A language-, border-, and genre-crossing extravaganza from one of the creators of the postmodern novel
One of Russia’s finest novelists and an heir to the literature of Gogol, Bulgakov, and Nabokov, Andrei Bitov has been widely hailed as a progenitor of the postmodern novel. The Teacher of Symmetry is his love letter to the art of storytelling. Layered with playful games between writer and reader, this delightful, challenging work explores the relationship between an author and his creations, and the sacrifices that a writer may make out of ardor for his art.
Bitov tells us that The Teacher of Symmetry is the “echo” of a British novel that he once read and is now trying to reconstruct through the moth holes of memory and the fog of a foreign tongue. As the book proceeds, we encounter a series of curious episodes: A man meets the devil on a park bench and the devil shows him photographs of the fall of Troy, Shakespeare’s legs, and a terrible event that will take place in his future. A king who reigns over all possible worlds and uses his power to remove stars from the sky turns out to be the compiler of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Villagers squabble over a self-proclaimed space alien, and a literary society decides that it will accept only new members whose works are unwritten. Through it all, Bitov proceeds with the wit and mastery of a fabulist in perfect command of his fables.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Andrei Bitov is the author of Pushkin House, Captive of the Caucasus, and The Monkey Link, among other works. He is a cofounder of the Russian PEN club and has received numerous awards and honors, including being named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. He lives in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Read an Excerpt
VIEW OF THE SKY ABOVE TROY
(Future in the Past)
A flash of lightning,
A drop of dew,
A thought about oneself.
I am the only person in the world who might have been able to shed light on the mysterious death of Urbino Vanoski. Alas, it is not within my power. What makes a legend a legend is its immutability.
This is the way he died, or, rather, was reborn in the minds of readers and critics—in complete obscurity, ignorant of his own fame, and poor as a church mouse (I would not resort to this idiom if it were not literally true: according to legend, he lived out his final days as a churchwarden, selling devotional candles). His grave is unmarked, and this is only fitting. Obscurity during one’s lifetime fans the flames of posthumous glory, and the nonexistent gravestone gives off a scorching heat. For him, the literary prize for lifetime achievement remains forever posthumous. Having established a foundation in his honor, we—Vanoski scholars all—began to meet annually on the Adriatic Sea. After each session, we publish a volume of our proceedings that we ourselves read, leaving no trace of our efforts which might be of any benefit to potential geniuses languishing as churchwardens.
Vanoski, an obscure author from the 1930s, enjoyed a veritable boom at the end of the sixties. This was due solely to the efforts of the permanent chairman of the foundation, V. Van-Boek. I would be banished in disgrace from the close-knit ranks of my colleagues if I so much as raised an eyebrow about the veracity of the myth he has so carefully constructed. No one would believe me. I would be refuted categorically, and accused of fabrication. And then where would I take my annual vacation?
Incidentally, Urbino Vanoski was not a churchwarden. He was an elevator operator, and died (or perhaps he is not dead at all?) fully aware of his sudden fame and his Grand Prize. Fully aware. For it was I who found him before his death (or not before, whatever the case may be). I was the last one to see him, to pass on the happy news to him. And I was the last one to interview him. It was not even so much an interview as a confession. I do not know why he chose me for this task—perhaps because he disliked me the moment he laid eyes on me. One is well advised not to believe everything that was revealed in the course of this confession. I have grounds to suspect that his mind was no longer absolutely sound. When I asked him how he felt about receiving such a high prize, he answered that he expected a higher one. “Which might that be?” I asked him. “Death,” he said. He became particularly irate when I asked about what he was working on just then. “Thank God I have never been a worker!” he spluttered. I tried to rectify matters by asking what he was writing. “I’m not. I’m painting! Landscapes. Why do you bother to ask me what I’m writing, anyway, if you haven’t read what has already been written?” I took this to mean that there was an unpublished book in the works. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he broke in. “I know, of course, that every decent writer is supposed to leave a respectable posthumous work in his wake.” I couldn’t resist the temptation to swoop down on this morsel. “Well, yes, as a matter of fact there is,” he said reluctantly. “There is an unfinished novel. It’s called Life Without Us … or Buried Alive? I don’t remember the name myself! Besides, it’s unlikely I’ll finish it … Life will.”
“Is it about life in the beyond?” I said, pondering.
“About life here and now,” he said, angered. “How can one possibly know which side is beyond, and which is here?”
It is likely that I looked somewhat deflated. He regarded me as though I were a child, and again his eyes blazed.
“There is one novel, perhaps nearly finished, but I can’t find it. I’m not surprised, however, for it is called Disappearing Objects. It’s about—well, no. I won’t try to retell it. That would be ‘tasteless impropriety.’
“Have you ever clean forgotten a word? You know the word, but your tongue is incapable of catching hold of it … You say that happens to everyone? But then you remember the word eventually. What if you forget it for all time, and can never recover it? I was once in the possession of such a word—a key word. I recalled it on one occasion, but at that very moment I was caught in a storm and forgot it once and for all. To this very day. It is, of course, significant that it was that particular word, and that I was the one who forgot it. Have you ever observed how sunflowers remember the sun, so they won’t forget it before morning?” The old man’s eyes glittered. “Perhaps you would like me to paint you a landscape? Very well, then. I will. It will be a landscape that no one apart from the ancient Greeks has ever seen.”
* * *
“Such sunflower fields must surely have existed in ancient Greece. Dika and I saw them when we were together in Italy. No, not the ancient one,” he said, pointing to his calf. “Right there, in Umbria. There was an enormous sunflower field. We passed it on our way up into the mountains to watch the sunrise and sunset. Everyone knows that sunflowers always turn toward the sun. They drink in every little ray. They’ve even copied it onto their faces, like children. We walked past them, smiling, and they smiled back at us. At sunset, however, they looked more organized, more preoccupied, like a regiment of soldiers waiting for orders. It seemed they wanted to catch the very last drop of sunlight. Then, suddenly, the whole regiment would turn away from the sun, showing us the backs of their cleanly shaven heads. Uncanny. Did they feel insulted by the sun, as though it had done them some injury?
“I was only able to explain it to myself in this way: They were preparing to greet the first ray, and not to see off the last. They use the energy of the setting sun to turn and face the rising sun. They must derive more benefit from the light of the sun as it is coming up. Dika rejected my theory. Unlike me, she knew a thing or two about biology. But she was always more drawn to fauna, whereas I was attracted by flora. I spoke to her of sunflowers, she spoke to me of goats. ‘Why,’ she said, ‘do they always go up a slope in a single direction? It must be awkward, always the same way. They never turn around.’ I explained to her that she was referring to a special breed, a mountain goat. The right legs are shorter than the left ones. ‘But what happens when they come back down?’ Dika fretted about them. ‘They’ll topple over!’ ‘They just go round in a circle their whole lives’ was the solution I offered her. And she believed me. She was so very gullible.”
The old man suddenly grew stern. He continued.
“You see, life is a piece of writing that the living never read to the end. But writing is alive, too! Every line contains the secret of the line that follows. So it is in life—the next moment is always To Be Announced, always in abeyance. We’re not sunflowers, we’re mountain goats. In America she wondered about how the Americans found enough turkey legs to go around on Thanksgiving Day. I told her that the Americans had bred a special four-legged turkey to prevent a shortfall, and this satisfied her.” He blew his nose and mopped his teary eyes.
I have reason to suspect that he was no longer in his right mind. Could I later publish all this nonsense? I could. It would cause a sensation, at the very least. I was young, I dreamed of fame. Fortunately, one seasoned reporter dissuaded me, warning me that I would lose my job if I did. And, really, who was I? My sensational article was sure to founder on the cliff of the myth that had grown up around Vanoski. Sometimes it seems to me that the myth had shattered the poor elevator operator himself. As if his own elevator had snapped off its cables. It could so easily have crushed him. But, then again, who would have wanted to take his life?
Perhaps the other story would be better after all—in the church, selling votive candles, cherishing no thoughts of grandeur? An easy, light-filled death.
* * *
“So it’s nothing out of the ordinary when some stranger—fat, bald, sweaty—sits down next to you in the Garden Park. In fact, he doesn’t so much sit down as flop down beside you, with a ‘Phew! Made it, for once.’ He composes himself, airing himself out, his sweat drying in the April sun, and says, still panting a bit, ‘Now then, Urbino. There isn’t a whole lot I know how to do, but I can show you a photograph of yourself…’ If something like that ever happens to you, as it did to me, don’t register surprise, and don’t give it a moment’s thought. Simply send the gentleman packing. Sending someone packing is always a sound philosophy. It’s the wisdom of dignity. This is something I came to understand only much later. Though despite understanding it, it’s a kind of prowess I have never been able to muster to this day.”
Here, old Urbino Vanoski heaved a deep sigh, raising his beautiful eyes to mine. Never had I seen a gaze of such directness and such meekness rolled into one. Still, he averted his eyes in consternation the very next moment, lest I think that his philosophy held true for me, as well. Though how could it not? As a correspondent for the Thursday Evening Post and Yesterday’s News, I was interviewing him. We sat in his tiny lair, which was so clean and empty that it felt spacious. The only real piece of furniture was a dilapidated plywood wardrobe.
It would have been a bona fide prison cell, had it not been for the subservience of the surroundings: he was not the prisoner of the room, but rather the tiny room was the prisoner of his gaze. The room was the frame of its dweller’s face, and his face framed his own eyes. Their relationship to one another was somehow reversed—a face in a gaze, a room in a face. His little shoebox of a room nestled right under the roof, and through the slanted window neither the courtyard nor the roofs beyond were visible, just a scrap of sky with a cloudlet floating in the frame. I sat on a solitary bentwood chair, quite rickety. Vanoski sat on a narrow folding cot. His long, perfectly clean-shaven face was as spare as his room. He had a youthful expression that for some reason accentuated his age, lending depth to it. Ah, how empty, how pristine, how well-considered it all was, so that he could part with every moment of existence, leaving no outstanding debts to the world at large. This room accommodated nothing else but me—but my body, despite its robust plumpness and the impropriety of my health and desire to exist, felt a sensation like heat from a kitchen hearth, or maybe it was the coolness of a crypt. Either I had arrived here from another dimension, or my body was itself another dimension …
Something in my perception had shifted. I kept confusing the external and internal planes of objects and phenomena—quite an unpleasant feeling. I stared with hostility at this maniac, who, nevertheless, had written The Last Case of Letters, a book so remarkable that only I could have written it, if I could have … With what enthusiasm I had thrown myself into this unenviable task—to seek out the grave of the mysterious Vanoski. And what do you know, I found it! Not the grave but the man himself. And alive, to boot. Or was he? I found him—only to freeze in the proximity of this minus-man, to marvel at the irony of the foresight that offered me the ability—or, rather, the opportunity—or even the hint of a possibility to create such a book … such power—in the dead loins of a moribund man … with hot, pulsing envy to stumble upon the futility of that envy, and to experience a painful awkwardness besides, because you are pestering someone who has consciously removed himself from life, as if this were your role—to cause him his last, living pain. Any movement of mine would rend his fragile, ashen-gray cocoon, like a child crushing an empty wasp’s nest.
