Authors: Daniel Kehlmann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Adult, #Contemporary
“Please help me!”
With an impatient movement he motioned for her to come with him. The police station, only one street away, was small and dirty. For some incomprehensible reason her travel bag and her watch were taken away. Maria was made to sit in a tiny room and wait.
For a long time, nothing happened. The clock on the wall had stopped, the hands didn’t move. Maria lay her head on her arms. Time seemed to stand still. She was dizzy with boredom. At some point the door opened, a man in uniform came in and spoke to her in English.
“My God, finally! Please help me.”
Her passport, he said, was old.
The sign in the passport. Old.
She didn’t understand.
He looked up at the ceiling and thought for awhile, until he found the right words: her visa had expired.
“Well yes of course! I was supposed to fly out yesterday, but nobody came to collect me.”
She couldn’t stay here without a visa.
“But I don’t
to stay here!”
Not possible. Not without a visa.
She rubbed her eyes. She felt utterly weak. Then she explained the whole thing as slowly and clearly as she could. She said she was a guest of the government, she described the delegation of journalists and their tour. She was a guest of the state! And then they’d obviously forgotten her and the plane had left without her.
He said nothing for awhile. Loud laughter was audible
from the next room. Here without visa, he said finally, not permissible.
She began at the beginning again. She recounted the whole thing all over again: delegation of journalists, tour, guest of state, collect, forget. Before she could finish, he went out and slammed the door behind him.
It must be dark outside now. At some point Maria knocked on the door. A policeman opened it and took her to a filthy toilet. Back in the little room she wanted to try to see if her phone would get a connection, but, like everything else, it was in her bag. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. How long had she been here? It could be hours or days. Then the door flew open, and the policeman who’d interrogated her came back into the room.
Everything false, he cried. Everything lies! He threw a sheet of paper down in front of her, and on it, in Cyrillic letters, she recognized the names of everyone in the group. The colleague from the
, the one from
, the trainees, the woman from German Radio—and Leo Richter.
“He didn’t come,” she cried. “This one! Him!” With a trembling finger she pointed to his name. “Canceled. I for him!”
The policeman seized the paper, stared at it, threw it back on the table, and said her name wasn’t on it anywhere.
“I’m here for him! Leo Richter! He canceled!”
She was not, he said, on the list.
She begged him to call the guide. She would recognize her, she would explain everything.
Nothing moved in his face.
“The leader of our group! Or an ambassador? Couldn’t you call the German ambassador?”
He thought. This time he’d understood her. Germany had no embassy here.
“And England, France, America?”
China. There was a Chinese embassy in the capital. Probably a Russian embassy too. But without a valid visa she couldn’t get on a train and go there. It was forbidden.
Maria tried to control herself but she couldn’t anymore, and burst into tears. Her body was racked with helpless sobs, and she cried until she could no longer breathe. She was surprised she didn’t pass out. But she remained conscious of the room with the table, the clock on the wall, and the indifferent policeman, and finally she calmed down again. Wiping away her tears, she asked to be allowed to make an international call.
Hard, he said. Connections bad. This not the capital.
Besides which he no can help her. She have no visa. She illegal here!
He went out and she heard loud voices from the next door. They were obviously fighting about what to do next. Her strength had left her; none of it seemed real anymore and she laid her head back down on her arms.
She woke up when someone shook her shoulder. The policeman standing there was the one who’d just—or maybe the day before, or who knew when—taken her to the toilet. Her bag was set next to her on the floor. He led her out,
through the adjoining room and onto the street. It must be early afternoon, because it was blazingly hot. He made a sign. She didn’t understand. He did it again. She realized she was supposed to go.
“No!” she cried. “Please! Help me!”
He looked at her. His face wasn’t unfriendly, even almost sympathetic. Then he spat on the asphalt.
“My watch,” she said hoarsely. “You still have it.”
He banged the door shut behind her.
She took her bag and set off. Gradually it dawned on her: the policemen hadn’t known what to do with her, they didn’t want any difficulties, and so they’d simply sent her away. She was probably lucky they hadn’t locked her up or killed her.
She pulled out the phone, dialed, and heard a voice saying the number she was dialing was not in service. She dialed again, heard it again, dialed yet again. The battery light was flashing red. When she tried the fourth time, her husband answered.
“Oh God, finally! You can’t imagine what’s happened!”
“They left without me. Nobody will help me. Please call the Foreign Ministry!”
“You have to put pressure on them, tell them it was an official invitation. Go to a newspaper. It’s serious, it’s really serious!”
“I can’t hear a thing. Who’s this? I can’t hear a thing!”
“Maria!” she screamed. People turned around to look at her. A wrinkled woman grinned a toothless grin.
“Maria, is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me! Me!”
“Please call back. I can’t hear a thing.” He hung up.
She tried again. When she pushed the redial button, the screen was blank. The battery was dead.
She had no idea how long she wandered through the town. Her hair was glued to her head, her hands ached from the weight of the suitcase. It wasn’t until she wanted to eat something and searched in her bag for her wallet that she realized the policemen had taken this too.
She leaned against a house wall and stared blankly in front of her. Then she went on. Suddenly the painful weight wasn’t painful anymore, and she realized she’d put down the bag and left it somewhere. She turned around. There it stood, a small thing of gray leather, looking so abandoned that Maria felt a pang of sympathy. She turned the corner, walked around the block, and when she got back to the spot, the bag was no longer there.
Lie down on the ground, she thought. Collapse, just be there: someone would take her to a hospital, and they’d have to pay attention to her.
But no, that wasn’t true. If she was lying on the ground, people would just leave her there. Besides, the street was filthy, the asphalt cracked all over the place, she could see brownish water running along the cracks, and there was broken
glass everywhere. This was not an ideal place to have a breakdown.
She stopped. There, behind a shop window—books! Not many, but if she was deciphering the script correctly, there was a Pushkin edition and something by Tolstoy among them. Where there were books, there might be someone who spoke other languages, maybe they’d understand her. Excited, she went in.
It was a grocer’s. On the shelves behind the counter were piles of canned goods and boxes of all sizes with Chinese lettering. And indeed there were a few books. A little man was looking at her with narrowed eyes.
“Do you speak English?”
He spoke neither English nor French nor German nor Greek, nor did he understand her sign language. He stood there motionless, watching her, his polite smile never wavering.
She pulled out a stool. The sun had been so fierce; she needed to sit down for a moment. And she was so thirsty. As soon as she made a goblet of her hands and lifted them to her mouth, he understood: he reached for a plastic container and poured her a glass. A few days ago the glass and the little brown filaments swimming in the water would have disgusted her, but now she drank it greedily. Then she sat for awhile, hunched over, her elbows propped on her knees. The little man waited at a respectful distance.
When she raised her head, she saw, between two Auristos Blanco titles, something she knew. She got to her feet and pulled it out. A cheap cardboard binding, garish red. Her
name in Cyrillic script over a title she couldn’t read, but she knew it was
, her most successful novel. Under the title was a photograph of a man in sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. This was how her Russian publisher had represented Commissioner Regler, her melancholy detective opposed to all forms of violence. How ridiculous she’d found it, how she and her husband had laughed over it!
She turned it over; no author photograph. She showed it to the little man, tapped her finger on the book, then pointed to herself.
He smiled, baffled.
She pushed it back onto the shelf. “You’re right. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change anything.”
She thanked him for the water and left.
She came to a marketplace. It smelled of sheep and rotten fruit, and the stalls were in the process of being dismantled. She went up to a big woman in an apron who looked friendlier than the others, and pointed to her mouth and stomach. The woman gave her a hunk of bread. It tasted good; admittedly a little bitter, but it gave her strength. The woman also gave her a water bottle, and after she’d drunk from it, she felt almost restored.
