Monday, September 13, 2010

Writer beyond borders: An interview with "Zulu" author Caryl Férey

Caryl Férey's Zulu has not been out long in English translation, but two South African crime writers have already called it one of the top African crime novels.
The book, a violent exploration of contemporary South Africa, won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, France's top award for crime fiction, on its original publication in 2008. Europa Editions has issued an English translation by Howard Curtis, whose previous work includes translations of Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles trilogy.
In an interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Caryl Férey talks about violence, paranoia, the role of noir writers, and the things that he, a Frenchman, could say about South Africa that a South African author never could. He also reveals how and why he writes only during the summer.

Detectives Beyond Borders: You’re a kind of literary traveler: South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand. Why do you choose to work this way?

Caryl Férey: I travelled around the world when I was twenty years old. I discovered New Zealand, and I adored New Zealand. ... I discovered the “others,” the desire to write about what was happening abroad.

You found this more interesting than your own country?

Completely. ... As I always liked travelling and writing, so I could do them together: travel and write and, in addition, to use trips for writing.

A different country for each book?

In New Zealand I wrote two books.
Not yet translated into English?

Not yet, but they tell me soon. ... I never want to write the same book, that takes place in the same location, because I always want to write something different. That's why I generally kill off my hero at the end. So there is no continuation, and this lets me go look into another country.

It takes me three or four years to write such a book. After three or four years, I have the feeling of having taken in all the country’s problems. I don’t have much more to say. I try to put everything into the one book and then go somewhere else.

Often the Southern Hemisphere because when it’s winter in France, it’s summer down there, so I always leave in winter. I have a year of summer.
What are the advantages to writing as a traveler? What are the disadvantages?

I think it’s an advantage because there are taboos on all societies. In South Africa, for example, there’s the taboo around the Zulu Inkatha, and the ANC of Mandela. There was a civil war manipulated by apartheid, and no one talks about it.

Even today?

Completely. But I understand. Mandela, when he took power, said no, no. That was horrible, apartheid. We won’t talk about it any longer. Everyone is together. Tomorrow is more important than yesterday. ... Something extraordinary happened. He had De Klerk, the white Afrikaaner. He had Buthelezi, the chief of Inkatha, and when he took power, he raised their arms.

As an outsider, I can talk about this. I can talk about the war between Inkatha (and the African National Congress). It’s no problem for me. A South African, for reasons of national reconciliation, will not talk about it.

Why Zulu as a title? Why not Xhosa, or Afrikaaner?

That was just to discuss the war between the Zula Inkatha and the Xhosa ANC. Because I knew the area around Cape Town, my journalist friend lived in Cape Town, my book takes place in Cape Town. There are no Zulu in Cape Town, very few. The Zulu live in another part of South Africa, far away.

So, to talk about the problem of the war between the Zulu Inkatha and the ANC, I took a Zulu character (homicide detective Ali Neuman), I put him in Cape Town. He takes refuge in Cape Town, because his father was pro-ANC, even though he was Zulu. One could be Zulu and for the ANC.

There were people who understood that Mandela was the symbol of resistance against whites, and they understood that Buthelezi and the Zulu Ikatha were manipulated by apartheid. So for me, it was a way to talk about this civil war
Many South African crime novels are extremely violent. Is such violence more striking for white readers than for black readers?

Unfortunately for Africans, they live among violence. It’s everywhere. For us it’s more shocking because we are unaccustomed to living with violence all the time. Blacks who live in the townships, they live with violence. But us, whites, we are not used to living with barbed wire, fencing, electronic security. Houses in South Africa have this, electricity everywhere to protect the houses.

... We’re not accustomed to this violence, so we have the roman noir as a catharsis. For us, who have an ultra-securitized society, we are even more scared of violence. By contrast, I think that if I were a black South African author, I would not write about a violent life. What would interest me would be love stories, that kind of thing, because “Violence? OK, we know it.”

The Irish crime writer Alan Glynn talks about the 1970s as a golden age for books and movies of paranoia: The Conversation, The Parallax View. He says that our own age is good time for a revival of such books and movies. Is Zulu a novel of paranoia?

Completely paranoid, just like white South African society is paranoid. At the same time, there is good reason to be scared because there is so much murder and rape, but most rape and murder happens between blacks. It is often blacks who suffer.

