Tag Archives: France

Unsolved murder mystery

28 Dec

One of the benefits of being a late starter (or re-starter) in the field of literary studies, is that I sometimes dip into standard works and pick up on items that made little sense to me on first reading. Take, for example, Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, which must have first come to my attention as an undergraduate student of anthropology, many years ago. I took it to bed with me the other evening and flicked through, landing on ‘Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature’, an item that leads to one of those chain reaction searches through Google until I land up with Jean Giono, who is a favourite of mine, and who wrote on the Dominici affair at the time it hit the news in 1952.

 

Sir Jack Drummond, wife Ann and daughter Elizabeth

 

The brief version of what happened:

On August 5, 1952, a family of English campers – Sir Jack Drummond, his wife, Lady Ann, and their ten-year-old daughter, Elizabeth – were found murdered at the side of Route 96 near Lurs, in the Alpes-Haute Provence department. A few yards from the scene of the crime stood a farmhouse that belonged to a formidable old character, Gaston Dominici, aged 75. The man had his own peculiar grandeur, a mixture of illiteracy, severity, and violence. The case attracted much attention and risked pushing France (which was undergoing a bloodletting in Indochina) back through the years to the traumatic divisions of the Dreyfus affair.

Sir Jack, a well-known nutritionist, who classified vitamins in the way they are recognized today, and helped devise UK rationing in World War Two had been in the British Intelligence Service during the war.

In the attack both Drummond and his wife suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Their daughter Elizabeth’s head had been crushed by the butt of the rifle that had been used to shoot her parents. Two of Dominici’s sons accused their father of the triple murder; the accused in turn suspected one of the sons and a grandson. On November 17, 1954, a few days after the start of the rebellion in Algeria, the trial of Gaston Dominici began; it ended ten days later when he was sentenced to death. The Court of Assizes in Digne was crowded with European journalists, including Jean Giono. Paul Morand, Roland Barthes, and Orson Welles were all present or wrote about it. Many people had the immediate impression that everything was a fix-up. When the truth seemed close to emerging during the trial, the chief judge was quick to interrupt or divert attention.

Gaston Dominici, a farmer and shepherd born in 1877, had lived all his life, apart from his military service in the Chasseurs des Alpes, more among animals than among men. He was practically illiterate and did not understand the elegant French of the chief judge and the state attorney. He hesitated at their questions, confused the meanings of words, and these facts were falsely taken for symptoms of guilt. His lawyer seemed unable to organize a logical line of defense, but after the sentence even the minister of justice had doubts and ordered a useless supplementary investigation. It was necessary to safeguard against risks, however, and therefore the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 1960 General de Gaulle granted his release, but not a pardon. Protesting his innocence to the end, Dominici died on April 4, 1965, in a hospice in Digne, after his farm had fallen prey to creditors. His modest grave is not far from the place of rest of the three Drummonds.

Gaston Dominici in court

Speculation has since mounted about the real cause for the murders, and the possible explanations include (a) that since Drummond was an SOE operative during World War Two, the murder was a settling of scores from the period of the Nazi occupation; (b) that Drummond and his family was the victim of a Soviet KGB hit-squad; (c) that as a senior government adviser and research scientist, Drummond was either engaged in, or else was the victim of industrial espionage, and (d) the family was murdered in a random assault by a German-based criminal gang en route to rob a jewellery store in Marseilles. This last theory seems to me the most compelling for a number of reasons, and a full account appears here.

A BBC East Midlands documentary came to its own conclusions, but makes no mention of the German gang. If, as seemed likely at the time, Drummond did fall victim to a KGB hit-squad, and the French government then in power knew this, Dominici appears precisely in the light in which he presented himself: as the sacrificial lamb on the altar of the state. Paris could not, in the middle of the Cold War and at the height of the Indochina crisis, admit that the Soviets could have assailed some foreign citizens in the very heart of France. But this seems a far less likely explanation than the one involving the criminal gang on their way to a job, who happen upon the family and think there might be additional spoils for the taking. Against the background of all this speculation stood a primitive shepherd who, as Jean Giono noted, seemed to have stepped out of one of Virgil’s bucolic odes.

Whatever the eventual resolution, if there is one, for now – and possibly forever – the Dominici case remains unresolved.

