Excerpts from I Am Not a Hero

Well-Kept Secrets

The red-crested hoopoe, commonly called “coq des champs,” is regarded as a diviner of man’s secrets, a finder of buried treasures; at least that’s what some avid ornithologists claim and I had been considerably intrigued by this until now. Why, just this morning one of those winged creatures with its busy beak came to dig around in a precise spot of the meadow beneath my French window. Only moving by a wing-span from the narrow perimeter that it seemed to have assigned itself to prospect, the little gold panning (or incorrigibly curious, who knows) animal began to turn over with exquisite meticulousness every blade of grass within its reach and bore as deeply as possible into each square inch it uncovered in this way. From my observation point, I was keeping an eye out for the moment the resolute investigator would finally extract from this patch of dirt some terrible secret of man, or even reveal the location of riches previously undreamed of.

I, for my part, am careful not to abandon my own secrets in the grass, to let them take root out in the open so that anyone who happened to walk by could easily tear them from me and gorge himself with the sickening gluttony of the thug who, having stripped you naked, only wants to keep you at his mercy, exploiting your shame or your legitimate modesty in order to debase you a tiny bit more each day. No, the least shameful secrets, I keep nice and cold beneath my heart of stone, the most obscene sleep in the coal bunkers of my soul, in the company of old abjections and more recent lunacies that are almost as disgraceful. And so I provide myself with a clear conscience at little cost and as far as everything else is concerned, the carnival of the quotidian, when out on the street, I wear the mask of someone who deserves to walk with head held high. Even if the snooping hoopoe were to perforate the entire earth, it would never pierce through to what I really am. Nonetheless, it stubbornly carried on with its pointless task and, as time passed, I only became more impatient to know what its quest would lead to.

Were this hoopoe, there beneath my vigilant eye, suddenly to discover a treasure, would I admit it to you? For me, it would be a complete disappointment. In fact, it’s been donkey’s years since gold has made my hand tremble, and I am so unmoved by its power that I never worry in the evening if I will have enough to live on the next day. I was not yet twenty when, in a mere handful of nights, I ran through capital and dividends in the most dazzling places of the faubourgs, together with all the rogues from the most excellent neighborhoods and I have never since had occasion to regret it. I have kissed goodbye any longing to become rich again one day, like the idiot mute who has abandoned hope of recovering either his voice or his sanity; such a solid precept in this greedy and corrupt world guarantees me eternal sweet heedlessness and serenity. Bah! Let my hoopoe invent a treasure in my meadow; I have every right to expect something bizarre, outlandish from such long and meticulous and profound prospecting!

Finally all that industry deployed for hours brings to my creature the happy first fruits of success: it suddenly stares at a precise point whose grass it had previously pulled up, brings all its efforts to bear on this minuscule spot, concentrates all its energies in order, it seems, to soon extract its mystery. The animal wriggles with renewed ardor; its persistence, until then frenetic, will now definitely find its just reward. Excited by my expectations, my heart furiously beating, I widen my eye beyond the possible, mad with the idea that anything of the creature’s furious fashioning could escape me even for an instant.

Something, here it comes, is at the end of its beak!…some sort of plump earthworm that it seems to be trying to dislodge from its lair. From my vantage point, I’m unable to perceive anything more. That worm seems half out of the ground and, extremely grieved, I’m about to leave my lookout when suddenly my hoopoe violently plunges downward and urgently spreads its wings, panics, wriggles about, stiffens in vain, its crop already in the dust. For a moment it seems to rally, to want to fight this worm-like thing; it wrestles with the voraciousness of a raptor facing the eye of a hurricane, but it’s obvious that it’s having trouble gaining the upper hand. Enraged, it pulls, and underground, something pulls back. It holds tighter, the thing holds tighter. It resists, the other resists. Oh! It would really like to let go now, but the thing won’t let go! The bird’s feet break, feathers fly, beak, head, crest are already buried: it was an eagle, now it’s an ostrich sucked up by the void! Dumbfounded, I barely have time to react to this fabulous spectacle when I perceive nothing more of the bird.

Still, I have to admit it was a really beautiful bird that no doubt carried away with it many a secret.


