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Total Kheops (1995) By Jean-Claude Izzo – The Weight of Memory and The Responsibility of Attention

August 31, 2010

There are so many different ways in which to see the world.  Sometimes, the differences between perspectives are so vast that it seems impossible that such a range of divergent emotional responses could have been provoked by the same thing or place.  A simple country lane can be a beautiful holiday spot for walkers, a barely tolerable distance from home for commuters and a symbol of economic under-development for an ambitious local councillor.  There is only one world but it is perpetually made and destroyed by the act of looking upon it.  Wisdom lies not in the beauty or definition of one’s vision of the world but rather in one’s capacity for understanding that our vision of the world is not the only one that exists.  That other perspectives are out there and that they all have a value, even the ones that are profoundly ugly and especially the ones that hurt us when we entertain them.

The first book of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy is a book that is weighted down by the multitude of ways of looking at the French city of Marseilles.  Unlike other works of crime or historical fiction with an iconic location, it is not a book that attempts to capture the spirit of a particular place and time.  Instead, the book argues for both the absolute necessity and utter impossibility of ever completely grasping all of the different ways in which to see a particular place or person.  The book’s French title Total Kheops — lamentably released in English under the title Total Chaos — takes its name from a track on the first solo album by Kheops, the DJ of the Marseilles-based Rap outfit IAM.  ‘Total Kheops’ refers to a situation of impossible complexity.  Un bordel total.  A complete cluster fuck.

Cover of the current French Edition

Total Kheops begins with a return home.  A floating, unnamed ‘I’ returns to Marseilles and finds that its best friend has been murdered.  As it walks the streets of its old town,  the I sees much that has changed and much that has stayed the same.  The same streets are there, as are many of the same people but some of these people and many of these streets have been defaced by change and time.  Change and time weigh down on the I as it pulls together the information and the resources required to exact its revenge.  Revenge for the death of a friend but also for change and time and regret and loss and death and birth and love and heat and life.  The I is killing for revenge but it could be killing for any of a hundred different reasons.  In Marseilles, violence and loss are chronically over-determined. The trick is to remain free of them, not that anyone has quite worked out how :

“Il fit ce qu’il avait a faire.  Il plongea la main sous son blouson.  Il fallait en finir.  Ne plus etre en fuite.  Il etait la.  Chez lui.  Dans son quartier.  Autant que cela soit ici.  Marseille, pour finir.  Il braqua les deux jeunes flics.  Derriere lui, ils ne pouvaient pas voir qu’il etait sans arme.  La premiere balle lui dechira le dos.  Son poumon explosa.  Il ne sentit pas les deux autres balles.” [p. 39]

He did what he has to do.  His hand dived into his jacket.  He had to end it.  To no longer be on the run.  He was here.  At home.  In his neighbourhood.  To the extent that anywhere was.  Marseilles to the end.  He pointed at the two young cops.  Behind him, they could not see that he was unarmed.  The first bullet ripped into his back.  His lung exploded.  He did not feel the two other bullets.

The book begins properly with the introduction of Fabio Montale.  Aside from being a local cop, Montale was also a friend to the roaming ‘I’ who now acquires the name Ugo.  Ugo, Fabio and Manu (the man the I was seeking to avenge) had all been crooks together in their youth.  They had formed a tight clique around the beautiful gypsy girl Lole.  The love and desire of Lole held them all together and pushed them apart.  It had forced Ugo to leave Marseilles, it had forced all three of them to take a job that resulted in the death of a shopkeeper and it had forced Fabio to turn his back on Ugo and Manu in order to become a cop.  Of such detritus a life of regret and memory is built.  The book’s introduction attaches no name to the floating ‘I’ because that floating I could have been the I of Fabio just as easily as it was the I of Ugo.  In Marseilles, there are always reasons to kill and be killed.

Fabio is a detective but almost in name only.  A member of none of the high-profile anti-gang and anti-drug outfits that grab headlines for the Marseilles police force, Fabio is a suburban copper whose job seems closer to that of a social worker than that of a detective: He gathers intelligence on the local criminals that nobody reads, he works with troubled kids that nobody cares about and he seems to spend most of his days wandering from bar to bar and mistress to mistress lost in his own thoughts with only the phone calls of his partner serving to bring him back to earth and remind him that he does actually have a job of work to do.

