The Breakdown

(La Décomposition)

Mortal K.

I spent my nights in that dark cave. Like them I fell prey to the intoxication of the machine. My favorite story is an old one, and always the same: It is the tale of the high tower of a castle where some belle dame sans merci or a melancholy and bloodthirsty monster can be found, it’s not clear which. The only way to find out is to penetrate the tower.

I spent my nights on the assault of the sinister castle of Westwest, moving from challenge to challenge, mortal combat to mortal combat. My quest demanded all my patience and virtue: to find, fight, and defeat the enemy. On the screen, in the distance, the single tower of the castle can be made out. Around it flies a dark cloud of crows, to which the stuttering animation (most likely from an underpowered processor) lends the sudden jerking movements of a bat in flight.

But how many duels will have to be fought, how many adversaries overcome to reach the tower? . . . After depositing a few coins in the slot, the machine introduces you to the champion who will represent you in the virtual trials to follow. When confronted by adversity, we enjoy being able to cheer ourselves on or criticize ourselves, as we would anyone else. The programmers, with considerable tact, have taken care of this. The immaculate knight, with his bulging biceps, shaved head, and bare torso tattooed with wild arabesques and barbaric phrases, barely appears on screen when a voice, neutral and uninflected, says, “Call me Joseph.”

It is always dusk when you meet your adversary. Among the hovels of a poor village situated at the foot of the hillside on which the castle is built, stands Gardana, the terrifying combatant wrapped in a red tunic. She flirts from behind a fan that conceals her features. The twins Arthur and Jeremiah wait for you along the road leading to the bridge, their faces hidden beneath a mass of writhing serpents (killing both would be pointless, if you harm one, the other perishes—the power of sympathy is wonderful to behold). Further in the distance is the elusive Momus with his comic mask, and Giza, the cat. The gates of the castle are guarded by Schwartzer in his iron mask, brandishing in his enormous fist the ring of keys that he will use to smash your face. Once you are inside the castle, the size and power of your adversaries will increase to hideous proportions. First you will meet Sordini, who can only be seen in profile; Klamm, dressed entirely in black and wearing a turban, whose fingers are steel claws that cut like razors; Galater, with his glass jaw–or is it diamond?–and finally Westwest, whom few have seen with their own eyes, but who is known to possess no less than four pairs of arms (the better to strangle you with, oh mortal!).

The agility of your adversaries is great and the nature of their powers secret. You fight barehanded and when you kick you leap like a mad ninja from the edge to the center of the screen. The key combinations and the joystick on the game controller allow you to emulate all the moves of some amalgam of kung-fu, tae kwan-do, and jujitsu–parry and thrust. You succeed in tearing the mask off your adversaries, whether it is made of iron or scales, silk or feathers, to reveal their face. The face of a rat or a leper, covered with lesions or dripping with puss, a grinning skull, a gelatinous pulp…Klamm is the only one to escape the unveiling. No sooner do you overcome your opponent and move in for the coup-de-grâce, than he vanishes and morphs into Galater.

But a great part of the attraction of these successive duels for us simple mortals, aside from the pleasure of pummeling these traitors, or our pride in beating them, or the suffering of combat, which causes you to wince (you can see it on the screen) and draws tears of blood (with every blow, the drops flow in abundance), is the terror and the pity inspired by the unusual death they inflict upon us. While you are standing there, a groggy and defeated boxer, your opponent, commanded by that same uninflected voice that now materializes in letters of fire above your poor broken puppet–FINISH HIM!–your opponent destroys you in a manner that is both original and personal, which is his triumph, his signature, and your pain. And you can do nothing but watch, helpless and terrified, at the exquisite torment of your execution.

Gardana bows and, rising, flings her fan like a boomerang, decapitating you. Your head rolls off in the distance while a geyser of blood spurts from your severed neck and descends in a purple fountain over your staggering torso, which, now bloodless, your tunic bloodstained, collapses to the ground, offering you the incarnadine vision–the foreshortening is worthy of a Renaissance painting–of your headless corpse. Poor Joseph. . . .

