The Knife Thrower

“Le Lanceur des couteaux”; translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman

The small black-and-white photo, its negatives having been destroyed, scratched out first with the tip of a needle and then warped in fire; this photo, which I still have, shows him naked, stretched out on the velvet cover of a high bed with a cross over it, his eyes shut, a legionnaire’s party hat on his head that is an exact paper replica of the kepi his cousin is wearing in the framed photograph on the nightstand beside him, his young cousin sent by his father, the Marshal, to Indochina, in 195.., and blown apart by a bomb explosion.

This blurred photo was taken one August night in 19.., the same month I met him, identified by a friend at a bar as a knife thrower and Mademoiselle B.’ s famous lover. It was an evening when his aunt, the Marshal’s wife, whose place he was staying at, was away traveling, visiting a Carmelite convent in Périgord. The doorman was asleep, he had a key to the house where the shutters were closed day and night. He successively turned on all the lights, and I explored this lair filled with heroic photos, marble busts, crystal chandeliers, and miniature planes, this never-open museum, dedicated to her husband the deceased soldier, and to her sacrificed son. The Marshal was said to have become, after this tragic death, a pederast and an opium smoker. The Marshal’s wife had gone, body and soul, into religion, and she spent every week giving Vietnamese afternoon teas for young boys chosen because of their resemblance to her son. A., who can be seen in this photo, was incidentally an almost exact copy of his cousin.

I took the photo in the Marshal’s own room, where images of his son abounded. How had he become part of this mise en scène? Four years later, I still have no idea. He couldn’t have imagined that I would be ready to blackmail him. I still didn’t know, that night, how much I was worth to him, how much he coveted me. The truth was that he had chosen me. And he thought he would easily be able to get these photos back, to use a bit of violence if needed should I refuse to hand them over. Up until then we had gone to my place, bringing along these party hats that were the main component of the mise en scène. And I made him drink, thinking that it would make the shoot easier, also believing that he was the only victim of deception, and that this deception would not be mutual. I even put makeup on him.

An almost exact copy of his dead cousin in Indochina, the difference being that his left cheek bore a scar that skirted his nostril, a patch-up after a motorbike accident. Every time he ate, as he chewed, his cheek oozed a thick, runny sweat, which he wiped with the back of his napkin, hiding it with a semblance of shame. He explained away this liquid by a missing nerve, severed during the operation.

For a month, almost every night, we had dinner together. Our usual friends’ absence made this August an empty month. A., dressed entirely in leather, told me about his adventures with prostitutes, his misadventures rather, since they got away from him most of the time by refusing his money. When we left the restaurant, he usually insisted on taking me to Pigalle, and he talked to the hookers while pointing at me, talking about how much a double pass would cost. But there was never a real possibility of doing something with one of these women.

One day, when he came to my place, on pretext of being sticky after a streetwalker’s ministrations, he asked me to wash his genitals myself in my bathroom sink.

He ended up confessing his strange passion to me: knife throwing, and explained his methods to me, and that night he made me a gift of his first knife, a little knife with a broken handle that, by swiveling around its metal frame, could make a second sharp object. The blade was undamaged. Knife throwing, he told me, shouldn’t be considered an art in and of itself, or a mere feat, it had to be incorporated into a show, like an additional trick within a dramatic, musical, or erotic performance. His dream was to put on a show where men in formalwear, in a château, discussed over dinner the art of knife throwing, and displayed, gradually during their discussion, their skill, practicing on the servants, blindfolding them, and throwing their daggers all at the same time — this was the finale of the performance — at a woman bound and gagged on the overturned table they had just dined upon, an imprisoned woman in his fantasy who these men lusted after, and who they would have broken all ties in order to possess.

The throwing knives, he showed me plenty of them with a sort of pleasure in making me feel their weight, were hunks of narrow, sharp metal, with handles swaddled in leather straps. The knife had to be held by the blade at the moment of its throwing, making a half-turn in its trajectory. A good knife was worth its weight, it had to be several kilos. The throwing performances, he said as if to reassure me, were rigged: first of all, the handle was hollow and filled with balls of mercury which, by a fundamental law of physics, forced the knife to plunge straight and minimized any possibility of skidding; then the wooden plank the steel bored into was lined with magnets that repelled the blade away from the human shape outlined in chalk. He trained himself in a suburban warehouse, with other circus artists. One afternoon he invited me to come with him, and introduced me as his partner. Small posters were pinned to the walls, with his made-up opera sadist’s face. He performed under the name Zagato.

