historian vs novelist: felipe fernández armesto takes down j.m.g. le clézio’s take on mexico


The Mexican Dream is a book of dreams: the dream that was the religion of the Aztecs, the dreams of the Spanish conquistadores, the dream of a counter-history, of a continent still inviolate from European contact and conquest, and finally a dream of the present—a lyrical meditation on how indigenous Mesoamerican civilizations affect the European imagination. Le Clézio said of this book, “What motivated me was a sort of dream about what has disappeared and what could have been.”

Le Clézio on the literary aspects of history:

It is, I believe, the primary charm of poetry to give the lesson of mirage, that is, to show the fragile and vibrant movement of creation, in which the word is in a certain way human quintessence, prayer….

 

In their purest form myths, not unlike tragedy, are perhaps the most important moment in the troubled history of Mexican civilization. The cement of dreams, the architecture of language, made of images and rhythms which respond to and harmonize with each other through time and space, their wisdom is not of that which can be measured on the scale of the everyday. They are concurrently religion, ritual, belief, phantasmagoria, and the primary affirmation of a human coherence, the coagulating strength of language against the anguish of death and the certainty of nothingness. Myths express life, despite the promise of destruction, of the weight of the inevitable. They are without any doubt the most durable monuments of men, in America as in the ancient world. (pp. 9 – 11)

 

Le Clézio on the collision of cultures:

 

From that imbalance rose the tragic results of the coming together of two worlds. It was the extermination of an ancient dream by the frenzy of a modern one, the destruction of myths by a desire for power. It was gold, modern weapons, and rational thought pitted against magic and gods: the outcome could not have been otherwise. (p. 3)

 

We know of no other event like it in the history of the world, except perhaps the first confrontation in Europe between the neolithic peoples who came from the East and the primitive hunters. But no witness ever wrote of that great drama. (p. 6)

 

Abruptly, with the shock of the Conquest, the sober and puritanical man of the Christian Inquisition encountered, through their violent and upsetting nature, peoples who through their rituals were identified with the gods. (p. 48)


—all quotations from Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream: Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations



Cover Image

But wait! This prominent historian takes issue with Le Clézio:

“Evil victors, easy victims”

By Felipe Fernández Armesto

J. M. G. Le Clézio

THE MEXICAN DREAM

Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations

 

Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

232pp. University of Chicago Press.

$25 (paperback, $15); distributed in the UK by Wiley.

£17.50 (paperback, £ 1 0.50).

9780226 110035

 

The argument of The Mexican Dream — as far as it can be made out — is that "Mexico is a land of dreams", by which, J. M. G. Le Clézio explains, he means a culture with an idiosyncratic notion of reality, or "made of a different truth", as he says in his characteristically obscure way. In the episode commonly known as the Spanish conquest, rival dreams collided: the conquerors, with their "dream of gold", dreamed their victory, while the natives, obsessed with a nightmare of self-annihilation, dreamed their defeat. The conquest "interrupted Mexican thought" because the conquerors effectively suppressed and "silenced" indigenous cultures. Had those cultures survived, aspects of the natives’ civilizations that Le Clézio thinks were "ahead of Europe" – including "medicine, astronomy, irrigation, drainage, and urbanism" as well as "harmony between man and the world, that balance between the body and the spirit, the union of the individual and the collectivity" – would have enriched the West. We might have enjoyed "a new scientific and humanist way of thinking", established ecological equilibrium, and, under shamans’ instruction, "integrated dream and ecstasy into daily life". No one knowledgeable about Mexico is likely to find any of this persuasive, from the vapid initial assumption to the feebly sententious, faintly ludicrous conclusion.

 

The Mexican Dream originally appeared in 1993, since when scholarship has revolutionized understanding of the history of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. The author has not taken advantage of the appearance of a paperback edition to make revisions. Because he reads texts uncritically and ignores most of the findings of the last twenty years, he presents seriously warped and outdated pictures of the conquest and the colonial period. He treats colonial-era chroniclers as authorities on the pre-conquest world. He cites Bernal Díaz as an authority on native religion. He thinks the writers Las Casas and Motolinfa were "witnesses of the conquest".

 

Le Clézio further thinks that all the indigenous cultures of Mexico — and even most of those of the New World — were foredoomed to disaster by fatalistic and apocalyptic superstitions. He accepts colonial stories of Aztec morale subverted by "omens" that no reliable evidence attests. He believes Spaniards’ self-interested claims that natives accepted the invaders as superior because they mistook them for gods. The publishers’ blurb tells us that Le Clézio has studied Mexican history for thirty years; yet he thinks the search for El Dorado began before the conquest. A look at some accessible recent works, such as Matthew Restall’ s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (2003), Michael Smith’s archaeological study of the Aztecs, or even Charles Mann’s painstaking vulgarization, 1491, would have saved him from his most egregious howlers and enabled him to bring the text into line with current scholarship.

 

Le Clézio’s account of the colonial period also traduces the facts. He realizes that millenarian movements exhibited continuity from pre-conquest times, but if he had read Frank Graziano’s recent book on the subject (2006), he would have been able to re-evaluate and date these accurately. He also seems to sense that the conquest did not put an end to native mythopoeia, which, he claims, "still vibrates in the work of Agustín Yáñez, in the poetry of Gilberto Owen and Octavio Paz". In general, however, unaware of the durability of indigenous culture, the vitality of native agency and the cultural creativity of many colonial encounters, he sees the colonial epoch as merely destructive, and wildly overestimates the extent of Spanish power over the natives. The collaborations between intruded and indigenous elites, without which the colonial regime is unintelligible, pass the author by. In Le Clézio’s account, evil Spanish victors, who seem to have stepped straight out of the "Black Legend", crush uniformly resistant and noble but hopeless native victims.

 

A chapter on indigenous myths represents a pitiably old-fashioned style of anthropology, which Mr Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch would recognize, concerned with finding universal symbols and themes. The cultural differences, which make the native worlds of Mexico enthralling, vanish. A couple of interpolated short chapters struggle for relevance, on the poetry attributed to Nezahualcoyotl, pre-conquest ruler of Texcoco, which Le Clézio unquestioningly accepts as authentic, and on Antonin Artaud, the drug-crazed ex-Surrealist who briefly, in the 1930s, sought refuge in Mexico from the supposed decadence of Western civilization. The rambling conclusion, with its mawkish romanticization of indigenous societies and its confidence in the myth of the "ecological Indian", seems to arise not from the book but from prejudices in the author’s head.

 

No doubt, because of its author’s literary prestige (J. M. G. Le Clézio was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008, mainly for his novels), it will attract sycophantic reviews and receptive readers. The effect will be to set back the good work of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists in creating a realistic picture of Mexican history, with its blend of continuity and change, and of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, unbenighted by mentalité sauvage, with their fascinating and profound differences, and their subtle, multivalent relationships with the Europeans and Africans who joined them in the colonial era.

—from the Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009

 

“man never has really loved humanity all of a piece”… is jean raspail the anti-clézio?

In the wake of the good feelings sparked by J.M.G. Le Clézio`s receipt of this year`s Nobel Proze in Literature, my thoughts soon turned to the career of another French writer who has given serious thought to some of the same issues as Le Clézio, and whose decidedly different conclusions have made him a persona non grata in most literary discussions, Jean Raspail.

Here’s a liitle thought experiment for you: Take a white child, raise him in an isolated town where life seems closer to the ninteenth than the twenty-first century, permit him to read nothing but the Bible until he attains the age of reason, then feed him a steady diet of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Émile Zola (carefully omitting the Dreyfus affair), Carl Schmitt and Joseph de Maistre, throw in theodd beating for no apparent reason, and then drop him in the middle of London or Paris, or Washington or Toronto, with a “Kick Me” sign on his back and only $20 in his pocket, then in a matter of days one would have… someone very much like Jean Raspail!

Raspail is not well-known in North America, and most of those people one meets who have read him are cranks, white power nuts, or worse, to put it mildly. And indeed, in his best-known book, The Camp of the Saints, Raspail seems to take a perverse delight in forcing us to look at material that borders on the intolerable, and then steps across that border as if steeping out for a stroll in the summer evening. And yet to simply dismiss Raspail as a racist is to do exactly what he would expect you to do—and by commiting that act of dismissal one would both evade and unwittingly manifest the thrust of his book.

There is an integrity in Raspail’s novel that goes beyond his social commentary and political digressions, an integrity that stems from his calling our attention to material we find intolerable—not because he wishes to shock us for his own amusement, but because he honestly believes the matter at hand is so serious, so dire, that it requires our sustained thought immediately: and that desperate effort to have us look at something we don’t want to look at is something so few novelists try to do anymore.

Whatever one thinks of Raspail’s socio-political observations, one must concede—if not admire—the fact that his writing carries the courage of his convictions so openly. To fail to grant Raspail at least that much is to fail to properly enter Raspail’s novelistic world—in other words, it is a failure to read in the fullest sense.

A few years ago an obscure right-wing journal offered this brief accounting of The Camp of the Saints:

In 1973, France saw the original publication of The Camp of the Saints, a novel about the perils of third-world overpopulation taking over the wealthy first-world nations. It was translated into several languages, including English, in 1975. One hundred rusty, dilapidated boats leave India crammed with starving would-be immigrants. Indians, like so many other third-world citizens, are desperate and bitter about their lives. The first worlders know the boats are en route to France, yet they make little effort to prevent the ships from landing. The French citizens feel guilty for having so many material goods and empathize with the miserable, starving masses. The liberal press, churches and students have helped instill a sense of guilt. The people don’t have the will to defend and preserve their culture. Many French try to flee to Switzerland. Leaders of first-world countries watch the progress of the rickety boats and cannot muster the political will to prevent invasions. The new politically correct statement is ”We are all from the Ganges now.” The success of the Indian boats encourages millions of Third Worlders to take over other European nations. The reader is given a glimpse of what happens in New York City. Though the author considered his work a parable, it seems to be a prophecy. Population is increasing, the rusty freighters are arriving and we do not have the political will to control our borders. The mainstream liberal press condemned Jean Raspail’s book as racist, a tirade and preposterous, but such remarks only appeared to increase sales figures. The Atlantic Monthly called it ”one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century” in a December 1994 review. The Social Contract Press reprinted the book in 1994, and used on its cover a photo of the Golden Venture passengers gathered on the beach in Queens, New York, in 1993. The author has written 19 other books including Seven Horsemen.

Carol Joyal, review of Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, The Social Contract (Summer 2000).

If Lawrence’s dictum that “the novel is the one big bright book of life” is true, then The Camp of the Saints is an anti-novel—not by virtue of its aesthetics, which are straightforwardly conventional (no Robbe-Grillet-style experimentation here)—but because of its unrelenting commitment to follow its own internal—and infernal—logic into the dark, life-denying places no normal person wishes to go.

And yet, after a certain point, one cannot elect to simply shut the book and put it back on the shelf: some furious impulse latent in the narrative forces one to go right through to the novel’s appalling conclusion. Acknowledging a book’s ability to force one to read almost against one’s will—that must be one of the highest tributes one can pay to the power of a novelist’s art.

To conclude: finding oneself in The Camp of the Saints is bracing experience. It can force you to look at your own accumulated stores of received wisdom and what we think of as common sense, and defend your assumptions and suppositions—or reject them. This is not always a pleasant process. Jean Raspail’s France, in fact, the whole of the Western world as he conceives it, is not a very nice place to visit… but in many ways we are already living there. Read him.

 

THE CAMP OF THE SAINTS

By Jean Raspail

Translated by Norman Shapiro

Originally published in French as Le Camp Des Saints, 1973

 

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison, and will go forth and deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, and will gather them together for the battle; the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up over the breadth of the earth and encompassed the camp of the saints, and the beloved city. —APOCALYPSE 20

My spirit turns more and more toward the West, toward the old heritage. There are, perhaps, some treasures to retrieve among its ruins … I don’t know. —LAWRENCE DURRELL

As seen from the outside, the massive upheaval in Western society is approaching the limit beyond which it will become “meta-stable” and must collapse. —SOLZHENITSYN

 

I HAD WANTED TO WRITE a lengthy preface to explain my position and show that this is no wild-eyed dream; that even if the specific action, symbolic as it is, may seem farfetched, the fact remains that we are inevitably heading for something of the sort. We need only glance at the awesome population figures predicted for the year 2000, i.e., twenty-eight years from now: seven billion people, only nine hundred million of whom will be white.

But what good would it do?

I should at least point out, though, that many of the texts I have put into my characters’ mouths or pens—editorials, speeches, pastoral letters, laws, news stories, statements of every description—are, in fact, authentic. Perhaps the reader will spot them as they go by. In terms of the fictional situation I have presented, they become all the more revealing.

—J.R.

 

One

The old professor had a rather simple thought. Given the wholly abnormal conditions, he had read, and reasoned, and even written too much—versed as he was in the workings of the mind—to dare propose anything, even to himself, but the most banal of reflections, worthy of a schoolboy’s theme. It was a lovely day, warm but not hot, with a cool spring breeze rolling gently and noiselessly over the covered terrace outside the house. His was one of the last houses up toward the crest of the hill, perched on the rocky slope like an outpost guarding the old brown-hued village that stood out above the landscape, towering over it all, as far as the tourist resort down below; as far as the sumptuous boulevard along the water, with its green palms, tips barely visible, and its fine white homes; as far as the sea itself, calm and blue, the rich man’s sea, now suddenly stripped of all the opulent veneer that usually overspread its surface—the chrome-covered yachts, the muscle-bulging skiers, the gold-skinned girls, the fat bellies lining the decks of sailboats, large but discreet—and now, stretching over that empty sea, aground some fifty yards out, the incredible fleet from the other side of the globe, the rusty, creaking fleet that the old professor had been eyeing since morning. The stench had faded away at last, the terrible stench of latrines, that had heralded the fleet’s arrival, like thunder before a storm. The old man took his eye from the spyglass, moved back from the tripod. The amazing invasion had loomed up so close that it already seemed to be swarming over the hill and into his house. He rubbed his weary eye, looked toward the door. It was a door of solid oak, like some deathless mass, jointed with fortress hinges. The ancestral name was carved in somber wood, and the year that one of the old man’s forebears, in uninterrupted line, had completed the house: 1673. The door opened out on the terrace from the large main room that served as his library, parlor, and study, all in one. There was no other door in the house. The terrace, in fact, ran right to the road, down five little steps, with nothing like a gate to close them off, open to any and every passerby who felt like walking up and saying hello, the way they did so often in the village. Each day, from dawn to dusk, that door stood open. And on this particular evening, as the sun was beginning to sink down to its daily demise, it was open as well—a fact that seemed to strike the old man for the very first time. It was then that he had this fleeting thought, whose utter banality brought a kind of rapturous smile to his lips: “I wonder,” he said to himself, “if, under the circumstances, the proverb is right, and if a door really has to be open or shut …”

Then he took up his watch again, eye to glass, to make the most of the sun’s last, low-skimming rays, as they lit the unlikely sight one more time before dark. How many of them were there, out on those grounded wrecks? If the figures could be believed—the horrendous figures that each terse news bulletin had announced through the day, one after another—then the decks and holds must be piled high with layer on layer of human bodies, clustered in heaps around smokestacks and gangways, with the dead underneath supporting the living, like one of those columns of ants on the march, teeming with life on top, exposed to view, and below, a kind of ant-paved path, with millions of trampled cadavers. The old professor—Calgues by name—aimed his glass at one of the ships still lit by the sun, then patiently focused the lens until the image was as sharp as he could make it, like a scientist over his microscope, peering in to find his culture swarming with the microbes that he knew all the time must be there. The ship was a steamer, a good sixty years old. Her five stacks, straight up, like pipes, showed how very old she was. Four of them were lopped off at different levels, by time, by rust, by lack of care, by chance—in short, by gradual decay. She had run aground just off the beach, and lay there, listing at some ten degrees. Like all the ships in this phantom fleet, there wasn’t a light to be seen on her once it was dark, not even a glimmer. Everything must have gone dead—boilers, generators, everything, all at once—as she ran to meet her self-imposed disaster. Perhaps there had been just fuel enough for this one and only voyage. Or perhaps there was no one on board anymore who felt the need to take care of such things—or of anything else—now that the exodus had finally led to the gates of the newfound paradise. Old Monsieur Calguès took careful note of all he saw, of each and every detail, unaware of the slightest emotion within him. Except, that is, for his interest; a prodigious interest in this vanguard of an antiworld bent on coming in the flesh to knock, at long last, at the gates of abundance. He pressed his eye to the glass, and the first things he saw were arms. As best he could tell, his range of vision described a circle on deck ten yards or so in diameter. Then he started to count. Calm and unhurried. But it was like trying to count all the trees in the forest, those arms raised high in the air, waving and shaking together, all outstretched toward the nearby shore. Scraggy branches, brown and black, quickened by a breath of hope. All bare, those fleshless Gandhi-arms. And they rose up out of scraps of cloth, white cloth that must have been tunics once, and togas, and pilgrims’ saris. The professor reached two hundred, then stopped. He had counted as far as he could within the bounds of the circle. Then he did some rapid calculation. Given the length and breadth of the deck, it was likely that more than thirty such circles could be laid out side by side, and that between every pair of tangent circumferences there would be two spaces, more or less triangular in shape, opposite one another, vertex to vertex, each with an area roughly equal to one-third of a circle, which would give a total of 30 + 10 = 40 circles, 40 x 200 arms = 8,000 arms. Or four thousand bodies! On this one deck alone! Now, assuming that they might be several layers thick, or at least no less thick on each of the decks—and between decks and below decks too—then the figure, astounding enough as it was, would have to be multiplied by eight. Or thirty thousand creatures on a single ship! Not to mention the dead, floating here and there around the hull, trailing their white rags over the water, corpses that the living had been throwing overboard since morning. A curious act, all in all, and one not inspired by reasons of hygiene, to be sure. Otherwise, why wait for the end of the voyage? But Monsieur Calgues felt certain he had hit on the one explanation. He believed in God. He believed in all the rest: eternal life, redemption, heavenly mercy, hope and faith. He believed as well, with firm conviction, that the corpses thrown out on the shores of France had reached their paradise too to waft their way through it, unconstrained, forevermore. Even more blessed than the living themselves, who, throwing them into the sea, had offered their dead, then and there, the gift of salvation, joy, and all eternity. Such an act was called love. At least that was how the old professor understood it.

And so night settled in, but not until daylight had glimmered its last red rays once more on the grounded fleet. There were better than a hundred ships in all, each one caked with rust, unfit for the sea, and each one proof of the miracle that had somehow guided them, safe and sound, from the other side of the earth. All but one, that is, wrecked off the coast of Ceylon. They had lined up in almost mannerly fashion, one after the other, stuck in the sand or in among the rocks, bows upraised in one final yearning thrust toward shore.

And all around, thousands of floating, white-clad corpses, that daylight’s last waves were beginning to wash aground, laying them gently down on the beach, then rolling back to sea to look for more. A hundred ships! The old professor felt a shudder well up within him, that quiver of exaltation and humility combined, the feeling we sometimes get when we turn our minds, hard as we can, to notions of the infinite and the eternal. On this Easter Sunday evening, eight hundred thousand living beings, and thousands of dead ones, were making their peaceful assault on the Western World. Tomorrow it would all be over. And now, rising up from the coast to the hills, to the village, to the house and its terrace, a gentle chanting, yet so very strong for all its gentleness, like a kind of singsong, droned by a chorus of eight hundred thousand voices. Long, long ago, the Crusaders had sung as they circled Jerusalem, on the eve of their last attack. And Jericho’s walls had crumbled without a fight when the trumpets sounded for the seventh time. Perhaps when all was silent, when the chanting was finally stilled, the chosen people too would feel the force of divine displeasure. … There were other sounds as well. The roar of hundreds of trucks. Since morning, the army had taken up positions on the Mediterranean beaches. But there in the darkness there was nothing beyond the terrace but sky and stars.

