This excerpt is drawn from La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams by Georges Perec, translated by Daniel Levin Becker, to be published by Melville House on February 19.
No. 16, July 1970
I am in Tunis. It is a vertically sprawling city. I’m on a very long walk: winding roads, lines of trees, fences, panoramas. It’s as if the whole landscape turned out to be the background of an Italian painting.
The next day, the police come to arrest me. Long ago I committed a minor infraction. I no longer have any memory of it, but I know that today it could cost me twenty years.
I flee, armed with a revolver. The places I pass through are unfamiliar. There is no immediate danger, but I know already that my flight won’t solve anything. I go back to places I know, where I had been walking the previous night. Three sailors ask me for directions. Behind a line of trees, women in veils wash laundry.
I return to town on a winding road. There are cops everywhere, hundreds of them. They’re stopping everyone and searching vehicles.
I pass between the cops. As long as I don’t make eye contact, I have a chance of making it out.
I go into a café, where I find Marcel B. I sit down near him.
Three men enter the café (cops, obviously!); they make a halfhearted search of the room. Maybe they haven’t seen me? I almost breathe a sigh of relief, but one of them comes and sits down at my table.
“I don’t have my papers on me,” I say.
He is about to stand and leave (which would mean I’m saved), but he says to me in a low voice:
I don’t understand.
He writes the word in the margin of a newspaper, in huge bubble letters:
then he goes back over the first three letters, filling them in:
Eventually I get his drift. It’s extremely complicated: I am to go home and “have marital relations with my wife” so that, when the police come for me, the fact of “copulating” on a Sunday will constitute for me, being Jewish, an aggravating circumstance.
My being Jewish is, of course, at the root of this whole affair and complicates it considerably. My arrest is a consequence of the Judeo-Arab conflict and affirming my pro-Palestinian sentiments will do me no good.
I return to my villa (which might be just a single room). Most of all I want to know whether I will be a Tunisian prisoner in France or a French prisoner in Tunisia. Either way, I anticipate an amnesty during a visit from a head of state.
I feel innocent. What bothers me most is having to go for several years without being able to change my dirty socks.
GEORGES PEREC (1936-1982) was a French novelist, filmmaker, documentary maker and essayist. In death he remains a member of Oulipo, the workshop of potential literature. He is most famous for the novels Life: A User’s Manual and A Void.
Translator DANIEL LEVIN BECKER (b. 1984) is the youngest member of Oulipo, and only the second American to ever be so honored. He is a writer, translator and music critic, and reviews editor of The Believer. He is the author Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard 2012).