Requiem of the Innocent
My father had moved into the district having been in and out of prison several times, convicted of breaking and entering and armed robbery. My mother who, for her part, had a particular talent for performing abortions, sensibly continued to pursue it during his retirement. Nonetheless my family was counted as respectable. Back in the day, Feld had attempted to silence two witnesses who could have proved an embarrassment. Starting with his father. Feltin too had plenty of uncomfortable old memories and, by employing him, the police kept him well in their sights. Then there was Dumas the junkie, Shelbann the northern eunuch sent down eleven times, and Malot, the former nautical trimmer who had had protracted quarrels with a foreign police force whose charges must have remained on file, since every time the cops visited we saw him turn pale. Malot who knew so well how to keep quiet that he would likely croak a free man, who curled up one fine day just like the rest, writhing on the cement of his hovel like an earthworm. Without making a sound. All of them and all the rest whose names I no longer remember. Low-lifes. Low-lifes and men, my fellow men, never escaping a kind of ravaged poetry. The boat-trimmer had only one secret: the sea. And he knew how to embellish it in his faraway voice!
“When once I used to sail!… Just listen to this! Bedlam! The sea and again the sea and the ports and the whores and the tar and the rigging and the drowned men and the sea!… What a life!…And to think that I’ll die here!”
He never exhausted his sailors’ tales.
Malot fell hook line and sinker into his reminiscences. His memory was his home port, his anchor. When he relived his past he could escape his present. Without dreams of our own, there was no way we could have put up with our existence. Not one of us was without a dream of his own. Malot had his boats, his distant countries and the sea, fevers, memories of going on incredible benders, the names and faces of the girls, of devilish whores; unfortunate creatures with hunger in their bellies.
My father clung to an illusion manifested in periodical but lengthy crises throughout which he talked about abandoning everything just as it was, starting with the slums, leaving it all behind, just like that, without delay, to find a proper well-paid job, in a good firm in the town centre; never to touch another drop, to set himself up with his family in a modest flat on the boulevard, not too far away, break with his acquaintances back in their ghetto, and make new friends of a better social type, then save, franc by franc, towards buying a country cottage where we could spend our Sundays, holidays and days off; we would all go around in brand new clothes rather than shop at Ledernacht’s, and learn all about how to behave impeccably whatever the circumstances and to speak sociably but not crudely. He explained how he viewed his prospects all the way from start to finish.
”There, you see!” he said, “See that!… Living in a district of criminals housed in the old defence works outside the city will appear as just a bad phase in my life, a mistake, perhaps better described as as shitty a period as it gets. Sophe and the two sprogs will follow on. Where’s the risk in that? None! None at all. I’ll get on and find work. What matters is having the will to drag oneself up out of this patch of ill luck for once and for all. Once done, all will go well. Sophe, the scamps and I shall decamp to the city. With a bit of smooth talking to the local conciergeit really would be the end of the world if we don’t discover the odd roof under which to shelter. Even an attic would be a starting point. Where’s the risk in that? There isn’t one. I’m going to look for work. I don’t want to boast but I know how to sort myself out. I’m not proud. I can find bosses where I want them. It’s not easy to find a good worker like me these days. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking car mechanics, carpentry or dealing in second-hand goods, I’ve done the lot. The lot! Only has to look at me for ten minutes to know what kind of a man I am. Well and good. So I’ve got a job. One worth having, that brings in the dosh. And that’s just the start. Sophe, she can do her own bit on the side, it’s her style, without bothering anyone; just to bring in a little more all the while she does her own thing. Whatever loot she scrapes together, goes towards having a bit of fun. Fine. You have to put towards giving the brats a future too, right? I’m thinking it over. Thinking it over… Lucien is an idiot. Has to be said. But Lucien is also my boy, but he’s needs to wise up, poor brat. So? I’ll apprentice him out. Someone can always take him on to run errands: he’s not too stupid for that at least. The other lad, he takes after me. My side of the family. It’s all brain with him. The spitting image of his father, except that he can’t be arsed to work with his hands, whereas I… well, excuse me! He’s the one I’ll put through school. I’ll keep a tight rein on him. He’s a yob, a bad lot. If you go soft on him, he’ll think he can get away with anything. I’ll tell him what’s what hold him like a vice, and he’ll get there, the young scoundrel, he’ll get there for certain, there’s a lot of me in him. If only they’d only bothered to give me a bit of a leg-up!… So all four of us will come out in front. We’ll put a bit of the loot aside towards paying for the weekend cottage at the end of each month, and live like kings! From where I’m sitting, I can already see Sophie dressed up to the nines swaying down the street just like a fine lady. She has style, that’s for sure. I can see her all dolled up! And the two kids in their sailors’ caps with the “Neptune” logo, and me in a waistcoat and spotted bow-tie. We’ll live like kings. What does that lot cost? Nothing at all. Less than nothing. No more boozing like here, everyone always getting pissed, worse than animals. ‘Cause there’s one thing I’ve got to tell you: when animals aren’t thirsty any more, they just stop drinking. Whereas we humans – disaster! You hit the bottle and before you know it, it’s downed! Shameful I know. And the more you drink, the more you need. And while we’re drinking what do the brats get up to? They loaf about, pick up bad habits, unsupervised. They go off the track! Altogether! And it’s all our fault! We provide the worst possible example right there under their noses! When I move up to town and grow old, one kid at school and the other apprenticed out, no-one can blame me for anything. There you go, he said, there you go.
