papon had been, until just a few years before Meurtres pour mémoire was published France’s Minister of the Budget, under President Giscard d’Estaing.
Exactly – Daeninckx’s was a combat in the Bourdieusian sense. It’s resistance, society resists. I imagine it’s the same here in Northern Ireland, there are lots of things people aren’t happy about.
This might be one of the reasons for the present wave of exciting and relevant crime novels coming out of Northern Ireland. There is a generation of crime authors in Ireland in fact – perhaps one of the last western countries to appropriate the noir genre…
That’s interesting. It’s true of Lebanon, and other similar countries, as well – after injustice there, you see the noir novel develop. For this to be true, the people have to believe that a form of justice can be delivered. I have a friend who champions French crime fiction of Armenian-Iranian origin, Naïri Nahapétian. She writes detective novels which take place in Tehran. She asked her Iranian friends why there was no Iranian crime fiction. I think ultimately it’s because in Iran you can be arrested arbitrarily, tortured, forced to confess to a crime. You need a rule of law for crime fiction to work. Even if the system is completely rotten, for example, as in the USA during the 20s, in spite of all that there is still the idea that, at some point, there will be some sort of justice. Even if it’s not there day-to-day, people still trust in the rule of law, even if it’s not respected, like in Italy with the Mafia, for example.
What do you think of crime literature in Africa ?
For me, it’s not a genre that has truly reached maturity, I don’t know of any great crime authors from there. I think causing people to look closely at their society, can be damaging. Interestingly it also poses a question of the crime writer himself – he must, in spite of it all, be at odds with his people. He must have nothing to lose in a sense. I mean, if he is weighed down with social considerations, for example, religious or ethnic, considerations of caste, family, propriety, he won’t be able to write a good detective novel. He must be, in a sense, ready to have people turns their backs on him.
To think against your own?
That’s right – he has to do it. It’s a bit intellectual, but thinking against your own is a part of French culture.
And in Arab Jazz?
Yes – but it’s a bit more distanced. The stuff about religion necessarily, especially when it comes to my Mauritanian family, it would definitely shock people. They’re unlikely to read it, though at the same time it’s quite a gamble.
Is Arab Jazz not distributed in Africa? And in the Middle East?
Maybe in Morocco, but not in Nouakchott [the capital of Mauritania], it’s mostly Arab-speaking. Hardly anyone can read French, and I wouldn’t want to have it translated into Arabic. Whenever you write certain things, for example when you write sex scenes or things like that, it’s always with the thought that it might be read by close family… it might not be easy for them to read, but then that’s part of being a writer. You’re also in a society with a lot more taboos, it’s true that you’re a lot more likely to insult. That’s something you don’t need to worry about so much in French society.
How did you come up with the idea of a crime novel-reading hero? A kind of Don Quixote?
Really, for me it was a way of justifying using lots of quotations [He laughs]. It came to me quite naturally. I just tried to imagine a person who I felt close to, but who at the same time was quite different in certain ways. For me, books are important and crime books are an important part of my make-up. I didn’t set out to make a hero like that.. He really just came to me on the keys of the keyboard. I didn’t have a reason to write him like I did – it’s an interesting thought now.
He was just born like that – fully armed, so to speak. He passes his time reading detective novels, drinking tea during the day, drinking alcohol so he can sleep, and looks at the clouds. In fact, from the first sentence “Ahmed is looking at the clouds in the sky”, which was really the first sentence I wrote, bit by bit I discovered the characters. It was as if he spoke to me. Now, I can try and work out why I made him that way, but it wasn’t conscious.
Besides, surely the first bit of advice you give to a crime novelist is that it’s not an intellectual genre…
What about Manchette?
Yes, but Manchette wrote during a very particular time. The 70s was a unique time in French history.
I am interested in American ‘industrial’ mass produced crime fiction. It’s not necessarily the most talked-about, but I find it interesting to talk about mass-consumed literature as it’s that which forms a large part of how we live, a part of what makes us up. I’m talking about Connelly, Cornwell, Coben…
The name of the author Harlan Coben is spelled ‘Cobain’, like ‘Kurt’ in the French version. Although it was corrected in the English translation, I suppose it was written like that on purpose?
