Sigrand and Sip’tit
I was more terrified of Sigrand than I ever was of the Gestapo, the SS, and the Wehrmacht put together. There was just no comparison.
In 1942, I was a boy of seven, independent enough for my mother to let me wander around Paris as I pleased.
“There are two things you have to be careful about,” she warned me. “Don’t run when you cross the street. Look left, then right. Never, ever run. When you see stoplights at an intersection, remember that it was your great-uncle Max who installed the first ones in Szatmár. Keep your eyes peeled, and don’t be a balfasz.”
To put it crudely, balfasz in Hungarian literally means a “limp dick”: to me, who felt his penis was under personal attack in those years, it meant a kind of dangling organ.
I don’t think I was ever a balfasz with the Germans, but with Sigrand, that was something else again.
“The second thing,” added my mother, “is the curfew. Be home before 7 o’clock, otherwise the Germans will get you, like they did Papa. If that happens, cover your Jewish star with your briefcase or a book, or something. Do you understand what time that is?”
I sort of understood, which wasn’t good enough. I always got the clock hands mixed up.
I had a watch I’d stolen from my father’s desk after he was arrested. It was round and heavy; it had a long, jingling chain that slipped through the holes in my pockets like an eel. Whether people liked it or not, it wasn’t a good watch for a Jew, even though it was heavy and gold. That fateful seventh hour wasn’t marked in any special way, and there was no obvious Jewish zone for the hours that followed.
Thou shalt not be out on the street after nightfall . . . To obey this commandment, I innocently put my trust in the spring’s beautiful twilights. How could I have imagined that the night was in cahoots with the Occupiers? Night had surreptitiously managed to fall later and later, breaking every law on the books.
Nacht, stille Nacht, what cunning hid your Germanic soul, and what darkness! Do you remember that evening, when you almost caught me?
I’d gone to see an uncle in Saint-Philippe du Roule and spent the afternoon absorbed in Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon Moulin (Letters from My Windmill), including the tale of Monsieur Séguin’s nanny goat, who got tricked and was eaten by a wolf.
On my way home, when I came out at Strasbourg—Saint-Denis, I got a shock: cool darkness, dark coolness . . . the curfew!
The street was deserted. Pale yellow bulbs blinked, like messengers paralyzed by the enemy’s presence. The few passersby hurried along: they weren’t wearing any yellow stars, which struck me as strange.
I tried to hide mine by clutching my briefcase to my chest, but the star was too big. It was the same size for children and adults, so it covered my whole chest, just like a salvo of rifle shots would. A normal-sized book wouldn’t be enough to cover the shame blazing from that piece of cloth. And to think that to stoke that fire, a designer in a studio somewhere in the Third Reich had put his feet up on his desk and sought inspiration. And for this prisoner’s brand, he chose the brightest golden yellow.
My head was still full of Monsieur Séguin’s goat. Like her, I too saw the blue sky getting darker and darker, then turning black as the first stars came out, like a petrified crowd just watching out of cowardice. Like that goat, I was shocked to feel the cool of the evening after my gamboling. And somewhere, the wolf was lurking. I wasn’t too afraid, though. I could do at least as well as the little nanny goat, who had held out as long as the bigger goat, Renaude; two intrepid resisters who deserved a statue in their honor.
It was an odd sensation, to feel a completely unknown danger, one that hadn’t yet revealed the enormity of its cruelties. Boulevard Montmartre under curfew wasn’t actually all that frightening. Standing motionless in the brasserie doorways, waiters in black vests with big trays under their arms glanced at me absent-mindedly, not knowing who I was or what I was hiding under my satchel.
I slipped between the people walking by, studying their expressions as I passed them, trying to figure what was so special about these forbidden hours.
I knew it was a risk, but exactly what risk, aside from being taken away like my father? After all, Papa was just “absent,” the way I might be absent from school when I pretended to have a headache to avoid Sigrand. Absent here, but present somewhere else—what was the danger?
I walked quickly now, zigzagging between the many ladies on the rue Saint-Denis, whose presence warmed the evening.
My briefcase was a truly miraculous object, a kind of shutter I was free to open or close on the unknown: Now it’s curfew, now it’s not . . . Now it’s curfew, now it’s not . . . I urged myself along, singing softly, “Don’t catch cold, Jacquot!” as I skipped.
Suddenly, something came over me, and I let my satchel slip down a little, revealing one point of the star, then the tops of the letters.
Oopsy-daisy! I raised it, then lowered it again. I did this several times. At one point, bold as brass, I stood right in front of one of these women, a fat one, and flashed her a sly glimpse of the star. It was probably the only obscenity that could still surprise her. Then I took off, running as fast as I could.
I reached the rue Réaumur, reluctant to go home despite the gathering darkness that made me hug the walls, trailing my hand along the fading stonework.
Just then, an enormous figure suddenly emerged from a half-open door and stepped heavily on my foot, as if it were the last step of a very steep staircase.
God that hurt!
At first all I could see was a boot, very high, very shiny, and very black. The boot of the enemy!
An officer in full dress uniform was looking down at me, taken aback by this unexpected contact with the outside world, a little kid yelling, “Ow! Ow! Ow!”
My yelps of pain jarred with the peaceful hour he’d just spent on his shave, manicure, and grooming. Whiffs of his cologne wafted down to me like some ineffective anesthetic; it was nauseating.
The officer must have felt deeply stupid, with his dress dagger hanging on his thigh and the big cape that made him look like a non-magical Mandrake.
My briefcase was lying on the ground: He could see everything, if he’d wanted to.
But all he did was mutter something and, annoyed at an incident that was spoiling his evening without amounting to a properly warlike situation, slammed the door behind him and strode briskly off, disappearing into the night.
I picked up my briefcase and shuffled home, dragging my feet, two hours late. My mother grabbed me, beat me to a pulp with a piece from my Meccano erector set, then hugged me tightly, put me to bed, and rocked me to sleep with very complicated Hungarian songs, songs about little Transylvanian goats who broke their tethers to go frolicking up to the top of the mountains.
The next morning, everything was forgotten. For many long official, active, happy hours, the Occupiers’ curfew curbed no fire, not the sun’s and not the one coursing through my veins.
I sprang down the stairs and ran up the rue Aboukir to the rue du Louvre. Farewell, place du Caire pharaohs: Moses is moseying along! In five minutes, I was on the Métro. Two stops later, I reached Saint-Paul, and in an instant, I was at my school.
Why did I have to travel so far? My mother had somehow managed to enroll me in the school on the rue Neuve-Saint-Paul, to save me from having to wear my star in front of other people—and maybe hoping I would get a normal education.
There was a public urinal at the corner of the rue Saint-Paul, and I used it as a changing room. In a flash, I pulled off my sweater, rolled it up, and stuffed it in my briefcase. The star was crumpled within the wool, a nightmare sentry biding its time.
When staring off into space in class, I sometimes reflected on the thing crouching in the darkness that had the power to make me disappear. Maybe a woman who’s been raped feels something similar: the sensation of a heartbeat in her womb that is foreign, yet hers.
In the three weeks that followed, however, my persecution wasn’t due to the Jewish star, but to Sigrand. Although he was only two years older than I, he was three heads taller. He looked like a furniture mover’s son, already big enough to carry his half of a piano without breaking any child labor laws.
The first time I heard him growl, “If you don’t stop, I’ll put you in the hospital,” I couldn’t make the connection between a hospital and our schoolyard, between real assault and battery and our harmless squabbling.
It was my own fault that Sigrand had been assigned to share my desk. Before him I’d been stuck with a kid who had an enormous and immovable gob of snot hanging from his nose. It stank like toe jam, and I suspect he never even washed it off. I begged our teacher Monsieur Drouet to get him away from me, and that’s how I inherited Sigrand.
I don’t remember his real name anymore, just how he got his nickname. Walking two by two through the Tuileries Garden, we’d passed a building on the rue de Rivoli that had a large sign that read “Sigrand and Associates.”
Trotting along on a perfectly straight road was your humble servant, holding hands with his future tormentor. A few yards behind us, a monitor brought up the rear. Spotting the two words on the sign hanging like a perfect caption to the caricature of our mismatched duo, he stopped and cried, “Sigrand . . . and . . . Sip’tit,” because he was so big and I was so little.
A chorus of laughter confirmed the nicknames: I became Sip’tit, and everyone called him Sigrand.
Did our enforced partnership all start with that walk? From that day on, it was my terrible bad luck that he never left my side. He was a vicious brute who bullied the little kids mercilessly. Physically, he wasn’t a pretty sight either: thin hair, yellowish complexion, rotten teeth. He looked like a twisted, bitter foreman, thirty years older than he was. Sigrand was a combination of all the villains I had encountered in a year of reading: Thénardier, Long John Silver, and Fu Manchu, reborn and invigorated for the sole purpose of scaring me out of my wits.
In the gym, Sigrand once dressed up as a horrible witch from Snow White. He tied a scarf around his head and made himself look toothless by sucking in his lips. He also took off his socks, filled them with sand, and wedged them between his thighs, where they dangled ponderously. Contorting his body, he would lean in very close to the smallest children, offering them a poisoned apple. “Nobody wants it? Then I’ll have it.”
His very first bite released a long worm that wriggled around like a cobra. Sigrand bent down and bit it off. The little kids screamed. The bigger ones stood dumbfounded before this ogress with the giant testicles.
Sigrand was crazy, completely crazy. But not the way a kid might be. He had the craziness of a grown man: a gangster’s brain in the head of a child.
He had a voracious appetite for destruction, breaking everything that could be broken, tearing apart everything that could be torn apart.
