Brussels, Milan & Paris, mostly by me, Zapinette
Brussels: at the Tervuren African Museum, by me, Zapinette
The next day was as gray as Father Van Winkle’s bald pate: when it doesn’t rain in this here very wet country people consider it a gift from heaven. Leaving Brussels, through the ringroad, we drove off into the beautiful Soignes forest – a true symphony in green major, with its secular oaks, its proud elms, its silver birches and its majestic ash trees -, which is crisscrossed by a network of bridleways and footpaths, especially popular with mushroom pickers and prurient local Robin Hoods. Actually I did notice an amazon, galloping on a splendid white horse; by the looks of it, she was in a hurry to meet her lover in some deserted clearing, coz this kind of escapade ain’t innocent, is what I say.
In less than twenty minutes we had reached our destination: before our eyes unfolded a smaller version of Versailles, surrounded by ponds and landscaped gardens that cascaded down the rolling hills of Brabant, like huge tapestries.
“We’re in Tervuren and this is the Royal Museum of Central Africa,” announced Germaine, with an air of pomposity – and don’t ask why pom pom girls think they’re the cat’s whiskers -, typical of some of them prissy guides who are so incensed with themselves you stop wondering why they end up being old spinsters.
You oughta have seen how proud she was to show me those palatial grounds, built at the turn of the twentieth century, to house the numerous works of art and the crafty objects and gewgaws that anthropologists had brought back from the Belgian Congo. If she hadn’t specified it I would have thought it was King Albert II’s summer palace.
Palace or no palace, I was convinced this visit would bore me to death, until we entered the mastodonkey wing which harbored the wild animals. Unlike those I had seen at Jeff Vandenslut’s mansion whose heads were stuck on the walls like the friggin’ hunting trophies that they were, these were full-bodied and so life-like that you almost believed you were in the middle of a real jungle. Motionless as they appeared, they reminded me of The day the earth stood still, that old science-fiction movie Unky Berky had taped, in which everything, from plants to mechanical objects, to humans and animals, were frozen in the position they were caught in when the event occurred, like the people of Pompeii minutes after the Vesuvius erupted, surprising them in their sleep. It made me shiver to think that these wild beasts among which I was sliding on tiptoe, could, at the drop of a comb, wake up and gobble me up alive.
We then visited other halls, all of them as large as the first one, where native villages had been faithfully reconstructed, with red dried-up earth, actual huts, palm trees, tools and even life-size manikins of tribesmen and their families, busy at various tasks and chores; it all looked so real that it was absolutely flabbyghosting. And, of course, in the midst of this mummified activity, there were masks, an incredible number of masks, scaring the bejesus out of me. Then all of a sudden, as if someone had plunged a dagger into my navel, I began to huff, pointing a finger at a statue which was sitting behind the glass door of a tall cabinet.
“Ho, ho!” – not Hoegaarden, you ninny, I didn’t feel like having a beer – I wheezed.
Germaine came to my rescue, fearing that, in the middle of all that African purinafernelly, I might conk out, but then she stared mesmerized at the statue, and cautiously retrieved the old photograph from her bag which Oink Tiodor had given her, recognizing at once the famous Bateke fetish.
Recomposing myself, I whispered to her ear:
“How on earth will we be able to steal this thing? Do you have a plan?”
Still under the spell of the fetish, she remained dumb. Then, something extraordinary happened. At first I believed it was Papy Popol who was speaking to me, but then I realized it was the Bateke statue. It was addressing both me and Germaine, no one else could hear it.
“There’s no way that I shall be removed from here. The important thing is that you listen to me and that you know why you were led to this place. From now on, I shall name Alberico Binetti ambassador for life, and his niece, Esmeralda McInnerny, aka Zapinette, my spokesperson for youth worldwide, whereas Germaine Spitaels – hey where did our cousin get such a spitting name from? – shall become our representative for both Belgium and the European Union,” announced the fetish, in its sonar-like voice, which tickled my ears, something awful.
