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Paris in Flames

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					Paris in Flames

To Comrade Tomasz Dabal, a tireless soldier for the peasant-worker cause, I give this book, as a hand to clasp over the head of Europe.

Part One

I

It started with a minor, seemingly insignificant incident that was decidedly private in nature. One beautiful November evening, on the corner of Vivienne Street and Montmarte Boulevard, Jeanette informed Pierre that she would most definitely be requiring a pair of evening slippers. They walked slowly, arm in arm, intermingling with that accidental and unattractive crowd of extras that Europe’s damaged film projector threw on the screen of Parisian boulevards every evening. Pierre was gloomy and withdrawn. He had, however, good enough reason to be. That very morning the foreman, measuring the hall of the factory with gutta-percha steps, had stopped suddenly before his machine and, his eyes fixed somewhere just above Pierre’s shoulder, had told him to pack up his tools. This silent angling had been going on for two weeks. Pierre had heard from his friends that, owing to France’s lousy economic situation, people had stopped buying automobiles. Factories were being threatened with closure. Personnel was being cut in half just about

everywhere. So as to avoid disruptions, handfuls of people were being dismissed at various times of day, and from various divisions. Coming to work in the morning and standing at his work-station, nobody knew for

certain if his number wouldn’t be up on that day. Four hundred agitated pairs of eyes, like dogs snuffling about the ground, surreptitiously followed every step of the foreman’s heavy feet - they moved slowly, as if deliberately pacing between the work-stations - and tried to avoid crossing his gaze as it slithered across all their faces. Bent over their machines, as if yearning to become even smaller, greyer, more imperceptible, four hundred people raveled the seconds on their smoking machines in a feverish race of fingers which, tangled and hoarse from silently screaming, seemed to mumble: “I’m the fastest! Don’t pick me! Not me!” Day in and day out, in some corner of the hall, the loathsome, sloped handwriting of steps would come to a full stop, and in the tense silence there would resound a matte, expressionless voice: “Gather up your tools!” And then from a few hundred chests came a sigh of relief like a blast from a ventilator: “And so it’s not me! Not me!” Hurriedly and even more quickly, the trained fingers grabbed and grafted and wound second upon second, link upon link - the iron eight-hour chain. Pierre heard: They were dismissing the politically suspect first. He had nothing to worry about. He kept his distance from agitators. He didn’t show up for rallies. During the last strike he was among those who, despite the prohibition, turned up for work. The tub-thumpers scowled at him. When crossing paths with the foreman, he always tensed his lips into a friendly smile. But in spite of everything, whenever the foreman began his silent, malevolent stroll about the hall, Pierre’s fingers would tangle up in a tense race, the tools would fly from his hands and he would not have the courage to bend over to retrieve them for fear of drawing attention to himself, while beads of sweat moistened his feverish body like a cold compress. However, when on that morning the ominous steps stopped abruptly before his work station, when his gaze read the sentence from the sketch on the foreman’s lips, Pierre unexpectedly felt something like relief: And so this is the end! Indifferently, in no hurry, he packed his segregated tools into his bundle. Without looking at anyone else, he started taking off his overalls and carefully wrapped them in paper. When his tokens were being counted at the secretary’s office, it turned out that someone had stolen his micrometer.

