“Belgium really is the birthplace of Surrealism,” sighs Dassoukine, staring into the distance.
I don’t respond because this phrase seems like a prologue—and in the face of a prologue, what can you do but await what follows, resigned. My commensal examines his mug of beer suspiciously, even though we are, after all, in the country that saw the birth of this pretty blonde, sometimes brunette, child—in an abbey, I’m told. The server eyes us. In this superb spot situated on the Grand-Place of Brussels, opposite the Maison du Cygne, we form a trio hanging on this thesis: “Belgium really is the birthplace of Surrealism.” This incipit is still floating in the air when Dassoukine decides to elaborate.
“What just happened to me, in any case, exceeds all bounds.”
I restrain myself from adding: “And when boundaries are crossed . . . ”
“So, I set out yesterday from Morocco on a very delicate mission. You know the grain harvest is off to a bad start in our country: it has rained, but not a lot. We are in desperate need of flour, but where to find it? Ukraine is in flames, the Russians cling tightly to their crops, it’s a long way to Australia. There’s only one solution: Europe. The government sends me to buy flour from Brussels. They’ve entrusted this mission to me. The country’s future is at risk. At the airport, in Rabat, they’re all on the tarmac, the ministers standing straight as yews, to bid me bon voyage as if their fate depended on little old me. Well, little . . . I’m taller than all of them by a head. The prime minister shakes my hand while the airplane engines roar and my eyes blur:
“‘—Get the best price, my boy, the best price! The budget of the state depends on your negotiating skills.’
“He nearly pulled my ear, as if to say, ‘the homeland is counting on you, grenadier.’ I board the plane and set sail for the haystacks. On the Place Jourdan in Brussels, I get a room in the hotel where high-flying diplomats normally stay. Check-in, shower, quick glance at the TV—the world still exists—I’ll spare you the details. I go down to have a drink at the bar. Surprise! While I’ve come to the land of Tintin to buy wheat, suddenly I find myself on the first floor at a soirée whose theme is—adjusting our glasses and leaning in to look at the placard—‘the promotion of Alsatian wine and cuisine.’ Curious. I had thought the gastronomy on the borders of the Rhine could stand up for itself—didn’t the Maginot Line used to be there? But anyway . . . I mingle among the guests. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and no one seems to notice this tall freeloading foreigner who tomorrow will be buying twenty million pounds of wheat. No one . . . except for two gentlemen.”
“Yes, one plus one.”
“You pronounce the ‘t’ when you say it?”
Dassoukine looks at me, dumbstruck.
“I’m telling you about the fiasco of the century and the only thing you’re worried about is whether you say ‘two gentlemen’ or ‘two gennelmen’?”
“So, two gen-TUHL-men. The first one is a waiter who asks me politely if I might lend him a hand: he has to change a tablecloth, I don’t know why. Possessing, like all servers from Brussels, only two arms, he hands me his tray, full of petits fours, for the time it takes him to carry out the operation he’s determined to accomplish. It’s then that another guy (the second one I mentioned), a tall string bean, clumsy but perfectly well-bred, hits me with his elbow, while I balance the tray on my open palm, as if I had never done anything else in my life—me, the grandson of a kaid and the son of a prime minister.”
“No one’s denying that.”
“Except for the second guy, who, after apologizing for having (nearly) knocked over my tray—why am I saying ‘my’ tray, it’s mad how we adapt to degradation—babbling in multilingual apologies—I detect some Hungarian in his English accent and some Latvian in his fumbled French; so, after babbling a number of apologies as if he had surprised Sissi naked in a back alley, what does he do?”
“What does he do?”
“Well, he picks up a minitoast from my tray and thanks me while bowing slightly.”
“Indeed a polite man then, albeit Hungarian.”
“That’s not the problem, idiot! He thanked me as if I were a waiter.”
“There are no dishonorable jobs.”
“In the absolute sense, no. Perhaps. But come on, I’m in Brussels to buy 200 million pounds of wheat!”
“Around ten o’clock, after savoring the dishes prepared by some of the best chefs—might as well—and after wearing out my tongue appreciating wines that I didn’t even know existed, I decide to go back to my room. Brussels is going through a heat wave: it’s still 102 degrees outside. Unable to sleep in such heat, I read the Mémoires of the Belgian king. And because I’m not crazy about air conditioning, I turn it off, like the peasant I am, opting to open the big window instead. My room is on the first floor . . . ”
“Do I need every detail?”
