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from the August 2009 issue

From “El último Lobo”

There he was, laughing, but in trying to laugh in a more abandoned manner he had become preoccupied with the question of whether there was any difference at all between the burden of futility on the one hand and the burden of scorn on the other as well as with what he was laughing about anyway, because the subject was, uniquely, everything, arising from an everything that was everywhere, and, what was more, if indeed it was everything, arising out of everywhere, it would be difficult enough to decide what it was at, arising out of what, and in any case it wouldn’t be full-hearted laughter, because futility and scorn were what continually oppressed him, and he was doing nothing, not a damn thing, simply drifting, spending hours sitting in the Sparschwein with his first glass of Sternburg at his side, while everything around him positively dripped with futility, not to mention scorn, though there was an occasional drop in the intensity of this feeling, moments in which he actually forgot about it and stared quite blankly ahead, staring for interminable minutes at a time at a crack or a stain on the wooden floor of the bar, since this was the simplest thing to do, that is after having dropped round the corner, immediately after waking, to start there and end there, not as though he were drinking himself stupid, for after all he couldn’t even afford to do that, but rather, as always, out of sheer habit, because at some time he must have said, bring me a Sternburg bitte, and ever since then that is what he had been served, as soon as the man caught sight of him, so he didn’t even have to open his mouth but simply step into the Sparschwein and there was the Sternburg ready on his table, not that he took deep draughts of it of course, taking just the odd sip, just enough so he should be able to remain there, as indeed he did remain, generally for two or three hours, and even then he only left the table so as to take a turn round the Hauptstrasse with its filthy pavements, down towards Goeben, then out towards the Kleistpark as far as Kaiser-Wilhelm-Platz, where he would cross to the far side by the fishmongers and Humana Second Hand in order to retrace his steps, the pavement horribly filthy because everyone, young and old, was constantly spitting on it as they walked or just stood, but spitting in any case, even when looking into a shop window or waiting for a bus, and that might have been why it all felt so sticky wherever he went, not like a place for walking, because as soon as you set off you feared you’d soon be stuck fast, so you needed to walk at a certain speed, at brisk walking pace, as he thought of it, so he shouldn’t feel anything, and, what was worse, in the doorways there were pools of vomit that had frozen overnight, and the walls too were filthy with their weather-soaked, spray-painted Kurdish graffiti, and, to put it in a nutshell, the walk started and ended in Hauptstrasse, and there he was laughing, but he didn’t read it through the second time, at least he didn’t even touch the letter for a while, for how stupid it was, he told the Hungarian barman though the man simply stared at him, quizzically raising his eyebrows, not listening, not even hearing because the music was so loud, an especially sugary piece of Turkish pop, the kind continually being played in the Sparschwein, by either Mustafa Sandal or Tarkan, or Tarkan or Mustafa Sandal, the choice of music being hard to explain because it was pointless the owner trying to lure customers into the bar with it, a bar selling alcohol, since the Turks tended ever more to wander in by mistake, but what the hell, he waved his hand, and looked out through the window though there was nothing worth looking at out there just some drug dealers leaning against the wall by the Sparschwein, waiting for something, the sky leaden, nothing to look at, all aspects of futility and scorn, he thought, pushing the letter away from him because he didn’t even feel much like balling it up and throwing it into the nearest litter-basket, the whole thing a nightmare, he told the Hungarian barman, and laughed, but the man was paying no attention at all now, though even if he were there would have been no point in trying to explain things by saying it was some ridiculous advertisement or that it had been misaddressed to him because it was serious, and therefore impossible to misaddress, yes, serious indeed, extremely serious as it turned out, and it was just that the whole business was utterly ridiculous, because while it had in fact been addressed to him, and was genuinely from Madrid, he can’t have been the one it was intended for, since he wouldn’t have been invited to Extremadura, by this unheard-of foundation, a foundation staffed by people he had never heard of, asking him whether he felt like spending a couple of weeks there writing something about the region, and what was this with “felt like”?! hadn’t he been living here for years, here in the embattled wasteland of the Hauptstrasse, earning three hundred Euros from one or two lectures, which was just enough to see him through on a day-by-day basis, so it must clearly have been a mistake which might be explained by them having sent the invitation a few years ago (it would not have been unusual for the local post office that he should have just received it) or it might be that they didn’t know that the person they were inviting no longer existed, that, yes, there had been someone of that name some