The Curse of Smade Basmalle

In the 1920s, six writers came together as part of what would become known as the Frango School — named for the cafe where they drank and laughed in the days before it all went wrong.

The writers in this circle worked in fish markets or canneries to get by. From 1922 to 1924, five of the six Frango writers — all but Smade Basmalle — produced novels of merit. There were translations and a bit of glory for the seaside principality that had spawned them. Critics across Europe took notice, and the Commisar of Culture was in heaven. The writers — his writers! — had accomplished something in the eyes of the wider world.

One night, after having searched the twisting cobblestone streets, the Commisar found the government lawyer in the drawing room of a certain brothel, and he said:

“Hold it, friend. You and I have an appointment — at the Cafe Frango.”

“Time to impress your artists once again, Commisar? But whatever do you need me for?”

“You’ll see, soon enough. Anyway, a little less in the way of debauchery won’t kill you.”

“But how can you be certain of that, Commisar?”

“Put on your hat.”

“It is already on my head, Commisar, as you can plainly see.”

“So it is. Let’s be off, then.”

The Commisar walked out of the lamplit room, resisting the softly spoken invitations of a woman at the door, and he ventured into the cold Atlantic wind, his belly shaking with each step. The lawyer, as thin as a blade, followed a few paces behind.

That night the warm and dark Cafe Frango, which smelled of fish stews and fruity sangrias, was filled, as usual, with dock workers, customs officers, ex-soldiers, mechanics, latter-day pirates, ladies of low reputation, rural types corrupted by long years in town, and, here and there, dazed American tourists, in white socks. Upon entering the place, the Commisar spotted his writers at a back table. They seemed to be arguing over something or other. One of them — the beautiful Renee Viellejaz, the only woman in the circle — even spat on the floor, seemingly in disgust.

“With such artistic types,” thought the Commisar, “who are blind to conventional behavior, my heart finds a home indeed.”

He dragged two chairs across the floor and sat down. With an all but undetectable air of contempt, the writers nodded in the direction of the Commisar and the lawyer before returning to their talk, which seemed to concern itself less with literary matters than with who owed whom money, and how much, not to mention their latest sexual escapades.

The Commisar drank it all in, his moist lips quivering. The lawyer sat slumped, trying to catch the attention of the gypsy girl with guitar on the corner stage. At two in the morning, maybe three, the Commisar worked up his courage and addressed the table at last:

“Excuse me…. A-hem! Yes, yes, hello there…. ah, friends, I, I, I have been listening with great delight to… everything, and I should like to inform you, or to remind you, as the case may be, that I find myself, oddly enough, given various past indiscretions we shall not describe here, in a position of some power, governmentally speaking. Believe me, it was thrust upon me! I did not seek it.”

He drank. He had their attention. Oh, it was wonderful.

“Even so, this position of mine, as much as I did not seek it, allows me to serve you… to — I say, let me get straight to the main idea. Would you… you men of letters… and lady! No, I have not forgotten the beautiful Renee! But back to business: Would you be agreeable to forming a union, a kind of writers’ union? Government funds would see to it that — ”

“Commisar, you are quite crazy.”

“Go boil an egg, monsieur.”

The Commisar had expected this razzing, this good-humored heckling, and so he continued: “I am quite sane — and quite serious to boot. Other countries have such unions! It is only natural that a principality such as — ”

“Which countries, Commisar?”

“Suck a nut, monsieur.”

“And do you feel all right, Commisar?“

“I believe he has been struck with fever — from all his slumming, no doubt.”

“Let’s measure his temperature!”

“Nurse! Prepare a thermometer for the Commisar’s butt-hole!”

“Use goose fat.”

The writers laughed — how they laughed, slapping the grimy surfaces of the tables, elbowing those near them in the ribs, etc., etc. — all, that is, except for Smade Basmalle, the youngest of the group, who was the only one sober.

None of the others in the little gang took Smade seriously, figuring him for a pretender, a hanger-on, a man who, for whatever private reason, was compelled to make a show of being a writer. So it seemed strange to them that he was the one to react with anger to the Commisar’s proposal, which none of them were taking seriously at that point.