 

 

 

 

 

The forlorn penis of Michel Houellebecq

11 Nov

Michel Houellebecq, illustrating his unique cigarette-wielding technique

The publication in English of a new novel by Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory, causes me to reflect for a moment on that author, and it occurs to me that whenever I put down a book by Houellebecq I almost immediately forget all about it, until I pick up the next one, which probably says something about how deeply I engage with him as a writer. So what I am about to recount might come as something as a surprise.

Earlier this year I went to a conference: ‘Myth and Subversion in the Contemporary Novel’. I hardly ever attend academic conferences, mostly because they are very tedious affairs, but I felt compelled to go to this one because the title of the conference was so very appealing: who could resist it? Moreover it took place in Madrid, at the Universidad Complutense, in springtime. My hastily written paper was called ‘Promethean Variations: From Wells to Houellebecq’ but it is worth considering what else I might have called it: ‘Michel Houellebecq and the paradigm of eternal youth’ was an early option, and so was ‘The forlorn penis of Michel Houellebecq’. The latter phrase got wedged in my thoughts (there are worse places it might have become wedged) and I could not remember whether I had truly invented it (or dreamed it, rather an awful thought) or had simply read it somewhere and forgotten where. I tried googling the phrase but without success. And yet this title, whether my own or someone else’s, is perhaps most apt. ‘The forlorn penis of Michel Houellebecq’ allows a vicarious and not altogether unfair insight into Houellbecq’s contribution to the erotics of literature – the tragic denouement of his invariably disappointed, frustrated, put-upon, self-absorbed and eventually flaccid male protagonists. And yet, joking aside, what interested me, at least in part, and what impressed me on first reading Houellebecq’s novels – which I came to only recently – was brought about by one of the most dreadful Reality TV shows I have ever had the misfortune to watch, and which I endured with growing consternation one evening in the summer of 2010 while staying at a hotel in Orléans.

The premise of this particular show was unusually inventive, even by the absurd standards of Reality TV. It involved a man in his mid forties – classical Houellebecq material – being set up to meet two ex-girlfriends; one from 25 years earlier, the other, rather ludicrously, from 35 years before, when the protagonists were only 10 years old. Harry – in spite of his years he had retained boyish good looks and a mane of white hair – was not only looking for love, but looking for someone with whom he could parent a fourth child.

Myrtle, his first true love, who went out with him when they were both 19, now lives in Los Angeles, works as a model and does not want children. Laurence, whom he last saw skiing in Chamonix in 1976, works as a gymnastics instructor at a big tourist resort in Turkey. Both of these middle-aged French women are fitness fanatics, trying to retain their youth, while Harry is actually attempting to re-live his youth. The whole premise of the show is like a televisual encapsulation of a Houellebecq novel, without the sex. Because when Harry finally settles on Myrtle and flies over to stay with her in LA she tells him he has to sleep on the sofa, and that she does not want children, definitively, ever. Harry is distraught. He has blown it with Laurence and cannot turn back. Although she is open to the idea of having a child with Harry, she looks her age, and this seems to put Harry off. By choosing Myrtle, who looks much as she did at 19, thanks to her fitness regime and some choice plastic surgery, he feels he can reclaim his youth, in spite of the fact that he has absolutely nothing in common with her and shares none of the same ambitions. Perpetual youth is the sole objective. As Houellebecq puts it in his most successful novel, Atomised: ‘sexual desire is preoccupied with youth’ and, as Isabelle, Daniel’s first wife in The Possibility of an Island remarks: All we’re trying to do is create an artificial mankind, a frivolous one that will no longer be open to seriousness or to humor, which, until it dies, will engage in an increasingly desperate quest for fun and sex; a generation of definitive kids.

Unfortunately, the text of my paper disappeared along with the hard drive of my old macbook (see post for 2 September), so I cannot regale you with the intricate arguments I made in support of my (by no means original) notion that Houellebecq’s fictions are guided by the delusional quest for the fount of eternal youth, and therefore, in some respects, embody the myth of continuous self-renewal symbolised by Prometheus. Nor can I review his new book, not having read it, but I am encouraged by reports that it marks a new departure for an author who was in danger of repeating himself interminably (it also won the Prix Goncourt, which must count for something). But here is a clip of the incorrigible Monsieur Houellebecq, being interviewed by poor old Lawrence Pollard of the ‘Culture Show’, which is apparently a TV programme, not a reggae band. My favourite quote from the interview: ‘As soon as I start talking about my life I start lying straightaway. To begin with I lie consciously and very quickly I forget that I’m lying’. How fortunate, gentle reader, that the same cannot be said of Blanco, blogging bloodhound of Ultimate Truth, or la vérité ultime as we say in France.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Field of broken dreams

15 Oct

'Neutral' referee Alain Rolland

Here is the man who wrecked the rugby world cup, referee Alain Rolland, wearing his jersey of choice. The French team were utter shite. Sam Warburton’s tackle seemed, at worst, a yellow card. We were robbed of victory by bad refereeing and some unlucky place kicking, but the French were dire and in no way deserve to be world cup finalists. A ludicrous refereeing decision by the half-witted, half-French ref.

