HTML Backgorund Color

  About   /  Archive   /   Seasons   /  Print   /  Tenement   /  Shop


The Automatic Tour Guide Emmanuelle PAGANO;

translated by Sophie LEWIS & Jennifer HIGGINS

I’m waiting for the automatic tour guide to die.

It would be a blessed release, to tell the truth. For us and for him. It pains me to see him now. He’s not as popular as he was in the old days, when tourists used to come just for him, for the guide, and the gîte was booked up months or even a couple of years in advance.

He isn’t a guide, he’s more of a storyteller, an automatic storyteller. Perhaps we should have called him the automatic raconteur, but because he’s sometimes more like a geographer-geologist-historian or a guide for armchair hikers, pointing out the paths his stories take, we’ve always called him the automatic tour guide.

His name is actually Ukalo.

It’s January and the lady from social services keeps going on at me. We won’t be able to leave him where he is for another whole winter or they’ll come and put him in a home. Still, I’m not that worried, because I’d be surprised if he lasts much longer, what with all the trouble we had with him last winter and him refusing to leave the shelter. If only he’d let us do it up a bit, build proper walls, insulate it or something, but he’s stubborn, like all the old people from these parts, even though he isn’t really. I mean he isn’t really from these parts. He’s definitely old. And stubborn. Won’t admit he can’t look after himself any more, so we just have to watch him fading away and wait for him to drop down dead.

Better to have him drop dead here than put him in a home.

I take his lunch every day. He goes home and waits for my Tupperware.

In the evening he manages by himself, making soups with vegetables from the garden or from tins. It gives him something to do until the news comes on.

The gîte isn’t like it used to be and we often get people who don’t know about him. They don’t come for the automatic guide, they come for the drama of the panoramic views, or just for the shrill, brutal air of the plateau, for the blue-shadowed snow on very cold days, for the autumn blaze of the maples, the great daubs of green in summer. Some end up in the area more or less by chance and the tourist office sends them along without warning them.

They’re surprised, that’s for sure, and sometimes taken aback.

This week’s guests haven’t opened the back door once and they’re leaving soon, before midday. Ukalo is taking it badly. He hasn’t said anything but his silence is hard to bear and I’ve been worrying all week, wondering whether they were going to open the door or not. They’re packing their bags now, going back and forth dirtying the snow with their feet, loading their stuff into the squeaky-clean 4x4.

This whole week I’ve kept an eye out, not making it too obvious and not hanging around too long either, because it’s bloody freezing. I’ve seen Ukalo sitting so close to the fire he could have burned himself, poking the embers with his battered stick, crushed by the waiting. I think he’s been going over all the tales and legends in that leaky head of his, to pass the time and improve his performances, and to compensate a bit for the sudden memory lapses. It’s perfectly normal, given his age, but for an automatic guide it’s a blow. He invites us over to have coffee with him nearly every day, and when he goes blank in front of us, when he opens the door and forgets why we’re there, I see him disappear from behind his face, and that wrinkled face is like a fallow field, useless.

Sometimes he makes it into a joke, and with the imagination he’s got, he comes out with all sorts of funny reasons for it. Bizarre excuses for the gaps in his memory. Oh, I went out into the garden, you know, and as I bent down to pull up some carrots, I lost track of time. But where? In the garden, in the ground. I got lost on the path up to Tendrier because of the ultrasound. You know, the ultrasound from the wind turbines. Ukalo, the turbines don’t make ultrasonic waves, and anyway, only animals and children can hear them. That’s it, I got lost because I was looking for somewhere I could hear them, looking for the time, the time when I was young. I was wondering where the hearing I had when I was twenty could have got to. When he’s like that, full of forgetfulness and ideas, a wink and a smile at the ready, we find ourselves wishing the gaps in his memory were even wider, so we could listen to him fill them with captivating stories. But not in winter, never then. Sometimes in winter I suddenly realize he’s gone out in the middle of the night and I run after him, not even putting my jacket on. I find him out there in the moonlight, sitting in the snow lit up bright as day, and I shout, When are you going to get on with it and die? I scream like a crazy woman, my head pounding from the cold and from running around in my nightie.

