East German China
Love, like music, is always a true story—in the spring of 1980, half a year before we emigrated to Israel, my grandfather decided to smuggle his collection of rare stamps out of the Soviet Union. (This collection included, by the way, a series of 175 stamps with portraits of cosmonauts, rockets, and dogs, issued from ’57 on, in honor of the Soviet space program.) To that end, he began to send our relatives in Israel letters he wrote to my grandmother while he was fighting in Stalingrad and Kursk in 1944. He glued stamps from his collection onto the envelopes.
Every week he sent at least four letters this way. After two months, he cursed in his heart Karl Dönitz—the admiral who signed the Nazi agreement of surrender—and sat down to write to my grandmother (who in those days was tearing her hair out about how to pack their good china made in the Democratic Republic of Germany) new love letters, from one of which I copied the opening sentence of this story. In those days there was a paper shortage in Russia, so my grandfather wrote the letters on the other side of pages of notes in Shostakovich’s handwriting, which he found, so he claimed, in ’63 on the outskirts of Kalingrad, glued to the trunks of birches in some mythical grove (but that is already a different story).
After he successfully sent the whole stamp collection to Israel, my grandfather had several leftover pages on which the Leningrad Symphony was handwritten, and my grandmother was able to make use of them to wrap up her East German teacups. The plates she had already wrapped in pages from Pravda, using up three issues from the spring of 1980, which I have saved to this day, as additional evidence of this little immigration story.
The Melancholy of Antique Telephones
In ’83, the horoscopes are never wrong. After ten years, she moves the rotary telephone from the living room into the bedroom. Every morning, upon waking, she lifts the receiver and listens to whispering and rustling and rattling, as at a window. Maybe this is time, suddenly returning. Maybe this is rain. Maybe this is already her mother tongue.
I must admit that these winter events never happened. Maybe that is why I will first of all tell of the wide room where footsteps disappear, and only afterward about that complete catalogue of autumn leaves.
Thus, on February 8, 2003, at eight o’clock in the evening, after drinking two cups of coffee alone at the café that stood on the ruins of the “Bookworm” store on Basle Street in Tel Aviv (how suddenly this narrow space, once awash in books, revealed its high ceiling), I walked to one of the galleries in the area; on display there, for the third month in a row, was a photography exhibit.
This was one of those subterranean spaces where the air conditioning is so extreme that in the winter it seems like a spring heat wave rules outside, and in the summer you sometimes turn around in hopes of hearing the impossible, dreamlike fragility of autumn leaves from districts where they speak languages with a riot of guttural gestures.
To tell the truth, had I not read the text presented at the entrance to the photography exhibit, I never would have guessed that the monotonous scenes displayed in each of the photographs hanging on the gallery walls were in fact, in various stages of focus, the floors in front of the El Al counter at an assortment of European airports.
It turns out that security guards for the Israeli national airline make travelers of Arab origin turn their cameras toward the ground and take a picture of the floor, to prove that the camera is indeed a camera and not, for example, a gun.
On my way back from the gallery I again passed the café and remembered that in other days, when it was a bookstore, on one of the shelves near the floor stood an art book with a red cloth cover. I never bothered to bend down to see if it contained anything interesting. I suspected that it was one of those catalogues from some photography exhibit or another, one of those books that there’s no point in opening, at least not before visiting the exhibit. Now it was already too late, of course. And still it was possible to stand there for a few minutes, to wonder at the speed at which the place had filled up, when only an hour earlier it had been nearly empty, and so, perhaps, give a final look at the display window of the café. The reflection of a weary man with an umbrella and nothing more.
The Beloved Author of the Great Baroque Soviet Encyclopedia
I have in my possession a photo of Arkady Mikhailovich—the author of the Great Baroque Soviet Encyclopedia—which was taken at the exact moment that this story begins. I likewise managed to locate a page of this same encyclopedia, which Arkady Mikhailovich dedicated, without a second thought, to a woman named Rosa. But that is already another matter.
Here, at the age of twenty-four, in the city second only to Venice in number of bridges—St. Petersburg, that is—only a three-hour flight from where the Northern Lights can be observed, on one of the white nights that is visited upon the city in summertime, Arkady Mikhailovich sits at his writing desk, and the entire time all the hour hands of all the clocks are turning toward the rivers, and all night he does not cease his labors, adding more and more entries for his encyclopedia.
“In the Great Baroque Soviet Encyclopedia, published in 1956, under the entry ‘Ink,’ without any connection to what comes before or after it, appears the following sentence: ‘The imagination’s horizon is the essential definition of the imagination.’
“According to this same encyclopedia, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685; the Israeli War of Independence broke out because of imperialists; the number of petals in a rose is always a Fibonacci number; Leonardo da Vinci was right-handed and Picasso was not; in Belgium, it appears, live millions of people; Johann Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, had impeccable handwriting, unlike Louis Braille, who also invented a system of musical notes for the blind; Mars, the closest planet to Earth, has only two moons; and I, at the very first glance, fell in love with you.”
Sisyphus stopped as the photographer requested and looked directly into the lens. The rock began to roll downhill, and Sisyphus, dazzled by the flash, remembered something. The photographer declared enthusiastically that this was the exact expression he was looking for. And asked to start over again.
