Fall Fiction PREVIEW: Grand Menteur by Jean Marc Ah-Sen

The secret world of Mauritian street gangs is not for the faint of heart. Fraught with peril and mischief, its inner workings are a mystery to the daughter of one of its most valued members: Sergent, the Grand Menteur.

A liar of exceptional calibre whose sole responsibility is to purposefully confuse police with alibis, the Menteur fears for the criminal future he has unwittingly introduced into his daughter’s life, when her clear knack for violence attracts the notice of senior gang members.

Mauritian Kreol, English, and French blend together into a heady brew of language in Grand Menteur, this debut novel by Toronto writer Jean Marc Ah-Sen. In it, Ah-Sen mobilizes an impressive cast of outlaws and misfits, packing his punches with rare insight into Mauritian subculture and the Diaspora experience. BookThug is proud to present this crime thriller-meets-immigrant saga that revels in a style all its own.

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The story of the legendary Sous Gang—their heyday, decline, and dispersal—is told through the eyes of Sergent’s daughter, as she attempts to unlock the secrets of her enigmatic father’s past. With the help of a codex bequeathed to her by the policeman Malbar (one of the Sous Gang’s closest but most uneasy allies), the true nature of the Grand Menteur’s criminal past comes into focus as his daughter struggles to control her own proclivities for violence and criminality, and to make peace with family secrets and life in a new land.

This tale of the Sous Diaspora spans several decades between 1965 and 1980, and reaches from Rue La Paix, Port Louis, Mauritius, to the tenements of Brixton, North London, and finally, to a homeless shelter in Moss Park, Toronto. Destined to become a “lock, stock, and kreol classic,” this bullet-studded brouhaha will take its screwdriver out of its back holster and stir your coffee for you.

Grand Menteur Recruitment Video

In 1974, the Mauritian street gang the Sous joined forces with the Crosscuss Gang in a bid to increase recruitment for their respective forces. A series of recruitment promos began airing on Mauritian television in the winter of 1974.

Watch one such recruitment promo here:

Listen to a song recorded to accompany the book by the Black Derwish and Company, associates of the Grand Menteur:

Photo credit: Sous Preservation Society

About the song:

“When Cherelle Kaartikeya Derwish and Rhonda Mayasous took over the reins of Sousse Pouce Records in 1996, they set for themselves the daunting task of remastering the key works of the then-defunct Mauritian label. Beginning with her father’s back catalogue, Cherelle selected “Dire moi ene coup” as the first single to reclaim the airwaves under this bold mandate. Unfortunately, the multritrack tapes in existence only included the drum and vocal tracks her late father had laid down. The original players having passed on, Cherelle and Rhonda press-ganged some local talent to re-record the missing parts to the best of their abilities. Victims of broken-hearted circumstance, the legend of the Sous Gang hobbles on.”

Grand Menteur is available October 20. Pre-order your copy here.

Join us on Tuesday, October 13 and hear Jean Marc read from his new book, The Grand Menteur – BookThug’s Fall 2015 Book Launch Party @ The Garrison in Toronto. For more info or to RSVP, visit the FB event page here.

Jean Marc Ah-Sen will also launch Grand Menteur at Type Books in Toronto, on Wednesday October 21. For more info visit here

Praise for Grand Menteur:

“Jean Marc Ah-Sen’s Grand Menteur is a dazzling display of diction, filled with Mauritian Kreol, Latin tags and masterful English, with wonderful narrative momentum. From the island of Mauritius to the island of England and later, homeless shelters in Toronto, it is a fascinating story of Mauritian street gangs, emigration, capers that don’t pay, and a father-daughter relationship like no other. Jean Marc Ah-Sen’s Grand Menteur is voice-driven fiction at its lyrical best.” —John Goldbach, author of The Devil and The Detective

“What a strange and extraordinary book—it reads like a magic trick no one’s ever done before or a myth of a myth. It’s too mysterious, too original, too funny, too pure, too profound to be the work of a mortal being.” —Lee Henderson, author of The Man Game

“Jean-Marc Ah-Sen’s Grand Menteur is a playful yet searing intersection of narrative form and language. Ah-Sen’s admirable linguistic dexterity succeeds in drawing the reader into caring deeply for the father-daughter relationship that is the heart of this innovative novel. This is a fine balance to achieve. Ah-Sen does so with compassion and flare.” —Nadia Bozak, author of Orphan Love and El Nino

Excerpt from Grand Menteur by Jean Marc Ah-Sen

I.

Rue La Paix, Port Louis, Mauritius, 1956

MY FATHER USED TO RUN around in the mid-forties with a group of hustling street toughs called the “Sous Gang.” A subject of spirited ridicule, the name was variously attributed to from as strange a thing as the practice of sooging catamarans clear of dead fish, to the synchronized smirking members performed when accused of a crime. One account, brimming with college petulance, even related the name to the Kreol phrase, “To ene sou inne vinne cinq sous” (Your penny’s become a nickel) — a veiled reference if anything ever was to distinguishing sodomites by their similarity to the dimensions of circulating coinage. These were young, darned-if-you-did-darned-if-you-didn’t children, exulting behind the embrasures of a coconut-studded headquarters, who would arrange themselves for a bizarre allogrooming ritual that spilled out onto the street, the bazaar, or as was often their custom, the Champ de Mars Racecourse. They would blow nits out of each other’s heads, and with a wad of chewed gum flattened into a four-inch square, catch the airborne pests, intent on selling them as an ersatz tukmaria for the composition of alouda glace. You will perhaps encounter no more challenging a task than to imagine this farouche network of children, these bandolier-wearing layabouts who carried stale tamarinds clumped into katty quids and were sensible enough to search for ectoparasites among one another, but were otherwise unmindful of honouring society’s customs of civility with so much as a grunt of acknowledgment. If a shopkeeper inquired why they were not in school when they walked before his storefront in the noontide sun, they walked on by, paying him no heed, only to return after nightfall to render all of his goods invendible in one manner or another.

