Yes, Hergé’s drawings in “Tintin au Congo” are racist, colonialist garbage (revised and expanded 16h00 Paris time)

“I made ‘Tintin au Congo’ without a lot of enthusiasm…. Practically everyone was Colonialist (at the time)…. ‘The white’s role was to bring civlization to the blacks.’ Tintin wasn’t racist, he was Colonialist like everyone was in the epoch.”

— Hergé

Bravo for Casterman’s decision not to re-publish Hergé’s “Tintin au Congo” — as part of a general re-edition of the graphic novels to mark the 90th anniversary of the character — whose drawings, like his depictions of Indians in “Tintin in America,” are racist, colonialist garbage.

Hergé’s disengenous argument — let’s call it lache — that he was just reflecting his epoch doesn’t hold water for anyone who’s red Eugene Sue’s 1842-43 “Les Mysteres de Paris.” Eight-six years before Hergé sorted his bug-eyed, pink-lipped Africans, Sue’s most noble character — perhaps the only personage in the 1,000-page serialized saga beyond reproach — was the African-American Dr. Paul. And when I visited Antwerp in 2003, the same bug-eyed, fat Black people could still be seen peering from post-cards geared to tourists. Belgium has a long Colonial history of racism which was still showing its vestiges in this millenium, and it’s this tradition that begat the father of Tintin.

Paul Ben-Itzak

Back to Africa: Cubism at the Pompidou

pompidou maskAmong the more than 300 works on view through February 25 at the Centre Pompidou for its exhibition Cubism is, above, “Masque krou,” Côte d’Ivoire, undated and uncredited. Painted wood, metal, and cork. 25.5 x 16.5 x 18.3 cm. Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon, Lyon. © Lyon MBA – Photo Alain Basset.

Skin Games — Katherine Dunham’s Documentaries in Paris; Lauwers’s Racialist Stereotypes in Seine-Saint-Denis

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on February 10, 2005, this piece is re-published today because incredibly enough given the community’s multi-cultural population, Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room” has been programmed for April at the theater MC93 in the Paris suburb of Bobigny in the county of Seine-Saint-Denis. (Perhaps the brilliant curators who thought up this idea can sell “Tintin in the Congo,” featuring Belgium’s most famous ambassador, in the gift shop. What they really should do is book-end Lauwers’s piece with Dunham’s more noble — and authentic — enterprise.) Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by subscribing or making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. Subscribe to the DI/AV for one year for just $36 ($21 for students) and get full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances and exhibitions from around the world by 150 critics. Paul Ben-Itzak is also available for French to English translating assignments and for DJing as MC World Beat.

PARIS — A colleague who’s also seen Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room,” a.k.a. “La chambre d’Isabella,” tells me he thinks the “‘quaint racial language is appropriate for the historic moment Lauwers was recreating.” Another respected colleague, the New York Times’s Margo Jefferson, sees merely pretension where I see tired racial stereotyping inherited from Colonialism. Reflecting on the needcompany dance-theater-music work, seen Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, I can see the bases for both these opinions, and I wouldn’t take my colleagues to the mat on them. Yet while Lauwers’s bombastic work (in general) often seems pretentious, it is also intentionally provocative. So I think a visceral response to this visceral approach is valid. (And if Lauwers can dish it out, he should certainly be able to take it.) Here’s mine, recorded a couple of hours after the performance, followed by some reflections on the work’s thin dance content and on cultural appropriation and exploitation. Then we’ll finish with the tonic of authenticity, revisiting Katherine Dunham’s early documentaries of Haiti and the Caribbean.

It is past two in the morning here in Paris, and I should be asleep. But I am restlessly pacing. I am on edge because tonight at the Theatre de la Ville – SARAH BERNHARDT (whose corps at Pere Lachaise must surely be restless these days), the Belgian director-playwright and putative choreographer Jan Lauwers used his considerable dramatic gifts to suck me into a world where, before I knew it, I was hit with residual Belgian colonial racialism, grandmother-to-minor grandson incest/rape (at least that’s what they’d call it in the States), and a generally unremitting nihilism.

Perhaps — perhaps — there are hints of hope among the despair. Perhaps, as in the work of other tragedians, the darkness is meant to set off the light. But how are we supposed to discern these signs through the barrage of blatant racialism and pointless violence? How am I to see anything but racialism when Lauwers gives us a heroine who, we’re told, was impregnated by a Black (I think the word Negro was used) performer on the Place Pigalle whose trick was that he could make his “erect p**** *** just by concentrating on it”? (The asterisks are mine, not an external censor’s; just because Lauwers has desecrated Sarah Bernhardt’s stage with this filth doesn’t mean we need to desecrate our pages.) How am I to find an island of hope on a stage whose dominating scenery is what we’re told is a “giant African penis,” on which the heroine hangs her gold necklace and lighter? How am I NOT to perceive racialism in a scenic environment which, in its blithe use and display of (what we’re told are) African artifacts, is probably committing at least one sacrilege, and has made me complicit in a sort of cultural violation? How did I feel regarding this in a sea of white faces? How did I feel when these fellow spectators giggled at the evocation of black p**** tricks?

I know, I know, I hear some of you saying: You dope, he’s not being racialist, he’s COMMENTING on racialism and Colonialism. I just don’t buy it. Jan Lauwers works in a milieu — Belgium — where one can still find vestiges of the Colonial attitude towards Blacks in mainstream postcard shops peddling images of them (thick lips, bug eyes) that make “Birth of a Nation” seem like it was produced by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In this context, the similar signposts in “Isabella’s Room” make it hard to receive this work as anything but racialist, nihilistic garbage.

lauwers oneNeedcompany in Jan Lauwers’s “La Chambre d’Isabella” (Isabella’s Room). Photo copyright Eveline Vanassche and courtesy MYRA.

