Extract from Autopsy of a Father
Translated from the french by Robert Bononno
out in july from bellevue literary press
The retention ponds had just been crossed. The train was now moving over the final patches of tilled earth, raked with copper beneath the low autumn sun. Soon the forest would appear, the tunnels, and the rush of crowded trains along the viaduct, with the seemingly endless expanse of the distant city before it. Gabriel rested his forehead against the glass. Below him, a man in boots had emerged from a path, swaying in the brambles before the onslaught of small stones kicked up from the tracks. There was a long scream, then the man’s face, a marked face, half eaten by the hood of his parka, appeared in the gale left by the passing train. Gabriel leaned over to watch him as he disappeared in the distance. A brief vision of solitude that forced him to confront his own.
It made no sense to have left. The silence, the doubt—they wouldn’t be any easier to bear in Monceau. It would have been better simply to wait for Clara’s return to Les Épinettes. Without her, Gabriel was no longer able to overcome the anxiety of those dark hours before evening, when the garden began to form a single block with the night against the living room windows. He was no longer even certain she would be returning this evening. She hadn’t called before leaving, hadn’t answered his calls, either at home or on her cell phone. Maybe she was more shaken up than she wanted to admit by what he had been through. Maybe if he had been able to laugh at himself, he thought, having anticipated so little of the isolation of banishment to which he had condemned himself by that single sentence, although one he did not deny having said.
The wall struck his temple with the passage of another train. Gabriel straightened up; the glass disappeared in a flutter of gold light as the tracks cut through the forest. He rose from his seat to grab a newspaper left in the luggage rack above him. That’s when he saw them, Ania and little Théo, in the first row of seats near the door to the car.
It was hard to believe they hadn’t seen one another on the platform, strange too that she had taken the train at this late hour. Gabriel wondered what she had done, who she had gone to see after showing up without warning, wrapped in some kind of bohemian kerchief, her desire for provocation so obvious that he hadn’t even noticed it. It wasn’t like her to have maintained contact with anyone in the village. Unless she had remained friends with Chloé, he thought, picturing in his mind the features of that slightly soiled child with the very pale eyes, who had come with her mother to a birthday party more than thirty years ago.
With one leg folded beneath him, little Théo daydreamed facing the window. Gabriel watched him press his thumb against the glass as if to arrest the passage of the landscape upon which would be superimposed the oval of his delicate face, cut high and straight by the fringe of hair. The boy hadn’t yet noticed that his mother was crying, quick tears that she brushed aside with the tips of her fingers. But he soon tried to get her attention, grazed her wet cheek and turned to wrap her in his arms, with a movement both concerned and painful. Gabriel couldn’t get over the maturity of intention and empathy; only a short while ago, he had found the boy to be awkward, timid, and sullen.
Ania let herself be consoled, her torso bent toward the child, her eyes gazing off into space. It was strange to be able to observe his own daughter without her knowledge, and on that very day. Gabriel decided not to reveal his presence; what more could they have to say? Yet he would have liked to know whether she was crying because of him or for him, the scandalous father whose attitude had so scandalized others, or—at least that’s what he had told her in the garden to cut short any comments—had offered hypocritical and naïve individuals a moment of cheap unanimity.
The train had reached the western suburb, an expanse of old buildings a few stories high interspersed with trees reflected in the mirrored surfaces of office towers. In places, a kitchen garden abutted a brick shed or tangled with scrub grass between the piers of the viaduct. From the frontmost car, where Gabriel was seated, the sky seemed within reach; a blimp advanced almost imperceptibly, puncturing a lingering cloud.
The sun, which had fallen along the edge of the tracks, crossed the car from end to end; Théo protected himself by pulling up the collar of his polo shirt. Ania had regained her composure and was telling him something with rapid gestures. They were tossed against one another by the shuddering train. The boy didn’t take his eyes off his mother’s mouth as he extended a precautionary caress to her still distraught features. What could she be saying to him? Gabriel wondered what kind of picture she was painting of the demanding father whom she had turned against long before adolescence. With the boy she observed the kind of familiarity found in single mothers, who, out of necessity, had become friends with their children, forced by the problems of adults to mature too quickly. Maybe (probably) she had divorced; in any event, Gabriel wouldn’t have known. It had been four years since he had seen her, and there had been nothing that explained or even indicated why. This grandson with such adult concerns must be about six, then. Gabriel had no idea what one understood at that age. He had practically no memory of his own childhood.
