Book Extracts
  • The Tyrant by Jacques Chessex
  • Jacques Chessex |  The Tyrant
The Tyrant by Jacques Chessex


It was evening when his torment began.

At first he felt strangely alone seated before the dinner that he had just ordered in the bar of the Hôtel d’Angleterre. At the other tables people were laughing; radiant, tanned women spoke to handsome men. Young couples held hands. Tense, gloomy, Jean Calmet carefully shifted three fillets of perch in his plate; once again he sprinkled them with lemon, then his fork pushed one little fish, drolly lining it up ironically against the two others; but he could not make up his mind to bring it to his mouth. The wine in his glass grew lukewarm. For an hour he had been persecuted by an image. Jean Calmet hesitated to look at it; he pushed it away, he buried it in the opaque layers of his memory; because he knew that he was going to suffer the moment he allowed it to come into focus. But the blurred image surfaced again, it persisted, and now Jean Calmet could no longer ignore it, against the background of shadows that made it even clearer. Suddenly his loneliness became unbearable and the whole picture emerged.

It was a very old scene, one that had taken place thousands of times when he lived with his family in Lutry, beside the lake, in a house shattered by angry shouts, in the lee of the poplars and firs. They were seated for the evening meal. The father, immense, presided at the head of the table. The light of the setting sun reddened his shining, gilded forehead; his thick arms also shone with orange light; his innate strength was apparent: the muscles and solid flesh of his chest stretched the shirt, exposing a forest of grey hair between the nipples that made two points under the cotton. Around him, the room seemed plunged in darkness. But in front of the shadows, which rose from the floor and from the farthest corners of the big room, there was that compact, illuminated mass, that other sun, infallible and detestable, which turned red, which shone, which irradi-ated itself with all its power.

Seated at the other end of the table, Jean Calmet listened with repugnance to the mouth noises of his father, who was busy eating. Those hissing, sucking sounds disgusted him like a vile confession. Little was said; the brothers and sisters observed one another; the mother ate very quickly, getting up continually, scurrying from the kitchen to the dining room, a frightened grey mouse. Martha, the German-Swiss housekeeper, stared at her plate with a reproachful look. The doctor chewed and swallowed without stopping, but his implacable gaze fell on each member of his family; it ran up and down over the diners, and Jean Calmet grew desperate at the thought of being transfixed once more by those all-powerful eyes which searched him and guessed everything. Under their blue fire he became livid; suddenly he would feel transparent, completely disarmed, unable to conceal anything at all from those terrible pupils. The doctor knew everything about him; the doctor read him like a book, because he was the master, and the master was thick, massive, impenetrable in his strength, compact and florid in the evening sun.

Shame and despair stabbed Jean Calmet’s heart. His father knew his larval desires. He knew where the gluey handker-chiefs were hidden. He saw everything at a single glance. Jean Calmet lowered his eyes over his plate without being able to escape the inquisitor. Sadness gripped his throat and he felt like throwing his arms around the old man’s neck, crying out all the tears in his body on that broad and sonorous chest. For Jean Calmet loved his father. He loved him, he loved that massive, watchful strength. He despised and envied that appetite, he loved that domineering voice at the same time as he feared it. A rather cowardly fear prevented him from running to the doctor, from snuggling into his arms. This cowardice shamed him like a betrayal.

Supper long over, the doctor drank his coffee noisily without anyone daring to get up. The maid busied herself on tiptoe. Finally, they lit the lamps: that was the signal. After a quick goodnight, everyone went rushing out of the dining room and fled to hide in their rooms as in a secret burrow. But Jean Calmet did not recover from the ordeal. He had the impression that the eyes of his judge followed him, scrutinized him through the walls. Late in the even-ing, he would still be looking for a refuge or distraction in his books. He went to bed. If he yielded to his desires, his every fibre grew tense at the thought that his father was going to surprise him – even worse, that he had seen him, that he was observing him.

He was fifteen. At that time, he committed little thefts to try to diminish the power of that gaze. To strengthen himself with a secret. He would go into a bookshop; he would browse with a wise, casual look. All of a sudden he would pocket the collection of poetry or the magazine, and he would be out on the street again with a feeling of weight, of solidity, that protected him from his father. At last he had somewhere of his own; a place removed, a place hidden from the censor. But Jean Calmet loved his father. Why had he not told him so? Tears filled the eyes of Jean Calmet, whose mind was blank for a moment. Then he began to eat his cold fish and did his best to get hold of himself by taking his bearings. I’m thirty-eight years old, he said to himself. I’m a schoolmaster at the Gymnase. Sixty rascals think through me. But remembering those teenagers did not cheer him up; on the contrary, he felt too lonely, too strangely afflicted to pretend to give them the least example, to recommend anything whatsoever to them. The wine did not cheer him either. He paid his bill and left to shut himself up at home.

