Like an eternal wanderer in the Bardo, the post-exotic writer Lutz Bassmann exists in a constant floating state between reality and fiction. He is the primary narrator and protagonist of Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, in which his final moments and history are described. He is also the author of several books, including not only The Eagles Reek but also We Monks & Soldiers (trans. Jordan Stump) and a collection of prison haiku. Like his comrades Manuela Draeger and Elli Kronauer, he possesses a deep sympathy for egalitarian struggle. Among his least favorite things are prison guards, anti-semitic jokes, and oysters.
In honor of Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven’s publication in English, Music & Literature Magazine is pleased to debut several excerpts in English from Bassmann’s as-yet-untranslated The Eagles Reek.
1. Ashes (I)
The bombings that destroyed the city happened on a Thursday, while Gordon Koum was away on a mission.
He had gone to kill someone. Because of that, he survived.
Friday morning promised to be rainy. At dawn, Gordon Koum stopped at a roadblock overseen by men sporting civil defense armbands. They talked for a few minutes. The fellows, tired fifty-somethings, all had old jackets and were unarmed, aside from a mustachioed man carrying a rifle in a bandolier. They looked like a small group of partisans in the wrong century. Despite being invested with an official function, they could not overcome the overwhelming fear shining in their eyes. Their task was to dissuade people from going into the disaster area, but, in fact, there was a ridiculously low number of volunteers. Lower still was the number of survivors coming to their post from the city. No one had appeared yet from that side. And that, more than anything, was what was so disturbing. The previous evening’s fracas had given way to absolute calm. The night had not been punctuated by the smallest cry of despair or pain. Dawn was silent. Beyond the civil defense barrier, the deserted boulevard resembled an alley wallpapered with clinkers, and, instead of sinking into the city, it culminated in a mountain of debris, like a door to the land of the dead. Watching this chaos, devoid of any sign of life, unfold brought awful certainties to mind. All hope had nearly vanished that somewhere, far away, were escapees waiting to be rescued. The authorities, for that matter, hadn’t been wrong. After having sent a drone over the theater of operations, they had ordered the rescue teams to turn back, and, generally, find something better to do than uselessly poke around what had become an immense cemetery. The city might be reconstructed elsewhere someday. As for the ruins, they would be declared no man’s land and left alone, with their silence and their dead.
Gordon Koum listened to the militiamen’s warnings, dawdled for five minutes with them, then gestured in resignation, started down the devastated avenue, and, paying no attention to their continued exhortations behind him, he slipped inside the urban conglomeration. About a hundred meters in, he had already forgotten the fellows he’d just spoken with. He thought of our comrades with a heavy heart, Mario Gregorian, Antar Gudarbak, and the others, to whom he should have been giving a report of his mission this morning. They had certainly perished. They were lying under tons of gravel, smashed to pieces, tattered, unrecognizable in body and soul, already on their way toward rebirth. Gordon Koum thought of them and the Party, of which we were at the time the last representatives, but, if he walked with such an energetic gait through the devastated landscape, over ashes crunching and giving way and holding firm like snow, it was above all because he was thinking of Maryama Koum.
He wanted to find Maryama Koum and Maryama Koum’s children. He decided to deny the evidence, he refused to draw any funereal conclusions and told himself that, despite everything, he could find them still alive in the rubble. Maryama Koum, Sariyia Koum, Ivo Koum, and Gurbal Koum.
He crossed the north-west half of the city and went into the sector where a number of us, mainly beggars and illegal workers, had made our domicile. The conditions of life and imprisonment were not worse here than anywhere else, and any claim that it was a ghetto was an exaggerated one, even if we often called it that, in memory of the genocides and to assert again and always our membership among the tatterdemalion and our difficulty living with official hominids.
The ghetto had been reduced to crumbs. Gordon Koum searched in vain for the shelter entrance where Maryama Koum and her children must have taken refuge. He couldn’t even piece together the outline of the street. The shelter was located beneath a food cooperative where the basement had been converted into an emergency dormitory, with provisions and a water cistern, guaranteeing the survival of about forty people for a week. There were emergency drills every month, and everyone had been trained to abandon everything and run, everyone knew exactly which path they would have to take before diving into the nearest cellar. Their movements had been timed. From the moment the sirens started blaring, evacuation took no more than five minutes.
The shelter was marked by red flags, pieces of faded Turkey red cloth fluttering in front of the building with tunnels rumored to have a structure likely to absorb shocks and explosions. Gordon Koum was counting on those smudges of color to get his bearings. He trained his eyes in every direction. But the cooperative had disappeared.
The food cooperative had disappeared.
All the buildings on the street had collapsed.
No trace of vermillion fabric was visible anywhere.
A sooty, lumpy, infinitely ugly plain stretched across where the city once existed. The system of public roads had been swept away in favor of a succession of incomprehensible hills and trenches, which only very rarely matched up with the old streets or avenues. There wasn’t a building still standing, and, even if stumps and bits of façades still emerged here and there, there were no longer any indications of the old places’ configurations. All had become anonymous.
