Fumiko had locked herself in her room. No amount of pleading or bargaining seemed to sway her resolve not to come out. We hadn’t argued. One minute she was sitting on my bed; the next minute she wasn’t. She lived three doors away, coming and going as she pleased, and it took a whole day for me to notice that anything was amiss. On the third day, I went to see the superintendent; I got as far as his door when it occurred to me that I could be making a terrible mistake. I was an illegal resident of the Cité-U—a crumbling twelve-story dormitory named for a dead postwar French writer I had never read. My student identification card, along with my student visa, had expired a long time ago. The last thing I wanted was to get deported. Fumiko had locked herself up before, though she always emerged from her self-confinement after a night or two. There was an expression my father sometimes used, back in Denmark, kæreste sorg—sweetheart sorrow—to describe the sadness one feels at the thought of a love affair nearing its end. A sadness one is not yet ready to face. As I walked away without knocking, I could almost hear my father’s voice in my head.
Back at Fumiko’s door, I called out her name, as loudly as I dared, not wanting to attract the attention of the other residents.
Her voice, when it came to me from the other side, sounded impossibly far away: “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” I said, pressing my ear against the wood. “Just open the door, O.K.?”
Another long silence. Then I heard her say, “J’ai froid”—“I’m cold.” Or it could have been “Ta voix”—“Your voice.” The fact that so many French words rhymed with each other, coupled with Fumiko’s difficulties in pronouncing them, resulted in frequent misunderstandings between us.
“What did you say?”
“My voice? What about my voice?”
But she had gone silent again.
I decided to take the air, visit the Latin Quarter. It wasn’t yet evening, and the Métro was abnormally quiet: a lull between rush hours. After getting off at Saint-Michel, I lingered a few moments at the station entrance. Because of the heat from the subway tunnels, the nearby trees hadn’t yet lost their leaves and the air smelled of mimosa and chestnut, even though winter was well under way. Eventually, I wandered into the Sorbonne. The guard at the entrance let me through, barely glancing at my expired identification card. Students loitered in groups in the main courtyard, bulky scarves wound elegantly around their necks. The marble-floored corridors were unheated. In the snack bar, empty white plastic cups stained with coffee littered the countertop. It was as if I had never been away. I walked past Philosophie, Histoire, Littérature Française, stopping at Littérature Générale et Comparée, my former department. The benches were empty, no one waiting to see their thesis director. I scanned the walls. Among ads for au-pair girls and cheap health insurance was a typewritten note pockmarked with unevenly aligned letters: “Urgent. Theoretical physicist seeks Anglophone to translate treatise. 200 pages. 10 euros / page.” Since abandoning my dissertation, I’d earned what money I could by giving private English lessons to French high-school students, teaching unruly adolescents how to pronounce their “h”s and haggling with their stingy parents over my hourly rate. I knew nothing about physics. Yet the prospect of translating something—of not having to churn out anything in the way of original thought—appealed to me. I checked to see if anyone was watching, then tore off the piece of paper.
On the way home, I pictured my employer-to-be introducing me to other colleagues—i.e., hypothetical physicists of theoretical physics, in need of a translator. One of the beggars making the rounds growled when I didn’t drop anything into his grubby outstretched hand. Closing my eyes, I imagined myself earning two thousand euros a month, sitting in the back seat of a taxi, Fumiko next to me, as we cruised down the Avenue de la Grande Armée. The Grande Armée was the B side of the Champs-Élysées, radiating from the opposite edge of the Place de l’Étoile. It was grand and impressive, but not quite the Champs-Élysées. I was, if nothing else, a modest dreamer.
At a telephone booth, I dialled the number. I could see my residence hall from the booth, and I tried to find Fumiko’s room among the tiny mirrored squares, her last words to me—your voice, your voice, your voice—echoing in my head. Near the top, I noticed a solitary blind eye, one of the windows failing to reflect back the sun’s dying rays. An open window in the middle of winter? I was counting off squares when, on the ninth ring, a man finally answered, introducing himself as Raoul de Gadbois. “Clarisse has seen fit to move the telephone yet again,” he went on, “thence my difficulty in answering it sooner.” His French, ponderous and antiquated, was straight out of the Littré. Turning away from the building, I told him I was calling about the ad; I was convinced it had been there for months. We talked. He inquired if Blatand, my name, was English, and, resisting the urge to say yes, I admitted that I was from Copenhagen. “Where,” I added, trying to give my French “r”s a British lilt, “everyone speaks the King’s English.” Gadbois suggested an hour and a date (one-thirty, tomorrow), then gave me an address: Quai Louis Blériot, in the sixteenth arrondissement.
