Translated from the French by Jordan Stump

 

The dog was there, on the other side of the street, it was there for her now, waiting for Ladivine Rivière to emerge squinting from the dimness of the hotel and stand for a few seconds on the potholed pavement, in the blazing late-morning light, as she did every day, undecided, happy and deeply calm, until some chance happening, a child’s cry, a flight of pigeons, oh even a fly on her cheek, led her to set off to the right or the left.

Never straight ahead, because that’s where the dog was, because it was watching her.

She had no doubt that the dog came for her now, after first coming, perhaps, perhaps, for Marko or the children.

But she so hated the idea of Daniel and Annika being monitored, guarded, or looked after by that dog, the idea that they might need any such protection or oversight, and that the dog might have known it, she so hated that idea that she’d pushed it aside in disgust, and the very notion came to strike her as absurd.

Not because it was, but because even thinking of it was troubling, repellent and hurtful.

The children needed only the vigilance, the deep, anxious love that she gave them, she and Marko, and the big brown dog that in this unknown land had decided to serve as her consort or sentinel had that right alone, for her alone – certainly not the right to take responsibility for her children.

But suppose Marko might have liked to have that dog looking after him?

Still, she was by no means sure that the dog meant her well, she never approached it, never waved at it, never even met its gaze.

Marko could nonetheless have liked that animal’s discreet solicitude, unmistakable or uncertain. It seemed like this trip was bringing them nothing but trouble, he’d complained once again at breakfast, defeated and confused.

If he could believe that some citizen of this strange country had found it natural to express his devotion by temporarily inhabiting the flesh and the skin of a huge scrawny dog, its mission to follow Marko Berger’s every step, if he could believe such a thing as she did, trust in it as she did, he would have found infinite consolation.

But Marko could imagine no such thing.

And so she’d given up thinking the dog might be coming for Marko as well.

It came for her alone. And so, too, she never spoke of the dog around Marko.

He wouldn’t have mocked her, no, would have shown none of the coldness – the irritated scowl, the condescending pursed lips, the shrugged shoulders – that, for example, his father would have.

He would have looked at her closely, his brow furrowed and slightly concerned, gauging her seriousness, and then, once convinced that she wasn’t joking, he would have laid out all the ways in which such a thing was impossible.

But she never said it was possible, never claimed it was conceivable. It simply seemed to her that it happened, and happened like this: every morning, when she came out of the hotel and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dazzling light, the big brown dog was watching her from the opposite pavement.

She set off with no goal in mind, one way or the other, striding firmly over the dusty, uneven asphalt, joy in her heart.

And the dog followed, always keeping the street’s width between them, and it was from the corner of her eye, her upper body slightly turned, that she saw and tracked it as it weaved its way, disdainful and faithful, through the crowds, the men selling swimming costumes and caps, the women with their displays of fruits and vegetables on a tarpaulin spread over the pavement.

Often it lost sight of her, when a bus passed by or a red light stranded a long line of cars.

And with that she slowed down a little, she couldn’t help it, not that she was afraid she might unintentionally leave it behind, but because the anxiety she imagined invading its canine heart saddened her own.

 

*

 

This was their first time away from Europe as a family, and after three days they couldn’t help feeling that, by an infuriating irony of fate, their troubles were multiplying in direct proportion to the care they’d put into planning their stay, as if in this country earnestness were a thing to be punished, and quiet enthusiasm, simplicity and worthiness generally.

They had spent the previous summers at Marko’s parents’ in Lüneburg and at a campsite on the Baltic, and it seemed to them a reasonable way of going on holiday, perfectly suited to the sort of family they were, and neither ever regretted aloud that it was so dull, over time almost exhaustingly dull, so this summer could have gone by in just the same way, between the elder Bergers’ home, where it was tacitly forbidden to go without slippers, to speak loudly, and to get up after eight (and them, Marko and her, thinking themselves responsible for the children’s obedience to these rules even when they were very small, and struggling to keep them from making noise and always to show them at their very best to the two old people they wanted on their side at all costs, not quite knowing why, maybe because they were plain, simple folk, and their judgement of people and situations seemed grounded in some primal, luminous, indisputable truth, when in fact it was often nothing more than a hodgepodge of hoary received ideas, she now thought with some animosity, pat opinions unthinkingly, unfeelingly parroted), and the campsite at Warnemünde, where the camper van they traditionally rented was in a way their second home, they liked to tell the children, whose happiness at going on holiday was heightened still further by the illusion that they were rich enough to own a summer house, even if she and Marko soon spent the days looking forward to evening, awaiting the aperitif hour, and then dinner, with the slight tension, the feigned, electric insouciance caused by those long hours of forced idleness on the windswept beach, and the crowds, the need to keep constant watch over the children, the feeling of absurdity that regularly ran through them when they caught themselves longing for the end of the holidays and the return to Berlin and to work and the coming of autumn, when in fact they wanted no such thing, they wanted only an escape from the inertia and emptiness of Warnemünde.

