Partly out of idleness, I began to leaf through an old mail-order Manufrance catalogue that'd turned up while I was putting away some old newspapers. It was dated 1977. Why had I saved it? I never buy anything by mail order. Besides, it seems to me that the business in question, which makes all kinds of weapons and bikes as well as marketing a large number of other products, has gone out of business.
After a few pages, I felt like I was reading a novel. First, I saw a woman sitting on a white garden chair made of steel tubes and plastic slats. She's around forty years old, with short red hair. She's knitting a violet scarf, the end of which is trailing on the poorly maintained lawn, but she isn't watching her needles. Her gaze is unfocused and lost. She is sad.
Is she sad because she's all alone? There are several chairs strewn across the lawn, some furnished with removable cushions made of polyurethane foam and covered in a nice floral cotton material. They're all empty, though. There's even a freestanding porch swing with three or four places that are similarly unoccupied. The woman isn't completely alone, to tell the truth: I glimpsed a little blond boy at the back of the yard, sucking his thumb while sitting on a wooden truck. She must have a husband then, who isn't there. Has he left to buy a grill with a circular firebox mounted on a very stable metallic tripod? It seems the woman would be less sad if that were the reason for his absence. The state of the lawn might lead some to believe that this man is often absent.
And where is he? There he is on page twenty-two, in an oval self-assembly pool which can hold thirty-four thousand liters of water. He swims under the tender gaze of a brunette with mid-length hair who's wearing a two-piece swimsuit. She can't be much over thirty. This woman stands next to the pool on a perfectly cropped and manicured lawn.
I felt inclined to name these characters. "Melamine," the name of a plastic material that's used to make plates and cups, would be suitable enough for the melancholy wife. I named the little brunette Super Eda, like the portable refrigerator with high-performance insulation on page forty-three. I even told myself the story could be titled Melamine vs. Super Eda, but of course, it was too early to assign it a title. I couldn't guess what was going to happen. I continued to turn the pages of the catalogue.
In the camping gear section, I couldn't find a name that suited Melamine's husband. A hatchet made of Swedish tempered steel caught my attention--it was one of the items recommended for the smart, well-prepared camper. I put it aside, saying to myself that one of the characters might need it later.
Apparently, there is a power outage at Melamine's, because I see her--I see only her hands, in fact--handling a gas lamp. It'll be a long night for her. She tries to calm down by recalling those happy moments from her childhood when her uncle would take her for boat rides on Saint Christopher Lake in his rubber dinghy. He starts the motor by pulling on a cord. The gas lamp is going out little by little. The boat's nine-horsepower motor turns at full blast. The fish are attracted by the three-blade propeller, which pulverizes them as it rotates. The lake turns a reddish color, exactly the same hue as the backdrop for the Johnson and Tohatsu propellers. Nauseated, Melamine turns towards her uncle, pleading with him to stop the massacre, but the man sitting at the back of the boat is a mustachioed stranger in a black scuba-diving suit, consisting of a long-sleeved diving shirt and rubber leggings. He's holding a water-pressured harpoon gun in his hand. He takes aim at Melamine's stomach.
This is an action novel, there's no doubt about it: dozens of guns are displayed in the ensuing pages, many of them bearing the famous Manufrance brand, known to have the best frame in the world. Has a new chapter begun? Laporte is training himself in rifle shooting--at the end of the day, he, the husband, is named Laporte, like the clay-pigeon trap being handled by Super Eda. The session takes place in the middle of the countryside. I can tell it is autumn because of the colors of the landscape and the man's white sweater. Like all good novels, the Manufrance catalogue sums up the passage of time. One can even see that Laporte's hairline has receded significantly since the summer. This is probably a consequence of the stress gnawing at him: he's had trouble coming up with the money that Super Eda ceaselessly demands. He's training in rifle shooting in hopes of winning the Trophee Diana jackpot. Super Eda has a severe expression, almost hostile. It appears that Laporte is missing most of the terracotta pigeons she's throwing for him. He's not going to win the trophy. What should he do to satisfy his lover's demands? He doesn't make much money in his line of work. He's only a modest taxidermist. He doesn't charge a lot (between one franc and fifty cents and thirty-one francs and fifty cents) for the artificial eyes that he fashions by hand, one by one, with a premium enamel. His workshop, situated in the heart of Saint-Etienne, the headquarters of Manufrance, is carpeted with hundreds of pairs of eyes, the eyes of vultures, eagles, great horned owls, wild boars, chamois, and tigers. At night, the streetlights penetrate the room through the lightweight tergaline curtains and make all the eyes twinkle. Then the workshop resembles a little jungle. But no one's in the workshop at night. The Taxidermist's Crime would be a good title, assuming that Laporte decides to commit one.
