Put in an ad for a house to rent in l'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in the Vaucluse and receive a harmless couple of retired Americans on holiday.
No, not really harmless!
Threads of the imaginary are drawn in one after the other to weave a cloth that blends past, present and future time.
Where are we?
Spasmi studium: the study of tremors of the Earth which at regular intervals opens up, thus absorbing history and stories where certain initiated men will be able to meet up with their own selves on numerous occasions, ad infinitum.
Twenty-four hours in the life of a writer engrossed in his writing slap bang in the middle of a real-life story.
What's the difference between a true story and a real-life story?
There isn't any, they both change you for ever...
Resulting from meticulous historical research, this novel contrasts sharply through its tone and form with Serge Valletti's other works. It's classic, but classic like Valletti, i.e. a bit weird all the same, in the way that everything mingles and intermingles, and in his decided liking for the story of mankind and how this story is passed on.
SPASMI STUDIUM by Serge Valletti
translated by Gilbert Bankual
On this small island, right in the middle of the river Sorgue, Tocquebielle's body lay, half buried, on a bed of dead leaves. Major Alvarez put one foot on the bank, but the other, still on the punt, slipped and he fell sideways into the shallow waters.
"Why, why do I have to do this?"
Bastien held out a hand to the gendarme who stood up, ranting away.
He was knee deep in water. With great difficulty, he managed to climb up the slippery bank and, in a helpless fury, began to wring his soaking jacket.
"Look at me now!"
"You'll dry alright", muttered Bastien.
"Oh yes, you're a fisherman and you like it when it's wet, I know!"
Another punt docked alongside, delivering a second gendarme and the solicitor general.
"Come on, Pougner, give me a hand."
Helping one another, they finally managed to set foot on the island.
It looked like a small corner of paradise floating on the river Sorgue. In the middle, amidst shrubs, ferns and bulrushes stood a very old hut that had been recently painted.
Upstream, five kilometres away, the re-emergence of the Vaucluse fountain was gushing out its uninterrupted stream. It hadn't been that formidable for years. It was torrential, eruptive, washing away its banks, ripping away the moss and the algae, reviving itself with gusto.
It was generally believed that the brotherhood of the Pescaïres, fishermen in local patois, dated back from the Middle Ages. In those days, local squires had granted them exclusive fishing rights on the river, with a few conditions attached. Namely that they should sell their catch locally and provide members of the clergy with a fresh and free supply of fish. Over the centuries they had become guardians of what they considered their treasure: these miraculous waters surging from a spring whose origin was still a mystery.
From grandfathers to grandsons, from uncles to nephews, from old to young men they had passed on their secrets, their tricks, their know-how and the legends attached to the place. They ruled the river from Fontaine to Avignon and no one could hook a trout, catch an eel or trap a crayfish without their permission.
And then came the whopping quake. In between the two great wars, fishing permits were granted to anyone willing to pay for them. The Brotherhood decided to fight, refusing to be bossed around by the new order.
In the eyes of the law, most of them became poachers... and some, poor things, turned water bailiffs! Life was hard and fish were getting scarce. The brotherhood lost its footing, but its secrets were still alive. Each year, thirty Pescaïres or so met under the cover of some old fashioned traditions. They looked after the punts, spent winters pampering them solely for the pleasure of watching them, in spring, sailing down the river in all their regal majesty. They simply loved them for what they were: the last witnesses of a thousand year old history.
So, when people learned that old Tocquebielle, the most senior member of the Pescaïres, was dead, emotions ran amok.
Spring, in the year 1784, was warm and sultry. The Egyptian had been walking since Easter and had just crossed the muddy waters of the river Durance.
The sun was beginning to set when he reached the ramparts of Cavaillon, his waterlogged feet making a funny noise on the gravel bridleway.
The little town was no longer swarming with people who had already shut themselves indoors. He walked past the houses of the High street and turned right in Hebrews' Alley.
At the Carrière's gates where Jews were locked away, Fabou, the lame warden, had almost finished pulling the chain.
"Were do you come from, my man?"
"From a country that's none of your business. Let me in."
"The bells have chimed already, my good man."
"I'm telling you to let me in!" said the man angrily.
"Why? For whom?"
"I'm here to spend the night..."
"Halt... it's not the way..."
"Get in and ask your superior, quick!"
"Stay put! I'll be right back."
Fabou, grumbling away, secured the chain and thrust his head between the pair of heavy gates:
"Hey, you! One of you over there! Gershom, come hither! I've got some fellow here who wants to get in, and we've heard the bells already..."