It doesn’t help that Lauwers starts off with the often-mocking presentation of a variety of African artifacts, apparently, we’re told, “collected” by his late father. (The question of Colonial expropriation of such artifacts is not broached.) Perhaps he’s mocking the mockers, but what exactly gives him the right to expropriate another culture’s ceremonial objects for his own ceremonies? Especially given Belgium’s brutal colonial history.

“Isabella’s Room” is also advertised — at least in Paris — as a dance spectacle, and when it comes to integrating dance into his theatrical works, Lauwers hasn’t made much progress since the 1999 “Morning Song.” Jefferson, in her Times review, postulates that the dance here serves the same end as the songs, to “echo the characters’ conscious thoughts and unconscious dreams.” I don’t see this; I can find neither comment, interpretation, nor even counterpoint here; just aimless noodling, which might as well have been created outside of the text, in which the individual performers appear to have been left to their own devices, the choreography often devolving into what Jefferson accurately calls “Merce Cunningham and WIlliam Forsythe cast-offs.”

Except for six hours which she spends there in a vain attempt to save the life of her grandson Frank, the Isabella of the title in Lauwers’s piece is an Africa-fancying white anthropologist who never makes it to Africa. Katherine Dunham, by contrast, is an African-American interpreter of Afro-Caribbean dance — with Pearl Primus, the U.S.’s first — who began her career by traversing the Caribbean, on a Rosenwald fellowship, with a camera. Three of the resultant 1936 documentaries, “Trinidad,” “Haiti,” and “Jamaica and Martinique” were recently screened by the Centre Pompidou here in Paris, part of a festival on voyaging women documentary makers of the ’20s through ’60s.

All three films are brief but effective time capsules of the subject countries. “Trinidad” is the most purely dance document, capturing what looks (to this untrained eye) like a Vodun-like dance with its own vocabulary — one of the vocabularies that Dunham would go on to interpret in her concert form. (What a formidable example of scholarly rigor for contemporary choreographers who have the audacity to adapt a given ethnic style after taking only a few classes in it!) A vocabulary it clearly is, with one older woman, back curved, stomach contracted, seen to be drilling a snappy younger man in his footwork as a circle watches.

“Haiti” is a 15-minute masterpiece of a portrait and travelogue; one can almost feel the young Dunham falling in love with the country that still, nearly 70 years later, plays a central role in her life and work. She begins with a panorama of coastal mountains dominated by what look like the remnants of colonial fortresses. There’s also a cock-fight, in which she follows the flying fowl, then zooms in on a smartly attired man clipping his bird’s toe-nails. Eventually we’re taken — as if we were watching it from behind the barricades — to what could be a Carnival parade. Some of the participants are clad simply in their Sunday finest, some wear large masks in the shape of animal heads, others full-body costumes; two Carnival queens greet their ‘subjects’ from floats. Most are, to one extent or another, dancing, from the sharp dresser to the fluent four-year-old on whom Dunham trains her camera for a couple of minutes.

What emerges — aided by more recent musical field recordings which have been layered onto this silent film — is a poignant memory of Haiti just after the 1934 evacuation of U.S. troops. It’s perhaps a bittersweet memory in light of the U.S.’s recent intervention to help depose Haiti’s democratically elected President Aristide, but the filmmaker, at least, provides a much-needed model of an ambassador from our country who casts a curious eye, not a pointed finger at the rest of the world.

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

poitier smallAs part of its Modern Matinee series, the Museum of Modern Art is paying tribute to Sidney Poitier, above with Katharine Houghton, Katherine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy in Stanley Kramer’s 1967 “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” Courtesy Columbia Pictures/Photofest.

Sunday Reading / Lecture de dimanche: “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished): Extract /Extrait from Chapter 1, ‘La petite fille dans la charrette aux poissons’ (The little girl on the fishmongers’ wagon) (English translation suivé de V.O. en française)

By Michel Ragon
Copyright Albin-Michel
Translation by and copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

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“As for me, I’m just a poor sap! For those of us at the bottom of the heap, there’s nothing but bad breaks in this world and the one beyond. And of course, when we get to Heaven, it’ll be up to us to make the thunder-claps work.”

— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck,” cited on the frontispiece of Part One of “The Book of the Vanquished.”

“Sometimes it’s better to be the vanquished than the victor.”

— Vincent Van Gogh, cited in Lou Brudner’s preface to “Büchner, Complete Works,” published by Le Club Français du livre, Paris, 1955.

Translator’s note: With the exception of Fred and Flora, who may be real, may be fictional, or may be composites, all the personages cited in Michel Ragon’s novel are based on real historical figures. Eventually adopting the pen name Victor Serge, Victor Kibaltchich (1890-1947) would become a noted Socialist theorist who, like Fred later in “The Book of the Vanquished,” broke with the Bolsheviks. Rirette Maîtrejean was his actual companion. The members of the notorious Bonnot Band of violence-prone anarchists whom Victor and Rirette welcome at the same time as they adapt Fred and Flora, and who will play a seminal role in launching Fred on the route to non-violent anarcho-syndicalisme — introduced later in this chapter — were real. For a debate on the role of violence in politics in today’s French landscape (in French) on Aude Lancelin’s provocative Media emission “Le Monde Libre,” click here.

