A COLLABORATION OF SMILES
4 of A FORK IN THE ROAD
By Philip Hartigan
That great short story writer Somerset Maugham, who like me, lived a great part of his life in the South of France, but unlike me knew what he was talking about. In a rough-hewn homage and in appreciation of his style, rakish and dashing, bow ties and cravats.
Somerset was intellectually always wearing silk pajamas and he told us of a foolproof guide to the French personality. It could be demonstrated, he said by a rudimentary knowledge of three French authors. It has the elegance of Einstein and the simplicity of Eminem. We begin with Rabelais, after that Lafontaine and then Corneille. If the theory were a paper aeroplane the three folds would be, 'le mot juste' or as Spike Lee would say "doing the right thing". Talking about a subject at whatever level, using the coarse verbal accuracy of the street. Then there is the commonsense of Lafontaine who told us fables to show how nature winds its way through our complex world. Last but not least. Corneille for that unbeatable daring and panache. When you tell the boss man to put it where the sun don't shine. When the villainy of his role in the slimeball political economy is revealed to everyone including himself and you are saved by angels on your way home. That is the panache of Corneille, the French believe in it and so do I.
The outer suburbs of Marseille are an Urban Living Theater. Where these three aspects mingle with the inevitable underachieving community. It’s the coldest destiny with an impact that sounds like the chorus of a Greek tragedy. It’s a world close to nature and the fables of Lafontaine are acted out day and night. The greed of the fox and the patience of the nightingale. Where the football is fierce and loyal, tribal, finishing in armed warfare on the backstreets around the newly constructed sports complex. Rabelaisian folklore in the making. The panache is often left to the leaders of the pack, famous policemen like "the Chinois". Daring business men like the football trainer Roland Corbis whose path has taken him across the floors of the best casinos and across the back and front pages of the national newspapers. Footballers pay too much income tax. Roland can always find a way.
It’s a well-observed fact that 99% of the men in Marseille think like truck drivers. The other I% who rule, drink in the same freemasons lodge. It’s a famous oligarchy.
The Russian mafia have installed themselves in its highest sanctum. I was invited for an extended evening with a party organized by the Russian brothers. Yes the Lentovs have decided that an English artist of doubtful pedigree weighing in at 90 kilos wondering where his next bottle of champagne is coming from can participate in their conquest of foreign parts. An observer? That’s unlikely. They say that they like my work. I am flattered. They have given an introduction to a gallery in Nice. Tonite let’s go to the Opera in Marseille. Tonite it’s La Scala Milan on tour doing "La Traviata". Even a mafia ligger has a right to culture! It's only a short opera. First shown, it says here in the program, in 1856 at the famous Fenice in Venice. Recently burned down, not by Arab fundamentalists, but by local hoods working the restoration racket. Which goes to show no matter what you are or who you are, how famous you are, if you are in the way, you'll get burned. That's a maxim for survival on the shores of the Mediterranean and most place else.
The opera is a social goldfish bowl something of an ordeal, if it’s important for this boy, tonite it's a laugh. The Opera in Marseille is a great place, incongruously set in a part of town that is teaming with life and sometimes with death. Its red light and hoods in bars.
Usually I go to the "poulaillere"-chicken shed or the Gods as they used to call them, higher than the highest. The Opera House in Marseille thinks it’s an electric toaster. Why is it so hot? I am a slice of bread in a blue suit with a red tie and a green shirt. The Russians have bought the best seats for their party.
Air is circulating; a few people are smoking dope. Tonight it’s Verdi the iron man of Italian Opera. La Traviata is a love story, a polite sex story. In this marriage of Italian Baroque and Gaumont art nouveau, we are watching the story of Violetta who is a high class call girl, a courtesan. Violetta loves and looses -- dies at the end of T. B. and goes out singing. The show was a bomb when first performed, no one liked it and it was booed for half an hour.
Italian men are a problem and have always been so. No tenderness is expressed for whores. Are the Russians any different? I wonder? I have done some research. They are a pair of faggots who buy up villas in the South and fill them with girls from Eastern Europe. Who, after the collapse of the socialist dream, have found that the oldest profession is the surest. The proceeds from this activity are then invested in High Tech start-ups in the Aix en Provence silicone valley. I imagine the technology is then exported back to the Russian head office. Tonite is legitimate, we may be the racially of the 21st century but tonite we have girls. Bulgarian belles and Vietnamese veterans, Roumanian gypsies. The show tonite is political nirvana, and all artists love the smell of power. Even if its only the local Town hall gay club.
I notice that there are embassy hoods and local fixers. Nobody else wearing my color combinations. I am in the company of Karine who looks like a Portuguese Arab mettisse. Marseille has the most spectacular girls, sometimes I walk down the street with a hard on I am so inspired. She tells me she works as a dancer at the "Jogging Rose" because "Moulin Rouge" was so popular the French have rediscovered the "can can". She does, the lot: belly dancing, chorus, can can and modern jazz. I like her better than Nicole Kidman because she's for real. She has a magical smile and spectacular plastique. So real, I thought that she maybe from Artificial Intelligence Then I succumb to her charms. We are part of a group of twenty odd. Which will then expand to twice that size as the evening develops unto night. We will walk around the corner to the restaurants that inhabit the space behind the Vieux port. It’s a parade of that political nirvana that presents itself in every provincial town. We are on wholesome if not holy ground because the newly elected Chirac about eight years ago announced the need to invest in France. The Russians responded. Nowadays the multi polar world running from Moscow to St. Petersburg down through Berlin skewering the chicken’s arse at Paris and Marseille to Nice; Of course the new capitalists are just like the old ones. In their thirties and totally unscrupulous.
