English-language translations of iconic Polish writer Bruno Schulz include The Street of Crocodiles (1963) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1988). The title story from the latter collection, first published in 1937, appears in The Weird compendium. The latest translation of “The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” is by John Curran Davis, and reprinted below. Here on WFR.com, you can also read a fascinating interview with Davis about translating Schulz, as well as Davis’s short introduction to Schulz’s life andwork. - The Editors
It was a long journey. Barely one or two passengers travelled on that forgotten branch line, where the train ran just once a week. Never had I seen those carriages before: archaic in style, withdrawn from the other lines long ago, as spacious as rooms, dark and with many nooks. Those corridors, breaking off at different angles, those cold, empty and labyrinthine compartments — there was something oddly forlorn about them, something almost ghastly. I made my way from carriage to carriage in search of some snug corner. It was windy everywhere; freezing draughts threaded their way through those interiors, piercing the entire train from end to end. People were sitting here and there on the floor beside their bundles, afraid to occupy the vacant and excessively high seats. Those bulging oilcloth seats were icy cold, anyway, and sticky with age. No passengers boarded at the empty stations. Without a whistle, without a puff, the train continued slowly, and as it seemed, pensively on its way.
For a time, a man in a torn railwayman’s uniform accompanied me, silent, engrossed by his thoughts. He pressed a handkerchief to his swollen, aching face. Then he was lost somewhere; he got off unnoticed at some halt. In the straw strewn on the floor, he left his imprint behind, and an outworn, black valise that he had forgotten.
Wading in straw and litter, I went with tottering steps from compartment to compartment. The doors, standing open at both ends of every carriage, all swung in the wind. Nowhere was there even a solitary passenger. At last, I met a conductor wearing the black uniform of the railway service of that line. He was winding a thick scarf around his neck and packing away his bits and pieces, a torch and an official book. “We are pulling in, sir,” he said, casting a look at me, his eyes almost totally white. Without a puff, without a rattle, the train drew slowly to a standstill, as if life had slowly escaped it along with its last exhalation of steam. We stopped dead. Silence and emptiness. No station building. He pointed out to me, stepping down from the train, the direction in which the Sanatorium lay. With my valise in my hand, I set off walking along a narrow, white highway, which led by and by into the dark copse of a park. I regarded the landscape with a certain curiosity. The path along which I was walking rose up and led out onto the crest of a gentle knoll, from where I took in a vast horizon. The day was utterly grey, dreary and without highlights; perhaps under the influence of that heavy and colourless atmosphere, the entire great bowl of the horizon darkened, upon which an immense wooded landscape was arranged like stage scenery, in ever more distant and greying strands and layers of forestation, flowing in streaks, in gentle slopes, here from the left side, there from the right. That whole dark and thoroughly solemn landscape seemed to flow almost indiscernibly into itself, to displace itself like a clouded and gathering sky full of unfathomable movement. The liquid belts and trails of those forests rustled, and seemed to be carried along by that sound, like a tide rising imperceptibly toward the land. The white road meandered like a melody, receding amid the dark dynamic of the wooded terrain, along a ridge of wide chords struck with the force of huge, musical massifs, which finally engulfed it. I snapped off a twig from a wayside tree. The green of its leaves was intensely dark, practically black. It was oddly saturated blackness, deep and generous, like curative, nourishing sleep; and all the greys of the landscape were derivatives of that one colour. At times, our own landscape assumes such a colour, on cloudy summer twilights awash with long rainstorms; that same deep and peaceful abnegation, that same resigned and final numbness, having no further need of the consolation of colours.
It was as dark as night in the forest. I groped my way on soundless conifer needles. As the trees grew sparser, the beams of a wooden bridge began to clatter under my feet. On its far side, amid the blackness of trees, the grey and many-windowed walls of a hotel loomed, signposted as the Sanatorium. The glazed double doors stood open; one stepped through them directly from the bridge, which had a shaky handrail of birch branches on either side. In the corridor, all was gloom and solemn silence. I tiptoed past door after door, reading their numbers with my fingertips in the darkness. Finally, at a corner, I chanced upon a chambermaid. She was hurrying out of one of the rooms, breathless and flustered, as if tearing herself free from someone’s importunate hands. She barely understood what I said to her. I had to repeat myself. She fidgeted helplessly.
Had my telegram been received? She spread her arms and glanced to the side. She was waiting for an opportunity to skip back to the half-open door, at which she was squinting.
“I have come a long way,” I said with some impatience. “I booked a room here by telegram. To whom shall I report?”
She didn’t know. “Perhaps you would like to try the restaurant?” she stammered. “Everyone is asleep now. I will announce you when the doctor wakes up.”
“Asleep? But it is daylight. Nightfall is still a long way off…”
“They always sleep in this place, didn’t you know?” She raised her inquisitive eyes to me. “And besides,” she added coquettishly, “here, night-time never comes.” She composed herself, no longer trying to escape. As she fidgeted, her hands plucked at the lace of her pinafore.
I left her. I went into the semi-dark restaurant. Here stood tables; a huge buffet extended to the length of one wall. I felt my appetite returning after a long time without eating, and was gladdened at the sight of plates abundantly crammed with pastries and cakes. I set my valise down on one of the tables; they were all unoccupied. I clapped my hands — no response. My eyes were drawn to a neighbouring, larger and brighter room. This room, through an expansive window or loggia, was open onto a landscape that I had already come to know, and which now, in its deep sadness and resignation, stood in the frame of the embrasure like a memento mori. The remains of a recent sitting cluttered the tablecloths; opened bottles and half-empty glasses; even the tips still lay there, uncollected by the staff. I returned to the buffet and appraised the cakes and pies; they looked most appetising. Feeling a surge of the most singular ravenousness, I pondered whether I ought to serve myself. One short-cake in particular, with apple jam, made my mouth water. I was on the point of levering one of those cakes with a silver spatula when I sensed the presence of someone behind me. The chambermaid had entered, wearing soft, silent slippers, and gently touched my back. “The doctor will see you now,” she said as she scrutinised her fingernails.