He turned back towards the man who was rubbing his feet dry.
"Tell me whom you're looking for! I need a name!"
" To you, I don't have to give any name but one: you jackass, let me in!"
And he grabbed him firmly by the collar of his shirt.
"Do you hear me?"
"But I'm going to be..."
A voice came up from behind the gates.
"What's going on?"
"I've arrived from Cairo and I need to see Gad Bedarride, son of Moses and Franquette."
"Let him in, Fabou."
The Egyptian let go of his grip and whispered in his ear:
"You see, there's no need to get worked up."
The gates opened wide to let him in.
And pronto the gates shut firmly behind him.
Outside, an angry Fabou padlocked the massive chain and limped back to the minute cell where he lived.
He muttered through his teeth:
"Creepy bunch of Jews!"
That was it.
Gary got out of the car, wiping his forehead.
Here they were at last. There was an iron gate guarding the end of the cul-de-sac. The landlord was waiting for them.
"Hi, Gary! How are you?"
"Good, fine, thank you!"
"Do you speak French, Gary?"
"A little bit... Eleanor is much better than me."
"Oh, nice to meet you," she said, smiling coyly.
"You had a good trip?"
"It was perfect once we managed to hit the motorway."
Eleanor got out of the rented Renault Scenic.
"We got lost three times in Marseilles!"
"Well, you can relax now and have a rest. I'll help you with the luggage. Come in, come in!"
Behind the gate, a cluster of trees screened a grand staircase leading to a terrace.
On the right appeared the "Maison des Roses", tucked away, protected from view.
A leafy arbour at the heart of L'Isle-sur-Sorgue.
The place breathed calm and tranquillity.
The landlord gave them a tour of the property. On the ground floor, a sitting room, a dining room and a kitchen opening out onto the terrace. On the first floor were three bedrooms. The whole place had been tastefully, but simply decorated.
"So, does it look like the pictures?"
"Much, much better! For once, Gary didn't make a blunder!"
Gary comes from Palo Alto, in California. He's a sixty nine year old American who lectures in nuclear physics. It's the first time he has returned to Europe since he was a child. He and his wife Eleanor had booked the house six months ago. For a full month, the whole month of May.
"Here are the keys. I hope you'll enjoy your stay."
"I'm sure we will, It's absolutely charming and amazing."
"I need to explain a few things. Here is the switch to light up the terrace, and this is the alarm. The code is pencilled in the cupboard. You'll have to dial it every time you get in or out... I mean, only if you're out for a while. The red key is the one to the garage, the orange key is for the main French window and this one here is for the bottom gate. The other keys you won't really need, they only open doors in the cellar."
"Yes, I noticed the vaulted cellars in the brochure..."
"That's right! And there's even a Roman well that lead to the river Sorgue..."
"What is it?"
"A Roman well, Eleanor," translated Gary.
"Well, it's a very old house. It was built on top of an ancient monastery."
"Fantastic! We don't have this sort of thing at home!"
"I guess you haven't, but here, that's the way it is!"
"What's your first name?"
"Well, Sarge, bravo bravissimo, you've got a fantastic house. Is it a family home?"
"No, no, I bought it a bit more than a year ago."
"You're a very lucky man."
"In fact, it was pure chance. About fifteen years ago, I had been invited for a drink on this very terrace and it struck me as a place of great peace and serenity, somewhat unique. Then, one day I saw a "For sale" board on the gate. I phoned and it just happened. The price was reasonable. It was a crazy idea as my wife and I could barely afford it. That's why we're letting it, usually on a weekly basis."
"It seemed that the house had been waiting for us!"
"Funnily enough, we've had the same feeling, really!"
"And here you are!"
"That's right, here we are!"
"I've left a bottle of rosé for you in the fridge."
"Why don't we open it?"
Serge uncorked the bottle and poured three glasses.
"Here, I've left various guides and maps of the area, and addresses of restaurants. The Jardin du Quai is a very good one. A friend runs it. He's a very good chef. Tell him I've sent you and you won't regret it. If you need anything, don't hesitate to call me. The phone numbers are in the cupboard. To your very good health!"
"Yes, let's toast this pretty month of May."
"You're a lucky lot. The weather is much better than usual! And the mistral is blowing the clouds away."
Facing the ocean on Malibu beach, the luxury villa was shrouded in darkness. Footsteps broke the silence and James knocked softly on the bedroom door.
