Wednesday, 3 February 2016

...of impoverished language

Next morning he went to the barber’s in the station, and he was caught up again into the past in the midst of this palatially large, opulently furnished basement, in this splendid chair, under the hot towel - just the thing to soften the beard. As the cut-throat blade moved over his face he tried to judge how the East German state managed to get along in the estimation of its rulers. Pawnbroking didn’t get it anywhere. How often did a pensioner pop his wireless set? The debtors’ prison wouldn’t say on the phone; but they understood the question - it was recognised as a question there - and Karsch introduced himself as a West German newspaper correspondent. As soon as he got there he found himself forced back into his chair with maxims about the social function of a pawnshop in the capitalist system; he asked about the place of interest in the socialist system. The man sat there with his arms set firmly on the desk, then looked Karsch straight in the eyes, jumped up suddenly, relaxed against the desk edge, then returned - his hands stretched out as before - to stare again at Karsch; he affected an unworried tone, spoke slowly as if he really had something to say, but stood when the visitor’s questioning became obstructive. He mentioned the name of Karsch’s paper again, doubted the possibility of a straightforward and other than inimical West German interest in figures, claimed to have none of the files at present: “I’ll give you an example here, pure guesswork, say we put it at ten thousand, well, I’d be equally justified in saying a million, it’s all out of date! And now, you really must excuse me.” Karsch had just begun to speak to the receptionist in the anteroom when the director interrupted them. His mind in a whirl, he went to the pawn office and redeemed his razor; he passed it thoughtfully over his reddened chin - the net profit to date of his initiative.
The incident had involved him. Not so much the refusal of information as the mode of speech drew him on. Karsch felt that in the monstrous sentences of this official he had begun to discern the nature of East Germany for the first time - and found the basis for a report on his visit. He was fairly certain now that he had contacted the ruling power. In fact, after a few inquiries of this kind, he was able to mark off the committed with their peculiar loan words and constructions, their formulas and hesitations, the direct though vacant stare of a parrot-child reciting or a second-rate bureacrat in front of a West German television camera. This form didn’t apply only for foreigners: it was self-sufficient and paraded against the natives too. He began to learn the novel meanings of foreign loan words no longer ot never used in his own country: he noted down the variants of structure and perspective with increasing familiarity, but never learned the language so well as to be able to use it intelligibly. Even in casual conversation with ordinary people he found his way of speaking noticeably ill-adjusted to theirs, for he had missed ten years of their history: it didn’t take them long to tell where he was from. They spoke of distribution, and of production bottlenecks where he could speak only of the wholesale trade and holdups in delivery; they called his hire-purchase the ecconomy payment system. He soon noted exactly the relation of the people’s speech to the idiom of the officials; he would sometimes sit there mentally preparing his next statement, like someone about to speak a foreign tongue, trying not to muff his phrasing. Until he left he remained astonished at the impoverished scraps of workaday language with which the inhabitants rehearsed their allegiance to the regime and, in each case, subsequently dropped into silence or morose agreement. After that June he forgot this latter aspect most easily, since it was nearest to his own practice.

[Trip into the Blue, Johnson, U.]

...of distraction

“Well? Have you nothing to say? Can’t you tell me what is wrong with you?” “There is nothing wrong with me, sir” replied the boy at last. It seemed to have been a great effort on his part to utter even these few words.
“Yes. You said the same thing before, not an hour ago, the same thing yesterday. I think you had better remain behind at dinner time and I will take you to Mr Sweeney’s office. Perhaps he will get out of you what I can’t. Go back to your seat. I won’t punish you again. You are beyond me.”
The boy with bent head returned to his seat. He was on the verge of tears. He blushed, the blood mounted to his head. He could not sit still, he continually fidgeted his fingers, drumming them upon the desk. He dared not look either way. He was filled with a sense of shame. He dared not look up.
“Fearon! Did you hear what I said? Open your book please and get on with your work.”
With trembling hands the boy opened his Oxford and Cambridge history book and endeavoured in spite of increasing agitation to study Wat Tyler and his short-lived insurrection. But his thoughts were chaotic. He could not settle down to the work. He made a pretence at it and some twenty minutes later essayed to look around him in a furtive manner. Everybody seemed occupied. The heads were bent to the books, the teacher was busy making corrections in the exercise books on his desk. A strange silence filled the room, periodically punctuated by the scratch of the teacher’s pen as he initialled each book. Once he did cast a glance at the bench where the boy sat, saw that he was not occupying himself with the lesson, but this time decided to save his breath and his energy. The boy was beyond him and that was the end of it. When dinner time came the boys filed out of the benches. Only Fearon and the teacher remained in the room. And now that the others had departed, the room took on a desolate air, it seemed to have grown bigger, whilst to the boy staring before him the walls seemed further off and the teacher himself had become reduced in size. But when his name was called the illusion vanished and Mr Jackson appeared to tower above him more than ever. He called the boy to come right up to his desk. Fearon approached with his head down.
“I said I would take you to the headmaster, but on reflection I have decided not to bother. It appears to me that you are not worth bothering about. When you first came here you were a good boy, attentive to your lessons, and even showed an intelligence superior to the others in the class. But whatever has come over you in the last weeks I do not know, and have gone beyond wondering about it; I have finished with you. You may do as you like. If you cut a bad figure at the examinations you have yourself and nobody else to blame. You may go home now.”
Apparently Fearon had not heard this order, for he still remained standing there, and had even raised his head to look into the teacher’s face.

