Imagine a series of thrillers, set in a district of Paris as multiracial as Zadie Smith's Willesden, about a family guaranteed to chill the hearts of Daily Mail readers. The mother keeps disappearing with her latest lover and coming back pregnant. A litter of noisy half-brothers and sisters is being dragged up by the eldest, Benjamin Malaussène, who starts off as a "scapegoat" in a department store, placating irate customers with his own tales of misery. Add a stinking epileptic dog, a chess-playing monk-turned-revolutionary and a voluptuous globetrotting photojournalist, and one begins to get the flavour of Daniel Pennac's amazing Belleville quintet.
The Fairy Gunmother (Harvill, 1997), the first of Ian Monk's superb translations, opens with a nasty "Nationally Frontal" cop watching an old lady struggling across an Africa-shaped sheet of black ice. This woman's "frail shoulders suddenly remind him of his old beloved grandmother's". As he approaches, "burning with love", she points a gun and blows him apart.
The plot turns out to involve municipal corruption, geriatric smack addicts and a cross-dressing underground Vietnamese cop (whose male and female personas come to blows). Pennac can conjure up a strangely coherent parallel world, where every twisting storyline is topped by something even more bizarre. Yet he started his career with an unpublished "neo-Provençal peasant novel". So how, I wanted to know when I met him in Paris, had he managed to become a star of French literature?
Pennac worked for over 25 years as a teacher, mainly with educationally deprived children, and still accepts every invitation to address classes, whether in nursery schools or élite universities. Comme un roman (Like a novel, 1992), his wonderful hymn to the joys of reading, savages the kind of education which puts many off literature for life. It also contains a vivid description of a teacher confronting a group of morose "washed-up" teenagers: the "obligatory rocker", a girl "drowned in her father's shirt", another done up like "a Sicilian widow". Yet as soon as he reads aloud, the class becomes entranced by Calvino, Dostoyevsky, Saki, Stevenson and Wilde.
"Yeah, right," I thought to myself when I first read this. But in person it is easy to see Pennac as the kind of committed and charismatic teacher who changes lives. He peppers his conversation with schoolmasterly but entertaining digressions about the history of Paris or why the word "vachement" is slang for "very" even though "there's no more non-superlative animal than a cow".
"It was a rejection letter," he tells me, "which was probably my most fruitful contact with the literary world." When he submitted his first novel to publishers, most turned it down with brief and formulaic notes.
But one leading editor sent him a letter which was hand-written, four pages long and very argumentative, taking apart every aspect of the book, but with a final paragraph saying: "Nonetheless, one can see that you are made to be a writer. It's quite clear you're going to get better, and I await your next book."
This same editor became Pennac's first publisher when, to relieve the boredom of military service, he wrote "a polemic in the form of an anthropological essay. I imagined I was describing the world of the barracks like a tribal world, with very codified rituals, very primitive from the point of view of language and behaviour." It was also during military service, as he describes in a chapter of Comme un roman on "the right to read anywhere", that Pennac made a point of volunteering for "shithouse duty".
After a few minutes with the floor-cloth, he could lock himself away in a cubicle for hours to read the complete works of Gogol. Russian and English literature were long-standing passions and, when Pennac spent two years in Brazil from 1978 to 1980, he made a conscious decision to write children's books instead of "literature à la Française". Although educated as a good Sixties intellectual, he now felt fed up with "all the endless decoding, endless analysis. I wanted to put down my conceptual baggage, get rid of the analytical toolbox." The results included the highly imaginative Eye of the Wolf, and Dog (both published in English by Walker Books last year).
While in Brazil, Pennac came across two peasants who had rigged up an old television set on the pavement of a deserted square to watch Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. Despite a total lack of common references, they all laughed in exactly the same places. The experience helped inspire his latest book, The Dictator and the Hammock, in which the leader of a banana republic is warned of his imminent death and hires a double - who soon decides he in turn wants to be replaced. Published in May this year, it instantly shot to the top of the French bestseller list.
A friend's enthusiasm got Pennac hooked on the pleasures and techniques of American detective fiction. "In a novel by Chandler," he recalls, "Marlowe goes to the house of a millionaire's daughter where there's a 'a thick pinkish Chinese rug in which a gopher could have spent a week without raising his nose above the nap'. Dickens would have taken 15 pages to describe the room alone! Henry James would have devoted 15 pages to a psychological analysis of the heiress! But with just that one metaphor one knows exactly what kind of person she is. That had a major influence on my artistic methods."
Moving to Paris in 1969, Pennac lived briefly in the Quartier Latin - and hated it. "When I went out, I had the impression of bumping into myself. Everyone seemed like me. It was terribly depressing!"
Then a colleague told him about Belleville, where he found "everything except myself, the whole world, with the market and lots of little businesses, a district where you didn't have to go three kilometres to buy a baguette. The norm today is completely abnormal. In the Quartier Latin and Saint Germain, you can only buy clothes and shoes. Belleville remains a living district, not fossilised by commerce."
All these elements came together when Pennac read the French philosopher René Girard's speculations about the role of the scapegoat in different cultures. He decided it would be "amusing to create a professional scapegoat" who always turned up in the wrong places (like murder sites) at the wrong times. The result was the first of the Belleville thrillers, The Scapegoat, published in French in 1985.
All the books happily incorporate "distorted portraits" of Pennac's many larger-than-life friends. One was the Croatian former monk Dinko Stamback, who appears as Stojilkovicz ("I gave him a Serbian name just to wind him up, but he wasn't very amused"). It was Stamback who once glanced at his newborn grandson and pronounced, in the solemn tones of an Orthodox priest:
"He's got big hands. He will be a thief." Consternation from his daughter. "But don't worry, ma chèrie, he's also got big feet. The police will never catch him."
Monsieur Malaussène (1995, and reissued this week by Harvill at £6.99) is dedicated "To Belleville (or what's left of it)". The novel has a characteristic cast of illusionists, a Napoleonic police chief, deranged film fanatics, a mysteriously pregnant nun - along with gynaecological confusions sure to offend all anti-abortionists. It ends with a birth and was originally intended to be the last in the sequence, but "as in the best families", Pennac explained, "an accident brought the total up to five". Passionfruit (£6.99) is also reissued this week by Harvill.
The plot of Monsieur Malaussène also gives Pennac a chance to explore, with typical wild but tender humour, the turbulent emotions of expectant fathers. "When we were waiting for my daughter Alice's birth," he recalled, "I got into a terrible state of fantasy: 'What a monster I am to bring a child into a world like this!' But the thing about fantasies is that reality always contradicts them - things either turn out worse or completely different. Five minutes after Alice appeared, it was as if she had always existed. Our children seem to date from all eternity, even though one knows objectively about one's life before they were born. It's not the same with love. When one meets a woman, one knows that the birth of love dates from that meeting." The endlessly inventive Belleville novels contain many moments of similarly sharp and humane insight.
Matthew J Reisz is the editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly'
Daniel Pennac was born into a Corsican military family in Casablanca in 1944 and grew up in the former French colonies. He studied in Nice and has worked as a woodcutter, cab driver and illustrator, and especially as a teacher in Soissons and Paris. He has written children's books, polemics, political satires, a graphic novel about working life, the text to accompany photographic collections by Robert Doisneau, a description of the Vercors (the remote Provençal plateau where he spends part of the year) and, most recently, Le dictateur et le hamac. His Belleville quintet consists of The Fairy Gunmother, The Scapegoat, Write to Kill, Monsieur Malaussène and Passionfruit, all published by Harvill in Ian Monk's translations. He still lives on the borders of Belleville, just next to the Père Lachaise cemetery.
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