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In Sri Lanka, a tsunami sweeps a child out to sea, her grandfather helpless against the onrushing water. In France, a woman dies from cancer, leaving her husband and small children bereft. What links these two catastrophes is the presence of Emmanuel Carr?re, who manages to find consolation and even joy as he immerses himself in lives other than his own. The result is a heartrending narrative of endless love, a meditation on courage in the face of adversity, and an intimate look...
In Sri Lanka, a tsunami sweeps a child out to sea, her grandfather helpless against the onrushing water. In France, a woman dies from cancer, leaving her husband and small children bereft. What links these two catastrophes is the presence of Emmanuel Carrère, who manages to find consolation and even joy as he immerses himself in lives other than his own. The result is a heartrending narrative of endless love, a meditation on courage in the face of adversity, and an intimate look at the beauty of ordinary lives.
—The New Yorker
“Gratifying and surprising... It is a book about the texture and resonance of loss, about how we live with and through immeasurable grief. It took me inside the nuances and crevices of experiences and ideas I had never given thought to before: French bankruptcy law, living without a limb, believing a loved one to be dead and gone and then being reunited. Carrère covers a lot of ground with cool honesty and careful humanity. I identified, completely.”
—Sally Singer, The New York Times
“In Lives Other Than My Own, Emmanuel Carrère demonstrates that empathy can be the antidote to alienation, if we try for it. With the finely measured assurance of Chekhov, he achieves something altogether unexpected in modern literature: beatitude.”
—Gary Indiana, author of The Shanghai Gesture and Three Month Fever
“Yet again, Carrère has written a masterpiece. With his singular blend of reportage, detective fiction, and autobiography, he has produced an achingly beautiful, wholly unforgettable portrait of lives racked by tragedy and redeemed by love.”
—Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion
“A powerful story of happiness wrenched from despair. Once the tempest has passed, words remain, and what words they are!”
—Le Nouvel Observateur
The book beginsin Sri Lankawiththe tsunami of 2004—a horror the authorsaw firsthand, and the aftermath of which hedescribes powerfully.Carrère and his partner, Hélène, then return to Paris—anddo sowith a mutual devotion that's been renewed and deepened byall they've witnessed.Back in France,Hélène's sister Juliette, a magistrate and mother of three small daughters, has suffered a recurrence of the cancer that crippled her in adolescence. After her death, Carrère decides to write an oblique tribute and an investigation into the ravages of grief. He focuses first on Juliette's colleague and intimate friend Étienne, himself an amputee andsurvivor of childhood cancer, and a man in whose talkativeness and strength Carrère seesparallels to himself ("He liked to talk about himself. It's my way, he said, of talking to and about others, and he remarked astutely that it was my way, too"). Étienne is a perceptive,dignifiedperson and a loyal, lovingfriend, and Carrère's portrait of him—including an unexpectedly fascinating foray into Étienne and Juliette's chief professional accomplishment, which was to tap the newEuropean courts for help in overturning longtime French precedents that advantaged credit-card companies over small borrowers—is impressive.Less successful is Carrère'saccountof Juliette's widower, Patrice, an unworldly cartoonist whom he admires for his fortitude but seems to consider something of a simpleton. Now and again, especially in the Étienne sections, Carrère's meditations pay off in fresh, pungent insights, and his account of Juliette's last days and of the aftermath(especially for her daughters) is quietly harrowing.
When it's about other people, this book often soars, butthe somewhat self-satisfied autobiographical"I"keeps dragging it back down.
