Short Story Review – Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud – A City of Museums

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

This is how a rat is made:

I was sixteen when I slipped through a barred window into the basement of a museum, a few minutes before everyone headed home.  I’d arrived that very morning with a high-school group.  From my hole, I watched without regret as the bus drove off and disappeared, carrying my classmates toward their ordinary fate.

This particular rat – and rats are, as one man tells him, “…you’re life itself, you’re hope!” – wears faded jeans and a leather bomber jacket, and he views both the locals in the city, the tourists, the government officials, and the museum watchmen and curators, with contempt, wariness, and a little curiosity.  And he always means to get writing, though he never does.

Rats wander the streets on Tuesdays because the museums are closed.  The city is filled with museums – the city is a museum, hence its popularity amongst the tourists – and normally the rats live deep inside them, in the basements or between rarely viewed monuments.  But Tuesdays are for the streets.  They talk to the normal people, they bum cigarettes.  The government doesn’t like them, but the tourists do, and thus, at least until nightfall, they are allowed to wander.  But at night, the police come out, and many a rat is caught, taken away.  “Most of the collars go down Tuesday night,” the narrator observes.

One rat is a writer.  One is a poet.  They are artists, or seem to be.  Homeless perhaps, but artists – yes.  There are rumours that the city is waiting for one of the rats to become truly great, to be a chosen rat, and that when he is found – the rest will be captured and forgotten in some dank cell.  The narrator wonders if it might be him, but it seems more likely it could be Gus, a new rat, the poet, gifted, talented, hard-working.

[A museum curator, Mr. Kingsheart] read [Gus’ poems] and reread them with a greediness not unlike that with which I’d initially fallen on the meals his wife made.  Tears rolled down his wrinkled cheeks.  He pressed Gus to his heart.  “My boy! My boy!” he gibbered.  Dumbfounded, Gustin let himself be swept clumsily into an embrace. I found both of them faintly ridiculous.  From that moment on, I knew I no longer mattered.  Gus was the only important one.

A short time later, suspiciously, Gus dies.  He falls from a roof.  The other rats are sad.  Mr. Kingsheart is furious, and suspects the connivance of the government.  The important, hoped for rat – dead.  Gone.

The “rats” are, I think, a stand-in for the artist in society.  These creatures are tolerated when they create their masterpieces, but until they do – no.  They are smelly, have odd values, keep strange hours, wish for bizarre things to happen, and often lean to the extremes politically.  They read books and don’t know much about popular culture.  An artist is an abomination until their work has been sanctioned and safely kept behind a velvet rope in a museum.  Until then they are an explosive with a fuse of unknown length.  Better for them to be thought of as rats, better for them to be treated poorly.

And that is how a rat is made.  They choose themselves, but they are made by their cities and their environments.  Until they receive the seal of approval they are scum, to be pushed aside.  Never introduce them to your father.  Never show them off to your mother.  Never be seen with them in a public place that isn’t a coffee-house or a music bar.

The story?  Oh, it’s Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A City of Museums, and it’s very good.

Author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
Title A City of Museums
Translator Edward Gauvin
Nationality French
Publisher Small Beer Press

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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