Shadows have rapidly taken the place of the walls. The ceiling, moth-eaten by darkness, is the lid of a hole. The ground would have disappeared entirely, were it not for the square of moonlight illuminating the rudiments of the decor—the bowl with its hotchpotch of notebooks, their pages ripped out; the bottle, still three-quarters full, of a brown, macerated liquid; the legs of the stool.
General power cut.
However, the days of curfews are long gone—or so they say. And then there’s certainly no lack of energy. Not since they discovered the “commodity” or—since we should call it by its name—oil, whose familiar nickname “the commodity”, when pronounced by the people here, is fraught with a sacred timidity, as though the national naphtha were a god, a private, home-made deity, whose proper name, Oil, no one takes in vain.
Through the window that looks out onto the courtyard, a few cooking fires flaring brightly, ovens with their flames and gas lamps all throwing light on the hustle and bustle of the women in their butterfly clothing, similarly busied with activity that takes them from the water tap to the raffia mat where a baby sleeps, to the oven or to the tree beneath which a child is taking its bath.
Seen from the outside, it’s beyond anyone’s imagining that this ordinary scene, repeated from one yard to another as night falls, is my last protection.
“There’s no better hiding place than a crowded one,” the hostess had told me, the woman who introduced herself as “the hostess”, when I arrived here on the 13th or 15th of May—I don’t remember which. I’ve been on the alert in this hiding place for perhaps four or five days and time is beginning to warp. Four or five days spent waiting for the single meal that arrives at dusk—the savoury or sweet fritters brought to me by the hostess or the caretaker—or looking at the yard or, more often, at the wall where the books that have been left there are piled up.
What book teaches you what I’m preparing myself to do?
In a short while, when the square of moonlight no longer illuminates me and has left behind the papers scattered round the bowl, it will creep along the pile of books before being snatched away to I know not where. At that point, it will be around three o’clock.
It won’t be long then before there’s a sound at the door. Four rhythmic knocks and I’ll know right away that they have been made by a friendly hand. I’ll know that I’m leaving here, my free hand in the hand of the hostess, who’ll take me to the exit, to the meeting place she alone knows.
And if things go wrong, the hand that knocks will be the hand of a policeman who’ll pretend to support my weak legs, who’ll take me to carry out the threat laid down in the document he shoves under my nose, that he reads out to me by the light of a torch before dragging me off.
“Don’t wait for them to capture you,” the hostess warned me, pointing to the other window, the one that looks out on to the back of the house, the garden of bougainvillaeas. And not far from the window, the first tree and, beneath the tree, the hole hidden by the tall grass.
The destiny that now draws me far away from here is still called a life, but I have to admit it’s like a leap into the void. They say that before he hits the ground a man falling from a great height sees all the moments of his existence come together and drain from him in batches of images.
As for me, it’s in batches of mingled words—those words that have borrowed my voice this evening in whispered mode—that the life that brought me here is melting away. And I need to build up a lot of confidence before grabbing my bag and preparing to enter the arena of a battle in which nothing is down to me—neither the choice of weapons, nor the choice of terrain—but in which it is down to me to win.
You mustn’t concern yourself too much with who’s listening when you want to keep your words intact and unadorned, the way some genuine drunks know how to do, drunks I saw in my father’s entourage. The drunks were his only friends, he who never drank yet agreed to contribute to the kitty that was his friends’ drinking money for the week—drinking money that included my father’s share, though he didn’t drink but paid for their company that way, like a child who yields up his possessions to others on condition that they let him pretend “to be one of the gang”. How otherwise to explain that when he turned up with his hung-over group at the entrance to the Spearhead boarding school—the elite institution to which I’d been admitted at the age of 12—he who didn’t drink walked with that skew-whiff, lopsided gait that he joyfully borrowed from his fellows in perpetual intoxication?
But excuse me, says the speaker, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start again.
At my feet, by the legs of the stool I’m sitting on, in the square of the miniature boxing ring carved out by the moonlight, lies a good-sized photo, 8 x 10, in which my father can be seen holding a saxophone case in his hand while I, at about the age of nine, waddle along by his side.
