Authors: Nancy Huston
Also by Nancy Huston
The Mark of the Angel
Instruments of Darkness
The Goldberg Variations
The Story of Omaya
Copyright © 2014 by Nancy Huston
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“À qui le p’tit cœur après neuf heures,” page 100, Copyright © Roger Miron, Éditions Troubadour-SODRAC. “Poem III” by Eugénio de Andrade, page 259, from Matière solaire. Copyright © SNELA La Différence, Paris, 1986. Translated with permission of the publisher.
Originally published in French in 2013 by Editions Actes Sud, Paris.
Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
Cover design by Kathleen Lynch/Black Kat Design
Cover photograph © Andrea Peipe
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
154 West 14th Street
New York, NY 10011
Distributed by Publishers Group West
14 15 16 17 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
to Jean M.
and to Jennifer A.
and thanks to Joseph N.
Litany. Song that signals the beginning of a capoeira
before the game begins.
DON’T WORRY, ASTUTO
, I’ll do the keyboard this time. I’ll capture it—or seize it, as the French say. That was always your job, on pretext that you typed faster than me . . . yeah, but chances were you’d either get your computer ripped off in a train station or accidentally erase—
Oops, goddamn it!
—a whole month of our work including backup, so this time you can relax and let me handle it. Take advantage of the fact that you’re flat on your back and hooked up to a drip to give your ten fingers a rest.
I love you, you bastard. Tell me your tale. Yeah, or at least a piece of it, ha-ha. Don’t make me laugh, you’ll make me cry. Come on, Milo, get serious. In all likelihood, this will be the last screenplay cowritten by Milo Noirlac and Paul Schwarz, directed by Paul Schwarz and produced by Blackout Films—so let’s get it right, babe, let’s get it really right. Kiss me. Come on, kiss me, you meshuga bastard, I won’t catch anything. I love your ass off.
OKAY, THIS IS
just a suggestion . . . INTERIOR—DAY. The camera finds Milo Noirlac—graying mahogany ponytail hanging
halfway down his back, black cowboy hat, cowboy boots, white pants—and Paul Schwarz—wearing a new, unbleached linen suit that makes him look even svelter and more sensual than usual—in the crowded foyer of a tiny cultural center in Rio’s Zona Norte. It’s late morning, they’ve just screened their film for the men and women of the neighborhood who played bit parts in it, the response has been warm, people come up to hug, congratulate and thank them.
Given that the important producer/director of the film has a whole slew of important appointments with important distributors set up for the afternoon, he’ll be driven to Centro by an important taxi. The more modest (though naturally no less handsome) screenwriter announces his intention of returning on foot to their hotel in Gloria.
Are you out of your mind? That’s a five-mile walk and it’s forty degrees Celsius out there!
says his gifted collaborator and favorite lay, who has never held much truck with high temperatures, as he mops his brow.
But Milo, giving his beloved a last touch on the arm, turns and saunters out into the street. As he moves away, close-up on that beautiful ass of his, charmingly molded by his white pants. Don’t worry, baby—much as I’d like to, I won’t overdo it . . . We’ll be with you, inside of you, subjective camera: in your brain we hear the distinctive atabaque rhythm of capoeira—
ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA
. . . must be a
going on nearby.
Upon emerging from the low white building, Milo turns left instead of right on Rua General Roca and heads for the hills. We follow him following the drumbeat beneath the hot sun. If there’s a
going on, he wants to join it, but he can’t hear the twang of the berimbau, only the drumbeat,
ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA
. . . the one we listened to night after night as we lay in bed together in Arraial d’Ajuda—the one you
years ago on our first trip to Salvador, the one you think of as your heart call, your root call, the rhythm of your mother’s voice. Important to establish that right from the start.
The drumbeat intensifies.
The minute General Roca starts up the hill, the Saens Peña area—a flat, dreary patch of urban sprawl with the sort of gray ten- and fifteen-story high-rises that can be found anywhere in the developing world—falls away and the neighborhood swiftly slides from moderate to abject poverty. No more whites or light browns, nothing but blacks. Milo’s arms swing at his side, his hands are empty. Images of the Dublin slums, the Waswanipi Cree reserve, his father’s rooming house in Montreal ricochet and reverberate in the scorching sunlight. Sweat pours down his brow and neck and back but he doesn’t wipe it off. Men idling in doorways stare as he passes and he lets them stare . . .
