Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Man Who Ate Death (5th part)

Novel published in Serbian as "Čovek koji je jeo smrt", u Novi Jerusalim, Beograd, Nolit, 1988, © Borislav Pekić; English translation © by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić; published in The Man Who Ate Death: An Anthology of Contemporary Serbian Stories; Belgrade, Serbian P.E.N. Centre, 2003, pp. 65-105.

for 6th part HERE
One evening, after work, instead of going back home and to bed, he set off for faubourg Saint-Antoine.

It was a mild, wet autumn evening, streaked yellow with the first lights of the lanterns. The air was heavy, stifling. His wig drooped. Leaves caught on his high heels and his legs, stiff from sitting all day, buckled sideways. But the crooked, little cobble-stoned street where Rigout’s family lived was still full of people. And people talked and heard things. They called out to each other, laughed, listened – and heard things.
The last time he had heard someone laugh was when Judge Belleville, with his great gift of observation, had described how one of the Enragés had dropped his pants while climbing up to the scaffold. Popier sat enclosed there in the Palais de Justice as if in a morgue, hunched over his dead Protocol, imagining that Paris too had died, that it was as dead as he was, that the only sound in its streets was that of the creaking cart wheels carrying the condemned, the roll of the National Guards’ drums and the whistle of the iron blade.

Delacroix - Liberty.jpg

But Paris lived! Paris rejoiced! Paris laughed!

He resented, even felt moderately intolerant of all those people who had let him, Jean-Louis Popier, worry about the guillotine while they seemed to live as if it did not exist and as if they would live forever.

He would not visit the family. They would be biased. They would tell him that there was no better man than their Rigout, that his arrest was a terrible, stupid mistake. He would inquire among the neighbors and other tradesmen in the street. Their information about Rigout the cobbler would be more trustworthy.

He was shocked to discover how wrong he was, and frightened when he realized what a mistake it would have been not to inquire about the cobbler and to have chosen him solely on the basis of his own bourgeois preconceptions. Most everyone agreed that Rigout was the biggest good-for-nothing in the neighborhood. Nobody had a good word to say about him. Nobody sympathized with his misfortune. Everybody was happy to be rid of him.

Thrown by so much hostility, even from the cobbler’s best friends, Popier decided to visit the accused’s family, even though this had not been part of his plan. Its opinion of Rigout was worse than the neighbors’. It was so bad that the family said it was prepared, if asked, to testify against him at the Tribunal.

Perplexed, Popier retreated and headed for the bridges of the Seine to seek out the acquaintances of the other Rigout, not expecting to hear anything positive about the thief, indeed expecting to be left without either of his chosen death sentences for lunch the next day.

Once again he was mistaken. The thieves living under the bridges of the Seine had only the best to say about their Rigout.

When he returned to the mansard of the Palais de Justice, he wiped the leaves off his shoes, dried his wig, ate a piece of cheese, undressed, pulled the blanket over his head and spent a sleepless night.

It was a bad night, the worst since he had eaten the first death sentence. But it was worth it. By dawn he had his answer. He knew how he would choose between Rigout the cobbler and Rigout the thief.

It was no use asking others for help. Reality always serves the person who describes it and for everyone it is different. For some Rigout the cobbler would be bad, and for others, if Popier had had more time to roam the neighborhood and investigate, he might be good. Some would praise Rigout the thief and others criticize him. How was he to decide between the two?

Clearly, no fair decision could be made on the basis of unreliable and variable facts. Only he could find the answer and for that he had to let his own inspiration, his instinct guide him. (The philosopher might speak about free will, but Popier was not a philosopher and even then was thinking of a kind of conceit, except he did not know its name). Anyone who reaches for power must first believe in himself and in his own judgment. Even Fouquier-Tinville raised charges on the basis of his own revolutionary instincts, not facts. Admittedly, the charges were mostly wrong and at the very least exaggerated, inappropriate to the nail, but the power of the Revolutionary Tribunal’s State Prosecutor was of quite a different order than his own. It killed, whereas his restored.

When at around noon they brought him the death sentences for Rigout the cobbler and Rigout the thief, finding no inspiration to make his choice, he entered them both in the Protocol and for the first time in a long while ate his lunch without the bitter taste of ink.

A tinge of sadness touched his face because he had not saved anyone that day, as he had sworn to do, but this feeling of guilt shamefacedly withdrew before the realization that his power imposed responsibilities which necessitated personal sacrifice on his part.

We left Jean-Louis Popier on 24 March, in Germinal, entering the names of the condemned Hébertistes into the court Protocol, a frightened man, aware of the risks he was taking; we left him thin, drawn, with dark circles under his eyes from sleepless nights spent reflecting on the previous day’s lunch and fearing the doubts raised by the coming day; we left him unshaven, unkempt, with utter disregard for his appearance, focused on his mission; finally, we left him anxious, confused, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

A month after 5 April, still in Germinal, as he inscribed the names of Danton and company in the Protocol, we find him a different man. Still careful, knowing that even the slightest mistake could cost him his life, but not afraid. At least, he was less afraid than to start with. As if he believed he could never be arrested, even if he did make a mistake. As if he believed he could not make a mistake.

This had a positive effect on his appearance and demeanor. He was no longer pale, haggard, tormented. In fact he looked well, considering the times, though he ate no better than anyone else, if one discounts the ink-covered paper he swallowed every day. He devoted noticeable attention to his appearance, as much as his earnings would allow. He forwent meals in order to be able to buy a small item of clothing that would distinguish him from the motley group of clerks and scribes around him. With the tapered dark blue jacket replacing his frayed black coat, and the lace shirt cuffs flaring out from his jacket sleeves, with his soft white jabot, white knee-socks and pale blue wig which had belonged to some executed aristocrat, the change in his appearance, faithfully reflecting the change from within, was complete.

