A visitor in the night
Extracts from Journal of a dead man by Marcel Béalu
Translated by Andrew Robert Hodgson.
Journal d’un mort here translated as Journal of a dead man is the culmination of Béalu’s early trilogy surrounding sleep, death and dream. All three written mostly during the Nazi occupation of Paris they provide an oblique window into Béalu’s thoughts in a moment where thoughts were exactly the things that might get you killed. The book is made up of disjointed and unconnected episodes I have elsewhere compared to Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, and is the book of the three most dislocated from previous forms of the novel.
A visitor in the night
I can’t sleep anymore. I’ve called off the search. All evening, buried in my armchair I’ve sat and waited for the waves to take me. But as they started to reach the walls, as the eddies took up the things in my room, a frogman slowly opened the door. Green water rushed in and over his heavy form, ran over the carpet, raced up towards the ceiling. He walked towards me clumsily as if at the bottom of the ocean. Then, taking off his glove, he placed on my table a pebble. A phosphorescent pebble glinting in the shadow growing thicker. I could no longer see the diver after that. Just in the middle of the night this white pebble.
Sometimes my night-time visitor comes without his diving suit. The sight is terrifying. On such evenings he puts under my eyes a book always opened to exactly the same page. The book is a diary covered in black canvas like they use commercially and the page is that day. The last time I read it was Monday 28th April, the day of Saint Aimé. On that day I hadn’t loved anyone. Under the day’s appellation there was nothing, the page was a desert of pure white. More often than not the pages are blank like that. That night I whispered under my breath, I pleaded with him: I’m dead, I’m dead aren’t I? And as soon as I uttered these words the diver tore out the page and disappeared with the book. But his gaze, the intolerable weight of his gaze lingered before me to the end of the night.
On other nights I see on the page a mess of hieroglyphs in red ink. I look across the incomprehensible signs until they dissolve and flow together as nets of blood. The page then takes on the look of turned out skin, overly neat, clean, or a map of the rivers, waterways and canals of some unknown country.
Other times still there moving on the page like on a cinema screen but with extraordinary photographic perfection, octopi or water lilies. Sometimes simply scenes from my day; but I never recognise the beings that surround me.
Playing dead is not easy. You have to begin preparations a long time before they come. At first there was Louise and Jeanne and Marie. Now there is Radegonde, Delphine and Félicité. The names have changed, faces too, though it is so hazy I sometimes confuse them with the snowflakes that fall around me. Some of them don’t have a face. But they still have their long hands that push the wind, these stubborn hands, and their enveloping wake that pulls tirelessly to take me in tow, into their swirling queue that sometimes reminds me of their hair. There is also the required abode – I live at the top of a factory chimney – where the smoke sticks in my nose and makes me sneeze (nothing is more dangerous to the dead than sneezing, might I add: just the thing not to do). My feet are used to roaming and easily get bored immobile as they are (I tend to push them down very deep, and with them knead the earth and mould into a great mess all the while aware they are really totally useless). And the sounds, the rustling, the music – my word! The music! – a type of stringy texture all stretched out, laid out like a blanket, revolting, its colour and if I don’t take care it pushes me up, lulls me, carries me, marches me off. There are also the odours, you know, so awful they could wake the dead.
No-one knows. The dead walk the streets just like you or me. Slowly they are mixed up with the living. Often the two go out together, pay me visits, take turns imparting their wisdom. I often ask myself who is speaking when I listen? But most of the living imagine that a cat is simply a cat, that a serious book is a serious book, that the dead are dead – and that the dead don’t write. Yeah, right!
Just now, I was walking through the gare de Saumur. (Innumerable seas and continents separate me from this city where I lived as a child.) A whisper fell to my ear, it informed me that I could now raise myself up into the air of my own volition. And so I jumped up, reached out and flew up to the ceiling, and performed a perfect backflip in mid-air and then hovered back down and crossed the length of the hall above the sea of heads. Not a soul paid attention to my exploits. We have fantastic proof that the miraculous is real, I said to a friend that was with me, but no-one wanted to know.
We are in the great beyond
The idea that I had the power to do anything! Again because of names. None stuck, they’re not exactly adaptable. Now that I have started to forget the names I know the things, I know them. It’s the best arrangement to have with them, more peaceful. The engagement’s target a point infinitely distant – infinitely approached – where everything is a total mess. The pen, the inkwell, the chair mutters an endless litany. Rivers of weeds flow between my fingers, they mix with my movements. A tree is not a tree, it is an eye that turns slowly towards the light and opens every spring.
