Minotaurby Benjamin Tammuz, Mildred Budny, Kim Parfitt
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On the day of his forty-first birthday, an Israeli secret agent encounters a beautiful young English woman. In his overburdened mind, she is the woman he has been searching for all his life, the one he has loved forever. Though they have never met, he is certain that she is an essential part of his life's destiny. Using all tricks of his trade and his network of contacts, he takes control of her existence without ever revealing his identity. Alexander Abramov's desperate, dangerous love for a woman half his age consumes everything in its path: time, distance, and rival suitors. Only his own story, of a life conditioned by isolation, distrust, and murder, can explain his devastating manipulation of the woman he professes to love.
Four lives are entwined in this intricate story of a solitary man driven from one side of Europe to the other by his obsession. Riveting and full of suspense, as in the best spy-story tradition, Minotaur is also a highly inventive and original literary novel. Tammuz is a skilled writer whose commanding style makes of Alexander Abramov's story a moving allegory of every man's search for love.
"A masterpiece...A great novel of love and desire."
–The Nervous Breakdown
“A novel about the expectations and compromises that humans create for themselves...Very much in the manner of William Faulkner and Lawrence Durrell.”
—The New York Times
"With echoes of Kafka and Conrad, Israeli novelist Tammuz has fashioned a provocative, spare, slow-to-unfold mystery of character."
"A largely unrecognized masterpiece."
—Three Monkeys Online
“If the doomed atmosphere that hovers over the romances in Greene and Le Carré is present in Minotaur, so is a flavor that can only be described as more continental, and prose more sensuous than fits into the schemes of those two writers.”
"The best novel of the year."
—Graham Greene, author of The Quiet American
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By Benjamin Tammuz
Europa EditionsCopyright © 1989 Estate of Benjamin Tammuz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSECRET AGENT
A man, who was a secret agent, parked his hired car in a rain-drenched square and took a bus into town. That day he had turned forty-one, and as he dropped into the first seat he came across, he closed his eyes and fell into bleak contemplation of his birthday. The bus pulled up at the next stop, jerking him back to consciousness, and he watched as two girls sat down on the empty seat in front of him. The girl on the left had hair the color of copper-dark copper with a glint of gold. It was sleek and gathered at the nape of her neck with a black velvet ribbon, tied in a cross-shaped bow. This ribbon, like her hair, radiated a crisp freshness, a pristine freshness to be found in things as yet untouched by a fingering hand. Whoever tied that ribbon with such meticulous care? wondered the man of forty-one. Then he waited for the moment when she would turn her profile to her friend, and when she turned to her friend and he saw her features, his mouth fell open in a stifled cry. Or did it perhaps escape from his mouth? Anyway, the passengers did not react.
Today I'm forty-one and this is not the first time I've celebrated my birthday filling ina diary in a hotel room. Tomorrow I'll find a greetings telegram at the embassy from my wife and the two girls. And there'll be a special telegram from my son at boarding school. He is also away from home, and if he likes it that way, no doubt he'll follow in my footsteps. If he does, there'll be another reason for me to end it all as soon as possible. Except that early this evening it finally happened, and now I want to hang on.
I don't know why I believed that before meeting her I would receive some sort of advance notice. At any rate, it never occurred to me that I might be taken by surprise. But I was. I saw her quite suddenly, sitting down in front of me on the bus. I had no difficulty whatsoever in recognizing her. When she got off the bus I followed her. I have already found out her address and tomorrow I shall also know her surname and possibly even her Christian name. She lives in a smart building, the kind where the well-off live. I heard her speaking to her friend and even her voice gave her away. She might well sing in a choir. Her accent bears witness to a good education; her clothes are simple but expensive. Not a single ornament, apart from a black velvet ribbon: a somber ribbon tied with a marvelous precision that gave the desired impression-carelessness. The color of her hair is just as I remembered it, and so is the color of her eyes-a deep brown, not too dark. Her chin juts out a little, just far enough to leave no doubts about the kind of person she is: of sufficient character to dismiss anything unwanted but, above all, capable of wholehearted and passionate devotion. Her coloring and complexion are as I remembered them: very fair, like my mother's, with a pink bloom deepening, flawless and unhurried, toward high cheekbones, so gradually that it is impossible to say where white turns to pink. But her mouth is a sudden, vivid crimson. And those teeth. My God! Surely they cannot have been created just to chew food. If they were, I'd say that there was no need to go to so much trouble.
