Summary

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

Walking along the River Seine, amateur photographer Roberto Michel spies a blonde woman flirting with a teenage boy.

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What I'd thought was a couple seemed much more now a boy with his mother, although at the same time I realized that it was not a kid and his mother, and that it was a couple in the sense that we always allegate to couples when we see them leaning up against the parapets or embracing on the benches in the squares.

He observes the boy's nervous reaction to the woman's advances and concludes that the boy's body looks like it is

standing as if it were on the edge of flight, holding itself back in a final, pitiful decorum.

Michel's imagination begins to wander, and he decides that the boy is

Turning fourteen, perhaps fifteen . . . He'd walk through the streets thinking of the girls in his class, about how good it would be to go to the movies . . . At home . . . there'd be the slow rain of time, for studying, for being mama's hope, for looking like dad, for writing to his aunt in Avignon.

He notices that

The boy had come to the tip of the island, seen the woman and thought her marvellous. The woman was waiting for that because she was there waiting for that . . .

When Michel takes a picture of the couple, the woman charges towards him angrily, demanding that Michel give her the picture, and the boy makes his escape. As the woman gets increasingly agitated, a man climbs out from a nearby parked car and joins in the argument.

The woman said no one had the right to take a picture without permission, and demanded that I hand her over the film. . . . The man in the grey hat was there, looking at us. It was only at that point that I realized he was playing a part in the comedy.

Michel returns home and not only develops the photograph, but enlarges it many times over:

he spent some time looking at it and remembering, that gloomy operation of comparing the memory with the gone reality; a frozen memory, like any photo, where nothing is missing, not even, and especially, nothingness, the true solidifier of the scene.

The more Michel studies the photo, however, the more he sees. He decides that the villain was not the woman, but the man, who he now thinks was forcing the woman to seduce the boy for his own pleasure:

The real boss was waiting there, smiling petulantly, already certain of the business; he was not the first to send a woman in the vanguard, to bring him the prisoners manacled in flowers.

The story ends with Michel running toward the photo and once again finding himself part of the scene. He confronts the man and the boy again makes his escape. By the end of the scene, Michel says:

I didn't want to see to see any more, and I covered my face and broke into tears like an idiot.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712

Roberto Michel opens his story not by telling what happened but by mulling over how it should be told and why it must be told. Once he decides that “the best thing is to put aside all decorum and tell it, ”he recounts the events of his Sunday morning stroll along the Seine. His excursion is quite uneventful until, while lighting a cigarette, his eye catches an interesting scene in which a blond woman seems to be attempting to seduce a teenage boy.

With nothing better to do, Michel watches the scene carefully. As he notices the boy’s nervous reactions to the woman’s advances, Michel begins to imagine the particulars of the situation, details that he attempts to divine from his somewhat distant observations. Michel imagines in considerable detail the boy’s background, his relationship with his friends, even his home life. He then begins to imagine the events of the morning that led the boy to this precarious situation. Now certain in his own mind of what is happening, Michel begins to derive a perverse pleasure from foreseeing the possible endings of the “cruel game,” imagining both escape for the boy and conquest for the woman.

Michel notices a man in a parked car near the scene, but he is unable to establish his role in the seduction. Before the scene can disintegrate before his eyes, Michel readies his camera, still ruminating about the possible denouements of the story unfolding only a few feet away. When he finally snaps the photo, his action is noticed by both the woman and the boy. Irritated, the woman approaches Michel and demands the film. In the meantime, the boy seizes the opportunity to escape, “disappearing like a gossamer filament of angel-spit in the morning air.” The mysterious man approaches from the parked car and joins the woman in demanding the film. Michel refuses to relinquish it and returns home.

Several days later, Michel develops the film and makes an enlargement of the photo of the woman and the boy. Fascinated by the shot, he tacks a poster-size blowup of it on the wall of his apartment. While working on a translation, he is mysteriously drawn to the photo. Examining it from several perspectives, he compares what is frozen in the picture with what happened immediately after it was taken. His contemplation of both the photo and the events surrounding it produces in him a self-satisfaction, for he feels that his intrusion allowed the boy the escape that the teenager so badly wanted. As Michel concludes, “In the last analysis, taking the photo had been a good act.”

Magically, however, the figures in the photo begin to move and the scene develops beyond the point of Michel’s intrusion, as if he and his camera had never been there. Michel sees that without his presence this time, “that which had not happened, but which was now going to happen, now was going to be fulfilled.” He realizes that the woman had not been seducing the boy for her own pleasure but for that of the man in the parked car. As Michel points out, “The real boss was waiting there, smiling petulantly, already certain of the business; he was not the first to send a woman in the vanguard, to bring him the prisoners manacled in flowers.” Michel painfully realizes that he cannot stop the order of events this time. He cannot interrupt the scene with another photograph, or even with a shout of warning to the boy. The figures are functioning in a time frame separate from his own, forcing him into the role of a powerless bystander.

Feeling helpless, Michel screams out and runs toward the photo. Surprisingly, the man, now out of the parked car, reacts to Michel’s approach and turns to confront him. Once again, the boy seizes the opportunity afforded him by Michel’s presence and escapes running. For the second time, Michel has helped the teenager, allowing him to get away, thus “returning him to his precarious paradise.” Emotionally and physically exhausted, Michel breaks down in tears and makes his way to the window of his apartment. It is from this location that he narrates his story while watching the birds and the clouds pass by.

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Themes