Quiet weekend working on translations, specifically on the Habib Tengour Reader, scheduled for publication late this year or early next from Black Widow Press. Here is an extract from the prose narrative L’épreuve de l’arc (The Ordeal of the Bow) originally published by Sindbad in Paris in 1990.
I wasn’t dreaming. No, I wasn’t dreaming at all. It was indeed a scorpion the size of a lobster. A yellow scorpion with brown highlights. It came at me in fits and starts. I gazed at it attentively, biting my lower lip. The monster! It became invisible every time I tried to draw its presence to the attention of my companions. It reappeared when I kept quiet. This way of behaving diminished its credibility in my eyes, but I had to face the facts because it came to a halt right besides my mattress and screeched as it raised itself up: tsee, tssseee, heh, tsee, why don’t you and I sign a pact, okay? You say nothing to your buddies and I’ll watch my step. No reason to get everyone involved in our bizness. Moreover I didn’t abandon my fine blonde sand, my desert’s sweetness, my darling silver oasis and all my dear kin just to make trouble in some moorish bath. I’m not in any kind of need, you dig.
I thought, that takes the cake, a talking scorpion!
The scorpion: what’s so surprising? Don’t be surprised, God is great! I’m not just any old scorpion. Look at me carefully, I am a marabout of pure and noble extraction. Given natural selection, atmospheric pollution, and administrative redistricting, our race is on the road to extinction. In my family, we would imitate the white man. My first cousins have infiltrated the northern administrations and I have a sister who invests in travel agencies… That’s giant, isn’t it! But there’s crazier to come: check yourself out closely in a mirror!
I thought: this is a provocation, if I ignore it, I’ll stupidly lose face.
The scorpion: let me come to the point: I’ve heard you mentioned in the summer gatherings of the brotherhoods of the Ouled Naïl clans, highly laudatory talk, let me reassure you, and I wanted to be reassured, or to assure myself that you really existed. That how I am: a pragmatist, a bit of a materialist, oh! just as much as is needed; I like to verify everything myself. Now, it is said that you have a slight lisp, a beauty spot on your right cheek and elongated ear lobes; those are signs characteristic of someone predestined to perfect love. My grand-father taught me this before he died. I’ve also read it in one of Djaber’s alchemical treatises. Tell me, is it true?
I thought: how low have I fallen! What a disaster! Here I am, reduced to listen to the b.s. of an base animal. This scorpion is putting me on. He is trying to con me for some unknown reason. Why don’t the others notice anything?
The old fakir was still spouting his deafening prose and never stopped handing around glass after glass, I was squirming in my seat, prey to a growing restlessness. Again and again I nudged him with the elbow, to no avail.
I thought it over: the phenomenon may be inexplicable but I just can’t let myself be led by the nose by a verbose creepy crawler!
I came to a decision: damned strike.
I took my slipper and slapped it down on the critter, on the side of the rubber sole. The slam made some jump up but didn’t disturb the flow of the narration. All of them, with faded eyelids and in total concentration, were silent “in reverential contemplation.”
The scorpion was twisting its tail. He was going from copper to blackish-brown. He defecated a stinking gelatinous mass that drenched him and from which he tried to extricate himself, sobbing. Eyes wide open, I accepted the hallucination, an uncompromising reality.
The scorpion: you are uncharitable, truly. Alas, I arrive from afar, dog-tired, for the pleasure of meeting you and conversing with you for a brief moment — for it is also said that you are a poet! — I had hoped to find a friend and you can think of nothing better to do than to crush me like some vulgar cockroach. Did I offend you? I didn’t even ask you for the time of day! You see how you are? You really are a northerner! A little man!
I said to myself: no, I mustn’t. I don’t want to. I cannot tolerate familiarity with an animal. I do not want to demean myself. It is an insult to my station.
(I corrected myself: but was my station human? And I immediately rebelled against this idea because that was not something ever to be doubted. I was the Governor on this earth, that was me indeed. Nobody could question that.)
The scorpion: but the animal is you, you damn idiot! My ancestors didn’t plough the stony earth. They looked up to the heavens and said: “We want to be like that!”
I thought: this is too much. If I let this go on, he’ll think he can get away with anything; these animals, they don’t know any limits. He is quite capable of getting me to talk to him! Of getting me to go and feast at his table! Oh Iblis, how justified was your arrogance! For this is what sophisms reduce men to — to be the equals of insects! Why bother with reason…
The scorpion, who wouldn’t stop gabbing: listen, I’ve got a whole lot of questions to ask you and I think you are capable of answering them for me, now, it is said that passion is a fire that burns slowly but simmers for a long time, that snuffs the embers in the flesh like diaphanous pain…
Exasperated, I cracked a match and threw it on his back. I let out a sardonic ha, ha!, clapping my hands. I felt it sizzle. A little whiff of barbecue floated up.
I yelled: where’s your rhetoric now?
The scorpion: what a dumb ass! Here you are, confined to the shadow of the night yet claim to be a man! Sad idiot! So uptight! Don’t you see the sun kneeling at the seam of your jeans? And the dwelling, you think it’s empty! Your loss. Your loss. You did not even question me about my country. You are so inhibited. And now you’ll have my suicide on your conscience. I didn’t want that, and I’ll never forgive you! Not because of my life, for in my death I’ll find another life, but because you are worthless! Go look at yourself!
He shoved his sting into his cephalothoraxes. I watched him burn and crackle.
… The animals come off best, I reflected. Make no mistake, those aren’t just fables. There’s truth in them. Thus the plenipotentiary donkey who had gone to the National Assembly to file an amendment concerning the unalienable rights of house pets and proposed a correction to the rules governing the hunt, that wasn’t just a bar joke!…
I couldn’t admit it. My education, what science I had, threw up barriers. Where I came from everything was possible, but not that! There were inviolable laws, inescapable principles, a philosophical reason, a religious order, a logic inside each one; there were mathematics! I trembled at the thought that maybe we were cut off from the rest of the world and ruled solely by the instinct for survival, the lower belly, and had jettisoned all traditional safe-guards. The remainder of our insularity.
Incredible things were happening that our press passed over in silence, that we ourselves instinctively kept silent in our gatherings, and that we didn’t know how to interpret quietly.
That the animals be burdened with our grievances, have pity!
Carbonized meatball, with an oily halo, there, at the foot of my bed, palpable proof. I smelled it.