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Family Mementoes or The Slavedriving Angel

Jacques Prevert / trans Alexis Lykiard

We lived in a small house at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer where my father had set up as a truss supplier.

He was a great scientist. A man of good breeding and of a moral rectitude which commanded respect: every morning the mosquitoes would sting his left hand, every evening he would pierce the bites with a Japanese toothpick and tiny fountains would start to spray. That was fine but it made my brothers laugh, whereupon my father would smack one of them at random, rush off weeping and shut himself up in the kitchen he used as a laboratory.

There he worked silently and beside him our old servant Marie-Rose prepared dinner. Bacon strips and trusses trailed across the dresser and jars filled with cherries in brandy sat next to others in whose alcohol gently swam tapeworms and incomplete infants.

The absentminded old biddy would sometimes mistake the cheese-cover for the air-pump or naively press chestnut purée with the hand-blotter and when, after a fashion, the meal was ready, my father would blow his hunting-horn and everyone sat down at table.

The flies and all the local creepy-crawlies teemed across the tablecloth, the cockroaches emerged from the bread greeting each other politely and this diminutive proletariat scurried about its business, took cover beneath the plates, plunged into the soup and crunched between our teeth.

There was also a Priest, present for the sake of Education, eating too.

As inventor of a sophisticated artificial leg, my father found his fortune bound up with that of the Revanche1 so at every meal, sadly shaking his head, he would harp upon the martyrdom of the French storks imprisoned inside the steeples of Strasbourg.

The man of the cloth would listen to him with emotion then, rising suddenly like a jack-in-the-box, mouth full and fork brandished, he would hurl an anathema against Godless schooling, childless couples, knickerless girls and a capital city drunk on ingratitude.

And then it was the leg, the famous leg.

'Padre, you'd jump at such a leg,' my father would say, 'the real thing, so to speak, a more than realistic leg. An athlete's leg, light and supple, a leg like a feather, that bucks you up like reveille!'

And while gazing at myself and then at my brothers with immense affection, he tried to guess which of us at some later date might be lucky enough to wear upon his chest the cross of gallantry and under his trouserleg the work of art, the delightful device, the paternal limb!

In a voice growing ever drunker he would talk about my poor mother 'dead so young and so beautiful that strangers would be moved to tears', and finally he'd roll beneath the table dragging the tablecloth over him like a shroud.

You went to bed, got up next day, so every day the days queued up one behind the other, Monday jostling Tuesday jostling Wednesday and so on and so forth with the seasons.

The seasons, the wind, the sea, the trees, the birds. The birds, those which sing, migrate or you kill; birds plucked, gutted, eaten, cooked in poems or nailed to barn doors.

Meat too, bread, the priest, mass, my brothers, vegetables, fruits, an invalid, the doctor, the priest, a dead man, the priest, the requiem mass, deathless leaves. Jesus Christ bites the dust for the first time, the Sun King, the weary pelican —2, the lowest common multiple, General Dourakin, the tiny thingy, our guardian angel, Blanche of Castile, the little drum Bara, the Fruit of our wombs, the priest, all alone or with a little playmate, the fox, the grapes, the retreat from Russia, Clanche of Bastille, asthma from Panama, arthritis from Russia, hands on the table, J. C. bites the dust for the Nth time, he opens a broad beak and lets the cheese drop so as to repair the irreparable ravage of the years. Cleopatra's nose in Cromwell's bladder and here's the face of the world changed, thus you grew taller, went to mass, were educated and sometimes played with the donkey in the garden.

One day my father received the Roseola of the Legion of Honour and lost a lot of hair, he also stammered a bit and got into the habit of talking to himself. The priest watched him, shaking his head sadly.