He went to bed but could not fall asleep. That morning’s ceremony came back to him. The sense of deliverance that he had felt at the crematorium tortured him like remorse. Following the advice he had read in magazines, he worked hard at letting his body and limbs go limp, abandoning any control by his will; he was about to give himself up to the first sensation of peace when he thought: I’m playing dead. All at once, his pain was revived. He saw again the cemetery of the Bois-de-Vaux, the straight lanes, the thousands of graves. At the bottom of each pit lay a skeleton, a body in a state of decomposition, rudimentarily preserved, the shape of the man it had been. The “last sleep” retained the familiarity of good and simple habit by which one perceived, ridiculously, death’s meagre power. There was something reassuring about it, something seen before, which pierced Jean Calmet’s heart. The grave was like a daily bed. Those bones endured. The skull, the teeth, the fractures, the size of the body were perfectly recognizable; dentist’s fillings, rings, shreds of clothing could be identified. This kind of purely physical survival suddenly seemed to Jean Calmet as precious as eternity. And he, what had he done with his father? What had his brothers and sisters decided? What had they made him agree to? To hear them, there was nothing so filthy as that corpse rotting under a few inches of earth. They had to think of Mother. The image of the doctor in decomposition would pursue her without respite. And what of public health? They were having a particularly warm autumn. An added reason. In this kind of weather the dead rot faster. With relief, Jean Calmet approved. The doctor would be reduced to ashes. He could not be allowed any chance of keeping his exasperating, scandalous vigour in the fertile earth. That strength, those muscles, had to be destroyed, right down to those eyes, the thick red lids of which had been shut uselessly for a few hours. Destroy his father. Make a little heap of ashes of him, ashes at the bottom of an urn. Like sand. Anonymous, mute dust. Blind sand.

And now Jean Calmet was torn at the thought of that urn. Where would it be kept? It was possible that his mother might want to keep it near her. The mortuary representative had ceremoniously warned them, him and his brothers: the widow might demand to keep the ashes in her garden, in her living room, or even at her bedside, so as not to be separated from her beloved. At the time, Jean Calmet had smiled inwardly, touched by such superstitious loyalty. Now that he was living in the moist darkness, tired out by his heavy sheets, the memory of the mortician’s words began to trouble him, obsess him: did the naive wish of these women stem from a deep, magical intuition, one which conferred on the recipient and its meagre contents the terrifying quality of human presence? Thus, through the simplicity of doting old ladies, the remains – which he had believed so totally devoid of power – took on evil importance again. No, it was better to convince himself that this miserable handful of cinders was harmless. Sweep-ings. Jean Calmet took pleasure in calling to mind the modesty with which some of the sages had asked to have their dust scattered in a forest, in a field, or sprinkled in a fine, silvery rain into the course of a river. He imagined the lightness of ashes sown on the water, their swift course between shadowy banks; quickly they mingled with the water, became rushing water themselves long before disap-pearing into the sea or evaporating. Jean Calmet clearly saw this dead man’s soul, serene in the clouds, assured of the fulfilment of his earthly destiny. He envied that dead man and that soul.

He tossed, turned; he strove to calm himself, repeating to himself that at this time his father’s ashes were still at the crematorium in the padlocked, numbered aluminium box in which the mortician had placed them this very morning. When he finally had to fall asleep, he dreamt that he was clutching at black grass trying to reach the top of a hill. When he was halfway up, an enormous bull loomed suddenly against the night sky above him. The monster charged at him and crushed him. Later he often remembered this nightmare.

The Gymnase had granted him two days’ leave for the cer-emony. Today, Jean Calmet was still free. He began to think about the evening’s gathering. It was set for eight o’clock in Lutry. They would gather around the dining-room table before the doctor’s ghost at the head of the table. They would turn the pages of a catalogue: on the left-hand page, carefully reproduced in small black frames, there would be photos of the urns immediately available at the factory; on the right-hand page, their dimensions, their selling points, and a retail price sometimes corrected with a ballpoint pen. Jean Calmet was amazed at his new and deep interest in the most varied types of funeral equipment. A week earlier, he had known nothing about running a funeral notice in the papers or choosing a coffin, or about the calling cards of urn manufacturers and stonecutters. He had even been ignorant about the geography of the cemetery, despite the fact that he had driven along its interminable flank each time he had gone down to the edge of the lake. Early that morning, it seemed to him that an immense, subdivided domain had suddenly been thrown open to him, and that he rode around in it, marvelling at its diversity and hier-archies. Towards noon, as if he had not meant to, Jean Calmet walked down to the cemetery, admiring the number of mortuary establishments, sculptors, carvers, mosaicists whose workshops and storefronts were jammed together in the immediate vicinity. He had never noticed them before.

