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from the January 2017 issue

Breathtaking View

Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès exposes mismanagement

At this point in the story, the voice stops, immediately replaced by the kind of background music that increases cows’ milk production. Monsieur Wang looks at his watch and shakes his head at the punctuality of the performance. Five o’clock on the dot, good work. Not a bad idea to bring this guy on, he reflects, adjusting his cufflinks. Once more, the proverbial wisdom has proven true: without going into the tiger’s den, how can one hope to lay a hand on its cubs?

Wang-li Wong, “Monsieur Wang” as he makes everyone call him to keep all the natives from mangling his name, is the Chinese manager of [email protected] Books, an assembly plant for e-readers in La Roque-Gageac, in Périgord Noir. An adolescent’s peach-fuzz mustache, in spite of his forty years, his hair slicked back in short, gelled waves, a three-piece suit with a tie and a white buttoned collar. The Asian aspects of his features are faint. He looks more like a Japanese modernist from the sixties than a Chinese man. Perhaps this is the result of the outdated shape of his horn-rimmed glasses.

He is sitting at his desk, in a modern, industrial space improved by several Asian antiques, including a gilt nautilus shell adorned with merpeople and with feet shaped like eagle talons.

On the adjoining terrace, a small, deluxe pigeon loft holds several nests made of precious woods. Monsieur Wang is a pigeon-fancier; he owns six pairs of carrier pigeons, including one star—Free Legs Diamond—for which he paid a hundred thousand euros, putting him ahead of most of the competition.

A proponent of “lean management,” Wang-li Wong works to streamline activity within his company. In pursuit of this goal—and at the urging of Arnaud Méneste, the former owner of the factory that his plant is replacing—he is trying out the practice of having a “storyteller” read aloud during the workday. He followed along with the whole of the first reading, astonished to find himself taken in by the nonsense. The name of the author, a writer of serial novels from the previous century, already escapes him; in any case, the workers appeared to be enthralled, but did not raise their eyes from their work. The initial figures are clear: far from slowing production, the reading sped it up. Even bathroom breaks decreased.

This thought brings the manager’s gaze back to his iPad. Stroking several icons with his finger, he brings wide shots from the surveillance cameras up on the screen, then zooms in on the assembly lines to wait for closing time. The stations are set up in long parallel rows separated by clean, gleaming aisles. Yellow lines on the ground indicate the paths reserved for forklifts, reminding the employees not to let their stools or trays cross this strict boundary. A hundred workers sit per row, heads lowered under the harsh brightness of the fluorescents; almond-green gowns, latex gloves, caps, and breathing masks: a long line of surgeons bent over the golden innards that are their destiny. Monsieur Wang is only interested in the women. He doesn’t know all of their names, but he uses nicknames to distinguish among them: the white-haired slut, the weasel, the fatty with the mustache, smirk, gloomy, loon, nympho, Charlotte . . . The beautiful, the sweet Charlotte Dufrène. He lingers on the oval of her face, examines her big green eyes that sit under thick eyebrows. Milky skin, lips the color of a swollen vulva, messy hair escaping from her bouffant cap. Every fifteen minutes, she glances lovingly at the man seated to her right. Fabrice Petitbout. This lapdog, with his pale mop of hair, needs no nickname. The eyes of a husky, the goatee of a sickly ginger. He has a tongue piercing, a black titanium barbell that makes him lisp on the rare occasions when he speaks. Those two have managed to get placed next to each other on the line; they must have messed around a bit, but they’ve never fucked—Monsieur Wang would bet his life on it.

Bell. Production halts. Not all of the workers react the same way. Some spring up immediately, others—the majority—remain seated for a few seconds, their eyes closed, their chins lowered, as if meditating; a few stretch their muscles, their elbows bent back behind their heads.

Monsieur Wang touches his iPad, and it displays the women’s restrooms. He installed these cameras himself. Sophisticated equipment. Locker rooms, showers, toilets, nothing escapes him: there is even a sensor that opens a video feed on his screen every time someone turns the lock on a stall. The same equipment exists in the men’s room, but he has only looked at it once, when Jaffar stuck it to the white-haired slut during a break.

Here come the women, chattering away as they enter the locker room. Wang has turned off the sound, but he knows he will be able to hear everything on the recordings. He has amassed dozens of hours of this over the last six months on a hard drive in a safe in his office; more than enough for his simple, professional pleasures. They start undressing in front of the narrow lockers that line the walls. Not at all like a striptease, since there is no trace of seduction here. This is the weary disrobing of young girls who have woken too late. The manager, for his part, sees nothing but panties rolling down thighs, an abundance of breasts, buttocks, pelvises, moist variations of liberated flesh under the fluorescent lighting. All of it excites him, even the lumps of fat that deform their hips and the magnifying effect of the flab on their rumps and knees. And finally—Charlotte. He expands the window to see her better. No one wriggles out of a slip the way she does, a trout freeing itself from a net. Her bosom bulges out, protruding and convex; seeing her squirm without losing her shape, he is sure that she would feel firm under his hands. Charlotte enters a shower stall between two white-tiled walls. She scrubs her hair, head thrown back, washes it, massages it. Flecks of suds fall on her breasts, hang from the fuzz on her pubis. To rinse, she turns around and bends over, presenting a breathtaking view of a worker’s backside. She turns again, washes her sex, legs bent.

Wang-li Wong has pulled out his penis; having jerked at himself for a few seconds, he discharges onto the screen of his tablet.

Standing motionless by the door to his office, in his blind spot, the Director of Human Resources has not missed a single moment of the scene. A strange smile spreads across her face; it would be impossible to say whether it is one of complicity or scorn. She silently retreats and disappears.

From The Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (Open Letter, 2017). By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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