To make an impression on Gordon Koum so he would rescind his decision to venture into the ruins, the civil defense fellows had described what he could expect. They had assured Gordon Koum that his shoes would start melting after about a hundred paces, then he would feel the flames devouring his feet, and by then it would be too late to turn around. He wouldn’t be able to fight it, he’d sink into the smoldering ground, and finally be carbonized. The mustachioed man with the rifle explained that the bombs that had annihilated the city were witchcraft. They came from a generation of new weapons, which inflicted damage by exploding but then continued their work until nothing human remained for kilometers in any direction. The mustachioed man’s voice was trembling with indignation and fear. He insisted that the bombs hadn’t finished their course and that, by approaching their points of impact, Gordon Koum would be exposing himself to residual abominations, to radiation that would cause insanity or death, or both.
In reality, ever since Gordon Koum had stepped into the rubble, he had experienced nothing in particular.
The soles of his shoes were still there.
There weren’t any blisters on his skin, his extremities didn’t indicate any intention of shriveling.
The ground didn’t smolder.
If residual abominations were at work, he wasn’t perceiving them.
And, anyhow, after last night’s hell, whatever might happen to him, Gordon Koum, didn’t matter. No misfortune was comparable to what the city’s inhabitants had suffered early that Thursday evening.
At the air raid’s zenith, the city had been ablaze for half a minute, enough for it to dissolve. There had been standard preparations, with powerful bombs, but then, something else had spread, almost noiselessly, in a few seconds, and suddenly the city seemed to burn, fully and swiftly. It literally disintegrated in a strange fire, a fire made of thick, witchly flames, to borrow from the term the mustachioed man had used. Flames that behaved strangely, that didn’t last, that bore no resemblance to the normal fires of war, that absorbed all the sounds of destruction. The fire hadn’t lasted. It wasn’t describable. Everything about its existence had been abnormal. It hadn’t lingered. The aircraft had left quickly, leaving behind a black void rather than a vast pyre, leaving behind the night, as if the bombs, especially the last ones or one, had brought the darkness with them, a darkness scientifically and militaristically designed to both disguise the horror and stabilize it chemically. Something inconceivable had put an end to the flames’ noises and light. After midnight, no glow illuminated the smoke, which had disappeared completely by daybreak. And, in that moment, as Gordon Koum strode over buttes and heaps, nothing anywhere was on fire. The heat didn’t cook his face, it wasn’t excessive at all; an almost agreeable tepidity prevailed.
It wasn’t exactly comfortable. But nothing felt particularly menacing. It was like walking into an oven long after it had been extinguished. It would be easy to do so for several hours.
The ambient temperature didn’t give Gordon Koum any real difficulty. It didn’t drop, but he didn’t care. It was as if, beneath the black crust covering everything, there was a slow combustion, with embers glowing in the shadows, refusing to go out, but he didn’t care about that.
He hesitated a moment before choosing a place to start digging. He struggled against the desire to give up and felt that his body wasn’t in its best shape. His throat was dry, he hadn’t had anything to drink since the day before, he began coughing, then his coughs subsided. The air above the ruins was relatively transparent. It was doubtlessly weighed down with airborne particles and enriched with toxic gasses, but it could be inhaled without suffocation. The most difficult part was disregarding the odors.
Disregarding the odors.
Not looking in the distance.
Lowering your head to the ground you’re clearing, to the soot and the dust, to the ashes.
Lowering your head to the ground and thinking of Maryama Koum.
The wind wasn’t blowing. Now everything looked perfectly still, like in a black-and-white, personless photograph.
A photograph of devastation. Of stillness, of black and white. A hazy sky. No people and no noise.
Disregarding all that and digging.
A tarry glacis coated most surfaces. Nothing could be touched without having to fight against this glue.
Gordon Koum turned over charred stones and slivers of metal, shards of windows and walls. Everything he touched stuck to his fingers. Everything was coated in a tepid and syrupy and very black substance, which often ran like caramel. After a few minutes, he looked like an oil-slicked seagull, like those seen on coasts when there had still been regular maritime traffic, oil slicks, and seagulls. His body and his clothes had both been starched by this dark honey. He could no longer close his fingers together; his hands looked more and more like mittens.
He continued excavating poorly, slowly, and with great effort. He frequently had to stop to take a short rest or cough. He worked under the assumption that he was near the shelter, on top of the old food cooperative, but, in his heart, he couldn’t be certain. He would have been if he had seen some fragment of red cloth lying nearby. He had chosen a mound of debris and attacked it by letting himself be guided by irrational feelings, and was starting to think more and more that he might not be digging into the right hill of rubble. Everything looked alike, everything was part of the monotonous assortment of chaos, the dismal, offensive, squalid, repugnant, not-completely-burnt, putrid assortment of chaos, its discouraging, fundamentally ugly assortment. Concrete fragments, congealed streaks, steel shards in every size imaginable. Everything was blackened and heavy. He grabbed some of it at random and tried to move what seemed the loosest. Mostly, he didn’t accomplish anything, beside dirtying himself even more.
