In a 1992 interview with the magazine Les Inrockuptibles, the late French writer and cartoonist Roland Topor was asked if, over the course of 30 years, his inspiration had evolved.
Topor responded that he didn’t think so, but he added, “I realized, rather late in fact, that in the center of almost all my books there were topics of possession: somebody who returns in the body of another. It is true for The Tenant, for Joko’s Anniversary, for The Full-Length Portrait of Suzanne … It is an allegorical interpretation of life in the company of others, or the individual getting puffed out, cannibalized, becoming prey.”
Topor was born in Paris in 1938, and died in that city in 1997, at age 59. Over the course of his lengthy career in the arts, he wrote novels (“Le Locataire Chimerique,” or “The Tenant” in America and Britain, later a 1976 film by Roman Polanski), short stories and stage plays, acted in films like Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu The Vampire” (1979), and was also known in Europe for his macabre, satirical and scatological cartoons. Very little of Topor’s work is known in the U.S., outside of “Fantastic Planet,” the 1973 animated film he designed and co-wrote, and a few translated books, including “The Tenant” and “Joko’s Anniversary.”
As Topor himself noted, these two books share a theme about possession. In the former, the meek office clerk Trelkovsky becomes possessed by the spirit of Simone Choule, the woman who rented the apartment he would later claim, after she threw herself out the window in a successful suicide attempt. In the latter, factory worker Joko becomes possessed by the spirit of seven rich business delegates who get stuck to his back, and are later murdered by Joko’s parents.
The theme of possession, though, has less to do with ghost stories and more to do with two far more realistic and ominous subjects: the loss of identity, and the degradation and virtual enslavement that can result from social conformity. Trelkovsky and Joko are not haunted by ghosts so much as by a society intent on making them conform, against their own better judgment.
That Topor would pursue these topics is no surprise. A Polish Jew born into the charming city of Paris, his family had the tragic misfortune to be there just as Hitler began his campaign of annihilation against Jews. Polish Jewish refugees, Topor’s family was denounced by fellow neighbors because of their religion and forced to go into hiding. Topor and his sister were sent away outside the city. (In his essay “100 Good Reasons to Kill Myself Right Now,” Topor begins with “Best way to make sure I’m not dead already,” and, along the way, comes to No. 40: “To kill a Jew, like everyone else.”)
It’s no surprise, then, that both “The Tenant” and “Joko’s Anniversary” are deeply cynical, and nihilistic. If you think life is going to serve you a bad hand, Topor seems to be saying, expect the absolute worst — and then it’s safe to assume that’s just the beginning of your misfortune. In Topor’s world, the free thinking individual has an uphill climb just to be left alone in peace. It would all seem highly depressing, except for Topor’s rich use of black humor — and for the very compelling argument he makes about the risks of assuming that conforming to those around you will guarantee social acceptance. Topor’s characters painfully learn otherwise.
The novel is about a shy office clerk, Trelkovsky, who is desperately in need of an apartment and learns of a vacant two room unit in a less fashionable part of Paris. He discovers the apartment is empty because the previous tenant, Simone Choule, threw herself out the window. Trelkovsky knows he can’t get the apartment as long as Simone is recovering, so he goes to the hospital to check on her condition. He finds a woman covered in bandages, who upon seeing him turns a moaning sound into an unbearable scream. She later dies, and Trelkovsky moves into her old rooms. But he gets off on the wrong foot with his neighbors after having a house warming party with some friends and co-workers; the noise prompts even the landlord to angrily complain.
From that point on, Trelkovsky becomes determined never again to offend his fellow tenants. He’s excessively polite, even to the rudeness of others. He also becomes exceedingly quiet, virtually walking around on tip toe in his own apartment. But his congenial behavior does little to convince his neighbors to accept or appreciate Trelkovsky, and they continue to either be snide to him or simply ignore him.
