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Arthur Daane was several steps away from Schoeler's Bookstore before he realized that a word had stuck in his head and that he had already translated it into his own language. His brain had registered the German word for historyGeschichtebut quickly turned it into the Dutch geschiedenis. Somehow it sounded less ominous in Dutch. He wondered if that was because of the last three letters, the suffix nis, which also meant "niche." A strange word. Short. Not mean and curt, as short words could be, but comforting. After all, a niche was a place to hide in, a place to find hidden things. Other languages didn't have that. He began to walk faster, hoping to rid himself of the word that way, but his little ploy didn't work, not here, not in this city, for every inch of Berlin was steeped in history. This word was going to be hard to forget. Lately all kinds of words had been getting stuck in his head. "Stuck" was definitely the right word: once they were in there, they stayed put. He could also hear themthere seemed to be a voice attached to the words, even when he hadn't said them aloud. Sometimes they even seemed to echo. The moment you plucked them out of the chain of sentences they belonged to, they would turn, if you were sensitive to that kind of thing, into something so strange, so terrifying that it would be better not to dwell on it too long, otherwise the world would slide out from under you. Too much free time, he thought. Yet he had arranged his life to achieve just that. He remembered reading about "the Javanese" in an old schoolbook: the story of a Javaneseman who, once he had earned the equivalent of a quarter, would go and sit under a palm tree. In those long-gone colonial days, you could apparently live for quite a while on that amount, because the man didn't go back to work until he had spent every last penny. A disgraceful custom, according to the book, because you got ahead only by dint of hard work. Arthur Daane had seen the light. He made and produced his own TV documentaries, hired himself out as a cameraman if the subject seemed interesting enough, and every once in a while, if he needed the money or the mood struck, he would make a commercial for a company owned by a friend of his. It was exciting as long as you didn't do it too often, and at the end of a project he would take time off and loaf around for a while. He used to have a wife, and a child, but they'd died in a plane crash. All he had left now were photographs whose images seemed more remote every time he looked at them. Ten long years. One morning they simply took off for Málaga and never came back. A scene he had filmed, but never seen. The blonde woman with the child, a little boy, on her back. Schiphol Airport, the passport line. Actually, the boy is too big to be carried on her back. He calls her name, she turns. Freeze, memory. There they stand, at a ninety-degree angle, for one whole second. She raises her hand, the boy waves, a few short waves. Someone else will film the arrival, which will vanish, along with the bungalow, the swimming pool, and the sea, into the hard, lumpy, blackened mass that swallowed up their lives. He walks over to the line and hands her the small movie camera. One last glimpse, then they disappear. He has closed himself off from the puzzle posed by the pictures. It's too big, he can't take it in. Some dreams are like thatwanting to scream and not being able to, hearing a sound you know you didn't make, the sound of glass. He sold the house, gave away the clothes and toys, as if all their belongings were contaminated. Since then he's been a traveler without a suitcasea laptop, a portable camera, a cell phone, a world-band travel radio, a couple of books. An answering machine in his apartment in Amsterdam, a fax in a friend's officea man with machines. Free but tied down, invisible wires connecting him to the world. Voices, messages. Friends, mostly colleagues, who lead the same lives. They use his apartment, he uses theirs. Or else cheap hotels and boardinghouses, a floating universe. New York, Madrid, Berlin. Each of them, it occurs to him now, a niche. He still hasn't shaken off that word. Not the short suffix, and certainly not the long noun to which it does and doesn't belong.
"What is it about Germany that you find so attractive?" his Dutch friends ask him from time to time. They make it sound as if he'd caught a terrible disease.
He'd managed to come up with a trite answer that usually served his purpose. "I like it there. Germans are so serious."
"So they are," they'd say, or something else along those lines. Imagine having to explain the social codes of the Dutch. How could a foreigner, even one who's learned the language, ever understand that a quasi-confirmation of that kind was actually an expression of cynical disbelief?
In the time it took for all these words to go through his head, he had arrived at the liquor store on the corner of Knesebeckstrasse and Mommsenstrasse, the point at which he usually wondered whether he should go on walking or turn back. He stopped, looked at the gleaming cars in the showroom across the street, watched the traffic on the Kurfürstendamm, then caught sight of himself in the mirror of a champagne ad in the liquor-store window. The disgusting servility of mirrorsthey go on reflecting your image even when you don't want them to. He had already seen himself once today. Except that this time he was wearing his clothes, his armor. That was different. He had a fairly good idea of who he was and wondered how much of his real self was visible to others. "All and nothing," Erna had said. What was he going to do with Erna, now that she had popped up on the corner of Mommsenstrasse?
