mahu, or the material: “your head aches because you overwork it. I never have a headache.”

 

 

5

The Lice

 

I went and told Latirail that Sinture would dedicate his book whether he liked it or not. Ninette came to the door. She wasn’t dressed yet though it was eleven o’clock. Usually she’s up at seven. She looked rather odd so I asked her what was the matter. She said: "All morning I’ve been battling with my husband. He’s got a headache and won’t get dressed. I’m afraid he’ll catch a cold. You’ve come at the right time, I’m exhausted. Come in and see him and tell him that if he doesn’t get dressed he won’t have any ideas. Perhaps that’ll make up his mind for him. Will you?"

 

I went into Latirail’s bedroom. He was sitting in the middle of the room with only his underpants on.

 

"What do you want?"

 

"I’ve come to say that Sinture is going to … "

 

"Please, don’t talk to me about Sinture. Don’t mention that turd to me. I’ve got a headache, I’ve lost the thread. Don’t bother me."

 

"Listen, Sinture says that when he dedicates your book he’ll get his own back on everybody. Couldn’t you … "

 

"That’s enough. I couldn’t care less about Sinture. He’s nothing but a self-important nonentity. He’s jealous of my novel."

 

"He knows … "

 

"He knows nothing. Do you think he can help me with my Lice Seekers? Wait, I’ve an idea … I could arrange things so that they find Sinture. Sinture’s lice, Sinture’s filth. That’s right, Sinture is a louse. That’s exactly what he is, a louse. Oh, yes! We’ll fix him, you’ll see … "

 

"It’s a bad idea. If you let Sinture get mixed up with your novel you’ll never be able to get rid of him. He’ll know about it straight away and he’ll mess everything up even more. No, you haven’t any ideas, or you’re just saying the first thing that comes into your head. You can’t write like that. These seekers of yours, do you want them to find anything or not? You’ve got to think ahead. You’re not me. When I think ahead I become dumb. But you, with your novel, you’ve got to know what’s going to happen. And you won’t do it by picking up just any old idea. What do you want them to find?"

 

"Treasure. Under a heap of old clothes, one day, in Spain, after travelling throughout Europe in search of different kinds of lice, which they sell to lice trainers, because lice as well as fleas can be trained, they become rich and travel for pleasure and one day, in a market-place, one of them stumbles over a pile of old clothes. He bends down and out of habit pokes around among them and he finds the golden bowl … "

 

"There you are! You knew all along!"

"Perhaps not a market-place, because that would mean that someone had hidden the bowl on purpose. Theft would only complicate matters. In a cave. I can fill in the details later. Anyway, treasure discovered by chance."

 

"That’s a marvellous idea!"

 

"Yes, but that’s only the end. At present, I’m still at the time when they’re looking for lice. And I’ve run out of ideas. I could quite easily make them meet up with Sin­ture … "

 

"I wouldn’t if I were you. Perhaps you’ve run out of ideas because you’ve got a headache. Perhaps if you got dressed … "

 

"Do you think so? Ninette has been making a scene all morning … She told you to say that, didn’t she ?"

 

"No, I thought of it because you don’t seem to be on form … "

 

"You never are on form when you’ve got a headache. Putting on a shirt won’t get rid of it."

 

 "Try all the same."

 

"All right, then … I put on my shirt. I button it up. I put on my trousers. I put on my sweater. Satisfied? Well, I feel worse then I did before."

 

"It’ll go. Oh, I’ve got an idea for your novel! You say that the Lice Seekers . . . What are they called?"

 

"Fio, Fian and Fion."