Every morning the cold awoke the boy at dawn. Long before the street-lanterns dimmed, in the pale gray light he shook off the dust and grime of his hovel at the end of a narrow alley hugging the Saint-Eustache church.(1) Stretching out his limbs like a cat he flicked off the fleas and, like a famished feline, took off in search of nourishment, flaring the aromas wafting down the street. With Les Halles wholesale market coming to life at the same time, it didn’t take long for him to score something hot. The poultry merchants never opened their stalls before they’d debated over a bowl of bouillon, and the boy always received his portion. Then he’d skip off, hop-scotching between the trailers loaded with heaps of victuals. Every Friday he’d march up the rue des Petits-Carreaux to meet the fishmongers’ wagons arriving from Dieppe, drawn by the odor of seaweed and fish-scales surging towards the center of Paris. The sea — this sea which he’d never seen and which he pictured as a catastrophic inundation — cut a swathe through the countryside before it descended from the heights of Montmartre. He could hear the carts approaching from far away, like the rumbling of thunder. The churning of the metallic wagon wheels stirred up a racket fit to raise the dead, amplified by the clippety-clop of the horseshoes. Numbed by the long voyage, enveloped in their thick overcoats, the fishmongers dozed in their wagons, mechanically hanging onto the reigns. The horses knew the way by heart. When the first carriages hit the iron pavilions of the market, the resultant traffic jam and grating of the brakes rose up in a grinding, piercing crescendo that reverberated all the way back up to the Poissonnière (2) quartier. The drivers abruptly started awake, spat out a string of invectives, and righted themselves in their seats. Those farther back had to wait until the first arrivals unloaded their merchandise. The horses pawed the ground and stamped their feet. The majority of the men jumped off their carts to go have a little nip in the bistros just raising their shutters.

On this particular Friday, at the rear of one of the wagons sat a small girl. Her naked legs and bare feet dangled off the edge of the cart, and the boy noticed nothing more than this white skin. He drew near. The girl, her head leaning forward, her face hidden by the tussled blonde hair which fell over her eyes, didn’t see him at first. As for the boy, he only had eyes for those plump swinging gams. By the time he was almost on top of them, he could hear the girl singing out a rhymed ditty. He approached his hand, touching one of her calves.

“Eh, lower the mitts! Why, the nerve!”

At this point the boy got his first glimpse of her face, a drawn visage with blue eyes. He knew that the sea was blue. The small girl came from the sea. For that matter, she reeked of fish, unless the odor was coming from the cart. Strictly for purposes of verification, he held his nose up against one of the white legs.

She put up a fight.

“Would you mind not snorting like that? In the first place, where did you come from?”

He pointed down the street with a vague air.

“We’re here!” exclaimed the girl. “And not a moment too soon.”

She jumped off the wagon. The boy towered over her.

“I’m 12 years old,” he declared. “And you?”

“Eleven.”

“You sure are tiny.”

“You’re the one who’s tall. What a bean-stalk! You’re as skinny as a kipper.”

The line of wagons had ground to a halt. The men and women emerging from this tide had floated down to the bistros, from which emanated the hubbub of their boisterous kibitzing. The girl verified that everyone had abandoned her cart, returned to the boy still planted in front of the wagon gawking at her, took his hand and hauled him off in a trot.

“I’ve had it with these hicks,” she declared when they paused to catch their breath, near the rue de Richelieu. “We’re going to make a life together. What’s your name?”

“Fred.”

“Mine’s Flora. You live with your ma and pa?”

“No. I manage to get by on the streets. My old man and mom are dead and buried.”

“You’re lucky. Mine are going to come looking for me if you’re not clever enough to hide me. They work me like an ox, and I’ve had it up to here. Watch out — they’re dangerous. If they ever find out that you kidnapped me, they’ll carve you up into little pieces!”

“But I never kidnapped you!”

“You did so — you sniffed my legs.”

“I just wanted to find out if you smelled like fish.”

“That’s how it always starts. Then before you know it, you’re hitched.”

They turned off into the gardens of the Palais Royal. Flora’s eyes grew bigger at the sight of the water shooting up out of the fountains.

“What’s the sea like?” asked Fred.

“Disgusting. It never stops swelling. It’s full of salt and all kinds of icky stuff. It’s cold, it’s viscous — it sinks the boats of poor fishermen. Sometimes it opens up its enormous mouth and chomps at the shore, as if it’s going to swallow up the houses along the docks. It hammers, it howls. I hope I never see its stinking hide again.”

“Here too,” Fred noted, “in the cities, the sea sometimes rises up from all sides and then it spreads out. Last year Paris just about drowned — and all the Parigots with it. The sea came from far away, seeped into the basements, and then overflowed. Rats scurried down the streets like madmen, the rising tide nipping at their butts. Entire blocks disappeared. There was nothing left but rivers. Wood planks were made into bridges. Sometimes it sounded just like canon-fire — the ground-floor windows exploding. Water poured into the houses and pushed up the sewer grills. Paris smelled like mud, cemeteries, fog. All the lower neighborhoods were wiped out. Only then did the flood thin out, leaving behind it just the sound of the waves — as if the water was quite satisfied with the mess it had made. This is how I think of the sea. I used to hear stories about entire drowned cities sunk to the bottom of the ocean where the church bells still rang out.”

“It’s not like that at all! I already told you, the sea is like one huge garbage dump.”

They were sitting in iron chairs by the rim of the grand fountain, with Flora once again swinging her naked legs from her short, worn, chestnut-colored cotton skirt.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Fred declared. “It’s not humanly possible how much you smell like fish. Are you sure cats don’t follow you down the street?”

Flora shrugged her slight shoulders and bit her fingers.

Just then a uniformed guard sprung upon them, huffing and puffing like a bulldog. They barely had time to jump out of their chairs to avoid getting clobbered.

“Scram, you little ragamuffins! Vermin!”

They skedaddled towards the ornate Comédie-Française theater, hand in hand. When they got to the rue de Rivoli, their ragged clothing jarred with the chic surroundings. Fred, coiffed with a baseball cap, wore an old grey suit. These together with his hobnailed boots leant him the air of a roving apprentice. Unusually tall and looking older than his age, he might have passed unnoticed in the hoity-toity neighborhoods. But Flora, with her skirt just a little too high, her naked legs, and above all her bare feet, resembled one of “The Two Orphans.”(3) So much so that an evidently well-to-do lady took pity on her and handed her a pittance.