[Boy, Hanley, J.]

...of self-defence

“I was kept in school.”
“Liar!” shouted the father. “I’ll break every bone in your body you come that with me.”
He flung the boy against the wall and commenced to undo his belt. Seeing this, Fearon backed up against the wall. Meanwhile Mrs Fearon sat like a statue in stone. He saw his father approach him. He was just going to shout something when the buckle end caught him on the back of his neck. He did not shout. Instinctively his two small hands went to his face to ward off further blows.
“Why didn’t you come straight home when you’re mother told you to? Eh?”
“I did.”
The belt descended once again. The boy started to cry now. This had a peculiar effect upon the father, for he immediately flung the belt into a corner and raising his right hand brought it down heavily upon the boy’s face.
“Tell the truth. Tell the truth or you won’t be able to go to school tomorrow. You undersized young pig. The lip you give.”
“Mr Sweeney kept me in. I had to go to his office at four o’clock. I’ve come straight from school. Honest I have.”
The man felled him with one blow. As the boy dropped he dropped too. Without asking any more questions, he commenced to punch his son, all the while breathing deeply like a horse, the hands ascending and descending, though never a sound came from the boy himself. Fearon’s thoughts were elsewhere. He was staring at Mr Jackson’s brown boots and wondering if he would ever have such a fine pair himself. The silence began to get on the nerves of the father. He shouted into the boy’s ear, almost deafening him:
“I’ll really kill you. I will! I will! If you don’t tell me why you never came home. I’ll do you in. I’m determined on it. You swine.”
But Fearon did not speak. Mr Fearon aimed a blow at his head, missed, then dragged himself to his feet. He gave the boy a vicious kick. Then he went to the table and sat down. He commenced his evening meal. Not a sound save the crunching movement of the man’s jaws. Even the woman failed to turn round. Once the man at the table muttered: “Like your mother. That’s what you are. Another obstinate pig like your mother. But I’ll fix you. We’ll see. And if you don’t pass that exam next week, by God I’ll lame you for life. When I was your age, I had to get up and work. I had to rise at five in the morning and drag a milk cart half round the town for a few shillings a week. Here you get a chance of earning over a pound a week and you stick your nose up at it. I’ll fix you. You wait. I have had to work hard for my living and I’ll bloody well see that you do the same. Want to go into an office. Like the other boys. Who in hell’s name are the other boys? And what would you do in an office? Intelligent. Why you can’t fasten your braces properly yet. It’s work you want and plenty of it. Real hard work. Why you little swine, you even dodged selling the papers when your mother went to all that trouble about you."

[Boy, Hanley, J.]

...of self-preservation

All this time Jackson had been sitting like a statue, uttering no sound. He began to regret leaving the boiler now. Supposing somebody came along? Supposing the boss lad came down to see how things were going? Supposing one of the engineers passed through and discovered what was going on? He felt that the only safe thing to do was to make his way back to his own boiler and resume his work. No sound being heard, the people in the neighbourhood of the boilers, knowing that a gang of scalers were at work, would wonder at the sudden and prolonged silence. Jackson rose to his feet, and made his way silently to his boiler. He climbed up, squeezed through, and crawled along on his belly until he could reach the hammer that Fearon had left lying there. He picked it up and held it ready in his hand in case of emergency. He was secure now. If he heard anyone coming he would immediately set up a row and so disarm any suspicion as to what was happening. Shielding himself he was also shielding the others, though he did not think of this latter fact. He thought only of himself. They could do as they liked with the new boy. He was going to look after himself. It was nothing of his doing. He would have no hand in it. He hated Davies like poison and the older boy knew it. They had once or twice fought on the dock road over such incidents as this, but always Davies emerged the victor. Still, Jackson was not afraid. He had courage, and though only fifteen years of age, could take his stand like any man. It made him a valued member of the gang. They could rely on him to take part in all kinds of disputes.

