I awoke as the conductor knocked on the door of the compartment. It was a little after 6 a.m., we’d be there in half an hour, had I heard him? Yes, I muttered, yes, and dragged myself up into a sitting position. I had been lying across three seats, alone in the compartment, my back hurt and I had a stiff neck. My dreams had been shot through with the persistent racket that comes with any journey, voices in the corridor, announcements about platforms; they were unpleasant dreams, and I was jolted out of them repeatedly; once someone had yanked open the compartment door from outside in the corridor and coughed, and I had to get up to shut it. I rubbed my eyes and looked out the window: raining. I put on my shoes, took my old shaving kit out of my suitcase, yawned, and went outside.
The mirror in the toilet showed me a pale face, a mess of hair, and a cheek still imprinted with the pattern of the seat upholstery. I plugged in the shaver, nothing happened. I opened the door, saw the conductor still down at the other end of the car, and called out that I needed help.
He came and gave me a look and a thin smile. The shaver, I said, wasn’t working, clearly there was no current. Of course there’s current, he replied. No, I said. Yes, he said. No! He shrugged, perhaps it’s the wiring, but in any case there’s nothing he can do. But surely, I said, it’s the very least one can expect from a conductor. He wasn’t a conductor, he said, he was a train escort. I said I really didn’t care. He asked me what I meant. I said I really didn’t care what the job was called, it was superfluous anyway. He said he wasn’t going to let himself be insulted by me, I should watch out, he might just bust me in the chops. He could try, I said, I was going to file a complaint in any case, and I wanted his name. He wasn’t going to do any such thing, he said, and what’s more, I stank and I was getting a bald spot. Then he turned around and went away cursing.
I shut the door to the toilet and took a worried look in the mirror. Of course there was no bald spot; where on earth did that ape get an idea like that? I washed my face, went back to the compartment, and put on my jacket. Outside the window railroad tracks, electricity poles, and wires began to form a tightening grid, the train was slowing down, and the platform was already in sight: billboards, telephone booths, people with luggage carts. The train braked and came to a halt.
I pushed my way along the corridor toward the door. A man jostled me, and I pushed him aside. The conductor was standing on the platform. I handed down my suitcase. He took it, looked at me, smiled, and let it fall smack onto the asphalt. “Sorry,” he said, and grinned. I climbed down, picked up the suitcase, and walked away.
I asked a man in uniform about my connecting train. He gave me a long look, then fished out a crumpled little book, tapped his forefinger thoughtfully against his tongue, and began to thumb the pages.
“Don’t you have a computer?”
He gave me a questioning look.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Keep going.”
He thumbed, sighed, thumbed again. “Intercity 6:35. Track 8. Then change . . .”
I moved on quickly, I had no time for his chatter. Walking wasn’t easy, I wasn’t used to being awake at such an early hour. My train was standing at track 8. I boarded it, entered the carriage, pushed a fat lady aside, worked my way to the last free window seat, and let myself fall into it. A few minutes later we were on our way.
Straight opposite me was a bony man wearing a tie. I nodded to him, he returned the greeting and then turned his eyes away. I opened my suitcase,
took out my notepad, and laid it on the narrow table between us. I almost knocked his book off, but he was able to grab onto it in time. I had no time to lose, my article was already three days overdue.
Hans Bahring, I wrote, who has made many . . . no! . . . numerous attempts to bore us to death . . . yes, that’s it . . . with his insights, no, badly researched insights into lives of important, no, prominent, no, that’s even worse. I thought for a moment . . . historical personalities, has come up with another one. To call his just- published biography of the artist, no, painter Georges Braque a failure would probably be to overpraise a book that . . . I stuck the pencil between my teeth. Now I needed something really to the point. I pictured Bahring’s face when he read the article, but that didn’t give me any ideas either. This was less fun than I’d thought it would be.
I was probably just tired. I rubbed my chin, the stubble felt unpleasant, I simply had to get a shave. I put down the pencil and leaned my head against the windowpane. It was starting to rain. Drops were hitting the glass and streaming in the opposite direction from the one we were traveling in. I blinked, the rain got heavier, the raindrops seemed to make little exploded puddles full of faces, eyes, and mouths. I closed my eyes, and while I listened to the drumming of the water, I dozed off: for a few moments, I didn’t know where I was; I felt I was floating through the huge emptiness of space. I opened my eyes: the glass was covered with a film of water, and trees were bowed under the force of the rain. I closed my notepad and put it away. Then I noticed the book the man in front of me was reading: Picasso’s Last Years by Hans Bahring. I didn’t like this. I had the feeling I was being mocked somehow.
