Excerpt from 'self-portrait abroad'

bw100617self-portrait.jpgself-portrait abroad

By jean-philippe toussaint

Dalkey Archive Press

Copyright © 2000 Les Éditions de Minuit
All right reserved.


ISBN: 978-1-56478-586-2



Chapter One

tokyo, first impressions


You arrive in Tokyo the way you arrive in Bastia, from the sky. The plane flies in a long arc above the bay and aligns with the runway to touch down. Seen from above, at four thousand feet, there isn't much difference between the Pacific and the Mediterranean.

Chrisitan Pietrantoni, incidentally, a Corsican friend of Madeleine's-I will call Madeleine Madeleine in these pages to help me get my bearings-promptly got in touch with me to arrange a meeting in a Tokyo café and fill me in on what had been happening back in the village. The very day after my arrival, hardly leaving me the time to unpack my bags, he called me up in my hotel room while, dressed in a white shirt and small blue cardigan of the sort worn by retired teachers (a New Year's gift from my parents), I sat on the bed in my socks flipping through a sports magazine and awaiting the imminent arrival of a journalist who was coming to interview me. Seated at a round table right next to me in the room was Mr. Hirotani of the Shueisha Publishing House, who since the beginning of my stay had been alternating with Mrs. Funabiki as companion and confidante, guide and bodyguard, and who I perceived out of the corner of my eye in a perfect suit and tie, his face grave and attentive, busying himself arranging in a vase a bouquet of flowers I'd been given. He was grappling with five purple and white flowers (the Anderlecht colors, I'm not sure if it was intentional), whose position he altered incessantly to compose a harmonious bouquet, regularly starting over again from scratch, changing here the position of one flower, there the position of another, looking more, it seemed to me, like a thug from a film by Godard than a connoisseur of Japanese floral arrangement. And as I continued to observe him discreetly, lazily turning the pages of my magazine while voluptuously crossing and uncrossing my stockinged feet on the bedspread, the telephone rang out in the room. Dropping his flowers on the carpet, Mr. Hirotani dashed to the telephone in a single bound. Putting his arm over my head he seized the phone on the bedside table and gave a discreet, courteous pull on the cord which had inopportunely got twisted around my neck and shoulder. Strangling me for an instant while trying to get it untangled, he took the cord cautiously in both hands, passed it over my head and answered the telephone with an apologetic look. My head raised, I tried to guess who he could be talking with, someone from hotel reception or the publisher, perhaps the journalist we were waiting for from Yomiuri Shimbum. Standing there beside me he listened gravely, mechanically retying the knot of his tie. Yes, he said, yes. It's for you, he said, handing me the receiver: Christian Pietrantoni.

I made a date with Christian Pietrantoni for two days later and, after a first missed meeting one night in a South American bar in Roppongi, he came to fetch me one morning at the hotel. Taking off our coats we walked side by side in Tokyo under the island sun before stopping at a modern, insipid, and impersonal café. Although it was pastis time we contented ourselves with a green tea, and, while young girls ate at the next tables in a cacophony of chopsticks and Japanese voices, Christian Pietrantoni, sitting across from me, perfectly indifferent to the surrounding atmosphere, filled me in on the latest news from the village. He told me what Nono and Nénette were up to, the Albertinis, the Antomarchis, what do I know. I wondered what source he had for all his information (perhaps he had correspondents in other Asian capitals?). Accompanying me back to the hotel he gave me what was no doubt one key to the mystery when he let on that he had a subscription to Corse-Matin. Before saying goodbye we promised to meet up again soon, in Ersa or Tokyo, London or Macinaggio, then shook hands vigorously the way Westerners do in front of hotel entrances.