[Boy, Hanley, J.]

...of a trance

“Hello!” exclaimed the bosun. “What’s wrong with you, eh?”
Fearon did not speak, but lowered his head as though afraid to look the man in the face.
“Have you a bloody tongue in your head, or haven’t you?”
Still the boy remained silent. He seemed to be in a state of coma. He was certainly unconscious of his surroundings, his eyes had a glassy stare about them that unnerved the bosun.
“Open your rotten mouth!” he shouted at Fearon, for this continual silence was getting on his nerves, and that dominant thought still held at the back of his mind. The thought that all the blame would be laid on him as the first man amongst the crew. He’d get the sack and probably never run as boatswain again. He rushed at the boy and slapped his knees saying:
“You young sod! Where were you last night, eh? We know all about it.” It was a ruse through which he might trap the boy, he thought.
“Come now. What’s all this game of yours? There’s nothing wrong with you. Out with it now. This minute. Did you disobey orders and dodge the quartermaster last night? If we find out that you did you’ll get warmed for it, boy. Remember that. It’s not so bad with a man. A fellow might get a drink too much ashore and miss his ship, but a boy! Good Christ! You’ll be ordering the men about just now! Stand up! Stand up there!"

[Boy, Hanley, J.]

...of apocalypse

The boy crouched down, got hold of the scraper with both hands, lifted it up and held it in the air for two or three seconds. Below, the population of potato-bugs began to swarm in all directions. Some tried to escape, running as fast as their legs would carry them. Some shammed dead, crouching curled up with their legs and feelers drawn in under their bellies. Some lay there crushed or half-crushed, stuck in their pools of blood-red liquid. Several others, trying to run away, got their feet stuck in these pools and stood there feeling the bodies with their antennae, their mouths perhaps sampling the fluid that issued from their brother’s entrails. Chancelade held the scraper poised above the insects a little while longer, without speaking, without thinking. All menace had entered into him, and hatred, and pity, and something that resembled fate. Then he opened his fingers and let the heavy grille fall on the town. The clatter of the metal on the concrete was followed by a dull silence.
Chancelade bent down and looked. He saw that nearly all the potato-bugs had been killed. Most had been sliced in two by the bars of the scraper: tomato sauce had spurted all over the grey metal. Some of them still crawled about, horribly mutilated, with half of their abdomen gone or their back torn away. Others had had their legs severed, and limped about in circles. Everywhere were gashed heads, slashed bellies, crushed thoraxes, broken limbs, wings torn to pieces. One had even been hit on the hindquarters by the corner of the scraper just as it was trying to escape. The heavy metal had pinned it to the ground, but all the free part of its body was still alive, and strained with all its legs to get away. At last it did succeed in freeing itself, but it left half its belly behind under the scraper. It managed to crawl along for a few centimetres, leaving a trail of innards. Then, at the end of the red streak, it died.
No groan, no cry of pain arose from the ravaged town. On the contrary, a strange silence reigned, as if everything were quite normal. But that silence was much more terrible than lamentation: it was an intense, tragic silence that entered into the boy’s ears and slowly chilled him. It was a distant silence, like some extra-terrestrial disaster, when a star explodes suddenly millions of light-years away and disappears into the darkness of space as if it were no more than a lamp switched off.

[Terra Amata, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of the impossible

The games never end. Every second the wind shifts a blade of grass or the sea breaks on a crumbling rock and something in the world has changed. Everywhere, underfoot, overhead, to the left, to the right, on front, behind, the world seethes and swarms untiringly. Molecules move, microscopic particles jump nervously, waves come and go, meet, collide, part. There’s no peace anywhere. Nowhere any immobility or silence. Everywhere agitation, a kind of precise and mechanical madness. There’s no escaping the world, no thinking about something else instead. They’re ants, as I said, real ants imprisoned in their garden. Living inside their miniature world, dupers and dupes, without the power to withdraw, without the power to choose. They have words and signs for all the things around them, and a sort of thought to give them the illusion of being free. It’s really very funny. And not one of them can ever imagine what there is anywhere else, not one of them can ever imagine what there is anywhere else, what extraordinary or sweet or terrible things there are just a few yards away. Not one of them will know what it is to be a jelly-fish for example, or an olive-tree with trembling leaves. Not one will have the least idea of what life is like on that grey planet only a few million light-years away. There on the the other side of infinity there may be a world just like this one only as if reflected in an enormous mirror: a world where light is black and ants are white and the earth is soft and the sea hard as a slab of marble. A world where the sun is a sooty dot in the sky and volcanoes belch torrents of muddy ice. A world in which you start dying and end by being born, with the clock-hands all turning frantically backwards. And somewhere in the middle of a big town built downwards into the earth there lives a man perhaps with eyes that look inwards into his head. And perhaps this man has a strange name that can only be said by stopping speaking. Edalecnahc.
But all that was impossible to imagine. It was as if there was nothing anywhere but silence, a dreadful cruel silence through which lightly floated bubbles of sound and life. There was really nothing to be hoped for outside that place, that time, that destiny. One would never penetrate the defences of the unknown, never get away from this old earth. Everything there was was there. You had to play and move about and think without stopping, with all your delirious and contradictory powers. You had to go on with the adventure once begun, without wanting to, torn to pieces by doing so. You had to give each thing its name, and sign each move and event with all the hatred and all the love you were capable of.

