Writer in Residence · 02/20/2011

Social Experiment

Translated by Michelle Bailat-Jones

Familistère: (architecture) a 19th century housing structure, designed according to the socialist utopian ideals of collective work and social enlightenment.

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The entryway is narrow and runs between an old church transformed into a depot during the Revolution and a relatively bourgeois house. The land register from 1860 indicates this place was once a familistère. The neighborhood has been preserved by virtue of its poverty, and only the bourgeois house, perhaps originally a presbytery, has been kept up. The passageway is very narrow and dark, barred by a gate. It smells like urine and dust. The paving along the ground has a channel down the middle to allow waste water to run out into the street. The gate is not locked. The young man pushes it, enters into the passageway and when he arrives into the courtyard, he realizes that this place is completely invisible from the street, that the courtyard is sheltered from the coming and going of people and cars. The courtyard is paved with irregularly-shaped cobbles, doubtless very old. Some of the stones have been marked through use, worn and flattened, while others are still humped and shiny and little tufts of grass have pushed up between them. The courtyard forms a kind of semi-circle, the diameter of which would be comprised of the large white stones of the wall of the old church while the circumference is drawn by four houses, each of a different size: two small ones which look like sheds or stables, and two others which are real dwellings with several floors. The young man takes out a notebook to sketch a drawing. The photocopy of the land register shows that the lay-out of this place hasn’t changed in a century and a half.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

The courtyard is empty. A wheelbarrow, a pile of sand, a few stacked bags of cement powder, some tools. The main house is under construction; the open door provides a glimpse of a room with a partially tiled floor. The wallpaper is in tatters. On a corner of the tiled floor sits a half-empty bottle of water, and a pair of old running shoes. A small pile of red cloth which looks like a cheap sleeping bag. Broken stone, plastic tarps. Frédéric wants to excuse himself for intruding, introduce himself, but he can’t tell where this dry and deep male voice has come from. The man seems to step forward out of nowhere, but in fact there is a space between the houses that Frédéric couldn’t see. The man has tensed, muscular arms, with popping veins. He is wearing jeans and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, as if he wants to show his strength. He is gripping a trowel in his fist. Frédéric can’t stop staring at this shiny trowel and so he does not linger on the man’s face.

“Who are you?”

Frédéric moves to show him the copy of the land register and get out his student card, but he does not finish his gesture.

“You from the city hall?”

The question rings like a threat. He didn’t have enough time to answer the first question and already the second has him flustered. The fist holding the trowel has tightened and moved closer.

“No, no, I’m a student in urban archaeology.”

“In what?”

“I study old buildings. Do you live here?”

“Here? In this construction site?”

Frédéric feels stupid. The man is surly but the suspicion in his voice has gone out. Frederic feels nearly encouraged to continue.

“You know, this courtyard and these buildings used to be a familistère.

Frederic makes a few steps toward the corner where the man is standing, as much to get him interested as to get a better look into the house behind him. The man does not ask what a familistère is, he seems to be waiting for Frederic to explain. He doesn’t look particularly interested in this information, he seems to be watching Frédéric’s movements, sizing him up.

The façade of the house carries the remains of two sculpted spandrels on both sides of the door and the windows on the ground level. But the rest of the building is a ruin, standing only with the help of two thick wooden planks which support each opening. The inside is dark.

“I’m writing a thesis for the university on buildings from this period.”

“What period?”

Frédéric is disarmed by the question. He didn’t think the man would be interested in history. Also, what he’s said isn’t exactly true. He hasn’t yet selected his thesis subject, but when he saw the courtyard and now the preserved sculptures of the familistère, he felt sure he’d come across a good subject. He tries to gather his knowledge into a few clear and convincing terms, but he feels himself getting lost in front of this unknown man and he only manages to stammer, “Around 1840. Maybe 1850.”

He is aware this must seem very vague, yet the man steps forward. His eyebrows are gathered like someone concentrating intensely, or as if he is working hard to keep calm.

“And if you do this…this thesis, people will come around to see this…whatever it is?”

Ah, the worry of an owner, so natural and understandable. Frédéric is now on familiar ground. He realizes suddenly the man did not answer him about whether he was the owner or not.

“No, not necessarily. The general public of course would never come through the gates, but the façade might end up classified.”

“So it’s worth something?”

“A certain historical value,” he says, even if he knows he’s exaggerating.

He walks closer to the house at the back of the courtyard to examine the lintels. The building is really in a bad state. The flooring of the upper stories has fallen down onto the ground floor. Frédéric burns to slip inside for a look, despite the danger. The sculptures are typical of the time period: flowers, fruits, all surrounded by stalks of wheat and tools, symbols of fraternity, equality, and friendship in collective work. The workshop or even the refectory, Frédéric imagines, must be somewhere in the house.