He didn’t accomplish anything.
His head was spinning.
His fingers weighed a ton.
His hands were trembling.
He kept losing his balance. He was having trouble getting back up.
He was getting dirtier and dirtier.
There was no one else around.
There was no one in the ghetto.
Beside Gordon Koum, only a handful of individuals had crossed the civil defense barricades. At the most, seven or eight silhouettes had walked, each one alone, through the ruins of the ghetto. They could be seen looming against the sky, when they were transfixed atop one of the small sooty hills riddling the landscape. Three hundred fifty meters from where Gordon Koum was working, a man stricken with madness was desperately attempting to scale a burnt-out façade, behind which stood nothing. He climbed with tenacity, with the help of ropes and what looked like an alpinist’s technique. Sometimes, because he couldn’t get any higher, he climbed back down to a lower level and stayed for a while before starting his ascent again.
A mentally ill man.
Neither one nor the other disturbed the frightening stillness and silence.
Gordon Koum watched them from the corner of his eye while exerting himself in the disaster’s midst. He himself was now a part of the scenery. He kept exerting himself about twenty minutes. But then, already resembling a part of the ruins, and as blackly crooked as the pieces he was trying to dislodge, he let go of the pipe he was using as a lever and stopped what he was doing. He wasn’t getting anywhere and he couldn’t do it anymore. He stood up straight. Pressing his hands against his kidneys, he arched his back to relieve the pain. He was panting. His head was spinning. For the first time, he felt like the civil security agents’ warnings about the ruins might have had a grain of truth. For the first time, he felt like he was going to be destroyed in turn. He must have inhaled toxic vapors, or absorbed waves as invisible as they were baleful. The bombs continued their work. His blood was carrying enervating poisons.
The bombs continued their work, sapping all his physical strength.
He swallowed air in large, burning gulps.
He tried to calm the disordered rhythm of his lungs.
After a minute, his breathing became more regular, but the influx of oxygen had heightened his sense of smell. He suddenly wanted to vomit. He suddenly couldn’t disregard the odors anymore. He suddenly couldn’t not make sense of what they were revealing to him about the fire. His nausea rose, it became uncontrollable. He tried again to reason with himself, to think about something else, but he was already losing. On his parched membranes crystallized an awful story, awful images, at the back of his throat and nose he felt the specter of construction materials and hominids, transformed instantly into vapor, then nine or ten seconds later into a vaguely liquid structure, mixing together with anything and everything. The smell of a new kind of tar, which evoked all at once calamine, animal fat, and the black space through which the dead wander. The smell left behind by the latest generation of bombs.
Gordon Koum bent in half. He was tortured with painful hiccups. He leaned forward, he vomited what little material his stomach contained, then he began coughing again. Once the fit was over, he looked for a place to collapse or sit.
He was looking for a place to collapse or sit.
With the exception of the madman who continued climbing up the burnt-out façade, the other human silhouettes had disappeared. Gordon Koum was now the only living form still standing in this awful scene.
He staggered for a few meters before finally letting himself fall on an indistinct mass, possibly a chair, made of metal or stone. In the corner of his eye, he saw that the block’s surface consisted of a hard crust, devoid of glue. He let himself fall there, thinking he wouldn’t get up again for a long while. However, as soon as he sat down, the crust split under his weight. He immediately felt intense personal degradation and moaned, out of disgust as much as weariness. The splintered crust had released a bituminous mess, hot like an intestinal evacuation, and, for one or two seconds, he wondered if it had been him. It had not. Everything came from outside. This repugnant paste had been spit up by the ruins, not by himself. It spread beneath him, and it didn’t take long to seep through the fabric of his pants. In other circumstances, in his previous life, he would have gotten up and put up a vehement fight against the stain, but here, exhausted, vanquished by poisons and sorrow, he remained seated. He no longer felt like he had the right to express indignation or disgust. The fact that he had not died with the others had stripped all legitimacy from his talking about such personal and minor topics.
He didn’t stand back up, he didn’t clean himself up.
The semi-liquid substance spread under his thighs and buttocks.
A streak ran down his right leg.
He didn’t move and thought about how lucky he was to be aware of it. He had continued to avoid inexistence; complaining about an uncomfortable sensation would have been monstrous and even insulting to the dead. On the other hand, this strange tar was well and truly the final state of his comrades and family, and, when he remained seated there, he participated in the world that from now on would be that of his loved ones. He did his best to melt into this world of desolation, of physical disintegration and semi-liquid indignity. Of course, this was through his skin, through a low part of his body, but that is where he melted.
He remained seated.
He remained seated without making the least movement.
Melting in turn into desolation, through his skin and through his body.
Joining with those who had been burned, those who had been vaporized, who had been liquefied. Joining with them as best as he could.
Accepting the lack of poetry in this contact with the dead.
That is what he thought about.
