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From "53 Days." (autobiography) (Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau)

15 May

The army and the police are still patrolling the city.

Ten days ago, for the twentieth anniversary of Independence, the miners of Cularo held a rally in Avenue de la Presidence-a-vie that left eight dead, amongst them a woman and a child. A state of emergency was declared, bringing in its wake a string of irritations and constraints. The alleged ring-leaders were arrested, all gatherings were banned, cars were searched, and a 6:00 p.m. curfew was imposed. Obviously, like all other schools, the Lycee francais was closed.

Grianta began to seem all day long what it normally was only from noon until five: a dead city, crushed beneath its heat and its own silence. It was really very curious, in the late afternoon, at the hour when crowds ritually flood beneath the colonnade of Place de la Paix, to see the cafe terraces practically empty - waiters standing in lines, stock-still, behind the potted azaleas, holding big circular trays under their arms, gazing blindly at the few soldiers seated behind their quarter-pints of fizzy orange. A week ago, the chief waiter at the Brasserie de Paris was roughed up for having spilled zabaglione on a second lieutenant in the Flying Squad; since then, the waiters of Grianta have put up unbeatably effective passive resistance to the whole officer corps. With all the appearance of impeccable zeal, they manage to take a good twenty-five minutes to serve a lemonade or a granite.

I have hardly been out at all these last ten days. I just take a little turn around the town center every evening between five and a quarter to six, mainly to hear the birds. At that hour, they flock in their thousands in the eucalyptus trees, but there is usually such a crowd that you can hardly hear them. I take the opportunity to buy some supplies before going back in. Gino's has closed, in order to avoid the four or five raids the police would not fail to make every day. With the curfew, in any case, most of his regulars do as I do-they stay in. It's not much of a life. French newspapers are banned, and there is nothing to watch on television apart from the golden smile of the President-for-life and his imposing lady-wife's numerous jewels beneath her equally numerous chins. What with the audiences he grants, the speeches he delivers, the nurseries she opens and the receptions they attend, the two of them fill a full forty minutes of the evening news hour, the remainder being devoted, in decreasing order of screen-time, to the Minister of the Interior ("the man on the up"), police announcements, meetings of the Agricultural Reform Commission, football (the national sport), the evening's "cultural slot" (the orphans of the Monferine Girls Home making flower garlands for the visit of the President-for-Life, the finals of the International Folk Dance Competition at the Ministry of Handicrafts and Tourism), and the forecast, of unrelieved, oppressive tropicality.

At first I was not displeased to have nothing to do - I mean, nothing in particular. It made a break in the usual routine which at this time of year often begins to seem if not absolutely unbearable then at least very burdensome-lessons to prepare, scripts to mark, parents' evenings. So it was like having holidays imposed seven weeks ahead of the long-hoped-for "real" ones. I had a fair bit of reading to do, including a thing on labyrinths by Rosenstiehl, a few whodunnits, and a collection of crosswords which had only just arrived from Paris. But I am not displeased now - quite the contrary, in fact - to be entrusted with a specific task. It's something new for me, and therefore quite exciting.

This morning, the Consul called me on the telephone. He wanted to see me as soon as possible, and summoned me to lunch with him at the bar of the Hilton, which is considered here to be one of the heights of style.

I got to the hotel at five to twelve. The appointment was for noon (I am almost pathologically apprehensive about being early, or late). I wore my light gray alpaca suit and a tie, which aroused noisy hilarity from the bunch of guards kicking their heels in front of the Institute of Archaeology. I didn't take offense. You must be mad to go out in Grianta half an hour before noon wearing a suit and tie, and I had dithered for hours before deciding that I should dress correctly for the occasion even if it meant being quite wrongly clad for the climate.