“What did she give you?”

Flora opened the hollow of her hand to reveal the shiny coin.

“Formidable! We’re going to treat ourselves to croissants.”

Ever since the Great Paris Flood of 1910, Fred had been living on the streets. His father, a manual laborer in the trenches of the Metro tunnels, had succumbed to tuberculosis shortly before the flood, with his mother following suite not long afterwards, swept away by the epidemic. The boy was taken in by cousins who had difficulty supporting the extra charge. Fred took advantage of the general bedlam that followed the surging tides to decamp. With his adoptive parents fearing that he would also “quit this world by the chest” and thus concluding that “what he needs most of all is fresh air,” he’d not slept with a roof over his head since running away. In the Les Halles quartier, vagabonds of his stripe abounded. Of all ages. Of all types. From the run-of-the-mill hobo to the Bohemian artist, from the lowest of whores to the Madwoman of Chaillot. Around the iron Baltard pavilions which housed the venders swarmed a nocturnal fauna which fed on the refuse of the great wholesale market. Each citizen appropriated himself his own zone, sleeping in his own particular corner. Each vigorously defended his territory. But he who scrupulously heeded the tacit rules of hobo-dom did not have anything to worry about. In this veritable cesspool, the boy learned all the techniques of survival. He learned how to sleep with one eye open, his mind alert, ready for anything. He learned how to get by on very little, to subsist on availing himself of water only when the opportunity presented itself. He learned how to duck and dodge blows, to be suspicious and wily. All tools which in later life, in many a difficult situation, would enable him to avoid landmines.

All day long Fred and Flora regaled themselves galloping about the streets of Paris. But when night arrived, Fred began to worry. Flora obviously refused to return to Les Halles, where they might be recognized. Yet outside of his quartier, Fred felt lost. He had the impression that since dawn he’d wandered through some fantastic places, but he’d never for a single instant considered the possibility that when night fell he might not be able to return to his niche near Saint-Eustache. At the same time, abandoning Flora was out of the question. This quandary lead them to continue skirting the city center, until they’d wound all the way up to the working-class neighborhoods of Eastern Paris, where they were startled to suddenly find themselves in a sort of countryside, with cottages surrounded by gardens, hangars, and craftsmen’s workshops. Night came upon them all at once in this setting, which felt ominous. They were famished. Fred didn’t want to admit it, but he was lost.

“So, young lovers, just idling about?”

Fred and Flora got ready to bolt when this voice spoke to them from the shadows. But once they’d made out the silhouette of their interlocutor, they were re-assured. It belonged to a very young woman, no more than 16, dressed in a black schoolgirl’s smock. Her short hair, parted in the middle, the white sailor’s collar which highlighted her blouse, and her mischievous, charming little face immediately inspired the children’s confidence.

“I’ve not seen you two around here before. Where are you staying?”

Then, as the youngsters seemed to be tongue-tied, by way of an excuse she added:

“You probably think I’m too curious and that it’s none of my business. And you’re right. I was just trying to shoot the breeze — my way of saying ‘bonjour’! Anyways, good night.”

“Wait, don’t leave,” said Fred. “I think we took a wrong turn somewhere. Are we in the country, or what?”

“You are in Belleville. A not very beautiful ville. (4) A not very beautiful countryside. Belleville is the boonies. That’s what we love about it. But I’m a dolt — perhaps you’re hungry?”

“Yes,” answered Flora.

“In that case, come along.”

The young woman opened an iron gate, leading them through a small garden, and they mounted a wooden stairway to a humble lodging where a man stood at a table carefully reading large sheets of newsprint. He also seemed very young, 20 at most. He was dressed in a peculiar white flannel shirt with mauve silk fringes. His black eyes studied the children.

“This is Victor,” said the young woman. “I’m Rirette.”

“I’m Fred, and this is Flora.”

“Well, Fred, well, Flora, you’ll have some bread and a little cheese. Victor and I won’t ask you any questions. If you have no place to sleep, there’s a shack at the rear of the garden. If you decide not to stay — if you decide you don’t like our mugs — the gate is never locked.”

Human destiny sometimes depends on the smallest things. Or rather, a chain of circumstances is sometimes produced which conducts you to your own personal moment of truth. So it was with Flora’s white legs swinging from the edge of the fishmonger’s wagon, the fascination they exerted on Fred, the girl’s flight which followed, the impossibility of returning to Les Halles, and the children’s impromptu encounter in Belleville with Rirette Maîtrejean and Victor Kibaltchich. And so began the real adventures of Alfred Barthélemy.
1. A church in whose choir another waif once sang, under the direction of Charles Gounod, who would regret that his pupil with the voice of an angel chose painting over music: Auguste Renoir.

2. French for “fishmonger.”

3. “Les Deux Orphelines” (The Two Orphans) was a five-act drama by Adolphe d’Ennery and Eugène Cormon which opened on January 20, 1874, at the théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin on the Grands Boulevards, and which the authors later adopted as a serial novel published in the newspaper La Nation in 1892 and in its entirety by Rouff in 1894.

4. “Belleville” translates as “Beautiful city.”

Version originale (extrait):

“Mais moi, je suis un pauvre bougre ! Pour nous autres, c’est malheur dans ce monde et dans l’autre, et sûr, quand nous arriverons au ciel, c’est nous qui devrons faire marcher le tonnerre.”

— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck.”

