OF ALL the state prisons of France, Fontevrault is the most disquieting. It was Fontevrault that gave me the strongest impression of anguish and affliction, and I know that convicts who have been in other prisons have, at the mere mention of its name, felt an emotion, a pang, comparable to mine. I shall not try to define the essence of its power over us: whether this power be due to its past, its abbesses of royal blood, its aspect, its walls, its ivy, to the transient presence of convicts bound for the penal colony at Cayenne, to its prisoners, who are more vicious than those elsewhere, to its name–none of this matters. But to all these reasons was added, for me, another: that it was, during my stay at the Mettray Reformatory Colony, the sanctuary to which our childhood dreams aspired. I felt that its walls preserved–the custodial preserving the bread–the very shape of the future.
While the boy I was at fifteen twined in his hammock around a friend (if the rigours of life make us seek out a friendly presence, I think it is the rigours of prison that drive us toward each other in bursts of love without which we could not live; unhappiness is the enchanted potion), he knew that his final form dwelt behind them and that the convict with his thirty-year sentence was the fulfilment of himself, the last transformation, which death would make permanent. And Fontevrault still gleams (though with a very soft, a faded brilliance) with the lights emitted in its darkest heart, the dungeon, by Harcamone, who was sentenced to death.
When I left Sant” Prison for Fontevrault, I already knew that Harcamone was there, awaiting execution. Upon my arrival I was therefore gripped by the mystery of one of my fellow-inmates at Mettray who had been able to pursue the adventure of all of us to its most tenuous peak: the death on the scaffold which is our glory. Harcamone had ‘succeeded.” And as this success was not of an earthly order, like fortune or honours, his achievement filled me with amazement and admiration (even the simplest achievement is miraculous), but also inspired the fear that overwhelms the witness of a magical operation. Harcamone’s crimes might have meant nothing to me had I not known him at close range, but my love of beauty (which desired so ardently that my life be crowned with a violent, in fact bloody death) and my aspiration to a saintliness of muted brilliance (which kept it from being heroic by men’s standards) made me secretly choose decapitation, which has the virtue of being reproved, of reproving the death that it gives and of illuminating its beneficiary with a glory more sombre and gentle than the shimmering, silvery velvet of great funerals; and Harcamone’s crimes and death revealed to me–as if taking it apart–the mechanism of that glory which had at last been attained. Such glory is not human. We have never heard of any executed criminal whose execution alone haloed him as the saints of the Church and the glories of the age are haloed, but yet we know that the purest of those who were given that death felt, within themselves and on their severed head, the placing of the amazing private crown which was studded with jewels wrested from the darkness of the heart. Each of them knew that the moment his head fell into the basket of sawdust and was taken out (by the ears) by an assistant whose role seems to me strange indeed, his heart would be garnered by fingers gloved with modesty and be carried off in a youngster’s bosom that was adorned like a spring festival. I thus aspired to heavenly glory, and Harcamone had attained it before me, quietly, as the result of murdering a little girl and, fifteen years later, a Fontevrault guard.
I arrived at the prison with my hands and feet chained. I had been prepared by a very long and rough trip in the armoured police-train. There was a hole in the seat, and when my gripes got too violent because of the jolting, I had only to unbutton. It was cold. I rode through a countryside numbed with winter. I imagined the hard fields, the hoar-frost, the impure daylight. My arrest had taken place in mid-summer, and my most haunting memory of Paris is of a city completely empty, abandoned by the population which was fleeing from the invasion, a kind of Pompeii, without policemen at the crossings, a city such as the burglar dares dream of when he is tired of inventing ruses.
Four travelling-guards were playing cards in the corridor of the train. Orl”ans . . . Blois . . . Tours . . . Saumur. The car was detached and switched to another track, and we were at Fontevrault. There were thirty of us, because the police-car had only thirty cells. Half of the convoy was composed of men of about thirty. The rest ranged from eighteen to sixty.
While the passengers looked on, we were attached in pairs, and with our hands and feet chained we got into the Black Marias that were waiting for us at the station. I had time to note the sadness of the crop-headed young men who watched the girls go by. My chain-mate and I entered one of the narrow cells, a vertical coffin. I noticed that the Black Maria was divested of its charm, that air of haughty misfortune which, the first few times I had taken it, had made it a vehicle of exile, a conveyance fraught with grandeur, slowly fleeing, as it carried me off, between the ranks of a people bowed with respect. It is no longer a vehicle of royal misfortune. I have had a clear vision of it, of a thing which, beyond happiness or unhappiness, is splendid.
It was there, upon entering the prison-wagon, that I felt I had become a true, disenchanted visionary.
The wagons drove to the prison. I cannot tell how it looked from the outside–I can tell this about few prisons, since those which I know, I know only from the inside. The cells of the wagon were closed, but from a jolt of the vehicle as it mounted a paved slope I gathered that we had gone through a gate and that I was in the domain of Harcamone. I know that the prison is at the bottom of a valley, of an infernal gorge from which a miraculous fountain gushes, but nothing stops us from thinking that it is at the top of a high mountain; here, in this place, everything leads me to think that it is at the top of a rock, of which the ramparts are a continuation. Although this altitude may be ideal, it is all the more real, for the isolation it grants is indestructible. Neither the walls nor the silence has anything to do with it. We shall see this in the case of Mettray Reformatory, which is as far-flung as the prison is high.
Night had fallen. We arrived amidst a mass of darkness. We got out. Eight guards, lined up like footmen, were waiting for us on the lighted steps. At the top of a flight of two stairs the wall of darkness was breached by a huge, brightly illuminated arched door. It was a holiday, Christmas perhaps. I had barely time to catch a glimpse of the yard, the black walls of which were covered with mournful ivy. We passed an iron gate. Behind it was a small inner yard lit up by four electric lamps: the bulb and shade, in the form of an Anamite hat, are the official lamp of all French prisons. At the end of this yard, where, even in the darkness, we sensed an unwonted architecture, we passed another iron gate, then went down a few steps lit by lamps of the same kind and suddenly we were in a delightful square garden adorned with shrubbery and a fountain around which ran a cloister with delicate little columns. After mounting a stairway sculpted in the wall, we found ourselves in a white corridor and then proceeded to the record office, where we remained a long time in a state of disorder before our chains were taken off.
“You there, you going to put out your wrists?”
I extended my wrist, and the chain pulled up the hand, sad as a captured animal, of the fellow to whom it was attached. The guard fumbled at the lock of the handcuffs; when he found it and inserted the key, I heard the slight click of the delicate trap that was freeing me. And that deliverance to enter captivity was to us a first affliction. The heat was stifling, but no one thought it would be so hot in the dormitories. The door of the office opened into a corridor that was lit up with cruel precision. The door was unlocked. A convict on the maintenance staff, probably a sweeper, pushed it slightly, put his smiling face in, and whispered:
‘say, boys, if any of you have butts, better let me have “em, because . . .”
He broke off and disappeared. Probably a guard was coming. Someone shut the door from the outside.
I listened to hear whether the voice would cry out, but I heard nothing. Nobody was being tortured. I looked at one of the fellows who were with me. We smiled. We had both recognized the whisper which would be for a long time the only tone in which we could speak. We sensed all around us, behind the walls, a stealthy, silent but zealous activity. Why in the dead of night? In winter, darkness came on quickly, and it was only five in the afternoon.
Some moments later, likewise muffled, but remote, a voice, which sounded to me like that of the inmate, cried out:
‘regards to your fanny from my dick!”
The guards in the office heard it too but didn’t bat an eyelash. Thus, as soon as I arrived I realized that no convict’s voice would be clear. It is either a murmur low enough for the guards not to hear, or else a cry muffled by a thickness of walls and anguish.
As soon as each of us gave his name, age, occupation, and distinguishing marks and signed with the print of his forefinger, he was taken by a guard to the wardrobe. It was my turn:
“I said Genet.”
