By the time of his death in 2003, at age fifty, Roberto Bolaño was already a somewhat legendary figure. A Chilean who spent most of his life in poverty and exile, Bolaño helped found the Infrarealist poetry movement in Mexico City. Later, he settled in the town of Blanes, on Spain’s Costa Brava. In the mid-nineties—according to legend—Bolaño set poetry aside, hoping to support his wife and young child by writing fiction. Over the next ten years, he produced a string of books, including By Night in Chile and The Savage Detectives, that made him the most influential Latin American novelist of his generation. He died soon after finishing his most celebrated work, 2666.
This legend was complicated two years ago by the discovery of The Third Reich (El Tercer Reich), a full-length novel that Bolaño wrote in 1989. That the novel exists in typescript (and that Bolaño retyped the first sixty pages when he bought his first computer, in 1995) suggests that he wished to see it published during his lifetime. Why he never did is anyone’s guess. From the first sentence, The Third Reich bears his hallmarks. The irony, the atmosphere of erotic anxiety, the dream logic shading into nightmare, the feckless, unreliable narrator: all prefigure his later work. The young novelist must have been exhilarated, and possibly alarmed, to discover his talent so fully formed.
By special arrangement with the Bolaño estate, The Paris Review will publish The Third Reich in its entirety over the space of four issues (making it our first serialized novel since Harry Mathews’s The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, forty years ago). A hardcover edition of this translation will be published at the end of the year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
For Carolina López
Sometimes we play with salesmen, sometimes holiday visitors. Two months ago we had the privilege of sentencing a German general to twenty years’ hard labor. He was passing through here on a walking tour with his wife. Only my skill saved him from the gallows.
—Friedrich Dürrenmatt, A Dangerous Game
Through the window comes the murmur of the sea mingled with the laughter of the night’s last revelers, a sound that might be the waiters clearing the tables on the terrace, an occasional car driving slowly along the Paseo Marítimo, and a low and unidentifiable hum from the other rooms in the hotel. Ingeborg is asleep, her face placid as an angel’s. On the night table stands an untouched glass of milk that by now must be warm, and next to her pillow, half hidden under the sheet, a Florian Linden detective novel of which she read only a few pages before falling asleep. The heat and exhaustion have had the opposite effect on me: I’m wide awake. I usually sleep well, seven or eight hours a night, though I hardly ever go to bed tired. In the mornings I wake up ready to go and I can keep going for eight or ten hours straight. As far as I know, it’s always been like that; it’s how I was made. No one taught me to be this way, it’s just how I am, and by that I don’t mean to suggest that I’m better or worse than anybody else, than Ingeborg herself, for example, who on Saturdays and Sundays doesn’t get up until after noon and who during the week needs two cups of coffee—and a cigarette—before she manages to really wake up and get off to work. Tonight, though, I’m too hot and tired to sleep. Also, the urge to write, to set down the events of the day, keeps me from getting into bed and turning out the light.
The trip came off without any mishaps worth mentioning. We stopped in Strasbourg, a pretty town, though I’d been there before. We ate at a kind of roadside market. At the border, despite what we’d been told to expect, we didn’t have to stand in line or wait more than ten minutes to cross over. Everything was quick and efficient. After that I drove because Ingeborg doesn’t trust the drivers here, I think because she had a bad experience on a Spanish highway years ago when she was a girl on vacation with her parents. Also, she was tired, as is only natural.
At the hotel reception desk we were helped by a very young girl who spoke decent German, and there was no problem finding our reservations. Everything was in order, and as we were on our way up I spotted Frau Else in the dining room; I recognized her right away. She was setting a table as she made some remark to a waiter who stood next to her holding a tray full of saltshakers. She was wearing a green suit, and pinned on her chest was a metal brooch with the hotel logo.
The years had scarcely touched her.
The sight of Frau Else brought back my adolescence, its dark and bright moments: my parents and my brother at breakfast on the hotel terrace, the music that at seven in the evening began to drift across the main floor from the restaurant speakers, the idle laughter of the waiters, and the plans made by the kids my age to go night swimming or out to the clubs. What was my favorite song back then? Each summer there was a new one, resembling in some way the songs from previous summers, hummed and whistled constantly and played at the end of the night by all the clubs in town. My brother, who has always been particular when it comes to music, would carefully choose what tapes to bring along on vacation; I preferred to pick up some new tune at random, inevitably the song of the summer. I had only to hear it two or three times, purely by chance, in order for its notes to follow me through sunny days and the new friendships that enlivened our vacations. Fleeting friendships, when I look back today, existing only to banish the faintest hint of boredom. Of all those faces only a few linger in memory. First, that of Frau Else, who won me over from the start, which made me the butt of jokes and teasing by my parents, who even made fun of me in front of Frau Else and her husband, a Spaniard whose name I can’t recall, with references to my supposed jealousy and the precocity of youth that made me blush to the roots of my hair and that inspired in Frau Else an affectionate sense of camaraderie. After that I thought she showed a special warmth in her treatment of me. Also, although it is a very different case, there was José (was that his name?), a boy my age who worked at the hotel and who took us, my brother and me, to places we’d never have gone without him. When we said good-bye for the last time, possibly guessing that we wouldn’t spend the next summer at the Del Mar, my brother gave him a couple of rock tapes and I gave him an old pair of jeans. Ten years have gone by and I still remember the tears that filled José’s eyes as he clutched the folded jeans in one hand and the tapes in the other, not knowing what to do or say, murmuring (in an English that my brother was always making fun of): good-bye, dear friends, good-bye, dear friends, etc., while we told him in Spanish—a language that we spoke with some fluency; not for nothing had our parents vacationed in Spain for years—not to worry, the next summer we’d be like the Three Musketeers again, and that he should stop crying. We got two postcards from José. I answered the first one in my name and my brother’s. Then we forgot about José and never heard from him again. There was also a boy from Heilbronn called Erich, the best swimmer of the season, and Charlotte, who liked to lie on the beach with me although it was my brother who was crazy about her. Then there was poor Aunt Giselle, my mother’s youngest sister, who came with us the second-to-last summer we spent at the Del Mar. More than anything else, Aunt Giselle loved bullfighting, and she couldn’t get enough of the fights. Indelible memory: my brother driving my father’s car with complete impunity and me sitting next to him, smoking, without a word from anyone, and Aunt Giselle in the backseat staring in ecstasy at the foam-splashed cliffs and the deep green of the sea beneath us with a smile of satisfaction on her pale lips and three posters, three treasures, on her lap, proof that she, my brother, and I had rubbed shoulders with the bullfighting greats at the Plaza de Toros in Barcelona. I know my parents disapproved of many of the activities that Aunt Giselle pursued with such passion, just as they weren’t pleased by the freedoms she permitted us, excessive for children, as they saw it, although by then I was nearly fourteen. At the same time, I’ve always suspected that it was we who looked after Aunt Giselle, a task my mother assigned us without anyone realizing, surreptitiously and with great trepidation. In any case, Aunt Giselle was with us for only one summer, the summer before the last we spent at the Del Mar.
That’s almost all I remember. I haven’t forgotten the laughter at the tables on the terrace, the gallons of beer that were emptied as I looked on in astonishment, the dark, sweaty waiters crouched in a corner of the bar talking in low voices. Random images. My father’s happy smile and approving nods, a shop where we rented bicycles, the beach at nine-thirty at night, still with a faint glow of sunlight. The room we had then was different from the one we’re in now; whether better or worse I can’t say, different, on a lower floor, and bigger, big enough to fit four beds, and with a large balcony facing the sea, where my parents would settle in the afternoons after lunch to play infinite card games. I’m not sure whether we had a private bathroom. Probably some summers we did and others we didn’t. Our room now does have its own bathroom and also a nice big closet, and a huge bed, and rugs, and a marble table on the balcony, and green curtains of a fabric silky to the touch, and white wooden shutters, very modern, and direct and indirect lights, and some well-concealed speakers that play soft music at the touch of a button . . . No doubt about it, the Del Mar has come up in the world. The competition, to judge from the quick glance I got from the car as we were driving along the Paseo Marítimo, hasn’t been left behind either. There are hotels that I don’t remember, and apartment buildings have sprung up on once vacant lots. But this is all speculation. Tomorrow I’ll try to talk to Frau Else and I’ll take a walk around town.
Have I come up in the world, too? Absolutely. Back then I hadn’t met Ingeborg and today we’re a couple; my friendships are more interesting and deeper (with Conrad, for example, who is like a second brother to me and who will read what’s written here); I know what I want and I have a better sense of perspective; I’m financially independent; I’m never bored now, which wasn’t true in my adolescence. According to Conrad, the true test of health is lack of boredom, which means that I must be in excellent health. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that my life has never been better.
Most of the credit goes to Ingeborg. Meeting her was the best thing that ever happened to me. Her sweetness, her charm, her soft gaze put everything else—my own daily struggles and the scores of those who envy me—into perspective, allowing me to face facts and rise above them. Where will our relationship lead? I ask this because relationships between young people today are so fragile. I’d rather not give it too much thought. Better to focus on the positive: loving her and taking care of her. Of course, if we end up getting married, so much the better. A life at Ingeborg’s side: could I ask for anything more in matters of the heart?
Time will tell. For now her love is . . . But not to wax poetic. These vacation days will also be work days. I have to ask Frau Else for a bigger table, or two small tables, to set up the game. Just thinking about the possibilities of my new opening strategy and all the various outcomes makes me want to get the game out right now and test it. But I won’t. I have the energy only to write a little more. The trip was long and yesterday I hardly slept, partly because it was Ingeborg’s and my first trip together and partly because it would be my first time back at the Del Mar in ten years.
Tomorrow we’ll have breakfast on the terrace. When? Ingeborg will probably get up late. Was there a set time for breakfast? I can’t remember; I don’t think so. In any case we could also have breakfast at a certain café in town, an old place that always used to be full of fishermen and tourists. When I was here with my parents we always ate at the Del Mar or at that café. Will it have closed? Anything can happen in ten years. I hope it’s still open.
Twice I’ve talked to Frau Else. Our encounters haven’t been all I hoped. The first took place around eleven in the morning; I had just left Ingeborg at the beach and come back to the hotel to arrange a few things. I found Frau Else at the reception desk helping a few Danes who seemed to be checking out, judging by their luggage and their ostentatiously perfect tans. Their children were hauling enormous Mexican sombreros across the reception hall. Once they’d said their good-byes and promised to return without fail the following year, I introduced myself. Udo Berger, I said, extending my hand with an admiring smile, well deserved, because at that instant, viewed from up close, Frau Else seemed even more beautiful and at least as enigmatic as I remembered her from my adolescence. And yet she didn’t recognize me. It took me five minutes to explain who I was, who my parents were, how many summers we’d spent at the hotel. I even dredged up some rather evocative incidents that I would have preferred to keep to myself. All of this while standing at the reception desk as clients came and went in bathing suits (I myself was wearing only shorts and sandals), constantly interrupting my efforts to nudge her memory. Finally she said she did remember us: the Berger family, from Munich? No, from Reutlingen, I corrected her, though now I live in Stuttgart. Of course, she said, your mother was a lovely person; she also remembered my father and even Aunt Giselle. You’ve grown so much, you’re a real man now, she said in a tone that seemed to betray a hint of shyness, and that unsettled me, though I can’t really say why. She asked how long I planned to stay and whether I found the town much changed. I answered that I hadn’t had time to walk around yet, I had arrived the night before, quite late, and I planned to be in town for two weeks, here, at the Del Mar, of course. She smiled and that was the end of our conversation. I went right up to my room, feeling slightly agitated without knowing quite why. From there I called and had a table brought up; I made it very clear that it should be at least five feet long. As I was waiting I read the first pages of this journal. Not bad, especially for a beginner. I think Conrad is right. The daily practice, compulsory or near compulsory, of setting down one’s ideas and the day’s events in a diary allows a virtual autodidact like myself to learn how to reflect, how to exercise the memory by focusing deliberately rather than randomly on images, and especially how to cultivate certain aspects of the sensibility that may seem fully formed but that in reality are only seeds that may or may not develop into character. The initial reason for the diary, however, was much more practical in nature: to exercise my prose so that in the future no clumsiness of expression or defective syntax will detract from the insights offered by my articles, which are being published in an increasing number of specialized journals and have lately been subjected to all sorts of criticism, in the form either of comments in Readers Respond columns or else of cuts and revisions by the magazines’ editors. And no matter how I protest or how many championships I win, I continue to be blatantly censored based solely on claims of faulty grammar (as if they wrote so well). In the interest of honesty, I should point out that this is happily not always the case; there are magazines that receive a piece of mine and in response send a polite little note, offering perhaps two or three respectful comments, and after a while my text appears in print, as written. Others fall all over themselves with compliments; they’re the ones Conrad calls Bergerian publications. Really, my only problems are with a fraction of the Stuttgart group and some pompous asses from Cologne; I creamed them once and they still haven’t forgiven me. In Stuttgart there are three magazines and I’ve published in all of them; my problems there are all in the family, as they say. In Cologne there’s only one journal, but it’s better designed and distributed nationally, and—last but not least—it pays its writers. It even allows itself the luxury of employing a small but professional stable of regular contributors, who receive a respectable monthly stipend for doing just what they like. Whether they do it well or badly—and I would say they do it badly—is another question. I’ve published two articles in Cologne. The first, “How to Win in the Bulge,” was translated into Italian and published in a Milanese journal, which impressed my circle of friends and put me in direct contact with the gamers of Milan. The two articles were published, as I said, although I noticed that slight revisions or small changes had been made to each, everything from whole sentences eliminated on the pretext of lack of space—though all the illustrations that I requested were included!—or corrections for style, this last a task performed by some nobody whom I never had the pleasure of meeting, even by phone, and regarding whose real existence I have grave doubts. (His name doesn’t appear anywhere in the magazine. I have no doubt that this apocryphal copy chief is used as camouflage by the contributing editors in their sins against writers.) The last straw came when I turned in article number three: they simply refused to publish it despite the fact that they had specifically assigned it to me. My patience has limits; a few short hours after receiving the rejection letter I telephoned the editor in chief to express my astonishment at the decision and my anger at the editorial board for wasting my time—although this was a lie. The time I use to solve gaming problems is never wasted, much less when the campaign I’m thinking and writing about is of particular interest. To my surprise the editor responded with a barrage of insults and threats that minutes before I couldn’t have imagined coming from his prissy little duck’s beak of a mouth. Before I hung up on him—although in the end it was he who hung up on me—I promised that if we ever met I would kick his ass. Among the many insults I had to endure, perhaps the one that stung most concerned the alleged clumsiness of my writing. If I think about it calmly it’s clear that the poor man was mistaken, because if he wasn’t, why do other German magazines, and some foreign ones, keep publishing my articles? Why do I get letters from Rex Douglas, Nicky Palmer, and Dave Rossi? Is it just because I’m the champ? At this point, which I refuse to call a crisis point, Conrad told me exactly what I needed to hear: he advised me to forget the Cologne crowd (the only one of them worth anything there is Heimito, and he has nothing to do with the magazine) and to start keeping a journal, because it’s never a bad idea to have a place to set down the events of the day and develop ideas for future articles, which is exactly what I plan to do.
