Detective novels were the first modern literary form to cross en masse from wide popular readership in Europe to a pop readership in Arabic:
Although noir is no longer an obsession for Arab publishers — indeed, there is relatively little genre fiction in Arabic — the Algerian and Algerian-French contingent continues to carry the detective-story flag. It’s a path blazed by Yasmina Khadra and others, and now Algerian-French ingenue Jérémie Guez is putting his own mark on the tradition. The twenty-seven-year-old Guez has already brought out four noirs, the third of which — Eyes Full of Empty (November 2015) — has been translated from the French by Edward Gauvin and is just arriving from Unnamed Press.
Guez is, like Faïza Guène, a child-prodigy who brings the gaze of the young Algerian-French to the page. His previous two books won the 2013 SNCF du Polar and 2012 Plume Libre prizes.
And while Eyes Full of Empty is third in a series, there’s no reason for the reader to feel she’s come late to the converstion. As with any flat-out noir, we have gorgeous (sometimes treacherous) women, men with big desires, and loads of alcohol (and drugs). To narrate our fast-paced, twisty-turny journey in the world of crime, we have a wonderfully sympathetic small-time Algerian-French criminal who’s a fist-for-hire with a side of investigation. Guez’s noir follows in the gentleman-thief tradition: our narrator, Idir, self-consciously tips his hat to Arsène Lupin.
It has all the ingredients of a fun read, and Guez doesn’t disappoint. There is no supra-literary interrogation of form, no turning of the novel on its head, a la Khadra. This is a straightforward, canny, page-turning noir, and Gauvin has re-crafted the flat, droll sentences the genre gives us to expect.
Yet it’s also more than a formula-driven detective novel: the revelations are a surprise (but not, of course, a Surprise), there is some social commentary, and Idir has interesting flaws and a compelling relationship with his father. The women in his family, however, are a disappointment.
Like most noir, Guez’s novel centers on men. At its core, there are Algerian-French men — Idir and his friends-in-crime Tarik and Cherif — and, as secondary characters, we have the French men who run the world (and commit their own sorts of white- and blue-collar crimes). After this, we have French women, inevitably gorgeous. But there are no Algerian women outside of the Kabyle grandmother, who we’re told is tough, although we never see it on the page. There’s also the father’s new wife, but all we really know about her is she has a nice ass.
If the novel has a weak spot, it’s this: The obligatory grandmother, who has obligatory cultural strength, and is an obligatory matriarchic, does nothing for us. The novel should either make some acknowledgement of its omission (Algerian women) or, I suppose, not omit them.
Still, our protagonist (Idir) is — despite the role he plays — also a feminine character, and the reader’s sympathy for him is a strong part of our drive through the action. In sum: Guez’s novel is enjoyable, memorable, and worth your time.
Guez will also be in the US touring with the novel:
According to Unnamed Press: Jérémie will be at Skylight Books in Los Angeles on 11/6 and at the Book Passage in Corte Madera on 11/13. You can find out more at the Unnamed Press events page.