by Serge Filippini
Sample translation by Brian Phalen
The story told in this book is fictional. It introduces seven people who appeared in a photograph taken in Aden in 1880. The author kept their names, as well as other bibliographical details drawn from different sources, but most of the elements that contribute to their characterization is the fruit of his imagination.
Built up against the extinct volcano, the Grand Hôtel de l’Univers confronted Steamer Point and its fleeting images: whirlwinds of black dirt, tethered camels, mules under their packsaddles or pulling carts, sepoys in red jackets, Somali coachmen, hide or glass jewelry merchants chewing Khat near their tents, barefooted children, French, Portuguese, Italian sailors whose steamers were resting in the fog over the Gulf of Aden.
One entered the hotel by a staircase that joined a row of arches and an entryway forming a sort of veranda. This terrace was not decorated with a single plant, as it is impossible to grow anything in Arabia. Two smokers gueridons and five armchairs seemed to be waiting there for the opening of a play. A man appeared at the foot of the steps. He climbed them in a hurry. Dressed in white pants and a jacket of gray cloth, he wore nothing on his head. His beard was well trimmed. With one arm he carried a tripod secured by straps and with the other, by a leather handle, he carried a view camera made from fruit tree wood. All the thoughts of this man, from Nîmes, who landed in Aden a few days earlier, were impatient ones: he could not wait to continue his travels, to cross the strait with a little escort, to reach Zeila, and finally enter the Horn of Africa. The region was unexplored, considered dangerous, but his scientific passion outweighed his fear. Determined to photograph Somali fighters in their native land, at the heart of their civilization, he had no doubt he would be able to gain their trust.
For the moment, he was preparing to immortalize a less enchanting type of natives: a group of Europeans living in Aden. Jules Suel, the manager of the hotel, requested this photo which he wanted to use for advertising. The photographer had accepted the project as an annoying chore, barely worth stalling his preparations, but it was not easy nor wise to refuse a service to "father Suel," as everyone called him here.
The photographer leaned the tripod against the back of an armchair. Having placed the camera on a gueridon, he carefully removed the felt cover that protected the lens. Leaning over the camera, he concentrated on the mechanism controlled by an iron lever, which he activated several times, expressing his aggravation with grimaces and little disgruntled sighs. After a minute, he sensed a presence and turned around. He found himself face to face with a stranger he had not heard arrive because of the noise. It was a young man, like him, but clean-shaven and tall, dressed in a pea jacket and white pants. He held in his hand a thick envelope. He seemed fascinated by the machine with the lifeless eye.
“I left my better instant cameras in France!” said the photographer with dismay. “I was lent this one. It's not compatible with my tripod. The guillotine shutter is annoying me.”
Sweat soaked his forehead and studded the hairs of his beard with beads. The young man in the pea jacket was not sweating: his face was as dry as that of a caravanner.
“You wouldn’t happen to be skilled with a guillotine shutter by chance?” said the photographer.
“What’s the problem?”
“Nothing bad. It requires too much attention, even if it always ends up falling.”
“Aden has a photography studio…”
“Yes, Édouard Bidault. I met him this morning.”
“He must have told you that you’ll have a hard time finding fresh water to rinse your glass plates.”
“Oh! My plates! They’re coated with gelatin bromide, you see. State of the art. They travel and develop later if necessary…”
He put out his hand.
The man in the pea jacket did not shake his hand. He did not give his name. He only asked, curtly:
“What are the prices for a photography kit like that?”
Révoil, always the perceptive observer, studied the man: thin peachfuzz moustache, a slightly deformed lip, insatiable gaze, with dark rings around the eyes. The photographer had a passion for psychology in its relation to physiognomy. Perhaps he was dealing with one of those people driven by a special energy, who make their way, just like him, in the rugged lands of existence, where pleasantries are no longer a concern.
“Would you like to buy one?” he asked.
“One must be able to make good albums with that.”
“An intuition tells me that you’d get by okay. I have experience with these things… It’s not enough to look. You have to see, am I wrong? It’s all there. Photography is an art. Or will be an art. What do you think?”
The man in the pea jacket did not have the opportunity to express his opinion on the matter. A voice rang out in the hall, the large corridor that sank into the depths of the hotel, where one could make out the antelope heads lining the wall, pale and ghostly. It was father Suel, the manager of the Hôtel Univers, who was calling his servant.
“However, photography is expensive," said Révoil. "I could recommend you a supplier in Lyon. What’s your budget like?”
