By Mathias Énard

Open Letter Books
December 2010, Paperback
517 pages



the landscape of the Po plain is very dark also, little fireflies of farms and factories are disturbing ghosts, in Venice at the Santa Lucia station I had wondered for a while about going back to Paris, another night train was going south at around the same time, headed for Sicily, terminus Syracuse, a journey of almost twenty-four hours, I should have taken it, if there had been someone on the platform to guide me, a demiurge, or an oracle I would have taken the train to Syracuse to settle on the rocky island on the slopes of Etna home of Hephaestus the lame, who often sprinkles lava onto the peasants and Mafiosi taking cover in the countryside, maybe it’s because of that volcano that Malcolm Lowry settled in Taormina in 1954, in that village that looks so pretty it seems fake, he had written Under the Volcano ten years earlier, maybe it was his wife Margerie who chose the destination, a change of air, Lowry the drunkard had definite need for a change of air, he joined the contingent of Anglo-Saxons who peopled the Zone, Joyce, Durrell, Hemingway, Pound the fascist and Burroughs the visionary, Malcolm didn’t let go of his bottle as he watched the swordfish gleam in the Bay of Naxos, he got drunk morning to night with a serious steadfastness, their little flower-covered house is too beautiful for him, he says, it’s all too beautiful, too brilliant, too luminous, he can’t manage to write, not even a letter, his eyes dazzled by the too-blue Mediterranean, Margerie is happy, she goes for walks all day long, she visits the archeological sites, the steep inlets, she returns home to find Malcolm drunk, drunk and desperate, holding a copy of Ulysses or Finnegans Wake that he can’t manage to read, even drink doesn’t console him, the pages of his notebooks remain desperately blank, life remains empty, Margerie, fed up, decides to lock up all the alcohol in the house, so Lowry goes out to stroll through the little streets, he climbs up to the ruins of the Greek amphitheater and watches the spectacle of the stars on the sea beyond the stage wall, he feels a powerful hatred, he wants to drink, he wants to drink, everything is closed, he almost knocks on the first house he sees to beg for a glass of grappa, one drink, to drink one drink, anything, he goes back home, he’ll try to break open the hutch where his wife has locked up the liquor, he works away at the little wooden door, nothing to be done, he’s too drunk already, he can’t manage it, it’s her fault, it’s his wife’s fault, Margerie’s who’s sleeping after being stupefied by sleeping pills, she’ll give him the key, she’ll pay, Margerie who’s pumping all the talent out of him, who’s preventing him from writing, Lowry goes into the bedroom, his wife is stretched out on her back, her eyes closed, Malcolm goes over to her to touch her, he’s standing up, he’s thirsty, with an infinite thirst, an infinite rage, he stammers out insults, she doesn’t wake up, he feels as if he’s shouting though, the bitch is sleeping and he’s dying of thirst, she’ll see, he puts his hands around her neck, his thumbs against her Adam’s apple and he squeezes, Margerie instantly opens her eyes, she fights Lowry, presses harder and harder, he squeezes, he squeezes the carotids and the trachea, he’ll kill her, the more he squeezes the weaker he feels, he looks at Margerie’s eyes rolling in terror, her arms thumping him weakly, he is strangling Margerie and he’s the one who is out of breath, the harder he presses the more he observes his wife’s face becoming purplish-blue the more he feels sick, he doesn’t loosen his grip, despite her pummeling him with her fists and knees, he’s the one he’s in the process of killing, it’s no longer Margerie’s neck he has in his hands but his own, his own face as in a mirror, he is asphyxiated, he is asphyxiating himself, his fingers let go, his fingers let go little by little and he collapses on the floor, unconscious, while Margerie tries to cry and get her breath, in the saffron-yellow dawn that’s showing through the Persian blinds: in Sicily deadly island Lowry and his wife lived eight months of hell under the shadow of their second volcano, every other day the villagers were obliged to carry Malcolm home on their back, when the fishermen discovered him, at dawn, collapsed in a street, conquered by the steep slope and by sleep, in the end maybe I did well not to take the train to Syracuse, who would I have strangled in the Sicilian night, grappling with the bottle and my savagery—my father, whenever, as a child, I broke something or