vicissitudes of suicide
1. a life-time occupation
2. suicide as euthanasia
3. anarchy of death
4. easter miracle
5. insidious inspection
6. fatal research
7. practicing the end
8. the arthritic shootist
4. easter miracle
Death in Spain is like a friend, a comrade. When he arrives, one does not make a lot of fuss.
H. M. Enzensberger, The Short Summer of Anarchy
With my friend I am going to the brocante in Angles-sur-l’Anglin, this on the feast of the Resurrection when spring is around the corner and when, with the eating of eggs, one celebrates the coming of the new life. It is a fresh, yet a nice day. The site is a renowned beauty spot, an attraction even for those who do not come to buy anything. But, then, you always buy something, if only because you have come to a brocante.
As my friend has also come to this place as a professional – she buys curtains and bed spreads, to resell these on her web shop – she wants to arrive there as early as possible. After entering Angles, I first drop her at the entrance of the tree-shaded, sloping meadow and drive on to find a place to get rid of the car. This takes quite a while, but there is no hurry, on a brocante you always find the people you want to find.
After entering the fields, I turn immediately to the left. At first I have this strange feeling that I am dreaming, all the more strange because I never dream, not even at night. I have not the foggiest what it means when people say ‘this felt like a dream’. Perhaps this then is what it feels like.
In front of the third vendor’s table, two men are facing one another, one with in his hand a wooden box, the other man holding a little gun in the air while inspecting its functioning. As if I myself am the expert, even from this distance I immediately recognize the little thing as a revolver! He who inspects turns out to be the expert. I approach and stand close to him, as to miss nothing. He tells the seller, a chic gentleman whom you would not expect to be a vendor on a flee market, that he is rather pleased with this specimen.
As if I know that this might be my very personal Easter miracle, in my best French I intervene in the little exchange between these two and state that, if the second gentleman inspecting the gun would decide not to buy, the thing is sold. I have no idea as to its price. The second gentleman says he is merely admiring, that he already owns a gun like this one and thus will not buy. When he has finished and has already left, I ask the seller if it still works. Oh yes, Sir, it has been cleaned and it fires.
Will it serve for my suicide? I ask him. One is and one remains a Dutchman. Without blinking an eye, he tells me that he thinks so, Yes it might. Whether he also sells ammunition for the gun? No, that is alas not the case, but he thinks one may buy it elsewhere. I should of course have asked the other man, the expert now gone, a man who according to my seller is a collector.
And the price? 200 Euro… Wow! I did what I had never done before in my life, I make him an offer which I think he will not refuse: 150 Euro. Marché conclu. Going to a brocante, I did not bring so much money with me, on a flea market a price like this is normally ridiculous. I ask for his address, which happens to be in Angles, and tell him that I shall visit him right after the Easter weekend to pay for the gun and take it with me.
Once I have found my friend again, I decide on the spot to travel to the nearest village that has an ATM, fifteen kilometres coming and going. The moment I leave Angles for the second time, I am the immensely proud owner of a real revolver, albeit a small one. Driving back home, my friend immediately tells me that I have been fooled, that this is a pop-gun. Must be! This, sadly enough, confirms my own deepest suspicions. Driving home it feels as if, from the back of the car, Rembrandt’s sadly ironic eyes are observing me. However, even owning a revolver which very much looks like a revolver and which supposedly fires real bullets, if only toy bullets, would mean something to me.
There is also damaging circumstantial evidence. At the same stand where the gun came from, this time from the seller’s wife who accompanied him to this brocante, I bought two musical recordings of blues singers I do not yet know. Once back home, the CD covers turn out to be empty. Then again the little revolver weighs a real ton, something which I find reassuring.
When I am on my own again in La Roche, the first thing I do is point the canon into nowhere and just pull the trigger. Strangely enough, I did not do this when I bought it, either trusting the seller as the honest gentleman in a Western which is playing in The Deep South, or simply not wanting to look too much like the boy I felt.
It works! That is, without ammunition it does click with what for this layman is an impressive little bang. Reviewing my own viewing history of Westerns, I now also cock it and let go.