He was nearly frozen and was now barely distinguishable from the image’s black background. Barely distinguishable from this black background. If we were not so far removed from all artwork, he would have been reminiscent of a painting from Malika Duradachvili’s late period, with its unilluminated, lunar landscapes, striking in their despair and silence, in which solitary beings slumber, eyes open opposite the scenery, as if refusing to believe that even in dreams reality could descend so far into horror. There could have been that artistic fiction. But this was not a Malika Duradachvili painting. Here there was not even the chance to sleep with eyes open to a nightmare. We must face the light of day, the absolute tranquility of the ruins, their non-infernal heat, the absence of everything.
Face the light of day.
Renounce whatever arouses the protests of the living, their small indignations that, most of the time, are insulting to the dead. Accept exhausted, unpoetic contact with the dead. Covered in oil, from head to toe, with an excremental heat at the base of their legs, accept this contact.
Above Gordon Koum, the leaden sky stagnated. It no longer contained anything: no planes, no clouds, no birds.
Something in the south-south-east was smoking.
The madman had climbed up to the fifth floor, he was now astride a window ledge, the void open to him from both sides.
The sounds were restrained to brief creakings. Concrete slabs or girders were contracting as they cooled or, conversely, due to an inner fire, they were expanding. These creakings sometimes presaged an avalanche, but this was rare. Everything that was going to collapse had already had plenty of opportunity to do so, and the chaos, in its own way, had stabilized. Throughout the morning, metallic clashes and scraping piles had signaled the presence of a few improvised rescue workers, but everything had quieted down fairly quickly. No one was busying themselves anywhere anymore. The rescuers had abandoned their undertaking, or they had lain down or curled up among the ruins to join with them.
Gordon Koum remained seated for hours. Around him, the burned-out heaps remained the same temperature. From time to time, nearby, there was a rockslide, no deeper than surface-level, more like a readjustment of the disorder he had disturbed that morning, with his minute shifts and attempts at clearing, than a natural burst of debris. In the afternoon, something grated once or twice beneath the earth, briefly and loudly, but nothing further came of it. Now utmost calm reigned. At its heart, this was already the land of the dead.
Like in a Malika Duradachvili picture.
The land of the dead.
At its heart.
Everyone was already there.
While Gordon Koum remained there, seated and silent, several trails of vapor formed over and around the city, merging at a low altitude until they replaced the sky, and, little by little, created a rough vault that erased the horizon. From a certain distance, there was nothing more than a gray, uncertain curvature lacking a beyond. The ghetto seemed to have become the sole possible backdrop to the real world.
Beneath this screed, the light had turned to twilight in the middle of the afternoon, after which it no longer changed.
Gordon Koum occasionally felt the radiation ruining everything inside his body, but he wasn’t in pain. He waited calmly for what was to follow.
Around him, the charred refuse was indistinguishable, black on black, tarry and formless. He didn’t examine any of it. He himself was a part of this blackness. He couldn’t even say anymore whether his eyes were open or closed. Then, after several hours, slow and uncertain hours, he noticed an object that had survived undamaged, or which, at least, was still recognizable. It was a doll. Whenever brutal material disintegration occurs, improbable phenomena are bound to happen, and this raggedy figurine had perhaps benefited from a confluence of scarcely imaginable circumstances. Or perhaps its fate was written instead, its final destination among the ashes, to be an unusual detail in a landscape that had everything in common with Malika Duradachvili’s paintings, specifically the paintings from her late period, dismal and hopeless.
The doll was not a celluloid homunculus like those that had once been thrust into little girls’ arms, so as to instill them with the idea that they would lead an existence as female breeders and not as women. It was a golliwog, a racist plaything from times past, meant to represent a music-hall negro with its crow-black face and grotesquely-tufted hair. Its blue and red outfit had been burned to a crisp, but not its head.
Gordon Koum looked passively at the golliwog for a moment, then his attention was drawn to a bird that had just landed three or four meters away, a tiny ball of feathers. Two centuries ago, when the first tallies were taken of disappearing species, it would have been excitedly identified as one of the last representatives of the small passerine, the kind that used to live in gardens and parks, but, here, its presence seemed inconceivable. It was a robin. Gordon Koum had no difficulty recognizing it as such, even though, during the forty years of his existence, he had never seen any bird other than the large carrion-eaters—vultures and eagles—that proliferated around mass graves.
The small bird respected the ancient customs of its species. It settled down not far from Gordon Koum, boldly exchanged a look with him, hopped in place, then chirped a call that seemed to express a desire for communication. In the moment that followed, its legs made contact with the layer of tar that covered everything, and, from that instant on, its living conditions steadily worsened. It tried to escape the glue by rubbing its wings on its perch, or by scratching the ground in front of it with its beak, but it only succeeded in smearing itself more. It no longer chirped, all to its futureless unrest.