“Lousy weather,” I said.
He looked up for a moment.
“Not very good, is it?” I pointed to Bahring’s hash- up.
“I find it interesting,” he said.
“That’s because you’re not an expert.”
“That’ll be why,” he said, and turned the page.
I leaned my head against the neck rest, my back was still hurting from the night in the train. I took out my cigarettes. The rain was easing up, and the first mountains were becoming visible through the haze. I used my lips to pull a cigarette out of the pack. As I clicked the lighter, I flashed on Kaminski’s Still Life of Fire and Mirror: a flickering dazzle of bright colors out of which a lancelike flame came leaping, as if it were trying to shoot clear of the canvas. What year? I didn’t know. I had to prepare better.
“This is a nonsmoking carriage.”
The man didn’t look up, just pointed to the sign on the window.
“Just a couple of quick puffs!”
“This is a nonsmoking carriage,” he said again. I dropped the cigarette and ground it out with my foot, clenching my teeth with fury. Okay, if that’s
how he wanted it, I wouldn’t talk to him. I pulled out Komenev’s Some Thoughts on Kaminski, a badly printed paperback with an unattractive thicket of footnotes. It had stopped raining, blue sky could be seen through gashes in the clouds. I was still very tired, but I couldn’t allow myself to go to sleep again, I was going to have to get off any time now.
Very shortly afterward, I was wandering shivering through the main hall of a station, a cigarette in my mouth and a paper cup of steaming coffee in my hand. In the toilet I switched on my shaver, it didn’t work. God— no current here either. The bookstore had a revolving paperback holder outside: Bahring’s Rembrandt, Bahring’s Picasso, and of course the window display had a pile of hardcover copies of Georges Braque, or the Discovery of the Cube. In a drugstore I bought two throwaway razors and a tube of shaving cream. The local train was almost empty, the upholstered seats were soft, I leaned into them and immediately closed my eyes.
When I woke again, there was a young woman sitting opposite me, with red hair, full lips, and long, narrow hands. I looked at her, she pretended not to notice. I waited. When her eyes crossed mine, I smiled. She looked out the window. But then she hastily smoothed back her hair, she was having
trouble concealing her nervousness. I looked at her and smiled. After a minute or two, she stood up, took her purse, and left the carriage.
Silly creature, I thought. Most likely she was waiting for me in the dining car, but so what, I had no desire to get up and follow her. The heat was sticky now: the haze was making the mountains seem close for a moment, then distant again, the soaring cliffs were draped in shreds of clouds, villages flew by, churches, cemeteries, little factories, a motorcycle crawling along a path between the fields. Then more meadows, woods, meadows again, men in overalls smearing steaming tar on a road. The train stopped, I got out.
A single platform, an arched canopy outside, a little house with shutters, a stationmaster with a mustache. I asked about my train, he said something, but it was in dialect and I didn’t understand. I asked again, he tried again, we looked helplessly at each other. Then he took me to the big wall display with all the departure times. Naturally I had just missed my train and the next one wasn’t for another hour.
I was the only guest in the station restaurant. Up there? That’s quite a long way, said the proprietress. Was I going to spend my vacation up there?
On the contrary, I said. I was on the way to Manuel Kaminski.
It wasn’t the best time of year, she said, but I’d surely have a couple of good days at best. She could promise me.
To Manuel Kaminski, I said again. Manuel Kaminski! Don’t know him, she says, he’s not from around here.
I said, he’s been living here for twenty- five years.
Exactly, she said, not from around here, she knew she was right about that. The kitchen door flew open, a fat man set a plate of greasy soup in front of me. I looked at it uneasily, swallowed a little, and said to the proprietress how beautiful I thought it was to be here. She smiled proudly. Here in the countryside, in nature, even here in this station. Way away from everything, among simple people.
She said what did I mean.
Not among intellectuals, I explained, overeducated posturing types with university degrees. Among people who were close to their animals, their fields, and the mountains. Who went to sleep early and got up early. Who lived, instead of thinking!
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Kehlmann. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.