“What if I feel like saying Plantagenet? Do you mind?”
“. . .”
The guard gave me a dirty look. Perhaps he despised me for not knowing that the Plantagenets were buried in Fontevrault, that their coat of arms–leopards and the Maltese Cross–is still on the stained-glass windows of the chapel.
I had barely time to wave a stealthy good-bye to a youngster who had been in the convoy and whom I had singled out. It is less than fifty days since I left him, but though I would like to adorn my grief with the memory of him, to linger over his face, he flees me. In the Black Maria that took us from the station to the prison, he managed to get into the same narrow cell (the guards made us enter in pairs) as a tough-looking pimp. In order to be chained to the pimp, he had resorted to a trick that made me jealous of both of them and that still bothers and, owing to a deep mystery, attracts me, tearing a veil so that I have a luminous insight. And ever since, when time hangs heavy, I mull over this memory in my prison, but I cannot get to the heart of it. I can imagine what they did and said, what plans they made for the future, I can fabricate a very long life for their love. But I weary quickly. Developing this brief incident–the child’s manoeuvre and his entering the little cell–adds nothing to my knowledge of it, in fact destroys the charm of the lightning manoeuvre. In like manner, when Harcamone hurried past me, the beauty of his face lit me up, but when I observed it at great length, in detail, the face faded. Certain acts dazzle us and light up blurred surfaces if our eyes are keen enough to see them in a flash, for the beauty of a living thing can be grasped only fleetingly. To pursue it during its changes leads us inevitably to the moment when it ceases, for it cannot last a lifetime. And to analyze it, that is, to pursue it in time with the sight and the imagination, is to view it in its decline, for after the thrilling moment in which it reveals itself it diminishes in intensity. I have lost that child’s face.
I picked up my bundle: two shirts, two handkerchiefs, a half-loaf of bread, a song-book. And, with an already plodding gait, not saying a word to them, I left my travelling companions, crashers, pimps, hoodlums, thieves sentenced to three years, five years, ten years, and lifers, and went to join other crashers, other lifers. I walked in front of the guard through very clean, white hallways which were brightly lit and smelled of fresh paint. I passed two trusties who were carrying on a stretcher the eight monumental registers containing the names of the eleven hundred and fifty prisoners. They were followed by a young guard and a clerk. The two prisoners walked in silence, their arms straining beneath the weight of the giant volumes which could have been reduced to a small notebook. In shuffling along on their selvaged slippers, they bore the full weight imparted by so much sadness and thus seemed to be thudding the floor, lumberingly, with rubber boots. The two guards observed the same silence and walked with equally solemn steps. I almost saluted, not the jailers, but the books which contained the so illustrious name of Harcamone.
“Hey, you going to salute?”
This was said by the turnkey who was escorting me, and he added:
“Unless you already feel like getting the works.”
Prisoners are required to salute the guards. As I neared them I ventured, with difficulty, the ridiculous salute which is so incompatible with our flabby, gliding gait on heelless slippers. We passed other guards, who didn’t even look at us. The prison lived like a cathedral at midnight of Christmas eve. We were carrying on the tradition of the monks who went about their business at night, in silence. We belonged to the Middle Ages. A door was open at the left. I entered the wardrobe. When I took off my clothes, I felt that the brown homespun prison outfit was a robe of innocence which I was putting on in order to live near, in fact under the very roof of the murderer. Trembling like a thief, I lived for days on end in a state of wonder which none of the lowliest daily pre-occupations was able to destroy: neither the crappers nor the stew nor the work nor the confusion of the senses.
After assigning me to a dormitory, Number 5, they assigned me to the workshop where camouflage nets were being made for the German army which was then occupying France. I had made up my mind to keep out of the intrigues of the big shots, of the guys who pay for larceny, who pay for murder, but in the wardrobe I was given a pair of trousers that had belonged to a bruiser–or an inmate who must have acted like one. He had made two slits in it for false pockets, which were forbidden. They were waist-high and cut on the bias, like those of sailors. When I walked, or was inactive, that was where, in spite of myself, I put my hands. My gait became what I hadn’t wanted it to be, that of a big shot. The outfit included a brown homespun jacket without collar or pockets (though a convict had pierced the linng and thus made a kind of inner pocket). It had button-holes, but all the buttons were missing. The jacket was very threadbare, but less than the trousers, which had been mended with nine patches, all more or less worn with age. There were thus nine different shades of brown. The two false pockets had been cut diagonally at stomach-level with, I imagine, a paring-knife from the shoemaking shop. The trousers were supposed to be held up by the buttons alone, without belt or braces, but the buttons were all missing, which made the outfit look as sad as a wrecked house. In the shop, two hours after my arrival, I made myself a raffia belt in the form of a rope, and, as it was confiscated every evening by a guard, I would make another the following day. There are inmates who make a new one every single morning, that is, say, for ten years, three thousand times. The trousers were too short for me. They reached only to my calves, so that my long underpants and pale white legs were visible. The underpants were white and the letters A.P., which stand for administration p”nitentiaire, were stamped on them in thick ink. The undershirt was made of homespun, also brown, and had a small pocket on the right side. The coarse linen shirt was collarless. The sleeves had no cuffs. Nor buttons either. There were rust spots on the shirt which I feared were shit-stains. It was stamped A.P. We changed shirts every two weeks. The slippers were made of brown homespun. They would get stiff with sweat. The flat forage cap was made of brown homespun. The handkerchief had blue and white stripes.
I add the fact that Rasseneur, whom I had met in another prison, recognized me and, without consulting me, got me into a mob. Apart from him, I recognized no one from Sant” or the other prisons. Harcamone was the only one who had been with me at Mettray, but he remained invisible in the death-cell.
I shall try to tell what Harcamone meant to me, and thereby what Divers meant to me, and above all Bulkaen, whom I still love and who finally indicates my fate to me. Bulkaen is the finger of God; Harcamone is God, since he is in heaven (I am speaking of the heaven I create for myself and to which I am devoted body and soul). Their love, my love for them persists within me, where it acts and stirs my depths, and though what I felt for Harcamone may be mystic, it is none the less violent. I shall try to tell as well as I can what it is about these handsome thugs that charms me, the element which is both light and darkness. I shall do what I can, but all I can say is that “they are a dark brightness or a dazzling darkness.” This is nothing compared to how I feel about it, a feeling which the most worthy novelists express when they write: “The black light . . . the blazing shade . . . ,” trying to achieve in a short poem the living, apparent synthesis of Evil and the Beautiful. Through Harcamone, Divers and Bulkaen I shall again relive Mettray, which was my childhood. I shall revive the abolished reformatory, the children’s hell that has been destroyed.
Can it be that the world was unaware of, did not even suspect, the existence of three hundred children who were organized in a rhythm of love and hate in the fairest spot of fairest Touraine? There, among the flowers (those garden flowers and those which I offer to dead soldiers, anxiously, lest they not suffice, have been, ever since, my infernal props) among the flowers and rare varieties of trees, the Colony led its secret life, worrying the peasants for fifteen miles around, for they feared that a sixteen-year-old colonist might escape and set fire to their farms. Furthermore, as every peasant was given a fifty-franc reward for each runaway child he brought back, the Mettray countryside was the scene, night and day, of an actual child-hunt, complete with pitchforks, shotguns and dogs. If a colonist went out at night, he strewed terror through the fields. Rio, whom I cannot think of without being moved by his maidenly sweetness, was about eighteen when he tried to run away. He dared set fire to a barn so that the panic-stricken peasants would get up and run to the fire in their nightshirts without taking time to lock the door. He entered unseen and stole a jacket and pair of trousers in order to get rid of the white canvas breeches and blue twill smock that were the uniform of the Colony and that would have singled him out. The house blazed away magnificently. Children, so it was reported, were burned to a crisp, cows perished, but the bold, remorseless child got as far as Orl”ans. It is a known fact that young countrywomen always leave a jacket and pair of trousers on the clothes-line in the hope and fear that a runaway will steal them, move the line, which rings a bell, and so be caught. Traps laid by women’s hands surrounded the Colony with an invisible, undetectable danger which threw pairs of frightened kids into a wild panic. The mere memory of this causes me, within my affliction, a greater affliction, fills me with frightful gloom at the thought that this childhood world is dead. Only one phrase can express my sadness, the one that is always written at the end of a prince’s visit to the scenes of his former loves or the scenes of his glory: ” . . . and he wept . . .”