The story of how my father came into contact with this network of delinquents is rather a hopeless one. I stress this point because solicitors and constables always believe a lifestyle of crime involves an overdetermination of choice, like you could decide the quality of water that came out of the Colmar Canal into your taps any more than you could decide the colour of your skin. The architecture of survival does not care about those who quibble with its provisions for choice: there is always unfinished business somewhere or other, and an axe to grind can meet life’s challenge. Suffice it to say that holed up somewhere in a David Street tannery, poor and left to his own devices, my eight-year-old father would reflect silently on his exclusion, dreaming of the material world.

The Sous Gang meanwhile found relief from Lady Luck’s retreating favours in the form of several well-coordinated rackets. It was not known to the majority of the wayfaring public, to cite one memorable example, that in the chiselled-hollow Tin Lizzies abandoned behind a walled junkyard on La Rue Royal, existed an elaborately structured glory hole where two hundred rupees could produce the epiphanic combination of a mastiff’s unclenched cheeks and, if one was looking for it, a clear conscience. Though there’d be a greater likelihood of surviving a leap from Montagne des Signaux with a clutch of chickens strapped about your arms than finding true happiness, there was at the very least a sporting chance of getting your money’s worth. Their eventual meeting, I have it on my father’s word, transpired when the singular circumstance of a vacancy arose within the Sous ranks — a vacancy for a Grand Menteur, a position my father knew well from his time panhandling in the street with my grandfather. With his recommendation of a tannin-based tagging system to monitor the diminishing marginal returns of the stray dogs in question, my father was given probationary placement within the gang organization.

By the time he was sixteen, he had already engendered a reputation among Port Louis lowlifes as something of a smooth talker: consorting fellows were wise to avoid his badinage about “the porthole romances of the Silver Tent Gang” or “the blind fortunes of the pushcart poulterer.” Such lies soon placed him among thieves and bandits, the tartuffism of their lifestyles enjoining him to forget the old ways of earning money. For there is great reserve in a dependable liar — in somebody one can trust to be tenaciously mistrustful. When asked, “Where’s the money?”:

Answer: What money?

Question: The money from the horse betting.

Answer: I don’t go in for things like that.

Question: You know what I mean.

Answer: The money from the horse betting.

Question: So you admit it.

Answer: I admit to nothing.

Question: You admit that you don’t go for things like horse betting.

Answer: I admit I don’t go for things insofar as horse betting is involved, yes.

Question: So you don’t admit to admitting that you don’t go for things?

Answer: You’re trying to confuse me. Question: Answer the question.

Answer: No.

Question: And why not?

Answer: No, I don’t admit to admitting I don’t go for things.

Question: Then naturally you admit you do go for things; say horse betting, for example.

Answer: I don’t admit I don’t go for things, generally, because I do.

Question: Are you some kind of nihilist?

Answer: I don’t go in for things like that.

For indeed, all he did was lie; he hardly stole, he trounced no one. His role, like the other Sous before him, was limited to what he exclusively knew best: falling behind the others on the getaway to stall and confab. He handled the police in the same way they handled him — with prejudice and a view toward humiliation. So it was that his encouragement of a friendship with a member of the constabulary, one Malbar, was bound to raise more than just a few eyebrows or, in his particular example, tightly clenched fists.

As far as first meetings go, it fell short of the hope-drawn promises a lifetime of cinematic exposure inevitably bestows. Malbar was an imposing fellow, hunched shoulders and an itinerant jawbone giving him the air of a constipated volcano. He walked with a striding confidence unmatched even in the annals of police history and amazed all manner of peoples with his indifference to those at the mercy of his absurd authority. The brave cock on his dunghill, raised on an unbroken diet of thuggery and snapping hardship, was equal parts bull and insensate, on the receiving end of denigrations only a gazetteer armed with a rotogravure could articulate. The young officer was eager to pass muster, and there posed no better means for this than by policing the stout-hearted brats of the Sous Gang. One morning, in the presence of two lowly gang members,

Declarative: Sa gogotte la enne voleur. Jamais li travail. Cotte to croire li gagne casse pour li habille coum ca? Li enne bourrique: li conne ziste coquin, mange, divertir, caca.

Question: You there, in the red! English?

Answer: Non.

Question: I’m looking for this dog’s owner. Er . . . enough people are complaining.

Answer: Buyer beware, sousoute.

Question: So it’s one of you, then?

Answer: Mod cons.

Question: Eh?

Answer: Conveniences. We offer all mod cons.

Question: I ought to take you in on charges – charges of gross indecency!

Answer: The dog is not mine. I have never seen it before. Ask anyone.

Imperative: Your English has come along considerably since we started. Leave the strays well alone!

Declarative: Get stuffed!

Malbar followed his instincts home in this fashion, propelling himself up the chain of miscreants until one day he found Sergent – as my father was known to others – in the process of tagging a Sous pup on a deserted thoroughfare. While another gang member of roughly the same age (though twice the size) named Ti Pourri held the dog down, the eager lawman sized my father up with a stinking crook-eye, poised finally for an actual arrest.

Photo credit: Katrina Lagacé

Photo credit: Katrina Lagacé

Jean Marc Ah-Sen was born in East York, Ontario, in 1987. He comes from a family of Mauritian winemakers and was a frequent contributor to the Innis Herald, a University of Toronto newspaper. He lives in Toronto with his wife and son. Grand Menteur is his first novel. Find Ah-Sen on Facebook (www.facebook.com/jeanmarcahsen) or on Twitter @jeanmarcahsen.

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