Authors: Daniel Kehlmann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Adult, #Contemporary
They had met six weeks earlier at a particularly boring party, and it was only after she’d been talking to him for some time that it dawned on Elisabeth that the strange but intelligent man who kept cracking his knuckles and staring at the ceiling was none other than Leo Richter, the author of intricate
short stories full of complicated mirror effects and unpredictable shifts and swerves that were flourishes of empty virtuosity. She had recently read his collection about the doctor Lara Gaspard, and naturally she knew his most famous story, the one about the old woman on her way to an assisted-suicide clinic in Switzerland. They had met again the next day, already that evening she went with him to his sparsely furnished apartment, and to her surprise, Leo in bed demonstrated a decisiveness for which she was totally unprepared. She had dug her fingernails into his back, rolled her eyes up under their lids, and bitten his shoulder, and as she was on her way home in the dawn after several hours that left her totally spent, she knew that she wanted to see him again and that perhaps there was room for him in her life.
She soon discovered all the aspects of his personality: his anxiety attacks and neuroses, the sudden waves of euphoria that came out of nowhere, and the periods of total concentration during which he seemed to vanish inside himself and if she so much as spoke to him, he looked at her as if he had no idea what she was doing there.
For his part, he was fascinated by her job. By her activities with Doctors Without Borders—had she really done parachute jumps, with a real parachute? In a real war zone?
At this point, she always changed the subject. She knew that curiosity was part and parcel of his makeup and his métier, but there were things she didn’t wish to talk about. Anyone who hadn’t lived through such things personally would be likely to take it all as mere phrasemaking and anecdotage;
words failed to capture the reality. What it felt like to amputate a man’s legs under inadequate anesthetic, to drag him across fields in the shimmering heat, only to lose him a few feet from the waiting helicopter, so that the entire effort was pointless, and then on the flight back to realize that entire portions of the previous days had erased themselves from your memory, that there were blank spaces, as if you’d had experiences that were so extreme and alien that they had no firm foothold in reality and were unavailable to the mind. How should she have described these things? As an old doctor had said to her years ago, people who have experienced nothing love to tell stories while people who have experienced a great deal suddenly have no stories to tell at all. But she knew that Leo intuited certain things. She had the same profession as his heroine Lara Gaspard, they were the same age, and if she was right about his sparse descriptions of Lara’s appearance, the two of them also looked rather alike. This must be another reason why he found her interesting. She often noticed that he watched her with an almost scientific focus, his lips moving as if he were taking mental notes.
A few weeks previously, he had given a lecture at the Academy of Mainz about the ongoing death of culture and the fact that this was not necessarily a bad thing, since humanity would be in better shape without the burden of knowledge and tradition. This was now the age of the image, of the sounds of rhythms and a mystical dissolution into the eternal present—a religious ideal become reality through the
power of technology. Nobody could figure out whether he was being serious or ironic, whether he was a nihilist or a conservative, but this was precisely the reason why the text was reprinted, all sorts of responses were solicited, and German cultural institutes all around the world invited him on lecturing tours. On a whim, he had agreed to do a circuit through Central America, and when he’d asked Elisabeth if she’d like to come along, to her own surprise she hadn’t even thought twice.
Shortly before they landed, Leo fell into a restless sleep. Elisabeth was dreading what would come next: at their last stop, the moment they were in the airport he had been literally paralyzed with disgust at the sight of the head of the cultural institute in her traditional woolen jacket. He had sat in the car with Elisabeth in silence, jaw clenched, and had even reached for her hand when they were stopped at a police checkpoint. Nothing happened, of course, and the agents had immediately waved them on, but when they reached the hotel, he was totally undone, covered in sweat and terrified. He spent the entire afternoon locked in their double room before giving his evening lecture to twenty-seven Germans in a badly lit hall, after which the lady director of the cultural institute had insisted on taking them to the only pizzeria in town, where she had plied Leo with questions about where he got his ideas from and did he write in the mornings or the afternoons. He then spent half the night in lamentation, pacing up and down the room and cursing his fate until finally, more out of desperation than passion, the two of them fell
onto the bed in each other’s arms. At five in the morning her cell phone rang, and she was told that three of her closest coworkers had just been abducted in Africa.
