Malevil, p.1
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       Malevil, p.1
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           Robert Merle


  Robert Merle


  At teachers college we had a professor who was insane about Proust and his madeleine. I studied that famous passage myself, under his guidance, as an admiring student. But time has dimmed my admiration, and now I find it very literary, that little cake. Oh, I know a taste or a tune can bring back some past moment and make it vivid in your memory again. But it never works for more than a few seconds. There is a brief illumination, then the curtain falls again and the present is back, tyrannical as ever. It’s a very nice idea, recovering your whole past from just a little sponge cake dipped in weak tea, if only it were true.

  What put me in mind of Proust’s madeleine was the discovery, just the other day, at the back of a drawer, of an old, an extremely old, packet of pipe tobacco that must have belonged to my uncle. I gave it to Colin. Crazy with delight at the thought of a whiff of his favorite poison after so long, he promptly filled his pipe and lit it. I stayed watching him, and the moment I breathed in the aroma of those first few puffs, my uncle and the world of “before” came welling back up inside me. So clearly that it took my breath away. Though, as I say, it was only for a moment.

  And Colin threw up. Either he had become unused to smoking or the tobacco was too old.

  I envy Proust. At least he had a solid foundation under him while he explored his past: a certain present, an indubitable future. But for us the past is doubly past, our “time past” is doubly inaccessible, because included in it is the whole universe in which that time flowed. There has been a complete break. The forward march of the ages has been interrupted. We no longer know where or when we are. Or whether there is to be any future at all.

  Needless to say, we do what we can to conceal our anxiety beneath the mask of words. When we refer to that break in time we use periphrases. To begin with, following Meyssonnier, who was always one for official jargon, we used to say “Zero Day.” But that was somehow still a little too military for our taste. And eventually we adopted a somewhat more veiled euphemism, first hit upon by La Menou with her peasant circumspection: “the day it happened.” You couldn’t find anything much easier to swallow than that, could you?

  And so, still using words, we restored order into chaos and even managed to re-establish a linear progression in time. We now say, “before” or “the day it happened” or “after.” Such are the little linguistic devices we’ve invented for ourselves. And the feeling of security they give us is exactly proportionate to their hypocrisy. Because “after” really means both our uncertain present and also our hypothetical future.

  Even without madeleines or pipe smoke, we think about it a lot, that world “before.” Each in his little corner. In general conversation we all exercise a kind of censorship on one another; such journeys into the past are scarcely helpful to our survival. We avoid allowing them to proliferate.

  But once alone, things are otherwise. Although I am barely in my forties, ever since “the day it happened” I have a tendency toward insomnia, like an old man. And it is at night that I do my remembering. Though what I actually remember varies from one night to the next. In order to exculpate myself in my own eyes for this self-indulgence, I tell myself that since the world “before” no longer exists except inside my own head, that means it would cease to exist altogether if I didn’t think about it.

  Recently I have begun to make a distinction between random memories and habitual memories. Because I have finally grasped the difference between them. The habitual memories are the ones I am using to convince myself of my own identity, a conviction I stand very much in need of in this “after” in which almost all recognizable landmarks have disappeared. And that, really, is what I spend my sleepless nights doing: constantly tacking to and fro across that desert, across those shifting sands, across that past now doubly past, creating landmarks to stop me losing myself. And when I say “losing myself,” I also mean losing my identity.

  The year 1948 was one of those landmarks. I was twelve. I had just been placed top for our district—ineffable glory—in the national exams. And in the kitchen of La Grange Forte, our little farm, I was trying to persuade my parents over the midday meal that we should clear more land, a course of action that seemed to me the merest common sense. Like everyone else in those parts, we had no more than twenty-five acres of good quality grazing and arable land. The rest was all woods, and useless woods too, since we no longer gathered the chestnuts or used the leaves for fodder.

