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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The N'Gustro Affair

Jean-Patrick Manchette

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To purchase The N'Gustro Affair

Title: The N'Gustro Affair
Author: Jean-Patrick Manchette
Genre: Novel
Written: 1971 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 187 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The N'Gustro Affair - US
The N'Gustro Affair - UK
The N'Gustro Affair - Canada
L'affaire N'Gustro - Canada
L'affaire N'Gustro - France
Die Affäre N'Gustro - Deutschland
Il caso N'Gustro - Italia
El caso N'Gustro - España
directly from: New York Review Books
  • French title: L'affaire N'Gustro
  • Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
  • With an Introduction by Gary Indiana

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an ugly story and characters, in a satisfyingly disturbing thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/9/2021 Sarah Weinman

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel, which occasionally overreaches its structural demands, doesn't reach the heights of Manchette's best work. It's also a bit too indebted to the Jim Thompson novels it clearly wants to emulate. But the muscular prose is vivid (...), and the examination of ideology gone rancid is gutting and powerful." - Sarah Weinman, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The N'Gustro Affair opens with a brief section of: "Various opinions of Henri Butron in the weeks following his death, and the first chapter then describes the last minutes of his life. Yes, right from the get-go Manchette hammers home that his protagonist -- and Henri Butron is the central figure in the novel -- got himself killed; the novel then circles (way) back and follows the course that led him to that point. Conveniently, Butron had been speaking into a small tape recorder in his final hours, and his killers take the tape with them, giving it to the man they answer to, Marshal George Clemenceau Oufiri, who then listens to it; most of the novel then alternates between chapters consisting of Butron's taped testimony and Oufiri and his cohorts in their villa retreat.
       Butron's death is an assassination that is staged, without much effort or conviction, as a suicide. The killers don't have to be too concerned about any serious investigation into it: the authorities are obviously complicit, and willing to go along with the story -- the assassin making a telephone call when the deed is done to let them know: "'Butron has just committed suicide,' he announces. 'You can come.'" and waiting for the police before disappearing into the night. Butron was obviously mixed up in something that made him an inconvenience to all involved -- but, beyond the mention of his having played a part "in the N'Gustro affair", Manchette takes his time in getting to that.
       Manchette presents a portrait of an amoral low-life, looking out only for himself -- though not always wisely, preferring to take risks, lashing out, and getting involved in shady dealings rather than even going through the motions of walking the straight and narrow, even when that would make things so much easier, even for himself. A doctor's son, he loathed and rebelled against his father's limited bourgeois existence. If not without some promise -- as a child: "His teachers considered him intelligent and assiduous, if somewhat dull" -- he indifferently strayed off any possible academic track. He maintained: "I'd always read voraciously. I could've been brilliant had I cared to be, but I didn't". (There are the occasional flashes of more traditional kinds of ambition later on, Butron aspiring to be a writer, and then trying his hand at writing screenplays, but they don't come to much.)
       The recording Butron made isn't a straightforward confession -- Butron feels no guilt about anything he's done -- but is revealing, all the way back to his wayward youth. He seems to take pride in his careless indifference, even as his actions also land him in jail and force him into a stint in the army. Then the money he inherited after the death of his father allowed him to live in relative comfort and without too much worry about earning a regular salary for a while.
       Even as a teen he affected a nihilistic attitude -- "Life is absurd" -- and was not attracted to any of the movements of the times: "God does not exist and Marxism is a con". His philosophy hardens over time:

