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Authors: Jean-Claude Izzo,Howard Curtis

The Lost Sailors

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Europa Editions
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This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 1997 by Éditions Flammarion
First publication 2007 by Europa Editions
Translation by Howard Curtis
Original Title:
Les marins perdus
Translation copyright © 2007 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
ISBN 9781609451714

Jean-Claude Izzo


Translated from the French
by Howard Curtis

For Laurence


his morning, Marseilles looked as gray as a northern port. Diamantis hurriedly had a cup of instant coffee in the deserted mess, then went down on deck, whistling
Besame mucho.
That was the tune that came into his head most often. It was also the only one he could whistle. He took a Camel from a crumpled pack, lit it, and leaned on the ship's rail. Diamantis didn't mind this weather. Not today, anyway. It fitted his gray mood perfectly.

He let his gaze wander toward the open sea, trying to postpone the moment when, like the rest of the crew of the
, he would have to come to a decision. He'd never been good at making decisions. For the past twenty-five years, he had let himself be carried along by life. From one freighter to another. From one port to another.

There were storm clouds in the sky, and the islands of the Frioul were just a dark stain in the distance. You could barely see the horizon. A day without a future, Diamantis thought. He didn't dare admit to himself that today was just like every other day. Five months. The crew of the
had already been here for five months. Moored at the end of the four-mile-long sea wall known as Le Large. A long way from everything. With nothing to do. And no money. Waiting for someone to buy this damned freighter.

had arrived in Marseilles on January 22, from La Spezia in Italy, to take on board two thousand tons of flour bound for Mauretania. Everything had gone well. Three hours later, a court order had been issued preventing the ship from leaving, because of debts contracted by its owner, a Cypriot named Constantin Takis. No one had seen hide nor hair of him since. “He's a son of a bitch” was all Abdul Aziz, the captain of the
, had said, handing the court order to his first mate, Diamantis, with a gesture of disgust.

For the first few weeks, they had thought the matter would be resolved quickly. Sailors know all about hope. It's what keeps them alive. Anyone who has been to sea at least once in his life knows that. Every day, in defiance of the facts, Abdul Aziz, Diamantis and the seven crew members went about their business as if they were due to leave the next day. Maintaining the machinery, cleaning the deck, checking the electrical equipment, inspecting the bridge.

Life on board had to continue. It was vital.

And Abdul Aziz proved to his men that he was just as good a captain trapped here on land as he was on the high seas. It was surely thanks to his personal qualities that a support network had quickly sprung up around the
. A charitable organization provided food and drink. The maritime firefighters kept them supplied with fresh water. The Port Authority made sure their laundry was done and their garbage removed. The biggest relief of all was that, since the third month, the Seamen's Mission had been sending money to the crew's families.

“We were lucky to get stranded here,” Abdul had said. “Anywhere else, we'd have died on the spot. You know something, Diamantis? I like this town.”

Diamantis also liked Marseilles. He had liked it since the first time he'd landed here. He was barely twenty. Ship's boy on board the tramp steamer
, a rusty old freighter that never ventured farther than the Strait of Gibraltar. Diamantis had a vivid memory of that day. The
had passed the Riou archipelago and the islands of the Frioul, and there in front of his eyes was the harbor. Like a strip of pink-and-white light, separating the blue of the sky from the blue of the sea. It was dazzling. Marseilles, he had thought then, is a woman who offers herself to those who arrive by sea. He had even written it down in his log. Not even realizing that he was expressing the founding myth of the city. The story of Gyptis, the Ligurian princess who gave herself to Protis, the Phocean sailor, the night he entered the port. Since then, Diamantis had lost count of the number of times he had put in here.

But now, everything was different. They were like lost sailors in Marseilles. Diamantis had realized that at the end of the first month, when they had been asked to leave Wharf D and moor at berth No. 111, at the end of Quai Wilson, along the sea wall. There were many similar stories to theirs in many different ports. The
had been waiting for three years in Rouen. No one knew who the owner was: the ship had been sold and resold without ever leaving port. Closer to home, the
, a bulk carrier, had been berthed in Port-de-Bouc for eighteen months. The
and the
, a roll-on roll-off ferry and a tramp steamer, were trapped in Sète. Diamantis had heard people talking about it. So had Abdul Aziz.

The two men had known all that when they embarked on the
. More and more freighters were encountering similar misadventures. The only exceptions were the container ships and the tankers that belonged to international fleets, and not to owners who played with freight the way people play roulette. But Abdul Aziz and Diamantis never talked about that. They were too superstitious. The
would put to sea again. With Abdul Aziz commanding. That was the truth. At fifty-five, he couldn't contemplate leaving his ship. He had taken command of it at La Spezia and he would get it back to its owner. Whoever he was. Wherever he was. He had said that again, last night, to the assembled crew in the mess.

