Marcel Zang, born in Cameroon in 1954, died in 2016 in Nantes, arrived in France in 1963. After finishing his studies in french literature in Nanterre, he moved to Nantes, France. He published several short stories in the weekly newspaper Liberation and in some literary magazines. Marcel Zang is also a writer of plays, as ’La Danse du Pharaon’.
[published in RN 04 in March 1992, unpublished text written in French translated by V. C. Koppel]
It was in Nantes, in the height of winter and as had become my habit, I was crouched up all day reading and daydreaming. A host of familiar sentiments came gliding over me like a light touch over piano keys, ghosts from a tomb, ashen rods with a dizzying kiss, the remnants of minds, wisping through the air so light and free, then settling little by little into a mass. A speck of dust. A statue.
I was imprisoned in this troubled silence, this mummified chaos. The pained passage of time, memories as vivid as a scalding rash – a house, a home, a hoard of noisy kids, interior details, the furniture, so solid, the armchair, the polite paralysis of objects. A baton, a thousand movements, a tragic, symphonic score, a cemetery of sparks. Resisting death. Death of the father. Flying in the face of god, with whatever strength is left. Weakly hanging on by a thread, unbalanced and beaten.
This blackness could have been painted with light and love, but instead I saw strands of spirits, piercing, fetal frost. Incomprehensible. "Resisting death”, he said. "A basic instinct, resisting death – the will to survive. The finality of life. Life", he said again. Yeah, he was my father! Stronger than the strongest man in the whole world. Taller than the tallest tree. Unbearable. He knew everything: Daddy, is it true you'll never die? Never, ever, ever?... But then after the end what is there? And after god what is there? And after, after, after... after a hundred thousand afters, after you? It was plain and simple with my father. He knew everything and understood everything, high and low, far and wide, me, and everything about me. Everything, everything, everything. And he was everything, he drummed it into me. He was the beginning and the end, the center of the universe. And I listened to him, and I believed what he said. Now, how do you expect me to feel the slightest sympathy for this primitive hoard of totems and taboos?
Then the doorbell rang. I put down the interview with Bram Van Veld and went to answer it. He was 56; I was 18. He was always glowing, exuding youth and burning with energy. But now he looked more his age than ever before. He came in heavy-hearted, and said his mother was dead. A phone call that morning. I sat him down gently in front of a couple glasses of red wine. Then he started talking. As he poured out all the gory details, the gravity hanging over him when he'd come in began to turn a lighter and lighter shade of red, little by little with each word.
"You can't imagine how it hurts". And it's true he was hurting. He seemed to pass from dejection to confusion to anger. "No matter where you go, someone comes along to piss you off and make you miserable”, he babbled. "This woman is dead... They said she was my mother... do you understand? I didn't know her. She left when I was four years old and I never saw her again, ever. I didn't know her. I don't remember anything about her, not the faintest impression, not the smallest detail, not a touch, not a word, nothing she gave me, nothing she refused, if she yelled at me, beat me, loved me, soothed me... nothing! Not a thing. It's a blank. It's not normal. And then they tell me she's dead. And it hurts. I feel bad, Max, really bad. At the very least, I'd like to know who this woman was. I have the right to know... Do you understand, little brother?… I want to know… know why. I didn't know her. I didn't know this woman. I didn't know this woman at all. But shit, I didn't know her!", and he burst out in tears, sobbing. "Max, little brother, I swear on my mother's head that I didn't know her, this woman. And her death is causing me so much pain… Shit, it's true! And I didn't know her at all. And now… I'm the eldest son. Everyone's waiting for me. Everyone. They're waiting for me and it's been 40 years since I set foot in that place, and I have to go preside over the funeral, bring presents to everybody, do this, do that, all that bullshit, tradition, custom, the old country, my mother. My mother who's dead, dead like she wasn't dead, but she is dead and it hurts unbearably. And everyone's waiting for me, waiting for more than me, after 40 years. And all this because this woman I didn't know is dead. She was my mother, and you can't imagine how her death is making me suffer. I didn't even know her, this woman… I didn't know her”.
"She left when we were just kids, and now she reappears by dying. Now I have to go back home. If I get my shit together and knock on all the right doors, I can probably scrape together enough for a plane ticket, it's not that much, a plane ticket, I can come up with that. But that's not good enough...I can't show up empty – handed and broke, with nothing but the clothes on my back – and you know I've sure got enough clothes. I've got enough suits for every day of the week, even two weeks, but what happens after that?... Well, what then?...What will I do? After 40 years, when your mother dies the best suits in the world are not enough, it's no good if that's all you have. I know they're all waiting for me, I can smell them from here. All this because my mother died. I didn't know her, this woman. I would have liked to know her, to know what kind of woman could have done such a thing. I'd like someone to tell me why she did this when I was just fine here, and now I have to go back. I don't know Africa anymore. I don't know Cameroon and I don't have the slightest desire to go back there, I'm happy here. But I've got to go, I have to know about my mother, for me. I have to know her, and if I don't go, everyone here, all the Cameroonians in Nantes, will treat me like a fool. They'll say I couldn't even do the right thing when my mother died… They'll say it's sacrilege, and so will everyone over there at home... After 40 years… They think I'm an architect rolling in money... They won't understand... And you can't blow off your mother, that's the kind of thing you just don't do, whether you've come up in the world or gone down the tubes".
