Tag Archives: fiction

Pirandello in Paris

“But don’t you see that the whole trouble lies here? In words. Words! Each one of us has within them a whole world of things, their own special world. And how can we ever come to an understanding if I put in words the sense and value of things as I see them; while you who listen to me must inevitably translate them according to the conception of things you have within yourself. We think we understand each other, but we never really do.”

Imagine you are a writer. Or someone who creates characters in your head. Or anyone curious about how people react and interact in given situations.

Now imagine you are at home, enjoying a moment to yourself. There is a knock at the door. You answer. In walk a family of six. You ask them their business. They reply that they want their story told. You enquire further. They tell you that a writer created them, but abandoned them in the artistic process, leaving them to wander in search of an author. You ask them to tell their story. They do: a story of incest, prostitution, poverty and suicide. 

“Life is full of strange absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true.” 

“Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello was performed for the first time exactly one hundred years ago in Rome in 1921. It caused a scandal — one of those famous theatre riots where the author has to hide or risk confronting an outraged, bloodthirsty mob. Pirandello’s play is currently being played in Paris in a production by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota that was first performed twenty years ago and has since toured the world. If you have a chance, I would highly recommend it.

For my part, I first saw a student production of this at the Burton Taylor Studio in Oxford. The implications of the play — that the characters we create are in some sense real and that we are only ever our own story and nothing more — moved me. The chilling moment when the six characters seek audience in the theatre is the first gasp of surprise. They are a downtrodden group, dressed in black and wearing ghastly faces, a lady in a mourning veil, two children, one with a doll. The director doesn’t know what to do with them, thinks they are playing a prank and asks them to leave. But they insist on telling their story, which evolves bit by bit, sometimes interpreted by the troupe, but never surpassed. 

“I am an “unrealised” character, dramatically speaking…” 

Be careful, not of, but with the characters you create. It might be cliché, but you don’t know when they might come back to haunt you. Or someone else. Take time and care to give them proper rites and, if necessary, bury them as befits a human burial. The fictional world, one that we take so lightly and for granted, is our own creation and surely we must take pride in this. Right? 

“The human, the writer, the instrument of the creation, will die; but their creation does not die.” 

One hundred years later it seems hard to think that Pirandello’s interpretation of theatrical space could provoke anymore than mild intellectual titillation. But the theatre is a subliminal space, one that hovers on the border between fiction and reality. It can create moments of almost blinding sincerity, just to establish an overwhelming feeling of doubt immediately after. It is certainty — these are fleshy, breathing humans who act; it is uncertainty — what happens on stage is subject to the laws of chance, like any other human endeavour. 

“It’s really like that that it happened.”

The Last Temple

“I walked into a temple, to photograph everything I saw there. There was nowhere else for me to go – I had searched almost the whole town and all I could see was the world around me shredded to pieces, kindling for this global fire. But there were still temples, I knew that, because they’ll never be able to get rid of temples, whether you consider them a cancer that will simply not go away, or a human hope that will endure as long as a single living being still breathes. And even if not…

“I photographed everything I saw, an old habit really, a throwback to younger, more naive days. In the main room, there were rows of seats, mostly destroyed and covered with ash. I tried to snap the windows, painted as they were with stories I couldn’t recognise. But the light was not quite right and so I’m not sure they will come out well, if I ever have these photos developed. Maybe I’ll stumble across a dark room at some point, when I venture out into the Overworld again, and then I’ll be able to give light to this temple, in a way that our phones and computers used to do.

“I remember that there was an explosion outside and I hit the deck just in time. But the glass shattered all around me, so I turned on my back to take pictures of this rainbow shower. What’s that? Yes, I suppose I was lucky not to have been injured by any shards – but I guess I’m lucky like that. Lucky enough to come across the only temple left in this town and watch as its beauty is blown away. Lucky, eh?

“I walked a little further, stepping over the debris and watching as flecks of dust fell on my shoulders. There was an alter in front of me – it looked like those in charge had to leave in the middle of something because there was still a liquid inside the vessel. I poured and drank a cup for my dry mouth, but I spat it out immediately for it was like vinegar. Vinegar will stay with us until the very end.

“I could not see a single corpse in the room, even though light was beginning to pour through the empty frames. In most other buildings, as you’ll see from the pictures if we ever get them developed, there are bodies everywhere. Even some still living, but not with any chance of seeing it through. Here, it was empty – maybe the old storied I once heard about temples from the elders are true.

“Beyond the altar, a huge window overlooked south and there were mountains in the distance. I can’t remember if I saw any snow on top of them – I’d like to think I did, but no-one has seen snow for at least 20 years. Above the mountains, the orange sun, clear and round and very hot, watched for any life left to burn. But I hid myself before it saw me. Yes, I outwitted the sun!

“But I’m not a fool, you know. I knew that it was only a matter of time; that the surface was dangerous; that I could be found at any moment; that more explosions might give me away. So I stuffed my camera in my backpack and headed out, through the blown out streets and walls pockmarked with decades of bullets. I ran past the flagpoles with the various coloured tattered rags underneath them, a town given and taken a dozen times. And I remember most of all the bodies of a mother and child, perhaps only dead one week. Can you see them too? Or is this just one of humanity’s oldest clichés?

