At 2 o’clock on Monday a person appeared in the middle of the parking lot as if from nowhere. He was wearing an orange jacket and ordinary blue jeans. He stared at the little green tree in front of him and touched one of the leaves. After that, he went to the next tree, which was a little leafier, and circled it in wonder. He had nothing of the scientific curiosity of a botanist. He was not staring at the tree in order to conquer or to know, but merely to sense. A white and red braiding hung from a bough, but it probably remained unnoticed. The man was not familiar with the fluttering Bulgarian symbol of spring so the braiding couldn’t have made him think of the wishes someone may have ceremoniously muttered in secret when attaching the symbol to a blossom. Had he been interested only in linguistics, Saussure’s tree might have completely overshadowed his spring experience. But, fortunately, the man in orange genuinely responded only to colors and textures.
The fact that it was already late spring made his demeanor seem strangely anachronistic. Either he had just arrived from a wintry Nordic country, or he was one of those people for whom weekends started on Tuesdays and ended on Fridays, leaving the rest of the days for proper work. And indeed, a different cycle spun his life. He took his predisposition to observe obscure details as a sign of alertness, and he was proud of it. By contrast, others interpreted it as useless daydreaming or, worse, shameful mental laziness. In truth, he was most at peace with himself when he successfully induced a state of laziness followed smoothly by boredom. He had no desire to explain to anyone why he sought laziness and boredom while others got an adrenaline rush from bouts of productivity. He put a stop to such inquiries with a shy smile, challenging his condescending interlocutor to a game of table tennis to take place as soon as possible, either in a nearby park or on a university campus. That way, he could at least prove his physical alertness. He understood these games as some sort of territories of compromise into which he could lure others. As the ball pinged and ponged, he forced his adversaries to admit — if only to themselves — that it was more rewarding to expand the meanings of words than to match a person with a definition. The dictionary-minded others would never even have a chance to understand his double game at table tennis, because the person in orange was nearly silent during these games. Only the empty sound of a plastic ball punctuated the interaction. He never shared his conclusions about different kinds of alertness or his inner monologues about concepts or labels with his opponents. At the tennis table, the points scored never came in sentences or arguments, but only in numbers, which he arranged like eggs in egg cartons in one corner of his mind while on the main stage he triumphed in both games, graciously concealing his double victory. Such was his imagination; such was our character in springtime.
In winter, his field of curiosity was frozen. In the mass of ice that was the city, he conceived of the public bus as a warm, moving tunnel. He felt safe there, making sure to always occupy a seat next to a heater (when available) and close to a window. This is where he liked to experience winter: in his projection of a warm continuum, protected by windows. From his seat, he enjoyed watching the schoolchildren playing their winter games and carrying their heavy satchels. They threw snowballs at each other from positions on both sides of the street, but oftentimes their trajectory intersected the bus windows, their smashing sound causing his face to break into an instantaneous smile. Under no imaginable circumstances would he have traded his sheltered seat on the bus for the glorifying moment of being the one who was hitting the bus with snowballs. In his moving tunnel, whose retired captain he was, he felt safe and protected, almost untouchable. Or so it seemed, until one day in winter when his comfortable soap bubble burst.
At a crossroads, the bus window, colored by red traffic lights, seemed to blush and smile back at him. But the passenger’s mind was busy with memory flashes so this outer detail slipped by unobserved. A few moments later the bus continued its journey with a squeaky turn to the left, and his head carelessly leaned in the same direction, as if approving the change of course. At 3 o’clock — the direction, not the time — he noticed a picturesque humpbacked woman, born in another century, waiting at the pedestrian crossing. She was leaning against a shopping cart with a human dignity that not many old people now possess. He was enthralled. And while she waited, he began searching for details like a mouse for cheese. Soon enough he noticed that her frozen red nose was dripping. Under the magnifying glass of his imagination, this mysteriously translucent blob began to gain grotesque proportions. The woman’s contours seemed to explode in billions of pixels while he concentrated on the flickering and enlarging, but not yet frozen, drop.
As if in a trance, he simply couldn’t look away. And then it happened in a second, like all edifying things: his tunnel disappeared, and for a few minutes he found himself encircled by questions and doubts. How could this mucus drop shatter his heart’s contentment, his pleasant and sheltered journey? Why was a mucus blob more powerful than his soap bubble? Winter, or rather his lack of understanding of winter, had made him create a tunnel for himself as best he could. He was not an architect; he was not a construction engineer. He had a strong personal distaste for concrete. So all he could do was to create a safe and warm tunnel on which he had worked every single day since the first snow fell that year. And now, all of a sudden, he felt a cold winter shiver on his spine and realized that a mucus blob had undermined his soothing construct. He saw no other escape than to let his body slowly sink into the irony of the situation. Who else could he blame but himself for underestimating the hypnotic power of a translucent mucus blob? He usually wiped it off, with a handkerchief and a quick move, just like anyone else would do.
But this time he carried on his analysis, and weighed her blob and his soap bubble. He was well aware of how much time he had invested in creating this warm, comfortable zone for himself. From the beginning of winter, he had expected that the demise of his tunnel would come from within, from drunk, aggressive passengers or possibly from a curious rat. He had even prepared an imaginary shield against such prosaic, subversive agents, keeping it at hand, in his trousers’ left pocket. On a couple of late-night trips he really came within a whisker of using it to defend his construct, but then he always decided against it. It wasn’t yet worth it, he thought. He carried around this imaginary shield — a combination of burning magnifying glass and blinding mirror — with the ease and reassurance that some other people walked around with pepper spray in their bags. And the fact that no one had ever seen or felt the effects of his shield didn’t mean that he couldn’t have used it in case of emergency. Had this moment come? The image of the dignified old woman, with a dripping red nose, freezing in the street, had left him completely puzzled and his imaginary shield useless.
And as he ruminated over the question of how fragile and vulnerable the constructs of his imagination were, it finally occurred to him that maybe he could not stand the fragility of his never-ending stories anymore. One option was to end them himself, and to blow them away as one does soap bubbles, or as if blowing one’s nose for that matter. What bothered him the most was that an exterior element was powerful enough not only to interrupt or alter his imaginary projection, but to terminate it completely. But he knew he was playing hide-and-seek with himself. The force that undermined his own tunnel construct was just another product of his imagination filter. Ending his tunnel this way was a mildly vengeful, but most definitely liberating act for the man in orange. After all, he had become unacceptably numbed by the pride and comfort he took in his tunnel. Under these circumstances, which he considered averagely boring, he thought of the mucus blob as encapsulating the entirety of humanity with which he’d lost touch. He decided to subtly implode his construct. In his cocoon-world, he equated the blob with a terrorist bomb in a metropolis. So he planted it and got off the bus.
It would be unwise to judge the man’s mental maneuverings, since his business was his alone. If some deemed his formulations, and most likely his character too, incongruous, they must have misunderstood him in the first place. Very few could speak in his defense. Among them were two employees of the local archives in an insignificant outlying town where L.L. had recently moved. It must have been the same winter when L.L. encountered the underestimated mucus blob, which, on the destructive and playful spur of the moment, he decided to blow out of his way. After that wink of delight, he carried on as if nothing of interest had happened. He chose his favorite route to the local archives and went back to his long-standing practice: reading old news and telling stories to the archivists — sometimes once a week, sometimes once a month. He would diligently carry on this activity throughout the following four seasons. Despite the first impression he gave of being a bizarre and anachronistic character, the man in orange — or Mr. L.L., as he was known to these employees — did maintain some human relationships.
According to one intimate conversation between the archivists, at first sight L.L. appeared to be a curious spirit primarily due to his ceremonious way of touching objects and of being in the reading room. Here, at a table with high stacks of old newspapers and documents published in many languages, Mr. L.L. felt he was in the right place. In the archivists’ initial view, he seemed to come from nowhere to do almost nothing of importance. Except tell them stories based on the archival holdings he investigated under their intrigued eyes. So, as winter weeks passed by, they grew fond of Mr. L.L. and treated him with a mix of gentleness and curiosity, which was the way they used to treat their documents when they first started out in this profession some decades ago.
But this affection was yet to grow and be shared by Mr. L.L. During the first several weeks, the relationship he began developing with the archivists was similar to that between a regular bar customer and some friendly waiters. At a certain hour, he would come in and sit down at the same table with the quietness with which a woman would place her hat next to her on a church pew.
Mr. L.L. had one small problem with the archive and its keepers. He had never managed to get across a simple message to the archivists: the use of “Mister,” up and down the archives, irritated him. He wasn’t worried that the archivists’ use of the title might threaten to transform him into a marble statue of a dead thinker — though that thought would sicken L.L., who had little in common with most contemporary scholars. Instead, the issue was related to his monologues about labels and definitions. This time, it was about his personal preference for gender-neutral pronouns when strangers referred to hir in the third person. Yet he never dared to explicitly communicate his wish to them. Only in his verbal interactions with friends did L.L. place a firm demand: they were asked to alternate between the uses of female and male third-person pronouns when referring to hir. All the archivists could think of — because of L.L.’s deep raspy voice, hir way of mumbling, and hir dark circles — was Benicio del Toro. And indeed, in addition to these features, the charismatic actor and L.L. had in common a tendency to give almost monosyllabic answers. Such answers made the questioners formulate ridiculous follow-up questions that broke down the initial query into at least five different ones. To jump from the Benicio del Toro association to a question like “Hi, so which pronoun should we use to refer to you in the third person today?” would have surpassed all expectations, given the setting and the actors’ conventional patters of thought. But be that as it may, the use of pronouns was the only discomfort that L.L. felt in the archives, the storytelling time remaining a highlight of the week or month for all involved.
Despite the first impression he gave of being merely a dreamer, L.L. was actually a complex person of many gifts. His foreign language skills almost equaled those of a seasoned historian and well surpassed those of a linguist. Rumor had it that in his youth, L.L. had started learning languages because he believed that one who spoke many languages would never starve. Later on, when L.L. reached his thirties, he decided against making money from his language proficiency thanks to a streak of luck that brought him financial security for a modest future and allowed him to avoid soiling his interest in languages with the profit motive. Instead, L.L. dedicated more and more of his time to reading about what the immediate concerns and thoughts of the future looked like in the remote past. As such, in his third decade of life L.L.’s use of languages bore no pragmatic or formal relation to his community. The older he got, the more convinced L.L. grew that his constant use of several foreign languages constituted — paradoxically — an escape from communication. As an experiment, L.L. allocated a fairly long period of time to jumping from the comfort or discomfort of one linguistic circle into the next one, without interruption. Behind him followed only the loud sound of a string of broken sentences, which most often led to a local archive. Now, at the beginning of his fourth decade of life, L.L. realized that for better or for worse, he preferred this mixed bag of discomfort and play to sticking to one language. A local and curious eye could sometimes spot L.L. wandering around the town with his head wrapped up in a colorful bag of foreign languages. He often stumbled.
Throughout his thirties, L.L. took issue with accepted definitions and identities more and more. But it was not a debate on identity that he would wage in academic journals or book prefaces; it simply was a straightforward and personal battle that L.L. had to fight. Regardless of his skills or upbringing, L.L. dared describe himself loosely as a “freelancer in the humanities.” Upon insistent questioning, he’d further explain his occupation as an occasionally paid factotum with a flexible range of hobbies. (In his own mind, L.L. would once again translate “hobbies” to “failed professions.”) Either way, he would provide the most evasive answers possible, and when the conversation reached this low, his questioners found it better not to press the issue further. One thing was sure: L.L. was driven by resentment toward hyper-professionalization and pulsing career pressure. By concealing anything that had to do with his formal education, L.L. hoped to secure for himself a marginal — and enjoyable — position in any society he decided to visit, where he could afford to plunge in between skyscrapers of categories and professions at will.
L.L.’s interest in exploring layers of temporalities began shaping up when he was a young adult. His intensive sojourns at the archives reflected his seriousness and commitment to reading futures past, or, as he described it — employing a sentence he had read as a child in an 1839 issue of The Spectator — “[My] habit of reading the future in the past.” And though his early bent toward such things had never led him in the direction of fortune telling, from the archivists’ perspective, he seemed to be following in the footsteps of the old King-Fu, a remarkable person endowed with the gift of predicting the future of European Emperors. And perhaps this was the closest that the archivists could get to identifying L.L.’s most constant self.
For over a decade, L.L. devoted countless months to the banal and seemingly meaningless daily events of the past that had animated the lives of anonymous people. Undisturbed and unconstrained by time, he enjoyed leafing through old newspapers in search of nothing in particular. Once L.L. began turning these yellowish pages, his emotions would flow like the Danube, and articles appeared as sailing ships. As the archivists, who could testify in his favor, quickly learned, old advertisements triggered in L.L. almost spasmodic reaction-waves, making him gasp and his chair squeak. Upon hearing this sound, the archivists would only raise their gray eyebrows and scratch behind their ears, impatiently waiting for L.L. to start blowing his nose — a sign that he was about to translate his research experience into a narrative. The way he blew his nose so as to capture their attention made the archivists think of Mr. L.L. as a rather strange art product.
For L.L., those old newspapers that contained expired novelty had the value of a samizdat text whose communication channels had failed to bring it to the destined readership at the appropriate moment in history. In one of his interpretations, what he was reading was a sort of unintentional writing for the future. All the time that L.L. invested in reading the stories of the past came from his conviction that good texts deserved a decent amount of the reader’s time and attention, if for no other reason than as a polite, mute gesture of giving back to the author. That is, he liked reading his favorites as if he himself had written them but had completely forgotten those words with the passing of years. To some graduate students, a procrastination shadow growing next to a big bottle of amphetamines could have been the right companions to galloping through a book at night. But this could have hardly been L.L.’s paradigm of scientific enthusiasm. And thus, a naïve touch of anachronism resurfaced again … or was it an eccentricity he was lucky to be able to afford? An enviable eccentricity, even? Or just downright pretense? It was surely hard to pin down, but harmless and unique enough to make it defensible. And yet, it was all particularly unimportant and teasing because the cinematic began only at a certain hour of the day. L.L. would tell no stories unless there was a bit of magic, a bit of smoke … something floating.
Three seasons after L.L. had blown the mucus blob, he began another regular autumn day, in which he let fragments, images, and episodes dissociate and associate freely.
In the morning, he stumbled to the kitchen window and discovered that raindrops were falling from the sky, in no rush. He first focused on the big drops and paid attention to each and every one of them, with the semi-hypnotized gaze of someone half-awake. Under his eyes, the drops appeared magnified, and visibly slowed down their fall.
Half a meter away from the window L.L.’s morning picture included the top of a tree with shiny green leaves and an epicurean snail that enjoyed the rhythmic rain at the beginning of September. Two colorful yet undefined spots brought life to the remote background of this slow-morning capture. They were nothing other than two pairs of shoes. L.L.’s neighbor from across the street kept out a pair of yellow rubber boots and a bright orange pair of sneakers on a narrow and shady sill. The latter item seemed to be a permanent installation on the sill, having caught L.L.’s attention right after he moved into his new flat, at the beginning of the previous winter.
Chin in hand, L.L. maintained his gaze in the curtain of hardly falling raindrops. He ruminated a little longer over the photographic quality of this picture until he decided that it was time to let it rain in earnest. His small morning exercise — slowing down the raindrops like the scene in The Grandmaster and pretending to play Philippe Le Sourd in the kitchen — had to come to an end, since more unsettling matters were trying to get a hold of him. He could feel them coming. Suddenly, L.L. turned around and scanned the kitchen with suspicion. He could have sworn that somewhere behind him he’d heard in a fading continuous whisper someone describing his first steps into the room that morning, and his gazing at the rain drops.
But as soon as he turned, such sounds stopped, and L.L. was left with a slightly blurred vision. Part of his brain wanted to ignore the memory of the narrating whisper; another part planted it like a flag somewhere in one of his cortical areas.
A few minutes later, unable as he was to immediately identify his troubling, entangled feelings, L.L. took a few discreet steps back into the living room and decided to wait for them to come to him unbidden. He spent the next morning hour in a chair, close to a table, flipping through a black-and-white book with Dadaist art and poetry, which he had bought for himself as a present from a student bookstore the other day. The new acquisition had made him return home in an exuberant mood. But now as he turned page after page, his face was growing more concerned, his glances out of the window more frequent. This is when the restless fact began to surface in his living room like a fish in a pond.
That year L.L.’s feelings for the earth’s seasons began to change slightly. Before he could even smell autumn, his thoughts were now running to the first snow with a degree of excitement that took him by utter surprise. Based on his winter-phobic experiences, this increasingly complex feeling represented a contradiction L.L. was ready to explore at a deliberately slow pace. Although winter had always been his time of inner collapse, the chance of observing the signs of the seasons from the same geographic observation point twice in a row almost gave him a thrill. A trivial perspective to some, but to L.L. this meant that he would get to see the backyard of his home go through the same color changes once again. It was an odd, disturbing yet almost comfortable feeling, which L.L. had not experienced before as an adult. And these qualities combined made L.L. ruminate longer on the approach of winter and his riddling emotional reaction to it.
For the last decade or so, while sampling different styles of communal living (most often with students, occasionally with squatters), the spaces L.L. spent most of his time in were archives. But even these places did not hold him. He would go to the archives in various towns, try to feel the time layers stored in their cold buildings, and then, after a couple of seasons, when the charm was gone, he would move on with his single suitcase. This was his way of traveling through the world, archives being the only names pinned on his geographic map. His last relocation was an addition to it, part of his larger plan: to work relentlessly on making the border between past and present thin, almost transparent. To serve his purpose of continuously mixing past and present, he often joggled with fragments of memory, letting them come and go as they pleased. In addition, L.L. always carried everything he had saved from his massive, honest effort at the archives with him in a small, black box. This external hard drive was a sort of navigation system, in which he diligently encrypted his personal histories. For a future historian writing about L.L., this black box would have been a wonderful electronic source for ego-history. For L.L., it encapsulated private matters and hobbyhorses.
As if estranged from his body, L.L. could see himself rocking in the chair, the Dada book still on his thigh, the back-and-forth motion immersing him deeper in the growing contradiction of the day and then finally tricking him into accepting it.
Born not far from the 47th parallel north, L.L. could only survive winters by boarding the warm bubbles he created in his mind before leaving the house. For instance, L.L. had developed one of last winter’s soap bubbles, the one which eventually intersected and collided with the old woman’s mucus blob, while getting into his routine at the local archives. To be sure, creating these protective bubbles was no easy feat; in fact, they represented the equivalent of successfully planting trees in the sands of Burkina Faso. And when the bubbles eventually burst, L.L.’s heart warmed up.
Though it had never occurred to him throughout his life to impatiently wait for winter to come, L.L. indulged in the sweet excitement he was now feeling for winter. This slightly discerning shift in how he related to seasons must have been due the fact that he had also recently changed his sociological status from being a wanderer to being a stranger — “the one who comes today and stays tomorrow.” At least, this was the beginning of the explanation that L.L. was diligently preparing for himself. There may have been another reason behind this change of behavior, but L.L. moved on and took another swirl in his digressions as he stirred them with a small teaspoon, like sugar in a teacup.
In the midst of the gentle whirlpool he initiated on the table, L.L. sprang to his feet as if prodded by an electric stick. Following an imaginary straight line, he paced up and down the living room and counted forty-two generous steps to the bathroom.
“Exactly forty-two!” he said aloud, remembering how his leftist friend, A., who had visited earlier in August, had cried out,
“What a waste of space! This apartment makes my heart cringe with every step I take!”
It was true. Some people said that L.L.’s new home was far too big. In fact, depending on whether the guest stepped in with her left foot or her right, she might or might not think of it as a truly bourgeois apartment. Right at this very descriptive moment L.L. frowned, as if in disagreement not only with his friend’s comment, but also with what had been just whispered and recorded here. This prompt facial reaction confirmed the fact that L.L.’s sensitivity was beginning to transgress some borders.
His response followed shortly.
“With every critique of my vast headquarters that you bring in here, you grow one foot,” he muttered, writing down on a piece of paper the following sentence in block letters:
“Alice’s rule forty-two — all persons more than a mile high to leave the court!”
With this piece of paper in hand he prepared to defend his flat against all critiques. Pinned to the wall, rule forty-two waited to be invoked in order to expel guests if they repeatedly made inappropriate comments. This is how seriously L.L. took the rule of law in his wonderland.
A., an old-time friend, had visited L.L. some weeks before and taken a seat on that squeaky chair in the darkest corner of the room, close to where rule forty-two now hung. Sitting cross-legged, she admonished L.L. for his choice of housing, and then requested some fashion magazines as if at the hairdresser’s.
When A. didn’t get the magazines, she rolled her big eyes and made some suggestions about how to improve the atmosphere in the adjacent corner of the room.
“This should be the cinematic corner,” she said emphatically. “I see here the projection of a photograph of a handful of flower seeds. A yellow photograph on this wall will surely bring you comfort in winter evenings — even more than a cat would.”
A., well acquainted with L.L.’s emotional history in winter, sought to contribute to his well-being. And he silently approved of this idea by merely holding her gaze for a couple of seconds. Shortly thereafter, L.L. got himself a secondhand projector, which made a distinct noise when plugged in.
“Perfect,” thought L.L. “A bumblebee-engine is an essential part of the installation. I call this comfort noise!” He then briefly considered alternating the sunflower-seed diapositive with other images.
“Maybe with the first films by the Lumière brothers …,” he muttered, “the fight with snowballs!” But the idea seemed far-fetched, the cinematic corner turning too fast into an empty cinema club.
In winter, cinema (and just about anything remotely related to it) was his lifeboat, and most of what he was doing was an attempt to stay afloat during those cold, long, and meaningless nights. It was during one of the past couple of winters that L.L. had come to resonate with the words of a stranger — an old lady from a city of the former Habsburg Monarchy, whom he had once seen and heard on a Budapest tram.
And as L.L. began rolling this memory-fragment as a smoker would roll a cigarette, the vivid details that sprang to his mind proved that his ability to recall that short episode on the yellow tram was remarkable.
At four meters tall above the heads of the passersby, the city clock indicated the end of another winter day: the time was 2:55. With the precision of a metronome, the tram stopped in the station, the doors opened to the outside chill, and a young person stepped inside this mobile mechanism. She took a seat without interrupting her reading of a translation of a Japanese novel, oblivious to the tram and its bilious strangers, rosy fingers ever ready to turn a page, undisturbed when an old woman flopped down beside her. Sitting opposite the two women, L.L., the traveler, noted the reader’s full concentration even when the lady forcefully wedged her right clenched fist into that little space between the two of them as the tram slowed down, approaching a station or a crossroads. The old lady was struggling to maintain her equilibrium. A minimal portrait — intermittent mutters, careful glances around, black leather gloves, and an orange in her left hand. Some ten minutes into the monotonous ride, the old lady unexpectedly turned to the young woman and said in one breath:
“So far in my life, I could sometimes spot the meaning of all this. And when I didn’t see it anymore, I would find beauty. Hardly ever both of them. And when I didn’t have either … well, that was the most unbearable part.”
Without giving the addressee a chance to answer, the old woman turned her face away, her glance piercing the decrepit buildings on the ring. Just a second later, the reader looked up puzzled to see who had just spoken in her vicinity. As she rotated her head almost like an owl, scanning the fellow passengers around her, the reader found that they were all self-absorbed and quiet. Confused, she paused. An odd moment, she might have thought, before resuming her fiction reading.
L.L. concluded the memory flashback by magically dissolving all the passengers’ faces into the night. He had stored the image of the old lady with the orange among those events that cannot be fully grasped at one moment in time, but that have the potential of gaining in meaning later. In winter, L.L. was more able to record these bizarre happenings of everyday life. Sometimes he recalled even the small things, things that repeated periodically without necessarily a mysterious quality to them: a boiled egg crushing against the table on a paper towel which soaked up its liquid, creating a wet circle around the egg (in L.L.’s mind, this image was colored only in shades of blue, with a cooling filter); the electric bulb hanging half a meter down from the ceiling and its double shadow at night (black and white); the sound of wooden toys, coming from the street accompanied by a child’s laughter (red and other vivid colors). L.L. assembled all these fragments at will, for private entertainment or casual conversation, depending on the occasion and the leanings of the people involved.
Meanwhile, on the table in the living room L.L.’s glass with water and Persian rhubarb syrup collected September sunrays at its very thick bottom. From a certain angle, the glass appeared to be a beaming yellow stone. A few meters behind it, the wide open window made up the frame of an early autumn picture after the rain: basil in late bloom, bright green trees, drying grass leaves, late lilacs, and a formidable collection of pieces of furniture and metal parts, partially covered with plastic bags. This was L.L.’s daily view of the backyard.
The person responsible for the collection of objects scattered around the backyard was K., the owner of the building. K. was a no less interesting personality than L.L., with his travels and stories from the 1960s. Born to an upper middle-class family, K. matured during the American hippie decades. Despite his explorations of the radical anti-establishment options available back then, when the time came, he was not opposed to inheriting two buildings from his parents. In the one on whose third floor L.L. lived, K. stored second-hand furniture, discarded bikes, and other metal parts collected with an old truck. K. found all of them indispensable for a project with the motto “nothing goes to waste.” Everything had to be reworked and put back into the circuit, regardless of aesthetic considerations. As such, the backyard was the first live exhibition setting for all the items K. had gathered from the streets. But as months passed by, the objects found their way up to each hallway floor and staircase step. It was like a living mechanism, a worm of some sort that stretched its body up into the building. In only a few months’ time, this recycling creature would be knocking at L.L.’s door.
That summer, the peculiar dynamics and charm of the place, as well as K.’s humble project, whose influence had spread everywhere in the neighborhood, had convinced L.L. to stick around in this town longer than planned. Perhaps the budding friendship with K. also made L.L. slow down his constant craving for mixing past and present by throwing himself at full speed into new futures. The town where L.L. stopped could have been Weimar, but it was not. It’s easy to see that the name of L.L.’s red bubble had just as little importance as story endings have; or that it was just as irrelevant as L.L.’s eye color. Much more important than the place’s name was L.L.’s strong sense of not being in the wrong place. And for the moment, the developing sweet anticipation of winter seemed to confirm his intuition.
There has never been as much noise around us as there is now. And there has never been as much sound and data recorded as these days.
A little later the same September day, after the rain was sucked into the earth, the construction noises down the street drew L.L. out of the house. They did not chase her away from home; she was merely taken out like a fish pulled out of the water by a fishing rod. A faint-hearted flaneuse, L.L. was intrigued by the neighborhood activity and the sensory environment created by the busy cranes, the pulley systems, and the pallets of plywood swinging over an old school. Before winter settled in, the old building was to turn into dozens of white flats — a small but not insignificant sign of gentrification, and a shift she could not ignore. Standing in the midst of the reconstruction site, L.L. heard the ringing of the hammer on the anvil and visualized how a tiny bone was hammering the almost continuous sound into her middle ear. She listened intently to the orchestrated noise and attempted to reach her threshold of the intolerable. But she already knew her auditory limits; the unbearable morning noises made her head and eyes explode during the last short episode of sleep. This time, alert and in an exploring afternoon mood, L.L. only reached a familiar, harmless level of irritation.
“I am more used to this construction Babel than to church bells or mosque loudspeakers. And on top of it all come the ambulance sirens! They really seem to be everywhere I go …,” mused L.L., as she headed further down the street, whistling a popular Romanian song about cranes from the communist 1960s, by Trio Grigoriu:
Macarale râd în soare argintii … Macarale …
And when the seemingly aimless pedestrian finished the tune about silvery cranes laughing in the sun, she started it all over again, like a broken gramophone, until she came to a halt in a crowded square. That’s where L.L.’s mental landscape of building grounds with hardworking cranes in a former communist country was replaced with the narrative murmur she had heard for the first time that morning. It had resurfaced. The transition from one earworm to the other was very swift. At first, the murmur in L.L.’s head sounded like an indistinct track, but as she continued walking further away, the whisper began faithfully recounting everything L.L. was experiencing.
Her silhouette faded away into the distance until it became the size of a pencil, which continued to visibly hop for just a little longer. Within the next couple of minutes, L.L.’s silhouette disappeared completely as if in time-lapse photography. The only reasonable thing left to do now was to trace the contours that the labyrinth of streets inscribed on L.L.’s brain. For each turn L.L. took inexplicably caused her to ponder another rhetorical question.
It was as though there were a bit of blue magic in the air, but no smoke.
“New sounds and old sounds mixed together in the urban vibration. How could anyone ever write a history of the way they blend and are hammered into people’s ears?” L.L. asked herself, “Where are those sensitive beings that could record centuries of acoustical changes in the urban landscape? Who knows anything about what effect noise changes have on emotions, vulnerability, and affective mechanisms over hundreds of years? What would an elephant have to say about all these city noises? With his sensitive ears, the elephant would make the most delicate spectator of all.”
L.L. carelessly let these questions fall behind her, one by one, without a sound. When they touched the ground, the questions took the physical shape of pebbles. Without exception, the pebbles turned blue. As L.L. continued to wander the streets, leaving a barely visible, light blue trail behind her, she reached the temporary conclusion that the elephant would make the ideal chronicler of people’s affective changes.
“Who else could pride themselves on such sensitive ears, after all?” This was the last idea L.L. managed to float, before the ascending street came to an abrupt end. She was almost there, up on the eastern hip of the town. Had it been her intention from the beginning to end up there? L.L. preferred not to comment on this.
And anyhow, it must be said that, to an undefined extent, L.L. had followed her own thinking patterns to discover the ideal chronicler. The patterns channeled her thoughts and made her zoom into the elephant ears and sensibility. Yet, following her instinct, L.L. could not help but seriously wonder whether the geography of the place itself, with all its turns and angles, hadn’t had an important effect on the way her thoughts had converged during this long afternoon walk.
All of a sudden, the hill opened a large and empty plateau in front of L.L.’s eyes. It must have been fairly late in the afternoon, as the sun was sparkling calmly and warmly on L.L.’s shoulders. Had she had a mirror at that precise point, she could have perhaps noticed little dots speeding on her back. Watched from close by, they appeared to be fluorescent micro-shuttles running up and down her back, glowing ever stronger in the pale sun. A knowing observer would have taken the shuttles to be clues — just like the blue pebbles. They were both clues for recognizing L.L.’s potential as a psychogeographer. But L.L. appeared reserved and distracted. Something else must have caught her attention, which made her ignore these indicators. So L.L. did what she knew best when outside of the archives. She avoided diving into self-analytical depths and preferred to explore blue and green surfaces (her favorite comfort colors). This clever move granted her a well-deserved moment of relief.
Lost as she had been in the swirling eddy of fragments, voices, and sounds, L.L. found herself at the very top of the hill. And since her life knew no rush hour, L.L. went idly about the place, bored like an empty plastic bag stuck moving only in undecided semicircles. Geometry was in plants, in L.L.’s footsteps, and in her mind too. The afternoon was quiet on the hill, since the plateau was blocked by distance from the urban noises, as if behind a thick curtain. L.L. continued her geometric walk, her steps taking her to the cusp of the plateau.
