Authors: Jean Christophe Rufin,Alison Anderson
214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright Â© 2012 by Ãditions Gallimard, Paris
First publication 2013 by Europa Editions
Translation by Alison Anderson
Le gran coeur
Translation copyright Â© 2013 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
THE DREAM MAKER
Translated from the French
by Alison Anderson
We were two, and had but one heart.
I know he has come here to kill me. He's a stocky little man, and he does not have the Phoenician features of the people from Chios. He hides as best he can, but I have noticed him several times in the narrow streets of the upper town, and down in the harbor.
The nature is fine on this island, and I find it impossible to believe that such a setting could be that of my death. I have been so afraid in my life; so many times have I feared poison, accidents, and daggers, that I now have a fairly precise image of my demise. I have always imagined it would happen in semidarkness, at dusk on a damp and gloomy day of rain, a day like that of my birth, a day like all those of my childhood. These enormous prickly pear trees, swollen with sap; these purple flowers hanging in clusters along the walls; this still air, quivering with heat like a lover's hand; these herb-scented paths; these tile roofs as round as a woman's hips: how could all these tranquil, simple splendors act as instruments to absolute, eternal night, to the violent chill of my death?
I am fifty-six years of age. My body is in perfect health. The torture I suffered during my trial has left no trace. It did not even leave me filled with disgust for my fellow human beings. For the first time in many years, perhaps the first time ever, I am no longer afraid. Glory, unimaginable wealth, and the patronage of the powerful have stifled whatever ambitions I might have had, along with my fervid impatience and vain desires. If death were to strike me today, it would be more unjust than ever.
Elvira is at my side and knows nothing. She was born on this Greek island and has never left. She does not know who I am, and that is what I love about her. I met her after the departure of the crusade ships. She did not see the ships' captains, or the knights dressed for battle; she did not see the pope's legate conveying to me their affected respect or their hypocritical praise. They believed me when I claimed to be in pain, to have the flux in my belly, so they agreed to leave me behind on this island in order to recoverâor, more likely, to die. I begged them to find me lodgings at an inn near the harbor and not in the old podestÃ 's citadel. I had told them I would die of shame if that nobleman of Genoa, upon returning from his journeys, were to learn I had forsaken war . . . In truth, I feared above all that he might find out I was in perfect health. I did not want to be under any obligation to him that might allow him to prevent me, when the time came, from leaving the island and regaining my freedom.
It was a ridiculous scene, with me lying in bed, my arms outstretched on the sheets, sweating not from fever but the stifling harbor air that entered the room. Jostling one another for space at the foot of my bed, and all the way to the wooden stairway and down to the lower hall beneath us, was a group of knights in their coats of mail, of prelates wearing their finest chasubles (unearthed from the chests on board the ship and still creased from such long compression), and captains with their helmets under their arms, drying their tears with their fat fingers. Each of them thought his awkward silence absolved the cowardice of abandoning me to my fate. My own silence strove to be one of absolution, of fate accepted without a murmur. When the last visitor had left, when I was certain I could no longer hear from the street the clanging of armor or the slap of boots and iron against the cobblestones, I exploded with irrepressible laughter. And laughed for at least a good quarter of an hour.
On hearing me, the Greek innkeeper initially thought my dying moments had put on a hateful mask of comedy. But after I pushed back the sheets and got to my feet he understood that I was simply happy. He fetched some white wine and we raised a toast. The next day I paid him well. He gave me some peasant's clothes and I went for a walk through the town to prepare for my flight from the island. It was only then that I spotted the man who wants to kill me. I did not expect to see him. I was filled more with dismay than with fear. Alas, I am only too well acquainted with such threats, but they had almost completely disappeared over these last months and I thought I was free of them at last. Being followed again disrupted my plans. It would be more complicated now to leave the island, and more dangerous.
First of all, I must avoid staying in the town, where I might easily be unmasked. I asked the innkeeper to rent a house for me hidden in the countryside. He found one the very next day and showed me the way. I left at dawn, a week ago now. I did not find the house until I was already upon it, because it is protected from the offshore winds by thorny hedges that conceal it from outside gazes. I arrived at the hottest hour of the morning, soaked in sweat and covered with the fine dust of the limestone path. A tall, dark-haired woman was waiting for me. Her name is Elvira. The innkeeper must have thought what I had given him was a considerable amount of money, and he believed it was in error. So that I need not come and correct it, he had enhanced the service provided by adding a woman to the lease of the dwelling.
Elvira, with whom I could only communicate through facial expressions, welcomed me with a simplicity I had not known for many years. For her I was neither Argentier to the king of France, nor a fugitive protected by the Pope, but simply Jacques. She learned my family name when I took her hand to place it on my heart. The only effect this confession had was for her to take my hand in turn, and for the first time I felt her round, firm breast in my palm.