Did he get beaten at home? He was immune to physical punishment, in any case. I once saw Monsieur Drouet hitting him in the schoolyard. Sigrand had buried a shard of glass in the long jump track with all the care of someone planting a mine, but he was caught while covering it with sand. The furious teacher started beating him. A few days earlier, I had seen some of the Milice lynch someone for handing out pamphlets. This felt like the same thing. But Sigrand bent over, covered his neck with his hands, and survived.
On another occasion, this same Monsieur Drouet didn’t punish him. Sigrand and I were sitting next to each other in class, three rows back from the blackboard. The lesson was being given under the serene gaze of Marshal Pétain, the Savior of France. Suddenly, Sigrand leaned over, shielded his mouth with his hand, and whispered something to me.
“Hey, Sip’tit!” He sounded like someone was scratching his vocal chords.
I leaned toward him and quietly answered:
“Put your hand out.”
“Just do it.”
I shouldn’t have done it. I straightened my right arm and laid my hand flat in front of Sigrand, still keeping an eye on Monsieur Drouet.
Out of nowhere, the blade of a pocketknife flashed. With a grunt, Sigrand jabbed it into the back of my hand: it was nailed to the table in a pool of blood.
I only let out a single cry, more astonished than anything else. Forty eyes were drawn to the knife that stood upright in my flesh with impudent self-confidence, as if to say: This is the only lesson you need to remember today.
I was not comforted, not rescued, not even bandaged. In a rage, Monsieur Drouet threw us out, both the offender and the victim together. I wrapped my hand in a handkerchief that had seen better days—and less disgusting ones—while Sigrand calmly cleaned his nails with the bloody pocketknife.
Then he looked at me, grinning in a way that I still remember to this day. It was a grin of pure evil, contagious and incurable once you’d caught it. When you laugh and can’t stop, it’s called “a fit of laughter.” So when your lips stretch into a huge contorted smirk, can you call it “a fit of grinning”? There was a kind of irrepressible and exhausting mutual confession between us. Our two grins were stuck together like dogs, shamelessly, in a place beyond hope of escape. My jaw ached, but bringing the opposing muscles into play required a strength of character I didn’t have. And maybe something else as well.
Sigrand always knew how to find my vulnerable spot. It could happen anywhere: while sprinting up the big staircase to the seniors’ classroom, he would suddenly turn to me with his hands holding the railing, flash his demented grin, and very carefully pronounce the following words:
“You’re Jewish, aren’t you? Deny you’re Jewish! Go on, deny it, I dare you!”
He savored the word “deny,” having probably just learned it. He spat out the harsh sounds like a sadistic drill sergeant. Where did his suspicions come from? And why was he so aggressive?
In a tone that allowed no response he said:
“Pollack . . . You’re a Polack, a Jewish Polack.”
“No I’m not, I swear. My mother’s Hungarian.”
“Yeah, but she’s Jewish, a Hungarian Jew. Don’t deny it! And where’s your father? Why doesn’t he ever come to pick you up?”
We had swimming on the first Thursday of the month. I would have to undress from head to toe and undergo the very special inspection forced on a Jewish asshole by an anti-Semitic asshole.
Sigrand had a personal theory on the matter.
“I’ll know whether you’re Jewish or not when you drop your pants. A real Frenchman gets undressed right down to the end of his dick.”
And raising two fingers in the shape of a ring, he pretended to be unrolling a foreskin.
“Why won’t you show it to me?” he once asked in the boys’ bathroom. “Here, take a look at mine.”
He pulled it out of his underpants. It was enormous: three times longer than mine, and adorned with that precious Mandrake the Magician cape like the ones the officers wore.
He pointed to the wrinkled gathering of skin on the shaft.
“That’s where you pull it back. You got one too, but you ain’t got nothing to pull back, so it’s as if you ain’t got nothing at all.”
And then he’d roll it back, roll it out, again and again, in a never-ending demonstration. What a salesman he would have made!
I thought I could avoid the issue by putting on my bathing suit before we got to the pool. But all he did was make a gesture that meant “We’ll see after swimming class.”
I hung around the pool for a long time, delaying jumping in as long as possible. The whole class was there, about forty students, standing in five lines, diving in one after the other. I made sure I was the last one in my line, shivering even before I got wet. Not far away, Sigrand was leaning against the edge of the large swimming pool, arms outstretched, watching me with his twisted grin. He traced a star of David on his chest, then pointed to the water with a gesture of invitation that was perfectly courteous and perfectly inevitable.
I had no choice but to jump in.
The next hour passed at top speed, swirling like a drain downward toward the locker room door, a black hole that would soon swallow up whatever remained of my modesty and physical integrity.
When the time came, I sat down on the bench and took off my bathing suit under the watchful eye of Sigrand, who was now completely in control.
Poor little puppy sleeping peacefully between my thighs, what’s going to happen to you? Maybe you’ll be grabbed by the scruff of your neck, yanked off the soft bed where you’re snoring, and tossed outside. Or maybe you’ll be peacefully digesting a big slab of roast beef you just swiped when a sharp whack with a stick will sink into your tender flesh. Maybe some grinning drunkard will throw you into the wood-burning stove, still asleep and very much alive, instantly and inexplicably awakened by your own screams.
But as I sat slumped on the bench, wet, shaking, and naked as naked can be, something happened that astonished me. Eyes staring at the end of my prick, Sigrand stood there hypnotized, aghast. He no longer terrified the puppy: the puppy was terrifying him.
After a long moment, the sight must have overwhelmed him. Sigrand, that thuggish son of a bitch, suddenly went all limp and collapsed onto the tile floor, as silently as underpants falling onto a towel.
Then a very recent image came back to me.
A few weeks earlier, I was told I’d be starting ultraviolet-ray therapy to prevent rickets. The idea greatly excited me because I would be doing the sessions with Jacqueline, my girlfriend. We’d already done some kissing, but no more than was allowed by engaged couples. It was explained we’d be exposed to the light while lying naked on a table surrounded by an opaque curtain that hung down from the ceiling, and that we’d wear dark goggles to protect our retinas.
We decided to take advantage of this unique opportunity to conduct a visual marriage under the tent. When the moment was right, we would remove our goggles and study each other.
No sooner said than done. We quickly undressed—giving me time to glimpse a pale, slender body—and soon stretched out side by side, like a married couple. Through my goggles I could vaguely make out the jerky movement of someone bringing the edges of the curtain together.
After a brief hesitation, we lifted our goggles onto our foreheads, she first, then me, ready to yank them back down immediately if necessary.
The tent barely protected us. An intense violet liquid flowed down from the lamp, spreading its burning substance over our two bodies, which were frozen, as if petrified in amber.
I very quickly made out Jacqueline’s partly opened thighs. She was spreading something out with her fingers that was hard to make out: folds of skin, creases of flesh whose color was so intensified by the purplish glare that you would think another light was hidden inside.
This incomprehensible landscape was bathed in a purple light whose equivalent I only encountered again much later, after my wife had given birth, in the striking colors of the placenta.
And that was how I discovered what made girls different.
People usually recover from this kind of trauma, and as a little circumcised boy, I was well placed to understand and recover from it—and also to read Sigrand’s tormented conscience like an open book.
After that morning at the pool, he became more and more demented. At times, he would be gentle, like an absent-minded jailer. We would then spend long moments playing marbles, at which he excelled. But then he would suddenly turn nasty, shoving everyone aside, itching for a fight. In his own way, he took me under his wing. He saved me from getting beaten up, but also reserved the worst of his sick imagination for me.
The following Thursday, he took me back to his place. His father had some sort of job at the Théâtre du Châtelet, and their apartment, a rat hole in a maze of rundown buildings, was crammed full of moth-eaten costumes: doublets, ruffs, farthingales, and other tattered outfits whose few remaining gold and silver threads scattered some brightness in the semidarkness. A suit of armor lay sprawled against one of the partitions in the classic pose of a mortally wounded knight: head thrown back, one leg bent under him, the other missing, seeming to await the coup de grâce. Sigrand took the helmet and put it on, clicking down the visor, then picked up the shield. In a voice made sepulchral by the mask—I could almost see our fit of grinning seeping through the helmet and slowly curling out of the corners of the metal slot—he announced:
“You’re going to become good at history, Sip’tit. Very, very, very good.”
Sigrand knew so much about the specific periods we would be involved in that it was terrifying. He organized our meetings meticulously, as if he were the heir to the most illustrious lineage of executioners.
He orchestrated the reincarnation of Anne Boleyn, Damiens, Giordano Bruno, and Michael Strogoff—all played by me.
Sigrand dressed me as a gypsy girl, and, taking an inlaid wooden makeup box he’d found, painted my lips and put rouge on my cheeks. As Catherine of Aragon’s maid of honor, I was now ready to appear before Henry VIII.
“I, your king and husband, supreme head of the Church of England, before whom popes and Protestants tremble, accuse you, Anne, of hiding your Jewish origins from me, and condemn you to capital punishment. Repeat after me: I, Anne Boleyn . . .”
“I, Anne Boleyn,” I obediently repeated.
“Heretofore Queen of England . . .”
“Heretofore Queen of England.”
“Accept being repudiated by my spouse and master Henry, the eighth of that name.”
And we continued:
“Because I am nothing but a dirty Jewess.”
“Because I am nothing but a dirty Jewess.”
“And a high-class hooker.”
“And a high-class hooker.”
“Executioner, do your duty,” Sigrand said grimly.
He had actually found a real axe, with a long handle and a double blade that was probably as sharp as a razor.
“Here,” he said. “Feel this.”
I thought I could feel dried blood under my fingers. Many dynasties must have felt the cut of that blade . . .
“Enough play-acting! Put your head on the block.”
Sigrand didn’t swing the axe and bring it down on me. Instead, he carefully placed the edge of the blade on the nape of my neck and propped the handle against the wall.
