Absence

Peter Handke; Ralph Manheim, Translator

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Absence
Late one Sunday afternoon the statues on the city squares are casting long shadows and the humped asphalt of the deserted suburban streets is giving off a bronze glow. The only sounds from inside the café are the hum of the ventilator and an intermittent clatter. A glance goes up to the branches of a plane tree, as if someone were standing under it, watching the countless incessantly swinging seedpods, the large-lobed, long-stemmed leaves, which move spasmodically, all together, like a semaphore, and the swaying, deep-yellow nests of sunlight in the foliage; where the blotchy trunk forks there is a hollow that might be the home of some animal. Another glance goes down to a fast-flowing river, which, as seen from the bank, the sun shines through to the bottom, revealing a long fish, light-gray like the pebbles rolling in the current below it. At the same time, the rays of the sun reach the wall of a basement room, filling the entire pictureless surface and giving the whitewash a grainy look. The room is neither abandoned nor uninhabited; it is populated, always at eye level, by the silhouettes of flying birds and, at intervals, of passersby on the road, for the most part bicyclists. Likewise, at eye level, a lone Far Eastern mountain appears on the horizon, lit by the last rays of the sun. The picture comes closer, bringing into prominence at its rounded upper edge the precipitous summit which, with its crags and chimneys, ledges and glassy walls, suggests an impregnable and inaccessible castle. The sun has set; here and there a light in a house; on the blank wall of the basement room the reflection of the yellow sky is traversed by patterns that have now lost their outlines. The wall is now so totally blankthat the deep-red number on a small tear-off calendar moves into the picture.
 
In a park there is a castle-like nineteenth-century building with tall windows surmounted by triangular tympana and just under the eaves some hundred attic windows running all around the building. The immensity of this edifice makes the park seem small; vegetation, walks, and benches are unimpressive; only an aborted avenue of birches and the solitary plane tree with its pillar-like branches, which seems to grow out of an enormous bench, give an intimation of a past epoch. Because it is Sunday afternoon, the expressways on either side of the apparent castle are not being used by trucks but only by private cars. Unlike the few houses scattered roundabout, which in the presence of the huge building look like little more than huts, the castle shows light in almost all its windows, as though some great festivity were in progress from floor to floor and, through the open double doors, from hall to hall. But the building is an old people's home or, as the sign at the entrance indicates, a SANATORIUM FOR THE ELDERLY, and the bright serried window squares signify separate rooms. In some of them, behind often curtainless panes, the silhouettes of the occupants, always immobile, inactive, and for the most part unseeing. Other windows are open, making the rooms look deserted in spite of the burning ceiling lights, the potted plants, and the birdcages. Even the lights from the television sets leap across empty walls and change color for no one but themselves. The clicking of an electric iron and the clatter when it is set down come from a room occupied by one of the staff. The head in the attic window, with the all-seeingeyes of a detective or a scientist, is that of a young man, not an inmate of the home. The only laughter in the festively illumined transept is that of the audience on the television screen, which erupts at regular intervals, as though on command. The only natural singing comes from a kitchen maid who is lifting the lid from an enormous tin pot in the white-tiled basement; actually, it is more like short snatches of monotone humming, with which she is merely testing her voice. The gravel path to the entrance ends at a low step, an impediment large enough that it has to be flanked on either side by a railing, whose brass supports, along with the elbow crutches of the one elderly person still to be seen there, are the only glittering spots under the yellow sky.
At the back of one of the few apparently unlit rooms, a lamp is burning after all; it is mounted on a lectern. In the surrounding half darkness, this lamp, tiny as it is, casts a bright circle of light on the lectern, on which lies an open notebook, with outsized hard covers, wrapped in cracked, many-times-mended canvas, its paper spotted with mold, as though the whole had a story of its own, as though it had often been exposed to sun and rain, or had even been part of someone's luggage on the high seas. The pages are covered with columns of signs that vaguely suggest hieroglyphics. Beside them, written in a clear, official-looking, yet childlike hand, are words that seem to be attempts (some followed by question marks) to decipher the signs, such as "to bear in mind"; "to master"; "to break camp"; "to set out"; "to sit down?"; "the runnel?"; "the cliff on the border?"; "the watershed?" In the space under the spine of the notebook: a black hexagonal pencil. The near-emptiness ofthe room, with its long, broad floorboards, whose converging lines, marked by spiral knotholes and polished nail-heads, tend toward a single point in the distance, makes it seem spacious, while the oval ornaments of its stucco ceiling give it an air of nobility. The lectern stands on a raised platform, suggesting the balcony in the study of a medieval scholar. The only other furniture is a folding bed in a wall niche, stored there, one supposes, in anticipation of some expedition; in lieu of a blanket a sleeping bag is draped over the naked frame. The slight rounding at the top of the window makes it look like an arcade. On the floor below it two dumbbells, their paint flaking, and an empty, shapeless, and shrunken knapsack.
The occupant, who is standing at the window, is not an inmate of the home; he is the master of this room. True, he is holding a stick, but it is not a crutch--it is a walking stick, made of hard, rigid, almost unbreakable rosewood; with the few large, sharp-beaked thorns that are still on it, it might also serve as a weapon--its owner, an old man, holds it in his fist like a scepter. Though everything else in the man's face, the skin, the lips, the hair, may be those of an old man, the eyes invite comparison with those of the young man upstairs in the attic window: while the young man considers the things within his field of vision with suspicion or curiosity, the old man views the world outside his window with total indifference. Unmoved, the old man lets his eyes follow the swaying branches, an airplane in the sky, or the pallbearers in their braided jackets carrying a coffin into the building through a side entrance. The sharply bent lower branch of a plane tree takes on the shape of a stirrup. The slanting shingled roof of the toolshed emanatesan archaic slatelike gray, and the elder bush climbing the plank wall has parallel branches that imitate the rungs of a ladder. The old man's gaze seems to postpone the coming of dusk and bathe its objects in daylight. The bays of shadow at the edges of the short, straight canal that runs through the grounds seem to frame the meanders of a great river; the trees of the long line of forest on the horizon beyond them are the masts of ships. Closer to the observer lies a strip of no-man's-land, traversed by an expressway; the inaudible cars become speedboats on a busy watercourse. The most distant point on the horizon is the bald hill behind the forest of masts; the chalk-white church becomes a lighthouse, the hilltop an atoll, and the treetops in front of it an outer reef. It's a short step into the distance, and a short step back again; long lines of fishermen's huts elsewhere on the horizon, in the harbor of another island, extend directly the lines of the old man's hand, which is resting on the windowsill of the old people's home. In the empty blue zenith above him appears the dark outline of a parachutist, revolving slowly, gliding this way and that, and finally, as a matter of course, landing on the old man's open palm in the shape of a light-winged linden seedpod, from which is hanging the "parachutist," a little ball no larger than a juniper berry.
