a glimpse of didier daeninckx’s paris unpleasant

 

 

"When I left they were getting ready to close the museum. Night was falling. Scraps of mist were rising from the Ill, enveloping the pillars of Saint Madeleine’s bridge. I dived into a brasserie near the Place Gutenberg and, with my mug of Grüber beer before me, tried to reflect on my wasted day. Shortly after eight, four students from the regional study centre, employees of the BNP, or so I gathered from their conversation, sat down at my table. They ordered tête de and eyed my sauerkraut as they veauguzzled their gelatinous dish. I was halted on my way back to the hotel by the neon lights of the UCG cinema. Rampling offering her body and Serrault wearing a tie, caressing her . . . The film did not, however, fulfil the somewhat louche promise of the poster."

 

 

“The Phantom of Rainbow Street”

By Didier Daeninckx

 

I sat on the waterfront, my legs dangling over the edge,

and put down my sandwich, scarcely even touched, upon

the uneven paving stones. A seagull swooped by and

hovered, as if it knew I wasn’t hungry, and I watched his

rapid reflection mirrored in the calm water. The crumbs I

threw on to the surface drew him down. For a little while

I watched the bird eat his silent meal. Then I rose and

crossed the great sluice gate, a sort of long enclosed bridge,

slung across the banks of the Ill. The passage was dark,

interspersed at regular intervals by cells with heavy iron

grilles imprisoning the damaged cathedral statues, a

winged angel with its smiling ox-head, for example.

I bought my newspaper from an itinerant street-seller in

the Quartier-Blanc, who was propping up the tower that

also served as a urinal. The fire hadn’t made the front

page, only two small columns on page 6: ‘Fire in the Rue

de l’Arc-en-ciel, one dead.’ The identity of the victim did

not figure in the account. The anonymous journalist had

pushed discretion to the point of ignoring my presence on

the scene when the drama took place.

   My singed eyebrows told a different story. But when

I think about it, he was right. There was no reason why

I should be in the Rue de l’Arc-en-ciel in Strasbourg that

October night! In the normal run of things I should have

been in Paris in the warm, putting the finishing touches

to an article on Godin’s phalanstery. But he could not

know about the winds of madness that regularly blew

through the offices of my accursed rag. Especially on

Sunday evenings.

   ‘Jean-Pierre, you’re off to Strasbourg!’

   The chief editor stood before me. He had taken care to

look thepart: open-necked shirt, rolled-up sleeves, loos-

ened tie, hunted expression with beads of sweat caused by

genuine anxiety. I looked up from my stuff on Guise, my

pen poised, in the middle of a word.

   ‘And what the hell am I supposed to do in Strasbourg?’

He adopted a yet more tragic expression.

   ‘I can’t move from here . . . But there’s a scoop to be

had. They’ve just uncovered some murals by Arp and ffan

Doesburg in the Ricard saloons . . .’

   I threw down my pen.

   ‘You’ve got the wrong man! Go and ask Philippe or

Alain, that’s their kind of thing. Lascaux’s not my scene!’

  ‘That’s not funny. They’re slaving away on the inaug-

uration of the Hôtel Salé. They’ve got to revise the whole

of Picasso. I can’t hold them back. There’s a lot of

publicity for the galleries in their article. Take a return ticket.

Anyway, one day in Strasbourg isn’t the end of the world,

the town’s not so bad. And as for the grub . . .’

   The memory of its gastronomic delights brought tears

to his eyes. I agreed.

   As soon as I arrived I hurried along to the Ricard

rooms in the Place Kléber, and found a notice on the

brass plate: ‘Closed Mondays.’ I would have to stay an

extra day. The documentation service of my newspaper

had not been able to provide me with the tiniest photo of

the wretched murals.

   I had to make do with the photocopy of a biographical

notice of Hans Arp, ‘painter-designer-sculptor-poet,

born in Strasbourg in 1886’, which made mention of the

Aubette wall-paintings. According to the document, in

1926 a patron had asked Arp and Van Doesburg, an

architect companion of Mondrian, to do the architecture

and design the interior of a vast leisure complex comprising

a cinema, night-club, saloons, bar, billiards, and

exhibition hall. The result was the largest ensemble of

abstract art in the world. The whole of Europe visited it

between 1927 and 1939, then just Germany, but at the

Liberation nothing was left! The disappearance of the

joint work of painter-sculptor and architect was put

down to the army of occupation in its struggle against

degenerate art.

