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Authors: Andrés Neuman

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Hans thought Bertold was following Elsa around, or that Elsa was trying to avoid Bertold, or both. Despite her attentiveness, Hans sensed a rebelliousness in Elsa—her gaze was more direct than was usual among servants, as though behind her silence there was defiance. Although they had both been employed at the Gottlieb residence for roughly the same length of time, Bertold seemed to be part of the furniture, whereas Elsa gave the impression of just passing through. Bertold attended the guests obligingly, Elsa did so grudgingly. My dear! Frau Pietzine suddenly called out to her. My dear, go to the kitchen and ask if there are any meringues left, yes, thank you, dear, and so, darling Sophie, will you not delight us today with your piano playing? Really? Oh, I'm so disappointed! The piano when it is well played is so, so, I just adore the piano, don't you think, Herr Hans, that our beloved Sophie ought perhaps to, well, to play a little welcoming piece in your honour? I think if we all insist, what do you mean you refuse! Oh don't make us plead, child! Really? Next week, you say? That's a promise? Very well, very well, but remember you've given your word! It's my age, you see, Herr Hans, at my age music moves one so!
Whenever Frau Pietzine referred to her age, she would make a
dramatic pause and wait for a fellow guest to pay her a compliment. Still unaware of this, Hans was not forthcoming with any praise. Frau Pietzine lifted her chin, blinked three times in succession and turned around to join in the conversation between Herr Levin and Álvaro. Hans edged closer to Álvaro, hoping to renew at the first opportunity the discussion they had left off previously. As soon as he exchanged a few ideas with Herr Levin, Hans had the impression he was far too condescending towards him really to agree with anything he said. He suspected Herr Levin of concurring with everyone not out of modesty, but because he was secretly sure of quite the opposite but was not prepared to argue about it. He also thought Frau Levin behaved towards her husband in the same way he did to the others. As for the Spanish guest, Álvaro, Hans was able to confirm what he had suspected—he was different from the others, not because he was a foreigner but because of some dissenting convictions that aroused Hans's interest. Álvaro seemed willing to satisfy his curiosity—when Professor Mietter launched into one of his monologues, Álvaro would catch Hans's eye, and a flicker of amusement would appear on Álvaro's lips, which turned into a frank smile when Hans responded.
That afternoon Hans made these and other observations. And yet they all turned on the same axis, like threads around a bobbin—the focus, the real reason for his visit to the Gottlieb Salon, was beyond a doubt his desire to be close to Sophie. She spoke to him now and then, although their conversations never ran on, and it was always Sophie who broke them off on some pretext or other. So it seemed to Hans at any rate. Was it shyness? Or pride? Perhaps he was behaving inappropriately. Or possibly his conversation bored her. But if so then why had she invited him? That afternoon, Hans agonised over the meaning of Sophie's gestures, conferring on each too much significance, veering constantly between enthusiasm and disappointment,
sudden delight and petty resentment.
For her part Sophie had the impression that Hans, seemingly with impeccable courtesy yet with a certain underlying impertinence, had spent the entire afternoon creating small points of intimacy between them during their conversations. Sophie refused to tolerate this attitude for a number of reasons. Firstly, she had endless things to attend to during these gatherings, and was not about to neglect her duties in order to please anyone. Secondly, Hans was a newcomer, and should not expect any preferential treatment—this would be unreasonable and unfair on the others. Thirdly, she was of course a recently betrothed woman and her father was keeping an eagle eye on her from behind the veil of his pipe smoke. Finally, without knowing why, Sophie realised with annoyance that whenever she spoke to Hans her mind began to wander and she had inconvenient thoughts quite unrelated to the salon.
Even so, Sophie told herself as she swished her skirts from one end of the room to the other, these slight objections were not enough of a reason to stop inviting Hans to the salon—she could not deny that his contributions, more frequent as the hours went by, were original and slightly provocative, and would enhance the debates. And this was the only thing, Sophie kept saying to herself, the only thing that persuaded her Hans should be allowed to keep coming.
