Chameleon and Nightingale


Chameleon and Nightingale

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Benjamin Tammuz

Translated from Hebrew by Philip Simpson 


1945: Paris at the end of summer, in the Luxembourg Gardens
After lunch they called me into the office and put me on the scales. My weight is close to sixty kilograms and I need another seven to return to what I was three years and nine months ago. In other words: if I add seven kilograms to my weight I shall be the same man that I was three years and nine months ago and nobody will owe me anything.
“Forgive me,” the commandant will say. “You see, we have given back to you what we took. What more do you want?”
When I came out of the camp my weight was thirty-seven kilograms. When I arrived at the hospital I weighed forty-five, and today they told me that I am discharged, and the official of the Joint gave me thirty thousand francs and at half past three I went out into the street and began to walk.
This, in fact, is all I would want to say, if I am asked how it was. Anyone who wants to know details can think whatever he pleases. There is no alternative. For the moment I have finished. Now I think that I want to marry some woman, who will help me not to talk. She needs to be one of those who were not there. She also needs to agree to marry me. Why she should agree, I don’t know exactly. I hope she will have reasons.
Then something good happened to me. I went into a café and asked for five cigarettes. I handed over a five hundred franc note and was given change and the woman said “Merci, Monsieur.” As if it was nothing. I took the cigarettes and walked a little further and in another café I bought matches and already I was less tense. I put a few coins on the counter and walked on and smoked. For three whole years and four months and twenty-two days I could not ever do what I did just now with such ease; relatively, of course. It still isn’t easy but things will sort themselves out. Another day, another week or two and things will sort themselves out somehow and they won’t see anything. Three years are one thousand and ninety-five days. Four months are one hundred and twenty-two days. And a further twenty-two days makes a total of one thousand two hundred and thirty-nine days. I haven’t got the head just now to work out how many hours this is. When I go to the office of the Joint next time I shall ask the clerk to do the calculation for me. She has a calculating machine and she’ll do this for me.
I shall now tell my story. I have a pencil that works.
There is here, beside the Luxembourg Gardens, a man who roasts chestnuts on coals and I bought a bag of hot chestnuts from him and gave him a hundred franc note. I looked at him to see if he would give change. And he looked at me. It’s possible that the price of the chestnuts was more than a hundred, and he was waiting for more money. But I had the impression that he was looking at me and thinking: perhaps he doesn’t know the price of chestnuts and he won’t ask for change. This man sensed that I came from far away. I said to myself: good luck to him, and went. I was disappointed. Not on account of the money, but because nothing had changed in him. Only in me has everything changed a little. I walked to the garden and sat on a bench and began to eat hot chestnuts. I was quite content. It isn’t every day that a man sits in the Luxembourg Gardens and eats chestnuts, like a French novel. I used to read such novels in Polish translation and I never dreamed I would be in Paris and eating chestnuts in the Luxembourg Gardens. But there are other things I never dreamed of, and they have come about nevertheless. A sign, that what you don’t dream of comes about, more or less; and what you do dream of, this is something else entirely. You see, now I am dreaming of a woman whom I shall marry. I suppose, theoretically at least, that in this world anything is possible. I have some small proof.
This was my sense of humor. I say “some small proof” and I am sure that I have made a good joke. Jokes are a matter of taste, and my taste has not been exactly intellectual these last few years.
But I really was content in the afternoon in the garden. There were trees there, and in my pocket I had more than twenty-nine thousand francs and wrapped up in the newspaper there were still more chestnuts and in the breast pocket of my coat were four cigarettes and in the Rue La Boetie there is the office of the Joint, and the widowed husband of my aunt has told me several times that if I am ever in trouble I must not be afraid to approach him. He hasn’t must to offer, but he lives in his own room and he will start receiving a pension next month. He wants to go to Palestine, because it’s possible his son is still living there. They are checking this out for him now. Perhaps I too shall go to Palestine, perhaps to America, or perhaps I shall stay here. In any one of the places I shall need to learn a new language, so what’s the difference?
This was a joke too. Everybody knows it is to Palestine that the Jews must go now. They say there’s a surplus of women there. Another joke. It seems I really am in high spirits. No wonder. Anyone else in my place would be dancing, but I can’t dance. A fourth or a fifth joke within a few minutes. Not bad at all, for a man in my situation.
This evening I am going to make a pig of myself. I shall go to a restaurant where they serve black market food, salted herring in vinegar, fried meat, pears boiled in sugar, and I shall eat until I burst. The doctor told me that now I can eat as much as I want. It’s a pity there isn’t here in Paris a single one of those who were with me in the hut. We would have eaten together and split our sides laughing. Such a joke has not yet been invented, but we would have understood one another. This is going to be a tremendous celebration, even though I feel no particular appetite. But this isn’t important. Appetite isn’t the only reason why a man wants to make a pig of himself. The Russians have a good proverb. They say: “A man isn’t a pig. A man eats everything.” If you ask me, this is true.
