To Salvador Raggio
7 December 2012
My Esteemed Friend:
In response to your request that I compose a short story for the anthology you have decided to assemble, I must write you this letter. You know that, for me, writing can be a painful exercise and there are moments in which, simply put, nothing comes to me, Salvador (sometimes I ask myself if your name is a sign of something). I know you have read my diaries, which brim with jottings about this impossibility – it consumes me, exasperates me, weighs on me by the tonne as I sit before a page that grows ever larger. Sometimes I feel that I cannot write, that I only scribble ideas. How often have I requested a deadline extension for sending you my writing? Four? Five times? I know your patience has its limits and I have no desire to reprove you for that. I am here, writing, but writing poorly because I have no other option (once I wrote that exact phrase to Felice); if I did not, I confess that I would plunge into despair. In any case, I cannot send you anything, there is nothing dignified about being read by another and much less in being published.
How can I write if I look at my hands and they seem to me formless lumps? I can barely pick up the spoon to taste a mouthful of soup. The other day a young woman, a work colleague, tried to assist me, but I refused her help. That my hands have lost something of their human form is daily humiliation enough. I don’t want her compassionate eyes on me.
This was what happened, Salvador. You summoned me and I came back to life. I should clarify that you are not the first to do so since I coughed up that haemoptysis discharge for the last time. I still recall the pain. It always happens like so, someone talks about ‘the Kafkaesque’ and I open my eyes again, my body reanimates for some hours and then, nothingness. I fall again into non-existence. But this time is different. This time it has not been something ephemeral, a matter of the minutes someone’s attention has been held by that adjective. This time I have been able to remain. My body is still the same as before, with all its burdens of pains, creaky joints and spasms. I write you this and have a coughing fit once again. As I said, I find it hard to accept the shape of my hands and I won’t tell you how difficult it is to make them do all I want. I have noticed that my body is not very well preserved. Death does not happen to one without consequence.
This is how I was the morning you summoned me, watching my body as it came back to life. The sun on my face was the best sensation I have ever experienced. To look towards the source of that brilliance was to bathe in tranquillity. There was the world, in its entirety, for me. No more father, no mother, no Felice or Milena. Disconnected from every familial or romantic link, I could be free, finally, could submerge myself in existence, not accountable to anyone. I, alone, in this new land. I thought long and hard about it, and I felt I was an explorer, I would not let anything terrify me (I made an effort to forget my hands). An entire territory in this new continent, in this northern country, offered any number of possibilities.
I spent a few days in this state of ecstasy. I began adapting, again, to this body, but you know, Salvador, that one can never fool one’s body. What we call hunger and thirst are not things one can easily escape. Given my circumstances, I had no other option but to do what anyone in my situation would do: get a job.
I will save you the distressing details of the impossibility of finding gainful employment as a lawyer, official or salesman. They asked me for papers, documents, a curriculum vitae (any previous experience was useless; it would make no sense if they verified the dates). Most could not stop looking at my hands, my face, my arms. Almost no-one understood me. I flapped my arms and stretched them to see if perhaps with gestures I could achieve a little understanding, but not even that worked. Some were taken aback to see my hands and threw me out of their offices. Nor did I have a roof beneath which to take shelter, and thus my clothing began to acquire a thin layer of dirt, not to speak of the odours that my body no doubt gave off. I grow embarrassed even just recalling it. In the pit of my stomach, a tingling sensation of adventure tumbled around with a sharper-edged hunger in a persistent hurly-burly.
A generous soul instructed me on how to secure a very humble job for which no-one would request any documents from me and I would be paid by the hour. Not even experience was required. I tried to tell them about myself, but the words came out of my mouth and no-one understood. Strangely enough, I could understand each word that left their lips. Some even made the effort to communicate with me through signs. The work was not difficult, in fact. The job was in a restaurant, with a very low hourly rate. I know you have already guessed it. They set me to washing dishes.