Germaine wanted to respond to the statue, but I cut her short and asked:
“But Mister … er … Bwana the fetish, Sir, what are my uncle and I to do, your Honor?” I was going to call it “Your Majesty”, but stopped short, coz after all I was only dealing with a statue, not even made of noble wood. Ok, granted, it was priceless and sat in a museum.
“Listen to me carefully now. The three of you will have to obey my orders and work relentlessly, to merit the titles I have just bestowed upon you. Every time one of your peers will be guilty of a racist slur or an untoward act, you shall not only reprimand the culprit but also and, most importantly, try to rehabilitate him. And if, in spite of your endeavors, he persists in his deeds, you will report back to me, and I shall then cast a spell on the recalcitrant, until he changes his attitude and behaves in a civilized manner.”
“But, your Saintliness,” I went on, believing that putting it on a par with the Pope, would mollify the statue, “I’m much too young to follow in the footseps of Mother Teresa. I haven’t even graduated from high school. Unky Berky, on the other hand, could very well put himself in the sandals of Saint Francis, on account that he too has a bald pate, er … your Honor.”
Considering that things were getting serious, Germaine cut in, kicking me in the shin, and muttered:
“Certainly, Mylord Bateke, we shall do everything in our power to persuade our fellow humans to comport themselves with dignity and compassion. As a matter of fact, I shall start with my immediate neighbors, an old couple, who are very nostalgic about their colonial past and still complain that they can’t find obedient servants here, like they used to in the Congo.”
Gosh, I had never missed my uncle as much as I did now. Here I stood, my back to the wall, with this friggin’ fetish, forcing me to become a watchdog – thank Goddess there has never been such a thing as a watchbitch! True, I can’t stand racists, but that I should be transformed into a professional racist hunter is a bit thick, don’t you agree? – hey, you’d better agree, orrr else.
To allay my fears, while at the same time pretending no to have heard the uncouth adjective directed at it, the fetish said:
“Don’t worry, you will soon get used to the job, it will be as easy as drinking water.”
At that very moment I realized Papy Popol had outgrown his mission and that he would never again revert to me.
With a pang in the solar plexus and somewhat teary-eyed – isn’t it funny how you can get used to a ghost? – I whined:
“But your Saintliness, Coca Cola is my favorite drink …”
When you feel your heart wobble, you automatically call on your taste buds, inasmuch as that traitor of a Popolsky had just deserted me.
“Very bad for your teeth,” remonstrated the fetish, “it causes a lot of caries, but here too, you will get used to living without it. However, before you start lecturing other people, and show them the way, you must first learn to correct your own defects and become more humble. If you have any doubts, just call on me and you shall always be under my protection – that is, of course, provided you follow my rules.”
Goddess only knows in what sleazy business Papy Popol had been mixed up during his life and what tricks he’d been up to for us to be punished in this fashion, my uncle and I. I hope he spends his summers in Hell, coz that ain’t a way to treat your heirs. As for Germaine, she seemed to bow to everyone of Bwana Bateke’s orders and whims, without a word of protest. In her case, it probably had something to do with karma, a philosoftickle shenanigan she borrowed from India, not from fetchist nations where voodoo and chicken head slitting is the norm. The karma CEOs, wherever they may reside, apparently don’t care a hoot about the human species, since you can be reincarnated in an unconscious number of things, living or inanimate, like rescoopcitating as Empress of China – I’m talking here of them Beijing Opera drag queens – or as a rattlesnake.
Seeing how cushy cushy my cousin was in front of the statue – she even curtsied several times, like he was the king of that museum, I decided to grab the bull by its balls and asked:
“Meneer Van Bateke – this Flemish name must have come to me by the grace of the Holy Ghost, Mystery, Hector’n Tommy, is what I say -, when will you send uncle Alberic back to us, Sir …er …. Your Beggarness?”