"Max, you're young but you're an African, a Cameroonian like me, and you know it. You can't blow off your mother or you're cursed. And those slugs over there at home who think I'm loaded, who think I'm an architect... They're a bunch of assholes!... They have no idea what I've built, all the bitches I've put up with here in France, they don't know what it is to create... They can't understand, those savages! You have to have a gift to turn a pile of shit into a star. They don't know what that means. And I know full well that going over there with nothing but my fancy clothes won't be good enough for them, even with starched whites and fucking perfume... They don't appreciate beauty, they'll just think I'm a loser. How do you expect me to go live in such a twisted place, where the more chicks you screw, the more they think you're a fag? You don't know… I feel spent, humiliated. Oh Max, I can't deal with this death. And to think that I didn't even know her, this woman, but she was my mother. It's my mother who's dead, and I'm the eldest son, and I have to go there, but how can I do it, little brother? And everyone knows she was my mother".
I got up and put on some Schubert. "Turn off that goddamn white music!" he barked, spilling the glass of wine. "It's my mother who's dead, you don't seem to realize that. My mother is dead, dead, dead... Put on some of our music, something african, a song from Cameroon. They're assholes, but it's for my mother. She's the one who's dead". So I put on some music from Cameroon, an Eboa Lottin song. He lost control, and the tears poured out: he couldn't stop blubbering. "I didn't know her, I didn't know this woman". Then he said hearing the music made him feel better, that he liked it a lot, that it was his mother who was dead, that he had the right to cry and to get drunk with all this pain. "I've got to get my shit together and get on an airplane”, he said. "A woman that I didn't know... If it was my father who died like this I would have understood right away what to do. I would have left for Africa that very second, on foot even, money or no money. My father is another story. My father?!... Shit!... That old man smothered me in perfect, terrifying love, with an iron fist".
Was he talking about my father or his? Perfect... It's true that I always felt awkward in his presence, embarrassed, and he seemed so too, I saw it. Since he wasn't naturally talkative, we would sit on the porch sometimes in the evening, with the last rays of sunshine. We'd sit there side by side saying nothing, starring, burning with things unspoken, far apart but so close, and something would come to us of time gone by, like sounds from a minaret. I got enormous pleasure from being close to him like that. The two of us, in our silence, unloosing a paralyzing tension. Or I'd stand in a corner far away from him, without him knowing, and stare for hours at this mysterious monolith I adored. To tell the truth, I couldn't stand him looking at me. When I needed something I would write him a letter, and he would almost always give me what I asked for. Often he was pathetically willing. In return, I couldn't stand the idea of having displeased him in any way. I would do anything to avoid that look of wrath.
The more he was reticent and calm, the more my mother was loud and restless. He beat her often. My little brothers and sisters would try to pull them apart when they went at each other like that. I never dared, and on the rare occasions when I tried, my father would let everything else go and flash me his very special look. It was an intensely naked, intimate look, so intimate I'd get the feeling we were alone, he and I, face to face, like in a temple, isolated from the rest of the world. This look held an array of feelings ranging from the most profound astonishment, to pain, disappointment, discovery, and betrayal, as if we were accomplices in I don't know what holy crime. Then I would back off, bruised, ashamed, wrong, embarrassed to have violated something essential in a place of joy, an unnamable, unknown thing, that I didn't want to know, at least not then. This look I came up against was completely beyond me. After that we avoided each other, and a week could go by with neither of us saying a word - a heavy word, as heavy for him as his own sex.
My father committed suicide a week ago, I told him. He jumped out of his chair, looked at me, and punched himself twice in the head. Then he lifted up his arms and started whining like a monkey. I put on a tape: Bellini's Norma.
When he'd had enough to drink he started starring at me. A glimmer of distraction took the place of his surprise. And a few seconds later a gentle smile softened his eyes. Then he called me by my childhood nickname, that he was the only one to ever use, repeating it, attaching it, separating it, babbling every syllable. And when I heard him soothing me like that with his voice, a bitterness came over me, followed by a burst of happiness that gave way little by little to a feeling of well-being, while chills ran through my body.
I looked out the window. People hurried by in the cold. Birds flew in circles between the snowflakes. Barren trees stretched their scrawny arms to the sky. Disgusting Chagall. He took me in his arms; I told him I wouldn't go. He said I should, that we'd go together, that he'd drag me there if he had to. I told him he couldn't, that it was up to me, a question of truth. But his face was ecstatic. He flailed his arms up and down like an albatross, and under the music he said, "Oh, Callas.. it's beautiful!".
translated from French by V. C. Koppel