April is the month for Lyon’s annual Quais du Polar festival, an international literary festival dedicated to crime fiction. It has drawn some very big names — Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Peter Robinson and South Africa’s own favourite French export, Deon Meyer. I cracked the nod this year and spent a fabulous few days drinking Côte du Rhône wine, eating the best food in France and hanging out with some of my fellow practitioners of the art of literary murder.
Lyon is a fast, two-hour train ride from Paris, but it seems further away. France’s second-largest city is more languid than the capital. It was founded by the Romans to enable them to keep the Gauls (think Asterix and Obelix) in check. It is a lovely city to walk in. The rivers Rhône and Saône snake their way through the medieval quarter on their way to the Mediterranean. At night there is a rather theatrical undercurrent of thuggishness on the streets too. Knots of strung-out teenagers on park benches, Kojak-bald sailors with thick gold earrings watching the girls go by, sharp looking mafioso in the corners of the cafés. Marseilles, that hub of European crime is, after all, just an hour or so away. And Marseilles featured quite prominently in the French novels on display at the Quais du Polar.
Polar is the rather charming French name for crime fiction. I like the chilliness implied as much as I liked the darkness of its other appellation, noir fiction. Both are rather more glamorous than the German diminutive, krimi. And sidestep the Anglo-America confusion about crime/thriller/mystery and so on. Whatever you call it, the genre is very popular in France and I watched French authors autographing books at high speed.
French publishers sensibly trap their authors in small booths, and I was placed next to an obsessive, tattooed Icelandic fisherman-turned-polar-writer. He kept a careful note in a little black book of each and every book he signed: name of the person, description, place. He would flip back and forth between signing lulls, comparing the number of fans here with the number of fans elsewhere and muttering in Icelandic French to his publicist. It gave me the chilling little kernel for a new story. The noir writer with a very sharp fishing knife who follows up on his better-looking female readers —
I jotted down notes and kept myself happily busy in between my much longer lulls between signings. He is not yet translated into English, but I’m sure he will be, given the current interest in Nordic crime fiction. There were plenty of Norwegians and Swedes towering over the French writers. But although the spectre of Stieg Larsson and his mad sales figures were everywhere, the ever-hungry market is shifting.
The focus of this Quais du Polar festival was Russian crime fiction and there certainly is a host of them, although not many have been translated into English. I was on a panel discussing the switch that many writers seem to make from investigative journalist to crime writer. Talking about this was a redheaded Russian called Julia Latynina. Her descriptions of the “I’ll-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine” world of Russian oligarchs, gangsters and politicians was so familiar. Polokwane with snow? Sandton in Siberia? Kebbling in Moscow? Just with more money, more guns, more drugs, more nukes. There was a perverse kind of comfort to hear that we South Africans do not own that particular territory. And Russia has way more shot journalists than we do. Yet.
Russian writers, like South African writers of crime fiction, are asked to discuss their books in terms of the anthropology or sociology or economics of the places where they litter their fictive bodies in fictive plots. It can be frustrating, but it is partly because crime fiction is as new to Russia (you can exclude Crime and Punishment) as it is new to South Africa. In both places there has been an explosion of genre fiction since 1990, the year that kick-started both our histories. So for two crime-racked, corrupt states where politicians and businessmen have disappeared so far up each other’s backsides, a contemporary portrait is being written, in part, through noir fiction. Here the heroes are often the little guy (a few girls): the cops on the beat, the investigators who don’t give up, the citizen who is good despite the state. It is good company to keep if you are visiting, in the literary sense, a country for the first time.
One thing you cannot miss in France at the moment is the Fifa World Cup. I have a negative interest in sport, but everybody I met asked me about it. So, as a PR exercise with the taxi drivers, concierges, waiters and publicists of Lyon, South Africa’s massive stadium-building frenzy has worked. I did encourage them all to come over, but they said they preferred to watch on television.
Meyer, a sports enthusiast, and I were interviewed on this theme. The topic of our discussion was Invictus or not Invictus: South Africa yesterday and today. The rugby/football conflation inherent in this question was compounded by the growing confusion about whether Morgan Freeman was president of South Africa or not. This we could sort out quite quickly and Deon Meyer, an old book tour pro, is a past master at steering conversations about South African crime back to a conversation about crime fiction.
But our assurances that all would be fine for visiting football fans were eclipsed by that heaven-sent television event: the murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche. This evoked an older, simpler version of South Africa: The visuals were all of stiff-armed fascists and righteously enraged mobs. Our discussion returned constantly to the question posed thus in the programme: What is really happening as far as reconciliation/ transformation is concerned? The answer that there are so many things happening, that things are in a state of political and creative flux rather than a deathly, but televisually easy, polarity can be tricky to convey.
It was interesting to speak about this in Lyon and then later in London at the Book Fair, because writing here, in South Africa, in a genre that is designed to reflect texture and contradiction and compromise, one thinks and writes of what is fluid and in the present, not of what is fixed and of the past.
South African crime writers are finding ways to tell multifaceted, nuanced stories in which the truth shifts around a centre from which the moral is long since decamped. Face to face, book by book, one can persuade European writers, journalists and readers (France is a lucrative market for South African writers) about the complexity of South Africa, about how many stories it has to tell, about its ordinariness too.
One day, I imagine, we will be asked the simple questions such as “when do you write” and “where do you get your ideas from”. But for a while to come, like the Russian writers I met, those of us who write about crime in South Africa are going to be asked the political and philosophical questions usually posed to supposedly more serious literary writers who exist higher up the critical food chain.
Margie Orford’s latest Clare Hart thriller is Daddy’s Girl (Jonathan Ball)