"History is a bitch. She has taken everything from me. My children. My parents. My great, true love. My cats. I don’t understand the stupid veneration that the human race feels for her."Aged 105, Rose has endured more than her fair share of hardships: the Armenian genocide, the Nazi regime, and the delirium of Maoism. Yet somehow, despite all the suffering, Rose never loses her joie de vivre. As she looks back over her long life—one of survival and, sometimes, one of retribution—she recalls those unique experiences that added such spice to her life, whether it was being a confidante to Hitler, a friend to Simone de Beauvoir or cooking for Heinrich Himmler.
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About the Author
Franz-Olivier Giesbert is a French author, journalist and television presenter. He has worked for Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Figaro and Le Point and is the author of The American: A Memoir.
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Under the Sign of the Virgin
Marseilles, 2012. I kissed the letter and then I crossed my fingers, my forefinger and my middle finger, hoping it would be good news. I'm very superstitious, it's my little weakness.
The letter had been posted in Cologne, in Germany, as the postmark on the stamp told me, and the sender had written her name on the back: Renate Fröll.
My heart began beating very fast. I was happy and anxious at the same time. At my age, when you've survived everyone else, getting a personal letter is bound to be a great event.
After deciding not to open the letter until later, so as to maintain the excitement of its arrival for as long as possible, I kissed the envelope again. On the back this time.
There are days when I feel like kissing everything, plants and furniture, anything, but I take care not to. I don't want people thinking I'm a daft old biddy and likely to scare children. At the age of nearly 105 I have only a thin little thread of a voice left, three sound teeth, an expression like an owl, and I can't smell violets.
When it comes to cooking, however, I still know my way around. I may even call myself one of the queens of Marseilles, only just behind the other Rose, a slip of a girl aged only eighty-eight who makes wonderful Sicilian dishes in the Rue Glandevès, not far from the Municipal Opera House.
But as soon as I leave my restaurant to walk in the city streets I feel that I'm frightening people. There's only one place where, apparently, my presence does not seem out of place, and that's at the top of the limestone hill from which the gilded statue of Our Lady of the Guard seems to preach love to the universe, the sea and the city of Marseilles.
Mamadou takes me there and brings me home on the back of his motorbike. He's a tall, strapping lad, my right-hand man in the restaurant, where he keeps the place tidy, helps with the cash register, and takes me everywhere on that stinking motorbike of his. I like to feel the nape of his neck against my lips.
During the weekly closing of my restaurant, on Sunday afternoon and all day Monday, I can sit for hours on my bench in the sun as it beats down on my skin. Inside my head, I talk to all the dead whom I have lost and shall soon be seeing again in heaven. A friend I've lost sight of liked to say that they were much better company than the living. She was right: not only are they never in a bad temper, they have all the time in the world. They listen to me. They calm me down.
At my great age, I have discovered that people are much more alive in you once they're dead. So dying does not mean the end; on the contrary, it means rebirth in other people's minds.
At midday, when the sun gets out of control and cuts me under my black widow's garments as if with a knife, or even worse a pickaxe, I get up and go into the shade of the basilica.
I kneel in front of the silver Virgin who dominates the altar and pretend to be praying, and then I sit down and have a little snooze. God knows why, but I sleep better there than anywhere. Perhaps because the loving look of the statue soothes me. The silly shouts and laughter of the tourists don't bother me, and nor do the bells. It's true that I am terribly tired, as if I were always coming back from a long journey. When I have told you my story you will know why, but then again my story is nothing, or nothing to speak of: a tiny splash in the mire of history where we all paddle, as it pulls us down into the depths from century to century.
History is a bitch. She has taken everything from me. My children. My parents. My great, true love. My cats. I don't understand the stupid veneration that the human race feels for her.
I am very glad that History has gone away, after all the damage she's done. But I know she will be back soon; I feel it in the electricity in the air and the dark looks of people's eyes. It's the destiny of the human species to let stupidity and hatred guide its way through the charnel houses that generations before us have never stopped filling.
Human beings are like beasts in the slaughterhouse. They go to meet their fate, eyes cast down, looking neither ahead of them nor behind them. They don't know what awaits them, they don't want to know, although nothing would be easier: the future is a return, a hiccup, it's like heartburn, it's sometimes the vomit of the past coming up again.
For a long time I tried to warn humanity against the three vices of our time: nihilism, cupidity and a good conscience. The three of them have turned our brains. I've tried it with my neighbours, particularly the butcher's apprentice on the same floor as me, a pale and puny lad with the hands of a pianist, but I can see that I'm only annoying him with the drivel I talk, and when I meet him on the stairs I have more than once grabbed hold of his sleeve to keep him from getting away. He always claims to agree with me, but I know very well he agrees only so that I'll leave him alone.