The old man moves. He starts walking back and forth between his window and the lectern. Each time he comes to the lectern he takes the pencil and, apparently holding his breath, adds a new sign at the foot of a column; back at the window, his lookout, he exhales slowly; that seems to bring out the last colors in the grass outside, in the oblique grooves on the porter's lodge, and in a folded wheelchair.The signs in the notebook, however, are unrelated to what is going on outside; at the most they might stand for a feathered arrow, the forked end of a branch, or the whirls of a bird plunging through the air. The old man walks back and forth without his stick--it is leaning against the wall; his gait is not a shuffling but a sauntering, a negligent thrust forward of one leg after the other, which, oddly enough in so small a space, sometimes becomes a striding. A column of words is finally added to the signs: "participate"; "occasion?"; "gather"; "separate?"
His day's work is evidently done. The old man sits down on the camp bed; wearing a loose-fitting suit and a fully buttoned shirt, he sits erect with his hands on his knees. The window is open and the roar of the Sunday-evening traffic pours in from the expressways, punctuated now and then by a backfire. Then comes a loud screech, followed at once by a crash. A brief silence is broken by screams of pain, fear, and horror, cries for help; finally a general shouting and bellowing, accompanied in the background by a mindless blowing of horns. The old man's window offers a good view of the goings-on. But he remains seated, apparently unmoved. Then by chance, in the midst of the sobbing and wailing from the scene of the accident, the institution's funeral bell starts to ring for an entirely different person. Though the clamor outside continues, now intermingled with the howling of sirens, and though the old man in his cell has raised his head to listen, he shuts his ears more and more resolutely to all that. What gradually becomes audible, drowning out the tumult, are bird calls and the flow of water in the little irrigation ditch, merging with the rustling of the trees in the park, ocean breakers, the chirping of birds,the cry of gulls. The old man on the folding bed begins to rock back and forth from the waist and to tap his thighs with his fingers in the same rhythm. He leans his head back and opens his mouth, but no sound emerges. With his dilated nostrils and protuberant eyes he resembles an old, old singer, long fallen silent, whose singing today comes only from his hearing and seeing.
The pencil lies diagonally across the book, in the small circle of light. Its upper surface is imprinted, in block letters: CUMBERLAND. The writing beneath the pencil suggests several trains waiting on parallel tracks, the words being cars and the signs locomotives. A whistle, as though to signal the trains' departure, is actually blown in the distance, prolonged by a whistle-blowing that fills the whole building.
 
The whistling is repeated close at hand. The window past which the lighted train rolls over a bridge is not the one in the old people's home. It, too, is open, but it is rectangular, wider than it is high, and has no sill. The walls of the room are covered with photographs of all sizes, some in frames--not mere metal strips, but carved mahogany. The pictures are all of the same person: as a shapeless infant, as a sturdy toddler, as the youthful queen of a costume ball, and finally, in a variety of poses and with different sorts of lighting, as a beauty. In almost all the pictures she is alone and--whether as infant or as young woman--always displays the same look of imperiousness and of knowing herself to be the center of attention. All the pictures betray an indomitable self-confidence, with two exceptions. In the few photos that show her resting her head on a man's shoulder, her expression is naive or artificial; and in the onepicture of a little girl with a pigtail and white stockings, sitting on a wicker chest beside a bunk bed in a nursery suggestive of a stage set--the slumped figure with her legs crossed, her hands folded in her lap, and the for-once-perplexed eyes (which appear to be looking only at a wooden penguin about the same size as herself, holding a clothes hanger in its beak and bearing the legend: CLOTHES VALET)--she seems vulnerable and forsaken.
On one wall the photographs frame a mirror showing from behind the woman as she is now, with a bend in the part of her hair. Her hair seems wet. Clad in a white dressing gown, she is sitting at a desk, bent low over a copybook the size of a ledger. Seen from the front, her real face, as opposed to the one in the photographs, seems sullen, almost hard. With lowered eyes and pursed lips, she is wielding a thick fountain pen, blind to the last yellow glow in the sky outside the window, to the basket of fruit in the dining nook, to the bunch of flowers at the head of the enormous bed in the seemingly illuminated bedroom. In spite of the block letters, her writing is almost illegible; the few characters with anything approaching a shape have the sweep of Chinese calligraphy. However, she speaks in an undertone as she writes. Her fingers covered with ink spots, an extraordinarily large lump on her middle finger, she delivers herself, more or less, of the following: "He said I was always demanding love, though I myself was totally incapable of giving love. He said that I've never been anyone's wife and never will be. He said I was restlessness personified and whoever I was with I'd never give him anything but trouble. Sooner or later I'd inspire the gentlest person in the world with a destructive urge, in the form either of homicidalfrenzy or of a death wish, and convince him that this trait was his true character. He says the childlike creature who casts her spell on anyone she pleases turns out, once I've lured my victim into my child's lair, to be a monster from whose clutches there is no escape; he says I'm the witch Circe, who transformed every one of Odysseus' companions into a pig, and Odysseus himself as well. Living with me, he says, made him homesick for the fresh air of solitude and made him resolve, no, swear, never again to go near a woman. He says I brought him to the point that if the most glorious apparition made eyes at him, his only thought would be: Get lost! He asks why in all this time he has never learned to love me, why he has come to regard himself as hopelessly unlovable, and why he can't help hating himself as much as me for it. He cursed my father and mother. He cursed the place of my birth. He cursed my entire generation, calling us aimless, prematurely corrupt, profane, incapable of yearning. He said I had no interest in anything outside the two of us, no interest in work, nature, history, that I was obsessed with love, with twosomeness, and failed to understand that two people can attain happiness only with the help of something outside themselves. He says I have no ambition to achieve anything, that I lack the thirst for knowledge--which might have enabled me to understand myself through my forebears--or any longing for the unknown; he says I've been living in my apartment for ten years and still don't know the name of the mountain on the horizon, or of the river outside my window, or where the trains on the bridge out there are coming from and where they are going; he says the only place-name known to me in this city is that of the street I live on; he says the pointsof the compass are all the same to me, that the word 'south' means nothing to me but sea and sunshine, that if anyone mentions north or west I crinkle my nose and look bored. He says my reaction to any form of knowledge is to panic, as if someone were threatening to push me into a hostile element. He says I have no time for any person or thing other than myself, that however beautiful a thing may be, I barely take note of it and never look at it, and that as a result my conception of beauty or ugliness is unforgivably superficial; he thinks it outrageous that I find nothing worth looking at or listening to. And from this follows the worst thing of all, that with me no stability is possible--and without stability there's no everyday life. Nevertheless, he says, he has discovered that some part of me is good and great. But it shows itself only on the fringes, and I give it neither time nor space. So, he says, I should finally forget my dream of becoming part of a couple, and in that connection he quotes Parzifal and King Lear to me: 'A person of breeding does not speak of love.' And 'Love, and be silent.'"
