In this issue of WWB we present five pieces of prose by authors from Macedonia, a landlocked country in southeastern Europe bordered by Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, and Kosovo. Macedonia is a successor-state of socialist Yugoslavia and has been independent since 1991. It is slightly larger than Vermont.
The country has a population of just over two million. The majority (about 60%) are ethnic Macedonians, who speak a Slavic language closely related to Bulgarian and Serbian. There is a sizeable Albanian community (about 30%), which constitutes a majority in a number of municipalities, as well as Turks, Romani (Gypsies), Serbs, and others. There is a significant diaspora of ethnic Macedonians in North America, Australia, and western Europe as a result of decades of economic migration.
Macedonia bears many traits of a multicultural society, and a spirit of tolerance is widespread, but the country has been in economic, social, and political crisis for almost as long as anyone can remember. Macedonia was hailed as a regional haven of peace during the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992–95) and Kosovo/Yugoslavia (1999), but problems came to a head in 2001 with a spate of ethnic-Albanian insurgency. The internationally brokered Ohrid Agreement of the same year aimed to improve the rights of ethnic Albanians. Although the Agreement brought nominal peace and stability, it has cemented the divisions within the country. Ethnic Albanians are still discriminated against in many ways; on the other hand, many ethnic Macedonians feel it would be beneath their dignity to learn Albanian. It is still a long way to a real, engaging form of multiculturalism. The capital city Skopje is divided into a mostly Macedonian half and a largely Albanian half—the division can be seen and felt, north and south of the Vardar River.
Macedonia was one of the least developed regions of the former Yugoslavia, and many of the country’s industries (mining and metallurgy, textiles, agriculture) have not adjusted well to global economic trends. There is significant foreign investment and some new production facilities, but working conditions here are often abysmal. Unemployment is high and the ongoing brain-drain of the younger generation is a big issue. An ongoing dispute with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia has seen Greece veto Macedonia’s accession to the European Union, adding to the feeling of frustration in many sectors of society.
Large protests erupted in late 2014 after it was revealed that the right-wing nationalist government of President Nikola Gruevski (in office since 2006) had been wire-tapping citizens in a big way. A “colorful revolution” saw a number of public buildings and monuments copiously pelted and squirted with paint. The wire-tapping scandal was only the straw that broke the camel’s back: widespread corruption remains a problem, and there are various other grievances such as the government’s diverting of resources from the infrastructure budget to fund oversized monuments and neo-Classical buildings in the capital, e.g. a column topped by a huge sculpture of Alexander the Great in the city’s central square. (The Ancient Macedonians of Alexander’s time were not Greeks, as the nationalists never tire to proclaim, but neither are today’s Balkan-Slavic Macedonians related to the Ancient Macedonians in any meaningful way—the government’s strange approach to identity building has incensed many people both at home and abroad.) Parliamentary elections were held on December 11, 2016, resulting in a close finish between the governing party and the opposition bloc lead by the Social-Democrats. Forming a new government is expected to be difficult.
Macedonian literature has a long tradition going back to common Slavic times. The first Slavic texts (mainly translations from the Bible) were produced by the monastic brothers Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century based on the Slavic idiom spoken in the hinterland of Thessaloniki. There has been a long tradition of folk poetry, but Macedonian in its relatively unified contemporary form is very much a product of the codification carried out in 1944–45. This process laid down which of the words and forms from the various Macedonian dialects would constitute the new standard language, and it helped distinguish Macedonian from the closely related Bulgarian. Even today, Macedonian and Bulgarian are mutually comprehensible.
Given the small size of the Macedonian market and the country’s poverty compared to most of Europe, government funding is crucial for most literary projects and the publishing sector in general, although it functions rigidly and without a clear strategy. No authors are able to make a living from writing fiction or poetry. Almost all of them work at least part-time as journalists, teachers/lecturers, publishers, etc. This is perhaps a blessing in disguise because many authors feel relatively free to write as they see fit, both in terms of style and content. There is little pressure to conform to “market expectations” because market mechanisms do not function in the same way as in large Western economies.
A lot more literature is translated into Macedonian than is translated out of it. Given the richness of Macedonian writing, it would be lovely if Western publishers were a little bolder.
Our feature opens with “Nectar” by Rumena Bužarovska (1981), a story from her third and latest collection of short stories, My Husband (Mojot maž), published in 2014. Bužarovska, who works as a lecturer in American literature at the university in Skopje, is increasingly gaining international attention. She was one of the ten authors chosen for “New Voices from Europe” presented by Literature Across Frontiers at the London Book Fair 2016.
The narrator of “Nectar” is a woman who has married her gynecologist, a charming but arrogant man sixteen years her senior, who paints in his spare time. The story looks at gender roles in a conventional heterosexual family, shows how the husband exploits his professional position in relation to the wives of friends, and takes us on interesting excursions about male and female creativity. At the end we find out that the narrator actually writes poetry—the husband’s egocentrism and his wife’s conformity have pushed this under the carpet—and she avenges herself for his hubris with a subtle revelation.
There are quite a number of female prose writers and particularly poets in Macedonia, but they receive little recognition from the mainstream. In this and many other ways, Macedonia is a very patriarchal society.
We then present “Fog” and “Fire” by Nenad Joldeski (1986), one of the winners of the 2016 European Union Prize for Literature. Joldeski’s first degree was in economics, after which he studied comparative literature. He currently works in the IT sector. These two pieces, written in dense and intense, almost poetic language, are taken from his second book of short stories, Everyone Has Their Own Lake (Sekoj so svoeto ezero), 2012. The texts in this book revolve around existential themes and “imperiled urban scenes,” as Joldeski says in an interview—perhaps a reference to the government’s megalomania and monuments disfiguring inner Skopje. “Fog” is dreamlike and disturbing, while “Fire” examines the instability of identity and the need to share narratives about belonging. Both pieces have more than a hint of Kafka.
Next we have an extract from the novel The Lighter (Zapalka) by Natali Spasova (1989). Spasova is a relative newcomer and one of the few female voices in Macedonia’s male-dominated literary scene. This fresh and lively novel published in 2014 is structured as a series of separate tales by different narrators/protagonists, whose dissimilar lives are connected by one small object: a Zippo cigarette lighter. An entertaining book full of surprising developments, and perhaps a reflection of Macedonia’s turbulent past—and present.
We round off this feature with the tale “The Bird on the Balcony” by Petre Dimovski (1946) from his latest book of short stories entitled Dawn in the Painting (Zora vo slikata), 2015. Dimovski, who recently retired, worked primarily as a teacher and journalist, but has also published fourteen novels, eleven collections of short stories, and won most of Macedonia’s literary prizes. He organizes an annual literary festival in Bitola, Macedonia’s second-largest city.
At a simplistic level, “The Bird on the Balcony” is a boy-meets-girl story couched in rather passionate, flowery language. But there is an interesting historical twist: one of the two protagonists of this story set in the early twentieth century is a young Turkish cadet at the Ottoman military academy in Bitola (now part of Macedonia): Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This gives an interesting dash of spice, and the story provides a good thematic and stylistic counterpoint to the three pieces above by younger writers. It alludes to the changing fortunes in this part of the world. Until the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Bitola was a regional capital of greater significance than Skopje. As well as being a commercial hub, it was also known as “the city of consuls,” since many European countries had consulates there. But when the borders were redrawn in the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913 and Bitola ended up at the southernmost tip of Serbia, its decline to a provincial town was essentially sealed.
Together, the five pieces in this feature give a diverse taste of contemporary Macedonian prose, which is vibrant both domestically and in the diaspora. There is much to be discovered. Publishers in the English-speaking world would do well to shrug off their reticence and present readers a real south-Balkan smorgasbord.
© 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.
Petre Dimovski looks back at a turning point in a leader's youth
The young man walked with his usual calm over the cobblestones of the Shirok Sokak promenade in Bitola, the city famous throughout the Ottoman Empire. He came from Salonika and felt he was ever closer to his goal of obtaining an education, now that he had been accepted as a cadet at the Military Academy here. At the same moment, the beautiful Bitola girl Eleni Karinte came out onto the balcony, aflutter and in the flower of her youth, with a gentle restlessness in her soul, which created the sense of being high in the air and having a view distinctive of a bird, not of an earth-bound human. But the young man who walked over the cobbles had the sky in his eye. He sought there for the star that would guide his way into the future.
The beautiful bird looked down. Its destiny is to forever conceal the sky in the span of its wings, and yet to have its eye on life on earth.
There was absolutely no telling what would happen next, although the moment that had just entered the present was so close.
Nothing would have happened if the young woman had let herself be carried away on the little white clouds, which she now banished to the corner of her eye and let their shadows fly on. Or if the man who paced the cobbles had walked with his gaze on the ground to maintain a steady step. But just now the young man raised his head. He lifted his gaze in search of the star that was already wandering through his mind. The young woman felt a breath of air, which created the illusion that she really was a bird flying in the sky, and she lowered her eyes to the ground.
Destiny took its course when their gazes met. Heaven and earth lost their connecting border. Their thoughts then also conjoined, a quality of those who attempt to tame their restiveness and—as a result—electrify the surroundings with their elemental drive.
The young man was completely captivated by the beauty of the young woman. She left the sky and gently descended to earth.
“I feel my life is changing,” Kemal admitted sincerely to the beautiful Eleni, inebriated by the first drop of amorous wine. She only gave a heart-warming smile. But the shine in her eyes rounded out that dialogue of love. They were gazing at each other, that was plain, and they realized they could not stop. They already knew each other well enough to be the most intimate beings on earth. Elegant and well-mannered, the young woman received him at the piano in her drawing room and played him one of the pieces that the French governesses in Bitola had taught her. She chose the song “Frère Jacques,” the first for which her teachers had praised her. The strains of the piano followed the words with infatuation:
Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.
And Kemal applauded long and loud. Eleni had noticed that he simply melted to the sounds of the piano. The young cadet bore his musicality in his ear but had no skill with his fingers, so he said he could only offer his love. Eleni’s enchanting laughter resounded and was conveyed by the ebony and ivory with a melodic richness. The keys struck straight at their hearts; the melody rang through their veins and made its way out into the world around.
It seems the keys recognized their two hearts as being of the same note, and in that instant their union occurred, their fusion into one whole, with the same sound and the same melody that could no longer be separated.
After that encounter, the happy young couple realized that the love flaring up in their hearts could conquer the world in a single day. And they immediately set out on their campaign.
Eleni knew the hard stance of the successful Bitola merchant Eftim Karinte, her father. She knew how he would react when he heard of their love: a young woman from a respectable Christian home and a cadet from a poor Mohammedan family . . . Their love therefore inspired them to flee.
“I will take you to meet my mother in Salonika,” the young cadet declared. “It is not hard to choose between the Academy and this beautiful young woman.”
“I will go with you wherever you take me, even to the ends of the earth,” the beautiful Eleni averred.
Soon afterward the long train roared and whistled as it raced across the land toward Salonika, bearing their great love. Kemal and Eleni spent the whole of the journey in each other’s arms. Naturally they were afraid to let go of their love, which could be seized and shut away in a prison with high stone walls.
The young man took his joy to meet his mother. But she sent the young couple straight back to Bitola so that her son would continue the chosen schooling, and so he could ask the young woman’s parents for her hand in marriage. Eftim Karinte was very strict on matters of class and religion. The young couple had no choice other than to go into hiding in Bitola in order to save their great love. But the forces of separation were more powerful than their bond, and that great love was thrown into the dungeon of a stone fortress. Then they were forcibly separated: the boy was sent away to Istanbul and the beautiful girl to Florina so that they would never see each other again. Eleni withdrew into the prison of her soul.
But such a love could not be wrenched from their hearts. Nothing could remove it from there. It filled them completely, leaving no room for any other. So it was that their great love prompted Kemal to perform great deeds. Beautiful Eleni, in turn, waited for an opening in time, when their captive love would be set free and the two separated hearts could beat together once more. She waited like this until her eightieth year, when all the times had changed and life and death had merged fully into one. And on her last journey she took with her one single token.
"Ptica na balkonot," from Zora vo slikata. © Petre Dimovski. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.
A resourceful child learns the limited life of a good-luck charm in Natali Spasova's tale
“When is Daddy coming?” The bare little feet came shuffling into the room, but the child’s sleepy voice received no answer. It was a small room, modestly furnished, with dark curtains on the windows that did not let in enough light.
The frail body of a woman slumped in an armchair, her old throne. The little girl made her way through the bottles of alcohol and gently loosened the strap on her mother’s left arm. She leaned up to her lips and, holding her breath, pressed her ear to them. She’s still breathing, it’s OK, she thought with relief.
“I’m hungry.” Warily, fearfully, she nudged her so she would wake up, but still there was no reaction. She picked up the blanket from the floor and threw it over her with great effort.
“I’ll make food myself. You sleep. Have a good rest. You’ll get better and we can go to the park tomorrow. We don’t have to go today.”
She headed for the kitchen. She wasn’t allowed to turn on the stove at all, and she remembered that she had once played with the knobs and was given a hard slap by her mother. If she woke up and found that the girl had turned it on once more, who knows what would happen. The fridge was empty. There was just a carton with some stale cereal. Yesterday she drank the last of the milk, although it had a strange taste. It made her tummy hurt and she had to vomit. She didn’t tell her mother because she didn’t want to wake her. Her mother was very ill and had to sleep.
Quietly she moved down the hall and went outside. She was also not allowed to cross the street, but this time she had no choice. She knew the neighbors opposite, and they were kind to her. They had a granddaughter she used to play with before she left for America. She knocked on the neighbors’ door and asked for a glass of milk.
“Mama is sick. She can’t go to the store,” she explained.
The lady looked at her in confusion, then filled the glass and walked her back home. She stood at the open front door for several seconds, horrified, and then turned and ran back to her house.
Her mother was still sleeping. Once again she held her ear close to make sure she was alive, then she shook the cereal into the glass and sat down on the floor to eat. The table was covered with a jumble of things, which she didn’t want to move because otherwise her mother would yell at her when she woke up; she was often in a bad mood when she got up and annoyed by all sorts of little things.
Someone rang at the door. She was too small to look through the peephole to see who it was, so she opened the door a bit. Two grim-looking men dressed in blue.
“Hello there. Could we come in, please?”
“No,” she replied curtly. “Mama’s sleeping. I’m not allowed to wake her. And I’m not to let anyone into the house.”
The two men glanced at each other. In front of them stood a barefooted girl, five or six years old, in a nightie that was clearly a few sizes too big for her. With a snotty little nose and milk-smeared cheeks, but with the piercing blue eyes of an adult.
One of the men pulled out his police badge, but the girl did not waver—she stood firmly by her decision. The other man took out a kind of radio and moved aside, far enough so that the girl would not be able to hear what he spoke into it.
They tried to explain to her once more that they were good people, the sort everyone lets into their homes, and that the rules didn’t apply to them, but the girl knew she would be in big trouble if she didn’t obey her mother’s rules. There were no exceptions to those rules.
In the end, the policemen’s patience wore thin. They roughly pushed her away from the door and entered, covering their noses.
Terrified, the girl ran up to her room, hid under the bed, and started to rummage through the box there. Her whole body shook and she started to cry, but she quickly gave herself a jolt when she remembered that wasn’t allowed either. No crying! Finally, among all the worthless things at the bottom of the box she found what she was looking for.
But no ordinary lighter.
She pressed it to her body and her fear suddenly vanished.
* * *
She woke up in her dark room paralyzed with fear, and she didn’t dare to make a sound. Exactly one year earlier, she had had the same nightmare: a man without a head was following her and she had nowhere to run. The first time, she told her mother about the nightmare and was given a sound beating—she had unwittingly given away that she had been watching films she wasn’t allowed to. She knew she had to keep quiet about it this time. But her room was very scary, so she snuck into the living room on her tiptoes.
Her father was still awake. What a relief! She ran and nestled up to him in front of the television. She didn’t admit anything until he gave her a firm promise she wouldn’t get into trouble, and then she told him about the film with the man without a head, whom no gun could kill.
“And now he’s following me. No one can see him because he hides in my wardrobe.”
They went and checked the wardrobes together, but to no avail—the man could make himself invisible.
Then her father fumbled around in his pocket and produced the magic lighter.
“This is the most precious thing anyone can ever own. It was given to me by a great wizard and is the most powerful weapon in the world . . . I’ll put it under your bed and no monsters will ever be able to come near you,” her father told her.
“Can it make me invisible?” her eyes lit up.
“Ha, of course. I told you it was magic. You just have to hold it tight enough and wish really, really hard for something, and it will make that wish come true.”
She slept peacefully that night. The man without a head never appeared in her dreams again. But neither did her father appear again in her life.
* * *
She heard the men come into her room. She listened to their steps and their voices. They asked themselves where she was, and she just smiled. She was invisible; they wouldn’t find her, so they would give up and leave.
She could tell from the steps that there were several people in the room now, not just the two men. Suddenly, one of them leaned under the bed and fixed his terrible dark eyes on her. She was startled for a moment, but then it occurred to her that she was actually invisible. She pressed the lighter to herself and smiled contentedly.
“What are you holding there, girl?”
She said nothing. This was impossible. She was invisible. If she kept silent, they would all go away.
“May I see?” the voice sounded friendly, but still she didn’t move. Perhaps she wasn’t squeezing the lighter hard enough? Or not wishing properly? She shut her eyes and wished again as hard as she could that she was invisible! Her arms hurt, but she didn’t give up.
All of a sudden she felt someone lift her into the air. She didn’t resist but just gripped the lighter hard with both hands and repeated to herself: “I want to be invisible! I want to be invisible!”
They carried her out of the house and sat her down beside a woman with a pleasant voice who also tried to talk with her. She opened her eyes for a moment, long enough to see her pleasant face, and then she returned to the lighter. It had to work—her father had said it would. And her father never, ever lied!
The woman gave up her attempts and just stayed sitting next to her in silence. As she expected, after half an hour’s exertion the girl finally fell asleep.
The poor thing, she thought as she carried the little urchin to the waiting taxi. She didn’t notice the lighter that fell from the girl’s limp hands onto the back seat. When they got out, the taxi driver called to her:
“Lady, you’ve forgotten your lighter!”
“I don’t smoke,” she replied over her shoulder and walked into the city orphanage.
The next morning, the newspaper headlines blared:
FIVE-YEAR-OLD LEFT ALONE FOR A WEEK WITH CORPSE OF HEROIN-OVERDOSED MOTHER
Everyone felt sorry for the girl, who just one year earlier had lost her father in a road accident.
From Zapalka. © Natali Spasova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.
Nenad Joldeski offers two atmospheric tales
Skopje. Corrected discourse.
Fine rain is falling outside. One half of the city is under water, the other floats wounded on the city lake. A bird flies into the half-open roller blind. The third today. Beside me lies the borrowed book on Brueghel. I remember Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. It’s strange that I can’t think of Brueghel without his name triggering an association with Williams.
“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring.”
I look for the painting inside. It’s not there. Instead, I gaze at The Hunters in the Snow. This must be the tenth time I’ve seen it as if by chance. Several times with Olivia, and several by myself. I’m starting to believe it portends something apocalyptic. The winter, perhaps. Whatever . . .
The drizzle stops. I go outside. The city, dark clouds and fog hanging over it, walks its phantasms along the mute, foggy avenues. It smells of winter. An icy north wind deflects off the buildings. Ice quickly forms at the edges of the sidewalks.
I take the street that leads steeply down into the heart of the city. I’m not really sure where this route will take me. Through the heavy drapes оf smog and fog I sense a pack of tired and ravenous dogs following me. I tremble with fear and stop short. The dogs don’t notice me in the mist and pass by. I notice three hunters following them, with rifles. Ravens fly past overhead. The men take aim and fire several shots. One of the bullets pierces glass. Nothing falls to the ground. Fortunately they don’t notice me. I decide to continue on through the thick fog in search of somewhere to hide. I find the nearest store and slip inside. Through the shopwindow I watch the hunters and the ravenous hounds melt into the mist. The storekeeper lies dead. I hurry home as fast as I can.
A raven, certainly lost in the thick fog, crashes into the window and breaks the glass, and then flies half dead into the room. A whiteness starts to fill the interior. I notice a message on the raven’s leg.
Don’t go outside, I’m dreaming of the hunters, they’re relieving their hunger, venting their defeat.—Olivia
I lock the door. The Brueghel book still lies on the table. Ravens are colonizing the room. I make tea and settle comfortably in the armchair. Glad to be alive. I wait for her to wake up.
To my father
and all who will believe
The summer that came after the death of my grandfather gave birth to a fiery well inside my father. The red chasm that he claimed was melting his soul and heating it to incandescence came out through his eyes and spewed flames at anyone who looked at him. He found no way to quench that fire. Something was happening inside my father—one sun was going down and another, even hotter and more dangerous, was rising—and although medicine claimed the opposite and skeptically poured water and ash onto the embers of his soul, the fire continued to smolder inside. He thought back to his youth, he dressed up my mother in clothes that had long ceased to fit her, and she, not wanting to contradict his mania, obeyed like a small child. We all knew that the torrid abyss forming within him, powerful and apocalyptic, would not last long, but none of us were bold enough to anticipate the scars it would leave.
My father started going out less and less, and when he did, he hid in the shadows of the houses and passed like a ghost along the margins without being seen. I watched him flit beneath the eaves and levitate about the roofs with my grandfather’s old parasol trailing behind. Sometimes he would dive into the black river and was gone for hours, only to emerge from it in the end dry and dejected. In the nights he looked at the moon and confused it with his enemy, the eye of the universe, which slowly and furtively crept up through his conversations, leaving ash on the floor—traces he returned to at dawn. In his mornings awash with sweat we coldly watched his anxiety; we all hoped the summer would soon end and the elemental forces of fall would bring him back to the circle of existence.
But when fall came, my father continued to loiter around the house and only occasionally stopped down in the stone basements until, cold and somber, they reminded him of my grandfather. Then he also started to complain about his heels. When he trod, he left traces of black on the floor and claimed that everything in him was turning to coals and ash. My mother measured his steps, fanned his neck, and served him cold beer, but nothing helped. One day, probably considering us and his hopeless situation, he disappeared.
The days that followed, chill and gray, cast his remains into our house, leaving us less and less space for living. The foundations started to give way, the walls lost their colors, the warmth vanished, and only past memories, smells, and smiles of that great miracle worker collected in the corners. My brother and I searched for him everywhere and paced wild-eyed through the pale light of the waning days, hoping to find a trace of him sometime. And just when it seemed everything would fall apart and our paltry lives would topple into the void of his absence and vanish forever in the ruins, warmth miraculously returned to our home. For days we sat despondently at the windows and watched ice take hold of the streets, filling the asphalt chasms of the city, and we hoped it was a herald of his coming.
My father returned together with the first snow in late January, on the day of his fifty-eighth birthday: smaller, tiny, and chilled to the bone. The fiery well had been covered with snow, he claimed, and that layer of white now concealed everything that could make a semblance of his previous life. He tried to create a reminiscence of the past months, to melt the snow by throwing salt on it, but all his efforts collapsed into the pit of oblivion, lost their ground, and slid away. And he simply could not recall what had happened to him all the time he was gone.
For days, my father dug through the labyrinths of his memories, cleared away the snow and broke the ice on the frozen flagstones, beneath which all the warmth and the smells of his onetime memories now faintly shimmered. He found the cat and stole its spot, woke it from its slumber and conquered its territory, laying down his own laws and jurisdiction, only to ultimately meditate on warmth, in the belief that cats always choose the warmest place in a house. He would say with soft elation that he was going out for a walk, but instead, when he thought no one was watching, he shrank and broke into the family albums. And only then, wallowing about in the photos, could he daydream of my grandfather’s garden, the old trees that once flowed with honey, my mother in youthful rapture hiding her face with a pillow in the small student room in Skopje . . . Hundreds of split-seconds broken down into tiny decimals, the right to one more day, the balance of his life set against other laws. Only during those brief visits did his rickety worlds gain stability, take on color, levitate weightlessly, and lift him into the air like a soap bubble in an innocent childhood fantasy. But the balloons soon sagged from the weight of the memories, the photographs faded, and everything fell apart into a million trivial details, which returned my father to the living room, back to his cold labyrinths. Covered all over with cobwebs of the past and the sticky illusions of reminiscences, he pottered sadly about the room. He nervously wiped those sticky threads of yore from his face and passed us by as if we didn’t exist, taking us for apparitions—value-added tax on the price of his life.
One day he decided to stop mortifying himself with those painful wanderings through the albums. He shut himself away in his old office and finally found peace among the files and folders. In that little room he made cults of the inventory and saw the statements of condition and success as a parity between number and letter, sign and new designation. He looked through the old bookkeeping accounts and claimed that the figures reflected opportune expenditure on the story, secret codes that could be deciphered into sentences. He composed new statements and new narrative reports—these were the straw he clutched at, his last link with the past. It was a sham: he multiplied pale memories by the free associations of the reports, and then secretly injected that concoction of fiction and rickety memories, that new lie of his life, into his hearth, which lay extinguished and blanketed in white in the cellar of his soul. He wrote, and as the stories about him grew, he diminished, withered, and melted into the notes.
My mother, brother, and I observed the office for days and definitely saw his shadow through the window. We watched it go down at dawn and rise again at night, and we saw it shrink more and more every day until all that remained of him was a faint spot on the window—the last sign of my father’s existence, his signature, a trace of the quenched embers of his last hot summer.
"Magla" and "Ogan," from Sekoj so svoeto ezero. © Nenad Joldeski. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.
Rumena Bužarovska observes a woman give her pretentious doctor husband a taste of his own medicine
Although he’s a gynecologist, my husband likes to pretend he’s an artist, and that’s just one of the things about him that annoy me. Actually, I don’t remember exactly when most of the things he does and says started to bug me, but I can distinguish this one as one of my main peeves. For example, when we have people over he tells them that he “dabbles in art” but isn’t an “artist” in the true sense of the word, which gives a false impression of modesty. And we have people over regularly. I really wish we didn’t, because it involves cooking and cleaning both before and after their visits. My husband insists on the food being plentiful as a way of showing we are a supposedly functional family. During those abundant dinners, which take place in our living room at the low table between the settee, the couch, and the armchair, where we can seat four others as well as us, I’m the one who has to serve the guests and am mostly stationed in the kitchen, so when I come out to join them and chat for a minute I have to sit on a stool. I always lie and say it’s quite comfortable. Meanwhile, he talks with the guests and mainly tells them about himself. Since it’s considered improper to speak about pussies, which are the basis of all his knowledge, he talks to them about his “art,” meaning the oil paintings that he does in one of the rooms of our apartment, his “atelier.” As a result, our two children, who are constantly at each other’s throats, have to share a room. His paintings are extremely amateurish. The colors are murky, subdued, and depressing. Every time he makes a wrong stroke, he plasters over it with a new layer of paint. His canvases therefore resemble large pats of vomit—each is like a copious, undigested, masticated meal that has come up to say hello. He considers his paintings “abstract” and thinks they “express emotional states of alarm and elation,” but in fact they represent what he knows best: vaginas, from the inside and out. I presume other people realize that, at least those with a bit more nous.
The second topic at these dinners, not surprisingly, are his patients and their health issues. My husband, it should be said, has shed all of his former friends who are outside his line of work. All his friends are also physicians he met at medical school, and their wives are his patients. Together they have “fraternity.” I find the idea of fraternity among men rather ridiculous from today’s perspective. When I was young and my husband and I first met, I liked the idea of him having a faithful circle of friends like that. But I didn’t realize back then what they talk about together. I didn’t realize that they talk about us, their wives. And I think my husband is the worst among them, mainly because of being a gynecologist and enjoying the status of knowing all the intimate details of the wives. Unfortunately I have a terrible, sneaking suspicion that I’m afraid to voice, namely that his friends deliberately take their wives to see my husband because that gives them control over them. If one of his friends has a sexually transmitted disease, my husband can help keep it secret. And if that disease is “the woman’s fault,” he can tell the men before their wife does—if she does at all. This is just my theory, which I’m far from certain about, seeing as this band of men claims their fraternity is “above all else” and that they’d literally do anything for each other. Sometimes I like to think they’re gay and that if we weren’t there, and if there wasn’t such social pressure on them, they’d all get in line, one behind the other, and have a good bang together. That’s how I imagine them at times when they annoy me: stuck together like sardines, like wagons of a train, and doing the lo-co-mo-tion. Except that the first in line has nothing to do with his cock and just holds it in his hand, at a loss. But afterward they alternate so that none in their fraternity misses out. In my fantasies, we women sit at the side and watch them. We do in reality, too. They talk and we look on, or every now and then we whisper recipes to each other when we get tired of their blah. Sometimes the wives also manage to secretly exchange a word or two with my husband in the hall—an extra little consultation regarding their health. “Take a dose of Betadine,” I’d hear, or “Maybe it’s my diet, I don’t know why it keeps coming back.” “Don’t start dieting.” “But I eat healthily. I don’t even smoke anymore.”
He and I met at the gynecological table, when I went to see him for a checkup. He was exceptionally kind and gentle, and his approach fascinated me. I was very, very young—that should be taken into account—and the other gynecologists I’d been to were rough, rude, and generally unpleasant. Not that I had any kind of problem—on the contrary. To begin with, he sat me down in his office and put me at ease with a friendly chat. He was charming. Soothing classical music was playing in the background, and he offered me some herbal tea he’d already made. After I’d relaxed a little, he showed me to a delightful little changing room with beautiful plush white slippers on the floor, a new clothes stand with several rungs, and a lovely white gown I could put on before getting up into the table. And when I climbed up, he said, “Move down, sweetie, move down a bit,” and tenderly took me by the thighs to pull me a little lower. Then he began talking about inserting the speculum, telling me how uncomfortable it was, but he’d be gentle, and he even tried to warm it up so it wouldn’t be unpleasant for me when he put it in. The way he spread my labia before inserting the speculum made a wave of warmth run through me. Then he looked inside, and I followed his face. I found him handsome, the handsomest. His blue eyes looked inside me with an expression as if they were gazing at a sunset over a peaceful lake. I could tell he was moved. “Oh, everything’s perfect. You have such beautiful anatomy,” he said, and repeated it when he was scanning my ovaries. “What a lovely uterus,” he sighed several times. But before we got to the scan, he did something that I now know he also does to other women—perhaps that’s why he’s so popular, in addition to the plush slippers, the beautiful clothes stand, the nice cup of tea, and the amicable manner. His long, delicate fingers probed inside me to check if anything was sore. He apologized many times before doing that, of course, and he explained exactly what he was going to do. But as he poked in his index finger and turned it this way and that, his other fingers tenderly stroked my clitoris. It was lovely. I went back six months later and lied that I had an itch inside. “Everything’s fine, just wonderful,” he said. “I’ve never seen such pure and beautiful anatomy,” he repeated, gazing almost amorously inside me. And so it was every six months, for three years, until one day we met in a bar in town, and he told me in a drunken state that I was the most beautiful patient with the most beautiful “how should I put it . . . it begins with C” he had ever seen. Then he told me I couldn’t be his patient anymore after him saying that, but I could be his girlfriend. A few months later he told me I could be his wife, and I accepted. I was twenty-two, he was thirty-eight. I’m still his patient today.
His paintings are the main catalyst for our arguments, but not the actual reason for them. The reason is more complex, and here’s another example: once my husband and I were talking about art. He sees himself as a kind of Chekhov, of course, someone who was a doctor but later became famous for actually being a great artist. We spoke about our favorite writers, painters, musicians, and I started to talk about how much I like the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Suddenly, it seemed something occurred to him.
“Have you ever noticed that all great artists are men?” he said.
That had struck me before, and I felt it was a sore point. Disappointed, I replied affirmatively.
“And why do you think that’s so?”
I started to ruminate. I couldn’t immediately come up the line I’d blast him with today: women never had the conditions to be creative. They were simply not allowed to, when they had to stay at home all day and wipe the crap off children’s butts, as I did too, while he went gallivanting off to conferences in China, Africa, and the rest of Europe, gaining inspiration.
