Translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith.
A short story from Cruels, 13.
I still have the view of the sea—I run the film over and over, in a loop, I'll die with the thing running through my head—When he appeared that late afternoon in July '63 he was Apollo himself, a radiant golden sun—supporting his old parents on either arm, they looked for a table inside, near the window, then went outside again and picked one on the terrace, on the sidewalk, to be near the bustle of the Boulevard Saint-Germain—I still have the view of the sea, I don't regret a thing, the mobile home is comfortable, I have the car for doing the shopping, and my lab keeps me company, faithful as a dog should be—there is no explaining it: when the English say “to fall in love” they mean falling into love, but when you really fall in love you do so literally, it is like falling in battle, falling at the Front, struck down in war—Angelo ordered a rum with Easter Island fruits, his father a Rackham the Red rum, and his mother a cinnamon-vanilla Caribbean rum—I’ll never forget him ordering, bursting out laughing over the names of the drinks, but yes, of course it’s me, and my husband, who make them up! Brown curly hair, big Mediterranean-blue eyes, shy, with a smile at once embarrassed and winning—eight years younger than me, a kid—we laughed together over the rum menu, but all we needed to do was look at each other to laugh, we both knew that this was for life, at least almost—they were all tanned, the father dry and gnarled as a walking stick, the mother almost hunchbacked, half toothless, her head covered by the black shawl of the eternal widow—peasants up in Paris visiting the capital and trying a little rum—Angelo came back the next day, on his own, and every day after that, always sitting at the same table, I was the one who served the customers on the terrace—Georges said: your beauty is permeating Saint Germain, they see you and descend like locusts on a wheat field, and more power to us!—poor Georges—not easy to engineer a first date when you are chained to your work, and before long the lies bloomed, venomous toxic flowers—we had opened La Rhumerie in 1949, on April Fool’s Day, ah Spring! I was nineteen, Georges twenty-eight, we were married that same year, we had them all for customers: La Greco with Gainsbourg and Raymond Queneau, Boris Vian, Montand and Signoret, Sartre and Beauvoir, Jeanne Moreau, Miles Davis double-parking an endlessly long pink Cadillac on the Boulevard, Maurice Ronet, Michel Legrand, Françoise Dorléac, Picasso—the list went on and on—Signoret, though engaged to be married at the time, used to swap glances with Montand from afar, then they would sneak off together, we were onto them so quickly that before long Georges and I became the mail drop for their billets-doux and assignations—yes, it was a fine decade, feverish, bursting with energy and new beginnings—why did Angelo have to turn up?—true, I’ve kept the view of the sea!—a Corsican shepherd, my poor Juliette? What the hell are you going to do with a shepherd? A Corsican? In the Corsican mountains? Don’t tell me you’re going to rewrite Astrée for us?—No, Georges, I am going to relive it!—We were divorced, I sold my share in the business, no bagatelle at the time, and went off to set up house with Angelo in his shepherd’s homestead: a mud floor, whitewashed walls, one table and four chairs, a bed, a fireplace, a terrace shaded by vines and fig trees, altitude 600 meters, and a view of the sea—I put my money into a building above Calvi, a dozen rental apartments—a decent income over and above the goats and sheep and our pastoral idyll day after day—it lasted for eighteen blazing months and it felt like eighteen days—We buried his parents the next year, his uncles came down from Paris, Angelo grew tense, anxious, irritable—the long absences called for by the management and migrations of his flocks became more frequent, he refused to let me go with him—for a whole year I was consumed by waiting for him week after excruciating week—don’t worry, my Juliette, everything is alright—the worst words imaginable, the kind that mire you in fear and suspicion—and then, one summer evening on the terrace in the sweet air redolent with the scent of figs, amid the chattering of the cicadas, an anxiety-stricken Angelo made me a murmured confession all about illegal arms, tobacco and alcohol trafficking, the shifting alliances he suspected and clan and family betrayals—but we have enough money, Angelo! Why take such risks? Stop it! Take care of the sheep! We don’t need anything, we are fine just as we are—he got angry, a man of the South, the proud torero—it’s not my money! and he spat—a month later a black pick-up turned onto the track to the house and drew up in front of the terrace, it was a stultifying sunny afternoon, the countryside shimmering in a furnace of immobility—here and there small fires were laying waste to the scrub—three hooded men climbed from the truck dragging Angelo, his face slashed, left eye bloody, a cheekbone exposed and lips mashed, and pushed him into a chair—are you Juliette Desforest? They tossed a bundle of notarized documents onto the table and held a pen out to me: sign, hurry!—sign what?—the sale of your building, and hurry up about it!—no, I said, no!—one of them withdrew an enormous chrome-plated pistol from under his jacket and without hesitation put a bullet into Angelo’s knee, I had blood on my dress, my shepherd was rolling about in pain at my feet, not a cry from him, not a moan—don’t sign Juliette, he muttered—but I signed briskly, trembling, every last document, sheet by sheet, they gathered the papers up, slapped me about, pushed me into the back of the place, raped me each one of them, laughing crudely, obscenely—hear that, Angelo, how we make her come, your bitch? she is panting like a rutting she-goat!—I passed out, remained unconscious for a long time, woke up late in the day to a silence like that of a devastated village, of people massacred, everything was overturned and smashed, and outside—outside, the dog, goats, and sheep lying in pools of blood, and—and, in the fig-tree, the head of my Angelo, just the head, hanging by the hair, the face unrecognizable, horribly swollen, eyes gone, a vision of absolute barbarity, and as for the body it was never found—I took his head down from the tree, the head I loved so, oh my God! Wrapped it in a white cloth, held it on my knees and in my arms till night—And when they buried him I insisted that his coffin be full-length for a man his size, even if nobody on the island was unaware of the details of the crime—the murderers, I shouldn’t wonder, were in the funeral procession... I left Angelo and that malignant island behind and with the little money still in the bank I bought this scrap of land above Antibes, and that is my story!
