One day, an uncle of mine called Alphonse sent me to get advice from his childhood friend who’d become a policeman. The friend’s name was Anatole Rabe. He’d steadily climbed the steps of the National Police hierarchy, my uncle said, and now found himself near the top.
Alphonse and Anatole had first met when they were still in short pants and both had enthusiastically donned the thankless uniform of civil servitude—but that was at a simpler time when the administration still got a good rap among the country’s ambitious youth. Different penchants within the same vocation to serve the State led one to become a public prosecutor and the other to become a police commissioner. And so it was that Anatole was in his element arresting the thugs that Alphonse deployed his talent to sentence and lock away.
Working these tough, mysterious jobs, so elegantly complementary, had helped the two men maintain a lasting friendship. My uncle divulged that their bond had developed early, when they were still snot-nosed kids sniveling behind desks at the public elementary school, sharing a passion for arithmetic and barbaric vivisection of crickets. Brilliant students—and well-behaved suck-ups—they both found themselves bullied by the average scorers, and one day decided to join together to fight such crookedness.
On the date I met Anatole Rabe, I had just fallen victim to a ludicrous con: a guy who passed himself off as the technical advisor and influential friend of a well-known minister had managed to extract money from me under the most extravagant of pretenses (although around here, we know how that breed of fellow uses charms and amulets that can turn even the most articulate man dumber and more foolish than an ass).
So I went to the Ministry of the Interior carrying a letter from my uncle. It was a bleak, imposing building with an observatory-like dome and a mess of antennas on top. The interior of this particular ministry, which I entered from the back, was dingy and filled with sinister-looking people—I was in an adjacent annex building that was swarming with cops. After showing my ID, I wandered the hallways in search of one Mister Rabe. I found his secretary’s door open, with the aroma of beignets emanating from it: the pigs were treating themselves to a snack.
I asked politely if Commissioner Rabe was available.
“Dunno, you can go schee for yourschelf,” a corporal answered with a full mouth.
I knocked on the door and walked in.
Commissioner Rabe was working on his typewriter. To my extreme surprise, he was a man of small physical build. No, really: super tiny, like a scale model. I saw the typewriter, not the commissioner. A hand reached up to return the carriage from time to time, and I had to pay close attention before I spotted a tuft of hair behind it all. I had trouble believing that Uncle Alphonse’s friend, whom he’d talked about so amply, could be so unnoticeable in real life. I’d always thought that you had to have the mass of a giant to enter the police force.
I introduced myself and told him I had a letter from his friend Alphonse.
“Have a seat. Won’t be long. Finishing this bitch of a report.”
I sat down. I didn’t feel comfortable in that crib. This was still an era when the hunt for enemies of the Revolution was in full swing. Some departments of the military, or ones associated with the President, were especially feared by citizens, ever since they’d become synonymous with arrest, police custody, and interrogation—those inescapable joys of real democracy.
When the commissioner had finished his report, he slid it into an envelope, which he sealed meticulously. I handed him Alphonse’s letter. He opened it.
“’re some jobs where you have to do everything yourself,” he said as he read the letter. “Can’t let sensitive information sit around with secretaries. How is Alphonse? Let’s see, what does he want from me this time . . . ”
I replied that Alphonse was doing fairly well, that the weather was nice, etc.
“What?! The hell’s he thinking?”
Anatole Rabe leaped to his feet, flinging a pile of folders to the ground as he went. He rushed me like he wanted to strangle me, then seized me by the collar and shook me.
I was staggered: what fly had bit his butt, the puny little runt?
“Whoa, that’s not cool,” I protested. “What in the—”
“Listen up,” he hissed in my ear. “Lots of work right now. No time to chat during business hours. Wait for me outside the building.”
No sooner said than done: he literally dragged me to the door before I could make a sound. The homunculus bastard had Herculean strength.
“Pleasure to meet you, good-bye!” he shouted.
He dumped me outside and slammed the door.
“So, you found him?” snickered the corporal-secretary.
That little jerk! Ugly gnome! That’s no way to behave, I thought.