“Um, er—” I stammered, which I now greatly regret.
“It’s because men are the spirit, and women the body. Men are creative, women are practical. Men look to the stars, women forage for their families. Women cannot be artists—it’s not in their nature.”
I got very offended but didn’t know how to reply to him. I was twenty-something, if that can serve as my defense today.
“Come on. Name just one great female writer. With the standing of Dostoyevsky, Chekov, or Hemingway, for example,” he said.
“Well, Marguerite Yourcenar,” I proffered, for she was the only one who occurred to me just then.
“She doesn’t count. She was a lesbian,” he replied and went off to the toilet, where he stayed for fifteen minutes to shit. I had to go and pick up our son from kindergarten and we never continued the conversation, in which I’d have mentioned hundreds of male artists who were gay, like his favorite composer Tchaikovsky, for example.
His ideas about the greatness of the artist and his own desire to become one emerged long ago, but he only started painting much later, after he “became aware,” as he put it. He actually started to paint intensively after the birth of our second child—eight years ago, in other words. By then I’d become a bit more thick-skinned and stopped fearing him so much. When he first started painting, I was conditioned to sing his praises. I told him his paintings were very beautiful and that he truly had talent. He blushed with happiness whenever I said things like that and, as if he had a lump in his throat or was about to burst out crying, he gazed at the finished canvas with tears in his eyes. “I’ve always wanted to be a painter!” he’d exclaim. “I vacillated between medicine and art. But my father made me follow in his footsteps. And now—destiny,” he repeated exultantly. I was amazed he said things like that to me, his wife; he didn’t need to put on a show with me.
Later I started to ignore his paintings, and several years ago I finally began to tell him I didn’t like them at all. The last time we quarreled, I told him in a moment of anger that they looked like ugly, blotchy twats, and when they weren’t like that they looked like omelets or pats of vomit. He got offended like never before.
“At least it’s a form of expression,” he said. “And what do you do?”
“Expression? Sure—you squeeze the tube and it comes pooping out,” I told him.
He almost flew into a rage. You could just see him flush red, but he’s able to control his temper, as if he just swallows it down, and within ten seconds his face had returned to normal.
“How witty we are today,” he sneered, not knowing what else to say. “It’s a shame you’re not a writer,” he went on, knowing I’d always wanted to write. He could see I was upset and continued to torment me.
“Oh, I was forgetting that you write poetry. Why don’t you read me one of your ditties so I can get to be the critic?” he flung at me caustically and laughed triumphantly, because he’d never read any of my poems. I’d never given him them for one simple reason, which now I no longer wanted to hide from him. I went to the bedroom and, from under the bed, took out the sheets of paper with the poetry I secretly wrote while he was at work. I gave him the last poem and told him to read it aloud.
He lies beside me
but I dream of you
your nightly flower
opens up for me
you moan like the winds
o my dearest rose
your nectar hive hints
of pleasures no one knows
My husband’s jaw set and looked a bit dislocated to the right when he finished reading. His eyes were wide open and he looked at me fixedly, pale in the face.
“The rhyme’s a bit forced,” I said to him cynically. “Sorry to disappoint you."
“No, I’m not disappointed,” he replied. “I was expecting it to be shit.”
"Нектар" © Rumena Bužarovska. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.
Among the many traditions observed at the New Year—eating Hoppin' John for luck, stocking the larder to assure twelve months of abundance, lurching for the aspirin—making resolutions may be at the top. Many greet the clean slate of a new year by pledging to chalk up only virtue and moderation, vowing to wipe out bad habits across the board. If you're not quite ready to embrace this pious trend, we invite you to welcome January with a sampler of bad behavior, an array of crimes and misdemeanors around the world.
It will come as no surprise that substance abuse plays a role in several of the tales here. Andrei Krasniashikh depicts an inebriated soccer fan whose drunken confusion over the results of a match turns out to be one of his more benign errors. As one fumble leads to another, we see the losses mount well beyond the playing field.
In another view of alcoholic excess, Brazil's Felipe Franco Munhoz finds a small-town couple at the intersection of literature and liquor. Working their way through books and whisky, they run out of the latter. The ill-advised combination of William Faulkner and Jack Daniels, with an Internet research chaser, proves combustible, demonstrating the risk of GWI (Googling While Intoxicated).
While some of this month’s villains are three sheets to the wind, others’ misbehavior requires the clearest of heads. Polish journalist Hanna Krall trains her sharp eye on a small-time con woman. As she fleeces neighbors and coworkers, dodging creditors and borrowing from Piotr to pay Pawel, she pauses between marks to recite her poetry. Only later does Krall discover her boldest scam.
Some of the worst trangressions are those committed in the most common of settings. Positions of authority often invite abuse, as seen in Amy Yamada's hard look at the balance of power in the classroom. When a former teacher is accused of inappropriate relationships with female students, a young woman flashes back to her own involvement with him. Questions of culpability and intention—"Did he harm me?" she asks, rhetorically but also incredulously—have no easy answers.
Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès looks in as a factory supervisor spies on his workers. He's monitoring not the assembly line but the locker room, looking not to increase their efficiency but to jump-start his own desire; yet his surreptitious exploitation of his employees does not go unnoticed.
Alejandro Saravia's homeless Caribbean immigrant dreams of wealth and fame. When he makes the wrong deal, he ends up where he began on the mean streets of Montreal.
And Guiseppe Berto steps inside one of the most famous betrayals in literature, imagining the Last Supper from the perspective of the treacherous Judas. Guilt, betrayal, faith, and death swirl in this portrayal of a Judas motivated not by evil but by devotion.
Whatever your plans for 2017, we hope you'll find these examples of bad behavior a bracing start to the new year. One of our favorite New Year's traditions is to do something related to one's work, and do it successfully. With this in mind, we'll be reading literature in translation—and hoping you'll be doing the same. We invite you to start with these and other portraits of international behavior, bad and otherwise, found in our pages this month and throughout the year.
© 2017 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
Hanna Krall makes the rounds with a con woman
In the elevator with Małgorzata P. We are going down to the ground floor, but first stop on the seventh, where the door flings open. Małgorzata P. freezes in terror—the woman who delivers milk lives on the seventh—but luckily someone else gets in. The sixth is a joke, Małgorzata has paid off her debt here and the elevator can stop, for all she cares. Once we get through Mr. Burek on the third we are home free.
With Małgorzata P. to see Mariola at the store. Mariola works in the children’s clothing section. She was expecting Małgorzata P. before five, but now it is six already and Mariola is certain to get angry and yell at us. Zbyszek sent the three thousand zloty for Mariola that Małgorzata P. is now clutching tight in her sweaty palm inside her skirt pocket. “Like hell I’ll give it all back,” she says. “I won’t get a receipt.” But now we are getting really close to Mariola’s register, you can see the line and, besides, Mariola deserves a good deal of gratitude for offering the money as soon as she heard the woman from 30A screaming that she had been cheated. The woman from 30A had been given a receipt as a guarantee—the receipt was for three thousand zloty, with a crafty stamp forged by the meticulous locksmith Mr. Staszek, who unfortunately made a mistake and stamped the date of May 13 instead of May 12. The woman accepted the receipt; reassured, she calmly took the elevator, but on her way down it dawned on her that it was the twelfth. And that evening she returned with her husband and threatened to call the police. Mariola happened to be around and felt so bad for Małgorzata she left to fetch the three thousand zloty. The next day it turned out that the money had come from Mariola’s cash register. She has to replace it quickly, only how? Last night—which was quite nice and calm once the woman from 30A had stopped screaming, and also because Mariola had not yet cooled off after her good deed and wasn’t furious or making threats—last night, after everyone had gone to bed, Małgorzata sat down to record yet another day:
From my home all the doors had gone.
In my home there were no heirlooms
or cabinets with wax masks of forebears.
Through my home an angel passed. And all sins.
My windows looked out on the rains.
In my home one kept appearances.
And all felt out of sorts. Had thoughts and chills.
From moldy windowpanes to the Lord’s Prayer.
Today Zbyszek brought home his wages and said, “Pay back Mariola first and foremost. She has a big heart.” But Małgorzata P. said in reply, “If I give her back all 3K, we will have only one left.” Zbyszek repeated sternly, “I’m asking you, give it all back.” He took Wojtek, their baby boy, into his arms. “And I’m asking you, quite logically, I give back the three thousand and then what?” Małgorzata asked again and put the money in her pocket, but then said, “I’m going, but don't open the door to anyone.” And now we are bringing the three thousand zloty to Mariola.
Seeing the line, Małgorzata P. beckons to Mariola, who then comes over to us. “What do I do?” Małgorzata whispers. “Give it back?” At the last moment she cracks and takes out of her pocket just two of the three banknotes. “Mariola, my dear, I’ll drop by with the rest tomorrow, you’ll see.” Mariola looks at the items she left on the counter and says sternly, “It’s the last time. You hear me, Ms. Małgorzata?” Happy and sweaty, we slip back into the street with a thousand zloty still left. But already Małgorzata P. is whispering, “That woman has got some nerve.” This is all getting Małgorzata P. completely mixed up: first Mariola showed a big heart giving her the money, now she secretly regrets it and demands to be paid back. “I know, I know,” Małgorzata P. remembers as she heads home, “Mariola has a big heart.” But she slows down with each step, and at the very front door she turns back because she forgot cigarettes. (My house won’t meet me half way. / The past, in which it drifts, / is too vast . . . ). Now we are getting far from home again, walking to the newsstand, where Mariola won’t hear a peep, no Romek crying, Januszek wetting his diapers, Wojtek whining for food, or Dorota complaining about anyone, and where no doorbells ring or elevators whirr—in the street nothing awaits us but safe hot silence.
From some place up high my lost self will run
down the wooden steps—in silence deep
as woods I can again meet myself
But then she has bought everything, even the matches, and cannot think of anything else to add, and so this time we are definitely getting home (My home is now everywhere, / It has spread like an epidemic, / All the homes are homesick . . . ). In a rush we press the elevator button to go up and pass the fifth then the seventh floor and then ring the doorbell as agreed, three times, for Zbyszek to open the door.
Zbyszek was shy as a virgin when they met. His eyes were light brown, so light they seemed hazel at times. But then each day they darkened a bit and now some days are black as coal, so black she can’t bear to look.
Zbyszek grew up in a proper home, cared for by a mother who was religious and taught him to be humble and honest, and to tell the truth. Zbyszek accepts everything with humility: Her child, born out of wedlock and handicapped, locked up in an institution; their living together, which was her idea, even though it is a great sin; her poetry and all the foibles that make her family so unlike the others. There is just one thing that Zbyszek cannot stomach: his wife’s lies and schemes. And Małgorzata P. knows it’s those lies and schemes that have turned his eyes pitch black.
In the night’s slippery vaulted pit
Smallish and plain I slog round streets more winding than words
The sooner I get away from myself
The sooner I can come home . . .
The streets prayed for me
Fervid rosaries for years.
And tragic specters stretched ad infinitum
Death will arrive on the last tram from the suburbs
Quietly and suddenly . . .
The meanest trick she pulled was the one at Zbyszek’s factory, the Energy Project. It happened right after they had paid off their debts, and before Christmas, when she had two days to buy gifts for her children.
All her children were born prematurely, half-dead. And once your first four die after being born, what do you care about right or wrong? She must buy baby formula and fruit, and if Zbyszek does not make enough for it all, she must borrow.
How to borrow money from people? No one believes in children going hungry; a mother’s illness sounds more likely but brings too little money, unless it’s a funeral, but no, pregnancy works best. Małgorzata P. tells people she is pregnant again, five kids at home and her husband is so religious he won’t consent to an abortion, she must do it in secret, but the private doctor wants his money upfront.
This time, the plan works magic. Once people hear “religious husband,” they lend two thousand on the spot. Małgorzata P. says two thousand zloty is easier to borrow than two hundred. If you ask for just two hundred, they take you for a beggar. Around here everyone hates beggars. People feel good about themselves when they lend two thousand to a pious man’s wife, and besides, they figure that to borrow such a big sum you must have the money to pay them back.
And so she borrowed for the abortion—on the seventh floor, from the woman who distributes milk. On the fifth, from Mr. Burek’s friends. And on her own floor, from the people who live one door down from the elevator. But when her neighbors began to talk among themselves and discovered that she took them not so much for decent folk as for easy prey, they went berserk. “Nothing frightens people like being taken for fools,” she tells me. “When they realized they’d been tricked, by a simpleton like me, they all showed up screaming and brought the police.” She had to give everything back immediately and again was short to buy formula; what’s worse, Zbyszek stayed out on the balcony in the freezing cold that entire night. The next day she did the unthinkable: She went to Zbyszek’s workplace and told the abortion story to four different men. Without the slightest hesitation, they lent her fifteen hundred zloty each. She paid off her debts, bought Zbyszek a record, “A Soldier Marches through Woods and Forests,” since he likes military songs, and then still had some money left for Christmas.
She did pay off her debt at the factory, but only after she borrowed even more from Mr. Michał, the welding instructor.
“With all that goes on,” she says, “I always thought I wouldn't be able to live with myself, but I do. I scribble a poem and life goes on.”
With a square table between us
We sat down to an eternal watch
In silence everything becomes
More of a holiday
Even our greenhouse smiles
Served at the square table
Taste of redolent summer
From two ends of the square table
Set with regret, with grudges
Smooth smiles, smooth words
And a dead silence between us.
Małgorzata P. reads out loud while Basia, her friend from the technical school at the railway, sits in an armchair and listens. From time to time, Małgorzata P. says, “Six spoons of milk formula, Basia, one egg, sugar, that’s for Wojtek.” And Basia bottle feeds the baby, out of her own free will, just to hear Małgorzata P.’s poems, which she adores, and then sits back again and stretches her long legs, the longest legs in their class, and lights a More cigarette, one of those thin, brown ones that cost forty-five cents each in a store that only accepts American dollars, but then she can afford it with what her father makes transporting and delivering meat. Basia listens attentively to Małgorzata P.: “The frost was frightful and a loud bang split the air, but walls and international conventions kept us safe. Yet in the houses with less heat many lovers froze that year . . . Basia, Romek needs to go potty!” Małgorzata calls out and Basia asks, “Ms. Małgorzata, now is that poetry or prose?”
It was Basia who let in Mr. Michał, the welding instructor, when he came to collect his debt, even though they had warned her: Open only when you hear two rings for Małgorzata, three for Zbyszek, four for Mr. Staszek who forges stamps. But she opened the door, silly goose, after just one ring. Seeing Basia’s legs, Mr. Michał rushed off to fetch cheap Vermouth. They drank and when Mr. Michał had to use the bathroom, he stumbled upon a treasure: a photographic camera and a lens. The day after the Vermouth binge, Zbyszek walked into the bathroom, and yelled, “For Christ’s sake, the lens!” In that very instance Małgorzata P. thought she could just about die, and since it was almost May, the time had finally come for Małgorzata P.’s Master Plan for a Complete Life Makeover.
May is a time of First Communion. Each Sunday, one hundred and eighty children will gather at the local parish to receive their first holy communion. And what does every child want as a souvenir, if not a group picture with a priest and a religion teacher in the middle. Each postcard-size color photo costs seventy zloty.
So if we do the count. “My god,” Małgorzata P. whispers, “my god. It’ll cover all my debts, my past due rent, and payments for Tomek’s specialized clinic.”
The First Communion day is coming up on Sunday.
But already since Monday Małgorzata P. has been overwhelmed by the tremendous, tremendous urge to die.
should be committed after breakfast.
At breakfast it is best to drink a glass
Milk is rich in vitamin A.
Vitamin A protects against eye
The eye is to behold.
And we should behold
should be done most quietly.
as a fly passes through
a violin string;
releasing a fuzzy sound or perhaps
All leftover bread
should be thrown to birds.
So that they can live on.
And so we’re off with Małgorzata P. to see Mr. Michał, the welding instructor. Małgorzata P. is afraid to get out of the taxi. She has tried everything: Tomek’s illness (worth a week of delay), the stamped receipt (a week), the return of the receipt (two weeks), her mother’s death (four weeks in all, because the formalities to cover funeral costs take long), two months altogether since she last gave her word of honor to pay off her debt. Małgorzata P. stays in the taxi while I talk to Mr. Michał and pat his arm with a demure, ingratiating smile, “You’re a good man, I can see it in your eyes. You’ll give Małgorzata back her lens, won’t you?” Mr. Michał disappears, then comes back with a friend—to be his witness, no doubt—but then, thank god, hands me the Jampol-Color as if it is no big deal. “Careful,” he says. The lens costs thirteen hundred, but he won’t settle even for six. He will come for his money on Monday.
With Małgorzata P. over bitter rowanberry vodka—we bought it on our way home, forgetting that today is already Wednesday, the thirty-first of May, and there are no more Sundays left. But then suddenly it dawns on us that today is the day to pay up and the lenders will start ringing the doorbell any minute.
“Zbyszek has to leave me,” Małgorzata P. whispers. “He can’t stay honest or resolute or strong when I’m around. He must leave, it’s practically written in his eyes, did you notice? He doesn’t know it yet, has no clue, but he has been leaving me from one day to the next, each minute . . . (Pity, even as you leave, may you step sprightly and your eyes shine. Let us agree then to keep one very light thing, in a world where all things are heavy . . .). “He won’t leave you alone with five children,” I say. “That’s the thing,” Małgorzata P. replies, worried, “He lacks guts even for that, but I must help him. I should do something so despicable he won’t even have a choice. For instance, maybe I’ll find a lover? It’s an idea, but then I’ll have to first lose weight, get my teeth done, paint my hair, and buy a dress. I don’t have money for that . . . We won’t pierce one another, won’t mold ourselves anew, now only two eyes gape, as two rescue buoys . . . It’s Akhmatova, she’s got some lines that’ll drive you mad. Will you drink with me some more? I’m already a teeny bit less afraid. I don’t want much, but I must have it all, no less, blossoms and you.” Her children climb all over us, into our arms, laps, our handbags. Stifling heat rises from the dark, cramped kitchen and the creditors make the doorbell shriek, but some thirty meters above Małgorzata P.’s apartment a balloon, light as poetry, dances in the breeze. “Эти волосы взял я у ржи, Если хочешь, на палец вяжи - Я нисколько не чувствую боли. Я готов рассказать тебе поле. . . . My fear is almost gone, and so, a toast to Zbyszek’s health, no, to all Zbyszeks, all the hazel-eyed Zbyszeks in the world, if, of course, there are still any left.”
My story about Małgorzata P. appeared in the weekly magazine Polityka. The next day I learned that Małgorzata P. had lied to me as well: The poems she had read were not hers but Ewa Lipska’s. [“I don’t want much . . . ” comes from “A Green Poem” by Władysław Broniewski and the fragment in Russian from “Shagane, oh my Shagane!” by Sergei Yesenin]. I placed a suitable correction to my piece, and yet I felt sad. For in the end, fate had denied Małgorzata P. even this much. Talent. The one thing that makes life bearable.
© Hanna Krall. By arrangement with the Liepman Literary Agency. Translation © 2017 by Ela Bittencourt. All rights reserved.
Andrei Krasniashikh at the intersecton of soccer and drink
Video: Andrei Krasniashikh reads “Haunted Swing.”
Tonight, I’ll roast up some sunflower seeds, a whole bowlful, and plop myself in front of the television to watch the soccer game. Spartak will be playing Dynamo and I’ll be glued to the screen, tossing shells next to the plate, and following the game with bated breath. I’ll be desperately rooting for Spartak, but Dynamo will win, and I’ll so admire Dynamo’s first-rate technique that I won’t feel at all bad when my favorite team loses. And when Pele will kick the third goal into Spartak’s net, I’ll even choke on the seeds and cough for so long that my puffed-out cheeks will turn red—I’ll be tearing up and spraying spit.
After the game, I’ll start calling my friends—devoted fans of Spartak just like me—but each time their wives will pick up and answer that they’re already sleeping, though it’ll only be nine o’clock at night. Then I’ll head to sleep, too, and when I wake up, I won’t bother eating breakfast but will quickly get dressed and run outside, where half-asleep but already cheerful men will be walking up and down the street with signs reading “Spartak!” and “Spartak is the champion!”
I’ll join them and walk back and forth in the street for a bit and then say to one of them that Spartak is, of course, a killer team, but that above all else I appreciate skill and showmanship and not the name of the team and that Dynamo won last night fair and square.
And then the guys will look at me like I’m an idiot and will tell me that I drank too much vodka yesterday and still haven’t sobered up and that Spartak won by a score of 3 to 0, otherwise why would they be out on the street at the crack of dawn like crazy people? And I’ll tell them that they are crazy, and that I haven’t taken a drink of liquor for three months already, not even beer, and not even on holidays, no way, and that I saw with my very own eyes how Spartak got scorched, and that they’re the ones that haven’t sobered up since last night and who kept on drinking through the morning.
The guys will say they were all sitting together in front of the television last night and they remember every goal kicked into Dynamo’s net, and that I must have a serious case of the shakes. And my longtime enemy Sergei, whose wife I once stole—though, to be honest, I didn’t take anyone away, and frankly I’m shocked that anyone could have lived with such a pig—will say that my eyes are not right, it’s not theirs that are alcohol-soaked, but if I want, he can straighten mine out for me. And I’ll say there’s no point in the pot calling the kettle black when his own huge cuckold horns are hanging down over his forehead and blocking his eyes.
Saying this will be a bad idea since he weighs just under two hundred and twenty pounds of liveweight and is a former boxer, and I only weigh just under one-fifty. And as expected, Sergei will drag me to a construction site far away from the residential neighborhood and the police, and I’ll be swinging my arms around in vain to try and stop him. At the construction site, he’ll start beating my eyes with a belt and will say that Spartak won and not Dynamo, but I’ll know that this isn’t about Spartak or Dynamo but about his ex-wife. And when I fall on the ground and my blood, mixed with sand and cement, clots into little pebbles and becomes stronger than concrete, he’ll kick me a few more times, aiming for my face, but I’ll tuck my head into my chest and his dirty, broken-down shoes will only get my ribs, and my teeth will remain intact.
Then his friends will get him off me, but he’ll still manage to pull away one last time, grab a “Glory to Spartak” sign from a guy I don’t know, crumple it up and shove it in my mouth while telling me to eat it. And when they drag Sergei far enough away, I’ll pull the sign out of my mouth and yell that he should eat it himself and that he’s a pig and a bastard, and I’ll basically cuss for a long time and yell that Spartak is the most worthless team in the world. I won’t yell that Dynamo is the best team in the world, but will instead play it safe and shout that the best team in the world is Mettalist or Ararat.
Then I’ll sit silently for a little while, collecting in my hands the hard concrete pebbles that were just recently my blood and tossing them far, far away, I’ll smooth out, straighten, and then fold the “Glory to Spartak” sign eight times so it will fit in my pocket, and I’ll think that this is material proof. The paper, hard and rigid, will barely bend in my hands, and I’ll think that it’s unlikely I would have eaten it, and when I think this, I’ll get terribly hungry and remember I haven’t eaten breakfast yet.
Then I’ll get up and wander home while attempting to figure out which of us is right—me or the guys. On the way, I’ll stop and ask a girl: who won yesterday, Spartak or Dynamo? The girl won’t respond but instead get scared and run away. And an old man with a dog and a cane will tell me that yesterday Spartak won 5 to 0 and that I should go home and wash up because my face is covered in blood.
I’ll think that the whole world has gone crazy, because I’ll be convinced—no, not just convinced but positive, I’ll bet my life on it—that Dynamo won, and I’ll be surprised that everyone around me is talking nonsense: either everyone’s televisions are wrong or everyone is intentionally playing dumb because they don’t want to admit that Spartak was defeated. After all, everyone in our little town, from the youngest to the oldest, roots only for Spartak: Rinat Dasaev from the second alternate team is from our town, so who else would we root for? Or maybe they wanted Spartak to win so badly that they couldn’t accept Dynamo’s victory and convinced themselves and everyone around them of it?
I’ll come home but won’t eat, and instead I’ll call my mom—her I trust—and ask: who won yesterday? My mom will answer that Spartak won and will say “congratulations!” I’ll also congratulate myself because I’ve gone crazy. But tell me, why should I go crazy when I wanted Spartak to win anyway? I have no reason to lose my mind over a Dynamo loss, especially since I never even liked Dynamo. CSKA wasn’t that bad, but never Dynamo, after all. For me Dynamo is no different than Pakhtakor.
And I’ll also think it’s silly to go crazy over Dynamo, and it’s too bad my wife left me yesterday morning, the one that left Sergei before, because she definitely would have told me who won. And I’ll feel so bad that I am completely alone and going crazy alone while everyone around me is normal and sure that Spartak won, and I, like an idiot, am convinced that Dynamo won. I’ll feel so bad for myself and so intolerably alone, like I am now, as I write this. After all, I hate sunflower seeds—roasted or raw—and I don’t care about soccer at all. And nothing ever happens in my life, and nothing ever happens to other people either. I don’t live, I just go to work and read. And no one ever beats me. And I don’t have a mom. Except my wife did actually just leave me. Today. Forever. And I want to lose my mind over it, but I can’t, nothing’s working.
Though it’s true she never was never any Sergei’s wife, and no one else’s either. She was always only mine.
Still it’s upsetting that I never got into soccer. Then I’d never have acknowledged Spartak’s defeat, even if they beat me up or got rid of me me altogether.
© Andrei Krasniashikh. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Tanya Paperny. All rights reserved.
Alejandro Saravia charts the life and death of a rookie dealer on the mean streets of Montreal
on a corner on avenue Decelles
a Caribbean man finds an abandoned mattress
where he can sleep
and dream that he speaks French and English
that he wears the best brands
that he owns 24-karat gold bracelets
that he has women to spare
and drives a brand-new Mercedes
drawn by the myth of the streets of gold
Santiago Nasar arrives on rue Barclay and becomes a pusher
in his pocket the niveous ecstasy that leads to knives
to anonymous overdose deaths in this part of Montreal
guided through the snow by the hunger for hundred-dollar bills
the clandestine sale of tiny bags of Disney World cocaine
his pocket full of bills and a knife sheath on his belt
he shoots a stealth look at pedestrians on rue Goyer
as he walks to the Plamondon metro dreaming of being a distributor
what the hell! why not an importer even, a big one
a quiet neighbor watches from his window
as Santiago falls, his throat split
the slash that spills on the snow
the crimson of his short life
a light vapor of blood on the snow
his pockets empty, someone steals his shoes
a body goes unclaimed
near the Plamondon metro
"Metro Plamondon" © Alejandro Saravia. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 María José Gimenez. All rights reserved.
Felipe Franco Munhoz finds William Faulkner and Jack Daniels don't mix
It wasn’t our fault. It was the city of Curitiba, with that coarse appearance common to all cities in the middle of nowhere; it was the recipe we found with a quick Internet search; it was the Jack Daniels we drank that day, straight from the bottle; and—most important—it was William Faulkner. All because we’d decided, after reaching peak levels of whiskey, to act out some scene or other from literature. First, we tried Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing. I never could have guessed our dinner would be converted into a theater or that we, naked, would begin playing serious actors, in the candlelight, circling about between the furniture, speaking English.
Declaring Loving and being loved is unliterary with a forced British accent.
Until, a second later, out of the blue, leaving our home theater dramatics behind, Car l’Homme a fini! L’Homme a joué tous les rôles!, Catarina began to recite Rimbaud. Alcoholic polyglots. In other words: a pretentious young couple—laughable, ludicrous. In other words: a young couple seeking shelter in literature. A young couple pretending it was possible to surpass the limits of the same old daily routine, of that city so inadequate, of our very lives. An escape. A short-lived one.
My friend—my new girlfriend?—soon tired of the poet. What I really wanted was a romantic, lovesick Rimbaud; which of these writers here is the most romantic? Faulkner, I joked. And I pulled Sanctuary down from the shelf—as though, without realizing it, I were pulling a trigger, firing off a deadly idea. Her curiosity limitless, Catarina leafed through the book; while I staggered—staggered—toward the kitchen only to discover that the Jack Daniels—goddammit—had come to an end.
“Half a glass left.”
“We drank it all?”
“It was already open.”
“What’s a moonshiner?”
And then, in her nasal voice, Catarina recited a dialogue from the novel:
“Was that why you left Belle?” Miss Jenny said. She looked at him. “It took you a long time to learn that, if a woman don’t make a very good wife for one man, she ain’t likely to for another, didn’t it?”
(First in a forced British accent, then in a forced, blasé French, and a forced, drawling English—hillbilly?—from Mississippi. Mixed with her natural Curitiba accent; its natural, undulating singsong. Stretching out certain vowel sounds. Emphasizing certain vowels at the beginning of words. Aaaaacc-ent. Phonetic orgies one after another, pathetic and far from successful.)
“But to walk out just like a nigger,” Narcissa said. “And to mix yourself up with moonshiners and street-walkers.”
“A person who made moonshine: an illegal, potent liquor, made at home. Made—I think—from corn. In enormous receptacles, bathtubs, vats.”
“Why not make some of our own?”
There it was. The ultimate idea.
“We have a bathtub, don’t we?”
“Not only do we have a bathtub, but we used it earlier, didn’t we, babe.”
“We’re out of whiskey, are we not?”
Scouring the Internet, Googling “How to make moonshine,” we found a straightforward recipe. Catarina, grabbing a notebook, copied the instructions: 12 cups corn flour, 30 cups sugar, 1 cup yeast, and—drunk, her excitement growing by the minute—Cheesecloth, metal buckets, a giant pan, a pressure cooker, and we need to drill a hole in the pressure cooker, do you have a drill?, and we need a copper tube, fucking A, where are we gonna find one of those, if only it weren’t so late, it’s almost eleven, we don’t need a bathtub, even better, we can make it right on the stove.
Curitiba, with the same unremarkable appearance common to all cities in the middle of nowhere; enormous yet empty: both in terms of contents and the breadth of territory. A shallow, calm ocean. The area creeping into view—tiny one moment, growing larger the next. Beyond the eighth-floor window, the Campo Comprido neighborhood full of potholes, six araucaria trees, low-rise buildings at a remove from one another: the gap-toothed city. Wide avenues. Curitiba. Endless horizons. Curitiba.
At eleven at night, going out to buy anything at all—impossible.
In the meantime, Catarina—in a matter of a few minutes and some groups on WhatsApp—had managed to find all the ingredients. After throwing on some wrinkled clothing, she set off to collect them—the car, I imagine, zigzagging the whole way—into the night: Rua Walenty Golas, Rua Professor Pedro Viriato Parigot de Souza, Rua Professor João Falarz, Rua Monsenhor Ivo Zanlorenzi and the rest, the route going and coming back, a question mark. In the brief interim, I focused on punching the hole in the pan.
“How’d you swing the copper tubing?”
Tubing connected to the pressure cooker—a still, who knew?—and all the materials at hand, we, impulsive and persistent, began the meticulous process. Step by step. We boiled gallons of water. We cooked in the corn flour. We dumped the resulting mixture in the bucket. We returned the resulting mixture to the pan. We cooked the corn paste with sugar and yeast. Using the cheesecloth, we strained the mixture into the pan. What next, Popcorn Sutton?
A week’s worth of waiting—
for the mix to ferment.
We slept in each other’s arms
and the time soon passed
and when the next week arrived,
we still felt
like a true young couple
Sober now and anxious, we transferred the fermented liquid—cheesecloth once again—to the pressure cooker. Catarina, a smile on her face, whispered Improv at its best. The copper tubing, stretched toward the sink, floating in the makeshift condenser full of water and ice; rising to the surface, it continued toward the second bucket, positioned on the floor below, where the moonshine would drip out. Perfect? We’d barely lit the stove when the landline began to ring.
“Can you keep an eye on it?” I asked.