The faultless mechanism of the factory administration transferred him to the office of the inspectorate. In the office, a bald, cross-eyed clerk laconically informed Pierre that the factory would be docking him forty francs for the lost micrometer. He had collected the remainder the day before yesterday as an advance. He would be getting nothing more. Pierre gathered up the symmetrically-arranged and grease-splattered documents in silence. He knew all too well: To take away the fired workers’ rights to unemployment payments, the factory and the government had got together and refused to include a note on the document stating “Fired due to lack of work.” For a moment he wanted to try nonetheless, just to ask. But when he glanced at the nasty, gleaming, bald pate of the upright scribe, at the pair of thugs working for the factory police, who had their backs turned to him, as if caught up in conversation... he understood that there was nothing to be done. He left the office with heavy footfalls. At the gates he was relieved of his pass and the contents of his bundle were searched. Finding himself out on the street, Pierre stood for some time in helplessness, pondering where he might go now. A fat navy-blue policeman with the face of a bull-dog, his polished ID number on his collar, barked into his ear that there was no loitering allowed in this area. He decided to go around to a few factories. Yet from all sides, wherever he applied, he was turned away empty-handed. The crisis was everywhere. The factories were only operating a few days a week. Personnel was being reduced. There could be no talk of hiring new workers. After running about all day, tired and hungry, he went to the warehouse at 7:00 to get Jeanette. Jeannette needed slippers. Jeannette was absolutely right. The day after tomorrow was St. Catherine’s Day. The warehouse was organizing a ball for its staff. Being thrifty, she had turned last year’s dress into a new one. Now all she needed were the slippers. She couldn’t go to the ball in her patent-leather shoes! Moreover, it wasn’t such a great expense - she herself had seen some gorgeous brocade ones in a storefront for fifty francs total. Pierre had exactly three sous in his pocket, and he listened to the melodious warbling of his girlfriend in gloomy silence, at the sound of which his chest pinched with a sweet tickling, like he was taking the sharp turns on “devil’s mountains.”

*

The next day’s search was just as fruitless as the one before. Nobody would hire him. At 7:00 a tired and dejected Pierre found himself somewhere on the outskirts, at the opposite end of Paris. He was supposed to be waiting for Jeannette to come out at that time. He was in no condition to make it there. And anyway, what could he have told her? Jeannette needed slippers. She would have cried. Pierre couldn’t stand the sight of her tears. He made his way to town with a heavy heart. On the way he thought about Jeannette. The fact was he had behaved badly in not going to wait for her as she came out. The thing was to explain it to her, to show her the whole situation. Instead of that, he’d gone off like a cad. She must have waited for him. Then she had given up and gone home. She’d be right to hold a grudge. He felt that, despite the lateness of the hour, he had to go see her, to explain everything and ask for her forgiveness. At her apartment he found out, however, that Jeannette still hadn’t returned home from town. This information caught him unawares, and with a single blow it scattered the beads of sentences so painstakingly strung together in his mind. Where could Jeannette be so late at night? She almost never went out alone in the evening. He decided to wait for her in front of her gate. Soon, however, his legs began to ache. He sat on a bar, leaning against the wall. He waited. Somewhere far off, in some invisible tower, a clock struck two. Slowly, like schoolboys who had learned the lesson by heart, other towers repeated it from above the pulpits of the roofs. Then silence again. His heavy eyelids fluttered awkwardly, like insects caught on flypaper, flapping upwards for a moment only to drop once more. Somewhere on the faraway bumpy pavement a first tentative cart began its rumbling. Soon the garbage carts would be coming out. The naked, coarse cobblestones - the bald, scalped skulls of the masses buried alive - would greet them with a long, rumbling scream, passed from mouth to mouth down the never-ending length of the imaginable street. Black people with long spears would run across the sidewalks, sinking their blades into the quivering hearts of the street lamps.

The dry clatter of aching iron. The groggy, waking city lifted the heavy eyelids of its shutters with difficulty. Daybreak. Jeannette hadn’t come back.

