Excerpt In Translation

Le Discours sur la tombe de l’idiot

by Julie Mazzieri

Éditions José Corti, 2009

Boréal compact, 2013


Le Discours sur la tombe de l’idiot was a winner of the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Awards. Despite this success, it remains little known in English, although it has been translated into German. Here Jacob Siefring gives us a taste of its peculiar style.


In broad daylight. They threw him into a well on the far side of the village. They held him by the legs and flopped him in like a sack of wheat. Counting one, two, three. The mayor and his deputy. Some days earlier, at the town hall, the two men had stayed behind after the meeting of the assembly. They had not bothered to sit. They had loosened their ties and talked in the doorway. There had been no real silence. The mayor’s neck was red, purplish almost. He had spoken first.

He had seen him that morning as he was coming out of the post office. He was in the village square and seemed not to be waiting for anything or anyone. He was seated on the first step of the square and his overlarge pants were falling down past his waist. The mayor wanted to sit and read his mail. The mail lady had just handed him a registered letter and he had said to himself, I’ll stop in the square to open it; there’s no one there at this hour, no obligation to stand around and chat. He had hesitated when he saw the other on his step and had gone along the low wall and taken a seat on the bench. He was the mayor and he was in his village square after all. The other hadn’t noticed him; he was rocking vacantly, staring at the ground before him. He had been doing that for a long time, never stopping. The movement started at the neck, with a slight shake, a momentary stiffness that pitched his head forward like a pendulum. You should have seen his face when it came up again; his fat, stupid head like a pomegranate. The mayor had set his mail on his knees and called out to him to move along. The other had lifted up his head and looked around for the source of the words. His idiot eyes saw nothing. He was looking at him, the mayor seated on the bench, but without really seeing him. His mouth remained half-open, sluggish, as if the lower lip were too heavy. As if someone had emptied out his brain through the nostrils, with a straw. Pretty hard to read with a cretin like that rocking back and forth in front of you. With a wave of the hand the mayor tried to drive him off. Nothing. A little surprised noise had risen to his throat, a hiccup, then he smiled uncertainly. Repugnant, the deputy had said. The mayor had repeated: a hiccup. A hiccup. And continued.

The idiot had started rocking again while staring fixedly at his shadow that kept him company in the dirt of the square. Already, the mayor on his bench no longer existed. The idiot had had a second hiccup and leaned forward to pick up a pebble lying over his shadow. Then he had gone onto his knees to pick up all the other pebbles and twigs that were bothering him. It was at that moment the mayor had spotted him, seen him with his eyes, between the too-short undershirt and the slack belt strung around the pants, a patch of skin so white it nauseated him. Thin as silk and bloated with fat, he had said. There, in broad daylight, without hair or down, covering the body of that man; that worm.

The deputy had repeated “repugnant.” He had wanted to add something else: another word, a shard of sound maybe, but his preliminaries were cut short by the mayor’s hand. He had not heard all and there was still worse. He had had to set his mail down on the bench to assure himself of what he was seeing. His body folded over his legs, he was finally at the height of the idiot’s belly. Completely absorbed in his game, the idiot had not noticed him. The mayor had stayed in that position hoping no one would surprise him like that and carefully observed him each time he straightened up because, in the middle of that veiny potbelly, he had not seen it. The belly button. Squinting, he had sought it. He had not seen it because there simply wasn’t one. The belly was smooth, uniform; perfectly calm. Someone must have erased or removed it. To ward off bad luck.

The mayor was having difficulty whispering. The words spluttered were much louder than he thought. Many times the deputy had been able to smell his breath wither. Leaning on the doorframe, he had listened to him to the end. The idiot had cleaned his shadow and remained on his knees before it. A tree planted in the square, the mayor had said. The deputy had imagined a hazel tree. The idiot wavered slightly in its contemplation. It was too much, you understand. The whole circus, in the morning. Just after the other thing. Too much. The mayor had risen and approached the idiot to drive him off once and for all. Then, at the instant his foot was set down on his shadow, the other had begun to bray with all his might, “na, na, na, na,” shaking his big head from left to right. The bicycle boy had passed by again, holding his handlebars with one hand. Again “na, na, na” as if they were going to smash him. The mayor had backed up to the sidewalk. Then, without any reason, as if life had attacked him by the crown, the idiot had spread his arms and started to laugh. His loose mouth had contorted, his fingers that the nerves no longer managed to control had transformed into arthritic pincers and the belly, my God that buttonless belly, had started to rumble. The mayor had prayed for the horrible spectacle to end and had left. The idiot had lain down on top of his shadow and embraced it with joy, as if he had just found a long-lost friend. The mayor had had a taste of dirt in his mouth and had known then that they had to get rid of that idiot.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Translation by Jacob Siefring