Saturday, November 1, 2014

Episode 04 | The abandoned factory


"At your age--"  Carlo had hesitated, and silenced. He was remarkable when it came to being inexact with time, numbers, dates. He probably doesn't know my age, I thought. Does he even know we haven't seen one another for twenty years -- plus three months? My father wouldn't have been counting, like me, year after year remembering he had left on a June morning -- and I was instantly dragged back to my teenager years in rural France. But just before I succumbed to my memories, I again surfaced, blinking as I heard him amending,  "No. Much younger. I was a penniless painter, then." 

"And homeless too," He continued, leaning against the back of his chair, making himself comfortable, and I relaxed too, understanding I was being taken on a ride to his past, "since I had to leave the room I had been sharing in an apartment in the 6e arrondissement, after I graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. My ex-roommate, who had left on a one year trip around the globe, being wealthy, and utmost generous, paid my rent for another couple of months -- 'to give you time to figure out what you want to do', he had suggested. He actually wanted to have the room paid for me for another year, but I had decided it was time to conquer Paris on my own." Smiling, Carlo retreated into his Parisian memories.


"I did not have to figure it out. I knew what I wanted to do.

"I wanted to paint. But I guess my ex-roommate referred to getting a job, or going back to the Apennines, where my grandfather still waited for my return, to help him with the crops.

"I decided to spend all my money on a new easel, plenty of canvases and painting supplies. And so, I could not afford paying the rent after that courteous period ended.

"But sleeping rough did not concern me. What I wanted most was to have a small studio, an atelier for myself.

"I found shelter in an abandoned factory, located in a decaying industrial district, on the outskirts of Paris. I imagine it used to be a tires manufacture, but I never even learned its name. It was a vast room with high walls, left totally empty after the machinery, the furniture, and even the doors inside the building had all been removed -- or stolen. I occupied the corner located farthest from the street, just a few rooms which might have been the administrative quarters, from which the partitions had vanished, too. The rest of the building I left for the noisy population of bats and rats, and the cats that chase them. In the beginning, I would startle at the screeches of their bloody battles of survival, to later grow thankful that they could resolve it among themselves, and not come after me.

"I wasn't exactly hungered when I moved in, but from then on my diet consisted mostly of the leftovers from a neighboring food packing factory -- lots of canned soup. And stale bread, too."

"Are you telling me... you were that poor? That you didn't have enough food, Carlo?" I was in shock. There had never been one single word about this period of my father's life. Had Catherine known about any of this, I wondered. Knowing her, she could have hidden it because she might have been ashamed of her partner's poorness. 

Carlo had studied in Paris, and as far as I knew, he had never returned to the city since then. I did some quick calculations -- he must have been talking about the beginning of the seventies, prior to meeting Catherine in Punaouilo. He was in his early twenties then, and not 'my age'. Had he been in the town during the revolution of May 1968? I wanted to ask, but had no chance, for Carlo was no longer before me, but dwelling in his own past.

"I would say I had just enough food to survive, Laurent... I was eating only once a day, or every other day, depending on what I found to eat..."

But don't get me wrong! I couldn't be any happier!

I was free!

I had no teacher, no boss, no one to follow nor obey! No marching orders! 

And I was allowed to paint all day and night long, day after day...

I had found a narrow, squeaking iron bed someone had dumped because it was rusty. It sat just beside the easel, and I would alternate periods of resting, usually during the day, with longer periods of painting. The glasses on most windows in the factory were broken, and there was always a lovely breeze roaming the room.

There was even running water -- though it would frequently smell to rust, sewage and dead rats -- and if the days had been warm and sunny, in the evenings the water in the pipes would not be so cold and I could shower. When it was too cold, I could still use it to wash my clothes, as few as they were, and the bed sheets I had inherited from my roommate.

I loved the night time for painting, because the district was calmer then. 
The whole world seemed at peace, with people silenced and lost to their sleep and dreams, keeping their agonies and wrongdoings all to themselves, in another realm. The only sound I heard in the evenings, apart from the animals, were distinctive thumps against the other side of the wall, coming from the vaster room I had left unoccupied, where the production lines used to be. Scariest of all, it was a muffled sound that sometimes came from the floor level, but other times right from the top of the wall, close to the beamed ceiling. It sounded like someone was coming in the evenings to dump corpses at the abandoned factory. Or as if a person had jumped from the beams to hang up himself, his lifeless body left twisting on the rope's end bumping against the wall. But there were evenings when the sound seemed to originate from a dozen corpses, like in a mass murder, or from a collective suicide, with a dozen hanged, one after the other. Ghosts? One night, I finally decided to venture into the darkness, to observe bundles of dried up brambles and garbage suddenly spring to life, carried by the wind, storming along the empty room and often gaining so much speed as to become fluorescent under the moonlight and try a brief flight, tortuous ascending curves that ended in dry thumps against the walls. Sometimes against the ceiling, even, to then descend and land heavily, losing bits and pieces and yet, finding the motion to start rolling around again. Not as scary as in my imagination, it was nevertheless a mesmerizing, phantasmagorical spectacle to watch in the unlit, deserted rooms.

