By Joseph Andras.
An excerpt from Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us: A Novel by Joseph Andras. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2021 by Joseph Andras.
The X-ray shows an opaque stain on a lobe of the right lung. Fernand has no precise idea of what this means, beyond the fact that the statement’s length invites the interpretation that what he took for a common cold, caught after a soccer match in Algeria, may be a more serious illness. Very probably tuberculosis. The hospital in Lagny highly recommended he go to Paris as soon as possible to visit another doctor for further examination. Yet Fernand is not particularly worried. By nature he is accustomed, at the great table of existence, to pour his glasses half-full. Happiness for him is tied to the ordinary. He does not claim to be more capable than he is, and displays himself in the evident modesty of crumpled clothes: without noise, without clashes, only with a sort of well-being of which he has no need to be proud.
Hélène has just finished her shift. Her calves are slightly sore after so much walking (there were more customers than usual tonight, for no apparent reason). Fernand is in his room on the Café. Bleu’s second floor, lying on the counterpane in his underpants, reading France Football. Lille OSC has just won the French Cup against FC Nancy. Two goals to one. Fernand knows one of the goalscorers, Jean Vincent— or at least knows of him through the press, and for having watched a few of his matches. He has a likeable mug, that Vincent: high forehead, Sioux nose. Scored in the seventeenth minute. A knock on the door. He gets up, surprised. Who could it be— he looks at his watch— at 10:40 p.m.? He opens, it’s Hélène. I hope I’m not disturbing you? Her presence, more than the question it suggests, grips him to the bone: here he is, as if naked, in a stupor. No, no, of course not . . . Come in, please.
She’s been on her feet all day, she says, she wanted to sit down a minute before walking home. Fernand can hardly believe his ears. She’s not shy, this one, coming up here at such an unreasonable hour: she could have passed any of the people living on this floor, and they would’ve had a field day just talking about it . . . What are you reading? Ah, soccer again! Fernand demurs: there’s L’Humanité right there, at the foot of the bed. I don’t know if that’s much better. She laughs. Then Fernand asks himself if he prefers her laughing, like this, head thrown back to leave her throat exposed, yet not offering it, either: a playful swan, a fair ribbon of Spring, with those small white stubs beating their wings and that high-pitched trill, thin and frail (Fernand is getting lost). Or perhaps he prefers her serious, severe, the way she’s often apt to be, the wrinkle between her two eyebrows more pronounced, a delicate furrow, and that tragic look, a Slavic stare straight out of Dostoevsky (or at least that’s the image that comes to his mind, again; he gave up on Crime and Punishment after the third chapter. He only remembers one sentence, very beautiful really, he had thought to himself: the hero’s mother, the one whose name is impossible to remember, had written her son a letter that ended with I kiss you with a thousand thousand kisses, yours until the grave— that’s lovely, that is, he told himself). Dumb question. There is no need to choose, he loves her both cheerful and serious: two colors of the same future.
Only one bed in the room, not even a stool or a trunk, nothing. Hélène remains standing and Fernand can guess at her embarrassment. Here, he says immediately, to push it away, I didn’t tell you: I got a letter from the hospital around noon. They’ve diagnosed a bit of something inside, a lung playing up. An opaque stain on a lobe, as they says—Fernand corrects himself— is what they say. Funny way to put it, an opaque stain on a lobe, don’t you think? Hélène thinks that he should take it more seriously. Trouble is, I’d have to go to Paris. Trouble? exclaims Hélène, it’s only thirty kilometers away, that’s nothing! You know I’m not from around here, thirty kilometers is a long ways away on the back of a camel. Hélène giggles, you’re silly. Fernand begins: I don’t want to inconvenience you, Hélène (he likes to utter her first name in front of her, looking straight into her eyes without blinking and with the impression, as foolish as it is fleeting, that he already has her, if only a little . . .), but would you mind if. Hélène cuts in again: don’t bother being so polite, stop fussing, I’ll drive you there if it helps. Fernand thanks her. Followed by silence.