I had strange experiences with my hands in Japan. I don't know if it was because of the hotel I was staying at, the types of material the building had been constructed from-the fact, for example, that its doorknobs were mostly made of metal and not wood-or whether the cause of all these little irritations had more to do with my wool cardigan (a New Year's gift from my parents) ... nevertheless, each time I was about to take hold of a doorknob or press an elevator button, I got a shock of static electricity. But enough of personal matters.


hong kong

We'd landed in Hong Kong a few minutes earlier, flying over the city at a ridiculously low altitude, thirty or so feet at most, the immense mass of the Boeing slamming down onto the runway after barely scraping over the rooftops and flying over a last shop-lined street where you could see men in white shirts, cigarettes in their mouths, crossing the road without paying the least attention to the insane spectacle that this gigantic airplane must have presented overhead, or else standing tranquilly on their doorsteps, arms crossed, taking in the fresh air of this bustling Hong Kong street where thousands of multicolored ideograms blinked continuously in the night. Not long beforehand, when the plane was still much higher in the sky and turning slowly in the air to commence its descent, the entire bay of Hong Kong had suddenly appeared through my window in a twinkling of luminous blue and white points, revealing farther off the presence of other urban concentrations, Macao or Kowloon, whose illuminated agglomerations shone out against a background of bluish mountains barely visible as shadowy profiles in the night. Meanwhile, on the surface of the water below us, among the silhouettes of the cruise ships and barges, cargo and container ships, floating casinos and nightclubs where you could dance the salsa or mambo-mambo under dotted strings of lamps, the navigation lights of thousands of solitary junks rocked slowly to and fro, dotting the bay like so many fireflies.

Seated on one of those anonymous plastic seats in an immense hall at Hong Kong International Airport, I looked at the dirty linoleum floor between my legs, thoughtful, my hands joined and my body inclined, a little lost and disoriented (I'd taken off from Osaka some five hours earlier and was headed for Frankfurt where I was due to land in twelve more hours). I didn't know where I was and no longer really knew where I was going. I'd already had a similar feeling of the momentary loss of temporal and spatial landmarks a few days earlier in the plane that had taken me to Japan when, sitting drowsily in my seat, I suddenly became aware looking out the window that it was neither day nor night outside, but simultaneously day and night, and that to the right of the plane I could see the moon, shining in the sky in-line with the wing, as well as the sun, far out in front of us, which for the moment was still just a blurred pink and orange glow similar to the cottony contours of a Rothko, lighting up the horizon of this immense sky divided evenly into day and night, into Europe and Asia. The silent cabin of my sleepy seven-forty-seven was still convinced of its being night, however, as it flew in perfect stillness toward Tokyo to the hushed droning of its motors, my watch showing one o'clock in the morning, the other passengers dozing around me in the feeble light, the small plastic blinds on the windows carefully lowered, to say nothing of my own fatigue after seven or eight hours of flight, my eyes heavy and closing softly, yes, everything seemed to indicate that it was night-apart from one important detail: it was now broad daylight outside.

My watch now showed something like eleven o'clock in the evening, a Japanese time that was no longer relevant anywhere, neither in Berlin where I was headed nor in Hong Kong where I still was. Because I was in Hong Kong, yes, though I might as well have been in a novel. But enough of verisimilitude.



The Berliners have a reputation for being terse, impatient, dislikeable. When you go into a store, for example, they say that after having wiped your feet you almost have to apologize for wanting to buy something. When you speak German as badly as I do, and with a strong accent (although the question of accents is entirely relative), you are generally treated with very little patience, and if, after audaciously expressing the desire to purchase something you are reckless enough to ask that the person behind the counter repeat her question with a nevertheless perfect little Wie bitte?, you get snubbed all the more for having cast suspicion on the way the question had been formed, although it was in perfect German, judge for yourselves: Wie dick, die Scheibe? Normal, I said, a normal slice: The young woman, because it was a young woman, a mean and pudgy young woman, looked at me with suspicion. She cut me a slice of ham, threw it down on the counter. Noch einen Wunsch? Das, I said, and I pointed at a tray of aspic. She hurriedly cut a minuscule slice of aspic, I mean really minuscule, at best you could have coated your passport with a slice of jelly that thin, or wiped your glasses off. Dicker, I said. That was the turning point in our encounter, I said it very dryly, and, immediately, without weakening, I looked her intensely in the eyes with a mean stare, and there were only two possible outcomes, either she would send me packing with an insult, explaining while kicking me out of the shop that as I had not indicated the thickness of the slice she was entitled to assume I'd wanted it very thin (which, if she'd rattled it off in German, I could hardly have contested), or she would buckle and cut my slice as I wanted. She obeyed. Putting the minuscule slice to one side, to eat later, who knows, to roll it into a ball and swallow it in an idle moment, she took the whole dish from the window. She placed the knife on the terrine and gave me an inquisitive look. Like that? she said. Bigger, I said. She moved the knife to the right. Like that? she said. A little bit smaller, I said. She lifted her eyes and gave me a look, but she no longer resisted, now she was under my thumb. Again she moved the knife to the right. No, no, not so big! I said. She moved the knife to the left, quicker and quicker now, things were accelerating more and more, she moved the knife slightly to the left, slightly to the right, slightly to the left, slightly to the right, she couldn't get it right, she was unable to satisfy me. Too bad, you had it, I said. Start from the beginning, I said. She stopped, lifted her knife from the terrine. She was perspiring, large beads of sweat fell into the dish. Relax, I said, you're too overwrought. Come on, give it another try. Like that? she said. Perfect, I said. You see, I said, if you really put your mind to it, and I almost stroked her cheek. She wrapped my slice with care and handed me my change with infinite respect. She was at a loss as to what else she could do for me, what to propose, what favor she could bestow upon me, a plastic bag perhaps, a little aperitif, could she call me a taxi? I left without saying good-bye (I don't like unpleasant people).



