An extract from ‘Nino in the Night (Nino dans la Nuit)’ (Éditions Allia, 2019)
By Capucine and Simon Johannin
Translated from the French by Alice Banks
“PARADISE? Nino Paradise? What a stupid name, who’s your mum, Amélie Poulain? What are you doing here, Nino? Want to end up in paradise?”
The guy doesn’t lift his head up from my passport, and I don’t say anything, so he starts again.
“Why have you come here?”
“I want to serve my country. I want to be useful in the event of an attack.”
“If you want to be useful and play boy-scout, you join the police. If you’re here, it’s because you’re starving. Either that or you’re sick of life, or you’re running from something. You should know from the get-go; this is not the answer. Just because we don’t hand anyone into the authorities here, doesn’t mean we solve their problems. And from the look of you, you have a whole heap of problems. All the same, we’re going to pick apart your past, just until we figure out where you put your foot in it first. Have you had a run-in with the law already Nino? Are you a homo?”
“No, I’ve never been to prison.”
“SERGEANT, you say SERGEANT when you talk to me.”
“I’ve never been to prison, sergeant.”
“You’re a dealer then? Did you sell coke?”
“What did you do then?”
“I had a fight, that’s all.”
“There we go, that’s it. Well, now your name is Paul Dubois, you’re Canadian, you were born in Montreal on the fourteenth of February nineteen ninety-six. Leave everything on the table next to the office, your phone, everything. Now get out of here and let me lay into the Chinese guy behind you.”
Seriously, that guy must have sea urchins for balls.
I stand up, pick up the bag that he had emptied onto the floor and put my stuff back inside: three pairs of briefs, six pairs of socks, three t-shirts, plastic flip-flops, a towel, and a wash bag. I head outside and on my way past the line, I tell the next guy that it’s his turn to go and get yelled at.
We move in little groups, heading towards the mess room where they serve us fried calamari and green beans in a strange brown sauce. For me it’s cool, I’m not put off by what’s on my plate–I’m a connoisseur of the grub from central France–but those that come from the other side of the world don’t seem too convinced by the stuff in breadcrumbs. Still, no one hesitates, and everyone takes their share.
Once we are all at the table, we have the right to a ‘BON APPÉTIT’ to which we respond, ‘BON APPÉTIT SERGEANT’, but as we come from about twenty different places it sounds more like a ‘BO APPELTITE SORGENT’. I try not to laugh seeing the Balkan-looking guy at the end of the table shout it super seriously as if it were part of the 101-guide to French integration. He’s kind of right, I guess it is. Don’t worry my friend, it’s clear that you respect the sergeant’s appetite. Once we have sat down, no one gives a shit about what the food on the plate looks like, everyone eats. I begin to understand why when I ask the guy next to me where he comes from.
Amongst the others at the table with me, there’s an Ethiopian, two Nepalese guys, and the Eastern European guy who comes from a country I’ve never heard of–either that or I just don’t understand what he said. None of them really seem to be present, they just push the rubber in brown sauce around their plates. We don’t really talk, because no one speaks the same language apart from the two Nepalese guys, so we all just concentrate on our rubbery bicycle inner tubes. There’s also a slice of ham on the plate, and everyone understands that it is in their best interest to eat it, rind included.
Then, as it is already night, we cram into the completely dilapidated – but clean at least – dormitory. After going to the toilet, we sleep, waiting for the fitness tests tomorrow.
I lie down, think of nothing at all, and then, like everyone else, I fall asleep quickly because that’s the best thing to do. A little before morning I think I’ve woken up, but no, I’m still asleep. In the floating doubt at the back of my dreams, I see your face, then everything begins again to the melody of the army.
Sitting on the edges of the beds we don’t speak, because that gives the corporal-chief a reason to yell at us from above. But I watch the bodies. Many are tired, some more than others, guys that seem to have already faced the worst parts of life. I see scars on chests and sometimes backs, massive scars, scars that no one could have got all by themselves. I see tattoos in every language under the sun, talismans carved in ink over the hearts of guys who have come only with their skin, their three pairs of boxer briefs and their six pairs of socks.
Shit, this depresses me. There’s one, a Tunisian, who has even had the names of his loved ones tattooed on him. Since his bag with all of their photos was taken from him, he has nothing else, just those names engraved on a piece of his skin. It looks like a river of Arabic is flowing across his body, leaving from his right shoulder, and finishing in a foamy wave under his left breast. A freak storm has settled itself under his skin so he can’t forget the anchor that life has separated him from.
Why? Money. Cash, cash, cash.
I have strange dreams. The naked bodies of my peers lie in front of me, all of their skin tones pour onto the floor and slide up the walls. They create a marbled river of colours: whites, olives, blacks, yellows, reds. An iridescent liquid silk, a golden substance that runs between the skin and the tissues that transport blood. I watch the bodies; they are all translucent. I see vessels, veins, and arteries, beating pulses. I see an inundation of penises and hands. Beneath eyelids, I sense eyes moving anxiously under the thin skin, swimming in the painful bath of sleep.
I see my own body; it hasn’t moved. It’s spread out on the bed where I’m sleeping. Slowly, I cross the room, I walk through the flowing colours that slip under the door towards the showers, flowing underground down one of the drains scattered on the tiles. The liquid becomes red to go down and feed the devil.
This extract is taken from ‘Voices from the Outside: UEA MA Translation Anthology’. The full anthology can be purchased from Egg Box Publishing.