When he entered the jury of the Anatole France Prize – whose winner is announced every year on the 1st of May, Labor Day – Pierre Mao, author of confidential publications, thought he had won the lottery. Yet, the other members of the jury, reunited at Brébant, gave him the cold shoulder. He couldn't explain this obvious animosity. Weren't they the ones who had chosen him, to his surprise?
"Six months after Edgar César's passing, Pierre Mao is appointed member of the jury of the Anatole France Prize." He learned the news through a nut-shell paragraph from Libération. Livres Hebdo had a lot of trouble writing his biography, combining elements from his blog and illustrated with pictures stolen from his Facebook page.
At the end of lunch, Carole Edmée – jury n°4 – a little tipsy, finally admitted the reasons behind this unfriendly welcome. In actual fact, Pierre Mahaut was the one selected by the jury to follow Edgar César’s footsteps as the 6th member. The prize’s general secretary – the absent-minded Roland Fouy, jury n°5 – had sent a statement with the wrong spelling. The damage was done. Contradicting the statement would bring shame. The unfortunate Pierre Mahaut died a week later from a stroke to general indifference – a music idol from the sixties who passed away on the same day stole the spotlight...
During the next lunch, Pierre Mao tried to win the jury over – and make them forget about their blunder – praising their work that he had made the effort to read. But each praise met uptight smiles: the members of the jury weren't used to reading one another’s work.
A month later, Roland Fouy dropped around forty books in the middle of the table. “The real fun begins,” exulted Pierre Mao. He blushed when he saw that he had only read one of those works, 'Chronicles of the disaster' by Fantine Lapure. When Micheline Zebra, the vivacious Prize president and jury n°3, grabbed the book, the verdict was unambiguous:
“A disaster for the reader!”
“Still, let's take the time to talk about it,” suggested Roland Fouy, ogling towards Pierre Mao. “Our new jury member seemed like he had something more to say”.
“Waste of time,” retorted the president. “Is the chronicle of Mrs. Lapure’s abortions and her difficulties to have a child of any interest to anyone around this table?”
“Nonetheless, she did lose her only child,” argued Roland Fouy. Ten years of suffering, a medically assisted reproduction and then this terrible tragedy.”
“The Anatole France Prize won't give her her dead child back,” concluded Micheline Zebra, dropping the book on the red carpet.
Carole Edmée, Spanish translator, essay writer, quoted a sentence from Borges mocking Evaristo Carriego's emotional blackmail, author of sentimental poems: “I present you with despair: if you're unmoved, you're cold-hearted.’
Pierre Mao understood that it would be unwise to flaunt Fantine Lapure's style which reminded him of Duras. The book lay decomposingon the carpet, and no one would save it.
“Well, we are not going to fuss about it for an hour,” said Micheline Zebra. ‘We have twenty books to eliminate and the maitre d’ is getting impatient.’
After the champagne, Philippe d'Azincourt, chronicler seen on TV and jury n°2, triggered a ripple of laughter when he threatened to go on a hunger strike if his friend's book, Sophie Montjoie, wasn't in the first pick.
“Last time, you threatened to kill your dog,” laughed Micheline Zebra who decided, for all the jury members, to keep the last Montjoie.
For the sake of manners, she added:
“Any opposing views?”
“What about Chantal Fissa's book?” Carole Edmée suggested...
All of them looked down. The president saw red.
Carole Edmée caught a breath and said:
“It would be difficult not to choose it. Critics all agree. It's her best novel. Even I, to be honest, was convinced, transported. I... I…”
The president was listening, furious. Carole Edmée sank into her chair and said in a barely audible voice.
“Well, it's only my opinion…”
“Indeed. It's only your opinion. But it's true that it would be hard to discard it. The Prize’s credibility is at stake. I shouldn't let a... personal dispute influence me. I would be accused of being... biased. Has anybody else read it?”
“Not I,” answered Philippe d'Azincourt, making all the other jury members burst out laughing.