“First of all, you must return to the art gallery,” he said, “once there, you will have to pronounce this magic formula: ‘katuka mumbafu potferdek tidieu’. It’s a mixture of Kiswahili, Flemish and French patois, meaning, “get out of here, you, evil spirit, goddamn you for ever and ever.”
“Pardon me, Monsignor Bwana,” I inquired, twisting the hem of my dress, I was so nervous, “if I’m not mistaken, according to Papy Popol, you were to remain the property of my Unky Berky till death doth thou part – here Shake’m pears came to my rescue, without me asking for it.”
“Your great grandfather talked bunk. Did you know in the first place that he was a ruthless colonialist? All that counts from now on is that you follow my recommendations to the letter. But if it makes you happy, my little Esmee – hey, it was the first time he was calling me by my nickname, coz that fetish never joked in the past -, and since you only have a very bad picture of me, you may go to the museum bookshop and buy the current edition of ‘The Fetish Guide’, it only costs 20 euros. You will find my portrait in it, full page and in color. Then you may come back to me and I shall inscribe it for you. And if you surf the Net, go to my website: www.bateke-fetish.com.”
I repeated the magic formula, which I had carefully copied on a piece of paper – did you believe I was going to rack my brain with such otherworldly gibberish? – to the gallery owner.
Minutes later, Unky Berky was walking down the steps, nonchalantly, like nothing ever happened, and he said:
“My stomach is rumbling, how about you? Wouldn’t you like to sit for a kipkap and a nice glass of Hoegaarden?”
Since I had no clue what a kipkap was – not only did Rank Van Bonk spring out of the friggin’ blue like he was E.T., but he was now kvetching in Flemish like a local – I turned to Germaine, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, feeling like a bimbo who’d lost her way in the middle of the forest.
“Kipkap is a Brussels specialty prepared with minced meat and various herbs, dipped in its own jelly.” she explained.
As I was pulling a face, she gratified us with a poem dedicated to the glory of ‘the national kipkap’.
“They even made a song out of it,” she added.
This changed zilch in my mind and I certainly didn’t intend to try that dish, even if they paid me, but, out of politeness, I lent an ear.
I still can’t get over the fact that I became the hostage of a ghost and of a fetish, for crying out loud. If the Hollywood mowglies need an expert to act in their next Mission Impossible, they can call on me. I will flabbyghost them with all the things I know and they’ll remain so non-pussied that the film industry will honor me with all the awards that exist under the firmament and they will feel compelled to create new ones too.
So, all of you guys, ‘goedendag’ is the new buzz word. Until we meet again in my next book, provided you stop making fun of your classmates and calling you know who a fat cow.
You want a final eurojoke? In your dreams!
Brussels: at the Comics Museum
None of these visits gave any result, except for encounters of the third type, of which I had had my share. To appease me, Van den Bonk made the following suggestion:
“How about if we went to the National Comics Gallery? Wouldn’t that be fun?”
But when he called the place to know what the visiting hours were, someone asked him whether he would be coming with a child. At first my uncle thought the person had a sense of humor and that it was some kind of Belgian joke.
“Because of the very special character of the show,” continued the employee, “we must have the approval of a parent, prior to the visit.”
Unky Berky’s face turned the color of mustard and he mumbled something I couldn’t make out. After he hung up and was still not opening his mouth, I got angry.
“Well, er … er,” he finally uttered, his ears now pinkish, veering on crimson, “they’ve set up tents inside the gallery, where ladies of different social backgrounds welcome you to discuss about their family lives, their various interests and their profession, for those who work outside of the house.”
“That sounds groovy,” I answered, “at least I will be able to meet some of the womanfolk in this country, and we’ll exchange views. I’ll tell them about life in Paris.”
“It’s, it’s … that these … er … ladies will receive us without any clothes on.”
“You mean, naked, stripped naked? There will be men too in the nude?” I queried, with a sudden itch of pruriency.
“I don’t believe so,” said my uncle, adding in a firmer tone, “we really don’t have to rush there, we could go after tomorrow, when that show will be over.”