I was deep in these thoughts when there was a knock at the door and a maid came in, just a girl, who muttered something in a made-up German—the only word she said that actually meant anything was no—that upon reflection I realized meant that no table was coming. I explained to her, in Spanish, that it was absolutely necessary that I have a table, and not just any table but one that was at least five feet long, or two tables half that size, and that I wanted it now.
The girl went away saying that she’d do what she could. A while later she appeared again, accompanied by a man of about forty, dressed in brown trousers as wrinkled as if he’d slept in them and a white shirt with a dirty collar. The man, without introducing himself or asking permission, came into the room and inquired what I wanted the table for. With his chin he motioned at the table that was already in the room, which was too low and too small for my needs. I chose not to answer. In the face of my silence, he explained that he couldn’t put two tables in one room. He seemed to worry that I wouldn’t understand, and every so often he gestured with his hands as if he were describing a pregnant woman.
A little tired by now of so much pantomime, I swept everything that was on the table onto the bed and ordered him to take the table away and come back with one that matched my specifications. The man made no move to leave; he seemed frightened; the girl, on the other hand, smiled at me in a sympathetic way. The next moment I grabbed the table and put it out in the hallway. The man left the room nodding in confusion, as if he didn’t understand what had just happened. Before he left he said that it wouldn’t be easy to find a table like the one I wanted. I gave him an encouraging smile: everything is possible if one makes an effort.
Some time later a call came from the reception desk. An unidentifiable voice said in German that they didn’t have tables like the one I had demanded, did I want them to return the one that had been in the room? I asked with whom I had the pleasure of speaking. This is Miss Nuria, the receptionist, said the voice. In the most persuasive tone I could muster, I explained to Miss Nuria that for my work—yes, I worked on vacation—a table was absolutely indispensable, but not the one that was there already, the standard table that I supposed all the rooms had, but one that was higher and, especially, longer, if that wasn’t too much to ask. What kind of work do you do, Mr. Berger? asked Miss Nuria. Why should that matter to you? Just tell someone to send up a table like the one I’ve requested and let that be the end of it. The receptionist faltered, then in a faint voice she said she’d see what could be done and hung up abruptly. With that, I recovered my good humor and dropped onto the bed, laughing.
Frau Else’s voice woke me. She was standing next to the bed and her eyes, curiously intense, observed me with concern. Right away I realized that I had fallen asleep, and I was embarrassed. I fumbled about for something to cover myself up—though very slowly, as if I were still dreaming—because even though I was wearing shorts I felt completely naked. How could she have come in without my hearing her? Did she have a master key to all the hotel rooms, and did she use it freely?
I thought you were sick, she said. Do you know what a fright you gave our receptionist? She was just following hotel regulations, she shouldn’t have to put up with rudeness from the guests.
“That’s inevitable at any hotel,” I said.
“Are you saying you know more than I do about my own business?”
“No, of course not.”
I murmured a few words of apology, unable to tear my eyes away from the perfect oval of Frau Else’s face, upon which I thought I glimpsed the faintest of ironic smiles, as if the situation that I had created struck her as funny.
Behind her was the table.
I knelt on the bed. Frau Else didn’t make the slightest effort to move so that I could examine the table to my satisfaction. Nevertheless I could see that it was everything I had wanted, and more. I hope it suits you, I had to go down to the basement to find it, it belonged to my husband’s mother. There was still an ironic edge to her voice: Will you be able to use it for your work? And are you really planning to work all summer? If I were as pale as you, I’d spend all day at the beach. I promised that I would do both things in moderation, that I’d work and also spend time at the beach. And won’t you go out clubbing at night? Doesn’t your girlfriend like the clubs? And speaking of her, where is she? At the beach, I said. She must be a smart girl, she doesn’t waste time, said Frau Else. I’ll introduce you this afternoon, if you’re free, I said. Actually, I’m busy and may have to spend all day in the office, so it will have to be some other time, said Frau Else. I smiled. The longer I spent with her, the more interesting I found her.
“You’re choosing work over the beach, too,” I said.
Before she left she warned me to treat the staff more politely.
I set the table by the window, in a spot where it would get as much natural light as possible. Then I went out on the balcony and spent a long time scanning the beach, trying to spot Ingeborg among the half-naked bodies lying in the sun.
We ate at the hotel. Ingeborg’s skin was flushed. She’s very blond and it’s not good for her to get so much sun all at once. I hope she won’t come down with sunstroke; that would be terrible. When we went up to the room she asked where the table had come from and I had to explain, in the perfect stillness of the room, me sitting at the table, her lying on the bed, that I had asked the management to exchange the old one for a bigger one because I planned to set up the game. Ingeborg just looked at me. She didn’t say a word, but in her eyes I glimpsed a hint of disapproval.
I can’t say when she fell asleep. Ingeborg sleeps with her eyes half open. On tiptoe, I picked up my journal and started to write.
We’re back from the Ancient Egypt, a club. We had dinner at the hotel. During her siesta (how quickly one picks up Spanish habits!), Ingeborg talked in her sleep. Random words like bed, mother, highway, ice cream . . . When she woke up we took a stroll along the Paseo Marítimo, away from town, carried along by the flow of people. Then we sat on the seawall and talked.
Dinner was light. Ingeborg changed clothes. A white dress, white high heels, a mother-of-pearl necklace, and her hair pulled up in a loose twist. I dressed in white, too, though not as elegantly.
The club was on the side of town near the campgrounds, a neighborhood of clubs, burger stands, and restaurants. Ten years ago there was nothing here but a few places to camp and a pine forest that stretched all the way to the train tracks; today apparently it’s the town’s main tourist district. The bustle of its single street, which runs along the shore, is like that of a big city at rush hour. With the difference that here rush hour begins at nine in the evening and doesn’t end until after three. The crowd that gathers on the pavement is motley and cosmopolitan: white, black, yellow, Indian, mixed, as if all the races had agreed to vacation here, although I suppose not everyone is on vacation.
Ingeborg was at her most radiant, and when we walked into the club we were greeted with covert admiring glances. Admiring of Ingeborg and envious of me. Envy is something I always pick up on right away. Anyway, we didn’t plan to spend much time there. And yet as fate would have it, before long a German couple sat down at our table.
Let me explain how it happened. I’m not crazy about dancing. I do dance, especially since I met Ingeborg, but first I have to loosen up with a couple of drinks and grow accustomed to the discomfort I feel among so many strange faces in a room that usually isn’t very well lit. Ingeborg, meanwhile, has no qualms about going out alone to dance. She might head to the dance floor for a few songs, stop back at the table, take a sip of her drink, return to the dance floor, and so on all night until she drops from exhaustion. I’ve gotten used to it. While she’s gone I think about my work and meaningless things, or I hum the tune that’s playing over the sound system, or I meditate on the unknown fates of the amorphous masses and the shadowy faces that surround me. Sometimes Ingeborg, ignorant of all this, comes up and gives me a kiss. Or she appears with new friends—like the German couple tonight—with whom she has barely exchanged a few words in the shuffle of the dance floor. Words that when taken together with our common state as vacationers are enough to establish something resembling friendship.
Karl—though he prefers to be called Charly—and Hanna are from Oberhausen. She works as a secretary at the company where he’s a mechanic; both are twenty-five. Hanna is divorced. She has a three-year-old son, and she plans to marry Charly as soon as she can. She told all this to Ingeborg in the ladies’ room and Ingeborg told it to me when we got back to the hotel. Charly likes soccer, sports in general, and windsurfing: he brought his board, which he raves about, from Oberhausen. At one point, while Ingeborg and Hanna were on the dance floor, he asked me what my favorite sport was. I said I liked to run. Alone.
Both of them had had a lot to drink. So had Ingeborg, to tell the truth. Under the circumstances, it was easy to agree that we would get together the next day. Their hotel is the Costa Brava, which is just a few steps from ours. We planned to meet around noon, on the beach, next to the place where they rent the pedal boats.
It was close to two in the morning when we left the club. On our way out, Charly bought a last round. He was happy; he told me they’d been in town for ten days and hadn’t made any friends. The Costa Brava was full of English tourists, and the few Germans he’d met at bars were either unfriendly or single men traveling in groups, which excluded Hanna.
On the way home, Charly began to sing songs I’d never heard before. Most of them were crude; some referred to what he planned to do to Hanna when they got back to their room, by which I deduced that the lyrics, at least, were made up. Now and then Hanna, who was walking arm in arm with Ingeborg a little way ahead of us, would laugh. My Ingeborg laughed, too. For an instant I imagined her in Charly’s arms and I shuddered. My stomach shrank to the size of a fist.
Along the Paseo Marítimo a cool breeze was blowing, and it helped to clear my head. The only people to be seen were tourists returning to their hotels, stumbling or singing, and the few cars to pass in either direction moved slowly, as if the whole world were suddenly exhausted or sick and everything now flowed toward bed and dark rooms.
When we got to the Costa Brava, Charly insisted on showing me his sailboard. He had it strapped with a web of cords to the luggage rack of his car in the outdoor parking lot of the hotel. What do you think? he asked. There was nothing special about it; it was a board like a million others. I confessed that I knew nothing about windsurfing. If you want I can teach you, he said. We’ll see, I answered, without making any promises.
We refused to let them walk us back to our hotel, and Hanna was in complete agreement. Still, the farewell was prolonged. Charly was much drunker than I realized and insisted that we come up to see their room. Hanna and Ingeborg laughed at the silly things he said, but I remained unmoved. When at last we had convinced him that it was best if we all went to bed, he pointed at something on the beach and went running off into the darkness. We all followed him: first Hanna (who was surely used to this kind of scene), then Ingeborg, then me, reluctantly bringing up the rear. Soon the lights of the Paseo Marítimo were behind us. On the beach the only sound was the noise of the sea. Far away to the left I made out the lights of the port where my father and I went one morning, very early, in a fruitless attempt to buy fish: in those days, at least, the selling took place in the afternoon.
We began to call his name. Our shouts were all that could be heard in the darkness. Without meaning to, Hanna stepped in the water and soaked her pants up to the knee. It was then, more or less, as we listened to Hanna curse—her pants were satin and the salt water would ruin them—that Charly answered our calls: he was between us and the Paseo Marítimo. Where are you, Charly? shouted Hanna. Here, over here, follow my voice, said Charly. We set out again toward the lights of the hotels.
“Watch out for the pedal boats,” warned Charly.
Like creatures of the deep, the pedal boats formed a black island in the uniform darkness of the beach. Sitting on the floater of one of these strange vehicles, with his shirt unbuttoned and his hair disheveled, Charly was waiting for us.
“I just wanted to show Udo the exact place we’re meeting tomorrow,” he said, when Hanna and Ingeborg scolded him for the fright he’d given them and for his childish behavior.
As the women helped Charly up, I observed the group of pedal boats. I couldn’t say exactly what it was about them that caught my attention. Maybe it was the strange way they were arranged, which was unlike anything I’d seen before in Spain, though Spain is hardly a regimented country. At the very least, the way they were set up was illogical and impractical. The normal thing, even accounting for the whims of the average pedal-boat proprietor, is to point them away from the sea, in rows of three or four. Of course, there are those who point them toward the sea, or arrange them in a single long line, or don’t line them up, or drag them against the seawall that separates the beach from the Paseo Marítimo. The way these were positioned, however, defied explanation. Some faced the sea and others the Paseo, though most lay on their sides with their noses toward the port or the campground zone in a kind of jagged row. But even odder was that some had been turned on their sides, balancing only on a floater, and there was even one that had been overturned entirely, with the floaters and the paddles pointing skyward and the seats buried in the sand, a position that not only was unusual but must have required considerable physical strength, and that—if it hadn’t been for the strange symmetry, for the clear intent that emanated from the collection of boats half covered by old tarps—might have been taken as the work of a bunch of hooligans, the kind who roam the beaches at midnight.
Of course, neither Charly nor Hanna nor even Ingeborg noticed anything out of the ordinary about the pedal boats.
When we got back to the hotel, I asked Ingeborg what she thought of Charly and Hanna.
Good people, she said. I agreed, with reservations.
The next morning we ate at the café La Sirena. Ingeborg had an English breakfast of milky tea, a fried egg, two strips of bacon, baked beans, and a grilled tomato, all for three hundred fifty pesetas, much cheaper than at the hotel. On the wall behind the bar there’s a wooden mermaid with red hair and bronzed skin. Old fishing nets still hang from the ceiling. Otherwise, everything is different. The waiter and the woman behind the bar are young. Ten years ago an old man and an old woman, dark skinned and very wrinkled, worked here; they used to talk to my parents. I couldn’t bring myself to ask after them. What good would it do? The new people speak Catalan.
We met Charly and Hanna at the agreed-upon place, near the pedal boats. They were asleep. After we spread our towels out next to them, we woke them up. Hanna opened her eyes right away but Charly grunted something unintelligible and kept sleeping. Hanna explained that he’d had a rough night. When Charly drank, according to Hanna, he didn’t know when to stop, which wasn’t good for him or his health. She said that at eight, after hardly sleeping, he had gone out windsurfing. And there was the board, lying next to Charly. Then Hanna compared suntan lotions with Ingeborg, and after a while, with the sun toasting their backs, their conversation turned to some guy from Oberhausen, a manager who it seemed had taken a serious interest in Hanna although she liked him only “as a friend.” I stopped listening and spent the next few minutes examining the pedal boats that had so disturbed me the night before.
