Robert Pinget’s Mahu or The Material (1952), tells the story of the quixotic Mahu, who may be a character in his friend Latirail’s failing novel, which is taken over by characters created by another writer, the sinister Sinture.
This is the story I can’t make head nor tail of it, somebody said: “You ought to write it down,” I can’t remember who, perhaps it was me, I get everything mixed up, it’s true sometimes when I’m being introduced to someone I concentrate so much I take on the same face as the person and the friend who is introducing us doesn’t know if it’s me or the other one, he just leaves me to sort it out for myself. Instead of saying: “Excuse me” and putting on my real face again, I explain why I like to look like people and get all mixed up again, my friend gets angry and the other person goes off saying she hasn’t got all day to waste she’s got shopping to do.
So I’m writing this story down but there’s Latirail, he writes novels. Sometimes he tells me how he does it, but I only get more confused, he explains about his characters but I might be one of them for all I know! It’s all mixed up in my head, it doesn’t do to think too much, you forget where you were, it’s like fighting with the devil himself.
I had to do something, you see. I was always being told to work. I used to hear them getting up at half-past six to go to the office. I had fourteen brothers. At twenty-five past six the one who had the alarm-clock woke up and went to wake the others. I’d hear him knocking very quickly at all their doors, so quickly it seemed as if he was knocking at the same door all the time. We lived in a hotel.
He’d miss my door. But I always awake at quarter-past six. I used to wonder if one day he’d wake me like all the others and call, “The office!” My clothes were all laid out on the chair beside my bed. At twenty-past six I put my arm out of the bed and touched my trousers. Supposing he came and woke me too? I’d find myself in an office. I’d go to the boss and say: “They got me up at half-past six and here I am!” There’re offices everywhere! Where we live you can’t take two steps up the street without finding offices, people going to offices and offices looking for people.
Twenty-five past six. I can hear the alarm-clock. My brother will be getting up.
Half-past six. He’s missed my door. I can put my hand back under the bedclothes. I can hear the others getting up, the taps being turned on, hot and cold water gas on every floor please do not wipe your razor-blades on the towels breakfast is served in the rooms the management is not responsible for the theft of articles that are not handed in at the reception desk. There used to be a tremendous noise on the landing at ten to seven. They were young then. They must have been about twenty. They liked to make a lot of noise. One of them nearly always shouted at my door: “Eh, Mahu, still asleep, lazybones?” Mother forbade them to pen my door. She forbade them to wake me, she forbade them to talk to me about the office, she forbade them to make a noise. Gradually, as the years went by, the noise died down. I was no longer asked if I was asleep lazybones. I was allowed to put my arm out of the bedclothes and wait to see if they woke me. How many years ago was that, then? They must be thirty now.
Ten to seven. The taps are turned off. The windows are opened. The keys turn in the locks. Ever since we were twenty-five our doors have always been locked. The footsteps die away on the landing. The front door bangs. Not this time, then.
“Eh, Mahu! Are you asleep, lazybones?”
“What is it? Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Frédy.”
“The twelfth. Let me in.”
I get up and open the door. Frédy’s got a beard. He’s wearing a handkerchief in his breast pocket. He’s beginning to lose his hair. He looks like our father which art in heaven hallowed be thy name thy . . . I have to go and sit down on the bed. I’m trembling.
“What’s the matter, Mahu?”
“Oh, nothing. I’m not used to it, that’s all.”
“Do you want a drink of water? Do you want some tea? Do you want an aspirin?”
“No, it’s all right. Tell me about the office.”
He sits down. He looks at his watch.
“That’s just what I’ve come about. Don’t tell Mother, but we need another clerk at the office. So I thought of you. You must get bored doing nothing all the time. What do you say?”
“Oh, yes! Thanks, Frédy! I’ll get dressed right away.”
“Hurry up, then. It’s five to seven.”
I who knew all the noises by heart, had listened to them so many times, taps being turned on hot and cold water, I couldn’t do anything right. I opened the window, I cut the towel with my razor. I turned the gas on at every floor, I put my trousers on last. Frédy laughed. You’ve got the behind of a baby,” he said. “Hurry up, it’s quarter-past seven.” And we went out. But I remember, just before closing the door, just before, I couldn’t help but look at my photograph. It was a photograph I’d taken of some figs one summer at Fontoine. A summer holiday. I felt . . . that’s it, I felt empty. I nearly collapsed. Frédy said: “What’s the matter now?” And I said: “It’s nothing. It’s the figs.”
