Last week we reviewed Karim Miské’s freewheeling novel Arab Jazz, which won France’s top crime fiction award in 2012, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Since then his thriller — about the murder of a young woman amid the simmering tensions between faiths in the multicultural 19th arrondissement of Paris — has gained a shocking new aspect in the light of the recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket in Paris. In this absolutely fascinating interview, writer, documentary film-maker and journalist Miské discusses radicalisation, identity, Marcel Proust and the extraordinary success of his debut novel.
Arab Jazz takes its name from the James Ellroy novel ‘White Jazz’ — and despite its obvious lyricism it’s very much a crime novel… have you always wanted to write in the genre?
I’ve always wanted to write. When I was thirteen, I knew that I’d write a book, one day. What kind of book? I didn’t have a clue. Then, in college, I played for some time with the idea of becoming a genre writer. My model was Jean-Patrick Manchette, the best French crime novelist of the 20th century in my opinion. But in my thirties, I read La Recherche and became more or less obsessed with the idea of becoming the new Marcel Proust. After all, he was half Jewish in a strongly antisemitic society, I was half Arab in a very racist society. Like him, I felt like an undercover alien. Then I came to understand that it was a dead end. Marcel Proust was perfect; there was no need for a new one.
It’s not until I turned 41 (I wish it had been 42, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, but no, it was 41) that I began writing a paragraph about a strange guy named Ahmed. For a very long time, I totally refused to admit that I was writing a crime novel, which is quite strange because this Ahmed guy, the main character of the story, was living a studio flat of which the walls had disappeared behind four layers of detective novels piled up in stacks. As if it was not enough, his neighbour had been assassinated and he was the main suspect! But, no no, I was not writing a Noir. I guess I needed to be in denial to be able to make a very personal use of the genre instead of being absorbed by it.
Tell us about your protagonist Ahmed Taroudant…
Ahmed could be seen as a social misfit. He doesn’t talk to anyone, lives on state subsidies because his depression is so deep that the doctors consider him disabled. He is a day dreamer; literally, his dreams are powerful enough to send him hundreds and thousands of miles away, right in the middle of the desert where his ancestors come from. His memories are so horrific and painful that he needs to replace them with invented horrible stories, that’s why he reads and reads and reads all these thrillers.
He is definitely not adapted to the time and place he lives in: although most of the people surrounding him think of them as Jews or Muslims, as Blacks, Arabs or Berbers, Ahmed doesn’t care. Identity or religion are of no importance to him. Once he wakes up from his long nightmare, he’ll understand, at last, that love is what he is looking for.
Arab Jazz addresses the rise of fundamentalism among alienated young men in Paris – do you think the book would be very different if you had written it after the recent terrible events in the city?
The attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket where indeed a shock but not really a surprise. After Mohamed Merah murdered French servicemen and Jewish kids in cold blood three years ago, everybody knew that something of the kind would happen again. I think that I would invent the same type of story, were I to write it today. And actually that’s what I did at the time: I got the inspiration for the small Salafist cell in Arab Jazz from the Buttes-Chaumont Jihadi network (the one to which the Kouachi brothers belonged), because it happened in the 19th arrondissement and I read articles about the trial while writing the book. But instead of a Jihadi story, I decided to invent something more personal.
Some readers have been writing to me through Facebook after the attacks. Here’s what two of them said. (Both of North-African descent):
- “I plunged back into Arab Jazz … so prescient … Their war is underway. When I see the faces of the Kouachi brother I see exactly the characters in your book.”
- “In connection with the sad events of yesterday, were you inspired by the “Buttes Chaumont cell?”
- Yes, indeed! I wrote the book at that time.
- “In order to explain to my mother, how youngsters are being radicalized, I took the example of the memories that I had of your novel.”
Ahmed is very much a young man who is striving to reconnect with society – do you think that’s a challenge that will very much preoccupy France and Europe in the coming years?
I like to think of Ahmed as a very unique character but, yes, this challenge will preoccupy all of us for some time. Because it’s becoming more and more difficult to develop the feeling of belonging to a society which think of you as a 5th column, an interior enemy. Today, at a newsstand I saw an ad for L’Express, a French news magazine. The title was: “The Republic facing Islam”. Imagine that you are a young French Muslim walking the streets of Paris or Marseille on a sunny afternoon, happy because you’re going to have a coffee with friends, and you suddenly see this poster. How are you supposed to react to that? How can you imagine that there is a future for you in this society?
There’s a playlist of songs mentioned in the narrative in the back of the book – do you listen to music as you write?
It depends. If I’m in a café like today, I put on my headphones and launch my favourite playlist with 24 hours of music. Sometimes, I take a break, add new songs, delete old ones. But if I’m home, it depends on the state of mind I’m in, and it can evolve very quickly. Sometimes, I listen to half a song and stop it, because I just need silence. Sometimes, I can listen to my playlist for hours.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
I had to write Arab Jazz two times. The first time I finished the book, I knew that something was wrong. The story was simply not working. So I had to write it again, from the beginning. I guess I had learnt a good lesson: don’t go too quickly. Don’t be over-satisfied.
How do you deal with feedback?
It’s always interesting. At the beginning, some reactions can be hard to swallow, but it’s very important to accept to seen by others. It’s necessary if one wants to progress.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
They are so many. Jean-Patrick Manchette, Honoré de Balzac, James Ellroy, Marguerite Yourcenar, Salman Rushdie, Brett Easton-Ellis, Frantz Fanon, George Orwell, Philip Roth… I’m not going to write all their names down, it would be too long. All the writers I admire expose themselves to what Michel Leiris called “The horn of the bull”. Because literature is a dangerous place, not a comfortable one. Writing can give you a lot of pleasure, of course, but no security.
Give me some advice about writing…
Read a lot. Choose what you read carefully because it will influence your writing. Be patient, you can’t hurry inspiration. Find a good reader. Don’t expect to earn a living with this activity. If it happens it will be a wonderful surprise, but it seldom happens. And when you’re ready, descend into the arena. Face your inner bull.
How do you follow a book that has already won France’s top crime fiction award?
That is the question. It was really cool to receive this award of course, but very intimidating at the same time. Now, everybody is asking me when the next book is going to be published and I have not yet begun writing it. Well, to be honest, I have almost finished writing an essay on identity (how surprising), so, the next book should actually be published by the end of the year in France. Maybe that’s my way of undermining the challenge: writing an essay instead of a novel. But the novel will be written. I’m beginning to know the story, and it feels good.