The Carousel of Desire, p.1Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt
The Most Beautiful Book in the World
The Woman with the Bouquet
Concerto to the Memory of an Angel
Three Women in a Mirror
214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2013 by Editions Albin Michel
First publication 2016 by Europa Editions
Translation by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor
Original Title: Les perroquets de la place d’Arezzo
Translation copyright © 2016 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
Cover illustration: Katerina Belkina, For Lempicka
THE CAROUSEL OF DESIRE
Translated from the French
by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor
Anyone coming to Place d’Arezzo for the first time would experience a sense of strangeness. In spite of the opulent Versailles-style stone and brick houses lining the round square, where the shady lawn, the rhododendrons, and the plane trees suggested a Nordic kind of vegetation, there was a hint of the tropics about the place. Not that there was anything exotic in the well-balanced façades, the tall windows with their small panes, the wrought-iron balconies, or the fancy attics rented out at astronomical prices; nor was there anything exotic in the often gray, mournful sky, or the clouds skimming the slate roofs.
Even if you turned your head, you wouldn’t necessarily grasp what was going on. You had to know where to look.
Those walking their dogs were the first to sense it; following their bloodhounds as the latter excitedly crisscrossed the terrain, snouts to the ground, they would notice the waste matter strewn on the lawn, small, dark pieces of excrement ringed with white rot; then their eyes would climb the tree trunks and they would notice the curious natural constructions that darkened the branches; then the flutter of a colored wing, chatter piercing the foliage, strident cries accompanying the birds’ colorful flight, and the onlookers would realize that Place d’Arezzo concealed a host of parrots and parakeets.
How could such animals from faraway lands—India, the Amazon, Africa—live in Brussels, how could they live free and healthy in spite of the dismal climate? And what were they doing here, in the heart of the city’s most exclusive neighborhood?
A woman leaves you because she no longer sees in you the qualities you never had.”
Economist Zachary Bidermann smiled as he said this. He was amused by the fact that his young colleague, a distinguished intellectual educated at an elite college, should be as naïve as a teenager.
“When she met you, your wife thought she’d found the father of her future children, although you didn’t want any. She assumed she’d have a similar place in your life to your studies, and then to your work, but that wasn’t the case. She hoped your many contacts would give her access to people who would be useful to her career, even though in the world of politics and finance, men like to fuck female opera singers rather than listen to them.” This time, in spite of his thirty-year-old colleague’s desolate expression, he laughed. “It wasn’t a marriage, it was a misunderstanding.”
“Are all marriages a mistake?”
Zachary Bidermann stood up and walked around his desk, fiddling with his new black resin pen with its platinum ring, on which his initials glittered.
“Marriage is a contract, ideally between two clear-sighted people who know what they’re committing themselves to. Alas, these days we’re too easily deceived by feelings, and most people don’t enter into marriage in a lucid state. They’re blinded, confused by passion, tormented by pleasure if they’ve consummated the act, or devoured with impatience if they haven’t. It’s sick people who get married, my young Henry, hardly ever people in full possession of their intellectual capacities.”
“What you’re actually saying is that you should on no account be in love if you want a good marriage, is that it?”
“Our ancestors knew that. They arranged marriages coldly, because they knew how important it was to settle down.”
“Not exactly romantic.”
“There’s nothing romantic about marriage, you silly boy! Impulse, madness, grandiloquence, sacrifice, martyrdom, murder, suicide—those are romantic. Building your life on all that is tantamount to erecting your house on quicksand.”
Behind Zachary Bidermann, on Place d’Arezzo, parrots and parakeets broke out in a disapproving clamor. Annoyed by these cries, he closed the windows on the glorious spring morning.
Henry looked around the soberly luxurious room, with its designer furniture, its silk rugs with their abstract patterns, its sandy oak paneling—workmanship so fine you didn’t notice it. On the east and west walls, two sketches by Matisse faced each other, portraits of a man and a woman watching Zachary Bidermann in the middle. Henry couldn’t bring himself to ask the question that was gnawing at him.
Zachary Bidermann leaned over him, mockingly. “I can hear your mind speculating, Henry.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’re wondering about my marriage to Rose, but since you’re a somewhat inhibited young man you don’t dare bring it up.”
“Be honest. Am I wrong?”
Zachary Bidermann pulled out a stool and sat down familiarly next to Henry. “It’s my third marriage. It’s Rose’s third too. Believe me, neither of us had any intention of getting it wrong.” He slapped his thigh. “You only learn from your mistakes. This time it’s a healthy marriage, a good marriage. We’re a perfect match. I don’t think Rose and I have any regrets.”