There weren’t many of them on the beach; most, already rented, were moving about slowly and erratically on the water, which was calm and deep blue. Certainly there was nothing disturbing about the pedal boats still waiting to be rented. They were old, outdated even in comparison to the boats at neighboring rental spots, and the sun seemed to glint off their pitted and peeling surfaces. A rope, strung from a few sticks driven into the sand, separated bathers from the area set aside for the boats. The rope hung scarcely a foot from the ground and in some places the sticks were listing and about to fall over completely. On the shore I could make out the rental guy helping a group of vacationers launch their boat, at the same time making sure it didn’t hit one of the countless children splashing around. The renters, about six of them, all perched on the pedal boat and carrying plastic bags that might hold sandwiches and cans of beer, waved toward the beach or slapped each other on the back in jubilation. When the pedal boat had made its way through the fringe of children, the rental guy came out of the water and headed our way.
“Poor man,” I heard Hanna say.
I asked to whom she was referring; I was told to take a closer look without being obvious about it. The rental guy was dark, with long hair and a muscular build, but the most noticeable thing about him by far was the burns—I mean burns from a fire, not the sun—that covered most of his face, neck, and chest, and that he displayed openly, dark and corrugated, like grilled meat or the crumpled metal of a downed plane.
For an instant, I must admit, I was hypnotized, until I realized that he was looking at us, too, and that there was an indifference in his gaze, a kind of coldness that suddenly struck me as repulsive.
After that I avoided looking at him.
Hanna said that she would kill herself if she ended up like that, scarred by fire. Hanna is a pretty girl, with blue eyes and brown hair, and her breasts—neither Hanna nor Ingeborg was wearing her bikini top—are large and shapely, but it didn’t take much effort for me to imagine her covered in burns, screaming and wandering blindly around her hotel room. (Why, precisely, around her hotel room?)
“Maybe it’s a birthmark,” said Ingeborg.
“Maybe. You see the strangest things,” said Hanna. “Charly met a woman in Italy who was born without hands.”
“I swear. Ask him. He slept with her.”
Hanna and Ingeborg laughed. Sometimes I don’t understand how Ingeborg can find this kind of talk funny.
“Maybe the mother took something she shouldn’t have while she was pregnant.”
I don’t know whether Ingeborg was talking about the woman without hands or the rental guy. Either way I tried to convince her that she was wrong. No one is born like that, with such ravaged skin. At the same time, it was clear that the burns weren’t recent. They probably dated back five years, or even longer to judge by the attitude of the poor guy (I wasn’t looking at him), who had clearly grown used to attracting the same interest and stares as monsters and the mutilated, glances of involuntary revulsion, of pity at a great misfortune. To lose an arm or a leg is to lose a part of oneself, but to be burned like that is to be transformed, to become someone else.
When Charly woke up at last, Hanna told him she thought the rental guy was good-looking. Great biceps! Charly laughed and we all went swimming.
After lunch that afternoon I set up the game. Ingeborg, Hanna, and Charly headed to the old part of town to go shopping. During lunch, Frau Else came over to our table to ask whether we were enjoying ourselves. She gave Ingeborg a frank and open smile, although when she spoke to me I thought I detected a certain irony, as if she were saying: You see, I care about your well-being, I haven’t forgotten you. Ingeborg thought she was a pretty woman and wondered how old she was. I said I didn’t know.
How old must Frau Else be? I remember that my parents said she had married the Spaniard—whom incidentally I still haven’t seen—when she was very young. The last summer that we were here she must have been about twenty-five, around the same age as Hanna, Charly, and me. Now she’s probably thirty-five.
After lunch the hotel lapses into a strange lethargy. Those who aren’t going to the beach or on an outing fall asleep, overcome by the heat. The staff, except for those stoically tending bar, vanish and aren’t seen on the hotel grounds until past six. A sticky silence reigns on every floor, interrupted from time to time by the low voices of children and the hum of the elevator. At times one has the impression that a group of children has gotten lost, but that’s not the case; it’s just that their parents can’t bring themselves to speak.
If it weren’t for the heat, barely mitigated by the air-conditioning, this would be the best time of day to work. There is natural light, the restlessness of morning has worn off, and there are still many hours ahead. Conrad—my dear Conrad—prefers to work at night, which explains the frequent circles under his eyes and his sometimes alarming pallor, which makes us wonder whether he’s sick when he’s simply sleep deprived. He claims to be unable to work, unable to think, unable to sleep, and yet it’s he who has bestowed upon us many of the best variants for any number of campaigns, as well as countless analytical, historical, and methodological studies, and even simple introductions and reviews of new games. Without him, Stuttgart’s gaming scene would be different—smaller and with a lower level of play. In some sense he has been our protector (mine, Alfred’s, Franz’s), recommending books that we never would have read otherwise and passionately addressing us on the most disparate subjects. What holds him back is his lack of ambition. Ever since I’ve known him—and for a long time before that, as far as I can tell—Conrad has worked at a small-time construction company, in one of the lowest-ranking jobs, beneath nearly all the office staff and construction workers, performing tasks that used to be handled by office boys and messengers-without-motorbikes, the latter being the title he likes to claim for himself. He makes enough to pay for his room, he eats at a cheap restaurant where he’s practically one of the family, and every once in a while he buys some clothes. The rest of his money goes to pay for games, subscriptions to European and American magazines, club dues, some books (only a few, because he usually borrows from the library, saving up his money for more games), and donations to the city’s fanzines, for virtually all of which he writes. It goes without saying that many of these fanzines would go under without Conrad’s generosity, and in this, too, one can see his lack of ambition: the best that some of them deserve is to vanish without a trace, putrid little ditto sheets spawned by adolescents more interested in role-playing games or even computer games than the rigors of the hexagonal board. But that doesn’t matter to Conrad and he supports them. Many of his best articles, including his piece on the Ukrainian Gambit—which Conrad calls General Marcks’s Dream—were not only published by such a magazine but in fact written expressly for it.
Curiously, it was Conrad who encouraged me to write for publications with a broader circulation and who persuaded me to go semipro. It is to him that I owe my first contacts with Front Line, Jeux de Simulation, Stockade, Casus Belli, The General, etc. According to Conrad—and we spent an afternoon working this out—if I write regularly for ten magazines, some of them monthly, most bimonthly or trimonthly, I could give up my job and still get by while devoting myself entirely to writing. When I asked why he didn’t try it, since his job was worse than mine and he could write as well as I could, or better, he answered that he was so shy that it was painful for him, if not impossible, to establish business relationships with people he didn’t know, and that the work required a certain command of English, a language that Conrad could only just barely decipher.
On that memorable day we set the goals to realize our dreams, and we got straight to work. Our friendship was cemented.
Then came the Stuttgart tournament, preceding by a few months the Interzonal (essentially the national championship), to be held in Cologne. We both entered, promising half in earnest and half in jest that if fate pitted us against each other, we would be ruthless despite our steadfast friendship. Around that time Conrad had just published his Ukrainian Gambit in the fanzine Tötenkopf.
At first the matches went well. We both made it through the first round without too much trouble. In the second round, Conrad was slated to play Mathias Müller, Stuttgart’s boy prodigy, eighteen years old, editor of the fanzine Forced Marches and one of the fastest players we knew. The match was tough, one of the hardest fought of the tournament, and in the end Conrad was defeated. But this in no way discouraged him: with the enthusiasm of a scientist who after a resounding failure is at last able to see things clearly, he explained to me the initial flaws of the Ukrainian Gambit and its hidden virtues, how to use armored and mountain corps from the start, and where one could or couldn’t apply the Schwerpunkt, etc. In short, he became my adviser.
I faced Mathias Müller in the semifinals and eliminated him. In the finals, I was pitted against Franz Grabowski, of the Model Kit Club, a good friend of Conrad’s and mine. That was how I won the right to represent Stuttgart. Then I went on to Cologne, where I competed against players of the caliber of Paul Huchel or Heimito Gerhardt, the latter of whom, at sixty-five, is the oldest of Germany’s gamers, a real role model for the sport. Conrad, who came with me, amused himself by giving nicknames to everyone gathered in Cologne, but when it came to Heimito Gerhardt he was at a loss, no longer so clever or boisterous. When he talked about him he called him the Old Man or Mr. Gerhardt; in front of Heimito he scarcely opened his mouth. Clearly he was afraid of saying something foolish.
One day I asked him why he had such respect for Heimito. He answered that Heimito was a man of steel. That’s all he said. Rusty steel, he added with a smile, but steel even so. I thought he was referring to Heimito’s military past, and said so. No, said Conrad, I’m talking about the courage it takes for him to play. Nowadays, old men usually spend their time in front of the television or going for strolls with their wives. Heimito, however, was brave enough to walk into a room full of kids, brave enough to sit at a table in front of a complicated game, and brave enough to ignore the mocking looks that many of those kids gave him. Old men with that kind of character, with that kind of purity, according to Conrad, were a uniquely German phenomenon. And their numbers were dwindling. Maybe. And maybe not. In any case, as I later saw for myself, Heimito was an excellent player. We faced each other just before the championship finals, in an especially brutal round of an unevenly balanced game in which I was assigned the weaker force. It was Fortress Europa and I was playing the Wehrmacht. To the surprise of nearly everyone at the table, I won.
After the match, Heimito invited a few people back to his house. His wife served sandwiches and beer, and the party, which lasted late into the night, was a delight, full of colorful tales. Heimito had served in the 352nd Infantry Division, 915th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, but according to him, his general was no match for me in maneuvering the troops—or, in my case, the counters—under his command. Though flattered, I felt obliged to point out that it was the way I had positioned my mobile divisions that had decided the match. We toasted General Marcks and General Eberbach and the Fifth Panzer Army. As the evening was drawing to a close, Heimito swore that I would be the next champion of Germany. I think that was when the Cologne group started to hate me. As for me, I felt happy, mostly because I knew that I had made a friend.
And I did win the championship. The semifinals and the final were fought with the tournament version of Blitzkrieg, a fairly well-balanced game in which the map as well as the opposing powers (Great Blue and Big Red) are imaginary, which, if both players are good, makes for very long games that tend toward stalemate. Not so this time. I dispatched Paul Huchel in six hours, and in the last game, timed by Conrad, it was only three and a half hours before my opponent claimed second place and gracefully conceded.
We spent one more day in Cologne; the magazine people suggested that I write an article, and Conrad spent the time wandering around taking pictures of streets and churches. I hadn’t met Ingeborg yet and already life was beautiful, or so I thought, unaware that true beauty had yet to manifest itself. But back then I saw beauty all around me. The federation of war-games players might be the smallest sports federation in Germany, but I was the champion and no one could tell me otherwise. The sun shone for me alone.
One more thing happened that last day in Cologne that would later have important consequences. Heimito Gerhardt, a fan of gaming by mail, presented Conrad and me with our own play-by-mail kits as he accompanied us to the bus station. It so happened that Heimito corresponded with Rex Douglas (one of Conrad’s idols), the great American gamer and star writer for one of the most prestigious of the specialized journals, The General. After confessing that he had never been able to beat Douglas (in six years they had played three long-distance matches), Heimito suggested that I write to Rex and get a game started with him. I have to confess that at first the idea held little interest. If I had to play by mail, I’d rather do it with people like Heimito or other members of my circle; nevertheless, before the bus reached Stuttgart, Conrad had convinced me of the importance of writing to Rex Douglas and challenging him to a game.
Ingeborg is asleep now. Before she fell asleep, she asked me not to get out of bed, to hold her in my arms all night. I asked her whether she was scared. It came out naturally, unthinkingly. I just said: Are you scared? And she answered yes. Why? Of what? She didn’t know. I’m right beside you, I said, there’s no need to be scared.
Then she fell asleep and I got up. All the lights in the room were off except for the lamp that I’d placed on the table, next to the game. This afternoon I hardly worked. In town, Ingeborg bought a necklace of yellowish stones that they call filipino, which the kids here wear on the beach and at the clubs. We had dinner with Hanna and Charly at a Chinese restaurant in the tourist district. When Charly started to get drunk, we left. Really, a pointless evening. The restaurant, of course, was jam-packed and it was hot; the waiter was sweating; the food was good but nothing out of this world; the conversation centered on Hanna’s and Charly’s favorite subjects, in other words love and sex, respectively. Hanna is a woman made for love, as she puts it, although when she talks about love one gets the strange feeling that she’s talking about security, or even specific brands of cars and appliances. Charly, meanwhile, talked about legs, asses, breasts, pubic hair, necks, navels, sphincters, etc., to the great delight of Hanna and Ingeborg, who constantly burst out laughing. Frankly, I can’t see what they find so funny. Maybe it’s nervous laughter. As for me, I can say that I ate in silence, with my mind elsewhere.
When we got back to the hotel we spotted Frau Else. She was in the dining room, at the end that becomes a dance floor at night, next to the stage, talking to two men dressed in white. Ingeborg felt slightly unwell, maybe it was the Chinese food, so we ordered a chamomile tea at the bar. That was when we saw Frau Else. She was gesticulating like a Spaniard and shaking her head. The men in white stood as still as statues. It’s the musicians, said Ingeborg, she’s scolding them. Actually, I didn’t care who they were, although I knew they weren’t the musicians, whom I’d happened to see the night before, and who were younger. When we left, Frau Else was still there: a perfect figure in a green skirt and black blouse. The men in white, impassive, had only bowed their heads.
A relatively uneventful day. In the morning, after breakfast, Ingeborg left for the beach and I went up to the room ready to start work in earnest. A little while later, it was so hot that I put on my bathing suit and went out onto the balcony, where there were a couple of comfortable chaise longues. Though it was early, the beach was already crowded. When I came back inside I found the bed freshly made, and sounds from the bathroom informed me that the maid was still here. It was the same girl from whom I’d requested the table. This time I didn’t think she looked so young. Her face shone with exhaustion, and her sleepy eyes were like those of an animal unaccustomed to the light of day. Evidently she didn’t expect to see me. For a moment she seemed about to run away. Before she did I asked what her name was. She said it was Clarita and she smiled in a way that was disturbing, to say the least. I think it was the first time I’d seen anyone smile like that.
