The following is extracted from Night As It Falls by Jakuta Alikavazovic, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman and published by Faber & Faber in February 2021.
Night As It Falls
Paul couldn’t believe that she lived in a hotel. Better yet, or worse, he had known it, then forgotten. They talked about her on campus, rumours had preceded her, so much that her body already existed in whispers, but Paul didn’t care about gossip. He cared about girls, and women. Their mouths, their flesh. He was eighteen years old, and living multiple lives. By day he went to university, he stared at huge blackboards or whiteboards, he traded and compared notes with his classmates; it was odd how sometimes they would swear they couldn’t possibly have gone to the same lecture, until they landed on one or two identical sentences and had to concede that they had indeed both been listening to the same professor, but aside from those fixed points each of their notebooks meandered, diverged. The ones who understood best were the ones who understood nothing and, terrified by their own ignorance, had written everything down verbatim.
They spent hours gathered together at the café: girls running their fingers over his scalp and stroking it, cold fingers probing the waves of his hair, exploring the topography of his cranium, light fingers slipping across the back of his head as if momentarily, unwittingly breathing life into long-forgotten theories, as if the bumps they found could reveal the secrets of his personality or his soul through the old, discredited markers of amativeness or acquisitiveness, or benevolence, or adhesiveness – even though the mystery these eighteen-year-old girls ever so gently touching his head were trying to decipher was simply that of their own desire, the desire they felt for this young man in particular or the desire they felt for young men in general. All these fresh-faced students were happy; they talked too much, their breaths forming small clouds in the cold air, they smoked too much, drank coffee in quantities that set their hearts racing. Deep down, they scared as easily as deer, even the boys, especially the boys, and so they shied away from open contact – would never have dared to lock hands, much less lock lips. Yet they were all so close together that just one of them had to catch a cold for all the others to catch it as well.
In the evenings, at night, there were long, drunken, anonymous parties where Paul lost his friends in the crowd, intentionally lost them, because everybody swooned over him with his swimmer’s torso and his long lashes. Nights when people handed him glasses full of clear or cloudy liquids that sometimes plunged him into extraordinary slowness where everything flowed as if underwater and where gestures were never quite completed, where they barely got nine-tenths of the way through. Nights on rooftops or in basements or at mansions or in abandoned métro stations. Nights full of smoke. Nights when he lost sight of his friends then found them again, but sometimes it wasn’t them, sometimes it was just his face, just his own reflection caught here or there. Nights when people tried in vain to get him into bed. Nights when he was obsessed with sex because at that time Paul was under a curse or a spell, he just couldn’t get rid of his virginity, every time, the girl disappeared or he left or someone showed up or they had to go; but stranger still, even when he had sex, and whatever the definition one gave the act, whether it was ordinary or pornographic or legal or none of the above, even when he inserted his genitals into someone else’s, even when he came with an uncontrollable shudder and the deed had finally been done, he thought, finally! – the next day or a few days later, it was as if nothing had happened. He was a virgin again, and resigned to it. It was a nightmare for him.
He slept little but slept well. Wherever he was, at the university or at the café, in an unknown house or at home, most of the time, just a few feet away would be a screen with flickering images of murders and investigations or funerals and tears or collapses and escapes or questions and answers, or only questions. And he, impervious to all these tragedies, slept peacefully. But that was before Amelia Dehr. That was before the hotel.
Jakuta Alikavazovic is a French writer of Bosnian and Montenegrin origins. Her debut novel, Corps Volatils, won the Prix Goncourt in 2008 for Best First Novel. She has translated works by Ben Lerner, David Foster Wallace and Anna Burns into French. She lives in Paris and writes a regular column for the daily newspaper Libération.
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