   The Indian summer had bypassed the town. Over by

the model trains passers-by were warming themselves at

the chestnut vendors’ grills. I sacrificed to the ritual and

went back up the Rue des Grandes-Arcades, burning my

fingers on the way.

   The museum of modern art occupied part of the site of

the old customs buildings. I set myself to finding out

where the section devoted to Hans Arp was. In vain: it

had just been put into store in order to make room for a

Duchamp exhibition! The conservator handed me a

leaflet.

   ‘I’m sorry, but we’re only putting it back in January.

Have a look in the Galerie Alsacienne, the address is on

this leaflet, they’ve also got some documents on l’Aubette.’

I went back through the pedestrianized streets to the

Place du Château, finishing my chestnuts on the way. The

cathedral was sprouting pieces of metal tubing upon

which workmen in silhouette were hard at work. In places

the façade was recovering its original rose colour.

   The Arp corner of the Galerie Alsacienne possessed

two sculptures, a few drawings, and a plan of the saloon of

l’Aubette, the ‘Five o’clock’, accompanied by black-and-

white photos of certain murals. Huge compositions,

which one could imagine in colour, covered the walls of

the rooms where the volumes were waiting to be sorted.

Painted areas extended from walls to floors to ceilings, the

stairs, the partitions, the radiators, everything fitting to-

gether in the overall design. I tried to take photos of the

exhibition displays without being very hopeful of success.

fihen I got back to the foyer a crowd had formed in the

entrance. The woman behind the desk, a large lady with

glasses and a gentle face, looked at me and addressed me

in Alsacien.

   I raised my shoulders in a gesture of apology and then

asked:

   ‘Do you have a catalogue of the Aubette murals?’

   She looked surprised. Surprised and sorry.

   ‘There used to be a little booklet on Van Doesburg, but

we’ve run out. If you go up to the library on the floor

above they could at least show you a copy.’

   The librarian looked thirty years younger and thirty

kilos lighter than her colleague. The archivist of one’s

dreams: refined, blonde, and friendly. And it was with a

melting charm that she announced:

   ‘The collection is in the process of being computerized.

The acquisitions from the last ten years are in cardboard

boxes. There are nearly fifty thousand unclassified

volumes. Are you from Paris?’

   I nodded.

   ‘You’d easily be able to find that catalogue in the

Bibliotheque Nationale.’

   She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue.

I took in her words of advice without batting an eyelid.

Her voice stopped me in my tracks as I was leaving.

   ‘I’ll have a look and see if there is anything available.

Give me a ring tomorrow morning. Ask for me. My name

is Annie.’

   When I left they were getting ready to close the mu-

seum. Night was falling. Scraps of mist were rising from

the Ill, enveloping the pillars of Saint Madeleine’s bridge.

I dived into a brasserie near the Place Gutenberg and, with

my mug of Grüber beer before me, tried to reflect on my

wasted day. Shortly after eight, four students from the

regional study centre, employees of the BNP, or so

I gathered from their conversation, sat down at my table.

They ordered tête de veau and eyed my sauerkraut as they

guzzled their gelatinous dish. I was halted on my way back

to the hotel by the neon lights of the UCG cinema.

Rampling offering her body and Serrault wearing a tie,

caressing her . . . The film did not, however, fulfil the

somewhat louche promise of the poster.

   The exit from the cinema was at the back of the building

and I got lost in a labyrinth of streets which were all

completely new to me. The occasional passers-by I came

across hurried on their way; they were wrapped up so

tightly in their between-season’s clothes, they might as

well have been shut up inside their own houses. I decided

to make straight for the water, on the edge of the old town,

but soon, like going back in time, I felt that my walk no

longer needed an aim. My route was deflected by a sign, by

the position of a street, an evocative name. fiandering

from one to the other at random I wound up in the Rue

de l’Arc-en-ciel, which I continued down after emerging

from the Rue des Pucelles. It was a narrow, winding street,

with buildings from various periods. A modern residence

which occupied the corner of the street was backed on to by

an old decrepit building with flaking shutters. A tiny

untended garden led to some stairs with a rusty balustrade.

I don’t know why this house caught my attention. The

sadness of it? That feeling of being abandoned? Or

the movement I thought I saw behind the curtains on the

first floor? In any case what I did was take cover in the

darkness of a stone porch nearby. I stayed there a quarter of

an hour, my eyes fixed on the grey façade, getting colder

and colder. Suddenly the front door above the steps opened

a fraction. Then, for several minutes, nothing happened. I

was just preparing to leave my shelter when the door

opened a bit more. The broken figure of an old man

appeared, looking all around him. He went down the stairs,

muzzling the noise made by his footsteps, and crossed the

little garden. He went along the pavement a yard or two,

and then stopped in front of a restaurant whose curtains

were closed. I saw him plunge his arm into the dustbins, his

head raised like some crazy periscope above the stinking

rubbish. He trotted back to his cave, clutching a few

unspecified leftovers to his chest. The door silently closed.