This is a kind of golden age for South African crime fiction. Do you know many of the current South African crime writers?

Very few. I have just met Deon Meyer, but I don’t know the others. But the poor are fantastic society for writing a roman noir.

It’s like the Americans If American authors are so good, and American authors are superb, it’s because they have a terrible society, with enormous gulfs between rich and poor.

All the most interesting ingredients for me are not in France. That’s why I go back to Argentina. There was the dictatorship. There was the crisis of 2002. These are fantastic subjects for romans noirs. ...

With Sarkozy, France has more and more subjects for romans noirs: xenophobia, pitting one community against the other. He’s playing a very dangerous game, this guy.

... I think the role of noir authors is to detect— You have to get your nose down in the shit. That's our job, a little bit. We say, “Look! Look what’s happening there and there and there!”

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great interview! Agree with you that Sarko's playing a high risk game and totally a noir opportunity

Cara Murder Is Everywhere

September 13, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. It was striking, and ominous, too, to hear political tactics cast in those terms.

Jean-Claude Izzo predicted the French riots of 2005, and Caryl Férey says he knew Izzo. Of course, Izzo's apprehension was based on police attitudes rather than misdeeds and miscalculation at the top. Perhaps the current situation calls for a combination of Izzo and Dominique Manotti to chronicle it.

September 13, 2010  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Peter, Another excellent and informative post. I just found "Zulu" on the B&N website. I have been using a Nook lately, and it appears that it is not in e-book format, yet. Can't wait to read it.

September 13, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Sean. I'm mildly surprised the book is unavailable in e-format. Europa Editions is mounting a pretty big promotional push behind the novel, and deservedly so. Among other things, it seems poised to catch the wave of interest in South African crime writing.

September 13, 2010  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

Great interview. Caryl has great taste if he fell in love with New Zealand. Now I'm really curious about the books he wrote here!

September 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I had a feeling I might hear from a New Zealand reader or two on this. After reading Zulu, I, too, am curious about his New Zealand books. The French edition of Haka has quite a cover.

Speaking of New Zealand, I hope you didn't suffer much from the earthquake. The quake happened in your general area of the country, didn't it?

September 14, 2010  
Anonymous Howard Curtis said...

Howard Curtis, translator of Zulu, here. You may like to know that I've been commissioned by Europa Editions to translate Utu, one of Caryl's two New Zealand-based books. Should be out late next year.

September 14, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for reading and weighing in.

My stock of Caryl Férey knowledge grows by the hour. I'm just back from a reading and signing where Caryl and Europa's Michael Reynolds confirmed that a translation of one of the New Zealand novels was on the way. Now I know when, which book -- and who the translator is. Thanks! I look forward to it.

September 15, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It’s like the Americans If American authors are so good, and American authors are superb, it’s because they have a terrible society, with enormous gulfs between rich and poor".

Is this statement implying that a society with just poor people is better? Or perhaps our poor are poorer and our rich richer than the rest of the worlds'.

With idiotic statements like this one, no wonder the French are universally loathed.

September 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't think he was saying that a society with just poor people is better, or that our rich are richer than the rest of the world's.

I think he meant that a society where the gulf between rich and poor is especially noticeable offers great opportunities for dramatic conflict -- and that American authors have taken advantage of them. In a segment I did not publish, for example, he says Switzerland would be a boring a place to write.

I should also mention that Frery's English is not perfect. You'll no doubt well imagine him grasping for the word he wants and, lacking the ability to express himself as well as he would have in his native language, coming up with "terrible."

September 22, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an astonishingly ill-conceived string of nonsense. How Férey arrived at these fallacies is a mystery. Maybe he should be writing in that genre instead. Or fantasy.

For a redux on this outrageously misinformation you might want to look at what the South African writers think about this.

Mike Nicol's redux gives a very different picture:


October 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. Here’s that link in handy, clickable form.

Férey talked about the advantages of writing as an outsider. Perhaps Mike Nicol's zinger of a post and your comments exemplify a danger. An outsider may simply miss things.

I wish Mike Nicol's own work was more easily available in the U.S. I thought highly of the brief bit that I've read.

October 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd like to be able to comment directly at Books SA, but the site will not accept comments unless I register -- and it will not send me a password despite repeated attempts on my part. So relay my compliments to Mike Nicol on his zinger interpolations to the Férey interview. Thanks.

October 07, 2010  

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