“Du grand art dans la noirceur cauchemardesque.” *
“Du grand art dans la noirceur cauchemardesque.” *
— Michel Lebrun, on Thierry Jonquet’s work.
Throughout the millennia spiders have been represented in art as creative and cruel, perspicacious and pernicious. They can be as deceptive and deadly as they are delicate and demure. Tarantulas, basically bigger, hairier versions, belong to the same order–Araneae–as their little spider siblings. Ones which instill a much greater, and more illogical, fear into the reptile memory of much of the Primate order. Yes, like their arachnid cousin the scorpion, they are all venomous. And similarly the smaller the sting the more deadly the wound, and vice versa. Yet despite being the clumsy but lovable dumb oaf of a brother, what is the big deal about big spiders? Could it just be that, on the surface, with those massive fangs and spiky hairs, they appear more menacing? Which begs the question: what–and why–are we projecting onto them?
TARANTULA by Thierry JonquetTarantulas, like all other spineless creatures, rely upon an exoskeleton for musculature support. It is this external skeletal structure which literally holds them together and, without which, they would be utterly useless in maintaining a proper balance against their six-legged insect meal tickets. Thierry Jonquet tosses this metaphor grenade into his dark and menacing narrative world, where the skin in which we live is never our own choice and quite often becomes both a support system for enduring the arbitrary onslaught brought on by nature, as well as a web-like trap, self-spun and slowly separating us from the natural world outside to one of a burrowing internal horror, where life becomes so deranged that you are persuaded that in order to survive, you must devour yourself alive.
There are characters, to be sure: a plastic surgeon beset with grief and obsessed with his pet project. A woman complicit in her own detainment, torture and sexual exploitation. The self-mutilating daughter at the psychiatric institute. A deadly felon on the lam searching for his missing friend. What the connection is you will have to read–or see–for yourself.
Mygale [MIG-uh-lee] (Série Noire No 1949, 1984), the novela by Thierry Jonquet that spawned the new film from Pedro Almodóvar, La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In, 2011), starring Antonio Banderas, is a tale that begins with seemingly disparate tendrils that all coalesce toward the tangled center of a violent reality by the end of the 124 pages, most of which you will get through in one sitting with a strong pot of coffee and perhaps a desire for your own protective exoskeleton, or maybe just some Scotch.
The biography of Jonquet (b. 1954, Paris) reads like a typical rap sheet for the confused and cynical post-post-modern writer–that his “crime novels and children’s books have garnered many literary prizes,” and goes on to add that his politically tinged hard-boiled style of crime noir is one of the most popular in France. He has written over 15 novels, 10 children’s books and since 2001 had begun collaborating on a series of graphic novels with Jean-Christophe Chauzy, before his death in 2009.
Being published in English as a part of City Lights Noir series in 2003, suddenly Jonquet moved from being a regional favorite of the French to a world-renown author with translations in multiple languages, to being adapted into not only the usual Almodóvar film focusing on desire and identity, but an Almodóvar horror film focusing on desire and identity, starring Antonio Banderas as the protagonist. Isn’t that a bit like Picasso doing political comics for the Wall Street Journal? Kubrick, Hitchcock and Friedkin proved that horror can be done well, but can the normally eccentric Spaniard do justice to the philosophical treatise Jonquet has written about victimhood and the ambiguous role of the monster in society, a work that the French journal 813 calls their 17th favorite noir classic novel…of all time?
The thing that Jonquet, Ferlinghetti, and Almodóvar saw in Mygale, Tarantula, La Piel Que Habito, The Skin I Live In–whatever language you use–is that the themes are universal. As crucial as the soundtrack has always been as a juxtaposition to the imagery in Almodóvar’s film work, are Jonquet’s interwoven leitmotifs of figurative depth transposed on to a bittingly straightforward literal–the profound dark below the gently shimmering surface–mixed with his treatment of the banality of evil inherent in all of us, resulting in your basic horrifically absurd masterpiece of literature.
The tendency since Poe, Conan Doyle, Hammett, Highsmith, Chandler and le Carré is that “crime fiction” is pop culture, like jazz and photography–lowbrow art for the uneducated masses. How could these authors speak so eloquently to the collective consciousness on fratricide as did Tolstoy, on the innocence of love like Proust, the chivalry of Cervante’s Quixote, and on the bittersweet melodrama of humanity so well as Shakespeare–Impossible! We have no more writers of this prodigious literary heft. Or at least we will not recognize them until long past the oceans rise to cover our rotting bones. For the time being we will have to make do with Umberto Eco’s historical fiction, Haruki Murakami’s existential everymanliness, Elmore Leonard’s glib and gritty prose, and Thomas Pynchon’s phantasmagoric tragicomedy, among others.
A few French expatriates working in the Institut Français in Copenhagen have decided to make a passion project of turning the perception of pop into art. Since Labyrint‘s inception in early 2008, their goal all of their publications, including their translation of Mygale—Spindleren, their sixth novel–is to promote contemporary French literature in Denmark by translating French writers known for their stylistic qualities, their sociological sophistication and their allegiance to a genre which today has become significant in France, but even more so in Scandinavia: crime literature.
The bistrot bookstore Les Vengeances Tardives (a pun for those Francophiles out there…Guess correctly for some fun photographic prizes) in Lyon shares in Labyrint’s singular vision of the power of the French what if genre gaining ground across Europe, and the world. Coinciding with the recent release of the Danish edition, Labyrint book designer Arnaud De Grave, whose cover photography speaks of a France only glimpsed in dark Marseille alleys and in the faces of its people (see gallery below), will take part in a group exhibition based on Tarantula and the recently released (August, 17th) La Piel Que Habito at Cinema Comoedia (13 AVENUE BERTHELOT 69007 LYON) on Monday, September 5, 2011 (exhibition & music from 18:00, projection and performance from 20:00).
* High art in a dark nightmare.
— Michel Lebrun