“Did you see?” Leo was awake again, tapping her shoulder and pointing to the outside beyond the portholes. “Like a great big stage set. A grid with hundreds of lightbulbs. Maybe we’re not flying at all, maybe we’re not even here. Maybe it’s all a trick. And besides, what do we do if there’s no one there to pick us up? I’ve got a feeling, and I’m not often wrong. You watch.”
The lady from the cultural institute who was waiting was named Rappenzilch, wore a traditional woolen jacket, and had buckteeth. Her first question to Leo was where he got his ideas from. Elisabeth listened to her voicemail. She felt hollowed out by fear.
They were sitting in the car. Outside the little cubes that were the houses in the capital streamed by in the pale morning light. Shop signs, under them old women walking with their baskets of fruit, in the sky the yellowish smoke from distant factories.
In the hotel, she called headquarters in Geneva. Her colleague Moritz, still at his desk though it was long past midnight, told her the situation was confused, the UN couldn’t help, and they had to assume the regime was complicit. Two years ago, when she was in that country, hadn’t she had personal dealings with a secretary of state?
“Yes.” Her voice echoed off the tiled walls in the bathroom. “One of the worst.”
“Worst or not, the way things are right now, you’re the only connection we’ve got.”
She went back into the bedroom where Leo was sitting on the bed looking at her reproachfully. This Mrs. Rappenzilch! And her teeth! And back on another damn podium tonight, he’d absolutely had it! He turned on the TV. Pictures of soldiers marching, then the faces of some politicians, then more soldiers. Leo shook his head and started ranting about the metaphysical horror this spectacle induced in him: the feeling of being a prisoner, this whole part of the world was its own unique hell, you just knew instinctively you’d never get out. You’d have to be nuts to put yourself willingly in a situation like this. “Look, they’re not even marching in step. They can’t even manage that! Did you see her teeth?!”
She went back into the bathroom to make more calls. Leo mustn’t notice, it all had to remain secret, who knew what he might blurt out. She called an underling of the African secretary of state whom she’d gotten to know some years before in unpleasant circumstances. She had to try six times before she got through, the ringtone sounded strange and the sound quality was dreadful. The man said he’d see what he could do. She thanked him effusively, hung up, and had to fight the urge to crumple up onto the floor. Her stomach hurt, and there was a pounding ache in her head.
When she came back into the room, Leo was on the hotel phone bawling somebody out. “It’s unacceptable, I refuse to
be treated like this! No!” He threw down the receiver, turned to her, and said triumphantly: “Roebrich.”
She had no idea who Roebrich was, but the way he’d said the name suggested that this must be some important person in literary circles.
“The prize. They more or less promised it to me and now suddenly they want to take it back, all because I don’t want Eldrich giving the presentation speech. Unacceptable! Maybe they can do that with Reuke or Moehrsam, but not with—just look at the sky! The sun playing on those clouds of gas, it makes them look beautiful, not like filthy pollution. Everything looks beautiful if you see it against the sun. Anyhow, I told him he can forget it. If he wants me on the jury next year, then we’re going to play by my rules!”
She sank down onto the bed. She’d been with Carl, Henri, and Paul in Somalia the year before. On the last day, Carl had told her that he wouldn’t be doing this much longer, his nerves wouldn’t take it anymore, and it wasn’t good for the soul either. What were they doing to the three of them right now, in what unlit room, inaccessible to every rational force on the planet? She lay there motionless, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, she was engaged in a conversation with four policemen who’d morphed into one and the same person, she had no idea how, whom she had to answer correctly, no mistakes allowed, though the questions were all about her childhood and involved the most complex calculations, because every wrong answer meant that someone would die. A hand came down on her shoulder and she woke up with a scream.
“I knew you had nightmares at night—that’s why they’re called nightmares. But nightmares in the afternoon—that’s new. You were whimpering like a child.”