II

The following day was St. Catherine’s Day. Pierre didn’t go out to look for work. He made it to Place Vendome in the early morning, and leaning on the gate next to the warehouse he waited for Jeannette to show up. A hollow disquiet permeated his body. In his heavy, sleepdeprived head, undefined thoughts of the most unlikely accidents rose like drifting islands of tobacco smoke in an airless, smoke-filled room. He stayed that way all day, glued to the iron grille. He had had nothing in his mouth for two days, but the sickly aftertaste of saliva, as it remained in the sphere of gustatory sensations and wasn’t penetrating into his consciousness, had not yet become hunger. Rain started pouring in the evening, and under the sluicing streams of water the hard contours of objects rippled gently, extending into their depths, as if immersed in a swift, transparent current. Dusk fell. The lanterns were lit, like splattered, colorless stains on the inky surface of the night, incapable of either soaking into it or illuminating it, they populated the river-bed of the street with an algae of shadows, the fantastical fauna of the bottomless depths. The precipitous banks - full of the phosphorus, magical grottoes of jewelry-shop windows, where virgin pearls the size of peas, shucked of their shells, slumbered on suedeleather rocks - stretched upwards, their perpendicular walls vainly grasping for the surface. Down the wide valley of the riverbed, a tightly-packed school of bizarre iron fish with fiery, bulging eyes flowed past with a swish of rubber-scale tires, lustily rubbing together their sides in clouds of bluish gasoline spawn. Along the steep banks, straining to move, like divers in the transparent gelatin of water, people under heavy wetsuit umbrellas waded with leaden feet. It seemed as though at any

moment someone would pull at a dangling handle and gently glide upward, tracing zig-zag patterns in the air with his legs over the heads of the frozen crowd. From afar, with the flow of the river, there slowly drew near an odd, flat wet-suit with three pairs of female legs. The legs groped their way on the slick ground, they reeled from their laughter within, from the gurgle of physical joy felt in overcoming resistance. When the legs approached the breach of the gate, Pierre gleaned that they were carrying three laughing heads under the wet-suit, and that one of the three heads was Jeannette’s. Glimpsing Pierre, Jeannette ran to him in little hops, sprinkling him with the manycolored confetti of her warbling (“devil’s mountains”). She was wearing her evening dress, an overcoat and brand-new, sopping-wet brocade slippers. Why hadn’t she spent the night at home? She had spent the night at her girlfriend’s, of course. She had been up late sewing her costume for tonight’s ball. Where did she get the new slippers? She had got an advance on her next paycheck from the warehouse. If Pierre was interested, she still had a bit of time, so they could go for lunch together. A disgruntled Pierre snorted through his nose that he couldn’t afford lunch. She tossed him a surprised and uncomprehending glance. No? In that case she’d rather eat with her friends. She had to hurry, because she still needed a few odds and ends. She stood on her toes, kissed him quickly on the mouth, and disappeared through the gates. Pierre trailed home. His legs were weighing him down, and now the acrid aftertaste in his mouth crept into his consciousness, at whose door it had long been rapping with stubborn and patient hiccups. He understood, and smiled at his own dim-wittedness. It was hunger. The boulevards were already swarming with groups of frolicsome midinettes, entrepreneurial youths, colorful caps and sashes. In the shadows of impassive lamps, festively attired Pierres kissed the mouths of their little Jeannettes, who gracefully lifted themselves on their toes. Grey Menilmontant was as dim and gloomy as ever. Pierre dragged his way home with difficulty. He was tired, and only one thought

