Read Desolation Online

Authors: Yasmina Reza

Tags: #Fiction

Desolation

The garden—all me.

The word is, you have a good gardener. People say to me, You have a good gardener! What gardener?! A laborer, a workman. He carries things out. You, you do the thinking. Him, he pushes the wheelbarrow and he carries things out. Everything—I’ve done everything in the garden. People congratulate Nancy on the flowers. I decide on the color scheme and the plants, I site them, I buy the seeds, I buy the bulbs, and her, what does she do?—it gives her an activity, you’ll tell me— she plants them. People congratulate her. That’s life. The celebration of the superfluous.

I’d like you to explain the word
happy.

On Sundays I talk about you with your sister, because I talk about you. You, you think I don’t talk about you, but I do talk about you. She tells me, He’s
happy.

Happy? The other day, at René Fortuny’s, some idiot said, “Surely the purpose of life is to be happy.” On the way home in the car I said to Nancy, “Did you ever hear anything so banal?” To which Nancy’s subtle response was, “So what should it be, according to you?” For her, happiness is legitimate, you know. She’s one of those people who think happiness is legitimate.

Do you know her latest accusation? I had a new roller blind made for the laundry room. You know how much the guy wanted to charge me to install the Japanese shade I could buy readymade in any supermarket? Two hundred twenty dollars. I object. I’m not looking to get robbed, you know. Finally, the guy, who’s a robber, knocks off $40. You know what upsets her? That I spent a hour and a half getting him down $40. Her argument? You reckon you’re worth $40 an hour. Trying to make me mad. And her other argument? The guy has to earn a living. That’s how she is.

So you’re happy. At least that’s what they say.

People say you’re idle, people say you’re nonproductive, and then they say, He’s
happy.
I’ve fathered someone happy.

I, who strive to achieve some modest contentment in the middle of this pleasant flowerbed, I spawned a happy man. I, who was accused, principally by your mother, of tyranny, most especially with regard to you, accused of excessive severity, of injustice three times out of five, I stand here today in contemplation of the good—the excellent—results of my educational efforts. Granted, I didn’t foresee the hatching of a contemplative being, but isn’t a father’s desire the happiness of his family?

Happy,
your sister says. He’s thirty-eight, and he crisscrosses the world on the 99 cents he gets from subletting the apartment I rent for him.

Crisscrosses the world. Let’s face it. . . .

I say, “What does he do? In the morning he steps out of the bungalow. He looks at the sea. It’s beautiful. Okay, I agree, it’s beautiful. He looks at the sea. Fine. It’s twelve minutes past seven. He steps back into the bungalow, and eats a papaya. He goes out again. It’s still beautiful. Thirteen minutes past eight . . . and then?”

What happens then? That’s when you have to start telling me what
happy
means.

You’re looking well. Good weather in Mombasa. Mombasa or Kuala Lumpur, I don’t give a shit, don’t let’s get bogged down in details. It’s all the same to me. After thirteen minutes past eight, East or West, the world is you.

Hats off, my boy, one generation and you’ve wiped out the only credo by which I’ve lived. I, whose only terror is the daily monotony, who would swing open the gates of Hell to escape that mortal enemy, I have a son who samples exotic fruits with the savages. Truth has many faces, your sister said to me in an upsurge of idiocy. Indeed. But truth in the guise of a papaya-sucker is opaque, you know.

It would be hopeless trying to find the slightest trace of impatience or restlessness in you, you sleep, I imagine, you sleep like a log, you don’t belong to the band of wanderers who pace the predawn streets and are my friends, it would be hopeless trying to find a hint of futile anxieties, inchoate restlessness, in a word— unease. I’m not even sure you understand why I’m concerned about you. That I can worry about your lack of worry must strike you as a new phase of my monomania, no? You wonder why I don’t relax, you say to yourself, What does he do with his days, in a state of perpetual metamorphosis, what’s the sense of it, never sated, never appeased. Appeased! Don’t know the word. My son, any man who has tasted action dreads fulfillment, because there’s nothing sadder or more washed out than the accomplished act. If I weren’t in a constant state of metamorphosis, I’d have to battle the gloom that comes with endings because I refuse to wind down in some female fit of the vapors. At your age I knew about conquest, but more important, I already knew about loss. For you see I have never had any desire to conquer things in order to keep them. Nor to be some particular person just to stay that way. Quite the opposite. As soon as I settled on a self, I had to undo that self again. Only be whoever you’re going to be next, my boy. Your only satisfaction lies in hope. And now my offspring opts to be becalmed in a slack prosperity based on utter lack of ambition and wandering all four points of the compass. Basically, if I’ve never dared to attack happiness, and I mean attack, please note, as in assault a fortress, you don’t conquer a fortress by lying in the sun eating papayas, if I’ve never attacked happiness, I say, it’s maybe because it’s the only state you cannot fall out of without hurting yourself. It’s a glancing blow but you never heal. You, poor sweetheart, you want peace right away. Peace! When it comes to vocabulary, let me do the honors. To be precise, it’s well-being. You want to turn into a piece of seaweed as fast as you can. You’re not even trying to fake some spiritual infatuation, I could be taken in by that, I’m not un-naïve. No. You come back tanned, calm, smiling, you sent two or three anodyne postcards and people who want to please me—want to please me!—say, He’s
happy.