In the early morning, there are often dastardly, shameless creatures wandering around the kitchen naked. You can try to crush them with the tip of your shoe, chase them away with a flick of a dishrag, or eliminate them in any way you want: it matters not to them, they seem to be at home here, out of reach and spreading a stench all over the place that fills you with repugnance. In fact, it’s a lost cause to try to get rid of them: for every one you think you’ve squashed, a hundred immediately show up to take its place and the stink simply grows more overpowering. No doubt it might seem more judicious, faced with this foaming chaos, to feign total indifference, but this tactic itself, as clever as it is, would soon prove fatal, so invasive and voracious do these creepy critters turn out to be that it is difficult to imagine for someone who has never had to confront such a scourge  If you’re not careful, as soon as the tea, boiling-hot tea though not even sweetened, has been poured, the sticky suckers make small work of it, sucking it all up greedily, leaving only a repulsive viscosity on the lip of the mug that discourages you momentarily from ingurgitating anything at all. It’s been a dog’s age since I’ve risked setting the mug down on the oilcloth, even for a second; no, now I have my breakfast on the fly, standing beneath the ceiling lamp in the middle of the room (having noticed their aversion for light-filled spaces), or else perched on a chair near the window, like a thief or an idiot. Frankly, it’s amazing that these horrible sucking things haven’t tried to take me by storm and climb up my entire body to reach my meager means of sustenance; I know them now and it’s only the hair on my calves, in which they immediately become entangled, that has forced them to give up the fight. Sometimes I wonder what we are to become if we can no longer even open the newspaper without all the articles being instantly blurred and made illegible beneath their gelatinous swarm. In fact, the hard truth is that we may very well have to resign ourselves, today, to living hereinafter on intimate terms with these monsters.

Visitors in the Night

It’s when the monsters arrive that I am happiest. Most often, it’s late according to the clock face, when the light has already paled, the evening becomes frayed, and all will soon grow dim. They head straight for the table, sit and pour themselves large glasses of red wine, and start to eat very sloppily, like children; stealthily and without anyone’s suspecting it, they hack at the cat with a penknife to frighten it and give themselves a laugh. And then you see their bloated lips curl up to their eyes, revealing wobbly stumps in bloody gums, and I’m always impressed by the scene; distressing though it is, it commands admiration.

I do not know from what womb they have sprung, but you could swear that nothing that spawned them ever managed to raise itself out of the horror and filth, so fetid and repugnant are they in their least little ways and yet, who knows why, I somehow find them extremely endearing. Is it because they dare to flaunt without pretense what they are deep down and seem lacking all ability to use artifice of any kind to misrepresent their moral defects (unlike so many people I know who go about masked and simpering)? So sometimes I imagine, faced with their sordid, turbulent nature, that they are haunted by the pain of not being able to assert their difference and that they have no other way out but to pursue their fury to the point of excessive smut and obscenity.

When, with foaming mouth and full belly, their shirt fronts greasy with pigswill and soiled with drippings, they brutally shove their plates to the side, leaving between us nothing but two candlesticks, it means they have decided to bombard me mercilessly with the foul-mouthed tales of their recent infamies. They are jubilant at my retching and terror, that’s for sure. The more my discomfort grows, the more they lean back in their chairs, slapping their thighs, which are thick and heavy, plunging deeper into the macabre and the slovenly. In the half-light, beyond the quivering candle flame, a savage pleasure glistens on their ugly mugs patinaed with age. Is it my fault that, for a very long time now, they have found it quite reasonable to come to me to discharge their sickly secrets into my ears and, in so doing, exonerate themselves for a moment of their crimes? And where would I find the strength to judge them?

When they have finished their merrymaking, emptied all the carafes, devoured the tiniest scraps, crunched the last crust; when they have become intoxicated from jiggling my brain cells with their morbid exploits and all their black deeds, leaving me exhausted and, no matter how I toss and turn, unable to regain my serenity, then, to conclude the whole shebang, they hurl themselves into a hellish hullabaloo that could damn a saint! There is clambering to the upper stories, hammering on all the doors, smashing through the floorboards with wild somersaulting, screaming with rage, spewing out whirlwinds of abuse against all the angels in heaven, and just now they disemboweled my mattress! They will keep at it until dawn’s early light.

When finally they have withdrawn and I am painfully awake, I begin to love them again and yearn almost for their return. Yes, I feel compassion for these souls in distress and sometimes wish my own torment could, in a certain way, ease theirs. Are these monsters in fact any worse than what my window lets me see of the world and the people who inhabit it?…But what to do when day breaks and you dream of hugging tight against you for just one more instant the murderous shades of night?

Nippy and Sugarloaf

In the end I always wound up telling the same story to that cheeky little girl who doggedly squirmed beside me as I strolled the April meadows, as if she had a little green lizard in her panties. She was the youngest daughter of our nearest neighbors, a wily, ham-fisted family of farmers to whom she in fact bore no resemblance, as she had a sparkling wit and was rather frail. But as soon I would set out to pick a few bunches of wild narcissus, fill a basket with meadow mushrooms, spot a hare’s form, or even set a rabbit trap, there she was, getting under foot. You’d think that all the livelong day she were watching my comings and goings, observing my slightest movement, because as soon as I would shut the door behind me, there she would be, hovering ’round my heels, demanding the story yet again, determined to ford streams and climb fences with me wherever the heck I went.