I interrupted my reading to meet up with Paula in a Chinese restaurant. I'm usually delighted to have lunch with her, but on that day I found she ate too slowly. She had a lot of difficulty picking up the pieces of sweet-and-sour pork with her chopsticks; they slipped away and sometimes they leapt right off her plate. They seemed almost alive.
"Why don't you use a fork?" I suggested.
I was in a real rush to get back home and read what happens next. She ate especially slowly as she had some secrets to tell me. She is increasingly unhappy with her husband, but hasn't yet decided whether to leave him or not.
"You should crack his skull open with a hatchet," I told her. "There are some excellent ones made of Swedish tempered steel."
"You aren't serious?"
"What would you do if he leaves you, if he moves in with another woman?" She looked pensively at the tips of her chopsticks.
"I'd radically transform the apartment.... I'd throw out all the furniture.... I'd have to make a fresh start in life.... Would you come and see me?"
Since living alone, Melamine has taken every precaution to assure her personal security and the security of her property: she's acquired a tear gas bomb, an alarm light (an interesting combination of a flashlight and a ringing alarm system), a defense pen (it allows one to shoot powder or gas cartridges as well as flares), and a gas pistol, and has equipped her house with all sorts of sirens and also with a black-varnished cast iron signaling canon triggered by the opening of the front door. Furthermore, she's installed traps armed with fanged jaws all over the yard. Something effective against large cats should be just as effective against a few burglars, right? Finally, she has adopted a German shepherd, which can be seen in the trunk of her car, separated from the seats by a gate made of collapsible metal tubes. The vehicle is registered in the Loire region, which proves that Melamine lives not far from Saint-Etienne.
She's heaped all her affection on this dog. She does its nails, cuts its fur with fine nickel-plated hand clippers, bathes it, brushes it, deodorizes it. She bought it a goatskin collar embellished with pyramid-shaped gilded nails and bells, a sweater, a coat, a red oilskin for the rain. In return, she demands strict obedience. She commands the animal with an ultrasonic whistle. If he's late lying down at her feet, she makes a martyr of him with a lovely eighty-centimeter-long braided whip. Is she turning into a madwoman? She has also offered him items reserved for cats, particularly a rubber mouse. She doesn't understand why Pulvex--the name of the dog was inspired by an insecticidal powder--refuses to play with the mouse and she whips him some more. Afterwards, remorseful, she lets him listen to hunting airs played by the Rallye Tilleghem brass band.
I don't see the little blond boy anywhere. Doubtless Melamine's family thought it unwise to leave the child in his mother's custody. The youngster has moved in with his great-uncle, the same one who long ago took Melamine on boat rides on Saint Christopher Lake. The old man is teaching him the art of fishing. He's supplied him with a fiberglass rod, a net, some lures made of a plastic material that perfectly imitates an earthworm, a frog, a shrimp. These lures make little Garcia--he's named after a special line made for drag fishing, Dacron Garcia--think of his father's job.
"Where's Papa?" he asks at regular intervals.
It's still summer. The great uncle is watching the Tour de France on television.
"It's the Tour de France," he responds. Garcia tries to spot his father in the flood of cyclists. "When I'm big, I'll be a cycling fisherman," he says. "I'll buy you a bicycle," the great-uncle acquiesces. "Now go away," No doubt he will opt for the Hirondelle, Manufrance's winning model.
Super Eda and Laporte drive northwards in silence. She could almost kill her lover; first, because he placed last in the shooting tournament and then because he forgot to buy her the fur universal steering wheel cover she had asked for. She drives, as the taxidermist had never successfully passed his driver's test. "I've ended up with a maladroit idiot," she says to herself.
