This Particular Tartar
Marilyn Hacker, Translator
This particular Tartar is waiting beside a side road. He’s been squatting and moping there for a while. He would rather wait there than beside the highway with cars rushing by at full speed. They splatter you with mud without a thought. There are even drivers—the bastards—who turn around to laugh in your face.
* * *
In the old days, a Tartar
would cause such a fright that there would be gigantic traffic pileups. The brawniest men let go of the steering wheel or braked any which way just at the sight of an ebony mare or a bright-colored banner fluttering.
No one could describe a Tartar precisely.
The ones who’d talk on endlessly for the benefit of their listeners had never gotten close enough to even one of them to sketch a proper portrait. The Tartars had appeared without warning without anyone knowing where they came from. They were said to be burly and very dirty; it was bruited about that they ate bloody raw meat; that they impaled their victims and hung them from the awnings . . .
The cities they besieged were reduced to ashes because they detest above all things the city-dweller’s lifestyle . . .
All that, of course, was scary rumor.
But fear only lasts for a while!
One day, a driver stops near the horseman. It wasn’t this particular Tartar (the poor guy hasn’t got a horse). No doubt one of his terrifying ancestors. He takes aim at him and shoots him down. He will say afterwards that it wasn’t difficult. You’ve only got to dare to do it. There is nothing historic about this incident. It is not recorded in the crumbling manuscripts of the national library. However, oral tradition has never stopped elaborating on it.
It’s said that from that day forward, people no longer feared the invaders from the East whom they called, without distinction, Tartars. The chronicles emphasize the heroic awakening of the people and their rulers. Lively details illustrate this defensive reaction which would turn the world upside down and deliver its sedentary populations from carnage . . .
Still, despite a plethora of iconographies, there’s utter ignorance of what the Tartar looked like . . .
* * *
This one seems pitiful from a distance.
Literally, a hecatomb means the sacrifice of a hundred oxen. For the Greeks or the Fulani, the ox is an ideal victim to make a choice offering. One hundred is a number you can’t count on the fingers of your hands. It’s a large number that conceals mysteries. Also, to hold a hecatomb is considered the apex of celebrations because blood is made to flow with no thought for the expense . . .
The Tartars, at the time of their disorderly expansion, had hecatombs. When they seized a city, they cut everyone’s head off, with no exceptions.
The Tartars did not know how to count.
They piled the heads up in the market-place, making mountains of them. They drenched them with tar. Then they lit a fire.
At the time, they saw no difference between the factory and the mosque as places to relieve themselves. A state of prolonged barbarism.
* * *
Out on the steppes, the Tartars had no worries. Besides their own kind, there were no human beings on earth, and the oxen were not pets. They practiced decapitation more from lack of imagination than from cruelty or the desire to win the good graces of some tutelary divinity.
All the Tartars did was pass with the storm.
Their chronicles are meager. They were doctored when they were transcribed. Little is learned there about their myths of origin, their shamanic cults, the outstanding events because of which they glorified themselves.
Those who converted to Islam, after the defeat of Khan Hulagu, lost nothing of their spirit.
This particular Tartar, by the roadside, is not the best example of his people. He has forgotten everything (or pretends not to remember) about the satanic rides of his redoubtable ancestors.
Looking at him, stiff with rheumatism, you’d ask yourself what’s left of the Tartar about him. As for him, he asks himself what he did to God to merit such a sorry fate.
* * *
By chance, his gaze lights up.
Usually, this particular Tartar nomadises around the Kremlin. It’s a cheap and lively neighborhood where he likes to take a stroll. He stocks up at the Chinese dry goods store, dresses himself at Bendaoud’s second-hand clothes shop; for gifts, Tati does just fine. And there’s also an outdoor market twice a week.
There are very few Tartars in the neighborhood.
Who even thinks about them?
He has heard it said that the Tartars were the scourge of God.
