Saturday, May 23, 2009

Fourteen cages plus one

A little translation work today - another of my attempts to English the great Kurt Tucholsky! First part

Fourteen Cages plus one
By Kurt Tucholsky

We drive down to the old harbor, where, at the quay, many small boats are docked that can be rented for three francs. What was once the line drawn under the sum of someone’s life is now a pleasure cruise. The motor growls, the boat starts. There lies Marseille.
The houses stand there, narrowly build, around the basin of the old harbor; to your left, up above, you are greeted by the church of Our Beloved Lady who Watches, on the hill. A golden doll. The boat glides under a very high iron construction, to which pennants are attached. To the Fort, in an inlet of the sea. We stop at a small islet.
The islet is the Château d'If. It lies – in case you have your atlas at hand – before the city of Marseille, opposite the islands of Ratonneau and Le Frioul, which are connected through a levy. Is there anything on them? No, unfortunately not. The Chateau d'If is the island on which Edmond Dantès was imprisoned, the Count of Monte Christo.
The small island emerges, becomes visible. You can see a concrete gray, half fallen in wall, we attach ourselves. Above, a winding path through the lower walls, above. A crumbling barracks with the Bourbon lilies still stands there: the castle was built in the year 1592, a Bastille of the South. Francois I laid the foundation stone already in 1524, over a phial of oil and a metal box with grain and a glass of wine. It is a white, crumbling wall, the wall and the stones of the ground have almost assimilated one with the other. There is a small pedestrian bridge out of wood, the planks of which are loose, then the arch and the court of the prison.
The court is very small, surrounded with four walls that are not so high; from above one sees a square of the radiant blue sky. Below, the light is modulated, milky and bright coffeebrown. Below there is a well and on one of the walls a rack of postcards. And all about are the cachots, the cages.
Some lie on the ground level. And above, around the courtyard, along all four walls, there runs a small gallery with an iron ladder by means of which one can access the higher cages. Before every door there is a wooden plaque, on which stands painted, who had once been imprisoned there. As in a zoological garden, one misses the postcript: a gift of Council Friedheimer. I go in.
The guide has you admire the spacious room: “bien aërés et avec vue sur la mer.« Yes, it goes through the small gaps, and when one leans one’s head on the iron grating, one can see a piece of the sea, in which the free fishes live. The ground is walled off, black traces on the walls show where a fireplace once was. It must have gotten devilishly cold, back then… There they also sat.
It was mostly political prisoners who sat here, all people that the regime couldn’t, or didn’t’ want to kill, and whose freedom made it highly uncomfortable. At the time, it was very simple: you only needed a lettre de cachet in order to achieve an end that you now can only achieve through the sitting of a whole people’s court, with all the this and the that: the previous investigation, a hearing, onesided, as only hatred can be, a lynchmob ppress and the whole gigantic apparatus. Thus it was simpler. Many times, aristocratic families even let their sons be a little imprisoned, simply for …
There sat –
A rich Marseille businessman, because of a supposed conspiracy against Cardinal Richelieu; took a chance on a hungerstrike, which he maintained for eleven days; died on the twelfth. A Marseille sailor, who had struck down his superior; sat thirty one years. An Abbé Faria – he and the sailor had even sat here in the nineteenth century. – And how! There’s a hole, a windowless space, in which you wouldn’t put a dog, with a depression as an exit. In that, the convinct was shrived.
On the other side, Dantes sat, the one whose fate Dumas had used in his page turner. The prisoner had tunneled out a connection to Abbe Faria, which is still shown.
At that time there was still a cachot in the ground that is not accessible to the public. In the year 1871, there sat one hundred sixteen prisoners. Communards. One hundred sixteen – that is no number for us others…

Up to the small steps on the upper gallery. There sat: an abbe who had supposedly seduced a girl; a ministerial official who had conspired with England; a man who had sought to murder Napoleon; the famous man in the iron mask; Louis-Philippe Égalité; Mirabeau (there was no political prison in which he didn’t sit); a M. Mollard, who sat there for sixteen years because that is what his parents wanted. Later,iIn this place, a revolutionary tribunal held sessions. A great poisoner, who was burned in Aix in the year 1588; and a street robber and a man named Meynier and… and… and…

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