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Authors: Jose Saramago

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Up until now we have not needed to know on which day of the week these intriguing events are taking place, but Tertuliano Máximo Afonso's next actions, if they are to be understood, demand the information that today is a Friday, from which one will easily draw the conclusion that yesterday was Thursday and the day before that was Wednesday. Many readers will judge the complementary information we have given them about yesterday and the day before yesterday to be unnecessary, obvious, useless, absurd, even downright stupid, but, in anticipation of such a remark, we would counter by saying that any criticism along these lines reveals only bad faith and ignorance, given that, as is widely known, there are languages in the world that call Wednesday, for example,
mercredi, miércoles, mercoledì,
or
quarta-feira,
that call Thursday
jeudi, jueves, giovedì,
or
quinta-feira,
and as for Friday, if we had not taken the overt precaution of protecting its name, there would even be people out there who would start calling it
Freitag.
It may yet happen, all in good time, its moment will come. Having clarified this point, having agreed that today is Friday, having mentioned that the history teacher will have classes today only in the afternoon, and having noted that tomorrow, Saturday,
samedi, sábado, sabato,
there will be no classes, that we are therefore on the eve of the weekend, but, above all, because one should never put off till tomorrow what one can do today, it is clear that Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is quite right to go to the video-rental shop this morning so that he can rent the remaining films that interest him. He will
return
Passenger without a Ticket
to its source, as being of no use in his researches, and will purchase copies of
Death Strikes at Dawn
and
The Accursed Code.
He still has three videos left from yesterday, which represent at least four and a half hours' viewing, and, along with whatever else he brings back from the shop, it promises to be an unforgettable weekend, a cinematic blowout if ever there was one, a real button-buster as country people used to say. He got dressed, ate breakfast, put the videos back in their respective boxes, locked them in one of the desk drawers, and left, first going upstairs to tell his neighbor that she could come down anytime to clean and tidy his apartment, Pop down whenever you like, I won't be back until later this afternoon, and then, far less agitated than he was the previous day but still afflicted by the nervousness of someone on his way to a meeting with a person who, although this is not the first of such meetings, will, for that very reason, brook no mistakes, he got into the car and set off for the video-rental shop. The moment has come to inform those readers who, given the, so far, rather scant urban descriptions, have created in their mind the idea that this is all taking place in a medium-sized city, one, that is, of fewer than a million inhabitants, but the moment has come, as we were saying, to inform them that, on the contrary, this teacher, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, is one of the just over five million human beings who, with major differences in standards of living and other differences that defy all comparison, inhabit the vast metropolis that extends over what were, long ago, hills, valleys, and plains, and which is now a continuous labyrinthine duplication both horizontally and vertically, initially made more complicated by components we will term diagonals, but which, meanwhile, with the passing of time, have brought some measure of equilibrium to the
chaotic
urban mesh, for they established frontier lines that, paradoxically, instead of driving things apart, brought them closer together. The survival instinct, for that is what one is dealing with in big cities, applies both to the animal and to the inanimal, an admittedly abstruse term that does not appear in any dictionary and that we have had to invent so that, aptly and appositely, we can render transparent, at a glance, whether via the ordinary sense of the first word, animal, or via the unusual spelling of the second, inanimal, the differences and similarities between things and non-things, between the inanimate and the animate. From now on, whenever we use the word "inanimal," we will do so with the intention of being as clear and precise as when, in the other kingdom, where the novelty of being and all its designations has entirely worn off, we used to refer to both man and dog as animals. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, despite being a teacher of history, has never understood that everything that is animal is destined to become inanimal and that, however great the names and deeds inscribed by human beings on History's pages, it is from the inanimal that we come and toward the inanimal that we are going. Meanwhile, though, between the lashes, as the above-mentioned country people used to say, meaning that in the briefest of brief intervals between one lash and the next the back had time to rest, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is driving to the video-rental shop, one of the many intermediate destinations that await him in life. The assistant who had attended him on his two previous visits was busy with another customer. He gave a nod of recognition, however, and showed his teeth in a smile, which, though lacking any apparent special meaning, might have concealed some murky intention. A female assistant who stepped forward to ask the newly arrived customer what he wanted was stopped
