An excerpt from Prehistoric Timesby Eric Chevillard
translated from the French by Alyson Waters
out now from Archipelago Books
Boborikine was not a big man, though not preposterously small, he must have stood, amounted to, or measured a head shorter than me, judging from his uniform, but this head, though shorter, was most definitely wider than mine, judging from his cap, and his limbs were shorter than my own, no doubt in proportion to his modest height, but too short for a man such as myself and consequently the sleeves of his jacket and the legs of his trousers are also too short, whereas with each step I take his shoes slip off my feet, first the left, then the right, then the left, from which I gather his feet were bigger than mine, perhaps even a bit too big for a man his size, just as his stomach was fatter, much fatter than mine because, really, I seem to be spying on the world from behind my curtains in this gigantic jacket, peeping at the little world that surrounds me. Boborikine is dead. I am his replacement. His uniform does not suit me, not in the least. I asked for a new one, made to measure. To be more efficient, I argued, convinced that this argument was sound; to be stricter, prompter, adding: and to represent the profession with greater dignity. I’d even go so far as to believe that my request will be heard on high and satisfied at long last, after all the dillydallying by the administration. Meanwhile, I am obliged to wear Boborikine’s uniform. It does not suit me at all.
It’s a navy blue uniform, as uniforms often are, with gold buttons, as uniform buttons often are – because, before a uniform can stand out among uniforms, it is essential for it to conform to the idea one has of the uniform and likewise the buttons of one uniform must not be too dissimilar from the uniform buttons normally used to button uniforms, lest the very notion of the uniform merge, in the blur of erotic innuendo, with the scantiest panties or those diaphanous chemisettes that evanesce like the first snowflakes upon contact with the ground. As for a uniform worthy of the name, it is, on the contrary, the man who dons it who fades into the background by taking it on, becoming one with the post he occupies and that preoccupies him no less. But Boborikine’s uniform is both too short and too wide for me. Clearly I am not the man it needs.
From on high comes this sharp rejoinder: a uniform needs nobody except to make it stand, and one handful of bran is as good as any other to stuff a doll, Boborikine or me, what’s the difference? My request is unacceptable and is in fact based on an utterly depraved set of values since in all logic it should be up to me, rather, to adapt myself, to gain weight and climb down from my haughty height in order to pour myself into Boborikine’s uniform; already my habit of flowing out of it on all sides could very well be considered a disciplinary infraction, a serious error, insubordination, and as such I am grotesque in this uniform, I disgrace it to the detriment of the entire profession. I will need to change, and pronto, if I want to avoid castigation; my attitude is unspeakable and I am in no position to ask for anything, let alone a uniform: just look how I wear it, have I really inspected myself lately, that free and easy manner of mine, that slovenliness about me, how dare I aspire to a new one?
And from on high, to crush me, they add that Boborikine’s uniform – about which I am complaining precisely because it belonged, and still does in a certain sense, to Boborikine, who was fatter and shorter than I am – was for a long time worn by his predecessor, Crescenzo, who was smaller than he was and thinner than I am, but this never prevented Boborikine from carrying out his duties with distinction, perfectly buttoned up in this uniform, whose cut he contested no more than he questioned the rules of the profession or the duties of his function, and in this he was a worthy successor to Crescenzo, who had even requested to be buried with his uniform – a moving last wish, but hardly a reasonable one; this second skin having survived the emphysematous illness that carried off the poor man, it would have been absurd and criminal to expose it to contamination, as everyone knows a corpse rots everything around it, the entire ambiance, so Crescenzo was quickly stripped, the miraculously spared uniform taken away, dusted off, Boborikine was entrusted to it, and he lived up to it. The same is expected of me, the same flexibility and the same rectitude. It is in my interest, it seems, to make myself very, very small, and fatter.
The fact that I am lame, however, complicates matters. I walk with a limp. As a result the left trouser leg appears longer than the right, whereas no, not at all, in reality it’s my left leg that remained stiff after my accident so that, although it is not longer than my right, it gives that impression because of its rigidity; whereas the right trouser leg slides up my ankle just a tad each time my right knee bends in its good old way. Nevertheless, there is a certain symmetry to all this because the jacket’s right sleeve appears longer than the left, another optical illusion explained this time by the infirmity of my predecessor Boborikine, whose right arm was paralyzed after his accident and so he did not have occasion to gesticulate during his career and as a result the corresponding sleeve has no fold at the elbow, unlike the other sleeve, which rides up on my wrist when I move the corresponding arm. To which must be added the fact that the left shoe is scruffy, cracked, practically useless, whereas the right still boasts a bit of chic, having been worn with much less frequency due to the infirmity of Crescenzo, whose right foot was amputated following his accident. Still, by stuffing the cap with crumpled newspaper, I think I can tone down the effects of these handicaps and somewhat improve my appearance.
