Chapter 6: Stalin’s Library

It was on a fine spring day just as the strawberries were blossoming that Thomas-Jean Barracult took to his bed. He said that as he was now in his ninety-eighth year he had a right to rest. When the mayor came to visit him, Thomas-Jean announced that he intended to leave the village something of great value. Speculation swept over Banios like a sudden wind up from Africa, hot and impatient, turning this way and that in its excitement. Even Marcel Fontan who kept sheep in the Lacaze came down to find out what was happening. Gisèle de Saint Phalle spat out her cigaretto and said that, as Thomas-Jean had spent his entire life only milking two cows twice a day and had never been outside the village, he could hardly have a fortune. But she was wrong. While it was true that Thomas-Jean had lived all his life from selling the milk, he had made one trip outside the village and he was rich thanks to Stalin.

Long before Gisèle de Saint Phalle had been born, Thomas-Jean had attended the 1928 Communist Party Conference in Warsaw. When he came back, he would stand outside the church on Sundays and make speeches about Communism and the glory of the Red Revolution to anyone who would listen. After the first week, no one was interested. One Sunday a journalist from a national newspaper passed through the village on his way to mountain-climb and listened to Thomas-Jean. The result was an article headlined Is this the Nation’s Last Revolutionary? Someone of high rank in Russia, perhaps even Stalin himself, decided Thomas-Jean should be rewarded for his loyalty. So, for fifty years a small pension had arrived in cash, neatly tucked into a brown envelope with a Russian stamp. Thomas-Jean had never spent a penny of the money. He put it in a box in the loft above his cows.

Speculation rose again each year when Thomas-Jean celebrated his birthday. He would surely die soon, so expectations climbed ever higher: Was it to be a new bridge over the Adour? A new community centre? A new infant school? But as years rolled by and Thomas-Jean continued sitting up in his bed to eat his supper of fried bacon and red wine, the village lost hope. Death and the village forgot about him until he was one hundred and six. On that anniversary he announced that Madame Sarthou was coming to live with him. “She is bound to discover his fortune!”, exclaimed Guilliaume, “We’ll have to be on our guard!”

Elizabeth Sarthou ran a dog grooming business from an old yellow van in which she lived as well, so she was glad to move into Thomas-Jean’s house. She was very tiny and dressed in children’s clothes and always wore a surgical mask. Madame Petillon said Madame Sarthou was so deaf from barking dogs she probably had not even heard about Thomas-Jean’s fortune. This also proved to be wrong.

From the moment Elizabeth Sarthou moved into the house, she hunted for the money. There were only two rooms but she went over them carefully, feeling the walls for secret hiding places and even checking for the tiles on the floor just in case there was a place beneath one. Eventually she dug up the tiles and piled them outside the door. She even moved Thomas-Jean out of his bed so she could turn over the mattress.

“I told you so!” Guilliaume warned me, “She’s hunting for it! Auguste Pontico saw her on the barn roof yesterday.”

That was the day she found the moneybox, held it close to her flat chest and fell through the rotting loft floor boards. She wasn’t hurt, but she was caught on one of the boards, dangling between heaven and earth. In the end, heaven won because her cries for help were muffled by her mask. Even dead, she still gripped the box.

Pierre Dauriac took over and the Mayor declared it was time to settle the matter of Thomas-Jean’s legacy to the village. Everyone in Banios is buried within three days so it was not long before everyone gathered at Thomas-Jean’s house. A solid wood chair was brought by Madame Buisson from her house and Thomas-Jean was carried downstairs to sit in the sun. It was the biggest audience he had ever had. He took his teeth out of his nightshirt pocket, put them in his mouth and two hours later he was still talking about the wonders of the Soviet state. No one had the heart to tell him it was long gone. When the church bell rang at noon, the women went home and brought back sausages, cheese, bread and wine. The men brought benches and chairs. We ate and drank as Thomas-Jean told us the details of Stalin’s life. Suddenly, we were wide-awake, our attention fully on Thomas-Jean. He had held up his treasure box and announced, “All this is for a Stalin Memorial Library! Banios will be the most famous village in the world!” Having made his announcement, Thomas-Jean handed the box to the Mayor, took out his teeth and put them back in his nightshirt pocket and died.