Along with her monologue, the woman has concluded her from-start-to-finish indecipherable writing, in which only the often double and triple exclamation points and underlinings are clear: her reply. She rises, not abruptly, but with graceful vigor. Her pen and paper fall to the floor. She squats down, looks at them, but leaves them where they are. The room with its army of lamps and disorderly piles of television magazines distills the slightly subdued atmosphere of a Sunday evening. With wide-open eyes the woman stands in front of the large mirror. Quarreling voices are heard from an adjoining apartment. Her absent look and crouching posture give the figure in the mirror the airof an animal that has strayed into a high rise. Then suddenly she looks back over her shoulder and laughs into the void, a carefree laugh that might have been addressed to someone on the street. Lightly she slips into the other room; dressing and doing her face, she flits gracefully back and forth between the two rooms, which thanks to her parading take on the character of a grandiose suite. In no time at all she is in the doorway, ready to go out. There, to be sure, she drops her handbag and has to bend down to pick up its scattered contents. Rising to her full height, she stands for a long moment, letting herself be looked at, so to speak: no longer a displaced animal but a star. Finally, with a toss of the chin, she says to her audience: "Don't bother me with your everyday life. No one else can give you people the pleasure I give you. You all need me. And so do you!"
 
Outside a movie house displaying posters of entirely different stars stands a soldier in street uniform and tilted cap. He is flanked by a middle-aged couple outfitted for travel--umbrella in fair weather, hats. His mother has taken his arm; his father, at some distance, is covertly watching the other two from the side. The movie house is across from the railroad station; they have only stopped there for a moment, and now they are crossing the square. Here the Sunday evening is betokened by the old newspapers blowing over the asphalt or filling the trash cans to overflowing and by the fact that the handful of travelers in the station hall are far outnumbered by drunks sleeping or bellowing and groups of foreign workers in the corners. The three cross the platform to a waiting room, a separate structure situated on an island between the tracks which, though hardly biggerthan a hut, has a marble doorway. The interior is rather like a parlor: curved benches and lacquered tables in which the overhead lamp is reflected. The slender stove in the corner reaches up to the ceiling. In one recess there is a miniature fountain and across from it a tiny palm tree. Instead of the usual oversize views of tourist attractions, the walls are decorated with faded landscape paintings, and the tables are equipped with ashtrays. Here, where in both rows of windows trains are perpetually stopping and starting off again, the group sits down. The parents keep their hats on and their faces remain half shaded; the soldier rolls up his cap and puts it in his trouser pocket. Bareheaded, with his scraggly short hair, his somewhat pimply forehead, and his chubby cheeks, he gives the impression of a schoolboy, but sitting there between the two others he shows no sign of being their son; while they are visibly concerned with him, his attention, his watchfulness, as it were, is directed toward the things around him, the cigar rest in the ashtray, which in his eyes takes on the shape of a mountain pass, and the bent tips of the palm leaves, groping like tentacles. Thus the soldier seems independent of the parents to the left and right of him. If he bows his head like a son, it is only as a favor to them, a pretense. His mother has the floor; his father sits silent, his expression suggests disengagement, resolute neutrality. The woman, still young in voice and bearing, speaks as follows: "I'd been hoping that army life would help you to come out of your shell. I saw you turning into the different man that you've always been deep down, the kind of man who knows the right moment for everything, the right moment to take action, the right moment to withdraw, the right moment for the right word,and who consequently becomes the one who counts, the mainspring, even when he isn't the actual leader. Instead, you're just absent, now more than ever. You mustn't suppose I care if after all these months you haven't a single stripe--I'm just disappointed that you don't make your presence felt, either in the barracks or outside. To your comrades you're a nobody; when you come into a room, nobody sees you; when you leave it, they hear the door closing and that's all; your salutes are ignored; when we asked for you, your name meant nothing to anyone; even when your father described you, and you know how well he does that, the only reaction was a shrug. At a restaurant you're still the one whose order the waitress has forgotten, and when waiting in line you're the one who gets shoved aside. You could be all alone in a room, you could be on a raised platform with a spotlight shining on you, and you'd still be overlooked. You're always absent. At home, where you've spent twenty years of your life and have hardly ever been away, nobody asks for you. Nobody remembers you, neither your teachers nor your classmates; and even your friend of those days doesn't think of me anymore as your mother but only as Frau So-and-So. Even we, your parents, when we see you find it hard to believe that it's really you. You're there and then again you're not. It's your absence that drives us away from you. Because it doesn't come natural to you, you put it on as a defense against us, against others, against the world; it's your weapon. You frighten me with your absence. Sometimes I get the feeling that you're not my child at all, that you were foisted on me. Even when you were little, I caught myself knocking at your door, as if you were a stranger. Who are you actually? Show yourself atlast, let yourself be recognized. Show your other weapons, my child, the weapons that disarm, just as time and time again at the right moment you have disarmed me, or your father, or your opponent, with a glance, a question."
During his mother's speech the soldier keeps his eyes on his surroundings, as though ready to leap. If a ball were suddenly to come flying, he would catch it. During some of the woman's sentences he glanced over his shoulder at something. For a moment or two a black man on a distant bench came closer. The weak irregular jet of the fountain grew strong and seemed to be the outstanding event of the station area; the fountain became monumental. The letters on the glass door framed the view and the objects in it; a face in the window of a train, a lighted switch at the edge of the tracks, became as palpable as though seen through a telescope.