I don’t want him to die, because I’m very fond of him, more than just fond. But a life like that, well, I’m not sure it really is a life, and that’s partly our fault also. I feel ashamed, even though I keep telling myself it’s better than a home or the mental hospital, and my husband and I are sick of social services breathing down our necks, so we’re just waiting for it to be over, all the while making money from the tourists he attracts.

My husband says it’s no way to treat someone, and that we’re going to end up in trouble with the Farmers’ Mutual because we can’t declare our automatic tour guide. His papers went out of date decades ago. We do wonder what the police are waiting for, with everything you see on the news about families being sent back, but not him, oh no. They know him and they know full well what the situation is, and yet they’ve never come knocking. We’re not above board and that bothers my husband. We often argue about Ukalo, like we used to argue about the children, but worse because we haven’t got the patience we had when we were young.

The social services lady comes to check on him every so often and I see her glancing around to check that the place is clean and Ukalo is decently dressed. At the slightest sign of neglect it’ll be off to the home with him. I wonder how they’d manage it, given that he’s not even legal. But I’m not worried about that. The house is neat and Ukalo looks well turned out. He’s always been very meticulous.

His house is tiny, just one room on the ground floor and a bedroom with a little washroom upstairs.

It’s connected to our gîte by this shelter where he does his automatic guiding. The shelter’s open to the elements and our grandchildren tried to give Ukalo the nickname ‘bats in the belfry’, because the wind whistles all around him and because he’s going batty. But the name never stuck; Ukalo’s the automatic guide, not the village idiot.

My husband and I live on the other side of the gîte and our top floor overlooks the shelter. That’s all there is of our little hamlet, these few buildings.

All the buildings belonged to our grandparents and our grandfather’s brother, my great-uncle, who was a bachelor his whole life and was always just known as ‘Uncle’. It was Uncle who brought Ukalo here in the 1950s. I was very little and my sister had just been born. Uncle was over forty and he must surely have known that having a foreigner on the farm wouldn’t attract a woman there, quite the reverse. His older brother, our grandfather, had about ten children and lots of grandchildren already, so that would be enough. A woman was more expensive than a foreigner, and a foreigner would be a better worker than a woman.

We had a shortage of farm labourers. The Polish had a shortage of everything. Uncle lived in Ukalo’s house. Or, well, the other way around, the opposite really, but anyway. Ukalo came to live in Uncle’s house, in his bedroom. They had two single beds and were almost the same age. Ukalo and Uncle lived their bachelor lives together like two roommates, communicating in Uncle’s language, a patois that I could never understand, a sort of Occitan peppered with family words, invented by the family and for the family, a blood language that wasn’t passed down beyond Father’s generation and that only Ukalo still speaks today. He hasn’t got anyone to speak it to, so he doesn’t use it much, just a few words here and there in automatic mode for the fascinated tourists. He and Uncle shared their little world of words and habits until Uncle died about ten years ago. The old man left his house to the labourer, his friend, his foreign brother, his Ukalo, as he used to call him.

My parents had already taken over the farm after my grandparents died, Father being the only one of their ten kids to accept the slavery of the fields.

It wasn’t long before it drove him to suicide, after he’d let my little sister be scattered all over the pumpkin field. Mother waited until I was eighteen, seeing as I was the only one left after my sister died, before finally giving in to cancer. We divided everything up and I was the only one who wanted to stay with Uncle and Ukalo, me with my scatterbrain, my husband and my three children. My husband worked nearby, so it was convenient really.

When Uncle died, our three children had already gone off to their new lives, city girls and proud of it. We’d just started renting out the gîte to give ourselves something to do. By then my husband was retired from the postal service and I had no more children to look after, or even any animals, just the housework in the gîte every Saturday, so my brothers and sisters didn’t give it a second thought. I was the one who’d look after Uncle’s heir.