I went back down the stairs grumbling about police brutality. I longed to just send the fuzz packing, yet I stood about killing time in front of the entrance to the ministry until six o’clock—I’d lost quite a bit of money in the mess that I’d come to complain to the authorities about.
Anatole Rabe was among the first to come out at six p.m. Without looking once in my direction, he scurried toward an old 2CV that I supposed was his. I followed him. He slid behind the wheel and opened the other door, motioning for me to climb into the old clunker. A few moments later, we found ourselves sitting at a table in a divey tavern over a bottle of rum.
He explained that Alphonse had written the minister’s name in his note, a fatal error in these uncertain times—that’s why he’d hit the roof.
“And the man who passed himself off as a collaborator of the man who we both know and who it’s better not to name here: can you describe him?”
“Well, there was nothing really distinct about the guy at all—”
“Don’t say another word! I’d recognize some foreign units by their shadow! This operation is a complicated scheme run by professionals. You’re lucky that you weren’t eliminated.”
“Huh? But what are you trying to—”
“Shh! You see that woman who just came in? Don’t pretend you didn’t notice. She’s here because of us.”
“Who is she?”
“Let me give you some advice, my friend: in this country, you have to have a sharp eye. You can’t be too naïve, too trusting: you’ll regret it. Don’t turn toward her, you reckless idiot! You’ll get us noticed—smile, smile! And don’t ask me any questions, it’s better that way. For your safety.”
I had to force myself to smile, as the little man’s anxiety was contagious. Maybe that was why the entire godforsaken country had turned paranoid over the last decade: those in power saw the lackeys of imperialism everywhere, and some years, you couldn’t even poke fun at a director’s clothing without being suspected of corruption and conspiracy against national security. The State’s repressive, mistrustful machinery was greased by thousands of underlings who competed for who could show the most zeal in trouncing the enemies of the Revolution lying in wait to ambush them.
A server came by.
“Good evening, commissioner! Your sonny-boy’s along today, is he? My oh my, he’s gotten big—the spitting image of his pop!”
Rabe offered up an enigmatic smile, while I blasted the other blithering fool with an icy glare. The dwarf turned a warmer smile onto me. In return, I became even more on edge and plunged into the depths of despair at the idea of having anything in common with this mistake of nature.
“We know all about that one, too,” he said, pointing at the jokester’s retreating backside. “The best way of passing unnoticed is to put on a show of over-the-top familiarity. Lesson One of this line of work.”
“You were saying something about that woman?”
“She makes a daily report to Homeland Security! There are hundreds like her in Tana alone. You civilians, you always amaze me: what society do you think we’re living in? Everything is logged, indexed, classified. Everything, down to your slightest move.”
“Can we get back to my con man, please? What do you think?”
“What do I think? It’s a dangerous case, my boy, a dangerous case. I’ll endeavor to do everything possible to get some information, but I’m risking my neck—this is mostly outside the scope of my prerogatives. At any rate, when we leave here, you and me, we don’t know each other. We’ve never seen each other before.”
The commissioner gripped my collar to put his mouth next to my ear: “Because, my boy, the current situation in this country leaves no room for amateurism. High-ranking men could be involved in this business.”
Son of a zebu! Well, cooee and lookee here, what’ve we got, then?
However, Anatole Rabe was situated especially well to know what to do next, as my uncle Alphonse had explained, having warned me against making any rash decisions: “Never underestimate the amount of harm these people can do! Never!” Oh, there were so many of them, the ones who’d suffered because of their naïveté: journalists thrown in prison for failing to disguise their opinions, ill-informed teachers who believed themselves safe in their classrooms, a few students gunned down here and there . . . And even a group of youth, dexterously and bare-fistedly weaving their way through red tape, they’d tried to play policeman and had been exterminated by the army’s cannons.
“Will you be able to find where the dirty crook is hiding out?” I asked.
“This is serious,” Commissioner Rabe continued, staring off into space, “very serious.”
“What? Do you really think he was who he said he was? That he’s the friend of . . . of the man that you and I both know?”
“What man are you talking about?”
“The Minister, of course!”
“Shh! Silence! Not another word!”