Gordon Koum was a ventriloquist. In life, until this moment, this gift hadn’t gotten him much of anything, save for trouble with the authorities. When the camp doctors were examining him, for example, they reckoned he belonged to a monstrous variety of sub-human. They always put him aside whenever certificates of genetic conformity were handed out, they snorted derisively when he tried to sign one, and they discussed out loud in front of him the value of experimenting on his cadaver. He always narrowly escaped autopsy, while the doctors looked down on him with contempt, as if he were selfishly holding back scientific progress. But, now that he was inside a Malika Duradachvili picture, nothing mattered anymore. Neither the humiliation of once being considered an Untermensch, nor the humiliation of his pants’ being soaked with hot matter, nor genetic deviance.
Being or not being a normal Untermensch or an abnormal Untermensch no longer had any importance or lack of importance.
For several minutes, Gordon Koum bore witness to the robin’s efforts to unmire itself. Its beak had been quickly transformed into a formless roll of dough, the splendid orange of its gorget was peppered with vile smears. Its feathers were stuck together, its wings had no more strength. Their gazes met once again. The bird’s eye was a gleaming charcoal pearl, the bird’s eye shone with intelligence. Then Gordon Koum saw a veil begin to cover the eye, gradually dulling it. The bird had renounced its struggle against adversity. It no longer cared about gaining a few seconds more before the nothingness to come. Soon its legs yielded, it slumped over. Now it was laying on its side. It shuddered once or twice more, then calmed.
Aside from this partially soiled red spot, everything was black.
Gordon Koum aimed his ventriloquist’s voice at the small beast. He didn’t know if he was still dying or not.
“It’s me,” said the bird. “It’s me talking.”
Gordon Koum looked at it, and felt submerged in emotion. This sudden speech made him want to cry. He hadn’t heard a human voice since that morning, and even for an incalculable number of hours, since the twilight surrounding him seemed to exist outside of time.
This sudden speech sharpened his immense and irreversible loneliness.
The robin convulsed.
“I’m listening,” said Gordon Koum. “We’re listening.”
“Here, Maryama Koum burned,” the robin grudgingly pronounced.
There was a long silence. Gordon Koum made several efforts to hold himself together, but cried. His tears fell slowly. They had to cross the thick coating on his face. When they reached his lips, he tasted their nauseating flavor, the poison they carried.
“Go on,” said Gordon Koum.
The robin no longer responded. Now there was no doubt about the moment it had reached in its personal organic journey. Its eyes were half-closed. The glimmer of intelligence in them had gone out.
“Here, Maryama Koum burned,” the bird continued. “Here, Maryama Koum burned with Gordon Koum’s three children. She burned with Sariyia Koum, with Ivo Koum, with Gurbal Koum.”
There was a new silence.
Gordon Koum had lowered his head. There was nothing else he could say.
The afternoon was nearing its end, but the light hadn’t changed. Twilight intensified on the horizon, but here, the light hadn’t varied, and it seemed like it wouldn’t vary anytime soon, as if time’s passage around Gordon Koum from now on obeyed a rhythm of sobs and despair, lacking any connection to earthly rotations or other chronomaniacal nonsense.
The bird had already reached rigor mortis, but it was difficult to tell. A very light gust of wind was ruffling the feathers on its head, one place still untouched by the tar.
“Go on,” said Gordon Koum.
“He’s dead,” the golliwog cut in. “He’s just joined us.”
“Joined us, so what,” said Gordon Koum.
“Ivo Koum loved birds,” the golliwog continued. “He’d never actually seen one, except for the eagles nesting on top of buildings and the vultures cleaning out mass graves. He had never seen actual small birds, but he loved them.”
“Sariyia Koum loved them too,” the robin remarked.
Gordon Koum let out a sigh that sounded more like a death rattle. He hadn’t practiced ventriloquism for years, and it was an exercise that tested his entire body. When he threw his voice into the doll or the bird, he felt like he had no air.
“Go on, bird,” he said, moving his lips.
Then he was quiet.
For half an hour, nothing happened.
Everything was motionless.
Very little wind, very little sound. No smoke. The heat didn’t diminish, but it was still bearable. Tears ran down Gordon Koum’s cheeks. Tears congealed on Gordon Koum’s cheeks. They congealed, and, after a long moment of hesitation, they ran down.
“Go on,” said Gordon Koum, breaking the interminable pause. “We’re listening. There are many of us listening, we’re waiting for you to continue.”
“It’s hard,” the robin objected.
“It’s hard, but we’re waiting,” said Gordon Koum.
“Here, Maryama Koum burned with Gordon Koum’s three children,” continued the robin. “Here burned Sariyia Koum, age fourteen. Like her brother Ivo Koum, age fourteen, she often stopped in front of pictures of birds and she loved birds. Even eagles. Even vultures. Here burned Gurbal Koum, age fifteen.”
“Talk,” encouraged Gordon Koum. “We’re listening.”
The robin was completely inert.
“Here burned Gurbal Koum, age fifteen,” it continued. “Gurbal Koum wasn’t interested in pictures of animals. In any case, not as much. He loved above all else pictures of the world revolution.”
“Yes,” said Gordon Koum. “I remember.”
