Excerpt from I, the Undersigned Cardiac Case (1981)

ACT 1, SCENE 1: Prison cell. Light coming through the bars from the corridor. From time to time, we glimpse a pacing guard. In a corner of the cell, a little iron bed with torn mattress. Procession of grey mice on a large reclining body that snores odiously. They climb the length of the torso, naked and bloody.

Long silence.

Brusquely, the body moves.

The mice run away.

Mallot wakes up, clanks with his handcuffs.

Footsteps of guards in the corridor.

MALLOT: (twitch of the head): Aah! (He leaves his bed, walks around the cell, then comes back and sits down again.) Aah! They know very well I’m going to die. (Pause.) But they’ve thrashed me like hay. Aah! (Long silence.) I’m a dog. (He barks.) The dog of a dog. But that’s not quite right. (He barks again. Guard’s head at the bars.) No, that doesn’t stick. (Long silence.) I’m a pig. (He grunts.) Yes, a pig’s pig. (He grunts again.) But does that really stick? Does it stick 100 percent? (Pause.) No. You hear, Mallot, the answer’s no. (Silence.) I should have killed him. I had the time. I had the means. But the act smelled like crap. It was too empty. Too round, too hollow. (Silence.) I am the jackal. (He barks.) The viper. (He hisses.) The owl. (He hoots.) The shrew. (He blows into his hands.) In order to judge me, you’ll have to refer to the shrew’s penal code. Yes, you’ll have to… (Pause.) I had him there, in my hands. It was enough to beat him. But beating him was stronger than I was. Beating him knocked me flat. (Pause.) Beating someone is the dumbest act in the world. (Silence.) Still I have to put myself in the world—for an instant, a second, it doesn’t matter anymore. To exist—just long enough to be persuaded. Really crucial not to let myself down—that I die alive. And… (Pause.) At dawn, they’ll come. They’ll make sure the law functions on the translucid noise of my respiration—on the barren heat of my guts. The law has to function. On the basis of the court’s deliberations… Aah! No. I have to give birth to myself in order to defeat them. But how? But when? (Silence.) Aah! I am the buzzard—the civet, not even. I am the sore sex of a whore. In this unforgiving night, I receive my last blows of meat. (Twitch of the head.) In killing him, I would have come to jail by a road, the road, my road; and I would die acquitted. Acquitted, but empty. Oh, if only I had a similar thing to tell myself. To stop this silent time which nibbles at me. (He goes to the bars, looks into the corridor—footsteps of the guards.) Listen, Mallot…By leaving this cockroach Ebara with your back turned, you’ve inflated the universe. You’ve multiplied it by yourself. A small operation, the mathematics of wise souls, you become the top of worlds, the top of men, too. Even if the court, based on its deliberations…yes, yes. The law has to function. Perono has to function, too. Lebango, Hozana, the whiskey turbines—the whore who sways to the rumba—all that has to function. And for it to function, you have to die. (Pause.) You could be innocent. Hey, but no! You’re guilty, guilty of yourself. Yes, Mallot, of yourself. And the guilty, what do you want done with them? They have to die. You could say: “I don’t want to die now. Because of Nelly and her mother.” But Nelly and her mother are guilty by association. Guilty on command. Aah! I’m cornered against myself—up to myself. I die as a result of my head, my odor, my way of pissing. (He imitates a round of fire, and falls.) What a beautiful life dies with me! There will be blood, an odor, flies, then nothing. Aaah! (Painful laughter.) Don’t gall yourself, Mallot. You are God’s millionaire. It’s you with the sky buys nothingness. But why nothingness? Why? (Twitch of the head.)  No. Don’t flatter yourself. You haven’t served. You die barren. You fight in the void to piss off the void. You wanted to void the void. (Silence.) The hours you still have, you have to spend them looking hard at your skin. Hear your odor. Make some noise. The noise that is your trademark Walk. Move. Cry. That way you’ll keep the guards awake. You’ll give them some thread to unravel. Since you’re no longer good for anything else. Two or three you send to the other end of your odor. Not bad. (He cries. Footsteps in the corridor.) There you go, they’ll remember. With Nelly… and her mother, that makes at least four. Four who will remember. Four who think. (Twitch.) The little one in the womb will be born. His mother will tell him. Everything. It’s sweet telling a child his papa was a world-basher. He’ll remember that easily. He’ll re-tell it in his own words. (Pause.) Obviously, if someone asks him, “How did your pretty father die?”—He is quiet. He won’t know. No, he won’t know. (Twitch.) By exiting the shit voluntarily, I break the nothingness; I refuse to exist on command. I wanted, I want. Man never took place, I invent him. I require a metaphysical meat. I am, I remain, I die standing up. I have scaled everything up to my level. Oh, the dazzling soil, sun of worlds fizzling at the finale of my fervor. I annihilate good and evil with a little movement of my thumb. There! Kicking, I turn the sky upside down. There! Death has surrendered before my delicious obsession with breathing. (Silence.) Are you making love to yourself, Mallot? (He spits.) You did not exist. You die pregnant. You celebrate nothingness. You make phrases for yourself. Ah! How painful I am to myself! I try to want up to the end, to exhaust things to my level, to run my nostrils into the ground. This dog’s life, Mallot, this dog’s life. You want to compete, make dents, to send them packing, to smell of thunder. Count to three and say you’re not guilty. (Twitch.) Here we go! I crush the shit. I choose how much oxygen I breathe. I crush Perono, Ebara and the others at high tension; I grilled the universe, I grilled my century. There! I win up to my level—Mallot! I answer: present. Oh! Present, I give birth. I birthed this metaphysical me which bangs around my meat and bones. Ooh! I die round trip. But I am dazzling to the end of my void! Untakeble! Until the last little stick of oxygen. I’ve defeated you, Perono, I’ve defeated you, Ebara. I trampled the court and the law. (Delirious.) I electrify my flesh with this fervor for breathing. I aggravate all the sounds of my unruly meat, I enlarge my blood, I enlarge my bones. Mallot! Mallot! You…. (He murmurs some inaudible words and goes back to sleep. Odious snores. The mice come back. Night in the cell.)

N.B. The rest of this play unfolds in the form of a dream and the awakening will not intervene until dawn, with the arrival of the firing squad.


Sony Labou Tansi

Tansi was a novelist, poet, and playwright, and director of the theater group Rocado Zulu.