Perhaps too brusquely, I ordered her to wait, then I found a thousand-peseta note and put it in her hand. The poor girl gazed at me, perplexed, not knowing whether she should accept the money or what in the world I was giving it to her for. It’s a tip, I said. Then came the most astonishing part: first she bit her lower lip, like a nervous schoolgirl, and then she gave a little curtsy, surely copied from some Three Musketeers movie. I didn’t know what to do, how to interpret her gesture; I thanked her and said she could go, though in German, not in Spanish, which I’d been speaking before. The girl obeyed immediately. She left as silently as she’d come.
The rest of the morning I spent writing in what Conrad calls my Campaign Notebook, outlining a draft of my variant.
At noon I joined Ingeborg on the beach. I was, I must admit, in a state of exaltation after having spent a productive morning with the game board, and I did something I don’t usually do: I gave a detailed account of my opening strategy, until Ingeborg interrupted me, saying that people were listening.
I contended that this was only to be expected since thousands of people were crowded on the beach, nearly shoulder to shoulder.
Later I realized that Ingeborg was ashamed of me, of the words coming out of my mouth (infantry corps, armored corps, air-combat factors, naval-combat factors, preemptive strikes on Norway, the possibility of launching an offense against the Soviet Union in the winter of ’39, the possibility of obliterating France in the spring of ’40), and it was as if an abyss opened up at my feet.
We ate at the hotel. After dessert, Ingeborg suggested a boat ride. At the reception desk they had given her the schedules of the little boats that make the trip between our beach and two neighboring towns. I said I couldn’t come, claiming work as my excuse. When I told her that I planned to sketch out the first two turns that afternoon, she gave me the same look that I had already witnessed on the beach.
With true horror I realized that something was beginning to come between us.
A boring afternoon otherwise. At the hotel there are hardly any more pale-skinned guests to be seen. All of them, even the ones who have been here just a few days, boast perfect tans, the fruit of many hours spent on the beach and of the lotions and creams that our technology produces in abundance. In fact, the only guest who’s kept his natural color is me. Not coincidentally, I’m also the one who spends the most time at the hotel. Me and an old lady who hardly ever ventures off the terrace. This fact seems to arouse the curiosity of the staff, who have begun to watch me with mounting interest, though from a prudent distance, and with something that at the risk of exaggeration I’ll call fear. Word of the table incident must have spread at lightning speed. The difference between the old lady and me is that she sits placidly on the terrace, watching the sky and the beach, and I’m constantly emerging like a sleepwalker from my room to head to the beach to see Ingeborg or have a beer at the hotel bar.
It’s odd: sometimes I’m convinced that the old lady was here back in the days when I used to come to the Del Mar with my parents. But ten years is a long time, at least in this instance, and her face doesn’t ring a bell. Maybe if I went up to her and asked whether she remembered me . . .
But what are the odds? In any case I don’t know whether I could bring myself to talk to her. There’s something about her that repels me. And yet, at first glance she’s an ordinary old lady: more thin than fat, very wrinkled, dressed all in white, wearing sunglasses and a little straw hat. This afternoon, after Ingeborg left, I watched her from the balcony. She always claims the same spot on the terrace, in a corner near the sidewalk. There, half hidden under an enormous white umbrella, she whiles away the time watching the few cars that pass by along the Paseo Marítimo, like a jointed doll, content. And, strangely, essential to my own happiness: when I can no longer stand the stuffy air of the room I come out and there she is, a kind of font of energy that boosts my spirits so I’m able to sit back down at the table and go on working.
And what if she, in turn, sees me every time I come out onto the balcony? What must she think of me? Who must she think I am? She never tilts her head up, but with those sunglasses it’s hard to say what she’s watching. She might have glimpsed my shadow on the tile floor of the terrace. There aren’t many people at the hotel and surely she would consider it unseemly for a young man to keep appearing and disappearing. The last time I came out she was writing a postcard. Might she have mentioned me in it? I don’t know. But if she did, how did she describe me? And from what perspective? As a pale young man with a smooth brow? Or a nervous young man, clearly in love? Or maybe an ordinary young man with a skin condition?
I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m getting off the subject, losing myself in pointless speculation that only upsets me. I don’t understand how my dear friend Conrad could ever say that I write like Karl Bröger. If only.
Thanks to Conrad I was introduced to the literary group Workers of Nyland House. It was he who put Karl Bröger’s Soldaten der Erde in my hands and who pushed me, after I had read it, to embark on an ever more dizzying and arduous search through the libraries of Stuttgart for Bröger’s Bunker 17, Heinrich Lersch’s Hammerschläge, Max Barthel’s Das vergitterte Land, Gerrit Engelke’s Rhythmus des neuen Europa, Lersch’s Mensch im Eisen, etc.
Conrad knows our national literature. One night in his room he reeled off the names of two hundred German writers. I asked if he’d read them all. He said yes. He especially loved Goethe, and of the moderns, Ernst Jünger. There were two books by Jünger that he was always rereading: Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis and Feuer und Blut. And yet he didn’t turn his nose up at more obscure writers; hence his fervent regard—which we would soon share—for the Nyland circle.
How many nights after that did I go to bed late, busy not just deciphering the tricky rules of new games but immersed in the joys and miseries, the heights and depths of German literature!
Of course, I’m talking about the literature written in blood, not Florian Linden novels, which, according to Ingeborg, just keep getting more far-fetched. On the same subject, I feel it’s appropriate to air a grievance here: the few times I’ve talked in public to Ingeborg about my work, going into some detail about the progress of a game, she’s gotten angry or embarrassed, and yet she’s always telling me (during breakfast, at the club, in the car, in bed, during dinner, and even over the phone) about the riddles that Florian Linden has to solve. And I haven’t gotten angry at her or been embarrassed by what she has to say. On the contrary, I’ve tried to take a broad and objective view (in vain), and then I’ve suggested possible logical solutions to the fairy-tale detective puzzles.
A month ago, not to put too fine a point on it, I dreamed about Florian Linden. That was the limit. I remember it vividly: I was in bed, because I was very cold, and Ingeborg was saying to me, “The room is hermetically sealed.” Then, from the hallway, we heard the voice of Florian Linden, who warned us of the presence in the room of a poisonous spider, a spider that could bite us and then vanish, even though the room was “hermetically sealed.” Ingeborg started to cry and I held her tight. After a while she said, “It’s impossible, how did Florian do it this time?” I got up and looked around, going through drawers in search of the spider, but I couldn’t find anything; of course there were many places where it could hide. Ingeborg shouted, “Florian, Florian, Florian, what should we do?” but no one answered. I think we both knew we were on our own.
That was all. In fact, it was a nightmare, not a dream. If it meant anything, I can’t say what. I don’t usually have nightmares. During my adolescence, I did, plenty of them, and all different, but nothing that would have given my parents or the school psychologist cause to worry. Really, I’ve always been a well-balanced person.
It would be interesting to remember the dreams I had here, at the Del Mar, more than ten years ago. I probably dreamed about girls and punishment, the way all boys that age do. A few times my brother described a dream to me. I don’t know whether we were alone or whether my parents were there, too. I never did anything like that. When Ingeborg was little she often woke up crying and needed to be consoled. In other words, she woke up afraid, and with a terrible sense of loneliness. That’s never happened to me, or it’s happened so few times that I’ve forgotten.
For a few years now I’ve dreamed about games. I go to bed, close my eyes, and a board lights up full of incomprehensible counters, and thus, little by little, I lull myself to sleep. But my real dreams must be different, because I don’t remember them.
I’ve dreamed only a few times about Ingeborg, though she’s the central figure in one of my most vivid dreams. It’s a dream that doesn’t take long to tell, and this may be its greatest virtue. She’s sitting on a stone bench brushing her hair with a glass hairbrush; her hair, of the purest gold, falls to her waist. It’s getting dark. In the background, still very far away, is a dust cloud. Suddenly I realize that next to her is a huge wooden dog—and I wake up. I think I dreamed this just after we met. When I described it to her she said that the dust cloud meant the dawning of love. I told her I’d had the same thought. We both were happy. All of this happened at a club in Stuttgart, the Detroit, and it’s possible that I still remember that dream because I told it to her and she understood it.
Sometimes Ingeborg calls me late at night. She confesses that this is one of the reasons she loves me. Some of her ex-boyfriends couldn’t handle the phone calls. A guy called Erich broke up with her after she woke him up at three in the morning. A week later he wanted to get back together, but Ingeborg said no. None of them understood that she needed someone to talk to after she woke up from a nightmare, especially if she was alone and the nightmare was particularly horrible. In these cases I’m the ideal person: I’m a light sleeper; in a second I can talk as if the call were at five in the afternoon (an unlikely circumstance, since I’m still at work then); I don’t mind getting calls at night; finally, when the phone rings sometimes I’m not even asleep.
It goes without saying that her calls fill me with happiness. A serene happiness that doesn’t keep me from falling back to sleep as quickly as I woke up. And with Ingeborg’s words of farewell echoing in my ears: “Sweet dreams, dear Udo.”
Dear Ingeborg. I’ve never loved anyone so much. Why, then, these glances of mutual distrust? Why can’t we just love each other as children do, accepting each other fully?
When she gets back I’ll tell her that I love her, that I’ve missed her, ask her to forgive me.
This is the first time we’ve traveled together, gone away together, and naturally it’s hard for us to mold ourselves to each other. I should avoid talking about games, especially war games, and try to be more attentive. If I have time, as soon as I’m done writing this, I’ll go down to the hotel souvenir shop and buy her something, a little thing that will make her smile and forgive me. I can’t stand to think I might lose her. I can’t stand to think I might hurt her.
I bought a silver necklace inlaid with ebony. Four thousand pesetas. I hope she likes it. I also picked up a tiny clay figurine of a peasant in a red hat, kneeling, in the act of defecating; according to the salesgirl it’s typical of the region, or something. I’m sure Ingeborg will think it’s funny.
At the reception desk I spotted Frau Else. I approached cautiously, and before I said hello I caught a glimpse over her shoulder of an accounting book full of zeros. Something must be bothering her because when she realized I was there she seemed annoyed. I tried to show her the necklace but she wouldn’t let me. Leaning on the reception desk, her hair illuminated by the late afternoon sun coming in through the big window in the hall, she asked about Ingeborg and “your friends.” I lied, saying I had no idea what friends she was talking about. That young German couple, said Frau Else. I answered that they were summer acquaintances, not friends, and they’re guests of the competition, I added. Frau Else didn’t seem to appreciate my irony. Since it was clear that she didn’t plan to continue the conversation and I didn’t want to go up to my room yet, I quickly pulled out the clay figurine and showed it to her. Frau Else smiled and said:
“You’re a child, Udo.”
I don’t know why, but that simple sentence, spoken in Frau Else’s melodious voice, was enough to make me blush. Then she made it clear that she was busy and I should leave her alone. Before I left I asked her what time it usually got dark. At ten, said Frau Else.
From the balcony I can see the little boats that ply the tourist route; they leave every hour from the old fishing port, head east, then turn north and vanish behind a big outcropping they call the Punta de la Virgen. It’s nine o’clock and only now is the night beginning to creep in, slow and bright.
The beach is almost empty. Only children and dogs cross the golden sand. Singly first, and then in a pack, the dogs race toward the pine forest and the campgrounds, then they return and little by little the pack breaks apart. The children play in one spot. In the distance, near the old town and the cliffs, a little white boat appears. Ingeborg is on board, I’m sure. But the boat hardly seems to move. On the beach, between the Del Mar and the Costa Brava, the pedal-boat guy begins to pull the boats up away from the shore. Although it must be heavy work, no one helps him. But seeing the ease with which he drags the huge things, leaving deep tracks in the sand, it’s clear that he can handle it himself. From here no one would guess that most of his body is horribly burned. He’s wearing only a pair of shorts and the wind tosses his too-long hair. He is a character, all right. And I don’t say that because of the burns but because of his singular way of arranging the pedal boats. What I had already discovered the night that Charly ran off down the beach I see again, but this time I watch the operation from the beginning, and, as I imagined, it’s slow, complicated, serving no practical purpose, absurd. The pedal boats face in different directions, assembled not in a traditional row or double row but in a circle, or rather a blunt-pointed star. An arduous task, as evidenced by the fact that by the time he’s half-finished, all the other pedal-boat guys are done. And yet he doesn’t seem to care. He must like working at this time of day, in the cool evening breeze, the beach empty except for a few children playing in the sand far from the pedal boats. Well, if I were a kid I don’t think I’d get close either.
It’s strange: For a second it looked to me as if he were building a fortress with the pedal boats. A fortress like the ones that children build, in fact. The difference is that the poor brute isn’t a child. So why build a fortress? It’s obvious, I think: to have a place to spend the night.
Ingeborg’s little boat has docked. She must be heading for the hotel now. I imagine her smooth skin, her cool, sweet-smelling hair, her confident steps crossing the old town. Soon it will be completely dark.
The rental guy still hasn’t finished building his star. I wonder why no one has complained; like a tumbledown shack, the pedal boats spoil the charm of the beach. Though I suppose it isn’t the poor guy’s fault, and maybe the unpleasant effect, the strong resemblance to a hut or den, is clear only from up here. From the Paseo Marítimo does no one notice what a mess is being made of the beach?
I’ve closed the door to the balcony. Where is Ingeborg?
I have so much to write. I met the Burn Victim. I’ll try to sum up what’s happened in the last few hours.
Ingeborg was radiant and happy when she got home last night. The excursion was a success and nothing needed to be said in order for us to proceed to a reconciliation that was all the lovelier for being completely natural. We had dinner at the hotel and then we met Hanna and Charly at a bar on the Paseo Marítimo called the Andalusia Lodge. Deep down I would rather have spent the rest of the night alone with Ingeborg, but I couldn’t refuse to go out at the risk of disturbing our newfound peace.
