Nineteen new French-language writers to be read and translated
© John Foley
CULTURESFRANCE is publishing a new journal, Fiction France. This journal is like no other. It is available to all publishers of literary works in the French language who take on the risk of publishing contemporary fiction. Fiction France offers a selection of important new novelists, whose work has just been published and deserves to be translated. Twice a year, Fiction France will publish 20 excerpts from works of fiction written in French with English translations. The copyright sales managers of the publishing houses can be contacted at the addresses listed in the table of contents and on the page presenting each text. Olivier Poivre d’Arvor Director of CULTURESFRANCE
CULTURESFRANCE is the cultural exchange operator of the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs and the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.
Fiction France is disseminated free of charge through the French cultural network (notably the Berlin, London and New York book offices and attachés) to their partners and to book industry professionals around the world. Fiction France is also available on line at < www.culturesfrance.com >
The Louganis Girls
My Name is François
Publisher: Actes Sud Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Publisher: Grasset & Fasquelle Date of Publication: September 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Élisabeth Beyer < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Lulu Norman < email@example.com >
Ellen Booker < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Carla Calimani < email@example.com >
The Shoe on the Roof
Crowns Shields Armour
Publisher: Gallimard Date of Publication: September 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Publisher: POL Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Anne-Solange Noble < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Frank Wynne < email@example.com >
Vibeke Madsen < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Jeanine Herman < email@example.com >
An Ordinary Execution
Algiers, Whash-house Tryst
Publisher: Gallimard Date of Publication: February 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Publisher: Gallimard / Verticales Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Publisher: Albin Michel Date of Publication: April 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Anne-Solange Noble < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: John Fletcher < email@example.com >
Anne-Solange Noble < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: John Fletcher < email@example.com >
Jacqueline Favero < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Ros Schwartz < email@example.com >
The Târ of my Father
Publisher: Librairie Arthème Fayard Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Publisher: Seuil Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Publisher: La Table ronde Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Carole Saudejaud < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Andrew Brown < email@example.com >
Martine Heissat < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Paul Buck & Catherine Petit < email@example.com >
Anna Vateva < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Jeanine Herman < email@example.com >
Our Second Life
Caïn & Adèle
Publisher: Flammarion Date of Publication: May 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Publisher: Stock Date of Publication: September 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Publisher: JC Lattès Date of Publication: February 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Patricia Stansfield, < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Sophie Leighton < email@example.com >
Barbara Porpaczy, < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Ann Kaiser < email@example.com >
Eva Bredin, < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Catherine Spencer < email@example.com >
Thierry du Sorbier
The Amorous Trainee
Garden of Love
Publisher: Buchet / Chastel Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Publisher: Mercure de France Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Publisher: Zulma Date of Publication: January 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Christine Legrand < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Priscilla Sheringham < email@example.com >
Bruno Batreau < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Polly McLean < email@example.com >
Laure Leroy < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Carla Calimani < email@example.com >
The Black Regiment Coma
Under the Medlar Tree
Publisher: Actes Sud / Babel Date of Publication: August 2004 Foreign Rights Manager:
Publisher: Mercure de France Date of Publication: April 2006 Foreign Rights Manager:
Publisher: Les Éditions de Minuit Date of Publication: September 2007 Foreign Rights Manager:
Élisabeth Beyer < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Ann Kaiser < email@example.com >
Bruno Batreau < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Paul Buck & Catherine Petit < email@example.com >
Catherine Vercruyce < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Howard Curtis < email@example.com >
© Philippe Christin
Born in 1945 in Ankara, Metin Arditi lives in Geneva. A nuclear engineer, he has taught at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne. He is founding president of the Arditi Foundation which since 1988 has awarded prizes and bursaries to graduates of Geneva university and the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne. He is also president of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and author of the play Dernière Lettre à Théo (coll. Un endroit où aller, 2005), L’Imprévisible (coll. Un endroit où aller, 2006), both published by Actes Sud, and Victoria Hall (coll. Babel no. 726). Please note Babel is simultaneously republishing La Pension Marguerite (coll. Babel no. 823). 10
The Louganis Girl Publisher: Actes Sud Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Élisabeth Beyer < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Lulu Norman < email@example.com >
The forced abandonment of and improbable search for a child born from incest: Metin Arditi has written a deeply moving, truthful novel about a mother’s suffering, the virtues of friendship and the ups and downs of fate, which governs us beyond good and evil. The Louganis brothers set up in business together in the 1930s in Spetses, an island off the coast of Piraeus. They became fishermen, built a house, were married and started families. Years later, on board their fishing boat, they are killed when a stick of dynamite explodes, leaving two children, Pavlina and Aris. These deaths were no accident but a murder coupled with a suicide: the night before, Spiros Louganis discovered that his wife Magda had been unfaithful to him with his brother, and that he is not Pavlina’s true father. The adolescent Pavlina is in love with her ‘cousin’, who’s restored the family fishing boat and takes tourists out in it during the summer months. She helps him in this work, captivated by the island’s sunny beauty and by Aris himself. But Aris loves men. However, one evening when his homosexuality has been publicly insulted, he sleeps with Pavlina. Then he kills himself, leaving her pregnant. Her mother — and father Kosmas, to whom she’s confessed — know that Aris was Pavlina’s brother. Without telling her the truth, they persuade her to give her baby up for adoption, as soon as it’s born,
so it will have a name, an education and a future in a rich Athenian family. Pavlina seems resigned to this. But secretly she’s decided to run away with her baby and go to her friend Chryssoula’s, whose kindness will protect her. But the birth is not straightforward and Pavlina loses consciousness. When she comes to, the baby girl is already in other hands … So this is the story of a double wrench — from a country and from a child, but also the exploration of an original ‘sin’ (that of her mother, Magda) which devastates a family. Pavlina’s quest and destiny takes the reader on a deeply moving adventure. Metin Arditi has a vivid empathy with his characters and the narrative tension never lets up. The quality of the writing and the credibility of the dialogue avoids all the pitfalls of conventional sentimentality. Dealing with a theme, both intimate and popular, of the abandonment and quest for a child, The Louganis Girl stands out as a novel of unsettling truthfulness.
1. A traditional wooden boat with tapering stern and prow. Trehandiri means “that runs”.
The brothers had salt in their blood. A year after their arrival in Spetses, they’d set about constructing a trehandiri, 1 a six-metre wooden boat with a sail. They’d put all their strength and the little money they had into it. Every day, immediately after finishing work at the monastery, they’d begin sawing, nailing and riveting the planks, without a break, working furiously until the failing light forced them to stop. When the boat was finished, four months later, the brothers went out fishing almost every evening, depending on the winds and squalls. With their earnings from two years’ fishing, they bought a strip of land on Ayos Nikolas hill. They built their house with a passion, transporting the stones from Kilada to Spetses in their fishing boat. To carry them from the jetty to their construction site, they’d put the stones in big leather bags which they’d strap on both sides of their shoulders. The journey would take around forty minutes. The brothers would carry the bags barefoot, each trip an eighty-kilo load. Their house had two floors, thirty-five metres square, each with two rooms and a kitchen. Spiros and Magda moved into the upper level, reached via a stone staircase they’d built using guesswork, against the façade. Nikos, who didn’t like arguments, said that Fotini and he preferred the ground floor. For twelve years, the brothers fished with nets. They mostly caught bass, which they sold to the villagers at six drachma a kilo. In 1949, Lazaros, a cousin of Magda’s — the one everyone called Likoskilo, wolfhound, because of his habit of walking with his hands behind his back and his head thrust forward — opened the island’s first taverna to serve hot meals. It was a former sheepfold high up at Kasteli. Liko-skilo bought a coal-burning stove in Piraeus, installed an extractor with an outlet on the street and had four big wine barrels taken up to the mezzanine, in which he stored a retsina that he produced himself. The following year, the Poseidon, a beautiful hotel that a Spesiot back from the New World had built by the sea, became a popular tourist destination. The civil war, which had torn the country apart for four years, had just ended, and the Athenian middle classes loved Spetses, bringing their airs and graces with them. Nothing was good or expensive enough. Spiros realised the small bar would no longer suffice. They’d have to vary the menu, offer grouper, sea bream and even red mullet, fine fish that could bring in up to twenty drachma a kilo. Once again, Nikos relied on his brother.
In eighteen months of labour, working every evening they weren’t out fishing, and every Sunday, slogging away for twelve or fifteen hours at a stretch, Spiros and Nikos built the Dio Adelfia. It was an eleven-metre boat, the biggest fishing trehandiri ever constructed on the island, and the only one with a motor. The brothers had found a thirty-five horsepower engine on a tractor in Kranidi, the village opposite. The villager, who was leaving to join his daughter in Australia, wanted to sell his engine. The brothers only wanted the motor. They eventually settled on a price, five hundred drachma. It was expensive, but they’d be able to sail on the open sea and kill big fish with dynamite. The night before the accident which cost the Louganis brothers their lives, a thirteen-year old secret had been disclosed. A secret which only asked to be left alone. Which could have stayed buried forever without harming anyone.
The Louganis Girl
There were twelve of them squeezed around the big table at Liko-skilo’s, who was celebrating his fortieth birthday. The brothers, who’d had only one child each, had come with their families: Spiros with Magda and their daughter Pavlina, who was twelve, Nikos and Fotini with Aris, who was five years older. The evening had progressed slowly. They ate little mouthfuls of lamb offal, as if tasting a rare dish, and drank retsina, making comments that sounded like universal truths. The secret was let out just as the meal was drawing to a close, around eleven thirty, during one of those moments when happiness seems so normal that people let down their guard and weaknesses are revealed. The children had dozed off. Sitting between her uncle Nikos and her mother, Pavlina was asleep. Exhausted from his day, Spiros was anxious to get home and tried to give the signal to leave. But he couldn’t catch his brother’s eye. His gaze resting on Pavlina, Nikos was smiling an extraordinarily tender smile. You don’t look at your brother’s daughter that way, Spiros thought. Your own child, yes. Not your niece. He followed his brother’s eyes which left Pavlina and met Magda’s, then paused for two or three seconds before moving down to her breasts, resting finally on her belly. Spiros felt dizzy. He closed his eyes for a few moments, then stood up suddenly and said in an irritated tone: “We’re leaving!”
“But it’s so lovely,” Magda protested weakly. Spiros didn’t sleep at all that night. When they were first married, they’d make love almost every night. His caresses then were brief but passionate. If this doesn’t make the baby come …, Magda would say with a smile. But the baby did not come. Magda went to Piraeus. A doctor reassured her; there was no obstacle to her falling pregnant. From then on, Spiros was obsessed with the worry he was sterile. Fear replaced lust. His desire dwindled. His erections became hesitant. His lovemaking, which had been brief but passionate, was now only brief. As time went on it became less and less frequent. One evening in August 1939, in spite of a raging fever due to sunstroke, he’d made love to her in a semi delirious state. At least that’s what Magda had told him the next day. Pavlina had been born from this coupling which he couldn’t remember. He’d asked himself the question a hundred times: is it possible to forget you’ve made love? And would he have made love while burning up with fever? There had to be something else … As soon as he’d recovered from his sunstroke, Magda did what a woman knows how to do when she wants to seduce a man. Every night she made him touch her, caress her. With his every move, whatever he did, Magda reacted as if God had given her the key to the senses. Where had this voracious appetite come from? This story of semi-delirium suddenly appeared ridiculous to him. And what about the times his brother and wife broke off their conversations when he came in? And that night when his wife hadn’t stopped sobbing? Something to do with a conversation with father Kosmas … She’d realised how much she owed him … Him, her husband … Meaningless words. Or a guilty woman’s words … But guilty of what? What had happened in his wife’s life that could occupy so much space, from which he was excluded, him, her husband? Spiros thought of his daughter. Pavlina … She was his daughter in every way. She had his hair, black and curly, his character, his determination. Most of all, she admired him … adored him … She was always on his side, whatever the cause of his arguments with Magda. No one was so loving towards him. That way she had of looking up at him intensely, when he was preparing the Dio Adelfia … Sitting on the parapet on the jetty, she’d wait for
his signal. “Laska,” 1 Spiros would shout to her. He’d call “Laaaaaaskaaaa” as if shouting the order from the bridge of a huge liner. Then Pavlina would jump off the parapet, untie the mooring and in a needlessly big gesture, throw him the rope. What age had she been when he’d taught her to tie and untie a mooring? Seven, maybe eight years old … No father, in Spetses, took his daughter on his boat. But no daughter had Pavlina’s intelligence and skill, her love of the sea, her stamina … A real child of Kalymnos. And on Sundays, when they’d fish for octopus, and suddenly Pavlina would feel a tug on her line, “I’ve got one! I’ve got one!” she’d cry. She looked as if she might burst with joy. Coming back from these trips, when they had to wash the traces of octopus ink from the bottom of the boat, Pavlina would carry up buckets of sea water so heavy her arms would tremble. She’d pour them onto the bridge and scrub the wood as hard as she could, furiously, the way she saw him work … Pavlina who’d laugh when a wave hit the boat’s side and sprayed them. When Spiros looked at his daughter, it was always slowly. He’d gaze at her, his eyes full of hidden pride, which he wanted to savour alone, which he’d never tire of. Pavlina was a true sailor! Like him! And graceful and pretty, too. His daughter, he who was so big and stocky … With his enormous nose … And what if she wasn’t his? The thought had never crossed his mind. It would explain a lot of things. Pavlina’s delicate, slim frame … Of course, Magda was pretty too. Her daughter had her eyes, and many of her features … But she was slighter … like Nikos! That was it! They’d made a fool of him … Nikos! For years, what was more … He was sure of it.
1. Laska = untie the mooring
The Louganis Girl
By the end of the night, his anger had turned to hatred. At six in the morning, as Magda placed his coffee on the plate in front of him, he’d grabbed her forearm and squeezed it so hard she’d let out a cry of pain. Spiros had forced her to sit down and asked in a cold, harsh voice: “Who’s Pavlina’s father?” Magda’s face took on an expression of horror. Faced with Spiros’ black look, a look that would scare an animal, she’d burst into tears. “Is she his?” “Yes,” Magda breathed. “Never talk about it again. As long as you live. Not to me, not to anyone.”
She’d grabbed his hand to kiss it, but he’d abruptly pulled it away, denying her both submission and forgiveness. That day, towards the end of the afternoon, Spiros and Nikos were on the Dio Adelfia. Spiros had called his brother over. When he was an arm’s length away, Spiros had gripped him by the shirt, then wedged a four-kilo stick of dynamite between their chests, its fuse lit. He’d chosen a short one, made for a depth of five or six metres. As Nikos screamed “Have you gone mad?” Spiros had shouted “What do you expect from a brother who’s loved you so much, whom you’ve betrayed!” The dynamite exploded a second later. The brothers died instantly, their heads blown off.
© Léa Crespi
Charles Dantzig has had several novels published by Grasset. Among these are Nos vies hâtives — published in 2001 — which won the prix Jean-Freustié and prix Roger-Nimier, and Un film d’amour, published in 2003. Dictionnaire égoïste de la littérature française was published in 2005 to great success, and won the grand prix des Lectrices de Elle and prix de l’essai de l’Académie française.
My Name is François Publisher: Grasset & Fasquelle Date of Publication: September 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Ellen Booker < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Carla Calimani < email@example.com >
“My name is François” is perhaps the only sentence I’ve ever uttered in my life which isn’t a lie. It’s been my barrier. Everyone needs to lie at some stage. I wanted to be an other me, a better me, the world didn’t let me. François Darré — whose father left home early and whose promiscuous mother would give him emotional issues for the rest of his life — was born near Tarbes, in the Pyrenees. François learns at an early age that fortune favours the bold, so this all-too-sensitive young man will become a seducer, making the most of his physical assets — dark brown hair and bright white teeth — borrowing identities one after the other, starting afresh, keeping only his first name as a goodluck charm. First of all, he escapes Tarbes. Then he bewitches a rich, gullible aristocratic family in Paris. In Los Angeles, he calls himself François Depardieu, drives a convertible and dabbles in fraud. He tries to love before being arrested as a common criminal, then emerges triumphant from prison thanks to the media, a book, TV programmes, compliments and insults, becoming the yob you’d like to have round for a cup of tea. How far will he go? Could he really go as far as murder? And why go to Dubai, with sky-scrapers built overnight jutting out into the sea, “looking up to the stars to forget our muddy past”? This is Charles Dantzig’s best novel, his most modern and moving. His protagonist is like Woody Allen’s Zélig, living in a media age and at ease in
front of the camera. This child of the Eighties has the elegant debauchery of Truman Capote’s characters, mixing with the underworld, sleeping with the bourgeoisie, while belonging to neither. François plays with and exploits the reader in this literary display of virtuosity.
François Darré, “the man who stole three billion”
1. The gentleman thief.
The first time you saw him, it was on TV. He was wearing an orange boilersuit, sitting at a white table, in a beige room. “François Darré, the …”. This TV show immediately became a cult hit, like the report on the Montmartre transvestite who prayed to the Virgin Mary. The next day, the whole country was talking about it, even those who hadn’t seen it. It was all because of the physical seduction, they’d say, but what is physical appearance? On another channel, an Australian actor whose splendid torso spurted like a banana out of a black rubber outfit struggled to interest viewers in a programme that hadn’t made it past its second season back home. Hesitant at first, François gradually became chatty. Confident, even. Almost no room for disagreement. “What I did, no-one else could have done.” Freed from his initial state of shock, he became animated, with slow and graceful gestures. His voice had a Parisian twang. Was it this old-fashioned tone and simple name, Darré, François Darré, a name seemingly carried by thousands since the Middle Ages, making him our equal, equality made flattery by the beauty of his face, was it this combination that ended up charming viewers? A communication consultant could not have better advised him on his side parting. It won over well-brought up women as well as men impressed with his cunning. The general public, whose interest was aroused with “I started out with nothing”, particularly appreciated “I travelled the world by private jet”. The presenter called him “Hollywood’s Little Prince”. They showed photos of him in Los Angeles with famous actors, extracts of a report where showbiz personalities go into a Las Vegas hotel, freezing the image on a car in the background which he is coming out of, his unclear but recognizable face surrounded by a red circle. He spoke with poise, seriousness, thoughtfulness, with bursts of boastfulness. Once his twenty-minute confession was over, he had become as enduring as legend in the public’s imagination. Arsène Lupin, 1 Robin Hood, François Darré. As the generic credits rolled at the end, we saw him rub his thighs under the table, get up, take a few uncomfortable steps in his oversized boilersuit, then form a triangle with the bare arms that emerged from the short sleeves of his top. A prison warder with a moustache handcuffed him. “François Darré, the man who stole three billion!”
Waiting, nothing When you leave Tarbes heading North, you cross an ill-reputed area called Laubadère, which consists of a few high-rise blocks of council flats, enough to house the 60,000 local inhabitants, then you reach the village of Bordères-sur-l’Échez. Locals pronounce the final “z” as an “s”, and leave out the definite article so that it becomes “Bordères-sur-Échez”. Bordères is small, but does have a shopping centre, and this small-scale denomination extends to the whole surrounding area, which has been in decline since the 1990s. A few roads criss-cross over the countryside, flanked by an auction room, a fire station, some warehouses. One is a no-through road, running up to a cornfield. As a child, François Darré would go there with his friends. They would walk among the shivering ears of corn, taller than them, whose sharp leaves they feared as much as knifeblades. Spread out in the middle of the field, they would rip up a few ears, swaddled in a grey sheath that seemed as fragile as garlic skin but was in fact very strong, out of which emerged curly red threads. They would use these to stuff the thick, inky pages of La Nouvelle République des Pyrénées, 2 torn into quarters. The cigarettes were quickly consumed, and they wouldn’t give one to little Claverie who, already as stupid as his mother, kept harping on about the fact that “in the old days” they used to plant beans under the corn. Little Claverie loved François who, when the others were gone, would slip a rolled cigarette into the pocket of his black and white patterned shirt. They had spent the afternoon in Tarbes, waiting in front of the department store. That’s right, waiting for nothing. Five or six gangly-armed boys peeled themselves off the porch pillars and back with the slow movements of aquatic plants, admired by two short and heavily made-up girls chewing gum; the other teenagers went by on the pavement opposite, disdainful and scared. François had stopped going there since the day his father, coming out of the La Colonne cafe drunk, had sworn at him as he walked by. His house was near the field, still is. It was unfinished, remains so. He didn’t like going into this cube of roughcast rubble stones in the middle of a pebbled garden, and once his friends had gone home, he’d wander around the shopping centre. There was no car parked in front of the house. At eight o’clock, nine o’clock, when night-time had long been established, he’d push open the little gate that creaked. The sound of his footsteps on the gravel irritated him. At the entrance, a small hallway with an oval mirror with a blue plastic
My Name is François
2. The local newspaper.
frame, and a poster of Véronique Sanson with one corner curling up, he heard the humid sound of a dog eating. Without looking, he went past the vertical strip made by the slight opening of the kitchen door, Minou under the table where a can of dogfood was stuck in a stainless steel bowl next to a bottle of vodka, and into the living room with the blinds always drawn shut. A low sofa, armrests carrying full ashtrays, and two big velvet armchairs, sagging like seals, surrounded a television set left on. The presenter with jowly labrador cheeks fatuously announcing the programming for the evening ahead kept disappearing into a little sparkling dot. François tidied up. In his room, hardly bigger than his bed and with a window overlooking the neighbour’s shed less than a metre away, he stood before the mirrored door of his white melamine-coated wardrobe. He didn’t like this 14-yearold, messy-haired teenager in jeans and a rugby t-shirt. He took it all off, including his pants, had a shower, meticulously combed his hair, went into the living room, naked and on his tip-toes like a cartoon thief, where he put a record on the hi-fi with big metal buttons, and was back in his room for the first screeched harmonies of “Stayin’Alive”. In front of the mirror, swinging his hips and throwing an arm in the air, index finger pointed, to the beat, he slipped on a pair of strawberry-patterned boxer shorts (the first boxer shorts!), cream seersucker pleated trousers (the first pleated trousers!), a red narrow-collared Taverniti shirt (the first Taverniti shirts!), a matching low double-breasted single-button jacket with shoulder pads and pointed lapels (the first jackets with shoulder pads!), and gave himself a big monkey smile to check out the whiteness of his teeth. He became increasingly animated, made windmill shapes with his wrists and danced, danced, danced. The music came to a crackling halt. He stopped suddenly, like a dropped puppet. His face clouded over. Shoulders weighed down with cast iron, glue on the soles of his feet, a steel cable round his neck, he entered the living room. His mother, squinting to avoid her own cigarette smoke, was pouring herself a vodka at the coffee table, on which she had thrown a black crocodile skin handbag, shiny as a piano. Without acknowledging his presence, she lay down on the sofa. Her leather waistcoat crumpled, revealing a thin gold chain around her waist. With one foot she eased the shoe off the other, and vice-versa; the turquoise fringed boots fell onto the sheepskin rug with a little fatal thud. They faced each other, like two
exotic plants. With a flick of her chin, she instructed her son to turn on the TV. The first channel didn’t interest her, neither did the second, nor the third, which was announcing “the weather in the Midi-Pyrenees region”. She scratched her stomach. “Minou, come here!” she cried in a nasal voice with a strong regional accent. The dog came even more reluctantly than the son. She’d called him “Minou” (pussycat) as a joke. As he stretched out his front paws and wiggled his furry behind while she opened Paris Match, François returned to his room. He came back out stubborn-faced and wearing a navy blue waterproof jacket. His mother was putting a record on, grasping it between her fingers. She missed the edge twice, making the needle slide towards the middle with the sound of a zip fastening. A mumbled curse slipped out between her teeth. François was already outside, sitting on his scooter. Ask for permission? And why not wear a helmet? He had faked the date of birth on his student card to buy the scooter from a guy who was even less interested in checking it when François paid in cash, given to him by his mother. She would have forbidden him to go out on it, as she had principles when she was reminded that she was a mother. He started the engine, aimed a kick at the Golf GTI’s alloy wheels, and accelerated. The voice of France Gall 3 could be heard coming from the little ugly house and drifting into the night. With a gentle melody and sickly sweet voice, this doll who’d had her fair share of problems sang: “I’ll tell you that I never cried”.
My Name is François
3. A French singer popular in the early 1960s and 70s.
Broadway He was allowed in to Broadway. He came often, didn’t cause any trouble, even gave it “a good vibe” said the owner with permed hair of this long bar, the town’s first, which could’ve been in America. Black brick walls, decorative juke-box and, at one end of the bar in a booth, a young skinny man with big purple spots on his chin playing disco music. François chatted to the bouncer, ex-rugby forward for the Tarbes team perched on a stool. When you’re not powerful or famous and have no contacts, it’s good to get on well with whoever’s at the door, he figured. It was also an affectionate gesture, otherwise why would he sometimes invite the bouncer for coffee? At school, he would go to see his teachers at the end of class to assuage with his smile their disappointment in his indifference to their teaching,
4. Duck cutlet, a famous French delicacy.
but he would also chat to the librarian, from whom he never borrowed a single book. Some nights he’d arrive with a lot of money, four or five hundred francs, a whisky and coke cost ten. “Pop open the Pascal!” a joker at the bar would say. And little François, with proud ostentatiousness, would take out a large note bearing the image of the writer who he thought looked like Bonaparte. He felt like the God of these primate old-timers who, one day, formed a double line and, holding hands, threw him up in the air, chanting “Ball, ball, ball!” His father had said that, with this money, his mother bought peace by keeping him away: the days she felt like being one, she would explode with avarice. Her magpie voice would rasp through the house, threatening to sell the hi-fi, take away François’ scooter, send him to live with his father, since he was so clever. François would remain impassive. “Hey, Champagne François!” He often bought people a round, although he didn’t drink alcohol himself: “And an apple juice for the little one!” Leaning on the bar and throwing his shoulders back like a torero, he told how one of his cousins from Toulouse had just come back from Baqueira, where he had skied with the King of Spain. “And I slept with the Pope’s daughter!” Smiling at the commentator he continued, lowering his voice despite the music playing. The big guys drew closer. His cousin, a head chef in Toulouse, had been called in to join the staff by Irene, you know, Irene from Casa Irena, the famous restaurant at the ski resort! And his cousin was the one who had invented “magret”. 4 Oh, so you think magret is just like a wing or thigh, that it’s just any old part of a duck, do you? One evening, some customers arrived late at the Toulouse restaurant. There was nothing left in the kitchen, so his cousin removed the last strips of meat from a duck carcass, cutting them as thickly as possible, and voilà-magret! the old-timers’ mouths fell open in surprise. Wait, wait, that’s not all: would you believe that Juan Carlos, although he’s the king of Spain, had never eaten such a thing in his life! He only likes paella. My cousin said to Irene: trust me, Irene, I’m going to give your king a real treat! When he saw the little plump magrets arrive with their square hats of fat, the king turned up his nose at them, but afterwards he said: “It’s not the done thing, but I’m licking my plate!” In the club, one of the old-timers and the bouncer, sat at the bar, tortoise backs, frog legs, watched François dancing to “Funkytown”. “What’s
more, one of his uncles by marriage was picked for the French team in 1959 (he played in Montferrand)!”, said the bouncer. The old-timer wondered whether this was as much a lie as the magret cousin story, but why doubt what you’re told, especially when you’re told so nicely? When slow dances came on, François rejoined the old-timers. One of them, stretched out on a low sofa, had one of his big hands flattened like a fish on a girl’s chest. Opposite them, a big body with a big voice was gesticulating wildly and hooting out swearwords. It belonged to that very specific species of timid young woman dreaming of being loved in a gruff environment, a species that can be referred to as “the rugby girl”. Oh rugby girls, loud, crude, always ready, at five in the morning, to slip under the body of a drunken player who ejaculates too fast saying mummy then cries like a baby! This one — Martine Laplanche — elbowed François in the shoulder. She was two heads taller than him. “How’s it going, midget?” She said he knew how to get himself noticed. “Five of us are chatting then, all of a sudden, without realising how, we find that there’s six of us listening to François Darré.” He grabbed her by the waist and shouted: “You all right, you horny cow?” She chuckled. As the DJ started playing “Call Me” he ran back to the dancefloor and danced, danced, danced.
My Name is François
He headed back home in the small hours, shoulders hunched, collar turned up, one hand gripping his scooter handlebar, the other buried between his thighs, kept awake by the cold, brows furrowed and teeth clenched. Seeing the Pyrenees in the distance, not that far, 40 kilometres away, energetically blocking off the horizon under a sky of such purity that a local never stops admiring it, just like a Parisian and the majestic Invalides, he said to himself: “The very bottom of France. I’m cornered.” The cold, combined with his thoughts, gave him a hateful air.
© Catherine Hélie
Born in 1969, Vincent Delecroix lives in Paris where he teaches philosophy. His previous novel, Ce qui est perdu, was published in 2006. À la porte, published in 2004, was adapted for the stage starring Michel Aumont.
The Shoe on the Roof Publisher: Gallimard Date of Publication: September 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Anne-Solange Noble < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Frank Wynne < email@example.com >
A single object is the focus of these ten stories: a shoe lying on a Paris rooftop. All the characters, many of whom reappear in other stories, live in one of the buildings that surround this central courtyard somewhere near the Gare du Nord. This is not a collection of short stories but a novel. Here we meet a young boy who spends his days dreaming, a burglar who is hopelessly in love, three vicious gangsters, a one-legged man, a TV presenter coming to terms with his own mediocrity, a heartbroken dog, an illegal immigrant, an eccentric old lady, a very modern artist, a suicidal narrator … and a shoe of endless fictional possibilities. Vincent Delecroix brings a new, freer style to this brilliant, often hilarious collection of intertwined tales, a style which marks the height of his powers. These variations on the theme of an abandoned shoe allow him to work in wildly different registers from philosophical fantasy to elegiac lament and comedy of manners. The book is uplifting, heart-warming and insightful, especially on the author’s preferred subject: the disasters of love.
(The tragic flaw) So they sat for a moment, leaning against one of the square chimneys protruding from the roof, as much to catch their breath as to think. With their backs pressed to the chimney, which blocked the far end of the roof from view, they sat cross-legged and waited, the first man no longer daring to open his mouth, the second man, the elder man, staring into space. The minutes ticked by. It’s weird, said the first man, the younger man, after a while, all these windows. What’s weird about them? All the different lives secretly going on behind the windows. I wonder what goes on in there. Absent-mindedly, the two men began to study at the line of small windows on the far side of the courtyard. The balconies were decked with flowers, some with geraniums, others with plastic flowers, their colours faded from years of constant rain. Laundry hung out to dry and there were washing lines strung from one window to another whose purpose was mysterious. See that? Him over there, he’s got a bicycle wheel stuck to his window ledge. What the fuck’s he got a bike wheel stuck to a window ledge for? The other man didn’t answer, but continued to study each of the windows distractedly. One of them was ajar and through it he could clearly see a young black woman leaning over her sink doing the washing up. And anyway, said the first man, looks a bit skanky round here, don’t feel like they got much cash. The second man, the elder man, looked at him and sighed wearily. We’re not in Neuilly now, case you hadn’t noticed. We’re in what they call a “working-class neighbourhood”. I mean, what? You were expecting Hermes scarves hanging off the washing lines? The two men abandoned their sociological observations. Right, better get a move on, said the older man but his companion was still staring at the building opposite. We had a window like that when I was a kid, onto a courtyard I mean. It was the kitchen window. I used to lean out and to call down to my mates and tell them to come come up. There were girls too. There were these three girls who always sat on nextdoor’s steps, and I could see them. Did I ever tell you about this? He was staring into space now. You see, right, I was in love all three of them, or at least I fancied all three of them even though they didn’t look anything like each other. One of them was blonde and the other two had dark hair, and one was way older than the other two. Anway, every morning I’d get up thinking I’d decided which one I really fancied and, like, I’d spend the whole day just
thinking about her, like we were engaged or something, like it was sorted (though actually, they didn’t even know me, didn’t even notice I existed). Then when I was coming home from school I’d see the three of them sitting there on the steps chatting and laughing (I always thought they were talking about big important things, not like the stuff me and my friends talked about) and I’d get all flustered and think: actually, it’s not her I fancy, her friend’s hairstyle is much sexier, or she’s got these shoes on that make her look really grown up, or whatever. And I’d be back where I started. Then, next morning, it’d all start all over again, I’d wake up thinking that’s it, I’ve decided, and on and on. Pretty fucked up, yeah? The second man, the elder man, raised one eyebrow as if to say that he was above — or rather beneath — passing judgement, given that he found the tale of no interest whatever. And you know what? Said the first man, completely unfazed by the second man’s lack of interest, I’d, like, dream about this stuff all the time, about the situation. It’s weird, I’ve never told anyone this before. And in the dream, the three of them would be standing in front of me and — get this — they’d be stark naked. Guess what happened next. But the second man, the elder man, had no intention of asking what happened next, he was busy peering over the chimney, checking out what was going on. So, anyway, said the younger man, unruffled, the three of them asked me to choose. Mad, innit? There they are asking me to choose one of them. It’d do your head in, yeah? And I’d be standing there, bricking it, looking from one to the other and all three of them were, like, totally gorgeous, and like really horny. Imagine. How was I supposed to pick one? An who should I pick? And to make it worse I knew that if I picked one of them, the other two would be completely gutted, because in my dream, they were all, like, totally in love with me. How was I supposed to choose? The second man, the elder man, turned to the first: listen, it’s a really touching story and everything, and I’d really love to know who you ended up picking, but right now we’ve got shit to do, yeah? His cheeks were beginning to flush with rage. Know what I mean? We didn’t come up on this slimy fuckin’ roof so you could tell me about your adolescent fucking dreams. So, right, what we’re gonna do is, we’re gonna get up, real quiet, real careful, go round the other side of the chimney and head for the edge of the roof like we planned before you launch into any more Freudian bollocks, ok? We’re gonna do what we came to do, sort this shit out once and for all and afterward, if you want, you can write the whole story down in a little note-
The Shoe on the Roof
book so I’ve got something to read on long winter nights, ok? The younger man just nodded then, carefully, almost crawling, they crept out from their temporary hiding place. No one, said the first man, the younger man, after a few minutes. The second flinched, and stopped in his tracks (they were on all fours now and could feel the chill unpleasant damp of the wet zinc), then he turned to the first man: whaddya mean no one? No one, said the first man, I didn’t choose any of them. The second man, the elder man, shot him a blank, bovine look. I swear, I fucking swear if you don’t shut the fuck up right now I’ll toss you off this roof, you got it? I’ll give you a slap in the face that’ll knock you off this roof, yeah? But just then they noticed something at the edge of the roof, something that they could not identify at first, something small and black. It’s a shoe, said the first man, the younger man, eventually. They crawled closer. It’s not a shoe, corrected the second man, it’s his shoe. The shoe was wedged in the gutter; faded, cracked, misshapen, it looked as if it had been lying there, lashed by the weather, since time immemorial. It had warped into what looked like an angry frown. Wow, that’s fucked up, the first man, the younger man, couldn’t help but say, it looks like it’s angry, innit? Both men stared at the shoe, not quite knowing what to do. Meanwhile, the sickening smell they had noticed when they first climbed onto the roof grew stronger — although it was clearly not coming from the shoe. Jesus, it fucking stinks, said the first man, the younger man, I can hardly breathe. But the second man, the older man, was completely engrossed in staring at the shoe. It’s his, he said, I recognise it, he was always wearing kick-ass shoes, really expensive designer stuff. Just then, they heard a loud, booming voice say: If either of you moves a muscle, I’ll pop him. They hadn’t noticed that on the opposite roof was a square chimney like the one they had been leaning against a few moments earlier. The voice was clearly coming from there. The two men froze, more out of surprise than in compliance with the order. There was a moment’s silence, and then the voice came again: It’s real simple, first one of you makes a move I’ll fuckin’ waste the both of you, got it? The second man, the older man, was the first to recover his composure. He yelled towards the chimney: don’t be a such a shithead, Philoctetes, it’s us.
