It is our custom here to welcome children—that is, to bring them into the world the way wild elephants are captured elsewhere. Those who capture wild elephants for their own ends have a duty to develop a line of argument strong enough to convince the elephant that its life in captivity will be a thousand times better than what it could have had in nature. Among the Thai, this line of argument took on the form of a poem, inevitably long since it was stuffed with lies, and the poem inevitably took on the aspect of a song praising the wealth and beauty of the welcoming household. At least elephants had a song to receive them. The children we have always summoned with sweet words come into this world by night or by day, and follow us without our having to promise them a thing. In truth, there is neither song nor promise, but quite the opposite: a kind of hoax of silence, a hoax that fooled us too and will fool us forever. So let us sing and make promise before it is too late to speak, even if tangled in our words are a great many lies and, in so doing, let us see to our foundations before they fall apart.
First of all is the ocean, in which there is salt as there is salt in your eyes, the ocean far away, so close. Far away, because it is spread over the entire earthly sphere, and close because it subsides so nearby it makes your hair sticky as sheep’s wool with its sea mist. It is possible to walk on seawater at the edge of the waves, on water hardened by the sand, and in this way, to take infinite journeys without ever needing to consult a single map or ask directions. However, you will have to search methodically, trusting neither sight nor smell, nor even hearing, for although the sea is infinitely vast and made of many ardent, roaring waves, its din is scattered in this vastness, and only waves that touch the hardness of the ground are ever heard. And so you may come upon the sea around a bend in a road or behind a door, and find it smelling of alfalfa. No one claims the sea doesn’t exist. At any rate, when on or in it, you feel it frothing and spraying. The ground is not too hard and sometimes even too soft, so crumbly it is always tamping, cracking, and collapsing. There is salt in the earth as there is salt in your blood. The earth is sand, gravel, and the rot of things. Time shapes, crushes, scatters, and fertilizes it. No one claims the earth exists only as a function of time, which has fashioned it and is its father, mother, child and lover all at once, nor that outside time it does not exist. But when on or in it, you feel it turning, unfurling its bracken and sowing its foam. The dazzling firelight illuminates and bakes us, making us more like stones each day, for each day, it would seem, we take as many steps forward as back. Each day, our lives are longer by a day. Each day our lives are shorter, by a day. And so light has the power to cancel living beings as well as light their faces and movements, iridescing the mist that comes from open mouths. We can deny the existence of light only during its very regular disappearances. When we find ourselves bathed in light, we know it. Music can spread both night and day, through earth and air, and even water. But the mouth can only sing into the air, and the farther you get from the singing mouth, the less you perceive the sounds the air scatters. And when the dust that rises from the dry earth does you harm, all you have to do is sneeze. This is one of the many pleasures allotted to mammals, land and marine.
The first time I saw him, he hadn’t yet exhaled; he was pale and blue as if from superhuman effort, great terror, or grief. He tightened his fists despite his exhaustion, despite the vital swelter; he was strange as an axolotl though undeniably familiar in form. I was told that in making his way toward the light, he had resolutely refused to look down, at the ground; that he had thrown his head back resolutely toward the light, the sky. A few seconds later he exhaled—that is, he made room in his body to welcome the sovereign air.
At first he had no tears and his sobs were sharp as a cat’s but, although he had left that original immersion, his eyes were still steeped in it and they rolled from one side to the other following the movements of giants and dust motes catching the sun. The yew shook its needles and berries. The hazels shook their pollen. And the dust became denser and finer. The great quantities of paper the cupboards enclosed began to come apart, and vast spirals of gray flour blocked out the very sun. And so Marin rebelled. He sneezed five or seven times at the clouds, and tears sprang forth that he could taste at his leisure, and the taste of tears stirred his memory and first sorrow. This first bath of tears was immediately followed by a dozen more, and the light became clear again from the serum washing over him.