She walked ahead of me, not once turning completely around, confident of the magnetism that she exerted with the motion of her hips. She played with the intensity of that magnetism, adjusting the distance between our bodies as we passed by dozens of doors, all in numbered order. The corridor grew increasingly dark. Finally, in total darkness now, she leaned against me. “Here is the doctor’s door,” she whispered. “Please go in.”
Doctor Gotard received me, standing in the centre of the room. He was a short man, broad in the shoulders, with a black beard.
“We received your telegram only yesterday,” he said. “We sent a carriage to meet you at the station, but you arrived on a different train. It’s not the best of connections, I’m afraid. So, how are you feeling?”
“Is my father alive?” I asked, looking anxiously into his smiling face.
“Alive? Why, naturally,” he said, steadily holding my eager look. “Within, of course,” he added, narrowing his eyes, “the limits determined by the situation. You know as well as I do that from the point of view of your family home, from the perspective of your own country, your father has died. That cannot be completely undone; and that demise casts a certain shadow over his existence here.”
“But Father himself does not know, does not suspect?” I asked in a whisper.
He shook his head with deep earnestness. “You may rest assured,” he said, lowering his voice, “that our patients do not suspect. They cannot suspect…
“The whole process rests,” he continued, demonstrating the mechanism on his fingertips, poised in readiness for this, “on our having set back time. We fall behind time here by a certain interval, the extent of which no one really knows. It all boils down to simple Relativism. Here, your father’s death, the death that has caught up with him in your homeland, has simply not yet run its course.”
“In that case,” I said, “Father is dying, or his death is imminent…”
“You misunderstand me,” he replied in a tone of tolerant impatience. “Here, we reactivate past time, with all the possible outcomes; even, therefore, the possibility of a recovery.”
Still looking at me, he smiled and stroked his beard.
“But no doubt you would like to see your father now. We have reserved for you, in accordance with your instructions, the other bed in your father’s room. I will show you the way.”
As we stepped into the dark corridor, Doctor Gotard began to speak in a whisper. I noticed that, just like the chambermaid, he was wearing felt slippers. “We allow our patients long hours for sleeping. We are conserving their vital energies. There is nothing better for them to do here, after all.” He stopped before one of the doors, put a finger to his lips. “Go in quietly. Your father is asleep. You should go to bed, too. That would be for the best, for the time being. Goodbye for now.”
“Goodbye,” I whispered, feeling my beating heart rise to my throat.
I pressed the door handle. The door yielded of its own accord, opened halfway like lips parting without resistance in sleep. I went inside. The room was grey and bare, practically empty. My father lay asleep in a heap of bedclothes, on a plain wooden bed under a tiny skylight. His deep breathing discharged untold layers of snoring from the depths of his slumber. The whole room seemed to be lined with those snores, from floor to ceiling, and still new snores were forthcoming. I looked with affection upon Father’s emaciated, wasted face, now thoroughly absorbed by its stertorous labours, a face in a distant trance, which, having cast off its earthly covering, was making its confession on some far removed bank of its existence, in a solemn enumeration of its minutes.
There was no other bed. A piercing chill was sucked in at the window. The stove was unlit. They don’t seem to care very much about their patients here, I thought to myself. Such a sick man at the mercy of draughts! And certainly, nobody here ever does any cleaning. A thick layer of dust covered the floor; it had overgrown the night stand and the medicine bottles upon it, and a glass of coffee that had long gone cold. There are cakes piled high in the restaurant, I thought, and yet they give pure black coffee to their patients, instead of something nourishing! But in view of their good deeds in setting back time, this was naturally a trivial matter.
I undressed slowly, slipped into Father’s bed. He did not awaken, but his snoring, apparently dammed up too high, now fell an octave lower, relinquishing the grandiloquence of its declamation. It had become private snoring, as it were, for own use. I tucked the eiderdown around Father, to protect him as far as possible from the draught blowing in at the window. I soon fell asleep beside him.
The room was dusky when I awoke. Father was sitting at the table, already dressed and drinking tea, into which he dipped iced biscuits. He was wearing the still new, black suit of English cloth that he had made for himself the previous summer. His tie was a little carelessly knotted.
Seeing that I was not asleep, he said with a pleasant smile on his pallid face, “I’m truly happy you’ve come, Józef. What a surprise! I’m so lonely here. But of course, I can’t complain in my situation. I’ve suffered worse things. And if one wanted to draw the facit from all positions… But no more of that. Imagine, on my first day here, straight away, they served me with a magnificent filet de boeuf with mushrooms. That was an infernal piece of meat, Józef. I must warn you most strongly, should they ever offer you filet de boeuf here… I still feel the fire in my stomach. And diarrhoea upon diarrhoea!.. It was quite beyond my endurance.
“But I must tell you my news,” he continued. “Don’t laugh, but I have rented premises here, for a shop. It’s true! And I congratulate myself for that idea. I was awfully bored, you see. You can’t imagine how dreary it is here. And now, I at least have a pleasant occupation. Don’t imagine anything too grand. Nothing of the sort. They are far more modest premises than our old shop, a mere shack in comparison; I should be ashamed of such a stall in our hometown. But here, where to some extent we must shake off our pretentions — don’t you agree, Józef?” He gave a pained laugh. “And so, somehow one must live…”
This struck me unpleasantly. I was embarrassed by Father’s confusion, his realisation that he had used an inappropriate word.