Philoctetes popped his head round the side of the chimney. I know it’s you, fuckheads, I been watching you for the past hour crawling round that roof like cockroaches. I could spot you a mile off. I could have capped the pair of you bunch of times. And they saw that he was aiming an impressive pump-action shotgun which looked to be in perfect working order. Still got the old man’s gun, I see, said Odysseus, the older man, trying to calm things down, the famous pump-action shotgun. Yeah, said Philoctetes, who was anything but calm, and it’s loaded, and it’ll pop your head like a cork, you and the fucking dipshit with you if you move a muscle. The dipshit in question had no intention of moving a muscle any more than Odysseus who was crouching now like huntsman’s dog. Can we at least sit down? asked Odysseus eventually. We’re not gonna move, we just want to sit down. Philoctetes nodded and the two men sat crossed-legged on the zinc roof warily watching as Philoctetes stepped out from his hiding place. Philoctetes moved towards them, almost on hands and knees, and when they saw his leg, the younger man could not help but clap his his hand over his mouth and whisper: fuck! fuck! All that remained of the leg was a repulsive, festering sore. It was swollen like a rotting aubergine and ranged in colour from violet to yellow to a greenish black. The stench was nauseating. Jesus, your leg! Odysseus choked on the words. He couldn’t help but bring his hand up to his nose so as not to breathe the sickening stench of the putrefying leg. Philoctetes, with an effort that must have caused him unspeakable agony, sat down facing them, a few feet away on the opposite roof. Oh, you mean this leg? he said, I suppose you thought it would just get better by itself? Odysseus glanced at the younger man, who could not tear his eyes from the swollen, suppurating limb. I mean, you must have thought it would just get better, Philoctetes said with heavy irony, otherwise you wouldn’t have left me here, motherfuckers. You thought: no sweat, the gods will pop round with some disinfectant, we don’t need to hang around, we’ll just come back and pick him up when his leg’s better. Fair enough, I mean that’s what real friends do, isn’t it? They’re always ready to leave you in the shit. That’s not fair, said the younger man, you have to understand. You — shut your fucking hole, said Philoctetes pointing the gun at him ominously. Yeah, he’s right, shut it, said Odysseus tiredly and turning back to Philoctetes said, don’t mind him, he’s only a kid, he’s always talking shit.
The Shoe on the Roof
(Help the Aged) Whenever I try to talk to my great-nephew about the situation, he gives me this condescending look. It’s funny, really. I mean, I’m eighty years old, but I sometimes think he’s older than me. He gets this condescending look, like he’s the man of the house. He does have a wife, I suppose (though she’s no beauty) and a son who comes round one Sunday a month and looks bored, he’s got house and a car and a mortgage. He’s in real estate, he’s got responsibilities, it’s not like he’s just an old woman living on her own with nothing better to do than go round the corner shop to buy some leeks and chat with the owner Mr Khader. I do love my nephew, of course I do, it’s just that sometimes he gets on my nerves. You’d think he was saving the planet every time he sells a one-bedroom flat. When I remember what he got up to as a boy. He might have forgotten, but I certainly haven’t. He made his share of mistakes. But he’s devoted, I’ll give him that, he visits regularly, helps me out with the plumbing and the electrics and things. He’s no great conversationalist, but we manage to pass the time. It’s not as if he only comes round because he feels obliged to — he’s a good lad at heart — it’s just that we don’t have much to talk about. I’m not really interested in talking about real estate or the sort of taps he thinks I should buy but to keep him happy, I take notes and I say, yes, of course, you’re right. We always have a cup of tea together. He turns up with his little briefcase and his one good suit — or maybe he’s got ten suits all exactly the same. I never thought he’d turn out like this, I mean he used to go round with an earring and a pair of ripped jeans. Not that I particularly approved of what he used to wear, but there was something touching about him, his little boy lost look. That’s why when he stares at his tea cup with that condescending expression, like he did today, it gets on my nerves. I feel like saying: you know, it wasn’t so long ago … But anyway … He obviously doesn’t much like me talking about the situation, actually he doesn’t like it at all. He wouldn’t dare get on his high horse with me, I’m an old lady, but you can tell he’s itching to. I think there are just some things he doesn’t understand these days, now he’s traded his earring for a little house in the suburbs. It’s just that the whole situation is getting on my nerves, I say. He nods, of course, of course, but … But what? But it’s just not done, is that it? I’m sure in the kindest possible way he probably thinks I’m a bit gaga, thinks I’m going senile. Maybe he thinks I’m being taken advantage of. His heart’s in the right place, I know that — it’s certainly not because he’s worried about his inheritance, since I haven’t got anything to leave him apart from that old paint-
ing on the kitchen wall above where we always have our tea. It’s a seascape, my late husband painted it when he was going through his Sunday afternoon artist phase. He always said it was the bay at La Napoule where we used to go on holidays. I have to say, it doesn’t look much like it to me, although I don’t really remember La Napoule very well now. But even back then, I didn’t think it looked much like it, though I never told him that. He just wasn’t much of a painter, that’s all there is to it, it’s not some big family secret. My greatnephew has one of his paintings too, poor lad, I’m sure his wife is none too happy having that orange sunset hanging in her house — actually its not the sunset, it’s one painting of the umbrella pines, that’s right, the umbrella pines, though if memory serves they look more like umbrellas than trees. Anyway, aside from the painting, which has only sentimental value, there’s no need to worry about Vincent running off with my stainless steel teaspoons. But I don’t think it’s just Vincent that bothers him, it’s the whole situation. I have to admit, I get a sort of perverse pleasure out of talking to him about it. You see it was getting on my nerves, I tell him, having to look at that thing lying outside my window every morning. I know I don’t live in the 16th or 7th arrondissement (in fact, he did look to see if he could find me an apartment there but it was too expensive and anyway I’m happy where I am, no matter what he says. I don’t feel like I’m in any danger, and besides I like the people in this building — especially that young black girl, pretty as a picture she is, always asks me how I am when I meet her on the stairs, though she doesn’t go out much these days), but that’s no reason for people to treat it as a rubbish tip, is it? He nods. Ok, so it’s not a magnificent view, actually it can be a bit depressing sometimes with the grey sky and grey railway tracks, but I like watching the trains go by. Well, anyway. All I’m trying to say is seeing that old shoe lying on the roof opposite every morning was getting on my wick. He takes another biscuit. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone else, maybe people are used to seeing shoes lying around on roofs, maybe it’s trendy, but I think it’s disgusting. I know I’m probably just a pernickety old woman, but that’s how I feel. Mr Khader at the corner shop, he agrees with me. He said to me: people these days are just slobs. You see? He said it, not me. I can see his tea is getting cold. Do you want another cup? I don’t suppose you know anyone who could get rid of it for me? I asked Mr Khader. But he didn’t. I’ve never had a problem quite like it, he told me, so I can’t help you, but I can understand why it bothers you. Maybe you should talk to the council. My nephew nods in silence. Well, I mean, It’s all very well to say talk to the council, but talk to who,
The Shoe on the Roof
which department? You see, I didn’t know who to contact. But the phone numbers for the council are there on the fridge, says my nephew after a minute, I should know, I stuck them up there so if you had a problem you’d be able to sort it out. I know, I know, but there’s so many numbers on the scrap of paper, I get confused. He pours himself another cup of tea. I put some more biscuits on the plate. Then, more quietly, he adds: and anyway, you’ve got me. If you’ve got a problem, I’m always here for you. And it’s true, he is always here — he’s very devoted, in spite of his wife and his son and his car and his mortgage. He’s always happy to take time out for me. Well, I could hardly ask you to climb up on the roof, it’s not your job, and, anyway it’s dangerous. I’m not sure it’s anyone’s job to fetch shoes off roofs, he says, dunking the biscuit in his tea. Maybe not to fetch shoes off roofs, but it must be someone’s job to clear away all the junk selfish, ill-mannered louts chuck around the place. I don’t suppose you’d be too happy if somebody tossed an old shoe into your garden, would you? No, if it was his house he wouldn’t, but when it’s just an old woman in a run-down neighbourhood, it’s no big deal, is it? I’m sure that’s what he thinks. If someone chucked an old TV or a bunch of empty crates into his flowerbed, he’d be on to the council straight away. Anyway, I did call them, those numbers. He looks at me jadedly, as if he thinks I’m making fun of him: yes, but you didn’t call the right one. I sigh. The right one, the right one, how am I supposed to know which number gets you through to the people who specialize in shoes on roofs? You said it yourself: that’s nobody’s job. He takes another biscuit: yes, well, maybe, but I don’t think calling the fire brigade was a terribly good idea. I act like I’m offended, but actually I enjoy seeing him get wound up, I don’t know why. I must have a bit of a mean streak in me somewhere. That’s what I said to Mr Khader, I said: he’s ended up being a bit of a drip, what with his little house and his little car and his little wife. You should be grateful, Mr Khader told me, like you said his heart’s in the right place, he’s devoted to you, you should be grateful, take my word for it. There are not many people like that these days. Nowadays, children don’t even respect their own parents. Mr Khader is a bit reactionary. I try to look surprised: why shouldn’t I call the fire brigade? I mean, if they’re prepared to go round rescuing cats for old dears. That was in the old days, says my nephew, they don’t do that kind of thing any more. I look down: I know, I say, that’s what they told me when I phoned. Because I said, if you’re happy to go round getting cats down out of trees, why not a shoe, it’ll only take two minutes, and they said that they didn’t rescue cats any more.
And I said, well, I think it’s disgraceful, leaving those cats to die of starvation like that. Madam (they said in a patronizing tone), we have more important things to do. Well, they’re right, said my nephew. Because my nephew, apparently, knows quite a bit about the duties and responsibilities of the fire department. All right, but what does it cost them? They’d be round here and up on the roof in two minutes and there you go, job done. It costs them time and energy: they only climb up on roofs when there’s a fire or a gas leak. My nephew knows a thing or two about the fire brigade. Yes but, in this case, they wouldn’t be in any danger, they should be happy, it would be a bit of a break for them. My nephew shrugs his shoulders as if he’s dealing with a mule or a half-wit, then he says: it wouldn’t be so bad if you’d only phoned them once. But you have to keep on at these people, otherwise they don’t take you seriously. These days, you have to move heaven and earth before they’ll lift a finger to help. So, yes, I phoned back. What happened after that is all their fault: they didn’t have to be so snotty, a woman of my age, they all but told me to my face I was a senile old bat, I mean, really! But you’ve got to see their point of view, says my nephew, you were phoning them four times a day, and every time you phone, it stops people who really need them getting through. That sort of overstatement is typical of my nephew. Really, I say to him, so they’ve only got one phone line? Poor things, I’d have thought they’d be better equipped. That’s not what I mean and well you know it, what I mean is that you’re taking up their time with trivial things when they’ve got more important jobs on their plate. They have lives to save. There he goes, my nephew waxing lyrical about the public sector. But this was important to me, it was doing my head in. And it’s not just about me, I mean, it could be dangerous. Imagine if that shoe suddenly fell out of that gutter and hit some child playing in the courtyard. He looks me straight in the eye. Okay, I admit, it’s not very likely, but it could happen. Anyway, I couldn’t stand it any more, I don’t know, it was like my flat was a rubbish tip, as if someone had chucked the shoe into my flat. If your uncle were still alive, he’d take my side: he always hated anything to be dirty or untidy. I’d be surprised if he ended up ringing the fire brigade four times a day about it, said my nephew stirring his tea. I find this remark a little hurtful. You’re right, I say after a moment: a man of his courage, he wouldn’t need much persuading to climb up on the roof and get rid of that thing himself. We sit in silence for a moment. My husband may not have been much of a painter, but he was a brave man.
The Shoe on the Roof
© John Foley – Agence Opale
Louise Desbrusses was born one April 3rd. Crowns Shields Armour is her second novel after the noted L’Argent, l’urgence of 2006 (POL).
Crowns Shields Armour Publisher: POL Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Vibeke Madsen < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Jeanine Herman < email@example.com >
“The Two Sisters know what counts. The Two Sisters know what is necessary. The Two Sisters know that it is always necessary to be better than the others; otherwise, they are not as good. They learned that early. […] For the Older One, who never likes to leave anything to chance, the task is arduous everyday. Even more so this morning, if that is possible. For the Older One. The Younger One is trying to rise to a new challenge today …”
a psychological and social hell, which nevertheless summons common experiences; then we follow the liberation of one of the victims of this hell. All of this is done with humour, fashioned with a deep knowledge of human relations, power relations, and psychology.
In this brief excerpt, we recognize the inimitable style of Louise Desbrusses in this, her second novel. It recounts a day in the life of three women, a mother and her two daughters. On this particular day, they are going to a family reunion where they feel obligated to maintain what they consider to be their rank and to mark their superiority as well as their difference vis-à-vis their relatives — relatives who, for obscure reasons, are thought to disdain them. On this particular day, “the Younger One” will seize the opportunity to break free of the yoke under which her mother and sister keep her. Desbrusses’s writing — incisive, precise, rich in allusion and underlying meaning that irresistibly evoke and excavate quasi-archetypal situations for her reader (a romantic relationship in L’Argent, l’urgence, familial oppression here) — once again shows not only her originality but also her fearsome efficiency: anxiously, we follow the description of
Not everyone experienced this day the same way. Not everyone experienced the preparation for this day the same way. Not even the Two Sisters. Especially not the Two Sisters. The Younger One even less. Yet the Two Sisters were raised together. Yet the Two Sisters were raised elsewhere. They have the same history, the same stories; they are the daughters of the Other, the Foreigner, and everything — everything — has distinguished them from the others forever. Their first names, for example. Their first names are not fashionable. Certainly not. Fashion goes out of fashion. Their first names are original. Quite. But not overly so. That would be vulgar. Their first names are crowns. The Two Sisters wear them like crowns. Often. Other times like shields. When they were children, the Other explained their first names to them, why she had chosen them, the rights her choice had given them, the rights her choice had given her, the duties they had toward her choice. The Other compared them to the names of the children of others. She sighed: to think you are better and to be incapable of choosing a first name. The Two Sisters know that their first names are well chosen, that they are superior to other first names, the first names of the children of others. One of them may have even been a better choice, one of the sisters sometimes thinks, but she doesn’t say so. Both first names are superior to those of the children of others, and that is what counts. The Two Sisters know this. The Two Sisters know what counts. The Two Sisters know what is necessary. The Two Sisters know that is it always necessary to be better than the others, above them; otherwise, they are not as good. They learned that early. They learned early to compare. And therefore they know how to locate each mistake, detect each flaw, track down each imperfection. To know this, to compare, locate, detect, track down, makes certain choices difficult. The concern this morning is to select the right clothes, the right makeup, the right jewellery, and all the accessories suited to the crown of the name. For the Older One, who never likes to leave anything to chance, the task is arduous everyday. It is even more so this morning, if that is possible. For the Older One. The Younger One is trying to rise to a new challenge today, to dress as if the others were random people, as if she did not know them, as if this had no consequence, as if this did not have the slightest importance. To dress as if it were an ordinary day while thinking about not thinking about it is actually fairly easy, the Younger One discovers, who next time, she decides, will not even think about not thinking about it; why didn’t she think of that earlier? She hates rushing, arriving
late; it is too difficult to calm a heart that races over nothing, nerves that tense over nothing, hands that tremble over nothing, knees that weaken over nothing, impossible to stop the sweat that sticks to the skin, in the nostrils, to chase away the fear of looking greasy, of smelling perhaps. To arrive on time without concern for one’s appearance, that is what the Younger One wanted, that is what the Young One managed to do. While the Older One completes her work in the parking lot and the restaurant’s restroom, the Younger One enters the garden. Relieved. Lighthearted. This, she wants to hope, will prevent the fear of others from reappearing. Today, she has decided, she will not let herself be frightened. They do not mean a thing to her, she thinks. She will remain calm. If this state endures, she will consider herself satisfied. For today. The Older One does not see things this way. At all. The Older One is coming out of obligation. Out of necessity. So as not to leave an empty place. To show that she has her own place. A place that belongs to her. That she occupies, her place. And then the Older One is also coming to support the Other, the Foreigner, Mother. To defend her. In combat, the Older One is prepared, meticulous, precise. She thinks she knows more than anyone, more than the Younger One; she knows the importance each detail has, will have. Clothing is like armour. Clothing is armour. Her armour. There can be no flaws. The others are on the lookout. Ready for anything. Ready to laugh. No, not laugh. No. They will leave laughing to the Other and her daughters. No. They smile. Barely smile. To make it seem the effort is vain. To show that they are superior. Above. The Older One knows that they are not superior, not above, but she wants it to look that way. So that they can’t ignore her. It shows in her first name. It must show in her appearance. It shows in her appearance. It shows. Crown, shield, armor, the Older One is strong. The Older One is a warrior. The Younger One is also a warrior. The Older One always thought of her that way, as her Younger One. Mother’s daughters are warriors. They have to be. They owe it to her. The Older One owes it to her. And the Younger One owes it her, too. And yet this morning it seems to the Older One that her Younger One is distracted. Worse. Negligent. The Older One is upset. For an instant. Briefly. She reassures herself. Her Younger One has not come for a while. She has gotten drowsy. That’s it. The Older One counts on the others who never give up. The others’ attacks will awaken the Younger One. They have to. Mother needs this support. Today still. Today even more. Today above all. Today Mother appears to
Crowns Shields Armour
be nearing defeat. Her beauty is eaten away by it. She, the elegant one, is dressed badly. Yes, dressed badly. The Two Sisters are embarrassed by it. Yes, embarrassed. Her face is a little, yes, puffy, as if she had been crying, and her body more, yes, emaciated than ever. Total failure. Visible. Especially to the Younger One. Even to the Older One. Among others, Mother will be alone, more alone, if that is possible, in this state. Of course, Father will be by her side. Father is always by her side. But the Older One knows Mother cannot count on Father. Father is of no use. One day, almost in the beginning, he declared himself neutral. Neutral? To be neutral, for Mother, is not possible, it amounts to not being neutral: you are either for her or against her. The Older One knows that. The Younger One knows that. The Two Sisters know that. Mother taught them that. Therefore the Older One is for her. Therefore the Younger One is for her. Therefore the Two Sisters are for her. They have to be. Because the forces are not equal. They have to be. Because the fight is not fair. And Mother is getting exhausted. And Mother is exhausted. And Mother can only count on her daughters. Mother therefore counts on her daughters. She counts on the Two Sisters. The Two Sisters joined by the first names they received, the upbringing they underwent, the houses in which they grew up, the schools where they studied, the city where they did not live. Of course, the Younger One lives faraway now. For a long time she was not able to show how she was practicing Motherâ€™s teachings. This is the occasion, the Older One decides, who has been revising, training, and applying herself constantly. Because the Older One hates injustice. Because the Younger One hates injustice. Because the Two Sisters hate injustice. The Other is counting on them to protect her from the others who surround her.
Crowns The others arrive one after the other are greeted by svelte servers relieved of their effects directed with a gesture invited to penetrate the garden three stone steps a lawn bare in patches a dreary garden large dull drooping trees white plastic garden chairs lounge chairs in a fan a shrill childrenâ€™s game a surrounding wall one after the other they climb three steps indifferent to the large drooping trees with dreary jardiniĂ¨res crowd the lawn bare in patches walk to the white plastic garden chairs the first to arrive have taken a seat already the children shriek running toward shrill games leaning toward each other kissing each other
Crowns Shields Armour
The Younger One also kisses people. The Younger One kisses all and the Younger One kisses sundry. The Younger One kisses everyone. She kisses aunts and uncles, she kisses girl cousins and boy cousins, she kisses wives and husbands, she kisses sisters, brothers, a few old people, children, many children. She kisses the same people as before, and she kisses new faces. She kisses all those who came to the Lake House every summer and also all the others who never came and will never go. She kisses them but does not think of the Lake House, especially not, where Father went on vacation as child already. She will think of that later. For now she tries to think of nothing, of nothing in particular, of nothing as particular. For now she is concentrating, she is concentrating on trying not to think about concentrating. Letting nothing infiltrate her and her state, no poison, she has promised herself. To absorb none of it and she has also promised herself to produce none of it. The greatest danger comes from oneself, the Younger One knows from recent knowledge. She will be prudent. Poison, even in small doses, is not something her new skin will tolerate. Too fresh. Fine. Fragile, therefore, the Younger One knows from ancient knowledge. Because she was born without skin. That is her affliction, the Younger Oneâ€™s. A serious affliction. Being born without skin is not suited to war. Each clash gives rise to a bitter pain that extends throughout the body. A few clashes are enough for the insides to retract. When these clashes are constant, you retract so much you think you will never be redeployed. These clashes were constant, to the point that the Younger One began to think she would never be redeployed. Yet one day this occurred. And then everything started all over again. When there were no longer clashes, the Younger One sought
them out. Elsewhere. And the Younger One found them. Elsewhere. The Younger One did not know she found them. The Younger One knew nothing. The Younger One thought she knew, but she didn’t want to know a thing. If the Younger One really wanted to know, she would have known. First she would have known that she found these clashes; then she would have known that she sought out these clashes she found. Once again she thought she would never be redeployed. But this occurred. Once again. The last time, the Younger One would have preferred, who now knew with certain knowledge that life was a bitter test for those without skin, the Younger One who has promised herself not to let anyone, especially not herself, ruin her new skin ever again. In order not to ruin it, she knows it would be better to avoid thinking of certain things. Things like the Lake House. But without struggling not to think about it. Struggling is already thinking about it. And if she cannot prevent herself from thinking about it she might as well find the best way of going about it, if that exists, rather than struggle. Perhaps, she says to herself, if she thinks about it a little, right away, here, among these people, without struggling not to think about it, yes, perhaps she will dream about it less. She dreams of the Lake House so often, where everyone’s memories, the Younger One’s, too, are entangled and entwined but do not merge. So often at night she returns to the shade of the dark trees to run along the soft sand path toward the lake that looks so green from the balcony of the Lake House, which is no longer the family house. Sold. Sold with the memories everyone left there. The memories of those who did not buy it, did not want it. The memories of the Younger One and the Older One who would have wanted it so much, especially the Older One. But the Lake House was not destined to end up in their hands. No way. The Younger One remembers it. Well. To strangers rather than to the daughters of the Foreigner, the Lake House where they were only tolerated eight little days out of the year, always on the same date. Delighted and apprehensive, they proceeded with caution. The others expected nothing from them but mistakes, stains, each gesture could be transformed into a blunder which would get them banished instantly, for which the Other would pay eternally and would in return make them pay for a long time too. To anticipate everything, Mother announced a list of prohibitions that were impossible to maintain: not to shame her, not to cause her worry, not to draw attention to oneself, to attain perfection. Even to honour her. Impossible, the competitors being disqualified by nature. But, for Mother, the Younger
One and her sister tried. And despite the dangers neither of them got tired of the Lake House. A parcel belonged to them, a parcel where unfulfilled desires accumulated from other summer days, which they spent in exile, a parcel to which the Younger One was attached. Yes, even her. Yes, although after clashes that were too jarring, she left before the end of the eight little days. Even she would have wanted it, this parcel that no longer belongs to her. Her parcel was sold. But not her memories, not the faded blue of the paint on the staircase, not the coarseness of the fringed bedspreads, not the smell of cleaning products or the taste of apricots stolen from the cellar, not the crunching of gravel under foot in the small courtyard or the fadedness of the blinds. Every detail, the Younger One can remember every detail. Better than the details of any other place she has lived. Even better than the house she chose with that man, the house in which she thought she would end her days, the house in which she almost died one day, the house she had to leave. Even that place, she discovers today, even that person, she does not remember as well.
Crowns Shields Armour
© Catherine Hélie
Marc Dugain, born in 1957, is the author of several books, including The Officers’ Ward (which won several literary prizes and was filmed in 2001), and Edgar’s Curse (2004), which has been translated into sixteen languages. An Ordinary Execution is his fifth novel.
An Ordinary Execution Publisher: Gallimard Date of Publication: February 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Anne-Solange Noble < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: John Fletcher < email@example.com >
Vania Altman is said to be among the last survivors from a Russian nuclear submarine sunk in August 2000 in the shallow waters of the Barents Sea. In a port on the Arctic Circle, his family is on tenterhooks: they seem to be about to have a second brush with history. Half a century after the death of Stalin, Russia is being ruled by a former member of the KGB. After taking us behind the scenes at the FBI in Edgar’s Curse, Marc Dugain here paints a portrait of contemporary Russia. His novel, based on real events, reveals the deep contempt for human life shown by the paranoid guardians of the Russian empire.
That winter morning in 1952, as on almost every day since the end of the war, my mother, who was a urologist, had started her shift at the hospital of M. in the outer suburbs of Moscow. She was doing the ward rounds behind the chief physician and his retinue of assistants when, in the corridor, a man directed to her by a charge-nurse asked to speak to her. No one in the small group took offence. When the man approached the others turned away. It was not uncommon at the time for people to be picked up at their place of work, even though the preference among the secret police was for night-time arrests. To give someone a last glance, more out of curiosity than compassion, was a dangerous way of acknowledging a link with the individual under arrest. The man who had come to apprehend my mother was in every respect true to the idea people have of members of the secret police. He introduced himself in a low voice so as not to be heard by anyone else, then he asked her to follow him, not very politely but also not harshly. A black limousine was parked at the hospital entrance. My mother expected to be surrounded by several men in the car, but not a bit of it. The driver did not even turn round when she got in to the back. The militiaman got in beside him and they set off without a word being spoken. It was grey and cold, and the décor was the same colour as the regime. Thanks to a slight thaw the old snow on the pavements and verges had started to melt the night before, but it was hardening again, and looked even duller in colour. My mother could not imagine that she had been picked up for any reason other than that she was under arrest. She was aware too that there did not have to be a reason for an arrest. That was the basic principle of terror. She and my father had envisaged the possibility several times. They had no reservations about the validity of the revolution, but now and then, alone together behind closed doors, they would mildly criticise its excesses. If her arrest was not down to pure chance, it was perhaps in those conversations that the reason should be sought. But how could they have been overheard? The secret police had perhaps been bugging the flat for months without their realising it. Besides, the caretaker had a spare set of keys, and he could have let the people planting the microphones into their home. But why would they want to spy on them in particular? “Why me?” That frequentlyasked question was gradually being replaced by another, more realistic one: “Why not me?” With regard to the caretaker, in any case, my mother remembered something which this arrest shed an odd light upon.
For several months my parents had been trying for a child. Every evening they had set about the task with great conscientiousness and regularity. The pleasure they derived from this almost made them forget the reason for it. They even took to spending the whole of their Sunday afternoons in the bedroom as the gloom enveloped Moscow, once my father had shelved the notebooks in which he wrote down hundreds of physics equations, his only passion in life apart from my mother. She was deeply in love with my father — there can be no doubt about that — but knowing her, I was aware that she certainly did not let her feelings for him cramp her style. She had an impish streak like most young Muscovite women of the period, and I can well imagine her wandering around the flat with nothing on, reminding my father that what applied to possessions was also true of women: private property had been abolished. One Monday morning, no different from any other, the caretaker had suddenly emerged from his lodge to stand at the foot of the stairs as my mother was coming down the last steps. As she was concentrating on buttoning up her fake-fur coat and trying at the same time not to trip up, she nearly bumped into him. He was not usually a very affable man, and on this occasion he exuded too the contrite air of someone who had been turning over in his mind the criticisms he was about to make. “Sorry to hold you up, comrade, but I need to speak to you, if only for a moment, about a complaint that’s been made to me by neighbours who shall be nameless so as not to put the cat among the pigeons in your part of the building.” He stopped looking her in the eye and fixed his gaze instead on the shiny banister of the staircase. “They have told me that you — when I say ‘you’ I mean you personally, not your husband, otherwise I would have taken the liberty of intercepting him too when he went by a quarter of an hour ago — they’ve told me that you disrupt their peace and quiet by shrieks which they claim are the sounds of someone having an orgasm. It’s not for me to judge, but these are not isolated instances. According to them, they’ve had to put up with the nuisance for nearly a year now, once or twice every evening, and sometimes in the middle of the night or in the morning, and up to three times a day on Sundays. Before I go on, do you acknowledge the fact?” My mother leaned on the banister, shifted from one foot to the other, and then wrinkled her nose.
An Ordinary Execution
“I believe it’s true, Comrade Caretaker.” This reply eased the situation and the man, adopting a more learned tone, went on: “In that case, since we’re agreed, I hope you’ll not mind my pointing out that all this doesn’t do your reputation much good. You see, the issue is not so much that you disturb the Olianovs, because I know that now you’ve been made aware of the problem, the nuisance will cease. No, I’m wondering how one can enjoy pleasure so much and inflict it on others. If it happens again I will accede to the Olianovs’ request to notify the authorities of these neighbourhood issues, notwithstanding the risks involved in the way they’ll be interpreted.“ My mother nodded in approval and said, “Message received loud and clear, Comrade Caretaker. I’ll do as you say. Just one thing, though. If, as the Olianovs claim, these problems have been going on for a year, you might like to ask yourself why they did not complain earlier.” The caretaker’s look darkened and his nostrils flared. He made a strange noise and turned on his heels. Before my mother had reached the door of the building she had begun to regret her arrogance. The memory of the incident had faded within a few days, but it came back to mind with particular sharpness when she was arrested. For several months now a justifiable fear had led her to carry, hidden in her clothing, a cyanide capsule, in order to escape, should she chance to get arrested, from any kind of interrogation or torture. She had no wish to suffer. It was not in her nature, any more than spending long years in the great frosts of the East unable to know how much time she had left before the human being is reduced to an animal, then the animal to dust. My parents were childless at the time and they had simply agreed that the one ought not to be for the other a reason for staying alive at all costs. They were in basic agreement that nothing on this earth was so precious as to justify putting up with torture. But my father had not gone to the lengths of acquiring a poison capsule. He only felt threatened when he behaved in a self-important manner. He was important in the eyes of the men and women under him in the scientific department he headed, but his significance decreased sharply when the number of people above him in the hierarchy was considered. Besides, he was not a party member. He had looked into it carefully and found that the powers that be were more likely to take it out on party officials than on ordinary workers like himself.
