Translation copyright 2008 by Paul Curtis Daw
“Knowing Apes” (original French title: “La connaissance des singes”) was published in the author’s story collection Zoo (Paris: P.O.L., 2006): 37-54, after having appeared in Le Monde 2, number 73 (July 9, 2005).
The English translation appeared in Cimarron Review 170 (2010): 17-25.
I was sketching out a play in my head. I visualized the characters, a brother and sister, and the stage set swept by a lighthouse beam. The crash of the sea was audible… memories and ghosts… I was picturing my play in snatches, in bursts, in the intermittent glow of the lighthouse beacon.
But I couldn’t manage to write. I was pacing in circles in my house. My daughter had left eight months before. To make her own way, as they say. She had succeeded, I don’t know how, in finding a place to live. She seemed to have scraped together enough money for the deposit, and to all appearances she was able to pay her rent every month. She’d asked nothing of me, neither a loan nor a guarantee for the landlord. No furniture, sheets, or anything else. Still, my daughter has no sense of the practical. She left everything here, in her bedroom: Her little bed, her armoire, most of her clothes, and even her CDs. She took her perfume, her computer, her telephone, the thingy they wear around their necks that holds hours of music, and two or three odds and ends. Perhaps she rented a furnished apartment. Or perhaps she has in mind returning here soon. I don’t know.
Years ago, when I was still with her father, some friends of ours lost their only son. The mother had not wanted to change anything in his room. She merely closed the curtains. The bedroom remained semi-dark, they paid visits to it. A mausoleum. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen those friends, I no longer even remember their son’s first name. The dust must have settled on the curtains, on the little rabbits in the curtain fabric. I suppose even today, despite all the time that’s passed, the Legos are still strewn on the carpet and the airplane-shaped lamp still hangs from the ceiling. Even so, some shafts of light must penetrate between the curtains. Unless they’ve decided, at long last, to move away.
No, I couldn’t manage to write. I paced in circles in my house. It would have required getting away, a change of atmosphere or location. Writing my play elsewhere, from scratch, from zero. To breathe a different air, hear a different silence. But I couldn’t envision taking a plane to Iceland all by myself, with no one waiting for me on my return. I have some friends out there, my Icelandic translator and her husband, who own a chalet in the north of the island. Six hours by jeep from Reykjavik. It’s an ideal place for writing. From the beach of black cinders, you can see the Arctic Circle. Or rather, you can imagine it. It is right there, several yards from shore. In June, the sun declines very slowly and rests on the horizon; then it rises again, just as slowly. Meanwhile, it has turned pink or orange. It performs a slow yo-yo trick along the horizon. It rests in equilibrium. It refuses to sink. Then it climbs up again, as if by an enormous effort of will. Even if I observed this phenomenon night after night, day after day, I believe I would always find it disorienting.
The summer was beginning in Paris. Writers don’t really have vacations, but rather a lull between two books. I couldn’t get going again. This was the first time I’d been in this predicament. Certainly, not writing is part of the writing process. You are there, sitting passively, and the book takes shape. You walk, do your errands, go swimming, and the cogitation does its work. The sentences find their rhythm, the settings connect, the voices start to speak. At that point, all you have to do is get down to it.
The transition from the sentence in my head to the one on paper has never been a problem for me. But there it was, it wasn’t working any more. At the moment of writing out the sentence, my brain became paralyzed. I no longer heard anything. I no longer summoned up the words. I could no longer commit them to paper. My breathing quickened, I felt my body on the chair, I sensed my arms tighten, and I could no longer manage to forget myself in order to write. I could no longer attain the self-detachment that is like an echo chamber, where the world begins to murmur its words through me.
My trashy daughter. Not even a phone call for eight months.
One morning I was sitting in my office, awaiting I don’t know what miracle. Everybody had gone on vacation, you could even open the windows that looked out on the boulevard: no cars. My Icelandic friends had invited me as always, but I hadn’t made up my mind. The chestnut trees were oppressively green. Their large, grotesque leaves already looked worn out. The dust of the Parisian summer was billowing around, from the sidewalk to the roadway, from the foliage to the gutter. I was straightening up my
study. I sorted out the newspapers that had been piling up for months, I tied bundles together for the yellow receptacle, the one reserved for recyclables.
The telephone rang and I leaped to answer it. It was my mother. She was leaving for a cruise on the Yangtze.
“Now is the time to go,” she told me. “Before they submerge everything behind their new dams. Priceless relics. Thousands of years that are going to disappear before our very eyes.”
