HANNELORE CAYRE

THE GODMOTHER

French author Hannelore Cayre trained as a criminal lawyer and works at the Paris Court of Appeal. She is a screenwriter, novelist, actress and director.

The Godmother was translated into English by Stephanie Smee. It has been made into a film entitled MAMA WEED, scripted by Cayre and starring Isabelle Huppert in the title role.

 

 

About The God mother

Meet Patience Portefeux – 53 years old, widowed mother of two, fluent Arabic speaker, upstanding French citizen… and soon to become The Godmother.
For 25 years she has toiled honestly, translating police wire-taps of north African drug gangs. She knows she’s just a footsoldier in a senseless politicians’ war against high-grade hashish, a tiny cog in the state machinery of racism and repression. But it’s always paid the bills – until now.
The scrimping French state pays its translators ‘off the books’, meaning there’ll be no pension to reward her long years of service. With her mother’s extortionate care home eating her savings, a lonely and impoverished old age lies ahead. So when Patience gets the chance to take possession of a vast stash of top-quality Moroccan Khardala, she doesn’t hesitate long. Exit the grey-suited civil servant. Enter The Godmother. Life in the banlieues will never be the same again.

The Godmother is published by Old Street Publishing in the UK and ECW Press in Canada.

Staunch says

We loved seeing this older female protagonist break out of the grindingly thankless role of mother paying for her daughters’ education and daughter paying for her mother’s care.  Her job gives no status, no security,  little recognition and no pension up ahead. No wonder she grabs the opportunity – one she’s helped orchestrate – to insert herself into the hugely profitable traffik of Morocan hashish that comes into Paris regularly. With a mighty stash in her basement and an ear on the phone conversations she’s meant to translate, she has all the info she needs to start cutting take-it-or-leave it deals with some of the game’s most dangerous players. All this under the eye of husband to be, police commander Philippe.

Cayre has created an unforgettable character in Mme Portefeux, a white-haired, overlooked, exploited woman who the world has badly underestimated. As the new  drugs boss running rings around the dealers and police squads, we’re reminded that woman are always capable of the unexpected.  Exciting, daredevil fun, this comedy thriller sees Cayre’s obvious outrage at social injustice and hypocracy blazing from its pages through Patience’s exasperated, ever-practical, often angry determination. A great story, well executed by a writer who knows that world and confidently put a woman at the heart of its disruption. I can see Isabelle Huppert relishing this role when she plays Patience Portefeux in the up-coming adaptation, Mother Weed.

READ THE OPENING CHAPTERS OF THE GODMOTHER

1

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 wops, 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 15 years could cope with being stuck in a cabin 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 pied-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 three hundred 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 30 years, confirmed our singularity. In 1978, at number 27, a 13-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 tyres, 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 immortalise 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… five 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 53 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 five kilos extra – after putting on thirty 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 make-up, 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.

We began our conjugal life in magnificent apartments, rented with the fruit of his labour. I say rented deliberately – as in creditor-protected – because like my father, my husband did business of an unspecified nature that nobody knew anything about except insofar as it afforded us a significant degree of material comfort. It never occurred to people to interrogate him on the subject, such was his generosity, his breeding, the seriousness of his manner.

He, too, made his money thanks to the so-called shit-hole countries of the world, offering consulting services for the development of national lottery systems. In short, he sold his expertise in the French system, the Pari Mutuel Urbain, to the leaders of African nations or Central Asian countries like Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan. You can picture the scene. I personally became very familiar with that end-of-the-road ambiance, over numerous stays in improbable international hotels, both with him and with my own family. They were the only places where the air-conditioning worked and the alcohol was decent, where mercenaries rubbed shoulders with journalists, businessmen and criminals on the run, and the peaceful ennui in the bar lent itself to lazy chitchat. Not so different, for those in the know, to the cottonwool atmosphere of the common areas in psychiatric hospitals or in the spy novels of Gérard de Villiers.

 

We met in Muscat, in the sultanate of Oman; the same place he died as we celebrated our seven-year wedding anniversary.

At breakfast, the morning after our first night together, without even realising what he was doing, he buttered my toast to look like my favourite painting. A rectangle of toast, half covered with strawberry jam, plain butter on a quarter of the remaining surface, and, finally, orange marmalade spread to the very edge. White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) by Rothko.

Unbelievable, right?

When I married him, I thought I would lead a carefree life of love forever. I hadn’t the slightest inkling that anything as dreadful as an aneurism in mid-belly laugh could lie in store. But that’s how he died, opposite me, at the age of 34, at the Grand Hyatt in Muscat.

When I saw him collapse head-first into his plate of salad I felt an indescribable pain. As if an apple-corer had plunged into the centre of my body and extracted my spirit in one piece. I wanted nothing more than to run away or else sink into a merciful faint, yet there I remained, stuck to my chair, fork mid-air, surrounded by people continuing quietly with their meal.

