Title: The Black Jersey
Author: Jorge Zepeda Patterson (translated by Achy Obejas)
Publisher: Random House
Year: 2019 (originally published in Spanish in 2018 as Muerte contrarreloj)
Order: Penguin Random House
What it is: A slice of crime fiction set in the world of the Tour de France, where someone is forcibly removing riders from the race
Strengths: The denouement pulls together and Zepeda has fun with the cycling, providing a couple of memorable stages
Weaknesses: Very little effort seems to have been put into the translation
“A domestique should not taste victory, for the same reason a boy in a refugee camp should not taste chocolate cake.”
The Rocca team’s dreams of a good Tour de France ended a fortnight before the race began when their Australian climbing sensation Hugo Lampar was attacked and beaten during a training ride.
Michael Hankel’s prospects of improving upon his third place at the recent Giro d’Italia lasted longer but still blew away on the wind before a wheel had been turned in anger. Two days before the prologue the German was mugged outside his team hotel. The muggers took his wallet. And stomped on his ankle.
Chrono-specialist Phil Cunninham’s Tour aspirations died during the prologue, a bout of bad fish – food poisoning – costing the Sajontrip team’s star rider three minutes in his preferred discipline.
Stage five of the Tour saw pre-race favourite Óscar Cuadrado’s ambitions wither and die when a couple of inattentive spectators stepped into the road and sent four of his Movistar team-mates home in an ambulance.
The Tour hopes of Astana’s Carlos Santamaria disappeared before the start of the seventh stage when the Spaniard popped a positive, despite being a rider most believed raced clean.
Later that same day another of the pre-race favourites, Peter Stark and his British
Sky Batesman team, had their Tour expectations punctured when Saul Flemming – Stark’s most loyal of loyal lieutenants – was found dead in his hotel room’s bath, his wrists slashed.
“Sometimes I ask if our deep friendship, which would end up defining both our lives, was forged by the mutual protection of that initial alliance. Al least in my case, it was. Even considering what happened years later, I’m convinced there was something genuine and profound in that unconditional and absolutely loyal brotherhood we forged from the very first.”
Steve Panata is the American star of the French-sponsored
Phonak Fonar team. Already a four-time winner of the Tour he’s looking to join the five-times club (Indurain, Hinault, Merckx, Anquetil, Garin). Having ridden into the maillot jaune on the stage nine time trial and with his two chief rivals effectively sidelined – the Phonak Fonar, Sky Batesman and Movistar squads of Panata, Stark, and Cuadrado had “taken turns winning the Tour, Il Giro, and La Vuelta” for the last four years – Panata’s path to victory should be simple.
While the American superstar is going for his fifth victory, no Frenchman has mounted the top step of the Tour’s podium in more than three decades. So when Panata’s French domestique de luxe (and our narrator), Marc Moreau, climbs into second place in the race on Bastille Day and finds himself just two minutes off taking the lead, the excitement factor is ratcheted up.
Moreau has been Panata’s loyal lieutenant since they hooked up at a small Belgian squad in 2006. Born of a Colombian mother and a French father, Moreau spent the first nine years of his life being shuttled around Latin America’s embassy circuit, his father an officer in the military on diplomatic duty. After his parents separated Moreau’s mother took him to Medellín, where he lived until he turned eighteen. Then he crossed the Atlantic, hoping to live with his father in a cabin in the Alps. Instead, his father signed him up for the army and he was assigned to a regiment based near Perpignan, at the foot of the Pyrénées. There an aptitude for cycling that had first shown itself in Colombia was encouraged to blossom and bloom. Four years later Moreau and Panata formed a friendship that, over the next decade, carried one of them to four Tour titles and both to “a pair of houses next to each other among the hills of Lake De Como” (readers of a certain disposition might want to check their dental plan before embarking upon The Black Jersey, it’s chock full of teeth grinding moments like “Lake De Como” – more on this later).