He wrapped his knives in newspaper. One blade more valuable than the others had its own empty spot in a black-velvet case, like a compass or a musical instrument. He liked to stroke the blade, to feel the sharpness on his fingers’ tips, and often kissed it right before throwing it with a flick of the wrist. Then his whole body thrilled, danced fluidly like an animal, dark and gleaming like a puma’s rippling fur. He trained on truncated tree trunks, the human outline chalked on the plank still empty beneath the cloth that covered it, like a policeman’s marks after a murdered body has been taken away in a stretcher. He declared how much he loved to hear the steel split the air with a whistle, then plunge with a sudden thump, thrumming for a long while in the wood. He took his hot knife out from the cracked bark, and made me feel with my fingers how hot it was, sometimes burning.

The effects of intoxication, as a cover for deception, will become clear in this unusual affair. He invited me to come to dinner with a friend: for a friend, a man who, of course, had a good sense for business. At eleven in the evening, he was still buttoned up in a suit, his Adam’s apple gripped by the knot of his tie, tapping his fingers against a briefcase. They both stayed sober the better to push me, before I had realized it, into drunkenness. The main problem with a career as a knife thrower, said A., was the lack of partners, the gradual disappearance of these brave women who served as living targets, usually out of devotion or love for their lovers, without whom a knife thrower’s performance couldn’t happen. Zagato had lost his own several years earlier because of a disastrous meeting of steel and magnets in violation of their usual repulsions. He had, in vain, been putting classified ads in the professional papers with these words: “Circus artist seeking partner for throwing performance. Good pay, insurance, travel benefits.” The candidates fled when he unveiled the heaps of flying steel which their eyes had to confront. Zagato had been invited to represent France at the next international conference of knife throwers, which would take place in December on the stage at the Hong Kong Casino, and he still hadn’t found a partner. When he offered me the part, I thought it was a joke, and I quickly signed, with a laugh, and without even reading it, the sheet that the businessman had taken out of his briefcase. The abrupt change in their looks, which I saw shift from friendly to menacing, made me get hold of myself. I also wanted to get hold of the sheet, but they had taken it away, they were already giving me a duplicate with an apologetic smirk, an almost sneering smile.

I had to show up every day, starting the next day, at the suburban hangar to assist Monsieur A., better known as Zagato, as he practiced for his next performance on the Hong Kong Casino stage, where I had to appear in drag, a live target under an alias I had yet to pick, either Mademoiselle Fuchs or Mademoiselle Calypso. All the travel and insurance costs were taken care of. My monthly salary through December was four and a half thousand francs. After then, I was free to renew the contract or not.

I showed up to the first practices, trying to figure out how I could get out of them. A.’s behavior toward me changed completely: he became violent, he forced me to try on a glimmering black lamé dress that had been bought in a batch of things formerly belonging to the Chinese variety-show singer Suzy Wong, and he ordered me to take hormones. For the performance to happen without any problems, he told me, I had to trust him completely. Fear was what made accidents happen. I faced, bravely at first, these knives that he threw at me full speed and which rang out as they hit just a few centimeters from my heart. I forced myself not to shut my eyes, but there was always a single second when I believed the knife had touched me and when I superimposed over us this funereal inscription: “Here lies Mademoiselle Fuchs, stabbed on the stage of the casino in Hong Kong by her partner, the famous Zagato.” The feat kept on getting just a little more complicated, he stood just a bit farther away every day, and he threw the knife between his legs. When he made me put on a blindfold after tying me to the board, I fainted. I announced that I had decided to stop, he could do whatever he wanted with his contract with his sleazy booking agent, nothing in the world would make me go to Hong Kong, I would press charges, in any case I was keeping these compromising photos, I threatened to show them to his aunt the Marshal’s wife, or to have them published in a tabloid. He spent that same night at my place in order to get them back, we punched each other. I refused to give them to him. I reminded him of that night when he turned up at my place, and when he had begged me, oddly, to wash his sex in my bathroom sink. That was my only physical relationship, beyond the fists, with this boy I would never have to see again. The next day I ended up meeting with the booking agent who tore up the contract in front of me as I threw the rolls of film into the fire.

From La piqûre damour et autres textes (Gallimard, 1994). Translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman.