Antoine Wauters ‘Pense aux pierres sous tes pas’

Only the old folks were wary of Bokwangu, William Bénoni Bokwangu, not only was he like the others but he wasnt worth wasting the the smallest mililitre of saliva talking about him. We want actions, they mumbled. Otherwise it’ll be like Karajogzu (responsible for a regime of terror which tore apart the people for fifteen years) or, worst, like Léonescu who preceded Desgotgiu and sent a third of the population to the camps.
The year after, Bokwangu decreed that every farm owning more than ten animals would undergo “adjustments”, even though everyone knew perfectly well that meant “new taxes”. We’d been through this so often; you couldn’t fool us again.

Antoine Wauters takes us to an imaginary country where the sonority of the names reminds the reader of Romania, in this country repressive dictatorships follow one after the other and the people, especially the older ones expect nothing good of the new leader Bokwangu who seems to want to take a mostly agricultural country and replace it with supermarkets and shopping malls.

Marcio and Leonora are twins of about twelve years old, brought up by their parents on a farm where working from dawn till dusk is not enough to pay the state taxes, to sell all of their produce to the state and to survive, where they can’t be scolarised as they are needed to work. They live in isolation, where the pressure put on them has stifled their parents feelings:

Above all twins, don’t make our mistake. Don’t have children!
To which Paps reacted with humming cries coming from him like a swarm of insects, cries that had him thumping the walls and shouting out loud, cursing this dogs life which was going to kill him.
Poor Paps.
Rotten life.
Country gone to the dogs.

But you can’t stiffle young life and the twins, in their isolation, who were always close grow closer than they should until one night their father finds them in the hayloft, confirming his fears and decides to separate them, sending Leo away with her uncle Zio:

At the back of the hay loft, we lied on our backs and looked at the stars through a crack in the roof. That was good too. From time to time his tongue touched me , my cheeks and my mouth, my hands, and then it slipped lower like a caress which sometimes speeded up to show me the light, the beauty and this hot monster eating our bellys.

Leo finds herself in a very different situation at Zio’s farm where the constant state pressure has not wiped out Zio’s humanity but where tbe state ratchet keeps turning, Marcio is then left alone to run the farm as his parents Mams and Paps leave for a state sanitorium and he makes the dangerous trip accross a desert to rejoin Leo, nearly dying on the way. Eventually Zio rebels:

But Uncle continued, his eyes shining. He slaughtered his animals one after the other and seemed out of control.
It lasted a while. Then he stopped what he was doing and looked at us maliciously.
You’re dying of hunger, right? Me too. Well since I refuse to pay the taxes….
He puffed on his blood covered pipe.
….we’re going to eat my animals!
He looked at us, the bugger:
Because if you dont have any animals, you dont pay any taxes do you?

A story full of hidden references and not without humour, there’s even a happy end.

First Published in French as “Pense aux pierres sous tes pas” in 2019 by Verdier
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Seuls les vieux se méfiaient et que Bokwangu, William Bénoni Bokwangu, non seulement était comme les autres, mais ne méritait pas qu’on gaspille le moindre millilitre de salive en évoquant son cas.
On veut des faits, marmonnaient-ils. Sinon, ce sera comme Karajogzu (responsable d’un régime de terreur ayant éreinté le peuple pendant quinze ans) ou, pire, avec Léonescu qui avait précédé Desgotgiu et envoyé un tiers de la population dans les camps.
L’année suivante, Bokwangu décréta que toute ferme possédant plus de dix bêtes serait soumise à des “ajustements”, même si tout le monde savait très bien qu’il s’agissait de “nouvelles taxes”. On en avait tellement mangé; on ne nous la faisait plus.

Surtout jumeaux, ne faites pas notre erreur. N’ayez jamais d’enfants!
A quoi Paps répondait par des cris stridulants sortant de lui comme des nuées d’insectes, des cris qui lui faisaient cogner les murs et hurler de plus belle, en maudissant cette chienne de vie qui allait le faire crever.
Pauvre Paps.
Pauvre vie.
Pays de chiens.

Aux trois quarts du fenil, on s’est allongés sur le dos et on a regardé les étoiles par une fissure dans le toit. Ça aussi c’était bon. De temps en temps, sa langue venait se poser sur moi, sur mes joues et ma bouche, sur mes mains, puis elle glissait plus bas comme une caresse qui quelquefois accélèrerait pour me parler de la lumière, de la beauté, et de ce monstre chaud qui nous dévorait le ventre

Mais Zio continuait, les yeux brillaient. Il abattait ses bêtes les uns après les autres et paraissait hors de contrôle.
Ça dura un moment. Puis il stoppa son geste et nous regarda avec malice.
Vous crevez de faim, n’est ce pas? Moi aussi. Alors comme je refuse de payer les taxes…
Il tira une bouffée sur sa pipe couverte de sang.
….on va manger mes bêtes!
Il nous regardait, le bougre:
Car pour celui qui n’a pas de bêtes, il n’y a plus de taxes, n’est ce pas?

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