I looked at the furnitureâsimple, oriental couches with their shiny, colored cushions lined up neatly. I looked at Abdel MoumÃ¨ne and all of his sisters who live with Mom and Dad and don't do much with their days. I looked at this man with dry, light eyes, as blue as the Mediterranean, a color I didn't inherit. I looked at this woman, her black hair, dyed with henna, her European shirt, her stomach that I came out of thirty-five years earlier. I took stock of all the members of this family. I was the shortest, the fattest, had the biggest feet and shortest fingers out of all of them. I'm Gizmo from the Gremlins. Danny DeVito next to Arnold Schwarzenegger. At Beaugrenelle, people often
said I looked like my father. They were trying to be nice, to please me. They didn't know.
I thought that by sending me to Paris, my parents had given me better chances in life than I would have had in Algiers, in this modest house, in the shadow of a scrawny medlar tree, surrounded by a gaggle of brothers and sisters. In this country where we don't push the baby birds from the nest so they can fly higher. In this country where I never could have met a man like Philippe Pozzo di Borgo.
I am able to buy the land at Djelfa and I hire eight men who seem to be honest, more or less. Together we install a generator, build the buildings, and get the business started. Every three or four weeks, I go back to Paris to see Amal and the children, who are in school in France. They have their friends and their routines there. In Djelfa, I sleep in my office. And when I'm going to spend a few days in Algiers, I sleep in Abdel MoumÃ¨ne's room.
There will always be people to judge me. And therefore to sentence me, without the slightest hesitation. I'll always be the little Arab who takes advantage of the weakness of a heavily handicapped man. I'll always be a hypocrite, a guy with no manners who doesn't respect anything or anyone, a narcissist who, not satisfied with being on the television, publishes his memoir at the age of forty. But I don't give a damn about what people might think about me. I can look at myself in the mirror.
Monsieur Pozzo says that I'm more at peace because I've
found my place in society. Just a few years ago, he thought me capable of killing a guy “in a fit of rage,” in his words. He added that he'd bring me oranges in prison, like any father would for his incarcerated son. I don't consider him a father. May he forgive me, but the concept of a father in my little story is still fairly unclear . . . He isn't less than a father, he isn't more, he's simply himself, Monsieur Pozzo di Borgo, and I have to hold myself back from writing his name in all capitals, the
He's the one who taught me to read. Not to decipher, but read. The one who caught me up on part of my lack of education. Before I knew him, I got a kick out of saying I had a negative-six-year degree. Now I've maybe got a negative-one-year degree, I don't know. He's the one who taught me humility, and there was a lot of work to do there. The one who opened my eyes to the middle and upper classes, an alien world where some of the inhabitants aren't so bad after all. He's the one who taught me to think before answering, and even before acting. He is the one who encouraged me to throw away the mask. The one who told me
yes, yes Abdel, you're the best
, even though I was far from being convinced of it despite whatever I might have said. The one who raised me. Who took me higher. To become better. And even do a pretty decent job as a father.
Last summer, I took my children for a ride on the Seine in a Bateau-Mouche. We sat with the tourists, who've changed since the days when I robbed them. There were a lot of Chinese, fully equipped in terms of technology, nice stuff that would bring a
nice sum at the flea market in Montreuil. There were quite a few Russians, too, beautiful girls for sure, but only skin and bonesânot my typeâand guys a lot bigger built than me. I wouldn't have gotten into it with them. Abdel Malek asked me intelligent questions, as usual.
“Papa, what's that building? It looks like a train station.”
I surprise myself by talking like a book.
“It was a train station in the past, you're right. Now, it's a museum. It's called Orsay. There are paintings inside. Lots of paintings.”
I thought I was being too serious. It wasn't me. I had to add something.
“You know, Abdel Malek, they didn't have cameras before, that's why people painted . . .”
My son again, a little farther on:
“And that bridge, why is it cut in two?”
“Oh . . . the Pont Neuf! It's divided in two because it links the tip of the Ile de la CitÃ© to both river banks of Paris.”
“Is there a city on Ile de la CitÃ©? A city like Beaugrenelle?”
“Uh . . . no, there's the Palais de Justice! That's where they judge people and decide to send them to prison when they do bad things.”
“Like you, Papa!”
This time, it's Salaheddine who speaks up. My miniature clone. And very proud of his father, of course.
The boat took us farther. The children talked to me about the ocean we were sailing on. I explained the difference between an ocean, a stream, and a river to them. Well . . . I wasn't so sure
about the part where the source is born in the mountains. We passed by the bottom of XVIth district. I showed them where I lived when I was little like them, but they didn't care a bit.
“And that statue, it looks like the Statue of Liberty. What is she doing? Why is she lifting her arm like that?”
“She's trying to find a network for her BlackBerry Torch . . .”
They laughed, but they didn't believe me. I told them that Papa didn't know many things because he didn't pay good attention to the teacher at school.
“Philippe will know! You can just call him, right?”
“Monsieur Pozzo, yes, he'd definitely know, Monsieur Pozzo . . .”
I have two fathers, two mothers, an ebony black avatar in the movies, a wife, two sons, and a daughter. I always had buddies, sidekicks, and accomplices. Monsieur Pozzo is perhaps simply a friend. The first one. The only one.
Copyright Â© 2012 Michel Lafon
Translation Â© 2012 Weinstein Books by Lauren Sentuc
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used
or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without
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eISBN : 978-1-602-86183-1
First U.S. Edition