The autobiography of one of France’s most notorious criminals.
On the morning of November 2, 1979, a gold BMW pulled up behind a blue truck stopped at a stoplight in Porte de Clignancourt, in northern Paris. After a moment, a tarp covering the back of the truck opened to reveal four men with rifles. They opened fire in unison, blasting holes into the windshield. The man driving the BMW was hit fifteen times; the woman in the passenger seat was blinded and crippled by the attack. Her pet poodle died, too. And that was the end of Jacques Mesrine, France’s public enemy number one.
For nearly twenty years, Mesrine had humiliated the country’s judicial system with repeated high-profile bank robberies, murders, and daring prison escapes. But now the police had caught up to him. His bloodied corpse laid limp in his car, left out for the paparazzi. One of the officers tossed Mesrine’s wig, riddled with bullets, onto the car hood like roadkill into a dumpster. That last detail comes from one of the many YouTube videos you can watch of the shooting’s aftermath, waiting to be compared with Jean-François Richet’s 2008 two-part film Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, both starring Vincent Cassel. And through the bullet holes of mythology, you can see in this tableau a bit of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and a little bit of Jean-Paul Belmondo dying on the pavement, calling Jean Seberg a bitch.
This was a fitting death—and has been a fitting afterlife—for Mesrine. He was France’s most famous criminal not only because of his crimes but for the way he hot-wired the machinery of fame. While he was on the most-wanted list, he gave interviews and was photographed for the cover of Paris Match. Two years before his assassination, Mesrine wrote his autobiography, The Death Instinct, while incarcerated in the inescapable La Santé Prison, from which he later escaped. It was 1977, a bleak time for culture and politics: in England, it was “God Save the Queen,” with Johnny Rotten whinnying “no future” into recorded oblivion; in Germany, it was the Red Army Faction, their crimes, and their deaths in Stammheim Prison. For many in France, a few decades out of existentialism, the late seventies were a time of startling political conservatism, a time when the hopes of ’68 were being actively erased. It was this regime of erasure that Mesrine fought against, and that killed him two years later.
When The Death Instinct (L’Instinct de Mort) was published in ’77, it presented Mesrine not just as a modern-day Robin Hood but as an articulate and politicized critic of the French government. He wasn’t quite Sartre’s Saint Genet, but he was close. His condemnations of the prison system led to the support of many leading intellectuals of the time, including Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. Jean-Paul Belmondo bought the movie rights, and the film was going to be produced by Gérard Lebovici, who ended up republishing the book in 1984. That same year, he was also assassinated in a still-unsolved gangland killing. Over the years, the book fell out of print while Mesrine’s legend remained alive, though sometimes only in the verses of French rap songs.
Thanks to the efforts of TamTam Books, a small indie press in Los Angeles that specializes in translation, The Death Instinct has now arrived to these shores. Translated by Catherine Texier and Robert Greene, the book is a barred window into a life and time that has gone by, but it’s also a prescient look at how images and narratives have the power to manipulate lives in today’s world.
After the few unfortunate pages of Mesrine’s belletristic jailhouse philosophizing that open the book, The Death Instinct begins in earnest with his birth in 1936 in suburban Paris, following his life up to the time of its writing. He spent his boyhood days waiting out the war with his cousins in rural France—playing soldiers, herding the cows to pasture—and then returned to Paris for an adolescence that brings to mind the exploits of young Antoine Doinel, at first. He soon trades his slingshot for brass knuckles and school days spent down by the Seine for school nights spent up in the red-light district of Pigalle, hookering it up. By the time his voice drops, Mesrine emerges as a charismatic (detractors say sociopathic) rogue.
There is no one Ur-crime, no cauterizing brand that marks him as belonging outside of society, although several compete. Early on, he witnesses a group of resistance fighters humiliating a woman accused of collaboration horizontale. As the soiree shapes up into a gang rape, young Jacques is led away, “devastated,” unable to understand this “desire to punish a woman.” A few years later he loses his virginity to a hooker, whose “perfectly shaped breasts reminded [him] of the woman the resistance fighters had undressed.” The collapsed heroics of the partisans, and that border, porous as lambskin, between tenderness and savagery, seem to preface Mesrine’s relationship with both authority and women.