It now seemed to me that from the first glance, after I had stepped inside the elevator with him, the old man saw his executioner in me—his expression was so mournful, within the bounds of propriety and good breeding, yet nearly bursting these bounds. He couldn’t possibly have looked at every passenger in that way. In other words, he was expecting me. At the same time (I was aware of this), he couldn’t have been waiting for me, because he no longer expected anything to come from his books, no consequences thereof. He was anticipating someone who could have been me but turned out not to be—this much I understood by how quickly his fear left him when I explained to him why I had come. When it left him, however, I sensed that he felt not simply relief but disappointment, in the same breath. He seemed bored, agitated, and bereft, to a degree that I could only guess at but never quite grasp. I had no notion of that abyss of absence that swallows an author who has evoked things so intimate and familiar to us all.
Vanoski said that he couldn’t spare any time for me until the end of his shift, so I decided to arrange for it to end immediately. Timid and frightened, he tried to stop me. I announced that it would not trouble me in the least. With the self-assurance of a young fool, I assumed that this impoverished, unsung genius of an old man would be pleased with the flurry of courtesy and servility his superiors would show upon learning of my mandate and credentials from Yesterday’s News. And, indeed, everything was as I had predicted: the supervisor began rushing around—Certainly, by all means!—and let the old man take the whole day off, finding a replacement for him without further ado. But the pangs of torment in the old man’s face from all this fuss and bother, from the fawning curiosity of others, from the cannibalistic lip-smacking at the gratuitousness of fame—the very anguish of his gaze—was something I didn’t expect. It was the gaze that meets visitors to the zoo from inside the cages. I had destroyed the old man’s balance of energy. The damage was done, and he knew it.
He was poised for a predetermined spectacle: the sensation of a new star—launched from the penury of nonexistence into the august ranks of great artists—overshadowed both the artist and his poverty. The hoopla was the content. Thus, the poor old man could not become himself in any sense of the word but had to remain that Vanoski whose legend had been born without him. The legend had to develop and grow while there was still time, but only according to the simplest rules of a fixed plot. The masterpiece created in poverty presupposes the poverty that creates a masterpiece—and positivism triumphs. I asked him how he had been able to write The Last Case, and he answered, “I don’t know.” I asked him what he would do with twenty thousand dollars and he answered, “I don’t remember.”
I might have called it quits then and there, because the old man couldn’t be of any use to me. He had no needs himself, so he wouldn’t appease me for our mutual advantage; and the newspaper wasn’t interested in anything close to the truth. The truth might have intrigued me personally, but truth was far to seek, and time was short. There wasn’t even anything to hold the gaze, not a thing for it to rest upon, in this clean-swept grave. There was only one object that ornamented the room, and a rather strange one at that, if one paid proper attention. It was a large-format photograph behind glass in a thin metal frame. For all intents and purposes, the photograph depicted nothing. It was empty, save for something that resembled a small cloud in one corner. The picture hung above the bed over the old man’s head on the wall opposite the little window—like a second little window I could look out of, at the same time that the old man, sitting across from me, looked through the real one. This photograph could also have served as evidence of the oddity of genius: placing above the bed a view of one’s own window, from which, in its turn, nothing is visible except a scrap of sky. Under the picture frame was a bronze nameplate with a florid engraved inscription. Would some vainglorious photographer really want to take credit for such a paltry work, I found myself wondering. Another object that would not have interested me in the least, had it not been for the behavior of the old man toward it, was something resembling a doorbell, also located above the bed, but slightly lower than the “picture.” The doorbell was set flush into the wall so that only a button protruded from it—round, smooth, white, and fairly large for a doorbell. Apparently, the device had been installed just recently, because the patch of plaster encircling it was still slightly moist. Now and then the old man glanced at the button with something like trepidation, at the same time trying to conceal this from me by awkwardly pretending it was only by chance that his eyes had strayed to that place. I easily satisfied myself with the explanation that the doorbell was actually some sort of intercom, a means of summoning the old man to the elevator that required him to answer back. I interpreted his sidelong glances at it as the sign of a downtrodden wretch with a self-abasing nature.
“Your supervisor is not going to trouble you anymore today,” I said to him as gently as I could, so that he would stop worrying and ignore the doorbell, though I already despaired of extracting anything useful from him.
“Thank you, I realize that,” said the old man. Heavens, how that gaze inserted into his face astonished me! I couldn’t help but think how sociologically predetermined perception is; for I had known very well whom I was seeking while my search was under way, but once I had found the object of my search, I lost track of the original. In this little shoebox I assigned to him a level of understanding characteristic of the lowliest rung on the social ladder. My God! If he had indeed written that, how clearly must things have appeared to him, how transparent must I have seemed to him all this time. I was suddenly so abashed about my own condescension that I leapt up out of my chair. To justify the abruptness of this action I pretended I had gotten up to read the inscription under the photograph. What I read was very peculiar. It said: VIEW OF THE SKY ABOVE TROY.
“Have you been to Troy?” I said.
“How could I have been there?” the old man said with a faint grin. “I wasn’t around back then.”
“Of course. I meant…” I muttered, stumbling over my foolishness. “I was referring to the spot where they recently discovered Troy had once been … I meant the modern-day Troy.”
“No, that sky is the one in the other Troy, the other sky,” the old man said in a monotone.
A chill ran down my spine. Like all young men, I had a horror of madness. What am I saying? I had never seen a single dead man in my entire life, not counting accident victims—and they aren’t true corpses, not like one’s own dead. And mad people? Only comical shadows amid the faceless crowd in the streets. But half-wittedness or dementia isn’t the same as madness. Now I grew afraid of Vanoski. I averted my eyes and stared at his clothes cupboard.
In The Last Case of Letters (a novel about a poem) he has a passage … Oh, what a passage it is! I can’t explain why it stirs me so every time; and I’ve reread it many times, playing it over and over like a favorite record, so … In it the protagonist is waiting for a letter to arrive from his beloved. It doesn’t come, and, consumed with fear and passion, he walks through a wasteland by the shore of the sea. Suddenly, on a dune, he sees a dilapidated plywood cupboard, apparently washed up by the surf. In his agitation and haste he opens the door, and there’s a letter. He frantically rips it open, fastens his eyes on it, sees that it begins: “Dear Urbino…” But it’s impossible to read it through to the end. The page is covered with what look like words, letters of the alphabet, in her handwriting, and he drinks it all in, but—he can’t seem to read it, and he tries to read the letter again and again, and can’t. Then he rushes home, takes a seat, and dashes off a reply. And now—my God, what a description!—the words swirl around, the ink smokes, the text into which he pours all his passion flows—but at the end of every line the text disappears. His passion hangs poised in midair and disappears without a trace beyond the margins of the page. Instead of the phrases he has just uttered, something entirely different appears on the page, some nonsense about Aunt Clara and her parrot. Poor Urbino sobs with helplessness and drenches Aunt Clara in his tears; and when he is comforted he raises his transparent, flowing head, and recovers his strength and equanimity and writes a letter, now calmly and quickly, efficiently, but in fact he’s just tracing out wavy lines—like a child painting the sea … Then his neighbor arrives, and they start conferring about a small mutual concern of long standing. They come to an agreement and go to the city of Taunus. And the passage that follows is so strong that I always make a singular effort to grasp the transition, but I just can’t manage—I can no longer find the passage in the book, however much I leaf through it.
And now it seemed to me that I was standing on the brink of his madness, which whirled around in a vortex, so smoothly, so imperceptibly and seamlessly—a funnel that consciousness pours into like sand—that you don’t even notice how you end up inside it, sliding along the breathtaking mathematical curvature, and peering out of a place from which there is no return …
“Yes, yes. I understand. That sky,” I said, as though backing up warily within his gaze.
The old man grinned. “I have grounds to believe that this is the case. You are young … Also, does not the very same sky cover that Troy and this one, and us, and all those who come after us? There you have it, at least in a metaphorical sense.”
“That’s the truth!” I said, nodding, overjoyed at Vanoski’s return to our mutually accepted stomping grounds of logic.
“I’m curious why figures of speech—an image, a metaphor—while distancing themselves from their object, seem to approach the truth, whereas the reality surrounding us seems to be senseless, littered with trivia, as though insufficiently generalized and abstract, and therefore untrue. It’s quite the opposite! I don’t think the time has come for you to understand this yet. I can only warn you—and, apparently, in vain. It is hardly likely that my personal experience will be of any use to you. Experience never is. And it’s unlikely that you will meet with such an open-ended fate. In any case, my advice to you is, never agree to any tempting offers. You are a simple and selfless man”—the first epithet jarred me, and I was about to take offense, but at the second I nodded benignly—“and for that reason you accept everything offered to you as a gift, or as an adventure, or as fate. You grab hold of it like an unselfish person who is usually left empty-handed. Refuse any offer—it’s always of the devil. That is why this is the real sky over Troy.”
This was when he repeated the words of the fat bald man in the Garden Park—and, once again, I failed to understand him. It was also when he said that sending someone packing was always the best bet, and on his face was that look of anguish, a look of “Why did I fail to do it this time, too?”
“There is something you need from me, for I am certainly not what you need. Rather, you desperately need something you suspect to be here, in my place. Everyone is a tyrant over reality nowadays, a practitioner of progress. Assume, therefore, that I’m no longer here. But since you want something from me (even though I’m not what you need, and this is precisely why I keep the life around me at bay, because I always feel answerable to it), I am now obliged to respond, insofar as you are life, since you have come to me. But since you couldn’t care less about me but are intent upon something you purport to need, I reserve the right to repay you in the only way I can. And this utter imbalance, albeit equal in weight, is the essence of the question and the answer.
“I will tell you about the picture. I have reason to want to draw closer to it now.” Here again he pretended not to be looking at the button on the wall. “I think about it now unceasingly, so it will be fairly easy for me to relate it to you. Whether you need me to or not is up to you. You came to me yourself, of your own volition, so it’s not at all surprising that I am the one here in front of you—though you are of no concern to me whatever.”