But what precisely is his work?

US Cover of He Died With His Eyes Open

Much like the unnamed detective protagonist of Derek Raymond’s Factory novels He Died With His Eyes Open (1984), The Devil’s Home On Leave (1985),  How The Dead Live (1986), I Was Dora Suarez (1990) and Dead Man Upright (1993),  Fabio Montale is the local police department’s resident sensitive soul.  Neither political nor ambitious, Montale plies his trade outside of the media spotlight and inside the heads of people on the borders of the law.  As a former criminal who continues to have links with much of the underworld, Montale is employed to help the police understand the criminal world but, unlike Raymond’s character, Montale’s extreme subjectivity does not make him a particularly good cop.  If anything, Montale’s deep understanding of everything that makes up Marseilles renders him incapable of acting or analysing the city.  He is a suburban copper trapped inside his own head.  The difference between Montale and the media-friendly coppers like the splendidly named anti-gang crusader Auch is that Auch is able to filter the information he receives.  He knows when to listen and when to act.  Montale is lost in a sea of information.  He cannot step back and he cannot move forward.  Auch uses violence to cut the Gordian Knot but Montale uses it to tie a noose around his own neck.

“Auch vint au-devant de nous.  Les mains dans ses poches, comme toujours.  Sur.  Fier.  Fort.
– Ca va?  dit-il en me regardant.
– Comme tu vois.  L’extase.
– T’es qu’un emmerdeur Fabio.  Dans quelques jours, on les serrait tous.  T’as fouttu le souk.  Et on n’a plus que des cadavres.
– Tu savais?  Morvan?  Tout?
Il opina de la tete.  Satisfait de lui, somme toute.” [p. 338-339]

Auch came before us.  His hands in his pockets as usual.  Certain.  Proud.  Strong.
– You okay? he said looking at me.
– As you can see.  I’m ecstatic.
– You’re a fucker Fabio.  In a few days we had them all.  But you turned everything into a souk.  And now we’ve only got dead bodies.
– You knew?  Morvan?  Everything?
He nodded his head.  Satisfied with himself, all things considered.

The plot of Total Kheops is an extremely simple one.  It is so simple that it reminded me of an episode of the long-running British TV series The Bill.  As in The Bill, two different cases are introduced and they are seemingly completely unconnected; in this case a) the decision by Ugo to murder the head of the Marseilles mafia and b) the rape and murder of a brilliant Arab student named Leila.  Ostensibly unconnected, these two events take place within a few days of each other and are linked by the fact that, in both cases, Fabio Montale knew the victim.  Devastated by the death of a former friend and a near-lover, Montale sets about trying to prove that the two murders are linked.  In order to do this, he has to plunge head-first into the whirling subjectivities of the city of Marseille.  These myriad visions of France’s great southern city make up the meat of the book.

Izzo’s different perspectives of Marseilles are decidedly object oriented.  He builds them up in layers.  Layer upon layer of things and names and facts.  But facts are not the kind of things that make up a world.

Layer 1 : Places

Throughout the book, Izzo makes repeated references not only to street and district names but to the histories of these places and how they have changed over time.  Sometimes these descriptions are Proustian in that they invoke memories of other times, sometimes they are atmospheric in that they allow Izzo to conjure up some slice of typical Marseille life, sometimes they are simply a list of words that seem to take on a poetry of their own.

“Ils devaient surveiller les passages.  Montee-des-Accoules, Montee-Saint-Esprit, Traverse des Repenties.  Place de Lenche, bien sur.” [p. 38-39]

To someone familiar with Marseilles, these place names would help to situate the action and invest proceedings with a sense of verisimilitude but to someone who has never been to Marseilles, these place names are effectively meaningless.  In the hands of a lesser author, such desperate placiness might be taken as a sign of a desire to pad, but in Izzo these meaningless place names convey a message: Marseilles is not a collection of streets and landmarks.  The raw objective facts of Marseilles’s lay-out are merely the first layer of an experience of that city.  Like a dish cooked from scratch, one does not simply produce ingredients, one layers tastes and textures.

