Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Eiffel Tower, by Isabelle Milkoff - English version by Tom Radigan

The Eiffel Tower

By Isabelle Milkoff

Translation by Tom Radigan

-            But the Eiffel Tower, you could recognize it, couldn’t you?

-       The Eiffel Tower.  Yes.  Of course.

He said it firmly, but there wasn’t any conviction behind it.  A number of times, I had to tell him where we were.  Porte d’Orléans, Alésia, Denfert-Rochereau, Port Royal – I could have taken a more direct route to take him back home, to Étoile, but I wanted to see how damaged his memory was.  In each part of town, I asked
       -            And now?  Where are we?  Do you recognize where we are?
He softly shook his head.

-       No.  This doesn’t mean anything to me, he responded. 

I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was upset, really put out, irritated not to be able to name all these places he frequented hundreds of times.  In reality, the approaches to the Porte d’Orléans resemble others throughout Paris.  Route 20 doesn’t have exclusive view of the large buildings that border it and neither has church at Alésia any redeeming features.  That his memory erased this church was more like a proof of good taste.  And the skyscraper at Montparnasse, silhouetted in the distance, was so far away that it was only a slab, an unadorned monolith with the sole distinction was that it was taller than the other ones.  The statue and the old toll barriers at Denfert-Rochereau could have also awakened memories.  We never jumped over them when we were young, without being told about years ago, when it was already nearly in the country and you could see orchards and vegetable gardens in the distance.  It was where the close suburbs became an abundant garden, a harbor of green.

 “One should attach today’s experience to this memory of times past,” Dr. Samuel Levy a neurologist we had consulted told us.  “Rekindling old images permits new ones to stay alive.”  But during this drive, it didn’t work.  There was nothing to remind him of the past - not the openness of the square and its vista to the west beyond the commuter rail station to Boulevard Blanqui where the elevated subway emerged, not Boulevard Aragon and its locust trees already in bloom.  He didn’t recognize anything.  Is it possible that one day we could cross familiar haunts that we navigated as a fundamental part of our life as if we had never lived that life?

At the intersection at Vavin, I turned on Boulevard Montparnasse where cafés with spacious terraces flaunted themselves.  The family had often dined there on birthdays or graduations. He didn’t care him that his money flowed freely and the nights were long.  He lived life to his fullest.  He was tall, strong, and cheerful.  My memory of him had nothing to do with the old man seated next to me in the car, whose head bobbled and who let himself be driven around without comment.

-       And do you recognize this?

-       What?

-       The cafés, there, on the side of the street.

-       No, What is that place?

-       That is La Coupole.  And across the street there’s Le Select.

-       Ah!  La Coupole! 

He pronounced the name of the café with interest yet with indifference.  Maybe the words had revived some recollections. And then he added,

-       All this has really changed, you know, hasn’t it? 

-       -No, I don’t think so.  But I don’t know.

It hadn’t changed.  Neither La Coupole nor Le Select.  There was the same neon on the windows of these unmistakably famous cafés.  What would he say about Notre-Dame?  I would have happily taken the detour, just then, to hear.  He focused on the avenue in front of us and only scarcely looked to the side.  He barely tried to remember, to find the mental picture that could have covered the emptiness behind those windows and would have let him identify this place.  I couldn’t say if he was moved by his incapacity to remember or if his mind was already somewhere else. Was he so untouched by the world beyond the windshield ?

When we arrived at Montparnasse, I fell quiet.  I wasn’t going to ask him at each intersection if he remembered something.  You are taking this badly, Mademoiselle.  It isn’t the real image of the place that is going to awaken the memory, but the memory, the old image,  that will allow him to name the scene in front of him. S. Levy would have explained to me if he had been in the car. “Our memory draws on several sources.  It is composed of many independent systems that interact in the process, or not”, He did say to me at our last meeting. “We can remember facts or gestures right away and not recall memories of things we have done automatically our whole life long.  And visa-versa.  This is what has happened to your father.  The past is in one part of his brain and the present in another.  The connections between the two are broken.” I just couldn’t see how his method would work.  If the places crossed in the present didn’t send him back into the past, how could old images summon contemporary ones?

A little farther on, beyond Montparnasse, we then began the descent towards the intersection at Duroc.  The Eiffel Tower showed itself to us, cut-off at mid-height by the roofs of the buildings to the side.  The night had started to fall and the tower was illuminated.  Its long tapered neck raised itself above the city and its batting eyelids revealed two red eyes.  It was smiling at us.  When I was small, each time we returned from a vacation, I would lay in wait for the moment it appeared to announce the end of the trip.  Usually as we arrived on the superhighway from the south, it would show itself when we reached the top of the hill where we could see the entire city stretching to the horizon.  And Papa would yell first, “Look kids!  The Eiffel Tower!” It never left our eyes the whole time we drove down from the hilltops.  Entering the city after our long journey, we placed ourselves again under the protective wing of the Eiffel Tower - our touchdown signaling the return and reviving contact with this particular world.  I couldn’t predict when it would happen, but then the Tower would disappear.  There wasn’t a precise moment, but at any rate, it would happen well before the tunnels that led to the beltway around Paris, before we penetrated that concrete barrier and entered the city.

-       And that thing over there, what’s that?  Do you recognize it? 

