Please, Mr. Einstein
By Jean-Claude Carrière
Harcourt, Inc. Copyright © 2005 Editions Odile Jacob, Paris
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-15-101422-1
Let's follow that girl who's walking down the street. She waits for some cars to go by, then crosses without bothering about the lights.
We're in a Central European city-Prague or Vienna, perhaps, or Munich or Zurich. There's no well-known monument in sight that would enable us to identify the city in question. The weather is quite fine, the time of year indeterminate. It's late afternoon and the shadows are beginning to lengthen. The girl is wearing jeans, flat-heeled black shoes and a blouse. Aged between twenty and twenty-five, she's on the slim side, with an animated face and brisk movements. She's carrying a shoulder bag. We might take her for a student, but a student in her final year.
This, then, is the moment at which we first catch sight of her. We will never know where she comes from, or what her name is, or what her parents do, or how her life will turn out. We're following her simply because our gaze has lighted on her in the street.
She hears the bell of an approaching tram and skips onto the opposite pavement. The yellow and black tram, which she has failed to see or hear until now, narrowly misses her. It bears the number 17.
She watches it recede, then looks up. Above her she sees a building dating from 1910 or 1920, with a ponderous, rather dreary façade. She takes a crumpled piece of paper from one of the pockets inher jeans and checks the address on it.
Yes, this is the place all right. She goes in.
There's nothing remarkable about the entrance hall. She makes her way along it and up a shadowy, flight of stairs whose varnished treads, partly covered by a narrow strip of beige carpet, creak in places. Running her hand up the rather chunky wooden banister rail, she quickly climbs the stairs to the first floor. There, after peering into the gloom for a moment or two, she rings a doorbell.
We don't know exactly what time it is, but in any case, the girl seems quite unconcerned whether it's morning or evening, Monday or Wednesday.
She settles down to wait on the landing, but the door opens almost at once. It's held ajar by a dark, elderly woman in a longish skirt and an old-fashioned blouse trimmed with lace. We can't tell if the lace is handmade (though it's possible).
The woman has a strong, calm face with a prominent nose and pale skin displaying only faint traces of makeup-a kindly enough face for someone who's answering a door. She asks the visitor if she's expected. Does she have an appointment?
"Not really," the girl replies. "I had some time to spare, so I came just like that-on the off chance, so to speak. I can come back if necessary. Or wait for as long as I have to."
"You're sure you've come to the right address?"
"I think so."
She holds out the piece of paper. The pale-faced woman glances at it. She hesitates briefly, very briefly, then opens the door a little wider and steps aside.
"Come in," she says grudgingly.
The girl squeezes into the apartment. We follow her.
After making her way through a kind of recess she finds herself in a windowless waiting room where a dozen people, men for the most part, are patiently seated on some nondescript chairs, not all of the same design.
They glance up at the new arrival. As for her, she surveys the room with interest but little surprise before sitting down on the only unoccupied chair. Some of the men are wearing clothes and shoes that look as if they date from the first half of the twentieth century, or the 1950s at the latest. They've all taken the trouble to put on ties, though one or two of their rather grubby shirt collars are curling up rebelliously. Their jackets are buttoned. Nearly all of them are holding leather briefcases or bulky folders under their arms or on their laps. Reposing on some of these folders, most of them firmly secured with straps, are felt hats.
Out of the corner of her eye, the girl notes that the majority of the people waiting here are clutching their briefcases and folders tightly, even to the extent of digging their nails into them as if they contain fortunes in paper.
One of them gives a start whenever he hears the muffled hiccups of the central heating system buried somewhere in the old building's pipework.
Also audible, and emanating from the street, is the sound of trams passing in both directions with bells clanging. But that startles no one. It's like a punctuation mark, an urban cadenza.
One of the waiting men, who had deposited his black briefcase on the floor, propped against the legs of his chair, bent down and retrieved it when the girl came in. As if suddenly afraid of something, some indiscretion or attempt to steal it, he's now clasping it to his chest with both hands.
Another man, seated in the waiting room's only armchair, is a stern-looking individual in a gray wig, quite a long, curly one, which he doesn't attempt to disguise. He's wearing a kind of voluminous, old-fashioned cloak over his street clothes, which appear to be dark, and shoes with silver buckles.
The girl notices these unwonted details without seeming too surprised to find herself with such people in such surroundings. Was she expecting it? We can't tell, not being privy to her thoughts. In any case, she isn't intimidated. She glances at her watch, glances at it again, then peers more closely and shakes her wrist as if it has stopped. She looks round inquiringly, but there's no clock on the wall or the mantel.