The whole thing had taken no longer than a minute and

I was ready to believe I had dreamed it, had not a chicken

drumstick, with a bit of chicken still on it, cracked under

my shoe when I passed this strange habitation.

   The Ricard rooms opened to the public at ten. A young

Indian girl with a tattoo on her forehead was passing a

vacuum cleaner over the stair carpet. On the first floor

behind the bar, a guy of about 30, small, with narrow

shoulders, was occupied in putting the glasses away

according to size. On the walls, which were covered in

cream-coloured hessian, there was an exhibition of work

by local artists: paintings of leaves, metal reliefs, embroi-

deries . . . I leaned on the bar.

   ‘We’re not serving at the moment. Not till eleven

o’clock.’

   ‘I’ve not come for a drink . . . I’m doing an article on

the murals of l’Aubette. Do you know where they are?’

   He pointed to the back of the room where a series of

hideously discordant tapestries hung.

   ‘There are some over there, for sure, and round the rest

of the room!’

   My eyes opened wide.

   ‘You don’t mean to tell me I’ve come all this way for

that shit?’

   ‘They’re awful, that’s what I think, too. The murals are

behind the hessian. They were drilling in that corner for

the electricity and the workmen discovered them. There’s

a false wall protecting them.’

   I went over to the wall and raised one of the tapestries.

A clumsy mend in the cloth showed where they had been

drilling.

   ‘If I understand you correctly, the Germans were not so

barbaric as people claim. All they did was cover the pic-

tures up.’

   The barman joined me.

   ‘Not even that! They didn’t have any hand in it. When

they arrived in 1940 Hans Arp’s work was already invis-

ible. The owners of l’Aubette had sold the business in 1938

and their successors weren’t great lovers of modern art.

They’re the ones who boarded them up.’

   His patriotism, which lurked below the surface, was

satisfied when he added:

   ‘That’s definitely what saved those murals. I’m certain

that if the Germans had spotted them there would be

nothing left!’

   He went back behind thebar and started to line up his

glasses again.

   ‘Can I peek behind the cloth? Just to get some idea of

what they are like?’

   ‘Impossible. Everything’s been filled in again. We are

waiting for a team from the Ministry of Culture. What you

could do is go and have a look next door at Flunch, they

inherited part of the rooms and basements. That was

where the nightclubs were.’

   The young Indian girl was winding in the extension

lead when I left the Ricard saloon. The Flunch restaurant

occupied the whole ground floor of the right wing of

l’Aubette. At the counter the waitress was turning out

her trays of breakfast. I explained what I had come for,

being interrupted all the while by orders for coffee,

chocolate, espressos. She called ‘someone from the

management’ who piloted me through stock rooms, damp

recesses, places for dustbins. This ‘someone’ halted be-

tween two blackened pillars.

   ‘There you are, it’s at the back, on the wall.’

   ‘Is there a light?’

   He pressed several times with his forefinger on a

wrecked light switch.

   ‘No, it must be the mains.’

   I crossed the room, whose floor was littered with

stones, pieces of wood and paper, by the light of my

cigarette lighter. The ‘mural’ consisted of half a square

metre of wrapping paper stuck on the wall on which some

local artist had drawn a few traditional characters. So that

was what Flunch thought the work of Hans Arp was like!

   ‘Have you found it?’

   I made do with a nod. A chef met us on our return

journey.

   ‘Were you looking for the murals?’

   ‘Yes, why?’

   He shrugged.

   ‘There’s nothing here any more. They were all burned

at least twenty years ago.’

   I still had the library catalogues to go through. I made

a stop at La Fringale, a fast-food restaurant which turned

out dishes adapted to Alsatian gastronomy, and ordered a

doughnut. I remembered what the girl in the gallery had

suggested. I squeezedinto a phone booth on the Place

Kléber and dialled the number of the museum.

   ‘Could I speak to Annie?’

   I was treated to several bars of Mozart, then inter-

rupted by the voice of the archivist.

   ‘Yes?’

   ‘I came yesterday about the paintings in l’Aubette.’

   ‘You are in luck, I have found some documents which

might interest you.’

