Mercedes Claire Gilliom translating Daniel Bourrion

I Was Robert Smith


I was Robert Smith one night, or one evening at least, in one of those mobile circus tents that you can still find set up around here in some field or other as out-of-place as flying saucers abandoned after a forced landing and which served back then as dancing clubs, or more likely and more often as boozing clubs, and fighting clubs too but not for me, all that is really not for me, the herd, the punching and the kicking, really not for me, thanks but I’ll pass, coward that I am, never liked blood or the way it smells when it runs from noses, never, scuffles and brawls and the inebriated meat that no longer feels the beating it’s getting or giving—which reminds me of a total stranger whose car I got into once as I was leaving a club, a real brick-and-mortar one somewhere else, but maybe that’s another story, I was on my way out and I saw this old beater like you saw everywhere back then all rebuilt and customized but really to tell you the truth it was just disfigured so much so that you couldn’t even tell what it was anyway there was this weird automobile just parked in front of the club I was leaving on my way to nowhere and me opening the passenger door sitting down and looking at the driver whose nose I then saw was bashed in like watermelon and it made this bright red splotch on his face, this banged-up unknown driver hardly even reacting to what was unquestionably an intrusion, just saying to me as he slid his hand under his seat and brought out a blackjack, “Wait’ll he comes out we’ll have some fun” which I did not do (wait), safety first, this guy’s idea of fun and most other guys’, really not for me, me getting out quietly, not looking back only saying if memory serves, “Well have a good night you two” they were going to all right—I was Robert Smith dressed up made up like him for a whole night though it turned out to be harder than I thought—no one else would’ve wanted to, there, right there, and maybe it wasn’t the right place or the right time (ridicule had already ceased to be fatal, otherwise I’m sure I would’ve kicked the bucket under that canvas tent, dressed up and ridiculous in my getup me Robert Smith but fake from head to toe) all the more since, really, I’m not the real thing and the real thing couldn’t care less about all his others of which there really were a lot back then even though that night, the one I’m talking about now, under the white canvas tent, filthy from being put up and taken down in the fields the meadows the after-mud that night I was the one the only I was the star I was Robert Smith.



So, Robert Smith. It was no small feat to become my idol (the only one I’d ever have) even though years later, I still never understood what got into my head and made me decide that at that moment, that night out with my buddies, I’d be as much like him as possible, which, naively, seemed to me to amount to a charcoal gray suit over a white shirt, high tops without laces, my hair tangled and framing my made-up face (no one will believe it but I had long hair back then the sine qua non for the transformation).

Imagine what it meant, out in the country, where I’m from, and where I’ve always been even if I’m not there right now, there in that valley with rich heavy black and gray and brown earth that was always so hard for the plows to cut through, though now the plows are slammed into the belly of the earth by machines that would’ve been unimaginable to the old generation, whom I actually knew, imagine then what it meant to do that, to let your hair grow down at least to the floor (that’s a slight exaggeration, let’s say shoulder-length), and then one night turn it into this tangled thing that you tried to hold up with gel made of sugar and water, and with your arms, too, as they dragged the comb from tip to root, imposing disorder on brown locks that normally drooped limply under their own weight, imagine the insanity, it’s all relative, but really the insanity unfolding in the family kitchen which was hardly accustomed to this sort of performance, imagine what happens next as the delicate structure collapses in a debacle that accompanies you all evening like a soundtrack, as if it hadn’t been the right day to swap your skin, your life for a star’s, can you imagine that and can you understand what sort of crazy dream this was, it was total absurdity and you were completely unaware of it at the time, sure as you were that this was how you were going to get out of that valley and the deep furrowed earth that you wanted to escape so badly because you hadn’t yet guessed (ironic how that’s our lot in life, all of us who forget that wherever we run we carry with us the sort of large duffel bag that we are) that you’d bring this valley with you wherever you went, sure that this was the way, if you became the televised, mediatized Robert Smith, a rock star and therefore something other than from here, from this valley, which seemed eminently desirable, you’d find some suitable place where you could live, imagine that and it’s enough.



