Three excerpts from Thomas Stangl’s Der Einzige Ort, a novel based on the separate journeys to Timbuktu undertaken in the nineteenth century by Major Alexander Gordon Laing (1793-1826), the Scotsman who got there first, and René Caillié (1799-1838) from France, who travelled in the guise of an Arab called Abdallah.
There, to begin with, is the picture of a town without people (so it appears from this distance, by this measure of time), nobody comes up for view; just houses of clay are there, and streets through which the sand progresses in layers of various thickness and compaction; hazy patterns are formed, shifting spirals and loops, the crests of waves and reefs come up from the deep only to break and subside, no line more exists between earth and air; in yellow clouds the grains of sand, swarming insects without end, go floating through the narrow passages, dunes in stealthy advance outside the town, clambering over the walls and gates. One town with several different names, disparate pictures set into one another: In Salah, the name means eye of salt, a town that is slowly wandering, driven by the wind, for even as the houses at one end vanish beneath the desert, so replacements spring up at the other; Ghadames, carved into a rock-face many thousands of years ago, the city of shadows that melts into one labyrinthine edifice; then Tombouctou, surrounded by ruins, the houses shaped uniformly so as better to duck the storms when next they hit the town, sand stacked higher upon the streets year by year, as if the desert wanted to supplant the inhabitants, invade their homes, fill, smother, embalm the rooms. So it is (the camera eye being capable of speeding up, slowing down to command, of closing in and retracting as required, of pulling in or pushing away the future, the past) that those handsome studded doors with mountings of iron may abruptly become the half-buried entrances to caves; when we drift through the houses (with their narrow wooden staircases, oblong rooms, windows overlooking hidden courtyards), the floor mosaics are lost, we do believe, to the eye, the carpets all crumbled to dust, we now sink down, with our feet, into the sand, we stir up little fountains of sand, we inhale (assuming still we need air to breathe) the sand. Voices come then from the silence or commotion beneath which they were buried, towards which forever they are drawn, tales or fragments not meant for our ears, not told in our tongues, voices that speak through the centuries and among the centuries fall away, the speaking punctuated by sounds that grate and rasp, yet were it not so (a cough, a sharp prod, deep in the lungs) we should remain blind, after all, unhearing, powerless in every respect.
Travelling from the South towards the deceased man whom by our reckoning he shall fail only just to meet alive, a baker’s boy and orphan from France some two years later draws closer to the place around which the story revolves, that almost chance nucleus, magical site, which in the telling one might almost prefer to skirt ever so quietly about, for fear of certain disenchantment. It is a man who acts on nobody’s behalf, enjoys nobody’s support. In childhood he developed a mania for the geographical charts that would delineate those few years in his manhood even meriting the recounting, a woefully short interlude that one day a suddenly old man fast sinking into his solemnly beckoning tomb of honour will deem to have been the only time in which he, a castaway upon his native land’s drab provincial shores, was alive at all. His is a queer and solitary enterprise in an era in which the European powers are fighting to divide up the continents, in which closely intertwined scientific, military and economic interests overlap and serve each other under the auspices of Geographical Societies, in the expeditions undertaken on the latter’s behalves, the commissions placed, the ethnological (or rather, in the wildest form, racial-anthropological), geological and geographical studies destined to gather dust on the shelves of venerable archives; hence not ever will any one player know for which particular work of destruction he is ultimately an agent, nor, equally, how great a part he will play (deadly solemn, as it would appear, guided by the dictates of reason alone) in alien images that let individuals rise (as so one day we too may be made to rise) from the random, blurred dots into which they have shrunk.
René Caillié has fashioned himself a story that has carried him, as we join his side at this point up to which he has with a little luck never forgotten his lines, always stayed in character, all the way to Cambaya in Fouta Djallon. Shortly before sunset on this day of arrival he seized the opportunity to detach himself from his travelling companions and their present hosts, and alone for the very first time go sauntering off, much as any casual perambulator might, through a gap in the wooden stakes surrounding this village of several hundred round huts that to him seem cleaner (the thought is alienating, he never writes it down), more homely, than many a European abode inside which he once chanced or, indeed, resided. Hard-trodden paths of reddish sand have taken him down to the Tankisso, he discovers, to the river’s low-lying bank almost hidden behind bushes and shrubs; after pushing through the foliage he sits down on his heels, his back leant up against the trunk of one taller tree whose bough, straining down to touch the water, would seem to be drawing him into its embrace. It is as if he has found for one moment, alone with the water, the soil, the canopy of the tree, a room to call his own, behind him the leafy curtain has closed over once more, the branches above his head fashioning a low, vaulted roof, and without ever having left the privacy of his quarters he might still be carried off by the river flowing languorously alongside. He slips The Koran out from under his burnous and with a pencil starts scribbling on one of those loose leafs that in the course of the months will double in girth the holy book kept concealed on his person: a furtive, harried activity from which he cannot abstain for even one day and in the pursuit of which he is closer than at any other time to giving himself away, to being fatally exposed.
A town takes the place of the town left behind, a person takes the place of the person left behind, to René Caillié every encounter, every relationship, every location presents itself as reiteration, intensification and loss, meaning he can trade also his fear for fear greater still, as up to the moment of final emptiness he shall do repeatedly, each time savouring the moment of temporary deliverance. At first he finds the town of Kankan extraordinarily pleasing: the wide, clean streets lined with date palms and papayas, the houses with the tiny gardens at the back, the two town-gates and the two mosques (somewhat unshapely, it must be said, for his own taste), and above all the prosperous, friendly townspeople; here he feels sure to shake off his guide Lamfia Keita, whose looks, whose smiles and whose obliging ways he finds more intolerable by the day. Advancing towards this town the caravan has swelled to eighty men. Staying close to his guide Caillié stumps along, silent between the men and the mules, walking causing him increasing pain, his umbrella open almost permanently as flimsy protection from the cloudbursts (he battles with the storm that turns his umbrella inside out, within seconds he is drenched to the bone) or from the sun, or even, following Lamfia’s advice, as a token of dignity that will purportedly reflect upon his guide as they enter Kankan, for Caillié-Abdallah has meanwhile become a sherif from Mecca; in the villages he is met with reverence, people kneel down before him then mask with difficulty their disappointment that he cannot concoct a gris-gris because his Arabic is too poor. On one occasion they have stopped to rest upon the open plain and he squats behind a bush, writing, when Lamfia’s wife approaches; Caillié hastily pulls down his trousers, hears Lamfia call, Is he writing, to which his wife calls back, No, he’s shitting. Caillié, heart pounding, wonders whether he is experiencing this scene in real life or in some feverish dream, he wants to wake up, but that is too much to hope for, there is no waking state, just a double game swapping and blending hallucination with reality in order to serve up ever new variations upon either. He is obliged to live in Lamfia’s house, in an unfurnished room, even at night the white of its walls (as if emanating from secret sources of light) all about him, he is obliged to let Lamfia’s servants and slaves wait upon him, to let the guide, in his capacity as interpreter and suddenly loquacious attorney, defend him against the initial suspicion met with from Mamadi-Sanici, the dogou-tigui of Kankan, as well as from the town elders; he is also obliged, because he is incapable of haggling and does not venture into the market, to let Lamfia do his shopping. In an outburst of self-righteous fear Caillié finally, in the presence of the dogou-tigui, who besides being mayor presides over the local court, accuses his guide of theft; he is sure that various fabrics have disappeared, various glistening pearls (and do not his guide’s wives unabashedly wear strings of those very same pearls now?), he is sure that this is only the start, that he will slowly be robbed of all his possessions. He feels exposed (the eyes averted of the men to whom he speaks, their fingers playing with strings of beads) and determined to stop at nothing, he is neither willing nor able to retract his complaint. A date is appointed for the court hearing, which in view of his transient status (even if he does not know whether and when his journey will resume) shall be the very next day; he passes the night in jagged dreams that anticipate the trial, fully aware of his own exposure, no longer at home in his white room sprouting tiny corridors at the end of which await ever new gloomy courtrooms, caverns below the ground or under the water, uniform-clad judges with faces distorted into barely human grimaces, a numbing pressure that twists and corrodes the words in his mouth. The next day the entire town apparently casts off its spaciousness and contracts around him, the thatched, generally poorly frequented women’s mosque proves too small to accommodate the many spectators, a crowd throngs outside its doors. He believes himself to be calm, from the outset he is confident that he has nothing to fear; he presents the evidence and answers any questions, Lamfia himself translates and, to the great satisfaction of one and all, simultaneously refutes his accusations, every point is discussed in detail and debated separately by each of the town elders, it begins to dawn upon Caillié that this affair could stretch into infinity with neither hope nor fear of an outcome; he admires the patience and the interest shown by the spectators; he can (as a disinterested observer at two removes) watch them following every turn of the theatrical proceedings as they sit mute on the floor and by looks or gestures signal to their neighbours or the judges their approval of any argument put forth that in all its beauty and grace contradicts or reinforces the foregoing one. To his eyes it might all be the ripple of waves across some watery expanse; it would cost him no effort to walk over the surface, a few steps would take him to the seemingly infinitely remote bank beyond the crowd of onlookers. Finally, as the hour of evening prayer approaches, they show indulgence to both parties, they even forego (without a murmur of complaint from the spectators) the previously discussed imposition of an ordeal involving a red-hot iron and the tongues of plaintiff and defendant alike. It is evident that nobody understands the convoluted tale involving sea-bags behind purportedly locked doors, the presence or absence of certain parties during a certain celebration, and little slave girls wrongly accused, but it is a matter not of details but of placing the scene within the broader context, a matter of its repeatability in principle (and in a darker, more convoluted way this applies not just to the court but also to the figure of Caillié: thus it is possible to do without details, as if they might be gathered elsewhere), and besides they feel pity for the poor foreigner who is unable to talk any intelligible language and seems so sorely to miss his native land. Every one of Abdallah’s charges is sustained, as he understands the verdict, yet Lamfia goes unpunished; Caillié feels relief and disappointment in equal measure, while Lamfia seems scarcely ruffled by the episode, continuing to call Abdallah a sherif, his deferential deportment suggestive of hurt feelings on his part rather than hostility, perhaps in the hope of a lucrative reconciliation. Caillié simply becomes all the more guarded, thinking that should he travel onward with Lamfia through the forest of Ouassoulu, in his scantily informed mind a place fraught with murky dangers, he is sure to be murdered; Lamfia evidently considers him to be wealthy and believes he must only discover the hidden treasures. Fortunately, however, not only does the court decree that he be given new lodgings in the Moorish traders’ quarter, far removed from Lamfia’s house, he also finds a new guide. An inventory is compiled of his possessions so that in future such affairs can be more easily clarified; he manages to keep concealed his notes along with a little gold and amber.
During his remaining weeks in Kankan he makes a tolerable recovery from his fever, enjoys chatting with his new neighbour Mohammed, an elderly Moor with a black wife and a sickly son, who often invites the stranger to eat with the family and becomes fond of his guest (although never before did he see a man with so long a nose; joining in with his laughter Caillié allows Mohammed, whose wife and son promptly follow suit, to verify the authenticity of Abdallah’s nose). Mohammed tells him about Djenne, the great city he often visited in his youth, about the river wide as an ocean and the mosque more beautiful than any other building in the world; if it were not for his son, he says as they sit in the courtyard drinking tea in the shade of a big orange-tree, he would himself escort his guest as far as Djoliba, but Allah has dealt him both the prosperity that permits him to stay in Kankan with no further need to travel and the affliction that requires him to stay in Kankan and care for the boy. Whenever Caillié encounters on the street Lamfia or one of his wives or one of his brothers, sons and nephews (chance meetings that can scarcely be avoided although he seldom leaves the house), they stare straight past him, and he looks down at the ground; such encounters make him eager to resume his journey. He further learns that in August the entire north-east of the country lies under water, and already July is half gone; he is shocked to hear from Mohammed and other sources that the trek to Djenne will take more than three months, a period of time that seems infinite to him even now. All the faces and gestures, everything he leaves behind, sink back into the dark from which they were briefly retrieved for his notes; he shares a kola nut with Mohammed, who escorts him out of the town, past the fields of maize and the pretty villages of the Kankan plain, and leaving his companion the gift of a white pot Caillié walks (his diminishing figure in the caravan, in the landscape, followed up to the point of vanishing by the gaze, like a static camera, of the friend he instantly forgets) towards another, deeper, dark.
Through a sheet of rain (for it rains almost constantly from now on) the fourteen men and their mules ascend by evening into the forest of Ouassoulu, deemed impassable by day for fear of robbers, as Caillié understands, a reason he finds somewhat absurd despite his readiness to be fearful, but he asks no questions, their caution may be connected with ghosts, and he has no desire to trouble himself with such matters. Caillié is not quite sure whether his new guide is a Fulah or a Mandingo, he is said to be some kind of holy man, goes by the nondescript name of Arafanba, and Caillié, in view of the state into which he is somewhat deeper descending by the day and by the hour, is merely glad that the guide asks nothing from him, seldom speaks, and is appreciative of any gift he receives. Moist, man-high ferns come brushing against his arms, he hears the shrieks of the night-birds and the hyenas, fragmentary tales of fear or rage that disappear into the dark void, to Caillié even the croaking of the frogs seems desperate, because all these creatures know this one place only, and here they will expire. It is cold, and the fever whose rise is registered by his inner thermometer intensifies the feeling of coldness, his feet sink into the mud, and within the first few days Caillié’s sandals start to tear; he neither knows how to mend them nor how to ask somebody to do so for him. The water trickles down the inside of his collar, he feels naked, thinks sometimes that his skin, the boundary of his body, is disintegrating. He continues his journey on bare feet that soon turn into lumps of ice, thaws out by the fire during the stops and watches the aches spread across his body; he receives his share of the roasted peanuts, they have taken little else in the way of provisions. The cold coussabe sticks to his skin: convinced while asleep that he is trapped underwater he twitches helplessly, vainly attempting to break free. In mounting haste the caravan cuts through areas outside the forest where only isolated families of bedraggled Fulah live, the women half-naked, the men with poorly trimmed beards and nostrils stuffed with tobacco, the children swollen-bellied; through fords and over dilapidated bridges the caravan, waist-deep in water, crosses tributaries of the Djoliba; the rain does not let up, and he no longer thinks of putting up his umbrella, it is enough to be carrying the object, he grips it tight. The thriving villages further north-eastward are populated by Fulahs, as he thinks – he lacks the energy to ask questions – but the villagers speak a different language and have no religion, keep no slaves, for which reason (he believes in the blessings of private ownership) their fields are better tended than those in Fouta Djallon. He imagines himself to be passing through the fields of Mauzé on an autumn day, along the banks of the Mignon, as so often he did as a boy, always alone, never caring how soaked his hair and clothes became (awaiting him in grandmother’s house the stove at which his clothes will dry, woollen blankets in which he will wrap his scrawny white body, fingers that come brushing over his forehead), relishing the prospect of hiking for hours on end, his imagination siting him in unreal tropical zones, the link being the blanket of clouds low above his head, the link being the fields at once here and there, a peculiar blurring of the differences as if one might be mirroring the other, at the same time a lightening inside his head, a brightness and friendliness of which the reflection illuminates his surroundings (if it is not the other way round); as if nothing except the light were there.
He sleeps sometimes with a roof over his head again. The people, though inquisitive, do not trouble him with outright suspicion, they give him milk and occasionally a chicken or even a sheep; a European, he thinks, might travel here even without a disguise, the only recurrent question is whether his skin is real or merely conceals his underlying black, true, self; they ask how many children he has and in his pidgin Malinke he apologetically replies, até, ne até din-din, and wives? they continue incredulously, you have no wives either? até, he says, he is saving all that (he always speaks as if he has not yet begun to live) for his homecoming (by when in truth his life shall perhaps have reached its end), they pretend to understand his answer and to think nothing more of it. As far as the women in the region are concerned (inconceivable what physical proximity it would mean to choose one and take her with him and thus travel perhaps less conspicuously), they are clearly different from the females of the Fulah and Mandingo, they have pointed teeth, they snuff tobacco and like to dance, but they are not indecent (as he repeats to himself, writes, time and again, from a well-nigh infinite distance he observes the row of breasts, their rising and falling in time with the movements), moreover they kneel down, subservient, heads bowed, before the men, a posture by which he is confused and shamed as he takes receipt of a bowl of milk; he otherwise has no direct contact save for the odd smile, received with blissful gratitude, that his exotic appearance elicits. In a small town one evening he is enthused by the sight of a twenty-man brass band marching on the spot beneath a Bombax tree, he loses himself in the unfamiliar, wild yet harmonious sound and admires the feather-bedecked heads and the colourful garments of the men, and numbed by the music, the flickering glow of the fire, he briefly forgets the chafed skin of his feet, the bloody spots that hurt every time he takes a step, every time he makes physical contact with the external world; he tries each evening to wrap his feet in leaves and a little linen, but this flimsy protection soon disintegrates on the next morning’s damp paths. Even in Sigala, the capital of Ouassoulu, the travellers spend no more than one afternoon and night; the king dispatches an invitation to the widely travelled Arab and his guide, who then arrive, after passing through the village of the king’s wives and a maze of long, narrow passages running between embankments, not at the anticipated palace but at a simple, round, unfurnished hut with a pile of hay in one corner intimating that a horse lives with the king. Caillié is himself estranged by the shock he feels, no sooner have they settled down upon the floor-cushions, at the sight of the tin teapot and the copper plate from which they are served; although he would never dare reveal his interest and more closely study the reliefs, he recognizes them as very old Portuguese manufactures, and feels like weeping (can things be lonely, he later wonders in a dream at the end of which his mouth fills with dark, heavy soil, his clotted tongue pressing against the roof of his mouth as he struggles futilely to resume breathing by forcing down the soil, it reaches his lungs and his heart, which suddenly he holds in his hand, knowing he must die, and which, after he wakes up in the pitch-dark hut – his senses perceive only the dull patter of rain against the ground outside – for several moments he believes he still holds, throbbing and pounding, in his hand), but he is obliged to smile solemnly, as always, to nod, to give halting explanations relating to his history, which Arafanba is recounting, and to convey his gratitude for the proffered congratulations, which here are more easily endured, at least, because they concern merely his fortitude and his sense of family, but not his faith: I don’t even know, he is required or at liberty to say in response to the question whether his father and mother are alive still, he stares down at the plate in front of him.
Original by Thomas Stangl, Der Einzige Ort (2004)
© Literatur-Verlag Droschl, Graz.
Excerpt I pp. 5-6; II pp. 26-27; III pp. 80-86
Translation © Tom Morrison
The translator wishes to thank HALMA, the European Network of Literary Centres, which commissioned a first translation of parts of the above material.