Tous les matins, le froid réveillait l’enfant à l’aube. Bien avant que ne s’éteignent les réverbères, dans la pâle lumière grise, il s’ébrouait en quittant l’encoignure où il avait dormi, toujours au même endroit, dans une ruelle qui longeait l’église Saint-Eustache. Il s’étirait comme un chat, se secouait les puces, et comme un chat partait à la recherche de quelque nourriture, au pif, à l’odeur. Les Halles se réveillant en même temps que lui, il ne tardait pas à découvrir quelque chose de chaud. Les marchandes de volailles n’ouvraient pas leurs étals avant d’avoir discuté autour d’un bol de bouillon. L’enfant recevait sa part. Puis il s’éloignait en sautillant, jouant à cloche-pied entre les baladeuses chargées d’un amas de victuailles. Tous les vendredis, il remontait la rue des Petits-Carreaux, allant à la rencontre des charrettes de poissonniers qui arrivaient de Dieppe. Il aimait cette odeur d’algues et d’écailles qui déferlait vers le centre de Paris. La mer, cette mer qu’il n’avait jamais vue et qu’il imaginait comme une inondation terrible, se frayait un chemin à travers la campagne et descendait des hauteurs de Montmartre. On entendait les charrettes de très loin, dans un grondement de tonnerre. Les roues cerclées de métal faisaient sur les pavées un vacarme du diable. Auquel s’ajoutait le cliquetis des fers des chevaux. Engourdis dans les voitures par leur long voyage, les poissonniers sommeillaient, enveloppées dans leurs lourdes houppelandes, tenant machinalement les guides. Les chevaux connaissaient leur chemin. Lorsque les premiers attelages arrivaient sous les pavillions de fer, il se produisait alors un embouteillage et le crissement des freins remontait en un grincement aigu jusqu’au faubourg Poissonnière. Les charretiers se réveillaient brusquement, s’invectivaient, se dressaient sur leur siège. Il fallait attendre que les premiers déchargent leurs marchandises. Les chevaux piaffaient, tapaient du pied. La plupart des hommes descendaient de voiture et allaient boire un petit verre de goutte dans les bistrots qui ouvraient leurs volets.

Ce vendredi-là, à l’arrière d’une des charrettes se tenait assise une petite fille. Ses jambes et ses pieds nus se balançaient et le garçon ne remarquait plus que cette peau blanche. Il s’approcha. La petite fille, la tété penchée, le visage caché par ses cheveux blonds embroussaillés qui lui retombaient sur les yeux, ne le voyait pas. Lui, de toute manière, ne regardait que ces jambes dodues, qui se balançaient. Lorsqu’il fut tout près, il entendit que la petite fille chantonnait une comptine. Il avança la main, toucha l’un des mollets.

— Bas les pattes ! A-t-on idée !

Alors il aperçu son visage, une figure chiffonnée, avec des yeux bleus. Il savait que la mer était bleue. La petite fille venait de la mer. Elle sentait d’ailleurs très fort le poisson, ou bien cela venait de la charrette. Pour en avoir le cœur net il mit le nez sur l’une des jambes blanches.

Elle se débattit.

— Veux-tu pas renifler comme ça. D’abord, d’où sors-tu ?

Il montra le bas de la rue, d’un air vague.

— On est arrivés, dit la petite fille. C’est pas trop tôt.

Elle sauta de la charrette. Le garçon était beaucoup plus grand qu’elle.

— Moi j’ai douze ans, dit-il, et toi ?

— Onze.

— Tu es bien petite.

— C’est toi qui es grand. Quel échalas ! On dirait un hareng saur.

La file de véhicules s’immobilisait. Hommes et femmes de la marée, tous étaient descendus dans les bistrots où on les entendait discuter bruyamment. La petite fille s’assura que personne ne restait dans sa carriole, revint vers le garçon qui demeurait planté là, à la regarder, lui prit la main et l’entraîna, en courant très vite.

— J’ai ai marre de ces péquinots, dit-elle lorsqu’ils s’arrêtèrent près de la rue de Richelieu. On va faire la vie tous les deux. Tu t’appelles comment ?

— Fred.

— Moi, c’est Flora. Tu crèches chez tes père et mère ?

— Non. Je me débrouille dans la rue. Mes vieux sont morts et enterrés.

— T’as de la chance. Les miens vont me courir après, si t’es pas assez malin pour me cacher. Me font trimer comme une bête. J’en ai ma claque. Fais gaffe, ils sont méchants. Si jamais ils voient que tu m’as enlevée, qu’est que tu vas dérouiller !

— Mais je ne t’ai pas enlevée !

— Si, tu m’as reniflé les jambes.

— C’était pour voir si tu sentais le poisson.

— Ça commence comme ça, et après on fait la vie.

Ils bifurquèrent dans les jardins du Palais-Royal. Flora s’émerveilla devant les jets d’eau des bassins.

— La mer, c’est comment ? demanda Fred.

— Dégueulasse. Ça bouge tout le temps. C’est de l’eau pleine de sel et d’un tas de saloperies. C’est froid, c’est méchant, ça coule les bateaux des pauvres pêcheurs. De temps en temps, ça ouvre une gueule énorme et ça se met à mordre les remblais. On dirait qu’elle va avaler les maisons, sur le quai. Elle cogne, elle hurle. J’espère bien ne plus jamais voir cette mauvaiseté.

— Ici aussi, dit Fred, dans les villes la mer remonte parfois de partout et s’étale. L’an dernier, Paris a bien failli se noyer et tous les Parigots avec. La mer vient de très loin, rentrée dans les caves, déborde. Les rats courent dans les rues, comme des fous, suivis par cette montée des eaux qui leur colle aux fesses. Les rues disparaissent. Il n’y a plus que des rivières. On construit des ponts de planches. On entend de temps en temps comme des coups de canon ; les fenêtres des rez-de-chausée explosent. L’eau déferle dans les maisons, soulève les plaques de fonte des égouts. Paris sent la boue, le cimetière, la brume. Tous les bas quartiers s’effacent. Puis la flotte finis par s’étaler, avec seulement un bruit de clapotis. On dirait qu’elle est contente, l’eau, d’avoir fait un tel bordel. C’est comme ça que je vois la mer. On m’a raconté autrefois des histoires où l’on disait qu’au fond de l’Océan se trouvent des villes englouties et qu’on entend même sonner les cloches des églises.