In silence she had me remove my clothing and she washed me with lavender water, warmed by the sun in an earthenware jug. While she scrubbed me gently with fine ash, I looked at the steep, gray-green slope of the coastline in the distance, covered with olive trees. The crusade ships had hoped for the meltemi to leave the port. They were slowly moving away, their sails slack in the sluggish breeze. How could this final nautical excursion still be called a crusade, so far from the Turks? Three centuries ago, when knights and priests and the poor were rushing to the Holy Land to find martyrdom or glory, the word had a meaning. Now that the Ottomans were victorious everywhere and no one had either the intention or the means to fight them, now that the expedition was limited to encouraging and arming with fine words the few islands still determined to resist, what an imposture it was to qualify this journey with the high-flown name of “crusade”! It was merely a whim on the part of an aging pope. Alas, that old pope had saved my life, and I, too, had joined in the masquerade.
Elvira picked up a sea sponge swollen with water. She rinsed me off methodically, neglecting not a single patch of skin, and I shivered at the touch of the sponge, its rough caress like that of a cat's tongue. The ships looked sullen on the blue shield of the sea. They rocked to and fro, hardly moving, their masts tilted like a cluster of invalids' canes. All around us the crickets chirred, expanding the silence and filling it with waiting. When I drew Elvira to me, she resisted and led me into the house. For the inhabitants of Chios, as for all the peoples of the Levant, pleasure is for shadows, in cool enclosures. Full sunlight, heat, and space are unbearably violent to them. We stayed in bed until nightfall, and that first evening we supped on black olives and bread on the terrace, in the light of an oil lamp.
The next morning, wearing my disguise, my face hidden in the shadow of a broad-brimmed straw hat, I went with Elvira to the town. At the market, behind a display of figs, I saw again the man who is here to kill me.
There was a time when such a discovery would have compelled me to act: I would have tried to flee or to fight. This time, withholding any decision, I was paralyzed. It is strange how, instead of propelling me into the future, danger now takes me immediately back to my past. I cannot see the life I will lead tomorrow, only my life today and, above all, yesterday. The sweetness of the present moment calls back the phantoms of memory, and for the first time I have felt an intense need to capture these images on paper.
I believe the man who is on my trail is not alone. As a rule, these killers work in groups. I am sure Elvira will be able to find out a great deal about them. She anticipates my every desire. If one of those desires is to stay alive, she will do everything to satisfy it. But I have told her nothing, given her no hint. It is not that I want to die. I have a confused feeling that my death, when it comes, will be in keeping with my fate, and what matters above all is to understand it. This is why all my thoughts take me into the past. Fleeing time has woven a tight web of memories in my mind. I must unravel it slowly, to discover at last the thread of my life, so that I can understand who, someday, is to cut it. That is why I have begun to write these memoirs.
Elvira has placed a wooden board beneath the trellis on the side of the terrace where, by morning's end, there is shade. From morning to late afternoon that is where I write. My hand is not accustomed to holding a quill. Others did that for me for many years, and more often to line up numbers than words. When I discipline myself to make sentences, force myself to make some order of what life has thrown at me at random, in my fingers and my mind I feel a pain that is very close to pleasure. It seems that, in a new way, I am attending the difficult birth through which what has come into the world goes back into it, in writing, after the long gestation period of forgetfulness.
In the blazing sun of Chios, everything I have known becomes clear, colorful, and beautiful, even the dark and painful moments.
I am happy.
My oldest memory dates back to when I was seven years old. Until then everything is vague, obscure, uniformly gray.
I was born at the time when the king of France lost his mind. I was told very early of this coincidence. I never believed there might be the slightest link, even a supernatural one, between Charles VI's sudden madness, which came about as he was riding through the forest of OrlÃ©ans, and my birth not far from there, in Bourges. But I have always thought that the light of the world went out when the monarch lost his reason, as if it were the eclipse of a planet. And that was why we were surrounded by horror.
At home and abroad, all anyone spoke of was the war with the English, which had been lasting for over a century. Every week, sometimes every day, we heard tell of a new massacre, of some infamy suffered by innocent people. And we were fortunate to have the protection of the town. The countryside, where I did not go, seemed to be prey to every manner of vile deed. Our serving women, who had family in the nearby villages, came back with horrendous stories. My brother and sister and I were kept away from their stories of rape, torture, and burning farms, and of course we had no greater desire than to hear them.
All of this against a backdrop of dreariness and rain. Our fine town seemed to float in an eternal drizzle. It grew slightly darker in winter, but from the beginning of autumn until the end of spring the town knew every nuance of gray. Only in summer might the sun prevail, and then the heat subjected the town to a harsh treatment for which it was not prepared, and the streets filled with dust. Mothers grew fearful of epidemics: we were kept locked at home, where the closed shutters again brought shadow and gray, to such good effect that we never forgot what it was like.