Finish him! Arthur and Jeremiah grab hold of your body, to draw and quarter you alive. Above the grotesquerie of your helpless torso lying on the road, they wave the bloody stumps of your arms and legs.

Momus, with a monstrous uppercut sends you waltzing upward, high into the sky, from which you plummet deep into a ravine straddled by the bridge with its ancient parapet. At the bottom of the ravine are daggerlike stones. Here, with a long scream, you will be impaled among the grimacing corpses, twisted and pierced, of the bold knights who went before you along the path to the castle.

From within his sordid cave Giza metamorphoses into an enormous cat. He leaps forward and with his claws tears at your chest, skins you alive until, dripping with blood and lymph, nothing remains of you but indistinguishable strips of scarlet flesh. Your executioner dissolves into the air, leaving behind, suspended in the center of the cave, his smile.

Finish him! From the folds of Schwartzer’s clothing, a cloud emerges and a black corset of powdery moths wraps itself around your suffering body until you crumble to the earth, a small pile of dust that your executioner disperses with his powerful breath.

Sordini has tracked you to the airless galleries and antechambers of the castle. His breath envelopes you, tongues of fire burn you, consume you until you are nothing but a skeleton, a bundle of bones that collapses to its knees, falls faceless in the dust…. But is that Sordini, who, from the edge of the screen, escapes your grasp, only to reappear at your back on the opposite side? No. It is his double, Sortini. One always enters from the right and the other from the left. Since they are never seen on screen except in profile, they appear to be no more than two sides of a single adversary that some ancient misfortune has split down the middle, but whose shame prevents from revealing the wound. Sortini is going to kill you, not with fire this time but with iron. Your fate will be like his. Your two halves will each fall to one side, leaving you the leisure of contemplating the spectacle of the irreparable schism that was you. Poor Joseph….

Below, in the dank subterranean corridors, where, between the pillars, beneath dark mineral foliage, vaulted passageways radiating from all sides, the haughty Klamm approaches your wavering carcass and with a firm hand tears the skin off your face like a mask. It hangs in tatters at your neck, but behind it, there is nothing. In place of your missing eyes are two yellow cinders, phosphorescent against the inky darkness of the cave.

From the bottom of a narrow pit, Galater has been waiting for you for all eternity. His glacial breath will transform you into a transparent block of ice. Turning, he will shatter you with a blow from his cocked foot. You are glass and scatter in a cascade of splinters whose edges collect the light falling from above.

When Westwest has finished crushing you in the monstrous embrace of his eight arms, his fists like anvils hammering your chest to the resonant sounds of gongs and drums, six enormous arms will hold you motionless. With two of his most delicate hands he will applaud his victory and, with these same hands, crack your skull. Your brain shoots out, a white, green, fatty mass, and Westwest licks his lips with the pink, tender, and forked tongue of a serpent.

Alas, poor Joseph…he has been done in so many times, successively and repeatedly decapitated, drawn, impaled, skinned, pulverized, charred, split, disfigured, burst, brained…It’s nothing. I am here; I will always be here. In spite of all the suffering, an obol fed to the mouth of the machine is sufficient to restore you to life and send you back across the dark river that encircles the empire of Westwest. It ends only to begin again, like the hope of resurrection that will supply you with the glorious body you believe awaits you, once you’ve crossed the threshold of the topmost chamber of the highest tower.

But about the inhabitant of that chamber, there are only conjectures, rumors. We do not know if anyone has ever succeeded in conquering Westwest. And how many have really gotten far enough to meet him in hand-to-hand combat? On the network, however, where the real fanatics are found, among the teachings of the masters, the lists of secret moves, the genealogy of all the virtual demons, dragons, and dungeons, there are whole pages devoted to the exegesis of the mysteries of the upper chamber and what it contains. But what mortal could boast of having entered there given what we know of the exponential difficulty of the challenges that must be overcome to reach the staircase leading to that final chamber? Who has ever crossed its threshold? And who would swear that it is not empty?