“Here burned Maryama Koum,” the robin continued. “Here, Maryama Koum... Here...”
The bird’s voice cut out.
There was another moment of void and shadow.
“Go on,” said the golliwog. “These things have to be said.”
“Here burned Maryama Koum,” the robin finally said.
Hours passed. The twilight didn’t deepen.
“Go on, no matter what,” Gordon Koum ordered. “These things have to be said.”
“Here burned Maryama Koum,” said the robin. “Maryama Koum loved Gordon Koum. She lived with Gordon Koum and she loved him.”
3. In Memory of Benny Magadane
When the doorbell rang, Benny Magadane shuddered, but didn’t get up. He froze so that the visitor couldn’t detect his presence in the room.
His chair cracked.
He froze better.
Oh no, he thought. The chair’s creaking. I have to petrify perfectly. Perfectly or quickly. However it happens. Petrify and wait.
If tragedy befalls you, you must die wisely, he thought.
He faithfully recalled the instructions. He gathered them inside his head. A woman dictated them to him. She had the hoarse voice of a madwoman.
If tragedy befalls you, petrify quickly, he thought. Refuse your fears rising from the black sludge. Petrify, don’t imagine your end for any reason, forget all light, and await your orders.
Until the doorbell rang, he had been busy staring at the television. He had turned off the sound, and, as he had wanted to escape the crushing wave of propaganda, he had pushed buttons until the device no longer got a signal. Xenophobic reporters and warmongering entertainers had disappeared. A silent, thick snow flitted across the screen like a swarm of insects. That was what he was watching. The snow, the silence.
A speechless, unhateful image.
The doorbell was ringing again. Two harmless notes, a descending, unprolonged third. Someone had pushed the button again and, on the other side of the door, was listening carefully for any sound. Elsewhere, in another time, last autumn for example, this small melody might have announced a pleasant visitor, or some calendar, Bardo Thödol, or Necronomicon salesman. But times had changed. Benny Magadane’s mission had been carried out and he had immediately disappeared from the world. No living or nearly-living creature had any reason to report to his apartment. This elementary melody had no place in the afternoon calm.
It could only contain a threat.
Benny Magadane wasn’t moving, but the index and middle fingers on one of his hands were trembling nervously.
Solidify your left hand, he thought, solidify your own bones. Stab your fear’s murmurings to death.
These strange injunctions came into his skull one after the other. They had become embedded three years ago, during his stay at the psychiatric asylum. A woman from the ghettos had recited them day and night by his side, a Chinese or Korean woman whose hair the guards had cut off as punishment. In the morning she curled up into a ball in a corner of the yard or beneath a tree, or against her bedframe when it was raining, and she spoke. She curled up into a ball and spoke. Eyes closed or hidden behind her hands, cheeks paralyzed by madness, she ranted calmly, in a clear-cut tone, as if stating the obvious or addressing comrades or sect members capable of understanding her cryptic messages. Benny Magadane sat near her, he listened to her deliver salvos of slogans, and he learned them by heart. He too had psychiatric problems. He too curled into a ball, next to the woman. To him, the slogans seemed to have a universal value. He learned them by heart for later. He quietly told himself that one day, they would prove themselves useful, to help him face the horrible reality, the horrible and dangerous reality, constructed by others.
He had tucked his head between his shoulders and was breathing as softly as possible, trying to cultivate inside himself the idea that he wasn’t there, that no one was there, that the void prevailed, in his apartment, in his head, or anywhere else.
His left index finger had calmed down.
Solidify everything, be nowhere, he thought. Solidify yourself and wait.
He let several seconds pass. The notion of welcoming a stranger into his home had felt completely foreign to him for months. He felt ill at ease in the presence of living or nearly-living beings, and besides, he knew he didn’t have the means to receive whoever it was with dignity anymore. He had nothing edible to offer. Nothing digestible, anyway. His hardtack biscuits looked like they came from a garbage dump, and he was saving them until the end of the quarter. The water that sometimes still dripped from the kitchen sink was no longer potable. Opening the door isn’t enough, one has to look happy as well, strike up a conversation, offer a cup of tea, shortbread cookies, some pemmican.
Furthermore, he didn’t wish to inflict the deplorable spectacle of his body and face on an interlocutor.
Don’t show your body and face to anyone, he thought.
Twenty years ago, he had been sent away for reeducation. He was subjected to new testing methods, primarily chemical chambers and electrical impulses. These techniques, though in line with experts’ remarkable findings, hadn’t produced the expected results. Benny Magadane had survived, but his passage through the flames and gas had left eye-catching mental and physical scars. He didn’t feel any shame at what had become of him, but he knew his appearance could disturb an unwarned interlocutor. This was the second reason he invoked to justify his retreat from all public activity. The first was that he had just participated in criminal activity, and so, as always with these kinds of things, it was best to lay low.
Act as if you have always lived in absence, he thought. Search your memory for the origin of absence. Learn absence.
You are nowhere real, he thought.
Even if your memory has gone dark, learn absence, he thought.