Through the living room window, three, four, five araucarias. Five. Hadn’t there been six before? I was sure of it. I picked up the phone. Limited-time promotion, some cellular service provider; telemarketing. I hung up quickly and, intrigued, stood observing the landscape. Curitiba. Before returning to the distillery, a lapse in the bookshelf leaped out at me: arriving at Faulkner, books out of order. Sanctuary and Light in August were mixed up—chronological order being As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, Pylon—no sooner was this flaw corrected than I heard a wild, thunderous explosion.
Catarina suffered third-degree burns: seventy percent of her body destroyed. My new girlfriend. As though viewing dark, violent film frames, I can remember them arriving, the fireman, the ambulance, the hospital, the family, the word Deceased. I know, I should have been there with her, embracing her even in death, but it wasn’t my fault: it was the telephone—telemarketing—that rang at the wrong moment; it was the five araucarias I’m positive there were six; it was the books out of order; and—of course—it was mostly the fault of William Faulkner.
© Felipe Munhoz. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.
Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès exposes mismanagement
At this point in the story, the voice stops, immediately replaced by the kind of background music that increases cows’ milk production. Monsieur Wang looks at his watch and shakes his head at the punctuality of the performance. Five o’clock on the dot, good work. Not a bad idea to bring this guy on, he reflects, adjusting his cufflinks. Once more, the proverbial wisdom has proven true: without going into the tiger’s den, how can one hope to lay a hand on its cubs?
Wang-li Wong, “Monsieur Wang” as he makes everyone call him to keep all the natives from mangling his name, is the Chinese manager of [email protected] Books, an assembly plant for e-readers in La Roque-Gageac, in Périgord Noir. An adolescent’s peach-fuzz mustache, in spite of his forty years, his hair slicked back in short, gelled waves, a three-piece suit with a tie and a white buttoned collar. The Asian aspects of his features are faint. He looks more like a Japanese modernist from the sixties than a Chinese man. Perhaps this is the result of the outdated shape of his horn-rimmed glasses.
He is sitting at his desk, in a modern, industrial space improved by several Asian antiques, including a gilt nautilus shell adorned with merpeople and with feet shaped like eagle talons.
On the adjoining terrace, a small, deluxe pigeon loft holds several nests made of precious woods. Monsieur Wang is a pigeon-fancier; he owns six pairs of carrier pigeons, including one star—Free Legs Diamond—for which he paid a hundred thousand euros, putting him ahead of most of the competition.
A proponent of “lean management,” Wang-li Wong works to streamline activity within his company. In pursuit of this goal—and at the urging of Arnaud Méneste, the former owner of the factory that his plant is replacing—he is trying out the practice of having a “storyteller” read aloud during the workday. He followed along with the whole of the first reading, astonished to find himself taken in by the nonsense. The name of the author, a writer of serial novels from the previous century, already escapes him; in any case, the workers appeared to be enthralled, but did not raise their eyes from their work. The initial figures are clear: far from slowing production, the reading sped it up. Even bathroom breaks decreased.
This thought brings the manager’s gaze back to his iPad. Stroking several icons with his finger, he brings wide shots from the surveillance cameras up on the screen, then zooms in on the assembly lines to wait for closing time. The stations are set up in long parallel rows separated by clean, gleaming aisles. Yellow lines on the ground indicate the paths reserved for forklifts, reminding the employees not to let their stools or trays cross this strict boundary. A hundred workers sit per row, heads lowered under the harsh brightness of the fluorescents; almond-green gowns, latex gloves, caps, and breathing masks: a long line of surgeons bent over the golden innards that are their destiny. Monsieur Wang is only interested in the women. He doesn’t know all of their names, but he uses nicknames to distinguish among them: the white-haired slut, the weasel, the fatty with the mustache, smirk, gloomy, loon, nympho, Charlotte . . . The beautiful, the sweet Charlotte Dufrène. He lingers on the oval of her face, examines her big green eyes that sit under thick eyebrows. Milky skin, lips the color of a swollen vulva, messy hair escaping from her bouffant cap. Every fifteen minutes, she glances lovingly at the man seated to her right. Fabrice Petitbout. This lapdog, with his pale mop of hair, needs no nickname. The eyes of a husky, the goatee of a sickly ginger. He has a tongue piercing, a black titanium barbell that makes him lisp on the rare occasions when he speaks. Those two have managed to get placed next to each other on the line; they must have messed around a bit, but they’ve never fucked—Monsieur Wang would bet his life on it.
Bell. Production halts. Not all of the workers react the same way. Some spring up immediately, others—the majority—remain seated for a few seconds, their eyes closed, their chins lowered, as if meditating; a few stretch their muscles, their elbows bent back behind their heads.
Monsieur Wang touches his iPad, and it displays the women’s restrooms. He installed these cameras himself. Sophisticated equipment. Locker rooms, showers, toilets, nothing escapes him: there is even a sensor that opens a video feed on his screen every time someone turns the lock on a stall. The same equipment exists in the men’s room, but he has only looked at it once, when Jaffar stuck it to the white-haired slut during a break.
Here come the women, chattering away as they enter the locker room. Wang has turned off the sound, but he knows he will be able to hear everything on the recordings. He has amassed dozens of hours of this over the last six months on a hard drive in a safe in his office; more than enough for his simple, professional pleasures. They start undressing in front of the narrow lockers that line the walls. Not at all like a striptease, since there is no trace of seduction here. This is the weary disrobing of young girls who have woken too late. The manager, for his part, sees nothing but panties rolling down thighs, an abundance of breasts, buttocks, pelvises, moist variations of liberated flesh under the fluorescent lighting. All of it excites him, even the lumps of fat that deform their hips and the magnifying effect of the flab on their rumps and knees. And finally—Charlotte. He expands the window to see her better. No one wriggles out of a slip the way she does, a trout freeing itself from a net. Her bosom bulges out, protruding and convex; seeing her squirm without losing her shape, he is sure that she would feel firm under his hands. Charlotte enters a shower stall between two white-tiled walls. She scrubs her hair, head thrown back, washes it, massages it. Flecks of suds fall on her breasts, hang from the fuzz on her pubis. To rinse, she turns around and bends over, presenting a breathtaking view of a worker’s backside. She turns again, washes her sex, legs bent.
Wang-li Wong has pulled out his penis; having jerked at himself for a few seconds, he discharges onto the screen of his tablet.
Standing motionless by the door to his office, in his blind spot, the Director of Human Resources has not missed a single moment of the scene. A strange smile spreads across her face; it would be impossible to say whether it is one of complicity or scorn. She silently retreats and disappears.
From The Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (Open Letter, 2017). By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
Giuseppe Berto finds a surprising motive for an infamous betrayal
Rabbi, there were several of us with scabs of impurity in that little flock that was soon to be dispersed. Anyway, whether pure or impure, You washed all of our feet and You explained, “Have you understood what I have done? You call me Rabbi and Lord, and that is well, because I am. If then I, who am Lord and Rabbi, have washed your feet, you also must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example.”
Then, with a majesty never before seen on Your face, You took a piece of bread, broke it, and, after giving thanks, gave each of us a piece of it, saying, “Take this and eat it for this is my body.”
We ate the bread.
Then You raised a chalice of wine, gave thanks to the Eternal, and gave it to us to drink from it. And we passed it from one to another, each taking a sip, as You said, “What you are drinking is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is shed for you and for the multitude. I shall drink no more the fruit of the vine until the day I shall drink it again in the kingdom of God.”
You thus made, if only symbolically, a gift of Yourself, body and blood, but no one made much of it, nor asked for explanations. They didn’t even notice that by this time Your talk of death was referring to an event that was so near, perhaps the hour was already late. The son of man was going, as it was written of him, but it might be that small delays were still permitted; there were formalities to observe, moments to be taken advantage of, choices to be confirmed.
Again, you turned to us, repeating to each and everyone Your love, and, with everything that may have still been uncertain and obtuse in our souls, trust. Indeed, You said, “I know whom I have chosen.”
But immediately afterward You added, “Nevertheless, the word of the scripture must be carried out. One who eats the bread with me has raised his heel against me.”
Words of a great king from our history. He had pronounced them when he was already in decline, overcome with fear, torn by thoughts of persecution, sick with remorse for his sins. Why did You choose to say those words? Was there no other way to illustrate the necessity for a betrayal? Or did You want to emphasize that he who had been commanded to turn his back on You was one with whom You had lived in peace, in whom You had confided? Surely, if it was me You spoke of, You could be trusting; I would not fail You.
You were so sure of it, You said, “I tell you now before it happens, so that when it happens you will know that I am.”
This could have been a key to understanding for the future, the ignominy of a betrayal for the benefit of Your becoming.
And then You added a sentence—everything was tremendously important on that occasion—a sentence that appeared to have nothing to do with what had been said up to then, but that perhaps had secret pertinence in relation to one who would soon be going to Caiaphas to take payment of the small price of a great betrayal, and even with respect to Caiaphas himself, who by paying thirty dinars would take part in a necessary and universal event.
You said, “He who welcomes him whom I have sent welcomes me and he who welcomes me welcomes him who sent me.”
Now, Jesus, there was no more time to be wasted. Having established the sacredness of the betrayal, with no further delays or hesitations You had to send someone, designate the accomplice. This hour could not be allowed to pass, nor the verb “I am” wait for fulfillment. You were overcome with intense emotion and in the end You said, “Verily I say to you, one of you shall betray me.”
The announcement surprised them. You had pre-announced the betrayal more than once, You had even referred to it moments before with words of David—the words of David would soon come back in You again to denounce another and definitive abandonment—yet they were dumbfounded as though it were something new, and then they began to look at one another, not knowing of whom You had spoken. One of you, You had said, and in their view it could have been any one of us, they had no idea what a terrible greatness was to befall him who had been designated to pay a price much harsher than death. They kept on asking themselves who among them was about to do such a thing.
You were absorbed in deep sadness, and You held close to You him whom You had allowed to share even Your sadness. John, in fact, leaned his head against Your breast.
And Peter, who was more than anyone else—perhaps not without reason and fear—anxious to know, signaled to John to ask You whom You were referring to.
And John, pressing in even closer to You, asked, “Lord, who is it?”
I heard his question, and also Your answer.
You responded, “It is he to whom I shall offer the morsel I am about to dip.”
The plates where everyone dipped their bread were in the middle of the table, according to our custom, and now You had to make the elementary and final gesture to take a piece of bread, dip it, and then offer it to one of us, the designated one. Afterward, there would be no turning back, even for You.
You then took a morsel of bread—very slowly—you dipped it in a plate—even more slowly—and I knew it was for me—it was not everyone who could do what would be asked of me to do, and I too had an hour for which I had come—and yet I continued to pray that—if possible—the chalice would be taken from me. The morsel had now been dipped. You could have offered it to Peter, or to John, or to any other of the twelve; everything, in a certain sense, was still to be decided.
Leaning forward, avoiding my eyes, You offered it to me, Judas of Simon Iscariot, son of perdition.
The others, distant or distracted, didn’t notice a thing. But John was right there, leaning on your breast, hearing Your every word and breath, observing every expression and gesture, even the smallest. And, many years later, John wrote, "Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him."
They are words of the Holy Spirit: in that moment, after the morsel that You had given me as a commandment.
Still, overwhelmed, I hesitated, I needed confirmation and exhortation. So You said to me, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”
None of the others, aside from John, understood the significance of what You said. They thought that, since I kept the purse, You had ordered me to go buy something, or to give something to the poor. We were alone in our mission, and You urged me to act quickly because, by now, the less time wasted the better, for both of us.
John wrote, “So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night."
It was, indeed, a pitch-black night; the Eternal had hidden the face of the new moon behind a veil of clouds.
The rest of it, if we’re talking about acts to be done, actions to be carried out, was not hard.
I went to Asaf, who took me to Caiaphas, who presented me to the council, which was meeting in permanent session to come up with a way to resolve, without resentment among the people, the issue of that Galilean come to disturb the public order, and perhaps even a conscience or two.
It was written that someone would deliver him, and I pronounced myself willing to deliver my Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. I would deliver him that same night, if they so pleased; as for me, the sooner the better. They believed me, they paid me right away with a sum that, for some ancient and incomprehensible reason, was thirty dinars. They told me to go and wait under the portico in the first courtyard of the Temple.
There were lighted torches in the first courtyard, with large shadowy areas between one torch and another. I chose the darkest corner. Afterward, guards started coming in, and Judeans armed with swords, lances, clubs. I thought that every human being—or only some—has his verb—I am—to fulfill, great or little as it may be, divine or demoniac. I was just about to fulfill mine—demoniac: all that was left for me to do was to lead to the agreed-upon place a crowd of armed Judeans who, on their own, wouldn’t have had the courage to put their hands on a harmless Galilean.
Then it would be up to You, Rabbi, to bring to fruition Your divine verb; to be the Anointed, the Messiah of the Messiahs, the Redeemer of the human race.
I, at last, believed.
Translation of chapters 97–100 of La Gloria. © Giuseppe Berto Estate. Published by arrangement with The Italian Literary Agency, Milano, Italy. Translation © 2017 by Gregory Conti. All rights reserved.
Amy Yamada takes notes as a young woman recalls an early lesson
Every one of our bodies gives off some sexual scent. Whether you are beautiful or ugly, it doesn’t matter. There is no denying it. But whether or not you make others aware of it, it changes how you appear. What's more, whether or not you see it as a useful tool changes how often you pause for others. And how often others do for you. At what age does a woman, if she is sexually attracted to men, for example, first experience the bodily sensation of it? I already knew when I was ten. I wasn’t able to express the feeling in words until after a long while, though. When I encountered the word coquet in a French novel, I thought I’d already learned about it through my experience in childhood. A major female character in a Mishima story learned about it so late that she was led to her ruin. I was a high school student then. As an adult now, I’ve learned to chuckle to myself at how the pretense of ignorance can enhance the pleasure of committing a sweet sin wrapped in a lie called sophistication. I still remember from time to time, that if love is a serious game to play, what was it that he and I were doing together twenty years ago? We were playing a serious game. Not on a bench in a park or at a table in a hamburger shop. Our playground was a desk in the social studies resource room at a junior high school.
After work, I was waiting for Hitomi in a café and, after a while, saw her running in with a magazine in her hand. Out of breath.
“What happened?" I said. “You look upset.”
“Yumiko, have a look at this.”
No sooner had Hitomi sat at the table than she opened the magazine. There I recognized a middle-aged man in close-up and held my breath.
“Yumiko, this is Yamamoto, isn’t it? Our junior high school teacher… You remember, right?”
“Indecent assault on a junior high school girl. He’s been doing the same damn thing for twenty years. Bastard!”
“Everybody always said that he was doing obscene things to girls just before we graduated. I remember someone went to talk to the principal, but he wouldn’t take her seriously, saying that Mr. Yamamoto was so nice and gentle that he was just popular with the girls. They’re always good at hiding things. But he wasn’t like that when we just entered the school, was he? He was actually popular. I wonder what on earth changed him into a lecherous old man. Hey, are you listening to me?”
As my eyes were fixed on the magazine, Hitomi looked into my face and asked.
“He did something to you, too?”
I shook my head.
“Then, why are you staring at his picture so hard?”
“Well, back then, Yamamoto was about the same age as we and Shunsuke are now. It feels kind of strange.”
“Don’t put him in the same class as your boyfriend. Shunsuke’s absolutely gorgeous! Aren’t you going to get married? If you don’t do it sooner, someone else will come and steal him from you.”
“Our relationship is not that shaky.”
“How confident you are. Well, you’ve been always the kind of woman who knows how to make a man chase after you. I envy you. I’m always chasing guys and then I get dumped.”
I looked Hitomi, who was taking a sip of her espresso, full in the face. She was a good-natured girlfriend, easy to hang around with. Relaxing. Good-looking. But somehow, I could tell that she, perhaps, just didn’t arouse men’s interest. She didn’t know about the existence of something that floats out of a bottle which lies deep within our bodies, and whose lid is always slightly ajar. The odor secretly rises and sits just beneath our skin, and gets distilled by a particular man. Perfume, which is worn on the surface of our skin and stimulates everybody equally, is too open, in contrast.
“Over thirty and still single. No boyfriend. I’m not like you, Yumiko. I really need somebody to help me out.”
Back then, Yamamoto was thirty-five years old, if I remember right. Married. He was a social-studies teacher. He filled our ears with the basic terms of national and world history, politics, and economics. But the only things that still remain in my memory are the geography lessons. I would open my atlas and daydream. I found the names of countries fascinating. Names of unknown countries are much closer to designs than people’s names. A sequence of names of countries looks like a strange pattern. Flat mountains, still rivers, waveless seas, the world God created made much smaller and deprived of its life. Humans do funny things, I thought every time I opened my atlas. Silly. I was easily distracted—not only in social studies class but also other subjects. I was not leading the kind of school life centered around after-school activities. Surrounded by bland friends, I passed each day without belonging anywhere. I was thirteen. Looking back now, I’m amused. Why was I so bored? Perhaps I was proud of myself for being able to feel bored as I started reading novels, like those of Sagan.
I would spend my time in the library after school every day. Beyond the window, I could see a basketball court. Tall boys were running around, practicing. They would work up a sweat just to put a ball in the basket, which made me think that they were rather cute. Some girls, apparent fans of the captain, cheered him on with their shrill voices. I didn’t understand. They couldn’t all have him. I hated those girls who fancied senior boys and made a fuss about it. Always acting in groups. One boy only has two hands. I already knew love had a significant relation with our bodies. My first love came early. We would walk back home from an English conversation lesson, holding hands. My hand grew sweaty in his hand. We hand-fed each other potato chips. I couldn’t taste the salty flavor at all and thought my tongue was numb. Something new was being born, very different from what I had felt toward boys before. It felt like I’d made an amazing discovery. Someone of a different sex can cause a change in a certain part of our body tied to our hearts. Like the diagram illustrating the sets I’d learned in math class. With that intersection, where two circles overlap. Suddenly things take on a new weight. Mathematics can be cool. I can see the same diagram in those girls cheering and yelling, though they are not aware of its existence at all.
It happened when I tired of looking out of the window, randomly picked up a thick book of painting, and opened it. There I saw an indescribable painting occupying a two-page spread. An abstract painting. I couldn’t tell whether it was angry or sad or smiling. Probably all of these things. Such an overwhelming impression I found stylish. I looked at the picture for quite a while.
“Do you like Picasso?”
I came to myself and looked up. There, I found Yamamoto standing by me and looking into the book.
“Yes. You didn’t know that? This one is called Guernica,” he said and sat down next to me. Turning pages, he explained each painting. I stole a glance at him as he continued his passionate explanations. The setting sun reflected off his glasses and dazzled my eyes. “The Blue Period,” he said. A strand of hair that fell across his forehead was gilded with the evening sun. “The Blue Period” slipped out of my Picasso.
“Where is he from?” I said.
Yamamoto looked confused by my sudden question.
In the world map in my mind, this country name suddenly rose up from the page. This country—Spain—had given birth to this magnificent painter.
When I came back home, I found Shunsuke relaxing, reading on the sofa. Two years earlier we had exchanged spare keys so that we could see each other whenever we liked. He asked for reassurance that he needed to make no appointment to see me.
“Why didn’t you let me know you were coming? I could have come back much earlier.”
Shunsuke looked up from a book he was reading and laughed.
“If I’d asked you to come back early, you definitely wouldn’t do so. I know that.”
“You may be right.”
I held him close and kissed him. Whenever he feels my breath on his face, his lips instantly wander around looking for mine. Having a key to my place never makes him take things for granted. A rare kind of man.
“Do you know much about law?”
“What kind of question is that for a lawyer?”
“Say, if someone assaults a junior high school girl and gets arrested, how many years in jail would it be?”
“Charged with assault, or indecent assault?”
“Well, it’s usually from six months to seven years of imprisonment, but in most cases, they prefer to settle. If a victim doesn’t want to go to court, nothing can be done. A school would keep it quiet. But why do you . . . ah, this is about the teacher in the magazine. That one is awful, and so many victims.”
“He was my teacher in junior high.”
“Oh. Did he do anything to you?” he asked in a humorous tone. I shrugged my shoulders in disbelief. Did HE do anything to me? No way. I’ve never been passive in any relationship. The same was true when I was thirteen.
“He was as old as you are when he taught us. Have you ever been sexually attracted to teenagers?”
He said this and then gently pushed me onto the sofa.
“But I might have been attracted to you in your teens. After all, what matters to me is not age, if you’re a girl or an adult, but only if it’s you or not.”
“Don’t make me cry.”
“Cry for me.” he sighed. His body seemed programmed to recline toward me. He is crazy about making love to me. “Only if it’s you or not.” His words made me cry. A man who makes me feel I’m special. Adorable. The teacher told me the same thing. Yumiko, you are different from other students. You’re special.
“Shunsuke, do you like making love to me?”
“I love it.”
He stared back at me, perplexed. How was it he could look so vulnerable? I can’t believe it when I think of how guarded he is when he’s off to work. When he is with me, however, he always lets his guard down. His public face seems to melt and float away. What remains is a man who wags his tail out of sheer joy. I have the key to the room where his reason lies. When the door opens, reason flees. This key is useful. Different from spare apartment keys. I can undo his tie without using my hands. I can make him unbutton my shirt, too.
He was the one who locked the social studies resource room, and I made him do it. I knew that Yamamoto prepared for classes in the resource room after school. I would pass by the room as often as possible with no particular purpose, waiting for a chance to bump into him. When the idea hit me that I had taken on the role of a girl who had a crush on a teacher, I almost burst into laughter. I just wanted to look at him. And I wanted him to look at me, too. But not in the way he looked at many other students in the classroom.
My chance finally came. When Yamamoto was about to leave his office, he saw me just outside the door. I gave him a polite nod and looked him in the eye.
“Hi . . . haven’t you gone home yet?” I peeped in through the door.
“Is there anything you need?”
“Could I have a look around inside?”
Yamamoto nodded. Documents were scattered around the tiny room. I could smell dust amid the orderly bookshelves. Spinning a globe on the desk in the corner, I cast my gaze out the window.
“You can see the outside from here, too. From outside, nobody can even tell this room exists.
“Why was it you wanted to have a look around? You never seemed especially interested in my social studies class.”
I turned around and looked into his eyes. He gave me a questioning look.
“I want to be your favorite.”
“What? What did you just say?”
He didn’t seem to have understood what I’d said. He didn’t know what to do. He just stood there, as though glued to that spot, and I liked it. If he had burst into laughter, I would have hated him.
“You’re Miss Shimizu, right? Would you like some coffee?”
“Yes, please. And you can just call me Yumiko.”
“Yes, that way it sounds more like I’m your favorite.”
With a wry smile on his face, Yamamoto switched on an electronic kettle and put some instant coffee and sugar in a mug. He left out the milk. I murmured to myself and kept looking at his hands.
“I was happy to learn that Picasso is a Spanish painter.”
“But it was France that made him what he became.”
“I see. Countries can do a lot of things, like people.”
“Well, people make countries.”
He handed me the mug. A bitter and sweet taste spread across my mouth.
“To tell you the truth, this is my first time drinking coffee. My father loves coffee, but he never allows us to have it.”
“Oh, then, you’ll get it if he finds out.”
“Probably. So let’s just keep this between us.”
“Is that also part of being my favorite?”
I smiled at him. He took off his glasses and wiped the lenses with his handkerchief. I had made an impression, I was certain, because the coffee wasn’t hot enough to cloud the glasses.
“Desire reflects desire, doesn’t it? That’s why I like you so much.”
Shunsuke’s eyes looked as though he were deep in thought. Even more so than when they were scanning though legal briefs, which I found funny. In such a situation, thought and reason shouldn’t really come into play. But come to think of it, even animals’ gazes often look pensive. But it’s likely they’re not contemplating anything. Does pure instinct always give us a pensive look?
“What do you mean by reflect? It’s unusual that you use such an abstract word.”
Shunsuke flashed a shy smile. When we first met, he seemed like a square who wanted nothing to do with romance, but I feel he has been changing since he met me. An unromantic type can be sexy just as he is, but when a guy like that casts an undisguised gaze of desire on me alone, I can feel my skin burning, as though by rays of the sun refracted by a magnifying glass. These burns nearly go unnoticed, but they’re serious. It’s a real talent to be able to focus on one woman. I also want to possess such talent. So I focus on one man. I focus my gaze of fervent desire on a single man, my eyes burning his skin.
“I don’t know why,” Shunsuke whispered as he kissed me, “but I’m attracted to you, and you’re attracted to me in the same way. I know that. I don’t know why this happened to you and me, but I sure do love this combination.”
There’s a uniquely special atmosphere atmosphere between us. We gaze at each other and breathe in. Oxygen only two of us can inhale.
I stopped being absentminded in social studies class and began to pay attention, sitting up straight, which of course flustered Yamamoto. He knew that I wasn’t interested in what was being taught but who was teaching it.
I stared at him constantly. I probably even felt desire for him. Of course, it wasn’t that my thirteen-year-old self wanted to sleep with him. I was just starving to get involved. I craved a different kind of treatment from other teacher’s pets. I refused to simply be one of the favored. I longed to be his favorite. Like a charm attached to your keyring that makes you restless if you leave it behind.
Going to the resource room after school became part of my daily routine. The atmosphere escaping the room each time he opened the door grew increasingly confidential. The door made a secretive sound, intended only to welcome in his favorite student. He didn’t want anybody to know, I could tell, and I liked that. I’ve always loved secrets.
At the beginning, we made small talk over coffee. He maintained a certain distance between us to keep me away from him, which only drew me closer to him. Like a toy air gun that makes a popping sound. It felt like my feelings for him were bundled into a tiny projectile that flew straight toward him.
One day, he offered me another cup of coffee. I said I’d make it myself and stood up.
“Mr. Yamamoto, how much sugar do you take?”
I knew he took two spoonfuls of sugar, but feigned ignorance. And I didn’t put any in the coffee I made for him. He took a sip and immediately frowned. He looked like a child after being forced to take bitter medicine. I suddenly felt a sort of kindness grow within me. This was the moment I learned that evil thoughts can make bring about acts of kindness.
“Here. You can have some sugar.”
I brought a heaping spoonful of sugar to his mouth. He blankly opened his mouth. When someone brings a spoon to your mouth, you don’t ask questions, you open it.
“Syrup for a patient who can’t stand bitter medicine.”
I pulled the spoon out of his mouth. On his lips were a few remaining grains of sugar. I held out the sugar bowl to him and said, “Give me some, too.”
So he did. Sweet. The moment I felt so, I heard the spoon drop on the floor. Being kissed by him, I realized that a kiss is to get things started.
He pulled his lips from mine and said, “Go home now.”
I obeyed. I didn’t mind going. Because things had already begun. I calmed down. I thought about his lips. They were drawn to mine like magnets. I wondered if he wanted another spoonful of sugar. The idea made me laugh. The next time he started talking about the Taika Reform, I didn’t know what to do. I could hardly stifle my laughter.
“What did you talk about with Hitomi today?” Sunsuke asked, urging me into the bedroom. I followed him with a cigarette in one hand and an unfinished bottle of wine in the other.
“Nothing really. She was recounting the sorrows of a thirty-three-old single woman’s life.”
“You’re no different, are you?”
“Well, she doesn’t see it that way, because I have a lawyer boyfriend,” I said and gave a very sarcastic smile.
“I find her hard to deal with. Do you remember when we went out together for a meal, you left the table for a while? She repeated how much she envied you and dared to ask me to introduce some lawyer to her. If I have some doctor friends, she wouldn’t mind them, either, she said. I just don’t understand.”
“Well, perhaps she’s aroused by the letters L and R in ‘lawyer.’”
Our eyes met, and we burst into laughter.
“I don’t find that type of woman sexy. There are so many of them out there who choose men according to their professions, but they don’t arouse me. My Law.”
“Perhaps, they make good wives. A lot of men like that kind of woman, too.”
“I don’t. Because I’ve got to know the type of women who are like you, Yumiko. It’s addictive.”
“If we break up, you’ll look for someone like me?”
Shunsuke fell down on his back in the bed with both his hands on his heart.
“Don’t say such a thing. But maybe I will. And then I’ll end up finding no such woman and give up on my life. That’d be really sad. Yumiko, don’t leave me, please.”
“I won’t. You’re so sweet. Your value lies in the fact that you’re rare: a sexy lawyer who's wild in bed.”
“Am I really? I guess so… I can never wait to go to bed.”
I sit down beside Shunsuke, who is lying down on the bed, and caress his hair over wine. I won’t leave you, and you won’t leave me. If we ever break up, it will be when one of us has completely used the other up. When either of us feels the other has taken everything we had to give. We have a long way to go before such a feeling might come around. And I’ve learned how to control this as an adult. I want to be his magnet always.
What was it that thirteen-year-old me wished to have? To make adults forget what they’ve learned. Or to turn a grown man into a child. Many people would consider a thirteen-year-old a child. Then is a thirty-five really grown-up? It’s easy to cast off your age. Like a coat you throw off when you can’t bear the heat of your body. I’ll pick it up and put it on. And wait impatiently for myself to grow into it.
It didn’t take much time before word spread that I was Yamamoto’s favorite. I found it amusing when I felt a jealous girl’s eyes on me. His favorite? Much more than that. You’d die if you knew what he did to me in the resource room.
Yamamoto would sit me on the desk in the room. The first time he unbuttoned my white uniform shirt, his fingers trembled. Day by day, more buttons came undone. Button by button, he let out a deep sigh. He sat down on the chair and buried his face in my knees.
“Yumiko, tell me to stop and this will all come to an end.”
That kiss had started everything, I thought. But I was wrong. A kiss somewhere beside the lips was the real beginning. I didn’t resist. Because it was him, not anybody else. I didn’t realize that I was stepping into a sexual world. It came as a surprise to know how a man touched my body. It was unthinkable that he was committing a crime. Because there was no pain in any part of my body.
Once he held me up and sat me on a world map that was open on the desk. I felt the cool paper through my underwear.
“Am I sitting on Spain?”
He laughed at my words.
“Farther north. Around France.”
“So I’m coming of age in France? Just like Picasso.”
He took my shirt off and laid me down.
“With you, Mister, I can be a world traveler even on paper.”
It wasn’t that I knew how to play the coquette. I was simply using what was effective. I don’t think I was exceptional for my age. Any woman knows more or less how to sweetly peck away at a man. I didn’t think I was too young to be there. Female animals attract male ones within a few years of birth. Insects can do it within several days. I was somewhat closer to them than others. The more we deviate from human behavior, the more people like to call it crime. For which we’ve created something concrete called punishment. However, have crime and punishment ever been of equal weight? A child with no judgment, people would have called me. However, I was able to judge which man to let through. I let him kiss me. I let him embrace me. I let him take my shirt off and lay me down on a world map. His eyes looked as if he were conducting a science experiment. His lips drew circles like those in math sets. His sighs and deep breaths taught me how our bodies worked. The grammar of sweet words. Sentences required no subject. Even without it, it was clear who was praising whom. The hours allotted for our private lessons left no time to fill. He would murmur “Why,” “how come we . . . ?” I didn’t know the answer. All I knew was that people repeatedly ask themselves their own question after, but not before they commit a crime.
Shunsuke held my hand, which was caressing his hair, and took it to his lips. Why do we place our lips on things we like?
“It’s nice to feel aroused and at peace at the same time. You make me feel that way. No ploys or games to play. I like women who never lie about what they want.”
“Aroused and at peace? Sounds like a kid playing with his toys.”
I kissed him on the back. I could feel the smell of my own body. Adorable. He is like a little boy with his shirt hanging out.
“Shall we do it again?” he said.
“Yes. You have no right to say no.”
I burst out laughing. I liked the feeling of having my right taken away by a man I love. The moment I feel I have surrendered to one human being, I have an orgasm. When I handed him a spare key, I felt the satisfaction of giving something up.