“Hades wasn’t such a bad boss,” said the photographer, after many years to an old blind man who was seated on a stump in a grove of felled oaks, combing his beard with his fingernails. At the old man’s feet stood a narrow wooden chest, from which emerged whispers and rattles. From time to time he jostled it with his feet.
The photographer continued: “It’s true, here and there Hades tried to push his own agenda, insisting that I colorize my photographs; those days, however, where could a professional find such opportunities? The work that I’m proudest of, of course, is ‘Orpheus’s Last Glance.’ In that matter I even had a little bet with Cerberus, the guardian of the gate. The dog claimed that I’d never be able to photograph the musician’s face on his way out. In my heart I had no doubts; I knew that Orpheus wouldn’t miss a chance to claim his place in the annals of eternity. You have to be an artist to understand an artist, right? And Cerberus, how many times I’d asked him to stop with those melancholy stares of his, or to at least prick up his ears. Orpheus only had to start tuning his lyre and Cerberus would already be sprawled out, rolling from side to side, wagging his snake tails. Well, that’s another story. Hades later gave him a good scrubbing for all his shortcomings.
“At any rate, I called out his name at the last moment, when he could hear the thrum of a light rain falling outside that morning, maybe with even more intensity than the footsteps of the one who walked behind him. Orpheus froze in place, but he didn’t turn around. In the blink of an eye all of my certainty evaporated as though I’d never had it—what would I do if he didn’t turn around?
“Eurydice also cried out. She rushed forward, stumbled and tripped in the mud. Orpheus’s shoulders trembled. The distance separating him from the slow light outside was no greater than the distance separating him from Eurydice, who was trying to get up. Had she succeeded, she would have ruined the composition. This seems like an eternity now, but it was only a few moments, no more. Orpheus, with a sudden, calm smile, turned around. His fingers rested on the strings. And yes, the tale they tell of this matter is correct. One shot sufficed.”
Last Night’s Julia
The fact that Franz Kafka didn’t write many letters to Julia W., one of the women he almost married, would not help to prove the authenticity of the only literary text that Kafka allegedly wrote in Hebrew, nor would it undermine, even for a moment, the validity of the nocturnal travel story to come: On the evening between the 18th and 19th of December, 1919 (half a year after she and Kafka broke up, after they’d already chosen curtains for their new apartment), Julia W. dreamed that she threw her jewelry box into the waters of the Vltava, only to discover, upon returning home, the contents of the box in the bedroom, scattered at the foot of the bed: a pearl necklace, a ring set with four opals, a chunky gold brooch, and more. (If our dreams continue even after we awake, it’s not impossible that in the concealed embankment of the dream, Julia would have donned all of her jewelry and returned to the Karl Bridge.) The next morning, when she left the house, Julia opened her mailbox—to her delight, the night, which is more devious than any story, had left the box empty—closed it and went on her way.
The Angel That Brod and Kafka Dreamed Of
Max Brod once dreamed of an angel who had only a right wing. The angel knocked on Brod’s door and asked where Kafka lived. Brod gave the angel directions, and thought in his dream that he had never in his life seen anything as terrifying as this one-winged angel. The next day Brod met Kafka. Kafka told him that on the previous night he had dreamed of an angel with no wings, who asked for Max Brod’s address.
Miniature Metaphors of an Airport
Longings are more a story than a word. (Though I have never managed to write a story about the airport where I heard Hebrew for the first time in my life. But a few years ago, at another airport, in the line for passport control, I saw a young woman in a wedding dress, both of her arms in casts. This was, of course, one of those moments when you curse yourself for wasting all the film on the overly tended curves of the garden fountains, on all the church steeples that looked exactly alike, and on some stupid motorcycle with a sidecar that passed by too quickly; and you resolve to buy new film only at duty-free, before the return flight. After passport control, in the hall for departing flights, I did not see her again; thus I did not succeed in determining definitively which language she wished to forget.)
White on White: Background
White on white? Definitely white on white: In the harsh winter of 1918, in snow-covered Moscow, night after night, Sophia Mikhailovna Malevich dreams that her eyelashes are growing longer and longer, sprouting all the way to her feet. And meanwhile it is cold, so cold! The eyelashes freeze and shatter before she can wake herself up and forget. Like all good Communists, she does not believe in sewing a soul’s garments from the rags of dreams. Only in May, the month when even the most stubborn ice on the river’s surface shows signs of breaking up, does Sophia Mikhailovna decide to put an end to this. She asks her husband to paint her in the nude.
The Bookmark’s Edge
The others are always the ones dancing. When she opened the bilingual dictionary in the used bookstore, a paper bookmark fell out and she didn’t try to catch it as it fell, although she had enough time to notice as the bookmark spun through the air that one side was smooth, pale blue, whereas the other side was printed with shapes, maybe musical notes. Since the stroke she’d had a year earlier, her ability to speak had completely returned, but with the addition of a heavy accent that she’d never had before, an accent like that of new immigrants from the land where she was born sixty-seven years ago. The woman with the silvery hair looked at the floor. It seemed to her that the bookmark had landed with the smooth side up. Carefully she knelt down and turned the bookmark onto its face.