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Authors: Hubert Aquin

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Daylight is fading. The tall trees that line the Institute grounds are bombarded by light. Never have they appeared so cruel to me and never have I felt so much like a prisoner. Troubled, too, by what I’m writing, I’m very weary and tempted to give in to inertia the way one gives in to a fascination. Why should I go on writing and what shall I say? Why draw curves on paper when I long to go out, to stroll, to run towards the woman I love, to abolish myself in her and sweep her away with me into my resurrection and towards death? No, I no longer know why I’m writing this puzzle while I suffer and the hydrous vise is tightening over my temples till it crushes my few remaining memories. Something inside me is threatening to explode. There are more and more cracking sounds, foreshadowing a seismic event that my scattered activities can no longer keep at bay. Two or three censored novels can’t distract me from the free world I see out my window, from which I’m excluded. Volume
IX
of the complete works of Balzac is particularly discouraging. “In Paris under the Empire thirteen men met, all struck by the same sentiment, all energetic enough to follow the same line of thinking, political enough to conceal the sacred bonds that united them …” I stop here. The opening sentence of the
Story of the Thirteen
slays me; that dazzling beginning makes me want to
end my own cumulative prose, just as it reminds me of the sacred bonds, now broken by isolation, that once joined me to my revolutionary brothers. I have nothing to gain from going on writing. But I go on anyway, though I’m writing at a loss. No, that’s a lie: for the past few minutes I’ve known perfectly well that I will gain something from this game, I’ll gain time: an interval I cover with erasures and phonemes, fill with syllables and howls, cram with all my acknowledged atoms, multiples of a totality they’ll never equal. I compose in highly automatic writing and while I’m spelling myself, I avoid homicidal lucidity. I dazzle myself with words. And I drift complacently because this procedure lets me gain in minutes what I lose proportionately in despair. I stuff the page with mental mincemeat, I cram it to the bursting point with syntax, I pound at the naked paper, I can barely keep from writing with both hands at once, so I’ll think less. And suddenly I land on my feet, safe and sound but drained, tired as an invalid after the crisis. Now that the deed is done and Balzac eliminated, the pain of vainly desiring the woman I love avoided, now that I’ve chopped my fury into devalued notions, I feel rested and I can look at the submerged landscape, I can count the trees I no longer see, recollect the names of the streets in Lausanne. I can easily recall the smell of fresh paint in my cell at the Montreal Prison and the stench of the Municipal Police cubicles. Now that I’m feeling free and easy, I let incoherence take hold of me again; I give in to that improvised stream, renouncing more from laziness than principle the premeditated plotting of a genuine novel. Real novels I leave to the real novelists. As for me, I flatly refuse to bring algebra into my invention. Condemned to a certain ontological incoherence, I take my stand. I’m even turning it into a system with an immediate application that I decree. Infinite I shall be, in my own way and in the literal sense. I won’t leave a system I create for the sole purpose of never leaving it. As a matter of fact I’m not leaving anything, not even here. I’m
caught, compressed inside a hermetically sealed glass booth. From my prison window I can see a red van – how suspicious! – that reminds me of another red van that was parked on Pine Avenue one morning outside the
porte-cochère
of the Mount Royal Fusiliers. But now the red stain is moving away and disappearing into the darkness, depriving me of a bracing memory. Bye bye Mount Royal Fusiliers. Farewell to arms! That unexpected play on words gets me down: I feel like dissolving into tears, I’m not sure why. All those weapons stolen from the enemy, hidden and then discovered in sorrow one by one, all those weapons! And I who am disarmed here for having held a weapon, disarmed as well before the idling sun as it quietly sets behind Île Jésus! If I give in to the twilight again, I won’t be able to hold my position for very long or to manoeuvre serenely in the stagnant waters of fiction. If I look at the vanished sun again, I won’t have the strength to bear the time I saw passing between you and me, between our two bodies stretched out on the calendar of spring and summer, then suddenly broken at the beginning of Cancer. I must close my eyes, tighten my grip on the pen, not give in to the pain, not believe in miracles or in the litanies I utter every night beneath the sheet, not invoke your name, my love. I mustn’t speak it aloud, write it on this paper, sing it, cry it. I must silence it and let my heart break.

