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for the week of August 22, 2011

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The night before the wave, I remember that Hélène and I talked about separating. It wouldn’t be complicated; we didn’t live together, hadn’t had a child, and were even able to see ourselves remaining friends, and yet, it was sad. It was Christmas 2004. Here we were in our bungalow at the Hotel Eva Lanka, and we ­ouldn’t help remembering a different night, just after we’d met, a night we’d spent marveling that we had found each other and would never part, and would grow old together, happy for the rest of our lives. We even talked about having a child, a little girl. We did have that little girl in the end, and we still trust that we’ll live out our days together. We like to think we always knew that everything would work out. But after the dazzling confidence of love at first sight came a complex, chaotic year, and what had at first seemed so certain to us (and still seems so now) no longer appeared at all certain or even desirable on that Christmas in 2004. On the contrary, we were convinced that this vacation would be our last together and that, for all our good intentions, the trip had been a mistake. Lying side by side, we couldn’t bring ourselves to mention that first night and the promising future we had longed for so fervently yet seemed somehow to have lost. We were simply watching ourselves draw apart, without hostility, but with regret. It was too bad. For the umpteenth time I spoke of my inability to love, all the more remarkable in that Hélène is truly worthy of love. While I was telling myself that I would have to grow old alone, Hélène had something else to worry about: just before our departure, her sister Juliette had been hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism, and Hélène was afraid Juliette might be seriously ill or even dying. Although I insisted such fears were irrational, Hélène could not shake them off, and I resented how she had let herself become absorbed in something that excluded me. She went out on the terrace to smoke a cigarette. I waited for her, lying on the bed and thinking, If she comes back soon, if we make love, then perhaps we won’t separate, perhaps we will grow old together after all. But she did not come back. She remained alone on the terrace watching the sky gradually grow lighter, listening to the birds begin to sing, and I fell asleep on my side of the bed, sad, lonely, convinced that my life could only get worse and worse.

Hélène and her son, I and mine: all four of us had signed up for a scuba lesson at the dive club in the neighboring village. Since the last session, however, my Jean-­Baptiste had developed an earache and didn’t want to go anymore. Tired from our almost sleepless night, Hélène and I decided to cancel the lesson. Rodrigue, the only one who’d really wanted to go diving, was disappointed. You can always go swimming in the pool, Hélène told him. Well, he’d had it up to ­here with swimming in the pool. He would have at least liked for someone to accompany him down to the beach below the hotel, where he wasn’t allowed to go alone because of the dangerous currents, but no one wanted to go with him, neither his mother nor I, nor Jean­Baptiste, who preferred to read in the boys’ bungalow. Jean-Baptiste was thirteen at the time. I had more or less forced this exotic vacation on him, a holiday with a woman he hardly knew and a boy much younger than he was, and he’d been bored from the moment we arrived, which he made clear to us by staying off on his own. Whenever I asked him irritably whether he wasn’t happy to be ­here in Sri Lanka, he replied grudgingly that yes, yes, he was happy, but it was too hot and actually he was happiest in the bungalow, reading or playing his Game Boy. In short, he was a typical adolescent, while I was a typical father of an adolescent, catching myself telling him the same exasperating things my own parents had said to me when I was his age: You ought to go out, look around . . . ​What’s the point of bringing you all this way? . . . ​Like talking to a wall. So Jean-­Baptiste retreated into his lair while Rodrigue, left on his own, began bothering Hélène, who was trying to nap on a deck chair by the huge saltwater pool, where an elderly but incredibly athletic German woman who resembled Leni Riefenstahl swam every morning for two hours. As for me, still feeling sorry for myself over my inability to love, I went to hang out with the Ayurvedics, as we called the group of Swiss German guests who were staying in some nearby bungalows. They had come to the resort to follow a program of yoga and traditional Indian massage. They weren’t meeting in plenary session with their master, so I performed a few asanas with them. Then I wandered back to the pool, where the last breakfast dishes had been cleared and tables ­were being set for lunch. Soon the tedious question would arise: What should we do that afternoon? In the three days since our arrival we had already visited the forest temple, fed the little monkeys, and seen the reclining Buddhas. So unless we undertook more ambitious cultural excursions, which none of us found tempting, we had exhausted the attractions in our immediate vicinity. Some tourists can spend days in a fishing village rhapsodizing over everything the locals do—­going to market, mending nets, social rituals of all kinds—­and I reproached myself for not being like that, for not having passed on to my sons the generous curiosity, the acuity of observation I admire in people like Nicolas Bouvier, the Swiss traveler and writer. I’d brought along The Scorpion-Fish, Bouvier’s account of a year he spent in Galle, a large fortified town about thirty kilometers to the east of us along the southern coast of the island. Unlike his most famous book, The Way of the World, a tale of celebration and wonder, The Scorpion-Fish describes collapse, loss, and a descent into the abyss. It presents Sri Lanka as a form of enchantment, but in the perilous sense of the word, not some guidebook come-­on for newlyweds and hip backpackers. Bouvier almost lost his mind there, and our visit, whether considered as a honeymoon or a rite of passage for a future blended family, was a failure. And a feeble failure at that, with no bang, only a whimper. I was growing anxious to go home. Crossing the trellised lobby invaded by bougainvilleas, I ran into a frustrated hotel guest who couldn’t send a fax because the power was out. At the reception desk he’d heard there’d been an accident, some problem in the village, but he hadn’t understood exactly what was wrong and just hoped the power would come back on soon, because his fax was very important. I rejoined Hélène, who was awake now and told me something strange was happening.
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***

