The Ghost in the Desk
By Natan Zach
Translated from Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg
Ladies and gentlemen, dear readers, believe it or not, a ghost set its sights on my writing desk. Even now, with the affair behind me, my hand still trembles as I write such a sentence. If it is thus now, the ghost no longer present, imagine how awful my situation was when it was still cohabitating with me. A holy fright.
At first, I did not take its existence seriously, just as you are still convinced I am toying with you: spirits in his desk or in his drinking glass? Or, as is his wont, he will pull a snake from the hat into which he has only just placed a bird’s egg. With him, anything is possible.
When did I become aware, and how did I come to discover that this ghost – the sort that usually inhabits only ancient castles – was dwelling inside my writing desk? Indeed, it is truly best that I recount the story comme il faut and in an orderly manner.
First and foremost it is incumbent upon me to admit, with all the unpleasantness involved in such a confession, that I purchased this secretary myself in a distant land. In fact, not only did I purchase it, I paid a considerable sum of money without even negotiating the price with the seller. It was that dear to me.
As its emptor (a delectable word one rarely hears in English these days), and after having installed the desk in my home, naturally, with the aide of a porter, I still had no inkling of what was in store for me. In other words, even though I am pessimistic by nature, I had no inkling what evil I had brought down upon myself through my own foolishness.
As long as the desk was anchored in its own land the ghost did not proclaim itself, not even with the slightest of hints, and I am certain no one knew of its existence. One would think, be it by logic or by custom, that a spirit dwelling in any desk – mine or some other – would opt to flaunt its presence in its own habitat, a land known for its ghosts. For after all, a person buying a secretary for himself need not know or suppose that a ghost has established residence therein as though it were his natural domicile. No sane man who purchases for himself a piece of furniture need verify beforehand that a ghost is not occupying it.
Only when it reached my home, my country, surrounded by all the other furniture and objets, did it see fit to reveal itself, if that is indeed the way one may describe the appearance of ghosts. From that moment forth my life as I knew it previously ceased to exist, or, more accurately, changed irrevocably, as I myself did.
How did such a thing come to pass? Indeed, it did not come to pass as though it were an event of set time and date. One day, as I sat occupied with my work, the work of writing, it seemed I was hearing tiny raps, a sort of crackling, issuing from the depths of my desk. Back then I still discounted the matter, telling myself it was only my ears deceiving me. The ring of the telephone further diverted my attention from those tiny noises, which in fact ceased abruptly.
After several days of silence there returned what I can only, at this stage, refer to as gurgling, grunting, twitching, muttering, whispering noises and occasional groans and heartbreaking sighs, noises that came and went, went and came. Barely had I taken my place at my desk when they would resound. When I rose from my chair they would fall silent. Strange noises, not of the living, breathing world, not of this world nor, it would appear, of the world to come, may it arrive in goodness and not in evil.
Thus it was for many months. Ashamed and confounded am I to impart to your ears how long those nightmares that I am hard-pressed to describe continued. Were I a man of action, I most likely would have risen up and acted. But not only am I not a man of action, I am naturally inquisitive, so that I will not abandon whatever it is that frightens or intimidates me until I have unearthed its raison d’être and the secret of my anxieties. And thus it was that I spent long nights sitting at my desk waiting for the crackling, jangling, grumbling, clattering noises, the sighing and the groaning and weeping, in order to sort and identify them, to investigate thoroughly whether my enemies or ill-wishers had rigged this prank in order to cause me to desist from my work, the innocent task of writing.
This was all in fitting with psychological theory, of which I am a lifelong practitioner, as it states that there is nothing more narrow than that which is wide and nothing more revealing than that which is hidden and that that which exists in reality obviously originates and has its foundations in it.
Needless to say, all my investigations and inquiries were in vain. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the ghost had established my secretary as its domicile, whether because it did not appreciate my writing upon it or because I had transported it from a place of culture and amity to one in which every person, and perhaps every piece of furniture, rejoices in his comrade’s demise.
But to tell the truth – and this confession is more difficult still than anything that has preceded it – during moments of utter hopelessness, or moments of truth (and who would dare to say he can always discern between one and the other?) my hair stood on end and a shudder passed through my entire body with the thought that the ghost was not voicing its own pangs of suffering, if I may express it so, but rather, none other than the suffering of all men under the sun, by the mere fact of their humanity, except perhaps those to whom the ghost had grown accustomed in its native land.
In those selfsame moments of hopelessness there arises in me the memory of cries of help by captives and prisoners and nomads and suicides and the homeless and the slaughtered and the tortured, the moaning and bawling of innocent men, women and children who have been torched in flames or torn to shreds, pulped by knives and clubs, by rifles and bombs; the voices of those who perished in their homes or in the forests or in the camps or in hospitals or barracks, the voices of those whose lives felt pointless, who had had enough of their loneliness and anguish, enough of conflict and strife and the groundless hatred that harries man from this world. All these my desk expressed in the restrained manner of its native land, or softened by the distance of time and place.
