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The Dead at the Table

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March 3, 2014

What are they doing, the important people in a cemetery? They sleep, they too sleep just the same as people who don’t count for shit.

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Image by Anthony Cudahy, Diane, 2012

First of all, he would have told him that what he liked most about the new house was the view of the Unter den Linden, because this made him still feel at home. In other words, it was a house that made him feel at home, as when his life had a meaning. And that he liked having chosen Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, because this too was a name that had a meaning. Or it’d had one. Had it had one? Of course it had, above all the Big Structure.

The tram stopped and opened its doors. People boarded. He waited till the doors closed again. Go ahead, go ahead, I prefer to walk, I’ll take a healthy stroll, the weather is too nice to miss the chance. The light was red. He looked at his reflection in the glass of the closed door, although a strip of rubber divided him in two. Divided in two is fine, my dear, always divided in two, half here, half there, that’s life, life’s like that. Not at all bad, though: he was a handsome man advanced in age, white hair, an elegant jacket, Italian loafers bought in the city center, the well-off look of a well-off person: the rewards of capitalism. He hummed: Tout est affaire de décor, changer de lit, changer de corps. That, yes, he knew a lot about, he’d spent a whole life doing that. The tram left. He waved to it, as if on it were someone to whom he was saying goodbye. Who was that person going off in a tram to the Pergamon? He gave himself an affectionate pat on the cheek. Well, it’s you, my dear, really you, et à quoi bon, puisque c’est encore moi qui moi-même me trahis. He sang softly the end of the stanza in a deep and slightly dramatic voice, as Léo Ferré used to do. The boy on his scooter with the Pizza Hut box, waiting for the green light, looked at him in wonder: an old elegant man singing like a lark at a tram stop, funny isn’t it? Go on, young man, it’s turned green, he waved, inviting him to go, take your shit pizza to its destination, clear out, clear out, there’s nothing to see, I’m only an old man humming Aragon’s poems, faithful comrade of the good old days, he too has already cleared out, we all clear out sooner or later, and also his Elsa has dull eyes, good night Elsa’s eyes. He watched the tram turning onto Friedrichstraße and waved at Elsa’s eyes. The cab driver looked at him, bewildered. So, he said, are you going to get in? He apologized: Look, it’s a misunderstanding, I was saying goodbye to someone, the wave wasn’t for you. The cab driver shook his head disapprovingly. He must have been Turkish. This city is full of Turks, Turks and Gypsies, they all rained down here, those bums, to do what?, to beg, yes, to beg, poor Germany. Ah, and he was complaining too, the immigrant, what cheek. I told you you’ve got it wrong, he retorted in a rising voice, it’s you who’ve misunderstood, I was waving at someone. I only asked if you needed help, the guy explained in broken German, excuse me, sir, do you need help? Need help?, no, thank you, he answered crisply, thank you, I’m very well, young man. The cab left. Are you well?, he asked himself. Of course he was well, it was a beautiful summer day, rare in Berlin, maybe a little too hot. There, maybe a little too hot for his liking, and with the heat the blood pressure tends to rise. No salted food and no exertions, the doctor had warned him, your pressure is borderline, but probably it’s caused by anxiety, is something worrying you, are you able to rest, do you sleep well, do you have insomnia? What questions. Certainly he was sleeping well, how can a tranquil old man with a good bank account, a magnificent apartment in the center, a vacation cottage on the Wannsee, a lawyer son in Hamburg, and a daughter married to the owner of a supermarket chain sleep badly?, come on, doctor. But the physician persisted: bad dreams, hard to sleep, sudden awakenings, feeling startled? Yes, sometimes, doctor, but life is long, you know, at a certain age you think back to people who aren’t here anymore, you look back, at the net that has surrounded us, the leaky net of those who were fishing, because now those have all been fished, you understand me? I don’t understand, the physician said, so, can you sleep or not? Doctor, he’d have liked to say to that good man, what do they still want from me? I’ve played all the solitaire, I have vomited all the kirsch possible, I have stuffed all the books into the stove, doctor, you’re supposing my sleep is still sound? And instead he responded: I sleep well when I sleep, and when I don’t sleep I try to sleep. If you weren’t retired I would diagnose a type of stress, declared the physician, but frankly it’s not possible, thus your high pressure is due to anxiety, you are an anxious person even if apparently calm, two of these pills before going to bed, no salted food, and you must quit smoking.