in
her tracks by a few curt but imperious words, I'll deal with this, and she had to withdraw with a small, faint smile, which was at once understanding and apologetic. Being new to the profession and to that establishment, and therefore inexperienced in the sophisticated art of selling, she was not yet authorized to deal with first-class customers. Let us not forget that Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, who is, as we know, a respected teacher of history and a renowned scholar of serious audiovisual matters, is also a large-scale renter of videos, as was shown yesterday and as will be shown again today. Having dealt with his other customer, the assistant, bright-eyed and zealous, came over to him, Good morning, sir, lovely to see you again, he said. While not wishing to cast doubt on the sincerity or cordiality of this greeting, it is, nevertheless, impossible to allow to pass without comment the evident and apparently unbridgeable contradiction between it and the final words muttered yesterday by this same assistant when this same customer left the shop, Whoever named you Tertuliano knew what he was doing. The explanation, let us hasten to add, lies in the pile of videos on the counter, about thirty at least. Expert in the aforesaid art of selling, the assistant, having given vehement but sotto voce expression to his feelings, decided that it would be a mistake to let himself be blinded by disappointment and that, although he had been unable to make the big sale he had initially hoped for, there was still the possibility that this Tertuliano fellow could be encouraged to rent all the videos available from the same production company, thus, and not without some basis, preserving the hope of being able to sell him a large number of the videos he had rented. Business life is full of trapdoors and pitfalls, a real lucky dip, although not always so lucky, you have to play your cards close to your chest, you have to be sly
and calculating but without the client noticing your subtle maneuverings, you have to wear away at any preconceived ideas he may have brought with him to protect himself, to lay siege to any show of resistance, and to probe his innermost desires, in short, the new assistant will have to eat a lot of bread and a lot of salt if she is ever to reach such heights. What the assistant does not know is that Tertuliano Máximo Afonso has gone there with the precise aim of stocking up with videos for the weekend, determined now to get through as many as he can lay his hands on, rather than, as he did yesterday, content himself with a mere half dozen. In this way, vice once more paid homage to virtue, in this way vice raised virtue up, rather than trampling it underfoot as it had hoped. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso put
Passenger without a Ticket
on the counter and said, I'm not interested in this one, And what about the others you rented, have you decided what to do with them, asked the assistant, Yes, I'll keep
Death Strikes at Dawn
and
The Accursed Code,
but the other three I haven't yet seen, Now correct me if I'm wrong, but those three are
The Goddess of the Stage, The Alarm Rang Twice,
and
Phone Me Another Day,
recited the assistant, after consulting the relevant index card, Exactly, So that means you're renting
Passenger
and buying
Death
and the
Code,
Exactly, Right, so what can we do for you today, here we have, but Tertuliano Máximo Afonso did not give him time to finish his sentence, Those videos over there were, I assume, set aside for me, Exactly, echoed the assistant, caught, in his mind, between contentment at having won without a struggle and disappointment at not having had to struggle in order to win, How many are there, Thirty-six, How many hours is that, If we continue to calculate on the basis of an average hour and a half per film, let me see now, said the assistant, reaching for his calculator, Don't worry, I
can
