Authors: Caryl Ferey
214 West 19th St.
New York NY 10011
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright Â© 2008 by Ãditions Gallimard, Paris
First publication 2010 by Europa Editions
Translation by Howard Curtis
Translation copyright Â© 2010 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
Cover photo Â© by Marco Morosini
ISBN 978-1-60945-944-4 (US)
ISBN 978-1-60945-942-0 (World)
Translated from the French
by Howard Curtis
Be the tiny blade upon the grass:
greater than the spindle of the whole world's mass . . .
(translated by Zsuzsanna OzsvÃ¡th
and Frederick Turner)
To my friend Fred Couderc
whose giant's wings taught me to fly
and his wife, Laurence,
a nervous glider.
for the soundâfull volume.
re you scared, little man? . . . Tell me, are you scared?” Ali said nothingâtoo many vipers in his mouth. “You see what happens, little Zulu? You see?”
No, he didn't see anything. They'd grabbed him by the roots of his hair and dragged him out to the tree in the garden to make him look, but Ali stubbornly kept his head down between his shoulders. The words of the giant in the ski mask hit the back of his neck. He didn't want to look up. Or scream. The noise of the torches crackled in his ears. The man gripped his scalp tight in his callous hand.
“You see, little Zulu?”
The body was swaying like a damp rag from the branch of the jacaranda tree. The torso glistened dimly in the moonlight, but Ali didn't recognize the face. This man hanging by his feet, this bloodstained smile over him, wasn't his father. No, it wasn't him.
They were all here, they'd all gathered for the kill, the “Green Beans” who'd been formed to keep order in the townships, these blacks in the pay of the mayors who'd sold out to the authorities, and the warlords, and the others, too, the ones who broke the boycott and got their ears cut off. Ali wanted to beg them, to tell them there was no point, they were wrong, but in his throat there was emptiness. The giant was still holding him.
“Look, little man. Look!”
His breath stank of beer and the poverty of the
. He struck again, twice, great stinging blows that tore his father's flesh, but the man hanging from the tree no longer reacted. Too much blood lost. Skin hanging off him. Unrecognizable. The real world cracked open. Ali floating weightless to the other end of the sky. This wasn't his father. No.
They twisted his skull like a screw and flung him to the ground. Ali fell on the dry grass. He didn't recognize the men around him, the giants were wearing stockings and ski masks, and all he could see was the rage in their eyes, their vessels bursting like rivers of blood. He hid his head in his hands, trying to bury himself in them, to curl up and disintegrate, become amniotic fluid again. A few feet away, Andy was weakening by the minute. He was still wearing the red shorts he wore at night, all soaked in urine, and his knees were knocking together. His hands had been tied behind his back and a tire placed around his neck. The ogres were shoving him, spitting in his face, shouting abuse, vying with each other to find the right formula, the best reason to justify killing him. Andy was looking at them, his eyes popping out of their sockets.
Ali had never before seen Andy lose his nerveâAndy was fifteen, his big brother. Of course they often fought, much to their mother's displeasure, but Ali was just a kid and couldn't defend himself. They preferred to go fishing, or play with the little cars they made out of barbed wire. Peugeot, Mercedes, Ford, Andy was an expert. They'd even put together a Jaguar, an English car they'd seen in a magazine that fired their imagination. Now his knock-knees were shivering in the torchlight, the garden where they had dragged him stank of gasoline, and the giants were arguing around the cans. In the distance, out on the street, people were shouting,
from the country who didn't know what was being done to their neighbors, didn't know that a necklacing was in progress.
Andy was weeping, his tears black on his ebony skin, his red shorts damp with fear . . . Ali saw his brother stagger when they threw a match on the gasoline-soaked tire.
“You see what happens, little man! You see!”
A scream, the gasoline running down his cheeks, the twisted figure of his brother fading, melting like a rubber soldier, and that horrible smell of burned flesh . . .
The birds were describing impossible diagonals between the edges of the cliff, swooping down suicidally toward the ocean, then coming back up again in a flurry of feathers.
