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The man behind Zadig, Berlin’s premiere French bookstore

With Zadig, Patrick Suel became Berlin's "DJ of French books", but he still dreams of a “littérature-monde”

Photo: Gianluca Quaranta

A rocker at heart, 55-year-old Patrick Suel moved to Berlin to pursue a career as what he describes as a “DJ of French books”. It was his now-wife who first fell in love with the capital after she came here as a French au pair in 1989. “She became very attached to the city and brought me here from 1992 onwards,” he says. “From then on, we followed Berlin’s evolution, it’s development into what it would become.”

The couple made the permanent move in 2002 and, one year later, Suel opened Zadig, now Berlin’s premiere French bookstore and cultural hub, hosting regular readings and literary events. The sense of community is strong and many of the patrons passing through its doors greet Suel by name.

We’re addicted to breaking news and fake news. Technology is driving us mad

Zadig’s landlord, a German francophile with an affinity for French literature, is a regular who offered up the bookshop’s current location in the beautiful Sophie-Gips-Höfe after learning that the rent at its original Linienstraße location was set to double. “I always try to be positive, to set an example,” he says. “Franco- phone culture has this positive spirit and I try to carry that with me. ”

Suel is more concerned with ideas than with facts of life. When asked where he is from, he refers to himself as everything from French to European to Mediterranean. A philosophy graduate, lover of Voltaire (where the bookshops takes its name), and a detester of social media, Suel’s politics are woven through the fabric of Zadig. “We’re addicted to breaking news and fake news. Technology is driving us mad,” he says, pleading for a slowed-down analog life in which more time is dedicated to reading the printed book. He is also proudly abstinent from what he jokingly refers to as the “Smartphonie”.

A quick glance at Zadig’s shelves reveals a shop rich in French world literatures, and he lights up at its very mention: “I like better the idea of a “littérature-monde”, he says, referring to cult French-Mauritian author JMG Le Clézio and his affinity with the German tradition of Goethe Weltliteratur, “a more humanist, less colonialist approach.” He’s excited to discuss Senegalese author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr who won last year’s Goncourt Prize, and eagerly weighs in on Martinique’s Suzanne Césaire, wife of the trailblazing Aimé, whose work he was already promoting, years before she finally received the attention she deserves.

He refers to his approach as “intersectional”, when it comes to decolonial and feminist issues. “Francophonie means diversity and through a unified language, we can get first-hand accounts of colonialism, of feminism and cultural philosophies from other parts of the world. It’s an opportunity,” he says.

When he’s not at Zadig, Suel can be found walking Berlin’s parks, at one of his favourite restaurants (he recommends French Pas Normal) or, in classic French fashion, the cinema – Sputnik Kino to be precise. But most days you’ll probably find him at Zadig, where he’s itching to resume his popular reading evenings as soon as the pandemic regulations are lifted.