I’m now a clerk at Juan Simon’s. I don’t go home any more. I sleep in the warehouse. I’ve found a place where the rain doesn’t come in. I’ve got an iron bed. I’ve stuck my photo of the figs on a plank opposite. At night a friend of mine comes here to sleep. He sleeps beside me on the floor covered in blankets and the tarpaulins of Simon’s old car. So he doesn’t get wet when it rains. He’s a model at the Beaux Arts. He’s a Hungarian or something of the kind. He says he loves me. When he says it too often I tell him he’s getting on my nerves and he starts crying. I give him some honey that Mother brings sometimes. She’s afraid I don’t get enough to eat at Juan’s, it’s old honey she kept in a reserve during the wear for the customers at the hotel. It’s gone all granulated. But I don’t miss my room. All the others getting up in the morning, it was terrible . . . Now I get up at the same time as Traiko and we wash our hands and faces at the pump in the yard. He then goes off to have a cup of coffee—he goes to a different place every day. He gets it on credit. I get out my jar of honey. When I’ve finished it, I put it back under the bed. Then I got to the office.
Petite-Fiente is Juan Simon’s daughter. She’s eleven. She usually arrives at the office at the same time as me before going to school. She shows me the drawings she does and sums that are all wrong I think. I daren’t correct them for her because I can’t remember whether you put the figure you carry at the top or the bottom of the column. When I put it at the top the answer’s not the same as when I put it at the bottom. Juan gives me parcels to take to the post office or to warehouses or to the station. I know how to use the weighbridge. I know how to fill up the labels with name of sender name of addressee weight nature of contents. I write it all down.
One day at about ten in the morning I happened to be outside Petite-Fiente’s school. It was break time. She saw me at the gates and called to me. She called her friend over and introduced me as “Mad Mahu.” I wanted to smack her but I couldn’t because of the gates. She’s a nasty kid.
The Post Office
I was afraid I’d smacked Petite-Fiente.
You never know with her. She could quite easily say "He couldn’t because of the gates" and pretend I hadn’t smacked her. I went back to the school gates. Petite-Fiente was already well out of the way. I saw her friends. They started shouting "Here comes Mad Mahu who smacked Petite-Fiente." They put their tongues out at me and called me a dirty dog.
I didn’t know what to do. Juan Simon was sure to give me the sack. No more warehouse, no more bed. I’d have to go home. I didn’t want to. I had to find some way of staying at Juan’s. I called at the post office to see if there were any letters to be collected. It was Sinture the Postmaster who invented the poste restante. You can’t write directly to anyone. He forbade the postman to deliver letters. Everybody has to collect his own letters at the post office. Sinture gives them to you himself. He looks at you as you’re reading them. You’re not allowed to read them outside. If you do go outside to read them, he won’t let you see your letters for at least two months.
There was one letter for me. It was from Petite-Fiente. It said: "Mahu, if you tell Papa you smacked me I’ll tell him to sack you. Frédy says that if you’re sacked you’ll have to go back to the hotel. That would suit me. It would be a good thing if you did."
Things were looking better. At least I’d be able to stay at Juan’s.
I had one more parcel to take to the station. I knew there was a letter inside. Juan sometimes tries to deal directly with customers he knows very well, so as not to have to go through Sinture. But it’s dangerous. He’s already been denounced by customers, or by employees opening parcels, or simply by secretaries replying "Thank you for your letter of the … " and the boss signs it without noticing. In the post office Sinture sees Juan reading a letter which says "Thank you for your letter of … ", so he knows that Juan must have sent a letter in the parcel that Sinture has not seen, so he won’t let Juan see any of his letters for two months. It’s very bad for Juan’s business.
I knew my parcel contained a letter. I must be careful. But I was thirsty. I stopped at the Café du Cygne and ordered a menthe a l’eau. When I’m in a cafe, I daren’t look at people, I’m afraid they’ll suddenly say "You’re not called Mahu" because when I was born I was given another name and I was always ill so they changed my name. Could that be called a lie? I think about it all the time.
When I had finished my menthe a l’eau, I saw that my parcel had disappeared. I looked everywhere, under the seats, under the chairs, the proprietor said he hadn’t seen anything, I said it didn’t matter unless it caused trouble for Juan at the post office. I went back to the office. Juan was lowering the iron shutters. "Good evening, Mahu. Oh, Mahu, I’m sorry about the bit of trouble you had with my daughter. Yes, yes, she told me she had smacked you. Please forgive her. She can be very nasty sometimes. Highly-strung, you know. It’s all this worm-powder she’s been taking!"
I think Sinture must have informed Juan by telephone and made him tell me that Petite-Fiente had told him.
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