f i c t i o n
J e a n - M a r i e G u s t a v e L e C l é z i o
The Frenchmen’s Pier was not really a town because there were no houses or streets, only shacks made of plywood, tarpaper or dirt. Perhaps it got its name from the fact that it was inhabited by Italians, Slavs, Turks, Portuguese, Algerians, Africans, stone masons, laborers and peasants who weren’t sure of finding work and who never knew if they would be staying for one year or just two days. They arrived at the Pier, near the swamps that bordered the estuary, found shelter wherever they could, and built their huts in just a few hours. The ones who were leaving sold them wood planks so old and with so many holes in them you could see right through them. They used plywood for the roof too, and large sheets of tarpaper or if they were lucky enough to find it, pieces of corrugated iron held together with wire or stones. They used old rags to fill in the holes.
This is where Alia lived, west of the Pier, near Martin’s house. She arrived there at the same time he did, early on when there were only about ten shacks, and the still soft ground was covered with large grassy fields and reeds near the edge of the swamp. Her father and brother had died in an accident when she was still too young to do much else but play with other children. Her aunt had taken her in. Now, four years later, the Pier had gotten larger. The estuary’s left bank was covered with hundreds of dirt paths and so many shacks that it was impossible to count them. Every week, truckloads of new families arrived at the Pier and others left. When going to the pump for water or buying rice or sardines at the co-op, Alia would stop to look at the new arrivals searching for any place left to set up camp. Sometimes the police would come to the Pier to keep an eye on things or keep track of who was coming and going.
Alia remembered very well the day Martin arrived. The first time she saw him, he was getting off the truck with some others. His face and clothes were gray with dust, but she noticed him right away. He was strange, a tall, thin man with a tanned face that made him look like a sailor. You might think he was older because of the wrinkles on his forehead and cheeks, but his hair was very black and thick and his eyes shone as bright as mirrors. Alia thought he had the most interesting eyes in the Pier and maybe even the whole country . . . and that is why she noticed him.
She was motionless when he passed. He walked slowly, looking around, as if he had just come to visit and the truck would come back for him in an hour. But he stayed.
Martin didn’t set up camp in the center of the Pier. He had gone all the way to the end of the marsh where the pebble beach started. That is where he built his hut, all by itself on a piece of land that no one else wanted because it was too far from the road and the fresh water pumps. His was really the last house in town.
Martin had built it himself with no one’s help and Alia thought that in its way, it was also the most interesting house around. It was a circular hut with no opening other than a small door that Martin couldn’t enter without bending over. The roof was made of tarpaper like the others but it was shaped like a lid. If you looked at Martin’s house from a distance in the morning mist, all by itself in the midst of this strange land, at the edge of the marsh and the beach, it seemed bigger and taller, like a castle tower.
That, in fact, was the name Alia had given it from the start: the castle. The people who didn’t like Martin and made fun of him - like the head of the co-op, for example - said it looked more like a doghouse, but that’s because they were jealous. That was actually strange since Martin was poor, poorer than anyone else in town, but that windowless house had something mysterious and almost majestic about it that was both intimidating and hard to understand.
Martin lived there alone and kept to himself. There was always silence around his house, especially in the evening, a silence that made everything seem faraway and unreal. When the sun shone above the dusty valley and the swamp, Martin would be sitting on a crate in front of his door. People didn’t usually go to that area, partly because the silence really frightened them or perhaps because they didn’t want to disturb Martin. In the mornings and evenings, there would sometimes be women looking for wood or children coming home from school. Martin liked the children a lot and he spoke to them gently. They were the only ones he really smiled at. His eyes became very beautiful. They shone like stone mirrors, filled with clear light such as Alia had never seen before. The children liked him too because he would tell them stories and ask them riddles. The rest of the time Martin didn’t really work, but knew how to fix things like watches, radios, and kerosene stoves. He did it for nothing because he had no interest in money.
So from the day he arrived, people sent their children off to bring him plates of potatoes, sardines, rice, bread or hot coffee. The women too sometimes brought him food and Martin thanked them in very few words. Then when he had had finished eating he would give the plates back to the children. That was how he wanted to be paid.
