In Les Jours vivants, Ananda Devi offers a devastating portrayal of social division, racialized violence, exploitation, and isolation within the slick machine of the early twenty-first century globalized, capitalist-driven city of London.1 Inspired by Devi’s own arrival in London as a student from her native island of Mauritius in the 1970s, and by visits to the city in later decades, the novel testifies to the insidious and pervasive ways that a nation’s past, manifested in ghosts of war and legacies of empire, imprints upon the social fabric of its present, breathes life into individual bodies, and animates collective ways of thinking, being, and acting. Strikingly, the novel’s central themes have gained stark new resonance in the intervening years between its original publication by Gallimard in 2013 and the appearance of Jeffrey Zuckerman’s translation with Les Fugitives at the beginning of 2020, as Britain’s increasingly fraught political landscape has culminated in a referendum vote to leave the European Union, igniting impassioned debate about borders, migration, and national identity. As Devi has written in a recent Pen essay, ‘with the resurgence of open racism that is a direct result of the Brexit tragedy, I realised that we had come full circle - that the outlook of the novel was as valid now as it had been in the 1970s’.2
Les Jours vivants follows the story of Mary Grimes, a seventy-five-year-old woman living alone in London. As a teenager, timid Mary Rose experiences her first sexual encounter with a young soldier, Howard, during the Second World War. When Howard fails to return from the front, Mary eventually moves away from the monotony of village and family life in Benton-upon-Bent, taking up residence on Portobello Road in a cramped and creaky house bequeathed to her by her grandfather. Plunged into the vitality and growth of a post-war London rising from the rubble, Mary revels in the thrum of city-dwelling, invigorated to make her own way by crafting clay objects. Decades later, however, she finds herself impoverished and isolated in a home that has become horrifically dilapidated, streaked with rust, suffused with mould and the stench of urine. Much like the house, Mary too takes on the appearance of something that belongs in the past, a ruin incongruous with a renewed and unrecognizable city in the thrall of its own gleam. But Mary’s world transforms in unexpected ways when Cub, or Jeremiah Phillips, a thirteen-year-old boy of Jamaican descent, comes into her life, doing odd jobs around the house for her, and eventually staying overnight. On the cusp of adolescence, Cub, who hopes to bring money home to help out his single mother and siblings in Brixton, exhibits a sensuality and presence that seems to belie his age. And as Howard is revived in the form of a ghostly presence watching Mary from the attic, her relationships with the only two men she has loved begin to merge in startlingly erotic and tender encounters. In the light of Cub’s brutal murder by a gang of white supremacists towards the end of the novel, Mary’s attraction to the young boy, arguably an exoticizing, colonial consumption of black flesh, can be read as part of a narrative critique of the relics of Empire. But Devi’s prose combines suppositions, memory, and fantasy in a characteristically complex and ethically ambiguous depiction of desire.3 It is apparent that Cub, too, takes advantage of Mary’s frailty, manipulating her into giving him money, and realizing not long before his own death that he had intended all along to rob her. Meanwhile Mary’s anguish as she discovers Cub’s body and fantastically, monstrously, holds him with her in death, is palpable in its melding of an unfulfilled desire for intimacy and connection, and an almost maternal grief.
Devi’s novel is hauntingly prescient in tracing, against the backdrop of a city propelled ever forwards by cycles of production and consumption, striking contemporary connections between social division, isolation, and racialized violence.4 These are, of course, themes that dominate globally the political landscape in 2020, the time of the writing of this article. Covid-19’s attack on the respiratory system is currently in the grip of a second wave, claiming yet more lives, with the confinement and loneliness of self-isolation an exacting reality for many across the globe. The world’s attention has also been seized during the summer of 2020 by horrific acts of racialized violence, with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA, sparking worldwide demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter, and giving diverse nations cause to re-examine global histories of imperialism, to look again at the enduring material presence of key colonial figures, and to be reminded of entrenched systemic racism and institutionalized brutality. Reading Les Jours vivants with the specificities of these urgent global issues in mind, this article draws attention to a sensory trope at the heart of contemporary experience: the life and suffocation of breath.5 In this article, I examine recent theoretical reflections on respiration, before tracing the flow of air and breath around the city, between bodies, and on the borderlines of life and death in Les Jours vivants, as a means of disclosing the unequal power relations inherent in the struggle for breath as a defining feature of our living days.
Breath accompanies and sustains life, providing patterns of regulation for our bodies and a set of frames for our experiences. To breathe is to be implicated both in physiological states as well as in phenomenological, epistemological, and ecological modes of being. Jane Macnaughton argues that understandings of breath, breathing, and breathlessness have long been dominated by clinical enquiry, with a significant paucity of narratives of breath that account for its wider human significance.6 Taking a critical medical humanities perspective, Macnaughton provides an expansive view of breath, setting in relief the layering of its clinical and narrative meanings:
In a clinical sense, breathing, or respiration, is a physiological process involving the inspiration of oxygen and the expiration of carbon dioxide. Breath, therefore, consists of a collection of gases, variously constituted depending on the point in the respiratory cycle. For breathers, however, breath is more complex in its meanings than this, signalling as it does the presence and the passing of life; and the expression of emotion in gasps and sighs. It cannot really be captured in a moment, as a thing with a static existence, as it is constantly in flux, impermanent, continually changing its shape and character depending at what point in the process you happen to observe it.7
In the above quotation, the meanings bestowed upon breath by breathers, in their lived experience of breathing, relate variously and interrelatedly to the presence and passage of life, to the expression of emotion, and in this way to a sense of individual subjectivity. Breathing is, then, both a physiological process and an embodied mode of being. For Peter Sloterdijk, air is the implicit condition of bodily experience,8 while in the work of Luce Irigaray, breath can be regarded as synonymous with autonomous life: ‘Breath corresponds to the first autonomous gesture of the living human being. To come into the world supposes inhaling and exhaling by oneself’.9 But if breath is the articulation of an autonomous life, breathing is nonetheless an entangled act, a diffusion of particles that flow and cross in and through bodies, boundaries, and borderlines. In this way, breathing can be understood as ‘a mode of relating to the world, engaging with others, objects, environments and technologies’.10 As a relational mode of being, and in its waft between inside and outside, and presence and absence, breathing complicates the dualisms that conventionally govern conceptions of individual human life. Yet for all its amorphousness, dynamism, and (often) unconscious flow, breath can be controlled, mediated, indeed, manipulated, by both individual and political bodies. Breath and breathing are also bodily phenomena that can be difficult to see, and that can remain eclipsed, or marginalized; those who experience breathlessness tend to lack visibility.11 The possibility of encountering the fullness of breath, then, is not a universal or homogenous experience, but one that is shaped by socioeconomic and political factors through which are threaded questions of class, gender, and race.
