This event occurred about ten years before I put pencil to paper to recount it. All our lives are full of events, but what surprises me about this one is how vivid are some of its details even now, mixed with other details that I have never fully assimilated, and that have prevented me from storing it in some well-ordered place in my memory.
I had recently moved house and I needed to work for a few days on a project for a new company. So I was still sorting through the possible routes and combinations of bus and metro to find the one that would make the journey to the new office quickest and most agreeable. There were various alternatives and I decided to try them out on consecutive days. This first day I would go to metro station A, from where I would have a ten-minute walk to the office. It happened that station A was just three stops on the same line from station B, which I used quite often, though coming from another direction, to visit a friend.
Being only half-awake in the early morning, disorientated by the new route and accustomed to travelling to station B, I went on past A and continued unthinkingly towards B. When I became aware of my mistake I got off at the first opportunity, at station C, between A and B. On the platform of this station I waited for a train to take me back to station A; I remember the strange sensation of not wanting to be there, wanting to leave as soon as possible. As I waited, a figure came, hugging the wall, up the stairs that led from the street and that ended parallel with the lines. When the train was about to enter the station the figure threw itself on to the track and the driver did not have time to stop.
As far as I remember, there were two other people on the platform, maybe more, but I only recall a man behind me and a woman about five metres to my right. The man began to shout: ‘Tell me it isn’t true what I’ve just seen. Tell me. It isn’t true! No! No! It hasn’t happened!’ I thought I would tell him that no, it hadn’t happened, but I desisted, it made no sense. The woman looked at her watch, at the arrivals board, at the metro map, and went away to find an alternative way to her destination. I was caught for a moment between the pragmatic decision of the woman who had decided to make a speedy departure and the decision of the man whose voice had shown the devastating effect of what he had just witnessed. Even today I can still see myself there, trapped between these two forces, motionless, unable to breathe, my heart thumping away in my breast. Even today I wonder whether I’m not still there, trapped on that platform.
Hearing the man shouting behind me, I remember asking myself: What do I feel? What am I feeling? What should I feel when a stranger takes his life in front of me? Should I shout like that man, voicing an ancestral grief, a human grief? Or should I do what the woman did, and hurry to find another route to the office? What should I feel?
After a little while I managed to pull myself together and decided to ignore the man’s shouts; he was still inconsolable. I left the station and resolved to walk the rest of the way. It wasn’t too far, and soon they’d close the metro down. I asked passers-by and lost the way several times; I wasn’t concentrating on the directions they were giving me. Then I reached a square I recognized and was able to find my bearings.
When I reached the office I explained to my boss why I was late. I sat at my desk and switched the computer on. And that’s where my recollections of that day come to an end, all the rest is hazy and unclear.
I have narrated this event on various occasions, and to lighten it a little I have always tried to give it something of a humorous air by referring to its protagonist as ‘the professional suicide’. For it was certainly true that the suicide knew exactly what he was doing. Metro drivers are well trained to avoid suicides. They slow down as they come to a platform and they stay alert. This suicide did what he did with total precision; in a sense it can be said that he was a professional. But this is not the reason why I find it difficult to forget that day. It’s because of other details.
In the first place, I should not have been there. I had planned to get off at station A, I became confused and unthinkingly continued towards station B. But it did not happen in either of these two stations. It happened in station C, a station that had no connection with my life. It was an intermediary station, a non-place, a station whose name I did not even notice. It was a station that belonged to others, it was not my station. During the days after the event I kept thinking about parallel worlds. I had crossed into a parallel world, a world simultaneous with mine, and it was in this simultaneous world that the suicide had happened. I always compare this with the archetype of the child who opens a door or a forbidden drawer and discovers something unsuspected and painful.
Another feature of this event under which I’ve never managed to draw a line is my obsessive insistence on asking myself: What did I feel? What was it that I was feeling, what would it have been normal to feel? What should a human being feel when another human being throws himself under a train? What level of humanity is there in me? It is now, as my pencil scratches the paper to write about it, that I realize the question was perfectly logical: the reason I asked myself what I was feeling was that I was feeling nothing. The atrocity of the event, the absurdity of what happened, produced a blockage between my emotions, my body and my mind. An instantaneous interior splitting. It is only now, as I trace these letters, that I can realize there is a part of me that is envious of the man shouting behind me on the platform. I feel the absence in myself of shouts and tears and of cursing something, cursing the world and injustice and the grief that is common to us all.
A friend has explained to me that, in situations which are traumatic for our minds, our emotions and our bodies, they become dissociated. This is a survival strategy that allows people who have suffered brutality and torture to live to tell the tale. I do not wish to compare this experience to that of people who have suffered traumatic experiences in their own flesh. But the interior mechanism must be similar. Writing and reading are like an invisible bridge that opens up channels to connect us, both with other people and within ourselves. It is by writing these letters that, as in a magic spell, words can serve as a secret corridor that unites what is separated and gives a voice to what is silent.
But there is yet a third element in this story that is equally disconcerting for me. I never had a clear view of the face of the person who killed himself. I can vividly see his build and his walk, but I never managed to see his facial features. Up to now I have spoken of ‘him’, but it could have been ‘her’. He or she was short, with blond, curly hair, wearing a blue anorak. His or her skin seemed very white, something I’ve always attributed to illnesses, to an unhealthy life. Sometimes I’ve tried to give that person a face configured from faces I know. But other times I’ve thought it was better not to have seen the face clearly. That face without distinctive characteristics is the face of us all, men and women, a face with human features, asking me: What are you feeling? A face that has often made me wonder about the limits of the grief that we can endure: where is the frontier of grief that, if we crossed it, would lead us to take our lives. A face that made me wonder how much of a suicide there is in each one of us. That indistinct face, with its ill-defined features, is the suicide that we all carry within us and that we hope will never come to life, because if it did it would be, paradoxically, to take our lives away from us. A face that continues to ask: What are you feeling? What are you writing?