Flick

The verses of the double in the piece of the Shark in Red Pumps were written by me.

All this is to say that an issue of particular importance drew me that very evening into the spectacle of my friends Waffle and Torch.

A trip prevented me from attending the premiere, and since my return I wanted to see the effect produced by those rhymes due to my collaboration.

Unfortunately, the illustrious Dial had just fallen ill. An unknown figure took on his role of Mephistopheles.

Throughout his performance, Mephisto constantly met his enemies in duels, from which he always came out the winner on account of his costume in a thick scarlet-colored cloth; this cloth was thaumaturgic and the most solidly tempered sword could not penetrate it even with the sharpest edge of all. Nonetheless, all of the trips, enervations and challenging seasons wore it out over time. Luckily, Mephisto kept a spare piece in hell, and when one part threatened to tear apart, he immediately sewed a patch on the garment. Hence, the costume retained its everlasting magical virtue.

Mephisto was so fully aware of his own impregnability that, before battle, he did not exempt himself from happily declaiming a personal ode to victory.

It is exactly this ode that my friends Waffle and Torch requested me to compose. Lo, here it is as I remember:

Who calls himself a portent
Capable of gashing the red garment
With which I am entirely clad?
When I see it my heart feels glad
Do you not know, you cad,
Better than the thick voider
Of a noble ancient soldier
Bearing a feather in his cap
This vest with no tincture
Protects me from any puncture?
Do you not know that to see me expire
Under this raiment made of fire
Lowly I should have had to die?
And certainly no blade
Will bear witness of my fade?
I can afford to be rash;
Attempt a swift onrush
And if I fail to give a slip
You will see me make a quip
And smile, because no relative
Not even my next to kin
Will ever feel his heart sensitive
Due to a recent chagrin
Caused by a steel...if I am caught
At the drop of a hat, an afterthought
It will shatter like glass
On my costume. Continue
Now, you fearless jackass,
With the plan, and I will crush you
As a chafer beetle in the grass.

Usually, the opponent was deeply disturbed by those words. All the same, the great sense of shame prevailed over fear and he put up a fight. And his sword unfailingly shattered into pieces all over the devil’s magic garb, who would immediately kill him with a burst of maniacal laughter.

From my royal box and looking through a spyglass, I attentively followed all the peripeteias of the action, and until the third act, Mephisto had been the outright winner and my stanzas did not deny it. But here everything would change.

The hero of the drama was a certain Panache, a great womanizer and a great swordsman. He did not hesitate to slay a valiant gentleman solely for snatching up his pocketbook, although he never snuck up behind an enemy to stab him, always making a head-on attack and giving his opponent enough time to draw his sword and defend himself. This fineness, accompanied by an unlimited courteousness towards women, made him worthy of the sobriquet that gave the play its title.

An old witch called Flick, as evil as the Black Death, was Panache’s godmother, and she adored her godchild. With the aid of a magic mirror, she used to follow his moves and feats, and stood ready to render him help in times of danger.

However, one particular evening, Mephisto, who was passing right in front of Panache’s house, caught sight of the stunning Fair, the swordsman’s idolized mistress.

As Panache was supposed to spend the whole night assassinating an important figure, Fair, taking notice of a handsome seigneur dressed in red and finding him suitable for her taste, did not hesitate to welcome the man home, so that he could substitute the absent paramour.

Mephisto penetrated into the cubby-hole of the bandit. A bizarre clutter of stolen objects was spread out everywhere; on the walls, the swords of Panache’s slain victims formed several trophies.

In the blink of an eye, Mephisto and Fair were in each other’s arms. The two together merrily dined, and, as they finished the meal, a slightly boozed Mephisto became very audacious... So audacious that Fair tenderly drew him into a large alcove at the end of which a huge bed seemed to be made just for joyful people. The long drapes of the alcove closed around them and the penumbra invaded the scene.

Shortly after, an old woman entered on tiptoes, leaning on a stick. It was Flick.

By looking into the chamber of her beloved godson through the magic mirror, she had just observed the sinful dinner, and furious with the affront to the valiant bandit, she had decided to warn and exhort him to vengeance.

But she had knowledge of the thick enchanted cloth with which the devil was dressed, as well as its wonderful power. She had thus sought a way of tackling that faculty, and indeed found it.

With a quavering and hollow voice, the witch told all that in the proscenium.

“Where are they now?” she asked after finishing her story.

And she headed to the alcove walking on her toes. Using the tip of her finger, she gently pulled apart the drapes and took a quick glance through the crack.

