Read an Excerpt
I learned about the transfer before noon. The small stripes of light had reached the windowsill. My major came in and kept one hand on the doorknob while gesturing to me with the other to keep my seat. He wanted to know if the hogwash from Marseille was ready yet. I pointed to the half–written sheet still in the typewriter. I could go when I reached the end of the page, he said.
“And the dispatch from Lagny–sur–Marne?” I asked, surprised.
“Someone else will have to do it. You’re needed elsewhere.”
I pressed my knees together under the table. In those days, many people were being sent to the front.
“I’m being reassigned?”
“Rue des Saussaies has lost a translator.” The major ran his hand down the left side of his uniform coat. German Horseman’s Badge, War Merit Cross. He said he’d do all he could to get me back. I shouldn’t worry, he said; my transfer would be only temporary.
“What happened to the translator from rue des Saussaies?”
“He was run over and killed last night.”
I flinched. “Partisans?”
“Of course not. The guy was drunk, and he went staggering over a bridge. Because of the blackout, the patrol car saw him too late. Unfortunately, he didn’t die right away. Horrible. Anyway, the request for an interpreter wound up on my desk. You seem to have a reputation in rue des Saussaies,” the major said with a rare smile. “They specifically asked for you.”
My back stiffened. I glanced across the room toward the wall map, scale 1:500,000. Arrows, hatching, the plaster rosette over the door, the remains of cloth wallpaper from the time when people still lived here. My desk, the French dictionary, badly chewed pencils. I was going to miss the lovely view out over the line of roofs to the west.
The major looked at me gloomily. “Finish the Marseille thing. Then take the rest of the day off. You start over there tomorrow morning. You’ll be back in a few days. Those folks aren’t particularly fond of strange faces.”
I stood up and saluted; the major absentmindedly raised his arm. I remained standing even after he left the room. The sunlight came through the window and cast a shadow like a cross on the wall. All at once, I was cold. I buttoned my top button and grabbed my cap, as though I was about to leave. Then I put it down again, lowered myself onto the chair, read the French original, and began typing the translation with two fingers.
You could have gone another way, I said to myself. How careless, to walk down rue des Saussaies, of all streets. The black–and–silver uniform appeared quite suddenly, right in front of SS headquarters. A brief exchange of words. Did he ask for a light? You’d better be careful. Only translate expressions from the dictionary. Stare at the table. Never look anyone in the face. Forget whatever they let you see. In the evening, you’ll go to your hotel; in the morning, you’ll report for duty on time. Until they don’t need you anymore. Then you’ll go back to your major, who doesn’t want to do anything but enjoy the city and relish the role of the conqueror and leaves it to you to push arrows and numbers around and adorns your reports with his name. As long as you remain indispensable, he’ll keep them from sending you into the real war.
The Pont Royal was standing in water up to its shoulders, only half a meter shy of the high–water mark set in 1700 and something. Fishermen leaned over the parapet wall. The stones were already warm, and people were sitting around with half–closed eyes, facing the sun. When they heard the hobnailed boots approaching, some turned away. I plunged into the hubbub of the Latin Quarter. The more people there were, the less conspicuously foreign I was. The waters of the Seine raged in the steel framework of the Pont Solferino. A stout Oriental woman at a produce stand picked up three miserable apples and felt them, one after another. Not far away, a private first class and his comrade stood gawking at her. A silver half–moon glistened on her forehead.
“Great–looking women they’ve got here,” said the private first class.
The other nodded. “I’d be willing to sully the Aryan race with a bit of that.”
Despite her corpulence, she was elegant, but she behaved as though she had no right to be on the street. When the owner of the shop came out and glared at her suspiciously, she put the apples back. After a few uncertain steps, she noticed the soldiers, who were standing in her way with grins fixed on their faces.
I stepped behind the field gray uniforms and ducked into a narrow side street. I was walking uncomfortably fast, setting a blistering pace, in fact, when what I actually wanted to do was stroll. I counted the hotel signs as they glided past overhead. Go into one, I thought, ask for a room on the top floor. Take off your boots—easy does it—open the floor–to–ceiling window, and let time slip motionlessly by.
I slowed my pace. The shop across the street was several rooms deep. Back in the farthest room, a lightbulb was burning. I crossed the street. In front of the entrance, there was a stack of chairs with pink coverings. I bent down and touched the splitting silk. Someone in the rear of the shop raised his head. The light made his face stand out sharply against the shadowy background. When he looked at me, I straightened up quickly, as if I’d been caught doing something forbidden.
I looked for wider streets, more people, more of a crush. Most of the shops were already closed, empty behind reddish brown metal bars, offering nothing to the hurrying passersby. A bakery was still open, though the line was long. I joined it, avoiding people’s eyes. They kept their distance from the uniform. I bought a loaf of flour–sprinkled bread. As I stepped out, a garcon was sweeping up wood shavings from the sidewalk.
I passed a black gate I’d seen before without ever noticing that it led not into a building but into a narrow street, practically an alley. I drew myself up to decipher the faded street sign. Rue de Gaspard? The gate was shut. Although I was curious, I hesitated. Then I leaned on the gate, and one of its panels gave way. Passing pedestrians scrutinized me as I stood there like that, half in the street, half in the entrance. I looked past the iron threshold. The little street disappeared in the shadow of a wall. Gray light on the pavement. I slipped through the gate and set off down the alley. Closed shutters everywhere. Where the buildings were lowest, the evening sun shone through.
When I turned the corner, I came upon a junk dealer who was carrying his wares back into his shop. With a bronze bust in his arms, he blocked my way, unintimidated by my uniform. I noticed a pendulum clock leaning against the wall. Walnut housing, polished brass pendulum.
