Authors: Daniel Kehlmann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Adult, #Contemporary
It was only a journalist who’d dug up her number and wanted to know if the abduction story was true.
No comment, she said, but if he would wait until tomorrow, there might be a story.
He asked in a hostile way if that was all. Was there nothing else she could give him?
“Not right now,” she said, “sorry.”
Back in their hotel room, Leo immediately began to complain. These people! Did they have to be so
“Their lives aren’t easy,” she said. “None of them has had the career they hoped for. None of them is living where they wanted. Do you think they actually want to be here?”
She looked out of the window. Ralf Tanner’s face was staring at her from the poster on the building opposite, so gigantically enlarged that it was no longer human. She found herself thinking about the scandal she’d just read about
somewhere: Tanner had been set upon in a hotel lobby by a woman who screamed at him and slapped his face. Several tourists had filmed it and now it was on YouTube. And if Carl, Henri, and Paul were shot, beheaded, stoned, or burned alive, there was a good chance people would be able to see that too.
“I can’t go on!” said Leo. “Do you know how often I’ve been asked today where I get my ideas from? Fourteen. And nine times whether I work in the morning or the afternoon. And eight times people have told me what trip they were on when they read something of mine. And the food was disgusting. Next month I’m supposed to be in Central Asia. I just can’t. I’m going to cancel.”
“Where are you meant to go?”
“Turkmenistan, I think. Or Uzbekistan. Who can tell the difference? Some writers’ junket.”
“Why ever did you accept?” she asked, incredulous.
He shrugged. “You’re supposed to see the world. Confront things. You’re not supposed to avoid all dangers.”
Of course her reaction was too extreme, and once it had passed, she had to ask herself what had come over her, since they had never had a fight before. But just at that moment she could no longer control herself. What did he think he was talking about? He’d never once been in danger in his entire life, he needed help even to tie his own shoes, he was afraid of spiders and airplanes and went to
pieces if a train was late! Driving through cities in cars under the protection of bureaucrats wasn’t dangerous, it was a joke, and she couldn’t take his whining for one more minute.
He didn’t say a word, but watched her attentively, almost with curiosity, arms crossed. She didn’t stop until she lost her voice. Her fury had exhausted itself. She looked around for her suitcase. Time to leave. It was over.
“Exactly!” he said.
“This is how it could go. Two people traveling together. She has real responsibilities; he is always sniveling, and a pain in the ass. Lara Gaspard and her new lover. A painter. But …” He fell silent for a moment and seemed to be listening to some inner voice. “But she knows he’s a genius. In spite of everything.” He sat down at the little hotel writing desk and began to scribble.
She waited, but he’d obviously forgotten she was there. She lay down in bed, pulled the covers over her head, and was asleep in a matter of minutes.
When she woke up, he was still there—either he hadn’t moved, or he was back there—at the desk. Pale predawn light was filtering through the window. She vaguely remembered that they’d made love during the night. He had come to bed and turned her onto her back, and in the half dark under the bedclothes they’d come together in exhaustion and a strange state of rage. Or had she dreamed it? Her memory wasn’t too reliable, probably posttraumatic stress disorder,
but it wasn’t something she could talk to him about, because he would only use it somehow.
It wasn’t until she reached the airport that she called Geneva. Apparently, said Moritz, the three of them were alive. The Foreign Ministry had nobody reliable on the spot, he didn’t know of anyone who could be trusted with the negotiations. “The secretary of state?”
“If all goes well, I’ll be speaking to him today.”
“Where are you, actually?”
“Don’t ask. Long story.” She let the hand holding the phone drop, Leo was already lining up at the departure gate, although none of the boarding personnel had yet appeared. She signaled to him, he shook his head violently, and waved to her to hurry up and join him. “I’ll call you back later.”
In arrivals, they were met by a Mrs. Riedergott from the cultural institute. She was wearing a woolen jacket and thick spectacles. Her hair was pinned up, and her face seemed to be made of congealed pastry. “Mr. Richter, where do you get all your ideas?”