“The cost doesn't matter…”
Jules Suel appeared on the terrace, the robust fifty-something, dressed in a surprising brown-checkered suit. One sensed he was headstrong, but also crafty. At twenty, he had cleaned out the armories with the insurgents of 1848 and shouted like them on the barricades to insult the guard and King Louis-Philippe. At forty, having accumulated some money and fearing someone would come take it from him, he had refrained from welcoming the Commune. Ever since he took up residence in Aden, he sometimes felt the insurrectionary fervors of his youth waken. As to apply them to the present context, he proclaimed that the French were in the colonies for the freedom they offered and that the “real Revolution” was happening overseas. These remarks were ambiguous. Was Suel trying to pass for a man who had ideas? Everyone knew that if he had once closely avoided getting a taste of Parisian prisons, it was less for his opinions than for his behavior. The man was not nice, but seen as such by his compatriots.
He had hardly filled the veranda with his presence before the man in the workers’ pea jacket thrust the letter in his hands.
“Again!” cried Suel. “Will you ever stop writing?”
He turned over the letter to read the address out loud:
“Madame widow mmmmm… Roche, by Attigny, France!”
And, having carried it to his lips:
“A mother, a homeland... Why, your family is lucky. I will put it on your account at the post office as soon as possible…”
He pointed his index finger at the photographer.
“Have you met Georges Révoil? In Aden for only a few days, alas! But he’ll return. Le Grand Hotel de l’Univers! Who doesn't come back, right?”
The breeze blowing off the sea was so weak that it could hardly do anything to counter the dreadful heat gathered on the veranda -- and it was even worse behind the volcano, in the crater where the indigenous city was tucked away. Suel pulled up one of the armchairs, let himself fall into it, and settled in, his legs apart. He dried his forehead with his handkerchief, then used the envelope as a fan.
“They’ll come,” he said, addressing Révoil. “The whole horde. Maurice Riès, Henri Lucereau, Bidault and his wife… You know them…”
“I spoke with Édouard Bidault this morning,” confirmed Révoil. “I stopped by his workshop on my way back to the city. But I didn’t have the honor of meeting his wife…”
“She’ll be here for the photograph, believe me!”
He suddenly shot out in a corporal’s voice:
“And you too, Rimbaud!”
“I’d rather not.”
“I know you’d rather not, for Christ’s sake!” Suel said.
Turning to Georges Révoil, he added:
“You have before you the biggest misanthrope in all of Arabia.”
Then he addressed Rimbaud again, this time with a tone of warm friendship:
“I’m asking you. Because that would please me. Be in my photograph.”
“I have work to do…”
“Oh, come on! Your mocha bags aren’t going to fly away!”
“You work at the Bardey factory?” Révoil intervened.
Rimbaud had come to the Univers to drop off his mail, not to let himself get dragged into one of these pointless discussions between Frenchmen orchestrated by Suel under his veranda. He preferred tête-à-têtes. And if it is true that he would have willingly continued talking photography with this Révoil, the big publicity portrait would not interest him at all. Without so much as a goodbye, he crossed the terrace and went down the road where the burly donkeys and camels were braying, loaded with their bundles of dead wood.
Révoil and Suel watched as he hoisted himself onto the seat of a lorry.
“Did you see that?” muttered Suel. “An impossible personality."
Rimbaud shook the reins. To put himself in the right direction, he made his horse circle around, and slowly passed back in front of the hotel without even looking at Suel, who shouted to him:
“See you later, right? I’m counting on you!”
The carriage went away, followed by a cloud of black sand that covered the inscription Bardey Factory hanging by chains at the back of the platform.
Rimbaud disappeared behind the volcano, at the intersection of the indigenous city.
Suel had taken on an obstinate expression. He did not take his eyes off the esplanade, cluttered with carriages and animals, which descended gently beyond the road until the harbor, where a relative peace reigned. The metallic hull of an anchored steamship vibrated in the light. The shore swarmed with half-naked fishermen, reduced to thin silhouettes, who were bringing back their dhows in the dark waters.