I was appointed to this post to replace the deceased Boborikine. Things could have been worse, I could have taken a bigger fall; an overhanging rock stopped my plummet and it was only my shattered kneecap – bouncing off the bumps on the side walls – that in the end hit bottom; and if sometimes I enjoy imagining this kneecap rolling faster and faster toward the earth’s center until it slams against the inner core, so what?, like one marble shoves aside another taking its place, smooth, hard, and well-oiled, instantly giving back its freedom of movement in space to this old globe – prisoner since Copernicus of revolutions and cosmographies, how wonderful, but to go where? I was hoisted unconscious out of my hole by my fellow adventurers, my left leg twisted, dislocated, bent across my shoulder – what choreographer would ever again dare create a dance as if nothing had happened? Why would man’s art end where pain begins? I see the white wall of the museum through your canvases, those pale waters, what meaning? Lean carefully, rather, over the rim of the hole, direct your gaze at the rock that saved my life, and contemplate for a moment if you will without comment the doleful, star-shaped figure drawn by my blood.
My life was hanging by a thread. It seems they considered cutting off my leg above the knee. In one sense I don’t regret that they came up with a different solution in the end, but, in another, considering my present situation and realizing once again that this left shoe is unworthy of the right – and the comparison is inevitable given that they are most often side by side, always neighbors, sometimes touching – I cannot but think that without a left leg, no left foot, and even less so a left shoe, which as a result would have remained in the closet like the useless right shoe of poor Crescenzo before me, so that my successor on arriving would have found two shoes in the same state of wear, which no doubt gives a man solid standing, whereas I, with one foot in the grave and this other shoe almost new that indeed does seem to belong to the same pair, the individual paths of which would have diverged one day, how did I manage to get here, where on earth have I been, in what frightful company and to trample on what? Clearly I am off to a bad start.
And things will not improve. You could think they might, however, in accordance with the principle of wear and tear that holds true for everything and maintains that what is new ages more rapidly than what is already old, given that ten years completely transforms a child whose father barely fusses about a few wrinkles; you could think that the right shoe – which, in spite of everything, bears traces of Boborikine’s passing this way (burns, scratches, bumps) and is no longer the showcase item it perhaps was to begin with, a lovely object of shiny but sturdy leather, made more for the eye than for the foot – will soften yet, grow deformed, come unstitched, and split open as it treads the soil, to become once again the alter ego of the left shoe, which, for its part, no longer has much to fear from pebbles, because it swallows them whole, or from puddles, having capsized so many times that it is, and will forever remain, like a fish in water. You could think that, but you would be wrong. This could no doubt be verified if my two feet progressed at the same pace, but I limp, must I remind you, the left leg stiff, my knee joint immobilized by a pin, the result of which is, first, that the left shoe lagging behind scrapes the ground from toe to heel or heel to toe depending on the incline, and second, that I am always exceedingly careful about where I place my right foot, my sole toehold, my plinth, my anchor, my hub, my linchpin here below.
All of which is to say that the pair will never be restored. On the contrary. As I proceed with this narrative, the disparity mentioned will continue to grow, resulting in greater difficulties of movement and most likely a painful end of the race, after which there will be a heavy, dramatic fall, one more, over there, but we have yet to get there, so let’s get on with it.
translated from the French by Alyson Waters
out now from Archipelago Books
ERIC CHEVILLARD is one of the most inventive authors writing in French today. His novels include On the Ceiling, The Crab Nebula, and Demolishing Nisard, all translated by Jordan Stump, and Palafox (Archipelago), translated by Wyatt Mason. ALYSON WATERS's recent translations include Albert Cossery's A Splendid Conspiracy (New Directions, 2010), Cossery's The Colors of Infamy (New Directions in 2011) and Rene Belletto's Coda (University of Nebraska Press 2011).