Author: Volker Braun
Translator: Tom Cheesman
As Jorge, grubby, tired, still on the lookout on Avenida Atlântica, his business taken care of, put out his empty hand (this was a tick) in front of a passer-by, like a hungry tongue or as proof of his useless, dangerous existence, this man, instead of avoiding him on his slim, pointed shoes, gave him a penetrating look and grabbed him with his little paws: Borges, thus assaulted, at once rebelliously weary of it! and somewhat under the influence of the beer drunk hastily at the barraca, took firm hold of the young bastard by his thin brown arm and led him, after an exchange: what’s your name, how old are you, almost violently over the road and straight up to an entrance and steered the struggling figure past the porter into the shiny lift which slid up to the top floor.
Borges pushed the boy through several iron doors into the studio. He let the phone ring (the whole world was wanting to know how he was); he concentrated on his shocked guest. A cross-breed, face closed, experienced, little arms with great chiselled hands, knees covered in scabs. The t-shirt hung out of the trousers, the trainers in shreds. Have you no decency? asked Borges and ignored the question, the basics were called for. Have you eaten? Wash yourself, he said and opened the bathroom door for the lad, and Jorge, unsure of the old man’s intentions, undressed with challenging slowness. Borges mixed the water and poured in an essence which he whipped to foam. Wash, he ordered, from crown to sole. Jorge followed his instructions unwillingly, was rinsed under a cold shower and had to rub himself dry with a large soft towel, which the master folded onto his shoulders. Then Borges brought him clothes, his slight old body matched the boy’s, and he had to get into the trousers and jacket, fighting back tears of shame. He did not like these preparations; and for what? Borges meanwhile, in a small windowless room, set out plates and glasses and prepared a meagre supper, sternly commanding the suddenly shy boy to help himself. And discovered, in Jorge’s fist, which he must have kept closed through the entire proceedings, a razorblade, and Jorge, caught out, untouchable, smiled winningly.
At this moment it became clear to Borges that he would not be sending this catch away, not today nor tomorrow. He had to share his flat with the beast. They were in a trap; their reflexes had stumbled them into it; each opaque to the other. Just seventy or eighty years divided them, they were contemporaries. In the long run (Borges thought generously) they couldn’t avoid each other. They need only survive the night.
He showed the boy a place to sleep and lay down in his room. Jorge expected the unexpected and searched for his belongings, but could not find them in the huge room. He came across piles of books, table tops, a rack on which tracing paper rustled. What was he here for? He was not in the habit of doing somebody else’s will. Others, older ones were obsessed with that; when they were out of it, they didn’t care, stoned they did it. On the beach, at Posto 8, a man had offered him money, more and more, till he could resist no longer. It was a way of making money without commitments. To earn his reais by stealing or short-changing demanded more thought and daring. That was ruling over events. – He shifted about on the bed in the soft outfit; did he have to take it off, did it belong to him? Adverse questions. The collar smelled indefinably sweet, he thrust his neck out. Where should he piss? He needed a piss. But he feared that the master might hear his clumsiness. There had been no talk of money, was he cheating him? To be tricked, abused, was despicable to him. Tomorrow, early, he will force the conclusion, he thought angrily, until sleep overcame him.
In the morning an immense brightness surrounded him. He was lying under the sky, yet in a bed. An endless window let it in; even the walls shone. Jorge got up quickly and gazed into the open room. Two young men, bent over tables, stared over to him smiling. He stood unhappily in his outfit, a figure of mockery. How to defend himself? But Borges appeared. This is Jorge, he said. These are my assistants, Joâo, Osman. And turning to him: Tudo bem? – All right, replied Jorge. Good, said Borges seriously. You know where the bathroom is. Jorge cautiously opened the tap and held his fingers beneath it. He heard the old guy give the men instructions, they waved their arms over great white sheets of paper hanging on yard-arms like sails. The room seemed to fly. Ready, my friend? Borges asked, disapprovingly. Your breakfast is on the table. Don’t keep me waiting tomorrow. Jorge chewed these completely incomprehensible sentences. White bread, butter, cheese, honey, a glass of milk. He hated all the unpleasantness. He stood more than sat, ready to flee.
After an hour, left in peace – he had listened to the noises, the swish of pencils on paper, the phone calls, a strange sense of wellbeing was keeping him on the hard chair – he heard Borges say: What’s to become of you? What do you reckon, Senhor? Was he talking to one of the men? But they were looking at him. And Borges was standing in front of him: Speak. The boy leapt to the door. What do you want? asked the old man / the boy: What do you want?
I’ll tell you, Borges replied sternly. I want to get out on the street, Jorge returned. To beg? Bad. Jorge defiantly shook his head. To steal? He looked coldly into the old man’s eyes. That’s better. But it doesn’t pay, huh? – I don’t steal, Jorge murmured. – You steal time, bread, air. They stood facing, Borges with his hands in his pockets, Jorge also hiding his, and eyes to the floor. I want you to listen to me. We can talk man to man. We know the world … What’s the worst thing you’ve done? – Thing I’ve done? – Your worst crime. Jorge, unexpectedly, reflected. Running away from his mother: that was bad no doubt. When he was eight and fed up with starving. They searched for him for weeks in the morros, in the hipermercados. Thinking more harshly, selling his sister’s innocence, Julita, for 1500 reais. To Dantas the fish-seller in Lemo, giving her half. He stood with cheeks burning, yet saying nothing; Borges nodded at him, hearing nothing. No, said Borges, the worst crime is that you cannot read and write. Jorge kept quiet, he despised stupid talk. The worst is what’s coming… Borges freed him from the door, no resistance in his sinews. My worst deed – Borges laughed: voting for that sonofabitch Cardoso. Believing what he said … He crossed to the easel and drew a line. This is the land. This is a house. This is a school. Believing is the worst, when it’s possible to know. That they cheat you, Senhor. The landless of their land. Jorge was smiling too; this man-to-man talk made him dizzy. His voice weak, he called: I want to go! – That would be a crime, thought Borges, to let you go. If I were to send you away, huh?
The black maid came and Borges gave her the keys and the boy to watch, and went “to take care of something”. He lived high above but he had to walk the earth. He would stand in the noisy streets, when the shadows ran beneath the buildings and the outlines emerged clearly, and let his body be suffused. The din, the smells marinaded his senses, a humbling addiction of his. He had always returned to Rio, from continents. Nowhere was more beautiful and more fearsome. The city grew along the bays, up the hillsides. Cardoso, to get himself elected, had opened up the morros, so now homelessness was rampant. From his drawing-board Borges could see into the favelas. A restlessness in him needed the view upon misery. – As usual he went up the Ladeira do Leme and through the rubble across to Babilônia. The stench of excrement and putrid sludge; corrugated iron huts, plank architecture. The President has expressed mocking sympathy. The Plano real is redeveloping finer zones. Aldaiza’s door was open; Borges entered in silence. He avoided formalities, politeness, waste of time. A few lines must make much clear. Aldaiza was a whore, Borges the customer; a young thing of fifty years. So fair a marriage he had never had. They knew what they wanted from one another. They lay down under the dim roof. This lustful hour lengthened his life. But it was a game one had to pay for. They determined the stakes, but not the rules. POOR AND RICH, that was the rule of the world.
The rule was: him or me. Jorge, when he recognised that the old man was no threat, wondered what worse lay behind his taking. He could not imagine what kind of interest he had in him. Childish fuss; had the old man forgotten certain elementary things? That he, in this outfit, could not go out on the street. That this was no clothing for earning his bread in. That in the boys’ eyes, he would be exposed. And if he remained absent, would lose the power over them which he owed to his cleverness. He would no longer rule over events. – He stopped at a window, vexed; the city, in it his shimmering figure. He was afraid of entering another world. – He had to tell what had happened to him. Where he had come. There, behind the shimmering glass. He had inspected paradise; where he has access.
Teresa, the black maid, was washing up glasses. How could he get out unnoticed? Jorge went up to her from behind and pressed, setting his fantastic strength against the weariness of the girl’s, her throat shut with his lower arm. Teresa, shocked rigid, let him take the keys from her pocket and slide her, on leaden feet, to the door. The men in the next room heard nothing. Blood shot from Teresa’s nose onto his hand, her arms waved uselessly behind him. He let her free, showing his razorblade, she knelt on the floor gasping, while he sorted through the keys. There! he smiled. Stop, said Theresa. He took the key out of the opened door and placed it in his mouth, and laid the razorblade upon his accomplice’s tongue. How quiet she kept! about their betrothal; he ran down the stairs.
Borges, coming back, saw that his boarder had disappeared. Joâo and Osman gave him the bad news. They held Teresa in their arms, he poured her a glass of wine. – A dreadful lad, he’ll end on the gallows / the needle. – He’d taken him into his heart, could he become indifferent at the first opportunity? He must hold out a little in the face of the lout’s moods. But Borges was suddenly tired, he sent the assistants home. He stood before the sheets with their (his) sketches. He drew a line.
He: was ninety, he had walked through the century. The century has done what could be thought.
The boy: nine; a millennium, they were saying, was beginning.
Where was the connection? – As stated, everything had been tried. Inventions, plans, wars. Unheard-of puttings-into-practice, annihilations. On every continent, every idea had been exhausted. There had been words which now meant nothing: revolución in Mexico, socialismo in Peru, it had always been capitalism. In Russia they dreamed and ranted one more epoch. Globalization, that was the new belief. Never and nowhere had the ground which needed overturning been arrived at. – And after everything had been, and no hope had remained, the question was: What is coming?
Borges lay awake all night. Stupidity is coming, forgetting. He had no need to ask Osman and Joâo, his collaborators. They were decent creatures, set on his track. There was nothing to fear from them nor to expect. To them he could not make himself understood. The next to come, the children, would give the answer, the unknown ones, the monsters. They needed teaching, what’s uncertain mercilessly pointing out. The line so firm that it represents a possibility, and so thin that it offers no permanent solution.
Or a line beneath it, through it – . Borges was capable of tearing up this sheet: and on the contrary of saying that almost nothing yet was, had yet been thought. That there was no intelligence at all in things as they stand! And things as they stand, in sheer desperation, without lying in slogans, elementarily, call to uproar. Nothing endures; and what imagines itself secure has within it the germ of dissolution: outrage. A crude joy seized him; are not the best buildings built on ruins, and the price of living is death. The shining wall of tin / Cans, iron rations / Of consciousness, devoured / By the hunger for truth / That’s what’s for supper, camarade.
He heard a scraping, scrambling from the direction of the lift, subdued fighting. He lay falling asleep on the wire-frame bed, too weak to get up and investigate. Who was coming so uncouthly into the house? He was dreaming, or was he seeing ghosts? What was the noise of the world to him? A key slid into the lock, and the door sprang open. A cold sweat ran over his body. Come on in then, show yourselves, crooks, comrades. He caught confused sight of his pale jacket, his own figure, and, as he sat up in panic, Jorge’s face, turned towards him: Jorge, his hands stretched out behind him, was pressing back against the mob pushing him – so it was Jorge! was he trying to protect him from them or leading them to him as they ran the boy down; and at once strangely encouraged and weary to death, for now what is coming was not up to him, Borges sank, his left against the wall, his right on the floor, back, facing
From Das Wirklichgewollte by Volker Braun
© Suhrkamp Verlag, 2000
Translation © Tom Cheesman