“I can see that you’re tired,” he said after a moment. “Sleep a little longer, then you can visit me in the shop — yes? I’m in a hurry to get back there, to see how the business is doing. You have no idea how difficult it was to get credit here, with what incredulity they treat old merchants, merchants with a reputable past. Do you recall the optician’s shop in the market square? Our shop is right next door. There is no sign board yet, but you will be able to find it. You can hardly miss it.”
“Father, are you going out without your overcoat?” I asked anxiously.
“They forgot to pack it, just imagine. I couldn’t find it in my trunk. But I don’t miss it at all. This gentle climate, this sweet air…”
“Wear my overcoat, Father,” I said. “Take it, I insist.” But Father had already put on his hat. He waved his hand in my direction and slipped out of the room.
No, I was no longer tired. I felt well rested, and… hungry. I remembered with pleasure the buffet crammed with cakes. As I dressed, I imagined indulging myself in the various kinds of delicacy there. I would begin with the short cake with apple, not forgetting a magnificent sponge cake that I had noticed, trimmed with orange peel. I stood before the looking glass to knot my tie, but its surface, like a spherical mirror, held my image back, somewhere deep inside, swirling in its murky depths. I adjusted my distance from it, stepping back and forth, but to no avail; no reflection was willing to loom into view out of that flowing, silvery fog. I must request a different mirror, I thought to myself, and stepped out of the room.
The corridor was extremely dark. A faint gas lamp, burning in a corner with a small, bluish flame, heightened still further the impression of solemn silence. In that labyrinth of doors, recesses and nooks, I found it difficult to retrace my steps to the restaurant. I will go into town, I thought with sudden decisiveness. I will eat somewhere in town. No doubt I shall find a good confectioner’s shop there.
Outside the doorway, the heavy, sweet and humid air of that extraordinary climate blew over me. The chronic greyness of the weather sank a few shades deeper, like a day seen through a funeral pall.
My eyes could not absorb the velvety, juicy blackness of the darkest places, their scale of listless greyness, of soft ash, coursing in passages of stifled tones, notes stopped by a pipe organ valve — that nocturne landscape! A sheet of soft, voluminous and abundant air struck my face. Inside it, it held the nauseous sweetness of stale rainwater.
Once more, that roar of the black forests, recurring endlessly within itself, its unheard chords churning up the heavens, beyond the scale of audibility! I was standing in the rear courtyard of the Sanatorium. I turned and looked at the high walls, bent into a horseshoe, of the rear of the main building. All the windows were secured with black shutters; the Sanatorium was sound asleep. I came to a gate in an iron fence, beside which stood a kennel of extraordinary proportions — empty. The black forestation embraced and absorbed me once more. In the darkness, as if with closed eyes, I once more went gropingly on soundless conifer needles. As the light rose a little, the contours of houses were discernible through the trees. A few steps further, and I was in a spacious town square.
Strange, its beguiling resemblance to the market square of my hometown! How similar, when it comes down to it, are all the market squares of the world! Practically the same shops and houses!
The pavements were almost deserted. The mournful and late half-gleam of the indeterminate hour was sprayed from a sky of indefinite greyness. I could read all the posters and signs quite easily; and yet I should not have been surprised to learn that it was the middle of the night! No more than one or two shops were open; the blinds of others, hastily shutting up, were half drawn. In some places, the dense and luxuriant, rich and intoxicating air had consumed part of the view; it washed away, like a moist sponge, a few houses, a lamp post, part of a sign board. At times, one could barely raise one’s eyelids, heavy with sleepiness or some strange abandon. I began to search for the optician’s shop that Father had mentioned. He had spoken of it as if it were known to me, appealing to my presumed knowledge of local conditions. Didn’t he realise that I was here for the first time? His mind must have become confused. But what could be expected of Father, after all? — only half real, living a life so conditional, so relative, curbed by so many contingencies! It was difficult to deny that a great deal of goodwill was required in order to accord him his particular form of existence. His was a wretched surrogate of life, which hung on a general understanding, that consensus omnium whence he drew his thin juices. Clearly, it was only thanks to a collective determination to turn a blind eye to the obvious and striking deficiencies of that state of affairs that his pitiable appearance of life could remain even momentarily in the web of reality. The slightest opposition might shake it, the faintest breeze of scepticism knock it down. Could Doctor Gotard’s sanatorium really provide it with that greenhouse atmosphere of kind tolerance? protect it from the icy winds of criticism and indifference? One could only marvel that, in such an endangered and questionable state, Father was still able to maintain his so remarkable bearing.