Two submachine-gunners stood guard in front of the Hilton entrance. An uncommonly corpulent NCO in camouflaged battledress patted me all over to make sure I was not carrying a weapon. Past the revolving door, seated at one of those little desks with blotting pads habitually placed in the lobbies of grand hotels for guests wishing to deal with their correspondence, another soldier asked for my passport, leafed through it in a leisurely fashion, then threw it onto his blotter. Condescendingly, he gave me to understand that the passport would be returned to me when I left the hotel.

There was no one in the bar. No customer, no barman, no waiter. The airconditioning and the semidarkness made it appreciably cool. The piped music was smoothly and cleverly anodine (an arrangement for a big string band of an old hit called, if my memory serves me right, "Il pleut sur le lac de Come," or something like that) and sufficiently low in volume not to impinge very much.

I sank into a bloodred leather wing chair with a perfect patina, and began to wait. I didn't dare clap my hands for service, as is the custom in all the city's other bars and cafes. I looked around and tried to recall on what occasions I had been here before. With Beatrix? With Lescale? With the Feders? Certainly not often, and only at the start of my stay here, for very soon my personal tastes led me to prefer the deck chairs of the cafe terraces in Place du 5 Mai, or the wisteria-laden bowers of the Italian ice-cream parlors in Avenue de France. In any case, I recalled very well having previously observed the consummate skill of the Hilton's interior decorator who, by combining obligatory cosmopolitanism, essential elitism, and a no less statutory measure of local color, had respected the canons of contemporary taste to a T: there were a few shimmering reproductions of apocryphal mariners' charts enlivened to very slight excess with AFRIQYA INCOGNITAS and hairy-maned monsters, which hinted at the ancient mirage of explorers bold; the stuffed white shark, the gazelle's horns, rhinoceros head, elephant tusks, and giant tortoiseshells brought an exalting whiff of big game and deep-sea fishing to overstressed executives; whilst the genuine sharkskin upholstery of the armchairs, the mahogany of the bar, the brass inlaid all over the place, the Tiffany-style lampshades, and the authentically tartan fitted carpet gave reassurance that the great traditions of Western comfort had been wholly and scrupulously respected, and that the customer would be treated here as the Very Important Person that he or she could not now fail to 6e. As for the crafts of the locality, they were modestly but meaningfully represented by four large ocher-daubed urns, a few masks, scimitars, and pangas, and tall, narrow raffia hangings decorated with geometrical arabesques that formed a flimsy screen between the bar proper and the dining lounge.

Towards ten past twelve, a waiter in black pantaloons and an embroidered red spencer appeared. I asked for a beer, which he brought me almost straightaway, together with an assortment of olives and savories. The Consul had still not come. Perhaps it was his custom to be late?

I hardly knew him. Like all other French residents of Grianta, I received twice-yearly invitations to very formal consular garden parties, but I had in fact only attended one, the previous year, on Bastille Day, when I exchanged no more than a couple of politenesses with the Consul. I saw the man again at greater length on three occasions in January, when he asked me to man the French book stand at the Grianta Exhibition and Fair - a job which wore me out, which was almost entirely useless in enhancing the cultural standing of la patrie, but which got me the perk of a trip back to Paris on expenses. What I knew about the Consul was what everyone knew: he had served in a small Italian town before taking up his post in Grianta about ten years ago, was a bon vivant (in his own estimation), a discriminating eater and a knowledgeable drinker, played tennis rather well and bridge rather badly (I'm the exact opposite), and collected minerals. He sometimes went on brief expeditions into the desert to collect fine specimens. He was about my age (forty-something), came from Rouen without being of Norman stock, had just failed to get into a grande icole, and admitted to regretting it. Stories were told about his private life because his wife - a tall, rather gloomy blonde - spent more than two-thirds of the year in Bordeaux, where their two children were at college. However, not one of the formidable gossips of Grianta (where the principal form of social life in the French colony, I hardly need say, consists of retailing rumor, calumny, and idle chatter) has ever come up with any evidence of the Consul's theoretical flings. The most commonly touted view was that he kept a mistress in a villa near the Golf Club (the smartest part of town, where ministers have their residences), but if he really does, then he does it with such discretion that nothing of it has ever actually transpired. As for his politics, they were of more than diplomatic evenhandedness. In private, he posed as a liberal, disapproved of the police-state methods of the President-for-life, understood the trade unionists and the students who were trying to do something about it; but in the exercise of his official capacities, his utter caution was not far short of plain cowardice. On one occasion, a year before I got here, and before the local (official and parallel) authorities had lifted finger, he forced a university lecturer to flee to France for having read his students an article from Rouge. He justified his action retrospectively, saying he had wanted to spare the man the torture and imprisonment he would otherwise have had to endure before his inevitable expulsion.

