Laziness in the Fertile Valley

BOOK: Laziness in the Fertile Valley
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ALBERT COSSERY

LAZINESS IN THE
FERTILE VALLEY

Translated from the French by William Goyen

Foreword by Henry Miller

Afterword by Anna Della Subin

A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOK

FOREWORD

Albert Cossery is a young Egyptian, born in Cairo, who spent a number of years in Paris and writes his books in French. He is rapidly gaining recognition not only in the French-speaking world but in England and soon, we expect, in America. All his books have been translated into Arabic and are creating a stir in the Near and Middle East. They are destined, in my opinion, to be translated into many tongues, for their appeal is universal. He writes exclusively about the unalleviated misery of the masses, about the little men, the forgotten men — men, women and children, I should say — forgotten of God. No living writer that I know of describes more poignantly and implacably the lives of the vast submerged multitude of mankind. He touches depths of despair, degradation and resignation which neither Gorky nor Dostoevsky has registered. He is dealing, of course, with his own people, whose misery began before Western civilization was dreamed of. Despite the seemingly unrelieved gloom and futility in which his figures move, the author nevertheless expresses in every work his indomitable faith in the power of the people to throw off the yoke. Usually this hope is voiced by one of the characters apparently without hope. It is not a shout which is given forth but a quiet, determined affirmation — like the sudden appearance of a bud in the darkest hour of the night.

Cossery gives tongues to the speechless ones. Naturally, they do not speak like the professional agitators indoctrinated with Marxism. Their language is childlike, simple to the point of foolishness, but pregnant with a meaning which, when understood by those in power, will cause them to tremble and shudder. Often they express themselves in fantasy, a dream language which, in their case, demands no psychoanalytical interpretation. It is as clear as the handwriting on the wall. In effect, this is precisely what Cossery is doing — writing his message on the wall! Only, he is not speaking for himself but for the multitude. He does not revel in the horrors of misery, as might be imagined from a cursory glance; he is heralding the coming of a new dawn, a mighty dawn from the Near, the Middle and the Far East.

His books are saturated with a mordant, savage humor which makes one laugh and weep at the same time. There is no separation between the author and the pitiable figures he depicts. He is not only for them, he is of them too. In expressing their vagaries, one feels that Albert Cossery is also just learning to use his voice, to use it in a new way, a way that will never be forgotten. To a Westerner, especially an American, his types will probably seem outlandish and ridiculous, almost incredible. We have forgotten that men can sink so low; we know nothing of this abysmal level of existence, not even in our most backward regions. But I am assured by those who know that there is nothing the least incredible, the least fantastic, about Cossery’s creatures or their situation. He has given us a reality all too real, incredible only that in such an “enlightened” era such things can be.

HENRY MILLER, 1945

LAZINESS IN THE FERTILE VALLEY

I

The child loaded his slingshot, held his breath, and aimed carefully. Then he fired with his head thrown back and his mouth open, his whole face shining with a strange excitement. The rock flew like an arrow, whistling, and disappeared in the branches of the sycamore. All the birds flew away with little cries of fright. He had missed.

Serag remained motionless, standing on the embankment that bordered the field of corn. He had been watching the child — a boy of ten, full of violence, with immense bulging eyes and the face of a precocious murderer. He was dressed in rags and seemed to have come from very far; his whole person bore the marks of adventure. Serag was fascinated by his ardor, and also by a certain extravagance that emanated from him. He behaved, really, in an astounding manner, lavishing his energy in jerky movements like a mechanical toy. From time to time he bent down to pick up more rocks, then bounded up to shoot his slingshot again. He shot now without aiming, stone after stone, as if seized with panic. Serag noticed his short quick breathing, like panting. He couldn’t keep himself from watching, smiling foolishly at this exasperated violence which seemed, in the solitude of the fields, like a terrifying nightmare.

How long had it been going on? Serag remembered having seen the child; then, abruptly everything had changed. He didn’t know what this change consisted of: it was everywhere in the air like a palpable anguish.

He thrust his hands in the pockets of his pants, straightened his shoulders a little as if to fortify himself against this blind frenzy; then, again, he became immobile, attentive to the least gesture of the child.

The sycamore stood just ten steps from him, on a side of the path where the mass of its branches made a wavering shadow. The path ran across the corn field and rejoined the main highway. Only a part of the highway could be seen and, bordering it, a yellow villa with green shutters which was silhouetted against the somber blue of the sky. Sometimes a car passed at high speed, leaving behind it a long track of dust. And sometimes a mule cart lumbered lazily by, taking an infinite time to disappear. But at this moment the road was deserted.

The child still pursued his hunting with fury. He struggled, ruthless and determined, menacing the entire universe with his slingshot till the countryside rustled with the secret alarm of his anger. He was irritated at his own clumsiness, and uttered obscene curses between his clenched teeth. From time to time he stopped and with a suspicious glance surveyed the few birds that were still hidden in the branches of the sycamore. Then he took up his hunt with redoubled energy. He seemed to see nothing around him, entirely absorbed as he was by his frantic excitement.

