As was often the case between the man and the woman, they’d spent the morning hours in delicious intimacy, accentuated by their bodies seeming to fortuitously brush against one another, furtive flirtations in the guise of apparently frivolous jokes.
Everything went wrong as the afternoon drew to a close when Elisabeth, returning from having run the many errands the newspaper generally required of her, found Zam busy writing a fax and incontestably in the state that she disliked the most. At times like that she usually retreated into cold silence.
“How am I going to put this?” Zam was wondering as he wrote the fax, completely unaware of the danger and swearing up and down-Babette thought: just like a drunk, like some old drunk.
It was true that Zam was finding it harder and harder to refrain from adopting his friend Eddie’s foul language, and that was just one, among many, of the present problems, because-when you come to think of it-it’s appalling the extent to which defects can become contagious.
For example, he was saying to himself:
Yes, just exactly how am I going to put this? No question about it, he’s a friend, but after all, I don’t want him to start asking himself-and rightly so-if I’m going off my rocker, he, who always thought of me as well-balanced, serious, responsible, and all that. We all have our image to keep up, don’t we?
It’s true! You don’t go berserk just because some petty thieves have relieved you of a hundred or so jazz CDs. But that’s what’s happened to me, dear God.
Yes I know, it was the cream, the tops, the best ever. Absolutely.
Wait a second, wait, I’m trying to remember . . .
In there I had-and I’m just running them off the top of my head at random-Charlie Christian in Swing to Bop; as Eddie always says, buddy-you just haven’t lived until you’ve heard that. I had Armstrong in his greatest rendition of “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, Illinois Jacquet and his legendary solo from Flying Home, there was the Duke in his famous “It Don’t Mean a Thing” with Ivie Anderson, Parker of course in Parker’s Mood and in particular A Night in Tunisia, the Count in at least three different versions of “Tickle Toe”-and it was so enthralling to compare them and discover the history of the band, and even of jazz-, Buddy Tate in an utterly amazing rendition of “Mack the Knife;” The Four Brothers in “Early Autumn”; Johnny Guarnieri at the top of his form in “Autumn Leaves,” Lady Day doing her first rendition of “Trav’lin All Alone” in the early days of her career when she was still just a kid, Clifford Brown in “Jordu,” with Max Roach obviously, Sonny Rollins in “St. Thomas”-a piece that might not exactly be true jazz, half calypso, half blues, but I was crazy about it; I almost forgot Ella scatting in her breathtaking version of “Take the A Train.”
Then of course there was Bessie Smith, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Dizzy, Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Art Blakey with his unforgettable and ever changing Messengers, etc., etc. And oh so many more that I’m forgetting. If they were estimated at their sentimental and entertainment value, they’d be worth millions. Above all there was King Oliver in his “Dipper Mouth Blues,” something like a musical Big Bang. There was even the Prez, if you please! The Prez was kind of like if Picasso had been a jazz musician, it’s the same with everything, nothing’s perfect.
It’s all of that put together. In short, I’ve lost my youth-just like that, in a single day. I’ve been dispossessed of my youth, at my age! It’s not surprising that I’m losing my marbles.
True, but no one around here would kick up a fuss about a burglary, jazz or no jazz. I’m not saying anything about any other country. If this were Helvetia, for example, or Liechtenstein, or Iceland, you know what I mean, one of those countries blessed by the gods, countries that may even be imaginary for that matter, where people are free to choose their leaders and the forces of law and order protect the citizens, the sheer monstrosity of such an act would have the neighbors up in arms; we’d march down to city hall together; the national guard, the mounted police, together with organizations for consumer and human rights would be poised for action. That’s hardly an exaggeration!
But in this country, what a joke! It’s common knowledge that death squads run rampant in this country with complete impunity; news of the murder of a great scientist-perhaps a future Nobel Prize-winner, was received with almost total indifference, and this in the aftermath of many other victims, including peaceful foreign clergymen. So a hundred or so CDs . . .
That’s what Zam was saying to himself as he composed the fax. And he went on:
I’ll try and add a dash of humor. If you don’t add a little humor to your everyday fare here, how can you expect to survive, man? Yes, how am I going to put this to him? Let’s see.
“Dear old pal, do you ever happen to go sauntering around the music section of a supermarket these days? Yes? Great! The next time you find yourself in this type of environment, see what you can find under Lester Young/Teddy Wilson; there’s one cut with a list of recordings beginning with ‘All of Me,’ three numbers farther down, there’s also ‘Just You, Just Me.’ Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten what the label is, but with this information you should be able to find it. Send it to me via the first friend that gets on a plane at Roissy; you’ll have saved my life. You know how addicted I am to the President, and I haven’t had a fix for three weeks now. I’m in bad shape, pal. I’m really not doing well, not well at all. Some young punks paid a visit to my crib while I was out. Cleaned me out by creating a vacuum. Totally fleeced me, as Chester Himes would say if he were still alive. It’s a nightmare, being in this damned country, without my favorite drug, you can’t imagine what I’m going through.”
