by Massimo Morello

The man smoking while Henry gets ready for his dive looks just like me. It’s not me, but as I carry on looking at that old photo I start to think that it is: the Panama hat, the glasses, the moustache, above all the cigarette. It could be me in a previous life. The photo appears in an article from January 2010 dedicated to Henry Germain Delauze. “Pioneer of Underwater Diving with a Passion for Sunken Treasure. Between Spying and Scientific Research” went the subheading. That photo is much older than the article, as shown by the diving equipment that Henry’s wearing, which looks like some of the earliest, like the kit used by Commander Cousteau and his men in the 1950s. “I had a mad desire for adventure and Cousteau was just starting out,” Delauze told me. A little while afterwards, the two would come head to head.  They were both tough and ambitious, but with different visions: Cousteau wanted to become a prophet, Delauze a pirate.  

I’d met Delauze in Marseilles too. That interview in his fantastic house set in the old harbour, with his stories of spies, pirates, sunken treasures, adventures in the deep and in space (after becoming a leader in deep diving operations, the company he founded, COMEX, Compagnie maritime d’expertises, was beginning to look towards space missions), would lead me to follow new lines.  

Delauze ended his “vida formidable”, as he said in the patois of the five languages that he spoke, on 14 January 2012 and I understood that it was too late to become a pirate or a prophet. But Marseilles was a good place to keep dreaming that I could. Maybe through my double, that man from the photo who appears in the air of Marseilles like a lurking image. Sometimes I even start to believe that the man who periodically wanders around the city is he and not I. It might be him who materializes in my place. Like when an old sergeant from the foreign legion thought that I was a fellow comrade. I met him at Pointe Cadière, below Malmousque, an elegant neighbourhood on one of the most beautiful stretches of the Marseilles coast hosting “Le centre des convalecents et des permissionnaires de la Légion étrangère”. I go there to swim, around the little Endoume islands, a bit further off shore. He goes underwater fishing there. We really might have come across each other in one of those strange places where journalists and legionnaires meet. Whatever the case, the way I look to that legionnaire derives from my transformation.

In Marseilles I become a perfect “passive adventurer”. The definition is by Pierre Mac Orlane, pseudonym of Pierre Dumarchey, writer, songwriter for Juliette Greco, hero of the Great War, bohemien. He’s the author of the Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer, which came out in 1920, which is where I find my justification. According to Mac Orlane, there is no such thing as an adventure: “Adventure does not exist. It exists only in the mind of the man who pursues it, and as soon as his fingers graze it, it vanishes to appear much further off, in another form, at the limits of the imagination.” In turn, the person pursuing adventure can be active or passive. The active adventurer loves discipline, so often ends up in institutions like the Legion. Instead, passive adventurers are often found among writers, who in very rare cases can be active and passive at the same time. To become a passive adventurer, you have to exercise your imagination daily, nourish it with the right books and the odd journey. “A visit to Marseilles,” for example, “will provide you with the accessories to quite safely imagine the whole Far East.” 

In the light and the shade of Marseilles, therefore, “hybrid” adventurers’ stories weave together. The city is the stage where everyone can imagine or fulfil their romantic or literary expectations. In cities like Marseilles, the spirit of the place attaches itself to you, physically, psychologically. Because it is the archetypal port city, nomadic juncture, mobile feast where the harbour was created following the nature of the landscape. It conjures up ideas of passing through, departing, arriving. It almost becomes the metaphor of a final point of arrival, as happened to the hybrid adventurer embodied in the cursed poet Rimbaud. As written by Jérémy Collado, southern French writer: “Rimbaud was everywhere and nowhere. Here he was passing through, always about to leave”. Right to the last: he died in Marseilles. Here, on the contrary, was the birthplace of the delirious prophet of the “Theatre of Cruelty”, Antonin Artaud, who seems to have absorbed the visionary capacity of an other unknown place in Marseilles. 

And where else but Marseilles could Joseph Conrad, the very embodiment of the hybrid adventurer, have set sail? In 1874 the young Pole Józef Teodor Nałęcz Konrad Korzeniowski was sent to France to avoid being called into the Tsar’s army. Upon arriving in Marseilles, he boarded a brig headed to Martinique. Those first adventures in the French merchant navy supplied him with the material for two novels: Nostromo and The Arrow of Gold, set in Marseilles. “For me, [la Canebière] has always been a street leading into the unknown”, he wrote.

