We fell into an unknown abyss
"It felt like we were stuck in the palm of a giant who could crush us whenever he wanted, with a single gesture, by closing his hand."< b> This country where arbitrariness reigns is not named, no doubt it bears some resemblance to the one which put the author of this novel in prison. The hero is a young student thrown into precariousness by the ruin and death of his father. He meets a girl of his age, and of the same condition, who has faith like him in literature. But he also meets Mrs. Hayat, a middle-aged woman, at the recording of one of those entertainment programs that requires extras. Mrs. Hayat teaches him love, the enjoyment of the moment. She who does not believe in books, she knows a lot of things. She is very lonely, secretive, he knows nothing about her, takes what she offers him. Far from stopping at a sentimental suspense − which of the two relationships will win out? −, the book is a very beautiful meditation on fear, loss, lucidity. (Claire Devarrieux)
People's lives changed overnight. Society was in such a state of decomposition that no existence could no longer be attached to its past as one clings to roots. Each being lived under the threat of sinking into oblivion, slaughtered in one fell swoop like those puppets targeted at fairgrounds.
My own life had changed overnight. Or actually, my dad's. After various events that I never understood, a large country having decreed “the stop of the import of tomatoes”, 1,000 hectares of agricultural land turned into a huge red dump. One sentence had therefore been enough to ruin my father, this man who, with a recklessness typical of those who are deeply disgusted by their work, had invested his entire fortune in a single product. On the morning of a restless night, he had died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
The violence of the shock was such that we did not even have time to mourn. We lived through an upheaval, as diligent spectators and attentive participants, but without really succeeding in understanding what our father's death implied. A life we thought we would never have to change had suddenly collapsed, with truly terrifying ease. We were falling into an unknown chasm, but the depth of this chasm, where and when the landing would take place, I did not know. I was to find out later.
As a fortune, we were left with the large sum that my mother had in the bank, produced from the 4,000 square meters of flower greenhouses that my father had given her for her “amusement”. My mother said to me: “I will continue to pay for your studies, but you must forget the luxury of the life before.” To tell the truth, studying literature in a bright university, surrounded by large gardens, was already a luxury; my mother, however, categorically refused to hear of abandonment.
My poor father had wanted me to become an agricultural engineer, and I had insisted on writing letters. I believe that in my decision, beyond a kind of dream of adventurous solitude in the middle of a palace built in novels, there was the certainty that none of my choices could threaten the security of the future. which was promised to me.
A week after my father's funeral, I took the night bus back to the city where I was studying. The next morning, I applied for a scholarship. I was a good student; the scholarship was granted to me.
I no longer had the means to pay the rent for the three-room apartment with a large living room that I shared with a friend. We had to move. I found a room to rent in one of the old buildings on a thirsty street where I went from time to time for a drink with my comrades. It was a six-story building, dating from the 19th century, with a facade covered in purple grapes and balconies adorned with wrought iron railings. There was also an old wooden elevator surrounded by an iron cage, but it no longer worked. The complex, formerly, had probably served as an inn, now rooms were rented there individually.
After putting aside the few clothes I needed, I deployed an absurd rage, as if it avenged me for our misfortunes, to sell my books, my telephone, my computer, for next to nothing to second-hand dealers. then I moved in.
The bedroom had a brass bed, an old wooden chest of drawers by its bedside, a small round table with a split in the middle, a chair, and a mirror hanging on the wall near the door. There was also a shower and a cabinet, the size of a closet. No kitchen. A large living room on the second floor served as a communal kitchen. A long, rough wooden table occupied the middle of the room, flanked by two similar ones. A huge Frigidaire refrigerator, at least fifty years old, hummed in one corner. A counter with edges covered in white earthenware, a sink with bronze taps whose porcelain heads bore the inscriptions "hot" and "cold" in French, a samovar full of tea, the water of which, strangely, never seemed to stop to boil, and a television: these were the only shared objects in the large communal kitchen.
The balcony in the room was lovely. I sat there on a chair to observe the street with its old cobblestone sidewalks. From 7 o'clock in the evening, it was crowded. At 9 o'clock, we no longer saw a cobblestone, a colorful crowd covered it entirely, breathing, swelling and expanding like a single body. A heavy cloud of scents of anise, tobacco and grilled fish rose up to us at the same time as the laughter, the cries, the bawls of joy. It seemed that this street, from the moment you set foot on it, made you forget the outside world, and then you knew the intoxication of a temporary happiness. I followed this party from afar, of which I was now part of the decor.
The tenants ate their meals in the kitchen. They had written their names on the boxes that filled the fridge. No one touched other people's food. An incredible calm and order reigned in this building populated by poor students, transvestites, Africans manufacturing and reselling counterfeits of famous brands, country kids running after a day job, bar bouncers and other kitchen clerks who worked in neighborhood restaurants. No one was in command, no authority was imposed, and yet everyone felt completely safe there. We guessed that some of the people who lived here, once outside, were involved in shady business, but this outsider did not enter the building.
I didn't know how to cook; even cooking was repugnant to me. As a rule, I was satisfied with a piece of cheese and a half of bread bought at the grocer on the corner of the street. Like many new poor, I apprehended everything that happened to me with a mixture of excess and comic clumsiness.
I only went to the kitchen to drink the tea that came with my “meal”. I discovered there the feisty biceps of a bouncer who was always walking around in a black tank top and preparing amazing dishes, which he made all those who were in the kitchen taste at the same time: steak with pineapple, bonito with ginger, that kind of weirdness.
The building was as incredibly safe as it was a nest of spies, each with a whole host of information about the others. This is how I learned, almost without realizing it, that my next door neighbor, a transvestite named Gülsüm, was in love with a married cook whom everyone called "the Poet", the guy who lived two rooms from mine, that Mogambo, a tall black guy who sold handbags by day, gigolod at night, or that the uncle of one of the country kids had killed his son. As if the kitchen walls were whispering secrets.
I greeted everyone, exchanged a few words with everyone, but did not make friends with anyone. The only person I liked to chat with was Tevhide. She was 5 years old, the only child in the hostel. With her oddly shorn hair and her big, curious eyes, a deep, dark green, she looked like a drop of water. The first time I met her, she beckoned me with her finger to come towards her, and whispering in my ear as one entrusts a secret, she said to me:
— You know what, there seems to be a number 1500.
— Really? I replied, looking surprised.
— I swear, she said, a friend told me today.
When I didn't see Tevhide and his father in the kitchen, I ate my cheese sandwich, drank two glasses of tea and then went back to my room, I looked at the street, then I leafed through the dictionary of mythology that I didn't failed to sell. A thousand-year-old treasure of imagination carried me away in its stories of gods whose character and adventures had nothing to envy to the worst of men, in a universe of endless wars, loves, jealousies, evil spells and devouring ambitions, and for a time I forgot the world as it was.
Autumn, a majestic and “all fatal” season, had begun to spread over the city. The weather was getting colder, classes resumed.
One evening, while I was having dinner in the kitchen, a guy whose name I didn't know asked me if I was looking for a little job outside of my school hours. There was little money to be made, but it was easily earned. I say "yes" without thinking; every penny counted now. He handed me a card on which appeared this mention: "Les Copains - Figuration". The next day I was at the address given.
That was a year ago. At the time, I was still unaware that life is literally the prey of chance and that a word, a suggestion, or just a business card, devoid of its own will, by the tiny movement they imprint on it , are enough to change it completely.
Ahmet Altan, Madame Hayat, translated from Turkish by Julien Lapeyre de Cabanes, Actes Sud, 272pp., €22, in bookstores September 1.
Next week, The Stranger by Olga Merino