BASTARDS DIE HARD (Les Salauds ont la vie dure) by André Héléna. Translated by Paul Sharkey.
In his 2011 book ‘The Pleasures of Crime: Reading Modern French Crime Fiction’ Professor David Platten, a lecturer in French literature and culture at the University of Leeds, looked at, among other French noir writers, André Héléna’s ‘Occupation’ novels from which we have taken the following extracts relating to Les Salauds ont la vie dure, which we have translated as ‘Bastards Die Hard’
“… In Héléna’s Les Salauds ont la vie dure, written shortly after the Liberation, the reader can still feel the heat of oppression and conflict as the main character literally blazes a trail across the country. Héléna’s peripatetic writing existence — he moved frequently from Narbonne to Paris to Leucate, and back again — is reflected in the adventures of Maurice Delbar, hero of Les Salauds ont la vie dure is an outlaw and miscreant with very achy feet. What we read about the Occupation in these novels is funnelled through the perspective, not of a detective, but of a young, mid-ranking gangster from Pigalle, the traditional red-light district of Paris adjoining Montmartre, which is known locally as La Butte, traditional home not only of the French chanson but also of the Parisian gangster.
“We see events almost exclusively through Maurice’s eyes and are party to his thoughts. For Maurice the Occupation is a material inconvenience, in that he may be obliged to drink ‘Ersatz’ alcohol, smoke appalling tobacco, or eat badly. Helena is apt to treat the issue of the shortages humorously. Maurice and his accomplices visit many bars over the course of the novels, and on these occasions the quality of the cognac is of the utmost importance. Early in Les Salauds the shortage of alcohol has reached crisis-point. Maurice and friends receive the news that, following the theft of jars of pickled foetuses from the science museum, the infamous resident of Montmartre, Dédé le Centaure, has given up drinking. The boys stare glumly into their tipples.
“Otherwise, the German Occupation of France brings more and better opportunities to make money. At the start of Les Salauds Maurice has just completed his first serious deal, selling 10,000 coffins to the German-based company, Organisation Todt. Taking such profits from the imminent deaths of German soldiers at the front brings with it a sardonic pleasure, but the Occupation fits well with Maurice’s world-view. As he asserts in Les Salauds ‘moi, le patriotisme, je m’en fous. Mon pays c’est mon portefeuille et ma police c’est mon colt.’ The pun on ‘la police’, meaning both ‘police’ and ‘insurance policy’, underscores the message: that in these extraordinary times it is no longer the criminal who needs to reform, but the law-abiding citizen who must adapt to the code of the underworld. ‘Les années noires’ were indeed sombre years, a time when one might legitimately declare, to parody the title of a later noir novel, that ‘la vie était un long roman noir’, a violent, dangerous, and morally destitute existence. In many ways the Occupation was a noir spectacle, and in Helena’s occupation novels we find an uncanny match of history, the misery of the Occupation, with genre, the bleak amorality of the noir ethos.
“The potentially misleading title, Les Salauds ont la vie dure, which translates to ‘The bastards keep on coming’, and not as ‘The bastards have a tough life’, contains none the less the essence of a plot, which is one long, convoluted man-hunt. Maurice is ‘accidentally’ brought into conflict with the authorities, when he discovers his girlfriend Hermine’s infidelity. Maurice’s retribution follows swiftly, as he contrives to shoot dead Hermine, her lover who works for the Gestapo, and his driver. Maurice and his associate Jimmy, who is compromised in the shootings, then undertake an eventful journey into the southern Zone. Maurice is engaged by an American intelligence service and meets an old friend, the Catalan Barns, a specialist at cutting people’s throats. The novel ends as both are successfully inducted into the Maquis in the foothills of the Pyrenees. In the sequel, Le Festival des macchabées, Maurice and Hams follow an inverted trajectory, taking their leave of the Maquis, hooking up once again with American intelligence and working as secret agents, before finally, in the days of the Liberation, returning to their old haunts in Pigalle.