Alia liked to visit Martin to hear his stories and see the color of his eyes. She would take a piece of bread from the pantry and cross the Pier all the way to the castle. When she arrived, she’d see the man sitting on his crate in front of his house, repairing a gas lamp and she would sit on the ground in front of him to watch. The first time she brought him bread, he looked at her with eyes very bright and said:
“Why did you call me moon?” Alia asked.
Martin smiled and his eyes were even more brilliant.
“Because it is a name I like. You don’t want me to call you moon?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think it was a name.”
“It is a pretty name,” Martin said. “Have you ever seen the moon, when the sky is pure and very black on really cold nights? It is completely round and sweet and I think you are like that.”
And from that day on, Martin always called her by the name “moon” or “little moon.” And he had a name for each of the children who came to see him, a plant or fruit or animal name that made them laugh. Martin never spoke about himself and no one would have dared ask him. It really seemed like he had always been there at the Pier long before the others, even before they had built the road, the bridge or the landing. He certainly knew things that other people here did not; beautiful, ancient things that he kept inside his head and made light shine in his eyes.
That is what was strange, because Martin had nothing, not even a chair or a bed. In his house there was nothing but a mat on the ground to sleep on and a water pitcher on a crate. Alia didn’t understand it, but she felt that he wished for nothing. It was odd, like that bit of clear light that always shined in his eyes, like pools of water that seem even more transparent and beautiful because there is nothing at their depths.
As soon as she had finished her work, Alia would leave her aunt’s house, sticking the piece of bread in her shirt, and sit by Martin. She also loved to look at his hands while he was fixing things. He had large suntanned hands with broken nails like laborers and masons, but they were lighter and more adept, and could make knots with tiny thread or turn nuts that were barely visible. His hands worked without his thinking about them or watching them. His eyes were somewhere faraway as if he were thinking of something else.
“What are you thinking about?” asked Alia.
The man looked at her and smiled.
“Why do you ask me that, little moon? And you, what are you thinking of?”
Alia concentrated and thought.
“I’m thinking it must be beautiful where you come from.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because . . .”
She couldn’t find the answer and blushed.
“You’re right,” said Martin. “It is very beautiful.”
“I also think life is sad here,” added Alia.
“Why do you say that? I don’t think so.”
“Because there is nothing here. It’s dirty and you have to get water at the pump. There are flies and rats and everyone is poor.”
“I am poor too,” said Martin. “But I don’t think it’s a reason to be sad.”
Alia thought again.
“If it is so beautiful where you come from, why did you leave, why did you come here where everything is so . . . so dirty and ugly?”
Martin looked at her closely and Alia searched for the light in his eyes to see whatever she could of the beauty the man had been imagining before, the enormous country with deep golden reflections that stayed alive in his irises. But Martin’s voice was gentler, like he was telling a story.
“Could you be happy eating everything you like best, little moon, if you knew there was a family next to you that hadn’t eaten in two days?”
Alia shook her head.
“Could you be happy looking at the sky, the ocean, the flowers, or listening to the birds singing, if you knew that in the house next to yours there was a child stuck there for no reason who couldn’t see, hear or feel anything?”
“No,” said Alia. “First I would go and open the door of the house so that he could leave.”
As she said it, she realized that she had just answered her own question. Still smiling, Martin watched her, and then continued to work distractedly, not watching his hands.
Alia wasn’t sure she was completely convinced.
“Anyway, it must be really very beautiful where you live.”
When the man had finished working, he got up and took Alia’s hand. He led her slowly to the end of the deserted area in front of the swamp.
“Look,” he said. He pointed to the sky, the flat ground, and the estuary that opened out to the sea. “There, that is where I come from, all that.”
“All of it?”
“Yes, all, everything you see.”
Alia stood still for a long time looking at everything she could see until her eyes started to hurt. She looked with all her might. As if the sky would finally open up and show off all its palaces, castles and gardens filled with fruit and birds. She had to close her eyes to keep from getting dizzy.
When she turned around, Martin was gone. His tall thin silhouette was walking between the rows of shacks towards the other end of town.
From that day on, Alia started looking at the sky, really looking at it, as if she had never seen it before. When she was working in her aunt’s house, she would sometimes go out for a second to look up into the air and when she went back in, she felt something still vibrating in her eyes and body. She half bumped into the furniture because her retinas were dazzled.
When the other children found out where Martin was from, they were very surprised. Then there were a lot of children at the Pier walking around with their heads in the air looking up at the sky. They would bump into poles and people would wonder what had happened to them. Maybe they thought it was a new game.
