Albahari feature 3pic
Photos by Mandelbrot, An Evening with David Albahari in the James Joyce Pub, Calgary
Nine unambiguous short stories by David Albahari, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, from his collection entitled Calypso, Itch, Elegance.
All of us rose to our feet, anticipating the national anthem, but the orchestra struck up a calypso. And they weren’t just playing, they were dancing. The entire orchestra, conductor included, danced the calypso in unison, and quickly the rhythm moved over to us, crept up our arms and legs, nested in our bellies and behinds, then we were joined by the honour guard, diplomats from the bleachers, children with flowers, even a crew from off a plane that had just landed, and then the presidents began to prance, first ours, then theirs, then together, holding hands, and then the TV cameramen started swaying without letting go of their cameras, so the picture on TV screens all over the country shimmied and shook, but no one complained, no one called in, not then or later, even much later, when the members of the orchestra claimed none of it ever happened.
When she reaches the crosswalk the girl feels an itch, but she finds it awkward to lift up her shirt and scratch her stomach. She decides to do nothing; she will simply wait it out with patience. The itch, however, moves over to her left arm, then down the inside of her left thigh, returns to the left arm and here, as far as she can tell, it goes away. The girl is overjoyed, but still she doesn’t dare take a deep breath. When she finally does, she sees a man across the street slip his hand into his shirt and, sure no one is looking, he scratches his stomach.
When we skip school, we sit in the park. We have pulled a bench over to some bushes and pine trees so no one walking down the main walkway can spot us. We smoke, sometimes we drink, pop a few pills, eat peanuts, or suck on hard candy. In the afternoon most of us get edgy and restless, some have to get home by then, though the best part is when classes are over and the schoolkids all come out. We stand to the side, we don’t give an inch, we don’t approach anyone. If someone needs us they come to us. Then the teachers appear and a hush settles over the noise. The teachers walk by us without a word, they pretend not to see us. Fine with us, we say, it’s better they don’t see us, because when they do, it will be too late.
With the last ounce of his strength the man grabs for branches hanging over the flooding river. He pushes to wedge his feet against the steep riverbank but the water is powerful and pushes his legs up into the air. The man feels his hands slipping down damp leaves and stares up at his palms as if he hopes this will help them hold their grip. His gaze drops to his wristwatch and he is amazed when he realizes he has been in the water less than five minutes. As he struggled against the torrent he flailed arms and legs and ducked the branches and garbage snared in them, convinced that he had been resisting the surging waters for years. It would have been better, he thinks, not to have a watch, but he cannot remove it, he has had to watch the slender second hand carving seconds from the time he has left until he releases first one branch, and then the other.
The boy fears a nighttime arrival. the sounds he hears when it gets dark come unambiguously from someone digging a tunnel that leads to his room. The boy doesn’t know who it is or where it is coming from, but judging by the loudness of the sound they haven’t far to go. The boy knows they will be there in two or three nights, just as he knows the place under his desk where the parquet flooring will quietly rise until he can see the gleaming eyes of the stranger. He has tried to explain this to his parents, but they shrugged it off and said he is too big for such nonsense. I’ll show them nonsense, whispers the boy, furious, they will see who is big and who is little. And when the slabs of parquet floor beneath the desk begin to shift, he no longer feels fear, only joy.
In the compartment of a train, on seats by the window, sit a man and boy, probably father and son, caught up in a game. Both of them are counting, and when one of them reaches a certain number, they exchange glances and laugh aloud. The game lasts for a time, and then the father reaches for his bag and takes out two books, one for him and the other for the boy. They both begin reading, and from time to time the boy laughs merrily, as if the game is still on.
At first no one notices the woman with the accordion. some of them eat, drink, doze, talk softly, who cares about the woman with the accordion. Then the woman unlatches the accordion, sits in a corner and begins to sing. Her voice is angelically beautiful, crystal pure though, actually, hoarse, and soon silence reigns in the room as they all listen with equal attention to the voice that first sings of how life used to be, then of how life will be years hence, and then sifts through various memories, and the people sitting in the room suddenly realize she is singing about each one of them, that somehow—no one knows how—she seems to know a little about each of them, no one is spared and the people stand up, press together, and bow their heads, prepared to receive absolution or a curse or whatever is their due, no one will complain, at least not for as long as the voice goes on, as long as life is a song, and after that it doesn’t matter, even silence will do.
