It's very difficult to find the beginning. So much time has gone by that words
will never bring backand the faces too, the smiles, the wounds. Even so, I must
try. I have to cut open the belly of the mystery and stick my hands deep inside,
even if none of that will change a thing.
If somebody were to ask me how on earth I know all the things I'm going to recount, I'd answer that I just do. I know them because for twenty years they've been as familiar to me as the fall of night and the dawn of day. Because in fact I've spent my life trying to piece them together, to put them into place. So they can speak and I can listen. That used to be my job, more or less.
I'll be calling forth a lot of shadows, but one will be out front. It belongs to a certain Pierre-Ange Destinat. He was the prosecutor in V for more than thirty years, and he plied his trade like clockwork, never faltering, never breaking down. Actually, you could say he was an artist, and he didn't even need a museum to show his art. In 1917, at the time of the Caseas people here called it, always with a sigh, it seemedhe was over sixty and had retired only the previous year. Though he hardly spoke, he always made a great impression. He was a tall impassive man who resembled an indifferent bird, far-off and majestic, with pale eyes that never seemed to move and lips whose thinness he didn't bother to disguise with a moustache. His forehead was high and his hair a most distinguished gray.
V is about twenty kilometers from our town. Twenty kilometers in 1917 was very far indeed, especially in winter--especially in a war that showed no interest in ending. The war caused great commotion on the roads as they became jammed with handcarts and trucks, flooded with stinking fumes and thousands of thunderclaps. Even though the front was fairly nearby, from our town it seemed an invisible monster, another country.
Destinat was known by different names, depending on whom one asked and where. Among the inmates in the jail at V, he was generally called Bloodsucker. In one cell I even saw a drawing of him, carved with a knife on the thick oak doornot a bad likeness, in fact. Admittedly, the artist had had plenty of time to admire the model during the fifteen long days of his trial.
When we ran into Pierre-Ange Destinat on the street, the rest of us called him Mr. Prosecutor. Men raised their caps to him, and women of the humbler sort curtsied. Fine ladies of his own social class would incline their heads ever so slightly, like little birds when they drink from gutters. Whatever the greeter or greeting, it seemed no matter. He didn't answeror did it so faintly you would've needed four well-polished opera glasses to see his lips move. But it wasn't disdain, as most believed; I think it was simply detachment.
All the same, there was one young lady who had almost understood him, a girl I will speak of again and who called him Sadness, a nickname she kept to herself. Maybe it's her fault that everything happenedbut then, she never knew anything about it.
At the beginning of the century, a prosecutor was still a figure of great importance. And in time of war, when a single hail of bullets could mow down a whole company of solid lads, seeking the death of one lone man in chains required craftsmanship. I don't think he acted out of cruelty when he went after the head of some poor slob who had battered the postman or disemboweled his mother-in-law. The jerk stood in front of him between two officers, with handcuffs on his wrists, but at best Destinat hardly noticed him. He looked right through, as if the man had already ceased to exist. Destinat never prosecuted a flesh-and-blood criminal; he defended an idea, simply an idea: his own idea of good and evil.
Excerpted from By a Slow River by Philippe Claudel Copyright © 2006 by Philippe Claudel. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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