After-school hours spent with Yamamoto came to an end after a year. I stopped going to the resource room. It was just that simple. When we passed each other, he looked at me with longing. Every time I felt repulsion welling up deep inside and wondered why. I had felt so attracted to him. He didn’t force me into anything. He knew that if he took me to the room, then this time I would scream. I started going out with a boy, one of the classmates I had thought little of until then. It was fun. A kiss made it special the same way as it had with him. Then, I locked the resource room of my own accord.
“I won’t be able to get away from the world with you, Yumiko,” he says and pushes me down again. I recall having heard the same words a long time ago. I try to retrieve the memories, but then I seal them up. Whenever a cold sheet absorbs the heat of my body and becomes warm, the world still suddenly becomes mine.
© Amy Yamada. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Yuri Komuro. All rights reserved.
Tomaž Šalamun is a poet of impressions. His poems read like collages where scraps of thought, fragments of images, and bits of memory all bump up against each other on the page. In his best poems, the whole adds up to far more than the sum of the parts, like some vast machine whose workings are as much fun to observe as their product. But Šalamun’s style is very much hit or miss. Andes, a new collection (ably and lovingly translated from the Slovenian by Jeffrey Young and Katarina Vladimirov Young) gives the English-speaking public access to the highs and the lows of Šalamun’s pointillism.
To begin with, plenty of readers will be turned off by Šalamun’s whimsical use of language. Plenty of the poetry in Andes totally frustrates meaning, to the point of seeming self-indulgent. Look at “Lunch and the Evening”:
O, my virgin kleptomaniac. You’re
Stepping on lilies. You’re aping divas,
With a tiny overcoat you cry, Kaput!
Kaput, the femur.
Yesterday I saw
A Korean woman . . .
The poem goes on, but the images never coalesce into a clear whole. Šalamun’s words simply have to be taken, or not taken, on their own terms.
Jeffrey Young describes the translation as a collaborative process. Because of Šalamun’s whimsical style, the translators had to check in with the poet again and again, making sure they dealt correctly with the book’s many “moments of untranslability." Young’s long introduction details this process and is one of the great strengths of Andes.
Salamun’s strongest poems convey a sense of movement, like a parade of ideas all marching together in the same direction. Take “He Exclaimed”:
A cat creeps with
Not with shoes. We run and from
Us flutter little tassels.
. . . Stars protrude.
Birds break branches.
The stars smack with open
Mouths . . .
The images don’t fit together organically––poppies, kir, and the mysterious Otto seem to have nothing to do with one another. And they never intersect, either. Each image is perfectly discrete. And yet, together, they create an energetic landscape. It’s like climbing down a rabbit hole and landing in the author’s imagination. If you relax your guard and accept that there are no rules, then you can enjoy yourself.
Other poems are more frightening. “She had black and beautiful eyes” is at once the most coherent and the most disturbing of the collection:
Held her under
The table. Sometimes he
Pulled her out,
Did sex with her,
Shoved her back and
Painted all the time. She had
Black and beautiful eyes.
This is as close to narrative as Šalamun comes, and it’s still hard to follow his train of thought. Is he describing some scene of actual abuse? Is he talking about his own creative process? Is the lady with black and beautiful eyes a metaphor for his inspiration? Trying to impose logic doesn’t seem to work. Even at its most direct, Šalamun’s language exists slightly outside of meaning and needs to be taken on its own terms.
If Šalamun uses highly personal imagery to map the author’s mind, the Latvian writer Knuts Skujenieks employs the most universal language imaginable to describe his personal experience. The new collection Seed in Snow, newly translated from the Latvian by Bitite Vinklers, brings together the poems Skujenieks wrote while he was serving seven years in a Soviet prison camp.
Skujenieks uses direct, spare language and relies heavily on nature imagery to convey the mood of the gulag. This is from "I Hear:"
And I hear how the black pines
Shout against a yellow sky.
Roots revolt. Pines want to rise,
To fly on black wings.
And I hear how the sun, whispering sadly,
Burrows into blue ashes.
Skujenieks makes his own emotions so gigantic that even the trees and the sun itself share them. The pines themselves want to escape, the sun is saddened, and yet, because the landscape shares in the prisoners’ suffering, that suffering is made bearable.
Nature, fierce and simple, is always interwoven with emotions in these poems. In one of his untitled pieces, Skujenieks describes everyman’s struggle to survive the gulag emotionally intact:
If a man can count on his fingers the days
Before he goes mad in the wind and is lost,
Five or four or two or one,
He’ll break through snow up to his knees,
Gasp and sing and thirst and cough
And cry like a child,
His unending love of life frozen
Like the tears on his lashes . . .
The wind, the snow, and the frozen landscape are all inseparable from the poet’s experience here. And this makes the reader’s job easy. The reader doesn’t need to give up his sense of logic, and order, as when reading Šalamun’s poetry. He only needs to think about the snow, and the wind in order to imagine Skujeniek’s experience of the hopeless, frozen prison camp. The poems in Seed in Snow can use this sort of shared experience to transport the reader into a far-off reality most of us will never experience.
Skujenieks’ strength is his ability to universalize his experience. Not surprisingly, his weakest poems fail because they rely on overly-general language and lapse into cliché. Here is a passage from "Elegies on Snow:"
On the same branch, in the same bed of love
Lie youth and midlife. Famine and shame.
Why do you falter?
A skeleton and a flower,
There is nothing new here––famine, skeletons and daisies are all rather hackneyed images––and it’s hard to see where the author was trying to go. Fortunately, this sort of poem is rare in Seed in Snow, and most of the work manages to be both simple and unique, personal and universal, using generous, open-hearted language to guide the reader to new vistas. The reader who goes along for this ride will be grateful.
In reading Yoko Tawada’s latest novel, it is impossible not to consider the vast ways in which the world a person inhabits differs from the world of his or her ancestors. Many features remain the same, of course, and there is typically an overlap in time and space, but even in the short span of a generation or two, so much changes.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear follows three generations of polar bears, and with each generation, not only are there changes in culture, politics, and technology, but the degree of anthropomorphization sharply decreases. In the first chapter, an unnamed polar bear living in a Cold-War era Soviet Union openly and clearly communicates with human beings through both speech and writing. No indication is ever given to suggest that these abilities are out of the ordinary for a polar bear. In the following chapter, Tosca, the first bear’s daughter, lacks the ability to read or write. Tosca, like her mother, is a circus performer, and one of her handlers suggests teaching her to spell words as a stage trick, but the idea is shot down and deemed impossible. Still, she finds a way to communicate with at least one human, but she is only able to do so through a strange sort of thought-transmission in a dreamlike state. And in the final chapter, Knut, Tosca’s son, is able to speak to other animals but is completely incapable of communicating with humans except through physical gestures. In a novel largely concerned with self-identity and isolation, these changes serve to demonstrate the disconnect between all individuals, even ancestors and their descendants.
A novel with non-human protagonists can be a lot to ask of readers, but there is certainly a reward to this risk. In this instance, it allows Tawada to examine the human race from an outside perspective. Many things that humans take for granted as normal or commonplace can be presented as strange or bizarre though the eyes of a polar bear. As Tawada’s first bear says:
The animal world is not without its culinary oddities . . . But this is nothing compared to the curiosities beloved by human beings: the greases they smear on their cheeks, the thick liquid they color their claws with, tiny little sticks they probably use to pick their noses, bags for temporarily storing things that will later be thrown away, the paper they use to wipe their bottoms, the round plates made of paper for throwing away, and the notebooks for children with a panda bear on the front cover.
Although these bears traverse human society to varying degrees, they are never truly accepted into the fold, and their otherness is always front and center. Cruel children use what might be considered racial slurs, like “snow child” and “snout face.” Even other animals are offended when Knut admits to never having been to the North Pole. This specific moment will certainly be uncomfortably familiar to people of color living in the United States, who are all too often asked to explain where they are from, as if their skin color alone casts them as outsiders.
Halfway through Knut’s chapter, he meets the zoo’s sun bear and engages in a conversation. The sun bear laughs at Knut for speaking in the third person, which both angers Knut and forces him to reexamine his sense of self:
Knut was Knut. Why shouldn’t Knut say Knut?. . . What a strange phenomenon!
Wanting to avoid ridicule, the polar bear adopts the use of a first-person pronoun, and at this moment, the narrative changes from third-person narration to Knut’s first-person perspective. Or, rather, it becomes apparent that Knut has been the narrator of the chapter all along, only referring to himself in the third person. Here readers are forced to reconsider the preceding pages in a new light, with the understanding that Knut, not some invisible third party, has been the author of his own story. The other characters––Knut’s caretakers and fellow zoo animals––have been presented only as Knut perceives them. This is another example of the way Tawada takes risks in her writing. It’s possible that this perspective change could confuse or frustrate readers instead of enhancing their understanding of the story, yet the risk pays off, and Tawada allows readers to share a sense of Knut’s first-person epiphany by saddling them with a sudden realization of their own.
Despite the serious themes throughout the story, Tawada’s prose is never plain or rigid. Every scene is fully adorned with vivid imagery. Perhaps the most captivating examples are the descriptions of the stage tricks that the animals perform:
My spine stretches tall, my chest broadens, I tuck my chin slightly before the living wall of ice, unafraid. It isn’t a battle. And in truth this ice wall is really just warm snowy fur. I gaze up and discover two black pearl eyes and a moist nose. Quickly I place the sugar cube on my tongue and stick it out as far, and as high as I can. The polar bear bends down toward me slowly. She bends first at the hip, then at the neck, balancing on her hind legs. She exhales forcefully, and the smell of snow streams powerfully from her throat. Then her tongue swiftly and skillfully snatches the sugar from my mouth. Has one mouth touched the private interior of the other or not?
The novel’s eldest bear describes writing as a “dangerous acrobatic stunt.” In Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Tawada executes this stunt with the effortless grace of a seasoned circus performer.
One of the unique qualities of theater translation is that the text the translator translates is not really a “text” at all. It is a written invitation to make theater—to occasion a moment of fleeting complicity between an actor on the stage and a spectator in the audience. In the movement from page to stage, the otherness of the playwright’s words—written in another language, in another time, and another place, imbued with dramatic potential and gesturing toward an untouchable, invisible, futurity of performance—are given dramatic substance. Through translation, contemporary performance can inhabit a contiguous border between past and present, arching backward and across this otherness of time, space, and language to make accessible, to audiences speaking a different language and living in a different time and place, the possibility in the past of the presence of something new.
It is this capacity for instruction, for renovation and contemporaneity, that encapsulates microtheater as a genre. “Microtheater,” “café-théàtre,” “short form theater,” “teatro por horas,” “theater in brief”—the mode itself is not new and its historical foundations, over a century in the making, are rich. But its (re)emergence in our cities today, in established theaters, cafés, bars, bookshops, and temporary spaces not previously designated for dramatic performance, is testament to microtheater’s continued offer. Pieces are quick to run, usually fifteen or twenty minutes to an hour, and because they are designed to be portable, with simple-to-no set or prop requirements and pared down casts, they are also quick to stage. In a context of fiscal austerity, where public funding for the arts has been reduced significantly and theater companies must seek alternative routes to performance, microtheater offers the shock of the new at a fraction of the cost of full-scale commercial performance. Companies such as Microteatro Por Dinero, sited in a former brothel in the center of Madrid, for example, are making the most of this most flexible of genres, staging fifteen-minute plays in parallel series, seven days a week, for audiences of fifteen, in rooms no larger than a hundred and sixty square feet. This structural flexibility gives rise to diverse programming, sensitive to the changing needs and interests of spectators. It is this ready route to the public, and the immediacy of response to some of the most urgent questions of our time, that gives microtheater its enduring appeal.
In this special issue we present five micro-plays in translation, each selected as much for its unique geographical and historical dimensions as for its potential to bring readers and new spectators to this re-emerging genre. Three of our selections (Number Six, No Direction, and Grandmother’s Little Hut) form part of an evening of microtheater performance in New York City on December 13, 2016, co-sponsored by Words Without Borders and the Center for the Humanities’ Translation Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
Number Six, “a micro-comedy” by José Ignacio Valenzuela, and Visitors from on High: A Tragiccomedy in Science Fiction, by Roberto Athayde, invite us to suspend our disbelief and enjoy the power of microtheater to craft scenarios with a cinematic edge that transport us outside the mundanity of the day to day toward a place where the extraordinary reigns. Translated from the Spanish by Sofía García Deliz and Edil Ramos Pagán, and edited by Aurora Lauzardo, Number Six is the story of a man caught out in a thunderstorm and a woman, safe and dry in her home not far from where the man’s car has broken down. When the man comes to her door seeking help, the woman faces a singular question: should she let him in? Visitors from on High, translated from the Portuguese by the author Roberto Athayde, presents an encounter with extraterrestrial life. Dr. Antaris and his assistant, Louis, are astronomers with the University of Brazil, chosen by a visitor from Venus, on a ten-year scientific and cultural mission with his mother, to learn the secrets of the universe. Visitors is a raucous journey across space and time that urges us to reflect on questions of language, existence, faith, and free will.
No Direction, by Miguel Alcantud and Santiago Molero, and translated by Sarah Maitland, makes the most of microtheater’s capacity to explore new modes of dramaturgy. The setting is tense, claustrophobic, and confusing by design. A man appears to be locked inside a basement or bunker room. There is a woman, Ana, who insists that he cannot be let out. Although the audience never learns his name, we are pulled inexorably into the mysteries surrounding the man’s evolving story. Alcantud and Molero craft their play in a space of temporal dislocation that requires spectators to collude in the destruction of any narrative structure that has a clear beginning and end.
Two plays situated in a very different historical context are Grandmother’s Little Hut, by Andrei Platonov, and Love Thy Savior, Part Three, by Jerzy Lutowski. Grandmother’s Little Hut, translated from the Russian by Jesse Irwin, is an unfinished play written in 1938. When we first meet Dusya, a young woman who has been orphaned, she has received a cold welcome at her relatives’ house. To her aunt and uncle, she is yet another mouth to feed. But her plucky spirit cannot be quashed, and she befriends the young Mitya, a fellow orphan who tells her of the hut where his grandmother lives. After the death of his mother, she is the only source of love in his life. In this moving play where the adults in charge seem cruel and uncaring, the grandmother’s hut, with its warm lights and gentle willow trees, is their promised land—if only they can get to it.
Love Thy Savior, Part Three, by Jerzy Lutowski, is a thoughtful comment on social and moral issues. Written between 1956 and 1964 and published in Poland in 1980 during a temporary relaxation of censorship rules, it is the third of three acts. Each act enjoys a very different geographical, historical, and sociocultural setting and each offers its own invitation to be staged as a separate piece. The setting for Part Three is Inquisition-era Spain, 1493. Rachel is prepared to renounce Judaism, much to the distress of her father, Abraham, so that she can marry Alonso, a Spanish nobleman who is helping her father flee Spain and the Inquisition. But their plan is shattered when Alonso reveals his true feelings about her faith and Rachel must make a terrible choice with profound implications.
Across the theater spectrum, cuts to public funding for the arts means reduced subsidies, more short-term contracts, and fewer paid hours for theater workers. While microtheater is not a new phenomenon, at a time of national budget-deficits, its commitment to a sustainable business model represents not only a potent artistic response to negative economic growth but also an opportunity to embrace the radical creative output that more conservative stages tend to reject. In an age of profound economic and social change, as well as cultural and political entrenchment, this may be microtheater’s most important role of all.
© 2016 by Sarah Maitland. All rights reserved.
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
José Ignacio Valenzuela’s distrustful woman debates whether she ought to allow a stranger into her home.
A living room with a small sofa, a television set switched on, and a door. There’s an old- fashioned phone beside the TV. We hear the sound of rainstorm: thunder and lightning. A woman is sitting on the sofa watching the TV.
VOICEOVER OF THE NEWSCASTER The police have issued no statements regarding the murder of five people this past week. Police have confirmed they were stabbed with what is presumed to be a hunting knife on a public street around midnight.
The woman covers her mouth with one hand, gasping.
WOMAN (Agitated) Useless. They haven’t a clue who’s behind it. Not one clue!
Still dismayed, the woman takes the remote control and presses “mute.” She stands up. She seems nervous and troubled by what she just heard. Suddenly, the phone rings, startling her. She goes to the phone and picks it up.
WOMAN (On the phone) Hello?
She stays still for a moment.
WOMAN (On the phone, serious) Hello? Who is it?
No one seems to answer. Thunderclap.
WOMAN (On the phone) I can’t hear anything.
The woman keeps the phone to her ear a bit longer. She gestures annoyed and hangs up the phone. She rubs her face. A police siren is heard in the background, passing by the house. The woman is about to go to the door, but the phone rings again. She waits for a moment, and then answers it. The police siren stops.
WOMAN (Coldly, on the phone) Who is this? Maybe the phone lines aren’t working or maybe for some reason you just don’t want to talk, but if you think you’re scaring me, I warn you, it’s not gonna work! You pranksters don’t scare me, because—
Another police siren. The woman flinches. She hangs up the phone and runs to the door. She’s about to open it but stops. She presses her ear to the door instead. The police siren continues and then stops. Dismayed, the woman fastens the door chain.
She’s about to go back to the sofa when someone knocks on the door. The woman is startled. There’s a louder knock on the door.
WOMAN (Serious) Who is it? (Louder) I said who is it?
MAN (Off) Please let me in! I need help! (Pause) Is anybody there?
WOMAN Yes. What do you want?
MAN (Off) Please let me in. My car broke down, my cell phone is dead, and I need to get a tow truck immediately. Please! It’s pouring out here!
The woman is apprehensive and hesitant.
MAN (Off) Ma’am? May I come in or not?
WOMAN Some police cars just passed by. Ask them for help.
MAN (Off) They’ve already gone! I couldn’t catch them in time.
WOMAN There’s a pay phone around the corner.
MAN (Off) I don’t have any change. Don’t you trust me? I won’t hurt you!
WOMAN I’ll slide some coins underneath the door.
MAN (Off, agitated) I just need to make a phone call, that’s all! It will only be a minute!
WOMAN (Agitated) I’m going to get some change!
The woman walks over to the sofa, where there’s a backpack. She opens it, puts a hand inside, and takes out a coin purse. She returns to the door with the coin purse in her hand.
WOMAN (Anxious) All right, here’s the change. (Pause) Hey! Are you still there?
Nobody answers. The woman steps closer to the door, pressing her ear up against it. She grabs the doorknob and tightens her grip, as if she’s going to open the door. A nail-biting period of suspense. Suddenly:
MAN (Off) It doesn’t work!
The woman draws back from the door, startled.
MAN (Off) The pay phone doesn’t work! Let me in, please! It’s really pouring out here and it’s dark! Haven't you heard about the murders? The people that were killed in this area? I don’t want to stay out here any longer than I have to.
WOMAN Of course I heard about the murders.
MAN (Off) Why won’t you let me in, then? Are you alone?
WOMAN (Anxious) N-no.
MAN (Off) What is it, then? What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of me?
WOMAN I’m not afraid.
MAN (Off) Really?
The woman doesn’t respond. She toys around with the chain lock, staring intently at it.
MAN (Off) Let me in, then. I just want to make a phone call. Nothing more, I swear. I just want to get a tow truck and get out of here!
WOMAN I can call it for you.
WOMAN (Insisting) I said I can call a tow truck for you, did you hear me?
MAN (Off) All right. If that makes you feel better . . .
WOMAN Give me the number.
MAN (Off) I don’t know the number! I told you my cell phone is dead. You’ll have to look it up for me . . . unless you want to let me in and look for it.
WOMAN No. I can do it.
MAN (Off, nervous) Don’t take too long, please!
The woman goes back to the sofa. She takes out a cell phone from her backpack. She stares at it with a stern expression. Then she puts it back in the backpack, takes a deep breath, and walks back to the door.
WOMAN Done. It’s on its way.
MAN (Off, surprised) What? Already?
WOMAN (Anxious) Yes. I called them, gave them the address, asked for an emergency towing service, and hung up. Thirty seconds. They said they’ll be here in half an hour. The best you can do now is get back in your car and wait for them.
MAN (Off) I’ll leave you alone, then. Thanks.
WOMAN Don’t mention it.
There’s a deep silence. The woman leans against the door, trying to hear something. She has the urge to open it, but she controls herself. She goes back to the sofa, sits down, and turns on the TV with the remote control.
VOICEOVER OF THE NEWSCASTER The police department is still searching for the killer who has terrified the community for weeks. A dedicated task force has been working day and night—
The woman turns off the TV. She takes the backpack and is about to take something out of it. Suddenly:
MAN (Off) You lied!
The woman gets to the door quickly, very anxious.
MAN (Off) You didn’t call them at all! You can’t manage to look the number up and talk to them in just thirty seconds! You lied to me! Let me in so I can make that goddamn phone call!
WOMAN Of course I did!
MAN (Off) You didn’t! Please, let me in!
WOMAN I’m going to bed now. Why don’t you ask someone else for help?
MAN (Off) The street is deserted. There’s no sign of life in any other house but yours.
WOMAN (Anxious) I have to go.
MAN (Off) Please, for God’s sake! Call my wife, then! Tell her what’s going on, she must be worried! I was supposed to be home hours ago.
WOMAN Are you sure the pay phone is broken?
MAN (Off) I’ve checked it three times. I’m soaking wet. Please! I just want to get out of here. Call my wife. Ask her to get a tow truck for me. Give her this address. I’m begging you!
WOMAN All right, I’ll get my phone!
The woman rushes to the sofa, takes the backpack, and presses it against her chest. She seems to have decided something. She takes her cell phone from the backpack and returns to the door.
WOMAN I’m back. Give me the number.
MAN (Off) Why won’t you let me in? Are you afraid of me? You think I’m going to hurt you? (Pause) You think I’m the one who killed those five people, don’t you?
WOMAN How do you know there were five?
No answer. The woman gets more agitated.
WOMAN HOW DO YOU KNOW THERE WERE FIVE?
MAN (Off) I heard it on TV, OK? Like everyone else. Are you going to make the call or not?
WOMAN (Agitated) Give me the number!
MAN (Off) Listen, I’m scared shitless, same as you, all right? The only difference is you’re safe inside and I’m out here alone in the dark.
WOMAN (Agitated) If you don’t want me to call her, then I’ll—
MAN (Off, interrupting her, loudly) 229 . . .
The woman pretends to dial the numbers.
MAN (Off) 62 . . . 66 . . . You got it?
WOMAN Yes. Just give me a second.
MAN (Off) My wife’s name is Angelica!
The woman walks to the sofa. She brings the cell phone near her ear
WOMAN (Imitating the tone tune) Ring . . . Ring . . . Ring . . . Hello? Good evening. May I speak with Angelica?
The woman puts the cell phone inside the backpack and keeps pretending that she’s making the phone call.
WOMAN Hello. You don’t know me, but I’m calling because your husband is standing outside my front door. (Lowering her voice) He’s an idiot. He asked me to tell you blahblahblah (Scornful) Blahblahblah . . . and then yaddayaddayadda . . .
The woman stands up, takes another deep breath, and goes back to the door.
WOMAN Done. I did as you asked.
MAN (Off) Did you speak with my wife?
WOMAN (Nervous) Yes.
MAN (Off) What number did you dial?
WOMAN (Taken aback) The one . . . the one you gave me.
MAN (Off) And you say you spoke to my wife?
WOMAN (Agitated) Yes, I told you I spoke to her!
MAN (Off, furious) LIAR!
WOMAN (Screaming) NO!
MAN (Off) You’re lying! That number doesn’t exist! I just made it up! I don’t even have a wife!
Even more agitated, the woman walks away from the door.
MAN (Off) You’re a fucking liar! Every single thing you’ve said is a lie!
There is more banging against the door. It is obvious that the man is trying to break it down.
MAN (Off) I’m coming in!
The door shudders with every blow, each stronger than the last. This continues on and on, until suddenly, it stops. There is a deep silence. The woman is standing by the sofa, gasping for air. Resolute, she goes to the door and presses an ear to it, trying to hear something. Everything is quiet. We hear the woman’s heavy breathing. She grabs the door latch and unfastens it. Then she unlocks the door chain and grabs the knob. She’s going to open the door. She takes deep, agitated breaths. It seems that she has made up her mind. She turns the knob and opens the door with a quick motion: there’s no one on the other side. The woman sighs, relieved. She closes the door without locking it. She goes to the sofa and turns on the TV again.
VOICEOVER OF THE NEWSCASTER Sources from the police department have stated that a security camera captured what seems to be the killer’s silhouette. The suspect wore black clothes and carried a backpack presumed to contain the murder weapon.
There is a violent blow at the door. The woman screams.
MAN (Off) I just wanted to make a phone call!
WOMAN (Screaming) LEAVE ME ALONE!
MAN (Off, screaming too) I ASKED YOU FOR HELP AND YOU DID NOTHING!
The woman grabs her backpack quickly and pulls it to her chest, as though protecting herself.
MAN (Off, agitated) What kind of woman are you? Have you no soul?
WOMAN (Defiant) Fine. You want to come in? Go ahead.
There is a silence that shows that the man is taken aback by the woman’s sudden change of attitude.
WOMAN You were right. I was inconsiderate.
The woman holds on tightly to the backpack, preparing for the encounter.
WOMAN I don’t know what came over me. I . . . I think I was scared of being all by myself in here . . . at night. Forgive me. Please forgive me.
The woman hardens her gaze, which is fixed on the door.
WOMAN My phone is all yours! Come and get it!
No answer. Silence.
WOMAN (Yells) COME IN! COME IN AND MAKE YOUR PHONE CALL!
The door starts to open little by little. The woman opens the backpack and introduces one hand inside.
WOMAN Don’t make me say it twice! I was stupid, I know! I already asked you to forgive me! Please come in.
The door opens completely. There’s a man on the doorstep. He is nervous. His hair is dripping wet. The woman smiles at him.
WOMAN Good evening. We finally meet. Come on in.
Hesitating, the man stares at her. He takes one step inside. The woman quickly takes a big hunting knife out of the backpack. She jumps on the scared man. There is total darkness, followed by a cry of pain from the man. Then there is silence, interrupted by . . .
WOMAN (Off) Welcome, number six.
“Número 6” © José Ignacio Valenzuela. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Aurora Lauzardo, Sofía García Deliz, and Edil Ramos Pagán. All rights reserved.
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
Miguel Alcantud and Santiago Molero present the mysterious call-and-response of a nameless man and the woman who appears to be holding him captive.
The room appears to be a bedroom but with a bit of everything thrown in. It looks like a kind of basement area or shed, although it is well set up. There is a bed, a piece of low furniture that could be a dresser or chest of drawers, and a chair. As the audience enters a man can be seen lying on the floor, apparently dead. The man sits up and clutches his stomach in pain. The pain passes and he takes a drink from a bottle. He shakes it. He takes some ash from an urn and puts it in the bottle. He closes the urn. He goes to take a drink and stops. He shakes the bottle and adds some white powder from a small glass box. He places everything on a chair and looks around, downcast. He puts the bottle and box of powder in a simple bag from the supermarket and the urn in a backpack. He puts the chest of drawers back in its place, picks up the bags, looks around as if disoriented, and leaves through the door. Momentarily he comes back in again, without the bags. He puts the keys underneath the chest of drawers. He lies down beside the door looking at the keys and disconnects. He falls asleep. The light goes out. Only a faint, yellowish glow remains, similar to an emergency light. He bangs his head against the floor. The light comes on. He is in the same position, but awake. The light goes out. He does not move. He gets up.
HIM Ana! Help!
(He tries to leave through the door, but it is locked. He goes to the chest of drawers and looks at the cell phone.)
No! No! (He looks at the cell in disbelief. The battery has run out.) Where have you taken her? Hello? Hello? What’s going on? She’s . . . No . . . No, I can’t speak to . . . No, that’s not possible. (Shouting.) What? Put her on! I want to speak to her. Where is Ana? Who? (Immediately his expression changes. He smiles.) You’re back already?
(He presses a button on the cell phone, which starts to make a noise. He puts the cell down. Music plays: “No puedo estar sin ti” by Coque Malla. He lets himself go to the music while he gets undressed. He presses a button and the music stops. He breathes deeply and presses a button again.)
I love you. You’ve always been my better half, you know that, even if I am more of a quarter these days than a half. When I’m better it’ll be me who takes care of you. I’ll treat you like a queen. You’ve no idea how much it means to me. You’ve . . . You’ve . . . I want you to know that . . . I’m always asking you to forgive me . . . I’m sorry. I know you’re doing all of this for me, Ana. I wouldn’t have it any other way . . .
(He still has the phone to his ear, as if he is listening. He dials again and leaves the phone on the table. He takes off his trousers and picks up the phone.)
Don’t pick up.
(He listens and smiles. He dials again. He hangs up.)
Alright, hang up. Yes, I’m fine . . . I’ve told you a hundred times not to answer the phone while you’re driving. So don’t pick up. I wanted to . . . Ana, it’s me . . .
(He dials a number and listens. He picks up a cell phone, takes off his shirt, and sits on the bed. He takes off his shoes. He takes off a sock and turns it around in his hand. He turns it inside out and puts it back on. He looks at the sock, half-surprised, half-amused. He takes off both socks, sitting on the bed, pensive. A girl enters.)
HER The battery’s nearly gone. I won’t be long.
HIM Ana . . .
(He looks at a cell phone on the bed. He picks it up and gives it to her. She puts it in her handbag.)
Can you give me your phone, please? Yours does the music . . . Yes . . .
HER You have the phone. I have to go.
HIM I had an idea yesterday for a picture . . .
HER You know what we’re doing here. No one would be happier than me to see you get out of here, but it’s too soon . . . I don’t want to have to say it again.
HIM It’s for my own good.
HER It’s all for you, isn’t it? Who else?
(He does not reply.)
What are we doing?
HIM Why do you say that?
HER You make everything I do seem so senseless.
HIM I just want to go out for a while and keep you company, do the shopping with you . . .
HER Please don’t make me say it again.
HIM I won’t do anything stupid. You said it yourself . . . I’m fine . . .
HER I won’t be long. I wouldn’t . . . I wouldn’t be able to relax.
HIM What if I need to go to the bathroom? At least leave the door unlocked.
HIM I’ll get dressed quickly and come with you. Hang on.
HER I have to go. I’m tired, that’s all . . .
HIM You used to say it’s good to talk about it. You hardly talk at all any more . . .
HER Jesus, I look awful!
(She looks at herself in a small mirror on the wall.)
HIM I don’t understand.
HER Sometimes I feel like everything used to be so much easier. I’m sorry . . . It’s good to see you looking better.
HIM What’s wrong?
HER (Indifferent.) Yes.
HIM It’s the nurse’s fault.
HER You’re fine now.
HIM (Suddenly happy.) Would you still love me even if I wasn’t sick?
(She finishes getting undressed and goes back to the bed. He lies down with his head hanging over the edge of the bed.)
HIM Ana . . . It sounds just the same . . . Ana . . . Ana. I like saying your name with my head upside down.
(He starts moving nervously as if overcome by tics. He tries to place his hand on her.)
HER (Amused, in spite of herself.) Silly.
HIM I’ve got . . . Parkinson’s . . .
HER You’re shaking.
(They embrace. They kiss. They look at one another.)
HIM Don’t laugh at me.
HER (Laughing.) You’re too much.
HIM I can’t imagine life without you.
HER It’s normal to feel a bit overwhelmed. You’re so close to the finishing line.
HIM I was losing you . . . and everything went . . . like it did before.
HER You know you still can’t leave.
HIM I want to go with you.
HER I have to go to the store.
HER I have to go. It’s late.
HIM I dreamed you weren’t coming back.
HER What happened?
HIM It was a nightmare.
HER You were dreaming.
(They are lying down on the bed. He turns his back to her, she shakes him. He moves, restless, as if he is having nightmares. She looks at the alarm clock on the chair and falls asleep. Momentarily she wakes again. He moves restlessly. She looks at the clock on the chair. She turns to look at him affectionately and wakes him gently.)
