“1969” by Bao Ralambo, English translation by Allison M. Charette
The year I took the Bac was spent in exile. I’d been exiled to a track of courses that neither my heart, nor my friendships, nor the religion of my youth had steered me toward. Exiled far from my classmates of the two previous years—the best years of high school. Exiled, too, because being there symbolized a categorical renouncement of ever experiencing my father again. My father. Not well known, yet loved so very much. Like my father, I’d always wanted to heal the suffering of others. I probably needed to soothe and bandage the wound that bore his name in my own soul.
There were thirty of us. With a few exceptions, we’d known each other, at least by sight, since 6th grade, and were all more or less suffused with the smug bearing that comes from finally being in our last year. We were the dean’s favorites: he had a weakness for the humanities students in Track A, especially the ones doing the year over, no one ever figured out why. But isn’t the whole point of a weakness to be inexplicable? The second-timers acted as if they ruled the roost. They had a monopoly over the best tables, talking in class, and the teachers’ attention. The boys were rowdy and arrogant, the girls seductive or mock-timid. We, the troop of passers-through, scrutinized them, both shocked and enthralled by all their haughty confidence.
My place of exile was the last seat on the right. Short, shy, unassuming, I didn’t bother anyone, and I’m pretty sure the teachers weren’t aware of my existence until we turned in our final papers for the first semester.
Then Pierre came.
He had the sky in his eyes, a rebellious dark lock of hair on his forehead, and a world of sadness on his lips. He sat down next to me. Pierre, my brother in exile. Ever since May ‘68, he’d been subjected to a dozen courses of anesthesia and endless reeducation sessions. His leg had been amputated, and his father had called him back home in the hopes that a change of scenery would be invigorating for him.
Do you remember those forbidden books that you lent me, Pierre, innocently covered in brownish packing paper? Che Guevara’s notebooks scorched our fingers and our eyes, Mao’s thoughts swelled our hearts; next to them, Marx was dull because he wasn’t forbidden. Our philosophy classes bored us. French classes were the times of shared glances and knowing smiles.
On Mondays, worn out from dancing two nights in a row, you wouldn’t be able to stand your prosthetic anymore. So you came with your crutch. A stump was better than the prosthetic, the injury less painful than the fix. And in the middle of Courtyard A, we both leaned on your metal prop, like a pair of shipwreck survivors. You were orphaned by your leg, Pierre, and I had no right to be orphaned by my father. A thigh in your pant leg, flapping past the crutch, was a provocation, your way of trying to beat your suffering. Upon the same crutch, I hung my own wound, no less sensitive an injury for being invisible. And leaning on that crutch, I took a break from being affected by your hurt, and mine, too. But fortunately, there were other days in the week, and our eighteenth year was constantly rescuing us from the Mondays of our soul.
To escape the incomparable monotony of philosophy class, the more daring girls would compete to see who could best make our soporific Kantian teacher blush and lose his composure by asking him clever, treacherous questions enshrouded in metaphysics. He would start stuttering and dive behind his bulky briefcase to pore over his notes, to the immense satisfaction of everyone who’d flunked their last oral exam. Of all our professors, he was the closest to me in terms of size—and that was heightened by our reciprocal dislike. One might resign one’s self to being abnormally short, but how can you bear the continual reminder of such a splinter, seeing yourself projected onto another, as the world views you?
My English teacher was also quite a character. He had an excuse, though: he was a painter. The world pardons the whims of an old artist much more easily. He’d divided the class into two groups at the beginning of the year. Anyone who spoke fluent English or had spent time in an Anglophone country comprised his audience. The others—designated “the unwashed masses of C’s and D’s” even before the first class—were only there by accident, to his utmost displeasure. They’d never score above average, unless the Fates, in their almighty blindness, had granted them European parents or some local aristocracy’s family name.
Our mathematics teacher had been identical to the philosopher, but he’d left us in the middle of the year, overwhelmed and vanquished by our imperviousness to the most exact science in existence. He was succeeded by a woman who saw through the masks we’d worn until then, masks that had been impenetrable by the language of numbers and graphs. She terrorized us with her fierce determination and perseverance. To find peace, we had no other solution but to learn. And the class learned.
Spanish classes were measured out by a strict, dry, celibate woman. She prepared us for the exam perfectly, but she lacked spirit and was so lifeless that the hours we spent with her became centuries. She seemed in constant search of something. She was always in a hurry, but never managed to shave a single minute off of her hours of work. She remained a complete mystery to all of us.
