In the opening scene of Fatale (New York Review Books; $12.95), Jean-Patrick Manchette’s slim, unforgiving riddle of a noir novel, a porky, flushed-faced hunter is approached in the woods by a young woman wearing waders and cradling a shotgun. The man, ogling her, makes the typical advances; the woman, smiling, empties “both barrels into his gut.” With that gun blast, Manchette casually inverts the conventions of the genre: this whodunit begins by revealing the killer’s identity. It’s a relentless, sneering book whose femme fatale is not some lady in black lace blowing smoke rings in Sam Spade’s office but a lone contract assassin indifferent to love and revenge, and motivated only by the lure of cash. In his afterword to this translation of Fatale, the book’s first appearance in English since its 1977 publication, the novelist Jean Echenoz tells of how Manchette, while working as a blurb writer, insisted on using the words “sex” and “money” in his summaries, no matter the subject of the title in question. Few themes are more elemental, and Manchette, in his exploration of their violent fusion, flaunts his sinister expertise. Something of a cult icon in his native France, he is often credited with contributing to the evolution of the polar, or crime novel, into the néo-polar, a genre that complicates the pleasure of the chase with a tangle of inquiries into the nature of violence, greed and society. Easy answers, naturally, are hardly forthcoming.
During the journey by train to a small town where she’ll sniff out scandal before offering her services, Aimée Joubert, the fatale, treats herself to a pungently erotic dinner: pickled cabbage, sausage and salt pork, all washed down with a couple of bottles of champagne. As she eats, Aimée gradually loses control of herself:
She leaned over, still chewing, and opened the briefcase and pulled out fistfuls of banknotes and rubbed them against her sweat-streaked belly and against her breasts and her armpits and between her legs and behind her knees. Tears rolled down her cheeks even as she shook with silent laughter and kept masticating.
Like the murders she’ll execute, Aimée’s appetite is a pornographic performance for an audience of one, as grotesque and gratuitous as death itself, and equally unforgiving.
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“How to Write About Africa,” Binyavanga Wainaina’s stinging sendup of the clichés routinely tossed at the continent, hasn’t stopped causing a stir since it appeared six years ago in Granta. As listed by Wainaina, “taboo subjects” include “ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever.” Wainaina discusses all of the above in One Day I Will Write About This Place (Graywolf; $24), a memoir that begins with his childhood in Nakuru, Kenya, and extends through his years as a student in South Africa around the end of apartheid to his success as founder of the literary magazine Kwani?. His tales of growing up in the nascent Republic of Kenya have a warmth and complexity that effectively bury the notion of the misery-stricken, generic African child; but the book hits its stride when its author reaches adulthood and hones to razor-sharpness his perceptions of life around the continent. Wainaina’s sly commentary on everything from international condescension to Africans’ participation in the capitalistic development racket cuts to the core. “I start to understand why so little good literature is produced in Kenya,” he reflects after receiving the British-administered Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002. “The talent is wasted writing donor-funded entertainment and awareness-raising brochures for seven thousand dollars a job. Do not complicate things, and you will be paid very well.” Scenes and characters, from the brazen 15-year-old baby sitter shaking her hips with a televised Independence Day parade to his Ugandan grandparents celebrating their sixtieth anniversary, are summoned with prose that crackles with coinages and improbable diction, and hums along to a rhythm entirely its own. The language’s humor and texture affirms, as Wainaina says, that he cares “so much for these things that sit under the burping self-satisfaction of the certificated world.”
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The indignity of seeing one’s native place commandeered into the subject of someone else’s myth is the predicament at the heart of The Secret History of Costaguana (Riverhead; $26.95), the second novel from Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Long ago, narrator José Altamirano, son of an adventurer whose personal history is tangled up in Colombia’s, confided everything to Joseph Conrad, only to find his story repackaged as Nostromo, Conrad’s account of the invented Costaguana. The premise—literary theft and recovery drenched in history—is delightful, the tale as cumbersome to wade through as Altamirano’s unwieldy, obsequious storytelling style. As in Pale Fire and its kingdom of Zembla, the narrator’s pomposity and fascination with the minutest details of his national history are very much the point. But with Altamirano, Vásquez can’t match the elasticity of tone that makes Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote a genius of instability rather than a pedantic bore. We on the listening end are consistently referred to as “Readers of the Jury.” By the time Altamirano gets to theorizing about the nature of history, of literature, of storytelling at large—“all those little stories that for some reason matter to us and which gradually fit together without us noticing to compose the fearful fresco of Great History, they are juxtaposed, touching, intersecting”—the verdict is in.