I was heartened by the sight of the display window of a confectioner’s shop, filled with pastries and cakes. My appetite returned. I opened the glazed door — it bore a sign board that read, “Ices” — and entered the dark premises. They were fragrant with coffee and vanilla. A salesgirl, her face daubed with the dusk, emerged from the depths of the shop to take my order. Finally, after such a long time, I could eat my fill of excellent doughnuts, which I dipped into my coffee. In the darkness, amid a dance of whirling, crepuscular arabesques, I consumed cake after cake, feeling the darkness squeezing its way stealthily under my eyelids, secretly gaining power over my insides with its warm pulsation, a swarm of millions of delicate touches. At length, only the rectangle of the window was still glowing, a grey smear in the utter darkness. I rapped on the tabletop with my teaspoon, in vain. No one came forward to take payment for my meal. I left a silver coin on the table and went out into the street. A light was still shining in a bookshop adjacent, where shop assistants were busily sorting books. I enquired about Father’s shop. It was, they informed me, the one next to theirs. One accommodating fellow even ran up to the door and pointed it out. It had a glazed entrance; the display window, not yet dressed, was covered with brown paper. I was surprised to see from the doorway that the shop was, nonetheless, filled with customers. My father stood behind the counter, adding up the items on a long bill, occasionally licking his pencil. He ran his index finger over each figure in turn and counted under his breath, whilst the gentleman for whom this bill was being preparing leaned over the counter, and the other patrons looked on in silence. He cast a glance at me over his spectacles. Marking his place, he said, “A letter has arrived for you. It’s on the desk, among my papers.” And he returned to his engrossing calculations. Meanwhile, the shop assistants were piling up delivered goods, wrapping them in paper and tying them with string. The shelves were only partially filled with new cloth; most of them were still empty.
“Why don’t you sit down, Father?” I said quietly, stepping behind the counter. “You’re not looking after yourself at all, being so unwell.” But he raised his hand in refusal, as if dismissing my persuasions, and went on with his counting. He had a thoroughly miserable appearance. It was as plain as day that only artificial arousal, feverish activity, was holding up his strength, warding off the moment of complete breakdown.
I rummaged on the desk. It was more a package than a letter. I had written several days beforehand to a bookshop in the matter of a certain pornographic volume, and it had arrived here. They had discovered my address, or rather, Father’s address, notwithstanding that his shop had only so recently opened and still had no business name or sign board. How incredible their administration of the transaction! How admirable their competence in dispatching! Such uncommon efficiency!
“You can read it in the office at the back,” Father said, directing a dissatisfied look in my direction. “You can see for yourself that this is not the place.”
The office at the back of the shop was empty. Some scant illumination fell in through the glass door. The shop assistants’ overcoats hung on the walls. I opened the letter and began to read in the faint light from the door. They wished to inform me that the book I had requested was, unfortunately, out of stock. A search had been instigated, but since they could not guarantee the result, the firm was meanwhile willing to send me, without obligation, a certain item in which, they anticipated, I would doubtless be interested. There followed a convoluted description of an extendable refracting astronomical telescope with great light-gathering power and sundry other properties. Curious, I pulled the instrument from its wrapping paper. It was made of black oilcloth or stiff canvas, folded into a flat accordion. I have always had a passion for telescopes. I began to unfold the instrument’s endlessly pleated cover, which grew in my hands into the enormous bellows of a view camera, stiffened with thin rods, its empty hood drawing out to the full dimensions of the room — a labyrinth of black chambers, a long complex of light-proof boxes, each slotted halfway into the next. It was shaped not unlike a long motor car, some theatrical prop made of meadow linen, its light fabric of paper and stiff canvas imitating the solidity of reality. I looked into the black funnel of the eyepiece, and saw, deep inside, the faintly looming outlines of the courtyard façade of the Sanatorium. Curious, I slipped a little further into the rearmost chamber of the apparatus; now I spied the chambermaid in the visible field of the telescope, walking along a shadowy corridor of the Sanatorium with a tray in her hands. She turned and smiled. Can she see me? I wondered. A mist of irresistible sleepiness beclouded my eyes. I was now, in fact, sitting in the rear chamber of the telescope, as if in the passenger compartment of a carriage. A gentle upward pull of a lever, and lo and behold, the apparatus began to rustle, fluttering like some paper moth. I felt it move, with me inside it, and turn toward the door.
Like a great, black caterpillar, the telescope advanced into the lighted shop — a many-limbed trunk, an enormous paper cockroach with two replica headlamps at the front. The customers crowded together, retreating before that blind paper dragon; the shop assistants threw wide open the door to the street; and I slowly rode out in that paper motor car, amid the row of patrons, who followed with looks of outrage that essentially scandalous exit.
This is how life is lived in this town, and how time passes. The best part of the day is spent in sleeping; and not just in bed. No, there is no great fastidiousness over that point. Anywhere at all, at any hour of the day, a native of these parts is ready to take a light nap — in a restaurant with his head resting on the table, in a droshky, or even standing up at the roadside, or in the hallway of some house where he has dropped in for a moment to succumb to his overwhelming need for sleep.
Upon waking, befuddled and swaying, we continue some conversation broken off earlier; we set off once more down some wearisome path, or press on with some complicated business matter that has neither beginning nor end; and as a result, whole periods of time are inadvertently lost somewhere along the way. We lose control over the continuity of the day; until at last, we cease to insist upon it. We renounce without remorse its skeleton of unbroken chronology, the watchful supervision of which, habitually, and with careful day to day discipline, we were accustomed to in days long past. We sacrificed long ago our constant readiness to file receipts for time spent, our scrupulousness in accounting down to the last penny for hours used, the pride and ambition of our economics. Those cardinal virtues, in which we once, in days long past, knew neither indecision nor infringement — we forsook them long ago.