“You need only to tell Clarisse that you are having lunch with me, Monsieur Blatand.”
After hanging up, I cast a sidelong glance at my profile in the glass booth. I could feel it. This was a turning point. The face in the glass nodded with me. If I hadn’t yet got the job, I had already got a free meal. My luck was changing, and I was almost convinced I would find Fumiko waiting for me at my door. Stepping out of the elevator on the eleventh floor, I walked past the peeling wallpaper, the occasional graffiti. The hallway was empty. No Fumiko. I felt depressed at the thought of returning to my room, to my single bed, my drawerless desk, and my requisite antediluvian sink with two faucets: scalding hot and bone-numbing cold.
I stopped at Fumiko’s door and knocked. Two quick raps.
“Fumiko, can you hear me? I know you’re in there.”
Gradually, I became aware of a muffled flapping noise. As though she were at her window, airing out the bedsheets.
“You can’t keep this up forever,” I said, more to myself than to her.
I had met Fumiko almost two years earlier, in the Métro. She was not the first to mistake me for one of her countrymen. To anyone seeing me walking around in Paris, I probably look about as Scandinavian as the Emperor Hirohito, even if the only thing I am able to say in Japanese is “I don’t speak Japanese.” I am unable to pronounce the name of the city where I was born.
“But you look so Japanese,” an exasperated Fumiko told me that day, her French much more foreign-sounding than mine. Words, in her mouth, always seemed to have one syllable too many. We stood facing each other, surrounded by commuters, in the stale air of the subway car.
“Really.” I let the sarcasm settle in. “I had no idea.”
When I told her where I was from, she screamed. Several people looked at us.
“De-eh-enmark? Wouah!” A pause. “So you speak”—another pause—“Danish?” She even managed to give “Danish” an extra syllable.
Fumiko was from a small town in northern Japan; she was auditing courses at the École des Beaux-Arts. She smoked Marlboro Lights, which she pronounced Maru-boru Right. She owned an Aiwa mini disk player, which, she told me, used a special lithium-ion battery. The friendlier she became, the more I found her friendliness irritating, presumptuous. I had met people like her before, Asians who thought I had something in common with them. In Denmark, I had grown so used to looking different from everyone around me that I was able to forget what I looked like. In France, I was made aware, all over again, of my appearance: from French students frowning over my un-French, un-Japanese name to panhandlers in the street who shouted “Konnichiwa!” when I walked past, no doubt the only Japanese word they knew.
I didn’t think I would see Fumiko again, but I ran into her a few days later, at the student cafeteria. She insisted on sitting with me. On the way out, we discovered not only that we were both headed for the same residence hall but that we both lived on the eleventh floor—like something out of an Ionesco play. After that, we kept bumping into each other: at the cafeteria, in the hallway, by the elevator. (Only later did it occur to me to wonder if she had planned these “accidental” meetings.) I eventually learned that Fumiko had left for Europe after recovering from a nervous breakdown, the way wealthy Scandinavians went to the Mediterranean to convalesce from respiratory ailments. A drastic change in environment, a doctor had said, could only do her good. Her parents wired money to an account at the BNP every month. She had chosen Paris because she had studied French in secondary school.
I in turn told her about my dissertation—I hadn’t yet abandoned it—on the influence of Sir James Frazer in the works of Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien. I was (as I used to tell my dissertation supervisor) interested in the manifestations of magic; I said this to Fumiko with none of the self-consciousness that I displayed in front of my professor. She asked me how long I’d been in France, and I gave her my usual line: “Long enough to feel like an exile, not long enough to feel French.” I told her about being adopted as an infant, about growing up near Copenhagen, my childhood fishing trips with my father to the Faeroe Islands, my primary-school years spent in Sweden. Fumiko asked me why Scandinavians always sounded like they were mumbling, and I told her it was mostly the Danes. Even Swedes and Norwegians had trouble understanding us. There was a saying that Danes spoke with potatoes in their mouths—“Danskerne taler med kartofler i munden,” I said. When she heard me speak the language, she couldn’t stop laughing, yet I understood that she wasn’t mocking me. Her reaction, I told myself, would have been the same had someone with blond hair and blue eyes spoken Danish to her. Who would have thought that the laughter of a Japanese girl would make me feel Danish again?