Whilst I sipped my over-chilled beer (refrigerating drinks is a local custom to which I have never taken), several waiters emerged. They began to lay the tables for the "Deluxe Snack" which customers in a hurry would soon come to eat, and then they brought in trays of appetizing hors d'oeuvres and desserts. I was beginning to get hungry, and impatient.

The Consul turned up at 12:35. He seemed quite surprised to learn that I had been waiting forty minutes and asserted abruptly that he had told me half past twelve. He took exception to my drinking beer, even imported beer-"didn't you know that they have to add some stuff to it to stop it going off?"-and bluntly ordered two White Feathers. Usually I can't manage whiskey, but this one, heavily diluted with fizzy water, turned out to be perfectly drinkable and refreshing. We chatted about this and that for a few minutes. I gathered that he wasn't particularly eager to talk about the political situation and I prudently avoided making any allusions to it. A maitre d' came to take our lunch orders. I allowed the Consul to choose rolled baked burbot with papaya for me, a far less exotic dish in Grianta than the veal cutlet with spinach that he ordered for himself. He studied the wine list at length, sniffing quizzically several times as he read, and settled on a bottle of chilled Lambrusco. I was surprised at his unpatriotic choice.

"Good French wines and true," he replied, "are not what they should be when they get here. Few travel well, and the cellars here are either sweltering, or abominably refrigerated. It's true we could have had a Hermitage, but it might be rather heavy; and we should have had it uncorked earlier, and even decanted...."

We rose to select our hors d'oeuvres from a side table, and came back to our seats to nibble. Then the Consul came to the point.

"Has Serval been to see you?"

I raised my eyes from my plate and stared at the Consul with astonishment.

"Serval? Robert Serval?"

"That's right, the very same."

Like all French residents in Grianta, I had heard of Robert Serval. He is one of our national treasures in these parts, so to speak. He writes whodunnits which quite often still sell 300,000 copies in France. He came to live here a few years ago and occupies a suite on the top floor of the El Ghazal (at 125 piastres a night!). He is hardly ever seen out. The few people who have had occasion to approach him describe him as an eccentric misanthrope. Crozet, who has read two or three of his books, says that they're not badly put together, but a bit fuzzy on the details. As for me, despite being quite a fan of detective fiction - mainly by English writers, to tell the truth - I have never wanted to read or thought of buying a Serval.

"Why would he have come to see me? I don't know him!"

"But he knows you, so it seems. You were at school together."

I was struck dumb.

"Serval? I never had a friend at school called Serval!"

"Of course you didn't! That's only his nom de plume. Didn't you know? His real name is Real. Stephane Real."

I shook my head again.

"That name doesn't mean anything to me either."

The Consul seemed surprised and almost irritated.

"It'll come back to you. In any case, his memory could hardly be clearer. You were both at the College d'Etampes, in second or third form, in the early fifties. It seems you even sat next to each other in class, where you had a teacher called Lemarquis. From what Serval told me, I gather be was a real horror."

"I was at Etampes, that's right enough, in third form, in 1950, and I've not forgotten that old idiot Lemarquis one bit. But Real? Stephane Real?"

The Consul looked at his watch.

"Listen. I've not got a lot of time. I'm leaving on the Paris flight at seven, and I've still got a lot to sort before I go. But I must bring you up-to-date on the situation."

