Printer Friendly

Dostoevskian Characters.

I get a strange urge to buy asters. Asters? Why asters in particular? I walk past the myriads of flowers, including the asters I crave. Maybe the asters were a verbal impulse, deriving more from the word 'aster' than from a desire for the object as such. I pass the adjacent pedestrian tunnel. On this occasion I change my habit and turn back, along a path across a vacant lot and then along another that leads through the park.

On a park bench were seated a man and a woman. I passed behind them, along a narrow path almost parallel to the one that led in front of the bench. I got the feeling that I had seen this couple before. This feeling was perhaps also reinforced by their bizarre behaviour shortly after that. At first, only the man spoke. In a calm voice he was telling her about an acquaintance of his who, big surprise, had come back from the Federal Republic of Germany. '"Not permanently, though,'" said the man seated on the bench, reproducing his acquaintance's words: '"I'm just visiting, maybe out of nostalgia." But what kind of nostalgia?' All of a sudden the woman erupted in a fury of major proportions. Her tirades rained down like lava on the poor chap who had come back from abroad. 'That lot are all the same,' the woman then drawled. 'As soon as they get wind of something, they come back. Yes, the potential is high now. So they think maybe something will fall in their laps too.'

I wasn't so impertinent as to look at them closely. I thought that her eyes must be agitated and that he must be completely thrown off'-kilter. Nonetheless I did cast a glance in their direction, from some sort of urge to provide succour. He stood up, clasped her head between his hands, and drew it to his body. Then he kissed her, which is to say, he tried to kiss her hair. He kept saying: 'Calm down, do you hear, calm down!' Do words have any therapeutic effect in such situations? In any event, she was assuaged. He continued to make the same almost automatic movements, which perhaps turned into a ritual. He probably did well not to try to gainsay her or to throw into doubt her all too superficial arguments, saying that the man didn't go away on a whim and that essentially he was a good Romanian. Nor do I know what to do when a storm of hysteria erupts like that, when whatever you might say is like water soaking into the sand. Then silence fell. He likely relinquished his final magic' words to counter the unmotivated psychical aggression. 'Silence,' as Viorel, whom I was on my way to visit, would say, 'slows things down.'

I went away, but that scene in the park, to the accompaniment of 'calm down,' still had me in its grip, still doggedly pursued me. Had I really seen them? I thought that they might live somewhere nearby, even in my apartment block. They will be transformed into the mere building materials of my life, my writing, infinitely reviving the scene in the park, just as hysteria itself is repetitive.

The apartment block. After what I saw in the park, I have no urge to describe an ordinary apartment block. I am the witness. I have been initiated into a world to which I have heretofore not had access. My opinion about a (possible) world based on reason and common sense has been turned upside down. I'll try to talk to Viorel about it. I mustn't forget. And so, the apartment block. One of many. That's all. Viorel lives here. He lives on his own. He has another friend like me (maybe a relative, nobody knows, and I don't know) who visits him. But relations between us are of a different kind. Whereas I find a refuge for myself at Viorel's house, the two of them, as far as I can tell, form a fraternity. Malicious tongues call them the Order of St Francis of Assisi. Other tongues, more malicious still, have come up with other labels. In any event, it's none of my business; what is important to me is that letting off steam like this does me good. Viorel grants me this refuge. Nobody bothers me here. We have never been interested in each other's 'biography', in each other's 'past'. The questions we ask each other certainly do not relate to our adventures. As long as nobody is aggressive towards you, things follow their course. Viorel wears a wedding ring; he seems to have been married once, although the same malicious tongues deny it. I have never tried to tear off other people's masks for the simple reason that I would find nothing but more masks. I'll find some other task for Sisyphus.

Viorel silently greets me in the doorway. The spacious hall (he lives in a hostel-type block) makes me see an optical illusion: I take the squares on the carefully pasted wallpaper for terracotta. His clothes are hung methodically, each dish is in its proper place, the distances between the curtains and the sill are equal, and even his shoes are lined up like two soldiers.

'Here I am,' I say in a faux joking voice.

'So I see. Did something happen to you?' he asks courteously.

'You might say that.'

'How is it that such outlandish things happen to you?'

Neither I, nor he specifies the subject of the conversation. And such opacity is only natural.

'How come they only happen to you?' he teases. 'After all, you're the astute psychologist.'

'Are you laughing at me?'

"Why would I laugh? I'm serious.'

"Well, if you're serious,' I reply. "Who likes to be X-rayed? Ultimately, a psychologist isn't a psychotherapist. Make the distinction. The psychologist is just a lowly observer like everybody else, except he has a greater capacity for dissociation. The paradox is that he explains, but doesn't intervene.'

At this point, a young man I have never seen before enters. Viorel makes the necessary introductions, from which I discover that he is a neighbour.

