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The Patagonian Hare
By Claude Lanzmann, Frank Wynne
Grove Atlantic LtdCopyright © 2009 Éditions Gallimard
All rights reserved.
The guillotine – more generally, capital punishment and the various methods of meting out death – has been the abiding obsession of my life. It began very early. I must have been about ten years old, and the memory of that cinema on the rue Legendre in the 17th arrondissement in Paris, with its red velvet seats and its faded gilt, remains astonishingly vivid. A nanny, making the most of my parents' absence, had taken me, and the film that day was L'Affaire du courrier de Lyon [The Courier of Lyons], with Pierre Blanchar and Dita Parlo. I have never known or tried to discover the name of the director, but he must have been very proficient, for there are certain scenes that I have never forgotten: the attack on the Lyon courier's stagecoach in a dark forest, the trial of Lesurques, innocent but condemned to death, the scaffold erected in the middle of a public square, white, as I remember it, the blade swooping down. Back then, as during the Revolution, people were still guillotined in public. For months afterwards, around midnight, I would wake up, terror-stricken, and my father would get up, come into my room, stroke my damp forehead, my hair wet with anxiety, talk to me and calm me. It was not just my head being cut off: sometimes I was guillotined lengthwise, in the way a pit-sawyer cuts wood, or like those astonishing instructions posted on the doors of goods wagons that, in 1914, were used to send men and animals to the front: 'men 40 – horses (lengthwise) 8', and which, after 1941, were used to send Jews to the distant chambers of their final agony. I was being sliced into thin, flat slivers, from shoulder to shoulder, passing through the crown of my head. The violence of these nightmares was such that as a teenager and even as an adult, fearful of reviving them, I superstitiously looked away or closed my eyes whenever a guillotine was depicted in schoolbooks, historical writing or newspapers. I'm not sure that I don't still do so today. In 1938 – I was thirteen – the arrest and confession of the German murderer Eugen Weidmann had all of France on tenterhooks. Weidmann had murdered in cold blood, to steal and leave no witnesses, and, without needing to check, I can still remember the names of some of his victims: a dancer, Jean de Koven, a man named Roger Leblond, and others whom he buried in the forest of Fontainebleau, in the aptly named Bois de Fausses-Reposes – the Woods of False Repose. The newsreels, in great detail, showed the investigators searching the coppices, digging up the bodies. Weidmann was condemned to death and guillotined before the prison gate at Versailles in the summer before the war. There are famous photographs of the beheading. Much later I decided to look at them, and did so at length. His was the last public execution in France. Thereafter, the scaffold was erected inside the prison courtyard, until 1981 when, at the instigation of François Mitterrand and the then Minister of Justice, Robert Badinter, the death penalty was abolished. But, at thirteen, however, Weidmann, Lanzmann – the identical endings of his name and mine seemed to portend for me some terrible fate. Indeed, as I write these words, even at my supposedly advanced age, there is no guarantee that it will not still be so. The death penalty might be reinstated, all it would take is a change of regime, a vote in parliament, a grande peur. And of course the death penalty survives in many places: to travel is dangerous. I remember discussing it with Jean Genet, because of the dedication of Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs [Our Lady of the Flowers] to a young man, guillotined at the age of twenty – 'Were it not for Maurice Pilorge, whose death continues to poison my life ...' – and also because Weidmann's name opens the book: 'Weidmann appeared to you in a five o'clock edition, head swathed in white strips of cloth, a nun and yet a wounded airman ...', and mentioning my abiding fear that I would die by the so-called bois de justice [the guillotine]. He replied brusquely, 'There's still time.' He was right. He didn't much like me; I felt exactly the same about him.
I have no neck. I have often wondered, during nocturnal moments of acute bodily awareness spent anticipating the worst, where the blade would have to fall to behead me cleanly. I could think only of my shoulders and my aggressively defensive posture, forged gradually night after night by the nightmares that followed the primal scene of Lesurques' death, which transformed them into a fighting bull's morillo, neck muscles so impenetrable the blade glances off, sending it back to its point of origin, each rebound weakening its original power. It is as though, over time, I had drawn in on myself so as to leave for the blade of la veuve – the widow, as Madame Guillotine is colloquially known – no convenient place and no opportunity for it to make one. In the boxing world, they would say I grew up in a 'crouch', with a curvature of the torso so marked that an opponent's fists slide off without the punches truly hitting home.
