La grande serre (excerpt) — Louis Armand

1. Old mariner, foam on his beard. Grizzled sun in eggwhite of sky. Eyes glazed against. A faint evaporating drizzle. Fog of it all. Stink of it all. Blearing out at the tide. The quay. That weary verge. Ebb before flow. Qwertz by name. Klotz by birth. A screw-up in the Displaced Persons Registry. Amerikaners at the end of the War of Wars. Nib-pen-and-spectacle types. When he was six. Conceived at the Anschluss, in the Arschloch of Mittelevropska, our little Aryanised vagabond. Jettisoned by a staff officer in rapid retreat to the banlieues. That’s a lot of years, vieux con, to still be going on about it. All because with right-coloured hair. The others not faring so well. Not by a long shot. Express to Mauthausen. Well, you have to live long enough to fatten your sins before you eat them. Confit of lard and bottle of V-Day Bordeaux liberated from a cellar behind the Panthéon. AUX GRANDS SALOPES LA CONNERIE RECONNAISSANTE… And the dead woman on the cellar floor. Facedown. Nude as a naiad. With an open suitcase full of Reichsmarks cuffed to left ankle. Too hungry. To care. Stuffing his face, right there in the fresh corpse-stink, six years undead with a gut-ache and drunk as a fart, puking all over when the partisans burst in. Annus miserabilis of ’44.

Qwertz jetted a stream of snot into the cup of his left hand. Inspected before wiping on flagstone. Coughed. From where he sat the river flowed left to right. A pale sun, tilting ostward, glinted in it like polished coprolite. They would’ve sent him back, if the old lady hadn’t intervened. The Amerikaners, back to wherever they guessed he was from. Paperwork. She, growing blind in a junk-filled attic on rue Rollin, opposite the school. École Élémentaire Mixte. Ville de Paris. Where later they put a plaque up by the gate: Victimes innocents de la barbarie Nazie avec la complicité active du gouvernement Vichy. Ils furent exterminés dans les camps de la mort. Not him, though, the blond petit juif now barely at all, grey what’s left of it, in tatters down his neck. Remembering the green gargoyle fountain and stairs between streetlevels, apartment at the top, where she lived, the widow. Place Benjamin Fondane a.k.a. Fundoianu a.k.a. Wechsler / Wexler / Vecsler, poète et philosophe, 1898-1944, slow train to Auschwitz two months post-Liberation. Well that’s what they call justice round here, kid. Gaz à tout les étages. Every time he climbed them, the stairs, desperation by increments, thinking. What? You survive to be punished. Knowing, one day hungrier and you’d’ve eaten anything back there, in that cellar. And go on with this thought, growing old while in your head that picture, forever unsullied, immaculate, gritting your teeth against. Death like a beautiful piece of calligraphy. Anklecuffed. The left foot. Death in a suitcase. Bloodmoney. He could almost taste it. Almost still taste it. A ball-and-chain caught in his throat…

The Widow Fondane, too. All of them. Due his turn, now that atonement had exhausted its supplies. The fear that’d driven. Art, the soteriological force of. Clarity. The naked ever-fading light. Like a man with the barrel of a gun in his mouth who has a taste for metal but no mettle to pull the trigger. Haha. Thinking how in time it all comes out the same anyway. Only you keep your brains inside your skull to rot instead. Mealymaggotmouthed. Mumbling at the river. The daily ablution. Bum-suit marinated in Time’s liberal incontinence, spilling out through the seams. As now, nursing a bottle on the Quai. Upended, all done, tossed into the brown sludge of it. One belch for his peerless posterity, another for. He couldn’t remember what the other was for. Black under the claws working the knotted laces, the flaccid leather tongue. Laying aside divided soul, haha. ’O sole mio! Impastoed. Rolling a pair of crusty socks, brown woollen, into eggshapes. One for each craw. The shoes’. Shirtsleeves and trouserlegs, also rolled. Smear of cobalt on lapel, brown herringbone, sketchpaper in breastpocket, a wilted carnation. Between thumb and forefinger, pressing down the toenails till white, then letting go. Readied for their morning bath. Bent his knees. Yellowed footsoles, put down. Dunked in the barges’ wake. Slap and suck of the waters, etc. Easing the chafed skin. Old weedbeard. Hair perhaps flung in the wind. Or he wore a hat? Pulled down over the occulars. Some faux fedora. His eyes might’ve been his most impressive feature. One half-green, one black. An annelid’s window-onto-the-proverbial peering from its blindeyhole. Shuttered. Unshuttered. Pluck out thine etceteras. Wherefore? The belated earlybird choking on a braillestick. Cockatrice! Clochecall. Cocorico! How once-upon, all the crocodile tears in the Nile wouldn’t’ve been comfort enough. He with his strawman’s dry heaves making a washingmangle’s music most discerning. A sight to behold, as they say. Treading water on dry land, in a manner of. A threshing dance. A lame duck’s mazurka.