At the mention of being classified, the man’s face darkened. However, it would be terrible if Frédéric would have to leave right now! He prefers to lie.

“Being classified is not such a hassle as you might imagine, you know.”

“State workers coming and poking around. I know about these things. But this is private property here!”

“Don’t worry. My doing a thesis doesn’t necessarily mean the heritage office will take an interest in the building.”

When he reaches the end of the courtyard, he turns around, his back to the dilapidated house. From here, the passageway toward the street is barely visible. The little space is snug and protected, secluded from all outside disturbances. An ideal place for a familistère. The church provides its protective shadow. He takes in the entire setting and suddenly discovers, on the third floor of the main house, the one being renovated, two workers fixing the drainpipe. He nearly smiles at not having seen them earlier. They are working in silence, side by side, one bare-chested and the other wearing a ripped t-shirt, standing on a narrow plank held by ropes and serving as improvised scaffolding. The man has seen what Frédéric is looking at, but he does not say a word. His eyes stare straight into Frédéric’s eyes, as if he is waiting for the young man to react. What should he say? A little embarrassed, he turns back to the door with the sculptures. In truth, he is dying to take a look inside the house. The drawings, the sculptures, all that is already interesting enough, but what if he found other objects—archives, anything…what a thesis he would have!

“Hey, what are you doing?”

The man would like to stop him, but Frédéric has already pushed on the door. Broken rock in front of him, lengths of parquet floor fallen down and broken. The stairway no longer leads anywhere but the steps are intact. He should have opened the door more carefully: a sharp crack, a sound of bricks falling and breaking on the rubble. He backs up quickly, smacking into the man who has followed him, doubtless to prevent him from going further. The man is livid. Frédéric is afraid he’s going to be punched, or beaten, but the man controls himself.

“I tell you this is private property!”

Then everything happens very quickly. They both turn around at a sound, a little yelp of surprise, a plank which slaps against the pavement from very high. When Frédéric hears the same noise—blunted, dull, slightly elastic— for the second time, he is able to identify it. He understands before even seeing it. He doesn’t even have time to bring his hand across his open mouth to stifle a weak, inarticulate cry, nothing but a hoarse gurgle. Two bodies lie on the ground.

Frédéric is barely able to move. Without a second thought, he can see immediately that the man in the t-shirt is dead. Because of the strange angle of his limbs, his tilted head, and mainly because of his nearly artificial-looking immobility. A disjointed puppet, he thinks, seeing the truth in the cliché. Frédéric wants to tell the man how shocked he is, he wants to tell him to call the ambulance, even if he has a cell phone in his backpack. But all these thoughts fuse together in a kind of sticky paste which can’t move upward and out of his throat. If only he could vomit, he would feel better. The bare-chested man’s torso is moving up and down with difficulty, in little jerks which are becoming slower and slower. Frédéric is not certain whether he is moaning because his own ears are buzzing. A truly stupid accident! Frédéric moving forward into the house and his argument with the man must have drawn the workers’ attention. A false movement, maybe they leaned over to see what was happening, some kind of imbalance on the plank which does not even deserve to be called scaffolding and then they fell. Which man pulled which man down? The owner has moved forward toward the fallen man; he stares at him from above, he does not squat down, he does not touch him. Then he raises a pair of furious eyes at Frédéric:

“This is all your fault!”

Frédéric is stunned. How unfair! This man is the owner; this is his construction site, his workers. How can he blame Frédéric?

“If you hadn’t stuck your filthy nose in my business…”

The man moves closer and Frédéric steps backward, fully aware that he is only three steps at most from being pinned against the wall.

He stammers, “An ambulance…we have to call for an ambulance?”

“Oh, now you think of this? It’s too late. And anyway, that will only stir up trouble.”

Frédéric moves his eyes from the owner for a moment; indeed, the wounded man’s chest is no longer moving at all.

The owner growls at him like a dog ready to attack, “Very clever, and now you’ll fix the mess you made.”

Frédéric is too surprised to think further. He feels himself powerless, inexperienced. This is the first time he’s ever witnessed such an accident. He would like to stay here, confirm that it was really no one’s fault, even if actually, whoever installed that ridiculous scaffolding is to blame… But what is there to fix? The man does not allow his anger to explode, instead it rolls out slowly, concentrated and scorching, like a fiery poker. His face is tense and serious. Frédéric does not dare look away, but at the edge of his vision he sees a metallic glint. A knife? Really, it doesn’t have to come to violence. Two people have already died.

“Listen, let’s be practical…reasonable…we need to tell…”

A light has turned on in the man’s eyes, but Frédéric avoids taking any meaning from it. He confines himself to noticing that the man has raised one eyebrow and his glance has hardened.