(Oh, Milo! I once thought of it as rashness; your ex-wife Yolaine used to call it passivity . . .
If you leave me, you leave me,
you once told her, and today, were a crack addict to threaten you at gunpoint, you’d look him calmly in the eye and say,
If you kill me, you kill me . . .
But it’s neither recklessness nor passivity, it’s capoeira. Lack of fear and jealousy, openness, curiosity, indifference—all your character traits derive from the capoeira attitude, which you’d espoused long before you discovered the Brazilian fight-dance.)
As Milo advances the incline grows steeper, the drumbeat louder, the sun hotter. A bright green church looms up on the hill above him and again, because of the color green, he thinks of Ireland, a country he’s never set foot in.
Ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA
. . . He sees dilapidated three- and four-story concrete blocks, their walls painted in peeling pastel colors and streaked with graffiti, and because of the corrugated tin roofs, he again thinks of the reserve, which he also doesn’t know. Sunlight.
Black people staring at him. Tropical greenery. Tough dusty roots and grasses, leaves and vines. Gutted buildings.
Ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA.
Cement walls give onto gapingly empty ideas of rooms. The rise steepens again. He passes a staircase drowning in creepers and studded with broken glass, sees the remains of a candomblé altar, nothing left of it but an electric cross with all but one of its lightbulbs smashed, a few chipped statues of African gods and goddesses amidst dust and cigarette butts. The world reverberates, beats and glitters, summoning Milo with dreamlike intensity.
Ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA, ta, ta-da DA . . .
Turning a corner, he finds himself face-to-face with a wild-haired, middle-aged black woman. His mother’s age? No, his own, give or take a bit. The woman mutters something but he can’t hear what she says because the atabaque beat now fills his head completely.
says the drum,
you’re almost there
. From a terrace higher up the hill, a straggly group of teenage boys frown down at him, hostile, daring him to come up any farther.
What’s with this crazy cowboy?
He’s directly below the green church now, and though the drumbeat is almost deafening, instead of a
he sees only a series of overflowing dustbins. Then his eye catches the smallest of movements amidst the rubbish in the gutter—and he freezes. Abruptly the drumbeat softens into heartbeat. The camera becomes his eye. This was what had summoned him—a human heart beating from within a ripped-off, rolled-up tiny piece of cloth. A discarded newborn. Black. A useless, half-dead, famished, thrown-away boy. The madwoman’s? No, she’s beyond childbearing years. He approaches, his steps making no sound at all. When he reaches down to turn it over, the thing quivers.
Suddenly Milo’s brain fills with a soft cascade of men and
women’s voices from the past in French and English, German and Dutch, Cree and Gaelic. They gurgle and babble and blend as he stares at the unwanted infant. Is it breathing? Yes, it is. Milo sits down for a minute on the concrete steps that lead up to the church, in the thick shade of a rubber tree. Gets to his feet again, removes his black Stetson and sets it next to the baby’s head so that its eyes will be protected from the sun, even once the sun has moved. Stands there. Moves a step away, a step back. Crosses the street, looks around, returns to the kid.
Finally, he turns and heads back down the hill. Watching, we sense an invisible rope stretched taut between the nearly quadragenarian gringo screenwriter and the tiny, dark-skinned, scarcely breathing bitty baby in the gutter.
CUT to Paul Schwarz, his new suit now clammy and wrinkled—isn’t it infuriating how linen wrinkles?—and Milo Noirlac—as above, minus the Stetson—toiling back up the Saens Peña hill in the swift tropical sunset. Having smoked too many Cuban cigars today, Paul is panting.
“He won’t be there anymore, Milo.”
“Yes, he will.”
“You’ll see. Your hat’s already been sold to tourists in Santa Teresa, and the kid has either been scooped up by the garbage trucks or devoured by a stray dog. He won’t be there.”
“Yes, he will.”
“You’re completely meshuga, Astuto. What was it, seven hours ago?”
“He won’t be there.”
“Yes, he will.”
“Jesus Christ. So what’ll you do if he is, adopt him?”
“Find him a home.”
“What’s with the Good Samaritan shtick all of a sudden?”
CUT to the gutter across from the bright green church. The Stetson hasn’t budged. The two men rush over to it . . .
