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华语金曲奖

Rue Félix-Faure
by Ken Bugul
Translated from French by
Natalie Kammerer & Devin Moulton

C’était le matin, rue Félix-Faure. Le salon de coiffure, Chez Tonio, était encore fermé, mais une musique persistante de violon en suintait comme un fluide, à travers les persiennes de ses fenêtres. Sur le trottoir en face du salon de coiffure Chez Tonio, il y avait deux gros policiers debout, les jambes écartées, devant une masse répandue par terre. En ce matin, quelques personnes étaient déjà autour des deux gros policiers. Parmi ces quelques personnes autour des deux gros policiers, il y avait quelques habitants de la rue Félix-Faure. Parmi ces quelques personnes autour des deux gros policiers, il y avait des gens qui allaient au travail. Parmi ces quelques personnes autour des deux gros policiers, il y avait des gens qui revenaient du travail. Parmi ces quelques personnes autour des deux gros policiers, il y avait des gens qui avaient dormi rue Félix-Faure. Parmi ces quelques personnes autour des deux gros policiers, il y avait des gens qui s’étaient réveillés rue Félix-Faure. Parmi ces quelques personnes autour des deux gros policiers, il y avait des gens qui passaient toujours, le matin, rue Félix-Faure. Parmi ces quelques personnes autour des deux gros policiers, il y avait un philosophe.

 

It was morning on rue Félix-Faure. The hair salon, Chez Tonio, was still closed, but the persistent music of a violin seeped like a liquid from between the shutters. On the sidewalk across the street from the salon stood two fat policemen, feet planted wide, in front of a mass strewn across the ground. On this morning, there were already a handful of people gathered around the two fat policemen. Among the people gathered around the two fat policemen were residents of rue Félix-Faure. Among the people gathered around the two fat policemen were people on their way to work. Among the people gathered around the two fat policemen were people on their way home from work. Among the people gathered around the two fat policemen were people who had slept on rue Félix-Faure. Among the people gathered around the two fat policemen were people who had woken up on rue Félix-Faure. Among the people gathered around the two fat policemen were people who walked along rue Félix-Faure every morning. Among the people gathered around the two fat policemen was a philosopher.

This philosopher was the Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure. Among the people gathered around the two fat policemen was a philosopher’s apprentice. This philosopher’s apprentice was one of the apprentices of the Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure. Among the people gathered around the two fat policemen was another philosopher’s apprentice, and another, and another. On rue Félix-Faure, there was a Philosopher, and everyone else—whether they knew it or not—was a philosopher’s apprentice. Everyone on rue Félix-Faure had their version and their vision of the visible world and the invisible world, but the debate was ongoing. And respecting the versions and visions of others, respecting their ideas, their silences, was a way of being and behaving on this street. The rule of rue Félix-Faure was acceptance. For the philosophers and the aware-or-not apprentices, the debate was important, respect was important, and acceptance of others was primordial. The debate, respect, and acceptance of others were just as important for those who were not philosophers or philosophers’ apprentices on rue Félix-Faure, the Philosopher would have said.

It was a quiet morning—such a still quiet—as was common on rue Félix-Faure. This morning stillness—only rue Félix-Faure held its secret. No other place in this city, otherwise so beautiful and almost entirely surrounded by the ocean, had mornings like this! Mornings on rue Félix-Faure were famous for their stillness. It was so pleasant to be on this street in the morning! Rue Félix-Faure mornings made you want to wake up early, just to find yourself there. Rue Félix-Faure mornings made you want to spend the night there. In the morning, the faces of the people on rue Félix-Faure were peaceful, dignified. Those who lived on rue Félix-Faure all woke early. Even if they’d hardly slept! Even if they hadn’t slept at all! Some even got up and took a walk around rue Félix-Faure, but then went back to bed, even if they didn’t fall back asleep!

Mornings on rue Félix-Faure were the kind in which you could reconcile your soul with yourself, with others, with life. The Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure said that the mornings on rue Félix-Faure reconciled the soul with its fantasies, its uncertainties, its dreads, its doubts, its selfishness, and—in spite of everything—its hope. The Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure said that you needed hope for your soul to keep wanting to live. Hope was the one thing it could master in this life that seemed otherwise insurmountable. But even with this achievable hope, some still had issues with doubt and anchored themselves to impatience. These souls had not grasped what hope could mean, especially when coupled with patience. This type of soul didn’t exist on rue Félix-Faure, or else they only passed through, never staying for long. This type of soul—or species of soul, to use the language of evolutionary theory—did not feel at ease with the people on rue Félix-Faure, who no longer lived with doubt and hadn’t for a long time.

