Read an Excerpt AND OTHER STORIES
By GEORGI GOSPODINOV
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2001
All right reserved.
Chapter One PEONIES AND FORGET-ME-NOTS
THEY HAD MET ONLY A FEW HOURS BEFORE. HE WAS IN HIS VERY early thirties, she was in her late twenties. He had to give her a package to deliver to a friend of his across the ocean. She was only a go-between. It was a five-minute job, but two of the three hours left until her flight had passed, and they still couldn't find any good reason to part. Now, sixty minutes to flight time, they were standing in the corner of the café in the departure lounge, having their third coffee without saying a word. They had exhausted all the subjects that could keep a conversation going between two people who don't know each other. And the silence was becoming unseemly. The small table in front of them was piled with empty plastic cups that had acquired most unexpected shapes after being fumbled at for hours. The coffee stirrers had long been broken into the smallest possible pieces, the empty sugar bags turned into tiny cornets and little boats.
It occurred to him that he could turn this table into a ready-made object, an installation, so to speak, that he could title An Apologia for Embarrassment (plastic coffee cups, stirrers, empty sugar bags, a white table). Then he found it stupid, so he decided to keep silent. "What one leaves unsaid turns into broken stirrers and smashed cups," she said all of a sudden. He thought that he would never meet another woman like this one, who would be capable of reading his thoughts, with whom he would want to spend the rest of his life in this café. He was startled to have used a phrase like "the rest of his life," even silently. "Let's talk," she said, as if they hadn't been talking nonstop for two hours.
The remaining hour was too little time to be wasted in beating around the bush and making boats. But since he wouldn't start talking, she said simply, "We have to accept it that sometimes people just walk past each other."
"The whole irony of it is that they realize it the moment they meet," he said.
"Maybe we've met before. We've lived in the same city for so long. It's not possible that we haven't passed each other at some traffic light or other."
"I'd have noticed you," he said.
"Do you love her?" she asked.
"Do you love him?" he asked.
They quickly admitted that it made no difference and that it wasn't anybody's fault.
Later he couldn't even remember who was the one who had come up with the life-saving (or so he thought then) idea of inventing shared memories, to make up a whole life together before and after their meeting. A pathetic attempt to take revenge on merciless chance that had brought them together, only to separate them. They had fifty minutes at their disposal.
"Do you remember," he started, "our school days, when we were living on the same street? Every week I would secretly drop a tinfoil ring made of caramel candy wrapper into your mailbox."
"Oh," she said, "so you were the one with the rings. My father was always the first to find them and suspected that some crazy admirer from the neighborhood was sending wedding rings to my mother. It now turns out that they were for me."
"Yes, they were for you," he said.
"Do you remember," she started, "our last year at the university, when we went off, just the two of us, to that monastery? It was the first time we traveled alone together. There weren't any rooms available at the hotel, so they put us up in one of the monks' cells for the night. It was very cold, and the bed was so hard. I was a little scared. I crossed myself secretly each time we did it. I crossed myself five times that night." "Six," he said. "I was scared, too. Do you remember what happened later, how you came to live with me? Your mother said that she would disown you through the Official Gazette, because she didn't want illegitimate grandchildren."
"I remember," she said. "Anyway, I couldn't have children."
At that point she fell silent. He took her hand for the first time since they had met. Very gently, comfortingly.
"It's OK," he said. "And I broke my leg once, remember? I was already forty-eight, working like crazy, and that month I spent at home seemed to me like real paradise. You took time off as well; you even said you'd break your arm if they didn't let you do it. And we never poked our noses out of the apartment."
"And the next year, when they found that I had that tumor ... You had read somewhere that laughter could be used as therapy against cancer, and for the next two weeks, you told me jokes nonstop so that I'd laugh. I still don't know how you collected them all. You were so frightened and nice. I think that was when your hair turned white. And every day you would bring me peonies and forget-me-nots."
"Thank God you're better now. What would I do without you?"
At that moment a voice invited all the passengers flying to New York to advance to the departure terminal. The silence lasted no more than a minute. Then she stood up and said that she had to go. He took her suitcase and they both left the café. Before going through passport control, she turned and gave him a very long kiss. As if for the last time, he thought, although there had never been a time before.
Half an hour later he turned and walked out. He felt terribly old, he had trouble moving his legs. He deliberately closed his eyes as he walked through the mirrored-glass door so as not to see his hair suddenly turned white and those stooped shoulders of an old man. With every step he realized more and more clearly that he could never go back home to his unattainable young wife. And he could never tell her what he had been doing these last fifty years, while he was away.
A SECOND STORY
"I must tell you this," Cornel Esti began. "The last time I was sitting around with a bunch of friends, someone said that he wouldn't travel to a country whose language he didn't speak ... I have seldom had such an experience, because, as you know, I speak ten languages ... in fact, it happened only once, when on my way to Turkey I crossed Bulgaria." Kosztolányi Dezsö, Cornel Esti
ALL NIGHT TRAIN PASSENGERS CROSSING BORDERS IN THE BALKANS are very much alike. A discerning anthropologist might try to find some differences, but he wouldn't get much beyond differing degrees of volubility, some paraphrased curses with common roots, a variety of cheap brands of cigarettes smoked mainly in the compartments, and that's about all. A striking resemblance to other Balkan nations doesn't provoke that skeptical pan-Balkan contentment anymore. Since 1989 that nice Balkan-Slavic family gathered at the Black Sea, say, in the idyllic configuration of a Bulgarian husband, a Czech wife, and Hungarian kids, has broken irreversibly apart into its component nationalities. Like people who have done a number of illicit things the night before, in a situation of accidental intimacy, and who cautiously avoid each other the next day, unable to remember a thing.
I have grown accustomed to the thought that every time I travel by train, I will inevitably come across some talkative old women or men who remember in detail the last fifty or sixty years of their lives, ladies complaining of their malicious daughters-in-law and other such characters. Beautiful women always seat themselves in the compartment next door.
This time, walking into the compartment and seeing the brunette sitting by the window, my first impulse was to check my ticket, thinking that I had obviously made a mistake. I hadn't.
"Balkan Express, right?" I asked, still not daring to sit down.
The girl nodded benevolently, or so I thought, and smiled. There was no mistake. After a while the train took off. We were alone in the compartment, the car half-empty. I took out a pack of cigarettes and offered her one; she thanked me but took a pack of her own out of her purse. I then offered her a light and she accepted it. I knew that I was supposed to say something in order to start a conversation, but, of course, every opening phrase seemed banal and doomed to failure. I usually travel immersed in a book in order to avoid conversation. My first sentence came as a surprise even to me.
"My grandfather traveled this line for forty-eight years. He was a conductor"-I interpreted her glance as reassurance and decided to continue: "He was very proud of one of his stories. He used to tell it twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. It was like a ritual. He had a locker that was his own and nobody else's where he kept an old conductor's bag. We all knew what he would take out of it-a yellowed number of The Railwayman's Voice of 1939. So, he opens it, then passes it on to me, and I start reading. I read one story from beginning to end. I remember it filling the next to last page. The story had been written by some Hungarian-in fact, it might not have been a story but a chapter of a novel, not that it mattered. The author recounted how he once had conversed for several hours with a Bulgarian conductor without speaking a word of Bulgarian. The conductor didn't even notice, and the Hungarian was very proud of his wit in having created such a situation, and he really enjoyed those hours of conversation with the Bulgarian who had unloosened his tongue.
"We all knew that this conductor was my grandfather. I even knew at which point in the story-where he is described as a 'plump Bulgarian with a black mustache'-he would mutter that here the Hungarian had added a bit of himself to it. When I would finish reading, all of us would fall silent while my grandfather lit a cigarette and, after his third puff of smoke, begin to tell his story. He used to talk slowly, like a self-confident, good storyteller, and we always listened to him reverentially. I enjoyed noticing the difference each time he told the story, the new details that appeared with each new telling."
At that moment the conductor walked into the compartment and interrupted the story for a while. After he disappeared, I asked the woman whether I was boring her. She only shook her head and cast an inviting glance at me, as if asking me to continue.
"So, my grandfather would smile mysteriously and start telling his version of the story about his conversation with the Hungarian. One night he was walking down the corridor of the train to Istanbul, it was past midnight, the passengers gently snoring in their seats. In the first-class car, there was a solitary gentleman smoking a cigarette, a well-dressed gentleman, short, plump, with a red beard, my grandfather would point out, as if taking revenge for the 'plump Bulgarian with a black mustache.' 'I had already checked his ticket and was about to pass on,' he would continue, 'but the gentleman obviously wanted to talk to someone, since he made me stop by offering me a cigarette. He did it in Bulgarian, yes, but there was something in his voice that didn't sound quite Bulgarian. It's true that the cigarettes were good, 'gold tipped,' the kind one couldn't find around our parts. He looked nice, kind of gentle, he kept smiling at me-in other words, he didn't feel like sitting alone. I didn't either, but since I speak only Bulgarian and a little Romanian, what could we talk about? Never mind, I asked him questions in Bulgarian-who knows, maybe he spoke a bit of it, there are all sorts of different folk. Where was he coming from, did he understand our language? I thanked him for the cigarette, too. He just nodded his head and patted me on the shoulder in a friendly manner. So, I had him figured out all right-he understood nothing of our language, but he wouldn't let it show for some reason. Do as you please, mister, I thought, maybe you're afraid of losing my company.
"And so I decided-'I decided on my own,' my grandfather would insist, 'to take the bait. And I started talking about everything that I had pent up inside me. I could tell this man anything, because he didn't understand a single word. I told him about my army days, about my service for the railway, about the strange characters I've seen around here. He listened so carefully, that gentleman. We Bulgarians are good at interrupting and saying, O-oh, that's nothing, you know, a most amazing thing happened to me once ... We never let ourselves run short of words. But that gentleman just kept staring at me, not missing a single word. At times he would smile, at other times he would nod, or he would mutter "Da, da" once in a while. He didn't always pick the right moment, but I didn't mind. I pretended to take him for a Bulgarian, and he enjoyed it. I, too, enjoyed it. I could tell him anything. There are so few people to whom one can tell anything. And that man, you could practically swear at him, or you could just complain-he would always be glad to accept it. It turns out that people understand each other best when they don't speak the same language. He was pleased, and I was pleased; it was clear that we were both fooling each other and really enjoying it.'
"It seems that my grandfather felt too much at ease talking to him, since he came to show him the two metal buttons (that's what the Hungarian mentioned in his story, too). He always had them on him, his most cherished memorabilia. They were the only thing left from his father, who had gotten killed in the Balkan wars somewhere around here. My grandfather had almost no remembrance of his father, and these two overcoat buttons were really precious to him. He never parted from them. So, he showed them to the foreigner, who started playing with them and laughing. To him, they were just two buttons. At that point my grandfather couldn't stand it anymore and he burst out crying like a child (so the Hungarian says), and, according to my grandfather's version, he just looked daggers at him and immediately took back his buttons. 'It almost came to a fight,' he would tell us, 'because I had gotten so carried away that I forgot that the gentleman understood nothing. I walked straight into the trap that I myself had set. Then I felt bad for being rude to him and I apologized, but I wasn't sure anymore that he understood. It was as if we had had no languages a minute before, as if we had left them behind and understood each other perfectly well, and now each of us had placed his own language as a fence in front of him, so that nothing could make it through. We said good-bye to each other properly enough, but I still feel bad about it somehow.'
"That was the story that my grandfather used to tell only on holidays, twice a year, at Christmas and at Easter. He acknowledged no other holidays. As for that man, he indeed turned out to be a foreigner, and not only a foreigner but a Hungarian, as my grandfather would put it. To him, the Hungarians, because of their language, were the most foreign foreigners. Moreover, he turned out to be a writer.
"After that my grandfather traveled another thirty years or so with the trains, but never chanced to meet that gentleman again. Nor had he the chance to have such a nice talk with anyone else after that, or so he claimed. And at the end of the story, before saying cheers, he would always wind up his speech with the same sentence that all of us at the table could recite in chorus: 'See, language is a strange thing-that man thought that he was stringing me along just because he didn't want to be alone, and I thought I was stringing him along because I didn't want to be alone either, and it turned out that language had fooled us both. However, I have never been as happy as I was then.'
"That's what my grandfather, the former conductor, would say in the end, and then he would drink a toast."
The woman in front of me kept staring in expectation, as if she didn't want the story to end. I took her look as a compliment. I was never able to tell a single anecdote decently, and it seemed that this time I had succeeded. Still, the pause appeared to be awkwardly long, so we lit cigarettes, and then she suddenly held out a hand and said: "Je m'appelle Catherine. Je ne parle pas votre langue, mais c'était une excellente histoire."
Excerpted from AND OTHER STORIES by GEORGI GOSPODINOV
Copyright © 2001 by Georgi Gospodinov. Excerpted by permission.
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