Friday, 1 January 2016

…of lending an ear

She finally relaxed the unnatural hold she had on herself, placed both arms on the table and cupped the warm glass in her hands, her face was harried and drawn… I examined her… she looked like a sketch of herself, as though I’d attempted to draw her from memory, and every line, every stroke had been too coarse, a little too harsh. She drank her toddy without being aware of it, not looking at me or anything else in the room. I began to feel cold myself, and I regretted not having ordered the same. But she seemed to liven up a little now, she got some colour in her cheeks, and her shoulders slouched, whether that was because she’d relaxed, or, on the contrary, because she was exerting herself even further. Then the tears came, as expected I suppose. With her gaze still fixed on nothing, they just began to flow, first from one eye and then from the other: when she blinked a thick film covered both of them. Eventually she turned to face me and I felt it only reinforced my already deep-seated embarrassment, knowing that even if she stayed sitting like that staring at me for a good long time, I still wouldn’t come up with anything sensible to say.
“What can I do?” she asked, in a voice that was surprisingly clear… despite the fact that she was still crying she must have realised that it was up to her to begin. And now that she’d made the effort to say something, it was as though she’d woken up and suddenly remembered why she’d come to see me. And then out it came, all at once: “Oh, what can I do, what can I do?” she chanted, again and again between crying fits. “Oh, Andreas, what can I do?” It was awkward; I had no idea of what you’re supposed to say in situations like that. Besides, my sister and I have never been particularly close, so I felt more than a little embarrassed that she should choose me of all people to confide in. Didn’t she have countless friends back home who she could turn to? And as for Fredrik, I hardly knew anything about him, I’d only met him two or three times, first at the wedding and then at a few Christmas get-togethers since, so I felt far from able to offer an opinion on any qualifications he may have as a husband and father of three. But seeing how she’d come all this way, and it having been such a long time since we’d seen each other, I didn’t feel like I could turn her away. There she sat, her whole face puffed up and wet, with her hand on my arm, rocking it gently back and forth, as if she was trying to wake me up too… a call to arms, I suppose, since I’d barely opened my mouth since we met and probably looked petrified sitting there, showing no sign of compassion or any of the other things she’d come to get.

[Self-Control, Sæterbakken, S.]

…of dissatisfaction

After the door slammed shut it was like this new silence erased all trace of them. I had to restrain myself from giving a loud cheer. I pulled off my tie, which slid off from around my neck like a snake… undid the top button of my shirt… walked over to the big window… and submerged my gaze in the sea of glittering lights. I thought about the missing girl again, and it wasn’t so much grief or fear on the family’s behalf… who at that moment were sitting in a room someplace or another in the city staring at the telephone… that I felt… but a kind of resignation, fatigue, and powerlessness at the thought of how exceedingly little it takes before everything you’ve built your existence upon is snatched away from you, or destroyed. I saw Hans-Jacob and Elise drift out of the darkness and across the courtyard, looking like they didn’t have any legs. For some reason or another I was convinced that they were talking disparagingly about me.
I stared at the grey discs cast by the lights in front of the garages. If something were to happen down there, I thought… if someone tried to force one of the garage doors… or a person was attacked and robbed, if someone tried to rape a young girl… what an infinite distance there’d be between any possible compulsion I might feel to intervene and save someone and the actual practical possibility of me carrying out some kind of deed. I thought about the door that was locked after Elise and Hans-Jacob, the lift that in all probability was at the ground floor and would take forever to get up here to the seventh floor, all this would lie between the screaming woman and myself. I pictured Elise as this woman, Hans-Jacob lying in a pool of blood on the ground beside her, and I tried to imagine my most likely reaction without reaching any conclusion with which I felt could be satisfied. No, I simply had no idea what I would do. And suddenly I wished the whole evening undone. That they had never come, that it had been an ordinary Saturday… spent in front of the television… and if I had to be completely honest, I’d prefer it be quite a while before Elise and Hans-Jacob came to visit again.

[Self-Control, Sæterbakken, S.]