— Mais non, c’est pas ça du tout. La mer, je te dis, c’est une belle saloperie.

Ils s’étaient assis dans des chaises de fer, près du grand bassin. De nouveau, Flora, vêtu d’une robe courte, en vieux lainage marron, balançait ses jambes nues.

— Y a pas à dire, ce que tu peux sentir le poisson, c’est pas Dieu possible. Les chats ne te courent pas après?

Flora haussa ses épaules menues. Elle se mordait les doigts.

C’est à ce moment qu’arriva sur eux, soufflant comme un bouledogue, un gardien en uniforme. Ils n’eurent que le temps de sauter des chaises pour éviter les gifles.

— Dehors, guenilleux, vermine !

Ils coururent vers la Comédie-Française, en se tenant par la main. Arrivés rue de Rivoli, leurs défroques détonnèrent dans ce quartier chic. Fred, coiffé d’une casquette, portait un vieux costume gris. Ses godillots achevaient de lui donner un air d’apprenti en vadrouille. Très grand, d’apparence plus vieux que son âge, il aurait pu passer inaperçu dans les beaux quartiers. Mais Flora, avec sa robe trop courte, ses jambes et surtout ses pieds nus, ressemblait à l’une des Deux Orphelines. A tel point qu’une dame cossue crut de son devoir de lui faire l’aumône.

— Qu’est-ce qu’elle t’a refilé ?

Flora montra la piécette, dans le creux de sa main.

— Chouette, on va se payer des petits pains.

Depuis les grandes inondations de Paris, en 1910, Fred vivait dans la rue. Son père, terrassier dans les tranchées du métro, était mort de tuberculose peu de temps auparavant et la mère suivit, emportée par la contagion. L’enfant fut recueilli par des cousins qui supportaient mal cette charge. Fred profita de l’affolement consécutif à la montée des eaux pour déguerpir. Comme ses parents adoptifs ne cessaient de redouter qu’il « parte aussi de la poitrine » et que « ce qu’il lui faudrait c’est le grand air », il n’avait plus jamais dormi sous un toit depuis sa fugue. Dans le quartier des Halles, les vagabonds de son acabit abondaient. De tous les âges. De tous les genres. Du clodo traditionnel à l’artiste bohème, de la putain de dernière classe à la Folle de Chaillot. Autour des pavillons de Baltard grouillait une faune nocturne qui se nourrissait des déchets du grand marché de gros. Chacun s’appropriait une zone, dormait dans un coin. Chacun défendait vigoureusement son territoire. Mais qui observait scrupuleusement les règles tacites de la cloche n’avait pas d’ennuis. L’enfant apprit, dans ce cloaque, toutes les techniques de la survie. Il appris à ne dormir que d’un œil, l’esprit en alerte, toujours sur le qui-vive. Ill apprit à se sustenter de peu, à ne boire que lorsque l’occasion se présentait. Il apprit à esquiver les coups. Il apprit la méfiance, la ruse. Toutes choses qui devaient plus tard, dans maintes situations difficiles, lui permettre d’éviter les chausse-trappes.

Toute la journée, Fred et Flora s’amusèrent à galoper dans les rues. Mais lorsque vint le soir, Fred se trouva désemparé. Flora refusait évidemment de s’approcher du quartier des Halles, où l’on risquait de la reconnaître. Or, sorti des Halles, Fred se sentait perdu. Il avait l’impression que, depuis l’aube, il avait parcouru des lieux fantastiques, mais il ne lui serait jamais venu à à l’idée qu’il puisse ne pas retrouver pour la nuit sa ruelle de Saint-Eustache. Il lui paraissait de même impensable d’abandonner Flora. Ce dilemme les conduisit à contourner le centre de la ville jusqu’aux faubourgs populaires de l’Est, où ils furent tout étonner d’arriver soudain dans une sorte de campagne. Des petites maisons entourées de jardins, des hangars, des ateliers d’artisans. La nuit les surprit dans cet environnement qui leur sembla hostile. Ils avaient faim. Fred n’osait se l’avouer, mais il appréhendait de s’être perdu.

— Alors, les amoureux, on musarde ?

Fred et Flora s’apprêtaient à fuir en entendant cette voix qui sortait de l’ombre. Mais lorsqu’ils discernèrent la silhouette de la personne qui les interpellait, ils se rassurèrent. Il s’agissai d’une toute jeune femme, qui pouvait avoir seize ans, vêtue d’un sarrau noir d’écolière. Ses cheveux courts, séparés par une raie en deux bandeaux, son col marin bien blanc qui éclairait la blouse, sa frimousse espiègle, inspirèrent aussitôt confiance aux deux enfants.

— Je ne vous ai jamais vus dans le quartier. Où donc restez-vous ?

Et comme les deux enfants ne savaient que répondre, elle eut un geste, pour s’excuser :

— Vous direz que je suis bien curieuse et que ça ne me regarde pas. Vous aurez bien raison. Je disait ça comme ça, pour parler. Histoire de vous dire bonjour, quoi ! Allez, bonne nuit.

— Ne partez pas, dit Fred. Je crois bien qu’on s’est égarés. C’est la campagne, ici, ou quoi?

— C’est Belleville. Une pas très belle ville. Une pas très belle campagne. Belleville, c’est nulle part. C’est pourquoi on y est bien. Mais, je suis bête, peut-être avez-vous faim ?

— Oui, dit Flora.

— Alors, venez.