Somewhere in the foreground of the increasingly surreal scenery, L.L. took notice of a dark crack — a hardly visible line that separated the gigantic photograph-collage view of the town from the hill. For, indeed, the collage was a full-scale reproduction of the town panorama, and it rested against the body of the hill in the most casual fashion. It was truly breathtaking. Mesmerized by this simulacrum-panorama that she’d never seen before, L.L. relaxed her limbs on a bench in front of the collage. The afternoon townscape appeared more and more surreal, like a work of art hanging on a blue museum wall. At first sight, the town seemed to L.L. as a huge mountain of phones piled up together. When she looked more closely at the details, smoke and chemical fumes blurred the contours of the town line, and above it all a single sound cloud drifted like a cartoon bubble.
On impulse, L.L. leaned forward on the bench, in an attempt to read what the bubble said. But her effort was to no avail because the signs inside the bubble made up a foreign language system, which L.L. was not able to identify. Yet at precisely the same moment something else happened, which was more noteworthy than L.L.’s attraction to symbols. As she leaned forward and the curious tip of her nose touched the panorama-collage, gently piercing the blue sky, sirens began to wail and several teddy bears were parachuted from a little plane.
“Teddy bears like falling stars!” exclaimed L.L. “How can this be?”
L.L.’s modest nose was no intruder, so it must have been all a mere coincidence. As fast as she could, L.L. took detailed notice of the chain of events that flickered under her eyes and quickly withdrew herself from the picture.
“It may be a warning,” resumed L.L. on a cautious, explanatory note.
“I will try to keep the image proportions and explore discreetly.” And with this, L.L. withheld further thoughts on the parachuted toys until an unspecified future moment. It was a typical move for L.L., who used to postpone even the unwrapping of presents as much as she could. She took the falling teddy bears as a gift and looked for a familiar way back down to earth. Little did L.L. know that seeing the falling teddy bears that afternoon would be a turning point in her life at the end of that year … It was 2012.
Heading homeward, she let herself slide swiftly down on the phone-mountain in search of everyday details, symptoms of obsessions, patterns of behavior, gender benders … anything refreshing to distract her from that almost continuous murmur she had been hearing at the back of her head since that morning. The murmur articulated a filmic language, which could have pleased L.L. But, as if not wanting to hear a single thing about the double voices of her thoughts, L.L. very slowly blinked like the lens of a camera and leaned her head sideways.
What followed on her way back home was L.L.’s usual urban cropping, a selective recording of the inhabitants of the town with their green finger tips, polished nails, sleepy hands, and swinging arms. This visual slicing and dicing wasn’t a massacre, with splashes of blood like in a Tarantino movie; it wasn’t about violence at all. It was simply L.L.’s style of archiving urban experiences for later use. She took a keen interest in the choreography of everyday movements and details that she happened to run across. In her garden of rare pleasures, comparisons and synecdoches flew by like (Nabokov’s) butterflies.
L.L. carefully copy-pasted bits and pieces of the flying objects she selected in her walks into later private conversations. And since she had settled down in the neighborhood, on some days L.L. and K., the home-based recycler, would entertain each other over a glass of cold or warm liquid in a neighborhood bar. L.L. adored these oases surrounded by short blocks of flats. As a bonus, the place where K. and L.L. used to spend their rendezvous served tasty lemonade in large quantities and boasted a wide backyard with a small pond full of purple-red fish. At a wooden table for two under the shade of a patient tree, their friendship was deepening. In the cooling air of such evenings, L.L.’s gloved hand would often pick up the glass in front of her and hold it in a fragile balance for a few moments. Distant onlookers expected a toast was about to begin, but the gesture actually signaled a loss of words, a convenient introductory muteness, usually short-lived and followed by an intermittent, low-voiced chain of confidential descriptions.
“A woman’s left arm that was swinging in the most bizarre fashion immediately caught my attention,” whispered L.L., delimiting the listener’s field of attention. “Her right elbow rested on the large green leather bag she kept somewhat raised, placed on her hip. The left arm, though, was mysteriously attractive, gently moving back and forth, almost as if estranged from the rest of the body. Its appearance was that of an abstract, shiny sculpture (think of the sort of object made by Brâncuși); its movement that of a flying fish in a gliding flight over the water. It truly seemed like the body did not form a whole, so I found myself compelled to follow the flying-fish-arm at some distance. Or maybe I was rather pulled behind it by another long and invisible arm.”
And then, the glass would land swiftly on the wooden table, with a full sound.
Always intrigued by L.L.’s unusual choice of subject matter, K. responded well not only to the content conveyed, but also to the peculiar manner in which L.L. spoke. Pauses and silences in conversation or narration were somehow part and parcel of L.L.’s verbal collages. They were like spaces in a text. Although L.L.’s communication style might have caused others discomfort, K. approached the silences with pensive nodding and interjections, which one could describe as a kind of slow-motion aizuchi. This sort of patience was all L.L. needed.
With each obsession revealed in a confidential tone they built a shared repository of curiosities. Sometimes they referred to it as L.L.K.
“You care about your grandmother, who will be close to eighty, and maybe she doesn’t even remember her own birthday anymore. About young people who say twoleven instead of twelve. You care about people who’ve been long buried and not seen in a long time. You miss their ironic endearments and touch. Home is where you’ve buried someone. And you always have to go back to count fewer and fewer people on the sky side, and more and more on the earth side.
“It is all written on the door.”
L.L.’s bedroom is invaded by an incoming tide, a requiem, and the smell of the dead.
In L.L.’s dream, a remotely operated camera is lowered from the ceiling, slithering through the room unhampered. It first films a coffin, which occupies the middle of the living room. The jaw and mandible of the person inside the coffin are held together with the help of transparent tape, so that the mouth won’t remain open. The coffin is resting on a large kitchen table that has been brought into the living room to serve the dead as support. In the vicinity, a TV is running without a sound. From the back, one can discern the contours of two persons kneeling in front of the TV, their bodies partially under the kitchen table and coffin. Flashing images intermittently illuminate their faces. Their heads are very close together, almost touching. The room is small, the middle occupied by the coffin, the rest full of old furniture.
L.L. sees herself in the doorway watching the dreadful scene. She shouts as if out of her mind:
“Stop that TV!”
The two do as they are told.
The person in the coffin is peacefully resting. All yellow.
From behind L.L. a voice thunders:
“Cut! And again!”
The characters in this homemade movie take their places and mime emotion like actors on a set. It is a reenactment of L.L.’s past, but L.L.’s part is played by someone else. She is forced to see it all, over and over again.
The door closes; the repetitive, violent dream ends.
L.L.’s heart is lowering into a well, as one lowers a bucket, hands clenched around a rusty chain. Even in her sleep, she can still feel how a part of her begins unconsciously to withdraw from the world that she has so carefully inhabited.
It was one of those clear, warm days that could have been either late August or early October. The lighting was diffuse and warm-hued; every light hour, trees gently projected their shadows in different sizes on the walls and buildings. But with the sun going under the horizon line, the shadows disappeared from the town, and that’s when L.L. stepped out of the archives. He had an unusual humpback, which made him fall short of breath. Not even three seconds later, a biker pulling a black suitcase with wheels on his left side passed by L.L. in a rush. In the bicycle basket, L.L. noticed, the young man carried a woman’s hat. Exhausted as he was, L.L. paused for a moment to watch the scene. Under his intrigued, hypnotic gaze, everything turned into a still frame and even the re-telling of this experience had to be timed out for a little while.
L.L. knew that just a dozen or so minutes before the biker rushed under his nose, the sun had been slightly higher than the earth’s old line, making tall giraffes out of the town shadows. The golden hour of the day had transformed the town into a zoo, and it lured photographers to take to the streets and jump restlessly over their own shadows in search of the perfect shot in that warm light.
“Write that down,” whispered L.L., sensing that it was all about him. “For L.L. these photographers are like stray cats that gather around at the back of a restaurant at closing time, when the leftovers are thrown in garbage bins.” Indeed, aside from L.L.’s criticism of photographers, one may agree with him that there was enough leftover fish from those restaurants to feed an abundant, free meal to a great deal of beings.
At 2 o’clock on that ambiguous Monday of August or October, L.L. had long been sitting in the archives. On his usual table, two towers of folders with other people’s private correspondence rested next to a stack of nineteenth-century newspapers; a third pile consisted of several books placed on a wide, black album — they were all important pieces for the whole construct. After he cleared his throat and wiped his nose, L.L. suddenly opened his mouth like a fish, an air bubble coming out of it. It was his golden hour. The two archivists at the front desk raised their foreheads and looked at their favorite dreamer. Their stomachs growled simultaneously. Just by clearing his throat, L.L gave them the feeling of being close to a big pot of potatoes boiling on the stove. Without any delay, L.L. seized the moment and said in a confidential tone:
“What I am going to tell you in the following five or six Mondays to help us get through winter will have to remain within the walls of this room. Have no fear, it is not going to be a tale like James Bond, nor should you expect the ups and downs of a dramatic structure that will easily enchant you. To be frank, I will allow myself to call it an accomplished day only when you are able to purr as you listen to what I have to tell you. But please, lower your expectations, or, even better, destroy them entirely!”
L.L. was careful not to impose, so he refrained from continuing his thoughts aloud, waiting for a sign of consent from the archivists. The two of them nodded faintly, betraying more skepticism than conviction at the thought of destroying their horizon of expectations, since it gave them a sense of direction. Intrigued by L.L.’s peculiar behavior, the bureaucrats of the past regarded the character in front of their eyes as Tristram Shandy’s timid brother, a fellow with less humor, but just as much taste for digressions.
“The events that concern us,” said L.L., “must have happened about a century ago, around the 1890s, when the celluloid strip was invented and photography gained currency and growing commercial acclaim. Shortly thereafter, the mechanics and techniques of projecting moving images were increasingly perfected. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, marvelous projection devices spread throughout Europe. Newspapers in all languages, across empires and states, enthusiastically announced local projections, and called upon their multilingual inhabitants to experience the new wonder. In 1898, a person in the Transylvanian town of Kronstadt / Brașov / Brassó with sufficient reading skills and exactly 5 crowns to spare for a newspaper could read about this new kind of show in a short article. He could then decide to be the judge of the moving images by sitting in the audience.”
L.L. drew his chair closer to the table, and leaned over one of yesterday’s newspapers, translating the article as he read it out loud to the curious ears of his patient public. His voice vibrated with a slightly discernible echo in the room:
“The last screenings of Edison’s clever invention,” read the article in Romanian, “will take place today, the 9th of March, and tomorrow, the 10th of March, in the big hall of the Konzerthaus. We draw the public’s attention to these interesting and instructive screenings. The cinema presents photos as they are in nature, with dozens of people moving easily, as if they were alive. For instance, one screening presents a train entering the station, people getting on and off the train; ships reaching port, colorful national dances, people bathing, children playing, etc. The gramophone reproduces the music, songs, and funny tales, as if one were hearing the singers themselves etc. The screenings start at 8 o’clock in the evening.’
L.L. scrutinized his captive audience. The gray-haired archivists were like twins to him: the same haircut, the same dark clothes, the same noses.
“My goodness, what provocative noses!” thought L.L. to himself, before hurrying to add:
“But of course, not everyone could buy this newspaper or read the article by themselves. Consider that at the end of a month’s hard physical work, an unskilled day laborer in eastern Hungary earned 30 to 40 crowns, which means that his paycheck was maybe worth six to eight newspapers. What’s more, at the turn of the century, about half of the population was illiterate; women, especially, had few opportunities of learning to read and write; their chances of entering a profession and of making an independent living were also extremely slim. Human potential and capabilities were severely limited.
“When the Habsburg curtains were pulled aside in the concert hall of Brassó / Kronstadt / Brașov to unveil one of the greatest technological achievements of the decade, few of the town’s many inhabitants sat in the audience, and even fewer of them thought of the event as an evening of leisure or as a first-hand experience of modern entertainment in the making. Curiosity had brought them there in the first place. Or maybe their status saddled them with social obligations like attending major events. In that small yet animated crowd, restlessly whispering to their neighbors on the left and right bits of hearsay about the show about to begin, sat a young woman of great fragility.
“We can now see her in this dimly-lit room as if we were looking at a radiograph: shades of black and white, blurred contours, bones, and teeth. This image has very basic lines, but it is her unromanticized portrait. We do not see her in a golden frame, oil-painted, and hanging on a wall, with an alarm system in the room or a temperature and humidity monitor in the corner. Curators, furtive flashes, gazes, the squeaking of the wooden floor, banal conversations that would make her invisible are entirely missing. The radiograph is her portrait in the least anachronistic way possible. Her name is E.M., and she shares the sensibility of an elephant, although she doesn’t know it yet.
“Alone in this motley crowd, E.M. waited patiently for the screenings to begin. In the tumult of the hall, she could afford to ignore a few questions about her mother’s health and her husband’s travels. All she did was stubbornly look ahead to the podium, where the master of ceremonies was about to give a short speech about Edison’s invention. E.M. had a look-through gaze. The air was stiff. The dust particles that circulated in this large concert hall gave the impression of a snow globe, containing agitated people with tall and round hats looking around to see who else in their circle was there. One of many mustachioed men cracked a joke, which caused the dust globe to gleefully shake itself with the vibrations of a big belly. From this moment onward, E.M.’s memory could no longer record any movement around her.
“The show started with the music of the gramophone; the black, white, and red brown images rolled fast one after the other — maybe 10 per second, maybe 50. In the audience we can easily distinguish E.M.’s profile. Her eyelashes form two semi-circles of light. She’s hypnotized by the music and the moving images. Her lower lip gets visibly dry in just four or five minutes, while the actual show lasts. The length is irrelevant, the emotions count. The content isn’t what produces her reaction, for what she sees are people and objects that do not tell her a unitary story. Their best attribute is that they move: pigeons fly, roosters fight, seminar girls also fight lightly with pillows, a barber’s shop is animated by laughing men and talk about newspapers. Some of the episodes scandalize the audience: a kiss on film. A kiss that everyone can see, that takes all of them by surprise. What is the correct reaction of the public? How should they behave? Then comes an almost naked man, flexing his muscles. It’s the male body, shaped by the nationalists of the nineteenth century, through discipline and exercise in public spaces. The embodiment of femininity follows shortly: a woman dances in a dress with large ruffles.
“Some of the episodes recorded are humorous, but E.M. is not laughing, nor is she interested in the muscles or curves of the individuals filmed. The cinematic experience makes her body vibrate to new emotions. Her spine and limbs are gently touched by a shiver, a wave of pleasure that gives her goose bumps. It starts with the arms, goes to the back, continues with her limbs, and eventually her head senses this pleasure wave moving from her neck to her forehead. She takes short breaths for fear of interrupting this warm and sensuous experience. You see, had there been someone to witness her emotions, they would have felt jealous and E.M. probably ashamed. But there was no one in that concert room to react that way or to be preoccupied with E.M.’s inner reactions, which she could not even describe to herself.
“No sooner had the show ended than a man with a thick beard and a black suit jumped up to the podium to catch everyone’s attention. E.M. looked around hopelessly for a way out.
“‘God is my witness,’ said the bearded man, ‘that I wish no harm to anyone, but I cannot help myself from wishing to see all those church cantors who put no heart into their singing on a screen like this.’ He pointed with his arm to the projection sheet, his body turning halfway around. ‘I want a whole world to laugh at them and to ridicule them. Believers should not be kept away from church by such lazy cantors!’
“Voices in the audience approved.
“‘I would surely take great delight in seeing drunkards filmed, with their stupid faces disfigured by alcohol. And when they do wake up the next day and see themselves on film, they ought to feel such disgust and shame that they would never dream of drinking again!
“‘Dear fellows, Edison was a clever man. His invention serves morality! The time is ripe to call out to people and to show them when they are misled. They should mend their ways! Edison’s invention is not pure entertainment. This machine can be a means of education and of correction, because it immortalizes stupid gestures, wrong positions, spoiled speech, grimaces, and bad habits. All pupils can learn from this!’
“The audience, already familiar with the basic argument of the speaker, slowly began disbanding. For years this man had been writing a column in a church-run political newspaper, in which he expressed his views on photography and film at length. And all his arguments made a case for the morality of his imaginary nation.
“Once the disciplinary speech was over and the dust globe began buzzing and shaking with laughter, E.M. carried herself distantly through the crowd. Deeply moved by the evening’s experience and a wave of new emotions, E.M. sought to keep her inner state untouched by the society’s senseless blather. She sneaked out of the door and hurried home across the town square. Most of the time, we can only hear the sound of her shoes in the empty square; every once in a while, the dim light of a window throws her shadow on the pavement. As E.M. is moving away from us, her silhouette becomes smaller and smaller; the color of her red dress turns dark brown and disappears entirely when she touches the cold door handle of a one-story building at the edge of the square. She needs to be alone.”
L.L. withdrew himself from the square with a bow, granting E.M. the privacy and time she required. Whether E.M. would truly understand her emotions and her newly begun relationship to cinema was a question well beyond L.L.’s research. Yet he would try again and again to listen to her, with an elephant’s sensibility.
Upon stumbling out of the archives, L.L.’s accompanying voice described minutely how after sundown he carried his shadow on his back, as if it were a monkey. It felt heavier than usual and because of that L.L. would have gladly placed it on the ground, but the only problem was that the sun did not allow it. Struggling with a suffocating feeling, L.L. was briefly leaning against a flagpole when the man on a bike rushed by him in the bike lane, furiously rolling the black suitcase, which he pulled with his left hand. He was riding as fast as he could, as if he had broken loose from somewhere. L.L. followed the biker with his eyes, and noticed a straw hat in the bicycle basket. Intrigued, L.L. walked around the corner, only to find that the biker had lost the hat. It was now at L.L.’s feet, on the ground in the parking lot. L.L. paused, analyzed the situation, and scrutinized the place in search of the biker. A few seconds later, L.L. spotted him. The young man was standing like a devoted lover in front of an airport bus, which was ready to depart with his dear one aboard. L.L. took note of how the biker handed his girlfriend the travel items he had chivalrously carried: the black suitcase, a bag, and some other items that were of no particular interest. L.L. picked up the hat and hurried to the bus just in time to return the lost object. For a moment it seemed that he was also there to bid farewell to the young woman: a feeling of being included in a moment where he did not belong, caught up in the confusion, gratitude, and relief coming from that couple.
A string of gloomy days had been hanging over the inhabitants of the town, who went about their daily business a little more slowly than in September, stopped more often to catch their breath, and questioned the sky with their gazes every passing hour. They felt caught under a transparent lid, no better than ants in a plastic lunch box lying on the grass, above them a string of washed laundry fluttering in the wind.
L.L. surveyed this scene from the central window of his flat, with an eye to the coincidences that might happen in the street. This was an observation point where he often pressed his forehead against the cold glass as a cure for headaches. Half of the window allowed him to view passersby in the street in front of the house, as well as the entrance gate, where now he spotted the building owner gulping a few boiled potatoes. During workdays, K. always kept lunch breaks very short.
“A potato addict,” said L.L. much louder than a whisper, with a discernible note of endearment. “This is K.’s only imaginable lunch. For him even a pizza would have to be a potato pizza.” No response came to this piece of information, which L.L. apparently threw behind him in search of a conversation partner. The immediate result of the sentences was just a fogging of the window around L.L.’s mouth.
From the same angle, L.L. continued to idly take notice of people with umbrellas that moved left and right on the street. Cars were less frequent, hedgehogs rarely seen. And when the little creatures did make an appearance, they rushed over the street and ventured into the crannies of the park in search of a hibernaculum.
“Very much like me,” interjected L.L. so as to ease the connection between the terms of comparison.
When he was in a chatty mood, it happened frequently that L.L. found it necessary to intervene, adjust, and refine nuances in passages that concerned him. He would even offer his opposition, if necessary, although in a non-combative way. He was mentally alert, yet the rumor had it that L.L. heard voices. And if he did …
A few steps in the room next door called for an interruption of thoughts and voices. Upon hearing the move behind him, L.L., with his wrinkly dry hands gripping the heater, turned his head and torso to the doorframe only to be greeted with a question:
“Where shall I put this?” asked A., pointing to a small transparent glass vase, in which a butter-white flower delicately rotated its neck a few times before coming to a halt. L.L. took the round vase from his friend’s hand and lifted it above their heads into the window light. Impatiently, A. interjected:
“My goodness, L.L., are we looking under Marilyn Monroe’s white dress or what?” Ignoring A’s failure to understand, L.L. remained calm and turned the glass vase to attract a pale sunray into the picture. The white petals of the flower grew diffuse and transparent on the margins, as if in a double-exposed photograph. In the background, one could see only the blurred contour of a dark chimney. The glass, like many other objects in L.L.’s private space, radiated with warmth.
“Thanks, she will be my ballerina! I will find a place for her,” said L.L. on the way out of the room, headed to place the light flower in the spot with the most sun exposure in the flat.
Left behind in the kitchen, A. began her regular dose of complaining about the bourgeois dimensions of L.L.’s flat. Only this time her voice sounded like sea waves. The more she talked, the angrier the sea waves became, and they splashed with fury against the walls of L.L.’s home. A. invoked examples of hunger in Africa, contrasted L.L.’s flat to a favela, disapproved of ecologists and bishops driving the most fashionable cars, and simply let herself be upset and revolted.
L.L., comfortably seated in his rocking chair, did not try to counter his friend’s outburst. As he watched A. sinking to the bitter bottom of discontentedness, fury, and helplessness — almost pulling out her long, dyed hair on the way there — he strangely nodded in encouragement. Realism turned into melodrama under L.L.’s passive eyes.
Looking at the straight lines on L.L.’s face and his constant nodding, it became clear that his plan was fairly simple. Once A. finished her peroration, he would pick her up and everything would be fine again. The elephant would be pushed up the stairs in no time. But A.’s speech this time did not reiterate only her socialist critique of the flat. It went far beyond that, but still fell on L.L.’s deaf ears, where an earworm by R.E.M. had wandered. After just half an hour of furious monologue, A. reached a state of emotional exhaustion to which L.L. could no longer relate. In general, he certainly could have, but that day, L.L. felt like he was entirely under a spell that did not allow him connect to A. In fact, their communication channels would continue to drift apart in the following winter months, each of the two friends getting trapped in another temporal lobe of that season.
As if to quickly illustrate this change, strange-tongued L.L. murmured in a low-pitched voice:
“My dear friend, let me tell you a very short episode that took place in the heart of Europe, no more than two months ago. A Romanian friend of mine was on a train to Pontassieve, in Italy, when a child came to her and asked for money in Italian. This comes as no surprise at all for the inhabitants of or visitors to those beautiful lands. My friend, fond of children, just like you are, started a small conversation with the beggar and asked:
“‘Di dove sei?’
“The child promptly replied ( — please hear this in Italian):
“‘I’m from Russia.’
“My friend asked her question again, this time in Russian, in which she is fluent, but the child seemed to have forgotten her declared mother tongue in just one second. More amused than flabbergasted, my friend then attacked in yet a third language:
“‘Tell me the truth! You’re Romanian, aren’t you?’
“In her defense, the kid had nothing more to say than this:
“‘You don’t want me to embarrass Romania, do you?’”
A. had been listening carefully to L.L.’s story. After that she plunged into a long silence, punctuated by the clock ticking in the room and the two of them breathing. Although they were close friends, A. found it difficult this time to unpack L.L.’s intentions as he communicated this story. One thing was sure from the start: they both agreed on their stance toward nationalism and rejected any of its manifestations. This applied to patriotism as well. But now, this story about the little beggar’s patriotism? Was it actually an opportunistic act? Some sort of everyday patriotism? Fear of being sent back to Romania? Or was this all about assuming identities like putting on socks? This last interpretation, A. thought, would have been the most plausible. She knew L.L. well. And it hadn’t been long since they talked about people changing their names in an attempt to get the best out of life. Like that politician in a village in post-communist Romania who partially Germanized his name in the race for the mayor’s office, benefitting from the village electors’ positive stereotypes about Germans. Saxons still had a privileged place in the collective imagination of the Romanian peasants in that part of the country. In this context, the voluntary Germanization got him elected mayor of the village. When they talked about this, A. and L.L. concluded that the mayor had surely already built another story onto his house so that he could have the best view over the village.
In any case, whether L.L.’s intervention was about identity socks or not, the mention of the little beggar lingered in the room. A. would have liked to ask L.L. about his views on the episode with the Romanian / sometimes Russian / almost Italian beggar, but they both stared at each other silently. The more they wanted to communicate verbally, the more their saliva felt like glue. These were the facts: defective listening matched by a temporary inability to communicate.
“This could all be simply explained by an arrangement of the planets,” A. hazarded to suggest, on an ironic note. What she meant was that just by opening a newspaper and reading the horoscope, with its magic explanatory force, any trace of puzzlement this scene caused would disappear. But this purposely facile interpretation of the flubbed interaction between the two characters escaped L.L.’s radar for the simple reason that in his nineteenth-century newspapers, the horoscope was not yet featured. At that time suicides rather than horoscopes caught people’s interest. And as he got his increasing daily dose of yellow news at the archives and began translating documents to the archivists on Mondays, L.L. started to feel strangely inadequate on a daily basis. He tried hard to remain anchored in the present, too, but the fact of the matter was that he could now barely decipher the most basic trends of the society he lived in, let alone conjure an insightful analysis of current events. Those late autumn days, it was as though some barrier came between these two categories of time, past and non-past, leaving L.L. for the first time stranded somewhere in the middle.
For A., things stood entirely differently. In contrast to L.L., who had unknowingly suffered from a strange amnesia of the present from about the time when he saw the parachuted teddy bears with his own eyes, A.’s senses sharpened every day. Each piece of breaking news made her senses explode. As she would much later lucidly recount, this whole hypersensitivity started after skimming an article on BBC News that autumn: “The EU is to hold urgent talks on Friday over the diplomatic row between Belarus and Sweden, which followed a political stunt involving teddy bears.” It wasn’t more than an informative piece of news about teddy bears being parachuted from out of the blue and the possible consequences this political move may have had on the European Union. Yet since she laid eyes on that article, A.’s reality spectrum began to shift toward the bizarre and the surreal. Indeed, since this piece of news entered her consciousness, A. detected a turning point in her daily life. It made her crazed.
All this implied, actually, that the inability of the two friends to meet halfway in their conversation rested under the horoscope sign of teddy bears falling from the sky. While L.L. was somewhere else, getting caught up in the sensitive time of the elephants, in a past world of sensibilities, A. fully inhabited the bizarre time of the teddy bears. The separation between these two worlds was going to last until the day E.M. sat in front of a moving picture once again.
At the archives, unfiltered light fell on the three noses around the table and colored them pale yellow. The adjoining faces and bodies remained engulfed in darkness, with only L.L.’s voice vibrating in the reading room.
“Days after E.M. had been moved by the cinematic experience in one of those early spring evenings of 1898, we can still find her mesmerized. Whether in the garden or on her divan, she cannot fully carry out her daily activities with maximum concentration. Fragments from the screening periodically reappear in front of her eyes, recurring with the persistence and uncontrollability of flashbacks. For better or for worse, the kiss, the fights, and the dances keep her hypnotized. But whether E.M.’s experience is exceptional and unmatched by others, this is something that we cannot easily verify or compare. Beyond this, it can be ascertained that E.M.’s experience took place in a void. She experienced the film with no pressure to react with the emotions deemed appropriate, for her community had not yet developed these norms.”
L.L. paused for a moment so as to concentrate the archivists’ attention on the middle of the table, where she carefully turned several nineteenth-century newspaper pages as if to invoke the primary source for the statements just made. In all that semi-darkness, the turning pages immediately released a heavy smell that reached all the participants. The archivists could hardly hear how L.L. whispered a few words upon touching the newspaper —
“As sensitive as an arm’s skin,” she said. It was a brief, almost private remark on the aesthetic experience of researching in the archives. Then L.L. decisively resumed:
“Remote as that century may appear to us, E.M.’s first encounter with moving images can be at least partially translated into our own experiences because we too had our first time — as a toddler sitting on the floor in front of the TV screen at home or as a Gavroche-like tomboy sneaking into the cinema to take a peek at that glowing marvel in the dark hall with plenty of empty seats. If your childhood took place just a decade or so before the fall of the Iron Curtain, on its eastern side you may not have that many memories of a movie until after 1989. Then, your young brain would quickly have taken the shape of a commercial for sneakers and jeans, followed by many other products.
“Counting some four or five generations backward, we find E.M. as a child in the 1870s, running through an affluent garden that borders on a huge orchard with apple and nut trees. This nurturing playground in the heart of Brașov / Kronstadt / Brassó was to become E.M.’s dowry upon her marriage, and later her private queendom, for she never made it into a public garden like the one down the street. In 1880, people gathered at house number 339 to celebrate the opening of the public garden with highest quality Steinbruch and Feldioara beer, wine, and absinthe. Until E.M. became the pseudo-owner of the garden — that is, until E.M.’s husband became the new owner of the garden, her journeys would take her throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her trips often gravitated toward Vienna, one of the imperial centers of the Dual Monarchy, where she had been a student of the arts for several years. Her creative potential was considerably shaped by fin-de-siècle Viennese modernism. She became so wrapped up in modernism’s extraordinary vibrancy that modern art dominated — nay, nearly stole away — her young adult years.
“In the capital city E.M.’s heart also opened to mounting socialist and feminist emancipation struggles, whose adherents began storming parliaments around the turn of the century. She supported equality without prioritizing gender over class or vice versa. At first she did not talk much about her ideas, but she grew steadily more vocal once she decided to help facilitate the flow of political feminist ideas from one city to another. Through her hands passed international conference reports on women’s movements in Austria-Hungary, which she painstakingly copied and carefully shared with the few who could move things forward.
“When she crossed the square that evening of the 10th of March, 1898, carrying her new shattered emotions with great care so as to bring them somewhere safe, E.M. was mainly thinking as a well-intentioned collector of information about international women’s organizations. Due to state censorship and laws that prevented women from organizing political associations in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this sensitive business needed to be conducted with discretion, courage, and wisdom. And E.M. proved to be the right person for it. In the decades prior to the First World War, she succeeded in navigating and using feminist communication channels across Europe.
“Her husband had occasionally asked about the mysteriously long hours she spent bent over her papers, transcribing and translating texts until late at night. A stack of papers that she permanently carried around the house intrigued him once in a while, but he had gotten used to the wall with which she surrounded herself. E.M.’s responses to his questions systematically carved two words into the wall between the two of them: “just translations.” For lack of a better interpretation, he took them to mean that she guarded her own business, just like he did his. For as long as the monotony of their long marriage continued, there was no reason to demolish the wall. The fact of the matter was that they were at peace with one another.
