J. Bernlef

Translated by P.C. Evans

Breaking the Silence

On the 29th of September 199* the popular uprising erupted, which a year later would culminate in the dissolution of the state. The then seventy-year-old poet H. remembered it thus:

‘True to habit I turned on the television at 7.30 in the evening to watch the sports programme. Instead I saw an excitable assembly of poorly dressed men sat at a prop-up table, the majority of whom were no more than thirty. An older man with horn-rimmed spectacles and a mobile black moustache was doing most of the talking. He was holding forth on the abolition of the existing order. Undoubtedly this was some documentary drama or other about a South American country where imperialism was on the verge of being replaced by real manifest socialism. I switched to the second channel. There I saw the same group. Behind the table, people were walking in and out of shot waving papers excitedly. The composition of the group at the table continually changed. No one appeared to be in charge. Only then did it start to become clear to me. They said that the population had crossed the borders of the neighbouring countries en masse. In the capital people had started demolishing the wall that divided the city in two. My whole body began to tremble. My first thought? If only Marit had been here to see this.’

Twenty years ago H. had been condemned to silence. He was expelled from the Writers Union and exiled to the hamlet of V., where he lived in an old farmhouse near the lake with his wife Marit. His collections Cellar Songs (1968) and At Room Strength (1971) had sold out within a day of publication and had been banned shortly after. His name had disappeared from the handbooks, the newspapers and the magazines. But over the years his poems had multiplied and spread throughout the country as innumerable re-typed copies. Some of his lines such as ‘I stayed so that I could go/I went so that I could stay’ and ‘I no longer loved this country/I was the only one who could see/that this country does not exist’ had become almost mythical. The authorities had driven him further and further into isolation. He was constantly monitored by the police from the General Surveillance Department; his letters were opened or withheld, his telephone tapped. The police regularly barged into his house to confiscate his manuscripts. But they never found anything. I don’t write poetry any more, he replied to their questioning. But they didn’t believe him, of course. They kept tabs on him. He no longer wrote, but his silence became legendary; the western press even referred to it as deafening. On several occasions he was invited to come and read there. But of course each time he was refused a visa. When his silence continued to grow, someone from the government came to visit him and offered him an exit visa. H. knew what that meant. He refused and said: ‘It’s not that I’m keeping silent, it’s just that I can’t speak any more.’ When, in October 199*, his wife drowned in the lake (she was extremely myopic and there was a thick mist that evening) H. seemed to be in every respect a broken man. We don’t have a thing to fear from him now, the chief of the GSD intimated to the head of state. But H.’s silence became more and more talked about, and the subject of scores of clandestinely distributed poems. His refusal to write stirred the writing in others. On scores of issues people asked themselves: what would H. have said about this? The GSD was powerless. How were they meant to react to this emptiness, this absence of words, this endless and unremitting silence? Control of his movements was tightened. But nothing in any way suggested a danger to the state. Even the inhabitants of V. were unable to say anything about him. He came to pick up his groceries at the shop twice a week. The police scrutinised his shopping lists, but couldn’t find anything suspect in them. They spied on him with binoculars when he rowed his boat out onto the lake and moored up at one of the little islands. He’d sit there for hours under an oak tree staring out over the water. The police asked themselves what he was thinking. Not even his lips moved. They wrote in their reports that H. had spent his day in prayer so that they were at least able to come home with something. In one report, one of the officers even compared him to a statue. Ultimately, his presence alone was subversive. Maybe the head of government had momentarily pondered having him liquidated, but had abandoned the idea. Instead, it was decided to grant him rehabilitation. This he refused, of course.

H.’s silence was broken on the twenty-ninth of September 199*. He was one of the first writers to appear on TV. With his sagging jowls and the bags beneath his eyes, H. looked like an old dog, a bulldog. He compared language to a piece of land in the wake of a deluge; everything covered with a thick layer of sludge. ‘Only when we have purified our language of thirty years of deceit, suspicion and cowardice can we again write without having to be ashamed.’ At the close of the broadcast he looked straight into the camera. ‘Twenty years of house arrest have caused me to forget the world outside. On the other hand, I’ve come to know my own house extremely well.’ He said this without a trace of irony or bitterness. In response to the question of whether he would take up the pen again, he only smiled.