[Terra Amata, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of love

There were so many ways of saying things without speaking. You could do a drawing, for example, a portrait of a woman, with two shadowy anxious eyes, fair hair down to her shoulders, a delicate nose, and a mouth with parted lips revealing very white teeth. You could write a letter, a long letter full of adjectives and adverbs in which, lying slightly, you tried to say what you think.
At the end you’d put:

          ‘Yours with love,

Then you’d put the letter in an envelope, and the envelope in the letter-box, trying not to think that it might get lost of end up screwed into a ball in a dustbin.
Or you could go down to the sea-shore with an empty bottle and put a note in it with a message. Then you’d throw the bottle in the water and watch it drift along the coast.
It was all very simple really. All you had to do was leave messages anywhere and everywhere, under stones, fixed to trees, between the pages of the telephone directory or the Divine Comedy, and one day Mina would come and find them, one after the other, and understand.
Or you could take a knife and carve letters on the leaves of aloes or in the trunks of plane-trees. It was there all around you if you could only read. Inside the bells on dogs’ collars, inside sardine-tins. In Coca-Cola bottles, or on the backs of cinema tickets. One letter here, another there. You took the V from television, the O from florist’s, the Z from Cinzano. And you made up your message. There was nothing mysterious about it, or even hidden. If only you wanted to be able to read, the message appeared in the street, over the sky, or on the grassy earth. All the millions of different messages that all meant the same thing.

[Terra Amata, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of signing

Another time, Chancelade and Mina spoke in deaf-and-dumb language. They went into a café in the town centre and sat down without saying anything. When the waiter came Chancelade merely pointed at the ashtray, which had PHOENIX BEER written on it, and put up two fingers. The waiter gave him a queer look, then went to fetch the two glasses of beer. It was easy to make yourself understood without speaking. Then, as he lit a cigarette, Chancelade looked at Mina, and started to make signs with his right hand, just moving his lips:
C: Open hand profile little finger down. Closed hand thumb crosswise. Closed hand thumb up. Hand profile index pointing up. Closed hand thumb and little finger up.
M: Open hand profile fingers touching. Hand profile two fingers up.
C: Hand profile forefinger outside thumb. Hand profile two fingers moving down. Hand closed little finger up. Open hand profile little finger down. Closed hand profile. Hand profile outside thumb. Closed hand thumb and little finger up.
M: Two fingers pointing down. Open hand profile fingers touching.

[Terra Amata, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of sex

Chancelade brought his face near Mina’s, until it was so close he couldn’t see any more. Then he slipped his own body over this motionless one and felt every part of his own skin melt into this other skin not his. It was like entering a bath, and the dense mass of hot water swung back and forth. Soon the whole room, and the bed, were caught up in this slow and powerful movement; the white ceiling, the walls, the door, the windows, the furniture all grew and diminished in time with it, and the noise of his breathing rasped his throat as it mounted higher and higher. Chancelade couldn’t see anything any more. He couldn’t hear anything or feel anything; he was caught up in a deep swinging movement that shook the whole world. A strange tempest blew threw the room, digging sudden inexplicable gulfs, then as suddenly filling them up again with a swift invisible tide.
There was no more thought. There was no more action or time or place. Perhaps the world itself had disappeared, even, just suddenly disappeared leaving a painful wound behind in the darkness of space. All that was left was this whirling movement that surrounded Chancelade and Mina; and they too were being slowly absorbed by this silent vortex, which was drinking up their flesh, tearing out their hair, melting their bones and their nails. A sort of heatless heat, a calm too great and too precise, was thrusting them into the anonymous mud and drowning them. Chancelade, suffocating, tried to lift his head, but was at once overcome again by fatigue and fell back once more into the tumult.
He tried to think, too, for a few seconds. Through the fog he tried to compose a long sentence that might do duty as a thought. Something like:
‘I’d like a cheese and tomato sandwich.’
But it was no use. The sentence too fell into the bath, and the liquid mass swung it too backwards and forwards, dissolving it word by word.
Chancelade made several more attempts. He said:
‘I’d like a cup of black coffee with sugar.’
‘The ChanChan civilization was wiped out by that of the Incas at the battle of Paramonga in 1400.’
‘Cigarettes burn at 300 degrees Centigrade.'
But it was never any good. Silence had established itself in the room and devoured every sound. Words just entered the nebulous white mass and disappeared before they had time to leave a trace.

