The Character of Rain
By Amélie Nothomb, Timothy Bent
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Editions Albin Michel S.A.
All rights reserved.
IN THE BEGINNING was nothing, and this nothing had neither form nor substance — it was nothing other than what it was. And God knew that it was good. God would not have created something other than nothing for anything in the world, for it did more than merely please, it fulfilled.
God's eyes were perpetually wide open and staring, though it didn't matter whether they were opened or closed. There was nothing to see, and God, plump and compact as a hard-boiled egg, saw nothing.
God was absolute satisfaction — wanting nothing, expecting nothing, perceiving nothing, rejecting nothing, interested in nothing. So complete was life at this stage that it wasn't life. God didn't live, simply existed.
There had been no noticeable starting point to existence. Great books have beginnings we forget immediately; they make us feel we have been reading them since the dawn of time. So, too, it was impossible to mark the moment at which God had started to exist.
God did not have language and therefore did not have thought. All was fullness and eternity, establishing beyond all doubt that God was God. Not that this mattered. God cared nothing about being God.
* * *
THE EYES OF LIVING CREATURES possess that most astounding of all capacities: sight. Nothing is more unique.
What sight means cannot be expressed. Words can't capture its strange essence. Yet sight exists, and in a way that few other things do.
There is a profound difference between eyes with sight and eyes without sight. That difference has a name: life. Life begins with sight.
God had no sight.
* * *
GOD'S SOLE PREOCCUPATIONS were ingestion, digestion, and, as a direct result, excretion. These vegetative activities took place without God's even being aware of them. Nourishment, always the same, wasn't exciting enough to take much note of. God simply opened all the appropriate orifices for it to pass in, and through, and out.
That is why at this stage of its development we shall call God "the Tube."
There have been theories about tubes, and for good reason: they are singular combinations of fullness and emptiness; they are hollow substance, a something that contains nothing. Tubes can be flexible, but it renders them no less mysterious.
God's body was supple yet inert, thus confirming its total absorption in cylindrical serenity — filtering everything in the universe, retaining nothing.
THE PARENTS OF THE TUBE were deeply concerned. They brought specialists in to examine the strange case of this lifeless length of living tissue.
The specialists tested the Tube's articulations, tapping knees and elbows to determine whether there was a reflexive response, which there wasn't. Nor did the Tube's pupils move when they shined a light directly into them.
"The child never cries, and never moves. Never makes a sound," the parents told the doctors.
They concluded that here was a case of "pathological apathy," apparently unaware this was a contradiction in terms.
"Your child is a vegetable. It is most upsetting."
Actually, the parents were relieved by their diagnosis. A vegetable, after all, is still a living thing.
"She should be put in the hospital," said the specialists.
The parents ignored the advice. They already had two children who were full-fledged members of the human race. Having a third who was a vegetable wasn't so bad. It even elicited tender feelings on their part.
They sweetly called the Tube "the Plant."
* * *
CALLING THE TUBE "the Plant," however, was a case of mistaken identity. For all that they lead a life imperceptible to the human eye, plants, including vegetables, are alive. They tremble when a storm approaches, weep bitter tears at break of day, are indignant when attacked, and go crazy with ecstasy — launching themselves into the dance of the seven veils — during the pollen season. Without doubt they see things, though where their eyes are located no one knows.
The Tube, on the other hand, was wholly and completely impassive. Nothing affected it — not changes in temperature, not nightfall, not the hundreds of daily emotions and mood swings, not the great and inexplicable mysteries of silence.
The monthly earthquakes, which caused its older siblings to cry out in fear, had no effect whatever on the Tube. The Richter Scale was a measurement for others, not for the Tube. One evening, a tremor measuring 5.6 shook the mountain on which their house sat. Pieces of plaster rained down on the Tube's cradle. When they took it out, the Tube was indifference itself, its eyes fixed upon, but not seeing, those who had come to disturb it from under the pile of debris, where it had been warm.
The parents were determined to find out everything they could about the Plant and decided to try an experiment. They stopped giving it food and drink. Finally, they thought, the child would be forced to react.
The plan backfired. The Tube accepted starvation the way it accepted everything else — without a shadow of disapproval or resentment. Eating or not eating, drinking or not drinking, it was all the same. To be or not to be was not the question.
At the end of the third day, the parents, wild with worry, examined their little Plant. It had gotten a little thinner and its lips were parched, but it didn't seem much worse off than before. They gave the Tube a bottle with sugar water, which it drank in without emotion.