He now had to get used to the postman coming every day with a great amount of post and papers. Letters from admirers and admireresses, invitations to come to give talks, or to read his poems somewhere. The mountain of post on his desk grew. He didn’t answer a single letter; it was as if he considered his handwriting too precious for use. In reality he had grown so attached to his silence that he didn’t want to relinquish it. If the telephone rang he had his stock response ready. ‘That is a subject of which I have no understanding.’ The spy from the GSD, who had stood picket in his mouse-grey car up near the burned out windmill, had disappeared. Still H. did not alter the pattern of his life. Twice a week he visited the country shop, where the family R. served him with respect and a degree of apprehension. Ultimately, everyone had betrayed everyone else. The old distrust still hadn’t softened. So the jokes made about the defunct regime in the shop were circumspect and uttered furtively. It turned out that the president had owned a luxurious palace by the coast. They’d seen photos of it in the paper. An example of real manifest socialism. They discussed the pros and cons of emigration. H. was no longer asked his opinion of anything.

In the newspapers and on the television, meanwhile, the knives were being sharpened. Filled with repugnance, H. saw how everyone was rapidly trying to set their house in order. Just like after the big war, it suddenly turned out that everyone had actually been a hero, or at least had intended to be. Only G. stood firm. He kept referring to himself as a communist. H. had a certain amount of respect for him. This was one person at least who didn’t start turning the moment that the wind blew from a different direction. But he couldn’t conceal the fact that he pondered G.’s future with malicious delight. It would be the definitive end for his fist-thick novels of peasant life, his panegyric for a teaching, in which real life constantly had to be postponed until various enemies of the people were eliminated first. For years, G. had been the chairman of the Writers Union and was thus directly responsible for H.’s expulsion. Now he would be the first to be thrown out of the new union. Everyone had modified their position, but the methods remained the same. The handful of exiled dissidents returned to great acclamation. They were the lions now, while S., for example, who had sometimes struck a compromise with the censor, could have had them all as a writer. There was freedom of expression, but the literature was still as politicised as during the regime. Under these circumstances there was no point in taking a side. H. continued to be silent, though his silence was no longer seen as an act of resistance, but as a refusal to participate in the new order. Yes, that’s how his colleagues referred to it: the new order.
    H. lived off the modest pension, which they hadn’t dared to take away from him. Each day he took his usual walk through the woods or rowed the boat out to the island, where he would stare out over the rippling water from beneath the oak tree. If he were ever to write anything again, it would have to be about her, about Marit. She had poor eyesight. On that particular evening she must have wandered through the mist and stumbled into the water by accident. He would not consider any other possibility. It was October; she must have been overcome by the cold. They only found her body after three days of dragging the lake. They took it to the hospital in the provincial capital B. It was only then that he was informed. Later they sent him a copy of the police report. A precise list of everything that they had brought up while dragging. A tractor, model Ferz, assembly year 1931, six wooden cartwheels, two flatboats, a scythe, fourteen separate planks from a ruined jetty, three hawsers, two fishing-nets, and a rusted money box, which was empty. She was listed sixteenth. After reading the report he tore it up immediately. The funeral took place in silence. No one from V. came. He was left standing there alone with that one deep red rose clutched in his fist. It was only after three days that he picked up the phone and called a few friends. That was four years ago, but he still missed her and admonished himself for how little of her he could remember. Sometimes in the mornings when waking up he imagined that he could hear her voice. Or no, not her voice, but an interior echo of it. They had been together for twenty-seven years. I took life with her for granted he considered. That’s what he thought now, now that it was too late.

