– And finally, back there is his late work, said the young man and gestured towards a long bookcase full of dark, partially dilapidated books. The entire late Setz. The Waiting Lines Cycle. Grandchildren and Asteroids. Everything from his Post-Sea Period. We only have the novels from his Pre-Sea Period; most of the other texts from that phase have been lost. But we do have several rare copies of his out-of-print children’s book. Meow, the Little Funeral Knell.
– Knell, I see.
The woman following him spoke very slowly and without inflection, as if she had difficulty with pronunciation. She wore a short skirt and sneakers that looked like small fluffed-up animals and clashed with her elegant leather jacket. In her hand she held a white pen, and now and then she let it slide through her fingers. When they went past a large metal cabinet she left it on top and paid it no more mind.
– And here we have our most revered treasure, said the young man and pretended to spit in his hands like a craftsman. Voilá, the card catalog.
– What did you call it?, asked the woman.
– No, I just said “voilá”. It means something like “here” or “there you go.” A low-key version of Dadada-Da-da-Da!
The woman laughed uncertainly, like a child who hadn’t understood a grownup joke, and gazed at the ground. There were her sneakers, colorful and large. She positioned them as if she was doing a snow plow, and rocked back and forth.
– Oh, I thought maybe you had given the cabinet a name, she said and looked up to him with a foolish expression on her face.
The young man asked himself – for the third time this afternoon – if she wasn’t drunk or under the influence of some sort of substance. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve – the tour through the archive had already gone on a half hour – and motioned for the woman to follow him to the next room. There was a table, and a large coffee machine on it. A few whole coffee beans were rolling around on the floor.
– Since you’re probably the last visitor, I would like to invite you to a cup of coffee, what do you say?
– I’d love to, said the woman. The dispersal of the collection … is it irreversible then?
– Irr … Well, I would say it is definitive. The collection was a crazy idea from the beginning, but at least I’ve received validation from very many people that I’ve done as good a job as was possible in these circumstances. That’s some comfort.
– And where are all of these things headed?
– Well, thank God it’s not like it’s all going to be burned –
At these words the woman shuddered and accidentally crushed her still-empty plastic coffee cup. The young man gently removed it from her hand, threw it away and gave her a new one.
– Of course everything will be preserved, he said. Merely in a different place and without me as caretaker, but rather as part of a larger library, a private collection.
– Who? the woman asked.
– That … I don’t know if I’m allowed to say, I mean … Of course it’s not a secret or anything, but …
– It’s okay, she said.
– A private collector. That’s all I can say.
The young man opened a white coffee filter with his fingertips, folded it into a neat, wide beak and planted it in the sewing machine head of the coffeemaker. Then he poured in water from a bottle and some ground coffee.
– Are you disappointed about it? the woman asked.
– Well, you know …
The man flipped the switch. The coffee machine awoke from its sleep, huffing and purring. Judging from the layer of dust, it must have rested for quite a long time. A solitary brown drop came out of its little metallic snout and exploded on the table’s bare surface. A feverish glow filled the switch, the engraved word POWER sputtered and flickered unsteadily. Then it suddenly went dark.
– What’s gone wrong now, said the young man and tapped the dead switch with his index finger.
He moved it back and forth. Nothing happened.
– Sorry, he said to the machine.
– It’s okay, said the woman. Perfect timing, right?
The man took a deep breath and turned around to face her.
– Somehow the timing is always perfect, he murmured, don’t you think?
– Oh, never mind. Besides, this coffeemaker has never worked properly, he said, shaking his head. Well, then we’ll just go back …
He walked ahead. She followed him. His shoes made a smacking noise as he walked, while hers were completely silent.
Back in the so-called reception room, which was called that for the simple reason that it was the first room that a visitor entered, the young man sat down shortly behind his desk (which for obvious reasons was called the reception desk) and dug in a large drawer. He had almost forgotten it. He looked at the clock. Really, that late already. The woman watched him work, then she got bored, and she looked out the window.
– Has that high rise been there very long? she asked.
