I had a friend …
Translator: Jean Burrell
I’d like to talk about Frédéric Fajardie. Talking about him when you knew him implies that you resign yourself to tearing up.
I met Frédéric in 1985. I was 20 and working at the time for a literary magazine based in Rouen. I went to see the boss to suggest doing an interview on Fajardie. ‘Isn’t that detective stuff?’ He made a face; crime fiction was still marginal then and the serious intellectual wouldn’t make any distinction between SAS [a run-of-the-mill crime series] and Manchette [a more distinctive crime writer]. I must have managed to overcome the chief editor’s snobbery because I found myself at Frédéric’s place, a small flat near Paris City Hall. His welcome was warm and spontaneous. His oldest child was playing with cars and a placid bulldog was sprawled on the sofa among the toys.
I plugged in my tape-recorder and over a beer we talked about his books and the times, because you must remember that everybody who was 20 in 1984-5 and on the left had bad feelings. If things had gone as advertised by Mitterrand’s campaign slogans in 1981, life should have changed. But we felt life had never been so hard, that love of money and entrepreneurial ambition were the only virtues. The current idols were Bernard Tapie [glamorous businessman and politician convicted later of tax fraud] and Yves Montand. They had the cheek to say on popular shows: ‘Long live the depression!’ while the first ‘new poor’ were huddled in crowds on the steps to the underground.
And it was only Fajardie’s novels that provided an answer to that contradiction between what was happening and what was supposed to happen. His heroes’ malaise, their anger, their sadness and yet their desire to attack the system reflected our generation’s feelings. We passed round Tueurs de flics, La Nuit des chats bottés or Le Souffle court, published by NéO, as if we were exchanging secret signs. There were Jean-Claude Claeys’ lovely covers, hyper-realistic, black, erotic and violent, which became ‘collectors’ items’ on the second-hand bookstalls.
Over 150 pages, in which men alone in cities made up their minds to kick up one hell of a stink, Fajardie taught us that it was possible to be on the left AND frustrated by a left-wing government, that we weren’t the irresponsible, romantic, empty dreamers, but they who were traitors, they who were forcing the country into that ‘modernization’ we didn’t yet call globalization.
Yes, we talked about all that in 1985. I don’t have the tape any more. To be frank, there never was any tape because I forgot to turn the recorder on. Fajardie didn’t get worked up as any two-bit starlet would today who’d got to be celebrity through her confessions and a tv reality show. Fajardie simply laughed and dedicated ‘La Marelle’(1) to me, my favourite among his short stories, in which a police inspector remembers all the writers he liked before he commits suicide after a balls-up he can’t forgive himself for. The dedication read: ‘On the side of Genet and Gracq against all the stupid fuckers’.
Frédéric Fajardie died on 1 May 2008. It was Ascension Day, Labour Day and 40 years since May 68. It’s ironic, poetic and Fajardian. Believers and non-believers, or those who believed in both can take some consolation from that. In any case Frédéric was a follower of Marx as much as Bernanos, the Bernanos of the Spanish civil war and Les Grands Cimetières de la lune, who didn’t hesitate to walk out on his side, Maurras’s extreme right, and support the Spanish Republicans against Franco’s lot. It’s possible to believe in God without being able to tolerate what’s done in his name.
Frédéric was a red disciple of Bernanos in his own way. He proved as much in 1993 when I was meeting him more often in order to write a book on him, just when he was bringing out Chronique d’une liquidation politique.(2) It was an angry book, the anger of a man of the left, a revolutionary, against what the left in power had become. Already he was exposing the unbelievable arrogance of the socialists in government, the lack of guilt about money, the iron fist enforcing the switch to a market economy, the Tapies set up as role models for young people on working-class estates.
That book cost him dear. The pale pink camp-followers in the media, in their company Renault 25s, decided to punish his rudeness. Frédéric, who was a sought-after tv and film scriptwriter and had thought up the character of the motorbike cop played by Johnny Halliday, suddenly, abruptly, found himself the object of a veritable blackball in the business. I witnessed that McCarthyism from the Social Democrats, which tried to bring Frédéric to heel by choking him financially. Because it should be understood that in a capitalist system like ours, with very few exceptions writers are the only ones in the publishing production line who can’t live off their work, which is paradoxical when you know the publisher, printer, distributor and bookseller all can. That’s why so many writers are forced to find a second job. Frédéric was the first one to point out that anomaly to me - a real case study for the Marxist theory of excess value – over a bottle of grappa he’d been given by the film-maker Robert Enrico, the only person who didn’t desert him during that period.
