Karim Miské was born in 1964 in Abidjan. He is a writer and a documentary filmmaker. Arab Jazz is his first novel.
Aren’t there numerous similarities between documentaries and crime fiction?
There is, for me, a clear resemblance in the way they both tackle societal issues, in their search for a starkness, a sort of harsh truth that is not always pleasant to look at. For me, it was like a loop: I discovered crime fiction when I was 13, in the second-hand bookshop in my neighbourhood, and these adolescent reads (McCoy, Chandler, Hammett, Chase) shaped the way I look at the world. When I later became a documentary director, the way I approached this medium was strongly influenced by my own experience of crime fiction, which had aroused my desire to bring to light what people usually don’t want to see. But documentary cinema has its limits, as you need to protect the privacy of the people you are filming. Crime writing came to me very naturally, after fifteen years spent filming and gathering stories. It seemed obvious, like a necessary outcome, the achievement of a youthful promise.
At the beginning of the novel, you “destroy” the writing style of authors such as Connelly and Coben. Do you have a score to settle with thrillers?
Ahmed goes so far as confusing Harlan Coben with Kurt Cobain, because, in the floating state he is in, in the distanced relation he has with things and with his own world, everything and everyone is the same. Or almost. In the French version of Arab Jazz, I didn’t use the word “thriller”, I referred to Anglo-American pulp literature, a kind of literature I also fed on, from time to time—though not as systematically as Ahmed. There’s nothing better than that, when you feel the need to forget yourself, to disappear. It’s a lighter addiction than hard drugs, alcohol, junk food or screens. These books affected me and certainly somehow found their way in my writing. It doesn’t prevent me from seeing the difference between them and Ellroy, Tosches or Manchette, writers who know how to immerse the reader in their universe without giving in to standardization.
When Ahmed first meets Rachel, the reader can feel that this novel will be different, with a second dimension dedicated to dreams and fantasies. Could you tell us a few words about the kind of effect you wanted to create?
It was obvious when I first started to write—as soon as a character started to move or to talk, he would do it with his story, his inner world, his desires and his regrets, sometimes with his remorse. And they began to communicate, the whole lot of them, between each other, using underground, non-verbal ways. I was not consciously looking to create any effect, I just followed them, thinking that the truth of this story lied somewhere in this particular space which, now that you make me think about it, reminds me of the link uniting the characters in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik. But in Arab Jazz, the characters are alive.
Men do not really have the better part in your novel. Would you be able to write a crime novel the other way around?
I wouldn’t really say that. The women in the novel seem more determined than the men are, they seem more savvy—Rachel certainly is; but I wouldn’t say they have the better part. Susan is worrisome, to say the least. And if Ahmed and Jean, the male protagonists, are struggling against their own selves, it’s also because they are haunted, for different reasons, by the disturbing image of their mother. Looking back, I think that Jean and Ahmed probably embody, each in his own way, a sort of contemporary masculinity that would refuse domination as well as submission. At the risk of staying completely in the background, on the side of the road, spectators of their own existence. Arab Jazz is also the story of how they handle that.
The other way around would mean adopting a more feminine perspective. Addressing Rachel’s torments more deeply, for instance. And consequently making her a more fragile being. It’s interesting.
Does the 19th arrondissement you depict in the novel bear any resemblance to the real one?
It’s a neighbourhood I lived in for three months, when I started writing Arab Jazz. Then I let the imaginary neighbourhood freely evolve as I was writing. I started to write after having witnessed, rue Petit, around midnight and only a few meters from each other, a few Lubavitch teachers, young Hassidic Jews riding their bikes and playing football in front of a kosher pizzeria, and a group of Black and Arab Salafists listening to a preacher wearing Nike capri pants and a white thawb. The day after, I sat down in front of my computer to create Ahmed, first, then Laura, Rachel and Jean. Then the neighbourhood built itself around them. It is entirely real and entirely imaginary at the same time. It’s a bit like this old Jewish and Christian belief of a terrestrial Jerusalem and a celestial Jerusalem. There is a terrestrial 19th arrondissement and a celestial 19th arrondissement crossing paths in Arab Jazz. But it is a particular kind of celestial in which Paradise and Hell share out the territory.
You directed several documentaries with people of Muslim faith.
Islam is part of my family’s heritage, just like atheism and Christianity, and I’ve always had an interest in religion. More than once, this interest reached the interest of the producers with whom I was working.