Friday, 18 April 2014

Walking Through Walls and Rationing Days

     When I was learning French at high school almost fifty years ago, one of the short stories we studied was L'Huissier ["The Bailiff"] by Marcel Aymé, about a hard-hearted bailiff who, having died, is sent back to earth because he had not received a fair trial at the Pearly Gates. The commentary explained that it came from a book entitled, Le Passe-Muraille, and that Aymé's method was to take a fantastic and whimsical idea - in that case, a person returning from the dock of heaven - and build a completely logical story around it. Astute readers may recall that this was H. G. Wells' prescription for science fiction: let the reader accept a fantastic proposition by a suspension of unbelief, and then play it straight. The only difference was that Aymé's propositions were more whimsical.
     I therefore considered myself fortunate to discover, while rummaging around a second-hand book exchange, a copy of the original book in French - with the corner sliced off to indicate that the bookseller would not be prepared to exchange it again. It was written in 1942 and published in 1943 ie during the German occupation, which is significant for some of the stories. If you ever get a chance to read it, either in the original language or in translation, I would highly recommend you do so.
     For some reason, the index is at the back in my edition, but it contains ten short stories, including Les Sabines, about a woman called Sabine, who had the ability to split herself up, body and mind, into any number of copies. Thus, she could be doing housework at home while going on an outing with a separate body and mind. Or else, she could be sitting at home with her husband puzzling over the smug smile on her face, not aware that she was also gallivanting around with her lover. In fact, she found the latter occupation so congenial, that she ended up being the mistress of a whole troop of lovers, all at the same time. (She must have been a real little trimmer.) Nevertheless, she had only one soul, and that led to complications.
     Le Décret ["The Decree"] explains how the nations of the world got together to avoid the continued anguish of World War II: they had learned how to control time, and so issued a decree advancing time by 17 years, by which date they assumed the war would be over. It was a bit like clicking on the next scene on a DVD although, of course, he didn't say that. The narrator recalls how, at the moment the decree took effect he was in Paris with his family, having just written the first 50 pages of his book. The next instant, it was 1959, and he was in Le Havre, a successful writer returning from a trip to Brazil. There was a philosophical debate as to whether the memories and records everyone had of the previous 17 years referred to any objective reality. Unhappily for the narrator, he happened to wander into some backwater which the decree hadn't reached.
     However, I intend to elaborate on my two favourite stories in the collection.

     Le Passe-Muraille ["The Walker-through-Walls"]. There is no better way to introduce it than to translate the first paragraph.
There used to be in Montmartre, on the third floor of 75B Orchampt Street, a good fellow called Dutilleul who possessed the singular gift of passing through walls without being inconvenienced. He wore a double eyeglass and a little black goatee, and he was a clerk class 3 in the Registry Office. In winter, he used to travel to his office by bus, and, in the good season, he made the journey on foot, under his bowler hat.
     Montmartre, of course you know, is a village which was eventually swallowed up by the expansion of Paris, and is noted for its artists' quarter and the magnificent Church of the Sacred Heart. There really is a celebrated street there called the rue d'Orchampt, but whether Dutilleul's exact address exists is something I cannot tell. And as you can see from this photograph, Montmartre has a statue of its famous resident.
     He was aged just over 42 when he was caught in a sudden power outage, and was left groping in the dark in his bachelor pad. Just then, he found himself outside, on the third floor landing. As the door was still locked, he realised that, incredible as it seemed, he must have walked through the wall. Could he do so again? He did. And that was how he discovered his strange ability.
     Now, here we must introduce a bit of cultural history. Dutilleul decided to see a doctor on the following Saturday, profiting by the "English week". I believe the current French expression is le weekend, but the earlier name recalled how France adopted the custom from England. It appears that, by the 1940s, government workers were able to take Saturdays off, but not doctors who, like all self-employed people, had lousy bosses.
     Be that as it may, Dutilleul's doctor must have been really brilliant, considering the unheard-of condition he was presented with. He was able to discover the cause as being a helicoidal stiffening around the body of his thyroid gland, and he was even able to provide a cure. Advising his patient to subject himself to intensive "overwork", he gave him two doses of a mixture of rice flour and centaur hormone (!).
     Now, if I had the ability to walk through walls, I would certainly want to maintain it. Be that as it may, Dutilleul took the first dose, then put the other in a drawer. As for overwork, well, he was a pen-pusher by profession, the same as I used to be, and his hobbies were reading and stamp collecting. By and large, nothing came of it.
     Thus, by the end of the year, he still had the power, and decided it might be an idea to use it. His new manager was giving him trouble, so he took his revenge by sticking his head through the wall - as per the book cover, above - and uttering insults, until the poor man had a nervous breakdown. Then he looked around for adventure, and found it by becoming France's greatest burglar - always decorating the scene of the crime with his signature, "Werwolf" written in chalk. He allowed himself to be arrested, then played games with the police, for no prison could hold him. Having tired of this, he made a final escape, then changed his appearance by removing his goatee and replacing his chained spectacles with contact lenses - as per the statue above.
      Finally, however, he fell in love with a beautiful blonde married to a brutal and jealous man who, whenever he was away at night, left her locked securely in his house behind an impenetrable stone wall. This, of course, was nothing to the walker-through-walls. He came and he went. But the strain  produced a severe headache and, checking through his drawers, he found what looked like a sachet of aspirin, and swallowed it.
     You guessed it. It was the second dose of his medicine. And his escapades now qualified as "overwork". The effects hit him while he was passing through the outer stone wall, and he ended up completely immured. Only his dull voice could occasionally be heard issuing softly through the stone, lamenting his fate.