It’ll soon be 21 years since I was born. As for my childhood, it has to be said that it wasn’t without its troubles. But, says the speaker, a childhood that wasn’t without its troubles wasn’t anything unusual for the children of my generation. On account of the circumstances of an age known as the Time of Annexation, what lay in wait for children at the gates of life were curfews, roadblocks and more roadblocks, houses being plundered, people becoming scarcer, life becoming cheaper and, lastly, family and friends disappearing—thousands of people being banished to a place we should later come to know as The Plantation. That’s why those times were also known as the Times of Dispersal.
“On account of the circumstances, prepare yourself to be temporarily removed from your nearest and dearest/On account of the circumstances, prepare yourself to be temporarily removed from your nearest and dearest/to be temporarily/from your nearest and dearest/removed from your nearest and dearest/prepare yourself.” This was how they spoke, using few words, those people who carried out the work of dispersal in the Time of Annexation, when they had finished searching a house and—in compliance with some obscure order—emptying it of all the photographs it contained. They opened a trunk, discovered a store of notebooks there and emptied the holdall of its crumpled sheets of paper to root out a tiny photo with all the enthusiasm of an insect hunter who, at the end of a long hunt, has just made some staggering find. One of those tiny photos pasted long ago onto the squared background of the sheet of paper in the centre of a naively drawn, jagged-edged heart, a cobbling-together of words and colours, one of those photos on what was once glazed paper but now looks like frosted glass. And, as they stuffed the images into black bags labelled for that purpose, they never failed to recite the formula clearly, the formula that provided sufficient reason, purely and simply, for their bursting in like that:
“On account of the circumstances, prepare yourself to be temporarily removed from your nearest and dearest”—all said in as forceful a language as you’d use for casting spells. And the person empowered to assault your ear with that language was also empowered to separate bodies. Out of two friends conversing on the pavement, one was taken, the other left behind; out of two lovers stretched out on a bed, one was taken and nothing was left for the other but a formula—”On account of the circumstances, prepare yourself to be temporarily removed from your nearest and dearest”—a formula conjuring away human forms right down to the photographic images wrenched from their frames, which the agents of disappearance tore from the walls and broke on the ground in a mingled crunching of heel and glass, before leaving with one or more occupants for a destination that remained unknown.
We were later to learn, at the end of those times, that it was called The Plantation and that one lived an unwilling life of toil there, until one breathed one’s last. That was what awaited those we’d quickly learnt to call here “the temporarily removed”.
A set expression employed in just that form, the way one borrows an untranslatable foreign phrase, as untranslatable as the words of the international radio when we heard talk of the “upheavals bitterly afflicting the territory”.
For all those already subject to ritual humiliation, it was as though they were suffering a humiliation even greater.
As though the task of naming this misfortune had been allotted to a distant observer who had come up with this term “upheavals” (in the plural) as an over-hasty description of something seen indistinctly from a planet beyond the solar system, buried in the depths of space.
And seen from the perspective of this external vantage point, says the speaker, the restrictions, the depredations, the bitterness of the disappearances would have clear similarities with volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, upheavals to be put down to the workings of unseen forces, to those same elementary spirits which, as superstition has it, preside over all disasters—hurricanes, floods and the looting that follows, like those “upheavals bitterly afflicting the territory” before dispersing in some vague, distant place known as “the rest of the world”.
And, as for the territory, whoever called it a “country” and mentioned its name was sure to be cast into nameless torment, struck down by the same law that prohibits blasphemy.
And for many people, nothing you could do without thinking—breathing, eating, drinking, pissing, telling a drunken joke—was accessible without a thousand precautions, a thousand efforts to be seen to conform to regulations, against which one might at any moment be accused of conspiring.
