Côme Martin-Karl is a writer. After his first novel, Les Occupations (Jean-Claude Lattès, 2013), he came out with Styles in 2017, the story of a sociology student obsessed with Harry Styles, singer in the boy band One Direction. Three years later, he returned with La Réaction (Gallimard, 2020), a hilarious satire of religious and political extremism. Inspired by the theme of gambling, the writer offered Exhibition Magazine a fiction about a narrator feverishly obsessed with virtual casinos
People don’t make enough of this, I don’t think – I know Pascal Quignard talks about it some where, at least I think so – but you have tore member that when Jesus died, when he was crucified, the one who was meant to be our Lord or even God himself (I think we can allow for this theological telescoping), the last things Jesus saw, then, were cards and dice.Yes: at his feet the Roman soldiers were playing card and dice games because they were really bored and they had to while away the time while the man condemned to death died.Why am I telling you this ? Because I want to show the extent to which gambling is central to western culture and the extent to which it is linked to death. I can speak about this myself in a methodical way. Because I’ve killed for gambling. Not because I had debts – no, I’m not that kind of person, not a latter-day Mirabeau shut up by his father in the Château de Joux because of his dissolute life and creditors. I’ve killed for love of gambling, erotic love of gambling. There have been few erotic events in my life, I mean of the kind you remember for a life time. I can safely say that mine came about through betting fever. I hardly ever go to casinos. They’ve got that metallic smell, from the chrome of the tokens for the slot machines that people carry around in big cups like popcorn buckets. The dinga-ling of the jackpot provides the soundtrack and the whole place flashes like a fairground. The spaces dedicated to the table games are supposed to be more chic and are often set apart a bit; they have been designed to create a lounge ambiance, often with the help of a violet and magenta colour scheme, dimmed lights and bad art deco detailing, all of which give me the impression of being in a restaurant that has been done up for a reality TV show. I’ve lost there at blackjack, I’ve won at roulette, but I’ve never fallen in love. On the live casino websites, on the other hand, I have known erotic thrills. There are dozens of these Internet portals, whose graphic design is generally inspired by cartoons and luxury cruises. Here you can access rooms, which are in reality live streams, in which croupiers, facing the camera, boxed in tight spaces that look like cubicles in a Japanese office, but decorated to look like a Las Vegas casino, throw balls and deal cards. They stare blankly; there’s no interaction with the players who are logging on from around the world. At regular intervals they reel off numbers or the winning combinations, with neither passion nor desire. There is something slave-like, even prostitutional about all this: their expressionless faces, mechanical smile, sexy outfits. The world of the casinois perhaps the place where the semiotic disconnect between the myth in which champagne and elegance commingle and the reality of plastic chairs and cheap cocktails is at its most violent.
I fell in love with croupiers, male and female, a unilateral and unhealthy love, probably based on a sexual perversion. Well, I don’t know, I’m saying that, I’m not a therapist, but look, it seems obvious to me : taking sexual pleasure from confinement, from domination, from boredom – none of that falls into the category of what a psychoanalyst would consider acceptable. I’d log in at night, seeking out my favourite croupiers, a young woman with a slight speech impediment and a dark-haired man with an angelic face and a brutal voice. Both turned me on, and I’d say to myself that perhaps in their break room, if there was such a room some where in the wings of this Babylonian setting, they would make love. I mainly played roulette. I used the chat function to try and communicate with them, but they just kept staring into space, their minds numbed by the absurdity of their work and the absence of natural light. Obviously I got to know their working hours and habits. The girl would regularly say that the number that came up was her favourite, but it was never the same – 27, 10, 4 – I imagine that inventing that helped her bear it all, perhaps it was an attempt at subterfuge, or perhaps she just wanted to bring an element of the contingent into a life full of repetition. That’s it, yeah, that’s it, I wanted to bring in an element of the contingent, and the contingent is sexual, Eros-and-Thanatos, yadda yadda– I had homicidal tendencies, sexual ones. I fantasized about murders that would be liberating, first and foremost, for them. I started to think that killing them during a live stream would be a way of saving them from monotony. For weeks I plotted. I devised a dozen different scenarios, I visualized my actions, I prepared myself, resigned myself, dreamt about it. When I logged on, I gazed upon my two favourites and I spoke to them from in front of my screen. I told them whatI was going to do to them; that I was going to make their blood spurt all over the green baize, allover the red, on the roulette wheel there would be only red and black, the red of the blood and the black of nothingness. I bought a ticket for Malta – one way. In my mind there was no afterwards, and therefore no return.
Malta is a curious island, the colour of sand, where it is hot and no building seems finished, whether it was built 300 hundred years ago or last week. In an out the way neighbourhood Ifound the headquarters of the online gambling company, which was called Gaming Blast, or something like that. I went in. I went up to the reception and said that I wanted to see my favourite croupiers, that I know they’re here now, officiating in one of the mini studios upstairs. Well, I’ve written ‘reception’, but it was more just a security guard at a desk – it’s not as if Gaming Blast had an atrium with coffee and biscuits and receptionists asking you to take a seat over there on the sofa. The security guy didn’t really understand English, nor me Maltese: I have no culture, I expected them to speak Spanish. I forced an entry, which is to say I went in anyway. After around a minute someone takes me by the arm, hurls abuse at me, and I get angry. I takeout my knife, a tiny little pocket knife, and I aim for the neck. The guy from reception doesn’t collapse instantly, it’s as if his brain has to process what has happened in order to give the body the necessary instructions, to tell it to lose consciousness. Then I start wandering around randomly. I go into the studios – some of them are empty, others are occupied by croupiers who are hosting a baccarat game, I think about the fact that at that moment I’m on a live stream to the whole world, that my face is seen by gamers across the whole world, some of whom are in the process of losing their home. Maybe this kind of situation is more or less foreseen, or at any rate the fact that someone could come here to kill a croupier, or, more likely, try to claim back their money; in any case a professional security guard is always there on site, and I was tasered after around five minutes by two heavies who stunk of aftershave. It’s a very strange feeling, a sharp pain, but at the same time a kind of well-being. As you know, I didn’t manage to bring my project to fruition. However, I tell myself now that my gesture wasn’t in vain, that the breath of freedom I brought to Malta for a few moments rattled the cages of those croupiers locked up like birds.
Emma & Sara Bielecki
Emma & Sara Bielecki