   I could hear her riffling through her papers, opening a

drawer.

   ‘Here we are. The decor was reconstituted in 1955 on

the campus of the University of Caracas in Venezuela.

I have a file with photographs. Is that any good?’

   I promised to come round in the afternoon and then

hung up, feeling rather disconsolate. I was beginning to

get seriously fed up with these invisible murals that no one

here seemed to give a damn about.

   My hotel was just nearby, in the Rue du 22 Novembre.

I was tempted to go and get my things and head back to

Paris. I don’t know what pretext stopped me: the

rendezvous with the blonde at the museum, or the furtive vision

I had seen the night before.

   Immersing myself in the books on the municipal

shelves taught me very little: the name of the sponsors of

l’Aubette, the Horn brothers. An enterprising couple who

had made their mark on Strasbourg. It was they who had

built the road where my temporary abode stood. They

gave it the name of November 22 to commemorate the

collapse of the Strasbourg soviet in 1918, when the Breton

regiments arrived!

   I had a beer in a student café. The alcohol slowly did its

work. To stretch my legs a bit and rid myself of the

stiffness which was invading my muscles, I set off to

wander the streets. I was not surprised, suddenly, to rec-

ognize the façades of the Rue des Juifs. I branched right

towards the Place Saint-Étienne and found the Rue de

l’Arc-en-ciel again. A few people were crowding into the

restaurants clustered further up the street, this side of

the crossroads. The abandoned house looked exactly the

same, both sinister and poignant. As I got nearer I noticed

that the door, which didn’t shut properly, had made a neat

fan shape as it scraped over the dust on the steps.

   A couple came out of the house next door. The woman

was carrying a tiny dog under her arm. The animal’s head

was invisible in her fur coat. I accosted them, and pointed

to the grey house:

   ‘Excuse me, but do you know who lives here?’

   The man paused. He looked up at the front of the

house.

   ‘Nobody very much, I reckon. We’ve just moved in.

You’d better ask at the corner café. They’ve been there for

donkeys’ years!’

   There was roast chicken on the menu. I sat down and

ate, waiting for the moment when I might be able to get

the inside story from the patron. As is usual, the oppor-

tunity arose when he came and leaned over my table to

work out the bill.

   ‘You’ve been living in this area for a while I under-

stand?’

   ‘You can’t always trust what people say, but they are

not telling fibs. I was born in this house fifty-five years ago

and have never left it! That’ll be 63 francs, with the coffee.’

    He held out the bill to me.

   ‘So you must know the old guy who sleeps in the grey

house further up the street?’

   He frowned and shook his head.

   ‘Are you talking about that half-ruined shack?’

   I nodded silently.

   ‘Never been an old chap there! It’s been empty for six

months ever since the old Kagen woman kicked the

bucket . . .’

   ‘You sure?’

   ‘Positive! She lived on her own after the war. Funny

woman, grumpy and reserved as they come! She lost her

husband when she was young, mind. Forty years without

a man, your nerves must be bloody awful.’

   He gave me a long look; I put a note next to the bill.

   ‘What are you after, exactly?’

   I had the disagreeable impression that he took me for

someone looking for a bargain, sent by an estate agent.

‘Nothing. I thought I had saw an old chap come out of

the house surreptitiously, like a thief.’

   He returned to the bar to sort out the change.

   I followed him.

   ‘Must be a tramp who’s hit on a good place. There are

more and more of them in town. They have to shelter as

soon as it starts to get nippy!’

   Back at the hotel, I called the newspaper. The editor-

in-chief began shouting at me.

   ‘What the hell are you up to? You might give some sign

of life. I need your article for tomorrow night. We’ve

advertised it. How far have you got with it?’

   ‘Nowhere! The murals are boarded up, the museums

have placed the remainder in storage and the

documentation is awaiting classification. They are putting all the

catalogues on line, just for fun. As for the library, we only

have access to the shelves. The place is in the process of

being reorganized. Having said that, I’ve got an important

lead on a remake of the murals in Caracas. Do I have the

go-ahead?’

   ‘If you’ve got the ready, by all means! But before you

do, make a detour via the paper and deliver twenty pages

of copy—okay?’

   I stretched out on my bed, my writing block in hand,

and had a go at my article. ‘A Masterpiece of Modern Art.’

A banal sort of title that I crossed out in order to replace it,

daringly, with: ‘The Sistine Chapel of Modern Art.’ That

also ended up being crossed out. By nightfall I hadn’t

crossed out anything else. But nor had I written anything

either. All I had done was miss my rendezvous with the

young blonde from the Alsatian gallery!