“I ran faster because I could sense the sun in the sky and like the cowards we have all become I showed it my back, but made sure to kick up some dust. I got into the forest, just as I felt heat hotter than lava on my heels and I fell into darkness.

“You know the rest, because you found me there, clutching my bag. I’m tell you everything that I saw – I’m trying to be as honest as I can. I swear it – there was nobody left in the temple. And be careful with that camera – if you open that flap, you’re going to ruin the… You’re going to expose the film.”

A Hot Summer Night

The summer heat was weighing in on the apartment, as the sun beat down all day and warmed the interior. Anthony came running up the stairs, hardly breaking a sweat, taking the steps two at a time. He didn’t stop to look at the numbers as he wound his way to the fifth floor.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he said, banging his fist against the cold wood of the door. He rang the bell, tried the lock and searched for his phone in his pocket. Not one neighbour came to see what the fuss was about. He sent a quickly drafted message: ‘parle-moi en, je t’en prie’. No response. “Please,” he took to the door, “I didn’t mean to do it. It didn’t mean anything.”

Inside the apartment, Janet was carefully opening a bottle of wine. She could feel Anthony’s voice in the apartment, she could see his message on her phone, she knew they had to talk. She drank some wine, sat down and thought about men and their innocent cruelty.

‘Si je dois partir, je comprends. Je suis désolé, mais au moins parlons-en,’ he sent another text. He heard the phone ring inside, a silence and then footsteps calmly coming towards the door. Anthony stood back, ran a hand through his hair and readied himself. The latch came off and a small streak of light spilled onto the landing floor. She didn’t care to open the door fully; he could let himself in.

***

He left the apartment, his head feeling fuzzy, confused—relieved. He almost stumbled on the last few steps, but managed to grab onto the handrail. He walked down to the bar just around the corner, where he and Janet had smiled so often over the past year and a half. He sank a beer, and then another one. Then remembered he had some friends going out that night.

Forty-five minutes later he’s necking shots at a bar just by Pigalle. The wallet is out—fuck it, he says, it’s a Friday night. You know the feeling he’s going through. The moment you just want to forget that you are actually alive in a body; you want to become that cloud in trousers again, not just another sack of meat caught in the trap that Father Time left out in woods.

Was that man looking at him a bit funny? He’ll have to see to that, as he drained his glass before setting himself to confront a rival. ‘Tu regardes quoi, mec?’ ’T’es bourré, mec’. ‘J’suis pas bourré, mec.’ ‘Nique ta mère,’ came the blow. In an instant, Anthony launched a fist in his interlocutor’s direction, who ducked it and swung one in his ribs, standing back to see what his opponent would do next. Anthony was not satisfied. Trusting in the backing from his friends – who had already left for the next bar – he threw himself at the stranger. They wrestled around the tables for a moment, before the bouncer came over and separated them, threatening to call the police.

Monkey House

In the oldest park in Paris, Le Jardin des Plantes, visitors can buy a ticket and see the exotic animals in the zoo. It is not up to this writer to cast a judgement on the act of keeping creatures in cages for the sensorial delectation of humans; in this piece’s reality, it is what happens.

The hot sun beat down on the soil in the park and the flowers seemed to droop in desperation. The visitors sought shade where they could, though some more daring folk went to smell the flowers or inspect the scientific labels. Some had seen on their phones that there was a chance of rain later in the day, which was hoped for by some in the park.

The animals were mostly moping about the dry earth, looking for shade where possible. There was a supply of water, but the heat had made them drowsy. Except for the monkeys, who were unusually alert. They were communicating much more with each other, shouting and scrambling about their adventure park.

The visitors that were gathering around the monkey house were staring intently at the sight, remarking on the singularity of their behaviour, but also perturbed by the slightly menacing air that the scene had. The monkeys were bearing more of their teeth when they opened their mouths, and mother monkeys seemed to be keeping an eye on their children more severely. This seemed like a leadership contest and a victor might be pronounced before the watershed.

An American family came out of the reptile house and stopped by the monkeys to see what was what. In one spot of the large enclosure, a pair of monkeys, perhaps younger than the others, had snuck off to a different area and were acting amorously together. The father and mother giggled at each other, looked at their children, squeezed each others’ hand and left the zoo, not seeing that another male monkey had come and beaten off the other for the female.

They sat together on a bench, taking out their sandwiches, remarking on how hot it was. They checked the map to see where they had to go next. After a few moments, it became clear that a group of ravens were interested in their food. Two had come directly up to them, while three more lay waiting behind the bench, making the father turn his head. They were surrounded.

“Just give them some bread and let’s get out of here,” he said abruptly. It was clearly not just the bread they were interested in, and when the family got up to leave, one of the slicker birds flew in to take the map, snapping at the father’s fingers as it did so. “Goddam bird!” He said with a curse. “Come on, honey, it will be fine; look, we can ask that couple on the bench,” said his more rational wife, taking the initiative in her own suggestion, though not without some frustration; she did not like the idea of getting involved with ravens, already flown off to their lofty shade.

