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Authors: David Macfarlane

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BOOK: The Figures of Beauty
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Part One

The sculptor mentally visualizes a complex form from all round itself: he knows while he looks at one side what the other side is like …

The Morrow Quarry, August 1922

during the half-hour allotted to the workers for their midday meal. Until that time, the day had been routine.

The quarry’s foreign name was accommodated by the Italian workers, but only to a point. The owner was Welsh. But his name was usually pronounced as if it were French and spelled “Moreau.”

The rain had ended by the late morning. Now it was hot—although hot in the puzzling way that summer days can be at this altitude and in this part of Italy. The mountain quarries of the Carrara region are not far from the border of Liguria and Tuscany, and the air at this height has a fine sharpness to it, a quality that can sometimes confuse clarity and temperature. From the Morrow quarry, the workers could often see for miles up the northwestern coast toward Cinque Terre or to the south, past the distant hillside village of Castello and the town of Pietrabella and all the way down the seaside to Viareggio.

They could see the large, bald bluff of stone that Michelangelo had imagined carving into a colossus as a beacon for ships. They could look to the southwest, out over the flat blue of the Mediterranean toward the distant island of Corsica. The views were detailed, crisp in a way most often associated not with the haze of summer but with the brightness of a very cold day.

There was the rhythmic grate of long-saws, each operated by two men, working back and forth through blocks of stone. There was the hum of the cable cutting its way slowly through the steep extruded slope of the mountain. Long, narrow water troughs cooled the half-kilometre loop of wire.

There was the ringing of hammers, the clang of iron tools, the turning of wooden wheels on the quarry floor. There was singsong shouting to men working high on the rigged lattice of scaffolding, to men bent over saw beds, to men coiling lengths of thick rope and checking cables and pulleys.

There was the occasional scattered cascade of cliffside debris. And it was this last sound—the clatter of falling rock—that carried through the valleys and delivered to those who heard it the greatest alarm.

Just before the accident, five workers had hoisted a quarter-ton block of marble onto a wooden sled with rope, straps, and pulley. Of the crew, three were from the same family—a father and his two sons. They lowered the stone, adjusted it, squared it. They secured it with heavy wooden wedges.

A third son had started in the quarry only a few days earlier. He was too young to work with the crew. His job was to bring tools and carry rope and fetch water for the thirsty men.

The stone could stay at the head of the trestle while the crew had their lunch. The tackle was locked, the leather belts were cinched. The block sat poised on the sled at the same angle as the slope up which young Lino Cavatore was climbing.

The boy was carrying a bucket. The handle was cutting into his fingers. But he remained intent on keeping the shifting weight of the water level. He did not want to spill a drop. The wooden track was very steep.

Castello, August 1944

of Germans in the hills above Pietrabella. But the sergeant, who was about as level-headed as anyone could want a sergeant to be, wasn’t all that worked up about it. His men figured this was an example of his intuition about these things. But that was wishful thinking. It was just that his thoughts resembled uncomplicated equations. And quite a while ago he’d noticed that the ratio of Germans in the hills to Italian kids who wanted cigarettes was pretty much one to one.

“What the hell,” he said when the order came down. “It’s a good day for a hike.”

Had there been a photograph it would have shown the fourteen of them in a stretched-out, staggered line, walking up a stone-scrabbled path that was about the width of a hay wagon. There would be something about the light in the picture and something about the weary posture of the soldiers that would convey the afternoon heat. Their fatigues were about the same
colour as the dirt. They had their guns over their shoulders. Their helmets had netting.

The recon troop was heading across a wide, unfolding valley toward one of the villages in the hills above them. They were out of the 371st U.S. Infantry and currently engaged in the comings and goings along the northwest sector of the Gothic Line. It was a nasty business. Everybody wished the Germans would just get the hell on with their retreating.

The first sign of trouble was the silence. In groups of three and four they’d clanked across the open stretch of land between the cover of an olive grove and the village wall. Most of them had been in Italy since Sicily. And by now, huddled at the base of the old stone wall and just to the right of the only gate that led up into the few narrow streets and the one square of Castello, they all knew what an Italian village sounded like. And it wasn’t this.

They were all listening for something, anything, from inside.

That’s probably why they all heard it. Although it might have been a quirk of acoustics. Because a sound that was so hushed it almost wasn’t a sound at all echoed from ancient surface to ancient surface and found its way to them. And what they all heard was the sharp intake of the breath of a baby about to cry.

They went carefully to the first few doors, staying close to the stone houses while spreading out down the cobbled street. But their search became less cautious the more it became apparent the place was abandoned.

They kicked doors in. They went room to room. “All clear,” they shouted back to the street.

