Now for something completely different ...
Last week a Planet reader asked me when I was going to publish any more of my “stories.” Hmph! I run stories every day! But it emerged that what the reader wanted was stories I make up. Who knew? And there I was thinking I wasn’t supposed to make stuff up ...
Anyhoo, we aims to please, so I set out forthwith to find more stories, from back before I discovered, as many a writer before me, that truth is stranger than fiction. But that’s been a while, technology keeps changing, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to do some serious cyber-mining before I find more old stuff.
So two things: Writers, take note! I am always in the market for people to help me write this rag, and if you have short or long fiction you’d like to share, brang it on! I can’t pay you but I can give you a venue to be read, which I have discovered is the great thing in writing. The address is email@example.com.
(And if you don’t know that also goes for engaging features like cooking articles, restaurant/movie/book reviews, and advice columns, you ain’t been listenin’. You got something? Try me!)
Meanwhile, what I am about to serialize in this space is not my fiction but that of a French writer who died in 1990. His name was Pierre Gripari and I discovered him quite by accident, when I was a Woman of a Certain Age who needed a job, and whom nobody wanted to hire. I thought, what can I do others cannot? One thing that came to mind was: speak French.
Except I couldn’t anymore! I could still read it fine, but it had been too many decades since I’d heard it for the spoken language to make much sense to me. But no need to despair--we have the internet! I started cruising YouTube for French shows.
Sitcoms and movies were still too dense for my rusty ears so I turned to children’s programming, and shortly found myself A Woman of a Certain Age watching cartoons! I started with a baby show called Caillou. Caillou is a little boy of 4 so goody-goody, you yearn to put your foot through the screen and kick him in his whiny French-Canadian ass. But I could understand what was going on, and my French began to improve.
While I was gritting my teeth through little Caillou’s hopes and fears, I came across in the YouTube suggestion bar another, more interesting, cartoon show, with a campy intro featuring witches and giants, vampires and fairies, called Contes de la Rue Broca, the “Broca Street Stories.” But I was still too stoopid for fairytales. I was doing great to grasp Caillou life lessons like We Must Share Our Toys With Others. Still, I made a note of it for future ref.
In the end, I didn’t so much graduate from Caillou as get to the point I couldn’t take him a second longer. The only thing more irritating than the kid’s simpering giggle was when he cried. So I switched to Rue Broca and was immediately captivated. I could tell how clever and engaging the stories even when the language was too dense for me.
I looked it up and found that the cartoons were based on stories by this Pierre Gripai, and I had the idea if I could just read them first I could follow the animated versions perfectly. So I found Gripari’s books on Amazon for practically nothing and that’s what happened.
It sounds very woo-woo, I expect, but I think there are people in life you are supposed to meet, who will be important to you somehow, and usually you recognize them when you meet them. Pierre Gripari was like that for me. When I read him I could hear his voice speaking to me from across the years, the way I have with certain other select writers, but this time, in French!
Gripari wasn’t only a children’s writer but his one commercial success was with Contes de la Rue Broca, so named because he had written the stories while living on that street in Paris. They were made into the popular cartoon series I had found, and by consequence were the only parta of his work that were translated into English.
He had also written another couple of volumes of children’s stories that were not, plus a weird little novel about a kid who grew up on Mars and a memoir about growing up himself in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. I found all of his stuff very powerful and had the idea of translating it into English. I started with a couple of the children’s stories as being the simplest and shortest.
Later I found that there are all sorts of certifications and procedures for “qualifying" as a translator, and of course I expect there are also permissions from the heirs, if any, and then the eternal problem of getting a publisher interested.
To hell with it. I translated Gripari because I liked the stories and I had the nerve to do it because I’m a writer myself and thought I could preserve their style and basic Frenchiness better than someone who wasn’t--which I must say is usually the case with translations. But I had no idea what to do with them after I’d translated them until I had the thought of plugging them in here.
So if I am violating any copyrights, French laws or international treaties, perhaps someone will eventually call me on it. Meanwhile, I will aid Monsieur Gripari in that most basic of a writer’s need, which is to be read. I hope you enjoy reading him!
This first one is in that rare category of stories that were made into cartoons but never translated into English. In French it was called Pouic et la Merlette. Here's a link to the cartoon if your French is up to it.
And here, at last, is the story. I will publish it here in two installments.