On my knees, hands behind my back, I suffered a slow-motion beheading with the heavy steel blade ready to slice my head off smoothly as if it were made of butter.
My horrible death throes went on for an entire minute.
Then it was the turn of the Jew Damiens, the Jew Giordano Bruno, and the Jew Michael Strogoff to be judged, condemned, and executed.
“Damiens, what you did to your beloved king was disgusting,” said Sigrand. “You stabbed him. Do you deny it?”
“I do not deny it.”
“You have already received your punishment, Damiens. I avenged our good King Louis by sticking my knife in your hand. Your blood flowed. Maybe you are a little more innocent now, rid of those two or three glasses of impure blood. You Jews are a permanent threat to the monarchy,” he said in a steady voice that suggested a lesson learned by heart. Did I mention that Sigrand excelled in oration? He could reel off entire pages of La Fontaine by heart, a skill he may have learned from his father. This was surely the only reason the school could find for tolerating this rabid fox.
But the fact that his rants were secondhand didn’t make them any less menacing.
“You people are too intelligent. You’re first in our class. Do you deny it?” he asked with a grimace of disgust. “You have a spirit of debauchery that is dangerous to France. Repeat that you are debauched.”
I repeated whatever he wanted.
“Next case!” he announced.
The trial of Giordano Bruno was expedited and adjourned sine die, because building a funeral pyre posed too many problems. But on that bloody Thursday, Michael Strogoff’s execution became the crowning expression of Sigrand’s love of torture.
“Vermin, do you know what a pogrom is?”
“It’s an act of justice in which all the Jews of a village are exterminated. A pogrom . . . and poof! no more Yids. The word is Russian, and I guarantee that the Cossacks know it well. Jew Strogoff, you broke your word, choosing your mother over your tsar, so you will be punished.”
From among his father’s theatrical props, he now produced a Turkish sabre, a curved yatagan sword. And that’s when things almost turned really bad, because Sigrand decided to reproduce exactly the famous blinding scene in Jules Verne’s novel. He lit a gas heater and laid the yatagan on the flame.
“You will see the blade turn red, then white. And that will be the last thing you’ll ever see, because your eyes will be burned for life. When the SS come to take you away, you’ll follow them with a white stick.”
But I found the strength to draw on my literary memory. In a hushed voice, I said:
“At least put some margarine on my eyes.”
“Here’s some tallow,” he said, smearing two big dabs of it on my eyes. “Do you like that word? Tallow for the Talmud?”
When he recited the famous line, “Look with all your eyes, look!” I couldn’t move my eyelids. I could only feel the intense heat coming closer and thought I was about to die. Then I heard a cry of pain:
“The fucking yatagan burned my hand. Get lost!”
Using my shirtsleeve, I wiped my eyes clean as best I could. My eyelids weighed tons, and the stinging was unbearable. I could see Sigrand holding his left wrist and grimacing in pain. Then he somehow calmed down and wrapped his injured hand in a handkerchief, which he had me knot. Then he rummaged in a drawer. When he turned back to me, he was holding a gun.
“Hands up! Downstairs!”
We leapt down the stairs and went outside. I wondered what in the world he would do next.
Out in the street, life went on. Two drunks were having a knife fight. Though slowed down by liquor, they had still managed to draw blood. Even when their moves were telegraphed, they couldn’t ward them off, and they both got ugly cuts on their arms and faces. Threats of murder were tossed out in dull, thudding voices to get the other man’s attention, announcing that justice was being done, or was about to be, or would be—one day.
A dying dog lay panting in the gutter. Sigrand jumped on to the curb. He was almost as tall as a man. He planted himself in between the two drunks, waving his gun around.
“So now what? Frenchmen are cutting each other up? Put your knives away, or I’ll fill you damn winos full of lead instead of steel.”
He fired twice into the air.
The buildings on the rue de Clércy were still echoing with the shots when the two of us took off, me to my mother’s, he to that mysterious region where Tom Mix, Buffalo Bill, the Fantôme, and Red Ryder all appear and disappear.
That gun made a huge impression on me. In bed that night, I went over all the events of that Thursday. Despite my burning eyes and sore neck, I had to admit that the sight of that fist holding a gun almost totally eclipsed the many terrible dirty tricks Sigrand had played on me. Deny it! the gun’s muzzle seemed to say. Bang, bang! Deny it! The phrase felt forged of tempered steel, it was male and powerful, and I repeated it to myself over and over without ever tiring of its uniqueness.
For several days, we had no news of Sigrand.
Then on Tuesday morning of my third week at Neuve-Saint-Paul, the whole schoolyard was buzzing, talking about his latest escapade. He and Popot, one of his partners in crime, had gotten the bright idea of filling a bicycle handlebar with chemicals. Don’t ask me where he got them. From under sinks, the depths of storage rooms with skulls on their doors, and locked pharmacy cabinets, he had gathered every noxious substance that could corrode, dissolve, or asphyxiate. He must have added real gunpowder to this concoction, taken from his father’s bullets. The two of them mixed everything up and stuffed it in the bicycle’s handlebar. It exploded, blowing off one of Popot’s hands. He was in the hospital. Sigrand was unhurt. We were all deeply impressed: so that was chemistry!
I saw him again on Wednesday. He was the same as ever, maybe a little more subdued, but I knew him well enough to realize he was cooking up some nasty new plot.
Around four o’clock he came over to me:
“Meet me tomorrow morning at nine o’clock at the corner of the rue Pavée and the rue de Rivoli,” he said. “And you can kiss your star goodbye. Tomorrow, I’m converting you.”
We walked up the rue Pavée. The entrance to the synagogue was sealed, with big planks roughly nailed over its three doors.
The place wasn’t guarded, and the synagogue looked so mournful and abandoned that there seemed to be no need. For the first time in my life, I was looking at a corpse . . .
How distant that last Yom Kippur felt, the one I’d spent with my father and mother and all my uncles, aunts, and cousins. Their wide, warm smiles, the friendly murmur of Jewish ceremonies, the comings and goings on the crowded sidewalk—all that had given way to deadly silence. In my confused mind, the flame-shaped stone spires on the building’s façade looked like the symbol of a religion that had been condemned, and probably deserved it.
After all, if there weren’t any Jews left, if they were now lying low, there had to be a reason for it. I racked my brains to find a reason for it, overwhelmed by a desire to flee the situation I’d been in since the day, not that long ago, when my mother had said: “You’re Jewish! Hide your penis! Never let anyone see it.”
Thirty years later, it came as quite a surprise when I learned that the synagogue had been designed by Hector Guimard, and that the flame-shaped stone spires were typical examples of Art Nouveau. They were no more imbued with divinity than the wrought-iron Métro entrances or the wood paneling at the Flo Brasserie.
“Follow me and don’t make any noise,” said Sigrand.
We walked past two buildings and went through a hallway that led to a deserted courtyard. We crossed it, then took a winding corridor that led to another courtyard. Sigrand checked the area, looking all around. There wasn’t a soul in sight. He took a skeleton key from his pocket, rattled it in a lock, and we were in the synagogue.
I started whistling “La Romance de Paris” to settle my nerves.
“Stop whistling,” he said, “you’re making the Virgin Mary weep.”
I could barely breathe. Memories swirled blindly around the vast emptiness. Where was Papa’s seat? Where was my mother’s place up in the balcony? And what about this mass desertion by the faithful—there had been so many of us before! They made Sip’tit feel like one of the chosen, by default.
Could the hushed presence of the Eternal be so completely passed over?
I looked at Sigrand. He was perfectly at ease, walking around the defunct synagogue like a businessman inspecting a warehouse he’d just bought, estimating the height of the ceiling and calculating the useful space for a lucrative layout.
Suddenly, I no longer knew who I was.
Who am I? I asked myself. Who am I? I felt the incredulity that happens the first time you can’t think of a word you know perfectly well, before it sinks into the maelstrom of things that can’t be named. I was gripped by an awful feeling of strangeness. My name detached itself from me, drifted far away, somewhere in the fog, calling out without conviction, but with the heavy stubbornness of people searching for survivors. My paralyzed soul heard it but couldn’t respond. It soon gave up and abandoned me, leaving me all alone, a wanderer among wanderers. And the less my mind controlled the situation, the more my body rebelled.
My hands began to frighten me.
I could feel all my gums, all my teeth and the heavy mass of my tongue huddled behind them. Every inch of my skin was on high alert, waiting for instructions that never came. Faced with the complete flight of my will, the feeling began to spread over my flesh like some living leprosy.
I thought of that summer when I’d been the first person to enter our house after it had been empty for a long time. I was immediately attacked by fleas. In an instant, my feet and legs were covered up to my knees by two black swarms of them. Like a new Egyptian plague, they would long haunt my nights, biting me all over, again and again. Nausea overwhelmed me, an acrid and familiar burning smell filled my sinuses, and I passed out.
“So, snoring in the house of the Lord?” said Sigrand. “Your spirit is at peace, that’s good. We’re going to begin the conversion ceremony. You have lived your last minutes as a Jew and are about to enter a new world.”
I was lying flat on the tiles, my arms outstretched, which was a pretty good beginning. My mind was a little fuzzy, but on the whole, fresh and alert, which happened each time I woke up after fainting.
That devil Sigrand’s energy was endless. During my fainting spell, he’d turned a low chest into an altar along the right wall of the synagogue. He put a tablecloth and two candlesticks he’d found in the chest on top of it, along with a pewter cup that he filled with some wine he took from his bag.
I can’t swear that the ritual that followed was strictly by the book, but I had never been to Mass, so I was in no position to criticize the sacrament.
Sigrand put on a white stole, prayed for a moment, then had me kneel in front of him.
