Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 170-180
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The Life of André Dufourneau
Pierre MichonTranslated by Ann Jefferson
Let us proceed through the genesis of my pretensions.
Was one of my forebears a handsome captain, an insolent young ensign or a fiercely taciturn slave trader? Some uncle gone native east of Suez beneath his pith helmet, with jodhpurs down to his feet and bitterness on his lips, the phony personality that younger sons or poets in apostasy are inclined to take on, all the dishonored who cling to honor, umbrage and memories and are the black pearl of family trees? Some colonial or naval antecedent?
The part of provincial France that I speak of is without coastlines, reefs or beaches; no hotheaded native of Saint-Malo nor haughty sailor from Toulon heard the call of the sea when the winds from the west let it drop, purged of salt and brought from afar, onto the chestnut trees. Two men, however, who knew those chestnut trees doubtless once took shelter from a shower beneath them, [End Page 170] fell in love with girls beneath them, and at any rate had dreams beneath them, left to work and to suffer beneath very different trees, not in order to satisfy their dreams, but perhaps to find love again, or simply to die. I have been told about one of the men; I think I can remember the other.
One day in the summer of 1947, my mother is holding me in her arms, beneath the big sweet-chestnut in Les Cards, at the spot where you suddenly see the road from the next village emerge, hidden until that point by the wall of the pigsty, the hazel trees and the shade; the weather is fine, no doubt my mother is wearing a light frock, and I am babbling; along the road, a man unknown to my mother is preceded by his shadow; he stops; he looks; he is clearly moved; my mother trembles slightly, the organ-note of something unfamiliar sounds among the fresh noises of the daytime. Finally the man steps forward, introduces himself. It was André Dufourneau.
Later he said he thought he recognized in me the baby girl my mother had been,—similarly incapable of speech and still helpless—when he left. Thirty years had passed, and the same tree was still the same, and the same child had become another.
Many years earlier, my grandmother's parents had asked the welfare services to let them have an orphan to help them with the work on the farm, as was common practice at the time, in the days before the devious and complacent mystification had been devised, which, while supposedly protecting the child, holds up a flattering, sentimental, lavish mirror to its parents; it was enough then for the child to eat, to sleep under a roof, and from living alongside his elders to pick up the few rudiments necessary to the survival out of which he would make a life; for everything else, it was assumed that tender years would substitute for tenderness, compensate for the cold, the pain, and the harsh labors which were sweetened by buckwheat cakes, the beauty of the evenings and the good fresh air.
The welfare wervices sent them André Dufourneau. It pleases me to believe that he arrived one evening in October or December, soaked by the rain or with ears red from the sharp frost; for the first time his feet tramped the lane where they will never again walk; he looked at the tree, the cowshed, the way the horizon meets the sky in these parts, the door; he looked at the new faces beneath the lamp, which may have been surprised or compassionate, smiling or indifferent; he had a thought which we shall never know. He sat down and ate his soup. He stayed for ten years.
My grandmother, who married in 1910, was still a girl. She became attached to the child, to whom she undoubtedly showed the delicacy and kindness which I recall in her, and...