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The Curved Planks, Dear Paula, a postscript, and a note on Paula Rego.

By YVES BONNEFOY.

Translated by Anthony Rudolf.
Etchings by Paula Rego.

THE MAN STANDING on the bank, near the boat, was big, a giant of a man. Behind him the moonlight was reflected on the river. Hearing a faint noise, the child who was approaching in complete silence, understood that the boat was stirring, brushing against the dock or a stone. He was clutching a small copper coin tightly in his hand.

“Good day, sir,” he said in a clear voice, clear but trembling for he was afraid he might draw too much attention to himself from the man, the giant, who stood there motionless. But the ferryman, who seemed distracted, had already noticed him, through the reeds. “Good day, young fellow,” he replied. “Who are you?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the child.

“What do you mean, you don’t know? Haven’t you got a name?”

paula3_rego_0181gl150The child tried to take in what the man meant by a name. “I don’t know,” he said again, quickly enough.

“You don’t know! But you know very well what you hear when someone calls you or hails you.”

“Nobody calls me.”

“Nobody calls you when it’s time to go home? When you’ve been playing outside and it’s time for your meal, or for bed?  Haven’t you got a father, a mother? Where do you live? Tell me.”

And now the boy sought to understand what the man meant by a father, or a mother, or a place to live.

Click an image for an enlargement.

“A father,” he said, “what’s that?”

The ferryman sat down on a stone near his boat. His voice came from less far away in the darkness. But at first he had chuckled a bit.

paula5_rego_0181gl150“A father? Well, that’s someone who takes you on his knees when you cry, and sits down beside you in the evening when you’re afraid to go to sleep, and tells you a story.”

The boy did not reply.

“It’s quite true that often there is no father,” the giant continued, as if he had been giving some thought to the matter. “But then, it is said, there are sweet young women who light the fire and sit you down close by it, and sing you a song. If they move away, it’s to cook some food, that’s all; you can smell the oil which is heating up in the pot.”

“I don’t remember that either,” said the child in his light crystalline voice. He had drawn closer to the ferryman, who now fell silent; he could hear the man’s regular slow breathing. “I have to cross the river,” said the child. “I have enough money to pay you.”

The giant leaned over him, took him in his huge hands, placed him on his shoulders, straightened up and climbed into the boat, which gave way a little beneath his weight. “Off we go,” he said, “hold on tightly to my neck.” With one hand he gripped the child by a leg, with the other he stuck the pole in the water. With a sudden movement the boy clung on to the ferryman, and sighed. The ferryman was now able to grasp the pole with both hands. He steered the boat out of the mud, and it quit the shore, while the sound of the water grew stronger in the shadows, beneath the glimmers.

A moment later a finger touched his ear. “Listen,” said the child, “would you like to be my father?” But he broke off at once, his voice choked by tears.

“Your father! But I’m only the ferryman! I never move far from the two riverbanks.”

“But I would stay with you, by the riverbank.”paula4_rego_0181gl150

“To be a father, you have to have a house, don’t you understand? I don’t have a house, I live in the rushes by the river.”

“I would be so happy to stay with you on the river”.

“No”, said the ferryman, “it isn’t possible. Anyway, look!”

The child cannot fail to see that the boat seems to be sinking more and more beneath the man and himself, that their weight is increasing minute by minute. The ferryman has trouble moving forward; the water reaches the sides of the small boat, and then pours in, its currents filling the hull as they reach the top of the giant’s legs, which are conscious that support from the curved planks is fading fast. All the same, the boat does not founder, rather it seems to vanish into the darkness, and the man is swimming now, with the little boy still holding fast to his neck. “Don’t be afraid,” he says, “the river isn’t that wide, we’ll soon reach the other side”.

paula6_rego_0181gl150“Oh please, be my father! Be my house!”

“You must put all that out of your mind,” replies the giant in a low voice. “Forget those words. Forget words.”

He takes the boy’s small leg, which is already immense, in his hand again, and with his free arm he swims in the endless space of colliding currents, gaping chasms, stars.

— Images: ‘Les planches courbes’: etchings by Paula Rego after the title piece from Les planches courbes (Mercure de France, Paris 2001), with a translation by Anthony Rudolf (François Bénichou: November 2008). Images courtesy the artist and Marlborough Fine Arts London.

 ♦

Dear Paula,

the dark but tranquil waters of this lake or river – nothing but the sound of gentle splashing among the rushes by the shore, beneath the first stars – where the ferryman of my fable is waiting, begin to tremble, and soon there are waves, and behind these great waves, in the darkness of night already fallen, amid the din of what sounds like a landslide, I hear howling, barking, strange laughs, cries: so many people standing in their boats: young and old, men and women, ageless children, tormentors and victims, soon they will all parade before the little boy who is speaking shyly, sadly, to an unknown man whom he is gazing at imploringly and whom he fears but who, he senses, wishes him well. The hubbub grows louder, the shadows are already lengthening on the water, the first boats appear – and then, all of a sudden, the other world is there, our eyes have closed, we are sleeping, the most tangled and elusive part of our nocturnal dream possesses everything. Paula, you put speech to the test of night. The frail voice which sought the clearest and simplest truth in the relationship between people, you bury it, as a mountain crumbles, under the multiplying voices that you hear crashing around inside you, as they protest violently, crazily, angrily, in the abyss of the unconscious. Your dark revelations have become the entire sky, the entire earth. What will remain of the hope of this child who has arrived from nowhere, clutching in his clenched fist what he needs to pay for his passage?