After Rimbaud left, Suel had a series of brief, jumbled visions about an Indian who had come from La Réunion, disembarking two years earlier from the Tibre, the Messageries Maritimes liner. The traveler had been killed a week after stepping foot on Arabian soil. His naked body was found lifeless on the side of the road that linked Steamer Point and Aden, near a wretched encampment where he had perhaps looked to satisfy his homosexual tendencies. The consul, with the consent of the English, rushed an investigator to the Univers. The detective asked Suel to open the deadman's room, then his steamer trunk, where they discovered a gold watch, some licentious publications, tobacco, hashish, and ceramic water pipes. The trunk also contained a toilet bag, linen, clothes that were more or less used, among them the famous, exotic brown-checkered suit. A wallet was hiding in the false bottom of a drawer. The detective found a postcard and a wad of bills inside it. He held out the postcard to Suel. There was the Indian himself, posing with two young people under the sign of a “House of Coffee.” The detective, who had counted the Indian's fortune while moistening his thumb, softly said:
“Eight hundred francs even. What unsavory job did you have the honor of working, father Suel, before taking to the sea to come hide out in Arabia?”
“I was the concierge of an apartment building in Paris, monsieur. In Les Halles. Near les Innocents.”
“Split it half and half?”
“Leave one or two bills in the wallet, for the illusion.”
“Anything else interest you? The watch? The lewd magazines?”
“I'll keep the postcard. And the checkered suit.”
Since then, Suel wore this outfit in the privacy of his apartment in order to feel comfortable. Today was the first time he wore it in public. He smoothed the lapels with his palms while Révoil took a seat in an armchair and asked:
“What does he do at Bardey's?”
“Rimbaud?” said Suel, emerging from his daydream. “He oversees the coffee sorters. And they're afraid of him! They call him Karani…”
“ ‘The Bad Guy.’ ”
“I see you've learned Arabic. He won't stay long to make their lives miserable, believe me. He's a man with itchy feet…”
“Do you think he would agree to come with me to Galla country? And that Bardey's would let him go?”
A rush of jubilation took hold of Suel:
“You like him already! I was sure of it!”
“He doesn't seem like a boring guy,” said Révoil, as if for himself.
“Did you manage to worm something out of him? Normally he isn't very chatty.”
“He knows what he wants, and I like that.”
“Say! Weren’t you saying you only wanted to travel with a handful of natives as an escort?”
“A handful of natives and a misanthrope work perfectly for me,” said Révoil with a humor to which the manager of the Univers remained impenetrable.
Leaning against the arm of his chair, he sized up his interlocutor, nodding his head slightly, and his face at that moment could have been that of a sly trickster.
“You’re a wily one, you are.”
“Introduce me to Bardey, Monsieur Suel. I’ll have a word with him about it…”
“Alfred Bardey left for the Harar region, Monsieur Révoil. Arrived safe and sound by now, I hope. Goodness, I wouldn’t want to learn that he’d been done in en route…”
He moved his hand in front of his damp forehead, as if to free himself of those ferocious visions that haunted the European mind each time the discussion came to the expeditions launched in Africa -- lined-up remains of caravans drying among the desert stones, foreigners ripped to pieces by the Issa warriors, camels devoured by lions.
“I will introduce you to whoever you want,” he replied, “when I'm sure I'll be able to count on you. But first, my big group portrait! My simple portrait. Well? It's feasible, I hope!”
Révoil crossed his legs and dusted his thigh.
“Why wouldn't it be feasible?” he asked.
“I have no idea! What do I know about photography? I want to advertise my hotel, that's all. As for the technical part… By the way, do you know where to put this… tripod?”
They considered Révoil's equipment, then turned together toward the end of the veranda. A long, white shape was materializing in the darkness; it transformed into a man with an oily mustache.
“Henri Lucereau,” said Suel.
Révoil stood up and shook the hand of the new arrival. Suel gave the introductions:
“Georges Révoil. Disembarked from the Peï-Ho a few days ago…”
“You're coming from Marseille?” said Lucereau, imitating the city's accent. “Hurry back there if you enjoy breathing. Here, there isn't any air. No water either. So no vegetation. Nothing but a chalk sky to crush your head. Trade? Exploration? Spying?”
Lucereau cut him off:
“Doesn’t matter, all three are synonyms.”
And they had a laugh -- a brusque laugh. His joke expressed less a good mood than spite. This veteran of the Prussian war had been moping around Aden for a year. Commissioned by the Geographical Society to draw up maps of Sudan and look for the sources of the Sobat River, tributary of the Blue Nile, all his attempts to enter Abyssinia ended in failure. Each time that he crossed the strait and arrived in Zeila, he came up against the intransigence -- “the insolent tantrums,” he said -- of the local governor, the pasha Abu Bekr.
“A scoundrel,” remarked Révoil.
“You know him?” said Lucereau, surprised.
“It's not my first trip to Africa.”
“Everyone strokes his back,” sighed Lucereau, “starting with our government.”