time in the past, the name right in that sense, but that there wasn’t anyone behind the name now, no “Herr Professor,” and while it was possible that some such title did once precede his name it had made no sense for several years now since there was nothing, not a thing, to connect him with a person who, while he existed, was unaware that there was no point in thinking, who had written a few unreadable books full of ponderously negative sentences and depressing logic in claustrophobic prose, a series of books in fact, when it had long became obvious, almost immediately obvious, that no one read them of course, and, that being the case, he must long have been washed up as a philosopher, no one was making any serious attempt to understand him or what his sentences, his logic, his diction or prose might be about, and in the meantime he had practically no income, which made it impossible for him simply to chuck it all in, and they said they would pay all his expenses, his flight, the cost of his accommodation and provide a car as well as an interpreter, all “awaiting you on arrival in Madrid to drive you over to us in Caceres or Badajoz, where  we could offer you a fee of X Euros for your article,”  this being something he couldn’t get out of his head, so he would sit on his bed with the letter in his lap imagining what he could do with so many Euros, and how it was exactly like having your name drawn in a lottery, meaning, you, yes you; you, if anyone, can’t afford to reject such an offer, and you have only to do this and that thing, the whole thing being an absolute bloody nightmare, he muttered to himself, staring out of the window, seeing only himself, an enormous mirrored bald pate, the next day having started just like the previous one, waking with difficulty then getting down to the Sparschwein, the taste of cold Sternburg in the cold bottle, the usual thing and the Hungarian barman, who, he felt, was his most intimate companion, one who nevertheless never once succeeded in putting the glass gently down before him, a failure that exacerbated his already terrible nervous state, a state that was hard to explain, but he would happily have smashed the bastard’s face in, because why go slamming it down on the table every time, with the sky so overcast outside, a leaden sky yielding little light, the drug dealers leaning against the wall, the pavement sticky with spittle and that bitter taste in his mouth of futility and scorn as he drifted down towards Goeben then the Kleistpark followed by Kaiser-Wilhelm Strasse, then over to the other side, past the fishmonger and the Humana Second Hand thence back to the Sparschwein, where  he did not throw the letter away, it still being tucked in his pocket, but read it through, for it really was addressed to him, he really was the person being addressed, he had established that much, and had in fact begun faintly to believe it, at least believe it more than he had the previous day, trusting that it was no mistake and never had been because he had received an immediate confirmation  in response to the email he had sent from one of the tables in the Telecafe next door, a response that confirmed that they were indeed expecting him and asked when he would arrive, adding that he was welcome to stay as long as he wanted, though he still didn’t quite believe it, he muttered to the Hungarian barman in the Sparwschwein, and set off down the sticky pavement of the Hauptstrasse trying to accustom himself to the thought that at any moment he could fly off to Extremadura, though he had no idea where “Extremadura” was, having just two acquaintances in Spain, his selfless one-time translator and his selfless one-time publisher, though even they, naturally, had been obliged to pulp his books because they couldn’t sell them, as a result of which his connection with them was long lost, that being about the time he lost contact with everyone else, though this remained the one possibility, to write to them and ask them, what was going on? what was this invitation? “believe it or not” and whether it was real at all, this “Extremadura” that had once been what the Romans called Lusitania, so he went to the Telecafe, and there came the answer: yes, Extremadura was the modern Spanish part of the ancient Lusitania, which is to say the province was partly located in modern Portugal, with Andalusia beneath it and Castila y Leon above it, and it was from there the Conquistadores set out but all the same, the ex-translator and ex-publisher asked—and you could sense their astonishment—how was it that it should be precisely him, he who had long been known to carry a vast store of information in his head, that he could be confused about such things, how far had he fallen from his eminence, the message being plain, quite plain from their replies, that this was what they were asking themselves, and, all the same, were asking him, there, in capital letters talking about it, meaning, what the hell would you be doing in Extremadura, because THERE IS NOTHING THERE, it’s just an enormous, mercilessly barren, flat place, with a few small hills generally near the border, horribly dry, the hills bare, the earth dried out, with hardly any people since life was as hard as it could be there, serious poverty, an utterly parched place, why the hell go to Extremadura . . . 

From “El último Lobo.” © László Krasznahorkai. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2009 by George Szirtes. All rights reserved. Forthcoming from New Directions Press.

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