The Collector Collector: A Novel

Overview

The Collector Collector takes a conventional boy-meets-girl story and turns it into a brilliant comic romp. The hero of Tibor Fischer's tale is an antique bowl that comes into the possession of a lovelorn, young London art appraiser named Rosa. Rosa's bowl is no ordinary piece of clay, however: it is a ceramic sage, an urn of uncommon erudition that has witnessed all of history's major convulsions—revolutions, famines, massacres, wars—and has survived more than four hundred ...

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Overview

The Collector Collector takes a conventional boy-meets-girl story and turns it into a brilliant comic romp. The hero of Tibor Fischer's tale is an antique bowl that comes into the possession of a lovelorn, young London art appraiser named Rosa. Rosa's bowl is no ordinary piece of clay, however: it is a ceramic sage, an urn of uncommon erudition that has witnessed all of history's major convulsions—revolutions, famines, massacres, wars—and has survived more than four hundred breakages and three thousand thefts.

By investing his bowl with soul, Fischer give us a hilarious, mantel- eye view of depravity and redemption, sex and lust, burglary and archaeology. "A writer gifted with a formidable imagination" (The Washington Post Book World), Fischer takes us on a thrilling ride from the primitive societies of prehistory to the equally primitive society of present-day London.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Stranger books have seldom been written, and when they have, they've seldom been this fast-paced, this funny, or this effortlessly readable."-Detroit Free Press

"The Collector Collector is the freshest, most fascinating novel I've read in years."-Tom Robbins

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
No novel in recent memory has been observed from such a ceramically cool detachment as the Sumerian bowl that narrates Fischer's latest. The young British author's two previous books featured unusual narratorsThe Thought Gang had a Cambridge philosophy professor turned bank robber, while Under the Frog, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, starred a Communist Hungarian "Locomotive" basketball team. The jaded piece of pottery here, however, has spent a millennia inertly observing human foibles. Seeking refuge from this wearying spectacle by joining the collection of Marius, a rich and vulgar collector, the bowl finds itself unexpectedly detained by Rosa, a young London appraiser of antiquities, who suspects the vessel of lying about its age and authenticity. Soon, Rosa is fascinated by the ancient urn, cherishing it as though it had inspired centuries of Keatsian odes. The narrative grows off-puttingly baroque, however, as the objet issues mock-erudite musings on truth and beauty, shaggy-dog stories full of Rabelaisian humor and probability-straining coincidences. At the same time, the imperturbable urn passively narrates the invasion and gradual takeover of Rosa's uninvited houseguest, Nikki, a nympho-kleptomaniacal trapeze artist. Alas, Fischer's clever conceit and bizarre events are stretched too far in different directions to join satisfyingly in a finale that involves a contract on Nikki and the antiquity's hatred of Gorgon-adorned vases. After two strikingly funny and intelligent novels, the verbally and imaginatively extravagant Fischer has indulged himself in a lesser piece of zaniness. BOMC/QPB alternate. (May) FYI: In 1993, Granta named Fischer one of the "Best Young British Novelists."
Library Journal
The narrator of this wacky fantasy is a sentient (and garrulous) antique bowl of ancient lineage that has seen virtually everything. Booker Prize nominee Fischer follows The Thought Gang (LJ 5/1/95) and Under the Frog (Free Pr., 1995) with a bawdy romp suitable for readers who are particularly willing to suspend disbelief. Our unusual hero has developed some interesting talents involving shape-shifting, mind reading, and image projection. The bowl is intimately involved in the problems of Rosa, a talented but lovelorn London art appraiser, which include the criminal and sexual goings-on of Nikki, Rosa's uninvited guest. Throughout, the author skillfully stitches farce, social satire, slapstick, and even a bit of romance into a crazy quilt of literary entertainment. Buy where sophisticated whimsy is appreciated.Starr E. Smith, Marymount Univ. Lib., Arlington, Va.
Dwight Garner
[I]t's been a good year, thus far, for readers who like slim, absurdist, tragicomic fiction. First came Donald Antrim's The Hundred Brothers, a manic but ultimately touching book about, literally, a gathering of 100 brothers. Now here is The Collector Collector, a new novel from young British writer Tibor Fischer, in which the narrator happens to be a piece of pottery. Or, as it prefers, "a bowl with a soul."

