The Criminal’s City

In a recent French novel, an ordinary woman inadvertently becomes a drug kingpin—and does so by learning to see anew Paris’s urban landscape.

“Fourteen million cannabis users in France and 800,000 growers living off that crop in Morocco,” muses translator-turned-drug-kingpin Patience Portefeux in Hannelore Cayre’s novel The Godmother:

The two countries are friendly, and yet those kids whose haggling I listened to all day long were serving heavy prison sentences for having sold their hash to the kids of the cops who were prosecuting them and of the judges who were sentencing them, not to mention to all the lawyers who were defending them. It didn’t take long for them to become bitter and poisoned with hate. I can only think, though—even if my cop boyfriend insists I’m wrong—that this excess of resources, this furious determination to drain the sea of hash inundating France, teaspoon by teaspoon, is above all else a tool for monitoring the population insofar as it allows identity checks to be carried out on Arabs and Blacks ten times a day.

Portefeux is a 53-year-old, long-widowed mother of two. She is a daughter of immigrants—one a Tunisian pied-noir and the other Viennese Jewish—and works as an Arabic interpreter for a Parisian police department. Portefeux’s whole life is turned upside down, and the novel’s momentum begins, when she transforms, in an instant, from witness to participant: when, listening to police surveillance of Arabic-speaking drug dealers, she winds up stealing the stash. And, ultimately, dealing the drugs.

The brilliance of The Godmother rests not so much in Portefeux’s lucrative adventure, or her finesse as a dealer (her day job with the police now demands that she read transcripts of her business partners). Nor can the book’s genius be put down to the brazen way Portefeux remains romantically involved with the police detective heading the investigations into the deals she’s involved in. Nor, finally, can it be explained by the compelling central character herself: someone whose sensibilities were honed at the intersection of multiple diasporas (Eastern European, Jewish, North African, French, colonial, and more); who possesses a shopkeeper’s attention to every penny; and who applies her polyglot, no-nonsense intellect to a more creative version of old-style mafioso operations. All these elements make The Godmother good, but they are not what make it great.

Rather, what is most striking is Cayre’s ability to discern—in the quotidian landscapes of the Parisian suburbs—an alternate universe, where the illicit might take place in plain sight. After all, there must be an infrastructure able to accommodate all the organizational handiwork that is necessary to live outside the law. Portefeux observes: “There in the cellar were … one thousand two hundred kilos of top-quality frappe, at 5,000 euros a kilo. I hardly dared do the sums I was so overcome by my audacity. I had shifted 1.2 tonnes on my own back. Fifty-two Moroccan bags, each weighing 20 kilos, two per airtight container that I had filled one at a time, stacking them up as I went, as well as 160 loose 1-kilo blocks.”

We may read the banal landscapes of crumbling neighborhood swimming pools, of generic supermarkets where drugs and cash are exchanged, as devoid of anything of interest. But Cayre imbues them with magic. Urban spectacle resides less in grands projets than in the generic crush of storage units, warehouses, four-floor walk-ups, and corner bars. The novel renders these environments important beyond their usual function.

After all, without crime, cities sink into a malaise of self-satisfaction—they believe that they can get away with outlandish fantasies of never-ending glory. Crime reminds cities that only at their peril do they ignore all their nondescript landscapes replete with ostensibly boring jobs and boring people. It’s not so much that Cayre goes out of her way to heighten the visibility of these generic spaces. Rather, she makes clear that the capacity of Portefeux to radically alter her life absolutely depends on them.

Even though the novel offers many gifts, Portefeux’s winning story and voice is the glue that holds it together. At the start of the book, having resigned from her position as a court translator (in sympathy with all the French litigants of Arab descent who were repeatedly screwed over by white justice), Portefeux secures more-lucrative work: pouring over phone-tap transcripts of drug deals from her small flat in Belleville.

Equipped with a doctorate in Arabic, she is able to gloss her way through the diverse dialects of the Maghreb (that is, northwest Africa), further reworked in those Parisian urban districts where she spent her childhood. These districts are inhabited by what Portefeux calls “people of the road”—those who live in the massive estates spread out along highways in the middle of nowhere.

Portefeux herself grew up in a world full of the dissimulations of smugglers and felons. This is most evident in the childhood vacations she took with her parents, the sole purpose of which was to purchase and launder luxury items. Consequently, she acquired an ear for the vernaculars of the illicit.