When you were a child, you groveled at my feet for months because you wanted a dog. Do you remember? For months you groveled, you cried, you begged, you asked over and over again. I said no, categorically, you kept on nagging. One day you uttered the word
hamster.

You had swapped the dog for a rat. I said no to the hamster and earned myself the right to hear the word
fish.
You couldn’t sink any lower.

Your mother persuaded me to agree to fish, and we had the aquarium.

Were you happy with the aquarium? I pitied you, my boy.

You see these primulas, sluts, they’re choking the leeks, nobody thinks of doing any weeding. If I don’t take care of it, with my back that’s killing me, nobody will. You have to be nice to the maids, according to Nancy. Nice means not asking them to do anything. Recently she said, If Mrs. Dacimiento quits, I quit too. Under the pretext that I wasn’t being sufficiently nice to Mrs. Dacimiento. Whatever Mrs. Dacimiento’s faults or qualities—of which she has fewer and fewer—I am supposed to curb myself because she is a servant. So what if Mrs. Dacimiento is now mediocrity-madeflesh, someone who can neither climb stairs nor bend over, Mrs. Dacimiento can’t even raise her eyes or lower them, she can only see the world at her own level. She’s married to a man who installs central heating, a stay-at-home who hates everything. Doesn’t even like football on TV. Which is weird for a Portuguese. The Portuguese like big balls, fat, and car catalogs. Hers likes nothing.

If I listened to my inner self, I have no idea how I’d be. This woman has been living with us for seven years. In seven years, she has not once figured out how to fit the garbage bag properly over the rim of the garbage can. Sometimes I long to say, “Have you never put a rubber on a guy?” Have you seen how bloated I am these days? I disgust myself. Eat too much for lunch, not enough in the mornings. Always hated breakfast, hated the ritual. That endless show of vitality. Nancy is always in a good mood in the mornings. She smiles as she pours your tea. As she crunches her little piece of buttered toast with honey her eyes are marking out the hidden boundaries of her day. She’s wonderful, you know. She loves people, she wants the best for all humanity. Starting at dawn. The woman is so upbeat, it’s a nightmare, from the moment she gets out of bed. Granted it’s new, but that’s how it is from here on out. Nancy’s on the side of generosity. At any given moment she’s doing her utmost to talk people into submission, and at the first opportunity she hurls herself into the nearest crowd waving slogans and all the rest of it. She wasn’t like that when I got to know her, as you can imagine. The idea of democracy gave Nancy the raw material to elevate her soul. Maybe what she lost in sex appeal she made up in paradise? Nancy overflows with energy. She accuses me of constant complaining, she doesn’t understand that a man who has no place to whine cannot be a normal man. She accuses me of never helping her, she accuses me, whenever we go somewhere, of collapsing on the bed while she does the unpacking, she doesn’t understand that I’m always more tired than she is. Even when she’s tired, she lacks any taste for the horizontal, whereas me, I’m from a long line of the spread-eagled, distinguished by our renunciation of our stomach muscles. Nancy knows nothing about the aging of the body, just as she refutes any element of the tragic in life. Which two things are identical, come to that. Since she’s started getting passionately involved in social upheavals, and since she’s turned her dacimientesque inclinations into a way of life, Nancy is thrilled to be a member of the human race. I am surrounded on all sides by an army of the happy, as you can see! When I got to know her, she was exciting, and at least she didn’t fling herself gaily into the thick of existence. You could detect a little trace of melancholy in her manner. A little existential pallor. Very exciting. A lack of will is a tangible quality in a woman. When I got to know her, I can even say that from a certain standpoint Nancy was superior to me. What has dulled itself into indifference in me—worn down by tiredness, old age, and, if I boast a little, by defeats that I myself sought out—she already had by sheer stupidity. The essence of stupidity. That is how desirable women are, my boy: a little superficial, a little absentminded, inclined to nebulous ideas. You cannot imagine how terrifying the change is. A heart that you thought was languishing, a body that you thought was tender and reserved for your own debaucheries, are seized in the brutal grip of optimism and transformed into the heart and body of a squadron leader. A brain that you thought was bound to apathy starts to manufacture thoughts, and of course the thoughts are always contrary to your own, and uttered pigheadedly, just to finish you off.

