By Xabi Molia
Translated by Alexander Hertich
Publication Date: 4/18/23
What if you suddenly had superpowers? What would you do? How would your friends and family react? What would your obligations to society be?
The superheroes’ first missions— combating terrorists or rescuing disaster victims— are a boon to France. Yet while these actions bring the country pride, unity quickly starts to unravel. These superheroes, ultimately, are human. Paparazzi are everywhere. One has an affair with another’s wife. Another questions following the government’s imperialist agenda. Meanwhile the public carps on social media. Molia takes our fascination with superheroes and adds a cutting portrayal of contemporary social mores to create an entertaining and disturbing work with deep dystopian underpinnings.
His mind was a blank the first time he took flight.
At first, as he would tell the story, despite the muddy snow, which was still icy in spots on the sidewalks, he was hurrying down the street. A young woman would be expecting him soon in front of the Gare du Nord train station. He smiled. He was anxious and happy.
Up near Rue Greneta, a crush of people had formed alongside a patch of ice, and he was forced to slow down. Glancing at his watch, he realized he was going to be late when the idea that he’d go faster if he were flying came to mind. This was accompanied by a strong tingling in the soles of his feet, immediately replaced by a warm feeling on his cheeks. And then he felt like he should, why not, try to lift off from the ground. The next moment. . .
“Wait,” people would interrupt sometimes, “where did this urge to try come from?”
Jean-Baptiste would shrug his shoulders. In any case, no one, not an angel, not some voice inside his head had suggested it. He’d felt the desire, no, the need to. That’s all.
The next moment his right foot was standing some twenty centimeters in the air in front of him. Then his left foot followed. He was levitating. A wondrous feeling of euphoria made his heart race.
This was untrue. As he was to admit later to Thérèse Lambert, he had absolutely no clue how he got up there. He had, for a couple dozen seconds, lost consciousness of himself. But, assuming people expected a clear and detailed accounting from him, and also fearing that people had their suspicions— of what lie, he didn’t know— he concluded it would be more prudent to provide a lucid recollection of his train of thought and the feelings surrounding it before and then during the first manifestation of his capabilities.
To reporters, he recounted that fear had seized him when he found himself, soon after taking off, twenty or so meters farther down the street above the intersection of Boulevard de Sébastopol and Rue de Réumur. It was 4:17pm on January 19, and light snowflakes were floating above the streets of Paris. A young woman in a pale raincoat, having followed him with her eyes, had just fainted. A bus had slammed on its brakes right in the middle of the intersection. Behind it, in a long line of backed-up cars, drivers were starting to get angry, completely unaware of the marvel taking place before them. But crowds were already gathering on the sidewalks. Telephones were pointed at him.
It wasn’t terror that gripped him, Jean-Baptiste Fontane would add, but rather a kind of surprise, tinged with apprehension, as he saw himself floating, almost motionless, his feet slowly dangling in the air seven or eight meters above the crowd, the kind of surprise you feel when you realize you’ve surmounted some obstacle you thought impossible to overcome, or when you’ve made a witty remark without forethought: then, he would note, it’s like the feat compelled you to do it again, to never again step down from the pedestal onto which you’ve just hoisted yourself.
“You mean you were already afraid of what would happen to you?” he was reportedly asked several months later during his umpteenth interview.
“Yes, no question,” he supposedly answered.
With his amenable personality, Jean-Baptiste Fontane had taken on the habit of fulfilling the role others had envisaged for him— that this mantle might be ill-deserved had not bothered him for a long while. He was a slim thirty-five year-old man, neither handsome nor ugly, with a gentle look and an overly long nose. He worked behind the counter at the French National Library where he recorded the bar codes of volumes that had been borrowed and then returned, provided information to patrons, and, more rarely, got up to quash unduly boisterous conversations. Occasionally he regretted his inability to set himself apart with quick wit or charming jocularity. Clever remarks came to mind, but he never found the right moment to slip them into conversation.
When he was younger, the rare times he had done something outrageous so that people might take an interest in him, for example donning a wine-red fedora, or disclosing to a colleague that he had, one fine day, eaten a fish right from his aquarium raw, or even inviting a teaching assistant for a drink right out of the blue, he was only met with furrowed brows and misunderstandings.
From these embarrassing moments he concluded that his repertoire was wrong. He’d never be the type of person whose opinion was sought, whose absence was regretted. He thus resigned himself to play the role of a character that didn’t shine, a secondary character. And he must have noticed, as the years progressed, that this role did not displease him. It even had its advantages. Since no one ever came to see him he didn’t need to clean his apartment. His clothes became outdated without his needing to worry, and he could pay no heed to conversations, which he now sprinkled with pat responses and vague smiles. Perhaps some kind of laziness or true lack of character justified this attitude. Instead, I believe that it evinced some quiet fatalism, the kind of abnegation through which one’s life becomes simpler.
