Michal Ajvaz

The Luxembourg Gardens

2011 | Druhé město
Chapter 6

Paul awoke early the next day. He sat up in bed; next to him he saw Simone’s hair spread out on the pillow like a glistening black fan, the white quilt rising almost imperceptibly to the rhythm of her sleep. The rays of sunshine penetrated into the room through the cracks in the shutters; in places casting light on the smooth varnish of the wardrobe and producing glowing stripes on the bed covers. A car passed under the window and then for a while all was silent. And within this extensive space, where the homely light began to quietly spread, and where nothing moved except for the quilt rising and falling like a tranquil wave, a question started to surface, and Paul was surprised that he hadn’t asked it before this moment: the question he asked was why he was so obsessed with Donald Ross. The artificial scribe was undoubtedly something unprecedented, but a technological curiosity couldn’t be the reason for Paul forgetting about his important work and arranging to visit his wife’s former lover, a visit which he knew beforehand would be an embarrassment, and which more or less turned out that way. Paul realised that the reason for this obsession wasn’t being amazed by something entirely new and unknown; when he met Ross it was more like something began to awaken which had previously been dormant within him, like a voice he had heard in some other country where he had stayed long ago and which he had forgotten. He tried to think when he had first heard that unsettling and enticing voice which appeared the other day, and he had a feeling that it was even before Ross, right at the point when Plotinus transformed into the mysterious Okitubis. Paul now asked himself whether it hadn’t been that quiet, though at the same time strangely powerful voice, which prevented him from correcting his mistake and continuing with his work. And he heard this voice again, even louder, when he read the unintelligible words delivered by Regent, Tyro and Surr.

He decided he had to try and figure it out. Still wearing his pyjamas he went over to the desk, switched on the computer and read over Ross’s writing, returning again and again to the unintelligible speech. It occurred to him that it might be some kind of code hiding an important message concerning his life and which was designed only for him. He remembered Poe’s short story The Gold-Bug; but the approach which Poe described couldn’t be used in this case; if there was to be any meaning in the discourse in Ross’s prose, then it was obviously from a fictitious language whose letters, given the proper key, could be transformed into symbols, as was the case with the message concerning the pirate’s treasure that was solved by Poe’s main character. Nevertheless, at one point it seemed to Paul that he was getting closer to the meaning of the yggurs’ discourse, even though he still hadn’t figured out the meaning of one word. He had a strange feeling that in the next moment he would understand this unknown tongue — that he would understand it immediately, without any complex solutions. And the new meaning would not present itself through words, but through the peculiar glow of unknown words, as a kind of omnipresent aura emanating from the letters.

He was interrupted by a bang from the open shutters; he felt a fresh, cool air from the street. Simone was already awake; she soon appeared in her nightshirt and embraced him from behind; when she saw Ross’s prose on the screen she just groaned. They preferred not to mention yesterday’s visit over breakfast. Paul was impatient, he felt that the gate to the meaning of the unknown text was opening and would soon close again. And that was indeed what happened; as soon as Simone went to work he ran over to the computer, but now the screen only showed those indecipherable, enclosed clusters of words; the aura which glowed from the letters in the early morning was now extinguished.

Paul stood by the open window, looking at the glitter of dew on the lawns of the Luxembourg Gardens and at the facade of the palace in the sunlight, and he felt that the pure early light must be of help. He quickly printed out Ross’s prose, threw the printouts into his laptop bag and ran out into the street. On the pavement, which glared so intensely it burned his eyes, lay the long shadows from the street lamps and trees. He entered the gardens from the entrance on rue Guynemer; there were not many people in the park at this time, just a few students on benches reading texts with screwed-up eyes; three dogs chased each other across the white sand around the pond.

He sat on a bench and for the umpteenth time immersed himself in the words of Commander Tyr, the shadows of leaves flitting over the paper. And that strange feeling from the morning, that the text would be easy to understand, began to slowly return; he felt that he was groping around in the dark, that there had to be a gate somewhere, that he could feel a breath of wind from the other side… Slowly he began to realise what this strange realisation in his mind was based on: the awkward fact that he didn’t know the meaning of one word from the discourse he read obviously allowed him to see something which, although is present and communicates something important in the language (in every language), is usually obscured by the familiar meaning of the words: he was searching for the miraculous body of language and its dreamlike movements, the silent dance of words, their rhythms and gestures which he had never seen elsewhere because they were obscured by meaning, just as when someone asks for directions they don’t look at the waving arms but at a distant place at the end of the street. Now, for the first time, he could see the current from which the sounds and words settled like sand deposits, and which at the same time opened up into constellations and figures whose final secret could only be preserved by him.

