Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Thursday, October 18:
We gathered around the table in the foyer of the salon where the book festival would be held over the next three days. Myself and five other writers. We had all been shortlisted for the most unusual literary prize in France - the Prix Intramuros. Literally, the prize within the walls. A prize decided by real life prisoners, serving real life prison terms. The book which had won me this place was "Snakehead", the fourth in my China Thrillers series.

There should have been a seventh writer among us. But sadly, the poor man broke his leg while riding (or should I say falling off) one of the new free-to-ride bikes in Paris - "les velos libres".

The seven shortlisted books had been chosen from a long list of forty, before being farmed out to juries of prisoners in penitentiaries all over the north-west of France. The prisoners had all read and discussed the books and voted for their favourite, even before we arrived. But before the prize would be announced, we had to visit the participating penitentiaries and talk to the prisoners. About our books, literature, writing in general.

I should have been accompanied by the guy with the broken leg during a day-long trip to visit a remand jail in Angouleme, and a longer term prison near Bordeaux, but was dispatched along with my chauffeur to deal with it on my own. The other writers headed off to other prisons in the region.

The maison d'arret in Angouleme was a grim, stone-built, nineteenth century prison. Many of the prisoners kept there had not yet been convicted. Some were awaiting trial, others sentencing. Some of them had been held without either for up to two years. A group of fifteen to twenty men trooped into the room where we were to discuss the books. They all shook my hand and sat in chairs in a solemn circle, and three women from the social services department kicked off the debate.

It was slow to start, but I think the guys realised pretty quickly that I wasn't some intellectual come down from his ivory tower to hold forth. I was just an ordinary guy who wrote stories meant to entertain - and was doing his best to speak good French. So they warmed to me, and we ended up having a very lively discussion about the process of writing, of books in general, and of mine in particular.

Two hours later, the ladies from social services drew the session to a close, and I breathed a sigh of relief. One hundred and twenty minutes of French, responding to questions, getting involved in debate, had left my head spinning. I signed copies of my books, and looked forward to escaping the grim claustrophobia of life behind bars. At least I got to leave. I felt desperately sorry for those who had to stay behind - warm, intelligent and articulate men of all ages. What in God's name were they doing in this place?

Then, to my shock, I discovered, that my sentence was not quite over. They were taking me to the "quartier femmes" - the women's wing of the prison - to go through the whole process again with a group of female prisoners.

Beyond a blue-painted barred gate, I was led down a short corridor past the doors of their cells. There are only fifteen women in the whole prison. A room at the end of the corridor provides their sole opportunity for recreation and companionship. It was there that we met, after they were released one by one from their cells. Several of them were very young. Barely more than teenagers. Others were old hands. Tired, drink-puffed faces. They were less focused than the men. More likely to go off at tangents. But we did connect. Escpecially when I told them stories of bizarre Chinese cuisine - deep-fried whole scorpions, dog and cat, ants, hundred-year-old eggs.

And then, when I left, they stood patiently by the doors to their cells to be locked up again in tiny, cold, stone spaces. I found the experience deeply depressing. We have only one life, and for whatever reason these poor souls were wasting theirs.

Out into the sunshine. Free to breath the cool, fresh air, feel the sunshine on my skin. Free to live.

And then an hour's drive south. Almost to Bordeaux, and the prison at Bedenac. A former US military base, this prison comprised a very high wall built all around a huge open space. Inside, once past security, I saw scattered buildings built amid abandoned spaces. There were construction and logging workshops. Cell blocks. An administration block. I ate with the prison guards - cooked for by a inmate, and served by yet another prisoner. It was good grub.

At the far side of the compound was an old US army block which contained a music room and the prison library. It was there that I met a dozen or so men - most of them in their late sixties or early seventies. I was given the warmest of receptions. These were nice, well-read, lucid-speaking men serving long sentences. They ran a well-stocked library and loved to read. After all, what else is there to do with all that time.

Security here was quite different. The men carry the keys to their own cells and lock themselves in at night. We sat around a long table and drank coffee and talked for two hours. They were interested and interesting, and I learned that three of them were to be given special dispensation to attend the book fair at Cognac the next day. Free, and trusted to return. They were looking forward to it in the way that a parched man craves a glass of water, but were already dreading their return.

I enjoyed our conversation. It was lively and intelligent. And afterwards I signed their books and shook their hands, and took the long road north in the dying light, back to Cognac, and the gala dinner to be held in the Chateau Otard - the birthplace of Francois Premier - where the winner of the prize would be announced.

To be honest, I had no expectation of winning. There were several well-known French authors on the shortlist, and it seemed to me unlikely that a foreigner would carry off the prize.

You can imagine my astonishment, then, when they announced my name, and I had to leave my table, applause ringing around the vaulted chambers, to receive my plaque and my 200 dollar bottle of Cognac. "Snakehead", or "Cadavres chinois a Houston" as it is published in France, had been selected by the juries of prisoners - some of whom I had met, and others whom I never would. And I felt a special pride in that. Because these were no professional critics, peddling personal preferences or literary snobbery. These were real readers. Men and women with little else to do with their time but read. And escape through reading. And they had chosen my book. And for me that was worth a hundred critics' prizes.

I felt privileged, too, to have met at least some of them. Who knows what had led them to their prison predicament, or why. But I couldn't help thinking that but for fate they might have been you or I.