Fontevrault, like Mettray, could be rendered by a long list of the couples which were formed by names:
Botchako and Bulkaen
Sillar and Venture
Rocky and Bulkaen
Deloffre and Toscano
Mouline and Monot
Lou Daybreak and Jo
Bulkaen and I
Divers and I
Rocky and I.
I lived for a week in the bewilderment of arrival, familiarizing myself with the prison discipline and regimen. A simple regimen, a life that would be easy if it were not lived by us. We got up at six. A guard opened the door. We went to the stone-flagged corridor to get our clothes which we had left there before going to bed. We then got dressed. Five minutes in the washroom. We drank a bowl of soup in the refectory and then left for the shop. Work until noon. Then back to the refectory until one-thirty. Again to the shop. At six o’clock, mess. At seven, to the dormitory. I have just set down, exactly, the daily schedule at Mettray. On Sunday we would stay in the shops, inactive, sometimes reading the list of names of the abbesses, appointed by royal decree, who had reigned over Fontevrault. To go to the refectory at noon, we had to cross yards that were infinitely sad, sad because of the abandonment that already dooms to death the admirable Renaissance fa”ades. Black faggots are heaped in a corner, near the abbey chapel. Dirty water flows into gutters. The grace of some architectural jewel is sometimes wounded. I got involved in the complications of love affairs, but the daily preoccupations with work, meals, exchanges, the occasional devices whereby a convict craftily carries on a private life behind his official, visible life, and, in addition, a rapid acquaintanceship with the inmates, did not prevent me from bearing, almost painfully, the weight of Harcamone’s presence. One day, at meal time, I couldn’t refrain from whispering to Rasseneur:
“Where is he?”
And he, in a breath:
“In Number 7. Special cell.”
“You think he’ll get it?”
A kid at my left who guessed we were talking about that death put his hand to his mouth and muttered:
“It’s great to die gloriously!”
I knew he was there, and I was full of hope and fear, when I had the privilege of witnessing one of his appearances. It happened during a recreation period. We were lined up near the death-cell, waiting our turn to be shaved by a convict (we were shaved once a week). One of the superintendents had opened Harcamone’s door. He was accompanied by a guard who was casually entwining his gestures with a thick chain, as thick as those by which the chairs are attached to the walls. The superintendent entered. Though we were facing the wall, we could not help looking, despite the fact that we weren’t allowed to. We were like children whose heads are bowed during evening service and who look up when the priest opens the tabernacle. It was the first time I had seen Harcamone since leaving Mettray. He was standing, with the full beauty of his body, in the middle of the cell. He was wearing his beret, not drooping over his ear as at Mettray but set almost on his eyes and bent, forming a peak, like the vizor of the caps of old-time hooligans. I received such a shock that I can’t tell whether it was caused by the change in his beauty or by the fact that I was suddenly confronted with the exceptional creature whose story was familiar only to the well guarded chamber of my eyeballs, and I found myself in the situation of the witch who has long been summoning the prodigy, lives in expectation of it, recognizes the signs that announce it and suddenly sees it standing before her and–what is even more disturbing–sees it as she had announced it. It is the proof of her power, of her grace, for the flesh is also the most obvious means of certainty. Harcamone “appeared unto me.” He knew it was recreation time, for he put out his wrists, which the guard attached with the short chain. Harcamone dropped his arms, and the chain hung in front of him, below his belt. He walked out of the cell. As sunflowers turn to the sun, our faces turned and our bodies pivoted without our even realizing that our immobility had been disturbed, and when he moved toward us, with short steps, like the women of 1910 in hobble-skirts, or the way he himself danced the Java, we felt a temptation to kneel or at least to put Our hands over our eyes, out of decency. He had no belt. He had no socks. From his head–or from mine–came the roar of an airplane engine. I felt in all my veins that the miracle was under way. But the fervour of our admiration and the burden of saintliness which weighed on the chain that gripped his wrists–his hair had had time to grow and the curls had matted over his forehead with the cunning cruelty of the twists of the crown of thorns–caused the chain to be transformed before our unastonished eyes into a garland of white flowers. The transformation began at the left wrist, which it encircled with a bracelet of flowers, and continued along the chain, from link to link, to the right wrist. Harcamone kept walking, heedless of the prodigy. The guards saw nothing abnormal. I was holding the pair of scissors with which, once a month, we were allowed, each in turn, to cut our fingernails and toenails. I was therefore barefooted. I made the same movement that religious fanatics make to seize the hem of a cloak and kiss it. I took two steps, with my body bent forward and the scissors in my hand, and cut off the loveliest rose, which was hanging by a supple stem near his left wrist. The head of the rose fell on my bare foot and rolled on the pavestones among the dirty curls of cut hair. I picked it up and raised my enraptured face, just in time to see the horror stamped on that of Harcamone, whose nervousness had been unable to resist that sure prefiguration of his death. He almost fainted. For a very brief instant, I found myself on one knee before my idol, who was trembling with horror, or shame, or love, staring at me as if he had recognized me, or merely as if Harcamone had recognized Genet, and as if I were the cause of his frightful emotion, for we had each made exactly the gestures that might be so interpreted. He was deathly pale, and those who witnessed the scene from a distance might have thought that this murderer was as delicate as a Duke of Guise or a Knight of Lorraine, of whom history tells us that they fainted, overwhelmed by the smell and sight of a rose. But he pulled himself together. His face–over which a slight smile passed–grew calm again. He continued walking, with the limping gait of which I shall speak later, though it was attenuated by the fetters on his ankles, but the chain that bound his hands no longer suggested a garland and was now only a steel chain. He disappeared from my sight, whisked away by the shadow and the bend of the corridor. I put the rose into the false pocket that was cut in my jacket.
This, then, is the tone I shall adopt in speaking of Mettray, Harcamone and the prison. Nothing will prevent me, neither close attention nor the desire to be exact, from writing words that sing. And though the evocation of Bulkaen may bring me back to a more naked view of events, I know that, as soon as it ceases, my song, in reaction against this nakedness, will be more exalted. But let there be no talk of improbability or of my having derived this phrase from an arrangement of words. The scene was within me, I was present, and only by writing about it am I able to express my worship of the murderer less awkwardly. The very day following this prodigy I forgot all about it in my infatuation with Bulkaen.