When one of the soldiers found the baby, he lifted it from the marble vat in the kitchen and said, “What the fuck?”

Somebody found an earthenware jug on a shelf. It was identified as goat’s milk by a private who had been raised on a farm
in Minnesota. He thought it wasn’t that sour. They found some bread to soak. They brought another blanket from another room. It was kind of a miracle. But even finding a baby would not prove to be their most vivid recollection of the day.

The bodies were piled around the perimeter of Castello’s central square. That’s why nobody in the patrol fully grasped what had happened until they reached the end of the narrow street that led them into it. Even then it took a while to sink in.

“Christ almighty,” said the sergeant.

There were so many bodies in so circumscribed a space they did not seem like people. Depending on where in the States each of the soldiers was from, he’d remember the population of Castello looking something like the last ridges of snow at the edge of a field, or mounds of beach kelp, or spills of coal on a foundry floor.

The Americans were standing pretty much where the German machine guns must have been positioned. The G.I.s could see the radius of the spray.

Women and children, all of them. Except for a few old men.

And except for the figure hanging from a branch of a tree in the centre of the square. He was suspended above a few charred, still-smoking pieces of wood. His feet were burned to stumps. He might have been in his thirties. It was hard to say.

“I seen this near Salerno,” the sergeant told nobody in particular. “They build a pile of firewood, then they stand the poor bastard on top of it with the noose around his neck. He kicks himself free when he can’t stand the flames anymore.”

One of the soldiers was holding the baby in the crook of his arm. He was amazed by the force of her sucking. He could feel the swallows through his combat jacket. He was thinking exactly these words: I shall never see anything as strange as this for as long as I live.

Because it wasn’t just the baby. And it wasn’t just the corpses. And it wasn’t just the body hanging from a branch of an old tree in the centre of the square. It’s amazing what you can get used to seeing in a war.

It was the goats. They were the strangest thing.

There were about a dozen of them. They must have come into the square after the Germans had left. They must have come through the same gate in the wall and down the same cobbled street as the Americans. And now, there they were: unperturbed by the clattering arrival of the recon patrol in the square. The bells made only the softest and most occasional tinkle. It was as if they were grazing on the slopes of a peaceful hill. They were milling slowly around the taut rope, and the black stumps of feet, and the remains of a fire. It was as if they were waiting for something to move.

Paris, May 1968

parts of the city. The police were securing other parts. The students were in control of other parts still.

All this made for a lot of unusual noise. But Oliver Hughson didn’t know what usual was in Paris. He’d never been there before. He assumed the constant sirens were somehow characteristic of the pale, enormous place. He was twenty years old. He was going to travel in Europe for the summer.

Late that afternoon he set out for a walk from the Louvre in what he took to be the approximate direction of his hotel. It wasn’t, as things turned out. It wasn’t anything like the direction he thought he was headed in.

The rushing convoys of police and military vehicles through the streets were noted by Oliver as he walked, but noted in the same way the immense city was noted. Something was going on. He was aware of that. But because of his eccentric, almost
random route through the streets of Paris he never actually laid eyes on how big that something was.

Everything was new to him. Everything was strange. Even the air, he thought, was different from any air he’d known. Smoke came from somewhere in a city that was so big he couldn’t imagine from how far it could be drifting. The echoes of amplified voices and roiling crowds were coming from a distance he could not guess. It all seemed grey: part exhaust, part running gutters, part the littered proclamations of the strike, part the long-settled drift of black tobacco.

Oliver had attended to his banking earlier that day at the Société Générale at Place de l’Opéra, signing the required forms, providing the appropriate documentation. He had protested in not very competent French—and to no avail anyway—when he was informed of how long it would take for the Grace P. Barton Memorial Travel Bursary to be made available for his withdrawal. He would have to manage for three business days on the cash he had in his wallet.

He walked for the rest of the afternoon. He stopped in a café for a sandwich and a glass of red wine. And then he started walking again. All evening he had it in mind that he would soon come to a wide boulevard with windows full of suitcases and cheap shoes and with a café on the corner of a narrow, whitewashed street that had a sign somewhere near the middle. His hotel had been recommended in the copy of
Europe on Five Dollars a Day
that his parents had given to him.

But it was very late when he decided to make his way along the cobbled banks of the Seine. He was beginning to think that he would soon feel tired. But he liked the idea of walking along the river late on a moonlit night. It seemed the kind of thing a young traveller did in Paris.

This would prove to be a problem.

“You were on your way back to your room?” Inspector Levy asked. He looked at Oliver searchingly for a moment and then glanced down at the papers on his desk.

