I walked around for so many days through the squares, my bag on my shoulder, past the luxury apartment buildings that look out over the sea. Then I came up in front of a large white building, so beautiful, so peaceful, lit with the last rays of the sun. That was what I’d wanted to see. Beautiful and sinister, like a royal palace, surrounded by its formal garden, its basin of calm water where the pigeons and the blackbirds came to drink. How could I not have seen it before? That house was visible from every point in the city. At the end of the streets, above the tumult of cars and humans, stood that white house, majestic, eternal, infinitely contemplating the sun and following its course from one end of the sea to the other.
I walked slowly, cautiously closer, as if time had stopped, as if death and suffering were still in the sumptuous apartments, in the symmetrical park, under the bowers, behind every plaster statue. Walking slowly through the park, I heard the gravel crunching under the soles of my sandals and in that silent domain the noise seemed to make a sharp, compact, almost threatening sound. I thought of the Excelsior Hotel that I saw yesterday near the train station, its gardens, its white baroque facade, its wide entrance adorned with plaster cherubs through which the Jews had to pass before being interrogated. But in the quiet and luxury of the large park, beneath the windows of the white house, despite the cooing of turtledoves and the cries of blackbirds, a deathly silence reigned. I walked on and on and I could still hear my father’s voice in the kitchen of our house in Saint-Martin as he talked about the cellars in which people were killed and tortured every day, cellars hidden under the sumptuous edifice and at night, the screams of women being beaten, the screams of the tormented, muffled by the shrubs and the pools, the shrill screams that one couldn’t mistake for the cries of blackbirds, and so perhaps in order not to understand in those days, one had to plug up his ears. I walked along under the high windows of the palace, the windows from which the Nazi officers leaned to observe the streets of the city through binoculars. I used to hear my father uttering the name of the house, The Hermitage, almost every evening I heard say that name in the dark kitchen when the windows were stopped up with newspaper because of the curfew. And the name remained within me all this time, like a hated secret, The Hermitage, the name that doesn’t mean anything to others, signifies nothing other than the big luxury apartments overlooking the sea, the peaceful park crowded with pigeons. I walked around in front of the house looking at the facade, window after window, and the dark mouths of basement windows from where the voices of the tortured rose. There was no one around that day, and despite the sunlight and the sea shining in the distance between the palm trees, a cold shudder arose from deep inside me.
[Wandering Star, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]