To hear her tell it, there was nothing more urgent for any human being on the planet to do than to drift down the Yangtze.
“I have work to do,” I told her.
But she had a favor to ask of me. That was why she was calling. She was sorry, but: her ape. Obviously, he couldn’t sail down the Yangtze. Therefore, he would stay at Rogny. Someone had to take care of him.
The drive to Rogny takes an hour and a half each way.
“Marcel has to be let out every day,” said my mother. “He’s morose. My cruise will take three weeks.”
My mother’s ape was named Marcel. His last name: Chimpanzee. Things like that can come along in life.
“I can’t take care of your ape. I was counting just now on spending several days at Halldor and Sigridur’s house.”
“At whose house?”
“Mom, I go to Iceland every summer. The postcards of glaciers that I send you. Iceland.”
“We’re not going to leave Marcel all alone. He’s already depressed. Getting him out of bed this morning was quite a struggle.”
“I choose Iceland.”
“He cries for me as soon as I go out, when I come back he makes a scene. I’ve already bought my plane ticket.”
“Find another babysitter.”
I’ve never wanted to hear a word about my mother’s chimpanzee. Stored somewhere in my neurons was the awareness that an ape had entered her life, but I have never wanted to be bothered with it. I believe it was one of her ex’s who had passed it on to her. Or it was descended from the ape of one of her ex’s, because it seems to have clearly registered with me that the ape in question was a young one. But I get lost amid my mother’s ex’s.
Rogny-Les-Sept-Ecluses is a charming village in the Yonne river valley. Rather than making a round-trip journey every day, I was resigned to loading up my things and settling in there. Three weeks straddling July and August. Three weeks. Still, my mother’s house is pleasant enough. It looks out on the canal, not far from the famous “seven locks.” When I say famous, I don’t know if their reputation extends beyond the Yonne.
I had left a phone message for my daughter to inform her of my plans. Those busybody cell phones: she never answers when she sees my number. To tell the truth, she had called me exactly three times in eight months. That’s the only reason I knew she wasn’t dead. The first time was on her birthday, the second time on mine (that did please me, I must say), and the third time for no apparent reason. By mistake, no doubt. “How’s it going?” “How are you?” That’s pretty much the gist of our conversations.
My mother was waiting for me in front of her door, in the lounge chair where she does her crossword puzzles and waves at the tourists biking along the canal. The hydrangeas were at their peak. The dahlias, also. They would need watering every two days.
“And the ape,” I asked, eager to finish up. “What does he eat?”
“He doesn’t eat.”
“He doesn’t eat?”
“He doesn’t eat. He just drinks water. A little handful of millet to exercise his teeth, and a banana every two or three days. That’s generally enough.”
Marcel was stretched out in his room. The blinds were drawn and he appeared to be sleeping. We had already met once, and we’d greeted each other with nods. I didn’t insist on going any further.
“What he needs is companionship,” whispered my mother. “And to get some fresh air out in the garden. He loves to chat. Just put him in a lounge chair under the lilacs and make conversation with him.”
“The hungrier he is, the more he talks. He began by saying exactly that, ‘I’m hungry,’ and then he moved on to other subjects. And I enjoy having him talk to me. I need company, too, as you can imagine, it’s not as if two visits a year from you are going to fill up my life. But I’ve never wanted to keep him thirsty. That seemed too cruel to me.”
“He speaks French?”
My mother paused.
“I’ve never tried another language. You know, that’s an idea.”
On top of everything else, I was supposed to take her to the train station at Fleury-les-Aubrais so she could catch her flight from Charles de Gaulle. We locked the precious ape in the house. An hour’s absence during his siesta, he could handle that.
On the way back I stopped at the supermarket and bought some millet seed for canaries, as well as some bananas. On an impulse, I also picked up some dog food and some croquettes for cats, along with salad greens, walnuts and milk. Do apes drink milk? Young ones, surely. The story of his diet had put me off. And what about meat, do they eat meat? I would have to look that up in an encyclopedia. Or on the Internet. Whether they’re omnivores like humans, bears and pigs. I scooped up a chicken. I also bought a newspaper.
When I opened the door, the house was totally quiet. I advanced cautiously. If there’s any mental image I detest, it’s that of an ape bearing down on me in a dark house. Gingerly, I pushed open the door to his room, and he was still there, stretched out in the obscurity. He had thrown off the covers and was lying on his stomach, dressed in overalls. I could make out his face, as creased as a clenched fist. His arms seemed very long, perhaps because they were also very thin. Sticking out from his wrists, his big hands were like braided leather. His thumb was bizarrely articulated under the palm, twice as long as ours, made for clinging to branches.