“So was he the devil?” I said, growing angry at this sermon.
“Must there always be horns?” Vanoski said, frowning impatiently. “And his eyes were as blue as blue can be—not burning coals. Even his baldness seemed intentional, as proof there were no horns to speak of. Fat. Corpulence disarms suspicion—that’s folk wisdom. Only later did I come to appreciate the extent of his good nature. He was not at all insistent. He didn’t try to deceive me in the least—temptation has nothing to do with deception. We are tempted solely through our own devices. Perhaps he really did sit down beside me just by chance—to take a breather, as it was so hot.
“The English, as everyone knows, are garrulous. Perhaps this is why we spread the myth of our reserve and taciturnity: we try to cover up that particular vice of ours. In any event, I didn’t fail to take exception to the stranger’s audacity, saying I didn’t believe we had met, and so forth.
“He seemed somehow unwelcome and out of place in every way—to me in particular. And, overall, that’s how he looked: unseemly and inappropriate. I was young, like you. I had strong notions about myself—the vaguer and more obscure they were, the more I fancied them. Especially when I didn’t have a farthing in my pocket. Notions of love … of fame and glory. I was quite carried away by my own thoughts. And it was all the more unpleasant to catch myself in the middle of them … At that particular moment some shadowy beautiful creature, for some reason dressed in an Indian sari, standing on the shore of a turquoise sea, was pressing my rose to her breast … And I took exception to him with the icy dignity of a true Brit.
“‘What do you mean—you’re not Urbino?’ the fat man blurted out. Only then did the awkwardness of the situation that my diffidence had created dawn on me. He had, however, already opened his shapeless, beat-up briefcase and dropped his fleshy thief’s paw into the contents. It seemed to me that he was rummaging around and stealing from his own briefcase.
“‘Perhaps this isn’t you, then?’ He plucked out a photograph like something from a flower bed, and thrust it under my nose in triumph.
“But it was not me at all! That is to say, it could have been anyone. Half the face was obscured by some apparatus that looked partly like a camera, partly like a fantastical weapon whose muzzle resembled a rifle. In any case, the character in the photograph seemed to be aiming at something, and the half a face that wasn’t obscured by the apparatus in his hands was wincing and distorted. And he was dressed queerly, in a whimsical, foreign style. I said, mastering my recent confusion, that it was certainly not me.
“‘Not you?’ the fat man said, finally taking a good look at the photograph. ‘Drat it, what an old fool I am!’ His disappointment was unfeigned. ‘I do beg your pardon.’ Here he began to cringe in annoyance, as if giving himself a slap in the face with the photograph.
“‘Stop this improper clownery,’ I said coldly.
“‘You cannot imagine what an unpardonable mistake I’ve made, and how I will have to pay for this!’ he wailed. ‘Never in my life has this happened to me before. Truly, this is not you. This is a photograph of one of your future acquaintances. But yours is here, too. Honestly … I swear it … None other than the devil has mixed everything up.’ Again he gestured toward himself, but more gently now. ‘Don’t be angry. Just give me a moment.’
“He rummaged and rummaged through his briefcase, pulling out thick piles of photographs of various sizes and eras, as though they had been purloined from myriad amateur photographers and family albums—underexposed and overexposed, stained with developer, with jagged blobs of glue stuck to them and torn-off corners.
“‘Where could it have gone?’ A rare sampling of artistic ineptitude passed before my eyes: here was a client without a head, though wearing a coat of armor; then there was a single hand holding a glass; next there appeared a bush with one blurred branch, as if the picture depicted an attempt to photograph a bird as it flew away. ‘You are very observant,’ he said, continuing his search, ‘which is why I sat down beside you. It is uncommon for someone to spy a bird on that branch right off the bat. One has to be a born poet for that. And that happens no more than three or four times a century. Well, like you, for example, or … But you’re not an admirer of the Lake Poets, are you? By the way, it was precisely this bird that inspired … Well, never mind, it doesn’t matter. What I mean to say is that these are all absolutely random shots. They mean nothing at all. This one, for example, is Shakespeare. And don’t think it’s the moment when he wrote his “To be or not to be” monologue. Nor is it a meeting with the Dark Lady, or with Francis Bacon. Here he is, looking tired after a performance.’ In the photograph was a faience basin with a broken rim, certainly outmoded in shape; but from it protruded two ordinary naked feet, either crooked themselves, or placed crookedly in the vessel. One toe stuck out in such a way that it looked like the legs it belonged to were busy at something down there in the basin, and a stream of water was pouring from the upper-right corner of the photograph into the mouth of the vessel. That was all.
“‘No, I am not a madman, still less a photographer or dreamer, which you have just suspected me of being. These pictures are, in fact, capable of far less than the actual possibilities of fantasy allow. These things I’m holding in my hands are historical originals, believe it or not. Ah, now you have hit upon a wonderful thought: Why should historical fact appear more precise or attractive than what I have in my hands? History happens right in front of our eyes, I must agree with you there.’ He was quite deft at guessing all my thoughts, and he did this just when I was either about to call him out and put him in his place, or simply stand up and leave, thus throwing off his unbearable obtrusiveness. But his angle on things, which you would later call the close-up shot, was very amusing from a poetic point of view. Here a line of poetry pecked its way out with heady facility: mud under the hooves of Alexander the Great’s troops, waves closing down over the Titanic, clouds floating past above Homer’s head … What did that mud know about the triumphant hoof? What did the water care about the treasures of the Spanish Armada? What need had the sky of verse?
“‘And here is the chink in the floor where the light squeezes through,’ the purveyor of pictures muttered to himself, but simultaneously with the line that had just before entered my head. ‘Not bad. Not bad at all. You see? I knew you were the very one I could trust. Possibly the only one, in our day and age. No, this isn’t flattery. I am not your garden-variety medium or swindler. Honestly, what is so special about anyone’s head that it should be considered a miracle to guess what’s inside it? Then again, what would I gain from it? Indulge my own talents by leading astray a gullible mind? That is a consideration, of course, but I am not so petty in my conceit. I have more humble, though less romantic, models than a Mephistopheles or Cagliostro. Now science fiction is all the rage. H. G. Wells, for example—The Time Machine. No, you scoff because you are still young. His style isn’t bad at all. I would even go so far as to say its Englishness is quite pleasant to the ear. It’s rare nowadays. It’s a childlike pleasure … He’s no Dickens, of course. But then again, begging your pardon, you and I are no Dickens, either. What do you mean boorish, when it’s only the truth? But I must agree with you that there is always a tinge of vulgarity in the truth. Because not everyone has the right, although, not everyone has the gift, either …
“‘Take a look, however, at this highly curious photograph: a box with the head of Mary, Queen of Scots. I can vouch for its authenticity. Both the box and the head. No, no, it’s not just the box for the head. At the moment it was photographed, the head was inside. Calm down, don’t get so upset! Just imagine, in the spirit of fantasy, albeit poor, of the H. G. Wells you do not approve of, that such a thing is possible, that I am the inventor of a time machine … Can you imagine the difficulties one runs up against before one achieves anything? A dearth both of parts and of finances. No livelihood. They kick you out of your apartment. On the pilot flight you don’t even have an amateur camera, let alone a professional one. No money even for a sandwich to take along for sustenance! Ah, at last. Here it is. But I warn you—no, on second thought, I’d rather you didn’t see it. I shouldn’t have insisted, you’ll take it the wrong way.’
“I was already clutching the photograph when he tried to snatch it out of my hand again. I grew really angry. I was on the verge of punching the lights out of this impertinent gentleman.
“‘Oh, no, young man, let’s not succumb to brutality. Or else I might decide not to show you. But have it your way. I won’t go back on my promise, if you will be so kind as to hear me out and remember what I am about to say to you. And it is mandatory that you believe me. And I swear on I-don’t-know-what, since you seem to reject everything about me, that I am not deceiving you. I am holding a photograph of you. It is from your future, a not too distant one. When? I know, but I won’t tell you, for then you’ll be expecting it, and I don’t wish to spoil it ahead of time. You do have a future. I know both the year and the day. What do you mean, when? How impatient you young ones are! Well, not in five years, let’s say … You’re now just about twenty-one. You dream of love and glory. Oh, I know what kind! Top-notch. You have the right to it; and, what’s more, the opportunity is yours, now, and in the future. So, not in five years but fewer than ten, certainly … No, I’m not talking about success, I’m talking about this picture. It’s just as random and meaningless as the others you have seen. Just as authentic, but also just as random, as the others. You may consider me a poetry worshipper who was unable to hold out and depict you as you would one day become. All right. Here, take it … But mark my words. This is a random moment, not biographical fact. For your amusement, as it were…’
“I no longer heard his admonitions. I fixed my eyes greedily on the image, which happened to be much clearer and sharper than Shakespeare’s legs or the Lake Poet bird. The face of an unfamiliar young man reflected in a shopwindow stared back at me. He was older than me by some ten years, perhaps a bit less, but he looked far more masculine. His face was attractive, albeit distorted by the kind of sorrow and shock that one rarely sees in a living face, much less one captured in a photograph. It was like a mask suited to a myth in which the hero turns to stone from an encounter with a monster. Perhaps even Medusa herself wore such an expression when she beheld her own reflection. In short, the reflection was striking, though it originated in the display window of an ordinary shop selling ready-made clothing, between two mannequins, male and female, who seemed to be striding toward one another with outstretched arms. Their arms, however, bracketed something horrible, something that the One Who Was Reflected saw, as well. The One Who Was Reflected saw Her. And She could not possibly have inspired that kind of horror. There was nothing horrible about Her. Nor was there anything benign.
“Sometimes beauty can astound or shock. That’s what books tell us. That was not the case here. A pale moth—that’s what I said to myself in the first moments. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, however. What did He see in Her? Perhaps this is what it’s like to peer into Fate? Perhaps this is what Fate looks like? Her garments were unprepossessing, too—the clothes of a woman who was indifferent to her appearance: comfortable, but no more. On her arm she carried a shopping bag. Long, ash-colored hair, tousled, as though it was rearing up. A slattern. That’s what a slattern looks like, I said to myself. I was fascinated. Those eyes! I couldn’t unfasten my gaze from hers. A wide forehead, pale thick brows, eyes that were more gray than blue (the photograph was black-and-white)—but large, luminous eyes, eyes that were somehow rectangular, and spaced enchantingly, at an improbable distance from either side of the bridge of her nose. Her cheekbones were also impossibly wide; but this you wouldn’t notice, so wide apart were the eyes. They almost looked out of different sides of her face, like a fish. A fish, I said to myself. A moth, a slattern, a fish, that’s what I said. But no one was as slender underneath her clothing as she was …
“No. I can’t recount it. I don’t recall what I saw first, and what I only discerned afterward, in what order it happened … That’s very important, the order. The first thing I registered was the shocked expression on his face. Then there was perplexity about hers: it didn’t contain anything that would elicit such shock. Then her reflected face, more pallid and washed-out than his, but also surprised. Then his reflection, as though distorted from horror of itself—horror from witnessing its own shock. For a fraction of a second the photograph came to life and turned around, as if someone else entered or left the store at that moment, and the glass door swung open … But first he looked at her, and she looked at the window; then he looked at the window, and she looked at him.
“The photograph is fixed in my memory, I see it before me now, as we speak. Oh, I studied it as I never studied anything before in my life. But perhaps there were altogether three photographs, like frames in a film. Or for a fleeting moment the photograph became stereoscopic, so that you seemed to see behind the backs of the people in it …
“‘Don’t attach any meaning to it … Pure chance … Just a detail … Don’t believe anything … I shouldn’t have … I didn’t think you’d…’
“His prattle grated on my ears and forced me at last to unfasten my gaze from this admittedly rather insignificant picture. But the madman was gone.
“I thought I caught a glimpse of his back at the end of the park, though perhaps it was no longer him. I wanted to run after him, but for some reason I remained sitting. I don’t know how long I stayed there, staring at the end of the park, hypnotized by his disappearance; but when the photograph dropped from my hands onto the ground, I came to. So there was a photograph! I bent over mechanically and picked it up … It wasn’t the same photograph. But I had caught a glimpse of this one, too, when he was rummaging through his briefcase: a cloud … View of the Sky Above Troy. Yes, the very picture that hangs in my room.
“Does it not seem to you that the plot of the Iliad is somewhat strange? Even contrived? I understand that now it’s beyond discussion. The Odyssey, as the follow-up to the story, is more recognizable to us. There’s nothing more to do there but sail and sail. Waves … But Helen … The paeans to Helen through the centuries are far more real than she is. No, it wasn’t her indescribable, or, rather, never yet described, never yet depicted, beauty that thrilled and still thrills poets, but the very fact of her existence, the fact that she lived at all. There has never been any proof of this, except that she was the reason the Trojan War was waged. The war must be explained somehow, don’t you think? The war happened, but was Helen the cause? And was there a Helen at all? It is not Helen whom the poets love, but the cause that resides in her. The reason her image can be summoned up ad infinitum is because she herself never really was. Naturally, I immediately dubbed the stranger in the photo Helen; but it was initially only because of the incomprehensible cloud. At that time I didn’t think about things in the way I am explaining them to you now. Not about the Iliad, nor about the Odyssey. I didn’t know that the war was already lost, that I was already sailing away … Isn’t it strange that you and I can see clouds that Homer couldn’t see? Have you ever imagined yourself blind? Everyone imagines it … What does a blind man see? Night? No. Endless waves.”
Vanoski’s face went blank. I was no longer there in front of him. It even seemed to me that I saw waves in his gaze; but this was fear. He was again staring at that absurd white button on the wall. Was it the button he feared, or was he afraid I would ask him its purpose? In any case, that was precisely what I intended to ask him, but he made sure to interrupt me just then.
“You ask what the upshot of all this was?” I hadn’t asked, but he seemed to want to bring the narrative to a close. “After that everything happened very simply, and too smoothly. Without a hitch. No, I didn’t fall in love with her immediately. I’m not a soldier, I don’t fall in love with pinup girls. Besides, I was already in love. I laughed at myself with the mockery of youth, which is the way youth tries to free itself from the embarrassment that someone might notice its ineptitude. No one noticed. And shaking off the devilish delusions as something so irrelevant to my charmed, resilient life that they could, therefore, never have happened, I thrust the ‘cloud’ carelessly into my notebook and hurried on to where I had been heading from the start—only I was running ahead of schedule, which is how I had ended up on the park bench. I hurried off to meet my Dika.
“She was Eurydice. Eurydika—though Dika was what I called her. No, she was not yet mine. You think this is all too Greek? But her father actually was Greek, although she didn’t remember him, or her birthplace, for that matter. She had grown up with her mother in Paris. I didn’t remember my father, or my birthplace in Poland, either. Now we had both become dubious Britons. This bound us together. We studied in the same department. She first, and I joined later. She was younger but outstripped me by a mile in scholarship, while I was trying my hand at poetry. She coached me in the history of poetry so that I could pass from year to year, by the skin of my teeth. She liked teaching me, and I liked being her slow-witted student. Our own subject evolved slowly. We had already started kissing. Oh, we had a world of time back then!
“And now, half a century later, when I need nothing but dull, unremitting calm, I suppose that there is such a thing as happiness. Because that’s what it was! With our heads buried in our books in Eurydice’s tiny room, time had no ending and no beginning—it simply was. It lived in this room like a warm, languid cat, and had no intention of leaving. It was true, I had no special liking for the Lake Poets. I remember we struggled over them for a long time—but nobody had lips or voices sweeter than our own. If only we had known then how precious it all really was! They were the most minuscule living quarters I had ever seen. Believe me, it was half the size of this little shoebox of mine! The apartment was located right next to my old grade school, and I felt that we had grown up together. We remembered childhood games we had both played: tic-tac-toe, kick the can, battleships … We got lost in our games until long past midnight. ‘Sleep! Sleep!’ her beloved African gray parrot shrieked. How did he get here? I wondered. Where did he find room to fit? The room was piled high with books of erudition I couldn’t grasp, and small souvenirs, impossibly naïve. They had a habit of spilling over and spreading. I threw myself into the task of picking them up, but she tried to discharge me from my duties. She said I mixed everything up. We would crawl around on our hands and knees, gleaning together, though crawling there was difficult. Between the table and the bed there was no room to pass each other, and we bumped heads. That was what led to our first kiss.”
Vanoski was overcome with emotion. Witnessing his childlike raptures, I felt uncomfortably aware of my own youth, of the freshness of yesterday’s kisses on my lips.
“Bookishness and tenderness,” he babbled on. “Oh, she was the most enchanting bluestocking that ever lived. Though, incidentally, she didn’t like blue. She liked all kinds of red—roomy sweaters, long skirts … beads, bracelets; at home she even wore them on her ankles. I crawled around on the floor and picked up books whose very titles made me cringe, and I loved them—as long as they were closed. I gathered up this debris: a jumble of castanets, bast shoes, African masks, tea tins, generic greeting cards and postcards she loved receiving from distant parts of the world, and photographs of herself that were very dear to her, because she felt she looked better in pictures than in real life. But how wrong she was! I picked it all up, then let it drop and scatter again, pretending to pluck a volume out of the middle of a pile by mistake, only to cause another avalanche. Then she would tear herself away, flushed and lovely in her shy embarrassment, and begin to make coffee for us. She prepared it over a camp stove in some forlorn Turkish—not Greek—saucepan, and I sneaked up behind her. The coffee boiled over, of course, and she was angry with me, because she was especially proud of her secret coffee-making method, which she always bungled.
“She was rather lofty with me whenever we met, and we continued to address one another formally. The books were arranged in neat piles up to the ceiling, poised for their next tumble. We were sitting sedately at the desk, which doubled as a dinner table.
“‘What is that stone?’ she said, opening up my notebook. I had completely forgotten about it!
“‘That isn’t a stone. It’s a cloud.’
“I wanted to tell her all about the recent episode, but I couldn’t. Another photograph took shape before my very eyes, and there was the face of the stranger looking out at me.
“‘Hello,’ Eurydice called to me. ‘Anybody home?’
“‘Oh, you mean that photograph,’ I said, turning red. ‘That’s your homeland, by the way. A view of the Trojan sky.’
“‘You are a true poet,’ Eurydice said. ‘Did you mean for me to have it?’
“‘Of course it’s for you,’ I rushed to say. Yes, she was the one who had it framed. That’s how it all began. Or, rather, how everything eventually ended, too.
“Believing in the impossible is the easiest thing of all for us. It starts out as a bluff, an absurdity, mere delirium—and then it becomes an enticing mirage, a seductive vision. At the same instant that I wrote off the ridiculous meeting in the park as something that had never happened, I believed unconditionally in the authenticity of the photograph I had seen. The cloud may not have been the same cloud, but it was without doubt my reflection in the shopwindow, so the one who was reflected in the window was also me. Consequently, the woman who had been reflected in the window was the one I had seen. And it was She! Because it was undeniable that it had been me. The longer I stared at the picture—and it was pinned to the inner side of my forehead, as though on a screen—the less doubt there was about it. Even the slightest shadow of one.
“It was me, only some seven years older—and I found myself quite appealing, like an object I might want to possess. During those seven years I had traversed a clear path as yet unknown to me, and by the end of that time I had a certain face—and not the kind of pleasant, unassuming countenance that might have appealed to anyone else but me. I was particularly impressed with the slightly sunken cheeks and sprinkling of gray in my hair. It’s nothing new, but it’s a fact: in our youth we rush headlong toward our final days, and, indeed, cover most of the distance toward death in a flash. Then, just before the finish line, we hit the brakes with all our might. But what chance do our doddering, old man’s brakes have against the momentum of the youthful energy we had when we threw ourselves into the race?
“There could be no doubt that it was me in the photograph, and my future face was quite to my liking—but why on Earth was it so contorted? What could have shaken me so profoundly? For as far as my experience went, and insofar as I could imagine my future, there was no reason for me to wear such an expression. Indeed, even on other faces I had never seen the like—except, perhaps, in literature, in some children’s fare: ‘His face was contorted with indescribable pain and torment, despair and horror.’ But I scrutinized this photograph through and through, and grew convinced that the provincial stage set, the pretend scenery of the outskirts of town, were this time not in the least counterfeit. They were genuine. If something like this could happen to someone—and not just anyone, but to me—then what was it? Here there was no longer any uncertainty, anything equivocal, in the matter: it was She. Call her what you will: the woman of one’s dreams, or Fate itself. I didn’t like her. She was not to my taste. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I never thought about how lovely ‘my’ Dika was. I had no need to account for this to myself. I wasn’t aware of how very lovely Dika was; for everything about her was lovely. It didn’t matter to me what she looked like. One ‘looks like’ something for others, and I sought no comparison, for she existed only for me. An inability to judge is the benediction of love. It didn’t matter to me what she looked like. But oh, how it mattered what this Helen—who was not ‘mine’—looked like! For if Helen was not destined for me, then whom was she meant for? She must be somewhere, even though we had yet to meet. A sharp pang of jealousy gripped me. I didn’t know her, I didn’t like—much less love—her, but I was already jealous. I was certain I would meet her in the coming days. Because how much would one have to experience with another person before a chance meeting at a shop could unhinge one so? What could be so unimaginable that life without it would henceforth be impossible?
