Saturday, 21 January 2017

Love in a Time of Barbarism

[Media prompt] “[Chinese tourists] are robbed in the palace of Versailles, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, in front of their hotel, as they leave the coaches … In high season, not a day goes by without tourists being assaulted.”




An excerpt from Chen Rongping’s account of his wife’s murder, translated from Chinese by F.D. Stephens

My wife had been dead for nearly a year before a judge found Ajou Agab, a refugee from Sudan, guilty of her murder, handing down a suspended sentence, which was another way of saying France had abrogated its right to pass judgement on anyone but the civilised.

For forty years, my wife and I lived peacefully in a two room apartment at the University of G__, where I lectured in the Department of Engineering and my wife taught French. She fell in love with France at around the time of Liberation, and as a teenager taught herself the language by listening to it on the radio every night. Our marriage was happy, not only in comparison to the marriages of our colleagues but also in the depths of our hearts, but I always felt that, although she never gave me cause to feel it, she believed her life remained incomplete because she had never visited the country she loved from afar. She fretted, even after retiring, that there was something amiss with her French accent, and was embarrassed to have never spoken with a French speaker. Husband, she would say sometimes say to me as we lay in bed, what if I went to France and they didn’t understand a word I said?

Last year, our son, transferred by his employer to New York, sent me two tickets to Paris for our fiftieth wedding anniversary. “Give mum a surprise,” he said to me on the phone. I hardly knew what to say, ringing off without even thanking him. In the months before our trip, my wife doubled her time with the campus French Speakers Club, volunteering to help students so often that I sometimes felt lonely. She started making notes about places she wanted to visit; the Lycée Louis-le Grand where a young Hugo wrote poetry, Proust’s bedroom in the Musée Carnavalet, Hôtel de Lauzun where Baudelaire wrote. We only have ten days, I reminded her more than once, as her maps of Paris started to resemble a bad case of the measles.

My wife’s nervousness about her linguistic abilities had permeated my own sensibilities, and by the time we boarded the plane at Beijing I was wracked with visions of her failing at her life’s endeavour. It was shameful enough that I had never been able to take her to Paris, but a husband who cannot protect his wife is shamed twice. I don’t know why she worried; from the moment she asked for the chicken with a glass of white wine, which because she didn’t drink was passed to me, and caused the French hostess to smile and say something in French, leading to a small conversation that made my wife’s cheek turn pink with pleasure, from that moment, she conversed in French with a fluency that often resulted in compliments and then gasps of admiration over the fact that this was her very first trip to France.

If you love your wife for fifty years, and receive in return the same amount of love, then you can count yourself lucky. But if you can see your wife happy and serene after all that time, then perhaps you can die at peace.  

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