That morning, preoccupied by all that funereal variety, he forgot the real purpose of his visit. Then he remembered his father and grew gloomy. He entered the café where, yesterday morning at exactly the same time, tea had been served when they left the crematorium. This café bore a beautiful name: Le Reposoir. The waiters did not recognize him, but at the far end of the room – in a niche reserved for the doctor’s family yesterday – another group was seated at the table in front of the same bottles, the same cups of tea, the same cakes; and this spectacle heartened Jean Calmet. Nothing mattered, since the same scenes could be enacted day after day without the owner or the waiters of the establishment noticing anything but a family in black, always the same, gathered three or four times a day at the back of the room to mark the passage of death.

Jean Calmet regained his self-control by an almost ab-normal effort of will. As soon as his body felt the shadowy coolness of the café, his mind was enchanted by its solitude. Thank God, the doctor was nothing but a thin layer of ash at the bottom of a locked box. Branded on the box was a registry number which Jean Calmet had carefully entered in his notebook. This notebook was in his pocket. He felt for the slim pad through the corduroy of his jacket, over his heart, which was again beating regularly. Everything was all right.

Outside, the sun beat down on dazzling houses. With ir-ritation, Jean Calmet thought of that evening’s gathering. They were going to talk about the doctor again. The ghost of the enormous ruddy face would chortle at the head of the table. The five children would lower their voices to go into the details of the death and the inheritance. Their mother would cross the room without a word, she would disappear, she would return on tiptoe, a coffee pot in her hand; she would serve each of them in silence. The details of the death… Aghast, Jean Calmet realized that he knew nothing of his father’s death. They had phoned the Gymnase to tell him the news; he had not received the call himself, and the sense of relief which he had felt like a delicious convalescence had prevented him from imagining his father’s last moments at the time and had obliterated his curiosity later on, when he found himself in the company of the physician who had attended him up to the end. Then, it would have been an easy matter to find out (and even quite discreetly) about the way in which the doctor had met his end. But he hadn’t questioned the physician. He had avoided his company. For just a moment, he had been next to him when they were entering the café, but the very fragmentary conversation had not gone beyond the banali-ties of the occasion. “It was terrible,” repeated the mother, but that was the only word that fitted the Ogre, and, in any case, the commonplace vocable said nothing specific about the latest tragedy. It serves him right, thought Jean Calmet. I don’t see why I should suffer while having them recount his end in detail. It was his turn to go, all right. There’s some justice in the world. And he filled himself with this idea while savouring the regularity of his own pulse, which beat distinctly in his wrist, and the breath of air that inflated his lungs twelve times every sixty seconds. Air taken in and driven out. Throbbing of blood. If I played at choking, Jean Calmet said to himself, if I kept myself from breathing as in the past, everything would go black, I would see brownish circles whirling before my eyes, I would feel myself swelling, then bursting, I would hear the same church bells tolling wildly inside my skull… He was back on a plot of grass at the back of the garden in Lutry, he was seven years old, he was lying on the ground, and the stems of the new-mown grass pricked his shoulder blades through his thin shirt. All at once he had to die in order to be as valiant as the heroes and knights in the history books. He remembered Joan of Arc roasting in the flames, and Roland, mortally wounded, sounding the horn under the mountains, his lungs bursting into a shower of blood at the bottom of his throat. The little boy spread his arms like a condemned prisoner, took a huge gulp of air; suddenly he stopped his breath, and his martyrdom began: the brownish spots, the pinpoints burning like fireworks, the carillons in his ears… I’m suffering, Jean Calmet repeated to himself with pleas-ure, and something inundated his blood with a black fire that he would never forget. I have been chosen to suffer. I must resist fear, I must love this suffering. Vertigo seized him. A merry drunkenness of initiate and victim. Then he surrendered to panic, the air came back into him noisily, the sky regained its blue transparency where doves and gulls fled like trout.

  • Jacques ChessexThe Tyrant