On the outside then he might look like a statue, a dead-straight old man with grey hair stuck up in a bristling quiff, as though electrified, but on the inside a chaos of opposing currents reigned. He considered his life with Marit to have been a chain of missed opportunities. I didn’t take enough account of the possibility of her death, he told himself, I let too much pass me by. And there beneath the oak tree, staring out at the lake water, he tried to visualise her gestures, her way of walking, or tripping rather, her shortsighted pottering. But he could see nothing. His proud silence gave way to an overwhelming feeling of shame. He grieved for her disappearance, which seemed to him to be more definite with each passing day. Photos seemed strange to him; this wasn’t the wife that he had been searching for. Wasn’t she concealed inside him anywhere? He tried to draw the objects in his house to his aid; he pressed the piano keys to conjure up her short, strong fingers, her inarticulate humming as she played Chopin’s mazurka in C sharp minor third, much too slowly, her reading glasses balanced on the tip of her nose, squinting at the score on the music stand in front of her. But even the objects in the house had let her go. Dust and dirt advanced from the corners of the room. Even stains had become dear to him now. They proved that the two of them had once lived there together. The desire to write had become entirely alien to him. A friend had sent him Eugenio Montale’s sequence of poems about his dead wife, ‘Xenia’.

    Sweet little insect,
    For some reason or other named fly,
    This evening while reading Deuteronomy-Isaiah
    In the approaching darkness
    You suddenly appeared beside me,
    But without spectacles,
    So you couldn’t see me
    And I couldn’t see you
    Without your lenses’ gleam.

The poems moved him deeply, but at the same time they were the irrefutable proof that an end had come to his writing. All art was surrogate for life. ‘When I used to write poems’ was a phrase he used more and more often now. If the police from the GSD were still checking his shopping lists they would see that he consumed increasing quantities of red wine. A young Norwegian posted him a thesis on his poetry. The extracts quoted seemed as though they had been written by someone else, someone that he’d left behind. He wrote back that he wouldn’t be able to meet her. The woods surrounding his house seemed to draw him. As if, through his years of silence, he had crossed the border and become a tree himself, one of them. He longed for death, the one thing that would release him from this gnawing absence. I want to follow Marit. But the thought of wading into the lake daunted him. When he rowed out to the island and stuck his hand into the water for a second, he was stunned by the fierce cold that almost seemed to burn his hand. He peered at the dripping fingers that he had withdrawn from the dark water with lightning speed. Besides himself, there was also a body. And that didn’t want to die.

