Sunday, 25 January 2015

Foreign Muck

I enjoy trying to learn other people's languages. This is partly because I like the task itself and partly because I have a half-formed idea that, if I learn a language really well, I will step through an unseen doorway and enter a different existence, somewhere where no-one ever has to go to a supermarket and everyone is amusing and the food is delicious and all anyone wants to do is talk about books, these interesting conversations being only occasionally interrupted by a unanimous decision to roar off in an overcrowded car to some exciting little theatre where a strangely intriguing experimental play is being performed. After the performance, dinner - cheap but wonderful - will be eaten in the quiet cobbled square of an ancient town, lots of people will be absolutely hilarious and no-one will be mean about anyone else.

I am aware that this is not actually going to happen, (although there was a short period of my life in Siena where things came fairly close to this fantasy - but I knew it was only temporary). However, in a different way a knowledge of foreign languages has led me into other worlds, unknown to the English speaker. That is to say, it has led me into a world of foreign writers, of fiction that, certainly at the moment, seems to me to be richer, more original and more various than that being published in the English-speaking world.

So, as a kind of public service, (hem hem, really just as an aide memoire for me, but why not at least pretend to be altruistic), I've decided to try to make a record here of any foreign books I read. After all, most of them will probably never be translated into English and thus many English speakers might never know about them. I've decided to call posts of this type, 'Foreign Muck', so this is the first in a series. Since I'm living in Belgium but barely know any Flemish, the foreign language books available to me for the foreseeable future are mainly going to be in French.

The first I've read this year (okay, I started it last year, but I finished it on New Year's Day, so I'm counting it as part of this year's total) is called L'Ordinateur du Paradis by Benoit Duteurtre. I've read nothing at all about it. I've no idea if it's been a critical success. When I picked it up in a bookshop, I was intrigued by the opening page, told in the first person by someone who has just died and now finds himself at a kind of passport check before admission to his own after life. On the strength of that, I bought it and took it home.

As it turns out, the book actually has two strands. The first is the one I encountered in the bookshop - the firsthand account of what happens to a nameless narrator who has just died. The second is the story of Simon, a senior figure ('rapporteur' however that might be translated) at the Commission for Public Liberties in Paris, whose life spirals downwards following the release onto the internet, (and the internet, or its effect on life, is a major element of Simon's part of the book), of a recording of a mildly politically incorrect, off-the-record remark he makes before an interview.

When we first encounter Simon, he is on his way to give a talk at a university in a provincial town. He is feeling entirely self-satisfied as he settles into his first-class seat on the train. Soon though the irritations of modernity begin to spoil things for him. First there is the 'litany of announcements' from a woman who introduces herself as Manon, (difficult to know whether we should draw any link with Manon Lescaut or whether Manon is a perfectly ordinary French name that does not carry a special significance), first in French and then all over again in English, about not smoking or getting off the train while it is moving, about remembering to label your luggage for reasons of security, reminders about where the train is going and what the name of the train company is, rounded out with assurances that passengers can consult the announcer at any time, more a priest than a mere train company employee, Simon thinks to himself. Then follows a similarly long and noisy rigmarole from Kevin, the train's 'steward', who invites the passengers to 'discover' the buffet car.

When Simon does try to do as Kevin asks, he finds that there is a long, slow-moving queue, with Kevin trying to operate credit card machines, microwaves et cetera. Simon remembers with fondness the dining cars of his youth. 'Despite his best efforts to live with the times, he kept seeing the past surging up towards him full of the scent of nostalgia,' we are told.  He blames his fellow passengers, businessmen, 'dreadful capitalists who have caused the current state of affairs by reducing costs in order to increase profits.'

At the end of his journey, walking through the town where he is to give his lecture, Simon looks around. 'He had a vague memory of this regional capital with its italianate edifices, its baroque churches and its lost squares. A decade on, it seemed somehow to have changed. Was it just that the buildings had all been cleaned? Glancing up at them, he saw the same pretty facades, the same carved shutters, the same wrought iron balconies that had always been there, but everything seemed bleached and cleaned right down to the bone. At street level, the provincial shops he recalled being there had vanished, replaced by a stretch of signs you could find in London, Barcelona or Tokyo: Zara, H&M, Esprit, Nike, Gap, Solaris. Brand-named clothes, bags and glasses had taken over the entire central area and Simon no longer had the sense that he was gazing at a provincial town so much as an open-air shopping mall."