From my bench I watch all the time a woman who sits on a bench and irritates me. She has two children and they are playing on the grass behind her and she doesn’t even turn to look at them. Not even once does she turn to look at them. She’s sitting there, smoking a cigarette and reading a book. After some time I feel that she’s expecting me to watch over her children, instead of her. I feel anger at her swelling in me and I want to shout: “Stupid cow, why are you so complacent? What will you do if they snatch them away from you now?” I almost shouted out loud, and then I took another cigarette from the breast-pocket of my coat and took out the matches from the right-hand pocket. But as I lit the cigarette I still followed the children with my eyes. Only after I had taken a few gulps of smoke did I find myself again in the Luxembourg Gardens and I abandoned the children to their fate and saw in a mirror which was not there an idiotic smile spread over my face. That’s the way I used to smile in the camp when I was being beaten in the face. And because of this smile I would receive extra beatings, usually. Here they do nothing to me. True, there are two blue-uniformed policemen pacing about all the time beside the fence, talking French, but they’re not looking at me. If they approach and ask questions, I have a red card with my photograph and I shall show it to them at once. They will read what is written there and decide what to do. In the Joint they told me there would be no problems. From now on I am like a king. The documents aren’t forged, the women aren’t worried about their children, the policemen are idle and I can sit in the gardens until nine-thirty. That’s when they close the gates, according to the notice. And at nine-thirty I shall go and have myself a crazy time. And in the meantime I have lodging-vouchers for six weeks. They say the vouchers can be renewed without any difficulty, for the time being. I shall visit my uncle tomorrow. Nothing’s burning. Except what has already been incinerated. This is the sixth joke, if I’m not mistaken. I must be in a really wonderful mood today.
When I came into the gardens, a few hours ago, I knew that I wanted to write. I have a pencil and some paper which I tore down from the black information-board near the public lavatory. I think these were municipal announcements. I looked in all directions and when the right moment came I tore down five notices and stuffed them into the inside pocket of the coat. Now I am writing on the reverse side of the notices. This paper will be enough for me to write my whole story. For three years and four months I wrote only in my head; now that I am able to write properly I can tell that my writing talent has gone a little rusty. Before the war nobody doubted that I was destined to be a journalist. I believed this too. Now it is not so clear to me what my rosy and radiant future holds in store for me. We shall wait and see. With sixty kilos it’s possible to live at least another three years and four months and with a little luck I should reach a fairly normal life span before I croak.
I don’t know what the time is now, but I think the sun will set soon, because in summer it sets late. Perhaps it’s nearly nine o’clock and soon I shall have to get up and leave. I think that after all I won’t go to a restaurant, not only because I have no appetite but because I’m also dead tired. This woman with the two little bastards behind her has drained from me all the energy that I brought with me from the hospital. I think that when I leave this place I won’t go to a restaurant, nor to the lodging house. One way or the other I won’t sleep, and outside it’s summer and I can walk about the streets. Even in the hospital I didn’t sleep, but they wouldn’t let me go out. And if I’m not going to sleep then I’d rather be on my feet and not in a bed. When I’m on my feet I can let my thoughts wander over a wide range.
I know what I shall think about in the night, so perhaps I had better record it on paper now. Because when the night is over I shall regret it and decide to keep silent, while at this moment I feel inclined to babble. It has to do with my idiotic smile. In other words, to do with blows to the face. Really it concerns my father. It’s a little complicated, because it actually began with my mother. When I was a baby my mother used to caress and kiss me. Especially my face. But later, after a certain age, this stopped, naturally. The only person who went on touching my face was Father. Whenever I did something especially naughty he would give me a slap on the cheek, as is normal in any family. I loved my father very much, and naturally after being smacked I would burst into tears. And to whom did I turn for comfort? Naturally to the person closest and most dear to me, to Father. When he slapped me in the face, I would burst into tears and clutch at him with all my strength. And he, he had no choice but to hug me in return, while continuing to murmur some words of reproof.
Finally, when I was a grown-up boy, my father stopped hitting my face. For three or four years nobody touched my face. And then suddenly the war came and after about a year and half the camps came. And in the first camp there was an occasion when one of the guards punched me. This time, the first, I did not yet understand what had happened to me, perhaps because this was a fist and not an open hand, as was the technique that my father used in slapping my cheek. But the second and the third time, and God knows how many times after, the idea flashed into my mind: look, again somebody is touching my face. Somebody is doing to me exactly what my father did to me. And over the course of time, when I was already half dead from hunger and exhaustion and dulled senses, it occurred to me that my father was alive again and touching me again. And that is when the idiotic smile began to spread over my face. And because of this smile Father would hit me again. And at the same time I knew – for I was not so stunned as not to know – that before me there stood not my good, nervous, sweet father, my beloved father, but some animal with a hand just like a human hand. A kind of special patent manufactured in Germany.
