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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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
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
'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
'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
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
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.
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
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,
It's war, outside the tocsin sounds. Everybody's running,
everybody's kissing, there's drinking, bottom-pinching, babymaking for the next
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
(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
(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
(9) Le Lion de Belfort: Parisian monument and
something of a surrealist landmark. (See Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonté
Originally published in Paroles (1946) This translation first
appeared in Ambit 131 (UK) and Dirty Goat 7 (USA)