Charly was excited and on edge, and it wasn’t long before I learned why: that night the soccer match between the German and Spanish selections was on TV and he wanted the four of us to watch it at the bar, along with the many Spaniards who were waiting for the match to begin. When I pointed out that we would be more comfortable at the hotel, he argued that it wasn’t the same. The audience at the hotel would almost certainly be German, whereas at the bar we would be surrounded by “enemies,” which made the match twice as much fun. Surprisingly, Hanna and Ingeborg took his side.
Although I disagreed, I didn’t insist, and soon afterward we gave up our seats on the terrace and went inside to sit near the TV.
That was how we met the Wolf and the Lamb.
I won’t describe the inside of the Andalusia Lodge; let me just say that it was big, it stank, and a single glance was enough to confirm my fears: we were the only foreigners.
The audience, scattered in a rough half circle in front of the television, was more or less all young men with the look of laborers who had just finished work for the day and who hadn’t yet had time to shower. In winter it would probably be an ordinary scene; in summer it was unsettling.
To heighten the difference between them and us, the patrons all seemed to be old friends and they showed it by slapping each other on the back, yelling back and forth, making jokes that were increasingly off-color. The noise was deafening. The tables were overflowing with beer bottles. One group was playing a loud game of foosball, and the sound of clanging metal rose above the general din like the rifle shots of a sharpshooter in the middle of a battle waged with swords and knives. It was clear that our presence had raised expectations that had little or nothing to do with the match. The glances, some more discreet than others, converged on Ingeborg and Hanna, who, in contrast to those around them, looked like two storybook princesses, Ingeborg especially.
Charly was in heaven. This was clearly his kind of place. He liked the shouting, the vulgar jokes, the air filled with smoke and nauseating smells; and if he could watch our selection play, all the better. But nothing is perfect. Just as we were being served sangria for four, we discovered that the team was East German. Charly took it hard, and from that moment on his mood grew unpredictable. To begin with, he wanted to leave right away. Later I would find out how exaggerated and absurd his fears really were. Among them was the following: that the Spaniards would mistake us for East Germans.
In the end we decided to leave as soon as we were done with the sangria. Naturally, we paid no attention to the match, busy as we were drinking and laughing. It was at this point that the Wolf and the Lamb sat down at our table.
How it happened, I can’t say. With no explanation, they simply sat down with us and started to talk. They knew a few words of English, insufficient no matter how you looked at it, though they made up for any language deficiencies with their great skills as mimes. At first the conversation covered all the usual topics (work, the weather, wages, etc.) and I acted as interpreter. They were, I gathered, amateur local tour guides, but that was surely a joke. Then, as the night wore on and everyone felt more at ease, my expertise was required only at difficult moments. Alcohol works miracles, it’s true.
We all left the Andalusia Lodge in Charly’s car, heading for a club on the edge of town, near the Barcelona highway. The prices were quite a bit lower than in the tourist zone, the clubgoers were almost all people like our new friends, and the atmosphere was festive, lending itself to camaraderie, though with a hint of something dark and murky, a quality particular to Spain that, paradoxically, inspires no misgivings. As always, Charly was quick to get drunk. How, I don’t know, but at some point during the night we learned that the East German selection had lost two to zero. I remember it as something strange because I have no interest in soccer and yet I experienced the announcement of the results as a turning point, as if from that moment on all the clamor of the club might turn into something else entirely, a horror show.
We left at four in the morning. One of the Spaniards was driving because Charly, in the backseat, puked the whole way, his head out the window. Frankly, he was in terrible shape. When we got to the hotel he took me aside and started to cry. Ingeborg, Hanna, and the two Spaniards watched curiously, though I motioned for them to go away. Between hiccups, Charly confessed that he was afraid of dying; it was almost impossible to understand what he was saying, though it was clear that his fears were unjustified. Then, without transition, he was laughing and boxing with the Lamb. The Lamb, who was quite a bit shorter and thinner, just dodged him, but Charly was too drunk and he lost his balance or fell on purpose. As we were picking him up one of the Spaniards suggested that we get coffee at the Andalusia Lodge.
The terrace of the bar, seen from the Paseo Marítimo, had the aura of a den of thieves, the hazy air of a bar asleep in the morning damp and fog. The Wolf explained that although it looked closed, the owner was usually inside watching movies on his new video player until dawn. We decided to give it a try. After a moment a man with a flushed face and a week’s growth of beard opened the door.
It was the Wolf himself who made our coffee. At the tables, with their backs to us, were just two people watching TV, the owner and another man, sitting separately. It took me a moment to recognize the other man. I might have been a little drunk myself. Anyway, I took my coffee and sat down at his table. I had just enough time to exchange a few commonplaces (suddenly I felt awkward and nervous) before the others joined us. The Wolf and the Lamb knew him, of course. They introduced us formally.
“Ingeborg, Hanna, Charly, and Udo here, friends from Germany.”
“And this is our mate El Quemado.”
I translated for Hanna. The Burn Victim.
“How can they call him El Quemado?” she asked.
“Because that’s what he is. And anyway, that’s not the only thing they call him. You can call him Muscles; either name suits him.”
“I think it’s very bad manners,” said Ingeborg.
Charly, who was slurring his words, said:
“Or an excess of honesty. They simply face the truth head on. That’s how it was in wartime, soldiers called things by their names, without frills, and it wasn’t disrespect, or bad manners, though, of course—”
“It’s horrible,” Ingeborg interrupted, giving me a disgusted look.
The Wolf and the Lamb hardly noticed our exchange, busy as they were explaining to Hanna that a glass of cognac could hardly make Charly any drunker. Hanna, sitting between them, seemed extremely animated one moment and despairing the next, ready to go running out, though I don’t think she really felt much like going back to the hotel. At least not with Charly, who had reached the point at which all he could do was mumble incoherently. Only El Quemado was sober, and he looked at us as if he understood German. Ingeborg noticed it, too, and got nervous, which is typical. She can’t stand it when people are hurt by mistakes. But really, how could he have been hurt by what we said?
Later I asked him whether he spoke German and he said no.
At seven in the morning, with the sun already high in the sky, we got in bed. The room was cold and we made love. Then we fell asleep with the windows open and the curtains drawn. But first . . . first we had to haul Charly to the Costa Brava. He was determined to sing songs that the Wolf and the Lamb whispered in his ear (the two of them were laughing like maniacs and clapping); later, on the way to the hotel, he insisted on swimming for a while. Hanna and I were against it, but the Spaniards backed him up and all three of them went in the water. Poor Hanna hesitated briefly between going in herself or waiting on the shore with us; finally she decided on the latter course.
We hadn’t noticed when El Quemado left the bar, but now we spotted him walking on the beach. He stopped about fifty yards from us, and there he stayed, squatting, looking out to sea.
Hanna explained that she was afraid something bad would happen to Charly. She was an excellent swimmer and therefore felt that it was her duty to go in with him, but—she said with a crooked smile—she didn’t want to get undressed in front of our new friends.
The sea was as smooth as a rug. The three swimmers kept getting farther away. Soon we couldn’t tell who was who; Charly’s blond head and the dark heads of the Spaniards became indistinguishable.
“Charly is the one who’s farthest out,” said Hanna.
Two of the heads turned back toward the beach. The third kept heading out to sea.
“That’s Charly,” said Hanna.
We had to stop her from undressing and going in after him. Ingeborg looked at me as if I should volunteer, but she didn’t say so. I’m not a strong swimmer, and he was already too far out for me to catch up. The returning swimmers were moving extremely slowly. One of them turned around every few strokes as if to see whether Charly was following. For an instant I thought about what Charly had said to me: that he was afraid of dying. It was ridiculous. Just then I looked over toward where El Quemado had been, and he was gone. To the left of us, halfway between the sea and the Paseo Marítimo, the pedal boats loomed, bathed in a faintly bluish light, and I realized that he was there now, inside his fortress, sleeping or perhaps watching us, and the very idea that he was hidden there was more exciting to me than the swimming display to which we’d been subjected by that idiot Charly.
At last the Wolf and the Lamb reached the shore, where they dropped, exhausted, one next to the other, unable to get up. Hanna, unconcerned by their nakedness, ran to them and began to fire questions at them in German. The Spaniards laughed and said they couldn’t understand a thing. The Wolf tried to tackle her and then splashed water on her. Hanna gave a leap backward (an electric leap) and covered her face with her hands. I thought she would start to cry or hit them, but she didn’t do anything. She came back over to us and sat on the sand, next to the little pile of clothes that Charly had left scattered and that she had gathered and carefully folded.
“Son of a bitch,” she whispered.
Then, with a deep sigh, she got up and began to scan the horizon. Charly was nowhere to be seen. Ingeborg suggested we call the police. I went over to the Spaniards and asked them how we could get in touch with the police or with some rescue team from the port.
“Not the police,” said the Lamb.
“The kid’s a joker. He’ll be back, no sweat. He’s just messing with us.”
“But don’t call the police,” insisted the Lamb.
I informed Ingeborg and Hanna that we couldn’t count on the Spaniards if we needed to ask for help, which probably wouldn’t be necessary anyway. Really, Charly could show up at any moment.
The Spaniards dressed quickly and joined us. The color of the beach was shifting from blue to reddish and some early-bird tourists were jogging along the Paseo Marítimo. We were all standing except for Hanna, who’d dropped down again next to Charly’s clothes and was squinting, as if the growing light hurt her eyes.
It was the Lamb who spotted him first. Cutting smoothly through the water with perfect, measured strokes, Charly came into shore some hundred yards from where we stood. With shouts of jubilation, the Spaniards ran to welcome him, not caring that their trousers were getting wet. Meanwhile Hanna burst into tears, clutching Ingeborg, and said that she felt sick. Charly was almost sober when he emerged from the water. He kissed Hanna and Ingeborg and shook hands with the rest of us. There was something unreal about the scene.
We parted in front of the Costa Brava. As Ingeborg and I walked toward our hotel, I spied El Quemado as he came out from under the pedal boats and then began to disassemble them, getting ready for another workday.
It was after three when we woke up. We showered and had a light meal at the hotel restaurant. From the bar we watched the scene on the Paseo Marítimo through the tinted windows. It was like a postcard: old men perched on the wall along the sidewalk, half of them wearing little white hats, and old women with their skirts pulled up over their knees so the sun could lick at their thighs. That was all. We had a soda and went up to the room to put on our bathing suits. Charly and Hanna were in the usual spot near the pedal boats. That morning’s incident was the subject of conversation for a while: Hanna said that when she was twelve her best friend had died of a heart attack while she was swimming; Charly, completely recovered now, told how he and some guy called Hans Krebs used to be the champions of the Oberhausen town pool. They had learned to swim in the river and they believed that anyone who learned to swim in rivers can never be defeated by the sea. In rivers, he said, you have to swim as hard as you can and with your mouth closed, especially if the river is radioactive. He was glad he’d shown the Spaniards how far he could go. He said that at a certain point they’d begged him to swim back; or so he thought, at least. Anyway, even if that wasn’t what they’d said, he could tell by the tone of their voices that they were scared. You weren’t scared because you were drunk, said Hanna, kissing him. Charly smiled, showing two rows of big white teeth. No, he said, I wasn’t scared, because I know how to swim.
Inevitably we saw El Quemado. He was moving slowly and wore only cutoff jeans. Ingeborg and Hanna waved. He didn’t come over.
“Since when are you friends with that guy?” asked Charly.
El Quemado responded in kind and headed back toward the shore dragging a pedal boat. Hanna asked whether it was true that they called him El Quemado. I said it was. Charly said he hardly remembered him. Why didn’t he come in the water with me? For the same reason that Udo didn’t, said Ingeborg, because he isn’t stupid. Charly shrugged. (I think he loves it when women scold him.) He’s probably a better swimmer than you, said Hanna. I doubt it, said Charly, I’d bet anything he isn’t. Hanna then observed that El Quemado had bigger muscles than either of us, and in fact than anyone on the beach just now. A bodybuilder? Ingeborg and Hanna started to laugh. Then Charly confessed that he didn’t remember anything that had happened the night before. The trip back from the club, the vomiting, the tears—all had been erased from his memory. And yet he knew more about the Wolf and the Lamb than any of us. One of them worked in a supermarket next to the campground and the other waited tables at a café in the old town. Great guys.
At seven we left the beach and stopped for beers on the terrace of the Andalusia Lodge. The owner was behind the bar talking to a couple of locals, both tiny old men, almost dwarves. He greeted us with a nod. It was nice there. The breeze was soft and cool, and although the tables were full, the patrons hadn’t quite yet devoted themselves entirely to making noise. Like us, they were people on their way back from the beach and they were worn out from swimming and lying in the sun.
We separated without making plans for that night.
When we got back to the hotel, we took a shower and then Ingeborg decided to go lie on the balcony to write postcards and finish reading the Florian Linden novel. I spent a moment scanning my game and then went down to the restaurant to have a beer. After a while I came up for my notebook and I found Ingeborg asleep, wrapped in her black robe, the postcards clutched against her hip. I gave her a kiss and suggested that she get into bed, but she didn’t want to. I think she had a bit of a fever. I decided to go back down to the bar. On the beach, El Quemado repeated his evening ritual. One by one the pedal boats were returned to their places and the hut began to take shape, to rise, if a hut can be said to rise. (A hut can’t; but a fortress can.) Without thinking I raised a hand and waved. He didn’t see me.
Frau Else was at the bar. She asked what I was writing. Nothing important, I said, just the first draft of an essay. Ah, you’re a writer, she said. No, no, I said, my face flushing. To change the subject I asked about her husband, whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing.
She said it with a gentle smile, with her eyes on me and at the same time glancing around as if she didn’t want to miss anything that was going on in the bar.
“I’m so sorry.”
“It isn’t anything serious.”
I made some remark about summer illnesses, idiotic, I’m sure. Then I got up and asked if she would let me buy her a drink.
“No, thank you, I’m fine, and I’ve got work to do, too. Always busy!”
But she made no move to leave.
“Has it been a long time since you were last in Germany?” I asked, to say something.
“No, my dear, I was there for a few weeks in January.”
“And how did you find it?” As I said it I realized that it was a stupid thing to say and I blushed again.
“The same as always.”
“Yes, of course,” I murmured.
Frau Else looked at me in a friendly way for the first time and then she left. I watched a waiter stop her, and then a guest, and then a couple of old men, until she disappeared behind the stairs.
Our friendship with Charly and Hanna is beginning to be a burden. Yesterday, after I’d finished writing in my journal and when I thought I would spend a quiet evening alone with Ingeborg, they appeared. It was ten o’clock; Ingeborg had just woken up. I told her I’d rather stay at the hotel, but after talking on the phone with Hanna (Charly and Hanna were at the reception desk), she decided that we should go out. As she changed clothes, we argued. When we came downstairs I was astounded to see the Wolf and the Lamb. The Lamb, leaning on the counter, was whispering something in the receptionist’s ear that made her dissolve in helpless laughter. I was extremely put off. I assumed it was the same girl who had tattled to Frau Else about the misunderstanding with the table, though considering the hour and the possibility that the receptionists worked in two shifts, it could have been someone else. In any case she was very young and silly: when she saw us she gave us a knowing smirk, as if we shared a secret. Everyone else applauded. It was the last straw.
We left town in Charly’s car, with the Wolf sitting up front next to Hanna to show Charly the way. On the drive to the club, if a dump like that deserves the name, I saw huge pottery shops erected in rudimentary fashion alongside the highway. Actually, they were probably warehouses or wholesale showrooms. All night they were lit up by spotlights, and anyone who drove by got a view of endless junk, urns, pots of all sizes, and a few random pieces of statuary behind the fences. Coarse Greek imitations covered in dust. Fake Mediterranean crafts frozen in an in-between moment, neither day nor night. The yards were empty, save for the occasional guard dog.
Almost everything about the night was the same as the night before. The club had no name, though the Lamb said people called it the Crap Club. Like the other club, it was intended more for workers from the surrounding area than for tourists. The music and lighting were terrible; Charly drank and Hanna and Ingeborg danced with the Spaniards. Everything would have ended the same way if it hadn’t been for an incident, the kind of thing that often happened at the club, according to the Wolf, who advised us to leave right away. I’ll try to reconstruct the story. It starts with a guy who was pretending to dance between the tables and along the edge of the dance floor. Apparently he hadn’t paid for his drinks and he was high. This last point, however, is pure supposition. The most distinctive thing about him, which I noticed long before the scuffle began, was a thick rod that he brandished in one hand, though later the Wolf said it was a cane made of pig’s intestines, the blow of which left a scar for life. In any case, the bogus dancer’s behavior was threatening, and soon he was approached by two waiters who didn’t happen to be in uniform and who were indistinguishable from the rest of the clientele, though they were given away by their manner and faces: they were utter thugs. Words were exchanged between them and the man with the rod, and the discussion grew more and more heated.
I could hear the man with the rod say:
“My rapier comes everywhere with me,” referring in that peculiar way to his stick, in response to being forbidden to carry it in the club.
The waiter replied:
“I have something much harder than your rapier.” Straightaway there came a deluge of curses that I didn’t understand, and finally the waiter said:
“Do you want to see it?”
The guy with the stick was silent; I’d venture to say that he grew suddenly pale.
Then the waiter raised his forearm, muscular and hairy as a gorilla’s, and said:
“See? This is harder.”
The guy with the stick laughed, not insolently but in relief, though I doubt the waiters registered the difference, and raised his cane, flexing it like a bow. He had a stupid laugh, the laugh of a drunk and a loser. At that moment, as if triggered by a spring, the waiter’s arm shot out and grabbed the stick. It all happened very quickly. Immediately, turning red with the effort, he broke it in two. Applause came from one of the tables.
Just as swiftly, the guy with the stick hurled himself on the waiter, bent his arm behind his back before anyone could stop him, and in the blink of an eye, broke it. Despite the music, which had continued to play during the whole altercation, I think I heard the sound of bone breaking.
People started to scream. First it was the howls of the waiter whose arm had just been broken, then the shouts of those flinging themselves into a brawl in which, at least from my table, it was impossible to tell who was on which side, and finally the general clamor of all those present, including the ones who didn’t even know what was going on.
We decided to beat a retreat.
On the way back we passed two police cars. The Wolf wasn’t with us. It had been impossible to find him in the crush on the way out, and the Lamb, who had followed us without protest, now felt bad about having left his friend behind and urged us to go back for him. On this point Charly was adamant: if he wanted to go back, he could hitchhike. We agreed to wait for the Wolf at the Andalusia Lodge.
The bar was still open when we got there. I mean open to everyone, the lights on outside, with a big crowd despite the late hour. The kitchen was closed, but at the Lamb’s request the owner brought us a couple of chickens that we accompanied with a bottle of red wine; then, since we were still hungry, we polished off a platter of spicy sausage and cured ham and bread with tomato and olive oil. When the terrace was closed and we were the only ones left inside, along with the owner, who at that time of night devoted himself to his favorite pursuit, watching cowboy movies and having a leisurely dinner, the Wolf came in.
When he saw us he was furious, and surprisingly, his recriminations—“you left me,” “you forgot me,” “a person can’t trust his own friends,” etc.—were directed at Charly. The Lamb, who, frankly speaking, was his only real friend present, responded to his words by cowering in shame and mute submission. And Charly, even more surprisingly, nodded and said he was sorry, treating the whole thing as a joke but making it understood that he felt honored by the hurt that the Wolf was expressing so vehemently and in such poor taste. Charly was loving it, he really was! Maybe he saw it as an expression of true friendship! Absurd! I should clarify that the Wolf didn’t say a thing to me, and that his treatment of the girls was the same as always, somewhere between gallant and crude.
I think I was ready to leave when El Quemado came in. He nodded at us and took a seat at the bar, with his back to us. I left the Wolf to finish explaining what had happened at the Crap Club, probably with further accounts of bloodletting and arrests, and I went to sit next to El Quemado. Half of his upper lip was one big scar, but after a while a person got used to it. I asked if he suffered from insomnia and he smiled. No, he wasn’t an insomniac; he could do his work, which was enjoyable and not too taxing, on just a few hours of sleep. He wasn’t much of a talker, though he was much less silent than I had imagined. His teeth were small, as if they’d been filed down, and they were in terrible shape, which in my ignorance I didn’t know whether to attribute to the fire or simply to deficiencies in oral hygiene. I suppose that someone whose face is covered in burns doesn’t worry too much about the state of his teeth.
He asked where I was from. He spoke in a deep, clear voice, certain of being understood. I answered that I was from Stuttgart and he nodded as if he knew the city, although I can’t imagine that he’d ever been there. He was dressed the same as during the day, in shorts, a T-shirt, and rope-soled shoes. He has a notable physique—broad chest and bulging biceps—though sitting at the bar (drinking tea!) he seemed thinner than me. Or shyer. Certainly, despite his limited wardrobe, it was evident that he took at least basic care of himself: his hair was clean and he didn’t stink. This last point could be considered a minor feat, because living on the beach the only bathroom to which he had access was the sea. (If one sharpened one’s sense of smell, he smelled like salt water.) For a moment I imagined him, day after day or night after night, washing his clothes (those shorts, a few T-shirts) in the sea, scrubbing himself in the sea, doing his business in the sea or on the beach, the same beach where hundreds of tourists lay, among them Ingeborg . . . Overcome by a wave of disgust, I imagined reporting his shameful behavior to the police, but that wouldn’t be like me, of course. And yet, how to explain that a person with a paying job isn’t capable of finding a decent place to sleep? Can all the rentals in town be out of his reach? Aren’t there any cheap boardinghouses or campgrounds, if not on the seafront? Or by not paying rent does our friend El Quemado intend to save a few pesetas for when the summer ends?
There’s something of the Noble Savage about him; but I can also see the Noble Savage in the Wolf and the Lamb, and they manage things differently. Maybe living rent-free means living alone, far from people and curious stares. If so, in a way I understand it. And then there are the benefits of life in the open air, although his life, as I imagine it, doesn’t exactly qualify if open air is understood as healthy living, since the latter is diametrically opposed to damp beach air and the sandwiches that I’m sure are his daily fare. How does El Quemado live? All I know is that during the day he’s like a zombie, dragging pedal boats from the shore to his small roped-off area and back again to the shore. That’s all. Though he must take time to eat and he must meet with his boss at some point to hand over his earnings. Does this boss I’ve never seen know that El Quemado sleeps on the beach? Does the owner of the Andalusia Lodge know it? Are the Wolf and the Lamb in on the secret, or am I the only one who has discovered his refuge? I don’t dare ask.
At night El Quemado does whatever he wants, or at least he tries to. But what does he do exactly besides sleep? He sits until late at the Andalusia Lodge, he goes for walks on the beach, maybe he has friends he talks to, he drinks tea, he buries himself under his great hulks . . . Yes, sometimes I see the fortress of pedal boats as a kind of mausoleum. As long as it’s light out, the impression of a hut lingers; at night, by the light of the moon, a romantic soul might mistake it for a barbarian burial mound.
Nothing else worthy of mention happened the night of the twenty-fourth. We left the Andalusia Lodge relatively sober. El Quemado and the owner were still there; the former sitting across from his empty cup of tea and the latter watching another cowboy movie.
Today, as was to be expected, I saw him on the beach. Ingeborg and Hanna were lying out next to the pedal boats, and El Quemado, on the other side, was leaning against a plastic floater, gazing at the horizon where some of his boats were barely visible. At no point did he turn around to look at Ingeborg, who, I think it’s fair to say, was a feast for the eyes. Both girls were wearing new orange thongs, a bright, happy color. But El Quemado avoided looking at them.
I wasn’t at the beach. I stayed in the room going over my abandoned game, though every so often I went out on the balcony or looked out the window. Love, as everyone knows, is an exclusive passion, although in my case I hope to be able to reconcile my passion for Ingeborg with my dedication to gaming. According to the plans I had made in Stuttgart, by now I should have half the strategic variant plotted out and written down, and at least a first draft of the lecture to be given in Paris. But I have yet to write a single word. If Conrad could see me I’m sure he’d have some scathing comment to make. But Conrad has to understand that on my very first vacation with Ingeborg, I can’t ignore her and devote myself body and soul to the variant. Despite everything, I haven’t given up hope of having it finished by the time we return to Germany.
In the afternoon something odd happened. I was sitting in the room when suddenly I heard the sound of a horn. I can’t be a hundred percent certain, but then again, I know the difference between the sound of a horn and other sounds. The odd thing is that I was thinking (though in a vague way, I must admit) about Sepp Dietrich, who from time to time made mention of the horn call of peril. Anyway, I’m sure I didn’t imagine it. Sepp claimed to have heard it twice, and both times the mysterious notes helped him to overcome tremendous physical exhaustion, first in Russia and then in Normandy. The horn, according to Sepp, who rose to the command of an army after starting out as a messenger boy and driver, is the warning cry of the ancestors, the call of the blood that alerts one to danger. As I say, I was sitting lost in thought when suddenly I seemed to hear it. I got up and went out on the balcony. Outside all that could be heard was the usual afternoon din; even the sound of the sea was drowned out. In the hallway, on the other hand, there reigned a pregnant silence. Did the horn sound in my head then? Did it sound because I was thinking about Sepp Dietrich or in order to warn me of a threat? If I look back on it, I was also thinking about Hausser and Bittrich and Meindl . . . Then did it sound for me? And if so, what threat did it mean to warn me of?
When I told Ingeborg about it, she suggested that I spend less time in the room. According to her we should sign up for some jogging sessions or exercise classes run by the hotel. Poor Ingeborg, she just doesn’t get it. I promised I would talk to Frau Else. Ten years ago the hotel offered no classes of any kind. Ingeborg said that she would sign us up, that I didn’t need to speak to Frau Else about something that could be taken care of with the receptionist. I said all right, she should do what she thought best.
Before I got in bed I did two things, namely:
I set up the armored corps for the lightning attack on France.
I went out on the balcony and searched for some light on the beach that might indicate the presence of El Quemado, but all was dark.
I’m following Ingeborg’s instructions. Today I spent more time than usual at the beach. The result is that my shoulders are red from the sun and this afternoon I had to go buy a cream to take away the sting. Of course we were next to the pedal boats and since there was nothing else to do I spent the time talking to El Quemado. The day brought a few bits of news. The first is that yesterday Charly got outrageously drunk with the Wolf and the Lamb. Hanna, weepy, told Ingeborg that she didn’t know what to do: leave him or not? She can’t stop thinking about going back to Germany alone. She misses her son; she’s fed up and tired. Her only consolation is her perfect tan. Ingeborg says that it all depends on whether her love for Charly is true or not. Hanna doesn’t know what to answer. The other news is that the manager of the Costa Brava has asked them to leave the hotel. It seems that last night Charly and the Spaniards tried to beat up the night watchman. Ingeborg, despite the signs I was making to her, suggested that they move to the Del Mar. Luckily Hanna is determined that the manager change his mind or at least return their deposit. I expect that everything will be resolved with a few explanations and apologies. In response to Ingeborg’s question about where she was when all this took place, Hanna answers that she was in their room, sleeping. Charly didn’t show up on the beach until noon, looking the worse for the wear and dragging his windsurfing board. Hanna, when she saw him, whispered in Ingeborg’s ear:
“He’s killing himself.”
Charly’s version is completely different. He couldn’t care less about the manager and his threats. He says, with his eyes half-closed and looking as sleepy as if he’d just stepped out of bed:
“We can move to the Wolf’s house. Cheaper and more authentic. That way you’ll get to know the real Spain.” And he winks at me.
He’s only half joking. The Wolf’s mother rents rooms in the summer, with board or without, at modest prices. For a moment it seems that Hanna is about to cry. Ingeborg steps in and calms her down. In the same joking tone she asks Charly whether the Wolf and the Lamb aren’t falling in love with him. But the question is serious. Charly laughs and says no. Then, recovered, Hanna says that she’s the one the Wolf and the Lamb want to get into bed.
“The other night they kept touching me,” she says, at once mortified and coquettish.
“Because you’re pretty,” explains Charly, unperturbed. “I’d try it, too, if I didn’t already know you, wouldn’t I?”
