Odd Jobs

Niko Pirosmani, Threshing Floor, 1916, oil on cardboard.

The French writer and philosopher Tony Duvert published the slim volume Les petits métiers in 1978. A satirical, caustic, and yet delightfully light collection of fables, the book comprises twenty-three narratives from an imaginary village where denizens perform the strangest—and dirtiest—traditions and professions. A new translation, by S. C. Delaney and Agnès Potier, is forthcoming from Wakefield Press this fall. We’ve excerpted a handful of these very odd jobs below. —Ed.

The Snot-Remover

He’d set up his pump at the entrance of the school, and knew each child by name.

My grandfather told me that in his time, the snot-remover had no pump: he only had a small reed pipe with which to suck up the mucus with his mouth. Also, to completely clean out the nostrils without swallowing anything, he’d put such air into it that the scamps would have preferred having two boogers instead of one, to endure the delicious service longer.

The work of the pump had less charm. I remember that at some point, certain schoolmates would even snub the snot-remover and blow into their fingers, sweeping down their hands to smear the sidewalks and their clean uniforms. 

The Wiper

The wiper carried on his back a small chest containing both old newspapers cut into sheets and soft scented toilet paper. At sunrise, he would begin his route across the village, waking us in turn with his song. Soon we were ready to call him, yet his profession was too lowly to allow him inside our homes. When wanting his service, one poked out one’s ass across the threshold, where a full chamber pot had already been placed. From this he would collect the turds in a handcart. He’d refuse, however, the stools of toddlers and diarrhea victims; in these cases, one had to give him a sou to be wiped anyway.

The wiper sold his crop to the shitmonger who, despite his prosperity (he was a wealthy farmer and often served as mayor), did the work secretly, at night, on the outskirts of the village. He mixed the turds with water and chopped hay; the product, after soaking, was resold to the villagers, who used it to fertilize their fields and window boxes.

While mixing, the shitmonger augmented the amount of hay and water: this was to enrich himself.

With this edge, regarded as perfectly natural, the shitmonger sold the load at auction. As for the wiper himself, he remained a modest employee of shitmongers and butts. He was practically despised. Yet: no wiper, no shit. But the meek never know how to assert themselves and make their value known.

The Clock-Reader

To be a clock-reader enriches a man, for clock owners well know the importance of a good reputation. Yet the clock-reader would sometimes also read watches—in the process both tarnishing his name and ruining his eyes.

It was pointless to expect him before noon: better to let the time gently ripen, and only fools would pluck it in the early morning when it’s green. One watched as the sun reached its zenith, and then—finally—the clock-reader would appear.

Once invited in, he shakes his feet at the threshold, doffs his broad-brimmed hat, and enters with a stately, respectful air. We find him a good seat near the clock, and there, his hat tipped back a little, chin resting lightly on a finger, he proceeds to reflect on the dial.

After a lengthy silence, he solemnly states the time that he’s observed. Then he rises and leaves with a final, ceremonial salute.

The time he saw provokes much discussion throughout the family meal. In the afternoon, ladies taking coffee vainly recall times he’s given them on various occasions—though they often fudge the numbers, since some are flattering while others hardly worthy.

Swiftly the time would pass from gossip to gossip, spreading through the entire village all the way to the public washhouse where, punctuated by the raps of a washerwoman’s beetle, people continue to talk until nightfall.

Illiterates, meanwhile, detest the clock-reader, jeering at him in the street. But he—with the pride of an official both useful to the rich and full of higher learning—would drive them off with a lift of his chin.

The Window-Breaker

It would sometimes happen that a wife, suffocated by her marriage, became crankier than usual. If it were a day that the window-breaker passed by, all would be well.

This man, boyish and grinning, would enter with his provision of rocks; he’d tell you a few jokes; playfully give your tush a little smack; and then, moving by turns from one room in the house to the next, he’d calmly break all the windows, shards falling and glittering outside.

The din would draw out the gossips, make children run off and husbands tremble: these were good days. Next, the woman in crisis would go off to stay with a neighbor, remaining as long as it took for new windowpanes to be set in their frames.

One would come across then, in the village, a number of houses whose broken windows had never been repaired. This was the method men and children had found to be free of certain women, leaving themselves, back at home, in a draft to catch cold.

Tony Duvert (1945–2008) was known as the enfant terrible in the generation of French authors known for defining the postwar nouveau roman. His novel Strange Landscape won the 1973 Prix Medicis.

Les petits métiers © Fata Morgana 1978; this translation © Wakefield Press 2017

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