A mesmerizing, poetic autofiction about the quest to find meaning in family tragedies, and a sense of self after loss.
In 2012, Theseus heads east in search of a new life, fleeing the painful memories of his past: the suicide of his older brother, the death of his mother, shortly followed by the death of his father. He takes three boxes of archives, leaving everything in disarray, and boards the last night train with his children. He thinks he’s heading toward the light, toward a reinvention, but the past quickly catches up to him.
With a stunning mix of poetry and prose, Camille de Toledo beautifully captures the conflicting urges to look back at or away from our complex histories, made all the more poignant through the scattered contents of Theseus’s archives—black-and-white photos, fragments of handwritten notes.
Release date: January 10, 2023
Publisher: Other Press
Print pages: 304
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Theseus, His New Life
Camille de Toledo
a father unknots alone the rope his son has used to hang himself, I am in a taxi crossing the river, I know nothing of what is happening, but the message on my voice mail says to hurry, and it’s a voice of terror, the father’s; I run from the taxi, enter a code on the keypad, fumble it; hanging is an archaic action unlike jumping out a window, the rope comes to us from the past, I’ll return to this; but for now I bolt up the staircase, the treads are worn, the door to the third floor is open, I see my father sitting; in a corner, the brother stretched out
now everything is falling and life is accursed
the intuition I have had since childhood is finally confirmed; I believe it now, at least I have the sense that everything that’s happening, the brother, the father sitting, that everything is proceeding in obedience to a law, an equation; the brother sprawled, my approaching him; in that moment, a cry arises from me to wrench him from death, from those who let their pains and secrets seep from body to body, year to year; and simultaneous with the cry arises the memory of our childhood, but the brother stays put on the red floor tiles; nothing wakes him, nothing can be repaired; a line is cut between the dead brother and the father, the mother, the brother who are still alive; and one image is missing, I’ll search for it a long time; the image of the brother hanging
now everything is falling and life is accursed
and the image he leaves behind, the image that will haunt all who are left to restart their lives, is a devouring wound; then the firemen arrive, the mother, whom the father informed; her face when she enters is not something you remember; his face when they carry out the body is not something you look at; you look at nothing; you’re with the father and the remaining brother; and this is where the block of feelings forms into a knot for the time that comes after; something clots in the heart, travels the bloodstream through the skin; a chemistry of fears whose effects will need deciphering if the future is to be woven of anything but ruins; what’s left here is the father, the mother, and between them a fissure where the living brother breathes; the body of the dead brother, whose shoulders bore the burden of time, is carried off; the father, the mother, at this moment are not talking; there’s silence and what is audible in silence; because when someone dies, it all turns into a morass of faults and remorse from which each tries to escape
now everything is falling and life is accursed
I realize that from now on life will be cut in two; and maybe I knew it from the start? maybe there is a coherence to everything that has happened? I’m going to have to hold it together, in the footsteps of the older brother, to carry this scene; the brother who is no more; from now on, I’ll be the one remaining; and the days pass; visits from the family, from friends, are organized; people come to pay their respects to the mother; some, a bit embarrassed, manage to fold her in their arms; but on the whole it’s a death that divides; the general sense is that nothing will be repaired; there are words already, out of the father and mother’s hearing, trying to establish a narrative that will keep the body from disturbing others; he hadn’t been well for years, he was ill, that’s what’s being said, what people want to believe; the family is looking for a narrative that will keep the suicide from contaminating life; it turns the story into a personal tragedy, a “free choice”; this stubborn myth that rises like a wall around the inner trembling for order’s preservation; because the rope that links different eras and memories, the past and the future, no one wants it to reach all the way to them; the narrative—he was ill, for years he’d been unwell—is what’s being used to draw a line between oneself and that
a brother who hangs himself
people voice their compassion; there’s sadness and grief, for he was liked; his fragility in the end wore through his mantle of strength, which is the other name for power in this family; by sharing his pain, the brother who wanted to die—I sometimes think he had to die, and it’s all tied up in that having to die, everything I am trying to understand—in the end moved others; he has made each person an orphan of hope, the hope of saving him; but who can come to his rescue when every mouth is hushed, when no one faces up to what’s suppressed; people don’t want the death to spatter them, so they establish a narrative; and this narrative comes to the mother’s ears; what she feels is nothing she can share; she can’t flee as she has done all her life; her son’s suicide forces her to look at what she has pushed aside; and now it’s too late, the son is gone and she says
I want to die
she says it to the son who is left; at night when I leave her, the mother looks for answers: who commits the murder of a man who kills himself? she asks, shutting herself in a forced sleep that deletes her; she still feeds on a powerful anger; she needs a culprit so as not to blame herself too much; hatred fills her, waves of it that she transmits to the living; the mother is a clenched fist that admits no light; she pretends to live, to eat, while behind these pretenses I see all that is crumbling; the mother is a cliff that terror is eroding; I stop by to see her, try to help; I am a hyphen between two worlds that are drawing apart: the continent of the living and the continent of the dead; I carry an intact hope, but life is dark; in the months following the brother’s death, I become the father of my loved ones, the father of the mother and the father of the father
now everything is falling and life is accursed
a summer comes, when birds in a southern garden flit to and fro; one lands on the mother’s shoulder; I say, by way of consolation, because I am trying to prove that life goes on, I say that the bird is the brother; the mother wants to believe it, she plays with the bird; then autumn days arrive, she resumes her work, or tries to; September comes and goes, October; the heavy skies of the Western city, gray roofs, pale colors, months and months when nothing repairs itself, everything worsens, the image is missing, the image of the son who hangs himself
where were you? what were you doing?