Laporte has his eyes fixed on the Saint Christopher keychain suspended from the ignition key: there he sees the holy man carrying the Child on his back, crossing a stretch of water. He thinks of Garcia. He'd like to see his son again.
"You sleeping?" Super Eda asks worriedly.
There really are those days when nothing goes right: she suddenly notices she has a flat tire. Thank God, she has all she needs to repair it: a hydraulic jack, a vial of puncture sealant, a mini foot-pump supplied with a manometer, not to mention the briefcase containing a twenty-piece extra-slim tool set. Laporte tries to help her, but he's very clumsy. He drops the jack, steps in a cowpat, and slips down an embankment.
"Go ahead and clean the hood instead of just fooling around," she tells him.
She passes him the polisher, called a "Nenette," with an abundance of cotton fringes. A man remains motionless on the other side of the road observing them. He's wearing a forest-green and Havana-brown camouflage canvas suit and is holding two fox-toned suitcases made of expanded vinyl. Had a car dropped him off there? Has he come from across the fields? His Buffalo ankle boots, lined with Crylor acrylic, are stained with mud. Super Eda flashes him a beautiful smile.
"Could you drop me off in Arras?" he says with a strong accent.
"With pleasure," responds the young woman. "That's exactly where we're going. To my parents' house."
She puts him in the seat next to her, relegating her lover to the backseat. She tries to engage in conversation with the unidentified man, but he doesn't really want to talk. She learns only that he is Russian, that he's visiting France for the first time, and that he had learned French from his grandmother. She sees that the back of her passenger's pants are soaked in blood that's dripping onto the hundred-percent polypropylene carpet of the vehicle. She keeps her discovery to herself. She has a hunch that the man's suitcases are stuffed with cash.
"If you don't have a place to stay, my parents would be happy to accommodate you," she offers.
"She's a real slut," the taxidermist thinks. The Russian accepts the invitation and, scarcely having arrived at Super Eda's parents place (her father is a bricklayer, as indicated by the presence of a cement mixer with a two-hundred-fifty-watt electric engine in the yard), he locks himself in the guest bedroom saying he needs to change. He opens his suitcases. Super Eda, who watches him through the keyhole, sees that she was right: they are stuffed with cash. The dinner goes smoothly, except for Laporte's sulking. The Russian explains that he's chosen to move to Arras because of The Three Musketeers:
"If I remember correctly, an incident in that novel took place in your city," he explains in impeccable French.
Late at night, Super Eda shatters the skull of the immigrant with a heavy monkey wrench; then, with the aid of a double-blade electric knife, she cuts him up in pieces that she covers in kitchen towels decorated with rabbit hunters. Then, in an easy-tipping wheelbarrow, contractor-approved design, she transports the head and limbs of her victim all the way to the back of the yard, where she buries them with a round paving shovel. Just before she gets rid of the head, an absurd idea occurs to her: she tears the eyes from the stranger using an oyster knife and an escargot fork in turn and replaces them with artificial eyes taken from her lover's taxidermy case (even when he travels, Laporte likes to save a few hours for his art). Because the haughty air of the Russian had irritated her during dinner, she opts for the orange eyes of the great horned owl.
There are limits to this, I confess. Is it necessary to know that the characters dined at a varnished solid pine Louisiana-style table covered with a classy Tergal tablecloth (sixty-seven percent polyester, thirty-three percent cotton), very pleasant to the touch and easy upkeep (no-iron), ornamented with delightful salmon-colored roses? More superfluous still, given that it's summer, is the detailed description of all the acrylic blankets that Super Eda's parents own. Certainly novels, and the good ones at that, are distinctly better the less wordy they are.
The Russian's disappearance didn't cause any distress in the house. "He must've been a secret agent," said the father.
It's morning. They're all together in the kitchen. The father grinds coffee in a beechwood-tinted crank-handle device while the mother cuts up some sausage--in Arras one starts eating sausage in the morning--with the electric knife that her daughter had used in the night. Super Eda dreams of the Russian's cash that she's stashed away in her car.
"Maybe he was a double agent," she says.