...of the stunned

It wasn’t easy to tell what was going on in my friend’s head just then, in any case he was dumbfounded with… I don’t know… disappointment… or shock that I hadn’t simply gone along with the game… and maybe too he felt he hadn’t gotten the recognition he thought he deserved in the wake of his ingenious contribution to arithmetic. He’d expected elation and enthusiasm and had been met with grumpy scepticism. But once I’d come out with guns blazing, there was no way I was prepared to ease off: Hans-Jacob, if anyone, should be man enough to stand it.
But now he just sat there, without saying a word: my last comments still hung in the air unanswered. For a moment I felt the taste of victory. Then I felt embarrassed by his silence. I looked at him. He sat there, slumped over, like a man defeated. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I waited for him to lift his head and deliver a scathing retort. But no, he just sat there as if the power had been cut. All I wanted was a familiar quotation. A caustic reply. Something to rebuff my unwarranted scepticism and put me in my place. But he didn’t say a word. He sat there as if paralysed. I felt like kicking him in order to wake him up. But I just sat there too, bewildered by the whole affair.
Suddenly he got up, not without some difficulty, and walked out into the hall. I heard him opening and closing the bathroom door. He left his pipe behind him, like a stranded submarine in the ashtray, the smoke visible as no more than an almost imperceptible trembling on the sofa behind it. I went out into the hall and looked for him… whatever use that was. The yellow light from the vestibule seemed as though it was radiating some kind of warmth, even though I knew this was only in my imagination. And I had a sudden vision of the toilet, spattered with blood, Hans-Jacob in convulsions on the floor with his wrists slit, his life pumping steadily out of him, his head turned up toward me with a look of confusion on his face while he whispered his last words: “I’m sorry, my friend. I’m sorry.” 

[Self-Control, Sæterbakken, S.]

…of insouciance

“I see,” she said. “I see, so the two of you are getting a divorce.”
A few moments passed, then she added: “That was a surprise.”
She shrugged, in resignation… or indifference perhaps… as if to illustrate how little she cared, and drank what looked like the last dregs from her cup. I said a silent prayer that she would let the subject lie, which it seemed she wanted to do as well. She was probably uneasy about showing too much interest in the unexpected news, and at that moment I was indebted to her for exactly that. Because what would I have answered, if she had begun to question me… about the cause of the breakup… about our reasons for wanting to leave each other… about how we planned to organise our new lives… when we had no intention at all of doing it?

[Self-Control, Sæterbakken, S.]

...of awakening

We awake early on the second day of the journey. I contemplate the sun rising, and through the dusty haze, it’s like a piece of the earth that has become separated and is emerging in levitation. Africa is the most sensuous of the continents. I hate having to admit this cliche. I get out of the car and sit on the back of the truck. This silence isn’t like any period of quiet I have ever experienced before. This isn’t some absence that we hasten to fill out of fear of emptiness. It’s an awakening in our depths. This is what I feel: that I am possessed by silence. Nothing precedes me, I think to myself. And Marcelo is still to be born. I have come to witness his birth.
- I am the first living creature - I proclaim out loud, as I reopen my eyes, to the astonishment of Aproximado.
The lights, the shadows, the whole landscape all seem to have been created recently. And even the words: I was the one dressing them, as if they were children who fill the main squares of small towns on Sundays.

[The Tuner of Silences, Couto, M.]

...of tuning

Family, school, other people, they all elect some spark of promise in us, some area in which we may shine. Some are born to sing, others to dance, others are born merely to be someone else. I was born to keep quiet. My only vocation is silence. It was my father who explained this to me: I have an inclination to remain speechless, a talent for perfecting silences. I’ve written that deliberately, silences in the plural. Yes, because there isn’t one sole silence. Every silence contains music in a state of gestation.
When people saw me, quiet and withdrawn in my invisible sanctum, I wasn’t being dumb. I was hard at it, busy in body and soul: I was weaving together the delicate threads out of which quiescence is made. I was a tuner of silences.
- Come here, son, come and help me be quiet.
At the end of the day, the old man would sit back in his chair on the veranda. It was like that every night: I would sit at his feet, gazing at the stars high up in the darkness. My father would close his eyes, his head swaying this way and that, as if his tranquility were driven by some inner rhythm. Then, he would take a deep breath and say:
- That was the prettiest silence I’ve ever heard. Thank you, Mwanito.
It takes years of practice to remain duly silent. I had a natural gift for it, some ancestral legacy. Maybe I inherited it from my mother, Dona Dordalma, who could be sure? She was so silent, she had ceased to exist and no one even noticed that she no longer dwelt among us, the lively living.
- You know son: there’s the stillness of cemeteries. But the quiet of this veranda is different.
My father. His voice was so discreet that it seemed just another type of silence. He coughed a bit and that hoarse cough of his was a hidden speech, without words or grammar.

[The Tuner of Silences, Couto, M.]