He stopped talking for a moment whilst our table was cleared.

"Serval disappeared last Wednesday. He was playing poker in his room, with three partners. Gambling was one of his few passions, you know. Apparently he has lost his shirt at cards more than once in his life."

"But gambling is forbidden in Grianta," I observed.

"That is precisely one of the things that brought him here. He had got himself banned from most casinos in Europe, but the temptation was still too strong over there. All he could do here was to play poker in private, for stakes which were usually no higher than a couple of thousand dollars.

"In short, he was in the middle of playing a game when someone rang him on the telephone. He went to his bedroom to take the call. According to the three other people present at the time, the conversation lasted barely thirty seconds. He came back to the main room, and told his partners to carry on without him, or to take a break until he came back. He said, literally, that he had to go out for ten minutes at the most. He went to the hotel garage and asked the night watchman to get his car out, whilst he went to parley with the duty guard. We have since learned that he was given a safe-conduct valid for thirty minutes, for the purpose of getting himself to the French Embassy.

"It turns out that one of the card-players was none other than Charlier, the manager of the El Ghazal. An hour later, he rang the concierge, who confirmed that Serval had indeed left the hotel in his own car. Charlier then had the duty guard put on the line; a little later, they contacted the Embassy staff, who told them that no one there had either rung Serval that night or summoned him to the Embassy.

"As you might expect, no one told me anything until two days later. Meanwhile, Serval's red Jaguar was found abandoned in a car park in Rue d'Alzire. The police investigated, and the Embassy did so too. I double-checked everything they came up with, which came to just about nothing: Serval caught no plane, boarded no boat, took no train. Since the events, everything that moves here is under such tight control that you can be sure it's true. Besides, no ransom demand has been made known. Investigations continue, officially. Which means that they're looking down a few wells, trawling the lagoon, and that every few days a couple of sidekicks from the CID and the Embassy meet to deliver make-believe progress reports to each other. In actual fact, they're not onto anything at all, and I would be amazed if they ever came up with a lead.

"I must tell you that this whole affair bothers me a great deal, and for a reason which you will appreciate easily. Serval was aware of being under threat, and he took steps to let me know. The first time, about three weeks ago, he asked me to lunch at the El Ghazal. The invitation astounded me, coming from him, for he had made it obvious ever since he came here four years ago that he intended to give his compatriots as wide a berth as possible.

"It was over that lunch that he mentioned you. He told me he had recognized you when he saw your name and photograph in En Avant! in the article about the launch of your book stand. Had you come over from France especially for the exhibition? Or were you resident here? He seemed glad to learn that you taught at the Lycee francais, and promised to get in touch with you again as soon as he could. Then he added:

"|I didn't bring you here just to make sure it was my old school friend. What I'm about to say may seem fantastical or puerile: but I do believe that I am in danger.'

"My face must have expressed stupefaction, because he then fell into an almost embarrassed silence. I didn't know what to say. I ended up asking a stupid question: had he received threatening letters?

"|No, that's not it. Look, I can't tell you what's been going on. Perhaps it's all just groundless suspicions, or a set of coincidences. I hope to be able to reassure you in a few days' time, but if it is what I fear, then I will need your help, at very short notice, and I wanted to warn you in advance.'

"That was all I could get out of him at that first meeting, and lunch came to an end without another mention of the unspecified danger.

"I waited several days for Serval to contact me again and ended up calling his hotel myself, out of sheer impatience, but could not get through to him. Finally he got in touch with me. He telephoned on 4 May, in the middle of the night (I had given him my home number), and asked if he could drop round there and then.

"Ten minutes later, he rang at the door. When I opened it, I thought at first glance that Serval was drunk, or drugged, but I soon grasped that it was fear that gave him that pale, wild-eyed look. He sank into a chair and gulped down a whole glass of gin.

"He had a thick brown envelope under his arm. He handed it to me.