I am diligent. I arrive very early each day and settle a black apron over myself. A pair of gloves made from a strange material (rubber, as far as I understand) cover my hands. That relieves me because it means my hands’ oddity goes unnoticed. I have never seen so many dishes, Salvador. White discs that accumulate without end. Some still contain leftovers (my colleagues gulp down some of those leftovers, but I can never bring myself to do so). Two of us are devoted to this task. It is necessary to dedicate oneself to each dish with care. First to dip it in water, afterwards to daub it with detergent (the owner is a miser and tells us we must conserve the cleaning liquid), and then to scrub it with the sponge until it is clean. Afterwards, to put all of them inside the machine that disinfects them. ‘I don’t want any complaints from clients. If the owner loses his licence because of a sanitation issue, I’ll be fired. And you’re all coming with me …’, the manager reminds us every three hours. My arms move almost independently of me. I prefer not to think about anything. I don’t even undertake to speak with my colleagues. They call me, with a degree of gaiety, the German: ‘Because what you say is incomprehensible, like German’, they add, and break out in laughter. I smile, for although they do not know it, I do of course speak German.
I’m not sure where they find the strength to laugh. Almost all of us spend some fourteen hours a day in that kitchen. I don’t know what kind of restaurant it is, but the dishes never stop arriving. They flow as if they were on an infinite production line. As well as those of us who wash the dishes, there are others who cut up the vegetables and leave everything ready for the head chefs to combine. The dishes accumulate before me, and before the others accumulates a whole load of carrots, broccolis, lettuces, tomatoes, currants, silverbeet – I will not go on for the list is long, Salvador. From this vegetational disorder, my colleagues extract a harmony that would leave you staggered. They remove all that is superfluous from the vegetables and leave perfect dice lined up like soldiers ready for battle. A green regiment, in sum. I confess that I envy them their precision, the calm air with which they undertake their work. To write like that – to pick up the words that reverberate disordered in my head, and to make them pass through that sieve of purifying order onto the blank page … I fear, Salvador, that I will not be able to carry through to completion the request you made of me. I lack that knife to slice the words and offer them up to you in an appetising dish.
I don’t have a flair for writing. When night falls, my body, always weak and sickly, topples, exhausted, onto the mattress that welcomes me for a few short hours. I have no home here. I live in – no, ‘live’ is an excessive verb; I inhabit? – a bed for a few hours. Yes, Salvador, mere hours. The scant salary I earn washing those infinite dishes allows me no more. There are eight of us who sleep in the room between ten in the evening and eight in the morning. At that precise moment another eight arrive to take temporary possession of that dream space. I know there are other rooms in the house, but I don’t know how many. We barely have permission to go directly to the bedroom and the bed that corresponds to us. That is how we live (do we live?): in shifts. The beds are warm, they always accept a worn-out body. The bedroom contains only the four bunks.
Usually I am very tired, but this does not mean that I fall asleep right away. Insomnia plagues me. Sometimes I welcome it because it means I can scribble all over a little notebook that I always carry on my person. I don’t turn out anything publishable, as I have said, but I write so as not to be driven to despair. Whether December 1912 or 2012, the despair that lies in wait is the same. Now that I see those dates, I realise something. Do you know that it is exactly one century since I finished one of the stories of which I am proudest? Yes, the one about that travelling salesman who wakes one day transformed. It was a tough one to turn out because certain trips and obligations cut into my writing rhythm. But, for those oases of time in which I allowed myself to write it, you should have seen how the words danced, Salvador, how they danced! I was not my workmates transforming those vegetables beneath their knives, no. I was the chef creating a culinary melody. That is just the image. In those moments my writing was a banquet.
(I am not sure why I make these comparisons. I have grown hungry.)
After that humiliating episode with the soup, I prefer to avoid any kind of food that implies the need for utensils. As luck would have it, I have with me some nuts, bread and yoghurt. I devour them slowly. I must make them last. It is the little I have left after I had to leave home suddenly. I will tell you what happened later. But first, let me recount to you something that happened before I had to leave in this way (events seem to be accumulating, now, after an uninterrupted span of tedium).
Having come back to life so many times, I understood that something was happening with that adjective, Kafkaesque, but I hadn’t been able to discover exactly what that was until yesterday. Browsing one of those complimentary periodicals they distribute in the sewer worm of a train, I saw that they were announcing a congress, and the aforementioned adjective appeared in its title. I saw my workplace was en route to the address and so I decided to go. My boss looked at me strangely when I asked permission to leave early. I expected him to oppose my decision and I had readied what I would say but, oddly, he did not protest. I left work in a hurry. I abandoned the night shift, left the dishes to keep accumulating, infinite and absurd, and set out.
