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The WOMAN WHO WAITEDA Novel
By Andrei Makine
Arcade PublishingCopyright © 2004 Editions du Seuil
All right reserved.
Chapter One"She is a woman so intensely destined for happiness (if only purely physical happiness, mere bodily well-being), and yet she has chosen, almost casually, it seems, solitude, loyalty to an absent one, a refusal to love...."
This is the sentence I wrote down at that crucial moment when we believe we have sized up another person (this woman, Vera). Up to that point, all is curiosity, guesswork, a hankering after confessions. Hunger for the other person, the lure of her hidden depths. But once their secret has been decoded, along come these words, often pretentious and dogmatic, dissecting, pinpointing, categorizing. It all becomes comprehensible, reassuring. Now the routine of a relationship, or of indifference, can take over. The other one's mystery has been tamed. Her body reduced to a flesh-and-blood mechanism, desirable or not. Her heart to a set of predictable responses.
At this stage, in fact, a kind of murder occurs, for we kill this being of infinite and inexhaustible potential we have encountered. We would rather deal with a verbal construct than a living person....
It must have been during those September days, in a village among forests stretching all the way to the White Sea, that I noted down observations of thistype: "a being of inexhaustible potential," "murder," "a woman stripped naked by words." At the time (I was twenty-six), such conclusions struck me as wonderfully perceptive. I took great pride in having gained insight into the secret life of a woman old enough to be my mother, in having summed up her destiny in a few well-turned phrases. I thought about her smile, the wave she greeted me with when she caught sight of me in the distance on the shore of the lake, the love she could have given so many men but gave no one. "A woman so intensely destined for happiness ..." Yes, I was pretty pleased with my analysis. I even recalled a nineteenth-century critic referring to a "dialectic of the soul" to describe the art with which writers probe the contradictions of the human psyche: "A woman destined for happiness, but ..."
That September evening I closed my notebook, glanced at the handful of cold, mottled cranberries Vera had deposited on my table in my absence. Outside the window, above the dark treetops of the forest, the sky still had a milky pallor suggestive of the somnolent presence, a few hours' walk away, of the White Sea, where winter already loomed. Vera's house was located at the start of a path that led to the coast by way of thickets and hills. Reflecting on this woman's isolation, her tranquillity, her body (very physically, I imagined a tapered sheath of soft warmth surrounding that female body beneath the covers on a clear night of hoarfrost), I suddenly grasped that no "dialectic of the soul" was capable of telling the secret of this life. A life all too plain and woefully simple compared to these intellectual analyses of mine.
The life of a woman waiting for the one she loved. No other mystery.
The only puzzling but rather trivial element was the mistake I made: following our first encounter at the end of August, which lasted only a few seconds, I had encountered Vera again at the beginning of September. And I had failed to recognize her. I was convinced these were two different women.
Yet both of them struck me as "so intensely destined for happiness ..."
Later, I would get to know the ups and downs of the pathways, the trees' vivid attire, new at every twist in the road, the fleeting curves of the lake, whose shoreline I was soon able to follow with my eyes closed. But on that end-of-summer day, I was only beginning to know the area, taking random walks, happily if uneasily, aware that I might end up discovering an abandoned village within this larch forest, or crossing some half-rotten wooden footbridge like a tightrope walker. In fact, it was at the entrance to an apparently uninhabited village that I saw her.
At first I thought I had surprised a couple making love. Amid the undergrowth covering the shores of the lake, I glimpsed the intense white gleam of a thigh, the curve of a torso straining with effort, I heard breathless panting. The evening was still light, but the sun was low and its raw red streaked the scene with shadow and fire, setting the willow leaves ablaze. At the heart of all this turmoil, a woman's face was suddenly visible, almost grazing the clay soil with her chin, then all at once catapulted backward, amid a wild surge of hair tossed aside. ... The air was hot, sticky. The last heat of the season, an Indian summer, borne there these past few days by the south wind.
I was about to continue on my way when suddenly the branches shook and the woman appeared, inclined her head in a vague greeting, and rapidly straightened up her dress, which had ridden up above her knees. I greeted her awkwardly in turn, unable to form a clear view of her face, on which the glow from the setting sun alternated with stripes of shadow. At her feet, forming a heap like the body of a drowned man, lay the coils of a large fishing net she had just hauled in.
For several seconds we remained rooted to the spot, bound by an ambiguous complicity, like that of a hurried sexual encounter in a risky location or a criminal act. I stared at her bare feet, reddened by the clay, and at the twitching bulk of the net: the greenish bodies of several pike were thrashing about heavily, and at the top, tangled among the floaters, extended the long, almost black curve of what I at first took to be a snake (probably an eel or a young catfish). This mass of cords and fish was slowly draining, water mingled with russet slime flowing toward the lake like a fine trickle of blood. The atmosphere was heavy, as before a storm. The still air imprisoned us in fixed postures, the paralysis of a nightmare. And there was a shared perception, tacit and instinctive, that between this man and this woman, at this red and violent nightfall, anything could happen. Absolutely anything. And there was nothing and no one to prevent it. Their bodies could lie down beside the tangle of the net, melt into one another, take their pleasure, even as the lives trapped in the fishnet breathed their last....
I retreated swiftly, with a feeling that, out of cowardice, I had sidestepped the moment when destiny manifests itself at a particular spot, in a particular face. The moment when fate allows us a glimpse of its hidden tissue of cause and consequence.
A week later, retribution: a northeast wind brought the first snow, as if in revenge for those few days of paradise. A mild retribution, however, in the form of luminous white flurries that induced vertigo, blurring the views of road and field, making people smile, dazzled by endlessly swirling snowflakes. The bitter, tangy air tasted of new hope, the promise of happiness. The squalls hurled volleys of crystals onto the dark surface of the lake, which relentlessly swallowed their fragile whiteness into its depths. But already the shorelines were gleaming with snow, and the muddy scars left on the road by our truck were swiftly bandaged over.
The driver with whom I often traveled from one village to the next used to declare himself, ironically, to be "the first swallow of capitalism." Otar, a Georgian of about forty, had set up a clandestine fur business, been denounced, done time in prison. Now out on parole, he had been given charge of this old truck with worm-eaten side panels here in this northern territory. We were in the mid-seventies, and this "first swallow of capitalism" sincerely believed he had come out of things pretty well. "And what's more," he would often repeat, with shining eyes and a greedy smile, "for every guy up here there are nine chicks."
He talked about women incessantly, lived for women, and I conjectured that even his fur business had had as its object the chance to dress and undress women. Intelligent in fact, and even sensitive, he naturally exaggerated his vocation as a philanderer, knowing that such was the image of Georgians in Russia: lovers obsessed with conquests, monomaniacal about sex, rich, unsophisticated. He acted out this caricature, as foreigners often do when they end up mimicking the tourist cliches of their country of origin. He played to the gallery.
Despite this roleplaying, for him the female body was, naturally, logically, the only thing that made life worthwhile. And it would have been the worst form of torture not to be able to talk about it to a well-disposed confidant. Willy-nilly I had assumed this role. In gratitude, Otar was ready to take me to the North Pole.
In his stories, he somehow or other contrived to avoid repetition. And yet they invariably dealt with women, desired, seduced, possessed. He took them lying down, standing up, hunched up in the cab of his truck, spread-eagled against a cowshed wall as the drowsy beasts chewed their cuds, in a forest glade at the base of an anthill ("We both had our backsides bitten to death by those buggers!"), in steam baths.... His language was both coarse and ornate: he made "that great ass split open like a watermelon," and in the baths "breasts swell up, you know, they really do, like dough rising"; "I shoved her up against a cherry tree. I penetrated her, shook her so hard a whole shitload of cherries showered down on top of us. We were all red with juice...." At heart he was a veritable poet of the flesh, and the sincerity of his passion for the female body rescued his stories from coital monotony.
One day, I was foolish enough to ask him how I could tell whether a woman was ready to accept my advances or not. "If she fucks?" he exclaimed, giving a twist to the steering wheel. "No problem. Just ask her one simple question...." Like a good actor, he let the pause linger, visibly content to be instructing a young simpleton. "All you need to know is this. Does she eat smoked herring?"
"Smoked herring? Why?"
"Here's why: if she eats smoked herring, she gets thirsty...."
"And if she's thirsty, she drinks a lot of water."
"I don't follow."
"Well, if she drinks water, she pisses. Right?"
Excerpted from The WOMAN WHO WAITED by Andrei Makine Copyright © 2004 by Editions du Seuil. Excerpted by permission.
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