That’s what Zamakwé was writing to a distant friend, trying to offset a true sense of frustration, but also maybe trying to take his mind off the anxiety that had been gnawing at him and at many inhabitants of the city for several weeks.
When he heard of the death of Maurice Mzilikazi and about the unusual circumstances surrounding it, Zamakwé had immediately thought-and he wasn’t the only one amongst his fellow citizens-that the great scientist must have committed suicide, the whole affair seemed so absurd. Since then he had not been able to reflect more deeply upon this alarming event. Some incident always came up to prevent him from doing so, at least that was how he justified his shortcoming.
Perhaps too he was subconsciously avoiding becoming preoccupied with it, due to mental inertia, unless he had been deprived of his thirst for methodical reasoning by what the poets call the world’s oldest illness-prostitution being the oldest profession-, attacks of which recurred more and more frequently in the form of horrendous imprecatory convulsions that were cutting him off from reality a little more each day.
It was true that at first glance suicide just didn’t make any sense, given the circumstances. As a hypothesis, it was basically nonsense, but it was popular and, as they say, was slowly worming its way into certain people’s minds. That was no wonder.
First of all, in this country, nothing ever makes any sense. Can you imagine a country that is prey to constant social, ethnic, and political convulsions, a country that is also underdeveloped, but whose Chief of State allows himself six full weeks of vacation abroad?
How can anyone seriously believe that in some districts of this very city, our capital, which houses no less than a million people, streetlamps light up in the daytime but go out at nightfall? And what’s to be said about the water cutoffs last month? Complete and indiscriminate: not a drop of the precious liquid for newborns in the hospitals, none for the individual houses where human waste accumulated and stewed for thirty straight days in the toilet bowls of the middleclass residences, poisoning the air for our poor children, not to mention their parents.
For someone on the outside, everybody in this country seems a bit wacky. Aren’t the streets filled with loonies of all ages? Maybe that’s why foreigners are always condescending toward us.
“Yeah, I know what you’re going to say, pal,” Zam went on. “You want something in return-you want me to give you the rundown on what’s happening over here. Expatriates always imagine that a lot of things are going on back home. In truth, apart from the bizarre death of old Mzilikazi, there isn’t much happening. Okay, I’ll try and satisfy your fancy if that’s all it will take to get you to send me the CD of the Prez. If my memory serves me well, didn’t you recently take a trip to Libreville for a month? Some economic seminar organized by the European Union or something like that? Well then, you know everything, and even more. Living a few weeks in a French-speaking African republic is enough to grasp the existential monotony peculiar to these countries. Here, as is certainly the case over there, there is an unreal atmosphere in which apparently everything, with the exception of misfortune, happens elsewhere-several light years away-including the most trivial things in life, like the publication of new books, debuts of new films, memorable political events such as municipal, legislative, and presidential elections or the opening of congressional sessions. It’s as if everything was muffled under billions of quilts everywhere, in the houses, in the streets, in public establishments. Newspapers from the civilized world, the only thing that can alleviate the all-encompassing despair, get here a week late. National television doesn’t even deserve its name. And the sky is constantly sniveling, especially in the month of June, thus bequeathing to the inhabitants of this paradise a sort of thick mist, a gelatinous, somewhat viscous brightness, like a huge gob of snot that will slowly dissolve into a downpour whenever it can.
“There you go, pal, all rolled up into a few sentences, that’s what life is like here. And, believe me, it’s no party. Add to that the murder of old Mzilikazi and it makes for quite a sinister picture, doesn’t it?”
And it just so happened to be the month of June, and the weather was very hot, stifling at times, with fitful clouds churning up the sky.
“What are your thoughts on this matter?” asked Zamakwé as if he were addressing an audience, obviously referring to Father Mzilikazi.
“What matter?” replied Elisabeth (also known as Babette) with an absent look, being a woman who was indifferent to, if not irritated by, politics.
Their latest reconciliation had taken place just the day before; as always it seemed to herald the dawn of a wondrous romantic idyll.
