La Ville Morte | Benjamín Labatut | Granta

‘When the day came, even the nuns lay down inside the walls of their cloister.’

A little over ten years ago, in October 2008, the English physicist Freeman Dyson confessed that he was incapable of hearing a particular song by Monique Morelli – ‘La Ville Morte’ – without suddenly being overcome by an outburst of emotion that he found completely inexplicable. The ballad, interpreted by an aching Morelli and accompanied by the wails of an accordion, is full of haunting images: As we walked into the Dead City / I held Margot by the hand / The eternal morning sun / Bathed us in its dying light / We walked from one ruin to the next / Through bombed out streets, from door to door / Flung open like the lids of coffins. No matter how many times Dyson played his copy of the recording, his eyes would fill with tears, so much so that he became ashamed of listening to it in front of others, and would only indulge in the music by himself, every now and again, when he felt up to it. What made his emotional response even more baffling was the fact that he could speak almost no French, and that before asking a friend to translate it for him, he had but the haziest idea of what the song was really about, and felt no solace when he achieved a fuller understanding. After years of puzzling over it, he became convinced that there was something in those specific verses, written by the French poet and novelist Pierre Mac Orlan, that resonated in the deepest substrate of his unconscious memory, as if Monique were not really singing for the living but for the countless souls of the departed whose corpses pile, unseen and forgotten, beneath our feet. Dyson finally found a plausible explanation for his melancholy in a short essay entitled ‘The Empty City Archetype’, included in the collected works of the Russian mathematician, Yuri I. Manin, Mathematics as Metaphor. In his essay, Manin speaks of the empty city as a ‘form of society devoid of its soul and expecting no infusion; a cadaver which had never been a live body; a Golem whose life itself is death’. He likens the effect of this archetype on our psyche to the nebulous feelings of loss that come over us when we chance upon an abandoned beehive, or watch the endless flows of water in Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies, that Russian genius so obsessed with capturing images of our dreams that he submerged himself, his wife, and his crew in rivers of poisonous chemicals to make Stalker, the movie that would eventually cost him his life, as the luscious interplay of iridescent streams that he caught in fleeting frames of celluloid were the products of toxic refuse from several abandoned factories, which likely caused the cancerous growth that ravaged his lungs and killed him in 1986, months after he had turned fifty-four, and that would also claim the lives of Larisa, his wife, and of his signature actor, Anatoly Solonitsyn, smitten by the very same illness. In Stalker, an enormous extension of land – known only as The Zone – has been contaminated and made unliveable by an invisible force that not only infects people’s bodies and minds but perhaps even their very souls. The region has been cordoned off by armed government forces; nonetheless, a small group of desperate men and women are irresistibly drawn there, like moths to a radioactive flame, following a rumour that says that deep inside The Zone, in the strangest and most alien part of that territory, there is a small and seemingly commonplace room that has the power to grant the wishes of anyone who manages to step inside it. To traverse the dangers of The Zone, seekers of the room must hire professional guides called Stalkers, who help them navigate its deranged landscapes, abandoned ruins and disintegrating structures where vegetation has quickly advanced and reclaimed the land, growing over the caterpillar tracks of derelict tanks, covering the facades of factories, schools, hospitals and many other half-ruined buildings made unrecognizable by disuse and decay. There, the rules of reality have somehow been suspended; time flows in strange loops, memories and dreams become manifest, nightmares are as real and terrible as waking life. The scenery is infused by a heady melancholy that preys alike upon the Stalkers and those who strive to make their longings come true. For The Zone is clearly animated, subsumed with something that resembles human consciousness, even though it is completely uninhabited and hostile, a stubborn revenant that somehow manages to resist the merciless passage of time and that, like the images of past horrors conjured by the archetype of The Empty City, refuses to fade away. Manin explains the ubiquity of this archetype in our collective memory as the product of the accumulated experiences of countless peoples that, throughout deepest history, have suddenly chanced upon the remains of an ancient and forgotten temple crumbling to dust among the desert sands, buried under the lush trees of impenetrable jungles or hidden atop the highest and most inaccessible mountain valleys, ruins built at such a colossal scale that they surely must have been the abode of gods or creatures from another planet, haunted spaces which were to be feared and avoided as the Saxons shunned the stone walls of Roman buildings, which they regarded as the heritage of mythological giants and never once occupied. The dead city exists since time immemorial; it dates back to the dawn of civilization, when the first human beings began to crowd together in settlements that grew ever larger, and which, as they thrived and flourished, goaded others to assemble armies to raid, pillage and destroy them.[…]

Source: La Ville Morte | Benjamín Labatut | Granta

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