One pleasant surprise about The Collector Collector is that this bowl really does have some soul. In the first third of the book, the bowl riffs on its long history and its various owners like a genuine hepcat -- or at least some jive-talking combination of Truman Capote and Nicholson Baker. When a rich but ignorant collector debates buying the bowl at auction, for instance, it silently (and hilariously) appraises him: "he is, in addition to being a lugal, a clown, a multi-story parking lot filled with jalopies of laughability, soooooo preposterous, a baboon of prodigious risibility." On a roll, the bowl can't help but continue: "The great pity about the absurdly rich is that they become absurd because none of them have the foresight to buy a wanker alarm, someone who would accompany them and just toll at apposite moments: 'You are being soooooo wanky.' That is the danger of wild wealth, it frees you from gravity." Clearly this is no ordinary urn. We quickly learn that, in addition to being sentient, the bowl has been around since nearly the beginning of time, has witnessed most of history's major cataclysms and has an almost photographic memory. What's more, this bowl has the ability to change shape, to impart wisdom to its owners and to suck out memories from those who touch it.

The first sections of Fischer's book have a shrewd, funky exuberance that's impossible to deny -- you feel like he's writing the way an exquisite bowl would actually write if it could, with just the right amount of puzzled stiffness ("Rosa debeds and days herself") and a flair for strewing neologisms ("cashtropically") as it skims along. By this book's midpoint, however, you also begin to discover that Fischer hasn't really thought his tale through. The Collector Collector -- the title refers to the bowl itself -- has a narrator but no real narrative, and soon the plot begins to career around wildly.

The book is essentially about what happens when the bowl falls into the hands of Rosa, a lonely young art appraiser who lives in London. Rosa is attractive and good-hearted ("I declare all my income. When my married friends have an emergency, I baby-sit willingly. I give blood."), but she is wildly unlucky in love and, the bowl soon surmises, a virgin.

Rosa's too-peaceful existence is shattered by an uninvited house guest named Nikki, a nymphomaniac who's given to stealing everything in sight. Before long, Nikki is sleeping with dozens of men, burgling Rosa's house regularly and generally wreaking havoc. Rosa herself wigs out a little, and imprisons an advice columnist inside a deep well when the columnist can't help her find a man. Soon hired killers are involved, as well as a fat, brutish female angel -- the ghost of a woman Nikki once murdered. Needless to say, all of this feels frantic and somewhat desperate, as do the long stories the bowl spins about its own past -- and those it drags out of Rosa.

Tibor Fischer is a remarkable stylist; nearly every sentence here is spit-shined until it sparkles. The problem is that you never really care much about these characters, or about what happens to them. In the end, even that talking bowl begins to seem like a bit of a crock. --Salon May 6, 1997

Kirkus Reviews
The latest by the author of the witty The Thought Gang (1995), etc., is a disappointment of mind-numbing proportions. It reaches so far for comic effect that it stumbles badly and ends by seeming little more than a bland tale of frustration and confusion in matters of the heart.

The gimmick is simple: Fischer tells his contemporary story in the voice of a pot—a ceramic bowl from Mesopotamia that's over 6,000 years old. The idea is that the object of collectors through the centuries now gets to turn the tables and comment on its owners, which makes this a sort of postmodern comedic comment on Bruce Chatwin's high modernist novel Utz. And that's the best one can say about the resulting strained narrative romp. The frame story concerns a young art appraiser named Rosa, a "scrutinizer" and diviner who can spot fakes in an instant and who can sense the complex histories of each object she fondles. This particular piece of "pottery worth a lottery" comes into her possession to be appraised for a "lugal" (the pot's term for wealthy collectors) of maniacal disposition. Meanwhile, a nympho-kleptomaniac connives her way into Rosa's life, performing acts of thievery (and sex) that are increasingly outrageous. But Rosa's mind is elsewhere: She falls under the sway of a columnist to the lovelorn whose advice lost Rosa her last boyfriend. Interspersed throughout this main story are the many tales imparted by the pot, itself a cracked narrator of bizarre fables involving its previous owners: the man who couldn't kill his wife; the spurned lover who couldn't succeed at suicide; the village called "Arsehole"; the ship that sailed for Cathay but never left Venice; and Odile, the collector of insane poets. There's also a running joke about frozen iguanas.

For all of its manic inventiveness—the wordplay, the rhymes, the new vocabulary—Fischer's goofy novel is a victim of its own cleverness.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805057867
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/15/1998
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 4.84 (w) x 8.18 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Tibor Fischer is the author of The Thought Gang and Under the Frog, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1993, the year Granta named him one of the "Best Young British Novelists." He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


I've had a planetful.

Impending owner: old, obese oooooorotund. Only one hundred and one hairs for his barber to worry about. Jowly. Flesh dripping off his face, melted by age. Balloon. A fat-filled balloon. His belt is nearly longer shall he is. Lugal. Lugal number ten thousand four hundred and sixtytwoooooo.

