Published 31 August 2015, French paperback with flaps, 296 pages
The weeks with Mr Cruz were an abyss of unhappiness. I lived in death. I stayed in a garden shed behind the funeral parlour, a cubbyhole full of tools and jugs of weed-killer which stank of lawnmower fuel; the generator for the cold-storage chamber was behind my wall and its vibrations woke me up every night. Mr Cruz would lock me up in the enclosure when he went out at night, and would free me when he arrived in the morning – with rare exceptions he limited my movements, from fear of identity checks by the cops or social services. When I needed something – clothes, toiletries – he’d buy it for me himself. I didn’t have any visitors. After 7 p.m., when Mr Cruz got into his 4x4 to go home, I was alone with the coffins.
I never got used to contact with the corpses, which fortunately didn’t come in very often – you had to unload them, take them out of their plastic bags, a mask over your nose; the first time I almost fainted, some poor young guy who had drowned, he was in a horrible state; fortunately Cruz was there – he gently turned the body over on the stainless steel table, placed the remains in the waterproof zinc box, got out the electric screwdriver to seal the casket, all in silence. I couldn’t breathe. The special mask was suffocating me, its camphor or bleach smell mingled in my throat with the mustiness of the Strait, and the cadaverous fetidity of sadness, the decay of the forgotten carcass, and even today, sometimes, years later, the smell of cleaning products bring the lingering odour of those poor creatures come again to the back of my throat, creatures that Cruz manipulated without blinking an eye, without trembling, respectfully, calmly.
Then the Imam would come, and we would pray in front of the remains or the coffin, depending on thestate of the body, one behind the other, as is the custom; Cruz would leave us. The Imam was a Moroccan from Casablanca, a middle-aged man to whom the solemnity of the task gave the aged and well-worn appearance of serious business, without a smile, without a mark of sympathy or antipathy, sure as he was of the equality of all before God, perhaps.
Praying for the unknown dead, for the vague remains of the existences of total strangers, was sadly abstract. Some of them we weren’t even sure were Muslim; it was presumed, and maybe we were sending them to the wrong God, to a Paradise in which they’d be illegal immigrants yet again.
After praying, we would line the waterproof zinc coffins up in the cold-storage room, where they joined the other ‘pending’ deceased. The oldest one had been there for three years, another who had drowned in the Strait.
The government paid sixty euros per body and per day of storage: that was Señor Cruz’s cut.
Once he’d received the money for repatriation or had discovered the origin of an unknown body, Mr Cruz would organize ‘a load’; he’d put two or three macabre boxes in his van and would take the ferry from Algeciras; the customs formalities were fussy, he had to seal the mortuary crates with lead, declare the freight, etc.
The parlour was surrounded by tall walls surmounted by broken bottles, which encircled a little garden; Mr Cruz’s house was a few hundred metres away – at night, I was locked up with the dead, in this suburb next to the highway, and it was sad, sad and frightening.
I also took care of the cleaning and gardening; I washed Mr Cruz’s car and fed his dogs, two handsome, blue-eyed, polar mutts that looked like wolves of thesteppes – these animals were wild and gentle, they seemed to come from another world. I wondered how they bore the crushing summers of Andalusia with so much fur. Cruz was a mystery, sombre and shifty; his face was yellow, his eyes shadowed; when no bodies arrived, he would spend all day behind his desk, whisky in hand, listening absent-mindedly to the police radio scanner so as to be the first one on the scene in case a body was discovered; he drank nothing but Cutty Sark, hypnotized by the Internet and hundreds of videos, war reports, atrocious clips of accidents and violent deaths: this spectacle didn’t seem to excite him, on the contrary; he spent his time in a kind of lethargy, a digital apathy – only his hand on the mouse seemed alive; he was stupefied by bestiality and whisky all day long and, when night fell, he would stagger a little when he got up, put on his leather jacket and leave without saying a word, bolting the door with two turns of the key. He called me his little Lakhdar, when he addressed me; he had a tiny voice that contrasted with his large size, his corpulence, his thick face: he spoke like a child and this false note made him even more frightening.
He was pathetic, and I didn’t know if he inspired fear or pity in me; he was exploiting me, locking me up like a slave; he spread a terrible sadness, the rotten smell of a lonely soul.
Mathias Enard, born in 1972, studied Persian and Arabic and spent long periods in the Middle East. He has lived in Barcelona for about fifteen years, interrupted in 2013 by a writing residency in Berlin. He won several awards for Zone, including the Prix du Livre Inter and the Prix Décembre, and won the Liste Goncourt/Le Choix de l’Orient, the Prix littéraire de la Porte Dorée and the Prix du Roman-News for Street of Thieves. He won the 2015 Prix Goncourt, the 2017 Leipziger Book Award for European Understanding, and was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for Compass.
Charlotte Mandell has translated fiction, poetry, and philosophy from the French, including works by Proust, Flaubert, Genet, Maupassant, Blanchot, and many other distinguished authors. She has received many accolades and awards for her translations, including a Literature Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for Zone, also by Mathias Enard.