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The Boy in the Last Row, by Juan Mayorga

February 12, 2011 21 comments

El Chico de la última fila by Juan Mayorga. Translated in French as  “Le Garçon du dernier rang” by Dominique Poulange et Jorge Levelli. The title means “The boy in the last row”

 I have seen Le Garçon du dernier rang last November and I really spent a good time. It is a play written  in 2006 by a contemporary Spanish playwright, Juan Mayorga.

I don’t think it has been translated in English so far but others of Mayorga’s plays have.

On the cover of my copy it is indicated: “French text by Dominique Poulange and Jorge Lavelli, so I wonder if it is a faithful translation or if the original play has been adapted for the French public. As always, the first names have been translated or changed, I don’t know the Spanish names.

The play opens on Germain, a middle-aged frustrated literature teacher and his wife Jeanne. Germain has asked his students to write about their latest week-end. He is now reading their works and ranting a great deal about the emptiness of their thoughts and the poverty of their language. This is a familiar scene to Jeanne: she is used to hearing him thundering about the silliest students he ever had and she is also used to listening their compositions. Then Germain comes to Claude’s text. Claude is the boy sitting in the last row and here the beginning of what he wrote:

Samedi je suis allé étudier chez Raphaël Artole. Cette idée m’était venue parce que depuis un certain temps, je voulais entrer dans cette maison. Cet été, tous les après-midis, j’allais regarder la maison depuis le parc mais un soir le père de Rapha faillit me surprendre à espionner depuis le trottoir d’en face. Vendredi, profitant de ce que Rapha venait d’échouer en mathématiques, je lui proposai un échange : « Tu m’aides en philosophie et moi, je t’aide en mathématiques. » Ce n’était rien qu’un prétexte, bien sûr.

On Saturday, I went to study at Raphael Artole’s place. This idea came to my mind because I had been willing to enter into this house for a while. Last summer, I used to go and look at the house from the park every afternoon, but one night, Rapha’s father almost caught me there, spying. On Friday, as Rapha had just failed in mathematics, I offered him a trade: “You help me in philosophy and I’ll help you in mathematics.” It was only a pretext, of course.

His text ends by “To be continued” Germain is hooked like a soap-opera addict. He wants to know what will happen next, at any cost. Jeanne is immediately suspicious, feeling something unhealthy about Claude’s fascination for Rapha’s family.

The play follows three different subplots, all intricate with one another. The first one is the relationship between Germain and Claude, the second one is the everyday life in Rapha’s family and the third one is the professional life of Jeanne.

 A relationship starts between Germain and Claude — two Roman emperors’ names, btw, Germanicus and his younger brother Claudius, who will succeed to him. Germain, as a failed writer and a desperate teacher, hopes he has in front of him a future writer, someone who could justify by his later works that his carrier as a teacher won’t have been sterile. He wants to reach some immortality through Claude, like Camus’s grammar school teacher did. Indeed, after Camus got the Nobel Prize, he wrote to his teacher Louis Germain – is this a coincidence? – to thank him for his help during his childhood. Germain thus starts lending books to Claude, to develop his literary tastes. He reads the story with avidity, gives advice.

Jeanne also follows Claude’s literary progress and indirectly intervenes in the process as Germain’s professed opinions often come from her. Jeanne worries for Germain and questions the ethics of what Claude is doing. Isn’t he spying Rapha’s family? She is Germain’s moral compass and often needs to remind him where North is. The relationship between the master and the student isn’t of a Pygmalion kind. Claude respects Germain but he also has power over him. Curiosity leads Germain into compromising with moral standards, despite Jeanne’s warnings.

The second plot relates to Rapha’s family. The father, Rapha Senior is something like a salesman or a middleman in a trade company. He and his son share a common passion for basketball. Rapha Senior sounds ridiculous, the average philistin. On stage he was wearing sweaters and was often hopping, like a sportsman does to warm up. He reminded me of Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading. He’s a committed and loving father though and a nice husband as well. Esther, the mother is a bored housewife. She seems to have a common body with the house.

Là, assise sur le sofa, feuilletant une revue de décoration, je découvris la maîtresse de maison. Je la fixai jusqu’à ce qu’elle lève ses yeux, dont la couleur s accorde avec celle du sofa.

There, sitting on the sofa, browsing through a decoration magazine, I saw the lady of the house. I stared at her until she lifted her eyes, whose colour matched with that of the sofa.

 Esther constantly intends to redecorate her house as if it would also redecorate her life. She dreams of finishing her law degree started 20 years ago to find a job.

 The third plot is about Jeanne’s job in a contemporary art gallery. The new owners of the gallery think that contemporary art is just nonsense and that they would rather use the place for a more profitable business. She has a month to prove them wrong, so she looks for more sellable art products.

 In addition to the three intertwined stories, thoughts about literature and painting creation processes are scattered all over the text. Germain is the speaker for literature and Jeanne for painting. Juan Mayorga either makes fun of contemporary art or mocks Germain’s incapacity to understand it. Here is Jeanne showing her new catalogue from the gallery: 

Ce sont des objets normaux, mais manipulés pour produire un étonnement. Regarde bien la pendule : 13 numéros. L’artiste intervient dans l’espace domestique en mettant en évidence des signes que nous ne percevons plus à force de les voir. Il parvient ainsi à montrer la mécanisation de notre vie et à défier les frontières entre intérieur et extérieur, entre privé et public. These are normal objects but manipulated to create astonishment. Look at that clock: 13 numbers. The artist intervenes in the domestic sphere by showing the signs we fail to see because we are so used to seeing them. He thus manages to show how our life is mechanical and to defy the boundaries between the inside and the outside, between the private and the public.

 Sometimes it’s funny. I perfectly understand Germain. I’m often puzzled by contemporary art. I read the description and I don’t understand what the artist really meant. And I never know if I’m too stupid to understand or if someone is trying to sell me a lie, though I tend to think my mind isn’t able to grasp the artist’s intention.

The reader peeps into Rapha’s house, along with Germain and Jeanne. Sometimes the spectator feels ill at ease and wonders if Claude isn’t unbalanced.

This is a very powerful text. The scenes aren’t cut off. There is a continuum of reading, with cinematographic effects that I hadn’t understood when I watched the play. I didn’t see the end coming. Here is Germain advising Claude about the end of his story:

Tu sais quelles sont les deux composantes d’une bonne fin ? Le lecteur doit se dire : je ne m’attendais pas à ça et pourtant, ça ne pouvait pas finir autrement. Ca, c’est une bonne fin. Nécessaire et imprévisible. Inévitable et surprenante. Do you know two ingredients of a good ending? The reader must think: I wasn’t expecting this and yet it couldn’t end differently. This is a good ending. Necessary and unpredictable. Inevitable and surprising.

 Juan Mayorga practised what Germain teaches. The denouement is good.

 

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