Sometimes, although no one knew why, Martin would stop eating. The children would bring him food, as they did every morning, and he would refuse, saying:
“No thank you, not today.”
Even when Alia came, with bread stuffed in her shirt, he smiled gently and shook his head. Alia didn’t understand why the man refused to eat because in the house, on earth and in the sky, everything was normal. In the blue sky, there was the sun, one or two clouds, and from time to time a jet landing or taking off. Along the pathways of the Pier, children played and yelled, women called and ordered them around in all languages. Alia didn’t see what could have changed. But she sat down anyway in front of Martin with two or three other children and waited for him to speak to them.
Martin wasn’t like he’d been on other days. When he didn’t eat, his face seemed older, his eyes shone differently with the odd glow of someone feverish. Martin was looking elsewhere, above the children’s heads, as if he could see beyond the earth and the swamp, to the other side of the river and hills, so far that it would take months and months to get there.
On days like these, he hardly spoke at all and Alia didn’t ask him any questions. As on other days, people came to ask him favors, to mend socks, fix a clock, or just write a letter. But Martin barely answered them. He shook his head and said in a low voice barely moving his lips:
“Not today, not today . . .”
Alias realized that he wasn’t there on those days that he was actually somewhere else, even if his body didn’t move as it lay on the mat inside his house. Maybe he had gone back to his own country where everything was beautiful and everyone was a prince or a princess, the country whose path he had shown her across the sky.
Every day, Alia returned with a piece of bread and waited for him to come back. Sometimes it took a long time and she would be sort of scared to see his face looking gaunt and grayish as if the light had stopped burning and only ashes were left. Then, one morning, he came back so weak that he could barely walk from his bed to the waste ground in front of his house. When he saw Alia, he finally looked at her with a weak smile and eyes lifeless from fatigue.
“I’m thirsty,” he said. His voice was slow and hoarse.
Alia put down the piece of bread and ran across town to find a bucket of water. When she came back out of breath, Martin drank for a long time straight out of the bucket. Then he washed his face and hands, sat out in the sun on the crate and ate the bread. He took a few steps around the house and looked around. The sunlight warmed his face and hands and his eyes began shining again.
Alia looked at the man impatiently. She took a chance and asked:
“How was it?”
He didn’t seem to understand.
“How was what?”
“How was it, where you went?”
Martin didn’t answer. Maybe he didn’t remember anything as if it had simply happened in a dream. He started living and speaking again like before, sitting in the sunlight in front of the door to his house, fixing broken things or walking through the Pier’s pathways and saying hello to people passing by.
Later, Alia asked:
“Why don’t you want to eat sometimes?”
“Because I have to fast,” Martin said.
Alia thought about it.
“What does ‘fast’ mean?”
She added right away:
“Is it like traveling?”
But Martin laughed.
“What a funny idea! No, fasting is when you don’t feel like eating.”
How could you not feel like eating? Alia wondered. No one had ever said anything so strange to her before. Reluctantly, she thought of all the children at the Pier who spent the day looking for something to eat, even if they weren’t hungry. She thought of the ones who robbed supermarkets near the airport or stole fruits and eggs from neighborhood yards.
Martin answered right away as if he had heard what Alia was thinking.
“Have you ever been very thirsty?”
“Yes,” said Alia.
“When you were really thirsty, did you feel like eating?”
She shook her head.
“No, right? You just really felt like drinking. It seemed like you could drink all the water from the pump right then. If anyone gave you a big plate of food at that moment, you would have said no because it was water you needed.”
Martin stopped talking for a minute and smiled.
“Also when you’re very hungry, you wouldn’t want someone to give you a pitcher of water. You would say no, not now, I want to eat first, eat as much as I can and then after, if there’s any room, I’ll drink water.”
“But you don’t eat or drink!” Alia exclaimed.
“That’s what I wanted to tell you, little moon,” Martin said.
“When you fast, it means you don’t feel like having food or water because you really feel like having something else, something more important than eating or drinking.”
“What do you feel like having then?”
“God,” said Martin.
That’s all he said as if it was obvious and Alia asked no more questions. It was the first time Martin had spoken of God and that frightened her a little, not frightened really, but distanced her from him suddenly, pushed her far back as if the entire expanse of the Pier with its plywood shacks and riverside marsh separated her from Martin.