occupied his mind: to stretch himself out on his bed. He had been carefully avoiding face-to-face contact with his grumbling, pock-marked concierge for some time. His recent expenditures (Jeannette’s fall wardrobe) meant that for the last three months he had fallen behind with the rent. Every evening he tried to slip unnoticed through the dark entrance hall and straight onto the stairs. Yet this time his manoeuver backfired. The shapeless profile of the concierge suddenly sprung out of an alcove in the entrance hall, to meet Pierre like a phantom. He tried to tip his hat and slip past, but he was caught by the arm. He understood only one thing from the jeering, phlegmy words: They weren’t letting him into his room. Because he hadn’t paid for three months, his room had been rented out. He could collect his things when he paid the rent he owed. Mechanically, without a word of protest, to the visible surprise of the concierge, who had stopped midway through a sentence, Pierre turned on his heel and went into the street. A little rain was drizzling. Pierre absently stepped back the way he came, not really knowing where to, along the damp walls, which were swollen from the warmth of the newly fallen asleep. In the cramped alcoves, in the embrasures of the houses, black, huddled people men and women - fashioned themselves accommodations, wrapping their extremities in scraps of newspaper to protect themselves from the cold. Collapsing from exhaustion, like a castaway heading for the nearest beckoning light, Pierre turned himself towards the red glimmer of the metro station and made it to the corner of the boulevard. A clock struck one. The drowsy workers drove the last, tardy passengers and the tramps lured by the warmth from the tiled abyss of the underground rail to the surface. The gates fell shut with a clatter. On the stairs leading up to the sidewalk there reigned tumult, hubbub and stuffiness. Unshaven, tattered people grabbed their place on the stairs in miserly haste, trying to get near the heated gates, carefully, solemnly choosing their burrows. Nearer the gates, dear God! The stifling, decayed warmth of Paris’s wheezing breath blew through the gates. Wrapped up in rags, they slowly settled themselves along the stairs, heads resting on the comfortless pillow of the

stone steps, clumsily covering their convulsing bodies with the drafty fringes of their hands. Shortly the whole staircase resembled a wind-toppled forest. Only the places on the highest steps remained for the foolhardy, late-coming overnighters, who were left to the mercy of the rain and cold. Pierre was too exhausted to wander on further. Humbly and meekly, trying not to step on anyone, he stretched out on a free spot at the top, between two grey witches wrapped in rags that greeted every new arrival with a menacing grunt. He was unable to sleep. The damp paw of a fine, misty rain stroked his face, saturating his clothes with a sharp, slick wetness. The rags soaked in rain and sweat gave off a musty, acidic aroma. The stone pillow of the spittle-covered stair poked him in the head. The sharp edges of the steps cut into his ribs, splitting his body into a series of separate pieces, twisting in sleepless fevers like the segments of a sliced-up worm. The wretches at the bottom, fortunate to have reserved their places by the gate in advance, snored in a wide register of stifled breaths. And slowly Pierre, too, was overcome by a heavy, feverish half-sleep. In his sleep it seemed to him that he was lying on no ordinary flight of stairs, but on an escalator, which was moving upwards with a rattle (he had seen one like it in a store called Au Printemps, or at the Place Pigalle metro station). From the yawning chasm of the earth, the open maw of the metro, a never-ending iron harmonica of moving stairs climbed upwards with a hollow and rhythmic rumble. One after another, more and more new rungs appeared with a clatter, blocked by the row of ragged, helpless bodies. The summit of the stairs, where Pierre lay, was somewhere high up in the clouds. Down below, many-eyed Paris shouted out into the soulless silence of the night with its billions of lights. The stairs rose higher with a measured clang. Pierre was overwhelmed by the cosmic vacuum of the interplanetary infinity, the blinking of the stars, the limitless hush of space. The escalator flowed from the bleak abyss of the open street into the gaping abyss of the heavens, carrying a black mass of wretched, sleeping people.