The priest was a man in a dress with very lifeless eyes and long flattish pale hands; when the latter stirred it put you in mind of fish expiring on the slab of a kitchen sink. He always used to read us the same story, dismal and banal story of a man of olden times who had a goatee on his chin and a lamb on his shoulders, and who died nailed onto two raft-planks after crying a great deal over himself in a garden one night. He came from a good family and always went on about his father — my father here and my father there, my father's Kingdom — and he would tell stories to the poor, who listened to him in admiration since he spoke well and was educated.

He degoitered the goitrous and whenever storms were drawing to their close he would stretch out his hand and the tempest would subside.

He also cured the dropsical, he would walk on their stomachs saying he was walking over water, and the water he took out of their stomachs he changed into wine;- to those who really wanted to drink it he'd say it was his blood.

Sitting under a tree, he parabled: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who do not seek to understand, they shall work hard, they shall receive kicks up the arse, they shall work overtime which will be added unto them at a later date in my father's kingdom.'

In the meanwhile he multiplied their loaves of bread, and the poor would pass by the butchers' shops merely rubbing crumb against crust, they gradually forgot the taste of meat and the names of shellfish and they no longer dared make love.

The day of the miraculous fishing a nettlerash epidemic swept through the region; he said of those who scratched themselves too hard that they were possessed of the devil, but he cured on the spot an unfortunate centurion who had swallowed a fishbone and that made a great impression.

He suffered little children to come unto him; when they got back home they proffered to the paternal hand which smacked them soundly the left buttock after the right, while plaintively counting off on their fingers the time separating them from the kingdom in question.

He chased the shoelace vendors from the Temple saying, No scandal, above all no scandal, those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword . . . The professional executioners died of old age in their beds, nobody earned a farthing, everyone received smacks, but he forbade them to render these unto Caesar.

It was no longer plain sailing by this time, when one day there he was betraying Judas, one of his assistants. An odd story — he claimed he knew Judas had to denounce him by pointing him out to folk who'd known him very well for ages, and knowing Judas had to betray him he didn't forewarn him.

To cut a long story short, the crowd began yelling Barabbas, Barabbas, down with the cops, down with the priests, and, crucified between two pimps to one of whom an informer he breathed his last, women sprawled on the ground screaming their anguish, a cock crowed and the thunder made its usual din.

Comfortably ensconced on his flagship cloud, God the father of the firm God, father, son, Holy Ghost & Co. uttered an immense sigh of satisfaction, immediately two or three little junior clouds burst with obsequiousness and father God cried out: 'Praise be to me, blessed be my holy corporate name, my beloved son on the cross, my firm is well and truly launched!'

Immediately he puts in orders and the big scapular factories go into trances, people are barred from the catacombs and among families worthy of the name it's considered very good form to have at least two children devoured by lions.

'Well, well. I've caught you at it, you little tykes, laughing at our holy religion,' and the priest who had overheard us behind the door comes oily and menacing towards us.

But for a long time this person who spoke with lowered eyes while fiddling with his holy medals like a prison warder and his keys, had ceased to impress us and we classed him more or less alongside the different utensils furnishing the house and which my father pompously called 'family mementoes': Provencal wardrobes 3, sitz-baths, frontier posts, sedan-chairs and the huge shells of turtles.

What interested us, what we liked, was Costal the Indian, was Sitting Bull, all the scalp-hunters — and what a peculiar idea to give us as teacher a palefaced half-scalped man.

'Little devils, you'll make your guardian angel weep, aren't you ashamed?' said the priest.

All of us at once burst out laughing and Edmond — he it was among my brothers whose hands were tied up at night since he had been stupidly frank in talking overmuch at confession — spoke up:

'Enough of that, priest. Keep them to yourself, your stupid tales of slavedriving angels wandering around bedrooms at night, try your dragonnades 4 somewhere else and note that as from today in this house it won't be ladybirds but black-bugs'll be called insects before the Lord, take it from me.'

And all hell breaks loose, the priest raises his arm to strike, I bend down and bite the priest on the thigh, he yells, I run to the kitchen to rinse my mouth, I come back and my father also shows up yelling.