It's the same with everyone. Over the last fifty years I've never found anyone who will listen to me. I realized I was fighting a losing battle, and ended up keeping my mouth shut until the day when I broke my mirror. All my life I'd managed never to break a mirror, but that morning, as I looked at the splintered glass on the bathroom tiles, I realized that I'd attracted bad luck. I even thought I wouldn't last the summer, which would be only normal at my age.
When you tell yourself that you're going to die, and there's no one to keep you company, not even a dog or a cat, there's only one thing to be done: you have to make yourself interesting. I decided to write my memoirs, and I went to buy four spiral-bound notebooks at Madame Mandonato's bookshop and stationer's. Madame Mandonato is a well-preserved sixty-year-old, I call her 'the old lady', and she is one of the most cultured women in Marseilles. When I was about to pay her for the notebooks, I could see that something was bothering her, so I pretended to be looking for change to give her time to decide how to put her question.
'What are you going to do with those?'
'Well, write a book, of course!'
'Yes, but what kind of book?'
I hesitated, and then I said, 'All kinds of books at once, my dear. A book in celebration of love, a book to warn mankind of the dangers we're running. So that we will never live through what I have lived through again.'
'There are a great many books on that subject already.'
'Then we must assume that they haven't been very convincing. Mine will be the story of my life. I already have a title: One Hundred Years Old and Going Strong.'
'That's a good title, Rose. People love anything to do with centenarians. It's a market growing very fast just now – there will soon be millions of them. The thing about such books is that they're written by people who laugh at themselves.'
'Well, in my own memoirs I shall try to show that we're not dead while we're still alive, and we still have something to say.'
So I write in the morning, but also in the evening, in front of a small glass of red wine. I moisten my lips with the wine from time to time, just for the pleasure of it, and when I'm short of inspiration I drink a mouthful to get my ideas back.
That evening it was after midnight when I decided to interrupt my writing. I didn't wait to be in bed, ready for my night's rest, before opening the missive I had found in the letter box in the morning. I don't know whether it was age or emotion, but my hands were shaking so much that I tore the envelope in several places while I was opening it. And when I'd read what the contents said I felt faint and my brain stopped short.
Samir the Mouse
Marseilles, 2012. A few seconds after I came back to my senses, a song began running through my head: 'Can You Feel It' by the Jackson 5. Michael at his best, with a true pure child's voice, not yet the tone of a self-satisfied castrato. My favourite song.
I was feeling fine, as I always do when I hum it. They say that after a certain age, if you wake up and you don't hurt all over it means you're dead. I have evidence to the contrary.
Coming back to myself after my fainting fit, I didn't hurt anywhere and I wasn't dead or even injured.
Like everyone of my age, I dread breaking something that might condemn me to a wheelchair. I particularly dread breaking my hip. But I hadn't done it this time.
I had foreseen what might happen: before reading the letter I had sat down on the sofa. When I lost consciousness I had, naturally, fallen backwards with my head on a soft cushion.
Once again I glanced at the card that I was still holding before swearing, 'Fucking filthy bloody shit of a brothel!' The card announced the death of Renate Fröll, who therefore couldn't have sent it. She had died four months ago and had been cremated in Cologne. There were no further details on the card, and no address or telephone number.
I began crying. I think I must have cried all night, because next morning I woke up drenched with tears, my sheets, my pillow and my nightdress all making a kind of soup. It was time for me to go into action.
I had an intuition, and I wanted to confirm it. I called one of my young neighbours on his mobile: Samir the Mouse. Samir is the son of a septuagenarian who, they say, has spent his entire professional life unemployed. He's done very well at it, he's a very handsome man, neat and clean and immaculately dressed. His wife, the family cashier and cleaning lady, is twenty years younger than him and looks at least ten years older: she's crippled with arthritis and limps up and down the stairs. But it's true that she has always worked hard enough for the two of them.
Samir the Mouse is thirteen, and he already has the keen eye of someone hunting down the big bonuses of life. Nothing escapes him. It's as if he has eyes everywhere, even in his back and his bottom. Not that he makes much use of them. He spends his time in front of his computer, where he can find out anything you want in record time for a consideration, cash down. A price, a name, a number.
Scenting good business, Samir arrived at once, even though he's not a morning person. I handed him the death announcement.
'I'd like you to find out all the information you can about this Renate Fröll for me.'
'What kind of information?'
'Anything, from her birth to her death. Her family, what she did for a living, her little secrets. Her life, if you see what I mean.'
As Samir the Mouse is neither a poet nor a philanthropist, I offered him the little cabinet from the sitting room. He inspected it and asked, 'Is this thing really old?'
'I'll look on the Internet and see what something like that's worth, and I'll come back to you if it doesn't work out right. But I guess it will be okay.'
I offered him chocolate biscuits and a drink with one of my own favourite flavourings – barley water, mint or grenadine – but he turned them down, as if those were not for him at his age, whereas they are more to my own taste then ever.