The night before the wave, I remember that Hélène and I talked about separating. It wouldn't be complicated; we didn't live together, hadn't had a child, and were even able to see ourselves remaining friends, and yet, it was sad. It was Christmas 2004. Here we were in our bungalow at the Hotel Eva Lanka, and we couldn't help remembering a different night, just after we'd met, a night we'd spent marveling that we had found each other and would never part, and would grow old together, happy for the rest of our lives. We even talked about having a child, a little girl. We did have that little girl in the end, and we still trust that we'll live out our days together. We like to think we always knew that everything would work out. But after the dazzling confidence of love at first sight came a complex, chaotic year, and what had at first seemed so certain to us (and still seems so now) no longer appeared at all certain or even desirable on that Christmas in 2004. On the contrary, we were convinced that this vacation would be our last together and that, for all our good intentions, the trip had been a mistake. Lying side by side, we couldn't bring ourselves to mention that first night and the promising future we had longed for so fervently yet seemed somehow to have lost. We were simply watching ourselves draw apart, without hostility, but with regret. It was too bad. For the umpteenth time I spoke of my inability to love, all the more remarkable in that Hélène is truly worthy of love. While I was telling myself that I would have to grow old alone, Hélène had something else to worry about: just before our departure, her sister Juliette had been hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism, and Hélène was afraid Juliette might be seriously ill or even dying. Although I insisted such fears were irrational, Hélène could not shake them off, and I resented how she had let herself become absorbed in something that excluded me. She went out on the terrace to smoke a cigarette. I waited for her, lying on the bed and thinking, If she comes back soon, if we make love, then perhaps we won't separate, perhaps we will grow old together after all. But she did not come back. She remained alone on the terrace watching the sky gradually grow lighter, listening to the birds begin to sing, and I fell asleep on my side of the bed, sad, lonely, convinced that my life could only get worse and worse.
* * *
Hélène and her son, I and mine: all four of us had signed up for a scuba lesson at the dive club in the neighboring village. Since the last session, however, my Jean-Baptiste had developed an earache and didn't want to go anymore. Tired from our almost sleepless night, Hélène and I decided to cancel the lesson. Rodrigue, the only one who'd really wanted to go diving, was disappointed. You can always go swimming in the pool, Hélène told him. Well, he'd had it up to here with swimming in the pool. He would have at least liked for someone to accompany him down to the beach below the hotel, where he wasn't allowed to go alone because of the dangerous currents, but no one wanted to go with him, neither his mother nor I, nor Jean-Baptiste, who preferred to read in the boys' bungalow. Jean-Baptiste was thirteen at the time. I had more or less forced this exotic vacation on him, a holiday with a woman he hardly knew and a boy much younger than he was, and he'd been bored from the moment we arrived, which he made clear to us by staying off on his own. Whenever I asked him irritably whether he wasn't happy to be here in Sri Lanka, he replied grudgingly that yes, yes, he was happy, but it was too hot and actually he was happiest in the bungalow, reading or playing his Game Boy. In short, he was a typical adolescent, while I was a typical father of an adolescent, catching myself telling him the same exasperating things my own parents had said to me when I was his age: You ought to go out, look around … What's the point of bringing you all this way?… Like talking to a wall. So Jean-Baptiste retreated into his lair while Rodrigue, left on his own, began bothering Hélène, who was trying to nap on a deck chair by the huge saltwater pool, where an elderly but incredibly athletic German woman who resembled Leni Riefenstahl swam every morning for two hours. As for me, still feeling sorry for myself over my inability to love, I went to hang out with the Ayurvedics, as we called the group of Swiss German guests who were staying in some nearby bungalows. They had come to the resort to follow a program of yoga and traditional Indian massage. They weren't meeting in plenary session with their master, so I performed a few asanas with them. Then I wandered back to the pool, where the last breakfast dishes had been cleared and tables were being set for lunch. Soon the tedious question would arise: What should we do that afternoon? In the three days since our arrival we had already visited the forest temple, fed the little monkeys, and seen the reclining Buddhas. So unless we undertook more ambitious cultural excursions, which none of us found tempting, we had exhausted the attractions in our immediate vicinity. Some tourists can spend days in a fishing village rhapsodizing over everything the locals do—going to market, mending nets, social rituals of all kinds—and I reproached myself for not being like that, for not having passed on to my sons the generous curiosity, the acuity of observation I admire in people like Nicolas Bouvier, the Swiss traveler and writer. I'd brought along The Scorpion-Fish, Bouvier's account of a year he spent in Galle, a large fortified town about thirty kilometers to the east of us along the southern coast of the island. Unlike his most famous book, The Way of the World, a tale of celebration and wonder, The Scorpion-Fish describes collapse, loss, and a descent into the abyss. It presents Sri Lanka as a form of enchantment, but in the perilous sense of the word, not some guidebook come-on for newlyweds and hip backpackers. Bouvier almost lost his mind there, and our visit, whether considered as a honeymoon or a rite of passage for a future blended family, was a failure. And a feeble failure at that, with no bang, only a whimper. I was growing anxious to go home. Crossing the trellised lobby invaded by bougainvilleas, I ran into a frustrated hotel guest who couldn't send a fax because the power was out. At the reception desk he'd heard there'd been an accident, some problem in the village, but he hadn't understood exactly what was wrong and just hoped the power would come back on soon, because his fax was very important. I rejoined Hélène, who was awake now and told me something strange was happening.
