Monday
Aug152011

Demolishing Nisard

By Eric Chevillard



Dalkey Archive
July 2011
160 pages
978-1564786333

 

  

It's high time we levied punitive sanctions against Nisard, and I mean draconian. Confiscation of his assets—ill-gotten, no one will be surprised to learn—will limit his options and opportunities. He will for instance be forced to give up on acquiring the atom bomb. Good-bye to the easy life for him, kneeling secretaries, lackeys on every floor. As for his cherished dream of controlling the short-term market, he'll have to bid it farewell in every language on earth. Obviously, the ideal would be to ruin him outright, and even reduce him to beggary! Nisard below the poverty line, there's a thought to delight every pure heart. Nisard huddled in a door­way, wrapped in grimy rags, dying of hunger and cold, what a beautiful, naïve image! My box of colored pencils lies open before me. Nisard's gaping shoe reveals his swollen foot, blue and violet, and now I've become the painter of ulcers most eagerly courted by publishers of medical encyclopedias. I have three shades of red at my disposal, I can tinker with the color scheme to my heart's content. It costs nothing, changes nothing, but I find it relaxing. Still, it's imperative that I not lose my anger. Brave hearts must not allow themselves to be lulled by illusions: they lose all their fight. They drift off to sleep. Nisard has a secret account in every bank that doesn't look at its customers too closely (and have you ever seen a pair of eyes beneath a bank's pretentious pediment?); no doubt he has a treasure buried beneath most of the trees in our forests as well. He will have bought our houses out from under us before we can dispossess him of a single sou. We know his ways all too well. He's a vile, viscous octopus, a bandit.

 

"This little literary quarrel of yours is turning a tad vicious, don't you think?"

"Aren't you getting a bit bored with playing the moderator, Métilde?"

"Oh, I most certainly am! So very bored!"

She raises her hard little fist, and then pow! right in Nisard's nose.

How I love her!

 

I'm trying to make up my mind. On the one hand there's the Coni-bear trap, an ingenious device, exquisitely sensitive, designed to kill the animal by breaking its back or neck in one clean snap, although in reality it more often survives, its body broken, for many agonizing hours, days, nights. And then, on the other, the Leghold trap, a pair of steel jaws fitted with a powerful spring and affixed to a base whose center is an articulated platform that gives way under the animal's weight, acting as a trigger: the jaws snap violently shut around the surprised creature's leg, its only hope of escape an excruciating self-mutilation; more likely, it will perish after hours of fruitless struggle and horrific suffering. But why this hesitation? Clearly, the answer would be to set out one of each, Conibear and Leghold both, on the footpaths and lanes Nisard frequents. Piano-wire snares have been known to slice their prey into two segments, assuming no bone stands in the way. We'll put some of those out as well. But did I breathe one word of foregoing the branch-and-leaf-covered hole with the sharpened stick at the bottom? Let's get digging!

 

(Word has it that black marketeers trafficking in surplus Red Army weaponry are offering land mines for purchase. Name your price. Write care of my publisher, envelope marked "please forward.")

 

"Modern civilization has built two very fine things in Nîmes: a pub­lic promenade and a prison. No notion of human civilization can be truly complete unless it provides for the evil in men as well as the good. On the one hand a prison, and on the other, for free citizens, a promenade: here, then, is a complete notion of civilization." Thus does Nisard see the world, and such are the plans for the public welfare incubating in his beneficent heart. Let there be no doubt, he'll throw himself into this project with every ounce of strength he has in him. For his tribute to civilization and its undertakings in Nîmes is tinged with implicit reproaches and regrets—why, for example, did they not build the promenade directly in front of the prison? So elegantly simple, so utterly self-evident! The spirit of civilization would be still more powerfully affirmed: strolling past the sinister stronghold, the good people of Nîmes delight all the more in their innocence, or at least their impunity; meanwhile, behind the walls, the prisoners expiate their crimes—or, in some cases, their misfortunes, their unshakable jinx—all the more tor­mented by the loss of their freedom in that through the bars they can see Désiré Nisard trotting along from morning to evening, one hand clutching a cone of hot chestnuts or ice cream, depend­ing on the season, and on his arm, one evening a week, whatever the weather, a voluptuous, hired female companion. Thus does he seek to punish vice and reward virtue, offering each up to the other for the edification of all. For Nisard is the sort of philoso­pher who relies on carefully chosen comparisons to counteract the relativity of things: his appetite wouldn't be so voracious if so many hungry men were not covetously eyeing his share.

 

Désiré's Pen-Case

1) If, at the end of this first feather quill, you were hoping to find Nisard's pulsating body, what a letdown:  a stuffed stiff!

2) This one scrapes over the paper like chalk on a chalkboard, and indeed, toothaches and tedious lessons follow.

