August 25, 2019
Back in the late Sixties, in fact in what came to be known, ironically in restrospect, as the Summer of Love, when I was living in Greenwich Village, I fell in with a guy who called himself a revolutionary. Nicknamed—everyone had a moniker one back then— “Boots,” Pepe was Mexican, and with his stringy scrawny beard resembled Ho Chi Minh. He was short and wiry, not much taller than I was, and magically nimble on his feet—he’d learned foot-fighting when living in California, and tried in vain to pass it on to me, something he’d make me practice on Avenue A at three in the morning. With him it looked like dancing; with me it looked like hell.
He claimed to have trained with Che Guevara in Bolivia, and was a non-combatant, card-carrying member of the National Liberation Front—the Viet Cong. Over burgers and fries at a Second Avenue diner he spoke often of the impending revolution. He told me how a group he was allied with had gotten away stealing a sizable cache of weapons from an army base. He told me how to kidnap someone important in the government and keep him hostage. “Then they pay up, and we buy more weapons, see. It’s a vicious cycle, all to the revolution’s benefit.”
“And what happens to the hostage?”
He’d just shrug and smile. “Spoils of war, man, spoils of war.”
He smoked grass, he smoked hash, he smoked opium, he dropped acid, and he had a direct line to some very decent crystal meth, back then not the hillbilly drug it’s become. Sorry, Walter White. Better times, dude.
In retrospect Pepe seems both a charlatan, a braggart, and something of a self-made nothing. Just the kind of guy who couldn’t organize one to save his life (or anyone else’s), but actually could be drawn into a kidnapping. The kind of person who would do it for the infamy of the thing, and only afterwards for whatever small political victory might come of it. Were he to survive it.
I thought of him while reading Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 1972 roman noir, Nada, expertly translated, as with all of Manchette’s English editions, by Donald Nicholson-Smith.
“Modern history created us,” says one of the “revolutionaries” in Nada, not long after the kidnapping, from a Parisian brothel, of the US Ambassador to France, “which only shows that civilization is on the eve of destruction one way or the other. And believe you me, I’d sooner finish in blood than in caca.”
And so the story more less begins when into a bar walk a high-school philosophy teacher; a Catalan exile who has devoted his life to militant action, his father having died in 1937 defending the Barcelona Commune; a former Communist Résistant during the Occupation; a waiter with no known connections to any movement other than serving patrons; and a murderous young woman, Véronique Cash, who provides the provincial hide-out for them.
From then on the novel moves like lightning. We go from one event to another, all of it told with the brio and often dark humor for which Manchette is known. The actual kidnapping of the ambassador is reminiscent of many of the better caper movies, and Manchette characteristically handles the action sequences briskly; everything moves towards the inevitable. With, of course, all the hoped-for twists.
Though slimmer than Manchette’s later, more textured novels, Nada—named after the revolutionary group who performs the kidnapping—is as worthy a read as any of them.