Clarence Imai woke up with a start.
With one movement, he pulled the sheet over Cathy's sleeping body next to him. He got up and opened the door.
"That's it, doctor, they've found them."
"Where are they?"
"In France. They've registered under Eleanor's maiden name. They booked a cruise from Miami. They stopped in the Canaries, then in Cadiz and Barcelona. They arrived in Marseilles this morning."
"Somebody's tailing them?"
"Get everything ready, James. We'll board the first available plane."
"Very well, doctor, I'll see to it."
"What's going on?" whimpered Cathy, still in her dream.
"Get ready, quick, we're off."
"Welcome, Mr. Egyptian, we were waiting for you!"
"Gad, my brother. You do know why I'm here?"
"I had almost lost hope. At last the day and the hour have arrived. Come in."
"Yes, or rather the night and the hour!"
Gad preceded the man into the room.
"Sarah, leave us alone now."
Gad lifted a tile from the floor. From the little cache beneath he retrieved a bunch of keys.
"Perfect, Gad, it's perfect. You've done your duty now."
"Oh yes, stringently since I was seven year of age. It was Abraham, my own grandfather who gave me the keys. He'd received them, I believe, from old Moses who'd received them from his uncle Elicée, as it was since the beginning of time from grandfathers to grandsons, and from great uncles to nephews, and the chain was never broken."
The Egyptian took the keys and inspected them carefully.
"Good, good... they're all here. Six of them. This gold one is from Avignon, the silver one from Bedarrides, the copper one from Carpentras. The iron one is from Fontaine, the bronze one from Cavaillon and last, the steel one, is from Saint-Rémy."
"Would you like something to eat, my Lord? You must be tired."
"Yes, it's been a long journey from Cairo."
"A good night's sleep is all that's needed."
"The night will be short, Gad. Wake me up when the moon has set. There's still a lot of work to do."
Bastien was coming out of the Isle-sur-Sorgue Gendarmerie when Serge arrived.
"So, any more news?"
"They say it's Jeremy who's done it, but how could it be possible, Serge, how could it be?"
"Dear, dear, dear... this story is completely mad!"
He walked into the major's office and was told to sit down.
"Well, last Sunday, I spent the whole day with Jeremy, and it all looked alright."
"And Armand Tocquebielle, when did you see him last?"
"It must have been last winter"
"What did you do with Jeremy Martin?"
"H helped me clear up the cellars in my house."
"Yes, at the Maison des Roses. There are many cellars and they were full of old pieces of wood, floorboards, tree stumps, beams. We spent the day clearing them up. I had hired a van and he helped me loading, and chucking it away at the recycling centre."
"Then? On the way back, I dropped him at the Watershed. He must have gone to his cabin, or to visit his aunt, in Carpentras, I don't know. But you're on the wrong track, here. It couldn't be him. He's only twenty. Why would he do such a thing? To kill Tocquebielle! Only a maniac or a weirdo would do this!"
Since finding the body, the gendarmes had been overworked. They'd opened their field headquarters opposite the cemetery in L'Isle-sur-Sorgue. All the Pescaïres had been called in after the other to give evidence. The basic cop routine: Where were you? What were you going?
First, It had been mayhem to land the forensic team on the island. The local punts, known locally as négo chin, were the only boats that could navigate safely on the waters. The Fire brigade's Zodiac boat had already broken its propeller and one man, who claimed he could wade across, arguing that the water only came up to his knees, had fallen into a four-meter deep hole and nearly drowned. As for bringing the nineteen-stone corpse onto terra firma, the gendarmes had had to wait for a team of divers from the COMEX in Marseilles.
One couldn't recall such frantic activity on the Sorgue since the days when commandant Cousteau had tried to explore the re-emergence of the river in Fontaine. One has to say that Mister big fish with his red woolly hat had made a real fool of himself when he'd claimed that in the end he would once and for all find where the water came from.
"Keep clear, he held forth, with our new diving robot we'll get it all done in five seconds!"
You bet. Three months later, they still hadn't found anything and the robot was stuck, dead at the one thousand foot mark.
"It must be deep!" Said the woolly hat.
Thanks, commandant, but you didn't need this rigmarole to find that out!
"Didn't we tell you it was deep?"
Tocquebielle loved to tell this story, and he laughed like a madcap, the swarm of journalists, the demise of the robot, the shamefaced grin of Cousteau and his band of pirates who'd seen it all, heard it all, understood everything! Well, here, they'd stalled! They'd got stranded! They'd hit the bottom! Not the bottom of the source, no, but the bottom of depression.