And there they found themselves drinking to excess.

Early in the afternoon, when the children were napping in the camper and they themselves were sitting under the canvas awning, inattentively reading, often glancing up at the threatening skies (and what to do if it rains, if there’s no going to the beach?), their thoughts turned to alcohol, to the type of wine they would happily uncork when the day came to an end, and not infrequently, especially if the grey clouds appeared and the cold little wind of Warnemünde came up, one of them went off for a bottle and two glasses, on the pretext of acquainting themselves with a new vintage.

Back home in Berlin, they remembered Warnemünde with bewildered shame and faint terror.

They discussed it, and agreed that they’d drunk more than was sensible. They scarcely recognised themselves when they thought of the people they’d turned into in Warnemünde.

Because could they be sure now that they would have been able to make the proper decisions had something serious befallen one of the children, that they had been in any state, even before evening, to keep a vigilant eye on the children in Warnemünde?

Was it not by sheer luck, rather than attention to their responsibilities, that they hadn’t had to drive Annika or Daniel to the emergency room in Rostock, and if they had, would it not have been immediately apparent to all that they were drunk? That they were, both of them, unable to care for their children and deserved only one thing, in Warnemünde at least: the immediate removal of their children on whom they nonetheless so desperately doted?

What had happened in Warnemünde?

It would have been nice to think that the spirit of the place had exerted some force on their souls and secretly estranged them from their own nature, but she and Marko prided themselves on their unflinching realism.

And even if their memory of Warnemünde was vague and gap-riddled, even if it sometimes seemed they never left that windy, dull-white beach, or perhaps precisely because blurred images were all they remembered of Warnemünde, they confessed to themselves that they’d spent their time tippling not because the spirit of the Baltic had refashioned their nature but out of weakness, out of boredom and laziness.

And this left them shocked, unhappy, concerned.

The thought that the children were now big enough to see a connection between what they might learn about alcoholism on television or at school and their parents’ behaviour in Warnemünde deeply demoralised them.

Because all year long she and Marko strove to be ideal parents.

But the alcohol had clouded their memory, and now they could not completely recall what they’d said and done in Warnemünde, and the nature of their possible excesses in front of the children.

They fought back the urge to question them.

Nothing could be more foolish, they told themselves, nothing more inept, than forcing the children to remember upsetting details or even, if they’d noticed nothing, filling their heads with the idea that their parents had not been quite themselves in Warnemünde and were now feeling guilty about it.

They observed the children closely, watching for the word, the gesture that would reveal a discomfort around their parents. But the children seemed to harbour no unspoken thoughts on the subject of Warnemünde.

Eventually she and Marko forgot their concerns, forgot to reflect on the dissipations of Warnemünde, and the year went by, not without happy moments or sound reasons for joy, and when the summer holidays came back they innocently set off for Lüneburg and Warnemünde once again, and what happened to them there, what seemed inevitably to recur as soon as they found themselves in the dull, windy idleness of Warnemünde, came as a surprise, and they were angry with themselves for being surprised, for having been cowardly enough to drape themselves in their innocence and succumb once again to surprise. That, their Warnemünde dissolution, happened three years in a row.

And so they’d decided to spend their holiday far from Europe, far from Lüneburg and Warnemünde, from Marko’s parents and the camper where the howling night wind often woke them with a start.

‘They’re not going to be happy,’ Marko had said, referring to Lüneburg.

Although he was smiling his little sly smile and raising his eyebrows, adopting a comical air, she sensed and understood his fear, because she felt it too.

She put her arms around him, whispered that she could call his parents herself, if he liked, to let them know that they wouldn’t be coming to Lüneburg this year, but she was hoping he’d say no, so fearful was she of Marko’s parents and their opinion of her.

He was in her arms, trembling and tall, abandoned, hesitant.

And no doubt he understood the fear that, like him, she felt.

‘We’ll send them a letter,’ he said, his confidence restored, pulling away and, she sensed, getting a grip on himself in every way.

