Thursday, 9 October 2014

The sea and the city

Full title: Garlic, Mint, and Sweet Basil. Essays on Marseilles, Mediterranean Cuisine, and Noir Fiction
Author: Jean-Claude Izzo
Genre: Nonfiction
Attributes: 107p, paperback
Publisher: Europa (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Just over a hundred pages long, and therefore readable in an hour or maybe less, this tiny book is a combination of things, and for that reason it is likely to please on multiple levels. It is also (because such are the ups and downs of life) a book by an author who died in 2000, when he wasn't yet 55 years old. Jean-Claude Izzo, author of noir and detective novels, gave in this deceptively slender volume a symphonic description of his native Marseille and, with it, of the whole of the Mediterranean region. The text is copiously splashes with references to good food, good urban settings, good literature and good music.
It is at the same time a memoir, a pseudo-travel account, and a review (yes, at times it feels like you're reading the review of a book – the book of the Mediterranean Sea), all of which glorify an already heavily romanticised image of the region. Izzo dishes out a lot of superlatives and he's proud of every single one of them, the way he's also proud (if saddened too) of things that don't look very good when seen in perspective.

Source: Marvelous Marseilles
Most importantly, though, Garlic, Mint, and Sweet Basil is a collection of texts about communion and community. The "Mediterranean Basin" (an ugly term which, by the way, is never mentioned - thanks god!) is described in the broad strokes of universality. This is, at the end of the day, the origin of Europe itself, a cauldron filled to the brim with cultures that make it "creole" in its diversity.
Zooming in from the Mediterranean, the texts hover over Marseilles like a magnifying glass. They are very sensual. They speak of smells, tastes, sounds, tactile pleasures, beautiful women, wonderful food, memorable wine. But when you think things have gotten too sweet, too sunny-skyish, there's a warning. A warning about the threat from the North, from mainland France, which makes insistent attempts at homogenizing a space that's too hybrid to be bottled up in a juice of conformity and uniformity.
It's easy to see how admirably Izzo believed in the power of Marseilles to remain what it's always been: not only French but also European; not only European but also North-African and Middle Eastern; not only those but also South American and Caribbean and things of the rest of the world.
Because of this wealth of locations and points of origins, a constant feeling of abundance transpires from the texts; a feeling that Marseilles is so many things at the same time that it is impossible to settle on one and call it its essence. Marseille is a city of light, a city of music, a city of history, a city of delight. Hence the superlatives, hence the exaltations.
"Marseilles always exaggerates. That is her essence. And basically nothing has changed [since its ancient origins]. [...] When the harbour opens its arms to you, then and only then you discover the eternal meaning of the city: Hospitality. Marseilles gives herself without resistance to those who know how to take her and love her. Marseilles is a myth. That is the only thing there is to see. To embrace. The rest can be as futile or vain as anything else. We might even say that the city is just like those fake blondes you meet on her streets. They display only what they are not."
All this, of course, is like saying I don't really know how to describe this city. And at the same time like saying, oh yes, I know. I love this city so much I can take revenge on it, on its fall into fake polishes, exaggerated displays, futile add-ons. It's the same as loving its mix of cultures, its colourful settings, its long history, the way it deals with multiplicity. But this is maybe how every city should be loved. The way Orhan Pamuk described his Istanbul, hailing the city's appeal without blushing for its shortcomings.
One can only give in to the temptation of praising the unusual nature of such a place:
"Atypical is not the word for Marseilles. Unconventional is more accurate."
Which may be doing a better job of defining this space of contradictions and agreements, where the Mediterranean appears to be at the same time a bridge and a mote.

Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000). Source: Genova Mente Locale
In any case, Izzo's attitude towards Marseilles was so strong it seeped into his other proses. To prove it, he wrote an entire Marseilles trilogy, in a genre he baptised "Mediterranean Noir." And just in case that wasn't apparent to the reader of the present book, a short story ends it, a story featuring Izzo's favourite character, detective Fabio Montale; a story which, in order to prove the resemblance between author and protagonist, goes on to declare, once again, this special love for Marseilles:
"I knocked back my drink and stood up. I felt like going and losing myself in Marseilles. In her smells. In the eyes of her women. My city. I knew that I always had an appointment there with the fleeting happiness of exiles. The only kind that suited me. A real consolation."
This is the rest of the book in a nutshell. With it, the recurrent sentiments take front stage again, and the point is made as if anew.