The conversation swings all of a sudden to places as far-flung as Oberhausen’s Discotheque 33 and the Telephone Company. Hanna and Charly begin to wax sentimental and remember all of the places with romantic significance for them. But after a while, Hanna insists:
“You’re killing yourself.”
Charly puts an end to the reproaches by grabbing his board and heading into the water.
At first my conversation with El Quemado centered on topics like whether anyone had ever stolen a pedal boat from him, whether the work was hard, whether he didn’t get bored spending so many hours on the beach under that merciless sun, whether he had time to eat, whether he could say who among the foreigners were his best customers, etc. His answers, invariably succinct, were as follows: twice someone had stolen a pedal boat, or rather, left it abandoned at the other end of the beach; the work wasn’t hard; sometimes he got bored but not often; he ate sandwiches, as I suspected; he had no idea which country’s natives rented the most pedal boats. I contented myself with his answers, and I endured the intervals of silence that followed. Clearly he wasn’t used to conversation, and, as I noted from his evasive gaze, he was rather mistrustful. A few steps away, the bodies of Ingeborg and Hanna shone, soaking in the sun’s rays. Then, suddenly, I said that I’d rather be back at the hotel. He glanced at me without curiosity and continued to watch the horizon, where his pedal boats were nearly indistinguishable from the pedal boats belonging to other stands. Far away I spotted a windsurfer who kept falling, again and again. From the color of the sail I realized it wasn’t Charly. I said that mountains were my thing, not the sea. I liked the sea, but I liked mountains better. El Quemado made no comment.
We were silent for a while again. The sun was scorching my shoulders but I didn’t move or do anything to protect myself. In profile, El Quemado looked like a different person. I don’t mean that he was less disfigured (actually, the side facing me was the more disfigured) but simply that he looked like someone else. More remote. Like a bust of pumice fringed with coarse, dark hairs.
I can’t remember what made me confess that I wanted to be a writer. El Quemado turned around, and, after hesitating, said that it was an interesting profession. I made him repeat what he’d said because at first I thought I’d misheard him.
“But not of novels or plays,” I explained.
El Quemado’s lips parted and he said something I couldn’t hear.
Under his scars I seemed to glimpse a kind of monstrous smile. I thought the sun must be addling me.
“No, no, definitely not a poet.”
I explained, now that I had paved the way for it, that I in no way scorned poetry. I could have recited from memory lines by Klopstock or Schiller. But to write poetry in this day and age, unless it was for the girl one loved, was a bit pointless, didn’t he agree?
“Or grotesque,” said the poor wretch, nodding.
How can someone so deformed say that something is grotesque without taking it personally? Strange. In any case, my sense that El Quemado was secretly smiling grew stronger. Maybe it was his eyes that conveyed the hint of a smile. He hardly ever looked at me, but when he did I discovered in his gaze a spark of jubilation and strength.
“Specialized writer,” I said. “Creative essayist.”
On the spot, I sketched in broad strokes a picture of the world of war games, with all its magazines, competitions, local clubs, etc. In Barcelona, I explained, there were a few associations in operation, for example, and although as far as I knew no federation existed, Spanish players were beginning to be quite active in the field of European competitions. In Paris I had met a few.
“It’s a sport on the rise,” I said.
El Quemado mulled over my words, then he got up to retrieve a pedal boat that was coming into shore; with no sign of effort he pulled it back into the roped-off area.
“I did read something about people who play with little lead soldiers,” he said. “It wasn’t too long ago, I think, at the beginning of the summer . . . ”
“Yes, it’s essentially the same thing. Like rugby and American football. But I’m not very interested in little lead soldiers, although they’re all right . . . they look a little bit fussy.” I laughed. “I prefer board games.”
“What do you write about?”
“Anything. Give me any war or campaign and I’ll tell you how it can be won or lost, the flaws of the game, where the designer got it right or wrong, the correct scale, the original order of battle . . . ”
El Quemado watches the horizon. With his big toe he digs a little hole in the sand. Behind us Hanna has fallen asleep and Ingeborg is reading the last few pages of the Florian Linden novel; when our eyes meet she smiles and blows me a kiss.
For a moment I wonder whether El Quemado has a girlfriend. Or whether he’s ever had one.
What girl could kiss that terrible mask? But there’s someone for everyone, I know.
After a while:
“You must have lots of fun,” he said.
I heard his voice as if it were coming from far away. The light bounced off the surface of the sea, making a kind of wall that grew until it touched the clouds, which—fat, heavy, the color of dirty milk—were drifting almost imperceptibly toward the cliffs to the north. Under the clouds a parachute came in toward the beach, pulled by a speedboat. I said I felt a little sick. It must be the work waiting for me, I said, I’m a wreck until I finish what I’ve started. I did my best to explain that being a specialized writer required a complicated and cumbersome setup. (This was the main argument that the players of computerized war games could make in their favor: the savings of space and time.) I confessed that for days a huge game had been spread out in my hotel room and that I should really be working on it.
“I promised to turn in an essay at the beginning of September, and here I am, living it up.”
El Quemado didn’t say anything. I added that the essay was for an American magazine.
“It’s an unheard-of variant. No one’s ever come up with anything like it.”
Maybe it was the sun that was making me ramble on. In my defense I should say that since I’d left Stuttgart I hadn’t had the chance to talk to anyone about war games. My fellow gamers will know what I mean. For us it’s fun to talk about games. But clearly I’d chosen the strangest conversation partner I could possibly have found.
El Quemado seemed to understand that I had to play in order to write.
“But that way you must always win,” he said, showing his ruined teeth.
“Not at all. If you play yourself there’s no way to cheat with strategies or maneuvers. All the cards are on the table. If my variant works, it’s because it’s mathematically guaranteed to work. As it happens, I’ve already tested it a few times, and both times I won, but it needs to be polished and that’s why I play alone.”
“You must write very slowly,” he said.
“No,” I said, laughing, “I write like lightning. I play slowly but I write fast. People say I’m high-strung but it isn’t true; they say it because of the way I write. Without stopping!”
“I write fast, too,” murmured El Quemado.
“I guessed as much,” I said.
My own words surprised me. Actually, I didn’t even imagine that El Quemado could write. But when he spoke, or maybe sooner, when I said that I wrote fast, I guessed that he must be a scribbler, too. We stared at each other without saying anything for a few seconds. It was hard to look him in the face for too long, although little by little I was getting used to it. El Quemado’s secret smile still lurked there, maybe mocking me and our newly discovered shared trait. I kept feeling sicker. I was sweating. I didn’t understand how El Quemado could take so much sun. His craggy face, full of charred folds, sometimes glinted blue like cooking gas or took on a yellowish-black hue like something about to explode. And yet he could just sit there on the sand, with his hands on his knees and his eyes fixed on the sea, showing no signs of discomfort. In a departure from his usual behavior, which was so reserved, he asked whether I would help him bring in a pedal boat that had just arrived. Groggily, I nodded. The Italian couple on the boat couldn’t steer to shore. We got in the water and pushed gently. From their seats, the Italians kidded around and pretended to fall in. They jumped out before we got to shore. I was happy to see them head away, skirting bodies and holding hands, toward the Paseo Marítimo. After we pulled the pedal boat in, El Quemado said that I should swim for a while.
“You’ll fry your circuits in the sun,” he said.
I laughed and asked whether he wanted to come in with me.
We swam for a while, intent only on getting past the first line of bathers. Then we turned around to face the beach: from that vantage point, next to El Quemado, the beach and the people crowded on it seemed different.
When we returned he advised me, in a strange voice, to put coconut oil on my skin.
“Coconut oil and a dark room,” he murmured.
With deliberate abruptness I woke Ingeborg and we left.
This afternoon I had a fever. I told Ingeborg. She didn’t believe me. When I showed her my shoulders, she told me to put a wet towel over them or to take a cold shower. Hanna was waiting and she seemed to be in a hurry to leave me alone.
For a while I stared at the game with no energy for anything; the light hurt my eyes and the hum of the hotel was lulling me to sleep. With no little effort I managed to go out in search of a pharmacy. Under the terrible sun I wandered the old streets in the center of town. I don’t remember seeing tourists. Actually, I don’t remember seeing anyone. A couple of sleeping dogs; the girl who waited on me at the pharmacy; an old man sitting in the shadow of a doorway. Meanwhile, the Paseo Marítimo was so crowded that it was impossible to walk without elbowing and pushing. Near the port a little amusement park had been built and that’s where everyone was, hypnotized. It was insanity. There were all kinds of tiny stalls that the human torrent threatened to crush at any moment. As best I could, I lost myself again in the streets of the old town and returned to the hotel the long way around.
I got undressed, closed the shutters, and smeared my body with salve. I was burning up.
Lying in bed, in the dark but with my eyes open, I tried to think about the events of the last few days before I fell asleep. Then I dreamed that I didn’t have a fever anymore and I was with Ingeborg in this same room, in bed, each of us reading a book, but at the same time there was something very intimate about it. I mean each of us felt close to the other even though we were absorbed in our respective books; each of us felt love for the other. Then someone scratched at the door and after a while we heard a voice on the other side saying: “It’s Florian Linden, get out now, your life is in great danger.” Immediately, Ingeborg let go of her book (the book dropped and lay splayed on the rug) and fixed her eyes on the door. I hardly moved. Frankly, I was so comfortable there, my skin so cool, that I thought it wasn’t worth being frightened. “Your life is in danger,” repeated Florian Linden’s voice, farther and farther away, as if from the end of the hallway. And in fact, just then we heard the sound of the elevator, the doors opening with a metallic click and then closing, carrying Florian Linden down to the ground floor. “He’s gone to the beach or the amusement park,” said Ingeborg, dressing quickly. “I have to find him. Wait here, I have to talk to him.” I didn’t object, of course. But left alone, I couldn’t keep reading. “How can anyone be in danger in this room?” I asked aloud. “What’s he scheming, that third-rate detective?” Getting more and more worked up, I went over to the window and looked out at the beach, expecting to see Ingeborg and Florian Linden. The sun was setting and only El Quemado was there, arranging his pedal boats under red clouds and a moon the color of a plate of boiling lentils, dressed only in shorts and remote from everything around him, that is, from the sea and the beach, the seawall of the Paseo, and the shadows of the hotels. For a moment I was overcome by fear; I knew that danger and death lay out there. I woke up sweating. The fever was gone.
This morning, after I planned and wrote out the two first turns, obliterating essays by Benjamin Clark (Waterloo, #14) and Jack Corso (The General, #3, volume 17) in which each advises against the creation of more than one front in the first year, I went down to the hotel in excellent spirits, bursting with the desire to read, write, swim, drink, laugh—all the visible signs of health and animal happiness. In the morning the bar usually isn’t very full, so I brought along a novel and a folder of photocopies of the articles I need for my work. The novel was Wally, die Zweiflerin, by K. G., but perhaps due to my inner exultation, to the thrill of a productive morning, it was impossible for me to concentrate on reading or on studying the articles, which—it must be said—I plan to refute. So I settled down to watch the people shuttling between the restaurant and the terrace, and to enjoy my beer. Just as I was getting ready to go back to the room, where with a little luck I’d be able to sketch out the third turn (spring of ’40, unquestionably of crucial importance), Frau Else appeared. When she saw me, she smiled. It was a strange smile. Then she stepped away from a few guests—leaving them in midsentence, or so it seemed—and came to sit at my table.
She looked tired, though her expression was as composed as ever and her gaze as luminous.
“I’ve never read him,” she said, examining the book. “I don’t even know who he is. Modern?”
I shook my head with a smile. He was an author from the previous century, I said. A dead man. For a second we stared at each other without looking away or mitigating the effect with words.
“What’s it about? Tell me.” She pointed at the novel by G.
“If you like, I’ll lend it to you.”
“I don’t have time to read. Not in the summer. But you can tell me what happens.” Her voice, while still soft, began to take on a commanding tone.
“It’s the diary of a girl. Wally. At the end she kills herself.”
“That’s all? It sounds awful.”
“You asked me to tell you what it was about. Take it, you can give it back later.”
She took the book with a thoughtful expression.
“Girls like to write in their diaries . . . I hate that kind of drama . . . No, I won’t read it. Don’t you have anything a little more cheerful?” She opened the folder and glanced at the photocopied articles.
“That’s something else,” I hastened to explain. “Nothing worth looking at!”
“I see. You read English?”
She nodded as if in approval. Then she closed the folder and for a while we sat there in silence. The situation was rather embarrassing, at least for me. The most incredible thing was that she didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave. I searched mentally for a topic of conversation but I couldn’t come up with anything.
Suddenly I remembered a scene from ten or eleven years ago: In the middle of a party, the occasion of which I can’t recall, Frau Else left everyone, crossing the Paseo Marítimo and vanishing onto the beach. Back then there were no streetlights on the Paseo and you didn’t have to go far in order to step into complete darkness. I can’t remember whether anyone else noticed her flight. I don’t think so. The party was noisy and everyone was drinking and dancing on the terrace, even people who had just been walking by and had no connection to the hotel. The point is, I don’t think anyone missed her except me. I don’t know how long it was before she turned up again; I suppose it was quite a while. When she did, she wasn’t alone. Walking hand in hand with her was a tall man, very thin, with a white shirt that fluttered in the breeze as if it hung on nothing but bones, or rather, a single bone, as long as a flagpole. When they crossed the Paseo I recognized him. It was the owner of the hotel, Frau Else’s husband. When Frau Else passed me, she said hello to me in German. I’d never seen such a sad smile.
Now, ten years later, she was smiling in the same way.
Without thinking twice, I told her I thought she was a very beautiful woman.
Frau Else looked at me as if she didn’t quite understand what I’d said and then she laughed, but so softly that someone at the next table could barely have heard it.
“It’s the truth,” I said. The fear I generally felt when I was with her of making a fool of myself had disappeared.
Suddenly serious, perhaps realizing that I was serious myself, she said:
“You’re not the only one who thinks so, Udo. I guess I must be.”
“You always have been,” I said, unable to stop now, “although I wasn’t just talking about your physical beauty, which is certainly undeniable, but about your . . . aura, the indefinable air that emanates from your most insignificant actions . . . Your silences . . . ”
Frau Else laughed, this time openly, as if she’d just been told a joke.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not laughing at you.”
