Escape, the latest novel from Dominique Manotti, one of France's bestselling crime writers, takes as its starting point Italy's "years of lead":
a period of social instability marked by the tensions between the Italian government on the right and the radicals on the left. Manotti, now a lecturer in the history of 19th-century economics in Paris, was 20 at the beginning of the 1960s when this political rebellion was at its peak. "We were passionate," she says, "and a large part of France's far left was influenced by the Italians." Manotti herself would regularly visit the country, and was close to left-wing newspapers and unions. She feels that the fate of her generation was "decided in Italy" during that period. Later, she would become a unionist and activist, directly participating in the fight to organise immigrant workers in France. Part of what makes Manotti's writing so powerful is her personal history. Her novels spring from these experiences. Escape has roots in her activism and links to Italy, while an earlier book, Rough Trade, is influenced by her work with immigrants.
As Escape opens, in the late 1980s, two men break out of an Italian prison. Carlo is an intense and passionate left-wing radical, idealistic, charismatic and persuasive. His fellow escapee is Filippo, who is utterly in thrall to his politically savvy and revolutionary cellmate, and whose involvement in the escape is quite unintentional. The book concerns itself with Filippo's fortunes following Carlo's shooting during a bank raid after the two men part company. When Filippo writes a book, a thinly disguised retelling of Carlo's life and death, which becomes a bestseller, the radicals who had supported Carlo turn on him. They have, after all, offered him shelter in Paris, where many of them had gathered as political exiles, and now he appears to have denigrated the memory of their friend and the meaning of their cause.
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Manotti's style is reminiscent of James Ellroy, redefining and re-examining important historical events from the perspective of crime-noir. For Manotti, when dealing with the political and the historical, "crime fiction is very efficient". This sentiment is not unique to Escape. If you read Manotti's Inspector Daquin novels, such as Dead Horsemeat, you can see this approach is her signature. She believes that noir can be "an assessment, an inventory of sorts, of the current situation". Although she admits that, despite the power of the genre and its potential to be "a disturbance", there is still the possibility that its potential is overlooked because of many "mediocre" works. Escape is certainly not mediocre, and it is definitely a disturbance. As with all of Manotti's books, it is compelling, intelligent and unsettling. Even if you don't fully understand the political situation that began in Italy during the 1960s and echoed all the way through to Escape's 1980s setting, Manotti boils larger concerns down to a personal level, cutting to the emotional core of her story.
Manotti may have politics at heart, but she also creates vivid and complex characters, with whom she says she "lives" during the writing of a book, exploring their personalities and tics and quirks. This results in fiction that satisfies on both an emotional and thematic level. Escape may be one of her most intensely character-led books yet. Filippo is a tragic, compelling and wonderfully realised creation, his internal conflict as fascinating as the action occurring around him. And Carlo, even after his death, remains a magnetic and dynamic presence.
Given Manotti's background, one is tempted to wonder whether her characters reflect her own experience. But while Escape explores the line between fiction and reality, Manotti is adamant that readers should never confuse character with author. Her insistence brings to mind the prologue of her earlier novel, Loraine Connection: "Warning. This is a novel. Everything is true and everything is false." Manotti's truths are emotional and political but, unlike Filippo, her stories are pure fiction.
Dominique Manotti is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Friday