"Smedley will be in touch with you " he says.

Present holder: auctioneeress. She sells the world the world. Red cotton from India under ruffled blue tweed. Ten denier stockings. Tomato-red lipstick. An expert with one child; she has rigid thighs where big men have whimpered like small dogs, but she is still lonely.

"I thought you only used him to sue members of your family," she replies.

Lugals aren't strong on humor. Power rarely has a use for humor. They don't have much interest in being entertaining or popular. This one tries to act as if he does: a project perhaps to help him imagine that people are drawn to him for his charm and wit and not his integrity-crushing riches. There are lugals like that.

"No. No. Not just that." He exposes twenty-three percentof his teeth as a smile. "That's if all the checks verify it'sgenuine."

Genuine? The genuine ones don't look as good as me. I'm better than genuine. I'm the original, so genuine, the genuine ones look like copies—which, of course, is what they are.

"I have a good feeling, about this," she says.

"And you'll use Rosa?"

"I'm going straight to Rosa's."

"Good. I have a lot of faith in Rosa. A lot of faith."

Street: paved. Called King W.1. London. England. It's been two thousand and sixteenyears since I've been near the Thames. Can't say I've missed it, though I could lead you to some fascinating burial sites. Surroundings don't matter much to me. Everything's been under or near a river. Rivers, if you watch patiently enough, flicker and jag like slow, dull lightning. Water, like a lumbering drunk, has pissed and slouched all over this planet.

"It's going to rain," he says, quite concerned. There is one tiny, feeble cloud in view. With the information available to me, I would reckon the odds on rain in the next hour as 5,000 to 1 against.

"If I get caught in the rain, I bleed," he says in a tone that is aiming to hook sympathy.

She nods, slightly oddly. He probably interprets this as sympathy because that's what he wants, so he can take a little odd-looking sympathy. I, on the other hand, interpret it as the auctioneeress biting the inside of her mouth to stop herself from laughing, because he is, in addition to being a lugal, a clown, a multi-story car park filled with jalopies of laughability, soooooo preposterous, a baboon of prodigious risibility; I adjust his position from the early ten thousands to bring him up to just outside the supreme thousand, though I am well aware that if I am in his company for much longer,he will penetrate the supreme hundred laughingstocks. Of mycollectors, he is already the most mockable.

The auctioneeress looks up to the sky as if pondering its cruelty, but more likely to give her teeth the chance to hang on to her cheeks. He is, to the core, a lugal, loaded. He has lots of money; she doesn't. And while he might feel obliged to take some ribbing, outright contempt might sour relations. She needs the money, otherwise she wouldn't be conducting an unauctioned sale for a backhander. Child-thinking-of. Her lips have the unmistakable pursing of someone with much knowledge and little chance of making money. So much and yet so little, that is what she is thinking.

With all my medical experience—greater than any three teaching hospitals you could care to name—I have never detected a condition where drops of rain can be traded for drops of blood. And besides which, it is a mark of the lugal that whatever their quirks, they bounce like balls. You can drop them from a great height, dump them into a volcano, clobber them with a whale. They never tire in loofahing their egos and feeding them grapes. No lugal ever perished indrizzle.

He signals to a car waiting down the street. It is a vehicle fit for a lugal, a limousine with smoked windows so that he need not be sullied by passersby's gazes.

"I don't like taking the car. Cars are nothing but metal missiles hunting each other down on the roads. Huge metal monsters hurtling at each other. Designed to kill as much as a gun. Crazy invention." He is getting panicky; he has to walk to the car and thus expose himself for eight feet to the risk of rain, and his ear wiggling betrays the thought that once he reaches the car, he will be signing up for the risk of a pile-up. The great pity about the absurdly rich is that they become absurd because none of them have the foresight to buy a wanker alarm, someone who would accompany them and just toll at apposite moments: "You are being soooooo wanky." That is the danger of wild wealth, it frees you from gravity. They could hire the poor for the job. They'd have to be changed every so often like batteries, because their good sense would be dissipated in the plush restaurants and chichi boutiques.

"You're so lucky not to have money. So lucky," he says, the foreignness in his diction rising from eighteen percent to a peak of twenty-nine. "When you have money people are simply after you, all the time. All the time. You know, I have seven teams of accountants working for me. The second checks the first, the third checks on the second, the fourth checks on the third. And so on. The first also check on the seventh. And even if they're not stealing, they might as well be for the fees they charge. And as for my family ... there's no end to it. This bowl is just what I want."