Until then, the cassette player he was holding between his feet under the table had been churning out uninteresting tunes, mostly western pop music; suddenly it struck up a piece that was on Zam’s list of fetish songs. It was “Dipper Mouth Blues” by King Oliver, lost by who knows what miracle, like a diamond in among the syringes and condoms in the garbage bin of a bad neighborhood-that’s what he believed, being somewhat of a poet although he’d known that too; in reality, to console him if that was in any way possible for the loss of his CDs, Eddie, his best friend, seeing himself as Zam’s champion-at once an adventurer and a collector, a discreet and obliging man-had recorded an old 33 rpm.
“It’s incredible!” Zamakwé repeated several times, his body shaken with spasms of pleasure, as the recording played; “‘Dipper Mouth Blues’ here? And by who? By old King Oliver. I can’t believe it! Listen to that, sweet little Elisabeth, just listen please. This is historical! This is practically the first time they’ve played any real jazz. Do you hear?”
“Hear what?” Babette replied in exasperation. “There’s nothing to hear, I don’t like it. And besides, you stink of alcohol.”
Zamakwé, also called Zam by his friends, let out a laugh that echoed like a cry of despair.
“Either there’s nothing to hear, or you don’t like it; you can’t have it both ways.”
“I don’t understand it at all,” moaned the young woman in her native tongue; “I’m no intellectual.”
“You’re mistaken. Intellectual or not, you have cousins across the Atlantic that are wonderful people. Having been forced into the hell of the cotton fields, the black slaves invented this music, the most beautiful music in the world. Do you understand that, Babette?”
“Well, you can at least make yourself useful, go to the boss’s office and send off this fax for me.”
Zamakwé immediately launched into a soliloquy that many African intellectuals must have been indulging in at the time, dreaming of dramatic sagas and definitive emancipation in that year of 1996, two years after the genocide in Rwanda.
“If our people achieved that in America, there’s no reason we can’t do just as well here, or maybe even better, all things considered . . . but in other spheres. Just imagine where they began, and think about how far they went! What an incredible and tragic adventure!”
And after the recording was over with, as Elisabeth was walking back into the room, Zam said, “What a nice surprise, for once,” wrapping his arms around her neck and covering her forehead with kisses.
She remained impassive, stiff, almost icy, as if-feeling she had just been presented with virtually miraculous arguments-she found it difficult to refrain from settling an old score, now that she finally possessed the means with which to crush her adversary in decisive combat. Between them, caresses had always given way to blows.
Pushing Zamakwé’s face away unceremoniously, she suddenly remarked, “I think you’re drunk. When your words start thundering like that for no reason, it means you’ve been drinking too much.”
“That’s all you have to say after I cover you with tender kisses to celebrate ‘Dipper Mouth Blues,’ and you dare to suggest there’s no reason for it? We’ll obviously never be on the same wavelength, you and I. That’s really all my kisses did for you, eh?”
“What they did for me? So you haven’t been drinking? And just why are you always drinking? Tell me, why are you always drinking?”
“Because there’s always at least one good reason to drink, child. And here, in our country, my little Babette, there are at least a thousand. Blessed art thou who have never felt the need to drink for, as veritable innocents, ye shall ascend directly to the kingdom of heaven and sit on the right hand of the Lord, as whatshisface once said.”
“What in the world are you talking about? See? You have been drinking!”
“You want to know what I think, Babette? The kingdom of heaven, the right hand of God, and all that doesn’t seem like very much fun. Eternal contemplation of Perfection, sure, but without a drop of alcohol . . . not exactly my thing, thank you; I’ll pass.”
She wasn’t listening to him anymore, was pointedly turning her back on him.
After he had pleaded with her for a long time, she accepted-albeit grudgingly-to go “celebrate” at a restaurant with him, but she refrained from protesting as she usually did when he ordered two glasses of J&B, one right after the other, before dinner.
“This whisky is terrible, it turns my stomach,” he exclaimed as usual.
He expected her to say, as she usually did, “What are you drinking it for then?”
He would have answered her, as usual, “It’s the cheapest brand.”
But she didn’t try to converse, ate rapidly, kept her eyes averted.
Since they were huddled up at a table hidden away in a small corner, there was no risk of their being overheard by indiscreet fellow-diners. Zam said, “Honey, it’s true I was really mean to you last night; but I love you so much and when I’m mean to you, it’s just another way of telling you I love you.”
“Oh really! I see, so when you call me a *Šñdirty whore’, it’s because you love me?” she exclaimed, suddenly indignant, rising out of her contemptuous silence. “Now you love whores, do you? That’s new. It’s not what you said last night. But you’ve already forgotten that of course. You said, *ŠñWhores really turn me off. If I’d known you were a whore . . . When I think of the number of guys that have crawled up on you . . .’ You’ve forgotten, like you always do when you drink.”