Robert Smith, a companion ever since a cassette of the album Faith reached my ears during an evening of boredom at boarding school, a gift from someone who is still my friend and who just slipped the rectangle of gray plastic to me while we were sitting with our backs to the radiator waiting for I don’t know what, actually I don’t know about the others but I know what I was waiting for, for it all to end, that evening, that week and the one after that and then life itself, those last words showing just how much of a teenager I was, smiling and gay.

This cassette, and maybe you there reading me now, you have no idea what I’m talking about, what that even is, I kept it in my pocket until evening study hall, the one I often spent doing nothing, all too often, as I came to understand a year or two later when I slammed again and again into the wall that was my graduation exam, I did nothing but put on my headphones and sit there vacantly for an hour, the only thing on the desk in front of me a gray black metal Walkman purchased for what was a small fortune back then from the long-haired guy in the back, the chemist, or at least that’s what he was studying to be, and who, according to what circulated around the cafeteria tables, also spent a little too much time with his nose over the test tubes, huffing whatever he could, which I never saw him do with my own eyes though he was an odd one, the long-haired guy just like his inseparable pal the bearded guy who was also a chemist, as often as not, but that didn’t prevent him from carrying out a very proper transaction. The Walkman in question, we all had one, an obligatory object, one for each of us and if you had to work all summer to buy one, so much for the sun, you found some factory to grind in, how else do you think I got mine—the classic model? I kept this Walkman for so long it must still be hanging around somewhere, if I didn’t take it apart one day (I had this mania sometimes for opening things up to see what’s inside, so it’s possible that it is no more, other than on the shelves of my memory), but maybe not and in that case I just might come across it again by chance, you never know, it’s the kind of thing that makes a whole swath of the past swing open in your face, it can happen, I have some proof.

It was evening, and everything and everyone was bathed in that winter ambiance that’s so familiar to everyone who comes from where I come from, this sort of wistful languor that makes you feel like the world has started sinking into a bottomless abyss, and you also, and you as well.

It was evening and I had inserted the piece of plastic whose magnetic strips were so fragile that you often found them all crinkled and chewed, into the piece of metal called a Walkman (the other walking man, the one by Giacometti, I wouldn’t meet until much later), closed the cover, pressed the heavy rectangular button that started up the motors and belts that started up the tiny machine and let loose that guttural bass that almost sounded hoarse. It was Faith, it was “The Holy Hour.” The voice that I immediately became was the voice of Robert Smith and it was mine, my voice exactly that evening—it was an inevitable meeting.



Back to the story of my night as a faux star: driving a borrowed car and glimpsing bystanders all along those long, sleeping villages after dark who must still be having nightmares or laughing about the time they saw this decrepit old jalopy of an unsightly shade of green which could’ve been called ‘stagnant water’ driven by this disheveled guy—that was me—with a scowling, clownish face—that was me—who, with heavily made-up eyes—still me—stared them down as he passed before disappearing around the next bend—the road was tortuous of course, no straight lines, none of those wide open spaces that you dream of at that age when you’re still inclined to put yourself at risk to the ridiculous degree that we’re talking about here, but this was really winding, really dangerous, with fog in patches and the rain that splattered on the windshield as if it were trying to wash and rinse the thing at the wheel who was trying to hold the course and make sure that all the hair up there stayed in place (it didn’t, but as they say nothing goes according to plan—I hadn’t yet figured out that the image that stars build up over time is polished, refined, reworked on a daily basis, practically a full-time job wherein chance plays only the tiniest role), driving and deciphering the road signs more or less, backing up without being able to see anything and each time there’s a risk of rolling into a ditch which would have resulted in the compromising inevitability of having to go knock on someone’s door to find a farmer a tractor to pull us out of there, last-minute decisions at the forks in the road, finally getting there, the cars parked all over and multiplying the closer you got to the center of town confirming that this was the place, it’s right here, and now the noise pouring out of this rough shell of sound and starting to spread over the rolled-up windows of the tired old car in this soft pulsing—so that was where we would see what we came to see, tonight was the night they’d all be awestruck by the advent of the only Messiah whose real cross was the guitar and whose crown was of hair this was it this was the ball and Robert Smith had arrived.