Now the waiting room is occupied by other people. The three have gone. The platforms are empty, and so are the many tracks; the rails give off a cold gleam. A last car vanishes around the long curve. After that there are only the high-rise buildings beyond the dead fields, the lighted windows almost as close together as in the old people's home. This is the time of day when most people are back from their Sunday outings, but few want to be in the dark; countless silhouettes are seen standing in the middle of rooms, motionless except for hands moving up and down with cigarettes.
The soldier has put his cap on again. Already far from the station, he is walking along the river--alone now--with giant strides, as though flying. In almost every telephone booth a motionless shadow. An arm that seems tohave been dangling all day from a car window is pulled back. Three teenage girls are waiting in front of a house; a very small child steps out of the door. Knots of foreign workers are standing around, looking more Slavic than ever with their prominent cheekbones. In response to a homicidal look the soldier salutes, and the saluted person suddenly comes to life.
On one of the main streets--rows of lighted, yet barred shopwindows--he stands at some distance from a few others, mostly soldiers. While the others engage in conversation and a bit of shadowboxing, he takes a cookie out of his jacket pocket and eats it in a leisurely, almost ceremonious way. There is a church nearby; a poster on the wall of the bus shelter announces PILGRIMAGE TO THE HOLY LAND.
In the bus he takes a book from his other pocket and reads. Repeatedly in the course of the trip he looks up--at a pedestrian crossing or at the one good-looking girl on the bus--always for longer than needed to digest what he has been reading. The army camp, way out beyond the expressways, is invisible, recognizable only by the glaring white sentry box in a small birch forest and the barriers on either side of it. The soldier slips through in line with the others.
It's deep night. The lights go out on the airfield. A pedestrian light changes; there are no more pedestrians; the stick figures on the light are crooked. A voice comes out of a dark ground-floor window; it starts with a loud, clear word, but then becomes unintelligible, the voice of a sleeper. In the center of town, on the squares, there is hardly anything but animal sounds to be heard: the screeching of cats, the roaring of a bull in a slaughterhouse far away, the screamof a peacock in a zoo. The television sets in a shopwindow all display their test patterns. At one of the scenes of Sunday's accidents whitish sand is being strewn over blood, which in one place is still discernible, a circular, clotted, pitch-black spot, as though the victim's heart had drained just there. The light of a streetlamp shines into a café, whose chairs and tables are sharply outlined in the gloom; in one corner a basket full of leftover bread, shrunken, crusts broken, as happens to baked goods only on Sunday evenings; the few men left on the chess board have all tipped over, except the king, who stands proudly erect. A segment of the sky includes the half-moon in the shape of an apothecary's mortar, prepared to receive the pill that is the single star. A uniform rumbling fills the room, as though the city's machines had not been fully turned off and were ready to start up again at any moment.
 
Only in the gambling establishment have time and the outside world ceased to exist. Fluorescent tubes make it as bright as day, the thick curtains offer no gap through which to look out, and besides, it would never occur to the gamblers to raise their eyes from the cards or dice. In contrast to the depopulated world outside, the large room, the sections of which are separated by pillars, is crowded, literally black with people. Nevertheless, apart from a group of young billiards players, all beginners who have come here only to prove their courage, there is no noise. Hardly anyone speaks; there is little to be heard but the shuffling of cards, the shaking of dice, and the hum of the ventilators, one in each wall. Not a single picture; far and wide only the shimmer of green paint, rubbed dull on the baseboards by the movementsof nervous heels. Even the usual plants and lone dog are missing. Cigarette butts fall thick and fast on the tile floor, the players stamp them out without looking. The only decoration in the room is the oval stucco ornament on the high ceiling, the one thing at which one of the players, invariably the loser, to be sure, occasionally takes a quick, furtive look.
There is a main table, recognizable not by its size but by the number of onlookers standing around it. It is not in the center of the room but in a corner. One of the men sitting at it is the big man; he is not among the losers. He is white-haired and smooth-skinned, as though beardless, while most of the others at the table look unshaved. Like them he is wearing a dark suit, a white shirt, and no tie. But over his suit he is wearing an almost floor-length camel's -hair coat, as though he were cold. Another thing that singles him out is that he is not sitting in a chair like the others but on a backless stool at one corner of the table. There he sits upraised, with his legs folded under him, and keeps the bank. While waiting for bets to be made--some of the apparent onlookers standing around the table turn out to be players--he shakes the dice in a rhythm suggesting an endless drumroll, summoning all present to step up and join in. The emptying of the cup is all the more sudden; a slight flick of the wrist, which sends the dice to the edge of the dice board and bouncing back again. His hands alone seem concerned with what is going on; the one always busy with the dice, the other, after the throw, with jotting down numbers, which his gold pencil seems to inscribe autonomously on a slip of paper. Otherwise, no part of him moves; the cigarette in his mouth, which he never draws on, isalways relit by an assiduous henchman at his side, who also rakes in the banknotes for him--the dancing of a coin on this table is unthinkable--smooths them out, and arranges them in piles. And, like most of the gamblers here, he never orders a drink from the manager, who makes his rounds at intervals (but he invariably has a banknote from one of the piles slipped to him). He never says a word. At times he seems even more bleary-eyed and pale than the others; his hands seem to move of their own accord, as though he were asleep under his swollen eyelids. But seen from close up, his pupils are constantly darting this way and that. While shaking the dice, he is equally keeping an eye on the crackling banknotes between the fingers of one of the onlookers and on the game at the next table, where big, pallid, almost hairless fists are clutching very small cards. A blue light shines from below on the face of the solitary player farther back, plying a one-armed bandit. In mid-scream the lone girl in the noisy billiards group feels the gambler's glance, breaks off, and looks around at her companions as though for protection.
The dice are rolled again, but then they are left lying on the table. The thrower takes his watch from his vest pocket, signaling the end of the game. Others, too, open their watches. The banker tots up columns of figures, a few banknotes are distributed; he stuffs the lion's share into his coat pocket and reaches behind him for his cap, which is of the same material as his coat. But then, with his cap already on his head, he remains seated and even leans back against the wall. The others, too, remain in their places, like him almost motionless, pursuing a dream. On all sidesof the table, running toward the middle, innumerable fingerprints. Even after standing up, the gambler does not leave at once, but lifts the curtain a little. He looks out into the faint early light and sees a bus loop on the edge of the city--shimmering pre-dawn wires; milk bottles singly or in pairs on the doorsteps of uniform housing-development dwellings.