It was cool in the house when the professor went inside, but he left the door open all the same. Can a door protect a world that has lived too long? Even a marvel of workmanship, three hundred years old, and one carved out of such utterly respectable Western oak? … There was no electricity. Obviously, the technicians from the power plants along the coast had fled north too, with all the others, the petrified mob, turning tail and running off without a word, so as not to have to look, not see a thing, which meant they wouldn’t have to understand, or even try. The professor lit the oil lamps that he always kept on hand in case the lights went out. He threw one of the matches into the fireplace. The kindling, carefully arranged, flashed up with a roar, crackled, and spread its light and warmth over the room. Then he turned on his transistor, tuned all day long to the national chain. Gone now the pop and the jazz, the crooning ladies and the vapid babblers, the black saxophonists, the gurus, the smug stars of stage and screen, the experts on health and love and sex. All gone from the airwaves, all suddenly judged indecent, as if the threatened West were concerned with the last acoustic image it presented of itself. Nothing but Mozart, the same on every station. Eine kleine Nachtmusik, no less. And the old professor had a kindly thought for the program director, there in his studio in Paris. He couldn’t possibly see or know, and yet he had understood. For those eight hundred thousand singsong voices that he couldn’t even hear, he had found, instinctively, the most fitting reply. What was there in the world more Western than Mozart, more civilized, more perfect? No eight hundred thousand voices could drone their chant to Mozart’s notes. Mozart had never written to stir the masses, but to touch the heart of each single human being, in his private self. What a lovely symbol, really! The Western World summed up in its ultimate truth … An announcer’s voice roused the old professor from his musings:

“The President of the Republic has been meeting all day at the Élysée Palace with government leaders. Also present, in view of the gravity of the situation, are the chiefs of staff of the three branches of the armed forces, as well as the heads of the local and state police, the prefects of the departments of Var and Alpes-Maritimes, and, in a strictly advisory capacity, His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, the papal nuncio, and most of the Western ambassadors currently stationed in the capital. At present the meeting is still in progress. A government spokesman, however, has just announced that this evening, at about midnight, the President of the Republic will go on the air with an address of utmost importance to the nation. According to reports reaching us from the south, all still seems quiet on board the ships of the refugee fleet. A communiqué from army headquarters confirms that two divisions have been deployed along the coast in the face … in the face of …” (The announcer hesitated. And who could blame him? Just what should one call that numberless, miserable mass? The enemy? The horde? The invasion? The Third World on the march?) “… in the face of this unprecedented incursion (There! Not too bad at all!) “… and that three divisions of reinforcements are heading south at this moment, despite considerable difficulty of movement. In another communiqué, issued not more than five minutes ago, army chief of staff Colonel Dragasès has reported that troops under his command have begun setting fire to some twenty immense wooden piles along the shore, in order to … (Another hesitation. The announcer seemed to gasp. The old professor even thought he heard him mutter “My God!”) “… in order to burn the thousands of dead bodies thrown overboard from all the ships …”

And that was all. A moment later, with hardly a break, Mozart was back, replacing those three divisions hurtling southward, and the score of funeral pyres that must have begun to crackle by now in the crisp air down by the coast. The West doesn’t like to burn its dead. It tucks away its cremation urns, hides them out in the hinterlands of its cemeteries. The Seine, the Rhine, the Loire, the Rhône, the Thames are no Ganges or Indus. Not even the Guadalquivir and the Tiber. Their shores never stank with the stench of roasting corpses. Yes, they have flowed with blood, their waters have run red, and many a peasant has crossed himself as he used his pitchfork to push aside the human carcasses floating downstream. But in Western times, on their bridges and banks, people danced and drank their wine and beer, men tickled the fresh, young laughing lasses, and everyone laughed at the wretch on the rack, laughed in his face, and the wretch on the gallows, tongue dangling, and the wretch on the block, neck severed—because, indeed, the Western World, staid as it was, knew how to laugh as well as cry—and then, as their belfreys called them to prayer, they would all go partake of their fleshly god, secure in the knowledge that their dead were there, protecting them, safe as could be, laid out in rows beneath their timeless slabs and crosses, in graveyards nestled against the hills, since burning, after all, was only for devilish fiends, or wizards, or poor souls with the plague. … The professor stepped out on the terrace. Down below, the shoreline was lit with a score of reddish glows, ringed round with billows of smoke. He opened his binoculars and trained them on the highest of the piles, flaming neatly along like a wooden tower, loaded with corpses from bottom to top. The soldiers had stacked it with care, first a layer of wood, then a layer of flesh, and so on all the way up. At least some trace of respect for death seemed to show in its tidy construction. Then all at once, down it crashed, still burning, nothing now but a loathsome mass, like a heap of smoking rubble along the public way. And no one troubled to build the nice neat tower again. Bulldozers rolled up, driven by men in diving suits, then other machines fitted with great jointed claws and shovels, pushing the bodies together into soft, slimy mounds, scooping a load in the air and pouring it onto the fire, as arms and legs and heads, and even whole cadavers overflowed around them and fell to the ground. It was then that the professor saw the first soldier turn and run, calling to mind yet another cliché, arms and legs flapping like a puppet on a string, in perfect pantomime of unbridled panic. The young man had dropped the corpse he was dragging. He had wildly thrown down his helmet and mask, ripped off his safety gloves. Then, hands clutched to temples, he dashed off, zigzag, like a terrified jackrabbit, into the ring of darkness beyond the burning pile. Five minutes more, and ten other soldiers had done the same. The professor closed his binoculars. He understood. That scorn of a people for other races, the knowledge that one’s own is best, the triumphant joy at feeling oneself to be part of humanity’s finest—none of that had ever filled these youngsters’ addled brains, or at least so little that the monstrous cancer implanted in the Western conscience had quashed it in no time at all. In their case it wasn’t a matter of tender heart, but a morbid, contagious excess of sentiment, most interesting to find in the flesh and observe, at last, in action. The real men of heart would be toiling that night, and nobody else. Just a moment before, as the nice young man was running away, old Calguès had turned his glasses briefly on a figure that looked like some uniformed giant, standing at the foot of the burning pile, legs spread, and hurling up each corpse passed over to him, one by one, with a powerful, rhythmic fling, like a stoker of yesteryear deep belowdecks, feeding his boiler with shovelfuls of coal. Perhaps he too was pained at the sight, but if so, his pain didn’t leave much room for pity. In fact, he probably didn’t think of it at all, convinced that now, finally, the human race no longer formed one great fraternal whole—as the popes, philosophers, intellects, politicos, and priests of the West had been claiming for much too long. Unless, that is, the old professor, watching “the stoker” and his calm resolve—the one he called “the stoker” was really Colonel Dragases, the chief of staff, up front to set his men an example—was simply ascribing to him his own ideas. … That night, love too was not of one mind. Man never has really loved humanity all of a piece—all its races, its peoples, its religions—but only those creatures he feels are his kin, a part of his clan, no matter how vast. As far as the rest are concerned, he forces himself, and lets the world force him. And then, when he does, when the damage is done, he himself falls apart. In this curious war taking shape, those who loved themselves best were the ones who would triumph. How many would they be, next morning, still joyously standing their ground on the beach, as the hideous army slipped down by the thousands, down into the water, for the onslaught by the living, in the wake of their dead? Joyously! That was what mattered the most. A moment before, as he watched “the stoker,” the professor had thought he could see him move his lips, wide open, as if he were singing. Yes, by God, singing! If even just the two of them could stand there and sing, perhaps they could wake up the rest from their deathly sleep. … But no other sound came rising from the shore, no sound but the soft, foreboding chant welling up out of eight hundred thousand throats.

“Pretty cool, man, huh!” exclaimed a voice in the shadows.

Two

Noiselessly, the young man had come up the five little steps from the road and onto the terrace. Feet bare, hair long and dirty, flowered tunic, Hindu collar, Afghan vest.

“I’ve just been down there,” he said. “Fantastic! I’ve been waiting five years for something like this!”

“Are you alone?”

“So far. Except for the ones who were already here. But there’s lots more on the way. They’re all coming down. And walking, too. All the pigs are pulling out and heading north! I didn’t see a single car in this direction! Man, they’re going to be bushed, but this is too good to miss. Going to smoke, and shoot dope, and walk all the way. Make it down here on their feet, not on their butts.”

“Did you get a close look down there?”

“Real close. Only not for long. I got smashed a couple of times. Some soldier, with his gun. Like I was trash. But I saw a bunch of other soldiers crying. It’s great! I’m telling you, tomorrow this country’s going to be something else. You won’t know it. It’s going to be born all over.”

“Did you see the people on the boats?”

“You bet I did!”

“And you think you’re anything like them? Look, your skin is white. You’re a Christian, I imagine. You speak our language, you have our accent. You probably even have family hereabouts, don’t you?”

“So what! My real family’s all the people coming off those boats. Here I am with a million of my brothers, and sisters, and fathers, and mothers. And wives if I want them. I’ll sleep with the first one that lets me, and I’ll give her a baby. A nice dark baby. And after a while I’ll melt into the crowd.”

“Yes, you’ll disappear. You’ll be lost in that mass. They won’t even know you exist.”

“Good! That’s just what I’m after. I’m sick of being a tool of the middle class, and I’m sick of making tools of people just like me, if that’s what you mean by existing. My parents took off this morning. And my two sisters with them. Afraid of getting raped, all of a sudden. They went and dressed up like everyone else. These real square clothes, I mean. Things they haven’t put on in years, like neat little skirts, and blouses with buttons. So scared, you wouldn’t know them. Well, they won’t get away. Nobody’s going to get away. Let them try to save their ass. They’re finished, all of them. Man, you should have seen it! My father, with his arms full of shoes from his store, piling them into his nice little truck. And my mother, bawling her head off, figuring out which ones to take, picking out the expensive ones and leaving the rest. And my sisters, already up front, huddling together and staring at me, scared to death, like maybe I was the first one in line to rape them. And meanwhile I’m laughing and having myself a ball, like when my old man pulls down the grille in front of the store and sticks the key in his pocket. ‘Listen,’ I told him, ‘a lot of good that’s going to do! I can open your door myself without a key. And I will, tomorrow. And you know what they’ll do with your goddamn shoes? They’ll probably use them to piss in. Or maybe they’ll eat them. Because they all go barefoot!’ Then he gave me a look, and he spit on me. So I spit back and got him in the eye with a big one. And that’s how we said good-bye.”

“And what brings you here? Why this village? Why my house?”

“I’m looting, that’s why. I sponged off society while it was alive, so now that it’s dead, I’m going to pick its bones. It’s a change. I like it. Because everything’s dead. Except for the army, and you, and a few of my friends, there’s no one around for miles. So I’m looting, man. But don’t worry, I’m not hungry. I’ve already stuffed myself. And anyway, I don’t need much. Besides, everything’s mine now. And tomorrow I’m going to stand here and let them have it all. I’m like a king, man, and I’m going to give away my kingdom. Today’s Easter, right? Well, this is the last time your Christ’s going to rise. And it won’t do you any good this time, either, just like all the rest.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow

“There’s a million Christs on those boats out there. And first thing in the morning they’re all going to rise. The million of them. So your Christ, all by himself … Well, he’s had it, see?”

“Do you believe in God?”

“Of course not!”

“And those million Christs? Is that your own idea?”

“No, but I thought it was kind of cool. For padre talk, I mean. I got it from this priest. One of those worker types from the wrong side of town. I ran into him an hour ago. I was on my way up here, and he was running like crazy down the hill. Not in rags or anything, but kind of weird. He kept stopping and lifting his arms in the air, like the ones down there, and he’d yell out: ‘Thank you, God! Thank you!’ And then he’d take off again, down to the beach. They say there’s more on the way.”

“More what?”

“More priests, just like him … Say listen, man, I’m getting tired of you. I didn’t come here to talk. Besides, you’re just a ghost. How come you’re still around?”

“I want to hear what you have to say.”

“You mean my bullshit interests you?”

“Immensely.

“Then I’ll tell you something: you’re through. Dried up. You keep thinking and talking, but there’s no more time for that. It’s over. So beat it!”

“Oh? I daresay …”

“Listen. You and this house, you’re both the same. You look like you’ve both been around here for a thousand years.”

“Since 1673, to be exact,” the old gentleman answered, smiling for the first time.

“Three centuries, father to son. And always so sure of yourselves, so damn sure of everything. Man, that’s sick!”

“Quite true. But I find your concern a trifle surprising. Perhaps you’re still one of us after all. Perhaps just a little?”

“Shut up before you make me puke! Maybe you’ve got a pretty house. So what? And maybe you’re not a bad old guy. Smart, and refined, and everything just right. But smug, man, so sure of your place. So sure that you fit right in. With everything around you. Like this village of yours, with its twenty generations of ancestors just like you. Twenty generations without a conscience, without a heart. What a family tree! And now here you are, the last, perfect branch. Because you are, you’re perfect. And that’s why I hate you. That’s why I’m going to bring them here, tomorrow. The grubbiest ones in the bunch. Here, to your house. You’re nothing to them, you and all you stand for. Your world doesn’t mean a thing. They won’t even try to understand it. They’ll be tired, man. Tired and cold. And they’ll build a fire with your big wooden door. And they’ll crap all over your terrace, and wipe their hands on your shelves full of books. And they’ll spit out your wine, and eat with their fingers from all that nice pewter hanging inside on your wall. Then they’ll squat on their heels and watch your easy chairs go up in smoke. And they’ll use your fancy bedsheets to pretty themselves up in. All your things will lose their meaning. Your meaning, man. What’s beautiful won’t be, what’s useful they’ll laugh at, what’s useless they won’t even bother with. Nothing’s going to be worth a thing. Except maybe a piece of string on the floor. And they’ll fight over it, and tear the whole damn place apart. … Yes, it’s going to be tremendous! So go on, beat it. Fuck off!”

“One moment, if I may. You told me there was no more time for thinking and talking, yet you seem to be doing a good deal of both.”

“I’m not thinking, man. I’m just telling you where I stand on things Ithought of long ago. I’m through thinking. So fuck off, you hear me?”

“One last question. When they go smashing everything to bits, they won’t know any better. But why you?”

“Why? Because I’ve learned to hate all this. Because the conscience of the world makes me hate all this, that’s why. Now fuck off! You’re beginning to get on my ass!”

“If you insist. There’s really no point in staying. You’re not making very much sense. I’m sure you have an excellent brain, but I do think it’s been a trifle muddled. Someone has done a fine job. Well now, I’ll be on my way. Just let me get my hat.”

The old gentleman stepped inside. He came out a moment later with a shotgun.

“What’s that for?” the young man asked.

“Why, I’m going to kill you, of course! My world won’t live past morning, more than likely, and I fully intend to enjoy its final moments. And enjoy them I shall, more than you can possibly imagine! I’m going to live myself a second life. Tonight, right here. And I think it should be even better than the first. Of course, since all of my kind have left, I intend to live it alone.”

“And me?”

“You? Why, you’re not my kind. We couldn’t be more unlike. Surely I don’t want to ruin this one last night, this quintessential night, with someone like you. Oh no, I’m going to kill you.”

“You can’t. You won’t know how. I bet you’ve never killed anyone.”

“Precisely. I’ve always led a rather quiet life. A professor of literature who loved his work, that’s all. No war ever called me to serve, and, frankly, the spectacle of pointless butchery makes me ill. I wouldn’t have made a very good soldier, I’m afraid. Still, had I been with Actius, once upon a time, I think I would have reveled in killing my share of Hun. And with the likes of Charles Martel, and Godfrey of Bouillon, and Baldwin the Leper, I’m sure I would have shown a certain zeal in poking my blade through Arab flesh. I might have fallen before Byzantium, fighting by Constantine Dragasès’s side. But God, what a horde of Turks I would have cut down before I gasped my last! Besides, when a man is convinced of his cause, he doesn’t die quite so easily! See, there I am, springing back to life in the ranks of the Teutons, hacking the Slav to shreds. And there, leaving Rhodes with Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and his peerless little band, my white cloak blazoned with the cross, my sword dripping blood. Then sailing with Don Juan of Austria, off to even the score at Lepanto. Ah, what a splendid slaughter! … But soon there’s nothing left for me to do. A few trifling skirmishes now and again, none of them too well thought of these days. Like the War Between the States, when my side is defeated and I join the Ku Klux Klan to murder myself some blacks. A nasty business, I admit. Not quite so bad with Kitchener, though, skewering the Mahdi’s Moslem fanatics, spilling their guts. … But the rest is all current events, a sad little joke. Most of it has already slipped my mind. Perhaps I’ve done my bit, killing a pinch of Oriental at the Berlin gates. A dash of Vietcong here, of Mau Mau there. A touch of Algerian rebel to boot. At worst, some leftist or other, finished off in a police van, or some vicious Black Panther. Yes, it’s all become so terribly ugly. No fanfares anymore, no flags, no hosannas … Oh well, you’ll have to excuse an old professor’s pedantic prattle. But you see, I too have stopped thinking and just want to tell you where I stand. You’re right, I’ve never killed a soul. Much less any of the types I’ve just conjured up, all of them standing here before me, at last, in your flesh, all rolled into one. But now I’m going to live those battles over, all at once, those battles that I feel so much a part of, deep in my soul, and I’m going to act them out, right here, all by myself, with one single shot. Like this!”

The young man collapsed in a graceful glide along the railing where he had been leaning, and wound up in a squat, arms hanging by his sides, in a position that seemed quite natural for him. The red spot over his left breast spread out a little, but the blood stopped quickly. It was a nice, tidy death. As his eyes closed beneath the professor’s gentle thumb and finger, they didn’t even look surprised. No flags, no fanfares. Just a victory Western style, as complete as it was absurd and useless. And, utterly at peace with himself—more exquisitely at peace than he remembered ever being—old Monsieur Calgues turned his back on the corpse and went inside.

Three

Now, all at once, with his mind at ease, the professor’s stomach began to feel great pangs of hunger. And suddenly he remembered other ravenous flashes, especially those colossal appetites that man falls prey to after nights of well-requited love. Those distant passions were nothing but vague sensations now, recalled without regret. But the meals that had followed in their wake—improvised meals for two, consumed on this very spot—still stood out in his memory, sharp and clear. Great, flat slices of country bread, dark-smoked ham from up the mountain, dried goat cheese from the village, olives from the terraced groves, apricots from the garden, steeped in sunlight, and that wine from the rocky slopes, just a little too tart. It was all still there in the house, all right within reach: the bread, in the cupboard with the cross carved into its lid; the olives, in a stoneware pot; the ham, hanging from the beams in the kitchen; the wine and cheese, outside, under the stairs, like rows of books lined up on dimly lit shelves. … In no time at all it was set out, spread over the massive table. For a moment the cork in the bottle held fast. When it finally let go, with a sharp little pop, the familiar sound filled the room with a kind of sensual joy. And it occurred to the old professor that once again, tonight, he was celebrating an act of love.