In a voice he'd managed to drain of all emotion, he had read out the legal communication he had been given that afternoon.

has been seized as security for the debts incurred by a company claimed by its creditors to be linked to the ship's owner. Whereas the company controlling the
is totally separate in law from the debtor company . . .”

The crew listened to him in silence, not understanding a single damned word of this legal mumbo-jumbo. The court-appointed lawyer gave them a word-by-word commentary. There was no point. They'd grasped the basics anyway. Even the two Burmese. The ship wouldn't be putting to sea any time soon.

“We'll be able to pay you only if the boat is sold, and even then only if the conditions are right,” Abdul had resumed, cutting off the lawyer in the middle of a fine flight of legal oratory. “That's what it means. It could happen tomorrow or it could take six months. Or even a year. I don't want you to be under any illusions. In Sète, a freighter like ours, the
, was put up for auction last week. It didn't find a buyer . . . That's what you have to know. I know your families are having difficulties. So is mine. That's why I'm not going to hold any of you back. I've made inquiries, and there is compensation available for anyone who wants to leave. It won't be much, but it is available. Think about it and let me know what you've decided by tomorrow morning. I'm staying. My place is here. But you all know that anyway.”

He looked at all of them in turn, except for the lawyer—he'd left him out of the running from the outset. For a moment, Diamantis thought Abdul was going to ask if anyone had any questions. But he didn't.

Instead, he said, “I'm sorry about . . . all this. I shouldn't have gotten your hopes up. I really believed we'd be putting to sea again. I still believe it, but . . .”

He stood up. He seemed exhausted.

“Good night, my friends.”

He left the room, tight-lipped, body stiff, eyes fixed in the distance. Proud, the way desperate people sometimes are.

Diamantis had watched him go. He'd guessed that Abdul Aziz was going to take refuge in his cabin. Lying on his bunk with his eyes closed, he would find consolation in the music of Duke Ellington. He had the complete works on cassette, and he listened to them on his Walkman. A gift from Cephea, his wife, for his birthday. He hadn't come out since, not even to eat. This business was eating away at him. Abdul Aziz didn't like failure.


Diamantis threw his cigarette stub in the water. He missed the sea. He had never been persuaded of the joys of life on land, even in a port. Almost thirty years as a sailor. The sea was his life. It was the only place he felt free. Not alive, not dead, but in another place. A place where he found a few reasons to be himself. It was enough for him.

He had nothing tangible to show for his life. He didn't have a family anymore, he didn't have a woman waiting for him. There was only his son, Mikis. Eighteen this year. Half the money he made was for him. To pay for his studies in Athens. Mikis loved literature, and Diamantis sometimes hoped his son would write popular novels based on his voyages. The one thing that Diamantis was afraid of was that Mikis might also go to sea. All his family had been sailors, father to son.

“All my life I ran after my father,” he had told Abdul one evening. “Until he died. By then, I didn't know any other life. I couldn't do without the sea anymore. My only attempt to break free, to settle on land, was when I married Melina and went to live in Agios Nikolaos, on the island of Psara, where my father had bought a house. But what can you do on an island where there's nothing but goats? We made a child!

“At night, to get him to sleep, I'd read him Homer. Four years later, I went back to sea. Melina went back to Athens. To her family. With Mikis in her arms. When I got back, two years later, she asked me for a divorce. I stayed a week, then left again, and I've kept going ever since. This is the first time since Mikis was born that I've stayed so long on land.”

“And how do you feel about it?”

“I don't know who I am anymore. How about you?”

“Right now, I feel the same. I'm not sure about anything anymore. My life. Cephea, the children. All that. I'm not sure my life has a meaning.”

Diamantis had been surprised by this answer, which was unusually honest and direct, unusually intimate, too, coming from Abdul. In fact, he had only wanted to know how Abdul had become a sailor. The first time for a sailor is as important—if not more important—as the first girl you go to bed with. The same fear. The same fever. The only difference is that you know, as soon as you've left port, that a love like that will never fade. At least that was what Diamantis thought.

The two men had sailed together several times. On other freighters. For other owners. The relationship between them had always been the same. Aziz was the captain, and Diamantis his first mate. Rank had always meant a lot to them. They trusted and respected each other, but they had never talked about their lives. Their lives on land, where, if they had met, they probably wouldn't have had much to say to each other. Not even during that long trip, six years ago, all the way to Saigon. “We're going to pieces,” Diamantis had thought at that moment.

Abdul had smiled at Diamantis's surprise. “I didn't answer your question, did I?”

“No. But . . . think of it, Abdul . . . in all this time. What's happening to us? Is it just the blues, or what?”

“It's being on land for so long. It's changing us. There's no sea between us. Just emptiness. The fear of falling.”

“Are you afraid?”

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