The truth is that throughout my whole life, and without a moment's respite, the evening before an execution (if I was aware of it, as I frequently was during the Algerian War), and the day after in the case of a non-political capital punishment, were nights and days of distress during which I compelled myself to anticipate or relive the last moments – the hours, the minutes, the seconds – of the condemned men, regardless of the reasons for the fatal verdict. The warders' felt slippers whispering along death row; the sudden clang of cell-door bolts slammed back, the prisoner, haggard, waking with a start, the prosecutor, the lawyer, the chaplain, the 'be brave', the glass of rum, the handover to the executioner and his aides and the sudden lurch to naked violence, the brutal acceleration of the final sequence: arms lashed behind the back, ankles crudely hobbled with a length of rope, shirt quickly slit with scissors to expose the neck, the prisoner manhandled, shouted at, then hauled, feet dragging along the ground, to the door, now suddenly thrown open, overlooking the machine, standing tall, waiting, in the ashen dawn of the prison courtyard. Yes, I know all these things. With Simone de Beauvoir I would be summoned to the offices of Jacques Vergès around nine o'clock at night where he would inform us that an Algerian was to be executed at dawn in some prison – Fresnes or La Santé in Paris, Oran or Constantine in Algeria – and we would spend the night trying to find someone who might contact someone else, who in turn might dare to disturb the sleep of Général de Gaulle, plead with him to spare this poor wretch to whom he had already refused clemency, consciously sending him to the scaffold. At the time, Vergès was head of a collective of lawyers from the Front de libération national (FLN) who practised what they called 'la defense de rupture', refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the French courts' jurisdiction over the Algerian combatants, which resulted in some of their clients being more speedily dispatched to the guillotine. Very late one night, under the cold eye of Vergès, Le Castor (as Simone de Beauvoir was nicknamed) and I, gripped by the same sense of extreme urgency, managed to reach François Mauriac. A man was about to die, he had to be saved, what had been done might yet be undone. Mauriac understood everything, but he also knew that one did not wake de Gaulle and that, in any case, it would make no difference: it was too late, unquestionably. To Vergès, who was well aware of the futility of our attempts, our presence in his offices on the eve of these executions was a political strategy. One to which we consented, given that, from the first, we had militated in favour of Algerian independence, but to me the sense of the irreversible won out over everything else, becoming unbearable as the fatal hour approached. Time divided and negated itself like a gallop seen in slow motion: this scheduled death was endlessly about to take place. As in that space where Achilles can never catch up with the tortoise, so the minutes and seconds were infinitely subdivided, bringing the torment of imminence to its apogee. Vergès, notified of the execution by telephone, put an end to our waiting and in the early hours of morning, in the rain, de Beauvoir and I regularly found ourselves defeated, empty, without any plan, as though the guillotine had also decapitated our future.
When, in order to demoralize his own people and discourage further plots against him, Hitler ordered that the conspirators of 20 July 1944 be executed one after another, it became clear that the speed at which the executioners would have to work would compromise the precision and the concentration required for the ancient method of beheading by axe, the standard means of capital punishment in Germany. On 22 February 1943, the heroes of die Weisse Rose (the White Rose) – Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie and their friend Christoph Probst – died in their twenties beneath the executioner's axe in Stadelheim Prison, Munich, after a summary trial lasting barely three hours, conducted by the sinister Roland Freisler, the Reich's public prosecutor who had come specially from Berlin. Immediately the verdict was announced, they were put to death in a dungeon in Stadelheim, and Hans, as he laid his head on the block still red with his sister's blood, cried, 'Long live freedom!' Even today I cannot call to mind those three handsome, pensive young faces without tears welling in my eyes: the seriousness, the dignity, the determination, the spiritual force, the extraordinary courage of the solitude that emanates from each of them, all speak to their being the best, the honour of Germany, the best of humanity. The 20 July conspirators were the first to die by the German guillotine: unlike its French counterpart – slender, tall and spectacular, lending itself both to being elegantly draped and to literature – the German version is squat, ungainly, four-square, easy to set up in a low-ceilinged room; consequently the blade, which has no time to pick up speed, is enormously heavy, and I am not sure that, like ours, it has a bevelled edge: its efficacy is due entirely to its weight. It was Freisler once again who acted as prosecutor at the trial of the 20 July conspirators in Berlin. In fact, he held every role: public prosecutor and presiding judge, he made the opening statements, questioned the witnesses and summed up against the accused. Their trial was filmed for Nazi propaganda purposes, to edify the public and ridicule those about to be guillotined.