He wearily evoked his last meeting with Abu Bekr, which was about a month back. It had gone even worse than usual. The pasha had invented new pretexts for postponing his authorization of Lucereau’s caravan. The explorer, losing patience, threw insults at the pasha in Arabic -- deliberately learned, he admitted. After which he had to rush back to Aden, in light of the new circumstances. He seemed condemned by fate to languish at the Univers. When Lucereau was not in his room, at work polishing his weapons -- his Chassepot rifle brought back from the war, his dagger, his revolver --, he frequently consulted the authorities, seeking their support. A few days ago, he had addressed a report to the English, informing them of the large scale slave trafficking practiced by Abu Bekr and his sons. Since then, all the Europeans in the region familiar with those climates advised him to be careful: large were the risks run by those who made themselves an enemy of the pasha.
Révoil had listened to this monologue patiently.
“I hope I'll manage to deal with him,” he said.
Lucereau put in a pathetic effort to change the subject:
“So, father Suel! That freshwater tea we’d been promised? Where is Madame Suel and her whip? And that harlequin get-up you're dressed in, does it have to do with the publicity project?”
“It has to do with the new life,” responded Suel, enigmatically. “The future, that's all that counts…”
Lucereau was not listening; he was positioning his armchairs between Révoil and Suel.
“I see the infernal machine has arrived,” he said, gesturing toward the camera.
He explored the decor while blinking his eyes: the square of terrace extended on both sides of the entryway by the gallery whose bone-white arches let in a painful light.
“Where are we going to go to pose like a band of clowns?”
“Right here,” said Suel.
Lucereau had not listened to this response any more than the last one. He continued:
“Tell me, Jules… I saw who you were speaking with two minutes ago. I waited for him to leave because I didn't want to endure his company, but I wouldn't like to see his mug printed next to mine for eternity either… Is the scoundrel expected to appear in your postcard?”
“No one will be missing from my group portrait.”
“It's him or me,” declared Lucereau.
“What do you have against him?” asked Révoil.
“I don't like that he talks behind people's backs. Behind mine in particular. You're new to Aden. He’ll have surely played with you serious, punctilious, quiet types. It's the man he's made himself into. He dresses like a galley worker so people will notice, and then carefully zips his lips in company. But make no mistake, he's a phrasemonger, and of the worst kind! Malicious.”
“You're exaggerating,” said Révoil.
“I have my reasons. Jules can confirm…”
“Don't get me mixed up in it!” cried Jules Suel.
“Don't get me mixed up in it!” repeated Lucereau hysterically, lifting himself half out of his chair. “But you are mixed up in it, Goddamnit! What's come over you, father Suel? Everything happens here, under your roof, in your hotel.”
Révoil voiced the question he was itching to ask:
“What does he say behind your back?”
“He spreads rumors that I wanted to provoke an international incident telling the pasha what I thought. And I don't like when people gossip about my affairs. Especially not a rogue who has nasty business in his past.”
The sound of the conversation died out in that of the square: wild cries, the creaking of wheels, the complaints launched by the mauve birds under their blind sky, the mysterious call of a steamer on the sea. But the Europeans could not remain silent for long in this hypnotic atmosphere where the points of reference become confused, where the real was quick to become unreal, reduced to the effects of light. Révoil remembered that his curiosity had not been satisfied:
“Do you know which business he’s talking about, Monsieur Suel?”
Suel, preferring to respond evasively, addressed Lucereau:
“Révoil is considering having him join his expedition.”
“Wonderful!” cried Lucereau.
He took on a dismayed air:
“In Cyprus, Monsieur Révoil, your future associate was already playing the foreman, and using the same methods surely. Basically, he came to blows with one of his workers, who was left knocked out, as dead as one can be. Some advice: Don't get mixed up with him… Are you disappointed? Too bad for you! I have nothing to add on this topic. Curtain. Done.”
He turned suddenly toward the hall and called out, using his hands as a megaphone:
“Madame Suel! Don't forget to prepare a glass of brandy with your tea!”