"So why are you looking so miserable?"

"I'm afraid it's a trick to get my money. Someone must have heard I want one for my collection."

"You can give me some of your money, Marius."

"I wouldn't wish it on you. And what can you do with it? Banks go bankrupt. Companies go bust. Even top-notch banks in top-notch economies go kablooey. Civilizations drop dead like flies. There's no safety. You have to watch all the time. You have no idea how bad it is. Say hello to Rosa for me."

You could take his words and grind them down to quarks and you wouldn't find the slightest trace of irony. I have now slotted him in at number one hundred and fifteen. He waddles off, his gait topped up with ridiculousness by the gold ingots he is carrying under his shirt. Gold, the shining shunner, so beloved of the rich and the poor, play-fellow of the learned, so ungiving of itself. I wonder why he doesn't employ someone to carry the fire extinguisher he has grasped in his left band.

The auctioneeress and I get into a rickety car and drive south, across the river. "Why?" she asks. "Why?"

She says this sixteen times on our journey, the word rollercoasting from bitterness to amusement. A prime timeburster. In the index of the billions of vocalizations I have catalogued, this is the import that occurs most often. A sound that's been around, too. Unripe apples here, soul's sigh there. If you wait long enough, any word or sound gets to mean everything.

But I can't help her with her inquiry.

Rosa

Everything. Been it. Seen it. Mean it.

You think you've had a demonstrably hard time? Your job, let me guess, is made of solid odium?

Now, I've been used: abused, disabused, misused, mused on, underenthused, unamused, contused, bemused, and even perused. Any compound of used, but chiefly used: shaving bowl, vinegar jar, cinerary urn, tomb good, pyxis, vase, rat-trap, krater, bitumen amphora, chamber pot, pitcher, executioner, doorstop, sunshade, spittoon, coal scuttle, parrot rest, museum exhibit, deity, ashtray. If you're quiet, don't fuss and take it, it's staggering what people will dump on you. If it's vile, I've had a pile—and I know more than five thousand languages (even if you want to get dainty about what's a language and what isn't).

She puts me down on a low table, folds her arms, and looks down at me sternly.

"Talk," she commands.

This is an idiotic, if not deranged thing, to say to a bowl, even to a bowl like me, thin-walled, sporting the scorpion look of Samarra ware that was the rage of Mesopotamia six and a half thousand years before Rosa was born. Pottery, after all, isn't renowned for its chatty nature, so why futilely address a vessel thus—even me, the bowl with soul? But Rosa is far from being unhinged.

Inevitably, I've been talked to, more than anyone would credit. Being inanimate doesn't earn you any dispensation from being buttonholed. People prefer people, will accept pets, but failing all else, they will unburden themselves to the crockery. And, naturally, supplied with sonic tools, I could chatter. I could chatter until this young lady, her flat, and her city were nothing but unremarkable dust.

I'm not sure what's going on here. Lately I stick to collectors of note. Moneybags. Lugals. Those deformed by excessive wealth, those who will lay down reverence all around me. The trials of being a utensil didn't bother me for a long time, but I've become soooooo tired of indignity, of some dullard keeping terrapins or busy lizzies in me.

Reverence is my quarry, and giving a hint of my pedigree achieves this, age and a dash of the flash equalling venerability in the pottery game. Old? How old? Oooooold. Old before old was invented.

Does this make me a snob? Yes, I do like my collectors destructively rich and obeisant. Granted, the oofy are goofy, the disgustingly rich are often disgusting, but that's an epithet that doesn't turn up its nose at escorting those who have only moderate amounts of money and those who have none.

Rosa: cordial, respectful, relaxed.

She is, I educe, some expert, scrutinizing me; this is because my last few carriers have been poorly presented individuals from a region not enjoying a reputation for probity or rectitude or any of the qualities that make a buyer feel better about a transaction—especially when it comes to pottery worth a lottery.

The vogue for savants is white coats and frowns, slipping some solemnity under their metier to raise its importance. They like props: gauges, drills, beakers. Their investigations don't fluster me; if you have no idea what you're looking for, you're not going to find it.

Rosa's home appears to be her place of work. She doesn't blend in with the scrutineers I have encountered. There are a few books, nowhere near enough to suggest outstanding scholarly competence, and as she grades me, she wears only minimal black underwear, which would, in isolation, be deemed unprofessional in most professions, unworkable in most workplaces.

She scratches the small of her back with her left thumbnail and then, straightening herself, places her hands on my sides. But this is entirely different from her grip on me before. I'm not expecting this.