“Oh!...” she whispered in shock, moving back to her place in the middle of the stage.

Then her decrepit face exhibited a dreadful smile.

“They are so...busy,” she said flashing a devilish smirk, “that I will be able to take the magic clothes without either of them seeing me.”

She headed back to the alcove and, this time, passing her skinny arm through the space between the curtains, she pulled Mephisto’s red hot apparel toward herself.

“Here is the cloth that whoever wears it becomes invulnerable,” she ranted angrily, “this cloth, more resistant than a harness or chain mail... Well, we will see if we don’t put an end to all this.”

With these words, she removed a remnant of an old crimson flannel, entirely filthy and used, from under her coat.

She had placed the devil’s clothes on a table, and while stretching out the flannel, she congratulated herself in a strangely hushed tone.

“I have done well not to put on camphor nor pepper... Well, here is the flannel all eaten, and a single contact will be enough.”

In fact, the flannel was riddled with many tiny holes, which proved that pepper and camphor were completely absent, as the old witch said.

“And now, come to me, sewing wizards,” Flick ordered, “hasten and come, all of you...obey me...”

That was the exact moment in which a graceful ballet took place.

The stage lit up while male and female dancers came out from everywhere. Some of them arrived through the chimney, and others through the wardrobe, whose doors were opened suddenly, and many others appeared from under the floor. One and all held huge sewing needles the size of sticks, from which hung red silky threads as thick as rope. Simultaneously, they executed a choreography and softly agitated their needles while batik silk wrapped around them as supple as a ribbon.

The children joined them thereafter; their upper torsi were completely trapped in a big bobbin loaded with the same silk thread, and only their blond heads, legs and rosy arms were seen.

Flick, after turning the remarkable costume inside out, retired upstage.

With a gesture from the sorcerer’s fingers, the wizards started to promenade themselves, bouncing in front of her. From her old hands, she gave them the theurgical cloth and the flannel, and every single one who passed by pretended to sew an oversized stitch using the giant-sized sewing needle.

Miss Spindle, the first creature, accomplished real prodigies. Her dance partner was the elegant Mr. Mane and, together, the two delivered the goods. Spindle, for example, spun on her tip toes and, in each turn, she made a stitch through the fabric.

Then she intertwined her left arm with Mane’s left arm. They whirled together and, each one, alternately, made a sewing stitch through the cloth.

At other times, Mane gripped Spindle’s waist in order to support her. The latter, without touching the ground even once, lifted her leg into the air and sewed lackadaisically while the orchestra executed a serene slow-moving melody.

From time to time, the great parade started once again.

Finally, Flick, feeling utterly satisfied with the wizards’ work, dismissed them by extending her arm.

Immediately thereafter, Mane grabbed Spindle by the waist and gently took her away. The others disappeared, returning from whence they came, and the child-bobbins mingled in and joined the rout.

The darkness suddenly descended and Flick was left alone.

With joy, she admired the red garment, which was then taken back to its original place.

“Magic cloth, you have had it,” she murmured, “you will fall into decay within an hour, or my name is not Flick.”

Silently returning to the alcove, she opened the drapes for the third time.

“They have fallen asleep,” she giggled.

And she put the costume back in its place.

“And now let’s quickly go and look for Panache,” she cried out loud, “thanks to the magic mirror I will know exactly where to find him and will bring him back before dawn.”

With a menacing gesture towards the alcove, she stumbled away from the scene.

A neighboring bell tower would soon strike three o’clock in the morning at a slow pace.

Fair, who woke up to the sound of the bell, opened the alcove curtains and emerged in a charming light blue nightgown.

“It is already three o’clock,” she thought to herself.

Promptly she went back to the bed and awakened Mephisto with these sweet words:

“My beloved, get up, time is ticking and we might be caught off guard.”

Still lulled by sleepiness, she stretched then sat at a dressing table cluttered up with make-up, powders and perfumes. A moonbeam, gliding through the window, tenderly lit up her face. The orchestra preluded some chords and Fair, with a mirror in her hand, sang a slow and voluptuous melody.

It praised love, kisses, youth and beauty. But the tune, initially languid, became progressively more effusive; Fair, laying her mirror on the dressing table, stood up and phrased loudly a stirring and passionate excerpt; Mephisto, who was just coming out of the alcove now completely dressed and still slightly bibulous, drew near and mixed his voice with hers. The initial serene melody ended up in a vivid love duet, and to the sound of the words “I love you,” Fair threw her arms around Mephisto’s neck, who held her tight to his chest. A terrible profanity cut off the lovers’ rapture.

