Translated by Elinor S. Miller
It is seven o’clock. Night is falling. Sometimes there is between us, when I telephone you on the other side of the world, the echo of our voices on the satellite. Years count double or triple in these latitudes where people drink, these climates whose sun crushes and rends, where people barely look after themselves, immersed in a constant struggle to survive—but anything is preferable to the horror of the comfort, the sweet putrefaction of the country of my birth, the one I fled. I said that the other day to Jacob Orfeo, on the terrace of a cafe where we met to conjure up the time passed since our last youthful follies. Before they go away, rot along with me, I have to retrace, even if it means exerting my retina on lost landscapes, these images of the dead who are mine, of my father and of his father, of my absent family, forever distant since I have broken with them the immutable bonds of the same sky and the immutable boredom of the same daily hemisphere. I have to carve out, even if it be for my files, their history of failures and tiny victories which each one possesses in abundance. Already four years ago, on the point of leaving this land again which I had spent such a long time finding, a few days before my forced departure for the east of the great north (the year of exile that I then had to live there, the remoteness of this country which I had come, after so many uncertainties, hesitations, and tergiversations, drifting with the wanderings and adventures which had led me to three of these five continents, to consider as mine, having in the long run chosen it among so many other possible sites to run aground; the return even if it were temporary—I was to spend only a year there—to Europe (but was it a question properly speaking of a return, since it was not to the center of what incarnated for me the continent uninhabitable above all the others, but to a capital of the great north, at the polar extremity of those lands which in my eyes harbored the very principle of glaciation in which my entire childhood had been plunged, that I was going to settle myself?) was to constitute, in my imagination already constituted in advance, at the moment that in a car I crossed a zone of fog which became more dense as the kilometers drifted by between the Atlantic coast and the high plateaus, Xalapa and Perote, among the phantom-like pines with branches on which clung hanging scarves of iridescent droplets, a dispossession and a trail more painful than all those I had been able to dream of until that instant, than particularly of that of writing itself), already then all the images gathered here had begun to come back, t invade and to feed my memory, to structure themselves in an immense puzzle whose assembly I have since had to check for months. Suddenly I had felt myself extremely, totally at liberty, a sovereign liberty, to write without past history, as if for the first time. At the approach of the eclipse in my body, I had a premonition that I would be required to, that I was going to begin again, to fall or te “relapse” into writing, reciting each day, like a prayer, this refrain of a song, a sort of private hymn, for my use alone: “México lindo y querido...si muero lejos de ti...Que digan que estoy dormindo...Y que me traigan aqu—“ reciting or humming this couplet as a daily exorcism in order to manage to get through the duration of my European exile, to try to assimilate this distance which was being established between myself and myself, obstinately pursuing this journal from which I would later erase the precise references to places and dates—and who would have been able to understand that for me the most ferocious exile consisted in coming back to this continent where I was born?—without succeeding, however, in clarifying with words my absolute, unchanged hatred of European climates and ways of life. Was it a denial of childhood? I clung to the idea of this journal to try to know, with the hazy hope that , even if I could not manage to explain this loathing to myself at all, the fact of writing would save me, would help me at the least to overcome the naked pain that Europe spread in me; now this journal was insufficient; I quickly abandoned it, as a result of finding no appeasement in it whatsoever, and I knew from the time of my return to my lost country that I would have to try from then on to elucidate the roots of my flight and of my exile, of his sleepless discomfort which drags me ceaselessly beyond my limits. Before he reached me age, my father, at the hinge of the half-century—already more than thirty years ago—wrote, in a letter discovered among the archives S. entrusted to me “I am back from Champagnes where I went to spend three days, alone, because I am lazy in Grenoble and do not have the strength to work on philosophy or Latin” (6 November 1948). Back at Champanges three years later, while in Paris he was finishing his degree in Philosophy, he wrote again to S.: “Dear Sister, our parents having returned a little before the expected date, here we all are at Champagnes, in the middle of a garden as bushy as anyone could wish, with immense lilies in the courtyard, the smell of manure around about and the great restful calm of the Sonnant river. I am relaxing in this so peaceful atmosphere and have plunged into Spinoza more for pleasure than to work. I shall not resume preparation for my exams again for a couple of weeks, when I shall have taken some time