“But I want to see it, as the staunch felinist that I am,” I growled, “I’ll tell them what I think of them male chauvinist pigs who organized such a show. Enough already that it is always the female who has to bare her stuff. Also, I’d like to know why these women have accepted to be humiliated again, stooping down as sexual objects.”
Van den Bonk tried to dissuade me, suggesting that we go instead watch a movie on one of Kinepolis’ giant screens, then that we visit the Atomium, which is located in the same neighborhood, at the other end of the city. I retorted that we could go there another day, and that if he didn’t take me to the Comics Gallery now, I would lock myself in the hotel room for 24 hours. Of course, he had to give up, for he knows how grumpy and unpleasant I can get. Then too, I threatened that I would start a strike and that he could go treasure hunting on his own. A little blackmailing goes a long way, is what I say. Well, why are you staring at me like that? I’m defending my rights.
At the Comics Gallery, Unky Berky didn’t know which way to look, the presence of those naked ladies made him feel very uncomfortable. It was mostly because of me, but there were so many people around that he could blush in peace, no one noticed him anyway. Between you and me, those hussies were quite shameless, some of them had bazooms that could knock you out in one swoop, and you had to see how they were discussing among themselves, like pals who had just bumped into each other at the flea market – meat market would be more appropriate in this case. Goddess, there were so many children too, I mean chil – dren, much younger than me, even toddlers, for crying out loud. You didn’t have to be a sigh-kayak-tryst to understand how some of them poor lil things would get traumatized for life and become freaks.
There was such a crowd around the nudies – everybody tried to act like the situation was perfectly normal, in spite of the fact that some of the visiting men were perspiring buckets – I didn’t have the courage to voice my felinist outrage, as I had intended to. I didn’t even dare ask my naked sisters – Jeez, to call them sisters, you oughta to be a pervert yourself! – a single question. As for my uncle, he kept pulling my sleeve to steer me away from them. I, of course, played the intellettuce that nothing could shock – actually, alI that effort of concentration made my head reel and I was beginning to squint, let alone that my shoes were smelling like a cheese factory.
After milling about that cattle market for three quarters of an hour, I accepted to follow Unky Berky to the first floor to see Hergé’s original drawings and storyboards. The poor artist must have been turning in his grave, with his ghost watching all those tits and watchamacallit, especially since Tintin, the reporter character that had made him famous the world over, was a parangon of virtue; actually, in none of his adventures, you saw him in the company of a girl – maybe he was a closet homey, who knows. I hope not, coz I dreamt for a long time that I had a boyfriend like him, brave and righteous and who always took the side of the good folk and the down trodden, fighting against crooks and murderers at the cost of risking his life. And, washmore, he loved to travel to far away and exotic places, fraught with danger.
Watching all those naked broads – some of them were very large indeed, while others were well past their prime, with their things hanging like deflated paper bags – chatting and sharing their experiences, while the visitors acted like they were simple tourists in a resort town, during carnival, I suddenly realized that the Belgians were quite a special bunch. If something like this were to happen in Paris or even in New York, let’s say at the MOMA, there would be a mini-revolution and you’d soon have the cops rushing in to manacle the offenders and lead them away. I said this to my uncle and you know what Bonkey replied? That it could be explained by the earthy nature of the Flemish, which you could see manifested in the paintings of Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch. The French, and even more so the Americans, with their puritanical tradition, he added, were big hypocrits when dealing with sex. His reaction did surprise me a little, coz usually Unky Berky is puny mini mousey and very reserved. I wouldn’t want him to get funny ideas and go overboard now that he’s seen the ins and outs of the female anatomy.
Milan, where AllBurp / Bonka lived seven years, to 1971, signed by me, Zapy.
To me, the Galleria Vittorio-Emmanuele in Milan is the most stupendous (that’s not what you think, stoopid!) covered gallery I have ever seen from here to eternity with a return ticket. And as you walk out of this magnificent place, before reaching the Piazza del Duomo, you can stop at the Rinascente department store, which I advise you to visit.