Blond, close-cropped hair, eyes that were perhaps green but certainly grim-looking, a thin, lithe body–the expression that best renders it is: “grace in leaf and love at rest”–an air of being twenty years old: that’s Bulkaen. I had been at Fonte-vrault a week. I was going down for the medical examination when, at a turn of the stairway, I saw him. He was dressing or undressing. He must have been swopping his homespun jacket for a newer one. I had time enough to see, spread across his golden chest and wide as a coat of arms, the huge wings of a blue eagle. The tattoo wasn’t dry, and the scabs made it stand out in such relief that I thought it had been carved with a chisel. I was seized with a kind of holy terror. When the youngster stood up straight, his face was smiling. It was gleaming with stars. He was saying to the crony with whom he was making the swop, “. . . and besides, I’ve been given a ten-year injunction.”1 He threw his jacket over his shoulders and kept it there. I was holding a few cigarette butts in my hand, which was on a level with his eyes because of our positions on the stairs–I was on the way down. He looked at them and said, ‘someone’s got cigarettes.” I said “I have” and kept going, feeling a little ashamed of smoking Gauloises. The cigarette is the prisoner’s gentle companion. He thinks of it more than of his absent wife. His charming friendship with it is largely due to the elegance of its shape and the gestures it requires of his fingers and body. It was boorish of me not to offer Bulkaen one of my white maidens. That was our first meeting. I was too struck by the brilliance of his beauty to dare say another word. I spoke of him to no one, but I carried off in my eyes the memory of a dazzling face and body. I prayed for him to love me. I prayed for him to be the kind of person who could love me. I already knew he would lead me to death. I know now that this death will be beautiful. I mean that he was worthy of my dying for him and because of him. But may he lead me to it quickly. In any case, sooner or later it will be because of him. I shall die worn out or shattered. Even if, at the end of this book, Bulkaen proves to be contemptible because of his stupidity or vanity or some other ugly quality, the reader must not be surprised if, though aware of these qualities (since I reveal them), I persist in changing my life by following the star to which he points (I am using his terms, despite myself. When he sent me notes later on, he would write: “I’ve got my star . . .”, for his role of demon requires that he show me this new direction, He brings a message which he himself does not quite understand but which he implements in part. Fatality will first utilize my love of him. But when my love–and Bulkaen–disappear, what will be left?
I have the nerve to think that Bulkaen lived only so that I could write my book. He therefore had to die, after a life I can imagine only as bold and arrogant, slapping every paleface he came across. His death will be violent and mine will follow dose on his. I feel that I’m wound up and heading for an end which will blow us to bits.
The very next day, in the yard, during recreation, Rasseneur introduced us to each other, at a moment when several fellows were plaguing a homely, unlikable old queer. They were pushing him around, bullying him, making fun of him. The most spiteful of all, possessed of a cruelty that seemed completely unwarranted, was Botchako, who had the reputation of being the most formidable crasher in Fontevrault, a brutal individual who usually said nothing to the jerks and even less to the queers, whom he seemed unaware of, and I wondered why he had suddenly let loose on this one. It was as if he were all at once giving vent to insults that had been accumulating a long time. His irregular but firm teeth seemed to be curling his lips. His face was freckled. One imagined he was red-headed. He hadn’t the shade of a beard. He wasn’t jeering with a smile, as were the others; he was nasty and insulting. He wasn’t playing but seemed to be taking revenge. Rage set him ablaze. He was regarded as the biggest fucker in the jug. Ugliness is beauty at rest. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse and hollow. It also had some acid scratches which were like cracks, like fissures, and, considering the beauty of his voice when he sang, I examined his speaking voice more attentively. I made the following discovery: the irritating hoarseness, forced by the singing, was transformed into a very sweet, velvety strain, and the fissures became the clearest notes. It was somewhat as if, in unwinding a ball of wool at rest, these notes had been refined. A physicist can easily explain this phenomenon. As for me, I remain disturbed in the presence of the person who revealed to me that beauty is the projection of ugliness and that by ‘developing” certain monstrosities we obtain the purest ornaments. Under the spell of his words, I expected to see him strike the jerk, who dared not make a movement, not even of fear. He instinctively assumed the sudden, shifty, prudent immobility of a frightened animal. Had Botchako made a single move to strike, he might have killed him, for he would not have been able to check his fury. It was known in the prison that he never stopped fighting until he was completely exhausted. The features of his pug-nosed face manifested the power of a solid, stocky, unflinching body. His face was like a boxer’s, tough and firm, hardened by repeated blows, beaten like wrought-iron. There was nothing soft or drooping about its flesh. The skin clung to dry muscle and bone. His forehead was too narrow to contain enough reason to stop his anger once it got going. His eyes were deep set and the epidermis of his chest, which was visible though the opening of the shirt and homespun jacket, was white and healthy-looking and absolutely hairless.
Above the yard, on a kind of raised cat-walk, Randon made his rounds without stopping. From time to time he would look down into the yard where we were standing about. He was the meanest of the guards. In order that he not notice the cruelty of the scene–he would have had the guilty ones punished for the sake of virtue–the big shots and the jerk himself made their attitudes and gestures look inoffensive, even friendly, while their mouths were spewing insults, though in a muffled voice that veiled their malevolence. The queer was smiling with the utmost humility, as much to put off the guard as to try to mollify Botchako and his cronies.
“You bitch, you swallow it by the mouthful!”
With a single twist, unique in the world, Botchako hitched up his pants.
“I’d shoot it up your hole, you punk!”
Bulkaen was leaning against the wall with his elbow, in such a way that his head was under his arm, which looked as if it were a crown. This crown-arm was bare, for his jacket was, as always, simply thrown over his shoulders, and that enormous coil of muscle, his baron’s coronet on the light head of a child of the North, was the visible sign of the ten years of banishment that weighed on his delicate pate. He wore his beret the way Harcamone did. At the same time, I saw his neck, the skin of which was shadowy with grime; from his round shirt-collar emerged a wing-tip of the blue eagle. His right ankle was crossed over the left, the way Mercury is always depicted, and the heavy homespun trousers, as worn by him, had infinite grace. His smiling lips were parted. From his mouth came a breath which could only be perfumed. His left hand was poised on his hipbone as on the handle of a dagger. I haven’t invented this posture. That’s how he stood. I add that he had a slender figure, broad shoulders and a voice strong with the assurance that came from the awareness of his invincible beauty. He was watching the scene. Botchako was still spitting insults and getting more and more nasty.
Lou Daybreak, the most isolated of us because of his name, made a vague gesture. Lou’s name was a vapour that enveloped his entire person, and when you pierced the softness and approached him, when you passed through his name, you scraped against the thorns, against the sharp, cunning branches with which he bristled. He was blond, and his eyebrows looked like spikes of rye stuck to his stylized brow. He was a pimp, and we didn’t like him. He hung out with other pimps, whom we called “Julots’ or “Those Gentlemen” . . . and they often got into brawls with our mobs.
We thought that this gesture–his hand dropping on Botchako’s shoulder–was an attempt to make peace, but he said, with a smile:
“Go on, marry him! You’re in love with him. Anyone can see it!”
‘me? Marry a queer?”
Botchako’s face expressed exaggerated disgust. There was no reason for Lou to talk as he did, for though the pimps and the crashers, who formed distinct groups, did speak to each other about trivial matters having to do with work and life in common, they never took the liberty of going too far. I was waiting for Botchako to go for Lou, but he turned away and spat. Lou smiled. There was a movement of hostility in the group of crashers. I looked at Bulkaen. He was smiling and shifting his gaze back and forth from Botchako to the jerk. Amused perhaps. But I dared not think I was in the presence of two guys (Bulkaen and the queer) who were basically identical. I was watching Bulkaen to see his reaction to the queer’s gestures. I tried to detect a correspondence between their gesticulations. There was nothing mannered about Bulkaen. His excessive vivacity made him seem somewhat brutal. Was he carrying within him an abashed and quivering fag who resembled the pathetic jerk that everyone despised?
Would he love me? My spirit was already flying off in quest of my happiness. Would some unexpected happening, some blunder, alike and equally miraculous, link us by love as he was linked with Rocky? He related the great event to me later on. I translate his language: Rocky and he had met at Clair-vaux Prison. They were released the same day and decided to work together. Three days later, their first burglary made them rich: a wad of banknotes. ‘sixty thousand francs,” said Bulkaen. They left the rifled apartment and went out into the street and the night, floating with elation. They dared not count and split the booty in the lighted street. They entered the garden of the Square d”Anvers, which was deserted. Rocky took out the bills. He counted them and gave thirty to Bulkaen. The joy of being free and rich gave them wings. Their souls tried to leave their cumbrous bodies, to drag them heavenward. It was real joy. They smiled with glee at their success. They rose to the occasion, as if to congratulate each other, not upon their skill but their luck, as one congratulates a friend who has come into money, and this happy impulse made them embrace. Their joy was so great that there is no knowing its essence. Its origin was the successful job, but a small fact (the embrace, the accolade) intervened amidst the joyous tumult, and despite themselves it was this new fact that they considered the source of the happiness which they named love. Bulkaen and Rocky kissed. They could not break away from each other, for happiness never produces a movement of withdrawal. The happier they were, the more deeply they entered each other. They were rich and free–they were happy. They were in each other’s arms at the moment of deepest happiness: they loved each other. And as this merging was energized by the mute fear of being caught, and also because their mutual solitude made them seek a friend as a shelter in which to hide, they married.