'Viorel, do you know what I heard? Swarms of people from foreign parts have come over here and they're buying up everything in our shops. Can you believe it? Everybody's talking about it.'

I think about how vulnerable people's minds are. Being organised in a group, they're prepared to believe any tall tale, any stuff and nonsense. The minds of Soviet people are as alike as the minds of drunks.

After a pause, the neighbour went on:

'They're also saying that prices are going to rise after all.'

This time Viorel reacts:

'That does seem to be the reality of it.'

We went on talking about this and that. And since my impressions from the park were still fresh in my mind, I recounted the scene to them in brief, but without making any impact on my listeners. The same impassiveness could be read on Viorel's face. Nor did the subject very much impress the newly arrived neighbour, although he did feel the need to add a vaguely sarcastic comment.

'How about that: I didn't know that the type of thing that goes on in my family almost daily is called hysteria.'

After the neighbour left, Viorel said:

'I'm sorry, but I didn't even ask you how you got here.'

How did I get there? I had had to choose between the bus and the train. At the ticket booth for the bus there was a large, heaving, shoving crowd. The local commuter train would be arriving in a few minutes. I thought that the train at least gave you the illusion of not standing still.

On the bench seat in front of me sat two women, one young, one older. They weren't talking to each other, it was obvious they were strangers, they didn't know each other, but I grasped that they had something in common. The young woman was wearing a large, flat hair clip, on which she had stuck a shiny Toshiba battery label, and the older woman had a carrier bag on which was printed a fragment from a Shostakovich score. So, we travelled in silence. Through the window: an orchard enclosed by a very long fence, with a wide gate, through which I glimpsed an asphalted road, submerged in dense vegetation, whose deep green hues were further darkened by the low clouds. The sky was caught in a web of clouds from one end to the other. The clouds: those were clouds hard to put on canvas. As a child I would first paint the sky in the background and only after that did I dot it with clouds, using thick, pale pigment. Sometimes, on the horizon, I would add some red and pink, because at that age only an amalgam of the most strident colours looks natural to us and believable in the eyes of any eventual viewer. And since tastes differ, I would add a little bit of everything.

Sitting on a bench at the back was a raucous group of men. Commuters. They had a transistor radio that was blaring annoying music. They were talking heatedly about something. All that reached me were disjointed words. Looking out of the window I was preoccupied with the asphalted road that ran alongside the railway line. Like the railway line, it ran in a curve; it was suspiciously deserted. 'Its cold, mister, it's cold,' came a stagey voice, a remark not directed at me, obviously, but rather part of the speaker's own game of patience. Other coincidences sometimes happen. You are reading a book with the television set on. It doesn't bother you until you catch yourself hearing on the television the same word that you are reading at that instant. Suddenly, the road I am talking about came to a bridge. It was not until we reached the bridge that I noticed at the side of the road a sign saying it was closed to traffic. The steel disks on the road by the now impassable bridge were covered with rust. Incongruously, an autumnal impression, an unspoken desire to get off the train and run my finger over the oxidised metal disk. A locomotive mechanic is now tramping alongside the tracks. Almost grasping him with his hand, somebody asks: 'Comrade, can't it go any faster?' Humour, waggery, naivety? A scene that does not fit within my referential system.

There follows another station. Lots of children swarm aboard, all of them small. Only after that, like compulsory appendages, do the parents appear. The impression of a hubbub takes shape. The carriage becomes a kind of kindergarten. When listing the things he doesn't like, N. M. never omits small children.

I decide to compile a glossary, as it were, of the things I am seeing: a flock of sheep, two intersecting paths, an unruly child that doesn't want its bottle, a pond whose water is probably still cold, a girl in an orange coat, the wheels slowing on a slope, the unusually rounded, bushy weeping willows, in a station some vine stocks that must be more than a hundred years old, a circumlocution that goes round and round in my mind. At this point I grow bored and abandon the pointless, time-consuming list.

The parents of the small children are starting to exasperate me. Either their childrearing skills leave much to be desired or their offspring are ungovernable. This is all I needed: intermittent, convulsive crying and sobbing. The women shifting their babies from one arm to another look helpless, they resemble those women from the countryside who come to market for the first time and end up with their wares pilfered from under their noses. The voices of the parents in unison with the children's make up a motley choir. Their reactions do not have the slightest effect; their words act against the grain. The only thing left for me to do is to envelop myself in irony tinged with the ridiculous and grotesque: I imagine an amorphous gang of choristers chasing me.

At the edge of the window and a meadow there appears a muddy goat, making its entrance belatedly, as the glossary has by now been abandoned. In addition, I observe a change in the architecture of the sky, with consequences for meteorological developments. The clouds have gradually dispersed, uncovering an immense azure that presages cold weather. The rattling of the train diminishes, allowing the voices in the carriage to be heard. But no. A woman running towards a copse catches my eye. Some other people are running away from the copse. One has a fat gut. Will they get away or not, that one with the gut in particular? Reason to ponder obesity.