Pouic and the Lady Bird
By Pierre Gripari
As Translated by Robin Ford Wallace
On my street, there is a school. In that school there are several students, among them my friend Pouic, who just turned 10. There is also teacher, a teacher not like the others, because she is a little fey – but this I did not know that until later!
I would see my friend Pouic go by nearly every day on the sidewalk, his books under his arm. We had gotten into the habit of greeting each other, maybe exchanging a few words. That is as far as it went, but it was pleasant.
And then suddenly I did not see him anymore. One day, two days, three days, a whole week, no more Pouic!
I thought he must have gone on a snow field trip, or maybe a sun field trip; or perhaps a rain field trip, a storm field trip – possibly a tsunami, volcanic eruption or earthquake field trip – and I waited for him to show back up.
Then, that Sunday, as I was at my table in front of my open window, in the middle of typing a story about a devil or a witch, voila! Up came a blackbird into my room, a very handsome blackbird, I must say, of a beautiful black color, very distinguished, with a bright yellow beak. He perched on my pile of papers, gave me a sidewise look, and said:
The birds of Paris are not timid. All the same, this was the first time that I had seen one in my room. I said to him, laughing:
“Eh bien, you do not seem frightened!”
“Tweet!” he replied.
“What do you want?”
“Are you hungry, perhaps?”
“Tweet oui or tweet non?”
“All right. We shall see!”
I tore a small piece of bread into crumbs on a sheet of paper and offered it to him. He pecked it all up in less than a minute. After that, he said once again, “Tweet!’ and flew
I found myself waiting to see him again, but he did not come back. Instead, the next Monday, I again ran into Pouic.
“Eh bien, Pouic, where have you been?” I asked. “Were you traveling? On vacation?”
“No, I have not left Paris.”
“How is it I have not seen you, then?”
“But you did see me!” said Pouic. “For that matter, I owe you a big merci.”
“Merci for what?”
“For the piece of bread last Sunday!”
“No! Impossible! That was you, the blackbird?”
“Yes, that was me, the blackbird. I tried to tell you, but you would not understand.”
“You tried how?”
“I kept telling you: ‘Pouic! Pouic! Pouic!’ ”
“I beg your pardon. That is not what you said. You said, ‘Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!’ It is hardly the same thing.”
“If you think it is easy to say ‘Pouic’ with the beak of a blackbird,” said Pouic, “there is no point in continuing this conversation.”
“Well, tell me, then” I said. “How did you manage to change yourself into a blackbird?”
“Well, it is a long story.”
“A long story, really? Do tell!”
“But you will not tell anyone?”
“Au contraire, I will tell everyone!” I said. “I will even write it.”
“In a book?”
“In a book!”
“With my name and all the details?”
“With your name and all the details!”
“Good. In that case, all right!”
And here is what my friend Pouic told me:
Two weeks ago, when I was a little boy (my friend Pouic was convinced he had grown a great deal since the week before), I was dumb, dumb, dumb! I did not want to work.
Certainly it happens to everyone not to be always on task, not to have one’s heart in the job at all times, but in my case it was not a matter of mood. I did not want to work at all, not today, not tomorrow, not later!
The teacher at school told us that work was necessary, that if no one worked we would not have anything to eat, no shoes or clothes to wear, nor candy, nor toys, nor television, nor movies, nor pistols, nor machine guns, nor bombs, nor cars, nor roller skates, nor anything at all in short. But myself, I was not convinced.
When push came to shove, I did not mind if others worked, why not? If they so desired. But personally, I was determined to do nothing.
Then, one day in class – this was Monday of last week – the teacher having asked us to tell her what we thought of school, I stood up and I said:
“Mademoiselle, I am against it.”
“You are against it, really?” she replied. “Against what?”
“What about school are you against?”
“Bien,” she said. “I am listening.”
It was not easy to put in words, but I believe I made a pretty good job of it.
“Eh bien, here you are,” I said. “First of all, I do not believe that school should exist at all. To learn what we need to learn, we would do better to walk outside, each of us on our own, freely. We would learn to read from street signs, subway plaques, posters. As for learning to write, what good is it? There are machines for that.
“The same goes for counting. That is what we have computers for. As for history, what do we care what people before us did? That is in the past. Can we please stop talking about it now?