All that was asked of him was to do his job properly and, since he was not in the least ambitious, he trod on nobody’s toes. He was no more concerned for my mother since, in spite of the circumstances, his native optimism told him not to worry. In the car my mother had carefully removed the cyanide capsule from its hiding place in the lining of her coat and got it as close as possible to her genitals, betting that it would then escape the notice of her torturers. The car stopped near a secondary entrance into the Kremlin, some distance from the Lubianka whose gate was known to everyone in Moscow, so that was a relief to her. The man got her out of the car, without much consideration but also without brutality, and led her through a maze of corridors and check-points where he showed his pass. In following him she was seized with a terrible urge to urinate, but dared not ask him where the toilets were, assuming there were any on their route. The labyrinth seemed to go on for ever. She felt a pang of dread at the thought that they were going to interrogate her in a cellar in the Kremlin, far from the other political suspects. But a fresh clue gave her the glimmer of hope she craved. At the Lubianka, it was said, the torturers had recently fitted out a room to make it soundproof, so that the detainees’ howls of pain did not demoralise the administrative staff employed by the secret police. Such a room did not exist in the Kremlin, proving that they were not thinking of torturing her. Of course, it was always possible that she would be deprived of sleep or, worse still, be gagged so that they could beat her. “But”, she said to herself, “if a gag sufficed to stifle howls of pain, where was the need to set up a special room in the Lubianka?” Reassured by this thought she came back to the reasons for her arrest, without being able to find a logical explanation. She had indeed uttered blasphemies and could not deny it. But another idea entered her head and gave her a terrible fright. The big affair of the moment was that of the “white coats”, the doctors in the Kremlin hospital, Jewish for the most part, who were accused of murdering Zhdanov. My mother was not Jewish on her mother’s side, only her father was. In the great euphoria of the Revolution, when everyone was casting off their distinctive characteristics like a pauper his rags, her father had changed his name. From Altman he became Atline. But perhaps the secret police were conducting an investigation into the family background of every doctor in the Moscow area? Then something obvious occurred to her and gave her
An Ordinary Execution
a great sense of relief. “If they have decided to arrest all the Jewish doctors in town or even throughout the country, it would be logical to start with those bearing a telling surname”, she said to herself. But it seemed to her that none of the consultants with a Jewish-sounding name in her hospital had been approached by the police. Logic would dictate that she would only be arrested after a lengthy investigation into her real name. But she also knew that logic was not the system’s forte. The strength of a regime based on terror lies in its unpredictability; there needs to be an element of pure chance. This theory was hardly reassuring, however, because once you were in the hands of the torturers, the problem was not proving your innocence, but the accusers’ determination to make the suspect they were holding match up to some — any — form of guilt. So, as often happens when you give up the struggle, she started to float, letting herself be borne along. From the expression of the face of her guide as he opened a last door, she gathered that she had reached the end of her journey. The big, solid gothic door opened on to a small, very dark room which smelt of the stale breath of people who don’t talk enough. Once her guide had gone, she found herself alone in the presence of a dumpy woman in a brown uniform with black, greasy, thinning hair and a slight moustache. Gesturing to my mother to take a seat, she sat down herself, knees pressed together, on a monastery bench behind a desk. She managed to avoid my mother’s eyes. The desk in front of her was empty. Her arms were crossed and her back was as straight as a eunuch’s guarding the entrance to a harem. After hesitating for a long time my mother could stand it no longer, and asked where the toilets were. Surprised at this strange question the woman gave her a look of reproach and replied, “There are toilets around here, but they are reserved for the guards and the office staff. So far as I’m aware there’s no rule allowing visitors to use them.” “So what am I to do?” my mother asked timidly, all too aware that she was in no position to make demands. “I’ve no idea, Comrade. You’ll have to try and contain yourself. It seems to me you didn’t enter the Kremlin by the main gate. The way in for VIPs is lined with toilets as large as the most spacious community flats in Moscow. If you didn’t come in through the main entrance, you must know why, surely? You must also know why no provision has been made in this part of the building for toilets for people like you.”
For some time now she had stopped looking at my mother, fastening her lacklustre gaze instead on the wall in front of her. Then she said with a sigh, “Dialectics really does help a lot in understanding the world”. After that she said nothing for about an hour, before deciding that it was time to act. “I am going to search you”, she said, getting up slowly as if she were weighing each of her limbs. “Follow me!” She opened the door of a small room with a coat rack in the middle. My mother suddenly realised that if the women felt around in her genital area she would have to explain why she had hidden a cyanide capsule there. She could not even go to the toilet and throw it down the lavatory. She was confused and terrified. If the woman found the poison she would undoubtedly confiscate it. She thought of putting an end to her life. Still, it seemed a trifle premature to do that without knowing how matters were going to turn out. “Dying is not such a big deal”, she told herself. But the least one could do was find out why, even if many condemned people had rued the day they’d insisted on knowing the reason, since in the end there was none. On the other hand, if she were deprived of that capsule, it would no longer be possible for her to elude her fate. “Get undressed in that room! Just keep your undies.” My mother did as she was told, hoping that the inspection would halt at modesty’s last bastion. She then had to pass her garments one by one to the orderly who examined them meticulously. When that was over she came up to my mother and felt around under her knickers. She stopped at the capsule which bulged slightly and asked her to hand over the object. Her black Caucasian eyes glinted. “What is it?” she asked. “A capsule.” “So I gather, but what’s in it?” My mother must have lost her composure. It is very likely that she was blushing, but she did not take long to come up with an explanation. “Well, Comrade, that capsule is designed to ward off the small creatures that sometimes take up residence in a woman’s tuft, just like those repellents placed in cupboards to keep the moths away.” The warder rolled her big eyes. They were no longer lacklustre; they expressed severe doubts. She allowed herself a brief moment of reflection, then said quickly: “In other circumstances I’d have let you keep it. But, just think, if it were poison, that poison could enter this part of the Kremlin …”
An Ordinary Execution
“You won’t let me keep it? I do assure you …” “No!” she interrupted. “So will you let me throw it in the bin?” “That’s impossible.” “Why” “It would mean that I was getting rid of a substance without knowing what it’s made up of, and that’s against the rules. I’ll take it to Security for analysis. Who knows, they may let you have it back. Who made it?” “I did, I’m a doctor, a urologist, and it’s an experimental product I’ve devised and am trying out on myself.” “That would indeed be of benefit to mankind, and represent progress for the Soviet people, if insects could no longer make their home in the pubic hair of working women!” “You’re right, Comrade. But it’s a prototype and it’s my only sample. If Security mislay it, I’ll have lost months of work.” “If your product was as revolutionary as all that, they would have brought you in by the main gate. What you’re telling me is pure supposition, and the Academy of Sciences has not yet authenticated this particular scientific discovery.” Then, with a gesture, she indicated to my mother that the subject was closed. My mother was sweating heavily, even though the room was cold and damp like someone’s holiday home shut up without heating all winter. “So you can perhaps tell me, Comrade, why I’ve been brought here?” “That’s impossible, Comrade, I don’t know the reason myself. But I can tell you that the corridor behind that door leads only to the top brass, to very highly-placed men who want to see people like you without anyone else knowing. That’s because there’s no glory for a great Friend of the People to be seen with somebody like you. And so you’ll know why you’re here, at least as much as the man wanting to meet you does.” The orderly glanced at the clock on the wall. At that moment another uniformed woman entered. She had the bored air of a museum attendant for whom the time is dragging. The first woman gave the other a report and handed over the capsule, asking her to pass it on. The new arrival popped it in her pocket and gave my mother a nasty look. Then time resumed its dreary course. Nothing happened during the next five hours. My mother felt lost without her capsule. She realised that if she was not guilty of anything before entering the fortress, she certainly was now. A poisoner who
no longer possessed even the means of poisoning herself, that is what she had become. The gravity of her crime was in direct proportion to the status of the person she was going to meet. But she preferred to think that the warder had got over-excited. For a countrywoman like her any smartlydressed moujik had to be a top person. She came to this conclusion at three in the afternoon. She had to wait another twelve hours before she was able to leave the ante-room. She was fetched by a soldier who searched her again, perfunctorily, before ushering her into the corner office. The soldier knocked. There was no reply for a while. Then one of the panels of the huge double-door was opened, and my mother froze on the spot. There, before her, was Joseph Stalin.
An Ordinary Execution
ÂŠ Catherine HĂŠlie
Claire Fercak was born in 1982. After studying philosophy she worked at the publishers La Chasse au Snark and wrote for the Journal de la culture. She is currently a freelance writer at Redux magazine and works in a publishing firm.
Glass Curtain Publisher: Gallimard / Verticales Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Anne-Solange Noble < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: John Fletcher < email@example.com >
Glass Curtain, Claire Fercak’s first book, is a journey deep into childhood and consists of snatches of memory, shifts in time and fragments of events. The narrator speaks both in the first person, the “I” of memory, and in the third person, the more distanced “she” of the adolescent and of the woman she has become. These two mirror voices dredge up the cruelty of early childhood, what she calls “the source of pain”. The author pieces together a personal genesis, not in the chronological order of autobiography but in the to and fro of disrupted temporalities. “I’m seven”, “I’m twelve”, “I’m ten”, “I’m fifteen”, “I’m five”, “I’m twenty-four”, “I’m five”, “I’m fourteen” … This treasure hunt allows the reader to reconstitute the character’s broken identity by reliving the flashes of her consciousness in accordance with the same discontinuity. “It is an unpleasant, dry story in which I am the one to blame.” A febrile, guilty (but of what?) little girl, she bears the burden of too heavy a pain, one that the reader comes to understand as the story unfolds. Is she still a little girl, or is she condemned always to be one in the eyes of this father, this “nightmare of a father”? An unfathomable and elusive figure, this father. The secret is hidden by a screen, “a trickle of rain on a glass curtain”. Against this traumatic enigma, this black genealogical hole, she has built herself a glass jail which serves at first as a chimerical refuge before
imprisoning her in the crystalline trap of medicalisation. Her world consists of her house (shared with the dog Chiffon and the suffocating father, himself an accident waiting to happen) and the hospital (with its doctors, their conflicting diagnoses and their litany of medications). A glass bubble that will one day have to be broken: “She would like to cover everything up, to flood everything, and to find an islet; to find, above all, a way of breaking the glass wall, without the lot exploding and destroying everything.” This sustained, dazzling, harsh, vibrant short novel conducts the reader to the source of an inner poetry. The nursery rhymes and their magic numbers — from which in Glass Curtain the central narrative in seven days draws its mythical initiatory value — the snakesand-ladders format, the rite-of-passage metaphors (and the references to Lewis Carroll and Through the Looking-Glass), mythology and its tragic modern metamorphoses, all transform the narrator’s frailty into strength. The foggy, wet landscape of antediluvian time clears away, the confusion between “she” and “I” fades: words and things can at last receive their due.
Little clouds of mist come out of her mouth and condense on the pane. In her eyes reddened from crying the look is of a devastated country, an earth scorched, struck with small deaths of tissue. In the middle of the pane, a pattern. With her forehead pressed against the window and her hands twisted behind her back, she whistles a sad tune. Within it, silently, her memories squabble. I suffer finger-marks from a stubbornness of memory finely delineated. Hiding under the numbing weariness there are angry remains, tineid forces that disturb sleep. Traces of the games strangulation marks of my childhood light and spaced out, paternal punishment. The climate is foggy. This morning is terrible. The world unfolds, infinitely grey. A morning of no importance, it won’t be any better tomorrow. I do not move, I remain shut away, curled up at the bottom of my head which the gnawed sphenoid bone has filled with ashes. Violence is inscribed in the memory of the space. Of the body. In the middle of the pane, a smudge, a pattern, like a cataract: the father. Images well up from my earliest years, they do not get any lighter, they do not reach out to anyone. They overflow. I was explaining my schoolgirl’s progress to him. He was not responding, so I began to fidget and say it again more loudly, pulling a face sweetly and blowing on his nose. You’re not saying anything Daddy, you’re not listening, is it ,cos you couldn’t care less? He turned round and looked at me. Yes. They’re tiresome, memories are, I must still be a source of hurt, it’s as big as a house. A house drowning before my eyes. She does everything she can not to forget. I try. It’s the beginning of a raging February. I was going to be born under the eleventh sign of the zodiac, blown by the harsh Boreas, on a thirty-eighth day of the year. One after the other the constellations were rising above the horizon, the doctor was already feeling me and pronouncing his diagnosis it’s a girl. What is a little diaphanous girl of severe countenance with jet-black hair taken from her mother one evening in the southern hemisphere? The constellations were rising, I was a black star caught between the two eyes and a bat in the chest descended from the pharynx to inflame the thoracic cavity. She is a pretty little girl but you should be warned that she suffers from coronary insufficiency. An infant suffering from angina. An Aquarius baby, a water-
pourer. Eleventh sign of the zodiac, the archangel has withdrawn, a sign of bad luck. In his celestial sphere the days are wet. In the afternoon they had gone out, not far, to take the dog for a walk. She liked picking the faded specularia. Tell me, these flowers, the purple ones, what are they called? Venus’s looking-glass, that’s strange and how’s it written, a Venus looking-glass, with a hyphen, or without? At the moment she does not know that she will search for them relentlessly. When she got to the fountain she sat curled up in a ball on the edge of the basin to watch Chiffon. She looked like her father; that saddened him when rashly she shot him a stealthy glance. The fact that they look so much alike has always troubled me. I am seven. Chiffon is a funny Tibetan creature; the tip of his tongue is wedged between two rows of tiny teeth and sticks out slightly from a white mop. Had she been able to choose she would not have called him Chiffon, but because I am the child I do not get to choose. Chiffon moves me, rubbing his flat nose in the tall grass, strolling around and hopping gaily about. When someone whistles to him he stops short and, cocking his head slightly, watches him. Look at his muzzle, you’d think he was pouting. But when you are a child, you do not speak first, even spontaneously. She does nothing without permission in case she gets a volley of blows. She does not cry or rebel, by dint of thrashings I learn, I take it in, but without properly understanding: that’s the way it is, that’s way it is, that’s all there is to it. If I disobey my daddy will hang himself. He’s said it would be my fault once again. I must not forget, but must repeat a dozen times: I’ve no one but you. I don’t like it when that’s the way it is. Despite its generous sonority, the fullness of the expression does not conceal either its violent meaning or the fact that it belongs to a context and framework within which I’m suffocating. Its ampleness cannot suffice, words have a history. They draw nourishment every time they’re used. A word is a discourse, addressed to somebody or other. Not being given any role, I do not take, I grind. I do not copy, I absorb. It is an unpleasant, dry story in which I am the one to blame. Damaged, but blabbing out vile feelings. Daddy, don’t you see …? I am the internalisation of our encounter even if it is a failure, even if it is a catastrophe, the result of a radioactive contact. The result of a collision, like any psychic space. I am a memory, sewn back on, worn out. Waste products of my metabolism,
your damaged genes blight my growth. They strangle it, sometimes I can no longer breathe, its tissues tighten, I ache all over. Neurological consequences. My twelfth year squeezed like an orange, squeezed by a grotesque gesticulating anguish. I progress, now my tics go rat-a-tat-tat make a puppet of my body make. Thus make. Look at his muzzle, you’d think he was pouting. Scared by her guilt she had immediately opened her eyes wide and pursed her lips to render her clumsy words void. I am ten years old. Daddy did not get angry straightaway, he finished tying his shoelaces, then coughed as he got up before approaching her calmly. She lowered her head, cringing, as if to apologise. He came forward, arms dangling, fists clenched, limping, his right leg slowly lifted as it skimmed over a carpet of while solitaires, while his left leg dragged through the mud, carrying with it, as it progressed with difficulty, a column of yellow ants. As her head was pushed underwater by the pressure of big chapped hands the little girl made irregular lapping movements beneath which the green plankton slipped. I am fourteen. Her breathing tried to adapt to the movements of the waves made by the fountain. Pressing on her neck he said to her with a laugh that her face would turn purple and end up deformed. Blue blood began to invade her cerebellum. At least if I were to die the nightmare of my father would be well and truly over. She had woken up fluffy in a strange bed, unable to say what had happened or why. On being asked if it was the first time she shook her head shyly. She was told that someone had pulled her out of the liquid, that she was unconscious, but she refused to believe it. She recalled having shouted They’re taking Daddy away while he struggled and bellowed It’s my daughter fuck off it’s a game leave us alone. She did not see him again after that. She began to build a transparent, solid refuge that could not be attacked, a house of glass that enabled her to be on the qui-vive for any assault from outside. A house fortified by phonic insulators memory-lids and glass wool.
Screens to prevent an image being projected that could extend beyond the frame. The image of a square meadow of thick grass, on a slight slope, with black lilies. Since they have lost their sense of smell the moles no longer burrow underground. They have been suffocated, stuck in their own galleries. Their muzzles no longer end in a snout, their tiny eyes are empty, their sharp nails have been filed down until they cut into the joints of their fossorial hands. The fountains are silent, the pouches of their cheeks are swollen, clogged with dandelions. Daddy and I died here.
She had had other hobbies obsessive impulses, anecdotes she invented non-stop, books to learn to speak. I am thirteen. I read a lot exaggeration of the automatic reflex since schools given to picking quarrels turn down psychological stereotype the mentally ill. She wanted to express herself in the conditional like little girls what is a little girl? Pretending it was only a bad dream. It would be a paper dream. But she was beginning to remember. I am seven. Now the bathroom is out of bounds to her, a small brown bowl is put out for her in the corridor. I’m cold, I’ve got stomach ache and a very sore throat. Pretending it was only a bad dream. I’ve got a sore throat. D’you hear? He looks scornfully at her and turns on his heel. A drop of water at room temperature is quite sufficient for someone who is no longer allowed out. A paper dream. That’s why she so often misses school, she must be excused. After many a nocturnal peregrination she has the emetic temper of tortured rest. She gets bogged down in tales in which characters with names of no more than three syllables compete. A bad dream in order to recollect. I am fifteen, fed up with hospital. This morning It’s a Dead Loss and Off We Go. The Gods of Somnambulance have wrested her from the dark sleeps of Alas. I quite like Morpheus but I hardly know him. Best not to contradict this sweet little girl, on pain of jump-seesaw-window. Since she has been allowed to leave her isolated room and wander freely through the corridors of the red polished building, she stops in front of the window experience of the mirror that looks onto the mad people’s park. The nurse often corrects her on the subject, You mustn’t say that, a human park is much more acceptable, Yes perhaps but less entertaining. The sun is shining outside but inside it’s raining cats and dogs.
After they land she traces with her forefinger the drops as they trickle down. Her pallor and the shy quiverings of her screwed-up eyes are reflected while everything, carried off in the weariness of her gaze, remains on hold. It is a winter’s day. I have a few memories but they are chipped. Childhood, the gentle creature, had put some aside for her. Some began to hop, crazy bunnies squashing maias as they went. The rabbits dash past in my skull. Are they unaware that the bottom putrefied encephalon is a cave of thorns from which they only escape with calloused fur, bodies covered in bruises and joy of heart wiped out? The days are wet. Wet, I’m five, I’m dressed in a hooded purple coat, my tonsils don’t wear a scarf. At the height of would-be casualness she affects a touch or two of insolence when with the back of her left hand she wipes red lipstick from her upper lip. I’m twenty. In the mirror it’s more or less the same, in other words, not quite. It’s not only the same, it’s worse: the purple has trickled down and her skin is chapped. I cannot bear myself fetid bruises, bogged down in the present, helpless, I’m trying string of evil deeds to escape. The exit is never a help in an emergency, rather a chasm. On growing up the familiar home has become burdensome, hostile. Her shoulders itch with shapeless mauve blotches. If my growth fails or is reduced or lost, it’s because my bone-marrow harbours the bad genes I’ve inherited from him.
ÂŠ Mathieu Zazzo
Born in Algeria, Nadia Galy lives in France where she is an architect. She often returns to Algiers to visit her family.
Algiers, Washhouse Tryst Publisher: Albin Michel Date of Publication: April 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Jacqueline Favero < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Ros Schwartz < email@example.com >
Jeha, who is 28, has taken over his father’s grocery store after two years at university. Despite an unprepossessing appearance, he is a calm, happy boy who is keeping his parents and sisters (thirteen people living in two decrepit rooms with no running water), and is engaged to Selma, who nature has not been kind to either. He’s a delightful, optimistic character who cheers up everyone around him, until things fall apart. Two events are to change his life: a registered letter from the Ministry of the Interior appointing him personal bodyguard at the trial of Lella (an untouchable political figure who for over twenty years has made and unmade governments), and being hit by a ball, which sends him into a coma. When he comes round, Jeha is no longer the same. He consults a psychiatrist and analyses his situation with a more than critical eye. He realises that his life is wretched, that, like his friends, he experiences unbearable sexual frustration and that there’s nothing to hope for beyond family oppression and false dreams distilled by the television. It’s like Don Quixote realising that he is not the valiant knight he thought he was, and Jeha attempts to fight back …
Poverty, unemployment, sexual deprivation, the oppressiveness of religion and tradition, women’s position, disastrous relations between the sexes, who know nothing about each other, a police state, corruption, etc.: through Jeha’s trials and tribulations, the whole of society comes under the microscope.
It’s Thursday morning, still early. To reach him, the Old Woman inches her way forward, tripping over the foam mattresses cluttering the room. A dangerous exercise at her age, but she’s determined. She wants to wake her grown-up son, Jeha, her favourite. The eldest, the apple of her eye, the only boy of the litter. So ugly that people are fascinated. Some describe him as equine, but that’s not quite it. If he’d simply been equine, the Old Woman wouldn’t have doted on him so. There’s a certain harmony to a horse, even a carthorse. But not to Jeha. He’s misshapen, as would be the fruit of an illicit love affair between a gnu and an alembic. Jeha compensates for his unusual appearance with an affability and kindness that would melt anyone. Spiteful tongues insinuate that with looks like that, it wouldn’t be surprising if he were to bite, but that’s pure jealousy on their part. No, Jeha is truly disarming, touching, in his ugliness. Like those bulldogs with agate eyes whose owners call them Paulette to show that ridicule doesn’t kill, any more than an accumulation of handicaps. And what’s more, he permanently wears the same jagged smile with his tongue sticking out, a little thread of saliva on the tip. Despite his ungainly appearance, Jeha is always happy. He knows the joy of small pleasures and the delights of the best of all worlds. He’s twentyseven years old and a grocer. It’s not a vocation, but a question of acumen. He persevered for two whole years at university, two grim years travelling to and fro to the back of beyond on asthmatic buses, seven hundred days trying to make sense of indecipherable photocopied sheets, two fine summers sacrificed to revising abstruse subjects for the sake of some hypothetical reward, before he faced the facts: it was all nonsense. Like pouring water into the sea. What really mattered, what was tangible, was business, money. Like a shot, he dropped his studies and took over his father’s shop, which has opened every day for as long as he can remember, and in emergencies upon request. Since then, it has been like in the Old Man’s day, only without the white grocer’s jacket. For Jeha won’t hear of it. He parades about in his street clothes under a shop sign he’s had made to the glory of Ali his father. On a white perspex parallelepiped lit from the inside, in bright red slightly Gothic lettering, the sign says (in French, otherwise the word play would be lost): “Ali-Mentation Générale.” He’s all the more delighted with this pun because it hinges on such a tiny
detail. If the Old man had been called Kamel, it would never have worked. One day, he promises, he’ll have some building work done. And about time too, was the general feeling. But he keeps putting it off until next century. Every time he sells something, the nightmare begins again: the stock threatens ruin, the shop’s on the brink of collapse. So he sets about organising the resistance, propping up packets, cramming the shelves, wedging in cans and replacing the items he’s just sold with five tins of sardines, sticking a carton of milk in the place of a packet of semolina, and so on. In short, he juggles, fearing only one thing, or rather two: taxes and stocktaking. The mere idea makes him bristle! Which everyone would rather be spared, given his bizarre appearance. Other than that, it’s hard to imagine a more easy-going boy. He has such a lovely nature he’s even managed to find a wife. The name of his other half is Selma; he’ll marry her in just under two years’ time. Strictly speaking, she’s not what could be called a great beauty, but Jeha tirelessly repeats to the vipers who tease him: “Adorn the ladle and it will be beautiful.”Luckily, thank the Lord, the girl has been spared the major visual defects. Except one. Of the cross she bears, only the tip is visible: an eyebrow that’s her crown of thorns, traversing her face from east to west, almost from one ear to the other. The rest of the iceberg, her slightly excessive hairiness, remains religiously concealed beneath an always immaculate hijab. To be honest, her eyebrow could do with plucking to create two decent, reasonable eyebrows. But she can’t bring herself to do it, she constantly quibbles. Is it worth it? Once you start, you can’t stop. Selma is quite sweet, but the amazing thing about her is that she’s agreed to marry Jeha. Everyone’s pleased, starting with the Old Woman who’s only sure of one thing: “Even the ugly bee gathers pollen and produces honey.” And, like all good mothers, she’d rather her beloved son produced heirs straight away than see him fall for a beauty who’d laugh in his face saying that marrying a baby giraffe would be a risk to their children. All the same, while awaiting his wedding, Jeha has cultivated a certain composure that nothing can ruffle.
Algiers, Washhouse Tryst
Thirteen people share the family apartment, eleven of them cooped up between the sitting room and an alcove. In other words, between the skin and the nail. The parents sleep separately in the bedroom — hence, fatally, the admirable number of children they’ve produced. If they’d slept
in the living room with the others, it’s highly unlikely their issue would have required so many cheap mattresses. More expensive ones? They could have afforded it. Only the thing is, the mattresses would have been of better quality, sure, but heavier too. And the Old Woman would have had a job lifting them and stacking them up each day, which is absolutely vital since, during the day, the living room is a living room. It’s only at night it becomes a caravanserai. In the morning, the Old Woman piles up the five cubic metres of mattress and covers them with a velvet blanket with a picture of Mecca on it, a stalking tiger in the palm trees, or Mount Fuji. The pile’s as high as a Louis XIII sideboard, but it’s an eyesore and less useful: if you try to sit on it the pile collapses! Cheap mattresses are only any good one layer thick. Any more and they turn into a slide. “It would be so good to have more space!” For more than twenty-five years, that’s been the clan’s perpetual cry, their castle in the air! […] In the street, Jeha only has a few steps to take and there she is, the love of his life, his `Bicerie! It emerges between two ficus whose trunks he whitewashed himself. His home, his venture! He still finds it hard to understand why it took him so long to discover his vocation, when he’s been so happy since he took over from his father. He pampers his shop like a queen, he cherishes it. He decks it out like a bride, scattering shiny stickers over the windows, seeking out posters and calendars for it; depending on the season, he decorates it with jasmine, mimosa or crêpe paper. It’s a cubby-hole, a storage room, that used to look like a bad tooth between two apartment blocks, and now he’s turned it into a vaudeville grocer’s, prancing about in a bikini. Hollywood, Times Square, spangles … The local shopkeepers are envious. They criticise him for thinking he’s the ant that can teach the camel a lesson. And yet it’s true they just bumble along, shabby and stunted, as if riveted to the thresholds of their kolkhoz. The milk has just been delivered. Jeha drags the crates to the back of the shop so as not to spoil the look of the shop front, then orders a coffee from across the road. When it arrives, he immediately flings the aluminium spoon down the drain. “I warned you,” he shouts to the café owner. “You know I don’t like aluminium! Your spoon’s as rough as comb teeth, it hurts my mouth!”
Without even waiting for the waiter’s reaction, he pulls his chair along the pavement, jams his glasses on his forehead and puts his cigarettes back in his pocket. He props the transistor radio on the window sill and sits down. There, he’s working! Other than the milk, nothing will happen before ten o’clock. He lights a cigarette. The Hoggar goes pshitt, while an atomic mushroom cloud forms on its glowing tip. A free gift with Bonux washing powder! A wisp of tobacco thick as a clove spirals briefly before it’s burned up, the paper turns yellow then splits, the cigarette’s had it. Sometimes he smokes American cigarettes. But, given their price and his generosity, people would smoke his profits in less than a week. So no thank you!
Algiers, Washhouse Tryst
[…] Jeha sees nothing of the journey, although Algiers usually leaves him open-mouthed with awe. He always uses the same expression to describe it: “Each building you see is more beautiful than the last!” He finds his city MA-GNI-FI-CENT, especially the presidential routes painted in white and blue gloss for each official visit. With a bitter laugh, he claims the blue is an attempt to imitate Tunisia — Sidi Bou-Saïd and all that. As for the white, its only purpose is to whitewash. But alas, the French package tourists with their red, white and blue cotton sunhats still prefer to holiday in Tunisia and buy rugs and pottery in La Goulette. That’s their loss! They have no taste! Jeha also explains wryly that they chose that particular shade of blue for the shutters because flies don’t like it. “Luckily,” he adds, caustically, “otherwise it’d be a right mess!” “Like it or not,” he generally concludes, “that’s Algiers.” As in all port cities, there are a hundred times more men than there are jobs, too much fine weather, too much traffic, and no regulations governing it all. And that’s it. This morning, none of the capital’s troubles touch him. He’s taken the lower road. He doesn’t like it so much, but it’s the shortest. Here are the arcades, which he races through like a greyhound on heat. At the end of the gallery, he crosses the avenue between two buses, pushes past a line of old men moving at a snail’s pace and he’s there. […]
Of course, the question of speaking French on waking up meant something, he realised that. It was a symptom, but of what? Palm tree — as he now mentally called the psychologist because of her top-knot — now exhibited the detachment of the satisfied gourmet. She’d found what she was looking for and was no longer in a hurry. Jeha sensed this and believed the matter closed. He had been polite, docile. Now, this inquisition was getting on his nerves. He was choked, outraged that she could see through him. What’s more, he was going to stop feeding her a line. Right now! As for the psychiatrist, she no longer needed him. His case turned out to be perfectly straightforward. “This boy has to be prised away from his nickname,” she surmised. “It will be a big step.” She started from the notion that this nickname, “Jeha” had become her client’s second nature. A survival suit, a shield and a red nose! You had to admit that with a physique like that, disguised as a Jeha, the young man ceased to be tragic and became funny. In the way a silly hat, or a Hawaiian shirt or even Chihuahuas are considered funny. For there was a real Jeha! The Jeha of Arab legend, of fable. A good guy, a kind of cross between Toto the clown and Punch. A crafty practical joker, a sharp fellow and a braggart, puny and mischievous. He was endowed with Olympic intelligence as well as a huge heart and the irresistible laugh of Jiminy Cricket. This droll character had only one ambition in life: to poke fun at the police, as well as the wealthy and the fat cats. That perfectly described the old Jeha. His demeanour and his interminable elongated face were his stage costume. Except that he wore it all the time. For, contrary to all the rules of the theatre, he was always performing. Which was very risky. Johnny Weissmuller, unable to take off his Tarzan loincloth, had paid the price of his stubbornness. Even the otherwise mighty Batman allowed himself times to be an ordinary man in the street, without his cape and Batman mask. But this was not the case for the wretched Samir/Jeha, who had no change of clothes. He’d always lived the life of a buffoon, clad in his fool’s battle-dress. In the end, that’s all he’d been: a buffoon, a Stakhanovist of slapstick, coarse comedy, and worse. Except that, now, the register had changed, and he’d turned into Rigoletto: grotesque exterior, inner pain. All that was missing was Fernandel’s hump from The Well-digger’s daughter.
[…] Samir cranes forward slightly to see her better. He feels an indescribable pleasure. Then, bothered by the décor, he screws up his eyes to reduce his field of vision. He wants to see nothing but her. There she is, he gives a contented sigh. Without all the surrounding wood panelling and mouldings, Lella seems even more beautiful. She is behind him, standing in a separate box higher up that was originally reserved for visiting professors. Calm and focused, she demanded her lawyers should not disturb her except in an emergency. Unhurried, she soaks up the atmosphere of the courtroom, studying the path from her box to the judge’s bench. How beautiful she is! In her black dress, she looks so demure, her arms folded in front of her. Not a single piece of jewellery, not a hint of colour. She isn’t wearing any make-up either, she doesn’t need any, her skin is golden. Her curls are abundant. The idea that she was prettier yesterday with her hair scraped back from her face barely crosses Samir’s mind, it doesn’t matter. Lella is so … so totally perfect that being less beautiful than yesterday is meaningless. It would be like saying that a summer day was not as bright as the day before, it would be pointless. What matters is the permanence of summer, that each passing day has the same mellowness, the same summer fullness. That’s what is important. It’s the same with Lella, she can only shine, always! In Samir’s muddled brain, it’s the only thought that hasn’t foundered, propped up by a few adverbs like eternally and perpetually. Lella will always be in the firmament, that’s all. It’s a truth that’s part of him. No point questioning it, it’s an axiom, a premise, an intrinsic principle. This woman’s luminous eternity is the air he breathes, it’s as water is to fish, it’s the sun, the obvious fact! Moreover, in this register, now he’s nothing but a sort of plant which only needs a little light.
Algiers, Washhouse Tryst
© Bruno Charoy
Yasmine Ghata was born in France in 1975. She studied history of art at the Sorbonne and the École du Louvre. She specialised in the arts of Islam, and has worked in the field of connoisseurship. La Nuit des calligraphes (Fayard, 2004; English translation The Calligraphers’ Night, Hesperus Press, 2006), her first novel, met with considerable success, and has been translated into thirteen languages; it won the prix de la Découverte de la fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco, the Cavour prize (Italy) and the Kadmos prize (Lebanon).
The Târ of my Father Publisher: Librairie Arthème Fayard Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Carole Saudejaud < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Andrew Brown < email@example.com >
Upon the death of white-Beard, his son Hossein inherits the târ that is passed on from generation to generation. But the instrument resists his attempts to play it, and refuses to set free the mystic harmonies that are the glory of Iran’s musicians. Under his fingers, it seems nothing more than a piece of dry wood, with no sap in it. So, with his young brother Nur, Hossein decides to go to the town of Ardabil, where the best lute-maker in the region will be able to re-string the târ and, perhaps, bring it back to life. They find a grey city, filled with gloom. Its inhabitants are in mourning for Mohsen, also a târ player, a blind and saintly man whose magical notes had been able to heal the sick, make the streams flow and the trees blossom — but who has been murdered. The populace is inconsolable and hostile, and takes the two boys prisoner. But what crime can they have committed? They do not know that white-Beard, a hardworking musician, was jealous of Mohsen’s divine genius. They do not know that their mother had been with both men when they were students together. They do not know that the târ handed down as an heirloom is stained by the blood of a murder. Nur is sentenced to perform forced labour for the town. And Hossein gradually loses his sight in his dismal cell. Is this a divine punishment, or a means of redemption? For, ever since Mohsen, it has been considered a good omen for a musician in Ardabil to be blind. Shedding their hatred and anger, the
inhabitants set the young man free and hand over the dead master’s târ to him. They would so much like to see him as Mohsen’s spiritual son, though they do not know that he may actually be Mohsen’s real son …
Part One I, Nur, the son of White-Beard
1. An instrument of Indo-Persian origin, with a metallic sonority, the târ belongs to the lute family. Its sound box, with its two bulges in a figure of eight, is in mulberry wood, and its upper surface is shaped like two hearts joined at the points. Its long fingerboard has 25 gut frets.