Not long ago, in a crowded bus, Tina told me: 'I can't stand public transport. It suffocates, me, it really does! When are we going to get a car?' The question mark started bickering with the exclamation mark. What could I tell her? That in New York even the big business owners use the subway? It's stale. I consoled myself with the thought that Tina's mind-set is old-fashioned, cliched, 'feminine.' I murmured into her perspiring ear: 'Why? I like it. When I'm with you, I like it wherever I might be, on the bus, on the tram, on the train.' My lyrical effusiveness interwoven with the 'when I'm with you' does not help. It's bearable. For the time being. I change my tone, but not by much, and tell her not to worry. According to my latest observations, patent-leather shoes are coming back into fashion. I haven't told you about my associative theory: the nicer the physiognomy, the shorter the skirt has to be-and it looks like I've convinced you, haven't I?

What else can the train do? We're on the move. We pass another orchard. A strong wind is blowing. I hadn't noticed until now. ft bends the branches low, embraces them. It's time to exclaim: oh, my aching legs. Somebody once told me that he likes to travel by train. He gets out of his seat and walks up and down the carriage to ease the numbness. It's not a habit I have got into. Maybe because of a predisposition, formed prior to the journey, that two hours isn't such a long time.

My journey has an ending. While we are all waiting for the doors of the carriage to open, a woman says to a handsome, well-dressed man wearing a cap: 'You don't know me yet!' Taken out of context, as I hear it, it seems like something said after a first night of love.

The doors open at last. I still have time to finish my tattered glossary: a few Zaporozhets motorcars waiting outside the station, a tricolour fluttering above a boiler room or abattoir, the sun shining without warmth.

After yesterday's and today's storms the road sweepers are passing beneath the maples outside the station, tackling the leaves. I move away from their orange overalls, I give a few coins to a beggar, who wishes me the best of health, the same as he did the two women before me. Thank you very much! But when it comes to health, the little old man is right.

The city, in the morning, after a storm, is hostile; it rejects us like foreign bodies. It resembles a capricious, green girl. I realise that I once made the same comparison, back when you didn't see any cars from Romania on the streets.

I am on the move, but not only on foot. In the bus I sit down next to the man I saw in the park. Such encounters have always awoken in me all kinds of suspicions, although, I admit, art means directing the performance of the accidental. I tell him that I was an unwilling witness to a scene in which he was faced with a difficult role. He doesn't deny it and in fact seems ready to broach the subject. What had seemed to me a mystery or taboo instantly becomes a trifle: a developed film, an empty wrapper.

I say to him sympathetically:

'You were going through a terrible moment. But you handled yourself heroically. I'd have turned tail and run.'

'It's not good to run away,' he interrupts me, pedantically.

'Has the same thing happened to you before? Does it happen to you often?' My reporter's curiosity crosses the boundary into impertinence.

'Sometimes Maia loses her temper and then I find myself in the same position as a not very skilled tightrope walker. I was fascinated by her good moments. Like any other hysterical person, she had personality. Were all ridiculous when we fly off the handle.'

That man, with a sprightly body but contrastingly sedentary gaze, with greasy blond hair resting on his head like a clump of straw, looked like a character taken straight out of Dostoevsky.

'Have you ever had to deal with an unpredictable woman?'

I muttered something to the effect that all women are unpredictable.

'Do you know why I'm telling you all this? So that we can get to the thing I wanted to tell you most of all.'

He pauses for a while, because we are just arriving at the terminus. The pavement welcomes us with open arms. I see flowers at the edge. I don't know what they are called. My knowledge of the local flora is quite cursory. The word 'petunias' comes to my mind, a word with no connection to the flowers by the lawn. Then, Proust's tea. Moving from one thing to another, my mind wanders to my childhood home. Then to school. Not as a pupil, but as a teacher. You tell your story. At school it's the same as in life in general: to get where you want, you have to lend an exaggerated importance to your own ideas.

'Lately, Maia had become utterly unfathomable,' he says. 'We broke up pleasantly, I might say, with flowers. I gave her a large bouquet of flowers.'

He didn't say how Maia reacted.

'I remember,' the man continued, 'an episode from the past, when an acquaintance, a woman older than me, complained that she couldn't understand people and she paid me a compliment, saying that I was different. I can't remember whether at the time I thought what I think now, that nice people don't need "psychology." They'll always find somebody around them to salvage beauty.'
COPYRIGHT 2014 Review of Contemporary Fiction
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Chiper, Grigore
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Short story
Date:Jun 22, 2014
Words:3456
Previous Article:Shush!
Next Article:The Telegram.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters