A mugging reveals a man robbed of more than his money.
For Edgard Hasselman
Of all my acquaintances, I’d known this young man the longest. Forged on the street, in brief encounters in the cafés, our relations became increasingly friendly. At first, I took him for an invariably jovial person, indifferent to the more inconsequential things of this world, a skeptic in his own way; but before long, beneath this polite mask, I began to realize he was something of a whiner, a bitter man whom melancholy, the result of impossible, fugitive aspirations, had cloaked with a blanket of sadness. After, his character and his constitution would conspire to ensure his was a plagued existence. Too intelligent to love the society from which he’d emerged, and of too fine a sensitivity to content himself with merely being tolerated in any other, Gabriel kept to himself, content with his own company and his own thoughts, like some odd anchorite who took refuge in in the clamor of the city.
At times he would appear among us with the airs of a Chinese savant, a scholar of the Thsaï-Tseu, calm, supreme, sure of himself, and only too happy to sacrifice himself to the immanent logic of things. He never uttered so much as a sigh, he eschewed self-pity, perhaps fearful that his plaintive cries might disturb his spirit’s voyage “par-delà du soleil, par-delà de l’éther, par-delà des confins de sphères étoilées.” 1
One day we met up with him, me and a few others from our circle, and when one of us asked him, “What will you do now?”, alluding to the consequences of the latest disaster to beset him, Gabriel responded:
“Nothing! The highest good is not to act at all.”
Days later, he confided in me how, like an idiot, he had been chasing, through the streets and several trolley cars, the beautiful dark eyes of a French governess.
His nature was fickle, two-faced. At times, his features came into confrontation, engaging in combat without ever banding together, without ever converging, leading one to believe that between these two distinct parts was a gap, a lacuna to be filled, and that any union between them was impeded by some mechanical obstacle . . .
This bifarious aspect of his figure, his generous disposition, and a raging temptation for material gratifications had transformed his life into a series of disasters; on account of which, as that life took its course, the layers of his facetious prankster’s veneer were completely stripped away, revealing the joy and the jocosity of a pessimistic, sardonic philosopher ridiculing the lies that masquerade as truth, inhabiting this counterfeit image that is our world. When he was about thirty-four, I went looking for him at his home, a tiny little house, on a street at the edge of Caju, next to that deadly sea kissing the beaches of this outlying district, where it had a view straight onto the grayish mountain panorama.
He didn’t live badly, his job demanded little of him and compensated him relatively well; a bachelor, he resided in a tiny house with an old African man—his friend, his oracle, and his cook—and a dastardly poetaster of the streets, a half-mad good-for-nothing.
It was a community of ratés bolstered by African forbearance.
When I walked into his house that afternoon, his entire being was radiant. It appeared that the inner light we had long felt to exist in him was finally about to reveal itself. His face grew more slender, his forehead long, there could be detected in his gaze an unfamiliar flicker; it was as though divine favor had come down from above, inhabiting and imbuing his soul to such a degree that it swelled until filling his bright, cheerful, and now tranquil expression.
“What’s with you today,” I began, “has your lover finally surrendered herself or have you met . . . your destiny?
“Lover? Destiny? What are you talking about?” he interrupted. “The wise man eschews passion so as to better appreciate the harmony of the universe.”
And after that maxim, borrowed from some Hindu or Chinese philosopher, he read the following to me, written in a tiny and messy script on two dozen scraps of folio paper teeming with passion:
At this time, I lived on a secluded street off a train station located in a distant suburb. Despite the absence of sidewalks or decent lighting, I would wander for hours in search of that solace-lending home. My responsibilities, and, generally, the demands of my temperament, which craved the bustle and city lights, led me to linger along the central thoroughfares. I rambled through these streets, without aim, wending round for hours and hours, observing and stopping to talk here, there; and when I found myself overcome with fatigue, I went looking for a train and for the next half hour, timidly, cowardly, curled up in a corner, I retreated into my thoughts. I suffered at the slightest sneer, and the most fatuous comment cut straight to my soul. It was a constant worry that I might transmit my suffering to another, that in time it would inevitably spread. Beneath the burden of that eternal anguish, I carried deep inside a secret that demanded to be revealed, even to someone lacking my nobility of spirit, someone aloof to the immortal substance guiding his life. I felt myself compelled to reveal it.