The day that G. came to visit the sun shone. The fringes of the chestnut leaves displayed their familiar rusty brocade. Everywhere chestnuts that had burst out of their husks lay glimmering in the grass with the sheen of polished furniture. G. drove his old light-blue Skoda up to his door. Standing at the window H. saw him step out, hesitantly, and take a look around, as if still frightened of being followed. Since the revolution, though, everyone had kept to themselves. The tattletales were once again posing as real citizens. H. estimated that they must total about seventy percent of the population. And as for the past, however recent, not a word was spoken.
    G. was still tall and slender. His straight hair had greyed at the temples. H. had sometimes thought that his long pointy nose and small lips gave him the aspect of a bird, a sparrow hawk. Now he simply said to G. to come in.
    ‘You can’t just stand there,’ he said.
    G. nodded, stepped into the hall and waited until H. had closed the door behind him.
    ‘I’ve come to talk to you,’ he said. ‘If you want me to at least.’
    H. was irritated by the timid, submissive tone.
    ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Why not? I don’t get that many people here.’
    They went into the living room, which looked out onto the wood’s edge, the room with the black piano, with its lid shut.
    ‘I didn’t know you played piano,’ said G. to start somewhere.
    ‘Marit played.’
    G. was silent. With a sweep of his hand H. directed him to a chair by the table and then sat opposite him. He placed his hands together and studied the nicotine-stained yellow fingernails of his left hand.
    G. blinked, his right hand reached for the support of the table’s edge. His black blazer was too big for him. He looked tired. He pressed his fingertips together, bent forwards towards H. slightly and said: ‘It’s over’.
    H. nodded. ‘Everyone has their time,’ he said. ‘But at least you can write what you want now.’
    G. shook his head slowly. ‘It’s over,’ he repeated. ‘Nobody’ll publish me now.’
    ‘Surely you haven’t come to complain,’ H. said sharply.
    G. was stunned. No, on the contrary, he had come to make his apologies. He should never have agreed to the demands of the authorities to have H. thrown out of the Writers Union.
    ‘Old business,’ said H. ‘Now it’s your turn.’
    H. knew that the newly convened Writers Union was engaged in a purge, and he hadn’t wanted to join because, as he informed them in his letter, ‘he no longer wrote’.
    G. felt driven into a corner. It wouldn’t have surprised H. if there were soon tears in his eyes. He got up to bring a bottle of red wine.
    ‘Let’s have a drink first,’ he said.
    ‘To what, asked G. absently.
    ‘To the revolution, of course,’ said H.
    ‘To the comeback,’ said G.
    That’s how H. preferred to hear him. ‘Sure, you can look at it like that too,’ he said.
    ‘Do you really believe in it then, in the revolution,’ said G.
    ‘I’m too old for all that,’ said H.
    G. was more than twenty years his junior. When G. had become the chairman of the Writers Union, he was an ambitious young novelist who went around in jeans and a gleaming black leather jacket. His voice had sounded firm and clear then, assured of his rightness. He’d also worn a martial moustache.
    ‘Did you really believe in what you wrote,’ H. asked. ‘In those novels full of undulating grain, in those five-year plans, which were always achieved in the nick of time, in the final chapter.’
    ‘They had an exemplary function,’ said G. ‘That’s how it should have been.’
    ‘But that’s not how it was,’ said H. and smiled as he filled their glasses.
    ‘I should really boot you out of the door,’ he said, ‘but I’m interested in how you were able to lie to yourself all that time.’
    ‘They weren’t lies,’ said G., ‘they were prognoses for the future. A believer can wait a long time for a miracle.’
    ‘And now the miracle has come to pass,’ said H.
    ‘That’s still to be seen,’ said G. People will start to feel homesick for the old order, you’ll see.’
    H. sighed. ‘I don’t want any order any more’, he said. ‘I just want to die.’
    G. shook his head contemptuously. He was a communist. In the name of that system people had been murdered in their hundreds of thousands, but a communist did not believe in death. He did, however, believe in necessary sacrifice, offered up on the altar of history.
    G. stood and walked over to the window with his hands in his pockets. H. looked at his back and was astonished by his absence of hate.
    ‘I’ve looked into my file,’ said G. ‘The GSD was even more efficient than I’d imagined.’
    ‘In what way?’ said H. ‘I take it you were working for them.’
    ‘It was unavoidable,’ said G. ‘But when I read my file I found that I was under surveillance too.’
    G. turned around and walked back to his chair. His face was hunting for an expression, but couldn’t find a fitting one quickly enough. A man in panic.
    ‘I asked to see my file so that I could defend myself later,’ he said.
    ‘Maybe there’ll be no trial,’ said H. ‘People have other things to be concerned about. By the way, they say that seventy per cent of the population was working for the GSD. There’s just nowhere to make a start.’
    ‘That must certainly be true judging by all those cellars filled with files,’ said G. ‘Why don’t you go and take a look. You have that right now.’
    ‘And find what,’ said H. ‘I haven’t done a thing this whole time but keep silent.’
    ‘I can hardly believe it,’ said G. ‘Surely you must have some things in your desk.’
    H. shook his head. ‘You robbed me of my language,’ said H. ‘I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but it was.’
    H. pointed to a daddy-long-legs in a corner of the room, with its long legs groping towards the ceiling.
    ‘In a little while it’ll fall and then start crawling forwards again. A person can get by very well without literature.’
    G. seemed to be lost in his thoughts for a moment. Then he said: ‘You have no idea of everything that the GSD knows about you’. ‘The tiniest things. Things that you’ve totally forgotten. They didn’t discriminate. Everything was written down.’
    ‘We have always been a country of compulsive accountants,’ said H. ‘It comes from our lack of self-confidence. We’ve never really believed in this country. It was only when something was written in a report that it actually seemed real to us.’
    G. stood up and thrust out his hand. ‘You understand how ashamed I am,’ he said. ‘I realise, of course, that it is essentially unforgivable.’
    ‘If I were someone else, I’d shoot you down right here,’ said H. ‘As long as you know that.’

When H. went to the capital and reported at the office of the former GSD, which was still hidden behind a copper name-plate bearing the letters ‘Profile A.B. – Import and Export’, he was promptly admitted to the director, a young man with light-blue eyes, a springy step and a somewhat overly-enthusiastic handshake. P.
    ‘You have to understand that I’ve only recently been appointed,’ he said. ‘The cellars are still quite a labyrinth to me too.’
    ‘Are there many people who want to see their files,’ asked H.
    ‘At first there was a quite a stampede. But now the novelty’s worn off…’
    ‘The novelty?’ asked H.
    ‘Whether or not your neighbour worked for the Department, or who was blabbing about you at work.’
    ‘And then?’
    ‘Nothing really. There’s simply nowhere to begin.’
    ‘So you also think that everything should be forgotten?’ asked H.
    ‘That would be best,’ said the young man. ‘The shame is just too great.’
    He led H. down to the cellars. The young director’s grey polyester trousers were a little too short. H. gripped the banister on the stairs. When they came to a halt before a steel-lined door and P. held it open for him, he said: ‘There are a couple of members of staff wandering around who can help you further. You’ll recognise them by their grey overalls. If you need anything else, you know where my office is.’
    H. heard the young man sprinting up the stairs two at a time, as if he were on the run from something. H. recognised the smell of densely packed, slowly mouldering paper: the university library of J., where he had once studied. His eyes had to adjust to the scant light in the cellar, which penetrated through a series of little latticed panes. Every now and then he saw men’s and women’s legs walking by outside. In front of him there were rows of iron shelves, bursting out on both sides with files stuffed into brown folders, apparently stretching into infinity. He shuffled slowly along the head of the aisles without venturing into the labyrinth.
    In the distance he could see one of the members of staff standing behind a trolley in the grey overalls described by P. There was nobody else to be seen in this immense cellar. A clammy silence pervaded, which was only occasionally disturbed by sounds from outside. The man in the overalls saw him coming from a distance. H. introduced himself. ‘I’ve had permission from the director to look into my file.’ The slightly older man nodded. He had a grey complexion, as if his face were covered with a fine layer of powder. The dark trace of a scar ran across his left cheek. The man shuffled ahead of him in unlaced soldier’s boots. H. noticed that he had a slight limp. He breathed heavily.
    ‘We have to go to section c,’ the man said without looking around. ‘That’s where the files are that are concerned with literature.’
    H. had only told the man his name, but the official had evidently been informed who he was.
    The space that they now entered was lit by a row of neon tubes on the ceiling. The man came to a halt in front of one of the stacks of shelves. He counted the spines of the files.
    ‘Twenty-one,’ he said. ‘You were important. Do you want to look at them all?’
    ‘Let’s start with the first one,’ said H. ‘Then we’ll see how it goes.’
    The official took a fat brown folder down off the shelf and walked over to a worn-out table surrounded by some kitchen chairs. He placed the folder on the table and pointed to one of the chairs by way of invitation.
    ‘On the right-hand side of the table there’s a little buzzer,’ he said. ‘If you need to know anything just press it.’
    H. sat with his closed file in front of him. His heart beat. He could hear the officials shuffling in the distance. He opened the folder.

The file began on the 27th of September 197* with the report of the editorial meeting of New Roads, where he had tendered his resignation as editor-in-chief. One of the editorial staff present must have compiled the report. L. or R. or maybe even the diminutive, asthmatic V.? His arguments had been recorded correctly. ‘I can no longer perform credibly as editor-in-chief if decisions about editorial policy are taken at the Ministry of Culture.’
    H. browsed further. Over the course of two hours he saw his whole life at that time pass by. It was only now that he was studying one document after another that he realised with how much deliberation his isolation was effected.
    When he’d finished the first file, he got up and fetched the next. He didn’t need the official for this. During the course of the day he witnessed the treachery of his friends. The first house search May 22nd 198*. A list of the confiscated manuscripts and books, written in a schooled, laboured style. He could see the man standing in front of him again, the way he sat at his kitchen table meticulously itemising the manuscripts, which two others had rifled from drawers and desks, the tip of his furred tongue poking through his teeth. Titles of poems, which he still vaguely remembered, an article about the chromatic theories of Goethe and Wittgenstein, the synopsis of a film that had never been made. At the bottom of the page, next to the date, was the signature of the squinty man from the GSD, ending in an elegant flourish, as though he were relieved that a chore had been dispensed with. Marit had left the house in a rage. A fact that hadn’t been noted anywhere. She trailed through the house after those two plain-clothes policemen like a watchdog. She demanded a list of the papers and books confiscated and when the squinty man refused she stormed off into the woods in fury. And he? He had been numb with fear. He hadn’t obstructed them in any way. He leafed further nervously. The confiscated manuscripts were not in the file. Perhaps they were elsewhere. Or they had been destroyed by the GSD. He leaned back in his chair. His eyes were burning. It made no difference now. The GSD had made sure that he had been driven into oblivion, even when he was still alive. Suddenly, he was too tired to continue. He pressed the buzzer.

