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Books: Hip-to-the-argot but missing vital organs

Saturday 31 July 1999 23:02 BST

Write To Kill by Daniel Pennac

Harvill pounds 10.99

French crime-writer Daniel Pennac, formerly a teacher, writes from the heart of downtown Paris, from the 19th arrondissement of Belleville, to be precise (London's Brixton is the closest we come to its working- class ethnic mix, drive-by shootings and couscous cafes). Pennac's work has all the undisciplined imaginative energy of his former primary-school charges, hemmed in by a passionate love of storytelling. He combines the tradition of the French literary flic with the wild outpourings of a more liberally minded Celine (both men finding inspiration in the gutter).

Pennac has previously admitted that verisimilitude matters not for him, and that he thoroughly enjoys "shoving the thoughts of [his] choice" into whichever heads roll up. Which makes for an invigorating, if at times frustrating, read - stylish without being mannered, fast-paced while meandering aimlessly. Fantastical stories pour from the mouths of the most heinous thugs, because Pennac is always on the look out for the child within. The result is a sentimental journey through the farcical horrors of police procedural, bureaucratic indifference and, in this third instalment of The Belleville Quartet (translated by Ian Monk), the cynical fame game that is publishing.

Benjamin Malaussene, innocent abroad, is a downtrodden editor at Vendetta Press, and our hip-to-the-argot narrator. When he slips into a coma two- thirds of the way into this labyrinthine plot, his only concern is for his extended family of uncontrollable siblings, hangers-on, girlfriend Julie and epileptic dog. Like a sleeping beauty he gets his happy ending, but first he is gunned down while posing as the world's best-loved but hitherto anonymous author, JLB, the inventor of "Free-Market Realism". Readers love JLB because his little-guy heroes always get the supermodel girl and loadsamoney. For Ben, the wellbeing of his community is life's real reward; the pursuit of material success, the meaninglessness of celebrity come in for some scathing wit. It is when he tries to right these wrongs, using his false platform, that he is silenced, and the story takes a sinister turn.

Pennac courageously bestows on Ben all the faults of a weak-willed, put- upon loser; he is a plump, mixed-race, streetwise scapegoat with a ferocious distrust of authority. While he is lying in a hospital bed, and an unscrupulous surgeon is stealing his vital organs, it is the marvellously doughty Julie who cleans up the dirty streets for him. Meanwhile, Ben reflects: "Have pity for writers ... never show them a mirror ... don't change them into images ... don't give them a name ... it will only make them crazy."

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