From his vantage point on the platform, Ali Neuman watched the freighters passing on the horizon. Dawn was coming up over the Cape of Good Hope, orange and blue in the Indian Ocean's spectrum. He only came to see the whales when he couldn't sleepâhumpback whales, which came from September onward to frolic at the tip of Africa. Ali had once seen a couple of them after mating, going under for a long, amorous dive, and coming back to the surface covered in foam. The presence of the whales brought him a kind of peace, as if their strength was somehow transmitted to him. But the mating season was overâforever. Daylight was breaking through the sea mist, and they wouldn't come, not this morning, not tomorrow.
The whales were hiding from him.
The whales had vanished into the icy seasâthey, too, were afraid of the Zulu.
The abyss beckoned, but Neuman turned away and walked back down the path. The Cape of Good Hope was deserted at this hourâno buses, no Chinese tourists posing politely in front of the legendary signpost. There was only the wind from the Atlantic blowing over the bare heath, and the familiar ghosts chasing one another in the dawn, and the desire to do battle with the whole world. A deep rage. Even the baboons in the park were keeping their distance.
Neuman walked across the heath as far as the entrance to Table Mountain National Park. The car was waiting on the other side of the barrier, dusty and insignificant. The sea air had soothed him a little. But it wouldn't last. Nothing ever lasted. He stopped thinking, and switched on the ignition.
The important thing was to keep going.
The blacks in their torn espadrilles clinging to the guardrail were waiting for the traffic to slow down to sell their wares.
The N2 linked Cape Town proper with Khayelitsha, its largest township. Beyond Mitchell's Plain, built by the coloreds expelled from the white zones, stretched an area of dunes, and it was on this sandy plain that the apartheid government had decided to build Khayelitsha, “new house,” a model of social planning, South African styleâin other words, as far from the center of the city as possible.
In spite of the chronic overcrowding, Josephina refused to move, not even to the well-equipped settlement of Mandela Park, south of the township, which had been built for the emerging black middle classâbeneath her blind smiles and her unfailing kindness, Neuman's mother was as stubborn as a mule. It was here they had both found refuge, twenty years before, in the old neighborhoods that made up the heart of Khayelitsha.
Josephina lived in one of the core houses
on Lindela, the township's main thoroughfare, and didn't complain, even though there were often five or six people sharing the same space, which consisted of a bedroom, a kitchen, and a cramped bathroom that she had agreed to have enlarged now that she was older. Josephina was happy in her way. She had running water, electricity, and, thanks to her son, “all the comforts a seventy-year-old blind woman could dream of.” Josephina wouldn't budge from Khayelitsha, and it had nothing to do with her huge size.
In the end, Neuman had stopped insisting. They needed her experienceâJosephina was a qualified nurseâher advice, her faith. The team at the dispensary where she worked as a volunteer did what it could to tend the sick, and, whatever she said, Josephina wasn't completely blindâeven though she couldn't see faces clearly anymore, she could still make out shapes, she called them her “shadows.” Was it her way of saying she was slowly leaving the surface of this world? Neuman found that hard to accept. They were the only survivors of the family, and there wouldn't be any others. The props had been blown away from under him, and his mother was all he had left.
Neuman worked too hard, but he always came to see Josephina on Sundays. He'd help her fill out papers, and then stroke her hand and take her to task about how they were going to find her lying dead on the street if she kept running around the township from morning to night. She would laugh, and say through her sputtering that she was getting old and had let herself go so much that they'd soon need a crane to move her around, and he, too, would end up laughing. To humor her.
A hot wind was blowing through the windows of the car as Neuman passed the Sanlam Center bus terminal and turned onto Lansdowne Street. Corrugated iron, wooden planks, old doors turned upside down, bricks, scrap ironâthey built with whatever was around, whatever they could pick up, steal, exchange. The slums seemed to be heaped one on top of the other, the tangled aerials on their roofs engaged in a battle to the death under a leaden sun. Neuman drove along the asphalt road leading to the old part of Khayelitsha.
He was thinking about the women he had never brought home to his mother, and about Maia, who he'd go to see after Sunday lunch, when something he glimpsed out of the corner of his eye jolted him out of his thoughts. He braked, just in front of a cigarette vendor, who had no time to approach him before Neuman reversed some twenty yards as far as the waste ground.
Behind the row of multicolored ribbons that marked off the site of the future gymnasium, two young guys were roughing up a kid, a filthy, emaciated little kid who could barely stand. Neuman sighedâhe was early, they wouldn't be coming out of church yetâand opened the door.
