The Bengali Pianist

Author: Mike Pickert
Translator: Steph Morris

(Excerpt from Chapter 6)

Cornelius lives

… I remember the former Prussian art gallery where Cornelius is being exhibited on Wednesdays from twelve till four, from the time when leprous equestrian monuments lined its steps and blind, plaster-eyed, sandstone putti propped it up, autistically sensual. But today the gallery has been given an aesthetic cleansing and Cornelius is the only art on show.
Half naked, painted pallid white and trailed with blood by the make-up artists, he hovers, stretched between two steel cables, his legs spread above a sharply pointed stake and, mechanically raising and lowering his jaw, silently simulates an infernal shriek. At the foot of the artwork is an engraving; undulating sickle-shaped forms like thorns, etched with calligraphic correctness into a copper plate. The Egyptian artist delivers a reading to the bearded audience then pays Cornelius his fee in cash, allowing the spectators to count along with him. Finally dates, cereal pellets and stones rain down on Cornelius from on high before he leaves the stage wearing a streaked robe and a crown of NATO barbedwire.
“How was it?” I ask Cornelius once the performance is over. Still blinded by the lighting technician’s artistry, he rubs the floury make-up from his face and leans against the beheaded sculpture of a Germanic general.
“Same as usual,” he sighs. “Could have been worse. Once freed you can only fall. And on the way down the imagination has full rein.” He puts on his glasses and with them acquires his physician look, and the contortion returns to his face, knotted and perforated. His eyes turn in opposite directions, the whites gain optimum power and he holds his chest as if overcome. He seldom talks about the pain. His depths are delicate as paper.

After Cornelius’ performance we leave the building by a side door, to escape the banner-waving Koran students in front of the main entrance. They have pursued us more than once with telescopic truncheons and petrol canisters out to the estates at the city’s edge, right to the final bus stop at the rubbish incinerator, where the air tastes of beer-tents and heated scrap metal. We are not interested in a repeat performance and willingly seek out the periphery. We give the boot camp for replication criminals at the west end of the park a wide berth. Heads down, we pad like panthers along the unwatched metal fence, for two kilometres nothing but barracks and chain-link fences strewn with shreds of cloth, then we go our separate ways.
Cornelius still sometimes tells me what was important to him: “That someone was there, that someone whose judgement I trust sees that it’s really true. I would never be able to describe it afterwards like that,” he says.
But before he burrows any deeper – gets political, polemical, sentimental – I turn right, into the Boulevard of the Immigrants, in order to view the rear of my main client’s building from a distance, the Blumenstein Institute. There is a piece of wall from which you can see the research wing, beyond the moats and electric fences, and I climb onto a ledge and picture Dr Grimm, leader of the research department, and chief experimenter, who approached me a few weeks ago about a second kidney donation, and for whom I now shout, “you’ve already got my hands, what more do you want!?”