I’m breathing through lungs of steel. What comes to me from outside is filtered, drained of oxygen and nothingness, making me more frail. I’m subjected to a psychiatric evaluation before being sent to trial. But I know that this very expertise contains an unspoken assumption that confers legitimacy on the system I’m fighting and a pathological connotation on my own undertaking. Psychiatry is the science of individual imbalance enclosed within a flawless society. It enhances the standing of conformists and the well-integrated, not those who refuse; it glorifies all forms of civil obedience and acceptance. It’s not just solitude I’m battling
here, but the clinical imprisonment that casts doubt on my effectiveness as a revolutionary.

I might as well reread Balzac! I want to identify with Ferragus, to live magically the story of a man condemned by society, yet capable on his own of standing up to the police stranglehold and avoiding capture by mimicking it, both its dual nature and its constant shifting and moving. I’ve dreamed about that, too, about fleeing to a different apartment every day, dressing in my hosts’ clothes, concealing my escapes in a ritual of parades and productions. Because I draped myself unwittingly in Ferragus’s spotted garments, today I’m in a clinic under surveillance after an inglorious stay in the Montreal Prison. It all seems to me like a tremendous act of cheating, including my pain when I confess it. The deeper I sink into disenchantment, the more I discover the arid soil where for years I thought I saw a mythical vegetation spring up, a true hallucinatory debauchery, a flowering of falsehood and style to mask a plain that had been close-cropped, shattered, burned by the sun of lucidity and boredom: myself! Now the truth won’t let me seed it with a forest of calyxes. My own face, unveiled once and for all, terrifies me. Having come here as a prisoner, I feel myself sicken from day to day. Nothing feeds my soul any more: no starry night transmutes my desert into sheets of shadow and mystery. Nothing offers me distraction or some substitute euphoria. Everything abandons me at the speed of light, all the membranes break, allowing the precious blood to seep away.

 

B
ETWEEN JULY
26, 1960 and August 4, 1792, halfway between two liberations, while I worm my way, coated in a light alloy, into a novel being written in Lausanne, I’m anxiously looking for a man who left the Lausanne Palace after shaking hands with Hamidou Diop. I slipped into the hotel lobby without attracting Hamidou’s attention. Executing a
paso doble
, I was outside the hotel a fraction of a second later, in time to see a 300
SL
drive off towards Place Saint-François. Something told me that this fleeting silhouette didn’t pop out of the Senegalese Sahel and that Hamidou is playing a double game. In any case, it’s pointless to ask him to identify the man he was speaking to, or tell him about my own rash suspicions. The handsome African is more cunning than a Chinese. With his unbridled loquacity and his athletic negritude, he masks all too successfully both his wiles and his awe-inspiring intelligence.

During these reflections on my hero’s subtle duplicity, I walked slowly up the rue de Bourg and went inside the movie theatre on Place Benjamin Constant to see
Black Orpheus
again. Listening to “Felicidade,” I started to cry. I don’t know why that song of happiness spells melancholy to me or why that fragile joy was translated for me into lugubrious chords. So nothing can stop me from calling to my black Eurydice,
from searching for her in the never-ending night, shadow among the shadows of a dark carnival, a night darker than a night of saturnalia, a night sweeter than the one we spent together somewhere in her native tropics one June 24. Eurydice, I am descending. I’m here, at last. By writing to you I shall touch you, black shadow, black magic, love. The Benjamin Constant theatre is a free fall for me. This very evening, a few miles from the Hôtel de la Paix, headquarters of the
FLN
, a few steps from the Montreal Prison, dark headquarters of the
FLQ
, no sooner do I brush against your blazing body than it’s lost to me; I piece you together again but words fail me. The historic night seems to be secreting the India ink in which I can make out too many fleeting forms that resemble you but aren’t you. At the end of my liquid decadence, I’ll touch the low land, our bed of caresses and convulsions. My love … I feel giddy. In fact I’m afraid of every silhouette, of my neighbours in the theatre, of the stranger who conceals Eurydice’s mulatto profile from me, of the people waiting on the sidewalk when I leave the theatre.