The travelers who passed through Aden in the 1880s sometimes refer, in their notebooks, to the manageress of the Hôtel Univers -- “a woman from Champagne with a pretty, freckle-spotted face and an attractive body,” wrote one of them. Several highlighted a distinctive feature: the coachman's whip slipped through the leather belt that fastened her blouse. Madame Suel was accustomed to spending her afternoons in a room on the first floor called the tea reserve. She had had a bamboo fainting couch installed where she could come lie down on a mattress of cashmere covered cushions, far from the clientele, and especially far from Suel and his friends whose debates "got on her nerves." She preferred indulging in her solitary imagination, in her daydreams that completely absorbed her and were for her a way to belong to herself. Time self-destructed like a river turning around at its source, a phenomenon unknown to her when she lived in France. She thought, for example, of the dead the Hindus exposed up there on the extinct volcano, in the Tower of Silence, not far from the cisterns. The white- and black-feathered vultures descended from the sky to devour the cadavers’ flesh, until they were nothing more than bones. The souls were immersed in the hope of living again. Was it possible there was any link between the resurrection taught by the catechism of her childhood and that which was taking place here in Arabia, up on the mountain, in the lava cisterns? Dying and being born, was it the same thing?
Lucereau's exclamation passing through the walls of the hotel made her shudder among her cushions. The word “brandy” upset her thoughts. She touched her breasts and her stomach, soaked in sweat. The perspiration had drawn large grey patches on her blouse. She thought of Ali, the servant. When he crossed the hall, his body blended with the darkness: only his white shorts and the whites of his eyes were distinguishable. He had come to Aden in a pack of four young slaves from the land of Mima, he and his three sisters, sold by their father to a Greek for the price of sixty thalaris, ten of which were for the djellal who had served as intermediary. The Greek had resold the young man to father Suel who needed someone to polish his shoes and rifles and to make fun of on the veranda. And for some other reason? So many filthy rumors circulated about all sorts of subjects! Madame Suel refused to pay attention to this one in particular. She saw in it an echo of the rumors circulating in the wake of that foreman named Rimbaud, a "nutcase" who was used to coming to the hotel to entrust Suel with his mail, and sometimes drink with him. She chased the disgusting visions from her mind and told herself that Ali must be in the kitchen, boiling some water. He had surely arranged glasses on an iron tray, as well as the plates and cups marked with a black motif in the shape of a half-naked native. Madame Suel decided not to move from her fainting couch. She thought: “I have time.” Her hand closed around the handle of the whip. In her daze, Lucereau's muffled voice reached her:
“Some brandy for general disinfection. Everyone has worms here: they ruin your guts and your life.”
Révoil refused to drop the subject of Rimbaud.
“You seemed to find him amiable,” he said to Suel.
“I find him amiable, and I have nothing against him,” Suel retorted. “Absolutely nothing.”
This response revived Lucereau's laugh:
“Jules loves welcoming the hungry who take refuge in his hotel to forget their wrongdoings!”
Leaning toward Révoil, he added with a tone of confidence:
“They’re all the more willing to go deliver his old, discarded pea shooters to the negro kings…”
He gave Suel’s thigh a strong slap:
“Not true, my good man?”
“Don't listen to him,” said Suel, rubbing his leg through the checkered pants. “I'm not an arms trafficker. My affairs couldn't be more legal…”
Lucereau waved his hands in the hot air, his fingers miming brackets:
“You have the right to put all the quotation marks you want around the word legal, Monsieur Révoil. In Aden, you'll see, everyone follows his interests without worrying too much about principles. Even father Suel needs men who aren't faint of heart to send out caravans in the desert one of these days…”
“Good grief! What's wrong with sending out caravans in the desert?” said Suel, losing his temper. “The Red Sea will soon be swarming with trading posts and factories. There's prosperity to create, and the competition is rough: the English, the Portuguese…”
“There's prosperity to create!” repeated Lucereau. “Don't go imagining that you'll achieve your aims entrusting your factories to ex-convicts…”
“Don't talk about ex-convicts!”
“The facts are there, aren’t they?”
“Talk about gossip instead! I know who is spreading this slander about him: the Italians who are cleaning out the region.”
“Ah! I've had enough!” exploded Lucereau, getting out of his armchair. “Let's talk about something else.”
Suddenly glum, his hands deep in his pockets, he asked Révoil harshly:
“What are you intending to capture in your image box?”
“My objective is scientific,” replied the photographer. “I’m hoping to document geographical societies on the Horn of Africa…”
“Do you know how they kill in the Horn of Africa? They throw a spear in your back, then they rush in to finish you off with a knife. Just like that, in cold blood.”
Révoil, once again, matched these oracles with a patient and benevolent smile.
“If my life were governed by fear,” he said, “I would have stayed in my good city of Nîmes. And I travel armed, what do you expect?”
“Be careful that bastard Abu Bekr doesn't confiscate your rifles.”
Suel, who was uninterested in this exchange and was observing the activity in the square, got up from his armchair abruptly.
“Here come the Bidaults for my photograph,” he said.