May all the gods, past, present and future, active or honorary, titular or in partibus, join to strike me dead if I’m lying when I say that sunshine flooded into the building at that very moment, warming the synagogue’s old bones and bringing a kind of smile to its wounded face.
Sigrand recited the Lord’s Prayer. With eyes and arms raised to the heavens, he turned to me and said:
“Lord forgive him because he is Jewish, and it’s not his fault. If he is a sinner, it’s because his mother gave birth to him that way. Grant him your forgiveness, oh Lord, and let your humble servant be as a pathway for him between the Old and the New Testaments.”
He then put two identical, heavy black books on the ground.
“This is the old Bible, and this is the new one,” he said. “The pages of the first one are cut, the way you are also cut. For it to be a real Bible for mankind, it must be completed with the Gospels. I’ll explain that later. You’re going to step on this book and make your way across my back to the other one. Be careful not to fall, otherwise you’ll go to hell.”
And that’s what happened. Sigrand kneeled down, rounded his back, and drew his head into his shoulders, so the Eternal would know that he had renounced his pride and his evil ways. Then I stepped on my people’s Bible and repeated after Sigrand:
“This is the Old Testament. It is completely obsolete.”
I heard a low rumbling rise from the book, but I had a mountain to climb and couldn’t delay. I cautiously put my feet on the soles of Sigrand’s shoes, which provided a reasonably sturdy support, and considered the path open to me. With my spirit now fully enlightened, I didn’t think it appropriate to climb up Sigrand’s rippling muscles. Instead, I lifted my knee high and in a leap, managed to jump onto his back. The deep rumbling was heard again, but it definitely wasn’t coming from the book. I stopped myself from laughing, because it really wasn’t the right moment. Arms outstretched, I crossed the bridge made by my mentor’s strong spine. Reaching his neck, I straddled it and was deposited onto the new book by a Sigrand who had become as gentle as a holy lamb.
Sigrand straightened up, adjusted his clothes, and said:
“You have just entered the great apostolic Roman Catholic Church, from now on you are no longer Jewish, you are a Christian. My breath, which is the breath of the Holy Spirit, will cause your foreskin to grow back. Take out your genital organ, my son.”
I stood there, speechless.
“Come on, take it out,” he hissed. “You know perfectly well what I mean.”
So I took “it” out. Sigrand carefully blew on it, as if he were starting a fire. It wasn’t at all unpleasant, but was this really allowed?
“That’s it,” he concluded. “In three months you’ll have a real man’s cock. Now, repeat after me:
Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
I repeated all the lines after him, but deep within me, a part of this forced baptism made me recite the only prayer I knew which my father had taught me, the one prayer to the one God—a prayer I don’t want to write down here.
After that day, there were no more Thursdays with Sigrand, no more classes for me on the rue Neuve-Saint-Pierre. That very afternoon a young police officer happened to run into my mother on the rue d’Aboukir. Without looking at her, he whispered:
“Madame, whatever you do, don’t sleep at home tonight.”
We were just small game, not at all important, and we thought the most spindly thicket would be safe, so we hid at a next-door neighbor’s. The next morning, we heard pounding on our door, then the door being smashed, and a great din of running feet, things breaking and shouting. An hour passed before silence fell again.
I took a chance and peeked out the window: there was a big black van and soldiers everywhere, all of them dressed in black.
We fled that afternoon, and the great hunt began.
First, we were taken in at a farm near Creil, then to friends in Viroflay, where we could lie low for a few weeks. I devoured books while my mother tried her best to find ways to escape the enemy’s net. She falsified our ID cards, changing the P of Pollak (which is my name) to a B.
But she’d worked on it so much that it stood out like a sore thumb. The ink was too light, and the letter looked crooked.
We had to think of something else, b but above all, break up our far too obvious mother-son couple. So I was entrusted to some White Russians who ran a home for children in Versailles, and she left for Étampes.
For the next two years, I suffered hunger, chilblains, and lack of love, but at least my life was spared. Every six months or so, an Étampes tailor whom nobody suspected came to Versailles to take me to spend a few days with my mother.
That trip, which now takes an hour on an RER train, then took almost an entire day. The trains were few and unreliable, sometimes stopping for hours. You had to beware of everything: Métro exits, the end of train platforms, the dark corners in the corridors.
It was during one of those trips that we found ourselves in the long-distance section of the Austerlitz train station. There were about a hundred elementary school children being hustled along by policemen carrying guns.
I instinctively ran to hide behind a pillar, terrified. The school children were wearing coats, many of them had caps on. One of them was chewing on a pretzel.
A Jewish star was sewn onto all their coats.
I had thrown mine away a long time ago, but my heart, which was pounding frantically in my chest, was now longing to revive that evil flower, and make me scream:
“I’m Jewish too! I’m Jewish! Take me away too!”
That scream had been building up within me every night for months. Lying in the dormitory in Versailles, eyes wide open, I longed to turn myself in, to free myself from the sin of surviving.
To my protector’s great surprise, I took a suicidal step out from behind the column, half revealing myself. I was about to shout out my confession, when something in the blurred mass of children caught my eye.
They were all about the same height, except for one boy who was much taller than the others. He stood motionless, and though I could only see the back of his neck, he definitely reminded me of someone.
Then everything happened very quickly.
A whistle blew, and the kids set off in a great clatter of clogs. The tall boy turned toward me. It was Sigrand. He was standing very straight and wore a Jewish star on his coat.
He saw me and recognized me.
The situation was now reversed: I no longer had the option of giving myself up but was in imminent danger of being denounced. And it was too late to run away.
Sigrand stared at me intently. I have imagined what he must have seen hundreds of times:
A little boy holding a nice man’s hand just a few steps away, and enjoying the incredible luxury of having space around them and a wealth of possible escape routes.
The man is holding a newspaper, which he will perhaps read outside, at a café. He will ask the little boy what he wants to order. Even though it is wartime, the boy can choose between a soda with mint syrup or one with grenadine.
And then? What will they do for the rest of the day?
To imagine that, you would have to understand the thousand branches of that other star, in the center of which they were standing, the thousand branches of possibility known as the Star of Liberty that adorned the floor of the train station.
Sigrand quickly spotted me, looked me up and down. Then the corners of his lips rose, and his good old fit of grinning broke out, flew across the space between us, and landed on my mouth.
A moment later, the children had all disappeared.
For a long time after that, I was left with our shared grin. For the first time in its brief history, I tried not to repress it, but to hang onto its feeling of freshness. But it gradually turned into a grimace, stiffening my facial muscles and hurting the corners of my mouth.
By the time I got back to Étampes, the only thing on my face was the frozen mask of a dead child.
The Unidentified Pianist
In the Adour River valley in southwest France, there once was a sanatorium for consumptive students called the “Petit Berghof.” The expression “consumptive” was still being used then, which helps to set the background: the late 1940s, shortly after the discovery of streptomycin. The previous winter, that drug had saved me from a virulent type of pleurisy, adding yet one more stay of execution to the ones already granted me in avoiding war and deportation. Dr. Koch’s beast, the medical term used to describe the little sister of the other illness, was fighting its last battles in my lung’s pockets of resistance: the lower right lobe and the middle left lobe. Here and there it was still able to kill a few isolated resistors that had been protected by outdated weapons—sulfamide drugs, etc.—but overall, its days were numbered.
The name Petit Berghof was an homage to Thomas Mann dreamed up by the older patients, the little coterie that made, or unmade, reputations in the institution. The reference to the sanatorium that Mann immortalized remained obscure to most of the math and medical students who arrived each month from the provinces, and who would only learn its meaning at the ritual hazing. I’m not sure the literature students fared much better.
Beyond our walls, the name was frankly de-Germanized, and everyone in the area called our clinic the Petit Pergaud.
We could have supplied any number of subtitles, in the style of The Magic Mountain/em><: “Ode to a slight vesperal temperature,” “Odyssey of the naïve conscience,” “Movement in defiance of music,” etc. But out of the various lessons it taught, our students chose to remember only the lesson of ill health, and they got it wrong. They placed it as high as their love of classical literature, which they tended to identify with. They pretended to play down medical treatments, deliberately turning pale during their endless coughing fits (risking harming their vocal cords), reciting Baudelaire as they studied the golden spit collected in their mothers’ handkerchiefs. They smoked like maniacs from morning till night, during our three rest periods and endless nocturnal discussions; they smoked cigarettes by the carton, savoring the acrid taste of deferred suicide.
What a valiant troop of little Castorpians they were! And like their hero, they joyously sent smoke signals to Death using their cozy duvets: puff! puff! But it was a waste of time: all their battles had just deferred Death. It was only long afterward, maybe twenty or thirty years later, that Death finally obeyed their order, sending them a few cancers, reluctantly, you might say, and not of the quality requested. No romantic, galloping consumption, not at all. So, after six months, you usually left the Petit Berghof with your x-rays under your arm, fresh as a daisy. And that was the only magic of the place.
For me, the prospect of someday being sent back to my rat hole in Étampes was heartbreaking. I would have immediately, and gladly, signed a pact with all the health-destroying devils in exchange for the status of lifetime patient. To keep my primary infection in good shape, I indulged in the usual and childish range of symptoms—nothing actually too virulent, and nothing that Dr. Lepeuple’s medical team couldn’t figure out. But while I might not have had the means to fool them, they remained powerless before my indomitable motto: “The important thing is not to get well.” So I spent most of my time being sick, wanting to be sick, and having relapses. It was a question of spiritual life or death. There was so much for me to learn at the Petit Berghof, and so many big brothers to help me . . .
On my very first day, I made them smile by pronouncing the word “inherent” as in-hear-ant. At the time, I was just a high school kid repeating his sophomore year for the third time, and whose entire library consisted of a complete set of the Reader’s Digest. I had chewed through whole volumes of those desiccated pages to extract all their juices. It was like eating tree bark, and enough to ruin my palate forever.
