Rein Raud. Little things that matter
LITTLE THINGS THAT MATTER
AS A CHILD, I thought the most skilful person I knew was the woman who sold bread at the baker’s. How did she manage with her sharp knife to cut the loaf into two pieces, sizing it up at a glance, so that it was fit to ask an equal price for both halves?
Now I know, of course, how she did it - but little things still continue to matter to me.
A FRIEND OF MINE, B, once claimed that he had fallen in love with two women at the same time. The whole matter would be quite understandable, had these two been striking beauties, or, alternatively, young ladies of discreet charm. But, as he himself confirmed, both objects of his affection were unusually, even exceptionally, ugly. Since he was never to be seen in their presence, none of his friends could in any way confirm or deny this assertion, so all that was left was astonishment: B himself was after all notorious for the attention he paid to his own appearance. Thus, for instance, he refused to wear glasses despite his weak eyesight, since these would mar the expressive oval of his face.
It goes without saying that the split nature of his affections afforded him indescribable pain; even when summoning all the mental energy he could muster, he still was unable to decide on either lady. Going by what he said, they were very different as well: one plump, perhaps even corpulent, or actually boundlessly fat, and whom he, could not manage to embrace even in his thoughts. The other, on the other hand, was lean, that is to say lanky, or, to say it without any frills, thin as a lath, someone whose hand could not be held without it slipping through your fingers like a shadow. One of them was, relatively speaking, getting on in years, almost bordering on a decent age, but managed, as a person who has seen the ways of the world and of people, to give my friend advice and support. While the other was very young, a mere child, who wished to discover everything at his side, leaning on him, her wise and experienced companion.
In order to give us some idea of his anguish, B always omitted saying which was which, and his friends had to base their guesses on a few obscure hints, at times contradictory. Once I thought that the plumper lady had to be the young one of the two, still bursting with the energy of life; whilst the elder one I imagined as fading away like the waning moon. Then again, it would seem all the more likely that it was the elder of the two who had to be a large, primaeval mother, at whose side B felt feeble and insignificant, while I imagined the younger of the two to be brittle, her growth still ahead of her. So, in my thoughts, by swinging from one extreme to the other, I was able to full well imagine the immensity of the burden shouldered by B himself.
But one day he put an end to all the due deliberations of his friends, announcing that he had become engaged. Which had he chosen? The fatter one, or the thinner? The younger, or the elder? He had spoken of them to us so much that we simply could not at first believe the unexpected resolution of his problem: in the end, he had yielded to the wishes of both his lovers and obtained a pair of spectacles, whereupon it transpired that the ladies had not in fact ever been two in number, but only the one, moreover prettier than average, neither fat nor thin, and of roughly the same age as himself - she had become so unusually divided only in his mind’s eye.
On occasions, I am secretly envious of B. For him to be reduced to the anguish of his younger days, all he has to do is take his glasses off.
ONE OF THE CHILDREN - no one ever found out who - from the nursery school I once attended, had a burning hatred of bread. He would often take irregularly shaped pieces from the table where we were served bread with our meals, in order to scoff at them in the privacy of the toilets, knead them into formless lumps and push them in under some piece or furniture or other, from where they would be prised out by the cleaner that same evening, at best, though they could stay there and decay for years on end.
It can be guessed why I am speaking about this - as it happened, the teachers tended to think that the one responsible and worthy of punishment was me. Their suspicions were groundless, but neither I myself, nor my parents, constantly driven to despair because of the continuing accusations, could explain them away. Because it was necessary to find a guilty party - so using a procedure which only the eloquent pen of the chroniclers of Inquisition could adequately describe, it was made clear to me, by means of friendly persuasion and threats of severe punishment, that it would simply be much easier for me to confess. In the end, I became so convinced of my own guilt, that I insisted on having committed this wrongdoing even before those closest to me whom I trusted absolutely. But they, who had not been similarly treated had more faith in me than I had myself, especially since even under the severest questioning I never managed to remember the slightest detail of my wicked deed.
Up to now, I have not had a language in which to talk about it. But the non-existent guilt has - I hope - been the last alien thought which I have been forced to take on board through external pressure, though later in life I have met with frequent efforts to lure me into spiritual surrender. What more can I say to justify myself except that it was long ago - then I was another, I had not yet done many things, neither washed the floors of Kuomintang barracks, nor made cocoa for whores in the port of Rio de Janeiro, nor shaken the hands of German lawyers.
By the way, even today I don’t eat bread with my meals.