I don't know what it is about this city, Hans said, handing the bowl of rice back to the organ grinder, it's as if it won't let me leave. The organ grinder chewed, nodded his head and tugged on his beard. First you appeared, Hans said, and then her, there's always some reason for me to delay my journey. Sometimes it feels as if I've just arrived in Wandernburg; other days I wake up with the sensation of having lived here all my life. When I go out I look at the coaches and say to myself: Go on, climb
aboard, it's very simple, you've done it a thousand times. Yet I let them go by, and I don't understand what's happening to me. Why, yesterday Herr Zeit didn't even ask me when I was leaving as he does every night. I paused as we crossed on the stairs, but instead he looked at me and said, See you in the morning. It felt terrible. I hate knowing the future. I could hardly sleep for thinking about it. How many days have I been here? To begin with I knew exactly how many, but now I couldn't say for sure. (Why does that worry you? the organ grinder said, what's wrong with staying here?) I don't know, I suppose I'm afraid of carrying on seeing Sophie and then having to leave, it would be worse, maybe I should continue my travels while there's still time. (But isn't that what love is, the old man said, being happy to stay?) I'm not sure, organ grinder, I've always thought of love as pure movement, a sort of journey. (But if love itself is a journey, the old man argued, why would you need to leave?) Good question, well, for example, in order to come back, in order to be sure you're in the right place. How can you know that if you've never left it? (That's how I know I love Wandernburg, replied the organ grinder, because I don't want to leave.) All right, all right, but what about people? Does the same rule apply to people? For me there's no greater joy than being reunited with a friend I've not seen for a long time. What I mean is, we also go back to places because we love them, don't you think? And loving someone can be like a homecoming (being older, I think that love, love of places, people or things, is about harmony, and harmony for me is to be at rest, to observe what's around me, being happy to be where I am, and, well, that's why I always play in the market square, because I can't imagine a better place), places and things stay the same, but people change, we change. (My dear Hans, places are constantly changing, haven't you noticed the branches, the river?) No one notices those things, organ grinder, everyone walks around
without seeing, they become accustomed, accustomed to their houses, their jobs, their loved ones, and in the end they convince themselves that this is their life, there can be no other, it's just a habit (that's true, although love can be a habit, too, can't it? Loving someone could be, I don't know, like living inside that person), I think I'm getting drunk, Hans sighed, slumping back onto the pallet. The organ grinder stood up. I think we need a third opinion, he announced with a grin. He poked his head out of the cave and proclaimed: What do you think, Franz? But Franz did not bark, and went on lifting his leg calmly against a pine tree. The organ grinder looked at Hans, who sat head in hand. Come on, the old man said, cheer up. What would you like to hear, a waltz or a minuet?
Herr Zeit saw the dark lines under Hans's eyes and cleared his throat. Good morning, he said, it's Friday already! Yes, Hans replied, without much enthusiasm. But then immediately thought: Friday! and remembered the salon was that afternoon. He pulled himself together, instinctively tidied his hair, and felt a sudden rush of tenderness towards the innkeeper's rippling belly. Do you know something, Herr Zeit? he said, to make conversation. I was wondering the other day why there aren't more guests at the inn. Are you unhappy with the service? said Herr Zeit apparently offended. I didn't mean that at all, Hans explained hurriedly, I'm simply surprised the inn is so empty. There's nothing strange about it, Frau Zeit's voice chimed in from behind. Hans wheeled round and saw her walking towards them, carrying a pile of logs. It's the same every year, she said, in winter we have next to no guests, but in spring and particularly in summer, we get so busy we even have to hire a couple of servants to attend to all the guests. Herr Zeit scratched his belly. If you stay on until the season begins, you'll see for yourself, said the innkeeper. I was also wondering, Hans
added, where I might send a telegram from. I haven't seen any telegraph offices. There aren't any in Wandernburg, replied Herr Zeit, we don't need them. When we have something to say to each other we do it in person. When we want to send a letter, we wait for the postman and we give it to him. We're simple folk. And proud of it.
Lisa! Are you bringing that laundry in or what? yelled Frau Zeit. Lisa came in from the backyard carrying a basket full of stiff linen. She had an annoyed look on her face and her hair was speckled with snow. When she saw Hans in the passageway, she dropped the basket on the floor as though it didn't belong to her, and pulled down her jersey, which filled out slightly. Here it is, Mother, she said looking at Hans. Good morning, Lisa, he said. Good morning, she beamed. Is it very cold outside? he enquired. A little, she said. Noticing that Hans was holding a cup, Lisa said: Is there any coffee left, mother? Later, Frau Zeit replied, first go and fetch the groceries, it's getting late. Lisa sighed. Well, she said, I'll see you later, I suppose. Yes, see you later, he nodded. When Lisa closed the door, Hans, Herr Zeit and his wife all remained silent. Lisa raised the lapels of her coat round her face. She grinned.
The whole of Old Cauldron Street, the windows, rooftops, as well as the surrounding roads and country paths, had almost disappeared beneath the snow. Above Wandernburg, across the floor of the sky, came the sound of furniture being shifted.