He envisioned the woman in the psychiatric clinic’s common room, sitting on the ground, clutching her bony knees in her thin arms.
You are nowhere real, she was saying.
Your prison is sealed, don’t do anything irreparable, he recalled. Don’t encourage any intrusions, except for those coming from yourself. If your mouth whispers, verify that the sounds are coming from inside yourself. To be safe, don’t move your lips.
Do not move. Your mouth is a trap. Do not open it. Do not open anything. Do not open any door, he thought.
No matter your prison, don’t open any doors. Stay petrified, don’t communicate with anything. Do not open any doors or your mouth for any reason.
And fittingly, at that moment, Benny Magadane remembered what had happened to some of our comrades. Several of us, out of negligence or a sudden suicidal impulse, had opened up to the first person to come along. Someone had rung the bell, they had opened the door. We no longer heard from them. All indications point to their leaving the world of living vertebrates permanently.
Here I would like to give a little information about this world of living vertebrates we still inhabited in our own manner, without belonging to it in the same way as humans or other people.
We had been in a lose-lose situation for several generations.
No struggle had gone our way. From time to time, to respect both tradition and our instinct, we launched politico-military offensives from our camps, our psychiatric centers, and our ghettos. They consistently ended in defeat.
Defeat was second nature to us. We had integrated it into our behavior, and, when by chance we escaped captivity, we preferred to inhabit empty houses, ruins, and tunnels.
The upswing of aerial bombardments had transformed our havens. In the sectors we’d believed strictly reserved for people like us, new creatures had appeared. They lingered on pretext of carrying out the enemy’s charitable programs. They concealed their features behind hygenic masks and claimed to have no psychological or ethnic preventions against us, but held their breath whenever we approached. They distributed flour, self-administered vaccines, and administrative forms that could be exchanged for free dollars. However, we felt above all else that they were gathering information to sort out which of us were pretending to be dead, and which of us really were. Whenever they spoke, it was with words we had trouble understanding, since they used the masters’ language. They had a bony structure we weren’t used to, they definitely seemed in cahoots with those who conquered us, and, to be honest, they frightened us.
What if it’s one of those creatures on the other side of the door? Magadane thought.
If the enemy sends strange shadows against you, kill them, he thought.
Kill them, don’t be ashamed of anything, he thought. Kill them without a second thought, without thinking about their personal memories, without thinking about the loved ones they’ll never embrace again, kill them without imagining the path they’ll follow after their death, kill them with your dark hands and dark languages.
Three months earlier, Benny Magadane had been partly responsible for murdering four enemy dignitaries. The operation had gone off without a hitch. Witnesses demonstrated their complicity by lending a hand to erase tracks, helping dismember the corpses and taking away the remains of the carcasses, clothing, and meat. However, as the ghetto was no longer the sanctuary it had been for decades, no one had claimed responsibility for these actions, there had not been a ticker tape parade, and its participants quickly dispersed. It was better to escape the informers who mingled with the general population and infected them. Benny Magadane had abruptly vanished without giving anyone his hideout’s address.
The worst hypotheses about the identity of the individual standing on Benny Magadane’s doormat, and his intentions, couldn’t be ruled out.
The doorbell chimed.
If strange shadows come for you, act like the dead, do not move, forget everything, kill them, he thought.
His hands had started trembling again. Well, he thought, so long as I’m not immediately seized with spasms. So long as I don’t slide down my chair noisily. If the other hears something, he’ll kick down the door.
If you lose control of your legs, lash out only at yourself, he thought.
His hands were moving. He begged them to remain still. They obeyed gracelessly.
The doorbell chimed again, several times. The intervals might have lasted twenty, thirty seconds. Then there was another ding-dong. The melody was completely charmless. It crossed through the stuffy air of the room and reverberated on the food box, on the television, the dirty walls. It bounced off Benny Magadane’s trembling hands and off his eyelids. Then silence returned.
The same thing again. Doorbell, echoes in the apartment, then silence.
The visitor wasn’t discouraged. He didn’t stray from the door, he didn’t go back down the stairs while muttering. He kept waiting for Benny Magadane to betray himself through a shudder of fear or by falling out of his chair.
There was no noise in the hallway, on the floor. When the other wasn’t ringing, he was waiting. The most frightening thing about a hunter is his patience, thought Benny Magadane.
Outside, dusk was falling.
Behind the windows, the image of the cloudy sky was losing light.
On the television screen, the snow whirled diagonally, brighter than half an hour ago, when the doorbell had rung for the first time. It whistled softly as it swarmed. The sound was barely perceptible, it was continuous and could not be confused with a noise made by intelligence or the living.
At least there’s that, thought Benny Magadane. If the other presses his ear to the door, he won’t hear anything special.
Whether his ears were alert or not, the stranger persisted on the doorbell’s button.
If he kicks down the door, he’ll find nothing, thought Benny Magadane.
If you’re caught at a bad time, stop living inside your cadaver, he thought.
