Jean-Michel Guenassia was born in Algiers in 1950 but left as a young man. He studied law and was a screenwriter. In 1986 he published his first book, a detective novel. In the same year, some of the famous tweaked photographs of the Stalinist era, where one person disappeared after another, gave him the initial inspiration for a novel that gestated for two decades, only to end up in The Incorrigible Optimists Club.
"In 1987 Nadezhda Mandelstam published, in France, the poems of her husband Osip. Lost poems that for 47 years she had kept in her mind, in her memory. I was shocked by this event. At the heart of my novel is this story..."
If this was the fuse that sparked the imagination, another event was added. Meeting a Hungarian émigré in a café in Montparnasse: "He actually gave me the materials to create one of the leading roles. This Hungarian was living on the financial support of Jean-Paul Sartre - while despising his political positions, thus living in an incredible contradiction. From there I began to build my own story. It took 15 years to get it down on paper... A novel is something you stop writing at some point. It's like serving it. I tried to write the sequel at some point, but one of the characters - Cécile - blocked me. She was leading the story somewhere I didn't want it to go. I would have had to convince myself to write and I didn't want to..."
"I write for those who chase utopia"
But what is the writer's goal when writing something? "I wanted to tell something that resembled life. Even in the hardest times, the darkest times, people are drawn to humour. It's the only way they can survive... Beyond that, I wanted to avoid anachronisms. I had to tell a story set between 1959-1965 and narrate it by seeing things as they were seen at that time, not with today's knowledge... I want to write about the world, not about personal stories: For my family, my lover or my therapist. I'm interested in utopia. People who want to change the world. And I'm looking for the right fictional form to make it happen..."
All the names of his heroes have symbolism in them. Seeking to place a counterpart hero among the emigres from the countries of the Eastern Block, he chose a Greek communist whom he named Petroula in honour of Sotiris Petroula**, about whom he had studied a lot…
One member of the audience pointed out that Petroula's murder took place a few meters from where Ianos is today!
As for whether he is ultimately optimistic: "I'm not very optimistic. The world doesn't leave much room for hope. On the contrary, I remain 'incurable', 'incorrigible'. So I remain a member of the 'Club'...".
**Sotiris Petroulas (1943 - 21 July 1965) was a Greek student who was murdered during a demonstration in Athens. Mikis Theodorakis wrote a song about his assassination.