REMARKS ABOUT CARACO, by Philippe Billé
«I am a racist and a colonialist.» (Ma Confession, 141). Albert Caraco had a certain talent for making everyone comfortable, as soon as they open the book. In many respects, an uncommon writer. He was born in Constantinople, of a Sephardic family, (on June 8th according to his own words, in the Semainier de l’agonie, 44). He was the only son of a banker.
During his childhood, he lived in Prague, Berlin (Kurfürstendamm, 129, from 1926 to 29) and Paris, where he studied in the Janson-de-Sailly high school. He graduated in Advanced Commercial Studies in 1939, but never worked. He summarises his youth with these words: «I spent the first ten years of my life in Germany, the following ten in Paris, the following ten between Argentina and Uruguay.» (L’homme de Lettres, 207-208).
It was in 1939 that his family left Europe for South America, where they sojourned in Brazil and Argentina before settling in Uruguay, in Montevideo. Two of his books from this time, which I have in my hands, bear his mark, from which I decipher the address: 924 av. Mariscal Estigarribia, Montevideo. It’s a great avenue in the south of the city, not far from the sea.
After the war, in 1956, the family returned to settle permanently in Paris. He mentions in the Semainier de l’incertitude, in 1968, that he has been living there for eight years, in the Jean-Giraudoux street (p 100 & 162). A natural melancholic, he waited for the death of his parents before committing suicide. His mother went first, in 1963 (he wrote about it in Post mortem). His father followed her in September 1971, and Albert hanged himself the day after. Until the end of his life he kept the Uruguayan nationality.
His first books, published in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires in the beginning of the 40s, were classical in style and subject. His plays, partly in verse, are a testimonial of his great mastery of French and the rules of style. One may find in the end of Inès de Castro a remarkable tirade in prose, which on reading reveals itself to be a sequence of alexandrine verses one after the other.
His later books are mostly philosophical essays, for the greater part arranged in aphorisms or dialogues. His last books, more personal, are chronicles that combine autobiography and pamphlet. In these books, in a casual manner, he discusses his life, modernity, literature, history or religion, and often the same topics resurface. Ma Confession presents a very regular and somewhat monumental structure : it is a collection of 250 wandering meditations, beginning at the top of one page and finishing at its bottom. Many works from this period, titled Semainiers, are divided in weekly chapters. A block of six lines («It has been three generations since the West swarms with teachers of barbarity...») which I see repeated word for word on pages 73 and 93 of the Semainier de l’agonie (weeks from 18 to 24 February and 4 to 10 March 1963) allow me to presume that the writing and the structure of the journals are not as spontaneous as one might believe.
Although he was mainly French-speaking and French-writing, Albert Caraco also practised three other living languages: «French, German, English and Spanish are four admirable languages and I manage to express myself, with more or less success, in all of them.» (Semainier de 1969, 45). He mentions, in the Semainier de l’incertitude (23), that his order of proficiency was, after French, Spanish, then German and finally English. He inserted, in different ways, in his later books, passages written in these languages. The 250 pages of Ma Confession, include a sudden series of seven pages in English (91-97), and later seven in German (105-111), then seven in Spanish (113-119). In these diaries, the text is scattered in paragraphs written alternately in one of these languages, and at times Caraco goes unexpectedly from one to the other in the middle of a paragraph, or even in the middle of the sentence. He said of his Semainier de 1969: «The informed reader knows, as he reads me, that he is listening to a fugue in four voices» (134).
He was a reactionary and a misanthrope of the first order. «I don’t hide my profession of pessimism and I’m an avowed partisan of reaction» (1969, 104); «the conservation of a beautiful armchair is to me more important than the existence of many bipeds of articulate voice» (Agonie, 237); «I would be pleased indeed, if the universe were full of blazing ovens, and crowded concentration camps, and starving people deported» (1969, 118). He was not only a racist and a colonialist, but also vaguely a monarchist, at least nostalgic of the Ancien Régime («The sooner we reestablish monarchy, the better» (Agonie, 37); inegalitarian («Behold the kind of runts which form the common humanity, does it look as if they are our brothers?» ; «Which is the falsest idea? Equality», Agonie, 233 & 279), and in favour of the death penalty («I approve of the death penalty», Agonie, 59). All this to please modern humanists...
His scathing insults against Arabs and Blacks leave no doubt as to the scarce esteem that he had for them, and miscegenation was unthinkable to him: «Paris is already full of Arabs and Negroes, soon it will look as if we are in Brazil» (1969, 8) (and I do not quote the worst of his imprecations).
Presenting himself as «the heir of immortal French traditions» (Agonie, 86), he admired French culture and especially the literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: «The time when the French flourished and had their greatness measured, between Louis XIV and the first Napoléon» (Homme de Lettres, 115); «from 1600 to 1800... during this time, France had a style» (Incertitude, 167); «from 1650 to 1775... one reaches such a harmony, in which greatness does not crush and whose measure is not compressed» (Agonie, 33).
On the other hand, he detested contemporary France, which he considered decadent: «I shall die as a Francophobe» (Agonie, 262); «France... the older I grow, the more I despise her» (Confession, 112). Although he chose to live there, he did not feel integrated and did not demand a naturalisation: «I am not a French writer, I do not feel as such» ; «Albert Caraco is not French, does not feel French, and has little esteem for France» (Agonie, 62 & 270).
Toward the Jews his feelings are mixed. He confesses to being «a Jew of birth and for a long time discontented for being» (Agonie, 140). He was very contented in his last years, particularly during the war of 1967, when he developed a racism in full scale, placing the Jews at the summit of the human pyramid: «We are the backbone of the white race» (Confession, 36). But that didn’t stop him from making unfavourable conclusions from his meetings with Jews: «In Paris one may see some very horrible Jews, these scoundrels coming from Algeria, ... yellow eyes, green skin and frizzy hair», Agonie, 251; «God! The Jews are ugly!», 1969, 100; and even his own family: «From what do I descend? I wonder how did all these runts even dare to survive» Agonie, 265.