That was when, opening his fist at last, he made the sign that was to unite him with the world’s primary elements. His index finger extended toward the light. His middle and ring fingers made scissors capable of cutting the air itself. His pinkie, phalange or phylactery, pointed almost nonchalantly the quaking floor, indicating his origins. His thumb, slightly folded, proved the hand was still intact. The forefinger like a semaphore. The medius and annularis like blades shaping the light. The minimus like a drop of blood or mercury, and the thumb like a vigilant dewclaw.
Just then, he opened his mouth and exclaimed, aided by the first vowel his wild mouth pronounced, before which his uvula stiffly mimicked an agile tongue.
Almost immediately, he grabbed the bottle passing nearby and suckled greedily, showing those present he had already learned the bare necessities, and was familiar with our ways.
Right afterwards, he fell asleep and slept a long time with fists closed, going down landing by landing to the bottom of the well. Since then, he has slept wherever he wants, whenever he wants, waking only at the sound of bells. And so, by sleeping, he learned to sleep, and often turned to the very simple solution of closing his eyes.
He likes twitterings and tinklings. Is that the tinkle of the bells of the red sleigh slipping between the hedges of birch and holly? At the time, the holly bore an incredible number of berries. At the time, the holly berries were red, redder than sugar lumps flambéed in brandy, and the birches were creamy as milk paint. Sheep wear bells so they can be found in the mountain fog. Horses wear bells to give their running rhythm. Dogs wear bells reluctantly. The bells on bikes do nothing at all, and birds twitter in the silence.
He does not eat raw meat. He isn’t interested in wine, but only what it comes in, and its colors. He only sleeps on his belly, like a turtle under its shell. He bites books. He doesn’t smell like garlic, or onion, or rancid sweat. He fears pepper. He isn’t hairy. His heels aren’t rough. His hair is intact. His bones can’t be seen. His toes don’t stink. Nothing surprises him. He doesn’t like noise. He hates no one, and no one hates him.
Since nothing is there to stop it, his tongue comes out in broad daylight and unfurls its color, which colors the light. Without Marin’s tongue, the light flows like milk paint and disappears into darkness without a trace. His tongue shows that beneath the sheath of skin is the steadfast color of fire.
With his nails, nails still intimately tied to his nerves, he scratches his face, seeking to seize an ounce of what is covering his face. A veil sticks to his skin and dries. It’s not the covering he wants to touch, but the actual substance of whoever’s doing the looking; he’s always surprised not to find him when he spins around. If there’s no one behind him, then that someone must be inside, of course, under the skin and there to stay, cozy and sheltered from dust and the dry wind.
Drool comes from a kind of fountain that, luckily, seems inexhaustible, since the world is so dry everything must constantly be moistened. Drool leaks onto his shirtfront, which it washes and starches, and onto his clothes, which it makes softer and suppler, shiny as otterskin, oily as peacock plumage, steaming like a horse’s coat. It restores the floorboards to their former color, highlighting the lines and accentuating the contours. It binds the finest sand by fusing grains together, fertilizes earth by gathering compost fragments and mixing the ferments. There is no better mortar than the one he’s added a bit of his swallow’s spittle to. Drool polishes and preserves whatever is starting to tarnish. His matchless scent and many virtues draw them from all around: ants after a sugar fix, flagging butterflies, salt-wounded slugs, bees in a blossomless season, greedy cats. It quenches thirst better than any other beverage, for it contains just the right amounts of salt, sulfur, and nectar. It joins all objects with a single thread and shellacs them, making them visible, or not, as it pleases.
When he cries, his sorrow seems conclusive and inextinguishable. Only cats cry as long and as loudly. Seagulls lack the perseverance and lapwings the power. Only a cat’s cries can rival Marin’s. If either’s crying so determinedly make themselves heard, the reward must be worth the trouble. But only Marin’s crying, truly conclusive, moves, distresses, drives you mad.
