Authors: Daniel Kehlmann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Adult, #Contemporary
“My God,” says Lara.
“Do you think it’s a mistake?”
“Somewhere in there, there’s a mistake, but it’s hard to pin down. Are you going alone?”
“Don’t do that. Take me with you.”
“Out of the question.”
For a second or two, neither of them says a thing. Rosalie knows that Lara knows she would give way if asked more forcefully, and Lara knows that Rosalie knows, but Rosalie also knows that Lara doesn’t have the strength for it, not now, not so abruptly and without any time to prepare, and so both of them behave as if there’s nothing to be done and no argument to be had.
So they have a long conversation full of repetitions and interminable pauses, about life and childhood and God and the ultimate things, and Rosalie keeps thinking she shouldn’t have made this call, that what she’d really like to do is hang up, but that it’s really going to go on for some time because of course she absolutely doesn’t want to hang up. At some point Lara begins to sob and Rosalie feels very brave and detached as she says goodbye, but then it starts all over again from the beginning and they talk for another hour. That was a mistake, Rosalie thinks afterward. You don’t tell other people, you don’t burden them with it. That’s the mistake, that’s
what her brilliant niece meant. You do it alone or you don’t do it at all.
The weekend goes by with a strange lightheartedness. Only her feverish dreams, filled with people, voices, and events, as if an entire universe buried inside her were trying to rise again to the light of day, show her that she isn’t as serene as she believes herself to be in her waking hours. On Monday morning she gets ready to pack her suitcase. But she has to pull herself together, for it seems so strange and wrong somehow to be setting off on a journey minus any luggage.
In the taxi on the way to the airport, as the houses file past and the rising sun plays on the rooftops, she makes another try. Is there no chance, she asks me. It’s all in your hands. Let me live!
Not possible, I say crossly. Rosalie, what’s happening to you here is what you’re for. That’s why I invented you. Theoretically maybe I suppose I could intervene, but then the whole thing would be pointless! In other words, I can’t.
Rubbish, she says. All babble. At some point it’ll be your turn, and then you’ll be begging just like me.
That’s completely different.
And you won’t understand why an exception can’t be made for you.
The two things aren’t comparable. You’re my invention and I’m …
Trust me. It’s not going to hurt. That much I can take care of, I promise. My story—
Excuse me, but I couldn’t care less about your story. It’s probably not even any
I’m furious and I say nothing, and to make sure Rosalie doesn’t start up again, I have her arrive at the airport a few minutes later—the taxi has made unbelievable time, the streets have become a blur of color, and she’s already getting out, no line at the check-in counter, no waiting to clear security, and she’s sitting at the gate, surrounded by noisy children and people on business trips, and has no idea how all this happened. Our conversation has slipped into the back of her brain, she’s no longer sure whether I actually said something or whether she invented my words herself.
The plane is late. All planes are always late, that’s something not even I can do anything about. So Rosalie sits in the departure lounge. Sunlight filters softly through the windows. Until now she hasn’t felt afraid, but suddenly she is rigid with terror.
At exactly this moment, things begin to move. The flight to Zurich is called, and as Rosalie stands up, a fellow passenger asks if she needs help. She doesn’t, but why turn down the offer of a little support and friendliness? So she allows herself to be assisted on board.
Luckily, she has a window seat. She decides not to waste a moment, she’s going to look out as if she could take it all with her. It’s a fine thing to fly over the Alps one more time just before the end. The plane starts down the runway, engines screaming.
Rosalie wakes as the plane touches down and the force of the brakes presses her against her seatbelt. Her eardrums hurt. She rubs her forehead. Did she really … the whole way? She can’t believe it. But out there the landing runway stretches away under a uniform gray sky. It’s true, she’s slept through it all.
“Are we really already there?” she asks her neighbor.
He shakes his head. “Basel.”
“Fog in Zurich.” He looks at her as if it’s her fault. “We had to land in Basel.”
Rosalie stares at the back of the seat in front of her and tries to think. What is this? The unexpected twist that’s meant to save her life? Have I intervened to interrupt her journey?
