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  • The Ghost’s Preface
  • Kamel Daoud (bio)
    Translated by John Cullen (bio)

We were in Paradise: there was the fig tree and, over on the right, the apple tree, only half of which I could see through the big French window that opened onto the courtyard; there was moreover a cloud of birds so dense you could imagine it contained an infinite number of species. Beyond the garden wall, I could also see the sky, still cool and blue, and I’d let it absorb me when the Old Man’s voice stopped addressing anyone but himself, over the heads of all mankind, as it turned its collective back to him.

I would have liked to own such a house: a place where I’d have nothing to do but give things names, for naming things was my true gift in this country, which was losing the use of its tongues.

An old house, calm as an empty sky, with one door that opened on the world and another on memories, nested inside one another like Russian dolls. Even though I was able to glimpse only a part of the garden, I thought it so beautiful that you could sit under one of its two trees and stop aging. By the seventh day, however, I was bored rigid, and I let the voice recorder on the table serve as an ear while the old-timer chattered on, immortalized by his own long-windedness. I smiled and said to myself—sneering intelligently, as you may imagine—“Because death will surely avoid giving eternity to a man who can’t shut up.” A pretty phrase. The kind of thing that could be carved into a very old stone or inscribed as the epigraph to some profound book. I promised myself to use it one day, when I would address all mankind in my turn. For the moment, however, I was a ghostwriter—in French, a nègre—and like black slaves transported to other lands, I let luxuriant jungles grow lazily in my imagination when my task grew too hard in the sun. I’d think about everything, about nothing, drifting like a kite, listening to the voice of a little imaginary serpent and never to the Old Man’s story. It, in any case, could have neither a beginning nor an end, unless you trod on the corpse of the person telling it, or if you fired into his mouth [End Page 13] the same bullet he’d fired decades ago, before the country became free and useless. I got so bored that I had all sorts of daydreams: about throwing his garden in his face, giving him his money back, and then regretting it for thousands of years; or about killing him by turning my back on him and leaving him planted there, right in the middle of his eternity, on a stunted throne between two trees. I could also leave the courtyard, eat up all his apples, and insolently scratch my crotch to show him what I thought of his desire to dictate a book he couldn’t write or didn’t dare write, which I’d decided to do from the start anyway.

For three months, I’d helped the Old Man gather up his fragments, verify them one by one, and rebuild his memory. Even before he started rolling out his musty manuscripts, I’d decided to shirk my task. I would deal with it by creating a clandestine story that would stand in for his and survive it by dwelling in its carcass like a patient worm. Here, too, you may imagine me smiling behind a mask: a worm that would not become the too-predictable butterfly of the proverb but would instead eat the leaves, the fruit, the tree, and then the whole forest, and at the end declare itself God. A strategy fit for a copyist incapable of raising his voice, born into an unfavorable century, wedged between two necessities: to eat, and to put off dying as long as possible.

You’ll therefore understand me when I say that the chief reason I’m writing a preface to this book today is that...


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pp. 13-24
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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