I couldn’t help myself from asking.  The night had almost completely fallen and the Tower’s cyclopean eye shot out at us sporadically before it again took up its circular path - its powerful beam sweeping across the neighborhoods.  The closer we came, the more it sank, shrank, and hid behind the buildings.   I had to act quickly.  Soon we wouldn’t see it anymore.  I had to act quickly so he would recognize it and be saved.

-       It couldn’t be the Eiffel Tower, could it?  He asked with amazement.

He didn’t speak right away and the very brief silence was revealing.  He hesitated. He was not sure about what he had suggested.  I even had the feeling that he wasn’t sure that he was right.  He had simply deduced from our previous conversation that it had to be the Eiffel Tower.  But for him this wasn’t sure like it was for me or would be for anybody else for whom recognizing the Eiffel Tower constitutes a facility that is imprinted, conditioned, and ready to be spit out at the slightest visual suggestion. 

However, his hypothesis was good and the deduction was also correct.  This was a proof that his mind was still alert.  He had tried to give me the answer I sought.  He had wanted to reassure me.  In the car, he had realized something, and he had made up for his mistakes.  It was encouraging.

Again S. Levy, “There is no reason to believe that your father might have lost his intellectual ability.  Different zones in the brain are not hierarchically organized.  When one lesion touches one of these zones and one of his memory clusters, it doesn’t mean that all of his abilities are affected.  Don’t dramatize the situation”.

Papa could possibly fight and slow down the process, recover what had not been
destroyed.  It would be enough, maybe, to have him relearn everything.  He could be shown things and rename them, like children reading primers or using their first dictionaries.  He could make index cards of important places.  Each card could have a photograph and a few words about it.  Integrate the past into the present, weave new connections, as the doctor had said.

It was simple.  Add one thing to another.  Then attach it to a word and bracket another thing to it.  For example in the Rue Rivoli you can eat ravioli.  Montmartre is full of tarts.  At Trocadero you can rodeo.  That’s it!  It would be enough to cover the walls of his house with photos of Paris and create a simple external memory. 

We had already past Invalides a while ago and we had even crossed the Seine.  We were rolling along the Champs-Élysées.  I hadn’t dared ask anything more and he kept quiet, no doubt relieved that I had stopped my pop quizzes.  I didn’t find anything to break the silence that my questioning had generated.  Happily we arrived at his home.  I took the Rue de Tilsitt to be able to park in front of the building where he lived.   After circling around the block several times, however, the only free parking place was down the avenue. 

-       We have to walk a little.  Is that all right?

-       Of course.  Don’t worry.  It isn’t a problem; I walk that much every morning.  I am still vital, you know.

Vital, ah yes, he was that.  He went out every day, walking down to the newspaper stand at the corner and then continuing to the vegetable market the next street over before saying hello to the pharmacist and buying some bread at the bakery.  This route, the round-trip, took place every morning, with rare exceptions.  If he didn’t make an appearance, the shopkeepers undoubtedly worried.  He now lived only in this reduced world.  How could he remember all the things that he didn’t see any more?  “All knowledge that is not used fades.  This is normal,” my philosophy professor continually affirmed.  “Every organ that is not exercised wastes away or changes.  This is how the great apes mutated and developed into human beings.”  And Papa illustrated this law perfectly.  No, he couldn’t get his bearings and he wouldn’t b able to anymore.  I could have taken him more around town, making him leave his block, taking him where he was born and spent his childhood, where he lived and had worked.  Montmartre, Place Monge, Rue Rome and Avenue Bugeaud.  The name of this last street fascinated me.  It was an overly French name without any poetic quality.  It was, despite all of this, where my Papa worked and it was the center of the world for me.  When he was younger, together with Mama, they came back by foot from work, whatever the hour, in order to relax.  His memory still lay in his walks. Lacking the ability to take this walk, he could possibly find satisfaction with an artificial journey and images of an invented memory on the walls of his room.

I helped him get out of the car.  The slightest movement was painful for him.  He had to slide his legs to the side, place them on the ground, and then hoist himself beyond the car’s interior, by leaning on the hood.  Once upright, he had to get his balance again.

I took him by the arm to help him get up on the sidewalk.  We then started walking up the avenue.  Despite what he might say, walking was troublesome for him, and on top of that, the avenue was on a slant.  We moved forward like a couple of turtles.  I held on to him to force me to slow down.  As we passed in front of the newspaper stand, I waited for him to tell me for the umpteenth time that he bought his newspapers there.  But no, this night that wasn’t important.  Silently, we went past the closed pharmacy, and then crossed the pedestrian alley in front of the bakery. 

As I was looking from left to right to make sure that no cars were coming, I saw it.  There it was, on the other side of the avenue framed just to the right of the Arc de Triomphe.  Lifting up its head little by little as we continued walking, a long silvery neck emerged.  Poised on top of that womanly spire, its reptilian gaze was trying again to hypnotize me.  Only the top two-thirds of the body was visible, but the form was both inescapable and ageless to the eye.  Always there for him, this vestal virgin from time immemorial was not some optical illusion, but rather the effect of the laws of perspective. Papa had this vision in front of his eyes the second he left his apartment.  On the way out, it was enough that he turn his head to the right, and coming back home, it was right in front of his nose.  Constant and loyal as the wife he used to have, the Eiffel Tower lives – in a way that he was no longer living.

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