But that wasn’t all. The miraculous current, the voice of which he heard in speech, spilled out like floodwater, it was impossible to confine it to words. Paul saw that speech was just one branch of a complex delta with many branches into which the current spread, of a delta which nevertheless was made deep by only one single current flowing into it. And at that moment Paul witnessed the city surrounding him undergo a miraculous metamorphosis. All of the things and beings around him emerged as glowing crystals which were formed from the one current; everything was made from one luminous material; and the first thing to disappear was the difference between words and things, everything was body and at the same time script; everything was shaped and given life by the current, they were saturated by it, and at the same time everything was hieroglyphics, signs which told of the rhythms of the current that had formed them and which forever remained in their shapes, the secret of their births, their loves, and the networks of strange relationships which penetrated the cosmos.

When the great cipher of the world appeared to Paul, which was now impossible not to understand, there was no longer any point in going any further with the complex speech of Regent, Tyr and Surr, and Paul forgot about Ross’s characters. He could no longer remain in the one place. He slung his bag with the printouts over his shoulder and set off along the paths of light sand towards Boulevard Saint-Michel. The words of the unknown language gave him new eyes, and he now looked around with a new ability to understand the language the world spoke. All things had been transformed, they exhaled the fragrance of the current which seeped through them. He saw the city as hieroglyphic text, humming its message all around him, and at the same time as a great fountain dipping slowly towards the Seine along the cascades of streets, the miraculous current was as visible under the shapes of things as water is in a spring brook lightly covered by ice. It seemed to him that the trellises in the garden in front of him had sprung up from the earth, which still left an imprint on their shape, and the tips of the poles were being given form by sunlight in front of his very eyes, the Boulevard Saint-Michel rose up from the Seine towards Montparnasse in silent ecstasy, like a blissful wave, celestial light playfully chased the bodywork of cars, even the facades of houses had broken out in windows a little while ago in a kind of feverish bliss, tree branches were letters on which a message was written, introducing Paul to his hidden ideas, areas of peeling plaster radiated the mysterious act of dilapidation, one of the many miraculous melodies of the world, the asphalt of the roads signalled their kinship with all things which gleamed, with the surfaces of lakes and the varnish of schools benches from childhood. The faces of passers-by were impregnated with the space of their rooms which they had navigated over the years, with the life of hard, dark wardrobes, and the quiet threat from dusty corners, which inscribed themselves into the inlets of the night and the shores of the morning; Paul observed how the rhythm of walking spread out into a unique labyrinth around each person on the boulevard, from which no-one could escape: a forest path, a colonnade, an extensive country home, a never-ending bridge or desert…

For the first time in his life Paul could see what the words he used every day were expressing, he knew what was meant by to rise up, lean against, swing and hang, and he realised that these were rhythms of the magical current, and at the same time examples of a cosmic grammar. Things stopped being something complete and divided from each other by the impenetrable boundaries of surfaces, reality became a humming maze of several dramas of growing, building, stabilizing, decomposing, merging and disintegrating, fraying and healing, falling and mixing, absorbing and transforming, approaching, stiffening and cracking, decaying, leaking through crevices and secret absorption, rising forces and falling… And Paul himself was a part of this maze, this story which was older than people, which created people as new figures in its eternal game; he felt incredible good fortune and gratitude that he had been given the gift of being a spectator and participant in this incredible game which has been played out simultaneously across the whole of the universe ever since the universe burst forth.

And then he felt that he was a cook in a fairy tale who has tasted a magical snake. He could hear snippets of sentences floating out from the noise of the boulevard like the beautiful poem of an overly generous Chinese poet, and they dissolved inside him again and returned to the material of the noise from which they were born, and they did not recoil from any of their voices, the noise of the engines or the shouting of a drunken clochard. The world was no longer divided into important and unimportant things, important and unimportant shapes, sounds and smells. Suddenly everything was important because everything had been created by the current and everything was a cipher of this current: the information carried by the outline of things was just as important as the shapes of stains and the networks of cracks on their surfaces, of equal importance were words, sounds and hums — it was information about a blissful current, about its ability to change and unite.