The ‘sympathetic’ press maliciously cold-shouldered him as well, with a particular mention going to Télérama, the pseudo-intellectual weekly for those who pretend not to like television but spend their time watching it, or to Libération [left-wing daily paper], which was still Serge July’s paper then. For July and a few other Maoists, converted at the employers’ union summer schools, Frédéric was a living symbol of their remorse. He had been in the front line in 68, the Gauche Prolétarienne’s mobile force, taking the truncheon blows while the staff officers (July among others) were spouting theories about ‘les lendemains qui chantent’ [singing tomorrows] inside the walls of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in the rue d’Ulm [elite higher education establishment]. In the end it was all good for a laugh. And he got his own back in his stories, which were full of characters who were disguised but easy to recognize (Tapie, July, Séguéla, Attali, without mentioning the most nauseating ones …), or in his columns in L’Humanité [Communist Party daily newspaper].
When I think he wrote those columns in his office, which sported a bust of Chairman Mao, I tell myself that, like Frédéric, History sometimes has a sense of humour too.
There aren’t many ways for us atheists and agnostics to pray for dead writers: but we can read them and re-read them. Since I heard Frédéric Fajardie was dead I’ve been re-reading him continually and realizing how familiar his characters have become. They won’t ever take it into their heads to die, except on paper. You should read or re-read him as well. He’s a marvellous antidote to these grovelling times, the Sarko years with their whiff of despair and anger. Read or re-read, for instance, La Nuit des chats bottés, (3) when two mates, ex-army explosives specialists, avenge the memory of an old toil-worn workman out of love for his daughter: it starts with them turning a court bailiff’s office upside down, then they carry out a mortar attack on the Renault factories and end by blowing up the Sacré-Coeur.
Frédéric’s novels are an invitation to rebel, to work less and earn more or earn nothing at all because the society he dreamed of, and described in a utopian story entitled ‘La république des conseils’, can manage very well without money. An invitation not to let them walk all over you, not to accept insecurity, poverty, suicide at work, eviction of illegal workers. But also to learn to attend to others, to the beauty of things, a spring sky, a childhood memory.
His last novels, such as Les Foulards rouges(4) or Le Conseil des troubles(5), are swashbuckling stories, but Frédéric had never distanced himself from the popular cause. Many years ago, when we were strolling in the Latin Quarter, where he lived till the end, he hummed for me Dominique Grange’s famous refrain which the Gauche Prolétarienne adapted as their anthem: ‘We’re the new partisans / Snipers in the class war / The people’s side is our side / We’re the new partisans.’
For those who can read between the lines, in the end even those novels speak to us of our times. And don’t forget that in our region in 2003, when he was an ‘established’ author, and when the people made redundant at Metaleurop were invited to occupy the factory, he didn’t hesitate to gather evidence from the workers who were trapped in the crusher that is the world economy and leave them his copyright.(6) Similarly his last novel Tu ressembles à ma mort
(7)was written at the instigation of Colères du present and the French Railways works committee to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the company, which the right is still dreaming of breaking up because it is the symbol of an economy that served the people and not the reverse.
When Frédéric died I felt proud to be a communist: L’Humanité was the only daily paper to announce his passing on the front page. On the other hand I was very glad I hadn’t read Charlie hebdo [French equivalent of Private Eye] for some years. A miserable few lines in it talked about death due to alcohol. I have to admit that Val sacked Frédéric in the mid 90s because he didn’t have literary tastes along the paper’s politically correct lines. But that doesn’t matter much. Val approved of the Kosovo bombing, voted yes in the 2005 referendum and loves to show his mug at MEDEF [employers’ federation] summer schools.
From where he is, in the true revolutionaries’ red heaven, Frédéric is giving the two fingers to him and all the market society collaborators.
In any case, as Aragon said: ‘Death doesn’t dazzle the eyes of partisans.’