The next scene: a small gathering of guests and staff on a terrace at the end of the hotel grounds, looking out over the ocean. Curiously enough, nothing seems amiss at first. Everything appears normal. Then you start to notice how strange things really are. The water seems so far away . . . ​Normally, there are about twenty yards of beach between the ocean’s edge and the foot of the cliff. Now, however, the sand stretches off into the distance: flat, gray, glistening in the hazy sunshine, like Mont-­Saint-­Michel at low tide. Then you realize that the sand is littered with objects, but you ­can’t tell what size they are. That piece of twisted wood, is it a broken branch or a ­whole tree? A really big tree? That crumpled boat, perhaps that’s something a bit bigger, maybe an honest-­to-­god trawler, shattered and tossed aside like a nutshell? There is no sound; no breath of air rustles the fronds of the coconut palms. I don’t remember the first words spoken in the group we’d joined, but at one point someone murmured in English, Two hundred children died in the village school.

Built on the cliff overlooking the ocean, the hotel seems swathed in the exuberant vegetation of its grounds. To reach the coastal road, guests go through a guarded gate and down a concrete ramp, at the foot of which some tuk­tuks are usually waiting. Tuk-tuks are auto rickshaws, canvas-­roofed motorbikes that seat two passengers, three if they squeeze together, on short trips of up to ten kilometers; for anything more, a taxi is best. There are no tuk-tuks today. Hélène and I have come down to the road to find out what’s going on. Whatever it is seems serious, but except for the man who mentioned the two hundred dead children (and was immediately contradicted by someone claiming the children ­couldn’t have been in school because it was Poya, the Buddhist celebration of the full moon), no one at the hotel knows anything more than we do. No tuk­tuks; no passersby, either. Ordinarily there’s a constant stream: women walking in twos or threes with their packages, schoolchildren in impeccably ironed white shirts, everyone smiling and eager to chat. Aside from the lack of people, nothing seems different about the road, as long as we walk beside the hill shielding us from the ocean. The moment we pass the hill and reach the plain, we discover that to one side everything is normal—­trees, flowers, low walls, small shops—­while on the other it’s sheer devastation, a mire of blackish mud like a lava flow. After walking a few more minutes toward the village, we see a tall blond man in a torn shirt and shorts coming toward us, haggard, covered in mud and blood. He is Dutch: strangely, that is the first thing he tells us. The second thing is that his wife has been injured. Some villagers have taken her in and he’s seeking help, which he hopes to find at our hotel. There was an immense wave, he says, that poured in and then receded, washing away people and ­houses. He appears to be in shock, more stupefied than relieved at still being alive. Hélène offers to go with him to the hotel, where the phone may be working again, and perhaps there’ll be a doctor among the guests. Curious, I decide to walk on a little, and I say I’ll rejoin them soon. Three kilometers along, anguish and confusion reign at the entrance to the village. Clusters of people form and dissolve as vans and pickups maneuver through the throng; I hear cries, moans. I head down the street that leads to the beach, but a policeman stops me. When I ask him what has happened, he replies in English. The sea, the water, big water. Is it true that people have died? Yes, many people dead, very dangerous. You stay in hotel? Which hotel? Eva Lanka? Good, good, Eva Lanka, go back there, it is safe. Here, very dangerous. Although the danger seems over, I obey anyway.