She's live.

This is a touch I've never experienced before; it is much more than a touch.

Imagine you've been living alone for a long time and suddenly you hear the door open when it shouldn't, you hear footsteps in your bedroom where you know there shouldn't be any. A light comes on by itself, your clothes fall off by themselves, a breeze trespasses. For the first time, I know what it is to be naked.

She's through, she can hear me. Rosa's in.

Fooled. But this is only the four hundred and twelfth time. She isn't a catalogue turner, a contour crawler, a holder of a magnifying glass. Rosa is a silence taker. A diviner. A vase tickler. An intruder.

Diviners—like everyone, I've heard about them, but to be frank, I've never been much convinced about their trade. Before Rosa, the tally of my dealings with those ostensibly having abilities to receive the hidden: three. A former rope maker in the Indus valley, a footman in Siam, and a color explorer.

As to my dealings with those purporting to have abilities to receive the hidden but who were flimming the flam, they number one hundred twenty thousand, four hundred and forty-two. The youngest being an eight-year-old shaman who had his head kicked in after his tribe had everything they owned washed away in a flash flood scouring their encampment—an encampment decreed by the shaman. The oldest was a ninety-two-year-old fortune teller in Byzantium who had been predicting winners in the chariot races for seventy-five years and had never got it right once. However, the perfection of his errors established, after twenty years he became greatly patronized by the gamblers, since his choice, while not a shortcut to winnings, could be used to eliminate one element from their calculations.

As for the true soothsayers: The ex-rope maker had been much in demand at the more vulgar celebrations at that juncture when modesty and decorum have been wholly dissolved, when, using his chosen agent of insight, his tongue, he would muzzle himself with the nautch girls and then delve into mysteries such as their places of birth, their fathers' occupations, their earliest memories, their favorite colors, their dearest aspirations, the names of their closest friends, their most-loved jewelry; the answers to which, garnered solely from his bridle of legs, earned him unbridled applause. Notwithstanding his redoubtable gilt, I have to remark that the same information could well have been obtained by anyone using tools such as civil conversation and the odd bauble.

The footman: could always guess, unerringly, when it would rain. This gained him a popularity with many street traders and hunters, but he was never invited (in the bounds of my knowledge) to any rousing debauchery. A pity he couldn't boost himself from the status of rainteller to the more lucrative level of rainmaker (twenty-two bona fide on board, nineteen dubious, four hundred and ninety-eight frauds).

The Best Rainmaker

She came to the thorp near Colonia, where there hadn't been rain for nearly a year. The people were seven-eighths starved. The second n on their extinction was being fixed on.

"I will make rain," she proposed. "But only if the men of my choice make love to me for three days. Then I will make rain for three days." There was skepticism, mixed with a willingness from the venerous of the thorp, until she gave a free ten-minute sampler, bringing down rain within a three-mile circle of the place. Some of the women were unhappy about this arrangement, but the men did their duty. Afterward, having smoothed down her skirt, she brought rain: a few puny drops first, then a steady downpour, and finally a storm so powerful that even unfornicated-out men could not have stood in the deluge. The ground grew mollified, barrels brimmed, puddles ponded, rivers started to prowl. The rain stopped exactly seventy-two hours, twenty minutes, and twelve seconds after it started, perhaps reflecting the fuller's extra efforts to make sure the three-day mark had beenpassed.

"This is great, but we haven't had rain for nearly a year, and who knows when it'll rain again? How about another barter?" The same covenant was agreed. Some of the women had to help out since the men were so etiolated and emaciated by drought and fornication that they were good for nothing. Drops with no stops for seventy-six hours, perhaps reflecting a discount for repeat custom.

She was about to leave to locate more parched territory when they stopped her and confided: "Supreme pleasure, gratitude for the rain, but you are undeniably in league with the Evil One, so we're going to have to burn you. This is very difficult for us."

They tied her to a stake, but they had trouble lighting the kindling since it was raining rivers. "Couldn't we just hit her over the head?" It rained for six days, so heavily people couldn't see more than three feet in front of themselves. The rain stopped not long after the rainmaker drowned along with the slower, frailer, and less wanted inhabitants of the thorp. A lake, whose waters were long claimed to be noxious, cleaved to the spot for many years until I was fished out. The fifth least propitious fishing out I have endured.... Enough.

The Vase Tickler

Rosa's caught me unguarded, she's unblind in my mind. I've never even thought about guarding, but Rosa progresses slowly enough for me to shield myself with one of my suitable pasts....

