And yet, it was no dream. Sometimes I catch myself saying those words in the street, as if hearing someone else’s voice. A toneless voice. Names come back to me, certain faces, certain details. No one left to talk with about it. One or two witnesses must still be alive. But they’ve probably forgotten the whole thing. And in the end, I wonder if there really were any witnesses.
No, it wasn’t a dream. The proof is that I still have this black notebook full of my jottings. I need precise words in this haze, so I look in the dictionary. “Note: A short piece of writing that is used to help someone remember something.” The pages of my notebook contain a succession of names, phone numbers, appointments, and also short texts that might have something to do with literature. But what category should they be listed under? Private journal? Fragments of a memoir? And also hundreds of classified ads copied down from newspapers. Lost dogs. Furnished apartments. Help wanted and offered. Psychics.
Among those masses of notes, some have stronger resonance than others. Especially when nothing disturbs the silence. The telephone stopped ringing long ago. And no one will knock at the door. They must think I’m dead. You are alone, concentrating, as if trying to capture Morse code signals being sent from far away by an unknown correspondent. Naturally, many signals are garbled, and no matter how hard you strain your ears they are lost forever. But a few names stand out clearly in the silence and on the empty page .?.?.
Dannie, Paul Chastagnier, Aghamouri, Duwelz, Gérard Marciano, “Georges,” the Unic Hôtel, Rue du Montparnasse .?.?. As I remember it, I always felt on my guard in that neighborhood. The other day, I happened to walk through it. I had a strange sensation. Not that time had passed, but that another me, a twin, was prowling around there, a me who hadn’t aged, and who was still living ?— ?down to the smallest detail, and until the end of time ?— ?through what I had experienced over a very short period.
What caused the unease I felt back then? Was it those few streets in the shadow of a railway station and a graveyard? Now they struck me as harmless. Their façades had changed color. Lighter. Nothing special. A neutral zone. Could I possibly have left behind a double, someone who would repeat each of my former movements, follow in my old footsteps, for all eternity? No, nothing remained of us here. Time had wiped the slate clean. The area was brand-new, sanitized, as if it had been rebuilt on the site of a condemned lot. And even though most of the buildings were still the same, they made you feel as if you were looking at a taxidermied dog, a dog you had once owned, that you had loved when it was alive.
That Sunday afternoon, on my walk, I tried to recall what was written in the black notebook, which I regretted not having with me. Times of appointments with Dannie. The telephone number of the Unic Hôtel. The names of the people I met there. Chastagnier, Duwelz, Gérard Marciano. Aghamouri’s number at the Moroccan Pavilion at the Cité Universitaire. Short descriptions of different areas in that neighborhood, for a piece I planned to call “L’Arrière-Montparnasse,” until I discovered thirty years later that the title had already been used by a certain Oser Warszawski.
One late Sunday afternoon in October, then, my footsteps had led me to that neighborhood, which I would have avoided any other day of the week. No, it wasn’t really a pilgrimage. But Sundays, especially in late afternoon, if you are alone, open a breach in time. You need only slip into it. A stuffed dog that you loved when it was alive. The moment I walked past the large, dirty, white-and-beige building at 11 Rue d’Odessa ?— ?I was on the opposite sidewalk, the one on the right ?— ?I felt something click, the slight dizziness that seizes you whenever time splits open. I stood frozen, staring at the façades that enclosed the small courtyard. That was where Paul Chastagnier always used to park his car when he lived in a room at the Unic Hôtel, on Rue du Montparnasse. One evening, I had asked why he didn’t just leave the car in front of the hotel. He had given me a guilty half-smile and answered with a shrug, “As a precaution .?.?.”
A red Lancia. It could easily draw attention. But then, if he wanted to remain invisible, why on earth choose that color and make of car? Besides, he had said, a friend of his lived in this building on Rue d’Odessa and he often lent him the car. Yes, that’s why it was parked there.
“As a precaution,” he had said. I soon realized that this man, in his forties, dark-haired, always immaculately dressed in a gray suit and navy-blue overcoat, did not have any particular profession. I heard him make phone calls at the Unic Hôtel, but the wall was too thick for me to follow the conversation. Only the sound of his voice reached me: deep, sometimes sharp. Long pauses. I had gotten to know this Chastagnier at the Unic Hôtel, along with several others I met in the same establishment: Gérard Marciano, Duwelz, whose first name I don’t recall .?.?. Their outlines have grown hazy with time, their voices inaudible. Paul Chastagnier stands out more clearly because of the colors: black hair, navy-blue overcoat, red car. I imagine he served time in prison, like Duwelz, and like Marciano. He was the oldest of the bunch, and he has surely died since then. He got up late and held his appointments far away from there, in the southern part of town, that hinterland around the old freight depot, where I, too, knew the local street names: Falguière, Alleray, and, a bit farther along, Rue des Favorites .?.?. Empty cafés that he sometimes took me to, where he probably thought no one could find him. I never dared ask if he was officially persona non grata in Paris, though the idea crossed my mind. But then, why would he park his red car in front of those cafés? Wouldn’t it have been more prudent, more discreet, just to walk? At the time, I often wandered around that neighborhood that they were beginning to tear down, past empty lots, squat buildings with bricked-in windows, sections of pavement showing through heaps of rubble, as if after a bombardment. And that red car parked there, its smell of leather, that vivid stain that brings back memories .?.?. Memories? No. That Sunday evening, I ended up convincing myself that time stands still, and that if I truly slipped into the breach I would find all of it there, intact. First and foremost, that red car. I decided to walk to Rue Vandamme. There was a café there that Paul Chastagnier had brought me to, where our conversation had taken a more personal turn. I had even sensed he was on the verge of opening up to me. He had proposed, indirectly, that I “work” for him. I had remained evasive. He hadn’t insisted. I was very young but very distrustful. Later, I had gone back to that café with Dannie.
That Sunday, it was almost dark by the time I arrived at Avenue du Maine, and I walked alongside the tall new buildings on the even-numbered side. They formed a rectilinear façade. Not a single light in the windows. No, it hadn’t been a dream. Rue Vandamme used to open off from the avenue at around that spot, but this evening the façades were smooth, compact, offeri...