The Limp-Paged Album

22 maj 2009

Ur Maurice Sandoz, Fantastic Memories, 1944:

“I have already spoken of my great-grandfather. Doctor, surgeon, chemist, botanist, perhaps even something of a sorcerer, he would certainly have been burned at the stake, or died on the rack had he lived a century earlier.

He worked for choice in the hospitals in the big seaports. These offered a rich field for research. ‘One found everything there, even leprosy,’ he declared once, rubbing his hands with an air of rapture. He passed his nights in recording his observations, surrounded by retorts, crucibles, human skulls, and strange instruments. The censorious talked below their breaths of impiety, insensibility, even of sacrilege.

Among his legacies to us is an old album. It is distinctly shabby and of vast dimensions. I still cling to it, for it reminds me of my childhood.

Those sufficiently curious to open it will be astonished, to begin with, by the small number of its pages - twelve, to be exact. Then they will be disappointed by the quality, with one or two exceptions, of the pictures. But if they be observant, or, better still, imaginative, they will remain fascinated by this collection, in which everything seems calculated to surprise them.

The thickness of the pages is unusual and their odd limpness disconcerting to the fingers that turn them. They curl back on themselves like the buckskin that is still used in the burnishing of gold.

But the most potent quality of this album is the softness, the actual warmth of the pages. I have found myself holding them to my face, closing my eyes and wondering whether I was not pressing my cheek against that of a human being. And that impression was so strong that I could almost catch the sigh of a quick breath or the faint beat of a heart.

As for the pictures themselves, in spite of a similarity of technique they are certainly the work of various amateurs and the subjects have no logical continuity.

The first page bears the image of a pagoda. It is well drawn and towers, nine stories high, between two curious suns, in relief, whose presence is not at first easily explainable.

The second drawing, less able, represents in monotint the head of a woman. Her hair looks more like a bunch of black grapes than one of the chignons then in fashion. From either side of the coiffure little chains hang in the manner of earrings. They culminate in two baroque pearls, these also represented by two curious little reliefs. Anyone running a finger over the page is immediately conscious of them and recaptures suddenly a sensation that will not be new to him, though for many, if not all of us, it remains unexpected and unaccountable.

The other drawings are too mediocre in quality to be worthy of mention, but the last, the twentieth, is interesting.

It is of the life-size head of a tiger, in three colours, orange-tawny, blue-black, and crimson, this last colour being reserved for the gums and the corners of the eyes.

My father did not like to see us fingering these curious pages.

‘Leave that book alone, children,’ he would say, frowning, and he would press on us a volume full of brightly coloured plates illustrating the flora of the Dutch Indies. For a moment we would be dazzled by the fruits and flowers, but, hardly had he turned his back than, very quickly, we returned to our first love, the mysterious book and the face of the woman who wore the strange earrings.

A connoisseur, looking at the head of the tiger, would immediately be reminded of the art of the Far East. But, if he were to examine the ferocious mask more closely, the tippling of the outlines, and, particularly, of the shadows, would put him on the scent.

‘Tattooing!’ he would exclaim, pushing the book aside in disgust.

And, in fact, they are tattoos. The album consists of twelve pieces of human skin, taken from the chests of twelve sailors who had died in hospital!

But do not blame the originator of this macabre collection too hurriedly.

What my great-grandfather was in search of was the secret of eternal youth. For years he worked, untiringly, desperately, to conserve the beauty of the woman who was his all, and to whom he meant so little. Grandmama Gladys departed this life at the age of seventy, radiantly beautiful, with her cohort of admirers as large as ever, though for half a century Death had done his best to thin their ranks.

I understand now why my father did not like to see us poring over that album.

We did not know when we bent over the face of the woman with the strange headdress that the pearls in her earrings were formed by the nipples of the flat breast of a sailor lad who had died in hospital.”

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