I don’t know when I fell in love with Fumiko, with her boyishly cut black hair, her sputtering French, her habit of washing her underwear in the communal kitchen sink, even her way of entering a room, so quietly and unobtrusively that I often glanced up to find her reading one of my books or staring at a picture on the wall. An unforeseeable side effect of communicating in a language foreign to both of us was that it allowed me to forget, sometimes, that she was Japanese. A foreign language allows one to rename the world and everything in it. Perhaps I was able to do so with Fumiko as well—that is, I was able to see Fumiko herself with new eyes. Watching her inspect the carcass of an insect on my windowsill one afternoon, I found myself thinking, I have fallen in love with your strangeness. That same day, I told her she was beautiful: “Vous êtes belle”—the formal vous, in contrast with the tu we normally used with each other, underlining the solemnity of the occasion. Fumiko, from across the room, smiled, as though she suddenly understood something.
“What are you smiling about?” I asked.
“In Japanese, the vous is used by the wife to address her husband. The wife says ‘vous’ and the husband says ‘tu.’ I never thought about it until I came to France.”
I went to where she was sitting, a book open in her hands. “Is that why you said ‘vous’ to me for such a long time?” I asked.
She slapped me lightly on the arm with her book. “I said ‘vous’ because we didn’t know each other very well.”
She didn’t answer. That night, as we lay in bed together, I told her I loved her (in French, it was easier to say such things). The words, even buffered by a foreign language, nearly caught in my throat.
“Moi aussi,” Fumiko answered, after a while. “Je vous aime.”
I believe she was in love with me from the very beginning. Not long after we first met, I found on my doorstep two Fuji apples and an old Grundig transistor radio. All because I had mentioned, in passing, the persistent silence of my room. The accompanying note said, “A ghost in your room can make the silence disappear.” I puzzled over the words for several minutes, until I realized that she had probably meant en revenant (coming back) instead of un revenant (a ghost). Later that evening, there was no answer when I knocked on her door, and, assuming she was out, I left a note of my own, signing it, “A fellow-ghost.” We’d been going out for a few weeks when she told me she had been home when I came by but had been unable to leave her chair.
“Suddenly, I felt afraid. I couldn’t move. I sat there, listening, for a long time.” She gave a self-conscious laugh. “When I opened the door, you were already gone.”
Had it been only three days? I was unlocking my door when I heard someone step out into the corridor. With a quickness in my chest, I looked up. It was Philippe, a psychology student who lived a few doors down. After hesitating, he waved. I had first met Philippe in the cafeteria. He had wanted me to take part in his research on pathological disorders affecting East Asian natives. “Some routine questions, nothing elaborate, so I can get an idea of your psychological makeup,” he had told me that day, even after I had informed him of my background. Caught off guard, I suggested Fumiko, hoping she would refuse. But Fumiko was only too happy for an occasion to practice her French with a native speaker. A week later, Philippe came to my door.
“I don’t know if I should be telling you this,” he said.
“Telling me what?”
“It’s about Fumiko.”
“What about Fumiko?”
“Normally, I never reveal information given to me during an interview, but”—he glanced up and down the corridor—“I thought you might want to know.”
“In Japan, the majority of nervous breakdowns occur in the late teens to the mid-twenties. That’s when you have your university entrance exams, your preëntrance exams to qualify for the entrance exams, your preparatory classes for the preëntrance exams . . .” Watching him talk, I recalled the morbid enthusiasm he had displayed in the cafeteria while telling me about hwa-byung, a stress syndrome that affected middle-aged Korean women, and the dreamy look in his eyes as he went on about a Japanese malady in which the sufferer grew obsessed with his own body odor. “There’s even an exam to get into the preparatory classes, if you can believe that. It’s no wonder so many people kill—”
“What’s your point?” I said. I knew that Fumiko had found life in Japan exhausting.
He cleared his throat. “Your girlfriend came to France as a cure. But one of the conditions of her recovery was that she avoid things, elements, that might remind her of Japan. At least, for the time being.” His voice trailed off.
“So? I don’t see what the problem is.” I stared down at the floor, where a corner of one of the tiles had been chipped away. Philippe didn’t say anything. I looked up at him. “You mean me?”
“I’ve been trying to decide whether it was worth telling you.”
“But I have nothing to do with Japan!”
Philippe lifted his hands, palms out. “I only told you because I thought you should know. You can take it or leave it.”
But I couldn’t. I could neither take it nor leave it. Although I looked Japanese on the outside, I didn’t feel it, had never felt it. At the same time, the doubt always remained that I was not who I thought I was, that, unbeknownst to myself, I was an impostor, a fake. I feared I was no one, in the end.
