Head to toe portrait of Suzanne
By Roland Topor.
Translated by Andrew Hodgson.
Portrait en pied de Suzanne (or Head to toe portrait of Suzanne, roughly translated) is a whirlwind romance between the spurned, isolated, lonely narrator and the beautiful Suzanne. The narrator is in his ancestral home town, which he despises, in a country he despises, full of people he despises who speak a language he doesn’t know a shred of, and despises. And despite all this, he has somehow found himself alone. He is ruled by a maddening need to consume, to eat and drink, so much so that he looks over his own fat, hairy meat in the mirror and salivates. It is on a delirious post- 3.AM food search that he injures his left foot and bumps into his old flame Suzanne. Or rather, his left foot, after the application of ointment, comes to resemble Suzanne, and their love affair blossoms from there. The only woman who has ever loved him has returned to support him.
Portrait en pied de Suzanne is one of the many works by Topor that I seem to have fallen across everywhere of late. It was published around 10 years after The Tenant, Joko’s Anniversary and Erika. It is written in the first person, in the present tense, occasionally directly addressing the reader. It maintains the dreamlike ambiguity of Erika, while instilling the horror of Topor’s more structured narratives. Though what is striking with this novel is that unlike Topor’s other fully delineated narratives—where the protagonists strive for escape, for an impossible isolation—here the protagonist is driven mad by isolation; he is again trapped within society. Thus, the protagonist has achieved the wrong kind of escape for Topor; a loveless isolation.
For twenty-three days in this foreign city I have travelled without rest through its labyrinth of black lanes. Every now and then I stop to draw in an out-of-date diary with its tomblike-cover all shattered to pieces. I’m not sure if I’m a painter, architect, or employed at all, but I must be poor since I attach great importance to the work. The reasons for which I had to flee Paris are unclear; in any case I carefully avoid thinking on the circumstances surrounding my departure.
The city’s name is Caracas, yet it doesn’t seem to be the capital of Venezuela. The inhabitants pronounce it “carcass” with their dismal intonation that instils in me a deep malaise. My parents were born in this miserable place (in fact in central Europe), of whose language I have no clue. There is an absolute incommunicability between those that speak it and me.
The houses are adorned with sumptuous baroque facades, but I am grieved to relate their utter dilapidation. The details of the ornaments and sculptures have disappeared under a layer of filth. The sky, a winter sky, offers little clarity either. I ruin my eyes scrutinising the penumbra knowing already that my sketches are incorrect. The form and meaning is hidden away, the angles changed. In my desperation to decipher the stones they become muddled, like disturbing dirty water. My hand explores; groping blindly across the glaucous artifice.
The darkness is becoming so dense now that the pages of my diary dissolve into the depths of the night. A thought crosses my mind: “the drawing has to be correct as it’s just as muddled as the model.”
Reality overcomes my perseverance. It’s better to give up. I resign myself to returning to the hotel.
Passing by the river, I feel very weary all of a sudden. Thankfully there is a bench close by. I lie down on it to sleep with the dreadful sensation of being a crumbling heap that someone is coming to clear away.
Wide is the river, but no reflections play in its hollow depths.
An unlit bridge crosses it, a bit further up, over on the left. When I get up to take it on, in a minute, my heart’s going to go like the clappers.
I live on the other bank, near the tram terminus. From my window on the seventh-floor I observe its echoing movements that go on all night. The trams often arrive empty at the terminus and I throw a little celebration all by myself if someone appears at the door and steps down. Last night I was in luck. I had the opportunity to observe five such travellers.
A stone hits me hard on the back of my neck. Half stunned, I feel someone touching me, someone trying to take my wallet. By fluke, I grab a hand. My thief is nothing but some dirty kid, a sling wrapped around his wrist. I manage to grab the sling, and we wrestle violently in silence. The tussle finishes just as abruptly as it began. Swung by his sling, the roustabout goes bouncing down the riverbank. I listen to the fading echo of his galoshes as he scampers off along the quay. Reality rushes in with the pain. The stone that hit me looks nothing like those shifting facades. It is not vague and soft. Its characteristics are simple but precise. Its weight crushes, its edges tear, its angles pierce. It knows how to draw blood.
My God, I’m too fat. No one loves me. I’m still young, kind of. But it has always been like that. At school they called me Oinker, and later Big Belly or Lard Ass, or Big Lard Ass Fatso. God, how I suffered. I alone knew the wealth of purity that was hidden beneath my barrels of fat. The others considered with disgust this body which they believed to be the physical representation of my moral state. It’s like how visitors at the zoo recognise guilty elements of humanity in the animals, condemned to expose their degradation for all to see. The monkey is an obscene man and the tiger a deceitful man, the serpent is a vile man and the lion a proud man. Me, I’m a pig. A dirty gluttonous pig. My spirit is incapable of raising itself up from the floor. Divine gravity dictates to me this law: my body resides at ground level, there must rot my soul.