The chargé d'affaires for corruption and sleaze buys me a drink, and Karine is quickly trying to find out what his tendency is. Is she imagining what it must have been like to have been a working girl in the demi-monde of the Empire. Instead of waltzing about in landau pony carts she is skimming along the auto-route between performances. I ask her when the diplomat leaves our company "Does it make thinking about the future difficult when all the powerful men are gay?" Her response is worthy of my epitaph "people like me have no alternative, we are destined to live in the precarite of the present, like the surrealists". Our collaboration is a collaboration of smiles.
The finale comes quickly. Our lady of the Camelias sings her way to heaven. I can see why it was a flop. It adds charm and exoticism to the crucifixion of sexual guilt and hypocrisy. My reaction to the tears in the eyes of Karine is a sadistic wanting that I can feel in the glands of my throat. Has she had enough of pain and reality? What are her calculations about me? Has she got me worked out? Have I got her worked out? The evening will tell its tale, perhaps? The problem with these nouveau riche is that they all use cell phones. They never turn them off during leisure moments and fuck me if they aren't all slaves.
The Lentovs get very cross when the phones ring while they are talking. You loose brownie points and could end up cleaning the toilets in a knocking shop in Toulon. Our heroine petered out to the sounds of Alfredo her loved one. The penguin suited, muff artists from the salons of the imagination say goodbye to another loyal muff. Meanwhile in the entrails of the twenty first century, the stark truth is that the merchants of human flesh are clapping like monkeys. Bravo Bravo (sic).
The Russians announce a seamless departure to the restaurant, and I get the shivers at the name. We are going to eat at Don Carleone. Well known for its harmless Sicilian and Neapolitan connections and allegiances. Corleone, you may remember is the family name of Marlon Brando, Robert de Niro, Al Pacino taken from the book by Mario Puzo, The Godfather. Apparently Saddam Hussein's favorite film. He probably owns the restaurant. It's a sizeable place not classy but authentique.
As I enter with this piece on my arm, feigning sadness. I have to remind myself that for me exclusively "Life imitates art" and that the South of France is littered with the cut up remains of thousands of imbeciles who thought they could make their face fit with the mob make a killing and get out. Walking through the bouquets of gladioli and carnations. I contemplate the realization that these guys are sharks and adore to eat their own. It’s a truism to say that once you are in, you stay in, till they eat you. The challenge is to either be the one that got away or become the big shark that eats all the others.
I sing Chuck Berry and duckwalk into the restaurant singing Karine "isdatchew" like Nadine. I signthe 'Livre D'or' for both of us, evidently, something not done. You must be invited to sign this Livre D'or. First bit of bad taste; whattook me so long? I notice the names in the book De Stefano, Zazza O Passo, Grassi, Forte, Sacca, Nunziati, Di Flassi. I said that it wasartistic license. I am in there now. Lots of space for everyone in this place. Buckets of champagne.
As we sit at the table I begin to examine the notes that I made in the program. People at the next table aretalking about the "Toulouse affaire". A Murky business. Serial killer of prostitutes naming names and denouncing prominentpoliticians as clients of the "milieu du trottoir" he had prostitutes killed under the orders of the police and politicians.etc etc. This is not Opera this is today in France.
The holy Family has ceased to exist, all there is, is colonial expansion and expropriation. The woman and theexploitation of woman are the first steps in the process. Violetta is violated woman. The first steps in the organization of crime is thecriminal exploitation of women. The tunes are like sleeping tablets sometimes they work sometimes they make it worse. Nationalisticpatriotic like warring gangs till the ultimate gang war of the Great war. What came from that, more progress? Cubism? Maybe the vote forwomen, in return for their effort in the great war. Nevertheless the nigger of the world dreams of a liberation, a liberation from men.Not understanding the Italian, the opera becomes a feminist diatribe. I have been triggered off the sleeping tablets aren't working. I feellike a mosquito looking for the thinnest skin into which I will inject my dirty water and pull out new blood. And then to call theact of violence: Love. Instead of simply appreciating her position amongst the wonders of the world, I want her blood. These women whoread me so easily. Yet sometimes they want nothing more, than just, to be with me. Karine fills me with admiration and that killerfascination.