Oliver could see his own handwriting on the form on the top of the papers, with the name and address of the hotel at which he was staying. Inspector Levy was considering all routes by which one might walk from the Louvre to the Rue de Saussure. Following the river wasn’t one of them. He gave the wan, insincere smile that Parisians reserve for the stupidities of tourists. “You were lost, Monsieur?”

The Seine had been black and smooth that night, only wrinkled here and there with the reflection of yellow lights from the embankment. Traffic had droned in the distance.

Occasionally, a little wave had slapped the dark stone wall below. Oliver’s loosely fitting desert boots had slopped along the wet bricks. And this is what happened.

Oliver approached the narrow bridge that crosses from the Avenue de New York on the Right Bank to the Quai Branly on the Left. He stepped out of the soft light of the moon. Then he walked directly into a pair of dangling shoes.

The face, a young man’s, was swollen black. His lank, blond hair was long but, except for the sideburns, not stylishly so. He wore a work shirt, rolled jeans, no socks, and hard-soled black shoes. Oliver let out a little yelp that he hadn’t heard come from inside himself before.

Inspector Levy had eyes deeply encircled with weariness. Oliver had never encountered a sadder, more tired gaze. Two fingers of the inspector’s left hand were yellow. He smoked unfiltered Gauloises throughout the interview.

Levy sat behind a neatly ordered desk. The photographs the attending constables had taken of the hanging body were already in front of him. The darkroom was the most efficient department
in the station. Sometimes he thought: the only efficient. To his left was an old typewriter. The walls of his office were a dirty beige, and his tall windows opened onto the courtyard of the prefecture. It was almost four in the morning. The night was chilly and damp. The city’s lights, caught by the night clouds, kept the sky a solid, unmoving grey.

The decor had the intended unsettling effect on those the inspector was required to interview. There was a row of six different gauges of shotgun shells lined up across the top of a metal cabinet. And there was a poster for a Goya exhibition at the Orangerie. It was of Saturn. Eating his son.

Inspector Levy passed Oliver the large black and white photographs. They gleamed like movie stills. The policeman watched Oliver carefully as he looked at them. He rested his chin thoughtfully between his thumb and forefinger.

Oliver passed the pictures back.

“Your forearms, please, Monsieur.”

Oliver looked blankly at the inspector.

“Please. Will you roll your sleeves?”

Oliver did as requested and rotated his bare forearms for inspection. Levy leaned forward, disappointed with the absence of information on Oliver’s unmarked arms. He nodded.

“The body …” he said. He switched momentarily to French, as if to make sure there was no confusion. “
Le pendu
… showed signs of addiction.”

“Oh,” Oliver said.

Inspector Levy was beginning to think there was nothing to this. Nothing, that is, beyond the obvious: a tourist stumbles on a suicide. There are many in Paris.



Still, it was a little strange.

“It is curious,” the inspector said, “that of all the people in all of this city who might have made this discovery … It is curious that the body of this unfortunate young man should be found by another American of about the same age.”

“Canadian,” Oliver corrected.

Inspector Levy seemed unimpressed with the distinction. “North American,” he conceded. “Even so. Two young men. From towns less than two hundred kilometres apart.”

“There’s a border,” Oliver said. “Between them.”

The inspector shrugged. “Still. A little strange, don’t you think?”

Oliver remained silent.

“And the knot. It would not have been easy to tie, don’t you think? Alone.”

“I don’t know,” said Oliver.

The inspector butted a cigarette into a well-occupied ashtray. He stared at Oliver with an expression weighted with his professional obligation to disbelieve all protestations of innocence. He considered the facts. And, as he had done so many times before, he considered possible interpretations.

Monsieur Oliver Hughson had been nowhere near his hotel. What was he doing by himself, by the river, so late?

They fished bodies out of the river almost every night. Hangings were less common but by no means rare. Was Monsieur Hughson there to assist a friend? To fulfill a pact? To abet a lover? Or was there no connection to the deceased and was Monsieur Oliver Hughson there to commit suicide himself? Or—as had to be considered in May 1968—was he a revolutionary intent on an act of insurrection that had been foiled by an unanticipated encounter with a dead junkie hanging from the struts of a footbridge?

All were possibilities. What believable story could be spun from them?

Or was Monsieur Oliver Hughson just an idiot tourist? In which case no story was necessary.

This was more likely, Levy decided. Still, tourists tended not to stay up all night, by themselves. It had been well after midnight when Monsieur Oliver Hughson called the police. But why call the police if you are planning to kill yourself. Or someone else? Or blow up the Pont de l’Alma? Which hardly seemed like the kind of bridge anyone would bother blowing up.

Inspector Levy had a headache. He was very tired.

He was saddened by his inability to piece together anything unusual that might, in an unexpected and brilliant way, connect the facts at hand. From a policing point of view, improbability was far from satisfactory. It bothered him.