  My father and mother were scarcely listening to me. I might as well have been talking to clods of earth. Which in fact they somewhat resembled, both being brown-haired and brown-eyed. I was brown-haired but had blue eyes like my uncle.

  Looking back at that scene over the years, with adult eyes, I understand it better now, I think, and I find it very unpleasant.

  My mother, for example. A self-righteous nagger and a whiner. She suffered from the besetting sin of the mediocre. She was a chronic complainer, because it gave her an excuse for her totally hidebound attitude to life. Given that everything in the world was a mess, why move even so much as a little finger to change it? My suggestion that they clear some of the woods caused her immediate umbrage.

  “And who’s going to find the money?” She sneered. “Are you going to pay for the bulldozer?”

  Apart from the scorn in her tone, there was the irritation of knowing perfectly well that the sums entered in their savings bank book were being devalued all the time by inflation. I knew they were being devalued, because my uncle explained it to me. So I explained it to her in my turn, without mentioning my uncle. Wasted caution.

  My father listened, but kept quiet. My arguments annoyed my mother even more. Even though they simply slid off that hard red scalp with its thin covering of hair. She wouldn’t even look at me.

  She addressed herself to my father over my head. “That boy is getting more like your brother Samuel every day,” she remarked. “Always full of himself. Giving lessons. And ever since he passed his exam, a head like a pumpkin.”

  My two little sisters, Paulette and Pélagie, began giggling, so I lashed out with one foot under the table. Pélagie shrieked.

  “And completely without feelings as well,” my mother said.

  And we continued to hear about my lack of feelings at length. The whole of the time it took to eat two platefuls of soup, pour wine into the remains of the second, and then drink that. My mother had a bookkeeper’s mind, so my defects were reitemized and retotaled every time a new error was added to the list. The fact that they had already been punished and paid for made no difference. Never forgotten, never forgiven, my past crimes never weighed any less.

  This litany of past sins was poured out, moreover, in the plaintive tones I loathed so much: vindictiveness coated with a whining slime. Pélagie was shrieking, Paulette—whom I hadn’t so much as touched—was whimpering. Then a climax: Pélagie pulled up her skirt and showed a bright red mark on her shin.

  My mother’s whine rose an octave to a piercing wail. “And you, Simon, what you are waiting for? Why don’t you teach him a lesson, that son of yours?”

  Because, of course, I was my father’s son, not hers. But my father remained silent. That was his role in that household of ours. Because my mother, impervious to argument, a stranger to logic, never paid even the slightest attention when he did speak. She had reduced him to silence, and almost to slavery, by the simple expedient of her own verbal flux.

  “Do you hear me, Simon?”

  I laid down my knife and fork and eased my buttocks off my chair, preparing to dodge my father’s slap. But still he made no move. It occurred to me that it must have been taking some courage on his part, since he was thereby laying up for himself a curtain lecture, in the conjugal bed last thing at nigh
t, during which all his own sins would be interminably reiterated in their turn.

  But it was a cowardly courage. I once saw my uncle—a wondrous sight!—rise up in thunder and blast his wife, who was a woman very much resembling my own mother, for the two brothers had married two sisters. I couldn’t help wondering what it was about her family that made them all so mean, so ugly, so whining, so greasy-haired.

  Only my aunt hadn’t been able to stand the pace. She’d died at the age of forty, out of sheer hatred for life. And my uncle started making up for lost time, running after pretty school leavers. I didn’t blame him. I did the same when I came of man’s estate.

  As no clout arrived from my father’s direction, my anxiety waned. No slap from my mother’s side either. Not that the desire to impart one was lacking, but I had just recently devised a very effective parry with one elbow that succeeded in simultaneously avoiding any obvious lack of respect and also causing acute pain to her attacking forearm. Not exactly a passive parry either, since my own arm was energetically advanced to meet hers.

  “As a punishment,” my mother announced after a short pause for reflection, “you shan’t have any tart. That will teach you to torment your poor little sisters.”