IT IS QUITE UNBEARABLE to spend more than an hour, or two at the very most, in the same room with many people who are all wearing an identical jacket - by “identical” I mean an inner form or meaning, whereas the outward appearance of the jacket has no importance. A good proportion of the anxiety involved is caused by the fact that all the others hold it against me that I have refused to wear a similar jacket myself.
LEADING A LAW-ABIDING LIFE in our country amounts to a full-time job: diligent mediocrities, whose greatest aim in life is to slot the people who still remain free into the pointless pigeonholes and thickets of lines forming dry-as-dust schematic diagrams, right down to the last detail, these glum and grey zealots of the system have covered everything with the tiniest procedures, numerous little rules and exceptions, so painful, that the very thought of contact with some bureaucratic institution or other makes you want to go and live in the country - not that that would prove to be a solution. Life would be so much simpler if it could be lived on the basis of voluntary rationality - haven’t we all noticed that if we observe the exigencies of each set of traffic lights, travelling through town actually takes longer. At times, I have, for that reason said to those of my friends who can drive a car that sticking to the highway code should be made voluntary, since the way things stand at present, they’re only of any use to police officers checking whether the drivers obey some especially idiotic traffic sign on a blind corner, maybe set up specifically for that purpose, and cadge bribes by threatening severe punishment. My listener then shakes his head when he has heard me out and asks whether I myself can drive a car and, upon hearing the negative reply, smiles enigmatically. People could nevertheless voluntarily stick to the rules, whose point they manage to grasp.
But the same goes for our everyday life, into which the state and society are eternally dipping their long and dirty limbs. If I were to do all that is required of me by the rules of life, I wouldn’t even have time left over to eat or sleep properly, let alone trying to live a full spiritual existence. The latter is evidently the covert reason for this never-ending harassment: sitting deep in a comfortable armchair for hours on end, immersed in the works of Kierkegaard, Sei Shōnagon or Tom Robbins, anyone would tend to forget the dreadful rōles the fulfilment of which his surroundings demand, as self-pityingly gnashing its teeth.
A schoolmaster of acquaintance, Z., once told me the story of a pupil of his who had decided out of sheer curiosity to actually do all the homework which had been assigned to him for the next day. On arrival from school he did eat lunch, but missed his piano lesson and badminton practice, and the only TV programme which he watched during the evening was about the latest developments in foreign affairs, strongly recommended by the history teacher. He did not emerge for his evening meal, offering as an excuse a theoretical geometry problem (it turned out later to have been caused by a printing error in the textbook) and when the rest of his family had gone to bed that night, he continued by the light of the table lamp to improve his knowledge of the economic geography in East Africa, only to move on to physics problems afterwards. Great was the surprise of his parents when it turned out the next day that he hadn’t had a wink of sleep all night, but even so had not actually got through all his homework. At the breakfast table that morning, whilst carefully chewing a mushroom patty, he muttered to himself excerpts from a patriotic ballad, which he hadn’t yet managed to learn by heart, and by the time he arrived at school, being a little late for third period, pale and slightly shaky on his legs, he had mastered on the tram a series of irregular French verbs.
This was a gifted and ambitious young man, explained Z., and the school he attended was well known for the good performance of those matriculating. Nevertheless, it would seem there must be a less painful way to teach the young the currently very necessary ability to ignore the stupid duties which are set them.
BY BRINGING UP YOUR CHILDREN as morally responsible beings, you punish them severely, but justly for all the suffering and pain, for all the deprivations they have brought into your life, for all the disappointments they have caused you. Yet all your strivings can still prove futile, if they happen to learn to forgive - there is a great likelihood they may end up forgiving you too.
DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN an aesthete and a snob is the easiest thing in the world. A snob is someone who always wants to have only the best one can find, but does not necesarily understand in what way these superior things differ from the middling. His tastes are all acquired, perhaps at the price of renunciation. An aesthete, on the other hand, is someone who can enjoy all the same as does a snob, and much more to boot to which the world has not attributed lofty status nor asks a prohibitive price. But the aesthete enjoys it simply because it affords him an inner pleasure. What the rest of the world thinks - especially the snobs - is something he treats with complete indifference.
WHAT ELSE should we term “Cracophagia” as the tendency to use for food the legendary ancient capital of the thousand-year-old Poland, fair Cracow, or then perhaps an inability to satiate one’s frustrating hunger with anything else than a dish of straight church steeples, spacious castle halls and safely smooth cobbles? The sheer unstoppable urge for its trams not to speak of the juicy railway station? Or the icy stab around the heart on those evenings when one has to yet again go to bed without having tasted that most dainty of desserts?