“In spite of a late rush of patriotic fervour in Les Salauds ont la vie dure, Maurice chooses the path of active resistance primarily out of self-interest. It is appropriate that he should join a branch of the Maquis, a natural haven for the outlaw or bandit, rather than one of the official resistance networks. The etymology of the word ‘maquis’ reveals its root in the Italian ‘macchia’, meaning a patch of dense woodland, and it came into French via the Corsican dialect. Linguistically and culturally it is associated with a criminal sub-class; prendre le maquis’ means ‘to take to the hills’. The young ‘maquisards’ in the south of the country had little in common with the middle-class ‘resistants’ of the North, whose actions were more likely to be motivated by conscience or ideological commitment. In the case of the Maquis there were often scores to settle with the criminal fraternity co-opted into the ranks of the Milice Française, or French militia; the latter was set up in January 1943 precisely to combat the Maquis. The growing importance of these paramilitary groupings as the Occupation wore on testifies to the accentuation of a noir mood or ambiance within the country.
“Les Salauds ont la vie dure breaks with the conventions of crime fiction to the extent that it fails to provide an investigation. Though many crimes are detailed within its page, none is required to be solved. Rather the novel is anchored in the nineteenth-century tradition of the roman feuillton a form of literary expression coveted by Sartre, who was later to publish a trilogy of war novels under the title of Les Chemins de la liberté. In the 1930s Albert Thibaudet had argued that the appeal of these ‘romans-sommes’ lay in their indifference to literary rules of order and composition; rather, they simply exist as ‘un long fleuve vivant’. This absence of orchestration and apparent lack of coherence seems oddly appropriate to novels set during the Occupation. Especially since, as is the case with for Salauds ont la vie dure, the reader is instantly absorbed into the world of the text. It is as if one has broken into a time capsule and is immediately enveloped by a distinctive existence or mood, as the rain lashes the windows of the bars in the Montmartre of the Occupation, the fog cloaks the Lyon of the Occupation, and the wind gusts in the Perpignan of the Occupation. It is less a novelistic representation of the Occupation than a sense of being there, which supersedes a priori knowledge or assumptions as to what it might have been like. It is as if the distance between sign and referent has been abolished, collapsed in an extravagant discourse which betrays a supreme confidence in the role and function of literary language—the language of the novel —to retrieve some other truth lying beyond historical fact or anguished testimony.
“The novel presents few if any formal distractions. It eschews self-consciousness; there is a single narrator and therefore no clashing points of view. When Maurice reflects on what he has done, he does so at appropriate times, in his own language and drawing on his own value system. As a first-person narrator, Maurice never describes himself. He expresses his emotions through his actions, or in brief intuitions as to how he might appear at a given moment to his interlocutor. For example, when he suspects that one of his girlfriends, Claudine, has denounced him, he imagines the hatred dancing in his own eyes: ‘Je pris ses poignets et les écartai violemment, sans répondre, avec un regard où devait denser la haine’. The adroit use of the modal verb ‘devait’, signalling the absence of an omniscient narrator, and the lexical innovation in his choice of ‘denser’ are typical of Héléna’s writing. There are numerous references to aspects of life germane to the Occupation, but the repeated allusions to the seemingly permanent low skyline and the wan, blue light — streetlamps were painted blue as that allied bombers would be less able to spot conurbations after nightfall —enhance the subjective realism of the novel…
“‘…Helena privileges what Paul Ricoeur terms this ‘imaging mode’ of narrative in a way which is unusual in crime fiction and other popular genres…’
“‘…The action sequences in the novels are skilfully dramatised and offer allegorical or symbolic possibilities. In Les Salauds Jimmy and Maurice most escape the clutches of a policeman on the train. As the train leaves the countryside and approaches the town, the narrative slows, building a suspense which is broken as Jimmy leaps out of the carriage, ‘emporté par l’élan comme une feuille morte, avec sa canadienne marron’, triggering a breathless narration, as if adrenalin is coursing through the words on the page: ‘Il nous semblait qu’il fallait fair, fair toujours, jusqu’au bout du monde, jusqu’au un de ces coins épatants ou il n’existe pas l’ombre d’une vie humaine’. Odd details are noted, such as the burnt grass between the rails as the pair scramble towards the sidings. Their view on the world from the tenuous sanctuary of the signalman’s box — ‘Un ciel bas pesait sur cet entassement de wagons gris, dont beaucoup étaient délabrés a l’extrême’ — is itself a signal, one of many references to the decrepit state of the country as a whole. And when salvation comes in the shape of the departing goods train, Maurice and Jimmy, like most of the French population, have no idea where they are going. Maurice’s caveat is couched in existential terms: ‘On ne peut pas toujours choisir. On ne choisit pas davantage sa mort que les moyens de conserver sa vie’.