"This child would let itself die without complaining," said the mother, horrified.
"Let's not tell the doctors," said the father. "They'd think we were sadists."
The parents were not sadists; they were simply stunned to discover that their issue lacked any instinct for survival. It crossed their minds that their baby wasn't a plant but a tube, but they instantly rejected such an idea as unthinkable.
It was in the nature of the parents to be happy, and soon they forgot all about their little experiment. They had three children: a boy, a girl, and a vegetable. The diversity pleased them, all the more because the older children were forever running around, crying, fighting, jumping, and inventing new games. They needed to be watched constantly.
Their youngest child didn't cause them any such worries. They could leave it for entire days without a babysitter. In the evening they would find it in exactly the same position they had left it in the morning. They changed its diaper, gave it some nourishment, and that was pretty much all there was to it. A goldfish would have been more trouble.
Moreover, aside from the fact that it didn't seem to have sight, the Tube looked like a normal baby, the kind you could show off to guests without embarrassment. Other parents were even jealous.
In truth, it was the incarnation of inertia, the strongest yet most paradoxical of all forces, emanating from something that doesn't move. When a body goes limp, when a car pushed by ten strong men refuses to budge, when a child lies in a heap in front of the TV for hours and hours, and when an inane idea continues to exert its noxious influence, one confronts the numbing, terrifying grip of inertia.
Such was the power of the Tube.
* * *
IT NEVER CRIED. It did not wail at the moment of its birth, nor even uttered a sound. The world was not worth bothering about.
The mother had tried breastfeeding. No instinct impelled the baby's mouth toward the maternal pap; baby and breast were put nose to nose, but the newborn didn't attempt to move closer. The mother, concerned and irritated, had forced her nipple into its mouth. God sucked barely, if at all. The mother decided to feed it from a bottle.
The bottle corresponded far better to her child's essential nature. Mammary roundness had not inspired the tiniest feeling of filial attachment, but the Tube took immediately to this cylindrical source of nourishment.
Thus the mother fed the child several times a day, innocent of the fact that she was reinforcing the connection between tubes. Divine alimentation was something akin to plumbing.
* * *
"ALL IS FLUX," "nothing endures but change," "you could not step twice into the same river." So said Hera-clitus. The ancient philosopher would have been driven to despair had he met the Tube, who was the very negation of his fluid vision of the universe. Had the Tube been capable of language, it would have replied to this venerable sage: "AD is static," "everything endures," "you always step into the same river," and so on.
Luckily, language isn't possible without movement, without some kind of engine driving it, and thought isn't possible without language. The Tube's metaphysical speculations were neither thinkable nor communicable, and therefore couldn't do any harm. This was a good thing, for otherwise they would have sapped humanity's morale for a very long time.
* * *
GOD'S PARENTS WERE of Belgian nationality, meaning that it, too, was Belgian. This may help explain not a few of the disasters that have occurred since biblical days; centuries ago, a priest from the Low Countries proved scientifically that Adam and Eve spoke Flemish.
The Tube, however, had found an ingenious solution to humanity's post-Babel linguistic difficulties: it never produced even the smallest sound.
The muteness concerned the parents less than the immobility. The child reached the age of one year without having twitched a muscle. Other children were taking their first steps, making their first smiles, doing their first whatevers. Theirs hadn't accomplished a single thing.
This was all the more strange because the Tube was developing in ways that were otherwise absolutely normal. The brain simply wasn't keeping pace. The parents regarded this growth process with perplexity, for their house was being inhabited by a void that nonetheless took up more and more space.
The cradle became too small. The Tube was transplanted to a crib, the same one used previously by its older brother and sister.
"Maybe moving the Plant will wake it up," said the mother, sighing.
From the beginning of the universe, God had slept in the same room as its parents. This didn't pose problems for them, of course. They could forget it was even there.
* * *
TIME, LIKE LANGUAGE, is a product of movement. Not moving, the Tube had no awareness of time's passage. Eventually it turned two, though it might as well have turned two days, or two centuries for that matter. It had neither changed positions nor attempted to; it remained, as ever, on its back, arms at its side, like a tiny effigy.
One day the mother lifted the Plant by its shoulders to set it on its feet; the father put its tiny hands on the side of the crib, and encouraged it to grip. Then they let go. It instantly tumbled backward and contentedly resumed its former position.
"Maybe music would help," the mother suggested. "Children respond to music."