Through the park it’s barely five minutes’ walk to the retired tenor’s house. Here only my hearing is required, nothing more. Two armed guards in military mixed-salad green loiter in front of the portal. They examine my papers and pat me up and down. I lift the stumps of my arms over my head like baguettes. Shortly after, the housekeeper opens the ornate door cautiously, although not without exertion. In summer she lets me straight into the courtyard where the snowy-haired singer sits enthroned on his rattan bench, framed and delineated by climbing roses, close to the splattering fountain, a later addition, from the Wilhelmine era. Half an arm’s length from him, the fountain spouts out a cupola-shaped water mushroom, like the roof of a glassy synagogue, and the tenor cools one hand while the other conducts through the air like the neck of a retching swan.
At his nod I take a seat at the edge of the fountain and the tenor welcomes me with twitches at the corners of his mouth, and with sentences like “our ashes will be strewn in an aquarium” or “Sharia-Schmaria” or “tempus fugit” or “death lies in the guts”; all sentences which in reality are not said by him, but by my thoughts, thoughts in which there is only Cornelius.
He stands up and crosses the courtyard, his secluded reservation, while I, still under the spell of the blooming Moorish park I crossed to get here, think about how one winter Cornelius and I found a dead animal there on the football field,
… and how, utterly silent and bewildered, Cornelius began stamping on it, both feet at the same time, as if he wanted to get inside the stodgy body, emptied of breath,
… and how he stood next to it in his clumpy orthopaedic boots and bit at his nails while saliva ran down his chin in long threads, drawn out by the wind,
… and how I took him then to his flat, to what he called his “wallpapered concentration-camp,” where the rooms crackled from the cold, where the walls were hung over and over with aerial photos of derelict cities, the ceiling decorated with airplane debris,
… and how I perched on the sofa between crusty towels and magazines full of photos showing fat, sweating women, naked, dark and oily as if embalmed,
… and felt how with every breath I took, the walls around me tightened like a pneumatic tourniquet,
… and the looks swooped through the room like pigeons’ bodies, and every look went straight through the things, through the furniture, wallpaper and walls, through the aerial photos, and the naked and sweating women, past everything and through everything, till everything seen had been seen through and changed entirely, dissected simply through seeing,
… and I still know how the walls pressed relentless against me and I jumped up, restless, then sat down again, jumped compulsively up and fell down again,
… and that suddenly I could no longer sense myself, and felt as if I had no organs, light as gas, but still incapable of leaving,
… and that Cornelius started clearing out his fridge, as if remote-controlled, and tied up the salami, the meat, and the half-eaten burgers in see-through bags, where they smeared brown streaks like comet-tails across the polythene walls, while the room began to stink of innards and Cornelius spoke of unsustainable situations, of second cousins and second-degree frostbite, of gangrene from wounds and gangrene from frost, situations where disgust erupted abruptly, of disjointed visions and analogies which were never there, of diagnoses which no one other than him knew,
… And outside it began to snow; the flakes floated weightless through the frost, and Cornelius knelt next to the fridge and retched and spat emerald-green slaver into the vaporous depths of the freezing compartment,
… and I stared ahead, towards the window, towards the light, and saw the grinning x-ray images and tomogram exposures hanging outside the window, grimly veined celluloid where lumpy forms stretched into filaments; all the evidence, fluttering in the wind, which he had continually brought home back then, from tropical medicine clinics and casualty departments, from congresses and author-ities, from emergency operations, countless visits, anamneses leading to panic, everything financed via a plethora of credit scams …
… while Cornelius, hugging the plastic bags, suddenly sat right on the edge of his folding bed and swore to me, again and again, that he was totally incapable of describing temperatures objectively, of telling others whether it was warm or cold, saying to others, to strangers, “I’m boiling,” or “I’m freezing.”
“All temperatures make me nervous,” he said, and tore the clothes off his body with jerky, drag-queen gestures.
He placed the bag with the salami remains on his stomach, then drew it slowly up to his chest, where his ribs stretched like heating pipes through the glacial skin.
… And I shouted at him; “just stop it once and for all; I can’t take these constant mortality displays. You’re obsessed with this ridiculous self-loathing!”
But he began humming in a soprano-bright tone and pressed the salami bag against his forehead, his mouth open wide. I saw no teeth, only his brownish gums, while the polythene bubbled into blisters around his forehead,
… and I kept hammering away: “you have a place to live! Be thankful you have a roof over your head! What more do you want? A hospice-apartment is not a Jugendstil villa, but it’s better than nothing” …
… and with both hands Cornelius rammed the bloated bag against his forehead till it split at the edges and the salami slivers slid over his eyes and down his entire face,
… and he threw the half-eaten burgers, and salami slices against the window, towards the x-rays and tomograms, till the window was shaded epidemically and the room started to darken: with the snow whirling at it, the jack-frost on the panes, the tomographic images, and the comet-tail traces of salami on the glass …
… and I ran out of the room, my eyes blurred; out of the house, onto the street and to the bridge, and threw myself against the iron railings, shuddering in revulsion and bending forwards to bury my face in my stumps,
… and then from the bridge to the park nearby. I searched the whole park systematically; first for people and then for corpses,
… and then with the corpses back to Grimmeisen Bridge: thwacking and thwacking the balustrade in wide sweeps, swiping at the railings with the human substitute, the frosted cadaver, for ages – minutes, hours – till I lost all strength, still unable to let it drop, till the bones under the icy carapace broke and the slippery thing slid down, released from the stumps of my arms,
… and as if numb, as if unconscious, the parable of the cold struck the canal’s reflective surface, beneath which the sinking had already begun.
… and for months I didn’t touch a single piece of meat, a single human being, a single carcass, not one salami, not even a breaded steak in Schrill’s restaurant, because the pattern of sinews and fibres had lodged itself in my mind as something which can fly at night.

