What a fantastic novel this is. It is one of those novels that I wish never ended. This, without a doubt, is going to rank among my all time favorite novels. The writing, the mood, the characters, everything about this book is simply brilliant. French novelist, Jean-Claude Izzo is best known for his “Marseille Trilogy”, that is a trio of “Mediterranean Noir” books that first brought him renown. This novel is not technically a “noir” novel but there is a noir-ish feel to the story, although it is far different from those three books he’s best known for. I haven’t read the trilogy yet and have only read one other book from this author, the excellent “A Sun for the Dying”. “The Lost Sailors”, for me, puts Izzo among the best contemporary writers but unfortunately he is no longer with us, having died in 2000.
“The Lost Sailors” begins on a freighter docked in a port in Marseille. It is prevented from leaving due to the owner of the ship being in debt and the ship is about to be impounded. The crew is offered a payout and most of them take it and move on. Except for three: the ship’s captain, the Lebanese Abdul Aziz, his first mate, the Greek, Diamantis and the radio operator, a Turk named Nedim. Abdul wants to stay with the ship, as a captain is expected to do, unless and until he is forced to leave it. Nedim just wants to go home to his wife in Lebanon but on the night before he is about to leave, he makes a pit stop in an underworld club and gets rolled by two of the women who work there, one of them being the extremely desirable Lalla. The woman who runs the club, Gaby, confiscates his bag of clothes and passport unless and until he can come up with the money he owes them. He soon goes back to the ship. Diamantis decides to stay, since the sea his is home, having learned all he knows from his sailor father. However, sometime in the past, he had left his woman, a half-Arab, half-Italian named Amina and he is determined to find her and make amends after a twenty year absence. It is not long after that Nedim approaches Diamantis to help him get his belongings back and he agrees to go to the club to help retrieve his items. It is a decision that forces the past and the present to collide in a way he never would have imagined.
Although the story follows the three protagonists, it is Diamantis who’s story we are invited into more thoroughly. We relive his past - as we do with the other two characters - but it is Diamantis who we are more close to. His story resembles a Greek tragedy and it’s not by accident that there are many references and allusions to Homer’s “The Odyssey” throughout the story. But what we have here, in essence, is the story of the Mediterranean as a whole. It’s culture, it’s history, it’s people, it’s joys, sorrows, it’s multicultural dynamic. The book is a love letter to Mediterranean culture which is why it appealed so much to me. This is most definitely a book that will remain with me.
The story is well developed, the characters well fleshed out, the writing superb. You will be drawn into the lives of these men and their tragic stories. You will live their lives, feel their sense of loss and love of the sea and of the Mediterranean as a whole. This is a wonderful novel and a must read. Even if you only read one book the whole year, make it this one. It’s simply outstanding.