'Naughty little fellows, you won't get to your first communion'; shame overcomes him, doubles him up, gives him a twinge in the liver 5 and flings him into an armchair, a tuft of hair in his hand.

Then rising suddenly he goes straight over to the priest: 'As for you, get lost, you've not succeeded — as agreed — in persuading these children to regard the messiah as their shining light, and anyway, anyway your highjinks with Marie-Rose and great God almighty, just bugger off.'

'You won't be saying that to me again,' says the priest; his adam's apple starts rolling round his gizzard like a napthalene ball in an old flannel waistcoat, he lowers his gaze and flees, very dignified, backing out.

'Farting is such sweet sorrow' 6 says my father very quietly and, removing his trousers, he folds them carefully, tucks them under his arm and goes down into the garden singing at the top of his voice a song that seemed to us then particularly dreadful.

It was the peasant's Creed with a slight tinge of Timelou la melou pan pan ti mela padi la melou cocondou la Baya.

Frightened, we were in our room when Marie-Rose brought us a letter and collapsed to the ground screaming: "Monsieur has gone, gone, gone.'

I read the letter out loud: 'Children, consider yourselves orphans until my unlikely return. Ludovic.'

This letter seemed all the more surprising to us since our father had always borne the name of Jean-Benoit.

'So we're cock of the heap,' said my depraved brother.

I was ten, the eldest, I became head of the family and leaning out of the window I felt the sill creak under the weight of my responsibilities.

We adopted half-mourning, black enamel paint up to the waist and white spats on Sunday, and a new life began, a little different from before, but always alternately moon and sun.

One evening the maidservant ran away after choking the dog; she anyhow had a mania for throttling animals: locally she was called the ogress and the rumour spread that she'd tried with die donkey but the donkey bit her.

One of my brothers contracted tetanus and died. It was dreadfully boring, the days all seemed like Sunday; in the street people walked seriously, vertically, and on the beach they undressed, bathed, drowned, were rescued, got dressed again and congratulated one another with a distressing punctiliousness, everything was mixed up, bread on the doormat, the gentleman who came for the gas and the bells for the dead, for those getting married.

Once or twice a month a big landowner would organize bull-runs: that was my sole distraction.

The bulls would be lined up in a row, behind a rope; a fellow fired a pistol, another cut the rope and the bulls would go galloping off and make several circuits of the church tower. The winner was with due ceremony castrated and took the tide of bullock.

It was on one of these race days that I first and closely looked a little girl full in the eyes. It was very hot, very sultry, there were people reeking of sweat and food, others fighting with pitchforks and calling the bulls by name. One great oaf had slipped his huge hand into a woman's bodice searching, he said, for a four-leaf clover, all those nearby laughed, the woman let him, the hand climbed and descended again to the buttocks, the bulls went past and came by again at full gallop and the woman gave little cries while wriggling her back and buttocks. Everyone was shouting, bellowing and all the shouts went off into the countryside swathed in mosquitoes and dust.

Near me a small girl, her teeth embedded in the handrail, was watching the bulls run.

Suddenly she pinches my arm till it bleeds, turns towards me and says: 'Look at Hector, he's fallen.'

A young bull is laid out on the ground, tranquil, dreaming you'd think, the men who've bet on him throwing stones and cigarette-butts at this impassive animal.

'That's the bull from our house,' says the small girl, laughing, 'he's fallen down on purpose, he's crafty, he doesn't want to be castrated and he's quite right.

You know the ones they castrate, it's awful, they have blank eyes, death's on their faces.

Look at my eyes, they're alive, dancing like Hector's, yours are too, they say things!

I saw you once at mass, you were with other boys, you don't like it, eh? I don't either, but when they work their little hand-bell and everybody goes down on all fours I always stay standing up, no one sees me, I'm on top.

There's a priest living at your house, what a bullock! it's terrible you know, there are women who are priests, with great white birds on their heads and very, very sharp noses, they ought to be dressed like men, it would be more to the mark.'