Panache, ushered by Flick, had just entered the place.

Fair, devastated, uttered out loud: “It’s him! ... Already here!”

Flick giggled low.

“Traitor!” Panache screamed, “I should have the right to kill you like a dog, without allowing you time to defend yourself; but in doing so I would be disgusted with myself, thus, in an equitable duel I will achieve my vengeance; take out your sword as I do with mine and let’s finally joust.”

Laughing out loud, Mephisto took out his sword... After all he was aware of his own invulnerability!

As Panache spoke, Flick went to catch one of the swords off the panoply hanging on the wall. Then, approaching the ramp, she took out of her pocket a dark blue flask.

“This is a poison with no antidote,” she said surreptitiously.

Without being seen, she dipped the point of the sword all the way to the bottom of the flask, which she subsequently threw out the window.

At that very moment, Panache and Mephisto were about to fight.

“Please, stop, gentleman!” Flick yelled, while placing herself between them, “your swords are not equal at all; yours is much longer, Panache, and it will not be worthy of you to engage in a strife with such an advantage: here you have one the same length as your opponents’; you have to take this one.”

Always scrupulous, Panache threw the longsword away and accepted the one his godmother gave him.

In view of this artifice, so useless in his eyes, Mephisto started laughing again. He assumed a boastful attitude and, placing the hand on the hip, declaimed his ode from start to finish:

Who calls himself a portent
Capable of gashing the red garment
With which I am entirely clad?

Flick was enjoying herself! She pretended to be attentive by putting her hand to her ear in the shape of a trumpet. Nonetheless, a mindful Panache listened to his rival. When the recitation of the poem came to an end, Panache thought about it, as he had no doubt that Mephisto’s words were true.

“Do you feel scared, Panache?” Flick suggested.

These words made Panache hopping mad.

“Me? ... scared? ... oh, my godmother ... Are you really asking me that question? ... Just look and you will be proud of me.”

The two enemies took an en garde position and the swords touched each other.

At the outset, Panache only shielded himself from a deeply confident and unstoppable Mephisto, who was lunging willy-nilly. But the bandit, feeling annoyed, began his counterattack, compelling his foe to retreat in turn. Mephisto had fun while fencing, as he could show his dexterity; however, reacting with fury at being forced to move back, he stopped caring about the offensives that he knew they were against him and restarted his imprudent play; from that moment on, he was doomed. Panache decided not to retreat a single inch and, standing his ground, he suddenly parried a direct thrust while stabbing his sword in Mephisto’s thigh. The wretched rival immediately sagged.

“Damn!...” he moaned lamely. And fell down dead. The poison had an instant effect.

Without wasting any time looking at his victim, Panache hung the sword on the panoply and took his own to put it back in the scabbard. He walked towards Fair, and solemnly saluted her, saying:

“Lady, after tonight’s events, I have the honor to bid you farewell. I will not debase myself by taking all these riches accumulated. I give you all my wealth, it is yours. I will remake my fortune someplace else. This is my way with women.”

He leaned forward once again and left with his head held high.

Fair, feeling distraught, dropped to her knees to try to stop him and desperately called out to Panache. But he went on his way without looking back, and the poor girl, broken by the torrent of emotions, passed out.

Amid the silence, Flick looked at Mephisto’s corpse. After a few moments, she took it in her arms and lifted it up effortlessly. Dial’s substitute was, however, big and robust. Yet the witch was able to sit it on a chair and lean the upper body against Fair’s dressing table.

Thus, the moonbeam thoroughly lit up the dead body.

Inebriated with joy, the old sorcerer examined the fatal wound. The sword, having traversed the entire thigh, had left two holes in the fabric.

Sticking her nail in one of the holes, Flick gently pulled and plucked out a large square piece of cloth. It was one of those brand new patches that the devil sometimes added to the costume when the wear and tear required mending. The sword, having found the piece, had traversed it just as easily as a more vulnerable part.

Triumphant, the witch, raising her hand, showed the crimson square. And judging from the thickness of this cloth, it was more resistant than iron and steel.

Underneath, on Mephisto’s leg, the old dilapidated flannel that Spindle, Mane and the others had sewn with their giant needles has appeared. And Flick contemplated the site of the injury for some time.

“The flannel has done its job,” she said in a muffled voice.