It was on such occasions that my thoughts turned to love, but . . . quite quickly, however, my genius dwindled, fell into daydreams, was immured against pleasure. After exhausting mankind, I turned to dogs, cats, birds, plants, the earth, in search of a confidant.
Once, standing before the majestic, green, translucent sea, I felt the urge to confide my secret to it, but again I was seized by dread that the winds would bear my words back to this vast city, in the same way that the reeds that sprouted in the hole the town barber in the King Midas story dug, unable to contain the secret of the king’s donkey ears any longer, whispered the truth to all.
When my awareness of my condition, of the essential facts of my life, became clearer to my eyes, I engineered plans to flee to faraway places, to write books that quivered with godly wrath, but I executed none of them. Some very obscure element of my psychology, perhaps even the sentiment of the logic behind the hostility that surrounded me on all sides, impeded me from reacting, actively or otherwise. I surrendered before my genius, and then I downed teardrops full of bright fire, bright enough to fill those realms of limpid purity, and, for a fleeting moment, I felt content because:
Heureux celui qui peut d'une aile vigoureuse
S'élancer vers les champs lumineux et sereins,
Celui dont lês pensées comme des alouettes
Vers les cieux le matin prennent un libre essor
Qui plane sur la vie e et comprend sans effort
Le langage des fleurs et des choses muettes.2
After having carefully listened to this language, my bitterness began to grow. My genius barked out orders, complained, demanded this and that, found fault with everything, sought to escape its confines, it grew impatient in its prison, in its cell; and so, in my predicament—oh! blasphemy—I found the proverb inverted: “a man shall not live on genius alone . . .”
One night, delaying longer than was usual, I ran to the station at two in the morning. All was still, desolate. There was a constant breeze, causing the trees beside the cottages to bow and causing the yellowish lights to dance like terrifying ghouls. The staunch homes, painted white and impenetrable to the outside, stood like dark-doored tombs. The darkness nestled the hills in its wings. I picked up my pace. The street, bordered by bamboo on one side and the other, scarcely lit and blanketed in mist, was like an endless museum gallery. Halfway to my destination, a man jumped out before me and, knife in hand, ordered me to stop.
“You there! Give me all your bronze.”
To be perfectly frank, I was little experienced in such situations but nevertheless was able to match the man’s elegance stride for stride. I coolly reached into my pockets and retrieved the little money I had and—pale but not trembling—handed it over, together with a few trolley passes, to my momentary oppressor.
It was a magnanimous gesture that impressed the bandit to such an extent that he didn’t dare dream that I might have left some valuables concealed in the lining of my coat. There is, it’s been said, more naiveté to be found in criminals than we generally suppose. He accepted the wad of bills that I held out to him with something approaching repugnance; he was already making his getaway when a flickering gas lamp cast a wave of light upon me, and he noted something about my hair and, voice dripping with sarcasm, inquired:
“Are those wings? Why, you’re blue! What the hell . . . your hair is something special.”
Hearing this, I stared at him with my pupils aflame. My face must have had such an anguished expression that the thief’s own became stone cold. He shuddered. His words had once again reminded me how my entire existence had been poisoned by that singular accident; the disastrous indecision that had defined it; the irritating acrimony, the lingering aftertaste of hate and bitterness that covered me like soot. The torment to which my very own soul subjected me. And in one fell swoop, the entire sequence passed before my eyes like some demonic obsession, something desperate, cruel, inhabiting everything, every mouth, the mouth of the thief.
“Even you! Gosh, what more do you want of me?” I asked him. “Does your interest in passersby extend to something beyond the pocket-money they’re carrying? Are you not also a member of this society? Are you not at all moved by considerations pertaining to it?”
I peered at him inquisitively. The man’s expression had changed. His lips were ajar, they quivered, pale. His eyes were glazed over; locked onto my face, they did not move. He peered at me as one does a duende, a ghost. But, containing his agitation, he was able to manage a few words.