He poured himself some wine, one hearty glass for his thirst, then one for his pleasure, smacking his lips with a touch of ostentation at the obvious excess. He cut up the ham into fine, thin slices, arranged them neatly on a pewter plate, put out a few olives, laid the cheese on a bed of grape leaves and the fruit on a large, flat basket. Then he sat down before his supper and smiled a contented smile. He was in love. And like any successful suitor, he found himself face to face now with the one he loved, alone. Yet tonight that one was no woman, no living creature at all, but a myriad kindred images formed into a kind of projection of his own inner being. Like that silver fork, for example, with the well-worn prongs, and some maternal ancestor’s initials, now rubbed almost smooth. A curious object, really, when you think that the Western World invented it for propriety’s sake, though a third of the human race still grubs up its food with its fingers. And the crystal, always set out in a row of four, so utterly useless. Well, why not? Why do without glasses, like boors Why stop setting them out, simply because the Brazilian backwood was dying of thirst, or because India was gulping down typhus with every swallow of muck from its dried-up wells? Let the cuckold come pound at the door with their threats of revenge. There’s no sharing in love. The rest of the world can go hang. They don’t even exist. So what if those thousands were all on the march, cuckolded out of the pleasures of life? All the better! … And so, the professor set out the four glasses, lined them up in a row. Then he moved the lamp a little to give more light, and they sparkled like stars. Further over, a rustic chest, huge and immovable. Three centuries, father to son, as the young man said, and so sure of it all. And in that chest such an endless store of tablecloths and napkins, of pillow slips and sheets, of dustcloths and fine linen, product of another age, linen that would last forever, in great thick piles, so tightly packed on the outside alone that he never had to use the other household treasures hidden behind them, all lavender-scented, that his mother, or hers, had stacked away so very long ago, never parting with a stitch for their poor until it was worn out and decently patched, but with lots of good use in it yet, convinced—dear, prudent souls that they were—that unbridled charity is, after all, a sin against oneself. Then, after a while, there were too many poor. Altogether too many. Folk you didn’t even know. Not even from here. Just nameless people. Swarming all over. And so terribly clever! Spreading through cities, and houses, and homes. Worming their way by the thousands, in thousands of foolproof ways. Through the slits in your mailboxes, begging for help, with their frightful pictures bursting from envelopes day after day, claiming their due in the name of some organization or other. Slithering in. Through newspapers, radio, churches, through this faction or that, until they were all around you, wherever you looked. Whole countries full, bristling with poignant appeals, pleas that seemed more like threats, and not begging now for linen, but for checks to their account. And in time it got worse. Soon you saw them on television, hordes of them, churning up, dying by the thousands, and nameless butchery became a feature, a continuous show, with its masters of ceremonies and its full-time hucksters. The poor had overrun the earth. Self-reproach was the order of the day; happiness, a sign of decadence. Any pleasure? Beneath discussion. Even in Monsieur Calgues’s own village, if you did try to give some good linen away, they would just think you were beingcondescending. No, charity couldn’t allay your guilt. It could only make you feel meaner and more ashamed. And so, on that day he remembered so well, the professor had shut up his cupboards and chests, his cellar and larder, closed them once and for all to the outside world. The very same day that the last pope had sold out the Vatican. Treasures, library, paintings, frescoes, tiara, furniture, statues—yes, the pontiff had sold it all, as Christendom cheered, and the most high-strung among them, caught up in the contagion, had wondered if they shouldn’t go do likewise, and turn into paupers as well. Useless heroics in the eternal scheme of things. He had thrown it all into a bottomless pit: it didn’t take care of so much as the rural budget of Pakistan for a single year! Morally, he had only proved how rich he really was, like some maharaja dispossessed by official decree. The Third World was quick to throw it up to him, and in no time at all he had fallen from grace. From that moment on, His Holiness had rattled around in a shabby, deserted palace, stripped to the walls by his own design. And he died, at length, in his empty chambers, in a plain iron bed, between a kitchen table and three wicker chairs, like any simple priest from the outskirts of town. Too bad, no crucifixion on demand before an assembled throng. The new pope had been elected at about the time Monsieur Calgues retired. One man, wistfully taking his place on the Vatican’s throne of straw. The other one, back in his village to stay, with only one thought: to enjoy to the fullest his earthly possessions, here in the setting that suited him best … So thank God for the tender ham, and the fragrant bread, and the lightly chilled wine! And let’s drink to the bygone world, and to those who can still feel at home in it all!

While the old man sat there, eating and drinking, savoring swallow after swallow, he set his eyes wandering over the spacious room. A time-consuming task, since his glance stopped to linger on everything it touched, and since every confrontation was a new act of love. Now and then his eyes would fill with tears, but they were tears of joy. Each object in this house proclaimed the dignity of those who had lived here—their discretion, their propriety, their reserve, their taste for those solid traditions that one generation can pass on to the next, so long as it still takes pride in itself. And the old man’s soul was in everything, too. In the fine old bindings, the rustic benches, the Virgin carved in wood, the big cane chairs, the hexagonal tiles, the beams in the ceiling, the ivory crucifix with its sprig of dried boxwood, and a hundred other things as well … It’s man’s things that really define him, far more than the play of ideas; which is why the Western World had come to lose its self-respect, and why it was clogging the highways at that very moment, fleeing north in droves, no doubt vaguely aware that it was already doomed, done in by its over-secretion, as it were, of ugly monstrosities no longer worth defending. Could that, perhaps, have been one explanation? …

At eleven o’clock that night an announcer on the national chain read a new communiqué:

“Government sources note with some dismay the mass exodus of population currently under way throughout the south. While they view this movement with concern, they do not feel justified in advising against it, given the unprecedented nature of the situation. Army and police have been put on maximum alert to help maintain order, and tosee to it that the migration does not interfere with the flow of essential military materiel en route from the north. A state of emergency has been declared in the four departments bordering the coast, under the command of the undersecretary, Monsieur Jean Perret, personal representative of the President of the Republic. The army will make every effort to protect all property left behind, insofar as its other duties permit. Government sources confirm that the President of the Republic will address the nation at midnight, tonight, with a message of grave concern …”

And again, that was all. In a world long exposed to verbal frenzy, such terseness was most impressive. “Do windbags always die without a word?” the professor mused. Then he picked out a book, poured himself a drink, lit up his pipe, and waited for midnight …

Four

It was a curious night for New York, more calm and peaceful than the city had been in well over thirty years. Central Park stood deserted, drained of its thousands of Cams on the prowl. Little girls could have gone there to play, pert towheads, soft and pink in tiny skirts, delighted that, finally, they could romp through its grass. The black and Puerto Rican ghettos were quiet as churches …

Dr. Norman Hailer had opened his windows. He was listening to the city, but there wasn’t a sound. It was that time of night when he would always hear the dreadful notes of what he called the “infernal symphony” rising up from the street below: the cries for help; the click-clack of running heels; the frantic screams; the gunshots, one by one, or in bursts; the wail of police cars; the savage, less-than-human howls; the whimpering children; the vicious laughter; the shatter of glass; the horns of distress as some Cadillac, sleek and air-conditioned, would stop for a light and find itself buried in a sea of black silhouettes, brandishing picks; and then the shouts of no! no! no!, those desperate shouts shrieked into the darkness and suddenly stilled, snuffed out by a knife, a razor, a chain, by a club full of spikes, by a pounding fist, or fingers, or phallus …

It had been that way for thirty years. Statistics in sound, and each year louder than the one before. That is, until those last few days, when the graph had taken a sudden plunge, down to an unheard-of zero on the night in question. Thirty years for Dr. Norman Haller! Frustrating years, through no fault of his own. As consulting sociologist to the city of New York, he had seen it coming, predicted it to the letter. The proof was there, in his lucid reports, ignored one and all. There was really no solution. Black would be black, and white would be white. There was no changing either, except by a total mix, a blend into tan. They were enemies on sight, and their hatred and scorn only grew as they came to know each other better. Now they both felt the same utter loathing. … And so the consulting sociologist would give his opinion and pocket his money. The city had paid him a handsome price for his monumental study of social upheaval, with its forecast of ultimate doom. “No hope, Doctor Hailer?” “No hope, Mr. Mayor. Unless you kill them all, that is, because you’ll never change them. How about that?” “Good God, man, hardly! Let’s just wait and see what happens, and try to do the best we can …

Plush as could be, that suite of Dr. Norman Hailer’s, on the twenty- sixth floor of Central Park’s most elegant apartment building. Protected from the jungle, cut off from the outside world, with its dozen armed guards in the lobby, electronic sensors in every corner, invisible rays, and alarms, and attack dogs. And the garage, like a kind of hermetic chamber. Drawbridge between life and death, between love and hate. Ivory tower, moon base, bunker de luxe. At quite a price. Thousands and thousands of dollars for a few hundred pages, written for the city of New York by the pen of America’s most eminent consulting sociologist. Dr. Norman Haller had built himself a perfect world in the eye of the cyclone, and through that eye he could watch the storm that would sweep it all away. … Whiskey, crushed ice, soft music Go on, darling, go put on that nice expensive little thing you call a dress A telephone call. The mayor of New York.

“Don’t tell me, Jack, let me guess. You’re sitting there, all dressed up. You in your tux, Betty in a gown. Almost takes your breath away, she looks so good. Never better … On your third drink, I’d say … Fancy glasses … Just the two of you, nice and cozy … No special reason … Spur of the moment … Right?”

“Exactly! But how on earth.

“Look. The old familiar jungle shuts up tight. The white man gets scared. What else can he do? One last fling for his white prestige. One final tribute to his useless millions, to his precious position above it all! So here’s to you, Jack! Hear the tinkle? Hear the ice in my glass? My most expensive crystal. Scotch at a hundred bucks a throw! And my wife’s eyes … Never been greener! … So green, I’m going to jump in and drown .

“Listen, Norman. It’s all up to the French now, right? Do you really think they can kill off a million poor, defenseless bastards, just like that? I don’t. And frankly, I hope they can’t tell you something else. The ghettos here in the city don’t think so either. Or in L.A., or Chicago … They may be caged like wildcats, but believe me, they’re quiet as lambs. Calm as can be. They just sit at their radios and listen to the news. That is, when they’re not in their churches, singing up a storm and praying like crazy for those goddamn ships … Ever been swept off your feet by a herd of stampeding lambs? No, I tell you, Norman, the Third World’s turned into a bunch of lambs, that’s all.”

“And the wolf is tired of being a wolf, is that what you’re saying? Well, do like me, Jack. Have yourself another drink, and run your fingers up and down your wife’s white skin, nice and slow, like something very precious. And wait …”

this short fiction by le clézio shows us that the gallic ‘great life’ is not really very good…

J. M. G. Le Clézio, "The Great Life"

In this ironically titled short story a pair of girls jointly launch themselves into a binge of petty crime to escape their dead-end jobs and the monotonous life of the housing projects.

Cover Image

Everyone calls them Pouce and Poussy, at least that’s what their nicknames have been since childhood, and not many people know that their real names are Christele and Christelle. People call them Pouce and Poussy because they’re just like twin sisters, and because they’re not very tall. To be honest, they’re actually short, quite short, and both very dark, with a strange childlike face and a button nose and nice shiny black eyes. They’re not pretty, not really, because they’re too small, and a bit too thin as well, with tiny arms and long legs and square shoulders. But there’s something charming about them, and everyone likes them, especially when they start laughing, a funny, high-pitched laughter that rings out like tinkling bells. They laugh quite often, almost anyplace, in the bus, in the street, in cafes, whenever they’re together. And as a matter of fact, they’re almost always together. When one of them is alone (which happens sometimes on account of different classes or when one of them is sick), they don’t have fun. They get sad, and you don’t hear their laughter.

Some people say that Pouce is taller than Poussy, or that Poussy has finer features than Pouce does. That might be so. But the truth is, it’s very difficult to tell them apart and surely no one ever could, especially since they dress alike, since they walk and talk alike, since they both have that same kind of laugh, a bit like sleigh bells being shaken.

That’s probably how they got the idea of starting out on their great adventure. At the time they were both working in a garment shop where they sewed button holes and put pockets on pants with the label Ohio, USA on the right-hand back pocket. That’s what they did for eight hours a day and five days a week from nine to five with a twenty minute break to eat lunch standing by their machine. "This is like prison" Olga, a coworker, would say. But she wouldn’t talk very loudly, because it was against the rules to talk during working hours. Women who talked, who came to work late, or left their post without permission, had to pay a fine to the boss, twenty, sometimes thirty or even fifty francs. There was to be no down time. The workers finished at five sharp in the afternoon, but then they had to put the tools away, and clean the machines, and carry all the fabric scraps and bits of thread to the back of the workshop and throw them in the waste bin. So in fact, they didn’t really finish work till half past five. "No one stays on for long" Olga would say "I’ve been here for two years, because I live nearby. But I won’t stay another year." The boss was a short man of around forty, with grey hair, a thick waist, and an open shirt displaying a hairy chest. He thought he was handsome. "You’ll see, he’s bound to make a pass at you," Olga had said to the young girls, and another girl had sneered, "The man’s a womanizer, a real pig." Pouce couldn’t have cared less. The first time he came walking up to them during working hours, with his hands in his pockets and his chest puffed out in his beige acrylic sports jacket, the two friends hadn’t even looked at him. And when he had spoken to them, instead of answering, they’d laughed at him with their tinkling bell-laughter, both of them, at the same time, so loud that all the girls had stopped working to see what was going on. His face had turned a deep red out of anger, or spite, and he’d left so quickly that the two sisters were still laughing even after he closed the door of the workshop. "Now he’ll really be looking for trouble. He’s going to hassle the shit out of you," Olga had announced. But nothing more ever came of it. The foreman, a man named Philippi, had simply supervised the rows where the two sisters worked more closely. As for the boss, he avoided coming anywhere near them again. That laugh of theirs sure was devastating.

At the time, Pouce and Poussy lived in a small two-room apartment, with the woman they called Mama Janine, but who was really their adoptive mother. Janine had taken Pouce into her home after the child’s mother had died, and not long after that, she had taken Poussy in too, who was a ward of the state. She took care of the two little girls because they were all alone in the world, because she wasn’t married and didn’t have any children. She worked in a Cali Superette and wasn’t dissatisfied with her life. Her only real problem was those girls who were as inseparable as two sisters–those girls, known to everyone in the building, and even everyone in the neighborhood, as "the two terrors." During the five or six years of their childhood, not a day went by when they weren’t together, and most of the time it was in order to make some kind of mischief, play some prank or other. They’d ring all the doorbells, change the name tags around on the mailboxes, draw pictures on the walls with chalk, fashion false cockroaches out of paper and slide them under the doors, or deflate all the bicycle tires. When they turned sixteen, they had both been expelled from school, because they’d thrown an egg down on the principal’s head from up in the gallery, and because right in the middle of the class assembly they’d gone into one of those infamous bell-like fits of giggling, which was even more irrepressible on that particular day than usual. So Mama Janine had put them into a vocational school to learn sewing, and they both obtained–one wondered how–their Certificate of Professional Aptitude (C.A.P.) as machine operators. Since then, they’d found work regularly in the garment factories, but it was only to quit a month or two later, inevitably leaving everything in an uproar and nearly devastating the entire outfit.

So, that’s why, on their nineteenth birthday, they were still working in the Ohio, Made in USA factory and on the payroll of the boss, Jacques Rossi. When they’d started working there, Pouce had promised Mama Janine to be reasonable, and to behave like an honest working-girl and Poussy had made the same promise. But a few days later, the prison-like atmosphere of the workshop had gotten the better of their resolutions. War had been declared between Rossi and them. The other girls didn’t talk much and went straight home as soon as they finished work, because they had a fiance who came to pick them up in a car to take them out dancing. Pouce and Poussy didn’t have a fiance. They didn’t much like being separated, and when they went out with boys, they arranged things so that they could meet up and spend the evening together. No boy could hold up under that. Pouce and Poussy didn’t care. They would go down to the cafe-bar-tobacco shop on the corner near the factory, and they would drink beer together, smoking cigarettes rolled with coarse, black tobacco, telling each other a bunch of stories punctuated with their cascading laughter.

They would always tell the same story, a neverending story, that would take them far away from the factory with its neon bars of light, its corrugated iron roof, its wire-grated windows, the deafening sound of all those machines endlessly sewing on those same pockets, those same buttonholes, those same Ohio, Made in USA labels. They would be off already, off on the great adventure that took them around the world to all the countries that you see in the movies: India, Bali, California, the Fiji Islands, the Amazon, Casablanca. Or else to the big cities where there are magical monuments, fabulous hotels with gardens on the roofs, fountains and even swimming pools with waves, like in the sea: New York, Rome, Munich, Mexico, Marrakech, Rio de Janeiro. Pouce was the one who could tell the never-ending story best, because she had read about it all in books and in magazines. She knew everything about those cities, those countries: the temperature in winter and in summer, the rainy season, the special foods, the interesting sites, the people. Whatever she didn’t know, she would make up, and that was even more fantastic.

Listening to her, Poussy would add details, or else she’d raise objections as if she were correcting flawed memories, rectifying some inaccuracy, or else bringing some exaggerated fact back into perspective. They would launch into the neverending story almost anywhere, and at any time of day, during the noon break, or even early in the morning while waiting for the bus that took them to the workshop. Sometimes people would listen, looking a bit surprised, and then they’d shrug their shoulders. Francois, Pouce’s boyfriend, would try to slip in a joke here and there, but after a while he’d go stalking off in exasperation. But Poussy liked for Marc to come over and sit with them at the cafe-bar-tobacco shop, because he could play the game so well. He told incredible stories about sneaking onto the Trans-European express one night, without a ticket. Or else about his living for several days at the Maison de la Radio, eating with the staff, and calling his friends on the telephones in the empty offices. With him, you could tell by the way his eyes shone that the stories he told might have been true, and Poussy just loved listening to him talk. Marc wasn’t her boyfriend–he was engaged to a very pretty but somewhat vapid girl named Nicole, whom everyone had nicknamed Minnie, for no real reason.

That’s how they began talking about the great life. At first they talked about it without even realizing it, just as they used to talk of other trips they would go on, to Ecuador, or down the Nile. It was just a game, something to dream about, and so forget the prison of the factory and all the problems with the other girls and with the boss, Rossi. And then, gradually, it began to take shape and they started talking about it seriously, as if it were a sure thing. They just had to get away, they couldn’t stand it anymore. Pouce and Poussy couldn’t think of anything else. If they waited, they’d end up like all the others, old and embittered, and at any rate, they never would have any money. And even supposing the boss, Rossi, didn’t fire them, they knew they couldn’t last much longer now.

So one day they left. It was near the end of March and it was raining, the city was all grey and grimy. A very fine cold drizzle was coming down, getting everything damp–your hair, your feet inside of your boots, even the bed sheets.

Instead of going to the shop, the two girls met in front of the train station, huddling under the awning, with a single one-way ticket to Monte Carlo. They would really have liked to go to Rome or Venice for starters, but they didn’t have enough money. The first-class ticket to Monte Carlo had already eaten up most of their savings.

They’d prepared a postcard for Mama Janine, and they’d written: "We’re going on vacation, don’t worry. Hugs and kisses." And together, laughing, they put the post card in the mailbox.

When they found themselves inside the plush train, sitting on the brand new seats covered with grey felt, with the navy-blue carpeting under their feet, their hearts were beating very fast, faster than ever before. Then the train set out. First it lumbered through the ugly outskirts, then dipped along at top speed between the embankments. Pouce and Poussy settled in, leaning right up against the window, and they drank in as much of the countryside as they possibly could, to the point of even forgetting to talk or laugh. It was great to be off, at last, just like that, without knowing what the future held, without even knowing whether you’d be coming back at all. They hadn’t brought any luggage so as not to alert Mama Janine, just a small travel bag with a few things, and nothing to eat or drink. It was a long trip all the way to Monte Carlo, and they didn’t have much money left. But if one of them felt a slight pang of worry from time to time, it was hardly noticeable. Anyway, that was part of the fun. Every once in a while, Pouce stole a glance at Poussy and felt immediately reassured. Poussy never took her eyes off the green scenery rolling backwards past the wind-flattened raindrops streaking the window.

It was very warm in the compartment, and the sound of the cables clattering monotonously filled their head, so Pouce had dropped off to sleep, while her sister kept watch. After Dijon, they had to be on the look-out for conductors, and Poussy shook Pouce awake. Their plan was simple. They would each go into a different car. The first girl the conductor encountered was to keep the ticket, then she’d bring it back to her friend, and they would pass for one another. The conductor was a young man with a small mustache and he looked more closely at Pouce’s chest than he did at her ticket. When he saw her again, a little further up, he just said: "Are you more comfortable up here?" After that, Pouce and Poussy knew they wouldn’t have any problems on their trip.

The train clattered on all day. Then, just as night was falling, Pouce and Poussy caught sight of the Mediterranean, for the first time, the great, metallic-colored pools between the clefts in the dark mountains.

