A simple and accessible French poem stirs a bitter cup.
Jacques Prévert’s brief poem is a clear and saddening glimpse of what seems to be the end of a relationship, but the whole thing is deliciously vague. Who are these two people, and what is the nature of their relationship? We know the one who leaves is a man, which we know from the subject pronoun; but the gender of the one left behind and crying is satisfyingly unclear. All we work with is a sparse series of phrases which convey simple images in a stream of consciousness, much like viewing a slideshow of photographs or watching a short film. The reader can delicately apply their own experience, their own preferences, to the particulars that Prévert omits. One might easily take a macabre delight in the simple turns of phrase that evoke such hurtful pangs, such dark little switches of recognition. After all, people in relationships of many flavors have probably parted as sadly as this, perhaps over a final cup of coffee and a farewell cigarette, or in a context similar enough to stir one’s own little cup of bitterness.
I appreciate this poem for its simplicity and accessibility. It was read aloud in a French class I participated in recently, and the little raw nerve it struck led me to investigate Jacques Prévert further, including picking up a copy of his book of poems, Paroles. At this time I connected him as the screenwriter of Les Enfants du paradis (The Children of Paradise, 1945). This multifaceted writer has also had some of his poetry set to music by various composers, or sung by contemporary vocalists such as Édith Piaf. Upon learning this fact, I imagined what sort of music might accompany Déjeuner du matin. Would a slow timbre suffice, or should the adjoining notes be as quick and cruel as the lines of the poem itself? The words in themselves are so brief and strong, what other sound could convey the same feeling? I have read the poem aloud and listened for an appropriate cue, something in the sound of the words that may give me a clue. Unfortunately my training was not in music. Needless to say, this sad little poem has helped tie together various threads of my francophone experience, on both literary and cinematic fronts. It is interesting for myself to note that Prévert had not been discovered before, in the context of a similar academic experience, of while having lived in France for a short time. It is especially silly as I have enjoyed other French poets such as Charles Baudelaire, particularly his Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) and his translations from English of the stories of the American writer Edgar Allen Poe. My recent and whimsical discovery of Prévert has helped to remind me of the richness of any language tradition, and the many depths I can still delightfully explore in French.
Reflexive cultural expressions stoke the Franco-American flame.
Excerpt from: Paul BOWLES, The Sheltering Sky (1949)
[She was late that noon, and when she arrived she was in a breathless state because Corporal Dupeyrier had stopped her near the Zaouia and given her a very important message for him. It was a matter of a foreigner, an American, who had lost his passport.
“An American?” echoed the lieutenant. “In Bou Noura?” Yes, said Jacqueline. He was here with his wife, they were at Abdelkader’s pension (which was the only place they could have been, since it was the only hostelry of any sort in the region), and they had already been in Bou Noura several days. She had even seen the gentleman: a young man.
“Well,” said the lieutenant, “I’m hungry. How about a little rice today? Have you time to prepare it?”
“Ah, yes, monsieur. But he told me to tell you that it is important you see the American today.”
“What are you talking about? Why should I see him? I can’t find his passport for him. When you go back to the Mission, pass by the Poste and tell Corporal Dupeyrier to tell the American he must go to Algiers, to his consul. If he doesn’t already know it,” he added.
“Ah, ce n’est pas pour ça! It’s because he accused Monsieur Abdelkader of stealing the passport.”
“What?” roared the lieutenant, sitting up.
“Yes. He went yesterday to file a complaint. And Monsieur Abdelkader says that you will oblige him to retract it. That’s why you must see him today.” Jacqueline, obviously delighted with the degree of reaction, went into the kitchen and began to rattle the utensils loudly. She was carried away by the idea of her importance.
The lieutenant slumped back into his bed and fell to worrying. It was imperative that the American be induced to withdraw his accusation, not only because Abdelkader was an old friend of his, and was quite incapable of stealing anything whatever, but particularly because he was one of the best known and highly esteemed men of Bou Noura. As proprietor of the inn he maintained close friendships with the chauffeurs of all the buses and trucks that passed through the territory; in the Sahara these are important people. Assuredly there was not one of them who at one time or another had not asked for, and received, credit from Abdelkader on his meals and lodgings; most of them had even borrowed money from him. For an Arab he was amazingly trusting and easy-going about money, both with Europeans and with his compatriots, and everyone liked him for it. Not only was it unthinkable that he should have stolen the passport—it was just as unthinkable that he should be formally accused of such a thing. For that reason the corporal was right. The complaint must be retracted immediately. “Another stroke of bad luck,” he thought. “Why must he be an American?” With a Frenchman he would have known how to go about persuading him to do it without any unpleasantness. But with an American! Already he could see him: a gorilla-like brute with a fierce frown on his face, a cigar in the corner of his mouth, and probably an automatic in his hip pocket. Doubtless no complete sentences would pass between them because neither one would be able to understand enough of the other’s language. He began trying to recall his English: “Sir, I must to you, to pray that you will—” “My dear sir, please I would make to you remark—” Then he remembered having heard that Americans did not speak English in any case, that they had a patois which only they could understand among themselves. The most unpleasant part of the situation to him was the fact that he would be in bed, while the American would be free to roam about the room, would enjoy all the advantages, physical and moral.
He groaned a little as he sat up to eat the soup Jacqueline had brought him. Outside the wind was blowing and the dogs of the nomad encampment up the road were barking; if the sun had not been shining so brightly that the moving palm branches by the window gleamed like glass, for a moment he would have said it was the middle of the night—the sounds of the wind and the dogs would have been exactly the same. He ate his lunch; when Jacqueline was ready to leave he said to her: “You will go to the Poste and tell Corporate Dupeyrier to bring the American here at three o’clock. He himself is to bring him, remember.”
