A New York Times “100 Notable Books of 2019”
Inspiration for the major motion picture Mama Weed
Translated from the international bestseller La Daronne
Winner of the European Crime Fiction Prize and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, France’s most prestigious prize for crime fiction
“Exuberant… Maybe crime doesn’t pay, but the guile and guts and humour with which Patience approaches this extreme solution to her desperate situation, right under the noses of law enforcement, is admirable, as are her survival instincts. Readers will be anxious about the fate of the forthright, sympathetic Patience up to the final page. It’s no surprise that this novel won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, France’s most prestigious award for crime fiction.” Publishers Weekly , starred review
Meet Patience Portefeux, a fifty-three-year-old, underpaid Franco-Arab interpreter for the Ministry of Justice who specializes in phone tapping. Widowed after the sudden death of her husband, Patience is now wedged between university fees for her grown-up daughters and nursing home costs for her aging mother.
Happening upon an especially revealing set of police wiretaps ahead of all other authorities, Patience makes a life-altering decision that sees her intervening in and infiltrating the machinations of a massive drug deal. She thus embarks on an entirely new career path: Patience becomes The Godmother.
This is not the French idyll of postcards and stock photos. With a gallery of traffickers, dealers, police officers, and politicians, The Godmother casts its sharp and amusing gaze on everyday survival in contemporary France. With an unforgettable woman at its center, Hannelore Cayre’s bestselling novel reveals a European criminal underground that has rarely been seen.
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About the Author
Hannelore Cayre is an award-winning French novelist, screenwriter, and director, and a practicing criminal lawyer. Her works include Legal Aid , Masterpieces , and Like It Is in the Movies . She has directed several short films and the adaptation of Commis d’office ( Legal Aid ) is her first feature-length film. Cayre lives in Paris. After working as a lawyer in Sydney and London, Stephanie Smee made her literary translation debut with an English translation of the Countess de Ségur’s Fleurville Trilogy.
Read an Excerpt
Money is everything
My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money. For them it wasn't an inert substance stashed away in a suitcase or held in some account. No. They loved it as a living, intelligent being that can create and destroy, that possesses the gift of reproduction. Something mighty that forges destinies, that separates beauty from ugliness, winners from losers. Money is Everything; the distillation of all that can be bought in a world where everything is for sale. It is the answer to every question. It is the pre-Babel language that unites mankind.
They had lost everything, it must be said, including their country. Nothing was left of my father's French Tunisia, nothing of my mother's Jewish Vienna. Nobody for him to talk to in his patouète dialect, nor for her in Yiddish. Not even corpses in a cemetery. Nothing. It had all been erased from the map, like Atlantis. And so they bonded in their solitude, putting down roots in the no man's land between a motorway and a forest, where they built the house in which I was raised, grandiosely named The Estate. A name that conferred the inviolable and sacred trappings of the Law on that bleak scrap of earth; a sort of constitutional guarantee that never again would they be booted away from anywhere. The Estate was their Israel.
My parents were wogs, vulgar foreigners, outsiders. Raus. Nothing but the shirt on their back. Like all those of their sort, they hadn't had much of a choice. Either gratefully accept any job they could get, whatever the working conditions, or else engage in some serious wheeling and dealing, relying on a community of like-minded people. They didn't take long to make up their minds.
* * *
My father was the General Manager of a trucking company that traded under the name Mondiale, with the slogan Everything. Everywhere. You don't hear the job description "General Manager" anymore (as in What does your dad do? He's a General Manager ...) but in the '70s, it was a thing. It went with duck à l'orange, yellow polyester roll-neck jumpers over mini-culottes, and braid-trimmed telephone covers.
He made his fortune sending his trucks to the so-called shit- hole countries of the world, with names ending in -an, like Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, etc. To get a job with Mondiale you had to have first done time, because according to my father, only somebody who'd been locked up for at least fifteen years could cope with being stuck in a truck's cab for thousands of miles, and would defend his cargo with his life.
