We are in the bombed-out Berlin of 1949, after the Second World War, rendered with an atmosphere reminiscent of Orson Welles’ The Third Man. Henri Robin, a special agent of the French secret service, arrives in the ruined former capital to which he feels linked by a vague but recurrent childhood memory. But the real purpose of his mission has not been revealed to him, for his superiors have decided to afford him only as much information as is indispensable for the action expected of his blind loyalty. But nothing is what it seems, and matters do not turn out as anticipated.
Indeed, the events that punctuate the secret agent’s stay in Berlin are liable to abrupt transitions, thrilling and questionable in equal measure: a shooting, a kidnapping, druggings, encounters with pimps and teenage whores, police interrogations, even some elegantly staged torture. These bloody events take place amid thick fog along the city’s canals, and even more mysterious narrative tricks. Robinor is the narrator actually twin brothers?falls in love with a mysterious woman named Jo Kast (a reference to Oedipus’s mother Jocasta). Her teenaged daughter Gegenecke (the German translation of Antigone), a provocative blonde, will form a strange partnership reminiscent of the blind Oedipus led into exile by Antigone. Dupont, the hero of The Erasers, returns here as van Brucke (both names mean “Of the Bridge,” one in French, the other in German). In this astonishing fictional cat-and-mouse game, reminiscent of Daedalus’s labyrinth, nothing that is remembered can be altogether true, but only what is remembered can be real.
Readers of Robbe-Grillet’s novel Erasers will recognize, as the secret agent of Repetition slowly becomes aware that he was in Berlin beforeas a child, with his mother, perhaps looking for his fatherthe same allusions to bits and pieces of the Oedipus story built into the hero’s own. Indeed “erasing” a story by retelling it is the central motif of all Robbe-Grillet’s fiction and films, of which this latest and probably last novel is in many ways the most revealing and triumphant version.
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By Alain Robbe-Grillet
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Alain Robbe-Grillet
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFirst Day
The so-called Henri Robin has awakened very early. It has taken him some time to realize where he is, how long he has been there, and why. He has slept badly, fully dressed, on his improvised mattress, in that room of comfortable dimensions (but presently without a bed and freezing cold), which Kierkegaard had called "the farther bedroom" during the two intervals he spent there: first, his flight after abandoning Regina Olsen in the winter of 1841, and then in hopes of a Berlin "repetition" in the spring of 1843. Stiff from having slept in unwonted positions, Henri Robin experiences some difficulty in standing up. Once this effort is made, he unbuttons and shakes, though without removing, his wrinkled and stiffened fur-lined jacket. He goes to the window (which overlooks the Jägerstrasse and not the Gendarmenplatz) and manages to open the ragged curtains without completely destroying them. The day has just dawned, apparently, which in Berlin at this season must mean it is a little after seven o'clock. But the gray sky is so low this morning that the time cannot be asserted with any certainty: it might also be much later. Attempting to consult his watch, which he has kept on his wrist all night long, HR discovers that it has stopped.... Nothing surprising about that, since he failed to wind it the night before.
Turning toward the table, somewhat better lit now, he realizes immediately that the apartment has been visited while he was asleep: the drawer, pulled wide open, is now empty. Neither the night binoculars, nor the precision pistol, nor the identity card, nor the leather card case with the stained perforations in one corner is there. And on the table, the sheet of paper covered on both sides by his own tiny handwriting has also disappeared. In its place, he discovers an identical blank sheet of the usual commercial dimensions, on which two sentences have been hastily scribbled in tall, slanting letters across the page: "What's done is done.... It would be better, under these conditions, for you to disappear as well, at least for a while." The quite legible signature, "Sterne" (with a final e), is one of the code names used by Pierre Garin.
How did he get in? HR recalls locking the door after the disturbing encounter with the frightened (as well as frightening) old woman, and having then put the key in the drawer. But though he has pulled the drawer all the way open, he sees clearly that it is no longer there. Anxious, fearing (against all reason) being confined, he goes over to the little door with the initials "J.K." on it. Not only is this door no longer locked, it has not even been closed: the latch is merely resting in its groove, allowing a few millimeters' play, without engaging the dead bolt. As for the key, it is no longer in the lock. One explanation seems obvious: Pierre Garin had a duplicate key, which he used to enter the apartment, and upon leaving he took both keys. But what for?
HR then becomes conscious of a vague headache, which has grown much worse since he awakened and is no help to his reasoning or his speculations. He feels, as a matter of fact, even more bewildered than yesterday evening, as if the water drunk from the faucet had contained some drug or other. And if it was a sedative, he might well have slept more than twenty-four hours at a stretch without any means of knowing it. Of course, it is no easy thing to poison a sink; some system of running water outside the public services would be necessary, with an individual reservoir (which moreover would account for the feeble water pressure he had noticed). On reflection, it would seem still stranger that the city water should have been turned back on in this partially destroyed apartment building, in a sector of the city abandoned to vagabonds and rats (as well as assassins).