When France was liberated, and I ate a plate of French fries for the first time after five years of deprivation, my shrunken stomach promptly vomited them up. That’s pretty much what happened with Jude the Obscure, the first real novel I stuffed down as soon as I arrived, without taking the precaution of carefully chewing the words first. But with the next one, I started coming back for seconds, gorging on everything that could be written and read , hanging onto my elders’ every word. Our entire flock of fledglings was hungry for the latest truths, and I think I was the most determined to get my beak filled.
Three months later, I looked like an upperclassman (minus the education!), meticulously stuffed with pastiches and quotations, which in my case were worth a dozen state scholarships.
What a joy for the son of a tailor to be able to teach a class in pedantry! Pity those who have never done so, almost as much as those who have to retake it.
Where architecture was concerned, our Berghof couldn’t compare with the one in Davos. To the decorum of that great Grisons wedding cake, it opposed the old-fashioned austerity of its graceless arcades. A cloister of shabby Roman-ness, it wasn’t even old enough to be considered worth restoring. Should it be closed? Or should we just close its file? That wordplay symbolized the paralysis found in the Landes regional office of historic monuments, where the chief curator periodically raised the issue.
“Something really ought to be done about the smell,” he would say with a sigh. “It isn’t good for the tuberculosis patients.”
It’s true that there was something tubercular about the clinic itself, despite its massive columns and wrestler’s shoulders. Something crumbly, as if it had been cut from a mothball quarry. Its smell hit you as soon as you arrived, carried by the two students who came to meet you at the train station. When they introduced themselves to me on that February morning, I thought they were a pair of sinister stretcher bearers ready to carry me off to some clandestine infirmary.
That smell was the place’s indelible scar, its mark of Cain. A factory-like blot on the green Landes countryside, the clinic contained the unchecked chemical stench of both the hospital and adolescence. Believe me, two hundred boys coughing up their lungs while reciting Camus stinks to high heaven. The local merchants would freeze when they saw us approach (“Hey, here come the butcher boys,” one of them once shouted), but they remained stoic so they wouldn’t lose our business.
Nobody really knew where the smell came from. It seemed to emanate from the walls with no apparent organic origin, like some walled-up corpse or rotting carcass. Maybe the stone itself was decomposing, the way lime and sand eventually separate within buildings. The stone was revealing its other, contaminated side, just like the paint chipped by saltpeter and the wallpaper stripped away by acid refluxes. When the hidden side of things appear, it’s always unbearable.
Have you ever been in prison? Maybe not, which is a shame for my story, because you would immediately understand what I mean by “the other side of things.” When the cell door closes behind you, the first thing you have to deal with is the rank stench of the man crouched down in front of you, looking you in the eye. The second, which is harder, is when you unavoidably return the favor. This free exchange of infections is what truly marks your entry into the prison population.
I entered the Petit Berghof the way you enter holy orders, prepared to spend my life there, and it still took me a good week before I could breathe without holding my nose. Everything in it reeked of lungs: the three examining rooms, the analysis laboratories, the x-ray room, the bathrooms, the dining room, and even the kitchens. The windows also seemed affected. Any pulmonologist examining the suspicious stains on the glass would frown, give an appropriate shake of the head, and say:
“It’s more serious that we thought, I’m afraid. We’re going to treat that ugly damp spot of yours . . . it will take six months,” while secretly thinking, like The Magic Mountain’s Doctor Behrens: “You’re in real trouble. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”
Besides the miasmatic smell, there was another dry odor that wafted down from the eaves, as if the clinic were a large, sick carcass that produced two different sounds under the stethoscope. Desperate to escape the sewer stench, you raced upstairs, two steps at a time. But instead of finding the clean air you were hoping for, your nose and throat were filled with a strange dust, whose invisibility made it even more overpowering. Something up there, something acrid and unidentifiable was endlessly fermenting.
As I explored the long row of those attic rooms, I discovered that one of them had once been used for showing movies. The walls were covered with the remains of soundproofing, and their thick, blackish fibers, peeling off in places, looked like the skin of a terrible burn victim. They too were being attacked by consumption and were slowly disintegrating: that sick dust, the residue of all our dry sweats, still falls like ashes on my mustache whenever I think about it.
Then there was the piano. It was the only piece of furniture in the room, which made it seem much bigger than it really was. It was very black, very tall, lugubriously carved, and stiff as a Mormon. It had a vaguely outraged look, as if it were a proud person forced into exile. It didn’t seem quite healthy, either. There’s no other way to put it: it smelled like an old, unwashed piano. I never tried to shed any light on this mystery by raising its lid. Within its huge body, even the hammers seem to be shirking their duty. They struck the strings blindly, producing a strange porous sound with neither harmonics nor vibrations. Absurdly, I couldn’t help comparing it to pumice stone.
There was one virtue of having spent a long time stewing in its own juices: it had hardly gone out of tune.
My aptitude for the piano was mediocre at best. I didn’t have the right fingers for it, and still don’t. While one of my friends was already working on Rachmaninoff after only one year of study, I was still struggling with Debussy, drowning all those chords along with me, even though the sheet music was clear. May Claude-Achille forgive me, but his Suite bergamasque, the only piece I could play by heart, became a series of hesitant ballades under my fingers, one of those medleys strung together by pianists in dingy bars. And I didn’t even drink or smoke! Clair de lune, my showpiece, completely exposed the person I was in those days, with my sweetish sensibility and lazy rubato.
I spent hours in the attic every night, battling it out with the old Mormon, a hypocrite under whose rigid exterior lay nothing but a vulgar agent of romanticism.
It’s true that our Berghof had bad breath, and I smelled like a little old man. So it’s time to open my story to the gusts of fresh air that have come demanding justice of me, and to throw open the doors of the rooms and the hallways. The weather could be so beautiful . . . When spring came early, whole forests of mimosas and eucalyptus poured in through the windows, after spinning like mad under the arcades and wrapping themselves around each of the columns. In the courtyard, four palm trees were as high as the third floor where I lived, shaking their fronds to dissipate bad fevers and whisper to my bronchi:
Enough tears, you phlegmatic loafer!
Rise from your sickbed and walk!
Go outside if you’re really a man!
I was sixteen years old and could hear the call. But responding to it, dragging my sheltered spirit out of quarantine, was the work of a newcomer I named Dollinger, alias Jim Doll.
The forest that Dollinger had crossed wasn’t planted with palm trees but with black beeches, in that country where forest is Wald and beeches are Buchen. We understood this one evening in the dining hall when Dr. Lepeuple announced the imminent arrival of a new group of patients.
“I trust you will treat them well,” he said, referring to the inaugural hazing. “But you’re going to have to make one exception this time.”
Deny us a hazing victim? You might as well snatch a Christian away from the lions.
A grumbling rose from the audience, from which someone with a bass voice slowly cried out:
“The people are hungry.”
To which a chorus of others responded:
“Throw them a corpse!”
“The pe-people are hun-hungry.”
“Throw them a corpse.”
“The pe-people are hun-hungry.”
This could go on for a long time.
Dr. Lepeuple gestured soothingly and continued.
“You see, this involves a young Israelite, a musician, I believe. He is one of the few people to come back from the camps, which has affected him of course, especially his emotional state. I’m sure that you will give him a warm welcome just the same.”
He looked so virtuous, saying that! As if the Petit Berghof dipped into its purse of royal absolutions and indulgences through him.
So it wouldn’t be a Christian. Fine.
One Saturday evening a week later, the new hazing victims were sitting with us after dinner, awaiting their sentence in a variety of states of mind. I had suffered so much during this trial that once I was on the other side of the barrier, I became very mean. But not to the point of inflicting an account of these initiatory stupidities on you; don’t worry. You need only know that they were carried out by the book but, I regret to say, well below the level required by their spirit, with something distracted and rushed about them.
Among the newcomers, one troublemaker drew everyone’s attention. He spent some time observing the dripping wet hazing victims with an eye that revealed less compassion than a certain scornful professionalism. In a high, clear, somewhat affected voice, he finally asked:
“Don’t you want to baptize me too?”
He didn’t look like a Holocaust survivor, much less a “young Israelite.” He was very tall and very thin, all muscles and tendons, especially his face, which seemed to have ten times more of them than you or I when chewing, smiling, raising his eyebrows or looking angry. He must have once been very ugly—what would he have looked like as a child?—and some of that ugliness remained. He seemed to have clawed his way out of that condition. He was Naoh from Quest for Fire, in a white shirt and tie. His unbuttoned shirtsleeves, which were rolled up exactly once so they floated around his forearms, struck me as supremely elegant.
He glanced quickly over the gathering, noticing its vast but very basic groupings: the staff table, the one reserved for seniors, and the one for the hazing victims, who were trying to put on a good face, but were now somewhat neglected.
His looked at me and paused. I thought I could see a glimmer of surprise, followed by intense emotion. Just for an instant, something passed between us, which remained incomprehensible to me. He promptly recovered; a slight smile hovered on his lips, which awakened in me echoes of embarrassed and unidentifiable memories.
“The Jordan River isn’t for everyone, I see.”
His voice was lyrical, with a rich timbre and witty tone, the tone of a gentleman who wants to convey his regrets to an audience giving him the cold shoulder, but as courteously as possible. His voice and tone both totally contrasted with his physical appearance. The group couldn’t take their eyes off him, but did anyone notice that neither of his forearms had a number tattooed on it?
“Aren’t you curious to know who I am and where I come from? You’ll need to, though. It’ll happen when the time is right.”
This was said calmly, with absolute aplomb, like a military order of the day from which there was no exemption.
Then Messaouden approached him. He was the president of our association, a big, husky Egyptian medical student whom Dr. Lepeuple would listen to; he sported such a magnificent beard that he’d been elected unanimously.
