Magazine article Artforum International

Poulpe Fiction

Magazine article Artforum International

Poulpe Fiction

Article excerpt

Early last March, in the thick of the protest movement against the draconian immigration law proposed by France's Minister of the Interior Jean-Louis Debre, the residents of a working-class Paris neighborhood not far from the Bastille came together for an emergency meeting called by Gerard, the owner of the local bistrot. Gerard was furious. After fifty-four years in France, his Spanish-born wife, Maria, had suddenly been asked to produce a certificate of naturalization in order to renew her ID card. And a call from the local police station had just informed him that his Romanian cook, Vlad, was no longer considered a "desirable" alien. One after another, the neighbors voiced their indignation about the current climate of immigrant-bashing. After hours of heated discussion, the one person who had remained silent, a gawky bistrot regular nicknamed "Le Poulpe" (the Octopus) in honor of his tentacular limbs, realized that the time for action had come. With the help of his old friend Pedro, a Spanish Civil War veteran with a flair for engraving, he soon had 300,000 false IDs rolling off the presses.

Le Poulpe began making a name for himself well before the outcry over France's new immigration law, which further restricted the movement of foreigners - both visitors and residents - in France. Part American gumshoe and part Fantomas, Le Poulpe is the title character of a thriving series of French mystery novels that are as much literary phenomenon as political bombshell. The brainchild of Jean-Bernard Pouy, a well-known author in the hybrid genre variously known as the polar (detective story) or roman noir (thriller), the series was conceived as a thinking person's pulp fiction in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Horace McCoy. "The name Poulpe is a pseudo-translation of pulp," explains Pouy, "What we were interested in was having another go at this inexpensive genre of mass-market fiction by using funky titles and color covers, while maintaining a high stylistic level and a clear ideological bent, a Left viewpoint to fight against the National Front." But "Le Poulpe's" real novelty is that each book is written by a different author. And, as Pouy emphasizes, the authors are drawn from an ever expanding mix of well-known mystery writers like himself and total unknowns, as well as filmmakers, scriptwriters, journalists, and others. What ensures a minimal continuity among the different episodes - apart from the wonderful retro covers designed by American artist Miles Hyman - is the "bible," a brief synopsis of the recurring characters and frame story sketched by Pouy and two mystery-writer friends, Serge Quadruppani and Patrick Raynal (director of France's most prestigious mystery collection, Serie Noire).

Neither an avenger nor a law enforcer nor a private investigator, the thirty-seven-year-old Poulpe is a cross between Don Quixote and the Lone Ranger, identified with deliberate lack of precision as a "radical" in order to situate him on the Left without locking him into any particular camp. (And as Raynal points out, the ambiguity of his character is compounded by the fact that he is modeled on American private eyes, though they are nonexistent in France due to the State monopoly on criminal investigation.) In the absence of both a profession and a permanent address, Le Poulpe makes the bistrot his office as well as his home away from hotel, the place where his girlfriend Cheryl has the best chance of finding him when she pops in from her hairdressing salon around the corner and where, at the beginning of every novel, he reads the daily paper and inevitably comes across the tiny news item that will set him off on a new adventure. …

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