Then, going back to the piece, she started to tear it up with all her strength. Hereupon, as though awakened by the shakes, a great number of tiny moths flew away in all directions.

And the witch recited the following in an ironic tone:

Who calls himself a portent
Capable of gashing the red garment
With which I am entirely clad?

With nothing more in her hands, she picked up the rags to shred them once again, and reduce them to scraps; and the ode to victory unfailingly came to her mind. So after the last stanza was completed, she burst into a great peal of laughter, showing her toothless jaw.

She pointed a finger at the swarm of small moths flying into the moonlight, and completely shaken with laughter, the sorcerer, splitting her sides, screamed out loud:

“The vermins in the double of the piece of the stark red pants!”



 

Translator’s Note


In 1900, Raymond Roussel published Chiquenaude (hitherto without an English translation, just a facsimile reprint of the original is available), a tale that is apparently on the verge of puerility, if the involvement between Mephisto and Fair were not explicit. But the story goes beyond this first impression, as it hides a language game. According to the author himself in his posthumous work How I wrote certain of my books, the procedure applied in this text consists of choosing two similar words, then adding to them other comparable words but taken in two different directions, thus obtaining two nearly identical phrases”. The first sentence opens up the text and the second finishes it. Chiquenaude’s opening sentence “Les vers de la doublure dans la pièce du Forban Talon Rouge” literally means “The verses of the substitute in the play of the Bandit in Red Heels”; in turn, the last sentence of the narrative, “Les vers la phrase doublure dans la pièce du fort pantalon rouge”, can be directly translated as “The worms on the lining of a piece of the strong red pants”, and therefore the aforementioned technique is scrupulously applied.

This procédé, besides influencing other authors and art movements, gave rise to many speculations and conjectures. American critic W. C. Bamberger, after delving into De l’angoisse à l’extase (1926) by Pierre Janet, Roussel’s psychiatrist, deduced that the doctor had introduced the author to the methodology of scientific exegesis, as Janet dedicated himself to the study of patients with religious delusions. In this sense, Bamberger suggests that, in some way, Roussel had a direct contact, through his own doctor, with some of Jean Astruc’s concepts presented in Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux dont Il paroit que Moyse s’est servi pour composer le livre de La Gènese (1753). In this compendium, Astruc suggests that the writings contained in the Old Testament are constructions organized to the last detail with homonyms, phrases that mirror other verses and passages structured according to chiasm patterns.

However, beyond these considerations, one should focus on the gesture of the old witch, who, with a single snap of her fingers, opens to the language an unsuspected universe, in which the Nouveau Roman, the New York School and other avant-garde literary currents would find their sources. Moreover, throughout the text, one can find doubles, substitutes, duplicates, the pas de deux playing an aesthetic, visual and symbolic role, but there’s more under the magic lining and it is up to each one of us to turn upside down the powerful scarlet cloth covering the tale.

It will be clear to all readers that in the oeuvre of this French author, lucidity is set aside, reality is redesigned and literalness has no place. This is precisely the reason I allowed myself to translate using a word game, avoiding a literal reproduction of the opening and closing phrases. Nonetheless, I will omit all the paths taken during the translation process, as the real magician is Flick, or better, Raymond Roussel.

—FRH

Contributors

Raymond Roussel

Born in Paris in 1877, in the bosom of a wealthy family, Raymond Roussel was highly educated; he appreciated and learned music and singing, but decided to take the path of literature. Thus, in 1897, Roussel published his first novel, La Doublure, believing he had produced a portent that would allow him to experience “a universal sense of glory of extraordinary intensity”. However, the cold and negative reception, indifferent to the literary prodigy, triggered a severe nervous disorder that would continue throughout his life.

Three years later and recovered from the shock, he resumed his writing activities and in the next years he would publish his most important works, including Impressions of Africa (1910), Locus Solus (1914) and New Impressions of Africa (1932).

Roussel died in 1933, in a hotel in Palermo, due to a barbituate overdose.

Fedra Rodríguez Hinojosa

FEDRA RODRÍGUEZ HINOJOSA currently works as a translator, writer, journal referee, university lecturer and academic researcher in the fields of Francophone Literature and Intersemiotic Translation from Literature to Cinema. Her works in the field of translation comprise different language combinations, such as Portuguese and Spanish (both her mother tongues), as well as French, English and Galician. Her most recent translations include texts from writers representing different genres and periods, like Raymond Roussel, M.P. Shiel, Xosé Neira Vilas and Muhsin Al-Ramli.

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