I called her Strawberry because of the freshness of her little girl’s skin, her country complexion; her real name was Marie, pure and simple. But whenever it was just the two of us, I called her Strawberry; she found that funny and smiled at our shared secret. In the spring, as I was saying, I would go daffodil picking. I was well acquainted with the meadows below the village that suddenly, from one day to the next, turn from emerald green to the most phenomenal bright yellow that exists and whose fragrance, wafting up to the houses at the village edge, would plunge the yokels into blatant, naïve excitement.  Strawberry was always by my side. In the summer, we would run down the slopes chasing some farmyard fowl with its idiotic fears, laughing our heads off and shouting like savages under the sun, dressed in practically nothing. And if sometimes of a morning I would feel like fishing trout in the river or else at the end of a warm afternoon if I would leave on a whim to swim in the freezing waters of the stream, Strawberry would be there. Autumn, winter, mushrooms or snowballs: Strawberry.

But whatever the season, I couldn’t get out of it, in the middle of our walk she’d be at it again, begging once more with her wheedling ways: “Tell me the story of Nippy and Sugarloaf, come on, tell me, I want to hear it.” So we would stop wherever the wind had blown us, especially in summer, we would lie on a grassy slope and I would tell her one more time about Nippy and Sugarloaf, all the while wondering if the tale was entirely appropriate for such a little girl.

I would have wanted to explain myself to you

See, I’m like those shirts that have been freshly ironed with a damp cloth that you place very, very carefully in the boiled leather valise along with the perfectly pleated trousers and those sweaters of coarse wool to keep out the dank cold of the mountains and you hold it all together with two canvas straps so that nothing shifts during the journey (but without pulling on them too tightly lest the top shirt suffer), and we regretfully close up the suitcase thinking it’ll be everybody for him–or herself the next day when at first light I will set off alone to go there.

Indifferent to my plight, the moon is still there in the somber sky of early morning when I head out. I’ve put the valise and its shirts in the car; it’s heartbreaking to leave but the car whizzes along and when the sun finally peeks through I will have crossed oh so many unknown villages, small towns with fewer than a hundred stop signs where only a few startled tomcats will have popped into my headlights like evil genies; and also–even farther along, somewhere else again–I will have surprised oh so many publicans, their eyelids still sticky, turning in the cold morning air the crank that raises the metal curtain of their grogshop to welcome the thirsty early risers near the humming stove, while bundled up folk hurry to the first-opened bakeries through the crudely paved lanes in search of warm croissants. I won’t have stopped anywhere along the way and all those hamlets of forests and heather will bit by bit have brought me closer to where I’m going; in the evening I will have almost reached my destination.

Arriving at long last, the valise with its freshly-ironed shirts in hand but my soul a bit rumpled from being far from you, I will open the door to this rather sorry lodging where no one and nothing is waiting for me, save a steel sink, an empty refrigerator, a low bed. And there, resting on the sole wooden stool, in the shivering light of dusk, I will watch like some anonymous onlooker the slow collapse of my entire existence, the shipwreck of my pathetic ambitions. All those things about which I had dreamed long ago, that I had desired for so long and that I never managed to fulfill will file before my eyes made misty by a sort of grief. At dawn I will start back. And once again I will not have seen what I had come to see, I will not have done what I had come to do, and I will bring back to you, unchanged, the shirts that will not have served. This is the way I am.


Pierre Autin-Grenier

Pierre Autin-Grenier (b. 1947) is a French author living in Lyon and the Vaucluse. His many works are difficult to classify, and the trilogy from which the pieces featured here are excerpted is no exception. They feel very much like prose poems, but combined they read (dixit the author) as autobiography. These pieces are excerpts from the first volume of the trilogy entitled Je ne suis pas un héros (1993). The second volume is called Toute une vie bien ratée (1999); the third, L’eternité est inutile (2002). The three volumes together form Une Histoire, which can be translated as either A Story or A History. Among their many charms are their syntactical idiosyncrasies and the author’s prodigiously refreshing use of set phrases and clichés. A more complete bibliography (in French) may be found here: http://www.m-e-l.fr/pierre-autin-grenier,ec,690#bibliographie_ecrivain.

Alyson Waters

Alyson Waters is a translator from French. Several of her translations have appeared here in InTranslation, including a chapter from Daniel Arasse's Take A Closer Look (forthcoming in September 2013 from Princeton University Press). She recently won the Florence Gould/French-American Foundation Award for her translation of Eric Chevillard's Prehistoric Times. She can be reached at alyson.waters@yale.edu.

Je ne suis pas un héros. Copyright (c) Pierre Autin-Grenier, 1993. English translation copyright (c) Alyson Waters, 2013.