You know that I am very shy and not at all given to frequenting places where people congregate. The building where that congress was occurring had somewhat strange lines, they were rigid but at the same time gave the impression of bending over me. The architect had managed to soften the rigidity of the materials so that the lines almost embraced their visitors, as if welcoming us. With a warm and mournful sensation, I advanced deep into the building. People were already talking about the Kafkaesque. I heard a number of presentations and began to realise that they were talking about my unpublished works. I wanted to kill myself. I was already dead but I wanted to kill myself. I also found out that it was all because of Max … Do not think for one moment that I am grateful to him. There was so much to correct, so much … And to think that I wanted to polish my work a few more times, but phthisis is like so, once it takes hold of you it does not relax its grip. It did not let me go until I was on the other side; I had no time to finish the manuscripts. I told Max to destroy them, although I confess that I am not at all sure when I asked him to do so.
Be that as it may, I felt betrayed. A certain irritation, a grainy rage burst forth without my wanting to stem it. ‘Those books should never have been published,’ I cried. Silence took shape. ‘My final decision to get rid of them was not respected.’ Everyone looked at me, some already whispering to the person alongside, others stifling a laugh. That irritated me more. ‘I am Franz Kafka.’ And the murmur became a roar. Two security personnel approached and removed me from the building with very little courtesy. I must admit that I did not make their job easy.
I had not noticed that someone was following me. He was very young, perhaps twenty years of age. He told me he was a journalist and was covering the event, but the presentations had grown repetitive and he wanted to smoke. While he lit the cigarette he looked at me at great length. Surely the layer of dust on my suit didn’t escape him. ‘Frankie, the best way of extracting yourself from your misery would be to write self-help books,’ he said to me with a rather mischievous smile. ‘Self what?’ I asked. He took me by the arm and led me to a more isolated corner removed from the security fellows, who were still eyeing us. Surely the academics had already forgotten my presence. The journalist explained that these are books that tell people how to be happy or how to resolve their problems, step by step. I could not believe what I was hearing. If I were happy, as if I would bother giving recipes to people! As if happiness is not of itself something so individual as to be difficult to repeat or reproduce! All of this without considering the problem of its basic definition: what is happiness? Many have written on this. The good Epicurus comes to mind, though his hedonism is not really my style.
The journalist listened to me with a neutral expression. He continued smoking, not saying anything until he had finished. He stepped on the butt and gave me a pat on the right shoulder. A little dust lifted off. ‘Safe travels, Frankie.’ The building embraced him again and I embarked on a long stroll in the direction of my lodgings. I walked for a good while and saw those who had occupied the beds for the past eight hours leaving the house. I made myself comfortable in my bunkbed and wrote in my notebook. A title came to me: ‘The Felicity of Dishes.’ I nibbled a few walnuts. I stayed like that, looking at the title for a few minutes. I ate a slice of bread. Ridiculous. I grasped the pencil and overscored that title as if I were cutting through it with a knife. Who could come up with such a thing? Strangely, insomnia didn’t come calling that night and I slept quite peacefully.
I was woken by voices shouting thrice, ‘¡La migra!’ I did not understand what they were referring to but a great din enveloped the room and I saw every-one jumping up. I wasn’t sure what to do. Some shod themselves as well as they could, others pulled on some clothing. One of them, the one I secretly think of as he of the porous eyes, trembling (was it fear?), grabbed me by the arm and said ‘Let’s go, we have to go.’ He must have taken note of my gesture, which could have been translated as, ‘Why?’ ‘This is how they have us, Francisco. They come after us.’ I am not sure why he stayed with me, waiting for me to pull on my shoes. The speed with which everyone left the room and the house was astonishing. I saw them scatter in the street as if they were scuttling bugs and I one more of them. We ran, we ran like insects, and we kept running until the lights and the noise and the sirens were lost in the distance. Whoever would have thought that this body could still run so. I should not complain so much about it.
That’s the way it is, Salvador, I must look for a new place to sleep. I still have my work with the dishes, my boss didn’t say anything to me. A short time ago I noticed that the stack of dishes has increased twofold, which obliges me to increase my speed and spend a few more hours completing my work. You can imagine how I feel by day’s end. Utterly exhausted.
Do not say later that I neglected to tell you, Salvador: it has become impossible for me to write. I don’t know how much longer I will be awake in this body. Let us hope that I have enough days left to send you this letter. I would ask that, as soon as you finish reading it, you burn it. Take heed, please; do not fail me like the good Max.
Text by Claudia Salazar Jiménez; translation by Elizabeth Bryer. This story first appeared in the anthology Kafkaville: un tributo narrativo a Franz Kafka, edited by Salvador Raggio (Editorial El Cuervo, 2015).