Bulkaen’s gaze turned away from the scene that pained me and it settled on Rasseneur, the friend who had introduced us–but his head had to make a quarter-turn and his gaze met mine on its way to Rasseneur. I thought for a moment that he had recognized me as the fellow of the day before. My face remained impassive, indifferent, and his, now that I recall it, was, I think, somewhat arch. He started a conversation. When the ten-minute recreation period was over, I shook hands with him without wanting to seem as if I were bothering to look at him, and I made a point of this calculated indifference by pretending to be overjoyed to see a friend who was going by, but I carried Bulkaen off in the depths of my heart. I went back to my cell, and the abandoned habit of my abandoned childhood took hold of me: the rest of the day and all night long I built an imaginary life of which Bulkaen was the centre, and I always gave that life, which was begun over and over and was transformed a dozen times, a violent end: murder, hanging or beheading.
We saw each other again. At each of our meetings he appeared before me in a bloody glory of which he was unaware. I was drawn to him by the force of love, which was opposed by the force of supernatural but brawny creatures who kept me from going to him by fettering my wrists, waist and ankles with chains that would have kept a cruiser anchored on a stormy night. He was always smiling. Thus, it was through him that the habits of my childhood took hold of me again.
My childhood was dead and with it died the poetic powers that had dwelt in me. I no longer hoped that prison would remain the fabulous world it had long been. One day, I suddenly realized from certain signs that it was losing its charms, which meant perhaps that I was being transformed, that my eyes were opening to the usual view of the world. I saw prison as any ordinary roughneck sees it. It is a dungeon where I rage at being locked up, but today, in the hole, instead of reading “Tattooed Jean” on the wall of the cell, I read, because of a malformation of the letters carved in the plaster, “Tortured Jean.” (It’s because of Harcamone that I’ve been in the hole for a month, and not because of Bulkaen.) I walked by the murderer’s cell too often, and one day I was caught. Here are a few details: The carpentry shop and the shops where camouflage nets and iron beds are made are in a court in the north part of the former abbey. They are one-storey buildings. The dormitories are on the first and second floors of the left wing, which is supported by the wall of the former chapterhouse. The infirmary is on the ground floor. In order to get there, I had to go by way of the sixth or seventh division, where the death-cells were located, and I always went by way of the seventh. Harcamone’s cell was at the right. A guard, who sat on a stool, would look inside and talk to him or read a newspaper or eat a cold meal. I would look straight ahead and keep going.
It must seem odd that I walked through the prison all by myself. The reason is that I had arranged things, first with Rocky, who was an attendant in the infirmary, and then, when he left prison, with his successor. While at work, I would pretend that something was wrong with me, and the attendant would send for me to be treated. The guard in the shop would merely ring up his colleague and let him know I was coming.
The exact vision that made a man of me, that is, a creature living solely on earth, corresponded with the fact that my femininity, or the ambiguity and haziness of my male desires, seemed to have ended. If my sense of wonder, the joy that suspended me from branches of pure air, sprang chiefly from my identifying myself with the handsome thugs who haunted the prison, as soon as I achieved total virility–or, to be more exact, as soon as I became a male–the thugs lost their glamour. And though my meeting Bulkaen revives dormant charms, I shall preserve the benefit of that march toward maleness, for Bulkaen’s beauty is, above all, delicate. I no longer yearned to resemble the hoodlums. I felt I had achieved self-fulfillment. Perhaps I feel it less today, after the adventures I am describing, but I felt strong, not dependent, free, unbound. Glamorous models ceased to present themselves. I strode jauntily in my strength, with a weightiness, a sureness, a forthright look which are themselves proofs of force. The hoodlums no longer appealed to me. They were my equals. Does this mean that attraction is possible only when one is not entirely oneself? During those years of softness when my personality took all sorts of forms, any male could squeeze my sides with his walls, could contain me. My moral substance (and physical substance, which is its visible form, what with my white skin, weak bones, slack muscles, my slow gestures and their uncertainty) was without sharpness, without contour. I longed at the time–and often went so far as to imagine my body twisting about the firm, vigorous body of a male–to be embraced by the calm, splendid stature of a man of stone with sharp angles. And I was not completely at ease unless I could completely take his place, take on his qualities, his virtues. When I imagined I was he, making his gestures, uttering his words: when I was he. People thought I was seeing double, whereas I was seeing the double of things. I wanted to be myself, and I was myself when I became a crasher. All burglars will understand the dignity that arrayed me when I held my jimmy, my “pen.” From its weight, material, and shape, and from its function too, emanated an authority that made me a man. I had always needed that steel penis in order to free myself completely from my faggotry, from my humble attitudes, and to attain the clear simplicity of manliness. I am no longer surprised at the arrogant ways of youngsters who have used the pen, even if only once. You may shrug your shoulders and mutter that they’re scum. Nothing will prevent them from retaining the jimmy’s virtue, which gives, in every circumstance, a sometimes astounding hardness to their youthful softness. Those who have used it are marked men. Bulkaen had known the jimmy, I could tell at once. These kids are crashers, therefore men, as much by virtue of the kind of nobility conferred upon them by the jimmy as of the risks, sometimes very great, which they have taken. Not that any particular courage is needed–I would say, rather, an unconcern, which is more exact. They are noble. A crasher cannot have low sentiments (I intend, starting here, to generalize. You will read later on about the baseness of hoodlums.), since he leads a dangerous life with his body, for only the crasher’s body is in danger, he does not worry about his soul. You are concerned for your honour, your reputation, you devise ways and means of saving them. But the crasher takes risks in the practice of his trade. His ruses are the ruses of a warrior and not of a sharper. It is noteworthy that during the war of 1940 real burglars did not try to live by what became common among bourgeois and workers, by what was then called the “black market.” They knew nothing about business. When the prisons were filled with honest people who had been driven from the woods by hunger, they lost their fine, lordly bearing, but the crashers remained a haughty aristocracy. The great evil of this war has been its dissolving the hardness of our prisons. The war has locked up so many innocent people that the prisons are merely places of lamentation. Nothing is more repugnant than an innocent man in prison. He has done nothing to deserve jail (these are his own words). Destiny has made an error.
I did not get my first jimmy from a yegg, I bought it in a hardware store. It was short and solid, and, from the time of my first robbery, I held it as dear as a warrior his weapons, with a mysterious veneration, as when the warrior is a savage and his weapon a rifle. The two wedges, which lay next to the jimmy in a corner of my room–the corner quickly became magnetic, hypnotic–lightened it and gave it that air of a winged prick by which I was haunted. I slept beside it, for the warrior sleeps armed.
For my first burglary I chose a few houses in Auteil and looked up the names of the tenants in the phone book.1I had decided to operate as luck would have it. I would break in if nobody was home. I casually passed the concierge’s window in the first apartment house. In my trousers, against my thigh, were my jimmy and wedges. I started on the fifth floor so as to run less risk of being disturbed. I rang once. No one answered. I rang twice. Finally I set up a peal that lasted two minutes so as to be sure the apartment was empty.
If I were writing a novel, there might be a point in describing the gestures I made, but the aim of this book is only to relate the experience of freeing myself from a state of painful torpor, from a low, shameful life taken up with prostitution and begging and under the sway of the glamour and charm of the criminal world. I freed myself by and for a prouder attitude.