2. A town in north-west Iran.
White-Beard, my father, had taken his instrument with him wherever he went until death took him away. This was a târ 1, and the souls of his ancestors dwelt within it. Its long fingerboard was like a compass for my father, pointing to the beyond. On that particular day, White-Beard’s eyes had closed like two small boats drawn out towards the glittering foam of the open seas. He had passed away while plucking a few notes of music. The vibration of the strings captured the last beats of his heart; the plectrum had fallen into the sound box, and it rattled slyly, defying us to retrieve it. My brother Hossein tried in vain to revive the old man, and I did the same with the târ, shaking it as if his life were trapped inside it. Mother bowed to the inevitable, and we were forced to accept what we could not admit. She laid his body on the sofa and kissed the dead man on the forehead. My father’s forefinger was still crooked. I closed his fingers on his palm, after slipping his plectrum back into his hand — it had finally resurfaced. Hossein then proceeded to dress the body for burial, as my mother thought I was too young. He cut his clothes along the seams, washed the body three times, and anointed the body with henna, camphor oil and perfume of myrtle. White was the colour of my father’s shroud, a milky-white cloud in the gathering dusk. Hossein threw the unclean water away, far from any dwelling-place. My father was interred in a burial ground near the lake of Orumiyeh 2. White-Beard had crossed the threshold of death, leaving the door to the beyond still provisionally ajar behind him, just for a few days before it closed of its own accord. I was nineteen; my beard was just starting to grow and I was as skinny as the author of my days. My mother had hung the târ from the doorframe, so that every week she could dust it, gazing at it with the same air of contrition. My brother Hossein prowled round it, convinced that the soul of WhiteBeard was preserved intact within it. During Father’s lifetime, Hossein had often taken the instrument down, despite Mother’s strict instructions not to. He would hold the fingerboard in one hand, and with the fingers of the other he would improvise real pieces of music, changing in rhythm like a galloping horse whose gait soon changed to the slow amble of a camel. The notes resembled the throbbing drone of a bagpipe. He held the note for as
long as he felt was right. He had no idea that Mother wept at every vibration. And as for Forough, she had realised that Hossein had laid his fingers on the ladder of his ancestors’ symbolic scale, never to let it go. All his life long, he would climb its rungs, holding its uprights in his tight grasp. This instrument had never been meant for me. My father’s eyes were all for Hossein, and his pupils gazed tenaciously at him. I, Nur, was never able to attract his attention. It was my brother to whom, when he returned home after criss-crossing the length and breadth of the country with his troupe, he related his travels, his improvisations and his discoveries. His taqsîm 3 explored new territories. Only the call to prayer from the Azam mosque interrupted his monologue; he would then tidy away his papers, sketches and musical scores. His prayer-mat would shelter him for a while: this narrow space was room enough for his entire hunched and bandylegged body. I could not distinguish between his body and his instrument, and I sometimes thought that the walnut fingerboard was a couple of bones badly put together. My father’s târ was nothing but a corpse. And after all, was this not the way old Lamech had invented the oud, by recomposing in a piece of wood the decomposed body of his son? Its sound box resembled his chest, the fingerboard had the same shape as his leg, the peg-box was like his leg, and the strings were in the image of his veins. The fable of the old man embellished my dreams with macabre details. The târ was imbued with an odour of putrefaction. My father’s long beard had also inspired several legends. He said that its white strands, shaped into two tapering points, concealed a rare bird with a human head. When we were children, our eyes sought for a flapping of wings within it, but the old man’s beard remained obstinately hieratic. Hossein had never believed such stories but he felt irresistibly attracted to the instrument. My mother loved to relate how Hossein’s first cries had been accompanied by metallic notes; according to her, this was Father, hunched in the room next door, trying to muffle his cries of pain. For a long time, Hossein believed that his father’s voice came from the târ. It was written that my brother would be a musician like his father, and that I would be reduced to listening in silence. But we did not yet know that the târ would take us beyond the frontiers of our town, a place which had been White-Beard’s fiefdom for over half a century. “A good târ-player skilfully steals breath from the wind” — that was how Mir Ahmad began Hossein’s apprenticeship. That old, childless musician, White-Beard’s faithful companion, was overjoyed to discover my brother’s
The Târ of my Father 3. Musical divisions.
talents. Hossein reminded him physically of his friend; when he had started his career, his body too had been wiry and his eyes avid for new discoveries. They had both been pupils of the great Aqâ Hossein Qoli — at that time, White-Beard was called Arslan. Mir Ahmad had an unbounded admiration for Father, that “prince of the strings,” who also distinguished himself in the art of traditional wrestling known as zurkhaneh. Mir Ahmad brightened our grief with a sprinkling of memories from another life. Mir Ahmad’s hands described how athletic Father had been as a teenager, able to juggle with wooden weights. The movements of his wiry, well-trained body were as disciplined as they were supple. Listening to Mir Ahmad, I felt that I had never known my father; his beard had finally concealed his youth. Mir Ahmad also told us the story of that great târ master, Aqâ Hossein Qoli, who played with his eyes closed, his fingers sweeping up and down the frets as fast as the wind. When his hand flattened itself on the strings to stop them vibrating, his pupils knew that he had reached the pinnacle of his art, something he termed, in the language of his art, the “growth of the soul”. His pupils listened and learned as his notes journeyed on. Five pupils, like the five tensed strings. The great master trained his pupils in the same way you tune an instrument — a close parallel, for the degree of tension was the same. “Of the five pupils, your father and young Mohsen were the most talented. Your father played like a lion, his fingers would attack double notes, aggressive mordents and disquieting trills, while young Mohsen played more broadly, his notes splitting and burgeoning into supple, undulating stems. Aqâ Hossein Qoli knew better than anyone else how to foster the blossoming of their respective personalities. Never had he seen such a great contrast between two pupils.” Mir Ahmad dismissed his memories with a sweep of his hand, and on a sheet of paper drew the five lines of a musical stave. On it he wrote five notes, some of them in the spaces between lines, and others on the line. He sprinkled a big pinch of saffron over the freshly handwritten paper, and his fingers rubbed the brown powder away. He embellished his bare notes with decorations, decking them out in finery, imbuing them with a perfume, a bitter aroma of ink and spice. He picked up his instrument and started to play. I could hear my mother sweeping the entrance to our house and
Hossein’s hand caressing the page at the same rhythm. My mother kept an eye on us through the window; her eyes darted continually to the târ hanging from the doorframe. My father’s târ harboured his sins. Its sound box yielded none of his secrets. Hossein found that, since Father’s death, the strings no longer vibrated the same way — the air lashed against the inner walls, the gaping hole was swept by opposing winds. Several times he had tried to tighten the pegs, but the strings seemed to be slowly coming away from their base. The grief-stricken instrument emitted only dry vibrations. Hossein complained of a hissing noise in his ear — a muffled, monotonous, steady hum that made his handsome face grimace. My mother reprimanded the object hanging from the doorframe. There was no doubt but that my brother’s ear-drum was being punished by that ill-omened instrument. His superstitious beliefs had stirred the evil within it. Hossein clutched my shoulder for support as he walked, his feet tried to avoid the imaginary mounds that he attempted to climb without stumbling. On his behalf we learned to keep the noise we made to a minimum; m y mother anticipated the slightest disagreeable sound and sought some cunning way of curing my brother. She would bring the shard of a mirror up to his ear and try to trap the interference, to capture the invisible enemy that had taken up residence there. Hossein, exhausted by this humming noise, took down the târ and played some pieces inspired by Father. The pads of his fingertips were scoured by furrows; my mother furiously massaged them, trying to erase any trace of suffering through these futile ablutions. But I never went near the instrument and avoided gazing at it for too long. Still, the socket of its empty, narrow eye seemed to be staring me down. Hossein watched as I went out of my way to avoid it; he interpreted my flight as fear, a fear deeply rooted in my childhood.
The Târ of my Father
“Don’t be afraid. The whistling in my ears is the echo of Father’s pleadings. I need to set him free from the life he led in this world. The târ refuses to accept that Father is dead; it wants to join his spirit where it now dwells. White-Beard’s odour still imbues its wood, his pulse beats through its sterile embossings, his blood flows along its strings. Nur, help me to take off these strings, they are attacking my ears.” By requesting my help, Hossein was making me complicit in an act of heresy.
It was my brother’s pain that led me to commit an irreparable deed. There lay the târ, under our guilty eyes. During White-Beard’s lifetime, it had enjoyed every privilege, every attention. Father took care of it as if it were a completely independent being. It was a composite object that did not suffer from the injuries of time and which, in addition, showed no sign of rebellion. Hossein, beaten by my father until the blood flowed, would take refuge behind the house, under an awning, and nurse his wounds in silence. He would not let me approach him, sitting huddled at the foot of the wall nearby. Leaning against the wall, we spoke without being able to see each other, dreaming up impossible acts of revenge. I loathed my father, his barely-contained rage, the shouts that made his long beard bristle. The violence of our household and its hubbub had conferred on his strings a sharper and more impetuous resonance. White-Beard’s instrument was in his likeness. Hossein hoped I would take the initiative: he was not strong enough to act alone. I waited for Mother to head off down the earthen path of our house. The strings were kept taut by the pegs; they came away from the bridge, so that the wooden board now supported nothing but thin air. The strings coiled in on themselves — five bodies taking their ease after years of stiffness and contraction. We placed them on a terracotta plate. The instrument lay in my brother’s arms, its hollow cavity like a profaned tomb. That day, it seemed as if we had lost Father a second time. All we now had to do was to burn the strings so that we would no longer sense his soul roaming around. I lit the fire; they pirouetted around in the flame, curling in their death-agony as they burned, turning black and crumbling to dust.
© John Foley – Agence Opale 2
Charif Majdalani was born in Beirut in 1960. He studied at the French Lycée there, then went to Senior School at Aix in France. Between 1995 and 1998, he was in charge of the literary section of the magazine L’Orient-Express, edited by the journalist Samir Kassir, whose assassination, in 2005, marked the beginning of the new terror campaign in Lebanon. He is now head of the department of french literature at Saint-Joseph university in Beirut. The history of his cosmopolitan and adventurous family forms the thread of his novels. Petit Traité des mélanges, (Éditions Layali/Liban, 2002) available in France at Téraèdre; Histoire de la Grande Maison, (Éditions Seuil, 2005). 78
Caravansérail Publisher: Seuil Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Martine Heissat < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Paul Buck & Catherine Petit < email@example.com >
Just before 1910, like so many of his Lebanese compatriots, the young Samuel Ayyad decides to emigrate. As he speaks English, he is recruited by the British who have just reconquered Sudan from the Mahdist rebels. As he is an adventurer and meets by chance, in Khartoum, an anti-conformist British colonel, he becomes a kind of condottiere (the leader of a band of mercenaries), waging war on the borders of Sudan, in the Darfur and Kordofan regions. One day, his path crosses that of another Lebanese adventurer, Chafic Abyad, who tracks across deserts and savannahs heading a rather strange caravan: an Arabic palace that has been taken apart stone by stone in Tripoli, and which he hopes to sell to some African petty king. So Samuel buys back the dismantled palace from Chafic with the idea of bringing it back to his place in Beirut. However, in the meantime, the First World War has broken out, and, before seeing his Ithaca again, our modern Ulysses will live an odyssey that will lead him, still accompanied by his cumbersome baggage, through an Arabia and Syria stirred up by Fayçal’s and Lawrence’s “Arab revolt”.
coming perhaps from Arabic-Persian story tellers; a baroque taste for the “story within the story”. Add to that, also, an intense attention to detail, through which the novelistic alchemy operates; a sharp eye; and a sense of humour that constantly tempers the bombastic style that the epic imagination can bring to the writing. In Caravansérail the best of the narrative traditions of the East and West meet and reinforce one another, exactly as in the author himself.
It is a small epic that Charif Majdalani undertakes to recount and he has the literary means necessary: a breath; an imagination one is no longer familiar with, which at times evokes the great South-American writers; a generous love, unrestrained towards the brilliance of language; a sense of the marvellous
Chapter I It is a story full of cavalcades under big banners launched into the wind, of wanderings and blood-fuelled anabases, he muses, imagining that it could be the first sentence of that book of his life he will never write. Then the rattle of the water wheels on the canal diverts his attention. He sits up straight in his wicker chair and leans back against it, savouring, from the terrace where he is sitting, the silence which is a gift of the desert that the desert spreads, in its paradoxical generosity, over the plantations, the dark mass of the plum and apricot trees, over the land for watermelons and the land for melons, a silence that only the rattle of the water wheels stresses, as it has done for thousands of years, with its slow and dry rhythm. As for myself, I do wonder, perhaps there is no apricot trees, no lands for watermelons, but, on the other hand, the desert is there, one can almost discern it in the background of the photo, the very old photo on which he can be seen sitting on a wicker chair, a cigar in his hand, his look pensive and faraway, wearing braces, one leg crossed over the other, his moustache tapered, hair messy, with his forehead and chin making him resemble William Faulkner, one of the rare photos of him from those heroic times, a photo I imagine taken in Khirbet el Harik at the time when he had probably just arrived from Arabia, though in reality I am not even sure of that, and, besides, what can I be sure of, since, aside from those few photos, everything that concerns him in those days is dependent on the myth, on exaggeration or fantasy? But if Iâ€™m not sure of anything, then how can I tell his story, where will I find that sultanate of Safa that has disappeared from the memory of men but has remained linked to his recollection, how can I imagine those cavalcades under the banners launched into the wind, those tribes from Arabia and those palaces walking on the backs of camels, how can I bring to life and sow together all those details without head or tail that I know from unreliable traditions, or vague stories from my mother who received them from him, her own father, but which she never tried to make him clarify or secure to anything tangible, so much so that they have reached me like that, unstitched, a ground for foolish daydreaming and endless romanesque embroidering, like a story whose only remains would be the titles of the chapters, but that, nevertheless, Iâ€™ve been waiting to tell for decades and here I am now, ready to do so, but hesitating, deprived, daydreaming as I imagine he is daydreaming on the terrace of the farm of
Khirbet el Harik, seeing passing memories that I won’t see, I who will have to invent them. At the beginning, though, his story scarcely differs from that of all the Lebanese émigrés who, between 1880 and 1930, left their native land to travel the world looking for action, glory or wealth. If many of them were successful in trade or business, there were some whose story retained a more adventurous recollection, like those who went down the Orinoco to sell the products of civilization to populations unknown to men, or those who were the heroes of improbable odysseys in the confines of Siberia during the Russian civil wars. He was one of them, one of those who, when they finally came back, had their eyes and head full of memories of escapades and follies. He left Lebanon, tradition says, in 1908 or 1909. He could have left for the United States or Brazil, like most of them, or for Haiti or Guiana, like the most audacious, or for Zanzibar, the Philippines or Malabar, like the most original or those who dreamed of establishing their fortunes on trades rare or never seen. But he chose the most unprofitable lands there was at the time, he left for Sudan. For Sudan offered huge possibilities then for the young Lebanese if they were Westernized, English-speaking and Protestants on top of that. Well, he possessed those three characteristics, coming from an old family of protestant poets and wellread men, originally orthodox from the Lebanese mountains, poets and cultured people who, at the time when the wind of springtide was breaking on Oriental thought, wrote treatises on the modernization of tropes in Arab poetry, divans of poems and even an Arabic-English dictionary. On his childhood, nothing is certified, but what is, on the other hand, is that at eighteen years old, he started studying at the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut. After that, the old name he bore probably did not open up to any career other than that of erudition, followed by some position at the service of the Ottoman administration. It would seem that he could not be satisfied with that. Like the Conquistadors who left when Europe could no longer contain them, he left Lebanon, one spring morning in 1908 or 1909, probably carrying, in a small suitcase, a few shirts and some hankies, and in his head, delicate memories, the trees of the garden of the family house, where the sea breeze recites the great scansions of the open sea, the smell of jasmine and gardenias, the sky of Beirut, vast and tender like a woman’s cheek, and the liturgical white of Mount Sannin’s snows.
In those years that ushered in the twentieth century, Sudan has just been reconquered by the Anglo-Egyptian armies, which had put an end to the despotic regime of Caliph Abdullahi and given back control of the country to Egypt. Confusion still reigns, only half the country is under control, the old ruined capital is barely under reconstruction. But a new world is being born after decades of obscurantist tyranny and, in the stream of men who arrive to be the first to seize the still countless opportunities, there are a few Lebanese tradesmen, traffickers and craftsmen. But he doesn’t belong to that number. The oldest testimonies on the man who was to become my grandfather reveal that he was a civil officer in Sudan, and it is undoubtedly because of that title that he was about to live all the incredible adventures attributed to him. When they reached Sudan, the British army undertook to recruit English-speaking Christian Arabs of Lebanese origin to serve as intermediaries between them and the local population. Regarded as civil officers, those liaison agents were first drafted into the Egyptian War Ministry in Cairo, before being sent to their post in Khartoum. It means that at the beginning, therefore, on the day he arrived in Khartoum, he was coming from Cairo, after thirty hours in the awful dust and soot unfurled in a black trail of smoke by the engines of the Cairo—Luxor train, then the engines of the Luxor—Wadi-Halfa train, and finally the engines of the Wadi-Halfa—Khartoum train. There he is now, alighting, covered in dust that goes deep into the pockets of his white suit, sand in his eyes and nostrils, with that cheerful look he has on the photo I mentioned, with the little moustache and the forehead like Faulkner, but his hair combed, and his little suitcase in hand. For the cost of a mallime, an immensely tall Sudanese in a white robe busies himself removing the dust with a big feather duster, after which a British officer, waiting politely in the background, moves forward and asks, “Mr Samuel Ayyad?”, and, there he is, looked after now, taken to the barge that crosses the Blue Nile, then even as far as Khartoum, then, in a horse-drawn carriage across the town which is a building site, right up to a villa on the bank of the river, a white villa, new, unfinished, where one has to step over goatskin bottles full of cement, piles of bricks and to have one’s shoes again covered in dust, but not the usual brown dust, more like the white and powdery dust of plaster. “One of the rooms will now be your office, Sir,” the British officer explains. “You will share it with a comrade. The rest of the house is yours.”
It all begins wonderfully well and it will carry on in the same tone, if we imagine that, the next morning, he is brought by the same officer to Naoum Choucaire, a Syro-Lebanese, from an older generation, the adviser to the chiefs of the British army. With him, the contract is clear: “You have two months to familiarize yourself with the country,” says the old veteran, the adventurer from the time of Caliph Abdullahi. “You will receive reports from various districts and you will summarize them in English. It will be an excellent exercise to start with.” Let’s imagine they are in Choucaire’s office, in the buildings of Gordon Pacha’s old palace, which are being restored. The Nile must obviously be visible through the window, and when Choucaire notices that Samuel glances around furtively, he drags him off, announcing that that room is Gordon’s old office. He shows him the other side of the Nile, towards the West, the station he alighted from the day before, then the feluccas with their slanted masts on the river, then a seagull. An immense silence follows, punctuated by the sound of the hammers and trowels of the builders working on the re-surfacing of the palace façade, and Choucaire starts speaking again: “It will be an excellent exercise to start with. You will be posted to the Kordofan office, a district where undoubtedly you will have to go.” Samuel, having sat again in a wicker chair, sees the hesitation of Choucaire, who is now settled across in a small sofa, his elbow resting along the back. He sees him hesitate, reads in his eyes the question and anticipates what he is about to say by nodding, a gesture which means, of course, he knows perfectly well where the Kordofan is situated. “Anyway,” Choucaire adds, after that silent exchange, “I will have a map of Sudan put up in your office.” He gets up and walks to his work table, piled high with books, manuscripts, letters and bizarre instruments, glasses, portolans and even statuettes in wood that he probably brought back one time from Bahr el Ghazal. He has been occupying that place only a few months probably, but he has already deposited alluvia from a dozen years of travelling across the country. He is of average build, slightly rotund, with a greyish beard and the look of a big dreamy prowler. Come to that, he never stops getting up and sitting down again, and he makes ample gestures when he talks, without worrying about what’s around, bottles of liquor, statuettes, vases, that he constantly runs the risk of knocking over, as if he was more at ease in a pirogue on the Upper Nile or swaying on the back of a camel in the desert than confined between four walls. He must have been writing
at the time, perhaps to compensate, his famous and monumental History and Geography of Sudan. In the middle of the mess that is his office, he takes out a cigar, offers one to Samuel and starts speaking again, no longer in English, this time, but in Arabic, the Arabic of Lebanon, and he says he knows the Arabic-English dictionary of Nassib Ayyad, Samuel’s father, he says that this knowledge of languages is a plus (he says “our knowledge of languages”, and undoubtedly he means us, the Lebanese), he says the British need people who speak Arabic as well as they speak English, that Baring and Kitchener might be proud of them, but the officers in their army who speak Arabic speak it like asses, and understand it even less, for they have learned it from the Arabian Nights, and he laughs. Samuel smiles, he observes him with curiosity and without ever intervening, for one always has a lot to learn from that kind of man. You will share this office with a comrade, the officer said. But for the moment, he is alone in the villa under restoration, with Sudanese builders in white robes, less and less white as the day progresses. They come and go indolently, speaking loudly, transporting tools — goatskin bottles on their backs and planks on their heads — and take him for an Englishman because of his skin colour, his fine moustache and jovial air, and also because of his English. He doesn’t correct them for he wants to be left alone in the house. In return, he understands everything they say to one another but he does not show it. Besides, they only talk about work, and sometimes they call him the Englishman or the Christian, move to the side, the Englishman wants to pass, throw a plank on the mortar and let the Christian cross. His office is finished, there is already a table, chairs and an armchair, then one morning, a warrant officer brings in a map of Sudan. On the top floor, he sleeps on a camp bed and that won’t change until his departure for the Kordofan. In his bedroom there is nothing else and then, one morning, a small wardrobe and a hat stand are brought in. The villa looks over the Blue Nile and, from his office window, Samuel can stretch his arm and pick the fruits of a pear tree because, unlike the house, the garden has not been restored yet. It is still an uncultivated orchard, like most of the old gardens of the houses from the Egyptian Khartoum which, at the time, when the city was abandoned, had been used as vegetable gardens and orchards by the inhabitants of the Mahdist town. When he is not eating pears, he writes a few letters to his parents, or he goes for a stroll in town,
in the new streets laid out by the line from the Nile to the South and along which white buildings, still unfinished, rise up. He is wearing a pale suit and a hat, with a small cravat, and he meets British soldiers, tradesmen from the Kordofan, a few civilians in European garb, Greeks or Armenians, Sudanese on asses or mules. He also goes walking towards the South, in the confusion of the old popular quarters half-ruined, smelling of rotten hay, broken up by incomprehensible waste grounds, and where everything has remained the same since the abandon of the city, where everything seems deserted but suddenly there appears a donkey driver who disappears into the narrow opening of a cul-de-sac. He goes, of course, to watch the vast building site of the future Gordon College, on the East, and the old gardens of the Catholic mission on the West, not far from the villa where he lives. And then, when he is sitting on the balcony of his room, above the garden, he sees Omdourman, the densely populated Mahdist town. It is situated on the left, far away, on the other side of the White Nile, an ochre and brownish mass with hundreds of boats on the river. He can see it and he can also feel, around him, the powerful presence of a gigantic country half-deserted, where tribes, worn out by decades of holy wars, tyrannies and famines, wander.
Author of seventeen collections of poems, a humorous literary spectacle, and two plays, a former lyricist and freelance journalist, notably at Le Monde, Michel Monnereau lives in the 12th arrondissement of Paris and works in the world of advertising. Carnets de déroute, novel (La Table Ronde, 2006), prix du Premier Roman de Draveil, prix des Lecteurs Atout Sud.
No Kiss? Publisher: La Table ronde Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Anna Vateva < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Jeanine Herman < email@example.com >
The night smelled like the solitary beer and hangover of forty. Above all, there was the desire to return that had just emerged in me far, far away, where great destinies and catastrophes take shape. After fifteen years of travelling the world, a disenchanted man returns to what remains of his family, someplace in the Charente region. He barely recognizes the little village in which he was born. The house, on the other hand, has not changed at all. Bernard, the narrator, has never been able to resign himself to working like his peers. He feels no affinity with the human race, or even with dogs. Only ruminants, like him, have a certain grace in his eyes. An émigré of his own life, he has always been on the margins and out of sync with those around him. An unhappy love affair and a personal desire to flee prompt him to leave after his twenty-fifth birthday. Three trips around the world later, he wonders what has become of the people he abandoned so long ago, without a word. His father did not wait for him, dying quietly. Bernard now finds himself face to face with his mother and her reproaches. His older sister, flanked by her rugged husband and two young teenagers, tries to soften the edges. The reunion soon turns into a confrontation. As Bernard says, “the same blood” flowed in their veins, “that of mutual incomprehension” tainted with secrets and heavy with regret.
The subject is dark but nonetheless comic as the author’s words mine despair. In his second novel, Michel Monnereau has perfected his tone and the incisive humor hailed by critics in Carnets de déroute, which won the prix du Premier Roman de Draveil and prix des Lecteurs Atout Sud. “The narrator recounts the minutiae of his everyday life and his slow decomposition amid detachment, terror, and a certain cynical jubilation. The author responds with great stylistic mastery and disarming humor.” (20 Minutes, March 2006.)
My neighbor got up. Her buttocks—firm beneath the tight fabric of her jeans—mocked me, mere inches from my nose. This adolescent had an ass to give you illusions. She had not yet broken her body down with the exertions of romantic encounters, the couch grass of disappointment, and all those experiences that leave you undone. I followed her body with my eyes as she slipped down the center aisle like a dream disappearing. The bus stopped in front of a war memorial in a village situated about a half a mile from my home, a pretty, old-fashioned town, ripped apart by the widening of the road. Finally, at home … Wasn’t I actually from all those places that had covered me in their dust, burnt me with their suns, wearied me with forced fasting? London, Amsterdam, Venice, Brussels, Barcelona, Palermo … the names rattled together in my thoughts like pots in a hardware store. Details and anecdotes were what fueled my travels, not obligatory monuments or holy places. I had wanted the world and had come back with tired eyes. The bus set off again. The pronounced curve at the exit of the village, the gas station, the water tower, a mushroom at the top of the hill— each milestone of the trip came back to me as a memory just before it appeared. On the coast, no more hedges, no more vines, the past had been rearranged to make room for a present with no rough edges and this four-lane highway that drew blood from the landscape. Everything seemed smaller than before. Suddenly, a sign above an exit ramp made me flinch: the name of the village. I had arrived. I approached the driver. From the corner of his eye, he searched for a family name that would correspond with my general appearance. In vain. I was a foreigner, who had come to get lost in a place where he had absolutely no business. The driver parked the bus at the beginning of a small road; I got out in the face of silence. The bus moved away. It wasn’t raining anymore. From an oak tree saved from slaughter, a drop of water fell on my right boot, plop. And there I was. Fifteen years of anger had just settled like a failed soufflé. Here, I waited for the bus to school; here, we awaited the passage at dawn of the Bordeaux-Paris cycling race; here, well before all the car madness, neighbors would sit together on the roadside to watch the rare objects roll by. Here was not here anymore. After a look around, I headed off. Everything came back to me, as if I’d left yesterday. At a bend in the road, at the end of the line, I saw the first house of the village—Andrea’s house. In the summer, I would chat with her in the
evening on a stone bench in front of the house. Sometimes, when the warmer air brought confidence, she would unreel seventy years of memories, and a procession of vanished scenes went by that can only be seen in movies now, or in photo albums no one ever opens. Harvests with sickles and poor people gleaning … days of threshing at each other’s places and wheat dust scattered everywhere … collecting deadwood in the winter in the national forest … young people going on foot, in groups, to dances in the area … festivities where everyone threw off the harness of work for a day in exchange for a waltz of oblivion and one drink too many … some young man she fancied who died of typhoid … winter evenings spent shucking corn by the fire while telling ghost stories … the arrival of the electricity fairy, supplanting gas lamps and their black odor … the gradual disappearance of oxen and workhorses and the trades that kept them alive: harness-makers, blacksmiths … the first automobiles, o always broken down wonders, steel lungs spitting in the dust of battered roads … the removal of railway lines used frequently by poultry and the peasants who took them to market, for reasons of profit, already … the phylloxera catastrophe as recounted by her mother, which ruined the wine growers, the grapes of misery, she said … her first and only trip to Paris in 1927, for an agricultural show, a veritable expedition at the time … then the birth of her children, the death of her husband, worn to the bone by open air and his work, life that obstinately continues, because day is dawning, we are hungry, the weather is fine … Andrea alone knew the unruly news of a century of industrialization, the memory of a sunken, rugged, fraternal world. All of a sudden, two unfamiliar prefabricated eyesores loomed at the bend in the local road. They had inserted themselves between a cross that blessed a dirt road, Jesus still reliably in position, but rustier, and Andrea’s house. A little dog of indeterminate breed, fastened behind a hedge of thujas, almost strangled himself displaying his hatred of strangers. Pink hair curlers from page 17 of a mail-order catalog appeared above the hedge. They belonged to a young woman about thirty whose ruddy face, though pleasant, said nothing to me; she remained silent for a moment, observing me from my boots to my hair, and went back to cooking rice pilaf according to a quick and easy recipe from a bestselling cookbook. A black cat ran across the road from left to right, hoisted himself onto the gate behind the thujas, steadied himself with a masterly move, and let himself drop to the other side, at home. My gaze was fixed on a notice placed on the wrought-iron front gate, which said, FINALLY! Everything was in the exclamation point; the owner must have finished paying it off and wanted everyone to know.
As soon as I was out of sight, the little dog stopped yapping. Yet another creature who felt underpaid and did as little as possible. I had encountered this sort of attitude already, from bipeds, during my short stints in the working world, before. Andreaâ€™s house had been shut for a long time. The paint on the closed shutters and condemned wooden door was peeling, as though afflicted by a skin rash; between the disjointed paving stones of the threshold, tufts of grass were growing and multiplying, lifting the flagstones in places: the trellis above the stone bench where we sat during vesper sagged limply in abandon. Andrea must have taken eternal retirement, unless she was cloistered away in some home waiting for the final day, but this option didnâ€™t seem like her. The other houses in the villages were arranged around the Roman church. In a century, they would still be there, 19th Century France, the same frostiness, the same grey faĂ§ades, only their occupants would change. This deadly immutability was pretty much the reason I left. I slipped down a little street between two edifices prey to humidity. It smelled rancid and mossy, of wet, westerly winds. At the end of the lane at a pool of light in the road, I came across an old woman dressed in black. We greeted each other like two human beings acknowledging their kinship in a deserted place. Her face reminded me of someone, the name lodged in a recess of my mind which I could no longer summon. As I turned around, she did the same, and we saluted each other once again with two well-coordinated motions of the head. This was not repeated. Finally, the view emerged. On the right, a rusty gate barred access to the village pond, where flotillas of duckweed stagnated, as dense as the U.S. armada in the ports of the Indian Ocean. Here, I had fished for tadpoles and tortured some in the wild hope of teaching them to scream; here, I had spent afternoons watching hours pass on the surface of the water and even went so far as to swim in my underwear. At the time, I swear, the water was limpid. Naturally, I would not have risked dermatitis in the cesspool I discovered today. Adjacent to the surrounding wall, a corrugated metal feeding trough gaped, made extinct by the new customs. Now, the cows, like their owners, probably drank mineral water. Past the pond, the last houses of the village were terraced on the hillside, until the last two, at the foot of the hill, isolated by a curtain of trees that
punctuated the development. These were the homes of my parents and grandparents, retired for many decades in the prairies of Grand Manitou. I stopped to allow these rediscoveries to sink in. I stuck a Gitane between my lips. The north wind twice extinguished my bad lighter. The larger house was my parents’, my house. Since my departure, it had turned in space thousands of times at the speed of 9.81 meters per second; in any case, I never asked myself whether I would see it again or not, carried further away each day by the impetus of the present. In my memory, it seemed much bigger. Decidedly, the world had narrowed. I started off again, slowing my pace to savor the nuances of the strange feeling invading me. With each step, new details corrected the portrait I had maintained: the existence of a fanlight, the slope of the roof, the color of the tiles. When I lived there, I didn’t see anything at all. A dog barked in the courtyard. A name immediately came to my lips: Mirza. The smile elicited by the evocation of this name vanished as quickly as it came. It couldn’t be Mirza; she would be twenty-five years old. Rather, one of her offspring, which she gave birth to with alarming frequency and which, when they were not adopted by a neighbor, ended their short life drowned or smashed against the wall of the grange. At the time, it’s true, a dog was just a dog. I walked along the garden wall. The dog’s barking was suddenly matched by more barking. What was that? A kennel? A canine chorus? A retirement home for dogs? A refugee camp for dogs seeking political asylum? Had the house been sold? Did the dogs take over? I reached the open work barrier at the same time as a pack of about ten dogs of every sort, teeth bared. Now that’s a sharp-looking welcoming committee, I said to myself under my breath. “Be quiet!” a woman’s voice commanded, followed by its owner. The dogs got louder at the approach of a woman in red boots and a yellow checked apron. My sister. She had thickened, gotten stocky, but I recognized her old silhouette beneath this deterioration. She arrived at the gate distributing a few blows of a slipper with a generosity I wouldn’t have suspected of her, with no other effect but to bring the dogs’ excitement to its apex. “Quiet!” she bellowed. “Tarzan! Rambo! Bonnot! Cartouche! Quiet! Zorro! Zitrone! Down!” She was standing about a yard from me, on the other side of the gate, her face red and blotchy from the inclement weather. She wore cheap sunglasses poorly suited to her face and looked older than her age.