mistreated Leda my sister, always said to me you’re a savage, and my mother intervened then to chide him, no your son isn’t a savage, he’s your son, and now a little closer to the end of a world I wonder if the great thin man my pater wasn’t right, as the train is approaching Reggio capital of Emilia with the gentle name, I am a savage, brutal and coarse, who despite all the civilized threads that all the books I’ve read have clothed me in remains a wild primitive capable of slitting an innocent person’s throat of strangling a female and eating with my hands, my father looked at me strangely the last few years, he saw the uncouth brute behind the functionary from the Ministry of Defense, he guessed, for almost ten years, to what point my savagery might have gone and even at his last hour, ill, pale on his sickbed, he couldn’t keep from staring at me, scrutinizing me with his gaze to remove my jacket, my shirt, my highly civilized human shell and lay bare my hairy chest and my ritual scarrings, traces of crude and violent humor, and I averted my eyes, I avoided his nagging and silent questions, until the end—until precisely eleven o’clock in the morning at the Ivry cemetery, one spring day neither grey nor blue, where we buried my father’s questions in a “family” vault as they say where the dead man is supposed to find a little warmth near his relatives, accompanied by the tears of the living all the way up to the welcoming arms of the dead, beneath a tombstone freshened with a new inscription in the Ivry cemetery the entrance to which I am looking for on this spring morning of the new millennium, late, I see in the distance a group bustling about a grave with a verger in full uniform, I hurry over, I almost run in the lanes I narrowly miss sprawling onto a gravestone as I take a shortcut through the plots, obviously this isn’t the right funeral, I immediately realize the fatal error, I see an appropriately long-faced employee whom I ask for directions: section 43, he replies, is on the other side of the street, in the little cemetery and I can’t stop myself from laughing to myself thinking that this man has a voice from beyond the grave, somber and almost inaudible, here everyone whispers, of course, and in this nervous state that only the act of arriving late to the burial of your own father can produce, of having already missed the Mass and joining the family right at the cemetery, ashamed, with rings under my eyes, my breath no doubt fetid, my eyes crusted with sleep reddened not by tears but by alcohol and lack of sleep, ashamed and guilty for having forgotten where the family vault is in which my grandparents already lie, I go out through a little gate cross a wall-lined street panting I get ready to confront the stares of the weeping women mother and daughter on the arm of the brother-in-law he has to be moved too now I’m late I enter the other part of the Ivry cemetery and it’s there, I recognize it, the proportions, the lanes, to my right the Resistants of Mont-Valérien and then Manouchian and the bearded Resistants on the Affiche Rouge wanted poster, on my left I can see my family, my family’s friends, my sister in black, my inevitable brother-in-law, but no trace of my mother, they’re getting the casket out of the car, the body of Sarpedon, son of Zeus, carried towards his family, nicely washed, nicely combed, nicely embalmed, they strain to slide it into the hole—I arrive, my sister looks at me reprovingly, her husband looks away, the verger has a birthmark on his face, he officiates in a dignified manner, now you may bid him a final farewell, touch the coffin or else toss in a handful of earth, as you like, I’m late so I have trouble believing it’s my father in this gleaming oak, the man of the electric trains, of 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzles, my mother appears suddenly and yells Francis, Francis to me, then clings to my arm, she is defeated, done in she pulls herself together straightens up stares at me searches out my eyes which I lower like a child, say goodbye to your father, suddenly serious stiff and powerful, oprostite se od otsa, so I turn to the brand-new casket, how can I say goodbye to him, I mechanically recite our Father who art in heaven, and so on, where Hypnos and Thanatos are carrying you, washed in the Scamander, locked in the flesh-eating coffin, you too were a warrior, in your own way, Leda is weeping in the arms of her husband the Parisian banker, I apparently have no more tears, I said goodbye to my father yesterday during a solitary funeral banquet at my place in the dark I thought about