I had trained myself by breaking open doors in safe places, my own door and those of my friends. I therefore carried out the present operation in quick time, perhaps three minutes. Time enough to force the bottom of the door with my foot, insert a wedge, force the top with the jimmy and insert the second wedge between the door and the jamb, move up the first wedge, move down the second, wedge the jimmy near the lock, and push . . . When the lock cracked, the noise it made seemed to me to resound through the building. I pushed the door and went in. The noise of the lock as it gives way, the silence that follows and the solitude that always besets me will govern my criminal entrances. These are rites, the more important as they are inevitable and are not mere adornments of an action whose essence is still mysterious to me. I entered. I was the young sovereign who takes possession of a new realm where all is new to him but where there surely lurks the danger of attacks and conspiracies, a danger hidden along the road he takes, behind every rock, every tree, under the rugs, in the flowers that are tossed and the gifts offered by a people invisible by virtue of their number. The entrance was large. It heralded the most sumptuous home I had ever seen. I was surprised that there were no servants. I opened a door and found myself in the big drawing-room. The objects were waiting for me. They were laid out for the robbery, and my passion for plunder and booty was inflamed. To speak properly of my emotion I would have to employ the same words I used in describing my wonderment in the presence of that new treasure, my love for Bulkaen, and in describing my fear in the presence of the possible treasure, his love for me. I would have to allude to the trembling hopes of the virgin, of the village fianc”e who waits to be chosen, and then to add that this light moment is threatened by the black, pitiless, single eye of a revolver. For two days I remained in the presence of Bulkaen’s image, with the fearful shyness of one who carries his first bouquet in its lace-paper collar. Would he say yes? Would he say no? I implored the spiders that had woven such precious circumstances. Let their thread not snap!
I opened a glass cabinet and carried off all the ivories and jades. Perhaps I was the first crasher ever to leave without bothering about cash, and it was not until my third job that I felt the sense of power and freedom that comes from discovering a sheaf of bills that you stuff into your pockets. I closed the door behind me and went downstairs. I was saved from bondage and low inclinations, for I had just performed an act of physical boldness. I already held my head high as I walked down the stairs. I felt in my trousers, against my thigh, the icy jimmy. I amiably wished that a tenant would appear so that I could use the strength that was hardening me. My right hand closed on the jimmy:
“If a woman comes along, I’ll lay her out with my pendulum.”
When I got to the street, I walked boldly. But I was always accompanied by an agonizing thought: the fear that honest people may be thieves who have chosen a cleverer and safer way of stealing. This fear disturbed my peace of mind in my solitude. I dismissed the idea by means of shrewd devices, which I shall describe.
I was now a man, a he-man. The broad-shouldered kids and pimps, the children of sorrow with bitter mouths and frightening eyes, were of no further use to me. I was alone. Everything was absent from the prisons, even solitude. Thus, my interest in adventure novels wanes in so far as I can no longer seriously imagine myself being the hero or being in his situation. I stopped plunging into those complications in which the slightest feat, criminal or otherwise, could be copied, be carried over into life, be utilized personally and lead me to wealth and glory. Thus, it was now extremely difficult for me to re-immerse myself in my dream-stories, stories fabricated by the disheartening play of solitude, but I found–and still find, despite my new plunge–more wellbeing in the true memories of my former life. Since my childhood is dead, in speaking of it I shall be speaking of something dead, but I shall do so in order to speak of the world of death, of the Kingdom of Darkness or Transparency. Someone has carved on the wall: “Just as I’m guarded by a prison-door, so my heart guards your memory . . .” I shall not let my childhood escape.
Thus, my heaven had emptied. The time to become who I am had perhaps arrived. And I shall be what I do not foresee, since I do not desire it, but I will not be a sailor or explorer or gangster or dancer or boxer, for their most glorious representatives no longer have a hold on me. I stopped wanting, and I shall never again want, to go through the canyons of Chile, for I have stopped admiring the clever and sturdy Rifle King who scaled their rocks in the illustrated pages of my childhood. The excitement was over. As for things, I began to know them by their practical qualities. The objects here in jail have been worn out by my eyes and are now sickly pale. They no longer mean prison to me, since the prison is inside me, composed of the cells of my tissues. It was not until long after my return here that my hands and eyes, which were only too familiar with the practical qualities of objects, finally stopped recognizing these qualities and discovered others which have another meaning. Everything was without mystery for me, but that bareness was not without beauty because I establish the difference between my former and present view of things, and this displacement intrigues me. Here is a very simple image: I felt I was emerging from a cave peopled with marvellous creatures, which one. only senses (angels, for example, with speckled faces), and entering a luminous space where everything is only what it is, without overtones, without aura. What it is: useful. This world, which is new to me, is dreary, without hope, without excitement. Now that the prison is stripped of its sacred ornaments, I see it naked, and its nakedness is cruel. The inmates are merely sorry creatures with teeth rotted by scurvy; they are bent with illness and are always spitting and sputtering and coughing. They go from dormitory to shop in big, heavy, resounding sabots. They shuffle along on canvas slippers which are eaten away and stiff with filth that the dust has compounded with sweat. They stink. They are cowardly in the presence of the guards, who are as cowardly as they. They are now only scurrilous caricatures of the handsome criminals I saw in them when I was twenty. I only wish I could expose sufficiently the blemishes and ugliness of what they have become so as to take revenge for the harm they did me and the boredom I felt when confronted with their unparalleled stupidity.
And it grieved me to discover this new aspect of the world and of prison at a time when I was beginning to realize that prison was indeed the closed area, the confined, measured universe in which I ought to live permanently. It is the universe for which I am meant. It is meant for me. It is the one in which I must live ( for I have the organs one needs to live in it), to which I am always being brought back by the fatality that showed me the curve of my destiny in the letters carved on the wall: ‘m.A.V.”1 And I have this feeling ( so disheartening that after my mentioning it to Rasseneur he exclaimed: “Oh! Jean!” in a tone of such poignant sadness that I felt an instant expression of his friendship), I have this feeling during the medical check-up or during recreation when I meet friends, new and old, those to whom I am “Jeannot with the Pretty Ties’, those I knew at the Mouse-trap, in the corridors of Sant” and Fresnes Prisons, even outside. It is so natural for them to make up the population of prison and I discover I have such close ties with them (professional relations, relations of friendship or hatred) that, since I feel so much a part of this world, it horrifies me to know that I am excluded from the other, yours, just when I was attaining the qualities by means of which one can live in it. I am therefore dead. I am a dead man who sees his skeleton in a mirror, or a dream character who knows that he lives only in the darkest region of a being whose face he will not know when the dreamer is awake. I now act and think only in terms of prison. My activity is limited by its framework. I am only a punished man. To the usual hardships of prison has been added hunger, and not a child’s hunger–for our hunger at Mettray was the gluttony natural to children who are never sated, even by abundance. Hunger here is a man’s hunger. It bites the bodies (and gnaws the minds) of the least sensitive brutes. Behind the walls, the war, which is mysterious to us, has shrunk our loaf of bread, our food allowance, and the big shots have been hit in the rightful object of their pride, their muscles. Hunger has transformed the prison into a Great North where wolves howl at night. We live at the confines of the Arctic polar circle. Our skinny bodies fight among themselves, and each, within itself, against hunger. This hunger, which at first helped to disenchant the jail, has now become so great that it is a tragic element which finally crowns the prison with a savage, baroque motif, with a ringing song that is wilder than the others and may dizzy me and make me fall into the hands of the powers summoned by Bulkaen. Despite this affliction–for though I take a man’s stand, I realize that I am leaving a larval world of prodigious richness and violence–I want to try to relive my moments at Mettray. The atmosphere of the prison quickly impelled me to go back–in going back to Mettray–to my habits of the past, and I do not live a single moment on earth without at the same time living it in my secret domain, which is probably similar to the one inhabited by the men who are being punished, who walk round and round with their heads bent and their eyes looking straight ahead. And the fury with which I once turned on Chariot has not yet emptied me of the hatred I vowed him, despite my air of indifference, when, in the shop, because I reacted vaguely, or perhaps not at all, to one of his jokes, he shook me by the shoulder and said, “You in a fog or something?” I instantly felt the hatred we can bear a person who violates our dearest secrets, those of our vices.
