It is mid-morning in one of the busiest arrondissements on the Right Bank. By this time, most people are already hard at work, making sure the economy continues to prosper. All is as it should be. Inside Le Café de la Paix, I sit at my usual spot, reading the newspaper and having my customary three madeleines with tea, as Marcel Proust used to do. As in a flashback – or an epiphany, more alike – old memories of my youth start flashing through my mind like lightning bolts. The Surabaya, the George Shotton, the stream, the mbiam water, the plateau, the red earth, the blue sky and the blazing sun, the rustling of the wind, Onitsha and my mum.
“The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important”: My mother, quoting Martin Luther King Jr,. used to teach me that when I was young. She was a great woman. She had a very hard life, though, and was further burdened with the task of having to raise me practically all by herself. However, she always had a broad and cheery smile on her face, her beautiful Italian face. She would sing nursery rhymes to me in her own mother tongue and would also tell me that there were only two ways to walk through life: remaining obediently and unresistingly silent or having the guts to speak one’s mind out. She believed there was more hope in speaking up: “If you live turning a blind eye to all suffering, injustice and aggravation you may encounter throughout the course of your life, people will underestimate and pity you, regarding you as ignorant and incapable of rational thought. And so they will never respect you,” she would say. So she kept coming out straight, in spite of all hurdles, and through all the many roads traveled.
Now, as I sit in this quintessential Belle Époque brasserie. While Babette – the intriguing waitress who was once a refugee from the French revolution – softly pours more tea into my cup, I learn to my astonishment that the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has finally entered into force, after being adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York and ratified by twenty States. I feel thrilled since this means moving a step forward in the development of human rights and international justice. I am waiting for Bony to arrive to break in the news to him. I want to see his reaction and listen to his opinion.
When Bony finally arrives at the café, I notice he is not alone. He is with two other men and a dark-haired Japanese lady as well. After paying the corresponding greetings, we all sit down at the table and start talking lightly. Bony says I should stop having madeleines or else the past will never cease to haunt me. I answer, echoing George Santayana’s words, that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” for “so long as social asphyxia is possible in the world,” men have no other hope than to become les misérables. The black-haired lady nods, flashing me a grin and sighing melancholically. Her name is Suga and the two men are Otto Frank, a Holocaust survivor, and Arturo, a Chilean immigrant.
I read the article out loud for all of them to listen. Stunned silence. For a very long minute nobody dares say a word. Bony is the first one to speak. “I wish my brother and uncle had lived long enough to see this happen. They were chained to work as slaves for one such Mr. Gerald Simpson. They were treated mercilessly, beyond contempt. They weren’t even regarded as human beings. They were deprived of food and water. In fact, they were deprived of all rights,” he says. “Well, fortunately, we’ve come a long way since then,” adds Arturo. “Really? Do you actually think so?”, replies Bony. “Just look around. Its been more than forty years since most African countries won independence, but – let’s face it – it’s been more apparent than real. We still have to endure harsh social pressures while making a living in a still highly discriminatory society. We have to put up with tacit racial hatred every single day of our lives. When we first came to France, my old lady herself was indeed a modern sort of slave for she had to work as a maid in a white widower’s house. But, it was either that or the gutter for both of us. I still wonder how she made it. Every day she would wake up at five o’clock to go to the white man’s house, and would get back home well over midnight. She had to cook for the old man, scrub his floors and tear her body apart in order to make ends meet. There was only just enough food for us to go round in those days. It was really hard work. It was also hard for Fintan and Maou – in spite of having actually lived in Marseilles before. Though, you know, after all is said and done, the greatest lesson I learnt from those days was my old lady’s strong sense of attitude. She made me understand that black people are not inferior for inferiority is a state of mind you never grow out of.”
Arturo agrees and explains he meant to say we have all come up as changed individuals. “Like the phoenix, all of us sitting at this table have been reborn from our own ashes. Granted, we may still have a long way to go but, at least, The Slavery Convention was signed in 1926 and so was the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. Now, today – June 26, 1987 – is Chile’s turn. This is the future and it is ours for the taking. How long do you think it will take for Chile to demand Augusto Pinochet’s arrest now that this United Nations Convention has been adopted? I hope it won’t take too long and we may all still live to see it happen.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. The Soviet Red Army troops freed Auschwitz in 1945. By that time, many of my friends, my own daughters and my wife, and all the people I used to know from Badenheim, the summer resort where my family and I would spend our holidays together, had perished at that hellish camp. And, despite all these deaths, there are even now loads of European countries – and whole nations, for God’s sake! – which still haven’t recognised that the Shoah did take place,” retorts Otto.
“I know from personal experience that there are way too many things that not only nations, but also single individuals choose not to talk about out of embarrassment or for fear of the consequences; too many things swept under the carpet, too many horrible skeletons are in the closet,” adds Suga. “Wrongdoings, of all types and forms, silence our voices. Defence mechanisms hide the unpleasantness of life to make it tolerable, for life just isn’t fair sometimes. As my mistress, Tomo, used to say, quoting her mother’s words from a letter she had sent her, ‘this fleeting world is a hell of evil, full of suffering, where man’s shallow knowledge avails him nought and unawares he heaps sin on sin. Trust only, therefore, in the vow of the Lord Amida, morning and night forget not to invoke His name, and leave all else to Him.’ Namu Amida Butsu. Whatever name you may call your God, trust Him with every ounce of your eternal soul and destiny, and not to the teachings of men.”
I leave the café with a heavy heart, Suga’s words resounding in my head. I just don’t feel capable of believing in any God, not even in one of the many Gods Bony, Oya, Okawho and even Geoffroy would believe in. I think of my mum. She was my Goddess. She made life worth living. She gave me two lives: mine and hers. And she always kept singing and smiling, in spite of everything.
On the morning of 16th October 1998, I enter Le Café de la Paix, sit at my usual spot once again and start reading the paper. Eleven years later, Alberto’s presages are coming true. Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London on an extradition request by a left-wing Spanish magistrate. This magistrate had issued an international warrant for Pinochet’s arrest, and a consequential warrant was issued in London, both by virtue of the Extradition Act 1989, and in the light of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. I put the paper away, dip my customary madeleine in my tea, and resume reading my novel: No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory. “After all,” I think, “I distrust the saying that reality is stranger than fiction.”
María Florencia Borrello
Novels alluded to:
Appelfeld, Aharon, Badenheim 1939 (London: Penguin Classics, 1995)
Bolaño, Roberto, Distant Star (London: The Harvill Press, 1996)
Dinesen, Isak/Blixen, Karen, ‘Babette’s Feast’, Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard (New York: Random House, 1964)
Enchi, Fumiko/Ueda, Fumi, The Waiting Years (New York: Kodansha USA Ltd., 2002)
Frank, Anne, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, ed. by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler, trans. by Susan Massotty (London: Puffin Books, 1997)
Le Cézio, Jean-Marie Gustave, Onitsha, trans. by Alison Anderson (Oxford: University of Nebraska Press, 1997)
Ngugi, Wa Thiong’o, The River Between (London: Heinemann, 1965)