III

He was awoken by an impatient scraping sound. The metro was open. The grey, drowsy flock, cursing and stretching, reluctantly cleared off the stairs. >From the depths pulsed the thick, narcotizing warmth of the heated entrails of the city, digesting its first helping of light morning trains on an empty stomach. The people wheezed and yawned as they scrambled one after another onto the surface of the sidewalk, disappearing one by one into the piercing morning fog. The first bistros opened their doors. The lucky possessors of thirty centimes got to drink a cup of hot black dishwater while standing at a counter. Pierre did not have thirty centimes, and thus he began wandering aimlessly up Boulevard Belleville. Paris slowly shook off its sleep. In the ruddy, moldering embrasures of the windows of the stooped-over hotels, the profiles of old, disheveled, half-naked women showed themselves here and there, majestic in their rotting frames, the phantom portraits of great-grandmothers of this derelict neighborhood, where prostitution is an ancestral dignity, like an inherited title or the position of a notary is elsewhere. A window is a picture nailed to the dead, stone rectangle of the grey wall of the day. There are still-life windows, strange, toilsome compositions by unsung accident-artists, loosely composed of a chance curtain, a forgotten vase, or the bright vermillion of tomatoes ripening on a ledge. There are window-portraits, window-interiors, and window-naifs - suburban idylls a la Rousseau the Customs Officer - neither discovered nor appraised, ownerless. When a train approaching the city at night passes the houses partitioned on either side of the tracks with their irregular, illuminated square windows set here and there and at various heights, at this time the window is a showcase for a strange, incomprehensible, bah, even a foreign life, and my eye - that of a lonely traveler - flaps as helplessly as a moth before the impenetrable panes of glass, incapable of gaining entrance. When after a day-long and fruitless search for work Pierre returned down an empty and unfamiliar street, it was already evening and the concave squares of the windows had started to grow phosphorus with their internal, latent light. The street smelled of frying oil, the heat of

unaired apartments, the holy, sacramental dinner hour. His greedy, tamed hunger lay at the threshold of his consciousness like a trained dog, without crossing over into it uninvited, content with the fact that every thought that hoped to enter that consciousness had to tread on it first. Through the cloud of fatigue, Jeannette’s name fluttered about inside Pierre like a scream trapped in a hermetically-sealed container and unable to break out. He understood that he had to go to her house, and talk things over. But what he was actually going to tell her - of this he had no idea. Before he had disentangled himself from the muddle of streets that held him tied up, night had fallen. He blundered in the dusk for quite some time, without any point of orientation, making out the street signs only with the greatest of difficulty. And suddenly he had the impression that he had come off of an unfamiliar field path and onto a safe, well-traveled road. How many times it happens that wandering about foreign side-streets, we suddenly hit upon a familiar road that the mind cannot recall, and as we pay no heed to our legs they instinctively lead us forward, like sleepy horses pulling their slumbering coach-driver down a track once traveled-by. Who can say, perhaps we accidentally hit upon our own tracks left behind, in which the feet step comfortably and confidently, like dogs trailing their own scents? And the town we pace every day, the individual beads of images that our gaze immortalizes on the negative-frames of our memory, link inside us into a uniform concept of the city only when strung together on that invisible thread of our steps scattered about it, that intangible map of our own Paris, so different from other people’s Parises - though they may hold the same streets as ours. When Pierre’s path of steps brought him to Jeannette’s home following a long meander, it was already past midnight. Nonetheless, Pierre went upstairs and knocked. Her sleepy-eyed mother opened the door. Jeannette wasn’t there. She hadn’t been home since yesterday. Pierre spent a long time walking down the stairs before he went back onto the street. Finding himself on the sidewalk, he didn’t wait by the gate as he had the time before, but wandered heavily into the gloom. On the corner of a bustling avenue, an open taxi-cab driving by splattered him with mud. A fat playboy had spread himself out on the seat and was kissing the lithe girl clinging to him,

his free hand brushing back her skirt to explore her slender thighs. Pierre was unable to make out the face of the girl, he saw only her navy-blue cap and slender, almost girlish thighs, and with a sudden inner convulsion he recognized them to be Jeannette’s. He started to run, shoving the churlish passers-by left and right. A moment later the car vanished before his eyes, going around a corner. Having run a few dozen more steps, he stopped, worn-out. Indistinct, feverish thoughts flew away from him suddenly, like spooked pigeons, leaving behind a total void and the flapping of wings in his temples. He was on a narrow street. It smelled of sauerkraut and carrots. It took some effort to make it to the next corner. On the abandoned fields of the spacious avenues, which had sprouted from the earth overnight, there towered gigantic green cylinders, red cones, white cubes, squared pyramids, a real kingdom of geometrical forms. He was at the market-stalls. Grey, worn-out people in rags erected multi-storied buildings and towers from perfectly round heads of cabbage and bouquets of cauliflowers. A sentimental cube of cut flowers shot up towards the sky. Everything that Paris would need for food and love at daybreak had been gathered here during the night. The sharp smell of freshly-uprooted vegetables made Pierre stop in his tracks. His acrid, patient hunger, which had been waiting in vain at the door to his consciousness, started doggishly scratching at it with a paw. Pierre moved closer. A man stooping under the weight of a gigantic armful of Pierre shifted meekly onto the sidewalk. A broad-shouldered, mustachioed,

cauliflowers jostled him painfully and cursed. Somebody grabbed him by the arm.

He looked.

musclebound man was pointing to his wheelbarrow overloaded with carrots... Pierre took the hint and readily got down to heaping the shapeless buildings on the street. A few other haggard people helped him out. It seemed to Pierre that he recognized one of them as having been his neighbor from the previous night on the metro steps. The irregular red pyramid grew, drew even with the first floor, and rose higher. When the empty wagons departed, all the vagrants were led into the depths of the hall.

Taking a look around, Pierre noticed that there was a mob of threadbare people much like him following behind. They all had filthy woollen rags wrapped around their necks, and faces that had been wrung free of blood, that were unshaven and sallow. They were all placed in a long line, and each one was treated to a bowl of hot onion soup. Pierre also got a bowl, and three francs cash. When he had slurped back the hot liquid, burning his mouth mercilessly in the process, the bowl was seized from his hands and he was pushed aside to let others have a chance. Returning down the streets of this strange new city,

condemned to annihilation in only a few hours time, Pierre nipped a few big carrots from one of the heaps still smelling of the fat of the land and greedily devoured them in an alley. Dawn broke. Pierre was overcome with fatigue and drowsiness, seduced by the warmth of the aromatic soup he had consumed. He started scouting for a place to sleep. And here, in the concave spaces of alcoves, in the recesses of the clotted homes, people slept wound-up, coiled like orange peels. Pierre found himself a free wind-shielded crevice and placed himself in it, after winding strips of newspaper he had dug from a garbage can around his freezing extremities, as he’d seen others do. He was already asleep before he managed to cozy up to the damp, mangy wall. He was awoken by a short navy-blue man in a cape, who had been patiently explaining to him for some minutes that lying down was not permitted in this place and that he would have to immediately move on. Pierre was not precisely sure as to where “on” might be, but he

nonetheless obediently began his roaming again. The fantastical, laboriously-built city of the night gave way like a fata morgana. Where a moment ago rose magical cubes and bulging cones of turnip heads, now the mobile-home trams glided down their slick rails, the rods of their grab-links impersonating smoke. It was now daytime... There was no work anywhere. Roaming down side-streets, Pierre persistently entered the garages he found on the way, proposing that he might wash automobiles. He was everywhere greeted with the hostile faces and bloodshot eyes of workmen scrubbing car bodies, their eyes fierce like dogs smelling a rival for a bone that will feed one at most. Nobody was in need of help.