Usually, hiccups declare themselves at first light, as soon as the day begins. Marin is beset by a problem of air: the king of air is a prisoner in the dwarf’s innards, and that is a hardship. He slipped into the child’s body, and now he must suffer the obstructions of the glottis, that hammer in the service of diaphragm, itself independent. Every time the king doth protest, the dwarf constricts his diaphragm, which gives the hammer orders. This will teach him not to slip into the mouth of a sleeping child, to believe himself above the law, and especially, to abuse his right of free passage.
If, against her heart he lets his head fall—that giantess whose hair is tangled with his own—it droops from his neck. If, against her heart he lets his head fall, what he remembers is her scent.
All he’d need to do is breathe easy and turn his head slightly to guzzle down his bathwater, where his hair, arms, and legs are floating. Then he would find himself dry, limbless, and hairless. At any time, anywhere he chose, he could spit out all the water and be buoyed again, back in his element, coming into his own at last, the miraculous dolphin, leaping and laughing.
Today, the second or third of January, the giant undressed the dwarf and plunged him into lukewarm water, in order to submit him to various aquatic principles. But the dwarf did not react as expected. Upon touching the water, his mouth opened, showing that water was as familiar to him as air. Upon touching the water, he threw his head back to find the best angle for taking in the sky from top to bottom, showing that he knew this bed better than his cradle. Then he turned on his belly and, bringing his lips to the surface, passed into this other element as easily as stepping over a fence an inch high.
The taste of earth would wean him from the taste of milk and its lingering odor of curdle. Milk always reproached the drinker for drinking it, for it is terribly stubborn, always hostile, and unpredictable as yeast, while the fragile, plentiful earth asks only to be stirred, kneaded, devoured, digested, and scattered. It brings only the satisfaction of being swallowed. A fundamental question: what is the taste of earth?
Two a.m., not a breath, not a sound. Three a.m., nothing moves. We are still listening, but hear nothing. Four a.m., still nothing. He must have suffocated under the eiderdown. He must have gotten out of his cage and made a beeline for the garden. But at five a.m., triggers, murmurs invade the room, and soon he begins singing again, clearly proclaiming.
That was when he finally lifted his head and got up on his elbows like a sphinx, counting the many horizons suddenly on offer. The line of the baseboard was now beneath his gaze. The windowsill was sparkling in the sunlight. Above the peaks of the pines were the roofs, and above the roofs he saw a ridge of low clouds above which dark blue earth underlined an even farther and blurrier mountainous ridge. The first horizon stretched into shadow, into dust. The second bore traces of red and golden light. Before the third, on one of the many horizons in between, black and white birds were perched. The fourth horizon bristled with needle. The fifth was swollen with smoke. The sixth, painted in watercolor, and the seventh, made of mist.
The nipple lasts much longer than two summers. It persists like tangible proof that no nourishment is obtained without effort. The thriftiest of dwarves empties his due out to the last drop. The least thrifty leaves only three drops of what is his by right.
At his first bite of fish, he grimaces, and raises his right eyebrow. Has a bit of himself been placed on his tongue, a flavor too familiar or so light he can’t tell it from the taste of his own mouth? Is this forcemeat some kind of practical joke, the first of many to come? He decides to eat, and will eat fish as if gulping down tiny pieces of dead leaves, rose petals, shards of glass, shreds of paper. Had he been given his own earlobes to eat, his cheeks in slender strips, shavings from his nose and lips, he would have swallowed them the same way and taken leave of these most precious parts of himself with an air that said, I’m nobody’s fool, but knowing full well, I’m seeing this joke out to the end anyway, simply curious about the effects surely soon to make themselves felt.
All things shall pass through his mouth; Marin has sworn it. First, he must digest the world with his saliva to make it limpid and visible. He will have to reduce paper, dry and rustling, to paste; melt metal surfaces; crumble leaves, flowers, and bread; soften wood. Only the anointed shall live. Only seeds that have sojourned under his tongue shall sprout. Only boughs he has sucked on shall bud. Only fruits he has enameled with his sap shall ripen.
