Authors: Daniel Kehlmann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Adult, #Contemporary
But the room at least seemed habitable. The bed was soft and clean, the faucets in the bathroom worked. Outside you could see a dozen high buildings and factory chimneys. Just as she was about to unpack, the phone rang.
“Downstairs,” said a woman’s voice in uncertain English. “Now.”
She wanted to ask a question but the woman had already hung up. She hastily changed out of her sweat-soaked blouse into a fresh one, dutifully picked up her notebook, and took the creaking elevator down.
A number of men and women were sitting in a semicircle in the front hall on folding chairs. In the middle was a woman wearing a uniform.
“Am I the last?”
The woman asked who she was.
“Maria Rubinstein. I’m Maria Rubinstein.”
The woman stared at a sheet of paper, then shook her head.
“I’m here instead of Leo Richter. They sent me his ticket. I’m replacing him.”
Leo Richter, said the woman. He was on the list!
“He’s not coming. I’m here in his place.”
The woman made a disdainful gesture that obviously implied that nobody could understand what went on in foreigners’ heads. She pointed to an empty chair. Maria sat down
and the woman made a short speech. This prominent delegation of the world’s best travel journalists had been invited by the government of the fatherland to report to all nations on its beauty. They would lack for nothing, their every wish would be granted. They would even meet the vice president, the festivities would have no end. And now, the welcome banquet!
She led them into an adjoining room. There was a long table with bowls of cold potatoes. Between them there were platters of fatty roast pork in mayonnaise.
As Maria established very quickly, nobody here was a travel journalist. There were two cultural editors and three trainees who’d been sent because nobody on the staff wanted to come here. Then there also was a science editor from
and a friendly man who wrote articles on wild birds for the
An older woman had worked for German Radio before her retirement, and her colleague was only here because there were workmen in her apartment. As soon as dinner was over, Maria went to bed.
She slept badly. The distant sound of machinery woke her again and again. When she got up with a raging headache, she realized she’d forgotten the charger for her cell phone. Dejected, she sent her husband a text message.
I miss you.
There was no reply. She felt very far away from everything.
In the lobby she inquired about a charger. The receptionist stared at her silently in a state of incomprehension. One by one her colleagues appeared. Most of them were pale and had slept badly. “That mayonnaise,” said the man from the
A bus drove them for two hours on potholed streets. As Maria came to out of her drowsy half sleep, they were in front of a factory building. Workers had gathered and were singing. The guide pointed to a conveyer belt. It was impossible to tell what was being made here. A woman brought a plate with roast pork still in its rind. Everyone took a piece hesitantly. The choir sang again, then they drove back. When they reached the hotel, night had already fallen.
Every day that followed was the same. They were driven to a swimming pool in an unlit concrete hall. The water looked cold and smelled of chemicals. The man from
asked if he could swim a lap, and the guide said it was impossible. They were driven to a sewage plant, they were driven to a drilling tower in the swamps of no-man’s-land, and an industrial bakery, they were driven to a place where eighty years before there had still been a nomads’ camping ground. Once these people had laid waste to everything, the guide said, with sabers and cudgels and whips, they had ridden out to rape women and burn fields until it was decided to make short shrift of them and they were slaughtered down to the last man. They were driven to the parliament building where several hundred deputies who all belonged to the same party sang the national anthem for them, hands on their hearts and their eyes uplifted to the portrait of the president.
They were driven to an electrical transformer which for some reason was without electrical power, they were taken to a primary school where children in uniform were waiting outside the door and sang them old folksongs for two hours
while the sun burned and the flies attacked. The retired editor from German Radio fainted and had to be carried into the bus. The singing went on for another hour before a deputation of schoolgirls handed around roast pork with mayonnaise that they’d made themselves. They were driven to the university, where a professor with a wild beard gave a lecture in almost impenetrable English about the brilliant perspectives and future opportunities of the country. As far as Maria understood, he was talking about steel and oil and the president, and the place smelled of ammonia and the stench from the building sites drifted through the open windows. When he’d finished, they served roast pork.
They were driven out onto the steppes. The bus stopped. They got out. Here, there was nothing.
The grass undulated gently. The sky soared, two little frayed clouds its only decoration. There was no stench, there was no smell, the air was clean. The wind was soft. The plain stretched away to the horizon with nothing to interrupt the eye. A skein of birds floated by. A dragonfly flew up, wheeled in a circle, its wings buzzing, then sank back down into the grass.
As they drove on, it seemed to Maria that they hadn’t moved from the spot; no matter where you looked, nothing changed, in any direction. She closed her eyes. For the moment she was sleeping better on the bus than she did in the noisy hotel.
That evening she switched on her cell phone and called her husband. On the sixth attempt it worked and suddenly she heard his voice.
“Oh God,” she said. “If you only knew.”
Neither of them said anything for a few seconds. She knew he understood.
“The flowers?” she asked finally.
“I water them every day.”
“Already took it out long ago. Is it freezing there?”
“It’s boiling. And the mosquitoes are appalling!”
They fell silent again, then it occurred to her that she needed to spare the battery. The thought that the phone could actually die made her panic-stricken.
“I’ll be back soon,” she said.
“Do you have anything against mosquitoes?”
“Doesn’t exist here.”
“Well you could—”
She never did find out what suggestion he was going to make. The connection failed and all she heard was the busy signal. The battery was almost flat. She sighed and switched off.
The next day was the last. They were driven to a little provincial town far out on the steppes; from there they would be delivered to a military airfield the following morning. A
government plane would take them to China, where they would connect with a regular flight that would take them home.
They were shown a building site. Maria had no idea what was being built, but it must be important, because each of them had to take a spadeful of bad-smelling soil and throw it onto a mound. They all looked exhausted: some of them had lost weight, many were pale, one of the trainees had been smitten with a strange form of acne, the man from
was limping, and the old lady from German Radio just sat on the bus with her head in her hands. Shortly after this they were taken to another building site where the same thing happened all over again, then to a military barracks where the company was drawn up outside. The national anthem was played. Flags waved. There was roast pork in mayonnaise. After that—it was nighttime now—they were driven to the hotel.
A little man handed out the keys. Maria was the last in line, and when it was her turn there were no keys left. Someone had miscounted. The hotel was full.
The guide screamed at the receptionist, the receptionist seized the phone and screamed, hung up, dialed another number, screamed, hung up, and stared at her truculently.
“Then I’ll just share a room with someone,” said Maria.
“No problem,” said the woman from German Radio. “Come in with me. We’re grown-ups.”
Impossible, said the guide. It just wasn’t done. The country was full of hotels and all of them were excellent!
And so Maria found herself sitting alone in the bus. For half an hour they drove down pitch-dark streets, until finally they came to a halt outside a tall building. Children were loafing around on the sidewalk. And old women were selling pumpkins.
The hotel, said the guide, wasn’t open right now but they would make an exception for Maria, she would be given a room. Tomorrow morning she must be downstairs on the street at seven twenty-five sharp, for the bus to pick her up and take her to the airport.
The guide looked at her expressionlessly.
The elevator was broken, a bearded man led her up the stairs to the seventh floor. Why did she have to go up so many floors when the hotel was empty anyway? Finally she reached her room, sweating and out of breath. It smelled of chemical cleaners. The wardrobe wouldn’t close, the television didn’t work, the curtains were creased. On the wall hung a piece of paper covered in Cyrillic lettering. What did it say? Doesn’t matter, thought Maria, this is almost over.
She lay awake for a long time staring at the ceiling. In the distance she could hear traffic. She checked her alarm clock three times. Although everything seemed to be working, she couldn’t get to sleep for fear it wouldn’t ring.