Captain Dauriac and the Mayor went to the Notaire, but nothing could be done. Thomas-Jean’s money had to be used for what he wanted. It was the law. His house was cleared, shelves were bought to install the books and, following his instructions, the money sent to a dealer in Paris who would supply all the books. By this time, word about the library had gotten out. Village Memorial for Stalin! And Last Stronghold of Soviets! were just a few of the newspaper headlines. Television crews came, but Banios mouths and shutters were firmly closed. Marcel Fontan went back up the mountain with his sheep, swearing never to return. The Mayor invited the Russian Ambassador, expenses paid, to come from Paris for the dedication of the library, but times had changed in Russia and Stalin was out. So he invited the elderly widow of Benedict Rebollo who had once written a book about Stalin.

On the dedication day, Madame Rebello arrived just after Gilles Moutel put up the sign on the house. The Stalin Library was painted in bright red letters. Everyone agreed it was a fine sign. So far the shelves were empty and it was not until an hour before the ceremony that a lorry drove up with them. There were thirty-two boxes in all.

There was no time to open the boxes before the dedication so Auguste and Gilles made a platform of them so the Mayor and Madame Rebello could conduct the ceremony. They had to hold hands as the boxes were unsteady. The Mayor made a little speech about Thomas-Jean’s life which was mainly about his cows as he could not think of anything else, but like all politicians the Major could make a speech out of anything. The boxes wobbled and Madamne Rebello hurriedly declared the library open. Abbé Capdevielle refused to be lifted up on the boxes and blessed the library from where he stood. Pippo, Madame Petillon’s five year old grandson kicked one of the bottom boxes, the pile swayed, Madame Rebello screamed, and she and the Mayor fell off. She landed on Abbé Capdevielle who gave a great grunt. The Mayor fell into the crowd which tumbled into a heap. Captain Dauriuac looked very serious, but Madame Delong started to giggle and then everyone laughed. Pippo was pleased and kicked more boxes. Since no one was hurt and the church bell rang for noon, everyone went home to lunch.

The boxes of books stood unopened in Thomas-Jean’s house for months. Finally one Saturday, Guilliaume got Gilles Moutel and they went to put the books on the shelves.

Gilles was the first to get a box open. “Hey! Look at this!”, he whistled and held up a book. It was written in Russian but, as he flipped the pages, we saw it was illustrated with pornographic drawings. They were very funny and very rude. “That one will have to be under lock and key!” declared Guilliaume. Gilles picked up another book, “This one too”, he said. They opened more boxes. Every book had the same kind of drawings. Gilles sat on the floor studying one. “I never would have believed it was possible!”, he exclaimed. “Just look at this!”, said Guilliaume, What have I been missing all these years!” Every book was written in Russian and every one was the same. Thirty-two boxes of sex pictures.

The Mayor held a meeting and everyone went. The Notaire said the library had to be opened. It was the law. Madame Riendebat volunteered to be the librarian if she could use the cow barn for raising chickens. We all knew she planned to sell eggs to any visitors but it was agreed. Opening hours were set. Mondays to Thursdays would be open to the public and Fridays would be Ladies Only Day.

By the end of summer the village was full of people who wanted to visit our new library. Most of them were men. Madame Buisson and Madame Delong opened a café. Gilles Moutel started carving nude wooden Russian dolls. Auguste Pontico’s wife, Aline, sold pots of jam and Madame Reindebat started selling red coloured eggs which she labelled Magic Russian Eggs, confiding to male visitors that such eggs had hidden powers. Money flowed into the village as never before. Abbé Capdevielle said it was the work of the devil but Gilles Moutel went ahead anyway and took down the library sign and repainted Stalin’s Sex Library on it.

We were impressed with the number of scholars who came to use the books. They were all men except for one American woman doing a study for her university on Women in the Sexual Psychodynamics of Soviet Power 1939-1942. We were impressed until Madame Riendebat told us the American woman was a vegetarian.

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