 

"Er, well, Fio, for example, you say how one day he was out walking in Fontoine. Fontoine is where I go for my holidays. He’s out walking when suddenly he meets a certain gentleman. This gentleman asks him his name and he replies: ‘Fio. And you?’ ‘My name is; Louse. You wouldn’t think so, would you? Yes, I’m a real louse. It’s a case of transformation. By sucking people’s blood I’ve grown enormous and now I wear a hat and shoes. I’m on holiday here. I itch all over.’ Fio is delighted. He’ll be able to sell this fat louse to a trainer. He’ll fetch a big price. So he asks him: ‘Would you like to be trained? You’d be a real attrac­tion. I could find a special trainer. In a circus for example …’ ‘And how would I be paid for these shows ?’ ‘You could ask for a percentage of the takings. Of course, you wouldn’t be your own boss, but I’m sure a percentage could be agreed on. What do you say? Is it a deal?’ ‘All right.’ So they catch a tram, which takes them to Agapa-la-Ville. They get off. But Fio has forgotten the way to the circus. He asks a policeman. The policeman says: ‘Why do you want to know?’ ‘We want to find a louse-trainer.’ ‘But I’m a louse-trainer.’ So Fio introduces Louse. The policeman says he’s got a good style. Louse thinks he’ll pull off a deal. What a stroke of-luck-he’s always so bored on holiday. And he does pull it off. The policeman buys Louse for one thousand francs. Fio takes the money. He shakes hands with Louse and says: ‘Good luck, many thanks, hope to see you again.’ He catches the tram back to Fontoine. Fian and Fion are waiting for him at the hotel. He tells them everything that has happened. They look very surprised. And when he has finished his story they say: ‘We too have found some big lice. They are ladies who were once lice. They are quite magnificent. We’re going to sell them. Here they are!’ They open the bathroom door and there they are waiting quietly."

 

"No, it’s no good."


"Why not?"

 

"Because it’s completely crazy. I don’t write about crazy things, I write about real things. God, my head!"

 

"I really don’t understand you. Your head aches because you overwork it. I never have a headache."

 

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more from mahu, or the material

4

Sinture

 

 

I’m very afraid when I go and see Sinture. He knows I hardly ever get any letters but I’ve got to talk to him. It’s not very interesting what he tells me. He talks to me about different people who receive letters and I know quite a lot of them. He makes sure that what he says isn’t interesting­—almost as if he does it out of spite. He sits at his desk and says "Ah, my dear Mahu, and to what do I owe this pleasure?" and goes on sorting papers or doing accounts. I say I’ve come to see if there’s any news but it’s just to give him some­thing to say. He says "Curious as ever! It’s your great fault, my dear fellow. Where were we now?" And I say, for example, "The story of Petite-Fiente" or something else. He says "Oh, yes. I remember" and he tells me everything as if he was reading it, yes, he remembers everything. He never says "Would Petite-Fiente have done such-and-such a thing or would she have changed her mind?" he says "So what could I do? There were two solutions. I chose that one. This is why." And he tells me why and so on and so forth. How does he do it? What he says really isn’t interesting. What is interesting is that he makes me afraid. He goes on with his typing or his accounts and says "Oh, yes, I’m behind every­thing, everything. I’m even writing your friend Latirail’s novel. He writes down what I tell him. Take his story of the Lice Seekers, do you know what it is? Its simply the corres­pondence between young Pinson and MIle Lorpailleur. The name Lorpailleur made him think of gold seekers and he changed it to lice seekers. And poor Pinson is dying of love for her."

 

He’ll ruin Latirail’s novel in the end, if only by whispering untruths in Mlle Lorpailleur’s ear. She comes from a very good family, I’ve been told she writes novels at the university.

 

I wish I were Sinture for one thing: he knows everything at once. He calls it unity. "The unity of a novel, my dear fellow," he says. "You don’t think I could write a novel! I just lay the bait and let someone else do the writing. Don’t tell Latirail about this." Of course I do tell Latirail about it because I find it very annoying that Sinture should tell him what to write. He says: "Tells me to write what? Do you think I’m a fool? Haven’t you ever heard me arguing with that silly bugger Sinture?" It was no use trying to convince him that Sinture already knew the end of his novel, he said I must be out of my mind. It didn’t bother him at all. But it frightens me. I think things like that are revelations.