I retired discreetly, put the chicken in the oven and washed the greens. I was in the midst of watering the hydrangeas on the towpath when I sensed that someone was watching me.
Marcel was peering at me through the window. His flat nose made two haloes of steam, which appeared and disappeared.
“Come here,” I ordered.
But he put a finger over his mouth.
“I’m not allowed to go out,” he explained after I had shut the door.
He chose his words carefully, pronouncing them daintily through pursed lips. If he’d been a human being, you would have said he was affected.
“Is it my mother who ordered you to stay inside?”
“She lets me go out back, in the garden.”
His overalls flapped around him. His fur was dull, and it was missing in patches on his shoulders. His ears were his only features that were a bit fleshy. Beneath his sunken cheeks, his lower jaw seemed enormous, endowed with a sort of autonomy. When he spoke, he seemed conscious of the heaviness of his cranium, of the excessive boniness of his frame, and thoroughly embarrassed with himself. No one had the right to treat an ape like that. It was inhuman.
I had seen a TV program. There are fewer and fewer apes in the wild. Deforestation, kidnapping, poaching has the effect of preventing even zoos from exhibiting them. The know-how of the Bonobo chimps -- the ones who have the knack of using tools – is being lost. The ceremonies that the gorillas organize around their births are now observable only once or twice a year. As for the so-called “talking apes,” they are all born in captivity now, and they are keeping mum. No doubt they are too well nourished. Several cases of linguistic mimicry have been documented among domesticated chimpanzees, of what’s called psitticism, as with parakeets; but to my knowledge, never a true conversation. I realized my mother was keeping the situation under wraps, but from my point of view, three weeks with a talking chimp outweighed all the prior evidence.
“Come have something to eat. Do you know how to set the table?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’re not hungry?”
“But please go ahead and eat, I beg of you.”
His formality struck me. A polite ape, no less. Or distant. Or humble. I made an effort.
“Where did you learn to speak French so well?”
“From your mother.”
For a talking ape, he didn’t say much.
“Were you born in the area?”
“And how old are you, if I may ask?”
“Three and a half. Almost four.”
He held out four long fingers of his hand, the thumb concealed.
I sifted through my memory. Where and with whom was my mother four years ago? And what did she tell me at the time? Not much, come to think of it.
Marcel painstakingly set the table, two plates, two glasses, two forks and two knives. He had a tendency to waddle, but at the point of setting down the objects, he stood up straight, squared his shoulders, and applied himself with the gestures of a majordomo.
I removed the chicken from the oven, set down the salad, the millet and the bananas. We sat down.
There was an awkward silence. The millet cracked between Marcel’s teeth, and he had pushed the bananas away. He was seated very decorously, and when his gigantic hand approached his plate, he seemed to pause and suppress his muscular impulse. Then he limited himself to gathering the little seeds with his fingertips..
I chewed my white meat of chicken.
“Have another helping,” I said, while assertively dumping two handfuls of millet onto his plate. “Would you like some ketchup?”
His shaggy eyelids blinked.
“I like ketchup a lot.”
“Take all you want. Make yourself at home.”
“I’d prefer not to.”
“You have to eat, Marcel.”
“When I eat, I get heavy and stupid. I can’t form words any more.”
There was a pause. The millet seeds exploded between his teeth.
“Marcel, you remind me of those hermits who offered their fasting to God. They ate seven olives a day. Eight would have been gluttony, and six would have been pride.”
“I haven’t been to school. Excuse me.”
“When is your birthday?”
“Your mother tells me it’s the fourth of August.”
Night was falling and Marcel seemed very tired. An ape that doesn’t eat is inevitably one that isn’t doing very well. He let out a pathetic sound, a burp or a gurgle, and muttered an apology. During the bedtime ritual, which my mother had spelled out for me -- tooth brushing, peepee and pyjamas -- Marcel’s already meager conversation was reduced to monosyllables.
“You have to eat, Marcel,” I said while tucking him in.
He groaned faintly. In keeping with my mother’s instructions, I read him his favorite book, Porculus the Pig, and at the final words he began to snore.
Calling a doctor was unthinkable. A veterinarian, that was touchy. It would have required a psychologist for monkeys, because this one, manifestly, was endowed at a minimum with a superego.