“Just at what I’m saying,” I said, laughing, too, as if I weren’t offended at all. (Although the truth is I was offended.)
This response seemed to please Frau Else. I thought that without intending to I had grazed a hidden wound. I imagined Frau Else courted by a Spaniard, perhaps involved in a secret love affair. Her husband, of course, suspects and suffers agonies; she can neither give up her lover nor find the strength to leave her husband. She is trapped by her conflicting loyalties; her own beauty is the source of her tribulations. I envisioned Frau Else as a flame, the flame that sheds light but in the process consumes itself and dies, etc., or like a wine that, upon mixing with the blood, ceases to exist as what it once was. Beautiful and distant. And exiled . . . This was her most mysterious quality.
Her voice woke me from my reflections:
“You seem very far away from here.”
“I was thinking about you.”
“For God’s sake, Udo, you’ll make me blush.”
“I was thinking about the person you were ten years ago. You haven’t changed at all.”
“What was I like ten years ago?”
“The same as you are now. Magnetic. Active.”
“Active, of course, what choice do I have? But magnetic?” Her hearty laugh echoed through the restaurant once more.
“Yes, magnetic. Do you remember that party on the terrace, when you went off to the beach? . . . It was pitch-black there, though the terrace was brightly lit. I was the only one who noticed you leave and I waited until you came back. There, on those steps. After a while you returned, but now you were with your husband. When you passed me, you smiled. You were very beautiful. I don’t remember having seen your husband go after you, so he must have been on the beach already. That’s the kind of magnetism I’m talking about. You attract people.”
“My dear Udo, I haven’t the slightest memory of that party; there’ve been so many, and it was such a long time ago. Anyway, based on your story it seems that I’m the one attracted by others. Attracted by my own husband, no less. If you say that you didn’t see him leave, then clearly he was already on the beach, but if the beach was dark, as you so rightly claim, I couldn’t have known that he was there, so when I left it must have been because I was drawn by his magnetism, wouldn’t you say?”
I chose not to answer. Much as Frau Else tried to destroy it, a current of understanding had been established between the two of us that released us from the need for explanations.
“How old were you then? It’s only natural that a fifteen-year-old should be attracted to a slightly older woman. The truth is that I hardly remember you, Udo. My . . . interests lay elsewhere. I was a wild thing, I think, wild like all girls, and insecure. I didn’t like it at the hotel. As you can imagine, I suffered a lot. Well, all foreigners suffer a lot at first.”
“For me it was something . . . lovely.”
“Don’t look like that.”
“Like a clubbed seal, Udo.”
“That’s what Ingeborg always says.”
“Really? I don’t believe it.”
“She puts it differently. But it amounts to the same thing.”
“She’s a very pretty girl.”
“Yes, she is.”
All of a sudden we were silent again. The fingers of her left hand began to drum on the plastic tabletop. I would have liked to ask about her husband, whom I still hadn’t seen even from afar and who I sensed had something important to do with the nameless essence that radiated from Frau Else, but I didn’t have the chance.
“Why don’t we change the subject? Let’s talk about literature. Or rather, you talk about literature and I’ll listen. When it comes to books, I know nothing, but believe me, I do like to read.”
I had the feeling that she was making fun of me. I shook my head in rejection. Frau Else’s eyes seemed to rake my skin. I’d even say that her eyes sought mine as if by scrutinizing them she could read my innermost thoughts. And yet her intentions were kind.
“Then let’s talk about the movies. Do you like the movies?” I shrugged. “Tonight there’s a Judy Garland film on TV. I love Judy Garland. Do you like her?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen her in anything.”
“You haven’t seen The Wizard of Oz?”
“Yes, but it was a cartoon, the way I remember it.”
She gave me a disappointed look. From some corner of the restaurant came very soft music. We were both perspiring.
“No, that’s something else entirely,” said Frau Else. “Although I suppose that at night you and your girlfriend must have better things to do than come down to the hotel lobby to watch TV.”
“Not much better. We go out to clubs. It’s mostly boring.”
“Are you a good dancer? Yes, I think you must be. One of those serious dancers, the kind who never gets tired.”
“No, that’s not me.”
“What’s your style, then?”
“I have two left feet.”
Frau Else nodded in an enigmatic way that indicated she understood. The restaurant was filling up with people coming back from the beach; we hadn’t noticed. In the next room guests were already seated, ready to eat. I thought Ingeborg would be in soon.
“These days I don’t do it as often; when I first came to Spain I went out dancing with my husband almost every night. Always at the same place, because back then there weren’t as many clubs and also because this one was the best, the newest. No, it wasn’t here, it was in X . . . It was the only club my husband liked. Maybe precisely because it was out of town. It doesn’t exist anymore. It closed years ago.”
I seized the opportunity to tell her what had happened on our last visit to a club. Frau Else listened unperturbed as I gave a detailed account of the dispute between the waiter and the guy with the stick that had ended in a general brawl. She seemed more interested in the part of the story involving our Spanish companions, the Wolf and the Lamb. I thought she must know them, or know who they were, and I said so. No, she didn’t know them, but they couldn’t be the most appropriate company for a young couple on their first trip together, practically a honeymoon. But what harm could they do? A worried look crossed Frau Else’s face. Did she perhaps know something that I didn’t? I told her that the Wolf and the Lamb were more friends of Charly and Hanna’s than mine, and that in Stuttgart I was acquainted with much shadier characters. I was lying, of course. Finally I promised that the Spaniards interested me only as conversation partners with whom I could practice my Spanish.
“You should think about your girlfriend,” she said. “You should be considerate of her.”
On her face was an expression akin to disgust.
“Don’t worry, we’ll be fine. I’m cautious by nature and I know how to keep my distance, depending on the person. Anyway, Ingeborg likes spending time with them. I guess she’s not used to that kind of people. Of course, neither of us takes them seriously.”
“But they are real.”
I was about to tell her that everything seemed unreal to me just then: the Wolf and the Lamb, the hotel and the summer, El Quemado (whom I hadn’t mentioned) and the tourists; everyone except for Frau Else herself, lonely and alluring, but luckily I kept my mouth shut.
We sat there for a while longer without speaking, although in the midst of our silence I felt closer to her than ever. Then, with a visible effort, she got up, shook my hand, and left.
As I was on my way up to the room, in the elevator, a stranger remarked in English that the boss was sick. “Too bad the man is sick, Lucy” were his words. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was referring to Frau Else’s husband.
When I got to the room, I surprised myself by repeating, He’s sick, he’s sick, he’s sick . . . So it was true. On the map, the game pieces seemed to melt. The light fell at a slant on the table, and the counters that represented German armored units sparkled as if they were alive.
For lunch today we had chicken and french fries and salad, chocolate ice cream and coffee. A rather sad meal. (Yesterday it was cutlets and salad, chocolate ice cream and coffee.) Ingeborg told me that she’d been with Hanna at the Municipal Garden behind the port, between two cliffs that plunge straight into the sea. They took lots of pictures, bought postcards, and decided to walk back to town. A full morning. I hardly said a thing. The noise of the dining room gave me a slight but nagging headache. Just after we finished eating, Hanna came in, wearing only a bikini and a yellow T-shirt. When she sat down she looked at me with a somewhat forced smile, as if she were apologizing for something, or as if she felt ashamed. Of what, I have no idea. The truth is that I wasn’t at all happy to see her, although I was careful not to show it. Finally the three of us went up to the room, where Ingeborg put on her bathing suit and then the two of them went to the beach.
Hanna asked: “Why does Udo spend so much time up here?” And after a pause: “What is that game board with all those counters there on the table?” Ingeborg was slow to find an answer. At a loss, she looked at me as if I were the one responsible for her friend’s stupid curiosity. Hanna stood there waiting. In a calm and cold voice that disconcerted even me, I explained that since my shoulders were so burned I’d rather sit in the shade and read on the balcony. It’s relaxing, I said, you should try it. It helps you think. Hanna laughed, not sure what I meant. Then I added:
“That game board, as you can see, is a map of Europe. It’s a game. It’s also a challenge. And it’s part of my work.”
Flustered, Hanna stammered that she’d heard that I worked for the electric company in Stuttgart, so I had to explain that even though nearly all of my income came from the electric company, neither my true passion nor much of my time was devoted to it. What’s more, games like the one on the table brought in an extra bit of money. I don’t know whether it was the mention of money or the gleam of the board and the counters, but Hanna came over and began to question me in earnest about the map. It was the ideal moment to introduce her to the gaming world . . . Just then Ingeborg said they should go. From the balcony I watched them cross the Paseo Marítimo and spread their towels a few yards from El Quemado’s pedal boats. The way they moved, so delicately and in such an intensely feminine way, was strangely painful to me. For a few moments I felt sick, unable to do anything but lie on the bed, facedown, sweating. Absurd, agonizing images passed through my head. I thought about suggesting to Ingeborg that we head south, to Andalusia, or that we travel to Portugal, or that we lose ourselves on the back roads of Spain, or cross over to Morocco . . . Then I remembered that she had to be back at work on September 3 and that my own holiday ended on September 5, and that we didn’t actually have the time . . . Finally I got up, showered, and found myself in the game.
(General aspects of the spring turn, 1940. France defends the classic front along the line of Hex 24s, and a second line of defense along the Hex 23s. Of the fourteen infantry corps that by this point should be present in the European theater, at least twelve should cover Hexes Q24, P24, O24, N24, M24, L24, Q23, O23, and M23. The two remaining corps should be placed in Hexes O22 and P22. Of the three armored corps, one should probably be in Hex O22, another in Hex T20, and the last in Hex O23. The replacement units will be in Hexes Q22, T21, U20, and V20; the air units in Hexes P21 and Q20, on air bases. The British Expeditionary Force, which in the best of cases will consist of three infantry corps and an armored corps—of course, if the English attacked France in greater force, the variant to use would be the direct strike against Great Britain and to that end the German airborne corps should be in Hex K28—would be deployed in Hex N23 [two infantry corps] and Hex P23 [one infantry corps and one armored corps]. As a possible defensive variant, the English forces could be moved from Hex P23 to Hex O23, and the French forces [an armored corps and an infantry corps] from O23 to P23. In any deployment the strongest hex will be the one where the English armored corps is located, whether P23 or O23, and it will determine the focus of the German attack. This attack will be carried out with very few units. If the English armored corps is in P23, the German attack will be launched from O24; if, on the contrary, the English armored corps is in O23, the attack must be launched from N24, through the south of Belgium. To assure a breakthrough, the airborne corps must be launched from Hex O23 if the English armored corps is in P23, or from N23 if it’s in O23. The initial strike will be made by two armored corps and the follow-through will be carried out by two or three different armored corps that must arrive at Hex O23 or N22, depending on the location of the English armored corps, and proceed to an immediate exploitation of Hex O22 [Paris]. To prevent a counterattack at a ratio greater than 1:2, some air factors must be left in reserve, etc.)
That afternoon we had drinks in the tourist district and then we went to play miniature golf. Charly was calmer than he had been for the last few days, his face relaxed and peaceful, as if a tranquillity thus far unsuspected had settled over him. Appearances are misleading. Soon he began to ramble on in the usual way, and he told us a story that was a good illustration of how stupid he is or how stupid he thinks we are, or both. Briefly: All day he had been windsurfing and at a certain point he got so far out that he lost sight of the coastline. The joke was that upon returning to the beach he confused our town with the next one; the buildings, the hotels, even the curve of the beach made him suspect something, but he ignored his doubts. Disoriented, he asked a German bather to direct him to the Costa Brava hotel. Unhesitatingly, the German sent him to a hotel that was in fact called the Costa Brava but that looked nothing like the Costa Brava where Charly was staying. Still, Charly went in and asked for his room key. Since he wasn’t registered, the receptionist, of course, wouldn’t give it to him, despite Charly’s threats. Strong words finally gave way to conversation, and since things were slow at the reception desk, they had some beers at the hotel bar, where, to the surprise of all those listening, everything was explained and Charly made a friend and won general admiration.
“What did you do then?” asked Hanna, though clearly she already knew the answer.
“Picked up my board and headed back. By sea, naturally!”
Charly is a serious braggart, or a serious idiot.
Why am I so afraid sometimes? And why, when I’m most afraid, does my spirit seem to surge, rise up, and observe the whole planet from above? (I see Frau Else from above and I’m afraid. I see Ingeborg from above and I know that she sees me, too, and I’m afraid and I want to cry.) Tears of love? Do I really want to escape with her not just from this town and the heat but from what the future holds for us, from mediocrity and absurdity? Others find peace in sex or the passage of time. Charly is satisfied with Hanna’s legs and tits. He’s happy. But I, when faced with Ingeborg’s beauty, am forced to see clearly at last and am thrown into turmoil. I’m a nervous wreck. I feel like weeping and throwing punches when I think about Conrad, who has no holidays or spends his holidays in Stuttgart without even a trip to the pool. But my face remains unchanged. And my pulse is steady. I scarcely move a muscle, though inside I’m falling apart.
As we got ready for bed, Ingeborg remarked how well Charly looked. We’d been at a club called Adam’s until three in the morning. Now Ingeborg is asleep and I’m writing and chain-smoking with the balcony door open. Hanna looked good, too. She even danced a couple of slow songs with me. Our conversation: trivial as always. What can Hanna and Ingeborg talk about? Is it possible that they’re truly becoming friends? Charly treated us to dinner at the restaurant at the Costa Brava. Paella, salad, wine, ice cream, and coffee. Then we left in my car for the club. Charly didn’t feel like driving, nor did he feel like walking; maybe I’m exaggerating but I got the impression that he didn’t even feel like being seen in public. Hanna kept leaning over and kissing him. I imagine she kisses her son in Oberhausen the same way. As we were on our way back I spotted El Quemado on the terrace of the Andalusia Lodge. The terrace was empty and the waiters were clearing the tables. A group of local kids was leaning on the railing, talking. El Quemado, a few yards away, seemed to be listening to them. When I remarked to Charly, half jokingly, that his friend was there, his reply was irritable: What do I care, keep going. I think he thought I was talking about the Wolf or the Lamb. In the darkness it’s hard to tell people apart. Keep going, keep going, said Ingeborg and Hanna.
—Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer