Michiel Heyns, winner of the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize for Lost Ground, released his latest novel, Invisible Furies, earlier this year. Today we bring you an extract from the book, in which Heyns delivers an account of a Capetonian’s return to Paris after some 30 years.
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To tote a suitcase in Paris is to court the contempt of the natives. Parisians never go anywhere – why should they? –and despise anyone who does. That’s why they’ve arranged for a flight of stairs at every Metro exit, to break the spirit of anyone hobbled with a suitcase, and to ensure that the unwelcome traveller will arrive out of breath and red of face, in sweaty contrast with the Parisians, who step out of the Metro as unruffled as if fresh from a scented dressing-room.
Lugging his too-heavy case up the steps onto the rain-drenched Boulevard St Germain, Christopher indulged these musings with a vehemence proportionate to his discomfort. The ride from the Gare du Nord to Odéon had been sticky, slow and crowded, his fellow-passengers resentful of his luggage, impervious to his abject, albeit insincere, apologies. Evidently Paris had not, in the years of his absence, undergone a change of heart: she was still a whore with a heart of stone. There were no longer, it was true, evil-tempered ponceuses dwelling in the depths of the Metro to snarl at you while punching a hole in your ticket; but their spirit lingered on discontentedly in the windy vestibules, the impatiently slamming swing doors, in the general inimical implication of the place. It was, he reflected as he stopped to rest his suitcase arm, the same misanthropic spirit that possessed the po-faced bureaucrats in the French consulate in Cape Town, intent less on easing the way of the stranger to la patrie than on impressing upon him how little his presence was desired there. Ultimately, it was the gloating malevolence of the tricoteuses – knit-one, purl-one, slip-one as another head rolled into the basket.
In spite of the rain, he stood looking around him to get his bearings. Thirty years on, and the Boulevard had not changed, not so that he could notice, anyway: the Odéon GC cinemas showing generic American movies with French titles, the eternal cafés, their serving areas retreated now out of the rain, and cars, cars, cars. The plane trees coming into light-green leaf, the news kiosks, the round columns advertising the latest spectacle – it was a film set with action figures.
He stepped into the street. A strong hand grasped his arm and pulled him back from a car coming the wrong way. ‘Faites attention, monsieur,’ said the Samaritan, irritated rather than concerned. Christopher’s first instinct was to tell the man to mind his own business – if I want to get run over, whose life is it anyway? – but brought out a grudging ‘Merci, monsieur‘, all the same. The man, without looking round, shrugged and walked away, shaking his head, probably already wondering why he’d bothered to save the life of a gormless foreigner.
‘And bollocks to you too, mate,’ said Christopher aloud. This was not his normal mode of expression – he’d never called anyone mate in his life – but he felt a need proportionate to his humiliation to adopt an assertive persona in the face of this disdainful city. More cautiously now, he crossed the road to the Cour du Commerce connecting the Boulevard with the Rue St André des Arts – that much he remembered. The cobbles of the Cour were slippery; the wheels of the suitcase were too small for the cobbles, and the bag capsized several times. If Paris hadn’t been so damned picturesque, it may have been more negotiable.
The Hotel du Carrefour, too, had not changed in thirty years. Or if it had, Christopher’s memory was not acute enough to register deviations. The building still seemed crazily out of kilter, not a right angle in sight, the stairs listing and veering at some perilous compromise between gravity and inertia. By rights, the whole structure should have collapsed or at least rearranged itself, but as far as he could tell, the angles were all still at odds with one another to exactly the same degree as before. The effect remained disorientating, making one doubt one’s visual and spatial judgement.
The choir stalls in the foyer, ripped who-knows-when from what church in a frenzy of righteous revolutionary fervour, were at this hour occupied by breakfasting guests, muttering rather than chattering, oppressed by their enforced propinquity. From what Christopher could glean in passing, the breakfast was as plain as ever: the single stub of crusty bread, the postage stamp of butter, the thimble of preserves, the dwarfish pitcher of coffee with its juglet of milk. The serving woman was too young to be the same one as had flung the bread at the guests all those years before, but the flinging action was the same, as was the air of sublime detachment: presumably one of those trade secrets that get passed on from generation to generation. An uninitiated guest was brandishing an empty coffee jug, trying to wring a refill from the serveuse.
The reception desk was still in uncomfortable proximity to the dining area, enabling the owner to keep an eye on the distribution of the matutinal bounty. The owner too, was the same – far older, of course, but showing, in that infuriating French manner, few effects of the passing of the years. Christopher did not think it necessary to mention having stayed here before, but the owner adjusted his eye-glasses – one concession at least to the ravages of time – and peered at Christopher’s passport. ‘Monsieur Turner’ – he pronounced it Turrnirrr – ‘from South Africa; ah, yes, I remember …’, and from the sudden set of his features into something even less welcoming than his habitual scowl, it was clear that he did remember, remembered over a span of thirty years the blocked basin and bidet, the aftermath of an over-enthusiastic indulgence, fresh from the austerities of England, in the vin et crudités à volonté at the Caves Ste Geneviève.
‘I never want to see a grated carrot again,’ Daniel had moaned, as he voided himself of yet another largely undigested helping of crudités and sour wine. Orange and purple, at the best of times an unfortunate combination, had never composed so badly.
‘Don’t blame the carrots,’ Christopher had replied, moralistic even in extremis. ‘They’re not what’s making you puke.’
They had spent the night, or what remained of the night after evacuation of their meal, emptying out basin and bidet with a tooth mug into the toilet in the hallway, but without managing to clear the bowels of the plumbing. They were obliged, thus, to report the blockage to the owner – who, initially apologetic, had, after uncovering the cause of the blockage, been decidedly chilly for the rest of their stay.
‘You will have room 36,’ the owner said, as if pronouncing sentence, producing a heavy brass key suspended from an even heavier brass object, pear-shaped and cumbersome, presumably to prevent theft of the key – though who would steal the key to a garret room in a one-star hotel was anybody’s guess.
‘Ah, yes,’ Christopher said, ‘cinquième étage.’
‘You know it?’
‘It’s where I stayed last time.’
‘Ah,’ the owner said, gravely, as if committing himself with a heavy heart to a course he knew to be unwise. ‘Ah, yes. Of course. Nevertheless. All the same.’
- Invisible Furies by Michiel Heyns
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