The man in the overalls nodded with understanding.
    ‘It’s too much for most people,’ he said. ‘Do you want to come back another time?’
    H. nodded. ‘Tomorrow,’ he said.
    ‘I’ll leave everything where it is then.’

H. spent the night in a hotel. He lay in the bath for a long time and then fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. When he awoke the next morning he felt as though he had worked the whole night.

On his way to the Avenue of Triumph, where the building was situated that housed the GSD archive, H. remarked how run-down the houses looked. This was the fruit of years of artificial rent control (‘an affordable home for one and all’), a policy which resulted in not a cent remaining for maintenance. Peeling window frames, crooked runners, unpainted, battered doors. And everywhere the reek of oil and coal. The people he passed lived in a free country, but they looked as though they bore a heavy burden. Free but unemployed.
    At a street corner there was a flat cart parked on the pavement. On the cart there was a black piano, with a pug-nosed man in fingerless gloves playing a melody that he recognised, but couldn’t put a name to. The man had turned up the collar of his jacket and every now and then he blew on his fingers between two passages. H. carried on walking.

At the archive the porter eyed him distrustfully and then picked up the telephone. He was one of the old guard. No admittance without identity papers and a special permit. Following the telephone call, however, he was allowed to continue. ‘I know the way,’ he said.
    The cellar was deserted. It was still early. In section c the files that he had read the day before lay undisturbed on the table. He walked over to one of the aisles and stood in front of the rows of bulging folders for quite some time. What was the sense of doing this? Wasn’t it just masochism, to rake up these twenty lost years by sifting through reports, notations, the eyewitness reports of spies who had kept watch on his house for years from their cars with binoculars? His hand moved down the line of brown folders hesitantly, and then removed one. He went to the table with the folder and sat down.
    The file began on the 24th of October 198*. The first page had been composed on a typewriter with a worn-out ribbon. The faint letters seemed as though they’d like to withdraw from beneath his gaze. His lips moved as he read the text. He had to swallow hard a couple of times.

    M.: Don’t keep putting that same shirt on all the time.
    H.: As long as I don’t stink…
    M.: That won’t take much longer.
    H.: Is there any coffee left?
    M.: On the stove.

According to the reporter, this conservation took place at 9.23 in the morning. It was incredible. They must have installed a hidden microphone during one of the house searches. And somewhere, at another location, someone had sat and typed out the entire tape. Hundreds of pages of it.

November 6th, 11.15 a.m.

    H.: Has the squirrel passed by yet?
    M.: No, I haven’t seen Vicky today.
    H.: That fat-ball in the apple tree’s almost gone, do you see?
    M.: I’ll buy a new one this afternoon. Then the titmice’ll come back.

Vicky. That’s what Marit had called the squirrel, with its little nervous rotating head and the thin tail that showed that it must already be quite old. Vicky, after an old aunt who had a phobia for dirt and germs and couldn’t sit still for a second.
    Everything that they’d said to each other in the living room all those years was noted down here. All those daily conversations about nothing in particular, which demonstrated how closely the older couple had grown together. A ritual of reassurances, half-uttered sentences, innuendos and good-humoured complaints.

February 2nd 198*

    M.: Can I throw this paper away?
    H.: Let me see. It’s a first draft.
    (Someone had drawn a question mark in the margin here with a pencil.)
    M.: I’d hold on to it then if I were you.
    H.: I never go back to earlier drafts.