Layer 2 : Food and Drink

Much like street names, food and drink are aspects of a place’s character that are easy to isolate.  Lesser writers in search of a dash of local colour will pick up a road map and work out where it is that their action takes place.  They do this without ever understanding the places they talk about.  This same process of generic localisation applies to food.  How many weak novels attempt to communicate the exotic nature of their locales by describing a bustling marketplace filled with unusual colours and scents?  Food and drink is something that is both profoundly local and easily stripped from its native context.  This stripping of context is what allows for the selling of local drinks in airport gift shops (it is only when you take them home and they acquire a wholly different context that they become absurdly out of place).  Local produce without location.  Typical native fare with no natives attached.

Total Kheops uses food and drink to capture part of what it is like to live in Marseilles.  Izzo does not simply mention local dishes in passing, he gives recipes and talks about the ways in which people disagree about how certain dishes should be prepared.  He also describes the lives that these dishes fit into; how they are eaten, when they are eaten, how one learns to cook them, who one eats them with.

“Nous avions commande des choses simples : salade de concombres au yaourt, feuilles de vignes farcies, tarama, brochettes aux cent epices, grillees sur des sarments de vigne, avec un fillet d’huile d’olive, petit chevre.  Le tout arrose d’un retsina blanc.  Nous avions marche sur la petite plage de galets, puis nous nous etions assis sur les rochers.  c’etait une nuit superbe.” [p. 81]

We had ordered simple things : cucumber and yogurt salad, stuffed vine leaves, taramosalata, hundred spice brochettes grilled on vine stolons with a drizzle of oilive oil and goat’s cheese.  Washed down with a white retsina.  We had walked on le little pebble beach, then we had sat down on the rocks.  It was a superb night.

Food does not characterise a culture, it is culture.  Food sustains and defines human social interaction just as it does all life.  Our relationship to food defines who we are and how we relate to other people.  It speaks deeply and directly to who we are, where we are and what we do.  To speak of Marseilles is to speak of its food.  To speak of us is to speak of that which we eat.

Layer 3 : Ethnicity

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Marseilles was one of the race hate capitals of Europe.  While the 2000s saw the suburbs of Paris turn boil into riots, Marseilles was the scene of a long-running war between a frequently racist and universally violent police force and a north-african immigrant community that grew in bitterness and alienation as it grew in size.  Marseilles was, in many ways, at the forefront of a cultural sea-change that continues to play itself out today.

Izzo once described himself in these terms :

“By birth, I am a pure Marsellais. That’s to say I’m half Italian and half Spanish, with a touch of Arab blood.”

This quote cuts to the heart of Total Kheops’ vision of culture : Izzo’s words not only mock the assumed tension between being from Marseilles and being non-French, it also mocks the idea that one is necessarily one particular thing.  Izzo is suggesting that being from Marseilles is not something that takes precedence over one’s ethnicity, rather it is something that exists alongside it.  One is from Marseilles just as one is Spanish and Italian.  One is Spanish and Italian just as one is part Arab.  Izzo’s ethnic percentages add up to more than 100% because we are all combinations of different things and these combinations all sit within us equally.  We are all many things.

“C’etait ca, l’histoire de Marseille.  Son eternite.  Une utopie.  L’unique utopie du monde.  Un lieu ou n’importe qui, de n’importe quelle couleur, pouvait descendre d’un bateau, ou d’un train, sa valise en main sans un sou en poche, et se fondre dans le flot des autres hommes.  Une ville ou, a peine le pied pose sur sol, cet homme pouvait dire: ‘C’est ici.  Je suis chez moi.’” [p. 287]

That was the history of Marseille.  Its eternity.  A utopia.  The only utopia in the world.  A place where anyone, of any colour, could get off a boat or a train, their luggage in hand without a penny in their pocket, and dissolve into the tide of humanity.  A town where, having barely set foot on the ground, a man could say ‘I am here.  This is my home.’

These words are familiar but this is not a vision of Marseille as an Americanised land of opportunity.  This is the concept of utopia not as an ideal place but as a non-place — u-topos.  Marseille is a placeless place.  A place with no fixed characteristics and no fixed nature.  Anyone can go there and make it home.  Like an old whore, Marseilles ain’t picky.  In fact, Izzo quite explicitly draws a comparison between the city and the character of Marie-Lou, a beautiful prostitute from the French Antilles who becomes Montale’s lover but whom he never fully loves nor really hopes to save.