The majority of Cracophages are deeply distressed people. It goes without saying that between their teeth there goes on that constant grinding of black brick of ancient buildings mixed with the bewitching mosaics of coloured glass, whose digestion causes indescribable pain. No - those individuals, whose fate has been merciful, allowing them to satisfy their unusual desire in reality, are nonetheless indescribably happier than the vast majority whose fate has cast a grim die, and who are doomed to spend their life on earth on some coral island in the South Seas, on the outstretched snowy spaces of Greenland or even boundless steppe of Mongolia. Some of these unfortunates, during their lives that prove to be pointless, never even manage to find out that the Republic of Poland exists, not to mention Cracow with its singular charms, and are thus doomed to pine in vague sufferings, unrelieved by heroically conquered obstacles in their paths, by any deserved triumphs. Night after night, they are obliged to suffer nightmares of vague boundries, of screaming passion, whose budding roots have rubbed sparse the whole of their being - and yet the light of day brings them no clarity, only leaves them even more alone by the evening than before.
What is most terrible of all is that even pointing out their problem to them rarely brings those suffering from recognisable Cracophagia any relief. Quite the contrary: I’ve lost count of the times I have had to flee scorn and mockery, when I have tried to explain to a Cracophage the origins of his complaint. Just as their sick enchantment has scooped their personal core hollow, so has their average school learning deprived them of the power to see all those simple things in, and around, them which dry book learning has not deemed necessary to provide with appropriate labels.
I have to admit that I do not regard myself as infallible. It is quite possible that on occasions, I have counted among those suffering from the above-mentioned disorder, also those who carry all its outer signs which might nevertheless have also been caused by some other, equally severe problem. But would this realisation be of any help to anybody - either to the true Cracophages or to those sad-eyed sufferers, those destitute ones, who on top of their other troubles could not be suffering from Cracophagia at all? Hardly. They are, all of them alike, beyond that invisible border, where help and succour do not reach.
Whether Cracophagia also exists in the animal kingdom, or whether it is a purely human ailment, is something I really cannot tell.
LEAFING THROUGH THE RECENT WORKS of some well-known writers of this country, I have been seized with grave doubts whether the critics who have been praising them to the skies could actually be bothered to read these books in question at all, were they not handsomely compensated for the reviews commissioned. Anyway, the time when readers were prepared to regularly part with a proportion of their income to buy new books, seems to be irrevocably over. In this country, a new book has always been within the same bracket as dinner in a restaurant - at the time when what was offered in this field was rather circumscribed, we bought books by the dozen, forgetting in our forever unsatiated hunger, that other hunger, no less cruelly tormenting. Now, on the other hand, when the number of places to eat in my home town alone exceeds the number of serious writers in the whole country, the material in the bookshops has mostly been reduced to a tasteless standard menu of tawdry mental fast food outlet - you read a few paragraphs and your eyes immediately reach for the salt-cellar.
ONLY A FEW YEARS AGO, P was professor of history at one of our country’s best universities. The fact that no one remembers his name says more about the fickleness of human memory than anything else. But I, too, will leave that whole name unmentioned, to avoid stirring up painful dust.
He himself had a wonderful, exceptional memory. He could, if necessary, quote whole sentences, not only from famous works, but also from those by authors generally regarded as historians of secondary importance, both in the original and in translation - dates, proper names, no point in listing them. For all those students in his charge, his exams were the source of nightmares, because the slightest slip in some matter hundreds of years old could - especially when he was suffering from backache - seem like an arrogant attack of the very foundations of world order.
In truth, his memory also had a flaw. His mind was so full of the past knowledge of all kinds that he could not manage to cram anything new in there. Those who had met him earlier and had begun to respect him on account of his erudition, gradually learnt not to be concerned by this quality and not make a fuss. But those who had only just met him, could get into an indescribable rage when he would say in passing something of the order of: pity I will not be able to remember your esteemed name, because my brain has only got one free lobe, and that is reserved for our country’s next president.
But he wasn’t doing it out of arrogance. He really meant what he said - every extra fact always dislodged another in the dark recesses of his brain.
Then one day, everything changed.
He had just finished a lecture and was about to set off for home, when into his office stepped a young lady, asking to be seen, so she could fix the date of the next exam. He was looking out of the window - the weather was exceptionally fine and sunny - and so he asked the young lady to step inside and only then turned around.