***

Hélène is furious with me because I went off and left her saddled with the boys when she should have been the one to go looking for news: it’s her job. While I was gone, she was contacted by LCI, the French news network for which she works as a writer and anchor. It’s past midnight in Eu­rope, which explains why the other hotel guests have not yet been phoned by panic-­stricken friends and family, but the journalists on call at the major news agencies already know that Southeast Asia has been hit by something enormous, way beyond the local flooding I had initially imagined. Knowing that Hélène is vacationing ­here, her network had been hoping for some on-the-spot reporting and she’d had almost nothing to tell them. And I—­what do I have to report? What did I see in the village of Tangalla? Not much, I admit. Hélène shrugs. I retreat to our bungalow. I’d felt energized, getting back to the hotel, because our flagging vacation had received an extraordinary jolt, but now I’m irritated by our tiff and my sense of not having risen to the occasion. Disappointed in myself, I seek refuge in The Scorpion­Fish and am struck by this sentence, sandwiched between two descriptions of insects: “I would have liked, this morning, a stranger’s hand to close my eyes; I was alone, so I closed them myself.”
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In great distress, Jean­Baptiste comes to get me in the bungalow. The French couple whom we met two days earlier has just arrived at the hotel. Their daughter is dead. My son needs me to help him deal with this. Walking with him on the path to the main building, I remember when we first met the family, in one of the straw-­hut restaurants on the beach I was heading to when the policeman stopped me. They’d been at a neighboring table. The husband in his early thirties, the wife her late twenties. Both good-­looking, cheerful, friendly, clearly much in love and completely enamored with their four­year­old daughter, who had wandered over to play with Rodrigue, which is why we’d struck up a conversation. Unlike us, they knew the country well and ­were staying not at the hotel but in a little beach house the young woman’s father rented by the year, about two hundred yards from the restaurant. They were the sort of people you’re glad to meet when you’re abroad, and we’d said good night with every intention of getting together again. Nothing official; we’d certainly be running into one another in the village and at the beach.

Hélène is in the bar talking to the couple and an older man with curly gray hair and birdlike features. That other evening, we hadn’t even exchanged names, so Hélène makes the introductions. Jérôme. Delphine. Philippe. Philippe is Delphine’s father, the renter of the beach ­house. And the little girl who died was Juliette. Hélène repeats the name in a neutral voice; Jérôme nods in confirmation. His face and Delphine’s remain expressionless. I ask, Are you sure? Jérôme replies that yes, they’ve just come from identifying the body at the village hospital. Delphine stares straight ahead; I’m not sure she sees us. We seven—­four of us, three of them—­are sitting in teak armchairs and on banquettes with colorful cushions, around a low table set with fruit juices and tea. When a waiter arrives to take care of us, Jean-­Baptiste and I automatically order something, and then silence falls again. It lasts until Philippe suddenly begins to speak. To no one in particular. His voice is piercing, halting, like a machine breaking down. In the hours to come, he will tell his story several times, almost word for word.

This morning, right after breakfast, Jérôme and Delphine had left for the market while Philippe stayed home to watch Juliette and Osandi, the daughter of the beach house owner. Sitting in his wicker armchair on the bungalow terrace, Philippe read the local paper, glancing up now and then to keep an eye on the two little girls playing at the water’s edge. They were jumping and laughing in the wavelets. Juliette was speaking French, and Osandi Sinhala, but they understood each other just fine. Crows were cawing, squabbling over the breakfast crumbs. All was calm; the day promised to be beautiful, and Philippe thought he might go fishing that afternoon with Jérôme. At some point, he realized that the crows had vanished and that he no longer heard any birds singing. That’s when the wave hit. A moment earlier the sea was smooth; an instant later it was a wall as high as a skyscraper and it was falling on them. He thought in a flash that he was going to die but would not have time to suffer. He was submerged, swept away, and tossed around for what seemed an eternity in the immense belly of the wave before he surfaced on his back. He passed like a surfer over ­houses, over trees, over the road. Then the wave reversed itself, rushed in the opposite direction, sweeping him seaward. He saw he was going to smash into some collapsed walls straight ahead and tried instinctively to cling to a coconut palm but lost his grip, grabbed another, and would have lost his hold again if something hard, a section of fence, hadn’t trapped him, pinning him against the palm. Furniture, animals, people, wooden beams, chunks of concrete raced past; he closed his eyes, expecting to be crushed by some huge hunk of debris, and he kept them closed until the monstrous roaring of the current died down, allowing him to hear other sounds, the cries of wounded men and women. Then he understood that the world had not come to an end, that he was alive, and that now the real nightmare was beginning.