I do: a genial stretch of sunny Sumer on a good day, the day of a public execution, myself a lowly utensil, open wide to serve, a family retainer retaining the evening meal, a delegation of local smells and colors, the bickering of the fish friers. A distant lugal.

I do: circularity.

I do: utensiling along.

Yesteryearing with an uncommon vengeance, I become this shred of antiquity because disguise has been my custom, and because if she tapped into the full me, her brains would shoot out of her nose.

To the ninety-one types of surprise I have identified, I now have to add a new branch—that of the thinking ceramic caught naked for the first time in millions of years, in a two-bedroom flat in an inexpensive part of South London.

"You original you," Rosa proclaims, letting go of me, visibly satisfied with the platter of ur-Ur I rustled up. She is glowing after her stroll in a bowl. Her infiltration of my being has been an effort for her, which is pleasing since I wouldn't like her to make a habit of feeling my feelings. She can only hold her breath in ancient depths for a few minutes.

She scopes me, but looking at me will tell you nothing; it is her touch I fear, her hands which can finger me. She toys with her tourmaline in helical silver earrings, which signify a common story operating under numerous aliases: the lone swordsman holding the pass. She doesn't know this, but she senses it.

For irises, there are ten thousand, nine hundred and forty-nine principal hues. Rosa has mostly the gray I term mullet gray. She is probably assigning me a price (she works for the auctioneeress, so she must know how much money it takes to stop a bowl with my features).

I do the same for her. Rosa. Twenty-six. In voguish measurements, five foot four, one hundred twenty-five pounds. Hair, of the fifty-two shades of chestnut, she has what I term Genoese. On the block she wouldn't fetch a great price, men needing some drastic beauty or the likelihood of near fatal pleasure to throw their gold. Rosa's qualities of warmth and humor would not grasp the buyers' looks, though no doubt in the cold and dark, those semi-simian creatures would welcome the comfort of her hugs.

She goes off to paint pictures of the past on the back of her eyelids, inviting darkness into the room where I have now been stationed, a bare, unfurnished cube, a cell for the interrogation of ceramics.

In the ajarness of her bedroom door facing me she is squeezed into a column of light, where she dismisses her attire. Of bosom, there are two hundred and twenty styles; of buttocks, two hundred and eighty-four. I order. I know. I do my job. Her navel is type sixty-seven of two thousand, two hundred, and thirty-four, the buried bald man.

To date I have catalogued twenty-five assorted dirt pushers, nineteen unknowns, fifteen herdsmen, fourteen warriors, ten maids, nine seamstresses, seven bakers, six strumpets, five cooks, five members of the nobility or lugalling classes, three discoboli, three singers, three users of ink, two ferrymen, two flute players, two lace makers, two monarchs, two slaves, two wine scientists, a beacon minder, a carrier-home of drunken revelers, a chandler, a collector of barbed wire, a dolmen fixer, a fowler, a henna maker, a martyr, a mateotechnist, a meresman, a nothing, an oryctologist, an ostreger, a peacock breeder, a reproofer of vice, a rubber of backs, a sambuca builder, a seller of ribbons, and a sutler who have possessed this navel. It is one of my favorites. My view disappears in a burst of blackness.

Blackness sprawls everywhere; the lesser household sounds beneath daytime hearing now reach their moment of audibility. The inanimate, with the help of night, can move over to the other team. Wardrobes groan and tut, chairs flinch, floorboards fidget. I take the readings.

Two hours and fifty-three minutes elapse. The buzzer then fires a slumber-clearing missile of jagged sound, jarring even for jars.

Rosa, hunched under the weight of sleep, sways slowly to the intercom.

"Hello?" She summons all her powers to make the word.

"It's Nikki. Sorry to be so late."

"You've got the wrong flat," Rosa responds.

"Is that Rosa? Didn't Cornelia talk to you?"

Springy steps in the hallway and the newcomer is admitted. I catch a slice of her. Diminutive, lithe, carrying her rucksack with verve. No more than a few months either side of her thirtieth year. Still hoping for one hundred and sixty-seven, I find that Nikki's nose fits into the one hundred sixty-six classes I have already identified. It's number eighty-eight or the begonia. It's the nose I used for a depiction of Lais when I was forming a black-figure vase in the style of what everyone currently calls the school of the Gorgon painter (school of me, naturally).

Nikki carries the load of the road. She explains how she has come straight from Spain, hitching. A touch of foreign heat still radiates from her. I sense that Rosa, annoyed and sleepy as she is, relishes these wisps of adventure.

