The Tale of the 1002nd Night

A Novel

Joseph Roth; Translated by Michael Hofmann

St. Martin's Press

The Tale of 1002nd Night
1
In the spring of the year 18------, the Shah-in-Shah, the great, exalted, and holy monarch, the absolute ruler and overlord of all the lands of Persia, began to feel a sense of malaise of a kind he had never before experienced.
The most renowned doctors in his Empire were unable to explain his condition. The Shah-in-Shah was most alarmed.
On one of his sleepless nights, he summoned to him his Chief Eunuch, Patominos, who was a wise man and knew the world, for all that he had never left the Court. He spoke to him as follows:
"Friend Patominos, I am sick. I'm afraid I may be very sick. My doctor tells me I'm healthy, but I don't believe him. Do you believe him, Patominos?"
"No, I don't believe him either!" said Patominos.
"Do you think I might be gravely sick, then?" asked the Shah.
"Gravely sick--no--I don't think so!" replied Patominos. "But sick! Definitely sick, Sire! There are many sicknesses. Doctorsdon't see them all because they are used to looking for physical ailments. But what good to a man are healthy organs and a healthy body if he pines in his soul?"
"How do you know I'm pining?"
"I ventured to guess that you were."
"Then what is it I'm pining for?"
"That," replied Patominos, "is something I need to think about for a while."
The eunuch Patominos pretended to think, and then he said:
"Sire, you are pining for exotic foreign climes--for example, for Europe."
"Along journey?"
"A short journey, Sire! Short journeys are more fun. Long journeys may endanger one's health."
"And where to?"
"Sire," said the eunuch, "there are many countries in Europe. It all depends on what one is looking for."
"And what do you think I should be looking for, Patominos?"
"Sire," said the eunuch, "how can a miserable fellow like myself have any idea what a great ruler should be looking for?"
"Patominos," said the Shah, "you know I haven't touched a woman for weeks."
"Yes, Sire, I know," replied Patominos.
"And do you think that's as it should be, Patominos?"
"Sire," said the eunuch, drawing himself up a little out of his hunched posture, "that, surely, is something that a person of my particular type can know but little about."
"I envy you."
"Indeed," replied the eunuch, now fully and plumply upright. "And I feel sorry for other men with all my heart."
"Why do you feel sorry for us, Patominos?" asked the monarch.
"For many reasons," replied the eunuch, "but especially because men are driven to the pursuit of variety. And that is a treacherous objective, because there is no such thing as variety."
"Are you telling me that I should go somewhere in pursuit of variety?"
"Yes, Sire," said Patominos, "to convince yourself that it doesn't exist."
"And that of itself would cure me?"
"Not the convincing yourself, Sire," said the eunuch, "but the experiences gathered on the way to such a conviction."
"What gives you your insight into these matters, Patominos?"
"The fact that I am a castrate, Sire!" replied the eunuch, with a low bow. He proposed a remote destination to the Shah. He suggested Vienna.
The ruler reflected: "Muslims have been there once before, many years ago."
"Sire, they were unfortunately unable to enter the city. Had they done so, St. Stephen's Cathedral would have not a cross, but a crescent moon on top of it!"
"It was all a long time ago. We are now at peace with the Emperor of Austria."
"Indeed, Sire!"
"Let's go, then!" decreed the Shah. "Inform my ministers!"
And it all came to pass.
The Chief Eunuch, Kalo Patominos, sat and presided over the women, first in a first-class railway carriage, and later in the bow of a ship. He watched the red setting sun go down. He spread out a carpet, prostrated himself on the ground, and began to murmur his evening prayers. The party reached Constantinople without incident.
The sea was as placid as a baby. The ship, itself a babe in arms, floated gently and sweetly out into the blue night.
Copyright © 1939 by De Gemeenschap, Bilthoven. Copyright © 1981, 1987 by Allert de Lange,