And I am forty-one and she is about seventeen. Twenty-four years.
This letter, which is typewritten, is not signed and I daresay we shall never meet. Yet I have seen you and I made sure that you saw me. That was about six weeks ago. I walked past you and you looked at me, the way you look at people coming toward you in the street. You didn't recognize me. But even so, you belong to me.
You will never have an opportunity to ask me questions, but my voice will reach you through my letters, and I know that you will read them. How do I know? I can offer no explanation, other than what I am about to tell you: for as long as I can remember I have been searching for you. I knew you existed, but I didn't know where. My work brought me to the town where you live. My work is a series of surmises, assumptions, and risks. I chose this work because I have never loved anyone, except you, although all my life I have been trying to love-in other words, to be unfaithful to you. I have devoted my life to tough and disagreeable work because I needed to love. And therefore I love the country I serve, her mountains, her valleys, her dust and despair, her roads and her paths. I acted as I did through lack of choice. I didn't know if I would ever meet you. And now, now that we have met, it's too late. There has been a mistake, some sort of discrepancy in birth dates, in passports. Even heaven is chaotic, just like any other office. Anyway, it's too late and it's quite impossible.
I have the address of your boarding school and I also know which university you will be attending next year. And I know that you like music. In due course I shall know still more.
With this letter there will be a parcel, containing a record player and a record. I'd like you to play the record next Sunday at 1700 hours. I shall do the same in my hotel room, not far from you, and the two of us will be listening to the same music at the very same time. This will be our first meeting, and I shall know if you have done as I asked. Indeed, I already know that you will respond to this appeal.
I love you. I have loved you all my life. It is difficult for me to come to terms with the thought that you did not recognize me in the street. But that's not your fault. There has been a mistake: in dates, in places, in everything. I'm quite sure that it was me who was intended to be tormented, not you.
I take your shoe off your foot and kiss your toes. I know them, just as I know every line of your body. Don't be angry, don't take pity. I never knew happiness until I found you.
I did as you asked at 1700 hours precisely. How did you know that I am playing this concerto right now? For that matter, how do you come to know so much about everything? I've been trying to guess who you are and I think that I have it. If I am right you'll have to give in and come out into the open. You are G.R., and we met at a party at N.'s. I'm right, aren't I? You were looking at me all the time and they told me your name.
I don't have anywhere to send this letter, but I'm writing it so that I can show it to you if we ever meet. I'm writing because it's impolite not to answer a letter as nice as yours. (By the way, I hardly understood a word of it. You're awfully mysterious.) Meanwhile I'm putting my reply in a special box, marked "Letters to Mr. Anonymous," until we meet. It's not nice to keep a girl in suspense like this.
My anonymous friend,
I think you should know that I have exams soon and I can't answer every single one of your letters, especially when you write every day, sometimes twice a day. I'm writing a general answer to all the letters that have come so far and, until the exams are over, I shan't write anymore, and you will just have to forgive me.
Now I am sure that you are not G.R., because in the meantime he has introduced himself to me and performed all sorts of amorous maneuvers. And so you remain unidentified and I am angry because your letters are becoming so sad and I'd like to tell you that there is no need to take me so seriously. Lately I've been looking in the mirror a lot, to find out what you see in me, and do you know what I discovered? I should be ashamed of myself, but it's true. I discovered that maybe I really am prettier than I thought. And this is all your fault. Now it's difficult for me to enjoy the compliments I get from my friends because, compared to your letters, everything they say sounds crude. Although I don't know you, I am sure that you are cleverer than all my friends, but I sometimes think that you exaggerate terribly.