… But now the tenor is showing me his roses, white, clipped roses in his courtyard, where the flowers’ shadows fall on us like bruises or eczema. Then he strikes a posture by the fountain, draws air into his lungs, mimes pregnancy in front of his stomach with both hands, and sounds his cathedral organ like a wholly fulfilled person. “Can you hear the tragic element?” he asks me. “It has nothing to do with the phrasing; it is very simply the timbre, quite distinct from practice, or habits one acquires. It is as if the tragic were tattooed into my vocal cords. My organ is without parallel anywhere; no one shapes the tones like me. Yet no sooner have I started singing, it becomes too much for the majority; too much richness and too much drama. One should sing for silent films. But now, at the end of my career I only give private recitals. It is important to be true to one’s voice. And now: everything I could never sing, was never allowed to sing, everything which never made it to performance, exclusively for you! Yes, you may listen to me and for this I will pay you a fee. It’s worth your listening. Listen to me for God’s sake!”
I hardly have the chance to nod before he asks: “Do you know what it’s like on provincial stages? Or what lurks in the orchestra pits there? Burnt-out prams and wrecked condom machines! Skipping ropes, prisoners’ ID-tags, dogs’ jawbones, sucklings’ skeletons and gas-mask filters! And one just sings above and beyond it all, unruffled, above and beyond all of it, because the Opera must never sense one is afraid of it. My God!” he kept saying. “My God! I can still see them now, as if they were here, unimaginative, aging beings, who no one protects us from – prompters with hair clips between their lips, falling asleep without any shame. Make-up artists who drink to oblivion. Even the lighting technicians withdraw into the all-pervasive darkness. And behind the curtain, fallen military aircraft and detonated missile canisters. That’s provincial! No glamour, I tell you. Nothing to shimmer like the skin of a chameleon. No one claps, there is no applause; a sudden silence simply descends. It makes one’s stomach turn. You see only want-tattered costumes – and sing out into blank incomprehension. Amongst philistines and people who spit on composers! You feel there as if you have made an emergency landing, as if planted in a long-dead garden. And when the curtain finally drops it’s as dark as a worm’s nether regions.”
“Cornelius?” I ask him. “Cornelius?” And stretch my stumps out towards the tenor –
but the tenor is already inside, beyond the French windows periscoping around in front of a wall of bookshelves in search of photograph albums. His lips thin as wire, he shows me photos of himself: yellowed card body-bags with zig-zag edges, orchestras standing as if about to be executed, jaundiced creatures in dusty dinner jackets, conductors expiring in ecstasy. Then he laughs, bright as a bell. “Oh, pictures, pictures! When I look at these extinct gestures I hear solely the motifs. I’m wandering lost in a prosthesis shop. Nothing more than memories. The world of the Opera”; he says, “no place free from sound,” and points to a small, neckless figure submerged in the folds of the curtain. “The world of the Opera: it has no followers, only detainees!” his finger covers the small, greasy head. “The world of the Opera! And that there … was me!”

One hour later I make my way home, back through the park, and look near the football field for passers by willing to talk, and then, meeting no one, for traces of a dead animal.

Standing at my east-facing window that evening, exhausted in my twelve-square-metre Arctic, my weary, emaciated reflection does not amount to a whole figure. I think I can see Cornelius outside on the street, under the bazaar-bright lights, can see him just before closing time reaching into his oral cavity and touching his gums, jaw, and pharynx till the corners of his mouth split, then clutching and feeling himself all over with restless, fluttering hands, continually searching for new anomalies along the relief of his own body.
I close the blind because I can’t cope with him right now. But in the morning, before it gets light, I will put a pen in my mouth like a starving bird with a twig, and write the whole story with my teeth and lips, everything as it really was, his story and mine, our shared, inseparable fortune.

The last thing I hear before falling asleep is a trickling cascade from Mr Taraghore’s piano, the Bengali pianist’s études. The cadences gradually descend into an endless, sluggish sultriness, but contain no hint of tiredness. Two or three doors away in a room crackling with static Mr Norisoto cuts through the air, his limbs swelling into metaphors, flinging the shadows of a solitary far-eastern martial art against the flamingo wallpaper; shadows which cannot be bound to his body; patterns angular, but still free.