the electric train about Algiers the white about my wild childhood I collapsed drunk fully dressed as the clock struck 5:00 in the morning and now in the midst of my family encumbered by their presence all I can do is stumble through a belabored Our Father, the sweat on my forehead disguised as tears—who is it in this sarcophagus, who is he, is he the draftee sent to Algeria, the Catholic engineer, the husband of my mother, the lover of puzzles, the son of the locksmith from Gardanne near Marseille, the father of my sister, is he the same one, in the Ivry cemetery a few hundred meters away from soldiers who died in military hospitals in the First World War, there are even a few slabs for Serbian poilus, how did they end up here, maybe they were treated in a military hospital nearby, their faces smashed in, suffering from tuberculosis, infections of all kinds, far from Niš or Belgrade, very far, beneath a suburban cross, in the same cemetery where the bodies of the guillotined lie, hidden in a corner, those bodies that between 1864 and 1972 no one sought to claim, did they carry their heads in their hands in their graves, like Saint Denis patron saint of Paris, or beside them, or between their legs to reduce the size of the coffin—maybe they were cremated, those outcasts victims of prosecution and punishment, murderers who have turned grotesque beneath their marble slabs, next to my father assistant interrogator in a villa in Algiers, the Christian engineer specialist in torture by immersion, along with the steel bar and electricity, he never spoke about it, of course, never, but he knew when he looked at me, he had seen, spotted in me symptoms that he knew, the stigmata, the burns that appear on the hands of torturers—my mother is still clinging to my shoulder in silence, my father de­­scends into the tomb, my sister redoubles her crying and my hangover becomes phenomenal, the crosses, the angels on the mausoleums are dancing, the verger waves his aspergillum of despair, the sanctimonious ladies cross themselves something sounds like endless bells or bees it’s a bird that’s begun to sing a bus at the Porte de Choisy or a train in the Italian countryside scattered with farms and factories, infinitely flat, in the outskirts of beautiful bourgeois Reggio, once my father was in the ground friends family colleagues filed by us to offer us their condolences, the old ones who were in Algeria too, I recognize a few of them, weeping companions in arms, surprised and frightened by how young the dead man was, they shake my hand warmly, ah Francis, ah Francis, your father, and they don’t add anything else, they greet my mother in a dignified way, my sister, and then comes the turn of the Croats, my uncle traveled all the way from Canada to be by my mother’s side during this ordeal, he kisses me on both cheeks, the bear from Calgary, giving way to endless cousins, then to unknown people, whom my mother moved greets and thanks indistinctly in Croatian, understood only by the Serbian and Montenegrin soldiers buried a few yards away, I can’t stand still, I have a headache, my eyes are burning, I need to urinate, I’m thirsty, and the image of my father the abstemious, in the hospital, appears now on the train window with no other landscape than a few glimmers of light flickering in the dark, my neighbor the Pronto reader has a good torturer’s head on him, I can easily picture him inserting blunt objects into a Muslim girl’s vagina whose shaven sex made a whole company laugh, on the hills of Algiers the white where my father preceded me into the Zone, he landed on August 22, 1956, on a military transport from Marseille, a cadet in the Signals Corps, nothing that would predispose him to becoming a hero, student engineer then student officer radio specialist, sent after six months’ training to the “events” that were taking a turn for the worse, conscripted to Military Intelligence, in other words to the organization of systematic roundups—did he remember, on his deathbed, the men the women the women the men who had filed by him that year, before he asked to be transferred to an obscure douar to take a more active part in the pacification process, as he wrote in the letter to his superior, and before finding himself chief of a radio section in a mountain deserted by its inhabitants who were “re­­grouped” lower down, I suspect he insisted on abandoning Algiers disgusted, tired of the rapes and the beatings, his military dossier, I was able to obtain a copy from the great spiderweb on the Boulevard Mortier, attests his summons to a regimental order obtained in April 1958 during