* * *
The next scene: a small gathering of guests and staff on a terrace at the end of the hotel grounds, looking out over the ocean. Curiously enough, nothing seems amiss at first. Everything appears normal. Then you start to notice how strange things really are. The water seems so far away … Normally, there are about twenty yards of beach between the ocean's edge and the foot of the cliff. Now, however, the sand stretches off into the distance: flat, gray, glistening in the hazy sunshine, like Mont-Saint-Michel at low tide. Then you realize that the sand is littered with objects, but you can't tell what size they are. That piece of twisted wood, is it a broken branch or a whole tree? A really big tree? That crumpled boat, perhaps that's something a bit bigger, maybe an honest-to-god trawler, shattered and tossed aside like a nutshell? There is no sound; no breath of air rustles the fronds of the coconut palms. I don't remember the first words spoken in the group we'd joined, but at one point someone murmured in English, Two hundred children died in the village school.
* * *
Built on the cliff overlooking the ocean, the hotel seems swathed in the exuberant vegetation of its grounds. To reach the coastal road, guests go through a guarded gate and down a concrete ramp, at the foot of which some tuk-tuks are usually waiting. Tuk-tuks are auto rickshaws, canvas-roofed motorbikes that seat two passengers, three if they squeeze together, on short trips of up to ten kilometers; for anything more, a taxi is best. There are no tuk-tuks today. Hélène and I have come down to the road to find out what's going on. Whatever it is seems serious, but except for the man who mentioned the two hundred dead children (and was immediately contradicted by someone claiming the children couldn't have been in school because it was Poya, the Buddhist celebration of the full moon), no one at the hotel knows anything more than we do. No tuk-tuks; no passersby, either. Ordinarily there's a constant stream: women walking in twos or threes with their packages, schoolchildren in impeccably ironed white shirts, everyone smiling and eager to chat. Aside from the lack of people, nothing seems different about the road, as long as we walk beside the hill shielding us from the ocean. The moment we pass the hill and reach the plain, we discover that to one side everything is normal—trees, flowers, low walls, small shops—while on the other it's sheer devastation, a mire of blackish mud like a lava flow. After walking a few more minutes toward the village, we see a tall blond man in a torn shirt and shorts coming toward us, haggard, covered in mud and blood. He is Dutch: strangely, that is the first thing he tells us. The second thing is that his wife has been injured. Some villagers have taken her in and he's seeking help, which he hopes to find at our hotel. There was an immense wave, he says, that poured in and then receded, washing away people and houses. He appears to be in shock, more stupefied than relieved at still being alive. Hélène offers to go with him to the hotel, where the phone may be working again, and perhaps there'll be a doctor among the guests. Curious, I decide to walk on a little, and I say I'll rejoin them soon. Three kilometers along, anguish and confusion reign at the entrance to the village. Clusters of people form and dissolve as vans and pickups maneuver through the throng; I hear cries, moans. I head down the street that leads to the beach, but a policeman stops me. When I ask him what has happened, he replies in English. The sea, the water, big water. Is it true that people have died? Yes, many people dead, very dangerous. You stay in hotel? Which hotel? Eva Lanka? Good, good, Eva Lanka, go back there, it is safe. Here, very dangerous. Although the danger seems over, I obey anyway.
