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Authors: Yasmina Khadra

The African Equation

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The African Equation

Yasmina Khadra

Translated from the French
by Howard Curtis

 

 

When I found love, I told myself, that’s it, I’ve gone from just
existing
to actually
living
, and I swore to do whatever it took to ensure my joy would never end. My presence on earth now had a meaning, a vocation, and I had become someone special … Before that, I’d been an ordinary doctor pursuing an ordinary career, leading a humdrum existence without any real appetite, having the odd passionless affair that left no trace when it was over, meeting friends for drinks in the evening or for pleasant hikes in the forest at weekends – in short, routine as far as the eye could see, with the occasional unusual event, as vague and fleeting as a sense of déjà vu, which had no more effect on me than some trivial item in a newspaper … But when I met Jessica, I discovered the world; I might even say I gained access to the very essence of the world. I wanted to be as important to her as she was to me, to be worthy of her every concern, to occupy her every thought; I wanted her to be my groupie, my muse, my ambition; I wanted many things, and Jessica embodied all of them. The truth is that she was my star, she lit up the whole sky for me. I was as happy as a man could be. It was as if I just had to hold out my hand and summer would come early. A state of grace was a mere heartbeat away. Every kiss I received was like a vow. Jessica was my seismograph and my religion, a religion in which the dark side of things had no place, in which all the holy books could be summed up
in a single verse:
I love you
… But in the past few weeks, doubt had crept into even those pious words. Jessica had stopped looking at me in the same way as before. I no longer recognised her. After ten years of marriage, I was aware that something was wrong with our relationship, and I hadn’t the slightest clue what it was, had no way of locating the source of the problem. Whenever I tried to talk to her, she would give a start, and it would take her at least a minute to realise that all I was trying to do was break through the wall she had built around herself. If I insisted, she would put her arms up like a barrier and tell me that now was not the time. Every word, every sigh upset her, pushed her that little bit further away from me.

My wife didn’t so much worry me as terrify me.

She had always been a fighter, had always battled for what she believed in, had always done all she could to make our lives better. Jessica and I had had ten wonderful years when everything had gone well, ten years of unbridled love, combining sensual passion and warm friendship.

I had met her in a brasserie on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. She was taking part in a seminar, and I was attending a conference. I fell in love with her the moment I saw her. I was near the front window, she was at the far end of the room, and we looked at each other in silence. Then we both smiled. She left first, along with her colleagues. I didn’t think I would see her again. In the evening, our paths crossed in the foyer of the hotel where her seminar and my conference were both taking place, on different floors. Chance seemed to be on our side, so why not take advantage of it? … Within four months, we were married.

What was making her so distant? Why wouldn’t she tell me any of her anxieties or secrets? In desperation,
interpreting her attitude as the sign of a guilty conscience, I suspected an extramarital affair, a casual adventure that had driven her into a frenzy of remorse … But that was absurd. Jessica was mine. I couldn’t remember ever seeing her look at another man.

Sometimes, sitting in the kitchen after a meal during which we hadn’t spoken and she had avoided my eyes, I would reach out my hand to her. Instinctively, like a frightened snail, she would move her arm away and hide it under the table; I would keep calm, for fear of making matters worse.

Jessica was a beautiful woman. I was dying to take her in my arms; I was hungry for her, her warm body, her passionate embrace. The smell of her hair, her perfume, the blue of her eyes: I missed everything about her. I longed for her even though she was within arm’s reach; I lost sight of her as soon as she turned away from me. I no longer knew how to get her back.

Our house was like a sealed mausoleum in which I was both a prisoner and a ghost. I didn’t know which way to turn. I felt confused, superfluous, completely useless. All I could do was watch the lights going out one by one and darkness spreading from the wings to the stage, where my leading lady had forgotten her lines. No role matched her silences. She was merely a semblance of herself, as elusive as a memory that had lost its own story. What was she thinking about? What was worrying her? Why was she always in a hurry to go to bed, leaving me alone in the living room with a pile of questions?