“‘… In Les Salauds he dissects the mauvaise foi of the German authorities, who categorise his crime passionel as a terrorist action in order to justify their taking reprisals involving the elimination of undesirable anti-Vichy elements detained in prison: ‘Ça c’était la politique, pas d’erreur’.
“‘… The limitations of Maurice’s perspective are obvious from his overt misogyny, latent homophobia, and a childish need always to find a scapegoat. Although he undergoes a sort of conversion in Les Salauds, due to the intervention of the American spy Bodager, he eventually ends up where he started and says he could easily have joined the other side: ‘J’étais de ce côte-là comme j’aurais pu être de l’autre, et si Hermine m’avait trompé avec un résistant peut-être que la situation serait pas la même’. Subtle references in the text suggest that this would have been unlikely. For example, Maurice’s favourite haunt in Pigalle is ‘Fredo’s bistro’, but Fredo’ was also the code-name of Pierre Georges, the young man responsible for the first killing of a German officer by a member of the Resistance, at the Barbès-Rocheouart metro station in Montmartre on 21 August 1941. Still, Maurice’s opportunism and disregard for republican principles is disconcerting, given that many perceived the German Occupation as not only the consequence of military defeat but also the potential dismantling of the philosophical and political edifice on which the modem French nation-state was based.
“Sartre’s uncompromising, independent brand of political engagement was seen, post-Liberation, as a blueprint for the forum. In this context Maurice emerges as an unlikely existential hero, to the extent that he consistently strives to carve out his existence in the presence of death, refusing comforting myths and ideologies. He obviously lacks the intellectual engagement of a Sartean protagonist, but at least he perceives the reality of his existence. His periodic depressions, ‘crises de cafard’ are often brought on by tiredness, the wan blue street lamps of the Occupation, and the fog in Lyon. In his dreams and depressions he is haunted by the ghosts of his past; the word ‘fantômes’ and ‘spectres’ recur incessantly throughout the novels, above all in relation to Hermine. But the ghosts also reach out to the future. Maurice’s private images — ‘Les yeux révulsés de Jimmy, la bouche hurlante d’Hermine et la plaie a la tête, l’epouvantable plait de Riton’ — anticipate others’ memories of the Occupation that were repressed only to surface years later. Less than 24 hours after he has shot Hermine, Maurice is already haunted by her death. At the bistro in Beaune he sees ‘ce fantôme qui allait et venait dans les rues de Pigalle […] je retrouvais son rire, ses beaux yeux et ses gestes tendres’. The verb ‘retrouver’, in the imperfect tense, suggests a continuity if not a permanence about this haunting.
“Few would dispute the suggestion that the German Occupation of France and, concomitantly, the impact of the Nazi holocaust, will continue to unravel far into the future; however, the distinctive feature of Héléna’s ‘Occupation’ novels concerns his attempt to portray a vision in close-up of this brief historical period, in all its violent garishness. In generic terms, Helena unfurls a large, sprawling canvas, which allows for a perfect dovetailing of the twin modes of noir fiction: the mythic mode that privileges narrative, suspense, closure, archetypes, and ambiance; and the contingent mode — Sartre’s ‘convenances historiques’ — when history, ideology, political engagement, and the intellectual come in to play. Maurice’s escapades could have been played out in any number of historical epochs or geographical locations, but barely a sentence passes without some more or less subtle reminder that he is in occupied France in the years 1943 and 1944. It is often said, disparagingly, that crime fiction is of in time, that individual works can never last because they bristle with references to current events, or are infused with the social or cultural climate of their day. That may be so. But Héléna’s time was a special time, ‘le noir abyssal de l’Occupation’ which he evokes in an inimitable fashion.”
From: ‘The Pleasures of Crime: Reading Modern French Crime Fiction’ by David Platten, Rodopi, Amsterdam, 2011. ISBN 978-90-420-3429-7,