Samir the Mouse always has good reasons to leave me high and dry. He's snowed under with work and doesn't know how to take his time. If I've never managed to keep him with me for more than a few minutes, then that is also, I think, because he has some idea of what I feel for him: in spite of the difference in our ages I'm mad about him.
In two or three years' time, or whenever the man has emerged from the child he is now, he'll be all hair and mixed-up desires, I'll wish he would take me in his arms and hug me close, say crude things to me, shake me up a little, that's all I ask. At my age, I know it's incongruous, even stupid, but if we had to rid our heads of all our fantasies, there wouldn't be much left inside them. A few of the Ten Commandments swimming in brainjuice, that would be about it. Life would be on the point of dying out. It's our follies that keep us going.
My principle is to live every moment as if it were my last. Every gesture, every word. I intend to die with my mind at rest, no regrets, no remorse.
Next evening, I was in my nightdress and ready to go to bed when the doorbell rang. It was Samir the Mouse. I thought he was going to ask me for more money, but no; he'd been working all day and wanted to tell me the first results of his inquiries face-to-face.
'Renate Fröll,' he said, 'was a pharmacist in Neuwied near Cologne. A spinster, nothing known about her parents. No family. That's all I could find out. I suppose you don't have a lead for me to follow?'
I thought I detected irony in his glance as it went through me.
'Think about it,' I replied in a neutral voice. 'If I knew who this woman was, I wouldn't have asked you to look into it for me.'
'But if you didn't have some idea at the back of your mind, you wouldn't care about knowing who she was.'
I didn't reply. Samir the Mouse was happy to have guessed right; an expression of satisfaction crossed his face. With increasing age I have more and more difficulty in hiding my feelings, and he had noticed the emotion that overcame me when he told me the first results of his enquiries. They bore out my intuition. I was like the earth waiting for a quake or some such upheaval.
When he had left I was so excited that I couldn't get to sleep. It was as if all my memories had come back to me. I felt caught in a whirlpool of images and sensations from the past.
I decided to go back to my book. Up to this point I had been the one who was writing it. But now, suddenly, a voice entered my mind, and it dictated what will follow.
The Girl Born in the Cherry Tree
The Black Sea, 1907. I was born in a tree on 18 July, seven years after the birth of the century, which in principle ought to have been a sign of good fortune. It was a cherry tree a hundred years old, with branches like heavy, weary arms. I was born on a market day. Papa had gone to sell his oranges and vegetables in Trebizond, the old capital of the empire of the same name on the shores of the Black Sea, a few kilometres from our home in Kovata, the pear-growing capital and piss-pot of the world.
Before leaving for town, he had told my mother that he didn't think he'd be able to get home that evening, and he was very sorry, because Mama seemed to be on the point of giving birth, but he had no choice: he had to get a bad tooth drawn, and he was also going to collect some money that an uncle owed him. After that, evening would soon come on, and the roads were not safe at night.
I think he was also planning a drinking session with some friends, but he had nothing to worry about anyway. Mama was like those sheep who go on grazing as they give birth to their lambs. They hardly stop eating and chewing the cud, even to lick clean the lambs that have just emerged from their backsides. When they give birth you'd think they were merely obeying a call of nature, and indeed it sometimes looks as if the latter process gives them more trouble.
My mother was a robust woman with big bones and a pelvis wide enough to let any number of children out. She gave birth easily, never taking more than a few seconds about it, and then, once the baby was out, Mama went back to whatever she had been doing. At the age of twenty-eight she'd already had four children, not counting the two who had died very young.
On the day of my birth, the three men who were to ravage the human race were already in this world: Hitler was eighteen years old, Stalin was twenty-eight and Mao was thirteen. I had fallen into the wrong century – theirs.
Fall was the word for it. One of our cats had climbed the cherry tree and couldn't get down again. Perched on a broken branch, it mewed pitifully all day long. Just before sunset, when Mama realized that my father wouldn't be back that night, she decided to rescue the cat.
After climbing the tree and reaching out her arm to pick the cat up, my mother, so the family legend goes, felt her first contraction. She took hold of the animal by the scruff of the neck, let it go a few branches lower down, and then suddenly, seized by a presentiment, lay down in the crook of the cherry tree where the branches intersected. And that was how I came into the world, tumbling out of her.
For the fact is that, before I fell, I had also been ejected from my mother's womb. She might have been farting or defecating, I think it would have come to much the same thing. Except that then Mama caressed me and lavished endearments on me. She was a woman overflowing with love, even for her daughters.
Forgive me for this image, but it's the first thing that comes to my mind and I can't get rid of it: her maternal glance was like a sun lighting us all up. It warmed our winters. My mother's face wore the same sweet expression as the face of the gilded Virgin enthroned on her altar in the little church of Kovata. The expression on the faces of all the mothers in the world as they look at their children.
Excerpted from "Himmler's Cook"
Copyright © 2013 Éditions Gallimard.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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