The gambler seems to find no difficulty in passing from one sphere to another. After a brief look back at the black ventilator hole with its fluttering slats, he turns unhesitatingly to face the long, articulated bus whose support bars, as it drives empty into the loop, glitter like an army of spears. He takes the opposite direction from the bus, cuts across the city line, and strikes out across country. Here again, as previously on the road, he keeps looking over his shoulder, not to make sure that no one is following him, but as though expecting to see something behind him. Now and then he even spins about, as though to face an invisible group, which possibly includes the little clumps of birch trees. Making his way through rough scrubland along a rusty, abandoned railroad track, the gambler takes longer and longer strides, even jumping over a tie. Here at last he begins to speak, a mere mumble of unconnected words: "Deformed! ... anywhere ... on your knees ... get caught ... water of life ... machine tool ... prepare ... no time ... surrounded ... adequately ... neglected ... bunch ... fit subject ... include ... shatter ... open up ... track down ... deluge ... outright ..." He starts to run, punching himself in the head, sticking a finger down his throat to no effect, or bending the same finger, holding it up to his temple,and going through the motions of shooting himself over and over again. Once he even turns off his path and casually rams his forehead against a tree trunk.
At the end of the track, through a strip of tall grass, whose blades seem to bar the way like swords, the gambler enters an open field of rubble, almost without vegetation, surrounded on all sides by bushes and looking like a disk inserted in the meadows on the edge of the city. The only rise is a mound made up of concrete blocks, gravel, and earth. At the side of this mound, the gambler sits down on a stone, looks at the packet of banknotes beside him, and continues his mumbling: "Money, you've always been my mainstay. No money, no world. Money, you have not only been my parachute, which up until now has never failed to open, but also my airship, ready to take off in any direction, reliable and crashproof. Money, my last resort and only clear idea. Money, my only ray of hope!" Suddenly he stops and in the same tone of voice addresses a little clump of pale-yellow grass, swaying at eye level: "I must get away from here, no matter where to. To a place where I can grieve and have something to grieve for. To a place where loyalty will again count for something. I need danger. There may be danger here, too, but I don't feel it. What was that dream I had? I was sitting at the table, I had sat there every evening for ten years, waiting for the others. And when they came, they sat down at other tables, not out of hostility but because nobody knew me. What has become of me? They call me the 'artist,' but I'm only the archenemy, the gambler. Instead of embodying the world, I am the point where lovelessness is concentrated. I am the point at the tip of the lance, a bundle of whiplashes. Insteadof being many-sided and disarming, I am cutting, sterile, and aggressive. I am so dependent on constant presence of mind that I'm not present at all, neither for anyone else nor for myself. 'You're not there!' All the women I've ever loved have said that. Loved? I never loved anyone. They call me the freest of men, but I'm just indifferent, volatile. I say what I like and go where I please, but it gives me no feeling of freedom; I feel only the injustice and privation I've suffered. None of them knows how often I say to myself: Shut up and stay put. They call me a king, but I'm just a liar and a hypocrite. My generosity is really condescension, my indulgence and attitude of live and let live is disloyalty, my aloofness contempt. Instead of being the king of life, as they say, I'm an enemy of mankind--a scoundrel when I'm gambling; and when I'm not gambling, a soulless sneak."
The gambler looks around, taking in the strip of wand-like alders, the stunted silver birches, and the lone spruce sighing in the wind at the edge of the disk; takes two stones from the pile, knocks them together; and, swaying his torso back and forth, carries on with his mumbled singsong: "Make a fresh start. I say that today for the first time, and I've never heard anyone say it in earnest. Begin a new life. But if I only say it to myself, I don't mean it. Nobody hears the things I say to myself, so they don't count. Love. I'll take time and let myself be diverted by love. Give me the saving grief that will finally tell me which way to go. Inflict it on me. No longer will the steel pen get stuck between my ribs. Renew the wound each day, dearest, my one and only, whether man or woman. Reject me if need be, but tell me why; scorn me, mock me, make me open up and cease to be alone. Embitter me, make a kernel grow withinme, make me fruitful. Spell it out. Give it to me in writing. That's it. To make me mean what I say, to assure myself that what I say will be heard and will therefore stand fast, I will spell it out and give it to myself in writing. Even if what is sung does not exist, the voice of the singer does."
Making what he has said true, he writes in his pad with his gold pencil; this he does with such emphasis that his shoulders begin to spin and his whole body to shake. He gets up from his stone and washes his face and hands in one of the many puddles that abound in the scrubland, as though the ground below them were frozen all year long. Near the puddle there is a single clump of grass with broad, flat blades that splay out in all directions like shocks of hair. It is lit up from the side by the first rays of the sun and stirred by the early breeze. The blades are transparent and clearly show their fine ribs running all the way to the tips, and the shadow of one blade falls on the next blade's trail of light. The longer we look at the clump as it trembles, shakes, and sways, the more sounds converge in it, each connected to the next--the screech of the crow overhead, the train whistle on the horizon, the beating of carpets in the housing development, the rat-tat-tat of the rifle range --and in the end we get the impression that the sounds of a cosmos are being made in the center of the clump, in its roots. The intensified movement that runs through the blades of grass does not result from the wind alone.
 
In similar light, the old man is standing on a ladder in the garden of the old people's home. He looks over his shoulder as if he senses that someone is looking at him and he wants to answer the look. His ladder is much too big forthe little tree it is leaning against, and the tree bends to one side. With his pruning shears he cuts out the crown. His way of looking around, his quick decision, and his movements show that he is an expert. The branches fall all over him, on the brim of his hat and on his shoulders.
After vanishing into the shed beside the rainbow-colored beehouse, he reappears without his blue apron. His tie and the cape over his shoulders suggest that he is going on a trip. He bends down to the rivulet that runs through the garden and washes his hands in it. Without a stick he makes his way to the gate; the members of the staff greet him when they see him coming. The director, whose car door has just been opened by a subordinate, takes his hat off to the old man and wishes him a pleasant and profitable day in town, speaking as one might to a person of importance, but also, with mock respect, to an old crackpot. It seems likely that they will all exchange smiles behind his back.