At that very moment – at precisely that moment, not a second earlier – my life truly turned to shit.

 

Things got off to a flying start with hours spent waiting in an incongruous police station, surrounded by suitcases and with two little girls going crazy in the heat, under the insolent stares of the Sultanate’s police officers. I still have nightmares about it: clutching my passport, doing my best to soothe my two girls who are dying of thirst, smiling feebly at humiliating comments that I’m supposed not to understand. Me – the one who speaks Arabic.

Apparently it was too complicated to repatriate my husband’s body. In the end a sneering functionary gave me a permit to bury him at Petroleum Cemetery – the only place that would accept kafirs – while simultaneously debiting an exorbitant amount from my credit card.

So that’s how you find yourself aged 27, alone with a newborn and a two-year-old, with no income and no roof over your head. Because it took less than a month for us to be thrown out of our beautiful apartment on Rue Raynouard with its view over the Seine. Our handsome furniture was sold, and as for our leather-upholstered Mercedes, one day the hunchbacked old erotomaniac with a string of convictions who had been my husband’s driver just took off with it, leaving me and my girls stranded outside the lawyer’s office.

Naturally it wasn’t long before I came crashing down. I already had a tendency to talk to myself and eat flowers, but one afternoon I walked out of the Céline boutique on Rue François Ier as if in a trance, dressed head to toe in new clothes and muttering to nobody in particular, Good bye, I’ll pay later! When two poor security dudes, all in black and with ear-pieces, accosted me before I reached the door, I lashed out and bit them, drawing blood. I was taken straight to the madhouse.

I spent eight months with the lunatics, contemplating my previous life. Like a shipwreck survivor with her gaze stubbornly fixed on the empty sea, I waited for somebody to come to the rescue. People told me to get over my grief, as if it were a kind of illness I had to be cured of at any cost, but I just couldn’t do it.

My two girls, too young to have the slightest memory of their fabulous father, forced me to face up to my new life. Did I have a choice? First I counted the days, then the months that had passed since my husband’s death; then one day, without even noticing, I stopped counting.

I was a new woman, mature, sad, and ready for combat. An anomaly, an odd sock. I was the widow Portefeux!

I separated myself from what remained of my past: from my enormous Paraiba tourmaline cabochon, my pink Padparadscha sapphire, my Fancy Blue and Pink diamond toi et moi ring, and my fire opal. All the colours that had accompanied me from childhood. I sold everything so I could buy myself a dreary little three-room apartment in Paris-Belleville with a view onto a courtyard that gave onto another courtyard. It was a dump where night ruled the day and colours didn’t exist. The building was in keeping; an old red-brick community housing block from the 1920s with cheap finishes, overrun by Chinese who shouted at each other all day long.

Then I got down to work. Ah, yes, work… Before being written out of the happily ever after script by some malevolent entity, I’d had no idea what it involved. And since I had nothing else to offer the world besides an intimate acquaintance with every kind of chicanery and a doctorate in Arabic, I became a court interpreter.

 

After such a precipitous collapse in my financial circumstances, I was always going to raise my daughters in hysterical fear of a drop in social status. I paid too much for their schools, screamed at them when they got bad marks, had a hole in their jeans or had greasy hair. I’m not ashamed to admit I was a difficult mother, not at all the nurturing type.

With their stellar academic records, my two genius daughters are now working in the services sector. I’ve never understood quite what their work entails; they’ve tried to explain a hundred times, but I tune out before I get it. Let’s just say we’re talking about those dumb-ass jobs where you fade away in front of some computer screen making things that don’t really exist and adding nothing of value to the world. Their careers are like the words in that song by Orelsan: No one’s gonna find fixed work / even with straight As and eight years’ study, you’re gonna have to fight / my pizza delivery guy knows how to fix a satellite!

But I’m proud of them, and if they were ever hungry I‘d cut off my arms to feed them. That said, the truth is we don’t have much to say to each other. So I’ll leave it there, except to declare, loud and proud, that I love them, those girls of mine. They’re magnificent, honest, and they’ve always accepted their fate without batting an eyelid. All of which is more than can be said for me. It seems that I am the last in the family line of adventurers.

 

The auctioneer charged with getting rid of all my rings after I emerged from the madhouse – Sale of the Contents of Madame P.’s Jewellery Case, a Discerning Collector – continued to send me his catalogues filled with jewels and other magnificent objects, no doubt believing that I was some high-net-worth individual.

At night, when everybody was asleep and the house was finally silent, I would sit at my desk with a glass of Guignolet Kirsch and religiously leaf through the luxury brochures. Reading each description, examining every photograph, I would play imagine the house burns down and you rip off the insurance company. I adore old things: they’ve witnessed the lives of so many people and you never get tired of looking at them, the way you do with new things.

