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Philippe Djian: Sotos

The image of bull fighting is very strong in this novel, both as a background to the action but also as the action clearly is, in some way, a bullfight. Manual Innu Sarramanga – Mani – is the grandson of the local patriarch, Victor Sarramanga, and, at the start of the book, coming up to his eighteenth birthday. His mother, Ethel, Victor’s daughter, has just announced to her family that she is returning home from Italy with her third husband. Mani is not in the slightest bit surprised, as his mother gets through men at a rapid rate, and estimates that this one will last no more than six months. Indeed, the issue is almost irrelevant to him as he has other things to worry about, not least his troubled relationship with his best friend, Vincent, not helped by the fact that Mani lusts after Vincent’s mother, his relationship with his putative girlfriend, Jessica, who always has an interesting excuse not to have sex with him, including venereal disease, and his admiration but fear of his controlling grandfather.

However, his new stepfather turns out to have a history. After having learned Mani’s history, we learn about Vito’s. He came to the area as a boy from California and knew Ethel in high school. They had a tempestuous love-hate relationship, with Vito virtually raping Ethel, though she later told him she would have willingly slept with him. In particular, Vito upset Victor, though it is not clear whether because he was sleeping with Ethel, was giving her drugs or came from the wrong sort of family. Suffice it to say, Vito was essentially driven away. When he returns, Victor has forgotten nothing. Mani stays aloof till he sees his grandfather turn vicious, culminating in Vito’s beating up and being hung upside down by Victor’s henchmen, some of whom are Vito’s former friends. All of this leads to the inevitable showdown where Mani has to decide whose side he is on.

Despite all this, this novel is essentially about growing up or, more specifically, the troubles and travails of teenage boys as both sex and violence come to the fore in their lives (both directly and indirectly) and how both are essentially controlling forces. For Djian, growing up is about seeing how sexual and personal power is used and learning, often with great difficulty, how one should use it in one’s own life and, as a study of the use and abuse of such power, this is a fascinating if flawed novel.

Publishing history

First published in French 1993 by Gallimard
No English translation