May 8, 2018KR OnlineFiction

Playfulness, or The Wasted Land

Translated from French by S. C. Delaney and Agnès Potier

To begin with, for example, several players on a soccer field or on an empty lot—the distinction isn’t essential since it’s the game that marks off the field, since to be a player it’s enough for one to play. But it’s not enough to somewhat know how to play; sometimes, in fact, it seems the vagueness of boundary lines and the nonstandard number of players make them all the more exacting in technique and in fairness. The game’s irregularity, its groundlessness exalt the unseen principle, laughter puncturing the outer drama and restoring the point of honor. Terrible joy in several men kicking a ball in the middle of a lot by the edge of a road, or on a soccer field without any spectators.

Is it soccer? Certainly, because soccer is being played there, even with a rubber ball—a hollow, elastic sphere that occasionally bounces too far, in effect escaping the playing zone. In this case the closest player goes after it—the implicit, undisputed law of the game; it would take an especially and routinely clumsy player for another player to transgress it because of his degree of bad mood. Moreover, regardless of the game, one notes that in general those playing are at the same level, all having the same concept of the game, and, in the case of those I’m focused on, are the same age. Whatever their age, I notice—strange impression—persons of uncertain age.


None of these aspects, perhaps, define a unique situation, one that distinguishes these sports amateurs from real players in an actual match, except for one major detail: they are their own audience and their own referees. Everything changes the moment the ball is kicked far enough, shooting down an embankment, rolling along a path only to come to a stop three feet before a rushing pedestrian or random walker upon which, at that moment, the stares of a dozen men converge. The person isn’t playing and yet now, neither is he outside the game—he’s needed to facilitate it, to return the ball. If he doesn’t act accordingly, it would be hard to call him a bad player, since he isn’t a player. If things are to remain civil, let the players begin, in the depths of their eyes this death glint goes out—the one that separates the game from all else and that chooses a Ballboy. At this point a Gang of Men eye One Man who seems bound to respond to their power and his connivance; a sort of communal, exceedingly bestial and moral intelligence is practiced here, the credibility of the world and the cosmic chaos at stake. Evidently, every man deserving of the word returns the soccer ball without delay, without seeing the abject fraternity of the blackmail. It’s simply a gesture to fulfill, a gesture that’s nonbinding, the gesture the nonplayer makes in order for the game to continue—that of the others as well as his own, upon which nothing is asked. Outside the game, the game becomes unplayable, too much; only playable games are played well, which is why the most exciting games, like every game and every activity that’s random, are to some extent inherently tedious.


In street slang, to play it up means (or sometimes meant) to play hard at it, to act as though you’re somewhat better than you are, to take on a role that’s beyond you, or to simply give the impression that you think you’re better than others. Sometimes this is the clear effect of an accusation meant to humiliate, to dissuade one from wanting to be more or other (in such a frame of mind, these come to the same thing). In one stroke someone’s ascribing to you that which you’re being denied, giving you a warning: you are like us, exactly like us, and you will be less if you try to be more, if you so much as appear to in our eyes. Sometimes it’s enough to live in a different neighborhood, to have a certain way of talking or pair of shoes. Showing off is too indulgent, too complicit in the sham, or too knowing of the illusion. To play it up is to put on airs in a manner intolerable for those who note or speak on it; there’s always provocation and menace while hardly comprehending its source. Inevitably, one must play it up in order to accuse someone else of playing it up—playing at what, if not at life and death. The announcement that someone’s playing it up might possibly precede a good thrashing.


Nothing of the sort with the few soccer players; the “it” in “play it up” is a game as well as its field, their common stake. And when, on its path, the ball rolls toward the feet of the walker, in a sense the “it” rolls with it. I could never return a ball, neither by foot nor by hand. I know this look of scorn in the more able player, the sarcasm toward any show of readiness. One time I started to limp; this craven trick exempted me from returning the ball, but will I repeat such an act again? I’d watch the all-important ball as if it were a planet loosed of my own mad rebellion; I’d feel several eyes, incredulous as I wavered. (We can make up conversations more or less truthful or likely.

—You want some help?

—Hey, dickhead . . .

—Please, you couldn’t . . . ?

—We know you’re not a slave but . . .

—Say, sir, if you’re a good sport . . . ?

—You want a fuck in the ass or something?) I’d study a thin, discrete light—fearsome, a warm threat, an atmospheric shame filled with tenderness. (How I’d recall the wonderful exhaustions following a game, when Bill would shuttle the team thirty miles.)


But no, contempt has no scorn, terror merely makes way for calmness, the masses oppress so as to lose themselves in their communal allegiance, you must return the ball any which way without a thought; clumsiness constitutes an added guarantee of belonging and therefore also of freedom. You move on to rejoin your games or end up nowhere: it’s the equivalent of the ball’s point of view. Moreover, not to execute a simple gesture others expect of you is not only to show misunderstanding and be incomprehensible but also to create an absurd difficulty, ultimately disqualifying yourself from manhood. It is in this game of intergame, in the need of the discretionary and the unwritten, unspoken decision that a man is recognized.


I could quip: “It’s lovely, your ball,” and dash off, or: “I’ll get my sneakers dirty,” leaving them to their childishly murderous speculations on my merriment, on the extent of my idiocy. Dubious inanity in these purely formal challenges, anticonformist demagoguery. Bizarrely, I was also afraid of hurting them, of undermining a principle worse than that of a game that’s still more or less visible or invocable: the bad character, the black heart risked waking as a third-rate philosopher. And wisdom, cowardice, daring . . . to be found in resisting or in obeying? To scorn and distrust or rather . . . ? Something genuinely revolting involved in this alternative, in the waiting for others or in my hesitation (and still I hesitate to underline one of the two final words).


The time (the last?) when I saw very quickly there was nothing to be done, I shot. All of spring’s excruciating beauty lasting mere seconds. Or fall’s.

Michel Vachey
Michel Vachey (1939–87) was a French author of experimental fiction and poetry. He was a founder of the Textruction movement, which sought to blur the line between image and text, and in his writing, visual art informs his style and themes. His work includes novels, collages, and hybrid story-essays.

S. C. Delaney has translated, with Agnès Potier, Tony Duvert’s prose collections Odd Jobs and District (Wakefield Press). Their work has appeared in Gargoyle, Black Sun Lit, Animal Shelter, Gigantic, Hayden's Ferry Review, Fiction International, and elsewhere.