A few examples may serve to illustrate this state of affairs. At some hour of the day, or the night — these periods are distinguished only by a barely perceptible nuance of the sky — I wake up by the handrail of the little bridge that leads to the Sanatorium. It is dusk. I must have been wandering for a long time, unconscious, overcome by sleepiness, all around the town before finally dragging myself to this bridge. I cannot say whether Doctor Gotard has accompanied me the whole time on my journey; but he stands before me now, concluding some long explanation, drawing out reasoned inferences. Carried away by his own eloquence, he takes me by the arm and leads me with him. I follow. And even before we have crossed the clattering planks of the bridge, I am asleep once more. Unclearly, through my closed eyelids, I see the doctor’s pointed gesticulations and the smile deep inside his black beard. I strive in vain to grasp that splendid logical snare, that ultimate trump card by which, at the zenith of his argument, striking a pose with outstretched arms, he triumphs. I have no idea how much further we walk, side by side, talking at cross purposes, before at a certain moment, I really do wake up. Doctor Gotard is no longer here. It is extremely dark, but that is because my eyes are still closed. I open them. I am lying in bed in our room, with no idea how I got here.
Another, even more drastic case:
At lunchtime, I enter a hotel restaurant in town, into its incoherent hubbub, its confusion of diners; and whom should I see at the centre of the room, sitting at a table heaving with dishes, but Father! All eyes are turned his way, whilst he, his diamond tie-pin gleaming, unusually animated, exultant to the point of ecstasy, affects a bow to all sides, holding effusive court with the whole room. With forced bravado, which I can look upon only with the greatest anxiety, he orders one dish after another, stacking them high on his table. He gathers them up with delight, although he has not finished eating the first of his orders. Clicking his tongue, speaking and chewing at the same time, he feigns with gestures and mimicry his supreme satisfaction with this feast; and he follows the waiter, Adaś, with admiring eyes, calling him back repeatedly with an infatuated smile, and places yet another order. And as the waiter runs to fill them, waving a napkin, Father appeals to all with a gesture of entreaty, calls for everyone to bear witness to the irresistible charm of that Ganymede.
“A priceless fellow!” he cries with a blissful smile, squeezing shut his eyes. “An angelic fellow, sirs! Don’t you agree that he is charming!”
I back out of the room in disgust, unnoticed by Father. Had he been placed there deliberately by the hotel management, as a ruse to motivate the clientele, he could not have conducted himself more provocatively, more ostentatiously. With faltering steps, I make my way home, my head foggy with sleepiness. I rest my head on a pillar box for a moment and take a brief siesta. At length, I am once more scrabbling in darkness for the entrance to the Sanatorium. I go inside. Our room is dark. I press the light switch. The electricity is not working. Cold blows in from the window. The bed creaks in the darkness. Father raises his head from the bedclothes and says, “Oh, Józef, Józef! I’ve been lying here for two days now, unattended. The bells are all broken. No one calls in to see me. And now, even my own son has forsaken me, a seriously ill man, to traipse about the town chasing girls. See how my heart is pounding!”
How can I reconcile this? Is Father sitting in the restaurant, seized by the unhealthy ambition of gluttony, or lying in his room, seriously ill? Are there two Fathers? Nothing of the sort! It is the rapid disintegration of time, no longer supervised with ceaseless vigilance, that is to blame for all this.
We all know that, in the end, it is only with incessant cultivation, solicitous attention and a painstaking regulation and correction of its antics, that that undisciplined element may be held in check. Bereft of such care, it immediately falls prone to excesses and wild aberrations, to cutting incalculable capers, to shambolic clowning. The incongruence of our individual times was more and more distinctly noticeable; my father’s time and my own no longer ran in accord.
By the way, the accusation of moral profligacy laid against me by my father was a groundless insinuation. I have not approached any of the local girls. Reeling like a drunkard from one bout of sleep to the next, I am barely able in my wakeful moments to pay attention to the fairer sex here.
And besides, in the chronic dusk in the streets, one cannot even discern their faces clearly. All that I have been able to observe — being a young man, all the same, with a certain interest in such matters — is the singular walk that those young ladies have.
It is a step along an inexorably straight line, taking no obstacle into account, obedient only to some internal rhythm, some law that they unwind, as if from a reel, into the unswerving thread of their gentle trot, all precision and measured grace.
Each one carries with her some individual rule of her own, like a wound-up spring. They seem to have but one concern, as they walk straight ahead, all concentration and attention, their eyes fixed on that rule — that nothing of it is lost, that they never once transgress that exacting regulation, never deviate from it, even by a millimetre. Then it becomes clear that what they are carrying with them, with such earnestness and attention, is nothing other than an idée fixe of their own perfection, almost made true by the power of their conviction, an unwarranted expectation taken on at their own risk, their own inviolable dogma, elevated above all doubt.
What flaws, what blemishes, what snub or flattened noses, what freckles and pimples are not recklessly smuggled in under the flag of that fiction! For there is no ugliness, no vulgarity, that they cannot carry off in the flights of that belief, those fictional heavens of perfection.
Their bodies, as that belief determines, grow distinctly beautiful. Their legs, shapely indeed, and elastic, in irreproachable footwear, speak with their gait. In the flowing, sparkling monologue of their steps, they willingly explicate the richness of that idea of which their faces, aloof and closed, say nothing. They keep their hands in the pockets of their short, close-fitting jackets. When they sit in a café, or at the theatre, they keep their legs crossed, which, exposed to the knees, maintain a meaningful silence. So much for one of the town’s curiosities. I have already mentioned the black vegetation here, but a certain species of black fern merits particular attention, enormous bunches of which adorn the vases in every apartment and public premises. It is practically a symbol of mourning, the funereal coat-of-arms of this town.
Conditions in the Sanatorium are becoming more insufferable by the day. It is hard to deny that we have fallen straight into a trap. Since the time of my arrival, when certain appearances of hospitality were displayed before a newcomer, the Sanatorium management has not made the slightest effort to provide us with even the illusion of care. We are simply left to our own devices. No one shows any concern about our needs. I realised a long time ago that the wires of the electric bells have all been torn out, right above every door, and lead nowhere. No servants are to be seen. The corridors are engulfed in darkness and silence by day and by night. I have the firm conviction that we are the only guests in this sanatorium, and that the mysterious and discreet manner in which the chambermaid closes a door whenever she enters or leaves a room is mere mystification.