To starboard a fisherman’s dog sniffing an osse of seagull turd, très gourmand, cocked its head. To port, the earlybird easel-daubers along the quai. Our Lady on her back knees up to be fucked, river tresses Ophelia-like trailing. As if some septuagent Bonnard. The delirious sky might piss on her. Cloudless miracle. Golden raiment. See if they cold put that in their grotty postcards. The angler angling his mighty rod out over the flume. To hook a drowned man, belly up. Now that’d be a sight. Cold working its way in, numbing his hemlock foot. Imagine Christ stubbing his toe on the waves as he walked. Splat. Downward Qwertz glanced: still all there. Splish splash. From above, laughter. Qwertz massaged his stiff neck, turned. No, not God on high having His last little joke, but a girl peering from the parapet. Qwertz fingered his gums. The girl’s keen regarding gaze regarded him keenly. Or not him but only the space around him, like a smudge on a lens. Blonde. Clutching a book in brown waxpaper, pages windtossed, unfurling. Knitted beret. Gabardine manteau. Laughed again. At anything. Reminding of the last time, the one from rue Richard Lenoir, the downstairs bar. Also blonde. Bought her drinks, a cinnamon stick in something vomitously sweet. She took her clothes off, for him as she would for anyone. Leopard print bra, nipples long as cigar butts. Standing on the bare concrete of his studio against a curtain of green plastic. Crime-scene accoutrement. Then a bare mattress with legs up so he could see. The angry redness in place of the bush, as unto Moses. He sketched pessimistically. She prattled. Then he prattled. Old-man stories. Great art, his solemn man-voice solemnly said, should help acquire an acceptance of life. The charcoal fractured. She could only orgasm, she’d said, having her nipples sucked. He smudged he erased. The word “sucked,” sucé.

In his mind, he sucked the brown nipple while the blonde barmaid, stroking an engrossed clitoris, laughed, Tiresias-like. He drew her that way, one hand between her legs, the other offering the bare outline of a breast to the implied observer. To him. To you. Creature of myth. To suck. He worked till his arms & fingers ached. The blonde farted, she slept, in ageless pornographic somnolence. Chartreuse pencilled across the drapery, if it could be called drapery. Cadmium across the cleft, etc. A Madonna in polyethylene. Instructions for when, after, in his model’s absence, he began filling-in the outlines, completing, re-ordering, distressing, sabotaging, till he’d approached the essence of it. That thing. That wordless affirmation. To say it, though, sounded more ridiculous even than it was. He wondered what book the girl on the parapet was holding. Something in it had made her laugh, which in turn, etc. His mind, sullied with so much metaphysics, sketched a scene in which that laughter, as if for the first time, like the day after the hundred-and-twentieth day of Sodom. Ah! Such a story as could be told. The world-weary virgins. And the eternal non-part he himself played in that picture. Like one of God’s chewed toothpicks propping up the eyelid of the world but not of it. Laughable old fuck. Like a limp dick in a brothel. Like a paintbrush with no bristles, blah blah blah. Caught, so to speak, in flagrante delicto, in the very act of his nothingness. Nothing’s ever like anything else, ol’ Verdigris. L’artiste de la disparition with his dignity laid out for all to see, oh ho, like like like secret little dog turds.