Let's not talk about Prague. We spent a lover's weekend there, Madeleine and I, around Easter, in an almost windowless attic room which gave the impression of being in some tawdry flophouse, with its mezzanine floor and half-closed blinds, dark, dusty, a bit smelly (we left an envelope with a couple of deutschemarks on the coffee table for the little racketeer who'd sublet it to us when we left).

And yet the trip had started off well enough. In Berlin, full of hope and using my German, which got better by the hour, I'd reserved two very promising train tickets for Prague in a travel agency on Kurfürstendamm, one of those large and prosperous travel agencies whose bay windows carry an ever-changing array of yellow and white banners with mouthwatering travel suggestions, listing prices and destinations with unbeatable offers for trips to the Balearic Islands, Florida, or Tunisia. I'd bought two train tickets for Prague, two first-class seats on the morning train that passes through Prague once a day on its way to Budapest, one of those old-fashioned trains that makes you drool just looking at it, all decked out with velvet upholstery with small nets for newspapers on the seats, pillow headrests, and lovely velvet footrests as soft as cushions and as round as prayer benches. No sooner had we left-our bodies reclining in our adjustable seats, our shoes already off-than we started to unfold our newspapers and flip through them leisurely, Madeleine and I, softly rubbing our stockinged feet; at first every man for himself in the unreflecting comfort of solitary reading, then, little by little, together, mingling our feet and arms to the unbridled delight of our senses, uniting our mouths in the euphoria of the voyage we were commencing, our legs, our hands, what do I know, our thighs, our hips. You don't know how to make love in a train, she said with a smile.

We'd gone back to the restaurant car and, after a studious browse through the greasy old menus wrapped in wine-colored plastic proposing in Czech and German different types of sausage and pork embellished with an unavoidable side of potatoes, we ordered the most expensive dishes on the menu, pork and sausages, it was either that or fried eggs, asking our waiter to throw in two bottles of cold Czech beer. We'd already drunk a few sips of fresh Budweiser and were calmly eating our meal, now and then giving each other a bit of pork across the table, more like an attentive couple than enflamed and suicidal Bohemian lovers ladling sizzling drops of zabaglione into each others' mouths with long silver spoons (as Madeleine and I used to do when we were young), when, in this almost deserted restaurant car whose touching old-fashioned decorations we found endlessly delightful, the sun suddenly shone through the clouds and lit up the Saxony countryside. That is the image I will remember from this trip, Madeleine and I sitting face to face in the sunny restaurant car on our way to Prague. The winding shores of the Elbe flashed by the compartment window as the train hugged its curves, chugging along beside the river, accompanying its bends and meanders. I'd finished my beer a few moments earlier and my whole being was bathed in the feather-light beginnings of drunkenness, massaging my temples like an aura of honey. Rocked by the imminent promise of Prague (which no reality, however small, had yet tarnished), I looked at Madeleine who smiled across from me in the fullness of our intact hopes while the air shimmered around us, wafting softly and lightly along the stitched lace curtains of the compartment window, above our plates, over the knives and forks, over our glasses, over our hands entwined on the table, over the flies.



Excerpted from self-portrait abroad by jean-philippe toussaint Copyright © 2000 by Les Éditions de Minuit. Excerpted by permission.
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