In Irigaray’s critique of Western philosophy, the absence - or forgetting - of air is central to ways of being and thinking, but it can be countervailed by the cultivation of breath as a phenomenological bridge between body and consciousness, and body and world. Irigaray proposes through the centrality of air, breath, and respiration a feminist rethinking of the relational flow of all forms of life, an ontology of vegetal being.12 Bringing Irigaray’s work into further political contexts, Magdalena Górska demonstrates in her own feminist intersectional analysis of breathing that attending to the breathability of life and air quality can enhance understanding of the politics of vulnerability within the dynamics of geopolitical economic and (neo)colonialist power relations:
It can lead to questions about political, social and economic distribution and maintenance of privilege and lack thereof, and power that materializes not only in (un)breathable and (non)toxic air, but also in political, social and ethical matters such as whose lives are breathable and whose loss of breath is grievable. A respiratory analysis can also provide insights into relationalities that allow for an understanding of contemporary trends in the development of neoliberalism and its consequences for both global and local levels.13
Górska’s respiratory analysis mobilizes feminist theorist Karen Barad’s work on ‘agential realism’ to underscore the entanglement of bodies, affects, discourses, and ecologies as ‘intra-active’ phenomena. The flow of breath, then, underscores how bodies and environments come into being as ‘differential patterns of mattering’,14 but also indicates their relation as mutually constitutive, and as, to borrow Irma Kinga Allen’s words, ‘intersectional vulnerabilities’.15 Paying attention to the unequal flow of air and to the political, social, economic, and ecological obstacles to the passage of breath would allow, as Allen observes (and she is inspired here by both Irigaray and Górska), ‘a political ecology of air-and-breathing-bodies as a feminist act of remembering’.16
That ‘all air is not equal’17 has perhaps been never more apparent in recent history as in 2020, a year in which the world has borne witness to events of global impact that have threatened the flow and passage of breath: Covid-19’s attack on the human respiratory system, and the far-reaching reverberations of acts of racialized violence. It has thus far been well-documented that Covid-19 has had a disproportionate effect on minority groups: individuals of black and Asian ethnicity are at increased risk of Covid-19 infection; patients of black ethnicity have an increased risk of requiring hospital treatment, while patients of Asian ethnicity are at an increased risk of dying in hospital.18 Meanwhile, George Floyd’s final words ‘I can’t breathe’, uttered as a police officer knelt on his neck, have been a stinging reminder of those others who have gone before him in subjection to institutionalized violence, and of a long and entrenched history of the racialized suffocation of breath. In a recent interview with British historian Paul Gilroy, the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe has spoken of the respiratory context for the intertwinement of these two histories in our contemporary moment:
histories of the Coronavirus and the racial disparity of deaths it has led to, and histories of racially inflicted violence - both histories have in any case as far as I’m concerned made me even more conscious than before about the importance of the struggle for air, the struggle to breathe, which have been part of both our tradition and our struggles.19
The conversation between Gilroy and Mbembe stems in part from an article on the universal right to breathe written by the latter earlier in 2020 as a response to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Mbembe’s readings of respiration in this article foreground the historically unequal politics of breath, tracking the flow of breath and the rhythms of life in the aesthetic imaginary of Léopold Senghor, in the anti-colonial writing of Frantz Fanon, and in the words of Eric Garner, Floyd, and others, and underscoring an ‘aeolian lexicon’ that speaks of black lives and postcolonial breathlessness.20 Fanon, whose work in particular echoes through Mbembe’s writing on respiration, describes the impossibility of breathing for colonized people as a direct cause of revolt in Indochina in his influential theorization of the colonized psyche in Peau noire, masques blancs.21 Elsewhere, he underlines colonial occupation as an experience that is embodied, phenomenologically felt in terms of a restricted respiration:
Ce n’est pas le sol qui est occupé. […] Le colonialisme […] s’est installé au centre même de l’individu […] et y a entrepris un travail soutenu de ratissage, d’expulsion de soi-même, de mutilation rationnellement poursuivie […] C’est le pays global, son histoire, sa pulsation quotidienne qui sont contestés. […] Dans ses conditions, la respiration de l’individu est une respiration observée, occupée. C’est une respiration de combat.22
Fanon’s notion of combat breathing carefully articulates through the stifled passage of breath between body and world the entanglement of the embodied experience of the (post)colonial subject and her historical and political colonial situation. As Arthur Rose writes, ‘combat breathing becomes a point of tense metaphoric connection between the internal, somatic conditions of postcolonial subjects and the external, fraught environments they inhabit’.23 While Fanon’s writing on breath responds to the immediate contexts of colonial occupation, Mbembe’s article draws attention to a contemporary shift created by the Covid-19 pandemic in industrialized, capitalist centres, where death - and the struggle for breath - have historically been delegated to others, in particular to others in distant lands. The pandemic, for Mbembe, has ushered in a sudden awareness and proximity of individual and collective putrescence, as the terror of confinement and self-isolation confers a new and distinct injunction: having to answer for one’s own life with others: ‘Répondre ici et maintenant de notre vie sur Terre avec d’autres (les virus y compris) et de notre nom commun, tel est bel et bien l’injonction que ce moment pathogène à l’espèce humaine’.24 Here, as elsewhere in his work, Mbembe is concerned with the interaction of power and violence in determining who gets to breathe and whose lives are submitted to a necropolitics, whose lives are deemed disposable.25 To respond to the pathogenic injunction requires the very reconceptualization of breath, such that breathing is understood beyond its physiological function, and as a universal right:
Si la guerre il doit y avoir, ce doit par conséquent être non pas tant contre un virus en particulier que contre tout ce qui condamne la plus grande partie de l’humanité à l’arrêt prématuré de la respiration, tout ce qui s’attaque fondamentalement aux voies respiratoires, tout ce qui sur la longue durée du capitalisme aura confiné aux segments entiers de populations et des races entières à une respiration difficile, haletante, à une vie pesante. Mais, pour s’en sortir encore faut-il comprendre la respiration au-delà des aspects purement biologiques, comme cela qui nous est commun, et qui, par définition, échappe à tout calcul. L’on parle, ce faisant, d’un droit universel de respiration.26
Reading the unequal distribution of breath in this way as a consequence of capitalist colonial politics, Mbembe indicates that the according of a universal right to breathe must necessarily be aligned with an ecological understanding of our shared fate, ‘de recomposer d’une Terre habitable parce qu’elle offrira à tous la possibilité d’une vie respirable’.27
In what follows, I read the flow of air and breath in Ananda Devi’s Les Jours vivants with these theoretical reflections on respiration in mind. While our recent and ongoing experiences of contagion and vulnerability may allow for a coruscating vision of the urgency of the capacity to breathe, Devi’s writing, attuned to the body and to material sensations, resonates sharply with theoretical calls for the universal right to breathe. Taking an intersectional approach that holds in view conceptualizations of breath and breathing within feminist, postcolonial, and ecological frames, I argue that the representation of respiration in Les Jours vivants discloses unequal distributions of power in an urban landscape intoxicated by capitalist drives, and in so doing anticipates a very contemporary understanding of respiration as an elemental site of power and its critique.