Explain traveling to me. My child. I understand the longing to move. I understand about restlessness. I understand the curiosity, the desire to be something other, that last in particular. Before I became the old man you see, I found all that with women. I’d be someone else for two or three days. Boring. Are you someone else on your odysseys? Tell me, teach me, what goes on
way
away out there. Way away from what?

The garden—all me. If I dropped dead in it right now, in two months it would be a wilderness. Lionel’s wife changed the curtains in their apartment. I have Lionel on the phone every morning, and every morning since the catastrophe Lionel tells me about the catastrophe of the curtains. Imagine a man who has spent forty years yanking the same curtains closed and who suddenly in the last stages of his life finds himself forced not only into change but also into gentle arm movements because his wife has decided to spruce up the place and has installed a sliding track for the new curtains he loathes. Take Lionel as an example; Lionel has always been a sort of contemplative creature. Nobody could say, could they, that Lionel had thrown himself into life’s great adventure? And equally you could say to me, Why do you forgive Lionel for having spent the best of his days staring out of his window at Place Laugier-Farraday when you blame me for observing all the magic of our planet? To which I would respond, dear boy, that Lionel has never, ever aspired to the least hint of fullness, a ridiculous word by the way, to the least hint of prosperity, to even an atom of bodily satiety. Lionel, who was always nailed to the spot by pessimism and inner torments, has only one aspiration, which is peace of mind. A terrible ambition, my child, and one that has no need of the Antipodes. But I have to tell you that if Lionel has become the friend he is, it’s because at any moment when I might be assailed unexpectedly by dark fantasies, I will find in him some echo, even a contradictory one, of my dejection. You cannot be friends with someone who’s a happy man or who wants to be, which is even worse. For starters, you see, you don’t laugh with a happy man. You
can’t
laugh with a happy man. For starters, I don’t even know if a happy man laughs at all. Do you laugh? Do you still laugh? Perhaps, contrary to all allegations by your cow of a sister, you’re not definitively happy?

With Lionel, I laugh. And I laugh uninhibitedly. And I sympathize with him. And I understand the tragedy of the curtains. And because we understand the tragedy of the curtains, we can also laugh about it. But there’s nobody else Lionel could laugh with over the curtain catastrophe. If we can laugh about it, it’s because the two of us have weighed the disturbance. A weight, you’ll admit, that a happy man has no means to assess. Besides, a happy man is happy to change the curtains because he craves transformations. A happy man consciously chooses a woman who changes the curtains. Where Lionel and I see a criminal, normal people who aspire to happiness salute a balanced woman and a sane one. A domestic Nancy. Mrs. Dacimiento leaves for eight days in Portugal at the beginning of November. The beginning of November: a date she concocted herself. Supposedly her central-heating guy is marrying off his sister. It’s nonstop in these big families: if it isn’t a marriage, it’s a funeral. And Nancy applauds. That Dacimiento decides, a cappella, to take a week’s holiday right in the middle of the year and without giving us more than a month’s warning or asking our opinion, God forbid she should ask for our authorization, all this strikes her as perfectly legitimate and congenial. Fine. But that I could dare to express a slight reservation about the appropriateness of defining November as a normal month when Dacimiento has already taken her vacation and her paid days off and she’ll get her Christmas bonus and the central-heating guy will get most of my pants and my shirts, sooner or later, is a manifestation of meanmindedness and psychological inadequacy that stuns her. The new charter of her existential positivism has an obligatory clause in it mandating the dropping of your pants in front of the maid.

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