“I will never write for the government,” said Smade. “Its involvement will sully the act.”

After a pause the others seconded his remark:

“The boy is right! The regime will have none of our work!”

“And how!”

“Jesus! Can you imagine it?”

“Ah, yes, it must be admitted — Salfando is not known as a great book-lover.”

“Nonsense!“ said the Commisar. “We believe in the artist’s right to be at liberty. Absolute liberty! Within reasonable limits, you understand.” Now the Commisar adopted a confidential tone of voice: “As for Salfando, well, yes, he is a big man on the radio, and his exploits as a sea captain cannot be discounted, let’s give him that, by all means — but in a century or two, who will remember him? Oh, I suppose a dried-up historian will know his name and deeds, but who else? On the other hand, the men at this table — and you, dear Renee, I am not forgetting you! — it is my belief that the men at this table, with my assistance, have a chance at fetching us more glory than Salfando himself, him with his victories and speeches.”

He had uttered the words “victories” and “speeches” as if they were contemptible things.

At the Commisar’s audacity, the writers gasped and laughed out loud.

“I had always supposed you to be more of a courtier than a renegade,” said the lovely Renee, her eyes flashing as she tipped back the peasant’s cap on her head and allowed two streams of dark cigarette smoke to emerge from her pretty little nostrils.

An innocent, drunken smile spread across the Commisar’s face. His cheeks turned rosy. But look at young Basmalle — eyes on his lap, lips straight and serious!

“What if your novelists were to write things beyond the comprehension, or appreciation, of the bureaucrats who would dole out our wage? What then, Commisar? For my part, I believe we are better off in the canneries. At least the foremen who supervise us in those fetid rooms monitor only the actions of our hands and not the things in our hearts and minds.”

The Commisar waved away the tobacco smoke with his plump pink hand and said: “Who is that boy with the brash mouth?”

“He is — ”

” — a young man named — ”

“If you would allow me to speak for myself.” And here he made use of a peasant gesture, pounding the bones of his chest with a balled-up hand. “I… am Smade Basmalle!”

The Commisar filed through his arsenal of rhetorical tactics and decided on wit: “Perhaps I am mistaken, my young friend, but I do not recall having seen the name ‘Basmalle’ along the spine of any book on my shelf.”

A hooting went up at the table, which gave the Commisar a rush of delight.

And the young man, this Basmalle fellow, had on his face an expression that could be described only as wounded.

The teams had been chosen, it seemed to the Commisar, and he believed he had skillfully set himself on the side of the established authors against someone who was an upstart at best and, more likely, an impostor of some sort or other.

“Ah, but no matter!” the Commisar said, shifting into a cheerful sarcasm. “We can’t all of us be published authors. Such an eventuality takes luck, connections, and a species of drawing-room cunning — am I right? Ah? Have I put the thing just so? To see one’s name in print requires qualities of spirit besides talent, to be sure! And so, young friend, I shall call your effrontery by the name of courage and, further giving you the benefit of the doubt, which is based upon my own great esteem for all of you creative types, I shall go so far as to take it as a sign of your gifts. There!

“Accordingly, Mr. Basmalle, I will most decidedly wink at your dearth or utter lack of publications and be so good as to grant you a charter membership in our little union, if I am to have the good luck to render my fanciful notion a reality. And let me assure you, Mr. Basmalle, as well as your much better known peers, that no bureaucrat, no mere government functionary, will ever find himself in a position to judge, from an artistic standpoint, the work of those seated at this table.

“To me,” the Commisar went on, “you are all a kind of nobility — yes, nobility! I apologize for using a word that has fallen so treacherously out of fashion, but there it is. Nobility! How it pains me to think of your spending hours in dreary canneries and markets that could be spent bringing us our literary glory.”

Someone was shouting. It was Smade Basmalle.

“Glory, you say? Is it truly so glorious, Commisar, to find oneself exiled to one of Salfando’s African camps, which is where we shall surely end up if we agree to this crackpot scheme of yours?”

“Yes, Commisar,” put in one of the others. “There is always that risk of offending our beloved but, let’s face it, rather hotheaded leader.”

The Commisar was patting his own belly. He had been through enough back-room intriguing to know when victory was within his grasp. The thing to do now was to let it come to him, like a kitten.