You are making things up, Juliette! You are making things up!—it was not like that—true, you left Georges and La Rhumerie, you abandoned everything, family, friends, to go off with your shepherd to the Isle of Beauty and live there in that house perched above the sea with the sheep and goats and the smell of figs and eucalyptus—true, the pastoral idyll lasted a few months—but when you were married, you and Angelo, your investment in that little apartment building above Calvi became part of your joint estate, you were co-owners, and Angelo lost no time mortgaging the property, which was eventually foreclosed on by the banks so thoroughly did he dilapidate your income to settle his gambling debts—he told you that he had doubled your livestock, that he was negotiating to buy a walled-about farm where he would build a sheep-pen and a cheese-making facility, that the operation would shortly expand into breeding and before long become a paragon among Corsican food-farming concerns—what tormented you at the time were the painful days of waiting, the evenings and nights spent alone while he took care of the construction, traveled far afield to buy new stock or supposedly led the flocks from one mountainside to another, but never took you along—and then when you got pregnant your loneliness was still more acute, your abandonment more desperate, though you still had no inkling of the imminence of ruin—true, all you had left was this hovel, a table and chairs, a bed, a fireplace and, outside, that heavily perfumed terrace whence to admire the view of an endless sea—true, one afternoon a black car raced up the track and true, three hooded men dragged Angelo out of it, his face swollen from their beating—true, they knee-capped him with a high-caliber round, and true, they raped you before him in that dog-day heat—and true, you lost your baby and you lost consciousness, but true too, your Angelo was betraying you with any girl he met during his bar-hopping nights—until, that is, the time he slept with the wife of an underworld boss and his death was decreed, and death in the worst way: beating, castration, decapitation, they must have played football with his head before hanging it from a branch of that fig-tree—your beautiful Angelo, the love of your life for whom you gave up everything—true, you still have the view of the sea, a photograph taken from up there, with the fig-tree of the hanging head in the left foreground, you can see the stone terrace, a wild-rose bush, the garrigue falling away and the paradisiacal blue of the sea filling the whole width of the picture under a radiant sky that bathes the image in a crystalline light, yes, you still have the view of the sea, an enlarged photograph pinned up opposite your bed in this miserable room with its piss-yellow walls and its sole window, narrow and barred, giving onto the courtyard of the hospital, itself crammed between a dump and an expressway interchange in an industrial suburb of Toulon—When are you going to face up to the reality of your life, Juliette?
Face up to what? Apart from horror, what do you have to propose?
Luc Lang is the prize-winning French author of, among others: Voyage sur la ligne d'horizon (Paris: Gallimard, 1988; Prix Freustié); Furies (Paris: Gallimard, 1995); Mille six cents ventres (Paris: Stock, 1998; Prix Goncourt des Lycéens; published in English translation as Strange Ways (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000; Phoenix, 2002)); Les Indiens (Paris: Stock, 2001); Cruels, 13 (Paris: Stock, 2008; Prix Ozoir'elles; two stories from this collection, "Face?" and "Lord's Day" appear in translation in Fiction #54 (Brooklyn, 2008)). Lang has also published the startling autobiographical work, 11 septembre mon amour (Stock, 2003). He writes widely on contemporary art and on the art of the novel and teaches aesthetics at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts de Paris et Cergy. Cruels, 13 is forthcoming in English translation from the University of Nebraska Press.
Donald Nicholson-Smith's translations include works by Guy Debord, Jean Piaget, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Paco Ignacio Taibo, J.-B. Pontalis & Jean Laplanche, Thierry Jonquet, Henri Lefebvre, and Raoul Vaneigem. At present he is at work on Apollinaire's Letters to Madeleine, as sent from the trenches of Champagne in 1915. Born in Manchester, England, Nicholson-Smith is a longtime denizen of Brooklyn.