Read The Eternal Philistine Online
Authors: Odon Von Horvath
“I’ve still got to think long and hard about the best way to spend my money,” said Kobler pensively. “I’m no narcissist,” he added. Kammerlocher’s long legs, the luxury hotel, and the pyramids had slightly discombobulated him. He mechanically offered the count one of his eight-pfennig cigarettes.
“Those are Macedonians,” said the count. “I’ll just go ahead and take two.”
They were smoking.
“I’m definitely going to Sopot,” repeated the count.
The clock struck eleven.
“It’s already twelve,” said the count. He was very dishonest.
Then he suddenly got nervous.
“Well, then, so I’m going to Sopot,” he repeated once again. “I’ll do some gambling there. You see, I’ve got a system that’s founded on the laws of probability. You always bet on the number that’s most likely to come up. You’ll likely win. It’s very likely. On the subject of likely, let me have back those ten marks. I just realized that it would be best if I got them back to you tomorrow, otherwise I won’t be able to pick up my laundry. I had to borrow one of your handkerchiefs earlier.”
PERZL BROUGHT KOBLER THE FRESH TOWEL WHILE he was shaving. “All’s well that ends well,” she said triumphantly. “I’m very grateful to you for finally ushering out that count with such vigor. I’m so happy that I’ll never have to see that pimp again!”
“Shut your face, Perzl!” thought Kobler. He explained to her rather pointedly that she had completely misunderstood the count. “Sometimes you’ve just got to tell him that he’s impossible, or else he doesn’t know what to do with himself anymore. Sure, at the moment he’s hurt, but he’ll thank you for it later. —All right, now bring me some hot water!” he said, and seemed unwilling to tolerate any dissent.
She brought him some, sat down on the smallest chair, and watched him attentively. She always found herself
forgiving men for a great many things while they were shaving. It was just in her nature.
He, however, barely took any notice of her. He did not like it one bit that she was always nosing around in his private affairs with her big snout.
“Well, I never even had a great-uncle,” she uttered sheepishly, “but when my stepbrother died—”
Kobler cut her off impatiently. “That stuff about the dying great-uncle was just to soften me up so that I’d be quicker to lend him something. The count is quite cunning, you see. But he’s also quite forgetful. Keep in mind, he was briefly buried alive during the war. He really is no spring chicken. Nowadays you’ve got to sell your own grandmother just to get anywhere, only I wouldn’t sell mine because I just couldn’t. All right, now bring me some cold water!”
She brought him the cold water and then gazed innocently at his back. “May I be perfectly frank with you, Herr Kobler?”
Kobler stopped short and stared at himself in the mirror. “Frank,” he wondered. “Frank? In that case I’ll give her notice on the first of October!” Slowly he turned toward her. “Please do,” he said officially.
“You now know how highly I esteem the gentleman count, but he was, nevertheless, right about one thing, namely about taking that trip. If I had all of your money right now, I’d drop everything as it stands and get out into the world.”
“So that’s her being perfectly frank,” thought Kobler, reassured. At that point he grew conspicuously domineering. “Tell me, Frau Perzl, why do you always eavesdrop on me when I’m attending to guests?”
“But I didn’t eavesdrop,” objected Perzl, gesticulating
wildly. “I was just listening to the radio, but I couldn’t hear a peep of the classical quartette because the gentlemen were speaking their minds so loudly. Believe me, I’d rather have edified myself with the music than overheard your vulgar ranting and raving.”
“It’s okay, Frau Perzl, I didn’t mean it like that,” said Kobler, initiating his retreat while she was reveling in her wronged innocence.
“When I think about all those foreign countries,” she said, “I get all dreamy—that’s how much I yearn for Abbazia!”
Kobler paced up and down.
“I find all of that talk about the wide world,” said Kobler, “really very interesting. That is, I’ve often thought one should get acquainted with the world abroad in order to expand one’s own horizon. For me, as a young businessman, it’d be especially crummy if I didn’t get out of here, because you’ve got to acquaint yourself with the foreign sales methods. Like, for example, a convertible with a jump seat—how do people sell them in Poland and Greece? Of course, it’ll mostly be just nuances, but often it comes down to such nuances. Customer service keeps getting harder and harder. People keep getting more and more demanding and—” He paused because a spine-chilling thought had suddenly seized him: “What guarantee do I have that I’ll find another Portschinger?”