That’s how things were in those days, in compliance with arrangements that were constantly being revised, corrected and copiously augmented—arrangements on times for getting up or going to bed, on people’s movements, on the sound of certain names, the lists of which were made public, on medicines, milk, salt, sugar, clothing, ways of speaking to one another, even appropriate language. Words themselves seemed to suffer the same restrictions as the circulation of approved commodities. The word “annexation”, for example, was not to be heard anywhere. The way things were in my childhood, we kept silent a lot.
That degradation… says the speaker.
That degradation, the seriousness of which can be measured on someone like me, 21 today, and the only image that comes back to me when I think about the first years of my childhood, the only thing I see, is a corner and a man disappearing round it, a man in my own image, a man who looks like my father, 30 years old at the time and already a shadow moving off into the distance, framed by two other shadows, the one on the right walking a little way apart, at a good distance from the big case in which he’s carrying his saxophone, the shadow on the left sticking tight to him, one hand loosely gripping his elbow—courteously, it would seem—as though he were guiding him in the dark. He’s obliging him to walk but without any need actually to force him; in his gesture there is indeed that solicitude with which one steers a groggy companion forward.
The image fades.
The insult remains: a hand. The sensation in my hair is not of a hand that I recognise.
“Your father is going to be temporarily removed.”
Not my father’s voice but the voice beside his.
“Your father is going to be temporarily removed.” The voice came from the shadow enveloping my father on his right.
For a long time, defeated, damaged words poured from my mother’s mouth—oddly assorted words in which, as I remember, she called on assistance from a medical operation to transform her into a bird, for it was known there were doctors for changing a man into a woman or a woman into a man.
And that was why she was, for a long time, subjected to extensive examination and taken from one rest home to another. And all I would be told many years later were the mortality figures in which my mother’s particular reference number was submerged.
In my memory I was five years old when I was running. A voice kept repeating in the wind and in my ear that it wouldn’t be long before they came for my mother, to take her to that sort of institution for the bedridden called a “rest home”, from which there was no way out except to another such institution, where the surgical skill she was requesting to transform her into a creature of the air—to put her out of her misery and leave her human nature behind—was not practised.
The wind lashing my face was a friendly slap forcing me to remember that it wasn’t a dream. The wind was buzzing with stories I knew well, stories speaking of children who ended up alone after the removal of their parents, children who were forcibly adopted by distinguished high-society couples in need of new playthings. Or placed in special institutions where, it was said, people taught them to hate their parents—sometimes, it was also said, successfully.
Take little So-and-So, left alone at the age of nine after the removal of his parents and put in a special education centre. After three years he was brought back to the neighbourhood, dressed like some shiny little new god, speaking a sophisticated language in which it eventually became clear that, in his view, what had happened to his parents—their disappearance, their misfortune— was down to their being “bad elements”. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have fallen foul of the regulations.
After much circumlocution for reasons of hospitality, his uncle said, “But you know they never did anything.” To which he replied, in the best administrative tone, “Does one ever know?”
His uncle made no further comment, taking fright because he had just realised that, despite appearances, this wasn’t his real nephew. He had just realised that the boy standing there before him, laughing, was the simulacrum of his nephew, with a recording of speech inside him which, through physical possession, borrowed the voice and body of his dead, zombified nephew.
In another version of this story, the nephew says, “The people who disappeared deserved what they got.”
The uncle—”Including your parents?”
The nephew—”Including my parents.”
The uncle—”Why do you say that? You know very well they did nothing.”
“Nothing,” says the nephew, who had begun to laugh. “Nothing?”
It’s the story of the three men together in the prison cell. The first says, “I got 20 years for telling a joke.” The second says, “I got 15 years for laughing.” The third says, “I got 10 years for doing nothing.” “You’re lying,” say the other two, “doing nothing—that’s only a five-year stretch.”
* * *
When I say these things today, a flood of stories gushes up from some obscure wellspring of memory, to which the appropriate reaction is sometimes, like the zombie’s uncle, to say nothing. How, otherwise, are we to conceive that, through special education, the hatred of innocence can be made acceptable in the eyes of children?
Kossi Efoui, The Shadow of Things to Come, translated from the French by Chris Turner, published by Seagull Books, 2013. Published in arrangement with Seagull Books.