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Deathwatch by Jean Genet


by Jean Genet

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I'm a collector (hoarder?), and as I've transitioned from youth to adulthood, my collecting interests have shifted from Marvel cards, baseball cards and basketball cards to books, mostly foreign language books. This is a great time to be a collector, because the internet makes so many books available to you, and with relatively little money, you can buy books that will bring you a great deal of pleasure. I've developed a system of internet search terms that I use to both hunt down the books I already know I want, and also browse collections of booksellers that might have books that interest me. On top of all that, I've got a really great used book store here in town. I imagine the owner almost as a curator: when I walk back in that little cubbyhole where he keeps his foreign language stock, I know I'm going to find a few books that I will immediately buy. Lately he's had an incredible selection of French books, and every now and then I'll find a book in Spanish or Italian that I will purchase without second thought. I generally go in there with a set amount of money I feel I can spend, and walk out with a couple of books. I also make mental notes of the books I'll go back and buy when I've just gotten paid, or when I receive some unexpected financial windfall. And, when all else fails, when I learn of an intriguing new (or old) author I've just got to read, I'll hit up one of the better research libraries in the world (yay for college towns). Sometimes they've got first editions of books that I've seen listed on the internet for hundreds or even thousands of dollars; right now I've got a first edition of Osvaldo Lamborghini's El fiord sitting on my bookshelf, and it's like being able to check out that one Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card I always wanted and hold on to it for a while.

As I shop and browse, I start to see patterns in the availability of certain authors. There are some authors who were so widely-published and (relatively) famous that I will be able to find their books almost wherever I look. Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, I can expect to see their books on the shelves of almost any used bookstore with a decent collection. Then there are those authors who are "cult favorites" and whose books are harder to track down. I once found a reasonably-priced copy of a Roberto Arlt book and excitedly snapped it up. Just the other day I bought a compilation of plays by Alfred Jarry for $4.95 and was pretty happy about it. These are the sort of authors whose books might appear from time to time if I keep making the rounds. Then there are the rare authors whose books I can't find in the stores, and, moreover, their books are always checked out from the library. I've been looking for a copy of Pedro Lemebel's Tengo miedo torero for years, and it's just never there. I had to break down and buy a copy of Elena Garro's Recuerdos del porvenir because I could never get a copy from the library. I'm going to tentatively place Jean Genet between the "cult classics" and the "unobtainables." I read an article about him a few months ago and decided I would like to read either Notre-Dame-des-fleurs or Miracle de la rose; unfortunately, both books have proven difficult to obtain. I looked at the due dates on them at the library and I finally decided I'd go up and have a look through the books that weren't checked out. I chose the short, one-act play Haute surveillance because I liked the cover and the description on the back sounded interesting. I thought it'd be a nice introduction to a new author, and would tide me over until those other books were returned.

Three men share a jail cell: Yeux-verts (Green Eyes) has murdered a woman and will be executed; his cellmates, Maurice and Lefranc, are petty criminals and will be released soon. Yeux-verts is clearly the top dog in the cell due to the weight of the crime that he carries on his shoulders, and the other two men (Maurice, at seventeen years old, is hardly a man) both look up to him in their own way. Maurice fawns over him, while Lefranc hides his admiration behind a mask of contempt. They talk about Yeux-verts' woman on the outside and whether he will confer to them the right to possess her in his absence; they talk about the other big dog in the prison hierarchy, Boule de Neige (Snowball), who has also murdered and who maintains a relationship of mutual respect with Yeux-verts. Boule de Neige never appears in the play, but he does send a few cigarettes Yeux-verts' way, and when the guard drops them off, Yeux-verts tells him that he, the prison guard, can go ahead and have dibs on his woman. His cell mates can't understand how such respect can be granted to someone on the other side. In truth, the guard, a working man who is doing his job and bearing his mediocre lot in life each day as he puts up with the prisoners he watches over, has more in common with Yeux-verts than the petty criminals would believe. Both men are living out the lives they've been thrust into, condemned murderer and working guard, whereas the other two prisoners are jealous of the prestige of Yeux-verts and would give anything to be able to be looked at by others the way they look at him. Maurice and Lefranc keep picking on each other, each one trying to make the other feel bad about what a lowly piece of shit he is. Yeux-verts presides over the room with the enormity of his crime and future death sentence. The ending is a violent one, with one of the other men lashing out in a misguided attempt to attain the level of prestige he attributes to Yeux-verts and his crime.

I really enjoyed this short conversation between three criminals. The plot revolved around the two petty criminals' desire to be like Yeux-verts, and their conversation provided insight into what that would mean and whether they could actually ascend to his level in the way they desired. In social relationships the world over, there's always that one person who everyone wants to be like. Lots of people, both kids and adults, try to follow in the footsteps of those they admire, but they often don't realize that the path they're imitating wasn't necessarily a chosen path in the first place. Maurice and Lefranc badly want to be like Yeux-verts, but they don't realize that half the reason why he's so respected in the prison hierarchy is because he is condemned to die for a savage act committed without premeditation. He didn't plan to kill and be condemned to die so that he could socially dominate two petty thieves in a prison cell while he waits to stand trial. If one of them were to commit a murder intentionally, so that he too could be cool and prestigious as he sat in prison waiting to die, would that really be the result?

I'm happy to have read this book and I look forward to reading more books by Jean Genet. He has an interesting story, and I enjoy literature written by people living in the margins of society. I also learned some cool new 1940s French prison slang. Now I'm ready to read more books by him, and I'm finding that maybe his books aren't as hard to track down as I thought. I just found a copy of his play Les nègres on the internet for cheap, so that'll probably be the next book of his I read. ( )
  msjohns615 | Feb 28, 2011 |
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