In which the narrator of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, the first novel by a female member of the Oulipo to be translated into English, becomes a DJ in a Paris nightclub.
I wasn’t long in returning there, always in the company of the Padre, who I shadowed in all of his nocturnal outings. In April and May he almost exclusively frequented the Apocryphe, sometimes as often as four nights per week. He would call me at night around nine o’clock, always asking me if I was free and telling me to meet him there. I don’t know what brought about this sudden intimacy; the substance of our relationship boiled down to club conversations, not quite the conversations of confidants. Retrospectively, I think perhaps he was hoping for a more intimate liaison, but falling in love with me would have posed him too many problems. Maybe he secretly desired that I would be the one to initiate a declaration he didn’t dare make.
One night in May, we were seated at our usual table discussing the performance of Don Giovanni we had just seen at the Opéra when George, the manager of the club, came looking for us. He led us along the dance floor toward the bathroom. There, lying on the floor, his head in a pool of blood, the DJ was dying. Next to the toilet were a little blackened spoon and a syringe still containing a bit of murky liquid. George had had this part of the bathroom closed to the public; we pulled the almost lifeless body toward the sinks, leaving a wake of blood. Michel—that was the DJ’s name—must have fallen, cracking his skull open against the edge of the toilet bowl or on the ground. In the harsh light of the room we discerned what the faint, colored luminosity of the club had always masked: a deathly pale complexion, skin like plaster, eyes sunken in their sockets and circled with bluish rings. The pronounced marks of cyanosis were visible on his face. The raised sleeve of his shirt revealed an arm marbled with old injection scars. His heart was beating faintly, stopping then restarting. The Padre asked if anyone had called an ambulance. George frowned at the question: he had looked for a doctor among the clientele and, not having found one, had fallen back on a priest. To inform the police of such an incident would be all they needed to close down the club. The Padre tried to do a few chest compressions before quickly giving up. He began to recite a summary of the Extreme Unction, continuing even when a final jerk produced a grimace that revealed rotting teeth in Michel’s death-kissed mouth. The squalidness of the setting, of this demise concocted between dirty water, white powder, and a suspicious syringe, was making me nauseous. The stench of vile shit was invading my nostrils. I bumped into a bottle of vodka that was lying there for no reason; it spilled over the ground where it shattered, mixing its contents with the blood pooled nearby. It was then that I noticed the flies that had come from who knows where to swarm above the puddle.
The Padre and the manager, kneeling on either side of the corpse, said nothing. Although the bathroom was secluded from the club, the imperturbable thuds of the bass still reached us in a mumble. We had to decide the fate of this corpse relatively quickly so that no one would suspect anything. Only Elvire, the bathroom attendant, was abreast of the situation. When she noticed that Michel—whom she had suspected was taking drugs—hadn’t come out of the bathroom in a long time, she sensed some kind of accident and alerted the manager, who, forcing open the door, had discovered his DJ in the aforementioned state. Memories of similar scenes in novels popped uselessly into our heads. George was still refusing to alert the police and the Padre was reluctantly starting to agree. The law, other than divine law, mattered little to him, and a dead body was a dead body; the tribulations of a corpse had no influence on the destiny of its soul, now liberated. Michel wasn’t leaving behind a widow or an orphan, he had no known relations. Such is the heroic life of a junkie: cruising and seclusion. He had started working there only recently, receiving money under the table.
What were we to do? Seal off this part of the bathroom under the pretext of a leak and, in the morning, once the clientele and personnel had left, transport the corpse to his house and abandon it there? We would only be shifting the location of the incident; the evidence of Michel’s vice would do the rest. But carrying out the operation posed some risks. And a police investigation that was even the slightest bit thorough would have found George and the Padre guilty of paying an employee under the table, failing to assist a person in danger, concealing a corpse, false witnessing, and who knows what else. I would be implicated too, most likely.
Only one solution remained: we had to get rid of this corpse that no one was coming to claim, adding Michel to the list of those vanished without a trace. But where would we put the body? The Seine, that perilous solution, was too far away. All three of us, standing around the corpse, were staring at it and trying to think. Suddenly I spotted a groove in the ground that demarcated the edges of a plaque, partially covered by the corpse. I had been staring at it for a long time without really noticing it. Finally, I asked what it was. It was the entrance to the septic tank and the pump that allowed its contents to flow into the sewer. We moved the corpse onto its side and lifted it up. The tank, commensurate with the size of the club, was big enough for us to imagine hiding a body there. But we had to be careful to avoid blocking the opening of the pump once the corpse was inside, which would hinder its functioning and draw unwanted attention. The motor and its opening were situated at one end of the tank. We had to let the corpse float to the other end and then weigh it down so that it wouldn’t drift. The operation, simple in theory, was more complicated in execution: it was out of the question that one of us would go wading in this cesspool; so we had to calculate accurately, and in one stroke thrust the corpse into just the right spot.
