A French tribunal decreed in February that all copies of Marcela Iacub’s latest book, Belle et Bête, carry a notice ‘informant le lecteur de ce que le livre porte atteinte à la vie privée de Dominique STRAUSS-KAHN’. Belle et Bête is written entirely in the second person, addressed to an unnamed man whose presidential aspirations had been brought to an end by a series of scandalous revelations starting with the accusations of a New York chambermaid. It begins ‘Tu étais vieux, tu étais gros, tu étais petit et tu étais moche,’ and continues in the same vein, recounting the narrator’s affair with the man, ‘le roi des cochons’, who likes to lick off her eye make-up and pour oil into her right ear so he can tongue it out. In another scene he asks her to suck his thumb while he talks on the phone with his wife. She ends their liaison, which does not involve more canonical forms of sexual intercourse, after he bites off her left ear and swallows it.
I landed in El Paso at 11.20 p.m. Manuel, the driver sent from the Collegio hosting the conference, spoke no English, and my Spanish is mostly limited to what I have learned from reading subway ads in New York (las cucarachas entran pero no puedan salir came unfortunately to mind). On the way to the border a rabbit ran in front of our car. Manuel braked; it swerved back to avoid another car; we felt the bump. He looked in his rear-view mirror and made a rueful hand gesture. In a novel this would be foreshadowing – and we'd have hit something bigger than a rabbit. A foreign journalist was decapitated a few weeks ago, but we’re inoffensive academics. The previous week I’d asked my seminar if they'd go to a conference in Ciudad Juárez. 'What’s the paper on?' they asked. 'Violence in literature,' I said. 'Well,' one of them said, 'what better place to give a paper on violence?' I found that I lacked the courage of my cowardice: I would have liked to pull out but couldn’t bring myself to.
Monday at the Manhattan County Courthouse begins with hundreds of people in a room watching a short film that opens with a vox pop of New Yorkers complaining about jury service. Then, a bit of history: the Greeks invented trial by jury, the Romans abolished it. In the Middle Ages, there was trial by ordeal: a trussed unfortunate is dragged to a lake and thrown in. The film ends with various people praising the American judicial system: a local judge, a TV anchorwoman; the resentful taxpayers from the opening scene have changed their minds. Along with some 60 others I am called to a courtroom. Over the course of several hours of general questioning most people are dismissed and more are called. By the time 14 of us have been selected – 12 jurors and two reserves – we no longer look like a representative sample of Manhattan residents; we are whiter, for one thing. During the ‘voir dire’ process I am the first to be interviewed by the judge, answering various questions about where I live, what I do for a living, where I went to school. Not expecting her to ask me what I do for fun, I can’t think what to say. Other people say reading, travel, theatre. One man says that he works out with his personal trainer and takes care of the family estate in Connecticut; he does not end up on the jury.