But the biggest change was in his comportment. He lost his stoop, by which a scribe could always be recognized in the corridors of the Tribunal. His myopic eyes, ruined by reading by candlelight, now had round metal-framed glasses and the cold sharpness of insight, which was so piercing that it left even the righteous helpless. Before, he had been withdrawn and reserved. And he remained so. But in a different way. If before his transformation his had been the taciturnity of someone who had nothing but his powerlessness to hide, now it was that of someone who did not wish to show his power.

He may not have wanted to show it, but he possessed it. He possessed it and he felt it. With all his being.

The change could not have passed unnoticed. At any other time, people would have looked for an explanation, and, failing to find one in his unchanged social status or any other rational reason, they would have declared him daft and laughed at him. But under the Revolution everything was possible. Were that not so, the Revolution itself would have been impossible. Had not the funny provincial boy from Arras become Robespierre? And who had Danton been before the Revolution?

With his dark blue jacket, pale blue wig, round glasses and stiff, unapproachable manner, didn’t Popier look more and more like the Incorruptible Being?

Yes, damn it, he really did!
I noticed it a long time ago and wondered how he dared.
He wouldn’t if he couldn’t.
No, he wouldn’t…
But since he could...

Since he could, people began being afraid of him. Initially, except for his manner, which befitted neither his occupation nor his standing, nor Popier as they knew him, there was no real reason for such fear. But soon it became imperative to find one. And it lay in the general conviction that Popier was a secret agent of the Public Safety Committee. Here too, revolutionary customs differed from the ways of the ancien régime. Secret police agents used to be despised and were to be avoided. Now, however, people were scrambling to be in his company. It was dangerous to avoid him, because it looked suspicious. Virtue had nothing to fear, Robespierre declaimed, innocence is always protected. And so those who most feared Popier were the most eager to rub shoulders with him.

Popier himself barely noticed the change in his colleague’s attitude to him. Even when he had been a lowly record-keeper of death, powerless to change its inexorable course, he had not sought out the company of others, or suffered from loneliness. Now, when he had power and had found a purpose for it, now when he had a mission, he missed people even less. In order to discourage intrusiveness, he became even more unapproachable. This only heightened their fear, making them even more invasive.

Did he know that he looked like Robespierre? Was the resemblance a fortuitous byproduct of his inner transformation or was it a striving to invoke the image of a more powerful example? Was it an attempt to parody and ridicule him, the secrets of his own actions giving him insight into the other man’s work as well?

Let us not digress from the story of Jean-Louis Popier by indulging in fruitless assumptions and the realm of mimesis. That would oblige us to carry this resemblance to its logical conclusion. It would undoubtedly make us think that the highest dramatic effect would be achieved by arranging a meeting between the original and the copy, Maximilien Robespierre and citizen J.-L. Popier (which would disavow the historical truth that until his own trial Robespierre had never stepped foot inside the Revolutionary Tribunal, on whose blind efficiency the reign of Virtue so depended). Would the Leader be appalled at the sight of the grotesque version of himself seated at the desk, where the most faithful record of his utopia was being kept? Would citizen Popier, its unfaithful recorder, resist the temptation to bring the story of his life to a Homerian end – for he was already deeply steeped in the other Popier, conscious of his powers? And how would he do so? We would be facing serious complications which we would be obliged to resolve by sending our Robespierre, citizen Popier, to the guillotine, where, as a counter-revolutionary, he certainly belonged, but not before this truth about him so prescribed.

We are more concerned by what is happening within him than with him.

What, then, is happening within him?

We have seen him try to shed responsibility and leave everything to chance. Disappointed by the unjustness of the latter, he decides to make the choice himself, based on visible differences in the worth of the two lives. The skimpy biographies given in the death sentences are of no help. He turns to those who know his candidates best. They are of no help either. They only leave him all the more confused. He comes to the conclusion that the so-called realities of life do not exist, that their facts are unreliable and thus cannot serve as the basis for sound judgment. Again he is alone, but aware that it cannot be otherwise. Power always stands alone. He has only himself for advice, and boundless faith in his mission. Thereafter he relies exclusively on his own judgment. At first, his judgment follows Reason, his sense of Justice, and in a way Popier’s own personal experience of life. But memories of the Rigout case linger. Faith in the judgment of others had almost misled him that time. Now he was afraid of being misled by his own. It was not infallible. It was based on the few sparse facts presented in the verdict by Fouquier-Tinville. Who could be sure that they were true? What is certain is that Germaine Chutier yearned for a good spindle not a good king, and had Popier not interfered, they would have beheaded her as a staunch royalist.

What was the point, then, of seeking help? He had tried everything. Nothing had helped him. It has all been in vain.

He was alone.

And it was only when he realized that he had to shed the prejudices of Reason – so extolled at Nôtre Dame– and yield to inspiration, for it alone was free of such prejudices, it alone did not depend on Reason and did not have to be held accountable, when he realized that he had to forget everything he knew about the accused from the Tribunal documents, however little it might be, and judge him on his own, which is how divine justice works, only then could he sleep with a clear conscience, knowing that the next day, whatever choice lay ahead, power itself would teach him how to act, and that, however he did act, the choice would be just.

Every day thereafter, Jean-Louis Popier would deprive the guillotine of a human head. He would reflect on it only to the point of eliminating those of the condemned whom he could not consider for saving, either because they were too well-known or because the nature of their crimes was too serious. After that, he would place his trust in the prescience of inspiration and quietly eat the deaths sentence it had chosen for him.

For, inspiration was never wrong.
for 6th part HERE

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