“Sir?” she said. I was Sir. The tone was not engaging. She leaned forward to see more clearly between two bars of the gate and seemed to hesitate between vagabond and repairman. I did not respond. “Do you want something?” she said. Yes, I thought, a happy childhood, a piece of the pie, a modicum of respect, to finish a first love that was ruined because of innocence. “Don’t you recognize me?” I said to resume. There was a scrutinizing silence. The dogs had calmed down a bit. “Goodness, no.” I threw her another sentence, like a rope: “Open the gate and think about it for a minute.” After a few seconds of reflection that creased her forehead, she brought a stupefied hand to her mouth, and then emitted a cry that bordered on chirping: “Bernard!” She remained motionless, like a Lotto winner before the results of the draw. Ten expressions followed in succession on her face, without my knowing which she had decided on. The dogs were lying at her feet. “Can I come in?” My question sobered her up. “Of course.” She turned a heavy key in the lock and barely held the gate ajar for fear of a collective canine fugue. I took the first step and noticed the total absence of grass; the dogs, turning around and around, had worn out the sparse vegetal growth that risked sprouting there. She looked at me, her eyes enlarged by her glasses, as if I had just been resuscitated and she was my first visit. She did not make the slightest gesture, her right hand glued to her lower lip. “No kiss?” I suggested. “Yes, of course. Excuse me, it’s the emotion.” And she offered two cold cheeks. “Where are you coming from?” She asked that distractedly, simply to break the bizarre silence that floated between us. “From Paris.”
“Ah! Come in.” “And before that Dubrovnik, the world of Suzy Wong, Shanghai, London, Madrid …” Escorted by her dogs, clustered and sniffing around my jeans, smelling the mad dog I’d come across, I proceeded into the courtyard. I pointed to them with my chin: “What’s all this?” As if it were self-evident, she replied: “Why, my dogs, of course.” “All these?” “Of course! I take in abandoned dogs.” “Ah! Well, that’s new. And how many abandoned dogs with no parents do you have?” “Eleven or twelve, I don’t know anymore.” “And are you planning on keeping this up for a while?” “Uh, no … I don’t want any more, and these are going to die soon.” Obviously, she was wondering if I was a double. I must have looked enough like her brother Bernard for her to defrost and suddenly appear to trust me. “Will you be here for a while?” The awaited question. “You always ask the killer questions. I don’t know. It depends on the wind.” The expected response. “You haven’t changed. You never know what you’re doing from one day to the next.” “It’s part of my charm,” I interjected. Could she imagine the pleasure of finding herself in a strange city one evening with no other plans but the coming hour, no other roof but the stars, and no money in advance while people went home to continue their predictable stories?
She fastened her grey eyes on mine. “You’ll find changes,” she said in a menacing tone. I barely had time to formulate a request for explanation when an old lady appeared at the front door, which was also mine, a black cat in her arms. Our glances did a quick back and forth. “There’s mum.”
Photo : Jean Belondrade © Flammarion
Alain Monnier is the author of several works published by Climats and of Givrée, a novel published by Flammarion in 2006. Through various narrative forms, playing with constantly shifting constraints, he explores the obscure regions of the modern human condition in which normality and depravity exist side by side.
Our Second Life Publisher: Flammarion Date of Publication: May 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Patricia Stansfield < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Sophie Leighton < email@example.com >
It had been necessary to switch into our “second life”. Severe environmental deficiencies, the scarcity of water and the shortage of natural resources had brought industry, industrialised farming, transport and tourism to a halt … But this violent stoppage had not incurred too much damage. Access to a SecondLife world had become an inalienable right for all. Some policies had then been implemented simultaneously in every country: free access to the Web for everyone and a guaranteed minimum income for all the unemployed; the sum was small but was supplemented with food bars that provided the necessary survival rations. Alain Monnier invites us to follow in Our Second Life the fantastical adventures of a highly colourful cast of characters and their avatars, who are — to say the least — no less colourful. Laughter competes with horror in this unique universe in which anything seems possible, in this non-existent land in which we find ourselves immersed, and which before long will be at the heart of every debate and discussion in our most … real … everyday life.
In real life
In ‘Our Second Life’ (OSL)
Isidore. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Isidro Edwige.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Eva Fernando.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fernandao Suzan.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Marilyn Not given.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Xenakis Carmen.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Karine Wu Li.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Yuzo Not given.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Kreonski Secondary characters
Mlle Xia.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Lucy Not given.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Luna Not given.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Samir Not given.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Clara Steve. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Wong Not given.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Joan of Arc Zohar.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Ingrid Benoît. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Benoît Odile (Benoît’s wife). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No avatar Not given.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Marieke Maiya.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Matilda Claudia.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Pierrette Mlle Komura. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Helen Not given.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Pierre Not given.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Snowball Not given.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Nathalie Evita.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Hitler Maria (Suzan’s nurse).. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No avatar Léna.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No avatar Stéphanie (Edwige’s daughter).. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No avatar Agathe (Edwige’s neighbour).. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No avatar Not given.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Elfride Not given.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Thérésias Sergueï Gourneviev.. . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No avatar
Last Minute Reuters — 09.45 Universe Labs Corporation has just announced the registration of the six billionth person in its famous virtual universe, confirming the outstanding success of ‘Our Second Life’. The happy new member is a young 24-year-old Chinese woman, Mlle Xia, a student in financial administration at Chongqing University, currently training at the Central Bank of Beijing. The young woman told the journalists who interviewed her that it was the first time she had registered in a virtual universe, and that she had joined it on a friend’s recommendation as a way of meeting new people. When she registered, Mlle Xia adopted the avatar of a tall, slim young African woman, with short hair and grey eyes, calling her Lucy. As well as her beautiful face, Lucy has elegant musculature and a superb body. She seems to have a high maximum speed. Universe Labs Corporation has indicated that Mlle Xia’s avatar will be treated as a VIP and have the benefit of an official mentor to guide her first steps in ‘OSL’. When asked about her plans, or rather Lucy’s plans, Mlle Xia replied that she was not yet sure, but that she thought she would do a lot of sport, especially marathons. Lucy will make her triumphal procession down West End Avenue in New York tomorrow from 3.00 pm. Thousands of avatars are expected to line the official route. Millions of paper decorations will be thrown from the windows. Universe Labs has promised a grand spectacle in keeping with the event, which conclusively crowns the success of ‘OSL’.
Our Second Life
Part one Vitry-sur-Seine — France — 12 July — 04.52 Isidore wakes up. His back hurts, as it does every morning, and he stretches with a grimace — his osteoarthritis never lets up. He puts one foot on the ground, yawns again, and finally squeezes into the narrow shower cubicle. The trickle of water is much too feeble to draw him out of his morning torpor, but he still enjoys its fresh sensation along his thin limbs. This does not last; he steps out hesitantly, taking care not to slip, and mechanically
puts on his grubby old track suit and his polo-shirt of the week. He goes over to the dual shelving unit that serves as a kitchen and makes himself an instant coffee. This is the melancholy blue hour of the sleepless who wait behind dilapidated blinds or badly closed shutters to see the first glimmers of daylight … the glimmers of their deliverance. Isidore grabs a vitamin bar and nibbles at it unenthusiastically. Very quickly, he puts it down next to the steering console, on a shelf bolted to the arm-rest on the only armchair in the room; then with a shaky hand he switches on the large flat screen that is fixed to the wall. It is a 200 cm by 270 cm Nykkos that was recently delivered to him as a replacement for his old Philips, which could not run the latest version of the image-generator. The new feature is the way that the image on the screen pivots according to the viewer’s gaze, and perfectly seamlessly repositions itself without any jolting so that the point of vision is always at the centre of the image. There is nothing innovative about the actual definition, since the 3D resolution of 2048 x 2048 x 1024 pixels on a potential panorama of 356 degrees is perfect, and computer-generated images have long been as high-quality as digital camera images. They cannot even be told apart with the naked eye. Once past the various controls and access protocols, the opening credits of ‘Our Second Life’ start to roll in regal triumph with the three famous letters O, S and L, which seem to rise up from an improbable ocean and melt into soft golden raindrops. Then the image appears, and Isidore sees himself just waking up on the screen. Isidro is wearing a splendid pair of unbuttoned aniseed-green pyjamas. A remix of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy fills the room. The sun is rising over San Francisco Bay, which extends before him as far as he can see. He goes to the terrace and pushes at the French window. Down on the beach, two magnificent girls in modern-style bathing costumes are doing some muscle exercises. Four sea-gulls are flying in the sky. Turning to his right, Isidro notices the little siren of Copenhagen. He regrets that error of taste and sighs, thinking that this is a detail that he will absolutely have to correct. He calls room service.
A young woman arrives immediately. She has short slicked-back hair. A black elastomer body-suit clings to her perfect body, especially her two very high-borne breasts that are her most superb feature. She is wearing a maid’s apron (traditional, white, tied high) emblazoned with her first name, Luna. In an assured gesture, she sets the sumptuous breakfast down on the living-room table. Isidro nibbles a piece of toast from the Poilâne bakery (Fr), swallows some pieces of grapefruit from the Golan Heights (Isr) and goes towards the shower. The bathroom is vast and completely tiled in white. The water jet starts as his foot touches the shower-tray. At the bottom of the screen, the control bar indicates that the pressure is 6, the temperature 29˚ and the ambient hygrometry 78%. The water sprays on to his body, which can be admired through a slow tracking shot. The massage is ultra-violent and red marks appear on his trapezia, quadriceps and buttocks. The 400 zoom displays his muscles wide on the screen. His state of well-being is palpable.
Our Second Life
Isidro steps out of the shower and puts on a beige woollen dressinggown. Precisely 1381 people are connected at this moment to his flat, as indicated by the popularity chart on the lower right of the screen. He pours himself a cup of Russian jasmine tea and rings for Luna again. She enters holding a personal organiser. “What have I got on today?” “A melodramatic-style romantic reconciliation with Elfride.” “Great! That’ll be a crowd-puller. And I’ve got a good feeling about it.” “Then there’s the opening ceremony of Good Heart Week.” “Cool!” “The auction for World Mutual Aid, and the vote for the best NGO of the term …” “Oh no, not the best NGO! That’s become too big a joke!” “But Linda Wainsorbes, Luis Marino, Flora the beautiful Roman woman, Count Leo Tolstoy, Chancellor Adenauer, Lou Andreas-Salomé and Armistead Maupin have all already confirmed their attendance …” “No, I’ll stay at the auction! There’ll be so many celebrities!” “They’ve announced Aristotle Onassis, Maurice Couve de Murville, little Marcel, James Dean, the pretty Flaubert character Emma Bo, Bruce Lee …”
“Yeah, cool! What’s up for sale?” Luna taps away very quickly on her small screen and announces in a professional tone: “A humorous saying by the imam Khomeiny, the only copy, dated 12 February 1978, at 11.17, priced at 100,000 euros, the tattered comfort blanket of the comrade general secretary Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria ( ) at a price of 30,000 euros, the apocryphal manuscript of Survivance at 8,000 euros — shall I go on?” “No, that’ll do.” Isidro turns round with an approving gesture that fully conveys his desire to support the World Mutual Aid initiative, which makes him look appealing. He does not have the financial means to acquire one of these objects, but what counts is to take part and be mentioned on the list of bidders published in Vita Virtuale Mag. Isidro goes over to the walnut dressing-room and opens it to choose his clothes. He turns over the suits, shirts and polo-shirts displayed in succession on the colour and texture chart of the screen. He hesitates and finally takes out a pale grey Pashmina silk suit, with ebony buttons with three octahedral holes. He chooses an unstitched polo-shirt and some 1982 moccasins with calfskin soles. At the same time, he remembers that he hasn’t checked to see if Elfride has replied to his invitation. Bored, Luna shakes her head. “I can’t stand the way she never replies!” “Shall I chase it?” Isidro raises his eyebrows because it’s a peculiar question. He can be chased, but he never does it himself. That’s just how it is. He says: “No! I’d just as soon have a pretty brunette who’d be free this evening …” “Blue eyes?” “Doesn’t matter, but she should have at least 500 people connected with her!” Luna leaves shrugging her shoulders, which goes beyond her role. Isidro pays no attention; he gulps down some guava juice and puts on Radio Besos (512MHz). He then switches it off immediately with an infuriated expression that perfectly suits his attitude of the week.
An entry signal flashes on the control bar. Isidro validates it with his voice-operated key. A window opens at the top right of the screen. Samir appears, wearing a magnificent mandarin orange blazer with gilt buttons and a partridge grey roll-neck jumper. “Am I disturbing you?” he says, entering the flat. “No more than usual, Samir!” Luna indicates that she hasn’t found any brunette available, and that she still hasn’t heard anything from Elfride. Isidro sighs. “Is there anything worrying the handsome Isidro?” “No … Have you seen Elfride in the last few hours?” “Elfride Barnes?” “Elfride Barnes is out! Everyone knows that. I’m asking you about Elfride Samorski …” “Oh yes! It seems she’s got big money problems and is disconnecting a lot.” “That’s not funny!” “Don’t get so worked up, Isidro! I’m only mentioning it; anyway, I don’t give a damn about Elfride.” “You surely haven’t come to tell me that you don’t give a damn about Elfride?” “Calm down, mate, calm down!” “What do you want, Samir? Why are you there? Say something! We’re not in a round of discussions at the UN. People online get quickly bored!” “OK, OK … Are you going to the Doge Ball?” “The thing in Venice? No way! And for your information, I’m not going to Midnight Parade either, or the Carnival in Rio, or Bacalau Pride in Maulin …” “Any chance you could get me an invite?” “No!” “Or lend me your pass?” “No way, man! Not in a million years!” “Just for the evening, or for an hour, I absolutely must go! Everyone’s doing that today.” “Oh I see! I know your game. You did that to Bertrand and his avatar was removed from the screen!” “I had nothing to do with it! I swear to you I had nothing to do with it!” “That poor Bertrand has been excluded for three months.”
Our Second Life
“It won’t kill him!” “You’re off your head, man! Three months is an eternity! Three weeks away from the Web and you have to start again from scratch.” “And afterwards?” “It’s a disaster! He’ll have lost his experience and will have to learn everything all over again. He only has to buy some experience!” “With what dosh? Are you about to lend him some?” Samir shrugs his shoulders with an unpleasant sneer. He no longer knows what to say. “You’ve got a really good view from your place … isn’t it a bit big for just one guy?” “What’s it to you?” “All right, keep your cool!” “Excuse me Samir, but you’ve got a really filthy habit of meddling in other people’s business. Don’t you have enough of your own?” “Well I …” “You’re really morbid and incredibly exhausting.” “OK, OK … I’ll leave you in peace, but do you know there’s a bloke on the Web looking for you …” “What’s that you’re saying?” asks Isidro, frightened. “A foul-mouthed bloke who goes round questioning people …” “Why are you telling me that now?” “Because I like you!” “Spit it out!” “I have a mate who can help you. He is a smart guy who worked at the CIA, a genius at proxies and all that junk. With all these crazies who go round in disguise everywhere, I thought that …” “Just stop it, Samir!” Isidro stands up. He walks round his room. The sun is already high in the sky. He notices the two girls from the beach walking back up the cliff path. His suit is impeccable and perfectly matches his polo-shirt. He bought it at Fab’ Virtual Store, it is soft, constructed pixel by pixel, very flowing, which follows the slightest movements. It has nothing to do with the plate calculations of the recent cheap products.
The entry signal flashes again. Isidro sees Xenakis in the control window. He is visibly pleased. He asks Samir to leave, but Samir tries the key with some exasperating oriental mannerisms. Isidro ejects him with the ‘Exit’ button and pours himself a glass of ‘Vitale’-brand remineralised organic water. He makes sure to accelerate the zoom towards the famous blue and white label and show how the drink has de-stressed him. Meanwhile, Xenakis has come in and sat down on the living-room sofa. They have known each other for forty-eight hours and they share a deep mutual conviction that the other’s company will be interesting and productive. “I’ve come to invite you to a party”, says Xenakis. “Great … when is it?” “Next Thursday … in Delphi … It should be absolutely brilliant!” “That’s bad luck! I can’t make it! I’ve announced I’m going to the Commemoration of the Soissons vase.” “What a shame, Isi, what a shame! Pythia will be there, I’ve heard she’s on super form and there’ll be lots of divinations to be won. It’s going to be brilliant …” Xenakis has black curls, olive skin and green eyes. His personal story indicates that he was a shepherd in the Peloponnese and that he understands the language of sheep. “Are you really going to consult Pythia and lumber yourself with a destiny?” “Of course!” “With a label attached to your name … It’s worse than a tattoo, mate … As you know, then you’re stuck with it.” “Yes, but everyone also knows that a bloke with a destiny increases his hits by several percentage points for days and weeks afterwards. That’s a proven fact. People want to see how you manage and how you deal with the blows of fate.” “I know, but it’s still a terrible restriction!” “I want that …” “Are you hoping Pythia will give you some information about your lousy parents?” Xenakis pauses. He is grateful to Isidro for making this remark, which always guarantees him about a hundred instant connections from
Our Second Life
subscribers who have entered the word ‘parent’ in their dictionary of favourites. “Yes,” he replies gravely. Isidro shakes his head and asks if Marilyn M [this is Marilyn Monroe of course] is going to accompany him to Delphi. “Of course!” answers Xenakis. “Without her, I’d never be able to get into a place like that.” Isidro, who is determined to meet the star, wonders if he might not be about to miss a great occasion. There is nothing to say that Marilyn M, who has fallen passionately in love with Xenakis, might not soon change her mind. Isidro is in the London streets. He has decided to walk to Christie’s so that he can enjoy the sunshine and be sure of arriving late. He has just walked past Harrods and is about to turn into Baker Street when a young girl comes up to him. She has long hair and, what is more, an astonishingly sweet expression, probably achieved through a skilful combination of contrasting highlights. She commands attention despite her white tee-shirt and grey shorts, the unmistakable sign of a newcomer. Isidro realises this but agrees to talk to her, which is an opportunity for her that she does not fully appreciate. “Excuse me,” she says to him, “I arrived yesterday and I’m having trouble finding my way around. I’m looking for a shop where I can buy some togs.” “That won’t be the luxury kind,” he says, looking at her disdainfully. “I don’t know how!” “You type ‘togs’ into the bar of the spaces search engine, down on the right …” “Oh, thanks,” she says. Isidro is not used to helping beginners, but it occurs to him that from time to time this may make him look appealing. “I’d like to ask you another question … how do people manage to get by here? I don’t know the rules …” “There aren’t any rules, you do what you want; but if you’ve got some dosh, there’s more you can do, and it’s more fun!” “But how? Do you have to work? I was given a thousand euros when I arrived …”
All this naïvety is annoying him — the idiot hasn’t even bothered to read the instructions — but it might be bad for his image to ditch her now. “There are several ways, my lovely. You get yourself noticed, and then there are people who connect to you to spy on your life. What you earn depends on how many people are connected to you. Usually there are brands that suddenly appear and pay you to wear their togs or drink their stuff …” The girl looks at him with a flash of admiration that reinforces his confidence. “What’s your name?” Isidro asks her. “Eva.” “That’s crap!” “Oh? Why’s that?” “It just is; there are things that can’t be explained.” “And if you aren’t known, what do you do?” “You set to work. You can create jewellery, attitudes, outfits, gestures and sell them … You make yourself a shop or you put them in a warehouse with the big brands. I’ve got a mate who makes furniture with software tools, then passes them to Ikea, and he gets some money every time one is sold.” “I’m not very gifted …” “If you’ve got a real personal fortune, I mean in the first life, then there’s really some cash to be had! You can buy yourself an island. That’s what brings in the most. You build some beautiful facilities, and people pay to spend their holidays in your estate.” “I don’t have a fortune, and I don’t work …” “Last solution, you’re cute and with a bit of skill, you can sell your body. That’s highly profitable!” “Eva shrugs her shoulders and instinctively hitches up her shorts. “And how do you get yourself known?” “That, chicken, is top secret. It’s about individual talent and the art of image-making! And from now on, I’m charging for my advice; it’s 500 euros for an answer!” “Then you can keep it!” she tells him, laughing. “And make jam with it if you’ve got any caster sugar!” Isidro starts, taken aback by so much arrogance. He cannot let that go. Especially with a new arrival.
Our Second Life
“Actually, Eva, my last piece of free advice is to go to the Sex-store and buy yourself a pair of breasts and a vagina! Because for the moment you’re not even an avatar, you’re just a puppet!” Some laughter is heard in the sound-background and a slight increase occurs in the number of connections, as it does every time a new person gets put in his place. Reasonably satisfied, Isidro drinks a bottle of Coke and moves away without a word. Eva goes to the Commercial Mega-City that was built yesterday from the astounding plans of two Australian designers from the MacBride Institution. It should be noted that the buildings are in relief, which entices passers-by. The biggest trade names have made no mistake there. Carrefour, Walmart, e-Leclerc, Tesco, Seibu, Fnac, CVS, Orange, Falabella, Siemens, MacDonalds, and others have invested in the good sites. Eva doesn’t dare go in. She chances on a Monoprix two blocks away, which she feels is more accessible with her modest size. She goes inside. Rows of shelves piled with every conceivable form of merchandise are automatically constructed as the regular customer moves forward. You just have to put the magnifying glass on it for the desired object to appear enlarged with a technical description, a brief product history and a purchase form. Eva finally notices some jeans. She knows that she cannot keep her pathetic grey shorts; she has guessed that as long as she appears a beginner, people won’t talk to her to avoid ending up however low down in the formation sequence. She zooms on to a pair of blue canvas jeans with slightly reflective yellow nylon thread seams. The product form appears immediately: “Lewis Brand — Corporate 134 — elastic canvas clinging to the pelvis and thighs of every avatar — reveals the muscular movements by differentiated selective shading — a single adaptable size — new appearance for 12 months, worn appearance for 16 months, torn from the 30th month.” Eva calls up the purchase form: “150 euros cash [165 euros in instalments] — including a resale right with an irreversible second-grading — granting 180 points [Lewis offers a real pair of jeans for 700,000 saved points for collection in a central Shop].”
Eva hesitates. She does not open the product history form because she knows the brand well. A young woman comes up to speak to her: “Are you going to buy those?” “I don’t think so, I haven’t got enough money.” “Have you just got your arrival allowance?” “Yes.” “Come to my house, I’ve got a cupboard full of them; you’ll easily find some you like …” “Really? Are you sure?” “Just as I tell you …” “What should I do?” “Type ‘Karine_7132’ into the people search engine. Hold on, I’ll put my address in your notepad for you …” “Is it all right if I don’t come for another hour? Because I’ve …” “Come any time you like.”
Our Second Life
© Francesca Mantovani
Éric Reinhardt was born in 1965 in Nancy. He lives and works in Paris, where he publishes art books. He is the author of Demi-Sommeil (Actes Sud, 1998), of Le Moral des ménages (Stock, 2002) and of Existence (Stock, 2004).
Cinderella Publisher: Stock Date of Publication: September 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Barbara Porpaczy < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Ann Kaiser < email@example.com >
This is a love story. A love story dedicated to a season: Autumn. This is a book of love and of secret wars fought against globalization and the excesses of modern capitalism. Laurent Dahl takes off, abandoning his wife, children, London apartment and household help. His dazzling ascension in an investment company has just ended in bankruptcy. Patrick Neftel is racing towards a TV studio, weapons hidden in the trunk of his car, to carry out the radical and desperate act which will finally give him the feeling of being alive. Thierry Trockel is driving with his wife towards an isolated manor near Munich. There they are to meet up with a couple found on the Internet. Through these three characters from a middle class constantly manhandled by the author of Le Moral des ménages, we see the world in all its harshness: traders high on cocaine, those left in the dust of social promotion, submissive and humiliated parents, raging adolescents, greedy and ambitious youth, the arrogance and degradation of people, the disdain felt by the intellectuals of the Left towards those losing the race in this new world.
of others, risking everything. A ferocious and powerful book with an underlying happiness running through it, a happiness that strikes a sharp contrast to the brutality of the content. Eric Reinhardt sings praise to the fairy of his favorite season, the troubling seduction of redheads, the grace of the Opera ballerinas, the poetry of Mallarmé. The most sparkling pages are devoted to Margot, his love whom he celebrates like a queen. Thus, by the end of the journey, Cinderella has turned into the most moving book there is.
Cinderella is the novel we have all been waiting for about our world, a world wounded then resuscitated by one financial market after another: documented, precise, captivating. We passionately follow the speculators’ perilous wagers who play with the money
I went to London to meet the trader whose contact details Steve Still had given me. David Pinkus lives in a vast apartment in Holland Park. I got lost. I walked around for an hour. I counted, parked in front of enormous houses rendered banal by their sheer number, a stupefying quantity of Porsches, Jaguars, Ferraris, enormous SUVs and Aston Martins. I called him. He asked me to meet him at his tennis club where he had just finished playing a round. I’m sick as a dog … my wife’s father spent a few days with us … he caught something on the plane … a tropical illness … Do you want to cancel? Would you prefer to meet tomorrow? No, it’s fine, I’ll be alright, it’s just that I’m fading in and out, it’s like dying, I’m hot, I’m cold, I’m going to have a Coke. Once at his house: So, you’re preparing a novel on finance? Maybe. I want to understand the world we live in. I want you to talk to me about your profession. About international finance and hedge funds. You read everywhere that hedge funds play a considerable role in the world market. All right. Sounds like fun. I’ll explain everything to you. Thus, I learn, Ladies and Gentlemen, Literary Comrades, that there exists three types of investment funds, called Asset Managers. First of all, there are pension funds, which manage the presumed retirement money of workers, first and foremost in the United States and Great Britain. These pension funds, since they play with retirement money, are regulated: they are not allowed to take disproportionate risks, notes with precision David Pinkus. There has to be a certain part in shares, a certain part in bonds, a certain part in cash and a single investment must never represent more than 5% of the portfolio. If the market crashes and loses 50%, only half of the funds will have lost 50%. In other words, the invested capital will not have decreased by more than 25%. Secondly, there are mutual funds, the equivalent of Sicavs in France. These are made up of the savings that individuals entrust to their banks, BNP, Société Générale, Crédit Agricole — these types of establishments, David Pinkus tells me, where one person can single-handedly deal with hundreds of millions of euros. The regulations are a little more flexible: The Asset Managers of big banks can take on a bit more risk. Thirdly, there are hedge funds, which appeared in the 1970s with George Soros. Here, it’s all about RISKY investments, extremely LEVERAGED, off-limits to individuals. I’m going to explain to you in a few minutes what this term “leveraged” means. Only someone ACCREDITED is authorized to place their money in a hedge fund. What does it mean to be accredited? It’s here that the law is a little
flexible. For example, I’d be “accredited.” I have a DEGREE and I have WORKED in FINANCE for ten years. David Pinkus has the right to invest in a hedge fund. It’s assumed he knows that his investment is dangerous. He has to sign a paper saying that he has understood that he can lose everything. The hedge fund will take it to the hilt. It plans on making 100% every year. And if it plans on making 100% every year this means one day the investor could lose it all: there’s no magic to it. The hedge fund will say to him: “I’m going to make a ton of money”, it will say to him: “risky money”, it will say to him: “I’m going to make big bets”, it will be specific: “I’m going to twist it so that if it works, you’ll hit it big.” And so that’s that: he plays or he doesn’t. Historically, the first to have invested in hedge funds and contributed to their emergence were what was called the FAMILY OFFICE, very wealthy individuals, Bernard Arnault, Albert Frère, the Agnelli family, who launched Louis Bacon, a powerhouse in the world of finance, the creator of Moore Capital, an enormous fund. These family offices were sitting on one, two, three billion dollars and they’d entrust hundreds of millions of dollars to young people starting out. And these guys, driven forward by the family offices, took off in the 80s with the appearance of DERIVATIVE PRODUCTS, with their LEVERAGE and SHORTING options. Because, David Pinkus tells me, what distinguishes a hedge fund from a classic fund is that it can take a lot of risks; it’s authorized to use any product available on the market, notably derivatives — and there exists an ENORMOUS amount. What is a derivative? It offers a RISK and a RETURN, and first came about in the 80s. Before, the only thing that you could do would be to buy a stock and resell it a little later. The only risk that you could take was in terms of weighting, placing an important part of your capital in a single investment. Now, with derivatives, you can take really ENORMOUS risks. But just what is a derivative? It’s an OPTION. David Pinkus asks me if I know what an option is. No. Except for GPSs. My simplicity makes him smile. Has nothing to do with it. Let me explain. He lets me know it’s easy to understand, even for a literary type, and that I just have to listen. Let’s say that a stock is worth 25. OK? he asks me. He doesn’t stop smiling at me, making sure I understand what he’s telling me, I feel him slow up the flow of his naturally precipitous intelligence. I knock at his trader door and say to him: “Damn, David, I’d love to buy this stock at 50 between now and the end of the year. I want to be able to buy it at 50 WHEN I WANT this year.” And
the stock is worth 25. “How much will it cost me David, this right to be able to buy this stock at 50, when I want, this year?” It’s a type of insurance. It’s PRICED. It’s CALCULATED. These are PROBABILITY calculations. David Pinkus is going to have to submit himself to a certain number of complex calculations. He says to himself: “What is the CHANCE that this thing will go higher than 50” and he calculates. He says to himself: “What is the CHANCE that this thing will go higher than 80” and he calculates. And he sells me the right to buy at 50, for three euros, at any point during the year, a stock that is worth 25 today. And then he asks me: “Eric. How many shares do you want?” and I say to him: “500,000 shares” and he answers: “That’ll cost you 1.5 million.” TODAY I give him 1.5 million and he’ll have to give me 500,000 stocks for 50 at any point within the year. It’s simple, right? he says to me with a mischievous look. So listen to what follows. He asks me to imagine what would happen if the stock goes higher than the 50 bar and ends up being worth 70. How much did I earn if I buy off of him at 50 a stock that was worth 25 when I acquired the option and now is worth 70. A lot. 20 X 500,000 less 1.5 million, I say to him with a certain pride. He seems surprised. Exactly, he says to me. You earned 10 million. He invited me to take a closer look at this result by pointing out that the value of the stock, by going from 25 to 70, was almost tripled. The stock was multiplied by three. But I invested 1.5 million and I collect 10 million: my investment was multiplied by 6 instead of 3: We then say that you had a LEVERAGE of 2. Because, dear friend, he says to me, if you had wanted to buy 500,000 shares at 25, it would have cost you TWWWELLLVE MILLION! You would have had to have put in TWWWELLLVE MILLION! You only put in ONE AND A HALF MILLION instead of TWWWELLLVE MILLION! The word “twelve” stretched out into the air like a long note of a flute. I, Éric Reinhardt, well-off heir, fulfilled speculator, I had all the upside for one and a half million cash! In reality, I never paid for the stocks: I carried them for you in a way … David Pinkus says to me. With this system, I benefited from the same move, but I only placed a part of the money at the beginning. That’s leverage. You leveraged yourself. With only ONE AND A HALF MILLION you had EXPOSURE to TWENTYFIVE million of a stock. And that’s what a hedge fund does, it’s authorized to expose itself to much more than the money it has. Thus I learn that derivatives are bought HIGH, are bought LOW, that there are some INSANE things out there, you can keep going AS LONG AS YOU
WANT and imagine ANYTHING! exclaims David Pinkus seemingly so happy with this broad range of speculative tools. For example, I wake up one morning with an ardent desire to earn an enormous amount of money. Much more, in any case, than in my last trade. So I go knock on David Pinkus’ door and say to him: “David, listen, I would like to be able to buy at 50, between now and the end of the year, a stock that’s worth 25 today. But I’ll give you all of the upside from 70 on up. What kind of deal can you cut me?” In other terms: if the price of the stock is somewhere between 50 and 70, I win, but if it goes higher than the 70 bar, I lose. What would be in it for me? I say to David Pinkus. He answers that instead of selling me this option at 3 euros, he sells it to me at 1.50 euros. And if it stays between 50 and 70, if the stock’s run stops at 69, it’s the mega JACKPOT, it’s pure CRAZINESS, it’s FANTASTIC! The last time, how much did we say, how much did we make, you pulled in 6 times your investment the last time. You earned 10 million. Now, with an initial investment of 750 thousand instead of 1.5 million, you wouldn’t make six-fold, but TWWWELVVVE! Now you earn TEN MILLION by just putting down 750 thousand! You multiply your earnings by TWWWELVVVE when the stock only tripled! We say in this case that I was highly LEVERAGED: The stock earned three-fold while I earned twelve: leverage of 4. On the other hand, if the stock doesn’t reach 50 but stays at 49, how much would I make? Zilch. In fact, I lost 750 thousand. So, to review: if the stock doubles, from 25 to 50: I lose everything and if it triples, from 25 to 70, I multiply my investment by twelve. And with this type of process, I could put down a billion. You can put down A BILLION on a transaction like this one! And if it works! It means TWWWWWELLVEBILLLLLLION in the PIGGY BANK! You’d find yourself with TWWWWWELLVE BILLLLLLION in your PIGGY BANK! This example, Ladies and Gentlemen, was meant to show you the essential concept of LEVERAGING. You can understand better now why it’s off-limits to individuals, mutual funds and pension funds. IN SHORT: I either make twelve-fold or I lose everything. Another way to be leveraged and to take a risk: borrow some money. There are a certain number of individuals who would be thrilled to lend me some money. I’m a hedge fund and I have 200,000 million euros entrusted in me by investors: Nothing out of the ordinary. 200. 300. I have a bank and the right to be overdrawn. That’s the big secret David Pinkus says to me. On top of everything else. This means that I can buy stock worth 1 billion when I have no more than 200 million in my account. My bank lends me 800 million.
