Genet’s motionless years in Tangier

Genet’s motionless years in Tangier
Jean Genet par Hans Koechler, 1983
Must see

Jim Jarmusch filmed Only lovers left alive, a love story between two vampires, in Tangier, a city he called marvellously open-minded where some of the strangest people come and go but no one seems to take notice. Strangely enough it was probably a bit of this rebellious angel, this thug poet, this tortured soul, whom Guillaume de Sardes, in his latest essay (in consideration for the Prix Méditerranée), follows the thin thread of existence in Tangier where Jean Genet was a regular visitor from 1969 until his death. What is even more strange is that while in Tangier, Genet seems to have been at a loss for words. He never wrote in or about this legendary city, which more than any other, has infiltrated the fantasies of writers from Twain to Kerouc through to Barthes, Kessel or Morand.

Genet, however, left, the city of pleasures, of boys, of hashish, untouched. He did everything in Tangier –flirted, smoked Gitane cigarettes in his favourite cafés, read Nerval or Saint Simon, slept – everything except write about it. It’s precisely the void left by this literary abstinece that Guillaume de Sardes fills in his essay. He compensates for this lack, invoking the impressions of other authors, who speak about Genet’s friendships, flirtations and his daily life where he would spend the day in his pyjamas in the El Minzah hotel, his mind clouded by doses of barbituates that he regularly took in an attempt to kill his despair through sleep.

Genet’s Tangier, the Moroccan city where he lived and loved can be described as follows: it is steeped in nostalgia – it’s pulse slowed down as if to adapt to a Genet-like sleepiness–and idle.  Since, as de Sarde notes, “in Tangier inactivity is not a sin”. The description and analysis of anticipation, built on the lifestyle of a scoundrel and a dandy is what makes this essay so appealing.  Because it’s really a mood, a sense of emptiness that Guillaume de Sardes makes the reader feel, that he promotes by recreating the ambiance of a city that “revolves around a fixed point: Genet sleeping in his room in the Minzah hotel”.  But it’s less the man than his memory that, through the pen of Guillaume de Sardes, wanders through maze of streets of the medina.

Throughout the essay, his portrait is drawn from memory, from the subjectivity of experience in which de Sardes forges a space where he also seems to be anticipating traces of the eternal traveller that came before him. William Burroughs, another famous writer who expatriated to Tangier, described the city as “the memory’s nervous system”. Here, to dare to use the neologism “Tangierized”, the reader follows in the footsteps of Genet as seen through the lens of the city in the same way that Genet himself is seen through the lens of his presence.

As if to automatically cause a step backwards, reminiscence, allows de Sardes to evoke not only Genet’s habits in Morocco but also the complexity of his friendships, which despite his generousity, were strained by an existential solitude and his style where the “orgy of words”, aggressively provocative of French classism, finds beauty at the risk of artifice. Tangier invites visitors on a geographic adventure as well as an adventure of language.

Éditions Hermann, 12€