“Nobody is going to give you one, Alfons Kobler, no god and no hog,” he thought to himself. He stared sorrowfully into space. “Nothing is ever good or cheap enough for these customers,” he thought sadly, and gave a weary smile.
“You’ll surely learn many things abroad that you’ll be able to exploit magnificently,” Perzl consoled him. “The art treasures alone that you’re going to see! The Louvre in
Paris, and in the Doge’s Palace there’s a portrait hanging of an old
who always stares at you no matter where you’re standing. But especially Florence! And the Roman Forum in Rome! The whole of the ancient world!”
But Kobler rebuffed her. “I’ve got absolutely no time for art! Do you think I’m unworldly or something? Only the wives of rich Jews, like Frau Automo-bear, are interested in such things. She was just smitten with the Gothic age and let herself get worked over by some belletrist.”
Perzl gave a dejected nod. “It used to be different,” she said.
“With me, everything has got to have some sense,” averred Kobler. “Didn’t you hear what the count had to say about the Egyptian with the pyramids? Now you see, that would have some sense!”
Perzl kept getting more and more dejected. “With all my heart, I wouldn’t begrudge you it, my dear sir!” she shrieked frantically. “If only my poor son also had some sense and had found himself a rich Egyptian instead of that lousy bitch of a typist. O lord forgive her her sins!”
She started sobbing.
“Are you familiar with Sopot?” asked Kobler.
“I’m only familiar with stuff as it was before the war. I used to travel a lot with my late husband. He even took me up to Mount Vesuvius. Oh, how I’d love to go back up there again!”
She started crying.
“Calm down,” said Kobler. “If it can’t be done, it can’t be done.”
“I, too, take solace in that,” whimpered Perzl before pulling herself together.
“Forgive me for bothering you.” She smiled sorrowfully.
“But if I were you, I’d travel to Barcelona first thing tomorrow—right now there’s a World’s Fair going on there. You don’t even need to stay in a luxury hotel; you can easily meet those Egyptian women in the pavilions. It’s always like that at World’s Fairs. At the World’s Fair in Paris I once lost my late husband and, just then, an elegant gentleman accosted me. As I look at him, he opens up his overcoat and hasn’t got anything on underneath. I only mention this in passing.”
KOBLER ENTERED A GOVERNMENT-RUN TRAVEL agency because he knew that information could be obtained there for free. He wanted to make inquiries about Barcelona and the simplest way of getting there. You see, he had abandoned Sopot because Perzl had convinced him that a considerably larger assortment of Egyptian women could be found at an exhibition of the entire world than in the most luxurious of luxury hotels. Besides, this way he could spare himself all the costs of luxury hotels, and should nothing come of his plans with the Egyptian women (which he by no means feared, but he planned for every contingency), he could always go to the automobile pavilion, where he could get an overview of the worldwide automotive industry at a glance and fill in the gaps in his knowledge about it. “I’ll combine business with utility,” he said to himself.
Posters of palm trees and icebergs were hanging in the government-run travel agency. You had the feeling that you were no longer in Schellingstrasse.
Nearly every clerk seemed to speak several languages, and Kobler listened reverently. He was standing at the counter entitled “Abroad.”
Two upper-class ladies and an elderly gentleman with a well-groomed beard were already standing in front of him. The ladies were speaking Russian; they were emigrants. The clerk was also an emigrant. The ladies were placing great demands on him. He had to tell them where the sun was presently shining, whether in Lido, Cannes, or Deauville. They would travel to Dalmatia either way, said the ladies. The price was, after all, irrelevant, even if Dalmatia should turn out to be cheaper.
The elderly gentleman with the well-groomed beard was a delegate from Hungary. He called himself a democrat and was just reading in his Hungarian newspaper how democracy was going belly-up. He nodded his approval.
One of the ladies darted a look at him. It looked real good. Just as Kobler was getting upset about not being an emigrant, the bearded democrat got upset about MacDonald. “Every democrat ought to be exterminated,” he thought.
Finally the two ladies left. The clerk seemed to know them very well because he kissed one of their hands. They did, after all, come in every week and make inquiries about all sorts of routes. They still had not traveled anywhere yet, though, because they only just got by with their money. And so they got the prospectus every week and that sufficed. On weekends the clerk would sometimes go canoeing with the lady whose hand he kissed.