Who could recognize, without fail, his sobs among similar sobs? Who could pick out his laughter were it lost in the laughter of those like him? Who could recognize his footprint among a few dozen footprints the same size? Who could recognize his right ear were it lost in a basket of ears the same size?
Who has hypnotized Marin? Is it the rattlesnake, the cobra, the python, or the boa constrictor? Or the monotonous song of a poultry plucker? The teat is fallen from his lips, his jaw is slack, and he tumbled into the well while trying hang on to the arms that carried him there.
When did Marin try rice for the first time? Can someone tell me? Marin is no Bengali, so would first rice be important in his life? And yet, or should I say in spite of it all, Marin is a bit Bengali (darling wild elephant), and his first rice counts for something in his life. And so we must remember the day the first grain of rice got stuck in one of his nasal cavities, giving him yet another name: Drop of Blood or The Mix-Up. First rice is taken at an age when a good number of teeth are around to help the tongue sort through them and count how many grains to swallow. First rice puts Marin in such a good mood he starts counting backwards, expelling the grains from his mouth one by one, two by two, three by three…
The wise mandarin plays at rickshaw in the light carriage. It’s warm in the sun and cold in the shade (March or April?). His pusher pushes him under the pines and around fountains overflowing. The wise mandarin openly turns only at the sound of water and the cries of his fellows, and waits for the statues at the end of the path to draw near. As one approaches the tall trees, they disappear, their branches part and soar skywards, birds flee, the crisscrossed air brushes his cheeks and brow. Sometimes the sun is straight ahead and dazzles. Sometimes it is behind and warms his nape. Sometimes it isn’t anywhere, and Marin the wise mandarin must chase it down. Here, the fountain. There, the statue of the young ibex. Over there, the trunks of the pine forest. Where is the merry-go-round?
That summer’s night, Marin resisted the hypnotist’s powers much longer than usual. The latest lullaby had no effect on him. He listened to it without tiring, raising his eyebrows at every chorus and delighting just as much each time the fifth verse rolled around (Ha ha ha! Two little cats!). The monotone song the hypnotist let out then, ever more loudly and hoarsely, making the room buzz, like plainsong, did not have the hoped-for effect. Pressing one ear to the singer’s chest, just under the clavicle, Marin let himself be caressed by the vibrations. Using a method borrowed from certain animals, this magnetic healer, having deposited Marin in the center of the room, began walking around him first slowly, then ever faster. But instead of following the cavorter’s eyes, Marin remained unmoving, staring straight ahead, laughing each time they crossed his field of vision, the fox running with her head low or the doe tottering on the circle too small for her long legs. Then, testing the technique of the top, the hypnotist, pressing his victim to himself, began turning in place. But Marin carefully lowered his eyelids until the turner froze, and no results were thus obtained. The technique of pendular movement, which consists of holding horizontal he whom one wishes to lull and swinging him gently, head high, head low, proved equally unpersuasive. Next, the magnetic healer tried, in turn, the ploys of rustling dead leaves and waves breaking heavily on the sand. In the former, one rubs the index finger lightly against the thumb (callouses preferred), as one might rub a leaf, against the pinna of he who must sleep. The second consists of slowly caressing with the wide-open palm (callouses preferred), fingers together, the ears, cheeks, and temples of he whom one wishes to lull. But they both turned out to be ineffective. The healer used various decoys meant to make children believe that night opened only to nocturnal animals. He tried the contemplation of fire, which it is said closes the eyes of even the most stubborn. He trampled the dry bracken whose swishing should have summoned sleep. He imitated a dead log, in so doing showing the way. Nothing worked. And thus did day come.