Nikki apologizes, says she can't understand why Cornelia, their acquaintance in Vienna, didn't clear her arrival with Rosa. She apologizes a lot, a quite embarrassing amount, but one of the things she doesn't apologize for is lying. There are ninety-one ways of telling the truth, and this isn't number ninety-two. This is number fifty-nine of the two hundred and ten ways of lying, the technique I like to call the wild strawberry.

Concerned with regaining her bed, burrs of Ur still clinging around her, lacking my authority on untruths and simply not that fussed, Rosa shows Nikki the spare room and hands her some bedding.

"How long can I crash here?" asks Nikki, well aware that the question will be shooed away for the moment, obtaining a fair reprieve. We are in the presence of an operator whose oooooonly truth so far has been her name.

Nikki at Rosa's

Light alights on the city. Rosa debeds and days herself, making no attempt to thwart the sounds of her preparation, but Nikki doesn't emerge from her room, no doubt influenced by the belief that no chance of conversation means no chance of conversation about when she moves on.

Leaving a note with the prominently placed breakfast items, Rosa departs. After counting off five minutes (in case Rosa might return for a forgotten item or might pull the pretending-to-return-for-a-forgotten-item ploy) Nikki attacks the kitchen and tucks in with the special appetite people reserve for other people's food. This is not merely breakfast with shoddy mass-produced crockery, this is storage. She works through the croissants and cold cuts, stalling on a jar of pickled beetroot whose lid won't budge. Then she starts rummaging through the flat, rushing for those nooks where you would expect the most personal and blush-making items to be; she is flipping disappointedly through a diary when the buzzer goes.

In a resident's manner, Nikki attends to the intercom, listens to the voice, peers momentarily out the window that gives her a glimpse of the caller, mutters "Four minutes," then admits a black woman, twenty-two, dressed like a saleswoman, carrying seven copies of a magazine, wanting to talk about security, slightly taken aback at being invited in, as overcast Tuesday mornings usually find people unreceptive to an explanation of the universe's purpose.

Not the most skilled of mind flavorers, she launches into her prepared evangelism, clanking her sentences like ill-fitting armor; Nikki makes no interruption but mounts a thinsmile.

Four minutes, twelve seconds after she entered the property, the Jehovah's Witness's clothing starts to be removed. At six minutes, nine seconds her clothing covers only the carpet. I educe that the Witness doesn't protest much, owing to the speed and surprise of the feat. Things she has never imagined and may well never have heard of are taking place—with vehemence; and indubitably, the suggestion of pleasure and pleasure itself are two different commodities to rebuff. Perhaps there should have been illustrations in the Bible to make it clear what's on and what's not.

In this year, in this topos, the Witness is not of such beauty that photographers would be handing her their cards in the street. Of the six hundred and forty forms of allure, nevertheless plainness makes up twenty of them.

Nikki: wiry. She has been either a dancer, a gymnast, an accomplished swimmer, or had a very active outdoor youth. Slight with bite. Her body is her office. An eater of small pieces of fruit, a nibbler of grain unless the food is at someone else's expense. She is the one who dodges plagues, endures sieges, comes out of the jungle, crawls from burning wreckage, who chatters longest in frozen waters.

The Witness is turned about by Nikki as if she were a blouse that needed intricate ironing; very reminiscent of a scene I adopted that got me purchased by a collector in Luxembourg and resulted in my being locked in a safe, the dread of any serious work of art (and how baffled and furious he was when I deformed and dedesigned in the dark, emerging as the dullest Wedgwood I could imagine).

With equal dispatch Nikki repackages the dazed evangelist and bundles her oooooout of the door. Fifty-nine minutes, the lot. Practice. For one of Vanity's true troopers.

A long bath, long phone calls to places a long way off deal with most of the afternoon. Nikki does two loads of laundry in the washing machine, the items from her rucksack and person being so grimy that they are able to stand without the aid of a body. She counts out her money from a pouch. I make it seven pounds thirty-three pence and a hundred peseta note.

The washing machine kicks the bucket during the second load. Nikki sucks on the spectacle of the defunct machine for a while.

But Rosa takes the news of domestic disruption lightly when she returns.

Cup of Tea: One

Rosa seems to have only a caretaker consciousness to respond to Nikki's chatter. The apologies niagra out.

"I'm so sorry. Everything just ... goes wrong," Nikki says. "Everything I do ... I ... I ... I ..." Her words transmute into a soft whine. Her face topples forward into her lap. She knows the value of tears striking the hard surface of a kitchen floor. I have seen women cry gently like this over abillion times. I decided to stop counting on the fourth of May, 1216. Certain things go on: the plying of drinks to aspired-to lovers, women's tears. Nikki is clever enough to be more inventive; Rosa is intelligent enough to spot a ruse. Just because the dull know about it doesn't mean it doesn't work. No trick is so old it loses its efficacy.