Stifled breath and respiratory claustrophobia encapsulate the ways that protagonist Mary Rose Grimes experiences her body’s orientation within her environment, accentuating throughout Les Jours vivants Mary’s poignant and inescapable sense of isolation. ‘Ce roman est avant tout affaire de solitude’, observes one reviewer, ‘[u]ne solitude majestueuse, immense et horrible’.28 Mary’s loneliness spans the novel, from our encounter with her as a shy teenage wallflower swept off her feet in a night of passion with a young soldier in Benton-on-Bent, to the age of seventy-five, living alone amid the increasingly hostile bustle of London, body gripped with arthritis, mind given over to nostalgia and fantasy. As a young woman, Mary dreams of escape from her family home, and she finds her immediate environment - provincial, isolated, and haunted by the spectres of those who have not returned from war - to be distinctly lacking in air:
Quinze ans pendant la guerre, une dernière fête avant que les garçons ne partent, toi, prête à y aller en laissant derrière toi le cottage au volets verts où vous habitez, toi et ta famille, dans une claustrophobie de chairs mortes, dans une illusion de chaleur qui gèle dès que la porte s’ouvre sur d’autres silences.29
Here the familiarity of a family dwelling provides no more than an illusion of warmth, and Mary’s searing isolation is already punctuated with coldness, silence, and death, the tenderness that she craves suggested ever so bleakly in the intimacy of the second-person singular pronouns with which Devi’s narrator addresses her protagonist. But Mary is not the only one stifled by the drab, unchanging landscape of Benton-on-Bent, where things went on as they always had even in the aftermath of the war. In one scene, Mary imagines her parents as beached seals, breath slowly sapping from their flailing bodies: ‘[d]es phoques échoués, pensait-elle, sur une plage grise où ils se débattraient mollement jusqu’à ce qu’ils meurent d’asphyxie’.30 Meanwhile, as she walks through the village she encounters groups of teenagers pale with the guilt of not having been old enough to be instruments of war, and a surplus of old men, drawing in greedy breaths of the very air denied to those young men whose lives have been lost in battle. While the precious quality of air, ‘ce bel air frais et vert’,31 and the privilege of inhalation are emphasized in these scenes, underscoring the disposability of lives surrendered during the war, for Mary and her parents, stifled breath somatizes the isolation and disenfranchisement of country-dwelling in a world that appears to be moving rapidly in a different direction.
It is the airlessness and claustrophobia of Benton-on-Bent that leads Mary to London, in pursuit of a more vigorous life. At first, Mary appears to find precisely what she is looking for, and she is plunged into the vibrant rebirth of the capital city, the clatter of a re-energized environment, with a newfound idealism that refuses to be sequestered by the shadow of war:
des milliers d’enfants en remplacement des disparus, des enfants qui porteraient les stigmates de la guerre et qui se refusaient d’entrer de nouveau dans son aveuglement et sa logique, des enfants de la paix, oui, c’étaient ces illusions-là qui émergeaient des décombres de la ville, partout, partout, un air rose comme ce qui restait de Regent’s Park en ce printemps de sa vie nouvelle, un air au parfum de rosemary and thyme, cette ville est pour toi, Mary, qui te baptise d’un béret rouge en guise d’adieu à campagne.32
In contrast to the blandness of Benton-on-Bent, Mary breathes in a different sort of air here, one with flavours and textures that nourish her. Devi’s repeated references to the herbs in the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Scarborough Fair’ acts as a refrain that leads Mary from countryside to city, bringing memories of Howard with her, but also unleashing new sensations and desires in her respiratory interaction with the world. Mary revels in her youth in the freedom and growth of the city, in ‘la folle danse des jeunes’.33 Almost invisibly, though, the city begins to change around her, and the delicately scented and enticing swirls of air transform into cold currents that infiltrate Mary’s icy body, racked with rheumatoid arthritis. As an old woman, Mary becomes increasingly isolated and marginalized once again, more or less confined to her tiny home: ‘Rien qu’une cachette de souris, trois étages oblongs, trois couloirs pentus parcourus en trois pas, maison de pain d’épices dont elle ne sort plus, où elle ne respire presque plus, mais qu’elle surveille avec une patience de louve malade’.34 Figured by turns as an ailing she-wolf, and a cramped, timid mouse, Mary’s decrepit body, struggling for breath, closely resembles the crumbling, ethereal, and airless home that she inhabits.35 Nothing has changed in Mary’s home for a very long time, and years of neglect and decay have seeped into all its structures: a mass of mould creeps up the wallpaper in her bedroom, the bathroom pipes are clogged, the linoleum marked with rust, the bathtub lined with scratches, the curtains encrusted with mites, and the carpet reeks of urine. Mary’s home is not a place of life; indeed, the ‘living-room’ is described as a repository of ruin, an enclosure where the past has been deposited, ‘un dépotoir d’instants’.36 In this damp environment, her breath constricted by spores, Mary too has become something of a relic, relegated to the past. The ruins that surround her remind her of her arrival in post-war London, in a ‘ville de cadavres et de promesses’.37 But in the time that has passed, Mary observes that nothing outside her window looks like her anymore, and she feels like a stranger in a strange century, ‘une intruse dans un siècle qui ne connaît plus de mesure’.38 In this passage, the twice-repeated refrain of a city filled with corpses and promises is strongly evocative of the continued presence of death, decay, and disenfranchisement underneath London’s new capitalist gleam.