She's thinking of everything she might be able to do with this money. She'll most likely add a second story to her house and build a tiled swimming pool in the yard. Though it's galvanized, the hexagonal-chain-link fence that surrounds her property suddenly seems atrocious. She'll replace it with an African oak fence. She'll also replace the garage door with a metallic tilting door and will certainly trade in her car. She can't wait to break up with the taxidermist. She casts him a glance: he's amusing himself by weighing an egg on a kitchen scale that can also be used as a postal scale.
"What're you doing there?" she says.
She wants to make a fresh start in life, to be happy at last. She'll change everything in her house, from the umbrella-shaped laundry rack to the floral shower curtain. In fact, everything she owns seems horrible. The violet rug with the voluminous tassels situated in front of the toilet bowl makes her want to puke. She'll replace everything, even the seat of the shitter with a semi-transparent golden-amber lid.
At the same time, she decides to take better care of her body so she can stay young and beautiful. She'll buy herself various massage devices, like the new Roto Star, a plastic dome used on the chest, and the Sterling kneader for stimulating circulatory function, along with devices for physical exercise: a stationary bicycle, a rowing machine, and of course the Nicolson strap with rhythmic vibrations affecting the abdomen, the buttocks, the thighs. "Men will be falling at my feet."
"What're you thinking about?" Laporte asks.
The taxidermist senses that his affair with Super Eda is drawing to a close. This hardly troubles him. He's no longer in love with this greedy little imperious bourgeoise who shows no interest in taxidermy. "How could I have lived so long with a person so completely indifferent to my art?" he asks himself on the way back. Some hours later, he can be seen collecting his things from Super Eda's place in the suburbs of Saint-Etienne, and packing them in a French-blue alloy trunk.
"Are you leaving?" asks the disconcerted young woman.
"Yes!" he replies with the arrogance of an artist.
She, who counted on ending things herself, couldn't stand that he was leaving of his own accord. She'll make him pay for this affront. She pilfers one of his jackets, and after undoing the seam with a pair of sharp-pointed collapsible scissors, slides a few hundred-franc bills into the lining.
"Hey, you forgot this," she says to him when he's on the doorstep.
Laporte, who's not doing so well, leaves with the jacket under his arm and a trunk on his back. Great white clouds sail through the darkened sky towards Lyon. It's almost nightfall when he reaches his workshop. He turns on the rustic floor lamp with the integrated table on which a small bottle of Tannix tanning powder rests. He hardly ever has the chance to look at his creations in electric light. The dimness of the lighting makes the vultures, the foxes, the stuffed owls seem so alive. They all seem so lifelike that their presence worries him somewhat. He feels like they're all watching him, like the artificial eyes displayed on the walls are all equally fixed on him. He senses that future generations won't necessarily appreciate an art that consists of giving a semblance of life to carcasses, to making a mockery of death.
He spends the night on the couch, but doesn't manage to fall asleep. "I've spent my existence imitating life," he dreams. He'd always devoted a great deal of time to his work. Even back when things were better with Super Eda, he'd worked fifteen hours a day. He felt guilty for not finding the time to take care of Garcia, for having abandoned him. At one in the morning he decides to call Melamine to see how the little one is doing. He's aware of the fact that his wife is gently sinking into insanity. "There's neither a good nor a bad time to call a madwoman."
He dials the number--I'd found a few telephones in the catalogue, but no answering machines; I presume that they weren't yet available in 1977. Melamine responds almost instantaneously. She seems happy to hear from him. For once she doesn't ask for money. She announces that she's received a splendid gift from her uncle, a new record player with a stereo amplifier and two speakers as big as phone booths.
"I want to throw a dance party in the yard this Saturday; will you come?"
