:: Article

The Loony and the Bright Spark

By Emmanuelle Pagano.

The following story comes from Pagano’s collection Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, which has been translated into English for the first time and is out now from Peirene Press.

The loony and the bright spark. It could be the title of a fairy tale, a bit like beauty and the beast, a sad story with quite a happy ending. The full title would be the roadside loony and the bright spark at the construction company, but that’s got less of a ring to it, for a sad story with a more or less happy ending. My story is sad too, but it has a sad ending, very sad, or rather it never ends. It starts badly, very badly, and nothing comes right, nothing is resolved. I don’t actually know where it starts. I picked it up as you did, as we all did, somewhere along the road. I don’t know why I call it mine; it’s not my story, just one I’d like people to remember.

You probably know this guy, the roadside loony, if you live around here. You must know him if you live around here and you used to take the mountain road. But not everyone lives around here and not everyone used to take that road. In fact no one takes it any more, for a good reason. Soon no one will know this man any more, no one will remember him, and memory will do as the maps do and change his outline. Not everyone knows this man’s story, and as for you, perhaps you’ve never even heard of him. His story doesn’t go beyond this place, this mountain country where the story disappears, doesn’t end, ever.

Around here, to get from one town to another you have to take roads over high passes. The towns are in the valleys and the roads plunge and climb, always winding around the verticals. They are wide and sinuous, and no one’s afraid of the bends. We drive along them quite quickly, confidently. I used to take the mountain road to work. And to come back from work, of course, but it’s never quite the same in the other direction. It was on the way back that I saw him, suddenly, as we all did. We each took him by surprise the first time, or rather we were taken by surprise, and almost every time it was evening. I braked when I saw him, as I was driving downhill. For some of us it was a little less accidental. Some people saw the cars slowing down, braking or switching on their hazard warning lights before they saw the man himself. Because that’s the habit we got into, all of us, after the surprise of the first time, a tacitly shared habit of slowing down and warning those behind, before we even saw him, just before we got to his place. His place was there, before, at a bend in the road: always the same spot, always at the same time. His place was an evening ritual. Waiting. His place was a moment. Waiting for a lifetime, his body propped against the crash barrier. Never behind it, which would have been safer, but – but no one hit him. In the end everyone knew, everyone slowed down as though an invisible sign had warned them of the danger.

I say in the end, but that’s misleading because there’s no end to this story, as I said. He’s still waiting, but he no longer has anywhere to wait. He’s lost in the mountains, wandering and unhappy. He was already unhappy, and already wandering too, but he only wandered in his head, in his place there, at the roadside. In his moment. Safe despite everything, even though he was standing in front of the barrier instead of behind it. Safe because we knew him, we slowed down, we had the ‘Slow down: loony’ sign in our heads. It flashed through our routines, our everyday journeys. We switched our warning lights on. That place that was his at the end of every day around five o’clock was the opposite of a place for us, the non-loonies. For us it was a question. For him it was knowledge. A landmark in a life of things turned upside down, of waiting. A life entirely turned towards the impossible, the inversion of paths taken, backward turns. He waited there for things to be reversed, for the past, for the return of the dead. Going backwards every evening at about five o’clock, waiting for life to be different.

For those, like me, who were driving down at that time, he was very close, on the right-hand verge, the side of the ravine. We were the most careful. For those going up, he was on the other side of the road and some didn’t see him, caught up in their bend and their return home.

We would all come up with answers to the question of what he was doing there, but I don’t know if they were really answers. The man was one of those people who ‘haven’t their peace’. That’s how we describe them around here, our loonies. He worked at the social enterprise down in the town. He lost his peace by the side of the road one evening at about five o’clock when his wife and children were killed on the bend going down, more than forty years ago. They were taken by one of those easy-as-pie hairpin bends on our mountain roads. More than forty years without anyone redoing the road, without re-routing it, we should have expected that at some point the engineers would get involved.

We didn’t see it coming, the diversion project, and yet I know now, because I looked into it afterwards, that you don’t change the route of a road from one day to the next, just like that. There are studies that take years, with a whole heap of things for the bright spark at head office to take into account. The plan goes through a series of processes, refined with each new dossier, from the initial idea to the detailed project. First it considers how the road, this artificial element, will integrate into the natural environment. The construction must be solid and stable, built to withstand exterior elements and internal forces. Then there is the more functional aspect to be considered: all constructions must have the right geometric design and surface condition to ensure the smooth and safe flow of traffic transporting people and goods. All that is very rational and so vast, compared to our little sad story. Little, sad, but never-ending. There’s more than engineering in the creation of a road; there’s something more complex, something we cannot grasp. A flux that is about to be fixed down. Written. That will be drawn. Printed. There are politics and economics within it, in the attempts to find the project that will have the widest reach for the lowest cost. There are the environmentalists too, and the residents, apparently the residents are taken into account. But no one has ever put any questions to us. Let alone him. Maybe to you they have. Apparently they take into account the impact of the infrastructure on the regional amenities, trying to respect the way of life and integrate into the landscape. This man, this man was a sort of landmark in the landscape, a silhouette of waiting, a man-comma who told us, with his hunched body, we’re here, at a particular place, it’s five o’clock. A shadow dial on the bend. I don’t exactly know who decides, but no one saw it coming.