Serag felt himself frighteningly alone in the countryside with this terrible child armed with his slingshot. He began to feel an acute uneasiness, almost a madness. He would have liked to flee, to escape the spectacle of this frenzy, whose danger he measured by his own horror and helplessness. But he didn’t dare to move. His limbs were completely paralyzed, his mind strangled by fear. A terror of delusion overwhelmed and tortured him. This was an unending punishment. At each movement, at each gesture of the child, he felt again a violent pain in his neck that seemed to last an infinity. Without realizing it he lowered his head, bit his tongue and stiffened all his muscles so as not to succumb to dizziness. Soon tears came to his eyes, and he began to cry gently, heedlessly.

With an effort he turned his head and threw a despairing glance around him. An implacable and weird solitude dominated all the countryside. It was the unchangeable Egyptian countryside, with its fields of corn and sugar cane, congealed in a distressing torpor. Everywhere the earth was at rest, flat and monotonous, giving no sign of life. In the distance, through the light haze, he could see the shapes of date trees, their slender trunks balancing their palms like giant fans. The ditches mirrored the lazy water in silver reflections of the sun. Suddenly, from the depth of the horizon rose a flight of crows; they hovered for a moment in space, then dispersed in the shifting crevices of the sky. Serag looked to the side of the road. At first he could see nothing; then a woman in a black dress passed slowly, an urn balanced on her head. He couldn’t see her very well, but she was moving in the distance, a living thing, and it comforted him.

The sun was scarcely visible behind the heavy clouds which pursued it continuously. It was a winter sun, an artificial sun, brilliant but without warmth. From time to time a cold wind swept all the expanse of the fields, making the tall stalks of corn undulate. The whole countryside seemed roused, as if by a wave, then calmed little by little, returning to its gloomy desolation. Once more Serag looked at the child. This time he felt a shock in his chest. His legs gave way under him as though they had been cut. The child continued his hunt with increased frenzy. It was no longer a human thing; it was as though a demoniac force were attacking the void with fury. Serag looked at the boy without believing in him. He was seized by an imperative need for sleep. But how to sleep before this absurd and annihilating vision? At bottom, the thing that terrified him the most in this mad agitation was the mystery that it seemed to conceal — the mystery of a monstrous universe, filled with men overwhelmed by work and succumbing under the strain. He couldn’t be wrong about this. Serag recognized in the child’s insane frenzy all the signs of a labouring and trapped humanity. Never before had the world of men dedicated to slavery struck him with this strange force. Could it be a sign from destiny? Seized by a superstitious fear, Serag waited, his heart pounding, as if on the threshold of an ultimate revelation.

Serag had heard that men worked, but these were only stories that one told. He had never believed them completely. He himself had never seen a man work, outside of those futile and ridiculous employments which for him had absolutely no value. However, for a long time he had felt the desire to see one of those men who worked arduously with their hands, and who carried the stigmata of painful labour. But it was very difficult for him to do this; he knew of no practical way of meeting them. Ever since he had looked for work, he had tried in vain to find them. At home his family considered him a fool and a dangerous maniac. When he spoke to them of his wish to work, they all showed incredulous faces, not only because of his decision, but rather from a lack of understanding. This passed their comprehension. Serag didn’t know whom to ask for help. All the people he knew devoted themselves to various fruitless, insignificant tasks which had nothing in common with true work. Those among them who perhaps participated in some rough and painful labour never showed it. They always seemed to hide this pain within themselves, like a shame or a remorse. Serag had had unbelievable difficulties with this problem. With all his soul he wanted to approach some men at their work so that he might know what it meant.

But was this enraged child a worker? Certainly he had neither the walk nor the appearance of one. If all the men who worked drove themselves like this, life would no longer he possible. And only to chase birds! What then when he worked in a factory! For Serag could only conceive of serious work in the inspiring atmosphere of machinery in action. He had a completely romantic idea of the operation of a factory. He was awed by the grandeur of work accomplished in common by thousands of men. But for this, all jobs seemed to him completely insignificant — equivalent, almost, to doing nothing. However, whatever the child was doing did not even correspond to these phantom professions. Serag tried to decide in which category of workers he belonged. But the child’s behavior escaped all classification; his efforts seemed to go beyond the limits of human endurance. He no doubt obeyed some obscure design; he belonged to a sort of desperate and fallen humanity, more tenacious in its battle for subsistence. Serag had never seen anything like it. He found his whole conception of the world shaken.

He was seized by a deadly apprehension and asked himself how all this would end. Was there no one to stop the child? He could no longer hold his rigid position; his numbed legs had grown heavy, like a mass of lead. He had cramps in his stomach. He clenched his teeth so as not to cry out, leaned his head toward the ground and felt he was going to vomit. He closed his eyes, reopened them painfully, yawned, made a gesture of enormous weariness, then let himself fall, exhausted, on the edge of the bank. A moment later, he took a piece of bread from his pocket and began to chew it. He had just remembered that he had eaten nothing since he had risen.