When night fell, Jeannette’s name quivered inside of him - a new burning cramp, more painful than hunger. He instinctively started wandering in the direction of her apartment. Jeannette still wasn’t home. The long and elastic streets multiplied before him, stretching into infinity like a rubber strap tied to his leg, they scampered from under his feet like lizards in the reflections of dashing lights, they knowingly winked in the dusk with the eyes of a thousand pay-by-the-hour hotels. On approaching one of these, Pierre suddenly spotted a couple coming out. A broadshouldered man and a petite, slender woman. He couldn’t make out the woman’s face in the darkness, but he recognized her silhouette as Jeannette’s. He threw himself towards them, shoving aside the passers-by who stepped in his way. Before he managed to catch up with them, they had stepped into a taxi and driven off. In a powerless state of frenzy he stood for a moment, helpless, before the doors of the empty hotel. The onrushing wave of pedestrians swept him further along. He had not moved one hundred steps when he saw a couple leaving another hotel. The girl’s silhouette was deceptively similar to Jeannette’s. To get his hands on them, he had to cross to the other side of the street. The path was blocked by an incessant flood of automobiles. When he at last reached the opposite sidewalk, the couple was no longer there, they had dissolved into the crowd. Helpless tears of rage, more dire than tears from pain, got stuck in his throat. All around hotel signs flickered on and off, suggestively flashing their alternating red and white lights, inviting pedestrians inside. Jeannette could have been in any one of those hotels at that moment. Tired out by the lusts of the demanding muscleman, she was sleeping curled up like a child, her hands folded between her knees as though in prayer. The thug was stroking her white body, frail and defenseless. Pierre felt an inexpressible caring for her, almost verging on tenderness. His thoughts whirred about, tangled and twisted like the alleyways he was now drifting down. On the thresholds of cheap, few-franc-a-night hotels stood skinny, shabbily-dressed women, sheltering themselves from the rain under the rapidly blossoming palms of umbrellas; they stopped passers-by with the short, alluring click of the tongue that is used to call dogs all over the world. In Paris you call people this way, too.

A slender, consumptive girl in soaked evening slippers promised him the most carefully concealed delights of her scrofulous body for only five francs. To emphasize her indecent gesture, which she for some reason imagined to be seductive, she stuck out a tongue that was white and furry, much like that of a person suffering from indigestion. Pierre shook from the cold and inner turmoil. From somewhere not far away floated the bouncing melody of a player-piano. A small red lantern indicated that it was a fun-loving establishment. Pierre recalled that he had in his pocket the three francs he had earned during the night, and he decided to go in. With his three francs he could order himself a boca and sit in the warmth until morning. He was enveloped by a wave of nauseating, staggering warmth, the powerful smell of powder, cheap perfumes and cheap women. He groped to the first table by the wall and, utterly exhausted, slumped heavily onto the upholstered couch, whose springs gave a harsh lament. When he opened his light-dazzled eyes, it seemed to him that the couch spring he was pressing down was simultaneously the central spring of the whole mechanism he had unintentionally damaged. The room in no way differed from the bar of an average public house, with tables and a player-piano that was now playing at such a slow tempo that Pierre could hear a vacuum between the individual tones of the gamboling keyboard, the pulse of a falling drop, a molecule of time. By the wall, in the shade of the rachitic palms in green buckets, speckled toadstool-tables bloomed in rows. In-between a dozen naked, voluptuous women circulated in lazy, atomized movements, as though caught in a slow-motion film. With apparent great effort their plump, swollen bodies conquered the resistance of the air, rocking on its rubber pillows amidst the flat, thickened clouds of tobacco smoke, like the bodies of Renaissance angels, with the rhythmic flutter of their faded sashes, fanned out like the tattered wings of moths. Pierre understood everything in a flash. The spring quivered, tossing him into a different reality with a final bounce. Yes, this was paradise. Pierre saw this at once, though as a non-religious person he had never earlier imagined this institution to precision. He discerned it was so by the blissful torpor

