Excerpt from The Collector by Anne-Laure Thiéblemont
One evening, I sat Beauty in my lap. And found her bitter. And I cursed her.
The collection is this way. His tone was dry and not particularly welcoming.
Standing before her in the parlor, he gave her the chills. His gray reptilian eyes showed no emotion, and his long face seemed cut from ivory. His right hand was sunk deep in the pocket of his night-blue blazer and refused to budge—not even to greet her.
George Gaudin had been Edmond Magni's personal assistant until a week ago, when, somewhere in Peru, Magni had mysteriously dropped dead—for the second time in Marion's life.
The first time, her mother was the one to announce the news. He died in a plane crash, she had told Marion. It was a lie. In truth, her husband had abandoned his family and his given name, Jean Spicer, and had assumed a new identity.
From the age of three, Marion had gotten by without him, believing all those years that her father was dead, without so much as a photo to cling to. Not a single picture of him could be found in their home. And every time she asked her mother to share a story, an anecdote, a memory, the woman would retreat into a silence or fly into a fit that could only be remedied if she isolated herself in her bedroom and slept.
Marion stopped asking questions.
Now, thirty-three years later, out of the blue, an executor had informed her that her father hadn't been dead all those years. He had just made a new life for himself, and she would be inheriting—among other things—one of the greatest collections of pre-Columbian art in the world, valued at over forty million euros. Of course, the inheritance had certain stipulations. Nothing came that easy for Marion.
Gaudin crept to the other end of the room and gestured for her to follow. She had hoped to linger in the immense space. Perhaps it would rouse the memory of a scent, an image, a feeling of deja-vu—anything to fill the void. But she couldn't find the slightest personal connection.
She hadn't seen so many in one place since watching Barry Lyndon in a Stanley Kubrick retrospective. She surveyed the Louis XV-style furniture with its Rococo curves, the brocade fabrics, the brass, the redwood marquetry, the Boulle-work drawers, the Venetian mirrors, and the chandeliers dripping pendants of rock crystal. A world so unlike her humble childhood.
This way. The assistant's directive dripped with arrogance. Without any further formalities, he disappeared behind a copper-colored silk wall hanging. She followed and discovered a reinforced door that opened to a narrow staircase. She hurried down the steps just as the door closed behind her. It made surprisingly little noise, considering its weight.
Marion stopped at the bottom of the stairs. The space was cold and devoid of light, sound, colors, and smells. She peered into the darkness. It seemed like an unknown abyss, and she had the disturbing sensation that she was being watched.
Gaudin flicked on the lights. A shiver traveled up Marion's spine, and she gasped. In the faint illumination provided by the bulbs, literally hundreds of clay sculptures and vessels took shape. Floor-to-ceiling shelves were lined with odd-looking creatures. Some had hollow eyes, stunted bodies, and swollen arms and legs. Many looked sickly and tormented. They stared at her with lifeless eyes.
Marion's mouth went dry, and her legs began to shake. Eventually she inched closer and examined the sculptures one by one. She knew that some of the pieces were pre-Incan portrait vases. She had never cared for these indigenous works. And in such large numbers, she found them disturbing. Certainly there was nothing aesthetically pleasing about the frozen assembly of cripples in this place.
A second room was equally disquieting, filled as it was with oversized phalluses and female genitalia in every possible position and depiction—pimple- covered erections, clitoris-shaped noses, pumas copulating with toads, skeletal women being sodomized. By the looks of it, Magni had relished the world of sexual obsession. Marion just stared at the impassive expressions on the faces of the silent participants.
Thousands of years, and these bodies are still here for us to see and touch. Isn't that fascinating? Gaudin said from behind her.
Marion didn't respond. She could barely breathe. This space was a shrine to her father's obscenity, negotiated at the cost of gutted tombs and stolen memories. And for what? A dark and irrational desire to claim ownership over the souls of the dead? An attempt to give them a second life? Or to extend his own? Was he afraid of something? Or of someone?
Excerpt from The Collector by Anne-Laure Thiéblemont , translated by Sophie Weiner (First published in French ©2006 Editions Liana Levi. English translation ©2015 Sophie Weiner. Published by Le French Book).