I owe it money. No problem. So I have 200 million that was entrusted to me by investors, who take the risk, WHO TAKE THE RISK, David Pinkus repeats for emphasis. I say to him: “If you lose, you lose everything”, and I effectively bet on a billion. The bank takes absolutely no risk because I have to respect their ratios: If I start to lose, it gets its money back. The bank confirms that if it sells the stocks I possess that it can recuperate its money. If I’m at 30 or 40% of the level at which it could possibly not recuperate its money, it makes me sell the shares. Can the bank confirm this from one day to the next? I say to David Pinkus. His eyes open wide: No! Not from one day to the next! From one MINUTE to the next! And if they notice … If they see that I’m starting to lose? Telephone call. Right away. Immediately. They take back their dough. You gotta sell. The words come thick and fast. They seem to be sucked in by an enormous, foreboding, mental ventilator, positioned on the horizon of speculation. This is how David Pinkus translates the tragedy of a trader in free-fall, the white-hot urgency in which he finds himself cornered by a system that has turned against him. Thus, Ladies and Gentlemen, listen well, classic example, I’ll demonstrate the process in both directions, hedge fund worth 200 million, leverage of 5, HUGE LEVERAGE, I borrow 800, I play on 1 billion, I buy stock at 1 billion, imagine that it increases 20%, I had 200 million, I make 200 million: I make 100% profit. Why? 20% is 5 times the leverage: 100%. Conversely, a hedge fund worth 200 million, leverage of 5, I borrow 800, I play on 1 billion, I buy a stock at 1 billion, imagine that it loses 20%, I had 200 million, I lose 200 million: I lose all of my initial investment: 100%. If I start to lose, the bank, if it sees that I only have 820 million left, and it starts even sooner, it starts to harass you around 880 million, it calls you and it says to you (David Pickus’ tone is solemn): “You have to sell.” Why? Same solemn tone: “Because soon you won’t be able to reimburse me.” The bank NEVER lets you SLIDE under 800 million. It knows how much you owe it. Well, of course … they’re not stupid. The bank knows how much time you need to get out of your deal. And so, when you reach 800, you give the bank back 800 and you turn to your investors. And how much do they have left? David Pinkus asks me. Niet. Zero. They lost. So, leverage of 5, if it loses 20%, I lose 100%, if it makes 20%, I make 100%. That’s what leverage is. That’s what hedge funds do. That’s the secret of hedge funds. Not only can I use risky assets,
but I can multiply the risk with a loan. That’s the big idea of a hedge fund. Now, adds David Pinkus, what does “TO HEDGE” mean? This will make you laugh. Hedge: PROTECTION. To hedge your investment: to PROTECT your investment. And why is it called PROTECTION? That’s because, in the beginning, derivative products were invented to PROTECT people. Not to take risks but to protect yourself. For example, a stock is worth 25, I think it’ll go up to 50, I’d like to buy it but I’m a little afraid. I’d like exposure on 20 million euros, but I’m a little afraid. I’m ready to pay 1 million but not to take a risk on carrying 20 million. So then the guys come and say to me: “Don’t worry, Eric. I’ll let you do it for 1 million. But, on the other hand, you’ll only get the upside of anything above 50”, to repeat the earlier example. It was presented like that at the start. It was more SECURE. The same for futures. Futures? Sorry, I don’t know what they are, I say to David Pinkus. He gently sips a steaming hot tea that his wife has served him. He regularly repeats that he has a fever. Drops of sweat run down his temples. I glance at his thighs from time to time, massive, meaty, exceedingly hairy. It’s strange to hear him, with his naked thighs, talk about something as abstract as finance, dressed in a tennis shirt. Futures? They’re another type of derivative. An ENORMOUS derivative. They were the FIRST derivative. They’re the BIGGEST derivative. The futures market is absolutely GIGANTIC. HALF THE WORLD REVOLVES AROUND FUTURES! They’re forward transactions: they’re transactions that are paid for on a specific date, for example, QUARTERLY, every term. Dear Genoese public, cosmopolitan friends, today I sell you 5,000 barrels of crude oil and you don’t pay me for them until the end of April. Or you, the blond woman in the second row, in the cream-colored suit, I’ll buy 40,000 tons of wheat from you today but I don’t pay you for it until the beginning of March. So, you say to me: who invented this and why? It was on the HARD COMMODITIES market — wheat, sugar, coffee, oil — that futures started to develop. These forward transactions permitted producers of wheat, sugar, coffee, to LOCK in a price a year in advance and to PROTECT themselves from a fall in stock prices. “I’ll sell you 500,000 barrels at such and such a price. SETTLEMENT: March.” And if the stocks fall before pay-day, March in this case, since I’ve blocked my price at the one that suits me, I’m saved. I, producer of wheat or oil, protect myself from the sly dogs who’ll bet on the price of wheat or oil: I don’t feel like betting on my production,
I’ll sell it at the price that suits me. So, in the beginning, futures were invented for HEDGING producers, PROTECTING them, David Pinkus says to me. There are even some who sell their given goods one year, two years, three years in advance. They say to themselves: “I’m happy with this price. I can comfortably earn my living with this price. So, I’ll sell at this price for the next three years. Too bad if the market goes up. On the other hand, I’ll be protected if the market goes down.” It was clear to everyone that futures allowed certain people to PROTECT themselves and others to SPECULATE. They’re a great speculation tool, David Pinkus says to me. There were a lot of people who started to use them … because, in fact, it was easy … you just needed to have a little bit of money in the bank … and with futures, for the first time there was something that earned money while actually decreasing in value. Something that earns while losing value? The invention of futures was the first time that something that earns while losing value was invented? David Pinkus needs to explain this one to me! HE’LL HAVE TO EXPLAIN TO ME HOW I CAN EARN THANKS TO A FALL IN PRICES! HE’LL HAVE TO INTRODUCE ME TO HIS UNIVERSE WITH ITS REVERSE LOGIC! He swallows a sip of his steaming tea and looks at me with his lively slate-grey eyes: Typically, I sell you something at 70 in July and you pay me at the end of September. And, naturally, I deliver the goods to you at the end of September. Goods, as you might imagine, that I don’t have. If I sell 500,000 barrels at 70, you can easily imagine that I don’t have 500,000 barrels in my office! Simply, right before SETTLING, I will need to buy 500,000 barrels on the market from someone else. You follow me? Yes, I follow you, I tell him. In August, bam! Prices tumble! Three weeks from the date of settlement, a barrel isn’t worth more than 40! And so I buy from someone at 40, at the end of September, something that I sold you at 70! Because I never had the barrels! I never had them! And so I earn 30 dollars a barrel on this deal! At the end of September, you pay me for 500,000 barrels times 70 dollars. And as for me, I hand over 500,000 barrels times 40 dollars to the person from whom I bought them in order to honor our contract. I earned 150 million dollars on this deal! So, I earned thanks to a fall in prices! So, for the first time, people could place bets on the direction things would take without ever having possessed them! David Pinkus declares that he does this every day: Every day I buy and sell stupefying quantities of oil! He explains to me that his objective is to have taken care of all of his contracts by the end of September. Two days before the settlement date, he buys back what
he’s sold and sells what he’s bought in such a way that he buys as much as he sells. Because whoever ends up in a net position of seller, typically, if he has sold something, he has to deliver it. If you remain a net seller at the end, there comes the day when you have to deliver the goods. And then you’re really in a jam! Because you need to find boats … you need to deliver 500,000 barrels … That explains why 80% of the market hurries to put the meter back to zero just before the date of SETTLEMENT, so that they never have to touch the GOODS and can continue to remain in FUTURES. David Pinkus’ greatest fear is to have oil delivered to him. Because if he hasn’t managed to get everything in order before the settlement date, THERE’S A GUY WHO’S GOING TO COME AND ACTUALLY DELIVER OIL TO HIM! It means physical goods, complication, you have to find a port, storage, find a way to get rid of 500,000 barrels … if this happens, since he works in a BIG FIRM, they can deal with the boats, all the details, they’ll take care of it for me. But they have oil delivered to them somewhere. That’s part of what I never see. So, OPTIONS arrived in the 80s, as did FUTURES, both of which developed at a STAGGERING pace — at first with COMMODITIES and then with INDEXES. Because you can buy and sell on the CAC! David Pinkus says to me. That’s also incredible! The two of us can exchange on the CAC! We can exchange anything that’s quoted on the stock exchange list! Everything that fluctuates, I say to David Pinkus to show him I understand. Exactly. Everything that fluctuates. You have CONTRACTS on EVERYTHING! You have FUTURES on EVERYTHING! And you realize now what a FUTURES contract allows you to do … LEVERAGE! We’ve now come full circle! Undoubtedly in order to demonstrate the perfection of what he has just described to me, its harmonious form, the enchanting nature of its principles, he sang his sentence like a nursery rhyme. Since you’re not obliged to put out the cash, you can obviously play with a bit more than you have. The guys authorize you to play with a bit more than you have. It depends on the volume of trade. But if you have 100 in your account they’ll allow you to buy 200 worth of contracts. And these, these futures, are GIIIIIIIIIGANNNNTIC! GIIIIIIIIIGANNNNTIC! There’s BIIIIILLLLLIONS every day! The word billion, I should have timed it, lasted for about ten seconds: David Pinkus had no air left in his lungs to add even one more word. He takes a deep breath: This works for everyone. It permits the exchange of things without, in fact, actually exchanging them. Everyone just makes sure they’re SQUARE at the end of the term.
© Jean-Luc Paillé
Thierry du Sorbier lives in Paris. He has worked as a bookseller at Locus Solus and at Gibert. He has also contributed to Télé Journal and written a sports column in Télé Z. He now manages Berluti’s shoe shop in St Germain-des-Prés (he’s always loved shoes and is a friend of Olga Berluti for whom he has written texts for many years). His first novel, Ottaviana, was published by Buchet / Chastel in September 2005.
Thierry du Sorbier
The Amorous Trainee Publisher: Buchet / Chastel Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Christine Legrand < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Priscilla Sheringham < email@example.com >
In the editorial offices of the Avesnes Mail, Massicot conducts a daily reign of terror. His staff can’t do a thing right. He doesn’t like their writing or their way of thinking. Luckily, he’s there to run the newspaper and to stop it going under. To add to his problems, for the last few weeks he’s had to put up with the trainee that the big boss, Magnat, has landed him with. An incompetent fool! And one who, unfortunately, knows how to please women with his phoney youthful air. The story starts one angry day. In order to get rid of this new don juan fresh out of play school, Massicot sends him as a permanent reporter to a godforsaken backwater where the trainee is bound to sink into total oblivion. The village, (total population 332), is called Saint-Paulin sur Morbier. It’s in the department of Coulommiers and is situated at equal distance between its main centres of Faisselle and Gaperon. From there, the trainee will be expected to send the newspaper a regular column. And since nothing ever happens there and never has done, the trainee, so Massicot thinks, will be forgotten for evermore. What a fatal mistake!
newspaper editor, a bunch of frightened journalists, a few murders, a few tons of cheese, eight lorries, two dogs and a pair of moccasins all went into the making of this farce. You’ve probably got a trainee in your workplace. They’re usually pleasant and amenable to their boss’s every whim. But if you knew a quarter of the half of what they might be up to behind your back, then you’d see them in a completely different light. The funniest book to appear this autumn.
In his second novel, Thierry du Sorbier deals with a situation typical of our times: a trainee confronted with a world where computers rule and the hierarchy fails to deliver the goods. A small local train, a curvaceous switchboard operator , some celebrities, a crazy director and his bodyguards, a tyrannical
The pretty valley where Avesnes is situated enjoys the kind of micro-climate common in these parts, with low pressure and the skies that go with it, unthreatening white clouds and mentholated air which favour meditation, day-dreaming and introspection. Let’s focus on the first cloud and see what’s going on. Picquesselle is feeling perky this Sunday morning. Life is good, the boss thinks the world of him, Raimonde, his dutiful wife, is making rabbit chasseur for lunch, the children are behaving themselves and the sun is shining. Camembert beat Livarot in the badminton semi-final. In the afternoon he’ll tell Raimonde that he’s got work to do and go on the internet to see how his shares are doing. This is a lucky day for him, he can feel it in his bones! Oh, if everyone was like Picquesselle, the cows would be milked on time and the milk always fresh, beds of nettles would turn into beds of roses, barley water would rain down on meadows of strawberry tarts where switchboard operators in silk fishnet stockings would be cooing … and all the undesirables would be pushed through the trap door like in Ubu roi. Every one of them! Tax inspectors, blue-eyed actors, unsatisfactory trainees would drop down in their hundreds and end up freezing their arses off in deepest Siberia. As you can see, Picquesselle is an honest man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, a man of principle with a sense of duty. He’s a superior being like you or me, proof being, it’s not yet eleven and he’s sipping his first Ricard. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. Massicot, wearing a dull grey mac, is attending a Latin mass. After that, he’ll go to the French mass in the neighbouring parish because he’s got to woo a wide readership. Tonight he’ll go to a meeting of the Avesnes communist party. He knows how to do his job, does Massicot, and how to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. If he gets two Christian fundamentalists a week plus a couple of Roman Catholics and one or two communists, to say nothing of the Socialist Party where he has contacts and the radical party of which he’s an honorary member, that makes 7 or 8 more readers a week and since in the same period 2.5 readers die, that means a weekly gain of nearly 5. That’s doing his job well and serving the community. But two slight worries hover in this serene Sunday sky: firstly, the reading life of a Christian, a socialist and a radical is less than ten years — they’re all ancient, these
old codgers, so the average age of the reader will increase and the weekly death rate is bound to rise. He’ll have to start hanging round cultural centres, nightclubs, mosques and trendy cafés, but he’s a bit old for that … unless, oh, unless Miss Brégeon were to accompany him! Secondly, will that young trainee behave himself in Fribourg sur Beuvron? No, that’s not right — what’s the place called? Oh yes, Saint-Paulin sur Morbier. And what if the young switchboard operator were still besotted with the little shit, despite the distance? Nature’s mysteries are as impenetrable as lottery numbers: Massicot, a philosopher by temperament, knows this only too well.
Thierry du Sorbier
The Amorous Trainee
He’s single too, but he doesn’t like the word, preferring bachelor which sounds more manly and military and gives the impression of someone who’s seen it all, a veteran skirt-chaser, a Nemrod of nether parts. A single man, on the other hand, is single by default, a married man who isn’t yet married, a husband without knowing it, a half of someone who is missing half of something, so to speak. Massicot wants to be all of a piece, more so than anyone else. He’s got it all — an American fridge, a flat in a nice residential neighbourhood and cable TV. Now all he needs in order to reach a state of perfect happiness is for the young switchboard operator to fall for him. But let’s leave Massicot macerating in the tragic poignancy of happiness as, in the midst of the faithful, the Latin pomp and various heady odours, the host pressed to his palate with self-interested fervour, he takes Communion. The young trainee is befuddled. He doesn’t know what to make of it, but to be catapulted into the post of permanent reporter at the tender age of 19 gives you status. It must be because he’s so talented. Nonetheless, he has a nagging doubt. Why is the editor, who couldn’t stand him yesterday morning, doing him this honour all of a sudden? The human psyche harbours such hidden motives and complex workings that you never know where you are, thought the despondent trainee. What if it’s a trap? What if I’m not up to the job? Nothing ever happens in this hole they’re sending me to, how am I going to write three pages a week about nothing? It must be far more difficult than writing about something. Or is it? Why not send me somewhere to a happening place, to a metropolis like Saint-Nectaire or a literary centre like Ambert?
He’s a strange creature, this trainee. He reflects on his modest, quiet life. He knows, but can’t do anything about it and doesn’t even care, that he’s always been nondescript. He’s someone teachers don’t remember, neither brilliant nor stupid, neither form captain nor loner, he’s a lazy person playing a waiting game. Almost despite himself, he has a few friends, but doesn’t go out of his way to make any as he’s bored by other people’s company. Rarely in sync with others, always at odds, everywhere and nowhere, in a permanent state of doubt or indifference, he has bouts of audacity, as shy people do, but they are always misconstrued, written off as aberrations and then forgotten. But he does have one gift, or an illness, a problem, a tic, an ailment, depending on how you care to see it: he falls in love wholeheartedly, shamelessly and uninhibitedly. A glance, a flick of hair, an ankle, the play of light on a face are enough to make him swoon. These infatuations, rarely consummated, are long-lasting and cumulative. He counted them one day: he had 127 in stock, 127 young ladies whom he loved equally and universally, and the switchboard operator, the 128th, has been added to the batch — to Rose the shampooist, Françoise the gym teacher, Catherine the little girl next door when he was on holiday and who he gave shells to, Caroline, Virginia, Marion, Maria, Marie, Mariette, Marie-Catherine and her sisters, Odile, seventeen cousins and great cousins, plus ninety nine pupils whom he rubbed shoulders with during his school years. The 128th joins the bunch but remains separate, a big chunk of love he can’t digest. But now it’s time for Sunday lunch. “How did it go yesterday, dear?” asks his mother in her eternal pink dressing gown. His dad, in the blue tracksuit of the French football team, is watching the local news on Channel 3. At the moment there’s an ad for Pampers nappies. “Great, the editor appointed me as permanent reporter at … damn, I’ve forgotten the name but it’s a fantastic village that’s got everything, the sort of village Americans envy us for …” “Oh? Is it far?” “Yes, it’s a long way. And I’m going for a year, you know. A whole year! As permanent correspondent. It’s fantastic!” “A year! Well, dear, that proves they’re pleased with you. Did you hear that, Roger?”
Roger, husband and father, is watching the local news on Channel 3, at the moment there’s an ad for a brand of crunchy, light cornflakes that gives babies beautiful, soft baby skin. “What?” asks Roger. “Roger, your son has been appointed special permanent, extraordinary, plenipotentiary correspondent in … where exactly, darling?” “I’ll tell you tomorrow, I’ve forgotten. What’s for dinner mum?” “Antelope in Béarnaise sauce.” “Great! I love that.”
Thierry du Sorbier
The Amorous Trainee
As you can see, things are going fine for now at the Amorys, a nice, average family in the nice, average town of Avesnes. Roger Amory, husband and father, has been bodyguard to the acting MP for the town’s second constituency, son-in-law no less of Magnat, proprietor of the Avesnes Mail. That’s what life’s like in nice, average towns. The succulent tasty antelope is descending slowly into the three Amory stomachs and while this worthy family is having a nap in the little house on Han Suyin avenue, let’s leave our little cloud and move on to the next chapter.
ÂŠ Dina Debbas
Yasmina Traboulsi was born in 1975 to a Brazilian mother and Lebanese father. She trained as a lawyer, and now writes full time. Her first novel Les Enfants de la Place (Mercure de France, 2003) exposes the violence and poverty of contemporary Brazil through the story of Maria Aparecida. It was awarded a prize for Best First Novel in France, and the English translation was published as Bahia Blues in spring 2007.
Bitter Publisher: Mercure de France Date of Publication: August 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Bruno Batreau < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Polly McLean < email@example.com >
“Gabrielle starts the car; at the top of the hill Mirna’s villa comes into sight. Omar the Sudanese servant will be serving champagne, on his sixth round. A moment ago her stereo was playing music, a Gardel tango, she turns up the volume, hums, her voice sounds out of tune although, like many musicians, she has perfect pitch. […] She arrives at Mirna’s, Omar the Sudanese will serve her vodka on the rocks, with pistachios, she’ll forget about the incident with the MITSUBISHI truck. Gabrielle is relieved, Gabrielle has relaxed, Gabrielle doesn’t see the shadow moving suddenly across her headlights. A jolt, a dull noise, like a body collapsing.”
Contemporary Lebanon is at the heart of Yasmina Traboulsi’s novel, its climate of generalized suspicion and paranoia lending the fiction a strange kind of realism. The country’s current problems — political, ethnic and religious — form an important backdrop. Yasmina Traboulsi has used multiple points of view, trickery, and false twists and turnings to create this remarkable novel exploring the art of manipulation and pretence.
Will this accident change the course of Gabrielle’s luxurious, idle life, the life of the Beirut bourgeoisie, a million miles from material hardship? Nothing is less certain, given there was no witness, not even a victim … she’d just have to have the car checked, to make sure it bears no trace of the impact. On the other hand when Gabrielle finds out that her journalist husband has left her, she is completely distraught. All the more so when she discovers that her friend Mirna was his mistress. Rather than admit she has been abandoned, Gabrielle decides to play the role of the tearful widow: a death notice in the papers, condolences, burial, mourning … the performance is almost perfect.
Chapter i Gabrielle sweeps into the Nahr el Kalb tunnel, past Christ-Roi. Three films are advertised on the billboards, maybe they’ll go to the movies Friday. The highway takes her through Jounieh, then Maameltein, past the superclubs with their East European hostesses. She makes sure not to drive too fast, nervous of the motorbike cops, her German-made car provokes them, brings on chases, slaloms, motorway rodeos. Gabrielle could do with a cigarette, not now, the Casino Du Liban is coming into view, she slows down, takes the turnoff towards Adma. Her naked foot slips on the accelerator, the car loses ground, she brakes but her moist foot slips again. The BMW skids towards the rocks, there’s a little alcove sheltering a flower-bedecked Virgin, a Mitsubishi truck is bearing down on her, dazzling her with its giant headlights, horns are blaring, Gabrielle screams, her feet dance on the pedals, she’s tumbling into the valley, imprisoned in sheet metal, the dry weeds on the hill catch fire, Adma as funeral pyre, she explodes between bridge and motorway, one day thistles will invade the shell of her car. False alarm. The car hit the pylon by the pharmacy, the airbag absorbed the impact, these inflatable cushions are an excellent invention. The ambulance will be here in a minute, soon there will be sirens, a woman in tears, onlookers, fire-fighters evacuating her with the police in front to clear the route, concern on people’s faces, they will take her to the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital, serious burns department. Gabrielle works furiously at the car door, trying to open it, no luck, she tries even harder, her hands start shaking, she gives up. There is music playing somewhere — an exotic tune, South American, simple, no technical challenge. The pharmacy’s neon sign flashes regularly on and off, she stares at the fluorescent green cross, the shop front, the promotions, the sale on a brand of imported nappies, 12,000 Lebanese pounds a pack, less than 10 dollars. A clock says ten past nine, Mirna serves at exactly nine thirty. She uses place cards, the guests will notice she is late, and arriving alone, discuss it, put forward explanations. Gabrielle rummages in the glove compartment, pulls everything onto the passenger seat; post-it notes, cardiac tablets, vehicle papers, instruction manual. She finds a fresh pack of wet wipes, tears it open, grabs a big handful and wipes the cool of it over her neck, her temples and also her armpits, she has been perspiring a great deal, her dress is black and sleeveless, it won’t
show. Eventually she gets out of the car, her head is spinning, she leans on the car door, breathing deeply, exhaling from the belly, she’s just learnt that in yoga. She must take herself in hand, stop shaking like this. One heel is pouring blood, the rubber floor must have scraped off the skin, she dabs it with a wet wipe, the fabric goes red, bright red, the wound will need a plaster, she’ll have to pull off the flap of skin, it will rub against her shoes. Her mobile hasn’t made a peep all afternoon, no messages, no missed calls, he won’t come. Mirna’s house is more than a mile short of the orange zone, in street 4. Once she has passed the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, the local supermarkets and the petrol station she’ll be at Mirna’s. She switches off the phone, he won’t call now. Gabrielle starts the car, Mirna’s villa comes into view at the top of the hill, Omar the Sudanese domestic will be serving champagne, on his third round. A moment ago her stereo was playing music, a Gardel tango, she turns up the volume, hums, her voice sounds out of tune although, like many musicians, she has perfect pitch. Gardel irritates her, too mawkish, she prefers the rawness of Piazzolla, on the way back she’ll put on a different CD, “Libertango”, with Piazzolla on bandonéon and Yo Yo Ma on cello, a remarkable recording. And now she is arriving at Mirna’s, Omar the Sudanese will serve her vodka on the rocks, with pistachios, she’ll forget about the incident with the Mitsubishi truck. Gabrielle is relieved, Gabrielle has relaxed, Gabrielle doesn’t see the shadow moving suddenly across her headlights. A jolt, a dull noise, like a body collapsing.
Chapter ii The maid’s name is Gracia. I’m not sure how old she is, or where she comes from. I mean which exact part of the Philippines. She has brown skin and a face which doesn’t betray emotion. She did weep, in October, when her brother was murdered for some sordid affair of debts. I thought to send her to Manilla for the funeral but I’d be lost without Gracia; I don’t want her lingering with her family, don’t want her to leave me. Mourning makes women vulnerable, and Gracia is, after all, a woman like any other. Here she is. Waiting for me by the lift. I wonder why. Her body seems tense, more rigid than usual, like a barrier.
“What’s the matter?” Gracia doesn’t speak much. She has just about mastered the essentials for her job — rudimentary French peppered with English. “M’am … M’am …” I walk in. Gracia is making me nervous. A burglary? The house ransacked? But this part of Beirut is very safe. “Gracia, I’m tired. What’s going on?” A gale is howling through the apartment, the windows are banging, the chaos of the city is reverberating through my house, deafening me. Gracia knows that I hate the bustle of the street, especially on Fridays. “Why have you left the windows like this?” Gracia is following me strangely, she has taken neither my coat nor my shopping. The plastic bag is about to burst, its weight is hurting my hands, the handles are sawing into my flesh, my fingers are numb, my nails digging into my palm, distorting the lifelines with little notches. Outside, drivers are swearing at each other, exuding vulgarity. I close the double-glazed windows and ask for tea, a rich bronze bergamot-scented Earl Grey. It’s been a long day, and we’re due out again this evening. Gracia puts the tray on the low drawing room table, and almost tips it over. Gracia has lost her trademark poise, she is reeling. “Are you not well? Are you ill?” “No M’am,” she replies, almost regretfully. The tea is too strong, and she has forgotten the hot water and the two raisin biscuits. I decide not to make a scene. “Have you broken something, or ruined a piece of clothing? It happens. Don’t worry, I won’t tell the master.” Despite my efforts Gracia stays silent. I pace up and down, the last rays of sun are hitting the photos on Téta 1 Rose’s piano, obscuring the dear faces, the sun is wiping them out, one by one. Even Gracia is hard to see. I sit down at the keyboard, the black lacquer has been damaged by fingerprints and scratches. Gracia has no idea of the worth of a Steinway. Neither do you, for that matter. An object has disappeared, a familiar object, in the drawing room, by the door, I don’t know, I’m looking, Gracia is blinding me, standing there like that with her arms dangling. I peer at her, looking for clues. She turns away. I don’t need her help, this house belongs to me, and its furniture, and its knick-knacks, Gracia has forgotten this, she’s developing bad habits, you warned me. I should have listened to you,
should have been severe on occasion, I lack your natural authority. I swallow a mouthful of tea, the drink has cooled, the bitterness settles on my tongue, a rancid taste of tender, scalded leaves. “The statue …” I am looking for the statue, that statue you are so proud of. “Where is the statue?” You’re arriving in half an hour, you are very attached to that primitive statue, some tribal chief with an unpronounceable name, one of your eccentric treasures brought back from the South Sea Islands when you were reporting on Lebanese Australians. You took advantage of that trip to visit New Zealand, you were incredibly enthusiastic about Maori art. You told me all about their myths, their beliefs, their nature-worship, you fantasised about moving there, we would build a life without drama, without bombs or disappointments, far from the decaying Orient. I listened to you distractedly, nodding politely, I didn’t believe in your vision. That statue was out of place in the drawing room, it clashed with my Japanese-inspired furniture. You were attached to it, so I gave in and put it by the door. It took three men to carry him, your warrior. “Gracia, are you listening to me? Where is the statue?” I assess the possibilities, and all becomes clear. Gracia hasn’t broken it, a statue like that doesn’t break. She hasn’t stolen it. I provide her with bed and board. And I pay her. Too much, according to my neighbour, who says I’m inciting her maid to revolt. I pay mine as I see fit, and in return I have certain needs. Gracia has never complained. No, she didn’t steal that statue. “Did you go out? Or let anyone in?” Gracia’s eyes widen in shock at my question. She shrugs her shoulders, moves away, says she’s got work to do in the kitchen. She’s lying, I stop her, grab her by the arm. I want to twist it. “Gracia. Answer me. Right this instant, please.” “He is left. Gone,” she mutters at last. What is she talking about? I’ve had enough of these secrets, this prevaricating. I slap her. “Gone, and the books too,” she adds, without triumph, almost with pain.
2. Communal transport — more like a minibus.
The upkeep of the cars is her husband’s domain, but today Gabrielle is attending to it, she has inspected the front of the BM, no obvious damage but a professional opinion would be reassuring. She has been recommended an Armenian who won’t ask questions. Finding his garage in the maze of Bourj Hammoud is an impossible task, she rarely drives around here, her only landmarks are the Beirut River, the rue d’Arménie and the Cinema Paradis. In the end a child takes her all the way to Kiledjian, the local hero, a survivor of the April 1915 “Catastrophe”, the Aghed. Born in Anatolia, exiled at the age of five, the whole neighbourhood knows his tragic story. The child’s heroic tales do nothing to put her at ease, Kiledjian is almost a hundred years old, she’d do better to turn around now. The child is indifferent to her bad temper and abandons her in front of the garage, a sly smile lighting up his face, amused by the sceptical stranger. An apprentice grabs her keys, calls his boss over to inspect the vehicle, they walk around her BM, the apprentice following his master submissively, nodding in agreement, they squabble over the carburettor, such an old trick, their little games annoy her. Gabrielle asks a question in Arabic, just to show that she does have an opinion. She describes the impact on the bumper; the bodywork must be checked. Kiledjian grumbles, gives the bonnet a hefty thump. The car will be ready tomorrow, as a favour, they’ve got mountains of work on, “off you go then, see you tomorrow after lunch.” Kiledjian escorts her to the door, scolding a delivery boy as he passes, the telephone has been ringing non-stop in the back of the shop. Gabrielle hadn’t expected to be leaving her car, they haven’t given her an estimate, she hadn’t planned for a day without her car, she has never taken a public taxi, 2 the idea revolts her, she doesn’t know the number for Allo Taxi, Gracia usually phones, the number is on the laminated list she typed out and had taped to the kitchen wall. Gabrielle looks around for Kiledjian so that he can give her an estimate, he is lying on a trolley examining the entrails of a Range Rover with tinted windows, his boots have holes in the heels and his boiler suit is covered in oil stains. The apprentice makes a joke about the boss’s moods and offers to drive her home; there’s a breakdown on Sami el Solh street, he can drop her on the way. He climbs into the van, come on let’s go. Gabrielle gives him a false address, two streets closer, she doesn’t want him to know where she lives, he has a strange accent, doesn’t come from around here, another of these Iraqi
refugees, she rummages in her bag, puts on her sunglasses, leafs through her notebook, scribbles down a fictitious meeting, the van isn’t moving, they are stuck in motorway traffic, with a school bus blocking her view. As a child she used to catch a bus just like that, white with red stripes, the maid used to nag her from dawn, “hurry, hurry, autocar is coming.” Gabrielle boarded first and got off last, having criss-crossed the city from end to end. Gabrielle wanted to go home, Gabrielle wanted to play. “Autocar” gobbled up precious hours with her dolls, her dreams and Granny Rose’s piano. She hated “Autocar”, its horizontal stripes, its foam-stuffed leather seats, the crumbs from a snack prickling her thighs, the windows greasy with the hands, noses and mouths her fellow students stuck against them as a laugh, or because they collapsed against the panes, exhausted by lessons and the playground, misting them over with the putrid fumes of childhood. The apprentice turns on the radio, a youth station playing American rap, she can’t stand these jerky rhythms but doesn’t dare change channel, the apprentice is doing her a favour, she’s not going to complain. She counts the stickers on the windscreen, the ads lining the motorway, a big campaign for La Piara delicatessens — every five meters an enormous billboard displays olive-flavoured mortadella, parma ham, roast ham sliced in thin ribbons, enough to sicken even the most carnivorous housewife. The apprentice introduces himself, taking advantage of the news slot to talk, his name is Wafic and he comes from Syria. Gabrielle was right to be suspicious, the Syrians are spies, this one too, street vendors, labourers, waiters, soldiers, every one of them is a spy. She evades his questions and asks him about himself, it’s better to be careful, especially at the moment, the Syrians are packing up, they have until the end of the month to get out, this one has found a hideaway, he’s planning to stay, to settle down permanently. The apprentice is talkative, flattered by the lady’s interest, he explains, his studies, he’s slaving hard to pay for night school, mechanics first and then engineering. Once he’s got his diploma he’ll set up on his own, look after his brothers back home, and his sisters too, he emphasises, he’ll pay for them too, not just the brothers. A Syrian studying in Beirut, now there’s a new one, she’s never heard the student line before, not very credible, her instinct has saved her, he won’t get her address, his report to security services won’t say a thing. His boss will punish him, a penalty as well as a scolding, he’ll be demoted, end up as a border guard. Her mobile rings from the bottom of her bag, Mirna’s number flashes up, Mirna can wait. It was her invitation that caused the accident.
