Henri Michaux

Plume's Travels

     Plume can’t say people are nice to him when he travels. Some bump into him and don’t say they’re sorry, others wipe their hands on his coat. He has gotten used to it over the years. He is an unassuming man and likes to travel modestly.
     A grumpy waiter may serve him a plate with nothing on it but a big root. “Go on, eat it,” the waiter says. “What are you waiting for?” “All right,” Plume says and digs in. He hates making a scene.
      When he needs a bed for the night, they say, “What! You haven’t come all this way just to sleep, have you? Go on, and take your suitcase with you. This is the best time to take a walk in town.” “Oh well, of course,” Plume replies. “I was just making a little joke.” And he exits into the gloom of night.
     Sometimes they throw him off the train. “You think we’ve warmed up the engine for the past three hours and hitched up eight rail cars just to transport a young man like you, in the pink of health, who could be perfectly useful here and has no need to go there? You think that’s why we’ve blasted tunnels, dynamited tons of rocks, and laid out hundreds of miles of track, in bad weather and good, not to mention continual line surveyance to ward off saboteurs, and all that for…?”
      “Oh well, of course,” Plume says. “I understand completely. I just came on board for the view. Idle curiosity, that’s all. Many thanks.” And he goes back down with his luggage, prepared to continue the journey on foot. In Rome he wants to see the Colosseum. “Sorry,” he is told, “it’s already in bad shape. And then, my dear sir, you will want to touch it, lean against it, sit on it…Why do you think these places are in ruins? We’ve made our mistakes in the past, but from now on that’s out.”
     “Oh well, of course. I just wanted to buy a postcard, or maybe some slides, if that’s all right.” And he leaves Rome without having seen a thing.
      On an ocean liner, the captain will point a finger at him and say, “What is this guy doing? It seems to me that there’s a lack of discipline on this ship. Down to the hold with him! The second watch has just sounded.” He whistles as he walks away, and Plume—Plume throws out his back during the crossing.
     But he says nothing, he doesn’t complain. He thinks of those less fortunate than himself, who cannot travel at all, whereas he, he travels, he travels all the time.

—Translated from the French by David Lehman