Yes the purpose was to portray Ahmed’s confusion. It was also something of a private joke, a way to show what is in the head of the character… his perturbed spirit. For me, Coben is a true writer. It’s important for me to say that when I talk about mass-produced crime fiction, it’s not a criticism. It’s good to show that side of things as well. We don’t have the same sort of fiction in France. At least, not as efficient.
Monsieur Paul – the dealer of crime fiction – does he exist in reality?
In fact I talk about the model for Monsieur Paul in my last book to be published in France. In it I talk about how I got hold of crime fiction, namely, a bookseller near to where I lived, who was the sort of guy who never said a word. He had a pipe and was the ‘guardian of the temple’. It was at this ‘temple’ that I discovered my first crime novel, No Pockets in a Shroud, by Horace McCoy. It was a great way to begin, but it was completely at random. I was thirteen and didn’t really have a clue. I think the years just before and during adolescence were very formative because I read without references. I read classics of French literature as well as American noir. From James Hadley Chase to S.A.S. [an long-running series of spy novels, known for its fast-paced narrative and sadistic erotic scenes]. I read all sort of American authors whose names I have forgotten, but also Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and others. Manchette as well – all discovered at the same time and all the while I was able to form my own opinion without critics. I found that very liberating and it was all at this bookseller’s.
Religion plays a large part in the plot of ‘Arab Jazz’, extremism especially – Christian extremism as well. What was it you were trying to show about religion?
It might be more accurate to say that I was trying to communicate my feelings about it, rather than show anything. I don’t consider myself to be a writer of theses novels or to have a particular message. I like to think that I present a relatively complex world view and it’s up to the reader as an individual to come to their own conclusions. I didn’t want it to be a simple denunciation of fundamentalism. I wanted to present characters of a complexity such as you would be able to understand who they were and what their reasons were for being who they were. But yes, I think any completely absolute belief is dangerous. In every instance, and not just religious. There are, after all, may ways of doing wrong. In the novel there are also corrupt police who aren’t at all religious but are truly dangerous.
For me, their vision of the world is that they can do wrong, it’s not any particular belief. It’s just their bag. They love it. I wanted them to be truly evil, at the core. That I find interesting because although leaders of specific religious groups can be dangerous, they’re not necessarily the worst, perhaps because their desires are somewhat ambiguous and quite human. There is no shortage of figures like that to inspire me. Personally, I love to character of Lafcadio, for example. I find it stronger that Raskolnikov in the sense that there is an idea of a complete gratuity in crime: I kill because I can. That idea, I do it because I can, was perhaps the inspiration for the characters of Susan and James. But yes, religious fundamentalism is dangerous but at the same time it’s not the only message of the book. It’s just one aspect of a multifaceted book.
In the American noir tradition there is a certain insistence on puritanism, something quite important in the noir novel.
Yes, absolutely. Puritanism, it drives you mad as it goes too much against the human desires. The same with monotheistic religion in general, as Nietzsche said in On the Genealogy of Morals, which summarizes my views on religion nicely, priests are the least sick of the sick, who like to guide their herds of the sick, who they wish to remain sick so that they can guide them and use their power for profit… Quite a strong image.
You could say it equally for Judaism as well as Christianity. Nietzsche wasn’t familiar with Islam though But all the three are part of the same monotheistic tradition linked by Moses. They could all be considered different forms of the same religion. They all have the same book as the basis with each adding their own new versions afterwards.
Personally, I make a distinction between religion and faith. Faith is a personal thing. Religion is collective. Certainly, in my opinion, religion has positive sides, but at what cost? Where religion is concerned, those in control will always exploit it for money and more power. I think it’s like a machine fabricating money and power. What I find the most terrible is that it takes the most sincere part of man – his faith – and transforms it into a power which is used to alienate and dominate him. In my novel I have represented this in its most perverse form, through fundamentalism, so that you can see the mechanisms of power and domination stripped bare.