* * *
Hélène is furious with me because I went off and left her saddled with the boys when she should have been the one to go looking for news: it's her job. While I was gone, she was contacted by LCI, the French news network for which she works as a writer and anchor. It's past midnight in Europe, which explains why the other hotel guests have not yet been phoned by panic-stricken friends and family, but the journalists on call at the major news agencies already know that Southeast Asia has been hit by something enormous, way beyond the local flooding I had initially imagined. Knowing that Hélène is vacationing here, her network had been hoping for some on-the-spot reporting and she'd had almost nothing to tell them. And I—what do I have to report? What did I see in the village of Tangalla? Not much, I admit. Hélène shrugs. I retreat to our bungalow. I'd felt energized, getting back to the hotel, because our flagging vacation had received an extraordinary jolt, but now I'm irritated by our tiff and my sense of not having risen to the occasion. Disappointed in myself, I seek refuge in The Scorpion-Fish and am struck by this sentence, sandwiched between two descriptions of insects: "I would have liked, this morning, a stranger's hand to close my eyes; I was alone, so I closed them myself."
* * *
In great distress, Jean-Baptiste comes to get me in the bungalow. The French couple whom we met two days earlier has just arrived at the hotel. Their daughter is dead. My son needs me to help him deal with this. Walking with him on the path to the main building, I remember when we first met the family, in one of the straw-hut restaurants on the beach I was heading to when the policeman stopped me. They'd been at a neighboring table. The husband in his early thirties, the wife her late twenties. Both good-looking, cheerful, friendly, clearly much in love and completely enamored with their four-year-old daughter, who had wandered over to play with Rodrigue, which is why we'd struck up a conversation. Unlike us, they knew the country well and were staying not at the hotel but in a little beach house the young woman's father rented by the year, about two hundred yards from the restaurant. They were the sort of people you're glad to meet when you're abroad, and we'd said good night with every intention of getting together again. Nothing official; we'd certainly be running into one another in the village and at the beach.
* * *
Hélène is in the bar talking to the couple and an older man with curly gray hair and birdlike features. That other evening, we hadn't even exchanged names, so Hélène makes the introductions. Jérôme. Delphine. Philippe. Philippe is Delphine's father, the renter of the beach house. And the little girl who died was Juliette. Hélène repeats the name in a neutral voice; Jérôme nods in confirmation. His face and Delphine's remain expressionless. I ask, Are you sure? Jérôme replies that yes, they've just come from identifying the body at the village hospital. Delphine stares straight ahead; I'm not sure she sees us. We seven—four of us, three of them—are sitting in teak armchairs and on banquettes with colorful cushions, around a low table set with fruit juices and tea. When a waiter arrives to take care of us, Jean-Baptiste and I automatically order something, and then silence falls again. It lasts until Philippe suddenly begins to speak. To no one in particular. His voice is piercing, halting, like a machine breaking down. In the hours to come, he will tell his story several times, almost word for word.
* * *
This morning, right after breakfast, Jérôme and Delphine had left for the market while Philippe stayed home to watch Juliette and Osandi, the daughter of the beach house owner. Sitting in his wicker armchair on the bungalow terrace, Philippe read the local paper, glancing up now and then to keep an eye on the two little girls playing at the water's edge. They were jumping and laughing in the wavelets. Juliette was speaking French, and Osandi Sinhala, but they understood each other just fine. Crows were cawing, squabbling over the breakfast crumbs. All was calm; the day promised to be beautiful, and Philippe thought he might go fishing that afternoon with Jérôme. At some point, he realized that the crows had vanished and that he no longer heard any birds singing. That's when the wave hit. A moment earlier the sea was smooth; an instant later it was a wall as high as a skyscraper and it was falling on them. He thought in a flash that he was going to die but would not have time to suffer. He was submerged, swept away, and tossed around for what seemed an eternity in the immense belly of the wave before he surfaced on his back. He passed like a surfer over houses, over trees, over the road. Then the wave reversed itself, rushed in the opposite direction, sweeping him seaward. He saw he was going to smash into some collapsed walls straight ahead and tried instinctively to cling to a coconut palm but lost his grip, grabbed another, and would have lost his hold again if something hard, a section of fence, hadn't trapped him, pinning him against the palm. Furniture, animals, people, wooden beams, chunks of concrete raced past; he closed his eyes, expecting to be crushed by some huge hunk of debris, and he kept them closed until the monstrous roaring of the current died down, allowing him to hear other sounds, the cries of wounded men and women. Then he understood that the world had not come to an end, that he was alive, and that now the real nightmare was beginning.