The Black Jersey doesn’t satisfy itself with a simple case of Cain and Abel rivalry à la Anquetil-Aldig, Balmamion-Defilipis, Hinault-LeMond, Roche-Visentini, Contador-Armstrong, Froome-Wiggins, or Bernal-Thomas. Behind Panata and Moreau’s
Phonak Fonar squad other teams are working out how to take advantage of a Tour turned on its head apparently by outside forces: the Lavezza squad of Italy’s Alessio Matosas, who had won the Tour six years before; the Rabobank Rabonet team of the Czech star Milenko Paniuk; and Baleares outfit of Spain’s Pablo Medel. So when the French authorities call on Moreau to help them investigate the dirty deeds dragging the Tour to the edge of ruin – Moreau’s time in the army was spent as a military policeman – his list of suspects is made up of those obviously profiting most from the crimes being committed: his rivals Matosas, Paniuk, and Medel, along with his own team-mate Panata.
Whodunnits that simply ask you to sift the clues, dismiss the red herrings, and solve the crime can, quite quickly, grow wearisome, even to fans of the genre. The best crime fiction usually has something else to offer apart from the solving of the crime. Zepeda, he offers up cycling as a self-policing world, not just in the way it metes out punishment to those who break the sport’s unwritten rules but also in the way its participants are capable of cleaning up their own messes without airing too much dirty linen in public. It’s a comforting thought, as comforting as believing that even at the gates of hell creak open the forces of good will come together and protect us. Crime fiction exists to provide us with such comforting thoughts, especially when the real world seems to be denying us them.
Zepeda also offers up food for thought on the role of families: Moreau has been rejected by his own family and found a surrogate brother in his team-mate Panata, who his third family – formed by Moreau’s girlfriend, Fiona Crowley, and his mentor, Bruno Lombard – want him to turn against and try and win the Tour for himself. We even get the notion so beloved by our betters in Aigle of cycling itself as a family.
Moreau’s and Panata’s mothers are at the heart of the first two families and they account for half of the novel’s female characters, the other two being Panata’s and Moreau’s girlfriends, both of whom Zepeda defines by their tits, which are “spectacular” and “large, unconfined.” Maybe expecting a cycling novel to pass the Bechdel test is asking too much, even as we approach the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century.
“Although there were many things to love about Fiona, her knowledge of geography was not one of them.”
In places – so many places! – The Black Jersey’s writing makes clunking sounds, like an engine desperately in need of tuning (“Seven stages on the mountain, three in the Pyrenees and four in the Alps.” That ugly phrasing, “on the mountain”, gets repeated multiple times (“Fonar was by far the strongest team on the high mountain.”) and is not the result of a momentary lapse). Most feel like infelicities in the translation – “Lake De Como”, or “Gerona” – easily fixed had there been an attentive editor (“She could still take me by surprise with the rare moments when our intimacy broke through her reserves.” Or “Murat the Beast raved against the authorities.”). Some errors, however, can’t be laid at the foot of the translator. Zepeda scores pedantry points by lumping Mont Ventoux in with “the other Alpine peaks” but fluffs the landing when he relocates the Croix Neuve to the Pyrénées. He’s also docked style points over his liking for “terrible uphill climbs”, especially the “terrible Alpe d’Huez”.
While the original novel has the benefit of input from the Spanish journalist Carlos Arribas (whose own cycling novel, Ocaña, is a gem) there’s no evidence of a native English-speaker with a cycling background having read this translation – how else can you explain stages becoming laps, riders’ jerseys becoming T-shirts, or bidons becoming cans? You’d need to have a tin ear or the attention span of a gnat to let stuff like that pass uncorrected. Which, I know, doesn’t rule out the possibility of input from most of the writers from Velo News or Cycling Tips (“The asphalt on day three was hell itself. Racing over cobblestones at 50 kilometers per hour will literally break your balls.”). Added to these problems you also have to allow that this is a translation into American English (“There was no sense putting ourselves at risk when the championship was already in our hands.”), a tongue sometimes so lacking in the poetic impulse that its speakers think it’s perfectly acceptable to refer to cyclists as bikers.
