Julien Torma At Large

For the next five years Julien Torma indulged in peregrinations which took him North as far as Stavanger and as far West as the city of Cork (Murmansk, to the East, represented the third of these itinerant boundaries, with Sidi Ifni his most Southerly port of call). Evidence of Torma’s whereabouts remained scant throughout, and any appearances were fleeting, and yet these roving cameos always coincided with upheavals of one sort of another: sudden inflammations of the local citizenry resulting in riots, public lynchings, insurrections, self-defeating murders, all of which were documented at length within the pages of The Torment To Come. The origins of these bloody upheavals either remained obscure, or else seemed, in retrospect, darkly ludicrous; but as far as the author was concerned the culprit could be identified in each case, and it was largely by laying these charges against Julien Torma that he sought to retrace the man’s path back and forth across Europe, in and out of North Africa, creating an active fault line of destruction and accounting for a country mile of fresh graves.

A good many of the places Torma stopped at were small towns and villages, and no doubt it pleased him to visit those areas where superstition held powerful sway. Isolated communities in which an older way of living still prevailed and charges of witchcraft, for one, might still be used to reinvigorate a people’s baser instincts and allow its resentments to catch fire. How Torma supported himself during these years is not known, but it was supposed by the author of The Torment To Come that theft, solicitation, and blackmail had all figured centrally, if not conspicuously, as methods of subsistence.

I noticed that although the narrative remained sombre and objective for the most part, there was now a desperation creeping into the text. It played on the author’s mind – the degree to which he was forced to rely on supposition to implicate Torma in these crimes – and the narrative sought refuge in emphatic, declarative, and largely unqualified statements. Certain recurring and identical phrases took up the strain, one of which I counted a total of six times.

Despite the lack of evidence, Torma was once again the instigator of this suffering. That much is perfectly clear.

During the last year and a half of Torma’s life, the biographer lost track of him entirely. Fifteen months slipped by, completely unaccounted for, until the Frenchman wheeled into sight again, having taken up residence at the Hotel Alpenburger in the market town of Reutte at the foot of the Tyrolean Alps. Here, without warning, the narrative mode changed. Instead of a sweeping overview, the story honed in on a single day and described these hours with intense authority (without deigning to explain how this same information had been arrived at). It was a major switch, and for the first time within the book’s pages the author presumed to know something of Torma’s mind.

*

The telling chapter begins on the morning of February 17th, 1933, with Julien Torma waking at five in the morning. Approaching the hotel window, he considers its sweeping mountain panorama, casting an eye over the glacial striations, even as the early dawn sharpens his focus and separates each rock face from the gloom. Then, without further reflection, he decides to embark upon on a climb whose only purpose will be to wipe himself off the map. There is no hint that suicide has preoccupied Torma before, although, given his relentless negativity, it must surely have been a boon companion for many a year. Nevertheless, it is described in the book as a flippant decision, designed to strip the act of any pathos, resonance, value. The Tyrolean mountains simply strike Torma as the perfect graveyard for one such as himself. Far enough from mankind that his death will go unheralded completely. And as he continues to look upon these pristine peaks from the second floor of The Hotel Alpenburger, he is already imagining himself up amongst the heights, besmirching their visual purity. His corpse putrefying in the open or else being seized upon by wolves and torn into strips.

After a large breakfast of goats cheese, gherkins, and rye bread, Torma leaves the hotel behind, and with it his few belongings, and heads out of town on foot with nothing about his person except the clothes on his back. Without any fanfare, he begins the ascent. It is the exact opposite of a cry for help.

For twelve hours straight Torma climbs the mountain without stopping once, altogether undaunted, in celebration of his own imminent demise. The prospect continues to buoy him up and in his twisted elation he demonstrates a stamina equal to the growing altitude and falling temperatures and succession of brutal inclines. Every so often he comes across a mountain stream only to spurns its advances, in spite of a terrible thirst. A thirst which, like his hunger and his weariness, Torma seeks to belittle by dismissing altogether. It is through this steely contempt that he intends to keep going further, higher, deeper before he expires.

Day turns into night and Torma continues along his way, despite the darkness all around him. It is during these hours that he embarks on a series of turnings which, in their number and utter lack of calculation, have not been taken for millennia. These lead him, inexorably, towards a large dismal ravine as dawn breaks once more; although, from where Torma is standing, there is scant evidence of any brand new day.

The spectacle is such that it briefly stops him in his tracks.