I have often made the heroic resolution to stop eating. Completely. Give myself a simple choice: get thin or get dead. My hunks of fat will melt away, be damned! I’ll then rise up from the floor, all translucent and ephemeral, just as I myself am, inside. Unfortunately though, I do not possess the necessary willpower. Hunger easily triumphs over these pretty resolutions. At the first cramp, I crack. And if, somehow, I stubbornly persist, the more complete is my eventual failure. I gorge on charcuterie, on bread and on cream cakes. Fit to burst. Exploding the disgusting body of which I am the victim. Too bad if my innocent soul is carried off with it! I wouldn’t mourn it.
Gravel squeaks. Not at all quietly. Is it the kid coming back to finish his work? No, a silhouette emerges from the shadows. A pallid young woman clothed in black comes towards me. What did she say? It looks like she’s praying. She takes my hand, grabs me by the sleeve. What does she want? I’m uncertain. Of course, she’s after money. But hardly more than the price of a meal. Well, I can forego eating tonight. I am willing to make the sacrifice. She makes me follow her.
I’ve accompanied her to her room, in a building by the riverside. There are two chairs, a table, a small gas stove on a kitchen cupboard by a sink, but no bed. A naked bulb dangles at the end of a never-ending wire. It gives off a terrible harsh light. I take off my own coat and put it around the back of a chair. I’m embarrassed, disappointed that the women hasn’t conformed to custom.
She lights the stove, pours oil into the pan. Now she’s beating two eggs in a rough earthen bowl. I watch her back twitching. I approach her and gently lay my hands on her, but she pulls back immediately.
She hides her gaze from mine. I’m gripped with the wild worry that this one, like all the others, will be unattainable. Does she find me too repugnant under electric light? Yes, I must undoubtedly have been more seductive in the shadows on my bench. Out of bitterness, out of spite, probably, I take off my shoes. The soles are worn through. The leather is ripped up like cardboard. I’m long past due another pair.
The girl smiles.
She offers me a seat, sets the table. I have before me an omelette and a glass of wine.
I eat while she watches me with kindness, standing. When I’ve finished, she writes a number on a slip of paper.
What does this code mean? She wants to know if I have money? I put down a note. She shakes her head.
Why is she refusing to take my money? I get up and try to hold her. She struggles, angered.
— Calm down, I’m not going to hurt you.
I take back my note, put on my coat. She throws herself on me, searching my pockets. She takes a coin, two coins; small change. This meagre sum satisfies her completely. Straight away, she overwhelms me with thanks. Of course, she’s taking the piss. I want to slap her, but I don’t dare. She’s capable of rousing the whole neighbourhood, of pretending that I’m some sexual predator, a criminal… I prefer to get out while the getting’s good. She calls to me down the stairwell and throws down my shoes.
I’ve made a huge mistake in taking the woman in black for a prostitute. An explanation of what just happened dawns on me by the middle of the bridge: my hostess tides herself over the end of the month by operating a restaurant out of her room. An honest cook, that’s all. The menu offered is scarcely richer than she is. One plate a day, or even, perhaps one plate a week, or a month…
What a striver, all to get a few pennies to get by!
I despised her unfairly, my heart swelled by her wounding indifference. The humour of the situation occurs to me at last. I have mistakenly associated belly with under-belly! I have to stop walking to catch my breath, I’m laughing so hard. What a splendid misunderstanding! This adipous body that I was going to press against her flesh, she’d judged at a glance, an expert. He’s not missing love, but nourishment!
In my good humour I transform myself with elation. In the footsteps of so many other heroes, I have become a real-life adventurer. And no-one could say otherwise: I’ve just lived a real adventure. This change of circumstances is an absolute Godsend: he’s never given me anything before. I take inventory of the red-hot memories of which I am now proprietor. A pleasant anecdote, a little raunchy and charged with emotion. A human document. A story to tell to friends, after dinner, or even to recount to strangers on trains. To tell to my children, later, when I have some. It will become part of the family folklore. To be passed down through the generations. It might be the only thing that they’ll know of me.
The young woman in black, the essence of the adventure, she will be a great figure to describe. But how can I describe the pain I remember in her eyes? I concentrate and try to summon up her face without getting anything better than the little zit above her top lip. Her nose, as for that, it is totally stripped from my memory. Well, ok, I always have the possibility of inventing a little. With a fake face, the story is no less true. Then again there’s nothing to force me to talk about the omelette. Sauerkraut will produce a better effect.
Suddenly, I’m hit by the sound of the word “sauerkraut”. I say it aloud to myself a few times in varying intonations. An overwhelming sense of sadness seizes me.
The tram terminus, brilliantly illuminated, is deserted. I walk along the street diagonally to get to the hotel entrance. The receptionist gives me the key without a word, without a smile. The lift is there. There is nobody in my room.
There are loads of us, sat down in the station café. The word “sauerkraut” is written in white on the mirror above the counter. There is sawdust on the floor. A child is crying because he has banged his forehead on the corner of a table. Someone is dead.