“Bathtub,” said Leo, eyes closed.
“And tell me, do you write …”
“Always in the afternoons.”
She thanked him for the information. The humidity made damp clouds in the streets, a president’s face grinned down off the wall posters, and whenever the traffic lights turned red, half-naked children jumped into the road and performed tricks.
“I’m very tired,” said Leo. “As soon as my lecture is over this evening I need to leave.”
“Out of the question,” said Mrs. Riedergott. “The ambassador’s expecting you. A big reception, it’s all been planned for weeks.”
At the hotel Leo called the PEN Club and canceled the trip to Central Asia. Please would they turn to someone else, Maria Rubinstein the crime writer for example, she’d been saying to him only recently that she’d like to start doing more. He then sent a text message to Maria:
Possible trip, v. interesting, alas can’t, PLS accept, I owe you, PLS thanksthanksthanks L.
Then he spent some time complaining to Elisabeth about Mrs. Riedergott: her face, her total impassivity, her stolid arrogance. Was there anything worse than these people?
“Yes,” said Elisabeth. “Yes, there is.”
After that they made love, and this time it wasn’t a dream: for a moment all thoughts of captured colleagues were erased, and when she pressed her hand to his face so hard that he almost couldn’t breathe, he forgot for several seconds to keep up his complaining and his usual running commentary. Then it was over, and they were each themselves again, and a little embarrassed, as if realizing how little they knew each other.
Leo gave his lecture in the ambassador’s residence. Germans from industry, business, and the Foreign Service were there, the room was filled with men in suits and women with pearl necklaces, and the villa looked like the villa from the day before, and once again a city was spread out beneath them, and had it not been even hotter and the air terrible, you would have thought you were in the same place. Leo spoke
extemporaneously, his head tilted back, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. He performed well, but Elisabeth could feel his anger. Had it been within his power, he would have condemned every one of them to death. Leo was not a well-meaning man. He didn’t wish the best for people. This was so self-evident that she had to wonder once again why nobody seemed to pick up on it; and yet again she was forced to realize that people were bound up in their own preoccupations and worries, and registered so little of what was actually going on in front of them. When Leo finished there was applause, and then the previous day’s reception repeated itself like a nightmare all over again: someone introduced himself as Mr. Riet, another as Dr. Henning, and then here came Mrs. Riedergott again, pale with excitement, because the ambassador was standing at her side, clapping Leo on the shoulder and asking where did he get his ideas from. He’d started Leo’s last book in the plane en route from Berlin to Munich.
“Interesting,” said Leo with an expression that matched his thoughts.
The ambassador nodded. “Your first time here?”
“I see,” said the ambassador.
“I’m going to kill you,” said Leo.
“I’m so glad,” said the ambassador. “I know you’re in excellent hands.” He smiled at Mrs. Riedergott and vanished into the crowd.
A line of people formed for everyone to shake hands with him and Elisabeth. They came from Wuppertal and Hannover,
Bayreuth, Düsseldorf and Bebra, and a very straight-backed and desiccated gentleman came from Halle an der Saale. After a little while Elisabeth asked herself if the only people in the entire country were Germans.
“That,” said Leo in the car, “is what becomes of art. Everything else is just illusion and propaganda. I’ve always said it. But I had no idea it was true!” She saw that he’d turned white. “All the work, all the struggle, all the worry, an entire life wrecked just for that. All for invitations from people who are brain-dead, all for handshakes, all so that the zombies have something to chatter about before they go to dinner.”
In the front seat, Mrs. Riedergott suddenly turned round.
“No offense,” cried Leo. “Dear Mrs. Riedergott, I was speaking in the most general terms.”
That night, in the bathroom again, she finally got through to the secretary of state. Sitting on the toilet seat, she held the phone tight against her ear.
An awkward situation, he said in broken English. Really, there was nothing he could do. And even if he could, the efforts required would be considerable.
That went without saying, she said. They also knew the value of his intervention and would be correspondingly grateful.
