Gaustine by Georgi Gospodinovtranslated by Magdalena Levy and Alexis Levitin
I got an answer the same week. In a yellow envelope of stiff paper, the kind that nobody sells anymore, with a “crest stamp” of one leva. I opened it carefully and there were two sheets of paper inside, pale green, with watermarks, covered with writing on only one side. No need to tell you that they were written out in the same graceful hand. He said he never went out, but he felt perfect. He had subscribed to the Zora Daily, edited “rather impartially by Mr. Krapchev”, and to the Zlatorog Magazine, in order to follow the progress of literature. That information from the outside world was enough for him, he said. He asked me what I thought of the suspension of the constitution and the dismissal of the parliament by the Yugoslavian King Alexander on the sixth of the same month, of which the Zora had informed its readers the very next day. He explained that he was working right now on a major project that would be called Plants Dreaming. He had read in an article that, according to French botanists, plants, too, have a psychic life and can experience various feelings, even love. Besides, they adore sleeping and most probably have dreams that at the present stage are hard to interpret. He ended his letter with a postscript in which he apologized for not having understood what I meant by “elegant mystification.”
I read the letter a few more times, fiddled with it, sniffed at it, hoping to find at least a slight trace of irony. All for nought. If it was a game, then Gaustine was inviting me to play it without specifying the rules, without giving me any hints or possibilities for leaving it. Well, fine, I decided to play or at least to pretend to have understood the trick. Since I knew nothing about that damned 1929, I had to spend the next three days in the library, rummaging through old editions of the Zora that, on top of it all, existed only on microfilm. I read carefully about prince Alexander. I took a look at the events that followed, too, just in case: “Trotsky Expelled from the USSR,” “Germany Accepts the Kellogg–Briand Pact,” Mussolini Signs Agreement with the Pope,” “France Refuses Political Asylum to Trotsky,” and, a month later, “Germany Refuses Political Asylum to Trotsky,” going as far as “Wall Street Collapse” of October 24th. I wrote Gaustine a short and, it seemed to me, rather cold answer right there, in the library, telling him in brief my opinion (that matched suspiciously the one of Mr. Krapchev) regarding the events in Yugoslavia and asking him to send me the things he was working on, hoping to find some answers there as to what was happening.
The next letter from him didn’t come until a month and a half later. He apologized for having caught some kind of influenza and not being able to do anything. He was better now, he said, but he couldn’t send me what he was writing, because it wasn’t finished yet. He asked in passing if I thought that France would accept Trotsky. I mused upon the possibility of putting an end to the whole story by writing him a sobering letter, but then I decided to give him one last chance to do it on his own. I gave him some advice about influenza that he had read himself in the Zora, told him not to go out too often and to soak his feet in warm salty water every night. I seriously doubted that France would give political asylum to Trotsky, as well as Germany, by the way. When his next letter arrived, France had indeed refused to accept Trotsky, and Gaustine, struck with admiration, wrote that I had “a colossal nose for politics, no doubt about it.” That letter was longer than the previous ones because of two other things that had earned his admiration. One of them was the recent fourth booklet of the Zlatorog where “Bagriana has contributed a collection of poems no less wonderful than the ones in her first book of two years ago.” He asked whether I had the honor of knowing personally that new star in our literary sky dominated by men, and who, he had heard, was an irresistible beauty. The other object of his admiration was a radio set, Telefunken, that he had found in the attic of an empty house and was now trying to fix. For that reason he asked me to send him a Valvo radio tube from Jabarov’s warehouse at 5 Aksakov. He also gave me the phone number of Jabarov that he had found in a newspaper advertisement, just in case, namely 544. Obviously, the radio was his new passion, since he described at great length some show in Berlin where a Dr. Reiser’s 12-tube radio set had been on display and had received short wave transmissions by means of automatic frequency modulation. “You can listen to concerts coming all the way from America, can you believe it?” After that letter I decided not to answer any more until he gave the game away himself. I was totally absorbed in my work; I got two more letters, much shorter than the previous ones, in which Gaustine expressed his worry as to whether he had somehow offended me, so that I wouldn’t answer. He asked me to drop him a line if my address had changed. I was resolved to keep my word. And even though at times I was overcome by curiosity mixed with a vague feeling of guilt, I always managed to postpone answering.
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Per Contra Spring 2007