and there are the hours when you try to escape by resuming your routine; but the memory persists, the moment is unforgettable: the body of the son and the missing image of when he ropes up his neck, when he strains to breathe, when his blood stops; November comes and goes; “the brother has stolen the light from me, taken the sun,” are the thoughts of the living brother when he sees that his strengths, his joys, are what sustains the others, especially the mother; and in fact the mother’s head droops; she rests it on my shoulders for support; I stand still to steady her, and December ends, then January; she puts her trust in me, in what I seem to know: I must transform the experience of this death or nothing will have any meaning; and the mother senses that I’ve taken on this quest, but she wants a trial to be held over the suicide
who commits the murder of a man who kills himself?
then everything slides downhill, accelerating; the mother’s insistence on vengeance is carried forward into the future; it would take me years to understand what, in the months after the brother’s death, flows from one body to another; and the month of January marks the birthday of the departed; the day is not one we celebrate; we see each other at lunch, the mother and I, to talk about ongoing life; we talk about the world, its wars, the one who died the previous March; the mother has just returned from a trip; she found the strength for this: to leave the Western city, autumn, the too-gray roofs, the wind in the perturbed streets; to take the plane, to sleep, to knock herself unconscious with pills and then to call me
do you want to have lunch?
we meet at place de la Bourse, in Paris, on an ordinary gray day; and it’s January 26, the birthday of the dead son; but the birthday ritual has lost its meaning; we pretend to talk, say our goodbyes on the sidewalk; then in late afternoon the mother is discovered on a bus at the terminal sleeping for eternity; the day of the son’s birth, the day of the mother’s death thirty-three years apart; on January 26; and there will be other dates that intersect, “synchronicities,” as they are called; or what are termed coincidences by those who stubbornly won’t understand; but I call it a lapsus tempi, a slip of time, when the past joins with the future, when the definite outline of solid bodies wavers under what links names together from era to era; and the mother now is dead; the surviving son one evening crying says
soon I’ll be the last one left
but he doesn’t know where to address his prayer, and his father already is in decline; during the months between the brother’s death and the mother’s, the father came back, took care as best he could of family business; he helped choose materials for the caskets, shared his faith with me in an attempt to soothe: I’ve spoken to your brother, he said, he is no longer suffering, and now that the mother is dead, he adds: she has found peace, believe me, she’s with her son . . . given his grief, how can I argue, and with what? reason? what reason? the brother who is left leaves his father to his beliefs, and if he talks to ghosts, to apparitions . . . everyone has to defend himself as he can; for we must now bid farewell to the mother and yet again call up the family, friends, acquaintances; the remaining brother greets, he organizes; till now he has lived behind the protection of his family; now it’s up to him to hold strong, be a son who stands host; the father helps him, but the father is weakening, something is carrying him off; he is unable to counter those who establish a narrative for the mother’s death; she was devoured by guilt, they say, her son’s death destroyed her, she wanted to die; then there are those who offer their opinion: she should have given her sons more breathing room; and there are those who prudently say nothing; afterward, I see this, family and friends resume their lives; they feel sorrow, but life goes on and tragedy doesn’t really have a place nowadays; and so the father and the remaining brother find themselves alone again; the months come and go, four whole years; the surviving son looks after his ailing father, the cells that don’t want to die; in the end he has to bathe him, feed him
don’t worry, says the father, I’m going to get better the spirits are going to operate on me
and the brother who is left doesn’t argue with his father’s hopes; he doesn’t argue with anything, in fact, even if reason—that same reason whose outline he will have to modify—makes him doubt beliefs, doubt faith; he maintains silence and endures, accepts, accompanies; during these years the two men hesitate: what should they celebrate? births, deaths? the first two years, they put an anniversary notice in the paper, then the father’s decline accelerates; the life of the remaining brother is a thread strung between day and night; the last winter, he bathes his father, kneeling next to him to help; two mourning figures struggling, whom disease is soon to separate
don’t worry, the father says again, I’m going to get better the spirits are going to operate on me
but the brother who is left tries to protect himself, interprets events as a necessity of unknown origin whose call and command he feels; then in early summer the father dies, and from that time on it’s all a countdown to get out of the Western city and take up life’s course again as soon as possible; there’s a ceremony, the third one; the family gathers, and friends; but this time, there’s no narrative; what’s left to say? the father is gone, there’s only one left, and he disturbs; the survivors cast around for a why when it would be nice if they kept quiet, if they made do with the narratives people devise; but they can’t behave any differently; they are alive, their presence troubles; what can they say? the remaining brother now is looking mostly to get away, because he’s afraid that if he stays here in this city he’ll be carried off; he wants to leave his mother’s country, and if he can manage it, the country of his native language; this sentence keeps surfacing in him
to not hear any more . . . to not hear any more about them
and how have these three bodies, that of the brother, the mother, the father, bound themselves together in death? he doesn’t want to know; he believes—this is his hope— that he’ll be able to start his life again free of the past, that starting from these ruins, in return for the days he’s given to his family, he’ll be able to resume possession of his life; it takes months, a year, and then another; that ball of anger, of secrets, he thinks he’ll be able to leave it behind like a suitcase; his faith in a new life is total; he wants to believe in departure, in the city to the East that he’ll be moving to; the brother who is left tells himself that now he’s an orphan and that it’s from this orphalineage that he hopes to invent his relival, his return to life; but I’ve forgotten to say that he boards the train with an archive, three cardboard boxes full of family mementos: letters, emails, manuscripts, childhood photographs; and he crams these bulging boxes into the train compartment where he takes his seat; fleeing, his mind is taken up with his flight; but also with his anger toward those three, his dead; but what he wants, what he is desperately after, is forgetfulness and a blank slate from which to start his life again . . .
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