They'd thrown the kid to the ground, and were kicking him and trying to drag him over to the foundations. Neuman walked toward them, hoping he'd scare them away, but they kept right on goingâtwo tattooed guys in bandanas who looked like
The kid had his face in the dust, there was blood trickling from his mouth, and his scrawny arms certainly couldn't protect him from the kicks.
The older of the two guys looked up and saw Neuman coming onto the waste ground.
“What do you want?”
“You two, get out of here.”
Neuman was bigger than the two
combined, but the older one had a gun under his yellow Brazil T-shirt.
“No, you get out of here,” he hissed, “pronto!”
The young black aimed his revolver at his face, a Beretta M92 semiautomatic, similar to the ones the police used.
“Where did you get that gun?”
's hand was shaking, his eyes translucent. High as a kite, probably.
“Where did you get that gun?” Neuman repeated.
“I told you to get out of here, or I'll put a bullet in you!”
“Yeah,” his associate said. “Leave it alone, O.K.?”
On the ground, the boy was holding his mouth, making sure he had all his teeth.
“I'm a police officer. Give me that gun now and I won't come down on you hard.”
The two guys exchanged evil glances and a few words in Dashiki, the Nigerian dialect.
“You know what, I'm going to blow your head off!” the older one said.
“And spend the rest of your life in jail playing wife to the big shots,” Neuman went on.“With that pretty face of yours, there'll be plenty of cocks for you to suck.”
That hit home. They both bared their teeth, dirty rows that looked more like trenches.
“Asshole!” the leader said, before turning and walking off.
His associate followed him, limping badly. Clearly both junkies. Neuman turned to their victim, but there was just a pulpy mess on the ground. The boy had taken advantage of the altercation to crawl as far as the foundations of the gymnasium. Now he was moving away as fast as he could, his nose running with blood.
“Wait! Don't be afraid!”
At these words, the boy threw a terrified glance at Neuman, stumbled over the rubble in his tire-rubber sandals, plunged into a length of concrete piping, and disappeared. Neuman approached and took a look at the circumference of the pipe. The opening was too narrow for an adult as big as he was to squeeze in. Did it lead anywhere? He called into the darkness, but there was no response.
He stood up, dispelling the smell of cold piss. Apart from a mangy dog sniffing the stagnant water in the foundations, the site was deserted. There was only the sun and that trail of blood in the dust.
The township of Khayelitsha had changed since Mandela had come to power. Apart from water, electricity, and tarred roads, little brick houses had sprung up alongside administrative buildings, and you could now go to the center of the city from here by public transportation. Many people criticized the “one step at a time” policy instituted by the nation's icon, hundreds of thousands of households still lived in poverty, but that was the price to pay for the “South African miracle”âthe peaceful transition to democracy of a country on the verge of chaos.
Neuman parked his car in front of the area of parched earth that constituted his mother's garden. The local women were coming back from Mass, nicely dressed in the colors of their congregation. He looked for Josephina amid all the frills, but saw only kids under the sunshades. He knocked, and opened the door. The first thing he saw was the torn blouse on a chair.
“Come in!” she called, hearing his steps in the hall. “Come in, son!”
Neuman found his mother in the bedroom, lying in the rumpled bed with a nurse bending over her. Josephina's forehead was bathed in sweat, but she smiled when she saw him in the doorway.
“There you are.”
He took the hand she held out to him, and sat down on the edge of the bed.“What happened?” he asked anxiously.
His mother's eyes widened, as if he was everywhere.“Don't make that face,” she said softly. “You're not so handsome when you're angry.”
“I thought you were blind. Well?”
“Your mother blacked out,” the nurse said from the other side of the bed. “Her blood pressure's fine, but please don't upset her: she's still in shock.”
Miriam was a beautiful twenty-year-old Xhosa with eyes the color of cedar. Neuman barely noticed her.
“Are you going to tell me what happened, yes or no?”
Josephina had swapped her nice dress for an old housecoat, not exactly her Sunday best.
“Did someone attack you?”
“Pooh!” She made a disgusted gesture, as if chasing away flies.
“Your mother was attacked this morning on her way to church,” Miriam said. “The attacker knocked her to the ground and took her bag. They found her unconscious in the middle of the street.”
