Bar Balto

Faïza Guène

translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone
Vintage 2012
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
Stuck at the end of an RER train line just out of Paris, the small town of Making-Ends-Meet has a market in the square, a town hall, a post office, a pharmacy, a bakery, a police station, and Bar Balto. When the seedy owner of the latter (Joël, aka Jojo, aka the Rink) dies in a pool of blood, stabbed in the stomach, there's no shortage of suspects. In Bar Balto these — and the spirit of the dead man — take turns telling their stories, through internal monologues and as half of conversations with the interrogating police.

There's Taniel (aka Tani, Turkey Boy or Lazy Bugger), who's been skipping school and is quite capable of beating up his teachers or turning on his friends. His Armenian mother Yéva (aka Madame Yéva, My Marge or My Old Lady) is the only one with a job, commuting into the city, but wears her skirts too short and was Joël's object of lust. Unemployed since his factory shut down, Jacques (aka Jacko, the Old Man or Hubby) has been banned from gambling and spends his days on the couch in front of the television, following game shows. And younger brother Yeznig (aka Baby, Fatty or the Spaz) is autistic. Then there's Taniel's girlfriend Magalie Fournier (aka the Blonde, the Slut or Turkey Boy's Wifey) and the recent Muslim immigrants Nadia and Ali Chacal (aka the Twins, the Marseille Posse or the Jackals), who engage in an internal dialogue instead of monologue.

If one thinks about it the resolution is a little contrived, as is the plotting required to keep all the suspects "in the frame". But this is completely irrelevant. What fascinates are the characters, their dysfunctional relationships, and the way they fit into the broader community — the isolation of individual lives, the ubiquity of everyday racism, and the ambience of one of Paris' poorer banlieu. I don't know how the slang Sarah Ardizzone has used in her translation matches that in the original, but the language the characters use to express themselves is as convincingly varied as they are themselves. In Bar Balto Faïza Guène has produced a striking and original short novel.

April 2014

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%T Bar Balto
%A Guène, Faïza
%M French
%F Ardizzone, Sarah
%I Vintage
%D 2012 [2010]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780099539575
%P 156pp