When he used to work in the Big Structure there were people who would’ve denounced their parents for a pack of American cigarettes, and now the Americans, after having conquered the world, were deciding that smoking makes you ill.

He lit a cigarette, a good mild American one. When he used to work in the Big Structure there were people who would’ve denounced their parents for a pack of American cigarettes, and now the Americans, after having conquered the world, were deciding that smoking makes you ill. Asshole doctor sold out to the Americans. He crossed Unter den Linden at Humboldt University and sat under the square umbrellas of the würstel kiosk. On line at the kiosk, trays in hand, was a nice little Spanish family, dad, mom, and two teenagers. Tourists everywhere now. They weren’t sure how to pronounce the dish. Kartoffeln, the woman claimed. No, no, the husband objected, since they were fried you had to ask for pommes, in the French way. Clever, the Spanish guy with his little mustache. Passing alongside the man he started whistling “Los cuatro generales.” The woman turned and looked at him, almost alarmed. He pretended not to notice. Were they nostalgics or did they vote socialist? Who can tell. Ahi Carmela, ahi Carmela.

A sudden gust of wind raised napkins and empty cigarette packs from the ground. Often in Berlin it happens: on a muggy day all of a sudden a cold wind arrives that whirls the debris and changes the mood. It’s as though it carries memories, nostalgia, lost phrases, like this one which came to mind: inclemency of weather and loyalty to my principles. He felt a rush of rage. But what loyalty, he said aloud, what loyalty are you talking about, in your private life you have been the most unfaithful man I know, I know everything about you, principles, sure, but which ones, those of the Party you’ve never wanted to know about, your wife you always cheated on, which principles are you raving about, fool? A little girl stopped in front of him. She wore a skirt that trailed on the ground and was barefoot. She pushed under his eyes a piece of cardboard on which was written: I come from Bosnia. Get lost, he said to her smiling. The little girl also smiled and went away.

Maybe it was better to take a cab, now he felt tired. Who knew why he felt so tired, he’d spent the morning doing nothing, lounging and reading the newspapers. The newspapers make you tired, he said to himself, the news makes you tired, the world makes you tired. The world makes you tired because it is tired. He headed toward the metal trash can and threw out an empty pack of cigarettes, then that day’s newspaper, he didn’t feel like keeping it in his pocket. He was a good citizen, he was, he didn’t like to dirty the city. But the city was already dirty. Everything was dirty. He said to himself: No, I’ll go on foot, I’ll control the situation better. The situation, what situation?, well, the situation he was used to controlling at other times. Back then, yes, it was rewarding: your Target was walking ahead of you, unaware, calm, going about his business. You too, apparently, were going about your business, but not at all unaware, quite the opposite: of your Target you knew each and every feature from the photos they’d made you study, you could’ve recognized him even in the audience of a theater, whereas he knew nothing of you, to him you were an anonymous face like millions of other anonymous faces in the world, he went his way and going his own way he guided you, since you had to follow him. He was the compass for your route, you merely had to follow him.

He chose a Target. When he left home he always needed to find a Target, otherwise he felt lost, would lose his bearings. Because the Target knew well where to go, while he didn’t, where could he go at this point, now that the job he’d always had was over and Renate was dead? Ah, the wall, such nostalgia! It was there, solid, concrete, it marked a border, marked life, gave the security of belonging. Thanks to a wall one belongs to something, stays on this side or the other, the wall is like a compass point, here it’s east, there west, you know where you are. When Renate was still alive, even though the wall was no longer there, at least he knew where to go, because he had to do all the housework, he didn’t trust the woman paid by the hour, she was a little Indian with a slanted gaze who spoke the worst German and constantly repeated, Yes, Sir, even when he sent her to hell. Go to hell, ugly stupid little darkie: Yes, Sir.

