Tuesday 29 October 2019

The Godmother

I heard about The Godmother on Episode 120 of Chat 10 Looks 3. Possibly my favourite ever podcast. I've listened to all of it, bar one episode. Annabel Crabb had just read The Godmother as her friend Stephanie Smee translated it. I was immediately intrigued. I do love a French book in translation, so it wasn't a particularly hard sell. Annabel gushed over it and described it as "spiky, original and laugh out loud funny", and said that it was like "a very original hat". 

The Godmother is a French Noir crime book. And yes it really is "spiky, original and laugh out loud funny".  The Godmother is Patience Portefeux, a 53 year old widow, who has lived a tough life. Patience had a very unorthodox childhood. 

My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money. 

The family home was "in the no man's land between a motorway and a forest". Her father was a French Tunisian pied-noir (not a term I'd heard before) and her mother an Austrian Jew. Both of them were displaced, they had "lost everything ..... including their country". Her father uses his trucking company to ship drugs then later weapons and ammunition. 
To get a job with Mondiale you had to have first done time, because according to my father, only somebody who'd been locked up for at least 15 years could cope with being stuck in a truckie's cab for thousands of miles, and would defend his cargo with his life. 
Patience grows up to marry young, and is then widowed young, at 27, and left with two young girls to bring up. She begins working as a French/Arabic court interpreter to support her family. She offers many fascinating insights into the modern multicultural country that is France. Patience like all of us is initially enthusiastic and empathetic to those she interprets for. 
I felt infinitely sorry for many of the Arabs whose words I reproduced in those trials. Men who were extraordinarily poor, with little education; impoverished migrants looking for an El Dorado that didn't exist, forced into a life of small-time skullduggery and petty crime so as not to die of hunger. 
But she becomes disenfranchised with the French court system. 
The interpreter was simply a tool to accelerate the act of repression. 
Patience is now interpreting police wiretaps from drug surveillance operations, and becomes personally involved in one of her cases. This is all set amongst the common baby boomer scenario of being trapped between elderly parents in care, and young adult children. Patience's mother is dementing and in a nursing home, which appears to be very expensive in the French system. 
There we all were, part of that great middle-class mass being strangled by its elderly. 
I loved so many things about The Godmother. The writing. The plot (although yes it does go a bit OTT at some stages, but I'll allow it, given the rest of the book). The humour. The Chamonix Orange Cake references (yes, I need to try one now, although I really suspect they won't be my thing). The view of French society that I haven't seen before. 
Fourteen million cannabis users in France and eight hundred thousand growers living off the crop in Morrocco. The two countries are friendly, and yet those kids whose haggling I listened to all day long were serving heavy prison sentences for having sold their hash to the kids of the cops who were prosecuting them and of the judges who were sentencing them, not to mention to all the lawyers who were defending them. It didn't take long for them to become bitter and poisoned with hate. I can only think, though ..... that this excess of resources, this furious determination to drain the sea of hash inundating France, teaspoon by teaspoon, is above all else a tool for monitoring the population insofar as it allows identity checks to be carried out on Arabs and blacks ten times a day. 
Hannelore Cayre is a practising French criminal lawyer and author. The Godmother is her fifth novel, but I think this is the first of her works to be translated into English. I certainly hope the others will follow. 

Stephanie Smee did a cracking job with the translation, Stephanie is also a lawyer, and has translated work from French and Swedish, she also speaks German and Italian! Wow. 

I really don't like the Australian cover, it looks more Mother Superior to me than Godmother. I tried to buy the original French version, La Daronne, on kindle but haven't managed to get around Amazon's geoblocking as yet. I must try harder. 

The Godmother Book Club Notes


Brona said...

We’re selling so many copies of this at work! The podcast is doing wonders for the book business.
I’ve met Smee a couple of times when she popped into to talk about the kids books she’s translated from the French. I’m thrilled she’s getting lots more work.

Louise said...

I'm glad that this book is doing well here, we need more translated fiction. I'm sure all those enthusiastic Chatters are storming bookshops around the country looking for it. How great that you've met her. I haven't read the children's books- but have bought them...

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