The cathedral is mind-boggling. It looks like a gigantic sugar loaf, with its hundreds of little statues nestled in alcoves or perched on top of the innumerable spires – some of them faces are real spooky, and saints they ain’t all. Crowning the Duomo is the golden Madonnina which weighs as much as an elephant. It’s with the blood and the sweat of the poor dudes that the Catholic Church could build such a marvel, and it didn’t matter whether they suffered from the plague or from mad cow disease.
As for the Scala, it’s really no big deal. As a mat-o-fact, it stinks of cat piss. I’ve heard it’s the world’s most famous opera house. If you still want to believe this I’d advise you not to go near it.
In order to please my uncle, I went to visit Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, which is hidden in a church so dark that even the mice would get lost in it, cheese or no cheese. Try and recognize some of them apostles on that awful depressing painting, you’d first have to be on your knees and squint so much you’d end up getting slanted eyes like the Japanese. Now how them poor Asians don’t get totally blind and their heads forever twisted staring at this minor piece of artsy fartsy is a mystery. On the contrary, they seem to appreciate everything they watch and remain in awe in front of Jesus – he must appear to them as a scrawny Santa Claus, compared to their fat Buddha. And they don’t stop ooh aahing as if they had suddenly met the Holy Ghost.
We ate ice cream at Biffi’s inside the Galleria. It’s one of the poshest tea-rooms in Milan, which I consider the second most beautiful city in the world, after Paris, of course. I had three scoops, vanilla, chocolate and mint, while Unky Berky had pistachio and raspberry. This is like being in the middle of a theater, or rather like watching a permanent fashion show. Some of the men bowled me over, they were so cute and elegantly attired. You’d think they were competing for the Mr. World cup. A lot of the women too were very pretty, with their silk dresses, their loverly chiffon ensembles and artsy fartsy prints. They do have a knack for colors, them Eyetalians!
As we were feasting our eyes on these sophisticated dudes and
dudesses, accompanied at times by their doggies, some of which had pearl-studded leashes and alligator collars – them lucky bitches or S.O.Bs. are treated like Hollywood starlets – a violonist suddenly materialized out of nowhere, wearing his great-grand-pa’s tuxedo (you couldn’t tell whether it was black, mole gray or dark blue, it looked so ironed out) and shining shoes that were all cracked. His long silver-colored hair swept his jacket to and fro as he was moving in our direction. He immediately began to play heart-wrenching tunes.
At first I felt very embarrassed and wished he would disappear as quickly as he came, especially since it looked like he was going to kneel at my feet. Maybe he thought I was Unky Berky’s girlfriend, coz in this country you see a number of r.d.o.ms (rich, dirty old men) gallivanting with girls who could be their granddaughters – I’d be so disgusted I would throw my ice cream at their faces, and Goddess knows I hate to waste ice cream. But the violinist played so beautifully that I began clapping my hands. They shouldn’t allow someone so professional to have to perform like a beggar, when there are so many schmucks who are paid the earth to appear on television, with their moronic TV shows that sprain your brain. Now I understand why my uncle sniffles whenever he listens to his old Italian records – he is stirred inside out with nostalgia.
Unky Berky told me a true story that took place at Biffi’s in the sixties, concerning an uncle of his.
Bob, a cousin from Portland, Oregon, came to spend a vacation in Milan, invited by zio Bruno, zia Antonietta and their son Aldo (zio and zia mean uncle and aunt in Italian and have nothing to do with being zany, but just wait a minute and see what comes next).
Bob was an artist, a bit wacko, especially since he trudged along half tipsy most of the time and wore garish leather clothes, Indian bangles and huge silver rings on every finger, essept on his thumbs… and a green cowboy hat. He looked like a walking Christmas tree.
Apparently the moment he woke up he would run to the bar and empty the bottoms of whiskey, rum or vodka bottles, to the point where zia Antonietta decided to take all the booze down to the cellar, at least those few bottles he hadn’t yet opened.