H. remembered what this was all about. In January 198* he had begun translating the poems of Catullus. For pleasure; to keep himself busy. He could see Marit standing there with the paper in her hand, dangling it by a corner, as though she were disgusted by it. Marit didn’t like Catullus. She found his poems obscene. It keeps the naughty boy alive inside me, he had told her. Besides it was a good opportunity to brush up on his Latin.
    He stared at the grey-distempered cellar walls. There she was again, with a wry little laugh as she called him an old pervert, tripping closer in stockinged feet and standing on her toes to kiss him on the forehead. We collect wrinkles the way Vicky does beechnuts, he had said to her once. Her face, even when old, had seemed to him to be so indestructible.
    Something was underlined here. Piano music. The writer hadn’t recognised the piece and to be on the safe side had placed a question mark after the words. He tried to imagine the man or woman who had sat there diligently typing out these conversations day after day. Did they really think that they could uncover secrets like this, which they could use to blackmail him later? He and Marit didn’t have any secrets from each other and they rarely talked about politics. Over the years they had begun to act as though they were living in a different country. This country does not exist, he had once written, and meanwhile, nobody had realised how literally he had meant it.
    However unremarkable their conversations often might have been, now that he was re-reading them they filled his mind with images. Nodding and laughing with recognition, he worked his way through the files. At that moment, the conversations were more dear to him than any masterpiece could have been. In all their commonness they opened the portals of his memory.
    He extended his stay at the hotel by a week. In the evenings he went in search of busy restaurants and cafes. He felt part of life again and realised that he owed this happiness to the police officers of the GSD. In the mornings, he woke with a boyish excitement. He sang in the shower and wrung his hands with contentment. Everything had been preserved. Thanks to the state spies not one word of his life with her had been lost.
    On the seventh day of his visit the director came to look him up.
    ‘You are making quite a job of it,’ said P. in a friendly manner, as he sat down on the corner of the table. ‘Are you going to write a book about it?’
    H. smiled and then looked at him in earnestness.
    ‘I’m seeing everything again as if it were new,’ he said.
    ‘Aren’t you shocked by everything that you’ve been reading,’ asked P.
    ‘You can’t begin to imagine how happy I am,’ said H.
    ‘There’s been talk that our country is going to be united with one of our neighbours. That we’ll cease to exist as an independent nation,’ said the director.
    ‘This archive’s worth it’s weight in gold,’ said H. and pointed to the rows of shelves around him with one hand.
    ‘They were crazy at the GSD,’ answered P., thinking that H. meant everything he said ironically.
    ‘Of course they were,’ said H. ‘Fortunately. This should never be lost.’
    ‘For historical reasons you mean,’ P. enquired.
    H. nodded. ‘The life in a country has never been so exhaustively documented.’ He turned over a page and read out loud:

    M.: The tiles around the cooker are starting to get loose.
    H.: I’ll see if I can find some glue somewhere. Perhaps R. sells glue. I have to go to the shop later
    anyway.
    M.: Don’t forget then.
    H.: I never forget a thing.

The director shook his head.
    ‘All that inanity,’ he said, ‘all of that information that is of absolutely no importance. To anyone at all.’
    ‘That’s the heart of it,’ H. replied, and closed the folder in front of him. ‘And what about the tapes?’
    P. repeated H.’s question.
    ‘The tapes that all these conversations were recorded on.’
    P. shrugged his shoulders.
    ‘They still used those big reel to reels then. Tapes were expensive. They were used over and over.’
    For a moment it looked as though H. were about to faint. He turned white as chalk.
    ‘When everything had been written down the tapes were erased,’ P. continued. ‘As I said, they were crazy at the GSD.’

The director led him to the outside door. He watched the aged poet leave. Yes, he looked remarkably like a dog. The people that H. met on the broad pavement looked at his wrinkled beaming face with astonishment. Nobody’s forgotten him, thought the director with satisfaction as he turned back inside. After all this time everyone on the street still recognises him.

The next morning H. heard on the radio that G. had committed suicide. At once a melody ran through his mind. He began to hum softly. That pianist on the cart. Of course, it was the mazurka in C sharp minor third. She couldn’t escape him any longer. He opened the marbled notebook on the table in front of him and began to write, at first slowly and unaccustomed, but then gradually quicker and quicker.