Literary breaks

Recomposed Canon

Like Hounded Beasts

By Caroline Broué 26 April 2018


© Julien Benhamou / OnP

Recomposed Canon
Just as Max Richter has recomposed Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Caroline Broué bases her story on the opening image of Crystal Pite's ballet, that of a group moving in unison. The dancers' gestures evoke for her the image of a human chain which she transposes to a world of bloody conflict. The story is told from the point of view of an opera singer, exiled to Paris, separated from his family who have remained in their country at war and whose pains and anxieties he shares. He is a helpless witness to this apocalytic vision as he prepares to perform Vivaldi's music in front of the opera audience, becoming for a moment the voice of the voiceless.

Day breaks over the Bekament plain. In the village where the last survivors live huddled together, all is ruins, dust and rubble. You have to dig and sift through the wreckage to find any life. This is where the men, women and children who have escaped the bombings are grouped. Beneath gutted buildings, beneath the shattered earth and in half-inhabitable cellars.

Day breaks over the Bekament plain, and twenty or so of them slowly dust themselves down. Initially surprised to be there, alive, to have survived the deluge of fire and fury for one more night. They get up, one by one, or two by two, in clumps, bent, grimacing, their gestures faltering. The most alert of them, often the youngest, prop up the more weary among them, like Nadal who grasps old Jojo by the arm to help him stand up. Then, when they are all upright, they jerk their heads from left to right, counting each other, lowering their eyes towards their hearts as if to check that they really are alive, then look at each other, observe each other, sizing up, touching, caressing, kissing, hanging on to each other, holding one another in their arms. They take new strength and give each other strength. Only then can the day begin.

Four thousand kilometres away, Remy is waking up. His first thought on opening his eyes is of those back home, those for whom each morning he offers up a prayer. But for him, today is not like other days. This evening he is to sing at the Paris Opera, the international temple of music. It won’t be easy. He knows he must face the audience, the cameras, his colleagues, the conductor, the opera house director and the critics; must overcome his terrible fear, his unending shame. To be here this evening whilst his parents and his sisters are being bombed back home. His father, an engineer of fifty-two, good-natured and affable. His mother, a nurse, whom he still calls “the Mater”. Liliana, his sister, seventeen and radiant. And the youngest, Maya, who is just nine.

Remy hardly dares look at his phone, for fear of discovering a new message on Whatsapp. Over the last five days, he’s had so many that he’s lost count. Calls for help, cries, eye-witness accounts. What he sees, and what he hears destroys him a little more each time. So he tries to learn some French words: irrefragable; fuligineux; flavescent; puruler; gravide; valétudinaire; agonistique; equanimité (impracticable; sooty; yellowish; putrefy; pregnant; valetudinarian; agonistic; equanimity). But no, the messages are stronger. His old school friend, suffocated under the rubble of his house. The baker’s son he used to play ball with in the street, arrested and tortured. But the words that really tear at his guts are those of his mother and his little sister, each day more agonising, each hour more terrifying. The Mater regularly sends audio messages that her son reads. Yesterday, throughout the day, at every lull in the bombing, she sent one. This morning, there’s certain to be another. The first one arrives towards eight o’clock. She writes that she’s just come out of the underground shelter after an atrocious night. That she’s stiff all over and her back hurts from lying curled up on the floor of the cellar. That she only managed to doze off for an hour or two with Maya in her arms. And when the bombs rain down on them she feels as if her heart will burst. Reading these lines, it is Remy’s heart that nearly bursts. Yesterday, after a full day’s rehearsal, he read all the Mater’s messages in one go. He called Mikhaïl to tell him he couldn’t sing this evening. He asked Mikhaïl to stand in for him. Worried about his friend, Mikhaïl explained gently that it was impossible to step in at the last minute. Not merely because he hasn’t rehearsed the role, but also because he’s a baritone and Remy is a counter-tenor. He’s actually the most promising counter-tenor of his generation. Rémy is only twenty-three and already people are talking about him as a great singer. No, Remy, I can’t. You have to sing. You’ve got to go through with it. For them, for all those stuck back there, at home. It was your mother who asked you when you left, six years ago. Don’t forget them; become one of the greatest singers, get your voice heard all over the world, be the voice of the voiceless, of those no one hears anymore, so that your music is louder than the deafening noise of war. That’s what Remy is thinking about now, sitting opposite his reflection in the mirror, that conversation. To find the strength. His voice, its clear timbre, its beauty, youth and vivacity over the fracas of the bombs hurled down on buildings, schools, hospitals; over the noise of falling debris, the raised hands appealing for aid, parents struck dumb before the corpses of their children; over the planes bombarding the town and destroying all that lives below; above the silence of death gradually submerging all forms of human life. He must go on stage. For them. For himself. For the little bit of hope that remains to them.

