by Roberto Bolaño
When Pelletier discussed the Swabian’s article with his three friends one morning as they were having breakfast at the hotel before going out into Salzburg, opinions and interpretations varied considerably. According to Espinoza and Pelletier, the Swabian had probably been the lady’s lover at the time when Archimboldi came to give his reading. According to Norton, the Swabian had a different version of events depending on his mood and his audience, and it was possible that he himself didn’t even remember anymore what was really said and what had really happened on that momentous occasion. According to Morini, the Swabian was a grotesque double of Archimboldi, his twin, the negative image of a developed photograph that keeps looming larger, becoming more powerful, more oppressive, without ever losing its link to the negative (which undergoes the reverse process, gradually altered by time and fate), the two images somehow still the same: both young men in the years of terror and barbarism under Hitler, both World War II veterans, both writers, both citizens of a bankrupt nation, both poor bastards adrift at the moment when they meet and (in their grotesque fashion) recognize each other, Archimboldi as a struggling writer, the Swabian as “cultural promoter” in a town where culture was hardly a serious concern.
Was it even conceivable that the miserable and (why not?) contemptible Swabian was really Archimboldi? It wasn’t Morini who asked this question, but Norton. And the answer was no, since the Swabian, to begin with, was short and of delicate constitution, which didn’t match Archimboldi’s physical description at all. Pelletier’s and Espinoza’s explanation was much more plausible: the Swabian as the noble lady’s lover, even though she could have been his grandmother. The Swabian trudging each afternoon to the house of the lady who had traveled to Buenos Aires, to fill his belly with charcuterie and biscuits and cups of tea. The Swabian massaging the back of the former cavalry captain’s widow, as the rain lashed the windows, a sad Frisian rain that made one want to weep, and although it didn’t make the Swabian weep, it made him pale, and he approached the nearest window, where he stood looking out at what was beyond the curtains of frenzied rain, until the lady called him, peremptorily, and the Swabian turned his back on the window, not knowing why he had gone to it, not knowing what he hoped to see, and just at that moment, when there was no one at the window anymore and only a little lamp of colored glass at the back of the room flickering, it appeared.
So the days in Salzburg were generally pleasant, and although Archimboldi didn’t receive the Nobel Prize that year, life for our four friends proceeded smoothly, flowing along on the placid river of European university German departments, not without racking up one upset or another that in the end simply added a dash of pepper, a dash of mustard, a drizzle of vinegar to orderly lives, or lives that looked orderly from without, although each of the four had his or her own cross to bear, like anyone, a strange cross in Norton’s case, ghostly and phosphorescent, for Norton made frequent and rather tasteless references to her ex-husband as a lurking threat, ascribed to him the vices and defects of a monster, a horribly violent monster but one who never materialized, a monster all evocation and no action, although with her words Norton managed to give substance to a being whom neither Espinoza nor Pelletier had ever seen, as if her ex existed only in their dreams, until Pelletier, sharper than Espinoza, understood that Norton’s unthinking diatribe, that endless list of grievances, was more than anything a punishment inflicted on herself, perhaps for the shame of having fallen in love with such a cretin and married him. Pelletier, of course, was wrong.
Around this time, Pelletier and Espinoza, worried about the current state of their mutual lover, had two long conversations on the phone. Pelletier made the first call, which lasted an hour and fifteen minutes. The second was made three days later by Espinoza and lasted two hours and fifteen minutes. After they’d been talking for an hour and a half, Pelletier told Espinoza to hang up, the call would be expensive and he’d call right back, but Espinoza firmly refused. The first conversation began awkwardly, although Espinoza had been expecting Pelletier’s call, as if both men found it difficult to say what sooner or later they would have to say. The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word Paris was said seven times, Madrid, eight. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza). The word solution was said twelve times. The word solipsism seven times. The word euphemism ten times. The word category, in the singular and the plural, nine times. The word structuralism once (Pelletier). The term American literature three times. The words dinner or eating or breakfast or sandwich nineteen times. The words eyes or hands or hair fourteen times. Then the conversation proceeded more smoothly. Pelletier told Espinoza a joke in German and Espinoza laughed. In fact, they both laughed, wrapped up in the waves or whatever it was that linked their voices and ears across the dark fields and the wind and the snow of the Pyrenees and the rivers and the lonely roads and the separate and interminable suburbs surrounding Paris and Madrid.
The second conversation, radically longer than the first, was a conversation between friends doing their best to clear up any murky points they might have overlooked, a conversation that refused to become technical or logistical and instead touched on subjects connected only tenuously to Norton, subjects that had nothing to do with surges of emotion, subjects easy to broach and then drop when they wished to return to the main subject, Liz Norton, whom, by the time the second call was nearing its close, both had recognized not as the Fury who destroyed their friendship, black clad with bloodstained wings, nor as Hecate, who began as an au pair, caring for children, and ended up learning witchcraft and turning herself into an animal, but as the angel who had fortified their friendship, forcibly shown them what they’d known all along, what they’d assumed all along, which was that they were civilized beings, beings capable of noble sentiments, not two dumb beasts debased by routine and regular sedentary work, no, that night Pelletier and Espinoza discovered that they were generous, so generous that if they’d been together they’d have felt the need to go out and celebrate, dazzled by the shine of their own virtue, a shine that might not last (since virtue, once recognized in a flash, has no shine and makes its home in a dark cave amid cave dwellers, some dangerous indeed), and for lack of celebration or revelry they hailed this virtue with an unspoken promise of eternal friendship, and sealed the vow, after they hung up their respective phones in their respective apartments crammed with books, by sipping whiskey with supreme slowness and watching the night outside their windows, maybe seeking unconsciously what the Swabian had sought outside the widow’s window in vain.
Morini was the last to know, as one would expect, although in Morini’s case the sentimental mathematics didn’t always work out. Even before Norton first went to bed with Pelletier, Morini had felt it coming. Not because of the way Pelletier behaved around Norton but because of her own detachment, a generalized detachment, Baudelaire would have called it spleen, Nerval melancholy, which left Norton liable to embark on an intimate relationship with anyone who came along. Espinoza, of course, he hadn’t predicted. When Norton called and told him she was involved with the two of them, Morini was surprised (although he wouldn’t have been surprised if Norton had said she was involved with Pelletier and a colleague at the University of London or even a student), but he hid it well. Then he tried to think of other things, but he couldn’t. He asked Norton whether she was happy. Norton said she was. He told her he had received an e-mail from Borchmeyer with fresh news. Norton didn’t seem very interested. He asked her whether she’d heard from her husband.
“Ex-husband,” said Norton.