© Thibault Le Maire
Régis Descott was born in 1966 in Paris, where he still lives. A journalist for several years and then a designer of video games, he published L’Empire des illusions with Denoël in 1998, a first novel based on the retreat from Russia and the crossing of the Berizina. Pavillon 38 (JC Lattès, 2005), which is currently being made into a film, earned praise from the press and the foreign rights have been sold to several countries. It has sold more than sixty thousands copies in France.
Caïn & Adèle Publisher: JC Lattès Date of Publication: February 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Eva Bredin < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Catherine Spencer < email@example.com >
Formerly a psychiatrist in an asylum for the criminally insane, Dr Suzanne Lohmann has opened an office in town in an attempt to overcome her fascination with the abyss of evil. But it is not so easy to escape one’s destiny: as expert criminal profiler, she is called to the scene of a crime — a young woman found with hideous slashes that have earned her attacker the nickname of the “Laughing Man”. Several weeks later, in her psychiatrist’s office, a strange “patient” confesses to the murder of her own mother and then to that of a young boy. Meanwhile, the “Laughing Man” strikes again. And what if it were all connected? While the vice tightens around her, the psychiatrist must live with the threat of Anaconda, a terrifying psychopath to whose arrest she had contributed a year earlier and who has escaped. With Caïn & Adèle, a thriller based on trans-sexuality and twinhood, the heroine of Descott’s previous book, the psychiatrist Suzanne Lohmann, returns in a modern, powerfully evocative version of the biblical myth of Cain and Abel.
The vinyl disc crackled a few times before the first beats of Billy Jean filled the room and Sigmund, disturbed by the vibrations, slid along the length of the floor. With a distracted eye, Suzanne watched Angelique’s Abyssinian-mongrel cat stretch before he made off for the kitchen. Visually, Thriller had been the shock. Corpses pushing off their tombstones with their lacerated hands. A dance step consisting of a hand over the genitals, taken up across five continents; at the time, everyone wanted to imitate Michael Jackson. The script demanded that the prodigy start playing around with his face — a carnival metamorphosis announcing the irreversible. Stretched out on the sofa of almond velvet, her head on the arm and her feet bent up towards her, Suzanne imagined what effect a photo of the king of pop in military braided jacket would have if hung in her consulting room, between Patti Smith and Robert Plant. A snide allusion to the desire of some of her patients for transformation. Michael Jackson had succeeded in looking like Janet, accentuating their family resemblance with surgery. Before then going even further until he resembled no-one: neither his sister, nor even the person he had been. In the afternoon, she had seen one of these candidates for the great leap towards masculinity. A young woman of 21 who produced a caricatured illusion of what she was aiming for: shaved hair, butch clothes, loping walk and a face re-sculpted with the aid of hormones. A man’s skin that had known a razor. The work of a general practitioner distributing prescriptions to gratify the patient without worrying about the consequences. A capsule a day produces a spectacular transformation in several months. With no going back. Coming onto the scene later, she could only observe the change and prescribe surgery that she would perhaps have advised against. In her hands she held the reports of the autopsies performed on Heloise and Quentin Beck, which she had just finished reading. She had placed them back in their envelope. As if this action, and the music — inaudible in her present state — might keep the horror at bay. The whole night and then the whole of the next day in her consulting room, those images had haunted her, relentless reminders of her own fragility, her analytical mind totally unable to master her emotions. She had thought she was more hardened to evil. Human beings can get used to anything, perhaps, but also get out of habits quite quickly, doubtless as a salutary way of forgetting. And this envelope waiting for her at the end of the day had acted like an injection
of memory, the crude descriptions immediately grabbing her with cruel force. It was on this that she was going to have to pronounce and give an enlightened view … It was on this reality — which she had long hoped for as an escape from her boredom — that her expertise was expected … She still remembered the excitement she had felt after Steiner’s call and then her state of numbness and inertia once on the scene. Just as she recalled the memory of Olga after she had got what she had prayed for. Was that really what she wanted? Five things among the pages of technical jargon had caught her attention: the child’s death had occurred after the mother’s; the facial carvings had been performed post mortem; the analyses had revealed no trace of tranquillisers in the body; the samples taken from Heloise also showed no trace of sperm or any foreign biological cells. She automatically made a mental note: a condom or some reason other than the bottle of Coke inserted into the vagina that could shed light on this? Already, despite herself, she was seduced by the range of hypotheses on offer. Last factor: the traces of DNA taken from the neck of little Quentin, strangled with bare hands, showing that the skin had been forcefully gripped. A confirmation of her intuition: in his panic, the killer must have strangled the child without taking precautions. But unfortunately his DNA didn’t feature in any file. So it was a paradox: they possessed the killer’s most intimate form of identity and it remained impossible to identify him. For the rest, they would have to wait for the first results of the neighbourhood enquiry and the interrogation of those close to the victims. To know whether the lip prints left on one of the glasses placed on the fireplace belonged to someone they knew and to find out Heloise Beck’s movements on her last day. On top of the fact that, given the staging of the crime, the probability of finding the murderer among the circle of family of friends was pretty well zero. The facial cuts and the sexual humiliation were certainly the work of a psychopath. On the face of it, the work of someone relatively careful, methodical and obsessional. Not one of those impulsive and disorganized criminals made clumsy by fear. Apart from the child, whose unforeseen appearance must have disturbed a scene that the murderer had long fantasised about in advance. As for the rest … It was too soon to give an opinion. Turning her head,
Caïn & Adèle
Suzanne was able to admire the gorgeous bouquet that had been delivered to her the day before yesterday, just after she had left the rue des Quatre-Fils, still full of hatred for the brute capable of such barbarity. A very unprofessional hatred, it had to be said, for someone who had always tried to avoid all feeling towards her patients. Abel Frontera, blowing hot and cold, whose eruption into her life would always be associated with violence: the collision that had caused their meeting, and even these flowers, connected with the sight of the crime scene. Cut flowers with an intoxicating scent which from now on were inextricably linked in her mind with the smell of blood. The few lines accompanying the lilies made much more agreeable reading than the precise circumvolutions of Dr Geestemunde. She had read them in a state of auto-pilot — the gap between what she had just left and the promise that they offered being too great — before reading them again several times, each time charmed by that nervous, delicate writing. They were to have dinner together. She had accepted as much from weakness as curiosity, convinced that things could not stay like this between them. By some implied comment she had been led to think that the situation between Claudie and him had since developed. Was that what she wanted to hear, or was it the truth? Strange how everything happened at once, like the periods of lethargy following accelerated phases in which events telescoped together. And so the whole day she had been mentally pummeled by the vision of the bodies of Heloise Beck and her son, the role that she might play in the unraveling of the affair and the thought of this dinner with Abel Frontera. She had the impression that a game had been spontaneously set up between them, a game that she was already taking very seriously. The unexpected presence of this Claudie, and her remoteness, were not unrelated to this impression. As if this seductive man had fallen at a given moment into her overly-structured life, awakening an aspect of her personality that had long since gone to sleep. His appearances, then this bouquet, had given her a taste of what he was capable of: an impulsiveness liable to give spice to any relationship … This notion and these questions were interrupted by the ringing of the telephone. “Dr Lohmann,” she said automatically, after a day spent in her office. “Suzanne, Steiner …”
The cop’s voice immediately took her back to the rue des Quatre-Fils. She pressed a button. The arm of the player lifted and returned to its support, cutting off Bambi’s warblings. “To what do I owe this pleasure, Commander? Do you have anything new?” “Just problems,” he said, as laconic as ever. “ I’ve sent you a car. It should be waiting for you outside.” “I don’t understand.” “Kovak has escaped.”
Caïn & Adèle
Suzanne let the news sink in. It wasn’t so surprising. It had crossed her mind two days earlier, with Claudie’s questions. The image of Kovak had also crossed her mind when she was going back home at midnight through deserted streets. Suddenly the cocoon of her apartment didn’t seem so safe. “It happened last night,” the commander went on when she said nothing. She opened the window and lent out onto her balcony to see the tricoloured bonnet of a Megane with “POLICE” written in capitals. In the room she heard the front door opening. Angelique and Emma came into the flat. “Suzanne? What’s happening?” “I think I’ll go to the scene,” she said, while her daughters hung up their clothes, joking between themselves. She heard Angelique laughing. They must have heard her music resonating in the stairwell. Mummy returning to childhood; she must really be hung up on her florist with a Ferrari, they said to each other. “It won’t do much good but it will allow me to see for myself.” “I can pick you up in a quarter of an hour. But expect the worst. I’ll tell you in the car.” “You’re hiding something from me?” “He’s killed Dante.” At the mention of someone who had caused so much unhappiness, she remained speechless. Erwan Dantec-Leguen, known as Dante, for whom she had almost developed an affection and who had deceived her so completely. The announcement of his death caused a tightening in her heart, all her efforts to comfort him definitively over.
“Joseph?” Angelique looked at her with her father’s eyes. The resemblance was sometimes disturbing: the same silhouette, the same delicate features and the same intensity of expression that seemed to search you methodically for your deepest thoughts. She was more beautiful than Emma. But darker also. More melancholic. She turned her head. “Yes?” asked the cop. “I’ll be downstairs in a quarter of an hour.” “Was that Commander Steiner? … There’s a police car parked in front of the building. Is there any connection?” She hung up. “Yes?” she said in a tone that she hoped sounded distracted. “Mummy, what’s going on?” “Nothing, darling, nothing,” she said, in an attempt to avoid the crisis that threatened. Angelique planted herself in front of her. Her voice half-imploring, half-aggressive, several pitches higher than usual, heralded an outburst. Months of calm didn’t stop her exploding at the slightest spark. From the kitchen came the whistling of the kettle under pressure and the tinkling of china being moved about. “Who wants tea?” shouted Emma, invisible. “Don’t spin us tales,” said Angelique in a low tone. “Once is enough. Isn’t it?” “He’s coming to get me,” she replied, her eyes lowered. Beating a retreat was the last thing to do and yet … Each time Suzanne found herself helpless before the hostility of her daughter who hated her for what she had allowed to happen while clinging to her mother as her sole parent. Angelique’s violence hid the fragility that she should have seen. “Daddy’s killer has escaped?” Michael Jackson smiled at her from the cover placed on the floor. She closed her eyes then opened them again to confront her daughter. “Don’t say it’s that! It’s not true! Daddy’s killer hasn’t escaped? Not him!” she repeated, overcome with crying. So many screamed questions that threw her guilt and her powerlessness back in her face. “Angelique …”
She had no other resource than supplication but her daughter had already gone into free-fall. The strident cry emerging from her mouth brought her sister running while she drove into her mother with wild blows. With a slap, Suzanne stopped her. Angelique looked at her with stupefaction. “What’s going on?” The young girl who had appeared in the kitchen held the teapot in her left hand. Turned towards her sister, the elder stammered “Daddy” before bursting into sobs and losing all control of herself. Suzanne caught her daughter by the arm and led her to the bathroom. Amid the complaints and moans rained insults. Trembling, the psychiatrist held the shower head like a fire extinguisher.
Caïn & Adèle
© Raphaël Gaillarde
“I was born in 1967 in Seyne-sur-Mer, and there I stayed. By the sea. I studied cinema, but that didn’t work out too well. I was a musician for a while, but that didn’t work out too well. Now I’m trying to write stories. We’ll see.” (Marcus Malte.) Garden of Love (Zulma, 2007), Plage des Sablettes, souvenirs d’épaves (Autrement, 2005), La Part des chiens (Zulma, 2003), Mon frère est parti ce matin… (Zulma, 2003), Et tous les autres crèveront (Zulma, 2001), Le Vrai Con maltais (Baleine, 1999), Carnage, constellation (Fleuve noir, 1997), Le Lac des singes (Fleuve noir, 1997), Le Doigt d’Horace (Fleuve noir, 1996).
Garden of Love Publisher: Zulma Date of Publication: January 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Laure Leroy < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Carla Calimani < email@example.com >
One day, Alexander Astrid receives an anonymous manuscript in the post entitled Garden of Love, a reference to the great British poet William Blake. It is not long before Alex, a screwed-up, drifting cop, reads between the lines a troubling and even diabolical version of his own life. Through the “dangerous liaisons” of a young trio — involving betrayed love, childhood scars, ghosts and monsters from bygone times — the mysterious omniscient narrator perversely begins a manipulative game as if he were playing chess. Alexander’s most painful memories are brought back to the surface, and he finds himself re-living a defining episode in his life: his encounter with Edward Dayms, a young man as brilliant as he is disturbed, with a terrifying hold on others. Alex does what he knows how to do best: he investigates, searches, pries. But this time, his subject-matter is his own past. With the powerful mastery already displayed in La Part des chiens (City of Saint-Quentin prize) and Intérieur Nord (Rotary Club novel prize), Marcus Malte creates a fascinating world of violence and tenderness, populated by characters at the mercy of their deepest weaknesses. With an audaciously ambitious form, Garden of Love shows the fatal confrontation between past and present, reason and madness, a mercilessly Macchiavellian one-man show.
Marcus Malte pens a thrillingly assured novel, populated by mysterious and troubling voices that whisper secrets and lies, prompting temptation and remorse. A trap is set with assured aplomb.
Schubert died when he was 31. Mozart was 35. I was fast approaching 37 and two thoughts kept nagging at me: What had I done with my life? What did I know about love? These questions were as common as they were crucial. The answers should have finished me off. After visiting Florence, I didn’t sober up for two days. The third day and night I slept it off, sprawled on the floor of the children’s room. The angels didn’t give me any signs. I would have liked a helpful hand to knife me in the guts and have done with it. Please, please, I’m begging you to do this for me. But I can’t pull myself together. My prayers don’t go past my lips. Just a bit of spittle that’ll soon dry off. I close my eyes and feel the heat. The cold. The boiling heat. The freezing cold. My back against the floor, my arms stretched out to form a cross, but don’t trust appearances, I’m toughskinned, my carcass resists, the wreckage stays afloat and I’m breathing, bloody hell, I’m still breathing, here of all places, where they don’t breathe any more! My life. My work. I weigh out what I’m worth. Once I’ve pissed out the alcohol and blubbed out the tears, what’s left? Lying on the floor I think back to the words of that mystical, mental hooker. I think back to the man in black. I think back to Lena and the angels, perfect and pure still, always. Everything’s getting mixed up. As usual, my head and my veins are being gnawed at, I let the little bugs crawl about, hoping they’ll eat me alive. But they aren’t interested either. I’m rotten meat. So rotten inside that even the bloody bugs grimace and splutter and leave. I stay. I breathe. I saw dawn break on the fourth day as if nothing was wrong. It seeps through the blinds and sunlight streaks the beds where they don’t sleep any more. Why? Why bother bringing light? But the day couldn’t care less about these details. And then … And then I saw a face appear and it was you, Maria. It was you. There was no knife in your hand. Your hand helped me get back up. It lifted me off the ground. It stroked my hair. I had to admit life would go on. I spent the fifth day walking on the wet sand and thinking. As a cop. As the good cop I was. I decided to make a few calls. Another 48 hours went by before I had my first one-on-one with the devil.
He had been issued with a summons and he was on time. Dressed in black, as usual. Judging by the photos and the limited information I had on him, I’d imagined some sort of little pretentious dandy. As soon as he came in, as soon as he looked me over, I realised that I’d been utterly mistaken. Edward Dayms wasn’t yet 20 years old. But his eyes made him much older. They were the eyes of a man who had travelled through space and time, had lived many lives and had come to the end of them. If the history of the world, past, present and future, is inscribed in each of us, as I believe it is, then Edward Dayms was one of the rare chosen ones able to decipher it. A gift that is perhaps only bestowed on geniuses and madmen. And a burden that is perhaps too heavy to bear. Mozart, Schubert … As for Edward Dayms, he blew his brains out when he was 33. Yes, I choose my words carefully. I haven’t fallen into some sort of easy esotericism. I don’t share the blind idolatry of a certain Florence Mazeau. I’m no longer under the influence of alcohol. Years have passed, and now I believe that I’ve distanced myself enough to write down the events that took place. I know what I’m saying. Edward Dayms was by far the worst bastard I’ve ever met, but that’s no reason to deny him his … his “powers”. It’s impossible to understand what happened and believe this story without accepting that he was a unique being set apart from the rest of us. Ed the devil, Ed the sorcerer, Ed the madman, Ed the killer … He could be called all these things, and plenty more. Some aspects of his personality will always remain a mystery, impenetrable. And although I stop myself short of calling them “supernatural”, some of the abilities he possessed and developed were extraordinary to say the least. It is not by denigrating the powers of evil that we will succeed in overcoming it. At the time, I still had a private office. With my name on the door. Someone brought in Edward Dayms and we found ourselves alone, just the two of us. I asked him to sit down, then I feigned ignorance of his presence, seemingly absorbed in the process of reading a file. Let him stew: that’s how I thought I’d play it to begin with. Classic technique. Far too basic to have any effect whatsoever on this one. I forced myself to pretend to read, but it was I who felt increasingly uncomfortable. I held out for as long as I could.
Garden of Love
When I shut the file and looked up, I realised that Edward Dayms was paying no attention to me. He was studying the photo in a small frame on the corner of my desk. The famous Christmas photo with Helen, wearing her blue earrings, and the two angels dressed up as sheriffs. Edward Dayms was staring at this photo with incredible intensity. I suppose he’d already started to explore behind the scenes, beyond appearances, where scars and secrets flourished. That’s where he got everything. I had no suspicions. I even took advantage of this moment myself to study his face. Edward Dayms possessed a great, cold beauty — when I say this, I’m thinking of a stunning snowscape, devoid of any human trace — marred only by the thin cut under his eyebrow. I was certain that, unlike Florence, he didn’t do drugs. His “trip” was of another, far more powerful, kind.The silence had lasted long enough. I was about to break it when Edward Dayms beat me to it. “They didn’t have time to catch many bandits, did they?” Those were the first words he said to me. Not actually a question, in truth. Just the right tone. He was still staring at the photo. My mouth was half-open. I wasn’t sure that I’d understood. “The little sheriffs …” he clarified. “How old were they?” I looked at the photo, then back at him. I heard myself say: “Six and eight”. I immediately regretted it. My jaw snapped shut, so hard that my teeth clunked. But it was too late. Edward Dayms looked deep into my eyes. Quietly victorious. He’d just wanted to give me a small indication of the forces present. A warning. From that moment, there weren’t that many options: either I begged for mercy or charged straight at him, kamikaze-style. Obviously, I opted for the latter — it was too good an opportunity to miss. Slowly, I picked up the photo and put it face-down on my desk, so he could no longer see it. Then I said: “Who do I have the pleasure of meeting today? Matthew? Ariel? Edward? Or maybe someone else? Someone new?” A hint of a smile, a sad smile, crossed his face. Perhaps he was sincerely sorry that I wasn’t giving up. “Florence told me about your visit,” he said. “Does she always tell you everything?”
“Everything that’s important to her. I believe that I’m a very good listener.” “That works out well, because so am I. So we should be able to understand one another.” The same pained smile crossed his face. I was annoyed at myself for coming out with these lame one-liners. A cop cliché. I needed to raise my game. “So,” I said. “What’s with this Siamese twin business?” “It’s just a little game we like to play,” replied Edward Dayms. “I, you, he … When one withdraws, another one takes his place. Which one depends on the subject.” “Meaning?” “Meaning the different facets of our personality, if you like. As you know well, Mr Astrid, each of us is in fact several people at once. So why not try to get to the bottom of things? Try to give form to what initially seems to be an inner voice. It is a rather disturbing experience, I must admit. Even quite dizzying, at times.” “To which we can add “dangerous”.” “It’s true that it does pose certain risks. No doubt this is why most people refuse to take the leap.” “Which isn’t the case for you, it would seem.” Edward Dayms intensified his gaze. “And what about you, Mr Astrid? Have you never been tempted? A change. A conversion … If you were given the choice, for example, between the person you are and the person you would like to be?” “Oh, because you can choose, can you?” “You can learn anything.” “As far as I’m concerned, it’s already bad enough being myself …” “That is exactly the kind of preconception that holds us back. “To be yourself ”, what does that mean? Absolutely nothing. What is “I”? It is an illusion. One among many others. You have not been listening to me, Mr Astrid: we are multiple. We are a multitude. Open the cage and you will see how many fly out.” A pause. Ed the manipulator … He could have made mincemeat of me there and then. I was well aware that he was leading me exactly where he wanted, how he wanted. On slippery ground that was his and where I didn’t stand
Garden of Love
a chance. I was well aware that the little 19-year-old shit had me in the palm of his hand. But how to fight it? How to resist it? Edward Dayms created his own beings. If there was a single adversary worthy of him, it could only be God our Father. All my pathetic acts of rebellion, all my measly moments of pride must have either made him pity me or wet himself laughing. I didn’t like his superior attitude. I didn’t like his psycho-mystical gobbledygook. I didn’t like his way of saying “Mr Astrid”, which reminded me of Florence, although it was much more insiduously penetrating. I didn’t like his hypnotic gaze. I promised myself that I’d string him up. Another unkept promise. Edward Dayms was sat in front of me, and I could see my struggling self reflected back in the depths of his eyes. “What you’re up to is anything but an innocent little game!” I said. “Florence Mazeau, for one, firmly believes in it.” “She’s a sensitive, romantic young woman.” “She’s a prostitute.” “I wasn’t talking about her work.” “Well, let’s talk about it! What is Florence to you? You both seem very close. When did you meet?” “Last year. At college.” “Love at first sight?” “More of a … mutual acknowledgement.” “Oh I see! And did you acknowledge her rates too?” He sized me up in silence for a brief moment — the time to adjust his target. I learnt at my own expense that every arrow aimed at him was sent back ten times stronger. And poisoned. “We can always predict the price we will have to pay for our actions, Mr Astrid. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a coward.” That hit me deep inside, I shuddered within. Up to my very core. I must have made a huge effort to keep my head straight. Not to look at the little overturned photo frame. Still I continued to dig my own hole. “You’re not going to tell me that you never touched this girl?” “What do you mean?” “What do you think I mean? I’m asking you if you’ve slept with her. If you’ve had sexual intercourse. Free or paid for.”
“No. We don’t have that kind of relationship.” “What a surprise! I was sure you’d come out with something like that.” “You really are so unebelievably clever.” The bastard didn’t even bother smiling any more. “Whatever,” I said. “So, what kind of “relationship” did you have?” “I like to think that Florence needs me.” “Oh really? To do what? Protect her, perhaps? Support her?” “Are you planning to accuse me of being a pimp, Mr Astrid?” “Why not?” I said angrily. “For want of anything else.” He looked at my clenched fist on the desk, with its protruding bones and white knuckles. He nodded his head. Then with his deadly soft voice, with that bloody voice that strokes petals before tearing them off, he said: “I understand. I know what it feels like. When pain flares up, becomes rage. Your fist needs to hit something. Tough luck to whoever happens to be passing … (He sat up in his chair. Took a deep breath. Continued in the same soft tone) … You and I are not so very different, Mr Astrid. We have a lot in common. Neither of us wanted to hear the voices behind us. The screams. The cries for help. We blocked out the shouting. We kept on running, running, running. We failed. And the silence is a constant reminder. The silence that reigns at present is worse than anything. Of course I understand … Ah! If only we could make up for it! If only we could explode the silence. Blow it to shreds. If only we could hear their prayers again. And answer them. At any cost.” “You see, Mr Astrid, I love Florence. I love her … as a sister.” He stopped talking. I’d hung on his every word. Passive. Numbed. When I think back to that first meeting, I tell myself that Edward Dayms was already showing me certain paths to follow, portals into his world. Undoubtedly he wanted me to enter it, as a visitor at least. He showed me ways in, here and there, all that was left was for me to find the access codes. But I didn’t manage it in time.
Garden of Love
© Jean-Luc Bertini – Agence Opale
Writer, poet and playwright, Henry Bauchau was born in Malines (Belgium) January 22, 1913. His work, in part inspired by certain traumatic events of childhood, falls under that of internal “tearing apart” and offers itself up as an attempt at reconstruction through the written word. After a childhood marked by the First World War and the fire of Louvain, followed by a rather solitary adolescence nourished by travel, reading and competitive sports, Henry Bauchau undertook law studies and became, in 1936, a trial lawyer in Brussels. A member of the Resistance in the Ardennes during the Second World War, he was injured the day of the arrival of US troops. From 1945 to 1951, he worked in publishing and moved to Paris in 1946. There, he began an analysis during which he discovered his vocation as a writer. In 1950, he started writing poems that eventually would form his first book, Géologie, published in 1958 as part of the collection directed by Jean Paulhan, Metamorphose. He was then forty-five years old. He moved to Gstaad, Switzerland, with his family where he was Director of a private school. There he wrote his first play, Genghis Khan (1960) which Ariane Mnouchkine staged in 1961 and then in 1988 at the National Theatre of Brussels. From 1975, Henry Bauchau has worked in Paris as a psychotherapist in a day hospital for troubled adolescents. While teaching classes at the University of Paris VII, and thanks also to his personal experience, he began to appreciate the rapport between art and psychoanalysis. In 1981, he published La sourde oreille ou le Rêve de Freud,
a poetic work directly inspired by psychoanalysis. In the same period, he became very interested in the myth of Œdipus on which he based his novels Œdipe sur la route (1990) and Antigone (1997). Member of the Royal Academy of Literature of the French Community of Belgium since 1990, he also received the International Latin Union prize of Romance Language Literatures in 2002. His work is available today, for the most part, at Actes Sud and translated in all of Europe, the United States, Brazil, Mexico, China, Japan … With Actes Sud, he has published the following novels: Œdipe sur la route (1990, Babel no. 54), Diotime et les Lions (1990, Babel no. 279), Antigone (1997, Babel no. 362), Le Régiment Noir nouvelle édition, (2000, Babel no. 647), Les Vallées du bonheur profond (1999, Babel no. 384), La Déchirure (nouvelle édition, 2003), L’enfant bleu (2004) — these journals or literary essays: L’Écriture à l’écoute (2000), Jour après jour (2003, new edition, Babel no. 588), La Grande Muraille (2005, Babel no. 684), Journal d’Antigone (1999), Passage de la bonne graine (2002) — these poetic texts: Poésie (1986), Exercices du matin (1999), La Pierre sans chagrin (2001), La Chine intérieure (2003), Nous ne sommes pas séparés (2006), as well as Théâtre complet (Actes Sud-Papiers, 2001).
The Black Regiment Publisher: Actes Sud / Babel Date of Publication: August 2004 Foreign Rights Manager: Élisabeth Beyer < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Ann Kaiser < email@example.com >
Outraged by the opposition of his parents to his calling as an officer, Pierre embarks for America and joins the North Army at the beginning of the Civil War. He meets Johnson, a young black slave fugitive with whom he establishes the Black Regiment which will play a significant role in the war. Above and beyond the sumptuous panoramic views of battle worthy of the most prestigious of adventure novels, this important “western of the unconscious” is especially striking for its initiatory dimension and its setting the stage for an epic of introspection. The Black Regiment, published by Gallimard in 1972 was published by Actes Sud in 2000 in a version revised and corrected by the author. It is this latest version that is presented here.
In this country, the trees always seem to be walking towards the adventure that’s in the air. They’re constantly producing sap, their branches and foliage pushing ahead and grabbing each other so they can rise up, intertwined. Trees, in America, seem to breathe a more native air, finding their nourishment in a more original soil. They know all there is to know, they say all there is to say. Among this green and this red, standing on this underground violence, I discover that I am white and that my colour is offensive. I discover that being white is only one way of being a man, but that we don’t have the instruction manuals for others. What the trees know is what allows them to resist our way of conquering and possessing. They take us under their watch and their windy and savage movement and the stirring of the whole structure resembling them leave their mark on us. Trees have depth, we only concern ourselves with surfaces, we slide along, we dream — surface dreams — but we don’t embrace them. One day, perhaps, or perhaps never.
The Black Regiment
I am a soldier, infantryman in the New York foreign regiment. It was pointless to explain that, thanks to François, I knew how to handle cannons, pointless, no more room in the artillery. I could have, with Wolf, the guy from Anvers who shared my cabin on the Flandria, gone to another State. But everyone said that the war would be brief and that you had to get right to it. We did as we were told. We were given a shiny uniform, too shiny for me, and we were sent, along with a reinforcement company, to join the regiment that was taking shape near Washington. I had to leave Carabine on a farm and the journey was long and burdensome. Washington, its sweltering heat, the white mass of buildings in the middle of empty avenues. The camp, the log cabins, suffocating and full of smoke, idleness. There are exercises, of course, but not enough. It’s obvious that the elected officers and junior officers know hardly any more than we do. The training marches and night exercises are carried out carelessly. I’m disappointed. I hate vagueness, the indecisive outlines of action in this regiment that was pulled together too quickly and poorly thoughtout. With Wolf, I go to see the regular army companies train. We admire the precision and the mobility of their movements, but they’re composed of no more than a few thousand men. They’re volunteers that need to be made war-worthy.
There was a storm, I gather up a little wet dust, roll it in my hands, knead it, and succeed in forming a primitive cannon. With a finger and the end of a pencil, I give it a soul. Wolf watches me, his grandfather is a brick maker and he knows all about clay and its properties. Wolf says that if, after kneading it, you leave it exposed to the sun long enough, it will become hard as a stone. It is at this moment that you remember that your father passionately re-read, every three or four years, the numerous volumes of the interminable History of the Civil War that for you seemed the epitome of boredom. You rediscovered these books; the first seven volumes consecrated to the Civil War, by the Count of Paris, former Camp Aid to General McClellan. They were covered with a strange rose-coloured paper and you can see which passages interested father most because it is at these places where the binding gives way. He, who was an excellent story-teller, never uttered a word about this war and it didn’t make its way into any of the sumptuous stories that he invented for you in your childhood. In your own time you read the first half of the first book, you got as far as Chapter Eight whose tired pages attest to the number of readings, of dreams, perhaps. Behind the rumblings of these pages consecrated to the preliminaries of the Battle of Bull Run, there is a silence, the mystery of the silence of the father. The same one which forces you to speak. It’s hot, I’m sweating and I’m afraid, a slight fear in my body, wellhidden, but tenacious. We have taken off, badly, everyone senses it, and even the trees look ironically at our parrot-like uniforms, our shoulders sore from the weight of our bags and the multitude of carts and wagons that choke us with their dust. It’s not an army, not a war march; it’s a part of a campaign with its carriages, its caravans carrying its plumed ladies who go to battle like to a picnic. They have brought telescopes along, I swear, so as to better see us find our victims. And inside, journalists, senators, members of the Congress who, with their families and with their own eyes, want to witness the victory of McDowell’s valiant army. My friends elected me Corporal, they insisted, but this means nothing in this mess. I told them not to load up their bags too much, nothing doing; now they have sore backs, sore feet, they’re busy throwing everything by the wayside.
In line! Artillery! We have to go down again into the ditches, risk having a crate fall on our heads because the drivers are uncoordinated. They would be better off, instead of so many fits and starts, letting their horses have a breather and loosening the reins in this heat. What would father Pierre say seeing them? Despite everything, they cut a different figure than we do. In order to understand the Infantry, you have to have experienced it, on foot, in this heat and dust. With all these people jostling you and these trees contemplating you like ants. Like worms that the cannon will cut in two with one blast.