A very beautiful fireworks display, consisting of four scenes (Sun of the Orient, Enchanted Waterfall, Golden Dome, Silver Plumes) and a finale, welcomes Melamine's numerous guests. They pass immediately into the house, where a sumptuous buffet awaits them. Is it Melamine's uncle who's financing this celebration? It's certainly possible; in any case he's not there and neither is little Garcia. Laporte arrives late, around eleven-thirty. He notices that the lawn, which he never really took care of, is overrun with weeds that stand almost fifty centimeters high. "I should give her a gas-powered lawn mower, something tough and reliable, with a three and a half horsepower engine," he thinks. The speakers placed on either side of the front doorstep are impressive. No music is playing at the moment. Melamine is purposely waiting for the arrival of her husband to start up the dance party. With a nasty gleam in her eyes, she puts a Gene Vincent disc on the record player (The King of Fools, Be-Bop-A-Lula, Temptation, etc.) turning the sound on full blast. The guests hurry outside and dance enthusiastically despite the clumps of grass. Melamine, Laporte, and the dog Pulvex observe the dancers from the doorstep. The taxidermist feels a vague anxiety, but he hardly suspects what's about to occur. Suddenly the first trap snaps shut: the pointy jaws crush the delicate leg of a young girl. The next instant, her dance partner has his two legs cut off. Pulvex hurries over and begins to devour them. He will die at daybreak from indigestion. Countless traps slam shut, one after another with increasing speed. The size of the dancers diminishes before their very eyes; one might say they were sinking into the earth. There are shrieks from everywhere, naturally. Melamine yells as well:
"He's the one who set the traps! He wanted to ruin my dance party just like he ruined my life!"
She points at her husband, who doesn't even have the strength to protest. The poor guy surmises that the future is against him. He doesn't even put up a fight when the police officers come to arrest him.
The jury of the circuit court will come around to Melamine's beliefs about Laporte even more easily once Super Eda, named as a witness, has accused him of having killed a Russian immigrant for just a few hundred dollars. Her declaration will cause a sensation. The president of the tribunal will organize a supplemental investigation: they'll find the bills in the lining of Laporte's jacket and the corpse buried in the yard in Arras. All of France will shudder having learned that the taxidermist had placed in the eye sockets of the body the orange eyes of the great horned owl. Laporte will be unanimously condemned to death. We must recall that in 1977, under the presidency of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the death penalty was still in effect in France. Convicted persons were guillotined. That's probably the only serious shortcoming of the Manufrance catalogue: it's missing a guillotine. It's a shame, because it would allow for a more complete picture of the era.
The taxidermist will spend his last days in a dark cell in Saint Christopher Prison. He'll watch the clouds through a basement window placed high on the wall, obstructed by two crossed bars. He'll be convinced that God created a variety of clouds with the aim of distracting prisoners. He'll also watch the shadow of the cross, formed by the bars, moving across the floor. He'll see the shadows moving closer to his bed. "The eyes of the future are orange," he dreams. The blows of the hammer that will accompany the installation of the guillotine won't overly trouble him.
"You mustn't attach more importance to death than you would to the period at the end of a sentence."
Some years later, Garcia will conduct his own investigation into this affair and discover the truth. He'll punish his mother and Super Eda just as they deserve, with the help of a hatchet made of Swedish tempered steel.
He inserts his index finger into his nostril and pulls out a tiny rose-colored object. "That's curious" he thinks, "normally it's not that color." He renews the operation and this time he extracts a pretty substantial chunk--as large as a well-chewed piece of gum--which he examines with surprise: it's also pinkish but striated with fine blue veins. It's pretty. Carefully, he places it on the slab of glass that covers his desk and keeps up the pursuit, with more and more interest, as the little things he takes out of his nose--with increasing difficulty--are all intensely and diversely colored.
Fifteen minutes later he has a nice little heap piled up before him, several centimeters high. He never thought his nose could hold so many things; up to now he had only pulled out pieces of insignificant filth, so small that rubbing them between his thumb and index finger was enough to make them disappear almost entirely.
He decides to go even further, to rid his nose of everything that can be removed, to clean it all the way out. He can't get his index finger in deep enough, so he goes to find some tweezers in the bathroom. He remembers the store where he purchased them and the sales assistant who asked him,
"Do you want large or small ones?"
He had hesitated; then he responded:
They are lying on the glass shelf. They are the only thing there. The tweezers gleam like a surgical instrument.