And so he kept patting his belly and, when he spoke again, after a carefully measured interval of holding his tongue, it was in an almost inaudible voice that forced the writers to lean in like supplicants.

“Ah, Salfando, Salfando,” the Commisar was saying. “Do you know how much I love that man? Are you aware that my father was the one who presented him with his first skiff? Now, little secret, the humble seacraft was stolen, but that’s between us chickens. Eh? Ha ha! And do you know that it was I who — and this was in our boyhood, mind you — ’twas none other than I who taught him how to gather the fruits de mer?

“With a shaker of salt, Salfando and I would sit upon our little island — we thought that crag of rock was ours, you see, ours — and we would crack open those bumpy little oyster shells and then salt that slimy meat and suck it down and laugh. Yes, we laughed! Can you imagine it? Salfando! Tossing back his head and giving in to merriment? Ah, but I saw it myself! Many times! Ah! Perhaps we imagined ourselves pirates, bandits of the seas. We were not more than ten years old. Those days — before power, before wealth, before esteem — in those days we existed in a kind of paradise, the great Salfando and I. And so it is no mere boast, when I tell you I have our leader wrapped around my little finger.

“Now. Let me give you all my solemn word: In the future, when people sit in cafes such as this one discussing literature, the names on their lips will not be only Tolstoy, Dumas, Collins. No! To that illustrious list we may add your names. Yours. Yours, I tell you, yours! Or so I sincerely hope.”

The writers gave a thunderous cheer. Even Smade cracked. The mere thought of his name having a weight perhaps equal to those of his idols (the sublime Dumas!) brought forth a blast of sound from his thin chest.

The Commisar sent a table boy for the lawyer. He was found outside, in the wind, with the gypsy girl. The Commisar instructed him to draw up a contract in the margins of a paper menu. After a bit of giddy haggling, during which one writer demanded “fresh typewriters” (“And it must be stated in exactly that manner!”), the parties agreed on the following:

Whereas, the undersigned Novelists shall be paid by the Government two hundred esparcos per each hour spent in the work of novel-writing for as long as the undersigned shall live as citizens of P — –. That an office with fresh typewriters be provided for the purpose of said novel-writing in which the undersigned must work under light supervision. That the undersigned set their own working hours and select their own subject matter. That the undersigned be employed nowhere else or else forfeit membership to the union. That Government inspectors may regularly check the progress of union members. We, the undersigned, do hereby agree on this day, 3 September 1926.

The writers all signed. Smade’s signature, like that of the crazy American John Hancock, was the largest of all.

“Sweet Mary,“ the Commisar whispered, kissing the contract. “We are saved for posterity.”

He ordered brandy. He ordered schnaaps. He ordered wine and beer. They drank until dawn. All but Smade, who had gone back to his squalid room.

Just as he finished a great burst of writing, at three the next afternoon, the Commisar was awakened in bed by his wife’s poodles, who were licking his meaty toes.

“Two hundred esparcos per hour? I must have been out of my head!”

Just as he uttered the word “head,” a hot pain sliced through his skull.

In the union’s first nine months or so, typewriters clacked at all hours, and three novels were completed. While he was proud of his writers’ efforts, the Commisar believed these books were nothing special.

The next year, the writers got slack. They claimed they were suffering from “hand cramps,” “writer’s block,” and the bleak mood known as “the hypo.” Years passed without another novel completed.

“Novelists who don’t finish novels can bring us no glory. What’s more, they also cease to be novelists!“ the Commisar said in the office one day, his face blood red beneath a white hat. “Create! Invent! Write, by God!”

French cigarette smoke filled the room. One writer was sipping sherry from a wee crystal glass. The Commisar dashed it to bits with his cane.

“Look at you! Hugo would not allow himself the pleasure of a meal until he had written a good, solid chapter! He would lock himself in a room, stark naked, and he would — ”

Just then the Commisar tore a page out of a typewriter’s chassis, looked it over, and cried, “Nothing but adjectives! Where are the nouns? Novels need nouns!”

“Oh, Commisar?” said one writer.

“Yes, what is it? Which one of you said that?”