Ah, time for a story! what more could a man want while he sits in a chair by the fire, a glass of wine in his hand? So he smacks his lips in anticipation, sets the glass down on the rug, opens the book, and after reading only a few words he sits up excited: what is this? Someone must have moved the bookmark! He does not recall that he had gotten to a part where the hero decides that he will read a nice poem before he goes to bed. The place he had gotten to was where the hero faces the dilemma of whether to remove or not to remove the heroine’s panties. He distinctly remembers how the hero’s fingers had clenched in a surge of lust, how he felt a shiver in his scrotum. He flips a few pages back, then ahead, then he leafs through the whole book. The letters become a shimmering curtain that conveys nothing, not even whether or not a breeze has begun to pick up outside or a gale is about to hit. The man lets the book slide out of his hand, he closes his eyes, breathes in, breathes out, reaches for the glass. What’s this? His hand finds nothing. As he leans toward the edge of his armchair he pictures the spilled liquid, a puddle in which he feels certain he will see his face reflected. But the floor is dry. Even leaning to the other side doesn’t help in his search, but when he turns his head, he spies a glass next to the other armchair, a bit farther from the fireplace. If that is his glass, and he knows it is, what is he doing in the facing chair, with no glass? And whose are the slippers lying there by that other armchair, especially since he has the real, rather worn pair on his feet? Then he notices the book on the arm of the chair, left precariously balanced. This is crystal clear—he feels it like a jab to the cheekbone—this is definitely the book he had had earlier, regardless of the fact that he can’t see the cover, a cover which is not much of a cover and looks like the cover of the book he had in his hands just a moment ago: but what is this? Where is the book he was reading, or rather not reading? It isn’t tucked under the armchair, it isn’t here between his legs, on the chairs, behind the pillow. The man stiffens as if he has heard an alarming sound behind his back, then he takes off his slippers, quickly goes over to the other armchair and sits in it. From there, from the other side, he has a restful view of the fireplace, the shovel and poker, and the armchair in front of which someone has forgotten his slippers. The man picks up the book and sees that in it there are no signs of any kind. He leafs through it, searching in vain, and then he spots the bookmark on the rug in the middle of the room. He stands up to reach it, and remains like that, between things.
“If you go with him, be his completely.” nothing can detract from the elegance of that sentence. I turn and, at the table behind mine, I see two young men. One dark-haired with an earring in his left ear, he had leaned his forehead on the shoulder of the blond, heavier-set young man who sat with eyes closed. Maybe he wasn’t even breathing. No, nothing could detract from the elegance of that sentence, regardless of whom I attribute it to. And here, in fact, the story starts to branch, with the order of words. The dark-haired young man, for instance, if it was he, was thinking perhaps of the moment when he had touched that shoulder for the first time, now: an iceberg from which he was distancing irrevocably. The blond-haired man, I think they were his words, does not hide the tears springing up under his eyelids, still closed, trembling; at the same time, however, he is breathing heavily, as if he is on a mountain meadow, somewhere high up, where every man thinks he can take a step into thin air. My wife could also enter the story at this point. For her, of course, the earring in the ear is a sign of poor taste. She does not tolerate any sort of interruption. “Secret fraternities,” she says, “exist only in Svetislav Basara’s books.” In this story she prods me, not the least bit gently, under the table then plucks me by the sleeve. “I want you,” she says, “right now and here.” She plants her index finger on the table. Again, I turn. The light has changed but the young men have not budged. I hope that shadows aren’t tricking me, especially the ones lying across their faces. “If you go with him, be his completely.” Nothing could detract from the elegance of that sentence, not even a story. The true story is the absence of a story. Only that.