But they do treat him differently in another way: by repeatedly asking Trelkovsky to assume some of the characteristics of the previous tenant. The landlord asks Trelkovsky to wear slippers at night, as Simone did. The concierge gives him Simone’s mail. The local café owner insists on serving Trelkovsky hot chocolate in the morning, rather than coffee, because that’s what Simone used to drink. Trelkovsky comes to believe that none of this is a coincidence, that there may be a sinister plot to transform him into the former tenant, perhaps in the hope that he’ll follow in her suicidal footsteps.
Along the way, Topor suggests that Trelkovsky’s meek, withdrawn personality makes him an easy target for this kind of abuse. He cringes in horror when a co-worker stands up to a neighbor who complains about the noise he makes.
But one motivating factor to all this may be that Trelkovsky is viewed by his neighbors as being different from the crowd. The name Trelkovsky sounds Jewish, like the author. When the local superintendent of police calls him in following a noise complaint, he asks “Trelkovsky –is that a Russian name?” and then wants to know if Trelkovsky is a naturalized citizen, and has his identity card with him.
There are also subtle hints in the book that Trelkovsky might be gay. When Trelkovsky is negotiating the terms of his prospective apartment with Monsieur Zy, Trelkovsky insists that “I am very quiet myself, and I am a bachelor.” The landlord counters, “If you want the apartment as a place to entertain your girlfriends, then this is not the house for you.” Trelkovsky quickly responds, “I agree completely, and I am not that kind of person.”
That turns out to be more accurate than Trelkovsky initially assumes, since he twice fails in his efforts to romance women, including one who attends his housewarming party and flirts with him on the couch. Later, Trelkovsky passes out in the apartment of Simone’s friend Stella after consuming too much alcohol, ruining her efforts to seduce him.
Trelkovsky eventually begins wearing Simone’s makeup and dresses. At the same time, he is excessively prudish about his body; when he needs to urinate, he makes up an elaborate excuse about having to make a phone call. He acknowledges feeling disgusted with the notion of male virility, and asks himself, “I wonder what someone who could read my mind would think, if he were walking besides me now.” Trelkovsky’s conclusion: “He would probably think that I’m homosexual.”
Whether Trelkovsky is viewed as an outsider because of his religion, his ethnic identity, his sexual orientation or his timid and submissive personality, though, doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that his efforts to conform in this apartment building fail. Trelkovsky ends up losing his identity to that of Simone Choule — a suicide. It’s no surprise the way Topor ends this chilling tale, although the epilogue still has the power to startle.
In fact, if you doubt the power of this tale that begins and ends with a suicide attempt, consider the true story of Primo Levi, a Jewish Italian chemist who spent nearly a year in Auschwitz. He later was the author of powerful works like “If This Is A Man.” Levi died on April 11, 1987, after falling from the interrior landing of his third-story apartment in Turin to the ground floor below.
In his biography of Levi, Ian Thompson wrote that Levi’s death, widely believed to be a suicide, may have been connected to Topor’s dark tale. Thompson writes, “The most bizarre hypothesis was offered by the Sicilian novelist Gesualdo Bufalino: Levi had killed himself after watching Polanski’s Grand Guignol film The Tenant, screened on late-night Italian television a ‘few days before Levi’s suicide.’ In the film, a Polish French Jew named Trelkovsky leaps to his death from a third-floor flat in Paris. Levi’s third-floor leap, according to Bufalino, was the result of an ’emotional contagion’ with Polanski’s film.”
Joko is also a pleasant enough fellow, but he seems far more assertive than Trelkovsky. While walking to work one morning, a man jumps on his back and straddles him, then asks that Joko take him to a business conference. Joko not only refuses, he sends the man thumping to the ground. But when Joko gets to the factory he works at, he learns all his co-workers have proudly agreed to carry these rich delegates on their backs for cash. “Ten gold pieces!” the workers cheer. Joko is further humiliated when his boss, Mr. Baptista, reveals that he ended up carrying the man Joko tossed off his back. “The poor man was hurt,” Baptista says. “When I think of that bully, that young pervert who had the audacity to strike an old man, it makes me want to weep for the youth of today.”