The book, it seems to me, is pretending to be a satire, while really it is a work of nostalgia by someone fed up with the modern world and its endless prohibitions. The blandness that globalisation has brought with it is highlighted and the action of Simon's life takes place against a background clamour from every interest group under the sun. Feminists may feel that Simon - or the author - is anti-feminist, but I think that misses the point. Simon or the author is merely anti '-ist' and also anti everything that homogenises existence, that makes it harder for eccentricity and individuality to thrive.

Poor Simon. His son goes to a lycee renamed after John Lennon. His boss will only talk to him when they are surrounded by speakers blasting out heavy metal, as it is only when the music is going that he is certain no-one can recod his comments. One weekend towards the end of the book, as he tries to make his way through Paris in his car, he comes up against a metal barrier bearing the slogan, 'Sunday, car-free day', guarded by two municipal workers wearing T-shirts with the words, 'On Sunday, let's smile' blazoned across them:

"Behind them, the street was dense with people. Pedestrians, people with push chairs, people on bikes, people on scooters, people on skateboards and people in wheelchairs covered the road and the pavements. They were walking and gliding and telephoning as they passed by shops selling a variety of monotonous merchandise ... made in Asia and branded with English names. The bigger shops were occupied by better known brands, inviting passers by to wear Ray-Ban sunglasses and Nike caps, Gap T-shirts, Zara suits and Adidas shoes ... Simon felt ... that he was not walking in a city but in an open air hypermarket. A few global firms owned the central areas of the town now. The pavements had become nothing more than a succession of acronyms - always the same, from one town to the other. Above the big shopping streets, the turrets of an old palace glistened in the sun, but the newly cleaned and renovated building had something artificial about it. At the next crossroads, the Belle Maree fishmonger, with its fishing motif mosaics, now housed a smartphone boutique. The 1950s cinema now sheltered a gym. The square's little grocer's shop, its facade intact, had been transformed into a shop selling essential oils. The old world was all around him, but only as a stage set for an entirely new one. And Simon, in this street of shams realised that he too was an old character, lost in a foreign crowd ... trudging along in an army of robots, an alien member of the throng."


The parallel story of the nameless dead character, (who may in fact be Simon, since he dies toward the end of the book, falling off a step ladder while reaching for his copy of Candide to check the exact wording of Pangloss's "best of all possible worlds" catchphrase), at first seems to provide an equally bleak perspective. After a rather caustic interview at a kind of customs/passport control counter - an interview that is conducted, to his horror, in English, and that includes the ominous information that his occasional denial of climate change has been noted - the man is allowed through into a place that resembles an airport, where the dead await their despatch to the after-life. It turns out that even here there are privileges for those who know how to get them. He sees celebrities he recognises and despises from his former life given the privilege of entry into exclusive "lounges" and then conveyed speedily and without inconvenience toward paradise. He meanwhile must hang about, without any such delights.

Eventually, in fact, he is given the bad news that he will not be going to paradise. He is mortified, but, it turns out all is well. Pangloss was right after all. The book ends with the unnamed character's departure for hell and his description of what he finds there:

"Having reached the threshold, I cast a last look back at the world I was leaving. Then I took a deep breath and opened Door 23. I marched straight ahead toward the gulf of fire, blood and tears that awaited me.

Imagine my surprise when I found behind the door an old station platform like those of my childhood, beside which stood a dark green train in need of a lick of paint. Everything seemed calm and the woman I'd seen go through Door 23, screaming, just before me, was sitting quietly on a bench, awaiting the train's departure.

Was I really in hell? Or was it just that this was where we had to wait for the next shuttle to the shadows - just as the others were waiting, back there, in the embarkation rooms for the next flight to paradise?

