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from the July 2008 issue

Ports of Madness

"We have art in order not to die of the truth."—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

A gray hood, a red shawl, woolen gloves, tight knit socks, leather boots, a big fleece sweater, Dacron pants barely visible beneath an enormous fur coat. She advanced, postcard in hand.

The sun was at its height, and city-dwellers sipped their drinks on café terraces grown too narrow. Summer shone on faces sunburned but relaxed. The heat had loosened their lips and made them quick to speak. So they exclaimed, without restraint, as the lady in fur passed by: she must be mad to dress like that in weather like this!

Toutina walked past the café terrace, her gaze fixed on an imaginary horizon. The fringes of her red shawl, lifted by the breeze, swept aside the comments hurled after her. She'd spent the day walking back and forth across town at the same resolute pace. With no real goal in mind, she changed course according to whatever interest or revulsion the streets inspired in her. For she was possessed of taste. Beneath her thick gloves, her nails were long and well-polished. Between several layers of wool and her delicate person were stylish undergarments edged in fine lace.

When she pushed open the door to her apartment, the sun, that flirt, was winking its last at the moon. Without taking off her coat, she went to the kitchen, made herself some soup, and served it up still piping hot before the television. Patrick Poivre d'Arvor was describing all the things that, more and more, brought the worlds of men and beasts together.

She took the postcard from her pocket and gazed at it for a long time—as long as it took to fix the same image in her heart, which began beating wildly. A dumb TV movie came on. Patrick Poivre d'Arvor had said many things about countless places around the world, but nothing about Greenland. She turned the TV off, went to her room, and threw herself on the bed without taking her clothes off. Toutina didn't usually go to sleep early. Before, she had often spent her nights writing. But for some time now, words had eluded her, and then, when they deigned to present themselves, it was only to make plain their inability to put names to the absolute void and infinite plenitude that coexisted in her.

Stretched out comfortably, she kept her eyes fixed on the opposite wall, where in a picture painted by a master's hand unfurled the glacial beauty of Greenland.

After a long moment of silence, Toutina started murmuring into an invisible ear: "You know, I was in town today. I even walked across the bridge—you know, our bridge, our favorite route, by the big terrace. Oh, I almost forgot! I went to the store—you know, the sporting goods store, where we bought our things before heading up to the mountains. I even bought you gloves and a scarf like mine, of very soft wool. We must be careful not to catch cold, especially with these blizzards. Soup, you see, is the best thing, a nice hot soup takes the chill off…"

The only conversations Toutina had were the endless monologues she murmured in her bedroom. Her wild-eyed stare had put off more than one chatty neighbor. Tired of talking for two, the gossips who crossed her path had at first thought that her silence wouldn't last long. When time proved them wrong, they were quick to come to an opinion: Toutina had gone mad.

Her erratic behavior only confirmed their diagnosis. Before adopting the look of a Greenlander, Toutina had earlier transformed herself into an archetypal West Indian woman. She stuffed herself with cod, listened to Kassav until her eardrums bled, and shook her booty. In the middle of the winter, she wore the frilly colored dresses of a Caribbean lady invited to a plantation ball. A few paintings of the islands coordinated her décor with her clothes. When she was putting her make-up on in the bathroom, the sight of the painting reflected in the mirror made her stop short. As though directing a film, she affected a series of dissolves that made a Caribbean beach appear in the silvered glass. For she knew that he who had painted the scene had kept the blue of the seas in the depths of his eyes, and walked at length on the beach, in order to find the best angle from which to view the landscape. He had, at long last, sat his bottom down on the warm sand before laying out his paints and calling on them to describe to the world entire a wonder that existed only in his soul.

To Constantine, a friend who had come to ask after her and made a remark about her clothes, Toutina spoke in broken Creole before whirling about to the rhythm of Zouk Machine, chanting Bayo! Bayo you! Dumbfounded by the spectacle before her, the visitor contented herself with following the dancer with her eyes. A faithful friend, Constantine was the only one who had not broken off contact with she whom others now only called the madwoman.

During another visit, Constantine, who had expected to open the door on a Caribbean setting, was surprised to see her friend emerge from a tent erected in the middle of the living room. To Constantine's questioning wave, Toutina responded with a very serious Aleykoum salam, bismillah!

"But Toutina—what world have you escaped to now?"

"I'm a Berber," she said, straightening her veil.