Saddled with a mother who has always pretended to be what she was not—still very much alive, running up enormous bills in nursing homes for the demented—Portefeux can never relax. She is “part of that great, middle-class mass being strangled by its elderly.”

What is most striking is Portefeux’s ability to discern an alternate universe, where the illicit might take place in plain sight.

But then, by accident, Portefeux discovers that the nurse’s aide who cares for her mother is someone she knows from police surveillance: the mother of a Moroccan drug smuggler. The son is about to move an enormous amount of high-quality hashish—belonging to a wide array of different dealers—from the Moroccan fields to Paris. And the police, Portefeux knows, are expecting him.

Portefeux warns the nurse’s aide to tell her son that the police are onto him. She advises him to deviate momentarily from the route to hide the hash, before showing up at the expected destination so as not to arouse suspicion. Nevertheless, he is tracked and eventually is killed in prison. Meanwhile, his mother dies of a heart attack after being chased by his rival dealers—who think she had something to do with the disappearance of the goods.

Here is where Portefeux changes course. She has long seen her translation work as “an evil rendered necessary by the principles of human rights, nothing more.” Now she proceeds, with the help of a sniffer dog she has adopted to prevent it being put down, to find the hidden hash—an extraordinary 1.2 tons of it. She conceals the drugs in her building, under the noses of her fellow residents. But her Chinese neighbors—who, unbeknownst to her, are also involved in some seriously shady business—quickly realize what she is up to.


When Did Nature Become Moral?

By Hillary Angelo

Exuding the cynicism of a working class hardened by its distrust of republican virtues, its willingness to explore all kinds of solidarities with money, Portefeux has few moral qualms about her move from law enforcement to criminality. After all, “talk doesn’t cook rice.”

All this, in combination with her distaste for the racism of the criminal-justice system in which she once worked, leaves Portefeux broadly sympathetic toward those she sells drugs to. These, after all, are the same “people of the road” she watched being abused in court.

But whatever fellow feeling she might possess for the “people of the road,” no matter their origins, Portefeux has little tolerance for stupidity. Nor, I sense, does Cayre, who is quick to take any opportunity to insert the tired refrains of French secularism. Portefeux views all adherence to religion as stupid, particularly the dogged affiliation to Islam maintained by most of the dealers (whose transcripts she religiously delivers with precision, and to whom she plans to deliver her hashish stash). Indeed, many readers will bristle at Portefeux’s constant derogations of Islam and at her impatience with the invocations of Allah and the Quran made during the phone messages exchanged among the dealers.

In the case of Portefeux, however, this dislike of religion seems less a product of Islamophobia than of her sense that the routine invocation of religious sentiment might prevent these dealers from paying adequate attention to the dynamics of the street. To her mind, one should place faith in the dissimulative possibilities of the city and not in the surety of God. Reading the transcripts of deals involving high-class Tunisian entrepreneurs who specialize in lucrative, intricate cocaine deals, Portefeux wishes she could ascend to this level. Not to make more money—she clearly knows she will have enough—but to engage in transactions with those free from any nostalgic desire for divine intervention.

Despite Portefeux’s ability to decode the banal appearances of the urban environment, real life is replete with all the necessary stereotypes. When she first tries to unload the goods, Portefeux immediately recognizes the cast of characters that she had previously—in her work as a police interpreter—only known by voice:

Porsche Cayenne with tinted windows parked in a disabled parking spot and surrounded by discarded fast-food wrappers. Rap music and air-con blasting, doors open. They were fat bastards with stringy chin-strap beards minus the moustache, cropped pants, flip-flops, Fly Emirates Paris Saint Germain T-shirts accentuating rolls of lard. To top it off, a dash or two of summer-chic accessorizing: a Louis Vuitton clutch resting on the paunch along with Tony Montana mirrored sunnies. The complete look. The new orientalism.

The obviousness of these guys, her first customers, make things easy. But she also knows that she will have to hurry in her dealings with them, because, at some point, they are going to get caught.

In cities, Cayre Revals, the proportionality of what is good or bad, legal or illegal, real or not, is nearly impossible to determine for sure.