“But you have nothing to do with being a whore, it’s just a manner of speaking. And what about me, so I’m an old asshole then? You’ve called me an old asshole so many times.”
She retorted coldly, slowly pronouncing each word and even each syllable to Zamakwé’s amazement, he who’d thought their very last quarrel to be dead and buried.
“Yes, you truly are an asshole and a drunken bum; I’m sorry, but you really are an old drunken asshole. Just look at yourself in the mirror, it’s unbelievable how old you are. And you won’t stop drinking. Yet I’ve told you over and over again to stop. I’m tired of it, you hear? Tired, yes, tired. A spark of joy that you haven’t inspired, a simple burst of laughter, and we have a horrid jealous scene, insults that could drive a soul to suicide. I’m tired, you hear? I’m tired. Just a little peace, that’s all I ask of you.”
Perhaps she too was vaguely toying with the idea of splitting up.
“What in the hell are you doing here then?” spat Zamakwé, deeply wounded, opening the floodgates. “Yes, let’s get it over with at last. What did you come back for? I didn’t come looking for you, did I? Come on, answer me, did I ask you to come back this time? What in the hell are you doing here, you dirty little whore? Are you trying to say you don’t screw for money, maybe? If that’s not what being a whore means, I’d like you to tell me what does. I don’t know how you got into my place last night; you sneaked into my bed without being asked-and for good reason.”
“Really? Sir, you age very poorly. I knew your faculties were dwindling, but to this extent . . . You’re losing everything, Sir, even your memory. So I sneaked into your bed without being asked, you old asshole? Really?”
“Yes, and why are you tagging along after me today, you cheap slut? You need money, is that it? You want me to give you my money, isn’t that right, you first-class hussy? I may be old, but my money is young and that’s what interests you, isn’t it bitch?”
She’d finished eating and was looking resolutely away from him, not saying a word. Before getting up and leaving once it had sunk in that he was throwing her out, she was probably waiting for him-as was his usual way of concluding these traditional diatribes-to shout, “Get out of here, you fat cow; out of my sight, first-class slut. Go on, get out! Let’s have some fresh air! Whores can really stink things up!”
But he didn’t. Instead, for the first time since they’d been together, he suddenly lowered his voice and said without looking at her, “You know what? There are days when I ask myself, *ŠñWhy her? Yes, why this girl, and not some other?’ Then I take a good look at you, I examine everything-your mouth, your legs, the way you walk . . .”
She laughed suddenly, interrupting him, and replied in French, “And the reasons of the heart, the ones that know no reason?”
Her body shook with a long, calm, voluptuous laugh, it was convulsive and silent as a contained sob. Apparently-under the charm of what was truly the most marvelous compliment a man had ever paid a woman-she had just forgiven him everything, unless she had other reasons for capitulating in mid-battle like that.
He thought nonetheless, “How vulgar she is, a real whore! And how I love her. I suppose I must be terribly vulgar myself. How could I have ever let a whore trap me in her net? It’s true, hard to get any more vulgar than I am . . . Why not admit it? I’m a very vulgar guy. No changing one’s true nature.”
That was all it took on that day for them to be reconciled for the nth time. Even so, he resented the idea that this absurd relationship, whatever the outcome may be, threatened to destroy what was left of his life. But did what was left of his life really count?
He was in agony the next day. The cheap whisky, the c’tes-de-provence, and the dark beer he had abundantly ingurgitated the day before at the restaurant had mixed some kind of mephitic cocktail in his stomach that sent bursts of noxious fumes up his nostrils and into his mouth. He knew that he would have to endure this torture until he moved his bowels and he sought the signs heralding this deliverance in vain, promising himself, as usual, to observe complete abstinence throughout the new day.
Harsh daylight glared through the window where the curtain was drawn aside. Elisabeth lay sprawled out over three quarters of the bed, arms outstretched, sheet pinned under her enormous breasts, legs spread wide, stark naked, breathing noisily.
He was at one and the same time horrified and spellbound by this hyperbolic caricature of femininity. He wondered how in the world he had happened to find himself for months on end in the same bed with a creature of this sort.
He thought to himself, “What can a pretty girl do here, apart from prostituting herself from time to time in order to survive? All women in this country are in the same position. Poor girl!” But that wasn’t enough to ease his feelings of remorse and subdue his aversion.
In truth he knew nothing about Babette’s past, except the small, rather opaque snatches the young woman happened to let slip in conversation, and it’s true that one could get the feeling he was learning a little about her by listening patiently day after day. That was how, in the course of a casual exchange in the beginning of their relationship, back when she still allowed herself to confide in him as she would in a girlfriend, he’d heard her say, “Ah, I can’t stand men who touch my genitals . . .” At the time, he was panic-stricken at the thought of having fallen for a floozy, because it would have meant he’d have to leave her, according to his own personal code of ethics, so he was careful not to ask her under what circumstances the incidents she evoked had occurred.