And they are still, even if their chieftains no longer terrorize nations. What insurgent commander would come up to the ankle of Timour-Leng?!
He who was ready to change the circular course of the stars, with his own throne at the center on a sheet of crimson.
* * *
Skulls split with axes, bodies hacked to bits, eyes gouged out, breasts torn off, mutilated genitals, all the violent acts possible excited more anger than fear.
The elements were not unleashed as once they had been.
This particular Tartar comments on current events to himself. He soliloquizes while scratching his head in front of the newspaper headlines.
* * *
Snatches and remnants trot around in his head.
All at once, he feels ill.
It’s because of a prickly
ball that every Tartar
has at the base of his throat
or his chest.
each one learns to manage it as best he can.
As for him, he knows the symptoms. He knows how to date their appearance and to make his prognostics. He can feel it coming.
He pays attention to all its pulsations.
However, it remains nameless.
In winter, he doesn’t like the iced-over streets. He drags along the sidewalk with difficulty. The cold makes him conscious of his solitude. He would have to walk for miles to meet other Tartars. The places where they gather are always very far away. In some dilapidated no-man’s land. They can thus exchange their news out of hearing of indiscreet ears. They keep their secrets despite the freezing draughts.
This particular Tartar suffers many destitutions.
He forbids himself to go and press charges. He wants to have nothing to do with the cops. He knows how the police work. He would rather bite down on the bit and wait.
He says to himself that the city is trivial.
He grits his teeth as he thinks about a way out.
This particular Tartar listens. He is good at listening. Since early childhood, he has lent his ear obediently. To the point of getting a stiff neck.
He has never had the right to speak. Not even to spell his name. In olden times, his ancestors believed they were the sole speakers in the world. They would always begin by cutting out the tongues of their prisoners before dismembering them. They would string the tongues on horsehair cords and embellish their mares with them as necklaces.
* * *
He can no longer bear hearing these horrors.
Rarely do his people tell such stories. They brush up on foreign exchange rates. They compare the prices of Mercedes. They play lotto. They bet on how much beer will be consumed. They compete in proverbs and swear-words. They quibble over the ninety-nine names of the Lord . . .
And they swoon when love-poems are recited to them.
* * *
He doesn’t hang around with them much. Combination of circumstances. It’s not that he isn’t one of them. He doesn’t think that he’s different. A bit more withdrawn and sly. And yet, he doesn’t stop wondering. One question bothers him: What happened so that the Tartars were turned into scarecrows?
He had never dared ask his father.
Now, his father is dead.
His illiterate mother keeps on repeating the same sordid and pernicious stories of familial demolitions. Ground-level sagas.
His brothers and sisters have left the tribe.
* * *
He would really like to open his heart. He doesn’t know how.
He listens. He hears everything.
He’s aware when words make no noise.
Talk’s intensity does not escape him.
He distinguishes poetry from prose. Its characteristics seem evident to him.
He sometimes goes to the cultural center. Well-known poets are invited there to read their work in public.
It is always interesting to see poets on stage.
A feeling spreads.
Listening to them attentively, it isn’t always clear.
This particular Tartar isn’t looking for an answer. He avoids what might make him ill and simply wants to have a pleasant time.
* * *
When the words hit hard, he sighs.
He can’t control himself as well as he thought.
This particular Tartar knows his classics. You can’t fool him with half a quotation. His culture is solid. It permits him to avoid the tricks in life’s palimpsest.
Nonetheless this particular Tartar is sometimes surprised.
Each time that he goes back to his homeland, it hits him in the face. Nothing resembles what he had imagined in his wanderings.
In the morning, he walks around the Square of the Camels.
It’s an open market well-stocked with the latest goods: Suits “Made in London,” Italian shoes, American jeans, workers’ overalls from Marseilles, Parisian perfumes and cosmetics.
How to explain the concentration of so many upscale brand names in such a reduced area
All of it floating on a wave of Taiwanese trinkets and garbage.