She turns to the man sitting beside her and asks him the time in a low voice.
"I don't know what time it is," he replies in a Central European accent.
"No, I'm sorry, I don't know."
She catches the eye of a square-faced, white-haired woman who doesn't wait to be asked. "Nor do I," says the woman.
"It's late, anyway," the Central European sees fit to add.
The square-faced woman nods. She also thinks it's late.
We sense that the girl is gradually becoming disconcerted, almost perturbed, by this whole setup. She seemed on arrival to be quite relaxed-proof against surprise and emotion of any kind. She doesn't look as if she's come here for medical treatment or legal advice. She might be in the outer office of a theater manager or casting director, waiting with other hopefuls to be selected for a part in a film or a play. But in that case, why are all these people around her clutching briefcases?
In any event, if she's after a part she doesn't have competition on this particular day. She's the only girl sitting there.
She seems doubly surprised when the woman in the long skirt-let's call her Helen, which we later discover is her name-reappears, points to her and beckons her into another room.
"You. Come with me, please."
"Yes, you. Come along."
It's possible that the girl feels tempted to say that there's been some mistake, that she was the last to arrive and has plenty of time to spare. We often hesitate at the last moment when our turn comes and the time for a decision approaches. We would prefer to prolong the tedium of waiting-to remain in ignorance of a diagnosis, for example, when we go to the doctor. In the end, however, the girl says nothing and complies. For one thing, she has no idea of the rules that must prevail in this waiting room, this building. For another, she finds it very hard to tell how long she's been sitting here. Like her, we're under the impression that she's only just come in, but that impression lacks certainty and precision, and there's no clock or watch to corroborate it. Perhaps she has been waiting on this chair for longer than she thinks, longer than she seems to have been waiting. It doesn't matter.
Under the resentful gaze of the others, who have doubtless been waiting for ages (we will never know how long) and who suddenly see this latecomer cut the line without explanation, the girl gets up, crosses the room with her bag on her shoulder and follows Helen into an adjacent room.
The door closes behind the two women. Some of the waiting men sigh, others mutter irritably to themselves. The one who snatched up his briefcase replaces it gently on the floor. Another clears his throat and coughs a couple of times.
A tram goes by in the street. The bell clangs twice.
The girl makes her way through some double doors. She now finds herself in a sizable study whose contents include books, periodicals and pamphlets, various documents and instruments, a blackboard (complete with rag and chalk), a violin in its case, some scattered sheets of music and a music stand. Here too, the furniture looks as if it dates from the beginning or middle of the twentieth century.
She quickly surveys her new surroundings without being able to take note of every last detail in the few seconds available.
She does, however, see that three other doors, at present shut, give access to the room. Three doors in addition to the one by which she has entered it.
Behind her she hears a man's rather high-pitched, almost quavering voice.
"That'll be all, Helen."
She turns to find herself face to face with Albert Einstein, whose appearance has scarcely been touched by eternity.
Yes, it's Albert Einstein in person. There's no mistaking him. He looks about fifty-five or sixty, with the thick mustache and long, almost white hair we know from photographs, the dark eyes and heavy lids drooping at the corners, the high, furrowed brow. The face of a man known the world over.
Very simply dressed in a rather crumpled pair of slacks, a shabby, pale beige sweater and leather sandals worn without socks, he's smiling and rather awkward in his movements.
Helen withdraws by way of a small door hidden behind a bookcase-a door the girl failed to notice when she came in. This brings the number of doors to five.
"See you later, sir," Helen says to Einstein before closing the hidden door behind her. "I'll be here if you need me."
"Very good," Einstein replies. "Thank you, Helen."
"What should I do about the others?" she adds, holding the fifth door ajar.
"Oh, we'll see."
"Are they to wait?"
"Yes, have them wait."
Now alone with Albert Einstein in his study, the girl gives him a little nod. She's looking a trifle intimidated, and we can well understand why. However, since she appears to be pretty self-possessed or even bold by nature, she quickly recovers her composure under the celebrated scientist's gaze.
"You said that time doesn't exist," she tells him, "so I took the liberty of coming to see you."
"You did the right thing," Einstein replies without taking his eyes off her.
"I took a chance."
"One can be lucky sometimes."
"I didn't think I would be, but here I am."
Possibly for want of something else to say, she adds, "My watch has stopped."
"It happens, especially in this building. Everyone complains about it, I gather. Personally, I've given up wearing one."