Everything, in my opinion. Against the mass of your whirling protean visions, the image of a young woman — rowing hard beneath a wild sky on a swollen sea — stands out quite clearly. And there is anguish on her face, and two or three children are holding on by their fingertips to the edge of her small boat, they are lost, they are going to die — but what is this boat? This particular etching and at least two others reveal that it is the boat which all children everywhere love to create out of nothing by folding, refolding and folding yet again a piece of paper, which they then, occasionally, throw on the water, but in that case it only lasts a moment, the paper is not made for water, the ship is waterlogged, it sinks. And so, how can this paper boat that you yourself have drawn not sink beneath all that weight, beneath the immensity of your imaginative power? How can we bring ourselves to believe it won’t sink? How is it possible not to think that you have no hope?

Dossier: Yves Bonnefoy. Commentary and translations by Anthony Rudolf, Alan Wall, Hoyt Rogers, Beverley Bie Brahic. Index.

But no! For who would risk everything, like this terrified young woman, amidst the hostile waters, and head for the unknown, if he had not locked within himself an indestructible hope? In truth, what emerges from this metaphorical etching, and from many others, is hope, in its purest form. Paula, I believe that you have perceived in that little figure of mine who suddenly appears on the shore the desire to give meaning to life; and you have imbued this desire with all the sadness and all the griefs of life already lived, but you do not deny this desire, you do not scorn this expectation. You love in them that moment when despite all appearances — all those obscure dramas, all those sorrows which your work evokes — we want to believe in another shore.

At dinner, in Nîmes, after the opening of the exhibition of your prints which culminated in these ‘Planches courbes’ etchings, I found myself folding a menu absent-mindedly and making a boat out of it; then, seeing what I had been doing, I pushed the boat towards you across the table. There was a vase on the table, with red flowers. You took the boat, with one petal you loaded it up, and pushed it away, this time into a vast open space. Loaded it up? No, that red shape was, perhaps, a sail. “What is it?” I asked you. “A little girl seeking to be reunited with her father,” you answered.

What is the father for us, orphans of meaning? It is this sombre mass standing in the rushes. This silence which, however, contains a few words, either in reply to a child’s questions, or, in the secret heart of your work, Paula, and this time in response to our adult fears.

YVES BONNEFOY.

POSTSCRIPT

Paula, what a mystery! Between her way of looking at life and mine there is such a difference that I ought to believe in our incompatibility. Between the incredible realism (as it is said) of her characters, overflowing with a truthfulness that is not afraid to explore ugliness or even crime, and my way of loving words, asking them to lead us back to the very fundaments of the world, beyond the depravations of society, there is the same gulf, you could say, as between Shakespeare’s Falstaff and a heroine of Racine. And yet! Every time I look at one of her pictures, even the most violent ones, I feel, beyond my admiration of the power of the composition or the vigour of the draughtsmanship, a strange attraction, as if what Paula Rego knows how to express opens up in me a region of my being which for some reason I usually forbid myself to visit.

It is the same fascination that I feel for Goya, with whom Paula has such an affinity in many respects, and this also partly explains why I am so interested in her work; in both artists we find the same experience of the non-being of life, the universal and blind matter that invades and engulfs all existence—Goya’s ‘Dog’—but which cannot prevent the quality of compassion from appearing in the human self—human precisely for that gaze upon the dying dog which grants it, at the moment of its death, absolute value, dignity, the very nature of being.

Paula Rego illustrated my story ‘The Curved Planks’, a fable in which one sees a small child emerge from pre-language nothingness, seeking his very existence, and meeting someone with whom he faces a passage which will be at once death and victory over death. And in the presence of these astonishing etchings I felt in a very particular way that sense of closeness I have alluded to, a closeness which prompted me to write the ‘Letter to Paula’, reprinted here. Already, the text sought to express my astonishment at that sense of closeness, of complicity. And, to be sure, my admiration, my affection.

— Yves Bonnefoy, 2014

Translator’s note:

This text by Yves Bonnefoy about a series of etchings by Paula Rego originated with a publisher’s request. Yves Bonnefoy had long wanted to write something which Paula would accompany with a visual work. However, in the end, he offered the prose fable at the centre of his book Les planches courbes: this had the desired effect. The series of etchings were shown as part of a major exhibition of Paula Rego’s prints at the École supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Nîmes in 2008. A Paris publisher of artists’ books and dossiers, François Bénichou, asked to publish six of the prints along with Bonnefoy’s fable, both in the original and in my translation. (The whole of Les planches courbes has been translated into English by Hoyt Rogers). Bénichou said to Bonnefoy that although the fable had inspired Paula to produce the etchings, nonetheless it had previously been published, so would he please come up with something new. Bonnefoy immediately wrote the above meditation in the form of a letter. Along with the original French, my version – it was far more difficult to translate than the fable – appeared in the Rego/Bonnefoy dossier at Editions FB, of which there are only a hundred copies. So, in conventional terms, it is unpublished. My translation of the fable itself was also published in Poetry Review (98: 3/2008). The ‘Postscript’ has not appeared elsewhere. —AR

 

 

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