"It’s beautiful!" Pouce said. Poussy inhaled the cold air blowing in from the open window.

"Look, factories."

The tall chimneys were spitting out flames into the dim twilight. It seemed as if the sea were feeding the fires.

"It’s beautiful? Pouce said. "I’d love to go out there." She was thinking she could walk along the edge of the steely lake, between the tanks and the chimneys. It was lonely out on the seashore. The sky was perfectly pure, the color of water and of fire.

After Marseilles, the train shot through the night, all lit up, with reflections blinding the windows. Pouce and Poussy were hungry, and thirsty, and sleepy. They drew the curtains of the compartment and stretched out on the seat. They had a good fright when the conductor opened the door. But it wasn’t the same man and he merely asked:

"Have you already shown your tickets?"

And he was gone again without waiting for an answer.

Later that night, the train stopped at the station in Nice, and the two young girls pulled down the window to look out at the immense dome of wrought-iron under which chilly travelers bustled. A cold wind blew through the station and Pouce and Poussy were pale with fatigue; they were shivering.

Then the train was off again, going more slowly now. At each station they thought that they’d arrived and would lean out to read the names: Beaulieu, Cap d’Ail.

Finally the train stopped in Monte Carlo, and they stepped down onto the platform. It was late, past ten o’clock in the evening. People were looking at them strangely, especially the men, all hunched up in their overcoats. Pouce looked at Poussy as if to say: "Well what do you think of this, huh?" But they were so tired, they didn’t even have the strength to laugh.

In the taxi that drove them to the hotel ("The best hotel with a nice view of the sea, and a good restaurant") they had whispered suggestions to each other about what they would eat. Fish, lobster, shrimp and champagne; this was no beer-drinking occasion.

After paying for the taxi, there wasn’t much left in Poussy’s drawstring purse, enough to go to the casino the next day, and hand out some good tips. In front of the hotel, Poussy got out first and went over to hide behind some bushes, while Pouce went in to get the room. ("A double bed with a view of the sea.") A few seconds later, key in hand, it was Poussy who was on her way to see room 410. When she came back down, she announced that she was satisfied, except for the sea view, because you had to go out on the balcony, and the bathroom too, which was a bit small. But Pouce gave her a thump on the back and they both laughed real hard. They had forgotten about being tired. They were in a hurry to get something to eat. Pouce said that she was just ravenous. They separated to go up to the room, Pouce three minutes ahead of Poussy, who had taken the stairs at the end of the hall. The hotel was full of very chic people, gentlemen in suits and jackets, in light-colored overcoats, scarves, and women in lame dresses, or in white satin pants. The navy-blue pants and sweaters of the two girls went unnoticed. When they met up again in the large, white room, they got suddenly very elated. They cheered, even sang whatever popped into their heads, and didn’t stop until they lost their voices. Then Pouce went and sat on the balcony, in spite of the cold wind, while Poussy ordered dinner over the telephone. It was too late to order fish or lobster, but she was able to get some hot sandwiches and a bottle of champagne that the bell boy brought up on a small table with wheels. He didn’t even look at Pouce’s silhouette standing outside the window and when Poussy gave him a good tip, his face lit up. "Good night, Mademoiselle" he said as he closed the door.

The two friends ate and drank and the champagne made their heads spin, then all of a sudden gave them a migraine. So then, they turned out the light and lay down fully dressed on the large, cool bed. They fell asleep immediately.

The next day, and those that followed, were like a party. First of all, there was the sunrise. At the first stroke of dawn, Pouce would get out of bed. She’d go into the bathroom and take a long, very hot shower, enjoying the slightly peppery scent of the brand new bar of yellow soap. After bathing, there was also the large white terry cloth bath towel she would wrap up in, watching herself in the mirror that hung on the door. Then Pouce would emerge quivering all over with steam, and she would open the beige curtains to watch the day break. A few seconds later, she would hear water running in the bathroom and Poussy would come to join her half smothered in the pink terry cloth bathrobe. Together they would watch the grey, pearl-colored sea growing gradually lighter, as the lovely pure sky lit up in the east, over by the dark headlands. There wasn’t a sound, and the unbroken horizon seemed immense, like the edge of a cliff. Just as the sun was about to appear, flights of gulls would glide out over the sea. They would go swooping by on the wind, level with the floor on which the girls stood, or even higher up, and that gave you a strange heady feeling, something like being happy.

"It’s beautiful…" Pouce said again, and she would cuddle up closer to Poussy’s bathrobe without taking her eyes off the shining sea.

Later on, each taking a turn, they would call up the hotel restaurant, to have something to eat brought up on the little table with wheels. They would order all sorts of things, randomly, from the menu, pretending to be surprised when they were told that it was too early for lobster a l’Americaine, and they would always order a bottle of champagne. They loved dipping their upper lip into the slender glass and feeling the fizzle of the bubbles stinging their nostrils and the inside of their mouth. The young man came back often now. He was the one who brought up the food and the champagne and the morning papers, folded ceremoniously on top of the little table with wheels. Maybe he enjoyed the generous tips that the young gifts gave him, or maybe he liked to come and see them because they weren’t like the other clients in the hotel, they would laugh, and always seemed to be having such a good time.

He had also shown them how to adjust the shower head and how to work the electric blinds, pushing the button to make the plastic slats pivot. He had brown curly hair and green eyes and his name was Eric. But even so, they hadn’t told him their name because they didn’t completely trust him.

The first few days they hadn’t done much of anything. During the daytime they’d gone out to walk around in the streets, to window shop, then down by the shore, to the harbor, to see the boats.

"It would be so great to go away" said Pouce.

"You mean sail away on a boat?" Poussy asked.

"Yes, sail off, and go far, far, away… To Greece or to Turkey, or even to Egypt."

And so they walked down the wharves past the long booms to pick out the boat they would have liked to sail away on. But it was still winter; the rigging snapped in the cold wind and the moorings groaned. No one was on the boats.

Finally, they found one that they liked pretty well. It was a big blue boat with a wooden mast and a cabin hardly bigger than a dog house. It was named "Cat" and that seemed like a really fine name to them, too. They even climbed aboard–Pouce went up front and stretched out along the slender stern, looking down into the dark water, and Poussy stood next to the cabin, making sure no one was coming.

Then it started raining and they dashed for shelter under the porticos of the closed restaurants. They watched the drops falling into the water of the harbor, talking and laughing. There really wasn’t a soul anywhere, or hardly. From time to time, a car would go rolling slowly along on the avenue, heading back up into the city above.

Afterward, the two young girls went back to the hotel, first one, then the other, as usual, one taking the elevator, the other the stairs, and they ordered a bunch of things to eat over the telephone: fish, shellfish, fruit, cakes. But they didn’t drink champagne any more because it really gave them a terrible headache. They ordered lemon soda, or fruit juices, or Coca-Cola.

Those were the first couple of days. After that, Pouce grew tired of eating in the hotel room and hiding in the bathroom every time someone knocked at the door for fear it wouldn’t be the same bell boy. For that matter, they were both tired of the hotel, and people were starting to look at them strangely, maybe because they were always wearing the same clothes, and there were also people who had seen them together, and Poussy said that they’d end up getting caught.

One beautiful sunny morning, they left, first one, then the other. Poussy went out first, as if she were going for a walk in the garden after breakfast, over by the pool. Pouce threw the travel bag containing their belongings down from the window, and a few minutes later, she went downstairs in turn, and stepped out on to the avenue; at the end of the block she met Poussy with the bag. They walked along talking and laughing and, since they hardly had any money left, decided to hitch a ride.

Pouce wanted to head for Nice, and Poussy for Italy; so they flipped a coin, and Poussy won. Before leaving, Pouce wanted to at least call home to say that everything was fine. She put a coin in the telephone and when Mama Janine picked up the phone on the other end, she said very quickly just before the line cut off:

"It’s Christele. Everything’s fine, don’t worry. Love you."

Poussy said that it surely wasn’t worthwhile to make such a short telephone call, and that moreover, Mama Janine might think that they’d been kidnapped and that they’d been forced to talk very quickly.

"You really think so?" said Pouce. It seemed to bother her for a minute, and then she didn’t think about it anymore. Later on, Poussy said: "We’ll send her a postcard from Monte-Carlo. By the time it gets there, we’ll already be in Italy and out of danger."

In a tobacco shop, they picked out a card with a picture of the Rock, or the Prince’s Palace, or something along those lines, and borrowing a ball point pen, they both wrote "See you soon, love and kisses," and they signed it: Christele, Christelle. They put Mama Janine’s address on it and slipped it into a mailbox.

They stood at a traffic light on the seafront avenue to hitch-hike. It was a beautiful day, and they didn’t wait long. A Mercedes stopped, driven by a man of about fifty, dressed like a playboy and smelling of soap. Pouce climbed in to the back of the car and Poussy took the seat beside the driver.

"Where are you going?"

"To Italy," said Pouce.

The man touched the bridge of his sunglasses.

"I’m only going as far as Menton. But Italy isn’t far from there."

He was driving fast, and it was making Poussy a little nauseous.

Or maybe it was the smell of the soap. He would glance sideways at the young girl from time to time.

"Are you twins?"

"Yes," said Pousssy.

"It’s easy to see," said the man. "You look exactly alike, like two peas in a pod."

He was getting irritated because the two girls weren’t in the mood for talking. So he lit up a cigarette. He was passing other cars recklessly, in the curves, and would honk the horn furiously when someone wouldn’t let him pass.

Then he said, all of a sudden:

"Do you know its dangerous for two pretty girls like you to be hitch-hiking?"

"Oh really?" Poussy said.

The man gave a little throaty laugh.

"Yes, because if I took you on a little ride to some deserted place, what would you be able to do about it?"

"We know how to look after ourselves pretty well you know."

The man slowed down.

"What would you do?"

After having thought it over, Poussy said calmly:

"Well, I’d smash you in the Adam’s apple with my forearm–it’s really quite painful–in the meantime, my friend here would be dapping you over both ears to burst your eardrums. And if that wasn’t enough, I’d give you a good jab right in the private parts with a pin I have just for such occasions."

For a little while, the man kept on driving without saying anything. Poussy could see he was having difficulty swallowing. Then the car entered the city of Menton, and the man slammed on the brakes, without warning. He leaned over Poussy, opened the door, and said in a strangely mean voice:

"All right, here you are now. Get out of my sight."

The two girls stepped out on the sidewalk. The man slammed the car door and the Mercedes sped down to the end of the street and disappeared.

"What got into him?" asked Poussy.

"I believe you scared him," said Pouce. And they laughed for quite some time over that one.

They decided to just walk for a little while. They crossed the small town, whose streets were bright with sunshine. In a grocery store, while Poussy asked the shopkeeper something, Pouce grabbed two apples and an orange, and pushed them into the travel bag. Farther along, they sat down on the shore to rest, while they ate the two apples and the orange. The sea was beautiful with the cold wind blowing over it, a deep blue, skirted with foam. It was great just sitting there looking at it, not saying anything, biting into the green apples. You forgot about everyone, and became very distant, like an island lost out at sea. That was what Poussy was thinking about, about that: how easy it was to go off and forget about people, places, to be new again. It was because of the sun, the wind, and the sea.

The white birds were hovering over the waves, giving out plaintive cries. When Pouce threw a piece of orange peel on tothe shingle beach, they came flapping down, screeching, then separated, and started floating on the wind once again.

"It’s nice here," said Pouce.

She turned to look at Poussy. Her handsome, angular face was already tanned from these days of sunshine, and her black hair sparkled with salt and sunlight. Pouce was more on the reddish side, especially her nose, which was starting to peel.

"What if we stayed here for a few days?" Poussy said:

"Till tomorrow, all right."

They found a hotel on the seafront avenue, an old hotel that was all white with a garden in the back. It wasn’t as luxurious as the one in Monte Carlo, but they decided to get a room for two this time. As she was registering, Poussy asked: "Would you like us to pay right away?" And, of course, the receptionist said: "Whenever you like. At checkout is more convenient." It built up people’s confidence in you. The room was nice and well lighted, and off in the distance, between the palm trees, you could glimpse the thin line of the sea mingling with the sky.

The evening was especially beautiful when the wind stopped, like a bated breath, and the warm yellow light set the pink, white, and ochre houses aglow, and the sharp silhouette of the old town stood out against the pale sky. It was like being at the very end of the world, "like in Venice," Poussy said.

"We’ll go, won’t we? We’ll go to Venice later?" Pouce asked, with an almost childlike inflection, and Poussy smiled and hugged her tightly.

[The second half of Le Clézio’s "The Great Life" continues in the post immediately below].

the second half of le clézio’s “the great life”

 

 

Livre - La Ronde Et Autres Faits Divers 

Once, after dinner, they climbed up to the top of a hill, following the paths that wound up between the villas and the gardens, to watch the sun set behind the town. There were stray cats under the parked cars and atop the walls, watching them, round-eyed. Up on the hill, there was hardly a breath of wind, and the air was balmy and as warm as in summer, heavy with the fragrance of mimosa. It was nice up there, it was a good place for forgetting. Pouce and Poussy sat down on a slope at the very top of the hill, over near a small stand of pines. Dogs were barking, they were prisoners in the gardens of the villas. Evening fell very slowly, casting no shadows, simply fading out the colors, one by one. It was like ash. It was very soft, with twirls of smoke rising in places and trails of clouds reaching all the way out to the golden, flame-colored, horizon. Then, when night had settled in, lights began to flicker on almost everywhere, on the roofs of houses, in the parallelepipeds of the apartment buildings. There were lights out on the sea as well, the red lamps on the jetty and, perhaps, far out at sea, hardly visible, the lights of a large container ship bound for Genoa.

 

The girls watched all of the lights coming on, way down below along the coastline, scattered through the hollows in the hills, the patterns the roads made on the slopes. They also watched the headlights of cars, the little yellow points moving forward so slowly, like phosphorescent insects. They were so far away, so small, they didn’t seem very important anymore, when you looked at them from up here on the hilltop.

"It’s nice being up here" whispered Pouce and she leaned her head against her friend’s shoulder as though she were going to fall asleep. But Poussy felt something strange inside, just like when someone is watching you from behind, or when you know something bad is going to happen. Her heart was beating very hard, and fast; it was throbbing with heavy painful thuds in her head and throat. And every now and again a shudder would run down her arms, down her back, an odd kind of prickling that knotted up at the back of her neck. It could well have simply been the night chill. But she didn’t mention it to Pouce, not wanting to interfere with her reverie. She held her breath, and after a few seconds, it came out with a heavy sigh.

"What’s wrong?" asked Pouce.

"Nothing… Come on, let’s go" Poussy said and she started walking down the hill, towards town, towards all the lights moving and shining like so many busy insects.

Eating wasn’t always an easy matter. The hotel where the girls were staying didn’t serve food in the evenings, and when they were hungry, they had to fend for themselves. One evening, they went out for dinner in a big restaurant on the shore, and when the bill came, they disappeared one after the other through the restroom window. It was a narrow opening, but they were very thin, and they didn’t have much trouble slipping out, then running almost all the way back to the hotel. The next day, they did the very same thing in a downtown cafe. They had simply stepped out, strolled calmly away and each disappeared in a different direction. They had arranged to meet down by the harbor, and as usual, they talked and laughed about it all, glad to have gotten away. "If one of us ever gets caught, we hereby solemnly swear that the other will do whatever she can to help her get away" said Pouce. "I swear to it," answered Poussy.

But after that, they had to change towns because it was starting to get too risky. Pouce had decided they should change their wardrobe to go to Italy. They left their blue pants and their T-shirts in a department store, and walked out in white outfits: Pouce in Bermuda shorts, a pullover and a nylon jacket, Poussy in a straight skirt and a wool jacket. In the gift department, Poussy picked out a beaded headband with American Indian designs on it for herself, and she chose a couple of ivory-colored plastic bracelets for her friend. And in the shoe department, Pouce and Poussy left their shoes, which were beginning to get a bit worn, in exchange for low-cut Western-style boots in white vinyl.

Once they had changed outfits, they left for Italy, without even going to pick up their bag at the hotel. That way, there’d be no problem about paying the bill, and anyway the things they had in their bag were hardly worth going out of their way for. "Besides" said Pouce, "it’s easier to hitch-hike when you’ve got your hands free." Poussy had held on to the drawstring purse with their ID cards and the bit of money that was left. But Pouce didn’t even have a tube of lipstick.

They would have preferred to travel by train, but they no longer had enough money to buy a ticket. So they walked out of town, and waved down passing cars. They didn’t wait very long. It was an Italian in a white Alfa-Romeo, and as usual, Poussy got in up front, and Pouce sat in back. The man was around forty; he had a shadow of beard on his cheeks, and very bright blue eyes. He spoke French poorly, and the two girls didn’t speak a word of Italian. But they joked around all the same, and every time the man would utter a mixed up blurb of a sentence, they would burst out laughing, and he would laugh too.

Just as they were crossing the border they all became serious again, but they had no problems. The Italian customs officer looked at the girls’ ID cards and said something to the driver, and they both howled with laughter. Then they took off again at top speed along the coastal highway that twisted in and out among the villas and the gardens, that ran out along the headlands and around the bays, towards Alassio.

They drove into town near the end of the afternoon. The streets and sidewalks were quite crowded and Vespas whizzed by on the pavement, zigzagging in and out between trolley cars and automobiles with their shrill motors whining. Pouce and Poussy watched the whole scene in amazement–they had never seen so much agitation, so many people, colors, lights. The man with the Alfa Romeo parked in a large plaza, ringed with arcades and palm trees. He just left his beautiful new car on the spot, paying no attention to the policeman’s gesticulations. He pointed out a large cafe with white linen-covered tables and took the girls over to sit there, right out in the sunshine. The man said something to the waiter who came back a few minutes later with two huge dishes of ice-cream smothered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce. For himself he had simply ordered a very black coffee in a tiny little cup. The dishes of ice cream made the girls squeal, and they laughed so hard that people in the plaza turned around. But they didn’t seem annoyed, or even curious; they laughed also, at seeing two pretty girls all dressed in white, with copper-colored skin and their hair all frizzy from the sun and the sea, sitting there at the table in front those two dishes of ice cream that looked like mounds of snow.

They ate all of the ice cream, and after that, they drank a tall glass of cold water. The man looked at his watch and said "Me vono" several times. Perhaps he was expecting them to leave with him, but Poussy shook her head, pointing out the whole scene to him, the town, the houses with their arcades, the plaza where Vespas were circling endlessly, like figurines on a merry-go-round, and she didn’t say anything, and he understood immediately. But he didn’t seem disappointed, or angry. He paid the waiter for the ice-cream and the coffee, then he came back and looked at them for a moment with his blue eyes shining in his dark face. He leaned down toward them, one after the other saying "Bacio, bacio." Poussy and Pouce kissed him on the cheek, breathing in for an instant the slightly spicy fragrance of his skin. Then he walked back over to his Alfa Romeo, and started up the motor. They watched him drive around the plaza, join in the ballet of automobiles and Vespas, and disappear down the wide street.

It was getting late, but the two girls weren’t in the least concerned about where they were going to sleep. Since they no longer had any cumbersome bags, only Poussy’s navy blue vinyl purse with drawstrings, they started sauntering around the town, looking at the people, the houses, the narrow streets. There were still quite a lot of people out-of-doors, more and more people, because for the Italians, it wasn’t the end of the day, but a new day that began with the evening. People were coming out of all the houses, men dressed in black suits with shiny shoes, women, children, even old people came out into the street, sometimes dragging a cane chair behind to sit down on the edge of the sidewalk.

Everyone was talking, calling to one another, from one end of the street to the other, or else they were talking with their car horns and their Vespas. Some young boys were walking along on either side of Pouce and Poussy, they were talking too, constantly, taking them by the arm and leaning toward them, talking about so many things in their language that it made the girls dizzy.