The road behind the theater shelters the bird-merchants, birdcages and bird food. Anyone at all: a toothless old man, a woman wrapped up in her black veil, an adolescent with an acne-ravaged face, has got one or several birds for sale. There are canaries, nightingales, parrots, budgerigars, robins, martens. Everyone sings the praises, for the connoisseur, of his birds’ language. The conversation of birds is highly prized. You’ve got to use your elbows to make your way through the groups of onlookers.
Further on, in the Square of the Wool Merchants young men brandish panoplies of gold necklaces and brooches, set with precious stones, all the while making fun of the theories of scientists just named to the Senate.
The city is teeming with people.
The Tartars are braggarts but nothing suits them.
What sort of creatures are they then, that lot? Gloomy as the windings of their streets.
They pretend to be watching the moon. Childhood impressions mark them for the rest of the time they have to live.
This particular Tartar loses himself in the crowd. Who would recognize him? He can stroll at ease alongside the butchers’ stalls. A merchant is struck down before his eyes. All he saw was the spurting blood. All at once, the place empties. The stalls look gray in the silence.
At nightfall, no one stays outdoors. The curfew has been lifted, but the habit took.
Before going to bed, the women rub their necks with a tasteless oil; they put on their holiday finery.
During the night, nightmares prowl. All the lamps are put out because of a superstition: great darkness cancels the world; it unknots the tangle of terrors accumulated during the day.
Sleep’s intoxication isn’t possible otherwise.
* * *
The next day, the Square of the Camels fills up again.
The business of bird-dealing begins early.
The Tartars greet each other in their usual way; Each one insists on paying for the coffee or the lemonade.
In the Wool Merchants’ Square, grilled sheeps’ heads emit a dizzying odor.
The gossip is going great guns.
During the month of Ramadan, prices will rocket.
The Tartars squabble all the time. They never lack an excuse to stab each other in the back. Their touchiness is said to be a congenital defect. They brag about it.
Twice a year, they make peace with each other around a laden table. The meal is washed down with honey. After coffee, they congratulate each other sententiously.
The language of the Tartars is ancient.
Its lexicon is rich and varied.
Its grammar follows a logic that leaves little place for exceptions.
Its written alphabet remains an unfinished home-repair job.
The Tartars venerate it.
It is the language used in official speech. Fanatics want to impose it in every circumstance. It becomes a source of tension.
Suitors take precautions; they use a foreign language when they address themselves to the women they desire.
The Tartar language thrusts interlocutors straightaway into the matrix. How can they keep their distance?
Some claim that it is harsh and grating.
This particular Tartar doesn’t make use of it daily. He lives elsewhere, with other constraints. He is respected because he keeps his word.
It sometimes happens that, for weeks at a time, he stumbles over an expression. He can’t recall the tender phrases whispered over a cradle. He asks himself how exactly you congratulate a newlywed, and how you express condolences to a close friend or to a mere acquaintance.
He rummages through all the crannies of his memory.
That’s when he realizes just how crushing exile is.
This particular Tartar dozes on his roadside. He makes up stories to pass the time. He recites Portuguese poetry out loud. He has never been to Portugal, but he used to spend a lot of time on construction sites in Paris. Still, he doesn’t owe his extensive knowledge of Portuguese poetry to the company of Portuguese construction workers—some of whom would declaim the whole of the Lusiads.
Those immigrants were above all gnawed at by a kind of depression they called Saudade. The songs which expressed its sadness were a kind of warning against the temptation to travel. The mark of exile was indelible. It isn’t a handy way to improve one’s mind.
This particular Tartar listens faithfully to France-Culture.
In fact, it’s because of Mhand, who runs the Kremlin Town Hall Bar.
He’s a radio buff. He passed on the virus.
There is an actor who reads Portuguese poetry particularly well.
He noticed him right away. A timbre that clutches at his guts. He never misses those broadcasts.