“Hold it. No one is telling anyone anything. There are enough people here who already know about this. These two there, they’ve got no one to tell. They aren’t even from here, no one knows where they’ve been working. So if it’s only to make trouble… You’re not sure what to do, pal? I’ll tell you what you’re gonna do.”

The flash of light turns out to be the trowel that the man has not let go of since Frédéric arrived in the courtyard. Seen up close, the trowel finally appears as sharp and dangerous as any other kind of weapon. Frédéric raises his hands, as if to protect his chest, to show that he’s unarmed, that he isn’t thinking of using his cell phone.

“Take that shovel and start digging.”

Frédéric doesn’t even think. He grabs the shovel which scrapes the ground with an unpleasant screech.

“No, idiot. Over here where it’s unpaved.”

His first shovel thrust barely breaks the surface. He isn’t used to this.

“Stronger, faster…or…”

The man doesn’t finish his threat. After a few tries, Frédéric falls into a rhythm. He feels his muscles warming. His backpack is in the way and he drops it to the side. Don’t think about it. What a stupid accident. Really, those two up on their drainpipe should have been more careful. If they couldn’t hold still, they should have refused to go up so high. When the hole begins to take shape, the man goes to get a second shovel and starts to dig beside Frédéric.

“And don’t try to fool me, you understand? All I have to do is dig a little deeper, okay?”

The man carries on speaking in rhythm with each thrust of the shovel; he’s more like muttering, not really addressing himself Frédéric at all.

“I was doing those two a favor. No papers, no place to stay. No idea where they came from. They begged me to take them. What would they have done without me? And now I’m the one that gets stuck with all this bloody nuisance.”

Finally, both men realize they are standing in a deep hole. Their shovels strike big pipes beneath them. Frédéric wipes the sweat from his brow and his temples and stands up.

The man growls, “Damn pipe. Okay, that should do it, I think.”

Frédéric gets out of the hole and totters a bit. He had nearly managed to erase the image of the two bodies from his brain. The man gets out next, watches him a moment, then pulls the first body toward the hole.

“God dammit, help me. Don’t just stand there.”

Truthfully, Frédéric could go away and leave the man, but he’s unable to do this. He would like everything to return to how it was, that the courtyard revert to its relatively miserable but serene appearance. The man pulls the second body by the feet and rolls it into the hole on top of the first. Frédéric doesn’t want to see this. His stomach lurches. He imagines how grotesque the whole scene must look, but he is truly relieved not to have seen their faces.

“You’re waiting for something?”

Frédéric is now as hurried as the man. They throw shovels of dirt in all directions, one after the other, over and over. Soon it is impossible to see the bottom of the hole. It’s only a small incident. Frédéric has nothing to do with it. He can’t imagine the trouble he would have with the police. The meetings, the questioning. And what if he has to give testimony in a trial? He doesn’t have time for that. Better to just forget it. As quickly as possible. When the hole is filled and the earth flattened above it, the man drops his shovel and puts his hands on his hips. No need for him to say they will never speak of this again, nor that they will never see each other again, that Frédéric shouldn’t even think of setting foot in this courtyard again, that he will never mention the familistère.

The man jerks his head toward the ruined house, “So this thing, is it worth anything?”

“Uh…no. It’s much too run down anyway.”

He holds out his hand to show that Frédéric can leave, but the young man is unable to shake it. He leans over to pick up his bag and the photocopy of the land register lying next to it. He can’t look him in the eye, only in a sideways glance.

The passageway is dark and narrow, and at the other end can be heard the sound of honking and a police siren. Frédéric takes a long stride, steps over the gutter, pushes the gate which squeaks as he closes it behind him. His jeans are muddied at the knees and all the way down to the hems. He feels calluses forming on his hands. He’ll have to find something else for his thesis.

Translated from the French. The original title is “Le Familistère”.

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Note: Undoubtedly, one of the most rewarding aspects of translation is how intimate a piece becomes after reading it seven, eight, nine times. Sometimes, however, a small exchange takes place – all that is gained through intimacy takes something away from the story’s impact. Luckily, this isn’t always the case, and it wasn’t with Pauline Blatt’s “Social Experiment.” What preserved its impact for me is the subtle but killing irony of the mens’ tragedy – this heartless and appalling tragedy taking place in the shadow of a remnant of utopian ideal. Simply excellent.

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Pauline Blatt lives in Paris with her family, after working for several years in Asia. She was a regular member of the Beijing Writing Group and the Other Writing Group at the Shakespeare and Co. bookshop in Paris. The review Siècle 21 published one of her previous stories. She can be found online at Smithereens where she writes about books and stories.

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posted by Michelle Bailat-Jones