“‘Did you mean for me to have it?’ Dika said, looking at the ‘cloud’ with a doomed expression.
“Looking at her through the pale transparence of Helen, I suddenly saw an unfamiliar girl before me, not the one I had come to visit at all. Before this I had always come for Dika alone, and it was a source of happiness to me that she was always the one I found. Now I scrutinized her unfamiliar face, comparing it for the first time. The comparison was, without doubt, in Dika’s favor! The difference was to her advantage. Everything in her was tinged with vibrant hues, in contrast to the photograph—a downpour of light versus light stanched. Early summer, young leaves, clear wind, shadows of clouds passing over tender shoots of grass, splashes of sky through the dappled foliage—that kind of face. For the first time I feasted my eyes on it—when it was no longer mine. It belonged to no one, like that summer day. A forsaken Paradise. Tempter! It was no ordinary apple you slipped me …
“I took a bite from it without noticing it. I could embrace and kiss Dika—she was right here, waiting for me. She wanted to be mine. But this paper Helen, who didn’t exist, was mine already. ‘Idiot! Madman!’ I cursed the fat stranger in the Garden Park who had started it all, and realized that these curses were directed at myself. How I dreamt of meeting him once more to shake a name and address out of him, or an admission that he had lied, or proof of his insanity, or his secret, or his soul—but he, of course, no longer ventured into the Garden Park.
“He looked as much like the devil as a photograph of an apple resembled a real apple. I wandered through town in search of Helen, peering into all the faces and shopwindows, but I couldn’t find the one I was seeking—and my own reflection vexed me with its monotonous sameness. I had never come across it so frequently. I was sick of it, I didn’t recognize myself, I began to see myself as a faceless crowd.
“Everything around me reminded me of something else. I made an effort but couldn’t recall what it was. Every something took on the likeness of another something. The whole world rhymed and multiplied its reflections. Everything conjured up some other thing, and it was never the right thing. I wandered around like a nearsighted man who had misplaced his spectacles, like one blinded by mist and fog. The asphalt stretched out before me like a smooth sheet of water, and waves fell away into the distance behind me. What kind of deck was this, what kind of stern? Where was my vessel bound? Waves, photographs, mirrors … Oh, how blind I was! Blind man, blind singer. I stumbled across my own reflection and shuddered, as though it reflected someone else, and was surprised by a poem unknown to me—penned, nevertheless, by my own hand.
“What I had heretofore only dreamed about while scribbling my paltry verse came to pass: I became a Poet. You can’t fool yourself: it’s either poetry or it isn’t. I had always had an unerring sense for it, and for this reason was never flattered by my own attempts. Now there could be no doubt about it. I wasn’t aware of how the verses arrived. They were alien to me, as if written by someone else. I could evaluate and judge them as words that were not my own—and they were deserving of admiration. But, my God, how little comfort they brought! The price of those lines was too dear, however beautiful they might be—a price too dear for Dika, for me, for Helen …
“My jealousy over Helen knew no bounds. At first this virus assumed only light, Proustian forms. Unable to find her among passersby, I ventured into museums, bookstores. I discerned the outlines of her face through the strata of centuries in portraits, in the dust of the Renaissance. On my walls at home, in my student digs, I hung up successive pictures of my elusive Helen’s predecessors: a Botticelli replaced a Ghirlandajo.
“Poor Dika. She was eaten up with jealousy at these reproductions. Then she would make peace with her rival, and even approve of my choice. But no sooner had she done this than another picture would take its place, one whose resemblance seemed to me even more striking. Dika accepted my poems, however, without a murmur.
“She would come to visit me in a new dress—‘Pretty, isn’t it?’—wearing new bracelets … Always breezy and carefree, as though nothing had happened, chirping on about some university nonsense. She brought flowers, and went searching for a vase … and found a page of verse. ‘It’s remarkable how little you understand your own poetry.’ Tears of what appeared to be ecstasy welled up in her eyes, and her voice trembled. And through her ecstasy I glimpsed some deep torment that she would never have survived had she realized that the muse of these poems was not herself but another.
“But Dika didn’t betray so much as a hint of this. I couldn’t bear it: her expression, her voice, her ecstasy, her feigned nonchalance—and the better she kept it up, the more it smacked of fortitude, self-denial, meekness. I couldn’t bear her suffering and became gruff. I didn’t need her praise, her favors, her urge to put things in order. Could she not understand that there are times when a person has a right to be alone? She paid no heed to my gruffness but instead asked me to forgive her, and slipped away, snatching the page up off the floor as she left. She was the one who salvaged them all, else they would have been lost. I could appreciate them but never attach value to them—and, indeed, I almost hated them, as I hated Helen when I finally drove Dika away. Oh, I hated Helen so intensely at that moment when the door shut behind Dika that if I had chanced to meet her then, I would have strangled her, like Othello. I hated Helen perhaps even more for the torment I caused Dika than for her absence.
“But Dika did leave, and I diligently banished her from my mind. I was alone again with the absence of Helen. I ripped the current reproduction off the wall. Where had I seen a resemblance? Again I wandered through the streets, studying every stranger I met, until weariness and poetry felled me again at night. Waking up in the morning, I gave the poems their due and tossed them away. Then Dika would collect them again, surreptitiously and lovingly.
“Oh, I knew Helen’s face by heart. I knew it as only someone lost in the woods knows the trees he circles round and round; as someone dying of thirst knows the desert. I can’t describe its fatal charm. Even then I couldn’t, even though, at the time, the ineffable easily succumbed to my words. In my verses anyone can sense her but will never see her—she was here one moment and gone the next. Slattern, fish, moth … Her face was paler than the most washed-out photograph. It was not just a matter of the poor quality of a botched print—only the most unskilled photograph could convey her characteristic vagueness, that elusiveness of expression and feature, and then only partially. Some Polish women look like that, I believe.
“Have you ever had the chance to visit Poland? They are renowned for their beauty, Polish women. Their beauty is distinctive. That’s it—distinctive. And this notion alone was enough to lead me on a journey to the land of my ancestors, a place where I had never before set foot, and had never felt drawn to in the past. Really, I thought, what made me think that the shopwindow in which we were both reflected had to be located in the place I lived? That shopwindow could be anywhere. The world grew in my mind to dimensions that only despair can assume. Only the ocean and the desert offered me solace—places where there were no stores, no shopwindows, no reflections to be found. But I knew that in seven years this shopwindow would appear, all the same: I would hear the faint click of the diaphragm, the magnesium would flare, and a shot would result. I knew, and nothing could stop me. Wasn’t it all the same, what end of the Earth I sought her in? It is a commonplace that beginners win in the game of roulette, and experienced players, who have built a system from their experience, lose. Why not Poland?
“I traveled its length and breadth. There were thousands of them like her. This is how it is with Polish women. At first you feel puzzled. Where are all those renowned beauties? Their faces are astonishingly inexpressive, impassive. You are geared up, you are ready to behold them, you focus your crystalline lens again and again, reproaching yourself for being inadequately perspicacious. Finally you leave, disappointed. You leave—and then they come to you. You begin dreaming about them at night. Independence and deference, compliance and proud inaccessibility: the essence of womanhood. They submit; but, as it turns out, not to you. They remain, but you are no longer there. An odd sensation. I saw thousands of them like her, but she was not among them. I would have recognized her out of a million—but out of a thousand she was nowhere to be found. I would have stayed there forever for her, if she had been there. But she wasn’t there, since I had already departed …
“By now it had become clear to me that she was not in Poland. With my return ticket in my pocket, not knowing how to spend my final day there, I wandered into the celebrated municipal cemetery. Perhaps I wanted to justify my defeat; but in the cemetery I sensed that I had made this journey to find my ancestral homeland, and for no other reason. The beautiful September day was waning into evening. The cemetery was not a haunted graveyard but an ancient, well-tended park. The leaves of two-hundred-year-old oaks and maples blazed like national banners. The trees stood tall, but the nation lay in the ground underneath them. Little flames flickered among the tree trunks—women in black mantles carrying candles in their hands moved toward the graves that I could not yet make out. All at once, the trees thinned, and ancient, moss-covered stones began to appear. They stretched out in an endless line like a glacial moraine. Then the trees closed ranks again, only to give way before the gravestones one more time: the eighteenth century had arrived. Little candles burned here and there on individual gravestones, but the rest continued to gleam up ahead. I followed close behind the candles, aware of the emptiness in my hands. The silence thickened and the sense of expectation grew. I seemed to hear a roar in the distance ahead of me. It swelled—and the next long ridge of graves lay down at my feet like the last breaker of the surf. I was in the nineteenth century. War, uprising, war, uprising—defeat, defeat, defeat … And again—uprising and war. It was just like a sea; history was frozen here in undulating billows of common graves—somewhere up ahead, not yet visible, boomed the ninth wave … Its time was due in my own, our own, century. Now more candles burned and guttered on the gravestones, more flowers had been laid on them, more often a solitary figure was to be seen standing nearby.
“I didn’t notice right away that my hands were no longer empty—they grasped neither a candle, nor a flower, but the flaming banner of a maple leaf. The copse grew younger before my eyes; an expanse opened up in front of me. It was a timid, childlike undergrowth—but the future already seemed to be digging in, making preparations there. I turned to go back, now and then stopping to read the name of a young officer. In one common grave, in an alphabetical list of names, I read out my own: U. Vanoski. I had no knowledge of this legionnaire of the Polish forces, First World War. That was where I laid my leaf. Suddenly it seemed to me that I wasn’t seeking a woman at all, but my homeland in her image. A strange feeling of delight in defeat gripped me: my homeland, the people, had not vanished.
“Someone was watching me. I sensed this from behind and for some reason felt frightened. ‘Pan polak?’ a throaty woman’s voice addressed me. I didn’t know any Polish, but I knew she wasn’t Polish, either. I could make out a distinct accent. At last I turned around—it was HER! We met on the Day of Remembrance of the Deceased by the grave of my possible relative.
