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In October 2017 Yvan Alagbé and Ulli Lust travelled to London.
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  • Yvan Alagbé

    I leave for London, taking a book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Other Poems by William Blake. A bilingual edition, selected and introduced by Jacques Darras. I know I have to get to the station early to catch the train to England. I arrive at Gare du nord and look up at the clock. Twenty-nine minutes until the train leaves. I go upstairs to the Eurostar departures area. A woman standing at the front of a long queue of pudgy people stamps my ticket: no guarantee of departure. There are twenty-eight minutes to go; I should have got here thirty minutes in advance. My ticket’s in German, but I could—I should—have spotted that crucial number. Now all those after me also have to be ‘informed’, as the woman calls out to a colleague. The queues are a mixture of passengers from my train and others who are booked onto later trains. The minutes tick by. In the narrow walkway, the confused queues move slowly, then come to a standstill at the bottleneck at security. The ‘informed’ passengers try to pass those they suppose to be lower priority—with or without asking. It’s a free-for-all. Others, including me, stay in line, increasingly anxious and annoyed, wondering whether they’re going to make it. Nearly time. At last we pass through customs and begin to run.

    The Eurostar staff assure us that the train won’t leave without us. We don’t believe them.

    The train speeds out of town. I look at the sky and cry. Going through the Channel Tunnel I feel nothing. Then comes more sky. England. On the way back, I make sure I’m on time. And I notice that the reception of passengers at St Pancras—a queue for each train—is nothing like the mayhem at Gare du nord. Of all the differences between London and Paris, France and England, this is perhaps the most striking. The day after my arrival I stay alone in my room for a long time, in bed. Everything’s over for the man in love whose heart is dust. Everything’s destroyed. Everything’s white. Transparent. Dead. His trampled body walks like a ghost, passing other ghosts of time, all displaying the colours of life or the city, warm and shimmering or chill and grey.

    Vampires, zombies, gothic nurses. Then shop windows, lights, alcohol, fine food and fast food, lingerie. It could all have been got up just for a month or a night. Like a circus. Like the backdrop to an intense celebration. A pagan ritual. Halloween.

  • Ulli Lust

  • Yvan Alagbé

    A German author and a French author travel to a city to ponder the question of Europe—the idea brings back a childhood memory from the early days of La SEPT, a cultural television channel that would later become ARTE. La SEPT produced a French-German programme called Parallel History which recreated the German and French news from the Second World War. That’s the way I remember it, anyway—a bit of research tells me that it also included American, British and Japanese newsreels. It was a world war, after all.

    Parallel History followed events day by day, at a distance of fifty years. If it had continued, this year would have brought us the protests of May 1968 and the end of the Bretton Woods monetary system. But if a new version were to be produced today to reflect the times we live in, I fear it would be necessary to go back eighty years. Back to 1938.

    There, alongside Hitler, Himmel and Goebbels, we would see some illustrious unknowns: Albert Lebrun, Édouard Daladier, George Bonnet. On 1 June, there might be a quick mention, on the French side, of the absurd death of the ‘degenerate’ author Ödön von Horváth on the Champs Élysées. In November, a huge pogrom would be given the classy name of ‘Crystal Night’, and the media machines would recreate the pomp-filled funeral of a Nazi diplomat and heap opprobrium on his young assassin Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen-year-old Jew who was driven out of Germany and Poland and caught up with in Paris. A ‘child of his times’. A sans-papiers.

    Allons enfants, then. The programme’s name takes up the first words of the ‘Marseillaise’, the French national anthem and revolutionary song. A French cultural institution could hardly have called a project like this ‘Unity and right and freedom’—and it certainly couldn’t have called it ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.’ Not even as a frank and enthusiastic homage to the famous ‘German model’. Asking for trouble.

    Allons enfants… The inner ear, the tongue, the brain instantly add ‘…de la patrie’. Children of the fatherland. Childbearing fatherland. Europe, which likes to see itself as an heir to Ancient Greece, sometimes propounds the myth of the Autochthons found in Hesiod and Plato—that strange dream of a Golden Age in which men could reproduce without the need for women. In which men were born from the earth. The maternal fatherland.

    And yet that’s exactly what the fatherland no longer is. It’s no longer the Earth Mother, Mother Earth, the mother goddess. Fatherland comes from father. Earth Father? Father Earth? What should we call it—or him? And isn’t it (or he) at once the last vestige and the finest denial of the mother goddess? Father Earth, the patron saint of landowners, gives birth to warriors. To heroes. Who die for the fatherland—by the fatherland. En masse. For pure or impure blood. Religious fervour or the height of submission to authority. News of the past. Parallel histories. Le jour de gloire est arrivé.

  • Ulli Lust


  • Yvan Alagbé

    This is London. In Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus, there’s a talking car which sounds like the messages broadcast by Free France. Brigitte Fontaine says in one of her songs, ‘La Symphonie pastorale’, that Orpheus’s car speaks an enchanted language. In another song, ‘L’Europe’, which she sang as a duet with the group Noir Désir, she sings: ‘Les sangliers sont lachés. Je répète: les sangliers sont lachés’ (The wild boars are on the loose. I repeat: the wild boars are on the loose.) Later in the song, the male voice announces: ‘Nous travaillons actuellement pour l’Europe’ (We’re currently working on Europe.) The male voice is the Noir Désir singer, Bertrand C., who went on to kill his girlfriend. Before I leave for London, his picture appears on the cover of a renowned cultural magazine. I hear his voice in my head and the words come back to me: We’re currently working on Europe. Reverse the French words and you get ‘Europe nous travaille’: Europe’s on our minds—it’s worrying us, tormenting us, even. But our dreams are elsewhere. Thank God. Or rather, thank Goddess! Thank Joy.

