Pierre Alferi (b. 1963)
(Elinfant, 18min, music by Rodolphe Burger, 2000).
Off voice, translated by Stacy Doris
What member of this family am I? I am the jewel on the animal’s head. In my red apprentice mahout turban, it’s a cherry and, when the sun hits it, an emerald. I’m protected from the dust rising from my elephant’s steps, breathed in to spray her back when she shakes herself at nightfall. From dawn to dusk we’re inseparable, a centaur with a pharaohminal tail and pinhead chest. And the walk. My elephant part has no last name, both matro- and patronymic, my family embalmed tanned sculpted, ivory and leather. Because she’s horsy and heavy, with a valet’s dangerous ears and wits, I call her Percheval, and I’m her cavalier, Loyal Lad. Without the trunk, Percheval’s a Porcheron with a piggish snout that grunts and farts. The land of my childhood is known only as monster, elinfancy, but call us majesty when we pass through your villages, or whatever name commands the greatest fear and respect in your dialects: the common name for animal and proper name for eponymous god. For my subsistence I pinch nuts and fruits from the heights. The trunk is an extension of my hand which is an extension of my thoughts, and I see whatever’s hatching in the boudoirs, at the geranium’s altitude.
I have a limitless workforce between my legs, whose sign heralds “Shivers & Timbers.” It obeys the touch of a finger, an eye, a feeling. My beast’s massively masculine: a cock that nearly drags on the ground, obscenity, the trunk. This is the payback for a traumatic pre-infancy about which I don’t know all. Some questions to be asked can’t be asked in the presence of a child on his own. For me, the disaster is lost in the liminal, I should be back there with all the new-still-borns: I tell how Manmom died in childbirth, or was killed by a hunter. Then came Momdad’s turn. He was a mahout for English sahibs, killed by the quarry, a tiger. I claim I’ll be a mahout myself, the best, whatever it takes. And I know what it takes: the old ones said it on the eve of the encampment: I must see the elephants dance.
So I was writing my own elinfatography, I dreamed of being an orphaned monster, Toomai grafted on elephant legs, Babar Huckleberry Remi and his monkey Joil-court, Romulus Mowgli the frogman, son of wolves, limbs deformed from mourning. A lost child is first taken in by animals, everyone knows that part. Orphan is the name of this hybrid species. In a new body of the of the exemplary elephant outgrowth, the dead let themselves be led, sorrow waste changed to wholesome hearty fare bulletproof protective parchment and potent penile nose, autonomy of two in one, head and legs. If I try to find my child self-portrait, I come up with a pipe dream.
But also with a poor invalid. Not that he was a dwarf, on the contrary more than human, only there is no grafting without an amputation. The elinfant, uprooter, was just as squeezed into his eipipachidermis, a prisoner of his own devices, a bedridden elephantman, every woman’s nightmare. As a child, I dreamed of grave deformities. The ailing had powers: like me they had lost, and without having won anything first, but they raised themselves above their defects, or sunk below them to work their charms. “Handicap,” a silly euphemism when it comes to executing a command—lifting a foot, opening an eye—has no appeal. “Infirmity,” on the other hand, evoked a sense of supernatural strength for me. The stump was more than a vestige: tonged appendix, advanced organ like the eye of the deaf ear of the blind hand of the legless. I pictured myself thus in a bright future.
An aunt asked me one day if I wanted to grow up to be a fireman or veterinarian or airline pilot. I answered
PARALYTIC and here’s the synopsis:
One melancholy evening, I jumped out the window – spinal cord cut in two. I keep a stiff upper lip, no complaints no regrets will come from my mouth. I go up and down the stairs on an electric track; it’s even better than sliding backwards down a banister. A single lever on my armrest serves a gear shift and steering wheel. When I go out, my brother pushes me. I’m highly dignified and always in a fine mood. They fuss over me; I muse, eyes half-closed. I speak softly, my head tilted because my neck is weak, and they lean over, listening to me with knit brows, weighing my words, punctuating my speech with astonished ahs, convinced. Wherever I go there’s a murmur from the standing, considerate. I spend hours at the museum; my brother leaves my chair parked before the painting of my choice, just at my eyes’ height. I spend days reading while my little classmates tire themselves with useless outdoor activities. Everywhere I go I feel settled in, like a snail, turtle. In my chair I’m at home.
