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Glavinic, Thomas (Sample Translation)

Das Leben der Wünsche
(Wishes have a Life of their Own)

Abstand
Carl Hanser Verlag, August 2009, 320 pp.
ISBN: 978-3-446-23390-4
 

1
 
‘One moment! Let’s sit down on the bench in front of this fountain. I’d like to make you an offer.’
 
‘You mean me?’
 
‘I mean you.’
 
‘Sure you haven’t mistaken me for someone else?’
 
‘Your name is Jonas, you’re thirty-five years old, and your wife’s name is Helen.’
 
‘Do we know each other from somewhere?’
 
‘You have two sons, Tom and Chris. You work for the Drei Schwestern advertising agency. Your mother is dead, your father is eighty-six and lives in a nursing home after a stroke. You don’t have any brothers or sisters. For some time now, you’ve been sleeping with Marie, whose husband’s name is Apok. They have a child.’
 
‘You’re a detective!’
 
‘I’m something far better,’ said the man. ‘Let’s sit down.’
 
Jonas didn’t feel like talking to him. His head was already aching half an hour after Sondheimer’s birthday celebration—he couldn’t take that ghastly mixture of rum and white wine they’d been drinking at the office. He was so hot, he’d pulled his shirt out of his waistband and stuffed his tie in his pocket, and his raging thirst was doing its best to chivvy him into the nearest bar. But he followed the man and complied with the gesture of invitation he made as he patted the bench beside him and deposited a blue briefcase on the ground.
 
They eyed one another. The man was dressed in white: white linen jacket, pleated slacks, moccasins. He had close-cropped hair, was ill-shaven, and wore gold chains around his neck and wrist. Jonas was reflected in his sunglasses.
 
‘Money?’ he asked.
 
The man removed his shades and proceeded to chew one end, regarding Jonas intently. His eyes were pale blue, his features expressionless. He seemed to be debating how to open the conversation. After staring at Jonas for a minute he straightened up with a jerk and replaced the glasses on his nose.
 
‘Jonas, I’m going to grant you three wishes.’
 
‘How about forgetting what you know, letting me go and never giving me another scare like this?’
 
‘I’m being serious. Three wishes.’
 
‘Come off it! What are you after?’
 
‘I want to grant you three wishes.’
 
‘I may be wrong, but I don’t think the fairy in the fairy tale gave off such a smell of beer.’
 
‘I’m no fairy and this is no fairy tale. I’ll grant you three wishes. Name them!’
 
‘You really mean it?’
 
‘Absolutely.’
 
‘Jesus ... Let me think.’
 
‘Carry on.’
 
The man consulted his watch with a sweeping gesture, then clasped his hands behind his head. He looked thoroughly detached. The children frisbeeing on the grass seemed to interest him as little as the cack-handed juggler across the way or the raucous drunks at the hot dog stand near the entrance to the park. Jonas waited, but the man didn’t speak.
 
Water was splashing in the fountain behind them. The sun was scorching Jonas’s back—he’d sweated through his shirt long ago. Should he simply get up and go? It sounded crazy, what the man had said, but he didn’t look crazy. And he knew about Marie.
 
‘Three wishes, but why? Why me? And how can you grant them if you aren’t a fairy?’
 
‘Stick to the point, Jonas. Your wishes.’
 
‘But what have my wishes got to do with you? I don’t even know who you are.’
 
‘I’m the person who’ll grant you three wishes.’
 
‘Strikes me we’re going round in circles.’
 
‘That’s not my fault.’
 
‘Come on! A man in a white suit with gold chains and beery breath offers to grant me three wishes. It’s just too—’
 
‘That’s not my fault either. What you make of my appearance is up to you.’
 
‘That’s it, I’m going!’
 
Jonas made to get up but the man didn’t speak. He looked bored, as if he’d expected such recalcitrance or encountered it more than once. An old woman shuffled past, arguing with an invisible antagonist. Jonas stared after her until she was swallowed up by a sizeable group of sauntering figures.
 
‘Tell me honestly what you’re after. Blackmail? If you know so much about me and my circumstances, you must also know how much I’m good for. Why cause trouble? If Marie’s husband finds out... He’s a diabetic, always ill—almost a basket case, poor devil. Why hurt someone like that? As for my wife, don’t even think of it!’
 
‘You aren’t taking me seriously and that’s a mistake. Name your three wishes.’
 
The fountain behind Jonas was hissing now: its automatic pump had turned up the pressure. A child shrieked with delight, others laughed. A strident voice issuing from a loudspeaker announced a forthcoming football competition. Disturbed by a man on a bicycle, the pigeons that had been excitedly cooing as they pecked up grain on the path fluttered into the air. Jonas remembered that he had promised to get Tom and Chris the newly advertised electric locomotive for their model railway. The shops would be closing soon. Or would they? What day of the week was it?
 