    Ulli Lust and I would probably never have started talking about religion if it hadn’t been for this book we found on the shelves of a cramped café in a converted container. Nobody knew how it had got there; someone had slipped it in among the cookbooks. The place is vegetarian, gluten-free, man-free. The men are watching a football match in another joint, though you do see the odd one in here. They march up to the counter, helmets on heads, then leave with a packet. An order for delivery. Internet. Mobile apps. New consumer trends. Old-style casual work. Old world.

    We stop for a break. We’ve been walking all day. Our plan was to go and see ‘some places where black people live’. Thanks to international English, my suggestion—or intention—was rather bluntly phrased! But Ulli was enthusiastic. I didn’t know then that she’d had a Nigerian lover—husband, even—or that her last book had told the story of their relationship. A love story overshadowed by the question of race and the thorny question of papers. (Do you have any or not?)

  • Ulli Lust


  • Yvan Alagbé

    We go into an evangelical church. The architecture is neither Romanesque or Gothic; it’s probably an old cinema or theatre. In France, churches like these make do with more sober venues or are situated way out on the urban peripheries. An enthusiastic young woman greets us warmly. A shadow passes across her face when Ulli tells her she only knows one word of Nigerian: Oibo, which means white. It’s not necessarily a friendly word. We hear hymns being sung and would like to attend the service, but we’re wasting our time: that service isn’t for us. There’s another one we’re most welcome to attend, if we’d like. Probably because we’re oibos. Me, too, I’m an oibo. When I lived in Benin between the ages of six and nine I was yovo, white. White in Africa, black in France. Sometimes the French use the English word black; it sounds cooler. Black and French. White and Beninese. Cool.

    Being born on a boundary is to be keenly aware that it doesn’t exist, while at the same time experiencing its existence in the social world. Once, my mum cried in my arms when I told her that the things she said about Africans were racist. She cried at the memory of all she’d had to put up with, particularly from her dad, for having married an African, a black, a Negro, a darkie—or whatever you want to say.

    The black Frenchman is talking to the Austrian woman. The wogs are talking to the wogs. The wogs talk to everyone, because everyone’s a wog. We’re currently working on Europe. My tailor has a mule. Flora has a red neck. I like foie gras.

    This is London. Just down the road from the hotel is a square of immaculate Georgian buildings with a circular garden in the centre. One morning, I walk round this garden, looking for the entrance. I am staggered to discover that what I had assumed was a public square is, in fact, private. Only the residents of the square have keys. I’ve never seen anything like it in Paris or anywhere else, where secret gardens like this are hidden from view. Inquiries reveal that it’s not the only one of its kind in London, although they are rare, the legacy of a bygone age. It glows with serene sovereignty, like privilege made visible, an ode to private property. I have a strong feeling that this ‘caging’ of Nature is Man’s way of expressing its essence, its appeal, but also its limits.

    In the evening, after an abortive pilgrimage towards Brixton—I show Ulli this square. We walk round it in the light of the lampposts, smoking. We look at the century-old trees growing by the fence, bulging out of it, brimming over it, swallowing it up, their breasts, bellies and muscles swollen. The force at work here has no limits. If we can’t see it, that’s because it’s slow. Because we’re walking too fast. Because our lives are too short. And so we talk about religion; I may have taken the crazy gamble of writing a History of Love, but at least I learnt this from it: when the pagan religions died out, the goddesses died out with them—especially the Great Goddess. Black and beautiful as the night.

    Ulli tells me about the trees’ spirit, floating a few metres above their branches. When I get back to my room, I finally make a start on the William Blake poems. And I come across a sentence that brings me back, in a way, to the task we’ve been assigned: ‘The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation’s different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is everywhere call’d the Spirit of Prophecy.’ All Religions are One, the title of the pamphlet proclaims.

    I don’t know what William Blake means by ‘Spirit of Prophecy’ but I do, I’m afraid, sometimes have the feeling I’m turning into a prophet. A rather helpless and pathetic prophet, but still. It all began when I started reading Karl Polyani. I’ve seen no trace of Karl Polyani in London, even though he once lived here. He was born in Vienna, like Mozart and Ulli, only in 1866, and ended up on the Hungarian side of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1933 he left Vienna for London, fleeing the rise to power of you-know-who. In England, he taught economic history and collected memories of the origins of the English working class. It was to this period that he owed his major work, The Great Transformation, where he traces the origins of the utopia of a free market. If you ponder the upheavals in today’s Europe, the return of certain ghosts from the past and the neoliberal dictatorship, you might be forgiven for predicting the fall of the golden calf. Like its earlier counterparts, our sad empire is hurtling faster and faster towards its end. Which will be when? I have no idea, of course. A prophet of doom, but not a seer. Not an apostle of heaven or hell either.

    The wild boars are on the loose. I repeat, the wild boars are on the loose. Don’t get hypnotised or trapped by the spectacle of disaster. Remain present, give yourself to Joy.  Only one ‘bloody standard’. Love. The acacias are Marie’s roses. Fernande is in love.

    © Yvan Alagbé

  • Ulli Lust

    Yvan Alagbés’ texts were translated into German by Odile Kennel and into English by Imogen Taylor, Ullis Lust’s into French by Stéphanie Lux and into English by Imogen Taylor.

Portrait Yvan Alagbé & Ulli Lust: © Etienne Gilfillan
Übersetzung FR → DE: Odile Kennel, Traduction DE → FR: Stéphanie Lux, Translation DE / FR → EN: Imogen Taylor