The woman was very wrinkled, several of her teeth were missing, and one of her eyes was half closed, the eyelids drooping to one side. She said something Maria didn’t understand. Then she hoisted a crate of potatoes and indicated to Maria that she should help carry them.
Together they hauled the crate across the street to where
an old man was waiting by a tractor, and heaved it up onto the trailer. The woman squatted down behind it and gestured to Maria to do the same.
Bathed in gasoline fumes, they set off judderingly. The town soon disappeared and the steppe spread out in the twilight. The air turned cooler. For a long time a dragonfly flew beside them. The woman’s head nodded with every stroke of the engine, she seemed to be sleeping with her eyes open. The sky was empty, not a bird to be seen. Night fell.
When they reached the house, it was dark. Maria jumped down from the trailer; the ground was so muddy that she sank in up to her ankles. The house was built of weathered planks, the roof was corrugated iron; inside it smelled musty, and as the old man lit two torches, she saw a mouse run off. Outside the woman was working a rusty pump. She brought in a tin pan full of water, set it down, pointed to the wooden floor, the pail, and the floor again. Then she gave Maria a cloth.
While she cleaned, Maria tried to think. She would have to live here for a year, maybe two, no search party would find her, no envoy from the Foreign Ministry would suddenly appear to free her. She would have to stay and work until she learned the language. If these people paid her something, she’d set some money aside. At some point she’d be able to make her way to the capital. There she’d find someone who could help her. She wouldn’t be stuck here for an eternity; she was better equipped than these people; she’d come out of this.
In no time her back was aching, her arms weren’t used to
the exertion, and it looked to her as if the floorboards were actually getting dirtier as she worked. She sobbed quietly. The woman sat in her chair and peeled potatoes. The old man squatted on a wooden bench, staring blankly into space.
When she’d finished, the floor looked exactly the way it had before, but the woman gave her another piece of bread and even some meat. After she’d eaten it, she went out to the pump and washed her face and hands. All of a sudden, it was freezing cold. An animal howled in the distance. The sky was full of stars.
The woman showed her the mattress on which she was allowed to sleep. It was surprisingly soft, there was just one place where a rusty spring had poked its way through, and she had to curl up to prevent it jabbing into her back. For a moment she thought about her husband. Suddenly he seemed a stranger, like someone whom she’d known long ago, in another world or a past life. She heard herself breathing, and realized that she was already asleep, looking down on herself in a dream. With astonishing clarity she knew that such moments were rare and she must be very careful. One false move and there would be no way back, her former life would be gone, never to return. She sighed. Or perhaps she only dreamed the sigh. And then, finally, she lost consciousness.
Replying to the Abbess
iguel Auristos Blanco, the writer venerated by half the planet and mildly despised by the other, author of books on serenity, inner grace, and the wandering journey in quest of the meaning of life across hills, meadows, and valleys, paced ceremoniously into his study in the front of his penthouse apartment in a skyscraper high above the glittering coastline of Rio de Janeiro. A blinding light came off the sea; on the other side of the bay, first clearly, then in patches of gray shadow, the shapes of the mountains stood out, their slopes edged with the favelas. Miguel Auristos Blanco shaded his eyes with his hand, the better to see his desk: two gold pens, seventeen well-sharpened pencils, a flat keyboard in front of a flat screen, and in the filing tray the perfectly aligned stack of pages of his new manuscript,
Ask the Cosmos, It Will Speak.
Only one chapter still to write after the entire opus had written itself with the same effortlessness over the previous four weeks as had all his previous books;
this one was about the faith and the trust that were engendered by the gestures and rituals which served to express them, and not, as was so often supposed, the other way around: if you were true to someone, you would begin to love them, if you helped a friend, you would become more honest with yourself, if you made yourself attend a Mass, you would find that it ceased to be a blind ritual and gradually revealed the existence and nearness of a Supreme Being watching over you.