First we searched his pockets, removing his wallet and the keys to his car and apartment. George would get rid of any form of identification, move his car from where it was parked behind the Apocryphe, and purge Michel’s house of any clue capable of compromising the establishment. We sent Elvire for some floor rags and a broom. We still needed an object that would weigh the body down to the bottom of this pool of sludge and keep it there. George went to the end of the hallway and opened the door to the cellar where he fetched, concealed in a bucket, a cinder block leftover from some construction job in the club, and a synthetic fiber cord that was used during parties as a clinch to suspend lanterns and other decorations. Then it was time to strip the corpse of its clothes, because they too risked hampering the functioning of the pump if they were to drift. We took off his shirt, shoes, socks, pants, even his briefs, which were soaked with urine from the post mortem loosening of the sphincters. They were all thrown in a heap near the sink, later to be torn into little pieces and collected in a plastic bag. The body, now naked, was stretched on the tiles, revealing the extent of the disaster brought on by drug abuse. He was skinny; high doses of heroine had shriveled his body, as if burning it from the inside. On all of his limbs, the injection scars—violet, yellow, or black depending on how recent they were—tattooed the Harlequin’s costume onto his flesh. The blood that had oozed from his head wound was now nearly coagulated, glued in his blond hair, forming a brown scab upon his scalp. I caught the Padre with his eyes fixed on the dead man’s penis and he diverted his gaze. George and I fastened the cinder block in place around Michel’s waist with a dozen twists of the fine string. The dead man’s eyes, which we had forgotten to close, were regarding me with no regard for me. Their empty fixity wasn’t what troubled me, but the weight, in my arms, of this dead body. We each grabbed one end of the corpse. We slid it forward through the opening into the tank, holding onto it until the last second. Then, giving it a strong horizontal push, we let it go. The density of the tank’s contents made it bob for a few moments, sliding before finally sinking. It was swallowed up from the center, under the weight of the cinder block that compressed its abdomen; the legs and arms disappeared last, absorbed as if regretfully by the malodorous mix of excrement and filth. I didn’t have the wits about me to recite a de profundis. I stood up after letting the slab fall back into place and washed my hands. George and the Padre were attempting to clean the floor of all traces of the incident. I made the spoon and the syringe disappear down the toilet; they went to rejoin their worshipper. In a bag, the Padre collected the dead man’s old rags, now reduced to shreds. George threw them deep into a trashcan, where they would soon be buried under the mass of putrescence produced by a night of partying.
In two weeks’ time there would be no memory of the person who had manned the turntables at the Apocryphe; someone else would have taken his place, running the same ship with the same consenting slaves. We left the bathroom after asking Elvire to exercise the greatest discretion as to what she had seen. Whether the manager won her silence through money or threats, I don’t know, but she kept quiet. We verified that Michel owed nothing at the coat check and we circulated the rumor that, feeling ill, he had asked the manager for permission to leave and had slipped out the fire exit, where he had parked his car. He didn’t have any friends at the Apocryphe; the effect of heroin on his behavior had left him alienated, and consequently no one inquired about what had become of him. For the duration of the incident, a pre-recorded tape had covered for the missing DJ. However, things couldn’t continue like this for the rest of the night.
George accompanied me to the DJ booth, a sort of podium that loomed over the dance floor. This glass-enclosed den was attached to one of the walls of the club, which was organized around it in concentric levels, making it the focal point. There were two lateral staircases leading to the back. George knew only the elementary principles of using the equipment, which he demonstrated to me succinctly, leaving it to me to break the code of how to properly manipulate the sound. He abandoned me there; now I was to reign over these fifteen square meters, cluttered with records and devices. It was my duty to make the crowd dance, those four hundred-something people who were in the club on that Friday night.
* * *
Never in my life had I done anything even remotely similar to what was suddenly demanded of me. Nothing that could have guided me came to mind. To manipulate the sound effects of a nightclub is quite different from putting some records on a stereo system. George left me with these extremely comforting words: “If you can’t figure it out, if you panic, put on a tape. The important thing is that everyone see there’s someone in this booth, and that there be no gaps in the music.” So I let the tape play on while I attempted to train myself in the technique and to find my bearings in the stock of records stacked in the crates and bins all around me. A record was spinning on one of the turntables, about to come to an end; Michel must have put it on before going to the bathroom to inject himself one last time. On the other turntable, at a standstill with the arm posed on the first grooves of a track, the record that he had most likely prepared for his return was waiting. With my index finger I took the arm of the first turntable and set it back at the beginning of the record. Grabbing the headphones, I listened to the track, then, moving the fader, I did the same with the second. I was trying to figure out the principle of logical succession in the sequence he had planned—his only will and testament. In more than a month of coming to the Apocryphe, not once had I paid attention to the way the music transitioned. It had been a blanket without a snag; I had noticed no rip or seam. But I did remember the melody of the record I was now listening to in the headphones; I had heard it numerous times but, I now realized, not all the way through. At the precise moment when a voice interrupted the melody, another track was usually overlaid. Which one or which ones, I wasn’t sure; I didn’t know any of the song titles.
It was two thirty in the morning. I still had to fill the silence with noise for at least another three hours. Half-instinctively, half-methodically, I armed myself with a sheet of paper and started to explore the stock of records, trying to figure out how they had been organized. It seemed that the old records were arranged in the crates to my left and to my right, and the even older ones were under the turntables at my feet. I deduced their age by the state of their covers, a hypothesis I verified rapidly by pulling out four or five at random to find their copyright date. The records I found behind me, arranged facing out in the bins—probably to allow for rapid consultation—seemed to be the most recent. A more thorough examination of this part of the record collection revealed that it was constituted mostly of what are known in the business as “extended versions,” the maxi singles that offer one sole track on their two sides in different versions—vocal mix, instrumental mix, or remix. At first I didn’t discern any principle of order, but gradually concluded that they must have been put in a chronological, almost geological, stockpile following when they were released, since, when I listened to them, one after another came slow and then fast rhythms of different, if not contradictory, genres. I listened briefly but attentively to about thirty records in a quarter of an hour, forming a basic outline of classification. I had never studied music; the few violin lessons that my grandmother had given me were of little use—I had been loath to learn traditional musical notation and so my studies had come to a quick end, lacking any foundation. The music I listened to at home or at concerts was completely different from what I had to tackle then. The sequence of the initial list I was compiling was founded in what I perceived instinctively in the thuds of the bass in each of the tracks. What I was able to observe of the dance floor compelled me to think that the dancers’ movements revolved around these inaudible resonances shaking the floor beneath their feet. The tape that was playing while I was honing my technique confirmed my intuition. I tried a few times to identify the right moment to move from one record to another, and soon the essence of this transition became obvious to me.
The end of the tape was approaching. I put the two records Michel had left back on the turntables, restarting the musical continuity where it had been abandoned, and eased my way into the vast wave of rhythm carrying these bodies. On the mixer, for each turntable, there was a corresponding volume fader with its own equalizer—midrange and treble. I cued the first track on the turntable and sent the signal through the amplifiers and loudspeakers while gradually fading out the music from the tape recorder. I learned to repeat the same transition about every five minutes; the rhythm of my night was decided not by the music itself but by the necessity of its unfailing continuity. I didn’t have anyone to teach me this art form, but my approach, although it entailed quite a bit of initial fumbling, guaranteed a methodical manner that I later noticed many DJs lack.
I must have done a decent job; at the end of the night, George relayed the compliments people had made to him about me. In the implicit comparison with the deceased, whom people believed had left on a whim, I came out on top. People asked who I was, where I had come from, where I had previously been mixing, and George told them that one of his friends had brought me back in his suitcase from an underground club in Berlin where I had worked until now. As delighted as one can be with a corpse on his hands, he proposed that I continue the next day and, since the university’s vacation was coming up, that I take over the position for the three months of summer if I had nothing better to do. He gave me the five hundred francs that normally went to Michel and asked me to make a decision by the next day.
Around six in the morning, as I was starting to acquire a taste for my new post, he told me to stop the music. The club emptied of its last clients. In one corner the personnel were dividing up the tips collected during the night and receiving their allocated percentage on each beverage served. George stayed, along with me the Padre and me, to turn off the lights and the amplifiers and to close the doors. The Padre, passing by the bathroom, made an ironic comment in allusion to the resurrections sprinkled throughout the Bible. Leaving the darkness of the Apocryphe, the light of day hurt my eyes. That sleepless night left me in a stupor. George went to execute the final steps of our plan. He left the Padre and me at the edge of the sidewalk with the following words: “God be with us!” The invocation wasn’t funny but it made me smile. I looked at the Padre; the morning sun bathing his face made it seem even paler. He thanked me for my help. The Padre confided in me later that George was one of his closest friends: they had spent two years studying together in a Jesuit college where the cream of the Madrid bourgeoisie sent their children. They had lost touch, reconnecting by chance years later in a Paris nightclub… He recounted the story of their friendship for me without ever explaining what had made them so close. In any case, all three of us henceforth were linked by a corpse. We separated at the taxi stand on Avenue Matignon and agreed to meet up later that night.
* * *
And so began what seemed to me a new life, but what seemed to all those who knew me the beginning of a resigned and aimless wandering. The Padre neither encouraged nor discouraged me from this new path; after all, he had been partly responsible for leading me into it. That day we chatted on the phone, neither of us bringing up the morbid events of the night before except in terms of the possible negative consequences on my future. But I had become indifferent to my fate. A possibility, an opportunity even, was presenting itself, and I was abandoning myself to it, following an inclination that the naïve might call “natural.” I acquiesced to whatever presented itself without much arm-twisting, and I neither suffered from nor reveled in it: I was spared the exhaustion of searching and seizing. I was giving up a state of being that was in turn abandoning me and sliding into another that slowly, imperceptibly came to envelope me.
This excerpt is from Sphinx by Anne F. Garréta, translated by Emma Ramadan, published by Deep Vellum. See more here.