“As for geography, it is also useless. If a country is at war, television tells us all we need to know about that country and its inhabitants. As for countries that are not at war, they are not interesting.
“School,” I concluded, “serves no purpose except to bore me.”
The teacher listened to me politely, without interrupting. When she saw that I had finished, she replied: “Yes, but what will you do later?”
“You will have to learn a trade.” “Why should I? “To make your living!”
“It is not necessary to work for a living.”
“In our society, it is.”
“Then society should be changed. Look at the birds in the courtyard: They have no money, no job, no stores, and they live just the same. They do nothing but sing all day.”
“Are you sure of that?”
“You only have to look at them!”
“You would like, then, to lead a bird’s life?” asked the teacher.
“Why not? They are certainly happy.”
“Do you think that is possible?”
“Possible? Why not?”
At that moment, the teacher gave me an odd look. Not like someone in an argument, trying to prove she was right; but instead like someone who was learning something. She answered me:
“I could turn you into a bird, let us say for a week. That way, you could see for yourself what a bird’s life was like. Then you could come back and tell us.”
“Vraiment! Are you willing?” “Speaking for myself, yes. If my mother says I may…”
“In that case, tell your mother I will come and see her this evening.”
That same evening, in fact, the teacher came to my house, she talked to my mother, and my mother gave her permission to turn me into a blackbird, though for one week only.
The next day in class, the teacher said to us: “Today, children, we are going to perform an experiment. Our friend Pouic here does not wish to work, not now, not later, not ever. But since he has volunteered to give us a report on what life is like for blackbirds, I am going to turn him into one. Next week, he will come back, he will give us his impressions, and … and then we shall see if he does not prefer to become a man and work like everyone else. Now, Pouic, come to the front and do not be afraid.”
In fact, I was a little frightened, but I had already talked too much to back down in front of my classmates. I went to the front, the teacher pronounced some words in Latin – or in Chinese or Hebrew, how should I know the difference? – and suddenly I saw I had become small, fluttery and light, with a lovely yellow beak I could see if I squinted: I had been turned into a blackbird!
“Tweet!” I said, and flew out the open window.
It was extremely agreeable! I had never learned how but I could fly. I went up, I came down, I turned on the wing and I did not even get dizzy. I did that a couple of times in front of the classroom windows to impress the kids and then, as I had no desire to stay in the school courtyard – I had seen enough of it! – I gained altitude, flew over the roof and proceeded to the public park.
All morning, I did nothing but fly, whistle, hop around, visit the gardens and lawns and flowerbeds. As the afternoon began, being hungry, I remembered that at that hour an old gentleman came every day, as he left a restaurant, to crumble his leftover bread for the birds of the square.
He came as usual. As soon as they saw him, all the pigeons and sparrows rushed to surround him. He started throwing them crumbs, then suddenly noticed me.
“Ah, here is a new one. Come here, little fellow!”
And he threw some crumbs in my direction. But it was no easy matter to catch them! Those gangster sparrows stole half of them from me, and the pigeons pecked at me with their beaks to chase me away. Ah, what right do they have to exist, these sparrows? I ask you! And pigeons? Nasty beasts! I wish somebody would eat them all.
In any case, that time, thanks to my cleverness, my liveliness and above all the goodwill of the old gentleman, I managed to get enough to eat. I spent the rest of the day walking around watching the children play in the sand, pecking here and there at stray crumbs. When evening came, I perched on a gutter and went to sleep.
Then, the next day, I met: Her.
She was a gray blackbird, of a charming gray, simple, striped, modest. She was perched on a plane tree branch, grooming with her beak the feathers of her neck with such grace and such distinction that I fell in love with her.
I perched next to her and asked:
“Are you alone, Mademoiselle?”
She raised her head.
“Pardon me, Monsieur, was it to me you were speaking?”
I understood from that I was addressing a Great Lady, and changed my tone:
“Dear lady,” said I. “Excuse me if I trouble you, but seeing you this way, sad and solitary, it struck me that perhaps it would not displease you to have a well-raised, respectful companion who loves you, adores you …” (I had been at school, you know; I knew how to read posters, road signs, even the labels of canned vegetables.) “ … and I could not see you without being swept away by the storms of love …”
And so forth. All this in the blackbird language, mind you, which is a very gallant tongue, as you may have gathered.
(Which is French for: To be continued...)