Discourses of the French detective novel

Glauco Rodrigues. Your Neck Is Like the Tower of David..., 1967.


Considerations on the works of Frédéric Dard (San-Antonio) and Albert Simonin

We narrow our scope. We do not intend to discuss the “languages” of the French crime novel considered as a whole. What interests us is the proximity and distance between two authors: Frédéric Dard (who wrote a good part of his work under the pseudonym of San-Antonio, the name of one of his main characters) and Albert Simonin. Basically, we want to use a brief reference to Simonin to point out the originality of San-Antonio.

The proximity between the two is clear for several reasons. Close, because they were contemporaries: the first lived from 1921 to 2000, and the second, from 1905 to 1980. adaptation, thus crossing the line that separates literature from cinematography. The boundary between the novel and the cinematographic version becomes porous to such an extent that, myself, an enthusiastic reader of both and a repeated spectator of the cinematographic adaptations (how many times have I seen Grisbi, cursed gold [Touchez pas au Grisby], 1954, by Jacques Becker? How many more times will I have to review this version of Simonin's novel, with Jean Gabin, Jeanne Moreau and Lino Ventura?), I often cross this line without realizing it.

In memory, texts and images form a single body. But close, above all, for opening the door to the French underworld of the mid-20th century, revealing this social world mainly through literary work on the language in which it was expressed.

Nobody ignores that bandits have their own language, and American crime novels and cinema have made us familiar with this “dialect” (which, in this case, owes something to the dialect of the Italian mafia).

More difficult for the Brazilian reader is to penetrate the slang worked on by our two authors. So much so that a Portuguese translation of a novel by Simonin, transposing the slang for the corresponding language of the marginals in Portugal, it adds a long lexicon for the Portuguese reader, translating the “professional” language into common language. Needless to say that, for the Brazilian reader, the reading of this translation is more problematic than the original: the “professionals from here and from overseas” decidedly do not speak the same language. It is true that it is difficult to read Joyce's writings well in translations, in which much is lost; but it is possible to do it, with great pleasure. If a catastrophe destroyed all original versions of Odysseus, their translations would guarantee the novel a very high place in the literature of the last century.

Perhaps this is not the case with our good novelists. We can only read them, in fact, in French. Translations kill what is alive in them. It is the local use of language, untranslatable, even when it allows a broader view of the world. In the case of San-Antonio, without a doubt, we are facing the best literature, hopelessly popular and local.

But what interests us here, we repeat, is the distance that separates authors like Simonin and Frédéric Dard (or San-Antonio). The first, let's say, in a forced approximation, is a kind of Guimarães Rosa (reflected and meditative) of the language of the underworld, while the second is a kind of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, enemy of all forms of modesty. It is true that the latter (so well analyzed by Trotsky, who was able to predict in the admirable anarchist pages of this kind of radical nihilist his future conversion to the extreme right – the same Trotsky who, on the occasion, also pointed out some ambiguities in the beautiful Malraux's "engaged" novels, which, however, he praised) already brought out the brutality of everyday life and the extra-bourgeois world on the calm surface of French beauties-letters.

The reference to Céline is indispensable so that the reader does not imagine that I am here opposing Simonin to San-Antonio, according to the axis that opposes Dashiell Hammett to Mike Spillane (“Mike Spillanne, what a writer!”, as the good soul of the imbecile played by the excellent actor Ernst Borgnine in the film always repeated. Marty [1955, by Delbert Mann]).

With Céline, however, syntax erupts, giving way to an uninterrupted eruption of eructations, exclamations, screams and curses that lead almost to the limit or to the extinction of language: to the scream, below or beyond speech.

I could give a thousand examples of this “style” in his novels, but I prefer to look for it in an article in which he responds to a text by Sartre (“The Portrait of an Anti-Semite") in the magazine Modern times, in the difficult post-war times, especially for Céline, who had allied with Nazism and adopted its anti-Semitism. Under the heading "The Shake of the Mouth”, in a language similar to that of the good San-Antonio, he says: “[…] But on page 462 the little shit, it leaves me speechless! Oh! The damn rotten ass! (…) You wretched little shit-clogged filth, you come out from between my legs to soil me on the outside! Cain anus, pfui!”. Everything happens, in this torrent of insults, as if the syntactic structure of the language collapsed, giving way to a pure enumeration, to the mere juxtaposition of “atomic” expressions. The same form, devoid of the disgustingness of the quoted text, reappears joyfully and erotically in a paragraph about copulation in the novel. San-Antonio chez les Mac: “And I move, brothers! To me the suspension of the Citroën! See Miss Mapple and die! I apply the magic brain, the Auvergne spinning top, the Bulgarian tourbillon (…), the big six, the big nine, the big Condé (…), the Bengal lancer, the one-handed gondolier, the voiceless petomaniac (in petto man of fauna) and the supreme cruise”. One could speak of Céline's pastiche, but of a pastiche that transports us from black tragedy to joyful facetiousness.

Thus, with San-Antonio, what explodes the language or “deconstructs” the narrative is not despair, absolute misery, but something like a playful choice to shuffle the cards. From playing with language and with life, producing puns (as in the title of the novel Rapt à la Rapp – ratp is the acronym for the Parisian metro) and inverting situations in such a way as to ridicule what is most serious in literary, political or intellectual tradition. A healthy anarchism? In any case, a cheerful anarchism that takes its time in the multiplication of puns.