But Rosalie, I reply. You have cancer. You’re going to die anyway. A break in your journey isn’t going to save you.
It could turn into another kind of story, she says. I could discover life in the next two weeks. Do things I’ve never done before. It could be one of those stories about how nobody ever values the present enough and how you should always live as if it would be all over in the next few days. It could be a positive … what do they call them?
Life-affirming. It’s called a life-affirming story.
So it could be one of those!
Rosalie, the airline will offer you two things. A connecting flight, but nobody will know when you’ll be able to board, because the fog in Zurich is extremely thick, or a train ticket. The train would get you there on time. You’ll take the train
ticket. This isn’t a life-affirming story. If anything, it’s a theological one.
I say nothing.
But how so, she says again. What do you mean?
I say nothing.
“I beg you,” says Rosalie’s neighbor. “It’s not so bad. You’ll get to Zurich—it’s not that far. There’s no reason to cry.”
At the door to the plane she’s pulled herself together again. A man from the airline is handing out vouchers to the grumbling passengers. Rosalie does opt for the train, and because she looks frail and not very well, an employee is found to drive her to the station. Her train is already at the platform. “Mind the step,” says the young man. “Mind, there’s a gap. Mind the next step. Would you like to sit here? Mind the seat.”
Very shortly the train is racing through a green landscape of hills and valleys. This time Rosalie is determined not to doze off.
She wakes as the train is stopping at some little provincial station. Fog hangs over the roofs of hideous houses. Out on the platform a child is whimpering while his mother next to him stares wildly as if she’d just trodden in a mound of turds. Rosalie rubs her face. Then the conductor comes onto the loudspeaker: there’s been an accident, bodily injuries, please disembark!
“Someone’s committed suicide,” a man says cheerfully.
“Jumped in front of the train,” says a woman. “That makes a mess of you. Nothing left!”
“Maybe a shoe,” says the man. “It’ll turn up miles away.”
They all nod in concert, then they get out. A man helps Rosalie down onto the platform, and she stands out there in the drizzle. Not knowing what to do, she goes into the station buffet. A Madonna smiles down from the wall next to a general in black and white next to a mountain guide with a pickax. There are four Swiss flags in the room. The coffee is disgusting.
“Dear lady, do you wish to get to Zurich?”
She looks up. There’s a thin man with horn-rim glasses and greasy hair at the next table. Rosalie has already noticed him on the train.
“If so, I could give you a lift.”
“You have a car here?”
“Dear lady, there are many cars.”
She’s silent, nonplussed. But what does she have to lose? She nods.
“If you would be so kind as to come with me. I take it time is tight.” In a grand gesture he pulls out his wallet and pays for her coffee. Then he goes over to the coat stand, takes a bright red cap that’s hanging there, puts it on his head, and slowly adjusts it. “Forgive me if I don’t assist you, but alas my back hurts. What is your name?”
She introduces herself.
He takes her hand and—she pulls back involuntarily—presses his lips to it. “Charmed!” He doesn’t tell her his own name. He holds himself very straight, his movements are supple, and there’s no sign that he has a bad back.
She follows him into the parking lot. He walks quickly
without looking back and she can hardly keep up with him. He stops first in front of one car, then another, his head to one side and his lips pursed.
“What do you think about this one?” he asks in front of a silver Citroën. “I think it will do the job.” He looks questioningly at Rosalie. As she nods, disconcerted, he bends over and does something to the door, which springs open after a moment. He gets in and does something to the ignition.
“What are you doing?”
“Dear lady, won’t you get in?”
Rosalie hesitantly sits down in the passenger seat. The engine starts. “Is this your car, or did you just …”
“Of course it’s my car, dear lady! You wouldn’t wish to insult me?”
“But the ignition! You …”
“A new patent, very complicated, why don’t you tilt your seat back, it’s not going to take long, even if I can’t drive at top speed, too much fog and I don’t want to expose you to the slightest danger.” His laugh sounds like a bleat and Rosalie feels a shiver down her spine.
“Who are you?” she asks, her voice hoarse.