“Black teeth! My Lord! Why, you’re the devil. You’re a lost soul, a ghoul.”
His entire visage expanded, his pupils widened, his hair stood on end—this man who was so generously relieving me of some burdensome coins! He would have set off running if fear hadn’t turned his legs to lead.
He remained in the same position for several minutes until noticing that the expression on my face announced tears, exposing a fatal grief. My interrogator transposed the horror-stricken contortion of his features, opening them in a tender smile of brotherhood.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Ignorance is a kind of blindness.”
Making no effort to string his thoughts together, he continued.
“Don’t take me for some miserable highway robber, a common street thief. Opportunity knocked and I answered. I’m generally engaged in much higher ‘labors,’ but I require a little ‘spare change,’ so, to obtain it, my métier has forced itself upon me. If I were to delay, my opportunity is lost. As you well know, life is war; one either kills or is killed. But . . . the Lord will come to my aid. Take your money. I’ll find a way to begin my great ‘work’ without it, that work which is the aim, the object of my existence, which will, finally, earn my rest” (at this, a glimmer overtook him), “the regard of my fellow man, and society’s respect. Go, you are without hope. Be off . . . and accept my apologies.”
That blue hair of mine, hair that had been my lifelong torment, and those black teeth of mine fell into formation, coming together in a jovial smile of gratitude and tenderness.
“But who causes you all this suffering, young man?” the stranger asked.
“No one,” I told him, “no one. It’s my genius, my way of seeing things, it’s the way it renders this world that goes round.”
We were about to part when he insisted yet again:
“You must suffer a great deal over this.”
This time, before responding, I spent a moment thinking things over. Who was this man? Was there a chance I would come across him again? Never again, of that I was certain. After that brief episode in his career, he would carry on undeterred in his great mission on this earth. He would have every reason to run from me, to disappear from before my eyes, or, alternately, if I were to recognize him the next time I came across him but I did not expose him, he would always think of me with gratitude. Why, such as things were, would I not open up about my secret? He would listen, but he would not grasp much; if I were to try telling it to someone else, words would fail me. Confident of this and of the fact that this rare show of empathy was not some ploy, much less a show of politeness, I began, almost spontaneously, to recount my misfortune.
“Of course it pains me. It pains me a great deal. It’s the devil dogging me, it’s my perverse evolution. He makes for poor company, bitter, tenacious as he needles and tears at me. He follows me everywhere I go, everywhere, on each path I tread, in the sunshine or in stormy weather, whether the road is busy or deserted. He never abandons me, never releases me. He sleeps with me, dreams with me; if I pull away for even a second, he follows close behind me, too close, whispering in my ear with a sharp shushing sound: here I am! He’s an irksome monkey making faces behind my back and then darting out in front of me, dancing and kicking.”
The thief’s astonishment was now of a different order: it was astonishment at my words, lofty words. His natural, primate’s rudeness, entirely untempered by any sort of education, meant they went right past him, he understood only half of what I said, and his genius grew sharper, more probing.
“If, on a bright sunny day,” I continued, “I duck between some trees, believing myself to be alone, and content, a vile, passing hound abandons his inexorable search for a bone to stop and observe the apelike features that have overtaken me, and laughs, half terrified, half pleased. Then, as though by a spell, the path is suddenly filled with people. Suddenly there’s a hum here, a cry there, a laugh there. I hear the trees rustling: ‘Hello there, I see you’ve dyed your head in blue sky, but where have you muddied your mouth? Pebbles roll, crackle, and in their vileness they do not measure their words, they do not waste time with witticisms, but rather scream: Monster, scourge of the earth!’”
The robber eyed me up and down. He gazed upon my eyes, my nose, my lips; even my hands, my feet, were deserving of extended analysis before his eyes. As he did so, I remembered to look at the figure who was in front of me. He was a tall man, with broad shoulders and striking limbs, and with a Spanish “accent,” he said to me:
“You’re a poet! It’s all a fantasy . . . you see things that are not there!”