The train was now nearly full, and a crush of passengers attempted to board at every station. Gabriel had forgotten how painful travel could be at this time of day. He had withdrawn against the back of his seat, delaying the moment when he would have to retrieve his bag. Standing near the door to the car, a young man was talking into his phone in some unknown tongue, degraded with French expletives, while music pulsed from beneath his helmet. A woman, her thighs tightly sheathed in red, had stopped between the seats, waiting with annoyance for a place to free up. Gabriel gathered his things from the seat beside him, without receiving so much as a glance or a thank-you. The woman spread a knit bag of gold chains across her lap from which she pulled the white thread of an earbud. For a second, Gabriel examined her pulpy mouth as it silently voiced a melody, her fake nails, encrusted with spangles, racing over her phone’s screen. A strong scent of vanilla reached him like an oily cloud. He turned to the window, pulling on the bottom of his jacket. A wave of almost jubilatory terror rolled over him suddenly. What would they have done, this bunch of ill-mannered riffraff with whom he was now forced to travel, if they had known what he no longer felt any compunction about saying? Would they have strung him up? But these people didn’t know anything, didn’t know who he was or what he had said, or the words that had gotten him fired. These people didn’t read that sort of thing, he said to himself, maybe wouldn’t even have understood it. Ultimately, it wasn’t so much a question of them as it was of how people saw themselves, how they saw their country. For his part, he felt hopeless as he watched its rigor and intellect slowly seep away.
The train wound through the tunnels one by one, accompanied by the noise of switches converging upon the station. It was filled with tired people, by swollen stomachs under wrinkled shirts, by brazen young girls beneath a tangle of red and blue streaks, battalions of the young with downcast eyes, alike in their skin color and their exhaustion, wearing clothes that smelled of spices. Gabriel hated his generation and himself for having allowed that world to impose itself, whether through negligence or idealism. Ania had sought refuge in that confusion, found consolation for her inadequacies there. For a time, she had even attended the mosques and hammams; this was upon her return from a sentimental journey to Iran that had, in the end, been so far from—and so painfully—the country of her mother. That’s how he had lost her once and for all. He had felt remorse, yes, and she aggression, and in the end he had simply resigned himself, whatever she might think, to keeping his distance.
Because of the scrum of passengers standing in the aisle of the train, he could no longer see her. When they arrived, Gabriel couldn’t find her on the platform either. He imagined her hurrying to catch the express train, the boy trotting by her side, no taller than the bags and strollers around him. Unless she had moved, which was certainly possible, it would be at least another hour before she got home, another hour of this unbearable promiscuity among the world’s loners. What sort of injury, of which he was supposedly the cause, was she pretending to avenge by this life of mediocrity? He at least could have insisted that she not deprive him of the ability to see the boy. That’s what Clara thought, no doubt rightly, and with more conviction than he.
At the exit of the station, he was surprised by the night, soft and windswept. He walked down Malesherbes. Rows of chestnut trees shook their reddish leaves, as large as a closed fist. In fifteen minutes he was home, in the small apartment in Monceau he had bought thirty years earlier, when he had started his weekly history broadcast.
His mailbox was overflowing with a hodgepodge of brochures and letters, which he deposited in the entranceway. The fridge was empty. Outside, along the park fence, a man was painstakingly arranging his cardboard and bags for the night. Gabriel had no desire to eat; he was overcome with nausea, nausea and fear. The condemnation to which he had been subjected the past several weeks had led to an uneasiness that fatigue and distance had only made more obvious. He wrote this in his diary. It was a kind of preface, a way to approach the many pages about the sensation of oppression that had made the house feel hostile and his isolation so overwhelming in Clara’s absence.
He also alluded to Ania’s reappearance, describing the puffy face, almost unrecognizable within the oval of her scarf, the unpleasant shock of finding her, after all this time, on his doorstep, without time to prepare, and her detachment, which had, in spite of everything, managed to affect him.
It was nine when he closed the diary. He had reheated a plate of noodles and served himself a shot of vodka in a mustard jar. Clara’s flight had landed on time but she hadn’t gotten home yet. He left her a final message to let her know he was in town. Before hanging up, he added that he thought he had seen a man throw himself onto the tracks, a laborer, maybe a railroad employee, a man from the world of hard work that had been that of his parents, a world gone by, discredited, a world for which he would never feel nostalgic.