He couldn’t promise anything, he said. He would be in touch again.
As she groped her way back into the dark bedroom, she
bumped into the night table. A glass fell to the ground and Leo woke up.
“I’m not going to the reception at the International Chamber of Commerce tomorrow. I’m going to disappear, and that’s that. We’ll fly to the pyramids. I’ve always wanted to see them.”
“What are they going to do? File charges?” He hesitated. “Could they? Theoretically, I mean. Could they bring charges against me?”
“I don’t think so.”
She sank down into her pillow. She was too tired to answer. She felt him looking at her in the darkness, and she knew he’d have liked to touch her, but she was too tired even to tell him that she was too tired.
In the morning, they left. A taxi to the airport, then the next plane up into the mountains. She had to spend the entire flight reassuring him that there wouldn’t be consequences, that nobody would sue him, that nobody would end up in jail just for blowing off the German International Chamber of Commerce. Below them, the highest mountains she had ever seen slipped by, intensely green and covered in primeval forest.
“It’s like the old days,” he said, “when I skipped school.”
“You never once skipped school.”
“How do you know?”
“Maybe, but you?”
He turned away to the porthole and didn’t say a word till they landed.
The air on the upland plateau was so thin that it was hard to breathe and the heart raced with every movement of the body. Streets and houses glittered in an intense light that cut into them like knives, leaving no shadows, so that within minutes the skin was on fire. As their taxi honked its way through the crowds, she accessed a message from Moritz. Evidently the local government had intervened, he said, nothing definite, some rumors circulating that the hostages had been freed, others that they were dead. He promised to call as soon as he knew more.
They dropped their luggage at the first hotel they came to and hired a guide. He was tall and serious and taciturn. When Leo switched on his phone, there were seven messages from the cultural institute.
“I think there really is going to be trouble. What d’you think, are you sure they can’t file suit against me?”
Ask me that one more time, she thought, and that’s going to be it. One more time, and I’m on the next plane out.
But he didn’t, probably because he couldn’t catch his breath. They were climbing the slope behind their guide, hearing every hoarse gasp in his throat. Elisabeth’s pulse was thundering, the sheer effort distracted her from her fear.
Their path took them through low grass, with spindly trees clinging to the rock here and there. Clouds had appeared out of nowhere, the air suddenly turned humid, the light fractured then diffused, and it began to rain.
They reached the pyramids in a torrential downpour. Thunderclaps echoed off the walls of the cliffs, lightning snaked across the horizon, and the only thing they could see in the mist were three stone peaks. Their guide was standing stock-still, water purling off his plastic poncho.
“Finally,” said Leo, “none of this interests me. I write. I invent things. I really don’t need to see stuff.”
“And I don’t want to turn up in a story.”
He looked at her.
“Don’t make me into someone. Don’t put me in a story. It’s all I ask.”
“But it wouldn’t be you in any case.”
“Yes, it would. Even if it’s not me, it would be me. As you very well know.”
The rain stopped and minutes later the sun tore a hole in the clouds. The swaths of mist became translucent, and suddenly they were looking at the flights of steps that climbed the huge edifices. The valley below them seemed to sink into the abyss, and she had the sensation that the crest on which they were standing was rising slowly into the sky. Somewhere a stream was gurgling. She wondered why she had the urge to cry.
“This is where they killed people,” said Leo. “Thousands of them. Every month.”
“And the universe still retains that memory,” said the guide impassively. “Close your eyes and you can feel it.”
“How come you speak German?”
“Heidelberg. I studied ethnology. Nine semesters.”
At that moment, her phone rang.
Rosalie Goes Off to Die
f all my characters, she’s the most intelligent. Almost seventy years ago, Rosalie was young and good at school, then she went on to qualify as a teacher and taught for four decades. She married twice and had three daughters, long since grown, now she’s a widow, her pension covers her costs, and she’s never been one to harbor illusions about things, so she wasn’t surprised when her doctor told her last week that pancreatic cancer is incurable and she wasn’t going to live much longer.