Now I called out to Philippe, who had reached the other end of the corridor, “How’s the research going?” When he turned around, I noted, not without a certain satisfaction, the dark circles under his eyes.
“Could be better.”
“Oh? What’s wrong?”
“My theories aren’t holding up.” Philippe walked slowly toward me. “A recent study on cultural imprinting weakens what I’ve been proposing in my . . .” He stopped walking, then smiled thinly. “In other words, I’m in a bind.”
A beat passed in silence.
“Can I ask you something?” I said.
“Is there a disorder where someone locks, um, himself in his room?”
“Hikikomori. Modern-day hermit syndrome.” Philippe’s face lit up. “Most live with their parents, who leave food by the door. In some rare cases, it can get ugly, but they usually live quietly in their rooms and only come out after dark.” He winked. “That is, if they come out at all.”
My body felt hot all over, the way it did at the onset of a fever.
Philippe was looking at me strangely. “Why do you ask?”
“Just testing your knowledge.”
Raoul de Gadbois lived on the top floor of an apartment building overlooking the Seine. Despite the excessive heat of the radiators, I sensed something cold, a chill in the air. The furniture, the fixtures all seemed old but barely used. Everything was brightly lit. My head ached. After a mostly sleepless night—the result of chronic insomnia—I had woken up, throat full of phlegm, tongue covered with goose bumps; the fever had blossomed. Clarisse—a squat, middle-aged woman—led me past the study on the way to the dining room. I noticed an ornate glassed-in cabinet where Greek and Latin books intermingled with yellowing physics tomes. On the hallway wall hung a black-and-white photograph of a young woman with penetrating eyes and a mouth too large for her face.
Gadbois stood up from the table, and we shook hands. He looked to be at least seventy, a reasonably ugly man with a fleshy face and a perfectly bald head. His ugliness was subtle: it took you a moment to realize, and fully appreciate, its scope. He didn’t seem the slightest bit surprised that I was not “European,” as though it were a given, to him, that all Danes looked like me, and vice versa.
He said, gravely, “Bonjour, monsieur.”
“Bonjour,” I said. “Monsieur.”
After we sat down, Gadbois asked about my life in France, the weather in Denmark—but the usual inquiries about my background did not come. I knew that a sneeze could strike at any moment, but I nevertheless forbade myself from asking for even a tissue, convinced that the smallest show of ill health would jeopardize my prospects. Feverish and delirious, I was about to tell him, just to have it done with, that I had been adopted, when Clarisse came in with a bottle of wine on a tray. It was only as I watched her fill Gadbois’s glass that I understood, with a start, that the old man was blind.
The main dish was brought in. With slow, practiced movements, Gadbois’s hands swept across the tabletop and closed over the fork and knife. Clarisse, as though waiting for something, stood in the background. At that moment, a strange and ridiculous thought entered my head: that Gadbois had intentionally kept his blindness from me on the phone, and in the laconic phrasing of his ad. He took a bite and said, “This isn’t mackerel. Are you trying to trick me?”
I could tell, simply from looking, that the fish was mackerel; I had helped my father inventory the catch on our fishing trips.
“It’s a mackerel, monsieur,” Clarisse said, not the least bit surprised by Gadbois’s reprimand.
He took another bite. “A herring. You went out and bought a herring.”
“Herrings are more expensive, monsieur. You gave me only enough money for mackerel.”
Gadbois turned away from his plate with calm disdain. “Is this mackerel, Monsieur Blatand?”
I noticed Clarisse, in the corner, fixing me with her imperturbable gaze.
“You’re right,” I finally said. “It’s not mackerel.”
Gadbois, dignified and triumphant, turned to Clarisse and nodded once, gravely, his honor restored.
In addition to the mackerel, other items on the menu—roast potatoes, buttered artichokes with shallots—were systematically contested by Gadbois. Clarisse responded to each accusation with equanimity and patience. At last Gadbois acquiesced, resigning himself to the impostor food. It was the best meal I’d had in months, and yet I couldn’t taste a thing. Each time Clarisse came around to fill my glass, I kept my eyes on my plate, unable to look at her.
“You are not a student of physics,” Gadbois said, staring off into space, as though it had just dawned on him.
I stared at his stained, grayish teeth. “Well, no.”
“Have you translated physics texts before?”
“Have you studied physics at all, Monsieur Blatand?”
“Well—” A memory surfaced: dropping mold-encrusted coins onto the roof of the bicycle shed from my bedroom window in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby. “Some studies on gravitation, a long time ago.”