If you are to follow the traces of those who  left Marseilles to seek a story rather than a place, that street has no set destination. “You board there for all the seas, the Red and the Black, for all the straits, canals and gulfs. You’ll see some countries! You’ll find out things you’d never even suspected!” wrote Albert Londres (1884-1932), war reporter and writer. “Marseilles belongs to whoever comes from the open sea”, wrote Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961), one of the intellectual adventurers who’d been through the Foreign Legion recruitment centre. For Louis Brauquier (1900-76), poet from Marseilles, official of the merchant navy, “Life is an adventure that leaves for eternity”, ships are “the nomad’s shelter, his island”. “I’ll run aground again in the heart of ships” is the verse that describes his destiny. 

That destiny, lost in “the horizon of the sea”, is the “only creed” of Jean-Claude Izzo, Marseilles journalist considered one of the creators of the Mediterranean noir, that “Mediterranean divided between beauty and violence, between two colours: the blue of the sky and the sea and the black of death and hatred”. His novels are a search for truth in surroundings marked by beauty and violence, a gaze onto the dark side of a sunny and blue space. 

“Marseilles is the French Chicago, with its roasting-hot streets, the brothels, the murders, the racket, the drugs… all true, and all larger than life”, wrote Christian Harrel-Courtès, one of the authors who promote the rétro image of Marseilles, laden with salty air, smells of spices, whipped by the Mistral, the north-west wind and burnt by the sun, le cagnard. It’s an image of a rougish, dirty and “mal foutue” city, as Cendrars described it, right when the image was forming, the image inextricably linked to gangster culture, personified by le voyou, the thug; le cake, the guy with the gold chain round his neck; and la cagole, his showy companion. It’s the culture of the film “Borsalino”, with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon in the role inspired by Mafiosi Paul Carbone and François Spirito, the makers of the “milieu marseillais”.

The person who best described it is an Italian: eccentric journalist Giancarlo Fusco (1915-84). In a novel that he assures is autobiographical, Duri a Marsiglia (Tough in Marseilles), he becomes Charlot le Pianiste, so called because he keeps a 9-bore gun in the piano of the gambling den. “Over his brown double-breasted jacket with cream pinstripes he wore an Irish trenchcoat, tight at the waist. On his hazelnut-coloured shirt, an ox-blood tie with Zabaione-coloured polka dots was pinned with a fake gold Medusa head…”. 

According to sociologist Laurent Mucchielli these very “strong historical roots of banditry” explain the violence of the Marseilles milieu. “Young people without a future and without any resources are ready to play at being gangsters”: all the more in a city that has always fostered “the imaginary aspect” of the mobster. 

“Adventures continue but take different directions. The sea leads us to observe new horizons”, comments Richard Campana, artist and author of cahiers de voyages, travel notebooks reminiscent of Hugo Pratt. People from Marseilles are indeed a bit like Corto Maltese: supernational human beings, the inhabitants of ports. “We’ve come from all horizons” is the magnificent synthesis of young Nicolas, who alternates between fishing and political sciences, as he boasts of the melting pot city where a quarter of the population is Muslim, where everyone declares Italian, Greek, Maltese, North African, Indo-Chinese descendency. 

So, criminality has become a constant plotline. Between the 1950s and 60s, it was that of the “French Connection”, the organization that supervised the refinement of the heroin coming from Turkey and supplied the Italo-American mafia. A film is dedicated to this too: The French Connection, featuring Gene Hackman. 

Today the gangsteresque image is represented and celebrated in the “kalashnikov rhetoric”, as journalist Philippe Pujol defines it. For years he has been “diving dizzingly” into the “factory of monsters”, the northern districts of Marseilles where 40 per cent of the population live under the poverty threshold. Not in banlieues, but in cités, conglomerations of eyesore buildings, cours des miracles ruled over by “charbonniers”, drug traffickers. “There are more kalashnikovs in Marseilles than in the centre of Kabul,” says Pujol. It is the Marseilles sung by Psy4 de la rime, group of rappers consisting of three cousins originally from the Comoros: “Une ville au bord de la crise de nerfs…Marseille est une ville sous haute tension…Racket, Kalashs… Et ouais c’est le bordel, sur la vie de ma mère!”1

It becomes even more difficult to tell the reality from the fiction when you talk to Marcantonio Vinciguerra. “Today we’re filming a scene at the port where there’s someone hanging from a ship full of blood,” he announces, inviting me to follow the filming. Of Italian birth, former robber, he became famous for “Marsiglia”, an incredibly successful series on YouTube, and he’s just presented a “pilot” film that Netflix might be interested in. He gets his inspiration from “Gomorrah”, “Suburra: Blood on Rome” and “Romanzo Criminale”.

In return, crime “made in Marseilles” gives off a sufficient dose of madness and nihilism to combat any radical ideology. “You want to come to Marseilles? Come, you’ll see what happens. You want a war? You’ll get one. We’ve got Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers… Even if you kill me, I’ll come back to life and fuck your mother”. A video posted on YouTube just after the Nice terrorist attack of 2016 starts with this challenge. It was made by and features Mohamed Henni, supporter of OM, Olympique de Marseille, the city’s football team, who normally dedicates his videos to the sport. In this case, however, as the title declares, the challenge, the threats and the insults are aimed at the Islamic terrorists who had announced an attack on Marseilles. 

“Why do so few foreign fighters come from Marseilles? Because you can play with kalaschnikovs in Marseilles, you don’t need to go to Raqqa. Without counting that here you can kill your enemies and then go to drink in a nightclub. Something that you can’t do in Raqqa,” says Olivier Roy, author of the book Globalized Islam. “It’s not ethical, I know. But history isn’t”. 

Instead, Father Renato Zilio, a missionary who works in the third arrondissement, a neighbourhood in the centre of Marseilles, the poorest in France, refers to morality. “The Muslims who live here understand certain values: it’s in the migrant’s genes,” he tells me in his modest flat overlooking a large square surrounded by council flats and a wall. “It’s my wall of infinity”. 

Beyond that wall, there’s also a city that’s changing, with new cultural and residential districts that are the works of star architects such as Jean Nouvel, Massimiliano Fuksas, Kengo Kuma and Stefano Boeri. The plan to redevelop the Old Port is the work of Norman Foster and French landscape architect Michel Desvigne. The mouth of this immense square of water, surrounded by a pedestrian zone that it’s connected to by an elevated walkway, opens onto Mucem, the Museum of European Civilizations and the Mediterranean. Designed by architect Rudy Ricciotti, it’s a perforated structure which, owing to the shadows created in the interior, has been defined a “vertical Casbah”. 

The whole skyline is dominated by the 147-metre high tower designed by Zaha Hadid for CMA-CGM, third-largest container transportation and shipping company in the world. It’s the symbol of Marseilles’ true renewal, its reconquest of a position as a leading Mediterranean port, also thanks to the increasingly strong agreements with the Chinese government which sees the city as a terminal for expansion towards the Maghreb and western Africa. At the same time, Marseilles has become one of the global hubs for intercontinental data transmission via submarine cables. 

It’s no coincidence that the traffic of goods and information is the subject of the permanent exhibition – “Connectivités” – housed in Mucem. It’s inspired by the idea of historian Fernand Braudel (1902-85), according to whom history is always plural, there’s no singular declension, it multiplies itself endlessly, branching out and inventing itself. It’s the concept of geohistory, the intricate story that makes up human societies, whose single plots and their strands need to be unravelled for a certain stretch of time. History needs to be thought of as an open and creative time and place, always spanned by a multitude of stories.

Personally, in Marseilles I remould this philosophy into meetings, coincidences, discoveries and encounters in various physical, cultural and existential experiences. I reflect while reading Quando guidavano le stelle (When the Stars Were Our Guide) by Alessandro Vanoli, which takes me to a Mediterranean Orient, which might be Venice, Barcelona or Marseilles. But also Ancona, my native city. Chance reappears as I bump into Bryan Di Salvatore, William Finnegan’s travel companion in looking for waves, author of Barbarian Days, a cult book among surfers. Bryan talks to me about a book by James Welch, writer who lived in Missoula in Montana, 500 miles east of the nearest ocean, where Bryan also retired to: The Heartsong of Charging Elk. It tells the adventures of a Sioux Indian abandoned in Marseilles in 1890 during a tour of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show”. It’s a story in which Marseilles provides “the historical, exotic and generic space and timeframe”, writes Erika Riberi of Aix-Marseille Université. Bizarre how her judgement reminds me of Braudel’s historical conception, but also the quantic vision of the epistemology of Carlo Rovelli, physicist and philosopher who teaches at the same university. 

They’re all books and authors that I leaf through at the Plage des Catalans, Marseilles’ popular beach, which can be the stage for fights, gypsy songs or nocturnes by Chopin… And so as I was rounding off this article, swimming by the beach, I saw a group of statues that had just been deposited on the seabed. It’s the “Musée Subaquatique de Marseille”. The central sculpture is the exoskeleton of a sea anenome created by Daniel Zanca, Italo-French-Algerian artist. We made friends there, in the water. 

1“A city on the verge of a nervous breakdown…Marseilles is a high-tension city… Rackets, Kalashnikovs… And yes, there’s the brothel, on my mother’s life!”

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