What he saw shook him to the core. The young lady’s face was largely hidden by the wide brim of her hat from whose edge hung a small veil, but a ray of the late sun lit up an exciting birthmark on her cheekbone, which contrasted with her delicate little mouth and the severe, gloved hands resting in her lap.
Professor P. was already getting on in years and was known for his lack of interest in anything beyond the academic, but this still did not mean that beauty left him completely cold. It was as if iron curtains had suddenly fallen in front of the barn doors of his mind and forgetting himself he blurted out the fateful question:
What - what was the name, again?
In a rather muffled, dusty voice, the young lady said something, but so quietly that the professor only managed to grasp the tail end of her name, which immediately set up an echo in his head: ...alia ...alia ...alia... Again he turned round to face the window as if to derive support from the world outside, but when he, having pulled himself together, turned round to face the young lady, she had already left the room.
The first fruits of this fleeting encounter made themselves felt one week later, when Professor P, giving his lecture on Ancient Rome, suddenly said something about the Vestalian Virgins (which was indeed no lie) and then about Tacitus’ “Annalias” which managed to cause a stir among some who had already perused the handbooks. But his decline was like an avalanche, and the more lively and popular the professor’s lectures became, the more his colleagues shook their heads, because the professor’s history was taking on an ever more fantasy-filled guise: The first Emperor of Rome was Eulalia, a queen of England was named Amalia, Germany was unified by Chancellor Rosalia, in 1812 Russia was attacked by Bonalia, who met his Coralia at the Battle of Porthalia... But though his students no longer gleaned historical facts from their professor, I still think that they learnt something else from him - maybe something more important.
By the time modern history was reviewed, the disintegration was complete - like a virus, the end of the name of the mysterious young lady had eaten away all the historical facts in the professor’s brain and his lectures were less and less well attended because the professor would, with glazed eyes and a pained voice, keep on repeating: alia... alia... alia. It was spring outside as well.
Some time later, I got to know by chance who the young lady in question was, and so I looked her up. Whether her sabotage of the professor’s memory was deliberate or accidental, was something that did not really interest me. Basically, I wanted to ask her why she hadn’t picked a professor of law to be the victim of her prank: how much more wonderful the life in our country could then have become!
WHY NOT DROP EVERYTHING, and just go - vanish into the distance; instead of continuously squirming and thus letting your bonds cut more deeply into your flesh, simply abandon them, let the chains fall away by themselves as if they were spider’s webs or dust... Everyone who has even once entertained such moods, has a spot on the map of the mind which he considers the last refuge of his soul. Some imagine themselves in the biting evening wind, walking through the picturesque embankments of the grachten, the canals of Amsterdam, others see themselves in their mind’s eye, comfortably slouching in a chair in some street café in Prague, or melting in with the long-haired maidens, who stroll to and fro along the Rambla in Barcelona to no apparent purpose. But not me.
To Asia! A hot gust of wind mixed with the smells of soy sauce and sweet rice vinegar, to which ultimate spice is added by the keen stares of the brisk roadside sellers... A confusion of voices, in which the booming bass of a monk reciting sacred texts can without discord blend with the soft hum of girls who lure visitors, as they stand at their teahouse doors, just like the metallic whine of motor-bikes harmoniously accompanies a sad song emerging from an open second floor window.
To Asia! Nowhere is there such loneliness as in Asia. Whether you have, like pilgrims from centuries ago, climbed with effort for many long days up the hidden mountain paths, up to the highest heights, where the whole world opens out like a book - or you have made your way among the sweating crowds along the road to the Chinese market at Sampeng, in search of that only true mixture of spices. Nowhere can you find such light, such darkness as in Asia. Or such weariness - when the sunrise comes to meet you on the seashore and the red rays sharply outline, against the horizon, the Meotoiwa cliff, which had been shrouded in mist a moment ago, or when the old man asks whether leafing through dusty manuscripts hasn’t perhaps dried your throat out, and offers you a cupful of tepid green tea. He knows which you only intuite against your will - namely that you only think you understand what lies behind the characters written down with such painful precision, the one under the other. And you drink your cup to the bottom in gratitude so you can wade back into the swarms of people flowing past the bookshop - or if it were a temple, then into the tender night with the chirr of cicadas, in your hand a paper lantern competing with fireflies to light the path - and feel that you are alive...To Asia.
When the day arrives that I indeed decide to leave, but can no longer go further than the nearest Chinese restaurant to eat chop suey, then that day you can order for me a wreath.