“But, no, it wasn’t her. I realized this only the next morning, waking up in a strange bed, staring at a strange ceiling. Dressed for travel, she was sitting in an armchair and examining me. I even had the impression that there was a packed suitcase standing in the corner. ‘Dzien dobry,’ she said with an accent. ‘Kawa [coffee]?’ Those were the only words she knew in Polish. I drank coffee, she rolled one cigarette after another and smoked them. She was from Holland, and besides her native Dutch knew only German and French. I only knew English and Italian. So we maintained an eloquent silence, as though we knew everything already. The Dutch woman was considerably more beautiful than my Helen, and it was difficult for me to recognize the resemblance that had seemed so obvious to me the day before. She was darker, stronger, with a richer color, I suppose. There was a certain heaviness, a seriousness in her pose and movements. This monumental being smoldered and percolated, smoking in silence. Her enormous eyes were in the habit of changing color, or, rather, light—they lived a stormy life of their own amidst her bulk; for, suddenly, I was able to see her. She was huge! She sat there like a cast-iron kettlebell. Her eyes grew dark in their depths; she kissed me awkwardly and said in broken English: ‘I want be your husband.’ I burst out laughing, and she was offended. I promised to come visit her in Amsterdam.
“But I was already in a hurry, rushing back home to my Dika. Begone, phantom!
“For this was the devil’s plan—to plunge me into incessant expectation, deprive me of real time … that is to say, real happiness. And Dika was the most real happiness to me. How delighted she was at my return! How glad I was … Here, under the blows and the dull thud of scholarship falling all around us, through the parrot’s shrieks of ‘The coffee’s boiling over! The coffee’s boiling over!’ amidst the frenzy of our kisses, it all happened. Suddenly, Dika grew somber, tore herself from my embrace, went into her diminutive bath-kitchen-hallway-toilet, brushed her teeth long and furiously, came back, marching like a soldier, pushed me into a corner behind a curtain, covered the parrot’s cage with a skirt, restored the books to their places, then folded out the bed with abrupt, angry motions I didn’t recognize, skillful and unattractive, like those of an elderly charwoman, made the bed, and began to undress with fierce and deliberate abandon.
“She removed everything from herself, then folded it up on a chair—timidly, as though she had hated the clothing that covered her, then regretted its loss. After folding everything and placing it on the chair with the utmost accuracy and care, as fastidious as a schoolchild in a German primer or a soldier in his barracks, she lay down. I remained standing in the spot to which she had banished me, merging with the curtain, evaporating into the darkness, almost unaware of myself. It was a strange sensation—I wasn’t there. Dika was lying motionless under the white sheet; next to her, the pile of her clothes, like someone else’s, like the clothing of a dead person that has been returned to the relatives. The light from a streetlamp pierced through a slit in the curtains, pouring over everything like moonlight. Such was the silence, the stillness, the absence, and the dearth of feeling, that I didn’t know how many ages, minutes, seconds had passed before I heard from over there, from the white blur, someone else’s lifeless voice: ‘Where are you?’
“The following morning we had coffee and hurried to the university as if we had done this every morning for many years. And never again did we kiss each other as we kissed then.
“How I tormented her! The ruse was that it was my creative quest, some grand conception, that gripped me—and this was tormenting me, not I tormenting her. I told her everything, but not as the truth—rather, as the plot of a novel that was born in me suddenly when I chanced to come across that photograph of the cloud (which was now hanging over our bed). I told her about the quest of my protagonist, about his experiences, everything just as it was, except for one detail: my protagonist did not have a Dika. He was solitary, alone with the image he pursued. There was no betrayal. It would be a new tale of chivalry, I told Dika, like the Knight of the Mournful Countenance. Through his fidelity and love, this knight triumphed over the devil who had tempted him with the image. The knight overcame temptation by believing in it as the truth, by not calling it into question. Dika was shattered each time I enriched the plot with some fresh detail, or unexpected but convincing twist. She disguised her jealousy with flights of rapture over my creative mastery, and found parallels in world literature through her philological erudition, thus refining and honing my mythology.
“I kept up my search, whether for another fleeting resemblance, or for another twist in the plot of my novel. I could no longer tell which took precedence—whether the literary concept modeled the events, or the events drove the novel. I only had to imagine something and it would happen, altering everything I had anticipated. When something happened, it would be mangled by my memory and assume fabulous shapes to suit the plot. I traveled a great deal. My travels were not so much long and unbroken as short and frequent. Flight and return. This was my narcotic. I thieved and collected days of departure and arrival: on these days I was happy, because I didn’t exist for anybody. Oh, the glorious last day—the first day that you are free!
“Dika and I traveled to Greece together. This was the first time she had been to her ancestral homeland. In contrast to me in mine, she felt immediately at home in that place she had never before visited. How proud she was in my presence of everything around us! As soon as she alighted from the train, even her gait changed. We bought each other sandals right there on the platform. We exchanged them like rings. She was happy, and I suddenly felt that in Greece we were as we had been in our first room, when we had done no more than kiss. No more than…! Maybe we should move here, I caught myself thinking. Maybe we should just stay here, and everything will be as it was before.
“We paid a visit to the local university. We thought Dika might be able to teach there someday, and I could have devised some special seminar. Dika posted a notice about me in a university publication, and on the eve of our departure for home I gave a poetry reading to a smattering of devotees. I don’t think anyone understood a word of it, but for some reason the reading was a success. And then I saw Her, coming down the aisle toward me, with a yellow flower in her hand. It was Helen again. The likeness was striking—the Dutch woman paled in comparison! This time, however, I realized it was only a likeness. Nevertheless, later that evening at a small restaurant, where Dika and I had gathered with friends to celebrate our imminent departure, the new Helen and I exchanged addresses and agreed to meet again. She had plans to travel to England. She promised to write me care of poste restante to let me know when. A soothsayer with a fortune-telling bird approached us. The bird picked out scraps of paper with fortunes that promised happiness to me; beauty to Helen—but Eurydice refused to tell us what her future had in store for her.
“The mussel soup we ordered was marvelous. Surrounded by admirers, I was witty and jovial, and somewhat drunker than usual from the red wine and the heady proximity of the French Helen. I felt I was standing on the prow of some ancient galley ship like Odysseus, fanned by the wind, sailing through the night toward the stars, the sirens, and the waves. I sailed and sang. Suddenly we seemed to founder on a reef, and the galley split in half. I fell into the hold, which turned out to be a pub that I entered—I remember this well—with a large group of people, though I ended up alone with Dika. She had a swollen nose again. She often had a swollen nose in those days—a sure sign of jealousy. This time I was not sure whether my actions had triggered it, so I grew especially angry and went on the offensive. ‘What did your fortune say?’ I demanded savagely. She remained, as always, resigned and uncomplaining. She pacified me and spoke conciliatory words. Still, she didn’t produce the fortune and told me she had thrown it away.
“How I made her suffer! I was in a foul temper because she prevented me from making definite plans with Helen. I would dash off to the post office in secret—there was nothing there, of course. I wrote impassioned letters to Paris, recounting them to Dika as rough sketches of scenes for the novel, and always returned from the post office empty-handed. I told Dika that my irritation was the result of writer’s block.
“The novel, meanwhile, continued to grow in my head. It was called The Life of a Dead Man, and told of a man who lost his soul and blamed life itself for his ruin. He vowed to take revenge on life, destroying his useless, soulless body not by an ordinary act of suicide, but in the manner of a Japanese kamikaze, blowing himself up like a bomb. This bomb-man prepared long and hard for his final act, and his life acquired at least some semblance of purpose. He now achieved quickly and easily everything he had strived to achieve so unsuccessfully while his soul was still alive, while happiness and glory was still something he wanted. Now that he no longer wanted it, his career took an instantaneous and vertiginous upturn, because the only thing that attracted him was the success of his future detonation. He intended to blow himself up at the apex of his career, thus taking by surprise the prevailing evil. He had been hapless and weak when his soul was alive, but suddenly he became mighty, exacting, and impeccable in his attempts to achieve his soulless aims. He was afraid of nothing, he wanted nothing—his automatism overcame every obstacle. He got what he wanted. Now, after laying to rest all his worldly affairs, leaving no outstanding debts, he set out for a grand international affair as an invited guest, with two grenades fastened by a special strap (I borrowed the strap from Dostoevsky) under his genitals.
Here I faltered before the further development of the plot. The dénouement was still unclear to me. I knew that his plan wouldn’t fall through for some external reason. No one would catch him, unmask him, disarm him; but he might well be afraid to carry out his plan. There wouldn’t be anything to prevent him from reaching his goal, but for some reason he wouldn’t enact it. I balked at continuing, as though some insurmountable obstacle interfered. It was like a black mirror that cast my creative efforts back to me like my own dark reflection.
“And then, when I no longer hoped, and had sat down before a blank sheet of paper as listlessly and mechanically as I asked for mail at the poste restante window, I received a telegram from Helen in Paris that named a rendezvous at the very same post office, at such-and-such an hour. As you might have expected, I arrived an hour early, with the emblematic yellow rose in my hand, the same kind she had once given me. She never appeared. I went to the information window at the station to inquire about the train—all the trains had already arrived, and there was no telegram from her that warned of a change in plans. Late in the evening, I returned home distraught, and only when I was face-to-face with Dika did I realize I still had the damn rose in my hand. I dissolved into rage. Another second and I would … ‘Did she come?’ Dika said, without a tremor of emotion. ‘No,’ I replied, suddenly just as calm as she was. ‘This is for you.’ I handed her the rose and embraced her, exulting. ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it! Now I know how it all ends!’
“I rushed over to the table and scribbled away until sunrise, and all the next day. My hero didn’t blow himself up—and for a good reason. Because there wasn’t one. Every goal exists for the sake of continuity, to justify its own sequel; and there was no possible sequel here. He had accounted for everything—and there was nothing left. There was nowhere else to go. It wasn’t because he took fright, it wasn’t because someone interfered—it was because there was no more reason. So he doesn’t blow himself up, but quietly leaves the reception to wander through the night, finally on this side of life. I was especially pleased with the last scene. He goes down to the shore of the sea, the night is starless and moonless, thick with mist. Standing in front of the inky blackness, as though before an abyss, he unbuttons his fly, takes the grenades out one by one, and flings them into the sea. They burst out there in the mist like burned-out lightbulbs. This symbolism was very fine, I thought, because in fact he threw away his …
“I collapsed fully dressed on the bed and slept for sixteen hours straight. I had a strange and beautiful dream in which I was in Japan with a group of tourists. The wonderful thing about dreams is their incongruity. Although it was Japan, we stood in front of a bay I had seen in Greece. The bay was surrounded by imposing cliffs, and we descended them in single file, making our way down to the sea. The path was extremely intricate and unpredictable, which, it seemed, proved that I was in Japan; although the reason it was Japan was perhaps because my great-grandfather had married a Japanese woman. The path evolved in such a way that we gradually found ourselves jumping from stone to stone. It became clear that we were in a kind of Japanese garden, and that these artificial stones, placed illogically, in the Japanese manner, were tiles paving the pedestrian pathway. Leaping from tile to tile, now left, now right, sometimes even backward, one had to step very gingerly, because between the tiles there was not simply grass, or little bushes, but infinitesimally small Japanese gardens, living ikebana that it would have been a shame to destroy. Carried away by this task, I discovered that I had gotten lost. I was lost, to be exact, in one of the lilliputian gardens; because, suddenly, between two of the tiles, the one on which I was standing and the one onto which I was supposed to spring, I saw underneath me that very bay, that very sea we had been descending to … But ‘we’ was not the right word, because the whole group was down below already, scattered along the narrow strip of shore, getting ready, most likely, to take a dip in the sea, while I was still there above them on the cliff. I raced down after my companions at breakneck speed, in leaps and bounds—it was easy and pleasant, almost like flying. What was strange, however, was that I didn’t seem to get any nearer to them.