But the man didn’t seem to notice. He just got up, looked toward the swamp where reeds were swaying. He touched Alia’s hair lightly and went slowly on his way down the road across town, with the children running out in front of him and yelling to celebrate his return.
At that time, Martin had already started his teaching, but no one knew it. It wasn’t teaching really, I mean like what a priest or a teacher does because that wasn’t solemn and ceremonial and you didn’t really know what you learned. The children had gotten used to coming to the far end of the Pier by Martin’s castle and sitting on the ground to talk or play or listen to stories. Martin himself never moved from his crate. He kept on fixing whatever he was fixing, a pot, a pressure cooker valve or a lock and the teaching would start. It was mostly the children that came, after the midday meal or after school. But sometimes there were women and men, when their work was done and it was too hot to sleep. The children would sit up front next to Martin and that’s where Alia liked to sit too. They made a lot of noise and didn’t sit still for long, but Martin was happy to see them. He would speak with them, ask what they had done or seen at the Pier or by the sea. Some of them liked to talk and could go on for hours about anything at all. Others were quiet and hid behind their hands whenever Martin spoke to them.
Then Martin would tell a story. The children really liked hearing stories. That’s why they came. When Martin began his story, even the must unruly of then sat still and stopped talking.
Martin knew a lot of stories, some long and a bit strange that took place in unknown lands he had surely visited before.
There was the story of some children who went down a river on a raft made of reeds through extraordinary kingdoms, forests, mountains and mysterious cities all the way to the sea. There was the story of the man who had discovered a well that led to the center of the earth where the Fire States were. There was the story of a merchant who thought he could make a fortune selling snow so he brought it down from the mountain in bags, but when he got to the bottom he had nothing but a puddle of water. There was the story of a boy who came to the castle of a dream princess who sent dreams and nightmares down to earth. The story of a giant who sculpted mountains, the one about a child who tamed dolphins, the one about Captain Tecum who saved an albatross’ life and to thank him, the bird taught him the secret of how to fly. These were beautiful stories, so beautiful that sometimes you could fall asleep before the end. Martin told them slowly with hand gestures, stopping now and then so you could ask questions. While he spoke, his eyes shone brightly as if he were enjoying it too.
Of all the stories Martin told, the one about Hazaran was the one the children liked best. They didn’t understand it completely, but all of them held their breath when it started.
There was a girl named Clover, which first of all was a strange name that had probably been given to her because of the small mark on her cheek near her left ear that looked like a clover. She was poor, very poor, so poor that all she had to eat was some bread and fruit she picked from trees. She lived alone in a shepherd’s hut among the brambles and rocks with no one to take care of her. But when they saw that she was so lonely and sad, the small animals that lived in the fields became her friends. They often came to see her in the morning or the evening and spoke to her to take her mind off things. They would spin around and tell her stories because Clover could speak their language. There was an ant named Zoé, a lizard named Zoot, a sparrow named Pipit, a firefly named Zellie, and all kinds of yellow, red, brown and blue butterflies. There was a clever scarab beetle named Kepir and a large green grasshopper that sunned himself on the leaves. Little Clover was nice to them and that’s why they liked her. One day when Clover was sadder than usual because she had nothing to eat, the big green grasshopper called out to her. Do you want to change your life? He whistled to her. How can I change my life? replied Clover. I have nothing to eat and I am all alone. You can if you want to, said the grasshopper. All you have to do is go to the land of Hazaran. What land is that? asked Clover. I’ve never heard of it. To get there, you have to answer a question asked by the guard at the door to Hazaran. But first you have to be clever, very clever, to know the answer. So Clover went to see Kepir, the beetle, who lived on the branch of a rosebush and said: Kepir, teach me what I need to know because I want to go to Hazaran. For a long time the beetle and the big green grasshopper taught the little girl what they knew. They taught her how to guess what the weather would be like or what people thought about down there, or how to cure fevers and illness. They taught her how to ask the praying mantis if babies would be boys or girls because he could tell by raising his pincers for a boy and lowering them for a girl. Little Clover learned all that and many other things, other secrets and mysteries. When the scarab and the big green grasshopper had finished teaching her what they knew, a man arrived in the village one day. He was dressed in fancy clothes and looked like a prince or a government official. He passed through the village saying: I am looking for someone. But the people didn’t understand. So Clover went up to the man and said: I am the one you are looking for. I want to go to Hazaran. The man was a bit surprised because little Clover was very poor and seemed ignorant. Do you know how to answer the questions? asked the official. If you can’t answer, you’ll never be able to go to Hazaran. I’ll answer the questions, said Clover. But she was afraid because she wasn’t sure she could answer. So answer the questions I am going to ask you. If you know the answer, you will be the princess of Hazaran. Here are the three questions:
Martin stopped speaking for a moment and the children waited.
