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Between Heaven and Hell.


What can you accomplish in a thousand-millionth of a second? In a thousand-millionth of a second, you can recapture a memory. You can recapture a sad memory. In a thousand-millionth of a second, you can have a revelation: as Enric Sanoi swims beneath the waters of the Mediterranean, he realizes that he's been devoting his time to scuba diving because he's a loser.

One of the great artists of human mediocrity, as a matter of fact. When he was a young boy of promise, Enric aspired to great things. He could have invented the H1 ecological lightbulb that protects butterflies as if they were children. Or he could have invented the H2 atomic bomb that exterminates children as if they were beetles. He could have been a murderer who pops up in a marketplace and assassinates women, like Henri Desire Landru, and been famous before he was executed. Or a soldier who goes to war and assassinates men, like the duke of Marlborough, and becomes famous after he's decorated.

But that's not how it was. When he reached adulthood, for no apparent reason Enric abandoned his great aspirations. He joined an insurance company--claims department--and gave up being Enric to become Sanoi. He's spent the last thirty-five years there, processing the file of his own life. Sometimes he tells himself that he leads a happy life: rotten lie! No one was born to process insurance claims. The office is not a heavenly place, nor is it hell; he's spent thirty-five years shut up in a place that is neither good nor bad. It's gray. And now this thousand-millionth of a second has caused him to see that he is alive; it's just that his existence has been postponed, like the shipwrecked.

What can't you do in a thousand-millionth of a second? In a thousand-millionth of a second, there's not enough time to be scared. When the scuba-diving office worker hears that mysterious sucking noise, he doesn't have time even to turn around. His body is tossed about as if it were inside a waterfall. He's horrified. But when the horror begins to take over: silence.

The scuba-diving office worker doesn't react. He's overwhelmed by a dark liquid. He wants to swim, but can't: his arms bump into stomach walls, concave and solid, hard as steel. He listens, and through his frogman's suit, through the density of the water, the sound of throbbing reaches him, continuous, monotonous, as if from a gigantic heart. "Good Lord," Enric thinks, "I'm inside a monster!" He shudders. But it's an exaggerated shudder. Enric Sanoi is living a moment of happiness that is quite close to ecstasy. Because now this man who is nothing--not Landru, not Marlborough--is at least a man who has been swallowed by a whale, an extraordinary feat. The sea is immense, human beings minuscule, yet he, precisely he, the most banal man in the world, has been gobbled up by a whale.

His scuba-diving office worker's mind sets to work: "As proof of my feat, I'll cut out the cetacean's tonsils--they're probably like ham--and I'll escape though the anus." Who could fail to recognize his fame once he was free of this prison of aquatic flesh? History has no record of similar cases; at work he'll be considered unique. When people on the street see him walking by, they'll say: "Look, it's him, Enric Sanoi, the man who was swallowed by a whale." The scuba-diving office worker thinks about all these things. Ponders them. What if some jackass asks what the hell's the merit of being swallowed by an absentminded whale that was probably blind to boot? What if they wish to know the difference between the dark belly of a whale and the dark office of an insurance company? Savage but pertinent criticism. And yet, abruptly, Enric replies that the rebuke would never be relevant. He has lain inside a whale, and no one can refute the truth: a whale devoured him when he was swimming close to the surface. This is an extraordinary experience. For once in his life, he is the protagonist of his life.

What can happen to us in a thousand-millionth of a second? Many things. In a thousand-millionth of a second, we can discover that we've fallen in love. In a thousand-millionth of a second, an eclipse that has lasted a thousand years can terminate or a deluge that will flood the world can commence. A child can be conceived, or a god, a child-god. In a thousand-millionth of a second, inside the whale's belly, the scuba-diving office worker Enric Sanoi can discover a supreme truth: to believe you are a great man you need only believe you are one.

But at that instant, when he is living the plenitude of an impossible freedom of spirit, Enric Sanoi hears an unexpected mechanical sound, more or less like a garage door opening. Suddenly, with no further protocol, his body goes into free fall.

What can you do in a thousand-millionth of a second? You can have a vision; you can see yourself falling, falling, falling. You are enveloped by an immense bubble of water. Beneath you, down there under you, you glimpse the terrifying panorama of a forest in flames, a hellish fire toward which the force of gravity is relentlessly pulling you. Above you, up there on top of you, disappearing into the clouds, you catch sight of the striking shape of the firefighting hydroplane, considerably lighter after releasing the fifty tons of water it stole from the sea.

What can you think and rethink in a thousand-millionth of a second? Your entire life. Especially when that thousand-millionth of a second is the last one of your existence. As he falls onto the forest fire, dressed ridiculously as a frogman, the scuba-diving office worker concludes that the distance between glory and vainglory is infinitesimal, mere smoke.

Editorial note: From Tretze tristos trangols (Edicions La Campana, 2008). Copyright [C] 2008 by Albert Sanchez Pinol. Published by arrangement with the Agencia Literaria Carmen Balcells, Barcelona.

Translation from the Catalan By Martha Tennent

Albert Sanchez Pinol was born in Barcelona in 1965, Trained as an anthropologist at the Universitat de Barcelona, he later turned to fiction. He has published two story collections, Les edats d'or (2001; The golden ages) and Tretze tristos trangols (2008; Thirteen sad complications), as well as two novels, La pell freda (2002; Eng. Cold Skin, 2005) and Pandora al Congo (2005; Eng. Pandora in the Congo, 2009). His books have been translated into thirty-five languages.

Martha Tennent is the translator, most recently, of Merce Rodoreda's gothic fable Death in Spring (2009) and Emili Rosales's historical novel The Invisible City (2009)
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Title Annotation:Catalan Literature
Author:Pinol, Albert Sanchez
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Short story
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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