“It must be explained that E.M. had married a Balkan Orthodox merchant who traded in salted fish, skins, wool, and wax, and whose travels kept him on the road to the Black Sea and to Trieste most of the year. As markets opened in more remote places in the latter half of the nineteenth century, tradesmen’s business in Brassó / Kronstadt / Brașov suffered. What a century earlier had been a wide-open trade gate to the Levant and back to the Habsburg Empire now saw its doors being firmly shut by an increasing number of greedy hands. In the late 1890s, E.M.’s husband had to go out of his way by many thousands of kilometers so as to keep their fortune from being blown away to the four cardinal points. Commerce took over the iron roads and ships increased commercial traffic on the Danube. As a direct result, distances shrunk and the flow of goods was altered. Burdensome customs regulations between the Hungarian part of the Dual Monarchy and the Romanian Kingdom only further worsened the region’s economic situation and weakened Brașov / Kronstadt / Brassó’s middle class. In the midst of these many changes, E.M.’s husband struggled to keep abreast of new technological advances. But he had a good nose for the opportunities they brought or carried away, the measure of his success represented by the numbers under the red pencil line he drew at the end of each month. Compared to many others, he fared well. And he continued to generously support the local community with hundreds of florins every time he returned to town. After all, Balkan Orthodox merchants had a long tradition of philanthropy, and E.M.’s husband was a man strongly attached to the past. In fact, the more society’s ways changed, the more he clung to his Orthodox religious roots.
“During his short stays at home, E.M. did not get to see him much. He split his time between the tradesmen’s club, an exclusive establishment where merchants gathered to play pool and talk business over a cup of Turkish coffee with comfiture, and the church, where he debated politics and made sure that he still had a say in community matters. In these key places, people of a certain status recreated the symbolic texture of their communities, weaving silk strings as spiders do to make their nests. These were the great, small, and often boring inventors of nations. They invented traditions, national dances, and all the paraphernalia that goes along with a nation. Nowadays, there are statues of most of the old-guard nationalists in city squares, and that’s where people have their meeting points — by this or that statue. Less nationalism would do everyone good.”
As L.L. stressed this last sentence, her voice sounded as if it were in the wrong gear. A transmission problem, so to speak, resulting from the mounting anger she felt toward nationalism. This caused a momentary interruption, which allowed the archivist sitting across from L.L. to swoop in with a fragment of personal memory. In a gleeful voice, the gray-haired woman invoked the first commercial she had seen on TV after 1989.
“It was about Kent,” she triumphantly announced, “the cigarettes that became the best present for bribing doctors at the beginning of post-communist times! And of course, the commercial, which unfortunately I still have in my mind now, almost crystal clear, started with a handful of corporate white men — and possibly also women, my memory fails here — occupying some offices in a skyscraper. The first smoke they inhaled propelled them, as in a dream, through the skyscraper’s windows and directly onto a yacht, where they were instantly surrounded by white women in bikinis. Sunshine and cocktails!”
“No more or less than the stereotypical capitalists’ paradise!” retorted L.L. with an ironic smile.
“Yeah, probably a tax-free haven, too,” added the second archivist, a man already well along in years.
And unexpectedly, because of the archivists’ biting remarks, L.L. felt a great deal closer to them. So they digressed a little longer, discussed Mad Men, and tapped into a possible history of emotions and marketing in the twentieth century. Would the archival holdings support such an endeavor? What sources would be available on the spot? L.L.’s eyes sparkled with delight and curiosity. The archivists, too, got a good thrill from all this, but L.L. tried to return to the initial topic, having felt a bit uneasy with the consumerist twist and the detour to cigarette circulation on Eastern black markets. She feared her story might be hijacked by digressions. So L.L. hurried to clarify that her audience should not expect her to dwell too much on the doings of the nineteenth-century nationalists. That was not her pet topic. Her intention was only to make her captive audience disengage from textbook nationalism, which she found to be a healthy mental exercise at least once in a while. But as she confessed that she could hear walls crumbling down with each person that deserted the nationalists’ club, L.L. suddenly felt she was touching a nerve. Her stance on nationalism had been long made clear, but was this too much to ask from the archivists? In a belated moment of anxiety and doubt, L.L. wondered whether she wasn’t sawing down exactly the branch she was sitting on …
L.L. veered away from another digression swirl and refolded the conversation.
“E.M. lived in a nationalists’ nest. The world was full of them at the turn of the twentieth century. Since then many books have been written about them, but none about E.M. and how she felt about several remarkable changes. The cinema evening, an illuminating discovery that she shared with no one for a long time, represents the beginning. It was right then that E.M. became aware of other senses and emotions, indicators of the complexity of feelings. But who could tell such a story? And should it be titled ‘E.M.’s epiphany’? Can anyone actually write an analytical history of feelings? Does one have to have elephant ears to be able to hear and feel E.M.’s intuitive search for emotions? With whom could she share them?”
With these concluding words, L.L. closed the dusty newspaper pages and found herself keeping a fragile balance at the border of history and literature.
Meanwhile, at approximately the same elephant time, E.M. lit a red phosphorus match and waited on the divan with a stack of papers and books.
It was mostly from the windows of her flat that L.L. carefully observed how September and October tumbled one after the other in microscopic dust particles. As soon as autumn leaves covered the streets with solid melancholy, diligent citizens came out of their homes, gathered the leaves and threw them away. Melancholy was just yellow garbage.
After these two average autumn months passed, L.L. started pacing up and down her flat, as if a metronome, showing a tacitly increasing restlessness quite unlike her regular autumn behavior, no matter where she found herself on her map of archives. Now, at the beginning of November with a breath of winter, she felt as if on pins and needles.
Usually, L.L.’s time unfolded without a precise schedule: some activities were repetitive like her name, some were diluted like regular American coffee, while others came in indigestible chunks. And when all of these everyday time-blocks were arranged systematically one on top of the other, the boredom bricks shone like gold. If someone went to the trouble of carefully contemplating L.L.’s regular autumn life, her days would have appeared like a melancholic tapestry with streaks of gold.
During that autumn of 2012 with falling teddy bears, L.L. experienced slightly fewer bright moments of boredom than usual. Fortunately, in one of them, L.L. toyed with the idea of a dog. And once the perspective of a future faithful companion appeared in her mind, she immediately found a name for the pet — I. — and found solace in it.
“At least a dog’s name if not a dog,” thought L.L., and oftentimes took the name for an imaginary walk — L.L. and I. It had a soothing effect.
From where she was lying stretched out on a rug in the living room, L.L. lifted her gaze, and without prior notice she made a claim on the previous sentence:
“I want to explain, it was a necessary exercise in self-delusion … an exercise!” she echoed weakly, her lips almost colorless. Then, after a short pause, she nodded and said:
“Go on, explain further, I’m listening carefully.”
The colder and darker it got that year, stamped with the deceiving promise of sweet, white backyard scenery, the less L.L. was granted these moments of free boredom. Instead, ten thousand thoughts and dead feelings began to echo emptily inside her, announcing the approach of the untamed winter she had always known. The voice at the back of L.L.’s head only amplified and repeated all those fearful imaginings, like a loop machine with a microphone. And because of this exacerbated anxiety, L.L.’s rambles through town occurred with less frequency, and even meetings with K. met the same fate. Occasionally, only the archives could draw her out.
Day followed day with L.L. unable to stop tormenting thoughts from galloping into her flat. Of all the people around her, it was only A. who fully knew what to expect because she had seen how, in winter, L.L.’s fears turned into one wild beast: a hyena that devoured whatever feelings it found dead inside L.L.’s body. At one of those worst times of winter, A. had witnessed L.L.’s Fear, which had grown so acute that it forced L.L. to retreat far into the realm of madness. There, L.L. had only herself to fear; not death, not others, just herself.
As the rise and rise of coldness became unstoppable, L.L. could vaguely recall that sweet winter contradiction from the beginning of autumn, which by now had become as meaningless as a forgotten glove in the streets.
If only she had known then that at the end of winter, she would find the island where fallen clouds turn into sheep. If so, perhaps she would have found the strength to get through winter with the same physical and mental ability with which a student pulls an all-nighter.
Upon hearing word of the end of winter, L.L. huddled up closer to the wall, which to her felt pleasantly warm, like a healing brick taken out of the oven. Her dazzled eyes opened wide and the pupils began to dilate despite the room’s luminosity. Slim colorful rings circled and circled L.L.’s dark pupils where pieces of furniture and a painting of old King-Fu found their distorted reflections.
So it happened that once the idea of a future scenario appeared as if projected on the living room wall, present fears of winter were temporarily disabled. All eyes and ears, L.L. listened to the foretelling voice.
This is how it could end.
Once winter is over, in the early spring days when some species of crocuses bloom, L.L. will leave on an unplanned journey as if drawn by a magnet. After all, she has always allowed herself to go places without following a logical explanation. In this spontaneous trip, L.L. goes straight from the archives to the train station, then further and further away. She crosses Europe’s now invisible borders as if passing by apple trees, driving without hesitation, at full legal speed in a rented car down the roads that lead to the sea. When the sun is at its palest, she turns right once, and then once again, taking a fragile connecting road between the mainland and a former island. Behind the speeding car remains the biggest and nearest town. Soon, its gray shape disappears entirely from the rear-view mirror; ahead, the landscape becoming richer in shades of blue and green. Creamy white dots eat lazily from this vivid picture and turn, at the back of L.L.’s mind, into pregnant sheep.
The day is old enough.
A white fearless fence runs parallel to the speeding car. Along the left side, the shore is slowly moving at some distance; well-delimited and protected, it hosts flocks of birds with tired wings, waiting for the sea to serve them fresh fish. The tide is coming in, and the ships with their spread fishing nets are going out into open water. White birds follow suit. This is the territory of a former island, now patched with plastic nets that prevent the soil from being taken away by the sea. Each day, for a few hours, a number of sluices allow the ocean to peacefully reach into the core of the former island and to fill it with some sort of fish soup. The kilometers of dike all around it make it look like a huge plate. On those blocks of rocks, L.L. sees families steadily marching with the wind, adults proudly carrying heavy cameras on their chests. Ahead of the parents run children with imaginary bows and arrows, heading straight toward a group of old ladies who walk with determination against the wind, each armed with two umbrellas used as walking sticks.
L.L. is on time.
From the back, she appears to be an automatic pilot at the wheel. The more she sinks into the countryside rhythm, the more she feels like a crab brought to the shore at high tide. A careful eye can see how L.L. is slowly coming back to a green and blue life and leaving her hibernation mode. Above the road, clouds roll quickly by in geometrical shapes above L.L.’s piercing glance. After the next curve, L.L. is speeding as if in a rush to end the day’s travel. She parks the rented car in the fields and a shortcut brings her to the seashore. L.L. anchors her feet three meters offshore and feels how the cold water reaches up to her ankles. Her eyes open to the sea; there seems to be nothing else out there but dark green water. And as the waves constantly rush to the shore, toward her eyelashes, the earth begins to feel smaller and rounder. Behind L.L., the distance to the shore steadily increases and she can now make believe that she’s standing in the middle of a calm sea. Only from there can she observe the incredibly speedy air currents above her head.
And this is when it happens: a spot in the sky bursts with red and yellow lights, and the sky cracks like a ripe watermelon. Around this spot clouds quickly amass, attacking each other like dragons; the few pockets of remaining blue sky move fast, looking for a more peaceful place somewhere else. In the remix of sky and water, L.L. is standing rapt, watching this transformation with her wide-angled eyes. After the dragon fight, the cloud winners continue their mobile surveillance from above, whereas the losers fall through this yellow-red spot and tumble down on dikes or into the water. In their fall, which happens in a blink, the clouds turn into sheep, which the ebbs and flows of the sea safely carry further up the dike and into the inner island. From there, the sheep-clouds can only complain out loud by periodically throwing syllables into the wind at each other. But all this is to no avail because the transformation is irreversible: the spot in the sky soon closes with a sooty luminosity. Upon their fall to earth, most of the clouds retain a creamy white color, some others develop a long tail, yet others bear a red stripe on their backs. All of them are numbered, with blue or dark red colors, which seal their mortal condition.
L.L. quietly takes a seat on the margin of this huge plate so as to better observe its strange ebbs and flows. As others are bird-watchers, L.L. is about to become a keen observer of the more subtle phenomenon that involves clouds and sheep. Clouds, she understands, are not to be underestimated. When bored, they put on a serious act, with grave consequences, for once a fallen cloud touches the green grass, there’s no way back.
So, at the end of the winter tunnel, wrapped up in one of her protective fictitious bubbles, L.L. would find an unusual place to explore. This is what the soothsaying predicted, a safe haven for her. But even if she listened with dilated pupils to the scenario of this narrative voice, L.L. would still not fully trust the dénouement proposed. Her contribution until then had been too small: from the beginning she had wished to be the retired captain of it all. A crude prolepsis or a soothsaying, no matter what one preferred to call it — even a lullaby — made no difference to her, as she sensed that something was still missing: her own touch, her decision, or at least some consensus.
Despite all this criticism that L.L. gently formulated, sitting now with her back to the wall, L.L. remained ultimately patient, nodding with some degree of contentment and wisdom as if to say that there would always be different ways of noticing the world, of speaking of it, and of being in it. L.L. was, after all, not so unreasonable.
“One of those days or months around 1900, whose dull date is as difficult as it is useless to identify, E.M. returned home to a busy kitchen with two heavy bags: one full of beetroots, one of green walnuts from her large orchard. She laid them carefully on the wooden table and subtly pushed them in the direction of her mother, who fidgeted in a corner. Despite being a sick old woman, her mother never stopped working around the house. If she was going to die anyhow, at least she wanted to die doing something useful.
“‘Too many people die in their own beds anyway,’ she had retorted with finality to E.M.’s last nagging reproach. And every single thing her mother did gave the impression that she wanted to be taken out of the kitchen with her feet ahead of her — in a coffin. Ever since mother and daughter cleared up this point, they had been getting along better: one cooked and the other wrote down the mother’s recipes. In between these activities, moments of tension seldom burst.
“Next to the bags on the table lay a grayish paper on which E.M. had already jotted down ideas for a new project: an introduction to the sweet delights of the regional cuisine — șerbet, rahat, halva, and dulceață. It was her mother’s wish to have all the recipes in order before she died, so they both proceeded systematically and recorded their family’s taste for food. E.M. liked to say that together they reported on the taste buds and sweet tooth of all the colonialists, merchants, migrants, border guards, and peasants across generations. E.M. had another motive, however: she was hoping to prolong her mother’s life with each recipe she re-enacted in the kitchen.
“About fifteen years later, it would be only E.M. who got to see parts of these recipes in print. The Austrian Frauen-Rundschau published an article under a headline that E.M. did not approve of: ‘Vom Speisezettel des Orients.’ In a complex and fairly unfortunate twist of events, E.M. found she could do little to correct this title, which she perceived to represent the stereotypical balance between West and East, between civilized and barbarian. It was a symbolic game of stereotypes and self-perceptions that she could not escape. Throughout her life, E.M. continued to struggle with it, without comforting results. In any case, the article appeared in a section called ‘Für die Hausfrau,’ and it aroused the curiosity of some ladies. A string of correspondence ensued, visits took place upon precise agreement, and ‘Gesegnete Mahlzeit’ warmed up their shared meals in Brassó / Kronstadt / Brașov. E.M. had an inborn sense for hospitality, as did most people in her region.