“ . . . but here the floors are high, so it was really the second floor. Just after midnight, I turn out the lights and contemplate wheat and wheat farms. That’s me: professional down to the muslin. Not long after, half-asleep, I hear the window bang and the curtains move, like in those horror movies that don’t even manage to scare a cat. I say to myself that the long-awaited storm has finally arrived—Levez-vous vite, orages desirés . . . —and that the atmosphere will cool down. I nestle into my bed and dream of haystacks. A few minutes later, I’m woken up again, this time by the sounds of metal. Clang! Clang! What’s going on now? I open my eyes and, stupefied, I see a hand hanging from the window railing! I sit up bellowing (What is this racket?) and jump out of bed. The hand disappears. This is bad. Should I lean out the window and risk finding myself face to face with Dracula or Peter Lorre? I’m brave—you know me—but I have my limits. So I call reception. The operator picks up right away—we are, after all, in a nice hotel—I inform him in two words of the incident, he asks me if it’s room service that I’m trying to reach, I add some details, he tells me that, yes, they have fries, I tell him about the wandering hand, he replies mayonnaise, I start over, enunciating my words; after a stunned silence, the man gets a hold of himself and tells me he’ll call the police right away.
“After replacing the receiver, I go to look out the window anyway, armed with the Financial Times rolled up into a bat, in case the salmon color should frighten away the zombies. I see nothing, no one in this serene Belgian night. My room looks out onto the Etterbeek, there are some bushes, but I search far and wide; the cat burglar has disappeared. Roughly speaking, there’s a good thirty feet between my bedroom window and the ground. The wall is made of brick, there’s no gutter, nothing for a person to hang onto. There’s a little ledge under my window, but it’s narrow. And even then you still have to get there and somehow stay there.”
“The police arrive rapidly and get to work. There are four of them, debonair but industrious. They survey the surroundings of the hotel with flashlights, they smoke out some cats, drive out three spiders, cry out in bruxellois, but they don’t find anything human. They leave, taking down my statement. According to them, it must have been like in a circus act: three or four men climb on each other’s shoulders, the one on top reaches the window, enters the room, and grabs any objects of value. Then they disappear into the neighboring thickets—beautiful thickets, by the way, I recommend them, look up the Parc Léopold. I think to myself that I dodged a bullet, given that my laptop was on the shelf right by the window. All the secrets of the Kingdom—ours, not Belgium’s—will remain secret. I go back to sleep, pretty perplexed.”
“And the metal noises?”
“Forgotten! I had more important things to do than interrogate myself about the whisper of the world. The next morning: toilet, shower, shave, aftershave—the ritual of a minister on a mission. I start to get dressed and then, stupor and shudder, as a local author once said: no more trousers! Nada, niente! I had left them folded, flat on the suitcase, close to the window. And at that hour, they were conspicuously absent! In a flash, I understand everything: the thief had taken my trousers, in which I had left a pile of change. And it was these coins, falling out of the pockets, that had woken me up!”
“Voilà, mystery solved.”
“One hell of a lucky break, I said to myself in petto. Normally, I empty the pockets of my trousers before folding them at night. But that night, for whatever reason, I hadn’t. The noise woke me up and the thief left without my computer, which holds the plans for the nuclear missiles stashed under the place Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakech. However, I had also left some bills in the pockets, and so I’m out three-hundred-and-twenty euros. Bah, money isn’t everything . . . The problem—or should I say the tragedy? the catastrophe?—is that I don’t have any other trousers. For the two-day trip, I had brought only the saroual I was wearing. Why complicate things? Two shirts, yes, but only one pair of pants: I’m not Patino the Tin King, or an English lord. So, nichts pairs of pants and Europe awaits me at nine o’clock sharp. I go down to the reception in my pajamas. The manager is there, impeccably dressed. He is already up to date on my misadventure. Alas, he tells me, all the stores are still closed at this morning hour. Brow furrowed, he thinks through a few different possibilities. He could go to his house and bring me one of his pairs of pants, or he could ask the employees, but these suggestions, born of Belgian goodwill, come crashing down faced with this irrefutable reality: I am taller than all these Samaritans. I would look like a half-drowned Nixon! Standing in the hotel lobby, we look at each other, sheepish, and the seconds pass.
“‘I hardly dare suggest it to you . . . ’ he says to me while adjusting his glasses with an extremely distinguished air.
“‘Go on, go on! Anything would be better than being stark naked or wearing a barrel around my waist!’
“‘Two minutes from here, at the corner of rue de l’Étang, there’s an Oxfam Solidarité shop that sells used clothing.’
“‘But it’ll be closed!’
“‘My aunt is the manager, call her, she’ll open the shop. She lives right around the corner.’”
Dassoukine swallows a mouthful of coffee and assumes a tragic air.
“He who has never crossed the Place Jourdan in his pajamas, hair disheveled, searching for an act of charity even though he is the grandson of the kaid, has no concept of the absurd. I rush into the shop where an old woman is waiting for me with an angelic smile.
“‘My God, you’re a giant,’ she chirps, panicked.
“‘At your service, Madame.’
“‘The only thing we have in your size is this.’
