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Linda Lê, who traveled at age fourteen from Saigon to France with a wave of “boat people,” is one of the leading young novelists on France’s brave new literary scene. Slander is Lê’s fifth—and most celebrated—novel.
They aren't going to leave me alone after all. [paragraph] Ten yearslocked up in this colony of half-wits, ten years spent side byside with psychos, spastics, dodderers, lobotomy cases,geniuses who bungled their vocation. Ten years among thealbinos, waxen faces that come alive only to insult me, to callme Monkey-Face during their rare moments of lucidity. [paragraph]Just when I thought I was safe. Here I am, trapped by mygenes again. Now a letter comes to remind me of the familythat corroded my brain, assassinated my youth, sabotaged mylife. A letter. From a pretentious little thing (you can see it inthe large, bold handwriting, the way she turns a phrase, theway she writes French; as if someone like me, who learnedFrench in the nuthouse and only so I could ask the attendantsnot to hit me too hard or to give me an extra blanket, as if Iwere capable of appreciating all the subtleties of the beautifulFrench language she wields like an apprentice murdererbrandishing a kitchen knife). [paragraph] I've done my share ofcultural spadework too, of course. Five years in a publiclibrary, reading everything that passed through my hands.Culture, I told myself, culture at all costs—the idea was to getmy head back together. [paragraph] Still, I feel pretty good in thislibrary. I sort the books by genre and put them in alphabeticalorder. I move through the shelves, I inspect them, checking tosee whether any books are out of place. Every so often I'masked to throw out the old system and reclassify everything.For two days I play stock boy. I pretend to be thrilled by thenew system of classification, knowing perfectly well that thewholeupheaval is completely useless and in the endeverything will go back to the way it was before. In betweenshelving, I can stroll around, do nothing, smoke a cigarette inthe hall. I'd rather retreatto the far end of the library, find a hiding place, and read. Inever read a book all the way through. I choose every kind ofbook. I go from novels to journalism to historical narratives todiaries. The main thing is to have a parade of words movingunder my eyes. The librarian holds me up as an example. Themadman, the loathsome, swarthy foreigner, the meteque, whoset himself to reading books. Culture saves ... [paragraph] Evenings,I go back to my room, I read while I eat, I read before I go tosleep. And to think they locked me up because my nerveswere a little too highly strung. I didn't know then that therewas an excellent sedative: culture. [paragraph] I was at peace. Alonein the world and happy about it and at peace. With the booksthat help me live but that my body will only tolerate everyother day, like a medication that saves your life but gives youdiarrhea and makes hammers pound in your skull. I was aloneand at peace. And that uppity little miss had to come andtorment me. Remind me that I have a family, a family that heldthe door of the asylum open for me, that packed me away intothe asylum in Correze. What a joke! They must have slappedtheir thighs, thinking about the one they pulled over on me.[paragraph] Fifteen years now since we saw each other. I had quitehonestly forgotten she existed. Nieces always push their wayback into your memory in the end, though. As little girls theyshow you their bare thighs and crooked teeth, leaving behinda scent of vice nipped in the bud. When they reach the age ofseduction they forget you, but at the first crisis they come toyou and demand that you validate their existence. They fallback on uncle the way a diva falls back on her oldest admirer.
There's only one thing she and I have in common: books.That's what keeps her going, it's her business, her dailybread, her stimulant. For me, books are tranquilizers. Thanksto books, I play dead. [paragraph] When the family sent meoff in the airplane to France, to the asylum in Correze, she wasten or twelve. She arrived in this country a few years later.She's made herself a writer. A distiller of tranquilizers. Amanufacturer of sedatives. She could have contented herselfwith being a pimp for words and left me alone. I might evenhave started reading her books. But she had to come and dragme out of my hiding place. What is she looking for? You mightalmost think she had run out of inspiration. [paragraph] There's noother word for it: she has come to torment me. As if I couldpossibly know anything, as if my memory were intact. Tenyears among madmen and suddenly I am designated theguardian of truth. She places a life, her life, in my hands. If Ihappen to feel like telling one story instead of another, it willchange the course of that life. She's crazy, I tell myself againand again. You have to be crazy to ask a madman fordirections. What has gotten into her? Is it because she lovestaking risks? Is it her taste for novelistic situations? She tellsme, You are the only member of this family with whom I feellike establishing a link. Establishing a link! No one talks likethat! She's curious about me because I'm the only madman inthis tribe who's been locked up. The others were left free to goon wreaking their havoc. [paragraph] It's been five days since theletter arrived and for five days I've had a headache. I don't readanymore. I scribble. As soon as I've finished my shelving, Islip back to my corner at the far end of the library and write inmy notebook, a big notebook with a soft gray cover. I'm notquite sure what I'm writing. Undoubtedly a report. A report I'llbe able to send her so she'll realize I'm incapable ofremembering anything. I'm writing a report. On her life. On mylife. A report on betrayal. How I was betrayed by my own. Howshe betrayed them in turn. As if she were avenging me. Theyexiled me by force. She left of her own free will, clapping herhands with delight at the prospect of an immigrationthat—she foresaw, shehoped—would deliver her from the family heritage. I had tolearn French among madmen. Meanwhile, French has becomeher only language, her tool, her weapon. The weapon she usesagainst her family, against the Country. Thanks to thatweapon, she will always be alone. She's a meteque, a dirtyforeigner, who writes in French. For her, the French languageis what madness has been for me: a way of escaping thefamily, of safeguarding her solitude, her mental integrity. Ihave nothing to say to her. She's trying to make me heraccomplice. What do I remember about her? Her skinniness,her strange hair, with reddish glints. She was alwaysfollowing her father around—he was her guide, her playmate,her keeper. [paragraph] The father, the great affair of her life.