“Perhaps it’s my sensibility . . . But no, no! I’m physically incapable of lying, my body professes the truth: it is like a microscope discovering a hostile world where nothing can be seen with the naked eye,” I retorted.
“You never go out, to the theaters or the cafés—so how is that even possible?” he inquired.
The question gave me some trouble; they were in my nature, these ostensible contradictions, but in the end I was able to find an answer.
“It’s true . . . but I trudge around such places enslaved to my temper, the servant of my own rationality, which is my body’s enemy; I may run from it, but it’s only with great difficulty that I’m able to follow the imperious path set forth by my nerves. I don’t know . . . I don’t know . . . I ought to flee, vanish, I can hardly take a step, hardly sneak around the corner, or pass by a window, or beggars, or coach drivers, from the most vile to the most refined sort, without hearing: There goes the man with the blue hair, the man with the black teeth . . . It’s torture! Everything goes dark inside me. This is all that shines through. If a friend is referring to me in a conversation with others, he’ll say: you know, the one with the black teeth . . . My dreams, my time spent reading are filled with images of smirking monkeys. If I write and the words are missing syllables, if I am studying and fail to quickly grasp my subject, the ape leaps out in front of me and with a mocking voice says: ‘It was I who ‘dropped’ them, it was I who prevented you from understanding . . .’”
My chest heaved, my eyes must have had a strange glow to them. All my agitation passed from me to the listening man. At my words, he trembled all over . . .
“So then work, be strong . . . fight,” he advised.
“Good advice, good . . . Ah! You sure are one weak strategist! Don’t you realize that I’m unable to wage battle, that I’m an army that always leaves a flank exposed to the enemy? Defeat is certain. If I were to cow to that which has been decreed, I could . . . Now . . . I simply can’t anymore. Notwithstanding, my fate in life is to follow the narrow path of caution and humility, I cannot stray from so much as an inch, because to the right await the legions of imbeciles, and to the left, the smart set and their wisdom threatens to grind me to pieces. Each move I make must be like that of an acrobat across the tightrope. I lean to the left, lean to the right; on all sides I feel the tender caress of the infinite, the uncertain, the boundless. If the wire begins to wobble, I immediately lose all courage. Suddenly I’m reminded yet again of the yelling down below, the shouting from all sides: the man with blue hair, the monster, the man with the neurasthenia. Amid all these shouting voices comes that of a man in a top hat, a hat that appears to be hollow, as though he were an enormous crow that doesn’t fly, his feet bound to the earth, and he follows a straight, unwavering path carved into the soil. The man screams out loud, so everyone could hear: ‘I guarantee you this man is a degenerate, a lowlife, his unusual features are owing to certain characteristics inherent to bastards and their despicable physical forms; twenty thousand wise men—Germans, English, Belgians—can back me up’ . . . That’s my life. It’s as if each day, in such a way as not to affect the noble, life-giving organs, people slowly began to bury pins into my flesh, their number growing one by one with each new day . . . How long will this go on? How long?” I gestured wildly.
A gust of wind nearly knocked out a nearby streetlamp. Adding to the crowing of roosters was the sound of carriage wheels turning, the next street over. The distant suburb was rousing from its sleep. I took leave of my assailant. I’d walked a few steps, and as it appeared to me as if some group were calling to me, I turned around to find the rectangular figure of the thief, anxiously shaking his head like the Virgin of Mercy at an execution.
In the ensuing years, the monotonous, unchanging days that defined my life, the thing that caused my soul suffering much, much greater than this incurable anguish of my youth was the sincere pity I provoked in that man.
1. “Elevation,” from Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal.↩
2. In Norman Shapiro’s translation of Les Fleurs du Mal: "Happy the man—despite the frets, despite / The woes that smother life’s dim murkiness— / Who, strong of purpose, flies high, nonetheless, / Off to the calm and peaceful fields of light; / Whose thoughts, in morning flight on lark-like wings, / Rise to the heavens, above the fray, swept free; / —Who understands, aloft, effortlessly, / The speech of flowers and of all silent things!”↩
“Dentes negros, cabelos azuis,” first published 1920. Translation © 2018 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.