But I was also quite tempted by the fate of the exhausted, in the chesty tradition illustrated by Rose Manmom. So I might choose
Ah . . . I’m stifled by this world. I live a rarified life. This slightest word costs me dear, for you it means nothing. What suits you, fits you like a glove, air, air makes me suffer horribly, and annoyances make it worse, soon nobody will mock me any longer. A deep breath of oxygen for you, for me drenched in nitrogen, and I’ll remind you of my misfortune with my long squirts of Ventoline. Exempt me! Exempt the exhausted nose, the breathless panting, from all the trials that try, from all that’s either done or to do, this dunning. Meanwhile I become a popular orator—crowds hang on each shallow exhalation. My prosody’s praised, my unique inspiration. The unknown origin of my symptoms points to unspeakable moral suffering, alllergy to existence, spleen in the chest cavity. The oppression that I alone experience comes to symbolize the root of all evil, the misery of the condition humaine, the wrong with this world. My will to breathe a purer air makes it all clear. I am an exile of ether.
The inconvenience involved in these two careers, which I greatly underestimated, made me have second thoughts. So I set my sights on minor infirmities, cosmetic and irresistible as a cocked eye. I might be
Another suicide attempt left me nearly unscathed. The limp on the left side, nearly imperceptible, slows and stiffens me. Utmost distinction. I walk on a friend’s arm, eternally convalescent. Touching tableau: intimacy, respectful distance. Every ten paces I rest, one’s a bit heavier than the other – clic-clac clic-clac clic-clac clic-clac clic-clac: I walk in iambic pentameter. This coquetry of the hip justifies the use of canes, noble accessory if there ever was one, to be substituted at times by an English umbrella. Mine have round handles, silver, ivory, sharp-pointed, innocent weapon. When I’m not metronomically beating the ground, I lean, causal. Seated, I bend only one knee; people stare at me in secret, it’s exquisite.
Due to early mental degeneration, stopped in time, I’m left with this slight tremor that confers upon each gesture a welcome solemnity. I’m treated with the respect commanded by advanced years which I haven’t lived. Senile, shamelessly sunk back to my rightful infancy. It is whispered that I was a great alcoholic or a heroin addict miraculously saved. I don’t deny it.
But suddenly that wasn’t ambitious enough anymore. Around the age of six, and for many a long month, I thought my calling was to live the most complete revolution of the senses, which I tried to simulate daily to be ready when the time came. It was not a punishment, and more than a reward—a triumph. I would be
A benign tumor detected too late crushed my optic nerve. I loved films and books; what courage it took for me. I learn Braille, that enchantment, the delicate asperities under the fingers. A wildly intelligent dog, who would gladly give his life for me, takes me for walks. I develop a musical acumen which astounds: I can tell, on a night at the opera, if the second violin has been replaced. A nurse comes every evening to read me scholarly tomes. She takes dictation on my pariah thoughts, which I maniacally revise though her mouth and hands. I amaze myself in distinguishing the origin of tenuous sounds faces to the touch silent thoughts by the voice displaced objects from the echo. I explore an auditory tactile realm unknown except to me. My visual memories are delectably detailed. I feel myself everywhere in a state of watchfulness, aware of the least breath, and everywhere safe, deep within my vault.
The half-measure also had its appeal, but no comparison:
As a result of a stone-throwing contest I wear a black satin, sometimes red patch on the right side. The world’s a painted canvas, a theatre flat, a scrim: no relief. I’m acerbic, imperious as a filibuster or a Hollywood director. I reveal the agate that serves as my glass eye to nobody. But, sneaking into my room a dawn, you could see it winking on the night table.