A passing angel, armed to the teeth. It’s late, I’ve got to go. See you soon, I expect. Fernand nods, he hopes so. And anyway Clara needs help downstairs, we’ll cross paths again for sure. He stands up to see her to the door. Cover your neck outside, Hélène, wouldn’t want to catch an opaque stain, now would you . . .
Paris crumbles under a thick drapery of sky.
The sun shines in little scales, white spittle. Hélène is wearing heels and a striped scarf; her legs are crossed under a round table, outside a café. On the sidewalk, a woman holds a wallet and a baguette in the same hand, a couple hail a taxi (he, a tall twig, sports a blue shirt rolled up to the elbows; she has on beige gloves and a yellow-patterned orange skirt), a man in a raincoat runs across the street without stopping, the policewoman on the square shakes her baton, the metro station on the corner breathes passersby in, out with the same, continuous movement . . . Hélène tells Fernand about the war, hers anyway, in which part of her family in Poland was massacred by the Germans. One of her uncles, Sławomir, was tortured for a whole night by a Nazi officer before they finished him off with a saber. Her parents—her father, she specifies, was still in France, he only returned in ’48—hid Jews during the Occupation, and she herself fed a friend’s brother, a young Resistance fighter in hiding, a member of a network whose name she doesn’t know. She never ascertained how it happened, but she was eventually found out: the Vichy authorities wrote to summon her to a police station in Chartres. I think it was a Tuesday, she remembers. She thought it inadvisable to attend, and fled: she was still a Swiss national, thanks to her husband, even though she’d left him before the war, and she took refuge in Lausanneuntil it was over. The caf. owner puts a Mouloudji record on the turntable. I’ve the ills of the night / Of the night in Paris / When the girls come and go / And at this hour, I just linger . . . Hélène suddenly stops talking and listens. She really likes this song, she says; Fernand pretends to know it and agrees, a catchy number, yes, I like the chorus, makes me want to dance . . .
He pays the bill and they walk toward Saint-Michel. Fernand spent three days in Paris when he first arrived; he stayed in Pigalle at his grandfather’s, a concierge who works in the Grandes- Carrières district, in the 17th arrondissement, and sells France-Soir once his day is done, to make a little extra (or bring a bit more bacon home, as he says, though he happens not to like it very much). He had offered to put Fernand up to help him save on hotels. You’ll see tonight, the guy’s a sweetie, continues Fernand, and I think he’s going to like you a lot! The Seine greens to their right, coloring the clouds in one long stroke. They walk by a movie theater and look at the posters: The Return of Don Camillo, Newlyweds, Circle of Danger, I Confess—a Hitchcock. Fernand never goes to the movies, practically speaking, but Hélène treats herself sometimes, once a year, when there’s a little money left over. The war, you were saying? Yes, her brother, she resumes, enlisted in the Foreign Legion when Germany invaded Poland. Their shadows touch on the asphalt.