Fabio Montale is a character who is defined by his capacity to see the complexities of life.  His understanding of his home city is utopian in that he has no definitive understanding of it at all.  There is too much to be said about Marseille.  There is too much to be said about all of us.  What chance does truth have when it is buried by so much complexity?

As Montale wades through his network of contacts and memories, he begins to weave the various crimes he encounters into a vast conspiracy.  Seeking a truth beneath the patchwork of untruths that define the world.  When a small time local drug dealer comes to have a collection of machine guns in his basement, Montale imagines him as the lynchpin of some burgeoning gang war involving the Napolitan Camorra.  Apparently, Ugo did not merely kill the wrong man, he was lured into it by someone who was planning on starting a coup.  As the book moves forward, these hypotheses multiply and multiply again.  Montale can make no sense of them and neither can we.  In a beautiful deconstruction the traditional structure of the mystery novel, the closer we get to the end of the book the more absurd and patently false Montale’s working hypotheses become.  Before long, he is conjuring up the ghosts of France’s past in the shape of neo-fascist extremists who may be poised to take over the city.  Izzo’s invocations of such surreal evils is quite deliberate: they are nightmares and they are unreal.  Montale sees all of these possibilities and all of these solutions to the murder of his friends but he cannot separate out the vital pieces of information that might allow him to put his foot to the floor and gulp a lungful of air.  He is too sensitive.  there is too much Marseille for him to even begin to make sense of it all.  He is drowning in Marseilles.

Brilliantly, the book ends on a rather ambiguous note.  Having invoked fascist conspiracies, crimes of passion and much more traditional inter-gang spats, Izzo does not make it clear what actually did cause the deaths of any of his friends.  We know that Montale was absolutely wrong to try and link them together but we also know that each crime is more complex than meets the eye.  Auch has cut the Guardian Knot and claims to understand what was going on but does he really?  Are things really so simple that they can be solved with a bit of strong-arming and a well-planned press conference?  This ambiguity allows Izzo to paint Montale as a tragic character.  He is not a misunderstood Holmesian genius or a complete fool but despite being intensely sympathetic and driven by the best of motives, Montale cannot make sense of this mess.  He can’t because ultimately nobody can.  C’est un Total Kheops.

4 Comments
  1. August 31, 2010 2:56 pm

    Is it clear the fascist conspiracies are false? I can’t recall.

    Still, fine review. I think the problem with the title is it has no English equivalent. In Italian you’d say Un Casino Totale. A mess, a chaos, a confusion, a clusterfuck and perhaps with implications of vice too. In English we don’t have kheops or casino (which doesn’t mean a place you go to to gamble).

    I remember a wonderfully rich sense of place in this novel. I remember also getting quite lost in the plot. It’ll be interesting to see if the sequels maintain that confusion. Do you plan on reading them?

    Lastly, is he saying that to be Marsellais is independent of nationality? That quote seemed to me to be saying that he was Marsellais, that this was a true identity but that to be Marsellais meant to be an amalgam of ethnicities and origins. In other words you are Marsellais before you are French, Spanish, whatever, not alongside.

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  2. August 31, 2010 3:31 pm

    The fascist conspiracies rise out of nothing and then retreat back into it. It’s quite possible that the fascist thugs that Tony is friends with were the other rapists but no evidence is advanced for suggesting that there’s some vast conspiracy at work. I took it to be the case that this was Montale reaching more and more desperately for patterns in the chaos.

    The thing is that I don’t think that “Total Kheops” actually is French slang. I think it’s a play on words based on “Total Chaos” and the name of the DJ whose name itself is a combination of references to North Africa and Chaos. Google the term “Total Kheops” and what comes up are references to the book and the film… not the expression itself.

    I do plan on reading the sequels and I will also be interested in seeing how he uses place but I loved the way that he uses traditional placing tropes to create not so much a clear impression of a particular place as an impression of densely layered complexity. His use of cooking in particular is sensational.

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  3. August 31, 2010 8:21 pm

    Interesting. I suspect you’re right.

    I take your point on it not being French slang. Casino still isn’t a bad word in the Italian (and I think is what was used). Perhaps for the English they should just have kept the French title.

    On complexity, I definitely agree. Layered is the right word.

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