Here is the first, said the official. At the meal I’m invited to, my father gives me three kinds of very good foods. What my hand can take my mouth cannot eat. What my hand can take my hand cannot keep. What my mouth can take my mouth cannot keep. The little girl thought and then said: I can answer the question. The official looked surprised because no one had ever given the right answer. Here is the second riddle, continued the official. My father invites me to his four houses. The first is in the north and is poor and sad. The second is in the east and is full of flowers. The third is in the south and is the most beautiful. The fourth is in the west and when I enter it, I receive a present even though I am poor. I can answer that question, Clover said again. The official was surprised again because no one had ever been able to answer that question either. Here is the third riddle said the official. My father’s face is very handsome, and yet I cannot see it. My servant dances for him every day. But my mother is even more beautiful, her hair is very black and her face as white as snow. She is covered with jewels and she watches over me when I sleep. Clover thought again and said she would explain the riddles. Here is the first answer, she said. The meal I am invited to is the world in which I was born. The three kinds of food my father gives me are the earth, the water and the air. My hand can take the earth, but I can’t eat it. My hand can take water, but can’t hold it. My mouth can take in air; I have to blow it back out.
Martin stopped again for a moment and the children took some dirt in their hands and made water flow through their fingers. They breathed in the air around them.
Here is the answer to the second question: the four houses my father invites me to are the four seasons of the year. The one in the north that is sad and poor is the house of winter. The one in the east where there are lots of flowers is the house of spring. The one to the south that is the most beautiful is the house of summer. The one to the west is the house of autumn and when I enter it I receive the gift of the new year, which makes me poorer because I am older and weaker. The official gave a nod of approval because he was surprised by the young girl’s vast knowledge. The last answer is easy, said Clover. The one called my father is the sun that I cannot look at directly. The servant that dances for him is my shadow. The one called my mother is the night and her hair is very black and her face is white like that of the moon. Her jewels are the stars. That is the meaning of the riddles. When the official heard Clover’s answers, he gave his orders and every bird in the sky came to carry the little girl to the land of Hazaran. It was very, very far away, so far that the birds flew for days and nights, but when Clover arrived, she was amazed because she had never before imagined anything so beautiful, not even in her dreams.
Then Martin stopped again for a moment and the children became impatient and said: What was it like? What was the land of Hazaran like?
Well, everything was big and beautiful and there were gardens full of flowers and butterflies, rivers so clear that they looked like silver, very tall trees covered with every kind of fruit. That is where the birds lived, all the birds in the world. They flew from branch to branch, sang all the time and when Clover arrived, they surrounded and welcomed her. They were dressed in colored feathers and danced in front of Clover because they were happy to have a princess like her. Then came the blackbirds, the envoys of the king of birds, and they led her to the palace of Hazaran. The king was a nightingale who sang so well that everyone stopped speaking to hear him. Clover lived in his palace from then on and since she knew how to speak animal language, she also learned to sing so she could answer the king of Hazaran. She stayed in this land and perhaps lives there still and when she wants to come to earth, she takes the form of a chickadee and flies to earth to see her friends. Then she goes back to the great garden to become a princess.
When the story was over, the children left one by one and went home. Alia always stayed behind in front of Martin’s house. She didn’t leave until the man went back in his castle and lay down on his mat to sleep. She walked slowly along the paths of the Pier while gas lamps burned inside the shacks and she wasn’t sad anymore. She was thinking of the day when a man dressed as an official might come, look around and say:
“I have come looking for someone.”
It was just about that time that the government started sending people to the Frenchmen’s Pier. They were strange men who came once or twice a week in black cars and orange buses and stopped on the road a little before the town. They did all sorts of things for no reason like measuring distances between the paths and houses, putting dirt in cans, water in glass tubes, and air in small yellow balloons. They also asked people lots of questions, mostly men because women didn’t really understand what they were saying and anyway, they didn’t dare answer.