   I had a meal brought to my room and swallowed it

automatically while I watched a German programme on

the telly.Outside the mists from the Ill were gradually

invading the streets, making the silhouettes disappear.

I waited until half past eleven to go out. I walked across

the town, taking my time. The grey house produced in me

the same impression of desolation mingled with nostalgia

as it had the day before. I took up my observation post in

the corner of the porch. I couldn’t discern the least sign of

life for the first hour, which I spent absolutely motionless,

analysing in detail the progressive numbing and stiffening

of my body. I almost fell asleep, but the sound of the door

being scraped open jerkily on the cement wakened my

senses. There was the old man in the doorway, legs bent,

arms folded, back arched. He looked all round to see that

the coast was clear, then scurried across to the dustbins

outside the restaurant. I took advantage of his hasty trip to

cross the road and climb the steps. I pulled open the door

and went into a dark room where there was a strong smell

of decomposing matter.

   I was preparing to go in further when the door shut

behind me. The old man was facing me; a fear identical to

the fear that was making my heart beat so fast could be

seen in his face. He remained frozen for some seconds and

then dashed to the stairs on the left-hand side of the room,

howling:

   ‘No, you won’t get me. Never . . . never . . .’

   I rushed after him. The steps of the staircase were

spattered with rubbish and excrement, and my feet slipped

on it. I heard him raging around in the rooms above.

   ‘I don’t want to harm you. I’m a friend.’

   I had reached the landing. I picked up a newspaper,

shook off the filth clinging to it and rolled it up like a

torch. The damp paper lit reluctantly, spitting out little

blue and green flames. I made my way towards the access

to the loft, holding my makeshift torch in front of my face.

As I passed the fourth door, the madman rose behind me.

He was rendered hideous by the moving shadows created

by the flickering of the flames. Fascinated by the bright-

ness of his eyes, I did not notice the bayonet he was

holding in both hands. He started shouting, a meaningless

roar, and charged at me with the weapon pointing at my

chest. I just managed to get out of his way, but his

shoulder caught me and made me drop my torch. He

was already coming back at me. I made my escape by

leaping down the stairs and found myself on the pavement

again, gasping for breath. The old guy had not followed

me. I drew breath, leaning against the front of the house.

A passer-by shouted at me.

   ‘Hey, there’s a fire up there!’

   I looked up. The windows on the first floor were

sending out a reddish glow and smoke was forcing its

way out between the tiles.

   ‘Quick, call the fire brigade! There’s somebody in that

house!’

   I rushed back to the building and re-entered the down-

stairs room. The fire had dispelled the foul smell. I made

for the stairs. The top steps were already alight. The heat

of the inferno forced me back. The firemen managed to

control the fire before it reached the ground floor. They

found the charred body of the old man, his hard-cinder

hands grasping the handle of a bayonet. Thanks to the

papers kept in the kitchen drawers the police established

that it was without any doubt the body of Roger Kagen,

husband of the so-called widow who had died six months

before. Like 132,000 men from Alsace he had been con-

scripted into the Wehrmacht in 1942. Like thousands of

such men he had been put into an SS regiment. Dozens of

them had found themselves in the Das Reich division and

the destiny of Roger Kagen had been sealed at Oradour-

sur-Glane, 10 June 1944, outside a church in flames.

Since his clandestine return forty years previously he

had lived as a recluse in his house in the Rue de l’Arc-en-

ciel in the heart of Strasbourg; it was only the death of his

companion which had obliged him to return to the world

of the living.

   The journalist from L’Alsace libérée assigned to ‘news

in brief ’ waited for the man from the rescue unit to finish

examining my burns. He drew me to one side.

   ‘I hear you are a journalist from Paris.’ (He nodded

towards the smoking house.) ‘Not very nice all that . . . And

here we don’t really believe it’s necessary to dredge up all

that shit yet again . . .’

   I rubbed my eyebrows to get rid of the singed hairs.

I felt very old.

   ‘You do as you please. It’s your patch. Perhaps you’ll be

surprised to learn that I am here for l’Aubette and only

that.’

   His eyes widened, very likely he doubted whether I was

of sound mind.

   I folded my newspaper, threw a last glance at the gulls

flying above the Petite-France, and went back to the

station. In the train to Paris I got out my pad and reread,

through all the crossings-out, my attempts at a headline.

Suddenly I tore out the page, and then, in my most

careful handwriting, I inscribed the letters of the best title

of all: ‘The Phantom of Rainbow Street.’

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