Professor Mietter's wig glowed in the firelight from the marble hearth as he talked with Herr Gottlieb. Frau Pietzine embroidered, listening in to their conversation. Herr Levin and Frau Levin exchanged discreet smiles. Álvaro was chatting to Hans and gesticulating wildly. Standing to one side of the fireplace, next to her father's chair, Sophie threaded conversations together, making them circulate around the room. Hans was
content—owing to an unavoidable engagement with a count new to the region Rudi Wilderhaus had been unable to attend the salon that afternoon either. Hans had been seated next to Sophie, so that in order to see her face when she was sitting down he was obliged to turn his head. As a newcomer, Hans was, or felt he was, too conspicuous to dare make any suspicious movements. And so, by shifting his chair slightly each time he rose to his feet or sat up straight, he contrived to move within visual range of the large round mirror hanging on the wall opposite the fireplace. Thanks to this he became accustomed to studying Sophie's movements and gestures without seeming indiscreet. Hans did not know whether she had noticed his optical manoeuvre, although the intricate poses she began adopting in her chair made him think as much.
I for one, asserted Herr Gottlieb, consider the introduction of a customs union unwise. Just think, my friends, of the terrible competition it would unleash, and who knows whether the small shopkeepers would end up being driven to the wall, not to mention all the family businesses people have worked so hard to build up. On the contrary, Herr Gottlieb, argued Herr Levin, a customs union would stimulate the market, businesses would prosper and trade would increase (as would commissions, eh? Professor Mietter remarked sardonically), ahem, I am merely hazarding a guess. I wouldn't be so sure, replied Herr Gottlieb, some broker might come here tomorrow from, I don't know, from Maguncia, for instance, and take over all your business! I think we should stay as we are, things can always get worse, believe me, I have seen it happen. Well, said Herr Levin, if it's a division of labour we are talking about, perhaps Mr Smith is not so mistaken when he suggests that each country should specialise in what it is naturally disposed to produce (naturally? What does naturally mean? said Álvaro), well, according to its conditions, climate, tradition and so forth, and, yes, be able
to trade its produce freely with other countries, ahem, that's the idea. And an interesting one, Herr Levin, Hans spoke up, although in order to talk of free trade we must first consider who would preside over this specialised or natural form of production, or whatever we want to call it. For if there were only a handful of owners it follows they would become the country's true masters and would be the ones who decided the rules of the game, and the conditions in which everyone lived. Smith's theories are capable of enriching a state and impoverishing its workers. Before free trade I think other measures are needed, such as agrarian reform, the dismantling of the large estates and a more just distribution of land. This would not mean simply freeing trade but breaking down the real barriers, beginning with the socio-economic ones. Oh, said Professor Mietter, I suppose you are going to start quoting Saint-Simon? Not exactly, Herr Professor, Hans retorted, although I don't see any reason why not. Workers cannot be entirely reliant on their masters, the state should not exactly control, but intervene up to a certain point, in order to guarantee certain basic rights. Naturally, said Professor Mietter, we need a powerful state to show us the way, a state like the ones Napoleon or Robespierre wanted! That is not what I meant, Hans said, a redistribution of wealth does not have to end in a reign of terror. (And who can guarantee it will not lead to such extremes? asked the professor. Who will control the state?) Well then professor, are we to leave control of the factories in God's hands? Ahem, interrupted Herr Levin, to get back to Smith … I agree with the customs union, Hans interrupted him, aware he was probably talking too much, but only as a first step. With all due respect, Herr Levin, free trade among nations would be the least of it, important, of course, but not essential (and what would be essential, if you do not mind telling us? asked Professor Mietter), well, in my view the essential thing would be a common foreign policy. Completely
different from the Holy Alliance of course, which is simply designed to protect the monarchies. I am speaking of parliamentary rather than military union, of a Europe that would think like one country, a society made up of citizens, not a collection of trading partners. Granted, the first thing would be to do away with some of its borders. After that, why not continue with customs unions? Why not think of the German union as part of a continental whole? Professor Mietter's mouth formed into an “O” as though he were sipping a cocktail. How ingenious of you! he said, and who exactly would we unite with, Herr Hans? With the French who invaded us? With the English who have monopolised industry? Or with the Spaniards, who are as likely to crown the same king twice as they are to proclaim an illegal republic? Let's be realistic! Let's stop dreaming! In any event, Hans shrugged, I consider it a dream worth having. Flights of fancy, indeed, Herr Levin reflected, although …
BOOK: Traveler of the Century
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