[Terra Amata, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of domesticity

In the stifling little high-walled room, with a whitewashed ceiling and light-bulb over the bolted door, Chancelade sat without moving. He looked at a place on the wall, a sort of scar in the paint that someone had made with their nail. Behind him the pipes gurgled and hollow thuds sounded in the walls, and mysterious creakings signifying nothing.
Here too time had come to a halt, buried in the cube of ochre paint, stifled by the thick walls, drowned in the pale light. Chancelade was in a cubicle at the ends of the earth, in the middle of Greenland or Siberia, and the ramparts were heaped up round him in order to extricate him from life. He sat there without moving, breathing in the smell of ammonia and disinfectant, listening intently to the tiny sounds, staring fixedly at the mark in the paint on the wall. The door was bolted, no one could come in. There was neither cold nor heat, only a sort of gentle unfeeling calm annihilating all desires. There wasn’t even really any light: light entered there by chance out of the bulb over the door, but it might just as well have come from somewhere else. Sounds and smells were there by chance too, and so were colours, lines, marks, corners, dust; it was a miniature grotto, a classical mausoleum of marble and stucco, an air-tight sarcophagus. Time might pass away, the years might clatter by with their noisy crowd of men and women. But here they would never enter, here they would never issue their orders and appeals. You were there, perhaps on the way to the eternity, put inside a little box in unmoving space. The flies buzzed back and forth from wall to wall, continually repeating the same journey. Drops of water hissed in the cistern, and rust gradually accumulated on the old metal. What use was the sun? What use was the moon, trees, poppies? There was no longer any world, no longer any grotesque and noisy hell. There were only these walls so high and thick and covered in ochre paint, and this ceiling, this light-bulb, this red-brick floor that made your feet so cold. It was as if you had uttered a great cry inside yourself, yelled out your own name in the depths of your body, and it had suddenly been transformed into silence. Perhaps you would never speak again. You’d be silent for ever, sitting in this tiny room; you’d never make another sound to anyone.

[Terra Amata, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of nightmare

And now the last dream of the night, the dream Chancelade has always had as far back as he can remember. It’s the strangest dream of all and the most desperate, because what happens in it is nothing. Perhaps it’s merely the face of truth, inexpressible, impossible to understand, the realest of all dreams. Here in a topsyturvy world there are no more years or days or minutes. When you wake up it will be 9.30 or noon or one o’clock in the morning. You’ll be called Chancelade or Tonibaldi or Brogger. You’ll be twelve years old or thirty-five or ninety-seven. It will be 1966 or 2640 or 722 B.C. Anything’s possible. And, tonight as every night, he’ll have this inspired and terrifying dream, this empty dream. Stretched out on the bed with his face in the pillow and his legs drawn up, Chancelade dreams that he is conscious. He is submerged in consciousness, consciousness without form, without colour, without sound, without words. He sees himself see himself, simply, indefinitely, as if he’d suddenly put his head into the prison of a three-sided mirror. However far into the distance he looks all he meets is his own gaze reflected through space and back again. Body and mind, all is strained to the limit, caught in the vertigo of consciousness. Paralysed, drained, annihilated. And yet in all this deserted kingdom of which it is the centre, his own gaze lives and feeds on itself. Nothing can be done to forget or to escape. There’s no word, like ‘Fire’ or ‘Ocean’, to get hold of. Not an image with which to get away, not a thought with which to distract oneself. There is nothing but this atrociously extended knowledge, this invisible eye ceaselessly photographing its own life and wiping out at the same moment as it creates, as if what it showed was too bright and pure to be anything but darkness. Then, after these centuries of infinity and fury, after these long years and endless seconds of consciousness silently spinning on its own axis, Chancelade wakes, turns over, and pushes the sheet down a bit because he’s bathed in sweat.

[Terra Amata, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]