Bemused, he kneaded his temples. His headache was becoming unbearable. Okay, he thought, let’s get it over.
 
‘Very well. You can grant me three wishes?’
 
‘That’s right.’
 
‘Anything I like?’
 
‘Anything.’
 
‘Right. I might wish to discover if life has any meaning, no? Or whether dying has any meaning. The trouble is, you wouldn’t be able to prove your answer was correct.’
 
‘Go on.’
 
‘I’d like to have known more about death before I die.’
 
‘Really?’
 
‘I might have liked to know what it’s like to have a close shave—to escape some major disaster by the skin of my teeth, get it?’
 
‘Go on.’
 
‘Know what I’ve always wanted? To be less lethargic. To do more. To be able to rouse myself. To be more active, more inquisitive, livelier. To try out new things.’
 
‘Go on.’
 
‘Oh, you can’t imagine how many things I’d like to know. I don’t understand anything, that’s the trouble. I’ve never understood anything and never will. I want to know. For certain!’
 
‘Is that it?’ asked the man.
 
‘To look into the future or the past—wouldn’t everyone like to do that? To catch a glimpse of what used to be? Or what lies ahead?’
 
‘That isn’t what you wish for,’ the man said.
 
‘Most of all I’d like to understand. I want to understand things and relationships—a little, at least, because I don’t understand them. I’ve never understood this world from the first, never found any answers, and all I can think of to do is to go on living. Oh yes, Mr Detective, and I’d like a few hypotheses at least, because I don’t have even those. If someone asks me, I’d like to be able to answer. That would be nice.’
 
‘Would it?’
 
‘Three wishes! I could wish to understand my relationship to other people, right? I could wish to inject some grandeur into my life, some drama and uniqueness. I could wish to be a different person—the heir to a fortune, say... I could wish for a meaningful death so as to render it more bearable. I could wish to have an enemy killed, not that I have any—only theoretically, mind you, because I’d never do that in practice. I could wish to comprehend things as they really are, couldn’t I? To recognize and understand them, couldn’t I?’
 
‘Go on.’
 
‘But’—Jonas had developed hiccups—‘I don’t wish for all those things. More wishes, that’s what I wish for. I wish all my wishes would come true. That’s my first wish, so the other two are redundant. I’ll make you a present of them.’
 
The man removed his sunglasses again. He chewed the end and stared straight at Jonas for a while. ‘Excellent,’ he said with a laugh. ‘Great!’
 
‘If that’s so’—Jonas thumped his chest to stop the hiccups—‘my first wish is that we both get up from this bench and walk off in opposite directions.’
 
‘From tomorrow onwards, Jonas, your wishes will come true. Two points, though: one, you must give your wishes time to mature; and two, you can’t wish for any more wishes.’
 
‘That could be getting a bit too subtle for me.’
 
‘We’re through now.’
 
The man stood up.
 
‘What now?’ Jonas asked. ‘Are you going to betray us?’
 
‘Nine sips of water.’
 
‘What?’
 
‘Against the hiccups.’
 
‘I don’t have any water with me.’
 
‘You don’t need any. Hold your hand as if there’s a glass in it, put your head back, and take nine slow sips of water.’
 
‘What’s in that briefcase?’
 
‘You don’t want to know.’
 
‘I thought you were going to grant all my wishes. All right, what’s in the briefcase? I want you to strip off, stuff a child’s spade up your backside and go prancing across the park. Go on!’
 
The man removed his sunglasses. His expressionless gaze rested on Jonas, who felt he was being deliberately scrutinized by a face on a poster.
 
‘You’ve got me all wrong,’ the man said. ‘This isn’t to do with what you want, it’s to do with what you wish for. Fundamentally, my briefcase doesn’t matter to you. What do you wish for, Jonas?’
 
He merely nodded and walked off without shaking hands.
 
Jonas watched him go. Although it was high time to go and buy the toy locomotive, he couldn’t make up his mind to move. He was feeling bewildered. It annoyed him that he’d left the car at home that morning because of the birthday celebration. He could have saved on a taxi.
 
An elderly couple walked past. A skateboarding adolescent was uttering meaningless yells for no apparent reason. A pretty woman sat down on the bench opposite. She was wearing shorts and a tight blue T-shirt and had braided her hair. Their eyes met. She gave Jonas an appraising stare, then looked away and didn’t look back.
 
