Van't Hoff's Hair

(Elkar, 2003)

Tsaw latsaw


"You must be from the Ministry," said the woman who opened the door on the second floor. She was a middle-aged woman, a standard middle-aged woman, and her dress had a pattern of blue flowers, though somehow the flowers seemed to spread beyond the fabric of her dress: they looked like they were going up her face and down her arms. The woman was like a badly drawn doodle.


"No, her sister. Come in." She led him to a wood-panelled living-room. "Wait here a moment."

She left him in the living-room and closed all the doors behind her. When he was sure he was alone he left everything on a sofa and immediately went to the bookshelf where the encyclopaedia was kept. There it was, of course: the Universal Tabucchi Encyclopaedia. After looking so hard and hearing so much about it, there it finally was: the Tabucchi Encyclopaedia, at his fingertips. At last. The Tabucchi Encyclopaedia.

It struck him as odd he hadn't actually seen the encyclopaedia until that very moment; not even in a photograph. He thought it odd, for example, that he hadn't known what the colour of the cover was, or about the two hideous lines under the title, given that he had been looking for that encyclopaedia for so long, that he had talked about that encyclopaedia so much.

He thought about all these things while he looked for the 'G' volume. He found it quickly (Galilea-Göksu). He looked for a word. When he found it he read a few lines. Then he put the volume back on the shelf. He did the same with the 'S': he took the Schaudinn-Tassos tome and read bits from an entry.

Just then Matias heard a door open. He tried to put the tome back on the shelf quickly, before anyone walked into the room, because he felt like a sinner caught in the act, or like a man holding a naked girl in his arms and not an encyclopaedia - a Tabucchi Encyclopaedia, quite a hideous looking thing.

"Go ahead, go ahead, look at it if you want," said the woman, who must have been Martina.

"No. We should really start," said Matias pointing at his watch, acting as though he were concerned about the time.

Martina offered him a chair next to a round table. When they were both sitting down Matias stood up again and said:

"Actually, if you don't mind, I'll look something up... just one thing... in the encyclopaedia."

He stood up and looked for the 'V'. He took the Tizsa-Vardar volume out. The situation was a bit tense and pathetic: Martina sat at the table while Matias checked the encyclopaedia. He had to do it quickly. He did what he had done earlier, which is to say that he looked up the word, read a few random sentences and put the tome back on the shelf. Then he sat down at the table again.

"You don't take long studying things," said Martina. And what she meant was that what he had done with the encyclopaedia was odd, and that she had noticed it but wouldn't remark on it or ask for an explanation, because other people's oddities were not her concern; because she wasn't bothered with other people's mental health, worrying about her own was more than enough, thank you, given her age, and he was welcome to indulge in this oddity of his, or another six if he so pleased.

Matias mumbled an excuse, an uncharismatic excuse, quite a tubercular one in fact. It fell on the table as soon as it left his mouth, and exploded there, and all its particles dispersed into the living-room and were lost, forever.

As he was preparing the recorder for the interview Matias realised that Martina's sister was in the room, sitting on a sofa three metres from them. It seemed to him that the flowers on her dress were out of control now, that some of them dangled down her elbows and others ate up her face and climbed into her nostrils. When she noticed Matias was staring at her she asked, "Is it OK if I stay here?" the way a piece of glass might ask if it was bothering anyone. "Yes, madam," answered Matias; and then he added "of course you may," or some other formulaic phrase.

"We're starting now, aren't we?" said Matias, thinking they were about to begin. He switched on the recorder.

"The thing is?" said Martina hesitatingly, "they explained something on the phone when they rang from the Ministry, but I didn't quite understand what they said. I don't know what you want, exactly."

Matias told her about the Ministry's project, about how they were collecting eccentric biographies. But he thought the word 'biography' might sound a bit strange to Martina, so he told her they were collecting the eccentric lives of people from all regions, and perhaps Martina herself knew someone with an eccentric life? Someone from their town; it didn't matter if the person was dead; the thing was to record the stories of people's eccentric lives.

