Un Sac De Billes - English Translation - Chapter 1
Un sac de billes by Joseph Joffo is the story of two young jewish boys who are forced to flee their hometown in order to seek refuge from the invading Germans. This book is truly excellent and deserves to be read in its native language: French, in order to appreciate it fully.
The purpose of this series of hubs is to aid students of the French language (It is used in the A level syllabus) and keen readers in understanding the plot and vocabulary used in the book.
Any questions regarding the translation will be handled in the comments section below :)
Un Sac de Billes - Translation - Chapter 1
The marble rolls in between my fingers at the base of my pocket. It’s my favourite, so I always keep it there. The funny thing is that it’s the ugliest of them all: nothing to do with the agate ones, or the large lead ones that I admire in Ruben’s father’s shop window on the corner of Ramey road, it’s a clay marble and the varnish is in pieces, it has rough patches on its surface, some patterns, you could call it a miniature version of the globe we have in class.
I like it a lot, it is good to have the world in your pocket: the mountains, the seas, all of that is well buried.
I am a giant and I have on me all of the planets.
- Well, shit, are you ready yet?
Maurice waits, seated on the ground of the pavement just in front of the delicatessen. His socks crumple all the time, father calls him the accordionist.
In between his legs he has a small pile of four marbles: one on top of three others which are grouped so as to make a triangle.
On the door step, Mémé Epstein watches us. She is an old Bulgarian woman, all shrivelled up, wrinkled like you wouldn’t believe. Though strangely, she’s managed to protect the coppery tone that gave her a reminiscence of the winds of the steppes. There in the doorway, on her straw chair, she is a living morsel of the Balkan world, one which even the gray skies of Porte de Clignancourt cannot tarnish.
She's there all the time and smiles at children upon their return from school.
Stories are told about how she fled by foot across Europe, from pogrom to pogrom, to end up washed up in the corner of the “18th arrondissement” where she found Eastern refugees: Russians, Romanians, Czechs, companions of Trotsky, intellectuals, and craft workers. She’s been there for more than 20 years, some memories must have faded away, even if the colour of her forehead and cheeks didn’t change.
She laughs when she sees me waddle along. Her hands stroke the worn out material of her apron, which is as black as mine; it was the time where all of the students were in black, a childhood in great mourning, it was a premonition to 1941.
- Well, my god! What are you doing?
As always, I hesitate! Though Maurice is skilled, I threw seven times already and I missed each time. With the ones he pocketed during playtime, his pockets looked like balloons. He could hardly walk, he was drowning in marbles whilst I had just my last, my favourite.
- I’m not going to sit here until tomorrow...
The marble in the palm of my hand trembles a little. I throw the marble with eyes wide open. To the side. And well, there it is, no miracle. We must return to reality.
The Goldenberg delicatessen has a strange look, you’d think it was an aquarium, the building fronts of Marcadet road undulate a heck of a lot.
I watch the left side because Maurice walks on my right, like that, he can’t see me cry.
-Stop sobbing, says Maurice
-I’m not sobbing.
- When you watch from the other side like that I know that you’re sobbing.
The back of my sleeve and my cheeks are dry. I don’t respond and speed up. We’re going to get scolded, we’re more than half an hour late for when we should have returned.
There it is: over there, the shop on Clignancourt road, the letters are painted on the building front, high and wide, well written like those that my primary school teacher draws, with downstrokes and upstrokes: “Joffo’s Haidresser”.
Maurice pushes me with his elbow.
- It’s yours, funny.
I look at it and take the marble that he gives me.
A brother is someone to whom you return the last marble just after having won it.
I get back my miniature planet; tomorrow, under the covered part of the school yard, I will win a lot with it, and I will pinch his others.
He can’t go around believing that just because he is 24 damned months older than me, he can lay down the law for me.
I am 10 after all.
I remember that after that, we entered the salon and all of the smells invaded my senses.
Every childhood has its smells no doubt, but me, I had access to all of the perfumes, of lavender and violet, the whole range, I look for the bottles on the shelves, for the bland smell of towels, the snipping of scissors - I look for that too. It was the first music that I’d heard.
When we entered, Maurice and I were crowded, all of the arm chairs full,. Duvallier pulled me by the ear as I went by like always. I believe that although he spent his life in that salon, he had to like the atmosphere, the chatter... What I do know: old and widowed, in his three roomed flat on Simart road on the fourth, it must have been awful. Afterwards, he went down the road and passed the afternoon with the Jews, the same seat all the time, near the cloakroom.
After all of the clients were gone, he raises himself and then settles down into a chair “it’s for the beard” he said.
It was father who shaved him. Father with the beautiful stories, king of the road, father of the crematorium.
We did our homework. I hadn’t watched the time but it couldn’t have been more than 45 seconds. I always knew that my lessons before learning them. We hung about in the room so that mummy or one of our brothers didn’t send us back to study and then we went back out.
Albert had been dealing with a large curly haired person and sweat blood and tears on the American style haircut, but still turned around.
-You’ve already finished your homework?
Father looks at us too, but we took advantage of him returning some money to the till and made off up the road.
That, was a good moment.
Porte de Clignancourt station, 1941.
It was a perfect corner for kids. Today, it always astonishes me these “accomplishments for children” of which architects talk about, there are new squares of new blocks with sand pits, toboggans, seesaws, loads of things. Designed specifically, for them, by experts in possession of three hundred thousand childhood psychology licenses.
And it doesn’t work. The children get bored, on Fridays and every other day.
Then I ask myself if all of these specialists wouldn’t be interested in asking why, we, we were happy in this neighbourhood in Paris. A grey Paris, with lights from the shops, the high roofs and the strips of sun above us, the ribbons of cluttered sidewalks of rubbish to climb, entrances to hide yourself in and house door bells, they were everywhere, some caretakers shoot out, carriages, the florist and the terraces of cafés in the summer. At all that as far as you could see, a maze, an immensity of intermingling roads... We went out for discovery. One time I remember, we had found a river, it opened under our feet, at the turn of a dirty road. We felt like explorers. I learned later that it was the Ourcq canal. We had seen the colour of cork and shimmers of petrol on the surface water before returning with the night.
- What are we going to do?
It’s Maurice who poses these questions, almost always.
I was going to reply when my eyes were transported to the top of an avenue.
And I saw them arrive.
It has to be said that they were visible.
There were two of them, dressed in black, tall men wrapped in belts.
They had high boots that must have been rubbed for entire days to get them to have such a shine.
-S.S. he murmured
We watched them come closer, they weren’t going fast, pace slow and stiff as if they were in an immense town square full of trumpets and drums.
- I bet they’ve come for their hair?
I don’t think that one of us had the idea faster than the other.
We glued ourselves in front of the shop window as if we were Siamese twins, the two Germans entered.
It’s the, that we began to laugh.
Masked by our deux bodies, there was a small notice posted up on the window, yellow background and black letters:
<< Jewish Business >>
In this salon, in the silence, without a doubt the most intense that the salon could have known, two S.S. death’s head were waiting knees together in the middle of Jewish clients, to confide their necks to my father the Jew or to my Jewish brothers.
Outside, two little Jews were laughing hysterically.