Thursday, December 3, 2009

Waxing La Moustache

General Emiliano Zapata and his fateful moustache

Have you ever encountered a book that seems created especially for you? I don’t mean a book that’s simply very good—the book I’m thinking about doesn’t need to be the best thing you’ve ever read. Rather, I’m talking about something that radiates déjà vu upon contact, something seemingly plucked from your subconscious.

I think it would be fair to say I’ve always been somewhat obsessed with moustaches. I won’t attempt to analyze it unduly. I do not habitually wear a moustache. I find it difficult to grow a very convincing one. But they interest me. Perhaps as the embodiment of male vanity and affectation, perhaps as the insignia of some occult brotherly union that transcends age, culture, and fashion. I certainly underwent that life-altering experience so many of us experience as small children, that fateful day when your normally moustache-emblazoned father suddenly emerges from a steam-filled washroom with his upper lip freshly stripped of hair. He stands before you and your family, perhaps sheepishly awaiting validation, and you find yourself frozen, prickled by the whiskers of the uncanny, wondering who is this strange, pale-faced man masquerading as your father? It’s a trauma we shrug off and laugh about, yet never quite get over.

Did Emmanuel Carrère endure the moustacheless father experience? Did he fear the moustacheless impostor? Does he himself wear a moustache, or, as they’re sometimes referred to in 19th century literature, moustaches? I have no idea. (I’ve seen a few images of him on the internet, all of them sans moustache.) Curiously, we have the same birthday, along with John Cassavetes, whom I’ve also never seen with a moustache. In any case, despite the fact that he’s made films, written a book about Philip K. Dick (of course!), and another about Werner Herzog (talk about memorable moustaches!), I’d never heard of Carrère until just weeks ago, when I was digging through a box of abandoned books on the street near my house and discovered a copy of Carrère’s 1986 novel La Moustache. I recalled having heard of a film of the same name coming out a few years ago, and thinking I should really watch that. Turns out it was adapted and directed by Carrère himself from his own novel. I understand it costars Emmanuelle Devos, who I find terribly appealing. But I still haven’t watched it yet. I’m just not ready.

Werner Herzog once wore a lovely moustache

John Cassavettes, to my knowledge, did not wear a moustache

“What would you say if I shaved off my moustache?”
La Moustache begins with our hero asking his beloved spouse Agnes this innocuous question. He’s in the bath, contentedly enacting his long-practiced grooming ritual. “It was the only time he had left for meditation, self-knowledge, and the spiritual world…” Our hero has worn a moustache his entire adult life. He’s been married five years. He’s an average, middle-class French guy—this is the mid-1980s, so moustaches have not yet entered their current, unfortunate phase of being identified with kitsch, considered the exclusive facial décor of cops, cowboys, gay guys, or Mexicans—so his whimsical suggestion is loaded with consequence. He’s going to look different. Perhaps people will laugh at him. But what the hell?

He shaves it off while Agnes runs an errand. She returns, and he’s cheerfully prepared himself for whatever response his naked lip garners. He doesn’t expect
no response. Agnes seems completely oblivious. Is she toying with him? They go to visit their best friends. They too seem not to notice. Did Agnes clandestinely warn them in advance? This conspiracy of silence continues, following our hero all the way home, all the way to bed. He confronts Agnes, but even after the mounting tension doesn’t expect what she has to tell him: that he never had a moustache. At this early stage, La Moustache has already descended into nightmare, one that reverses the childhood scenario described earlier, one akin to tales of metamorphosis from Kafka or Gogol or, more recently, Kobo Abe, whose novels include one about a guy who finds cauliflower growing on his legs. One no less unnerving for its absurdity.

He quickly found the smaller bag they used for the bathroom waste can, picked out cotton swabs, two Tampaxes, an old tube of toothpaste, another one for skin lotion, and some used razor blades. And there it was, his hair. Lots of it, but scattered all over, not exactly as he’d hoped. He’d imagined a nice compact tuft, something like a moustache, holding together all by itself. He gathered as much of it as possible and collected it in the palm of his hand. When he’d amassed a little mound, less than he thought he shaved off, he went back upstairs. He entered the room without a sound, his cupped hand outstretched. Sitting down on the bed next to Agnes, who was apparently asleep, he switched on the night-table lamp. She moaned softly. Then, since he was shaking her shoulders, she blinked open her eyes and grimaced when she saw his open palm thrust in her face.
“And this,” he said harshly, “what do you call this?”

Our hero cradles the remains of his moustache as through it were intact, independent, soul-bearing, his proof that something now lost, dissembled, waiting to merge with nature, once existed, this formerly integral piece of him that no one recalls. (This scene has its echo in the film
The Man Who Wasn’t There, when Billy Bob Thornton’s barber reverently resolves to take the day’s mass of cut hair and bury it behind the shop, as though it constituted a dearly departed.) I don’t want to spoil too much of where La Moustache goes, but there is the suggestion that there’s something inherently hazardous to one’s identity in grooming, in clipping away at our extremities, which, once vanquished from body, may vanish from memory too. And if a moustache could just disappear as though it never existed, what might follow? “One should always hold on to everything, never overlook the slightest bit of evidence,” our hero muses, recalling an animist tribe in Java who once collected their fingernail clippings, excrement, and hair, “everything that was a part of them and that would allow them to enter the gates of paradise in one whole and unmutilated piece.”

Emmanuel Carrère

Of course, the real warning in La Moustache might be against growing a moustache at all. Perhaps when I next see my father I should ask not who he might become without his moustache, but whether the moustache hides another, unknown person altogether.

1 comment:

Paul Matwychuk said...

I haven't read LA MOUSTACHE, but I've reviewed the movie version!

I think you'd like it.