When she went to get water at the pump, Alia would stop to watch them pass by, but she knew they weren’t coming to look for anyone. They weren’t here to ask questions to take you to the land of Hazaran. Besides, they weren’t interested in children and never asked them any questions. There were serious-looking men dressed in gray suits carrying small leather briefcases, and there were students, boys and girls dressed in heavy sweaters and parkas. These were the strangest of all because they asked questions anyone could understand about the weather, or your family, but no one could figure out why they were asking such things. They jotted down their answers in notebooks like they were very important, and they took lots of photos of the plywood houses as if there was some point to it all. They even took pictures inside the houses with bulbs that lit up brighter than the sun.
It was just a bit later that people began to understand. They figured out that these were government officials and students who were coming to take everything - the town and the people - off to another place. The government had decided that the Pier should no longer exist because it was too close to the road and the runway, or maybe because they needed the land to put up buildings and offices. People found out when flyers were distributed to all the families telling them that they had to leave and that machines and trucks would destroy the town. Then the students showed them the drawings of the new town that was to be built by the river. They were very strange drawings with houses unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, big flat houses with windows all exactly the same like brick slabs. In the center of each house was a large courtyard and trees. The streets were very straight like railroad tracks. The students called it the Town of the Future whenever they spoke to the men and women of the Pier. They seemed very happy and their eyes shone and they made big arm gestures. It was probably because they had made the drawings.
When the government decided to destroy the Pier and not let anyone stay, they needed someone in charge to agree to it. But there was no one in charge at the Pier; people had always lived like that there because until now they didn’t need to have anyone in charge. The government looked for someone to take over and the co-op manager was nominated. So the government men often went to talk to him about the Town of the Future, and sometimes even took him to their offices in a black car so that he could sign papers and everything would be official. Maybe the government should have gone to Martin in his castle, but no one had spoken to him and he lived too far away, all the way at the other end of the Pier near the marsh. Anyway, he wouldn’t have wanted to sign anything and the people would have thought he was too old.
When Martin heard the news, he didn’t say anything, but it was pretty clear he wasn’t happy about it. He had built his castle where he wanted it and had no desire to live anywhere else. Especially not in one of those houses in the Town of the Future that looked like brick slabs.
Then he started fasting, but it wasn’t just for a few days like usual. It was a scary, never-ending fast that lasted for weeks.
Every day Alia came to bring him bread in front of his house and the other children came too with plates of food, hoping Martin would get up. But he stayed lying on his mat with his face turned towards the door. His previously tanned face became very pale. His dark eyes shone with a disturbing light because they were tired and hurt from constantly watching. He didn’t sleep at night. He just stayed like that on the ground without moving, facing the door so he could watch the night.
Alia would sit next to him, wiping his face with a wet cloth to remove the dust the wind had scattered over him like on a stone. He drank some water from the pitcher, just a few gulps all day long. Alia would say:
“You don’t want to eat now? I brought you some bread.”
Martin tried to smile but his mouth was too tired. Only his eyes managed to smile. Alia felt a pang of anguish because she thought Martin was going to die soon.
“Is it because you don’t want to leave that you’ve stopped eating?” asked Alia.
Martin didn’t answer, but his eyes answered her with their light full of pain and fatigue. He looked out through the small door at the earth, the reeds, and the blue sky.
“Maybe you won’t have to come with us to that new town. Maybe you could go back to the country you came from where everything is beautiful and everyone is like a princess or a prince.”
The students came less often now. Then they stopped coming all together. Alia watched out for them while she was working at her aunt’s house or going to fetch water at the pump. She looked to see if their cars were parked on the road at the entrance to town. Then she ran to Martin’s castle.
“They haven’t come again today.” She tried to speak but couldn’t catch her breath. “They won’t be back! Did you hear me? Its over, they’re not coming back. We’re going to stay here!”
Her heart was beating very hard because she thought it was Martin who had kept them away by fasting.
“Are you sure?” asked Martin. His voice came slowly and he sat up a bit on his mat.
“They haven’t been here for three days!”
“They won’t come back now, I’m sure of it.” She broke off some bread and held it out to him.
“No, not just yet,” said the man. “I have to wash first.”