Leaning in close to the newcomer, he said a few things in a quiet voice; no doubt something about the special treatment he was being granted. Was he explaining the verbal warning? Hard to say, because Messaouden was the soul of reserve and distinction. He must have been surprised by the laughter he got in return: three brief, perfectly calibrated laughs, and nothing more.
“An exemption for wartime heroism? Thank you; that’s something I hardly expected. Still, you should know that my name is Dollinger; you can call me Jim.”
And he sat down. From that moment on, the Petit Berghof’s brilliance began to fade for me. All those intense discussions I’d witnessed since my arrival, the fiery polemics, the bursts of enthusiasm enflamed with a nervousness I hadn’t noticed before, suddenly seemed quite bland. So many things were contained in Jim’s simple statements.
What would his music be like? The way he pitched his voice and the elegance of his diction suggested Wilhelm Kempff’s touch. A Mozart expert? Yes, but . . . that bestial face . . . that brutality about to erupt . . . I felt more inclined toward Ludwig . . . Yes, that’s it: for me he would be the divine Ludwig.
The name suited him, even though a few hours later I would hear him playing music of a completely different kind.
It was close to midnight. I’d already been up in my attic for a couple of hours, messing around on the piano. I’d run through my whole repertoire and was now tackling “Saint Louis Blues.” A Caribbean man named Fortuné had taught me a few rudiments of jazz: I played two or three chords with my right hand while keeping the rhythm with my left. The result sounded like a prudish, mincing mazurka afraid of being compromised by eyeing the drummer too obviously.
Suddenly, a fist hit my shoulder. I wasn’t startled, in spite of the time and place.
“Don’t you know how to count to four?”
Jim’s iron fingers dug into my flesh.
“Come on, forward march! And keep time!”
I took a deep breath and started playing again as best I could. He thumped me on the back each time I made a mistake. I grumbled in response, as if he’d yanked off my blanket in the middle of a late-morning snooze.
After a few minutes, he got impatient.
“You’re about as well suited to jazz as I am to sonatas! You probably flatter yourself for having a delicate sensibility. But all I see are moldy spots, and you’re so moved by their delicate watercolors that you don’t realize they’re about to swallow up your youth in a single bite.”
That’s the way Jim talked. He seemed to have a special dispensation to be outrageous without sounding ridiculous. He normally wasn’t very talkative, and what he had to tell me that night, he said differently. He sat down at the keyboard and began to play.
It was music unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Without any hesitation, each measure began immediately to melt into the next one with indescribable power, carrying with it a flood of amazing musical ideas. They jostled and affected each other with absolute grace and freedom, only to disappear, completely indifferent to their individual survival. None of those motifs could be isolated. I barely had time to catch one as it flew by, imagining that it alone was capable of filling a composer with happiness for the rest of his days!
Up until then, aside from classical music, my listening had been shaped by the radio, which spewed jingles and dance tunes, prewar romances, and other trivialities from morning till night. In the town, the loudspeakers set up for the fair were tirelessly repeating “Étoile des neiges,” whose relentless one-two-three rhythm seemed to reflect the citizens’ narrowness of spirit.
I’d be lying if I claimed to look down my nose at that bland music. How can you live without humming some tune? But I did it absent-mindedly, without feeling compelled to join some after-dinner sing-along to get my heart racing. Once in a blue moon, we would hear a Bechet or a Duke, rarities that thrilled the little circle of Petit Berghof fans that organized musical evenings.
The time lag caused by the war had given music that was already out of date an extra five years’ reprieve, but since our generation suffered from the same thing, we didn’t understand that. How could anyone imagine that the entire half-century to come—with its unique ways of despairing and loving, daring and struggling, looking at the moon, the stars, and ourselves—was at that very moment being pressed onto virgin vinyl twelve hundred miles away?
I could hear all this come to life under Jim’s fingers. To what obscure parts of his life had he retreated to rise again and achieve such heights? Later, I managed to understand a few things that he bothered to tell me, but it actually wasn’t that much, and explained nothing. Regarding the music’s form, I’ll spare you the tedious musical theory; the notes on any record jacket explain those things perfectly well. All I can say is that as I listened to him playing, I immediately felt that I could take this music to heart, that the urgency of the proclamation it contained, the manifesto it heroically sang, was equaled only by its internal energy. There was enough there to set ten thousand lives like mine on fire.
Don’t try to experience the same emotion by rushing out and listening to a piece by Miles or Bird. Fifty years have passed since then, and whether you’re young or old, it would inevitably turn you into a sub-Hans Castorp, nostalgically exhausted in front of your record player. No, if you really want to get some sense of what I felt that night, you’d have to go much further into the past. You might pay Stendhal a visit, for example, and reread the first pages of The Charterhouse of Parma: “Presently there sprang up a new and passionate way of life.”
Jim played three pieces: a blues, a super-fast number, and a ballad. He gave me their (completely unfamiliar) titles in order, emphasizing the words like a preacher reciting the scriptures.
With his left hand, he didn’t play that powerful accompaniment that gives the old style its instrumental self-sufficiency. Just a few chords, whose intervals sounded strange even to me, even though I loved dissonance, but more so because of their power of rhythmic suggestion.
With his right hand, he played an undecipherable, wrenching melodic line that evoked some strange woman standing behind a window who bursts into tears.
He made the changes of tonality through passages that troubled me in strange ways, defying my capacity for analysis; one of them in particular. He must have sensed this, because when he first returned to the variation, he turned his head slightly, putting his ear parallel with the piano’s body, and laconically said:
“Two . . . five . . . one.”
Was this the Mormon speaking, indicating the Scripture’s chapter, page, and verse? Until then, the piano had hung back a little, a silent servant of its new master. It took every one of its eighty-five levers to keep up with Jim’s furious tempo. His unpredictable changes of rhythm and unusual stresses hurt the piano’s old joints. For a few, magnificently concentrated moments, it sang impossibly above its range. It became very beautiful then and remained so until the moment when two huge chords crashed down in the basses and the trebles simultaneously, overwhelming its strings.
When Jim heard the metallic boing-boing salvo firing within the old case, he stood up, opened his immense arms, grabbed the piano in both hands and shook it, like a sergeant shaking a lazy soldier.
“Wake up, for God’s sake! Wake up and sing!”
But the piano had clearly given up the ghost.
“Too bad,” he said. “At least that’s another one the sonatas won’t get!”
After that funeral oration, he spun around on his piano stool to me.
“Now look at me, Sip’tit.”
He held me by the shoulders.
“You haven’t changed. Not enough. You still have that sick grin of yours. And what’s that smell?”
Old grudges are always the first to re-emerge. Either because mine were too vivid, or because I was too overwhelmed, my first reaction was to protest.
“But you’re the one who grinned like that, not me.”
“All right, we’ll say it’s the Petit Berghof. Does that make you feel better? Do you still resent me for all those miseries I inflicted on you back in the day? I’m happy to see that you survived all that.”
“Well, you also look as if you’ve come back from another world. And you broke something along the way, my boy.”
I can still remember that night: the long room under the eaves; its shabby partitions bristling with asbestos; the dim light of the single bulb under its chipped metal shade; the defunct piano that we seemed to be mourning; and the moonlight, shining softly and insistently through the skylights—and without resentment.
Dollinger—aka Sigrand—talked. Without embellishment. Still with a way of speaking that exaggerated the slightest detail.
After our meeting at Austerlitz station, he’d spent several days at the Drancy holding camp and was then put on a train with a convoy of children. He stood out so much from the others by his size and attitude that he was separated from them as soon as they arrived and put with a group of adults. His head was promptly shaved and his clothes taken away.
Then this happened: as they were shuffling along a barracks toward a blockhouse whose door was open, an SS soldier hit Sigrand with his rifle butt for no apparent reason, but not before they’d looked at each other. And what Sigrand briefly saw in the SS’s eye was as unexpected as the blow itself. He was certainly hit hard, but actually not very violently, and the blow was aimed in such a way as to shove Sigrand against a door, pushing it open. He fell inside, and the door promptly closed again.
He’d been saved! But for how long? A day? An hour? Whatever his life expectancy, it was infinitely greater than that of the parade of condemned people whose faint shuffling he could hear through the door.
The place was dark, clean, and full of boxes. The partitions had shelves overflowing with food and clothing. He had landed in the ogre’s den! Like a rat who’d burrowed into cheese, Sigrand had managed to get inside and make himself at home.
He spent a few days there, hidden, well-fed, and thinking.
One evening, he left his hiding place and walked into the kitchens. It was curfew. The clouds of steam that filled the place prevented him from being noticed. He mingled with the cooks, carrying crates that nobody was claiming, bothering everybody so that he could mop the floor, making noise, showing off. Had he been there a long time? What a question . . .
“But didn’t they see you?”
“Yes, of course, but not right away. When the head chef asked what the hell I was doing there, I thought, ‘Sigrand, my boy, if you run away now, you may as well join the line of marchers. And this time, the door you step into will take you straight from the kitchen to the ovens.’ So I went and stood right in front of him and began rolling my eyes and grimacing as best I could. And as you know, I don’t need to distort my features very much to do that. At one point, I just grinned at him the way you know so well. And I saw that I had him in the palm of my hand. He stood there frozen, his big knife motionless against his sharpening steel, awkward and captivated. He finally moved and called out to the others: ‘Hey, look, guys! We’ve got a regular Charlie Chaplin here. Go on, show them!’
“I brought out my whole repertoire: Fernandel, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton . . . They were doubled over with laughter, including the SS officers who were looking in through the window while people continued marching behind them.
“So I kept going like that. I avoided staying anywhere for too long, and never showed myself for more than a few minutes at a time, running from one place to the next, sleeping in the storeroom, always on the lookout. I was firmly established in my character as an entertaining lunatic.
“I know something about craziness; I was born with it. I had given a lot to it, and now it was payback time. So I worked at it, refined it, made it my best weapon. You know all about that,” he said, picking up my hand. “That scar of yours still remembers, anyway.”
See how that thug had arranged things? For him, stabbing me in the hand had become the symbol of a blood pact!
Still, I remained incredulous.
“But you couldn’t have held out like that for two years!”
“I survived that way, and only that way, for two and a half years. In that long line where 6 million people waited, I was the one who hurried back through the crowd because he’d forgotten something important, his umbrella or a business meeting, the one who keeps bumping into people, saying, ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to step on your foot.’ The SS laughed because he thought the Jew was a riot, and they knew full well that they’d get him somewhere down the line. But here’s the thing: the line was very long, and we were liberated first.
“It’s always the same old story—the tortoise and the hare. Besides, I was not only uncircumcised, but I’d never been tattooed, never wore any kind of star. I was nice and slim, so I made a pretty good impression. And I gave off a nice smell of beef bouillon, which opens every door to you.”
Sigrand took out a flask of cognac, had me drink a slug, and offered me a Camel cigarette. It was the first time I’d really inhaled. The smoke tore into me, adding its sting to the liquor. I let out a muffled cry.
“If only it could open up those bronchial tubes you were born with, Sip’tit! It’s time you were reborn. High time.”
So I smoked even more. By dawn, we’d smoked several dozen cigarettes, lighting each one from the last because we didn’t have many matches. And the story of our star-crossed biographies continued. I tried to explain the utter despondency that had been my adolescence in the provinces to Sigrand, while he continued the story of his flamboyant life.
I’m now going to summarize.
Sigrand returned to Paris as healthy as a horse, and went to his old apartment. He first found the door closed, then slightly opened by its unknown occupants, and finally slammed in his face. He was sixteen years old and on the street without a family or any resources. It was time to look for an uncle in America.
After some searching, the uncle was found in the form of one Berkowitz, his mother’s brother who lived far away. (So Sigrand had a mother!) He brought his nephew over to Brooklyn and made him a tiny, warm place in his family, which consisted of a wife who wore a wig, two brothers and seven children. Berkowitz was always impeccably dressed and carried engraved business cards with his name followed by “Esq.” Sigrand could never find out exactly what he did, and Berkowitz never wondered what Dollinger did. When in only five years, and solely through his own efforts, he became Jim Doll, a pianist considered one of the great hopes of the new style, his uncle merely remarked, “It’s only in the United States that people like you and me can succeed.”
The jazz clubs and the musicians Jim had frequented flashed by one after the other in a head-spinning retrospective. Their sound of their names glittered in the attic, reawakening the projection room to show the most beautiful films.
Jim returned to France during a tour that fell apart, leaving him without a penny. Then his lungs presented him with an old, unpaid bill. What with penalties and interest due to lack of treatment, it translated into a bunch of troubling spots that needed to be wiped away without delay. Jim got himself enrolled with the union of Jewish students in France, and that’s how he’d landed at the Petit Berghof, a traveler without a suitcase but with a staggering amount of excess baggage, far more than any one of us.
“Besides,” he said, poking his index finger in the middle of a smoke ring, “I’m here to take care of something else. You’ll find out more tomorrow.”
Then we went to bed. My head was spinning, and when I reached my bedroom, I was overwhelmed with nausea. With my eyes riveted on the ceramic toilet, I repeated aloud between spasms:
“Again . . . two . . . five . . . one . . . Again.”
The sun wasn’t very high in the sky when I emerged from a heavy sleep. The birds, who had stupidly slept instead of working on their songs, were chirping in the old style with all their might. I absentmindedly counted the rings on the four palm trees to see if they had aged as much as I had during that intense night. I quickly washed my face and went down to the dining hall.
A few of last night’s hazing victims were sitting at my table. Freshly scrubbed, clean-shaven and hair combed, they were already putting on airs. Though piteous last night, they now looked down their noses and placed me—and not without reason—pretty low in the pecking order. We made stiff, polite small talk. They tried to quiz me on how the Petit Berghof got its name—an answer they had to know before that evening—but I stood my ground.
“That new guy certainly seems full of himself,” one of them announced, a fat, blond, effeminate kid.
I was about to react when a loud buzz made me turn to look toward the big entry door. Jim had just made his appearance.
He was wearing his striped pajamas from the concentration camp, and no shoes or socks.
They must have been washed many, many times, because they had apparently shrunk, baring his legs to mid-calf.
“Greetings, my brothers!”
He leaped onto our table splashing coffee on the fat kid who’d been showing off. In a slightly reedy voice, he cheerfully shouted:
“I have finally decided to exempt myself from the exemption. You can interrogate me the same way as the others. And please, don’t spare me. We have many things to say to each other, and I’m sure you have burning questions on the tips of your tongues.”
No one said a word.
“Come on, let’s see some courage! Anyway, I have a secret to tell you.”
With his hand shielding his mouth, he whispered the way you do so you can be heard in the back of the theater:
“The un-speak-able doesn’t exist . . . Or let’s say it didn’t survive the trip. I got rid of it along the way. That leaves you a wide-open field, my friends. Good news, wouldn’t you say?”
Our hazer-in-chief, a cocky medical student who up to then had led us on any merry dance he pleased, decided to pick up the challenge by asking the killer question, the question that had always defeated his toughest customers:
“Are you a virgin?”
“Not yet, I’m afraid. Not yet.”
At any other time, his answer would have had everyone rolling on the floor laughing. Now it was greeted with dead silence. Jim looked over his audience with a warm smile, waiting for what would happen next.
Looking unusually pale, Messaouden stood up and walked over to Jim, who was crouched on the table, to negotiate some sort of truce. This sidebar conference was interrupted by brief press communiqués called out to us by Jim each time Messaouden finished a sentence:
“Our friend the president feels that my outfit is a bit skimpy for the season . . .”
“That it isn’t appropriate for breakfast . . .”
“That all things considered, he feels it may not be in the best taste. But here’s what should have been said at the outset, gentlemen: hats off to the word shocking!”
Still crouching, his ape-like arms casually draped over his knees, Jim continued:
“I love and revere places that have customs. Our friend the president has deployed a wealth of diplomacy in informing me that the ones here at the Petit Berghof exist in not negligible quantities. May I in turn offer to see if those customs are shared by the citizens of the locality of which we are the intelligent appendage?”
He jumped down from his perch.
“Let’s go into town dressed like this. Who’s with me!”
There was no stampede; in fact, I was the only one to stand up. A small group followed us from a distance to the front steps and stopped there, watching us cross the grounds to the outer gate. It was chilly that Sunday morning; I was shivering in my coat and scarf. Jim had on espadrilles and was practically naked under his striped pajamas. He walked quickly, shoulders hunched, jaws and fists clenched as if he were a boxer about to face an opponent in the ring.
It was about ten o’clock. As we got closer to the fairground, people started to notice us. A few stopped dead on the sidewalk, dumbstruck. Others stared, wide-eyed. Two young girls elbowed each other, giggling. “Who’s the clown?” a soldier shouted from a café door. Dogs barked.
I walked in an anesthetized nightmare, eyes riveted on my outrageous mentor’s heels.
Jim came to a stop in front of a display of tailor-made clothing. He felt the fabric of two or three coats on hangers, then turned an interested face to the salesman, a fat man slumped in a chair.
“I’m looking for something warm . . . Something that will keep you alive when you’re standing in snow at ten or fifteen degrees below zero—with nothing on underneath, of course. Do you make anything like that? No? The one I’m wearing left far too much to be desired, and you never know what might happen. You know what I mean?”
The man shook his head without saying a word, looking deeply saddened.
Farther on, Jim spotted a woman who owned a butcher shop.
“Good morning, madame.”
“I just wanted to tell you that I have returned. You catch my drift, don’t you? Re-turned . . . That only happens to one in a thousand. Are you pleased?” he asked with a winning smile. “No, you don’t seem to be. Too upset, no doubt.”
He said these things without the slightest exaggeration. Never in her life had the butcher woman encountered a deportee with better manners.
A fine rain began to fall. We stepped into a barbershop, where I collapsed onto a chair, waiting for the moment when this impossible escapade would end with the arrival of a police car.
Jim asked the barber to shave all his hair off.
“Yes . . . all of it . . . bald as a billiard ball,” he said patiently, prepared to keep talking as long as necessary. Five minutes later he looked at himself in the mirror with satisfaction and flicked away a curl that had fallen on his shoulder.
The barber stared at him, silently refusing to be paid.
“Thank you, monsieur. That’s a useful skill you have, and it might save your life someday.”
We entered the abbey of the Saint-Basile church just as Mass was starting. In the semidarkness and the crowd, it took a little while to notice us. We sat down in a pew next to each other.
I observed Jim during the different parts of the service. He knelt when you were supposed to, remained seated the rest of the time, slightly hunched, his long legs spread apart, bumping into the front of the pew. His magic fingers were calmly laced, index finger on the tip of his nose with the small space between his palms that distinguishes a man who is thinking from one who is praying. The priest looked almost as young as Jim; he remained silent, carefully watching the priest’s every gesture.
When it was time for the sermon, he stood up, politely apologized to his neighbors, and stepped into the aisle. Suddenly, everyone was looking at him, and only him. Standing very tall in the central nave, he looked even taller because of the striped pajamas.
In deadly silence, he walked over to the pulpit and stood at the bottom of the steps, face to face with the priest. The man turned pale, opened his mouth, then closed it. Two husky guys who looked like paratroopers got up to provide reinforcements. They had already grabbed Jim by the arms when the priest said:
“Let him be.”
“Thank you, Father,” Jim said simply. The spell cast by his operatic voice, striped pajamas and shaved head did the rest.
He climbed the little winding steps and looked out over the faithful from his perch; they were glued to the spot by the apparition of this unexpected lay preacher. All the town’s notables and important merchants were there, fat and happy, but looking anxious. The group of widows and old maids was also present. Could those outraged old women ever imagine that apart from their hats and the church, to Jim they were nothing more than the local version of female loneliness in its universal misery? And what about those smug-looking young men? Hadn’t he seen them before, in the synagogues of Brooklyn or on the rue Pavée, having already acquired the fragmented outline of a future grimace, but still naïve and fresh, with a budding hint of baseness and avarice?
And here and there, the face of an angel.
This is how Jim began:
‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear.’ Luke, Chapter 12.
So what worries you, my brothers and sisters?
Luke tells us: ‘Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has power to throw you into hell.’
And how could we not be afraid of the place of outcasts, where there is nothing but pain and flames?
I have seen those flames at work. I saw them burn day and night, for thirty months.”
He stood very tall, his hands gripping the pulpit as if to deny him the slightest unnecessary assistance to his eloquence. I noticed then that his pupils were unusually dilated, his eyes as black as baptismal fonts.
“I didn’t know then that everything of a man can be burned, even his name and the memory of his name. I hadn’t wanted to see the star falling from the sky to the earth. Like you, my brothers and sisters, I was blind to the warnings even when they ripped apart the night sky with their flashes of lightning. And when I finally saw the yellow star fall from the sky to the earth, it was too late. They were given the key to the well over the abyss, and they opened that well over that abyss. And a great column of smoke rose from the well.
“Safe behind fire-resistant bricks—bricks carefully made by conscientious workers—the flames did their work. Those flames could devour two rues des Rosiers a day, a whole neighborhood, with its violinists and tailors, its kosher stores and synagogues, its clinics and kindergartens.
“They could accommodate an entire human body, provided it was a Jew’s body in relatively good working order an hour earlier, still warmed by its internal combustion. The body could be quite old, older even than the century—98, in my father’s case—or very young, sometimes even bearing in its loins another tiny spark of life. It happened dozens of times every day. Everyone had been sent to hell.
“So this body arrived, in the full chemical activity of a not very recent and quite modest meal, with its disorders and symptoms brought to a dead stop in their unresolved evolution toward illness or cure, its brain paralyzed by the most enormous traffic jam of its life, billions of nervous impulses stopped dead in their tracks, and an even greater number of circuits forever blocked by confused and rapidly oxidizing molecules. Barely an hour ago, there had been polite questions, sobs, words of comfort, calls for calm, prayers, curses, phrases like, ‘My God,’ ‘Don’t shove, keep in line,’ ‘This can’t be happening; it’s not like we’re rats . . .’
“Or maybe they were thinking about how to escape, quick, cool analyses of the situation, visual and tactile examination of the ceiling and the partitions, superhuman attempts to turn into an x-ray machine to see through the walls, or a spectrograph to identify the nature of the fluid pouring from the showerheads.
“Or volleys of contradictory orders sent to the blood vessels: ‘Dilate! Constrict!’; to the muscles: ‘Contract! Relax!’; to the lungs: ‘Stop breathing; that gas might be dangerous! Good God, where’s the oxygen?’
“My brothers and sisters, did that paralyzed brain have room only for questions of what was happening right then? You who are listening to me now, and whose living bodies are the brothers and sisters of the ones I’m talking about, lend an ear to what they are telling you. They are very close to the flames, but haven’t yet been engulfed by them. Listen to the vast cohort of the stragglers of the unconscious; listen to the jumble of thoughts dragging themselves along as if on a path of exodus. Engineering equations seeking with childish stubbornness to be explained, ignoring the war and the bombings; chess problems brilliantly solved at the very last moment; strictly private chatter about old wounds and humiliations that never healed; sensual pleasures hidden away like spores awaiting more favorable external conditions.
“And pressing questions about the apartment door you left wide open, the faucet you didn’t turn off, the cat, the furniture, the money.
“And fragments of poems, quotations, the last slogans you heard on the radio, distant images constantly dissolving and reforming, from Hungary, Burgundy, Ukraine, Belleville.
“And secrets, shames, remorse, unforgivable jealousies, cowardices, and crimes—up to the very last image, that of your father, your spouse, your child, or more probably the extravagant corporal image of your own mouth and nostrils, dilated to the extreme limit of possibility, until the ultimate explosion.”
Jim’s beautiful voice paused, and the murmuring prayer of the priest could be heard, as if the bell tower had begun to vibrate.
“Those industrious flames would size up your body at a glance—height, weight, texture—do a thermograph, briskly dispatch your soft tissues—cytoplasm, nuclides, mitochondria—vaporize your extra- and intra-cellular liquids, turn its attention to the most promising amino acids, fats, glucose, and electrolytes, and finally attack your two hundred and six bones, one by one.
“That’s what flames can do, reduce you to your primordial elements, to interstellar dust, aging you a million years in less than an hour.”
“Buchenwald . . .” he continued in a droning voice. “Birkenau . . . Treblinka . . . Belzec . . . Nevers . . . Ambert . . . Fleurance . . . Fontcouverte . . . Valcivières . . . Chamarande . . . So many French towns burning to make a name for themselves, so many villages . . . We have no lack of them, or of inspired hills or building lots, thank God . . . So why not Mortsauf . . . . Mortefontaine . . . Chapelle-des-Marais, with its whiff of déjà vu? Why not Aire-sur-l’Adour?”
A kind of gasp was heard in the nave.
“What’s wrong? Are you afraid the task is more than you can handle? That the current of the Adour isn’t strong enough to swallow its daily ration of ashes? That the wind patterns are too unpredictable to disperse the mass of smoke clouds shuffling across the sky, those mountains of black, greasy particles you must push to the far corners of the known world, hour after hour, so they don’t all come raining down on your flower beds and playgrounds?”
With a deep sigh, Jim caught his breath.
“In this city, there is a man …”
A hint of a smile hovered on his face when he saw his audience, which had been petrified up to then, begin to stir.
“In this city, in this very church, there is a man who occupied an important position during the war. He helped feed those flames. On a modest scale, of course: only a few thousand children, perhaps fewer. He was not prosecuted. He held other positions, was given other honors. Each time he found himself in difficulty, he found supporters, friends, relatives—priests, too. And he committed other crimes.
“My brothers and sisters, here is the word of Luke: ‘Woe is them! I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute . . . Yes, I say, this generation will be held responsible for it all.’”
In the Gospel according to Jim, such were the wise words of God. But that wisdom hadn’t spoken to the crowd of the faithful for some time now. After a quick calculation of the advantages and inconvenience of these reprimands, the crowd took quite a different view. One after another, in an orderly fashion and in total silence, people stood up, crossed themselves, and left. Among all the groups that were forming, one may have been more dense and nervous than the others. But that’s the narrator’s vengeful view in retrospect: he assumes that if the group had something to hide, it wouldn’t have done so that obviously, and if on the contrary, its conscience was clear—or as we say, “rested easy” —why wouldn’t they have the right to display some agitation?
What followed was a powerful, quiet, and definitive hemorrhage. In three minutes, Saint-Basile was drained of all its blood and clots.
For a long time, Jim gazed at the man in the surplice kneeling below him. In the end, I think he was the person who received all the pity the crowd had refused to hear, and whose burden it refused to bear.
Jim stepped down from the pulpit and slowly walked up the central aisle to the entrance. As soon as he reached the square in front of the church, a police officer stopped him, accompanied by Dr. Lepeuple and two nurses.
He was discreetly expelled from the Petit Berghof that very evening. That was the last time I ever saw Jim, or heard anyone speak of him.
I stand by what I just said. I never heard anyone speak of Jim again. But just plain heard? That, I’m almost sure I did.
It happened more than twenty years after those events. I had practically given up playing the piano. What with work and children, I didn’t have the time, at least not enough to reach the level I wanted: to be able to improvise at a decent speed. And besides, jazz had changed too much for my now middle-aged self.
Verve had just brought out an album with the complete set of recordings Charlie Parker made for the label: The Verve Years 1950–1951. “Complete,” that is, as they all hope to be, until the next one comes out. But I digress. This record interested me because of the many previously unreleased recordings it included. So there I was, sitting quietly and listening to one of those pieces, “Sweet Saint Basil.” I was intrigued because, like all New York fans, I had visited that high temple of jazz, and to my knowledge, the Sweet Basil had opened long after Bird’s death. I was wondering who could have written that piece, because it was composed in no style I’d ever heard. Then the piano solo began.
And that’s when I heard him again. It was Jim, absolutely no doubt about it. Was it because the instrument was wheezing, a little distant, and the recording defective? I was back in the Petit Berghof attic again, in the dust and asbestos, amid the impossible notes Jim was pulling out of the old Mormon. He played a single piece, just thirty-two bars . . . So short, so rich . . .
I grabbed the cover of The Verve Years 1950–1951 to read the notes. The piece was listed as number 26142 bis; you can check. The session had been hurriedly thrown together using obscure studio musicians whose names would only interest scholars. But their obscurity could hardly exceed that of the piano player, who is only referred to by these two words:
There you have it. Jim had played his piece, collected his paltry fee, and left. Where to? Who knows? Maybe to the place where notes go when their brief life is over, among the countless ashes of all those who were denied the decent burial of an album or a published opus.
Two . . . five . . . one . . . In the Paris music scene today, there are hundreds of young pianists who instinctively link those harmonies, the way their elders used to link the relentless measures of “Étoile des Neiges.” They write the chord progression this way: II . . . V . . . I . . . using Roman numerals.
For them, it really is ancient history.