Often he’s thought of going to wait for him at the radio studio to thank him for his readings. That guy would be willing go for a drink and talk with him.
This particular Tartar is alone.
With age, he finds it difficult to travel. His eyes close to what’s around him. The spectacle of the world disgusts him. He takes a long time looking for the right words to say what he feels, without a convincing result. He says to himself that he’s beginning to come to his visceral limits.
He finds that all in all, Tartar poets take unnecessary risks.
This particular Tartar drinks a lot. He’s not a drunkard. Alcohol calms him down. He needs to drink so as not to get depressed. He inspects the ditch that runs alongside the road. How long has he been here? He doesn’t feel at all well. Nauseated. Is he going to throw up? Sometimes alcohol makes him dizzy.
He isn’t dramatizing his situation; there’s nothing unusual about it.
His family? He doesn’t discuss it. The Tartars rarely confide in anyone.
* * *
They’re accused of being horse thieves. You’ve got to keep an eye on them.
It’s said that when it comes to them, you can expect anything.
* * *
This particular Tartar doesn’t look like that sort. He sticks out his tongue. He’s a good fellow!
But he’s still a Tartar!
When the bitter winter wind whips across his face, his ancestors’ warrior grimace comes back to him.
* * *
The city planning bureau asked me to interview him in the context of a study on gypsies and other travelers.
This particular Tartar distrusts sociologists. I think that he confuses us with social workers.
My interview was limited to brief questions/answers.
I didn’t succeed in getting a serviceable life story out of him.
I had read up on the Tartars beforehand, to help me establish contact.
He didn’t appreciate my empathy.
According to him, Tartars are not travelers.
They move by necessity.
A sociological inquiry would only put them off the track.
I almost succeeded in catching a glance from his averted eyes.
This particular Tartar intrigues me. But I’m not going to spend all my time watching him. I’ve got other things than that to do. I’ve got work waiting for me.
As for him,
his whole life drains away in idleness.
He gets drunk on draught beer. When he plays poker, he cheats. From time to time he rummages in the flea-markets at the edges of Paris. He stops in all the bars.
A Tartar is good for nothing.
Like all the Tartars.
His nonchalance annoys me. My attempts to bring him out of his shell were a failure in the end.
In fact it’s he who avoids all contact.
* * *
To silence my guilty conscience, I read up on the Tartars. My research is hard going, in spite of my enthusiasm for the work. The documentation is scanty. I find some remarkable bursts of wit from a few marginalized poets. They show their black humor at unexpected moments and reject the image along with the symbol.
But most of the time, Tartar poetry is too lyric for my taste. It uses outmoded ornamentation. The metaphors haven’t changed since the first odes scrupulously preserved in anthologies.
* * *
What is the role of poetry in a Tartar’s daily life?
I learned from the shopkeepers around the Kremlin that this particular Tartar has been known to court the muse. It makes him seem innocuous in the neighborhood. He adds a touch of exoticism to the Bicêtre bar.
He doesn’t want to recite anything at all to me.
This particular Tartar trusts the cards and his intuition. He has premonitory dreams, but above all, endurance. He doesn’t despair of finding a way out. He makes short shrift of the vagaries that appear on his path. He goes forward despite everything.
From time to time, rumors disconcert him.
He regains his composure in thinking of the events of a long-ago drama.
There was a time when the Tartars nearly disappeared all at once.
* * *
He knows that the steppe no longer can provide for the Tartars; that its limited space can no longer contain their vast treks; that no royal eagle now traces their trail in the skies; that the rivers and lakes are polluted; that even the Artemisia and wild mint have dried out . . .
This particular Tartar perseveres, waiting . . .
All the Tartars are not dying, far from it. Their movements are controlled regularly. It’s not an easy life. It can be summed up in a few words. The Tartars manage to have enough to eat and improve their daily life.
* * *
He himself delights in a bowl of chickpeas with olive oil. He orders two on melancholy days and lets himself be carried away by the trilling of a canary.