“Mediterranean noir” fiction shows we postmoderns how to take solace in these listless times.
The northern shore of the Mediterranean is often marketed to vacationing outsiders as a modern paradise full of beaches, good food, better wine and a focus on easy living that lures, like the Sirens did Odysseus, tourists by the millions to pre-packaged vacation destinations stretching from Portugal to Greece. Catering to an infinite variety of visitors and everywhere kissed by a warm sun, a wine-dark sea and cheap international air travel, Southern Europe has become a cosmopolitan melting pot where hoi polloi and aristocrats alike come to frolic and engage in frivolity.
Beyond the glitz of Ibizan discos, the glamour of Cannes, and the serenity of those bucolic, sun-swept Greek islands, however, lurks an illicit milieu that the unwary tourist is only likely to find if he or she is unlucky or unwary enough to inadvertently stumble upon. It is a dark, grim world that stands parallel and hidden to the one frequented by tourists, yet one which those who know where to look can find and enter if they so wish.
Just look to the trafficked, Eastern European prostitutes that swarm around hotel bars, or linger for a bit on the street corners where poor North African young men sell their labor in impromptu work exchanges or hustle drugs for local gangs, and you’ll catch a whiff. If you peruse the pages of the local business press, where the same well-connected multinational firms win government contracts and land-development deals year after year, or strike up a conversation with a far-right demonstrator or left-wing activist fulminating against the status quo, you’ll definitely see it a bit more clearly.
Maybe after some digging you’ll discover the cops who look the other way and the mobsters and connected politicians who profit from it all. If you do all that – and survive – then you might just be able to tell a tale that some muckraking scandal rag somewhere might see fit to print. Nothing will really change, though, if you do, and justice – slow, ponderous and bureaucratic – never seems quite enough to right wrongs or see the innocent protected from those who would prey on them.
Once you’ve passed through all that and come out the other end understanding the ultimate futility of fighting against “the system” and its deep, soul-crushing corruption – only then will you see this parallel world as one of its denizens – or as one of the authors making up the literary movement known as “Mediterranean noir” – might see it.
This juxtaposition of light and dark and existentialist angst in some of the most beautiful and globalized places on Earth is a constant theme for the movement’s pioneer authors like Jean-Claude Izzo, whose acclaimed “Marseilles” trilogy places France’s second city front-and-center in a web of global crime, or Massimo Carlotto, who pens stories about the corruption that lies deep in the heart of contemporary Italian society. The protagonist in these books, like in nearly all noir novels worthy of the name, is a not-quite hero who viscerally understands the impossibility of really making a dent in the cancer eating away at the soul of their respective homelands – but struggles against it anyway, out of a sense of obligation or personal honor.
The message of Mediterranean noir is that, like Schrödinger’s famous cat, one can both win and not-win, both succeed and fail at the same time. The triumph of the system is inevitable – like waves slowly eating away at a beach – but the individual nonetheless matters just as intensely despite – perhaps because of – the meaninglessness of it all. In these novels, what’s important is not so much what happens, for a grim outcome is foreordained, but how characters react to the moral choices presented to them. Do they collaborate with the system and its corruption? Or do they take up the fight for dignity and justice for people they barely know, fully understanding how much it will cost them and how pointless resistance happens to be?
At its best, Mediterranean noir is not merely a sub-genre of international crime fiction; it is existentialism applied to crime that has been globalized – Albert Camus’ answer to the international corporate order that rules our lives and the neoliberal belief-system that justifies it. It suggests that though mass action to meaningfully change, or even make accountable, the way our biggest institutions – government, police, banks and so on – function, is doomed to failure, there is nonetheless an important, self-justifying romanticism to small acts of resistance against the status quo. Authors like Izzo and Carlotto thus turn the Cartesian maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” on its head – “I act,” they argue, “therefore, I can be.”
Practical anti-establishment existentialism
As an operating philosophy for our present age, it’s not a bad one. Ours is one where all the grand plans and big ideas that have previously motivated people to do good – democracy, capitalism, socialism, religious faith, technological progress, even freedom itself – have all been tried and found wanting. Human nature always seems to get in the way of getting on to the New Jerusalem, and the result is the present, listlessly postmodern world we all inhabit. What the authors of this movement do in their own way is to remind us that though society may be perennially fixed in the muck and the mire, as individuals we can nonetheless choose to make our own small portion of it a bit less grimy – if we keep at it hard enough and understand that the work is its own reward.
The irony is that if we all do this, then the forces that keep widespread change for the better forever at bay, in both the novels of Mediterranean noir and the real word, will eventually weaken and crumble. Change can come, but only if we don’t aim for it directly. Instead, we have to approach change indirectly and secretly, like a thief in the night. Add it all up, though, and what seems impossible one day can become reality the next – and this message, so at odds with our present circumstances – is what these authors seem to be collectively telling us.
So don’t despair, kid. Get out there and bust a hump on those mean streets knowing that you’ll end up in the gutter sooner or later no matter how hard you try. Most of us are balanced on the curb and ready to fall in anyway, so we’ll all wind up there together someday. In fact, it’s not so bad once you get used to it. The gutter’s where you find humanity, the best and the worst, and where all the action, for good and ill, can be found. Make your name there and the sky’s the limit – if the drain doesn’t get you first.