The next morning, she was already heading downstairs at five past seven. She set her suitcase down in the front hall and sat down in an ancient fake-leather armchair. There was no one to be seen. She waited. Ten minutes went by. Twelve. Fifteen.
She went out onto the street. Cars were driving in the pale morning light, but there were no pedestrians in sight. She checked her watch again. It was now three minutes past the half hour. Then four minutes. Then four and a half minutes. Suddenly, with a shock, she saw it was twenty to eight. Quarter to eight. Ten to. It was five to eight. She switched on her phone, but had no idea who to call. There was no contact number in case of emergencies. The group had always stayed together, so nobody had thought of such a thing.
Steady, she thought. Steady! Someone would notice she was missing, the others would raise the alarm, the plane would wait. She went back into the front hall and sat down.
After a minute she got up again and went out to the street. She stood there, her heart thumping, for two hours. The heat came, tentatively at first, then in increasing waves. The crowds thickened around her, and the flies too were beginning their day. She went back into the hotel several times, but there was no one to be seen, the reception desk remained empty, and calling, banging, and yelling did no good. Who was the bearded man from yesterday, and where could he be now? Then she went back outside and stared at her watch.
Around midday she climbed back up to her room. The building did seem to be totally empty. In the early afternoon she dozed off, but cold fear woke her again almost immediately. For awhile she stood at the window, then she sat at the table, drumming her fingers and staring at the wall. She went into the bathroom and cried for awhile. Then she stood at the window again and watched the light fade. Was it possible
that the others hadn’t noticed she was missing, or that they’d accepted some threadbare explanation to avoid any delay in their own departure? Something told her this was perfectly possible. She lay down on the bed. It was only now that she noticed she was hungry.
But she couldn’t go anywhere! If anyone went looking for her, this is where they would come. She switched on the phone and tried to reach her husband. She couldn’t get a connection. After the third try she switched it off again, so as not to use up the very last of the battery.
Strangely enough, she slept a deep, dreamless sleep and when she woke up, for a few seconds she felt rested and relaxed. Light was coming through the window and motes of dust were dancing in the sunbeams. Then she remembered. The fear hit her like a whiplash. Hastily she got dressed.
After an hour of searching she knew that the building really was totally deserted. She had gone through every floor, calling and knocking on every door. The phone on the reception desk seemed to work, but she didn’t know what numbers she had to dial to get an international connection; no matter what she tried, she heard the same harsh whistle in the receiver. When another three hours had gone by and nobody had appeared, she decided to leave. She had to find somebody who could help her.
The heat was worse than the day before. Her clothes soon stuck to her body, sweat ran down her face, and she was so weak from hunger that she could barely carry her suitcase any longer. In a shop filled with canned goods and flat circles
of bread mummified in plastic wrap, she tried to buy a slice of cake and a bottle of water. She had reached the cash register before she realized she had no local currency, only euros, a few dollar bills, and her credit card. The owner refused all of them. Tears came to her eyes. In helpless pantomime she tried to make clear to him that ten dollars were worth far more than the few coins he wanted from her. He shook his head. She picked up her suitcase and went out.
In the third shop, someone was finally prepared, in exchange for twenty dollars, to give her three lumpy, doughy objects stuffed with pork and a bottle of water. With relief she leaned against a wall and ate and drank. She immediately felt nauseous and heavy in the stomach, but as she’d felt the same all week, she didn’t worry too much about it.
As she set off again, she noticed people turning around as she passed. Men gave her amused looks, children kept pointing at her and calling out things until they were pulled along by their mothers.
She spoke to a policeman. He turned to look at her, his eyes small and hostile. She tried English, French, German, and even her halting classical Greek, learned many years ago for a seminar on Aristotle at university. She tried pantomime, folding her hands in a pleading gesture. Finally he stretched out a hand and said something. She didn’t understand, he repeated it, this went on for some time until she realized he was asking for her passport. He took it, leafed through it, looked at her sharply, and screamed a sentence she didn’t understand.