He opened his eyes. He slid down the palm trunk to the surface of the water, which was completely black, opaque. There was still some current, but it could be resisted. A woman’s body floated past, arms crossed, head under water. In the wreckage, survivors were calling to one another, while the injured moaned aloud. Philippe hesitated. Should he go toward the beach or the village? Juliette and Osandi were dead, of that he was certain. And he had to find Jérôme and Delphine to tell them. That was now his task in life. Philippe was in a bathing suit, up to his chest in the water, bleeding, but unable to determine exactly where he’d been hurt. He would rather have simply waited there for help, but he forced himself to set out. Beneath his bare feet the ground was uneven, soft, unstable, carpeted with a slurry of things he couldn’t see, some of which had sharp edges, so he was desperately afraid he would be cut again. Feeling his way carefully with each step, he made slow progress. A hundred yards from his ­house, he recognized nothing: not one wall left ­whole, not a single tree. A few times he saw a familiar face, neighbors floundering like him, black with mud, red with blood, eyes wide with horror, searching like him for those they loved. The sucking noise of the retreating waters had almost completely given way to increasingly loud screams, wails, groans. Philippe finally reached the road and, a little higher up, the place where the wave had stopped. It was uncanny, that boundary marked so distinctly. Over ­here, chaos; over there, the everyday world, absolutely intact: small houses of pink or pale green brick, paths of reddish laterite, market stalls, people bustling about, wearing clothes, alive, and only now beginning to grasp—­without knowing exactly what it was—­that something horrendous had occurred. The zombies who, like Philippe, were trying to get their footing back in the land of the living could only stammer the word wave, and this word spread through the village just as the word plane must have done in Manhattan on September 11. Spasms of panic carried people both toward the ocean, to see what had happened and to help those needing rescue, and as far away from the water as possible, in case the wave came back. Amid the shouting and confusion, Philippe made his way along the main street to the market, where the morning crowds of shoppers would have been at their height, and as he was steeling himself for a prolonged and agonizing search, he saw Delphine and Jérôme at the foot of the clock tower. They’d just heard such garbled news of the disaster that Jérôme was wondering if a crazed gunman had opened fire somewhere in Tangalla. Philippe went toward them, knowing that they were living their last moments of happiness. The couple spotted him approaching; then he stood before them, smeared with mud and blood, his face contorted with emotion, and at this point in his story Philippe stops. He can’t go on. His mouth hangs open, but he can’t repeat the three words he must have said to them.
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Delphine screamed; Jérôme didn’t. He took Delphine in his arms and hugged her as tightly as he could while she screamed and screamed, and from then on he had only one objective: I can no longer do anything for my daughter, so I will save my wife. I wasn’t there to see what happened, I’m describing the scene according to what Philippe said, but I did witness what followed and I saw Jérôme’s program at work. He did not waste time hoping in vain. Philippe was not only his father-in-law but a friend in whom he had complete confidence, so he understood immediately that no matter what shock and disorientation Philippe had suffered, if he’d said those three words, they were true. Delphine, however, wanted to believe her father was mistaken. He was himself a survivor, so perhaps Juliette was as well. Philippe shook his head: impossible. Juliette and Osandi had been at the water’s very edge, they’d never had a chance. No chance at all. They found her at the hospital, among the dozens—­no, already the hundreds of corpses the ocean had given back and that now lay, for lack of room, right on the floor. Osandi and her father lay there, too.

As the afternoon wears on, the hotel becomes a kind of Raft of the Medusa. Tourists who’ve survived the tidal wave have been told that they will be safe here, and they stumble in almost naked, often injured, in total shock. Rumor has it that a second wave may be coming. The locals have sought refuge on the other side of the coastal road, as far from the ocean as they can get, while the foreigners seek safety in elevation, meaning with us. Philippe has made the first of a series of wrenching calls to Isabelle on his cell phone, and although telephone lines are down, as the day goes on cell phones begin ringing all around us, as terrified family and friends who have just heard the news start calling. Their loved ones reassure them quickly, succinctly, to save their phone batteries. That evening the hotel management runs a generator for a few hours so people can recharge them and follow developments on television. At one end of the bar is a giant screen that usually shows soccer matches, since the hotel proprietors are Italian, as are many of the guests. Everyone—­guests, staff, survivors—­gathers to watch CNN and we discover the scale of the catastrophe. Images come in from Sumatra, Thailand, the Maldives; all Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean have been affected. We begin to see short film loops shot by amateurs showing the wave approaching in the distance, the torrents of mud pouring into houses, sweeping everything away. Now we all talk about the tsunami as if we’d always known what that word meant.