I am rushing down rue de Hôpital-Saint-Louis, number eight, next to the canal. I once lived there for six months a long time ago. My neighbours weren’t at all accommodating. They slipped a newspaper clipping in my mailbox entitled: “Noise causes tragedy.” They had written a message in ball-point pen in the margin: “All the night-time baths and talking is not recommended. Your neighbours.” I fled the apartment soon after that.
The tenant in the apartment below mine came to relieve me of Caracas. He brandished an ebony stick and mumbled as if on a funeral march. He explained to me: “You see I use a cane and I sing in a low voice because I have the courtesy to not disturb others, I do!” I pleaded with him to hit me on the top of the head and carefully avoid my forehead; as I echo like a gong. He pretended to be convinced but he was just taking the piss. The moment came, he struck me beautifully in the dead-centre of my forehead. My prediction proved true, despite all my efforts to contain it. I vibrated with the tone of a bronze disk. I shouted that it wasn’t my fault: “It’s not my fault, I swear to you it’s not my fault. It’s a sickness!”
I knew full well he didn’t believe me.
I dig carefully through my room for scraps of nourishment. My provisions compose of chocolate, peanuts and a morsel of dry cheese. I’m disappointed to find it bitter. Useless to call the desk: at three in the morning, no-one picks up. I drag myself from one wall to the other all the while professing my insanity. Every time I pass by the mirror I catch a glimpse of my naked body and my heart leaps out of my chest. The off-white flesh scattered with black hairs that attracts and sickens me at the same time. Its ugliness is unbearable but the hunger renders me forgiving. I salivate looking at my meat.
“My God, give me the strength to not go out in the city where great dangers surely await me. Help me. Satiate me!” The prayer often mounts my lips; even though I’m not a believer. I’m not afraid of the void left by God’s absence. On the contrary, it allows me a wider margin to grow. I’ll accept the absence of the divine long before an empty stomach. The lack of one is the cause of the other. God is found in every man. In everyone, he takes a different form. In me, it is hunger. “The gourmand carves their tomb with their teeth”, goes the proverb. Mine are capable of carving a church.
After all that, maybe it’s this absolute thirst that sharpens my appetite! The bestial hunger that I suffer from will be, in this case, the highest manifestation of my spirituality. I am twisted by the shame. The pressure is driving me insane!
The dead of night, searching for a restaurant, a bar still open, I cross the avenue with the royal palace on. I wander without hope, because I can’t see a single light. Of course, everything is closed. I hear a car approaching. For a moment its lights suddenly illuminate the old buildings like starlight. It’s a taxi! I rush into the road waving my arms. My faith restored I reanimate. Taxi! The driver will know where to go. He definitely knows a cafe, a pub, some notorious dive-bar… one of those places tight and hot smelling of sweat, beer and sausages. I could have a couple, a few couples, but I’ll bring two more back to the hotel for tomorrow.
The car stops in front of me and I jump in next to the driver. He is all wrapped up in a bizarre manner. He has minging old clothes. Same with his face, straight from some mountain-pass, and the woollen gloves that envelop his hands. I explain that I am looking for a place that’s still open where I can drink and eat. I gnash my jaws, I sate my thirst by gnawing on my fist. I repeat: “eat… drink… eat” a thumb pointed at my diaphragm.
Finally the guy throws out a snort muffled by the wool and starts up the car. Blessed be providence!
The wind whistles enthusiastically by the window open a crack. All appears resolved. The old facades emerge glimmering in the lights revealing finally their incredible beauty. It would be so easy to sketch them like this, floodlit. I could make a start without any effort whatsoever. But right now my sketches are of little importance. All my attention is concentrated on the windscreen. Has the guy understood what I want of him? Have I been clear enough? Even a child couldn’t mistake my request. Finally, a bright sign appears in front of us. Restaurant? Shop? The door is decorated with garlands of multi-coloured light-bulbs. It must be a nightclub. At least there will be sandwiches. The car stops. I throw a note to the driver, then, too impatient to wait for the change, I run off towards the entry.
I discover a vast room painted white, furnished with metal chrome chairs rendered in bizarre shapes. An elderly woman, wearing an equally white uniform, sits on a throne behind the counter in a glass case. She has to be the cashier, because she’s playing with the jingling buttons of a calculating machine. Cardboard boxes are piled up along the walls. There pervades an odour of antiseptic or insecticide that stings my eyes. My heart starts to thud when I notice the absence of tables, plates, of things that I can eat. In front of the impassable cashier I execute a new series of ape-like manoeuvres: “eat… drink… eat, especially!” I get out my wallet: “I want to buy something to eat. This is a shop, no? Sell me something to eat… For heaven’s sake!”
The English extract of Portrait en pied de Suzanne appearing here as Head to toe portrait of Suzanne is taken from Andrew Hodgson’s translation of the novel and is published with the kind permission of Éditions Denoël.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013.