I can still see myself as if it were yesterday. I'm standing next to the Christmas tree, wearing a little navy-blue velvet dress with my patent leather Froment-Leroyer shoes, surrounded by scarred types clutching pretty little coloured parcels in their stranglers' hands. The administrative staff of Mondiale were all of similar ilk. They consisted exclusively of pieds-noirs, my father's French colonial compatriots, men as dishonest as they were ugly. Only Jacqueline, his personal assistant, added a dash of glamour to the tableau. With her large, teased-up chignon, into which she would coquettishly pin a diadem, this daughter of a man condemned to death for wartime collaboration had a flashy look about her that stemmed from her Vichy childhood.
This cheerful, unsavoury team, over which my father presided with a romantic paternalism, allowed him to engage in the covert transportation of so-called extras. So, in the years leading up to the '80s, Mondiale and its royally remunerated employees got rich, first bringing over morphine base in league with my father's Corsican pied-noir mates, then branching out into weapons and ammunition. Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan ... I'm not ashamed to say, my very own dad was the Marco Polo of the thirty glorious post-war years, reopening the trade routes between Europe and the East.
* * *
Any criticism whatever of The Estate was seen by my parents as a symbolic attack, to the point where even amongst ourselves we never so much as alluded to the slightest negative aspect of its position: not the deafening noise of the road which meant we had to shout to make ourselves heard; not the black, sticky dust which seeped into everything; not the house-rattling vibrations, nor the extreme peril of those six lanes which made the simple act of getting home without causing a pile-up a minor miracle.
My mother would start to slow down 300 metres before the gate, reaching the driveway in first gear, hazard lights on, amidst an angry hail of horns. My father, on the rare occasions he was there, practised a form of vehicular terrorism in his Porsche as he braked, his V8 screaming as he decelerated from two hundred to ten in a matter of metres, forcing whoever had the misfortune of following him to swerve terrifyingly. As for me, I never had any visitors, for obvious reasons. Whenever a friend asked where I lived, I lied. Nobody would have believed me anyway.
* * *
In my child's mind, we were somehow different. We were the People of the Road.
Five different events, taking place over thirty years, confirmed our singularity. In 1978, at number 27, a thirteen-year-old boy massacred his two parents and his four brothers and sisters in their sleep with a garden tool. When he was asked why, he replied that he'd needed a change. At number 47, in the '80s, there was a particularly sordid affair involving an old man who had been locked up and tortured by his own family. Ten years later, at number 12, a "marriage agency" set up shop; in fact, it was a prostitution network of Eastern European girls. At number 18, they found a mummified couple. And just recently, at number 5, a jihadist weapons cache was uncovered. It's all in the papers. I'm not making any of it up.
How come all these people had chosen to live in that particular spot?
For some of them, my parents included, the answer was simple. Money likes the shadows and there are shadows to spare along the edge of a motorway. As for the others, it was the road itself that drove them mad.
* * *
We People of the Road were different. If we were at the dinner table and heard the screeching of tires, we would stop talking, forks suspended in mid-air. Then would come the extraordinary sound of crunching metal, followed by a remarkable calm, as other drivers, with an air of funereal restraint, processed slowly past the tangled mess of chassis and flesh those people had become; people who, like themselves, had been on their way somewhere.
If it happened outside our place, around number 54, my mother would call the fire brigade and we would leave our meal unfinished to go to the accident, as she would say. We would bring out our folding chairs and meet the neighbours. On the weekend, it would usually happen around number 60 where the most popular nightclub in the area had set up, with its seven different dance zones. Nightclubs mean accidents. Lots of them. It's crazy how often blind drunk people would pile into a car only to die there, carrying away with them those happy families who'd set off on their holidays in the middle of the night so they could wake up at the seaside.
