The protagonist of Marie Darrieussecq’s latest outing is Solange, a white actress who falls desperately in love with a charismatic black actor in Hollywood. In the excerpt below, which sets the stage for Darrieussecq’s brilliantly droll examination of romance, movie-making and clichés about race relations, Solange’s love interest reveals his plan to direct an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—in Africa.
He talked to her about the Congo. Not any old Congo, not the little Brazzaville Congo, no, the big Kinshasa one, where very quickly the road runs out and there are just the long arms of the river, which she had looked at on Google Earth three hours earlier. The coincidence was disturbing. She was going to chat about the islands—but he had drawn breath to introduce a new topic of conversation, and was now talking about Heart of Darkness. He told her about Conrad’s novel. The story of a man who is looking for a man. Marlow looking for Kurtz, a retired officer from a colonial regiment, a ‘devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly’. Conrad’s Congo is ‘something great and invincible, like evil or truth’. And Europe—white-faced Europe, the premonition of genocides. He cited the African woman in the novel ‘with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments’, ‘brass leggings to the knees’ (she pictured the sorceress in Kirikou). He cited the ‘Intended’, ‘this pale visage’, blonde and diaphanous (she pictured herself). Was it a racist novel? No. But it was time for an African to seize power in Hollywood. It was time to take back from America the history of indigenous people.
She was overwhelmed with tiredness. Couldn’t they just have a normal conversation? But he kept talking: he wanted to make a film adaptation of Heart of Darkness, something different from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and, in any case, on location—a crazy project, he was aware of that, his first film as a director and with equatorial ambitions to transport a crew into the heart of the forest and, once there, attempt to mount that masterpiece of a novel. Coppola went to the Philippines in order to film Vietnam; he would go to the Congo to film the Congo.
She interrupted him. She hadn’t read the novel, but wasn’t it a bit of a cliché: Heart of Darkness? A bit too run-of-the-mill for Africa? He protested. What he was interested in was precisely the stereotype, the ultimate cliché, what white people saw when they thought about Africa: darkness and elephants.
Was she white people? That beam pierced her chest. Did he see her as a white person? Was he—worse—here because she was white? She had been loved for her buttocks, for her talent, for her celebrity, but never for her colour. Or else all men, all the white people who had desired her up until now, had only done it on condition that she was white?
She turned away and was startled by their reflection. In the bay window against the night sky, a man and a woman leaning into each other. She was struck by their beauty. The curve of the woman and the straight line of the man, her lying down, him sitting up, classically beautiful, thin and so Hollywood, her face-on and him in profile, yin-yang, snap: both perfectly matched. He could have any woman of any colour. She could have any man she wanted. Everyone on Earth may have wanted to sleep with him, but he was here with her.
She moved closer to him. He kept talking. His strange gaze fixed on her, on the surface of her camisole, as if he were carrying out a topographical survey. Surprisingly and almost inadvertently, the Congo had allowed itself to be enslaved. Belgium was a tick on a giant’s back, and how do you even locate the tick when humans, since childhood, have stared at the immense green patch that is the centre of Africa? He was describing, with circular gestures, how shot after shot, mise en abyme after mise en abyme, his film would become more and more claustrophobic, ‘burrowing deep into the centre of the Earth’. And suddenly she had the faint hope that someone might know, finally know—perhaps him—where the centre of the world was. Everywhere, and in men, she had searched for it, that centre, that intensity. From the sound of him, it was over there, deep in the Congo. With him.
He was impetuous, bitter and wise. She wanted to taste that charm; she wanted him to be quiet but to keep talking to her; she wanted to devour his mouth. In France, when a man spends a long time explaining something to a woman, it’s above all in order to sleep with her. She opened another bottle. She hadn’t considered matching her nail polish with her camisole, deep pink on flesh pink—and, what does it even mean: flesh-pink white?
‘To be honest,’ she began, ‘I’d completely forgotten, for instance, that Belgium had invaded the Congo.’
‘Not invaded. Colonised, violated, carved up, butchered. Fifteen million dead. And France. Twenty thousand dead for the only railway from the Congo to the ocean.’