Fouquier-Tinville during the Reign of Terror, Vychinsky, the prosecutor of Stalin's show-trials in Moscow, the Czech prosecutor Urválek, barking like a dog at the Slánský trial, Freisler – they all descend from the same stock of bureaucratic butchers, unfailing in their service to their masters of the moment, affording the accused no chance, refusing to listen to them, insulting them, directing the evidence to a sentence that was decided before the trial began. In the footage of the 20 July trial Freisler can be seen, his face convulsed in feigned fury, cutting short the élite aristocratic officers and generals of the Wehrmacht, who are busy hiking up their trousers, which, having neither belt nor buttons, keep slipping comically to their knees, as the prosecutor moves from outrage to threats of contempt of court. But no one is laughing: the tortures suffered by the poor wretches before the trial, and the knowledge, etched on their faces, that they will die in the coming hours, set their features into unutterably tragic masks in which incomprehension vies with despair. The account of their beheading, in a dungeon in Moabit Prison in Berlin (which still stands, in the Alte Moabit district), is appalling: Freisler's victims had to queue up to die, hands bound, ankles fettered by their own trousers, they were suddenly seized by the stocky executioner's aides, who directed them either to right or to left – using an SS technique perfected elsewhere – for two guillotines were operating side by side beneath the low ceiling, amid screams of terror, the last shouts of defiance, amid the stench of blood and shit. In Moabit, there is no place for the beautiful – too beautiful – travelling shot the director Andrzej Wajda offers in his film Danton, where, in the midst of the Reign of Terror, Danton returns from Arcis-sur-Aube where he has spent several nights of passion with his mistress, arriving at the place de Grève at dawn, his barouche describing a perfect arc around the quiescent guillotine, elegantly draped in a long ribbon of night that, since it does not hide it completely, allows the 'Indulgent' a glimpse of the bevelled edge of the naked blade, a grim forewarning. Alejo Carpentier's description, in the magnificent opening pages of El Siglo de Las Luces [Explosion in a Cathedral] is – no pun intended – of a different calibre: there Victor Hugues, a Commissaire of the Republic, former public prosecutor at Rochefort and a fervent admirer of Robespierre, brings with him to the Antilles both the decree – enacted on 6 Pluviôse, Year II – that will abolish slavery, and the first guillotine: 'But the empty doorway stood in the bows, reduced to a mere lintel and its supports, with the setsquare, the inverted half-pediment upended, the black triangle with its bevel of cold steel suspended between the uprights ... Here the Door stood alone, facing into the night ... its diagonal blade gleaming, its wooden uprights framing a whole panorama of stars.'
So many last glances will haunt me forever. Those of the Moroccan generals, colonels, captains, accused of having fomented – or of not having foreseen – the 1972 attempted coup against Hassan II of Morocco and his guests at Skhirat palace, who were driven to their place of execution in covered lorries open at the back. Sitting on facing benches, they stare at one another, and the photographer captured the moment when, in the dazzling sunlight, they see the firing squad that is to execute them. It is an unforgettable photograph, published in Paris Match, which captured what Cartier-Bresson called the 'decisive moment': we do not see the firing squad; instead we see the eyes of those who see it, who are about to die in a hail of bullets and who know it. In spite of fables of peaceful passing from life to death, such as Greuze's painting, The Death of a Patriarch, or La Fontaine's tale of 'Le Laboureur et ses enfants' ['The Labourer and His Children'], every 'natural' death is, first and foremost, a violent death. But I never felt the absolute violence of violent death more than I did as I looked at that photograph, that snapshot. In that searing intensity, whole lives were laid bare before our eyes: these men were privileged, well-to-do members of the regime, they did not choose to risk their lives, unlike the heroes of the Resistance who, refusing the blindfold, stood to attention before the rifles and remained valiant even as the guns rang out. Why do I remember one face, one name so particularly – one I would never think to verify – Medbouh? He was, I believe, a general and devoted to his king, but the savagery and the vast spectre of the crackdown would not spare him. It is sweltering hot, sweat beads on his forehead, the irreparable is about to occur, and Medbouh's last glance, frantic with fear and disbelief, evokes the greatest pity.
Excerpted from The Patagonian Hare by Claude Lanzmann, Frank Wynne. Copyright © 2009 Éditions Gallimard. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
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