So, the People of the Road witnessed up-close a considerable number of tragedies involving the young and the old, dogs, bits of brain and bits of belly ... What always surprised me was that we never heard a single cry from any of the victims. Barely a muttered oh là là, even from those who managed to stagger up to us out of the wreckage.
* * *
During the year, my parents would go to ground like rats within their four walls, devoting themselves to tax-saving schemes of avant-garde complexity and closely monitoring the smallest external display of wealth. In this way they hoped to keep the Beast off their scent, luring it away to fatter prey.
Once we were on holiday, though, out of the French jurisdiction, we lived like multi-millionaires alongside American movie stars in Swiss or Italian hotels in Bürgenstock, Zermatt or Ascona. Our Christmases were spent at the Winter Palace in Luxor or the Danieli in Venice, and there my mother came to life.
As soon as she arrived, she would head straight for the luxury boutiques to buy clothes, jewellery and perfume, while my father did his rounds, harvesting brown paper envelopes stuffed with cash. In the evenings, he would draw up at the front of the hotel in the white convertible Thunderbird that somehow managed to accompany us on our offshore peregrinations. The same went for the Riva, which would appear as if by magic on the waters of Lake Lucerne or the Grand Canal in Venice.
* * *
I still have lots of photos from these Fitzgeraldian holidays, but there are two that convey it all.
The first is of my mother wearing a pink-flowered dress, posing next to a palm tree that's cutting the summer sky like a green spray. She's holding up her hand to shield her already weak eyes from the sunlight.
The other is a photo of me beside Audrey Hepburn. It was taken at the Belvedere on August 1st, Swiss National Day. I'm eating a huge strawberry melba ice cream drowning in Chantilly cream and syrup, and there's a magnificent fireworks display which is reflected in Lake Lucerne. My parents are on their feet, dancing to a Shirley Bassey song. I'm tanned and wearing a blue Liberty dress with smocking which brings out the Patience-blue of my eyes, as my father had taken to describing their colour.
It's a perfect moment. I'm radiating well-being like an atomic pile.
The actress must have sensed my immense happiness because quite spontaneously she came to sit next to me and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.
"A fireworks collector."
"A fireworks collector! But how are you planning to collect something like that?"
"In my mind. I'm going to travel the world and see them all."
"Why, you're the first fireworks collector I've ever met! Enchantée."
Then she called over one of her friends to take a photograph so he could immortalize this unscripted moment. She had two copies printed. One for me and one for her. I lost mine and forgot it had even existed until I happened to see hers again in an auction catalogue, with the description: The Little Fireworks Collector, 1972.
That photo captured the promise of my former life: a life with a future far more dazzling than all the time which has now passed since that August 1st.
After an entire holiday racing around Switzerland in search of an outfit or a handbag, my mother would spend the evening before our departure cutting off the labels from all the new clothes she had accumulated and decanting the content of her perfume bottles into shampoo bottles in case the inquisitors at customs demanded where we had found the money for all these fancy new purchases.
So why was I called Patience?
Because you were born at ten months, of course. Your father always told us it was the snow that had stopped him getting the car out to come and see you after the birth, but the truth is that after such a long wait, he was devastated to have a girl. And you were enormous ... 5 kilos ... a real monster ... and so ugly, with half your head crushed by the forceps ... When you were finally dragged out of me, there was so much blood it looked like I'd stepped on a mine. It was carnage! And for what? A girl! The injustice!
* * *
I'm fifty-three years old. My hair is long and completely white. It went white very young, as did my father's. For a long time I dyed it because I was embarrassed, then one day I was sick of having to keep an eye on my roots and I shaved my head to let it grow out. Today it seems to be all the rage ... Whatever, it goes nicely with my Patience-blue eyes, and clashes less and less with my wrinkles.