In its attentiveness to the flow of air and breath between Mary and her surroundings, Devi’s writing resonates sharply with Górska’s claims that analysis of the breathability of life and air quality can shed light on the dynamics of geopolitical economic and (neo)colonialist power relations, as well as enhancing understanding of the consequences of neoliberalism at local and global levels. The icy air that hovers in Mary’s house and pierces her body arises from the coldness of a city driven by rapid progress and exponential growth, a city in which those who have not been afforded the means to keep up become bereft of breath, increasingly invisibilized shadows of their former selves. As the damp embeds in her skin, Mary is frozen wherever she goes, entrapped in London winters but having no other refuge:
Partout où elle allait, l’eau saturait l’air et la léchait d’une langue froide, la rétrécissait, la réduisait si bien qu’elle ne se voyait même plus en plongeant son regard dans son corps; pas de tête, ni de pieds, ni de ventre; juste une ombre, entrevue quelquefois dans un pan de vitre, une de ces vieilles que les autres s’exerçaient avec tant d’application à ne pas voir.39
Mary searches for warmth where she can, shutting the doors, sealing the cracks, turning the heat up, but the freezing air that sweeps into her home is the slow and chilling exhalation of the city itself. As Devi writes,
Elle avait toujours si froid, si froid au fond d’elle-même, capturée dans un univers polaire et infiniment blanc. Le nez rouge, les extrémités glacées, elle posait les pieds contre les radiateurs brûlants et ne sentait rien, rien du tout, elle posait le regard sur les choses brûlantes du monde et elle ne sentait rien, rien du tout. Elle savait que ce froid venait d’ailleurs, pas de l’air qui la frappait au matin lorsqu’elle ouvrait la porte, mais du souffle exhalé par la ville.40
In the thrall of the city, Mary also suffers from its coldness and haughtiness. Devi’s portrait of London is of a city enamoured of its own preposterous shimmer, of the beauty, luxury, and affluence made available to the few, leaving others behind to be cloaked in dirt and disdain. Once again the city itself is strikingly figured in terms of breath and air, as it rises and stretches, enveloping those who are trodden underfoot:
Plus de place, plus de place sauf pour les conquérants. La City montait de plus en plus haut. La cité s’étalait et engloutissait ceux qui ne savaient pas nager. La ville entrait en guerre, les jeunes dieux la chevauchaient pour aller cueillir leurs rubans de vainqueurs, pour prendre tout ce qui pouvait être pris, bouche ouverte pour capter l’air, le vent, le temps, la vie, grondement de destruction, de construction, et, au milieu des mâchoires de fer, les invisibles broyés.41
The city’s mouth, wide open and all-consuming, carries clear echoes here of imperial appetites, as the powerful breathe in all that they desire, absorbing all the elements and sucking up life itself, oblivious to those who might be invisibly caught in their jaws in the ‘longue durée du capitalisme’42 that confers upon the marginalized a life of breathlessness. Here it is Mary, impoverished, elderly, and isolated, a forgotten ruin, whose breath is constricted by the damp and icy flows that waft into her environs, while others consume the atmosphere in greedy gulps.
Mary’s perennial search for warmth is also a desire for forms of connection and intimacy that will bring an end to her endemic isolation, and it is striking that her own desires and bodily relations with others follow too the lexical fields of breath, inhalation, and suffocation. There are echoes of an Irigarayan ethics of intersubjectivity in the ways that Devi portrays Mary’s respiratory relations with others, bringing to light the relational flows of forms of life, but as we shall see the differential processes of mattering that Górka and Barad emphasize are also underscored as being integral to that very relationality. Mary finds herself at the centre of a nebulous triangular relationship in her interactions, real and imagined, with Howard and Cub, the two men in her life who appear to be projections of one another in a shifting kaleidoscope of longing. For Onesta, Howard and Cub represent two different facets of Mary herself in her pursuit of self-discovery:
Les deux hommes représentent pour Mary deux états de sa conscience qui est bien évidemment altérée: d’un côté, avec son corps tangible, Cub est la réalité quotidienne de la femme qui prend conscience de la bulle où elle vivait et, de l’autre, avec son corps liquifié et éthéré, Howard est la permanence dans le passé et d’un temps qui n’est plus.43
I would go further, and suggest that Devi’s writing, in its attention to breath in relations with others, reveals the flow of self into other, as Mary’s body becomes a palimpsest of memory, fantasy, and desire, and it is through these very mechanisms that life is breathed into and out of her body. In Les Jours vivants, desire both takes one’s breath away and provides a source of nourishing oxygenation. And in a novel where self and other melt into one another, catching one’s breath marks a boundary made instantly porous by the intimacy of shared breath. When Mary first moves to London, she crafts clay figurines, objects formed of the closely knitted web of desire, nostalgia, and absence - ‘fétiches d’amour, fétiches de mort’ - that is laced through Mary’s body.44 With memories of Howard ever-present in her mind, she works the clay, unconsciously moulding erotic forms, bodies coupling, before self-consciously sculpting these into more noble shapes that she can show to others and sell. But the objects carry the traces of Mary’s desires and of her loneliness, and those who purchase her crafts find themselves inexplicably moved, and significantly it is their breath that is stolen away by the figurines held in their hands, and the force of the anguish and want imprinted within them:
Elles essouffleraient ceux qui les tiendraient entre leurs mains et les plongeraient dans un état de désir inquiet dont ils ne comprendraient pas la source. Certains, solitaires, s’endormiraient avec une statuette sur leur oreiller, un peu honteux de ce geste enfantin, et se réveilleraient avec les larmes de Mary sur leurs joues.45
The visceral standstill of breath being stolen is an image that is replicated in Devi’s description of Mary and Cub’s first meetings, where in one scene Mary is left vertiginous, staggering down the road on the verge of collapse, and in another she stands face-to-face with him in her own home, struggling to recover her breath: ‘elle s’efforçait de calmer ses battements éperdus et reprenait son souffle un instant coupé à la vue du garçon’.46 Mary is overcome by Cub’s startling, youthful yet erotic beauty, by his self-assurance and vibrancy. The energy that Cub exudes provides a sharp contrast to Howard’s ethereal presence, though it is evident from the outset that Mary’s attraction to the young boy is interlaced with the desire and nostalgia she feels towards Howard, so much so that she imagines Cub as one of her statuettes, ‘une incarnation des statuettes d’argile de Mary, encore plus dense, plus souple, plus élastique, plus - le mot lui coupa le souffle - érotique’.47 Like the figurines, Cub has the capacity to render breathless those who come into contact with him, and, like the figurines, there is an aura of fetishism that speaks of the substitution, transfer, and flow of desire from Howard to other love objects. Devi portrays with great subtlety the ways that Mary’s fetishization of Cub, in the sense of a displaced libidinal attention, scripts itself within the discourse of a neocolonial fetish, as from the outset racial difference lurks in the background of this bewildering encounter. As Mary and Cub’s hands entwine in an initial handshake, they are both struck by the visual signs of their difference in skin colour, and by what the other represents, which is everything that is unfamiliar, ‘la différence’.48 Mary’s lingering gaze upon Cub’s face echoes a colonial fetishization of exotic delights, manifest in the culinary metaphors with which she regards his skin. Devi slips into style indirect libre to evoke the intimacy of Mary’s thoughts here, foregrounding the ways that she apprehends Cub as being lent to an erotics of taste, but also breath, air, and scent:
Oh, ce visage. Ce visage. Lisse comme une crème, vanille et cacao, à goûter en léchant la cuiller. […] Un teint pareil aux marrons grillés dont l’odeur vint au même moment l’effleurer, mélangeant à jamais ces deux sensations, la peau de Cub, l’odeur des marrons.49
Mary is herself disenfranchised - elderly, impoverished, and isolated, a stranger in a strange century cast aside by the city’s icy blasts towards the vulnerable. Yet her own desire, figured here through uneasy inhalations and the imagined scent and taste of vanilla, cocoa, and chestnuts, is nonetheless articulated through an aesthetics of consumption shaped by the legacies of imperial appetites, which brings to light the differential flows at stake within the exchange of breath.50 She finds, then, a disquieting solace in Cub’s difference, while he brings both warmth and oxygen to her life. She, who had been so cold, experiences a transformation in her own body, sunlight, a flame, incandescence sparked all by Cub’s presence, which Mary inhales to become part of her own self: ‘Elle en extrayait de la vigueur, absorbait l’énergie brûlante qu’il dégageait’.51 Or elsewhere: ‘Cub était une présence incandescente dans la maison de Mary. […] Il serait son source d’oxygène’.52 It is interesting to note here that Mary’s sense that Cub will provide the warmth and breath she so craves are a response to her meandering reflections on who Cub is, where he has come from, and on ‘qui était-il sous sa peau foncée’.53 Cub is both a real, tangible person with his own story of (racialized) disenfranchisement, as we shall see, but he is also a projection composed of displaced desire, nostalgia, and loneliness, ‘quelque fantaisie que Mary aurait nourrie sans le savoir’.54 In the eventual moments of erotic intimacy between Mary and Cub, watched by an eye looking through a hole in the ceiling, the imagined presence of Howard, the dissolution of selves and merging of lives, past and present, real and fantasized, is amplified through this erotics of breath and taste.55 As they dance, Mary’s body is enlivened, made vibrant, aflame, herself a projection of a lost or perhaps longed-for self, ‘le mirage illuminé d’une femme’.56 Cub, at first drawn into the dance by way of acknowledgement of the life he seems to inspire in Mary, almost as a duty, is astonished to feel Mary transformed, ‘bruissante de vie’,57 and as they come together, the three figures - Mary, Cub, and Howard - are sculpted together in a new entwined form, ‘les statuettes imbriquées de Mary’.58 The cold constriction of air, then, is countered in the absorption and inhalation, the passage and flow, of breath between bodies.