La jeune femme ouvrit un portail de fer, les fit passer dans le jardinet et ils montèrent, par un escalier de bois, dans un petit logement où un homme, debout devant une table, lisait attentivement de grandes feuilles de papier journal. Lui aussi paraissait très jeune, vint ans tout au plus. Il était vêtu d’une curieuse blouse en flanelle blanche, bordée de soie mauve. Ses yeux noirs examinèrent les deux enfants.

— C’est Victor, dit la jeune femme. Moi je m’appelle Rirette.

— Moi je suis Fred, elle c’est Flora.

— Eh bien, Fred, et bien, Flora, vous aurez un peu de pain et de fromage. Victor et moi nous ne vous interrogerons sur rien. Si vous ne savez pas où dormir, il y a une cabane au fond du jardin. Si notre tête ne vous revient pas, le portail ne ferme jamais a clef.

La destinée des êtres tient à peu de chose. Ou plutôt, il se produit parfois un enchaînement de circonstances qui vous amène à votre heure de vérité. Ainsi des jambes blanches de Flora, balancées au bord de la charrette, de la fascination qu’elles exercèrent sur Fred, de la fugue de la petite fille qui s’ensuivit, de leur impossibilité de retourner aux Halles de la rencontre impromptue qu’ils firent à Belleville de Rirette Maîtrejean et de Victor Kibaltchich. A partir de là commencent vraiment les aventures d’Alfred Barthélemy.

Excerpt from “La Mémoire des vaincus,” by Michel Ragon. Copyright Éditions Albin Michel S.A., 1990

Lutèce Diaries, 3: Trans Tintin on rue Montorgueil, Superman in St.-Germain des près, Shoah Puppets on Mouffetard — the Journal of a Blood-sucking Critic

joseph yes gorgeous smallJoseph, “Yes gorgeous,” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. 110 x 80 cm. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small.  Don’t miss  out on our upcoming coverage from Paris and Lyon of art, theater, film, puppets, and dance from around the world! Drop a line to artsvoyager@gmail.com with the words “Flash Me, Dance Insider & Arts Voyager” and we’ll add you to our list. Any and all references to my teeth and any blood from therein are hyperbolic poetic license; if I’ve made the journey from the Southwest of France to Paris, it’s not for the art but because  my dentist here is the best — and kindest — in the world and the only one in whom I’ve ever had confidence. And who would no doubt be distressed to learn that I did not head straight home after our last appointment.)

PARIS — Only a nut for culture and for a Paris retrouvé to which he’d re-taken (“First we’ll take Manhattan, then we’ll take Paris” — Leonard Cohen via Jennifer Warnes, tweaked) like the proverbial canard to water would think of strolling from the Grands Boulevards to the Seine in sub-freezing climes, traversing the most luminous river in the world — they say the light comes from all the souls that have found their final solace in her fathomless depths and all the hearts that have fused on her bridges, boats, and benches (“I started that” — Cary Grant to Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s “Charade,” pointing to the lovers necking on the quays from the deck of a bateau mouche) — and then hop-scotching from several openings in the gallery grotto of Saint-Germain-des-Près to the heights of the Latin Quarter to mouffe tard (work late) on the rue Mouffetard with a puppet hoarder of Holocaust detritus while surrounded by 50 hushed school-children, right after having three teeth extracted. And did I mention that I forgot the Ibuprofen, which I told myself would make me all the more able to empathize with the Shoah victims (later to have their fillings extracted after being gassed), but which only left me to grit the hemoglobin-soaked bandage over my gums and become the living embodiment of the blood-sucking critic?

joseph kiss smallJoseph, “What does a kiss mean,” 2018. Acrylic, collage and résin on wood. 110 x 80 cm. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

The most provocative piece of art I saw all evening was the illicit poster someone had painted on an entire building wall, near the arched gateway to the rue Montorgueil, of Tintin — celebrating his 90th birthday this year, and acting pretty frisky for his age — illicitly planting a tender wet kiss on the mouth of Captain Haddock, enough to make the mullahs of Moulinsart bent on upscaling the image of Hergé as a high-class painter piss their pants, but not enough to distract me from the Starbucks shingle which continues to tackify the entrance to one of the most typical passages of Paris, once memorialized by Claude Monet. Lingering 20 minutes later on the Pont des Arts to wait for the Eiffel to sparkle up (after shaking my head over the construction blight of the former Samaritain — when last seen, Kylie Minogue was diving off the roof of the late multi-block department store, one inspiration for Zola’s “The Happiness of Ladies,” in Leo Carax’s “Holy Motors” — being made over into a luxury hotel so that rich foreigners have a place to sleep until they can buy a place through one of the numerous real estate agencies which have replaced my favorite cheese boutiques and used record shops, and to pay hommage at the school on the Street of the Dry Tree where they once vainly tried to teach me about the imperfect past), I was relieved to see that the faux graffiti wall with which the city had replaced the chain fencing in an attempt to stymie the love-locks which had threatened to make the bridge fall into the river had been supplanted by a sleek glass barrier. After reconnoitering a dark corner on the Left Bank near the water that seemed propitious for a minimal-risk piss (I’ve been nervous ever since the police caught me relieving myself by a tree on the Ile St. Louis in 2005, when I hadn’t dared cite Malcolm McLaren in my defense: “Everybody pees on Paris, watch me now.”), I reflected that confined to clusters in the middle and at the top of the bridge lamp-posts that made them resemble bouquets for robots, the love-locks now actually had something to do with love. (One unclear on the concept wag had written on his, “Love doesn’t need locks,” before bolting it.) Prodded by the memory of a long-ago futile search for a public urinal on the rues Bonaparte and Visconti, I finally plunged down a stairway and mingled my waters with the crepuscular dew, spitting out the blood-drenched gum bandage in a poubelle at the base of the Nesle Tower — where an ancient royal Rapunzel once tempted various cavaliers who lost their heads for their gallantry — before heading to the galleries so that I could shut my trap and not reveal that I was one fangless critic.

joseph superman smallJoseph, “No time to lose (Superman),” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. 110 x 70 cm. Courtesy Gallery Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.

