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The matrix for »Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats«

Pierre Guyotat

The Prison

Translated by Catherine Petit and Paul Buck

Published: 02.11.2016

“This text was written at the end of 1962, after my return from Algeria. It stands under the immediate impression of Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, and is the result of a paraphrase of a very bleak text fragment from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John ­Passion, which I sung as a child. For me the text is the matrix for Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats.” P.G.



Our prison was encircled by marshland where birds and sick dogs came to die. At night we could hear their cries and death rattles. We could see nothing of the town except its smoke and its dying animals. Prisoners on the second floor watched those washed-out cats and dogs die, lying down then struggling in the mud like birds caught in lime; famished cats jumped on those with gaping wounds and tore them open. From the cellar where we had been confined for six years, the laughs, the shouts, the curses of the prisoners made us picture those solitary deaths and massacres. Corpses rotted slowly on the mud. By now my two cellmates resembled rats. We spoke like rats, we walked, we ate like rats. We rotted slowly on the mud of the cellar. At night, black and red insects, cockroaches that were mating in the cavities of the vault fell sleepy, damp and cold on our lips; I no longer screamed. I dreamt of my father who dreaded them, I could hear the crunch the cockroaches made under my father’s feet and his screams at night in the tiled hallway; I could see the glow of the moonlight and the glow of the streetlight on the wire mesh of...

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Pierre Guyotat

Pierre Guyotat

For almost fifty years now Guyotat has been considered one of the most significant avant-gardists and innovators in the French language. Writing, painting, drawing in close touch with music and literature since his early youth, he published his first book in 1961, Sur un cheval. In the same year, called up to the war in Algeria, he was imprisoned for incitement to desertion and the distribution of forbidden literature. With Tombeau pour cinq cent mille soldats (1967) and Eden, Eden, Eden (1970) he gained wide attention and provoked a sharp controversy including censorship. His radical writing was interrupted when his increasingly severe physical and mental exhaustion culminated, in late 1981, in a coma. In 2006 he published Coma, which reflects his psychiatric crisis and reached a wide audience. His numerous publications show Guyotat's stylistic diversity as well as his permanent altercation with literature.


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