Her written German was weak, so he took on the task, and she saw the slump in his back as he sat there, his broad back, usually so straight and so strong, now as if awaiting its punishment, consenting to the well-deserved reprimand that would surely be meted out by his disappointed parents, to whom, he observed in melancholy surprise, he hadn’t written since his childhood and his few stays at summer camp.

They went off to post the letter together at the Nestorstrasse post office.

The queue seemed to be made up entirely of women just like Marko’s mother, with their brave, tired faces, their drab padded jackets, grey locks emerging from under their knitted hats.

It was so easy, she thought, to pity old age and fault the hardhearted son, but did they know the price that had been paid, in sorrows and miseries, for that necessary hardening?

Because she felt her own body taking on Marko’s anxiousness, his unease, of which only complete absolution from his parents could relieve him.

After a few days, they answered:

Dear son,

You will not be surprised to learn that we were startled by your letter, and deeply hurt, perhaps more deeply than you can imagine. We prefer to think that, had you foreseen the depth of our displeasure, you would not only never have written that letter, but you would have abandoned your plans for this trip, which in any case we are certain is not within your means, financially, and will force you to ask for a loan from your bank. As you know, we are resolutely against all indebtedness for leisure purposes; we raised you according to those principles, and the fact that you can discard them so easily, on the pretext that the two of you are ‘a little tired’ of your very simple, restful, inexpensive holidays at Lüneburg as at Warnemünde, that is a thing we cannot understand. But this is not what matters most. We want to speak to you less of our anger or hurt, or our concerns, than of the deep, unanticipated emotions that followed that anger. Thanks to your cruel letter, we have come to understand the reasons for the strange disenchantment that came over us after each of your visits, which we attributed, wrongly, to the feeling of emptiness that settles into a house with the departure of its youngest and noisiest occupants. That truth, which we have now finally seen, forces us to concede that your letter has at least that to be said for it. For without that letter, without the deep relief that followed and drowned out our anger, we might never have understood why such a wound always opened in us after you had come to stay at the house, why it seemed that nothing had taken place even though everything had gone well, why, in short, we felt more alone, more melancholy, and more insignificant after enjoying your presence than in all the long months we had gone without seeing you. It was because we were hoping for a communion, and that communion never came. We were hoping for an outpouring of heartfelt words, and we never heard them. Of what sort, exactly? you will ask. But we do not know. We only know, and we have just realised, that the falsity of those relations, or at least their incompleteness, their superficiality, plunged us into a disheartenment that your departure revealed or aggravated. We so longed for something more – but what? Confessions, effusions? Possibly, but what else? We have always sensed, in your wife as in yourself, a dread of displeasing us on the most trivial matters, a quickness to agree with us about everything, which aborted any hope of a fulfilling conversation, and left us feeling like ogres or boors. We sensed that you adamantly refused to open your heart, even a little, lest we seize the occasion to upbraid you for something or other. Your wariness, your deep reserve, your excessive, hurtful politeness quite naturally influenced your children’s view of us, and our relationship with them too became cautious and stiff. Why should that be? We who find empty socialising so intolerable that we have stopped seeing some of our friends whose sincerity proved less absolute than ours, how did it come to be that our own son’s visits were so marked by awkwardness and unspoken disappointment? With summer approaching we felt an anxiety and a sadness coming over us, though we were unsure how to interpret it. Then your letter arrived, and our first reaction, angry and hurt, was nothing more than the predictable reflex of two mistreated parents. When, later, we found ourselves forced to admit that we were in the end relieved not to be seeing you, we were at first frightened and ashamed, then thought it over and arrived at the reflections we have just shared with you. So, you will perhaps ask, what am I to conclude, do they want us to come all the same, now that we know the situation, and perhaps work to improve it, or would they genuinely prefer not to see us, never to see us again? What am I to feel, how am I to act (you will perhaps be wondering), in response to so many contradictory statements? How to answer you, dear son? We ourselves cannot say. Do as you think you must, you and your wife, and above all do not abandon your plans for that senseless trip simply for fear of displeasing us. If you do, let it be because you think it best to avoid it. Should you choose to go all the same, do not concern yourself with our judgement, even if, as you surely understand, that judgement is severe and unsparing. And should it turn out that you cancel that trip because all things considered you want nothing so much as to come to Lüneburg, because the thought of forgoing Lüneburg would make you simply too sad, know that we will welcome you without reservation. We could even, if you find it easier, pretend that nothing had happened, that we had never written this letter, that you had no idea how hungry we are for unsimulated emotions. In short, you are free.