Out on the square he turns back to look at the chapel that occupies the central part of the block-long building. One of its double doors is ajar; in the cleft there is nothing but black. While he jots down something in his breviary-like notebook, an elderly couple hobbles past behind him. In the same loud, hard-of-hearing voice, they both say at once: "He's writing again."
On a busy street in the center of town the old man stops and squats down over a cracked paving stone. He blows the dust off it and spreads one of the thin, still-empty pages of his notebook over it and starts rubbing with a lead pencil. Little by little the outlines of a letter, then of two more letters, appear on the paper: AVT, a fragment of a Romaninscription, meaning uncertain--"or?"; "but?"; "autumn?" He is oblivious of the onlookers, more and more of whom gather around him, as if he were a famous sidewalk painter; not even the hissing and sparkling of a hot-air balloon hovering over the street distracts their attention.
Alone again, the old man is standing on a carless square, at the foot of a statue. It is a woman with her head thrown back as though in a scream; the line of the throat catches the eye; seen from below, sparkling with particles of mica, her breast against the sky becomes a mountain pass which draws the eye into the distance and in which light becomes substance. Sheltered by his cape, the decipherer draws a quick stroke in his notebook and beside it sets the word "exit." As he does so, red blotches sprout on his cheeks and his face takes on a look of excitement surprising in a man his age, an excitement that reminds one of a messenger boy sent on an errand for the first time. In the next moment he will stammer out his news, an event which he himself has brought about. But then, looking straight ahead, he lets himself be diverted. Escorted by two normal persons, a group of idiot children is crossing the square, making incomprehensible gurgling, trilling, cheering sounds; their way of walking, with knees strangely bent, gives their procession, at first sight, the appearance of a sack race. Some of them are wearing head guards like hockey players. The old man looks straight at them; amazement, delight, or idiocy is reflected in his face. He and the group belong together; all of a sudden he has come across something of whose existence he was not even aware. Openmouthed, he contemplates his tribe and puts his notebook away. While looking at them, he recruits additional members, for somewhereon the square a second onlooker follows his eyes, and, puzzled at first, then understanding, a third ... The old man trails after his tribe. His hobbling gait is like that of the children, but not so laborious.
 
It is a different procession that impels the soldier to start off. He is far out in a suburb, as though in the vicinity of a borderline, guarding an imperiled war memorial. In front of him an expressway, beyond it a wide river, easy to cross at this point, made up of several swift watercourses separated by strips of rubble. Wearing mottled combat fatigues and a steel helmet, he is carrying a rifle with mounted bayonet; at his feet a crackling radiotelephone. His eyes are hidden by the shadow of his helmet.
For a long time there are no passersby, only the roaring of the cars, many trucks among them. Then some children pass on their way home from school. One of the boys stations himself under the soldier's nose, the tips of his shoes touching the tips of the soldier's boots, and stays there until the soldier's fingers suddenly start drumming on his belt buckle; a moment later, the sentry is alone again. Next, at an intersection within his field of vision, a small group of pedestrians appears, whose festive dress radiates an eerie splendor in this workaday landscape. This because of the dark colors--the black of the men's suits and the uniform violet of the women's attire, even of their hats and handbags. This group is only the advance guard; more and more of the holidaymakers follow, in pairs, in clusters, and finally in a swarm that overflows the footpath and takes up part of the road. It is in no sense a parade that passes the war memorial; these people don't even seem to notice it or thesoldier. Far from marching, they seem to be strolling, taking the air, as it were. Their self-absorption, their easy chatter, their unconstrained gestures, the glow of contentment in the eyes even of the children show that their festival, though drawing to a close, is not yet over. It is not a wedding or a baptism but a public religious festival, the just-experienced ritual of which continues to hold them together as they talk about purely secular concerns far from their place of worship. It is a great festival observed only by this particular group, an offshoot of a foreign race. Of this there are no outward indications, but only their sense of time, which is radically different from that of the figures in the cars speeding by. It is most apparent in the young women, who are all wearing high-heeled boots and costumes with short, tight skirts, which shimmer as they pass; for them this is in part a festival of the flesh. As soon as they get home, each one of them, the giantess as well as the midget, will give herself to her companion, and in their rooms the language of union will prevail until nightfall. Moving slowly along the road, glassy-eyed in the light, they are making ready for the man who will become their husband in the darkened tent.
The soldier is no longer standing by the memorial. Only his rifle is leaning against the pedestal. The radiotelephone is silent. His steel helmet is lying on the riverbank, half buried in sand, full of egg-shaped pebbles and pinecones. The murmur of the water, the thundering of a train, and the clattering of a helicopter are caught in it.
With rippling hair, the soldier runs through an underpass, which is so long that for a time the end of it is hidden from sight. He passes young soldiers like himself coming from the opposite direction, all carrying identicalplastic bags, on their way back to the barracks from the supermarket; though few are engaged in conversation, none notices him. Two girls, walking arm in arm as though for protection, also look through him, as if they had eyes only for the exit. He stops once, takes the dagger from his felt boot, and scrapes away a tiny inscription, almost obscured by the grooves in the concrete, from the wall of the tunnel; after that, no longer in a hurry, he takes his book from his hip pocket and, now striding straight ahead, immerses himself in it.
Emerging from the underpass, the soldier is in a different part of the world. The hedges by the roadside have evergreen, cup-shaped leaves, gleaming far and wide in the light of a southern sun, and the cone of rubble on the horizon is traversed by a dried-out, petrified riverbed. As he walks, the soldier puts on dark glasses and undoes the zipper of his jacket; behind him, far far away, hardly distinguishable from the clouds, there is a northern, snow-covered mountain.