     La Carte ["The Ration Book"] describes, through the diary of a writer, Jules Flegnon, another attempt to alleviate the pressures of war by manipulating time. Essentially, citizens would receive a certain ration of days each month, depending on how useful they were to society. During the remainder of the month they would cease to exist. His neighbour, Roquenton was cheesed off by the fact that, as a septuagenarian, he was allotted only six days a month, while his 24-year-old wife got 15. It was all a Jewish plot, some people claimed but, as it turned out, every Jew was allotted only half a day per month. (You must remember that, when this was written, everyone knew the Jews were being persecuted and arrested, but it was not till the end of the war that it was discovered that they were actually being exterminated.)
    Anyway, Flegnon managed to get his ration increased from 15 to 16 days, starting from 1st March. On 16 March, his diary ends abruptly in mid-sentence, and doesn't recommence until 1st April. On 13 April a desperate man appeared at his door trying to sell him some of his own tickets. Flegnon rejected the offer with disgust; it sounded a bit like cannibalism. However, he later starts to hear rumours about a flourishing black market in days. To cut a long story short, he purchased four tickets on the black market - enough to allow him a brief holiday in Normandy until 20 May. The trouble was, his train was delayed (this was wartime, remember) and he was still aboard when midnight struck. He woke up on 1st June in the same carriage, but at Nantes, and stark naked! Fortunately, one of his travelling companions had collected his effects and taken them to his home.
     Then he heard from an actress how some fans had sent her 21 tickets, and she had ended up living 36 days in the month. He thought she was crazy. However, after he himself had purchased some tickets on the black market, he received a packet of them from an uncle who suffered badly from rheumatism, and was pleased to spend a few more days in oblivion. The writer now had five days more than existed in the month. Also, he was beginning to hear more stories similar to the one told by the actress.
     On 32 June (!) he walked to a newsagent and saw a paper bearing the date, 31 June*. "Hey, don't you know there are only 30 days in June?" he exclaimed. The merchant gave him a look of incomprehension. He glanced at the headline. It read: "Churchill will go to New York between 39 and 45 June." On the street he overheard a man say, "I must be in Orleans on 37th."
     Later, he met an old friend and commented that people living in normal time have no idea of the existence of this time anomaly, whereby the month can be extended. His friend didn't know what he was talking about.
     But that evening, he met Elisa. For both of them it was love at first sight. On the 34th, they were engaged to be married - just as soon as she returned from a trip to the unoccupied zone. The next day - his last one for the month - he kissed her goodbye, and she told him it would not be possible for her to return before 60 June.
    The next month, he spoke to people he had met during the five extra days, but they had no memory of them. But he did meet other people who had overstayed the month. In fact, the scandal of the black market was the top story in the daily papers. Apparently, one rich man had managed to add five whole years and four months between June and July. Worst of all, from Flegnon's point of view, Elisa had no memory of him. She accepted his story, but the former magic was not there. It had all happened in unreal time, you see. On 5th July a decree was issued cancelling the day ration. By that time, he couldn't care less.

* Seriously, in a museum at Russell, New Zealand I myself saw an old Belfast newspaper dated 30 February.