But look at this crewage who stopped off for a fag outside the Yoga club opposite The Promised Land. Do they look as if they are here for the yoga?  Do they give a fuck? Should I? Should we? What a day. Oh fallen hopes. Oh crushed dreams. Blanco is bereft.

An Aleph in my hand

14 Aug

'Aleph Sanctuary' by Mati Klarwein

Drove up to the Gers, in France, to visit the brother. It is a four-hour drive in our old Citroën, which starts rattling if required to exceed about 75 mph. It is hot, and the car has no air conditioning, so we leave early. The autoroute up to Toulouse is very dull, but once you get on the B roads west of the city the countryside is fine and lovely, with rolling hills and great fields of sunflower and of maize unravelling to the horizon.

A corn field in Liechtenstein. Keywords: Field...

Image via Wikipedia

Now maize, or corn, has a special place in Blanco’s heart. For two summers, in 84 and 85, I worked in the maize fields of the Gers on the annual castrage, or castration The picture on the right, incidentally, is of a maize field in Lichtenstein, not the Gers, but one maize field looks pretty much like any other). The odd practice of castration, which was explained to me countless times but which I never fully understood, involves ripping the male part from its socket high on the plant’s stem, and casting it away, which ensures that the next year’s crop will not be contaminated with bâtards, or bastards. Little bastards, or salauds, I used to call them. Back in the day, the work would be done by teams of migrant workers or else down-and-outs like myself eager for a few days work in the fields in convivial company and with good pay. Often the work would come with board and lodging. The Gers is also a wine (and Armagnac) producing region, so there was always plenty to drink. I have very fond memories of those two summers castrating maize, even though the work could be very dull, walking down those interminable rows, ripping out all those male genitals and tossing them away. Of all the most meaningless jobs I have done, the castration is pretty high up on the list. Because of the utter tedium it inspired, I once had a fantasy of discovering an aleph while working on the maize. Of feeling my toes come into contact with something cold and hard and round, stooping to pick it up, and finding I held an aleph in my hand.

Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. An aleph, for those of you who have not read Borges, is a small and miraculous construct that contains within it the entire content of the universe (and all possible universes). Put another way, an Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points. Within it can be seen everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, apparently without distortion, overlapping or confusion. It is, as you might imagine, incredibly heavy to hold in one’s hand. As you might also imagine, finding an aleph is a pretty rare thing, certainly not an everyday affair. Finding one in a field of maize, then, would have constituted a considerable improvement to the outcome of a day’s work. But it never happened. Maybe, one day, I will have to put it in a book instead. I have however, written a piece about working on the maize, which I reproduce below, with apologies to those who were listening when I said I was not going to use the blog simply to flaunt my own literary creations – Did I say that? Am I imagining it? – but since I am in the Gers this fine Sunday morning, and since Riscle is a real town in this département, I thought I should include it.

 

Riscle

The maize fields are vast and sad in the wind. The tops of the plants bend unwillingly. I know what happens here. It has always remained a secret until now. But for the sake of friendship I will tell you. In July, the castrators will come. They will rip out the genitals of the male plants, so that the females cannot be impregnated and raise bastards. At least, that is what the locals tell the workers. The real story of the maize is more violent still. Groups of young men and women meet after dark, drink absinthe, and fuck beneath the summer moon. In the morning, tired and spent, they retire to the Café D’Artagnan for coffee with milk and croissants. They are recruited by farmers, who drive them to the maize fields. There they begin the tedious task of le castrage. The young men begin to feel uncomfortable with this de-seeding of the male plants. Their discomfort translates into physical symptoms: aching sides, persistent headaches and vomiting. Later they will complain of spontaneous ejaculation, green sperm, and will participate in outbreaks of frenzied violence towards other males. In early spring the babies are born: little maize-people, with an obsolete immune system inherited from Aztec forebears. The babies all die before July, when the castration begins again.

 

From Sad Giraffe Café (Arc, 2010)

 

 


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