Anatole Rabe glared at me with fury and horror, flattening himself on the table to escape from view. His eyes flashed with hatred.
“First and foremost, what proves to me that you are what you say you are?” he spat, once he’d calmed down.
“But what am I?” I said, unsettled.
“It’s your job to tell me that!” he cried in sudden despair, banging his fist on the table. “Your job! Yours! Yours!”
The people around us were unconcerned with what was happening. Not one single person turned to look at us.
“So, what are you, huh?” Anatole pressed.
“I’m an ordinary citizen,” I mumbled. “And . . . ”
“And what? Say it! I know you’re hiding something! Say it!”
“Uh, well, umm . . . sometimes I happen to write poetry.”
At that, my drinks partner seemed to get abruptly worn out. He took in the surrounding room with the weary look of someone who’d already passed on.
Finally, he said, “You don’t know, ol’ fellow, you couldn’t know. Politics, power . . . it’s all above us. We’re sitting here, talking, and all the while we’re being watched, nothing escapes them. They’re getting ready to use us, they’re already using us without our knowledge—we can say whatever we want, but they’re already aware of everything we say. Everything we think is recorded, analyzed.”
Well, I thought, the citizen in front of me was suffering from a social disorder, or else I really overdid it on the rum. However, as I was ill-inclined to upset a midget with superhuman strength, I surrendered to listening and waiting for him to get it all out of his system.
“We believe we’re here,” he continued, “but we’re not here, we’re somewhere else, in the cogs of a political ambition that evades us. For you think that I’m here, and yet that is only an illusion, and you too are only an illusion, we are two illusions that they put together for a hidden goal—I don’t even know who you are and you don’t even know who I am, nor what I’m going to do, for I don’t exist and you don’t exist . . . ”
Now it was quite clear: this Anatole had lost it. Completely nuts. He took the last swig of his rum and descended deep into personal reflection. I was wasting my time.
“OK, well, I think I’ll be leaving now,” I said. “Thank you for—”
“Put yer hands on the table where I can see ‘em, ya bastard. Don’t make any sudden moves! I got a .38 Special in my pocket.”
“Is this a joke?”
“Think you can catch me out, do ya? You, sir, invented this entire story, didn’t you? There’s no more of an Alphonse than a con man, much less a minister. This was all a setup—you wanted to get me talking! But you hit a minor snag. I’ll teach you to go up against me!”
Anatole Rabe pushed me out of the greasy joint with a corner of his jacket stuck against my back. The other customers in the bar still hadn’t moved a muscle. It was as if we were a couple of air currents, Anatole and I. It was terrifying and bizarrely vertigo-inducing. Once we were in the street, he thrust his gun into my stomach and frisked me.
Fortunately, in addition to my ID papers, I had a little notebook on me, where I wrote my poems. He read it, weighed it in his hands, and inhaled deeply, looking suspicious and disbelieving. That disbelief seemed to bring other emotions along with it, which was undoubtedly responsible for my staying alive and well.
All the same, he sniffed my face and felt between my balls for good measure. Then, disappointed and muttering to himself, he melted into the night.
That was the first and last time that I saw Anatole Rabe. I never managed to recover the money that had been extracted from me by the guy who’d passed himself off as the technical advisor and influential friend of a well-known minister.
But on second thought, I wondered if maybe that guy wasn’t actually who he claimed to be. If he hadn’t in reality been sent by the minister, who maybe wanted to somehow duck an issue, throw dogs off the scent, and spread a rumor that he’d been the victim of some arrangement or another. And Alphonse, yes, Uncle Alphonse, what game was he playing in all of this? Why send me to the police to get roughed up, to get information wormed out of me, to have my balls squeezed, if I’d already been a victim? Perhaps my uncle was also himself a victim? Perhaps we were two victims that the police had put together for a cause far above us, far above the police, but that someone behind the police was pulling the strings for, to get our balls frisked?
“Les cabaleurs” © Naivo. First published in Madagascar entre poivre et vanille (Saint-Maur-des-Fossés: Sépia, 2015). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Allison M. Charette. All rights reserved.