a nice little operation nicknamed Love by a lyrical commander: a few villages burned down, some FLN rebels in full flight—no prisoners, unfortunately, no one to torture aside from some civilians discovered in a dark cave quickly cleared of rats, had my pater known pleasure for the first time in Algiers, in a basement where his comrades shouted Virgin! Virgin! Virgin! as he clumsily inserted his penis into the vulva of a Chryseis weeping from shame and pain, he didn’t look at her, his eyes were fixed on her young chest with the black nipples, and urged by the shouts he quickly ejaculated, before withdrawing his bloody instrument to bravos and cheers, she was a virgin, she was a virgin, maiden! maiden! the basement smelled nicely of rancid alcohol sweat fear blood gun lubricants used to lubricate anuses forced open with a bottle of anisette, a training grenade, or to conduct electricity and prevent the flesh from burning too quickly, when the electric-shock torture is no longer manual, of course, but a transformer of the same kind (coils and elements) as the one that delighted me when I was little, to vary the speed of the trains just as my father, in his day, varied the intensity of the shouts and contractions of the muscles strained to breaking point—I remember in high school I had related a biology experiment to my parents, we applied a continuous current to the nerve endings of a dissected frog and it moved, its feet contracted obedient to the experimenter and his 4.5 volt battery, I had explained this experiment in detail and my mother had said “what cruelty, poor animal,” I remember my father hadn’t added anything, he had taken refuge in silence, he had looked away without commenting at all on the fate of the frog or on electric barbarity, he was silent, once again, just as he was silent once and for all that day in his grave, victim perhaps of cancer remorse or guilt, and I arrive at his funeral after having spent hours sifting through files and papers about him, after having learned that for a year he had been assigned to “special interrogations” for military information described in the secret reports of the Intelligence Service, after having retraced his glorious escapades in remote douars and hamlets, the son followed the shadow of the father, the grandfather and many others without realizing it, as I bury my progenitor I think of the dead who are accompanying him into the grave, tortured, raped, killed unarmed or fallen in combat, they flit about in the Ivry cemetery, around us, can my mother see them, does she know, of course, he did what he had to do, that’s her phrase, like mine I did what had to be done, for the homeland, for Bog our God for the cemeteries who call out—I see again the monumental cemetery in Vukovar, its white crosses on one side and its black gravestones on the other, a cemetery stuck in time, frozen, fixed in November 1991, in Vukovar death seems to have gone on vacation on November 21st exactly, after three months of hard labor, tired and sated: I went back there not long after my father’s Ivry funeral, to see eastern Slavonia again Osijek, Vinkovci and especially to see Vukovar restored to the fatherland, Vukovar where I had never gone, which I hoped to free on my arrival in October 1991 and which fell a month later to the hands of the Yugoslav army and Serb paramilitaries, the taste of bile at the fall of Vukovar, Hector and Aeneas inside our lines, the camp invaded, the hollow vessels threatened, and fear, the fear of losing, of being conquered, of disappearing of going back to the vacuity of things our useless arms broken against the bronze of T55 tanks, I put my black hat on again and once my father was in the ground I left to travel around Croatia, alone, I wanted Vlaho to go with me but he was too busy bottling or casking or something, and also he didn’t much want to go back there into the humidity of the Pannonian autumn, to see Vukovar, the place of wolves, well-named—the draftees from Vojvodina and central Serbia tucked into it wholeheartedly, those mustached wolves who looked as if they’d come straight out of a poem by Njegoš, they genially massacred everything they could, at the fall of Vukovar we had gone mad, Andrija had gone mad, rigid, crazy with pain, furious, dangerous, in a rage, full of hate and brave, indomitable, for if the city was a sad symbol for us for him it was much more, perch, pike, friends from bars from familiar houses a first kiss by the Danube and everything that attaches you to a city, I passed through his village I had never seen before either, his parents who had been relocated to