Walk in, stop in front of the aptly-named bouncer, who had probably knocked back a few beers by then and who was only just beginning his own personal marathon, not even raising an eyebrow at the bedraggled beanpole, no doubt he’d seen it all or had long ago lost any resolve he may have ever had to come across anything noteworthy—I thought I was, though, and really I was but not for the reasons I was hoping for, though the fact remained that Cerberus didn’t flinch, didn’t understand who I was, and didn’t try since after all I was clearly harmless and that was all that mattered to him.

Humidity now coming through the open door as it exhaled its searing breath, hot as hell, and the cold air outside was no help, creating a contrast so that everyone standing around outside waiting to make their offering and receive the blessing, a stamp on the inside of the wrist which, upon waking the next morning, would prove that no, it wasn’t a dream or a nightmare, though really that would’ve been better than to realize that it actually happened, I was Robert Smith, a sham, so everyone’s teeth chattered to the beat of the heavy bass rolling across the floor.

In the line moving forward slowly compacting, no one spoke—you had to shout to say anything so better to keep silent and save your energy for the dance floor—and now we know why, see above, shaking choppers. Window, money, stamp, nobody reacting when they see who you are, you can go in, straight ahead, through this sort of filter that really has no purpose other than to separate worlds the light the shadows and the radiant.

A brief moment, it’ll be a mayhem of noise and lights and broken-down sound system maxed-out amplifiers and then you’ll see all eyes turned toward whoever just walked in—that was me—completely out of place because here the norm is simplicity, modesty, clothes that are hardly any different from what’s worn the rest of the week, recognizable only because they’re brand shining new and on the girls they look a little more like party clothes (they wear the same ones to weddings or on New Year’s Eve or to any occasion where you have to dress up and be beautiful and have fun and this sentence is by no means in the least bit condescending—I’m part of that world and it’ll be mine forever and ever) and it’s as if everything stops and all eyes converge in one direction—toward me—but it’s only an illusion, or rather it only lasts a second, long enough for a label to come down and hang on my jacket, tossing me into the invisible space where all the madmen and village idiots traditionally go: “now there’s a nutcase for you.” Enough said, everything is in its right place.



The rest is in keeping with all that came before, and all the other nights before that (this was the age of those first motorized nights, impossible not to use your hard-won license), the ones that you spent wearing your own identity and which could have given you some indication that you were getting into a ridiculous and solitary digression from the evening’s pathetic entertainment: despite the fact that you’re Robert Smith, there are no totally hysterical groupies who’ve been waiting in the rain for their god to come out of the club no backstage debauchery parties jam sessions drugs girls all night long until dawn asphalt and gray and heavy none of all that the gilded legend you imagined in high school when you spent hours sprawled in one of the faded armchairs worn out by so many seats and the seats of pants always the same imagined from scraps collected from those magazines, you would happen to notice years later, when your hair is short and by chance you’re leafing through a magazine rack in a train station between two trains, two cities, two places that you’ll never know anything about because you pass through them so quickly, all the magazine racks and all the stations end up looking alike, that those magazines still exist, same title, same tone, same colors, same stars striking the same poses on those posters that are still in the centerfold which you no longer detach by carefully bending the staples whose malicious ends always used to jab into your fingertips, there was none of that on that night, but instead you just waited around for such a long time for what you didn’t know maybe for someone to ask for your autograph or to smile at you just smile it was interminable that night wandering roaming around while all your hair up there slowly collapsed like a soufflé roaming like I was saying among the different groups the couples dancers’ bodies coming and going from the back of the room where at least you could see everyone else and the sound system hammered you less and there was sort of a bar or really a row of tables vaguely covered by those paper tablecloths whose sole purpose seemed to be to rip so quick to get damp and spattered as they were with beer it didn’t last it didn’t drag on now that Robert Smith whom everyone knew was a phony was dragging around and dragging me too in a state of boredom which would never leave never come off is still there all these years later and so does nothing ever change? Oh, yes: you get used to it.