History and geography classes were the liveliest. Our teacher was dynamic and blessed with such a fertile imagination that every class was the greatest one, like an opening night. She doled out equal measures of theoretical classes, primary source documents, presentations, and debates about films. We even had discussions that went off on wild tangents. Every subject was fair game, everything dear to our hearts at that age: freedom, family, society, and of course, love. Her genius was the ability to analyze it all and bring everything we talked about back into a geographic and historical context.
Every hour with our French teacher was the beginning of an exquisite journey through the works of Malraux, Camus, Mariac, and Sartre. Our breaks led us to the Bronte sisters, Han Suyin, and Pearl Buck. That year was particularly memorable for our discovery of Boris Vian, through his plays. I was giddy when my sister Ro gave me Les Bâtisseurs d’empire and Le Goûter des généraux for my eighteenth birthday. We were beside ourselves when the Théâtre des Amandiers staged Les Bâtisseurs d’empire. We went twice. But that was all, because sadly, our schoolgirl budget didn’t allow for more.
We craved reading so much, Babe Zo and I, that we spent all our free time at the Albert Camus Cultural Center, reading whatever we couldn’t take home. Anything less than 200 pages fell into that category. Babe Zo was younger than me. She was also everything that I wasn’t: charming, outgoing, willful, and daring. She pushed me out of my shell by signing us both up as volunteers to organize events at the Center’s film studio. Oh, the love that we poured into the preparations for our first big premiere! I was to show Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, and Babe Zo led the post-showing discussion. We’d decided to present the work and the director just based on watching the film, without bringing in any critical analyses. Of course, some of the participants rolled their eyes as they listened to how we perceived Agnès Varda’s message. But we couldn’t blame them—they were already so old, prisoners to everything they had read on the film and its creator prior to that.
Babe Zo also barged her way through all the doors at the Albert Camus Cultural Center in order to give us unforgettable afternoons in the studio, listening to all the writers who we were the fondest of. In a cramped, empty booth, we forgot time, place, our beige pinafores, our braids, our textbooks and notes, and everything else, to exist only within and because of that voice that spoke so wonderfully of the inexplicable things of being eighteen. To recover from those sessions, we’d go get a perfectly ordinary ice cream, usually from Blanche-Neige. Babe Zo had showed me how to get the best flavors: you had to go directly to the kitchens, where scoops of “tutti frutti” were waiting, vanilla ice cream bursting with candied fruit. For rarer flavors, we went to the Pâtisserie Colbert. Their peach cream was sublime.
A few weeks before the Bac, Pierre told me that he was going back to France to marry the girl who was carrying his child. We got completely absorbed with studying and didn’t get the chance to talk about it more until the end of the exam period, right after we marched out of the school together, arm in arm with all the other students. And then, Pierre didn’t want to leave anymore. A Malagasy girl, Sabine, was his reason for staying. I didn’t know Sabine. I couldn’t understand Pierre anymore. It was a sad day when we parted for vacation. He denounced our former friendship because he thought I didn’t get it. I blamed him for beating around the bush on what should have been such an obvious decision.
After the last Bac test, we all found ourselves together outside school, without planning to. We headed for Avenue de l’Indepéndance in tight, twittering groups. At every street corner and every square, students cheered as papers were set on fire. Marcellin took my crocheted white beret, a present from Mamabe, and stuck it onto his head. Without quite knowing how, we found ourselves in front of policemen, jeering at them and singing, each of us louder and brasher than the next. Then, an attack cry from the police force, and all hell broke loose. We all ran, mad and reckless, toward the police headquarters in Tsaralalana. Out of breath, at the door to the school bookstore, I managed to dive inside just before an employee barricaded the door. From my place between the magazine stand and the window, I watched policemen mow all the teenagers down with their nightsticks, even the poor stunned nitwits that were getting off the bus and found themselves in the back of gray-green vans before they could even open their mouths.