Your parents.

 

Marko read the letter, then handed it to her without a word, and she deciphered it slowly and laboriously, astonished to hear such language from people she’d feared precisely for their rudimentary minds, their limited vocabulary, which often led them to express themselves in a blunt and, for her who was used to more urbane ways, disconcerting manner.

She looked up, not knowing what to think, surprised, wanting to ask Marko to translate some of the sentences.

But his glance stopped her, and made her blush with a pity beyond words. Never, in her husband’s pale eyes, had she seen such bewilderment, such grief.

For the first time she glimpsed the child he once was, sensitive, no doubt easily hurt, few signs of whom could be seen in the confident, slightly aloof man he’d become, who appealed to her precisely because he so rarely allowed himself to be troubled.

She reached out to touch his cheek. But that would have been a mistake, would have humiliated him and brought no consolation.

She pushed the letter aside, turned away, and although they always talked about everything, neither would ever again speak of the letter from Lüneburg, nor of Marko’s parents, whose names they would soon utter only when the children now and then posed some question concerning them.

Though they said nothing of it, it was clear that they would never again call Marko’s parents to see what was new, that they would not, that June, go to the Karstadt store to buy a birthday present for Marko’s mother.

It seemed to her, but she couldn’t discuss it with Marko, that by writing ‘You are free’ the elder Bergers had in effect delivered them of the impossibility of being angry.

She was angry with them for the pain they had caused Marko and she was certain that Marko was equally angry and perhaps even outraged at his parents, whose decisions, until this question of their holidays came up, he had always obeyed, whose wishes he’d respected even when his own were very different, as when they had obliged him to find a trade and give up on a veterinary degree, which to his parents’ mind took too long to achieve and offered no guarantees.

From the tension in his face, the new hardness in his gaze, she sensed the sharpness and durability of his anger, but she also sensed that he was not unhappy to be feeling and cultivating this newfound right to hate his parents, that it made him seem bigger in his own eyes, and bound him more tightly to his own will, heretofore often feeble because subjugated to his parents’, which was implacable, enigmatic and savage.

His voice became firmer, there was a hint of aggression in his humour, and even that she understood and respected.

 

*

 

The dog followed her to the vast walled lot set aside for the tourist market, wedged between the beach and the road.

There, as if finding such a place beneath its dignity, it sat down by the entrance and watched her, from the greatest possible distance. It knew, she thought, that she would have to come through this same gate to start back for the hotel.

Were there some other way out, the dog would surely have stayed close by her heels.

It knew she would come through this same gate again, she thought. And it would be there, sitting in the dust, in the heat, its long tongue hanging out and its chest heaving, and the watchful look in its black eye would give her no clue, convinced though she was that its vigilance was intended for her alone, by which to decide if it was spying on her or protecting her, if she should flee it or revel in its care.

That didn’t concern her. The question was moot for her now.

Because even were the dog spying on her, its watchfulness made her feel safe, not so much in the streets – perfectly sedate, as it happens – of this big, unfamiliar city, but more broadly, safe from sorrow or unhappiness, failure or ruin.

She walked through the market stands with her new stride, at once lazy and confident, loose and firm, looking at everything and knowing she’d buy nothing because she and Marko now had to avoid all unnecessary expense, but not wanting anything anyway, neither fabric nor pottery nor metal bangles, simply happy as she thought she’d never been before (because anxiety had always subtly spoiled her most joyful moments, the birth of her children or the completion of her degree), feeling her healthy, familiar, faithful body move freely through the warmth, her thoughts wandering this way and that, unencumbered, weighed down by no worry, no incomprehension.

She could, if she wanted to, or if the miracle of this new outlook had not come to pass, easily find something to torment herself with, she knew that.

But it was as if, rather than deposit her in another land, the plane had delivered her to a universe apart, where she could finally feel the happiness of being herself free of existence’s gravitational pull.

Is this what death is like? she wondered. Could she have died and not remembered?

But what she was feeling bore all the hallmarks of life at its fullest, particularly her awareness of her warm, rounded body, lightly dressed in pale linen, which she guided through the stands, she thought, smiling to herself, simply for the pleasure of enjoying its perfect mechanics.

She stopped at a straw hut that sold mango juice.