As for the ride home let’s keep it short: the tour of friends’ houses whom you agreed to take home even though you couldn’t hold your exhaustion in anymore which made each curve road sign linden a danger or a refuge and they (your friends) were sleeping the sleep of babes by the time you’d gone a hundred yards, their shoulders that you shook to pull them from the bottomless hole of their booze-soaked dreams, the last few miles alone at last flooring it with the temptation in your arms the straight line at top speed to end up back in the ditch and see what it was like again—a few months before, the black ice had taken it upon itself to provide you with a first experience but it was too fast, you didn’t remember much except that you came out unscathed and you smashed the car and the tree, too, kind of, but you were fine—the dying wail of Pornography which must have amused the rabbits that woke up as you drove through the gray countryside at that exact moment when it seems so washed-out waking up for good.

Home safe and sound, the garage and the taunting clinking of the dark metal overheated engine then going upstairs trying to make as little noise as possible, an impossible task that we all know well.

Next, consider taking off the makeup, removing the streaked charcoal from your eyes thereby performing opposite motions of what you did before, when you attempted the transformation and discovered how hard it was to smudge your eyes like a weeping heroine—to think that Robert Smith, the real one, lived like that, was like that, in front of the mirror more than he was onstage, a strange life, a life of makeup, a life of hide and seek, you could have passed him in the aisles of the little supermarket in M*** without noticing that the man stationed in front of the mascara in what’s normally the girls’ aisle, that was him.

Bed at last, the wall of books that you might never read—not all the pages, anyway—which are all still there in exactly the same place just above your pillow, the band up in the firmament whose gazes turned toward the ersatz one all seemed a touch ironic: or they would have been, anyway, to see that the star for the evening had already turned back into what he never stopped being despite his pathetic efforts, nothing and nobody.



I didn’t know it yet and couldn’t have guessed that he and I, Robert Smith and I who had been him, or at least wanted to be him, we would meet years after the moment I’ve been telling you about, we’d cross paths in almost exactly the same spot, just a little farther up, in a concert hall that sprouted out of a mountain of nothing, a sort of slag heap piled in the middle of nowhere on top of which they built, and I never understood why or how, a sort of huge warehouse where the band was playing that night and where obviously I went too, but this time not as Robert Smith because there can only be one onstage and all things considered, the real thing was worth all the copies and even mine, especially mine.

I won’t describe the whole thing, I won’t tell you what my life was like then and how I happened to be there, I have no memory of that night or almost none, only the unforgettable break when after entering the immense hall that was practically empty and which would stay that way the whole time, I saw the fans standing in a terribly thin fringe collecting around the stage like a sort of froth resembling my own and then of course I remember the moment when Robert Smith came down into the sparse crowd and came up and brushed past me without seeming to know me and I thought that he looked terribly like himself beneath the layer of makeup, that he was very exactly like what I had dreamed of all this time, for so long that the posters that papered my room up to the ceiling making a billowing cloud of them, the band, had started to detach because of the sun and the hours and the nights worrying them draining them until the walls behind them showed through, the walls on which nothing else would be hung or only after my time, much later, when someone else moved in to put up his dreams and his identities and I had turned the page, the one where I wanted to be him because I still couldn’t manage to be myself and so in my makeup, it seemed like the world would be livable, though it wasn’t, not then, not now, not when Robert Smith in concert weaved among his worshippers, which still included me, forming a respectful circle around him—no one touching him or maybe just barely brushing against him and him singing and guitaring and up above on the immense stage the others the rest continuing the show in a sort of fixed routine which obviously would end much too soon, the thin battalions of spectators (some of whom were still Robert Smith the way I had been) leaving the hall without a word to go back out into the cold at the same time as me, and at the exact moment when the last note died out I had the distinct feeling that something was breaking, maybe the last link connecting me to this past past whose final spasm was in recognizing or believing, in the stands where a few devotees huddled waiting for who knows what, an unlikely encore, for the idol himself to peek out at the empty venue, anyway, recognizing a silhouette and a face from an earlier time or wanting to believe that he was at the very least someone (since I didn’t bring it up then, I’ll never know) who was the person who had to be there at that moment and who therefore was there because that’s what I wanted, just when Robert Smith was pulling away from me and walking off without even a backwards glance.

