At a time so close at hand, God was everywhere and no one could murder Him.
It was spring but winter was hanging on. The roads were slippery. It was snowing, it was raining. It was bleeding, the car had hit a moose. The animal’s blood was freezing on the windshield.
I came into the world amid my father’s blasphemies on a country road. It was the first day of spring but winter hadn’t said its last word. My mother was howling and breaking in two. My mother was giving birth in a Pontiac that had just killed a great creature of fur and antlers.
I made a hole in the newborn day. I did not know that questions existed. I opened my mouth to eat the time that was falling onto me.
One week later, snowdrops and tufts of dandelions were braving the sky above Rivière-du-Chagrin, ‘River of Sorrow’, where I, a bundle riddled with cries, made a hole in the world.
My father told me that he plunged me into the steaming body of the moose to warm me. And my mother, listening to him that day, smiled in her self-conscious silence. I asked why the river where I was born had a name filled with tears. And my mother told me that in the last century a young girl named Béatrice had hurled herself into it. People could hear the sobs of her stillborn child rise to the surface of the water. Ever since, the Rivière-du-Chagrin has been swollen with sorrow.
As for me, I was consumed by happiness at being a brand-new baby balanced on the world in his mother’s arms.
Yes, I showed up before the spring thaw, on a road obstructed by the carcass of a moose.
I was baptized Joseph Ariel. Little by little I began to resemble my name. In starched white shirts, I memorized the commandments. Secretly I drank coffee to grow faster. I looked out from the living-room window at the cars becoming bigger. Their headlights read the fog.
I learned, head bowed, how to write, to count, to pray. I watched through the classroom window as the blue sky faded.
On the day I turned seven, my father gave me a watch, fastened it around my wrist.
Little by little I began to resemble my face. I knew the imperfect. I loved words, I put an ‘s’ on them when they were numerous, I made verbs agree when they quarrelled. I dreamed of dictionaries. I crammed myself with liquorice, honeymoons, caramels. My baby teeth crumbled like sugar cubes. A dentist pulled seven at once, I counted my blood clots, I learned detachment.
I liked storms, the smell of earthworms, the terrifying forest. I fought with my friends, I liked to see their blood on the sidewalk. The sky over Rivière-du-Chagrin slipped into the gutters and weather fell onto my astonished eyelashes.
I recited the catechism, a foreign language that rang out in my skull like a bell in a storm.
At Christmas, under the tree, I surrounded Jesus with straw,
I conversed with the ox, the ass, I stuck Joseph’s plaster head back on.
I served at Mass. Sculpted into an altar boy, I helped the priest button his cassock. Along with him I sang the litanies in Latin, I lit the long church candles, I observed with disgust the kneeling adults waiting to receive the body of Christ, tongues extended like fish out of water.
I intuited everything that was rotting deep inside their bodies. To soothe my craving for the absolute, I munched, on the sly, sacramental bread in the sacristy. Because it was out of the question to digest the Son of God alongside last night’s supper, I created, in my imagination a second stomach, impervious to corruption. My belly swollen with Christ, I walked like a cosmonaut, fearful that sanctified life would ooze through all the holes in my body. Floating in the mystery of flesh, my brain had no words to contribute.
Yet I loved words, I loved to gnaw on them before I knew what they meant, to mix them into my meals and sometimes swallow them whole like so many profane Hosts.
I imagined secret wars in my two stomachs. My mouth opened like a missal that dropped its versicles and its spittle onto the populace of Rivière-du-Chagrin.
I aspired to sainthood but there was no one in the area, not even in the next village, to crucify me and crown me with thorns. I defied the universe with my little fist: if there was God, there was the Devil. Who could prove to me that the one was not the other? I was given a choice between evil and good, it seemed like not much. Was there anything else? I scratched evil, found good. I scratched good, found evil.
My mother cast seven children into the world like a pack of cards onto a table. I was the eldest, the big brother, utterly unlike them. I gazed at the ancient tree in front of the house. I assumed that none of its leaves resembled the others. The maple, never identical to its shadow, was uncomplaining.
I spent a lot of time under my bed with the dust bunnies. I lay in wait for evil spells, I defied ghosts. I had a stomach ache. I felt dirty. I wanted to disappear. I broke the bulb of my face by making up questions. I sensed things that were stirring under my skin. I gave birth to weighty and appalling thoughts. Was someone other than me speaking inside me?
One night, when everyone was asleep, I decided to stop breathing. My bedroom wavered like a small boat. My skeleton became disarticulated, my body a sack. A hole as black as the one in the kitchen sink appeared in my consciousness. Would I escape myself like fluid down the drain? Leave nothing but the skin of a child that my mother, come morning, would sweep up with a broom?
When I breathed again I came to this conclusion: I had failed childhood, its train had departed without me. Alone on the platform, lost, I spied a display of books. I stole one. It was a novel of unhappy love and stupendous adventures. I was surprised that the story it told, so remote from my life, gave my life back to me even more alive.
I had overtaken the train that I’d missed. I’d been born again between the pages of an open book. Fiction challenged reality in a duel. Eyes burning, I was discovering literature. I fled with my paper flames into the branches of a tall pine where I built a cabin. Perched in my tree house I read, I read, my forehead as vast as the sky. I forgot my questions, Rivière-du-Chagrin forgot its sorrow and memory itself flowed towards the imaginary river. The maples around me were stripped bare but the tall pine kept its needles, reading over my shoulder. My fingers made blue by January trembled, turned chapters of fratricidal war that chilled my heart. I warmed myself with the fate of lovers who by way of farewell revelled in one final kiss before dying. I read, I read, my pupils starving, my soul opening like a gulf. I discovered the horror of happiness, the mud of lies, tired glories.
A book, brain open like a sky, road plunging into childhood.
Childhood, another name for infinity.
In my book tree, I imagined happy endings for tragic stories and for happy stories, harrowing endings. I turned pages and reality turned away from itself. I shook up life, indifferent to the pain I hoped to inflict.
Photograph © Larry Towell / Magnum Photos
To read this text in French, please visit granta.com/larbre-aux-livres/