You were dreaming.
HIM It was a nightmare.
HER What happened?
HIM I dreamed you weren’t coming back.
(Everything is repeated from this point until the end.)
HER It’s late. I have to go.
HER I have to go to the store.
HIM I want to go with you.
HER You know you still can’t leave.
HIM I was losing you . . . and everything went . . . like it did before.
HER You’re so close to the finishing line. It’s normal to feel a bit overwhelmed.
HIM I can’t imagine life without you.
HER (Laughing.) You’re too much.
HIM Don’t laugh at me.
(Silence. They look at one another. They kiss. They embrace.)
HER You’re shaking.
HIM I’ve got . . . Parkinson’s . . .
(He starts moving nervously as if overcome by tics. He tries to place his hand on her.)
HER (Amused, in spite of herself.) Silly.
(He lies down with his head hanging over the edge of the bed.)
HIM I like saying your name with my head upside down. Ana . . . Ana. It sounds just the same . . . Ana.
(She starts getting dressed.)
HIM (Suddenly serious.) Would you still love me even if I wasn’t sick?
HER You’re fine now.
HIM It’s the nurse’s fault.
HER (Indifferent.) Yes.
HIM What’s wrong?
HER I’m sorry . . . It’s good to see you looking better. Sometimes I feel like everything used to be so much easier.
HIM I don’t understand.
HER (Looking at herself in a small mirror on the wall.) Jesus, I look awful!
HIM You hardly talk at all any more. . . You used to say it’s good to talk about it.
HER I’m tired, that’s all . . . . I have to go.
HIM Hang on, I’ll get dressed quickly and come with you.
HER (She hesitates a moment, somewhat bewildered.) No.
HIM At least leave the door unlocked. What if I need to go to the bathroom?
HER No . . . No, I wouldn’t be able to relax. I won’t be long.
HIM I’m fine . . . you said it yourself . . . I won’t do anything stupid.
HER Please don’t make me say it again.
HIM I just want to go out for a while and keep you company, do the shopping with you . . .
HER You make everything I do seem so senseless.
HIM Why do you say that?
HER What are we doing?
(He does not reply.)
It’s all for you, isn’t it? Who else?
HIM It’s for my own good.
HER I don’t want to have to say it again. No one would be happier than me to see you get out of here, but it’s too soon . . . you know that.
HIM (Trying to calm things down and keep the conversation going.) I had an idea yesterday for a picture . . .
HER (She acknowledges this and looks away.)
(Addressing him.) I have to go. You have the phone.
HIM Yes . . . (Before she leaves.) Can you give me your phone, please? Yours does the music . . .
(She takes out a cell phone from her handbag, looks at it, and places it on the bed.)
Ana . . .
HER The battery’s nearly gone. I won’t be long.
(She leaves. He remains alone in the room.)
“No Direction” © Miguel Alcantud and Santiago Molero. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2016 by Sarah Maitland. All rights reserved.
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
An Unfinished Play
In Andrei Platonov’s unfinished play from 1938, two young orphans seek out their promised land.
DUSYA, an orphan
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA, DUSYA’s aunt
ARCHAPOV ARKADY, the aunt’s husband
MITYA, an orphan
A YOUNG WOMAN, the uncle’s girlfriend
(A room in the small old house of a tradesman. A dresser. Above it are photographs of the owners’ relatives; on it stand aging souvenirs and knickknacks from the nineteenth century. Furniture that had once been a part of the wife’s dowry—plush sofas and chairs, now threadbare; a trunk; a table covered by a tablecloth; one or two windows with ornate curtains cut from paper; pots with flowers on the windowsills; a mirror on the dresser—and any other bits and pieces that an old, thrifty couple might have possessed. The door between this room and the kitchen is open: in the kitchen can be seen a scoured kitchen table, plates, and a Russian stove in one corner. ARCHAPOV is in the room, sitting at the table and eating from a little bowl. TATYANA FILIPPOVNA, his wife, is in the kitchen; leaning on a large stove fork, she looks out at her husband.)
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA Full yet?
ARCHAPOV (Wipes his moustache) Bring me some more.
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA Sure that wasn’t enough?
ARCHAPOV Too watery. Make it thicker.
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA All right, have all you want! You’ll feel it later, though.
ARCHAPOV Go light the samovar.
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA You’ll be sweating after all that tea, won’t you? You’ll sweat and sweat—and then you’ll catch cold . . .
ARCHAPOV And then I’ll get well again—don’t fret.
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA Oh, go on, eat and drink all you want. With you around we’ll never be putting any money aside—you’re a bottomless pit! No money to fix the roof—but we eat beef every day . . . . (She wipes away her tears with the edge of her apron.)
(A latch rattles against the door that opens from the porch into the kitchen.)
ARCHAPOV Are you going to open the door?
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA There’s no hurry. It could be a beggar woman . . .
ARCHAPOV A beggar—in this day and age?
(TATYANA FILIPPOVNA undoes the latch and bolt of the kitchen door. DUSYA enters barefoot and bareheaded. TATYANA FILIPPOVNA looks her over coldly and indifferently.)
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA What are you doing here?
DUSYA When my mother was dying, she told me to come to you. And now my father is dead too, and I’ve been living all alone . . . Dear Auntie, I don’t have anyone now!
(TATYANA FILIPPOVNA lifts the edge of her apron and wipes her eyes.)
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA No one in our family lasts long. And I’m no different—I only look like I’m doing OK, but I’m not in good shape . . . No, not in good shape at all . . . .
(Pause. TATYANA FILIPPOVNA cries. DUSYA watches her timidly.)
Oh, come on, have a seat here in the kitchen. There’s some herring on that plate over there—go and get yourself some.
(DUSYA takes a piece of herring from a wooden plate and eats it timidly. TATYANA FILIPPOVNA goes back out to her husband, into the main room.)
God relieves us of our own children—and what then? Then our relatives fling their children at us. There she is, Arkasha—my niece! She’s a true orphan now: she’ll need to be fed—not to mention new clothes and shoes!
ARCHAPOV (Sullenly) What more could we ask for!
(DUSYA comes out from the kitchen.)
DUSYA I don’t need to be fed, I’ve eaten all I want. I just want to sleep.
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA If you want to sleep, then lie down and sleep. There’s a trunk over there . . . When was your father’s funeral?
DUSYA It’s been seven days.
(DUSYA lies down on the trunk, her face to the wall; she curls her body closer into itself and tries to pull down her dress—she is growing out of it. ARCHAPOV taps his fingers on the table and looks at the clock on the wall.)
ARCHAPOV Bring me my food, I need to go to work soon.
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA Why the hurry? (A little more quietly) Maybe she’ll fall asleep soon, just wait a little.
ARCHAPOV I don’t care—he’s not my relative. I just want peace and order in my own home.
(TATYANA FILIPPOVNA goes to the kitchen, takes a pot and pan from the stove, slices some fresh bread, brings the bread to the table, goes back again, then bustles about between the stove and her husband, bringing things to the table one at a time—the salt shaker, a fork, a piece of bread. All the time, she keeps talking.)
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA In she comes—and makes herself at home just like that. Oh, my dear uncle and aunt, she says to herself, they don’t want for anything! They’ll feed me, they’ll give me clothes and shoes. They’ll find me a husband and give me a dowry!! . . . Here I am—what more could they ask for? A hungry, unwashed, barefoot, unhappy little orphan in a skirt she’s long grown out of. Soon, God willing, the two of them will kick the bucket—and then I’ll be the woman of the house. All they earned by the sweat of their brow—all mine to spend as I please! . . . Well, Dusya, you know what I think you should do? Find yourself bed and board down below with the devils! As for what’s mine, I won’t let you even blow the dust off them. And may my bread choke you! My man toils all day long—out in the wind and cold. I don’t sit down myself from dawn till dusk—and then along comes dear Dusya: “Here I am! Take good care of me! Love me and nourish me . . .”
(Short pause. ARCHAPOV eats. TATYANA FILIPPOVNA, irritated, hurries toward the trunk, where DUSYA, as before, lies facing the wall.)
Just look at her—how sweet and cosy!
DUSYA (Not turning over) I’m not asleep. I was listening to you.
(Short pause. DUSYA sits up.)
I’m going now. I’m not staying with you.
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA (With a sigh) All right, go. Seems you do, after all, have somewhere to go . . .
DUSYA Yes, I’m going to the Soviet Union of Republics.
ARCHAPOV You should say it in full: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
DUSYA You don’t need it in full.
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA Oh, she is sure of herself, she’s not one to be frightened! And she’s taken offense! . . . All right, go and live where you like—we’re not a roadside inn and we’re not a republic.
(DUSYA leaves in silence, without a glance at her aunt and uncle.)
(An apartment in a small building. Usual furnishings for a laborer’s or office worker’s family. Two large windows looking out onto a quiet, provincial street. Outside—the light of a sunny day; in the distance—two or three trees and a wide-open field stretching off into space. On the wall between the windows, facing the audience, is a large portrait of a smiling young woman; the portrait is decorated with pine branches and is bordered by black crepe. On the floor of the room—a rug; a boy, MITYA, sits on this rug, playing with some toys. It’s quiet everywhere—in the room and outside the building; all that can be heard is the heavy breathing of MITYA, who is intensely focused on his game. Solemn music suddenly starts up in the distance—Red Army soldiers or pioneers are marching somewhere. MITYA stops playing; he cries quietly and slowly and, sitting all alone on the rug, wipes his eyes with his hands. Eyes red with tears, he gets to his feet, walks up to the wall, looks at the portrait of the young woman, and begins speaking to her.)
MITYA Mama, why did you die? . . . Papa is out at work, Grandma Povanna lives far away in a little hut, she’s sick, she just lies there without ever dying—and I sit here on my own, weeping for you . . . Mama, please come back and live with us—it must be boring there with only dead people. We’ll be together again, and I’ll listen to you—and when I grow up, then you can die again, and we’ll bury you with music. Or better still, don’t die at all. . . . Come back now, Mama, even if it’s only for a minute, and then you can go away again.
No, I understand—you’ll never be here with me. Your eyes are shut, you’ve gone blind, and you’ve forgotten everyone. I’m the only one who remembers you now, and I won’t ever forget you.
(MITYA bows his head before his mother’s portrait and cries quietly. DUSYA appears a little way from the window. She stops a little way away, and then comes closer; she presses her face against the glass and taps timidly on the frame with one finger, but MITYA, absorbed in his grief, his head now resting on the table beneath his mother’s portrait, does not hear her. DUSYA looks around the room. She catches sight of the boy—seeing him through the single pane of glass, she taps more loudly. MITYA looks up, goes to the window, and looks at DUSYA with his back to the audience).
DUSYA Give me something to drink, I just ate some herring.
MITYA We only have plain water—you need to add some syrup.
DUSYA Sure, I’ll have it with syrup.
MITYA They sell it in a booth on the corner—go buy some and drink all you want.
DUSYA I don’t have any money.
MITYA Are you poor?
DUSYA Yes, I’m poor.
MITYA You’re lying—nobody’s poor. We were poor too, but not anymore. We have milk now, and meat.
DUSYA Just let me have a mug of water. Open the door for me.
MITYA I stay locked in. My father locks me inside with his key.
He’s away all day today—he’s gone to the brick factory—and I’m living all on my own, it’s boring . . . They won’t take me at the kindergarten, there’s no room, there are a lot of people being born, and there aren’t enough kindergartens. We had saboteurs and we had spies—half and half!
DUSYA If the building catches fire—you’ll burn to death. You’re still little.
MITYA I won’t. I’ll open the window and escape. My father’s taught me everything.
DUSYA Open the window for me.
MITYA I’m afraid—you’re a stranger.
(DUSYA presses her face firmly against the windowpane; her face flattens out, distorted to the point of looking ridiculous. Then she sticks out her tongue. MITYA laughs at her.)
DUSYA (Stepping back from the window) Open up, I’m exhausted. I’m not going to kill you.
MITYA Are you someone’s mama too?
DUSYA (Slowly tracing her finger across the glass) No, I’m not really anything much, I’m not a mama. My own mama died.
MITYA My mama died too . . . Only my mama wasn’t like yours.
DUSYA Yours was better?
MITYA Yeah, mine was better. Yours was an old, old woman, soon you’re going to be old too. My mama just died—she wasn’t sick. It was poison—she died right away. She was in pain, but not a lot. Now she just lies there and she’s not in pain.
(Pause. MITYA climbs onto the windowsill and, with some difficulty, pulls the bolt and the hook free from the window frame. The window opens. DUSYA climbs through the window and into the room. MITYA hands her a mug of water. DUSYA drinks. MITYA looks at her a little nervously.)
Don’t take any of our stuff.
DUSYA (In surprise) Of course not. Who’s taught you to say things like that? Do I look like a thief?
MITYA My uncle’s taught me everything I know.
(DUSYA sits down on the rug in the middle of the room and starts putting the toys in order. MITYA squats next to her, on his haunches, and eyes his guest.)
DUSYA Your uncle’s a fool. But where’s your father?
MITYA My father left us for a fat woman. Mama said he fell in love with some other woman because she was fat, and then he went off with her to distant parts. My father didn’t love Mama anymore. “You’re bourgeois,” he told her. “I’ve found happiness in someone else, in someone gentle and wonderful—and anyway you and I were never suited,” he said—and off he went. In his suitcase he put his coat, his jackets and pants, his handkerchiefs and everything, and the ashtray—he spilled the ash on the floor, what did he care now?—and he took all the money from the table, then he came back again and told Mama to give him the savings book. Mama gave it to him—and my father left us. He said to me, “Farewell, Mitya, study hard, be a pioneer, do what your pioneer leader says, be a young Communist, be an activist, be an honest citizen, read some classics, and don’t smoke.”
DUSYA And what did you say?
MITYA I said, “Papa, it would be better to stay at home and become suited to Mama again.”
DUSYA And what did he answer?
MITYA He said, “No, we’re strangers now.” And I said, “Well then, go and get yourself suited to that fat woman. And take your Short Course with you.” Papa’s only read two pages this year, though he tells everyone he’s been studying it deeply. But I’ve already spelled out every word in it.
DUSYA Did your mama live long after your father, after he left?
MITYA No, not long. He left, then Mama fell and began to cry. She loved him all the same and felt suited to him . . . After that, Mama was always silent. She would talk quietly to me, but never to anyone else, and then she died.
DUSYA How did she die?
MITYA (Distantly) She’s my mama, not yours. I’m the only one who knows how she died, it’s not for you to ask questions.
DUSYA But what did she die from?
MITYA She took poison. She loved Papa and couldn’t forget him. She would shout and call for him in her sleep.
(DUSYA takes MITYA and sits him on her knees.)
DUSYA Your mama shouldn’t have died. She didn’t pity you, she left you to live all alone.
MITYA That’s none of your business. You’ve had your drink—so go climb back out the window. (He gets up off DUSYA’s knees and moves away from her.)
DUSYA Your mother loved herself and her husband—your father—more than she loved you.
MITYA Wrong order. Papa more than anyone, then me—and herself least of all.
DUSYA Better if she’d loved you more than anyone, then she wouldn’t have wanted to die.
MITYA Better if it had been you who died, not Mama.
DUSYA (Standing up from the rug) Better . . . let me wash you, you look like a chimney sweep.
MITYA Are you going to be our cook and nanny?
DUSYA We’ll see.
MITYA Will you go out for a walk with me later?
DUSYA Yes, I will.
MITYA I’ll tell my uncle to hire you as a nanny. He’s been looking everywhere, with no luck. He says the cooks are all snakes—all studying to be pilots and scientists.
(Meanwhile DUSYA walks through the door, on the right or left, to the kitchen and comes back carrying a basin of water, some soap, a sponge, and a towel. She puts the basin on a chair, or a stool, then quickly pulls MITYA’s head down over the basin. She washes and soaps it.)
The water’s cold. Why didn’t you heat some up on the Primus, you snake? I can see why they didn’t want you to be a pilot.
DUSYA The water’s not that cold. You’ll be fine. It won’t hurt you . . . So when does your uncle come back?
MITYA How would I know? This evening or maybe tomorrow. There’s food waiting in the kitchen—lunch and supper. You can have some.
DUSYA Thank you.
MITYA Don’t scratch my head with those nails of yours! Rinse the soap away, did you hear me?
DUSYA I am rinsing it away. But who is your uncle?
MITYA A fool, you said so yourself. He runs around with different women, he wants to bring me a new mother. But when he does, I’ll leave home for an orphanage. I’ll just take Mama’s portrait and go . . . Hey, that got in my eyes. (Hoarsely) Damn you, you klutz!
DUSYA Just a moment. It’ll all be over soon. What’s your name?
MITYA Dimitry Avdotich.
DUSYA There’s no such name as Avdotich.
MITYA It comes from my mother. I don’t use my father’s name.
DUSYA Your mama and I have the same name.
MITYA My mama didn’t scratch me when she washed my hair.
DUSYA I won’t scratch you again. All over now.
(DUSYA wipes MITYA’s head with the towel.)
MITYA Let’s have some food. Will you eat?
DUSYA After you.
MITYA If anything’s left.
(MITYA goes into the kitchen and comes back carrying a pot with two spoons inside, their handles sticking up from within, and he puts the pot on the table beneath the portrait of his mother.)
Let’s have some kasha. Take a spoon. I’m not going to eat on my own.
(MITYA and DUSYA eat kasha out of the pot. In the course of this scene the view from the windows has changed: it is getting dark outside.)
(Pointing his spoon at the window) My grandma lives in a little hut out there. It was Mama she loved most—and now it’s me. May she live on.
DUSYA Is she old?
MITYA She’s a hundred.
DUSYA She’ll die soon.
MITYA No, she can’t die. Her time’s come, but she can’t.
DUSYA Why not? Does death not come to her?
MITYA No, death comes, but Grandma’s afraid to leave me in the world alone. How would I look after myself, she asks. So she doesn’t die. She’s waiting till I grow up and get old and come to live with her in her little hut. Then she’ll die. She wants me to shut her eyes. And I will.
(Outside the windows it is now completely dark—a late blue twilight; crickets in the neighborhood have started chirping.
(Pointing into the far distance) That’s where my grandma lives—far, far away. Too far away to see.
(In the distance, a lonely, humble little light flares in the blue darkness.)
That was Grandma lighting her lamp. She can’t come to me—her legs don’t go.
(Far off, around the light, a little hut with a porch, faced with planks or boards, gradually becomes apparent; it has two windows lit from the inside; near the hut stand two old, bent willows.)
I’m going to Grandma’s. We’ll have some compote right now, and then I’ll go.
(MITYA fetches a pot of fruit compote from the kitchen, then puts it down on the table.)
DUSYA You have it good, your grandma loves you. It’s because of you she won’t die.
MITYA And it’s because of her that I won’t die . . . When Mama died, I wanted to lie down beside her. I wanted to lie there on the table and stop breathing, because she wasn’t breathing either. But then I felt sorry for Grandma—it would be boring for her without me.
DUSYA (Thoughtfully) I wonder where my own grandma lives?
MITYA My grandma can be half yours.
(Evening has turned into night, but the light of the little hut in the distant field shines still brighter in the darkness; the light from its windows, along with the light of the stars, makes more apparent than ever the vision of the little hut and the two willows dozing beside it. Two people appear outside the open window: MITYA’s UNCLE and a YOUNG WOMAN.)
UNCLE (Excited and merry) Mitya! Feeling bored in there? I’ll open up for you and let you out for a walk. I’ve brought you a new mama!
(Sound of the door being unlocked from outside; the door opens; in come the UNCLE and YOUNG WOMAN.)
UNCLE (Gesturing toward the smiling young woman) Here you are, Avdotich, your new mama. Better than the old one. She’s going to live with us now. So you’d better listen to her, or else! Understand? (He looks closely at DUSYA.) And who do we have here? . . . Wait, stop! Nobody move! (He looks at the YOUNG WOMAN, then back at DUSYA, comparing the two of them.) Stop! I see! (To the YOUNG WOMAN) There’s been a mistake. Go back, my love, off you go.
YOUNG WOMAN: You trash! Don’t think I’ll ever marry you, not after this. I’m a citizen in my own right—I do light work and I get four hundred rubles a month for it! You know what you get for seduction of powerless women? (She grabs something fragile off a bookcase and throws it on the floor. It shatters.) I’ll teach you how to respect a woman! (She sits down in a chair.) I’m not going anywhere—and that’s that. You brought me here—and now you’ll be living with me for the rest of your life! I’ll be the one running things from now on, and that includes you! I’ll humble you once and for all!
(MITYA presses closer to DUSYA. DUSYA takes him by the hand.)
DUSYA But I’m . . . I’m already married. I’ve got an uncle and an aunt. You can’t marry me. No, you can’t marry anymore!
UNCLE Oh, why were you in such a hurry? You should have waited!
MITYA She’s my mama now! . . . (He squeezes DUSYA’s hand with both his own hands.) Let’s run away to my grandma.
DUSYA Come on, Dmitry Avdotich, let’s go.
(DUSYA takes MITYA in her arms and climbs out the open window.)
MITYA The compote! Get the pot of compote—we didn’t finish it!
(DUSYA lowers MITYA to the ground—both are already outside—then comes back into the room through the same window, picks up the jug and the spoons, and climbs out through the window again. And DUSYA, putting the jug in MITYA’s hands and then taking him in her arms, sets off toward his grandmother’s shining little hut.)
UNCLE Mitya’s grandmother lives a long way away. (At this moment, the light in the little hut goes out; outside the windows, it is now pitch-dark.) They’ll never get there.
YOUNG WOMAN: What’s it to you if they get there or not? Good riddance! (And she starts to untie her boots.)
From Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays, edited by Robert Chandler. Forthcoming 2017 from Columbia University Press. Translation © 2017 by Jesse Irwin. By permission of Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
A Tragicomedy in Science Fiction
Roberto Athayde’s extraterrestrials invite terrestrial concerns around man’s place in the world and in the universe at large.
DR. ANTARIS A Brazilian astronomer, an aficionado of UFOs.
LOUIS His assistant, an attractive young man.
PERO A Venusian ET on a scientific and cultural mission to Earth in the company of his mother.
ANIARA Mother to the Venusian astronaut, a nice lady and herself a scientist and astronaut.
The action takes place in Rio de Janeiro during the last hour of Pero’s mission to Earth. Antaris is lying unconscious on the floor. Louis is awkwardly trying to make him come to. He may pour a glass of water on his boss’s face. Pero and Aniara are standing in the middle of the room, watching the scene with tranquility.
LOUIS That was nothing. Dr. Antaris you can come to, everything is fine! (Sprinkles water on the Dr.’s face) Dr. Antaris! Please wake up! Nothing happened, really—for God’s sake, wake up! The Venusians are our friends! (Turns to visitors) Couldn’t you possibly do something about this? After all, it’s your fault that he is like that. You made him pass out saying you’re Venusians.
PERO Don’t worry, young man, he’ll be all right. Your master is perfectly well. Look, of all the Terran scientists I’ve visited so far, he’s had the best first reaction to us.
LOUIS What happened to the others?
PERO They didn’t want to believe in what they saw. Some accused me of fraud in spite of the word of my own mother.
LOUIS (Looks at Aniara as if weighing her word) Didn’t you know that Dr. Antaris really believes in UFOs? For him there is no possibility of fraud.
PERO Believing in flying saucers without ever having seen one is one thing: it’s the easiest thing in the world. What is difficult is believing concrete facts.
ANIARA (Worried) Pero, I think Dr. Antaris should have come to already. We had better give him some Recuperator 0024.
PERO For heaven’s sake, Mother, that’s way too strong! You always want to do everything with the recuperator. As if there were no other solutions to our problems. Besides, I’m afraid our bottle of 0024 may have deteriorated after ten years.
LOUIS Ten years?!
PERO That’s right, son. My mother and I have traveled for ten years to get here.
LOUIS That’s great! (To Antaris) Wake up, doc, the Venusians are our friends! (The doctor starts coming to) Are you all right?
Antaris moves, sits up, and finally stands up with a rather perplexed expression.
PERO Well, congratulations, Dr. Antaris. We see in your fainting a proof that you believe in our Venusian origin. (Pause) I’d like to introduce you to my mother, who came with me on this research trip.
ANTARIS Nice to meet you, Mrs. . . .
ANTARIS I understand you and your son have just arrived from . . . Venus.
ANIARA In a way. In fact, we’re getting ready to go back. My son’s scientific mission is practically over. We had ten wonderful days. You just can’t imagine . . .
PERO (Interrupting) We’d better skip straight to the important points, Mother. Afterward you’ll give your travel impressions to Dr. Antaris. I must deliver the great revelations of our mission.
ANTARIS It’s incredible! Me, a poor astronomer at the University of Brazil, having the honor to receive all that information!
PERO You are in good company, too. My list of scientists, issued by our intelligence center on Venus, is full of illustrious names. Names that are galactically known even though the people themselves aren’t aware of it.
ANTARIS That’s wonderful! Extraordinary! Nobody will ever believe this happened. (Worried) I must call some other scientists to hear what you have to say.
PERO Unfortunately, that won’t be possible. I have strict orders never to appear to more than two people at the same time. And, of these two people, only one can be a scientist.
ANTARIS Oh, Mr. Pero, what you’re telling me isn’t possible! How can I prove anything with only my assistant as a witness?
PERO That’s the point. You can’t. You’ll never be able to prove it. My mission to Earth is not to be used for promotional purposes. It’s strictly cultural and scientific.
ANTARIS That’s revolting!
ANIARA Though I am obliged to follow my son’s orders, I certainly do agree with you, Dr. Antaris. I find it unfair to waste ten years of interplanetary travel without leaving any proof with the visited people. Imagine, Pero didn’t even let me give an interview to Women’s Wear Daily in the United States.
PERO Mother, I don’t want to have to call your attention to this again. We are dealing with top secret matter. Women’s Wear Daily has a huge number of male readers which, according to my Handbook for the Visitor to Earth, makes that audience all the more indiscreet.
ANTARIS As a scientist, a man, and a Terran, I must protest against this information in your handbook: it’s the women here on Earth who get the fame for being indiscreet.
PERO It’s possible that the handbook is wrong. We Venusians are hermaphrodites and that makes it difficult to assess differences among Terran genders.
LOUIS What is a hermaphrodite?
ANTARIS It’s an awful thing, Louis. It’s a person who goes to bed with himself.
LOUIS Gosh, I’ve been a hermaphrodite since I was eight.
PERO (Disgusted) I suggest that your assistant and my mother do not take part in our conference. I reckon neither one is sufficiently mature for the matters we shall deal with.
ANIARA (Somewhat vulgar) What’s this business of maturity? Who do you think you are?
ANTARIS We had better not get caught up in details. After all, we all have the same goal: scientific advancement.
PERO Well and good, I take back what I said about your immaturity, Mother. Let’s spare Dr. Antaris one of our arguments. (Kindly to Antaris) You know, Dr. Antaris, it’s a matter of language.
ANTARIS I suppose in your own language the misunderstanding must be a lot easier.
PERO Not only that, we Venusians have no language at all. We always function by thoughts and deeds, never by words. The fact that we have to turn on our so-called ‘verbalizer’ gadgets to communicate with you Terrans sort of jumbles our brains. For instance: if you think that Mother and I stopped quarreling the moment we were so rudely interrupted by you, you’re completely mistaken. Verbally, yes, but in thought waves we’re just getting started.
ANIARA (Irritated) This conversation has already gone too far. Since you insist on being alone with the professor, I shall leave in the company of young Louis. Is there another room in this place where we could stay or would it be easier to fly?
ANTARIS Absolutely, Mrs. Aniara, please do not fly away. (With authority, to Louis) Louis, lead Mrs. Aniara to the bedroom and stay there and do whatever she wants you to do. (Louis seems slightly alarmed)
ANIARA Thank you so much, Dr. Antaris. I happen to be doing some research of my own, on some aspects of the Terran creature. I’ve already collected some rather interesting data. There still are two or three items I haven’t been able to understand. Perhaps with the aid of your assistant I could make of this mission a complete success.
ANTARIS Louis is entirely at your disposal, Mrs. Aniara. (The young man shows some apprehension) However I must let you know that he has very little experience. His knowledge of physics, for instance, is only what I have been able to teach him in a few months of daily contact.
ANIARA (Benign) I’m sure he’ll be just perfect, professor. (She conducts Louis offstage)
ANTARIS Now us, Mr. Pero. I’m dying to learn your discoveries. I want to know everything about life on other planets and their fabulous civilizations.
PERO Not other planets: other planet. That’s something I want to make perfectly clear from the beginning. Venus was the only planet chosen to possess the gift of life. Earth was colonized with inferior specimens as an experiment. So, for your information, Dr. Antaris, Earth and its civilization is but a test tube where we Venusians breed animals of rather limited importance. The idea of there being spontaneous life away from Venus seems quite ridiculous to me. Life was created by God in Venus and only from Venus can it derive.
ANTARIS (Shocked) Mr. Pero! Did you actually say “god”? You, a Venusian . . . who came down on a flying saucer?
PERO Quite seriously. Dr. Antaris, I must confess to you that I personally do not believe in flying saucers. My mother and I arrived in a spatial vehicle that has little or nothing to do with these mysterious and laughable pictures with which you decorated your laboratory. Flying saucers were first conceived by the imagination of the less-educated Venusians and, accidentally, passed on to the most educated Terrans, whose IQ comes in just under the level of mongolism in Venus.
ANTARIS (Disappointed) You mean you don’t believe in life outside the Earth, I mean, outside Venus . . . ?
PERO That’s correct. That’s a heresy I cannot tolerate. And please do not mention such an idea in front of my mother. She is an exceptionally devoted lady.
ANTARIS (Nervous) And Earth? And the Earth!? We do have life! And we are quite outside Venus!
PERO Sure, but it’s the same life. This man-yard which you call “Earth” is nothing but an experiment that we Venusians decided to make at a certain point in our civilization. It’s a nearly faithful reproduction of Venusian civilization except for one thing: it’s on an idiotic level. That is, by creating men with a rather low level of intelligence, our scientists can much more easily control them, analyze their reactions, and study their development. And the point of all this man‐breeding is bettering our knowledge of ourselves through the research our psychologists carry out on terrestrial creatures.
ANTARIS If I only knew that was the kind of news you had for me, I wouldn’t have received you. You can be sure of that much.
PERO (Phlegmatic) There is a lot I can be sure of. This concept of the multiplicity of the phenomenon of life is fascinating but it’s just an idea. It flourished on Venus twenty–five thousand years ago. We imagined other galaxies with their billions of solar systems and planets bearing marvelous civilizations. Thank God all this is a thing of the past. We built a machine that would have detected anything within a radius of five trillion zillions of light years and there was nothing really worthy of being detected. There is really nothing much out there, you know. Thank God those ideas disappeared from the Venusian mind a long time ago.
ANTARIS (Irritated) You keep saying “thank God.” I hope you realize I’m a scientist: I’m an atheist.
PERO (Laughs) Oh, atheism! Think that our scientists still preserve it on Earth! That current also passed in Venus: twenty thousand years ago. There was time, a nefarious time of great liberalism, when civilization almost was lost. Such an enormous importance was given to material things that the spiritual sphere was totally neglected. People spoke about equal rights, you know, like giving every Venusian the same opportunities and things like that. There were even people talking about freedom itself. (Short pause) So, it’s that phase, from seventeen to twenty thousand years ago, that we are now reproducing on Earth, but on a primitive level, of course.
ANTARIS (Revolted) You mean that in the past you’ve reached the same high level of social awareness that we have now and you didn’t push it forward?
PERO Of course we’ve pushed it forward. We’ve progressed much further than that. After all kinds of political cataclysms, we reached maturity and, with it, the only system that is actually in tune with Venusian nature.
ANTARIS (Dramatic) And what is that system?
ANTARIS (Horrified) Capitalism?