Unlike his mother, who uddered strange bird noises that sounded like chuckles whenever Bob cracked a joke or did something outrageous – coz in front of her guests she always made an effort to keep la bella figura -, Aldo fancied his cousin a lot, on account of the fresh air (even though it reeeked of alcohol) Bob brought into his strict bourgeois Milanese environment.
Unky Berky often repeats that in his time people around here took life very very seriously. Even nowadays, the Northern Italians claim that they have to doubly work their asses off because the Southerners are ‘such lazy bums’. They think of the Romans as pencil-pushers who take innumerable breaks during their working hours to chat at a terrazza di caffé, whereas the Neapolitans spend theirs playing dirty tricks or swindling their own neighbors, as for the Sicilians, they treat them as Italy’s Arabs, with the extra onus that they have invented the mafia.
And, along the centuries, the mafia has grown into an enormous octopuke, sending its smartest octopussies to America, where they now proliferate and deal in hard drugs. Why do you think there are so many junkies in the US of A? You just have to look square into the eyes of an adult octopuke – better through the glass of a water tank, if you don’t want it to strangle you from the neck down to the ankles – and you will notice that the lout is as stoned as the Grand Canyon.
Where were we? Oh, yes, with Bob the boozer! One evening he suggested that his host family accompany him to the opening at a hoity-toity gallery in downtown Milan where the artist’s subject was a naked woman whose body he was busy painting before his public. On the sandbox next to her there even stood a pair of live goats, with their little ball crap and all.
The poor zia who had dressed up as if she was expected at the Scala almost fainted. I would have been furious, coz I can’t stand it anymore that it’s always the same people who get stripped naked. Had I been there, I would have demanded that the so-called artist, aka male chauvinist prick, also take off all his clothes and I would have personally daubed his private parts with green paint, making his carrot shrink to the size of a Brussels sprout.
Now, folks, if you have nothing better to do and don’t mind ending up with a bloomin headache, read what poor All Burp had to face in the Parisian literoity toyty world.
The rarity of being a Gentleman and a Renaissance Man
in the French literary world – essay by Albert Russo
In the mid-nineteen seventies I was introduced to a man who represented everything
I had dreamt of concerning La France éternelle, the nation that prized culture and art above all else, the France of the Enlightenment, a beacon unto the world, of which I find unfortunately very little left, apart from its magnificent palaces, its museums, its fabulous landscapes and its artistic retrospectives. One must be fair, a lot of its new cinema and its theater is excellent, not to mention its talented young singers, musicians and performers.
But in today’s literary circles, all I see is arrogance, meanness and envy. During these last forty years, I have lived through too many incidents marked by clannishness, pettiness and downright swinish attitudes, which I have already mentioned in an essay and which I won’t repeat here, but which, I insist, I have never experienced the likes of in the other countries I have lived in or visited as a writer: the USA, Italy, South Africa, Norway, India or China, not that fierce competition, jealousy and the ensuing unpleasantnesses don’t exist elsewhere in the world. This being said, there are very few saints in our planet, just look at the horrendous wars taking place on at least three of our continents.
Then France too boasts about being the land of étiquette, good taste and charm. I found none of these qualities among the contemporary representatives of le monde littéraire parisien, and as for winning Unesco’s highest gastronomy award, I would have allotted it to Italy, to Japan, to India, to China, or to any of these other Asian countries: Thailand, Korea and Vietman, for the refinement and the variety of their dishes, for I have eaten in far too many unsavory brasseries and dirty bistros in the capital of ‘fine gourmet adepts’. Unquestionably there are very fine restaurants in this country, but the average eatery leaves a lot to be desired. I know this will infuriate some of my French friends, but I take the responsibility of claiming that MacDonald’s (of which France has the largest number in Europe) serves fresher food than some of the places that deliver baguette sandwiches, and two- or three-day old hot-dogs, warmed up; so much said for fastfood.
