Place du Palais Bourbon
A man newly exiled contemplates the alienating terrain of European squares.
I am eating a madeleine from the supermarket. Even if it were a homemade madeleine, like those that Proust used to eat, it wouldn’t have a synesthetic effect on me. And even if that were possible, I wouldn’t be able to write like Proust. He would have composed a beautiful meditation regarding the square on which I live, for example, using it as a runway for flights as vertiginous as those of Harry Potter on his magic broom. Yes, I did put Proust and Harry Potter in the same sentence, which is proof of how madeleines, in my case, further reduce what is already insignificant – my work as a writer. Good writers, or those who think they’re good, use the highfalutin term “my oeuvre” when discussing the inherent qualities of their works. I don’t dare. Someone who makes free associations between Proust and Harry Potter isn’t allowed to say “my oeuvre.” At the most, they can blame Proust for having opened the door for others – like myself – to make free associations.

A madeleine from the supermarket, Proust. The square on which I live is in Paris. I spend hours gazing at slivers of it through one of my living room windows. But it doesn’t inspire any feelings in me. And yet it is a lovely square, at an elegant address with a noble name: Place du Palais Bourbon. It faces the real entrance to the French National Assembly, whose fake entrance opens onto another square, Place de la Concorde. There is a third square nearby. So big that it is an esplanade, des Invalides, in whose majestic building lies the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, my most illustrious neighbor, I believe. There is also the square in front of the Basilica of Saint Clotilde, near my bank. The church’s iron gate serves as a goal for the boys who play football there in the late afternoon, and there is invariably a ball wedged between the late gothic sculptures that adorn the entrance arches. One day, as I was crossing the square, a boy called to me, “Mister, come look, come look!” It was a dead duck in a plastic bag. The boy waited for my reaction, but all I could say was “What a pity.” I didn’t feel any pity.

So how did I end up here, if I’m not French? How did I end up here, if I am not a lover of Paris – although I recognize its qualities as a woman with whom I am not in love? (Paris is only a city in the male gender to the French, “Le Vieux Paris.”) How did I end up here, if I wasn’t annexed like the Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte? I am an exile. All I shall say is that I had to leave my native country for upholding the law while doing my job. The ironic thing is that in the square on which I live there is a statue entitled The Law. My bedroom window offers the best view of it. When I wake up and open the window, I find myself face to face with The Law.

Just as madeleines will never make me a Proust, exile doesn’t make me a hero. I am a man and his circumstance – a phrase which more often than not defines an idiot. But I don’t feel like an idiot. I don’t feel anything. It’s nice not to feel anything. It’s nice not to feel anything about yourself. And I don’t have anyone beside me who might have an opinion about me. It’s nice not to have anyone beside you who airs opinions about you. My exile is as solitary as the last ham or tuna sandwich that I race to buy before the shop on Rue de Bourgogne closes and I am left without supper. Don’t judge these self-complacent lines. They only express my day-to-day life. The sandwiches are good, and I could be more organized and buy enough groceries so that I don’t have to race out for my evening meal.

Place du Palais Bourbon helps me not to feel anything. In it, there are no children, no fountains, no trees, no benches, no lovers, no newsstands; no one selling crepes, hotdogs, or touristy trinkets. It is a square of stone, surrounded by buildings that date back to the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries, overshadowed by the The Law statue and the French flag over the National Assembly’s portico – a portico with a clock that, at night, reveals a lime-green face. Sometimes I do feel something – that I am a stranger like the lime-green of the clock. But I don’t know if the feeling is about me or the square. Perhaps it is two feelings melded together. At any rate, they dissipate quickly, and I return to my current natural state – of not feeling anything.

I would say that Place du Palais Bourbon is a scenic representation of the origin of that which we call “square.” It is my literary thesis that squares came into being as an urban simulation of the large clearings that gave our prehistoric ancestors a sense of amplitude. It was dangerous to wander out into the openness of a clearing, with predatory animals and enemies from rival tribes always ready to pounce, but the impulse must have been irresistible. At last, the sky. At last, the infinite horizon. There is a good stretch of sky over Place du Palais Bourbon. The moon is almost always framed in the living room window near the table where I work. I don’t feel anything about the moon. It doesn’t conjure up memories, old loves, or curiosity about the origin of the universe. The moon over Place du Palais Bourbon is just a white spot, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller, on clear nights. The moon over Place du Palais Bourbon is a dead rock that casts its dead light on dead stones.

