pon his return from a war in the course of which he had, as was his custom, defeated many an enemy and reduced many a citadel to gravel and ash, King Guita wished to take the air beneath a certain aged pavilion. In the most solitary courtyard of the palace it stood, of simple stone, its floor adorned by a mosaic of no great originality. No legend clung to its grounds. A linden hung over the pavilion, whose furnishings in their entirety consisted of a single wooden bench. In his now-distant childhood days, King Guita had spent many a long and easy evening there, playing in the wan scent of lime at his governess’ feet.
When, on his return, he found the pavilion leveled and the linden felled, he flew into a royal fury. He summoned the palace architect and demanded he explain himself. In a quavering voice, the man pleaded for his life. Wasn’t it his duty, foreseeing as he did His Majesty’s victory and the treasure he would certainly bring back, to enlarge the palace storehouses? And since that courtyard, forgotten by one and all, with its crumbling pavilion and its ailing linden, adjoined one of the storerooms already overflowing with the spoils of earlier wars…
King Guita saw that the architect believed himself to have acted rightly, and so for a time spared his life. But a feeling of irreparable loss overcame him whenever his thoughts returned to the coolness of tile beneath his knees and the scent a light wind from the tapering leaves wafted toward him. Then it seemed that he had lost much more than a city, more even than a province: something like his kingdom’s secret heart. One day, when this feeling assailed him with greater force than usual, his gaze settled on the architect. He frowned, and had him put to death.
He ordered the man’s successor to erect the pavilion once more in a faithfully recreated courtyard, and to have a tree, like the first in every way, transplanted there. When all was done at last, he went one night and sat alone on the wooden bench. And lingered there, sniffing the air in vain. The tree’s very odor seemed foreign and unnatural to him.
When the light had grown so dim that the mosaic could no longer be made out, he let himself slip from the bench onto the floor, onto the very spot where he had spent so many peaceful hours as a child. He ran his fingers over the mosaic’s surface without finding the same terrain of tiny ridges, the same infinitesimal fissures, the same traces of wear his fingertips remembered. The pitiless ruler wept. He who had never before trembled was terrified. The pavilion and the linden, so lately but a memory, were a reality once more. Suddenly the king doubted his powers of recall, his own name, his very kingship. And if he were not King Guita, who was he, by God, and what was he doing in this strange palace on this hostile night?
To ensure he might never again suffer so nightmarish a feeling, he forbade henceforth any change, be it even in the tiniest detail, to the city. It could of course grow, and maintaining it would always be a sacred duty, but what already was would forever so remain, enjoying inalienable rights and total precedence over what was yet to come, over all the unformed and inchoate future.
The king’s character and project seemed to capture the imaginations of his subjects and their children, as for many years, almost unto the present day, his will was done. Today, few dare venture into the city’s distant heart where, on days of high wind, the last buildings from the Founder’s era finish breaking apart, waves subsiding in a sea of rubble.
Abandoned, too, are the plans to preserve the knotted and dangerous maze of medieval alleys. We have our people’s long allegiance to the folly of a single man to thank for this our dwelling place: the sole existing urban order aimed at totality, a concentric and cumulative keep, time and the city turning ideally round a memory like a wheel around an axle.
(translated by Edward Gauvin )
Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud's novel La Faculté des songes (Grasset, 1982) won the prestigious Prix Renaudot, and his most recent collection of stories, Singe savant tabassé par deux clowns (Grasset, 2005), was awarded the Bourse Goncourt for achievement in the form. His thirty-year career spans eight novels and more than 95 stories that have been translated in Germany, Norway, Denmark, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece, China, Russia, Mexico, Venezuela, Slovenia, Hungary, and Croatia.
Edward Gauvin graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and, last November, received a Young Translators Fellowship from the American Literary Translators Association. His work on Châteaureynaud, the author's first appearances in English, may be seen at AGNI Online and, among other pieces he translated, at Words Without Borders.
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story and translation copyright by author/translator 2008, translation revised 2013 all rights reserved