Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Algerian's Flowers

It's Sunday morning, ten o'clock, at the corner of rue Jacob and rue Bonaparte in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, not quite two weeks ago. A young man is walking toward the corner from the direction of the Buci market. He is twenty years old, miserably dressed, behind a pushcart full of flowers. A young Algerian selling flowers - illegally, but then his whole life is illegal. He walks toward the corner of Jacob and Bonaparte, which is less closely watched than the market, and stops there - anxious, of course.
He has reason to be anxious. Not ten minutes have passed - he hasn't had time to sell a single bouquet - when two gentlemen "in plainclothes" move toward him. They come from Rue Bonaparte. They're hunting. Noses in the wind, sniffing the fine Sunday air for irregularities the way a bird dog might sniff for quail, they head straight for their quarry.
"Papers?"
The Algerian has no license to sell flowers.
So one of the two gentlemen goes over to the puschcart, slides his clenched fist underneath, and - how strong he is! - overturns the cart, flowers and all, with a single blow. The intersection fills with the flowers of spring (Algerian Spring).
Einstein isn't there to record the image of flowers on the ground, stared at by the young Algerian flanked by France's representatives of law and order. Nobody is there. The first passing cars avoid the flowers, instinctively drive around them - nobody can stop them from doing that.
No one is there. But wait, yes, there is someone, a woman, just one woman. "Bravo!" she shouts. "If the cops always went after them like that, we'd soon be rid of the scum. Bravo!"
But another woman arrives from the direction of the market. She looks at the flowers, and the young criminal who was selling them, and at the jubilant woman, and at the two plainclothesmen. And without saying a word she bends down, picks up some flowers, walks over to the young Algerian, and pays him. After her another woman comes, picks up some flowers, and pays. Fifteen women. All in silence. The plainclothesmen are fit to be tied. But what can they do? The flowers are for sale and nobody can stop people from wanting to buy them.
The scene lasted just under ten minutes. Not a single flower was left on the ground.
After which the plainclothesmen had all the time they wanted to take the young Algerian off to the station house.
- Marguerite Duras, in "France-Observateur," 1957

9 comments:

  1. warszawa9:09 AM

    Excuse me, but is this fact or fiction? I'm just wondering what stopped those two brutal plain-clothes cops from dragging that young Algerian - whose "whole life is illegal" - off to the police-station as soon as they had established that he had "no license to sell flowers".

    "After her another woman comes, picks up some flowers, and pays. Fifteen women. All in silence. The plainclothesmen are fit to be tied. But what can they do? The flowers are for sale and nobody can stop people from wanting to buy them."

    - And the policemen were completely helpless (though "fit to be tied")?

    "The scene lasted just under ten minutes. Not a single flower was left on the ground.
    After which the plainclothesmen had all the time they wanted to take the young Algerian off to the station house."


    Ten minutes of silent waiting... for the moral of the story?

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  2. warszawa10:33 AM

    Sorry if that sounded harsh. It's a nice story (maybe intended as a parable? But of what?); the problem is that it's just too nice to be true. What gives it away is the excess of unlikely yet ultra-specific detail ("Fifteen women. All in silence.") coupled with the bizarrely sentimental scenario of two racist cops patiently standing by while "the young criminal" they've just arrested pockets 15 separate ill-gotten gains.

    And that sounds harsh again. But I wish racist oppression were as easy to undermine as Marguerite Duras suggests it is.

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  3. Yeah, puzzling: she always puzzled me, Duras. I was buying fruit from the fruit guy outside the Monoprix on Sebastopol a few weeks ago and the police came to ruin his life there for not having a vendor's license, and they wouldn't let me complete the transaction, even though the pineapples were already in the bags.

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  4. warszawa11:03 AM

    In Berlin, they arrest Vietnamese traders selling smuggled cigarettes outside the subway stations, and they also charge and fine anyone caught buying them.

    Sometimes the traders make an attempt to run for it, and their wares go flying all over the place. I've seen people discreetly picking the cigarettes up and pocketing them, but I've never seen anyone attempt to pay for them in the presence of two plains-clothes cops.

    I don't know. The Parable of the Flowers, the Silent Women and the Cops That Were Fit To Be Tied... It certainly doesn't work if you substitute "smokes" for "flowers".

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  5. mebbe it was a dream she had; in the dream the flower guy is tall, dishy and grateful...

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  6. warszawa12:30 PM

    If Isabelle Adjani had been selling those flowers, it would no doubt have been Fifteen Silent Men queuing up to buy them.

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  7. yeah, very strange scene. Interesting though. I've never read Duras, but this passage reminds in tone with some of Camus' short stories--Algerians serve as the empty point of reflection for French people reflecting on how personal virtue faces social injustice, or as Connor Cruise O'Brien noted about Camus' work, Algerians are oriental background scenery like a palm tree.

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  8. yes and a bit of surrogacy going on there; these silhouette-people absorb the suffering, they have all the experiences the writer fears, at a safe distance, pleasingly poignantly and harmlessly, in such a way that these experiences - desperation, arrest, humiliation, not infrequently physical violence - not being attached to fully developed characters, can be considered 'in the abstract' and wierdly distilled. The guy doesn't even get graced with an adjective beyond 'young' and 'Algerian,' he has no face; nothing to disturb the 'message' with affect or endanger its focus on the nobility and virtue of the silent flowerbuyers and the author's oddly smiling pride/pity in witnessing.

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  9. oh, two adjectives actually: 'anxious' and 'illegal.'

    He's 'the problem' and the women's silent decency is the solution.

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