At times, each of us is the theatre of a drama which is occasioned by several elements: his real loves, a fight, his jealousy, a projected escape, which merge with dream adventures more brutal than real ones, and the men who are then wracked by the drama suddenly thrash about, but in silence. They make stiff gestures. They are brusque, taut, set. They hit out as if fighting an invisible soldier. Suddenly they relapse into their torpor; their very physiognomy sinks to the bottom of a swamp of dreams. Though the warden may say we are sluggish, the more subtle guards know that we are deep in these gardens and they no more disturb the submerged convict gratuitously than a Chinese disturbs an opium-smoker. Chariot was not an absolute tough. He therefore could not permit himself to screw me. And though he could later knock hell out of anyone who needled him, there hung over him the infamy of having made with his own hands, when he was broke, a black satin dress so that his girl could cruise for trade. I hated him for that blemish and for his shrewdness. In fact, my nerves couldn’t stand the provocations, however slight, of a jerk or weakling. I would let my fists fly at the merest trifle. But there would have been no need to let fly at a tough, and it was not only because of fear, but because the toughs never even annoyed me. There issues from those I call “toughs’ a potency that still dominates, and that soothes me. At Mettray I beat the daylights out of a little jerk who ran his hands over the window-panes with a squeaking sound. A few days later, Divers did the very same thing and thus tugged at all my nerves, which wound about him and climbed lovingly over his body. If my memories of the Colony are awakened by Bulkaen in particular, by his presence, by his effect on me, the danger will be doubled, for my love of him already threatened to deliver me to the former powers of the Prison. And because in addition to this danger is that of the language I shall use in talking of Mettray and Fontevrault. For I tear my words from the depths of my being, from a region to which irony has no access, and these words, which are charged with all the buried desires I carry within me and which express them on paper as I write, will re-create the loathsome and cherished world from which I tried to free myself. Furthermore, as the insight I acquired into commonplace things enables me to indulge in the play and subtleties of the heart, my heart is caught in a veil again, incapable of fighting back when the lover practises his wiles. Charms master and throttle me. But I am glad to have given the loveliest names, the most beautiful titles (archangel, child-sun, my Spanish evening) to so many youngsters that I have nothing left with which to magnify Bulkaen. Perhaps, if words do not meddle too much, I shall be able to see him as he is, a pale, lively hoodlum, unless the fact of remaining solitary, alone with himself, unnamable and unnamed, charges him with an even more dangerous power.
The green faces of the plague-stricken, the world of lepers, the nocturnal sound of rattles, a voice against the wind, a tomb-like atmosphere, a knocking on the ceiling, do not repel, do not horrify so much as do the few details which make an outcast of the prisoner, the deported convict or the inmate of a reformatory. But within the prison, at its very heart, are solitary confinement and the disciplinary cell from which one emerges purified.
The origin–the roots–of the great social movements cannot possibly lie in goodness, nor can they be accounted for by reasons which are openly avowable. Religions, the Frankish and French royalty, the freemasonries, the Holy Empire, the Church, national-socialism, under which people still die by the axe and whose executioner must be a muscular fellow, have branched out across the globe, and the branches could have been nourished only in the depths. A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness. Some men take pleasure in fantasies whose basic contents are not celestial delights. These are less radiant joys, the essence of which is Evil. For these reveries are drownings and concealments, and we can conceal ourselves only in evil or, to be more exact, in sin. And what we see of just and honourable institutions at the surface of the earth is only the projection, necessarily transfigured, of these solitary, secret gratifications. Prisons are places where such reveries take shape. Prisons and their inmates have too real an existence not to have a profound effect on people who remain free. For them, prisons are a pole, and, in prison, the dungeon. I shall therefore tell why I tried to have Bulkaen–for whom my love was so recent–sent to the hole.
But first, here is why I was sent to the punishment cell, where I began to write this account.
Just as when you walk at someone’s side, his elbow and shoulder, despite your trying to walk straight, shift you to the right or left and may make you bump against walls, so a force shifted me, despite myself, in the direction of Harcamone’s cell. The result was that I often found myself in his vicinity and thus rather far from my dormitory and workshop. I would leave with a definite goal, though on the sly, either to bring some bread to a crony, or to get a cigarette in another shop, or for some other practical reason, and most of the time the goal was quite far from the seventh division, where the death-cells are located, but the same force always made me go out of my way, or go too far, and I also noticed that as I approached the secret goal, which was hidden behind the mask of a reasonable decision, my pace grew slower, my gait more supple and lighter. More and more I would hesitate to go farther. I was both pushed forward and held back. Finally I would so lose control of my nerves that if a guard came along I would be unable to dash out of sight, and if he questioned me, I had no explanation to account for my presence in the seventh division. So that the guards imagined God knows what whenever they found me there alone, and one of them, Brulard, once nabbed me.
“What are you doing here?”
“You can see for yourself. I’m going by.”
“You’re going by? Where are you going? . . . And besides, I don’t like your tone. Take your hands out of your belt.”
I was on a horse.
Even when I am very calm, I feel as if I were being swept by a storm. This may be due to my mind’s stumbling over every unevenness of surface becuse of its rapid pace, or to my desires, which are violent because they are almost always repressed, and when I live my inner scenes, I have the exhilaration that comes from always living them on horseback, on a rearing and galloping steed. I am a horseman. It is since I have known Bulkaen that I live on horseback, and I enter the lives of others on horseback as a Spanish grandee enters the Cathedral of Seville. My thighs grip the flanks. I spur my mount, my hands tighten on the reins.
Not that it happens quite that way, I mean not that I really know I’m on horseback, but rather I make the gestures and have the spirit of a man on horseback: my hand tightens, I toss back my head, my voice is arrogant. The sensation of riding a noble, whinnying animal overflowed into my daily life and gave me what is called a cavalier look and what I considered a victorious tone and bearing.
The guard reported me, and I was brought up before the warden, in the prison court. He hardly looked at me. He read the charge, put a pair of dark glasses over his pince-nez and pronounced sentence:
“Twenty days in the hole.”
A guard took me there, without letting go of my wrist, which he had held all through the hearing.
When a man in prison does all he can to make trouble for his friends who have remained free and is responsible for their being caught, he is called malicious, whereas the fact is that in such a case the malice is composed of love, for he lures his friends to prison in order to sanctify it by their presence. I tried to have Bulkaen punished, to have him sent to the disciplinary cell, not in order to be near him, but because it was essential that we both be doubly outcast at the same time, for people can love each other only on the same moral level. It was thus one of the usual mechanisms of love that made me a rat.
Bulkaen was never sent to the disciplinary cell. He died–shot–without getting there.
I am going to talk once again about this twenty-year-old crasher with whom the whole prison was in love. Mettray, where he had spent his youth, elated both of us, united and merged us in the vapours of our memory of monstrously exquisite hours. In our relations with each other we had fallen back, though not deliberately, into the ways and habits of the reformatory; we used the colonists’ gestures, and even their language; and around us, at Fontevrault, there was already a group of big shots who had been at Mettray, whether friends of ours or not, but fellows we had known well, who were united by the same likes and dislikes. Everything was a game to him, even the most serious matters. He once whispered to me on the stairs:
“We used to plan escapes. For the slightest reason, with another little guy, R”gis . . . We’d feel like eating apples, and off we’d go! Or it was the grape season, so we’d go for grapes. Sometimes it was to screw, sometimes for no reason at all. And sometimes we’d plan real ones, escapes, escapes for good. We’d manage so they didn’t work out. All in all, we had a great time.”