Sometimes, I want to throw those doors open, one after the other, and leave them gaping wide, to unmask the ignominious intrigue that we have been drawn into.
And yet, I cannot be entirely certain of my suspicions. Sometimes, late at night, I see Doctor Gotard in a corridor, hurrying somewhere in his white surgeon’s coat, holding an enema syringe in his hand, the chambermaid going before him. It would be awkward at such moments to detain him and pin him down with an obstinate enquiry.
Were it not for the restaurant and the confectioner’s shop in the town, one might die of hunger here. Thus far, I have been unable to procure a second bed. There is never any mention of fresh bedclothes. I have to admit that I, too, have begun to succumb to the general laxity in mannerly habits.
It has always been simply unthinkable to me, a civilised person, to go to bed fully dressed and wearing one’s shoes. But now, I return home late, drunk with tiredness; the room is dusky, the curtains swollen by the cold breeze from the window; I fall listlessly onto the bed and bury myself in the eiderdown. In this way, I sleep through entire irregular expanses of time, for days, for weeks, travelling through empty landscapes of sleep, continually on my way, continually on steep highways of respiration; at times, sliding lightly and flexibly down their gentle slopes, or struggling to clamber up a vertical wall of snoring, where, having reached the summit, I take in the enormous horizons of that rocky and soundless desert of sleep. At some late hour, somewhere at an unknown, sharp turning point of snoring, I half awaken. Half conscious, I can feel Father’s body with my feet. There he lies, curled up into a ball, as tiny as a kitten. I go back to sleep with my mouth open, and the entire enormous panorama of a mountain landscape, undulating and majestic, unfolds unbidden before me.
In the shop, Father vigorously pursues his interests. He makes transactions, exerting all his volubility in order to persuade his clients. His cheeks are pink with exuberance; his eyes shine. In the Sanatorium, he lies seriously ill, just as in his final weeks at home. It is hard to conceal that the process is rapidly approaching its awful conclusion. In a weak voice, he says to me, “You should call in more often at the shop, Józef. The shop assistants are robbing us. You can see, after all, that I am no longer equal to the task. I have lain here sick for weeks now, whilst the shop goes to ruin, left to the mercies of fate. Has there been no letter from home?”
I am beginning to regret this whole venture. One can hardly call it a good idea that we, seduced by fine sounding advertising, sent Father to this place. Time set back… On the face of it, it sounds wonderful. But just what does it really amount to? Is it time at full value, genuine time that passes here? time unwound, as it were, from a new bale, redolent of freshness and dye? On the contrary, it is time entirely used up, time that people have worn thin, ragged time, riddled everywhere with holes, as transparent as a sieve.
And no wonder, since it is just a kind of regurgitated time. Understand me plainly, it is second-hand time — God help us!
And then there is all this highly improper manipulation of time, these indecent dealings, sneaking into its mechanism at the back, dangerously tampering with its precarious secrets. Sometimes, one wants to bang on the table and shout at the top of one’s voice, “Enough of this! Keep your hands off time! Time is untouchable! It is not permissible to aggravate time! Space is for man; in space you may go where you please; you may turn somersaults, fall head over heels, leap from star to star… But for the love of God, leave time alone!”
But for all that, can I really be expected to give notice to Doctor Gotard? No matter how miserable Father’s existence may be, I can, all the same, see him, be with him, talk to him… The truth is, I ought to be infinitely grateful to Doctor Gotard.
Several times, I have wanted to have a frank discussion with him; but Doctor Gotard is never available. “He has just gone to the restaurant,” the chambermaid announces. I am on my way there when she catches up with me, to inform me that she has made a mistake. “Doctor Gotard is in the operating theatre.” I hurry to that floor, wondering just what sort of operations can possibly be performed here. I enter an anteroom, where I am told to wait. “Doctor Gotard will be out in a moment. He has just finished operating, and is washing his hands.” I almost catch sight of him, small, hurrying with great strides, his coat billowing, through a row of hospital wards. A moment later, what am I told? He was never there at all. No operations have been performed here in years.
Doctor Gotard is asleep in his room, his black beard sticking up into the air. His room fills up with his snoring, like swirls of clouds that rise, heap up, and carry Doctor Gotard at once, with his bed, ever higher and higher on their billows — a great, exalted Ascension on waves of snores and swelling sheets.
Even stranger things happen here, things that I keep even from myself, things fantastic precisely because they are so absurd. How many times do I leave my room, and it seems that someone has quickly retreated from the door, sidestepped around a corner? or that someone is walking ahead of me, not turning around? It is not a nurse. I know who it is. “Mother!” I call out, my voice agitated and trembling. And for a moment, Mother turns and looks at me with an imploring smile. Where am I? What is happening here? What is this snare that I am caught in?
I do not know if it is the influence of the late season, but the days are growing ever more sombre in colour, murkier and darker, as if the world were seen through almost totally black spectacles.
The whole landscape resembles the bottom of an enormous aquarium, filled with pale ink; the trees, people and houses liquefy into dark silhouettes, waving like subaqueous plants against the background of those inky depths.