Martina started thinking, going through the lives of the people who lived around her, but they were all shopkeepers or had jobs in hospitals or offices, and worked all hours of the day: seventeen or eighteen hours sometimes, because working hours are more important and count double. And when they got out of work these people kind of disappeared, they melted into a brown sofa and didn't have time to do anything fancy.

When she saw that Martina had grown silent, her sister started talking. "Maybe the two brothers who lived in the square?"

"Yes, maybe the two brothers who lived in the square," agreed Martina.

"Pablo was the eldest? Pablo was the blind one, wasn't he, Martina?"

"Yes, Pablo and Mateo. Pablo was the blind one, Mateo the other one."

Matias was sitting in front of Mercedes, but Martina had her back to her sister, and every time she asked something or wanted to hear her sister's answer she had to turn around and her entire body creaked loudly every time she did so. Matias realised that the set-up was uncomfortable and obstructed the communication between them. Besides, it was obvious that Mercedes was more lucid than Martina and spoke more clearly than her - she enunciated better, especially her 'r's and 's's. So he asked Mercedes to sit at the table, because he wanted to record her too, and because the recorder was recording all the creaking noises Martina's body made, and this was going to make the job of transcribing the interview difficult.

"The thing is," Martina said as Mercedes sat down at the table, "that the two brothers were always playing that game, night and day, morning and afternoon and evening; what did they call it, Mercedes?" Mercedes said she didn't remember the name of the game but that it was similar to chess, only more complicated. Mateo explained it to her once. And when she mentioned Mateo's name all the flowers reaching out from her dress seemed to retreat back into it, and Matias realised that Mateo wasn't just Mateo, that Mateo was many other things to Mercedes.

Then she explained how the game was much more complicated than chess; how in chess the movements are always the same: the knight moves in a certain way, and the rook too, and the queen in whatever way she wants. But in the two brothers' game the movements were always different. Mercedes fell silent, looked at the ceiling, pulled her right stocking up, then continued talking. In the two brothers' game, she explained, you had to take many factors into consideration; things like the time, the weather and she couldn't remember what else, but many things. She thought she was explaining the game very badly, so she decided to speak more slowly. "What I mean to say," she said after a pause, "is that a piece would move differently depending on whether it was five past ten in the morning or six thirty-four in the evening, and they wouldn't always move in the same way at the same hour either, the movements would differ depending on whether it was sunny or there was a northerly wind or whether there were only four degrees outside." She added that it must have been a twisted mind that invented the game, and that the brothers thought of nothing else.

"The thing is," said Martina this time, "there were world championships every year. Or was it European games? They took place in France or Switzerland or Portugal. And the brothers always went. They went to watch them, not to take part." Mercedes retorted that they did take part sometimes, and that Pablo was very good, extremely good, but he was blind so before every move Mateo had to let him know the temperature, the direction of the wind and the time, as well as what his opponent's move had been. For this reason the judges wouldn't let them take part, because it would have meant a game of two against one, and that was why they didn't take part in the championships, local or European. But they went to watch the games every year.

"All year they saved up," said Martina. "They lived for those games. Those five days. They went and then returned. With no money left."

Then they said how one year the pair had to spend all their savings just before they were due to leave: they had hospital bills. "Was that the year Pablo went blind?" Martina ventured, but Mercedes said no, Pablo went blind when he was a child. He was seven or nine, she couldn't quite remember which, but she knew it was an odd number. Then the two sisters agreed that there must have been another reason why they spent the money, but whatever it was, they couldn't go on the trip.

"Lithuania," said Mercedes, and if Matias had only been listening to the way in which Mercedes pronounced it he would have thought 'Lithuania' was a rhetorical expression, and not the country he knew it to be, which on most maps appeared next to Latvia and was known to be situated within certain coordinates, just like every other country is.

Mercedes said that the championship that year had taken place in Lithuania, and the brothers didn't have money for the trip because they had spent it on the hospital bills, or maybe on a 30-metre sailing boat, it didn't matter. "That's when they decided to sell their mattresses," said Martina. "And then they sold their chairs and two rugs." But even that wasn't enough, it seemed, to make it all the way to Lithuania, so in the end they had to sell the bathtub too.

They got together enough money to go, but not to return, and people started getting worried and asking "Are you crazy?" and "You'll make it there, but how will you get back?" The two brothers said they would figure out a way and come back sooner or later.

Mercedes finished the story. She said the brothers hadn't returned yet, since they left thirty-seven years and five months ago, but that their cousin had bought the bathtub from them and that she, Mercedes, often went to their cousin's house to have a look at it. And it had been a great buy, because it was a very good bathtub; they didn't make them like that anymore, there wasn't a speck of rust on it yet, and there wouldn't be for a long time still.

Then Matias started imagining things. He imagined Mateo drinking water from a public fountain in Lithuania, alone - because in his imagination Pablo was dead, of course. He told the sisters that it was all very good and exactly the kind of thing he needed to record, and that he found the story of Mateo and Pablo very intriguing indeed. Martina was very happy and asked Matias if he had enough or if he needed anything else. Matias told her it was enough, plenty in fact, but he would be glad to hear anything else she could remember. Mercedes still hadn't returned from Lithuania, and Martina said she couldn't think of anything else.

Matias switched off the recorder. Then it was time to say goodbye and thank you and give three or four kisses and farewell, and I haven't even offered you a drink, would you like something now, no, thanks, really, I don't need anything, thank you again and see you soon, and goodbye, bye then, bye, bye.

When he was going down the staircase Matias remembered the staircases of private doctors' surgeries. It was a fact that the staircases of private doctors' surgeries were different from those of normal doctors. The most distinctive characteristic of these staircases is that they actually lower your temperature. In other words, patients' temperatures fall practically every time they walk down the stairs after leaving the surgery, almost as if the Ministry of Health had signed an agreement to this effect. Of course, Martina and Mercedes' staircase had nothing to do with the staircases of private doctors' surgeries, but even so, it reminded Matias of them.

Just then a strange fly joined him on the staircase. A blind fly. And Matias thought that most doctors in the world, even the cleverest ones, would probably never see a blind fly like the one Matias was seeing just then. Matias knew the fly was blind because it kept crashing against the walls and its flight path was completely directionless - it even flew behind a picture. And the most definitive reason was that, when the fly rested on the ground for a while, Matias held his foot over it and the fly didn't even flinch. And everybody knows that flies are the fastest creatures on the planet, that it's hard to catch a fly. And if they aren't the fastest creatures on the planet, they are probably among the fastest: second or third, probably, on the list of fastest creatures on the planet, even though fastness and reflexes are difficult things to measure. But this fly didn't move when Matias threatened its life. That's why he thought the fly must be blind. Or otherwise, he thought, it must be an unreasonable fly that defies all traditional rules about flies. A fly making a stand against the standardisation of flies.

Matias didn't step on it of course, he just walked out onto the street.

That morning he made recordings in two other houses. One of the conversations he recorded was very interesting, the others less so. Despite that, he would listen to them again in the evening, at the inn. He would transcribe some of them, not all. He repeated that sentence in his head five or six times. At the Ministry they had asked him to transcribe all of them, without fail. But he wasn't going to transcribe them all. He thought it would be a waste of his time. It would be a waste of my time. He repeated that to himself five or six times too. He would only transcribe the good ones, not the other ones.

They had the Tabucchi Encyclopaedia in another two houses, unsurprisingly. He did the same thing he had done previously: he looked up the exact same words, read a few lines of the entries and put the volume back on the shelf. In one of the houses he did it when no one was watching, in the other he asked for permission.

Afterwards he entered the wind again. And it seemed to him that if the wind wasn't so elemental it might have been made of some kind extravagant material like foam rubber. The wind gave him some ideas and took others away. It made him think, for example, that they would probably have runner beans for dinner at the inn, or some other similarly incomprehensible vegetable.

Š Van't Hoffen ilea: Unai Elorriaga, Elkar, 2003

Translation from Basque: Amaia Gabantxo