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This is an extract from Désintégration by Ahmed Djouder (Editions Stock, 2006).
It is translated from the French by Anthony Cummins.
Our mothers and fathers won’t ever play tennis, badminton or golf. They won’t ever go skiing. They won’t ever eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant. They won’t ever buy a Louis-Philippe desk or a Louis XV armchair or Guy Degrenne crockery or Baccarat glassware or even blinds from Habitat. They won’t ever attend a classical music concert. Never in their lives will they own an apartment or a nice property somewhere in the French countryside in which to end their days in peace and quiet. No, instead they’ve chosen to invest in homes back in the sticks, to put their money – tens of years of sacrifice – into houses that look a little like concrete blocks, houses they call villas.
[private]Our mothers and fathers won’t ever taste champagne, caviar or truffles. They do their shopping at Aldi and Lidl, where they buy tins of tuna, potatoes, jars of kidney bean salad, haricot beans, flageolet beans, semolina, rice, pasta, fizzy drinks, ownbrand Coca-Cola and Orangina. Always the cheapest, the saltiest, the sweetest. Never will they sleep on thousand-thread-count sheets. Never will they spend weekends in London, Vienna or Milan. That said, if they live outside Paris, their local council might lay on a bus trip to the capital so they can go bargain-hunting at Tati and trawl the stalls at Barbès before getting a look at the Eiffel Tower.
They won’t ever see the Alps, St Tropez, Normandy or the Île de Ré. They won’t ever walk the beach in Brittany and say to themselves, A gentle breeze, how nice. To them a map of France is meaningless. Of its beautiful countryside they know nothing. Because they’re never visiting, only passing through; when they’ve got to register at the embassy, for instance, and the embassy’s in another district. Sometimes – rarely, because of the fares – they go to see friends who don’t live in the capital; on the motorway they watch green fields pass the window. This happens once every ten years.
When they go back to Algeria, driving through Spain and Morocco, the road signs point out places of interest. Visit the splendid abbey in the picturesque mountainside village of … They barely notice. They don’t have time; there’s three days’ travelling ahead.
Neither we nor our parents will ever go to the opera: what little we’ve seen on television’s enough to convince us it’ll be torture. It’s very odd if someone raised on our estates is able to enjoy opera, and such cases are miracles, because when you grow up hearing your brothers and sisters scream all day long you’ve about the same chance of developing a taste for opera or classical music as a flower has of growing from a football.
Not once in their lives will our fathers or mothers go to the theatre. And you can be sure – a thousand per cent sure – our fathers won’t ever visit a museum, except maybe the museum of some provincial mine, an outing arranged, most likely, by the boss at their factory. We live in poor places; hostels, attics, council blocks, labourers’ lodgings and, less often, in our own houses on projects in the middle of some trouble spot that’s been picked for regeneration. Marseille. Douai. Thionville. Mulhouse. Wherever there’s a mine. An ironworks. A steelworks. The legendary Paris banlieue. Crammed into the social housing of every city in France. Barely room to breathe. Because we’ve been living there thirty years and the family’s grown and it’s ten years since we put our name down for a new place.
All that our parents know about style and taste they learned from the pictures on a pack of washing powder. In our kitchens stand Formica tables covered in wax cloths with checks or flowers. To protect against the ravages of the brood. Our sofas come from Conforama or But. There’s a chestnut sideboard dotted with ornaments and doilies. Our floors are covered in lino. It’s easy to clean. In the hallways and in every room you see all sorts of photos, pictures, posters and prints: Mecca, Renaissance art, celebrities. Everywhere in our tiny houses and flats you find colourful clay vases, trinkets the kids bring back from here and there (visits back home, school trips). And plants: we grow up with them but no one remembers what they’re called. They make our mothers proud; our mothers could live in the jungle without any trouble at all.