“But her mother would never see these events. After a dozen silent minutes, E.M. said as convincingly as she could:
“‘Mother, your fingers will become black again. Please, let me help you with the walnuts.’ The dark circles around her mother’s eyes stood out in sharp contrast to her white blouse. She didn’t look well. Neither did she seem prepared to deal with that mountain of walnuts alone. The bag that E.M. had just carried inside was full of bright green spheres — soft nuts, whose inner brown shells were not yet firm. The first task was to carve a three-dimensional hexagon through the layers of shell and fleshy husk, a surgery that would turn any fingers green, then black.
“‘Little girl, there’s nothing you can do to help me here. I have all I need for the comfiture. Go ahead and see to your papers. I will call you when I am done.’
“As E.M. opened the door to do as her mother wished, her exit was interrupted by another request:
“‘And please take this vase with you! It will be too hot in here once I start heating the stove.’
“Behind E.M. and the sensitive flower, the door closed with a conclusive squeak. Dismissed from the kitchen, E.M. was left with a flickering déjà vu, which, to her disappointment, ceased all too soon, gone before she could attempt to fully embrace it, preoccupied as she was with finding a place for the vase. Now, there was really nothing else she needed to do in the kitchen while waiting for her mother to finish the exquisite comfiture of green walnuts.
“E.M. knew that her mother revered her writings and paintings as if they were religious icons, and that the comfiture was just a token of the mother’s adoration for her. Could E.M. have done more in the kitchen? The process of cleaning and preparing the walnuts was painstaking, and she would have liked to help, but the more she tried to oppose her mother’s wishes, the worse her mother’s health became.
“A trace of guilt for not insisting on helping in the kitchen followed E.M. into the other room and circled her like a lonely cat.
“‘If only guilt could be as tender …,’ she thought.
“E.M. and an invisible cat curled up together on the divan, surrounded with a semicircle of letters, books, brochures, and newspapers. On E.M.’s left side, on top of the first stack, was a blue brochure printed in German that reported at length on the 1899 International Congress of Women in London. E.M. lifted the newly acquired item, flipped through it with a glowing face, and set it aside until its turn came to be translated. Methodically, she then spread the papers around her even more, opened the Revue de Morale Sociale, and prepared a sheet of paper on which to copy an article by Marianne Hainisch. In this text, the feminist leader gave a thorough account of the women’s movement in Austria, a matter of great interest for E.M. Before picking up her sensitive business where she had left it, E.M. bent over the small table in front of the divan to light a candle with a red phosphorus match. She performed this gentle move forward while holding her breath for a few seconds.”
Her arm remained stretched half-way into the air when L.L. immediately seized upon this slow-motion suspension of events and spirit, and burst with enthusiasm in front of the archivists:
“This drop of diluted time is a wonder! You have to slow down and hold your anticipation horses because otherwise you will miss a glorious anachronism in full glow produced when E.M. lights the match.”
The archivists stopped and rewound, adding a magenta filter from the beetroots. They did precisely as they had been told. Opposite them, L.L., the non-performer, was now standing on a stage that she herself had built. Her face radiated with a specific kind of pleasure, one derived from prying into the historian’s mental struggles.
“Anachronism is said to be the original sin of the historians,” L.L. began her explanation cheerfully.
“And if this is so, then I will never atone for my many anachronisms. Truth be told, I carry anachronisms and prolepses in my pockets as others carry their car and house keys. Anachronisms are my hobbyhorses.
“You see, a historian of science would probably spot this anachronism right away and ask whether E.M. really did light a red phosphorus match that day curled up on the divan. Caught in our paradigm of knowledge, we, as civilians and not members of the military, are used to red matches today. Or maybe we rarely use matches at all. But at the turn of the twentieth century white (or yellow) phosphorus matches were widespread, not red ones. Although by then white phosphor had been identified as the cause of bone illnesses, leading to so many deaths that there was a collective attempt to ban its use in matches, it was some years before the change was made.”
With an involuntary gesture, L.L. placed her left hand on a blue brochure and spread her fingers. Her table at the archives was no different in its outlook than E.M.’s divan: books and folders with documents towered atop a squeaky table. As a matter of fact, some of these papers, which constituted L.L.’s spontaneous bibliography, had once been touched by E.M. herself. Upon L.L.’s prior written request, the archivists had searched for them in the dark and cold storage rooms of the archives and handed them over. Some documents came in boxes, tied with strings, like gifts. Now they were on the table, under the archivists’ eyes, and L.L. was leafing through them. Due to their daily contact with stored documents and their fungi, as well as the bureaucracy that accompanied them, the archivists had developed an ambivalent relationship to their job. Oftentimes, they focused on how difficult it was to make sense of all that material full of fungi, of all those handwritten documents in almost unrecognizable languages or with characters no longer in use. But here stood L.L. in front of them, like a ventriloquist, apparently trying to change their minds.
Keeping her hand on the same book, L.L. continued, undisturbed:
“A concerned social historian tells us that the beginning of the twentieth century saw the start of international health protection measures. In September 1906, an international convention took place in Bern with the goal of banning white phosphorus from the match industry. Alas! Few states took responsibility for their citizens and workers, whose working hours in those times were a “matter of free agreement,” and even fewer politicians took it upon themselves to pass laws that safeguarded health. In 1906, Austria-Hungary was no exception and ignored the white phosphorus issue. Only later, in 1911, did Hungary pass a law that banned the matches. And it took another two years until the law came into effect. Today, mercury seems to be writing a similar history,” added L.L. on a passing note that lightly scratched the surface of today’s reality.
“It is highly likely that E.M. used those matches at least once a day, until around 1911, for heating one stove or the other. Alternatively, in the rest of the house she could switch on electric lamps, if she really wished. By 1908, such lamps had become available to the Transylvanian middle class. They could be ordered from Gabor Bereș’s shop in the center of the province, as advertised in a Romanian newspaper. These ads are one of the best sources to get a feeling of what was on the market in past times, from sewing machines and ladies’ powder to high heels and fancy carriages. In 1907, in the same geographic area, Edison’s phonograph could be bought for as little as 5 florins. To buy a phonograph, one needed only to get in touch with Tóth József, in Szeged. His ad in a Romanian newspaper called Tribuna assured potential clients that his trade knew no language barriers.
“Anyway, the sad irony of the story about white phosphorus is that, far from disappearing from the world, this material has had at least a century-long career in warfare. Almost not a war goes by without having white phosphorus on somebody’s bloody hands …”
Short of breath, L.L. paused briefly to adjust her position on the chair; opposite her, the archivists, whom L.L. perceived as practically identical, breathed regularly and calmly, like cats about to fall asleep. They would remind no one of fierce Cerberus, and they guarded a deposit of no interest to most. Except for L.L., those who had stepped into the cold archives were mostly lawyers and private individuals in search of old property documents. But on this day, even these people were absent.
With a gentle touch from left to right, L.L.’s hand grazed the yellow surface of a big newspaper lying open before her. She moved her fingers slightly up and down, as if the letters were printed in a tactile writing system. Or maybe L.L. could read the goose bumps of a very long and skinny arm made of documents, which passed through and connected all the archives in the world.
Having noticed L.L.’s finger movement, the archivists locked eyes with one another. Under their curious gazes, L.L. concluded:
“I consider anachronisms to be like gravestones and not original sins. They are almost always present, each time we attempt to read into the past’s hand. They show us the entrance point into the past. Or even into the future. But for now, it suffices to conceive of this intentional anachronism, which flickered under E.M.’s eyes, as a place where we can rest. Call it a meta matchbox, meant for another sort of use — maybe in an emergency situation or as a kind of invitation … as you see fit.”
At age three, L.L. uttered the first “if conditional” clause of his life. Not long thereafter, before he turned seven, L.L. lost his faith.
L.L. found himself contemplating such transitions on one of those late November days when he could do nothing more than patiently glue layers of newspaper one on top of another.
“A pastime of sorts or, if you wish, just another way of measuring elephant time,” interrupted L.L. to clarify.
L.L. attempted to remember his first experience with a Christian religion and his coming closer to the break with it. For L.L. as a child, religion stories were all about funny things done by angels and people who walked on water. Therefore, L.L. went about understanding these stories in a peculiar way: instead of simply believing, he copied them and attempted to put the gist of these stories into practice as best he could. As a consequence, L.L. spent his early years in a frustrating process of trial-and-error that taught him the limits of his possibilities and abilities. Everything unfolded very fast. It took just three or four trials of do-it-yourself miracles with inconclusive results, and everything seemed to be over.
It was a failed start, and as a child he felt he had been betrayed. In later decades, L.L. wrestled more and more with a persistent feeling of guilt, one of the few items of his early Christian education that he had been unable to completely remove or ignore. When he detected it, L.L. was forced to think more and more about his beginnings and, implicitly, about his falling out with religion. After all those years, it became very clear to L.L. that it hadn’t been a clear-cut deal.
The way it happened was neither too ordinary, nor too extraordinary. Inside him, this episode remained engulfed in a gray in-betweenness of retouched layers of memory.
In search of precisely this memory fragment, L.L.’s thoughts sneak out through the heating system of the house, continue down into the basement, and reach the branching network of pipes in the main street. Although hardly visible, L.L. is there, running with fury through the pipeline system. Two gray images overlap: it could be that L.L. actually is running on a country road, whereas in the background there are just grotesque endless pipes. He continues to run angrily, without a sign of relief or fatigue, until an indescribable reek stops him. Bedraggled, L.L. collapses with a visceral shout among the pipelines. The double image with L.L.’s transparent body against the underground construction of huge tubes is disappearing gradually until it all becomes a white bedsheet. After a few seconds, a series of red numbers flash in one corner of a white rectangle, and only the C-shaped curve of L.L.’s spine is rendered visible on the right-hand side of the rectangle: a large and dark brown semi-circle with protuberances in the foreground, covering one third of the white sheet. That’s when L.L. briefly takes over his own voice. Comfortably seated on a chair in the cinematic corner of his spacious flat, L.L. gazes somewhere undefined and explains:
“Getting back there has always been a convoluted, violent journey, and the more often I go back, the more improbable my own memories become, until I end up suspecting that I myself invented them as a distraction. And for whose unproductive entertainment might that be except for my own, A.’s, and a few others? For K. too? In any case, whenever I have doubts about the mix of imagination and memory, I try to look at the quality of light in those mixed fragments. You know, I was never really good at inventing natural light. Instead, my skull pretends to be a camera obscura and it lets the light go in and out. On the way out, it projects images upside down. Then, somehow I find my way through the memory layers with a lantern, and decipher what could really have happened and what could not. But more than that I cannot say … Just that I am convinced that memories are like allophones — variants of one thing that once happened: m1, m2, m3, …, mn. I could make up a scheme to ease visualization, but instead let me tell you that that summer afternoon, when I measured myself against the tree that was growing in front of my window, I really thought that one day I would surpass it in height. At that age all I wanted to be was tall as a tree or even slightly taller. I circled it in wonder, as I still do with some trees, and rejoiced over the thought of growing up together. Creeks, trees, and hens had the same ontological status as other children around me.”
One day, probably the same summer, when, because of an unlucky throw between two individuals, a Rubik’s cube fell and broke beyond repair, L.L. decided to make up for this loss. So he tried to replace the commercially successful toy with something just as captivating, though it proved quite difficult to find an adequate substitute. Eventually, the little one settled on an idea which required only a few ingredients: soil and the breath of life.
Fully concentrated on the new activity, L.L. headed outside to the front of the building. There, in his tiny head, as small as the skull of a child between three and seven can be, the fall of the Rubik’s cube repeated itself over and over again. And for each mental image of the destructive fall, L.L. compensated with heaping tablespoons of soil, which he carefully placed in a white plastic bag. Kneeling next to his favorite (almost twin) tree, he managed to scoop a fairly large hole, which grew in direct proportion to the tree and to his own stature. From this point onward, the scrambled cube was as good as forgotten.
Once L.L. carried out this compensatory activity, he scudded up the stairs with the plastic bag full of soil and pushed the door wide open. Without a second to waste, L.L. fervently looked around the house for a newspaper. And because he was on the verge of bursting with impatience, all the objects around him got further away and stayed out of his reach for an indeterminate period of time. If someone had watched the scene from above, she would see L.L. as an insignificant dot teetering in the space in the middle of the room. Each attempt at grabbing things brought him nothing, because they all mischievously pulled away from him. L.L. acted the part of a magnet repelling and being repelled by all the objects in the room.
Were the objects in the room afraid of him? Did he do something wrong? What were his real intentions? Hadn’t L.L. learned almost all that he needed to know about the depths of space by that age? These questions remained without a clear answer, as L.L. threw himself on the floor in a fit of anger. The room shook with cries and tears. And then it suddenly stopped. Above the ceiling there was only blue sky; the tantrum had entirely disappeared.
Newspaper in hand, tetchy L.L. suddenly spun on his heels, grabbed the plastic bag full of soil, and proceeded with a remake of Genesis. Had a week gone by without one of the adults telling him about God’s creation of man? As early as possible, L.L.’s family had attempted to bring him up in close connection to God, complete with strict hours reserved for religious study. But he was initiated into the stories of the Bible without the cautious warning “don’t try this at home (or anywhere else, for that matter).”
On this day, L.L. advanced pretty far in his creative activity. He had already covered the bed with newspapers to protect it, and then attentively emptied the contents of the plastic bag onto it. All in all, a simple sequence of activities, just like that one sentence in the Bible:
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
L.L.’s tiny hands tried to mold the soil. Seeing that it would not stick together, he rushed to get a glass of water, which helped make the dirt moist and easy to mold. To the best of his abilities, he transformed that heap of soil into a small creature that looked like a human being. The resemblance was striking, at least in L.L.’s mind. With this human-shaped mixture of soil formed under his hands, there was nothing else left to do than to breathe the breath of life into its nostrils. And after all, the adult’s description of how to achieve this seemed pretty simple indeed because only two verbs were needed: “to form” and “to breathe.”
Not a scintilla of doubt prevented L.L. from carrying out his plan of replacing the Rubik’s cube; not an “if conditional” clause popped into his mind. Yet it did not and it could not happen.
As for the rest of the memory flash, it would be a matter of courtesy to avoid too detailed a description of L.L.’s red face as he blew breath into the soil that refused to come to life. Eventually, a vociferous adult interrupted the chain of events that had stagnated at a crucial point. Kneeling at the bed side and absorbed in this apparently dirty and sinful activity, L.L. was taken completely by surprise and never managed to explain what he was doing there. He had had auctorial intentions and had worked until his red cheeks turned into two big Christmas globes. Nonetheless, the adult reacted mercilessly and solicited immediate cessation of all mud activities on the bed. Immediate and final.
L.L.’s feelings first veered toward genuine disappointment and confusion, feelings which arose after any serious attempt at an endeavor ultimately failed. That was when L.L. started sampling a range of new deep emotions, which (just like E.M.) he preferred to keep for himself. Almost all the experiences that occurred in those early years of his life mixed themselves together into a fragile package made up of traces of guilt, shame, and discipline. So L.L. absorbed willy-nilly cultural lessons about property, about bourgeois respectability, about gender roles, etc. Not long thereafter, L.L. started feeling like a factory-farmed animal. The only distinction he felt was that he was kept in another type of cage, being fed advertisements and products.
