Nothing ever starts at a given point in a biography, but since there has to be a point A in Bardo’s and Ophelia’s story, let it be the initial of the Arc de Triomphe. That night in March 2004, with a somehow disheartened and dulled look, my brother had just climbed up the spiral metal staircase leading to the terraced roof of the monument. From this starry promontory, one might contemplate the urban horizon in the direction of the four cardinal points and hopefully find one’s north.
The view, the certainty of not finding anybody he knew, the significance of the triumph, the essential ritual, all of that is not enough to account for the reason why Bardo went there every Monday evening: he was hoping as well to overcome his vertigo, through a repeated exposure to the possibility of jumping. For part of him was drawn towards the edge, even seduced by the idea of a suicide that consisted of yielding to the call of gravity. At the top of the Arc visitors are only separated from the solid ground by vertical bars over which a swift and determined body could step in a few seconds.
That night, Bardo got close to that guardrail with a step he that would have liked to have been firmer. His eyes dived in the direction of the tarmac. The cars were the size of a hand. He was disturbed by the possibility of jumping, as accessible as it was irredeemable: it is the same for so many things in the course of our life-stories, destruction and failures seeming always within a hand’s reach. On the other hand, it was hard to keep oneself in exaltation and wonder, to reach the sacred point of no relapse.
His gaze picked out the Louvre pyramid in the distance, followed along up the Champs-Elysées from the Place de la Concorde to the foot of the Arc de Triomphe. He used his belly to breathe, to calm the panic. If someone had told him: you are getting suicidal, he would have denied it. But at the time, just looking around him or smoking a cigarette, he gave in to a feeling of fear tinted with guilt but without any cause, with the impression that a cosmic tragedy was taking place all around him. Or else he said to himself that there was almost nothing he admired profoundly any longer, that everything was flat, as along a Cartesian scheme.
From the top of the Arc, he scanned once again the ground where passers-by seemed so vulnerable. He himself felt he had become tiny. Maybe his urge to jump was because he felt the need to reposition his aspirations on a more modest scale? Shouldn’t he revise his ideals downwards and return to earth? Be more realistic? Betray his role models? When younger, my brother and I liked to swap more or less imaginary stories of the great adventurers of Fate. My master was the navigator Magellan. And his: Shakespeare.
I remember that, a couple of days before he met Ophelia, a new biography of the author of Hamlet, lying on the table of a bookshop, had transfixed him. It was more than six hundred pages. But over the course of the chapters, the narrator offered too many theories, his care in trying to set out all of the most divergent hypotheses meant that the living character of Shakespeare was lost among these myriad details. However, some parts of the book remained fascinating. Including the rumour that an original version of Romeo and Juliet had existed, and which the Elizabethan Church had judged heretical and had censored, largely because it contained a troubling secret. The legend referred to three or four verses cut out from the part of the priest, Friar Laurence, which described looking into each other’s eyes while taking 888 breaths.
The biographer didn’t say more, but in March 2004 this hint had been enough for my brother to be pensive: no woman had ever told him I love you looking him deep in the eyes. Generally, he felt he lived at a time when women no longer said “I love you.”
Bardo looked down. His vision was blurred. He felt his body shrivel up and a small moan escaped him, he felt fragile. It was like a feeling of injustice, which seemed to want to set him apart from society, and to which, out of a burst of dignity, his inner voice suggested he respond by withdrawing himself—to do away with himself to raise the stakes on the way the world had told him he was maladjusted. Tears came to his eyes. His fingers clung to the metal. He thought of the arch of triumph with a grimace.
He turned around and observed the couples who were taking pictures of themselves with smug expressions. They undoubtedly made use of the images and their lasting record as proof of the fact that they were not ghosts, without realizing they were contributing themselves to their own evaporation through their obedience to cliché and reproduction. The ultimate way to feel the present is to see it from the side of the photographer, to create nostalgia for the present. His connection with the void below spoiled, my brother decided to come down. A few minutes later, he was walking on the pavement around the Arc.
Then he saw her.
She had just arrived at the top of Avenue de Wagram on a big black bike and was crossing at the intersection, her face slightly reddened by the effort. Her flame coloured hair fell over her eyes from time to time. She was pedalling with a very straight back, just a few meters from where Bardo stood. She was at once attractive yet anachronic.
They exchanged a glance. He felt moved to gratitude. She was already moving away. After a moment’s hesitation, he went after her, indifferent to the cars, to their braking hard and their honking—a happy idiot who was running across the most dangerous square of the city. He came up to the cyclist and, showing off, started to run backwards at her side. He exclaimed:
This answer was uttered in a distant tone.Bardo, catching his breath, went on:
-Where are you going?
-Where are you coming from?
-From the cemetery of Père Lachaise.
-That is where my twin sister is. Or rather where she is no longer.
My brother slowed down and turned to face forward. A driver honked. She stood up on the pedals as if to outrun my brother. He had the time to pull himself together and to shout:
-Give me a name!
She slowed down, seemed to hesitate, and then:
-My name is the same as Hamlet’s dead love… And yours?
Ophelia, now stopped, was examining Bardo. He had tears in his eyes. She smiled:
-You will tell me next time.
She disappeared in the night. A couple of days later, they would, meet again by chance. (Translation by Marie-Céline Courilleault, revised by Sarah Robbins)