Ashamed to be left out of this excitement and no longer embarrassed at the thought of becoming a human taxi cab, Joko is now determined to be the best, fastest carrier on the planet. He even earns a tidy sum carrying the delegates back and forth … until the day when he develops red blotches on his back.
Suddenly the next delegate that touches him gets stuck to Joko — and every subsequent delegate who touches them does as well. Pretty soon Joko has seven rude, nasty, mean-spirited and angry delegates stuck to him. Out of desperation, he ends up taking them back to his apartment, but the delegates use the opportunity to ridicule the way he lives and, more savagely, to murder his two sisters. Joko’s parents take their revenge, but even in death, the delegates don’t leave Joko alone. They now speak inside him, as if they’ve become a part of his soul. Even worse, they psychically order Joko to continue the newfound taste for sadism, torture and killing that they acquired at his apartment.
Clearly, Joko’s decision to “sell out” because it’s become fashionable proves to be a tragic mistake; the ones who ask him to lower himself by carrying them on his back show little sympathy for Joko when his illness sets in. When he no longer has any value to them, he becomes worse than disposable — he becomes a tool for their most disgusting and base desires. As Topor demonstrates, if your gut instinct tells you not to do something, stick with it. Just because everyone else is degrading themselves, you don’t necessarily need to join the parade. Your identity fades as you desperately try to become what everyone else wants you to be.
And just as Trelkovsky had become possessed by the spirit of Simone Choule, so too does Joko become possessed by the spirits of those vicious delegates, who compel him to increasingly horrible acts, such as this one in a hospital: “He crept under a patient’s bed. Each time a hand hung down over the side, a snap of his jaws took a fraction of an inch off the fingers. Little by little, the right and left hands were reduced to two bleeding stumps.”
If that sounds too grisly to contemplate, it’s probably no worse than what Topor and his family endured during Hitler’s bloody reign. Trelkovsky’s neighbor’s and Joko’s co-workers recall those neighbors who denounced Topor’s family because they were Jewish, forcing them to flee. The ones who went along with Hitler’s campaign to wipe out the Jewish population of Europe are a stark reminder of Topor’s central theme: the individual is rightly on his own. Falling in line with the pack, no matter how safe it may initially seem, can have startlingly dire consequences.
STORIES AND DRAWINGS
Topor continued this theme of loss of identity in two short stories, published in the anthology “Stories And Drawings” in 1969 (and reissued by Millipede Press in 2006 in a new edition of “The Tenant.”)
In “My Dear Friends …” Rufus Thorpe finds complete strangers walking up to him as if they’ve been longtime friends. They know his name and everything about him, but he’s never seen them before. He starts to think it’s some kind of practical joke, until he calls his old friends and they have no clue who he is.
Is Rufus going insane? After digging deeper, it suddenly hits him: Rufus had always been a great guy to hang around with, a loyal buddy, the life of the party. So much so, that his friends decided to sell him to his new batch of “friends.” So even good companionship becomes a commodity to bid on in the free market.
“A Great Man” may be one of Topor’s most deeply disturbing pieces, a very hellish look at life in a police station. A boy lives in a bare white room. He has daily lessons, but he also suffers very painful punishments. He decides to cope by becoming a model student, and enduring his torture without complaint. He ends up pleasing his tormentors, who decide he has shown enough submission and surrender that he receives a decoration — and a promotion. It ends with the boy being given a new task: to torture others.
“A Great Man” is a very distressing reminder of how Hitler managed to turn his army of “Hitler Youths” into an anti-Semitic killing machine, ready to carry out genocidal goals in order to serve the Fatherland. For Topor, blind obedience to the majority can result in a complete loss of your identity — assuming you’re not what they want you to be from square one — as well as a terrifying willingness to carry out the destructive acts of those you’re following.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..