***

We have dinner with Delphine, Jérôme, and Philippe; we sit with them again at breakfast the next morning, then at lunch, then again at dinner, and until our return to Paris we are always together. They don’t behave like beaten people to whom nothing matters and who cannot cope. They want to go home with Juliette’s body, and from that first evening on, the terrifying void of her absence is kept at bay by practical problems. Jérôme tackles them with everything he’s got: it’s his way of remaining alive, of keeping Delphine alive, and Hélène helps him by trying to contact their insurance company on her cell phone to organize their departure and the shipment of the body. It isn’t easy, obviously, what with the distance, the time difference, and the overloaded circuits. She’s often put on hold, spending precious minutes of battery life listening to soothing music and recorded messages, then when she finally speaks to an actual person, she’s transferred to another line where the music starts up again—­or she’s cut off. These ordinary annoyances, simply irritating in everyday life, become in this emergency both monstrous yet vital, because they define tasks to be accomplished, give form to the passage of time. There is something to do: Jérôme is doing it, Hélène is helping him, it’s as simple as that. While this is going on, Jérôme keeps an eye on Delphine. Delphine stares into space. She doesn’t cry, doesn’t scream. Although she eats very little, that’s better than nothing. Her hand shakes but she can bring a forkful of curried rice to her lips. Put it in her mouth. Chew it. Load more rice on the fork. Eat another mouthful. I look at Hélène and feel clumsy, helpless, useless. I almost resent her for being so caught up in the task at hand that she’s paying no attention to me. It’s as if I no longer exist.
Later, we’re lying on the bed, side by side. My fingertips caress hers, which don’t respond. I’d like to take her in my arms but I know that isn’t possible. I know what she’s thinking; it’s impossible to think of anything else. A few dozen yards from us, in another bungalow, Jérôme and Delphine must be lying down as well, wide awake. Has he taken her in his arms, or is that impossible for them as well? It’s the first night. The night of the day their daughter died. This morning she was alive, she woke up, she came to play in their bed, she called them Mama and Papa, she was laughing, she was warm, she was the loveliest and warmest and sweetest thing on earth, and now she’s dead. She will always be dead.

Since the beginning of our stay, I’d been saying that I didn’t like the Hotel Eva Lanka and suggesting that we move into one of the little beach guest­houses, which weren’t nearly as comfortable as our bungalows but reminded me of my backpacking trips twenty-­five or thirty years ago. I wasn’t really serious; in my descriptions of those marvelous lodgings, I gleefully emphasized the lack of electricity, the mosquito nets full of holes, the poisonous spiders that dropped onto your head. Hélène and the children would shriek, making fun of my old hippie nostalgia, and the ­whole thing had become a comic routine. The beach guest­houses were swept away by the wave, along with most of their guests. I think, We might have been among them. Jean­Baptiste might have gone down to the beach with Rodrigue. We might have, as planned, gone out on a boat with the scuba diving instructor. And Delphine and Jérôme—­they must be thinking, We could have taken Juliette to the market. If we had, she would have come bouncing into our bed tomorrow morning. The world around us would be in mourning but we would hug our little girl and say, Thank God, she’s ­here, that’s all that matters.
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On the morning of the second day, Jérôme says, I’m going to check on Juliette. As if he wants to make sure she’s being well cared for. Go ahead, says Delphine. Jérôme leaves with Philippe. Hélène lends a bathing suit to Delphine, who does the breaststroke in the hotel pool for a long time, slowly, staring straight ahead. There are now three or four families of tourist “survivors” around the pool, but they have lost only their belongings and don’t dare complain much in front of Delphine. The Swiss Germans calmly stick to their Ayurvedic schedule as if nothing has happened. Philippe and Jérôme return at noon, looking haggard: Juliette is no longer in the Tangalla hospital. She’s been moved—­perhaps to Matara, or maybe Colombo. There are too many bodies; some are being burned, others have been transferred to hospitals less overwhelmed, and rumors of epidemics are starting to circulate. All Jérôme could obtain was a scrap of paper with a few scribbled words a hotel employee now translates for him with mortified sympathy. It’s a kind of receipt, stating simply, “Little white girl, blond, in a red dress.”