The paper was lying on the table in the small room used by the staff at the day care center. It was open to the programs page, where Gabriel’s photo adorned a short article partly covered by some rapid scribbling. It was a fine photo, composed, unspeakably bitter, which Ania remembered quite clearly. It had appeared maybe ten years earlier, when her father’s appointment as head of a national radio station had received the support of several newspapers. Ania was then sharing an apartment in a building in Suresnes, and she returned to Les Épinettes rarely, if at all. Gabriel had sent the article—like everything about himself he felt was important—to her home, together with a short note: “Just to let you know. Your father. Kisses.” Just to let her know what exactly? she had often wondered. That he was successful? That he was keeping up the connection she was trying to avoid? His letters were proof of a life she had known only superficially: the familiarity with power, the hours of reading, silent and bored, on the deep living room sofas, the Sunday visitors and their condescending informality toward the village. Gabriel didn’t expect Ania to speak to him about the articles, nor did he expect that she would be proud of them. He had never been impressed by fame, least of all his own.
Ania turned the paper over and went to prepare some tea and make sure that Lucia, her colleague, was still outside. The precaution was unnecessary, however, for Lucia would never have believed that the man in the photograph was Ania’s father, and had little interest in the matter to begin with. She remained there smoking, squatting on her heels, her face buried up to her cheeks in the fake fur collar of a red coat that, at one time, Gabriel would have found amusing.
The previous day, the station had announced that Gabriel was being let go at the request of the entire editorial team. The article didn’t discuss the “misstep” that had triggered their unanimity against him; there must have been enough commentary about that already. Ania hadn’t heard about it, though. She knew so little about what was going on, really, but could easily imagine just how far her father might have gone.
The photograph framed his face. The mouth, clearly delineated, smiled on one side, his gaze fixed on the lens through the reflections in his glasses. It was the same face, sensual and intelligent, whose irony she had feared and had withdrawn from ever since she was eight. Yet on that day, in the noisy proximity of the children waking from their nap, her inadequacy now seemed inconsequential to her. A handful of beautiful soft garnet blooms were still visible on the low rosebushes planted just outside the playroom windows. Ania had wonderful memories of those early fall days of gentle torpor on the lawn of Les Épinettes, overlooking the broad ribbon of dark water. Théo had seen the photos, and he couldn’t understand why they had never been invited. Ania planned to take him the following weekend if the weather held out. Gabriel had always been interested in small children. He had even managed to be a comforting father for the first few years, when the two of them had been alone.
Stepping in the tall grass by the side of the road, along the stretch of land that separated the train station from Les Épinettes, and keeping a careful eye on Théo as he walked lopsidedly in his sneakers, Ania realized that Gabriel might not be home, or not alone. She remembered now that it had been four years since they had spoken. At least she could have found out why he had been let go from the station. Much against her will, the old anxiety about her ignorance returned to life as she approached the house.
The road leading to the entrance of the property was still deeply furrowed and covered with polished stones half buried in the dirt. The gate was wide open as always; Ania didn’t know how to explain to Théo Gabriel’s habit of never closing doors. The untrimmed ivy overflowed the garden wall like a bundle of laundry, and the tall lime trees, encrusted with mistletoe, now joined together above the shed where the tools and bicycles were stored. The old Audi that Gabriel used to get around the village was still there, parked in the same spot in the shadows of the branches.
It took him a long time to respond, even though the music had stopped when she first rang the bell. Their presence surprised him less than it disturbed him, although he tried to conceal it. His face had grown thinner beneath the sheen of white hair, which he had worn short for the past few years. His eyes, riddled with small capillaries, took pleasure in observing how she had changed, especially the weight she had put on, which he was careful not to mention. He then turned to Théo, looked at him fixedly for a long time, as if he were trying to find in him the small boy he had seen here four years earlier. “You’ve come at a bad time,” he said at last, indulging Ania with a smile. “After all these years, you could have let me know in advance, don’t you think?” Ania told him that she had decided on the spur of the moment, after seeing his picture in the paper. Gabriel responded to her frankness with an ironic arching of his eyebrows. He asked them to wait five minutes; they could sit outside, the chairs were already out.
Théo had made a great deal of this visit to his grandfather. The welcome and wildness of the large garden left him feverish. He had released his mother’s hand, suddenly behaving as if others were observing him. Ania rediscovered the place through his eyes, which were now accustomed to the anarchy of the suburbs. The cherry trees were beginning to cloak themselves with red. The ropes of the swing, left to rot for years on end, were gone. In front of the house, the wicker chairs had, in fact, been placed on the grass. They’d been painted white. At the bottom of the garden, she noticed a reed lattice screening one of the buildings of the neighboring property: a pretty structure with a flat roof whose doors and shutters Ania had always seen closed. Several large clusters of hydrangea were in bloom.