The programmers who wrote the code for this quest are sworn to secrecy. They themselves are unaware of the arcana of the challenges they did not write themselves. It is said that the lead programmer, the one who designed the tower and gave life to Westwest, the cerberus keeping guard at its foot, is dead, carrying his secret with him to the grave. For the program is encrypted and the key is so powerful, the method so unique, that no one has succeeded in breaking the seal and reading like an open book the last lines of the song of the high tower….

The following is known, however, although it may be nothing more than the delirium of boastful gamers who lull themselves to sleep listening to obscene operas.

It is said that the hero who succeeds in defeating the terrible Westwest at the foot of the staircase (and to do this he would have to know how to escape his monstrous embrace, for once in his grasp it cannot be undone), suddenly, as if by enchantment, finds himself in the high tower, on the threshold of the chamber. The door opens to reveal, naked and chained, lying among the debris, the garbage, and the pools of beer, the idol, with black eyes and yellow hair, the beautiful but forbidden damsel. She is yours, all yours, in the dim light: ashen face, crystal arms. It is said that at this moment the keys that launched your fists and feet, the joystick that controlled your tiger-like leaps no longer serve their usual functions; your reflexes, those of a killer and karateka, must now bend to some unknown kama-sutra for which the rules of sequencing and composition are unknown. Or, as some believe, is it the program itself that takes over your will and, like a triumphant automaton, moves you around as if in a dream, until you couple with the prisoner? In any event you must assume that the duration and nature of your pleasure will depend on the valor you have shown in reaching your prize and the energy you have left after so many battles (aren’t your score and your energy reserves permanently displayed on the top of the screen?). As legend has it only one thing is certain: You will watch powerlessly over your triumphant union. Your jism has the extraordinary effect of unleashing the Belle Dame. No sooner does your back arch in a final spasm of pleasure that tickles the joystick in your hand, than her bonds break and her grip grows stronger across the small of your back. She flips you over like a pancake. Her claws seek your chest, dig into the flesh in search of your heart, which she tears out with a cry that turns your blood to ice, even within that yawning wound. And then, the Belle Dame, the angry buzzing of a hundred filthy flies ringing in your ears, devours it, panting with pleasure.

For she is without mercy.


Can one pray to the lady without mercy? Is there anyone who doesn’t dream of possessing that beautiful prize? Yet who would survive the enchantment and horror of the chamber in the highest tower? What mortal doesn’t secretly imagine he can discover the combination of movements that will soften the cruelty of that beautiful whore, and rouse more than her murderous flesh? Oh, to be able to return to life, his forehead still bearing the red imprint of the Queen’s kiss! Lucky Joseph….


Anne F. Garréta

Anne F. Garréta is Associate Professor of French Literature at the University of Rennes (France) and Visiting Professor in the Literature Program at Duke University. She has published four novels: Sphinx (1986), Ciels liquides (1990), La Décomposition (1999), and Pas un jour (2002). The most recent, Pas un jour, was awarded the Prix Medicis in 2002. In 2000 she was elected to the Oulipo, and is the first member to have been born after the group's foundation.

Robert Bononno

Robert Bononno has translated more than a dozen full-length works of fiction and non-fiction from the French, including René Crevel's My Body and I (a finalist for the 2005 French-American Foundation prize), Hervé Guibert's Ghost Image, and Henri Raczymow's Swan's Way. In 2002 he received an NEA grant to complete a translation of the nonfiction work of Isabelle Eberhardt. His most recent translation was Albert Memmi's Decolonization and the Decolonized, published in 2006. He has taught translation at NYU and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

La Décomposition. Copyright (c) Anne F. Garréta, 1999. English translation copyright (c) Robert Bononno, 2007.