  My father went tch tch with his tongue. But that was as far as he would go. I maintained a proud silence. And then, taking advantage of a moment when my father’s sad nose was lowered over his plate and my mother was away from the table fetching the delicious concoction that had been simmering on the kitchen range since the evening before, I pulled my most hideous face at Pélagie in retaliation for her shrieking. She immediately set up a fresh hullabaloo and whimpered to her mother, in her limited vocabulary, that I had “looked” at her.

  “Good heavens,” I said, gazing around the table with eyes all innocence (an innocence made doubly effective by their blueness), “aren’t I even allowed to look at you now?”

  Silence. I made a show of having difficulty in forcing down my mother’s excellent ratatouille. I even pushed this display of indifference to the point of refusing the second helping that duty forced her to offer me. And while the rest of them sat enjoying every savory mouthful, I kept my eyes fixed on a flyblown engraving hanging on the wall above the sideboard. It depicted “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”

  The well-behaved son sat in one corner of the frame looking very glum indeed. I didn’t blame him either. Because there he was, he’d spent his whole time slogging away to help his father, and he wasn’t even allowed a skinny lamb to give his friends a blowout. Whereas that other little runt, no sooner did he turn up again at the farm gate, after wasting all his substance on his fancy pieces, than they just couldn’t wait to slaughter the fatted calf.

  Gritting my teeth, I thought, It’s just the same with my sisters and me. Soft as dough and silly as sheep the both of them. And yet there’s my mother always coddling them, flooding them with eau de Cologne, combing their horrible hair, curling it into those silly curls with her curling iron. I snickered to myself. Last Sunday, stealthy as a fox, I had crept up behind them and thrown dusty spiders’ webs all over those pretty curls.

  That happy memory was just enough to hold me back from the brink of despair as my eyes crept down from the engraving of the Prodigal Son to the apricot tart, whose aroma I could scent and whose golden curving side I could just make out on top of the sideboard. At that moment my mother rose from her chair, not without a certain ceremonial air, and placed it on the table—right in front of my nose.

  I immediately got up, pushed my hands into my pockets, and made for the door.

  “What’s this?” my father said in the slightly husky voice of someone who doesn’t use it much. “Don’t you want your share of tart?”

  I felt no gratitude for his belated counterorder. I swiveled around, without taking my hands out of my pockets, and said curtly over my shoulder, “I’m not hungry.”

  “Now then!” my mother immediately broke in. “That’s your father you’re speaking to, my lad!”

  I didn’t stay for the rest. The interminable rest. I knew she was intent on ruining my father’s tart for him now, just as she’d deprived me of mine.

  I emerged into the farmyard and began wandering up and down, fists clenched tight in my pockets. Down in Malejac people said that my father was “as goodhearted as good white bread.” And that was just the trouble. Too much soft white and not enough crust.

  I wandered on in angry, bitter meditation. It was impossible to hold any kind of reasonable conversation with that stupid bitch (that was the term I used). She treated me like a fool, made me a laughingstock in front of those bleating sisters of mine, and to cap it all she dared to punish me. I was not about to forget that tart. Not for its own sake. Because of the humiliation. Fists still clenched in my pockets, I stalked to and fro across the yard, squaring my already broad shoulders. The nerve of it, depriving the district’s champion scholar of his dessert!

  It was the proverbial last straw. I was boiling with icy rage, I’d had enough. And thirty years later I can still recapture the taste of that rage. With hindsight, I have the impression I was a pretty lousy Oedipus. My Jocasta was in no danger at all, even in thought. Not that I didn’t work it out, my regulation complex, but not on my mother, on Adelaide, who kept our local grocery shop in Malejac. Not only was she always generous with her merry laughter and her candies, she was also an abundantly built blonde with breasts that could answer up to any daydream. And as to my regulation “male identification”—what terrible jargon—that was made not with my own father but with my uncle. Who in fact—although I didn’t know it then—resided in the very heart of Adelaide’s good graces. So without knowing it, I did in fact possess a real family side by side with the one I was rejecting.