When you need to launder a lot of money, you have to act both as if you don’t have the money and as if you don’t need it. If the city provides an opportunity for making money under the radar, then this opening relies less on eliminating all traces of your actions than on flooding the city with many traces—so that those pursuing you end up getting exhausted by all the leads.

Laundering money is less about cleansing transactions than it is about adding a surfeit of stories to them: deals that allow you to purchase apartments without mortgages but with cash payments that don’t draw attention. Such stories might include life annuities with strange beneficiaries, betting licenses for bars, and under-the-table payments to nursing-home directors to hire supplemental staff. Money laundering—far from wiping out stories—ensures that people’s obligations to each other become thoroughly entangled in a cloud of complicities.

Laundering may afford incredible wealth, but it is also far from our common notion of private property or freehold. The convolutions of narrative may end with an outright title deed on some luxury apartment. But the thickened atmosphere—and the intricate architectures of mutual implication—don’t just disappear overnight. Disinfectant crews may be sent out en masse to clean up the city, but webs of infection persist even if they’re rendered temporarily dormant.

At one point, when Portefeux’s buyers are tailed by the cops, deals need to be incorporated into everyday routines. The buyers’ girlfriends or mothers, garbed in the niqab, head to the supermarket at a regular time. If a deal was on, Portefeux would head out

to the supermarkets at Drancy, Bondy or Romainville (all places with no shortage of veiled women) and deposit a blue bag containing 10 kilos of hash concealed beneath some vegetables at the left luggage service, in exchange for a numbered tag. She would then push her trolley around, while Scotch or his brother took a packet of Chamonix Orange cakes from the shelf, leaving an envelope with 40,000 euros under the packet below.

Instead of making the transactions at the far end of town or deep in the night, Portefeux uses the places where everyone goes, working off the assumption that it is almost unbelievable that illicit activities of this scale would go down in plain sight.

It is the very minutia of urban environments that might give you away, no matter the edifice of deception one has engineered. Whatever your lifestyle, detection depends less on grand tropes or big moves than on the small details of how and where you move, what you buy, or what momentarily captures your attention. It is these small details that link all of the disparate mysteries that you might assume characterize your life and that of others.

Portefeux’s cop boyfriend, she comes to realize, has figured out what she has been up to—after discovering way too many boxes of Chamonix Orange cakes in her kitchen cabinet. She had managed to hide her deals underneath a wealth of small details that wouldn’t draw anyone’s attention. But it is these very details, insignificant in themselves, that might scream out, if discovered out of place.


When Did Nature Become Moral?

By Hillary Angelo

Portefeux’s story seems extraordinary, but its concerns are, ultimately, ordinary. How many of us have waited for that call—that call that comes with dreaded news or, alternately, news that heralds a long-fantasized-about change? How many of us have been called upon to do something extraordinary, something we never expected nor really desired? But how many of us have dared—as Portefeux does—to shape the call’s message, so that both senders and recipients are steered away from the call’s intention? The Godmother takes many twists and turns, with dissimulation upon dissimulation; but it also highlights Portefeux’s capacity to be ready for further undefined adventures, whenever they may come.

Yes, here again, we might be in the position of waiting for the call, waiting to be beckoned toward some fate beyond our control. But as the book moves from Paris to China to Oman, each with its own distinctive temporalities, what becomes clear is that cities offer their own compressed narratives.

In cities—The Godmother reveals—the proportionality of what is good or bad, legal or illegal, real or not, is nearly impossible to determine for sure. But we do know that all these elements are at work, and that all seem to offer their own specific, very divergent, life trajectories. Cayre seems to emphasize that it is important not to waste too much time trying to identify what is what at any given point. We need to cease trying to categorize things and, rather, simply engage with the opportunities generic situations offer.

Too often we strive desperately to change our lives, to look for more perfect situations, those we feel are more compatible with who we are. In doing so, we often neglect the transformative potentials of the environments in which we already operate: all those seemingly mundane rooms and streets we pass through day after day.

The city’s situations may be generic, but not in the sense of faceless, standardized environments. Instead, these situations are forms of the real that permit Portefeux—and perhaps us—to engage in strange alliances: ones that skip and jump over the confines of good grammar, to a space where we might coauthor the message, whether it is from Allah or anyone else.


This article was commissioned by Sophie Gonick. icon

Featured image: Balzac 4000 (2013). Photograph by Sayf / Flickr