Leaning unsteadily on Alia, he took a few steps outside. She led him through the reeds to the river. Martin got on his knees and washed his face slowly. Then he shaved off his beard and combed his hair; he was in no hurry as if he had just woken up. Then he went to sit on his crate in the sun and eat Alia’s bread. Now the children started arriving one by one to bring him food and Martin took everything they gave him saying thank you. When he had eaten enough, he went back inside his house and lay down on his mat.
“I’m going to sleep now,” he said.
But the children remained on the ground in front of his door to watch him sleep.
It was while he was sleeping that the cars came back. First men in gray suits with black suitcases. They went straight to the co-op manager’s house. Then students arrived, even more of them than the first time.
With her back against the wall of the house, Alia didn’t move as they passed by her and walked quickly to the pump. They congregated there and seemed to be waiting for something. Then the men in gray came too with the co-op manager along side them. The men in gray were speaking to him, but he shook his head and finally it was one of the government officials who made the announcement loud and clear. He simply said that the departure would take place tomorrow at eight o’clock in the morning. The government trucks would come to take everyone to the new area where the City of the Future would be built. He also said that the students would volunteer to help people move their furniture and belongings to the trucks.
Alia didn’t dare move, even when the men in gray and the students in parkas left in their cars. She was thinking about Martin who was surely going to die now because he wouldn’t want to eat ever again.
So she went to hide as far away as she could in the middle of the reeds near the river. Sitting on the pebbles, she watched the sun go down. Tomorrow when the sun was at this spot, no one would be left at the Pier. The bulldozers would have gone through town pushing down houses like matchboxes and there would be nothing left on the crushed ground but tire tracks and caterpillars.
Alia stayed a long time without moving in the middle of the reeds near the river. Night came, a cold night lit up by the round, white moon. But Alia didn’t want to go back to her aunt’s house. She started walking through the reeds along the river until she arrived at the marsh. A little higher up she made out the round shape of Martin’s castle. She listened to frogs croaking and the steady rhythm of the water from the other side of the marsh.
When she arrived in front of Martin’s house, she saw him standing there not moving. The light of the moon lighted up his face and his eyes were like the river water, dark and shining. Martin was looking in the direction of the marsh towards the wide estuary where the great plain opened out with its phosphorescent pebbles.
The man turned towards her, his eyes filled with a strange power as if he were actually giving off light.
“I was looking for you,” said Martin simply.
“You’re going to leave?” Alia spoke in a low voice.
“Yes, I ’ll be leaving right away.”
He looked at Alia teasingly.
“You want to come with me?”
Alia felt joy suddenly filling her lungs and throat. Almost screaming, she said:
“Wait for me! Wait for me!”
She ran through the streets of the town and shouted as she knocked on all the doors:
“Come quickly! Come on! We’re leaving right away!”
The children and women came out first because they understood. Then the men came too one by one. The crowd of people from the Pier got bigger along the paths. They took what they could find using their flashlights: bags, boxes, and kitchen utensils. The children ran through the streets shouting over and over:
“We’re leaving! We’re leaving!”
When everyone had arrived in front of Martin’s house, there was a moment of silence, a kind of hesitation. Even the manager of the co-op didn’t dare say a word because everyone felt the mystery of it.
Martin stood there without moving on the path that came out into the reeds. Then without saying a word to the waiting crowd, he began to walk along the path towards the river. So the others started after him. He walked at a steady pace without turning or hesitating as if he knew where he was going. When he started to walk into the water and ford the river, the people understood where he was going and they weren’t afraid anymore. The black water glistened around Martin’s body, as he got closer to the ford. With the children holding on, the crowd then headed very slowly into the river’s cold water. In front of them, from the other side of the black river with its banks of phosphorescent pebbles, as she walked along the slippery surface, her dress clinging to her belly and thighs, Alia watched the dark strip of the opposite bank where not a single light was shining.