He opened his eyes. He slid down the palm trunk to the surface of the water, which was completely black, opaque. There was still some current, but it could be resisted. A woman's body floated past, arms crossed, head under water. In the wreckage, survivors were calling to one another, while the injured moaned aloud. Philippe hesitated. Should he go toward the beach or the village? Juliette and Osandi were dead, of that he was certain. And he had to find Jérôme and Delphine to tell them. That was now his task in life. Philippe was in a bathing suit, up to his chest in the water, bleeding, but unable to determine exactly where he'd been hurt. He would rather have simply waited there for help, but he forced himself to set out. Beneath his bare feet the ground was uneven, soft, unstable, carpeted with a slurry of things he couldn't see, some of which had sharp edges, so he was desperately afraid he would be cut again. Feeling his way carefully with each step, he made slow progress. A hundred yards from his house, he recognized nothing: not one wall left whole, not a single tree. A few times he saw a familiar face, neighbors floundering like him, black with mud, red with blood, eyes wide with horror, searching like him for those they loved. The sucking noise of the retreating waters had almost completely given way to increasingly loud screams, wails, groans. Philippe finally reached the road and, a little higher up, the place where the wave had stopped. It was uncanny, that boundary marked so distinctly. Over here, chaos; over there, the everyday world, absolutely intact: small houses of pink or pale green brick, paths of reddish laterite, market stalls, people bustling about, wearing clothes, alive, and only now beginning to grasp—without knowing exactly what it was—that something horrendous had occurred. The zombies who, like Philippe, were trying to get their footing back in the land of the living could only stammer the word wave, and this word spread through the village just as the word plane must have done in Manhattan on September 11. Spasms of panic carried people both toward the ocean, to see what had happened and to help those needing rescue, and as far away from the water as possible, in case the wave came back. Amid the shouting and confusion, Philippe made his way along the main street to the market, where the morning crowds of shoppers would have been at their height, and as he was steeling himself for a prolonged and agonizing search, he saw Delphine and Jérôme at the foot of the clock tower. They'd just heard such garbled news of the disaster that Jérôme was wondering if a crazed gunman had opened fire somewhere in Tangalla. Philippe went toward them, knowing that they were living their last moments of happiness. The couple spotted him approaching; then he stood before them, smeared with mud and blood, his face contorted with emotion, and at this point in his story Philippe stops. He can't go on. His mouth hangs open, but he can't repeat the three words he must have said to them.
* * *
Delphine screamed; Jérôme didn't. He took Delphine in his arms and hugged her as tightly as he could while she screamed and screamed, and from then on he had only one objective: I can no longer do anything for my daughter, so I will save my wife. I wasn't there to see what happened, I'm describing the scene according to what Philippe said, but I did witness what followed and I saw Jérôme's program at work. He did not waste time hoping in vain. Philippe was not only his father-in-law but a friend in whom he had complete confidence, so he understood immediately that no matter what shock and disorientation Philippe had suffered, if he'd said those three words, they were true. Delphine, however, wanted to believe her father was mistaken. He was himself a survivor, so perhaps Juliette was as well. Philippe shook his head: impossible. Juliette and Osandi had been at the water's very edge, they'd never had a chance. No chance at all. They found her at the hospital, among the dozens—no, already the hundreds of corpses the ocean had given back and that now lay, for lack of room, right on the floor. Osandi and her father lay there, too.