To my astonishment, I noticed a ticket inspector of a kind that I thought had disappeared. He didn't wear one of those brightly coloured uniforms that the train companies provide these days. He didn't have an electronic gadget for reading credit cards either. No, dressed in a dark jacket, topped by a cap with a star on it, the only equipment he carried was a simple hole-puncher.

I went up to him.

"Excuse me", I said.

He didn't reply, "good morning", in a reproachful tone, but turned smartly towards me.

"At your service!" he said.

"Is this the train that goes to hell?"

He looked at me with a slightly vexed expression.

 "Yes, that's it. All the planes are kept for the rich of paradise. All these old trains are for the damned of the earth!"

"I like these just as much," I told him."What time do we leave?"

"At twelve minutes past six. There are no special flights here, you know, no charters, no reserved trains. The time tables haven't changed since the beginning of time."

I thought briefly about the train companies' incessant reforms, which created endless new timetables, new prices and new procedures.

"Really - has nothing changed at all?" I asked

He looked at me with a mildly irritated expression, as if I did not want to understand what a frightful destination awaited me.

"No, Sir," he said, 'here, you are in hell and nothing ever changes. Change, movement, novelty, all that is kept for paradise. Here we never talk of transport rationalisation."

"What do you mean?"

"Don't be naive. You can see for yourself that the train is old and tired, standing at an almost deserted platform. In paradise they follow the logic of the market, they optimise profitability and cut any fat from the system. All their flights are jam-packed. Hell, on the other hand, condemns us to live according to archaic laws, without freedom or competition. Hell is to paradise what prehistory is to modernity..."  ...

The train left at 6.12, as expected. It rattled along for hours through an appalling landscape - or at least one that I suppose would have been appalling in the eyes of God, of Lucifer and of the people organising the whole set-up.

You couldn't see any motorways there or carparks. The fields weren't vast ranches, but poor little plots of land separated by paths and wooded slopes. The first town we stopped at didn't have any mall or commercial centre, only old buildings to which were affixed the shop signs of small commercial concerns.

When I felt a bit hungry, halfway through the journey, I didn't find a queue at the self service, where I'd gone to try to get some kind of takeaway meal. No, I entered an antique restaurant car, where I was seated at a table with a table cloth and someone took my order. All this seemed to have escaped the decades of progress. Such was the ancient world to which I had been sent for the punishment of my sins.

I won't inflict on the reader a detailed description of the horrors and tortures I've endured as a result ... In hell ...neither tobacco or alcohol are forbidden, nor any of the other substances that might turn man from the straight and narrow. In the evening, all we damned get together, packing ourselves into smoky cellars that are inaccessible to the disabled, where musicians play until almost dawn. Later on, lacking any respect for dietary propriety, we wait for the sunrise before settling down in front of copious meals. After all, in this world it is possible to intoxicate oneself indefinitely without dying a second time - and that is something that spreads the dreadfully unhealthy - and, indeed, diabolic idea that pleasure is innocuous.

The streets of hell are dangerous. Cyclists and pedestrians wear neither safety helmets nor fluorescent vests. Food is not frozen or wrapped in plastic. Sometimes a man even says to a woman a few words that might seduce her, without the woman immediately deciding to sue.

And the kingdom of Beelzebub also recalls the Tower of Babel ... English here is no help to anyone. Each encounter demands a patient attempt to understand ...

But that is not the worst at all. Far more terrible in this damned world is the fact that daily life seems to have escaped from the fundamental principles of the modern economy ... People live from day to day, doing what they feel like, scarcely aware of the interests of society. They've all given up on productivity gains in favour of dedicating themselves to eternal and joyous sin."

I started this post by saying that I'd always hoped learning foreign languages would introduce me to a perfect world, just around the corner, beyond mastery of the pluperfect subjunctive, (is there such a thing? I'm not certain), and the correct word for the lesser blue-crested grebe. Judging by L'Ordinateur du Paradis, it is not another language that I need to work on, if I want to find a more congenial existence; it is just a question of ensuring that I commit plenty of sin.

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