He himself later enlisted and was sent to Algeria, where he allegedly worked on a torture squad. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t go into that detail of his military years, though it’s addressed elsewhere. The motive for the omission isn’t clear—perhaps he’d repressed this period in life, or perhaps it had never happened, or perhaps, by ’77, torturing Algerians had fallen out of vogue. Nevertheless, one would be tempted to posit either of these experiences as the basis for a life of crime.
They’re not, though, at least not in Mesrine’s eyes: a little later, in one of the autobiography’s more lucid passages, he accounts for his criminality simply by saying he didn’t want to lead a boring life. When he’d returned from Algeria, he was discouraged by what he saw in his fellow Parisians:
Sad faces, weary eyes … Human beings condemned to eternal mediocrity … Stomachs on legs, regular customers of the daily special and the small glass of red wine. Human beings already familiar with their future since they had none.
There’s really nothing here that differentiates his thoughts from an avant-garde firebrand, or an angst-ridden adolescent. He expands on his disdain for the bourgeoisie with an admission that it was he “who was socially maladjusted,” “lazy, a gambler, a lush … ” His “whole youth had been conditioned by the gangster films that [he] had watched.”
And sure enough, the book progresses from here like a gangster film. At first it’s in a rather lighthearted way, as when Mesrine and an associate, caught midburglary by the owners of the house, must pretend that they’re detectives who have only moments earlier arrived on the scene. Six months later, things get a little darker. In what amounts to the end of his apprentice days, Mesrine casually slaps a prostitute for being rude and then pistol-whips her pimp, who in return brutalizes the face of another prostitute, the one Mesrine had come to see in the first place. Mesrine gags and guts the pimp and buries him alive. By the end of the book, he admits—confesses would not be quite the right word—to thirty-nine killings.
If the plot of Mesrine’s life seems to have been ripped from film noir, at least he has a prose style to match: as a writer, he leans heavily on the bum leg of genre conventions, resulting in a slapstick wobble. Not a scene goes by without him stopping to remind us that something else is on its way. “It wouldn’t be the first time that … ” “I was far from imagining … ” The constant foreshadowing leaves much of the action, when it does arrive, overcast. And he’s always prattling on about keeping his word and settling scores, often with those who neglected to keep their words. This comes with crime-memoir territory, and it does little to obscure the realism seething through the book, especially as the garrote tightens with each passing escapade.
In the second act, Mesrine really gets going. He escapes France—where he was “wanted for murder, which involved a settling of scores, and armed robbery”—to Canada. With his girlfriend, he rents a posh apartment on Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street, hoping to start anew. It doesn’t happen. He kidnaps, he robs, and he ends up escaping from an inhumane maximum-security prison only to try breaking back in to—what else?—settle a score with the warden and keep his words to his friends.
About midway through, one of Mesrine’s aperçus speaks to this book’s continued relevance. He’s just arrived in Canada with the potential for a fresh start on his mind, but he’s denied a visa because of his lengthy criminal record. Given ten days to leave the country, he says: “You can’t start a new life, it just goes on, with a past that is denied any future.”
This fit in with the nihilism of the day (cue Johnny Rotten), but it also spoke to me personally. Several years ago, attempting to fly to Shanghai by way of Toronto, I was told that because of a disorderly conduct charge leftover from a wild night in college, I wasn’t welcome in the country. How could they have known, let alone cared? Here, thirty-five years into a future that’s denied any separation from the past, it’s hard enough for people to start fresh, even if they haven’t been killing pimps and robbing banks. For a public bound in a flexible yet unbreakable web of credit scores, leaked e-mails, and naked photos, life on the outside of society doesn’t seem that bad.
Hunter Braithwaite was the founding editor of The Miami Rail. He has written for Art in America, The White Review, and The Virginian-Pilot. He lives in Memphis.