WHAT DO YOU
think, Astuto? Okay, I know you never think much of our first drafts, but still . . . Do you like the idea of starting off with the day you found Eugénio? Are you having fun, at least? Aw, don’t go to sleep yet—we’re just getting into it. You’ll have plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead. Come on, keep talkin’, you indolent Quebecker. You know how films work: for the first ten minutes, the audience is infinitely tolerant and will accept whatever you choose to flash at them, but after that you’d better start making sense. Okay, so let’s take advantage of that precious tolerance window to teach them the ropes of this film. The first two minutes are already in place. Stay with me. Hang in there, baby.
• • • • •
Neil, April 1910
IN VOICE-OVER, WE
can hear the muddled mutterings of a gangly, well-dressed eighteen-year-old after his first night on the town.
Fog along the deep, dark Liffey this morning, or mist shall we call it, no, for soft not sticky in the air, feathery and floating, yes, but still, still, a bit thick and wet like sweat only coolish. It’s six
, the haze is glazing and the eastern sky faintly tainting with the palest of lights and we’re on our way home, jolly gentlemen, after one stupendous night with the bawds. Gulls wheeling overhead—have they any choice but to wheel? Must pen a poem about gulls and girls, directly after
my morning nap. Yes, I’ve just done something that would shock my mother and annoy even my da, for everyone knows that a young man who plans to embark upon a career in the law should keep his personal reputation pristine—I’ve just wanked a wench, that’s what I’ve just gone and done. What think you of that, Judge and Missus Kerrigan? Trussed up her petticoats and spun her round and lodged myself firmly between those alabaster thighs, then wanked her and spanked her. Strumpets don’t mind a thump on the rump every now and then, ‘tis all part of the fun. Must pen that poem the minute I get home.
Thus dithering and blathering, Neil Kerrigan stumbles from bridge to bridge, utterly delighted with himself.
Yes, at last I know what the jokes were all about, the innuendos, the suggestive raising of eyebrows and wiggling of hips, the priest’s insistent prying during confession on the first Friday of each month—did you do this, did you do that, tell me how exactly, when, where and how many times—and often as I confessed his voice would change, his breathing grow labored, and I would wonder what was transpiring beneath his soutane. Yes, at last I know the convulsive shudder of one’s being that comes in a woman’s arms, as more powerful than self-pleasure as a bomb than a firecracker. Am I right, Willie Yeats? Sing to me!
O love is the crooked thing
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon . . .
Sure and learning’s a fine thing, Father Wolf,
he goes on.
Singing in a bleeding choir as well. Yes, I know I used to be a good little altar boy with a fluty clear wavering voice that sang God’s praises each Sunday morn, I know you believe the cant you pump into your flock about sin and sorrow, brimstone and hellfire, temptation and self-control, I’m not contesting your sincerity—but still, a man worth his oats deserves a bit of a rut on the weekend. Ha-ha! At last I’ve seen for myself the Monto brothels Cousin Thom told me about years ago, having himself heard of them from his raving classmate Jimmy Joyce. The madams, the girls one can pick and choose, the things one can say and do to them behind closed doors . . .
No, you must be shaggin’ us,
said his comrades at University College,
can one really?
Precocious, cocky and unfazeable, Joyce was the most fascinating young prick Thom had ever met. The image of everything I longed to be and wasn’t—yet. Rumor had it he’d already signed a publisher’s contract for a book of tales about Dublin, and Thom and I wondered if tales like this would figure in it—tales about the underworld of the overworld, the dark side of the bright side, the hell side of the heaven side. Had Jimmy dared express himself in public as he did in private, holding forth about his priapic performances with the Monto Messalinas in a mind-boggling mix of English, Gaelic and Latin?
. . .
(Nice work, Milo! And then, through a series of ephemeral flashbacks, we’ll discover the dissonance between the way Neil is describing the night’s events to himself and the way they actually unfolded . . . )
Masses of girls and women roving the streets, standing or sitting on the front steps of houses—smoking and joking and yawning and scratching themselves, beckoning and clucking at the men who amble past. Puddles of piss and beer and rainwater on the ground. Neil follows Thom and the others into one of the Georgian houses.
Here we could use a close-up of his legs, his fine leather shoes, going up the steps in slow motion.
we hear him mutter to himself,
one actually can do this. One’s brain can order one’s legs to mount a staircase to a brothel and the legs will obey . . .