I spent my evenings slouched in front of the television, even though it no longer amused me and I hopped listlessly from one channel to another. Wearily, feeling as if my
head were in a vice, I would go to the bedroom and spend an eternity
listening
to Jessica sleep. She was magnificent when she slept, like an offering fallen from the sky, except that I was forbidden to touch. Freed from whatever obsessed her, her face regained its freshness, its magic, its humanity; she was the most beautiful sight I could hope for in the midst of the darkness that had seized my world.

By the time I got up in the morning, she was usually already gone. I would find traces of her breakfast in the kitchen, and a note on the fridge:
Don’t wait up for me tonight. I may be back late
… With a lipstick mark on the paper by way of signature.

Whatever the day brought, it was likely to be as dreary as my evenings.

 

I was a general practitioner. My surgery was on the ground floor of a grand-looking building, a few blocks from the Henninger Turm in the upper part of Sachsenhausen, in southern Frankfurt. My surgery occupied the whole floor and had a waiting room large enough to hold about twenty people. My highly efficient assistant was named Emma. She was a tall girl with muscular legs, the mother of two children she was bringing up alone after her husband had walked out on her. She kept my surgery as spotless as an operating theatre.

Two patients were waiting for me in the waiting room: a pale-faced old man in a tight coat and a young woman with her baby. The old man looked as if he had spent the night outside my surgery waiting for me to arrive. He stood up as soon as he saw me.

‘I can’t stand the pain, doctor. The pills you prescribed
aren’t having an effect any more. What’ll become of me if I can’t find a drug that works?’

‘I’ll be with you in a minute, Herr Egger.’

‘My blood’s turned pitch-black, doctor. What exactly do I have? Are you sure you’ve made the right diagnosis?’

‘I’m going by what the hospital has told me, Herr Egger. We’ll have a look in a minute.’

The old man resumed his seat and huddled in his coat. He turned to the young woman, who was looking outraged, and said, ‘I was here before you, madam.’

‘Maybe you were,’ she shot back, ‘but I have a baby with me.’

I found it hard to concentrate on my work that morning. I kept thinking about Jessica. Emma noticed that I wasn’t myself. At midday, she urged me to go and get some lunch and have a breather. I went to a little restaurant not far from the Römerberg. There was a couple that kept bickering in low voices at the next table. Then a family arrived with some noisy kids and I hastily asked for the bill.

I went to a little park not far from the restaurant and sat on a bench until a group of young tourists came and disturbed me. In the surgery, three patients were sitting twiddling their thumbs. They looked pointedly at their watches to indicate that I was more than an hour late.

At about five, I had a visit from one of my oldest patients, Frau Biribauer, who always deliberately chose to come towards the end of surgery so that she could tell me her troubles. She was a woman in her eighties, unfailingly polite and well dressed. But today, she hadn’t put on any make-up and her dress hadn’t been ironed. She looked downcast, and her withered hands were streaked with bruises. She began by making it clear that she hadn’t come
for any medical reason, apologised for constantly ‘boring’ me with her stories, then, after a pause for thought, asked, ‘What’s death like, doctor?’

‘Come now, Frau Biribauer—’

She raised her hand to cut me short. ‘What’s it like?’

‘Nobody has ever come back from the dead to tell us what it’s like,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry, we aren’t there yet. All you have is a small benign tumour that’ll disappear with the right treatment.’

I tried to put my hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. ‘The reason I came to see you, doctor,’ she went on, ‘isn’t that monstrous thing that’s growing under my armpit. I really do ask myself the question. It’s the only thing I can think of lately. I try to imagine what it’s like, that big leap in the dark, but I can’t.’

‘You should think of something else. You have an iron constitution, and lots of good years ahead of you.’

‘The good years are those you share with the people you love, doctor. And what am I supposed to think about? What else is there?’

‘Your garden.’

‘I don’t have a garden.’

‘Your cat, your flowers, your grandchildren …’

‘I don’t have anybody left, doctor, and I don’t get any joy from the flowers on my balcony any more. My son only lives twenty kilometres away, but never comes to see me. Whenever I phone him, he says he’s working every hour God sends and he doesn’t have a minute to himself … Whereas I have plenty of time to wonder what death is like …’ She wrung her hands. ‘Loneliness is a slow death, doctor. Sometimes I’m not sure I’m still alive.’