I said, “Il me semble que j’ai vu exactement la meme a Munich.”
My unaccented French surprised him. “C’est possible, monsieur. Je l’ai achetee d’une famille qui a vecu longtemps en Allemagne.”
“Quel est votre prix?”
The dealer named a price for the clock, a sum no Frenchman would consider paying. I offered half as much. He wouldn't yield so much as a centime, claiming he'd promised not to sell the clock for less than it was worth.
I said, “Well then, I’m sorry,” and penetrated farther into rue de Gaspard.
A young woman was sitting motionless on a stone that lay like a rock fallen from the sky in front of a bookshop. I could make out her slender legs under her coat. She was reading. When I was nearly past her, she looked up. I went no farther and stepped into the shop instead. The man behind the counter had gray hair, combed with a part. He was holding the stump of an unlighted cigar in his mouth and spreading paste on paper labels with a stringy brush. He took a quick glance at my uniform.
"Vous cherchez quelque chose de special?" he muttered without interest. Indifferent to my reply, he stuck a little label onto a book’s spine. I indicated that I'd take a look around. The gesture he made in response was more dismissive than inviting. I stepped over to the shelves next to the window. My finger glided over the backs of the books as I looked out through the dull glass.
She was still sitting on the stone. A uniquely beautiful face. Outsized eyes, a seductively round forehead under reddish brown curls. Her face had a cunning, feline look and softly curving lips; her chin was too short and ran sharply back to her throat.
A butterfly lighted on the windowsill. The girl jerked her head up as though someone had bumped into her. Slowly, she laid the book aside, stood up, and walked over to the window, where the butterfly remained with trembling wings. As she approached, I withdrew between the bookshelves, step by step. She reached the low window on tiptoe, her eyes fixed on the butterfly. When she was only a few meters away, she stared in my direction—and didn’t notice me.
With several books in my hands, I was suddenly conscious of the shop owner’s scrutiny. He closed up the pot of glue and stepped forward. “Vous avez trouve?” he asked.
I turned around, and so I didn’t see if the butterfly flew away. The man was a head shorter than me; his balding scalp gleamed through his parted hair.
I took a step toward the exit. “Il y en a trop. Je ne sais pas comment choisir.”
With that, I laid the books down, reached the open door, and crossed threshold and step in one stride. My boot struck the pavement hard.
She was gone. My eyes searched behind some bushes and then shifted to the gate at the end of the little street. Her book lay on the stone. I gazed at the slim volume without touching it. Le Zéro; the title meant nothing to me. Suddenly, as I looked up at all the shuttered windows, I felt that someone was watching me from behind them. Slowly, but covering a lot of ground with each step, I made for the black entrance gate and passed through to the street outside, avoiding two sullen–looking French cops on patrol. I turned into the tree–lined avenue.
“Where have you been?” the SS corporal asked. I hadn’t slept well, I was nervous, and I’d been waiting for two hours. I’d tried to find a comfortable position on the bench in the hall. An unbroken stream of officers came and went, and I kept having to snap to attention. My military pay book and papers had been checked on the ground floor. Only after a telephone call had the guards let me through. On the way up, I'd admired the green-veined marble stairs. Diplomats and their ladies had strolled up and down these steps in days gone by. You could almost forget where you were.
“Where were you?” the SS corporal repeated.
“Out here. Where else?” I replied without standing up. We were equal in rank, this fellow and I. The first day in a new posting determines how you’re going to be treated there.
“You'd better lose that tone of voice.” He directed me to follow him. “Do you know shorthand?” he asked over his shoulder.
A simple yes would have sufficed. I said, "If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here."
“Is that so?” The SS corporal turned around and grinned unpleasantly. “We’ve got a lot of people in this place who don’t know a thing about stenography.”
I clamped my jaws together and walked on in silence. I was twenty–two, and I hadn’t yet been to the front. But I’d become a soldier at an age when it couldn’t be avoided forever. I was one of two brothers. My father didn’t have the money to send us both to university, but Otto had been allowed to study medicine. I’d begun a law course, just to show that I could get by without the family’s help; however, the war had relieved me of making any further decisions.
We entered the offices of the unit I’d been assigned to. Tall oaken doors, a powerful–looking woman in civilian clothes, two soldiers sitting at typewriters. I had to wait some more. Finally, the SS corporal knocked on the first office door. I went in and stood across from the thin man I’d met three days before, when I was walking down rue des Saussaies.
“Ah, it’s you,” he said, looking up from his papers. “Have you been told what you have to do?”
“Not in detail.” I was standing stiffly erect, even though the regulations didn't require me to.
"Details are important." He took up the greenish gray file and got to his feet. Average height, and slighter than I remembered, despite the tight-fitting uniform. Head almost bald, mouth strikingly sorrowful.
“This way,” he said. He opened the barrier beside his desk and the double door behind it. Before stepping through the door, he asked, “Roth, am I right?”
“Corporal Roth, yes, sir,” I replied.
“How long in the army?”
“Since March 1940, Captain.”
“You picked the best time.”
I didn’t know whether the reference was to our victorious campaign or my new duty assignment. We came into a brightly lighted room.
The first thing I saw was the boy’s face, his wet hair hanging down over his forehead. In the corner stood a tub of water, the water still moving. He was a kid, fifteen at most, with his hands tied behind his back. I could smell his fear. I noticed two uniforms, both SS corporals, and I produced my writing pad. The captain took a seat and made a brusque gesture toward a smaller table. My pencil fell to the floor. I picked it up as unobtrusively as I could, took the few steps to the table, and cast my eyes down. Everything started immediately, without any transition.