“If you’re here about what happened,” Gabriel said, rejoining them with a pitcher of cold verbena and some leftover ice cream for Théo, “I’ll tell you right away that I’m not interested in your opinion.” His sly, bitter eyes held her own. Ania would have liked to tell him that his little games no longer had any effect on her. But he wouldn’t have understood; he would have furrowed his brow at the word “games” as he painfully tried to follow her, as he did when she was a girl, listening to her hesitant and always poorly formulated replies. So she sat back in her chair facing the sun and let him talk, listening with half an ear. He made no attempt to find out what she had been doing, what had become of her. It had been like that ever since she’d left home. He asked nothing, as if to indicate that he was complying with her desire to live her life differently somewhere else. On the other hand, he was talkative when it came to himself, answering questions she did not ask about his plans for the apartment in Monceau, now that he had lost the few bylines that remained to him, and the caretakers’ house here, since they would be retiring in three or four years.
Théo finished his ice cream without taking his eyes off his grandfather in his T-shirt, who spoke in long sentences, massaging the wicker armrests with his delicate hands. He had no experience, not even any notion, of these distant and cultivated environments in which Ania had felt so ill at ease as a child. She sensed this in his combination of fascination and discomfort, hesitant whether to sit and watch or go off exploring.
Behind the row of poplars that Gabriel had had planted to protect himself from the hordes of weekend kayakers, the river’s heavy waters tossed bits of wood around as the light flickered gently across the surface. Théo had finally worked up the courage to advance to the bottom of the lawn, where he discovered the small gate, now covered with briars and nettles and indistinguishable from the fence itself. Ania saw him step carefully among the thorns as he drew closer. He would soon turn around to reassure himself she had seen him and was allowing him to go as far as the river. Gabriel suddenly grew quiet and leaned forward in his chair to follow the boy with his eyes. “Don’t try to open it. And make sure you don’t enter the neighbors’ property,” he shouted, and then again, louder this time. So, he had even forgotten that Théo couldn’t hear; it was astounding he could forget something like that. Ania was stunned, her ears buzzed. She grabbed her bag, put on her shoes, and glared at her father as if he were someone she might have had difficulty remembering.
“You know I sold the last Degas, I had expenses from the house,” he announced, extending his arm in the direction of the library, where the drawing had been hanging for years. Théo was returning from his exploration of the garden, small, green prickly berries clinging to his socks. Gabriel drew back to observe him fully, as if honoring him with this more serious interest. “Next time, tell your mother to let me know at least an hour ahead of time, then we can take a ride in the Zodiac,” he suggested before escorting them to the gate. Along the way he pointed out a cluster of peonies planted the previous year that had already bloomed abundantly that spring, and, in the blackened hollow of an oak, the remains of a hornets’ nest he had had to burn away.
There was a photo of her at the age of four, running behind him across the scorched lawn, red with poppies, which sloped down to the glassy surface of the water. It was a time when Gabriel wanted no one but her in his retirement as a widower, seeing his friends only after she had gone to bed, and rarely women, whose presence Ania knew of only through the hushed conversations in the hallway, the footsteps on the stairs, the brief flash of headlights in the early-morning haze beneath the trees.
“You remember how we could see the river from here?” he said, laughing pointlessly at this allusion to happier times. He even moved closer to kiss her, saying, “Finally, with your permission,” in that seductive tone he had adopted with her ever since she had ceased to be pretty. Théo stood a few steps away with a kind of timid resistance. He took hold of the hand that Gabriel extended to him with some seriousness. His small face shaped itself into a frown. Ania could see that it was she he was angry with, angry for the fact that they were practically being thrown out.
Gabriel didn’t wait till they were at the gate to utter a final goodbye and close himself in. Ania sought Théo’s hand in the hope that he would now see her side of things. But his stubbornness persisted, and he protested that they should have told him they were coming, as Gabriel had said. His reaction annoyed her. “Your grandfather doesn’t even remember that you can’t hear,” she blurted out, as she turned aside with bitterness. Théo pulled her by the sleeve so she would stop. He wanted to know what she had said, and the fact that she might not want to repeat it made him tremble. His ill humor had drained away but not his anger or his disappointment. Ania could have cried for what she had put him through.