It was hope coupled with patience that was needed against suicidal instincts, a tendency toward stress, a weakness for despair, an openness to disappointment—to collect and transform all this into existential energy. And this energy was what was necessary for human beings to survive. In reality, the Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure said, we all—even those who don’t want to admit it—would prefer to die rather than to live certain lives. The kinds of lives that weren’t even lived. Not lives, but the remnants of lives, residue of lives, bastardized lives, prostituted lives, lives given away. The kind of lives that masturbated before life, that teased out reasoning, explanations, justifications, endless questions. These kinds of lives clung to us like clumps of shit. We didn’t choose them or ask for them or want them or desire them, we would say. We hadn’t searched them out, we’d repeat. We found ourselves caught in interminable uncertainties, despair, questions without answers, tension between life and survival, between survival and death. There were days we didn’t want to expire, to live, to survive, or to die; instead, we wanted to commit a crime. This desire, this temptation boiled up in each of us. And when the lid on our base instincts began to rise, even a little, we very quickly pushed it back down, relegating those instincts to the deepest depths of ourselves, without actually getting rid of them. This temptation, this desire, was integral to us, in our blood, our breath, and our genes, said the Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure. There were also days when the soul—with a conscious or an unconscious jolt—wanted to love and to do good. Among those who did good, there were some who wanted to live clinging on to the goodness they’d done, as if to the hope of a better life somewhere else, better than the life they were living. The good we do will remain when we’re gone—a legacy, they thought. This legacy could override a life lost to doubt, or to impatience. This was also a crime, said the Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure. To do good only to justify your life, to do good only to survive your life—that’s criminal. Or, if it wasn’t a crime, it was cowardice. It was like taking out a loan on your own despair before the void, the emptiness of life and the afterlife, said the Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure. And the vicious cycle continued. And in this tragic situation, despair attached itself to those souls that searched for answers to their questions or expectations. Despair didn’t come only from the fact that we hadn’t asked to exist, but that we didn’t know why we did! And each person searched harder than the last for an explanation, a reason, a justification for our existence which we hadn’t asked to be imposed on us and maybe shouldn’t have been imposed on us. Maybe they should have included instructions with a warning in the packaging of our destiny that, according to certain Scriptures, was coming in one hundred and twenty days. Which, in the opinion of the Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure, wasn’t enough time. A hundred and twenty days to forge a man’s destiny! A man? The species born of all the other species? The species born of fish, insects, crocodiles, monkeys, dinosaurs—even cockroaches maybe! All these other species continued to fascinate and fill man with wonder. While these species—what was left of them—rather than being filled with wonder at the thought of man, were afraid of him. Because, instead of remaining men, most men had become monsters. Thrown into life without any kind of instruction, without warning and so suddenly, certain souls spent all their time questioning their fate. And so these bad-tempered beings created for themselves an alternative fate that had a purpose! Some became scientists to manipulate genetics. Others envisioned themselves in the great shoes of great men. Some sang at the top of their lungs and danced. Others wrote essays and theorems to sow discord between the hastily constructed compartments in the intelligences of others. Each one, in any case, sought a role to play, because they were here. You have to do something, and everyone wants to feel propelled, invested in a mission.

And so there were missionaries.

And so there were those called to a mission.

And so there were people on missions of their own.

And for the others—the uninvested—like those on rue Félix-Faure, there was a feeling, and not a mission. This feeling, it was hope coupled with patience! Every morning on rue Félix-Faure there was hope coupled with patience. But hope coupled with patience was not exclusively associated with incomprehensible, inexplicable situations, with the nausea of life, with despair, with doubt, with anxiety, said the Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure. For instance, there wasn’t any doubt on rue Félix-Faure. Hope coupled with patience was found even more in those things called “the good things in life.” The good things in life have an ephemeral quality, and hope coupled with patience makes them last a little longer, then longer, and then, and then. But what were the good things in life? For the Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure, it was—among other things—mornings on rue Félix-Faure. Like the smile of a child. Like an orgasm. Mornings on rue Félix-Faure exemplified hope coupled with patience. But this morning, hope coupled with patience did not wake up along with the inhabitants of rue Félix-Faure. The two fat policemen stood there, feet wide apart, before a spectacle that vacillated between absolute beauty and absolute horror. Beauty and horror in the absolute cancel each other out.

There was no more beauty or horror.

There was only a spectacle.

A grand spectacle.

The two fat policemen were still standing, feet wide apart, in front of a body cut up into pieces. All around the body cut up into pieces were four lighted lanterns, placed at the four cardinal points, and the glow of their burning wicks grew brighter and brighter. The pieces of the cut-up body were fat pieces. The cut-up body seemed heavy with age and the cut-up body was a man’s. The man was a leper and he would be at least fifty years old if all the pieces were put back together. His fifty plus years had been hard-lived. The man seemed older, by the look of his face. Maybe because of his stomach, too? His stomach was fat and resembled a hill in the middle of his torso. The whole body of the man cut up into fat pieces was ravaged by leprosy. The man’s body could have been strong, if it hadn’t had that fat stomach that unbalanced his big, clumsily cut-up body.

What had this big body been cut up with?

With an axe?

With a big knife?

With the big knife that we, as children, imagined the monster—the big monster, the fat monster—using to cut us up and eat us?

What excited us most about that fat monster?

Was it that he was going to eat us?

Or maybe that we knew the big monster didn’t exist, that we’d invented him, and it was our own invention that excited us?

Or maybe it was that the big monster did exist and we were scared of him, but in the end we knew that he wasn’t going to eat us anyway, just like always?

In the end, did monsters even exist?

Yes, of course!

Monsters had to exist!

Monsters have to exist!

We needed our monsters!

We need our monsters!

Not these monsters who swarm around today, these low-level, second rate monsters, these monsters of exploitation and organized crime, these cheap, common monsters, these moronic monsters! These monsters who want to remake the world into a world without dreams, a world where children were massacred, violated, manipulated, abandoned. A world of domination, of occupation: an imperialist world, where the strong threatened equality, where the richest—and richness was relative—mocked the poor, and poverty was also relative. We needed the monsters from our childhoods, the monsters of our dreams, those monsters to dream of, those monsters to make us dream. When we thought of all those monsters of our dreams, especially that big fat monster who advanced on us, excitement and fear mixed, and it grew difficult for us to separate the feelings. There was something charmingly pleasant about the monsters, especially when they were big and fat and advanced on us as if to eat us. We nestled deep in our couches, in the strong arms of our fathers, in the reassuring laps of our mothers and grandmothers, on the knees of our big brothers and sisters. Alas! The dream monsters, the monsters of our marvelous imaginations, were becoming increasingly rare. The modern monsters spoiled any honor, stealing and killing without hesitation. These monsters used God to blind, pervert, exploit, and kill innocent people! These monsters used force to dominate, crush, reveal, prove themselves!

Who could have created this spectacle on rue Félix-Faure?

Who had cut up the body of the big leper and forced his little sexual parts deep into his mouth?

A monster?

Dracula?

No! Dracula was a gentleman!

Dracula didn’t cut up his victims! He sucked on them! Hmm!

The cut-up body of the big leper was lying in a pool of blood that had started to coagulate in places. The blood was red, the red of a beginning and of a story that has to be known, understood, and told. The red blood, on this calm morning, was visible despite the barest glow of the rising sun’s light bathing the street. The color of the blood—a nervous red—seemed to signify, express, say something. The color of the blood was unusual. This red was violent, audacious, aggressive, stifling, cumbersome, embarrassing. The sidewalk seemed to collapse under the color of the blood that seeped into its bowels through the uneven cobblestones. Usually, life resounded louder than death on the sidewalk of rue Félix-Faure. Rue Félix-Faure was a living street. Rue Félix-Faure was one of the liveliest streets in this city that was the capital of this country which offered its face to the ocean. Rue Félix-Faure was a cosmopolitan street where people didn’t talk about death. It was the street of hope coupled with patience. The people of rue Félix-Faure lived by hope coupled with patience and wanted to live for that alone. The people of rue Félix-Faure didn’t want to know where they had come from, but to dream about where they wanted to go. This isn’t possible for everyone, a philosopher’s apprentice of rue Félix-Faure sometimes said. And the dream was always there, looked after, held, cleaned, smoothed, planed, polished, fawned over, pampered, praised, perfumed. The people of rue Félix-Faure went ever onward in hope coupled with patience. They didn’t think too much about their past. The people of rue Félix-Faure no longer had a past. On rue Félix-Faure, the maxim was tomorrow, it was one day, it was soon, in a bit, immediately, now—it was also, perhaps, never. The people of rue Félix-Faure didn’t look back. They moved forward. The beacon of their existence was hope coupled with patience, hope coupled with patience in this moment. For other people, the past was important for forming a present and a future, but on rue Félix-Faure, you didn’t talk about the past. Rue Félix-Faure was enough to build anyone an identity, a race, a people, a history, an existence, a destiny. Just walking down the street was enough to have a feeling of being, a feeling of existing, a feeling of resonance, a feeling of being alive, to feel. Rue Félix-Faure was the place for all those who were in pain or uneasy in their lives, but still wanted to live and hold on to life, as the Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure often advised. Rue Félix-Faure offered a life of hope coupled with patience. Rue Félix-Faure was the dream. No one could escape it, no one wanted to escape it! So then, why was there such a spectacle on this street? Why had this crime been committed on rue Félix-Faure?

Maybe the crime had been committed elsewhere and the cut up pieces of the body had been brought here!

Who said this was a question of a crime?

For the moment, it was a question of spectacle!

Rue Félix-Faure was a street made for spectacle.

Rue Félix-Faure was a stage. But not for this kind of spectacle, you’d think!

Who said this spectacle wasn’t also life?

Who said this spectacle wasn’t also dream?

Who said this spectacle wasn’t also hope coupled with patience?

Why decide what should be part of life and what shouldn’t be?

Why not think that life was also death?

The Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure said—to those who would listen as well as those who wouldn’t—that life was ultimately a scam. And for the Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure, the question was: What is life? The Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure wondered if it was this hodgepodge of the big, the small, the good, the wicked, the poor, the rich, the idiots, the geniuses, the beautiful, the ugly, the privileged, the outcasts that made up the fabric of life. What does it prove to compare the good to the wicked, the beautiful to the ugly, the Blacks to the Whites, the women to the men, the big to the small, the haves to the have-nots? To blame one and praise the other? Especially since, in most cases, it’s the guilty who are exonerated and the innocents accused. For what? What’s the mentality behind this opposition? This theory of opposites—like day and night, hot and cold, life and death—does it adequately justify our lives, does it adequately justify the horrors of life, the nonsense of life, the illusions of life? A life where most search for one another in vain, while other people try to hold on to something, never knowing exactly what! The people on rue Félix-Faure were lucky. They had hope coupled with patience and their dreams, while others didn’t know hope, and even fewer knew hope coupled with patience. Those people didn’t know dreams either. They were the phantoms of existence, thrashing about in vain, and ending up going nowhere. Those phantoms of existence searched for life’s pretexts, but sometimes those pretexts pushed them to suicide. For life’s pretexts didn’t make up for the anguish of the emptiness of their existence. Others concealed the pretexts and disguised themselves, so they lived a hidden life. Perhaps it was from this group that the new monsters of modern times emerged: the new prophets with their new temples, the false gurus with their new voices, the false moqadems with their new places of prayer. They all thought themselves to be new gods in the beginning, but became monstrous monsters. Perhaps this big leper with his body cut up into fat pieces, whom no one seemed to know on this morning on rue Félix-Faure, was one of these new gods turned monster.

Who was this big leper really, cut into fat pieces, with his little sexual parts stuffed deep into his mouth?

No one, for the moment, could answer.

And the Philosopher of rue Félix-Faure wondered if in the end we weren’t just pawns that the universe used to power the world’s absurd energy. This absurd energy which constantly needed more energy, perpetually renewing! And a small interference one day was enough to cause a malfunction. And drunk from this malfunction we got the impression that we were useful, important, even though we were nothing more than little motors. Little motors that turned for an infernal machine that we knew nothing about, and that ground us down indiscriminately. And still drunk from the moment we set foot on this violated planet, formerly Eden, we cried out in victory, even though it was all just a fleeting illusion in the malfunctioning universe.

And God came from this malfunction.

And He’s been here ever since!

The spectacle of the body of the big leper—cut up into fat pieces, his little sexual parts stuffed deep into his mouth, his bulging stomach—under an opaque sky at this hour of the morning, integrated itself perfectly into the setting of rue Félix-Faure. No other street in this city could be used for such a spectacle. This spectacle belonged to rue Félix-Faure.

“It’s fantastically sublime!” a philosopher’s apprentice exclaimed, his hands in his pockets, stumbling drunk from life, drunk from hope coupled with patience, drunk from dreams. Another philosopher’s apprentice danced a few steps, whistling a tune somewhere between aversion and admiration. He had approached the body cut up into fat pieces and one of the two fat policemen violently blocked him with a sweep of his hand. The philosopher’s apprentice stepped back, his hands raised to the fat policeman in a sign of peace.

___

 

 

Ken Bugul. “Chapter 1” from Rue Félix-Faure. Paris: Ho?beke, 2005.

Author
Mariètou Mbaye Biléoma is a Senegalese author whose pen name, Ken Bugul, translates from Wolof as "one who is unwanted." Her stances on women, Islam, North-South relations, and unique tone combining anger and humor, distinguish her as one of the great voices in African literature.
Translator
Natalie Kammerer received her MA in French literature from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2019. Since graduating, she has been trying to get as much exposure to the world of translation as possible, working as a professional document translator by day and relishing in literary translation projects by night. She currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska.
Translator
Devin Moulton received her BA in French and medieval & renaissance studies and MA in French literature from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Rue Félix-Faure is her first translation. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.