And why are you so sad? If you wanted, you could be a writer or a poet, even if you don't mean what you write. And why do you talk about wanting to die? If you love me, as you say in all your letters, you simply have to show your face. Perhaps I'll like you? Why all this bizarre mystery? You seem to explain everything, but I understand nothing. I'm not as bright as you think.
And thanks so much for the other two records you sent. You seem to be crazy about this one composer, as you're always sending me his music. I agree that he is wonderful, and I play the records on Sundays at 1700 hours. All according to your madness. As you can see, I'm behaving like a good girl and it's about time that you were a good boy too and sent me a photo at least.
P.S. This letter is going into the "Letters to Mr. Anonymous" box too. How much longer will you be anonymous?
Dearest Mr. Anonymous,
I have finished my exams and now I shall sit about listening to the records that have been piling up. Did you know that you are very impolite? This is the third letter I have written to you in the past year and I still have no address to send them to.
I know no more about you today than I did after receiving your first letter. But there is a big difference: If you were to stop writing to me now, I should miss you. Perhaps that's your intention? You make me feel like a queen and I'm getting used to it. Where will it all end? No one but you knows all the fine qualities you see in me. You are making me grow accustomed to something no one else will ever give me. Why are you doing it? I shan't write to you anymore unless you come and introduce yourself. This is the last letter I'm putting in the "Letters to Mr. Anonymous" box. Now I'm going to play a record and I hope that you will be playing one at the same time. Then you'll understand that I want to see you, without any obligation, of course. In spite of everything you're still a dear.
I must beg your forgiveness for the contents of the last two letters. I had no right to involve you in my weeping and wailing. I am ashamed of myself and promise never to do such a thing again.
I dreamed about you last night. I was standing alone on a balcony and you appeared in the doorway, looked at me, and smiled. Then you came toward me. You didn't really walk but float through the air till you reached my side. You didn't embrace me or reach out to me but lean slightly toward me and kiss me on the lips; I burst into tears, and you smiled and said, "I belong to you. Take me." I said, "How can I take you?" And you said, "In the air. Take me in the air."
What did you mean, Thea? Two weeks ago I saw the graduation ceremony at your school. I was sitting in the third row, on the right, not far from your parents. When you looked at them your eyes rested momentarily on my face. Thank you, my love. I kissed you in the air, just as you suggested in my dream. You didn't recognize me. Once again you didn't recognize me.
I shall be in town in a few months' time. I shall not go to your university, because there it would be easy to pick out a stranger. On that wretched campus you will be lost to me for a long time. I'll try to see you during vacations when you come home for holidays. I know you will not be angry about all this absurd mystery that surrounds me. It's not a mystery at all. There is simply no other way. There is not, believe me.
I love you.
It is three years today since I found you. You are my greatest loss, a loss that was recovered only when it was already too late. Only today did it occur to me that you might perhaps like to write to me once. So this is what I suggest you do: write on the envelope "Mr. Franz Kafka, Poste Restante," and send it to your local post office. I shall be there on December 5th. At 1700 hours I shall go to the post office to collect your letter. In order to be sure that you don't come to identify me, I would like you to sit in the café opposite your parents' home at that time. One of my friends will go there to confirm that you are doing as I ask. He will phone me and then I shall go to the post office and collect your letter. If you are not in the café, I shall not go to the post office. Forgive me if my suspicions are groundless.
The girl you sent to the post office to identify me did not see me but one of my friends. In the post office we saw a girl keeping a lookout and I realized that you were trying to outwit me. You have no idea how grateful I am for the fact that you wanted to see me and that you went to so much trouble. Even in my misfortune I am the happiest man in the world.