I'm listening to her — before, I'd never listened to anybody, — I'm listening to her and wanting to tell her to come over to the house, that everyone's gone and I'm the boss, but the racing is over and crowd separates us.

Men and women are trampling over each other, some of them are slobbering, I've got a nosebleed, they're dragging me away, putting me to bed.

Temperature of forty and the priest tall as a tower who's nailing my father to the mirror-wardrobe, the mirror breaks and at the bottom of a hole the little girl is lying in the grass with a small sachet of lavender between her teeth.

Recovered I found out her name, it was Etiennette, she was the daughter of the knacker from Aigues-Mortes, Shellfish I called her because she'd nipped me in a crowd that resembled the sea.

Every day I thought of her, but Aigues-Mortes to me was a far distant town and even the town's very name frightened me terribly.

At home, freedom was beginning to bother us, we were waiting for something new, our father's return for example.

One day I went looking for the donkey in the garden and with my brother's help I carted it into the attic after putting on its head a little English-style cap with two holes for the ears.

Each day we'd go and rejoin the animal and, according to a formally established rotation, would sadly ask the poor beast which was gazing out of the window:

'Sir ass, sir ass do you see anyone coming?' 7

Stupid and foolish though such a trick might seem to a correct and educated gentleman, it's true nonetheless that very early one morning the donkey begins braying while shaking its cap, wakes up the whole town and, leaping through the window, gallops off to meet a cloud of dust which it immediately returns upon its back.

It's all a matter of fifty-seven seconds, stop-watched by my sportsman brother Ernest.

The cloud of dust is our poor father clad in casual old clothes and wearing a Mexican sombrero.

He looks at us in silence and counts us. Seeing that there's one missing, he furtively wipes a tear from his cheek like a bug off a wall and placing the youngest of us under his arm he spanks him methodically.

The little boy yells and my father shouts:

'I haven't eaten for three weeks, is dinner ready?'

Stroke of luck. Our old servant Marie-Rose who stood in awe of none when it came to coincidences is there, faithfully at her post, a brand new dog in her arms to replace the previous one.

'Lunch is served, Monsieur,' she murmurs with a touching simplicity.

'I don't like dog,' replies my father, 'I ate some in China and found it unpleasant.'

Ah sublime prosscurpose, charming family cross-purpose, this old prodigal father, this old servant, this old donkey in this old house with the old trees of this old garden!

As in the past father sounds the horn and all in step we head for the dining-room.

But as soon as lunch has begun, as soon as the turtle soup is served, father gets up with an odd gleam in his eye, climbs onto the sideboard and savagely tramples over the hors d'oeuvres, engaging all the while in somewhat desultory conversation.

'Turtle, eh, you must be joking! Serve me turtle whole in the shell, it's not a proper family meal otherwise.

Serve me the mirror in its wardrobe and the wardrobe in its tree, or just give me a chicken leg, but don't try that on with me, don't try it on I tell you, I've seen too many trees, trees like these here, bald in winter frizzy-haired in summer, bigger or smaller but whose wood would put you off your pedestal-tables and crocodiles too though I can't stand them any more, do you hear me, brats, I'm talking about fat crocodiles, enormous ones, those that weep with shame at the sight of a handbag and all large animals noxious to agriculture who go looking for work in factories.

And on Christmas Day I was coming back in a canoe didn't know what to do, laugh out in the open, eat a man, drink dead men's piss, or sing a song.

Stark naked, legs too, I fell asleep on the sand and there was my dead mother coming to eat off my hand, browse on my hair.

I yell, wake up and there they are all around me, big fellows encruppered with fresh water, zouaves, the commissioner's dogs, missionaries with pricks to the fore.

They pinched my pass, my little platform ticket and left me for dead in the middle of the desert with a pain in the neck down my throat.