PERO Well, don’t despair, Dr. Antaris. It’s not capitalism like you think of it here on Earth, let’s say, like in countries such as you find in Europe or North America. Those are experiments our scientists make to see if we can accelerate capitalist progress on Earth. So as to reach what we have in Venus: a society rigidly divided into classes in which each individual is completely controlled by a computer algorithm. We took four thousand years to get there. We’re trying to reproduce on Earth, at an inferior level, countries that would accelerate the process of automation and lead others toward computer control and therefore towards the happiness of the individual
ANTARIS Happiness of the individual? How can you still speak of happiness of the individual?
PERO Of course we can. There can be no happiness while there are still some traces of freedom. Happiness and freedom are entirely incompatible. The happy man cannot be confronted with choice. That is, not with real decision-making. He may believe he’s making his choices, though. He must ignore his real situation. Ignorance is an important factor for well‐being. The happy person has no freedom but he never realizes it. That would make him miserable.
ANTARIS That’s outrageous! I am free!
PERO That’s your problem. You’re free to be maladjusted. I never had one bit of freedom. Everything I’m telling you was programmed into my head. However, I’m utterly happy! (Short pause) Keep in mind that what you see is just a reproduction of events that took place in Venus seventeen thousand years ago. Brazil may be a backwater but the United States was created by us to try and speed up the improvements we want to make. In a couple of decades, Earth will have reached social perfection and therefore complete stagnation.
ANTARIS It doesn’t look like any of that! You mean in Venus stagnation is regarded as a goal?
PERO Stagnation is the goal. Change is synonymous with dissatisfaction. In the uppermost stage of civilization there is an end of history and you get complete stagnation. The perfect regime, Venusian capitalism, must be definitive. Quoting from one of our sacred books, “non erit finis” . . .
ANTARIS But that is a Christian prayer!
PERO Evidently. What makes you think that Christ’s doctrine died off in Venus?
ANTARIS You mean that God also sent his son to Venus, I mean, God sent a son to Venus?
PERO God sent his only son to Venus and, for your information, he didn’t send Him anywhere else.
ANTARIS (Confused) You mean that the son of God, the one who . . . according to religious people, came to Earth two thousand years ago and . . . Jesus Christ himself . . . was sent by you? Like he was nothing but a Venusian?
PERO (Flippant) To tell you the truth, he’s my cousin. That Jesus who came here two thousand years ago now lives comfortably in a suburb of Ipsilanti, one of our better cities. He is a contemporary of mine since I myself am twenty-two hundred years old. The true Jesus Christ however, the real son of God, was sent to Venus forty-five thousand years ago. He was sent by God to suffer and die for our sins.
ANTARIS That’s exactly what he did here.
PERO I’m not surprised. That Jesus was strictly programmed to do everything he did.
ANTARIS (Slightly hysterical) That’s enough! I can’t take any more of this bullshit! You’re lying! There must be some reason the Venusian scientists made you tell me these horrible things! That’s what the real experiment was: you wanted to see what a Brazilian astronomer would do hearing these ridiculous revelations. I don’t believe a word of it! (He regains his composure and turns malicious) It seems to me that you really come from a less advanced planet!!
PERO Dr. Antaris, you’re making a fool of yourself.
ANTARIS (Triumphant) That’s it! You’ve just arrived from some remote underdeveloped planet and you want to steal my secrets pretending to despise them! Who’s ever heard of a self-respecting astronaut who travels around with his own mother?
PERO Dr. Antaris, you’re starting to upset me. Maternity in Venus is very different from what you can imagine. I’ve already told you that we are all hermaphrodites. Reproduction involving more than one parent has been obsolete in Venus for thousands of years. The very idea of a person depending on another to produce a baby seems to me extremely inadequate.
Enter Aniara in underwear. Her looks in such attire should have an amazing effect.
ANIARA (Seriously excited) Pero, my dear! You won’t believe what happened.
PERO (Horrified) Mother!
ANIARA Dr. Antaris’s assistant is quite an extraordinary creature. Oh my God! After a whole life of hermaphroditism, something like that . . .
PERO But what, Mother, just what happened to you?
ANTARIS Tell us confidently, Mrs. Aniara. If my assistant did you any harm, I shall punish him most severely.
ANIARA (Melodramatic) No! Don’t punish him, Dr. Antaris! It was all my fault!
PERO But what was your fault, Mother? Better not to say it out loud. Transmit it to me in thought waves.
Aniara assumes a wave‐transmitting composure and contorts herself a bit, discreetly transmitting that she is alluding to the sexual behavior of young Louis.
PERO (Horrified) No!
ANIARA (Levelheaded) That’s it, my son. If you don’t believe me, go see it yourself.
PERO (Perplexed) We weren’t programmed for anything of the sort.
ANIARA It looks like a big snafu of our Special Center for Spatial Affairs.
PERO I think it’s my duty to make some observations about this phenomenon and take my personal account back to Venus. (Starts to bedroom)
ANIARA (Emphatic) Don’t go, Pero! This is a mother’s advice. Just don’t go there. You’ll certainly regret it.
PERO (Epic) Duty comes first, Mother. (Exit)
ANTARIS (Amiable) Please sit down, Mrs. Aniara.
They exchange a weird look or smile.
ANTARIS (Resolute) Mrs. Aniara, I’d like you to be frank with me.
ANIARA Oh, Dr. Antaris, your assistant is so . . .
ANTARIS So what, Mrs. Aniara?
ANIARA Oh God! Now I realize how limited my verbalizer is. I really wasn’t programmed for something like that, I’m sure you understand.
ANTARIS I think I know what you mean.
ANIARA If you could only pick up thought waves . . .
ANTARIS Well, let’s see what I can do to help you. My verbalizer, I mean, my vocabulary is rather on the scientific side, you know, but I just might have a word to express your feelings.
ANIARA (Technical) I have no feelings, Dr. Antaris.
ANTARIS Yes, I know, I mean your ideas, whatever you have. Whatever may have happened between you and Louis for the sake of scientific observation, there is one point of basic importance. (Pause) Did you like it?
ANIARA (Embarrassed) Well . . . you know, there is a novelty aspect and, of course, the scientific curiosity.
ANTARIS Naturally. But still, taking all that into consideration, what would be your general impression of the experience as a whole? Did you enjoy it?
ANIARA (Giving in, perplexed) Well, yes.
ANTARIS Good, Mrs. Aniara. So, verbalizing this scientific thought structure, we could reach the conclusion that my assistant is . . . enjoyable? Oh, Mrs. Aniara! I don’t want to criticize your hermaphroditism, but things here on Earth can be rather interesting, too.
ANIARA (Intimate) I can see that, Antaris. Too bad that Pero and I have to fly back to Venus today. You can imagine what a horrible drag ten more years on the flying saucer will be.
ANTARIS I can well imagine how unpleasant it must be. Maybe I shouldn’t ask so many questions but . . . what do you and your son do as a pastime during the voyage?
ANIARA We play cards most of the time. We play some chess, too. Oh, and one game of tic-tac-toe every evening before we go to bed. On our way here, for instance, out of the 3,650 games we played, I won three, Pero won four, and the other 3,643 ended up in a tie.
ANTARIS How fascinating, Mrs. Aniara!
ANIARA Indeed! Sometimes it can get a little monotonous, though. The three games I won and the four Pero won were in fact the first seven games we played, during our first week aboard the spacecraft. Once we both learned the ropes, we spent nine years and fifty-one weeks drawing every night.
ANTARIS It would be great if you took some terrestrial games to play during your trip back, you know, just for a change.
Enter Pero with a very grave expression.
ANIARA (Kind) Did you satisfy your scientific curiosity, son?
PERO (Serious, ignoring his mother’s question) Dr. Antaris, I must inform you that, for strictly scientific reasons, I must take your assistant back to Venus.
ANTARIS (Livid) I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Pero, but that is impossible. For equally scientific reasons I need my assistant here. (Pause) I have no objection to your taking back whomever you may want, since it’s for science’s sake. But not my assistant.
PERO You don’t seem to understand the situation. Your assistant possesses some extraordinary qualities that are absolutely necessary to my interplanetary studies.
ANTARIS Nobody is more aware of my assistant’s qualities than myself. I have the same interplanetary reasons to require his presence in my studies.
ANIARA (Compromising) Dr. Antaris, are those qualities of Louis’s easily available on Earth these days?
ANTARIS There are indeed other persons who possess those qualities, though they aren’t as easily available as any of us would prefer. But the cause of science is one that requires dedication. If you are considering an expedition in search of another sample, I believe you’d have a better chance on your own than with me.
PERO (Impatient) And may I know why?
ANTARIS Why, because you’re Venusians.
PERO I never thought the idea you Terrans have of us is very flattering. You tend to imagine us as even more immature than yourselves, kidnapping people and scaring the country folk. Also as being somewhat ridiculous creatures, usually green, displaying antennae or soft like some sort of jelly. And I personally detest jelly and all soft bodies.
ANIARA (Thoughtful) So do I.
ANTARIS So do I.
PERO I see we agree on many an important issue. But it’s necessary that I accomplish my mission to Earth. The idea of finding another specimen of Homo Ludens appears to me . . . difficult and troublesome. Besides, that would take much more time that what we have left before we take off to Venus. My mother and I absolutely must leave within a short while. In the name of science, I beseech you to agree with my taking your assistant back to Venus.
ANTARIS (Energetic) The answer is no. I’m sorry.
ANIARA (Silly) I suggest that you finish the part of our mission concerning “revelations.” Then we’d be left with only the assistant’s problem.
PERO Good idea, Mom. Dr. Antaris, I want you to assimilate all the philosophic issues we discussed a while ago. So let us go once again through the main items of my revelations.
ANTARIS I refuse to believe your revelations. It appears to me that you come from an underdeveloped planet and that you’re nothing but a spy.
PERO Nonsense, Professor Antaris. Now our revelation topics. You two repeat aloud each thing I say. You too, got it, Mother? So. In the first place . . . (Short pause) Go ahead, you can start repeating: In the first place . . .
ANIARA (Silly) In the first place . . .
ANTARIS (Confused and humiliated) In the first place . . .
PERO Life was created only in Venus and can come only from Venus.
ANIARA and ANTARIS (In chorus) Life was created only in Venus and can come only from Venus.
PERO God created life in Venus for His greater glory and passed that life on to Earth in an inferior rudimentary form also for His greater glory.
ANTARIS (Confused) God created life in Venus for whose glory? Venus’s or God’s?
Pero ignores the question as he is too busy remembering his lines.
ANIARA (Vague) Possibly both.
PERO God’s glory, of course. Whose else could His glory be? (Resuming the recitation) Life on Earth is but an experiment that aims at a better understanding of Venusian history and psychology.
ANIARA and ANTARIS (In chorus) Life on Earth is but an experiment that aims at a better understanding of Venusian history and psychology.
PERO Thousands of years of civilization led us to the perfect political regime, which is totalitarian capitalism.
ANIARA Thousands of years of civilization . . .
ANTARIS (Interrupting) Wait, wait, is there a king in Venus?
PERO (Severe) We haven’t had a king for the last thousand years. We are governed by princes of hereditary power, though it isn’t for life.
ANTARIS How does that work?
PERO Easy. Our scientists and computers can predict genetically the qualities of the descendants of our reigning prince. So, as soon as a better combination of genes of the royal family is foreseen, the royal reproduction is accelerated and the old prince is forced to retire.
ANIARA (Helpful) Hermaphroditism helps a lot in that system.
ANTARIS That's something difficult to understand, hermaphroditism.
ANIARA It’s as difficult to understand as it’s easy to lose. As you may have noticed in the case of my son . . . and myself. You know how both of us were perturbed by your assistant’s ways.
ANTARIS I think I know what you mean. But I must tell you that there is no possibility that I can let him go on the trip with you.
PERO (Cruel) You are abusing our consideration. For your information, we have the power to take back even you against your will, let alone your assistant.
ANIARA (Silly) What if we took both, son?
PERO (With a fatal energy) Enough talking about that. (Looks at the time on his watch) The assistant comes and you stay. We’ve already spent too much time with an astronomer whose country was quite optional on my agenda.
ANTARIS (Realizing danger) No! Mrs. Aniara! You just can’t do that. He doesn’t want to go.
PERO (Cruel) He doesn’t want to go? We’ll see if he doesn’t want to go.
ANTARIS (Nervous) I’m going to fetch my assistant. This is not going to stay like this. (Exit)
ANIARA (Compromising) Dr. Antaris! Pero! Please don’t argue. We all have the same goal: science.
PERO Let him get his assistant. (Checks watch again) We will leave in five minutes.
Enter Louis exhausted, tottering, destroyed by an almost magic and bizarre fatigue. Enter Antaris following him.
ANTARIS (Appalled) Look at what you did to my assistant! He’s exhausted, destroyed! He does not want to go with you. (Louis stumbles and falls to floor) Louis! What did they do to you? My God! (Grabs Louis trying to make him stand up) Please, stand up!
ANIARA (Alienated) He must be tired, that’s all.
ANTARIS (Losing control) Louis! Speak! For God’s sake, speak! What’s the matter with you?! You don’t want to go! You don’t want to go with them, do you?
LOUIS (Shaking) I do want to go. He promised me a beautiful gift.
ANTARIS No! You don’t want to go! They’ll never give you any gifts! They want to kill you! You can’t go!
ANIARA (Detached) The important thing is that he has no free will.
PERO (Terrible) We will leave in one precise, the unforgiving minute. (He pulls a Venusian gun) Do you see this? This hurts. It hurts!
ANTARIS (Tender, almost breaking down) No, Louis. Don’t go. It’s your death. (Hides his face with his hand)
ANIARA (Increasingly alienated, smiling) Indecision, which is the consequence of freedom, is a beautiful thing on Earth. Too bad Terrans suffer so much for it.
LOUIS (Tortured) I wanted to go. But I won’t. He made me weak.
Antaris trembles pathetically. A flying saucer noise is heard.
PERO That’s it, Doctor. I made him physically weak with my curiosity. But unfortunately he is still free. I will destroy him for that. To space, Mother.
ANIARA (Silly) But he says he wants to come . . . I don’t understand.
Pero shoots Louis with bizarre rays. Antaris throws himself over the young man hoping to cover the shot. An evil light comes out of Pero’s weapon and wounds Louis while leaving Antaris untouched. Louis squirms and dies.
PERO Let us go.
ANIARA Good‐bye, Dr. Antaris. Sorry to have disturbed your day.
Exit Pero and Aniara to the sound of ominous flying saucer noises, while Antaris pathetically caresses his assistant’s face. In a trance, he hears his own voice recite the final verses from Seneca’s Medea.
ANTARIS’S VOICE Go throughout the infinite spaces of Heaven to prove that there are no gods in the space where you soar.
“Visitors from on High” © Roberto Athayde. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Roberto Athayde. All rights reserved.
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
Jerzy Lutowski takes us to Inquisition-era Spain, where intolerance demands a bold choice of a young Jewish woman.
House lights down.
The measured peal of a bell.
The doleful tune of a penitential psalm is heard.
From the wings on the right three monks emerge, their cowls lowered over their faces. The middle one is carrying a black gonfalon, the other two carry lighted candles. They stop in mid-stage and turn to face the audience. On the gonfalon the words THE YEAR 1493 can be seen in white lettering.
The monks proceed slowly to the left wing and disappear. The psalm fades. Only the measured peal of the bell is heard.
The crypt of a cathedral. Grim, forbidding walls. On the right, in the background, are some stone steps leading up to an ironclad door. On the left, behind a narrow buttress, the outlines of some sarcophagi can be dimly seen. The scene is illuminated by the flickering light of two oil lamps—one standing on the floor, the other hanging on a nail driven into the wall.
Abraham, a short, frail old man with a long, patriarchal beard, is downstage, seated on a plain stool, rocking monotonously to and fro, with his eyes fixed on the floor. He is dressed in black, his attire half orthodox, half secular. He is wearing black shoes and has a small skullcap on his gray head. A little bundle is lying beside him on the stone floor, with a flat hat and a straight stick beside it.
On the right, in the background, Rachel is standing leaning against the buttress. She is staring fixedly at the door. She has long, black plaits and large, almond-shaped eyes. Her eighteen-year-old face has a slightly oriental type of beauty. She is dressed in accordance with Spanish fashion: a long dress with pearls sewn into it, and a small white cross round her neck.
A moment of silence is filled only by the muffled, monotonous sound of the bell.
RACHEL (Without changing her position, keeping her eyes fixed on the door) He ought to be here by now. He was supposed to come as soon as they rang for vespers.
(Abraham continues rocking slowly backward and forward, without raising his eyes).
RACHEL Perhaps something’s held him up.
(Abraham continues rocking as before.)
RACHEL No! Nothing could have delayed him. He’ll come!
(Peal of bells fades.)
RACHEL (Gently, glancing at father) Why don’t you say anything, Father?
ABRAHAM I’ve said all I had to say to you already, Rachel. Anyway, my words are like birds. They fly away and leave no trace.
RACHEL I remember them all, Father.
ABRAHAM If you do, then remember my silence as well.
RACHEL So you’re still reproaching me in these last moments?
ABRAHAM (Shaking his head wearily) I want you to be happy.
RACHEL And I will be. Not even the memory of you will cloud the days of happiness now approaching for me.
(After a barely perceptible shudder, Abraham goes on rocking to and fro.)
RACHEL I suppose you think I’m cruel.
ABRAHAM You’re only telling the truth.
RACHEL Children are always cruel, Father. Even when they grow up. I had to make a choice. When two emotions take hold inside you, you have to tear one of them out. Otherwise you perish.
ABRAHAM You have torn one of them out, Rachel.
RACHEL Because I want to live. And be happy. (More warmly, looking at Abraham) Don’t imagine I’ve forgotten what I owe you. Your fate will never be a matter of indifference to me. Even when you’re far away in Flanders, I won’t forget that I was your daughter.
ABRAHAM You’ll stop being my daughter tomorrow.
RACHEL (Proudly) That’s true. I’ll become Doña Rosina of the Castillo Vittinia. But even from there, and later on from the castle of the Condes y Collero, my thoughts will often fly to you.
ABRAHAM (Shaking head) May the Almighty ordain that they fly to me as seldom as possible.
RACHEL (After a pause) Are you telling me to forget about you?
ABRAHAM I’m telling you to have no unhappy moments in your life, Rachel.
RACHEL (Proudly) You’ve no need to worry. At Alonso’s side no moment can be unhappy. You don’t know what love is, Father.
ABRAHAM (Shuddering again) I don’t know . . .
RACHEL (Understandingly) You always thought that you loved me, but you only love me half as much as I love him.
ABRAHAM You never told me anything about it. You were too proud.
(Rachel says nothing.)
ABRAHAM So you really love him as much as that?
RACHEL (Erupting) More than I love myself, more than life, more than my own being! He is to me what water is to a thirsty man, air to the lungs, light to the eyes! It’s true I’d never told you about it. But I haven’t seen him for three whole days!
ABRAHAM (Softly) Tell me about it, Rachel.
RACHEL Alonso! When I met him a year ago in the little winding streets of Seville I knew that I’d known him for an eternity—he was already mine when the earth was astral dust in the hands of the Creator. When he spoke to me for the first time I was ready to follow him anywhere: to the ends of the earth, or to the gates of Hell. He could be a mule-driver, a galley slave from Cadiz, a beggar, a criminal, an outcast—and I’d love him just the same! (Half closing her eyes) Alonso! How good it is to speak your name, and to wait for you!
ABRAHAM (Softly) Happy the man who is loved so! May the Almighty ensure that his feelings for you are just as strong, forever.
RACHEL (Passionately) Alonso’s? If it’s true that a woman can be a man’s whole world, that is what I am to Alonso. He believes in me as if I were a goddess; in my purity, my love for him, and the depth of my conversion. If anyone ever extinguished that faith that is in him, he would perish, too. Like a lamp that has run out of fuel.
ABRAHAM (As above) I pray it is so, Rachel
RACHEL It is so! (Looking at her father) Could you ever doubt it?
(Abraham stares at the floor.)
RACHEL (In a different tone) Answer me!
(Abraham slowly turns his head away.)
RACHEL Father! Has old age dimmed your sight? Don’t you trust his feelings? Why not? Can you really doubt them? (Patronizingly) Oh, I see. Your gray head wants proof. It doesn’t know how to read a glance; it doesn’t understand the language of a single embrace. The only truth you know is what you can add to yourself or subtract, take hold of like a bar of gold! (Changing her tone) All right then! I’ll give you your proof, just as I’ve given you food for your journey. I know you want it because you’re concerned about me—and I want you to go with your mind at rest. (Leans toward Abraham) Just think: Could he have overcome so many obstacles if his love for me had been less infinite than it is? Would he have brought me into Doña Leonora’s house, made her like a mother to me, and arranged that as from tomorrow I shall become a daughter of the Vittinia household? Could he have managed to find favor for me in the hearts of his proud family, and win the agreement of the Bishop of Seville himself? No! Enough of this! Trying to prove his love this way is to degrade it! But you yourself, who doubt his love—don’t you owe it everything? For whose sake is he hiding you here in the crypt of the cathedral, and sending you to Flanders today? For whose sake is he putting his dear head in danger if not for me, to allay my fears for you?
ABRAHAM You’re right, Rachel. It’s true. My old eyes must be blind.
RACHEL If this scheme were to be discovered . . . No, I can’t bear to think of it! But you know, anyway: neither his high lineage nor even the fact that he is the son of the governor of Seville would save him from the wrath of the Holy Office! (Proudly) But he cares nothing for that. He doesn’t weigh his deeds on the meaningless scales of reason! He’s bold, proud, resolute, and confident—he doesn’t know that feeling called doubt! (Gently) Now compare yourself to him, without prejudice: you with your kind, gentle, but fainthearted love, so quick to give up. And he . . . Just compare him, Father . . . It pains you that I had to make a choice . . . Could I have chosen otherwise?
ABRAHAM Your choice wasn’t simply between the two of us.
RACHEL (Heatedly) You’re wrong! I was never Jewish! You know that as well as I do! I wasn’t Jewish even when you sat me on your knee and taught me those letters, as black, grim, and sinister as the God of the Jews himself. Oh, how I hated them! Later I learned other letters. They shaped my world. How much closer to me was the joyful psalm of the Resurrection than the despairing prayers of the Day of Judgment! How much closer were the sonatas of Juan de Mena than the tales of the Diaspora! No, Father! I’m a Spaniard and always have been. Their language is my language, their country is my country, their past is my past!
ABRAHAM And the present, Rachel? Are their fires yours, too? And the pincers they tear the flesh with? And the nails they use to pierce their victims’ feet . . . (He resumes his monotonous rocking motion.) Oh Lord, Lord! Let the scream of Rabbi Baruch ben Levi as the flames overcame him fade in my ears! Lord who heard that scream, ordain that the sons of your people never utter such screams again!
RACHEL (Softly) Father . . .
ABRAHAM (As above) “And the Lord spake in the wilderness: if thou wilt not harken unto my voice, to observe to do all my commandments, all these curses shall come upon thee and overtake thee. And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, and thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone. And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. And ash and flame will overtake thee, and fires will be lit . . .” (Plaintively) fires . . .
RACHEL (Her head turned away) The fires will die down, Father.
ABRAHAM No . . . They are sowing hatred in people’s hearts. The elders of the community said, when the fires started burning in Madrid, that they would die down. They said the same when the sky turned red over Leon, Castile, and Navarre. And the fire is spreading. The waters of the Guadalquivir didn’t stop it. It’s advancing like a wave. There’s no escape from a wave . . .
(Rachel says nothing.)
ABRAHAM (Suddenly regaining his self-control; in a subdued voice) Never mind, Rachel. Tomorrow all this will be behind me. You’ll stay here . . . and be happy. Everything is all right, my child. All is as it should be . . .
RACHEL (Staring straight ahead of her; in a strange tone) As a wave approaches, a man bends his back; when it has passed he straightens up again.
(Abraham shudders and turns toward his daughter.)
RACHEL (Glancing at her father) Why are you looking at me like that? Isn’t that what the saintly ben Akiba taught his people?
ABRAHAM (Lowering eyes; growing weary again) That’s true. But that wisdom is for the young. My back is too old for that now. And anyway, what can come of that wisdom? When we bow our heads they despise us, and when we straighten up they start to hate us.
RACHEL (Angrily) That’s the tragedy of you people! You had too much faith in your wise man. And you
mustn’t bend your back! As the wave approaches you have to be able to meet it with head held high.
ABRAHAM (Softly) And what do you mean by that, Rachel?
RACHEL That it’s better to die a hundred times over than let anyone despise you even once.
(Abraham slowly turns his head away.)
RACHEL (In a changed tone) You don’t answer? I know what you’re thinking. No! Don’t avert your eyes. That thought is an insult to me, and I won’t let you take it away with you. For the last few months you’ve been avoiding the subject like a plague-stricken house! But I want to talk about it. Because I want you to understand at last! (In two steps she is standing beside her father.) Admit it! In your view I’m the one who’s given in. You think that what I’m doing is bowing my head, and that I of all people have no right to speak of firmness and pride. Don’t deny it! That’s exactly what you’re thinking! But you’re wrong. You’re wrong, I tell you! I haven’t bowed my head. I’ve simply accepted something, accepted the new. I’ve chosen the only way, the way all of you so stubbornly reject, in your blindness and deafness.
(Abraham’s whole body makes a kind of helpless, defensive gesture.)
RACHEL (Raising a restraining hand) You say there’s no escape. But there is. Only you prefer not to see it. You hide your eyes from it behind your tallith and block your ears with hurried quotations whose wisdom is as worn as a rag flapping in the breeze. (Bending lower over her father) Why do you cling so desperately to outmoded form and extinct content? Why do you so blindly haul along with you for centuries the curse of your Jewishness?
ABRAHAM It’s the faith of our ancestors.
RACHEL (With passion) It’s just your obstinacy, Father! That dark, ingrained obstinacy with which you defend the old ways. You say they despise you? That’s not so. All you seek in them is a reflection of your contempt for them, contempt for everything alien, everything not created by your people . . . Oh, it’s not for nothing that I spent my childhood in your house and saw that whole world of yours, even if only with the eyes of a child. Not for nothing did I have to pick my way through the side streets to see Vallerbo, my tutor, because a howling mob of youths from the heder used to pelt me with mud and stones. And what about you? Weren’t you expelled from the community for sending your daughter to lessons in gentile music and poetry? Isn’t that why you had to leave?
ABRAHAM (Horrified) Rachel . . .
RACHEL (Screaming) You’ve turned your backs on anything that has life in it! You’re obsessed with the thought that you’re the chosen people. You rejected one wave of change, and now that another one has come, you can’t even meet it with your heads up.
ABRAHAM Stop this! You’re filled with hatred.
RACHEL Are you shocked by what I say? No, I won’t stop! You must hear me out. You think I was deaf when you were talking about the fires, that I didn’t realize you had me in mind then? (Pitilessly) You can’t understand how I’ll be able to stay here. Even less how I’ll be able to feel happy with pyres blazing all around, when people who used to be my own call out His name for the last time from the flames . . . But those people were never mine! I can feel sympathy for their misfortune, but they were never my people—do you understand? And it’s not my people stoking the fires either. I have the same horror of those who are filled with contempt as of those who let others despise them. And nobody lets others despise them more than your people! You’ve been living in Spain for centuries, eating the bread and the olives of Spain, but instead of putting down roots in its soil, and adopting its dress and customs, you fling your specialness in its face and offend its ears with your foreign language. You prefer to bow down and straighten up again a hundred times, rather than let the wave carry you along.
ABRAHAM (Despairingly) The wave doesn’t want us, Rachel!
RACHEL That’s not true. You don’t want it. You fight it with every word and everything you do. (Muffled organ music) The Church wanted to be a mother to you; Spain reached out its hands to you—but you preferred to accuse it of hatred. (Changing her tone) What blind fools you are! Do you know what joy is brought to Christian hearts by every single soul who finally sees the light? And how much love there is in the religion which is now mine? Listen to that organ. Can you hear any note of hatred in it? Take Brother Angeles, for instance, so pure and saintly that the birds fly onto his hands—could he hate anybody? Or the monk who released me from my retreat so that I could take food to you, a Jew? Does Doña Leonora hate anybody? Does Alonso hate anybody? (Gently) Spain isn’t just stakes and flames. The fires must die down. And you must realize: they’ll die down a lot faster than they flared up. And when the flames go out, the really important things will be left: love and faith in man, a new spirit, and a new life. (Firmly) And that’s why I shall be able to stay here.
(Silence for a moment; the organ is heard more clearly.)
RACHEL (In a different tone) Now you know everything, Father . . .
ABRAHAM (Softly) Yes. Now I know everything.
RACHEL I had to tell you. I couldn’t have let you leave without understanding.
(Slowly walks back to the buttress she was previously leaning against.)
ABRAHAM (Softly; after a moment) Does he think the same way as you, Rachel?
RACHEL Alonso? Do you doubt that too? Do you want proof again? He and I are one emotion and one thought in two bodies. (Patiently) No, he’s never spoken to me about it. The subject might be painful for both of us . . . You’re still here in Spain. But I know his exalted soul; he is too noble to despise anybody, and too proud to hate. (In a different tone) Oh Lord! How late it is! When is he going to get here?
(A moment of silence, filled with muffled organ music.)
RACHEL (Glancing at her father) You’re silent again, Father.
(Abraham continues the rocking motion.)
RACHEL (Gently) Eat something. You must keep up your strength for the journey.
ABRAHAM (Faintly) I’m not hungry, Rachel.
RACHEL Don’t worry. You can eat this. I’ve brought you some feast-day food. I haven’t forgotten that today’s the second day of the Passover.
ABRAHAM That’s true . . . The second day of the Seder.
RACHEL (Warmly) Eat, Father, won’t you?
ABRAHAM (Rocking; staring into the gloom; in a monotone) “And the Lord led his people out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, and by night in a pillar of fire, that they might go by day and night . . .” Where have you led your people, o Lord? Where have you led your people?
(Rachel says nothing. The organ can be clearly heard.)
ABRAHAM (Glancing at daughter; timidly) Rachel . . .
(Rachel looks expectantly at her father.)
ABRAHAM (Averting his eyes; speaking with difficulty, stumbling) I wanted to ask you a favor . . . I suppose I’m a bit silly in my old age, and full of Jewish sentimentality. But I won’t see you tomorrow . . . Perhaps tomorrow before daybreak . . . Do you remember how, when you were little, you used to sit at the table at Passover, in the evening, and ask the ritual “kashot” questions. Those four questions, and you asking them in our house, made the holiday for us. Now I’m leaving all that behind—it’s probably for the best. But there’s one thing I’d like to take away with me: the memory of those evenings, and of your voice during them, Rachel. I know you’re another person now, with different thoughts and feelings—but just for a moment be that little girl again . . . Look the way you looked then . . . and ask me for the last time about the journey out of Egypt.
(Rachel says nothing.)
ABRAHAM (Still not looking at his daughter, he takes a piece of unleavened bread from his bundle and raises it between two fingers.) Do you see? This is the bread our fathers ate as they left the land of slavery . . . Well, Rachel? (Prompting) “Ma hishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol halaylot?” How does this night differ from other nights . . . “Shebekhol halaylot . . .” (Breaking off; turning toward his daughter, imploring her) Rachel!
RACHEL (Firmly) You obviously haven’t understood, Father.
(Abraham looks at Rachel.)
RACHEL (As above) Do you want me to humiliate myself and you? Those evenings are dead. And the words I said then have died for me forever. (Making a restraining gesture) I know it’s only a tradition, that those words don’t mean anything. But I have only one heart, and only one language, Father. (Not looking at her father, but with her voice still firm) Forgive me, I can’t lie. I can’t ask you those questions.
(Abraham slowly turns away, crumbling the unleavened bread in his fingers.)
RACHEL Have I hurt you again?