 
Her back to the window, whose drawn curtain captures the sun, the young woman is sitting on a suitcase in the attitude she had taken as a child when sitting on the linen chest in her bedroom. Just as silent, hands folded in her lap, her legs crossed, she stares into space, blind to her surroundings. Instead of being worn in a pigtail, her hair hangs loose, and instead of a dress with enormous buttons, she is wearing a tailored suit. Silent, yes, but with frequent interruptions. As though at predetermined intervals, she honors the outside world with an outburst which may be serious and may be playacting: "You people! Always tellingme to change. But I don't want to change ... But I don't want to work. Work would only destroy me. Work makes people stupid. And you, too ... But I don't want to know anything. I don't want to go to museums, and I don't want to learn a foreign language. I like to see pictures by chance, without planning to, no matter where, and I can only be myself and act like myself in my own language. I can't love in a foreign language. Knowledge would destroy me the same as work, it would make me cold and stupid. When I was a child, the moment you people started lecturing me I stopped my ears. One reason why I was never able to read your books of knowledge was the way the sentences are constructed; all I could get out of them was the droning of the lecturer. You lecturers are sucking my blood. Your knowledge shouldn't be allowed. Your knowledge is taboo. Admittance to knowledge should be prohibited. You clever people should keep quiet about your knowledge and come out with it only in cases of urgency, and then in the form of poems or songs ... But I don't want to go out. What should I do out of doors? I need my ambience and it's here that I can have it. Walk, run, ride, travel. With the words 'walk' and 'out of doors,' you've always driven me into the farthermost corner of the room, behind the folding screen. Every time I went on a trip with my parents I fell asleep the moment I sat down in the car, and I don't remember one thing about any trip except an Eskimo pie somewhere or a seatless toilet in some gas station. Trains stink even if they're called Loreley; and even if airplanes are called Trans World and fly across the international dateline, all they can do is take me to a concrete runway, where the skyline of the identical city will only make me homesick. I have nodesire whatever to see your Tristan da Cunha or your Antarctic or your river What's-its-name, where Plato is supposed to have taken a walk. I don't believe in foreign wonders. All your sacred springs and grottoes and trees should be turned into playgrounds with paper boats and flashlights shining into every oracle cleft. And don't bother me with the grandeur of nature. Even the words--'linden,' 'rose,' 'fleecy clouds'--stick in my craw, for one thing because they were done to death in the rubbish we used to write in our poetry albums ... Only for love would I leave here; only for love would I travel day and night, climb mountains, ride horseback, swim, always in a straight line, straight ahead, without any of your detours ..."
The last part of her declaration is addressed to a fly on the back of her hand. She jumps up and lets the fly out the window. In so doing, she catches sight of a taxi in front of the building. It seems to have been waiting there for some time; the driver, standing beside it smoking, reaches through the open window and blows the horn emphatically. The woman runs into the living room, where she consults the video horoscope for the day: "This is your day of decision. Don't miss the favorable moment. Make up your own mind. Accept help only in the event of a crisis. A crisis is more than a bind that you can get out of unaided. You will know it's a crisis when you try as usual to get help from the first person who happens to be around and find that you can't." She goes to the mirror and runs her hand over her cheek; her eyes are dilated, her shoulders are crooked. She clings to the frame of the mirror with both hands, as though fearing to be dragged out of her four walls to the ends of the earth.
But already she is on her way to the taxi, transformedafter a few steps, as though stepping onto the stage from the wings. She moves vigorously, swinging her aluminum suitcase as though it were empty. Her eyes widened by the wind, her nostrils flaring, her teeth flashing. Mollified at seeing her there, the driver hastens to relieve her of her suitcase, which in his hands seems twice as heavy as before. As she gets in, she turns around toward the building--a showy concrete façade with dark-stained wooden balconies and roof gardens planted with stands of dwarf cypresses--and exhales audibly. At the same time, she unclenches her fist and a bunch of keys falls to the ground. Opening fanwise, they lie on the sidewalk near a lone ginkgo leaf, blown from far away, a small leaf with a very long stem, more like a flower petal than the leaf of a large tree.
The taxi speeds away. Already it has disappeared around the corner. Then, on the highways, come scenes of indecision: change of lanes to the left; back to the middle; change of direction, sudden hairpin turn; reverse gear on the open road.
At length the taxi stops at a crossroads; the light turns green, but the cab stays right there, while cars pass on both sides. High overhead, hanging from wires: a traffic light, constantly swaying, despite its great size, in an unearthly rhythm which enables it at certain moments to embody a menacing thousand-eyed goddess glaring red-yellow-and-green in all directions and demanding human sacrifices.
 
The gambler is lying face down in the meadow grass under a springtime sun. The place where he is lying is scrubland even more remote than where he was before, without puddles or mounds of rubble; the few trees on thefringes are all stunted, most of them withered; the only sound to be heard is the whistling of the wind, which, unobstructed by any settlement or plantation, blows evenly from desert spaces; the man would seem to have been wounded and to have dragged himself to this place where he thought no one would find him. And yet there was once a civilization here; behind the trees there is a ruin that might be mistaken for a hill or a great rock; a white-rimmed hole that was once a portal and the lower half of what was once a window. But it is not a place of pure antiquity; to one side of the recumbent gambler there is a stone fireplace--the ashes are still fresh, showing the traces of a few drops that did not develop into a proper rainfall--and on the other a rubber band, as usual shaped like a figure eight.
Suddenly the gambler jumps up and goes to a box tree, at the foot of which a stone surrounded by clumps of grass indicates the former boundary of the estate. Setting his foot on the stone, he contemplates the box tree, which is unusually large for its kind, at once delicate and untamed, and towers far above him. The tips of the branches, which have not been pruned for a long time, have splayed out into untidy tufts, all pointing in different directions like the clusters of road signs at the ends of the earth. The one wild shoot in the crown, as long as an arrow and crooked, moves incessantly, nodding in the direction of a bare tree which, cloaked with ivy from top to toe and bereft of branches, is no longer recognizable as any particular kind of tree and looks rather like an unkempt post. It fans out at the top and the ivy mingles with tree shoots; the post seems to have a nest on top of it. No, there really is a nest. Something is moving in it, something climbs over the edge, a peregrinefalcon--possibly fledged only a few days ago in the north --recognizable by its almost eagle-sized, storm-cloud-gray outline, out of which peer round yellow eyes. It shows no sign of wanting to fly away but just sits there with smooth, unruffled plumage, even its eyes unmoving, not at all ready to start out, settling down to a long rest after a long journey. But something happens inside the beholder on the ground: what seems at first to be a tic or grimace turns out to be a laugh, a quiet laugh that spreads over his whole face. He hasn't laughed like that since he was a baby. He breaks into a slow run, which doesn't even make the falcon in its nest turn its head.