First of all he’d go to the supermarket. Every day, because he didn’t like to buy too much, only everyday little supplies, according to Renate’s wishes. What would you like this morning, Renate, for instance, would you like those Belgian liqueur chocolates, or do you prefer some hazelnut pralines? Or else, look, I’ll go to the fruit and vegetables aisle, you can’t imagine what’s in that supermarket, you know, no comparison with the grocery stores of our day, you can find everything, really everything, for instance, would you like some nice juicy peaches on this gray December day?, I’ll bring them to you, they come from Chile, or from Argentina, those places over there, or do you prefer pears, cherries, apricots?, I’ll bring them to you. Would you like a melon, yellow and very sweet, the kind that goes well with port or with Italian prosciutto? I’ll bring you that too, today I’d like to make you happy, Renate, I’d like you to smile.

I have to take care of you, wash you, nurse you as if you were a child, poor Renate, destiny has been cruel.

Renate would smile at him wearily. He’d turn to look back at her from the path in the garden while she’d wave to him from the window on the terrace. The border of the terrace would hide the wheels of the wheelchair. Renate would seem to be sitting in an armchair, would appear to be a normal person, she was still pretty, her face smooth and hair blonde, notwithstanding her age. Renate, my Renate, I’ve loved you so much, you know?, you can’t imagine how much, more than my life, and I still love you, truly, even if I ought to tell you one thing, but now what’s the point of telling you?, I have to take care of you, wash you, nurse you as if you were a child, poor Renate, destiny has been cruel, you were still pretty, and then you aren’t so old, we wouldn’t be so old, we could still enjoy life, who knows, traveling, instead you’re reduced to such a state, such a pity all this, Renate. He’d turn on the path and go under the trees of the big boulevard. Life is out of phase, he’d think, everything’s off schedule. And he’d head to the supermarket, spend a nice morning there, it was a good way to pass time, but now, since Renate was no longer there, it was difficult to pass time.

He looked around. On the other side of the street another tram stopped. A middle-aged woman with a shopping bag, a guy and a girl holding hands, an elderly man dressed in blue. They seemed ridiculous Targets to him. Patience, patience, don’t act like a little boy, have you perhaps forgotten your craft?, it takes patience, don’t you remember any more?, so much patience, days of patience, months of patience, with attention, with discretion, hours and hours sitting in a café, in a car, behind a newspaper, always reading the same newspaper, for whole days.

Why not wait for a good Target reading the newspaper, like this, to know how things are going in the world? He bought Die Zeit at the nearby kiosk, it’d always been his weekly, in the days of real Targets. Then he sat on the terrace of the würstel kiosk, under the lindens. It wasn’t yet lunchtime, but he could have a nice würstel with potatoes. Would you like it normal or with curry?, asked the little man with a white apron. He decided on the curry, something entirely new, and asked for added ketchup, really postmodern, which was a word they said everywhere. He left practically the whole dish on its paper plate, truly disgusting, who knew why it was so trendy.

He looked around. People seemed ugly to him. Fat. Even the thin ones seemed fat to him, fat inside, as if he could see inside them. They were oily, that was it, oily, as if spread with suntan oil. They seemed even to be gleaming. He opened the newspaper: let’s see how the world goes, this vast world that dances so happily. Yet not so much. The Strategic Defense Initiative, claimed the American. Against whom?, he snickered, against whom?, against us who’re all dead? There was a picture of the American on a podium, alongside a flag. He must’ve had a brain no bigger than a thimble, as the little French song went. He recalled the song he liked so much, that Brassens sure was quite a guy, he hated the bourgeoisie. Long time ago. Paris had been the best mission of his life. Un jolie fleur dans une peau de vache, une jolie vache désguisée en fleur. His French was still perfect, without accent, without inflection, neutral like certain voices on loudspeakers in airports, that’s how he’d learned it in the special school, in that time one really studied, no kidding, out of a hundred, five were selected, and those five had to be perfect, as he’d been.

