28 novembre 2015

ENG - H for Heroin and Harlem

In the words of Raymond Nelson, each one of the Harlem domestic stories studies a "peculiar institution": "street gang, political and homosexual subculture, heroin trafficking, etc. 1

The Heat's on was written in 1961. The action takes place in the large heroin trafficking set up in New York from 1950.  As we know, the heroin was produced in laboratories of the Marseilles hinterland. The traffic was in the hands of Marseilles Corsican mobsters (the French connection) and the American mafia.

The end of The Heat's on clarifies the context of the plot. A load of heroin - nearly 5 kg of pure heroin – left France in a French liner. US police was monitoring this boat but when arriving in New York harbour, heroin was loaded on a small speedboat. To foil the surveillance of police, heroin was concealed in five large black eels waiting to be fished. And in the words of a T-Man, "Eel skins stuffed with heroin. Waterproof. That’s a clever dodge. Only a Frenchman would think of it."

The particular angle of The Heat's on concerns the attempt of small black Bronx hoodlums to seize crumbs of the resale market for heroin in Manhattan. While Grave Digger, wounded by two white bandits, is in a coma, Coffin Ed expresses amazement at the lack of awareness of these petty criminals: "Small-time dog-ass little Harlem hustlers on the fringe of the narcotics racket. Pee-wee coloured scrabblers for a dirty buck. How do they get mixed up in this business? "
Himes focuses on two aspects.
The first lies in the damages induced by trafficking among Harlemites: physical deterioration, destruction by the importance of money at stake of any link between blacks, and total dehumanization of the racketeers. The second is the indifference of politicians and policemen to the fate of black youth. "All the crimes committed by addicts - robberies, murders, rapes ... All the fucked up lives ... All the nice kids sent down the drain on a habit ... Twenty-one days on heroin and you’re hooked for life ... Jesus Christ, mister, that one lousy drug has killed more people than Hitler. And you call it minor?"

In the last lines of the novel, as a wink to the readers of the Série noire, and to make up for the French connection, France is dealt with in a more positive light: Coffin Ed, his wife and Lieutenant Anderson drink two cognacs, two Pernod and a Dubonnet in a Broadway French bar.
The Heat’s on is a significant step in the evolution of the Harlem domestic stories: the little thugs from the Bronx are despicable but still human. Facing them, the white killers of organized crime are ruthless. The issues at stake have changed and have a wider scope.

Unfortunately for the French readers, the French translation in the Série Noire suffers, among other things, from the bad knowledge of the American drugs lexicon by the translators of the 1960’s. They lack words, they do not understand “the slang idiom of heroin (which) is extensive and in large part resourceful and poetic.” 2

1 Raymond Nelson, "The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes, in The Critical Response to Chester Himes, LP Silet (ed.), Greenwood Press, 1999.
2 Tom Dalzell, The Slang of Sin, Merriam Webster, 1998.

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