Of course, when L.L. was interrupted in his attempt to breathe life into the soil, he would have liked to have plead not guilty to the religious storyteller who caught him in the act. But L.L. couldn’t find a voice to explain something that he himself could not understand in the first place. It seemed that if L.L. had done everything as he’d been told, he should have succeeded in his creative endeavor. But somewhere along the way, the attempt went terribly wrong, and L.L. got one baby step closer to understanding disappointment and self-blame.
In the long run and with hindsight, L.L. regarded this failed experience as the beginning of his disbelief. He recorded this instance as his 37th attempt to recall that childhood episode and made a note that this was precisely memory piece m137, another voluntary jump on his memory trampoline.
This sort of activity usually left him drained and fatigued, so he felt the urge to take his invented I. for a long walk around the neighborhood.
Together L.L. and I. opened the door and exited with an umbrella, all in a rush.
It was early December when the town threw itself into the Christmas tumult without a parachute. Meanwhile, news channels obsessively broadcast records of online sales. Some decades before, east of the Iron Curtain, radio and TV were full of boasts of similar records; only then the records were of the pumped-up achievements of the working class.
When the belly of the collective memory groaned and grumbled one of those early-December Monday mornings, spindle-legged L.L. crossed the urban landscape diagonally. He moved as if to make it clear through his physical direction that he wouldn’t let the commercial craze touch him. Despite his determination, L.L.’s resistance would soon be defeated. He found his way to the archives with difficulty, as if carrying a burden. L.L. had been going through a prolonged disheartening period. Not only did the consumerist mania manage to embitter him, but winter’s dropping temperatures and lack of sun power contributed to his worsening mood. Lately, L.L. had been feeling as immobile as a cactus in a room full of teddy bears. In recent years, this state had been medicalized and labeled “seasonal affective disorder.” Lacking a better option, L.L. clung to his hours spent at the archives like a smoker clutching his pack of cigarettes. At the archives, the story-bubbles L.L. blew brought him and the archivists together the way cigarette smoke unites smokers exhaling a gray cloud in unison.
L.L. did not distinguish much between a museum of fine arts, an archive, and a cinema hall, for all three facilitated remarkable experiences for his spine. L.L.’s steps, which measured about forty centimeters each, went from point H to point A, with the precision and concentration of a tight-rope walker’s. His footfalls also followed an existential routine, without which L.L. would have certainly suffered an inner collapse or a catatonic reaction. Each step L.L. took toward the archives gave him a simultaneous sense of equilibrium and unbalance, which reminded him of an artwork that he had seen at the Palais de Tokyo several years before. The installation, safely stored in L.L.’s memory, invited the public to go through an immaculate corridor, white and long enough to provoke a temporary loss of balance. The walker’s eyes would eventually find the only available reference point, at the other end of the corridor: a small orange flower that hung slightly above L.L.’s eye level. Gazing at the flower in all that white emptiness gave L.L. a trance-like sense of stability amidst a deliberately provoked dizziness. Similarly, L.L. saw the archives as orange flowers in white-gray towns in winter time.
That day, as he approached the local archives, L.L. could see from afar a dark, wavering spot inside one of these direction-flowers. It appeared to be only a moving shadow, but upon closer inspection it gained the contours of a tossing and turning woman. Only when L.L. was with the archivists did this quicksilver dot transform into a limpid picture of E.M.
“It must have been during one of the feminist meetings that E.M. attended in a city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (most likely in Prague, around the time Czech women founded the Committee for Women’s Voting Rights in December 1905) that she attempted to find more public cinema screenings. She did so discreetly, as if to show a reasonable, and not excessive, amount of curiosity. In those years, E.M. was almost entirely absorbed by the increasing internationalization of women’s movements, which intensified throughout Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. So, during those liberating trips, E.M. found little time for her own inner puzzles.
“For a very long time, E.M. decided not to openly talk to anyone about her sensuous and emotional responses to her first cinematic experience. She must have felt inexplicably vulnerable when it came to talking about it. It had become clear to her that the experience had generated her most private and intense emotions. At the same time, E.M. feared that by revealing them in any language she would have compromised their quality, so she chose to bury these emotions inside herself. But what E.M. did not foresee from the beginning was that the memory of these intense emotions would deteriorate like a strip of photographic film buried in the ground. The results of this transformation process could have led to a pleasant aesthetic experiment, or they could have turned into a total disaster. Because of the value the memory carried in E.M.’s heart, the latter hypothesis appears more plausible. Before searching for the next opportunity of viewing moving pictures, E.M. had to think twice or indeed, more often, about the best course of action. What if it had been a one-time reaction, never to happen again? E.M. feared that she wouldn’t be able to reach that same intensity with her whole body and nervous system. It was, after all, a legitimate concern. Don’t we all fear that on a second or third reading our favorite book might not stir the same pleasure in us? The urgency of these questions kept E.M. in the house, and it was years before she saw another short film. But little did she know that this much-awaited experience would prove so heartbreaking … Meanwhile, E.M. filled the lapse of time between her first and her second cinematic experience with an idiosyncratic mix of events that she recorded in this scrapbook.”
With very simple movements, L.L. pushed the document toward the middle of the table, as he usually did, and opened it without a sound. It looked like a black family album, with semi-transparent gray pages prefacing thick ones. As its square covers moldered on the wooden table, the archivists approached its content with an expert, distant attitude. Because they had been classifying documents for several decades, the archivists had begun to feel overwhelmed by the increasing number of papers to be classified and stored, so they fell into a daily, cumbersome routine, which L.L. had been trying to break. In the storage rooms, the archivists handled their documents gently, wearing gloves to protect against skin diseases, whereas at the front desk, they concentrated on learning computer programs for building an online archive. These painstaking efforts were in addition to the everyday bureaucratic process of facilitating the public’s access to documents. “Two hands per person are not enough for this job,” the archivists once confessed to L.L., who was now carefully luring them into E.M.’s scrapbook, the systematic record of what pleased her and what disturbed her.
“Newspaper clippings, pencil drawings, photographs, the latest dictionary entries, and handwritten texts in ink and pencil of the most fascinating kind,” said L.L., enumerating the most obvious items collected in the scrapbook.
“In order to understand what senses lay in wait within her,” he explained, “E.M. grew convinced that she should become radically more perceptive. She allowed herself to slowly respond to the world around her, with less and less concern for social conventions.
“For instance, from among the Habsburgs,” L.L. continued, pointing to a photograph, “E.M. included only Archduke Franz Ferdinand in her scrapbook. And even he was included only once, thanks to the company he enjoyed: a splendid elephant from India whose image made E.M. carefully scan her knowledge and list all the books she had read about elephants and zoos. By her own estimation, E.M.’s knowledge about these creatures was the size of an elephant toenail.”
At first glance, E.M.’s handwriting appeared to be tidy, but upon further inspection it proved difficult to decipher. The photograph, an original albumen print from 1893, which E.M. received as a gift on the occasion of a Viennese ball, was glued into the middle of a page. Small lines emanating from the photo connected clouds of words, lists, random associations, numbers, and doodles. Having already found the meaning of these fragments, L.L. was now moving between them with ease and satisfaction.
On the other side of the table, the archivists played the role of the skeptical pessimist and took delight in teasing L.L. with their straw man about the futility of archival research and the impossibility of making sense of all that numbered mess. This was a small, conventional battle that the archivists and L.L. had been fighting in the background for about a year now; gradually, that Monday afternoon, its remote noises ceased altogether.
In the dusty reading room, pale afternoon sunrays pierced the window blinds, scanning the three faces bent over E.M.’s scrapbook. What was it after all that they were holding in their hands? An art album? An electrocardiogram? Perhaps private notes that no one should have read. As the uninvited readership turned page after page, hour after hour, interpreting the prints of E.M.’s understanding of her own life, they found more signs and drawings, arrows, a gray lock of hair pinned to another photograph (perhaps of the mother), and a selection of newspaper fragments. One of them reported on a 1902 car race from Paris to Vienna won by Marcel Renault, who covered the 1,430 km route in 25 hours, 51 minutes. With a green pencil, E.M. had circled all these numbers, and scribbled a mathematical equation which none of the readers was able to decode. With the next cutting, L.L. seemed to push the archivists a little further in a direction he wanted. In a raspy voice, L.L. translated the following piece of news for his audience:
“It happened eighteen years ago in the small town of Albi (in southern France) that the sex of a little boy could not be determined at birth. The newborn was a hermaphrodite. It was then decided that an official commission would determine the sex of the newborn at the age of eighteen. Meanwhile, the parents forgot all about what had happened at the birth of the child, who grew over the years into a girl of rare beauty. Great was the parents’ surprise the other day when a commission of doctors came to their house to determine the lady’s sex. The commission ascertained that Miss Maria Luisa was a boy. They cut her blond locks at once and instead of Maria Luisa, they named him Marius. As a consequence, ‘lady’ Marius started wearing trousers instead of skirts.”
Visibly irritated by the article’s vague, coy dance of reportage, L.L. found himself launching into almost academic language about textual terrorism, fear as a silencer of dissent, and the violent medicalization of hermaphroditism, all of which added to his frustration. Unable to control himself, L.L. ended with a rant about the roles newspapers willingly assumed for themselves, thus reinforcing codes of behavior, nationalizing the masses, and disciplining the national body.
With this extended critique, the room was invaded by an underlying current of irritation, which threatened to turn into a wave of mounting anger. The table and the chairs squeaked under this pressure, and the change of atmosphere almost swept the archivists off their feet. Did L.L. translate E.M.’s feelings correctly, or was it his own uncontrollable frustration that had just burst? Should he continue to unleash the fury or defuse the crisis? A screaming match would have been particularly fitting, and L.L. could see it taking place in front of his eyes. He felt his reaction was justified.
“Do you think all books and movies are made to endlessly please?” L.L. threw a rhetorical question into the air. And then, to support a negative answer to the question, he added:
“One of my favorite film directors once said that a film ‘ought to be like a pebble in your shoe.’” With no intention of sparing the archivists, he proceeded to ride the angry wave. Closing the primary source for that day’s account, he said:
“Imagine that we are now looking at E.M. sitting in a majestic hall, her eyes glued to the screen. She sees a curious mixture of short films and doesn’t know exactly what to expect. First, a couple of medical films roll silently. Typically for that early period in film history, they were meant to warn the population of various diseases. Then, E.M. watches with endurance a filmed surgery performed by Eugène-Louis Doyen: monochrome blood and tissue, cinematography applied to medicine. With good reason you lift your shoulders in wonder: what is she doing there? How did she get there? What does she see that you cannot? Upon a friend’s recommendation, E.M. must have managed to gain access to a medical congress, where the organizers were screening a series of moving pictures. She’s sitting, engrossed, and this is how she will remain for a long time after the screening is over: transfixed in front of a fuming, colossal corpse of a nonhuman animal.
“What E.M. saw on the screen that day was the public execution of an elephant.
“As I begin telling you about it, I feel that I am myself becoming the megaphone of the executioner. And to attempt to describe for you how that elephant was electrocuted in front of hundreds and hundreds of people who enjoyed the spectacle would mean to me no less than killing the elephant again, with just the two of you as my witnesses. But will you take responsibility in this re-enactment procedure, too?”
The archivists look confused and unsettled. But hadn’t they silently made a peaceful, fictional pact with L.L.? And now, if in seeing, hearing, touching, and telling, L.L. feels a kind of complicity, then they too are required to witness an execution. Opposite the archivists, he looks disturbed and highly anxious. Why is it that for L.L., retelling means participating? To him, it’s the same as being in a cheering mob in a public square, in a zoo, or at a circus. Not only that, but for L.L. even a reader of a newspaper that renders all the lip-smacking details of a public execution must react viscerally. L.L. feels his throat veins pulsating thick blood up to his brain; his face turns red and his entire body feels like a vessel through which power is being diffused. The veins strangle him, with the archivists watching.
“I am convinced that it would be sacrilege to dwell on the death of the elephant for too long. E.M. herself made only one solemn note of the fact that in 1903 one being, in possession of an elephant body, was electrocuted in the United States of America. The rest of the page in her scrapbook remained untouched, whereas the following page recorded an entry in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
“‘Origin of ELECTROCUTE. Electr- + -cute (as in execute). First Known Use: 1889’
“The politics behind the elephant’s public execution were as follows. Thomas Edison carried out the electrocution to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current, which was invented by Nikola Tesla, an émigré from the Habsburg Empire who was his direct competitor. What was at stake in this very tense contest was the future of the American electricity system, not to mention the fortune to be made by commercializing electricity. In this power game, Edison’s bet was on direct current, his very own invention. But eventually direct current lost the competition, proving too inefficient at delivering energy over long distances.
“The histories of electricity and of science,” L.L. concluded, “glorify inventors and the milestones they achieved. But they also conveniently draw a veil over a mass grave of victims. That day, at the medical congress, E.M. stood lucidly on the brink of this grave, with the smell of charred flesh rising and rising. As she stood there, fixed in place, she looked into a deep hole where past and future merged into one.”
L.L. left the archives that late Monday afternoon without another word, and it would be some time before he came back. That day, L.L. had finally succeeded in making the time of the elephants intersect with the time of the falling teddy bears.
In the morning, L.L. had carried the elephant corpse with him to the archives, which in the streets had passed completely unnoticed. But after the long hours spent with the archivists bent over E.M.’s scrapbook, not even a shadow remained the same. With each switch of an electric bulb, the shadows that sprang onto ceilings and street corners came as if from another world. At home, L.L. could see how any shadow took the shape of an elephant, but this occurred only when electric light was involved. By contrast, the archivists were more predisposed to see the shadows of electrocuted women and men projected on the surrounding walls at every switch of light. From that moment onward, those who had heard L.L.’s brief account detected an unusual intensity of contrast in shadows. L.L. had wrought a visual change: human and nonhuman animals were paired with shadows from the past, leaving their own shadow to be taken by somebody else. This change could occur only in those cases when strong emotions visibly connected the shadow and its companion.
But all this was visible only to those who had an inkling of what had happened at the archives that winter day. And under certain circumstances that involved electricity, those individuals could detect a finely scintillating pattern of empathy strings: light veins connecting shadows and carriers.
It’s the longest night of 2012. The courtyard is damp, the kitchen window probably closed. L.L. fears the curtain that waves timidly as if showing her the way out of the house. Neighbors shout at night. The door is locked, the flat too big. Noises make her startle. A fork is dropped and L.L. jumps.
Almost all year long, in L.L.’s world, as oval and idiosyncratic as it might have appeared at times, with innumerable flights of stairs, musical and cinematic corners, earthworks, green plants, and colorful brick walls, there had still been enough room to maneuver both her imaginary constructs and the real hybrids that she consumed on a daily basis. But as the end of 2012 drew nearer, and good days became increasingly rare, L.L. could no longer push these items around gently, or move them around in the air like red balloons.
In September, she still used to pretend to be a tiny fellow in a Japanese computer game from the 1980s who moved boxes (which L.L. took to mean her very own constructs and pieces of memory) around a warehouse, trying to fit all the puzzle pieces together neatly. But those playful days were long gone. December found L.L. not only steadfastly unable to use her faculty of imagination fully, but also on the dangerous brink of sleep like never before. Only the vibration and saturation levels of the elephant shadow were undiminished.
It must be stated once again that L.L. had always been the maker of her own imagination, with its highs and lows. Now this personal sequence was frequently being punctuated by breakdowns, monotony, and prolonged silences. And when nothing, not even a single product of her will or fantasy, managed to cheer her, L.L. turned to sleep, the realm where no camcorder had ever been. In this dark room full of colorful dreams, L.L. enjoyed fewer privileges and less responsibility than in life. She turned, for better or for worse, into a mere spectator of her inner self. As such, L.L.’s summer sleep of five hours could have easily extended to a good thirteen-hour series of exploratory dreams in wintertime.