...of torment

She does whatever she wants, she knows exactly what she can take liberties with, and I have no other choice than to put up with it, time is completely on her side… Is it my fault that I have to put up with this monster, yes, this monster who comes in here and sits down to take a shit barely three feet away from me without worrying till hours later about flushing? Did I make her this way? Am I the one who did this to her? Do I only have myself to blame for everything?
I ask her: What the hell is it that you are doing, making a fool of yourself like that, you whore? But then she’s gone, without making another sound, as though I’ve scared all the life away with my sudden outburst…
Goddamn this hellish silence that settles over everything whenever I take the time to say something…
Silence is Sweetie’s revenge, she can dump me into it whenever she likes, and she knows the silence bothers me, it’s like being under a surgeon’s lamp, it makes it impossible for me to avoid hearing my own thoughts…

What was that? What was that sound? Erna? Are you in here again? Erna? Is that you? Are you going to have a bath? Answer me if it’s you, Sweetie… Say something, so I can hear that it’s you…
Erna? Is there anyone here…
Hello? Is there anyone here? Dr. Amonsen? Answer me, damn you…
I know someone’s there…
Answer me and stop tormenting a defenseless old man. I’m getting ready to die, here, so I demand a last little bit of respect… I won’t tolerate you standing there without identifying yourself…
Who are you? Where are you? Come closer so I can touch you…
For Christ’s sake… this is more than I can take… I’m blind… that means I can’t see, you know? Would you please be so kind as to say something… Please identify yourself… Turn on the water at least, so I know you’re here…
I would get up and come over to you, but I can’t manage it… I haven’t stood on my own legs in years… They wouldn’t support me if I tried to stand…
So the onus is on you… you have to come closer to me… come to me… Come over to my chair, so I can reach you with my arms… It’s easy for you, I’ll bet there isn’t anything wrong with your legs, and not with your eyes either… You’re the one in control, here… I’m at your mercy, you understand… Don’t forget that I’m completely in your hands…

[Siamese, Sæterbakken, S.]

...of a painter

“So you’re also a painter,” I said. He nodded, a bit sadly - perhaps because he didn’t have enough time for painting, thanks to his responsibilities; or maybe it was because he wasn’t happy with what he’d achieved up to this point? Who knows. I’d had to say something. Maybe I should have said something else. “Well, is painting pictures any harder than painting staircases?” I tried to make this sound like an invitation, so that he would feel like talking a bit about his work. It’s hard to show interest in a subject you know next to nothing about. But he just smiled. Was there also a hint of disdain? I wasn’t sure. I sat and waited for him to say something. I couldn’t look away. But now it  didn’t seem like he’d meant to be unkind. I wondered how old he was. There was something simultaneously adult and quite childish about him, as if he knew exactly what he needed to know, but not any more than that.
“Of course it takes time,” I said. I couldn’t come up with anything better. Then he looked up at me, as if asking a question, but I didn’t hear what he said - if he said anything. I wasn’t entirely sure. Was he mumbling on purpose? “What?” I asked, in a deliberate ambiguous tone. “With your job I mean,” I added. Perhaps that’s what he needed. A clarification. I thought later that what had seemed so youthful about him was the fact that he sat there kind of defiantly, even though we didn’t know each other, waiting until something got said that actually interested him before bothering to answer. He set down his cup, took out a packet of cigarettes, helped himself to one, and lit it without asking permission. This was fine. The unfamiliar scent of tobacco that filled the room was refreshing. He watched the orange that followed every drag. It seemed he would be content to do this for hours. He went on sitting silently, a bit hunched in his jacket, which was too big for him, and which had dark brown buttons like snail shells - small, silent conquerors of the shiny surrounding material.

[Siamese, Sæterbakken, S.]

...of ignominy

We were going along the Riviera and the officers urged us into a song, which soon died out. The sky was still grey, the sea a glassy green. Near Ventimiglia we looked with curious eyes at the houses and cement ponds which had crumbled under the explosions: they were the first bombed-out homes we had seen in our lives. From the entrance to a railway tunnel the famous armoured train, Hitler’s gift to Mussolini, was sticking out; they kept it under there to prevent it from being bombed.
We approached the old border at Ponte San Luigi, and Captain Bizantini, who was leading us, started to stir up national pride over this business of Italy’s borders moving. But the conversation quickly dwindled into an embarrassing silence, because, in that initial period of the war, the topic of our Western borders was delicate and embarrassing even for the most avid Fascists. For our entry into the war at the moment when France collapsed had not taken us to Nice, but only to that modest little border town of Menton. The rest would come our way, they said, at the peace settlement, but by now the triumphal entry with full pomp had faded, and even in the hearts of those who had least doubts there was the worry that that disappointing delay might go on indefinitely; and the feeling spread that Italy’s fate was not in Mussolini’s hands but in those of his powerful ally.

[The Avanguadisti in Menton, from Into The War, Calvino, I.]