flowing through his veins, by the somehow familiar sounds, the paradisiacal music he seemed to know from a previous life, and by the rustle from the wings of the angels slowly circling about. But why did the clouds so remind him of tobacco smoke, why was the ambrosia distiller so reminiscent of the counter of an ordinary bistro. Suddenly his gaze fell upon the corner, and Pierre died of humble ecstasy. In the corner, over the wooden altar of the counter-top, towered the Lord God of Sabaoth, silent and still as a statue. This was no Christian God with a long white beard, it was more reminiscent of a bronze, serene Buddha, whose gigantic statue Pierre once had had occasion to see at a colonial exhibition. This was the same god exactly, of matronly shape, of puffy, wrinkled and feminine visage, only from these ears hung the expensive votive offerings of massive earrings, counter-balanced like scales of an exact, mystical weight. Together with the chilly draft through the door left ajar, men came trickling one by one into the room, they were awkward and embarrassed, and they looked long and lackadaisically for a free table good enough to be waiting for them. At a few tables Pierre noticed other women, immobilized in the tight embrace of costly furs, like the sinners in the pictures of the old masters, who vainly struggled to cover their burning nakedness with the transparent fringe of their flowing hair. From time to time a man would raise himself slowly, staring at one of the angels surrounding him, his eyes wide with astonishment - as though in her face he had suddenly seen that of another, someone familiar and long lost. Then the pair, taking each other by the hand and tracing slow semi-circles with their feet, approached the altar of the counter, where, in exchange for the mystical banknote-permit, the motionless Buddha, of the puffy and feminine visage, with a ceremonial, liturgical gesture handed the woman the symbolic ring of the number and the narrow stole of the towel. And then the betrothed ascended in majestic spirals along a twisting, celestial staircase, guided only by the fluttering butterflies of the glances cast by the odd women wrapped in furs. Pierre had all but fainted in the heavenly sensation of the penetrating warmth. He was overwhelmed by a sweet half-sleep, in which he soaked like a summer bath after a long journey. He was shaken out of it by a voice battering itself persistently and for some time on the

wickets of his consciousness. He reluctantly opened his eyes. Once more, the same view. He pricked up his ears: “Don’t you recognize me, Pierre?” Someone was insistently, violently trying to wrench him out from under the soft eiderdown of drowsiness pulled over his head. Pierre struggled to wriggle away from the voice, to let it travel past, like a person whose bullish alarm clock drives him from the virginal undergrowth of sleep, but who tries in vain to dig himself back into his warm, night-grown, tropical foliage. The voice glided somewhere above him like a heavy bird which, oblivious to its prey, turned a wide circle and came back as sudden and deafening as a punch: “Aren’t you seeing Jeannette anymore?” Pierre opened his eyes wide. The monotonous whimper of the player-piano. The heavy, full-breasted angels filing through the room in the hypnosis of a slow-motion film. One of these, entirely naked, a bun in her hair, crouched on the edge of the couch, obstinately staring at Pierre. “Don’t you recognize me? I used to be Jeannette’s good friend. We used to go to the cinema together. Remember, you always used to buy us candies...?” Leaning over memory’s booth with the stubbornness of a fairground spectator, Pierre rummaged in the sawdust that was filling him, stumbling every other moment on the sparkling pinpoints of recollections scattered here and there. Who was this nagging fly, relentlessly struggling to bring him back to the reality he had abandoned once and for all? Could it be no more than a delusion of his imagination, still addled by earthly reminiscences? In that case it would be enough to burrow deeper in the magical pillow of the all-cleansing sleepiness that was washing over him in waves. But the bothersome fly wouldn’t stop its buzzing: “I’m sure you’re wondering how I got here. My God, it’s so simple. I never had any luck. I never managed to find a friend who was loaded. It’s not so easy to dress yourself and survive off of two hundred francs a month. It’s not the same if you have a friend as good as the one Jeannette has. I never had any luck. I got my health card. The warehouse threw me out, naturally, on the second day. I had to try working on the street, but it wasn’t as easy as it seems.

The summer was okay, but when it started to rain... I get sick too easily. I caught a cold... I spent time in the hospital. When I got better, I came here. Here, in fact, the work isn’t so hard. It’s always warm. I earn less, but the payments are regular. Ten francs per guest, of which the house takes seven. They serve us food. It’s a living. One day you earn more, the next day less, it depends on your luck. The day before yesterday, for example, I had fifteen guests - that’s fortyfive francs. Of course, you don’t get that many every day. The work’s a bit tiring, but you get every third day off. Are you going already? Won’t you stay just a bit longer? I wanted to ask what Jeannette was up to. Isn’t she your girlfriend anymore?”


				
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