The possibility of an ethics of intersubjectivity that may be suggested in the flow of breath in intimate encounters in Les Jours vivants is nonetheless undercut throughout the novel, however, by the differential processes of mattering and by a latent politics of (racialized) violence. Cub may bestow breath upon Mary, and by extension life, but the boundary between giving breath and taking it away is shaky. While the reader may be discomfited by the story of Mary, a mature woman, entering into a relationship with a thirteen-year-old boy, Devi challenges assumptions in a complex portrait that draws attention to Cub’s awareness of his own power:59
l’homme en attente au fond de lui eut une moue de dédain, tandis qu’il regardait cette chose désolée, tremblante, souffrante dans ses draps morts. Il comprit qu’il tenait cette existence fragile entre ses mains. Il pouvait s’il le souhaitait plaquer un oreiller sur son visage et elle ne ferait rien pour se défendre. Ou alors il pouvait lui donner une brève consolation comme s’il était une divinité prodigue en dons et en miracles. Il vacilla entre ces deux pulsions qu’il ne comprenait qu’à moitié, et il décida de lui offrir la vie.60
Cub’s awareness of Mary’s fragility, and the facility with which her breath might be suffocated, is augmented by her ailing body, her angular bones, and almost transparent skin, in sharp relief against Cub’s lithe, supple, and vigorous form. But while Mary may struggle for ease of breath, whether in light of her hostile environs or intricately layered shared breathing spaces, it is Cub in the end whose breath will be extinguished. At thirteen, Cub hovers strangely between innocence and power, and not just because of his age: ‘Il n’était plus un enfant, si tant est qu’il l’eût jamais été’.61 If Cub appears older than he is, this is in part due to his increasing sense of his own attractiveness to others, but also because of his position in his family. The eldest son of single mother, Wanda, Cub is described as the sun around whom his mother, sisters, and little brother orbit, like satellites. Cub watches his mother’s exhaustion, hours spent on her feet as a supermarket cashier in a neoliberal climate of underappreciated and marginalized labour, where meaningless corporate decisions are made with little regard for their voiceless employees: ‘Les cassières s’étaient tues, tenant plus à leur travail qu’à leur santé, même si chaque matin elles avaient l’impression d’être condamnées aux travaux forces et que le soir elles marchaient comme des vieilles femmes, avec de petits pas fébriles’.62 Cub watches, as his mother raises four children after being abandoned by their father, holding onto their Brixton flat at a low rate from the local council, which is nonetheless in the process of selling these flats on at market rates to young professionals amid the sprawling gentrification of London (and consequent squeezing out of those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds). And Cub watches other women, older, affluent white women, sipping champagne, immaculately made-up, carrying ostentatiously large leather handbags, and he vows that he will buy his mother nicer clothes, a handbag, and some shoes. He commits to becoming a man, and to finding his way out of Brixton. Devi’s Brixton is one where unemployed men disappear into the pavements, where women’s jaws are clenched, where windows are boarded up, and where Cub can buy drugs, guns, or girls on street corners. It is a place that the police, powerless, avoid, an urban hub governed by gangs, and Cub is all too aware of the power dynamics that mark the space:
Il savait dans quels quartiers il ne devait pas s’aventurer, car les gangs ennemis ne se faisaient aucun cadeau. Il savait quelles couleurs de vêtements et quels symboles ressortaient comme une menace et un défi. Il savait où des couches de peinture recouvraient de grands panaches de sang et de cervelle éclatée.63
Cub’s adult demeanour is as much, then, about the harshness and violence that he has witnessed around him in a Brixton of unopened doors, dark alleys, and mouths opening to swallow people up. When Cub tells his mother about Mary, to explain the money that he has brought home, and reassure her that he will take care of the family, Wanda is horrified, immediately conscious that Mary will want something from him. But Cub is aware too of what he has wanted from Mary. Wandering around the arches and bridges of King’s Cross, St Pancras in north London, Cub realizes that Mary’s house on Portobello Road has allowed him the suggestion of an escape, and he admits that his initial intention had been to rob her, perhaps even to kill her had she fought back. There is an irony here of course that Mary has little money herself, and, as is often the case in Devi’s writing, it is ultimately the shared experience of disenfranchisement and marginalization, despite inhabiting seemingly different worlds, that draws the two together in London’s neoliberal, capitalist, postcolonial climes.64 It is Mary’s regard towards Cub, however, her want for connection, that alters something within him, and through which he recognizes in himself his own power and vulnerability:
Seul le hasard l’aurait séparé de l’acte meurtrier. Ensuite elle l’avait regardé de ses yeux étranges, un étourdissement d’amour et l’envie était partie d’elle-même, laissant autre chose derrière, un garçon qui n’était plus un enfant, qui n’était pas tout à fait un homme.65
The oscillations between affective bond and power that are exposed in these intersubjective encounters reveal, then, the intersectional vulnerabilities that lie at the heart of the flow and exchange of breath.
It is this tussle between vulnerability and power that Devi’s novel articulates through the flow, exchange, and, in the end, the extinguishing of breath which occurs in the racialized murder of Cub. Standing on suicide bridge, Cub is seized with a sudden, grasping despair of existential futility in the face of the violence of the world. But before he is able to contemplate fully any action that might lead from raising his foot and placing it on the lowest rung of the barrier, he is interrupted by six large, inebriated men, with shaven heads, crucifixes, and swastikas around their necks, and knuckledusters on their fingers. Cub knows immediately that he is going to die, and this absolute certainty comes not only from the visual indicators of white supremacy that decorate the men; it is also knowledge that comes to him through channels of respiration. What petrifies Cub most as the white supremacists close in on him is that odour of hatred that seeps out of the men and swamps his nostrils, before he has even seen their faces. It is the stench of sweat, beer, and cigarettes, but underlying this is a chemical scent, that of a hunting pack poised to swoop:
C’était l’odeur qui l’emprisonnait, avant même que leur visage ne pénétrait dans son champ de vision rapproché. Cette odeur des masses prêtes pour la violence, absorbant sa peur comme une drogue, cette odeur qui le paralysait et le tétanisait, c’était elle qui le fit vaciller, alors que les mains se tendaient vers lui.66