“She unhooks a rag and hands it to me. Prepare the funeral arrangements! They’re golf trousers, the work of a mad tailor, the trappings of a clown. Oh they have lived, possibly several lives, and hard ones at that. The original colors are now faded but it’s obvious they must have clashed violently in the old days. You can see beneath the fabric, beneath the canvas, I should say, a yellow, a yucky brown, an evanescent green, a burnt amber, red diamonds layered on top, but we mustn’t entirely write off the wreckage, because there is one undeniable advantage: they are exactly my size. I throw five euros on the counter, I forget my pajamas and rush toward the assembly hall: it’s right around the corner, at the end of rue Froissart. The orderly raises an eyebrow when he notices my pants but my papers are in order and he grants me entry while deploring in a low voice the end of European civilization. I enter the hall, where my interruption causes a sensation. The members of the committee, who are already there, on a sort of platform, gawk at me with bulging eyes, looking only below the belt, as if I had been reduced to two legs.”
“We are but ants in the grand scheme of things.”
“I sit down on a chair opposite these messieurs-dames of Europe and I prepare to present my plea. I fix my gaze on the eyes of the committee . . . and then I nearly fall out of my chair. For who is presiding over the committee? I’ll give you three guesses.”
“Uhh . . . ”
“Attila the Hun?”
“No, moron! The Hungarian from the day before, civilized to the core, the grandson of the Archduke and the Bourbons. He looks at me, knitting his brow (‘I know that face . . . ’), then his mouth gapes open (‘No, not him, not the waiter from yesterday!’), and then I have before me the personification of Hungarian stupefaction and commiseration (‘It’s really him!’), and then he leans toward his colleagues, distraught, and starts speaking to them in a low voice. He forgets to turn off his microphone; the interpreter, imperturbable, thus continues to translate—it is his job after all—and so I intrude on this discussion centered on me, and in particular on my trousers. Monsieur Hongre recounts the reception from the night before and tells them I was the waiter and that, with great dexterity, I walked around with a tray filled with petits fours and incidentally almost poured them onto him; but, he adds with a sense of fairness through which I recognize the true son of a grande tente family (even if they are Habsburgs), that I deserve credit for serving them with great professionalism. The Archduke’s report flabbergasts his peers. Then Europe, as always, divides itself. The Slovak reckons I was making off with the leftovers from the buffet because I didn’t have any money, but the Englishman retorts that I came here on a plane and not a flying carpet, and therefore I must have some means, I couldn’t be completely ‘skint.’ The Italian taps his chin, suspecting some combinazione, but what? The Spaniard grumbles something about the ‘Moros’ who never learn. Was I perhaps staging a hoax, for whatever obscure reason? The Frenchman, Cartesian to his eyebrows, expresses his doubts: being very familiar with Morocco, he can’t imagine a minister of His Majesty arriving dirt-poor (much like the wheat) in Brussels; what if he was a doppelganger?
“‘Doppelganger?’ interrupts the German. ‘Ach so . . . But which one? Yesterday’s Kellner or this guy, here, on the stand?’
“The committee, as one single man, straightens up and examines me with a suspicious air. Am I really myself? Or a clown imposter? Or a lackey with a big head?
“The Englishman clears his throat and then squeals in my direction:
“‘Exckiousez-moi . . . This is highly unusual but . . . Pievons-nous vouâr vos . . . papiers d’identity?’
“It’s an international incident. I straighten up, tall in my multicolored brays, and I play out a great scene of Third World indignation in the face of Western arrogance. What is this, huh? I must be dreaming! Would you demand to see the papers of an American or Russian minister? Or even Albanian? Shall I, while we’re at it, produce my anthropometric measurements? My criminal record? My vaccinations for dengue fever and cholera? The Hungarian, miming gestures of appeasement, motions for me to sit back down, and snubs the Albion perfide, now muttering threats.
“I go back to my discourse on wheat, ‘of which we were formerly exporters for the Roman Empire,’ but no one is listening to me, no one cares about the Rome of antiquity. Then the Hungarian makes an imperial gesture and adjourns the session. These messieurs-dames are going to make a decision. They ask me to wait in an adjoining room, where they serve me coffee and chocolate—go on, have a bite, it’s Belgian. Half an hour later, an usher comes to fetch me: the committee has come to a decision.”
“Well, I got the flour for nothing. They remembered, quite pertinently, that there was an emergency stock for desperate cases, like for Somalia, Chad, and the other countries where the ministers dress in rags. Pounds of grain for free! Tonight they’re throwing me an extravagant reception at the Rabat airport. ‘The man who saved his country a hundred thousand euros!’ It’s really my trousers they should be honoring.”
He looks outside, pensively. The facades of the Grand-Place glisten. Dassoukine sighs.
“The most beautiful place in the world, they say. And they’re right. But I remember only the Place Jourdan, where I found myself dressed as a clown and as a servant in order to better serve my country. Who will ever believe that?”
© Faoud Laroui. Translation © 2016 by Emma Ramadan. Forthcoming 2016 from Deep Vellum. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.