He hears the cries of those like him, even when weakened by the thickness of the walls where he is imprisoned. Somewhere, everywhere, a people of dwarves bustles freely about, their high, clear sounds piercing the hubbub of the giants’ business, a muffled hubbub. These tiny folk must be present in the air much as windmills are, which crush salt or coriander, much as rattles, the bells on the red sleigh, bells on bicycles, flies, bumblebees, honeybees, and chimes, in order to leave traces of burst bubbles or eggshells. Their tongues escape the constant, mortal current of the tumult that cannot contain them, above which they form light ledges and aerial ivy infinitely articulating the growing number of leaves in stars, javelins, hearts, and fronds.
For most creatures, he knows their language better than their name. And so the horse is the one who stamps, the rat the one who zigzags, the pig the one who sniffs his snot and grumbles, the elephant the one who trumpets, the dog the one who barks and coughs, the cat the one who meows, growls, and spits, the goose the one who hisses, the seal the one who groans from his very innards, the wind the one who bends the boughs and shakes the leaves, the tree the one who bends and offers its branches, the rain the one who dampens and drums, the locust tree the one that stings the hands, the giants the ones who lift him from the earth and press him to it, his mother, mama, the night the one who murmurs while pretending to sleep.
Although water seems elusive to bare hands, it proves quite easy to capture, really, with the help of a cup or even a thimble. You can always trap a bit before it disappears into the ground, and keep it captive as long as you wish. The sand that slips away between your fingers can be caught and held with a teaspoon. But the air we manage to capture must be freed right away under pain of suffocation. Sand can be our prisoner, and water can be kept captive. But we are prisoners of the air that freely circulates around us and fill us.
This is a translation-in-progress of a novel that is itself about a work in progress. The work in question is the author’s firstborn child, at an infant stage of such rapid change that to look away is to miss something that may never happen again. And so, poet Eugène Savitzkaya bills Marin My Heart as “a novel in a thousand chapters, nine-tenths of which are lost.” It is a novel of such close focus and tender observation, from which every blink, every minuscule inattention, nevertheless seems to rob some momentary marvel.
Marvel may indeed be the operative word. “In this book, everything happens for the first time.” How to contain this creature that surges and changes? How, even, to catch up? In episodes, vignettes, Savitzkaya chronicles his son’s early development, with something like “momentism” – what Harold Brodkey called his signature method: “the instant-by-instant narration of emotional and mental life, and of the tricky intersections between memory and the present uncircumscribed by standard theories of personality.” Savitzkaya, however, augments Brodkey’s largely sensory arias with other artifices from his writer’s arsenal: fairy tale, prose poem, fanciful physics, and poetic logic. A preverbal child, Savitzkaya seems to imply, is as much animal as vegetable or mineral. Making the familiar unfamiliar, Savitzkaya simulates a consciousness taking shape, grappling with input, coming to understanding. Newness parades in all its forms—hilarity, strangeness, splendor—a celebration of the child king.
This novel is shot through with salt, light, sea, and tears. It begins and ends with fluids and humors. It is a novel of the elements, alive to language and its ability to contort, reconfigure. The name “Marin” itself, although factual, is tricky: the masculine version of the much more popular French first name Marine, it also means sailor. One might expect a poet to christen his son with a double entendre. But Marin—Marin the brave—is his father’s sailor, the one who, setting out, will see further shores.
Born in 1955 to parents of Ukrainian descent, Belgian Eugène Savitzkaya began publishing poetry at the age of 17. He has written more than forty books of fiction, poetry, plays, and essays, many of them published by leading avant-garde press Minuit. He received the Prix triennal du roman for his 1992 novel Marin mon coeur. Rules of Solitude (Quale Press, 2004; trans. Gian Lombardo), a collection of prose poems, was his first book in English. His work has appeared in Anomalous and is forthcoming in Gigantic and Unstuck.
Two-time winner of the John Dryden Translation Prize, Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from PEN America, the Lannan Foundation, the NEA, the Fulbright program, the Centre National du Livre, the Villa Gilet, the Banff Centre, Ledig House, and ALTA. Other publications have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Subtropics, Conjunctions, and The Coffin Factory. The contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, he writes a bimonthly column on the Francophone fantastic at Weird Fiction Review.