The man finished rustling, then looked up, his hand still in the drawer, and he said:
– No, it’s only been there for a little while. This darned concrete block. These miserable high rises …
The woman stepped closer to the window and rested her hands on the dusty sill. The fabric of her skirt stretched over her behind. A single horizontal crease remained, like a closed eyelid. The young man pulled his lip under his front teeth and breathed in and out.
– I like high rises, said the woman. You always feel that just anything could be behind them. Desert. Seas. Mounted armies. Just things that could come closer, unnoticed while you’re only looking at the building.
– It mainly consumes light, said the young man. On certain days the sun spends the whole day behind this ugly oscolisk. Um, the obelisk. Or, what is it … the obel …
He turned his head to the side, pensively blinking his eyes. But the more he quietly repeated the word to himself, the more futile it became. He looked over to the woman who in the meantime had placed a hand on the windowpane, a gesture reminiscent of yearning.
Finally he found what he had been looking for in the drawer. A doorknob, golden white and heavy, sat under a stack of stationery. He always kept it there but had to look for it every time because it moved around on its own and hid underneath all sorts of meaningless stuff when the drawer was closed. He took it and put it in his pocket.
When he stood up, the woman turned towards him. He expected her to say goodbye to him now. Despite his best intentions, the archive didn’t have any more to offer. The sunlight lay in the room in fan-shaped stripes.
– Thank you for the tour, said the woman.
The young man nodded, relieved.
– Now I really have the sense, she continued, that I know my way around here a little bit. Thanks. I’ll be fine on my own.
She walked past him into the next room where a pile of old magazines and a few dilapidated first editions were stored, and stood between the metal shelves, both hands on her hips as if she expected a hint soon to indicate which direction she should go.
The young man followed her. In his mind he was already composing an extremely polite statement to alert the woman to the opening hours, which had already been exceeded by some minutes. As he came closer he noticed that the muscles on her back were moving. She wore very tight clothing, which he had already noticed during their introductions. Confused, he stared at her shoulder blades.
– I … he began.
She ignored him. She grabbed one of the books and leafed through it. The cover showed a man with glasses and three-day beard reading by an old-fashioned library lamp a passage from his newest book. And although it was a black and white photo, it was clear that book was exactly the one that the woman held in her hand. A strange infinite loop like the dizzying feedback spirals of reciprocal camera photos.
Smiling, the woman returned the book.
– And you did this all by yourself, she said.
She pronounced the last word so slowly that the young man initially didn’t think he was being addressed.
– Well, no, he said. Of course not. No one can do this by themselves. It takes people who provide the space and permission to sort through the unbelievable amount of paper that this person covered in writing, and then of course systematically sift through it and –
He halted because the woman had become engrossed in another book. Judging from her lip movements he could tell that she was reading.
– But at least I’m the one who is always here, he said. Or was, depending. But you know…
With a sweeping gesture he lifted his forearm and looked at his watch in the hope that the woman would notice it. But she wasn’t going to be disturbed. Her lips were spelling out a line. Her face displayed a children’s smile.
– Hee-hee, she said. Everything ephemeral is merely an allegory. Did he write that?
– I’m afraid not, said the young man and leaned over to see which book the woman had taken.
– But there’s more, she said. Haltingly and following the line with her index finger, she slowly read aloud: Everything transient is merely an allegory. But for what? Merely for more transience. Haha …
Her voice had become increasingly quiet. She can’t even read right, thought the young man and felt himself becoming hot. To calm himself he reached into his pants pocket and wrapped his hand around the doorknob. The cool metal in his hand gave him some courage, and he said:
– Okay, well … unfortunately we’re closing now, I’m sorry …
The woman looked up at him. The reading index finger remained in the middle of the page.
– Too bad you didn’t come earlier, he said. I mean, too bad because this is the last day … but I assume that all the notebooks and papers will soon be accessible to the public. I’m quite sure, in fact. As I said, the private collector has …
The woman folded her arms across her chest although her finger was still in the book. The young man gazed apologetically at the ceiling and shrugged his shoulders.