The whole family was there on the morning of Uncle’s funeral, my brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins, but they were all gone again by the evening. We couldn’t have put them all up here in any case. Ukalo came to our house for a coffee. He watched them getting ready to go, muttering in his language or perhaps in Uncle’s language, like he always does when he wants to say something without saying anything, when he wants to be heard without being understood – or the opposite, I’m not sure. He put the cup down on the tablecloth, taking an age to open his big hands, as though it were impossible to let go of the coffee cup. Then, very quickly, decisively, he got up without saying a word, not even in his or in Uncle’s language. He left and went over to Uncle’s house, or his house as it was now. He stopped to say hello to the guests who’d just arrived at the gîte. They were the brazen sort and, while there was nobody around because we were all at the funeral, they’d managed to open the gîte’s back door, which gives on to the shelter in front of Uncle’s house. Ukalo stood there surprised and silent as they replied to his hello and started telling him how much they liked our part of the world, the plateau, being on holiday, and then all about their lives, and blah blah blah. Ukalo sat down on the little bench in the shelter and he started talking too, about everything and nothing, about the fox that a little girl had killed with her bare hands in January, our latest little news story, then about Uncle, my little sister and people from the village who were dead now. There was no stopping him, and there were certainly plenty of dead people to talk about, more than there were living ones. Ukalo talked as if he were reading aloud, with an expressionless, rhythmical delivery, already in automatic mode, and those rude tourists closed the door, saying, Right, we’re off for our dinner, bye, thank you, but still it wasn’t a very polite thing to do, if you ask me.

Ever since that evening, since Uncle’s funeral, Ukalo has been the automatic tour guide. At first we tried our best to make him stop. We didn’t want him bothering people. But Ukalo would spit on the ground with rage every time I tried to intervene. We ended up letting him get on with it.

Whoever’s staying in the gîte has only to open the back door any time between eight in the morning and midday, and then again from one to five, and Ukalo will begin his stories, not letting anyone reply or comment. You open the door and he talks, and to make him stop, you have to close the door.

He does the guiding every day except Sunday, because he’s a Christian, but mainly because he doesn’t want to miss ‘The Sunday Phone Call’ on Christian Radio France. Sometimes he’ll skip Mass without complaining if I can’t be bothered to drive him down to the village and wait for him in a bar with a book, because, personally, if I’ve got to sit through a load of old twaddle I’d rather it was in a book than in church. But I haven’t always got a book on the go, so one day we agreed that we’d go to Mass about once a month, that was plenty, and he didn’t grumble, not in his language or Uncle’s, or even ours. But as for missing ‘The Sunday Phone Call’, no chance. He can’t do without it. It’s a kind of obsession, or a kind of food, like air and water, a bit of time all to himself. It’s a programme where people call in and leave a message for family members in prison, via the radio. Ukalo is addicted to it. He moves right up close to the radio with his mouth open, listening greedily. He sits there hoovering up all the messages so eagerly, inhaling them through his mouth, that I sometimes wonder if he’s done time in prison back home, or if he feels as though he’s in prison here, in his shelter. It’s as though he’s expecting a message from someone, maybe from his family in Poland, or from Uncle, speaking from beyond the grave via CRF, like a good stupid Christian. If he thinks he’s going to find them all in heaven, Uncle, Father, Mother and my little sister, then he’s just as thick as the holidaymakers who stand listening by the back door, thinking that what he’s saying is genuine local folklore. As if.

Often the tales he tells aren’t authentic legends, and it isn’t just that they’re made up, they’re not even from around here. They’re Ukalo’s stories, things that he’s found in old newspapers, not quite a hundred years old but not far off. He weaves them all together and adds bits of his own memories from Poland, spices them up with some family patois and sticks in a few local place names to make them sound bona fide. I caught him at it one evening. He was reading his tatty newspapers, completely absorbed, looking for who knows what on dog-eared old maps, and looking inside himself too, I think. He had a glazed expression, as though he was peering into the cracks in his memory. He looked drunk, sitting there at the table with his head in his big, shaky hands and papers scattered around him on the tablecloth in a huge mess. He was embarrassed and tried to convince me that he’d got the newspapers out to peel some vegetables, but he hadn’t picked any vegetables that day and yesterday’s soup was already heating up on the wood stove. He couldn’t fool me. It was the papers themselves, and his whole life along with them, that he was peeling to replenish his stock of stories.

My little sister’s death doesn’t need inventing, and when he tells it to the people staying in the gîte he doesn’t embellish it with local colour. He delivers it straight, raw, hardly like a story at all.

For a few months now, in spite of all the coffees, medicines and glasses of water that I make him drink, he’s been getting more and more dehydrated. The inside of his mouth hurts because he hasn’t got enough saliva. When he wants to speak, he constantly has to open and close his mouth, and his lips make a series of rapid, regular sounds, slightly moist clicks like a suckling baby.

