René Manzor's "Les âmes rivales" and "Celui dont le nom n'est plus"

August 7, 2014 | By Book Department

René Manzor's stories begin like an itch or a craving, then become viral and feverish, hooking you into a juggernaut of action, emotion and suspense that does not relent until its cathartic yet shattering conclusion.


I often describe translation as like being given a beautiful vase to shatter then reconstruct, whole.  Mostly likely my DNA/blood will somehow end up in the reconstruction.  And yet it must appear utterly seamless and as pristine, if not more so, than it was before.

Merely thinking about translation for me summons imagery out of novelist and director René Manzor’s imagination.  Though we’ve never met, his work contains such a powerful intimacy that I feel an almost otherworldly tie with him and it.  In every possible way, it stirs my most instinctual urges. 

Readers and viewers encountering Manzor’s work doubtlessly feel the same way, having propelled his first novel to the top of best-seller lists, and made him a sought-after director/writer in French TV and film.  His stories begin like an itch or a craving, then become viral and feverish, hooking you into a juggernaut of action, emotion and suspense that does not relent until its cathartic yet shattering conclusion.

Any American reader would immediately comprehend the impact Hollywood has had on Manzor.  Both an acolyte and mentee of George Lucas, he cut his teeth as a director working on the “Indiana Jones” saga, and from there went on to a wide range of cinematic work as a writer/director.  And as an author, although he’s writing in French, and elegantly so, his sparsity and unwavering focus on both the seen and felt create the illusion, because of his choice of Anglo-Saxon settings, that he’s actually writing in English. But there's no distracting commentary here or treason to his native tongue.  Rather, his literary tradition I think has instilled him with a unique empathy toward both wrongdoers and the wronged.

Because, in unconventional ways, Manzor writes about crime. American publishers seeking high-quality yet surely commercial material would be fools not to add Manzor to their roster.  Cinematically, his style spans Hitchcock to Tarantino, with a hint of Roth thrown in, even as his writing could justifiably be charted somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Patricia Cornwell.

A “heroine’s journey,” à la Silence of the Lambs, is typically the starting point, and in Manzor’s début thriller Les âmes rivales, Cassandra, who like her mythical namesake possesses both morbid clairvoyance and an odd twinning, is literally running for her life.  From the spirit or the thing that won’t give her a moment’s peace.  Her whole world literally dies around her until she herself is accused.  This “thing” haunts her every move, thought, and feeling.  Her one solace, Father Liam, is both an unsteady savior and a keen scholar of her torment.

Juxtaposed with this mystery is another, a world away in Brooklyn, where Thomas, a math teacher and single father, struggles with hallucinatory blackouts.  These two lost souls collide on the Brooklyn Bridge, of all places, where Cassandra, overcome by her ghostly stalker, succumbs to the ultimate despair.

Thomas literally pulls her back from the edge, and in their brief time together, they ironically bond over her assailant.  For his own psychic bandwidth has been overrun by this Native American phantom as well, a coincidence that in less agile hands might sink the whole journey.  But Manzor launches an even more twisted and powerful trajectory from that one mythic detail until the book barrels to its fiery conclusion, and only one of the three is left . . .

Manzor’s latest novel, Celui dont le nom n’est plus, begins with a strange fascination about possession as well, but ultimately it’s an adult thriller about grief.  Set in London, the brimful morbidity within the principals--never mind the weather--conjures up a highly nuanced emotionscape of white to black that is rapidly punctuated by the bloody death toll mounting around them.

The lifelong family servant of a top U.S. diplomat there is suddenly discovered to have murdered him in the most grisly way.  And in a trance-like state, the ex-governess is found in broad daylight at a public crossroads, conveying the organs that she had extracted from his still-living body.

Detective McKenna, gruff yet porous, is the best person Scotland Yard has, despite his taxing home life as a widowed father of four, to put on the case.  Given its high-visibility though, an American expert in ritual killings and cults, Dr. Dahlia Rhymes, is recruited especially from the F.B.I. to work with him.  And though she seems to travel attachment-free, her abusive hyper-religious upbringing is never entirely out of mind.

Their “collaboration” begins on rocky footing, especially as a similar killing occurs daily.  Rhymes deftly but resentfully proves herself in the testosterone-dominated and bureaucratic environment, intuiting angles and leads that rub McKenna entirely the wrong way.  Into this mix, ex-barrister Nils Blake, Esq., has been ambivalently reeled back into his former calling, to defend the disparate and growing number of accused.

McKenna is repulsed by Blake, his lucrative role in the Murdoch eavesdropping trials having preceded him.  Rhymes though has no such scruples, initially thinking they might compare notes.  But instead, she finds a fellow traveler, and her interpersonal staple of hookups is severely cramped by Blake’s persistence and her own, unfamiliar feelings.

Rhyme’s abrupt encounter with the recipient of the latest amateur human dissection causes a domino-effect of clues, people, and interconnections to become evident, all of which were hiding in plain sight . . .

As enraptured as I’ve been in the translation of Manzor’s work, I would gladly cede him whatever inspiration he might glean from my process.  Moreover, that rapture has only whetted my hunger more ardently, knowing that some key film/TV industry players here in Los Angeles have had a stellar response to his spectacular talent, due in a small way to my humble yet key role among others supporting him.

Working and aspiring myself to one day write for film and television, I’m thrilled--pure coincidence!--that Manzor recently shared his books with me, as a friendly gesture.  I sincerely hope my boundless enthusiasm for his work can infect others, that I might soon translate one or both of these appetizing thrillers for an e-book or bookstore near you.


Alexander C Totz is a writer, currently developing an independent film as well as a documentary. He's also a budding creative, studying graphic design at Santa Monica College. And lastly but not least, he's a French translator of TV/film creative materials, as well as legal and financial documents, more info about which can be found at www.cinoche.biz


My French Library is a space for translators, writers and French aficionados to tell us about books they loved in French, but which have not been translated (yet). To be continued, hopefully one day in translation: American publishers, the floor is yours!

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