By the time of the winter solstice, L.L. had withdrawn to an unprecedented extent into a dreamy world, spending an overwhelming number of hours accompanied only by a pillow. She had been trying all month to fight against slipping into another reality, but she failed every time. L.L. identified the consumerist craze as the primary outer factor causing her negative behavior this year. Indeed, how could she resist burrowing into the realm of dreams given the Christmas agitation that swept the so-called advanced countries — “advanced” only according to the narrow-minded theory that equates per capita GDP with human well-being, L.L. felt compelled to point out as she parceled out blame.
As a consequence, what L.L. did on many of those dark December days was let herself enter the more troubled waters of her subconscious. She spent more time in this asocial dream than any actual society would condone. During one of her worst times, L.L. slept as if compensating for all the sleep deprivation accumulated worldwide by the year’s end. Luckily, even in that world populated by falling teddy bears, sleep had not yet become subject to either formal government regulations or to spying.
But was L.L.’s sleep really a complacent activity? Or an indicator of passivity? A teenager’s indiscipline? Or an escape from a desensitizing, quotidian life? Any simple answer would slip between categories and fall flat.
Such were the gloomy coordinates of L.L.’s apparently lonely and self-absorbed life that December.
A close-up shows L.L. in her bed, in the hibernaculum, where not a single word is to be heard most of the day. What she dreams can only be interpreted on her face, and it appears certain that L.L. cannot hear voices in her sleep. Rehumanizing sleep temporarily cuts off communication, but waking easily re-establishes links.
During those few hours when L.L. succeeds in pulling her body into a vertical position, her wide-open eyes first reflect the pieces of furniture in the apartment. How unusual it is that even after so many hours of sleep, L.L.’s vision still preserves a warm, down-to-earth lucidity. A time-lapse photograph shows how she swiftly passes through the apartment rooms, bathes and feeds her body, and then stops in front of a long wooden board. Stained with colors, the board holds bundles of papers, pieces of wood, boxes with varnish and glue, and brushes. K., L.L.’s landlord and almost-friend, is responsible for this workplace. Little by little, since early September, K. had been pushing the recycling worm further up the stairs until he finally succeeded in bringing his collected items to L.L.’s doorstep. Moderately and selectively permissive as L.L. was, she didn’t need much persuading to take them in as if they had been stray animals in need of shelter. Just as A. could bring her contribution into L.L.’s flat, so could K. suggest a new order of things. Therefore, L.L. had embarked on this new project without delay: first came the wooden board, then the items on it, and before L.L. knew it, she was swept into a new routine at home for an indeterminate period of time. Could it have been a month or more? L.L. lifted her shoulders. Concentrated as she was on making a paper chair (her new favorite mute activity), L.L. was not in the least concerned with quantifying time.
If L.L.’s project at the archives was centered on empathy and emotions in history, the home project had a much more protean shape. Its meanings fluctuated, too, since L.L. refused to assign a single function to the object she was creating. L.L. was at ease with ambiguity. Occasionally, the object was L.L.’s metaphysical chair, especially on those days when she needed to stop thinking about her own anxieties. During sleep interruptions, when L.L. cursorily thought about the archives, she was convinced that she was making a suitable chair for some readers. Maybe for the few ones that still went to the archives. Maybe for the archivists themselves. At any rate, a chair for reading something in one sitting.
“The reader’s chair.
“The metaphysical chair.
“But not the electrical chair.
Whatever names or purposes L.L. deemed fit to assign to this activity, the emerging object still retained a clear reference to Enzo Mari’s do-it-yourself furniture from the 1970s. As a tribute to the communist Italian designer, L.L. hand-copied one of Mari’s Nietzschean sentences about design from a magazine that K. had sneaked under her door and placed it above her work place.
Design is dead.
Enzo Mari believed that if design doesn’t communicate knowledge, then it is dead. In the propaganda piece delivered by K., Mari’s contention was that contemporary design was cut off from the real world: designers, allied with capital, created nothing but a “dreamland of objects that show off.” Anyone who watched L.L.’s progress on the chair would have seen that these ideas resonated with her.
L.L.’s building, as well as its green surroundings, appeared to be a forgotten place where K., and at times others he managed to convince, dedicated themselves to Mari’s ideas. Undoubtedly, the Italian furniture designer must have been a central figure for K. ever since K. had become acquainted with the artist’s Autoprogettazione in his teenage years.
“What a utopian project with a radical statement that was! Production without workers! Do away with society’s ignorance, step by step if needed, but do it! End exploitation!”
This is how K. would passionately explain the most influential project from his youth, the echo of his enthusiasm reverberating on the wooden staircase as if in a church. K. had always carried the essence of the Autoprogettazione in his pocket: Mari’s blueprints for a set of pieces of furniture that anyone could put together using only nails and wood. The designer sent them out by mail to whoever had expressed interest in having them. During their evenings out in the neighborhood, under L.L.’s favorite tree, she learned that K. was one of the dozens of people who responded to Mari’s project. In return, K. received Mari’s blueprints for free, and he’d show them with pride to everyone in the building.
Yet L.L., patient as she was, could not always be convinced to listen to K.’s stories about leftist heroes. L.L. appropriated what she could, closed the door, and worked on the newspaper chair without necessarily professing K.’s passion for making things. First and foremost, L.L. drew a therapeutic benefit out of the process of preparing the glue, tearing and straightening the paper pages, and laying them one on top of another. The more layers of paper she put down, the blacker her palms grew, and the more convinced she became that a monothematic activity was just what she needed.
K. supplied some of the basic material for this chair. The rest was L.L.’s contribution. Since the very beginning, L.L. was convinced that the chair needed a bibliography. Whatever material she used made its way onto her draft list: IKEA instructions, yearly reports from history and material science institutes, a Matrix poster, a photocopied four-page newspaper authored by a homeless man / woman / person in Budapest, a calendar from 1999 featuring the Mole, countless empty toilet rolls, women’s magazines, more leftover paper tubes from wrapping paper, mobile phone bills from 2000 to 2006, pages from an old cook book, leftover protective paper from a picture frame, flyers and several advertising books and leaflets from the Frankfurt Book Fair, video recorder instructions, more phone bills from 2006 onward, and finally lots of newspapers, including taz. die tageszeitung. The draft list was not arranged alphabetically, and L.L. even doubted the use of such an organizing principle, given the nature of the project. She would see to it when the time came.
Only after L.L. blew her bubble to the end could the reader take a seat. For now, the chair looked like a paper sculpture, weighing over ten kilograms, made of paper and of L.L.’s long and empty winter thoughts.
The crude hour of the day has the color of a healthy yolk.
Many days must have passed since L.L. was last at the archives. Most visibly, winter break gave way to piles of Christmas trees stashed on street corners. And, as if to keep an invisible balance in all neighborhoods, mountains of alcohol bottles rose in front of overfilled garbage bins. To cover them, not a single snowflake fell that winter: not on the Christmas trees, not on the mountains of glass, not in K.’s backyard. Every single centimeter remained as it was, in a desolate state of being and of mind, until one day when the sun shone above them all. In two or three days, little transparent umbrellas pushed up their green tips above the ground. They measured half a finger. At the bottom, the tubes of this increasingly widespread installation appeared to be orange, the middle white-yellow, and the bifurcation at the top ended with a pair of green lips. Everyone who took a careful stroll around the town those bright days must have noticed this emerging green, whether walking by themselves or in a group, running or impatiently pacing up and down the surrounding hills. Spring or not, people emerged from their houses, took to these greening areas, and made out of a forest path the main street of their urban milieu. L.L. and I. made no exception to this behavior pattern, and they too were seen marching with the half-asleep crowd. It was only at a later point that their paths split, when, after a fairly long absence, L.L. headed alone to the archives to finish what she had started months earlier: to accompany E.M. in her emotions and close a door. Winter was almost gone.
In a sequence of short rhythmic actions, L.L. rushes down a flight of stairs, which leaves behind her a familiar echo of cobbled stone streets, and pushes several heavy doors open only to find out that the two archivists are calmly seated behind their wooden desks. Everything as usual, everything as imagined. The archivists peek over the rims of their glasses with curiosity, but do not utter a word. Greetings and wishes appear out of place, polite rituals an inopportune intervention into a segment of time that demands immediate continuation. L.L. feels welcomed in this muteness: she takes her seat and moves her palm over the top of the table. She smiles.
The reading room prolongs the choreography of eyebrow movements and intensifies an inviting, unbroken silence. If one watched this scene from a lateral perspective, at about the height of a person seated on a tatami, one could see on one side of the desk the archivists, and on the other, L.L. Their heads are not fully in the picture; but there are surely lots of arms thrown over the table. From behind a stack of documents, the older archivist pushes a fairly small matchbox across the desk with both his hands: ten black fingers, grouped together behind the box, move a seemingly insignificant object toward L.L. In that setting and atmosphere, it could have just as well been a cup of green tea. Instead, it is the matchbox ceremony. To receive it, L.L.’s body bends forward, her left hand resting on the upper part of her leg while the right reaches the matchbox to bring it closer into view. Only after this precise sequence of movements does L.L. take the matchbox into her hands and gently flips it over. It makes no sound. Is it empty? And is it even here?
L.L.’s raspy voice:
“We’re close to E.M., as close as we are allowed to get. Her heart was temporarily taken out, transferred into a suitcase, and carried to some place that we can neither see, nor intuitively find. Just the music is growing and growing in intensity. It’s pitch dark. The heart is pumping, surrounded by microphones, drums, guitars, and pianos. Who’s playing we don’t know, but the limits of the instruments and of the heart are tested. E.M. feels that they are too close together, her heart and the sounds … How will it continue? What is happening? How loud it is and how the heart could burst open … Fear is mounting while red numbers are projected on E.M.’s livid face, as if in a countdown. The music becomes painfully loud and almost physical; its vibrations literally touch E.M.’s dark-red heart. She knows that it cannot go on for much longer, and she’s afraid of the end. Each instrument is bursting at its maximum and then at precisely this point it all stops. Together with the elephant, the massive sound sculpture instantly breaks on top of that still pulsing organ.
“Freed from the mounting tension, E.M. begins to cry.
“To be sure, the footage that captured the elephant’s execution was not accompanied by music. It was a mute film. How E.M. felt about it and why all those instruments cornered her heart are questions that do not easily lend themselves to answers. Was it one of those pieces of memory reloaded over and over again, while awake or while profoundly asleep? How often did she repeat it to herself? Did she write about the outrageousness of the execution to newspapers? Would it have been helpful? The more often this memory bit plays in her head, the more answer-questions arise. It is certain, however, that from that moment onward there was hardly a sensitive topic that didn’t move her to tears. As much as she would like to, she cannot hold them back any longer. Her anger remains just as raw, as if to help her carry the elephant shadow every evening.
“In the years that followed these moving episodes, time rolled over E.M.’s life and turned it into a seemingly flat surface. There’s not much evidence left to tell us who she was, what she did, what else moved her and at what moral costs. The fragmentary sources stored in the archives roll in front of our eyes like a hand-tinted film with many black spots. From all her writings and correspondence there’s only one pile left. Yet can E.M.’s life be contained in one small box with papers, reports, a scrapbook, and several Hungarian feminist postcards? The radiograph remains her best portrait.
“Based only on the historical record preserved at these archives, E.M. strikes us as a woman deeply connected to the women’s organizations that mushroomed all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Telegrams from congresses, postcards, and brief travel notes intermittently map her numerous journeys and her network, while several hand-written political articles and translations indicate her unsigned contributions to newspapers. A couple of other sources from the first two decades of the twentieth century reveal personal connections to Hungarian feminists in Budapest, to members of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, and to politicians who supported the Men’s International Alliance for Women’s Suffrage. The evidence is compelling: women’s suffrage was E.M.’s daily struggle, too. Yet apart from these broad strokes that give E.M. a contour, whatever E.M. did lies beyond the realm of the forgotten for today’s history books. Her activities remain hardly visible, distorted by nationalism. She was one of the many who did not take a prominent role in society and who did not become an ideal type of feminist.
“A bit of white smoke, a bit of magic. E.M. is sitting in a dark room; her eyelashes form two semi-circles of light. Fixed on her, the hand-held camera is gaining distance.
“She has seen and felt, explored and suffered, but her life and tears are yet to find a biographer. The scrapbook, her private archive of emotions, records only two more experiences, a microscopic part of a collective history of sensibilities.
“With each word I say, her silhouette is shrinking in the distance. The semicircles still vibrate with silver light.
“After watching the electrocution of the elephant, E.M. joined the enthusiastic local masses to see Buffalo Bill’s show in her hometown in the summer of 1906. Buffalo Bill, whose fame echoed across the Atlantic, toured Europe with hundreds of horses and people for his ‘Wild West’ performance. Newspapers reported that several trains were needed just to put this show on the road. But in E.M.’s scrapbook there’s only a black and white overexposed photograph to mark this performance; next to it, an indefinite article and two nouns:
“In the dark background, two piercing light points are about to merge into one quicksilver dot.
“E.M.’s last note in the scrapbook is dated ‘Autumn 1913’ and it discreetly mentions a mourning trip to Budapest. Train tickets confirm that E.M. found her way back to the capital city not long after participating in the international feminist congress that stormed Budapest in the summer of 1913. On a late warm afternoon, she arrived by train with a hat wrapped in a cloud of dust particles, bringing along an outstanding heap of red and yellow Jonathan apples from her orchard: no less than the fruit of fifty-three apple trees. Having read about the zoological garden of Budapest in a brochure distributed at the congress, E.M. proceeded to orchestrate the transport of apples to the zoo. More than half a million crowns had been invested in the zoo as an urban attraction. There ‘animals behave as if they were in the open country and one can hardly perceive that the spectator is separated from them by a deep ditch only’ — read one sentence that E.M. had written in her scrapbook, between inverted commas.
“On that glowing autumn afternoon, E.M. fed all the apples to the zoo elephants — onetwothreefourfive applesjustlikethat.
“Seen from above, E.M. is but a moving shadow in this square picture. The zoo elephants walk around her, with cracked toenails. Their movements are mechanical; some pace up and down the same route, others consistently sway side to side. The elephant steps resound with physical anguish, their bodies tell in straight lines of debilitations and incapacitations.”
An indeterminate period of time has elapsed since I closed the doors to the archives. In that moment, with my hand on the doorknob, I had an irrevocable feeling that I would never return. Just like when somebody loses hir suitcase and knows, from a gut feeling, that it will never be seen again. Gone. But instead of a sense of loss, a feeling of relief overwhelmed me, and everything appeared full of possibilities. The sun color had finally gained in golden hues. And the voice that I had been listening to, conversing with, contradicting, or persuading also vanished with the closing of the door. It may have remained in there, caught in between layers of time and brick walls. I didn’t want to care about it, so I rushed, with a strange sense of purpose, directly to the train station, as if fulfilling a soothing prophecy I had once heard on a long winter’s night. An unleashed crowd of people rushed by me like raindrops on a window. In passing, each of them drummed and hammered two lines of conversation into my middle ears.
So began my cloud watching and spring explorations by the sea.
First published by
Fiktion, Berlin, 2015
Mathias Gatza, Ingo Niermann (Publishing Program)
Henriette Gallus (Communications)
Julia Stoff (Management)
Consulting Editor and Proofreader
Maxwell Simmer (Version House)
The copyright for the text remains with the author.
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Mathias Gatza, Ingo Niermann
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