“A friendly fellow human being, dear lady. A seeker, a helper, a voyager. A shadow and a brother. As each of us should be to others.”
They’re already on the Autobahn. The guardrails glisten at the side of the car and the speed pushes Rosalie into her soft leather seat.
“The old riddle,” he says with a sidelong glance at her face.
“Oedipus and the Sphinx. In the morning, four; at midday, two; in the evening, three. So profound, dear lady.” He turns on the radio, alpenhorns groan, in the background someone yodels. He whistles along and bangs out the rhythm on the steering wheel, completely off the beat. “A thinking reed, most venerable lady,
un roseau pensant
, what else is man? I will take you to your destination, and all I ask in return, fear not, is absolutely nothing.”
Get on and do something, she says to me. Spoil your story. Who’s going to care, there are so many stories, it’s not all about just one. You could make me better again, you could even make me young. It wouldn’t cost you a thing.
She almost managed to coax me out of my reserve, but right now I’m preoccupied with other things: I’m really bothered that I have no idea who the guy behind the wheel is, who invented him, and how he got into my story. My plan involved a little boy and a bike, a motorcycle gang and a retired Colombian coffin maker. A little dog was also to be given a major role, largely symbolic. Twenty pages of drafts, a lot of them really good, that I can just as well throw away now.
They’re already leaving the Autobahn, the first houses on the outskirts of Zurich appear: little gardens, advertisements for milk, more little gardens, schoolchildren with oversized knapsacks. Suddenly he hits the brakes, jumps out into the street, runs around the car, and opens Rosalie’s door. “Dear lady!”
She climbs out. “We’re here?”
“Yes indeed!” He makes an absurdly low bow, his arms hanging slack so that the backs of his hands brush the wet asphalt. He holds this pose for several seconds, then straightens up again. “Determination. Whatever projects you have planned, perform them with determination. Think about that.” He turns and walks away with long strides.
“But your car!” Rosalie calls after him.
He’s already disappeared around the corner, and the Citroën sits there abandoned, its blinkers going, and the door wide open. Rosalie squeezes her eyes, then focuses on the street sign, and realizes with a mixture of relief, incredulity, and anger that he’s dropped her off in the wrong place.
She lifts her hand and stands there for a long time in the rain, getting wetter and wetter and feeling wretched beyond words. Finally a taxi pulls up. She gets in, gives the driver the correct address, and closes her eyes.
Let me live, she tries one last time. Your story. Forget it. Just let me live.
You’re clutching at the illusion that you really exist, I reply. But you’re made of words, vague images, and a few simple thoughts, and they all belong to other people. You think you’re suffering. But nobody’s suffering here, because nobody’s
You and your clever words! You can stick them up your ass!
For a moment I’m speechless. I’ve no idea who taught her to talk like that. It’s not who she is, it’s a stylistic break, it spoils my prose. Please pull yourself together!
No, I won’t. I hurt. One day it’ll happen to you too, and someone will tell you that you don’t exist.
Rosalie, that’s precisely the difference. I do exist.
I have a personality and feelings and a soul, which may not be immortal but it’s real. Why are you laughing?
The driver looks round, then shrugs his shoulders, old people are strange and that’s that. The windshield wipers are on high, rain is bouncing back up out of the puddles, people are staring out from under their umbrellas. The last journey, says Rosalie softly, and precisely because it’s true, the thought rings both false and pathetic. It doesn’t matter what kind of life you’ve had, she tells herself, it always ends in horror. And now all that remains is to let the minutes go by. There are approximately twenty left to her, each one filled with seconds; it’s a long time. The clock will tick thousands of times more, the end is still unreal for now.
“We’re here!” says the driver.
He nods. She realizes she hasn’t changed any money, and has no Swiss francs. “Please wait. I’ll be right back.”
As she’s getting out, she simply can’t believe her last act is going to be cheating on a taxi fare. But life is such a mixed-up, impure business, and now she’s no longer responsible. Here is the name board with all the buzzers, and on it, as if it meant something other than death itself, is the name of the association. She rings, the door immediately unlocks itself with a dull hum.