One of the most popular and widely translated writers in contemporary French literature, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008, and at the age of twenty-three, the coveted Prix Renaudot for his first novel Le Proces verbal (The Interrogation). He has since published some thirty books, short stories and essays, several in English translations that have achieved commercial success in the United States1. With their distinctive, and at times almost hypnotic, prose style, these works are characterized by their keen social commentary, environmentalism, and mysticism. In an interview with Le Clézio, Tirthankar Chanda states: “His work reflects his ecological concerns, his rebellion against the intolerance of Western rationalist thought, his fascination for the world of the American Indians which he discovered very young.”2
Le Clézio’s interest in indigenous cultures is an essential element of his work, including Mondo et autres histoires (1978), a collection of eight short stories, many of which have been published individually in France through Gallimard’s “Folio-Junior” series for children. A film entitled Mondo (1996), by the renowned director Tony Gatlif (Latcho Drom), is a poetic visualization of the first story in this collection, a fairytale-like account of the experiences of a homeless ten-year-old gypsy boy. Called “magical” and “mesmerizing”, this first screen adaptation of Le Clézio’s works received major critical acclaim in the United States.3
Literary critics who have studied Le Clézio’s work generally consider his child characters to be symbols of “marginality whose innocence and sincerity expose the hypocrisy and artificiality of urban consumer society”.4 Jean Onimus, for example, states that the child heroes of Mondo et autres histoires exemplify the lack of spirituality characteristic of a world stifled by possessions and pleasures.5
Le Clézio himself has spoken in interviews about his fascination with children and their close ties to nature. It is not surprising, of course, that a child is the central character in each of the tales in his Mondo et autres histoires. Their stories and vision offer the reader a world of dreams and enchantment while at the same time describing certain harshly realistic aspects of contemporary urban life.
A fine example of Le Clézio’s unique blend of magic realism is found in the sixth short story of the collection, an urban fable entitled “Hazaran”, offered here for the first time in my own English translation. The central character is a young orphan girl named Alia who lives in a shack at the “Frenchman’s Pier” with men and woman of all nationalities. When a mysterious man named Martin befriends her, Alia’s life and outlook begin to change. A storyteller and mentor for the children at the Pier, Martin tells a tale about a place called “Hazaran” that will ultimately become an inspiration for all.
Sandra L. Beckett mentions the universal appeal of such well-known French texts as The Little Prince, but laments the fact that none of Le Clézio’s children’s books have ever been translated in English: “Two of France’s most important contemporary authors, Michel Tournier and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, have also published extensively and quite successfully for young readers, although their children’s books remain virtually unknown in the English-speaking world”.6
My translation is a contribution to world literature offering non-French speakers another opportunity to enjoy the lyricism and sensuality of Le Clézio’s prose. In addition, it is the first of author’s translated works that both adults and children can fully enjoy. Because of its emphasis on multiculturalism and urban life, it may be of interest to individuals involved in minority or cultural studies, environmentalism, and related interdisciplinary fields. Finally, Jean-Marie Le Clézio is widely recognized as an author who truly stands alone in contemporary French literature for “his is an important voice, a voice truly of our time”.7
—Patricia E. Frederick
1 The list includes, among others: Wandering Star, trans. by C. Dickson (Curbstone Press, 2004), Onitsha, trans. by Alison Anderson (University of Nebraska Press, 1997), The Prospector, trans. by Carol Marks (David R. Godine Publishers, 1993), The Giants, trans. by Simon Watson Taylor (Atheneum, 1975), and Fever, trans. by Daphne Woodward (Atheneum, 1966).
2 “Interview with Jean-Marie Le Clézio”, Label France 12/2001, no. 45.
3 Michael Wilmington, movie critic for the Chicago Tribune, for example, calls Le Clézio an “urban mystic” who has “an almost mystical belief in the beauty of the everyday, the unnoticed”. Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune (1997, September 12). “Mondo Gives Us a Gypsy Boy’s View of the World”. See also Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times (1997, June 27) “Mondo” and other reviews at www.imdb.com.
4 Corry L. Cropper, Neophilologus (2005) 89: 41.
5 “...témoignent de l’indigence spirituelle de pays trop riches, ou la vie s’étouffe de plaisirs, de possessions.” Jean Onimus, Pour lire Le Clézio (Paris: PUF, 1994) 131
6 Sandra L. Beckett, “Crossing the Borders: The Children’s Books of Michel Tournier and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio” The Lion and the Unicorn 21.1 (1998) 44.
7 Jennifer R Waelti-Walters, J.M.G. Le Clézio. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977) 15.
“Hazaran” ©Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. English translation©Patricia Frederick. From Mondo et autres histoires (Mondo and Other Stories), Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1978. We are very grateful to the author for his co-operation.
J.M.G. Le Clézio: The Nobel Lecture
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