Rico has been banished to society’s margins; he has neither a roof over his head nor a steady income on which to depend. When a friend and fellow vagabond dies of exposure after a night spent in the Paris metro, Rico decides to flee the northern cold for his beloved south, for Marseilles and the warmth of the Mediterranean. Diverted and hindered along the way, he suffers the vagaries of human cruelty and pettiness, and is warmed by occasional, fleeting instances of human tenderness. His return to the Mediterranean is simultaneously a homecoming and a pilgrimage in search of lost love, innocence, and humanity.
From the celebrated author of the Marseilles trilogy, this is both an affecting on-the-road novel and a tender exploration of love’s power to both heal and destroy.
“Our last true romantic, Jean-Claude Izzo transmits warmth to his readers, as if granting them a mouthful of pure love. A Sun for the Dying is beautiful, like a black sun, tragic and desperate.” —Le Point (France)
“Like a chanson by Jacques Brel or Charles Aznavour, Izzo’s harsh, honed prose perfectly embodies that Gallic genius for balancing bleak unsentimentality with intense, frank emotion, making this a likely hit not just with fans of noir (including Izzo’s own Marseilles trilogy) but also with devotees of Charles Bukowski, Hubert Selby Jr., and other great modern tragedians.” —Booklist (starred review)
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|Age Range:||18 Years|
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"ON THE ROAD AGAIN, FOREVER" TITI USED TO SAY
Rico refused to answer any questions from the journalists. He had been the first of their little group of down-and-outs to come back to Ménilmontant station, early in the afternoon. The southbound platform, where they usually met, was sealed off. So he went and sat down on the opposite platform.
There were no trains running. The place was swarming with people. Firefighters with their resuscitation equipment, police, officials from the transit authority. When Rico saw them taking Titi away, he knew he was dead.
A TV crew arrived. Local news. The reporter, a young woman with an austere face and short, almost crew-cut hair, spotted him, and in a few minutes the crew was all over him. He hadn't had the strength to move. He was too sad.
Titi was dead.
"About Titi," the reporter said. "That's what they called him, isn't it?"
He continued smoking, eyes downcast, and didn't reply. He had nothing to say. What was there to say? Nothing. After all, as the head of security for the transit authority was to tell the same reporter, "At this time of year, homeless people die in the metro almost every day, several a week anyway, especially of heart attacks ..."
That evening, Rico watched the TV news at an Arab café on Rue de Charonne called Abdel's. He was a regular there. He would have a beer and a smoke and watch TV, and no one ever came over and told him he was upsetting the customers. Abdel sometimes gave him a plate of couscous.
"Did you know the guy they're talking about?" Abdel asked.
"He was a friend of mine."
"Damn! God rest his soul."
What had surprised Rico was how precise the reporter had been in her opening remarks. "Jean-Louis Lebrun died at the age of 45 on the platform at Ménilmontant metro station on Friday January 17 at about ten or eleven in the evening. His body was not removed until the following day, Saturday January 18, at two-thirty in the afternoon. Hundreds of Parisians passed by without seeing a thing. So did transit authority staff."
"That's disgusting," Abdel commented.
"When you consider the millions of people using the metro, it's not so surprising ..." the transit authority spokesman had said.
Then Dédé appeared on the screen.
Dédé had come onto the platform, yelling about how the transit authority had let Titi die. "It's true, before I left I told the guy at the ticket office. I told him Titi wasn't looking well. I mean, he was sick, right? I thought they were going to call the fire department, and ..."
The journalist had made him repeat it all, more calmly, for the cameras. Naturally, the station supervisor stated that the man doing the night shift hadn't been told.
"Of course," the spokesman concluded, all smiles, "we usually make sure that no one is left inside the stations during the night. But out of the goodness of their hearts, our supervisors sometimes turn a blind eye. That must have been what happened last night."
Rico had stopped listening. He was sipping his beer and thinking about Titi. Titi who'd been his friend for the past two years. His only friend. The last one.
They had met outside the hall belonging to the church of Saint-Charles de Monceau, standing in line on the sidewalk with about twenty others. As far as food was concerned, they said it was the best you could find in Paris. In addition, the cook, Madame Mercier, liked to dress up her dishes with fancy names. A pile of noodles sprinkled with sausage meat, served in a plastic bowl, for example, would be down on the menu as timbale of pasta in meat sauce!
Since he'd discovered the place, Rico had gone there often, the way normal people go to a restaurant. Not too often, though, because before eating, you were expected to meditate for two minutes, then pray. Always an Our Father, followed by stupid prayers to Saint Vincent de Paul, "the friend of the poor," Our Lady of Good Counsel, and a whole series of saints that Rico didn't give a damn about.
But having to listen to all that crap wasn't the worst of it. The really stupid thing was that you had to pick up a ticket an hour and a half before they served the meal. Then the parish priest, Father Xavier, would offer catechism lessons — "only to those who want it, of course." Obviously, if you took up the offer, you were one of the first to sit down at the table and discover Madame Mercier's dish of the day.