It’s remembering details like this which makes me realise that even in the depths of my grief, I’ve always been open to positive ideas. I’ve never felt desperate enough to contemplate suicide; for that you need a spiritual strength I’ve just never had.

To get to the point: more than twenty years after scattering all I held dear to the winds, I stumbled across the photo of The Little Fireworks Collector, valued between 10,000 and 15,000 euros.

Obviously I had to buy it back.

 

On the appointed day I turned up at Artcurial auctioneers at the end of the Champs-Elysées. I was scared to death. Scared I’d miss out on the print, that the price would soar out of my reach. Scared of all those well-dressed people having fun with their money. Scared of being outed as an impostor in my pathetic chalk-coloured suit, with my expression to match.

I hung back until it came to my lot. It was an original colour print, showing the Belvedere terrace, 50cm x 40cm. The decor was typical of the 1970s: stone, glass and blonde wood furniture. In the background, a firework was about to explode into the deep-blue sky. Audrey Hepburn was wearing a magnolia-pink Givenchy dress. Her face was right next to mine, and in the foreground, in pride of place, sat my strawberry Melba ice-cream. Everything was exactly as it should be; the absolute perfection of a moment fixed in time forever.

 

— Lot 240, an unpublished and unique shot by Julius Shulmann in a departure from his usual Californian villas… The Little Fireworks Collector, 1972. This is an original print given to the actress and not catalogued in the Paul Getty collection. Everybody will have recognised Audrey Hepburn next to that pretty little blonde girl with the blue eyes in front of her beautiful ice cream. I have 10,000 euros… 11,000, 11,500, 12,000, 13,000…

 

I panicked. I felt like screaming: Stop! That little girl with the golden skin – that’s me! Look at me, look what I’ve become! Can I not at least be allowed this?

At 14,500, the bidding stalled… once, twice15,000, I cried… 15,000 at the back of the room… and my rival, a guy who looked young enough to be my son, gestured that he was done.

With the fees I got it for 19,000 euros. Me, the little court translator, who prided herself on never using credit – I’d cracked for a photo.

I went home with my treasure and hung it opposite my desk. My daughters simply couldn’t understand why on earth I’d suddenly bought this portrait of a cheerful little blonde girl to decorate the living room, when the rest of our apartment – apart from the pink carpet with orange flowers – had always been so grim. Had I told them I’d indebted myself for the next five years, they would have thought I’d lost my mind. Not for one second did they make the connection with their mother.

How sad is that?

 

I started my career as an interpreter in the summary courts.

You should have seen me in those days. I put such heart into my work. I thought I was indispensable, bending over backwards to translate each nuance and register, everything the defendants wanted to express to those who sat in judgement over them.

I felt infinitely sorry for many of the Arabs whose words I reproduced in those trials. Men who were extraordinarily poor, with little education; impoverished migrants looking for an El Dorado that didn’t exist, forced into a life of small-time criminality and petty theft so as not to die of hunger.

It didn’t take me long to realise that nobody was interested in my nuance or my register. The interpreter was simply a tool to accelerate the act of repression. You only have to listen to how the magistrates speak during these hearings, not varying their delivery one iota regardless of whether or not the interpreter is keeping up, regardless of whether or not the guy in the box is following.

I was an evil rendered necessary by the principles of human rights, nothing more. My presence was given barely a grudging acknowledgment – is the interpreter here? Yes? Good, then we can start… – before the process got underway. You’re charged with having committed in Paris and, in any event, within the relevant statutory limitation period… blah… blah… blah… And so on, without drawing breath, for the next ten minutes.

It was particularly moving to watch my colleagues who worked in sign language, as they gestured furiously like short-circuited robots in an effort to translate a tiny fraction of whatever they had managed to grasp. Yet if one of us were impertinent enough to ask for a pause to make ourselves understood by the poor wretch for whom we were responsible (and who wasn’t picking up a damned thing), the magistrate would adopt a pained look and close his eyes as if to say I’m just going to hum a little tune in my head while I wait for this moment to pass. Naturally the bothersome person in question would be marked down as a nit-picker and never asked back.

 

I very quickly stopped trying.

When I felt sorry for my guy, I sometimes managed to slip in a few things in Arabic amidst the torrent of words pouring from the judge. Things like: Just tell these ass-holes what they want to hear so we can get this over with – you were in such a hurry to leave France and go back home, you only stole so you could afford a return ticket.

For the more complicated cases involving several charges, when I had phone taps to translate, I sometimes invented things to help those defendants I thought were most deserving of pity. But I could also do the opposite and decide to sink them, especially when it was a matter of protecting their poor wives, naïve girls who were totally under their thumbs. As the prostitutes or mistresses stacked up, those bastard husbands, whose filthy intimacy I shared through my headphones, treated them like dogs. The cynicism of these men knew no bounds, as they registered their business phone lines, the cars they used for their trafficking, and the property they acquired with laundered cash in their wives’ names. I made sure to tell these women what I had heard over the telephone intercepts, to show them what idiots they were being so at least they would stop showing up twice a week in the visitors’ room laden with sacks of their husband’s laundry, like mules.