  And a third one too, a family which is still dear to me and which I created myself: the Club. A supersecret society with seven members that I founded during my primary school days in Malejac (population 401, twelfth-century church), and of which I was in my turn the father, constantly displaying in all my fearless feats that spirit of enterprise so lacking in my father, and firm, ah yes, a hand as firm as iron beneath my velvet glove.

  My decision had been taken. Perpetually insulted here, I would take refuge in the bosom of that other family. I waited till my father had gone upstairs for his siesta and my mother was busy washing the dishes with her two ringleted milksop daughters clinging to her skirts. I slipped up to my garret room, hurriedly filled my haversack (a present from my uncle), and having buckled it up, threw it out onto the woodpile outside my window. Before making my escape I left a note on my table. It was addressed, very formally, to Monsieur Simon Comte, farmer, La Grange Forte, Malejac.

  Dear Father,

  I am leaving. I am not treated in this house the way I deserve.

  Lots of love,


  And while my poor father dozed behind his closed shutters, unaware as yet that his farm was already without a successor, I was pedaling through the warm sunlight, haversack on my back, toward Malevil.

  Malevil was a big thirteenth-century castle, half in ruins, perched halfway up a steep cliff looking out across the little valley of the two Rhunes. Its owner had abandoned it to its own devices, and ever since a block of stone had fallen from the battlements of the keep and killed a tourist it had been made illegal to enter it. The Ministry of Works had put up two large notices to this effect, and the mayor of Malejac had closed the sole access road along the side of the hill with four strands of barbed wire. Reinforcing this barbed wire, though owing nothing to the local council, there were also fifty yards of impenetrable brambles, growing steadily thicker every year, all along the old track that ran up the side of the cliff toward Malevil on its dizzy height and separated it from the hill on which my uncle’s farm, Les Sept Fayards, then stood.

  There lay my goal. Under my inspired leadership, the Club had violated all the taboos. We had devised an invisible gate in the barbed wire, then hollowed out a tunnel th
rough the gigantic brambles, concealed from the track by a cunningly placed bend. On the second floor of the castle keep, from which the actual boards had long since disappeared, we made a catwalk by nailing old planks from my uncle’s junk shed across from joist to joist. In this way we were able to make our way across the vast main room to a small room at the far side, and Meyssonnier, already very much the handyman thanks to having the run of his father’s workshop, had put in a window frame and a door with a padlock.

  The keep stood too high to be damp. The ribbed vaulting of its roof had resisted the ravages of time. And our den contained a fireplace, an old mattress covered with sacks, a table, and stools.

  Our secret had remained undiscovered. It was twelve months now since we had first fitted out these premises, unsuspected by any adult. On my way there I had passed word of my intentions to Colin, who would pass it in his turn to Meyssonnier, who would pass it to Peyssou, who would then tell the others. I was not going into exile unprepared.

  I spent that afternoon in my cell, then the night and all the next day. It was less delightful than I’d expected. It was July, the other Club members were all working on various farms, so I wouldn’t be seeing them till the evening. And I didn’t dare stick my nose out of Malevil. They must have already set the police on my tail down at La Grange Forte.

  At seven o’clock there was a knock on the clubroom door. I was expecting big Peyssou, who was due to bring me food supplies. I had already unlocked the padlock on the door, and without getting up from the mattress on which I was uncomfortably stretched with a book of bloody adventure stories in one hand, I yelled out, “Come in, you great nit!”

  It was my Uncle Samuel. He was a Protestant, hence the Biblical first name. He stood there, life-size, dressed in an old checked shirt, open to show his muscled neck, and a pair of old Army issue riding breeches (he had served in the cavalry), taller than the open doorway, his forehead touching the stone lintel, and gazing in at me with a deep frown above his smiling eyes.