She said she couldn’t remember a thing. He looked at her appraisingly and to evade his glance she went into the bathroom to take a shower. Letting the hot water run over her head, she tried not to think about Carl, Henri, and Paul. After all, they were grown men who were fully aware of the risks they took, men who knew how to handle life, and who were made of different … in short, they were men who could take care of themselves.
Mrs. Rappenzilch came to collect them. During the journey to the cultural institute she regaled them with stories of attacks and muggings. This was a very dangerous city. An agitated Leo pulled out his notebook.
At the institute they were awaited by thirty-two Germans. Leo went to the podium and, as always, immediately shed all sense of oppression and fatigue. He stood up straight and made acute observations about culture and barbarism, noise, blood, and danger—Elisabeth noticed that he was deviating from his written text, the last few days had inspired him. Even when he was improvising, his sentences were perfectly formed, and he radiated a concentrated energy that made it impossible to look away. Then her phone rang and she had to hurry out into the corridor.
His Excellency, said the secretary of state’s underling, was not opposed to a conversation, and she would receive further word tomorrow. She uttered her groveling thanks and called
Moritz. He told her the Foreign Ministry had weighed in, but one should hope for nothing from the politicians, and the German Secret Service presence in the region was insignificant. They were going to have to rely on themselves.
When she came back, Leo had just finished and people were applauding. Then he signed about a dozen books and answered three questions about where he got his ideas from. Soon Mrs. Rappenzilch, suddenly in a nervous state and bright red in the face, was urging him to finish: the consul general was waiting, the reception had already begun!
“Why do they always ask that?” Leo whispered in the car. “Where do I get my ideas from. What kind of a question is that, what am I supposed to say?”
“Well, what do you tell them?”
“I say I get all my ideas in the bathtub. That does it for them. They’re happy. Look, over there, a Ralf Tanner poster! He really is everywhere, you can’t get away from him even on the other side of the world. I met him last year. What a clown! But what’s that over there?” He leaned forward and tapped Mrs. Rappenzilch on the shoulder. “What’s going on there, do you see, has someone been attacked?”
Mrs. Rappenzilch turned her head but they’d already passed the scene and the mob was no longer visible. Perfectly possible, she said, it was a common occurrence.
Leo wrote something in his notebook.
The official residence was on a hill high above the flickering
lights of the city. The sky was black and the cloud cover low, no stars to be seen. Liveried men carried little trays around, and everywhere there were Germans standing, shoulders back, serious expressions, glass in hand, stiff, looking grimly earnest.
Five men immediately surrounded Leo; she could see him trying to catch her eye. His look was murderous. He seemed to be radiating waves of sheer destructiveness of such force that everyone there would have to sense them. “In the bathtub,” he was saying. “All my ideas. Always.”
A thin man blocked her path, held out his hand, and said, “Charmed, von Stueckenbrock.” It took her a moment to realize he was introducing himself. A second man joined them and said, “Delighted, Becker!” Then a third: “Seifert. Siemens. I run Siemens. Local operations, that is.” Then he launched into a long account of how he’d read Leo’s most recent book on the train from Bebra to Dortmund. Interesting, wasn’t it?
“Indeed,” she said, searching his face for some trace of irony, humor, anything.
Stueckenbrock asked where her husband got his ideas from.
“Who? Oh, I see, no, he’s not my—in the bathtub.”
“Oh,” said Becker.
All three men leaned forward.
“His ideas,” she said, “that’s where he always has them. In the bathtub.”
“Remarkable,” said Seifert.
“Your first time here?” asked Becker.
The conversation died. The three men stood around her in silence: rigid, knotted up inside, prisoners of themselves, cast up by fate on the shores of a hideous place far distant from their equally hideous homeland. Elisabeth opened her mouth and shut it again, unable to think of a thing to say. She felt as if she was being made to talk to washing machines, or fire hydrants, or robots with whom she had no common language. Then her phone rang. For the first time in days it was a relief. Excusing herself with an apologetic gesture, she ran out.