He sits down once again in the armchair and gets back to his game. This is probably one of the largest pairs of tweezers to be found in all of France. He slips them all the way inside his nose, you might even say all the way inside his head. They're certainly more efficient than his finger, oh yes, there's no comparison. He removes some relatively voluminous things, of various shapes. One resembles a noodle, another a mushroom, the next is glistening and magnificently black, like obsidian. They are mostly viscous and soft, but there are also some very hard ones. While extracting one of them, he ends up accidentally slicing the cartilage separating his two nostrils. Naturally he is in pain, but too bad. Having just one nostril now makes his pursuit easier; it permits him to sink his thumb and index finger holding the tweezers really deep into his nose and push them all the way back down his throat.
He continues putting the things in a circle around the first heap. Now, they take up almost a third of the desk. A collection, one might say, but a collection of what?
He's eager to finish. Suddenly he feels tired, terribly weary. He would like to stop for a minute and take a little nap, but he knows it'd be too hard to begin this work afterwards--it's no longer a game, that's for sure. Might as well continue. Anyway, he doesn't have much further to go.
He maneuvers the tweezers as fast as he can. He barely pays attention to the things he's removing; he throws them haphazardly onto the desk.
What's he going to do with all these things? He'll probably put them down the garbage chute. It should be said what they really are: they're not all beautiful, far from it; certain ones even reek. Besides, they're not made to last forever, so then, why not clear them out immediately? He's incapable of conjuring the effort necessary to carry out their conservation, even provisionally. He's exhausted, that's it.
It's likely he won't have the energy to take all of this to the garbage chute, which is in the kitchen, at the other end of the apartment; to cross the hallway, the entryway.... The cleaning lady will take care of it; she's actually coming this afternoon. She'll also have to clean the carpet--some of the things are secreting thick liquids that trickle down from the desk and form hands, faces, islands on the floor.
He suddenly notices that his eyes happen to be exactly in line with the desk. He no longer sees anything but the things on top of it; they make him think of hills and mountains. He has shrunk by about fifty centimeters. "I'm sinking into myself, collapsing inwards," he thinks. His shirt is billowing out; that is to say its width has expanded, in almost regular folds, like the bellows of an accordion. He unbuttons it, looks at his chest: it resembles a deflated balloon. His skin has become transparent, it seems to him extraordinarily fragile, he has the impression that the least contact, the smallest sigh, could tear it. "I have to try not to laugh," he thinks.
He puts the tweezers, which are now very dirty, on the desk and brings his hands to his neck. He no longer has a neck. In its place, his skin forms a little circular empty pocket that reminds him of the collar of an item of clothing his mother made for him when he was a child. He realizes with alarm that his head is now no bigger than a clementine. His eyes, the opening of his nose and his mouth are almost touching. He thinks his hair must seem extremely abundant, considering the volume of his head. "I'm really not looking too good, am I?"
He's worried. He wonders if he was wrong to remove so many things, if he hadn't overdone it a bit. But anyhow, they weren't very secure, the best proof being that he hasn't had any problems removing them; they weren't really bound to him. One day or another they would've found their way out: he could've just sneezed violently or vomited, and they'd have shot right out, all at once. In any event, it's too late now to think about putting them back in place. The absurdity of this idea makes him smile. He doesn't even know in what order he took them out.
One must go on. He takes off his shirt--someone could've mistaken him for a newborn dressed in his father's shirt--his shoes, his socks, then his pants, his briefs. He grabs the tweezers and inserts them into his mouth. He feels them moving in his stomach; well hey, he's gotten hold of another thing. He pushes forward with a renewed fervor. He now throws the things on the ground; the cleaning lady will pick them all up.
He's finished cleaning his stomach and his lower abdomen. His penis--which is only a few centimeters below his chin--, emptied of its contents, resembles a condom. He lifts his left arm, shakes it, and causes it to drop all the elements that could be found inside it: they slide into his stomach where he retrieves them with the tweezers. His arm quickly takes on the appearance of a nylon arm with five transparent and empty fingers at its end. His hand brings to mind a surgeon's glove forgotten on the arm of the easy chair. He proceeds in the same way to clean out his thighs and his calves--he lifts them up, shakes them....
It's done. He lets the tweezers fall to the carpet. Only his skin is left, and his mop of hair which prevents him from seeing anything. He has a hell of a time holding back his laughter: but no, it's not over yet; he still has to go to the bathroom.
