Photo by Roger Wollstadt on Wikimedia Commons

Hocus Bogus

Romain Gary writing as Émile Ajar

There is no beginning. I was begotten—just like you—and since then I’ve been lumbered.

I tried to get out of it every way I could, but no one else has ever pulled it off. We’re all born the same way, statistically.

Notwithstanding on my own two feet I devised an impregnable defense. In the game of checkmate it’s been named after me as ‘‘Ajar’s Endgame.’’ First I got into the hospital in Cahors; then I had several sojourns at Dr. Christianssen’s psychiatric clinic in Copenhagen.

I was assessed, analyzed, tested, and laid bare to the point where my defenses collapsed. I was ‘‘cured’’ and put back into circulation.

I managed to filch some of the cards from my medical file to see if they were any use for literature or recuperation.

Simulation taken to such an extreme and pursued without interruption or slip over such a long period of time clearly constitutes obsessive-compulsive behavior and betokens an authentic personality disorder.

Sure, I know that—but everyone else goes in for simulation to an amazing extent. I know a guy from North Africa who’s been behaving like a garbage collector for forty years and a ticket inspector who performs the same action three thousand times a day, because if you don’t fake it, they call you asocial, or not integrated, or perturbed. I could go further and assert that life itself is just a simulation in a hocus bogus world, but that would be seen as lacking in maturity on my part.

Subject is an orphan who since childhood has nursed hatred for a distant relative; typical of father fixation.

Uncle Bogey is a bastard, but that doesn’t have to mean he’s my dad. I never said he was, I just hoped so at various times, out of despair. After the appearance of my book Life Before Us, it was my detectives, not I, who insinuated he was my only begetter.

Subject makes a complete muddle of his shoelaces when he tries to undo them. Then he tears or cuts them off to get his feet out. Transfer to shoelaces of psychological knots that he only manages to intensify when he tries to sort them out.

The part about the laces is true, but the rest is crap.

It is also true that I have a problem with my skin, because it’s not mine, I just inherited it. I was wrapped up by congenital means, including aforethought, premeditation, and prisoner be upstanding in court, especially at night, around four A.M., when apparently my blood-sugar level hits rock bottom, and there’s wailing and screaming inside.

I don’t know when ‘‘clinical signs’’ of being lumbered—what they call my ‘‘symptoms’’—first arose. I’m not sure which particular massacre was involved, but I suddenly felt surrounded by pointing fingers and subject to unprecedented visibility. There he is! Guildenstern, belay him! I saw I had gone global with unlimited liability. That’s actually why the psychiatrists certified I was not responsible. Once you feel you’re a tyrant all over the planet, you get diagnosed as a victim.

I did all I could to get away from myself. I even started learning Swahili, because I reckoned it was as remote as you could get. I swotted and sweated, but it was no use, I could understand what I was even in Swahili, and it was back to being lumbered all over again.

Then I dabbled in Hungaro-Finnish. I was certain I would never bump into a Hungaro-Finn in Cahors and end up staring myself in the face. But I didn’t feel entirely safe. The thought that there might perhaps be a speaker of Hungaro-Finnish even in Cahors worried me hugely. Since we would then be the only speakers of the language in the whole Department, we might be overcome by emotion and fall into each other’s arms and pour our hearts out. We’d swap our crime scenes, and soon we’d be on to the great train robbery. I said ‘‘great train robbery’’ because it has no possible connection to the context and it was an opportunity not to be missed. I don’t want to have any connection to context.

All the same I keep on looking for someone incomprehensible who won’t understand me either, because I have a terrible thirst for brotherhood.

Excerpt from Hocus Bogus by Émile Ajar and Romain Gary, translated by David Bellos. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Romain Gary (1914–1980), a French novelist, film director, World War II aviator, and diplomat, was the author of more than thirty novels, essays, and recollections. David Bellos is professor of French and comparative literature and director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University.

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