But it also made them laugh, it was like being drunk, all these people in the street, the women, the children running around, the first lights blinking on in the storefronts, the barber shop with a red leather and chrome chair where a fat man was reclining, his face covered with lather, getting a shave as he watched the street. The boys who were walking with Pouce and Poussy lost interest, went off, and were replaced by two other dark-haired and dark-skinned boys, with very white teeth. They tried to speak to the girls in French, in English, then started chattering in Italian again, smoking fake American cigarettes that smelled like dried leaves. Pouce and Poussy would go into dress shops, or into a shoe shop, and they would try on dresses and sandals that looked like Roman buskins, ignoring the two boys waiting outside who were waving and making faces at them through the window.

"They get on my nerves," said Pouce.

"Forget it. Don’t pay any attention to them,’ Poussy said.

But it wasn’t easy to get any business done with two clowns like those around. People would stop in front of the shop, trying to see inside, and there was even a policeman all of a sudden and Poussy and Pouce felt their heart speeding up, but he was only there out of curiosity just like everyone else. Then he began to resent being seen dawdling about, so he came into the shop and said something, and the saleswoman who spoke French translated:

"He wants to know if the boys are bothering you."

"Yes. No" said Pouce and Poussy. They felt a little uncomfortable.

But when they came out of the store, the boys had cleared out, and no one else came near them again, as if everyone had heard about the policeman interfering. Near the end of the afternoon, Pouce started dragging her feet and breathing heavily. Poussy glanced over at her and was a little startled to see her looking so pale, in spite of her tan.

"What’s wrong?"

Pouce shrugged her shoulders.

"I’m tired… I’m cold, that’s all."

So they started looking for a hotel. But everywhere they went, it was the same story. When they went into the lobby, the people at the reception desk would give them a strange look, veiled, and they would immediately ask Poussy to pay for the night in advance. It was tiresome, and they would have paid well enough, if only they’d had enough money. But Poussy’s drawstring purse was almost empty. So then they would pretend to have come simply to inquire about accommodations, and Poussy would say: "Thank you, we’ll call later for reservations." And they would leave very quickly, for fear that people in the hotel might think of calling the police.

"So, what do we do now?" asked Pouce.

They were a bit tired from the crowd, and also, they hadn’t been able to get a thing in the stores because of the policeman. So then they went back to Partigiani plaza, and from there they went out onto the beach. It was evening; not a breeze blew over the sea. The sky was pink and immense, the color of pearl, and the tall old houses standing in the sand on the shore looked like beached vessels. Never had Pouce and Poussy imagined anything more beautiful.

"Do you think it’s like this in Venice?" asked Pouce.

The seabirds were skimming slowly along the surface of the water, skipping lightly over the waves. There was that dark distant odor, the taste of salt and that rose-colored light of the sky on the grey water, on the facades, color of old gold.

"I don’t ever want to leave here" Pouce added.

They sat down on the sand right up close to the skirt of foam, to watch the night come.

They slept there on the beach, shielded from the wind and the curious eyes of passersby by an old staircase leading up to a blind door, and the hull of an old abandoned skiff. But the sand was soft and fine, and it still held a bit of the golden warmth of the last light of the sun. It was wonderful to sleep out of doors, surrounded by the slow sound of the sea and the strong smell of salt. It was as if they were on the other side of the world, as if everything that they’d ever known before, ever since they were children, had been wiped away, forgotten.

During the night, Poussy awoke, she was cold, and she wasn’t sleepy anymore. Without making a sound, she walked across the beach, over to the sea. The moon was shining in the black sky, shining down upon the waves, making the foam glow very whitely. As far as you could see, there wasn’t a soul on the beach. The shapes of the old houses were dark, their shutters closed tightly against the sea breeze.

The young girl listened for a long time to the sound of the sea, the long waves collapsing gently on the sand, casting phosphorescent foamy ruffles out towards her feet. At the far end of the bay was the Capo Mele lighthouse, and still further off, the light of Albenza greyed the sky, above the hills.

Poussy would have liked to immerse herself in the dark water, filled with sparkling moonlight, but she was cold, and a bit frightened too. She merely took off her boots and walked bare-footed through the foam. The water was ice-cold, insubstantial, just like the moonlight up in the dark sky.

Afterwards, she sat down next to Pouce, who was still sleeping. And for the second time since they’d begun their journey, she could feel an immense void, very much like despair, rending and tearing at her insides. It was so deep, so terrible, out there in the night, on the deserted beach, with Pouce’s body lying there asleep in the sand and the wind stirring in her hair, with the slow, inexorable sound of the sea, and the moonlight, it was so painful that Poussy let out a little moan and curled over into a ball.

What was it? Poussy didn’t know. It was like being lost, thousands of miles away, deep in outer space, with no hope of ever coming back, like being abandoned by everyone, and feeling surrounded by death, fear, danger, without knowing how to escape. Maybe it was a nightmare that remained with her from childhood, long ago, when she would awaken in the night, soaked in cold sweat, and she would call out "Mama! Mama!" knowing there was no one who could answer to that name, and that nothing could assuage the feeling of anxiety, and especially not Mama Janine’s hand that would come to rest on her arm as she said in a hushed voice, "Here I am, don’t be afraid"; but Poussy, with her whole being, right down to the tiniest particles in her body, would silently protest, "It’s not true! It’s not true!"

Poussy’s despair and solitude were so intense in that particular instant, that it must have awakened Pouce. She sat up, her face swollen with sleep, her curly hair full of sand and dried seaweed. She said, "What’s happening?" with such a funny voice and with such a sleepy expression on her face that Poussy felt her anxiety suddenly melt away, and she burst out laughing. Pouce looked at her without understanding, and she too began to laugh. Pouce ended up thoroughly awake, and the two of them decided to go for a walk on the beach to start the new day.

They went all the way over to the other end of town, walking along by the old apartment buildings that stood on the beach and that looked exactly like the hulks of boats run ashore centuries ago. Sometimes, as they were passing, a dog would start barking somewhere, or else they would glimpse the furtive shadows of rats running over the sand.

They sat down at the end of the beach by the mouth of the river. They lit up an American cigarette and smoked it without saying a word, their eyes fixed on the black horizon and on the shimmering patch of moonlight. The air was hushed now, as it always is just before dawn. But it was cold and damp, and the young girls huddled together to keep warmer. Perhaps, just at that moment, Poussy thought of swiping a blanket or a parka from a department store. If the thought did cross her mind, it wasn’t so much because she was cold, but because Pouce had started coughing that night. There had been the weariness of all those days of traveling, too much sun, and too much wind, maybe, and eating whatever they could get a hold of, whenever they could, and then that long night on the damp beach, wrapped in the wind and the sea brine. Now Pouce was shivering, and the hand that her friend held in her own, was burning up.

"You’re not going to get sick, are you?"

"No, I’ll be fine in just a little while" Pouce said.

"The sun is going to come up. We’ll go sit in a cafe."

But Pouce’s breath was already wheezing, and her voice was gruff.

All the same, they just kept sitting there on the stones at the mouth of the river, watching the horizon and the sky, until the first slow increase of day appeared in the east, a grey patch spreading gradually inland. When the sun appeared in the pale, pure sky, the young girls went over to lay back down on the sand, over by the walls of the old houses, and they fell asleep, dreaming perhaps of travels that would never come to an end.

When the sun was well up in the sky, Poussy awoke. On the vast beach, only a few silhouettes of fishermen could be seen off in the distance, busying themselves with their boats, or else putting the nets out to dry before repairing them. Poussy was beginning to feel hungry and thirsty. She watched Pouce stretched out beside her for quite a long while before realizing that she wasn’t asleep. Her face was very pale and her hands were ice-cold. But her eyes were shining and disturbingly bright.

"Are you sick?" asked Poussy.

Pouce answered with a groan. She was wheezing more when she breathed than she had been a little while ago. When Poussy took her by the arm to help her sit up, she saw all the little hairs on her skin standing upright, like goose flesh.

"Listen," said Poussy, "wait here for me. I’m going to go into town and try to find a suitcase. That way, we can go to a hotel. And then I’m going to find something for you to eat and drink. Some tea would be good for you, with lemon."

Since Pouce would answer neither yes or no, Poussy left right away. She walked along the beach until she came to a street, and she looked for a department store.

Pouce was left alone on the beach, sitting in the sand, leaning up against the old flaking wall that the morning sun had begun to warm slightly. She was looking straight ahead of her at the sea and the sky that were all blurry, as if a smoky haze was engulfing her and cutting her off from reality. She was breathing in small little gulps, so she wouldn’t feel the pain deep in her lungs, and the short, fast breathing was tiring and a very slow dizziness crept over her. Now the beach was noisy, children shouting, women’s voices, men’s voices, perhaps even the jumbled echoes of a radio. But Pouce hardly paid any attention to them, they seemed to her to be coming from the other end of a very long corridor, choppy, deformed,incomprehensible.

"Como ti chiama?"

The sound of the voice startled her. She turned her head and saw a youth standing there, observing her.

"Como ti chiama?" he repeated. His voice was high-pitched, but not unpleasant. He was looking at the young girl questioningly; taking in her copper-colored face, her white clothing, rumpled with the night, her hair matted and full of sand, and her plastic bracelets.

Pouce understood the question, and she pronounced her name, lifting her hand to show him her thumb.

"Pollice?" said the boy. And began to laugh, and Pouce laughed too, while he repeated:

"Pollice… Pollicino! Pollicino!"

And then he pointed to his chest with his index finger and said:

"Sono Pietropaolo. Pietropaolo."

Pouce repeated his name, and they started laughing again. She had completely forgotten about the pain in her lungs and the feverish chills. She simply felt oddly dizzy–it was the same feeling you get when you go for a long time without food and without sleep, a not unpleasant weakness.

Pietropaolo sat down next to her, with his back against the wall, and he took out an old crumpled pack of Chesterfields, from which he extracted two bent, almost broken, cigarettes. Pouce took the cigarette. The sweet smoke felt good, at least for the first couple of puffs, then she began to cough so hard that the boy got down on his knees in front of her, looking a bit alarmed.

"It hurts here" said Pouce pointing to her chest.

"Male," said the boy, "E non hai un medicamento p’cio?"

"No, no." said Pouce.

The coughing had worn her out, small drops of sweat were beading on her forehead, on either side of her nose, and she could feel her heart beating very fast, because of the burning deep in her chest.

The sun was high in the sky now, just about at its eleven o’clock place. Pietropaolo and Pouce kept on sitting there, not moving, not speaking, watching the waves tumbling onto the beach.

Then Poussy came back. She was carrying a heavy waterproof, khaki-colored jacket over her arm and a bottle of beer. She sat down panting on the sand like someone who had just run a long way. Pouce was leaning up against the wall, her face drawn, eyes bright with fever.

"Who’s this?" asked Poussy.

"It’s Pietropaolo…" said Pouce.

The boy smiled broadly.

"Pietropaolo. Ete?"

"Poussy," said Poussy.

"Poussy?"

Pouce meowed to make him understand.

"Ah! Il Gatto! Gattino!"

He started laughing, and the two girls laughed along with him. Together, they drank the beer, wiping off the mouth of the bottle between swallows. Then Poussy showed Pouce the jacket and she explained how she’d come by it.

"It’s for you. No way to get a suitcase. They’re all chained up everywhere. I nearly got pinched with the jacket. I had to run for God knows how long with this thing over my arm, and the salesman yelling ‘Ladra! Ladra!’ after me. Luckily, he was fat and got winded before I did."

"Ladra! Ladra!" repeated Pietropaolo, and they all burst out laughing.

Poussy helped Pouce into the jacket.

"It’s a little big, but it will keep you warm."

"And the beer?" asked Pouce.

"Oh it was in a case in front of a closed shop. I just took it."

They drank some more beer, taking turns, and then Pietropaolo took out his incredibly crumpled pack of Chesterfields and offered it to the two girls.

Pouce shook her head, and Poussy refused too. She said:

"I’m hungry."

The boy looked at her, baffled. So she pointed to her mouth, opening and closing her jaws.

"Ah si. Vorresti mangiare."

He jumped up and disappeared down one of the streets that led up to the beach.

They waited for him, not talking, or moving, leaning up against the old wall, watching the sea. A cold wind was blowing gustily, there were dark clouds in the sky. Poussy was thinking about all of the things that were so very far away now–the workshop, the gray streets of the suburbs, the dark room and the kitchen with Mama Janine sitting there–and for the first time in days, it no longer made her anxious to think about it all, but instead it left her feeling somewhat indifferent, as if she had truly decided that she would never again go back to that house. She was watching Pouce out of the corner of her eye–the childish face, the almost obstinate set of the lips, and the rounded forehead where the wind stirred in her curls. All muffled up in the khaki jacket, Pouce seemed to be feeling warmer; she was breathing more regularly, wheezing less, and her cheeks were less pale. The young girl was staring fixedly out at the sea and the sand on the empty beach, as if she’d fallen asleep with her eyes open.

"We’re going back," said Poussy quietly, so calmly that Pouce simply turned her head and looked at her in bewilderment.

"We’re going to leave now. We’re going back" said Poussy again. Pouce said nothing, but she began staring intently at the sea and the beach again. Only this time, tears gathered in her eyelashes, and then rolled down over her cheeks, and were swept lightly back with the wind. When Poussy realized that she was crying silently, she hugged her tightly and kissed her, saying:

"It’s not only because of that, you know, I might have gotten sick too, but its because–." But she wasn’t able to go on because she couldn’t think of a good reason.

"I wanted to go all the way to Venice too, and even to Rome, and visit Sicily, and after that, Greece, but not like this, not like this…"

Suddenly, Pouce got angry. She pushed her friend away, and she tried to stand up. She was trembling and her voice was all gruff.

"Chicken-shit! Chicken-shit! You’re just saying that, butit’s really because you’re afraid. You’re afraid of going to jail, that’s it, isn’t it?"

Poussy looked at the young girl kneeling in the sand, her eyes all bright with tears, her wind-mussed hair, and the overly-large parka, with the sleeves hanging down over her fingertips.

I’m saying it because it’s true. We can’t keep going, were at the end of the road. We’re going back, we can’t keep going, we’re going back now."

Her voice was very calm and it made Pouce’s anger subside immediately. She sat back down in the sand and let her head fall back against the wall.

Just then, the boy returned. He was carrying a big loaf of bread and a sack of oranges. He squatted down in front of the girls and held the provisions out to them. He had a friendly smile on his face and his pale eyes shone in his dark face. Poussy took the bread and the oranges, and thanked him. They began eating without speaking. The gulls, drawn by the food, circled about their heads screeching. When she finished eating her orange, Poussy went to wash her hands and face in the sea, scooping a little water and foam up in her hands. She brought some sea water back for Pouce and ran her cool palms over her friend’s forehead, over her eyes.

"We’re going to leave, now" said Poussy. She pointed over to the other end of the beach in the direction of the setting sun. "We’re going home, now" Pouce stood up too. She was so weak that she needed to lean on Poussy’s shoulder to keep from stumbling.

"Dove? Dove?" asked the young boy. His voice was suddenly anxious. He was walking next to the young girls, watching their faces intently, like a deaf person trying to read someone’s eyes and lips. "Dove? Dove?"

He tripped over a piece of wood protruding from the sand and hopped along grimacing. That made the girls laugh a little. But he wasn’t laughing. He said, and his voice cracked because he was beginning to understand:

"Andro… Andro con voi stessi. Per favore, andro… accompagnare voi stessi…"

But when the girls left the beach to start into town, he just stood there on the sand not moving, arms dangling by his sides, staring after them. Before going down a small deserted street, Poussy turned around to wave at him, and she could see him way off in the distance, so tiny on the white expanse of beach, just standing there as still as a piece of driftwood by the sea. She didn’t lift her hand, she and Pouce walked into the dark town amidst the sounds of families sitting down to the noon meal.

Out on the road, at a gas station, they found a truck stopped, with TIR marked on theoutside. Poussy asked the driver if they could ride with him, and after some hesitation, he said yes.

A few minutes later, the huge semi was rolling along headed for France, with Pouce and Poussy half asleep in the cab. The driver wasn’t paying any attention to them. He was smoking cigarettes and listening to Italian radio at full volume. When they reached the border, the policemen examined the young girls’ papers closely. One of them simply said to them: "Come with us." In the room at the police station there was an inspector in plain clothes, a man of about forty years of age, slightly bald, with hard eyes. When they went in, escorted by the uniformed policeman, the man gave a short laugh, and said something like: "So these are our two amazons." Maybe he didn’t say "amazons," but Poussy wasn’t really listening. She was watching Pouce’s stubborn profile, and wasn’t thinking about what was going to happen next, about the long hours waiting in dusty hallways and dark cells. She was only thinking about the day they would be off again, off and away, far, far away, and this time, they would never come back again.

—from J. M. G. Le Clézio, The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts (translated by C. Dickson from La Ronde Et Autres Faits Divers), University of Nebraska Press, 2003. 

le clézio on lautréamont and co.: “man’s freedom to seek & reveal himself through visions & dreams”

J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Freedom to Dream”

 

We could begin the story this time around 1867, when the young Isidore Ducasse—not yet Comte de Lautréamont—decides to move into a furnished room on the Right Bank of Paris, and when, in 1868, he gives "Le Premier Chant" of Les Chants de Maldoror to the publisher Balitout. This act, perhaps one of the most important of modern literature and thought, begins an epic tale of dreams that ends in death and oblivion. Indeed, between 1868 and 24 November 1870, when the young poet dies at the age of twenty-four, in the solitude and abandonment of the Parisian winter, the story unfolds of one of the most burning and disturbing dreams that poetry has ever known—a dream that throws off flame and consumes the dreamer, in the silence and indifference of those around him, and whose waves will not touch his fellow man until long after, like one of those stars whose fixed and silent explosion seems to outrace time.

Freedom of dreams: this seems paradoxical, since dreams are clearly the freest expression of life. But it is this very freedom that is frightening, because it is a threat to reason and the moral order, which is why society’s prohibitions, censorship, and propriety have sought for so long to obscure or stifle it. Dreams are free, but locked up in the prison of silence, thrown into the dungeon of memory. Dreams are the hidden fire that man must steal off with in order to reveal the other side of himself, in order to attain real freedom.

In the chilly aloofness and hypocrisy of Europe’s nineteenth century, Lautréamont’s sacrifice has something truly cruel and despairing about it, but it allows us to see the error that corrupts the mind of civilized societies at the outset of the Industrial Age. Through its indifference and forgetting, nineteenth-century bourgeois society in its entirety casts Lautréamont out into another world, in both senses of the term: it sends him back to the world in which he was born, to Montevideo, the overseas territories, tomb of the banished; but it also throws him back to a world from before civilization, a primitive, violent, magical world, one to which the rationalism and bankers’ reign of the Second Empire could not give credence. It casts him back toward dreams—that is to say, toward the deepest past of mankind.

It is indeed a question of a return toward our origins. The freedom to dream, and to live one’s dreams, takes us back toward another world, that of prehistorical societies (in Lévi-Strauss’s sense of the term). In the Indian societies of the New World, for example, the social structure in most cases is that of a "loose democracy,"1 founded on equality and the self-sufficiency of the family, where each person can be at once warrior, preacher (or shaman), doctor, artist, or orator. The Indian societies of North America (the Iroquois, Sioux, Comanches, Apaches), of the subtropical forests (the Carib, Tupinamba, and Amazonian tribes), and of South America (the Araucan Indians of the pampas) all testify to this full expression of man, which seems to precede the specializations of the hierarchized and sedentary societies (Mexicas, Mayas, Quechuas). But the importance of this full expression of man is apparent even in the most urbane and organized of societies. The Amerindian religious rites all express these influences—magic, concepts of recurrent and cyclical time, the possibility of man’s identification with the gods—which in a sense form the foundation of "savage" philosophy and which the conquering Europeans will try (successfully) to extinguish.