Evening. Opening night. For several days, the buzz of media hype has surrounded this new production: the papers have proclaimed it as the evening no one should miss. The young exile will be performing Il Giustino by Vivaldi, his favourite, and the opera is to be broadcast live on Arte. Switch off your cell-phone, Remy. Don’t look at the images, don’t listen to the messages. Repeat: irrefragable; fuligineux; flavescent; puruler; gravide; valétudinaire; agonistique; équanimité. Get yourself dressed. Go and see Valerie: she’ll massage your neck before she does your make-up. She’ll respect your silence, your overriding need for calm before going on. She alone will understand that you can’t face the audience, the packed house, all those men and women, tired after their day’s work, those rich Parisians in suits and ties of blue or grey, some of them music lovers, others lovers of themselves and their social position, ready to start snoring within minutes. Until now, he has managed not to think too much about his family and his friends back home. He has managed because, in France, people don’t talk about it much. So he’s been concentrating on Vivaldi and Il Giustino for the past five months. It was at the beginning of April that everything changed, when a new spate of bombing targeted the neighbourhood where his family had taken refuge. No food, no medicines, no humanitarian aid allowed through. The population run to earth in the gaping holes cratered by bomb explosions, hidden in the basements of gutted buildings. Men, women, children crammed into spaces so narrow that breathing demands an effort accentuated by the billowing dust of buildings collapsing one after the other like sandcastles. The sirens of the ambulances trying to get through in the interval between two explosions. The strong carrying the weak. That man, his name forgotten, kneeling before the bloodied corpse of his baby, covering it with a blanket. How do these images reach him? Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look. He has no right. He has no right to abandon them. The world must see what it has allowed to happen. Those men, those women, old and young, living smothered beneath the earth. Hospital corridors full of frantic civilians. That man banging his head against the lifeless body of his daughter. Maya, where is Maya? She’s only nine. His little sister with her sweet face, so innocent. Remy, where are you? She’s calling me. What are you doing, Remy? Why did you go away? Why did you leave me? Do you remember how we used to tickle each other? And playing hide and seek in our house? You used to frighten me for fun, it didn’t take much, often I cried as soon as I couldn’t see you anymore, and then you came out from your hiding place to comfort me. Today it’s me in a hole. And you’re not here for me. Yesterday, I went out into the street. I wanted to see the daylight. There was a lull so I followed a group of boys, the Sy brothers, they sell stuff on the black market, outside they burn wood and plastic, I followed them, it smelt horrid, you couldn’t breathe, there was a power cut so they went outside to run about, there are power cuts all the time and we were outside, and then I was alone, and the oldest one put an arm round my shoulders, but suddenly, a few metres ahead of us, a bomb dropped and we fell to the ground. And I turned round and I saw Mum screaming in the doorway of the building, she was shouting at me to come back, but I couldn’t hear anything, my ears were buzzing and the dust was stinging my eyes. Somehow, Nadal managed to carry me back to the entrance of the house, he was hiccupping, snorting like a horse, I was heavy for him to carry, but he managed. Outside it was chaos, everyone was running about everywhere, they all had their mouths wide open, their arms in the air, like a big podgy animal or an ant’s nest, like the one in my picture book, they all ran in the same direction, then scattered, as if the animal had got dislocated, as if it was losing its arms and legs one by one, or as if a monster had trodden on the ant’s nest. There was blood everywhere, Remy, it was horrible. I couldn’t hear anything anymore. It was night and you couldn’t see a thing, there were arms waving to ask for help, again and again, other people were dragging bodies along the ground, there were bodies everywhere. I closed my eyes and I felt someone carrying me. They passed me from one to the other, they formed a human chain to get me back to mum who was crying, crouching in the corridor. Nadal left me there and went off again. I know he went to find Liliana. He told me in the cellar before we went out. They’ve got a secret place, behind the school, well, the ruins of the school, but I’m not allowed to tell anyone. If they get caught, they’ll be killed. They meet up in the evenings, when it gets dark. It’s their special time: when they’re together nothing more can happen to them, there's silence all round them and it’s like they’re alone in the world in a halo of protective light. Orwa goes there as well. And Jules, and Abou. And Farah. They keep a look-out. They keep watch while the others build a wall. A barricade. Against what? I don’t know. They also fetch water and carry stones. But since yesterday, the bombing’s intensified and goes on late into the night. I’m afraid for them. That’s why I wanted to join them.

