The Secret Smile

 

 

Serge Quadruppani

(First published by Fleuve noir, 1998; La Table Ronde, 286 pages, 2017)

 

A stranger speaks on his cell phone, with great lyricism and at great length, about the twilight over the Hudson River. And then he changes the topic, telling the listener that a woman they both know is under a death threat. Mark Sanders, down on his luck and in a state of intoxication, is sprawled in Riverside Park, within earshot and listening with interest. He approaches the man—and witnesses his murder. So begins the novel and Mark’s obsessional quest for the woman in question that will take him from New York to the other side of the world.

Mark Sanders is an aesthete fascinated with the Leonardesque smile in all its variations, both in art and in life. He is also a belligerent man prone to erratic impulses that are partly fueled by an indiscriminate appetite for illegal substances. He loses his job at an insurance company and, homeless once more, takes shelter in a Riverside Park tunnel. After viewing a stabbing, he is asked by the dying victim to take his wallet, in which he finds a significant sum of money and a photograph of a beautiful woman with violet eyes and a secret smile. A Mona Lisa smile. He becomes obsessed with the thought of finding her and embarks on a perilous journey that will take him from New York to Hong Kong and then from Vietnam to Cambodia.

Mark is desperate to find the woman with the mysterious smile, but he pursues his investigation haphazardly. He fumbles through countries, cities, and conflict-torn zones in a dreamlike state that often turns into a walking nightmare. Clues, instructions, and demands are thrown in his path by a diverse cast of characters. He feels manipulated—not knowing if these are friends or foes—but the ambiguity is one that this connoisseur of secret smiles can appreciate.

Quadruppani takes the time to depict cities, landscapes, and street scenes with a rich profusion of vivid sensory details, but he never neglects the plot. His story is firmly anchored in the early ʼ90s. The political and historical contexts of each place Mark visits are an integral part of this multilayered story. The Secret Smile is an ambitious thriller in which the object of the quest becomes secondary to the quest itself.

Serge Quadruppani is a journalist, essayist, and novelist as well as an acclaimed translator from Italian. He is a regular contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique and the director of the Italian collection at Editions Métailié. He is particularly known for his crime novels, including The Sudden Disappearance of the Worker Bees: A Commissario Simona Tavianello Mystery, published in English by Arcade Publishing in 2013.

 

The Coma of Mortals

Maxime Chattam

(Albin Michel, 388 pages, 2016)

 

Chattam is France’s answer to Stephen King.

—Le Parisien

This is a truly contemporary novel, audacious, seductive, sensual, intelligent, and perfectly in tune with reality. It entertains, certainly, but it raises very real questions.

—Jean-Christian Hay, Gala

Something of a thriller, a small dose of love, a large dose of sex. . . . The book has a dynamism that prevents you from putting it down until you reach the end. I was so caught up in the action that the pages seemed to turn of their own accord. And I had to read the conclusion twice to make sure I understood it.

—Les Passions de Chinouk (blog)

Chattam is at the top of his form, even if this novel is a far cry from the blood-soaked thrillers he is used to turning out.

—Ludivine, Tempête en Roulettes (blog)

Pierre, thirty-something, suffers an existential crisis and drops out, abandoning job, wife, and family and starting his life over again from scratch. Newly employed mucking out cages at the Vincennes Zoo, he acquires a girlfriend, Ophélie, who is obsessed with suicide, and meets new people. All seems well, but one by one his acquaintances die violent deaths—as does Ophélie, eviscerated in the couple’s apartment. Pierre is the police’s prime suspect in her murder.

At this point the novel begins—almost at the end of the story, and the narrative consists largely of Pierre’s testimony, obtained by third-degree treatment, tracking back over the preceding months of his life, which seem (at least at first) to have been prey to some kind of curse. As the novel proceeds, the reader becomes increasingly doubtful about Pierre’s innocence.

The backward construction of the tale is not the only experimental feature of The Coma of Mortals. Chattam’s style changes key several times over the course of the book, and it is impossible to pigeonhole the work in a genre: serial-murder mystery? erotica? black humor? philosophical novel? It is all of these by turn.

“Who is Pierre?” asks the French publisher’s blurb. “Is he even called Pierre? Is he a dreamer? A fabulist? A murderer?” Aside from these questions, it’s tempting to conclude that Pierre is in a sense the author’s alter ego, and that the issues “Pierre” raises—the human condition, say, or our faith in human values—echo the thinking of Maxime Chattam.

Maxime Chattam is the pseudonym of Maxime Drouot, born in 1976 in Herblay (Val d’Oise). As a youngster he visited the United States several times and also spent time in the jungles of Thailand. After literary and criminological studies and a stint as a sales clerk in the crime fiction department of a large Paris bookstore, he embarked on a successful writing career. Since 2000 he has published over twenty novels and built up a large following. His favored genre is the dark thriller. He has produced three popular fiction cycles: La Trilogie du mal (Trilogy of Evil), with graphic-novel versions in collaboration with Michel Montheillet; Le Cycle de l’homme et de la vérité (The Man and Truth); and Autre-Monde (OtherWorld)—whose fantasy aspects are aimed at a younger audience—as well as many stand-alone novels and short stories.

Chattam’s commercial success in the French-speaking world is comparable, perhaps, to that of Franck Thilliez, but in Chattam’s case only one novella has been published in English (Carnage [2010], Gallic Books, 2012). It is hard not to imagine that an English version of The Coma of Mortals will not open the floodgates to many more translations of this popular author’s work.