"Are you being serious?"
"You bet your boots I am." Only Erna could say a thing like that. So now he had not only Erna, but also her boots to deal with. It had started to snow. In the mirror he could see the powdery flakes clinging to his coat. Good, he thought, now I don't look quite so much like an ad.
"Don't be silly." That, too, was something only Erna would say. They had discussed the subject often enough.
"If you think you look like you've just stepped out of an ad, buy yourself different clothes. Not Armani."
"This isn't Armani."
"Well, it looks like Armani."
"My point exactly. I don't even know what brand it is. I bought it on sale somewhere. Dirt cheap."
"Clothes look good on you."
"Right, that's what I'm saying. I look like an ad."
"You hate yourself, that's all. It happens to a lot of men when they reach middle age."
"No, that's not it. I just don't think I look like the real me."
"You mean you have all kinds of thoughts you don't talk about, and we can't see that?"
"In that case you ought to get a different haircut. That's not a hairstyle; it's a disguise."
Erna was his oldest friend. He had met his wife through her, and she was the only person he ever talked to about Roelfje. Other men had male friends. He had them too, but Erna was his best friend.
"I don't know if I should take that as a compliment."
Sometimes he phoned her, in the middle of the night, from some godforsaken place on the other side of the globe. She was always home. Men came and went in her life, moved in with her, were jealous of him. "That Daanewhat a phony. A couple of crummy documentaries, and he walks down the street as if he's Claude Lanzmann." That usually put an end to the relationship. At least she'd got something out of all those men: three children, all of whom looked like her.
"That's what happens when you mate with such nondescript men. An entire gene pool out there, and you pick the losers. You'd have been better off with me."
"Ah, but you're my forbidden fruit."
"The price we pay for the love known as friendship."
He turned around, which meant no to Kurfürstendamm, yes to Savignyplatz. It also meant passing Schoeler's again. Nis was such a handy suffix in Dutch. It cropped up in all kinds of words: bekommernis, gebeurtenis, belijdenis, besnijdenissolicitude, event, creed, circumcision. The snow had started coming down faster. That's what happened when you worked with cameras, he thoughtyou were constantly looking at yourself when you walked. Not so much out of vanity as amazement. Amazement mixed with, well ... that too had been discussed with Erna.
"Why don't you just go ahead and say it?"
"Because I don't know what to call it."
"Nonsense. You know perfectly well what to call it. I can think of the word, so you must be able to as well. You just don't want to say it."
"Okay, so what's the word?"
He preferred awe.
In one long sweep the camera registered Berlin's snow-covered Knesebeckstrasse, the majestic houses, the handful of pedestrians with their shoulders hunched against the snow. And he was one of them. That's what it was all aboutthe pure coincidence of that particular moment. The lone figure heading down the street, past Schoeler's Bookstore, past the photo gallery, that's you. Why did such moments always seem so ordinary, and yet sometimes, suddenly, for one amazing second, so unbearable? Weren't you supposed to take them for granted? Unless, of course, you were a lifelong adolescent.
"That doesn't have anything to do with it. Some people never stop to think. But that feeling of wonderment and awe is the source of everything."
"Art, religion, philosophy. I do pick up the occasional book, you know."
Erna had been a philosophy major for a few years, before switching to literature.
At the corner of Savignyplatz he was almost blown off his feet by a sudden snow flurry. This was getting serious. A continental climate. Another reason he liked Berlin. It always made him feel that he was in the middle of a vast plain stretching deep into the heart of Russia. Berlin, Warsaw, Moscowmere stops along the way.
He wasn't wearing gloves, and his fingers were feeling frozen. During that same conversation, he'd delivered a lecture on fingers as well.
"Lookwhat are these?"
"They're fingers, Arthur."
"Yes, but they're also pincers. Watch this."
He picked up a pencil, twirled it around a couple of times.
"Clever, huh? People are amazed by robots, but never by themselves. They see a robot do this and it freaks them out, but they do it themselves all the time without giving it a second thought. Robots made of flesh and bloodnow that ought to freak you out. What a great expression! Anyway, robots can do anything, even reproduce themselves. And those eyes! Cameras and screens all rolled into one. The same instrument used to record and display. I don't know how to phrase iteither we have computers or we are computers. Electronic commands, chemical reactions, you name it."