I hurried through this dense crowd and crossed Place Benjamin Constant. And as I walked past the illuminated front of the Hôtel de la Paix, I looked in the other direction at the jagged profile of the Savoy Alps and the mottled expanse of the lake. Eleven-fifteen. I’d wasted my day. Now I had nothing to do, no one to meet, no hope of finding the man Hamidou had shaken hands with in the lobby of the Lausanne Palace. Nonchalantly, I went back to the hotel. I was given the key to my room and a sealed blue paper. I tore it open quickly, and understanding nothing of what was written on it, I stuffed it into my pocket so I wouldn’t attract the elevator boy’s attention. As soon as I was in my room I lay down on the bed and reread the formless jumble of capital letters with no spaces:
CINBEUPERFLEUDIARUNCOBESCUBEREBES-CUAZURANOCTIVAGUS
. This one-word cryptogram had me perplexed for a few minutes; then I decided to perform an
alphabetical statistical analysis, which gave me: E 7 times; U 7; R 5; B, A, and C 4 times; S 3; I 3; O 2; G 2; P, F, L, V, and Z one time only. The blatant predominance of the letter U was mystifying. I know of no language in which that vowel is so predominant. Not even in Portuguese and Romanian, though they’re rife with U’s, does that letter so outweigh the other vowels.

The cryptogram from the Hôtel de la Paix still fascinates me, not only because of its mysterious origin (which has nothing to do with the Bureau, whose figures and even their variants I know by heart), but also because of why the message was sent. As I stumbled over this equation with its multiple unknowns I must solve before I go any further in my story, I have the feeling I’m facing the most impenetrable mystery of all. The more I circle it and target it, the further it moves beyond my grasp, multiplying my own riddle tenfold even as I step up my efforts to grasp it. I simply don’t seem able to decipher the code, and since I can’t translate it into my language, I write it down in the insane hope that by paraphrasing the nameless, I’ll finally give it a name. Yet even though I cover this hieroglyph with words, it gets away from me and I’m left behind on the other shore, surrounded by vagueness and hope. Crowded inside my closed sphere, I descend, compressed, to the bottom of Lac Léman, and I can’t step outside the flowing themes that constitute the thread of the plot. I’ve closed myself inside a constellate system that has imprisoned me in strictly literary terms, so much so that this stylistic sequestration seems to confirm the validity of the symbol I’ve used from the outset: diving. Encased in my funerary barque and my repertoire of images, I have only to continue drowning through words. Descending is my future, diving my sole activity and my profession. I drown. I become Ophelia in the Rhône. My long manuscript tresses mingle with water plants and invariable adverbs while I glide, variable, between the two long jagged shores of the cisalpine river. And so duly coffered
inside my metallic concept, certain that I won’t get out but uncertain as to whether I’ll live for a long time, I have just one thing to do: open my eyes, look at this flooded world, pursue the man I’m looking for and kill him.

Kill! What a splendid law, one it’s sometimes good to comply with. For months now I’ve been preparing myself inwardly for killing in cold blood and with maximum precision. On that rainy Sunday morning I was secretly preparing to strike. My heart was beating steadily, my mind was clear, agile, precise as a weapon has to be. The months and months that had gone before had genuinely transformed me. And it was with an acute sense of the gravity of my effort and with reflexes perfectly trained that I was inaugurating this black wedding day. Suddenly, around half-past ten, the break occurred. Arrest, handcuffs, interrogation, disarmament. An unqualified disaster, this trite accident that earned me nothing but a stay in jail is an anti-dialectical event and the flagrant contradiction of the undeclared plan I was going to carry out, weapon in hand, in the purifying euphoria of fanaticism. Killing confers a style on one’s existence. And the prospect of it, when shamefully introduced into everyday life, injects it with the energy it needs to avoid feeble crawling and endless boredom. After my trial and my liberation I can’t imagine my life outside the homicide axis. Already I’m bursting with impatience at the thought of the multiple attack, a pure and shattering act that will restore my appetite for life and establish me as a terrorist in the strictest privacy. And that violence will bring order back to my life, because it seems to me that, for thirty-four years now, I’ve only lived the way that grass lives. If I were to make a quick tally of kisses given, of my powerful emotions, of my nights of wonder, of my luminous days, of the privileged hours and the great discoveries I have yet to make; and if I were to add up over an infinity of perforated postcards the cities I’ve passed through, the hotels where I’ve had a good meal or a night of love, the number of my friends
and of the women I’ve betrayed, to what sombre inventory would these irregular operations lead me? The sine curve of real-life experience doesn’t translate the ancient hope. I’ve perverted my life line repeatedly and obtained less happiness through an accumulation of indignities, which has led me to give back less than nothing of it. Before this inborn statistic that suddenly and wearily haunts me, I can imagine nothing better than to continue writing on this sheet of paper and to plunge hopelessly into the ghostly lake that’s flooding into me. To descend word by word into my memory pit, to invent other companions who already perturb me, leading me into a knot of wrong tracks and, finally, to go into exile once and for all outside my botched country.

BOOK: Next Episode
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