“Our typewriters grow stale, Commisar.”

“Yes, they must be ‘fresh,’” said another.

The Commisar, seeming to shrivel inside his white suit, said, “All right, all right, I’ll find you some damned new writing machines. But after that — work, work, work!”

It should be noted that Smade Basmalle did not take part in this sham mutiny. He sat day after day, year after year, at an uncluttered desk beneath the staircase, a man apart. Since the formation of the union, he had been working steadily, and the manuscript he showed to government inspectors from time to time was by now incredibly thick.

Once, one of the writers approached him and said, “What are we up to, Mr. Tolstoy?”

“Tolstoy,“ said Smade. “I may get there yet, if the Lord does not strike me down.”

His hair began to go white. The simplest tasks — eating, sleeping, bathing — he performed haphazardly. His breath turned sour and strong. Fleas and lice battled each other in his beard. He talked to himself and laughed and no longer did he dream in images. Now, in his sleep, he felt typewriter keys beneath the ghosts of his fingertips and, with twitching hands, he seemed to clack out the codes corresponding to the apparitions that once appeared to him beneath sealed eyelids.

His labors were completed on a winter day in 1931. The novel was warm, grand, and satisfying. Even the government inspectors could see as much. In three volumes, it was titled A Comedy of Souls. It had charm and power. It moved along briskly, even as it captured everyday life in its humdrum detail. It was at once mundane and fascinating, stuffed with descriptions of small events (but not weighed down by them) and grand sea campaigns. It was beautiful.

After having read it, the Commisar did not congratulate himself for having founded the union that had helped to make such a work possible. Smade’s book did not allow such worldly satisfactions to take root. Instead, upon reaching its final words (and how melancholy he felt, to have entered that final paragraph!), the Commisar simply wept — for himself, for his loved ones, for everyone, and all things. Then he set out to find the best translators money could hire.

Over the course of 1932 and 1933, the critics of wider Europe weighed in to praise the book’s invisible plotting, its philosophical musings (they made much of these, which were but a small part of the work entire), and its fresh characters, who seemed less like literary fabrications than people one might come across in the street. They made special note of its set-pieces and of its author’s ability to create an illusion of familiarity with so many stations of life, from quartermasters’ decks to damsels’ dressing rooms.

More than one critic mentioned that the book’s themes had been stitched into its very fabric, and they took pains to show how the author had pulled off the trick. To amateur readers, and to Smade himself, however, the book existed at a distance from the mechanics and devices of fiction. It was life itself. As such it was beyond judgment and existed only as something to be wondered at, like some rocky island that appears only at certain tides, or a patch of bluebells in the shadiest part of the woods.

On tour with the Commisar, the author found himself in the company of sweetly perfumed ladies in opera-house boxes. He tasted exquisite wines in gilded salons that one would imagine had disappeared before the Great War. His monk-like manner won him the affections of the intertwined gatekeepers of literary and high society — “otherwordly,” they called him, meaning it as a tribute to his artistic seriousness.

In more than one great city, Smade endeared himself to the scalawags of the press by mistaking butlers for men of rank. But after two months of licking flavored ices and sipping afternoon coffees with ministers and literary gents, of waltzing away evenings with duchesses, of cavorting in alleyway bars with comedy-troupe hussies and bad men, he discovered that the feeling of delight had burned itself out. Alone in a hotel room in this or that venerable city, with the automobile traffic making a roar on the other side of the glass, he would cough blood into his hands, and he found he could no longer function with women as most men can.

“This is my punishment,“ Smade told himself. “Because I tried to create life, God has made me cash in my own.”

Back home, he slept fitfully, dreaming of feral dogs. Shadows hid everything from him all winter long. When spring came, the sun restored him somewhat. He paddled himself along the coast in a favorite rowboat and swam in the cold Atlantic waters. He started work on a new novel — but what he came up with was so trite, it made him ill.

“I am nothing now.”

In this low state he asked the government lawyer to show him the union contract. Smade read it over — it was the same document he had signed, written in the margins of a paper Cafe Frango menu — and he considered the matter. The next day, he hired a French litigator, telling him, “I am entitled to more for my suffering.”