“On my way down I came across a strange contraption that vaguely resembled a reflecting telescope. It was blocking my path. I clambered up its trusses, slid down a short flight of steps, and came to a stop when I hit the mirror. It reflected the very same bay, the same shore, the same sea, but my companions were already walking along, farther down the shore. I realized I really had to hurry to catch up, turned away from the mirror, looking for a passage leading out of the contraption, and stumbled across another mirror. I started to run, searching for an exit, but everywhere there were mirrors blocking my path. I kept rushing about and running into them, until I noticed with horror that I was circling around and around in one spot that was lined with mirrors. I was immured in a prism of mirrors.
“I woke up with a sense of panic, thinking that I had been left behind and would never catch up, and then I saw Dika. She kissed me, and congratulated me. Why? I had forgotten everything. She had read the novel. ‘It’s wonderful.’
“What a blockhead I was! I had forgotten about everything. I slapped myself on the forehead, saw that I was already dressed, and, without washing, ran down to the post office. There was a telegram for me from Helen. She wrote that she had waited for me the whole day, then left, and that I shouldn’t write her anymore. When I reread the first telegram, I realized I had mixed up the dates, that in my impatience had gone to meet her a day earlier than she was to arrive. Thus, she had been waiting for me all the next day, while I was finishing my novel … For some reason I resigned myself quite calmly to the loss, telling myself that she wasn’t the real one anyway, and hadn’t even resembled her very closely. I rubbed my chin—it was overgrown with three-day stubble. Have you ever noticed that when you write through the night your beard grows twice as fast? It was positively improper to appear in public like that—now I understood the perplexity on the face of the postmistress. I set off for the nearest barbershop.
“Not paying attention to anything around me, I simply plunked down in an empty chair, threw back my head, and closed my eyes. ‘Are you asleep?’ a gentle voice said. I opened my eyes—I had lost track of whichever dream I was now in. There in front of me was a mirror. Well, no wonder, it was a barbershop! But at the same instant I was so unnerved by it, it was so unexpected, that I couldn’t fathom it. In the mirror I saw a crumpled, unshaven face that seemed to belong to a stranger. And this strange face reminded me very urgently of someone. Everyone has experienced this exasperating tickle of incomplete recollection. All of this happened, mind you, in the first fraction of a second, which was pulverized by the second; for, to the right, above my head, hovered HER face. Not once more, not all over again—because this one matched the original completely. It was an exact replica. And since nothing can match something completely, it could only have been HER.
“Two things confirmed this beyond the shadow of a doubt. First, my own face. Talk about an expression! It was just like the one in the photograph. Second, when I shifted my gaze away from my own likeness, I saw that both of us were being reflected from the back, in the mirror behind us. The mirror that we were facing revealed a regressive series of reflections. This was my morning dream! A dream—come true. Prophetic. I looked at her. She was smiling brightly and tenderly, almost laughing. I only had to turn my head to the right to see her in the flesh! My neck grew stiff, my heart was pounding, I couldn’t take my eyes off her reflection for fear she would disappear.
“It didn’t disappear—it changed before my eyes: it smiled, looked amazed, perplexed … It came to life! I heard my neck crunch as I turned to her—she didn’t disappear. I can’t say what I felt at that moment. Relief? Devastation? Joy? Disappointment? Freedom?… That was it, I felt freedom. We were surrounded by mirrors, repeating hundreds of times, one inside the other, an endless chain into eternity. Our reflections laughed, because we laughed. At first I was moved to laugh by the very word ‘freedom’; and she, for some reason, laughed in response. Perhaps she really did find it amusing. I laughed at myself, she laughed at me, the mirrors laughed at both of us. Well, so what if she was wearing a white robe instead of a dress? She was a hairdresser! So it wasn’t a store, but a barbershop. So what? A barbershop is a kind of store. It wasn’t a shopwindow, but a mirror. So what? It’s still a reflection. Both these arguments led to a fresh bout of laughter. The photograph matched like a parody. But what was a parody of what? I doesn’t matter, I thought with relief. There’s a third corroboration here: she’s the third. The magic of the number three was self-evident. I burst out laughing one last time, and it seemed to me that she responded to me with laughter that was not only cheerful, but happy. That meant that it was not just me laughing at myself, but her laughing at me—WE were laughing! Together.
“No, her name was not Helen. That would have been too uncanny. Then she might as well have been called Calypso. What was her name? Have I forgetten it? Her boss gave her permission to leave, and we took off for the country. I don’t think we conversed about anything at all—we were as happy and playful as children. We swam and ran about naked, chasing after each other like we were in Eden, like Adam and Eve. That’s it! Her name was Eve. Definitely. Or was it…?
“I had never felt so comfortable with anyone before. And never would again (I know that now). We didn’t have a penny to our names. We didn’t have to live by the sweat of our brow, though: her numerous admirers supported us. No, of course not! I wasn’t her pimp. Perhaps it wasn’t very proper, but believe me, it was absolutely pure. In Italian jargon there is even a word for it: dinamo. And so we hoodwinked others. She would make plans with someone, saying that she wanted to drink and was absolutely famished. The admirer rolled up in a car packed with wines and delicacies. She set the table, lit candles—and then I made my presence known. She was terribly embarrassed, took me off to one side and whispered to me guiltily (the admirer didn’t know what she said). Then she took the admirer aside and whispered to him in secret. (I knew what she was saying: he’s just a boy, a greenhorn—Italian blood. And the most persuasive argument: I had promised to marry her; but the admirer hadn’t.) Then we sat down to dinner together.
“No one is as obliging as the man next in line to his predecessor, or the deceiver to the deceived. It was very amusing to watch. At first I would sulk and scowl, but I didn’t play the part to the end. I was too hungry. You should have seen how courteously I was served—you can’t find a better waiter than a happy rival! He also regaled me with conversation to dispel any awkwardness … The longer I remained silent (my mouth was full), the more he talked, trying indirectly to convince me I wasn’t a cuckold. Oh, it was the sweetest sort of vaudeville! Such delicate word choice, it was like dancing between knives. I would eat my fill, then fall into a sulk. The rival left at the first opportunity, usually without even tasting his own offerings—and we fell into one another’s embrace.
“I must admit, they were pleasant people, and I wasn’t at all jealous of her past. (Funny how I fell into the same logic as my rivals.) They seemed to acknowledge us as a couple. Only one of them saw through us—and we became friends with him, since we all liked each other so much. Fat, bald, lively, he perspired constantly. He had a strange profession: he was a master of ceremonies. He was always on the move. Prone to boasting, he never demanded that we believe him. A good man … There was only one thing he kept insisting on—he said he was a close friend of Charlie Chaplin’s, which he tried to prove by fishing around in an abyss of tattered receipts and documents. In the end, he never found the calling card. So we didn’t believe him; and he was genuinely upset.
“I don’t know how many days passed—probably as many days as there were admirers. We started on a Sunday, that much I know for sure. Either the admirers grew fewer, or the days grew longer. Suddenly I had a dream about the novel. A new ending. A new version. My hero, before he went to commit ‘the deed,’ after he had paid all his debts and destroyed his receipts, after he had carefully washed, shaved, and strapped on the grenades … Just then, right before the banquet, he goes to discharge one more duty. He goes to say goodbye to the only person on Earth who wasn’t indifferent to him: naturally, to the woman who is devoted to him. (You have already guessed that my solitary avenger, who considers himself very callous and unfeeling, is secretly very sentimental—but the one does not exclude the other.) He enacts a scene in which he takes leave of her forever, confesses to his own heartlessness, says that he has the right, etc., and then, won over by the honesty and persuasiveness of his arguments, she finally believes him—this is it, this is the end—and sets him free. And when he decides not to blow himself up, when he has flung his burned-out lightbulbs into the dark expanse of ocean, he ends up, finally and absolutely, alone. He has nowhere to go. He no longer even has a home. He has sold it. He doesn’t even have money: he gave it all away. What need would he have for money after blowing himself up? He has no one to turn to. He has no relatives, and he has just parted ways forever with the only woman who could put up with him. His soul is gone, but he still has a body. And so, having wandered the whole night through, shivering and hungry, he finds himself standing at the abandoned woman’s door, unable to decide whether or not to ring the bell. Suddenly the door opens of its own accord. She is not at all surprised that he has returned. She expected him. Dinner is still warm …
“I thought I had returned to pick up the manuscript. How much time had passed? Three days? Three years? I felt my face blazing with fire, I was covered in perspiration. It wasn’t shame, or pain, or fear, or pangs of conscience, or repentance … It was … There are no words for the sense of irreparable damage I felt, and felt I had caused. ‘Dika!’ I screamed, and started running.
“The lock didn’t fit the key, the door opened in the wrong direction … and there was no Dika. Everything was pristine and empty. It was more empty than when Dika simply wasn’t home. The parrot was gone, too. The cage was empty—that was it. Three days? Three years? I groped around on the table, searching for a note. The blinds were pulled, and there was no light to see by. My hand couldn’t find the switch … Finally, there was light. The note shook my hands, the lines veered past my gaze. I put it back on the table, on the exact spot where it had lain, and, gripping the edge to steady myself, I made out the words: Jacko flew away. I went to look for him. The porridge is on the stove. Love, E. This should have reassured me, but it didn’t. ‘Three days? Three years?’ I mumbled, circling the room. I brushed up against a pile of books and knocked them over. They spilled and spilled, and scattered about like oatmeal flakes. ‘Porridge!’ I exclaimed, and rushed over to the stove. The porridge was still warm! It couldn’t have stayed warm for three days, much less three years. Time contracted violently, like a living thing, like a heart. I should have felt reassured by all of this, but I didn’t. Time contracted to today, to this moment, to a point, and then stopped, like a heart. A needle, finer than the sliver of an instant, pierced my heart like time. I closed my eyes and imagined I saw the chair, the one from our first night, with a pile of folded clothes on it, like the clothes of one recently deceased. I opened my eyes in alarm—the chair was empty. And, still, my heart wasn’t beating.