Oh, you know, it’s not that easy over there, whatever they say: even the southern sun sometimes forgets to keep up the act. His grandfather has made a mustard pork roast. The French authorities don’t want to listen to Muslim demands. To the “natives,” as they say. It’s absurd, in addition to being obscene. Going to drive us straight into a wall, believe me, without any turn or anything, nose against brick. Hélène listens closely while cutting her meat. I don’t remember the exact date, if you’ll forgive me, but what is certain is that the Arabs have been organizing for years to be heard, to win equality for all, between every community at home, in Algeria. But it’s like shouting in the desert. Nothing. Zero. We put them behind bars and abolish their parties, dissolved, reduced to silence and then we stand oh so tall, with Culture, Liberty, Civilization, those capital letters, paraded up and down, scrubbed and polished in front of the mirror, the shinier the better . . . Oh, you should see how much they love that stuff. The day France was liberated—I’m speaking of the mainland, of course, I’ll say it again: for me Algeria is Algeria, I don’t believe in their French department twaddle, that’s like parchment, like flint, it’s done for, over. Look at Indochina right now. Ho Chi Minh made it very clear when he told them that a new page had to be turned. No one listened, and now look where it’s got us . . . Well, so: the day France celebrated victory over the Germans, I don’t know how many Muslims, thousands, more, were being massacred in the country, at Sétif, at Guelma. Those names probably don’t mean a thing to you, they’re about 300 and 500 kilometers from Algiers. Anyway, the stories I’ve been told, I wouldn’t dare repeat them to you, I promise. Especially since we’re eating—and besides, grandpa, I’ve got to tell you: your roast, it’s not just delicious, oh no, even to say that would be an insult, it’s, it’s (Fernand waves his hands), there are no words to describe it. In short, I need to look into other alphabets to describe your roast (his grandfather laughs and looks at Hélène, then Fernand, hell of a guy this one, you’ll see, Miss, he’s quite a guy). Hélène smiles and wipes the corner of her mouth with a napkin. Fernand hesitates: I’m not boring you with these stories, am I? Oh no, not at all, it’s really interesting, on the contrary. Fernand passes a finger over his mustache and resumes: I was born in ’26, wasn’t even twenty at the time but I remember those things very well, Arabs would tell me about them when we talked. The kind of stories that wreck your sleep. People burned alive with gasoline, crops pillaged, bodies thrown in wells, just like that, grabbed and tossed in, or burned in ovens, kids, women, everyone. The army shooting at everything that moves, to crush dissent. And not just the army, mind you, there were settlers and militiamen as well, hand in glove, all dancing the same damn jig. Death is one thing, but humiliation goes deeper, gets under the skin, it plants little seeds of anger and screws up whole generations; I remember a story someone told me, it happened in Melbou, there’s no blood but maybe it’s worse, blood dries faster than shame: they forced some Arabs to kneel before our flag and say We are dogs, Ferhat Abbas is a dog. Abbas is one of their leaders and still, he’s a moderate, wears a tie, doesn’t even demand complete independence, he just wants justice. Even the moderates are met with contempt. A French journalist saw it all, I’m not making it up.
About Algeria, Hélène knows only what is reported in the French press. That is, nothing, apart from the state’s moralizing piffle. Fernand gets up to help clear the table and make room for the cheese platter. The grandfather begs Hélène to stay seated, it’s not every day he has guests, she should make the most of it. How does he see the future? she asks Fernand when they’re sitting down again. Fernand’s hand goes through his hair. He doesn’t really know. However, he has no doubt that things will go from bad to worse. The status quo doesn’t work anymore. Some people are talking about the Vietnamese model, to rise up by force of arms and join the guerrillas, but many more, he notes, don’t believe in it. Fernand, for his part, aspires to just one thing: that the Algeria of tomorrow may end up, voluntarily or otherwise, recognizing all of its children, wherever they’re from, him or his parents and grandparents, doesn’t matter, Arabs, Berbers, Jews, Italians, Spaniards, Maltese, French, Germans . . . Millions were born in that land, and a handful of property-owners, barons who possess neither laws nor morals, have reigned over the country with the assent and even the backing of successive French governments: we must get rid of this system, clear Algeria of these kinglets and create a new regime with a popular base, made up of Arab and European workers together, humble people, the small and the unassuming of every race united to defeat the crooks who oppress us and hold us to ransom. His grandfather sniggers: here he goes with his communist fancies, don’t listen to him Mademoiselle Hélène, when he gets into his stride, the seas start swelling and the levees break!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Andras is the author of the novels De nos frères blessés and Kanaky. Awarded the Prix Goncourt for De nos frères blessés (Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us), he refused the prize, explaining his belief that “competition and rivalry were foreign to writing and creation.”
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021.
Mark de Silva