It goes off without me even having touched the trigger, or so it felt, perhaps merely feathering it. Now indeed, I am very glad that there was no live round inside, yet…
For the moment I let it be, both puzzled as well as boyishly excited by my little machine of death. A little touch of irony need be in place, methinks. I discard the box in which the revolver was sold and put the gun in a nice, hand-painted wooden box which, some time ago, I bought at another car boot sale. It has a hand-painted picture of a violin on it. So if not a violin case as such, the suggestion is enough to transform me into a small-time hoodlum.
How snugly the revolver fits inside. I cut a piece of cloth that suits it well, a kind of bed cover, and I oil the thing. A few days later, a little screw driver is added, especially bought for the purpose. One of these days, I shall have to find the courage to dismount and clean it thoroughly. No idea how this is done, but little screws are to be seen. I read my Lévi-Strauss, I am both a mythmaker and a bricoleur, never discouraged by such little problems.
After these preliminaries, a strange kind of serenity descends upon me, then takes hold of me as if the acquisition of the gun has dissolved a disquiet that was deep down in me for so long. Perhaps, because I have now become the owner of a steel substitute for the Drion Pill that never was to be. Not in the medicine cupboard the box goes, from now on its resting place is in my elegant black chest in the living room.
5. insidious inspection
Soon we were pestered by the Guardia Civil. With our small revolvers,
we did not stand a chance.
H.M. Enzensberger, The Short Summer of Anarchy
Now I simply must know! Is it indeed but a toy gun, or is it really my own little Machine of Evil? Does it work, does it actually shoot, and is there still ammunition available?
My friend suggested that, if not a mere toy, it is at most an objet d’art, martial art that is, to be placed in a show-case by some collector. Which is not what I am, she adds. Once I come to inspect it more thoroughly, I fear her guess may somehow be supported. To be or not to be is now the gun’s question. Anyway, a thing of beauty is a joy for ever, even if in my case this ‘for ever’ may not last all that long.
I should of course have asked all this from the expert at the brocante, however at the time I was too excited to become the owner of a gun and also very much involved in the process of bargaining. I am quite sure that what he would have told me, could not have made any difference: I would have bought it anyway.
Something I did not see at the sale was this little inscription on the revolving part:
Written in full it reads:
♯ THE GUARDIAN ♯ AMERICAN MODEL OF 1878 ♯
Showing this inscription to my friend, she throws up her hands with a gesture of ‘I told you so’. She thinks it looks very much like those toy models of cars, intricately manufactured from the best materials, a boy’s pleasure! I am not going to argue this without having at least some proof. After she has left, I decide to get onto the World Wide Web, in spite of everything the source of all knowledge and of all nonsense. Even if it is but a model, it still has an impressive weight and it does give this nice bang and it sure looks used indeed. Part of the inscription is even slightly worn.
One serious objection to all my enthusiasm is the fact that the cartridges have to be inserted in the holes in front of the revolving part. That is something I have never seen done in any Western movie… I do not see any openings on the back side of the revolver, the very place where the cock is supposed to strike the shell. What is more, I now observe that this cock does not strike at the back side of the revolving piece at all, but on its head. Now that is something which makes me seriously suspicious. How could a round be fired, even if I might be able to insert it up front?
During lunch which precedes further investigation, something happens on my court-yard which gives a little inside information with regard to the definition of life.
From the roof of the préau on which I already heard a noise, the tail of a lizard drops on the cement strip in front of my house. After first having been confused into thinking that it is a very small snake, I now recognize it for what it is. One who has observed fights between lizards, knows that these little animals wage vicious battles, as if the further existence of the whole cosmos depends on it. They try to bite off the opponent’s tail, sometimes both fighters succeeding. A tailless lizard is open to ridicule, two of a kind are farcical.
For minutes on end this minuscule piece of meat is wriggling, somewhere up there it’s former owner is still alive one presumes, not in sight and most probably not caring. It is a tail in its death struggle, although even this does not seem to be the right expression for such convulsions. Is a tail, which still moves without its body, itself still ‘alive’?
After its head is cut off, the body of a chicken may run around for quite a while. That body I would claim to be still alive, even though its head has already had it. But what about a lizard’s tail twitching, the living lizard nowhere to be seen? There is another vital difference, or so it seems. Whereas the lizard which has lost its tail will grow a new one, the chicken’s body has lost its head forever and will also die. No second head around.