“We keep Fissa's. I can be fair. Of course, she will not get the prize. But we can give her hope for a few weeks, can't we?”
When they went their separate ways, Pierre Mao gave his phone number to Micheline Zebra and told her it would be nice to have lunch before the next jury meeting. She wrote down the number with a grin and told him she didn't have any business cards left.
Arriving early, Pierre Mao had the pleasure to introduce himself to the great Faustin Azor, jury n°1. He was a writer he admired and had studied at school. If he hadn’t feared being laughed at, he would have even admitted it was his interviews on TV with Bernard Pivot that had inspired him to become a writer.
The old man was polite, even showed interest in him, something no other jury member had. Suddenly, he pointed at the huge suitcase under the table.
“Would you be kind enough to help me? I would like to be done before the others arrive.”
Faustin Azor opened the suitcase. It was overflowing with books, all published in the last few months. The headwaiter held out a letter opener. Pierre Mao copied Faustin Azor and removed all the pages where the authors’ handwritten signatures were. Curious, he started reading. There were cheesy sentences from a former Prime Minister then mistake-ridden praises from a trendy lawyer. He was surprised to read that this author acclaimed by the left-wing intellectual elite had written to Faustin Azor, recognized as a reactionary: "You are a gift." Tired of this collectible of platitudes and sweet-talk written by the Parisian high society, he sped up his task, judging it was humiliating and hoping the other jury members would not arrive early.
“Check there isn't a banknote, it happens sometimes,” laughed Faustin Azor.
The doyen of the Anatole France Award came to Paris every month to empty his suitcase and have lunch at the Brébant.
“I tear our the signatures out of respect for the authors who would risk finding their books at some second hand bookstore. But unlike others, I do keep the signatures. One day, I'll gift them to a museum.”
Pierre Mao asked him about the latest crop of novels and probed him about his preferences. Who did he think about for the award this year?
Faustin Azor let out a little laugh.
“Young man, life is too short for me to read this clutter of autofictions, travels from fake explorers and sociological novels. I'm at an age where one re-reads. I think I haven't read anything published in the last thirty years.’
“Really? Yet, I read your literary critiques... No later than this week!”
“I like you, Pierre. You're green! I'll explain the job to you one day. You'll give me your card, right?”
He looked at the clock.
“Right on time!”
One of his closest friends, a penniless poet, came in with another suitcase, empty this time. They made small talk. Faustin Azor loved and admired this poet, Alain Tabou, whose books had only a handfull of readers. The poet refused the spotlight, the shady deals. He was what Faustin Azor would have liked to be if the prospect of poverty hadn’t scared him. The Parisian high society was far from imagining that every new book sent to the great writer ended up in the hands of Alain Tabou who, selling them to second-hand booksellers, managed somehow to pay his rent.
‘Well, have a nice meal,’ Alain Tabou said as he left with his suitcase full to the rim.
Through the window, Pierre Mao saw the other jury members' Uber arrive.
Micheline Zebra's confidence, who had not a good word for any of the books, fascinated Pierre Mao. She seemed to personally know most of the authors whose books were stacked on the table.
“Yvan Faizar, senator, minister. And now he thinks he's a writer! We don't give a damn about his haikus! Beat it!”
The book was instantly devoured by the restaurant's carpet.
“Isabelle Marrent? Another one who writes about her banging with What's-his-face. Fired!’
Faustin Azor fished out the book, not to save it, but to check if he wasn't mentioned.
“I would like to keep the last Labbé!” said Roland Fouy.
“Florian Labbé? That snob? That schemer?”
“His descriptions of Mount Fuji are admirable…”
“Let's stay calm! He took a trip to Japan. So what? He stays one week or two with the Japanese and lays on 300 pages about Mount Fuji? Last year we got stuck with his trip to Colombia because he watched Narcos. No, he's an impostor!”
“In that case, we keep Marie-Cécile Figeac. A dry and bland writing. A closed door. It's absolutely wonderful.”
