The Tomatoes

PIERRE GASCAR has won both the Prix des Critiques and the Prix Goncourt. “The Tomatoes" is an excerpt from his new novel, THE SEED,which has been translated by Merloyd Lawrence and will be published next fall under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint.


. . . THEY really were not fruit at all; their acid juices reddened the sluggish streams of the town, filled the gutters with millions of tiny seeds, dripping like a murky kind of blood between the iron gratings. This thick blood, the slimy seeds, the acid aroma in the air — all this was the ripening of tomatoes in August.

The factory where my twelve-year-old friends were hired for seven francs a day to stand, dazed, in puddles of juice and swarms of flies, was a cannery. It bought up the surplus fruit, tons of flooding, overripe tomatoes with skin that was already wrinkled and ready to burst at the touch. When the carts arrived, they were more often bailed out than unloaded. Through the heat of summer, the town bore this open wound, this factory where men, women, and children staggered under pails of thick red pulp and seeds, dumping and stirring them into huge vats out of whose treacherous eddies they quickly skimmed the rolled petals of skin. They had to earn their seven francs.

Every few days the factory would choke, would be oversupplied, and would have to send away the rest of the tomatoes. Then, at noon, when the streets were drugged with heat, the carts drawn by a pair of oxen and piled high with crates of tomatoes would pass slowly through the town while the farmer recited his dismal cry to the women who sat in the doorways. He offered the crates for five cents. Soon he was almost ready to pay anyone who would lighten his load. I he harvest had become a curse upon him.

After they had crossed the entire town, some of the farmers went to empty their crates in the river. There they talked among themselves while the yoked oxen, covered with flies, twitched in the sun. For lunch the men looked for tomatoes that were still green, that had been kept from ripening by the shade of a tree or a wall. In the midst of all this putrefying ripeness, they sought the tang of half-mature fruit, the tardy freshness that tasted of less prolific seasons.

Sometimes, on Sunday, a dance floor was set up in the market place. Around this, itinerant showmen set up their booths. One of them was made of canvas tied to a wooden frame, in front of which a counter was set up with crates under either end. At the back of this shed, behind a net that was strung all the way across but was low enough for a man to stand with his head above it, was an individual with a blackened face and an old top hat.

Crates, some full of tomatoes and some already empty, were lined up in front of the shed. Beside them stood a crony of the man with the blackened face. For five cents he would place a dozen tomatoes on the table for any comer. Then; above the net, the make-believe Negro would start to roll his eyes and utter his incomprehensible but goading cries. The game was on.

Dressed in their Sunday best or in shirt sleeves, the men, farmers and factory workers, leaned over from the waist, pressing their stomachs against the wooden counter, and, still groggy from their midday dinner, threw the ripe tomatoes at the black face, which appeared and disappeared behind the net and sometimes caught the missile full in the face with a loud splash.

When the top hat fell off, the laughter resounded. Disappearing again behind the net, the make-believe Negro caught his breath and wiped his face as he looked for his hat. The men swore at him, holding their tomatoes ready to throw. If he was able, once in a while, by dipping swiftly behind the net or teetering back and forth like a bear, to dodge their shots, the men threw twice as hard. They squeezed the tomatoes for a long time in their tightened fists. The juice ran between their fingers. They paid no attention to it but concentrated entirely on their prey. Their jaws were grim and set. A strong, latent anger that had smoldered all through the burning summer while they worked themselves to death from dawn to dusk, and earned almost nothing, made them hurl the tomatoes in deadly seriousness.

The shorter ones swung an arm out behind them and doubled it back like the crack of a whip, while the tall ones waved their arms like stiff flails, with heavy fists at the end that suddenly opened and spread out empty fingers. Pulp and juice covered the floor of the booth and its canvas walls and glistened on the blackened face that bobbed up and down in a ferocious kind of expiation. In the lulls of the battle, instead of wiping the dripping make-up off his face, the mock Negro primed himself with warm wine which he gulped out of a dark green bottle. . . .