tell you the answer, it's fifty-four, How did you manage to do that so quickly, asked the assistant, ever since these machines became available, and even though I haven't lost the ability to do sums in my head, I always use them for more complicated calculations, It's really easy, said Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, thirty-six half hours equals eighteen, so if you add the thirty-six whole hours we already had to the eighteen from the half hours, you get fifty-four, Are you a mathematics teacher, No, history, not mathematics, in fact, I've never been much good at figures, Well, you'd never know it, knowledge really is a wonderful thing, It depends what you know, It depends too, I think, who knows it, If you were capable of reaching that conclusion on your own, said Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, then you don't need calculators at all. The assistant was not sure he had entirely grasped the meaning of the customer's words, but they struck him as pleasant, friendly, even flattering, and as soon as he got home, assuming he hadn't forgotten them en route, he would repeat them to his wife. He decided to do the multiplication with pencil and paper, so many videos at so much, because he had resolved that, at least in front of this customer, he would never again use a calculator. It came to quite a tidy sum, not as much as it would have if, instead of renting, he had been buying, but this selfish thought went as quickly as it came, the peace had definitely been signed. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso paid, then asked, Would you very much mind making up two packages of eighteen cassettes each while I go and fetch my car, it's parked too far away for me to be able to carry them all there. A quarter of an hour later, it was the assistant himself who came and put the packages in the trunk, closed the car door after Tertuliano Máximo Afonso had got in, said good-bye with a smile and a wave that were the very embodiment of fond
affection, and who murmured as he returned to the counter, People may say that it's first impressions that count, but here's a person whom I didn't take to at all to start with, and yet. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso's thoughts were following a very different route, Two days equals forty-eight hours, mathematically, of course, that's not enough time for me to watch all the films even if I don't sleep for those two days, but if I start tonight, with the whole of Saturday and Sunday ahead of me, and make it a serious rule not to watch a film all the way through if the fellow hasn't appeared by the halfway point, I'm sure I'll have finished the task by Monday. The plan of action was complete in its objective and perfect in its form, there was no need for addenda, appendices, or footnotes, but Tertuliano Máximo Afonso insisted, If he doesn't appear by the halfway point, he won't appear afterward. Yes, afterward. That is the word that has been hanging around ever since the actor who played the part of the hotel receptionist appeared for the first time in that interesting and amusing film
The Race Is to the Swift.
And afterward, asked the history teacher, like a child who does not know that there is no point asking about something that has not yet happened, what will I do afterward, what will I do after finding out that this man has appeared in fifteen or twenty films, that, so far as I have been able to ascertain, as well as playing a hotel receptionist, he has also been a bank clerk and a medical auxiliary, what will I do then. He had the answer on the tip of his tongue, but he only gave that answer a minute later, Find him and meet him.

 

 

 

 

 

B
Y CHANCE OR FOR SOME OTHER UNKNOWN REASON, SOME
one must have gone to tell the headmaster that Tertuliano Máximo Afonso was in the staff room, apparently filling in time until lunch, since all he had done since going in there had been to read the newspapers. He wasn't marking homework, he wasn't putting the final touches to a lesson plan, he wasn't making notes, he was just reading the newspapers. He had begun by taking from his briefcase the receipt for the rental of the thirty-six videos, which he unfolded and placed on the table, then he looked for the entertainment page in the first newspaper, the cinema section. He would do the same with another two newspapers. Although, as we know, his addiction to the seventh art is very recent and his ignorance about anything to do with the image industry unchanged, he knew, assumed, imagined, or guessed that any new releases would not be launched immediately onto the video market. In order to reach this conclusion he did not need to be endowed with a prodigious deductive intelligence or with some extraordinary access to a knowledge beyond reason, it was a simple and obvious matter of applying very ordinary common sense and looking under the section devoted to videos
to
buy and rent. He looked for cinemas that showed older films, and, one by one, ballpoint in hand, he compared the titles of the films shown there with those on the receipt, marking the titles on the latter with a small cross whenever they coincided. If anyone were to ask Tertuliano Máximo Afonso why he was doing this, if he intended going to those cinemas to see films he already had on video, he would probably look at us surprised, astonished, perhaps offended that we judged him capable of such an absurd act, not that he would give us an acceptable explanation either, apart from the one that erects walls to keep out other people's curiosity and which in two words says, Just because. Meanwhile, we, who have been privy to the history teacher's intimate thoughts and have insinuated ourselves into his secrets, can tell you that the sole point of this absurd undertaking is to keep his attention fixed on the one objective that has obsessed him for the last three days, or to prevent his attention from becoming distracted, for example, by reading the news in the newspapers, as the other teachers present in the room probably imagine he is doing now. Life, however, is made in such a way that even doors we considered firmly locked and bolted against the world find themselves at the mercy of the modest, solicitous errand boy who has just come into the room to announce to the history teacher that the headmaster would very much like to see him in his office. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso got to his feet, folded up the newspapers, put the receipt back in his briefcase, and went out into the corridor where some of the classrooms were. The headmaster's office was on the floor above, and the stairs that led up to it had, in the roof, a skylight so opaque inside and so grimy outside that, winter and summer, it allowed in only a miserly amount of natural light. He went down another passageway and stopped at the second
door. The green light was lit, and so he rapped on the door and opened it when he heard a voice inside say, Come in, then he said his good mornings, shook the headmaster's hand, and, at a sign from him, sat down. Whenever he went into this room, he had the feeling that he had seen this same office somewhere else, it was like one of those dreams we know we have dreamed but which we cannot manage to recall when we wake up. The floor was carpeted, there were thick curtains at the window, the desk was large and old-fashioned, the black leather armchair modern. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso knew this furniture, these curtains, this carpet, or thought he did, one possibility is that he had one day read in a novel or a story the brief description of another office belonging to another headmaster of another school, in which case, if this could be proved with book in hand, he would be forced to replace, with a banal occurrence that could happen to anyone endowed with a reasonable memory, something that he had always thought, up until now, was an intersection between his routine life and the majestic circular flow of the eternal return. Fantasies. Absorbed in these visions, the history teacher had not heard the headmaster's first words, but we, who will always be around lest anything be missed, can safely say that he did not miss much, merely the reciprocation of his good morning, the question, How have you been, the preamble I asked you to come and see me, but from then on, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso was there in body and in spirit, with the light of his eyes and understanding awake. I asked you to come and see me, said the headmaster again because he noticed what appeared to be an air of distraction on the other man's face, to talk to you about what you said at yesterday's meeting about the teaching of history, What did I say at yesterday's meeting, asked Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, Don't
you
remember, Well, I have a vague idea, but my head's not very clear, I didn't sleep much last night, Are you ill, No, not ill, just slightly anxious, that's all, That's bad enough, Really, sir, it's of no importance, there's no need to worry, What you said, word for word, I've got it written down on this piece of paper, was that the only serious decision to be taken as regards the teaching of history is whether we should teach it from back to front or from front to back, It's not the first time I've said that, Precisely, you've said it so often that your colleagues no longer take it seriously, they start to smile as soon as you say the first words, My colleagues are lucky, they're easily amused, and you, And I what, Do you take me seriously, I wonder, or do you too smile as soon as I say the first words, or perhaps the second, You know me well enough to realize that I'm not easily amused, still less in a situation like that, as for taking you seriously, there's no question, you're one of our best teachers, the students admire and respect you, which, these days, is nothing short of miraculous, So why did you ask to see me, Just to ask you not to repeat, That business about the only serious decision to be taken, Yes, In that case, I won't open my mouth in meetings anymore, if someone thinks they have something important to say and the others don't want to hear it, then it's best to keep quiet, Personally, I've always found your idea very interesting, Thank you, sir, but don't tell me that, tell my colleagues, tell the ministry, besides, it's not even my idea, I didn't invent it, people far more competent than me have proposed and defended it, Without noticeable success, That's understandable, sir, talking about the past is the easiest thing there is, it's all written down, it's just a question of repeating, of parroting, of checking in books what students write in their essays or say in the oral exams, whereas talking about a present that is
exploding
in our face at every minute, talking about it every day of the year and at the same time navigating the river of History back to the source, or thereabouts, always struggling to get a better understanding of the chain of events that has brought us where we are now, that's quite another story, it's a lot of work, requires great perseverance in its application, you have to keep the rope pulled tight all the time, What you've just said is admirable, indeed, I think even the minister would be persuaded by your eloquence, Hm, I doubt it, sir, ministers are put there in order to persuade us, Look, I withdraw what I said before, from now on, I'll support you all the way, Thank you, but it's best not to foster illusions, the system has to render accounts to the person in charge and that's a kind of arithmetic they don't like at all, We'll insist, Someone once said that all the great truths are basically trivial and so we have to find new ways, preferably paradoxical ways, of expressing them, in order to keep them from falling into oblivion, Who said that, A German, a man called Schlegel, but others probably said it before him, It makes you think, though, Yes, but what I like most about it is the fascinating assertion that the great truths are just so much trivia, the rest, the supposed need for a new, paradoxical way of expressing them and thus prolonging their existence and giving them substance doesn't really concern me, after all, I'm just a history teacher in a secondary school, We should talk more, my friend, There isn't time to do everything, sir, besides, there are my other colleagues who doubtless have more important things to tell you, for example, how to find easy amusement in difficult words, and the students, we mustn't forget the students, poor things, who, if they didn't have someone to talk to, might one day end up with nothing to say, imagine what school life would be like with everyone talking to each other, we'd never get
anything
done, and work calls. The headmaster looked at his watch and said, So does lunch, let's go and eat. He got up, walked around his desk, and, in a spontaneous expression of real regard, placed his hand on the shoulder of the history teacher, who had also stood up. There was, inevitably, something paternalistic about this gesture, but coming as it did from the headmaster, this was only natural, only right even, human relations being what we know them to be. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso's hypersensitive electricity generator did not react to this touch, a sign that there had been no troublesome hyperbole in the headmaster's show of appreciation, or, who knows, perhaps it was just that this morning's illuminating conversation with the mathematics teacher had simply unplugged the generator. One can never repeat too often that other trivial truth, that small causes can produce great results. When the headmaster went back to his desk to fetch his glasses, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso looked around the room, saw the curtains, the black leather armchair, the carpet, and again thought, I've been here before. Then, perhaps because someone had suggested that he might merely have read somewhere a description of an office similar to this, he added another thought, Reading is probably another way of being in a place. The headmaster's glasses were now safely in his top jacket pocket and he was saying, smiling, Off we go then, and Tertuliano Máximo Afonso will be unable to explain now or ever why the air seems to have thickened, as if impregnated with an invisible presence, as intense and powerful as the one that roused him brusquely from his bed after watching that first video. He thought, If I had been here before I became a schoolteacher, what I'm feeling now could be nothing more than a memory of myself reactivated by my current nervous state. The remainder of that thought, if there was a remainder,
was never developed, the headmaster was taking his arm and saying something about great lies, wondering if they were also trivial, and if paradoxes could stop them from falling into oblivion too. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso just managed to pick up the thread at the very last moment, Great truths, great lies, I suppose in time everything becomes trivial, the usual dishes with the same old sauce, he replied, Now I hope that isn't a criticism of our kitchens, joked the headmaster, Certainly not, I'm a regular customer, responded Tertuliano Máximo Afonso in the same vein. They went downstairs to the canteen and, on the way, were joined by the mathematics teacher and a teacher of English, which meant that the headmaster's table was full for that lunchtime. So, said the mathematics teacher in a low voice, while the headmaster and the English teacher went on ahead of them, how are you feeling, Good, very good actually, Did you have a little chat, Yes, he called me to his office to ask me not to bring up that business of teaching topsy-turvy history again, Topsy-turvy, It's just a figure of speech, And what did you say, Oh, I explained my point of view for the hundredth time and I think I finally managed to persuade him that my crazy idea was not quite as dotty as he had always thought, A victory, Which won't get us anywhere, True enough, though, of course, one can never be quite sure where exactly victories get us anyway, sighed the mathematics teacher, Whereas everyone knows where defeats get us, especially the people who poured everything they were and everything they had into the battle, but no one pays any attention to that particular lesson from history, Anyone would think you were fed up with your job, Perhaps I am, it's just that we seem to be putting the same old sauce on the usual dishes, nothing changes, Are you thinking of leaving teaching, I don't know exactly, or even vaguely, what I think
or
want, but I imagine it would be a good idea, To abandon teaching, To abandon anything. They went into the canteen, sat down at a table for four, and the headmaster, as he unfurled his napkin, said to Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, I'd like you to tell our colleagues here what you told me just now, About what, About your very original concept for the teaching of history. The English teacher began to smile, but the look that the history teacher gave her, deadpan, absent, and, at the same time, cold, froze the smile just beginning to appear on her lips. Always assuming concept is the right word, sir, it's not in the least original, that particular laurel wreath was not meant for my head, said Tertuliano Máximo Afonso after a pause, Ah, yes, but the speech that convinced me was yours, retorted the headmaster. In an instant, the history teacher's gaze left the canteen, went down the corridor, up to the next floor, through the locked door of the headmaster's office, saw what it was expecting to see, then returned by the same route, and became present again, but this time, there was in his gaze a look of troubled perplexity, a tremor of disquiet that bordered on fear. It was him, it was him, it was him, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso repeated over and over to himself, while, with his eyes fixed on his colleague the mathematics teacher, he restated, using more or less the same words, the various stages of his metaphorical navigation up the river of Time. He didn't say the river of History now, he felt that river of Time would have more impact. The English teacher was looking at him, grave faced. She is about sixty years old, a mother and a grandmother, and contrary to first impressions, she is not one of those people who go through life dispensing mocking smiles right, left, and center. What happened was only what has happened to so many of us, we go astray not because we intended to but because we saw in that going
astray
a connecting link, a comfortable complicity, a knowing wink from someone who thought they understood what was going on, purely on the say-so of others. When Tertuliano Máximo Afonso ended his brief speech, he saw that he had convinced someone else. The English teacher murmured shyly, You could do the same thing with languages, I mean, teach them in the same way, and navigate back up to the source of the river, perhaps that way we might get a clearer understanding of what it means to speak, There's no shortage of specialists on that subject, commented the headmaster, But I'm not one of them, I'm expected to teach English in a complete void, as if nothing had existed before. The mathematics teacher said, smiling, I don't think these methods would work with arithmetic, the number ten is stubbornly invariable, it didn't even have to be a nine first nor is it consumed with ambition to be an eleven. The food had been brought to the table and the conversation turned to other things. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso was no longer so sure that the person responsible for the invisible plasma dissolving in the atmosphere of the headmaster's office was the bank clerk. Or the hotel receptionist. Especially not with that ridiculous little mustache, he thought, and then, smiling sadly to himself, I must be losing my mind. In the class he gave after lunch, he spent the whole lesson, completely inappropriately and apropos of nothing, since the subject was not part of the syllabus, discoursing on the Amorites, on Hammurabi's code of law, the Babylonian legal system, the god Marduk, the Accadian language, with the result that he changed the view of the student who, the day before, had whispered to his neighbor that the teacher looked really pissed off. The much more radical diagnosis now was that he either had a screw loose or else a screw with a badly worn thread. Fortunately, the next
class, for younger students, went smoothly enough. A single passing reference to historical films was greeted with passionate interest by the class, but that was as far as the divertimento went, there was no mention of Cleopatra or Spartacus, nor of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, nor even of the everreliable Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte. A fairly forgettable day, thought Tertuliano Máximo Afonso when he got into his car to go home. He was being unjust to the day and to himself, after all, he had won over the headmaster and the English teacher to his reforming ideas, there would be one less person smiling at the next staff meeting, and, anyway, he has nothing to fear from the former, who, as we found out a few hours ago, is not easily amused.

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