adjustments with vodka and Kantian categories, those tranquilizers against any too sharp coagulation of reality. Or as almost always happened, closing one’s eyes and going back, to the cottony world of any other night chosen carefully among the cards of the open deck. “See, see, rider,” Big Bill was singing, another corpse, “see what you have done.”
(– 114 )
IT was so natural for him to remember then that night on the Saint-Martin canal, the proposition they had made him (1,000 francs) to see a film at the home of a Swiss doctor. During the war an Axis surgeon had arranged to film a hanging in all of its details. Two rolls in all, but silent. However, the photography was excellent, they swore. You could pay on the way out.
In the moment necessary to resolve it all and say no and leave the café with the Haitian girl who knew the friend of the Swiss doctor, he had had time to imagine the scene and put himself as always on the side of the victim. There was no reason to waste words on the hanging of whoever-he-was, but if that somebody had known (and the refinement could have been precisely in telling him so) that a camera was going to record every moment of his grimaces and twistings for the pleasure of future dilettantes…“No matter how it hurts me, I shall never be indifferent like Étienne,” Oliveira thought. “What it amounts to is that I insist on the unheard-of idea that man was meant for something else. Then, of course … What poor tools we have to find a way out of this dungeon.” The worst was that he had looked at Wong’s picture with coldness because the one they were torturing had not been his father, not thinking about the forty years that had passed since it all took place in Peking.
“Look,” Oliveira told Babs, who had come back to him after having quarreled with Ronald, who had insisted on listening to Ma Rainey and had put Fats Waller down, “it’s incredible how bastardly we can get. What did Christ think about before he fell asleep? Suddenly in the midst of a smile your mouth can turn into a big hairy spider.”
“Oh, no,” said Babs. “Not delirium tremens at this time of night.”
“It’s all superficial, baby, everything is epi-der-mic. Look, when I was a kid I used to drag them out for all the old ladies in the family, sisters and all that, the whole genealogical mess, you know why? Well, all kinds of silly reasons, but among them because for those ladies when anyone passed on, as they would say, any kicking-off which took place in their circle was much more important than a war, an earthquake which kills ten thousand people, things like that. We’re cretins, but such cretins it’s hard to imagine, Babs, because to come to this we’ve had to read Plato, the Church Fathers, the classics, without overlooking a single one, and beyond that to know everything that can be known about the knowable, and that’s the precise moment that one arrives at a cretinism so incredible that he’s capable of grabbing his poor illiterate mother by her shawl and blowing his top over the fact that she is upset by the death of the Jew on the corner or the girl on the third floor. And you talk to her about the earthquake in Bab-el-Mandeb or the offensive at Vardar Ingh, and you think the poor devil feels any abstract pity for the liquidation of three divisions of the Iranian army …?”
“Take it easy,” Babs said in English. “Have a drink, sonny, and don’t be such a murder to me.”
“And what it really comes down to is a case of eyes that can’t see … Why, tell me why we must beat old ladies about the head with our puritan adolescence of shitty little cretins? Oh, brother, I’m stewed. I’m going home.”
But it was hard for him to give up the warm Eskimo pelt, the distant and almost indifferent contemplation of Gregorovius as he plied La Maga with his sentimental interview. Breaking away from everything as if he were plucking a cadaverous old rooster who had