Once browsing on the web, I do indeed find interesting things. On various sites my gun is for sale, even very old ones dating from the 19th century. Obviously then, unique all this isn’t. These revolvers were used to actually shoot at people. This one was for sure:
There have been versions for 7mm as well as for 9mm lead bullets. Mine turns out to be a 7mm version, I have measured its holes. My web-search also solved the riddle of the rounds’ insertion into the revolver. There happens to be a clip at the back of it, which I did not notice until I saw a photo of it, a sliding piece of steel that may be switched aside. Et voila, there you have your openings:
My little gun, my Guardian Angel – it is for real. There are some proviso’s though, which the would-be suicide should acutely keep in mind. For one, it does not shoot very straight, something that was already complained about in the Wild West. However, aiming at my own head should not be all too much of a problem. The 7mm version, rather widely sold at the time, was considered dangerous enough as a defensive weapon for the civilian, because being wounded by a lead bullet in those days led to blood poisoning off which most people died within a few weeks. [By the way, what is the difference between damage done by a lead bullet and by one of steel?]
For the still intriguing problem of the cock banging down on the revolver instead of ramming into the bullet from behind, I now also found the solution. Casimir Lefaucheux, a French gunsmith who lived in the first half of the 19th century, invented a type of cartridge with a conical bullet which was fixed into it. A round was fired by hitting a small pin on top of it, instead of at its centre at the back. From this came its name: a pinfire, written as one word and not to be found in any dictionary. On the web there were even a few of such pinfire rounds for sale, although – so it seemed – in not all too good a shape.
Funny, how in doing some existential research into manners of one’s suicide, you also stumble over unexpected little linguistic insights. Ah, that glorious Serendipity of Death! The word cartouche, once also a mystery for me, must certainly originate from the time when these small containers of the black powder that propels the bullet were still made of cardboard, only later being made of copper or some other metal.
In the year 1858 the so-called Lefaucheux pistolet-revolver, named after the inventor of its pinfire cartridge who had already died a few years before this, even became the first metallic-cartridge revolver to be adopted by a national government. This would make an optimist of any would-be suicide, if it were not for the fact that this government opted for the new 12mm calibre version with which a bullet is propelled by a lot more black powder. On the other hand, not long ago it has become known that the gun with which the Dutch painter Van Gogh was deadly wounded, was indeed of my 7mm type. However, caution again! Here is no reason to be found for suicidal optimism, as the artist took weeks to finally pass on, after having been in grave pains.
Only later did they start to produce the gun which has become known as my Guardian, American Model of 1878, by that time an improved version. Most probably mine is of Belgian make. If I would start to look for bullets, plural that is, as merely one would not be enough because one needs practice, I expect to find them either in Belgium or in the United States.
Offered on a website, I did find one more specimen, a rather lonesome little round, obviously of no use to me. This bullet also looked sort of second hand, in any case well worn, which is not what seems to be needed for one’s own final shot.
It took some time before I continued my research, the reason being that I did not really expect to find any present day produced live ammunition for my little Guardian. I had also dawdled a while, because – even if I would find ammo on a website – I did not expect it to actually reach me, as it would surely be confiscated by the douaniers at the border who had already done the same thing with innocent packages of medicine, a type of innocuous aspirin, sent to me from the Low Lands by my wife.
Once I had decided to continue my search, I began with the States and with Belgium. The first option I found was indeed an American firm, offering a do-it-yourself kit with which to make a full six bullets. I would at least need two of such kits, you don’t fire a round in the brains without some solid practice on would-be heads or on whatever, to gain some kind of certainty as to the deadly effects of the 7mm round. There also appeared on my screen a site where you could order black powder, and another one gave instructions as to how to make this gun powder yourself. Black powder is prescribed by the Lefaucheux system.
Subsequently, I found a site on which the workings of the revolver were discussed by someone who had actually used that very same kit for making the ammo. Hell of a job, he told his readers. However, as he was an amateur in both senses of the word, he added that he had sort of enjoyed the bricolage. Obviously, then, not for me this solution, that is if I could avoid it. Moreover too tricky for a suicide, so it seemed. Perhaps I might find someone who could make them for me; I almost ordered one of the kits.