She put her elbows on the counter, ordered a drink, and the young brown-skinned woman who pureed the pieces of mango, added water, and poured the nectar into a glass was not a stranger, though this was the first time she’d seen her.

She recognised the woman’s very motions, her precise way of peeling the fruit and then pulling the flesh from the stone – she’d seen all that before, exactly the same, no less than the high, smooth forehead, the little dark mouth, the cheek slashed by a thick scar, the faded red T-shirt and the pointed cones of her breasts underneath.

Down to the tiniest moment, she’d experienced all this before, though she’d never been to this market – how she raised the glass to her lips and saw that the rim wasn’t clean, saw the lingering trace of other lips, slightly sticky, perhaps crusted with sugar, and how she deliberately placed her own lips on that residue and found no distaste in her untroubled heart.

In what dream had she as it were made a date with this woman and this glass and this thick juice, whose sweetness in her throat was exactly what she’d already known, though she’d never before drunk the juice of a freshly-pureed mango?

With a frivolous little laugh that she did her best to make reassuring, she asked:

‘Have you seen me before?’

‘Where? Here?’

‘Here or somewhere else.’

The woman looked at her, slowly shook her head, then at once turned away, as if dreading another idiotic question and embarrassed in advance for them both.

‘Well, I’ve seen you before, but I can’t recall when.’

And with good reason, she thought, if it was in one of those dreams that seem so perfectly real you wake up convinced that you really did travel somewhere, that there are no such things as oneiric visions, only realities you assume to be dreams, even though you see yourself with no age, and the seasons have no tang.

Suddenly eager to strike up a friendship, to confide in this woman and rouse her curiosity, she nearly added:

You were wearing this same pale red T-shirt, and I could see the shape of your breasts underneath it. I drank this same mango juice, which you served me in just the same way. Isn’t that incredible? I have a husband and two children, a girl and a boy, and I went out this morning and left them sleeping at the hotel. We have troubles, but in a way we’re very lucky too.

Instead, she only gave her an insistent smile.

And the woman was still stubbornly looking down, refusing that dubious alliance.

‘I have to be going now,’ said Ladivine, ‘but I’ll be back, and I’ll bring my husband and children with me.’

Didn’t that last sentence sound more like a threat than a promise?

Again she laughed her deliberately superficial little laugh, but she sensed at once that this triviality was no less out of place than that longing for a connection founded in a wondrous hallucination, on the incarnation of shadows she alone had perceived.

Reluctantly, she walked away, and now her enchantment was dimmed by the feeling she’d done something wrong, shown a lack of discretion.

It would soon be eleven o’clock. The market was gradually emptying out, the hubbub receding in the thick heat.

She realised there was no point in trying to make anyone understand the strangeness of what she was feeling, or the vastness and harmoniousness of her joy, or how natural she found it to see her anxious life dissolving here in the big brown dog’s watchful gaze.

And it wasn’t because she was on holiday. How misplaced that word seemed, given the rash of mishaps they’d endured since their arrival, and if they compared these past three days to their weeks-long holidays in Warnemünde and Lüneburg, they clearly should have been sorry they hadn’t gone once more to Warnemünde, sorry they’d so dreaded the tedium of Warnemünde that they dared to believe there was another way.

But not for anything in the world would she have wanted to be waking up in the Warnemünde camper van at this moment, and she was sure Marko felt the same, even if for now he seemed unable to find any palpable pleasure in their holiday here, perhaps, she told herself, because no one had seen fit to lodge his or her consciousness in the skin of a dog and become Marko Berger’s guardian.

She smiled as she walked, a vague and ingenuous smile.

She never doubted that Marko would rather be suffering here than stewing in his discomfort and anxiousness at his parents’, and even that he would sooner die here than surrender to Lüneburg and lay at his parents’ feet the weapons he’d just discovered he had.

He was so angry with Lüneburg for making him spineless and vulnerable.

But he’d granted himself the freedom to change. He woke every morning energised by a new sense of himself, able to make decisions, whether weighty or trivial, undaunted by Lüneburg’s judgement, and even defying it. Would his humiliated parents’ distraught faces never rise up before him, hurt and uncomprehending, Ladivine worried, would pity not one day end up crushing his attempts at liberation, his necessary initiation into hard-heartedness?

 

Excerpted from Ladivine by Marie NDiaye, published on 17 March 2016 by MacLehose Press. Copyright © Editions Gallimard, Paris 2013.

Photograph © Monika Hoinkis 

Lucia Series
Civilization Spurns the Leopard