"How come? I who taught the Tupamaros to swim, I who discovered the last dolphins in the Orinoco, I who, in the Arctic, managed to photograph a narwhal and an indigo manatee! I'm stuck, 100 miles from the sea, in fresh waters, amidst a bunch of small time anglers!
He was incandescent and left without further ado.
And the echo of Tocquebielle's laughter was rumbling through the small valley.
"Ay, look here on this rock, that's where they'd banged the hook that secured their stupid robot! Dear me, the cable was so heavy that it pulled the whole thing down, the poor buggers! Cousteau woe-woe! I'm telling you, Serge, I'm telling you!"
I could listen to his stories for hours. But since that winter, he's hadn't left the cavern where he lived.
As for me, with that business of letting the house, cleaning, renovating, B & B and all the rest, I had neglected him. And that was it! Curtains! His death brought to an end the old tales of the Sorgue.
Angelo had followed the Americans since they'd landed in Marseilles.
Tailing, he was equipped for it.
This time, he wouldn't loose his grip.
He'd booked a room, the last one, at the Gueulardière, a hotel standing by a roundabout where all the roads converged.
People milled about l'Isle-sur-Sorgue.
A long weekend was beginning. He had walked around the town and spotted the cul-de-sac where the Americans had parked their car. On the banks of the Sorgue, the tourists had invaded the many pavement cafés. Angelo was strolling about, looking around. He was used to this kind of strange assignment, but for the past ten years, since he'd started working for the Organization, he'd never been sent to a place that looked so, how could he put it? Anodyne. Yes, this was the right word. Since the first day of this mission, he'd travelled the planet from Alaska to Mongolia, from Beijing to Mexico, from Monaco to Hawaii, and it looked somehow incongruous that this adventure should end up here.
He had this weird feeling of being like the many objects that lay on the pavements of this town, bric-à-brac everywhere, in every street, on every square.
Shaving bowls, cracked dining plates, weaver's shuttles, lengths of lace, billiard cues, top hats, wall lights, ceiling lights, wooden cows, crystal glasses, empty frames, they too had landed here, following sales, purchases, thefts, losses and barters.
They had spent thirty years, tucked away in trunks and drawers, before being suddenly exposed to everyone's eyes, and fingers, and judgement, and valuation.
There's a doll, for example, with fixed blue eyes, mouth shut and faded pink apron. She stares at you, with a look of everlasting surprise. Where will she go next? Who will buy her and add her to their collection, among others maybe more beautiful than her? How long was it since the little girl who'd received her, as a brand new Christmas present, had been dead and buried? No hope to feel again those small, fragile and tender hands caressing her at length until stopped by slumber. No, her fate was now to be held by the big fat fingers of a doddery collector. At best, she could end up inside a chest, at worst in the glass cabinet of a sitting room, having to listen endlessly to strings of old wives' tales blabbered around trays of biscuits and teacups. The absolute nightmare!
Quick, quick, she had to make the best of this moment of life! The passing trade, people, the wheel of fortune, smells, noises, laughter, she had to record it all so that, later, when all alone with a stranger, she might be able to play it back.
Angelo was looking at the houses with their plain frontage, at the narrow back streets, at the renovated XIII century church, at the pigeons, the ducks, at the green clear water of the Sorgue. How come the clue to the mystery was to be found in this little town? In Egypt, at the foot of the pyramids, yes, in Lhasa, or in Jerusalem, naturally, in the Yucatan peninsula, obviously, but here?
Was it really possible that all the world's forces could be concentrated in this place?
Ah well, isn't unpredictability, the fundamental quality of strangeness?
"I'm very happy to please, but when someone shoots himself, one usually finds the weapon next to the body!
"And if one doesn't find it, you see, I immediately think murder.
"I'm sorry, but I can't see a way out of this!"
Major Alvarez put the phone down.
"Pougner, have we seen all the Pescaïres?"
"All except the one called Martin, Jeremy Martin."
"Have we got a photograph?"
"Yes, here he is, fishing on his boat. This other picture was taken at the wedding of one of the Pescaïres and that one there at the annual Watershed picnic! One can clearly see the river in the background."
"Bugger the river, I want to see his face!"
"Well, on this one, it's not too bad."
"I suppose it will have to do. Just send it out nationwide."