You think that the most distant star remains to be discovered, that there is something else, that there is somewhere else, that all has not been said already, once and for all. But at the bottom of the unmoving eye flows the buried night. A sunken universe already replaced by another. Another thing is the same thing. Another place is here.
The earth rises encompassed in glowing light like a bee, finished pumping its sugar, emerges from the flower alive anew. In the street the voices speak saying nothing. What do you think? That if I go all of a sudden, up the walls, go in that café near the gare de Lyon or tired out, tired of everything, get back up on my perch I’ll be able to see nothing?
On the boulevard a thought attacks me: how can I prove to these unknowns that I exist? I have no papers on me, no passport, no ID, nothing. With this idea I go in a photo shop. Five minutes are sufficient to have myself reproduced six times. Calm I sit in front of the mechanical eye. But the photograph is a joke, the photo that it spits out after a quarter of an hour of waiting is that of the old president of the republic. Losing no time I rush back in and take another. There, after a good half an hour, the operator brings along with compliments the portrait of a young girl with a silly smile. I strangle my fury. You see full well that this isn’t me! The third time the same, but this time on the printed paper: an old bearded man. I pay silently and try again. For twenty successive photographs I have sat in front of the lens and time and time again my face has passed through the black chamber and become the head of a fat bald man, then that of a cavalry officer, then a small boy taking communion, a cinema actor, then the face of a bulldog, then the image of a fruit bowl! I don’t dare to mention anymore to the photographers whose good faith seems self-evident that their device has no relation to mine. This goes on and on until hitting my forehead on the camera I realise that I have no more identity, nothing left, and what’s more a photograph has never been required for a death certificate, which is the only legal documentation the establishment is likely to ever ask of me.
Don’t think that I’m laughing. I’m leaning over black water, a lake at the bottom of forgotten caves that restlessly boils over. You cannot see my face, just a reflection that twists and grimaces. But one day I’ll turn around and you can contemplate with horror the truth. Unless the water’s moving image has been printed on me like an eternally jeering mask. Take pity on me like a child that blows raspberries at passers-by, who chided one day never comes back.
Trapped in the narrow cell that takes the condemned to their death in this place of their final agonies I wonder what comedian had the idea to decorate the wall with a mirror. Then I jump: this is not my pale face in the dark but another of the condemned I see. So! Promiscuous crime will not spare me even here! Because this one is a veritable assassin, without a doubt the face of a thug. The way he stares leaves no illusions. Yellow-belly! He suddenly launches his knee into my stomach. It’s done. I don’t get a moment. The ignoble individual is now grinding my face with his fat stinking hands, grabs me round the throat like you would a chicken’s gizzard and twists slowly, twists slowly. I collapse rattled though not losing consciousness until the descent is over. The cage opens and – final sight – the solemn execution chamber appears. I still have the strength to hear my torturer say in a guttural voice as he kicks me down in front of the executioner: Look! I’ve done your job!
One day I heard someone shouting my name in the street. I turned. A kid of eight or ten jumped at my legs.
– What do you want kid?
He watched me breathless. He didn’t have a bad face but he looks like he’s ready to cry. Eventually, timidly, he stutters:
– You… you don’t recognise me?
– Look, get lost, you hear me.
He gets lost. I must seem pretty menacing to this brat! But, yeah, his face was familiar but I didn’t remember anything about him.
– Come on, come play with the ball…
He gave me daggers : I’ve upset you, huh? Then he ran off, ran away. I listened to the patter of his wellies until the end of the road. And then he turned to watch me again. I saw him wan at the top of the street, with his extraordinarily huge eyes, even at this distance, and his open mouth, open mouthed, to shout two words he wouldn’t dare utter, two words that came out all the same, and reverberated around the street full of passers-by:
– Dirty old bastard!
I’ve thought about it often. I can’t let it go, these two words and above all the way they were screamed at me so loud like a dog barking faraway. Again he mutters them in my ear in a forced tone I indulge like the day when standing on his tippy-toes he whispered to me low: I am your son.
That one I followed up without a doubt! He was as glib as you like. But my questions proved too much a challenge to his intelligence. He only knows how to say stupid phrases like:
– You’re in a nice tie, sir!
Or insults like:
– Fat wallet full of money, fat arse full of soup, dirty bourgeois …
And he goes back in his bag, head right in, supremely ridiculous. Oh if he could see it as I see it! But just as I had this thought he yells at me, always from afar as goes his deplorable habit:
– If you could see yourself as I see you!