"|I would like to ask you to keep this. I beg you, show it to no one! Put it in your safe. I know that it's the reason why my life is in danger. If anything ever happens to me, that's where you must scrabble around in order to understand.'

"I tried to calm him down, suggested that one of my men should act as his escort, but that seemed to make him even more afraid, and he made me promise that, whatever happened, I would not breathe a word of the whole business to anyone else. I asked him what he planned to do.

"|I don't know. I'll try to get back to Europe. But I am afraid that my enemies won't give me enough time.'

"I offered to move up my next trip to France by a few days (it had long been arranged for today), and to accompany him on the journey. The nearness of my departure seemed to agitate him a great deal. He stood up suddenly, and explained that he had to get back urgently. On the doorstep he added, almost in a whisper:

"Maybe it will all have been sorted out by 15 May. If not, too bad.'

"When he had gone, I put the envelope in my safe and went back to bed. Half an hour later, Serval telephoned again. His voice sounded strange, as if he were deciphering a text which he did not understand. He explained with emphases that were almost unbalanced that if, by the date of my departure (that is to say, by today) he had not asked me to return the envelope to him, then I should entrust it to you, and to you alone. He would get in touch with you directly to give all necessary instructions. I see that he didn't have time to do so between that last conversation and his disappearance, four days later."

"On the other hand," I pointed out, "he found time to play poker, as if there were nothing else on his mind."

"Perhaps that is part of the mystery which we must now unravel."

"What is there in the envelope?"

The Consul shrugged his shoulders. "To all appearances, just the manuscript of his last, or rather his latest book. I've only had time to leaf through it, and I got nothing much out of it. But you'll be much better able to read between the lines."

"What exactly do you want me to do? I'm no detective."

The Consul pushed a green ticket towards me across the table. It was a coat-check, number 15597. "When you leave, give this ticket to the cloakroom attendant. She will exchange it for a black leather briefcase. In the case, you will find the manuscript that Serval put in my hands, the first police reports and the Embassy file, and my own notes on the affair. You are supposed to know nothing, obviously. I shall be away for three weeks. That should leave you plenty of time to take the novel to pieces. That's all I am asking you to do: for I know you are fond of puzzles. If we take Serval at his word, then maybe the keys to this puzzle are hidden in the book. Your task is to find them."


Lemarquis taught Latin and Greek and held teaching in low esteem. It was said that he introduced himself in those terms to his pupils every year for two decades, and he certainly did so when he came into his new IIIB class on the first Monday of October 1949. I remember him well: a short, thin man, with a tightly drawn face, a greenish skin, an untrustworthy look in his eye, and a ghoulish smile, whose greatest pleasure in life seemed to be to make me conjugate twenty times over, in every person, tense, and mood, "I do not copy out without understanding them sentences from Virgil given as examples in Gaffiot," "Thou dost not copy out without understanding them sentences from Virgil given as examples in Gaffiot," etc. But as for Stephane Real: zero.

I spent the whole afternoon and early evening trying in vain to find a memory of my supposed classmate, and in the process summoned up, with ever more obsessive precision, the details of the five endless school years that I had spent in that institution.

College Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire drew its flock from seven tribes. The first, which made up the corps of day pupils, consisted of boys and girls whose parents were locals, or who lived locally: the baker's daughter (for the love of whom I later thought I would expire), the tobacconist's daughter, the five sons of Dr. Chamier, the local tailor's son, the daughter of Monsieur Bombet, master draper and milliner, whose shop was called Capital Fashion, etc. The second, which made up almost all the half-boarders, were the bumpkins - horny-handed sons of the soil from the big farms of Beauce, from backwaters where the railway did not go: Sermaises, Verrieres, Mereville, Angerville, Saclas, Maisse, Chalo-Saint-Mars, places which for me sounded quite exotic. The five other tribes, contributing in roughly equal measures to a good half of the school's complement, supplied the boarders who had all ended up, for one reason or another, at Etampes.

