A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
An Electric Review Best Book of the Year
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It's 1999 and Emile Poulquet awaits sentencing in a Paris court for deporting thousands to almost certain death during World War II. But, haunted by ghosts from his former life, and determined to confront his dark legacy, he escapes and heads toward his beloved Finier, a rural town in the south of France where he once served as prefect. His return will have explosive consequences.
By turns reflective and slyly humorous, Crawl Space poignantly describes one man's tragic attempt to come to terms with the past.
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By Edie Meidav
Picador USACopyright © 2006 Edie Meidav
All right reserved.
Chapter OneYou think you know me and still my name slips away on your tongue. You've probably seen me countless times, but you never noticed. There has been surgery on my face, yes, to disguise me. Yet I live in your pile of clippings, I exist in your mind as a niggling question, a thing troubling your sleep certain nights. I understand your dilemma. You would not give it the importance of a dilemma but having been on your side, I understand how denial becomes an easier route.
In school, they taught us that the ninth century considered the devil to be in charge of bad timing. Here at the end of the twentieth century, people say the devil is capable of taking up permanent residence in certain people, thousands simultaneously, including within my former colleagues. Many have also hinted that the devil lives in me, just as my own father believed.
What I mean is that if my father still lived and you had the chance to ask him, he would say the hump on my face, no longer there of course, was the first sign of badness-my hump which caused such suffering in my early years, even after my father grew quite obsessed with my disfigurement and had the thing sliced off, believing the hump both caused and flaunted my innate evil.
Hump or no hump, I still think timing matters mostwhen deciding what is evil. You can't have a belief without having been influenced by timing. My father was influenced by his era, I by mine. If nowadays anyone thinks the devil is in charge of bad timing, wouldn't I at this late date be excused for having been born too early or too late? An accident: can a lone human misfire, timing his birth wrong? My guess is the ninth century might have been kinder to me. Now people tend to think the devil is in charge of many departments. As they say, the devil is a multitasker. Despite my advanced age, I have heard that word, as I have heard so many words, all those young and unhappy modern words used against me.
I MEANT TO LEAVE the cafi but I could not stop listening to the men discussing their ideas about timing and immorality, all of which sparked my own thoughts. The inspector-the others called him Louzange-thought the Turkish biker they'd found fornicating with a local girl on the side of the road was merely a victim of bad timing. Louzange had pretended to issue the biker a summons for unlawful congress in public spaces. Of course, this was an invented ticket. Louzange had considered how to phrase the infraction while walking toward the twosome, as the local girl ran away and the biker tried to zip up the leather britches which covered only one leg, the other one swathed in a shocking hiplength plaster cast.
"I walked toward him," said Louzange. He had the thick accent of someone who had rarely fled the eastern valleys of our region, his French a guttural burr. "Already his oddness struck me." Louzange had thought, at first, that the back in its heaving was caught in the terror of an epileptic fit.
His associate, more rough-hewn, sniggered at this. "When you got out of the car, you asked for a tongue-guard."
Louzange was a neatly calibrated man, a man I might have worked with in my heyday. "It was not wrong for me to have thought that, Tissan."
"Okay," said his associate. "But an epileptic fit it was not. More like Bronco Bill, you know?"
"I gave him a fake ticket. He should have gotten a real ticket," said Louzange. "Not because he had bad timing and we happened to see him. It is that people should not think that France can be the playground for their immorality. We French have never been prudes, yes, but we cannot be the toilet for all Europe!"
They had opened the man's briefcase. Predictably, the biker had sworn at them. His French had been quite capable. In the man's briefcase were letters neatly addressed to and received from the one hotel in the region, which tended to suck all visitors toward its ancient heart.
"What would you expect?" asked the bartender, his first words, such an attentive listener that he'd already dropped and broken one wineglass.
Indeed, what would one expect? The hotel-the Hotel Fauret in Finier, or, rather, the lady who'd married into the Fauret family-had played too large a role in my life, not to mention in my current trek. It appeared that once again I wasn't going to be able to choose the details of our encounter. Never mind how sweet the town of Finier was to me and how long it had lurked, whether as backdrop to my childhood dreams, student years in Paris, or my more recent time in a holding cell. This hovering (the town's, yes, but also the Fauret lady's) had made me decide I needed, for once and for all, to return to the arena for those dreams. I would give that lady something she wouldn't forget, presenting myself as I am: one more unjew jewed by history.
It is much harder to stay and fight than it is to merely flee. If I could just get into those pale hands my last will and testament, which would amount to the correct version of history, this heroism alone would, I thought, accomplish something. Anyone could see how much the Fauret lady had done. Worse than bad timing, almost my whole life, she had distorted my prospects.