A foreign woman swathed in white robes was coming towards him, walking fast with the yobs from the hot dog stand whooping in her wake. She had her head down and was attempting to shake off her pursuers. The pretty woman hastily grabbed her handbag and walked off across the park. Jonas scanned the faces of the other passers-by for signs that they were prepared to intervene, but they were all looking in the other direction. He meant to get up as the foreign woman passed his bench. He remained seated.
 
The woman and the rowdies were soon lost to view. He sat there consumed with shame. His mobile phone rang twice while he was concentrating on his hiccups, but it wasn’t Marie’s ring-tone so he didn’t take it out of his pocket.
 
He heard a noise behind him. A little boy was standing up to his knees in water, holding a red toy boat in his hand. ‘Look, my boat!’ he called. ‘It can float in the fountain!’
 
Jonas nodded without looking at the boat. He crooked his fingers as if holding a glass to his lips, put his head back and swallowed nine times. Nothing more happened. His hiccups had gone.
 
 
 
2
 
Tom and Chris had been on a nursery school outing and were already asleep. Jonas put the locomotive on the hat rack where the boys wouldn’t see it. He wanted to be there when they did.
 
‘How much aggro on a scale of one to ten?’ Helen asked from the kitchen.
 
‘Six,’ he said. ‘Too many people away on holiday, too many off sick. I could be late home tomorrow. What am I talking about! I mean I’m bound to be late tomorrow.’
 
Astor, their moody cat, miaowed and rubbed itself against his trouser leg. He stroked the animal until Helen handed him a postcard through the hatch between the kitchen and the living room. It was from her parents. He read it cursorily and laid it aside.
 
‘Have you spoken to Werner?’ asked Helen.
 
‘No news. He’ll ask her when she’s going on holiday.’
 
Werner’s sister owned a boutique for which she was seeking a manageress, possibly even a partner. Helen had been to a fashion school. Being poorly treated and paid at the office where she’d worked for some years, she now had visions of getting Werner’s sister’s boutique to specialize in ethically unimpeachable products. She was already in touch by e-mail with fair-trade suppliers throughout the world.
 
Jonas sat down on the sofa and opened the financial paper Helen subscribed to. Among other things, it analysed the success of female managers from an astrological standpoint. He would have liked to talk to someone about the man in the park. He stared over the top of the newspaper at an Astrid Lindgren poster on the wall. Marie... He wondered what she was doing at this moment.
 
He leafed absently through the newspaper and began, without any serious intent, to play with himself. At warm times of the year the many brief glimpses of pretty faces, bare brown thighs, tummies and cleavages that had presented themselves to him during the day usually generated a desire for relief and release, culminating in the pleasure of a peaceful orgasm. Tonight he felt nothing at all. He fondled his penis and waited for Helen to retire with a book, as she did every evening, to the scented candles in the bathroom.
 
He couldn’t help thinking of the foreign woman and the yobs. What should he have done, though? He shook his head morosely.
 
‘What’s wrong?’ Helen asked, tapping away at her laptop.
 
‘Nothing.’
 
‘Something bugging you?’
 
‘No, why?’
 
‘Never mind. How did it go at the doctor’s?’
 
‘The doctor’s?’
 
‘The paediatrician.’
 
He looked blank, trying to guess what she meant.
 
‘You forgot.’
 
He smote his brow, more as an acknowledgement of guilt for Helen’s benefit than in genuine remorse. He had promised to take the boys to have their meningitis jabs before nursery school. But—he remembered now—a text from Marie had intervened. He’d replied and she had texted him back. He was so preoccupied, he’d taken the usual route to the nursery school.
 
‘I might have known it,’ said Helen.
 
He said nothing.
 
‘It was only to be expected. You fail to take even the slightest responsibility for your children!’
 
‘Need you be so dramatic? I won’t forget tomorrow. Promise.’
 
‘Tomorrow?’ Helen’s voice became high-pitched and shrill. ‘Start doing the most important things today!’
 
‘Like what?’
 
They locked eyes.
 
‘Our children!’
 
‘They’re asleep,’ he said. ‘What do you expect me to do?’
 
‘More than you’re capable of, Jonas!’
 
‘What the hell am I supposed to do for them today?’ he shouted after her.
 
She slammed the bathroom door. As soon as he heard it click shut he fetched the mobile phone from his jacket, which was hanging in the hall. At that moment he heard it beep. A text message from Werner Mobile 2.
 
Went swimming, on my way home. Phone?
 
Hi soulmate! Things here not too good. Wish I was with you.
 
Yes, that would be great. A. has gone out. Good day?
 
Please don’t panic, but I must ask: Have you noticed anything? Could A. suspect?
 
The reply came within seconds:
 
What do you mean?
 
Met an oddball today. He knew about us.
 
WHAT???
 
Beats me too. Helen isn’t behind it. I know her well enough to be certain of that.
 