off. But Spinoza is an author whom I particularly like and who harmonizes perfectly with this profound harmony and summery peace: he constructed his whole philosophy as a solitary philosopher, persecuted, in order to find a way out of the suffering and crumbling of his existence. His philosophy is that of a serenity dearly conquered in his maturity which bursts with a contentment on the scale of the whole creation. It is not a complacency deeming that all is well and ends well but the conquest of a tormented and desperate spirit, which little by little reaches Happiness through thought of the Universal. For a couple of weeks I want to meditate on him in peace in order then to study the other philosophers by comparing them to him. Aside from that, I am reading a saga by I. Ehrenbourg, The Fall of Paris, which is the historical epic of the period 1936-39 in Paris. Fairly sad story [...], that whole period of disintegration of France which preceded and followed the surrender of 40 (I have kept some scraps of memories of it, precisely the announcement of the mobilization while we were in Champanges, a summer apparently as calm as this one! the desperate sighs of Mother when they heard about the military disasters, the little voice of P. Reynaud on the radio still trying to fool the French, all the history which we lived through half unconscious). It is indeed this political unconsciousness of most people which sickens me, and for my part I want to be more enlightened, to be more aware of what is going on in Indochina, or during the strikes. You see that it is not by maniacal habit or juvenile passion that “I am doing politics,” as our parents accuse me. But I have seen them so hoodwinked like so many people who have been manipulated and deceived, that for my part during my life I want to seek the truth in these events which appear so obscure: wars, strikes, political upheavals... One cannot be seriously philosophical, that is to say, think about what we are doing with our life, without reflecting on that, thinking “history” which is “our” history, that is to say our life” (7-8 July 1951) “Profound harmony and summery peace” felt by my father on teh eve of many tempests, the preparation for the Agregation exams after those for teh Bacelor’s and the Master’s in Philosophy little by little dragging him along a slope which, without in itself leading there would end up 16 years later, however, in his suicide. Curiously, I have retained almost no memory of my childhood in the years before his death, an erasure having taken place, whose process I am trying to determine without yet having managed it. It is to survive him that I write, impelled by the need to find again in my childhood, in my dreams of childhood and even before my own memory (since these letters of my father are prior to my birth) the long haggard courses of the accidents of History, in order finally to perceive the mechanisms of this fatality which seemed to lead me for years on end and from which I wish today, through this book to be delivered. Do not leave me alone with the dead like a soldier on the front who receives no letters. Choose me among them for my great anxiety and my great desire. Speak to me then; I beg you, I count on it. All my research subscribes to the principle of this call flung out by Henri Michaux, which seems to me sent from beyond-life by my father. I let myself be carried away at present by the music which resonates in the room where I am writing: it is Bach’s Prelude to the 3rd Suite for cello, which each time I hear it brings me a sort of enigmatic exaltation. From it I try to draw the strength necessary to confront this plunge into twilight and night. I bury myself into the ancient drafts. The rain, from which I am separated by an antique pane of irregular make, allowing for spots and glaucous bubbles caught in the glass paste, proceeds at a constant pace towards the ground, in the night, fine oblique stripes shining briefly, sometimes, in the flashes of lightning, or in a steadier way between the halos of the streetlights and the black macadam, shimmering in layers, surface of rupture of the dotted trajectory of pearls strung on the beams of water from the sky, rain so different from the torrential downpours of the wet season which in my country, in the reversed calendar of hemispheres, its ending at present, in that Mexico where they are celebrating, today, the fifteenth of September, the Independence holiday; here the rain, covering through sheer insistence the city and the continent, causes me the intense suffering, reactivates my nausea over autumn, my hatred of all moisture, and, torturing me, today pushes me into my entrenchments, my depths and lairs of sleep, and compels me again, as formerly in London before the enlightenment of the Mexican dryness, towards hibernation. By little rips, imperceptible vibrations, successive tiny displacements, scraps of aggressions from the external world little by little are shredded, all the echoes on a level with the sense have come to rebound, branched out in their own capillary web, all the ropes which, umbilical, held firm, attached me still to this before-life... These were old drafts sketched on my return to Europe, fifteen months ago.
Frederic-Yves Jeannet is the author of De la Distance, avec Michel Butor (le Castor Astral '00), Cyclone (le Castor Astral '97), and Charite (Flammarion '00). He lives on Roosevelt Island. This is his first work of fiction to be published in English.