Translated from the French (Repas de morts) by Svetlana Pironko, in collaboration with Dimitri Bortnikov.
……………………………………………“She was bringing waterlilies. From a good distance. Long stems. Long… In her mouth. She was swimming like a long replete reptile. I was making waterlily crowns. Garlands… She was wrapping herself into the blanket. Absent and alone, yes – a mummy that was waiting for its day to come.
Making garlands I was thinking of my son. Him… How I used to sew for him. To patch up his clothes. To repair his woolen socks, to sew his buttons. I was walking far away I was looking at my hands breaking the stems. Gently all by themselves.
Nothing but the black waters of the Volga. Those heavy waters… And before me its deep bed opened up. Like a Parca I was… Weaving garlands. The waterlilies, their flowers fresh cool at first – turning dry.
She’s here Damiana. She’s my heart and the nail… To be near. Very near her soul. Her face… To see it… Her cliffs her hills the river of her mouth. To be nothing. Dust. To become eyes… And to look. To see… This country… To become blind to see what never dies. In the country of her face.
……….Damiana… Like a chrysalis she lies dormant waiting for her day to come. I, who am I here? By this body enshrouded up to the eyelashes. Who am I…
I hear a chant. Every morning I listen to this chant… It comes from the islands… They appear out of the fog, flooded with spring, and – they ascend… Every day they ascend. Islands dipped into the troubled waters of the Volga – they show up. Trees grow out of the water… I see the forest coming out of the river. Three big islands appear out of the mist. Every day… Every morning I see them growing.
I’d forgotten these islands. I’d forgotten the spring of this place. It was so long since I was here last. I’d forgotten them, these islands. I’d forgotten that it was so wide this river so deep and these islands… The forests coming out of the cold water.
……….And this chant… Every morning it wanders here. From one island to another. It slides closer on the surface of the river and then – no, it goes away. Far away again. In the mist… Every morning I guard this body, and this chant – it comes closer…
She’s sleeping Damiana. I slip noiselessly toward the water, not even breaking a single blade of grass – I crawl toward the water. I enter this steaming river and I swim toward this chant. Toward the islands… It’s far yes, it’s soon – I see them, they are coming… They are nearly there the islands. Just a little more and – I’ll be there. They are already taking over the horizon. Solemn islands. And the trees, I can almost discern them. Covered in silt, black they are glistening… A little more… I swim swim… And I go back. Always I turn back. I always come back. I crawl out of the water exhausted and collapse. Nothing will make me move again. A little more, yes, before I fall asleep I hear that chant again and then – darkness.
It will drown me one day that chant. Will lure me into the mist and kill me. One morning. Toward those silent islands I shall swim without turning back. I shall swim with no chant, no breath, mad with tiredness, dazed, all the way. And there it will be – the certain end. Then the corpse, fearful they would fish me out, I would feel nothing. I will have my second baptism and I won’t come back here anymore. All that, I think about all that, about the coldness of the water, about Damiana and I say to myself – one day, yes.
……………………………………………She was picking up a shellfish and it wasn’t dead. Between her fingers I saw it – it was alive. Alive.
……….People they want to take everything. Everything… They want to take everything home. To leave nothing behind! Photos and pebbles – to take everything. To gobble up everything and then shit beauty.
……….Take everything but first snuff it – with your kodaks by the ocean in fury. A tsunami grabbing you by the balls. Dance on a volcano – photos, more, one more! To take everything. Everything. Fix everything in your dying eyes, you, immortals.
Take everything but before – become things. Let things kill you! Things you’ve seen, docile things kill you from a distance. All. Let the sea that is licking your sneakers go wild! Let it rage! Let the ocean the snow the hurricane break your knees one by one, your ankles, one than the other – so that you know who the boss is, the real one – before you kick the bucket. Let the matter go docile, yes, tender, but afterward, after, let it first bring your faceless corpses to the shores, vomit it tenderly at the feet of your souls. And then we shall see, as the blind would say.
We only see dead things. Never in motion. We can’t… can’t see life… That moment… Life that disguises itself as a corpse and flees gently, here, there, right in front of our eyes, in front of our words.
……….All, all those I’ve known kill. More or less all. I too used to kill. I looked at things being born and dying in my hands. I saw pups children being born. I was tilting my head to see, yes, stretching out to see everything. Everything close up. Who am I to say all this, to say these things… They say – bad. They say – I don’t know how to love. They say – he has no love in him. They shout – WOLF, they scream – WOLF and the wolf, it will come. Among us it will appear disguised as a lamb, a nocturnal lamb, and lie in wait. Am I a big bad wolf in a lamb’s skin? The skin of my life inside out. Life? We don’t give a fuck, all we want is to take our pleasure of it, again and again, safely, not to pay, and to make it last, oh make it last, and we see only dead things, frozen things. Rigid. We adore this, things that die in our hands. We live among dead things and we don’t know it. We adore death, the only thing, the real thing that still makes us shiver. Really shiver, twist in ecstasy and then – nothing. That’s all there is. Then – it will be out turn to snuff it, and we’ll snuff it with our pockets sewn up.
……….Nothing to bring nothing to touch nothing to remember nothing to keep. Yes I lost everything cut off everything. No photos or anything. A few mementos and then nothing. A few little things from my son – nothing else. I’m afraid of looking at them. Afraid.
……….If you want to see if the girl is phony or not – take her to the sea. To a big river… Somewhere grandiose… You will see… Her eyes… Whether they kill everything they see – or not. Or not… But it’s rare. Rare… Really rare. It happens once in ten lifetimes.
She – no. The Volga, the islands, she was looking at them and. Everything was alive. A shellfish she was touching it and it was alive.
I was dragging myself behind her and touching nothing. Nothing. Like a bad dog a sick dog I was dragging myself behind. And it was good yes to simply hang around that girl to see her light steps… Her footprints on the sand. Her bare feet. The sunset on her face. The marks of the evening on the skin of those who are coming back from the river…
To come here when there’s no one. In winter. When the fog is taking over the city. When the place shows its true wounds. You glimpse some bones on the beach. Real bones in the fog. And I will return there. In spirit.”
French critics about Repas de morts / Soul Catcher
“This strange novel – partly autobiographical – is built as a succession of reminiscences and dreamlike images of the steppe, the tundra and Paris. But no matter what the story is – what matters here is the power of his writing, harsh and infused with venomous poetry.” —L’Express
“Bortnikov’s audacity verges on genius. A constant verbal insurrection.” —Gonzai
“Powerful, paroxysmal, his prose doesn’t resemble anyone else’s.” —Livres Hebdo
“Language plays a crucial role there, with that breathless rhythm that follows the narrator’s hallucinated thoughts.” —Euranet.eu
“With its breath-taking prose and its tenebrous beauty, Repas de morts is a literary uppercut. Radical, exhilarating, a joy of reading of a rare intensity.” —Transfuge
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