They put the construction site further up the hill, and I don’t know how he knew but he knew, before we did, and he climbed up to see what was happening. The site was no longer a site for re-routing the road, but a space made to mark out this man. None of the workmen dared throw him out or disturb him. He didn’t disturb them, and he was disturbed enough already. The barriers came up like a frame, the mesh like little close-ups; all the structures of the building site were strokes underlining him and the temporary traffic lights were spotlights to pick him out.

And under these lights, within these lines, he was unrecognizable.

We had only known him in fragments, in little bits, but we began to see him in his entirety when the building began. It was when we had to stop at the traffic lights, right next to him. In front of him. Face to face. Now we would stop up close and we could see his madness in its entirety. Before, because we were driving, we only had pieces of him, seen in passing, stolen each time we slowed down, bits of him that we assembled mentally and that eventually became the figure we all talked about and thought we knew, on the strength of so many journeys and memories. A sideways figure, broken like a comma pinned to the crash barrier, the barrier that hadn’t been there on the day of the accident, the barrier that had become the line, the border, the safeguard. He stood next to it in danger, on the road side, always around five o’clock and always in the same position. The barrier was his prop, his story began with it. It had been put up after the car crashed, the car that never came home to him, that he was still waiting for. Because he was there every day – same time, same place – we had this strange opportunity to look at him in bits, one piece of the figure every day, until we knew him by heart: his unchanging habits, his uncertain but clearly quite advanced age, his slumped body, his careless gaze protected by an old ski mask. We thought we knew them, him and his story. Him and his waiting, him and his long comma body.

And yet multi-criteria studies to re-route a road, economic strategy, site layout, safety, the number of accidents avoided per year, the number of deaths avoided per year, the number of serious injuries avoided per year, advantages for users, time, hours gained, running costs, a favourable, neutral or unfavourable environment, the initial situation, the number of obstacles, risks of interruption to traffic, the number of safety black spots, impact on employment, the number of jobs linked to the investment, upkeep and operation, energy, energy efficiency, energy performance, impact on other modes of transport, variation in revenue for competing modes, financial cost to public authorities, economic investment cost, overall economic cost, variation in tax revenue, balance of cost versus monetizable benefit, calculated overall benefit, actual profit, calculated profit, immediate rate of return, all those things he talked about, the bright spark at head office when I went to warn him, all that is nothing compared to the complexity of our roadside loony. This tormented waiting that we can’t comprehend, this disaster, it’s him, it’s what’s inside his head, it’s the whole of him that we thought we knew but that goes beyond our knowledge. He goes beyond the figure we made of him, that we thought we could reduce him to. He escapes from the story in which we paraded him. He is irreducible, he can’t be explained or understood, even if we put together all the fragments of him lingering in the memories of all the drivers.

We saw the big sign explaining the re-routing around the mountain. I took it upon myself to go and warn the site staff, but they didn’t want to hear it. Our loony stayed on the building site right until the end, silent and obdurate, never straying from the huts along the new road. He moved with them, stayed within their structures. First teasing, then gentle, the workers soon got used to him. Some passed him food through the barriers. The people from social services would come and lecture him, try to take him away, but he came back every day.

When it was all finished, he didn’t go back to the hostel, he didn’t return to the old road as we hoped he would, he didn’t go back to his ritual. A road without cars? We must have taken him for an imbecile. How could his family drive back along a road where cars no longer passed? He followed the new road. Then another, then another. And another. He’s looking for his bend, his moment, his watch. We’ve passed him several times, at the side of different roads, never standing still, never leaning against the crash barrier, never sitting down, never immobile. He who was never straight but always hunched into a comma on his bend, bound to his time, no longer bends. He no longer stoops. He no longer waits – he doesn’t know what time it is. He walks without pause along the roads around our mountain, and for a few weeks now we’ve lost sight of him completely.

Emmanuelle Pagano was born in Rodez, southern France, in 1969. Her books have been translated into more than a dozen languages and she has won many awards for her work, including the EU Prize for Literature in 2009 and, most recently, the Prix du Roman Ecologie in 2018. Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is her second book to appear English. The first, Trysting, was published in 2016 by And Other Stories.

Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis translated Pagano’s previous collection, Trysting, to much acclaim. Individually, Higgins has translated numerous books from French and Italian, and Lewis’s translations have been shortlisted for the Scott Moncrieff Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Prize.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 15th, 2019.