A review of Chez Max by Jakob Arjouni

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Chez Max
By Jakob Arjouni
Translation by Anthea Bell
No Exit Press
11 May 2009, ISBN-13: 978-1842432587

Set in 2064, Chez Max imagines a future that is dystopian and noir and altogether plausible. America’s economic fortunes have waned, while China’s have arisen. Meanwhile, Europe (or more accurately, the EU) has become a centralized police state, an embattled fortress dedicated to keeping out dangerous immigrants and keeping a keen watch over its own wayward citizens. All in the interests, naturally, of safeguarding their privileged lifestyle, not to mention those precious values that Europe has always stood for.

Like the best dystopian fiction, Arjouni’s novel holds up a mirror to our world. For since the attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001, our freedoms have been eroded in the interests of security, surveillance has become well nigh ubiquitous and not just military operations but many law enforcement operations as well seem to be governed by the pre-emptive principle – and a concomitant presumption of guilt. We too live in an age of fear and paranoia.

The story takes place in Paris, where Max works for a clandestine intelligence agency. His most important role is to prevent terrorist attacks, yet at the beginning of the novel Max shops his friend Leon for smoking – in this world, cigarettes are illegal – in order to bump up his arrest targets. So it goes. There is an anxious, frenetic, yet absurd quality to this society and to the story which Arjouni so skillfully weaves. It is like being on a ride that is bound for nowhere good, but which cannot be stopped. The translation is by Anthea Bell and it reads extremely well, as one has come to expect. Certain moments and passages evoke Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? and especially A Scanner Darkly. The coda of Chez Max could be this sentence taken from The Unquiet Grave:

As we re-live the horrors of the Dark Ages, of absolute States and ideological wars, the old platitudes of liberalism loom up in all their glory, familiar streets as we reel home furious in the dawn.

When did we lose the notion of progress and the confident belief that people and the world will inevitably get better?

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com