Tag Archives: France

Malavita by Tonino Benacquista

How much is one man worth? What price a human life? To know what one is worth is like knowing the date of one’s death. I’m worth twenty million dollars. It’s a lot. But much less than I thought. I must be one of the most expensive men in the world. To be so valuable and to live a life as shitty as mine–that’s the worst misery. If I had that twenty million dollars, I know what I’d do with it. I’d give the whole thing away in exchange for going back to my previous life, before I was worth that much. The man who blows my head off, what will he do with the money? He’ll put it in property and go off to hang out in Barbados for the rest of his life. They all do that. 

These are the thoughts running through the head of former top mafia figure, hitman turned informer for the government, Giovanni Manzoni, now Frederick Blake living with his wife Maggie (Livia) and two children 17-year-old Belle and 14-year-old Warren. Under the watchful eyes of the Witness Protection Programme, they’ve been living in France for 5 years. They’ve had several moves and now they’ve washed up in Normandy, along with their dog Malavita, in the small town of Cholong-sur Avre. The family must integrate and not draw too much attention to themselves–after all Giovanni was a top government witness in a case that busted the Mafia wide open and generated long prison sentences for some very pissed off men. The FBI team members who babysit the family know that the Mafia back in New Jersey have not forgotten Giovanni, and if he’s ever found, he’s a dead man.

malavitaThe attempts to blend in with the locals by the four family members are really very funny, and the best part of the book. There’s Frederick, who’s become depressed since the trial, and who spends his days unshaven and “trailing around in his slippers all day,”  feeling useless. After finding an old typewriter, “obsessed with the idea of telling his version of the truth,”  he decides to write his memoirs–something of course the FBI isn’t too happy about, and his new profession as a writer, gives him the perfect excuse to lounge around on the balcony all day and reminisce about the good old days. Meanwhile Maggie/Livia also think of the good old days when she was a top Mafia wife, “dizzy” with power and feeling like “the First lady of the whole area,”  a woman who could get whatever she wanted with a snap of her fingers. Now she’s decided to do penance by throwing herself into charity and volunteer work.

As for the children, well they speak excellent French. Belle has grown into a beautiful young girl who’s not as vulnerable and naïve as some of her schoolmates think, and Warren’s ambition is to become the godfather of his school–a lofty goal he achieves within days of arriving. An admirer and student of Capone and Lucky Luciano, Warren’s motto is “Give them what they need the most.”

It was just a question of time and organization. In order to achieve synergy and increase complementarity, all he needed to do was to know how to listen, discover each person’s limits, spot the gaps in their lives, and decide how much to charge for filling them. The more solid the base he could build up, the quicker he would rise to power. The pyramid would build itself and raise him to the stars.

Some of the book’s humour comes from the culture clash generated from Americans living in France, but of course, these are not ordinary Americans–this is a crass, violent and dangerous Mafia family who don’t take ill-treatment and insults well. One incident occurs when Maggie asks for peanut butter in the local shop and then overhears the shop owner bitching about Americans to some locals:

I’ve got nothing against them, but they certainly make themselves at home wherever they are.”

“Of course, there were the landings. But we’ve been invaded ever since!”

“In our day, and for our generation, it was nylon stockings and chewing gum, but what about our children?”

“Mine dresses like them. Enjoys the same things, listens to the same music.”

“The worst thing is the food they eat. I cook something they like, and all they can think of is to leave the table as quick as they can and rush off to McDonalds.”

Maggie is “hurt” by the exchange, but what happens next illustrates how the family won’t take insults lightly. We see each family member attempting to integrate with mixed results: an opportunistic plumber finds that his usual sales pitch doesn’t work, and a BBQ (in which the typical American menu of steak, steak or steak is discussed) for some of the locals almost ends in violence. The emphasis is on humour–with the locals oblivious about exactly what they’re dealing with, and Giovanni/Frederick using all his willpower not to exact vengeance against those who insult his BBQ skills. These scenes are all very funny, but some of the other humour, when stone-cold killer Fred, who’s slotted into the life of a harmless writer, imagines his past crimes grates uncomfortably with the humour.

I’d been meaning to read Malavita (aka Badfellas) for some time, and the knowledge that the book’s been made into the Luc Besson  film The Family made picking up the book mandatory. After reading the book, however, I’m not sure that the film will ‘work’ quite as well as the book, but I’ll try it anyway. The book’s alternate title: Badfellas refers to the film Goodfellas, and there’s one wonderful scene in the book when Frederick attends a film night and provides commentary on Goodfellas.

Fred knew the film almost by heart, and he hated it for a thousand reasons. In it gangsters were reduced to what they really were: scum, whose only aim in life was to park in forbidden places, give the biggest fur coat to their wife and, above all, never have to live the lives of those millions of idiots who get up each morning to earn a miserable crust, instead of sleeping in a gold-plated bed. That was all a Mafioso was, and Goodfellas told it like it was. Without the myth, all that was left was stupidity and cruelty.