I have read your letters. You are as kind as I expected, you are as lovely as I know you to be, you are not my mistake, Thea. In my work I must never misjudge people's characters, because if I were to make a mistake even once, I might have to pay for it with my life. If I had been wrong about you I should have been dead a long time ago.
I want to answer all your questions but I cannot answer them in the way that you suggest. What I do have to say is this: I know that besides the things that we can readily understand, examine, analyze, and make use of, there is within us-and perhaps also outside us-a conscious force infinitely wiser than the intellect at our disposal. I collaborate with this force every day, especially in my work. And if I am still alive, it means that this force is not an illusion. It is likely to bring about my downfall, I suppose, but it's the best guide I have, the one that has shown you to me for as long as I remember. And it is a fact that you really do exist, exactly as I knew you before I found you. I need no better proof than this.
At the same time something has gone wrong, a mistake or a deliberate punishment. At any rate, we can't be what we were meant to be. We can't meet and we can't be united. The reason for this is simple, mundane, and humiliating, but I don't want to spell it out, because if I do, you will know that I am afraid and then you will doubt my love. There, I have already said too much.
I love you, Thea. If there is a God, he will make us meet in the place where I first divined or dreamed of you, before you were even born. If he will not make this gesture on our behalf, it means that he is not God, or that he does not exist, or that he is nothing but an office-efficient but indifferent.
You exist and every day I kiss your fingers and your toes. Soon I shall dare to touch your cheeks. I shall do it first with my hand and then with my lips. I hope to dream of you tonight.
About four years after the secret agent met Thea, G.R. asked her to marry him. Her parents gave their consent and the wedding was arranged for the beginning of winter.
About a month before the wedding G.R. was killed in a car crash. The same week Thea submitted her final dissertation to the university. Shortly after the death of her fiancé she went to Gstadt with her parents, and when they reached the hotel, she found a bouquet of roses waiting for her and a box of chocolates with a letter.
God wants you to be happy so you must get over this. You will find peace of mind in your walks around the district. You are young and intelligent. There can be no doubt that you will get over it.
I have no right to bother you with words now, and I certainly have no right to set you any unnecessary riddles, and so I shall say only this, in order to put your mind at rest. You will be wondering about the bouquet that was waiting for you at the hotel. Well, it's quite simple. I learn about your actions, your movements, and your plans from various people around you. I pay them for their trouble. And to make things even simpler, I shall give you an example. In the café opposite your house there used to be an old waiter. He has since died, so I am not afraid to reveal his identity. He used to receive regular payments in exchange for the reports he gave me on whatever he managed to find out. People like that are to be found everywhere and people like myself do not hesitate to make use of their services.
Don't be angry, it's the only way open to me. I travel a lot and I'm not a permanent resident in your country. If I had relied on chance alone, I would have lost you long ago. I am satisfied with what chance gave me when I found you.
Please smile, my angel. Smile, even in your grief, at me, at yourself, and at all that's terrible and wonderful in this our destiny.
Excerpted from MINOTAUR by Benjamin Tammuz Copyright © 1989 by Estate of Benjamin Tammuz. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
“A novel about the expectations and compromises that humans create for themselves . . . Very much in the manner of William Faulkner and Lawrence Durrell.” —The New York Times
"With echoes of Kafka and Conrad, Israeli novelist Tammuz has fashioned a provocative, spare, slow-to-unfold mystery of character." — Kirkus Review
“If the doomed atmosphere that hovers over the romances in Greene and Le Carré is present in Minotaur, so is a flavor that can only be described as more continental, and prose more sensuous than fits into the schemes of those two writers.” —Boston Phoenix
Meet the Author
Benjamin Tammuz was born in Russia in 1919 and immigrated to Palestine with his family at the age of five. He was a sculptor as well as a diplomat, a writer, and, for many years, literary editor of the Ha’aretz newspaper. His numerous novels and short stories have been widely translated from the Hebrew and have received several literary prizes. He died in 1989.
Translated from the Hebrew by Mildred Budny and Kim Parfitt.
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