There was a line in front of the booth of the Staatsoper, must be an important concert that evening. And if he were to go? Why not, I could… A man was coming down the staircase of the library, bald, elegant, a thin briefcase under his arm. There he was, the ideal Target. He pretended to be immersed in his newspaper. The man passed in front of him without noticing him. What a goose, he was really a goose. He let him walk a hundred or so meters and then rose. Crossed the street. Always better to stay on the other sidewalk, that was the old rule, don’t ever neglect the old rules. The man went in the direction of the Scheunenviertel. What a sweet Target, he was taking the same route as his own, couldn’t be any nicer than that. The man seemed to be heading to the Pergamon. And in fact he entered there. How clever, as if he himself hadn’t understood. He chuckled to himself: Sorry, dear goose, if you’re here on a mission under the guise of a university professor it’s logical for you to enter the Pergamon, do you think perhaps someone with my experience can be hooked by this cheap trick?

He sat on the base of one of the statues and waited for him calmly. He lit a cigarette. Up to now the physician allowed him only four cigarettes a day, two after lunch and two after dinner. But this Target deserved a cigarette. Waiting, he glanced at the newspaper, the arts page. There was an American film that was a popular box office hit. It was a spy film set in Berlin in the 1960s. He felt a strong yearning. He had the urge to go where he’d decided to go and not lose more time with that stupid little professor with whom he was getting involved. It was too banal, too predictable. In fact he saw him exit with a transparent plastic bag full of catalogues that must’ve weighed a ton.

He threw his stub in the canal and put his hands in his pockets, as if he were himself dawdling. This, yes, was what he liked: pretending to stroll around. But he wasn’t strolling around, he had a visit to make, he’d resolved to do it the night before, a night somewhat agitated, basically full of insomnia. He had some things to say to him, to that guy. First of all, he’d have told him that he’d worked everything out. Unlike so many colleagues, including those on his level, who’d ended up as taxi drivers, fired just like that, he, no, he’d fixed himself up nicely, he’d been provident, one must always be and he had been, he’d set aside a nice nest egg. How?, that was his business, but he’d succeeded in setting aside a nice nest egg, and in dollars, and in Switzerland, on top of that, and when everything had flopped he’d bought a nice detached house on Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, which was a name that had a meaning, a few steps from Unter den Linden, because this made him feel at home. All told, it was a house that made him feel at home, as when his life had a meaning. But had it had? Sure it had.

I eat oysters every night, and you know why?, because we aren’t eternal, my dear, you said so yourself, and so it’s worth eating oysters.

The Chausseestraße seemed deserted to him. Few cars passed. It was Sunday, a nice Sunday at the end of June, Berliners were on the Wannsee, lying in the first sun at the Martin Wagner beach, drinking apéritifs while waiting for a nice little lunch. He realized he was hungry. Yes, if he thought about it he was hungry, that morning he’d had only an Italian cappuccino, maybe because the evening before he’d gone overboard. He’d eaten oysters at the Paris Bar, at this point he went to the Paris Bar almost every evening, when he wasn’t alternating with other chic restaurants. Don’t you get it, knucklehead, he murmured, you acted like a Franciscan your whole life, I on the other hand have a ball at chic restaurants, I eat oysters every night, and you know why?, because we aren’t eternal, my dear, you said so yourself, and so it’s worth eating oysters. He liked the courtyard. It was simple, uncluttered, it resembled the knucklehead, rough as he’d been, with tables under the trees where two foreign tourists were drinking beer. The man was in his fifties, with the round eyeglasses of an intellectual, metal frames, like his own dear knucklehead, bald with fringes on the side. The woman was a brunette, pretty, with a determined and frank face, big dark eyes, younger than the man. They were speaking Italian, with some phrases in an unknown language. He pricked up his ears. Spanish? It seemed Spanish, but he was too far away. He passed in front of them with a pretext and said: Hello, welcome to Berlin. Thank you, replied the man. Italian?, he asked. The woman smiled at him: Portuguese, she answered. The man opened his arms with a pleased air: Changing countries more often than shoes, I’m a little bit Portuguese too, the man said in Italian, and he caught the quote. Great, my little intellectual, I see you’ve read the knucklehead, congratulations.