Paul was still standing on the Boulevard Saint-Michel; in front of him in the vapour hovered the cupola of the Pantheon, it was preparing to break free from the columns it was attached to and float above the city like a white balloon. At first Paul walked towards it, but as he made his way over he was coaxed down the gentle slope of rue Saint-Jacques, and so he turned to the left and walked down past the empty cars quietly parked by the pavement, past the back of the large buildings of the Sorbonne, which told him stories of the secrets of the rear sections, where the dangerous and overlooked juices of home life gather and work here in silence in the destruction or rebirth of a dwelling, he went down past walls with branches leaning over, breathing out old myths to the street about the gardens inside. All around him he saw a world of unbroken metaphors, but which were not just chaos, they showed him a kind of syntax which creates things, which was just as inexorably precise as the laws of arithmetic and geometry, and which would be possible to study (chaos itself was just one figure in this syntax which was no worse than the others). Paul suddenly knew that it was a syntax which created things, beings and the space of the world by eternally addressing itself, and like the magical snake biting into its own tail, new forms are born, transformed and created from its own pronouncements — and he knew that even his existence was controlled by this great grammar. This realisation went through his whole body; he had to stop, he stood for a long time on the pavement at the point where rue Saint-Jacques intersected with rue du Sommard, under a blue sign for a hotel. Then the vision of the river delta from the Luxembourg Gardens returned to him: he now saw a formation with straight as well as meandering branches, with diagonal branches and branches flowing back, with muddy branches overgrown with grass where the flow almost stops, with dead-end branches with putrid water. And the current led this whole network of riverbeds, which flowed through them in many different currents and rhythms, and at the same time they were transformed by this current, together the current and the banks played an endless, blissful game from which deities and worlds were born.

He set off once more; he realised that what he had witnessed was not just some rootless experience, but that the encounter with the unintelligible language of Ross’s prose had released something which had been readying itself and maturing over a long period, which had often made itself heard during sudden encounters when he approached something before it had been enveloped by its habitual meaning, or also during times of boredom and tiredness, which occurred some afternoons on rue Vaugirard or in his office at school, at the times when he thought he could hear magical music from a distance, but which was too quiet to make out the melody. He had already gone down to the Seine and now he was crossing the sparkling river over the deserted Tournelle bridge, in front of him shone the facades of the houses on the embankment of the island of St Louis. The transformed vision brought such an intense feeling of bliss within Paul that it was painful; until then he had no idea that such a strong feeling of happiness could exist. It was difficult to describe what he had experienced. It was a holiday, a kind of topsy-turvy carnival, the participants of which suddenly eat the grey masks they have been wearing all year to reveal fantastically colourful faces. But the whirl of the carnival was also the start of a kind of system and a kind of logic, he was bound to them in a strange way, the things joined by the complex branches of the current revealed unexpected connections, and thus established new species, classifications and types, they required a new classification where precise systematicity embraced dream.

Paul knew that he couldn’t just ignore what he had experienced, the things called on him to write down what they said to him — not so that the current that flowed through them would stop, but on the contrary, because the current creating metaphors ushered in new transformations to things, to the birth of new forms. The things revealed to him that a kind of generosity was part of their being, and that not even he could keep these gifts he had received that day to himself. He also knew that he didn’t have to worry about whether the text which had begin to germinate in his mind would be an academic study, or a poem, or a combination of the two, or perhaps something different entirely, he was certain that the current he had seen would discover its own form.

He began to feel exhausted from the excess of bliss. He found a café on the Île Saint-Louis, sat down to a coffee and watched the calm current of the river and the roofs of the tour boats which passed the island. He took out some of the paper with Ross’s prose from his satchel, but he no longer looked at the text, he turned over the first page and began to write his first notes in small script on the blank back page. When he was on his way home he looked forward to telling Simone about this new world which he had discovered and about the book he was sure to write. But before even reaching rue Vaugirard he changed his mind; he had started to worry that his vision would fade if he had to explain to someone where this transformation in the world actually lies, and so he finally decided that he wouldn’t tell his wife anything just yet — Simone will be even happier when the book is ready, he said to himself. Over the following days he walked around the city with a notebook and looked: things and spaces talked about themselves, they spoke about their lives and about their dreams, myths, ambitions and relationships; after some time Paul would then sit in a café and note down in his book everything which the things and spaces had said to him, then he would continue on his walk.


Translated from the Czech by Graeme Dibble