Our fathers work nights or early mornings in the factory and make do even after forty years’ service with twelve hundred euros. The rhythm of work dictates our life as well as theirs: if our fathers come home from the factory at five a.m. they sleep till noon, so you have to be quiet. But you’ve no chance of shutting up a kid who’s jumpier than a flea having spent all night scrapping with his mates. So we get smacked by our mothers, because we make too much noise and bang the doors. And in our beds we wait in fear of our fathers’ alarm clocks because we know they heard us shouting. But we’d forgotten they were asleep. We didn’t know. Well okay, we knew, but we couldn’t help it, we were shouting like madmen because we were having fun playing cops and robbers.
If our fathers come home from the factory before midnight, they wake us up to say hello. We hear the noise of the car, the motor dying out, the door closing, the turn of the key, the fridge banging, the television being switched on, the clatter of fork against plate. We feel better. Papa’s back. We can go to sleep. Our childhood runs to the rhythm of work. But we never understood. It’s for grown-ups, work.
Our fathers love meat. They love steaks, cutlets. We share their awe, their worship, their relish for these slabs of grilled flesh. They would like if it was all for them. Meat symbolises money and hard work. It’s the poor man’s prosperity. A tough month starts to make sense when he finally sees on his plate the nice steak his wife’s fried in the pan, and his mouth waters.
Were the government’s purse strings in our parents’ clutches, France would have spare cash to wipe out world poverty at a stroke. If they have to go to the dentist five kilometres away, they go on foot. Buses are a luxury. Only two sets of circumstances can make our parents take taxis: being discharged from hospital (when the social pays) and when they go back to Algeria and have to be at the airport very early in the morning, at five, and there isn’t any public transport and they have too many bags. When there’s no choice, in other words.
Our parents have no nous and no self-esteem. When they fill in their benefit forms and wait for the allowance to be paid or go to the citizens’ advice and claim for water and electricity or go to the council to get vouchers for the supermarket or to charities for their clothes and groceries, the poor souls still think they’ve got a bit of dignity left. They think they’re playing the system. Getting something for nothing. They think they’re pulling a stunt, and feel perfectly justified too, without quite knowing why. Sometimes, if they have to queue too long, say two hours, maybe three, they decide not to put up with it any longer and make a scene. They scream and shout for a bit. They take people’s names. They sadden us. They have no pride. Their smallness, their weakness disgusts us. Our parents believe in family. In sin. In money. Savings. Clothes. Things. Allah. Suffering. They don’t know what it means to rest, even when they’re asleep. Their limbs never relax. Their very cells are bundles of worry, sadness, misery. Stretched out on their sofas in the front room our fathers soothe twitching eyelids beneath furrowed brows. After lunch our mothers go for a lie down and have nightmares. Fear in the pit of the stomach. Always. We’re always afraid, full of fear. We’re the same – the kids – we inherited it. These days everything frightens our parents. To them the world is alien. Our fathers don’t sleep without a light on any more. And these are men, real men, their voices gruff, distant, cold, quick to lose their temper, violent, proper, real men. Sometimes our fathers cry. It’s a surprise. You’d think they have a heart. Well of course they do.
Our fathers are aloof. Affection? What for? It’s pointless. Your nose at the grindstone all day at the factory. Forget who you are. Where does affection come into it?
The sacrifice of work. No way out. No opportunities. No consciousness of choice. Unemployment, and fear of unemployment, to force your hand.
In cultural terms our parents are on the rack, lost, without the equipment or know-how to scale the sheer walls of the abyss they’ve fallen into.
Look in the whites of our parents’ eyes and see the torment, the fear of life, the need for love, the childhood they never had. The adolescence. The adulthood. We like to watch our mothers and fathers sleep. Something guides us to their bedside. It’s the angels, guiding us there so that, full of love, we can send them nice thoughts, nice thoughts for our little lost parents.[/private]
Ahmed Djouder is a writer and editor who was born in Lorraine and lives in Paris.
Anthony Cummins is a freelance literary critic and translator.