Whatever the case, an artificially induced sleep would make more comprehensible this troubling phenomenon, which does not accord with experience: that a nocturnal intrusion would not have awakened the sleeper. The latter, in hopes of reestablishing normal activity in his confused brain, as benumbed as his joints are stiff, goes over to the sink to douse his face with cold water. Unfortunately, the faucet handles turn loosely this morning, without a single drop emerging from the faucets. In fact, the whole plumbing system seems to have been dry for a long time.
Ascher-as his colleagues in the central service have nicknamed him by pronouncing his name "Achères," a small commune of the Seine-et-Oise where the supposedly secret service he belongs to is located-Ascher (which in German means "a man the color of ashes") raises his face toward the cracked mirror above the sink. He scarcely recognizes himself: his features are blurred, his hair mussed, and his false mustache is no longer in place; loosened on the right side, it now slants a little. Instead of gluing it back, he decides to remove it completely; all things considered, the thing is more ridiculous than effective. He looks at himself again, amazed to see this anonymous, characterless countenance, despite a more radical dissymmetry than usual. He takes a few hesitant, clumsy steps, and then decides to check the contents of his big dispatch case, which he empties entirely, object by object, on the table of this inhospitable room where he has slept. Nothing seems to be missing, and the careful arrangement of things is precisely the one he himself had determined.
The false bottom doesn't seem to have been opened, the fragile indicators are intact, and, inside the secret chamber, his two other passports are still waiting. He leafs through them with no specific intention. One is made out in the name of Franck Matthieu, the other to Boris Wallon. Both of them include photographs with no mustache, real or false. Perhaps the image of the so-called Wallon corresponds better to what has appeared in the mirror, after the suppression of the false mustache. Ascher therefore puts this new document, for which all the necessary visas are the same, in his inside jacket pocket, from which he removes the Henri Robin passport, which he inserts under the false bottom of the dispatch case, alongside Franck Matthieu. Then he puts everything back in its place, adding on top the message from Pierre Garin which had been left on the table: "What's done is done.... It would be better...."
Ascher also takes advantage of the occasion to remove his comb from the toilet kit, and without even turning back to the mirror, summarily runs it through his hair, though avoiding too studied an appearance, which would scarcely resemble the photograph of Boris Wallon. After glancing around the room as if he were afraid of forgetting something, he leaves the apartment, returning the little door to precisely the position in which Pierre Garin had left it, some five millimeters ajar.
At this moment, he hears a noise in the apartment opposite, and it occurs to him to ask the old woman if the house has any running water. Why should he be afraid to do so? But as he is about to knock on her wooden door, a storm of imprecations suddenly explodes inside, in a guttural German, not at all like the Berlin dialect, in which he nonetheless identifies the word Mörder, which is repeated several times, shouted louder and louder. Ascher seizes his heavy dispatch case by its leather handle and begins hurriedly though carefully descending the darkened stairs, holding on to the banister as he had done the night before.
Perhaps because of the weight of his bag, the strap of which he has now slung over his left shoulder, the Friedrichstrasse seems longer than he could have believed; and of course, emerging in the midst of the ruins, the rare structures-still standing, but damaged and restored with many temporary stopgaps-include no café or inn where he might find some comfort, if only a glass of water. There is not the slightest shop of any kind in sight, nothing anywhere but iron shutters which must not have been raised for several years. And no one appears the whole length of the street, nor in the cross-streets, which seem similarly ruined and deserted. Yet the few fragments of repaired apartment buildings which remain are doubtless inhabited, since he can make out motionless figures looking down from their windows behind the dirty panes at this strange, solitary traveler, whose slender silhouette advances along the roadway without a car on it, between the patches of wall and the piles of rubbish, a shiny black leather dispatch case, unusually thick and stiff, slung from his shoulder and knocking against one hip, obliging the man to bend his back under his incongruous burden.
Ascher finally reaches the guard post, ten yards in front of the bristling barbed-wire barriers which mark the border. He presents the Boris Wallon passport, of which the German sentry on duty examines the photograph, then the visa of the Democratic Republic, and then that of the Federal Republic. The man in uniform, closely resembling a German soldier of the last war, remarks in an inquisitorial tone of voice that the stamps are correct, but that one essential detail is missing: the entry stamp for the territory of the Democratic Republic. The traveler, in his turn, examines the offending page, pretends to look for this stamp-which, of course, has no chance of appearing by some miracle-explains that he arrived by taking the official Bad Ersfeld-Eisenach corridor (an assertion partially accurate), and ends by suggesting that a hurried or incompetent Thuringian soldier doubtless neglected to stamp it at the time, either because he had forgotten to do so or else because he had no more ink.... Ascher speaks fluently, if approximately, uncertain whether the sentry follows his convolutions, though that seems unimportant to him. Isn't the main thing to seem comfortable, relaxed, even casual?