Henry thought about what Zachary Bidermann had gained from marrying Rose: wealth. At the same time, he thought, Zachary Bidermann fulfilled Rose’s social and political ambitions: she had become the companion of a high-ranking dignitary, the European commissioner for competition, who knew and entertained heads of state.
As if reading Henry’s thoughts, Zachary Bidermann continued, “A conjugal union is an association with such serious consequences that the interested parties should be relieved of all responsibility, which ought instead to be entrusted to reliable, objective, competent people, genuine professionals. If there are casting directors for a movie, why shouldn’t they exist for couples too?” He sighed, and raised his famous blue eyes to the lacquered ceiling. “These days, we mix everything up. The ideas of parlor maids have drowned us in sentimental slush.” Keeping a cautious eye on his watch, and aware that this private interlude had lasted long enough, he concluded, “Basically, my dear Henry, I’m glad you’re getting a divorce. You’re leaving the darkness to step into the light. Welcome to the club of the clear-sighted.”
Henry nodded. Far from considering these words offensive, he received them gratefully, trusting in Zachary Bidermann’s sincerity. For all the latter’s apparent sarcasm and penchant for paradox, he wasn’t a cynic, he loved life, but loved it with a clear head; whenever an illusion came crashing to the ground, he felt genuine pleasure, the pleasure of a crusader for truth.
It was six minutes after nine in the morning, in his town house on Place d’Arezzo, and he had already been working half a day; up since five, he had analyzed several files, written ten pages of summary, and mapped out his priorities with Henry. Endowed with an iron constitution that required little sleep, this giant gave off an energy that provoked universal wonder and had allowed him, as a trained economist, to reach the highest positions of power in Europe.
Realizing the conversation was over, Henry stood up and said goodbye to Zachary Bidermann, who was annotating a report, already unaware of his presence.
As soon as Henry had gone, the secretary, Madame Singer, took the opportunity to come in. Thin, with a military stiffness, wearing a tight navy blue pantsuit, she came and stood behind the desk, to the right of her boss, and waited motionless for him to notice her.
She presented him with the signature book.
“Thank you, Singer.”
He called her Singer, like a soldier addressing his companion at arms, because as far as he was concerned Singer wasn’t a woman. She was so shapeless, there was no risk of her distracting him from his task by showing him an attractive bosom as she leaned forward, displaying legs he would ogle, wiggling buttocks he would want to fondle. Her short, matte-gray hair, her sagging features, the bitter line of her lips, her dull skin, the absence of perfume, everything turned Singer into a functional creature who had been following him from post to post for twenty years. Whenever he talked about her, Zachary Bidermann would say, “Singer is perfect!” That he was right was proved by the fact that Rose would frequently say that too.
As soon as he had completed his signature marathon, he asked about his appointments.
“You’re seeing five people this morning,” Singer announced. “Mr. Moretti from the European Central Bank, Mr. Karopoulos, chief of staff of the Greek finance minister, Mr. Lazarevich from Lazarevich Finances, Harry Palmer from the Financial Times, and Madame Klügger from the Hope Foundation.”
“Very good. We’ll give them each half an hour. The last one’s the least important, so I’ll be quicker with her. But, Singer, under no circumstances am I to be disturbed during a meeting. You’ll wait for me to call you.”
“Of course, monsieur.”
He rehashed these instructions every day, and people, especially Madame Singer, took it as an expression of the respect the great man extended to his visitors.
For two hours, he would display his intellectual prowess to those who came to see him. He would listen, like a motionless crocodile lying in wait for his prey, then shake himself and ask a few questions before presenting his thoughts in a brilliant, well-argued way, uninterrupted by his visitors, partly because Zachary Bidermann spoke quickly and softly, and partly because they were all aware of their own intellectual inferiority. The meeting would always conclude in the same way: Zachary Bidermann would seize a blank piece of paper and scribble some names on it, as well as telephone numbers which he knew by heart and could write without hesitation. He was like a doctor issuing a prescription after hearing a list of symptoms and making his diagnosis.
At five minutes to eleven, once the fourth visitor had left, he was suddenly seized with an uncontrollable sense of anxiety. Could it be hunger? Unable to concentrate, he looked into the anteroom where Madame Singer officiated behind her desk and told her he was going to see his wife.