3) The third left behind a long string of hackneyed ideas, but there's a great difference between the parrot's colorful verbiage and the mechanical repetition produced by this quill in its mono­chrome voice.

4) Yet another poultry feather that will never know what it means to fly, or to write.

5) The fifth is coarse and gray. So Nisard—but who would be surprised to hear it?—wrote with rat feathers as well!

6) From the sixth flowed still more regrets and sad remem­brances—the egg itself a sarcophagus.

7) The seventh quill, twisted, deformed, almost completely stripped of its barbs and barbules, was Nisard's pen of choice for his one-sided amorous correspondence with a peahen.

8) Well-chewed is this one, so difficult is the art of writing, and so persistent the taste of turkey.

9) The ninth plume belonged to the Cheyenne tracker who led Custer to Black Kettle's camp near the Washita River, where more than a hundred women and children were slaughtered. My ques­tion: what's it doing here?

10) Allergic to the swallow's plumes, Nisard produced with this one nothing more than a bitter, grating little cough.

11) The eleventh's nib is red with dried blood, as if Nisard used his own veins as his inkwell. But no: rather, between each word, he stuck it back into the body of the unfortunate chicken.

12 and 13) The twelfth and thirteenth were never used—only a decapitated cobra is as loveable.

14) The fourteenth is the down with which a sniveling Nisard scratched at his contemporaries.

15) The fifteenth is crushed and cracked: another angel fallen from on high.

16) The sixteenth has a bend in the middle, and points off at a curious angle. This is the finest of the bunch: it turned on Nisard.

17) Another clutch of stiff, prickly quills, which explains why none are left around the vulture's neck.

18) If, at the other end of the eighteenth, you were expecting to find a nice fat goose or a tender young pigeon, what a letdown: only that same chicken-livered buzzard, yet again.

19) The nineteenth is not actually a quill at all, but the grousing, chattering beak of a magpie.

20) And the twentieth is a coelacanth scale: never did any plume fly so low as between Nisard's fingers.

Such is the quill-case of that old feather-duster Nisard, the source of all dust: the birds' tiny coffin.

 

Perhaps, all along, the feathered arrow served no other purpose than to keep plumes out of Nisard's clutches? Glorious archers, firing toward the heavens or the horizon to rid the world of that terrible threat, I hereby offer you my homage, I hereby offer you my thanks. You did all you could. You alone, perhaps, merit no re­buke. Whistling merrily, your arrows clove the air, carrying their feathers far from Nisard, disappearing into the heavens or beyond the horizon, never to fall or return, and every vanished arrow meant four feathers that Nisard would never dip into an inkwell, I don't know if you grasp what that means. Four feathers that Nisard would never dip into an inkwell! I'm proud of each and every one of my sentences. I would like my reader to be so fortunate or so good as to give each one equal consideration, to meditate on them all, to devote to each a day and a night, to retreat to a mountain grotto first with one sentence and then with another, and return to the valley only after having fully extracted their sense, but I know that this cannot be, alas, that my reader sometimes lets himself be distracted by the trivial occupations and obligations of his own ex­istence, that he has various inexplicable tasks to attend to outside my book, but I think I may justifiably ask that he linger a bit over that one sentence, at least—and really, what matter if this means foregoing the dubious pleasures of his holidays or his senseless passion for two ocular globes and a mouthful of teeth—for I have written nothing more joyous than that, that poem of the Golden Age: every arrow that vanished meant four feathers that Nisard would never dip into an inkwell. I will make my peace with my insufferable contemporaries only when they once more, en masse, take up the invigorating and hygienic practice that is archery.

 

And what about birds, come to think of it? What purpose do birds serve? Why birds, if not to waft feathers far from Nisard's reach? And suddenly I find myself gripped by an infinite tenderness for birds, for their individual exertions as they vigorously race away from Nisard, for their mass migrations, in limitless throngs, away from Nisard. Fragile bodies, tiny lungs, stout hearts, setting off across the Atlantic with their precious cargo of feathers: Nisard stands on the shore, stamping his feet and shaking his fist at the heavens—he'll never write again. Struggling against the wind and its insatiable appetite for destruction, the wind that would laugh to see those plumes fall straight back into Nisard's hands, the bird valiantly strives to put all possible distance between the former and the latter, forsaking its wool-carpeted nest and the cherry tree that fed and sustained it: now it's in Africa, a place of curious customs—Nisard will never come looking for it there. And should it lack the strength to propel itself to those distant climes, the bird will take all possible measures to make itself nonetheless inacces­sible. It flees at the slightest sound: that could be Nisard coming. It perches on the slender branches of tall trees, where Nisard will never venture, alas (he might fall and break his neck), or atop flex­ible pines (whose summit bends to the ground and then suddenly snaps back, catapulting Nisard out of sight). It nests between two stones, in a hollow tree trunk, behind a curtain of ivy, silent and unseen: its feathers remain out of Nisard's reach. You were per­haps thinking that the bird feels some fondness for this vertigi­nous existence, that it needs ninety feet of empty air underneath it to feel light and carefree? Don't you find its arguments against the law of gravity a bit thin? With boundless energy, it contests the obvious fact of the fall, and maintains its position in defiance of common sense, at the price of endless acrobatics—and all that for its own delight, to satisfy its own desire, is that seriously what you think? The bird has chosen to give unstintingly of itself; a mere minuscule black or white dot in the sky, the bird, to the best of its ability and until the fated moment of its death, keeps feathers out of Nisard's grasp.