The monkey house was simmering in the afternoon heat, with seeming arrangements being made and teams formed. There was the occasional screech, but they were mostly keeping the peace. One of the tourists outside managed to snap a picture of two monkeys confronting each other. He added it to his story immediately.

“Excuse me,” seemingly not noticing the intense conversation that was going on on the bench, “but you can tell us where Notre Dame is?” The couple paused, looked at each other and the man with a strained but understanding temper pointed them in the right way. “Thanks very much, sir, and have a great day” said the father, shaking his hand. If Frank was in any other mood, he would have appreciated the moment. As it happens, he found himself in a delicate situation.

“You know, I think I love you more than I love her,” resuming his early thread. “I don’t know if I would care if she found out.”

“Well, that’s exactly what she’s going to do. I told you; she’s got someone after us. And I think he’s in this park.”

“That’s nonsense, Sandra would not go to those lengths, I can assure you. If she suspected a thing, she would be straight on it, no holding back.”

“She’s been watching me, I’m sure of it. On my way back from work the other day, a car followed me for a good three quarters of an hour. I’m scared.”

“No need to be scared; Sandra’s a perfectly rational and compassionate woman. She knows we’ve been unhappy for years now. I don’t know how we’ve coped.”

“Yeah, but hearing that you’re abandoning her and the children for a woman fifteen years younger might just push her over the edge.”

“Do you have to remind me of this?”

“You told me you loved me.”

“I do.”

“So do I.”

It is at this moment that Frank catches in the corner of his eye a man with a camera behind the trees on the other side of the park. He curses, considers running after the man, but decides to wait it out in the shade. He needed to drink something, but he felt stuck on the bench, glued to Imogen. This is it, he thinks, it ends here; the game I’ve been playing and the lies I have told. Here it all finds an ending.

In the monkey cage, two powerful males have risen to the top, casting to their own sides supporters, depending on where the interest lay. Or this is how it seemed to the tourists who were riveted by the exceptional energy that this group of monkeys was exhibiting. Anymore and it might end up trending.

Frank wondered where his wife had found the money for a detective and, more importantly, when he or she had started following him. But as he said, he couldn’t find the energy to care for his wife anymore and sat on the bench, he slumped his greying head on the shoulder of a woman who had been carrying him for ten years. She wished him luck on business trips and heard all the stories of the children; she was the supportive partner he thought he had never had.

Imogen looked up to the sky and saw that it had gotten darker, heavy with urban precipitation, one large stomach ready to burst open. “Come on,” she said, “let’s get out before the rain breaks.” The get up from the bench, turn right towards the exit by the large greenhouse and that is when they see two figures, one more familiar than the other. It was Sandra and her brother.

“How could they have possibly known?” Frank said to under his breath, but loud enough for Imogen to hear. “I told you; she had someone on us,” she retorted. Well, this is it, Frank thought to himself, I must tell her in front of her brother. He’s not going to like this at all, the angry little brute.

Sandra had been tipped off by her sleuth of the whereabouts of her husband and lover. She had known about it for some months now, slowly digesting an extramarital affair that lasted almost two decades. Now, she was to meet her rival, and confront them both. She lived it as a tragically proud moment in her life, comforted by the presence of her brother who had agreed not to intervene unless necessary.

“Sandra…” Frank said, seizing the moment to speak. But she brushed him off and went directly to Imogen. “So you’re the woman who thinks she can scab off my household?” She asked cooly, but with a definite menace, not malice, in her voice. Imogen felt the stare of a betrayed woman look her up and down, she could see the studied, bitter resentment on the face of the woman she envied deep down, and was on the brink of capitulating.

Back at the monkey house, the tourists were having a field day. The two male monkeys who had been squaring up to each other were pushing each other in the enclosure. The troops around them were howling, waiting on tenterhooks for the moment, and it was strange to see that such a racket had not attracted the attention of the guards. But they didn’t care; teeth was going for flesh, and punches were being made.

“Look, Frank,” Sandra turned on him, “I don’t want to make a scene out of this. Come on, let’s go and get out of the rain and discuss this elsewhere.”

“I’m not coming with you,” snapped Frank in a tone that was not his own. “I’m staying here, with Imogen, the woman I have loved for the last 20 years.” Sandra buckled at the knees and was about to fall, when her brother came and supported her. Imogen seemed to snicker at this woman, just then so proud, cut down by Frank’s words. The brother noticed and with violence said “wipe that grin off your face, you whore.” “Don’t you speak to my fiancee like that.” “But you’re already married to me,” came a mumble. “Or else what, cheater?”

With that, Frank launched himself at his brother-in-law, who in defence had to let Sandra fall to the ground. Imogen could be heard shouting in the background, as the two men wrestled on the wetting dust around the tracks, their grunts becoming more proclaimed, the two women shocked by the scene in front of them. All of a sudden, there was a gunshot. The clouds broke, an immense downpour of rain. Frank became weak, falling to the floor, clutching his heart. The brother stood back and watched life wrinkle out of a man. The women were escorted away in metal coats, as heavy drops ricocheted off the metal. The police blues flashed their usual melody. The zookeeper puts away his rifle and watched the monkeys return to the old status quo.