ABRAHAM (Shaking his head) Once again you’ve only told me the truth. And the truth is in the Scriptures: (Beginning to rock himself again) “Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them; and there shall be no might in thy hand . . .”
(With the last chord of the organ music, the muffled refrain “A-a-men” reaches the crypt. A moment of silence.)
RACHEL (With an effort) Your bundle’s come undone . . . (She goes to her father, kneels down, and ties the corners of the bundle. She notices something and pulls out a small package.)
ABRAHAM That’s only a handful of earth. Put it back where it was.
RACHEL (Raising her eyes to her father’s face) Would you like me to do anything else for you? Anything you like . . . I want to carry out your wish.
ABRAHAM (Shaking his head) I’d like time to hurry up and pass.
RACHEL (Faintly) So would I . . . But time pays us no heed—we have to help it along somehow. If you like I can tell you a story. About anything—no matter what. I can tell you about my walk through the town early this morning. Or about the market women squabbling in the corner of the Plaza del Estado. I can tell you about the gleaming roof of the Alcazar, or about . . . (She breaks off abruptly.)
(Hurried steps are heard. With a gesture commanding silence, Rachel looks expectantly at the door. It creaks; a patch of light appears. In the doorway Alonso appears, tall and slim, in an expensive costume adorned with a gold chain. He is holding his plumed hat in his hand, and has a sword at his side.)
RACHEL Alonso! (Springing to her feet and running to him.)
ALONSO Rosina! (Slamming the door behind him he runs down the steps, grasps the girl’s hands, and pulls her to him. The couple stand embracing for a long time.)
RACHEL No, no! Say nothing! Let me stay like this for a while. (Caressing him) Yes, these are your fingers. Here they join your hand. And this is your shoulder, and your neck—how I love its shape and smoothness! Your hair, soft and sweet-scented . . . Your eyebrows meeting above your nose. And those are your eyes, your cheeks, your mouth, and this is the line of your beard . . . (Leaning back, opening her eyes) Yes, it’s you! (Gripping his hands again) Three days! Three days apart, Alonso!
ALONSO Call it three eternities, Rosina!
RACHEL Yesterday I saw a white cloud from my chamber window. The sky was clear and blue, and only that lonely cloud was sailing like a ship toward your castle. I wanted so much to be that cloud, so light and fluffy, that your eye might rest on it for a moment.
ALONSO Yesterday a wild dove flew up from the castle courtyard. It circled once over the gate and sped straight off toward the slender spires of the cathedral. I watched it and thought perhaps it would alight at your window.
RACHEL (Excitedly) That dove had silver plumage. It swooped low over the square of the Madonna del Pilar, and then soared up again.
ALONSO The cloud was the shape of a caravel, and it sailed due south.
RACHEL So you saw the cloud, Alonso?
ALONSO And you saw the dove, Rosina? So we were together after all!
RACHEL (Burying her face in Alonso’s shoulder) For a moment. For a brief moment. Oh, I don’t want to miss you like that any more!
ALONSO (Pressing his cheek against Rachel’s hair) I was with you all the time. Precisely because I missed you. Things stopped being themselves. They all became memories. When I picked up a glass, I held in my hand the memory of that evening at the Vittinias’s house when we said good-bye. When I mounted my horse, the first time my foot touched the stirrup, it was on one of my rides to see you. I couldn’t bear to hear certain songs because we’d once listened to them together, and I couldn’t go along in silence, because you and I weren’t silent together.
RACHEL (Raising her eyes to Alonso’s face) I couldn’t collect my thoughts, because they were all about you. When I tried to repeat the psalms after Brother Angeles, I couldn’t, because my every word longed to be your name. Your eyes were looking at me from between the pages of the psaltery, and the pictures of the saints had your form and face. But when good Brother Angeles was teaching me about the essence of godliness, I thought there was no sin in that; if God is love he’ll forgive my inattention.
ALONSO My love, how your hands are trembling!
RACHEL My beloved, how your heart is beating! Have you been running?
ALONSO I was running to you. I was running to end our separation! Look at me. Do you realize? Tomorrow! How happy a man is when he can say “tomorrow”!
RACHEL Tomorrow means Alonso.
ALONSO Tomorrow means Rosina. (With his arm round her shoulders he leads her to the buttress of the wall.) Your godmother is already sewing you a dress for tomorrow’s ceremony. How lovely you’ll look in white, with a garland of white roses in your hair!
RACHEL Oh, how good Doña Leonora is! Have you seen her today?
ALONSO I was there after mass. (Laughing) She thought I’d come to see her, but I was only looking for your footprints in the garden . . . When I said good-bye she asked me to convey her fondest regards, (Reaching into his wallet) and this cross, her gift to you for your baptism.
RACHEL Heavens! Isn’t it lovely? It’s one of the Vittinia family treasures, isn’t it?
ALONSO You’re going to be a daughter of the family, aren’t you? Let me put it round your neck.
RACHEL (Pushing his hand away) Not now! Do it tomorrow!
ALONSO But you can wear it today.
RACHEL I’d love to with all my heart. But let’s let tomorrow be a truly new day.
ALONSO (Sitting down on the edge of a tomb, stretching out his hands to Rachel) Does tomorrow mean Rosina?
RACHEL Tomorrow means Alonso.
ALONSO My love, how beautiful you are! And how proud I am that I’ll soon be able to call you my wife. That month in the Vittinia castle will fly by faster than an arrow. And afterward we’ll stay together. Do you understand? Together every day! Our good old Pedro is already preparing our chamber. It looks out into the garden, onto beds of Asturian roses.
RACHEL Like the ones you bought me.
ALONSO And the ones you shall have every day. Juana and Maria, whom my mother has assigned to be your maids, already know how you love flowers. You’ll find them everywhere: in your bedroom, in the corridors, in garlands on the castle steps. I’ll decorate our carriage with them when we leave on our journey.
RACHEL Our journey to Valladolid? Oh, how I look forward to it! We’ll stay at little roadside inns . . .
ALONSO . . . and in our friends’ castles: with Don Miguel, and Don Diego . . .
RACHEL We’ll listen to the ballads and romances of wandering minstrels . . .
ALONSO . . . dance the pavane and the foffa in the Infante’s merry courtyard. And in the morning when the bell summons us to matins, our prayer-desks will stand side by side. And we’ll hear vespers without any fear that the night will part us.
RACHEL Go on! I beg you! Don’t stop! I’ve missed the sound of your voice so much. And dreamed so much of the moment when at last I’d be able to say “Alonso.”
ALONSO Say it then. Let me hear it!
RACHEL Alonso! Alonso! (In a lower voice) My husband!
ALONSO Rosina. (Still holding Rachel’s hand in both of his, rising from the tomb he has been sitting on) Rosina. (Drawing her to him) My wife! . . .
RACHEL (Turning her head away) How strange! You’re here with me, but I still miss you. I get so worried about you. You were so long in coming.
ALONSO You don’t ever have to worry about me. For me your love is a shield that protects me from everything. (Casually) I was a long time? I couldn’t slip unnoticed to the church door. There’s such a crowd in the square . . . After all, today’s . . .
(Rachel looks flustered and hurriedly raises her finger to her lips.)
ALONSO (Breaks off in mid-sentence, turns round, speaking offhandedly) Oh, it’s old Gedali, is it? My greetings!
ABRAHAM (With his back to the young couple; softly) Greetings, noble lord.
RACHEL Is everything all right, Alonso?
ALONSO (Confidently) I’ve thought the whole thing out thoroughly. As soon as the crowd disperses, a covered cart will drive up to the porch. A yellow flag will be flying on the roof of it. (Laughing) You needn’t worry. Nobody will come near the cart all the way to Flanders!
ABRAHAM (Staring straight in front of him; in a hollow voice) A yellow flag. The sign of the plague.
ALONSO (Over his shoulder) Does that surprise you, Gedali? It’s quite clever, really. They say you Jews are the plague of the country, don’t they?
(Abraham says nothing.)
ALONSO Well? Do they or don’t they? Answer me!
ABRAHAM These days we Jews speak by our silences.
ALONSO (Airily, as before) Out of fear of the Holy Office. But you’ve no need to be afraid of me. I’ve promised to help you, and there’s no power on earth that can make a grandee go back on his word. (Turning to face Abraham) Well, go on! Speak up! Are they utterly wrong to say that?
ABRAHAM What can I say to you? Right is in the hands of those whose voice has an echo, and whose body has substance and a shadow. Nowadays my voice has no sound, and that bundle and staff are my shadow.
ALONSO You’re exaggerating! I can hear you perfectly well, and you can see your shadow yourself.
ABRAHAM No, sir. Only a man in his own country has a body and a shadow.
ALONSO So you’ve never had either?
ABRAHAM I used to think differently once. But in those days we Jews hadn’t yet become a plague.
ALONSO Perhaps that’s putting it too strongly. But you won’t deny—will you?—that for centuries you’ve been ruining Spain economically and politically.
(Abraham says nothing.)
ALONSO Are you going to say that’s a lie too?
ABRAHAM (In a monotonous voice) Sixteen years ago, when the crops were blighted in the whole of Castile, my carts took grain and flour there from my granaries. When brave Fernando y Gomez was defending Cadiz against the Moors, our Seville community sent him galleys and arms.
ALONSO Perhaps so, but what of it?
ABRAHAM Is that the way to ruin a country, sir? Is that the way a plague behaves?
ALONSO That’s the way Jews behave when they sniff a good deal in the air. After all, blight, famine, and war make excellent business for you.
ABRAHAM Has it not occurred to you, sir, that ships can sink and plague makes no distinction between religions? It doesn’t choose its victims.
ALONSO So? Are you trying to tell me you were guided by your love for Spain? Don’t make me laugh! You know as well as I do that the only thing a Jew really loves is money, clinking gold. That’s your homeland, and your God—every single thing a Jew does he does with gold in mind.
ABRAHAM You’re right, sir, to say that we Jews appreciate gold.
ALONSO (Scornfully) Appreciate it? You worship it. It means everything to you.
ABRAHAM (Like an echo) That’s true too! Everything.
ALONSO And you can say that without shame?
ABRAHAM Are we the ones who should feel shame?
(Alonso looks at Abraham, not understanding.)
ABRAHAM (Rising, stretching out his hand toward Alonso) What’s that you wear at your side, sir? That steel is called a sword. You can strike blows and defend yourself with it. But you never gave us the right to it. So how were we supposed to defend ourselves, and our homes and children? How was I supposed to defend even her?
ALONSO (Shielding Rachel with an outstretched arm; sharply) Silence! She was never your daughter. Three days of penance at church have lifted that shame from her—and tomorrow she’s to be baptized as well! And her baptism will be no more than the seal placed by the Holy Spirit on a soul that belongs to it already! You can talk to me or not talk to me, but don’t involve her. Because there’s no bond between her and you! (Abraham slowly turns away.)
ALONSO Did you understand what I said?
ABRAHAM (In hollow voice) Yes, sir.
ALONSO Then I advise you to remember it.
ABRAHAM (As above) I will. I have no daughter, and never have had . . . (Glancing at Alonso) But if what you say is true, why then, sir, do you want to rescue me?
ALONSO Rescue? I simply want you to disappear from Seville, so that no memory, no trace of your existence will remain in this town.
(Abraham sits down heavily on the stool.)
ALONSO Did you really think otherwise?
ABRAHAM When will the cart arrive?
ALONSO What? Don’t you want to argue any more? Oh, of course! You prefer silence these days. But you must admit, it’s embarrassing how meek you’ve become since the Holy Office started its work.
ALONSO (Raising his hand) Don’t shudder. I’m certainly not one of those who maintain that you Jews should be burned at the stake. It’ll be enough to expel you from Spain. That’ll solve the problem.
(As Alonso finishes his sentence the bell begins to toll, now sounding completely different from its previous sound—heavy, menacing, and penitential.)
(Abraham raises his head suddenly and listens.)
ALONSO So that’s the end of our conversation, is it?
(Abraham’s face expresses horror.)
ALONSO Why are you listening so hard?
(Abraham, dazed, steps toward the door.)
ALONSO What’s the matter? Where do you think you’re going?
ABRAHAM That bell . . . What’s it for?
ALONSO That? It’s nothing to do with you. (Contemptuously) Relax. You’re safe.
ABRAHAM No, no! Answer me, sir! Is a man going to be burned out there?
ALONSO I said you’re safe.
(Abraham stares wild-eyed at Alonso.)
ALONSO Control your fear. It’s hideous!
(Abraham turns away; he walks mechanically toward his stool.)
ALONSO Incidentally, that Jewish cowardice of yours is repulsive. The moment the thought of the stake occurs to you, the fear starts out of your eyes.
(As the peal of the bell fades, joyless monastic chants are heard. Abraham stands with his back to Alonso, fitfully wringing his hands.)
ALONSO You’re afraid of pain, aren’t you?
ABRAHAM (Fervently, in a low voice) Oh Lord . . . Protect those who are now being burned. Wrap them in your mantle and let them . . .
ALONSO What are you muttering under your breath? Your Jewish incantations have no power here. (In a tone of command) Answer me! Are you afraid of pain?
ABRAHAM (Turning sharply to face Alonso) Aren’t you afraid of pain, sir?
ALONSO Me? (Lightly) During the siege of Granada, a Moorish arrow pierced my leg and I sang while a soldier pulled the point out and cauterized the wound.
ABRAHAM I’m not asking about your pain, sir. Aren’t you afraid of our pain?
ALONSO Your pain? (Scornfully) Oh I see! A sample of your Jewish sophistry. Drop it! Your Jewish wiles have already brought down enough Christian folk!
ABRAHAM And have you ever thought how many Jews have been reduced to such wiles by the decline of the Christians?
ALONSO (Sharply) What do you mean by that?
ABRAHAM “If thou shalt oppress thy neighbour, thy younger brother, or thy bondsman, the spirit of the Lord shall depart from thee, for thou art not following His commandments.”
ALONSO You dare to quote the words of the Lord? Weren’t you the ones who nailed His Son to the cross? And who was the one who betrayed Him?
ABRAHAM I’ve read my daughter’s books, and I know that Jesus of Nazareth had thirteen disciples. Twelve of them were Jews and the thirteenth was a heathen. If He had been betrayed by the heathen, you would call him by his name. As it was one of the twelve, you say he was betrayed by a Jew!
ALONSO Because that’s the truth! Treason is part of your nature. You betray everything and everybody, even yourselves if there’s profit in it. Don’t go too far, because I could tell you more than you’d like to hear! What are all your baptisms these days if not betrayal? And how despicable they are! Even a filthy Moor commands more respect than you. You get baptized so easily. But don’t imagine you can fool us. We know: even if you bathe a Jew in ten fonts of holy water, he always remains a Jew. And if he accepts Christ, he does it not for salvation but for base profit: to worm his way into the heart of a foreign people, so as to go on exploiting them.
(Abraham turns slowly away.)
ALONSO Well? Have you run out of arguments? Come on, tell me that these people are your people, too. Isn’t that what you were saying a moment ago? That this is your land, which you’re now so eagerly leaving. (Scornfully) Gedali! If shame were not alien to your people, you’d burn up with shame on saying that. Would any Spaniard abandon his homeland, even under threat of death? Would a Spaniard get into a cart under a yellow flag to get clear of the Spanish frontier?
(Abraham stands with his head bowed.)
ALONSO Answer me when I ask you a question.
ABRAHAM Permit me to remain silent, sir.
ALONSO Your Jewish silence again? It really is very convenient for you, when you realize how well we know you. Don’t fool yourself! We know you better than you could ever imagine. No wonder the priests in their pulpits warn the faithful about you, about your false humility which hides a vengeful spirit, and your air of piety, with hatred seething beneath it. It’s that hatred that makes you kill Christian children, isn’t it, to use their blood for matzohs?
ABRAHAM (Rounding sharply on Alonso; shouting) That’s untrue! Don’t believe that, sir!
ALONSO (Sharply) Do you dare to tell me the priests lie?
ABRAHAM It is written in our Scriptures: “Thou shalt not eat blood, for blood is the soul.” The Scriptures forbid even the blood of animals.
ALONSO What are these Scriptures of yours? What is your famous Talmud if not a manual of instructions on how to exterminate Christians? Do you acknowledge God? Your inspiration comes from Satan!
(Abraham backs away.)
ALONSO (More and more heatedly; outside the doleful chant of the monks swells in volume with his voice) You’re a reptilian tribe, plotting the extinction of the Church! That’s your only reason for living; that’s what you raise your children for. Your daughters are harlots, wanton and lascivious, sent by you among Christians to provoke sin in their hearts. Your sons are the seeds of decay: you scatter them among other peoples to bring about their downfall! To you any means are all right as long as they lead to that end. There’s no vow, no law a Jew wouldn’t break—even calling up the spirits of Hell by the light of your Sabbath candles—to realize your dream: the dominion of Israel over the world. And when your intrigues come to light, when you put a foot wrong, you run away like rats from a sinking ship, (pointing) just as you’re running away now, you old Jew!
(Still backing away, Abraham bumps his back against some tombs and puts his hand on them.)
ALONSO Hands off! Those are the tombs of my ancestors! Your touch defiles them!
(Abraham steps aside, his eyes fixed on the floor.)
ALONSO The mortal remains of the Colleros are too sacred to bear the slightest touch of a cowardly hand.
ABRAHAM (Raising his eyes, with a martyred look) Haven’t you said enough to humiliate me, sir?
ALONSO Humiliate you? Is it possible to humiliate you? Wouldn’t you endure any insult, just to save your skin? There’s no price you wouldn’t pay for your wretched life! (Pointing behind him) You dare to call her your daughter. But haven’t you risked her neck? Weren’t you prepared to sacrifice her just so that you could flee from Spain?
ABRAHAM (Turning sharply to face Alonso) You people have succeeded in taking everything from me, sir—money, position, and homeland. But the one thing I won’t let you take away is my child’s respect.
ALONSO What respect can a proud Spanish girl have for a contemptible coward?
ABRAHAM You say I’m sacrificing her. But I’m leaving for her sake!
ALONSO (Scornfully) For her sake? You’re fleeing from the stake. You’re afraid of pain, you old Jew!
ABRAHAM That’s true. I am afraid of pain! Pain is something alien to the body, something contrary to nature. But my body is old, I might as well give it up to the flames. However, I don’t want my daughter to have the image of that fire left in her eyes and have to live with the memory of her father burning like a rag at the stake.
ALONSO (In a mocking tone) Is that the only reason?
ABRAHAM No, sir, it is not! There’s one other: a base, Jewish reason, which you will no doubt despise. (Stretching his hand out to walls) If I were burned by the fires of the Inquisition, my houses, granaries, and capital would pass into the hands of the Inquisition. That, sir, is the law! But if I disappear from Spain it will all fall to my daughter. It will go to the Monte Blanco, to the treasure house of the Colleros. It will open the castle gates to her, just as it opened the hearts of your proud family. Because they despise Jews, but appreciate Jewish gold!
ALONSO (Shouting) Be silent! (Slowly approaches Abraham and stands facing him) Do you know what you have said?
ABRAHAM I’ve told you the truth, sir! You might not have known it, but ask your father!
ALONSO Enough! (Choking in fury, after a pause) Retract that calumny!
(Abraham is breathing heavily.)
ALONSO (As above) You dare to insult my family, Jew? (Shouting) Take your words back! At once!
(Abraham turns head away, still breathing heavily. At this moment a despairing cry of “Adonai!” rises above the monotonous chanting outside the cathedral walls.)
ALONSO (In a different tone) Do you hear? Somebody like you is burning out there now! You know how the flames roast, how the smoke blocks the nostrils . . . If you don’t take back everything you said, at once . . . (Losing self-control, shouting) On your knees, down! Beg for mercy! Get down in the dust, Jew! Kneel at my feet!
(Abraham’s fists clench convulsively. In the silence Rachel’s cool, controlled voice is heard.)
RACHEL Do you hear? Kneel at his feet, Jew!
(Abraham stares in horror at his daughter. Rachel stands erect, pointing at the floor. Abraham sways, then falls with a groan at Alonso’s feet.)
RACHEL (In the same tone) And now kneel at my feet!
(Abraham cringes, as if he had suddenly shrunk. A moment of silence, measured only by the muffled chanting of the monks, as he crawls inch by inch to his daughter’s feet and lowers his forehead in obeisance.)
RACHEL (To Alonso, proudly) You see! Now the whole reptilian race lies at my feet. The tribe that is the plague of Spain, the tribe that must perish! Shall I make a worthy wife for you? One with enough pride and dignity to bear the name of Doña Collero?
ALONSO (Horrified) Leave him alone, Rosina!
RACHEL No! I want you to look and remember the sight. See how those old shoulders tremble, see that head groveling in the dust. What can I have in common with this coward, this fool who prefers to wander homeless in the world, rather than renounce his faith? But even if he did renounce it, what profit would it bring him? Not all Jews have the good fortune to find their way into a powerful family of grandees. Not all can exchange their Jewishness for a heraldic shield!
(Alonso knits his brows, not understanding.)
RACHEL Why are you looking at me like that? I’m not talking about myself. I was guided by love—I love you, Alonso. I love your eyes, your cheeks, your mouth, and the line of your beard. (Coldly) And I also love your castle, the humility of my future servants, the opulence of the castle chambers, and the weight of the name of Collero. My love hasn’t been blind; it chose carefully! Even if I have betrayed my own people, I have got a good price for it.
ALONSO (Astonished) Rosina, what are you talking about?
RACHEL I’m talking about our love. About you and me, about us. Did you think otherwise? No, you didn’t! (Calmly) Just think about it: if you were a nobody, a commoner, a beggar, an outcast—could you have asked me to marry you and be baptized for the sake of a beggar? But you’re a grandee! You’ll give me all I ever wanted! I’ve had the sense to build my future on sure foundations.
ALONSO Wait a minute . . . I don’t follow . . .
RACHEL It’s all very simple, Alonso. In a month’s time I shall be your wife. When the bell rings for matins our prayer-desks will stand side by side. Does it really matter what brought me to that prayer-desk?
ALONSO (Shocked) Rosina!
RACHEL (Raising hand) I’m not Rosina yet. I’m not being baptized until tomorrow. Not until tomorrow will the Holy Spirit place its kiss on my soul that so yearns for it. But perhaps a monk’s kiss is sufficient to strip away the shame of Jewishness? Tell me! As a devout Christian, you ought to know.
(Alonso stands rooted to the spot, staring at Rachel.)
RACHEL Are you shocked? Why is that? My behavior was proper, after all. In order to gain access to her Lord, Saint Martha surrendered her body. I, in my religious penance, made the sacrifice for a monk.
(Alonso’s expression is all horror.)
RACHEL Don’t you believe he could want me? Look at me: Am I not beautiful? Can’t I awaken desire, even in a body clothed in a habit? (Steps provocatively toward Alonso) Don’t back away! Touch my breasts! See how round and firm they are. And how my belly strains beneath my dress. Feel the heat of my loins . . .
ALONSO (Shouting) That’s enough! Stop it! You’re mad!
RACHEL Are you really more virtuous than a monk? Good Brother Angeles knew how to accept my Christian humility.
ALONSO (Shouting) It’s a lie! It’s all untrue!
RACHEL (Calmly) Why should I lie? Have I done anything wrong? I thought that was what I had to do . . . But if I didn’t, forgive me. Perhaps my soul still holds the taint of the past. After all, I was created to provoke sin in the hearts of Christians.
ALONSO It’s a lie! (Falling to his knees and pressing his brow against the hem of her dress) You’re lying, Rosina!
RACHEL What’s the matter with you? Where’s your pride? Your Spanish grandee’s pride? Is that really you, in the dust at the feet of a Jewess? Control yourself! It’s revolting. (Pulling in the folds of her dress) Your touch defiles me!
ALONSO (Raising his head; despairingly) Rosina!
RACHEL (Firmly) I’ve told you I’m not Rosina. Today I’m still Rachel. My soul is still filled with darkness, still the abode of devils. I can even feel them within myself: Balaam and Abaddon, Dybbuk, Gog and Magog . . . Belial, and Behemoth! You don’t believe me? Look, here’s a cross! It burns my hand. I only have to squeeze it in my hand for it to turn into the Star of David. Or if I fling it against the wall, the cathedral walls will burst asunder.
(Alonso slowly rises from his knees while Rachel is speaking; his face expresses horror.)
RACHEL (In a soothing tone) No! No! I won’t do that! Those walls would crush us, too! And after all, we have to live and be happy together! I must bear children for you, children with the same pride and dignity as we have. And it won’t be my fault if the voice of Israel comes to life again in some generation of your descendants, the voice that is sounding within me now—a sinister Jewish malediction! (At the top of her voice) “Ma hishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol halaylot. Shebekhol halaylot anu okhleem hamatsot u mayem, halaylah hazeh . . .”
ALONSO (Shouting) Silence! Silence, Jewess!
RACHEL (Relieved) I’m glad you said that. You would have said it eventually—in a month, a year, or in five years. Eventually I would have heard that word from your lips. You’re right. Now I’m a Jewess! But it’s you and your kind who make Jews of us, with your limitless contempt and your animal hatred. Your wave doesn’t want to sweep us along; it only wants to destroy us! So go on—destroy us! What are you waiting for now? Your people are out there, outside the walls! Call in the guard of the Holy Brotherhood! (Changing tone) You hesitate? Have you suddenly understood? Yes! If they light fires for us, there’ll be one for you beside us! But then, you’re not afraid of pain, or smoke, or flames! So go on—do your duty! Here is a Jew who has insulted Spain, and a Jewess who has entered a covenant with the Devil! What else are you waiting for, gentile?
(Under the onslaught of Rachel’s words, Alonso backs away in confusion toward the door; then he turns sharply, intending to run out.)
RACHEL Wait! You’ve forgotten your word! The word of a Spaniard and a grandee! And there’s no power in the world that can make him go back on it. You promised to save him, and marry me. Do you wish to sully the name of Collero?
(At Rachel’s call, Alonso stops in midstride and turns his unseeing eyes toward her.)
RACHEL You can choose one of two paths: disgracing your honor or betraying the Church. Choose! But whichever you choose, you are doomed. (Points to door with sudden movement) Fly to your doom!
ALONSO (Rushing away) Guard! (Stumbles and falls on the steps) Guard! (Running out of crypt.)
(Through the wide-open door the rippling melody of the penitential psalm is heard.)
RACHEL (Calling after Alonso) Run! Run, my darling! Certain as fate that you are! Run to end our parting! Alonso! . . . My love! . . . My husband!
(Chant of monks. Alonso’s retreating steps and his fading, despairing cries.)
ABRAHAM (Crouching all this time beside the buttress, now reaches out and embraces his daughter’s knees; despairingly) You’ve destroyed us, Rachel!
RACHEL (Standing in same position as at the beginning of the act—with her eyes fixed on door; her voice is calm and even) I’VE SAVED US, Father!
(The psalm continues to sound. Its rippling melody changes—trumpets are heard, and the sounds of a march then change into raucous singing in chorus. The separate elements begin to interlace, changing faster and faster, overlapping, becoming deafening, now sounding only like a hideous cacophony, from which a high-pitched whistle, like that of a jet plane, suddenly rises; for a moment it pierces the ears, growing louder, unbearable; then SILENCE. House lights come on.)
“Szkoła dobroczyńców” © Jerzy Lutowski. Translation © 2016 by Kevin Windle. All rights reserved.
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
Paul Russell Garrett reflects on breaking into theater translation, mistrust between theater makers and theater translators, and “collective dramaturgy.”
Recently I found myself in a quandary when asked to identify myself as either a translator or a theater maker. Under normal circumstances, I would consider myself a translator, but surrounded as I was by actors, directors, and producers, about to participate in an “actory” workshop involving movement and rhythm among other things, I made a conscious, perhaps deliberate choice to call myself a theater maker.
At times I forget how fortunate I have been as a translator, but when I hear from colleagues working from French, German, and Spanish, for example, of how they struggle to make a living, to break into the world of translated literature, I am reminded of how difficult a career in translation is. The impetus for my career can be traced back to a number of years ago, when I made the wise decision (though everyone told me I was mad at the time) to pursue Scandinavian studies at University College London. The program had a wide remit, providing me with the linguistic, cultural, and research skills that now enable me to translate from Danish and Norwegian, and to a lesser extent Swedish. I was fortunate enough to complete my studies and break into translation at a time when the question of when Nordic noir would reach its peak had still gone unanswered. (The fallout from that crime spree has created a space for other genres of translated fiction to be published in the English-speaking world.) My first translation of fiction happened to be a play and, on many levels, fortune was again involved, including the fact that my wife is an actor, and one who has cofounded a theater company at that. Through my collaborations with her company, [Foreign Affairs] has staged a handful of my translations in London over the past few years. The most important aspect of this collaboration, however, is that I have had the privilege of working side-by-side with an ensemble of actors, directors, and producers, also enabling me to establish a number of contacts in the theater world that many outside this environment would struggle with. In both respects, I continually remind myself of how fortunate I am, and this has ignited a desire to share my experiences in forging such relationships, resulting in a translation program entitled [Foreign Affairs] Translates! I’ll do my best to keep this from sounding like a blatant plug for the company, but in these nascent stages of the program, and during an event we ran at the British Library for International Translation Day 2016, people keep reminding me of the fact that what we are undertaking is a unique opportunity for translators with a passion for theater.
On the surface, the aim of the program is to equip translators with the tools that will allow them to translate for the stage, examining topics specific to this craft. (Are there noticeable differences from literary, commercial, or academic translation?) We have invited our translators to consider topics such as speakability, tone and register, and the importance of maintaining integrity to the original, all vital to any translation. We are offering our translators a master class on how to (or attempt to) eke out a living from translating theater. However, something that has only recently become clear is that we are also providing our translators with an opportunity to work closely with a theater company in a way that is apparently quite rare. In our experience, there appear to be considerable barriers between the worlds of theater and translation. And we would like to break them down. The two worlds are often wary of one another, skeptical of their unfamiliar or mysterious practices. We want to change that, by seeing them work side by side, by seeing translators develop into dramatists—theater practitioners possessing an understanding of how a theater company lives and breathes, dissolving the mystery between the two fields. We want them to see that actors are not mindless, arrogant, fantastical creatures; they are sensitive, thoughtful, and ingenious. Just as translators are not (all) academics, bookworms, or mere bureaucrats; they are creative, confident, and aspiring individuals.
Our latest workshop saw a group of translators being asked to participate in movement, rhythm, and text-based sessions with a group of actors and other theater practitioners. Outwardly the translators were the least confident of the group, with something resembling panic appearing in the eyes of some when instructed to move around the theater space to the sound of music, to close their eyes as they were guided in a blind free dance. When asked to repeat a complex rhythm exercise, which included making a range of noises with the mouth, stamping the feet, and clapping the cheeks, hands, chests, and thighs at an increasingly frenetic pace, we (I include myself in this group) were often the clumsiest, the least capable in the room. But the translators certainly were enthusiastic, embracing what could potentially be a new tool in their repertoire, and I saw the entire group trying to imagine ways of incorporating these exercises into their translation practice, a potential means of visualizing, creating, finding words, and capturing the subtle rhythms of a text.
It was equally interesting to see the response of a group of actors when asked to join our translators’ workshop, asked to read the latest drafts of the translations being worked on for our showcase, and asked to offer their insight. William Gregory, one of our translation mentors, dubbed this process “collective dramaturgy.” Following the readings, I was prepared to hear of the problems, the errors, the incongruities, but I only heard positive comments—about the creativity of the texts, the wonderful peculiarities and playfulness present in the translations.