One evening, Rico had resigned himself to following the priest. A sermon, a hymn, was better than being left out. Cod à la provençale was on the menu, and Rico couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten cod. It was a hellish hour, a grim reminder of his childhood and compulsory religious lessons. Father Xavier had finished his lesson with the words, "Yes, my brothers, Christ would happily have eaten pig swill, but no one gave him any." By this point, Rico had felt as if he was about to scream. Since then, even though he'd enjoyed Madame Mercier's cod, he'd avoided the catechism lessons.
The day Rico and Titi met was the day before Easter. Behind them, about thirty men and women had joined the line. The door of the church hall was still closed, so they couldn't even get their meal tickets.
After they'd waited at least an hour, Father Xavier had finally come out and explained what was happening. The hall would be closed that Thursday and on Good Friday too.
"Those of us who believe in Jesus Christ," he had begun, "— and I know not everyone does, but never mind — must remember that Our Lord died for us this Easter weekend."
They had all bowed their heads, thinking, O.K., let's get the Easter sermon over with.
The priest had cleared his throat. "We won't be serving any meals today or tomorrow. We Christians are celebrating the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples ..."
"Come on!" Titi had muttered. "He gets a last meal, and we go without."
"Amen, brother, and tighten your belt," Rico had replied, laughing.
They had looked at each other and, without waiting for the end of the priest's oration, had left. In search of another place to find food.
"Rue Serrurier," Rico had suggested.
"Too many people. And it's too far to go this time of night."
"Rue de l'Orillon, then ..."
"Are you kidding? That place gives you diarrhea. I've been on the street for six years, and I've made a note of all the places where I caught something. I avoid them if I can. No, we'll try the Trinité. Not exactly three stars, but decent-sized portions ... And full of really cute girl students with skirts up above their knees. That certainly helps the congealed rice go down!"
They had both laughed, and since then they had been inseparable.
Titi and Rico never told each other how they'd ended up on the street. They both sensed that, even though there might be a few differences, their stories were similar. So, whenever they sat down to have a smoke, they preferred to talk about all kinds of other things. Especially Titi.
Rico reckoned Titi must have been a teacher, a professor, something like that. He'd read lots of books and was always referring to them in their conversations. One afternoon, they were sitting on a bench in the sun, on Square des Batignolles — one of their favorite meeting places — and Titi had said, "You know, when I was a teenager, I read a lot of Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, Kerouac ..."
Rico responded with a blank expression.
"Haven't you ever read On the Road?"
Rico had not read anything since his school days. Well, maybe a few pulp thrillers sometimes. Not that there'd been any shortage of books in his house. A whole bookcase full of them. Bound volumes with illustrated covers, which arrived every month in the mail. Sophie had taken out a subscription. She thought it was good to have books in the house. Stylish, she said. But she didn't read either. She preferred women's magazines.
"No. I don't really know much about books ..."
"These guys were beatniks. You must have heard of beatniks?"
As far as Rico was concerned, beatniks were just guys with long hair, flowery shirts and guitars slung over their shoulders. He remembered the singer Antoine. And Joan Baez. Peace and love, that kind of thing. Not really his style. At the age of sixteen, he was more the clean-cut type, always dressed to the nines. He'd have liked to spend his life zooming around in a red Ferrari.
"Those guys, the American beatniks, the real ones I mean, used to hitchhike all over the States. Living like bums, living wild ... This bozo Kerouac wrote a book about their adventures called The Dharma Bums. He thought they were on a spiritual quest."
Rico had smiled. "Well, I don't see anything spiritual on our road."
Titi had been silent for a moment. Then he'd said, "On the road again. That was their motto." He was staring into the distance. "On the road again," he had repeated, pensively. "What bullshit!"
Both of them knew their road wasn't a road anymore. More like a swamp, and they were sinking into it, a little more every day. There was nothing they could do about it. Even if someone managed to grab hold of their hands, it was too late. The hands reaching out to them weren't reaching out in friendship. Not anymore. They were just handing out charity. A cup of hot coffee. A can of corned beef. A portion of processed cheese.
"On the road again, forever, that's us, Rico."
"Fucking jerks," Rico muttered, finishing his beer.
On the screen, the presenter had moved on to the dramatic story of hundreds of motorists on their way back from ski resorts, who had been trapped on the roads by heavy snow. All the emergency services were out in force in the Alps to help these unfortunate families in distress.
Rico smiled. Maybe Sophie was stuck in the snow. Sophie and Alain, Éric and Annie ...
"Fucking jerks," he muttered again, standing up.
Abdel wouldn't take any money for the beers. "Come back whenever you like. It's warm in here."
Rico pulled the zip of his sweater right up to his mouth, buttoned up his military greatcoat, pulled his hat down over his ears, thrust his hands deep in his pockets, and went out into the cold. According to the weather reports, the temperature was expected to go down to below 14° Fahrenheit.
The icy air hit him, as pale as the light from the street lamps. This evening, he told himself, he'd eat at the Salvation Army on the corner of Rue Faidherbe. For ten francs, he knew he'd get his fourteen hundred calories.