In a novel filled with ghostly presences, these men are described as neither human nor animal, but ‘des survivances’, relics left over from an imperial past that continues to make its presence felt.67 As Cub flees, running madly across London, his feet taking him in the direction of Mary’s home, the horde give chase. The culinary associations with which Devi has portrayed Cub throughout the text, his body likened through a fetishistic gaze and with neocolonial undertones to edible objects, take on new meaning here, as in the eyes of his predators, Cub is relegated to prey, an object to both consume and destroy. The gang of skinheads catch up to him on Mary’s doorstep, where the exposure of Cub’s sudden fragility comes into striking contact with the heightening of their (sexually charged) imperial violence:
Ils étaient presque attendris de sa fragilité, et de la fleur de violence qui allait bientôt éclore dans leur ventre et leur sexe. Ils se trouvaient en terrain conquis: la victime ne pouvait compter sur aucune aide. Personne n’ouvrirait leur porte au son de ses cris.68
There is no question that their violence is fuelled by racial hatred; what is foregrounded in their perception of Cub is his skin colour, and Devi draws into relief the long history of the racialized suffocation of breath against the backdrop of conquered land (‘terrain conquis’).69 The first strike is an iron blow to Cub’s nose, while a sharp boot to the stomach provokes a viscerally exhaled howl as the breath seeps out of him. Eventually, one of Cub’s assailants draws a knife that will be plunged into Cub’s belly, and Devi’s lyrical writing attends with languorous detail to the final breaths taken by the young boy as his senses begin to slip away one by one with an aching slowness: ‘La vie prit tout son temps. Elle se laissa saisir et goûter, s’échappa en laissant sur sa langue toutes ses saveurs’.70 With the sharp touch of the blade, taste, smell, sight, and sound swell in turn, taking on a vibrancy and vitality before dipping and dissipating into nothingness and silence. In Devi’s tracing of sensory collapse, the taste disappears from Cub’s mouth, his vision narrows to blue-black air of the sky, and silence articulates the erosion of air and collapse of light. Of all the senses, however, it seems significant that it is smell - the sense enabled by breath - which seems to persist in peculiar ways. It may not be the last of the senses to leave Cub, but smell nonetheless appears to exert a particular grasp upon the body and its death:
Ensuite il perçut l’odeur du relâchement corporel, du corps qui avait perdu la partie, qui avait abandonné la lutte alors que les liquides s’échappaient les uns après les autres, la sueur avait trempé son tee-shirt comme du vin aigre, c’était fort, typé et déjà masculin, et son pantalon militaire était poisseux et nauséabond. Tout cela contredisait l’accalmie à l’intérieur de sa bouche. Seules les odeurs persistaient à parler, à supplier, à blesser. La dernière conversation humaine, alors que presque plus rien d’humain ne subsistait, ou bien tout ce qu’il y avait de trop humain, et tous les parfums d’Arabie n’y pouvaient plus rien, l’homme était corps, le corps était animal, et l’animal était pourriture.71
Cub’s last breaths are accompanied by the smell that signifies his own corporeal release. In the aftermath of an act of racialized brutality and dehumanization, then, it is the sense that is most closely linked to breath and its constriction that persists in making itself heard as Cub’s body finally falters. Accentuating an unvoiceable breathlessness, Devi’s writing articulates the racialized suffocation of breath, lending an embodied, sensory poetics of voice to Cub’s experience of his own death.72
When Mary eventually finds Cub, bringing him into her home and - wildly, fantastically - imagining him still to be alive through the very force of her grief and longing, she speculates that Cub can no longer speak because his vocal chords must have been cut by the knife. The image of vocal chords, sliced through, are a striking symbol, of course, of Cub’s racialized voicelessness and being cut off from breath. But, in Mary’s increasingly tormented mind, the force of her strange, maternal, erotic love for Cub renders words unnecessary. The intractable intimacy that the two have shared is again, even in death, figured in terms of the flow and exchange of the air between them: ‘Ses yeux étaient aussi éloquents pour qu’elle comprenne tout ce qu’il lui disait, pour qu’il n’ait aucun besoin de mots, les mots étaient devenus inutiles, à quoi servaient-ils quand chaque particule d’air était une vibration’.73 Mary’s isolation is strangely undone, as she keeps Cub with her in death, fabricating for herself a family as she holds on to his slowly decomposing body and to the ever-spectral presence of Howard. But while Mary’s life itself may be sustained by desire and memory, the brutal reality of Cub’s absence is made horrifically apparent when Cub’s mother, accompanied by social workers, the police, friends, and neighbours, finds her way to Mary’s door. As the assembled group enter her house, they are met with the sight of Mary, ‘une créature d’outre-monde aux yeux brûlantes’ crouching over the putrescent mass that was once Wanda’s son.74 When Wanda approaches Cub, it is by breathing in the foul smell of (his) death that she learns what has happened to her boy:
Wanda s’est approchée de Cub et voit le gris de sa peau, les striures de sang, le noir de la gangrène, les odeurs terribles qui se dégagent des entailles ouvertes dans sa chair. Et elle croit voir non une pluie d’asticots, mais leur naissance dans le ventre de son fils.75
As Wanda’s grief floods the scene, violence erupts and Cub’s death - and Mary’s clasping of his life - becomes a moment of intensity that marks resistance to a longer history of the unequal distribution of breath. Years of politicized indifference and exhaustion are given traction in the indignation, rage, and vengeance that Cub’s disappearance and death inspire:
Cela leur donnait un but, un exutoire à la rage impuissante accumulée depuis si longtemps dans leur ventre. On leur avait volé leurs lieux, leur travail, leur famille, leur vie. On leur avait volé leurs dieux. Brixton avait été envahi par des promoteurs qui morcèleraient leur ville et qui construisaient autour d’eux des murs invisibles, des barrières les séparant des riches, les confinant aux quartiers les plus dangereux. La plupart des familles étaient prises en étau entre les gangs et les riches. Aujourd’hui, elles allaient faire tomber les barrières.76
Devi subtly alludes to the far-reaching consequences of Cub’s breath being taken away, as provoking further riots, as violence spreads from Mary’s house, along Portobello Road, and perhaps beyond. Here, the opening up of deep political wounds that is set in motion by Cub’s death anticipates sharply what Mbembe refers to as the ‘planetary reverberations’ of the racialized murder of Floyd.77 And in a passage astonishingly resonant with the present time, Devi suggests that this event has caused something of rupture in the world’s indifference to the unequal distribution of breath:
Ils raconteront à leurs petits-enfants le spectacle de la désolation et du danger. Cela donnera du mordant à leur vie - comme s’il n’y en avait pas assez. Plusieurs du reste, ne survivront pas à l’hiver. Ceux qui y parviendront se souviendront qu’il s’est passé quelque chose cette année, un déclic, un décalage, une fêlure sur la face vitrifiée du monde.78
This, Devi suggests, was a year unlike any other.
