In Memoriam: Maurice G. Dantec

August 8, 2016 | By Rebecca Pittel

Maurice G. Dantec, who passed away on June 25th at the age of 57, was a visionary of dystopic crime fiction, a former punk musician who imbued his narratives with the same anarchic spirit that he had displayed on the stage.

In books like The Roots of Evil, The Red Siren and Babylon Babies, Dantec integrated philosophy and social critique with a thrill-seeker’s taste for action and his insatiable imagination. The stories he created enraptured millions of readers in France and abroad, bringing new life to the crime and science-fiction genres in Francophone literature.

Dantec was born in Grenoble in 1959 to a journalist father and seamstress mother, both dedicated communists, and raised in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine. In high school, he encountered Jean-Bernard Pouy, a future crime writer and Gallimard editor who shared Dantec’s nascent punk sensibilities and passed on to the author an enthusiasm for film and the novels of Céline.

Before writing his first novel, Dantec would start on many career paths, not only as a punk keyboardist in two bands but as the founder of a tech company and a longtime editor at a publicity firm. In 1993, however, Dantec brought his first book, La Sirène rouge (The Red Siren), to Gallimard’s venerated Série noire crime fiction imprint.

Aurélien Masson, the director of the Série noire, described the story of a young girl and a paranoid anarchist traveling together through Europe in pursuit of “snuff” filmmakers as not only “a thriving leftist crime drama” in the tradition of Céline, but indeed,“a thriller that explored the fascination of the ‘wrong’” in contemporary society.” The novel, which remains untranslated into English, went on to win the 813 Trophy for Francophone crime fiction and was adapted by French director Olivier Megaton into a 2002 English-language film, The Red Siren

La Sirène rouge proved the first in a series of dense and vibrant books by Dantec, all filled with references to pop culture, the literature of Joyce and Dostoyevsky and the philosophy of Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Gilles Deleuze. Dantec came out with his best-known novel, Les Racines du mal (The Roots of Evil), in 1995. Influenced by the science fiction of Philip K. Dick and others, the book combined a dystopic future with a violent, nihilistic crime plot.

It won France’s Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire for speculative fiction and was categorized by some as cyberpunk literature, a genre with which Dantec’s work would be frequently identified. On a broader scale, however, the success of Les Racines… helped to revive the crime genre in France, updating it for an increasingly cynical, technologically-advanced present.

As Dantec became a leader in the movement that legitimized crime and science fiction writing for a new generation of French readers—one that also included bestselling provocateur Michel Houellebecq, who considered Dantec a friend and peer—he found his first North American literary success. The 2005 translation (by Noura Wedell) of his 1999 novel Babylon Babies, a dark fable about genetic experimentation, was praised in Publishers Weekly as “an intense, intellectually labyrinthine ride.”

Canada’s Globe and Mail described the book’s unique style as “staggering between poetic meditations on insanity and schizophrenia and elaborate… extrapolations about terrorism in the wired world.”  And the New York Times’s cultural critic David Itzkoff wrote that “what makes the novel so haunting is its vision of a near future in which society has fractured along every possible national, tribal and sectarian fault line… Every last surviving scrap of humanity is left to its own devices to continue what Dantec calls ‘the austere work of survival.’” In 2008, the book entered American cultural consciousness when it was adapted into the action film Babylon A.D., starring Vin Diesel.

After the great success of his early novels in France, Dantec moved to Quebec in 1998 and underwent a major political transformation. He transitioned to nonfiction to author a three-volume “polemic and metaphysical journal” called Le Théatre des operations (The Theater of Operations) and turned toward Catholicism and neoconservative politics, attitudes which intensified in the wake of the events of September 11th, 2001.

Reviewing The Theater of Operations and its follow-up, Laboratoire de catastrophe générale (Laboratory of General Catastrophes) in the early 2000s, critics remarked that Dantec had moved from counter-culture figure to counterrevolutionary. When he did return to novels, beginning with 2003’s Villa Vortex, Dantec’s writing integrated a new sense of pessimism toward the increasingly anarchic present that his futuristic works had once predicted.

Dantec was in fragile health in his final years and underwent several difficult operations before succumbing to a heart attack at his home in Montréal this summer. His final novel, Les Residents, published by the small house Inculte in 2014, did not enjoy the acclaim of his earlier works and has not yet received an English translation.

However, several of Dantec’s later titles, including Cosmos Incorporated and Grand Junction, have appeared in the U.S. market in recent years (with translations by Tina A. Kover), suggesting that more of the author’s rich and powerful oeuvre may follow.

Last month, French cultural critic Hubert Artus concluded on the website L’Express that, despite Dantec’s artistic inconsistencies, his will to forge his own form through disparate cultural influences and his insistence on bold risk-taking in fiction have permanently impacted the Francophone literary landscape.

“Why dispense with an author who made the human body and mind a perpetual ground for experimentation in fiction,” wrote Artus, “a writer who with a keyboard could kill a man or open up a world?”

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