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?

Robert Menasse ‘The Capital’

For any member of the Commission hoping to promote a project, to realise that nobody takes an interest in it is a great relief.***

This is a satire about Europe and the European ideal seen through the eyes of multiple characters, each with their own responsibility within the Europe they live in and its almost planned stagnation. This book looks at the two contradictory forces playing with the destiny of the continent, on one hand a supranational European organisation lead by the Commission and set up after the results of the unbridled nationalism of the early twentieth century had gone to the extremes of the extermination camps and with the main objective which could be summed up as “never again”. On the other hand the representatives of the nation states who want to protect their individual states from a supranational ideal and are themselves at present undergoing the pressure and changes brought about by populism and nationalism within their own countries.

There is the ambitious Fenia Xenopoulou, a Cypriote but with a Greek passport as Cyprus was not a member of Europe until after she had arrived, trained in economics but who has been promoted to a role in Culture:

Greece eventually gets “Culture”….with its never ending financial and budgetary crisis, Greece had hit rock bottom and thus was defenseless and had no other choice but to accept what was given to them: the department everybody looked down on. It wasn’t a mission it was a punishment: when you dont know how to handle money, it’s best not to have any, and so that’s how you wind up with a department that has no budget.***

Xeno, as she is known needs a success to get her career back on track. When in answer to a call for a project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the commission one of her team comes up with the idea of putting Auschwitz at the centre of the celebrations, “never again”, why populism and nationalism should never again be allowed to gain foothold, Menasse’s satire on the inner workings of the the Commission and how to kill a project is sumptuous. Xeno is outplayed by the chief of cabinet of the president of the Commission, Romolo Strozzi, a former Olympic fencing medalist, who gives her project the go ahead:

She had a strange feeling. she suppressed it. What was troubling her were the last few sentences Strozzi spoke at the end about planning the next stage: Oh yes, Ill take care of how we’ll include the member states in the project.
The member states? you mean the Council? Xeno replied. Why? I thought we’d agreed, the project is the Commissions responsibility.
Yes that’s clear. But it was the member states that created the Commission.
Yes of course.
It was at that moment exactly that Xeno wasn’t agile enough. that “yes of course” cut an opening in her defense.***

Strozzi is then able behind the scenes to use the member states against the Commission to kill the project. Menasse gives us his view of the sterility of advisory groups who are experts in the status quo and a case study of Europe being unable to negotiate a contract to sell pork offals to China with then, Germany first, and the other nations each negotiating their own contracts with China but from positions of weakness as no individual country is able to satisfy the full demand.

In these few lines I’ve simplified a rich and thought provoking book.

First Published in German as “Die Hauptstadt” in 2017 by Suhrkamp
Translated into French as “La Capitale” by Olivier Mannoni and published in 2019 by Verdier
Translated into English by Jamie Bullock and to be published in 2019 by Maclehose Press.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Pour tout membre de la commission désireux de faire avancer un projet, constater que personne ne s’intéressait été un grand soulagement

“La “culture” revint finalement à la Grèce….avec son interminable crise financière et budgétaire, la Grèce avait déjà touché le fond, elle était donc sans défense et n’avait d’autre choix que de prendre ce qu’on lui donnait: le service que tout le monde dédaignait. Ce n’était pas un mission, c’était un punition: quand on ne sait pas se débrouiller avec l’argent, mieux ne pas en avoir entre les mains, et c’est comme cela qu’on se retrouve avec le département dépourvu de budget”

Elle a eu un drôle de sensation. Elle la refoula. Ce qu’elle repoussa, c’étaient les deux ou trois phrases que Strozzi avait prononcées à la fin, à propos de la suite de la planification: Ah oui je m’occuperai de la manière dont nous intégrerons les états membres dans le projet. Les états membres? Le Conseil donc? avait répondu Xénon. Pour quoi faire? Nous étions d’accord , le projet est l’affaire de la commission.
Oui c’est claire. Mais ce sont les états membres qui ont fondé la commission.
Bien sûr.
C’est précisément à ce moment là que Xeno avait manqué d’agilité. Ce “bien sur” creuset une ouverture définitive dans sa défense.