You might wonder at the point of my ramblings, my shock and surprise at seeing theater practitioners and translators working side by side. The fact is that it works, that it is effective, that it brings out the best of both worlds, and that there should be nothing unusual about this process. Instead I believe this kind of collaboration should be the norm; of all translators, theater translators should not be locked away in a room translating for days on end without seeing another living soul (although this is inevitably part of a translator’s daily routine), but I believe they should be invited to participate, to investigate, to collaborate with theaters, working alongside theater practitioners and actors. How do we go about achieving this? As program director for the [Foreign Affairs] theater translation initiative, I know that what we are doing is merely one small step in the right direction. This year we have taken on three translators, working from Swedish, Serbo-Croat, and Hungarian, offering them a unique opportunity to make the most of this relationship. It would be amazing to see more theater companies joining us in this endeavor, introducing translators to their company, not as mere contractors performing a required task, but as theater practitioners, working with, creating, and breathing life into theater.
I recall a conversation with one of Denmark’s most prolific modern playwrights, Jakob Weis, where he mentioned that when writing his plays, he has often already decided which actors will perform the various roles, and fortunately he has the clout to make that happen. In this vein, I would like to see translators—the people who know the text better than anyone, except perhaps the author—become an essential part of the production process, to see the translator’s role envisaged from the moment a director or producer decides to stage a play in translation. Perhaps the translator may not have the kind of sway that will see them selecting their own actors, but certainly bringing actors in to work with translators during the preliminary stages of a production will allow translators to hear, develop, and organize the voices in their head during the translation process. Two things are required for this to happen: translators need to be able to access theater companies and theater companies need to know how to find translators. A theater producer, one who has produced a number of translated plays, recently admitted to having no idea how to find a translator for their play. In recent years, translators have been much better at promoting themselves, at insisting on recognition for their work, and at cultivating translator networks to further the cause of translators. It would be great to see a joint collaboration between theater translators and theater companies working with translation, establishing a network that allows theater companies and translators to connect, perhaps even one that tries to develop the craft of translators and theater companies, organizing events, workshops, readings, and collaborations. Were this to happen, having translators, actors, directors, and producers working side by side would not be a terrifying and unusual experience, it would simply be a normal everyday working relationship, resulting in quality productions of translated theater that are faithful to the original writing and culture, but that also embrace their new culture, and allow audiences to be exposed to something simultaneously foreign and familiar.
Afterword: As a translator based in the UK and following the ongoing political and cultural ramifications surrounding the B-word, I feel that I must make another conscious choice in emphasizing the “foreign” in [Foreign Affairs]. I cannot stress enough the importance of even closer collaboration with theater practitioners in Europe and beyond, of breaking out of our comfort zones and embracing practices, languages, and cultures that may seem very distant from our own. Translating, for the stage in particular, is not merely moving words from one language to the other, it is also vital to translate culture, to carry it across, where possible, and if not, to find ways of making it relevant in its new language, on its new stage, to supply it with context and an understanding of the culture that it originated in. In theory, breaking down barriers between languages and cultures should be no more awkward than putting a group of actors and translators in the same room—it may be difficult at first, but the more we grow familiar with one another, the more the mystery between us is broken down, the more normalized the practice becomes. For me, translating theater is inherently different from translating a novel. In a novel, I might enjoy the story, the characters, the plot, but in a play that is being performed to a live audience, I believe there is an opportunity to do something else, something more powerful, to carry across ideas that are different from our own, not to educate or dictate, but to expand our horizons, to embrace the “differentness” that it is to be human. Now is the time to embrace this, now is the time to stand up and make this message heard!
© 2016 by Paul Russell Garrett. All rights reserved.
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
William Gregory argues for a greater role for theater translators in theater-making and looks at theater translation’s curious position straddling the fields of drama, creative writing, and modern languages.
I began translating plays in 2002. I was a jobbing actor, euphemistically “resting,” and looking for a way to stay creative and to make use of my languages degree. So I went to the London Instituto Cervantes (the Spanish cultural center), found their library, headed for its tiny theater section, and plucked a title out from the shelf. It was Primavera (Springtime) by Julio Escalada, a Spanish actor, playwright and, today, professor of playwriting at the RESAD, Spain’s royal academy of dramatic art. I liked the feel of the play—a restless farce of interwoven love triangles—and I translated it. Then, since I had a translation, I figured I may as well do something with it, so I contacted Julio and sought his permission to produce the play at the Finborough Theater, an off-West-End above-a-pub venue famed then and now for its commitment to new work.
And produce it I did (with a little help), over a sweltering August weekend when the temperatures in London hit the uncharacteristically high 30s Celsius. It was a joyous, creative time in and of itself, but fortunately for me, it coincided with the Royal Court Theater’s international department just having received a pile of new plays from Cuba—first drafts from the first of many new writing workshops they have since run in that country. They needed a translator, I was in the right place at the right time, and a year or so later my translation of El Concierto (The Concert) by Ulises Rodríguez Febles—in which an old rocker abducts a statue of John Lennon and sets out on an ill-advised campaign to reform the banned Beatles tribute act of his youth—was staged as a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court, published, and even broadcast as a radio drama by the BBC.
Thirteen years later and I’ve had some wonderful breaks on both sides of the Atlantic: my relationship with the Royal Court persists, with my translation of Guillermo Calderón’s astonishing new work, B (yes, just B), opening there in September and, next March, Villa, also by Calderón, opening with the Play Company in Manhattan. I’ve formed academic links in the UK and the US, and I have also made steps into the literary translation world, not least writing here for one of the literary translation community’s most respected journals. I even—and this is a highlight—shook the hand of Pedro Almodóvar after translating Todo sobre mi madre (All about My Mother) for a stage adaptation at London’s Old Vic. (I wasn’t particularly coherent, as I recall.)
Over a hundred plays translated, and it’s been a great journey, but as I look back I am struck by how unusual the journey of the theater translator is. Or rather, I have come to the view that theater translation, unlike any other field of translation that I can think of, is the least well-defined, most misunderstood, and, dare I say, marginal of translation specializations. In three realms—the theater community, the academic community, and the literary translation community—we theater translators are a minority—liked, certainly, but not understood, and always needing to assert ourselves, to redefine ourselves, as we try to ply our craft in spaces in which we are always the mysterious “other.” And as long as we are that other (insofar as that otherness can affect our ability to fully carry out our work) there is a risk that the writers whom we translate may not benefit fully from our translations as well as they might and, furthermore, that a vast wealth of playwriting talent from around the world may go untapped and undiscovered.
Take the theater world (or rather, the Anglophone theater—the experience in theater cultures of other languages is different, as I have learned from colleagues from other countries). A mere two to three percent of theater produced in the United Kingdom is a translation or adaptation of a play from a language other than English. (As pointed out by Josefina Zubáková of Palaký University at Kent University’s recent “Translating Theatre” Conference, this is in contrast to, say, the Czech Republic, where translations make up well over half of the national theater output, with the result that the role of the translator in Czech theater culture is much better established.) What this means is that the translator, perhaps unlike any other person involved in making a play, does not have a clearly defined role in the theater-making process. When a translated play is a once-in-a-blue-moon project for a theater company, the translator becomes an added person whose function is rarely considered in advance. All plays need a writer, actors, a director, a designer, a stage manager, lighting design, and more, and these roles are largely understood by everyone involved, by virtue of familiarity if nothing else. But the translator is an interloper into the world of playmaking. As a result, he/she is all too often neglected, misunderstood, or, at worst, mistrusted.
The cruelest assumption made by some other theater makers is that a translator knows nothing about theater. This assumption is best expressed in the practice of commissioning so-called “literal translations,” whereby a translator translates a play only for this translation to be given to an often-monolingual playwright to be reworked into a text deemed suitable for the stage. This method is well established and has been much discussed and decried in translation circles, critiqued especially for its alleged focus on the market under the pretext of “speakability.” (For more on this, see Eva Espasa’s article “Performability in Translation” in Moving Target, ed. Carole-Anne Upton, St Jerome Publishing, 2000.) But pretext or no, the assumption remains: that translators are first and foremost technicians, amateurs of theater whose role in the theater-making process should be, and can only be, limited.
I choose not to accept “literal” translation gigs (apart from the Almodóvar, which was worth it for the handshake), but the attitude that gives rise to the literal translation method can persist even in arenas where I am the only translator and it is my translation that is to be performed. I’ve been accused of using “translatorese” when a translation choice I have made is not quite successful; told not to worry about any moments where my translation works less well because “the actors and the director will sort it out”; told that the combination of one actor’s actorly instinct and the fact that he had a Spanish neighbor were a formula powerful enough to trump my, by then, several years of experience and to give him the right to rewrite my work. It is only as the years have gone by and my confidence has grown that I have felt able to assert my role in the creative process and to defend my right, not to have my translations uncorrected or unchanged, but rather to take an active role in making these edits within the same collaborative context that all other theater-makers enjoy, in defense not only of my own work, but also of the playwright’s. It is telling, too, how often the attitude toward me has changed when colleagues have learned that I am a trained actor. Suddenly, I am one of them. Not such an outsider after all.
But maybe if they had asked in the first place? If they had thought about it in advance? Not only might the translator be spared some damage to the ego (and I admit I have one), but the project might have benefited in so many ways. Because translators are not just technicians. We are creative artists, highly sensitive to linguistic nuance, and no less sensitive to this when tacking a text intended for the stage. Furthermore, we are a wealth of information and experience. Trained actor or no, the translator in the theater context is also an interpreter. We stand not only between two texts but between two cultures. We can help not only with the words but with the dramaturgical life of the play. When a Chinese or Czech play is being staged in the UK, who is best placed to spot the differences between the source and target cultures? Who can see them both at the same time and see when further explanation is needed? In all likelihood, the one person who has spent the most time living with both cultures simultaneously. In all likelihood, the translator. So, theaters, bring us onside. Get us involved. We don’t bite.
So much for the realm of theater. I mentioned that theater translation is the “other” in all of its realms and the next to consider is academia. Sometimes mistrusted by the theater community, the university sector is nevertheless a space where theater translation has been progressively gaining traction as a discipline. I stumbled upon this space somewhere along the road as a practicing theater translator making it up as I went along: I found a couple of books on theater translation, all of them published by academic presses; I attended a couple of theater translation conferences, and through a chain of events, I was invited by London’s City University to give a lecture on the subject of theater translation as part of their extensive translation studies program.
In recent years, I have collaborated with University College London’s Theater Translation Forum, and with Out of the Wings, a project at King’s College London comprising a database of Ibero-American theater in translation and a collective of theater-makers focusing on Hispanic and Lusophone theater, its translation, and its production and distribution in the form of staged readings. Theater translation is the subject of the above-mentioned research at the University of Kent, and in the US, specialist theater translation projects include The Mercurian, and Estreno Plays (edited out of PACE University).
Within this realm there is great expertise and enthusiasm, but real challenges persist. Firstly, theater translation seems to have struggled to establish itself as a discipline, not least because it has no single field in which to sit exclusively. With one foot in translation studies or modern languages, and another in drama and theater arts or creative writing, it is rarely embraced wholesale within either. Within modern languages, translation itself, let alone the translation of theater, has struggled to achieve acceptance as legitimate research, while in drama and theater studies (never mind in vocational drama schools), theater translation would be all but ignored were it not for the persistent efforts of a handful of passionate specialists. The result can be an isolating experience. Giving the keynote paper at the abovementioned Translating Theater Conference, Sirkku Aaltonen of Vaasa University described, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, her delight at finally meeting other academics with an interest in theater translation: “I thought I was the only one (!)”
The second and, for me, more pressing problem, however, is the failure of the academic sector to reach out to the theater world. This is a perhaps provocative choice of words to describe a phenomenon that could be, and has been, just as easily laid at the door of theater producers and literary managers who do not engage with the theater translation work of the university community for fear of being faced with stuffy, overly intellectual, untheatrical approaches. But having shared and felt the initial catharsis of those academic forums where we have lamented the absence of theater makers in the academic spaces where we discuss the translation of plays, I have come to the conclusion that a change in attitude from our theater-making colleagues must be actively encouraged, not just awaited, and that as translators we of all people must see that the way to do this is by learning the target culture’s language. In the UK at least, one historic barrier to enticing theater producers into academic theater translation events has been the simple fact that they more often than not take place within university campuses. Colleagues from outside the academic sector stay away simply because they do not believe that an event in such a setting can genuinely be a theatrical one. This belief may not be justified, but there is a simple solution: move these events into theater spaces (and into the theater timetable: nine a.m. won’t cut it!). If the academic rigor of an event rests on its content (not just the presentation of plays but also seminars, papers and roundtables), the theatrical worth of that same event will often be judged, like it or not, based on where it takes place.
The other challenge to this is the perception from the theater community that translations produced within the academic context are themselves “dry” and untheatrical, written in dusty libraries rather than vibrant rehearsal rooms. It is true that a translation carried out for research or academic publication purposes may have a different quality than one intended for production. If this is intentional, then the translator must accept that his/her translation cannot be used for both purposes; if it is not, then translators themselves need to get better at translating for the theater. For this to happen, there must be a safe space for translators to train. (Not all translators happen to also have studied acting.) There are courses aplenty for other kinds of translation, be it commercial, literary, audiovisual, legal, or otherwise, but theater translation courses in the Anglosphere—even short courses—are virtually nonexistent. How can we improve if there is no place to hone our skills?
And so, to the third and last “realm” in which theater translation takes place and where it is no less a much-beloved but misunderstood cousin: literary translation. I first stumbled into this scene thanks to a translation colleague, who translates novels but is, like me, an actor by training. Some years ago she introduced me to the Emerging Translators Network (ETN), and thence I met a community of passionate, generous, collegial literary translators, all pushing to promote international literature through events, conferences, journals like this one, organizations like PEN and the Free Word Centre, and of course dealing with publishers large and small.
We all have translation and modern languages in common, which is enough to sustain an entertaining conversation over a communal dinner or a few pints, and I am grateful indeed for having met this company of like-minded peers. Translation can be a solitary career and it is great to have networks like this where we can support each other’s work. But having translated only one novel (Vanessa Montfort’s Mitología de Nueva York [Myths of New York]), I am, as a theater translator, in a minority in this realm, too. As a discipline, is the translation of theater a literary pursuit or performing arts?
Of course it is both, and this volume of Words without Borders is proof, if proof were needed, that the international literature and translation communities are keen to embrace theater as part of the family. Fellow journals such as Asymptote are no less open to the inclusion of drama in their pages. And for two years running, the Free Word Centre has included theater translation in its lineup for International Translation Day at the British Library. And yet, there is still untapped potential: the potential to take these translations off the page and to release their unique power.
The literary translation calendar is buzzing with events throughout the year on both sides of the Atlantic. Book launches, readings, writers in conversation, symposia and panels on freedom of expression, multilingualism, specific languages and communities. There is space, surely, for translated theater to takes its place within this calendar. For a sector already skilled at organizing events that host an audience, pulling together a play-reading is not a great leap; indeed, there is a precedent for such events, albeit a limited one, in the online archives of English PEN, in the context of promoting freedom of speech and the resistance of censorship. With technology as it is now, these live events can easily be shared globally, in the moment or for posterity on sites like this one.
And there is power in this. Theater texts reach their full potential only when voiced and embodied. When this happens, the effects can be visceral. English PEN remarks that theater has a unique and sometimes provocative power: “What is it about theater that brings out protestors? People don’t protest outside bookstores,” says one PEN resource aimed at students. Furthermore, there is the potential for a greater audience, attracting theater aficionados into the space of the literary translator.
It is great to see that three of the texts presented in this volume will be taken a step further and presented by a cast of actors. I would be delighted to see more of this, and for translated theater to take its place in the realm of activism, perhaps with sharing of readings under a theme: LGBT plays from around the world, theater addressing racism and xenophobia, new writing from a given country or continent. Who better to source and present these texts, and to harness their power, than a global community with an a priori passion for cultural exchange and a fascination in the transfer of art from one language to another? There is so much out there, just waiting to be uncovered. And if this seems a step too far, fear not: just ask a theater translator to lend a hand.
So much for my theory of the three realms and the otherness of the theater translator. Now for the manifesto.
Theaters, embrace your translators! Start thinking early on about how you can use us, what added value we might offer; keep an open mind about what additional skills and experiences we have. And most of all, allow us the space to be theater practitioners in our own right, no less imperfect than anyone else making a play, but with just as much right to learn, to have a say in our own process, and to collaborate and opine.
Universities, keep reaching out! If engagement with the theater community is a priority, then work even harder to make events that our theater-making colleagues will be inclined to attend. Take work into theater spaces, learn the language of the theater market, and be self-critical and honest when looking for the reasons behind what can be a frustrating absence in our midst.
And to the literary translation world, take it further! It’s wonderful for a theater translator to find a home in a community of translators from other disciplines; it would be even more so for the translations created in this context to have a space to be spoken, embodied, and staged, releasing their potential not just as individual texts but also as a vehicle for the creation of new audiences.
There are initiatives out there. From within academia, Out of the Wings is planning its second week of readings for 2017 and intends to take these into a theater space. From the international literature, translation, and activism world, PEN America’s World Voices International Play Festival has been showcasing international playwriting annually for several years. And in the theater realm, [Foreign Affairs], the London-based international theater company, ran its first-ever theater translation program in 2016 (more on this from Paul Russell Garrett in this issue), while the Royal Court Theater, long a champion of the translator in theater and a rejecter of the “literal translation” method, continues to involve the translator in its new-play development processes in an ever-evolving way. In the US, a new website dedicated to theatre in translation, TinT, has just been launched, and in times of international uncertainty there seems to be a growing interest in the theater community on both sides of the Atlantic to seek out voices from languages other than our own.
Indeed, it was at the Royal Court where I was once put in the position I have argued for here, only perhaps to regret it. In rehearsals for a play reading, with a few short hours to go before the performance, a query arose about a particularly tricky piece of text. I was asked for a solution. I pondered out loud, wavering as the various options drifted through my mind. But the pressure was on.
“You’re the translator,” snapped the director, “make a decision!”
So (note to self), be careful what you wish for. If you want to be center stage, be prepared to be put under the spotlight.
© 2016 by William Gregory. All rights reserved.
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
The Midwife by Katja Kettu, published by Amazon Crossing and translated deftly from the Finnish by David Hackston, is Kettu’s English debut. The novel received widespread acclaim in Finland and was turned into a feature film of the same name in 2015. Born in 1978, Kettu is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and columnist, and she has published several novels and a collection of short stories. Hackston is a graduate of University College London and a frequent translator of Swedish and Finnish literature.
Set during the final years of the Second World War in Northern Finland, The Midwife follows a torrid and tragic affair between a Finnish nurse, Helena, and her lover, an SS officer and photographer named Johannes Angelhurst. With a complex plot, shifting narrators, and a nonlinear timeline, Kettu builds a careful world to explore a personal story amid the political drama of international conflict, balancing delicate and powerful eroticism with brutal and casual human suffering.
Helena is an orphan and was raised as an outsider––a product of the despised politics of a communist father and the sins of a prostitute mother––and lacks a complete sense of her own beauty and power in comparison with her peers. Referred to as “Weird-Eye” by her adoptive family and other Finns because of a lazy eye that marks her as imperfect, it is widely assumed that she is barren. Johannes is the son of a German WWI veteran, Fritz Angelhurst. The war turned Fritz into a pacifist and in the feverish years of the 1930s, a young Johannes saw his father’s resistance to Nazi war rhetoric as weak. Fritz’s pacifism and his skeptical view of the promises of nationalism only fuel Johannes’s war hunger, leading the young man to join the SS in pursuit of the glory of Nazi ideals. He becomes an officer and, lacking the technical skill to become a pilot, is recruited as a photographer to document the German advance into Eastern Europe. Helena, in turn, is trained as a midwife, with a combination of modern medicine and ancient, near-magical folkloric tradition. Her art allows Helena a unique social role, affording freedom and access that few could enjoy during a time of war. At one point, Helena observes:
I had knowledge, and with that came the freedom to come and go as I pleased.
In Helena’s and Johannes’s world, where thousands of German, Finnish, and Russian soldiers spread along the front, extramarital affairs flourished and pregnancy became a symbol of both the social problems of the war and the mundane, intimate realities of human interaction. The offspring of affairs between German soldiers and Finnish women embodied the complexity of the two nations’ relationship––from 1939 to 1944 Finland was at war with Soviet Russia and allied with Nazi Germany; in 1944, Finland signed a truce with Allied powers and turned to fight against Germany over territory in northern Finland, in what was to become known as the Lapland War.
At the outset of the novel, Helena meets and falls in love with Johannes when he photographs a birth she is assisting, and determines to follow him to the Russian POW Camp, Titovka, where he has been assigned. On the northern edge of Finland, where the land meets ice, Helena and Johannes connect, though their love is defined in part by what they do not know of each other. Describing the far north, Helena explains:
Out here at the edge of the world, it sometimes seems that nobody is who they claim to be, that everyone is lying and folks believe their lies.
Johannes, in particular, struggles to know even himself. As an SS officer in Ukraine, he participates in the infamous massacre at Babi Yar, one of the early atrocities in what would become systemized extermination of European Jews and other “undesirables.” As a photographer, Johannes bears witness to the killing, documenting it for posterity. During the murder at Babi Yar, Johannes is hit in the head by a stray bullet and, though he survives, he cannot remember anything specific about his involvement in the genocide. Further, Johannes is increasingly dependent on amphetamines through the novel, “medicine” he takes to quell nightmares, depression, and to give his work at the camp a sense of the purpose he sought when joining the Nazi cause.
Kettu positions Johannes as a photographer partly to address the horror of bearing witness to cruelty, as distinct from directly experiencing or inflicting suffering. Taking photographs separates Johannes from the materiality of the death he witnesses, allowing him to retreat behind a medium with rules and order. Helena’s father, a spy working for both sides, writes in a letter explaining his duplicity that “war has its own laws.” For Johannes, the reality of genocide cannot mirror the majesty of his hope in the Nazi identity, so he denies it, accepting his amnesia and ignoring the nightmares that plague him. When he is assigned to dig a pit at the POW camp, Johannes seems to believe that it is truly to be a swimming pool and not a mass grave. In his relationship with and desire for Helena, though, Johannes is stripped of some of the protection amnesia and photographic distance offered. His identity split between the need to maintain a careful order so as to not lose his faint grasp on sanity and the disorder of the raw, deep draw of his love for Helena, he says:
The lens was my protective wall, my peephole into the outside world. I don’t want to build such walls between us. I have no desire to photograph you. I want to enter your state, your spirit, for the wind to creep beneath our skin and for us to be one.
The traumatized SS officer and the outcast Finnish nurse find their love at the very edge of civilization, in a cabin in a remote Fjord they discover after crashing their car. The place is desolate and gives them room to discover each other and to unearth both powerful desire and love. Johannes is surprised at both Helena and his own feelings for her: “Wild-Eye is a fierce woman. She’s frightening because she’s not afraid of me . . .” In the midst of the larger machinations of the conflict, Helena and Johannes’s love is deeply personal, defying the morality of peace or the rigid, brutal order of war. In their tiny cabin by the ocean, they find each other––fragile and rejected––and the connection endures.
In a letter to his daughter, Helena’s father writes:
More often than not that’s precisely what folks want, to glide through the following day and beyond, far across the horizon, far into the distance where the sky creaks on its hinges.
The safety and isolation of this fantasy speaks to Johannes and Helena’s brief, imperfect affair. Kettu jumps back and forth in time, shuffling the narrative into fragments the reader collects piece by piece, slowly revealing a complexly woven plot. The result is a juxtaposition of brutal and tender moments, sometimes without the stability of context, evoking the rapidly shifting, stark paradoxes of a world at war, of people living among death. The love affair is an escape from the brutality of rape, murder, and genocide that the novel depicts, and Kettu uses this dichotomy to question the possibilities of narrative resolution, of hope and satisfaction, amidst rupture and violence. The novel is honest in its display of both pain and love, though, and Kettu seems most fascinated by the personal gaps that emerge in the large, canonized history of World War II.
Originally published by Edizioni E/O in Italian in 2003 and then progressively augmented with new material in subsequent editions, Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia features short notes and meditations by Ferrante, carefully selected correspondence between Ferrante and her publishers, as well as a variety of interviews with both Italian journalists and members of the international press. As Sandra Ozzola––one of the publishers of the edition––informs readers, this carefully culled selection of documents was made available in order to illuminate “the internal history” of Ferrante’s “motivations, of the struggle to give them shape, and how they changed over time.” The book is aptly titled. Together, the brief meditations, interviews, and letters make up a jumble of frantumaglia: scattered “bits and pieces whose origin is difficult to pinpoint,” a “vortex of debris, a whirlwind of thoughts-words,” “splinters” of the mind that offer tantalizing insights into Ferrante’s imagination, interests, and views.
This fragmentary collection was originally envisioned as a companion book that would give readers some sense of Ferrante’s thoughts about the nature of her work, drawing together documents that could “without too many veils, and by making use of various fragments, notes, explanations, even contradictions, accompany the works of fiction” in some useful way. What is now Part I of the collection––letters, notes, and interviews relating to Ferrante’s work up to and including The Days of Abandonment (Edizioni E/O, 2002)––was later supplemented by a second edition, which included the material which “update[d] the book through The Lost Daughter” [Edizioni E/O, 2006]. Subsequently, Ozzolla and her partner Sandro Ferri released a third edition occasioned by the “reprint [of] Frantumaglia in Italy [. . .] enhanced with a collection of the interviews that Elena has done since the publication of the four installments [2011-2014] of My Brilliant Friend or the Neapolitan Quartet, as it’s called in English.” Ann Goldstein’s English translation is based on this third edition.
Presumably in Italy, collections of interviews, and/or letters and meditations like Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, are not only commonplace but the norm, as they are in France, Spain, Germany, and indeed in most of Europe. The published cahier, the book of conversazioni, the collection of pubblicistica—these are well known forms in which writers collect their meditations and the documents that they have allowed to gather dust in desk drawers. Writers often also use such encompassing genres in order to gather together interviews that otherwise would be lost or inaccessible, to meditate on their craft with its other practitioners, or to engage in polemics. However, Ferrante is not most writers, and this family of related genres that seem to enhance––or at least to enlarge––most writers’ lists of publications does her a disservice and seems to diminish her own. This is not because Ferrante does not understand the formal characteristics of this related group of genres, but because such genres, in their most basic form, depend on the concept of the author as a figure of auctoritas, as a figure who as auctor, as “producer / progenitor” of the work, has authority over it. Such collections are intended for readers already familiar with the writer’s oeuvre, who at the same time wish to know more about the writer herself. They turn to such collections with the implicit belief that the writer’s comments or pronouncements on her works are relevant to one’s understanding of them. These genres are the stuff of which biographies and literary criticism often are made because they are so thoroughly grounded in the idea that knowledge of the author’s life and his or her views matter: that the author can illuminate the work.
Ferrante and her publishers are keenly aware of this fact. After all, the work is titled Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. The volume advertises itself as detailing Ferrante’s inner journey from Troubling Love to the Neapolitan Quartet. It, too, seems grounded in the idea of the author as auctoritas. The title and table of contents imply that this author’s life and thoughts are important to an understanding of the works she has produced. And yet, despite having agreed to the proposed form of the collection, Ferrante gives readers very little concrete information about that journey. She maintains, as she has all along, that “I don’t think one can know more about a work by having information about the reading habits and the tastes of the one who wrote it.” She insists that “I don’t think that the author ever has anything decisive to add to his work” and affirms that the author is “present” in her work, and that is all the presence one can and should expect. She denounces the “media attention” that has “accustomed readers to the idea that the producer of the work counts more than the work [,] as if to say: I will read you because I like you, I have faith in you, you are my small god.”
Unfortunately, this denunciation clashes with the very premise of the book in which it is found. One publishes the cahier, the conversazioni, the pubblicistica precisely because one has faith in the writer who has also published the book of poems that one loves, the novel one admires, or the play one saw performed. One buys such works for the same reason. Indeed, one is interested in the frantumaglia, “the jumble of fragments inside” or “the aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self,” because one is curious about the author of the novels, the plays, the poems. The implication here is that the author can and should be known outside of her works. Ferrante does not agree, but her belief that the author is superfluous to the text and can only be known in and through that text is at odds with the form of the book.
This is not to say that the volume is completely lacking in biographical detail, and as much as Ferrante seems to disagree with the generic form, she acts as though she agrees with its premises. It is these fractured fragments of life, as few and far between as they are, that make up the best material in the collection. Ferrante dazzles when she narrates the world in which she grew up and in which she now lives. She is brilliant on her experience of the tensions between social classes in contemporary Italy, on Elisa Morante’s novels, which she loves, on Caravaggio, on books as miraculous entities that we receive unexpectedly, like the gifts of the Befana, the crone of Italian folklore who delivers presents to children on the eve of the Epiphany. She is brilliant in her discussion of the relationship between the city and the writer, her city and her writing, which she uses to breathe new life into the old metaphor of writing as weaving. She meditates on Walter Benjamin’s “city-labyrinth” and his mysterious Ariadne, who “preserves the art of getting lost” by controlling the thread that unwinds through the vast and threatening urban landscape, on her mother’s sewing machine and the swirls of colored thread with which her mother “weaves her spell,” transforming cloth into garments that will “become one with the body” of a Neapolitan woman, and on Dido, Virgil’s doomed Carthaginian queen, who in losing Aeneas’s love loses the “thread”––or the “art”––that would allow her to find her way through the “urban labyrinth” that her polis of “love” has become. She is brilliant on the question of why she is a feminist, on cultural stereotypes, on how important it is for her to write alone in a little corner. In other words, Ferrante is brilliant when she writes as if for a cahier. We learn about who she is as a writer, as an intellectual, and as a woman living in Italy at the beginning of the twenty-first century, by watching her mind at work, by reading her thoughts on culture, on literature, on Italy and its political and social ills. We learn about who she is by hearing about the winter afternoons she spent with the Aeneid as a young girl, or by thinking about Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris alongside her, or by reliving with her the memory of a first reading of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
Unfortunately, one must search for these snippets as though diving for pearls, both because Ferrante seems constantly at odds with her publisher’s expectations for the volume and because a substantial portion of the book is made up of interviews. When the interviewer is an engaging interlocutor, like Nicola Lagioia—who is himself a writer and who was Ferrante’s co-competitor for Italy’s highest literary honor, the Strega Prize—the questions are both engaging and broad enough to allow Ferrante the space to meditate on the topics that fascinate her. When Ferrante is engaged, she engages us. However, the acuity and perspicacity of the interviewers varies. A number of the interviews are disappointing not because Ferrante is not a thoughtful interlocutor or because the translator Ann Goldstein does not manage to convey Ferrante’s answers into supple English prose, but because the questions are repetitive and tired. More often than not, they center on Ferrante’s identity, even though Ferrante has made it clear that she has nothing more to say on the subject.
Frantumaglia is a difficult book to judge because its form and its publishers’ intentions seem at odds with Ferrante’s own intentions. The volume raises more questions than it answers: How is one meant to judge the publisher’s decision to print this work if in it Ferrante adamantly condemns “the editorial marketplace [that] is [. . .] preoccupied with finding out if the author can be used as an engaging character and thus assist the journey of his work through the marketplace?” Is this not what this “journey” collection does? Has the irony escaped Ferrante? Has it not? Does Ferrante provide such limited (and possibly false) biographical information, which simply reinforces the cultural and literary heritage in which her novels are steeped, in order to underscore the point that all one needs to know about an author can be found in her works? Might it be the case that every single one of those compelling autobiographical moments has its origins in––even derives from––a moment she describes in one of her novels? Is she constructing an auctor simply to teach her readers a lesson? Is this what Ferrante means by calling the book an “afterword?” We may never know, and the recent controversy caused by Claudio Gatti’s supposed revelation of the author’s identity only makes such questions more difficult to answer. Perhaps we should simply take pleasure in reading Goldstein’s elegant English prose and acknowledge the one idea that seems both indisputably true and central to everything that Ferrante writes: deep down we are all made up of “heterogeneous fragments that, thanks to impressions of unity––elegant figures, beautiful form––stay together despite their arbitrary and contradictory nature.”