"Computers don't have chemical reactions."
"Not yet. Do you know what the really strange part is?"
"That the people living back in the Middle Ages, people who knew nothing about electronics or neurologyno, farther back than that, the Neanderthals, the ones we think of as primitivethose people were the same advanced machines that we are. Even though they had no way of knowing that when they said something they were using their very own audio system, complete with sound boxes, speakers ..."
"Oh, Arthur, cut it out."
"I told you, an adolescent. With the same sense of awe."
"But that isn't the kind you meant."
What I meant, he wanted to say, was a lightning flash of fear, a righteous trembling at the overpowering strangeness of things that presumably never struck other people as strange, things that at his age were supposed to seem normal.
He walked past the bistro owned by his friend Philippe, who didn't even know that he was back in Berlin. He never let anyone know, he just came waltzing in.
At the corner of Kantstrasse the light was red. He looked to the left, to the right, didn't see any cars, and was tempted to cross, but stayed where he was, feeling his body process contradictory commands: an odd kind of neural wave going to the wrong leg, so that one foot stayed on the curb while the other stepped off it. Through the snow he watched the silent group of people waiting on the other side of the crosswalk. At moments like these the difference between the Dutch and the Germans was plainly manifest. As a pedestrian in Amsterdam, you were an idiot if you didn't cross on red, and here you were one if you did, something the Germans didn't hesitate to point out: "Tsk, tsk, there goes another suicidal maniac."
He had asked Victor, a Dutch sculptor now living in Berlin, what he did when there were no cars in sight.
"I cross the street, except when there are children around. Got to set a good example, and all that."
As for himself, he had decided to make use of those odd, empty moments by doing what he called "instant meditation." In Amsterdam no self-respecting bicyclist had headlights, stopped on red, or went the right way down a one-way street. Dutch people always wanted to decide for themselves whether or not a rule applied to thema mixture of Protestantism and anarchy that produced a stubborn kind of chaos. On his last visit he had noticed that cars, and sometimes even trams, had also started ignoring red lights.
"You've turned into a real German. Rules are rules. There's got to be Ordnung. The next time you ride the U-Bahn, listen to how they bark out commands: Einsteigen bitte! ZURÜCKBLEIBEN!! Well, we all know where obeying orders got them."
"The Dutch don't like being told what to do." "Germans like discipline." There seemed to be no end to the parade of prejudices.
"In Amsterdam the traffic is downright dangerous."
"Oh, honestly. It's nothing compared to how fast the Germans drive on the autobahn. Now that's aggression, one giant fit of rage."
The light turned green. The six snowy figures on the other side of the street simultaneously set themselves in motion. Okay, you shouldn't generalize, but there is such a thing as a national character. How had it come about?
"From history," Erna had said.
What he found so fascinating about the idea of history was that it was based on a chemical compound of fate, chance, and design. The combination of these three elements produced a chain of events that produced another chain of events, which were said to be inevitable, or random, or to happen according to a secret plan that was not yet known to us, though by now things were getting pretty esoteric.
For a moment he considered going into the Tintenmaus to read the paper. At least it would be warm inside. He didn't know a single one of the customers, yet every face was familiar. They were people like him, people with time on their hands. Except that they didn't look like ads. There was a plate-glass window across the entire front of the Tintenmaus, with only a few rows of tables between it and the bar. No one ever sat at that bar in the way people usually dothe attraction of the outside world was too great. What you saw from the sidewalk was a row of staring figures, engrossed in one long, slow thought, a silent contemplation so heavy that it could be borne only by the incredibly slow sipping of enormous glasses of beer.
His face felt frozen, but this was one of those days when he welcomed the sensation: a mixture of self-imposed punishment and pleasure, such as one got from walking on the island of Schiermonnikoog in pouring rain or hiking to a deserted village in the Pyrenees in blistering heat. Sometimes joggers had a similar expression of exhaustion on their facesan almost indecent form of public suffering, like Christs sprinting toward Golgotha. Jogging didn't suit him; it disturbed the rhythm of his thinking, or what he liked to call his thinking. It wasn't really, but back when he was fifteen or sixteen he had decided that it was the best way to describe the process going on in his head. In order for it to work, he needed to withdraw into himself. Ridiculous, of course, but it had become a habit.
Excerpted from All Souls Day by Cees Nooteboom. Copyright © 1998 by Cees Nooteboom. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.