Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Dwarf KingdomA Dwarf Kingdom by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Partir c'est mourir un peu." (To say goodbye is to die a little).

Nicolas Freeling quotes this French saying in "A Dwarf Kingdom" (1996), the sixteenth and last novel in the Castang series. Also, bidding farewell to the Commissaire and his wife in a moving Epilogue, he writes "I am sorry to say goodbye. Two good friends are here, and across the last twenty-five years." Well, a little part of my life is over too with the end of the series.

Commissaire Castang and Vera are visiting their friends' place when the party falls victims to brutal robbery that leads to murder. The trauma causes Castang to retire from his EU job, which is warmly received by his superiors as he has never been one to toe the political line. He moves to Biarritz to be close to his ex-boss, Commissaire Richard. Alas Richard is gravely ill and he soon dies leaving Vera his house, which establishes the setup for the plot that involves Castang's entire family, kidnapping, terrorists, and ends in a climactic shootout.

It is amazing how differently the author depicts the two scenes bracketing the plot - the initial robbery and the final shootout between the police and the terrorists. While the first scene is highly dramatic, believable, and deeply disturbing, the other one is so by-the-numbers and so Hollywood-style that it feels as if it were automatically produced by some bestselling-thriller-generating software. I keep wondering whether the author did it on purpose, and what that purpose might be.

Of course, as usual with Freeling, the plot is much less important than his quirky prose through which he portrays Europe and Europeans at the very end of the 20th century. I also enjoy the usual profusion of digressions, tangential remarks, and word plays in various languages, such as the quote "One cannot have a child and a gun" (how true, by the way!) or the supremely funny Jacques Derrida jibe: "Der ain't no readah. Der ain't no writah, eidah." The amusing passage about how French bad taste is different from German one is precious, albeit too long to quote.

What about the title? Freeling says through one of his characters "We've what you call the dwarfs and they have the place by the balls and make money out of everything." And later "[...] dwarfs are much too smart ever to make anything. Even if you happen to acquire something-made, then you have to spend a lot on publicity persuading imbeciles that they need to go and buy it. Money is the only real commodity." Dwarfs combine international business with municipal politics, and have support in the highest and holiest places, like the government and Opus Dei. We all live in their kingdom as pawns in their game. This is a deeply cynical book, overwhelmingly sad and mature; it is quite clear that life has thoroughly cured the 69-year old author of illusions.

My project of reading all 16 books in the series, mostly in order, has been a great adventure It does not bother me at all that I still do not know Castang and what to expect of him (I know Vera better, particularly after quite a drastic scene in this book). I am saying goodbye to them with a very heavy heart.

My rating reflects this one novel alone; the whole series, a literary phenomenon, is one of the best achievements in the history of serious mystery genre.

Three stars.

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