“Oui, oui,” she said, still in a state of acute pleasure. If she had missed out on the infanticide, at least she was in on the new scandal at the start.]
Paul Bowles gives us a haunting narrative with The Sheltering Sky, and his nimble prose conveys an alluring sense of time and place, one which sort of ends up with misunderstandings and despair.* Aiming for a lighter slice of the novel, we will reflect on the scene above, in which Bowles gives us his representation of the French colonial administrator meeting the American tourist. Inevitably the familiar coals of the long smoldering Franco-American fire are stirred, and we get the American Bowles writing a Frenchman thinking of an American—to amusing affects.
This excerpt comes in the middle of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, when the three American protagonists – Port and Kit Moresby, married, and the so-called third wheel Tunner – are well along their portentous journey into the Sahara. Historically and geographically speaking, the text alludes to Tangier, a city where Port, “heard all three of the town’s tongues: Arabic, Spanish and French,” in what now constitutes the modern state of Morocco. A giant swathe of north, west, and central Africa was certainly politically and militarily administered by France for much of the past two centuries in an imperial context, explaining the presence there of any French people and assorted westerners at all. Tangier itself was technically considered an international zone, administered by France and several other European colonizers, giving the city a very interesting vibe with international émigrés—much like Bowles himself, who lived in Tangier for many years of his life.** The desert, and not to mention Africa, has certainly been a source of mystery, misunderstanding and misplaced romance for much of the Western experience. Interestingly, Bowles wrote The Sheltering Sky on location in Morocco.
Bowles’ Lieutenant d’Armagnac, the character speaking to Jacqueline in the above scene, is the commander of Bou Noura, a small regional post in the desert along traditional transportation routes. He is the typical French colonial, abroad as gendarme, doctor, missionary or teacher. The above excerpt is actually just a portion of the brief eighteenth chapter of The Sheltering Sky, in which we meet this young Frenchman living a comfortable lifestyle, relatively benevolent and ambivalent (at least in his own view) about the indigenous peoples: the Arabs, the Berbers and the many other transitory desert peoples of North Africa. We meet Lieutenant d’Armagnac as the formerly popular, bed-ridden and scandalized big fish in the pond; he is demoralized due to the scandal causing transgressions and their repercussions earlier in the chapter. When American tourists arrive in Bou Noura and subsequently manage to ruffle local feathers of more than one plumage, we have Bowles’ humorous and somewhat conventional French perception on American travelers in response.
Having missed the earlier scandal, Jacqueline is eager to be the bearer of relative misfortune to a calmly dismissive lieutenant. It is not until Jacqueline informs the lieutenant of the Port’s faux pasagainst Monsieur Abdelkader, and thus the demonstration of his American lack of savoir-vivre as tourist to these parts of the world (as opposed to colonial ruler?), that the sparks truly start to fly. Soon Lieutenant d’Armagnac is considering his confrontation with the American, with that exaggerated gulf between Gallic reason and Anglo-Saxon barbarity a clear sign of ill luck.
The image the lieutenant gives us is comic, but tinges with relevancy on the reference to, “an automatic in his hip pocket,” as the possession of weapons exasperatingly remains in our contemporary American discourse. The most delight comes with his discouragement around being able to communicate at all, and the attempt to recall his own English. The traditional antagonism flares most brightly with the hilarious,
“Then he remembered having heard that Americans did not speak English in any case, that they had a patois which only they could understand among themselves.”
Class distinctions are embedded in the term patois, and the thought around how this weaves into Bowles’ larger narrative of cross cultural ignorance is quite fun. The story has many westerners journeying into the desert looking for a lacking element to their lives, but come across an empty void in their own vapid misunderstanding of place and context. Bowles layers in characters and their corresponding prejudices to enrich the narrative, giving us this familiar Franco-American tinder. Bowles gently stokes this long running fire between cultural cousins to perhaps call out both as joined in their profound otherness in a place so foreign and understandably, if passively, hostile to them as exploiters.
Lieutenant d’Armagnac frets over his adversarial disadvantage, and eventually sends Jacqueline – delighted with involvement – to retrieve the American. Overall, the short glimpse we have of the lieutenant’s expressions around American tourists is one of several intertwined cross-cultural misunderstandings that Bowles uses to demonstrate the power and severity of that lack of comprehension while inevitably one is joined with all under the sheltering sky. This single example is a humorous reminder of the similarities and conceptualizations that people in both France and America share, and one American’s play on those ideas to add to his overall affect in writing. There is a fine line between mutual cultural questioning and antagonism, but Bowles certainly gives us a tame example. Nobody is being branded a complete coward, or an uncouth beast; certainly no foods are being renamed.
The entirety of The Sheltering Sky is highly interesting and makes for an intense overall read. It is obviously recommended here, and should be available at your local public library branch.
*Michael Ondaatje also gives us a doomed pair of westerners in the romantic and tragic deserts of North Africa, in The English Patient.
**Christopher Isherwood was a friend of Paul Bowles, and he gives a brief account in Christopher and His Kind (subject of the 11/20/09, [Litpoe]) of visiting Bowles in Tangier with hashish inspired infamy. The incident is elaborated upon in the contemporary film, Chris & Don: A Love Story. Gore Vidal was also a friend of Bowles, and visited him in Tangier, as described in Vidal’s memoir Palimpsest.
A zaouia is the Maghrebi and West African term for an Islamic religious school and/or monastery, roughly corresponding with the word madrassa.