“Now, finally, I would like to go to Hajdúszoboszló in a sleeping car,” said the guy with the beard impatiently, and then gave Kobler a belligerent look.
“What’s up with him?” thought Kobler.
“Wonder if that’s another democrat,” thought the democrat.
“Unfortunately, I cannot give you a ticket to Hajdúszoboszló,” said the clerk. “I only have one as far as Budapest.”
“That’s an outrage!” said the beard indignantly. “I shall lodge a complaint with my good friend, the Royal Hungarian Minister of Trade!”
“I’m a clerk,” said the clerk, “I’m just doing my duty—I can’t do anything about it. Which class would you like?”
The guy with the beard looked at him in an inexpressibly wistful and hurt manner. “First, of course.” He nodded sadly. “Poor Hungary!” randomly crossed his mind just as Kobler accidentally stepped on his corn. “What do you think you’re doing there!?” roared the beard.
“My apologies,” said Kobler.
“Well, that’s surely a democrat!” hissed the democrat in Hungarian.
“Please, just wait a few moments. I’ve got to have somebody check to see if there are still seats available in the sleeping car to Budapest,” said the clerk. Then he turned to Kobler. “Where to?”
“To Barcelona,” he answered, as though it were just around the corner.
The beard pricked up his ears. “Barcelona,” he reflected, “that was one of the centers of the anarchist movement before Primo di Rivera. He stepped on my corn and he’s riding third class, too!”
“Barcelona is far away,” said the clerk. Kobler nodded.
The beard could not help but nod and was upset about it.
“Barcelona is really far away,” said the clerk. “How do you want to get there? Via Switzerland or Italy? Are you traveling to the World’s Fair? All right, listen up: go there via
Italy and return via Switzerland. The cost and distance are immaterial, right? The trip there and back will take ninety-three hours, naturally with the express train. You’re going to need a visa for France and Spain. All taken care of! You won’t need one for Austria, Italy, or Switzerland. All taken care of! If you depart from here, you’ll be at the German border by 10:32 and in Innsbruck by 13:05. I’ll write it all down for you. 13:28 departure from Innsbruck; 15:23 arrival in Brennero; 15:30 departure from Brennero; 20:50 arrival in Verona; 21:44 departure from Verona; 00:13 arrival in Milano; 03:29 departure from Milano; 07:04 departure from Genova; 11:27 arrival in Ventimiglia; 18:40 arrival in Marseille; 05:16 arrival at Portbou, the Spanish border; 10:00 arrival in Barcelona; 11:00 departure from Barcelona.
Cerberes, Tarscon, Lyon, Geneva, Bern, Basel: the clerk wrote down all the arrival and departure times for his return journey, too. He even knew the numbers by heart.
“Well, that’s one mnemonic acrobat,” thought Kobler. “A circus!”
“So third class, there and back, will only cost 127 marks and 54 pfennigs,” said the circus.
There and back?! Kobler was delighted.
“Is that all? It’s not possible,” he gaped.
“Actually, yes,” the clerk was quick to reassure him. “Germany is, as you know, one of the most expensive countries in Europe because it lost the war. France and Italy are considerably cheaper because they have inflation. Only Spain and Switzerland are still more expensive than Germany.”
“You are forgetting the remnants of Greater Hungary,” interjected the beard suddenly. “The remnants of Greater Hungary are even cheaper than Germany, despite having lost everything in the war. It was hacked to pieces, my dear
sirs! Serbia and Croatia are, by contrast, even cheaper than the remnants of Greater Hungary because America won the war. Even though, militarily speaking, we won the war!”
“In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter one bit who wins such a war,” said Kobler. The beard glared at him indignantly. “Aha, that’s a Bolshevik!” he thought.
“The neutral countries are the best off—they’re the richest ones today,” said the clerk, closing the debate.
Kobler was genuinely aggrieved that Spain and Switzerland had not also been involved in the World War.
ON THE EVENING BEFORE HIS TRIP TO THE World’s Fair, Kobler stepped into the Schellingsalon, a restaurant and café in the Schellingstrasse where he was a regular. He went there to impress people. He ordered the roast pork with a mixed salad.
“Anything else?” asked the waitress.
“I’m going to Barcelona,” he said.
“Huh, how could you be so stupid!” she said, and walked off. Just then Herr Kastner walked by his table.
“I’m going to Barcelona,” Kobler shouted out to him, but Herr Kastner was already long gone.