He decided to have lunch inside. One had to descend into a cellar, and maybe it really was a cellar originally. But, yes, sure, it was the cellar, now he remembered, often the knucklehead would meet a little failed actress there, an asshole older than Helene who then told all in a book that came out in France, called… He couldn’t recall any longer what it was called, even though he’d followed the whole thing himself, during his Parisian years, ah, yes, it was called Ce Qui Convient and apparently talked about theater, but in its own way was a philosophy of life: gossip. But what year was that? He couldn’t remember anymore. In that cellar the knucklehead had arranged for a sofa and a side lamp, and everything was under the eyes of Helene, who in her life had swallowed more bitter pills than mouthfuls of air.

The restaurant was fairly dark, but with its own cabaret atmosphere, like Maria Farrar and other expressionist stuff to which the knucklehead had been devoted in his youth. The tables were of rough wood, with graceful furnishings, the walls full of photos. He began looking at them. He knew almost all of them, they’d so often passed before his eyes in the dossiers of his office. And some of them he’d even had taken by his assistants. Whoremonger, he said to himself, you were a real whoremonger, a moralist without morals. He studied the menu: the lady hadn’t known how to win over the lovers, but at least with food she’d succeeded, all her life she’d demanded Austrian cuisine, and the restaurant respected her tastes. Appetizers, best not. First course soup. He began reflecting. There was a potato dish he found better than the German one. Actually he’d never been an admirer of German food, too greasy, the Austrians are more refined, but maybe it’s better to avoid the potato soup, it was warm. The roe deer? Why not the roe deer?, the Austrians are unbeatable in cooking roe deer. Heavy, the physician wouldn’t be in agreement. He decided on a simple wiener schnitzel. The fact is that wiener schnitzel done in the Austrian way could be something sublime, and then with that gratin of potatoes they make here, well, yes, let’s have the wiener schnitzel. He drank white Austrian wine, even if he didn’t like fruity wines, and mentally made a toast to the memory of Helene. To your thick skin, he said, my dear primadonna. To finish, a decaf, to avoid nighttime arrhythmia.

When he went out into the courtyard he was tempted to visit the house, now it was a house-museum, how amusing. But who knows, maybe they’d renovated it, painted it, cleaned off all traces of life, adapted it for intelligent tourists. He recalled it on a night in ’54 when that jerk was there behind the wings of the Berliner Ensemble, looking at the cart of his mother courage. He’d inspected each room, drawer by drawer, sheet by sheet, letter by letter. He knew it like no one else: he’d violated it. I’m sorry, he said softly, I’m sorry, really, but those were the orders. He went out onto the street and walked a few meters. The little cemetery that gave onto the street, protected by a gate, was accessed by a driveway. It was deserted. There were many trees, everyone reposed in the shade. Little cemetery, but racé, he thought, with certain names: philosophers, physicians, literary figures: happy few. What are they doing, the important people in a cemetery? They sleep, they too sleep just the same as people who don’t count for shit. And everyone in the same position: horizontal. Eternity is horizontal. Turning randomly he saw the tombstone of Anna Seghers. When he was young he’d really loved her poetry. One of them came to mind which a Jewish actor, many years earlier, recited every evening in a little theater in the Marais, it was a frightening and heartrending poem, and he didn’t have the courage to say it by heart.

He stood stock-still and closed his eyes, as if making a wish. But he had no wish to make.

When he arrived before the tomb he said: Hi, I’ve come to find you. Suddenly he had no desire at all to talk with him about the house and how he’d fixed himself up well for his old age. He hesitated and then said only: You don’t know me, my name is Karl, it’s my baptismal name, look, it’s my real name. In that moment a butterfly arrived. It was a common little butterfly with white wings, a small cabbage butterfly wandering in the cemetery. He stood stock-still and closed his eyes, as if making a wish. But he had no wish to make. He reopened his eyes and saw that the butterfly had perched on the tip of the nose of a bronze bust that rose up in front of the tomb.

I’m sorry for you, he said, but they didn’t put the epitaph you dictated when alive: Here lies B.B., clean, objective, bad. I’m sorry, but they didn’t put it there for you, one should never make anticipatory epigraphs, since future generations don’t obey. The little butterfly beat its wings, raised them perpendicular, and joined them as if about to fly, yet didn’t move. You really had a nice big nose, he said, and a head of hair like a stiff brush, you were a knucklehead, you’ve always been a knucklehead, you gave me a whole lot to do. The butterfly took off on a brief flight and then rested on the same point.