One day something special happened. The German patent didn’t only hit me but also spat in my face. He spat twice, the first time hitting my forehead and the second time my mouth. If I had dared to wipe off the spittle I’d have got a bullet in the head, as had happened in our camp not long before this. So I didn’t wipe off the spittle and it trickled and dripped into my mouth. Someone’s saliva in your mouth is a very intimate business. You come into contact with the person; you taste the innermost taste of his body. You become soulmates, one body and one spirit. Anyone who does not understand this should make an effort to understand. Because if you don’t understand this, you have no prospect of understanding really hideous things. Anyway, it reached the point that I no longer knew if I was prepared to kill the animal before me, or if in my deranged mind I had fallen in love with it.
It seems to me I have explained clearly enough why I used to hug my father every time he hit me. And if I did not understand this when I was a child, in the camp it became absolutely clear to me. In the camp there were thousands of Jews who all the days of their lives prayed to their God and trusted in Him. Even when they were led to the camps and to the gas chambers they did not stop believing in Him and praying to Him. But there were among us some who thought themselves wise who were furious when they saw a Jew lying on this bunk, all covered in blood, having been brought back from a session of torture, and whispering “Hear O Israel,” or something of the sort. And then our intellectuals would shout at the time and say: “Fucking idiot, why do you even talk to him, this old God of yours who has thrown you to the dogs?”
But I knew why. Because I did the very same thing. To whom did I run with hugs and tears if not to my father?
And on the other hand, at moments when there arose in me the urge to rush towards the German animal and smother it with kisses, I knew my sanity was slipping.
As time when by, the circle “I – Father – the German” would spin around in my head like a carousel. I did not know if I hated my father because he did to me then what the German was doing to me now, or if I loved the German because he was doing to me now what my father did to me then.
And very gradually I began to move out of this triangular circle and I was alone, and I could observe myself as if from the side. And what I saw was not a certain person but something like a process. In the beginning there was a person. Then they beat him and he became a kind of invalid. After that he became a kind of wound, nothing more. And finally, when they spat on him and pissed on him and shat on him he became a kind of cess-pit, something like a latrine. A latrine with a smile. This smile was what remained of the human being.
The journey from the camp to Paris, after liberation, I made in the company of a certain man who was the philosopher of my last camp. On the carts, in the railway wagons and the transports of all kinds of armies, we lay in silence and did not say a word. But at night, when we could not sleep, we would talk – not to each other but each to himself, aloud. Like two lepers squeezing the pus from their sores in the hope that the pain will ease. And one night we both stopped speaking, at the same moment. I don’t think he heard my story; I certainly did not hear his, because all the time I was shouting. But when we were silent I said to him: “You’re a philosopher, so tell me, how do you get free of this? How do you cleanse yourself of all this filth and return to life?”
He thought for a long time. Not because he lacked answers, but because he was tired. And at last he said: “It is possible to try. For example, if you have an aching tooth they take it out. It hurts for a week or two and then you’re without pain again. And without a tooth you can go on living, although the tooth is yours, a part of you, and if this doesn’t help, try to vomit. But don’t vomit up everything, leave something of yourself behind.”
And it seems to me, that if I try to remove this like a tooth or to vomit, then together with the tooth and together with all the filth I shall also rid myself of my guts and balls and heart and soul. Everything inside is rotten and I don’t know if anything will be left that is fit to rise up and walk.
This is what happens to me. Especially at night. I haven’t even reached the stage yet where I can say to somebody: “Look, here is where it hurts. Cure this for me.” I am still in the place of beginning, in that triangular circle. And still it isn’t clear to me what I want of whom, and what I have against whom, and whom I ought to kill, and what I want to murder, and with what am I going to be left on the day that the dead come to life, and if the dead will come to life at all, and if so, why.
And this is only one example.

Copyright © The Estate of Binyamin Tammuz Published by Arrangement with the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.

Benjamin Tammuz (1919-1989) was born in Russia and immigrated to pre-state Israel at age 5. He studied law and economics at Tel Aviv University and later attended the Sorbonne, where he studied art history. A novelist, journalist, critic, painter and sculptor, Tammuz served for many years as literary editor of the daily Haaretz. He also spent four years in London as Israel’s cultural attach, and was writer-in-residence at Oxford University from 1979 to 1984. Tammuz published novels and novellas, short stories, plays, and books for children. He received several literary prizes, including the Talpir Prize (1970), the Ze’ev Prize (1971) and the Prime Minister’s Prize (1978). His novel, Minotaur, was selected Book of the Year in England in 1981 - it was nominated by Grahame Greene. His work has been widely published abroad.

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