“Then I rushed like a madman in the direction of the Zoological Gardens. Why the zoo? I don’t really know how to explain it. I was certain she was there, that’s all. It was only later that I was able to imagine how it must have been … How she waited and waited for me … How she forgot to lock the cage … How it grew stuffy in the room and she opened the window … How suddenly, with the ineluctability of insight, she understood that I was gone and wasn’t coming back, understood because Jacko had flown away … How she rushed after the parrot, as though rushing in pursuit of me … How she dashed through the streets, crying, ‘Jacko! Jacko! Have you seen my parrot?’
“What came next? An automobile? A streetcar? ‘No! No!’ I screamed as I ran. The conjecture gripped me so suddenly that I was absolutely certain, just as she had been when she realized in her despair: Of course, Jacko had flown away to find his OWN! Where else? So she ran, joyfully, almost flying, gasping with happiness that he was there, in the zoo. Where else could he have gone…?
“For the hundredth time she combed the Zoological Gardens—oh, that overpopulated desert where there was no Jacko! ‘My dear! My dear! Please come back!’ she called. But he wasn’t there. His absence seemed to grow. Little fool! What a little fool you are, Dika! You can’t find him; he can only return to you. He’s sure to return! He’s flying home already … Dika! It’s me! I’ve come after you … Where are you? Dika wasn’t there. Suddenly I saw a crowd, a small crowd, on the edge of the park where the chamois were, and after that the ape house … I made my way toward them. Most likely the little fool ran first of all to the parrots. Of course there was no Jacko there. Or, rather, there were hundreds, but none of them answered to her call, or else all of them would at once. But just at that moment, several zookeepers ran by in a panic with nets and boathooks, as though a fire had broken out. No doubt they’re after my Jacko, thought crazy Dika, and she dashed off after them.
“I tore off in pursuit of the invisible Dika. You can see into the future more quickly at a run. The crowd parted silently to let me pass. A doctor in a white coat stood there, smoking indifferently. Next to him stood one of the zookeepers—in a gray uniform, with an inconsolable monkey in her arms. On a stretcher lay … No! Never! What do you mean? You’re out of your mind … Dika! Wake up! It’s me, I’m here … I made it!
“She had raced right behind the people with nets and boathooks. No one tried to stop her, either because they were too distracted by other matters, or because they took her for a fellow zookeeper, a novice, in their panic. Straight toward Dika, with a shriek, hurtled a monkey—a little chimpanzee, just a babe in arms. Tame, and used to being lavished with caresses … Why did he choose her out of all the others? She so wanted a child. The little chimpanzee so wanted to be saved. Who else would save him? Everyone else scattered helter-skelter to avoid him, as though they were running from the plague or a leper. They knew what was happening. Dika didn’t know. Even if she had known, would she really have jumped aside, turned away from that little tyke hurtling toward her with its terrified shrieks and yowls, desperate for help, for salvation? At the last minute, the little chimpanzee leapt. He flew like a cannonball at breakneck speed straight toward Dika. She didn’t see that behind it, stretching out in a transparent gray thread, something else was flying through the air … Like a goalkeeper, Dika caught the warm, living ball of terror. The little monkey, sobbing and howling, threw its arms around her neck and pressed itself to her, trembling uncontrollably … And the gray unseen thing fell short of its goal and plopped down at her feet with a naked gray thud … and began twining itself around her. And the little monkey kept whimpering and clasping her neck, covering her with kisses. That was her last embrace on this Earth.”
… Vanoski went quiet. Tears streamed down his face—literally streamed. I had never seen anything like it. An unbroken stream. He didn’t wipe them away.
Why was I so angry with him? I didn’t know. I wanted to tell him that I had read it already in a book—moreover, his book. I wanted to. But I couldn’t.
“I know you find it implausible,” Vanoski said with a sigh. “But that doesn’t matter to me. I prefer it this way. She’s waiting for me there. I’ve had a slight delay; but that’s all right. She waited for me here even longer. You’d like to know how it really was? It’s hard for me to remember what I have written and what I have lived. I think it all really happened, because this time I recounted everything from memory. I didn’t invent anything. Perhaps you’re right, I’m—a writer … An unhappy creature! Everyone thinks that choosing what to write about is the hardest thing. No, the hardest thing is to think up the one who’s writing. All the writers we read and revere were able to summon up within themselves someone who writes for them. And who are they, then, besides the ones who write? It’s horrifying to imagine this solitude. Only other people are happy: they labor, love, give birth, die. Those who write can’t die, either. They aren’t cut out for it. They are like actors, only they play one role their whole lives: themselves. For others. Their lives don’t belong to them. They are slaves of others, slaves of those who love them. They don’t know how to love, just as monks don’t know how to believe. If you love and believe, why write or pray? You love a living woman—and it’s an image; you reach toward God—and it’s words; you fall to Earth—and it’s your homeland. If you’re a writer, the Earth shoves you out, larger than life, like a monument, like relics, so that you don’t linger on Earth but in your homeland, unburied after all …
“I have always dreamed of one thing only: giving up writing and being able to live. Oh, I could have! And I wouldn’t have written another word. With the utmost satisfaction. To my profound delight. I almost managed to love! Fate took it away. We were already leaving the altar when she trod on that gray, unseen … It was raining, and we were running, clasping each other by the hand, laughing, away from the city hall to the car. She got tangled in the hem of her wedding dress, lost her slipper … and landed with her heel on the bare electrical cable … But there had been a way out! I had always had a way out—to love. I could have vanquished the one with the briefcase and the photographs through love alone, as in a fairy tale. Could have sent him on his way, and not attached any meaning to this forgery … because it was a forgery! I forged my whole life according to it. If only it had been just mine … If only I were a scoundrel. If only I had abandoned Dika, or the Frenchwoman, even the Dutch woman, for love. But no. Not one of them! I could definitely have loved the hairdresser … But I only loved ONE: that paper Helen. I had a dream about that, too.
“After Dika’s death, I burned the novel and refused to leave the house. Someone brought me my meals. Maybe it was even the hairdresser, but I don’t recall any woman. A year later I dreamed I was flying over a painting or an etching of a country, perhaps Greece, which looked like one of Picasso’s graphics on a mythological subject, only it was more conventional, and more parodic. There below me reigned a bacchic idyll: sheep, goats, shepherds, shepherdesses … And they were all making love. They were also made of paper, like children’s dolls cut out of the lined pages of a notebook. It was like the dream itself was on lined notebook paper. The vision of their paper love made me laugh at first, then it amused me, then it intrigued me. I felt I was just as papery, but just as capable of love as they were. I flew around looking for a girlfriend, but they were all engaged. My ability grew, but there was no girlfriend to be found. Finally, I saw one. I descended; she opened herself to accept my embraces. I swooped down on her … and then I became myself, no longer paper, but flesh and blood, and I felt myself rip bodily through this page from a school notebook.
“That was the day I went out into the city for the first time. I wandered aimlessly, peering again into faces, but no longer in search of the mythical Helen, not differentiating between women and men, just studying people’s faces: What are they like, and who are they, these people? I stopped into cafés, stores, parks—and left without sitting down, without eating, without buying anything. I was tired, so I decided to go home. Then I found I was no longer walking, but standing, standing in front of a display window and looking dully at two mannequins, male and female, who seemed to be striding toward one another with outstretched arms, to embrace at last, only something prevented them. Was it my reflection between them? And then, through the display window, between the mannequins, I saw her: Helen from the photograph. For this time it was she, down to the minutest detail. How could I have failed to notice this shop before? I had passed this place thousands of times in my life during my quests! But it was new, a store that had just opened during the past year, while I was secluded in my room. I calculated—exactly seven years had gone by. And while I was standing there, dumbstruck, turning over these simple calculations in my mind, Helen emerged through the glass doors, dressed as she was in the photograph, with a shopping bag, like the one in the photograph … She glanced at me, as she had in the photograph, without registering any feeling, as though glancing at a thing, and walked on. I kept standing there, rooted to the spot. Then, in the display window, I saw my own ghastly face from the photograph, with snakes growing from my head instead of hair. I screamed, and rushed after her—to kill her. ‘Kill’ is not the right word here, though: I thought I could rip her to shreds, like a photograph, so certain was I that she was made of paper. It wouldn’t have been murder—just scraps of paper scattered about on the street. But SHE was gone. She had disappeared.
“Ripping her up—that was nothing. It was still not the end. When she vanished, and I was unable to catch her, I understood that I had yet again fallen into temptation by the one with the briefcase, that I should have caught hold of her and held on for dear life. I should have urged myself on her and fallen in love with her at last, unto death. This was my last chance to revive fate, and I had missed it. Oh, how blind I had been my whole life: waves, mirrors, paper, photographs …
“I embarked on a new quest then, though I knew it was doomed from the outset. I wrote something called The Burning Novel. It was a novel in which the characters didn’t say a word. No, you couldn’t have read that one, either, for the same reason … I don’t know what you’ve read of mine—I have been writing these two books my entire life, nor have I ever finished writing either of them. Perhaps they were in fact one novel and not two. In the sequel the protagonist returns to his first love and to his first, abandoned, novel … In that book it turns out he had a son, a grown-up boy who is a deaf-mute. His mother hasn’t spoken to him, out of solidarity with her son, for fourteen years. The protagonist settles down with them again and finishes writing his very first novel, amidst this embodied muteness. In this novel he…”
I think Vanoski recounted his novel to me to the end; but he no longer saw me. I quietly slipped out of his little shoebox. My God! How wonderful life is! How sweetly the dusty urban lilacs smell of benzine! Of what use are success, money, and glory to him? Why do they come to those who not only have no more need of them, but who never needed them to begin with?
And then I recalled Vanoski’s words, the ones he had spoken when I was feeling such antipathy toward him that I had stopped listening:
“All the same, he didn’t conquer me. I know that for sure now. He only conquered me in this life; but in that one he can’t vanquish me. In that one I’m stronger. My Dika is there with me…”
And I realized why I had turned against him: it was because of his Dika. Because she is his, and not mine. What good is my youth to me without her?
Copyright © 2008, 2014 by Andrei Bitov
Translation copyright © 2014 by Polly Gannon