You fool, he said, I was one of your friends, I loved you, are you amazed that I loved you?, so now listen, that August in ’56, when your coronary arteries exploded, I cried, really, I cried, I haven’t cried much in my life, you know?, Karl cried little when he had time, and yet for you I cried.

The butterfly rose in flight, made two turns over the head of the statue and went away. I need to tell you one thing, he said rapidly, as if he were talking to the butterfly, I need to tell you one thing, it’s urgent. The butterfly disappeared beyond the trees and he lowered his voice. I know everything about you, I know everything about your life, day by day, everything: your women, your ideas, your friends, your travels, even your nights and all your little secrets, including the tiniest: everything. He realized he was sweating. He took a breath. Of myself, on the other hand, I didn’t know anything, I thought I knew everything and I knew nothing. He paused and lit a cigarette. He needed a cigarette. It was only two years ago, when they opened the archives, that I discovered Renate had betrayed me all along. Who knows why it occurred to me that even I could have a file like everyone. It was a complete file, detailed, of someone who’d been spied on every day. The item “Relatives” was a whole dossier, with photos taken with a zoom lens, showing Renate and the head of the Internal Office naked in the sun, on the bed of a river, like in a nudist colony. Underneath was written: Prague, 1952. By then I was in Paris. Then there are many others: in ’62 while leaving a hotel in Budapest, in ’69 on a beach on the Black Sea, in ’74 in Sofia. Up till ’82 when he died, his coronaries exploded like yours, he was old, twenty years older than Renate, truth is concrete.

He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and stepped back. He was bathed in sweat. He sat on the wooden bench, on the other side of the little alley. You know, he said, I would have liked to say it to Renate, I would have liked to tell her I knew everything, I’d discovered everything, but things are comic, Renate had a stroke, there was hope that she’d recover, and in fact they took good care of her, with physiotherapy too, everything that was necessary, and yet she didn’t get better, in the final years she remained in a wheelchair and the facial paralysis too didn’t go away, every evening I said to myself: Tomorrow I will tell her, but how can you say you’ve discovered everything to someone who has a distorted face and wizened legs?, I didn’t have the courage, really, I didn’t have the courage.

He looked at his watch. Maybe it was time to go. He felt tired, maybe he’d get a taxi. He said: Of my new house I like most of all the view over Unter den Linden, it’s a nice house, with all modern comforts. He began walking down the little alley to the entrance gate. He hesitated a moment and turned. Waved a greeting, toward the park. In the evening I go to eat in classy restaurants, he said again, for instance, tonight I’m thinking of going to an Italian restaurant where they make a spaghetti with shrimp you can’t imagine, there are more shrimps than spaghetti. He closed the gate delicately, careful not to make noise. In our time there weren’t such places, my dear, he murmured to himself, we missed out on the best.

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Antonio Tabucchi was born in Pisa in 1943 and died in Lisbon in 2012. A master of short fiction, he was regarded as one of the most innovative and important writers of postwar Europe, and honored with numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Médicis Etranger, the Premio Campiello, the Premio Viareggio, the Italian PEN Prize, and the Aristeion Prize. His works include Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico (Archipelago), Little Misunderstandings of No Importance, Letter from Casablanca, and The Edge of the Horizon (all from New Directions). Translated into English for the first time, each of the nine stories in Time Ages in a Hurry is an imaginative inquiry into something hidden or disguised.

Martha Cooley is the author of two novels, The Archivist and Thirty-three Swoons. Her works of short fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in PEN America, The Common, A Public Space, and others. She has translated numerous poems by Italian poet Giampiero Neri, and she served as judge of the Poetry in Translation Prize at the PEN American Center in 2011. Cooley is currently a professor of English at the University of Adelphi and teaches writing in the Bennington Writing Seminars MFA program.

Antonio Romani’s translations of poems by Italian poet Giampiero Neri have been published in AGNI, Atlanta Review, PEN America, A Public Space, and others. He formerly taught Italian literature and history in two high schools in Cremona and was the owner and manager of two bookstores. He now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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