Poulquet, come back. It was not Arianne Fauret's voice that spoke to me but the voice of the place, ever since my first exile and return. What was there not to like about Finier? The town with its chateau and two rivers: one a lisping froth, stinging the mountains, a viper's reddish tongue, the other rolling toward Spain, far more ripe and calm. In the early mornings the whole setting was so pristine that it is little wonder our town was so frequently compared to the Rhineland.
IT WAS FROM 1940 until 1945 that I'd overseen the prefecture of Finier, the offices which manage the entire region. Though I felt myself to be something of a partial suicide, I had decided to return to Finier in 1960 for a brief spell. Disguised by some minor surgery on my face, I thought my return a feasible solution to being in exile. For a month, long as I could bear it, I served as janitor at the prefecture, before I needed again to flee into a new and more waterproof series of aliases, disguises, noms de guerre, the slippery welcome of other nations.
Here in 1999, I was back again in Finier, having traveled, having been only briefly imprisoned, released on a technicality, face operated upon again, and having lost only a bit of what many had long called my unusual physical heartiness. For despite everything, I remained, at eighty-four years of age, a time when most set their dimming eyes upon some horizon of diminished movement, failed kidneys and sluggish circulation, a hearty physical specimen, one still complimented (if I ever came to having much discourse with others) as being cool-tempered, iron-nerved, articulate, strangely able to summon help from aristocratic quarters. I was still a man with an elegance others called, if spruced up a bit, patrician.
I may have been born with a lump on my face, but my genes had played a fool's game with me, composing me of an appallingly strong stock. This-in addition to my half-century's practice of choosing all food via the swing of a pendulum, a trusty device which I kept in my pocket, a bit grime-covered but nonetheless a pendulum capable of steering me toward both correct comestibles and decisions-has kept me intact.
Admittedly, it sounds odd, but there is a wonderful simplicity to the pendulum: one direction swings toward YES, one toward NO. Thus, one knows not only what to eat, but what to do, whom to consider an ally and so forth. One might find it strange that I have trusted such a simple device, but mortality statistics state the case. My wartime colleagues had long died out, either at their own hands or succumbing to that strange catalogue, the ills of senescence a flipped mirror of a baby's development: loss of speech and dignity, the slide toward drooling dementia. Or else they'd surrendered to ills taken from a catalogue asymmetrical to a baby's: catarrh and hemorrhoids, cirrhosis or dependence, pneumonia, incontinence, despair. And there I was, thanks to the pendulum. True, not robust anymore, but undemented, fairly undespairing. At times, one might even find me lamenting how whole body and mind remained, how unabated remained my instinct for self-preservation. Most recently, I'd witnessed my own surprising ability to perform some fancy footwork, escaping from my trial virtually unchallenged (if one didn't examine certain protesters too closely).
Perhaps now, yes, at eighty-four I was a bit less impervious to cold, slower up a hill, and then more likely to doze off wherever I arrived, enduring both sore bones and a startle of memory as I awoke. It is also true that whenever I slept the night in an odd bonte, I could tend toward insomnia, leaving me a wreck of a human the next day. Worst of all, my eyesight had begun to turn life's lovelier sights into watery dabblings, doubled, lacking firm outline. But still! No need for any of those accoutrements of old age, the hearing aid, bottle-thick spectacles, a decorated cane, a catheter somewhat hidden, the diapers fairly unignorable. Since I was a child first hearing the sphinx's question about the four ages of man, I'd hoped to escape the terminus: there was the baby who crawls on all fours, the whimsical adult moving about on two, the dodderer with three legs, one of them being his cane, and the last, the dead man, lacking need for legs. And my childish fears seemed to have borne fruit. By some whimsical moral organizing force-I do not say God-I seemed destined to remain, indefinitely, in the age of the bipedal.
And though some have said I must have been born with a questionable morality, if vim had been sapped in one particular department, other vigor must have then been rewarded to my physical being and opportunism, as well as to whatever force my pendulum channeled. It was also true that I had a pacemaker, which, to use the parlance of this age, kept my heart unnaturally hopped up. And further, that because I had upon me what would probably be my ultimate disguise, the scars of my most recent operation, I may have looked younger than I am, the hypodermic collagen and suturing of this era one of its sole advantages. Yet it was true that the sheer melancholy of being myself at eighty-four couldn't wholly escape me.
For all that, if appetite is what defines the young, and the tempering of appetite is what defines the aged, I remained a young man most especially in this regard: ridiculous and foolhardy as it was, I starved for the town of Finier, I thirsted for it. About Finier I cannot be agnostic. It is a fact of our land, as much as our rivers flowing down from the Pyrinies.