Mozart, Chopin, the soundtrack from 101 Dalmatians, Beatles songs, Shaku hachi — all of them elicited precisely the same reaction: none.
The parents gave up trying to make it into a musician. By this point they had given up trying to make it human.
* * *
SEEING INVOLVES CHOICE. Whoever looks at something has decided to fix his attention on that one thing, to the exclusion of other things. That is why sight, the very essence of life, first and foremost constitutes a rejection.
Therefore, to live means to reject. Anyone who looks at everything at once is as alive as a toilet bowl. Living means making a distinction between, for example, the mother and the ceiling — things that are overhead. One must choose to be interested in one or the other, either the mother or the ceiling. The only wrong choice is the absence of choice.
God hadn't refused because it hadn't made a choice. That was why it wasn't alive.
When babies are born, their howl of pain is, in and of itself, a revolt; and a revolt is, in and of itself, a rejection. Hence life begins on the day of birth — not before, as some believe.
God had not emitted a single sound, of course, not the faintest decibel since the second it emerged from the mother's womb. Yet the specialists had determined it was not deaf, nor blind, nor dumb. It was like a sink without a stopper. Had it been able to speak, it would have endlessly repeated the same word — "yes."
* * *
HUMANITY HAS FORMED a cult around normalcy. We want to believe that our evolution was the result of a natural and normal process, that our species has been guided by a biological inevitability that led us, after many millennia, to stop crawling at the age of one and begin moving upright.
We prefer not to believe in accidents, for they are expressions either of an exterior force, which is bothersome enough, or of pure chance, which is worse, and hence banished from our thoughts. Were some-one to dare utter, "I took my first steps about the age of one by accident," or, "man became bipedal by accident," he would be considered a lunatic.
The accident theory is unacceptable because it permits thinking that things didn't have to turn out the way they have. People can't conceive of the notion that an infant doesn't want to talk. It would be like admitting that man might never have gotten the idea of walking upright. A gifted species as ours might never have thought of walking upright? Unthinkable.
By the age of two, the Tube hadn't attempted to crawl, nor even made a move in that direction. Nor, still, made a peep. The adults — the parents, the doctors, and the nanny — decided there must be some kind of developmental blockage. It would never have occurred to them that what was wrong with the child might not be physical in nature, for who could have believed that, barring some accident of fate, man might have preferred to remain as inert as a larva?
There are, of course, physical accidents and mental accidents. People dismiss the latter out of hand as far as evolution goes.
Yet nothing could be more fundamental to the human story than mental accidents. At some point, deep in the past, a particle of grit lodged itself in an oyster. Suddenly the tender, oozy matter inside the shell felt violated by this tiny foreign element that had penetrated its defenses. The oyster, which had been vegetating quite happily really, sounded the alarm and closed ranks. It invented a marvelous new substance, nacre, to surround the offending particle, thereby inventing the pearl.
A mental accident can also befall the brain from within. These are the most mysterious and serious of all. For no apparent reason, a particular circumlocution of the gray matter gives birth to the grain of a horrific thought — a truly terrifying thought — and in a flash well-being has disappeared.
The virus goes to work. The infection forces the creature out of its torpor, assailing it with a question to which it must formulate a thousand replies. It starts to walk, to speak, and to assume a hundred wholly futile attitudes by which it hopes to escape.
Not only does all this activity not help, it makes matters worse. The more the creature talks the less it understands, the more it walks the more ground it has to cover. Soon it starts to miss its former, peaceful, larval state, but without daring to admit this.
There are those who have not been subjected to the laws of evolutionary development. These are the clinical vegetables. The specialists fret over them. Yet they are what we want to be. They are experiencing life as it would have been lived but for a fateful accident.
AN ORDINARY DAY. The parents were acting like parents, the other children were behaving like children, and the Tube was wrapped up in its cylindrical existence.
Nonetheless, this day would be the most important day of its life, then disappear without a trace, just as there apparently are no remains of that day when a human being rose to his feet for the first time, nor the day when he first grasped what death truly meant. The pivotal events in mankind's history happen without notice.
Anyway, on this ordinary day, the walls of the house suddenly echoed with screams. Terrified, the mother and the nanny ran from room to room in search of its source. Had a monkey gotten loose? Had someone escaped from an insane asylum?
The last place the mother looked was her room. What she saw froze her in her tracks. The Plant was sitting up in its crib, howling as only a two-year-old child can howl. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Character of Rain by Amélie Nothomb, Timothy Bent. Copyright © 2000 Editions Albin Michel S.A.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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