First there were the Parisians ("Paris swanks, thick as planks. Paris yob, shut yer gob"), slackers sacked from the "better" lycies in the capital or the inner suburbs (such as Lyc6e Lakanal at Sceaux, Lycee Hoche at Versailles), and whose despairing parents had resigned themselves to having their boys put down here just to get them through to the baccalaureate. Then came the Corsicans - not so much a group, more like a gang. They were all more or less cousins by blood or marriage, and it's probably only because one of them once happened to land at Etampes that all the others followed on, year after year. They were Paris Corsicans, of course, but quite distinct from Parisians. I remember one who said he had been a barman at the Hotel Crillon and was kept by a mistress: he was called Dominique Salviati, and he always kept a switchblade on him. There were two others, as well, called Pedrotti and Pedrocchi, whom the teachers forever muddled up.

Africa and Asia contributed the remainder. Every year, fifteen or twenty poor sods (whom we firmly believed were all "sons of chiefs") were dumped at Etampes from some French West African colony or other (Senegal or Cameroon, I believe). They were tall and strong, often of indeterminate age (one of them was reputed to be twenty-five), and terribly downcast. They suffered the harsh winters of Etampes and the school's puny heating system with stoic resignation, waiting desperately for time to pass, and only recovered a little of their joie de vivre at the approach of summer - and of the long holidays.

Fifteen or so other boarders came from North Africa, more particularly from Tunisia. It was to them that we felt closest, for they were even more broke than we could be - but whenever one of them got a postal order, he would shower us all straightaway with cigarettes and chewing gum, or take us to the Royal, a fleapit in Rue des Vieux - Jesuites that showed Westerns and gangster movies.

The last were the Indochinese. They kept to themselves and no one liked them. Only one acquired any degree of popularity, for his talent as a draftsman. Using a pantograph, he made enlarged copies of pinups from Cinemonde or from Patis-Flirt (a magazine that "bared it all" and which we hid under our mattresses in the dorm), and then took week upon week of evening study periods to polish the details and put in the shading. The final result was breathtakingly lifelike. He had amazing equipment, in particular a huge box of compasses and a kind of small chrome-plated sprayer with which he put a protective layer of varnish on his finished works of art. Most of the Indochinese (only towards the end of my years at Etampes did we start to call them Vietnamese) were scandalously rich, and lived in a style which we could barely imagine. They had splendid suits made to measure by a tailor in Boulevard Saint-Michel. They went up to Paris every week, ate in restaurants, went to nightclubs, and, when they had missed the last train on Sunday evenings, thought nothing of taking a taxi all the way back to Etampes.

I remembered that I still had a school photograph from Etampes among my things. I found it easily enough, at the bottom of a shoebox that I used for storage. The photograph was taken in 195 1, when I was in fourth form. There are two teachers with the class - one must be Charbonel, the history-geography man, a fine figure of a superannuated athlete. He was famous for his laid-back manner, and he is still the only teacher I have ever seen (even after crossing over to the other side, so to speak) who never had a y kind of briefcase. All his lessons were written down on pieces of square-ruled, 14 x 17 cm. card, which he would extract nonchalantly from his breast pocket as he sat down at the desk. The cards were covered in extraordinarily tiny writing, and, in his notes for economic geography, the figures were entered in pencil, so he could erase and update them as new statistics became available. The other teacher is certainly Madame Borroni, the Italian instructor, who had only one student in our class, and who was supposed to have published a book on the satires of Ariosto (for which reason I got as far as my first baccalaureate without knowing the names of Dante, Petrarch, or Tasso, but well aware that a certain Mr. Ariosto had written satires; my German literature wasn't much hotter, even though German was supposed to be my second language: all that is left of it now is "Der-die-das," "Nouns-take-a-capital-letter," and

Ich wei[beta] nicht was soll es bedeuten

Da[beta] ich so traurig bin

Ein Marchen aus alten Zeiten

Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn

rattled off as fast as possible without stopping for breath).