He recalled again and again the woman from the asylum. At first, every sentence coming out of her mouth seemed incomprehensible. But then, if one took them as orders to follow, they became clear. They became clear, useful, and invaluable.
Stop living in the hardship of your body, he thought. Stop living in the hardship of your body, and extinguish yourself.
Extinguish yourself no matter what happens.
Outside, inside, within Benny Magadane’s head, in the apartment, beyond the window, in the city, everywhere, dusk was falling faster and faster.
Petrify yourself in your dark ending, thought Benny Magadane.
His hands occasionally obeyed him, and, when they did so, they were at rest and very dark.
Around Benny Magadane, the dusk’s twilight was a violet black, indigo black, slate black, crow black. Dusk took on a black tint. And it was falling.
Dusk was falling slowly.
Dusk was falling faster and faster.
No matter what, Benny Magadane thought once more.
16. Ashes (5)
Here burned Benny Magadane.
Here burned Damatrul Gorbaï.
Here burned Jean Göleph.
Here Alien Gourguiyaf burned.
Here burned Lazare Charmiadko.
Here Bahamdji Bariozine burned.
Here Lola Nizphan burned.
Here Antar Gudarbak burned.
Here Ashnar Malgastan burned.
Here burned Gatchoul Badraf.
Here Agamemnon Galiwell burned.
Here burned Dmitri Töthergav.
Here burned Malma Oloudji.
Here burned Golkar Omonenko.
Here burned Leonal Baltimore.
Here Alinia Hospodol burned.
Here Taniya Kabardiane burned.
Here burned Ayïsch Omonenko.
Here Makramiel Voulvaï burned.
Here Gadurbul Özgök burned.
Here burned Maroussia Vassiliani.
Here Mario Gregorian burned.
Here Gorguil Tchopal burned.
Here Manamee Adougaï burned.
Here burned Bouïna Yoghideth.
Here burned Dodi Badarimsha.
Here Alma Bahalian burned.
Here burned Doudar Brol.
Here Hanalgud Bölgördji burned.
Here Drajda Budarbaï burned.
25. To Make Everyone Laugh
On official ceremony days, the humans chose someone at random from among us to play the role of a red guard who had escaped from the dustbins of history. You had to sign up to participate in the drawing, but, in fact, the humans didn’t bother with the results of their lottery and, the evening before the ceremony, rather than using the filthy ballots on which a few of us had spelled out their illegible names, they came to the outskirts of one of our lairs and snatched the first passerby to dress them up like a red guard and make them march the next day through the jeers. I was given that honor. One evening, while bedecked in empty and jingly mess kits, as I was slipping into a garbage dump the humans had closed off with barbed wire, a truck stopped by me and out poured a half dozen men in antiallergic suits, who bluntly explained that tomorrow I can walk right down the street and voice my hatred of inequality without being shot at with real bullets. These men didn’t take off their helmets while speaking to me, so even if I knew a little of the dialect in which they formed their appalling sentences, I had trouble picking up on the subtleties of their message. Passively, but also because they had already roughed me up, I followed them. The truck started up and took me into one of their centers. I spent the night there. The cage didn’t lack for space to stretch out, there weren’t any exceptional stenches coming out of the piss hole, and in the morning, I was brought a soup made with clean water. Even though it was thin, I would be lying if I said it was bad. I have no complaints about that part of the adventure. The demonstration took place in the morning. My mess kits were confiscated and I was asked to put on a serge military uniform that had been sewn for a person much more imposing than I, in any case for a cadaver with better-proportioned and longer limbs than mine. While I protested, asserting my rights as a citizen and expressing my fears of looking ridiculous, they put a red band on my arm and pulled me toward a police van, which hurried to the meeting place for the procession. I saw little of the demonstration of which I was not, to tell the truth, the main subject. I walked with difficulty in the middle of the street, trying my hardest not to stumble in my too-long pants. No one accompanied me, no one told me what to do, and there was always a very large distance between me and the others. I heard loudspeakers shouting in front of and behind me, and demonstrators yelling slogans, masters’ slogans that didn’t interest us and that in general we understood barely or not at all. At one point, I started bellowing several calls to insurrection against the world’s elite, several scraps of texts explaining why we had to quickly and unceremoniously assassinate those responsible for suffering, with whatever degree of suffering they had inflicted. My voice was lost in the brouhaha. I bellowed like a drunk, raising my fist and sometimes shaking the cap they had set on my head, with a pinned-on vermillion star I was very proud of. In accordance with the festive program, there was doubtlessly jeering at my address, and perhaps the public’s thousands of voices chanting throughout, but I don’t remember any of that. I moved gracelessly but did not fall, I shook my cap, I howled the particulars of measures that would be effective immediately after our takeover, I didn’t worry about whether or not my mess kits and old clothes would be returned to me before I was sent to the garbage dump or liquidated. And I was very proud.
From Les aigles puent by Lutz Bassmann
© Collection Chaoid des Éditions Verdier, 2010
Translated from the French by J. T. Mahany