What a flattering image he had of himself when it suited him. The girl on the parapet smirked, the sun smirked back at her. Qwertz hunched into his coat, filing her away in that vast kopf of his till he could screw her at leisure in a scenery more to his liking. Virtue rewarded. Oh there was no end to the benevolence, so far as you could picture it. Wiping the rag of his sleeve across his eyes, to get the slate vaguely clean, or else muddy the whole composition irreparably. Not to be stuck in one place, one image. These little daily abolitions. To keep at bay the insomnias that dogged him. The subtle migraine. The roaring crescendo as he bent to set it down in solitary coitus before the spent canvas of himself. Signing it, so to speak, that accomplished thing of all his inward violations, his pathetic manias, the artist in his shit-sty, with all the practiced poignance of a child’s snotstain worked with a febrile wrist movement into a subtle dismemberment. A barely figured braceleting of the left ankle. Of that corpse in the cellar, crotch stuffed with useless money. The eternal archetype. Leashed to his paintbrush by that Q of Qwertz, like some pimp’s potlach. Quod errant. All these years after the fact, more fully than any faith, more immemorial than any talisman.

2. Qwertz lent down and picked the soiled carnation from the stairhead where someone had tossed it. Straightened, threading it through the grotty buttonhole of his left lapel. Man with Carnation: smear of cadmium red on brown. Presenting a picture to the world, Qwertz hoiked, spat a bloody gob between his feet. The sidewalk traffic eyed him sideways. Burden of suspicion versus burden of…? He felt like singing. Non, je ne regrette rien. Crates of old records stacked on trestles along the river wall, kids in hats filing through them. Edith Piaf muralised on hanging tarpaulin – Bob Marley on a t-shirt rack – posters in cellophane. Sun Ra, Space is the Place. A guy with beat-up headphones nodded his head. One day they’d wire it straight into your brain, could be nowhere and everywhere in the same nanosec. Zeitgeist with antennae on. Who owned the mixing desk though? Eye in the sky stuff. How, despite everything, Paris always gave him, Qwertz, the impression of God staring down into his own navel. Maybe like that wherever you went, Qwertz felt unqualified to say. The more they kept you inside your own head, though, the less you were in the picture, he was sure of that.

Qwertz dragged the sad sack of himself across the intersection, up the footpath, through the gateway of the Jardin des Plantes no less. Beyond the whited pillars stood Lamarck in ridiculous effigy. Well bonjour vieux con, nice day for it, what? Fondateur de la doctrine de l’Evolution. Which version had they incarcerated in that stone sarcophagus? The Great Prognosticator tout seul? The rest of the man could be thrown away, no statue for that. Spared the pigeon treatment at least. The crapped-upon dignitas of Knowledge’s manslave. As once upon, he too, Qwertz, made avid love to eternal Zofia. A Latin Quarter idiot pointing at the moon. Before Algeria and all that. The barricades. A truncheon on the head, Boul’Mich, Herrschaft und Knechtschaft. Been staring at his finger ever since. Smear of charcoal, pigment, glue, jism, string of snot. Reamed them crosseyed, all of History’s cunts lined up on the canvas, the stumpy end of his wit wilting sideways. They could stuff their politics where it belonged. The war. There was always a war going on someplace. Master race of idiots pushing buttons on their addling machines.

What’d all that got him? Fifty years of headache, indigestion and the piles. Arbeiten arbeiten arbeiten! Redeem your nonentitised self here, sunshine! Making such a man of him, oh indeed, a veritable Holy Trin of triply penitented three-in-one blindman, deafman, dumbman, not to mention the little tender-is-the-night stickman-in-the-middle to comfort him in his vierzig Nächte tribulations like a furtive fuck in the hand. Apostle of the self-sufficient high art of the masses. The knowledge-carnal even a bum could afford were it not verboten across the 39 provinces. Poor Lamarck. Angels swooped down and crapped on his head and not a damned thing the wanker could do about it. Buy a man’s soul, you own his dignity. Buy a man’s dignity, the rest comes free.