The Black Regiment
In the evening, he was assigned to a surveillance post with Wolf. Just their luck to be on guard the night before combat. The enemy is on the other side of the river. Naturally, there’s no view from the look-out. Pierre assigns Wolf the post and advances with precaution towards the riverbank. Close by, there’s a hollow sheltered by a bush and from which the view stretches far out. The river is near. His entire body, weathered from the long march and covered with sweat, demands water. No one’s around. He sets his gun down against a tree, knees down on the bank and greedily plunges his head into the cool water. He lifts his dripping-wet head. Across from him and lying down on the bank there’s a man. A man in grey! The terrifying grey of the enemy. My gun, I’m done for! He springs up on the bank, seizes the weapon and takes aim. The other is across from him in a sort of blur of terror that prevents him from taking aim. Suddenly a cry, a laugh: Don’t shoot! It’s me, Martin! The voice, the accent, the name Martin. He throws down his gun, he’s a little wet boy who’s rediscovered the older friend and who laughs with pleasure like before in the foundry. “Are you alone?” “With a man.” “Bring him here — as long as he doesn’t shoot me. I have a boat, I’ll be right back.” Pierre runs to find Wolf. Who is stupefied to see a grey uniform. Who is reassured seeing that it’s Martin, his forthright air, his enormous handshake. Martin hugs Pierre, engulfs his two hands in his: “Have you become one of these damned soft-handed engineers?” “I wanted to be an officer, my father wouldn’t allow it. I left.” “Not surprising coming from Eugene, he’s got a lot of qualities,
but honesty is not one of them. Still, did me a big favour. Without him, I wouldn’t have left, I would still be an assistant instead of having a foundry of my own. And what a foundry, the most beautiful in the whole country, a proud country, that I can tell you. He also did you a favour in making you come to America, you’ll see.” He looks at them, laughing: “Do you have any coffee?” Pierre and Wolf are already opening their bags, taking out everything they have. “Wait a minute! No gifts. Coffee for tobacco, and the best. And some fish I caught.” The three of them sit down, smoke a pipe, Virginian tobacco really is the best. “You were afraid when you saw me. Me too! Always like that the first time that we see others. You were quick for a Blue.” “I couldn’t see anymore, I wouldn’t have been able to shoot. Have you already been in a war, Martin?” “Mexico. Nasty job, don’t get any big ideas about it, but, like father Pierre always said, if you stay calm and if you’re careful about what you drink and what you eat, you can save your skin.” “Martin, I’m so happy, everything went so badly after …” “Yes, I often thought that you must have suffered quite a bit. I’m happy, too, but it pains me to see you in that uniform.” Pierre is surprised, it never occurred to him — or to Wolf — that they could be in the other camp. “Why did you come here, to fight against people you’ve never seen?” “But Martin, the slaves! The slaves that are sold … parents and children separated, chased by dogs …” “Nonsense! You think I don’t give a damn about the slaves? I’m upset that these people work for nothing. The traffickers, the owners, we’ll take care of them, but we’ll do it ourselves and we don’t want any Yankees coming here and sticking their noses into our business.” “But Martin …” “There are no buts, all these people here support each other. Your father, too.” “My father?” “Naturally. Whose side is he on, Eugene?” Pierre is surprised. It’s true that, commenting on his morning
newspaper, Mr Eugene would state a preference for the North and believed in its victory. He, and all the industrialists of Sainpierre. “You think that Eugene doesn’t care about the slaves, but he’s on the side of those that buy him machines and you, you’re like him. In the South, we want only to be free and we will be, because our people are tough-skinned and you’ll see stars by the time we’re through with you.” Tomorrow, soon, in a few moments, Martin will be the enemy, the one that shoots at you. “Martin, we’re not enemies, are we?” “Yes, we’re enemies … well, at least until the end of the war. Here, take the fish. Grill them on your bayonets with the herbs found around here.” He slips away without a word. Turns around at the water’s edge: “Try not to be in front of us tomorrow, not in front of Jackson.” “Who’s Jackson?” “My General. The Virginians’ General. Wherever he’ll be, things will be too fierce for you.” He steps towards Pierre who runs to him. They fall into each other’s arms. For good measure, he hugs Wolf, too. He’s in the boat, his wide shoulders curved down around the oars. Cries: “After, come to Peace River, to the foundry, there’s a spot for you and your hammer. The one that brought me luck.” His laugh cuts the darkness, then he’s no longer there and the heart tightens.
The Black Regiment
Martin, our enemy! It’s not possible and yet it’s the way it is. What war is. There’s nothing left to do but to make a little fire in a hole, grill the fish which Martin’s herbs render savoury. Night has fallen; they guard the camp, one after another. In between the trees you can catch the glimmer of the enemies’ fire. You hear the cry of a sentry. An officer passes by on his round. Is Martin sleeping or holding vigil on the other side? Tomorrow, perhaps the two of us will fight each other. He had said: You don’t know the people of the South. I don’t know Jackson either. All the same, I’m going to fight against them. It’s colder, dawn approaches. We hear a bird of prey pass by. It’s Wolf ’s turn at guard duty and I should be sleeping instead of racking my brain. What good will it do? I’m a cog in this machinery and it’s too late for questions. Somewhere, there’s a machine that put itself to work producing soldiers, cannons. A machine that makes war and that somehow, certainly, comes out of the grey house and the big
wheel of the foundry. Mr Eugene has a place in it in his office in Sainpierre and I, another, here in this uniform. It’s a machine that nothing can stop, unless the South can find another more powerful one to go to battle with it. Impossible. Mr Eugene, who knows how to read the assessments with a dispassionate eye, understood this. That’s why he’s on the side of the North, like me. I’m on the stronger side. I am here, I am this. In the South are slaves and partisans of slavery. In the morning, the bugles blow, the drums beat, the coffee slides, weak and burning hot, down our throats. The dawn is the colour of a grubby bed after a night of sweat and fever. It’s the day we’re put to the test, everyone feels it, the army is pale and air struggles to penetrate tight lungs. Suddenly, it hits me: a little later, soon, they are going to aim their guns at me. Who? The Greys! They’re going to shoot at me like a rabbit, slaughter me like a steer. We nervously hold onto our guns, we grope for our full cartridge pouches, we press them against us like a protection, like a talisman. But there is no protection, the face, the heart, the stomach are defenceless. We need to aim carefully, be the first to take out the other the man. Contractions, spasms, cold sweats, wanting to cry and vomit. The bush, quickly the bush, vast emptying of the intestines. I’m not the only one, not the one most affected, there are some who moan, who soil themselves, who cry out. Others and more leave the line running. Some joke around, but no one laughs, each one realizing that they might be dead in the next moment. Is this real fear, fright, the kind that makes you run? In a little while, in front of Martin, in front of Jackson … I feel better, I drink some coffee, the sun pierces the fog and begins to warm us. Yells, orders, the beating drums. We form squadrons, by companies; another battalion has just placed itself side by side with ours. Further up there is the Colonel, on horseback, and a General. A second regiment forms behind us. The brigade, the division are pulled together, we are a large group, the largest. We feel our force in our guts, rising to our faces. How can the South dare? Exhausted men, who yesterday collapsed anywhere they could pull themselves together, reassure themselves, the clash of weapons excites them, the movement of orders and the hammering of their marching lead them on. We are no longer ten, one hundred, a thousand. We are ten thousand, twenty thousand, thirty thousand going the same way, wanting the same thing. Morning, mass, power, a song on our lips, levity springs up. The intestines calm down; the heart is
rich and rapid. At the edge of the cavern, the injured spirit hesitates another instant between doubt and impatience; the body resolves this intolerable state, with one swing of the sledgehammer he throws in his weight to tip the scales. The throat silently utters its sounds, cries: forward march with bayonets and other nonsense, but underneath this outward appearance of distress, Pierre understands that his body has made its decision and that, for a long time, yes, a very long time, he has been internally marching. In order to approach the enemy, bite it, kill it, cut its phallus. And the heart is already embracing this grand nature, white and carnivorous, that the knife foresees full of blood.
The Black Regiment
ÂŠ Mercure de France
In 1960, Pierre Guyotat, born in Bourg-Argental in 1940, wrote his first novel, Sur un cheval. He was called up for Algeria in 1960. In the spring of 1962, he was charged with undermining the army’s morale, complicity to desertion and the possession of forbidden publications. After three months in confinement, he was transferred to a disciplinary unit. Back in Paris, he devoted himself to journalism, at France Observateur, then at Le Nouvel Observateur. In 1964, he published Ashby, followed, in 1965, by Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats. The latter was the subject of an intense controversy, especially for its numerous sex scenes involving men. general Massu had it banned in the army barracks in Germany. But the book also had its ardent defenders, like Michel Leiris, who wrote: “I said that I brought a copy of Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats to Picasso, I desperately wanted him to read it. It would not have crossed my mind if I hadn’t considered that book offered a literary interest great enough for a man so committed to his work, as Picasso was, to spend hours reading it.” In 1968, Pierre Guyotat joined the Communist Party after a speech by General De Gaulle showing hostility towards the Party. He left the Party in 1971. In 1971, Éden, Éden, Éden was published. This book was banned by the ministry for the Interior from being publicized, advertised on posters or sold to minors. A petition of international support for the book was signed. During the 1970s, Pierre Guyotat committed
himself to various causes: in favour of movements for soldiers, immigrants, prostitutes … In 1975 his novel, Prostitution, was published. In 1981 the interdict on Éden, Éden, Éden was lifted. In the years 1984–6, he took part in a series of reading-performances of his work throughout Europe. He took part, in January 2000, in the reopening of the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges-Pompidou at Beaubourg with a reading of the first pages of his novel, Progénitures. In 2006, Coma, an autobiographical text, was published by Mercure de France.
Coma Publisher: Mercure de France Date of Publication: April 2006 Foreign Rights Manager: Bruno Batreau < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Paul Buck & Catherine Petit < email@example.com >
This book is a walk through various moments of Pierre Guyotat’s life, all of which have in common the force of amazement, brilliance, and a flash of life. “These are all the times when I have been in my soul the most,” he says. For the first time, Pierre Guyotat, who is one of our most important contemporary writers, is going back on what gave birth to his literary singularity. This book, like all the books in the Traits et Portraits collection, is the backstage of his work and explains in a classical and pure language the perpetual research he pursues in his texts of fiction, excess, limits, dream, and hallucinated life. It is as a poet that he moves forward here, gathering together on his path moments of childhood, grace, connections with nature and the countryside as well as moments of great sexual violence when he was eight, that he evokes with force and modesty. All that, right up to the period of “coma”, at the beginning of December 1981, when, after having reached the physical limits of his search for a new language, it seemed that he had no strength left. Visions, colourful, carnal and magical perceptions of reality, that is the borderline experience he gives us here, in a self-portrait where he shows us his double. A double which doesn’t leave him, a double which makes him write, a double which makes reality delightful again, in a lucid and cruel way. Pierre Guyotat shows with this book that he is the heir of both Lautréamont and Rimbaud.
Finally, the title of this book indicates not only that real experience of a coma, but, above all, designates those moments of suspense, of in-between, of inspiration, when his breath could have disappeared, but, in fact, when he came back.
I’ve carried the narrative that follows inside me ever since, in spring 1982, on coming out of a crisis that had taken me to the edge of death, I compelled myself to speak again in my own name. I experienced — it was really the only feeling I was capable of — disgust gathering in my throat and mouth and while pronouncing the word “I” when I had not recovered the totality of its attributes, and a little more — having suffered so much in that journey. How then, to write, to think about writing, deprived of “I”? I took the Ecclesiastes and the book of Job as models for a future that I could not see; living, to live. But, capable of writing, wouldn’t I rather take up my figures — more real than myself — and increase their number?
In the moments when a little bit of my right to speak came back to my heart, broke ever so slightly my internal muteness, I could see, I could hear that text, in normative language, in the shape of a prayer, a lament, like a sweet bath of anger, Improperias in the tone of Palestrina and Lassus, but addressed to God; too close still to the action to make a narrative from it. For that, I needed, first, to create new figures, to move forward in the making of my language and my knowledge of the world — and in my renouncement faced with the affluence of others. […] That man, who’s my age, wearing a coat full of holes, whose hands are trembling over his poems in regular verse, is me if I was not myself. He is what the oeuvre I create and its social consequences, amongst other things, deprive me of being. The oeuvre that I create is undoubtedly within me and in my hands like a kind of intercession between me and the world or God. I don’t know where the gift that people think I have comes from, the gift I’ve always felt like an injustice. I don’t know where the strength comes from which makes me produce some work, I never gave myself any merit whatsoever, any will whatsoever. As I only followed my trajectory, exploited my natural inclinations, as I only had for master myself and my predecessors, as I always worked within myself, without advice, everything that surrounds, elevates, constructs the little I feel I am — that nucleus, that quasi-embryonic origin (the first concern of any thought is the origin), that embryo — is of a ghostly nature.
My truth is in that origin and not in what life, oeuvre, fame, legend has formed around; perhaps in a before my coming into the world, in my nonexistence (in the non-born rather than in the acquired). It is what I am, before, that counts, I don’t care much for the after: human conception, birth, oeuvre. I may as well say: nothing, or the genes scattered into the world or the intention of a god. I still can’t get used to the idea that talent — genius even — must be taken into consideration. What I add to the embryo may not be from this world. Very often, too often perhaps, the greatest actions of human history, the greatest oeuvres, the greatest discoveries — that I like and from which I take strength — appear unworthy with regard to what in my heart I think man capable of. […] At the end of December 1980, I meet up with my brothers and sisters in the village where we were born. In spite of the bitter cold, I refuse to spend the night inside the house. I want to live in my camper van loaded with the presents I am going to give. Instead of parking the van near my father’s last house, on the river and set back from the centre, where his second wife still lives and where all are gathered, I park in the centre of the village, in front of the old building where we were all born, and where our mother died on the 25th August 1958. The sweet, deliberate insomnia, my freedom of movements and my absence from the family complexity, the typewriter, the notebooks of Samora Mâchel, a still regular and very readable writing, open on my small working table in front of a wide window looking out onto the landscape that I want, a good engine almost under my feet, a loved figure in my heart and mind, master of complete time — sleep, dream almost abolished, why would I care about being seen restless? I no longer see obstacles, I no longer see adversaries. What I experience as a new lightness is my weight loss. The beauty of winter, its light, its brilliance, the sparkling of the snow and ice, the purity of the air (the theatre piece planned for December at Chaillot) make me a kind of glorious body (cryogenization), through which I shall exceed that forty-first year of my age, that year, additional to the one that since my adolescence
I’d determined to be the term of my life, while pneumonia and mycoses take possession of my body, in that van I start to load with provisions and tins, but where now I hardly eat. On the road to Paris, with the vehicle containing my brother, his wife and their two year-old in front of mine, my happiness is so great that I sometimes have to stop my van and get out and place my fingers in the tracks of animals and people, wash down my Compralgyl — an analgesic at the time available over the counter — with snow, observe a crow, a magpie, a thrush; as night falls, around La Charité, I suddenly feel like trying out the roof which opens like a tent. In Orléans, I park my van at the bottom of my brother’s property, I sleep there and, as some of his Arab friends come round and I’m seen working there too, people complain to my brother, and, for other reasons also, I have to leave, in a hurry.
* Driven out of Orléans, I return to Paris, that I left at the end of July 1980. I go back to my little health-hazard of a room where, far from the sheltering splendour of the great outdoors where I spent nearly three seasons, I begin to experience the truth, then the reality of my exhaustion. Before leaving once more and finding again that dream I made to write what I write before all possible landscapes, surrounded by friendly people, with my eyes following the animals on the other side of the window or outside the van, I need to regain my strength, at least that strength that is necessary to the central force that remains, but with method. My neighbour on the floor below, a friend, deformed from the waist up, who works in the gardens, from a French mother and a Kabyle father, a little bit like Picasso’s actor or harlequin, takes charge of my recovery by taking me to have lunch and dinner in a little restaurant at the far end of the fourteenth arrondissement. I have white fish on my plate, in a light which illuminates us like Rembrandt’s Emmaus. For the time of that regeneration, which I believe is short, I work, with
regularity, but little by little the doubles and triples of the central figure, Samora Mâchel, already in the work, at work, sexual, in the writing I did in Aix in January-February of the previous year, get dirty, the naked figures act in increasingly degraded places, the space is further reduced. From Algeria, Corsica, Sardinia, Marseilles, the Goutte-d’Or, the scene moves up to the industrial and mining North slope of the Massif (the Pilat), whose bucolic South slope is my native slope. Pigs mate with humans, the décor is reduced to what appears to be the common coal shed of the building where the apartment we were born in was rented, and where, as a child, I imagined a world lies, alive under a pile of shiny coal nuts. In the end, it is no longer the pigs alone that have coarse hair on their greasy skin, it is the prostitutes too, and one of them is called Anthracite. Actions and words are absorbed in a sweet, generous, plaintive, repetitive song; a series of a few words, interjections … suffice to the song. Such is the tempting sweetness of the song that again I can no longer interrupt it — if I stop, I am dead and damned by the Nothingness. But such is the anguish I feel rising within me once more that I have to leave again. * One last night I go up the Goutte-d’Or, park my van there. At a barber shop which opens late, and where I have to pick up the papers of an immigrant which will be turned into a permit to stay by a friendly cousin of mine at the office of the then Prime Minister, my eyes catch the eyes, black-red in a bluish white, of a young worker, through the spray vaporized over his head by the barber. I squat down on the lino and pick up a handful of his hair: “For Samora,” I whisper. Outside, we go down to a couscous joint, below a slope, to gulp down a loubia in which he dips a lot of bread. Where does he sleep? In a hostel? In a furnished room? If, his foot on mine, he delays our departure from here, it is because he is too shy to take me where he sleeps; but I insist, I know it is one of those places where Samora is ordered forward, pushed, taken and joyfilled till dawn.
A corridor full of rough, soft men who smoke, children in pyjamas or shorts, who run around, a wood partition along the deep, low, yellow room of a café; at the end of the corridor, the stairs, under the stairs, what used to be a coal-hole: he looks for the key to the padlock which secures it; I take him by the shoulders and the waist and make him laugh, to help him get rid of his embarrassment — his shame perhaps, but quickly let him drown it in that of our naked embrace! In the coal-hole, a portable lamp at the end of a wire, that runs under the door to the very smoky room where a song slowly rises amid the commotion, lights up a straw mattress and a formica chair. He makes me squat and sits me on the mattress, he goes out and comes back with a hot teapot, two tinted glasses, sugar and a bunch of mint; both our necks are bent against the low ceiling … “what to do in a bedsit if not …”.
The next evening, here he is in my room: “it’s not much bigger than my place”. As he sows the crotch of his jeans, torn on the building site, with difficulty, I do it for him; I make him read a story on the siege of Constantine, at the centre of the region he comes from — a douar on the massif where, in the past, I used to carry food products from one family to another in the desert. After the embrace at the back of the room — “you are so skinny, I’m going to make you eat, you’ll see” — rolling onto loose tiles that become disarrayed again, he wants to collect his dirty shoes at the other side of the room: I squat, on all fours, bite and push them in that way towards the mattress where he slowly gets dressed, with big yawns and much scratching of buttocks covered in scars from all those things that a child of the mountains can hurt himself on. Outside, in the late Saturday night, on a wasteground in Maine, he takes a flute out of his fake fur-lined jacket and plays:“The rats are too deep, in that frost, to come out and follow you.” — “What about getting all the wicked out and leading them to the Mosque?” *
I feel restless once again, I must hurry towards what’s killing me. An appeasement through regularity begins to overcome me and frighten me (only a new situation in a new place, if possible moving, changing, can bring me some peace), I meet up with an actor friend in Reims. He’s playing there in Monsieur de Pourceaugnac and declaims: “plenty of strategems”. In the theatre restaurant, I try to eat again some of those pig’s ears that around twelve years earlier I had enjoyed with some dear friends, placing them between my ear and my eardrum (the petrosal), then masticating. I search the menu to see if they don’t have some snout too. In the sequences I’m writing at the moment, the bodies are reduced to mouth, snout, perhaps voice, the sounds that come out of it. I park my van on a corner of the little rue Hincmar, named after the bishop from Merovingian times, very close to the gate of the house with the garden where the play’s wardrobe mistress lives. It is very cold. One evening, at dinner, I begin to feel faint. On a bench of the square in the town centre, stretched out on my back, I see the clouds moving. My friend, who is staying at the hotel facing the square, takes me to his room, where I sleep on a bed, at the back of the large room. My body very feverish — cockroaches in the shower —, I read a book he gave me as a present: Peter Härtling’s Hölderlin, in Philippe Jaccottet’s translation. Hölderlin’s figure, with some verses of “madness” which I’ve almost known by heart since my adolescence, takes the place of a ghost in my body, to which fever only gives contour and force. On the last days, I park my van in the wardrobe mistress’ garden. I sleep there sheltered from the wind and intense cold. The workroom where she lives is warm, colourful materials give it a light which takes a long time diminishing at the end of the afternoon, later than daylight. One not so cold morning, as I have showered with a hosepipe outside, she gives me some jam. Once, in the glorious Tamesna — a plateau between two deserts in North Niger — a key support in the last scene of Éden, Éden, Éden, the jam extracted from the gum sap of the acacias …
One late morning, I take my friend to Attila’s camp, Gallic redoubt, then Roman, finally Hun. The vehicle gets stuck in the mud on the edge of the elliptic arena on the bank of the Noblette: my friend’s fear of delaying the beginning of the play because of his absence — theatre is for me too a ritual on which the order of the world could depend — fills me with an anguish that reduces me to nothing.
© Hélène Bamberger
Jacques Serena was born in Vichy in 1950. After a number of small jobs, he became a full-time writer. His first novel Isabelle de dos was published in 1989 by Éditions de Minuit, followed by five more novels from the same publisher. In addition to his novels, he also writes for the theatre. His play Rimmel was performed in 1998 at the Théâtre Ouvert in Paris, at the Théâtre du Point du Jour in Lyons and at the Théâtre national in Strasbourg, in a production by Joël Jouanneau. In an interview given to the Théâtre Ouvert, Jacques Serena had this to say about his dual activities: “It’s not for me to say if the novel is in general more literary and a play less literary. To my knowledge, a play can be just as boring as a novel. What I can say is that, as far as I’m concerned, I’m in as foul a mood when I come out with a play as I am with a novel. The girl’s soliloquy, at the end of my play Rimmel, is as much like a novel as any chapter of my novel Basse Ville. Or as much unlike it. Anyway, I don’t write for a theatre audience, or for a reader, or for anyone or anything. At the moment of writing, if it’s really the moment, I have no idea what’s going to happen, what’s going to emerge, so the question of who or what it’s intended for doesn’t really arise. Some texts will be thrown away, or abandoned, others will more or less pass themselves off as novels, and others easily enough as plays. In any case, what I was doing in the novel led me to be particularly interested in rhythm and sound, so I was moving quite naturally towards something that would reach the public through the
voice. Through voices. At the same time, I suppose because of being surrounded like everyone else by news commentaries that are constantly trying to tell us things rather than showing, my increasing tendency has been simply to bear witness, simply to describe words and actions. With that vaguely ethical motive in mind, I found myself moving spontaneously towards a form of writing that flirted with the idea of theatre.” List of novels by Jacques Serena published by Éditions de Minuit: Isabelle de dos, 1989; Basse Ville, 1992; Lendemain de fête, 1993; Plus rien dire sans toi, 2002; L’Acrobate, 2004; Sous le néflier, 2007. He also published his play Rimmel in 1998.
Under the Medlar Tree Publisher: Les Éditions de Minuit Date of Publication: September 2007 Foreign Rights Manager: Catherine Vercruyce < firstname.lastname@example.org > Translation: Howard Curtis < email@example.com >
The specialist told me that after an operation like that, I needed to change my life drastically. When I got back to the villa to tell Anne, I was hoping for a word or a gesture, but in vain. So I threatened to leave her for good. And, at last, for the first time in months, Anne really looked at me. Yes, she answered, it would suit her fine if I left.
I smiled when the surgeon told me his diagnosis. At least now I knew. There I was, looking at him, he’d started telling me what he thought of my case and, even before he’d finished, I smiled. A free warning, he was saying, alarm signals to be taken seriously, no organic cause, you need to be careful. The seat of the disease, highly symbolic, the mouth, the place for eating and drinking, speaking, kissing, be careful. Losing control in any way could have grave consequences, be careful, change absolutely. I was well aware that he was trying to scare me but I couldn’t help it, I smiled. Then he mentioned the idea of a convalescent home. You need a complete change, believe me. I believed him, no problem about that, and I kept smiling. A change, yes, I heard what he was saying, but I could change and still stay at home, now, after what he’d just told me, I could go back to the villa, talk to Anne, and change everything completely. That’s what I was thinking, sitting there opposite him. Anyway, that’s what I told him, or rather mumbled as best I could, because of my recent operation.
Under the Medlar Tree
Eat better, yes, I told him, I understood, treat myself now and then to nice things, and give real kisses, yes, and stop ranting and raving at every opportunity, that was it, stop always wanting to say everything, and wanting people to tell me everything, for fear that I’d miss things, for fear of everything, stop, yes, act like other people, no one was afraid like that. And anyway, I went on, anyway, the way things had been lately, with Anne, and in my work, in everything, what he’d just told me couldn’t have come at a better time, change or die, yes, if I had to, all things considered, I’m sure that’s why he saw me smile, at a time when, nothing in my life had been going right any more, and everything seemed to be covered in a veil, and then, bang! just the kick in the backside that I needed, to put me back on the right track. He advised me to at least go and see a shrink, a friend of his. Tell him I sent you, I’ll write a note, you’ll see, he’s a brilliant man. He scribbled down his note, and put it in an envelope, and held it out to me. And I actually took it. In the street, my feet barely touched the ground. What I’d just been told, I’d suspected for months, and now suddenly I knew. Change, that was it, I absolutely had to change. To regain the clarity, the enthusiasm,
the true passion that takes us out of limbo, and brings everything to life, I had already experienced that, with Anne, well, not only with her but, yes, definitely with Anne, madly, right at the beginning. I could feel a desire for sweet chaos rising inside me. Get back to the villa, see Anne, tell her about this new me starting out on the road to a life that was alive again. There I was, walking, telling myself that if only, now that I felt different, I could have behaved differently, run, cried out, if only, if only. On the way there, I deliberately went into a grocer’s shop and bought a bottle of wine, a decent Bordeaux, for five euros sixty, and, while I was about it, a chunk of blue cheese from the Auvergne, sold loose, a good-sized chunk. I needed to mark the fact that I was starting a new life. Anne was in the garden, sitting under the medlar tree with the girls. They were talking. I didn’t expect Anne to jump for joy when she saw me arrive with the bottle and the cheese, of course I didn’t expect that, but I had expected her to be surprised, and to ask what the occasion was. I was ready to tell her, or at a pinch one of the girls, the news of my transfiguration that had already started, of our livelier life that was on its way. But they were talking under the medlar tree. So in the end I told myself that now wasn’t the time to tell them something like that, it was better to wait for the right moment. Just in case, I hung around the garden a while longer, with the bottle in my hand, the label turned towards them, but there was nothing, not a question, not a glance, from any of them. Of course, seeing that I’d already decided it was better to wait before I told them the news, then it was just as well they didn’t ask me anything, but there you go. All the same, Anne must have realized, in the last few months, that I hadn’t been in the best of health, and she must surely have noticed that I’d been having difficulty articulating my words clearly when I spoke, there’d been plenty of opportunities for that, and I’d quite clearly said, when I left, that I was going back to see the surgeon who’d done the operation on my mouth, and that he was going to give me his opinion about my case. And now I was back and they didn’t look at me, didn’t ask me a single question, anything. I went inside the villa to put away the cheese and the bottle. Then I came back out on the terrace looking out on the garden, and flopped into my old deckchair. My old deckchair, the predestined end of all my attempts
at communication in the villa, these last few months. But maybe Anne had already forgotten where I’d been. And perhaps she didn’t notice how light-hearted I was starting to be because she hadn’t noticed how down I’d been in the last few months. True, she hadn’t looked at me, these last few months. She’d pretty much lost sight of me, you could say. They were talking about when to hold their next party. These last few months, Anne had decided to invite people to parties here in the villa. Whether I was at home or not, given that I’d been away rather a lot lately, giving public readings in libraries. She needed her space, that’s what she always said, whenever I tried to tell her what I felt about these parties. That had been her answer every time in the last few months, her space, her space. And then she’d go and get something from the fridge. She didn’t even see fit to ask me for my opinion about the date, let alone who to invite. Of course, she knew my opinion. I couldn’t stand her parties, I’d told her that over and over again, all that predictable excitement, those inescapable surges of enthusiasm by the end of the evening, those attempts at temptation, the temptation to attempt something, all that gushing, I’d kept telling her what a waste of time it all was, how depressing, how exhausting, what a ruination of the body and spirit. But, that evening, well, I already felt different. After what the surgeon had told me. That evening, she might have been surprised. What would it have cost her to ask me? Even if only as a gesture. Obviously she thought I was going to start screaming about the ruination of my mind again for an hour, but, damn it, she could have made the gesture.
Under the Medlar Tree
Having said that, accepting her parties, yes, that was something I felt I could have done, but as far as her guests were concerned, well, we’d have to talk about that, because there were limits all the same. There was never a single friend of mine there, they’d stopped coming, or else they’d become friends of hers, so one way or another the only guests were friends of hers, there were only friends of hers at these parties. And you should have seen and heard them. Patrons of the arts, women representing voluntary organizations, deputy chairmen of associations, aspiring actresses, former ceramists. They only came to sell themselves, to toady to women who were crazy enough to believe them. The worst of it was that, by rubbing shoulders with these tiresome
characters in the last few months, Anne seemed to have been contaminated. I not only felt it, it was obvious. In her gestures, on her face. Especially her face. Only six months before, her face had still been so beautiful, sweet, innocent, almost childlike. Now it was stiff and tense. She was like those women who tell themselves one fine day that life has passed them by, and blame mankind, beginning with the part of it they see in front of them. Whenever she said she needed her space. Whenever she hadn’t come home by two o’clock in the morning and she didn’t call me, and didn’t answer when I called her, and called her, and called her. Whenever she came home shouting that I should make her some new business cards. In the last few months, before my very eyes, Anne had become one of those women who look like mad pigeons desperate for a way out and who think they’ve found it in parties that drag on and on. I sat there in my deckchair, watching her under her medlar tree, still unable to get over the tense expression she always had on her face these days. The abrupt way she moved. The laconic way she answered me. When she answered me. Trying to remember when she’d last answered me. But now, perhaps, given what I was going to tell her. Without getting out of my deckchair, I heard myself raising my voice. Anne, listen, the thing is, this afternoon, the surgeon, you know, the one who did the operation on my mouth, well, he told me that, what I had, according to him. No. She’d already gone back inside the villa, heading for the fridge. The fridge, on the other side of the villa. I suppose I’d chosen the wrong moment again. I was always choosing the wrong moment, as far as she was concerned, these last few months. As soon as I uttered a sound, she absolutely had to go and get something from the fridge. Or put something away in the fridge. Any message from me was bound to remain undelivered because the addressee was absent. Even if I started shouting, and even if she still asked, instinctively, What, what was I saying. These exchanges with our voices at different volumes quickly became trying. Usually ended up with: Oh, nothing. And it wasn’t just her. The girls were the same. Mind you, with them it was only to be expected. Sooner or later, our children start to hate us,
and try to pay us back for how nice we’ve been to them in the past, it’s inevitable. Personally, I wouldn’t say I’ve been especially nice to the girls, but all the same, they hate me. Anne came back into the garden. As soon as I stopped talking, she always lost all interest in the fridge. She came back without looking at me. In a way, that was just as well, given the way she’d been looking at me these last few months. And she wasn’t even my daughter. I’d once been so feverishly alive around her. And now she’d become this cold, inscrutable woman I could hardly recognize. But who seemed to recognize me so well, she couldn’t stand me any more. The danger of staying in the vicinity of a woman who looks at you like that, is that you end up with something like an inkling of what she’s feeling.
Under the Medlar Tree
I was like an old, familiar vase left on a sideboard. How had we come to this in six months? She didn’t see me any more. Only natural, who’d bother to look at a vase? And how can you carry on living when all you are is an old, familiar vase on a sideboard? Ten minutes later, I tried again. I walked up to her and leaned on the medlar tree and, in a calm voice, speaking slowly, partly because of my recent mouth operation, and partly on purpose to give weight to what I was saying, I took the plunge. Anne, listen, the thing is, you know, if we don’t talk about things as we go along, in the end things build up, they ferment, until you can’t untangle them, and you find you’re trapped, and it’s been months since we last talked about anything, well, I talk but you, no, that’s not what I wanted to say, I just wanted to tell you what the surgeon told me this afternoon, and the effect it had on me, I’m sure that, just seeing me, if you saw me, or just from my voice, it should already be obvious, I’ve started to open up, and now we’re both going to open up, because after what the surgeon told me this afternoon, I’ve decided I also need my space, and I don’t even mind the parties, I’ll help you draw up the guest list, yes, I’ll help you, because quite honestly, your guests, well, you know what I mean.
She was still holding her pen but she’d stopped writing. Wasn’t adding any more of those tiresome characters to her list. That at least was something. Her head almost raised, practically turned in my direction, I could at least see her face. Not that I’d been able to read anything in it for the last six months, apart from latent excitability. So, as I was already used to this, even though I hadn’t finished saying what I’d started to say, I broke off. She started writing again. Just as I was about to try and talk to her again about her guests. She was writing. Better to drop it, I told myself. Don’t start again, don’t talk too much, careful, I told myself, don’t lose control. But I heard myself starting again. Because listen, Anne, your guests, I mean, to be honest, like that deputy chairman of yours, remember I was the one he asked to participate in his semi-voluntary initiative for new arrivals, he’d started to tell me about his project and, before he’d finished, he’d realized I wouldn’t do it, I must have looked too sensible to do something like that, so he asked you, but it was my idea, I was the one who remarked that people liked you more than me, you’d get better results, I was right, you soon got into it, but if I’d known, because it’s since you started to feel more self-confident, thanks to these semi-voluntary activities, that you’ve been going out all the time and that you. I managed to stop speaking. She was writing, and wasn’t even looking at me. I managed not to continue, not to get on to the fact that the worst of it was not knowing why she was so cold to me, why, one evening, about six months earlier, she had come into the bedroom, grabbed my clothes, which I’d just taken off and put on top of the chest of drawers, and thrown them on the floor, and not in a fit of temper, not even that, but coldly, and why, since then, she had stayed like that, cold, always, always, and since then, I’d been afraid for my clothes, or anything else that belonged to me that she just happened to glance at, so I put everything back in the room where I did my writing, and hid everything as best I could in my wardrobe, without even knowing why, why she was suddenly so abrupt with me. I managed not to continue, this time, in any case she wouldn’t have answered, wouldn’t have said anything. This time, I wasn’t even treated to the usual thing about how she needed her space.