Thus, San-Antonio's assistant, Bérurier (Béru-Béru), an ignorant but likeable brute (whom the reader can imagine played by the bulky Gérard Depardieu, who has already represented him in the cinema), says "circumferences to lieutenants" to express “extenuating circumstances”, in a novel which also features an Irish nobleman named Sir Constance Haggravant. It is not despair that is expressed in this continuous flow of puns, but also of obscenities, impregnated with the eroticism of jokes more than the tragic-moral-metaphysical eroticisms, but something like a salute to common life that does not seem to dispense with a systematic demolition of the rules of literary genres.

Here's an example. In a novel entitled Y At-Il un Français dans la Salle? [Is there a Frenchman in the Room?], which reminds us of the famous joke by the French humorist who asks: “Are there any Belgians in the audience?”, and then adds: “If there is, it doesn’t matter, I’ll tell the joke twice”. The central character is an eminent opposition politician to the President of the Republic (everything indicates Giscard, with explicit reference to the aristocratic mouth snaps, of great prestige, with which he punctuated his speeches), who finds himself in a tragic situation: the imminence of the discovery of that his uncle had reported Jews to the Gestapo.

At a certain point in the narrative, we can read: “It's the time when everything gets mixed up in my book. The moment that escapes me in this very strange late afternoon (“not like the others”). Gather the characters to make them a bundle of characters, put them together ("recoherer”). The time when Seruti beats his son to punish himself for only asking the President what time it is. The instant when Noëlle prepares a dissertation (“disserts” about Camus, while her father watches the TV news (…). Taïaut, the dog, licks his sex at the door of his niche. The same instant of the time that is now, I tell you. And each moment lived differently makes up a diarrhea of ​​the same instants that decomposes life into thin blades. Can you understand? Maybe you don't feel like it, after all. What right would I try to insert my thought into yours? hopelessly false and miserly in matters of goodwill.” In my translation, of course, most of the grace has gone, as I cannot translate.”essay” (“dissertation”) by “disserta”, which means nothing as a noun in Portuguese, nor does it keep the comic of the non-existent verb “recoherer”. It is the breeze of popular speech, sensitive in the original, which necessarily disappears in the translation, as if Juó Bananére became Olavo Bilac.

But, even in the bad translation, there is always the shock caused by the narrator who (suspending the rules of narrative “illusion” that guarantee a minimum of “realism”, apparently indispensable to the detective novel) says something like this: “Reader, stop being a fool , this is all a joke, and I don't give a fuck about you!” A kind of demoralization of the literary genre itself, even if it is expressed through a mimesis of “philosophical” reflection on the paradoxes of temporality.

As we are far from the seriousness of the dialogues of Grisbi, cursed gold, when, for example, notified that Max, the hero of the novel, wants to give up crime, his friend, the owner of the nightclub, says to him: “Dear Max, at our age we don't change our lives”. Phrase that Gérard Lebrun [1930-99], the French philosopher, our colleague from USP, did not fail to quote, even in some classes, even if he added an irony absent in the novel and film.

It does not seem out of place to mention here an essay by Otto Maria Carpeaux, “A Voice of São Paulo Democracy", regarding the divine increnca, by Alexandre Ribeiro Marcondes Machado, who also under an ironic pseudonym (Juó Bananére) gave voice to the “povão” (here, this word would translate well the word “populo”, which adjectives San-Antonio’s fluid French style). Mainly because the European critic based in Brazil found there the resumption of an ancient tradition, which dates back to the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, in France, Spain and mainly in Italy: that of macaroni poetry, whose main representative would be Teófilo Folengo, author of the epic hero-comic baldus. Or like Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, also remembered by the same Otto Maria Carpeaux, in another essay (“underground rome”), this “dialectal” poet who wrote 3.000 poems against the established order (especially the papacy), in the language of the Roman suburbs of the XNUMXth century.

Along these lines I could, following the lead given by Carpeaux, link our author to the remote François Villon. I don't do it because I can already hear San-Antonio rant: “Déconne pas le gars, espèce de totologique petit Junior!".

San-Antonio is definitely macaroni, in the first sense of the word. The target of his irony is always power. Without disturbing the eventual reader of the quasi-police novel referred to above, Y At-Il un Français dans la Salle? With our author, this is never a novel of detection, since we all know, among the common people, who the criminals are – we can reproduce here two sentences from that work in which, as always, the narrator, supposedly neutral or ideal, does not he can stop himself from adding: “And I, the author of Bourgoin-Jallieu, am going to shock you by stating that […] For we have known for a long time that the private life of the great of the Earth is not that of everyone and that it is necessary to forgive her”.

In a word, San-Antonio's cheerful populism and the malicious portrayal of the conservative politician are far from revolutionary and reek of conformism. But even so, this form of resignation in the face of inequality fails to lighten the heart of the reader. Reading these books, we can always laugh, in our solitude.

*Bento Prado Jr. (1937-2007) was professor of philosophy at the Federal University of São Carlos. Author, among other books, of some essays (Peace and Earth).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha S Paulo, section “mais!”, on February 29, 2004.


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