Based on the short story by Donald Barthelme — originally published in the New Yorker Magazine in 1978 — filmmaker Kasra Farahani tells the story of an anonymous bodyguard, tasked to protect the dictator of an unknown country.
Read by literary giant Salman Rushdie, the omniscient narrator explores the nuances of power and conspiracy, and the relationship between the bodyguard and the principle, showing what can happen when a bodyguard unintentionally — or intentionally — relaxes his guard.
Barthelme masterfully wrote the story indirectly — almost entirely in the form of questions, asked in the third person. Sometimes, the questions are asked from the point of view of the bodyguard, as if he’s asking it himself– other times from a narrative distance, completely removed from the events to come.
The strings of questions begin with the mundane — a burnt yellow Yves St. Laurent shirt and dull gray Citroen — and delve into his daily routine of alertness and caution.
Each question increases the escalates the events, with an occasional sentences serving as the meat of the story and a pause in the tension. For example:
“In every part of the country, in large cities and small towns, bottles of champagne have been iced, put away, reserved for a celebration, reserved for a special day. Is the bodyguard aware of this?”
The bodyguard is protecting a dictator, but all around, citizens are preparing for a large celebration, foreshadowing the coming events. The questions reveal nothing about his fears or anxieties. All we know is that the special day won’t go well for him.
As the story unfolds, we get a glimpse into the bodyguard’s thoughts:
“Seated in a restaurant with his principal, the bodyguard is served, involuntarily, turtle soup. Does he recoil, as the other eats? Why is this near-skeleton, his principal, of such importance to the world that he deserves six body-guards, two to a shift with the shifts changing every eight hours, six bodyguards of the first competence plus supplementals on occasion, two armored cars, stun grenades ready to hand under the front seat? What has he meant to the world? What are his plans?”
Why doesn’t he like turtle soup? Perhaps a sign of the gap in their social class, causing the bodyguard to question the value of the dictator’s worth.
The story comes to a head with in the car.
“In the Mercedes, the bodyguard and his colleague stare at the hundreds, men and women, young and old, who move around the Mercedes, stopped for a light, as if it were a rock in a river. In the rear seat, the patron is speaking into a telephone. He looks up, puts down the telephone. The people pressing around the car cannot be counted, there are too many of them; they cannot be known, there are too many of them; they cannot be predicted, they have volition. Then, an opening. The car accelerates.
Is it the case that, on a certain morning, the garbage cans of the entire city, the garbage cans of the entire country, are overflowing with empty champagne bottles? Which bodyguard is at fault?”
We learn the dictator is dead, and the country has had its night of celebration. Our bodyguard failed to prevent the assassination. But who’s at fault — the bodyguard or the dictator?