I sat down in the living room, with the door opened onto the canal. The heat of the day was tapering off, the hydrangeas were dropping their heads. Like every evening at sunset, I had an urge to call my daughter -- to leave her a message -- but a vestige of pride held me back. Instead, I opened the newspaper. There was a section called “Special Summer Books,” and I pictured myself on a beach, stretched out beside I don’t know whom, a thick book open on my eyes to protect them from the sun. Biarritz. Ipanema. Bondi Beach.
The article on the summer’s best-sellers was signed with a surname that instantly caught my eye: It was my own, preceded by my daughter’s first name. My worthless daughter. She’d become a literary critic. The worst nightmare for a mother who writes.
The next day I set out a lounge chair for Marcel under the lilac bushes. As for myself, I wanted to sprawl on the grass.
“Sit there, Marcel.”
“I can’t,” he answered.
His long arms were dangling, as thin as ropes, His hands touched the ground. He was hunched over more than usual.
“What do you mean, you can’t?”
“I can’t sit in the chair if you’re on the ground.”
The sky was blue, the lilac bushes were swaying softly in the wind, the bees were doing the work of bees.
“Sit in the lounge chair, Marcel, I’m asking you to do that. And let’s have a conversation.”
Marcel perched right on the edge. He seemed to ponder that for awhile, his head drooping toward his long feet. His toenails were hooked on the base of the lounger. You would have thought they were two long hands protruding from his overalls.
“I don’t know how to make conversation,” he said finally. “Excuse me.”
“What do you talk about with my mother?”
“She tells me about her travels.”
I tried to imagine the life of Marcel, brought up in Rogny, and deriving all his knowledge from the opinions, reflections and tribulations of my globetrotting mother. In zoos, standing in front of the primate cages, I always wonder who is gawking at whom. The apes behind the bars seem to have an immense amount of acquired knowledge. But how much can a four-year old ape know when he has never left his native Yonne?
“Does she speak to you about her love affairs, also?”
“Yes,” whispered Marcel, and it seemed to me that his dark grey skin took on purplish highlights.
I proceeded cautiously.
“Did she go to China with someone?”
“Y-yes,” said Marcel hesitantly.
My play was losing its attraction. There was a novel to be written about this ape.
Informing yourself about your mother’s love life soon becomes tedious, especially when your source is a reticent chimp. But in ten days of my summer sojourn at Rogny, I had written the first fifty pages of my new novel, and anything that Marcel could have added would have been superfluous. Fiction always surpasses reality, regardless of what they say, and it gives a better account than the testimony of witnesses.
Marcel was growing bored. I was much less talkative than my mother. I was writing all day long. In the evening under the lilacs, after having cleaned up the kitchen, he would serve me herbal tea or brandy, according to my mood, and he would nibble pensively on some millet. His fur was perhaps a little thicker, but I barely looked at him, the poor soul. He spoke less and less, only when necessary, household matters, the weather, news items. He was waiting for my mother to return.
I knew him to be discreet to the point of scrupulousness, but I was ill at ease with the thought that he might tell her about my prying questions.
On August fourth, his birthday, I ordered a banana cake with ketchup from the pastry shop in Rogny. “A banana cake with ketchup,” I specified. “You figure it out.” You quickly learn how to give orders when you’re in the company of an ape.
“Eat,” I said to Marcel when I got back. “And happy birthday.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Eat, Marcel. No one refuses a birthday cake. That’s an order.”
Marcel went to bed that evening, and the following ones, with a full stomach. Milk, meat, salad, pizzas: I know nothing about wild apes, but the domesticated ones eat everything. We were in mid-summer, so it was hot. I brought him back ice cream, sodas, mounds of peanuts. I wrote, he ate, he was getting back into form. He swept out the entire house, made faces at the mirror, and amused himself chasing birds. We had little to say to each other, but the silence did not weigh heavily.
One evening he muttered something. When I asked him to repeat, it bore a resemblance to, “I’m not hungry any more.”
When my mother returned from her cruise on the Yangtze, Marcel had round cheeks and he didn’t talk any more.
“This is a disaster,” said my mother.
“Your ape never had much to say,” I retorted.
Marcel had disappeared. I had a moment of panic, thinking of the canal. Are apes suicidal? But Marcel was in the lilac bushes. He was swinging from branch to branch, howling, and his abandoned overalls were bunched up on the lounge chair.
When I returned home at summer’s end and bought the newspaper, I saw that my daughter had become editor-in-chief of the literary section. Things like that can come along in life.