His name is Robert Cornevin, the only Gentleman and Renaissance man I have encountered here in Paris, who could have made his country proud. He had the kindly manners of a benevolent aristocrat, was an erudite, and, though, not young when I first met him, had the energy of the devil.
He was a reputed historian of the African and Asian continents, and wrote books about their culture, their politics and their literature. He had been an Administrator of several French colonies on the Black continent, as well as in Indochina. Yet, he was a personal friend to Léopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal, the great poet and President, of Houphouët Boigny of Ivory Coast and even (if I am not mistaken) of Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, all of whom liberated their countries from the yoke of France, the latter having won the bloodiest of battles against the French at Diên Biên Phu, then against the Americans, who had dropped more bombs on that small country than during the last world war, poisoning it with the deadly napalm for generations.
He was a resistant during the nazi occupation of his country in World War II.
The list of his friends worldwide is so extensive, that I have no space here to cite them all. Among his numerous functions, he was head of the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-mer,
President of the Association of French-speaking Writers, ADELF, and of the famous Documentation Française, visiting professor at the universities of Paris, Montréal and Kinshasa, among many others; he was the founder of the magazine Lettres et Cultures de langue française. And he also wrote essays and reviews in prestigious literary magazines.
Every year he would travel around the world to find new Francophone writers, whether they lived in Lousiana, the Caribbean islands, Quebec, Vietnam, Tahiti, La Réunion, Madagascar, and, of course, in all of the independent countries of Africa where French was spoken or had become an official language.
One day, in desperation, I sent him – a bold and weird step, specially when you consider that France fights tooth and nail against the hegemony of the English language – the manuscript of my novel Mixed Blood (now published by l’Aleph under the title Adopted by an American homosexual in the Belgian Congo), which had been highly praised by James Baldwin. I didn’t expect any response: hadn’t I been foolish enough to send out an unpublished piece, and what’s more in Shakespeare’s tongue, to a magazine which specialized in the development of Francophone culture and literature?
But lo and behold, a few days later I got a personal call from him and we set an appointment at the Documentation Française. Of course, I had read a small biography of him and expected someone haughty or even a little arrogant – wasn’t I used to the manners of Parisian intellectuals? But great was my surprise when he addressed me with the kindness of a long lost relative whom he had traced back after many years. Then I was quite young and he could be my grandfather.
«You absolutely must translate this book in French.» He told me in earnest. «We, here, are very ignorant of the Belgian congo, which was ruled very differently than in our own colonies, or in any other colony, for that matter, be they British, Spanish or Portuguese, not to mention South Africa.»
So, I heeded his advice and spent a full year to rewrite the book entirely. Actually, I adapted it for a Francophone mentality. This is why I always say that I don’t translate my works from English into French or vice versa, but that I adapt and rewrite them.
After many heartaches and vagaries – I did tell you about the stale and fusty Parisian literary scene, specially in the realm of big publishers – my novel finally got out and became my bestselling book in this country.
Little did I know then that Robert Cornevin had visited the Congo many times, as well as the other African colonies, and that he and his historian wife had written at least two books about Belgian colonialism (including Rwanda and Burundi), as well as a study of the laws and the every day life under the racist Apartheid regime.
Not only did he write positive reviews about ‘Sang Mêlé’ in the literary sections of well-known newspapers and magazines, but he invited me to become a juror in the newly created Prix Européen, along with Ionesco, the President of the Sorbonne and other French and foreign professors and journalists (I was the youngest member).
What an honor I thought, yet at the same time, I was weary of any literary awards ladled out in this country, for even the ‘prestigious‘ Prix Goncourt had been under the fire of well-known reporters, year in and year out, because of its corrupt and manipulative system of attributing its prize, it being more a publisher’s award than an author’s, and to make matters worse, it was monopolised by three of the biggies, Gallimard, Grasset and Le Seuil, ironically nicknamed Galligrasseuil, when there were hundreds of other publishers, some of them excellent, but none of whom had the right to compete, by submitting the work of their authors. When I mentioned Galligrasseuil to Monsieur Cornevin, the latter agreed about their musty reputation, dispelling any doubt I had harbored, and assured me that the Prix Européen would be attributed to anyone, French or foreign, who wrote in French, no matter who the publisher was, and from whichever part of the world it hailed, big or small. And I have been sitting in that jury ever since, discovering some of the most interesting books of literature, being published, including works of fiction, poetry, history, political or philosophical essays, so long as they dealt with anything European. And the winners come from all corners of the world. Think of Conrad.