Then there was the other revolution of the senses, less wrenching than blindness, which could be achieved in two phases. First
The hapless reflex of a surgeon removing my tonsils left me without vocal cords. I have the face of a sphinx, a Buddha, I smile vaguely. I write with lightning speed, on index cards, in lapidary style, long-incubated sentences, the communications I wish to offer the garrulous world. Bells are strewn about my room for my whims to be instantly executed. They speak, I listen, they speak to me because I know how to listen, I listen attentively, with a penetrating comprehension that inspires my interlocutors to give the best of themselves. I learn sign language; I become a virtuoso, inventing new, highly refined gestures. I trace arabesques in the air – ease, speed: a writing in 3D, I’m a choreographer of the hands. I have great affection for my dumb fellows, whom I teach to love me. They are an innocent, happy go lucky bunch. Then I become
too to keep them company. At last, silence.
That is perhaps all well and good, but it can’t stand up to the physical allure of the amputee. I aspired to a deep visible metamorphosis, equivalent to the animalization of the elinfant. The problem would be to reconcile such a change with the necessities of life. I saw that what was need was a clear but limited lack: a clean-cut end. I finally opted for
ONE-LEGGED OR ONE-ARMED:
In place of the member severed by a train wheel I have a jointed flesh-colored plastic prosthesis concealed by my clothing. The resulting stiffness of movement is similar to a limp, and just as elegant. Often, I need to readjust my fake part, shift it. I grab it firmly, with a certain self-important air, calculating the effect. At twenty, a girl tired of the healthy will fall under the spell of my charms. She will think I had polio, won’t dare to question me; I’ll act evasive and brooding when the topic is touched upon. On our wedding night, I’ll rip off the prosthesis without warning. My stump will fill her with awe.
Star cast: in the meanwhile, I got into practice with a series of sprains, faked and real. To get out of a quiz one day I mentioned a fall and a vague pain in my arm. Unforeseen developments: Paramedics, emergency room, show-off intern who over-interprets an ex-ray, (“promoclavicular dislocation”), three weeks in a cast. I finally got a taste of the cripple’s privileges. Physical: Petrifaction of the arm in an acute angle which gives it a plucked chicken wing look; pretty scarf tied in a gift bow. Aesthetic: first step of stratification in vivo, like in the hands of a failed sculptor turned assassin for art’s sake, encrusting the bodies of his victims in stucco; tabula rasa beauty emanating from the member, as a blank page offered up to budding tattooists and future stars lavish with autographs. Symbolic: respect mixed with envy from classmates, consideration from teachers and tykes, girlish admiration. And soon I fell for real, the left arm replaced the right, then a leg, then the other, and I even earned a neck brace that bestowed upon me that haughty gait of African princesses.
When I couldn’t get a cast I’d cut myself burn scratch myself. Not more clumsy than an adult, wounded so the wound would make me stand out, a reminder of what I fragile thing I was, and by extension—sophistry—precious. War injuries, surgical blue stitches. I was proud: bandages, so for real. Disguised as the walking wounded, smashed eyebrow arch badge of courage swollen lip iodine stains Ace bandage—better still, I would smash my face in even worse to be able to go home smiling under my African mask of pain. For I had no self-image, yearned for a body with face holes cut out. Tom took shape before my eyes, had a physiognomy. In pace with his developing I amputated disfigured myself. In admiration I told myself: I’d give an arm for him, willingly, a leg, a vital organ. In the retrospective dawn of reflection, I discovered what little babe means:
little aborted monster
being not made trunk with stumps
calf’s head mooing over swaddled corpuscle
diapered lamb foetus.
Little more than a common appendix of Manmom and Momdad, extracted tumor, exaggerated strain of tropical elephantiasis caused by some filarial worm or Wuchereria bancrofti ,the spermatozoa was a sort of parasite of women. And since I wanted to be an orphan here I was alone faced with this failure of the flesh: one part of the parted whole, a terror terrified.
I was in fact normal, incurably. Momdad and Manmom had respectively Strength and Virtue. Alice, Beauty that would be Grace, one day moral: Magnanimity. Tom, Genius. I was normal, normal, not even too normal, that would be flattering myself. Physically fine but lackluster, well-behaved good student. I needed a birth defect like Jesus, at whatever cost. The accidents I threw myself into were nothing but a test drive for the defect’s onset. Soon, I’d find my way, they’d see what there’s to see, I’d be displayed in sideshows.]