Yesterday I read A Sun for the Dying (published 2008) by Jean-Claude Izzo. This novel tells the harrowing story of homelessness in France. The story of middle-aged but already ancient Rico is told without sentimentality or horror, beyond the obvious horror of living without money or a home or any security at all. Rico is living in a Paris that is without romance or warmth, as demonstrated by the opening scene in which a homeless man dies alone and unnoticed in the metro stop of Menilmontant. (This neighborhood of Menilmontant was the setting for the beautiful 1956 movie, “The Red Balloon”; it was then and is now a working-class neighborhood).
The homeless people in this book range from the young (an Algerian kid burned to disfigurement by the steamer ship he stowed away on) to the middle-aged because no one makes it to old age when they are homeless. Some of the people are criminals but most are not; some are alcoholics and drug addicts and some weren’t before becoming homeless but are now because it is the easiest way to forget the misery. Winter is coming and the cold and the damp are seeping in. Rico knows that he is dying and he decides to return to Marseilles, where he is sure to find the sun. He was happy once in Marseilles and wants to die there.
Through flashbacks and remembrances and changes in point of view, we discover the history of Rico and how he became homeless. The plot moves back and forth, from happier times in Marseilles to the present time in Paris and the years in between. I wanted Rico to make it back to Marseilles in time, back to the lighthouse. I wanted him to be able to sit against its hard but warmed stone and look out over the huge, glittering expanse of the Mediterranean.
Izzo writes in short prose that catches both the harshness of Rico’s reality and the abrasive and fragmented quality of Rico’s thoughts. Izzo’s staccato prose is also effective at capturing the briefness and intensity of those moments when Rico finds beauty and connection, and his interludes of escape from the truth that “we are nothing.”
There are no stereotypes in the novel, just realistic portrayals of what happens when fate twists horribly against you. Despite the conditions to which they have been reduced, the characters in A Sun for the Dying are achingly human in their elastic and persevering desires, even when the desire is just to die in the sun.
Speaking of desire, there is an awful (and I use that word deliberately) lot of sexual desire in the book, although Rico is always claiming he is no longer interested. He is fixated on his ex-wife’s behind and all he was allowed to enjoy there, and he rants on about how much he misses that special place. In the end his ranting desire leads to violence, and it is not surprising. Most of the sex in the book reeks of violence and violation and deceit, and women are not portrayed with any great affection (other than Rico’s first love, who is the only woman in the book who is neither whore nor hellion).
A Sun for the Dying was translated by Howard Curtis.