You had to hear him tell his story. My mother couldn’t stand this excess of imagination, since she had none herself. She glowered with violent rages, resenting him for having torn through a fine if hypothetical dowry (I never quite got this point straight), of having dragged her down into this universe, forcing her to treat him as a pimp, an idler, a washout, a drip, and my father, from the depths of his dream, let her become increasingly incensed.
He’d make out he was unhappy. He’d avoid things, escape, live in his fantasies. A fragile lie.
Turned back onto himself, this weakling, this inferior and cowardly man, fabricated a fabulous world of his own over which he reigned supreme. He could see this world clearly in his mind’s eye. He polished and fashioned it over the years. He knew every detour and danger, every joy and dare, its good and bad days. Children toofabricate whole well-balanced societies inside their little brains.
When he couldn’t cope any more, he recounted the Baroque mechanics of his impassioned inner adventure to the somewhat stupefied assembled slum-dwellers in their hyper-complex labyrinth. When he could ruminate no more to himself, all alone, mulling over his own tales, looking to his companions in misfortune for a ray of hope, an impulse, a word that would perpetuate his vision. Shortly before I left, I understood just how far his dream went. That was the day he best explained his plans, when he painted the fictitious world he had created like an artist. Nothing was left out. He was at the stage where he could no longer clearly distinguish the real from the unreal. As he spoke, his realm detached itself from the alcoholised fumes in his brain. Everyone listened. It was well worth while. Men and women gathered about him as he held forth. Seeing all those dirty, bearded or painted faces amid such squalor, one could watch stupefied how every listener identified with each character in turn portrayed by my father. His words did not fall on deaf ears. It carried a profound ring of authenticity. The same resonance in everyone’s ears: a glimpse of happiness. My mother was alone in not joining in the game. She lacked either the imagination or sympathy. She was shamed by the attention and the contemplation mood provoked by her Adolphe. She didn’t want to hear any of it. She muttered curses like a madwoman, revolted by so much rambling, such incoherence, holding in her heart all the years of poverty and humiliation she’d endured. When I look back on my father in this light, as an impenitent dreamer, I am inclined to feel merciful towards him… But there was the other side. From such a crisis, assuaged as soon as it surfaced, the fall was brutal, cruel, unbearable. Then he would take himself off to the pub, where he’d spend the entire day drinking without stopping.
I too had my dream. All of us, we all had a dream. The same one. The universal dream of the poor, striving to emerge from the chaos.
Schborn and I got out, just as soon as we could escape this anthill. The hour arrived when living like that became insufferable, even though the rest of the local residents did nothing to flee it. A few years later Schborn returned and fell into the engulfing decay before throwing himself into the river one Christmas morning. One icy morning, all metallic and white. A morning of merry children around their illuminated Christmas trees. It was one way of fucking off.
The least mortified of our lot was old father Ledernacht who, apart from his clandestine drug-dealing, was as good as irreproachable. I remember him well. In the midst of space, where are you at this moment in time, Ledernacht the younger, Debrer, Chapuizat, Meunier? Imprisoned in what jail, what unknown and profound grief, what twist or turn of sorrow? I have tracked you year after year, and finally my fate, no more nebulous than yours, has carried me on elsewhere consigning to my memory only your names and your filthy, cruel faces of fifteen or twenty years back. With your faces of poor devils. I’ve not forgotten a thing. The venom we share clamours in my veins and prevents me from living like others, smiling and heedlessly unconcerned. As ever, you can land on me wherever I happen to be. I’d offer my hand and my chest to you and hug you tight. If I have food, I’ll feed you; if I have money, I’ll give it to you and, with it, my friendship and my heart. My skin too, if you have need of it. I know where I come from. I’ve never denied my roots. I know that over there life was just like the earth, black and dirty.