Jakob Arjouni is best known for his detective fiction, set in his native Germany but featuring a Turkish protagonist, Kemal Kanyankaya. Chez Max, however, is a stand-alone novel of quite a different genre, set, as it is, in the year 2064. Arjouni’s aim is to present the future he sees arising from the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. Originally published in 2006, he follows the repercussions of what he clearly sees as a decisive moment in history through the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq into a future in which America is weakened and the strongest power block is a Euro-Chinese Confederation.
The novel’s central idea is a ‘Fence’ which has been erected to separate the developed north from the poorer south:
“At the same time as the Fence was being built, the armies of Europe and China began disarming the rest of the world….The Fence divided the world for all time, roughly speaking, into areas of progress and regress – or, at least stagnation…”
This makes the Fence sound like a physical barrier, though its exact location or the practicalities of its function are not discussed. The novel’s narrator, Max, is a restaurateur (hence the title), and also works for the Ashcroft agency, a network of spies employed to prevent crime by identifying those who may commit it. The novel begins with him watching the arrest of his only friend, a struggling artist called Leon – a result of Max having informed the authorities that he intended to smuggle cigarettes. This, however, is more a result of moral cowardice than ruthlessness, and Max’s arrest rate is rather low, particularly when compared to his partner Chen:
“As an Ashcroft agent, he was the best I’d met in over fifteen years of crime prevention at spotting crimes before they were committed.”
Unfortunately Chen is also arrogant, independent-minded, disparaging (particularly of Max) and argumentative. In another novel, he would be the hero – but not here, perhaps because he is not representative of the society Arjouni is depicting. When Max discovers the merest suggestion that Chen may not be as trusted as he always assumed, he decides to take advantage of this in any way he can.
By grounding his vision of the future in recent events, Arjouni risks reality quickly deviating from what he foresees. The Fence (a satire on immigration fears) is a rather blunt instrument. More subtle is the way in which people are discouraged from talking about it – one nice touch is that products from the other side are marked as originating from the port where they land. Arjouni also includes some advances in technology. The popularity of the Cinema in the Sky is short lived:
“Senior citizens and families with children soon found it far from pleasant to have the night sky turned into a single huge cinema screen every other summer evening.”
Probably more popular is the sexomat, the workings of which are largely, and wisely, left to the imagination. Credibly, though rather unsettlingly, it comes equipped with a camera you can use to film individuals for later ‘use’.
Otherwise the world is much as we would recognise it, and this certainly doesn’t often read like a science-fiction novel. Arjouni is more interested in his characters, both of which are intriguing creations. The novel founders, however, partly because of length (at a little over 150 pages Arjouni does not give himself much room to explore the ramifications of the world he has created), and partly because, once he has established the characters and setting, he then reverts to a crime story, and one that does not really develop the idea of a surveillance society. Even Max’s initial act of betrayal is countered with a letter from Leon suggesting he is glad to have been caught:
“So you’ll understand that almost nothing could have been better for me. My arrest, the prison sentence, the grey, bleak atmosphere here, the terrible food….well, all that was the shot in the arm I needed to break free from my artist’s block…”
Perhaps this is a dig at the artist’s need for suffering to promote creativity, but it has the effect of undermining the one piece of satire that remains effective by the novel’s conclusion. An entertaining enough read, but ultimately unsatisfying.