It is in dreams that the original civilizations of the Americas found their explanations for existence. For the ancient Mexicans, as for the Tupi-Guaranis or the Quechuas, dreams were a soul’s journey outside the body, which enabled contact with the beyond and knowledge of the future. The Mexicas, Purepecha, Carib, and Quechua nations were troubled by dreams (or auguries) to such an extent that they couldn’t find the force to resist the conquering peoples from the East whose coming had been announced by the auguries. Upon the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico, the omens multiplied: visions of death and of peoples in chains, lakes of blood, comets, and swarms of insects. As in the books of the Yucatec Mayas’ Chilam Bilam or in the apparition of the gods meeting on the mountain of Xanoata Hucatzio in the Relación de Michoacán, the most ancient dreams associated with the prophecies thus meet up with reality, but only to bring about the destruction of the dreaming peoples.

The first Spanish writers captured this final moment of the dreamers’ society, manifested in its strange rites, dances, and sacrifices. The Relación de Michoacán, chronicle of the Purepecha Indians, shows us a people wholly given over to their omens and dreams. The kings’ power and their destiny depend upon their dreams, during which the supreme gods (Curicaueri, god of fire, or the moon goddess Xaratanga) appear before them and strike up alliances. Father Bernardino de Sahagún recounts that the cruel and bloody festivals of the Aztecs took place in this mytical incarnation of gods dancing among men, as in the ixnextiua festival: "It was their belief that on this festival all the gods were dancing, and therefore all the natives who danced were dressed in diverse fancy costumes, some impersonated birds, others different animals; some represented the bird called ‘tzinitzcan’ [hummingbird], others butterflies; some dressed like drones, others like flies, still others like beetles; some carried on their backs a sleeping man who, they said, represented sleep."2

This magical society, this society of dreams and auguries, will be destroyed by Western civilization in the name of rationalism. For the conquering Spaniards, Portuguese, and, later, Anglo-Saxons or French, these magical societies are antiquated. They must be transformed, confined to reality, in order to integrate them into the rationales of productivity and causality on which the modern world rests. This will also be the Christian church’s role, shared among its millennial illusions and its will to destroy religious and philosophical concepts in contradiction with those of the conquerors.

As has been said, for the Renaissance mind, belief in magic and dreams is absurd and illogical. Founded on the sciences, on observation, nascent humanism can only condemn these obscure aspects of the human soul, since the new ideas come about precisely as a response to the beliefs and superstitions of the Middle Ages. In order to affirm this new "man," it is necessary to kill the old one, the one who lives off dreams and chimeras.

The new era is also that of absolute powers: Charles V, Francis I, and Henry VIII each demonstrate the supremacy of true power, armed force, and merchant empires. Curiously, however, it is in these periods when political powers are most extreme—the immense power of gold and silver, the Spanish flotilla, the Holy Roman Empire, the world divided between Spain and Portugal, the birth of the English Empire, the slave trade, the colonization of the Americas—that the place of doubt, dreams, and magic seems the largest, the most troubling. In France, the biggest witchcraft trials, in Louvain and Pau, take place first under first Louis XIII, then under Louis XIV. The peak of Spain’s rise corresponds in fact to the Baroque Age, which is the age of doubt and questioning.

The dreams of the Baroque Age are a questioning of reality, power, and money and mark the appearance of a certain relativity (as one would say today in this other baroque age which is our own). Time, value, love, goods, and the pleasures of our lives are ephemeral. Who is not familiar with these magical lines from Francisco de Quevedo? "Yesterday has gone; tomorrow hasn’t arrived; / Today is going away without stopping for one one moment; / I am a ‘was’ and a ‘will be’ and an ‘is’ tired."3

Or these mysterious and moving lines from Luis de Góngora:

 

While, to compete with your hair, gold burnished in the sun gleams in vain; while, with scorn, in the midst of the plain, your white brow regards the lily fair; while each lip is pursued by more eyes than follow the early carnation; and while with proud disdain your neck triumphs over bright crystal: enjoy neck, hair, lips, and brow, before what was in your golden youth gold, lily, carnation, crystal bright, not only turns into silver or a crushed violet, but you and all of it together into earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothingness.4

 

The Baroque is not merely a literary mode or school. It is a philosophy, a natural tendency of man, the expression of his nocturnal side, of his dreams and worries. Approximately one hundred years before Góngora’s verses, Quevedo, and La vida es sueño, in the Aztec world on the verge of disappearing, the great Netzahuacoyotl, Lord of the Acolhua people from Tetzcoco, sang the same elegies and laments that would make up the poetry of the English Romantics and of Novalis. One finds here as well the themes of the fragility of happiness, time, the beauty of youth, death and destruction, the final void.

 

Dress yourself in flowers
In flowers the color of the ara of the lakes,
Brilliant as the sun,
The flowers of the raven,
Adorn yourself here on earth,
Only here.
It is thus
Only for a brief moment,
The flowers, for a moment,
We have readied them.
Already, we carry them to the god’s home,
To the home of the Fleshless.5

 

The Baroque asserts nothing other than the right to dream, and it speaks of nothing other than man’s former ties to the supernatural, which is why that right is the dominant force of civilization.

It is in the very era of rationalism, the Age of Classicism, that dreams reveal their power. Cartesian philosophy also has its part of shadow, as Descartes’ dream and the Pascalian illumination bear witness. Writings on the irrational flourish during the years of the Encyclopédie. One can cite not only the writings of Saint-Martin and Swedenborg but also the fantastic tales of this period: Jacques Cazotte with his Diable amoureux, the translations of A Thousand and One Nights, the English Gothic novels by Beckford and Lewis, the German ones by Tieck, and the sometimes absurd, often disturbing tales of the famous Cabinet des Fées, published in Amsterdam at the end of the eighteenth century.

Born of the European wars and the Napoleonic adventure, the Age of Romanticism also dreams of a different society. The second wave of Romanticism (the one which will nourish the young Isidore Ducasse) is at the once the era of the birth of the great industrial empires, colonization, and banks, as well as an era of dreams, of a return to origins, of the resurrection of magic and mysticism. If, as Vladimir Propp notes in his essay on the origins of Russian folktales, most dreams are tied to the tribal or theocratic organization of human societies—the dragon, for instance, as an expression of tyranny and despotism—then the imagination of fantastic literature expresses a demand, a struggle for the freedom to dream.

Romanticism is also the age of messianisms, in the Americas, Oceania, and Africa. The same "wave of dream," as Paul Eluard would later call it, runs throughout the world, pitting conquered peoples against the new industrialized masters. In North America, the Indian "dreamers"—Sioux, Arapaho, Apache—guide the last barbarous nations in total war against the conquering Europeans, who for their part draw on the most effective weapon of all, that of money. Dream dances, ghost dances,6 visions, dreams set the primitive peoples against the modern world and send them on toward the only outcome possible: death. It is a case of a total confrontation between the ideas of the modern world—utilitarianism, logic, determinism—and the prior beliefs in magic and the beyond. Dreams are an insurrection aimed at a new freedom, the freedom of the individual against the prohibitions of classical morality, against logical order; they are a means of access to a new perception of being—i.e., this totality which was the primary value of primitive societies. The deep meaning of Lautréamont’s quest lies in this insurrection of dreams.

After Lautréamont and Nerval, the Surrealists also defend the right to dream, this freedom to dream that can hardly be considered a gentle one. For the Surrealists, dreams are far more than just a poetic theme or means of inspiration. It is a question of a total experience, both physical and metaphysical, from which man will emerge different, changed. It is for this reason that they spoke of a "Surrealist Revolution."

At issue therefore is a complete reversal of values (born, moreover, of nihilism and of the absurdity of the deadliest wars man has ever known). As Breton states in the first Surrealist Manifesto from 1924:

 

To reduce the imagination to a state of slavery—even though it would mean the elimination of what is commonly called happiness—is to betray all sense of absolute justice within oneself. Imagination alone offers me some intimation of what can be, and this is enough to remove to some slight degree the terrible injunction; enough, too, to allow me to devote myself to it without fear of making a mistake (as though it were possible to make a bigger mistake). Where does it begin to turn bad, and where does the mind’s stability cease? For the mind, is the possibility of erring not rather the contingency of good?7

 

Man’s freedom to seek and reveal himself through visions and dreams implicates the dangers of limits, which is why the rationalist and progressivist society of the modern world, spawned by the Reformation, cannot allow it to exist. Man—this "definitive dreamer" as Breton puts it, or Lautréamont’s "pubescent dreamer" victimized by the cruelty of his own creator—ust choose for himself the path of his revelation, the means to his freedom. In undertaking this extreme experience, a man sometimes risks his own life, like the poet Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, creator of the movement "Le Grand Jeu"; like Nerval; or like Antonin Artaud, who, in the tradition of his hero Van Gogh, was "suicided by society."

Doubtless one of the last seers of the modern world, Artaud le Momo, poet-magus par excellence, takes his introspective quest to the very edge of madness: "Where others present their works, I claim to do no more than show my mind. / Life consists of burning up questions. / I cannot conceive of work that is detached from life. / I do not like detached creation. Neither can I conceive of the mind as detached from itself. Each of my works, each diagram of myself, each glacial flowering of my inmost soul dribble over me."8 Artaud renders the totality of this experience of being, in which man is the receptor of magical and unreal forces, in the following terms: "Delights and furies, the entire sky / Launches upon us like a cloud / A whirlwind of wild wings / Torrential with obscenities."9 This burning, harassing freedom leads Artaud all the way to Mexico, to the lands of the Tarahumara Indians, where he seeks the Mountain of Signs, the Race Principle, and a complete, ecstatic communion with creation. Later, in the solitude of madness, it leads still further, to the asylum in Rodez.

Acquired through so much suffering, anguish, and pain, this freedom to dream has something mythlike to it. The myth of katabasis comes to mind: out of curiosity, love, or a fascination with the unknown that is the destiny of some, the human hero descends into the underworld, defying danger and taboo, crossing through the portals of death. Most of the heroes of ancient civilizations have made this journey: the giant Gilgamesh, seeking the flower of immortality; Orpheus, for the love of Eurydice; or Quetzalcóatl, the god of Tula, sacrificed by his celestial enemy Tezcatlipoca and reborn at the end of each century in the form of a morning star. The ecstasy of the shamans and the visions of the prophets had no other goal than to undertake, one more time, this initiatory voyage beyond death. The poets and the seers after them sought out this encounter, this meeting with the two truths of man: that of his life and that of his death. Primitive man, or, in Lévi-Strauss’s terms, "man without history" (since, by way of this other reality, man abolishes time and death, the very things which make up histories), experienced this meeting in its entirety, in each one of the acts of his daily life. In hiding this truth, the determinist, rationalist, Western society has mutilated the nocturnal side of man, the side of his magical and creative origins. Thanks to the poets’ dreams; thanks to Baudelaire, Nerval, and Lautréamont; thanks to Jorge Carrera Andrade and Octavio Paz; thanks to the writers since Joyce and Proust, up to those of today—Borges, Rulfo, Onetti, Mercè Rodoreda—we know now that this imaginative freedom is one of our most precious assets. Like the ancient Mayas, like the Egyptians and Greeks, we have learned that time is cyclical and that visible reality is only a reflection. As Borges, perhaps one of the last visionaries of our world, so admirably puts it, we have learned that "the whole of time has already happened and that our life is a vague memory or dim reflection, doubtless false and fragmented, of an irrevocable process."10 Is this not the rejoinder to the ancient Aztec proverb that expresses the notions of time and creation through the myth of eternal return? "Another time, it shall be thus, another time things shall be thus, in another time, in another place. What happened long ago and which now is no longer done, another time it shall be done, another time it shall be thus, as it was in very distant times. Those who live today shall live another time, they shall live once again."11

—J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Seminar On Lautréamont And ‘Freedom To Dream,’” University of Oklahoma, 18 February 1997.

 

Published as J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Freedom to dream.” World Literature Today v. 71 (Autumn 1997) p. 671-4. Translated by Ralph Schoolcraft III

 

Footnotes

1 The phrase appears in English in the original.
2 Sahagún, A History of Ancient Mexico, vol. 1, tr. Fanny R. Bandelier, Nashville, Fisk University Press, 1932, p. 146.
3 Quevedo, "Metaphysical Poems, #2," in Elias L. Rivers, Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, tr. Elias L. Rivers, Prospect Heights (Il.), Waveland, 1966, pp. 260-61.
4 Góngora, "Sonnet CLXVI," in Rivers, Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, p. 163.
5 The translation used here is that found in J.M.G. Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream: Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations, tr. Teresa Lavender Fagan, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 113.
6 These two phrases appear in English in the original.
7 André Breton, "Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)," in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trs. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1972, pp. 4-5.
8 Artaud, The “Umbilicus of Limbo,” in Selected Writings, tr. Helen Weaver, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976, p. 59.
9 Artaud, "Windowpane of Sound" ["Vitre de son"]; my translation.
10 Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," tr. Alastair Reid, in Ficciones, New York, Grove, 1962, p. 25.
11 Codex Florentinus, facsimile edition, Mexico City, AGN, 1969, tr. Alfredo Lopez Austin, book VI, p. 196. This English translation is also from Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream, p. 208.

 

deleuze says le clézio’s act of becoming via fabulation reveals his pedigree—melville, kafka, céline

Gilles Deleuze, "Literature and Life"  

 

Translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco

Critical Inquiry 23 (Winter 1997)

 

To write is certainly not to impose a form (of expression) on the matter of lived experience. Literature rather moves in the direction of the ill- formed or the incomplete, as Witold Gombrowicz said as well as practiced. Writing is a question of becoming, always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed, and goes beyond the matter of any livable or lived experience. It is a process, that is, a passage of Life that traverses both the livable and the lived. Writing is inseparable from becoming: in writing, one becomes-woman, becomes-animal or -vegetable, becomes-molecule, to the point of becoming-imperceptible. These becomings may be linked to each other by a particular line, as in J. M. G. Le Clézio’s novels; or they may coexist at every level, following the doorways, thresh- olds, and zones that make up the entire universe, as in H. P. Lovecraft’s powerful oeuvre. Becoming does not move in the other direction, and one does not become Man, insofar as man presents himself as a dominant form of expression that claims to impose itself on all matter, whereas woman, animal, or molecule always has a component of flight that escapes its own formalization. The shame of being a man—is there any better reason to write? Even when it is a woman who is becoming, she has to become-woman, and this becoming has nothing to do with a state she could claim as her own. To become is not to attain a form (identification, imitation, Mimesis) but to find the zone of proximity, indiscernibility, or undifferentiation where one can no longer be distinguished from a woman, an animal, or a molecule—neither imprecise nor general, but unforeseen and non-preexistent, singularized out of a population rather than determined in a form. One can institute a zone of proximity with anything, on the condition that one creates the literary means for doing so. André Dhôtel, for instance, makes use of the aster: something passes between the sexes, the genera, or the kingdoms.1 Becoming is always "between" or "among": a woman between women, or an animal among others. But the power of the indefinite article is effected only if the term in becoming is stripped of the formal characteristics that make it say the ("the animal in front of you .. ."). When Le Clézio becomes-Indian, it is always as an incomplete Indian who does not know "how to cultivate corn, or carve a dugout canoe"; rather than acquiring formal characteristics, he enters a zone of proximity.2 It is the same, in Kafka, with the swimming champion who does not know how to swim. All writing involves an athleticism, but far from reconciling literature with sports or turning writing into an Olympic event, this athleticism is exercised in flight and in the breakdown of the organic body—an athlete in bed, as Henri Michaux put it. One becomes animal all the more when the animal dies; and contrary to the spiritualist prejudice, it is the animal who knows how to die, who has a sense or premonition of death. Literature begins with a porcupine’s death according to Lawrence or with the death of a mole in Kafka: "our poor little red feet outstretched for tender sympathy."3 As Karl-Philipp Moritz (1756-1793) said, one writes for dying calves.4 Language must devote itself to reaching these feminine, animal, molecular detours, and every detour is a becoming mortal. There are no straight lines, neither in things nor in language. Syntax is the set of necessary detours that are created in each case to reveal the life in things.

 

To write is not to recount one’s memories and voyages, one’s loves and griefs, one’s dreams and phantasms. It is the same thing to sin through an excess of reality as through an excess of the imagination. In both cases it is the eternal daddy-mommy, an Oedipal structure that is projected onto the real or introjected into the imaginary. In this infantile conception of literature, what we seek at the end of the voyage, or at the heart of a dream, is a father. One writes for one’s father-mother. Marthe Robert has pushed this infantilization or "psychoanalization" of literature to an extreme, leaving the novelist no other choice than that of the Bastard or the Foundling.5 Even becoming-animal is not safe from an Oedipal reduction of the type "my cat, my dog." As Lawrence says, "if I am a giraffe, and the ordinary Englishmen who write about me … are nice, well-behaved dogs, there it is, the animals are different…. The animal I am you instinctively dislike."6 As a general rule, fantasies simply treat the indefinite as a mask for a personal or a possessive: "a child is being beaten" is quickly transformed into "my father beat me." But literature takes the opposite path and exists only when it discovers beneath appar- ent persons the power of an impersonal-which is not a generality but a singularity at the highest point: a man, a woman, a beast, a stomach, a child…. It is not the first two persons that function as the condition for literary enunciation; literature begins only when a third person is born in us that strips us of the power to say "I" (Blanchot’s "neuter").7 Of course, literary characters are perfectly individuated and are neither vague nor general, but all their individual traits elevate them to a vision that carries them off in an indefinite, like a becoming that is too powerful for them: Ahab and the vision of Moby Dick. The Miser is not a type, but on the contrary his individual traits (to love a young woman, and so on) make him accede to a vision: he sees gold in such a way that he is sent racing along a witch’s line where he gains the power of the indefinite—a miser…, some gold, more gold…. There is no literature without fabulation, but, as Henri Bergson was able to see, fabulation—the fabulating function—does not consist in imagining or projecting an ego. Rather, it attains these visions, it raises itself to these becomings and powers.

 

One does not write with one’s neuroses. Neuroses or psychoses are not passages of life but states into which we fall when the process is interrupted, blocked, or plugged up. Illness is not a process but a stopping of the process, as in the "Nietzsche case." Moreover, the writer as such is not a patient but rather a physician, the physician of himself and of the world. The world is the set of symptoms whose illness merges with man. Literature then appears as an enterprise of health; not that the writer would necessarily be in good health (there would be the same ambiguity here as with athleticism), but he possesses irresistible and delicate health that stems from what he has seen and heard of things too big for him, too strong for him, suffocating things whose passage exhausts him while nonetheless giving him the becomings that dominant and substantial health would render impossible.8 The writer returns from what he has seen and heard with red eyes and pierced eardrums. What health would be sufficient to liberate life wherever it is imprisoned by and within man, by and within organisms and genera? It is like Spinoza’s delicate health, while it lasted, bearing witness until the end to a new vision whose passage it remains open to.

 

Health as literature, as writing, consists in inventing a people that is missing. It is the task of the fabulating function to invent a people. We do not write with memories, unless it is to make them the origin and collective destination of a people to come still ensconced in its betrayals and repudiations. American literature has an exceptional power to produce writers who can recount their own memories, but as those of a universal people composed of immigrants from all countries. Thomas Wolfe "inscribes all of America in writing insofar as it can be found in the experience of a single man."9 This is not exactly a people called upon to dominate the world. It is a minor people, eternally minor, taken up in a becoming-revolutionary. Perhaps it only exists in the atoms of the writer, a bastard people, inferior, dominated, always in becoming, always incomplete. Bastard no longer designates a familial state, but the process or drift of the races. I am a beast, a Negro of an inferior race for all eternity. This is the becoming of the writer. Kafka (for central Europe) and Melville (for America) present literature as the collective enunciation of a minor people, or of all minor peoples, who find their expression only in and through the writer.10 Though it always refers to singular agents [agents], literature is a collective assemblage [agencement] of enunciation. Literature is delirium, but delirium is not a father-mother affair; there is no delirium that does not pass through peoples, races, and tribes and that does not haunt universal history. All delirium is world historical, "a displacement of races and continents."11 Literature is delirium, and as such its destiny is played out between the two poles of delirium. Delirium is a disease, the disease par excellence, whenever it erects a race it claims is pure and dominant. But it is the measure of health when it invokes this oppressed bastard race that ceaselessly stirs beneath dominations, resisting everything that crushes and imprisons, a race that is outlined in relief in literature as process. Here again, there is always the risk that a diseased state will interrupt the process or becoming; health and athleticism both confront the same ambiguity, the constant risk that a delirium of domination will be mixed with a bastard delirium, pushing literature toward a larval fascism, the disease against which it fights—even if this means diagnosing the fascism within itself and fighting against itself. The ultimate aim of literature is to release this creation of a health or this invention of a people—that is, a possibility of life-in the delirium. To write for this people that is missing … (for means less "in the place of" than "for the benefit of").