Zagreb suburbs had never gone back there—their house was still in ruins, with its little garden, its gate and a big shell hole in the front wall, obscene eye, I then headed for Vinkovci before turning left towards Vukovar, on my way between Osijek and Vin­kovci I didn’t recognize anything, none of my battlefields, no wolves in sight despite the late hour, Vinkovci looked placid and sleepy, the suburbs were dotted with wrecked or razed houses, abandoned, burned, bombed factories: I was driving through what had been Serbian lines at the steering wheel of my brand-new Golf from Avis, in the rotten evening under a freezing drizzle, and I saw the cemetery, a few kilometers away from Vukovar, what was left of the sun went away quickly and I stopped, a big flat field a parking lot roomy enough for thirty tour buses, flags, a monolithic monument, it didn’t take long for memory to settle here I thought, the nation had reasserted its rights to its martyrs, the brand-new cemetery on a territory that had just recently been reconquered where death held sway ten years earlier, all the tombstones bore witness to this, died October 20, 1991, died October 21, 1991, died November 2, 1991, and this family, husband wife and son surprised probably by a shell all died together on November 5, 1991, and so on, up to November 19, the apogee, massacre, crosses—a little further on the cemetery for those who hadn’t fallen during the war looked disordered, alive, almost, but here, in the field of black marble, I felt as if I were wandering round in a confused military necropolis, where all the soldiers were civilians, hastily dressed in the uniform of sacrifice, the Croatian flag flew to embrace the souls of its new children just as at the time it kept us warm on our fighting biceps, the shield Checquy Argent and Gules caressed 938 white crosses, night was falling gently, I was alone in the middle of all these dead bodies, filled with a dull and tenacious sadness I got back into the Golf, I drove to Vukovar, to the Hotel Danube a decrepit red tower by the river’s edge, I walked along the bank, caught sight of another monument, a huge cross by the water’s edge, the center of town stank of ghosts death and mud, I passed the door of a bar in the famous street of baroque arcades completely re­­built, young people with shaved heads gave me strange looks, I downed two, three rakija almost all at one go which won me the bartender’s respect, I felt very empty, I had just lost the battle of Vukovar a second time, the battle against sadness and despair, I passed near the old covered market burned bombarded abandoned, I bought a bottle of local plum brandy in a grocery store a package of peanuts I went back to the Hotel Danube to collapse on the bed my eyes turned towards Novi Sad and Belgrade on the surface of the majestic river and I drank, I drank as I thought of Andrija’s anger of his tears after the city fell, Andi a toast for you, for your rage that day or the next I forget when Fate sent us two prisoners after an ambush, one was wounded, the other unhurt was trembling with fear he said my father has money, my father has money, if you let me go he’ll give you a lot of money, he was too afraid to lie, we had picked them up when they were trying to desert, I was tempted to let them run, I was about to hand them over to a grunt so he could take them to Osijek, but Andrija arrived, are you out of your mind? You forgot Vukovar already? Not one of them should escape, and he machinegunned them at length, right away, without hesitating, looking them in the eyes, fifteen cartridges each in the chest, on my bed in the Hotel Danube a toast for Andi great shepherd of warriors, a toast for the stupefied gaze of the two little Serbs when the brass pierced them, a toast for the Vukovar cemetery in the falling night, for the Ivry cemetery one spring morning, for the soldiers of ’14, the Resistants the ones condemned to death and a toast for my pater probably a murderer neither a Resistant nor a man condemned to death who is keeping them company today, as the train slows down to enter Reggio in gentle and beautiful Emilia, luminous for those coming from the darkness, an Italian city where the churches the squares and the arcades have not been demolished with mortar fire, the train station is small, all length and no width, streaked with white neon lights, a few travelers are waiting on the platform muffled in coats, scarves, on the opposite track a train is passing, a freight train, headed for Modena, loaded with tanks of milk—there was probably no need for a train for the ten Jews rounded up in Reggio at