Review copy

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Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions by Dostoevsky Pt I

We are all familiar with the way in which DVDS are released with a certain packaging of special features to tempt us to buy a particular release (I’m thinking Kino or Criterion). This idea came to mind when I picked up my Oneworld Classics edition of Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. This edition includes photos of Dostoevsky’s family, their dacha, a bio, essential info on Dostoevsky’s works, and guess what, the translator also writes the intro. No celebrity intro here, and good for Oneworld for having the courage to release this edition without the aid of a celebrity. Half the time I wonder if the celebrities have even read the book they’re writing about, and even if they have they can’t possibly have the sort of specialised knowledge possessed by the translator. So it was nothing less than refreshing to see the translator here, Kyril Fitzlyon, also writing the intro. Note to publishers: In translated classics, we don’t need celebrity intros to attract us to a new translation.

I hadn’t read a lot about this slim volume: Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, but I was aware that Dostoevsky (1821-1881) wrote this following his release from prison. It was first published in Russia in 1863. Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 and confined in the Peter Paul Fortress for his involvement with the Petrashevsky Circle. He was “found guilty of plotting to subvert public order and was initially sentenced to death by firing squad.” This was commuted to “four years of hard labour [in Siberia] and subsequent conscription in the army,” but he still suffered through a mock execution–only he didn’t know it wasn’t the real thing.

After his period of hard labour, he had to serve 5 more years in the army (first as a private and later as a lieutenant)–still in Siberia. When Dostoevsky returned from Siberia in 1859, he was a changed man. This period of Dostoevsky’s life not only interrupted his literary career, but it also led to his turning away from Westernising ideals and instead he turned to Slavophilism for several complex reasons.

Translator Kyril Fitzlyon makes the point that Dostoevsky’s works fall into “two fairly definite periods” while he finds it “odd”  that “the opening of the second and more characteristic phase of Dostoevsky’s literary activity should up till now have been so unanimously ascribed by all critics to Notes from Underground.” Fitzlyon argues that Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions is a sadly neglected Dostoevsky work, and the fact that it is so neglected explains why it’s often ignored as the true beginning of Dostoevsky’s second phase. At the same time Fitzlyon acknowledges that Dostoevsky, who was “never a good stylist” is in this volume “obviously trying to evolve a way of writing that would enable him to put his ideas across in the most digestible form.” Fitzlyon lists the stylistic problems that plague the book. He choses to “disregard” them, and so did I.

Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions was published a year before Notes from Underground (1864), and came before Dostoevsky’s powerhouse novels, including Crime and Punishment (1866) , The Idiot (1869), Demons (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). It’s easy to see why Winter Thoughts on Summer Impressions gets lost next to these great novels. For one thing, this book is almost impossible to categorise. Before picking up this slim volume, I thought I was going to read a book about Dostoevsky’s travels in Europe, and while Dostoevsky does indeed touch on a few geographical locations, I see this as primarily a political book couched in satire.

Here’s how the book opens with chapter 1 titled: Instead of a Preface

For months now, my friends, you have been urging me to give you a description of my impressions while travelling in foreign lands, never suspecting that you are thereby placing me in a quandary. What shall I tell you? What shall I say that is new, that has not been told before? Who of us Russians (those, at least, that read periodicals) does not know Europe twice as well as he knows Russia? I have put down “twice” merely out of politeness, I should probably have said “ten times better”.  Besides, apart from these general considerations, you are well aware that I, of all people, have nothing to tell and least of all can I give a methodical account of anything, because there was no method in my sightseeing, and even when I did see anything I did not have time to examine it very closely. I visited Berlin, Dresden, Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, Cologne, Paris, London, Lucerne, Geneva, Genoa, Florence, Milan, Venice, Vienna and a few other places (to which I went twice), and the whole tour took me precisely two and a half months! Now, I ask you, is it possible to see anything throughly while travelling over so many roads in the course of two and a half months?

This is the set-up created by Dostoevsky for the reader, and in this opening paragraph he’s already making sly digs at Westernising Russians.

As readers, we can see that he doesn’t seek to impress with his superior knowledge, and I suppose this is one of the things that is so endearing about him. In this opening paragraph he is setting the seeds for the fact that he is going to give us his impressions only, but at the same time he acknowledges that those impressions may not be worth a great deal. After all, how can he give any serious intimate knowledge of a town in which he stayed a day or two, and by extension, the underlying idea, well one of the underlying ideas in this clever, strange little book, is reflected back at the Westernising-Slavophile divide within Russia. How can Russians say that Russia would benefit from the influences of Western civilization when they are, at best, foreign travellers only seeing and experiencing certain aspects of a new culture? Or if they even live abroad (like Turgenev), how can they say what is good for Russia?

In part II: Dostoevsky looks at the western world and doesn’t like what he sees & why this book should come with a disclaimer for French readers.

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