"This is awful.... I'm being an awful nuisance.... Give me a few minutes and I'll be off."

But naturally, Nikki stays on to purvey lorries of sorries and then ranks of thanks when Rosa offers her continued shelter. Nikki drags into the kitchen fitfully, slowly, like a stubborn dog not very keen on being dragged, the holey story of why she is destitute and how she attempted suicide.

Rosa has to shoo away the truth: "I'm being a pain in the arse." "I shouldn't burden you with this." "I should go." Nikki's fiction is like her, lean and supple. She lies without effort, like a seam of anthracite cool deep. She judging from the other people-surfers I have encountered, would only consider taking her life in circumstances of the most outrageous pain.

Sobs on. A failed bar in Spain savings vaporized, a swine in the form of a man, beatings and extra-Nikki use of his manhood. Sobs off.

"So what's your job?" asks Nikki, shifting her campaign from the heart to the head.

"Art consultant," says Rosa. Nikki oooooos her eyes to show her admiration and to express how lucky Rosa is to have such a job. Her approval would have been as fierce if Rosa had declared her trade to be street sweeper or chickengutter.

"What's that all about?"

"I authenticate works of art. If someone finds a painting or any work of art that looks a bit suspect, I'm brought in to see whether it's genuine, what period it's from, and so on."

"That sounds fantastic."

"You get to meet some interesting bowls."

"And how do you get a job like that?"

"I started off as a secretary in an auction house. Thenyou ... pick things up. But it wasn't easy. It's a business run by old, bloated, bitter, and impotent men, so they don't like someone half their age and female coming along and proving them wrong, because when you're old, bloated, bitter, and impotent, your expertise is the only thing left."

"It must take years to learn the business.

"Years."

"That's my problem, I've never found the right thing. I've done dozens of jobs, dancer on cruise ships, waitressing, driver, box office, security guard—in a word, anything badly paid or really dreadful, but they've all been jobs that didn't go anywhere. You're so lucky to have an interesting job. But I mustn't witter on, I'm sure you've got things to do. A man to attend to."

"No, at the moment, that's one problem I haven't got."

"Enjoy the peace and quiet while you can, then. One'll blunder along any moment in need of coddling."

Rosa goes to have a bath. Nikki does the dishes as the dishes have never been done before; surfaces are scoured. A promise has been made of a mushroom stew for the next day. Rosa vacates the bathroom, Nikki enters, studying Rosa's legs, swallowing a thought.

Rosa goes for the phone: "Yes, it's genuine, but ... I don't know how to put this, I'm not sure what sort of genuine it is. I'd like to hang on to it for a bit longer." Silence. "It's difficult to explain." Silence. Listening. "Well, you'll think me crazy, but I have the feeling the bowl is lying."

This will be hard work.

the story of the night


By Colm Toibin

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1996 Colm Toibin.All rights reserved.
TAILER

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Interviews & Essays


Before the live bn.com chat, Tibor Fischer agreed to answer some of our questions:

Q:  What is your biggest literary influence?

A:  The Catcher in the Rye. It's so brilliantly written, so lucid. I think people underestimate the immense cleverness of Salinger's writing.

Q:  Have you ever had any trouble with censorship?

A:  No real trouble. The original title of Under the Frog was Under the Frog's Ass. My publisher thought it was too much. However, the Hungarian edition includes the ass.

Q:  If you could be a character in any film, whom would you be?

A:  The Godfather. That way, I could rub out people who don't like my book.

Q:  You are working on a book, you get writer's block, what do you do for inspiration?

A:  I usually lock the door and sit in the room until I'm so bored I'm forced to write.

Q:  What is your favorite form of travel?

A:  Walking. I particularly love walking in cities. Manhattan's great.

Q:  Is there a particular moment in history you see as being definitive in the shaping of the world today?

A:  The collapse of the Soviet Block was, at first, not good for Eastern Europe, but in the long run it has been and will be beneficial.

Q:  Is there a particular moment as a child you remember having a great impact on you?

A:  I went to see Isaac Asimov in 1973. He signed my book. I think it was at that point I knew I wanted to be a writer.

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  • Posted September 28, 2011

    A bowl's eye view of history

    An utterly original work. Beautiful prose with impeccable comic and dramatic timing. I loved it.

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