Gaustine by Georgi Gospodinovtranslated by Magdalena Levy and Alexis Levitin
That’s how I prefer to introduce him to you. I saw him for the first time during one of those traditional early-September seminars at the seaside (early September is the most propitious time for a seminar). One evening we were sitting in a small restaurant by the sea, all of us writers, unmarried, never having published a single book, all of us at a pleasant age between twenty and twenty-five. The waiter had a hard time writing down all the grape brandies, tomato and cucumber salads, yogurt salads, seafood salads. When everyone finished ordering and the waiter, in the pause before withdrawing, asked would that be all, Gaustine, who obviously hadn’t managed to order anything, spoke for the first time:
“A coffee cream, please!”
He said it with the confidence of a man who was ordering at least a duck à l’orange or with Curaçao bleu. In the long silence that followed all we could hear was the sound of an empty plastic bottle being tossed about by the evening sea breeze.
“Excuse me?” the waiter uttered, just to say something, suspecting a malicious joke.
“A coffee cream, please,” Gaustine repeated, with the same restrained dignity.
“A coffee with cream or…”
“No, no, just the cream.”
The waiter, playing it safe, made a face, as if to say “Well, everybody has a trick,” then disappeared. We were as puzzled as he was, but soon the conversations at the table regained their previous noisy excitement. Shortly afterwards, plates and glasses covered the tablecloth. The last thing the waiter brought was a china saucer with a golden fringe. At the center of the saucer, standing gracefully, as it seemed to me, was Gaustine’s coffee cream. Then someone said Cheers and, amidst the clinking of cheap glass, I watched as Gaustine picked up the cream with his thumb and forefinger, carefully opened half of the small container, lifted it slightly in front of him and, in a gesture of saluting the company and at the same time apologizing for not being able to take part in their toast, took a minuscule sip. He continued to drink it so slowly and in such small sips that it lasted him all evening.
Why am I beginning to recount a story that might seem so unimportant and accidental? I’m sure that most people there interpreted Gaustine’s order (if at all) as a whim, as an attempt to look original. I picked this story because it was my first encounter with Gaustine, and I’m someone who cares about chronological order and beginnings. My modest experience has taught me that first encounters always give us more information than it seems.
The very next day I made an attempt to become friends with him and during the last week or so we totally turned our backs on the seminar, indulging in walks and going swimming. We both weren’t really talkative, so we had a wonderful time together, sharing a common silence. Still, I managed to find out that he was living alone, that his father had passed away a long time ago, and that the previous month his mother had tried for the third time to immigrate illegally – and this time, he hoped, successfully – to California. According to the plan, she should have been crossing the Mexican border just around then.I also found out that sometimes he wrote late nineteenth century fairy tales, that’s exactly how he put it, and I barely contained my curiosity, behaving as if it were a most natural occupation. He was particularly interested in the past. He wandered about old deserted houses, rummaging through the remains, grubbing about in attics and chests, collecting all sorts of rubbish. Once in a while he managed to sell something either to antique dealers or to acquaintances, making a living that way. I decided that his modest order the first night we met meant that his business wasn’t doing too well. So, when he mentioned in passing that right now he had three packs of 1937 Tomasians, dust-free, double extra quality, as a chain smoker I immediately wished to buy all three of them. Really, he said. I always wanted to try an old Tomasian like that, I replied, and he rushed to his bungalow. It gave him genuine pleasure to watch me as I lit one of the cigarettes with feigned carelessness, using original German matches from 1928 (which came as a bonus with the cigarettes), and then he asked me how the spirit of 1937 was. Pungent, I replied. The cigarettes were strong indeed, having no filters and producing heavy smoke. It might be due to the air raids over Guernica that year, Gaustine said softly. Or because of the Hindenburg dirigible, the biggest zeppelin in the world, that exploded then, on May 6th, I think, one hundred meters above ground, just before landing, with ninety-seven people aboard. All the radio reporters cried on the air. These things probably have stuck to the tobacco leaves…
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Per Contra Spring 2007