In the Crowd, by Laurent Mauvignier, trans Shaun Whiteside

A champion report from Europe's football front
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As Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show on David Peace and The Damned Utd inadvertently revealed, the search for the Great Football Novel is doomed from the kick-off. Sooner or later, any work of fiction with the legs to last will run ahead of its initial theme and setting to occupy a literary league of its own. So it is with Laurent Mauvignier's remarkable In the Crowd, a baffling absentee from the major French prize shortlists during 2006.

True, Mauvignier's sixth novel never loses sight of the Heysel Stadium disaster that killed 39 spectators after a wall collapsed during the Liverpool-Juventus European Cup final in Brussels in May 1985. Every voice, every passage, turns in agonised retrospect around the charge by Liverpool fans that leaves one main character dead and the rest "unable to free" themselves, in the aftermath of tragedy, "from a memory placed in our lives like a block of granite in the middle of a field". But don't expect a gritty documentary tract about hooliganism, masculinity and group aggression, though Mauvignier conjures up the demons of fandom just as well as John King in his trilogy about Chelsea yobs.

Rather, In the Crowd (in this virtuoso translation by Shaun Whiteside) is a special kind of war novel, a tender and moving study of grief and recovery, and a polyphonic portrait of modern Europe united by its mass rituals but still splintered by suspicion and hate. In a deftly woven tissue of interlinked monologues, we follow Geoff Andrewson – far from a hard-core Red, and plagued by doubts from the start – on the trip from Liverpool with his two feral brothers. The jaunt will leave him with a life-long existential hangover. From Paris, hard-drinking, thrill-seeking Jeff and Tonino turn up for the match. In Brussels, they meet an unhappy local couple, Gabriel and Virginie, and newly-married lovebirds Tana and Francesco from Genoa.

One of this cast will die from "asphyxia through compression of the ribcage". The violence, depicted with wrenching intensity, is all over a third of the way through the novel. Others will survive to remember, scarred within as if by battlefield flashbacks. They will feel like "grains of nothing in the sand needed make the machine turn", as the media, courts and politicians purloin and prolong their pain. At times, In the Crowd recalls one of those post-First World War brotherhood-of-man epics in which rival troops suffer identical miseries in the trenches, and traumas in the wake. (Jeff comes from La Bassée in the Nord, site of a minor 1914 bloodbath.)

British readers – especially those with Merseyside connections – may bridle at the idea of an upscale French literary novel threatening to confirm (to quote Geoff) that "everyone always wants to blame the Scousers". But Boris Johnson-style collective curses don't interest Mauvignier. Geoff's divided spirit, and tormented relationship with poetry-loving Elsie, lift him way beyond skinhead caricature.

At the finale, an ecstatically-written closing sequence strives to leave group hatred and all its wounds behind. A seaside idyll in Sardinia drowns the lingering anguish in the "intoxication that comes from witnessing the world". And if that sounds like an unusual place for a footie-fan fiction to end, well, In the Crowd has been playing – and playing with penetrating skill – on quite another pitch.