     The only thing I had yet to understand in order to be a free man was that ideals are not real, and it was at this time that I understood that. Only sex and money were real. And for that matter if you had money you had sex, so long as you were young. And I was young, so only money was real.
       For all his big talk and crass actions, Butron does occasionally show a vulnerable, more human side. Remarkably, the Rouen-boy had never been to Paris until well into adulthood, his world until then so limited that he never even considered what he might be missing. He's quite taken by the big city when he finally sees it -- though he still always sees things very much through his eyes and experience:
     For my part, though, I was fascinated and don't mind saying so. To see the riches civilization had created was amazing, but at the same time, so was the poverty of existence. When I say poverty of existence I am not talking about commodities. I myself, for instance, had everything I wanted -- car, dishwasher, and all that. Or at least I had everything I needed. Stuff to show off to girls picked up and electrical appliances for convenience on the rare occasions when I had to eat at home. By "poverty of existence" what I mean is the degree to which life is shit. It is astonishing how shitty life is.
       When he gets pulled deeper into the conspiracy that will be his undoing, it's in no small part because he finds himself getting played, to his weaknesses: "He foxed me with art, and he foxed me with vanity". Butron lets himself get sucked in:
Things were looking up. Myself, I believed utterly in the idea. How tenacious illusions can be ! But then, were these really illusions ? It was hard to rid myself of the idea that hidden forces were at work.
       Of course, he's little more than a pawn in a world which much more powerful forces exercise their strict control over.
       The contrast to those listening to Butron's tape-recording -- specifically the two African power-players in the villa, Oufiri and Colonel Jumbo, works well. They are interesting characters, too -- Oufiri with only a high school education, but with a confident ease, while Sorbonne-educated Colonel Jumbo spends much of his time having sex (or trying to) upstairs (as Oufiri is also able to follow down below -- down to Jumbo: "working on Josyane at an increasingly defeatist cadence"). They are central to the N'Gustro affair -- the brazen kidnapping of Dieudonné N'Gustro, an inconvenient political figure from Zimbabwin, "the sort of leader that the Third World now produced [...] smiling alongside Mahomed Babu, embraced by Guevara, hosted by Chou En-lai".
       Butron gets drawn into and mixed up with this, African politics and colonial interests clashing, and N'Gustro the too-charismatic potential leader that various factions decide is better removed from the scene. It then becomes quite clear that: "The N'Gustro affair was going to make waves. Oufiri was beginning to feel certain of that". There's even some concern that manipulated Butron could be an inconvenience, or threat -- even if the most inconvenient evidence he has is easily disposed of. Indeed, ironically:.
     "In the end," observed Captain Jumbo, "perhaps he didn't understand anything. Perhaps there was no need to kill him."
       At that point, Oufiri more or less shrugs it off -- "The N'Gustro business is over" -- even as the last and biggest loose end is only dealt with in the novel's chilling final scene.
       One of the early testimonies about Butron describes him as: "the product of a time and an environment". Born in 1942, he is beyond cynical about France and French society, lashing out equally against the authorities -- especially the police -- as well as any would-be revolutionary forces. The facts of the N'Gustro affair, with the heavy hand of the French authorities deeply involved, suggests Butron's attitude is, at least, well-founded -- even as Manchette makes him a deeply unpleasant character.
       Effectively presented, much in The N'Gustro Affair is ugly, especially some of the violence. It also reflects specifically the French situation of the 1960s, any nominal end to colonialism trumped by continuing meddling, in France and abroad. And, in fact, The N'Gustro Affair is based on actual events -- one such outrage: the 1965 kidnapping and presumed murder of Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Marka.
       Gary Indiana describes that scandal and the fallout in depth in his Introduction -- though, as so often, with fiction based on real events this can be something of a distraction. Still, French readers certainly were (and remain) familiar with the incident and would read it into the novel -- as Manchette surely understood -- so perhaps it is appropriate for English-speaking readers to go into it similarly informed.
       This was the first of Manchette's thrillers, but already finds him in fine form. The twin-track narrative (with a few embellishments to go with it) races along well, and while the casual brutality can at times seem to be too gratuitous and Manchette's anti-hero too simply vile, it's a solildy gripping read. If, in part, very raw, The N'Gustro Affair is also bracingly refreshing in Butron and Oufiri's unapologetic (and ugly) frankness

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 September 2021

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The N'Gustro Affair: Reviews: Jean-Patrick Manchette: Other books by Jean-Patrick Manchette under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jean-Patrick Manchette lived 1942 to 1995.

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© 2021-2023 the complete review

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