The World's Best Unknown Books
28 08 2013

Parent book: Louis Calaferte - Requiem of the Innocent

Review Louis Calaferte, Requiem des innocents

by Didier Garcia (Le Matricule des Anges)

Requiem of Innocents, Louis Calaferte’s first book, mines the territory of a childhood ridden with misery and filth. A cry of revolt.

To observe man, there is without a doubt nothing like the city or the streets: “In order to touch or to steal away a bit of human truth, one must go to the streets. Men are made by men. You need to dive in and meet the men of pain, go into the pain, into the fetid dirt of their condition in order to emerge living, heavy with distress and disgust, with misery and with joy.” And so, to get a taste of man. And if we don’t manage to get to man, we’ll certainly get to a child along the way. What does a child do in the streets? In the work of certain novelists (one thinks for example of Valéry Larbaud, in whose writing children live on in the green paradise of childlike loves), children are found singing nursery rhymes, reciting multiplication tables, playing, pretending they are army marshals, or even running outside when the sun is shining. But in the work of more somber writers, children are present and they commit thousands of petty crimes, they terrorize the weakest among them (“they feel universally guilty. Guilty of being only themselves”), they spit on the ground, throw rocks, and some days mix with the ruffians…

If we are to believe this Requiem of Innocents (and why would we not believe prose that speaks the truth and feels at every line like autobiography?), Calaferte (1928-1994) as a child took advantage of the streets and dragged his young self through them, desperation at his lips even before his first cigarette. His streets were no invitation to gaiety and even less so to jokes. His street was a ghetto among other ghettos, presented to readers without ever naming the surrounding city. A ghetto no doubt similar to many others, and maybe his alone was even representative of all the others. If Calaferte as child ran along its streets, it was to chase a dog, a sick dog no less, injured, one paw already amputated, so that he could murder it. Preferably by stoning. It’s certainly not the noblest way to kill a dog, but if one is attempting to release one’s “rage at being from the zone, at counting among the scum, among the sub-humans”, then it’s terribly effective. On this street, which lasts when all is said and done more than two hundred pages, it is true that there is nothing particularly lighthearted: drunken voices, for example, that assure you Jesus has not been crucified but rather squashed; smells of urine; violence; but a brutal, almost animal violence; children ready to do anything, because “nothing in the world is more ferocious, vicious, or criminal than a child”; and spitting contests on Saturday morning. And more still: the ghetto zone, the misery. Poverty till the point of total helplessness. Unless you feel like vomiting it up. Like purging yourself of life.

Calaferte speaks of the streets like somebody who knows, somebody who has seen filth close up and who has seen it too often to forget it. And this street is his port of call. He has dreamed of it, has stroked this “universal dream of the poor looking to emerge from the chaos.” It’s a street in which there was sometimes only a single word to cling onto, a single word that hung around for no real reason: it was there and just needed to be snatched up. For example, “Chicago”: “Chicago threw our imagination upside down. It fermented inside of us in huge blocks. We stopped sleeping. We spoke only of Chicago, morning to night, total obsession. Each one of us had something to say. We all had our story to add.” And in the everyday life of the ghetto amidst all the gray, a story always means a breath of air, a semblance of freedom; a presence that makes it easier to keep standing.

And this street is also the street of other children, Calaferte’s companions of misfortune. The children of his childhood. The mirrors of his own past: “They are my life. My memory is turned toward them.” They are the mirrors of beings who “leave true emptiness behind them” and “who you long to embrace, in friendship, without a word, in the silence of the heart.” These beings are the innocent ones: they are errant for the most part, and their innocence is of a strange nature. No forgiveness without confession for them: for in each there is a spark of felony, of a brigand at rest.

Calaferte was a little over 20 years old when he penned these brutal words, painted these street scenes and used his own insides as ink. No use here trying to look for beautiful sentences or syntactic elegance. As early as the first ten lines, both tone and cadence are set. We come to expect short sentences that are sometimes dry, sometimes rugged, and that are content to say exactly what must be said. Sentences that say nothing more. To the word. But this doesn’t keep Calaferte from taking his reader by the hand and leading him by his side with moving generosity. Calaferte shows his reader a childhood exposed to humiliation, irritation, vulgarity, sex, alcohol; a childhood that rebelled against authority, against the injustices of life, against the brothel that is the ghetto. “It’s funny, time passing. Everything gets shaken up. Massacred. And memories are buried.”

© Didier Garcia for Le Matricule des Anges