Qwertz slouched on, in the general direction of the Ménagerie. As on every other morning. Shortly after opening, 7:30 a.m. to be exact, had any cared to measure him. The weather was not propitious. Powder-fine white dust whipped up from the path. The lawn was covered in it. Around the kiosk, a sudden wind upset the tables, chairs clattering to the ground, hats blown off, leaves, debris, stuff. And just as soon the wind, too, came unhinged, the mote-in-your-eye spectacle in rewind. Dust settled. Qwertz, still of one piece, turned at the Wallaby enclosure toward his customary arse-warming vantage under the large fig tree. A bench, by any other name, etc. Wooden, with three painted slats for the hindquarters, two for the back. Presently occupied. The culprit was no-one he recognised. Yet. Occupational hazard, so to speak. Qwertz approached without stealth, paid the interloper no heed, spread himself volubly on the bench. A time-worn custom, this voluble spreading, when it came to unwanted sitters. To discourage. To put the message across, etc.

The interloper remained visibly unmoved. Dispassionate, you might almost say. Staring with queer fixity out into the park. Or space. Or anywhere as far as Qwertz could determine. Face set in an autistic intensity of expression. Qwertz volubly rearranged, keeping the one corner of his eye on the interloper at all times. To no avail. A couple of wallabies ambled over to the fence and sniffed the air. Macropus rufogriseus. Sighing, Qwertz reached into his coat and brought out a crumbled paper bag. From which, a handful of grain, tossed at the long-tailed rats. The red-necked marsupials nosed the ground where it fell, though not without a certain apprehension. Nibbled, finally. Sat back on their haunches to survey their donor. Nibbled again. Qwertz, less ill at ease now, allowed himself a faint smirk. Clicked his tongue. A wallaby shook its ears, head turned in profile. Against a field sinister. Qwertz tossed another handful of seed. Straightened. Sighed.

The interloper, though, remained stubbornly unmoved. Turning with his back to the corner of the bench so as to be almost facing, Qwertz, pocketing the seed bag, sized up his competitor more openly now. Arab, he decided. Vaguely Maghrebian cast. Vagrant, possibly. In some kind of trance, Qwertz considered. A nut, maybe. Public parks had a way of attracting them. Or a poet, maybe, which amounted to the same thing – come here to let the Mind wander among remote iambic vistas. As once upon, old Fondane. He’d almost be willing to forgive such blatant usurpation in light of sympathetic faculties & so on, of a kindred spirit, etc. An ear to pour his grief into while contemplating the vista. Which in itself was admittedly unremarkable: a line of trees, the buildings of the National Botanic Institute (Delegation à l’Outre-Mer, Direction des Collections), the Wallaby enclosure, much shrubbery. It was the stunted macropods that’d attracted him to this particular spot. Strange transplants, like him, from alien climes. Theirs in place, his in time. Did they sense it too? The atavistism of lost antipodes? Did they? Yearn for it as he yearned? What unspeakable intelligence lurked in those marsupial brains?

He scrutinised again the interloper’s profile. Already, if yet unconsciously, testing its contours. Fitting it into the ever-evolving tableau in his own head. It was a question of arranging the elements in such a way as to clarify. To balance, harmonise, the unevaded chaos of his inner eye. Whole rooms in there, attics, hallways, loci memoriae, stacked with forever incomplete pictures. All of them, the sum of his pathetic vocation, alluding back to the one primal scene. No matter how random the incorporations. The who, the what, the where, the when. They all, in the end, were merely versions, reversions, aversions of that depressing original. His consummation, so to speak. His awakening, in the sightless gaze of the forever nameless woman in the cellar. The drama of a braceleted ankle, a briefcase, blood money. Death’s handywork. Whose meaning, all these years, he was still powerless to solve. To advance or regress the timeframe, so as to witness it. And to keep on witnessing it.

Louis Armand is the author of eight novels, including The Combinations (2016), Cairo (2014), and Breakfast at Midnight (2012). In addition, he has published ten collections of poetry – most recently, East Broadway Rundown (2015) and The Rube Goldberg Variations (2015) – & is the author of Videology (2015) & The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avantgarde (2013). He co-edits VLAK magazine & directs the Centre for Critical & Cultural Theory at Charles University, Prague.

Image: jardin des plantesLauren Rauk, Creative Commons.