The Walker-Through-Walls (Le Passe-Muraille) by Marcel Aymé, 1943

views updated

by Marcel Aymé, 1943

Author of an impressive body of work, including some 80 short stories, 17 novels, 12 plays, and 4 essays, Marcel Aymé did not become well known until late in his life. One reason, according to Graham Lord, may have been that "critics were particularly nonplussed by the ease with which [he] moved between reality and fantasy." Too, he had a reputation as a right-wing writer, resulting from his friendship with Brasillach and Céline, for example, in a society where the intelligentsia was vastly left-wing. Today, however, studies of Aymé have been published in France and in the United States, and some of his works, essays and articles, have been assembled by Michel Lecureur, author of several studies on Aymé, in a volume entitled Vagabondages.

Among his 43 fantastic or supernatural short stories "The Walker-Through-Walls" ("Le Passe-Muraille"), first published as the title story of a 1943 collection, is probably Aymé's most successful. (See, for example, J. L. Dumont in Marcel Aymé et le merveilleux.) In contradiction to the implications of its title, "The Walker-Through-Walls" starts with two elements that are indicative of a traditional story: the name and address of the main character. This is immediately counteracted, however, by the information that Dutilleul, the main character, a "third-grade clerk at the Ministry of Registration," finds out one day that he can walk through walls. This quick shift to the supernatural, done in a very matter-of-fact manner and combined with Dutilleul's lack of reaction to his "special aptitude," gives a dimension of reality to the story.

Not only can Dutilleul walk through walls, but he does it "without experiencing discomfort"; the implication is that others may have already walked through walls and did experience discomfort from doing so. Possibly Dutilleul is better skilled than others, or his gift may be more "complete." The doctor needs to be convinced of what Dutilleul is actually experiencing, not so much because of the impossibility of the occurrence but in order to justify his prescribing the adequate medication, "tetravalent reintegration powder." The fact that such a medication exists confirms that others may have caught this "illness." The contents of the medication (rice flour and centaur's hormones) contribute to the fantastic setting as the mythological animal finds a place in the reality of the story.

The discovery of Dutilleul's ability to walk through walls is treated by both doctor and patient as if it were a mere headache, as if two pills could take care of it. It does not affect Dutilleul, who has "little love for adventure" and is "non-receptive to the lures of the imagination." He goes on leading life as usual, "without ever being tempted to put his gift to the test," until one day M. Mouron, his superior at the Ministry of Registration, is replaced by M. Lecuyer. This rather ordinary event is referred to as "extraordi-nary," and it is going to "revolutionise" Dutilleul's life. The discovery of his "special ability" has not provoked the slightest stir in his imagination, but M. Lecuyer's "far-reaching reforms" ("calculated to trouble the peace of mind of his subordinate") will. To Dutilleul's horror he is required to change the formula that he used for years and to start letters with one that is shorter and more "trans-Atlantic." "With a machine-like obstinacy," Dutilleul keeps using the former, increasing his superior's animosity, which creates an "almost oppressive atmosphere" in the ministry. The crisis is such that Dutilleul ends up brooding over it for "as much as a quarter of an hour" before going to sleep.

The caricature is now complete. Dutilleul, the civil servant, is shown as thoughtless, lacking any intellectual substance, robotlike, and unimaginative. Through Dutilleul's "adventures" Aymé pursues one of his favorite themes as he satirizes the excessive and absurd uniformity of any kind of routine. He uses as an example what is viewed in French society as the epitome of repetitiveness: government work and its effect on the human mind.

Although imagination (the "queen of the faculties," according to the French poet Baudelaire) did not disturb Dutilleul's life, pride over a very trivial item does. It causes him to be inspired when the discovery of his ability to walk through walls has failed to do so. Now, surprisingly and ironically, "sanguinary thoughts" pop into Dutilleul's mind, and in a facetious manner Dutilleul sticks his head through the wall of the little room where he has been relegated as a punishment for his "rebellion" so that he appears in M. Lecuyer's office like an insulting "trophy of the chase." Later, "having acquired a certain skill at the game," Dutilleul feels the urge to go further and terrorizes his superior with his tricks, described as demoniac by the narrator. After two weeks of this treatment M. Lecuyer, extremely disturbed, both physically and mentally, is taken to a mental home.