He felt a sudden lump in his throat. He wanted to cry. Titi! he screamed inside his head. Titi. He remembered the corpse being carried away. Titi, him, the others, they were nothing. Nothing. That was the only fucking truth in this life. He started walking faster.CHAPTER 2
MEMORIES JUST MAKE YOU CRY
That night, Rico decided to leave Paris. If he was going to die, he might as well die in the sun. That's what he'd told himself.
All these things that had been going around and around in his head ever since he had seen the firefighters taking Titi's body away boiled down to one inescapable fact: he'd end up like Titi. It was an illusion to think he could still pull through, could still lead some kind of life on the street.
Compared with some, of course, he wasn't too bad off. He had a good crash pad. A few bar owners treated him well, a few street traders at the Aligre market. And when he opened the door to customers at the post office on Rue des Boulets, people took pity on him and gave him money. But it wouldn't last forever. One of these days, he'd go under. Because one of these days, he wouldn't have any strength left to do anything. In fact, he hadn't had much strength left since this afternoon. It was force of habit that had kept him going, not will power.
He lay on his back and lit a cigarette. He felt a gnawing in his stomach. It must be five o'clock. Hunger was the most accurate alarm clock there was. He remembered something Titi had told him. "You know, Rico, when I was a kid, I thought hunger was like a toothache, only worse. After a while, I mean. Since being on the street, I've come to realize that hunger's no big deal. It's easier to handle than a toothache!" Rico smiled. Titi had long since lost his teeth, one after the other!
He grabbed the bottle of vodka from behind him and took a long swig. He'd haggled over that bottle at an all-night Arab grocery on Faubourg Saint-Antoine, and had finally gotten it for seventy-five francs. It was Smirnoff. He'd had this craving for spirits when he left the Salvation Army. The dish of salt pork and lentils he'd eaten had assuaged his hunger, but not his grief. Nor his sense of dread. Titi's death had broken down all the barriers he'd patiently put up between his present life and his past life.
Rico grimaced. As always happened when he drank on an empty stomach, the liquid felt sticky in his throat. He coughed, got his breath back, and took another gulp. He closed his eyes and waited to feel the warmth of the vodka in his body, then took a drag on his cigarette, and tried again to think things through. Turning things over and over in his head was all he'd done all night.
Rico's crash pad was on the corner of Rue de la Roquette and Rue Keller. In a building under construction. Like so many working-class areas, the neighborhood was being gentrified, and they were tearing down old buildings left, right and center, to build luxury apartment blocks. Renovation, they called it in city hall.
Always on the lookout, Rico had ventured onto the construction site late one afternoon six months before. Six stories were already finished, but work seemed to have stopped. In the basement, he discovered the parking garage. Partitioned into individual spaces. He settled down in one of them for the night, on a tarp — if you folded it properly, it made for an excellent mattress. For the first time in ages, he slept the sleep of the blessed.
At six o'clock, a security guard found him. A tall black guy, all muscle under an impeccable blue uniform. There was a badge sewed on the left pocket, with the words Paris Security.
"What are you doing here?"
"No trespassing, man. Can't you read?"
"No trespassing, but it doesn't say anything about no sleeping," Rico joked, collecting his few things together.
"Where are you going?"
"Getting out of here, right?"
The security guard offered him a cigarette and lit it for him.
"Dunhill! Shit, it's been a long time."
"There's no rush, man. You can stay."
They stared at each other as they puffed happily at their cigarettes.
"It won't bother me, O.K.?"
The security guard, a Madagascan named Hyacinthe, told him that the construction company had gone bankrupt. A buyer had been found for the company, but it would be a while before the work started again.
Rico settled in. He went to the Gare de Lyon and fetched all his things from the two lockers where he'd left them: his backpack, a sleeping bag, some clothes, a small camp stove, a few candles, a china cup and a few other knick-knacks he'd picked up over the years. When he woke up, he would put everything away under the tarp he used at night for a mattress.
Every morning, Hyacinthe bought Rico a coffee and a croissant at Bébert's, a bistro a bit farther along the street that remained resolutely unfashionable in this hot new Parisian neighborhood.
"I was a security guard at this superstore out in the suburbs," Hyacinthe said. "One afternoon, I spot a guy like you ..." He sipped at his coffee. "Don't get upset, O.K., Rico? I'm just saying, it was my job to keep my eyes open."
"The guy was pushing a trolley with a six-pack of beers and a loaf of bread in it. I see him stop at the delicatessen counter. He asks for a slice of ham and a little pâté, then carries on along the aisles ..."
"And starts eating!"
"You said it, man!"
"I've done that sometimes."
"When I saw him again, he was in the electrical section, glued to the TV sets. Bread and pâté, bread and ham ... I left him alone. Then, as cool as a cucumber, he went to the checkout and paid for his six-pack and ... that evening they fired me. The guy in charge of the delicatessen counter had informed on me."
"Places like that are full of jerks. The same guys who can't stand blacks and Arabs ..."
"What are you doing as a security guard?"
"It's the only thing I know. I can hardly read or write, man. Hey, this is a more honest job than being one of those Rambo types who work for the transit authority!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Sun for the Dying"
Copyright © 1999 Flammarion.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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