Running, the gambler turns around from time to time and looks at his surroundings. Barely a moment seems to have passed and already he sees the first sign of human life, a slip of paper that scouts have stuck on a bramblebush. On it is written in a childlike hand: "Follow this sign." He turns in a different direction and a moment later sees another slip with the same words, this one in the vicinity of some houses, woven into the wire mesh of a trash container. He heads back into the thicket and in the next moment comes across a group of men and women in track suits, doing knee bends at the knee-bend station of a fitness course. Again the gambler runs off and a moment later, in a parklike cemetery on the edge of the city, a funeral procession crosses his path. Bells start ringing, the procession circles around a mausoleum, and he joins it, welcomed with a nod by a stranger. At the graveside he takes his leave of the stranger and runs out of the cemetery. In the bustling inner city, he keeps up a steady pace. Just once, on a short open stretch,he stops for no reason, so abruptly that several dice fall to the sidewalk. He stops their roll, gathers them up, and disappears around the corner. He seems to have doubled back. And, indeed, the vapor trails in the sky are moving in a different direction, a cigarette butt is rolling in another, a young music student is walking in another with her instrument case, and a toy motorcar, controlled by an invisible hand, is careering across the asphalt in still another. The runner looks back over his shoulder and cries out: "Follow me!"
 
The train in the middle of the city, two steps from the department store, also seems like a toy. There isn't any station, the tracks it is standing on merge with a marketplace right after the last car, and this enhances the toylike impression. But the train is crowded, and more and more people--unlike streetcar passengers, loaded with baggage --come running and get in. Like certain international expresses, it is made up of sections of different trains. The locomotive is far ahead of the platform. The unusual length of the train, and still more the excitement and bewilderment of the passengers, who cannot be seasoned travelers, give it for a moment the air of a special train, reserved for a group of emigrants or pilgrims from all over the country.
It is still high noon; the noonday, springtime light shines most brilliantly on the rounded tops of the cars. A signal rings out--not a train whistle, more like the tooting of an ocean liner, so long-drawn-out that a child on the platform treats himself to a kind of radio play by rhythmically stopping and unstopping his ears. But, surprisingly atthe departure of so long a train, few people have come to say goodbye, and hardly anyone is looking out the open windows. Consequently, the gambler has no need to twine his way through a crowd as he runs past the market stalls; he is able to head straight for the compartment, which is reached not through a corridor but directly from outside. The door is thrown open for him even before he gets there, and closes after him like that of a funicular cabin once it is loaded to capacity.
Yet a number of seats are still vacant after he has sat down. There are only three other persons, who, though thrown together at random, seem to acquiesce in the arrangement. With the gambler the group is complete. The woman at the window does not favor him with so much as a glance--her attention is concentrated on her aluminum suitcase, as though it were in danger; pencil in hand, the old man across from her is immersed in his notebook; and the soldier's back is turned, for he is standing at the door as though to guard it. True enough, some others try to get in: first a loudmouthed couple, who at the sight of the four fall silent and go away; then a priest in travel dress who, after a greeting all around with one foot already on the threshold, vanishes as though to resume his greetings in the next compartment. Only a child strong enough to open the door by himself pushes past the soldier, and his parents have to stick their heads in and order him out with the words: "Not there. Somewhere else." The child complies with a shrug.
The hubbub outside dies away. But the train doesn't move. There's plenty of time. The soldier sits down, pulls himself up again as though in expectation--not of an eventbut of a first word. It's the woman who turns quite casually to the others and says: "When my childhood was over I began to wander around. I left the house and went farther and farther away, until I didn't know where I was anymore. When they caught me in some small town or out in the country, I didn't know my name and address. I usually took the train, never one that was going very far, always a local; no matter where it was going, I never bought a return ticket. What did I do when I arrived there? They told me I just sat around in the waiting room at the last stop or on the loading platform, and sometimes at the edge of a field, in a gravel pit, or by the side of a brook, regardless of the season. People began to notice me because of the way I'd sit there for hours--before that, when I was wandering around, it seems I walked like someone who knew his way and was going somewhere. Men often stopped their cars and told me to get in, but none of them touched me, they never laid a finger on me; there was never any conversation, because my answer to everything was the same: I don't know. So they took me to the police. I couldn't be a tramp, that was out of the question; even the village constables came out from behind their partitions when they saw me, and all of a sudden they stopped talking dialect. I always had plenty of money on me. And that is what made them think I was crazy. Instead of sending me home, they took me to an institution. There I was exhibited to students in a lecture hall shaped like an amphitheater. The professor showed me off, not because I was sick but because it was me. Though I only answered his rehearsed questions with yes or no, he always shook my hand with both of his and held the door open for me when my act was done. The students werecrazy about me, too. My wanderings can't have made me very happy, because often when they found me sitting there I'd be crying or even shouting for help--but my act must have opened the eyes of the onlookers to something they'd never known before. While the mental patients were performing, I'd be sitting in the cubicle waiting my turn, and I'd hear the listeners coughing or laughing, but when I appeared, they'd all fall silent. They didn't feel sorry for me, they envied me. What they heard about me filled them with longing. If only, instead of moving in crowds through familiar streets, they could wander around like me in a dream and alone. My adventures made them long, not for other continents, but for the towns and villages nearby, which up until then had meant nothing to them. Thanks to me, the names took on a resonance and the places became possible destinations. Though I was standing there barelegged in an institutional gown, for them I was a heroine. And it's true that, though actually I wasn't so very well off, I was better off than those people, who thought they were well off. One of you was there, too, as a visiting student. He only attended my demonstration because he thought I was the kind of person that moved him. He came because he respected me."
Something of hers falls on the floor. The soldier bends down. It is a fountain pen with a mother-of-pearl cap. As he turns it slowly in his hand, the light from outside seems to shine through the cap. A jolt runs through the train, and it pulls out under two trees, the one close to the track, the other by the side of the parallel road. Their branches have become intertwined so as to form an arch, though an irregular one, because the tree beside the track has beenpruned to make room for the wires and the pylon, with the result that the arch has scorched or bare spots that make it look like the tusk of a mammoth. The clouds in the breach are diesel smoke mixed with soot, and the birds swerve to avoid them. The deserted platform glitters for a moment; on a high-rise tower the sign appears: HOTEL EUROPA.
Translation copyright © 1990 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.