If there had been any police patrolling in the area, Superman was waiting to rescue me, emitting scarlet beams of x-ray vision from both eyes over a collage of ’50s Life magazine ads lacquered into art by the eponymous Joseph and on display (through the end of the month) at the Galerie Roy Sfeir, the first on the rue de Seine if you’re coming from the river. (And one of the only galleries I spotted — not counting those hosting openings — where the gallerist wasn’t huddling behind a computer screen.) Behind twin bull-dog sculptures guarding the 12 or so oeuvres — most topped off by comic-book like soap-operatic bubbles a la Roy Lichtenstein — the gallery’s owner was discussing the “Yellow Vests” phenomenon with a client. When they asked my opinion (I’m not sharing theirs because I didn’t identify myself as a journalist) and then said they had no idea what I’d just said, for once I had a retort that headed off any comment on my accent:

“Itf becaufe I’fe juft come from fe dentisf.”

roy lichtenstein artist's studioAmong the 44 works whose recent installation has renewed the Contemporary Collection on view at the Art Institute of Chicago is, above, Roy Lichtenstein. Artist’s Studio “Foot Medication,” 1974. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. The art by Joseph featured here evokes his American artistic ancestor.

Next I scrunched into the barely three-person-wide “Petite Gallery” — “Let the monsieur in, he’s actually here pour voir, pas pour boire” (to look, not to drink) — for a group exhibition that, in appreciation for the conviviality with which the ensemble welcomed a demi-sans-dent individual they had no idea was a blood-sucking critic, I’ll diplomatically refrain to comment on — before landing at my destination gallery, on whose exhibition, thanks to the flack who treated my modest request for three images *in the appropriate size* like she was doing me a favor even though she did know I was a journalist, I’ve not so diplomatically — okay, childishly — decided not to waste any more energy on here.

In contrast to the kind folks at the Petite Gallery, the Centre Pompidou is no doubt big enough to withstand a little biting criticism from a demi-sans-dent critic. So I was practically delighted to find matter for a rant in the mammoth “Without the Centre Pompidou, Paris wouldn’t be Paris” English-language poster that reared its head before me on the Boulevard Saint-Germain as I made my way towards Mouffetard for my Shoah puppet show. After mentally dispensing this pedagogy (this is what French commentators call it when they want to explain to you why you’re wrong and they’re right), I crossed St.-Mich and turned onto the rue des Ecoles so I could explore what the Latin quarter cinemas were offering before the show. In the lobby of the Grand Action, an apparently jet-lagged young woman with a Nordic accent (and so Nordically enveloped I can’t describe her better than that) was asking the ticket-seller, “Am I in Paris?”

If there had previously been any doubt in my mind, I definitely knew I was in Paris when I scaled the mount St. Genevieve, one of the oldest streets in Lutèce (the city’s name in Roman times), and definitely knew I was still inevitably an American in Paris when I paused to pay the obligatory homage to Hemingway at Papa’s former roost up top the rue Cardinal Lemoine, more or less catty-corner from Descartes’s former digs on the rule Rollin, and where I resisted the temptation to channel the Gorilla Girl inside me and amend the Paris is a Moving Feast citation “Lucky the man who has spent part of his youth in Paris” with “and the semi-toothless blood-sucking journalist who’s still here.” Speaking of youth and ecoliers, in the courtyard at the end of the alley leading to the Mouffetard theater of the Art of the Marionette I was immediately surrounded by 50 schoolchildren decidedly mouffing tard, no doubt for the educational value of a puppet show about the Holocaust or Shoah, as it’s referred to here.

Despite the presence of several superficially stereotypical Jewish puppet characters (a bent-over Hasid, an Einstein-lookalike with a magic cigar box hanging from his neck) designed after the now exhausted Czech National Puppet Theatre model what I liked about the endearing Alexandre Haslé’s production of Daniel Keene’s “The Rain” for the Lendemains de la veille company was that despite what I said above, as there’s nothing in the piece explicitly linking it to the Holocaust the message is not limited to that one deportation and period. As Haslé suggested in brief comments after curtain, the simple plot premise — an old woman surrounded by the possessions neighbors gave her before boarding trains of no return when she was a girl — could apply to many contemporary situations and displaced populations. He cited, somewhat vaguely, “Italy, Spain — even France.” Perhaps because I’ve just finished reading Joe Sacco’s graphic novel “Palestine,” with its depictions of Palestinian families given an hour to quit their ancestral homes before Israel blows them up in acts of collective punishment for the first Infitadah — I’d add Palestine/Israel to the tale’s potential resonances. Which is a way to say that what I appreciated in this tale and its presentation was the universality of its message’s application. For this reason, I was encouraged that their parents and teachers had let the school-children mouffe tard. One of the problems I have with the “Yellow-Vest” movement which has been the chou-chou of the French media for the past two months is its “Me First” mentality. In this context any measure that fosters empathy — I’ve never seen a crowd of children so quiet and enraptured — in the next generation is a welcome tonic.

I’d love to stay and cat, but I’ve got a busy day ahead: This time the dentist is taking out a nerve, after which I’ve blithely made a date with Agnes Varda and Sandrine Bonnaire (following another rendez-vous with Bernhardt), et dans laquelle il n’y aurait aucun risque que je morde.

joseph happiness smallJoseph, “Happiness,” 2018. Acrylic, collage, and resin on wood. Courtesy Galerie Roy Sfeir, 6 rue de Seine, Paris.