Toutina claimed to be Moroccan for several weeks. Every night she moved her tent from one room to another to imitate the nomadic lifestyle of the Touaregs. Her stomach accustomed itself to couscous, mint tea quenched her thirst, and kohl revitalized her looks. On her hands and feet were drawn, in henna, arabesques as sinuous as those she traced when she journeyed into town. During her rare outings, she pressed a postcard from Morocco to her heart and ignored those who, moored to terra firma, called her crazy. Red lights and crosswalks no longer meant anything to her. Skirting apartment buildings and plane trees, she saw herself wandering the High Atlas.

Until then, Toutina changed worlds as she pleased. Some mocked her gently, and others ignored her, but no one bothered her. Things took a turn for the worse the day she was spotted on the banks of the Rhine, decked out in a wetsuit and equipped with an aqualung.

"I want to see the mermaids underwater," she explained, without batting an eyelid, to policemen alerted by the residents.

She was committed to an asylum for several months despite protests from Constantine, who insisted before anyone who would listen that her friend wasn't insane, just a bit batty. People had retorted that the former Berber now took herself for Captain Cousteau. Sickened by the verdict, and saddened to see Toutina's state grow worse, Constantine found consolation in thinking that the time at the asylum might do her friend good. If Toutina remained impassive, she impatiently awaited Constantine's weekly visits. When the end of her stay at the asylum was drawing near, Constantine brought Toutina her mail. Trembling, Toutina tore open the envelope and saw the postcard.

"We're in Kinshasa! I'm African!" she whooped at a dismayed Constantine.

"Toutina, cut it out or they won't let you leave."

Upon her release from the asylum, Toutina let herself drift toward the twin banks of the Congo. Her gaze flew over everything and lingered on Kinshasa. And yet she knew nothing of that distant city save for what Patrick Poivre d'Arvor had said about it: Mobutu's dictatorship, Kabila's assassination, and the presidential seat become hereditary, a throne surrounded by Ravaillac's army. Thanks to the programming on Arté, Toutina enjoyed a documentary about the city that henceforth took the shape of her heart. At night, after indifferently blending ingredients supposedly from Africa, she swallowed the mixture in the living room, where the voice of Papa Wemba rang out. To help digest, she executed a few uncoordinated movements that she solemnly baptized Ndombolo or Mapuka, the names of popular dances in Kinshasa. She fell asleep recounting to herself a cheery walk through the neighborhood of Matongué. She spent her days perfecting her metamorphosis. On the Rue de la Course, she had bought, in addition to yams and palm oil, masks to Africanize the walls as well as a number of highly colorful dresses. When she slipped on these outfits so like Mardi Gras costumes, Toutina would waddle around, sticking out her buttocks to mimic the look of those women with arched backs one might pass on the streets of Kinshasa. The biting cold in no way changed her new fashion style. Constantine ended up accepting her friend's madness, for to replenish her stock of African products, Toutina did not hesitate to brave the cold. In tropical clothes and simple sandals, she squelched slogged through the mud and snow. Determined, Toutina warmed herself with everything winter cannot freeze in us.

One night, while the town was hiding in the early dark of winter, the doorbell interrupted Toutina as she was finishing her plate of yams. A few minutes later, two large bags blocked the hallway. Two silhouettes that now and again drew closer and then farther apart detached themselves from the immaculate walls like paintings of India ink. That night, the nosy neighbor lady, who liked to keep an eye on Toutina's windows from afar, saw the lights in the apartment go out early.

The next morning, while the smell of shaving cream still filled the bathroom, two cups of coffee faced each other across the kitchen table. "Le mistral gagnant" spread through the apartment on Renaud's magical voice. Toutina hummed along: "Let me sit on a bench with you for five minutes, watching the park as long as there are people in it / And listening to your laugh that cracks the walls, which knows how to heal my wounds, heal them all / Let me sit on a bench for five minutes with you, watching the sun till the day is through / Telling you of good times that are gone, though I don't care, telling you that we're not the bad guys / And if I'm crazy, it's only about your eyes, which you've got two of / Telling you that life must be loved, loved even if . . ."

The magic of the song transported Toutina into the wake of her childhood. But in this daydream, she heard her prince murmur the same lyrics and her gaze drifted up to join the clouds. She loved life—that morning, more than ever.