A green and white car passed on the highway, honking repeatedly, as if sending out a message of distress. The noise resounded in the countryside, dying out slowly and leaving an impression of uneasiness. Serag watched the child shoot his last rock with a feeling of deliverance. What would he do now?

The child hesitated a long moment, giddy and breathless. Then with the back of his hand he wiped the snot that dripped from his nose, sniffed noisily, raised the front of his rags and minutely examined his sex; then he leaned his back against the trunk of the sycamore. He seemed beaten by his frenzy which had ended in nothing. Suddenly he saw Serag and a gleam of surprise kindled in his eyes and illumined his face streaming with dirty sweat. He was drained of all his rage; he only felt the curiosity of hunger, pitiful and greedy. All his attention was now concentrated on the piece of bread that Serag chewed without interest, his eyes half closed with sleep. It was as if the child had discovered some marvelous world. He advanced a few steps, hypnotized by the piece of bread, and stopped in the middle of the path, his legs spread, his mouth open, trembling under his rags.

A huge cloud detached itself, exposing the discolored sun. All the countryside was bathed in a humid, cold light which created enormous distances, as if the earth had suddenly withdrawn its horizons. Serag trembled, blinked his eyes; the light of day bothered him and irritated his nerves. He had noticed the child’s gaze, but pretended not to see him, and continued to eat his bread in the resigned attitude of one condemned to death. At each moment he felt sleep reach out inexorably for him. He let himself fall back, leaned on his elbows and finally abandoned himself to sleep. He felt no more fear; he simply wished to go to sleep. He closed his eyes and lay like a shipwreck on the wet grass and fell asleep.

This only lasted a second. He quickly regained consciousness, sensing the child’s presence and the fierce demand of his stare. Brusquely he decided to get up and leave; this halt had only succeeded in making him more lethargic. As usual, he was roaming in this vicinity to observe the factory under construction. The factory was still several hundred meters further on, isolated in the open country. Serag no longer desired to go there; he was tired from all these emotions and found himself more feeble and discouraged than ever. He hesitated, thinking of returning to the house, when the child moved and manifested his presence by a plaintive groan. There was no longer a way to avoid him.

“Hello, little one!”

Serag had called out without thinking, as if to give himself a hold on a vague and depressing reality. The child came running, crossed the path with a few rapid leaps, his rags fluttering like wings. Serag saw him suddenly before him, miserable and pale, holding his slingshot in one hand, the other hand empty, impatient.

“Do you want a piece?”

The child held out his hand without answering. He seemed defiant, his incredible eyes fixed on Serag. No doubt he had long ago lost all trust and was waiting for some frightful trap. Serag broke the bread and gave him the biggest piece.

“You’ve been hunting a long time?”

The child’s mouth was already full. He replied, as if he wanted to get away:

“Yes, for a long time. What of it?”

Serag now saw him from too near not to be struck by his jaundiced color, his scowl, his air of deep craftiness. He had big loose ears, and his shaven head was covered with running sores. A scar cut across the corner of his upper lip, contorting his face in a horrible smirk. Under his rags one could see his slender body and supple limbs, scaly with the dirt of the roads. This was truly a terrible being, come from a world of combat and despair. Now Serag understood the anguish that he created around him. It was not simply due to his misery, nor to his expression of a precocious criminal. No, this anguish was the message of a hostile and troubled universe, lost, ages before, of which he was only the pale and unconscious reflection. He gave the impression of a pitiful trapped animal, destined for the worst fate, and constantly the victim of latent dangers. What dangers? This was just what Serag had wanted to learn: the obscure mystery which enveloped the hard life of men.

The child devoured his bread with feverish haste. He still wasn’t sure about this providential meal.

“Well, do you like to hunt birds?” Serag asked.

The child stopped eating. He seemed to be gravely offended.

“I don’t do it for fun,” he said. “I hunt them so I can sell them. Do you think I’ve got time to waste?”

He assumed an air of importance, looking almost with pity at Serag.

“Excuse me. I didn’t know you were working. It’s nice work you have there.”

“It’s damned hard work,” replied the child. “Since this morning I haven’t killed a single one. They’re worse than devils.”

To sell birds! Certainly it was a business as worthy as any other. Serag realized this perfectly. But even so, it seemed a little fantastic to him, a little too frivolous. Was the child making fun of him? He must scorn him. Yet he remembered the child’s cruel efforts and couldn’t help marveling at him. Perhaps this was the sort of work for him. He would have liked to ask for explanations, to know the details of this mad industry, rich in risks and adventures. Perhaps, one day, he himself could take up this work, if he judged it sufficiently lucrative.

“And this brings you a lot of money?” he asked.

The child didn’t reply. He had finished eating his bread, but seemed scarcely appeased. Suddenly he began to jump on one leg, spinning around like a maniac. This exercise plunged him into a state of rare intoxication. His face had taken on an expression of careless joy. He scarcely paid any more attention to Serag and seemed to have forgotten him completely.

BOOK: Laziness in the Fertile Valley
6.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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