 

We can see more clearly the effect of literature on language: as Proust says, it opens up a kind of foreign language within language, which is neither another language nor a rediscovered patois but a becoming-other of language, a "minorization" of this major language, a delirium that carries it off, a witch’s line that escapes the dominant system. Kafka makes the swimming champion say, I speak the same language as you, and yet I don’t understand a single word you’re saying. Syntactic creation or style—this is the becoming of language. The creation of words or neologisms is worth nothing apart from the effects of syntax in which they are developed. So literature already presents two aspects: through the creation of syntax, it not only brings about a decomposition or destruction of the maternal language but also the invention of a new language within language. "The only way to defend language is to attack it." "Every writer is obliged to create his or her own language."12 Language seems to be seized by a delirium, which forces it out of its usual furrows. As for the third aspect, it stems from the fact that a foreign language cannot be hollowed outin one language without language as a whole in turn being toppled or pushed to a limit, to an outside or reverse side that consists of Visions and Auditions that no longer belong to any language. These visions are not fantasies, but veritable Ideas that the writer sees and hears in the interstices of language, in its intervals. They are not interruptions of the process but breaks that form part of it, like an eternity that can only be revealed in a becoming, or a landscape that only appears in movement. They are not outside language, but the outside of language. The writer as seer and hearer, the aim of literature: it is the passage of life within language that constitutes Ideas.

 

These three aspects, which are in perpetual movement, can be seen clearly in Antonin Artaud: the fall of letters in the decomposition of the maternal language (R, T, . . .); their incorporation into a new syntax or in new names with a syntactic import, creators of a language ("eTReTé"); and, finally, breath words, the asyntactical limit toward which all language tends.13 And even in Céline—we cannot avoid saying it, so acutely do we feel it: Journey to the End of the Night, or the decomposition of the maternal language; Death on the Installment Plan, with its new syntax as a language within language; and Guignol’s Band, with its suspended exclamations as the limit of language, as explosive visions and sonorities. In order to write, it may perhaps be necessary for the maternal language to be odious, but only so that a syntactic creation can open up a kind of foreign language in it, and language as a whole can reveal its outside, beyond all syntax. We sometimes congratulate writers, but they know that they are far from having achieved their becoming, far from having attained the limit they set for themselves, which ceaselessly slips away from them. To write is also to become something other than a writer. To those who ask what literature is, Virginia Woolf responds, To whom are you speaking of writing? The writer does not speak about it, but is concerned with something else.

 

If we consider these criteria, we can see that, among all those who make books with a literary intent, even among the mad, there are very few who can call themselves writers.

swedes try to atone for pearl s. buck, cleverly award nobel prize in literature to j.m.g. le clézio

J. M. G. Le Clézio’s "Pawana" is an apocalyptic 50-page short story, the central action of which takes place at the beginning of 1856, with the programmatic development of the American presence on the California coast. With deliberate echoes of Conrad and Melville, the story records the transition caused by the closure of the "western frontier" from an earlier native way of life to the beginning of the Faustian, resource–hungry early modern period in America.


Excerpted from Pawana,
by J. M. G. Le Clézio


John, from Nantucket:

It was in the beginning, at the very beginning, when there was nobody on the sea, nothing more than birds and sunlight. Since childhood I had dreamed of going there, to this place where all began and all ended. They spoke of it as though of a secret, like a treasure. In Nantucket they all spoke about it, talking as though drunk. They said that over there in California there existed a secret place in the ocean where the whales went to birth their young, and where the old females went to die. There was this reservoir, this immense shallow in the sea, where they gathered by the thousands, the youngest along with the oldest, and the males formed a protective circle around them to prevent orcas and sharks from entering, and the sea roiled under the crash of fins, the sky grew misty with the spray of blowholes, with the cries of the birds sounding like a forge.

This is what they said. They all told stories of this place as though they had seen it. And I, on the piers of Nantucket, I listened to them and also remembered as though I had been there.

And now it all has disappeared. I remember it, it is as though my life has been this dream alone, in which everything that was beautiful and new in the world was undone, destroyed. I never returned to Nantucket. Does the ripple of this dream still exist?

The great streamlined ships, the high masts where the lookout kept watch on the sea, the launches attached to the flanks of the ships, ready to cut into the sea, the spars, the harpoons, the boathooks ready to take on their work.

And the sea the color of blood, blackened under a sky brimming with birds. My most distant memory of Nantucket is that of the odor of blood in the sea, in the port still gray from winter’s end, when the whalers returned from the other end of the world, hauling their dead giants. Then, on the piers, the gutting with axes and saws, the streams of black blood flowing through the basins of the pier, the powerful, acrid smell of the depths.

There I walked when I was eight, between the rotting carcasses. Seagulls lived in the bodies of the giants, they would burst out tearing off strips of skin and gristle. At night came the army of rats, invading the carcasses as though they were mountains spotted with caves.

My Uncle Samuel worked as a gutter. He was the first to show me the heads of the giants, the immense jaws, and what small eyes they had burrowed into folds of skin, a blank eye covered with a blue tint. I breathed in the frightful odor of blood and entrails, and imagined these bodies alive, leaping right through the waves, the thunder of the water against their skulls, the prodigious blows of their fins and tails. My Uncle Samuel taught me to distinguish the arctic whale from the fin whale, the sperm whale, the humpback. He told me how from a distance the lookout could tell them apart from their sprays: the arctic with its double spray, the blue fin whale with its single spray which surged up like a tree made of steam. All of these things I learned on the piers of Nantucket, with the cries of the scavenging birds, the dull sound of the axes falling upon the corpses, the odor of fat boiling in the basins. On the piers I saw an orca for the first time, immense and black, and a shark whose stomach they had opened.

Now, after so many years, these are the memories which come back here, in Punta Bunda, in the bay of Ensenada. I hear the sea, observe the reflection of the rocks polished by the wind, the beach, so soft, the sky, and it is the sea of Nantucket that I think of first of all, this gray and wild ocean which can turn men into savages. Perhaps I, too, was born like one of those cruel birds flying and screeching around the dead giants, these birds of prey following the Nantucket hunters? Now all is extinguished, done. The wake has closed. The blood no longer blackens the sea, the port basins are empty, the great lagoon shivers under the wind as though none of that had ever been, as though the hunting vessels had died in the same moment as their prey.

I remember when I was ten, the Nantucket boys and I borrowed a boat from Old John Nattick and navigated out to the lagoon—right out to the end of it—to the village of Wauwinet, where the strip of solid ground is so narrow that one hears the groaning of the ocean breakers on the other side. We landed on the beach and ran across the dunes until we were facing the sea. It was late afternoon, June, I recall it very well, and we were keeping watch on the horizon to see the hunting vessels return. The sky was empty and the sea came obliquely toward us in foamy waves. So long we waited, until dusk, our eyes burnt by the wind and the sea. Then we returned to Nantucket, expecting our punishment. Today it seems that not a single heartbeat separates me from that moment, when I tried in vain to see a vessel from the beach, carrying its prey attached to its side, surrounded by a flock of birds.

Afterwards, we often went to see Old Nattick on the piers. He told us of the time when the Indians where the only ones on the island, when they used to hunt whales standing at the prow of their launches, harpoon in hand. Back then the whales used to cross the channel between Nantucket and Cape Cod, so numerous that they nearly formed a black shadow on the sea, with great jets of vapor trailing overhead. The old man imitated for us the cry of the lookout when he spotted a group of whales: “Awaité, pawana!” Back then all the marine hunterswere Nantucket Indians, all of them speaking Nattik. Then these men died, one after another, of sickness, drunkenness, or in the brawls in the nightclubs of Bedford and Boston. They died of cold in the snow of the gutters, died at sea in pursuit of the giant pawana, died in sanitariums of tuberculosis. Old John Nattick was the only one who remembered all that. When he had finished talking, he did not move, sitting with his back against the wall, watching the swaying of masts upon the useless boats. His face was somber and wrinkled, his eyes two slits where the spark of attention no longer shone. He remained seated in silence, wrapped up in his filthy blanket, his white hair coiled under his Quaker hat. One day he showed us how to cast the harpoon. He tip-toed up to the prow of his ship, waving a long baton, and the fishermen passing by made fun of him, because he was blind. But then I imagined the body of the giant plunging towards the depths and the jet of blood which reddened the sea.

It is the blood that I see here now, without fail, in the blue sea of Ensenada. In Punta Bunda, the buccaneers’ cabins are still standing. They were made of one wall of dry stone, on which branches and palms were laid. Some of them are reinforced with the enormous ribs of whales, and the long white blades polished by wind and sea shine in the sun. Wind blowing between the blades and the stones makes a curious music that whistles and moans very low like a dirge. That was long ago . . . so long ago . . . then the sea was as man had found it when he first came into the world. Now I am the one who is old, like Old Nattick at the beginning of a new century. But the Léonore has disappeared, is no longer anything but a broken-up carcass wrecked upon a sandbar in San Francisco Bay. They have taken off everything that could be salvaged from her body: her masts, the planks of her bridge, the pieces of copper in her ribs, all her machinery, even her waters. The wreck looters passed over like cruel birds, leaving only the ribs to the air, just like the ribs of the giants on the beaches of California and Mexico—not white, hard, and beautiful, but black and rotted out by the sea, encrusted with wrack and worms.

It is in an old buccaneer’s cabin that I opt to take shelter. When the wind blows in off the sea, fog hangs down upon the boulders of the coast, and little by little the beach disappears in a cottony cloud. Then I see nothing but the bones of whales, I hear nothing more than the groaning wind. The great jaws jut up everywhere in the sand like arcs, and the backbones seem like columns of stone broken in some cataclysm.

During the winter, the ocean is as smooth as metal. I was eighteen when I embarked on the Léonore, commanded by Captain Charles Melville Scammon. I remember the route that we followed from San Francisco towards the south, and the day when we first arrived in Punta Bunda, in Baja California. This was not the desolate place then that I find today, this desert strewn with bones and ruins. It was a genuine buccaneer town with all the sailing vessels in the water of the great bay of Ensenada and the flight of the birds that circled around them, waiting for their departure. The bay was ruled by an activity like that which I had seen throughout my childhood in the ports of the East Coast, Bedford, Nantucket. Fires would burn to heat the oil and the pitch, the coopers repairing the barrels. There were stations for carpentry, forges, men who patched the sails, braided the cables and ropes. The launch dropped us off on the beach, and I walked in the sand under a baking sun. Wherever one went in the village he was deafened by the sound of the buccaneers. The sailors came from all corners of the world, and extraordinary languages were heard—Portuguese, Russian, Chinese. There were men from the Canary Islands, thick and black, Norwegians with nearly white hair, with eyebrows and beards discolored by salt. There were Kanaks from the other side of the Pacific who had their faces tattooed and wore pearly earrings, Patagonian Indians from South America, immense and taciturn, harpooners from Hawaii, Alaska, the Acore Islands. Everyone at Punta Bunda was expecting the arrival of gray and fin whales coming from the pole to birth their young in the warm Mexican waters.

Now I walk on this deserted beach and remember what it once was. I seem to hear the noise of the buccaneer town, the boilermakers, the coopers, the voices of the sailors hailing from one vessel to the other. I remember Araceli.

The first time I saw her was on the riverbank where the prostitutes had set up their palm hut. I had heard the girls’ laughter and walked upstream, over to this great cabin made of reeds and palms. Now I look for the mouth of this river in vain. I walk in the zone where the sea flows, my bare feet sinking in the silt, armies of quick crabs scattering before me. There are no other footprints but my own. Where was the girls’ hut? I don’t know any more. Long ago the wind blew away all human traces and left only the bones of dead giants behind.

The river has also changed. Now it is thin and meager, just a trickle of water creeping through the stagnant sand. As though the wind and the sun had dried out the water of the hills. But I know the wind has nothing to do with it. Death was brought by man. It is perhaps death that Araceli was fleeing until she lost her breath, when she left Emilio. The men burned the mesquite trees, the pines, the thorny shrubs, and the roots and the pitahayas to melt the blubber and heat the pitch. Everything that once was alive has been transformed into carbon.

I walk along the deserted beach, struck by the light, and it is as though I can still see the flames of the bonfires and still smell their smoke. All along the beach the buccaneer fires would make a great gray cloud that darkened the sky. The acrid, violent smell, the hot oil, the boiling fat and pitch. Life trailed off into smoke.
The water flows no more. Between the narrow banks, the old river disappears, forms pools where mosquitoes dance. Lizards and slowworms. When I approach, the sandpipers take off, giving out their harsh cries. These are the last inhabitants of Punta Bunda.

It was here that I saw Araceli for the first time. She lived with the other girls in the reed hut on the riverbank. There was a great boulder and a pool of clear water. They were set up there because whores were said to always need water—that’s how the buccaneers explained it. When the Léonore entered the bay, they were already there. Nobody knows how they got there. Perhaps they came from the south, from Manzanillo, from Mazatlan. Or perhaps they arrived by land, walking on foot with a train of mules descending from the north, from San Diego or Monterey. There was a man with them named Emilio. He took care of the mules, food, and alcohol. He was tall, dark, said to be Spanish. He was the one who settled the brawls. The girls were all Mexican, even the one with red-dyed hair. When I first saw Araceli, I did not realize that she was with these girls. She was so young and thin that she seemed a child. She was dressed in rags, walking barefoot. She had black hair, thickly braided, like the Indians. She was their servant, their slave.

It was here, in the river, that I saw her for the first time. It was very early morning, before daybreak, and she had gone to fetch water and wood. I enjoyed going to the river at dawn: there were flocks of birds among the reeds, sandpipers, cormorants, egrets, small silver birds that would take off in a great flurry of wings. That is where Araceli would come. I hid behind the reeds to watch her bathe in the river water. She was thin and supple like a liana and her skin appeared almost black in the darkness of dawn. She had a strange way of swimming around in the pool, throwing water over her head and disappearing entirely underwater, then floating up, her face breaking through the surface just long enough to get her breath, and then disappearing once more. She would catch camarons, fish without scales. I crouched without moving, watching the tremulous water, and the sunlight came out to shine upon her body, on her shoulders, her stomach, her breasts. Her disheveled hair, jet black, clung to her back and shoulders. She sat down in the sand, having dropped her catch into a bucket, and spent a while drying out her hair, shaking her head from side to side. I had never seen a woman like her.

I looked for her around the side of the reed hut, but did not dare to approach her. At night the buccaneers would come to drink and smoke. The girls stayed shut inside the hut. Sometimes I thought I could see her in the firelight, sliding through the night, dressed in a grey robe, her hair knotted. The girls would call out to her, calling her name for her to serve them, and that is how I came to learn that her name was Araceli.

The other sailors of the Léonore would speak of the girls, but never of her. I remained hidden in the shadows, watching the hut, trying to catch a glimpse of the Indian. I would have liked to do as the other sailors did, to get drunk and go in to hear the laughs of the girls. I was afraid. A Mexican sailor named Valdés told me about her one day. He told me about Emilio, the Spaniard, who had bought the Indian. She had been captured by the army in Sonora, and Emilio had bought her to be slave to the girls; she brought them water and washed their clothes. She was Seri, she spoke no other language. And why did she stay with those people? Why did she not escape? Several times she had taken flight, and each time Emilio went out after her. He whipped her, and she nearly died. But Indians never give up trying to flee. She hated Emilio and would kill him if she could. She was his mistress. He was the one who gave her the name of Araceli. After hearing this story, I went to the river every day before daybreak to watch her bathe. I did not know it then, but now I understood. From time to time, while she was combing her long hair, she would turn her face towards me as though she could see me across the reeds, and her stare made me tremble.

I walk along the beach where the river once flowed. Now, in the place where Araceli once bathed, there are no more reeds, no birds. There is only a great swamp of black sand spotted with salt. The dry hills into which she fled are still the same. It is as though I can still hear the shouts of the sailors, the noise of the horseshoes on Emilio’s horse. At dusk I remain standing on the beach, before the sea, as though expectant of their return. Or, sometimes, in the fog which hangs on the boulders at Punta Bunda, it is as though I can see the incredible silhouette of a sailing ship, all sails out, going toward the lagoon, and the slow shadows of whales, surrounded by flocks of birds.


Charles Melville Scammon:

I, Charles Melville Scammon, in this year 1911, approaching my own end, I remember the first January in 1856, when the Léonore left Punta Bunda, headed for the south. I did not want to give any explanation to the crew, but Thomas, my fourth mate, had overheard my conversation in the card room with the second captain, Roys. We were talking of this secret passage, of this refuge of gray whales, there where the females went to give birth to their young. Roys hardly believed in the existence of such a refuge, which, according to him, could only be born in the imaginations of those who also believed stories about elephant cemeteries and Amazonia.

Yet the rumor spread and a sort of fever overtook the whole crew. It was just that that we were going to search for in the south, this secret refuge, this fabulous hideaway where all the polar whales came together. For several days the Léonore had been following the Baja California coastline, so closely that one could see the sea whiten on the reef. There were no more whales in these waters, and the men of the crew were already saying that we should not have abandoned the waters of Ensenada, that in doing so we were risking a loss for the season. Sometimes, the lookout would signal a devil fish within view, but the Léonore continued on southward without deviation.

At dawn, on Sunday, the eastern wind fell. I was on the bridge because it was too hot in the holds. I was tired, as I had not slept the night before. The ocean was calm, the sail fluttering in a nearly imperceptible breeze. Leaning over the man ropes I scrutinized the coastline with a small telescope. The deck hands were already hard at work, washing the bridge with flushes of water, scrubbing with brushes and dark soap. One of them, just a child, was looking at the sea. I paid no attention to him. I was lost in daydream, or, rather, was absorbed by this idea which took me completely away from all the others.

The coast was still dark, unreal against the clarity of the sky.

The sea was heavy, opaque. Even the strip of seagulls which had followed the Léonore since our departure from Punta Bunda seemed to have dispersed. The ship crept slowly along, in the noise of its machines, on this thick and sluggish sea. I endlessly scouted out the coastline, following the contours of its shore. But I saw only a dark band, and the fragmented line of mountains of the Vizcaino desert. When the sun appeared, the relief became more of stone, the nudity of the mountains even more hostile.

The child watched the sea, now by my side.

“What is your name?”

He said his first name. For simple deckhands, last names have no importance. Only the first name and place of origin.

“John, from Nantucket.”

“You are from Nantucket Island?”

I studied him more closely. Then I turned back to the coast. “The maps tell us nothing,” I said. “But I know that the passage must not be too far off, now. It must be in that direction.” I pointed to the mountain range to the southeast. The sun already shone upon the summits, making the tops shimmer a brilliant white.

The child looked on in amazement. “Those are salt mines,” I explained, as though he had asked a question. “It’s the Vizcaino. We are too far away to see anything. So, you are from the island?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s quite far from here. Is this your first assignment?”

“Yes, sir. I signed on with the Nantucket Company.”

“How did you get here?”

“I heard that the company was heading for the Pacific.”

The child seemed to reflect. Not knowing why, I said, “I came to look for gold, myself. I didn’t find any, so I chartered this ship for hunting. Did you know that if we find some grays we will get immensely rich?”