It was to the accompaniment of these delicate lapping sounds that I heard him recite the story of my sister’s death yet again, just over a month ago, as I was closing the shutters on the early December darkness. It was nearly five o’clock. He was telling it to the latest person to open the door, a boy come to have a fag in the bitter cold. No doubt it was a good excuse to give his parents: popping out for a quick smoke before the automatic guide knocked off for the day. He was shivering hard, caught unawares by the sudden, savage nightfall that we have in these parts, when the air shines with a cold that catches you by the throat and when you feel as though each breath is tearing at your insides. I don’t know if the cigarette made this feeling worse or better but, with touchingly awkward embarrassment, he asked if he could move closer to him, to the guide, and to the fire. Ukalo carried on with his story, told to the rhythm of the baby-like suckling sounds, without replying, in his usual mad, obsessive way. The boy sat down next to him, the cigarette a red spot in the blue of the snow streaked with ash plumes. I’d just closed the shutters on the top floor and didn’t want to hear any more. I knew what happened next. I heard it despite myself, as if Ukalo’s voice, so thin and age-worn, as if this voice deformed by the sucking of words seeking water, as if this diminished voice, reduced to incessant blinks of sound, as if this parched voice could travel so far and penetrate the shutters and double glazing of the window where I rested my forehead.

I know what happened next. Father left the tractor in the pumpkin field just behind the house without bothering to take off the rotary tiller, annoyed at being interrupted in the middle of preparing the seed beds, and ran towards the house to answer the telephone. Mother had come out to the doorstep, my sister and me clinging to her skirt, and was waving her arms to tell him to come and take the call. He came in with his boots still on, cursing Mother. She followed him once she had detached us from her legs. My sister ran off towards the tractor but I didn’t, I knew we weren’t allowed, and I told her not to but she didn’t listen, that little two-year-old silly. Father came out again almost straight away, still cross, went back to the field and got on the tractor. He started it up again, and when he heard me screaming louder and higher than the sound of the engine, when he felt the tiller jam, he was really beside himself, absolutely furious this time. He stopped the engine, he jumped out of the cabin like a madman, telling me to shut it. He went round and bent down to disengage the tiller. He stood up again immediately. He came back to the house and I was running behind him, I overtook him. Mother was on the doorstep again, immobile and grey, rooted to the spot, as though she were made of cement and stupefaction. I grabbed on to her. Father shoved past us and went straight to the cupboard for his rifle. I remember I ran to Uncle’s house and straight into Ukalo’s arms when Mother collapsed.

The tourists at the gîte came to say goodbye and thank you. They went off in a sparkle of frost and a gleam of bodywork, and there was so much glitter in their going that it brought tears to my eyes. They hadn’t once opened the back door.

It’s past midday and Ukalo is still sitting in the shelter. He must have lost track of time. I go to him and bend down to give him the Tupperware. He hasn’t invented some convoluted, fantastical reason for forgetting what time it is. He gets up with a new heaviness and without looking at me he goes back inside.

I’m cold. I go home when I hear the lonely bing of the microwave.

Emmanuelle PAGANO was born in Rodez (Aveyron) in 1969. Her novels have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and she has won multiple awards for her writing, including the EU Prize for Literature and most recently the French Ecology Novel Prize. Her first book published in English, Trysting was published by And Other Stories in 2016; her second, Faces on the Tip of my Tongue, was published by Peirene Press in 2019.

Sophie LEWIS is an editor and translator from French and Portuguese. Her recent translations include books by Colette Fellous, Emmanuelle Pagano and Leïla Slimani.

Jennifer HIGGINS is a translator from French and Italian. She has translated several works of fiction including Trysting and Faces on the Tip of my Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano. Recent projects include A Short Philosophy of Birds by Philippe Dubois and Elise Rousseau, and she is currently translating The Photographer of Auschwitz by Luca Crippo and Maurizio Onnis. Jennifer’s translations have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Lit Hub, VoluptéSonofabook Magazine, among others. She is also Assistant Director of the Queen’s College Translation Exchange (see here).


Submissions     ︎      ︎

Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

Mailing List