– I’ve shown you everything, he said. But unfortunately …
He gestured vaguely in a circle as if to say: the conditions, the adverse conditions. The woman removed her finger from the book, the wound in the white pages healed immediately, and she placed the work back on the shelf. Because there were no other books on one side it fell over immediately.
– Of course not, she said.
– Of course not, she repeated, not everything.
The young man looked as blank as possible but he couldn’t handle her gaze. Her look made his expression melt and he began to cry.
– I, I …, he sobbed and held his hand in front of his face. It smelt pleasantly of metal from the door knob. It’s just … for his own …
The woman had moved very close to him. She squeezed his quaking chin between two fingers. He tried to nod but couldn’t because she held on tightly.
He scrunched the damp tissue and put it in his pocket. He thought about all the days that he had spent here alone, the solitary yoga exercises on the reception desk that made the time pass more quickly.
He and the woman then went through the room where the coffee machine vegetated away. Several tools were hung on the walls: screwdrivers, hammers, wire spools, and saw blades in various sizes, like the bizarre silverware of an alien civilization. At the end of the room was a tall, unmarked door that could have been mistaken for merely painted on the wall. The man removed the door knob from his pocket and screwed it onto a small, rectangular piece of metal that protruded from a hole in the door. He carefully turned the knob, a clicking like the breaking of a wishbone could be heard, and a shadowy room lay before him. The odor of all things human hit him, and he breathed through his mouth.
– Mr. Setz? he called in a very quiet voice.
In the partial darkness a figure stirred in a large, yellow hospital bed that stood beneath a round window mortared in with white bricks. In one corner of the room, where otherwise a cross might hang, there was a Chinese lantern wearing a laughing face and filled with a melancholy light from a very weak light bulb. Beyond that, the room was filled with mostly broken or bent umbrellas. In one corner a little fountain babbled away. It was shaped like a stretch of beach with tiny little changing rooms and an even tinier sunset on the finger-broad horizon.
– Mr. Setz, the young man repeated. I just wanted to say that we’re closing now.
A grunt could be heard, and a hand holding a fountain pen rose from the bed, but immediately fell back onto the soft, springy mattress.
– Mahhhh, said the figure very quietly.
It was the voice of a very old man. The bed squeaked. The young man felt his heart beating.
– I’d better turn off the sea then too, Mr. Setz, he said with a slight tremor in his voice and took a careful step into the room towards the fountain.
– No, let him have the sea, said the woman. Leave it on.
And she laid a hand on his shoulder from behind.
– Mahhhh, confirmed the figure in the bed.
They went back after the door had been closed, the key turned twice and the sweaty knob removed. The woman floated along in her sneakers, not brushing against anything, and didn’t otherwise make a sound. The young man kept on thinking of the weathered old man’s gaze he had encountered in the darkness. The private collector will, he said again and again to himself. The private collector really will. The unfinished sentence gave him some comfort.
– Did he say anything? the woman asked.
The man cleared his throat for a while, even though there was nothing to clear.
– Well, he said, he sat up briefly, I believe, and felt for his glasses. I’m sure he thought I was the letter carrier.
– The letter carrier?
And he beamed, the young man said somewhat wistfully. With his whole face. He loves it when he gets mail, you should know.
They walked silently next to one another and came to the reception desk where a small moving box stood. An agenda open to the middle of the year protruded from a trash can. The drawer still grinningly presented its contents. When they had arrived at the front door, the woman turned around, left him behind and went back towards the other room. She took off her leather jacket and draped it over her arm. She wore a bright t-shirt bearing a picture of a few palm trees on a beach.
– He’ll probably notice soon that he’s not getting any mail anymore, said the man. He’s not stupid in that respect.
– Lock up well, said the woman. I’ll take care of the rest.
Her delicate hand wandered to a light switch and remained there until the young man had opened the door, left the archive and locked it from outside. A quiet plastic clicking sound could be heard, and then the three rooms, the surroundings and the large monolithic office building at the end of the street lay in complete darkness.
From Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes by Clemens Setz,
© Suhrkamp Verlag, 2011.
Translation © Bradley Schmidt