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PHENOMENON (n.)

April 29, 2001|CHRIS MARKER | Chris Marker, essayist, novelist, journalist and filmmaker, is best known for his 1962 film "La Jetee," the basis of Terry Gilliam's 1995 "Twelve Monkeys." He lives in Paris. His short story was translated from the French by Dorna Khazeni

"His definition of the short story is quite simple: It is the recounting of an event that is unusual."

--Isaac Babel quoting Goethe during a discussion at the USSR Writers' Union

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Most likely, countless observers must have remarked the same thing at the same moment in a variety of conditions, or in the same conditions at various moments, yet in only two or three days the totality of the phenomenon was to become a subject of astonishment, alarm, then pure terror. As far as Loewen was concerned, the first sign of the phenomenon manifested itself to him as he sat calmly watching the France-Hungary soccer final on his television. The stakes were high: Which country would represent Europe in the all-new Intercontinental Soccer Cup? With the score tied at zero, there was now a series of penalty kicks. Hardly a cheerleader himself but ever interested by talent in all its forms, Loewen had noticed that in the last few years, this once exceptional postlude was finally becoming the rule and the moment of truth in a game in which it seemed there were no longer any teams capable of establishing their superiority during regulation time. The federations had even managed to agree on a limited number of these kicks: a total of 12, six chances given to each team, and up to now this had sufficed to break the deadlock at one or other moment, allowing that subtle cocktail of chance, tension, angst and will to produce an exhilarating goal, and with it, victory.

But on this particular night, the time limit was drawing to a close. Ten kicks, 10 goals. The impenetrability of the goalkeepers was only matched by the ferocity of the kickers. It was Primerose's turn to shoot, and the Hungarian goalie was winding himself up like a frog about to leap. This was par for the course. It was often, during this final exchange, that all of the game's energy would become focused on two men, then inevitably one of the two would crack up. As soon as the Guadeloupean kicker's foot had touched the ball which had crossed over to him, the Hungarian read his maneuver in the bat of an eye, threw himself to the right and blocked the kick against his chest in a protective gesture. The Hungarian galleys howled with enthusiasm. The match was as good as won. The last player was Szabo, who had never in his life missed a penalty kick: Letting him get close to the goal line during the course of the game was in and of itself considered to be a fatal error.

He took his time and fiddled with the ball's exact position just to provoke the French goalie. Fair enough. He seemed to look up at the sky (would it start to rain between his kick and the parry?), he looked around at the stadium (where exactly were his fans, and were they putting enough juice into it?) and then abruptly he kicked the ball, implementing his legendary one-two, which made the ball travel the opposite diagonal to the one expected by his adversary and so fast that in a split second its path was rewritten, and while Barthez in his anticipation had plunged to the right corner of the box, at that very same instant the ball sped like a missile into the left corner. The counter was clear and unstoppable, at which point both the flabbergasted public, and Loewen on his television, watched as the French goalie pulled off a sort of pirouette in the void, a wrap motion which defied all the laws of physics and of gravity and which brought him back to the left corner just in time to catch the projectile, centimeters before it crossed the goal line.

Strangely, the public did not greet this with the clamor of joy with which it had greeted the Magyar's performance. Their stupefaction outweighed the triumph, and what echoed on the stands resembled a giant hiccup. At the same time the referees, both teams' captains and both teams' trainers gathered together midfield, with anxious gazes and contrite expressions. The rules, which up till then had never had to be applied, stated that in a case this extreme, the outcome would have to be determined by a coin toss. They could foresee the public's hostility. There are those moments in a game that are always to be greeted by jeering, whistles and boos from the crowd, as when a fullback passes the ball to his own goalie, or at bullfights when the picadors enter. It would be a lot worse when the fans realized that their teams' fate was to be decided by the toss of a coin. And in fact, as the stadium, row by row, deciphered the scene that was being played out, the din of whistles and boos rose wave after sonorous wave like the prelude to the "Rhinegold." Might as well get it over with as quickly as possible, and with that, the referee tossed the coin. Which did not drop.

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