The prison regulations state that any convict who commits an offence or a crime must serve his penalty in the institution where he committed it. When I arrived at Fontevrault, Harcamone had been in irons for ten days. He was dying, and that death was more beautiful than his life. The death-throes of certain monuments are even more meaningful than their period of glory. They blaze before going out. He was in irons. I remind you that repressive measures are practised within the prisons: the simplest is loss of canteen privileges, then dry bread, solitary confinement, and, in the state prisons, the disciplinary cell. The Cell is a kind of big shed, the floor of which has a high polish–I don’t know whether it’s polished by brushes and floor-wax or by the canvas slippers of generations of punished men who walk in a circle and are so spaced as to occupy the entire perimeter of the hall without anyone’s being first or last, and who walk in circles the way punished colonists at Mettray walked round and round the yard (with one difference, though a disturbing one: the drill had got complicated. Here, we walk at a more rapid pace than at Mettray, and we have to keep within boundary lines that go around the hall, making our circuitous march resemble a childish and difficult game), to such a degree that at Fontevrault it seemed to me I had grown up without stopping in my round. The walls of the Mettray yard have fallen about me; those of the prison have sprung up, walls on which I read, here and there, words of love carved by convicts and phrases written by Bulkaen, the most singular of appeals, which I recognize by the abrupt pencil-strokes, as if each word were a matter of solemn decision. Ten years have gone by and a ceiling has covered the sky of Touraine. In short, without my realizing it, the setting was transformed as I aged and circled. It also seems to me that every step taken by a convict is only the step, complicated and continued for as long as ten or fifteen years, which was taken by a Mettray colonist. What I mean is that Mettray, though now destroyed, carries on, continues in time, and it seems to me too that the roots of Fontevrault are to be found in the vegetable world of our children’s hell.
At regular intervals, two yards from and parallel to the walls, is a series of masoned blocks with rounded tops, like the bitts of boats and wharves, on which the punished men sit for five minutes every hour. A husky assistant, one of the punished prisoners, supervises the drill. In a corner, behind a little wire cage, a guard reads his newspaper. At the centre of the circle is the can into which the men shit, a recipient three feet high in the form of a truncated cone. It has two ears, one on each side, on which you place your feet after sitting down, and a very low back-rest, like that of an Arab saddle, so that when you drop a load you have the majesty of a barbaric king on a metal throne. When you have to go, you raise your hand, without saying anything; the assistant makes a sign, and you leave the line, unbuttoning your trousers, which stay up without a belt. You sit on the top of the cone with your feet on the ears and your balls hanging. The others continue their silent round, perhaps without noticing you. They hear your shit drop into the urine, which splashes your bare behind. You piss and get off. The odour rises up. When I entered the room, what struck me most was the silence of the thirty inmates and, immediately, the solitary, imperial can, centre of the moving circle.
If the assistant had been at rest while supervising the drill, I would not have recognized his face, but sitting on the throne, with his brow wrinkled by the effort, he looked as if he were worried, as if he were straining with a difficult thought, and he recaptured the mean look of his youth–gathering his features–when his eyebrows, contracted by anger or bad temper, almost came together and I recognized Divers. Perhaps if I had been less in love with Bulkaen it would have pained me, even after fifteen years, to meet, in such a posture, the person I had loved so ardently at Mettray. Though perhaps not, for nobility was so apparent in his slightest movements that it was difficult, if not impossible, for him to seem humiliated. He got up without wiping himself. The odour–his odour–rose up, vast and serene, in the middle of the room, and, after buttoning himself, he resumed the rigid immobility of command.
“One . . . two! One . . . two!”
It is still the same guttural voice, a big shot’s voice, that issues from a throat encumbered with oysters which he can still spit violently in the face of a jerk. It is the same cry and voice he had at Mettray. From my cell, I still hear him yelling. The pace of the marching will remain a hundred twenty steps a minute.
I arrived in the morning from a punishment cell in order to enjoy by means of words the memory of Bulkaen, who had remained above, in order to caress him by caressing the words which are meant to recall him to himself by recalling him to me, I had begun the writing of this book on the white sheets with which I was supposed to make paper bags. My eyes were startled by the light of day and smarting from the night’s dream, a dream in which someone opened a door for Harcamone. I was in the dream, behind the door, and I motioned to Harcamone to cross the threshhold, but he hesitated, and his hesitation surprised me. Awakened by the guard during this episode in order to go from the hole to the big cell, I was still under the influence–which was painful, I don’t know why–of the dream when, at about eight o’clock, I went to take my place in the circle.
After punishment in the disciplinary cell there is the severer one of being put in irons. This can be imposed only by the Minister of the Interior, at the warden’s request. It consists of the following: The ankles are held by a ring which is attached to a very heavy chain; the ring is snapped shut by a guard. The wrists are bound by a lighter, slightly longer chain. This is the stiffest punishment of all. It precedes the death penalty and is, in fact, its forerunner, since, from the day sentence is pronounced until the day of execution, the feet of men condemned to death are in irons day and night, and their wrists and feet are chained at night and whenever they leave the cell.
Before speaking more fully about Bulkaen and Divers, who were the pretext for my book, I want to introduce Harcamone, who, when all is said and done, remains its sublime and final cause. I felt, as he did, the shock and dismal sound of the formula “preliminary hearing to confirm the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.”1 When a man is convicted of theft for the fourth time, with mandatory penalties, that is, more than three months in prison, he is sentenced to “transportation.” Now that the penal colony has been abolished, he will have to spend the rest of his life in prison. Harcamone was sentenced to “transportation.” And I am going to speak of his death sentence. I shall explain later the miracle whereby I witnessed, at certain times, his entire inner, secret and spectacular life, but here and now I offer my thanks for this to the God we serve, who rewards us by the attentions that God reserves for his saints. It is saintliness too that I am returning to seek in the unfolding of this adventure. I really must go in quest of a God who is mine, for as I looked at pictures of the penal colony my heart suddenly clouded with nostalgia for a land which I knew elsewhere than in Guiana, elsewhere than on maps and in books, and which I discovered within myself. And the picture showing the execution of a convict in Cayenne made me say: “He stole my death.” I still remember my tone of voice: it was tragic, that is, the exclamation was directed to the friends I was with–I wanted them to believe me–but the tone was also slightly muted because I was voicing a deep sigh, a sigh which came from afar, which showed that my regret came from afar.
To speak of saintliness again in connection with transportation will set your teeth on edge, for they are not used to an acid diet. Yet the life I lead requires the giving up of earthly things that the Church, and all churches, require of their saints. Then saintliness opens, in fact forces a door which looks out on the marvellous. And it is also recognized by the following: that it leads to Heaven by way of sin.
Those who are sentenced to death for life–the “trans-portees”–know that the only means of escaping horror is friendship. By abandoning themselves to it, they forget the world, your world. They raise friendship to so high a plane that it is purified and remains alone, isolated from the creatures who fathered it, and friendship–on this ideal level, in the pure state, as it must be if the lifer is not to be carried away by despair, as one is said to be carried off (with all the consequent horror) by galloping consumption–friendship becomes the individual and very subtle sentiment of love which every predestined man discovers (in his own hiding-places) for his inner glory. Living in so restricted a universe, they thus had the boldness to live in it as passionately as they lived in your world of freedom, and as a result of being contained in a narrower frame their lives became so intense, so hard, that anyone–journalists, wardens, inspectors–who so much as glanced at them was blinded by their brilliance. There the most potent pimps hew out–that’s exactly the word–a dazzling celebrity, and when one feels, behind the wall that is more fragile than the past and equally impassable, the proximity of your world (paradise lost) after witnessing the scene which is as frighteningly fabulous as God’s wrathful threatening of the punished couple, the audacity to live (and to live with all one’s might) within that world whose only outlet is death has the beauty of the great maledictions, for it is worthy of what was done in the course of all the ages by the Mankind that had been expelled from Heaven. And this, in effect, is saintliness, which is to live according to Heaven, in spite of God.