“It was more of a surprise than anything else,” his mother said, patting his hand. “But don't worry: I was more scared than hurt! Miriam took care of everything.”
Neuman sighed. Among her many activities, Josephina was a member of a street committee whose job it was to settle family problems, arbitrate disputes, and liaise with the local authorities. Everyone knew her son was the head of Cape Town's Crime Unitâattacking her was like putting your head in the lion's mouth.
Josephina lay there on the white sheets of the four-poster bedâa crazy idea of hers, as if she was a Zulu princessâher face drained of color and covered in sweat. Neuman wasn't convinced by her attempts to smile.
“The idiot could have broken your bones,” he said.
“I may be fat, but I'm solid.”
“A force of nature, specializing in blackouts,” he said. “Where does it hurt?”
“It doesn't . . . No, it's true!” She moved her hands like an old tree waving its branches in the wind.
“Your son's right,” Miriam said, putting away her instruments. “Now, you really need to rest.”
“Pooh . . .”
“How many attackers were there?” he asked. “One or two?”
“Oh, just one. One was enough!”
“What did he steal?”
“Just my bag. He also tore my blouse, but that doesn't matter, it was an old one!”
“You were lucky.”
Through the window, the local kids were checking out Neuman's car and laughing. Miriam pulled on the curtains, plunging the little room into semi-darkness.
“What time did it happen?” Neuman went on.
“About eight,” Josephina replied.
“That's a bit early to go to church.”
“The thing is . . . I was going to the Sussilus first, for our monthly meeting . . . I was in charge of the tontine . . . Sixty-five rand.”
His mother also belonged to several associationsâsavings clubs, burial societies, the association of parish mothersâso many, he couldn't keep up with them. Neuman frownedâit was already after ten.
“Why wasn't I informed about this?”
“Your mother wouldn't hear of it,” the nurse replied.
“I didn't want to worry you over nothing,” Josephina said by way of justification.
“I've never heard anything more stupid. Did you tell the township police?”
“No . . . No, it all happened so quickly, you see. The attacker came up behind me, grabbed hold of my bag, and I fell and fainted. A neighbor found me. But whoever it was had long gone.”
“That doesn't explain why the police haven't sent anyone to talk to you.”
“I didn't report it.”
“She never listens to anyone,” Miriam said. “You should know all about that, right?”
In fact, it was Neuman who wasn't listening. “And why exactly didn't you report it?”
“Look at me. I'm fine!”
Josephina's laughter shook the bed and made her big breasts quiver. The attack, the fall, the blackoutâit all seemed to her like another continent.
“There may be witnesses,” Neuman went on. “They need to take a statement from you.”
“What could a blind old woman tell the police? And anyway, sixty-five rand is so little, there's no point getting worked up over it!”
“That's not Christian charity, it's foolishness.”
“My boy,” his mother said, affectionately, “my darling boyâ”
He cut her off. “Just because you're blind doesn't mean I can't see what you're playing at.”
His mother had radar in her fingertips, sensors in her ears, and eyes in the back of her head. She had been living in the neighborhood for more than twenty years, she knew its people, its streets, its dead ends. She must have some idea of her attacker's identity, and the way she was trying to downplay the attack made him think there was a reason she wasn't saying anything.
“I don't like to insist, Mr. Neuman,” the nurse said, “but your mother has just had a sedative, and it's going to start to take effect.”
“I'll see you outside,” he said, anxious to get her out of the house.
Miriam raised her eyebrows, two impeccable arabesques, and picked up her bag. “I'll be back this evening,” she said to Josephina. “In the meantime, you rest, O.K.?”
“Thank you, sweetheart,” the old woman nodded from the four-poster.
It was the first time Miriam had met Josephina's beloved son. A slim, powerful body, fine, regular features, closely cropped hair, elegant, dark, piercing eyes, the kind of lips you might dream aboutâexactly the way his mother had described him. Neuman waited until the young Xhosa had left, then stroked the hand of this stubborn woman he loved so much.
“The person who attacked you,” he said, following the line of her veins. “You know him, don't you?”
Josephina closed her eyes, still smiling. She wanted to lie, but his hand felt so warm in hers.
“You know him, don't you?” he insisted.
She sighed from the depths of the bed, as if the past were presentâAli had the same hands as his father.