 

No doubt the most surprising thing in a book without Nisard would be the light. I'm convinced of it: habituated as he is to a certain textual obscurity born of the shadow cast by Nisard, the reader would first of all be amazed by all the light. No longer would Désiré Nisard be blocking its source. The reader would next delight in the quality of the silence that precedes and fol­lows every truly meaningful utterance, a silence currently dis­turbed by Nisard's endless carping—is he not even now grum­bling and fidgeting petulantly in his chair? There is however one sound emanating from him, and one sound only, that our ear would be curious to hear: what manner of reverberation would be produced by the insect-demolishing slap to his cheek? In the book without Nisard, no more gasping for fresh air, no more nostrils pinched shut. To be sure, it's hard to believe that the sea breeze is still blowing when the grounded sperm whale lies rotting on the shore, the atmosphere choked with its effluvia; cart off that putrid flesh, however, and the reader will breathe a great deal easier. As will the non-reader too, in the world with­out Nisard.

 

But we're not there yet, alas, and the struggle for his eradication still has far to go. In the fall, vulnerable leaves are dotted with win­ter eggs (oospores) that can withstand the most frigid tempera­tures (up to ten degrees below zero); these germinate in the spring, once the average temperature exceeds fifty-two degrees, producing macroconidia, which, under the effect of rainwater or dew, release zoospores. These first stages of the parasite's development soon lead to primary infections: by way of the stomata—microscopic pores in the tissue, through which gases are exchanged—the zoo­spores penetrate the underside of the leaves, the tendrils, and the new shoots. Once inside the host tissue, the fungus proliferates. In damp, mild weather it forms a cottony down on the bunch stems or the underside of the leaves, producing new sporangia that will in turn release zoospores, soon spread by rainfall, causing still more infections. Affected leaves are first marked by yellowish dis­colorations; once necrosis sets in, they dry out and fall. The young shoots and the clusters wither, shrivel, wrinkle, and die. Coated with a whitish layer of spores, the fruits lose their turgidity and finally fall from the stem. Various strategies have been devised to counter this process, some of them reputedly successful, though never entirely so, and besides, to be frank, the idea of eliminating Nisard by means of a fungicide seems to me an example of the most breathtaking naïveté.

 

Sometimes, can you hear it, a sob chokes my voice, it's too much to take, it's unbearable. I can stand no more. Tears raining down, I throw myself on my bed. Then I get up again, close the shutters, the curtains, I need darkness, total darkness, darkness without Nisard. There, that's better. What a relief! But it takes only one ray of moonlight, one passing torch or headlight beam, even one single firefly, to reveal his furtive presence, or at least the trace of his passage, of his influence or effect on the briefly illuminated scene around me. I stuff rags between the slats of the shutters, I push a rolled-up rug under the door. I seal myself away. In the darkness, I recover some semblance of serenity. All is tranquil­ity—a deceptive tranquility, in which weapons are readied and treacheries plotted. Can I really have forgotten that all darkness emanates from Nisard?

 

The hour of nightmares has sounded, the time of obsessive fears and dark forebodings. Métilde is sleeping beside me. I touch her with my foot or fingertips. I'm so afraid of finding her stiff and cold, I have to make certain she's still alive: and yes, somehow she's still soldiering on, weathering the storm, how does she do it? Af­ter all, she can't take herself in her own arms. And yet I know from experience that her embrace offers the only comfort, the sole consolation in this world wholly subjugated to Nisard's dominion. But all at once I pull away. I consider Métilde warily. I thought I glimpsed Nisard's grimace deforming her revered features. I saw a great, shifty eye rolling under her brow. How square, suddenly, are her fingers, how thick her tongue! I don't recognize those wizened thighs, covered with short brown hairs, and what is that flabby belly, still regularly pummeled by my erect member, similar in ev­ery way to a baby's arm (for the child to be born first shows itself between its father's legs, vigorously raising its fist)—what is this monstrous coupling in which I find myself… against my will, kicking and screaming… taking part? Brutally I shove Nisard away, horrified, revolted, and a mortified Métilde runs off to lock herself in the bathroom.