Come Barbarians started life named The South of France. With a title like that, you could be forgiven for expecting humorous observations about obsessive artisan cheese-makers, reflections on tending a herb garden in a hot, dry climate, and odes to breathtaking mountain views of sky and sea. Something like Peter Mayle’s famous Year in Provence, perhaps… Let me tell you — warn you — dear reader, you are not in for a book like that!
The title change was a very good idea, because Todd Babiak’s fifth novel is a no-holds-barred-thriller that doesn’t simply use France as a fancy backdrop but instead probes the country’s seamy and corrupt underbelly. When it opens, I found myself experiencing a profound feeling of disorientation. That’s appropriate for the premise: our protagonist, Christopher Kruse, has just lost his daughter to a fatal car accident and his wife, Evelyn, has gone missing. A sense of mystery hangs over these pages, like fog in the tight streets of a medieval town. What the hell has happened?
This is the burning question that propels the narrative forward, and boy does it rip, TGV-style, all over France. Kruse, it appears, has been cuckolded; Evelyn was embroiled in an affair with an aspiring leader of France’s notorious right-wing party, the National Front. That leader, like Kruse’s daughter, is also dead. And Evelyn is suspect number one for his murder.
Kruse’s search for Evelyn is also a search for the truth. It gets him deeper and deeper into interconnected webs of deception, manipulation and political skullduggery at the very highest levels of government, but nothing ever stretches the limits of believability. It does, at times, test the reader’s stomach for violence and brutality. There is an act of torture about halfway through the book that will not help with your insomnia. DOES ANYTHING GOOD EVER HAPPEN IN MARSEILLE?!
Babiak’s book comes at a curious time for those of us who grew up as francophiles. France is still the most heavily-visited tourist nation in the world, for obvious reasons (the Louvre, Avignon, Normandy, the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean – all in the same country?). Sensible Americans envy its world class health care system. And France’s citizens are mostly — and again to the envy of so many — still quite svelte, unlike those flabby and beer bloated hooligans inhabiting the country just the other side of the English Channel. And France’s literary culture still generates considerable excitement and notoriety. Writers like Michel Houellebecq have become national heroes/villains.
But… but… as Babiak’s book so adroitly makes clear: there are two Frances. There is the France of “The South of France,” and the France of Come Barbarians, set, by the way, in the early 1990s. This France is well on its way to becoming the France of today, even less mythic, more conflicted, which passes laws prohibiting public sector employees from wearing the hijab or turban and, tiresomely, inspires a new government in Quebec to attempt a similar act. Each version of France fascinates, intrigues, and enrages those who take the time to get to know it.
In short, France cuts a pretty arresting figure on the narrative scene.
As for Babiak’s prose, it is tight, like an electrical wire. It primarily serves the plot, but like any good power-line, it hums along and goes everywhere: from a nondescript hotel in the ‘burbs to a gendarmerie in an ancient cobblestone town to a crowded political forum. The following brief but telling scene, I think, gives a pretty good insight into the kind of master craftsman’s touches to expect:
The ugly courtyard in front of the Sorbonne was deserted. He could see his champagne breath as he exited the taxi, whose driver was from Afghanistan and longed to be in London or New York, where a man could go from poor to rich in only a year or two. He could not marry and raise a child in this country of whores and faggots because a man does not own his wife and child in France–the state owns everything. La France, yes? La? Even the men are womanly. It is illegal to touch your own wife, to smack your own child if he is misbehaving. What sort of life is that, Monsieur?
Kruse did not give the driver a tip.
CanLit’s detractors sometimes claim our books are too nice, polite and reserved. No one is going to say that about this book. Come Barbarians, like France, compels our attention, throwing dirty punches one second, and charming us with wit and sophistication the next–and never apologizing for holding us unflinchingly in its callused grip.