The lawyer agreed. “Open and shut,” he told Smade, licking a fingertip.

Their argument, in brief, was this: The novel was not merely the result of the hours during which Mr. Basmalle had set words down on paper, but also the result of time spent planning and daydreaming. Furthermore, each hour of his childhood was indispensable to the work — in other words, his entire life, each hour of it, was instrumental to the novel’s creation and thus, the lawyer argued, Mr. Basmalle was at work even as he slept.

Naturally, as stated in the contract, he deserved compensation for each working hour. In court the lawyer read seemingly pertinent passages from the beloved volumes to lend further credence to his claims.

The judge, holding the paper menu in his hands, seemed unmoved. “Who, may I ask, drew up this contract?”

“It was I, Your Honor,“ said the government lawyer, still blade-thin, who was seated in the back of the gallery. “It seemed like a joke at the time.”

“It reads that way,“ the judge said.

After a recess, the judge ruled in the plaintiff’s favor — which meant the government owed Smade Basmalle for all the time he had not been paid for, a sum equalling more than 47 million esparcos.

“Further,” the judge went on, “Mr. Basmalle is entitled to two hundred esparcos per each hour of his life hereafter spent in the act of novel-writing, provided he does not take a job in some other line of work, and which, by our new definition, shall include sleeping hours, daydreaming hours, etc. In short, he shall be paid for every hour he has left on this earth, so long as he can manage to get something down on the page, no matter how insipid, provided he remain a citizen. This is the court’s order.”

Two of the other Frango novelists filed and won similar suits. To pay the writers, Salfando cut relief and education funds. He exiled the Commisar to an African camp, making much of this on radio. He also arranged a harsh fate for the government lawyer, but the man was already gone — some said Lisbon, some said Paris, some said suicide at sea. Poverty claimed the great majority of those living under Salfando. People stowed away on ships or crude rafts, hoping to float to friendly ports. A sinister economy sprang up around passport printers and border guards.

Smade was rich now, wealthier, perhaps, than Salfando himself. Ears burning, he showed his notebooks to the inspectors now and then only to collect his pay. Salfando sent assassins to his rooms in various disguises — but as the points of their daggers pricked his back, or just before they were to drop poison pellets into his cup, memories of his masterpiece would flood their brains and overwhelm their senses, making the deed impossible.

In the evenings people shouted up to his window: “Smade Basmalle! You are starving us! We cannot feed our children! You have stolen our relief money!”

Schoolteachers forced his door down one night and told him the schools had become worthless.

“Give us some money, or the next generation will be unable to read your great work.”

“Hang the next generation,” said Smade.

When the teachers were gone, after some deliberation, he wrote a character or two on a notebook page — part of a word he had not decided on yet.

“Must quit while I haven’t drained myself of options.”

He laid down his pen, blew out the lamp, and crouched down, waiting for a mouse. At last he pounced on it and he cooked it and he sliced it up and he ate its meat in the darkness. By and by he yawned and stretched himself out on the floorboards beneath his cot and he went to sleep.

One winter day in 1958, two government inspectors knocked and knocked, then pushed open the door to his rooms, which had an odor ranker than the usual.

There, in the corner, was a stack of rodent bones. And there, beneath the cot, was the body of Smade Basmalle, its mouth open, its teeth brown and broken, its lips dry and cracked, its hair wild, its flesh gray and white and green, with flies buzzing all around.

Tonight, if you find yourself in this obscure seaside principality, beggars peddling religious trinkets will accost you, and scrawny children will tug at your clothes. You shouldn’t have much trouble finding a place to stay. Maybe it is winter, bleak January, and you seem to have been walking uphill ever since your arrival on this spit of land, and the soles of your shoes keep catching in the cracks between the old cobblestones.

In your room you might be wondering, as the air grows silent: How did I end up here? As sleep draws close, you may hear a beggar crying out something in his soft, fast language. His cries, carried by icy winds across beaches hidden in trash and brown seaweed, will echo in the narrow streets and sail high above the rooftops. The beggar will be shouting the same thing that all beggars here shout when chillblains sting their feet and the garbage cans are devoid of scraps.

“Smade Basmalle! I curse you, Smade Basmalle!”

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