There was very little light in the factory, too. Just a couple of lamps still worked in my quarters. And the effect on my art of such dark surroundings was that my paintings gained in contrast, in vibrancy and intensity of lines and textures.

They were never gloomier. 

I was depicting cracked walls, burnt tires, broken windows, all the beautiful decadence of weathering and damage I found around me.

And in retrospect, I was never again as satisfied with my paintings.

I guess you could very appropriately call them 'still life'. My own life was still like a calm lake, and I was painting the images I saw reflected on its surface.

I never left the factory unless to gather food, the first couple of months, and never met another person.

What a privilege to be completely silent! For weeks in a row. Have you ever experienced that, Laurent?

No small talk, no deep conversations, nothing! The sound of my breath and my heartbeat, these only were keeping me company.

My whole world consisted of the patio next to the factory. I had neatly rearranged the piles of old tires left behind to dry and disintegrate, so that it somehow resembled a forest of calcined trunks. That's where I spent a few hours outdoors every day, reading, sunbathing, doing push-ups.

And meditating.

My ex-roommate from the École had visited India on one of his holidays and brought with him some techniques I was so lucky to learn.

At the end of each sitting session, I would daily pray for the happiness of all beings, and I felt utterly at peace, Laurent.

"I had no idea, Carlo!" I exclaimed. But only after my father's silence had lasted long enough, indicating that he did not want to talk any further. "I've never heard none of this before, nor saw it published anywhere. How come?" It would only fill the gaps in his catalogs' biographies, that I confess I had been reading along the years to keep up with my father's story. "It would add up so much to your reputation of being a reclusive master!" I had decided to tease him a bit, to bring him out of his mutism. "I think you know you are often compared to Balthus."

"Balthus once declared painting is a form of prayer." Carlo retorted. "I wish I had said that first. Or maybe I have, but no one heard it... since I had been talking only to myself, ha-ha! But I guess that's the only thing we have in common! As for being a master, that only means I'm getting old, and soon I'll have to teach the young. If there are any volunteers. And that my artistic identity is frozen, because art critics have come to respect or fear me! I feel like a mummy, when they call me 'master'!"

"I was thinking more on your seclusion than on your 'mastery', Carlo." I teased him further. "I'm sorry if I mentioned Balthus. But like him, you now have a painting that was bought for over a million dollars during your life time, still. And you are often compared to Morandi, too. How about that?"

"That's the greatest compliment ever made to me. Being compared to Morandi, ha! Might be because we are both Italian? Apart from that, I hate comparisons! And I'm happy to hear you've taken interest in my career, Laurent." Carlo seemed touched. "As for the million dollar painting, that has happened just once yet, and believe me, I didn't get all that money."

"I hate comparisons too, Carlo. I know how that feels. But in my case it's not Balthus nor Morandi." I sighed. "I'm often being compared to you! I'm always the son of the great painter. It sucks! And the day I publish my first book, I know I'll be compared to Catherine, and turned into the son of the best-selling author." After I finished my ranting, that Carlo had listened with raised eyebrows, I felt ashamed and changed the subject. "But let's return to your story, Carlo... I'm fascinated!"

"If it feels so bad, you're still young enough to try to become a chef, or a surgeon. How about those, Laurent?" Carlo confronted me. "Nothing has been imposed on you, I think. You've always been the handsome prince roaming freely through life. Your remark sounded arrogant and spoiled... and I hope you are not!" There was no anger in his voice, just some concern that I had become a different person from the kid he had been raising until 13 years old. "As for my story... fascinated, are you son? How fascinating do you think a clogged toilet is? Or having to dig through trash for food? I'm pretty sure you've never had those experiences, Laurent..." And we veered into his past.

I did not have food to eat more than once daily, but instead I had to unclog the toilet every time I used it -- again, not so often, because I did not eat much, ha-ha! And nevertheless I was happy, so happy to be free, to be on my own, to be left alone!

You have no idea how my solitude was -- and still is -- so very important to me, Laurent.

I knew I could not live like that for long, but I was just trying to live day by day, and not worry about the rest of my life. 

Nor the rest of the year. 

Not about the next day, even.

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