‘À la fin, tout ce qui compte, c’est la façon de mourir’,79 explains Nari, Mary’s elderly Parsi neighbour, one of the few people with whom Mary interacts in the novel. Mary and Nari have a conversation on the day of Nari’s granddaughter’s wedding, an extravagant riot of colour and sound on Portobello Road. Nari has decided not to stay on for the party, in his view an unnecessary exhibition of capitalist excess and wealth. He prefers instead to spend time in reflection on the end of life, and on the towers of silence of his Parsi heritage, towers for dead bodies to be offered up to vultures who feast on them, intimately and completely. Nari describes the tradition as an environmentally friendly way of getting rid of the dead, but also as a ritual of cleansing and purification in the return of the human body to matter. In the end, Nari will never reach the towers of silence; at the novel’s violent climax after Mary is found with Cub’s body, Nari will be encircled by the rioters, whose rage spills out into Portobello Road, and it is in their eyes that he finally sees the ever-circling vultures. All that matters is how you die.
In this article, I have endeavoured to probe the flow, exchange, and the extinguishing of breath and air in Les Jours vivants as a means of approaching the matter of how one dies, and of whose lives occupy the margins of life and death within the context of the disenchanted, postcolonial landscape of the novel’s industrialized, capitalist centre. Attending to breath and air in Devi’s novel discloses the persistent connections between the enduring legacies of colonialism and the capitalist appetites that create the very conditions of loneliness, isolation, disenfranchisement, class warfare, and resurgent racism that will determine whose lives matter. Regarding intersubjective encounters through respiratory exchange allows for greater understanding of the relational flows of forms of life, as well as the differential processes of mattering inherent within them. Tracing the unequal distributions of air in the struggle for breath emphasizes the visceral, embodied experiences to which persistent structural inequalities give rise.
In a recent lecture on the universal right to breathe within the context of colonialism and the ethics of memory, Mbembe observes that we are currently living in a time defined by an equal redistribution of vulnerability. The threat to respiration universally conferred upon human bodies by the pandemic has allowed death to seep overwhelmingly into every part of those industrialized, capitalist centres that have historically allocated vulnerability and death to others. Mbembe suggests that in not learning to live with others (and by this he means all living species), and in paying no regard to the damage that we as humans have wreaked on the lungs of the earth and on its body, we have never really learned to die. Caught already in a stranglehold of injustice and inequality, humanity finds itself placed in a new chokehold, skies closing in with the arrival of the pandemic. ‘Le ciel, manifestement, ne cesse donc de s’assombrir’, writes Mbembe, ‘[p]rise dans l’étau de l’injustice et des inégalités, une bonne partie de l’humanité est menacée par le grand étouffement, et le sentiment selon lequel notre monde est en sursis ne cesse de se répandre’.80 The final passages of Les Jours vivants dramatize this very scene of skies closing in on the industrial, capitalist centre, in ways that draw together the embedded intersections between feminist, postcolonial, and ecological ways of thinking about breath and air, and that eerily anticipate the contemporary landscape of social isolation made necessary by the spread and surge of the pandemic. Cub, his own body slowly decomposing in Mary’s damp and airless home, observes his own putrefaction and slow dissolve into airy matter. He watches as a cold infiltrates the city, a polar chill like no other, a new and unexpected climate that begins with the vulnerable before sweeping up bodies indiscriminately in its icy embrace:
Ils prendront par surprise les gens confiants dans leur climat tempéré. Tout se déréglera. Comme d’habitude, diront certains. Mais ce ne sera pas comme d’habitude. Ce gel polaire ne sera pareil à aucun autre. Il sera engendré par le froid des cœurs, par des enfants assassinés au coin d’une rue ou dans un escalier, par des femmes encerclées entre leurs murs d’incompréhension, par l’absence de liberté - oh, ce mot, ce mot de chaleur sans cesse renié -, et le froid qui montera du bas pour rejoindre celui qui vient du haut figera le climat, la glace, la neige, les fixera dans leur permanence, dans leur pérennité, dans leur beauté aussi. Une main blanche et bleue se refermera sur Londres et, lentement, se mettra à la broyer.81
Devi describes with astonishing perspicacity the gradual, grasping chokehold placed upon the city by the force of nature, the inexplicably sudden surprise with which it arrives, and the tendency of many not to take it as seriously as it demands, despite the clear signals that many lives will falter. Clouds swirl, the damp becomes ever more icy, sounds become frozen, and people die on streets covered in white dust. Cub looks up and sees winged creatures in the sky, the skinheads who attacked him taking on the appearance of gargoyles who will inject venom into human souls, a strident reminder of the entrenched relation between racialized violence, capitalism, and ecological collapse. Mbembe writes that Covid-19 is the expression of a planetary impasse which demands the reconstruction of a habitable Earth to give us all the breath of life: ‘Il s’agit donc de se ressaisir des ressorts de notre monde, dans le but de forger de nouvelles terres’.82 In the novel, trains stop, all communication is lost, and the very infrastructures of modern life give way to the force of nature:
Le précieuse abstraction de notre vie moderne - l’énergie sous toutes ses formes - se ploie sous l’assaut de cette autre énergie primaire et primordiale qu’est la nature. L’homme, dans sa bulle d’autoprotection, se rend compte qu’il ne peut plus rien pour se défendre et que, depuis toujours, la nature jouait au chat et à la souris avec lui. En un rien de temps, d’une main nonchalante, elle peut balayer tout ce qu’il a construit et le rayer aussi abruptement qu’un cri d’animal interrompu.83
In underscoring the urgency of ‘une vie respirable’84 for all, Devi’s Les Jours vivants anticipates a question at the very forefront of a contemporary world racked with the historical inequality and injustice of the unequal distribution of breath, but one where breath itself is also uniquely threatened on a global level. As we follow the flow, exchange, and extinguishing of breath in Devi’s delicate portrayal of disenfranchisement, longing, and anguish, then, we are left contemplating a question that concerns the very possibility of human life:
Serons-nous capables de redécouvrir notre appartenance à la même espèce et notre insécable lien avec l’ensemble du vivant? Telle est peut-être la question la toute dernière, avant que ne se ferme une bonne fois pour toute, la porte.85