She held my gaze for a moment or two, then turned away.

I reached out to take her hands, and this time she let me as if she no longer had the strength to resist.

‘Try to forget your dark thoughts, Frau Biribauer,’ I said. ‘You’re worrying unnecessarily. It’s all in your mind. Keep your spirits up. You’ve shown great courage and a clear head. You have no reason to give in now. With its joys and pains, life deserves to be lived to the end.’

‘But that’s just it, doctor, what’s the end like?’

‘What does it matter? What matters is that you take more care of your flowers. Your balcony will look a lot more cheerful. Now, show me how our little tumour has reacted to the medication.’

She took her hands away and confessed with a sigh, ‘I haven’t taken the medication.’

‘What do you mean?’

She shrugged like a sulking child. ‘I burnt the prescription as soon as I got home.’

‘You surely don’t mean that.’

‘Of course I do. Nothing matters when you have nobody left.’

‘There are places that can help you, Frau Biribauer. Why not try them if you feel alone? You’ll have company, you’ll be well taken care of, and—’

‘You mean an old people’s home? Those are just places to die in! They’re not for me. I can’t imagine ending my days somewhere as grim as that. No, I couldn’t stand people putting me to bed at a fixed time, taking me out into the fresh air like a vegetable, pinching my nose to make sure I swallow my soup. I have too much pride for that. And besides, I don’t like relying on other people. I’ll go
with my head held high, standing on my own two feet, without needles in my veins or an oxygen mask attached to my face. I’ll choose the moment and the manner for myself.’

She pushed my arm away and stood up, angry with herself. I tried to hold her back, but she asked me to let her go and left the surgery without saying anything else and without looking at anybody. I heard her open the front door of the building and slam it behind her. I waited to hear her walking down the street, but as she didn’t pass my windows, as she usually did, I assumed she had gone in the opposite direction. A deep sadness took hold of me, and I quickly had the next patient shown in.

 

Night had fallen when Emma came and asked me if she could go.

‘See you tomorrow,’ I said.

After Emma had gone, I stayed in my consulting room for another half an hour or so, doing nothing in particular. As Jessica wasn’t due home until late, I wasn’t sure what to do with the time I had on my hands. I switched off the lights, leaving only my desk lamp on. That relaxed me a little. I loved listening to the silence of the building, a silence filled with shadow and absence that seemed to steady the things around me. People lived on five floors, along hushed corridors, and I never heard any noise from them. They shut themselves up in their homes as if in tombs. They were people of a certain age, well-
to-do
, of some social standing, and incredibly discreet. I’d sometimes pass one or two of them on the stairs, stooped, barely visible beneath their hats, in a hurry to disappear
from my sight, almost apologising for being in my way.

It was eight o’clock by my watch. I didn’t feel like going home to a darkened living room and sitting watching TV shows I wasn’t interested in, checking the clock on the wall every five minutes and thinking Jessica was back whenever a car pulled up in the street. I glanced at my wife’s portrait in its frame. It was a photograph taken on an Italian beach two years into our marriage: Jessica sunbathing on a rock surrounded by foaming waves, blonde hair flowing over shoulders so translucent they never tanned. She looked like a mermaid sitting on a cloud, laughing, her face radiant, her eyes bigger than the horizon … What had happened? Since she had been promoted to the post of deputy head of external relations at the multinational company she worked for, Jessica had changed. She travelled a lot, from Hong Kong to New York, from Scandinavia to Latin America, and worked flat out, sacrificing her holidays, bringing bundles of files home with her to go through in fine detail; sometimes she would shut herself up for hours in her tiny office, the door double-locked, as if she were dealing with top-secret material.

I grabbed my coat, wrapped my scarf around my neck, switched off the desk lamp and went out. In the foyer of the building, the lift was waiting patiently for someone to use it. It was a beautiful old-fashioned lift, encased in wrought iron, painted black and sparkling clean.

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