It was still early, too early to return home. Ania suggested they go down to the river, where they could walk past the neighboring properties along a narrow strip of well-worn earth, cluttered with thorn bushes and convolvulus, against which clumps of foam-flecked seaweed lapped. She remembered a small pebble-covered beach, a tiny cove in a field of grazing sheep. Her mother used to bring her there to swim even though the current was strong and the area infested with horseflies that hurled themselves against her like projectiles. It was one of the rare images Ania retained of her mother: her broad, garnet-colored smile, her face emerging, disheveled, from the tight-fitting dresses she drew off like a stocking, as she shouted encouragement and ran toward the water. The summer following her death, Gabriel had come there several times with Ania, as if something of her mother remained that would bring the illusion back to life. He would wait for her to enter the water, then follow her on foot along the path all the way to the floating pier, a few hundred meters below, from which she could climb back up to the bank. The hint of danger he caused her to experience was part of the wonderful complicity from which she had drawn, even as a little girl, a feeling of completion.
There were no more sheep; the entrance to the field had been blocked by barbed wire that Théo was unable to navigate. He looked around, annoyed and put off by the odor of mud and the incessant swarm of flies that vibrated near him. Ania decided to return home but walked along the back road this time to avoid passing in front of Les Épinettes. And it was when she recognized the low house off in the distance and below the roadway that she decided to visit Chloé. She was curious to again experience the unimaginable disorder of a family in which, as an adolescent, she had felt sheltered and could retaliate against the distasteful world of her father.
Chloé didn’t appear surprised to see them. She hadn’t changed, small and round, with the look of a different time, her soft, freckled skin framed by the brilliant curls of her jet-black hair, swept back from her face. Théo was reluctant to kiss her or even enter the house, offended by the disorder of the garden where, beneath the undisciplined luxuriance of the fruit trees and untrimmed hedges, had been amassed a jumble of chairs, wooden boards, empty bottles, bicycle wheels, and broken toys, in which colonies of centipedes and earwigs burrowed. Ania let go of his hand, allowing him to deal with his cowardice by himself.
Chloé watched as he looked for a place to sit beneath the arbor of shriveled berries that stained the chairs and concrete black. “You’re deaf,” she said, waiting until their eyes met. Ania had always known her to be like this (and envied her for it): strange and cruel, impervious to criticism, ignorant too but with implacable self-assurance. She didn’t give Théo the time to reply, to assume the painful timbre of his strange, artificial voice in front of this unconventional young woman. That he might have suspected that she was suddenly ashamed of him made her miserable.
Back when they were in the same class in the village, Chloé was living alone with her obese mother, a woman who slept through the day surrounded by yellow and black canaries, feverishly alert amid the stench of bird shit, feed, and lard. One of the cages, its door torn off, had been placed beneath the arbor. “The best were sold,” Chloé said, in response to Théo’s intrigued glance at the empty cage, now filled with faded advertising brochures.
A baby had begun to cry from behind a shutter looking out onto the terrace. Chloé took her time responding and soon returned with a chubby little girl a few months old still flushed with sleep. Ania knew that the three oldest children had been placed and was surprised that Chloé hadn’t mentioned it yet. She felt guilty for having dragged Théo into this slightly sordid chaos. Seated, hunched over, he waited for the opportunity to leave. Ania couldn’t get him to look at her.
“We saw your father in the paper and on the news recently,” Chloé told her after she brought the child back inside. “You don’t live here any longer, but I know that he’s right about what’s going on; the idiot neighbors can say what they want.” Her tone was rational, proud. Ania made no attempt to pursue the matter. It wasn’t impossible that Gabriel had finally found himself in agreement with people like Chloé in rejecting the dusky world that would soon be at their doorstep. She felt sick to her stomach, a kind of deep melancholy. Théo was still hunched over, scraping the crushed grape seeds with the tips of his sneakers. They would have to wait more than an hour on the platform, but Ania didn’t think she could remain any longer. While walking them to the road, Chloé found a dirt-covered figurine in the grass that she handed to Théo. He tossed it into the branches of a cherry tree as soon as the gate closed behind them.
When they reached the train station, the boy had a tantrum that Ania was unable to account for and that deeply disturbed her. It was the way he grew angry when Novak forced him to spar and in his zeal often knocked him over. Although his affection for the boy’s fragile clumsiness was sincere, Théo fought back with an energetic and tearful fury.