Jean-Claude Izzo’s “The Lost Sailors”

by Jess

Before we jump right into the story, I’d like to start with a couple of points about Izzo’s novel that I really enjoyed. One is that his chapters are titled, which I think is a bit of a lost art. Gorgeous titles like, “We’re not living in luxury, but we’re not poor either,” and “Like a glass of rum, downed in one go.”

Secondly, Izzo very nearly provides a soundtrack to the story. In the first graph on the first page, we meet Diamantis whistling Besame Mucho. You can stop reading, listen to the song, and let your heart fill up with its sorrow and longing (Besame, besame mucho, como si fuera esta noche la ultima vez. Besame, besame mucho, que tengo miedo a perderte, perderte despues), and you will understand the sufferings of many of the characters in the novel. It’s a fabulous way to set the tone for reading.

From there, we head into Tito Puente’s Para Los Rumberos, Juan Luis Guerra’s Woman Del Callao, Santana’s Oye Como Va, Compay Segundo’s La Perla Marina, Gianmaria Testa’s Come Le Onde Del Mare, Gianmaria Testa’s La Donna Del Bar, and English lyrics to a French song the title of which we’re not given (I googled the lyrics with some trepidation, but to no avail: “You’re naked under your sweater / It’s the street that’s crazy / Pretty girl.”)

I may have missed some, but you get the idea. I can’t remember the last time I read such a musical piece of fiction (I remember the last nonfiction, though; it was Wynton Marsalis’ Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life). Or one so detailed in descriptions of food (of course it’s written by a Frenchman, so no surprise); one festive meal included “cod croquettes, red-pepper salad, meat briquats, calves’ brain fritters, chakchouka, fish fritters, bean salad, eggplant caviar, cheese feuilletestabouleh, cucumbers with yoghurt, tomato-and-pepper omelette, stuffed vine leaves, calamari in Salonica sauce, mousaka. And, of course, green and black olives, almonds, cashew nuts, roasted pistachios, and chickpea puree. Several bottles of wine, too. A white from Cassis, a rose from Bandol, and a few bottles of an Italian red called Lacrima-Christi.” This was meant for four people, mind you.

There are also some great literary references, the most notable being the comparisons of our protagonist Diamantis with Odysseus. You could write a whole term paper discussing the implications of that relationship. I was more taken with the reference to the little-known Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. I wasn’t able to find the poem that is quoted in the book (“We’re only saying farewell to the world, captain”), but there are quite a few of his verses available online, one of which, from the August 1970 issue of Poetry, is very apropos to the novel.

Okay, enough prologuing. Let’s get to the book. This was my first Izzo book, and though his crime noir Marseilles Trilogy has been well received, the book jacket declares that The Lost Sailors “is the novel in which Jean-Claude Izzo most completely expresses his vision of human history and how it has played out on the shores of the sea since the beginnings of time.” It goes on to say this is a book for anyone who loves the sea and port cities and so forth, but I think that’s a rather poor representation; this is a damn good story for people who love good storytelling.

The story concerns the fate of the crew of the Aldebaran, a freighter stuck at port in Marseilles for five months for legal/financial reasons. Most of the crew has left, except the captain, Abdul Aziz; Diamantis, the first mate; and a ne’er-do-well sailor named Nedim. Their troubles are lady troubles (there are so many drop-dead sexy women in this book). But it quickly becomes clear that the sailors are lost in more than a geographical sense. As Diamantis explains, the sea is life. “It was the only place he felt free. Not alive, not dead, but in another place. A place where he found a few reasons to be himself.” So now, stuck on shore, the men go about trying to construct meaning in their lives, to piece together moments in their past where they went wrong, and to build a better future for themselves. “What curse had fallen on him one day, on him and so many others who couldn’t find any meaning in their lives unless they were far from any shore?” Some of the characters succeed at this, and others fail.

I mentioned all the lovely ladies in the book–you could write quite the feminist critique of this novel, as well. The female characters are all strong and independent, but many of them are also casualties of damaging and scarring treatment at the hands of men. Abdul Aziz’s wife Cephea is one of the most intriguing characters in my mind; she’s rarely present in a scene, though Abdul Aziz pines for her incessantly. Izzo chose to end the novel with an epilogue from Cephea’s POV, and one of the most striking interactions in the novel is a flashback scene between Abdul Aziz and Cephea. He has just come home from a voyage and is wounded by her disinterest in his stories. “Whenever he came home, he liked to feel that she was close to him. She and the children. To convince himself that he was a man like any other, a father like any other. That he had a family, and this family represented his only roots in this world.” Izzo gives us a beautiful bit of prose at the end of their lovemaking that night:

He came, very quickly, in a few hard thrusts, indifferent to the creaking of the bed, the children asleep in the next room, the darkness shrouding the city, the freighters getting ready to cast off from one port or another, the vastness of the oceans, the loneliness of sailors, the fragility of men under the starry vault of the world.

Afterwards, she begins sobbing and reveals to him that she is tired of spending her life waiting for him to come home. They argue; he slaps her.

Cephea didn’t move. She stood there in front of him, straight and proud. Naked. He realized how beautiful she was. No other woman could replace her in his heart. But he couldn’t find the words to apologize for what he had done. She was the one who broke the silence.

There were no tears in her eyes now. Only determination.

“I love you,” she said softly.

“I love you, too.”

“So think about this, Abdul. I won’t mention it again.”

She went back to bed. When he left the room, to get a cigarillo, she turned out the light. That was the moment he lost her.

This and one other painful experience from Abdul Aziz’s past are heavy weights that he carries with him on his personal quest for meaning and redemption.

I love the characterization of Diamantis. You can’t help but pull for him, despite his shortcomings. He’s really beautifully drawn as a man who has suffered because of mistakes he has made, who has loved deeply and sometimes betrayed those he has loved, but who is genuinely a decent human being and who wants to make things right. A woman he befriends, Mariette, tells us:

He was a strong man. Even his doubts didn’t detract from his strength. He might wander, but he never took his eyes off the course he had fixed for himself. She remembered his description of Odysseus when they were talking in the pizzeria yesterday. ‘Driven by a quiet heroism appropriate to a world that is perfectly human.’

The line about quiet heroism is perfect. It suits him to a tee. I spent most of the book feeling like I just wanted to give Diamantis a big hug. Not that he ever feels sorry for himself. He’s a man seeking absolution and freedom from his past (“Any memory, even the most beautiful or the most insignificant, is a record of a moment in life that we botched”), and as he does so, he begins to understand what it means to be forgiven, to love and be loved.

The Lost Sailors is by turns sensual and gritty and sweet. I loved it (if you couldn’t tell). In fact, I’ve half a mind to put on some music, go back to the beginning and read it all over again, just to get lost once more in the streets of Marseilles.