From simulations of clearings, squares came to be settings in which the sky and horizon only increased the endlessness of our arrogant beliefs, our idiotic beliefs. In ancient Athens, squares served the philosophy that elevated humankind to an inexistent transcendence and the democracy of the few who are equal. In the Rome of the Caesars, squares served the ferocious circus provided by the few who were equal for the great unwashed. In the Middle Ages, squares were backdrops for Inquisition hearings. Many squares are still extensions of churches. The most monumental of them all, Piazza San Pietro, in Rome, was designed by Lorenzo Bernini, to make us all feel small before the Catholic Church – and reverent toward the divine power that it represents. In San Pietro, I felt joyfully small on my first visit. I later ceased to feel anything when I passed the baroque play of Bernini’s colonnade and entered the space he had designed.

There are also squares in which symbols of temporal power predominate. Piazza della Signoria, in Florence, with its Palazzo Vecchio is one of the most famous. When I remember Piazza della Signoria, the first image that comes to mind is of a rainy night on which I, accompanied by I don’t remember who, was completely disinclined to appreciate its magnificent architecture. On the other side of the world, in Peking, I once stood in another square of temporal power: Tiananmen, where a photograph of Mao Tse-Tung hangs on the wall of the former imperial palace. There, the statue of The Law is the image of Mao. When I visited Tiananmen Square, I was disturbed by the number of people walking around the Chinese flag in the center of that vast space devoid of architecture. I wasn’t sad because the regime had killed a group of students there twenty years earlier. It is hard to feel sad when standing before the photograph of Mao. Hard, because it is one of the most laughable things ever done in the name of personality worship. In Tiananmen, all I felt was the ridiculousness of ideology.

On TV and in the newspapers, I followed the crowd that occupied Tahrir Square, in Cairo, to demand an end to Egypt’s dictatorship. Similar to Peking, large squares have become sites for demonstrations. I don’t feel anything about demonstrations. That’s a lie. I feel fear. The masses as a single organism, with a will of its own, are a monster that frightens me. I will never visit Tahrir Square. On TV and in the newspapers, its spring struck me as a violent summer and nothing else.

I don’t have a lot to say about squares, because I don’t have anything to say about myself or the world. I don’t harbor an anthropological passion that allows me to appreciate the squares that still seem like mere simulations of clearings (those of my native country stink of urine and are the territory of beggars, drug dealers, thieves, and prostitutes). The ruins of Greece and Rome do not move me anymore because all I see in them are the seeds of our arrogance. I don’t believe in the Catholic God, and as such, the large squares dedicated to him don’t move me with their architecture that reduces human beings not to their exact proportion but even smaller, so as to aggrandize a supernatural being that we created ourselves in our own image and likeness. In God’s squares, we are small because we think too highly of ourselves. And therein lies the paradox. I am indifferent to the power that I no longer appreciate historically and aesthetically in squares built to pay homage to rulers. I fear the masses and, as such, avoid squares that might serve as a stage for their demonstrations, no matter how fair they may seem.

I am left with Place du Palais Bourbon. But its stony beauty is continuously eroded by the automobiles that drive around it. Truth be told, it is just a traffic circle, in whose center is the statue of The Law. Perhaps I should close the curtains so that I never gaze upon Place du Palais Bourbon again. Perhaps I should seek a square inside myself. A square where a little boy used to play and saw shapes in the evening sky and dreamed of the future and chatted with friends. A place as common as a commonplace. But I would have to create this boy out of nothing. I would have to build this inner square from nothing. I can’t. I don’t dare. I feel nothing about myself, and this nothing tastes like madeleines from the supermarket. It’s nice to be able to buy madeleines from the supermarket.


Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin

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Mario Sabino, born in São Paulo in 1962, is editor-in-chief of Veja, Brazil’s most influential weekly magazine.
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