All of these quibbles matter. A good translation should effortlessly pull you into the world of the story, foreign and all as it might seem, but all of these missteps serve to push you away, keep you at arms length. When Moreau says that someone was “as friendly as a blister on my ass” it’s hard not to find yourself pausing to wonder if that’s what he really said or if he wouldn’t have said something more believable like “as friendly as a saddle-sore”, or “as friendly as a boil on my backside”. It doesn’t even matter what he actually did say (or how wrong he was doing it in order to get a blister there), the point is you’ve stopped reading in order to ask yourself the question.
Balancing all of this moaning about language, Zepeda serves up some highly borrowable zingers. Try this: “Radok descended like the gods, at least in the sense that he thought he was immortal.” Or this: “He was the kind of guy who, if you saw him with red eyes at a funeral, it was only because he was allergic to flowers.” Some are blink-and-you’ll miss them in their sharpness, such as referring to the
Sky Batesman team as Brexit (“an island unto itself, practically a brotherhood”). There’s more than enough good in the mix to make you wish the publishers had made even a bit of an effort with the translation.
“‘Cycling isn’t a game. We say ‘Let’s play soccer’, or basketball or tennis, but no one says ‘Let’s play cycling’, because you don’t play cycling: Cycling is a battle; cycling is combat.’ The phrase wasn’t mine, I’d heard some journalist say it, but Favre didn’t need to know that either. ‘That we’re talked about as a peloton isn’t a coincidence because we’re a group on the way to war, except the war is among ourselves.’ I thought the finish was even better, because I assumed it was my own saying. Though I wasn’t entirely sure.”
The Black Jersey joins at the crime end of the Café Bookshelf recent offerings such as Linda Stratmann’s Murder at the Bayswater Bicycle Club and Martin Cathcart Froden’s Devil Take the Hindmost, atmospheric historical novels set in the 1870s and 1920s. Or there’s Magnus McGrandle’s exuberant Short Ride on a Fast Machine, which used as its central character a cycling courier. That same world serves as the setting for Adam Abramowitz’s on-going series so far made up of Bosstown and A Town Called Malice. Greg Moody, he stretched his set of Armstrong-era American cycling noir out to five titles. If we expand our horizons to film, as well as the so-bad-it’s-still-bad-but-I-like-it-anyway Quicksilver and the adorable Les Triplettes de Belleville (and quickly skipping over that episode of Midsomer), we have Jean Stelli’s 1948 French flick Cinq Tulipes Rouges, in which the newly returned Tour de France is being stalked by a killer who leaves behind a bouquet of five red tulips as his signature. Crime and cycling, they’re actually a good coupling, well able to hang together.
How well does it all hang together in The Black Jersey? The crimes perpetrated by the publishers aside, it all hangs together quite well and Zepeda delivers a fun novel capable of satisfying both devotees of crime fiction and lovers of anything with a cycling angle. Moreau’s slowly revealed backstory and his relationship with Panata provide a firm backbone for the novel, while a couple of brilliant stages – days which if they were real would be up there with the Puy de Dôme, Pra Loup, or La Plagne – go beyond the usual fan fic mix-and-match from history to be found in a lot of other Tour-set cycling novels. Less satisfying is the crime caper itself: we only really get to know one character in the whole novel, our narrator Moreau, and so feel nothing for those he suspects are behind the whole thing. With so much else going on you can do what many do with crime fiction and let the sleuthing wash over you, hoping it’ll all make sense in the end. Which it does, with Zepeda untangling the twisted knot of crimes and revealing something satisfyingly elegant.
The only question left unanswered at the end of it all is just who is responsible for the dog’s dinner of a translation you have to work through in order to enjoy the good bits.