But there it was: a coincidence. And the more Inspector Levy stared at Oliver the more he seemed to regret a universe in which things just happened, for no reason. But that’s the way things were in May in 1968 in Paris.

“Everything I have told you is true,” Oliver said.

Levy considered this. It was an odd thing for the young man to say. Unless, of course, it was true. Then it was not so odd. He closed his eyes. He massaged his brow.

“You are under no official obligation,” the inspector finally said. This, he knew, was nothing more than the procedural representation of indecision. He put down his hands. He opened his eyes. “But you may be asked to come back to the prefecture for further questions.”

Oliver had been raised to be helpful when he could be.

“That’s fine,” he said. “I can’t get my money out of the bank for three days, anyway.” He even decided to risk a small joke. “And the Louvre probably deserves more than an afternoon.”

Levy would later wonder if his departure from customary procedure was the result of his being on the brink of some kind
of collapse. It was possible. He was exhausted. Every policeman in Paris was.

Or perhaps he was acting intuitively but responsibly. It may have been that with the city about to burn to the ground, he didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.

He was tired—tired of barricades, tired of megaphones, tired of crowds, tired of television crews and reporters, and very tired of Danny the Red.

He was tired of it all. But he was not so tired that he did not notice something revealing in Oliver’s open expression. He was not so exhausted that he could not see something entirely innocent in the way Oliver Hughson said, “That’s fine.”

Levy prided himself as an investigator. Some aspects of the job he liked better than others, but he had no doubt that his greatest talent was his skill as an interviewer. He was observant. He noted the smallest flickers of expression.

Inspector Levy had long ago stumbled on a truth that, while not universal, was universal enough for police work. He had discovered that somewhere in a guilty suspect’s story there is something that isn’t a half-truth, or a shaded perception, or an uncertainty of memory.

Levy had a knack for seeing the slight clenching of jaw, blushing of cheeks, or flitting of gaze that revealed that he was getting close to the part of a story a suspect least wanted to discuss—the part that is entirely made up.

There was something in the young man’s flat, uncomplicated acceptance of Levy’s request to make himself available for further questioning that struck the inspector as material. He knew at that moment that Oliver was not lying.

But Inspector Levy also knew that however convinced he was of Oliver’s innocence, his belief was based on nothing but instinct. This would not be something he could pass on to those
who would read his typed report after he went home later that morning. Reports contained facts, not hunches. There was the business of the knot. There were the curious coincidences of age and geography. What was a young man doing by the river at that hour, alone?

The officer receiving the file in a few hours’ time would not be likely to inherit Levy’s certainty.

This was going to be nothing but trouble. Inspector Levy could see that. Useless, unnecessary trouble.

He made a decision. Possibly, it was rash.

He stood and walked abruptly around his desk to Oliver. “Monsieur,” he said, “I am going to give you some advice. And I advise that you take it.”

The gravity in the inspector’s voice made Oliver suddenly anxious.

“There are many deaths in Paris every night.”

Oliver turned in his chair and stared with alarm at the surprisingly short, surprisingly slight man. Inspector Levy smelled so strongly of tobacco it was as if what he had been inhaling for the past forty years was seeping from the pores of his skin that night.

“Some of these deaths are suspicious,” Levy said. “Most are not.”

Oliver was looking into a pair of sallow eyes, wondering where this was going.

“And this death …” The inspector gestured back toward his desk and the several black and white photographs. “This death might seem suspicious. To many. It might seem suspicious that in all of Paris it is a living American who finds a dead one.”

“Canadian,” Oliver said.

Levy ignored this. Such a distinction was immaterial in view of what he was about to say.

“But this death is not suspicious. I can see that. It is only sad. Sad because whatever troubles the young man was facing, he might have been able to overcome them. He might have gone on to live a life that now is not a possibility. Who knows? Young people don’t always see things clearly.”

It was Inspector Levy’s voice that Oliver found confusing. The inspector’s stiff, brisk steps from behind his desk had seemed to indicate that the interview was nearing its end. But his mournful tone wasn’t that of someone telling Oliver he was free.

This could become complicated. This was the thought that was weaving its way through the dull pulse of Inspector Levy’s headache. His colleagues would be thorough. There were too many uncertainties here for them not to be.

But his forgetting to ask the young man to make himself available for further questioning would not be seen by anyone as a very consequential slip-up. Because that’s what the inspector had decided to say. He knew that the uncoupling of bureaucratic procedure was often mistaken for its conclusion. Nobody would take much notice. Everybody was tired. It’s not as if they didn’t have enough to worry about.

“So my advice to you is this: Leave. Leave Paris. At once. You have your passport?”

BOOK: The Figures of Beauty
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