27 March 2007

Basque noir

Continuing the theme of loaned works, my enthusiasm for the brand of fiction many of us call "noir" resulted in Robert Laxalt's A Cup of Tea in Pamplona on my reading pile. My colleague Kevin, a French-speaking Mexican-American of Irish and Basque ancestry, introduced me to Prof. Laxalt, and his highly-regarded 1985 novella. I was immediately drawn to the world of smugglers, the rainy nights in the high mountains, and the themes of honor and identity among the Basque peasants. Crime and criminal organization is the center of the story, and a tragic death the key plot element. But is it noir? It lacked the lurid and sensational aspects of, say, Mickey Spillane, or the grim violence of Jim Thompson. But it had the crisp dialogue of the Cains (both James M. and Paul) and the fatalism of Hammett and Chandler. Laxalt gained fame as a chronicler of the Basque emigration to this country, in particular their unique stamp on the rural West. A Cup of Tea reads more like a memoir than a novel, the people are rough but not uncultured, the portraits loving but not sentimental. My sensitive and scholarly friend doesn't wrestle with silly distinctions about whether or not something fits the definition of noir, I imagine he's happy to leave that to me and other noir junkies. I'm just glad he knows a good read when he comes across one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are lucky to have such interesting friends (& vice versa)! This friend would like to tout Alan Furst, if you haven't read him; and I will point out that the Yreka Library has most of his books. I am fascinated by his works, and they are definitely noir, spy mysteries mostly set in the late 1930s and the WWII years in Europe. I think he is really prime on characterization, as well as genuinely heart-pounding (one critic said, 'palpable') and dark adventure. You might want to give him a try; the first book is "Night Soldiers". Keep on readin'n'bloggin', Mark -- we are enjoying your reviews and perspective, too. NOC