He regretted having converted to Catholicism for a few years, which consumed his first works. He didn’t think much of Christian and Muslim monotheism. To his eyes the Qur’an was «the disgrace of the human spirit» (Confession, 140), and the Church, whose only merit was «having for a long time favoured the fine-arts», is «the moral cancer of the white race» (Agonie, 172 & 110). However, he had in the same sack of contempt all three branches of monotheism, even the Jewish: «Judaism, the Church and Islam are not agreeable to me, the spirit which animates them is often lowness itself» ... «The Church, Islam and Judaism, I call them all poisonous; the sundry pagan religions are much more agreeable, the Greeks were admirable, the Celts were charming» (Agonie, 246 & 251). As we see, sometimes he professes a preference for paganism: «The pagan religions are worth much more than the delirious systems which have replaced them» (Agonie, 33); «The restoration of paganism will save the species» (Confession, 62). With regard to eternal life, he declared: «the very idea of relieving my needs for thousands of years immediately makes me dissent with revealed religions» (Confession, 203).
Upon reading these virulent diatribes, which are rather offensive toward the French and the Christians, sometimes I wonder, divided between indignation and fascination, how far my situation as a reader could be symmetrical to that of a Jew reading Céline’s Trifles for a Massacre. Regarding that, I must observe that Caraco, in spite of his little sympathy toward anti-Semites («The anti-Semite is a brute, he eats grass on all fours», Agonie, 141), seems to have a certain esteem for Céline, whom he considered a «true born writer», a «possessed man», in opposition to the mere «man of letters, the ape of inspiration», which he saw in Camus (Agonie, 85).
His style has the trenchant tone of intolerance, and an archaic syntax, which is sometimes endeared with a precious mien, such as his tic of using old fashioned negations without the word «pas», which doesn’t please everyone. He has whims, for instance, the expression «we lack a thesis about...» He knew how to avoid the tricks of slang and didn’t overuse exclamation marks.
«A good book is an exercise of thought and style», he noted (Homme de Lettres, 262), and without a doubt he gave us good books. One will see that I am far from subscribing to all of his ideas, or sharing his tastes. But I do not want to give the impression that I like to read him only to savour his fulgurant style, or laugh at the delirious exaggerations of a cantankerous prophet. He forgot, as we say, to be a fool; his pages are also valuable for their truthfulness. I don’t think he was mistaken in remarking that pollution and overcrowding are our primary problems, even more nowadays, and that they are connected. He cast against the literature and the arts of his time a thousand pertinent traits. He has penetrating views on psychology.
He was quite a biophobe: he didn’t love life and wasn’t particularly attracted by sex, seeing himself as a «civil monk» (Agonie, 16), admiring the celibacy of priests (Confession, 200): «desire has nothing honourable about it, pleasure has nothing sublime» (Agonie, 248); «I am a puritan and I despise debauchery» (author’s English, Incertitude, 142). He resumes: «No cat, no dog, no lover, no woman», and then pontificates: «The company of females, I confess, bores me; almost all of them seem ugly and stupid» Confession, 164); («Have I ever had a taste for boys? I don’t know anything about that, and I am not all curious about these discoveries» (Confession, 50). Has he ever known love? Sometimes he says no, sometimes he confesses to some encounters: «I have had very few relations of experience with women, usually poor street women» (Agonie, 89); «those rare creatures whom I payed to overpower didn’t heat up my blood» (Confession, 50). Sexual desire was unbearable to him: «The last drop of misery: carnal temptation!» he confided in May 1963, «I will strangle myself from rage!» (Agonie, 191). When these crises happen, «I need to relieve myself» (Confession, 26 & 56), seeking «shameless and brief self-abuse» (Agonie, 238), following the example of «misanthropic philosophers who preferred their own hands to the legs of the ladies» (Agonie, 67). And sometimes he becomes hard and harsh: «I hate my phallus more than everything else, and a thousand times more... I’ve burnt it, I’ve cut it, I’ve sliced it» (Agonie, 135).
Among his rare positive aspirations one will note the discreet but recurrent expression of his love for the country and the garden. He says three times in Ma Confession: «I wish I could live in the countryside and have a house in the middle of a garden and spend my evenings working the earth» (27); «I would really like to have a house in the country and be able to write in a garden, of which I would be the owner» (122); «I have always desired to live in the country and I have always lived in the stench and the noise of cities» (254). The same idea is found in his Semainiers: «I only wish to breathe the air of the country and to work in a silent garden, I hate Paris» (Agonie, 132); «If I was asked about the nature of my preferences, I would humbly say that I would like to have a house with a garden, on the border of an old city» (1969, 151).
«I have some wishes to be translated» he declared (Agonie, 81), but judging that «most translations deviate from the original, according to the inanity and the lowness of our interpreters» (Homme de Lettres, 156), he prayed: «Lord, grant me faithful translators» (Agonie, 259). What would be his opinion of me, a poor laborious goy, first as his reader and then as his translator, I can’t imagine.
He was a solitary man. «I witness, alone in my room, as an isolated man, a man walled up, a man who chokes and who will die in the dark» ... «My audience is the walls of my room» (Agonie, 258, 274). His bitterness was so great that he didn’t think little of himself: «My book will blow up like a bomb over Europe» ... «When I am dead, it will be the remains of a giant that will be suddenly found surrounded by French ants» (Agonie, 248, 256). Indeed, he was everything a man could be, except a homunculus.
(March 2005. Original French version here)