Hélène and I now go to Tangalla. The tuk­tuk driver chatters away: Many people dead, but his wife and children, thank God, are safe. When we approach the hospital, we’re hit by the foul odor. Even if you’ve never breathed it before, you know what it is. Dead bodies, many dead bodies, says the driver, bringing a handkerchief to his nose while gesturing for us to do the same. In the courtyard, only a few men wear hospital uniforms; the rest must be volunteers in street clothes. They’re all carrying stretchers, piling bodies into the back of a covered truck, one on top of another. Once filled, the trucks leave; others arrive. We enter a large room that seems more like a fish market than a hospital lobby. The concrete floor is damp and slippery, hosed down occasionally to suggest a hint of coolness. Bodies lie in rows; I count about forty of them. They’ve been here since yesterday, many of them swollen from their time in the water. No foreigners; perhaps they were given priority evacuation, like Juliette. Their skin isn’t really dark, it’s gray. I’ve never seen a dead person before; it feels strange to have been spared this until the age of forty-seven. Pressing a bit of cloth to our noses, we check other rooms, go upstairs. It’s hard to tell visitors from staff. No one stops us, no doors are closed, and there are corpses everywhere, bloated and grayish. I remember the rumors about epidemics, and the Dutchman at the hotel declaring that if all the bodies weren’t burned right away, we’d have a health catastrophe for sure: the cadavers would poison the wells and rats would spread cholera through all the villages. I’m afraid even to breathe, as if the fearsome odor ­were infectious. I wonder what we’re doing here. Looking. Just looking. Hélène is the only journalist in this area. She already dictated an article yesterday evening and another one this morning, and she’s brought her camera but hasn’t the heart to take it out. She questions a visibly exhausted doctor in English, but we can’t really understand his replies. Back in the courtyard, the truck we’d seen being loaded with corpses has left. Outside the gate, beside the road, there is a patch of dry, sharp-edged grass shaded by an immense banyan tree, at the foot of which wait a dozen people: whites, in torn clothing and covered with small wounds they ­haven’t bothered to treat. When we go over to them, they gather around us. They’ve all lost someone—­wife, husband, child, friend—­but unlike Delphine and Jérôme, they ­haven’t seen their bodies and will not give up hope. Ruth, a redhead of about twenty-five from Scotland, is the first to speak. She was in a beach bungalow with Tom: they’d just gotten married and were on their honeymoon. When the wave struck they were within ten yards of each other, but Tom was swept away while she survived by clinging to a tree the same way Philippe did, and she’s been looking for Tom ever since. She’s searched everywhere—­on the beach, among the ruins, in the village, at the police station—­and having learned that all bodies eventually get sent to the hospital, she has come here, and here she stays. She’s looked all through the hospital several times; she watches every truck deliver its new corpses and load up those bound for cremation. She hasn’t eaten or slept. The hospital staff have told her to go rest, promising to let her know of any news, but she won’t leave, she wants to stay with her companions, who stay for the same reasons. They know that any news can only be bad. But they want to be here when their loved ones’ bodies come off the truck. She’s been waiting since yesterday evening, so Ruth knows how things work here: she confirms that any whites brought in are quickly moved about fifteen kilometers to the east along the southern coast, to Matara, where there is more space and, apparently, a refrigerated cold room. The villagers are supposed to claim their dead here, but many families, especially fishermen who lived near the water, were wiped out, leaving no one to come for those bodies, which are unceremoniously sent to be burned. All this happens in a chaotic, slapdash manner. Since the hospital has no electricity or phone service and the local roads are in bad shape, there’s little hope of receiving help from the outside anytime soon. And what would that even mean, “outside,” when the whole island has been affected? No one has escaped; all are dealing with their dead. That’s what Ruth says, yet she sees that Hélène and I have escaped. We are still together, our clothes are clean, and we aren’t searching for anyone in particular. After our visit to hell, we will return to our hotel, where lunch will be served to us. We will swim in the pool, we’ll kiss our children and think, We came so close . . . ​A guilty conscience is pointless, I know, but mine torments me anyway and I’m ready to move on, whereas Hélène completely ignores her feelings and devotes all her energy to doing what she can, because even if it’s something paltry, she must still do it. She’s attentive, careful, asks questions, thinks of everything that can be useful. She has brought all our cash with her and distributes it among Ruth and her companions. She writes down everyone’s name, along with the name and a brief description of each missing person. Tomorrow she will try to get to Matara and will look for them there. She notes the phone numbers of everyone’s families in Europe and America, so she can call them later to say, I saw Ruth, she’s alive; I saw Peter, he’s alive. She offers to take whoever wants to come with us back to the hotel, since only one or two people need to keep watch; the others could eat, wash, receive first aid, sleep a little, phone home, then return to relieve the others. But no one wants to come with us.
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***

Among those keeping vigil that day across from the hospital, Ruth is the one I remember best because we spoke chiefly to her and because we saw her again later, but there was also an overweight middle­aged Englishwoman with short hair who had lost her girlfriend. I imagined the two of them getting on in years, living in a lovingly tended ­house in an English town, taking part in its social life, going on a yearly trip to some distant country, putting together their photo albums . . . ​All that shattered. The survivor’s return; the empty house. Each woman’s mug with her name on it, one of them forever forlorn. And this heavy woman, sitting slumped at the kitchen table with her head in her hands, weeping, telling herself that she’s all alone now and will be until she dies. In the months that followed our return to France, Hélène was obsessed with the idea of contacting the people in the group to learn what had happened to them and to see if anyone had been graced by a miracle. But no matter how hard she looked through our luggage for her list of survivors, she couldn’t find it, and we resigned ourselves to never learning more about them. The image I have today of the half hour we spent under the banyan is something from a horror film. There we are, neat and clean, untouched, while around us cluster the lepers, poisoned by radiation, shipwrecked souls reduced to a savage state. Only yesterday evening they were like us and we like them, but something happened to them and not us, so now we belong to two separate branches of humanity.

That evening, Philippe tells us how his love affair with Sri Lanka first began over twenty years ago. He was a computer specialist in a Parisian suburb dreaming of distant lands when he became friends with a Sri Lankan colleague, who later invited the whole family home to his island: Philippe, his then wife, and little Delphine. It was their first big trip together and they fell in love with everything about the island: the bustling cities, cool mountain retreats, languid seaside villages, terraced rice fields, chirping geckos, roofs of fluted tiles, forest temples, the dazzlingly bright smiles and sunrises, and eating curried rice with their fingers. Philippe had thought, This is real life, this is where I’d like to live one day. That day took some time to arrive, however. The Sri Lankan colleague moved to Australia, and after a few letters contact was lost, the connection to the enchanting island broken. But Philippe had had enough of being a suburban midlevel manager. He had a passionate interest in wine and decided to explore it. Back then a computer specialist could easily get well-­paid work wherever he wanted, so he moved to a village near Saint-Émilion and quickly found clients—­purchase centers, distributors, major wineries—­for whom he modernized and supervised management systems. In a region where people had a reputation for being standoffish to newcomers, his wife opened a shop that did surprisingly well. The family lived in the country from then on, in a pretty house surrounded by grapevines, earning a good living doing things they enjoyed. Their new lifestyle was a success. Later Philippe met Isabelle, and was amicably divorced from his wife. Delphine grew up, a smart and delightful girl who first saw Jérôme when she was just shy of fifteen and knew even then he would be the man of her life. He was twenty­one, strong and handsome, the heir to a long line of wealthy wine merchants. Differences in fortune are no small matter in that milieu, but in time a teenager’s dream became a serious engagement. Displaying quiet determination, Jérôme stood up to his family: he loved Delphine, he had chosen Delphine, and no one was going to make him change his mind. Since Philippe worshipped his daughter, there was reason to fear no suitor would please him, but once again it was love at first sight: a deep bond of affection united father- and son-in-law. Despite the twenty-­year difference in their ages, they shared the same tastes: great Bordeaux, the Rolling Stones, fishing, and, to cap it all, Delphine. The two men were soon as thick as thieves. When the newlyweds found a house in a village about ten kilometers from the one where Philippe and Isabelle lived, the two couples became inseparable. The four of them often had dinner at one house or the other, where Philippe and Jérôme would take turns producing bottles for blind tastings, and after talking legs, nose, body, mouthfeel, they’d light up an after-­dinner joint of homegrown weed smoked to the strains of Angie or Satisfaction. They all loved one another and were happy. Out under his pergola, Philippe would ramble on about Sri Lanka, and although it had been a good eight years since their first trip, he and Delphine still remembered the island with plea­sure. One autumn evening, right after the grape harvest, they were dining outside; they’d drunk a Château-Magdelaine 1967 (the year Jérôme was born) and were talking about vacationing there, all four of them, when Isabelle had an idea: How about if the boys went over first to do some reconnoitering?

For “the boys,” their five weeks of scouting in Sri Lanka became a magical memory. Backpacking with a travel guide for the hip and frugal, they traipsed around by tuk-tuk, train, and bus, lucking into village festivals and chance encounters, living on the spur of the moment. Philippe was proud to show his island to Jérôme and then a little irritated, but in the end even prouder, to see that after a few days his son­in­law was managing better than he was himself. With his even temper and gentle sense of irony, Jérôme seems to me the ideal travel companion: letting things happen, never in a hurry, treating setbacks as opportunities, seeing every stranger as a possible friend. More excitable, more talkative, Philippe whirled around his tranquil broad-­shouldered companion the way the frantic half of a comic duo plays up to the straight man in a buddy comedy. It must have amused them both no end, when chatting with other travelers on guest­house verandas, to surprise everyone by announcing they were father- and son­in­law.
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They headed south. They took their sweet time traveling the coastal road from Colombo to Tangalla, a stretch we covered by taxi in half a day, and the more the road twisted and turned as it left the capital behind, the more their lives seemed to stretch out between the surf and the coconut palms into something timeless, Edenic. The last real city on this coast is Galle, the Portuguese fortress where Nicolas Bouvier had ended up alone forty years earlier to live a long season in hell in the company of termites and ghosts. Having no particular affinity for hell, Philippe and Jérôme went on their way whistling. After Galle, there are only a few little fishing towns: Weligama, Matara, Tangalla, and, just beyond that, a little spot called Medaketiya, a handful of houses in green or pink brick corroded by the salt spray and a jungle of coconut palms, banana plants, and mango trees that drop their fruit right onto your plate. On the white sand beach: outrigger canoes in bright colors, nets, shacks. No hotel, but a few of the shacks serve as guest­houses and the guy who owns them is called MH. Well, he actually has one of those Sri Lankan names with at least twelve syllables, without which a man has no substance on this earth, but to make life easier for foreigners he calls himself MH, pronounced as in English: Em Aitch. Medaketiya and MH’s guest­houses ­were the dream of every beach bum in the world. It was the beach, the end of the road, the place where you finally settle in. Smiling folks, easygoing, who won’t cheat you. Not many tourists, and those few are like you: individualists, quiet, jealously guarding this secret spot. Philippe and Jérôme spent three days there swimming, dining in the eve­ning on the fish they’d caught that morning, drinking beer, and smoking joints while congratulating each other on the success of their scouting expedition: paradise on earth did exist, they’d found it, now all they had to do was bring along their wives.

When they announced to MH at the end of their stay that they would soon be back, MH responded politely with the Sri Lankan equivalent of inshallah, but all four of them did show up the following year, and the next year, and the year after that. Their lives slowly organized themselves around two poles, Saint-Émilion and Medaketiya. While Philippe managed to spend three or four months in Medaketiya, the rest of the family was more tied down and came only on vacation. (Isabelle, for example, who spent much of her time at her boutique in Arcachon, was back home in France when the tsunami hit on that Boxing Day in 2004.) In Medaketiya, Philippe always stayed with MH, who gradually became a close friend and even visited them all once in the Gironde. The trip was not a huge success. Out of his own setting, MH was ill at ease and did not become a convert to les grands crus bordelais. So it goes.

Philippe eventually left the guest­house to take up quarters in a bungalow that he rented from MH by the year and that he and Isabelle fixed up as they pleased, making it a real home. They had a ­house in Medaketiya, friends in Medaketiya. Everyone knew them there and loved them. Juliette was born and they brought the baby with them to Medaketiya. Along with his grown sons, MH also had a little girl named Osandi. Three years older than Juliette, Osandi quickly learned how to take care of her: she was her big sister.

What Philippe loved best was to go out there a month before the others and live alone in Medaketiya, knowing they would all be joining him soon. He enjoyed both the solitude and the happiness of having a family: a wife who suited him perfectly and vice versa, a daughter so marvelous that she’d managed to marry a man who’d become her father’s best friend, and a granddaughter who was the image of her mother at that age. Enough said. Really, it was a good life. Philippe had known when to take risks—­the move to Saint-Émilion, a new profession, his divorce—­but had never chased pipe dreams or broken anyone’s heart beyond repair, and he no longer wanted to conquer anything. He just wished to savor what he already had: contentment. He shared with Jérôme a trait rare in someone his age, a slightly sardonic way of looking at go-getters who plot and fume and stress themselves, always jockeying for position, never satisfied. Philippe and his son­in-law were men who did their work well, but once it was done and the reward received, they relaxed, enjoying the fruits of their labor instead of taking on more work to make more money. They ­were fortunate in that they had enough to be satisfied with their lot, but above all they had the wisdom to actually be satisfied, to love what they had and not crave more. They allowed themselves to live at a leisurely pace without feeling guilty, to carry on a relaxed and amusing conversation in the shade of a banyan, sipping beer. We must cultivate our garden. Carpe diem. To live happily, live hidden, as a French proverb says. That’s not how Philippe puts it, but it’s how I understand him, and as he speaks I feel far away from such wisdom, I who live in dissatisfaction, constant tension, running after dreams of glory and laying waste to my loves because I always imagine that one day, somewhere else, I’ll find something better.
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Philippe was thinking, I’ve found the place where I want to live, where I want to die. I’ve brought my family ­here and here I’ve found a second family, MH’s. When I close my eyes in my wicker armchair, when I feel the wooden floor of the bungalow’s front porch beneath my bare feet, when I hear the coconut fiber broom MH wields every morning swishing over his sandy yard with such a peaceful, familiar sound, I tell myself, You’re home. In your own ­house. His house­keeping done, MH will come join me, calm and majestic in his scarlet sarong. We’ll smoke a cigarette together. We’ll exchange a few casual words, like old friends who need not speak to understand each other. I believe I’ve really become Sri Lankan, Philippe remarked to MH one day, and he remembers the friendly but somewhat ironic look in MH’s eyes: You think so, huh . . . ​ Philippe had been a trifle irritated, but he’d seen the point: he’d become a friend, yes, but he was still a foreigner. His life, no matter what he believed, was elsewhere.

Today Philippe might well think, My granddaughter died in Medaketiya, our happiness was destroyed ­here in a matter of seconds, and I don’t ever want to hear of this place again. But that’s not what he thinks. He thinks he will finally prove to his dead friend MH that his life is indeed here, among them, that he’s one of them, that after sharing with them the sweetness of life he will not turn away from their misfortune, will not pick up his marbles and say, So long, maybe we’ll meet again someday. He thinks about what remains of MH’s family, about their destroyed homes and those of their fishermen neighbors, and he says, I want to stay by their side. To help them rebuild, begin living again. He wants to make himself useful. What else can he do with himself?

A sample from Emannuel Carrère's
Lives Other Than My Own

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