There are twenty-five pupils on the photograph of class IVB (one of the few pedagogic advantages of these schools in the outer Paris region was that classes were a little less overcrowded than in city schools). Apart from the teachers, everyone signed the photograph on the back, and some of the names that can still be deciphered bring back hazy memories: Bedolliere, first name Emile, the clever lad - top of the class, with five first prizes in different subjects at the year's end. He was the son of a gendarme and he left the following year because his father had been transferred to Tarbes. I saw him again a couple of times later on, when he lived in Paris, in Boulevard Blanqui, in a student residence that had previously been used as a brothel (there were several student halls of that sort in those days). His bedroom was decorated like a ship's cabin, with trompe-l'oefl portholes giving a view of a South Sea island with coconut palms, sandy beaches, sailing boats in a creek, and straw huts. And I remember Ambroise Dupont and Auguste Dupouy, the inseparable bumpkins from Etrechy; and Aubry, a dentist's son, the dullest of the dullards from Paris, whose track crossed mine again twenty-five years later, at Veulles-les-Roses: he had become a television journalist. And Pierrette Lenoir, who sat the agregation the same year as I did; and Saurin, called Crocodile by all and sundry; and Gratinaud, whose father belted him whenever he scored less than twelve out of twenty across the board and who, I learned years later, became ajudge in ajuveniles' court.

Some of the signatures are childish marks of identity made intentionally illegible with squiggles and curlicues. Others - Dubois, Dufour, Lanvallere - mean nothing to me now, nor do the corresponding faces bring any memories back. At all events, there's nothing that even looks like Real.

But other memories flood back, and it's impossible to stop the flow. The memory of my first arrival, in my parents' car, in early October: there was a fete at the fairground (it was Michaelmas, and, as I learned later, Saint Michael is the patron saint of Etampes); my first meal in the refectory, using the ration card which I had to hand to an old woman all draped in black, who was the headmaster's mother (I think the ration card business lasted only a few weeks; it must have been the last vestige of postwar restrictions); my fear of the ragging inflicted on newcomers, my fear of the "seniors" which lasted almost the whole of my first year; Thursday afternoon outings to the Filoir sports ground, or to the woods behind Tour de Guinette, a ruined fortress which was supposed to have a real secret passage, or along a road with milestones shaped like shell-heads, commemorating the route taken by the victorious First Armored Division of General Leclerc; the dismal returns on the Sunday evening train, with a pair of sheets and a week's clean underwear in my little cardboard suitcase, and the names of the railway stations between Bretigny and Etampes, shouted out in the dark and heard so many times that I can recite them with ease nearly thirty years after: Maroles-en-Hurepoix (during the Occupation, the Germans pronounced it Maroless-enn-Hurapohix), Chamarande, Bouray, Lardy, Etrechy; and the fey blond prefect we loathed and nicknamed Cuckold because he wore a yellow scarf; and the Corsican prefect who kept in his locker a piece of cheese several months old, which he had to tackle with a hammer; and the other prefect, Angelmarre, who was so poor that he made his shoe soles from wodges of art-paper offcuts, and used bits of string dipped in black ink for laces....

Then it all came back, higgledy-piggledy: the banks of the Juine, Saint-Martin Church with its tower that leans like Pisa, the swimming pool at the end of the walk to Guinette, the little cafe in the station forecourt where the "seniors" pretended to be regulars; the tall, sinister building of "The Knacker's" which you saw from the train just before arriving at the town, set all on its own at the end of a long strip of wasteland (the building is still there nowadays, unused but undemolished, next to a Simca factory and a button-bright housing development); cigs in the lav ("High Life," which we pronounced Idjleef, as a joke, or perhaps out of ignorance, "Naja," "Elegantes," and another brand whose name I cannot recall but which came in a blue or sky blue pack decorated with a gracious white horsedrawn coach); wanking contests in the little room next to the dorm where we had our lockers; valve-set radios, games of noughts and crosses, hangman, word-squares....