"Kein Eintritt, kein Austritt!" the sentry interrupts laconically, a logical and stubborn man. Boris Wallon searches his inside pockets, as if hoping to find another document. The soldier comes nearer, showing a sort of interest whose meaning Wallon can guess. He removes his billfold from his jacket and opens it. The sentry immediately realizes that the banknotes are West German marks. A greedy, cunning smile enlightens his features, hitherto so disagreeable. "Zwei hundert," he announces quite simply. Two hundred deutsche mark is quite a lot for a few more or less illegible figures and letters, which appear moreover on the papers made out to Henri Robin, carefully secreted in the false bottom of the dispatch case. But there is no longer any other solution. The faulty traveler therefore returns his passport to the zealous sentry, after having obviously slipped in the two big coupons required. The soldier instantly vanishes inside the rudimentary police office, a prefabricated booth precariously perched among the ruins.
It is only after a rather long while that he comes back out and hands his Reisepass to the anxious traveler, whom he gratifies with a vaguely socialist but more likely a somewhat national salute, while explaining: "Alles in Ordnung." Wallon glances at the offending page of the visa and observes that it now includes an entry stamp and an exit one as well, dated the same day and the same hour, two minutes apart, and at the same checkpoint. He salutes in his turn with a half-extended hand and an emphatic "Danke!" careful to preserve his serious expression.
On the other side of the border there is no problem. The soldier is a young and jovial G.I. with a crew cut and horn-rimmed glasses, who speaks French with almost no accent. After a quick glance at the passport, he merely asks the traveler if he is a relative of Henri Wallon the historian, the Father of the Constitution. "He was my grandfather," Ascher answers calmly, with a perceptible tremor of emotion in his voice. So now he is in the American zone, contrary to what he had imagined, having doubtless confused the city's two airports, Tegel and Tempelhof. As a matter of fact, the French zone of occupation must be located much farther north.
The Friedrichstrasse then continues straight ahead in the same direction, as far as the Mehringplatz and the Landwehrkanal, but here everything seems to belong to another world. Of course, there are still ruins, almost everywhere, but their density is less overwhelming. This sector must have been less systematically bombed than the center of town, as well as less ardently defended, stone by stone, than the iconic buildings of the regime. Moreover, the cleanup of the remains of the cataclysm is virtually complete here. Many repairs have been carried to their conclusion, and reconstruction of the razed apartment blocks seems well on its way. The pseudo-Wallon, too, feels suddenly different: lighthearted, idle, as though on vacation. Around him, on the recently washed sidewalks, are people going about their ordinary tasks or else hurrying toward specific goals, reasonable and everyday concerns. A few automobiles roll calmly by, keeping to the right on the highway now cleared of all debris, generally the wrecks of military vehicles.
Making his way into the huge square which bears the name, so unexpected in this sector, of Franz Mehring, founder with Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacist movement, Boris Wallon immediately notices a sort of large popular brasserie where he can finally drink a cup of coffee, excessively diluted in the American style, and ask directions. The address he is looking for offers no difficulties: he must follow the Landwehrkanal to the left toward Kreuzburg, which the navigable canal crosses at several points. Feldmesserstrasse, which runs perpendicular to it, again on the left, corresponds to a dead-end branch of this same canal, known as the Defense, from which it is separated by a short iron bridge that used to be a drawbridge but has long been out of commission. The street actually consists of the two rather narrow quays, accessible to automobile traffic nonetheless, which line each side of the long-stagnant pool to which the abandoned hulls of old wooden barges add a melancholy, nostalgic charm. The rough paving of the quays, without sidewalks, emphasize this atmosphere of a vanished world.
The houses lining each side are low and vaguely countrified, most with only one story. They appear to date from the end of the last century or the beginning of this one and have been almost completely spared by the war. Just at the corner of the Defense Canal and its unnavigable arm stands a sort of villa of no particular style but which nonetheless suggests comfort and even a certain old-fashioned luxury. A solid iron fence lined on the inside by a thick privet hedge trimmed to a man's height makes it impossible to get a view of the ground floor and the narrow strip of garden surrounding the entire structure.
Excerpted from Repetition by Alain Robbe-Grillet Copyright © 2003 by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Excerpted by permission.
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