Translator's Note

Somewhere in the fertile valleys of northeastern France, a teenager slouches in the driver’s seat of a borrowed car. He pushes a cassette into the tape deck and pulls out onto a country road, taking the curves a little too fast as “The Holy Hour” kicks in with its gravelly bass. Longing to be someone else, somewhere else, he takes refuge in the music as he speeds through the dark, furrowed hills. The music casts a particular brooding glow over Daniel Bourrion’s story of teenage desire for transcendence (or escape), and it imbues the long, rambling sentences with the sort of anxious, droning rhythm that characterizes The Cure’s darker albums. Bourrion’s prose spirals into tense passages of teenage confessional, breathless and almost punctuation-free; then it unwinds as the narrator pauses for breath, inserting commas and gently wry commentary from a decidedly grownup point of view. The tension between adolescent and adult diction makes the text buzz with the same electrified disquiet as Simon Gallup’s bass on Faith.

If translation is theater, then this was a role I was eager to play. I immediately recognized the voice in this story: I think my own picks up some of the same notes when I tell certain anecdotes from my (sadly, nonfictional) awkward adolescence. As I relive some of my more embarrassing eyeliner debacles and evenings of heartfelt ennui, the past starts to bleed into the present, and my language changes accordingly. Before I began this translation, I cued The Cure and invited the awkward memories in. Translation is always an exercise in empathy for me, and I usually choose to steep myself in music, images, or even personal memories that bring me closer to the source text. It’s rare, however, that I can draw so heavily on my own experiences, and let them feed my translation. I let a little of my own former teenage recklessness seep into the language, but I tried not to run off the road. His prose is on the stream-of-consciousness end of the spectrum (Jack Kerouac often seems present in Bourrion’s work), but the author’s careful control pushes the limits of sentence structure almost to the breaking point without breaking the narrative thread.

It was exciting to find such deeply familiar literary and musical influences in a foreign context. British New Wave and Beat Generation roadtrip narratives seem to have left an indelible mark on Daniel Bourrion, but his story remains rooted in damp, undulating farmland like that of his native Lorraine. This sense of place permeates the story; in the translation, it seemed particularly important to preserve the candid materiality of his descriptions of the geography and people. The narrator can’t flee from his origins, but with surprising tenderness and compassion, he accepts these physical emblems of his inability to escape. 

Mercedes Claire Gilliom

Mercedes Claire Gilliom is a French to English translator based in Marseille. Her translations of graphic literature have appeared in Words Without Borders, and are either published or forthcoming from Europe Comics, Glénat in English, and Humanoids, Inc. She translated “I Was Robert Smith” in partnership with the Book Department of the French Embassy.

Daniel Bourrion

Daniel Bourrion was born in 1967 in the Lorraine region of France. After writing several books of poetry and publishing numerous pieces in literary magazines, he began to move his writing into the sphere of digital media. He is a member of the editorial board of, a French cooperative digital publishing platform. His recent work published in French includes the short story collection Légendes (2012), the essay "Cantique de la Paranoïa" (2012), and the novel Sardinia (2015).