the end of 1943, they must have transported them by truck, right nearby, twenty kilometers away, to the Fossoli camp antechamber of Poland, but there is a plaque, in town, near the big synagogue in the heart of the former ghetto, which lists the names of these ten people who were eliminated 2,000 kilometers away from their home, whereas just ten Carabinieri bullets would have sufficed to spare them the torments of the journey, and would have earned them a burial, secret no doubt, but a place in the earth where, like the massacred ones in Vukovar, they would wait for someone to find them again, they didn’t have that luck, they were offered a piece of cloud in the heavy sky of Galicia—Fossoli transit camp through which passed, from autumn 1943 to August 1944, most of the Jews deported from Italy, before the camp was moved to Bolzano near the Austrian border, strange perseverance, the war was mostly lost, Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic in Salò was taking on water everywhere and yet the German administration went to the trouble of organizing convoys, transports for the partisans and the last Jews from Bologna or Milan, to Fossoli then Bolzano and finally to Birkenau, one final effort to make Italy Judenrein or Judenfrei, according to the nuances of the time, the ten Jews from Reggio who hadn’t gone into exile were perhaps caught at home, near the synagogue on the Via dell’Aquila, maybe denounced, maybe not, and went to join the Resistants behind the barbed wire, before being shoved into one more train, towards the Polish terminus, where there arrived, that year of 1944, the Jews from Hungary and the 60,000 last inhabitants of the Łódź ghetto, among them the relatives and grandparents of Nathan Strasberg the Mossad officer, at least the ones that hadn’t already been gassed in Chełmno in 1942—Birkenau, where all the tracks join, from Thessalonica to Marseille, including Milan, Reggio, and Rome, before going up in smoke, my train has windows, some were deported in passenger cars, the Jews from Prague, the Greek Jews who even paid for their ticket to Poland, they sold them a ticket for death, and the community leaders negotiated bitterly over the price of the journey with the German authorities, strange cynicism of the Nazi bureaucrats, Eichmann, Höss, Stangl, calm men, quiet family men, whose tranquility contrasted with the virile belligerent hysteria of Himmler or Heydrich, Franz Stangl loved flowers and well-ordered gardens, animals, during his trip to Italy in Udine and Trieste he loved the gentle landscapes of the Veneto, and the sea, then he loved the old city of Damascus and its odors of cardamom, and his wife, and his children, the little Austrian cop who wasn’t very smart the murderer of several hundred thousand Jews denied having beaten a single one, he even convinced himself that their death was easy, piled up between four concrete walls asphyxiated with the exhaust gas of a diesel engine it took twenty minutes to die, when everything goes right, when everything went right he said in twenty minutes it was in the bag, but of course Bełzec, Sobibór, or Treblinka were amateurish compared to Au­­schwitz, his colleague Höss had set up his business well, his compartmentalized factories of pain functioned to perfection, until the end they worked on bettering the machine, they were even planning to make it bigger, big enough to welcome all of Europe if necessary, all the Slavic vermin and all the subversives, without hatred, without anger, just solutions to problems, for a problem requires solutions just as a question calls for a response—my father son of a Resistant participated actively in the resolution to the Algerian problem, submachine gun in hand, and lies today in the Ivry cemetery, beside the gunned-down men of Mont Valérien, a torturer despite himself, a rapist too probably despite himself, executioner despite himself, of course nothing to do with Höss, Stangl, and the others, my father born in 1934 near Marseille believed in God in technology in progress in mankind in education in morality, the train gets underway again, slowly leaves Reggio Emilia with a grinding noise, how slow it is, how ominously slow, I suddenly feel as if the names in the briefcase are dripping onto me like the putrefying fluids of a corpse forgotten in a train car, I’m tempted to open it but it contains nothing visible, digitalized documents on shiny disks, five years of voracious obsession ever since Harmen Gerbens the Dutch camp guard, five years playing a historian of shadows or a spy of memory, now it’s over, in a manner of speaking, I could just