She didn’t text him back at once. He tiptoed into the boys’ room. The salt crystal lamp was on. He bent over their beds.
 
As ever, the sight of their untroubled faces triggered something in him. Tenderness, weakness, surrender—a feeling of boundless love devoid of the irritation that occasionally flared up when they pestered him for something or turned the flat into a shambles. Sometimes he was positively overwhelmed by that feeling. On those occasions he saw the meaning of his entire life encapsulated within four square metres, and it almost scared him. At other times he was able to enjoy it—was able simply look at his sons and yield to the banal awareness that he had at least done something right in his life.
 
He gave them a kiss apiece. Tom on the cheek, Chris, who was lying on his tummy, on the back of his blonde head. Their pillows gave off a sweetish smell of cocoa.
 
Not possible! Who? Where? Did you tell someone? Can we have a quick word?
 
Awkward phone now. Of course I didn’t tell anyone. See you tomorrow.
 
Just tell me who it was.
 
No idea. A nutcase. Please don’t worry. Will think of you all night!
 
And I’ll think of your nutcase all night!
 
I WON’T, because I’m a rational person capable of assessing situations correctly.
 
That’s debatable. Night-night.
 
He started leafing through an Icelandic tourist guide on Venice which Werner had been given by his colleagues as a joke birthday present and had passed on to him. His hands were cold, his guts in knots, his legs twitching. He sat up. For something to do, he shuttled between the living room and the kitchen laden with plates and glasses.
 
He didn’t want Helen to find out. If it didn’t put paid to their marriage, it would at least put paid to normality and trust. But it would probably spell the end of everything. Years ago he’d had a one-night stand and told Helen about it a few days later. She reacted more violently than he’d expected. For a week she’d hardly spoken a word to him. A month later she went to bed with someone else, she didn’t say who. If she found out about Marie, he knew everything would be over from one moment to the next.
 
The end ... He didn’t know whether he wanted that. He did and he didn’t want to leave Helen, didn’t know what he wanted—didn’t even know what he ought to want. Without children it would have been different. Maybe.
 
He had got to know Marie in a thoroughly brazen manner—in a café, when she sat down at the next table in her airline uniform. He looked up, looked away, took in what he’d seen, looked again, and thereafter felt an almost irresistible urge to stare at her. A girlfriend had briefly left her shopping bags with her. When they were saying goodbye Marie had given the friend her mobile number. He wrote it down, looked her boldly in the eye, and said: ‘Thanks.’
 
For some time he had taken the affair lightly, regarding it as an illicit pleasure that would soon draw to a discreet close, after which—richer by a minor experience—he would continue to live with his wife as before. After a while he’d noticed that he was thinking of Marie with greater affection than of Helen, and for some months now he’d felt he couldn’t live without her. He wrote her e-mails, sent her text messages and never let his mobile out of his sight in case she texted or even called him, which very seldom happened because she was reluctant to run any risks.
 
They saw each other once a week. They met in high-rise cafés and parks, cinemas and department stores, walked the streets brushing against each other as if by accident, had meals together, and now and again—very rarely—contrived to go to a concert. Their hotel was the Ensemble, but they’d also done it twice in his car and once, when time was short, in a ladies’ powder room.
 
He didn’t know what to do, there was no way out. He couldn’t imagine living with Marie because that would make him an ex officio father to her child, whereas his own sons would have no father living at home. How was he to explain that to them? ‘I’m now living with another little boy...’ No, he just couldn’t do that, any more than he could rob another man of his child.
 
From the bathroom came the muffled sound of water gushing into the bath. He started to sort out his CDs and came across some he definitely wouldn’t listen to again. He hurled them out of the window with all his might and watched them disappear, glittering, into the darkness. The sleeves he tossed into the waste bin.
 
I love you. It’ll be all right.
 
I love you too. I’m worried, though.
 
Please don’t worry, it’ll be all right.
 
Helen, her hair thick with lather, was lying in the bath doing a sudoku. She merely glanced up. Five candles were flickering funereally on the edge of the bathtub. The steamy air was heavy with the scent of apple and cinnamon.
 
Standing in front of the mirror, he set to work on his spots. Helen was always joking that his face reminded her of a sprouting potato. He used to laugh at this gross exaggeration, but ever since he and Marie had got together he’d taken it seriously. He finished off by rubbing in some cream.
 
He took the nail scissors from the drawer. At one point he nicked himself, instantly drawing blood. The pain evoked a sharp, whistling intake of breath. He blew on the cut, which was turning red. He looked at Helen in the mirror, at her soft, unwitting face.
 
‘I love you,’ he said.
 
 

Sample chapters translated by John Brownjohn
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