I love the city like others love the countryside. “This ocean of stones is just as much Nature as are nature, mountains or the sea, and the man born there has in some way been imagined by it.”* I love the city, its imaginary, its stories, its poetics. The story of those who have lived in it, have fashioned it, dreamed it.
In order to track down the imaginary that hides behind its stones, I amble along its streets. The city is composed of places and objects that have accumulated so many presences, so many collective insides and outsides. Little by little, the city and its inhabitants unveil their dreams to me in the course of my strolls.
There are oases in this city, where time has been suspended. Ambiguous places, half city half village, placed at the borders between today and yesterday, between literature and the events of the day… Out of this ambiguity, poetry is born, dreams materialize.
One of these ambiguous places is a small shady square, at the crossroads of several eras, where the present time blends with a sometimes faraway past. Within a stone’s throw of the train station, a small village at the foot of a modern tower. On one side, with a view of the Rue de la Gaîté and its taverns from the 19th century, turned into theaters in the 20th century, and on the other side, the Rue d’Odessa and its crêperies bretonnes. Disreputable in former times, a stronghold of prostitution and crime, the Boulevard Edgar Quinet still runs alongside the walls of the old cemetery where Baudelaire lies buried, not far from the Montparnasse of the 20s and its artists and painters. At the Rue Delambre, Gauguin and Breton lodged at the same house, but at different times. Hemingway and his Lost Generation were just across the street, at Dingo Bar, which has since disappeared. Sartre and Malraux still haunt the neighborhood.
In this place, the unbridled rhythm of the big metropolis slows down and makes you want to stop for a little while, to sit down at one of the tables on a terrace, or, in bad weather, to seek refuge at the back of the room of one of its countless bistros. Lili et Riton is the smallest of them all.
A place which is also ambiguous in itself, half bistro, half café. Bistro, because you are welcomed as a regular, your hand is shaken warmly and you are asked how you have been. Café, because once the ingratiating welcomes are over, you are given back your liberty to dream in solitude. So you choose your table. Some of them are adorned with metal signs, engraved with some name. Probably that of another regular, loyal like you but who no longer comes here, since they have taken their place of residence at the cemetery on the other side of the boulevard. But the tables and chairs, silent witnesses of other lives and other destinies, are still there. But which destinies? What are the stories, the intimate messages passed on here? Who are the Lilis and the Ritons who met or left one another here?
In my notebook, I write down snatches of the conversations I think I overhear. I look at the people passing hesitantly, outside, lost in their thoughts. Where are they going? Where have they come from? Somewhere behind me, a woman laughs. I do not turn around, free to imagine the face I wish. What is she laughing about so bitterly? What age is she? What illusion has she just lost forever? I listen for another couple of seconds, but I cannot hear any more. I turn around. No one is there. So I invite her to exist. I write a word, a phrase… I write the woman who one day was sitting at a table at the back…
*Pierre Sansot in Poétique de la Ville
about the author
Sorour Kasmaï is a writer, translator and editor. Born in Teheran in a francophone family, she graduated from the Franco-Iranian school Lycée Razi. After the Iranian revolution, she fled the country in 1983. In Paris, she studied Russian language and literature. In 1987, she received a grant to study in Moscow, where she specialized in Russian drama. Fascinated by the theater, she later became a translator and interpreter of Russian for theaters and the Paris opera.
She also researches Tajik oral literature and is the publisher of a series of CDs of popular and traditional music from Tajikistan, as well as popular and traditional Iranian music.
Her first book, Le cimetière de verre, was published in 2002 by Actes Sud. For the same publishing house, she has created and edited the collection “Horizons persans” which is dedicated to Iranian and Afghani literature. She has also published La Vallée des Aigles, l’autobiographie d’une fuite (winner of the Prix Adelf 2007) et Un jour avant la fin du monde (Robert Laffont). In addition, she is the translator of several novels and short novels by some of her compatriots, such as Mon oncle Napoléon by Iraj Pezechkzad. Sorour Kasmaï writes and publishes her novels in Persian and in French.
Since September 2016, she has been a member of the jury for the Prix du Jeune Ecrivain de langue française.
English version: Anna Robinigg 2019