SO IT WAS that at the Bomont station cafi, eavesdropping on the inspector and his cronies and the foreigner they'd stumbled across, I could not help but lean in to listen to the men speaking of the biker's destination: my old hotel, the Hotel Fauret.
Here the bartender interrupted them again. "Your Turkish biker? You're wrong about him, by the way. That guy in the leather pants and the huge leg-cast? He comes in here sometimes. Doesn't leave a crumb behind. Some people think he's a journalist. Or I've heard he works out of some institute in Paris. But I think-"
Louzange cut in. "Well," drawling, a consider-the-facts tone, one I would've commended had he worked in my bureau. "Who did you hear talking about him? Journalists? Common people? Civil servants?"
"All." The bartender ducked his head as if to assuage Louzange that no oneupmanship had been intended. "This isn't my field, you know. Get me on the subject of fingerprints on glasses, though, I'm your man."
Louzange nodded, serve taken, sliding smoothly on, turning to the topic of the biker's passport. Samuel Varden Panir's occupation ostensibly that of a journalist, the pages impregnated with the inks of many countries. Turkey. Also the United States, Israel, Bosnia, Nicaragua. It was an American passport, though the man, to Louzange's mind, was clearly Turkish, given his name.
"Samuel Varden Panir? I'd say just a careless man," said Louzange, a professional, summing up the case. "The guy must be a travel writer. We're used to these fellows, aren't we? They come for our beautiful Pyrinienne roads. Or he's from one of those American biker clubs."
"They only know their j'aime les femmes and j'aime les frites," his associate breathed, performing a passable imitation of the bikers' bad cowboy French, this man who'd been called Tissan as he'd entered, who'd announced that he was on to vermouth before ten in the morning on a Saturday and was proud of this fact. Not only did my situation prohibit me from looking at these men too directly, I didn't want to. Over one of Tissan's eyes was a whitened caul, a disfigurement I found as unattractive as prominent veins under a rolled-up tongue. "Bikers like to stand outside our markets drinking warm orangina and beer. Mixed."
"Basically, if I may?" said Louzange. "They are outlaws. They think that in our mountains, our solitude, if they can just look out on our farmland and breathe our good air, they're going to find something." He went on to describe the bikes, so adolescent and bulging, as if the bikes themselves were made up of Adam's apples.
"The biking clubs attract outlaws but you know," said the bartender, clearly fancying himself a barroom egghead, "those types just want to feel they can get in on some family will. They like to think nature belongs to them."
"No," said Louzange. "They like to think France belongs to them."
He withdrew from his satchel a notebook, neatly imprinted with the insignia of the Bomont football team, and notated his insight.
"That girl," Tissan was sniggering again. "The brunette with the Turkish biker? Barely legal. Not half-bad." And with his fingers formed a circle which I found rather crude.
FOR ALL THEIR TALK of identity, none of the men had made much note of me as they'd entered the cafi. To them, whatever hostesses and superiors had once frequently seen in me (elegant, iron-nerved Emile), I was just a Saturday-morning drifter, one of many grizzled bushels one sees in France. The bushels are men who brandish certain talismans to show they belong. They wear special raincoats, favor certain cafis, smoke fancy cigarettes. When it rains in Paris, the bushels frequent late-afternoon cinemas. In my own day, I too would have ignored the man I have become. I believed no Saturday-morning cafi denizen would recognize me, given all the work done on my face since the time I had to go undercover, not to mention the most recent work, still smarting at the seams. First off, as I said, I looked much younger than I was. To these people, priding themselves on their perspicacity, I was just a bushel with a bad sunburn, flared veins, imminent skin cancers. Thus, when Louzange began to speak of the Turkish biker, of the bike stickers proclaiming I LOVE TRUCKEE, USA, I began to feel self-disgust, unable to hide how my smell had become noxious even to me. For days, ever since I'd decided to flee my Paris doctor friend's apartment (a choice which also stripped me of the comfortable alias of a man named David Modine), I had been unable to shave. So in their gaze, these fellows shared breathing space with a random old man, nothing to which one had to pay too much attention. While my own sense was that I was made of the same decent tissue and bones as they were. Haunted by a particular lady, yes, wanting to lay history on her doorstep, a man recently tending to err on the side of sincerity-but a human constituted as they were, a fellow wishing to get home to set a few things straight.
Excerpted from Crawl Space by Edie Meidav Copyright © 2006 by Edie Meidav. Excerpted by permission.
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