“Tell me, Roland, do you think I don't know she's your niece? Do you know the etymology of the word nepotism? I don't need to teach you that social media is ruthless.”
Twenty novels survived this sorting session.
“Don't forget to send me the books I'm missing,” Pierre said quietly to Roland Fouy when the guests were waiting for their Uber.
“And merry holidays to all.”
Pierre Mao was eager to tell the other members that an editor offered him to write a biography on Eugène Fromentin, artist and travel writer, but he felt like it would upset them. He would have liked them to become his friends. The headwaiter filled the glasses and wished them a happy new year.
Philippe d'Azincourt spoke up:
“'Jennifer Aniston and I' has quite a charm... It's the story of a girl who developed her sexuality thanks to the show Friends.”
“I'm done with titles like ‘Kennedy and I’, ‘Marilyn and I’, ‘Hitler and I’...”
“We shouldn't stop at the title,” said Pierre Mao who had finished the book in the subway. “This novelist describes her depression remarkably. Without any pathos. I like the passage when she goes into a theater in the Quartier Latin and changes seats 33 times during a Bergman movie. 33 times! It's a novel full of symbolism.”
“Télérama loved it,” dared Carole Edmée, “and if I must say…”
“I would like to intervene,” interrupted Roland Fouy, red-faced. “As the award general secretary, I must remind you of the rules. Pierre Mao has really used the term without any pathos.”
“Yes, we all heard,” said Micheline Zebra in a toneless voice.
Five disapproving sets of eyes glared at Pierre Mao who didn't understand what Roland Fouy meant.
“I'm sorry,” dropped Carole Edmée. “Any person who uses the term without any pathos must pay a fine of 100 euros.”
“I didn't know!”
“No one must be oblivious to the rule!” said Roland Fouy who decided to exclude 'Jennifer Aniston and I' right away.
Carole Edmée caught a breath :
“I think, and of course, it's only my opinion, that would give the Award to 'La Fuite'. There is a duality in the title, and I love it. It's the story of an Ecole Normale Supérieure graduate who works for a year at Lidl. One day, her faucet leaks and... she runs away. I loved it, it transformed me.”
Micheline Zebra pouted.
During the next lunch, Micheline Zebra talked extensively about two South American bands she loved, La Sonora Dinamita and La Sonora Mantecera. The jury members bent over the table to watch a YouTube video on the president's phone.
Micheline Zebra was a mystery for Pierre Mao. He ended up finding her quite likeable when she was dancing to the song "Mala Vida".
Despite his doyen status – Micheline Zebra endearingly called him "the forefather" – Faustin Azor was an internet enthusiast. He also loved those songs that reminded him of his literary tours in Cuba or Colombia in the sixties. He drooled, showing them the band covers of Cumbia bands, lascivious women in swimsuits who made the Crazy Horse dancers look like nuns. "They haven't been affected by the politically correct yet," the great writer said before adding: "Today's world disgusts me so much that I'm not scared of dying anymore."
Carole Edmée whispered in Pierre Mao's ear:
“Of course, P.C. bores him. This old creep knows what awaits him if he ever tries to pinch the behind of one of his admirers ever again.”
Roland Fouy suddenly stood up, as enlightened:
“We could give the award to 'Moi aussi', the first novel to be fully dictated using Siri!”
Micheline Zebra stopped her YouTube video and answered, furious:
“And next year we could award the first novel fully written on the toilet? Is that what you want?”
Next to 'Moi aussi', more novels found their way abruptly onto the restaurant's carpet. Micheline Zebra waved every book with the skills of an auctioneer. In answer to her grimacing face, everyone showed a thumbs up or a thumbs down and, without arguing, the book joined or not the Sargasso Sea.
At the end of lunch, only five books remained on the table. Pierre Mao hadn't read any of them. He suddenly thought about the South Korean show 'Squid Game' he had seen on Netflix. This literature award really was unique. A massacre game.