Lo and behold! There it was: a website owned by a real French manufacturer of arms and ammunition, still in business. What was more, it advertised the type of cartridges I needed, selling whole boxes of 7mm pinfire cartridges to be had for 80 Euro. Pricy indeed, but who would like to end his dear life cheaply… First I could not believe my eyes, a lingual expression often abused or ill used, but in this case fully factual.
Here in ma douce France I do not have French electronic banking facilities at hand, I asked my friend to help me out. I had travelled from my Roche to her Mont and now inquired if she would allow me to try and use her business card, banking on its French stamp of Trust and Honour as well as on my own French address as the destiny for the order. Mind you, no customs involved! As I was in her house for the week, watching the World Championships Snooker on TV, I paid her back the amount in cash and sort of forgot about it, hooked on the snooker as I was.
When I came home from the little trip, I found a slip in the mailbox informing me that a package had been delivered earlier that week, but was now waiting for me at the post office. It had been too big to put through the slit. While preparing to leave for the village and fetch it, the mailwoman banged gently at my gate, waving a small but obviously bulky and heavy bubble-plastic envelope. She was trying a second time to deliver it.
Inside the envelope: a beautiful little messing box, un etui laiton weighing indeed far more than what it looked like. Twenty-five cartouches filled with the black powder advised by its designer, all of them equipped with a 7mm lead bullet, with at its backside the so-called pinfire in place. 25 cartouches à broche. Poudre Noire Système C. Lefaucheux.
Dumbfounded by this present, I sat in my chair, stupéfait as the French have it, which seems to be the chosen word taken the fact that my stomach resistant aspirin which had once been confiscated, would be called out here a stupéfiant, the French word for drug.
On its side were indications of the size and the weight of the cartridges. Whether these suited my purpose, was still of course an issue in the balance, a matter for serious research. But now indeed such research could begin!
Still in awe of its heaviness, I opened the little box – almost like a sacred object, like a little shrine and, why not, like a monstrance to look inside for its hallowed contents.
Taking out one round, delicately touching it because, after all, these were live bullets, I put it on a little dish-stand to make a picture.
Like a priest placing the consecrated wafer of the host on a believer’s tongue, I celebrated the moment of actually inserting my very first round inside its slot, now experiencing the miracle of the Lefaucheux design in all its brilliance.
At first I had not understood the principle at all, and even thought that these cartridges did not fit my type of gun. The little pinfire seemed to stick out too high, pushing against the cock, thus preventing the revolving part of the gun to roll through. By now, I had become so over-excited that I immediately opened my smart phone, acquired merely to communicate with my hospital in The Low Lands, to connect myself to the arms manufacturer. All risks taken!
The pinfire sticks out too high, at least on my revolver, is what I told an anonymous listener who obviously sounded surprised by my call. Could I file it down, I asked? From the tone of the answering voice, I deduced that the man thought I was a nut case, though he did ask me whether I had actually received the ammo from their firm. This I confirmed. Alright, why not file them down a bit… The distinct impression was that he wanted to get rid of me as soon as possible.
A little later, after some cool and deep thought, I figured that this was in fact the whole idea of the Lefaucheux revolver, that little pin sticking out just a bit. Not only must the cock, while hitting it on the head, be able to bring the pin down with force, however carrying the gun around with the pin sticking out a bit, say like a real shootist, you can see whether it is actually loaded or not. Rather a safe feeling. The little pinfire is visibly resting against the side of the cock, and precisely at the moment of firing the cock goes up and the pinfire slips into its destined place, to receive that necessary bang right on its head. Brilliant!
For a true believer in the anarchism of his own death, for this Durruti of the Dutch Low Lands who is now living in the glorious French Brenne, pure elation it was. Perhaps a small step for mankind, however most certainly a giant leap for this one little man. The aim justifies the means, it is as simple as that. With my own système Lefaucheux I had beaten the French State, I had circumvented its douaniers, and I had swindled its gendarmerie, its prefects and their bloody permits out of a victim for those obligatory shooting lessons.
Now, after a pause of solemn silence and the intense enjoyment of my deadly property, I would commence the research of death. Moreover, with the moral support of a revolver in my back, once again I had found a kind of joie de vivre. Wise is the man, or so Fernando Pessoa, who arranges his existence in a monotonous way, because then each little coincidence acquires the privilege of a miracle.