I was recently pleased and surprised to discover that InTranslation, The Brooklyn Rail’s world lit site, had published an excerpt from Patrick Besson’s political thriller The River Will Kill the White Man in my translation. The novel, an intimate, ambitious geopolitical oil intrigue set in Africa, won a French Voices grant, though it has yet to find an English language publisher. To commemorate that publication (since I’ve never yet mentioned it on this site), I’ve unearthed an interview I did two years ago with Besson, for The Chattahoochee Review.
Born in 1956 to a Croatian mother and a Russian father, the unpredictable Patrick Besson burst precociously onto the scene with his first novel in 1974. He has since produced, with the same dizzying force that informs his headlong prose, more than twenty books, including his Croatian saga Dara (Albin Michel), winner of the 1985 Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française. The Prix Renaudot and Prix Populiste followed ten years later, for his novel Les Braban (Albin Michel, 1995); in the meantime, he was dubbed “The Prince of Paradox” for shocking the world by championing Mike Tyson and the Serbians.
Besson has published more than 40 books—novels, story collections, and nonfiction. He is also a journalist for leading French newspapers Le Figaro, L’Humanité, and VSD. Communist by birth, polemicist by practice, prodigy by talent, and enfant terrible by trade, he shows great generosity towards young writers and contempt for Parisian literary circles, of which he is nevertheless a figure who values most, in his own words, “intellectual brutality.
1) Writers are often asked where they get their ideas, but in your case it might be better to ask: where do you get your opinions? Lively, witty, incisive, they litter and pepper your prose. How do you manage to arrive at your judgments—on characters, on politics—so quickly and accurately? Is it columnist’s habit, or rather an illusion of innumerable revisions?
I write both fiction and journalism. These are two very different professions, since one consists of closing yourself off to the world and the other of opening yourself up to it. My many opinions come from the many subjects that present themselves to me as a journalist, but it is the writer in me who drafts them.
2) Tell us a bit about the inspiration for your latest novel, The River Will Kill the White Man (Fayard 2009), from which the excerpt in this issue is taken. There seem to be hints, in the tone, of Graham Greene’s dry and brittle disillusion. Did you have other authors in mind when you decided to use the genre of political intrigue?
Yes, I have great admiration for Graham Greene and am always a bit sad when English writers visiting Paris tell me no one reads him anymore in England. I was also paying tribute to John Le Carré with this particular novel.
3) What image, anecdote, or even person was the impetus for this novel? Was it the desire to tackle the Rwandan genocide? Is the novel of the white man in Africa, as Conrad conceived it, an exhausted genre?
The novel originated with a conference of African writers against apartheid which took place in Brazzaville in spring 1987 and in which I took part, like one of my most despicable characters, as an observer. No genre is ever exhausted: only its writers or readers.
4) How did you go about your research for this novel: trips, studies, interviews? The setting has the ring of authenticity to it, and we sink into the mire of Congolese history. How long did you spend on research? Did you do it all before starting, or bit by bit as you were writing?
Trips, studies, interviews, yes. A lot of reading. I diligently spent a great deal of time in the African scene in Paris, which was often quite nice. Preparing and writing the novel took me a total of three years.
5) Your œuvre has been divided in two: contemporary novels of manners that turn on Love’s Little Hurts (Les petits maux d’amour, Le Seuil 1974), so to speak, and historical frescoes full of brio, more chronicles than plots. But The River Will Kill the White Man, which takes place more or less in the present day, seems to wed these tendencies, with tighter plotting and intimate moments against a backdrop of war and exploitation. Did writing this novel—longer than most of your work—put you to the test, and if so, in what way?
This novel does indeed marry my taste for History to my passion for current events. There are many reasons why writing this latest novel was an ordeal but once a work is finished, you immediately forget all the suffering it caused. Generally, the pain goes away, but not the pleasure. This must be an effect of divine grace.
6) What was it like to be able to use Nerval, one of your favorite writers, as a character in your novel The Brothers of Consolation (Les Frères de la Consolation, Grasset 1998)?
The writers we love are our best friends, even when they’re dead. I wanted to find myself in the days of Nerval, Hugo, and Gautier by bringing them back by way of the only resurrection that has proven itself since Christ: literature.
7) Did you see James Toback’s recent documentary on Mike Tyson? What did you think, since you once came to his defense (Le Viol de Mike Tyson, Scandéditions 1993)?
Haven’t seen it, but nothing’s changed my mind about Mike Tyson for the moment. But send me the DVD.
8) “If an author disappoints you as a man, it is because you have overestimated his work,” wrote Anton Kuh. What is the difference between Besson the man and Besson the author?
My goal has always been for there to be none: that seems to me the justification for literary work. To be in my books exactly as I am in life, even if that isn’t to my advantage.
9) What do you think the main schools or trends are in French literature today? Are there French authors you’d recommend to American readers, who deserve to be translated? What’s the last novel you read and loved?
Please allow me to name first and foremost a few Francophone writers, notably Congolese, whom I read many of while writing my novel: Alain Mabanckou, Emmanuel Dongala, Sony Labou Tansi (who died of AIDS in 1995), Henri Lopes. The last novel I read and loved was The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir.
10) Cynicism is a notable feature of your work, yet you rush into the fray, always full of enthusiasm; in your works beauty and nostalgia go hand in hand with tragedy, bitterness, and thwarted love. In the Bessonian Weltanschauung, what is heroism?
Heroism is the only thing a writer needs, along with a good editor and good translators.
11) What are you working on at the moment, if you’re free to talk about upcoming projects?
It’s been a year since I wrote a line and I have every intention of keeping this up. I published my first story when I was 14 in a women’s weekly and think that, after forty years of work, I’m entitled to some rest.
12) Bonnie or Clyde ?
Which one was the woman again?