In gloves and leather boots, a red shawl, an ensemble of the finest taste beneath fine fur, Toutina glowed. A timid sun bedecked with clouds was barely casting its gaze on the snow when two couples who seemed to know one another well exchanged a few pleasantries by the entrance to a downtown bookstore.

"You don't say!" said the man, drawing away with his wife.

"You bet! That's her, that's our neighbor," the wife confirmed. "It's like she's sane again. At any rate she's started dressing for the season and that's already a big step."

"It's really amazing—as soon as her man comes back from abroad, she's normal again."

All the neighbors made the same observation. Constantine satisfied herself with savoring the renewed bond with her friend. However, nagged by a slight worry, she waited for a few weeks to pass without an outbreak before letting down her guard.

One morning, after having accompanied her darling to the airport, where he was leaving for Addis Ababa, Toutina went back to her house with a magazine that advertised "Everything about Ethiopia!" That night, Constantine, who had come to show her the results of her latest bored bourgeois woman shopping spree, was greeted with these words: "We Ethiopians don't appreciate that kind of thing!"

"Toutina, what's happened to you? Don't tell me you've gone out of your mind again."

Those who saw a crazy woman in Toutina quite simply walked the straight and narrow of the obvious without noticing the invisible line she followed. Her seeming chaos was in fact based on logic she alone understood.

The man she loved was an adventurer. From the day they had met, he had presented himself as a seeker of fortune. Toutina had suggested arrangements, a little time management maybe—for navigating life together, she said, was the greatest adventure of all. But, inflexible, the globetrotter had brusquely retorted: "Why do you want to change me, at my age? I've always been the way I am, and I'm not changing now. You'll have to love me as I am. I want to stay free."

Cupid's arrows had put out Toutina's eyes, blinding her. Behind love's veil we see with our skins. Midnight caresses, morning kisses, a teasing smile and, above all, an adventurer's eyes where Yves Klein had dipped his brush—these were worth more to Toutina than any impossible arrangements.

The adventurer remained a prisoner of his idea of freedom. A freedom that he went off to seek at the ends of the earth while she lay hidden in him, asking only to be born of an acceptance of self, of his own feelings. He was as much an adventurer on sea and land as he was in love, and didn't want to feel tied to one woman. To Toutina's great displeasure, he considered himself free to meet whoever he wanted, according to the dictates of circumstance. He didn't know that what belongs to no one belongs to everyone. Toutina would have liked to play one last card by flinging a phrase at him that went something like "A slave that changes masters often is no freer than a slave who stays with only one." But love had stripped her of words and turned her courage to resignation. Disarmed, she did as powerlessness will in such cases: made concessions. She accepted even the most terrible among them: to let her loved one leave, and await his return.

Alone, she murmured to herself: "Because the world calls you, my heart will remain cheerful over the ache of your absence. On tortuous paths, all the green plants will tell you I am there. In your milky white wake, the bubbles on the sea foam will remind you of the pearls on my cheeks. Atop the mountains of modesty, rocks will veil themselves in snow to hide cracks yawning with absence from your eyes. When the valleys, swollen with joy at your passing, make you admire all their curves, when in the desert or on the seas you forget the reason for your travels, my shadow will rise up from your footsteps to tell you of the two seasons of my days, your absence and your presence."

Toutina had conceived this monologue for herself at a time when her will still bowed to reason. The years had followed one after another, punctuated by the adventurer's many voyages. She imagined him at the ends of the earth, alone, sad and exhausted or being solaced by a pretty native. This thought wreaked havoc with her life. Jealousy unchained her imagination.

At first sheltered and passive, she was suddenly seized with a frenzy and began to repeat this litany: "You will look at them but I'm the one you'll be seeing. You will pluck the petals of their blossoms but it's my perfume you'll smell. Eyes closed beneath their caresses, you will imagine my hands. At the fateful moment, my name is the one you'll murmur. I am every woman who opens her arms to you at the ends of the earth."

Thus began the metamorphoses of Toutina, for which she was taken to be mad. Each of them corresponded to one of her adventurer's voyages. She had decided to incarnate, all by herself, all the women who might cross the path of her beloved. Her madness was the boat where she drifted, on the sea of love, toward all the ports of the world that her lover's blue eyes illuminated. All who laughed in her wake hid their own anguish. For if Toutina had her madness to keep her from drowning in reality, ordinary mortals were always seeking their rafts in the ocean of life.

Translation of "Ports de Folie." Copyright Fatou Diome. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.

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