THE PARIS I LOVED
A grande Dame
During the weekly performances
I attended, afternoons, in rue de Seine,
at the Duncan Gallery, founded by the
granddaughter of Isadora Duncan
who revolutionized dancing
in the beginning of the 20th century,
listening to new poets, to talented singers
and admiring or not recent paintings,
figurative, abstract or downright nonsensical,
reciting myself, when I was asked to read,
a chapter or two of my own African stories,
there was this very handsome old lady,
sitting on the first row, who never skipped
those performances, or only exceptionally,
when she was either ill or invited elsewhere
Anne de Javel must have been in her late seventies
and you could guess how beautiful she was in her youth
she always wore a sober beige or ochre Chanel suit
with a matching silk shawl and low-heeled shoes
At first we only exchanged smiling glances
then one day, when we all got up to leave,
she approached me, saying how much she liked
my last piece about the Belgian Congo, where I was born
It made my day, for never had I been complimented
personally by someone so obviously knowledgable,
since I had heard her commenting on an artist or a poet
during previous sessions, sometimes in public
Unlike most Parisians I had encountered
who, even when they appeared sympathetic,
she invited me the next day to her place
for a chat over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine
How surprised I was to learn that she lived
smack in the middle of Place Pigalle, across
the Moulin Rouge and all the surrounding
massage parlors to which tourists were lured,
not to mention the myriad flashy sex shops
Hers was a fourth-floor walk-up apartment
you could reach through narrow creaking stairs
My God, I first thought, how could such
a respectable old lady live there, even if it was
a charming bonbonnière, adorned with baubles
of exquisite taste and several historical portraits,
one of which I immediately recognized and I
almost shouted: «That very pretty woman is you.»
She just nodded and asked me if I preferred
sweet or salty petits fours, for a moment
I remained speechless and couldn’t decide
When I realized that she was waiting for my reply
I just mumbled «salty, salty, please.»
«My supplier from Bordeaux just sent me this morning
my favorite wine, could you please open the bottle?»
She inquired about my African background, about
my studies in the United States, about our home in Italy,
Italy which she adored, especially the lake area,
Isola Bella, Isola dei Pescatori, Sirmione del Garda.
«But how about you, Madame de Javel? I want to know.»
«Oh just call me Anne, and I’ll call you Albert.»
I blushed and kept saying Madame, but she didn’t insist.
Thus did I learn that she was a baroness and that
just outside of the living room window stood a fountain
with the statue of Pigalle, one of her ancestors
Then she told me of her castle in Normandy
which the Nazis had bombed out and how she became
a resistant, driving trucks which supposedly contained
heavy bags of flour and potatoes, but which in reality
hid English and American soldiers parachuted in France
whom she drove to various secret places north of Paris.
«And … and now?» I stuttered «have you … recuperated …»
«This is all I have left», she replied in a jocular manner
«I’m alive aren’t I, and healthy, what’s more, what else do I need?»
We became friends and I would visit her at least once a month,
in return I would invite her to a lovely tearoom in the Ile de la Cité,
just around the corner from Notre Dame and the statue of Henri IV
I didn’t dare ask her if he too was one of her ancestors,
for she had once very casually mentioned some prince
or marquis, or was it a count, to whose family she also belonged
Where are you now, dear Anne? I miss our monthly reunions,
our discussions over exhibits and over the last books we each
had discovered, but above all, chère Anne I miss that intimacy
we shared in your very peculiarly located bonbonnière.
Regretfully, I have never met a grande Dame like you, ever again.