 

Another thing: I was paid under the table by the government department employing me, which meant I had no taxable income.

True karma, indeed.

It’s quite frightening when you think about it, that the translators and interpreters upon whom the security of the nation rests – those very people engaged in simultaneously interpreting the plots cooked up by Islamists in their cellars and garages – are working illegally, with no social security, no pension… Frankly, you could devise a better system, couldn’t you, in terms of incorruptibility.

Well, I find it pretty disturbing. And I have been corrupted.

INTERVIEW WITH HANNELORE CAYRE

Bridget Lawless talks to Hannlore Cayre

BL:  It’s wonderful to see an older, menopausal woman as the protagonist and criminal brains in a thriller. It was one of the things that really appealled to our judges. What urged you to choose a more mature character for this story?

HC:  When I dream, I’m always the age I really am. When I write it’s the same. I was 53 when I started writing this novel. Unlike men, a woman is lucky to live in very different states. This intersticial period, this dead angle that is the period of menopause, is a space of immense freedom. We are in shape and, at the same time, we are let go by men and their painful desire, by the children-vampire, by the society that has nothing left to sell us. We are freeeeeeee !  Finally free to be unworthy.

BL:  You’re a criminal lawyer working in the Paris Court of Appeal – I imagine that could be a good source for stories. Was The Godmother inspired by a particular case, or a certain character?  Are you tempted to raid that world for ideas?  And are French criminal lawyers, as Patience claims, really ‘a bunch of lying, unfaithful, narcissistic womanisers’, in your experience?

HC:  The criminal law specialists who really earn their money with violent crime are men. If criminals choose women to defend them, it is either because they are cheaper or because they want to have sex with them. It’s a macho world and I think it’s the same in comonlaw countries. Criminal layers are very funny to observe and describe because they are caricatures of themselves.

BL:  Patience Portefeux works as a French-Arabic translator within the Paris drugs squad. Does that role exist or did you invent it? It certainly provides the perfect opportunity for Patience to infiltrate the dealers’ operations.  In fact if she doesn’t exist in real life, it sounds as though she should!  Was it important to you that she was motivated in part by social injustice, racism – and lack of a pension – rather than pure greed?

HC:  This role, of course, exist but there is worse : https://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/01/politics/investigates-fbi-syria-greene/index.html

In France there was no one to tell me that my book was immoral (in fact it is) because all 50-year-old women are confronted, while they are starting to be tired of  working, to face enormous expenses: children studies and nursing home of their parents. It’s not greed but survival.

As for social injustice and racism, she is intelligent enough to understand that she will not change the world.

BL:  In one particularly sharp observation at the nursing home where her mother lives, Patience says, as if directly addressing her readers and the world at large:  Racists of all sides, you’d better know that the first and the last person who will feed you with a spoon and wash your private parts is a woman you despise!’  Do you use fiction as a way to get across things that you feel strongly about yourself? Or are these strictly the character’s feelings?

HC:  That’s not only my opinion, it’s just the truth.

BL:  In another example, Phillipe, Patience’s cop fiance, now Commander of the drug squad and about who she’s marvellously ambivalent, has one stand-out fault for her – he believes in God. You take the opportunity here to offer up a passage about a Saudi couple Patience encounters at the Natural History Museum – wondering what they make of dinosaurs. It’s a powerful and amusing insight – but not strictly essential to the plot – why did you include it? 

HC:  You are right. I have a big personal problem with religion. No doubt I spent too much time in a religious school.

BL:  You’re a novelist, screenwriter and director as well as carrying out your legal work. Which is closest to your heart ?

HC:  Novelist ; it’s the only one of those activities where there is no boss.

BL:  It’s great that The Godmother has been the inspiration for a film – Mama Weed starring Isabelle Huppert. How involved were you in the process?  Does it stick closely to the novel ?

HC:  I’m the scriptwriter. It stick to the novel except the childhood of Patience part. The character of the Chinese neighbour is more important in the screenplay.

BL:  The Staunch judges read The Godmother in an English translation by Stephanie Smee. Did you work together on that at all?

HC:  No. I never spoke to her. I imagine she lives in Tasmania surrounded by wombats. It’s crazy exoticism.

BL:  What are you working on now? Are there more thrillers in the pipeline?

HC:  I just finished my new book. This is the book I’m most proud of… And you know what ? The heroine is a disabled woman and her ancestor, a woman from the only matriarchal society of Europe, a woman who does not tell, for once, the story of the men who walked on her.