An elevator concealed behind a piece of Chinese lacquerware took him to the floor above.
“Darling, what a lovely surprise!” Rose said.
Actually, it was hardly a surprise, since Zachary Bidermann burst into Rose’s private quarters every morning at eleven o’clock sharp for a light meal with her. But they liked to give each other the impression that it was a sudden whim.
“I’m sorry to bother you out of the blue like this.”
Nobody, not even Rose, ever walked into Zachary Bidermann’s office without calling first, but he could turn up anywhere whenever he wished. Rose would accommodate him, considering it part of her role as a loving wife to be available, in the full knowledge that in any case his visits “out of the blue” always took place at eleven o’clock.
She served him tea and set before him plates of croissants and various sweetmeats. They chatted as they ate them—he would seize hold of them and stuff them in his mouth, while she, out of concern for her waistline, would take several minutes to nibble at a date that she held between two fingers.
They talked about current events, such as the tense situation in the Middle East. Having studied political science, Rose was very interested in international relations, so they engaged in trenchant analyses that demonstrated how well-informed they were, each trying to surprise the other with a little-known detail, an unexpected comment. They loved their chats, because they could compete with one another without feeling that they were rivals.
They always kept to general topics, and never touched on private matters; they never spoke of Rose’s children from her previous husbands, for example, or of Zachary’s offspring from his previous wives. They chose instead to converse like two political science students, relieved of the burden of family problems and domestic hostilities. This couple, young in spite of being in their sixties, owed their good health to selective amnesia regarding their past marriages and the ensuing consequences.
As they were discussing the Gaza Strip, Zachary remarked on the flavor of a macaron. “This is quite a treat.”
“Which one? The black one? It’s with licorice.”
“Where are they from?”
“Ladurée’s in Paris.”
“What about these wafers?”
“Merck’s in Lille.”
“And these chocolates?”
“You must be joking, darling! They’re from Sprüngli’s in Zurich.”
“Your table is like a customs haul.”
Rose chuckled. There was nothing more eclectic than her world. Whether it was food, wine, furniture, clothes, or flowers, she purchased only the very best and didn’t worry about the cost. Her address book contained only the top recommendations: the best upholsterer, the best picture framer, the best floor layer, the best tax expert, the best masseur, the best dentist, the best cardiologist, the best urologist, the best travel agent, the best clairvoyant. Aware that these people might not stay at the top for very long, she frequently updated her list, a task that absorbed her deeply. A rational woman, Rose might appear superficial, but her devotion to such trivial questions was a serious one; the only daughter of a wealthy industrialist, she put as much care into keeping up her home as she did into dissecting the unemployment figures or the tensions between Israel and Palestine.
“Your fair is still the best I’ve ever known,” he said, stroking her cheek.
She understood the meaning of this remark and, without a second’s hesitation, came and sat on Zachary’s lap. He held her, his eyes moist, his nose rubbing against hers, and she sensed his desire to make love.
She wiggled her bottom on her husband’s thighs to arouse him even more. “You bad boy,” she breathed.
He pressed his lips to hers and they kissed, their tongues mingling at length, hungrily, their kisses enriched by the taste of butter licorice.
He pulled away. “I have a meeting,” he murmured.
“That’s a pity . . . ’
“Well, it won’t hurt you to wait.”
“I know,” she whispered, eyes closed. “You’d better calm down in the elevator, Zachary, or your visitor might be embarrassed.”
They laughed conspiratorially, and Zachary Bidermann left.
Rose stretched voluptuousl
By the time he returned to his office, Zachary Bidermann was no longer so on edge, given that his stomach was now full, but his heart was still racing, and he felt strangely anxious. He picked up the internal phone. “Who’s next, Singer?”
“Madame Klügger of the Hope Foundation.”
“Tell her I can only give her ten minutes. At eleven twenty-five, the driver’s taking me to the Commission.”
“Very well, monsieur. I’ll let her know.”
Zachary Bidermann went to the window and saw, out there on Place d’Arezzo, some parakeets chasing one another in the nearest tree, beating their wings. Two males were fighting over a female, who was refusing to make up her mind and, although pretending to be alarmed, seemed to be waiting for them to decide for her.
“Little bitch,” he mumbled so that only he could hear.
“Madame Klügger,” Singer’s solemn voice announced behind him.
Zachary Bidermann turned to see a tall woman in a well-fitting black suit—it made her look like a widow—standing by the door as Singer closed it.
The Carousel of Desire by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes