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A virtuosic juxtaposition of different time periods and clashing viewpoints, the tale begins with its female narrator's declaration that, having just buried her father, "I am lying in bed with his son." She is Kata Roszsavölgyi, the daughter of a celebrated Hungarian composer who had survived the war in Holland, hidden in the home of Ida Flinck, the Dutchwoman who became both his lover and the mistress of a Nazi officer. De Loo's flexible narrative reaches backward not only to Kata's girlhood in Budapest, but also to her forebears' experiences, as recounted by her uncle Miksa: chiefly, (his brother) her father's "escape" from Hungary to study music, and thus evade the fate their parents and sister met; more generally, the story of a proud culture's swift annihilation by Hitler's armies. And, as in The Twins, de Loo offers a stunning coincidence, as Kata falls in love with Stefan, a suave womanizing student-until she meets his mother: Ida Flinck. Is Stefan the son of the German officer? Or, as Kata knows in her bones, of her reclusive, emotionless (and presumably guilt-ridden) father? Ironies multiply and unanswerable questions press down with the weight of years and generations, as these characters' several stories intersect and collide, and the tale moves swiftly toward its wrenching climax, with Kata and Stefan burying "their" father, their love, and perhaps all hope of ever knowing what they are to each other-and even who they are.
A consummate dramatization of the impenetrable mysteriousness of other people's lives: convincing proof that de Loo is one of Europe's most accomplished novelists.
Today I buried my father in Pest. When no one was looking I took some gravel from a nearby grave and dropped the little pebbles on the fresh earth. I stood there long enough to watch a yellow leaf flutter down from a chestnut tree and come to rest at the foot of the coffin. At the foot. Today, no yesterday, I buried my father. Now, in the Astoria Hotel at Kossuth Lajos utca number 19-21, I am lying in bed with his son. Does the fulfilment of a thirty-year-old wish qualify as happiness? Or can it ever be too late for happiness? The impossibility of our union has finally brought us together.
In the vague glimmer of the night my gaze slides over the furniture in reproduction Empire style, up the rumpled duvet, to the face of the man lying asleep beside me. He told me he has always loved me. I replied that I did not dare speak of love, but that my life has been incomplete without him, as if I had missed my destiny. Every experience I have had has been edged with incompleteness.
He will wake up in a while. He will get up, throw on his clothes, kiss me hurriedly and leave. Maybe having your wishes granted is the worst thing that can happen to you.
We needn't have met at all. Amid all those thousands of fleeting encounters leading nowhere and vanishing without trace like evaporatedcondensation, this meeting was the exception. Did I know it right away? No, I did not. Yes, I did.
If I hadn't met him, there might have been more fulfilment in my life. More contentment, maybe, the kind of ordinary, comfortable contentment that I observe in other people. An absence of unhappiness. That may not sound like much, but still it gives people a sense of self-sufficiency. I often think of what would have happened if I had never met him. At times the idea of having my own separate self, untouched by him, is very appealing, and now and then I catch a glimpse of my un-lived, cheerful existence, like a negative of a never-developed photograph.
The law of cause and effect frightens me. A small cause and enormous effects. My grandmother sitting on a stone kitchen step in Buda, hearing a cello for the first time in her life.
Sometimes I feel very tired. Perhaps it's simply too much to keep dredging up all those events from the past. The effort it takes is forced, unnatural. It's the lives of others passing through mine, demanding, merciless. They turn everything upside down, there is not a single certainty capable of withstanding the onslaught of their tragedy. I need them as they are, as they were, the better to arm myself. Seeing the impotence of my parents in the face of harsh reality sapped me of all my strength, I hated them for their resignation.
Today I must make up my mind about a trifling matter: the wording of the inscription on his gravestone. But it is not a trifling matter, it will be a lasting memory, the proof of his existence. For whom? For a random passer by casting a casual eye on a grave.
Why, there lies Jenö Rószsavölgyi, 1915-1995, could he be a relation of the composer's?
My overriding memory is of a vast double bed. Outside, in the street below, all is quiet except for the occasional rush of a passing car. A car, at this late hour, a streak in the night.
I am lying on my left side, with my hand clasping the iron bar. I press my cheek against the cool metal. Sleeping on your left side is bad for the heart, my mother says.
From my position at the far side of the bed I look straight into the inky heavens. The night is both far and near. The mattress heaves like a raft on the ocean.
I'm eighteen years old, I have nothing against the night as such. But this night, while I am still in the middle of it, is one I wish to efface.
They try not to disturb me with what they are doing, they leave me alone. It's between the three of them. Perhaps my neutral presence there somehow makes it all right.
As I can't leave now, I might as well get some sleep. Running away would be childish, I'm eighteen and not supposed to be shocked by anything. Trying to force myself to sleep gives me a headache. In time, I tell the headache, this night will be utterly meaningless, even the memory of it will have vanished. Tomorrow morning, when we all go our separate ways, I'll be asking myself what sort of night this has been. And by then it will already be as if it is nothing to do with me.
I have yet to learn that it will last for ever, that it will keep coming back in myriad apparitions, as if this very bed, with me in my apparently superfluous role, holds the key to the rest of my life.
An outsize bed, suspended by black ribbons, rocking gently in the sky. An island where everything comes together and where everything begins. I can hear sobbing beside me. Stifled sobs, unsure whether or not they want to go unheard. It's not my friend sobbing. Diana is lying on the other side of the only male in the bed. The girl lying next to me is a friend of hers from college, whom I know vaguely. She is sobbing because of what is happening to her, because it is all her own doing. I could see it plainly, I was a witness. I believe it was important to all three of them for me to be a witness.
Go on, sob if you must, not that I feel any pity. I'm hard, I just hope you'll manage to sort out your life. I can already picture us all in the future, and even then I will not pity you.
It was she who asked us to come, me and my friend Diana de las Punctas. The student whose flat it is repeats her name with amusement when we arrive. De las Punctas, he mouths with exaggerated emphasis. Argentinian, Diana says, offering no further explanation. He thinks it's exotic. The name and the girl are both exotic to him, that is quite clear.
In a moment of shyness, the only shyness Diana reveals all evening, she draws his attention to me. This is Kata, she says, touching my shoulder. Kata Rózsavölgyi, her father's Hungarian, he'll play you a czardas on his cello if you ask him. The student's eyes shift from her to me. He sees me.
That moment, the moment when his eyes met mine, must have cut itself loose and floated up to a rarefied plane, from where-following a logic that is more earthbound than we ourselves, powered by some unconscionable wavelength-it has been undermining my will. It is an omen. A dragonfly feathering the water, taking flight, it is nothing, soon forgotten. It is all there is.
Was it Juliette Greco who introduced that dress? Black and waisted, with a little white pointed collar and white cuffs, like the uniform worn by girls at boarding school, but with a whiff of illicit longings in the dorm after lights-out. Or was it Brigitte Bardot who wore such a prim dress in the film where she smoked cigars?
Last season Diana had such a dress. When the fashion changed she gave it to me. The little collar and cuffs have lost their dazzling whiteness. On me the dress looks like a school uniform plain and simple, not a hint of untoward desires. My mother likes me in that dress, it must make me look virginal.
He sees me. With the uniform I'm wearing black flamenco shoes, just for the contrast. My mother isn't here to see. Of course he has already noticed my hair. I can't very well hide it, although I usually wear it in a plait down my back. People always see my hair first, then the rest of me. The student also sees the milky pallor of my skin, from which he can tell that I never get a tan, even if I spend the whole of August lying in the sun.
I see him too.
The way he looks at me is different from the way he looks at my friend and the other girl. There is a stillness in his gaze, the desire dissipates, his mind runs the gamut of reference points in an effort to place me. Some distant reminder seems to be stirring in me too, as I return his gaze. When meeting someone for the first time it takes your brain a split second to register the specific configuration of features, so that you cannot fail to recognize the person for ever after, whatever the time and circumstances, even in the middle of a crowd. That split second gives me a sense of recognition, although I have never seen him before.
The moment has passed. The astonishment, the incredulity, the subtle satisfaction that recognition gives, be it nothing but a scent, a sound from the other side of the world. The fleeting unsettling sensation vanishes the moment he turns to the others, inviting us all to come in.
An untidy room like any other student's room, a place for study and sleep. Bed, kitchen stool, shabby armchair, that is all his flat has to offer in the way of seating for an evening that will last for ever. The student is not very well mannered. He sinks into the armchair and crosses his legs, leaving my friend and the other girl no choice but to sit on the bed. As if by claiming the only comfortable chair he is making them sit there on purpose, so he can lean back and make up his mind which of the two looks better on his bed-the one who has often, perhaps too often, lain there already, or the other one with the exotic name? I am to have the kitchen stool for the duration of the evening, on the sidelines.
Without a word, the student puts a bottle of wine on the table. He lights a few candles in Chianti bottles. A get-together without flickering candles, without fingers toying with molten wax, is unthinkable in the mid Sixties. The candles represent the dawning of a new age, and once it has arrived that will be the end of candles stuck in bottles. Long-play records are another stock-in-trade. The student rummages through his collection. You can see him deliberating. A Beatles album, maybe, to put us in mellow mood, or the Rolling Stones, as an assertion of his manhood? Carefully, lovingly, he places a record on the turntable. A waterfall of devotional sounds, unexpected in a situation like this, fills the space.
A Bach organ concerto. Heavenly harmonies, my father sighs, and shuts his eyes. His face softens.
He has to walk all the way from Sas utca to Szófia utca for his music lesson. A cap on his head, a cello on his back. He is eight years old. The sun dancing between the leaves in the trees scatters little pools of light all over him, and over the pavement too. He feels as if he were not making any headway. The tail houses on either side of Andrássy fit cast deep shadows, the carved caryatids supporting the balconies seem about to collapse on top of him. The street where his teacher lives is falling away, receding, unattainable, menacing.
During the long walk to his lesson, twice a week, his aversion grows as he thinks of having to do the do re mi, mi re do, and then doing what his teacher, no his mother, expects of him: make music. He will hurt, the tips of the fingers on his left hand will go numb, he'll get tremors and cramps in his right hand from plying the bow. In the whole uncaring, immeasurable vastness of the universe there's no one more pitiable than the young musician grappling with knotted brains and a skull that feels it's about to burst.
Next will be the cane. At the slightest slip of a fingertip or an unsteady hand the cane will descend on him, harder than necessary, gratuitously. No need to spare the rod with him, his mother has instructed the teacher, he'll be grateful later.
Jenö is convinced the music teacher would have beaten him even if his mother had not given her approval. The cane is shiny from castigating generations of erring pupils. It is always ready and waiting for use, within easy reach. Jenö thinks his teacher wields it so rigorously because he can't abide dissonance, because, being so musical by nature, false notes drive him mad.
A cello is a heavy instrument when you're eight years old. The strap cuts into your shoulder. You wish you could be the street, the dappled sunlight, the shadows. You'd gladly change places with the poorest passer-by, who'd be too poor to afford a teacher. Anything to be absolved of music lessons.
Heavenly, love-thy-neighbour-as-thyself organ music fills the room. Diana and her friend sit stiffly on the bed like figures in an Edward Hopper painting, full of suppressed anticipation. They drink wine. The student offers them cigarettes. It's the first time I've seen her smoke. Nobody realizes how ridiculous it is to see her smoke. There is some small talk, but it soon peters out. The music takes over. The purpose of this evening with dripping candles and glasses of wine is not the sharing of ideas and experiences. Its purpose will depend on how subtly and surely the scenario takes it course. A wrong word, a wrong gesture, is enough for the actors to fall out of the roles they have cast for each other.
My role is to sit on the kitchen stool and act as if everything is perfectly normal. A tacit accomplice. As long as I can remember I have been trained in not-being-there, my parents are very good at that. I'm an expert in not-being-there, it has become second nature to me.
And yet, suddenly, all eyes are turned on me. The student has asked which courses I'm taking. My role extends to providing a brief interlude, a breathing-space.
When the music falls silent my friend and the other girl throw themselves into a keen competition for his favour, his desire. It's exhausting to watch, but there is little else for me to look at. Diana swings her right leg over her left, ignoring her miniskirt riding up her thigh. Her stiletto-heeled foot swings hypnotically. The other girl pouts, the way she has seen seductive starlets pout on screen. It's all been done before, nothing mysterious there, you think he knows where it's at, he'll think it's a laugh, after all, he's someone who likes Bach.
And he is amused. He lets it all happen, he is a superior participant without having to exert himself in any way. Merely to prolong the suspense he turns to me with a casual question.
The onlooker that I am responds dutifully. I'm reading art history, but what I'd really like to do is restoration, old paintings as well as modern ones, preferably the old ones, maybe. He raises his eyebrows. Why would modern art need restoration? Paintings can incur damage during storage in a damp vault, or they might suffer during transport, or be slashed in a museum by a knife-wielding madman. He nods, remembers having heard of such an incident. The silence that follows seems to be imploring me to carry on, not to stop now, and I go on to say that I want to study the traditional fresco techniques in Italy, and that in the meantime I do the occasional fresco on a friend's wall or ceiling, to get some practice.
Noticing that our glasses are empty, he refills them. Next he must do something about the silence.
Didn't you have a Bob Dylan album? Diana's friend asks. There's a hint of petulance there, of no more Bach please.
Excerpted from a bed in heaven by Tessa de Loo Copyright © 2002 by Tessa de Loo
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.