Moreover, in the hours and days that followed his first flight, he did nothing to refute the portrait being disseminated in the press and on social media. His story seemed both amazing and simple: here was Joe Average who’d transformed into a superhero. He was not offended to read or hear the accounts of coworkers, neighbors, and friends who rattled off the typical (but hurtful): “He’s a very normal guy.” “He’s really very ordinary.” “I never would’ve thought him capable of that.” He would just smile politely every time a reporter would ask him if his life before 1/19 hadn’t been a bit dull. Except for an award in a scale-model building contest, which had earned him a mention in the local paper (the young man had built a 1/87 model of the Bayeux cathedral and was now planning, according to the article, on recreating the entire neighborhood that surrounded it), his mother’s death in a car accident when Jean-Baptiste was twelve was the only notable incident in an otherwise mundane existence, which was so humdrum it bordered on exaggeration: childhood in a subprefecture where his father worked as an accountant, average grades, typical interests (evenings in front of the television, bike rides, several unremarkable years on a soccer team), no enduring impression burned into the memories of the teachers or classmates he’d been close to, no rebellion, no tragic love story, no through line. Several magazines tried to ascribe his self-effacing behavior to suspicious anti-social tendencies, a mystery begging illumination, but the most commonly held belief, one which still prevails today, is that an insignificant librarian, a nobody, had one day suddenly appeared over the skies of Paris.
Above the traffic jam, as crowds thickened on corners, as several passersby went to help the young woman who had fainted, and as the complete standstill of traffic unleashed the honking of cars, several ideas went through his mind. He had first, he confirmed, thought of the young woman who might be waiting for him in front of the Gare du Nord where they had agreed to meet after several weeks of timorous messages on an online dating site. He thought of calling to let her know he would be late, and his hand went to the pocket of his coat. But, overcome by a sense of propriety, he halted this movement, perceiving in the throng beneath his feet that all eyes were glued on him. Suddenly, as he began to fathom the many meters between himself and the ground, an unsteadiness came over him. It dawned on him that he was going to crash if this miracle came to an end. So, with this in mind, he started to flap his arms, steadily and fully, and was relieved to notice that his body gained several meters in altitude. His body obeyed him.
A dozen or so cell phones filmed this first aerial movement, which inspired the sculptor commissioned to immortalize Jean-Baptiste Fontane in front of the city hall in Bayeux, the city in Normandy where he was born. The bronze statue, which stands proudly front and center on the Place de la Liberté is faithful in part to the recorded images. The artist scrupulously reproduced the oversized cut of his coat, the tight knot of his scarf, and the unflattering profile of Jean-Baptiste Fontane, whose nose, like a windbreak, points up to the heavens. It’s unquestionably the librarian’s spindly profile, but, with arms forward and fingers spread, transformed through colossal dimensions and a triumphant pose. Below the knee, his legs disappear into the bronze block, virtually unhewn, as if this national hero were emerging from the ground through superhuman effort. Carved with a knife or written in Sharpie, innumerable inscriptions vowing eternal love cover the plinth. Oddly, Jean-Baptiste Fontane’s taut neck and clenched jaw, accentuated by his tightly pursed lips, bestow a look of suffering to his face, which no image from that day, however, portrays.
Continuing to gain elevation, Jean-Baptiste presently noticed the snow-covered mosaic of the roofs of Paris, and through the leaden skies of winter, the grey clump of office towers of Tolbiac and La Défense on the horizon. The cry of a police siren grew nearer and nearer. Later, half jokingly, he would admit he’d worried he’d broken some municipal ordinance— surely flying over Paris was illegal. According to Thérèse Lambert, it was in fact the siren that had pulled him from his trance and made him realize he was floating in the sky. He remembered nothing before this moment.
Now he was approximately forty meters above the ground. His heart was pounding out of his chest. He was trembling.
In the crowd someone began to clap. Not really knowing what to do, Jean-Baptiste attempted a small wave with his hand. Scattered here and there, others joined in.
The siren’s wail ceased as the police car stopped. The doors closed with a muffled thump. For several instants, a hush fell over everything. Even the agitation of the car horns had diminished, and the pedestrians, silent, some solemn and already pensive, seemed to be waiting for the next act. Jean-Baptiste feared he would be asked to give a speech. He cleared his throat, but felt too overwrought to speak.
At that moment, he made out the ring of a telephone, which cut through this serene environment in which the sounds of the city seemed to collide, canceling each other out. The man who’d just answered asked the person on the line to repeat what he’d said. Other phones rang. To find out the spreading news, a few turned their eyes away from Jean-Baptiste Fontane. Murmurs from the crowd swelled. People cried out. For in Marseille, at that exact same moment, Gregory Marville had also just taken off.