Dominique Manotti - Affairs of State
French crime writer Dominique Manotti's Affairs of State is one of those deliciously complicated novels, where political intrigue is as common as breathing, and everyone, everywhere, seems embroiled in one or more conspiracies and plots. It is, at times, so complex, that to attempt a plot summary would not only be foolish in the extreme, but also somewhat beside the point. We are supposed to be overwhelmed by the machinations of the upper echelons of French government, the endless and (somewhat) ridiculous double- and triple-crossing that occurs, and the growing certainty that bizarre sexual practices is endemic within the higher social circles of France. Hold your hats, in other words.
The story is, as best as can be told, one of murder and mayhem, largely (but not entirely) circling around the political advantages and disadvantages of exporting weapons to the Middle East, where war, as seems to be its wont, rages. Great sums of money involved, which means the buzzards of politicians, bankers, thieves and shadowy figures are hovering. One such buzzard is Bornand, a close confidant of the current President. He is a man whose power exists behind and also a little ways to the side of the public figures of French life. One of the great pleasures of his life is 'lifting the lid of the hive and watching the bees make honey,” referring to the unlimited access he has to people and organisation's files. Bornand is one of the major characters we follow, and it seems, as things progress, that his finger is in every pie. But what, exactly is the pie? That's the tough question, and it's really the focus of the novel. The actions are clear enough, and even sometimes the motives. But the overarching reason? That remains elusive, though Bornand, along with others, seems to know.
With stories such as these, we need someone ordinary to hang ourselves upon. The clothes of powerful and murderous men and women are not to everyone's taste; the garb of regular folk is needed to make us comfortable with the proceedings. Noria Ghozali, a young policewoman uncertain of her abilities in a sophisticated world, is just such a person. She's a conceit of the story, a lens through which we are able to focus our gaze. The problem, unfortunately, is that she isn't particularly interesting and her problems, though they increasingly become entangled with the pie everyone seems to beating, don't really hold our attention. If we are used to hearing the intimate thoughts of very powerful people doing very important things, why, then, would we want to stay with the insecurities of a woman who knows far less about everything than we do? Manotti's problem is one of saturation. The reader knows far, far more than the person we are expected to sympathise with, which means we cannot really empathise with her plight.
At times the complications of important matters pass us by. It's difficult for the reader to know that one of the many dire sounding events is significant until – helpfully – one of the characters, upon hearing the news, squeezes his wine glass so hard it shatters and cuts his thumb. Thanks to this, we know it's the real deal – but otherwise? No, no we don't. The spaghetti tangles of plot threaten, almost always, to submerge us. Too much of the story is told through reports, newspaper articles, dossiers, and the like. Manotti has so much to say to unravel her story that she is forced to tell, and not show, us great swathes of information.
Which is not to say we can't enjoy the ride. Oh, we are certainly give a tour of the corridors of power. There are sexually demented politicians, there are drug-addled murderers, there is the President of France, a cool, calculating official who counts votes before friends, and there is – well, there's more. Always more. And always powerful. Manotti takes along a rather interesting and thrilling journey into the heartland of influence and money. At times, Manotti confuses money with ridiculous excess, and while this may be true, it doesn't always hold up. Surely all the rich people of the world aren't so bored that they move about armies and weapons like pieces on a game board? Surely they aren't so bored with regular intercourse that they must indulge in orgies and other depravities? Well, here they do, and so be it – but at times Manotti stretches belief a little thin.
So, our hats are held. We are enjoying the ride. Blood, at first present only as a trickle when people squeeze their wine glasses with sufficient force, soon becomes something of a flood. There are a lot of deaths, and all of them shake the core of the many conspiracies afoot. But dastardly folk have a way about things, and plots are routed around any problems. In the end, sure, Noria plays a significant role, but her importance shouldn't be overstated. There is a sense that the games will continue to be played by the powerful, even if sometimes (rarely) their names change.
Manotti's Affairs of State is an excellent novel for those wishing to immerse themselves in the sublime and ridiculous world of international politics. Sure, it's all a bit silly, but that's what provides a great deal of the fun. The cover implies that Nora Ghozali may become a recurring character for Manotti which, if true, would be a shame. There's nothing to her, but there's a lot to be said about the convolutions of French politics, the rigmarole of police procedure, and the underbelly of sexual desire. At least, Manotti has a lost to say, and she's taking us along for the ride. Good for her.
||Affairs of State
(Original Title: Nos fantastiques années fric)
||Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz
Links kindly provided by The Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010
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