Yesterday on the web I unexpectedly came upon the soundtrack of the old French movie Le Rapace. I downloaded the file, gave it a quick antivirus check – even though only a French user could have made this track available and everybody knows that French viruses spread on an honor basis only – and opened it with Winamp.
Thunder. Lightning. Stars exploding in giant supernovae. The darkest of black holes suddenly opened around me and I fell in, helpless, as if a distant electromagnet was pulling me down the memory lane through space and time. They say that in a life-or-death situation your life flashes before your eyes. Mine was safely tucked away in a Main Street coffee shop, but the music triggered the flash all the same.
I have written many a time about the power of music. This is probably the most amazing side of it. It would seem our brain stores information in layers like a cake being baked and then put aside in the fridge, where its atoms slow down, its flavors fade and its core hardens, until it must be pulled out and served again. Of the many layers a memory gets recorded to, music is often forgotten and yet I am amazed at the tremendous power it yields over the intensity of the memory itself. The clearer the musical association, the more vivid the imprint.
Where that soundtrack lead, I was not even a teenager, had longish sun-bleached blond hair and was thin and shy. We lived in Antibes, Côte d’Azur. All kinds of rather international music would play on the family turntable, national anthems, Russian Army Choir, Tahitian songs, Morricone soundtracks, French classics and masterpieces like Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmuzik” and Tchaikovski’s “1812 Overture”.
And then there was Le Rapace. I had seen the movie very young; it was harsh and talked about faraway lands and foreign languages, about war and adventure, about epic lives and ordinary people. It featured the charismatic face of Lino Ventura as le Rital and a parrot that would quack “iViva la revolución!”
But to me the old 45 rpm record did not just relate to the movie, it equaled to much more. I would listen to the music over and over again, traveling across oceans, seeking shade in burning-hot South American deserts, pretending to be an adventurer, fighting the odds, trying to understand human conflict and suffering, through my young and eagerly innocent imagination.
The movie was barely older than I was. We still both had to make our way through life and age as well as we could, hoping to last and be remembered as the stuff of legends. The movie has.
As for myself, I have traveled, explored, learned, forgotten, tried to understand. I keep trying. Maybe, as someone was suggesting recently, will I always be twelve.
But there I was now in 2006, an adult listening to the brilliant musical score with tears in my eyes, looking back at all the years that have slipped past me like sand flowing inexorably through willing fingers, escaping to rejoin the immense beach of time.
As if to finish me with an ultimate coup de grâce, the coffee shop took over playing oldies, Charles Aznavour’s “La Bohème”, Harmonium’s self-titled “Harmonium”, Charlene’s a bit cheesy “I’ve Never Been to Me”. The last one carried me back to the flying years in Chicoutimi; it was Jean and Mireille’s favourite song. Jean went on to fly for Air Canada, Mireille moved to the States and changed careers. I wonder what has become of them. We all had such magnificent dreams. We were conquerors of worlds, making history as we lived it. We were also completely unprepared for the dangers that lay ahead, for the many tricks of life. I wonder how many of those dreams have shattered along the way. Des héros Toutatis trompait l’espérance*.
Gandalf tells Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” But how does one decide such a thing before even knowing a decision is required? Of course it is never too late to learn, never too late to take a new start. But how much extraordinary substance have we failed pouring into our lives because of a simple lack of information?
What if we had known all along how precious our time here really is, how dreams are meant to be lived and pursued with undying faith and passion, and then lost and then reinvented again? What if we had been able to live every single moment of our life for its own uniqueness rather than foolishly looking too far ahead or painfully looking too far back?
The past ends up being a lifelong minefield across which we wander endlessly while fighting present battles, seeking some buried or forgotten secret weapon that will alter the balance of power in our favor. It is stained with scattered defeats, mortal injuries and terrible retreats. Our own corpse lies back there and then on so many battlefields, along with the bodies that have fallen at our side, or opposite us. But we stand up. We pick flowers. We soar.
I guess it is only proper then, that my childhood memories are so intense. They shine like as many campaigns in a general’s march towards glory. They were in turn bloody, brilliant, painful and sweet as honey. None of them leave me unmoved, they crank up my heart and fill me with nostalgia. They have lead me, ever so slowly but surely, to the battlefield on which I am standing today, to my most glorious battle to date: the one that still has not been written.
So I raise my flag up high into a wet sky, glance back at the old days while the music is playing, in search of inspiration, and then I turn to face the present, draw a shiny sword and spur my horse towards the endless losing battle of life.
* From Astérix