I wonder what happened to the Siberian alley cat selling her wares on the Rue Curiol. She never called me back. Isuppose she will be here tonite, selling her skin to the mosquitoes like me. Her blood stained on their tee shirts. Karine knows mythoughts; I don't have to ask any leading questions. Out of the blue, she says "It takes six years of study to qualify as a schoolteacher, today, they were out on strike, did you see them? Thousands of them. They will have to work till they are seventy-five to get apension that will keep them off the streets. Is that ironic? I would have loved to have been a schoolmistress." She gulped down hersecond or third glass of champagne. "I was sent to work here in Marseille from my family home in the Atlas Mountains at the age of13. The family that I worked for had three sons. I used to dance for them. They were encouraged to treat women badly by their father, andI thought I was to help with the housework. Is that ironic?" She laughed and her face twisted just a little, not with pain but withirony. Simply someone who had trusted and had been turned over. Know that feeling honey?
I thought about Nina Simone who died just the other day, down the road at Carry le Rouet. "Please don't makeme feel guilty", I said letting the bubbles go up my nose. "I have made a promise to myself, not to be too disgusted any more, nottoo outraged or too guilty about what other people do to other people.” False consciousness and false shame. No place in the Now,the now, for that stuff. And then our collaboration of smiles came back. A smile is all that we have, to bind us together sometimes. Acreepy guy wearing a Truman Capote expression comes round taking photos. I remind myself whose company I am in. He gets the bums rush,pretty quickly. The heavies moved him very lightly. Just like a scene from the Godfather. Life imitating art again. "Damni tu forza ocielo".
I have decided also, to be an artiste like you "I'amour cet'une art ne's pas, ” I couldn't resist a riposte"To be an artist without an e at the end you must be sure, no questions, just sure."
“Touché!” she said
"Yes, love is an art, it is also more than that, much more. An artist tries to find out what all of love is,it’s like a voyage, a voyage to the end of love". It’s one of the best seduction lines that I have ever used; Frank Sinatracould have sung it; when I am in this mood, I become all cock and talk like one. One more toast "The voyage" chink ofglasses.
For an artist there is no retirement. She had her opportunity and she didn't take it. You bastard. What was it StephenKing said, A woman is a life support system for a cunt?, no wonder he got hit by a truck.
I was a bit embarrassed opening her up like an oyster. So I concentrated on watching her move inside her dress andtrying to remember which Somerset's short story I had seen the pearl about the French personality. Its "Appearance and Reality"."Do you work exclusively for the Russians?" "No, this is freelance escort work."
They have a certain charm but to work for them you must be a stakanovite of sex, "Are you?”
"No, I'm a dancer."
"I am a wild pig" making allusions to the menu, "with mushrooms gathered in the dew of the morning."
Settling down to the ante pasta, the waitress has a deep voice, can't be; could be! I go a bit vacant thinking aboutYves and his disappearance, how easily I was rolled over by his wife. That smile again as she asks me what's on my mind "Sex money andprobable violence, what else is there?"
A young bald headed fella comes over to our corner table and puts his arm around Karine's shoulder. She kept hercomposure. Simply rolled her eyes, a little toward me. He whispered something and she pursed her lips. He pulled her off her seat, shedidn't fall down but as I stood up to help her he slapped me in the face. A flat hander, calling me a 'Peedeeya'. My tinted glasses flewover to the foot of another table. I wasn't thinking. I saw Red. I hit him with a glass water jug. Outrage. Outrage, it broke on hishead. She shouted. They all shouted and the emptiers came over to sort things out. "A bit bloody late". He was bleeding likea stuck pig from eyeline to hairline. He was also writhing trying to get at me. "Who is this nut?” "What the fuck" andother thing that you say when times are turbulent. Across the blur of violence Violetta is singing in the background. I am surrounded byfaces, faces from Hogarth's Rakes Progress and the wallpaper is too green to be yellow. Karine takes my hand and suggests that we leave.I glance over to the brothers Lentov and make a bye bye sign with my free hand they smile and turn to talk to someone. "What have Idone? What else could I do?
"Now you are a notorious hoodlum, a voyou who assaults political animals in restaurants surrounded by gangsters andwhores." "He slapped me like a woman!" What was it he called me a pee dee is that a complement? We walked together to theunderground car park, passed the bars where the girls sit on stools and show their fannies; I am in shock. She took my arm and laughed inmy face, defiantly, we descended the stairs that smelt of piss.
"Wait till you get the old bill police tomorrow, you will be convoked, sure as eggs are eggs. Prison for afew days. Does anybody know your address back there? The Russians will say nothing that incriminates them. You should come back withme, you can sleep on the floor."
I know the road north; we are going to St. Antoine. Past the boats that are lined up for Mediterranean cruises,that may or may not take place. This is a frightened world and I am a frightened man.
"You will have to be strong and quick on your feet. Do you know an advocate to defend you? Because our friend backat the restaurant is the Town Hall's Legal Officer." What did he want? As if I didn't know. Viagra, amyl nitrate, slappies andsuckies. He's a punter but no fool. "Our paths have crossed, Cherie, I don't know why you did such a thing but not many would doit for someone like me, Merci." "I didn't do it for you I did it for me. He slapped me like a woman." I emphasized; "Thenit was for me."
Wondering whether Corneille would have approved of the water jug. She came over to me as I stared out of the window atthe burned out cars in the carpark. "Je t'aime," she hissed and pushed her red varnished nails to my lips.
Philip Hartigan Marseille
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