With Solea, the third and final volume of his groundbreaking “Marseilles Trilogy,” out this month in English, Jean-Claude Izzo’s dark, revelatory portrait of the city of his birth is complete. Izzo died of cancer in 2000, but his strategically multiracial and pop-culture-savvy French crime novels spearheaded a Mediterranean noir movement that has since spread to Italy, Spain, Belgium, Algeria, and beyond. Although full of picturesque seasides, beautiful women, gourmet foods, and thriving rai and reggae nightclubs, Izzo’s town isn’t exactly the southern France of glossy tourist brochures or President Sarkozy’s conservative agenda. This is the young, disenfranchised, and disgruntled Marseilles that ultimately exploded in 2005’s nationwide race riots, provoked by National Front agitation and years of institutionalized oppression.
Izzo — the working-class kid of a Spanish mother and an Italian father — not only sympathizes with the children of immigrants, he fills the pages of Total Chaos (1995), Chourmo (1996) and Solea (1998) with smart, tragic teens and twentysomethings of every race and color, who deserve better treatment from French society than they get. Izzo sees this seething cauldron of multiculturalism as a potential paradise ruined by the illogic of racism and the greed of class warfare. He skillfully encapsulates all the distinctive beauty and wasted potential of Marseilles within a handful of memorable characters and locations that reappear in each volume of the trilogy. Climaxing the increasingly complex and hectic action of the first two books, Solea triangulates the fate of Marseilles among three oddly philosophic and iconic female characters: an investigative journalist, a police chief, and the motherly widow whose unshakable, primeval benevolence serves as the moral compass for Detective Fabio Montale, Izzo’s cynical male protagonist.
When we first meet Montale in Total Chaos, the “suicide by cop” of a childhood friend has him remembering all the devious things he did when he and his pals worked as stickup kids. Full of self-doubt and grim fatalism, Montale is trying to redeem his life. Using the guilty pleasure of crime fiction, Izzo’s trilogy gives us beach reading that provokes and inspires: The desperate struggles of one anarchic cop against police corruption, mafias, and the racist National Front are no road map to global liberation, but these novels manage to illustrate — epiphany by gritty epiphany — the thought processes we must use to get there. Izzo’s main point, especially in Solea, is that we are all in the same multicultural boat: galley slaves on the ship of global capitalism. And without a loving sense of brotherhood, the collateral ideals of liberty and equality cannot be sustained by today’s nation states.
Solea opens with a brief meditation on the political uprisings of 1968, when students, workers, and anarchists shut down schools and factories from Paris to Rio. Writing 30 years after this tumult to complete his trilogy, Izzo asks whatever became of all those young rebels and militants. Up to now, we have followed Detective Montale — the most unlikely of revolutionaries — through a series of events and inner realizations that would radicalize a stone. After painstakingly solving the murders of three close friends in the first book, Montale quits his position with the local police force. After uncovering the web of intrigue that leads to the accidental death of his cousin’s son in the second, this über-Mediterranean male actually cries. Solea — with its chatty cast of political exiles and existential refugees — repeatedly echoes Bob Marley’s lyrical injunction to erstwhile revolutionaries to “rise and take their stance” again.
As the series progresses, it’s the abuse of innocents that repeatedly pulls Montale out of his retirement, away from his fishing bark and cottage by the sea. Leila, a brilliant and beautiful Algerian university student, is raped and murdered by bigots in Total Chaos. Montale’s 16-year-old second cousin loses his virginity and his life in Chourmo by following an Arab girlfriend into the wrong neighborhood. In Solea, Babette, a Franco-Italian journalist, is on the run from vicious mob hit men for helping expose global crime lords. Montale seeks the meaning behind each fresh horror, becoming more defiantly anarchic with each new revelation. Like the runaway rebels of ’68, he’d rather fish and cook and make love, not war. But when his friends find trouble, that trouble finds Montale — usually after a failed seduction or too much single malt.
Haunted by his own checkered past, and desperate to save both himself and those he loves, Montale briefly reconnects with official police work, but invariably discovers a legal system so dysfunctional that only oblique guerrilla resistance might make a difference. Thus, as his final episode speeds to its conclusion in Solea, this reluctant martyr drafts a loyal band of friends and sympathizers in a last-ditch attempt to turn the tables on local corruption. But like all tragic noir heroes, Montale treads a dangerously narrow line between triumphant savior and doomed avenger.
Published in: Village Voice, July 3, 2007