When the store opened its doors again, I went back to the avenue to try to find my friends. The paddy wagons were still there, filled to the brim with loads of kids: Jeannette, the Chinese girl who had braved the policemen’s fury by dancing and singing; Marcellin, who’d drawn attention to himself by throwing my beret in the air and weaving senselessly in front of the white nightsticks; Antoinette, who let herself be caught, encumbered by the weight of her unrivaled optimism; Jean Martial, who laughed as he looked for his friends, instead of running for his life; and many others, too. But there were also some uninvolved civilians, who simply had the misfortune to share our age or our gleeful excitement. The next day, everyone’s salvation was celebrated in uncontrollable laughter, which we eventually smothered with an excess of sweet and savory beignets at Tsimialona’s restaurant shack.
The real party took place a few days later at the army bazaar. For the past two years, we’d all gone there en masse before scattering for vacation. This year felt different, because the Bac results would separate us for good. So we waited it out together until the announcement, gorging ourselves on music, sparklers, beignets, caca-pigeon funnel cakes, cotton candy, and sorbet; making ourselves dizzy on the carousel and swings; and shrieking in glee and terror in the haunted house. The announcement of the written results put an end to our extravaganza, and everyone plunged right back into their textbooks and notes to study for the oral exam that we’d take at the university. The mere thought brought a bundle of nerves to our throats. Candidates from one high school would be tested by teachers from a different one. That made most of us feel like we were fish dropped in a foreign bowl of water, forgetting how to swim. But I earned a Bac with distinction, as well as a university scholarship to go study in France. My last school vacation was cut short, and I was surrounded by a whirlwind of paperwork until the day I left.
I was eighteen years old, I was leaving to discover the world, and no doubts, no apprehension could assail my spirits. Impatience built up in my chest. Anguish built up in my mother’s, and I had no idea. My mind was already long gone, far away from my family. I dreamt of the open door standing before me, and they dreaded the separation. Youth is cruel; its excuse is that it isn’t deliberately so. Every birth brings some suffering along with it, for the parents. And that departure was, for me, a birth.
After the flurry of goodbyes and the last-minute formalities at the airport, I found myself sitting on board the plane with dozens of other scholarship recipients. All of a sudden, the image of my mother popped into my head again, gripping me tightly to her, as if she wanted to keep me there. Dim regret washed over me, but back then, I didn’t understand quite how heartbroken she was. We’d spent every waking hour of those last weeks together, like we’d never done before. She’d taken time off of work to help me prepare for the trip and shown me thoughtfulness in countless little ways, just tiny expressions of her love. I didn’t yet feel the sorrow that had seized her.
My first day in Paris was like a fairytale. My cousin Nady picked me up from the airport. Once my luggage was dropped off at the FIAP (where all the foreigners with scholarships were housed before leaving for schools around the country), Nady gave me the best present that I could have imagined at eighteen: an afternoon spent first in a gigantic movie theater on the Champs-Élysées to watch a western that had just come out, “Once Upon a Time in the West”, and then, Versailles!
I can’t explain how I felt, seeing Versailles in autumn. My senses and my soul were reborn in its dazzling beauty. I was speechless. I wanted to be alone and not move a muscle and just melt into the eternity of that emotion, so unique and so new. I was grateful that Nady didn’t try to say anything. That night, we walked along the wide boulevards up to Montmartre. The swirl of faces, colors, and sounds made me dizzy, and I asked if we could go back home, even though we were still supposed to go out to eat at a restaurant.
The second day flew by just as quickly as the first, with a group of girls that had been on the same plane. We shopped until we couldn’t feel our legs anymore. A quick break in a little park or on a bench to ease the blisters popping up on our feet or to scarf down a who-knows-what-kind of sandwich, and we’d set off again, not yet sated, in search of the Parisian chic.
The third day was rather sad. We roamed around, talking about our home, and I felt sorry that Nady had been on duty since the day before. Jean-Claude took me to the Austerlitz train station. My heart was pounding like a drum. I was scared. I hadn’t gotten to see Nady again. I wanted to stay in Paris, I didn’t want to take an overnight train with unknown people to an unknown place. Yet I had to leave, although still not very comforted by the presence of another Malagasy guy who was in the couchette across from mine. My dread increased with each kilometer that was swallowed by the train, and I surprised myself by thinking very hard about my mother, my Neny.
The train click-clacked, chanting her name over and over, in a lullaby that eventually put me to sleep. Then, in a dream, I saw a young girl who had the sky in her eyes and flecks of gold on her forehead. She was sitting in the middle of Courtyard A at school, and her tears were calling out to a father that she didn’t know. And I remembered, in my dream, that tomorrow would be Monday.