The 1st of May luncheon finally arrived.
Through the window, Pierre Mao was observing the pack of journalists trampling in front of the restaurant, some masked up. It was an idea of Martin Cube, who had established the award in the sixties, to make the announcement on Labor Day since the press didn't have anything to get their teeth into on that day.
The five final books had waited on the living room coffee table without him getting a chance to look into it. Exhausted by his Eugène Fromentin biography whose deadline was the 30th of April, he had been disturbed by his daughter’s visit, who had come home from overseas to vote, since, she said, every vote counted to prevent fascism from winning.
To Pierre Mao's greatest surprise, Micheline Zebra announced she hadn't read any of the finalist books. She confessed that this presidential campaign, which had been the dirtiest, foulest she had ever witnessed, had prevented her from being interested in the Anatole France Prize. She then looked at each jury member. None of them had read the books. Roland Fouy justified himself saying he had had to go to the cardiologist. Philippe d'Azincourt’s newspaper had required him for the interview of a comedian's widow . Carole Edmée had left the books in her country house. As for Faustin Azor, everyone knew he didn't read any of the selected books.
Micheline Zebra for the first time looked discouraged, tired.
“We are supposed, I remind you, to only choose books we've read.”
“My dear,” answered Roland Fouy, you ruled out all the books we liked. I regret to inform you that this final list is only made up of books remaining by default.
Everybody glared at Pierre Mao, who hadn't talked yet.
“Of course, I have read all five of them,” he lied.
The choice really was between four novels since Chantal Fissa’s book, Micheline Zebra’s nemesis, was excluded.
Pierre Mao se lança alors dans un monologue à propos des « Hyènes », Pierre Mao started a monologue about 'Hyènes', this huge novel of a thousand pages which had ended up in the last selection without having been defended by anyone. The author, Juliette Sacramentel, was unknown, which was perhaps the reason why Micheline Zebra hadn't knocked her out.
Like the others, Pierre Mao hadn't read the book, but he read the synopsis online. The little information he had found about it and the sudden attention he was subject to, gave him the inspiration he needed.
“It's a book about us. About our present. It's the romantic translation of observations made by Guy Debord” (Pierre Mao never read 'The Society of the Spectacle' but he had heard about it). « La Société du spectacle » mais il en avait entendu parler).
Micheline Zebra listened to him with such a particular focus that it lighted up his imagination. When he spoke, Pierre Mao thought that arousing this woman's interest and respect was all his life was about.
Il avait parlé du livre pendant dix bonnes minutes sans en avoir lu une seule ligne mais il s’était montré convaincant. 'Les Hyènes' He talked about the book for ten minutes without having read any of it, but he knew how to be convincing. Les Hyènes was the novel of our time. It augured the dreadful presidential campaign; it announced the dawn of a new age. Juliette Sacramentel was on the edge of a new literary adventure that would still be talked about in a century.
“For once, a woman takes the prize. It makes me feel incredibly moved,” said Carole Edmée.
Micheline Zebra applauded with a little smirk.
“Well, we have our prize. Any opposing views?"
Then she added:
“Considering the circumstances, we don't have any choice but to follow your review. So, shall we get dessert?”
The announcement can wait a little.
The press praised the Anatole France Prize’s boldness. 'Les Hyènes' became a summer hit. Pierre Mao published his Eugène Fromentin biography at the beginning of the new year.
Now that he had a regular column in a newspaper, he started to receive books written by celebrities but, too busy with the writing of a second biography, this time dedicated to Anatole France, he hadn't had the time to read them. Before stuffing his street's book box, he cut away the signings, moved to see people he never met send him their regards.
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Loïc Barrière published five novels, among which Rizières sous la lune (Vents d'Ailleurs, 2016), Le roman d'Abd-el-Kader (Les Points sur les I, 2016) and Le Choeur des enfants khmers (Seuil, 2008). He is also a journalist at Radio Orient where he hosts literary and political programs.