‘As many as that.’ She sighed. Her living room was filled with skulls.
He checked his phone—she was frightened it was a text from another woman—but he started to read the first page of Conrad’s novel out loud to her from his screen: a gloomy London, the Thames, a ship in the night. He envisaged a murky opening shot, black sky, and then the sea emerging in a fade-in.
‘And you’ll find producers here, in Hollywood?’
He paused, an actor’s pause.
‘You know who will play Kurtz?’
A new beam illuminated her. She understood.
‘And who do you think will play the Intended?’
A rush of blood, her lips went taut, she felt the urge to inflate them and raise herself, yes her, towards him, towards the sky, towards an outlandish future, an expedition to the Congo, a marvellous and terrifying film shoot.
She got up. There are always moments of huge disappointment in the life of an actress, dishonesty, rigged horsetrading, nocturnal betrayals, and boorish behaviour. One of her nails was torn. She felt a childish regret, the silly idea that, if she had matched her nails to her outfit, he would have given her the role.
He explained the finances of the project, the money George was putting in, and perhaps Studio Canal, and a producer in Lagos, even Africana Studies at UCLA. Why did she feel like crying at this point? She still fancied his lips, that’s what was so exasperating: her raging desire. His project would never get off the ground. George was forever having those philanthropic notions, and anyway that would be the biggest bit of miscasting of his career—George as a bad guy? But there was always the challenge, for a star like him, to surpass Brando. Even in a shambolic production in the depths of the jungle.
And it wouldn’t be a shambolic production. With George on board it would end up on screens all over the world. The perfect UFO. A huge action movie, but also a bit arty. A big deal in any case, entrusted to an African, with the anything-but-vulgar touch that George adds to Hollywood, and that this man Kouhouesso also has, yeah, baby, he’s got it.
Gwyneth Paltrow? That pathetic beanpole?
She placed her lips on his. It was like kissing a bouquet of peonies. Fleshy, luscious and beaded with freshness. Peonies saturated with a strong liqueur, soft, manly flowers, intoxicating.
She could no longer see his face, nor his roaming eyes. Their outlines cancelled each other out, cyclopean heat and moist mouths. He kept talking, but less. It was as if his mouth was blossoming from his scratchy cheeks, his lips even sweeter, and she was melting, soft and hard and tender and tense. He pulled away for a second and she thought he was going to preach to her again about the Congo, but no. He was staring at her. He looked happy.
Lying next to his big body, her camisole slipped above her head, she was once again touching this man, who was speaking to her about herself, who was saying wonderful things, who was burying himself in her and then pulling back as if reluctantly. She clung to him, until their bodies blurred in the embrace, deep, but not effusive. It was easy, so easy to remain in this marvellous suspension of breath where she was no longer waiting for him—it was he who was waiting for her.
Later, her thigh was resting on his thigh, and her arm was on his arm, and she was so white and he was so black that it made her laugh, it was tantalising, appetising, almost like a pastry confection; their bodies were so distinct one from the other, touched each other so unequivocally, ended and began exactly at the demarcation of the skins, and they wanted to start again just for that, to check once again that here is me and there is you and that we can locate ourselves and take pleasure in that, precisely that, the decorative difference, invented especially to look good. And he laughed to see her laugh and she said to herself, if he laughs he loves me. If he laughs we will keep on laughing and taking our pleasure.
The crows were cawing on the electricity wires; the sky was a milky blue. Their reflection had disappeared into the bay window. There was nothing left of them but their real bodies; there was nothing left of them but the two of them. The image of them had retreated to where images reside, in the folds of the Hollywood hills, in the shadows.
Translated from the French by Penny Hueston
Click here for more information about the book.
Marie Darrieussecq was born in 1969 in Bayonne, France. Her debut novel, Pig Tales, was published in thirty-four countries. Five other novels have also been translated into English including A Brief Stay with the Living, Tom Is Dead and All the Way. Marie Darrieussecq lives in Paris with her husband and children.
Penny Hueston is a Senior Editor at Text Publishing and a translator of numerous stories, articles and poems, including works by Marie Darrieussecq and 2014 Nobel Prize winner, Patrick Modiano.
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