From the moment this crazed thought infiltrated my brain I was no longer capable of approaching my fair secretary, for one crazed thought begets others of its ilk. Could it be that a carpenter who suffered all the ills of the world was he who crafted this beautiful piece of furniture? Could it be that he cursed it in his final hour? Had his spirit entered it, or was the desk equipped to absorb the anguish of all its users, perhaps mine as well?
From that moment, as I stated, I did not approach the desk again. At the first jangle I would jump to my feet. In the end, neither did I enter the room in which the desk stood, bizarrely bypassing and circumventing it in my home like Honi ha-Me’aggel, the Talmudic circle-drawer. From sheer terror, I would cup my ear to the walls so as to discern whether the anguished grunting could be heard when I was no longer seated in the chair before the desk. So odd were my rituals then that all my acquaintances rose up against me in exultation: at long last he has gone mad.
When the situation became graver still I did not dare even enter my study for a single second, particularly after noticing that the ghost did not reveal its presence except when I was alone in the room; when my wife, my friends or the maid were in the vicinity the desk did not issue even the slightest of jangles.
And thus the years passed. My true friends had long since despaired of me, not to mention the publishers of my books. For my part, I locked and bolted the room in which the desk stood and I did not seek out any other.
Thus the seasons changed and I went about, silent and somber. Until the day that there occurred a miracle, which in my land is what everything beneficent and not accursed is called, and my measure of torment had been filled and perhaps – a bizarre notion but not completely unreasonable – that when I saw what other ghosts had perpetrated upon my colleagues, some of whom had passed on to the next world, while others had ceased to write because they no longer had anything to say or because no one desired to hear their words any longer, I decided for once to rise up and take action. Truth be told, even this act, as with all my others, happened on its own.
One morning I was sitting in front of the big window, the only place in my house I had not yet sealed off from fear of those crackling noises and sighs, and lo, I heard a cart driver hooting the horn on his wagon and shouting in Yiddish, “Alte zachen, alte shich,” which means ‘junk’ and ‘old shoes.’ Was this not precisely what I had been praying for, unconsciously, all those years? In an instant, my decision took shape; before I even knew what I was doing I summoned the cart driver and within the hour he and two assistants had toiled to lower my nightmare down the stairs.
Only then did my soul grow still. Rather, strictly speaking, many months passed before I removed the locks and bolts and entered that room. For I told my soul, Is it not so that walls have ears; perhaps they had heard the noises and they, too, had become my oppressors?
But this was not so. In the end I came to realize that walls do not have ears. I, on the other hand, do not have a secretary. And what is the life of a writer with no desk? Am I some Agnon, that I should write my stories while standing before a lectern in the synagogue, as though I write only of holy matters?! Now I know that even an ordinary kitchen table will suffice.
Believe me, my faithful readers, it is better than sitting before a magnificent desk and hearing sighs and groans and torments that come from a foreign land. I have quite enough of those in my own.
Copyright © by Natan Zach 2011
English translation copyright © 2011 The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
Natan Zach was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1930, and immigrated to pre-state Israel as a child. After teaching at Tel Aviv University for a number of years, he moved to England (1967-1978), where he completed his PhD at the University of Essex. On his return, Zach was appointed professor at Haifa University. He has also served as chairman of the repertory board of the Ohel and Cameri Theaters.
A poet, critic, editor and translator, Zach has exerted great influence on the development of modern Hebrew poetry. He was the leader of a group of post-Independence poets who changed the face of Hebrew poetry in the 1950s and 1960s.
Zach has been awarded the Bialik Prize (1982), the Israel Prize (1995), the Camaiore Prize (Italy, 2000), the Levy Eshkol Award (2001), Premio dell`Unione di Lettori Italiani (Italy, 2001), the Feronia Prize (Italy, 2003), Cultural Ambassador of Rome (2002), and the ACUM Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2003). Most recently, Zach received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Geneva for "his contribution to the renewal of poetry in the second half of the 20th century" (2004), the honorary title of Cavaliere from the Italian Government (2007), the Gabriele d`Annunzio Prize (2009), the Premio Napoli (Italy, 2010) and the Aquila Prize (Italy, 2010). His work has been published abroad in 23 languages.
Evan Fallenberg, the translator, is the author, most recently, of When We Danced on Water (HarperCollins, May 2011). His novels and translations have won or been shortlisted for many awards, including the National Jewish Book Award, the American Library Association Stonewall Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, and the Edmund White Award. He teaches creative writing at Bar Ilan University.