He suddenly bursts out laughing. It's a resounding, booming peal of laughter, as if he'd just uttered some hilarious remark. His reaction rather disconcerts the girl.
She waits for him to stop laughing, then: "And you don't miss it?"
This time he smiles.
"Oh, not at all," he replies with a little shrug. "Least of all now. I mean, what would I do with a watch?"
They look at each other in silence. For how long? How can we judge? They don't know what to say or do. Each seems to be waiting for the other to make some signal. The girl notices that Einstein is examining her closely, observing her face, her hands, her figure, her clothes, her shoulder bag. If she has read any books about him, which is probable (since it's he whom she came to see in this building and his presence there didn't surprise her, even though we don't know where she obtained her information), she knows that he has never been indifferent to the opposite sex-far from it-and that there was a time when the women in his life succeeded one another in pretty short order. She also knows that most men find her extremely attractive. They even contrive to tell her so, or to intimate as much.
Has she decided to gamble on this? We can't tell, not yet. She probably doesn't even know herself.
At this stage it's futile for us to speculate about her true intentions, about what she expects and is thinking or hoping. Futile and factitious. We don't know her well enough for that. We don't even know what preparations she made for this visit or what she really hopes to gain from it. We followed her along the street and up the stairs; that's pretty much all we know about her.
If instead of reading a book-or writing it-we were getting acquainted with these characters and this situation in a cinema or in front of a television screen, or even at the theater, we wouldn't ask ourselves any subsidiary questions, and for a very good reason: we wouldn't have time. We would be so thoroughly carried along by the action of the film or play-provided the action was sufficiently appealing and engrossing, or at best irresistible-that this would stifle any kind of inquiry into the attendant circumstances.
It would be impossible for us to see a particular episode again, to replay it and check on what has just been written or filmed; we could only watch and listen. As in the present instance.
Doubtless casting around for something to say, the girl gestures toward the door.
"There are lots of people waiting outside."
"I can't help that."
"Is that your waiting room?"
"If you like, but I'm not a lawyer or a dentist, you know."
"They come to consult you, though?"
"Yes, in a manner of speaking. Consult me? Yes, sometimes."
"Oh, all sorts of things. The design of a new electric iron, a printing press, a motor, an optic fiber. About what goes on in the heart of a star or a comet's tail. But most of the time they come to demonstrate, armed with supporting evidence, that I was utterly and completely wrong."
"And it's like that every day?"
"Yes, it's always like that. Or so it seems to me, anyway. But I must confess I've more or less forgotten what 'every day' means. I've given up using a calendar. It's the same with a watch. They're ideas that have eluded me."
"Where do they come from, those people out there?"
"All over the place. I don't ask them where or when they hail from."
"They look as if they're from another age."
"That's because they've been waiting a long time, wouldn't you think?"
The girl doesn't speak for a while-exactly how long, it's as hard to determine as before. She looks around Einstein's study, then back at Einstein himself-Einstein, who has been dead for fifty years (all the reference books say so), but who is there in front of her, apparently in the flesh, in a study that seems to be his and is visited by all those oddly attired people.
"But you saw me first," she says.
"Does that surprise you? Wasn't the decision yours?"
"No. I never decide such things."
"Who does? The woman I saw just now?"
"Helen? Yes, of course. It was she who told me about you. A girl has just turned up, she said."
"Is that what she told you? So why did you let me in?"
He spreads his arms, palms upwards.
"Because I'm very glad to see you," he replies, still smiling.
"Why are you glad to see me?"
His smile quickly vanishes. He hesitates for a moment or two.
"Because," he says at length, "since you apparently come from what you still call the future, your presence here proves to me that the human race hasn't disappeared."
"You were afraid it had?"
"Very much so!"
"Because of the atomic bomb?"
He cocks his right forefinger.
"Because of nuclear weapons, to give them their correct designation."
"If the human race had disappeared, would you be afraid of being held responsible?"
For the first time, Einstein's expression suddenly darkens. As the facile cliché has it, a shadow flits across his face-a shadow across the face of a shade. Right at the very outset, his visitor has boldly asked the question that troubles him most.
Yes, he replies in a subdued voice. "Yes, it's true. I might be afraid of that."
"But responsible to whom? If humanity had disappeared, who would be left to blame you for it?"
Einstein's smile returns. He beams at this notion, seemingly appreciative of his visitor's rapid train of thought.
Excerpted from Please, Mr. Einstein by Jean-Claude Carrière Copyright © 2005 by Editions Odile Jacob, Paris . Excerpted by permission.
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