Mark me well, brats, see how they operate, they place a collar-stud on the sand, the stud shines and the black slave appears.

The black bows down and they stick a crucifix or a tricolour on his back.

I'm telling you, I was all alone, like a miniature doll in a kneading-machine, all alone with the ostriches.

It's easy (so it's said) to know the time: clock 'em in the eye. 8

They can break your leg with a whack of their feet and when you can nab one of them, that's an ostrich going too fast or too slow, I've seen one which swallowed alarm-clocks, it would go off ringing, it was frightening.

And yet when I was a youngster, it was hard to control my temper, I dunked a sergeant-major in the washing-up tub and gasp by gasp I paid him full military honours.

They gave me a tough sentence, ten years! but the bumboys I had inside, they'd wash my laundry, chew my meat.

Coming back out I got to know your mother, I'd play Boneypart on cafe-terraces with an old felt hat, suddenly I got horny for her, and denied myself the windfall, all set to do a bunk.

Today, brats, I'm on my last legs, lagging behind, shrivelled up, done for.

Done for, I'm through, honest, begobbled by the legion of honour . . .'

Then he falls off the sideboard, stiff, so stiff you'd have thought the furniture cracked and this was a plank falling.

The door suddenly opens and the bearded, jovial, barely recognizable priest appears, a forage cap jauntily perched on his tonsure and puttees showing below his soutane.

'All right,' he says, 'that's it all right, ah my children, my dear little children!

Being long-suffering and being a sucker are quite different propositions, it couldn't last, finally the church's elder daughter awakes, it's a real crusade!

Thieves, the Huns! In '70 they stole our pendulums so no one could hear the hour of revenge striking, they stole the plan of the female torpedo and the one for the square kitbag.

Savages! They plundered everything, they burned Joan of Arc and if they'd been allowed to they would have clipped the Lion of Belfort like a poodle 9.

But luckily we know what we're up to and he (a gesture towards the ceiling lamp) who is On High also knows what he's up to.

Isn't that true children? but what's, what's happening?' And bending over our father he tries to revive him and talk to him about the leg, the famous leg the country's counting on.

But a story of an artificial limb, no doubt imaginary, is not enough to arouse a dead man. The priest gets up and, little finger on the seam of his soutane, recites the prayer for the dying.

A woman puts her head round the half-open door, one breast pops out of her bodice, she accosts the priest.

'Come on then, you great brute, I'll do you the Little Sisters Of The Poor two-finger grip!'

The priest cuts short his prayer, and looks at the woman, laughing.

It's war, outside the tocsin sounds. Everybody's running, everybody's kissing, there's drinking, bottom-pinching, babymaking for the next bout.

It's war, it's evening, two shepherds, two village idiots cooped up in a barn cut their throats in order not to go to it.

They won't be buried in church, nor later on beneath the Arc de Triomphe: that's always something to the good.


 

(1) Revenge or return match. Used specifically when referring to the French desire for retaliation against Prussia through the putative recovery of Alsace-Lorraine.

(2) cf. 'Lord Jesu, blessed Pelican' from Adoro Te Devote, hymn appointed for Thanksgiving after Mass, written by Aquinas (1225—74).

(3) armoires provencales: obscure joke 'southernising' the armoire normande, a kind of antique bridal wardrobe made in Normandy.

(4) Reference to the 'dragooning' of the French Huguenots, 1684.

(5) Pun on foi (faith) and foie (liver).

(6) Prevert spoonerizes "Partir, c'est mourrir un peu" into "Martyr, c'est pourrir un peu".

(7) Soeur Anne (Sister Anne) of the nursery jingle turned by Prévert into Sir âne (Sir ass).

(8) Pun involving savoir l’heure and soufflez-leur.

(9) Le Lion de Belfort: Parisian monument and something of a surrealist landmark. (See Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonté for example.)

Originally published in Paroles (1946) This translation first appeared in Ambit 131 (UK) and Dirty Goat 7 (USA)