Before I had time to glean his thoughts he robs me of mine. Even in his room where he locks himself alone all the time and comes out with red cheeks I cannot protect him from himself. He does as he pleases.
Nose glued to shop windows, there only is he at my mercy, entranced by a box of building blocks, a regiment of soldiers, coloured pencils.
– Here, buy it yourself.
But he looks curiously at the beautiful brand new thousand-franc note, fresh out of the Bank of France, which I handed him. He turns in all directions then gives it back, shrugging his narrow shoulders sadly.
– I don’t want your money… he told me.
If I leave him for a second, just a second, he uses the moment to grow with excessive speed. I was going to buy him a lollipop or these sticks of liquorice he ogled earlier with envy but now I have before me a real young man who’s already eyeing the girls – slyly, mind! not at all with the same frankness as the liquorice! – I whisper to him:
– Go ahead, say hello to the girl.
But he turns and looks at me extremely offended. Every moment I want to say:
– Don’t give me that grimace, that disdain is not your own.
And when someone asked him a question, and he blushed , and went all timid :
– This is not what you have to say, not that you have to answer at all! DON’T YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE?
But as soon as he suspects the intent of my advice he escapes, he flees – to believe he knows it all: he runs – and as I chase after him I see him grow again. Not by ten years, but fifteen, twenty, thirty… He’s not the child that I was, he is me. And I’m screaming:
– Wait for me! … Wait for me, then! The two of us together are better than one…
But I can’t catch up with myself.
Can you believe I never got lost? Here he is back behind me, watching me silently.
He has found again his twelve year old self and I feel entitled again to wipe his nose or button up his fly. But if I lean over it is he that wipes a suspect stain left on MY jacket or the red from around my lips. And he is happy to see that I don’t know how to hide my confusion, the cutie!
At all times, even now I guess at my back , watching my every move , exacerbating my ridiculousness, waiting to catch my little daily mistakes, my most intimate lies. You might say he finds it fun to provoke me.
I walk on the arm of a young woman, at ease in my comfortable clothes, happy to be happy in the beautiful sunshine, when a horrible child, some disgusting thug, shoves us then turns on us with a look of hatred. That’s him.
Leaving the restaurant where I come to have a big lunch I get a bucket of dirty water between the legs, I’m ready to slap the insolent little sod. It’s him, him again, with his broom, his chapped hands, his thin cheeks, his red nose.
Proud of his poverty, so humble and brooding in his rebellion, ignoring his youth, stupid and tragic.
I’d like to tell him: no ,my boy, no… and show him his injustice. But I know he wouldn’t understand. So I don’t hide it from him anymore:
– Yes, you see, this is how I am … worse than you thought huh?
And I relish his childish joy, his triumph, his happiness – happiness that he resents I gave him, to prove to me that he is better than me. And I wait stoically for him to whisper a little less surly than at the beginning and in his contempt where you can already just about discern a little sincere pity.
– Poor old bastard!
I finally confess to him that I was even older than he thought, that I’m already dead. His eyes grow wide and he offers me these kind words:
– We don’t have to talk about it.
A little later he begins to tremble in every limb and looks at me with unbearable terror. I’ve had enough of this git always at my heels, and of his terrifying clarity, and his continual reproaches. He messes his pants for no reason other than to exasperate me. He was certainly shitting himself when he asked me:
– You’re going away like everything else, like the others, like Dad?
At this last word I had a start, I couldn’t stop myself from blushing, muttering to myself: well then! what has he got to do with it? He’s not as bad as all that our father… the child watches me now fixedly and I cannot distinguish in his eyes that ebb of fear anymore. I think he still stammered, and these were his last words:
– You’re not going to kill me?
No, I’m not going to kill you, you little brat, what gives you the right to judge your parents! Disgusting hypocrite! (do you think I’ve forgotten everything you hide behind your angel face?). You deserve worse than death. In the deepest darkest caves I’ll lock you up with bats, with scorpions, with rats, with your jitters. Here you will finally convince yourself that the world has conspired against you. And in doing so, you little thug, I no longer have to listen to you crashing through my night making such a din, trampling everything in your desperation…
March 1943 – April 1944
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Andrew Robert Hodgson is a PhD researcher based at Université Paris Est, and a lecturer in English language and literature at various universities in Paris.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 14th, 2013.