A new life starts for Dutilleul. He now feels a "yearning," "a new, imperious impulse"—"the need to walk through walls," to which the narrator also refers as "the call of the other side of the wall," using an animalistic terminology. In an almost philosophical tone that enhances the irony, the narrator acknowledges that walking through walls does not constitute an end in itself; as a beginning it calls for a reward. In search of more inspiration Dutilleul turns to the "crime column" of the newspaper. Then, without any kind of transition, the narrator very casually announces the "Dutilleul's first burglary took place in a large credit establishment on the right bank of the Seine."

This amazingly rapid transformation of Dutilleul into a burglar adds a new dimension to the world of the narration and to the satire. The dull, unimaginative, robotlike civil servant has become "the werewolf" (another animalistic term), a gentleman cambrioleur, an Arsène Lupin, as Michel Lecureur suggests in La Comédie humaine de Marcel Aymé. Like his brilliant predecessor Dutilleul/werewolf has a strong impact on French society. Not only is the whole Parisian population now in awe of his exploits, but any woman "with romance in her heart" lusts for him. And two ministers have to resign as a result of their failure to arrest "the werewolf."

After having finally "allowed himself to be arrested" in order to prove to his colleagues that he is the "genius," Dutilleul has the opportunity to fulfill his career, that is, to experience prison walls. As the narrator declares, "No man who walks through walls can consider his career even moderately fulfilled if he has not had at least one taste of prison." After escaping several times Dutilleul, his pride wounded, decides that he has had enough of prison life, and he goes into hiding. He undergoes a complete metamorphosis. But, ironically, the drastic transformation simply consists of changing the four elements the narrator used earlier on in the story to identify the character: Dutilleul has shaved his black tuft of beard, substituted horn-rimmed spectacles for his "pince-nez," started to wear a "sports cap and a suit of plusfour in loud check," and changed his apartment.

Now comes the moralistic aspect of the tale. Dutilleul, whose disguise has been discovered by Gen Paul, painter and friend of Aymé, is on the verge of leaving Paris for Egypt since the pyramids constitute the highest challenge for a person who can walk through walls. He meets his fate, however, in the person of a ravishing blond who is immediately seduced by him since "nothing stirs the imagination of the young women of the present day more than plus-fours and horn-rimmed spectacles." His passion for this young woman, who is locked up by a jealous but dissolute husband who leaves her alone every night, brings about the end of his adventure. As a result of their transports Dutilleul suffers from a severe headache that will, ironically, cause the cessation of his ability to walk through walls. Instead of taking aspirin, Dutilleul takes two pills of the "tetravalent" that he had negligently thrown into a drawer. After sensing "friction" and "a feeling of resistance" on the third night of his going through the walls to meet with his lover, Dutilleul finds himself "petrified in the interior of the wall."

However shocking and horrifying, the ending is treated in the same matter-of-fact manner encountered at the beginning. Here again, the extraordinary occurrence appears realistic. "To this day," the narrator adds, Dutilleul is "incorporated in the stone." And not only can the birds of Paris hear Dutilleul mourn "for his glorious career and his too-brief love," but Gen Paul plays the guitar regularly "to console the unhappy prisoner." It is not Dutilleul who goes through the walls now but only the notes of the music that "pierce through the heart of the stone like drops of moonlight." The irony is undoubtedly enhanced by the use of terms like "mourning" and "tomb," which give a macabre dimension to the story in contrast to the almost fairylike image evoked by the last line.

As in "Dermuche" and "The Seven-League Boots," two other Aymé stories, the fantastic in "The Walker-Through-Walls" does not find a resolution in the end. Dermuche, the criminal who has metamorphosed into a baby, is executed for a crime that he has not committed because, as his transformation went on, the crime came undone. Antoine, the poor little boy, and not his richer companions of "The Seven-League Boots" was finally given the magic pair, and he finds himself "at the end of the earth"—"in ten minutes." Dutilleul, the man who walks through walls, becomes the beating heart of an object that never had a heart before, namely the wall.

—Nicole Buffard-O'Shea