 

I often think about Sinture with his pince-nez …

 

"You see that man over there?"

 

"Yes."

 

"It’s my cousin. He died last year. I was very fond of him. He used to do a lot of reading, as Sinture would say. He read the Imitation a great deal. He was always saying "In the Imitation it says such and such a thing." It’s a religious work. My cousin always went to Lourdes to do his Imitation I think. Can you see him? He hasn’t recognised me yet. What’s he got in his hand?

 

"The Horizon-Mou. The newspaper of Agapa."

 

"Ah, yes! I used to show that paper to Sinture when I came back from my holidays. He would say to me: ‘You and your news of Agapa, it’s nothing but idle gossip.‘ Which didn’t stop him from reading it all the same and then mixing up all the news of Agapa with what happened here.

  

Because he dictates novels to everybody, he also wants to dedicate them. He’s already spoken about it to Latirail who said "Mind your own business, you old wind-bag".

 

But I wonder if he is right to snub him like that. Even if he doesn’t think that Sinture dictates what he writes, supposing Sinture has his own revelations? Maybe he does. In any case he knows how the novels will end. And if he doesn’t dictate them, who does write them exactly, exactly as he wishes? Latirail isn’t bothered about it. I think it’s dangerous. Sinture is a bore, of course, but even so,can we afford to just ignore him? He holds all the trumps, he invented the poste restante, he makes marriages, he’s got novels. I darent say he dictates them any more. But he dedicates them. He’ll get his own way, in spite of Latirail. What is more, this is what he said to me about dedications: "When you dedicate books you tell people what you really think of them. In the case of Latirail’s novel, for example, I shall say what I think of MIle Lorpailleur. Not to mention young Pinson and the readers of MIle Lorpailleurs novels and all the letters poste restante that gave birth to the Lice Seekers. There are a great many of these letters. Its not just a matter of the Pinson­LorpailIeur correspondence. Oh no. It’s all the others as well, including those that Juan Simon puts inside parcels. When I say what I think of all these people I shall also be speaking for others. Do you imagine it’s amusing dictating to fools? Now I shall get my own back a bit, youll see. I dont mind telling you, in confidence, mind, that I loved Mlle Lorpail­leur’s mother. Her daughter might have taken after me. It was I who sent her to the University. I’m a bitter man, Mahu, a bitter man."

 

 

“when I’m being introduced to someone I concentrate so much I take on the same face as the person”


Robert Pinget’s Mahu or The Material (1952), tells the story of the quixotic Mahu, who may be a character in his friend Latirail’s failing novel, which is taken over by characters created by another writer, the sinister Sinture.

MAHU

Or

THE MATERIAL

 

PART I
The Novelist

 

1
Warning

 

This is the story I can’t make head nor tail of it, somebody said: “You ought to write it down,” I can’t remember who, perhaps it was me, I get everything mixed up, it’s true sometimes when I’m being introduced to someone I concentrate so much I take on the same face as the person and the friend who is introducing us doesn’t know if it’s me or the other one, he just leaves me to sort it out for myself. Instead of saying: “Excuse me” and putting on my real face again, I explain why I like to look like people and get all mixed up again, my friend gets angry and the other person goes off saying she hasn’t got all day to waste she’s got shopping to do.

 

So I’m writing this story down but there’s Latirail, he writes novels. Sometimes he tells me how he does it, but I only get more confused, he explains about his characters but I might be one of them for all I know! It’s all mixed up in my head, it doesn’t do to think too much, you forget where you were, it’s like fighting with the devil himself.

 

2

The Figs

 

I had to do something, you see. I was always being told to work. I used to hear them getting up at half-past six to go to the office. I had fourteen brothers. At twenty-five past six the one who had the alarm-clock woke up and went to wake the others. I’d hear him knocking very quickly at all their doors, so quickly it seemed as if he was knocking at the same door all the time. We lived in a hotel.

 

He’d miss my door. But I always awake at quarter-past six. I used to wonder if one day he’d wake me like all the others and call, “The office!” My clothes were all laid out on the chair beside my bed. At twenty-past six I put my arm out of the bed and touched my trousers. Supposing he came and woke me too? I’d find myself in an office. I’d go to the boss and say: “They got me up at half-past six and here I am!” There’re offices everywhere! Where we live you can’t take two steps up the street without finding offices, people going to offices and offices looking for people.

 

Twenty-five past six. I can hear the alarm-clock. My brother will be getting up.

 

Half-past six. He’s missed my door. I can put my hand back under the bedclothes. I can hear the others getting up, the taps being turned on, hot and cold water gas on every floor please do not wipe your razor-blades on the towels breakfast is served in the rooms the management is not responsible for the theft of articles that are not handed in at the reception desk. There used to be a tremendous noise on the landing at ten to seven. They were young then. They must have been about twenty. They liked to make a lot of noise. One of them nearly always shouted at my door: “Eh, Mahu, still asleep, lazybones?” Mother forbade them to pen my door. She forbade them to wake me, she forbade them to talk to me about the office, she forbade them to make a noise. Gradually, as the years went by, the noise died down. I was no longer asked if I was asleep lazybones. I was allowed to put my arm out of the bedclothes and wait to see if they woke me. How many years ago was that, then? They must be thirty now.

 

Ten to seven. The taps are turned off. The windows are opened. The keys turn in the locks. Ever since we were twenty-five our doors have always been locked. The footsteps die away on the landing. The front door bangs. Not this time, then.

 

“Eh, Mahu! Are you asleep, lazybones?”

 

“What is it? Who’s there?”

 

“It’s me, Frédy.”

 

“Who’s Frédy?”

 

“The twelfth. Let me in.”

 

I get up and open the door. Frédy’s got a beard. He’s wearing a handkerchief in his breast pocket. He’s beginning to lose his hair. He looks like our father which art in heaven hallowed be thy name thy . . . I have to go and sit down on the bed. I’m trembling.

 

“What’s the matter, Mahu?”

 

“Oh, nothing. I’m not used to it, that’s all.”

 

“Do you want a drink of water? Do you want some tea? Do you want an aspirin?”

 

“No, it’s all right. Tell me about the office.”

 

He sits down. He looks at his watch.

 

“That’s just what I’ve come about. Don’t tell Mother, but we need another clerk at the office. So I thought of you. You must get bored doing nothing all the time. What do you say?”

 

“Oh, yes! Thanks, Frédy! I’ll get dressed right away.”

 

“Hurry up, then. It’s five to seven.”

 

I who knew all the noises by heart, had listened to them so many times, taps being turned on hot and cold water, I couldn’t do anything right. I opened the window, I cut the towel with my razor. I turned the gas on at every floor, I put my trousers on last. Frédy laughed. You’ve got the behind of a baby,” he said. “Hurry up, it’s quarter-past seven.” And we went out. But I remember, just before closing the door, just before, I couldn’t help but look at my photograph. It was a photograph I’d taken of some figs one summer at Fontoine. A summer holiday. I felt . . . that’s it, I felt empty. I nearly collapsed. Frédy said: “What’s the matter now?” And I said: “It’s nothing. It’s the figs.”

 

I’m now a clerk at Juan Simon’s. I don’t go home any more. I sleep in the warehouse. I’ve found a place where the rain doesn’t come in. I’ve got an iron bed. I’ve stuck my photo of the figs on a plank opposite. At night a friend of mine comes here to sleep. He sleeps beside me on the floor covered in blankets and the tarpaulins of Simon’s old car. So he doesn’t get wet when it rains. He’s a model at the Beaux Arts. He’s a Hungarian or something of the kind. He says he loves me. When he says it too often I tell him he’s getting on my nerves and he starts crying. I give him some honey that Mother brings sometimes. She’s afraid I don’t get enough to eat at Juan’s, it’s old honey she kept in a reserve during the wear for the customers at the hotel. It’s gone all granulated. But I don’t miss my room. All the others getting up in the morning, it was terrible . . . Now I get up at the same time as Traiko and we wash our hands and faces at the pump in the yard. He then goes off to have a cup of coffee—he goes to a different place every day. He gets it on credit. I get out my jar of honey. When I’ve finished it, I put it back under the bed. Then I got to the office.