Remy has asked for an hour. An hour of solitude in his dressing room. Everyone understands. They are all sympathetic. But no one can understand. It’s not conceivable for the staff of the opera house here, for Parisians, for the French. They can’t imagine it. His pain for his people goes beyond anything they can imagine. Better keep quiet, bury it, bury yourself, like your family. But the hour is ticking away, the beginning of the performance is approaching. He has to join the cast and the orchestra. The director has already called him once. François-Xavier, the conductor has been playing for time, as Remy knows, but at the next call he’ll be expected to appear immediately. Remy gets up, grabs his costume, pulls it on and goes out. Desiree, the continuity girl, is there in the corridor, with a sympathetic look. He smiles at her as he walks past. He arrives backstage, he hears the opening bars from the orchestra. He’s about to go on. His cue is not the ruins of the school, it’s the G in the first violins. In bar five, he walks on stage.

At that very moment, beyond mountains and seas, green valleys and snow-capped mountains, a few hours away by plane, a mother collapses. The lifeless body of her little girl has just been laid at her feet. May God give you patience and courage, say the rescue workers as they carry her remains. A young girl runs up, screams, tries to throw herself on her sister, but the others stop her, hold her back; she struggles, tries to run away; she’s stopped in her tracks, a bomb explodes, they are all thrown to the ground.

At the other end of the town, in the midst of the rubble, beside what used to be the school, another young girl hugs a boy beneath the benevolent gaze of a group of young people. Then the group divides into four. Liliana and Nadal, their eyes shining, take a last look at each other, then go in opposite directions. Seconds later, a bomb explodes in the road Nadal has just taken. Liliana stops abruptly. Amid the screams and the sirens, she perceives the silence. A different silence. Nadal’s silence. She sinks to her knees in the dust.

At the same instant, a convoy of tanks enters the town. Hundreds of little robots descend and begin walking through the streets, placing uniforms, helmets, food supplies, medicines here and there. Liliana picks up a helmet placed at her feet, puts it on her head, incredulous: with the glasses she sees another reality, all is green, she can make out shapes and silhouettes in the thick cloud of dust around her. She pulls on a jacket, touches her chest, her stomach, her head with the tips of her fingers, then picks up what remains on the ground, the uniforms, the supplies and the medicines. She raises her head, gazes into the distance, then starts walking.

And Remy sings Anastasio’s aria, “Vedro con mio diletto”, “I shall see with joy”.    

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