Kosher sushi, kebabs, a second hand bookshop and a bar: the 19th arrondissement in Paris is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood where multicultural citizens live, love and worship alongside one another. This peace is shattered when Ahmed Taroudant’s melancholy daydreams are interrupted by the blood dripping from his upstairs neighbour’s brutally mutilated corpse.
The violent murder of Laura Vignole, and the pork joint placed next to her, set imaginations ablaze across the neighborhood, and Ahmed finds himself the prime suspect. However detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot are not short of leads. What is the connection between a disbanded hip-hop group and the fiery extremist preachers that jostle in the streets for attention? And what is the mysterious new pill that is taking the district by storm?
Sometimes, when reviewing books regularly there is an almost fixed template in your mind to construct your thoughts and feelings about a book. You provide an overview of the waxing and waning of a plot, the strength of the characterisation, the use of location and so on to formulate your critique. However, occasionally you are confronted with a book where you cannot resort to this more simplistic template, and even begin to question your own ability to find the words to describe your reading experience of the book in question. This is the dilemma I faced with Arab Jazz. So I will bumble on in my own sweet way- bear with me reader…
I read this book a few weeks ago immediately in the aftermath of the horrific events in Paris which stunned and shocked us all. Perhaps reading this book at such an apposite time provided me with a more visceral reaction to the book, but in hindsight, the strong messages that Miske conveys throughout the book regarding religious tolerance and intolerance are entirely in tune with the contemporary social tensions raised by religious difference. Casting its light on three secular groups, comprising of Muslims, Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Miske provides a balanced and objective study of all three, impartially conveying to the reader the best and worst aspects of all and the protagonists linked to each. Instead, he succinctly reveals the human failings and frailties of each, the black shadow of fundamentalism, and the propensity for greed and violence no matter what faith or race defines you. The melting pot of characters, and the differing natures of their personal interactions form the very heart of this novel, across faiths, class, occupations and even continents (as the action pivots out to America) , thus transcending this book above any conventional tag of a ‘crime novel’, and leading us to the beating heart of a multicultural, multi-faith contemporary European city. In some ways this feels like a love letter to Miske’s adopted city, powerfully illustrating the frustrations inherent in modern society, but by the same token, replete with a sense of the author’s love for this complicated and multi-faceted city. It works beautifully when combined with the socio-political issues of the book, and our own newly formed perceptions of Parisian society.
The central crime of the novel is the hook to add all of Miske’s weightier issues on to, and works well with this in mind. With his two disparate police protagonists- both strong and engaging characters- the plot unfolds at a good pace, slowly inveigling the separate groups of characters that Miske introduces us to, with their singular ways of life and beliefs. The opening murder also gives the author the added scope to introduce a most tentative and heartfelt, albeit slightly stumbling, love affairs that I have ever read, that carries all the simplistic honesty of those great love affairs from classic fiction, and adds a residual warmth to the more weighty issues that Miske addresses.
This is an intelligent, multi-layered and objective novel, that will make you think and increase your awareness of the differences that lay at the heart of any modern society. Aside from a few less fluid passages- perhaps slightly lost in translation- the book consistently flows in pace and plot. You will feel emotionally invested in the character’s lives, and most importantly of all feel that you have read a book that deserves to be read. And if this one doesn’t feature in my books of the year, I will eat my own foot. Possibly.
Born in 1964 in Abidjan to a Mauritanian father and a French mother, Karim Miské grew up in Paris before leaving to study journalism in Dakar. He now lives in France, and is making documentary films on a wide range of subjects including deafness, for which he learned sign language, and the common roots between the Jewish and Islamic religions. He runs a Senegalese restaurant in the 11th arrondissement and has started writing TV scripts. Arab Jazz is the author’s first novel. Visit the author’s website here
Follow this link to hear an upcoming BBC Radio 3 programme (11/2/15) featuring Karim Miske and Aatish Taseer talking about contemporary France.
(With thanks to MacLehose Press for the reading copy)