Packs of black dogs roam all around the vicinity of the Sanatorium; all different shapes and sizes, silent, tense and alert, they run in the twilight, close to the ground, along every road and footpath, engrossed by their canine affairs. They run in twos and threes, with outstretched, vigilant necks and pricked up ears, the doleful tone of a quiet growl torn involuntarily from their voice boxes, signalling their supreme agitation. Always in a hurry, always on the move, absorbed by their own concerns, consumed by their incomprehensible purpose, they pay almost no heed to a passer-by. Occasionally, one of them will glower at him, its eyes darting, its rage emerging from that sly, black squint, its impulses held in check only because it has no time to spare. Sometimes, giving vent to its animosity, it will even run at his feet with a baleful snarl, its head lowered; only to abandon its purpose in mid-course and fly onward with great, canine dance steps.
That plague of dogs cannot be helped; but why should the Sanatorium management keep an enormous Alsatian dog chained up? a terrifying beast, a veritable werewolf of simply demonic wildness?
Shudders run through me every time I pass by its kennel, alongside which it stands perfectly still, on a short chain, a collar of fur sticking out wildly around its moustachioed, bristly and bearded head, all fangs in the machinery of its mighty jaws. It never barks; but at the sight of a human being its savage face grows even more terrible; its features freeze into an expression of utter rage, and in a quiet convulsion, slowly raising its terrible muzzle, it lets out an intense, low howl, torn from the depths of detestation, in which the sorrow and desperation of its powerlessness echoes.
My father walks past the beast nonchalantly whenever we leave the Sanatorium together. For myself, I am deeply shocked every time by that elemental manifestation of impotent hatred. I am now two heads taller than Father, who trots beside me, small and thin, with his tiny, old person’s steps.
Approaching the market square, we caught sight of some unusual movement. Crowds of people were running about the streets. The unlikely news reached us that an enemy army was about to encroach on the town.
In general consternation, people were passing alarming and contradictory news back and forth, from which one could glean almost no sense. A war with no preliminary diplomatic moves? A war in a time of blessed peace, undisturbed by any conflict? A war? With whom? Over what? We learned that this invasion by an enemy army had emboldened a party of malcontents in the town, who were now running armed about the streets, terrorising the peaceful townsfolk. We even caught a glimpse of a group of those assassins, in their black civilian clothes, white bands crossed over their chests, advancing silently, their rifles lowered. The crowd backed away before them, huddling on the pavements; and they strode past, casting dark, ironic looks from the shade of their caps, looks that displayed a clear sense of advantage, a flash of malicious amusement, a knowing glint as if holding back snorts of laughter, lest they unmask the whole mystification. Some of them were known to the bystanders; but it was their lowered rifles that persuaded the crowd to let out restrained shouts of joy. They went past, accosting no one. Once more, an ambling, gloomily taciturn crowd filled all the streets; a dull hubbub flowed over the town. We seemed to hear the rattle of artillery fire in the distance, the rumble of batteries moving into position.
“I should be in the shop,” said Father, pale, but determined. “You needn’t come with me. You would just get in the way.” And he added, “Go back to the Sanatorium.”
A cowardly voice bid me to obey. I saw my father push his way into the dense wall of the crowd, and lost sight of him.
I stole hurriedly through side streets to the top end of the town. It seemed to me that, by those steep paths, I might make my way in a semicircle around the centre of the town, which was congested by a multitude of people. The crowds were sparser here, in the higher parts of the town; they eventually dwindled away completely. I calmly made my way along those empty streets and came at last to the municipal park. Lanterns burned there with dark, bluish little flames, like funerary asphodels. Around each one, a swarm of May bugs was dancing, as heavy as bullets, carried in oblique, sideways flight by their vibrating wings. A few, having fallen to the ground, scrambled awkwardly on the sand, their hunched backs crooked by their hard elytras, under which they tried to refold the delicate films of their flight wings. Passers-by strolled on the lawns and footpaths, engaged in light-hearted conversations. A few last trees hung over courtyards lying deep in a valley, hard against the park wall. I strolled along that wall, which on my side barely reached the level of my chest, but which fell away on the other side with buttresses many storeys high, down to the level of those courtyards. In one place, a ramp rose up from the compacted earth below, to the full height of the wall. I could easily cross over to that other area. I squeezed along that narrow embankment between the tightly packed structures of the houses, and onto the street. My calculations, backed up by outstanding spatial intuition, were correct. I was almost directly opposite the Sanatorium building, its rear side looming whitely through a black covering of trees. I entered as usual by the rear entrance, through the courtyard and the gate in the iron fence. I could already see the dog in the distance, at its post. As usual, a shudder of aversion ran through me at that sight. I decided to try to get past it quickly enough to avoid hearing that growl of detestation torn from the bottom of its soul, when, to my horror, not believing my eyes, I saw it unleashed, scampering quickly away from its kennel and running about the courtyard, its barks resounding hollowly, as if from a barrel, as it tried to cut off my retreat.
Numb with terror, I backed into the opposite, furthest corner of the courtyard, instinctively looking for a hiding place. I took shelter in a small summerhouse that stood there, utterly convinced of the futility of my efforts. The shaggy beast approached with rapid steps. Its snout was now at the very entrance of the summerhouse — it had me in its trap. Almost expiring with fear, I saw that its chain, dragging through the courtyard in its wake, was pulled tight. The summerhouse was just beyond the reach of its fangs. Aghast, crushed by horror, I felt barely any relief at this. Staggering, close to fainting, I raised my eyes; never before had I seen it at such close quarters; only now did the scales fall from my eyes. For how great is the force of credulity! how powerful the suggestion of terror! Such incomprehension! But this was a man! A chained-up man, whom I, by incomprehensible means, in a simplifying, metaphorical and comprehensive elision, had taken for a dog.