as well have gone on for ten more years, but there’s Rome that’s waiting for me and the new life, the money from the Vatican, beginning again, beginning everything again under the name Yvan Deroy, goodbye Francis ex-warrior Defense Delegate, after my father’s death my mother shut herself up in widowhood, she’s a very dignified widow, she’s a professional at mourning, accompanied by her friends and my sister at Mass twice a week and at the cemetery Sunday morning after service, she lives for her dead husband in the same way she lived for him when he was alive, and when she isn’t at the church or at Ivry she plays Bee­thoven and Schumann on her piano until she has cramps in her fingers, how well you play, Mama, Leda spends her days at home listening to her, she goes back to her place just in time to prepare dinner for her husband, she lives 200 meters away, she badgers my mother from dawn to dusk so she’ll take on students again, at my age, she replies, at my age, my mother however is barely sixty years old, I forget when exactly she stopped teaching, when those well-mannered teenagers stopped coming to the house who, for me, were an unattainable dream, I remember one more precisely, she must have been three years older than me and came twice a week at around five or six o’clock, I was just getting back from school—she always wore a skirt, she was a little plump, with a round face, long blond hair tied back, she greeted me nicely when I hurried to open the door to her, I took her duffel coat as I observed her breasts, they seemed giant to me, I breathed in the smell of her coat as I hung it up, and I watched her walk into the study, the piano room which we called the study, her music scores and notebooks in hand, I spied, with the door ajar, on the girl approaching my mother to see how she settled down by the piano and lifted her skirt sometimes to position herself on the stool, a mechanical gesture, a terribly erotic second for me, I thought I could glimpse her underwear through her wool stockings, I felt the friction of her buttocks against the burgundy felt, the movement of her thigh when she leaned on the pedal, and I got a terrible erection, an immense desire that drove me to the bathroom as a Liszt etude or a Chopin Polonaise (she was gifted) resounded, the rhythm of her fingers on the keyboard must have been, I imagine, my own on my personal instrument, in desire and in music, while I hated Liszt, Chopin and all those horrible maternal notes I came terribly, too quickly, the desired student was made to start again because of her tempo and it was my mother’s voice more than once that interrupted my pleasure, with her no, no, no, not so fast, not so fast, from the neighboring room she seemed to be directing my masturbation herself, start over, start over, with that martial tone that had the gift of making me enraged beyond belief, with a rage mixed with shame, as if she had surprised me with my thing in my hand, as if she couldn’t leave me alone with this student, she took her away from me and the girl left once the lesson was over I gave her back her coat, usually my mother called me immediately, your homework, stop gaping, your homework, your father will be home soon, obviously my sister had already settled down pen in hand, so I took a malicious pleasure in shoving her elbow to cause a nice blot on her impeccable page, which could provoke tears of sadness or, according to her humor, a frustrated anger similar to my own and we’d start fighting until my teenage strength got the better of her, she ended up on the bottom I im­­mobilized her with my knees on her arms and tortured her as I threatened to let my saliva fall onto her face, she twisted around in horror, I caught the thread of spit at the last instant, she sobbed, conquered, that was my vengeance over those women of the family who prevented me from having pretty women from outside and usually at that exact moment my father arrived, alerted by Leda’s shouts as soon as he crossed the threshold into the apartment he said to me you’re a savage, leave your sister alone, which provoked the immediate intervention of my mother, no, your son is not a savage, etc., I belonged by rights to my mother, I was her kid she defended me against the male’s intervention, I then had to apologize to the little tattletale pest erase the ink stain on her notebook and start my homework dreaming about the breasts the buttocks of the young pianist until dinner—in our family alchemy my father ruled from his silence and his reserve my mother was an authoritarian regent who saw the world like a music score, hard to interpret, but able to be deciphered with order effort and application and that’s how she brought us up, order, effort, work, she the exile who hadn’t known her own country had constructed herself in exercises, in Scriabin’s etudes which are the hardest thing in the world, and even though she had given up her career as a concert pianist when she met her husband she preserved that power, that arid ability to rule over, to direct, to make an effort, in the same way she made an effort to control her fingers on the piano by an iron discipline, my mother would have made an excellent soldier, like Intissar the Palestinian, enduring, obedient, giving herself the means to fulfill her mission, at least as much as my father: his sober, even austere, nature predisposed him to the barracks as much as to the monastery, as at ease in the Port-Royal Abbey as at the École Militaire, Catholic, respectful of the Law more than he was a lover of order, with an idea of the homeland and the Republic that came to him from his modest family where no one ever studied beyond high school, for him my mother represented culture, culture and the bourgeoisie, a bourgeoisie brought down by exile of course, but for that very reason accessible, on the other hand I wonder how my mother, for whom social origin and even race are so important, could have fallen in love to the point of defying the prejudices of her family to marry him—maybe she had seen in him his Christian virtues, guessed his patience, his resignation, maybe also glimpsed that crack behind the silence, the wound from fierce Algeria, which so resembled that of her own father, nonsense after all an engineer with a promising career wasn’t such a bad catch and, even if he had the immense drawback of not being Croatian, this son-in-law was altogether suitable, fear not, they’d teach him to dance the kolo, provided he’s neither Orthodox nor Jewish nor communist, that’s what counted, besides hadn’t my uncle the bear from Calgary married a girl from Zagreb of an excellent family, they could allow this eccentricity for the youngest girl—that’s what I imagine, but I suppose my mother didn’t leave them the choice, tired of her tours as a child prodigy, a teenage prodigy then an average concert performer, she chose her existence with the same determination she had at the age of seven when she learned the sonatas of Scarlatti by heart to play them blindfolded to audiences of old people, the greatest Yugoslav pianist of all time was the France-Soir headline, which made my grandfather mad with rage, Yugoslav, they said Yugoslav, why not make it Serbian while they’re at it, my mother decided, she didn’t make Achilles’s wager, she preferred a home to a hypothetical glory, she carried out the destiny for which she had been prepared for years, to be a wife, a mother, and even a mother of one of the fighters who would liberate the homeland from the Titoist yoke, and her piano was a gentle pastime for a lady, giving concerts was perfect but it wasn’t an ac­­complishment, it wasn’t her place, her place was with us at home, my mother made that choice, without regret, weighing the pros and the cons, she chose my father and great silence—how much I too would have liked to decide, to have been offered Achilles’s choice, instead of letting myself be carried into the darkness from cellar to cellar, from shelter to shelter, from zone to zone, up to this train that’s crawling in the infinite straight line of the Po plain, between Reggio and Modena, with the thousands of names in my suitcase and an Italian Adonis lover of gossip as my sole company, is it really my own doing, this departure, it could be some kind of machination of the Boulevard, of the Agency, a conspiracy hatched with my already suspicious recruitment, now I’m becoming paranoid, it’s the effect of the drug and of years of espionage, let’s call a spade a spade, in 1995 I swapped the Kal­ashnikov for deadly weapons that were much more subtle but just as effective, chases, hideouts, interrogations, denunciations, de­­portations, blackmail, haggling, manipulations, lies, which ended up in assassinations wrecked lives men dragged in the mud twisted fates secrets brought to light, could I leave all that behind me, leave behind me the war and the Boulevard the way you forget a hat in a bar, where could I take refuge, in the hard resolution of my mother, in the silence of my father, in the bodyless grave of Andrija, in my own suitcase, in the briefcase of the Vatican light of the world, a little place for my father the lover of electric trains, a little place in the suitcase for my bitter silent pater