Another time, she’d said, “I feel so good lying next to you, at least I know you’ll still be here in the morning. With the others . . .” That time he’d wanted to know more, so she said lightly, “Was I a virgin when I met you?” It was an ambiguous confession, but it satisfied Zam, or he acted as if it satisfied him. But the rot had already set in as the popular saying goes. As a matter of fact, she soon stopped confiding in him and withdrew into her shell, having suddenly realized that her candidness left her open to his accusations and contempt.
The label he put on her was mainly based on the way he’d picked her up with almost no trouble, as he said. Sometimes he even began to doubt who had taken the gallant initiative, and he tried in vain to remember how he had remarked her, and whether it wasn’t she who, having set her sights on this possibly wealthy middle-class man-people frequently made the same mistake about him, which could be explained by his intermittent dandyism, or maybe it was that PTC, his employer, had lent him his old Suzuki Vitara that day? -, had come on to him in some way? At any rate, he had barely even nodded at her when she followed him to a restaurant in town; once there, she lived it up without the slightest reserve, as if she were accustomed to that kind of situation.
One odd thing that perhaps pointed to love at first sight: in the hotel room, after he’d discovered that in fact she was no innocent schoolgirl, he hadn’t thought to himself, “Goddamned little whore!” as he would surely have done with any other very young girl, almost a teenager, but rather, “Could there be a prettier little girl on earth? Nothing prettier than this . . .”
Later she claimed several times that on that night he had made the following unbelievable declaration: “I’ve looked for you for so long . . .” And since she didn’t understand-and could she really understand? -, he had purportedly rectified his declaration, saying: “I haven’t stopped looking for you since Mama died . . .” Zam doubted having been capable of uttering such words, not so much because they seemed pedantic and in such terribly bad taste, but because that much mysticism seemed irreconcilable with the heretic he believed himself to be, as if mysticism was not the best-shared thing in the world, even among heretics.
That was the first flaw, quickly forgotten, but hardly eliminated, in their harmony: that was when she began to think that when he drank, he lost his memory, thereby finding an excuse to lecture him.
In any case, that first night was the beginning of what was to be both an ascent into heaven and a descent into hell, for him as well as for her.
With three fingers of his right hand he lightly stroked Elisabeth’s inanimate forearm; under the charcoal-color-denser than a tropical night-the firmness and the grain of her skin magically retained his caress. For the first time, it seemed to him, he was discovering the full extent of her grace. First of all, under the hair pulled up high, it was the base of her head making a tender, almost childish curve, then her graceful neck, of a length that could neither be added to nor detracted from. The high cheekbones and slightly slanted eyes were astonishing and remindful of Asia. The domed forehead, thin torso, long, fine arms framing the heavy bosom added the finishing touches to the spell that had bewitched Zam. If he were ever to be free of it, it would be no time soon.
He contemplated her without knowing that he would soon regret having wasted those moments in extraneous prejudices, and that he would then think of them as an exceptionally happy time that fate had bestowed upon him. Apart from the contemplation of a beautiful face, what could console a dreamer in this cursed country? Perhaps there was a woman involved in Maurice Mzilikazi’s tragic death. Why not, after all?
Yes, Mzilikazi wasn’t exactly what you’d call a dissident, and even less a member of the opposition. He had even, although very discreetly and cloaking himself in a sort of elegance, sided with the dictatorship, under the pretext of castigating agitators in the opposition, as is only fitting for a proper clergyman. People said he was quite well off, having had the benefit of-as almost all important people in the country-accommodation loans that were at least secretly protected by the powers that be. Loans, incidentally, that he’d never paid back, like so many others, as the dictatorship used and abused this technique to leash and muzzle just about anyone that counted among our intelligentsia.
Better yet, he was a Catholic priest and for that category of people, it’s said that suicide is out of the question; but what do us ordinary people really know about it? Isn’t it also said that our priests won’t sniff at a little playing around? What are we to believe or not to believe? Yes, maybe there was some woman behind it all, why not?
There’s probably always a woman mixed up in a man’s life, a fortiori in his death, Zam thought, and I know what I’m talking about. Cherchez la femme–isn’t that what they always have the inspector leading a criminal investigation in a mystery novel say?
From Trop de soleil tue l’amour (Paris: Éditions Julliard, 1999). Copyright © 1999 by Éditions Julliard. Published by arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright © 2005 by C. Dickson. All rights reserved.