Names come back to me, names without faces: Turpin, Colliere, Levasseur, Perechnikoff, Ben Zaoud, Big Chapuis and his little brother, Jay, the art master; and faces without names - teachers' faces, prefects' faces, boys' faces, fat pale faces, faces of hairy clowns proudly sporting their first mustache, faces of clodhoppers dressed up in their Sunday best, faces of shadows shivering from cold in the corridor where we queued up for the refectory; and memories of the places that made up our mental map: the big yard, the small yard, the covered gym, the shed, the science hall (and the very young science teacher who blushed all the time), the stairs to the dorm, the metalwork shop and woodwork shop, and the pair of bookends (a ghastly application of what was supposed to be dovetailing) which I took an entire year to bungle.... I remember the sounds, the bell that rang at the end of each lesson, the noise we made with our clogs when we got into line in the corridor, the shouting in the yard during play, the hullabaloo in the refectory, and even the sound of the silence we made when the deputy head came in. I remember the taste of lentils and pease pudding, the smell of urine and of cauliflower....

Shreds and tatters of the past come back to mind at a stroke. In one of those years (was it fourth form?) I spent three whole weeks drawing a huge map of Classical Rome; another time, we all tried to solve an impossible problem. You trace six squares onto a sheet of paper to represent three dwellings and three utilities, for gas, water, and electricity, respectively; the problem is to supply each of the dwellings with all the utilities without any supply line crossing any other. That made nine lines. We tried every which way. It wasn't really very hard to get to eight, but with depressing and inexorable consistency the ninth line bumped every time into one of the others. Or else, for several weeks, there was a craze for sending each other coded letters, using "grids" which had to be applied four times over in different ways (as Jules Verne explains at the start of Mathias Sandorf) to reveal the solution.

Several times in the course of writing down these memories which have surged up in tangled bunches I have caught myself, with pen poised, drifting off for minutes at a time into a persistent daydream in which I could almost see myself, if I just closed my eyes, standing once again in those playgrounds, queuing in those squalid corridors, sitting in those classrooms with their iron-barred windows. I was back playing prisoner's base, sitting through prize day in the refectory decorated for the occasion with three faded paper ribbons, suffering in the "group display" at the Seine-et-Oise Junior Gym Gala. I could see the art room again, with its plaster busts and the high pedestal on which the teacher carefully laid out an alarm clock, a flask, and two apples (introduction to still life), and the geography room where Agricultural France, Physical Europe, and Black Africa hung on the wall, and the dorm with the peculiar hutch where the duty prefect slept, and the study room with our padlocked personal lockers right at the back; and it was as if I really had been taken back into those dull and sweaty hours, into that semiprisoner's life measured out from week to week, from dictation to dictation, from test to test, from games periods to music lessons, from delta equals be squared minus four hay see to

O Lord of heaven and earth and sea

To Thee all praise and glory be

I had to pinch myself hard to come back down to earth, to Grianta in the sultry month of May, to the curfew, to the President-for-life and his chummy, chubby face, to lunch with the Consul, and to the mystery of Robert Serval's disappearance.

Funnily enough, I can't really see Serval as an old boy from Etampes, despite not having any idea what old Etampians look like. I imagine him more as one of those types from Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague or the Ecole alsacienne who sit the concours gindral, get their philosophy essay published in Le Figaro, become stars of the sixth, and end up top at Ecole normale superieure; or else as the opposite, as a lad from the country who'd given and gotten plenty of punches in village scrums before teaching himself to read all by himself from an ancient almanac with woodcut vignettes; at any rate, as someone from an exceptional background, so as to match the somewhat overheroic and obviously naive idea I have of a writer of thrillers living as a recluse in a tropical grand hotel.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Perec, Georges; Bellos, David
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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