If Jeremy intended to hide, he had the whole river at his service. He had lived here since he was a toddler and knew every inch of it as if a trout had reared him. He was the only person who could make a cast net, the type of large round net on can throw from the riverbank. Aged fourteen, he'd given up everything to live on the river with the blessing of his aunt who had brought him up. In Lyon, he'd managed to locate the owners of the small island, and to secure a lease that granted him the right to repair and use the shed that stood on it. His sole ambition was to be around, to give a hand here and there, to clean the banks, and maintain the négo chin. He wouldn't do anything else. Tocquebielle was protecting him and the two of them were joint kings of their little kingdom.
After such a tragedy, it was obvious that Jeremy must know something about it.
Was it enough to charge him with murder?
"A man who knows and runs away is much more interesting than a man who knows nothing and stays put", mumbled Major Alvarez. "We've got to find him, Pougner!"
"So, your Americans, how are they?"
"Very odd, Muriel, very odd."
Back at home, Serge was feeding the four white dogs.
"Why do you saying that?"
"I don't know, it's just a weird feeling... especially about him."
"You did your little trick with the Roman well, didn't you?"
"Of course I did. Usually nobody really pays attention, but today, I don't know, they both asked a lot of questions. Anyway, I hope they'll have a good time. He's a retired physicist, a sort of cranky boffin!"
"What about the gendarmes? Did you go?"
"I had to, I was summoned!"
"And nothing, nobody knows anything! You see, they asking you lots of questions, and you're there, with your sorrow, unable to answer... I'm still quite shaken."
"Have they got a lead?"
"I don't know, really, they didn't say anything. Bastien told me that Jeremy might be their prime suspect."
"It's insane, the whole affair."
"You're telling me! Jeremy, as if he would murder Tocquebielle!"
"No way! Now, I need to get ready for tomorrow. Could you print out the contract for me?"
Before going up to his office, Serge turned back and asked:
"By the way, did you read the first pages of my novel?"
"I did, but it's hard to talk about it. This Jews business, what is it? Is it a historical novel? It's all a bit confused."
"You've just got to wait. It gets clearer later on."
"I do hope so, because otherwise, it's another shtick that won't go anywhere."
"If you say so!"
Of course I say so. I just can't help it.
To dive back into my writing was a good way to forget my sadness.
I'd been writing for years. Actually that's the only thing I've ever done! Small poems to begin with, acrostic sonnets, short stories, the first one was called "Charlot stories", I still have it, here, in my desk, a typescript. I was seven years old. Charlot goes to school. He causes havoc in the dining hall, starts fighting with everyone and throws crockery all over the place. He is also seven years old, but is dressed like in his films, with his walking stick, bowler hat, black dinner jacket and large gaping shoes. And he wears a moustache. Seven years old. What a funny idea! But actually, it's only now, thinking about it, that I find it funny. At the time, it felt totally natural. I had plan to write a series: Charlot on the beach, Charlot flies an airplane, Charlot goes to the movies... the idea being, I suppose, that each story ended in utter chaos!
As a matter of fact, I always had mammoth projects. That encyclopaedia, for instance. In our flat there was a balcony, and on this balcony there were ants. I picked one up and began to draw it and to describe it. How many legs, antennae, its colour, its size, everything! Everything on ants! Once this chapter had been completed, I would have turned to lizards, then to pot plants, staying focused on the balcony, etc.
These grand schemes unfailingly ended with two half pages quickly buried inside a drawer and immediately forgotten. Dozens of beginnings! Only beginnings! I never had the strength to go further.
And then I turned to theatre and plays, which was very different. Once under way I had no choice but finish them. When an actor enters the stage, you must provide the exit route.
So now that I had an idea for a novel, it was imperative not to let it peter out but take it to its conclusion.
I already had a substantial pile of information on the Vaucluse area, where I had lived for the past five years. I had spent hours in Cavaillon and Avignon, sifting through the library archives, spent days with an ordnance map, rambling footpaths and driving B roads to find locations for my characters, scanning the sky at night to spot planets and stars, checking the orbit of the sun, the course of the moon, and the direction of the winds.
And slowly growing inside me was the conviction that this region was not like any other. Here, within a few square miles, innumerable extraordinary events had occurred over the centuries.
Under trivial appearances, lurked a treasure of adventures.
The main and unavoidable focal point was the establishment, during the XIV century, of the papacy that had left a lasting impression. Stuck between Rhône and Durance on one side, between the Luberon and the Vaucluse mountains on the other, that space called Comtat Venaissin, spreading snugly within these