 

Petite-Fiente is Juan Simon’s daughter. She’s eleven. She usually arrives at the office at the same time as me before going to school. She shows me the drawings she does and sums that are all wrong I think. I daren’t correct them for her because I can’t remember whether you put the figure you carry at the top or the bottom of the column. When I put it at the top the answer’s not the same as when I put it at the bottom. Juan gives me parcels to take to the post office or to warehouses or to the station. I know how to use the weighbridge. I know how to fill up the labels with name of sender name of addressee weight nature of contents. I write it all down.

 

One day at about ten in the morning I happened to be outside Petite-Fiente’s school. It was break time. She saw me at the gates and called to me. She called her friend over and introduced me as “Mad Mahu.” I wanted to smack her but I couldn’t because of the gates. She’s a nasty kid.

 

3

The Post Office

I was afraid I’d smacked Petite-Fiente.

You never know with her. She could quite easily say "He couldn’t because of the gates" and pretend I hadn’t smacked her. I went back to the school gates. Petite-Fiente was already well out of the way. I saw her friends. They started shouting "Here comes Mad Mahu who smacked Petite-Fiente." They put their tongues out at me and called me a dirty dog.

 

I didn’t know what to do. Juan Simon was sure to give me the sack. No more warehouse, no more bed. I’d have to go home. I didn’t want to. I had to find some way of staying at Juan’s. I called at the post office to see if there were any letters to be collected. It was Sinture the Postmaster who invented the poste restante. You can’t write directly to anyone. He forbade the postman to deliver letters. Everybody has to collect his own letters at the post office. Sinture gives them to you himself. He looks at you as you’re reading them. You’re not allowed to read them outside. If you do go outside to read them, he won’t let you see your letters for at least two months.

 

There was one letter for me. It was from Petite-Fiente. It said: "Mahu, if you tell Papa you smacked me I’ll tell him to sack you. Frédy says that if you’re sacked you’ll have to go back to the hotel. That would suit me. It would be a good thing if you did."

 

Things were looking better. At least I’d be able to stay at Juan’s.

 

I had one more parcel to take to the station. I knew there was a letter inside. Juan sometimes tries to deal directly with customers he knows very well, so as not to have to go through Sinture. But it’s dangerous. He’s already been denounced by customers, or by employees opening parcels, or simply by secretaries replying "Thank you for your letter of the … " and the boss signs it without noticing. In the post office Sinture sees Juan reading a letter which says "Thank you for your letter of … ", so he knows that Juan must have sent a letter in the parcel that Sinture has not seen, so he won’t let Juan see any of his letters for two months. It’s very bad for Juan’s business.

 

I knew my parcel contained a letter. I must be careful. But I was thirsty. I stopped at the Café  du Cygne and ordered a menthe a l’eau. When I’m in a cafe, I daren’t look at people, I’m afraid they’ll suddenly say "You’re not called Mahu" because when I was born I was given another name and I was always ill so they changed my name. Could that be called a lie? I think about it all the time.

 

When I had finished my menthe a l’eau, I saw that my parcel had disappeared. I looked everywhere, under the seats, under the chairs, the proprietor said he hadn’t seen anything, I said it didn’t matter unless it caused trouble for Juan at the post office. I went back to the office. Juan was lowering the iron shutters. "Good evening, Mahu. Oh, Mahu, I’m sorry about the bit of trouble you had with my daughter. Yes, yes, she told me she had smacked you. Please forgive her. She can be very nasty sometimes. Highly-strung, you know. It’s all this worm-powder she’s been taking!"

 

I think Sinture must have informed Juan by telephone and made him tell me that Petite-Fiente had told him.