My mouth is slightly lopsided when I speak, so that the right-hand side of my face is a bit less wrinkled than the left. It's the result of a subtle hemiplegia caused by my initial crushing. It gives me a slightly working- class look, which, together with my strange hairstyle, is not uninteresting. I'm fairly solidly built, carrying 5 kilos extra — after putting on 30 during each of my two pregnancies when I gave free rein to my passion for large colourful cakes, fruit jellies and ice creams. At work I wear monochrome suits — grey, black or anthracite — that are unaffectedly elegant.
I take care always to be well-groomed so my white hair doesn't make me look like some old beatnik. Not that I'm obsessed by how I look; at my age I find that sort of vanity a bit sad. I just want people to say to themselves when they look at me: Wow! That woman's in good shape! Hairdressers, manicurists, beauticians, hyaluronic acid fillers, intense pulsed light treatments, well-cut clothes, good quality makeup, day and night creams, siestas ... I've always had a Marxist view of beauty. For a long time, I couldn't afford to be fresh and beautiful; now that I can, I'm catching up. If you could see me now, on the balcony of my lovely hotel, you'd think I was the spitting image of Heidi on her mountain.
People say I'm bad-tempered, but I think this is hasty. It's true that I'm easily annoyed, because I find people slow and often uninteresting. For example, when they're banging on about something I couldn't give a crap about, my face involuntarily takes on an impatient expression which I find hard to hide, and that upsets them. So, they think I'm unfriendly. It's the reason I don't really have any friends, just acquaintances.
There is also this: I suffer from a slight neurological peculiarity. My brain conflates several of my senses, meaning I experience a different reality to other people. For me, colours and shapes are linked to taste and feelings of well-being or satiety. It's a strange sensory experience, difficult to explain. The word is ineffable.
Some people see colours when they hear sounds, others associate numbers with shapes. Others again have a physical sense of time passing. My thing is that I taste and feel colours. It doesn't make any difference that I know they're just a quantum conversation between matter and light; I can't help feeling that they form part of the very body of things. Where others see a pink dress, I see pink matter, composed of little pink atoms, and when I'm looking at it, I lose myself in its infinite pinkness. This gives rise to a sensation of both well-being and warmth, but also to an uncontrollable desire to bring the dress in question to my mouth, because for me, the colour pink is also a taste. Like "the little patch of yellow wall" in Proust's The Prisoner, which so absorbs the character as he looks at Vermeer's View of Delft. I'm convinced Proust must have caught the man who inspired his character of Bergotte in the act of licking the painting, but then left it out of his novel on the grounds that it was just too crazy and gross.
* * *
As a child I was always swallowing bits of paint from walls as well as monochrome plastic toys. On several occasions I narrowly escaped death, until one doctor, more imaginative than the rest, went beyond the banal diagnosis of autism to discover I had bimodal synaesthesia. This condition finally explained why, when served a dish of mixed-up colours, I would spend the meal sorting the contents, my face ravaged by nervous tics.
The doctor recommended to my parents that they should let me eat what I wanted, provided I found the food on offer aesthetically pleasing and it wasn't going to poison me — pastel-coloured candy, Sicilian cassata, profiteroles filled with pink and white cream, ice cream stuffed with little pieces of rainbow-coloured candied fruit. It was he, too, who came up with the ruse of giving me paint colour charts to leaf through and rings set with big, colourful stones that I could gaze at for hours, chewing my cheek, my mind a total blank.
Which brings me to fireworks ... When those sprays of incandescent chrysanthemums appear in the sky, I experience a coloured emotion so profoundly vivid that I'm simultaneously saturated with joy and replete. Like an orgasm.
Collecting fireworks ... It would feel like being at the centre of a gigantic gang bang with the entire universe.
* * *
As for Portefeux ... well, that's my husband's name. The man who protected me for a while from the cruelty of the world and who granted me a life of delights and satisfied desires. For those marvellous years we were married, he loved me as I was, with my chromatic sexuality, my passion for Rothko, my lolly-pink dresses and my complete lack of practicality rivalled only by my mother's.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Godmother"
Copyright © 2017 Hannelore Cayre.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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