The child’s stare shone strangely. But I misunderstood his expression. “Immensely rich. If you notice an opening, a channel, tell me at once. There is a reward for whoever sees the passage first.”

I turned back to the stern to observe the coast. Now the entire crew was on the bridge. They all knew why we had left Punta Bunda, why we were heading south, along the desert coast. We were going to be the first to discover the ancient secret of the devil fish, the place where the females came together to bear their young. We would come back immensely rich, so this would perhaps be the last expedition. And yet, no one spoke about it. It was something like a mystery we were forbidden to talk about, at the risk of foiling our steps toward fortune.

January 9, along the mountain range of Vizcaino.

Towards evening, the Léonore approached the coast. Little by little a large effusion appeared, the entry of which was guarded by an island. We had been passing it that afternoon, pushed on by a strong tail wind, when the lookout signaled the presence of whales. From high up on the stern I was able to make out a group of the animals right ahead of us off the coast of the island Cedres. At this distance, with the sun approaching the horizon, it was impossible to tell fin whales apart from grays. The Léonore had sailed toward the group, and soon I could clearly see the single spray shaped like a fan, which was characteristic of grays. The group was made up of about twenty whales, some of them males of enormous size (more than sixty feet). As the Léonore got progressively closer, the whales appeared upset. When we were close enough to arm the canon, the group split into two smaller groups which spread along port and starboard, fleeing toward the shore.

The crew’s disappointment was great. One heard only swearing. It was now more than a week since the Léonore had left the waters of Punta Bunda, and this was the first group of whales we had come across. Moreover, there was no other hunting vessel with whom to share the spoils. My initial idea was to continue further south, to take advantage of a wind that had just come up. But Roys made me realize that navigation along the shores of the strait which separates California from the island of Cedres was uncertain; these maps by Amirauté, certain of which had been drafted at the beginning of the century, were imprecise. To go on exploring after nightfall was dangerous. For all these reasons, and taking into account the growing impatience of the crew, I decided to turn around and head back, to take shelter in the end of the bay.

That was when I noticed the effusion through the telescope, hidden by the sand bar. The bay widened, and the coast was so low that it seemed to disappear into the sea. In the sparse light of dusk, the Léonore navigated closer, her sails leaning into the wind, shimmering in the rays of the sun. The sea at the end of the bay was calm and smooth as a mirror, and the sounding line indicated the presence of shallows. Dolphins filed before the stem, and at a few cables’ distance the dark forms of whales could be seen.

They surfaced brusquely, so close that we could hear the forge-like noise of their spray, and those acquainted with the hunt could already smell the acrid odor of their breath.

Night was beginning to fall. The sun was disappearing below the horizon, eaten by the fog. I continued tending the sounding line, and finding measurements of some thirty-five feet, I gave the order to cast right where we were in the bay up to the entry of the lagoon. The sails struck, I ordered a launch into the water to scout out the passage to the lagoon. Caution demanded that we wait, but this close to the goal, our impatience was so great that no one would get through the night if we didn’t find out now. I left Roys in charge of the Léonore and with a dozen dinghies we headed for shore.

There was something disturbing, even sinister, in this bay at dusk. The solitude of the shore, the roughness of the copper mountains, the white of the salt mines, and the dark water at the mouth of the lagoon, with this sort of island, or white sandbar, it all seemed like a passage into some fantastic world. Legends came to mind, those of devil fish attacking the launches, pulverizing them with their enormous bodies, smacking the water with their tails until no man was left alive. Night overtook us at the entry of the lagoon and we dragged the launch ashore. We set up a makeshift camp, waiting for the first tide of dawn to continue our exploration.

Never could I forget that night. We slept on the shore, without knowing where we were, without even seeing the lights of the Léonore. The men stretched out on the sand, without blankets, as the air was mild without a hint of wind. I tried to sleep, but could hear the noise of their voices. They spoke very quietly, with only the shimmer of the stars vaguely lighting the sand of the shore, listening to the waves coming to die on the beach. Sometimes we heard strange noises from the channel, the wrinkling of water over the giant bodies, and I could smell the characteristic odor of their breath. The harpooners stood up, trying to make them out, following the noise of their breath along the shore.

Later, the moon rose and the sea reappeared, the water of the lagoon smooth, without a ripple, and devoid of whales. Then I fell asleep, wrapped in my coat, my head upon my arms. The wind whistled, the moon rose slowly over the lagoon. I dreamed of what I had not yet seen, of the secret I was on the verge of discovering.

Before dawn we had all woken up together. Maybe the Indian had given the cry in his own tongue: “Awaité Pawana!” which we all had been expecting. He was standing on the beach, alongside the launch, leaning on his harpoon, watching the lagoon. The gray water appeared before us, covered with black marks slowly gliding. I couldn’t believe my eyes; certainly no one was very sure whether or not they were dreaming. Here I beheld what I had sought for so long, what the sailors of Nantucket had once recounted, when the winter sea was covered with fin whales and arctic whales, so numerous that one could have compared them to a herd on a plain.

Along the channel the bodies of devil fish slid slowly, foam whirling around the black backs. One could distinctly hear the tails striking the water and the jets from the blowholes spraying from all sides with a husky sound which resonated in the silence of the bay. One after another, the men approached the waterline, watching. Soon the cries rang out, savage and fierce cries, and I ordered the launch into the water. The draw of the tide was pushing the whales to the top of the channel, from which they penetrated the brackish waters of the lagoon. They were so many that they toppled over each other in places.

Paddling along slowly, the launch followed the route of the whales, close to the shallows to avoid being capsized by the giants. The sea covered almost entirely the sandbar where we had slept. Thousands of birds already darkened the sky, following the same movement, as though they knew what was about to happen.

January 10, towards six o’clock in the morning, we entered the waters of the lagoon. It was just as beautiful as I had dreamed it would be, immense, pale, meeting the sky at the fugitive lines of sandbars and peninsulas. All the way at the end, as though surging out of the sea, mountains of red quartz were already sparking in the sun with an incredible hardness. But it was the water that made one dizzy, this calm and mirror-like water, where immense black bodies pressed together by the hundreds, by the thousands, perhaps. At the front of the launch, beside the Indian harpooner, I watched all this, saying nothing, and it suddenly seemed to me that I had stolen into a lost world, one separated from our own by innumerable centuries. The whales slid gracefully into the lagoon, along the channel between the sandbars. There were some females who had already given birth and were holding their offspring at the surface so that they could capture their first breath. Others, enormous, waited, basking on their flanks, for the moment of birth to arrive. Some distance off, the males were grouped together to keep guard, their enormous forms brought together to form a dark wall.

I do not know how we tore ourselves away from this spectacle, but suddenly, upon my order, the silent hunt begun. The launch headed towards the group, the Indian harpooner up on the prow, holding his loaded gun. Behind him the deck hand readied the line and the floats. The launch streamed through the calm water of the lagoon, almost without noise or wake. Despite the daylight one could no longer see the depths. The water had a troubled, milky color which blended in with the sky. We were all on guard for what was about to occur.

A shadow passed by at a few fathoms off the starboard side, and a long black cloud sliding along just below the surface emerged all at once, became a mountain upright in the air, in a spray of droplets, and fell back to the water with a roar which petrified us all in the space of a single second. The Indian had already pulled the trigger, and the harpoon surged out straight ahead with a shock that stopped the launch, while the cable unwound, whistling. A cry of triumph was held back as the devil fish, a huge female, dove down underwater before we were able to see whether or not we had hit it with the harpoon. But just before going down, she gave out a husky breath which no man could forget. The cable unwound at incredible speed, dragging the brakes which knocked against the edge of the launch like gunshots, and the deckhand watered the wood so it would not catch flame under the friction. A moment later, the whale surged back through the surface of the lagoon in an extraordinary leap that weakened us all, so great were the beauty and force of this body up against the sky. She hung immobile for some fractions of a second and then fell back in a shower of foam, and floated to the surface, lightly across, and we saw blood tint her tongue, redden the breath of her spouting. Silently the launch approached the whale. At the last moment, when a ripple in the water indicated that she was about to move again, the Indian let go the second harpoon which then dug deeply into the whale’s body, just above the joint of the fin, between the ribs, into the heart. At once blood surged through the blowholes in a jet that rocketed skyward, a very clear red, and then fell down upon our heads and the sea like a rain. The immense body convulsed and then was still at the surface, turned on its side, showing the point of the harpoon while the dark patch widened through the lagoon, surrounding the launch. Curiously, the men said nothing more. They placed hook around the top of the head in silence, and the launch made for the estuary of the lagoon, hauling the whale toward the Léonore. Cries of triumph received us as we arrived. The men set about stowing the body to the flanks of the ship, passing chains around the body from the blowhole to the jaw. Other launches were immediately set to water, taking advantage of the high tide to hunt other devil fish. Toward noon, at low tide, upwards of ten had been killed. It was more than the Léonore could even bring back. We abandoned the largest kills, and turned back for the north, in the direction of the buccaneer campsite.


John, from Nantucket:

Three years later I went back to the lagoon. I was no longer aboard the Léonore but on a whaler, the Sag Harbor, with the Nantucket Company. I never again saw Captain Scammon. But when I arrived back in the lagoon which all the sailors of the company had named, I felt once more a horror I would never be able to forget. This place, once so beautiful, as theworld had been in the beginning, before the creation of man, had become a spot of carnage. The entry of the lagoon was blocked with ships; in this trap the devil fish turned around and around, the females pushing their young before them, searching for an exit. When they appeared before the vessels, the guns launched their explosive harpoons, and the blood of the giants filtered out through the lagoon, tainting the beaches. The drunken birds, ferocious as rats, circled above the wounded whales. Hoardes of sharks had made their way into the lagoon, attacking the injured whales. Hoardes of sharks had made their way into the lagoon, attacking the injured whales, tearing off pieces of the prey attached to the flanks of the ships, despite the efforts of the sailors on board, armed with air rifles. On every side, on the inaccessible sandbars, there lay great carcasses of gray whales, shards of flesh and bone, immense beaks pointing to the sky. The guns fired endlessly, harpoons striking the bodies, blowholes launching jets of blood. The very sound was inhuman. No one shouted, no one spoke. There was nothing but the heavy blows of the shells exploding into the bodies of whales, the shrieking of birds, and the husky breath of dying beasts. Sometimes two vessels would kill the same whale, and the crews would argue over the kill, but almost noiselessly, with only stifled threats. The sun shone down upon the desert mountains in the distance, upon the salt mines, on the thickened water.

Now there was no secret any longer. That is what horrified me, that is why I swore that I would never come back, that this would be the last time. The year following the discovery of the lagoon, they say that more than a hundred ships entered the threshold of the whales’ sanctuary, sending their launches after the birthing females. The slaughter would last an entire month, day in, day out. Vessels came from all points of the world. In the evening, the fires were lit on the shores of the lagoon, on the sandbars. A jetty had been constructed at the end of the cove by the entrance of the lagoon, where we had formerly slept before entering the realm of the gray whales. Now, there was the noise of men everywhere, cries and shouts, voices speaking in every language, and after the silence of the killing, a sharp groaning noise like that of the birds.

At daybreak the butchery began and went on until noon. The rowboats returned from the lagoon, hauling the giants out of the water onto the vessels. Now it was no longer a nameless, secret place, as it had existed since the beginning of the world. Each nook of the lagoon, each bay, every sandbar had its own name, that of a harpooner, a sailor, Cooper Lake, Fish Pond, the fort lagoon, the new port, the salt mines. Men laid claim to the entire lagoon. Already the first huts had appeared, the houses of Indian salt miners, water merchants: there may have been now a reed hut where girls sold themselves to buccaneers.

I still think of Araceli, here, after so many years, on this empty beach. I search along the dried-out creek bed for the place where I spied on her bathing at dawn among the reeds, among the birds. That is also where she spoke to me for the first time. It is so distant that I do not know it if really happened or if I dreamed it. I have not forgotten the color of her skin, the wild flame of her eyes. It was there, at dawn, in the wet sand, we spread ourselves out, I touched her body, I trembled with fever and desire. She spoke to me in her strange tongue, hard and singing, she showed me the hills of the desert where she came from. I did not understand. I did not know why she chose me, why she gave herself to me. She was so violent and wild, yet at the same time so timid, fleeting as a shadow. When the sun appeared, she left the reeds, returning to camp, to the hut where Emilio and the other girls slept. She is what I am searching for here, the memory of her skin, her black hair sliding over her back, her brilliant eyes, her voice, her breath.

One day, however, she did not come. Valdés, the Mexican, told me she had run off. Emilio had beaten her, and she escaped. I went upstream on the side of desert mountains. I searched for her footprints through the swamp, in the reeds. Then I saw Emilio upon his horse. He looked like a hunter galloping toward the mountains. I was at camp when they brought Araceli’s body back. The men had found her in the mountains among the mesquite woods. They left her in the sand, not far from the river. The prostitutes approached, looking down on her, cursing her. The men stayed at some distance, without saying anything. Then some of them dug a grave, right where she was, in the pebbles and sand of the river bank. It was nothing more than a hole in the earth into which they tumbled Araceli’s body. One man took the legs, another the arms, they heaved her for an instant and then dropped her into the hole. The grave was so narrow that her arms still clung to the pebbles at the edges, I remember, as though she did not want to disappear. I did not dare to approach. I was afraid to see her face with her gray skin dirtied by dust, her shut eyes and beautiful hair. The sailors loaded dirt upon her with shovels, then placed some large stones atop her. As she was only an Indian, there were no prayers said, no cross was placed, nothing to even mark the spot where she had been buried. But I myself did not forget. That is why I came here, to see this grave, to recognize it once more. The river has dried up, the mesquite forests have been burned, but I can see exactly the spot where Araceli is in this red earth, where the pebbles have never moved.

Afterward the girls left the camp, having no way to stay there. It was said that Emilio was caught in San Francisco and hanged the same year. Others say that he struck gold and became very rich. That year the Nantucket Company came to set up in San Francisco, and the buccaneers no longer stopped in Punta Bunda. There was no longer enough wood for fuel. Then they said that the river had ceased to flow.

That was long ago, that was another world. Now the Léonore exists no more. It is wrecked on a sandbar in San Francisco Bay. And who knows what has become of Captain Scammon; the second captain Roys; the Nattick harpooner, the Hawaiian and Kanak sailors; the Mexican Valdés; all the others who were with me when we entered the lagoon for the first time?

I wander along the beach, in the mild wind of winter, I hear the whistle of the tubers and the groaning of the bones and the branches of the old huts. I shiver, because it is like Araceli’s voice, this whistling which sings by the invisible river.

The new century begun, nothing will be as before. The world will not go back to its origin. The lagoon is no longer the place where life once could be born. It has become a heavy, acrid lake of bloodshed. I wander along its beaches, amidst the ruins of the huts. Perhaps I have become similar to the Old John Nattick of my youth, who would linger before the gray water of the lagoon, amidst the remains of useless boats he could no longer see. Will some child one day listen to the somber cry of the branches and bones? Sometimes vessels pass offshore. I look upon their lofty masts, their billowing smokestacks. They cross the bay, heading south. They are in search of other secrets, other prey. Then the sea is empty again, without a signal, without a whisper. How can one forget, so that the world can start anew? Everywhere I find Araceli’s grave. Everywhere the same stones, the same shuffled earth. Further off, on the other side of the cape, there is a new town. Listening closely, perhaps I could hear, carried on the wind, music, the laughs, the cries of children?


Charles Melville Scammon:

I, Charles Melville Scammon, commander of the John Dix, I lived that tale, I discovered this secret, I was the first to open up the passage through this unknown coast, to this shallow, this low island, this channel where the rising tide teemed with whales anxious to give birth to their young in the soft waters of the lagoon. I lived that tale like an ancient dream that was suddenly made real in a single flash. Those who accompanied me have not forgotten it, either—not Roys, not the harpooner from Nantucket, not the young boy who was hunting for the first time and who watched me as though I had done something forbidden, something damnable. I remember each and every one of them, now, at the final stage of my existence, and I swear, amen, that nothing like that can be given twice in life.

The entry into the lagoon, at dawn, in the launch, amidst innumerable bodies of whales, as large as gods, the females bent in the giving of birth, then bringing up their offspring to allow their first breath of air. Then our launch cutting through the pale water in silence, and it was death itself that we carried with us. Afterwards, the clamor of birds suddenly spun around us, and the lagoon was inked with the blood of whales, darkening under the light of dawn.

The launch cut through the water, and the Indian’s gun let loose the harpoon which entered into the whales’ flanks, making even more blood gush out. We had no spirit any longer, I think, we no longer knew the beauty of the world. We were made drunk by the odor of blood, by the noise of life going out with the sprays. Now I remember the looks of the men. How could I not have seen it? It was a voluntary and pitiless look. Certain injured whales would pull the launch down to the depths, and one had to cut through the line with an axe to avoid being run aground on the sandbars. There these whales died, and their corpses rotted like sea wrecks.

I remember the look of the child who was with us. He kept burning me with a single question that had no answer. I know now what this question was. How, he asked me, can one kill what one loves?

We were the first. If we had not come, would the others ever have found the entry into this paradise, the passage into the lagoon where whales were born into the world? How can one destroy such a secret?

Day after day, hunters remounted the channel to kill whales in the lagoon. Year after year they came, with larger and larger ships, from all parts of the world. From California, Chile, Argentina, Alaska, Norway, Russia, Japan. The vessels were like an army at the entrance of the lagoon. They carried harpoons poisoned with curare, torpedo cannons, electric harpoons, hoists, chains, boathooks. Around them the cloud of starving seagulls, and hundreds of sharks in the water. The lagoon was a lake of blood at the dawn of winter, a red river bathing the stony backs. The lagoon was no longer a secret, no longer mine. It had become a trap where gray whales were taken, a trap where they died with their newborns. How many thousands of stabbed-through bodies, hauled up on the ships, attached to the boathooks, gutted on the beaches, transformed into barrels of oil? The immense carcasses would rot on the sand, in the depths of the lagoon. If my attention had not been drawn, that fateful day in January 1856, to this low spot on the deserted coast, half-hidden by a sandy island, would this womb of the Earth still be there? Would the secret of the world’s origins have been retained? The lagoon was so beautiful and vast, in the center of the Earth between sky and ocean, between sea and sand, there where life could begin. In the lagoon whales were free and as vast as goddesses, like clouds. They came into the world in the place where life began, in the secret of the earth. Endlessly begun anew, there should have been no end.

But I, Charles Melville Scammon, commander of the Léonore of the Nantucket Company, I discovered this passage, and now nothing will be as it was before. My attention fell upon the secret, I put forth my bloodthirsty hunters, and then life ceased to be born. Now all was reversed and destroyed. On the beach where we spent the first night, randomly listening to the sprays of the approaching giants, we constructed a wooden jetty, where the carcasses of the whales were kept before being gutted. Huts sprang up, villages of salt gatherers, water merchants, wood cutters. The womb of the Earth dried up and perished, became sterile.

Now that I approach my end, I think of the stem of the launch silently cutting through the pale water of the lagoon, carrying the Indian’s gun towards the giants’ bodies. I recall the gigantic leap of the female, suspended for one instant in the light at the center of her cloud of droplets, falling back and dragging her infant into death. How dare one love that which one has killed? That is the question the child’s face put to me in the launch, and it is this question which I still hear. Then, when the stem of the launch cut through the water of the lagoon, we went harshly on with our intentions. I think of the child’s tears, when he hauled the bodies of whales up to the side of the ship, because he was alone in realizing the secret we had lost.

I think back to him, as though I could stop the course of time, the stem of the launch, as though I could close up the entrance of the passage once again. I dream of all that, just as I once dreamed of opening that passage up. Then the womb of the earth could begin to live again, and the whales would softly glide through the calmest waters in the world, in this lagoon which at last would no longer have a name.

(Translated from the French by Christophe Brunski.)