He moves slowly, very slowly off of the chair, with the help of his diaphanous skin that now acts as his hands; then he slumps on the floor. He stays immobile for a moment; then he begins to crawl on the carpet--he experiences a certain pleasure in crawling, a pleasure that reminds him of older joys--all the way to the bathroom, where the door had thankfully been left open.
He gets as far as hoisting himself onto the toilet bowl and places himself on top of it, somehow hanging onto the toilet seat with his four limbs.
When he's finished, he takes hold of the handle with his two hands--it's a modern flush valve, attached to the toilet bowl--and pulls it down, without any success in moving it. He tries again and again, putting all his strength into it, the last of his strength.
That's it. The water flows with a roar, a magnificently abundant water that spews out from all around. Then, relishing each voluptuous moment, he lets himself slide to the bottom of the bowl.
Vassilis Alexakis (1943) is a Greek-French author, self-translator, cartoonist and film director. Born in Athens, Vassilis Alexakis has spent his literary career interrogating the exilic condition, the impetus to write in a language other than one's own and what it means to belong (or not belong) to a place or to a people. He grew up in Greece but moved to France as an adolescent to study journalism in Lille, returning to Greece after his studies to fulfill his military service. In 1968, in the wake of a devastating military coup d'etat there, Alexakis went into what would become a lifelong exile in Paris. He began his writing career in French, first as a cartoonist and journalist and later as a novelist. In the 1970s, Alexakis published three novels in French. In 1983, he wrote Talgo, his first novel composed in Greek. Following this publication, Alexakis adopted the practice of self-translating, writing his works first in Greek or French (depending on the subject matter and the setting) and then translating the work into the other language. Alexakis has received a variety of France's most prestigious literary awards, including a Prix Medicis (1995), a Prix Albert-Camus (1993), and a Prix de la Langue Francaise for his entire body of work (2012). He has composed a singular oeuvre marked by his particular staccato and wry style, that illuminates the experience of a growing sector of French society: immigrants, exiles and foreigners. In spite of the prescience and timeliness of this body of work, only two of Alexakis's novels have appeared in an English translation. The author now splits his time between France and Greece; this oscillation between his adopted and native countries is evident in his fictional works characterized by a lack of rootedness in space or time.
The two stories presented here are taken from his 1997 short story collection, Papa and Other Stories, which won the Academie Francaise's award for the short story in the same year. This collection constitutes a marked divergence from his previous writings, veering into the absurd and the grotesque. The male protagonists in Papa have few defining features and little to tether them to the space they inhabit. Instead they drift aimlessly, pulled along by external forces, personal obsessions or simple discomfort. We watch as the protagonist of "The Tweezers" systematically empties all the contents of his body, leaving only an amorphous and undefined lump of skin that can easily slip away and flow out to sea. With his body's interior left behind, he becomes untied. "The Taxidermist Who Fell Victim to his Art" tells the unfortunate tale of Laporte, a misguided and directionless taxidermist. His little-appreciated career choice as one who imitates life is fatal.
Alexakis's work presents a unique challenge for translation. His early career as a satirical cartoonist and author of books of aphorisms is apparent in his style. The Alexakian syntax is deceptively simple, marked by short, repetitive phrases and quotidian word choices. Yet the gradual accumulation of these phrases results in complex and disorienting worlds marked by uncertainty and instability. His witty and satirical style as well as his frequent cross-cultural references often prove difficult to render in English while also preserving the sharpness of his French prose. Alexakis has been referred to as the representative of Greek diasporic writers in France, standing as one among many Greeks who resettled in France and took up the language as a literary medium. His voice especially deserves attention in translation as he is positioned at the forefront of a burgeoning group of French-language authors from elsewhere who manipulate the language of Voltaire, Proust, Gide and other giants of French letters in innovative and shocking ways.
These translations have benefited immensely from the International Writer's Track in the Comparative Literature Program at Washington University in St. Louis and its attendant workshop where I presented earlier drafts of these stories, along with others from Papa.
Translated from French by Rebecca Dehner-Armand
Vassilis Alexakis, Papa et autres nouvelles (Paris: Editions Fayard, 1997). Original titles are: "Le taxidermiste victime de son art" and "La pince a epiler."
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|Publication:||Delos: A Journal of Translation and World Literature|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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