* * *
As the afternoon wears on, the hotel becomes a kind of Raft of the Medusa. Tourists who've survived the tidal wave have been told that they will be safe here, and they stumble in almost naked, often injured, in total shock. Rumor has it that a second wave may be coming. The locals have sought refuge on the other side of the coastal road, as far from the ocean as they can get, while the foreigners seek safety in elevation, meaning with us. Philippe has made the first of a series of wrenching calls to Isabelle on his cell phone, and although telephone lines are down, as the day goes on cell phones begin ringing all around us, as terrified family and friends who have just heard the news start calling. Their loved ones reassure them quickly, succinctly, to save their phone batteries. That evening the hotel management runs a generator for a few hours so people can recharge them and follow developments on television. At one end of the bar is a giant screen that usually shows soccer matches, since the hotel proprietors are Italian, as are many of the guests. Everyone—guests, staff, survivors—gathers to watch CNN and we discover the scale of the catastrophe. Images come in from Sumatra, Thailand, the Maldives; all Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean have been affected. We begin to see short film loops shot by amateurs showing the wave approaching in the distance, the torrents of mud pouring into houses, sweeping everything away. Now we all talk about the tsunami as if wed always known what that word meant.
* * *
We have dinner with Delphine, Jérôme, and Philippe; we sit with them again at breakfast the next morning, then at lunch, then again at dinner, and until our return to Paris we are always together. They don't behave like beaten people to whom nothing matters and who cannot cope. They want to go home with Juliette's body, and from that first evening on, the terrifying void of her absence is kept at bay by practical problems. Jérôme tackles them with everything he's got: it's his way of remaining alive, of keeping Delphine alive, and Hélène helps him by trying to contact their insurance company on her cell phone to organize their departure and the shipment of the body. It isn't easy, obviously, what with the distance, the time difference, and the overloaded circuits. She's often put on hold, spending precious minutes of battery life listening to soothing music and recorded messages, then when she finally speaks to an actual person, she's transferred to another line where the music starts up again—or she's cut off. These ordinary annoyances, simply irritating in everyday life, become in this emergency both monstrous yet vital, because they define tasks to be accomplished, give form to the passage of time. There is something to do: Jérôme is doing it, Hélène is helping him, it's as simple as that. While this is going on, Jérôme keeps an eye on Delphine. Delphine stares into space. She doesn't cry, doesn't scream. Although she eats very little, that's better than nothing. Her hand shakes but she can bring a forkful of curried rice to her lips. Put it in her mouth. Chew it. Load more rice on the fork. Eat another mouthful. I look at Hélène and feel clumsy, helpless, useless. I almost resent her for being so caught up in the task at hand that she's paying no attention to me. It's as if I no longer exist.
* * *
Later, we're lying on the bed, side by side. My fingertips caress hers, which don't respond. I'd like to take her in my arms but I know that isn't possible. I know what she's thinking; it's impossible to think of anything else. A few dozen yards from us, in another bungalow, Jérôme and Delphine must be lying down as well, wide awake. Has he taken her in his arms, or is that impossible for them as well? It's the first night. The night of the day their daughter died. This morning she was alive, she woke up, she came to play in their bed, she called them Mama and Papa, she was laughing, she was warm, she was the loveliest and warmest and sweetest thing on earth, and now she's dead. She will always be dead.
Since the beginning of our stay, I'd been saying that I didn't like the Hotel Eva Lanka and suggesting that we move into one of the little beach guesthouses, which weren't nearly as comfortable as our bungalows but reminded me of my backpacking trips twenty-five or thirty years ago. I wasn't really serious; in my descriptions of those marvelous lodgings, I gleefully emphasized the lack of electricity, the mosquito nets full of holes, the poisonous spiders that dropped onto your head. Hélène and the children would shriek, making fun of my old hippie nostalgia, and the whole thing had become a comic routine. The beach guesthouses were swept away by the wave, along with most of their guests. I think, We might have been among them. Jean-Baptiste might have gone down to the beach with Rodrigue. We might have, as planned, gone out on a boat with the scuba diving instructor. And Delphine and Jérôme—they must be thinking, We could have taken Juliette to the market. If we had, she would have come bouncing into our bed tomorrow morning. The world around us would be in mourning but we would hug our little girl and say, Thank God, she's here, that's all that matters.
Copyright © 2009 by P.O.L. Editeur Translation copyright © 2011 by Linda Coverdale