A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to stumble upon Archipelago Books, a non-profit publishing house based in Brooklyn that specializes in literature in translation. I always like finding those! I was especially interested in their production style — their books are all published in an almost square format (though the dimensions of their books are not uniform from book to book); the covers are lovely in their simplicity, usually showcasing a piece of art or photography; the covers are nicely textured (you can see a bit of that in the image below). All in all, the books are unique in a way that highlights the high standards of the publishing house. If you’re interested in supporting Archipelago books with a donation (remember, they are a non-profit organization), you can click here and go to the donation page. If you’re interested in supporting them by becoming a subscriber, you can click here, and you will receive their books as they come off the press for the duration of your subscription (they have an attractive frontlist). They are about to publish their fiftieth book, and I hope there will be many many more.
My first Archipelago book happens to be the first book by Dominique Fabre available in English: The Waitress Was New (La serveuse était nouvelle, 2005; tr. from the French by Jordan Stump, 2008).
This book is told by Pierre, a fifty-six year-old barman working in Le Cercle, a café that sits close to the Seine. It begins on a day much like any other he’s lived for several years except for one thing:
The waitress was new here. She came out of the underpass and hurried down the sidewalk, very businesslike, keeping to herself, as tall as me even in flat-heeled shoes. Maybe forty years old? That’s not the kind of thing you can ask a lady. She had a sort of flesh-pink makeup on her eyelids, she must have spent a long time getting ready. I didn’t look closely at her shoes, the way I usually do to size someone up, because I had a feeling she’d seen some rough times, and there was no point overdoing it. And I’ve seen some rough times too, I tell myself now and then, but I’m not even sure it’s true.
The new waitress is stepping in to fill the spot temporarily vacated by Sabrina, a single mother of two who has gotten ill. This first paragraph introduces not only the story but also the deferential, observant Pierre, who is quietly trying not to interfere in anybody’s life and who doesn’t expect anyone to wish to interfere with his (though he probably wouldn’t mind).
I’ve slept alone for too long. I’ve never even had a chance to try Viagra, which apparently works wonders, and ends lots of marriage, from what I hear in the café.
Pierre has been working at Le Cercle for several years now, and he has come to know his boss’s foibles well despite a lack of any real friendship. After the new waitress shows up, the boss leaves inexplicably. For a while now Pierre has noticed his boss getting unsettled. This has happened before — the boss is just passing middle age — but usually he comes back soon enough and things are better than ever. Pierre has a feeling it might be different this time. The boss’s wife comes down to help work at the cash register, and as the hours pass without her husband’s return she gets increasingly nervous. It’s even worse that his leaving coincided with Sabrina’s. The book proceeds to tell what happens over the next few days as the boss remains absent and all who work at Le Cercle struggle to maintain the café’s regular schedule serving the regular clientele (of which there are several interesting and compassionately described individuals).
Pierre’s narration stays quiet, despite the commotion going on around him. When he describes his loneliness, though, he almost betrays too much — but he usually stops himself from divulging, content to relate the lives of others to his readers rather than his own. Consequently, what we get is one of my favorite stylistic feats: the narrator who says much about himself by talking about others.
Pierre does divulge that he was married once, long ago, and it ended in divorce. He’s pretty nonchalant about it at this point in his life, his most recent relationship having ended three years ago. Still, in spite of his compassion and empathy (or, perhaps, because of his compassion and empathy), he harbors a biting cynicism about long-term love:
The young couple finally left, they seemed very much in love, the way people are when it’s part-time, if you don’t mind my saying.
It would be easy to say that his bitterness comes from personal knowledge — he’s witnessed destructive relationships in his own life and he’s observed it every day in his job — but I’m not sure that’s the right answer. At times he betrays what could be the real reason: the bitterness that accompanies loss of something so desired. At fifty-six he’s thirteen and a half trimesters from receiving a full pension, but quantifying this (and also the number of trimesters he’s already worked) makes him realize how much of his life has been protected behind a bar and how soon that will all be over (indeed, how soon it all will be over). Pierre is a unique individual, one living on the periphery of what could be considered a larger story, but his voice — a nice juxtaposition of cynicism and empathy — pulls us into his story, a story he doesn’t want to tell us and that he himself doesn’t want to consider in too much detail.
Some days I’d rather not have to come out from behind my bar at all, but there’s no getting around it, life is still on the other side.