Please don’t misunderstand me. A dog he was, to be sure, but in human shape. The quality of the canine is an internal quality; it can manifest itself quite as well in human as in animal form.
Standing before me at the entrance of the summerhouse, his jaws inside-out, as it were, and unwrapped, all his teeth bared in a terrible snarl, was a man of medium stature, with a black beard. His face was yellow and bony, his eyes black, angry and distressed. Judging from his black clothes and the cultivated shape of his beard, he might be taken for an educated person, a scholar, perhaps the older, unsuccessful brother of Doctor Gotard. But that first impression was mistaken. His huge hands, smeared with glue, the two brutal and cynical furrows etched at either side of his nose, disappearing into his beard, the vulgar, horizontal wrinkles across his low forehead, quickly dispelled that first illusion. He was, rather, a bookbinder, a tub-thumper, a rally speaker and a party member, a fierce man with dark and explosive enthusiasms. And right there, in those depths of passion, in that convulsive bristling of all his fibres, in his mad rage, barking furiously at the end of a stick pointed at him — he was a hundred percent dog.
Were I to escape over the back wall of the summerhouse, I thought, then I should be completely out of range of his fury and might reach the Sanatorium gate in safety by a side path. But as I was about to hop over the railing, I stopped in mid-motion. I simply felt it too cruel to walk away, to leave him like this, his helpless fury surpassing all limits. I imagined his terrible disappointment, his inhuman pain at seeing me walking away for ever, escaping his trap.
I stayed. I stepped up to him. In a steady, natural voice, I said, “Remain calm. I will untie you.”
His face, rent by twitches, perturbed by the jarring of a snarl, was reintegrated at this, became smooth; from deep within, an almost completely human face rose to the surface. I approached him without fear, unfastened the buckle at his neck, and we set off walking side by side. The bookbinder wore a decent black suit, but was barefoot. I attempted to engage him in conversation, but nothing save unintelligible gibbering came from his mouth. Only in his eyes, those black, expressive eyes, could I read the wild rapture of his attachment, his fondness, which gripped me with terror. Once or twice, he stumbled against a stone or a clump of earth; his face broke up in shock at once; his dread emerged halfway, poised in readiness to jump out; behind it, his rage only awaited its moment to transform that face once more into a nest of hissing vipers. At such moments, I brought him to heel with a gruff but friendly reprimand. I even patted him on the back. At times, a bewildered and suspicious smile, not quite trusting itself, strove to rise to his face. Oh, what a burden that terrible friendship had become! How that alien fondness had begun to terrify me! But how could I be rid of this character, striding beside me, his eyes fixed upon me, all the eagerness of his canine being intent on my face? But I could not betray my impatience. I took out my wallet and said in a businesslike way, “No doubt you need money. I will lend it to you with pleasure.” But his face took on such terrible wildness at this sight that I quickly put the wallet away. For a long time afterward, he would not be placated, unable to control his features, contorted by convulsions of howling.
No. I can stand it no longer. Anything but this! Matters have become altogether too complicated, hopelessly tangled. I can see the glow of a distant fire over the town. Father in the burning shop, somewhere in the fire of a revolution! Doctor Gotard unavailable! And what is more, the inexplicable appearance of Mother, incognito, on some secret mission! They are the links of some great, incomprehensible chain of intrigue drawing tightly around my person.
Escape! I must escape from this place! Anywhere at all! I must be rid of this terrible friendship with a bookbinder that stinks of dog, and keeps a constant watch on me. We are now standing at the entrance to the Sanatorium. “Please, come to my room,” I say with a courteous gesture. My civilised motions fascinate him, lull his wildness to sleep. I gesture him into the room, seat him in a chair.
“I will go to the restaurant,” I say, “and bring cognac.”
He starts up in dread at this, wanting to accompany me. I calm his panic with gentle firmness.
“Sit down. Wait quietly,” I say in a deep, wavering voice, at the bottom of which my concealed terror resounds. He sits down with an uncertain smile.
I leave the room and walk slowly along the corridor. I descend the stairs. I proceed along the corridor that leads to the exit, and leave by the door. I cross the courtyard, slam the iron gate shut behind me, and set off running, out of breath, my heart thumping, my temples pounding, along the dark avenue that leads to the railway station.
Visions accumulate in my mind, each more terrible than the last — the monster’s impatience, his dread and despair at realising that he has been cheated, his resurging fury, his renewed rage, exploding with uncontrollable power — my father’s return to the Sanatorium, tapping at the door, suspecting nothing, and coming face to face with a terrifying beast.
It is for the best that Father is dead, I think with relief; that now, strictly speaking, it cannot catch him. Before me, I see a row of black railway carriages, waiting to depart.
I take a seat. As if it has been waiting for me, without a whistle, the train moves slowly from its place.
In the window, that huge bowl of the horizon passes by and revolves once more, swollen with dark, blustering forests, in the midst of which the Sanatorium walls loom whitely. Farewell Father. Farewell town that I shall see no more.
Ever since then, I have been travelling, travelling endlessly. I have made myself somewhat at home here, on the railway; they tolerate me, wandering from carriage to carriage. The compartments, as enormous as rooms, are filled with rubbish and straw. Draughts penetrate them from end to end on grey, colourless days.
My clothes became tattered and torn; I was given an outworn railwayman’s uniform; there is a dirty rag tied around my face due to a swollen cheek. I sit in the straw, and doze. And when I am hungry, I stand in the corridor before the second-class compartments, and sing. And people toss loose change into my conductor’s cap, my black, railwayman’s cap, its peak torn off.