Gadbois’s gleaming forehead shifted. “What do you think of the theory of special relativity?” he asked, almost slyly.
I stared at him. Was this a trick question?
“The fact is,” he went on, “scientists have suspected for years, even decades, that there might be a hole somewhere. No one has been able to prove it.”
Gadbois stopped. I watched his flabby, brown-spotted hands smooth out the napkin, as though acting independently of their owner. I felt a painful, almost physical longing to see Fumiko, to hear her voice, feel the touch of her hand on my shoulder. Gadbois started talking about the inherent difficulties of describing something called a black body. I tried not to sneeze as I stared at the vacant seat next to Gadbois. A knife and fork had been set out alongside an empty plate, for a guest who had not come. Under the glare of electric lights, I saw that the porcelain was coated with a layer of dust, the silverware dulled by tarnish.
After the meal, Gadbois suggested we go to his study. I walked beside him, matching my steps with his, which were cautious but never unsure. Suddenly, he halted, in the middle of the hallway, and I was trying to decide whether to tell him that the study was still a few feet away, when he pointed at the photograph I had noticed earlier.
“My wife,” he said, reaching out and brushing his fingers over the wooden frame, “in 1959.”
That afternoon, I stood outside Fumiko’s room with a plastic bag full of food. Day four, I told myself, ear pressed against the door. Five, if one counted the evening she had locked herself in.
“Fumiko?” I waited. “I brought you some food.”
Some fruits, cheese, and a boule de campagne, her favorite bread, from the nearby Franprix. I knew the exact contents of Fumiko’s cupboard, having glanced inside it the day before her self-confinement. Since then, each item had engraved itself in my memory, frozen in time: a bag of dried chickpeas, a cannister of salt, a withered Fuji apple, and the rock-hard stump of a baguette. The human body, I knew, could go up to three weeks without food. And Fumiko had all the water she could drink from the faucet.
Back in my room, I wrapped all my blankets around me to keep warm—thinking wistfully of the dense, heavy comforters found in Danish country hotels—and sat down at my desk to start work on the twenty pages Gadbois had given me to translate. Instead of paragraphs on physics, it turned out to be a series of letters between Gadbois and the Académie des Sciences. “After consultation by an expert, we must regretfully refuse your articles for publication. It appears that your work rests on founding assumptions that no experiment has justified. Your theories, in addition, do not contain any experimentally verifiable element.”
Over the next few days, in between checking to see if Fumiko had left her room, I allowed the twenty pages to become my obsession, the cynosure of my day-to-day life, as all-consuming as a new love affair. I even caught a grammatical error Gadbois had made, writing une instead of un hémisphère, which, unlike une sphère, was masculine. (It was the kind of error native speakers rarely made, although rarely didn’t mean never, and I found such lapses strangely fascinating, like hearing a renowned pianist miss an easy note in the penultimate measure.) Sometimes, looking up from my work, I thought, At last I’ve found my calling. Once an indefatigable library rat, I no longer waited in line at the Beaubourg or the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, whose vast ribbed interior made me think of a whale’s hollowed-out belly; I stayed in my narrow, cramped room and worked on Gadbois’s text. “R. de Gadbois’s definition of gravity, based on a modification of Planck’s law of black-body radiation, ignores the effects caused by the disintegration of electrons near a rotating black hole.” “I insist that you seek the opinion of another expert. If my articles do not appear in the Academy’s reports, I shall include, in the English translation of my treatise, this potentially incriminating correspondence in its entirety.” “The articles submitted for publication by R. de Gadbois show great ambition. His vast program is reminiscent of the articles published by Albert Einstein in 1905. Unfortunately . . .”
At night, hoping to lull myself to sleep, I tried to recall what little physics I’d gleaned from magazines and science-fiction novels. Gravity was not a physical force but was caused by a curvature in space-time. The density of an object determined its gravitational pull. Around a black hole, near the event horizon, the pull became so strong that time crawled along at a snail’s pace, a minute lasting several millennia. I imagined everything inside Fumiko’s room slowing down—the decomposition of atomic particles, radioactive emissions, transmigratory thought waves, universal corruption, entropy, and, of course, Fumiko herself—ground to a state of near-complete immobility. My eyelids began to grow heavier, the rest of my body, on the threshold of sleep, suddenly lighter. I began to retrace my path through Gadbois’s apartment, from the entryway to the long, bright hallway that led past the study, past the kitchen, and into the dining room. My mind was trying to reveal itself to itself; I was coming back for something, but I didn’t know what. Unexpectedly, I remembered that the maid, clearing away the table, had not touched the unused plate. I drifted off with the image of Raoul de Gadbois in his dining room—a dark, shadow-like form beside him. A human shape. Was it Fumiko, come out of her room at last? I couldn’t be sure: a curtain made of darkness hovered, obstinately, in front of her head.
I telephoned Gadbois, who invited me to lunch again. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought I saw a look of amusement flit across Clarisse’s face as she opened the door, before she turned away. I followed her down the hallway. Everything—the heat, the bright glare, the outdated, ageless furniture—was as I remembered it. Gadbois was waiting in the dining room. Solemnly, wearily, he held out his hand, which I shook. And then, taking his lead, I sat down, even as I realized, with a twinge of guilt, that it probably wouldn’t have mattered if I had sat down first.
When lunch was brought out, Gadbois once again accused Clarisse of trying to trick him. Although the fish in front of him really was herring this time, he claimed that Clarisse had bought him carp (which he hated). I wondered, almost desperately, if his blindness could have affected his taste buds. I glanced at Clarisse and noticed a slight tremor, of annoyance or anger, run across her face. When Gadbois at last turned to me, I was still asking myself if this was a game he played with all his guests or a sign of something more serious, like dementia.
“What do you think, Monsieur Blatand?”
“I’m not sure.”
“So you agree, then, that it’s not herring.”
“I can’t really say.”
“Well, Monsieur Blatand, it’s either herring or it’s not. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Then you agree with me, Monsieur Blatand.”
“Yes,” I said.
I stared down at my plate (of herring) as Gadbois acknowledged another victory with a nod to his maid.
The meal went by without further incident. The fish (I no longer felt I deserved to call it by its rightful name), though undercooked, was vastly superior to the canned ravioli I heated on a hot plate every night. Gadbois’s conversation was less reserved, almost voluble, and his gleaming forehead seemed to catch the light more frequently. Between sips of red wine, he tossed around hundreds of light-years and billions of degrees, and described chimerical landmarks—the Planck length, the Dirac sea, the Einstein-Rosen bridge—as though they were stops along one of the Métro lines.
Once we had retired to the study, Gadbois asked me to read through my translation. From time to time, he made me pause so that he might ponder, or pretend to ponder, this or that locution. (I assumed that his knowledge of English was, like the knowledge of dead languages, a mostly passive one.) While I read, the old man never stopped playing with a curious-looking object—a Plexiglas cube made of smaller, identical cubes and able to take on various proportions—and I remembered an episode from an old Greek myth, or the Elder Edda, where a band of nomads come upon a sumptuous cavern whose enchanted waters have granted men eternal life. The nomads realize, at the last possible moment, that the man offering them a chalice to drink is blind: the waters offer immortality—but at a price. Long ago, the first traveller who stumbled into the cavern deceived the next one, who in turn deceived another traveller, and so on. As Gadbois paid me, he announced that he had succeeded in reuniting the multifarious and disparate branches of physics into a cohesive whole, picking up where Poincaré had left off a century ago.
I tried to think of an appropriate response.
“Do you think, Monsieur Blatand, that the Académie is right?” His unseeing eyes seemed to hold my gaze. “Do you think I’m a crackpot? One of those fools who waste their last years trying to square the Euclidean circle or disprove Cantor’s diagonal argument?”
“Well,” I began, “that is . . .”
“One thing Einstein did not account for was temperature.” He let this sink in. “Temperature, in turn, affects light. Light, and its proximity to matter. In other words, gravitation. All basic concepts, but S.R.”—I realized he meant “special relativity”—“overlooks the effects of gravitation, as though it didn’t matter.”
I understood, listening to him talk, that he could have given me pure gibberish to translate and it wouldn’t have mattered. I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Mostly for something to say in response, I asked him when he had started writing his treatise.
“Do you believe in miracles?” he asked me.
“I’m not sure.”
He nodded, apparently satisfied with my answer. “It all depends,” he said, “on how one defines a miracle, Monsieur Blatand. For example, it is a miracle that I managed to find a linguistically gifted Danish gentleman with a knowledge of gravitational physics such as yourself. Don’t you think so?”
Before I could say anything, Gadbois went on, “When I lost my wife, I found I had too much time to think. When I lost my sight, I found I could think better. My head filled with ideas. Time passes differently. When I’m not working, I let my memories flow or call forth my favorite passages from Tacitus. Or I do nothing—I let myself live. I can remain sitting in an empty room, perfectly still, for three or four hours without discomfort.” He paused. “Let us hope, between you and me, that the English will have better sense than my countrymen.”
He gave me another twenty pages to translate. On my way out, I walked past Clarisse in the kitchen. She was pouring coffee into a small cup. I saw her—in one swift movement—spit into the coffee. She glanced up, her face perfectly blank. She raised a finger to her lips and gave me a half smile:
“You keep my secret and I’ll keep yours.”
On my doorstep I found the gray pullover I had given Fumiko for her birthday, which she used to wear only when she was in a good mood. (There was a photograph just above my desk of her wearing it during our trip to Saint-Malo.) Picking up the crumpled piece of clothing, I brought it to my face to inhale Fumiko’s scent. It smelled of softener, but I breathed in anyway. Clothes washed by her always smelled better than clothes that I myself had washed, in the same machine, using the same detergent. A strand of black hair was stuck to one of the sleeves. I glanced over at her door. The Franprix bag was still there, untouched. Instead of unlocking my door, I backed away from it, as if to take a picture, until I bumped into the wall behind me. I let out a string of curses in Danish. The one thing I could never really do in French was swear, in the unthinking, spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness way of one’s native tongue. I sank to a crouch. In that position, I saw Philippe’s head emerge from his doorway, hair dishevelled, skin pale and subterranean—but the circles around his eyes were gone. His beatific, unfocussed expression abruptly changed when he noticed me sitting on the floor. He looked at my door and then looked back at me, holding Fumiko’s pullover.
“Are you O.K.?”
I nodded, smiling.
“You look like you’re crying.”
“No, no, I’m fine.” I wiped at my eyes. “It’s the dust. Allergies.”
“You should see a specialist. Nine times out of ten, it’s the sinuses.”
There was no mockery in his voice. His smile was sincere, without nuance.
“Is there a disorder,” I said, “that affects someone close to someone with a disorder?”
“A sort of ‘caretaker’s syndrome.’ ”
Philippe shook his head. “Listen, I know what you’re doing.”
I stared at him.
“If you’re going to change the subject, you can at least be more subtle about it. I may be oblivious, but even I can take a hint once in a while.”
Avoiding his smile, I stood up, still clutching the pullover. I heard Philippe say, “I’m sorry about scaring you with my psychologist talk. I got carried away. I was wrong about Fumiko. And about you. My new outlook has allowed me to make a lot of progress in my research.”
I almost told him what was going on, right then and there, but something held me back: the same impulse that had halted my hand in front of the superintendent’s door.
“By the way,” he went on, “how is Fumiko? I haven’t seen her around lately.”
I focussed on a piece of graffiti scrawled on the opposite wall, “Arrash les ponts”—“Tear down the bridges”—as I answered, “She’s been busy with her drawings.”
Philippe’s gaze didn’t waver. “You can be straight with me,” he said.
For a moment, neither of us spoke, and then Philippe asked, “You guys didn’t have a fight, did you?”
A fight. He thought there had been a fight. “No,” I said, “we didn’t have a fight.”
“That’s a relief,” he said. “When you see her, can you ask if she wouldn’t mind being interviewed again? I have a whole new set of questions.” He seemed embarrassed. “She’s never home when I knock on her door.”
“Sure, no problem.”
The latest pages were harder to translate than the first batch. Gadbois’s notes and explanations concerning gravity were mostly incomprehensible to my profane mind. Though I did not especially like the sound of my own voice, I read passages aloud. I recited, as dispassionately as I could, “Let x be the path in space-time between q and t, q incarnating the three coördinates in space and t incarnating time.” One by one, I pummelled through paragraphs on tachyons and neutrinos. I looked up “gravitation,” in a moment of boredom, and found:
The phenomenon of attraction between two bodies, proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
In the same entry was a well-known quotation by Einstein: “Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love.” I threw my head back and laughed, and my gaze fell on a series of still-lifes pinned to the wall which Fumiko had done a few months ago, for one of her ungraded assignments at the École des Beaux-Arts—studies of spider and beetle carcasses, long dead and dusty, dried-out husks found on windowsills, inside fluorescent-light fixtures, and in hard-to-reach corners. The deceased insects, according to Fumiko, had been forgotten by the rest of the universe. Slamming the dictionary shut, I went back to work.
At last, the twenty pages were done. They had taken me almost two weeks.
Lying on my cold, narrow bed that night, I could see Fumiko’s cupboard—the eye-of-Jupiter pattern of the woodgrain, the accumulation of dust in the corners. I could almost feel, in the darkness of my room, the relentless deterioration of its contents on an atomic level. I got up and opened my door. Lit only by the emergency lights, the hallway tiles reflected an eerie, phosphorescent glow. The Franprix bag in front of Fumiko’s door looked like a tiny white apparition. I stepped out into the corridor. Underneath the usual unsavory smells of the dormitory was the effluvium of decomposing cheese. Still in my nightclothes, I carried the bag to the dumpster, not looking inside to verify whether Fumiko had taken any of the items. If I didn’t look, the possibility remained. Back at her door, I sat down next to where the bag had been.
I told Fumiko, in a library whisper, about my new job, the lofty apartment, Clarisse. I described Monsieur de Gadbois, from the wrinkles around his bulldozer mouth to the creases on his moai-like forehead. Fumiko had always been fascinated by the physiognomies of old men. The first time she had visited my room, she had, after examining my meagre shelf of books, spent several minutes studying the mimeographed photo of Samuel Beckett sitting on the terrace of the Closerie des Lilas that I had taped to the wall. She loved the faces of W. H. Auden, Adolfo Bioy Casares, James (Frog-Eyes) Baldwin, even Sir James himself. “Old pears,” she called them—for some reason—in her childish French.
“You know what?” I said. “I can’t decide if Raoul de Gadbois is deluded or ahead of his time.”
Although I always managed to find an English equivalent for each French word I translated, the whole thing seemed to crumble under its own weight when I attempted to reunite its constituent parts.
But, Fumiko’s voice in my head protested, you are the one translating it.
“I’m not a theoretical physicist,” I answered, as if that settled the matter.
I saw Gadbois again. He invited me to dinner this time, which I took to mean that our working relationship had changed somehow. The rooms were as brightly lit as ever, and everything had the same unnatural sheen in the evening as it did during the day. Though I knew I would never ask, I wondered why he insisted on having the lights on at all times if he couldn’t see. Was he able to make out vague shapes, or at least perceive, on some level, the difference between night and day? My father had once told me that some blind men could sense nearby objects, especially if they posed a danger, through a sort of acoustic radar situated on the tip of the nose, on the cheeks, and on the forehead: capable, as it were, of seeing with the whole face instead of just the eyes. I didn’t know whether my father had read this in one of his medical journals (which he perused the way some people peruse celebrity gossip) or if he had made the whole thing up, as he was wont to do, simply because it made sense to him—that men on whom such misfortune had fallen should be compensated with some kind of special, extra-human ability. Gadbois’s blindness, I surmised from the number of books on the shelves, and the paintings and photographs on the walls, must have come to him late in life. I wondered how it had happened, whether an accident or some disease had caused it, and what the old man’s life must be like on a day-to-day basis. Had he dictated his treatise or, given the number of spelling mistakes and off-centered pages, typed the whole thing himself? The diurnal atmosphere of the apartment reminded me of summers in Denmark and Sweden, of days when the sun never seemed to set, the annual celebrations of Sankt Hans Aften and Midsommarafton, when magic was said to be at its strongest, of bonfires on beaches and everyone singing “Vi Elsker Vort Land.” My parents’ apartment was equipped with something called a “dark room,” a fad dating back to the nineteenth century, which I used not only because of the white nights and my insomnia but also because I enjoyed the pitch-darkness—just me, my blood flow, and my nervous system—like being inside an anechoic chamber. Was this what Fumiko felt in her room? A mixture of invulnerability and indifference?
We had rabbit à la Provençale, with slices of aubergine. I savored the overcooked meat, the texture of the burned aubergines. We discussed Scandinavian literature. In Gadbois’s voice I could almost see the expanses of exquisite, unblemished snow. He mentioned, with admiration, the names of Hans Christian Andersen and Kierkegaard; Niels Bohr; King Christian X, who had defied the Nazis and donned a yellow star. And he told me, as though to win me over, that it was a Danish architect—Johan Otto von Spreckelsen—who had designed the Grande Arche de la Défense. My ancestors, according to Gadbois, were an exemplary people, an example for the rest of Europe. I wanted to tell him that my Japanese girlfriend had locked herself in her room for the past three weeks, but I didn’t. Dessert was a variety of cheeses—Brie, Camembert, Vacherin, chèvre—each involving a lengthy exchange between Gadbois and Clarisse on its authenticity. As Clarisse cleared the table, she passed over the unused plate, as she always did, without any change in expression.
Later, while reading my translated pages to Gadbois, I had a ludicrous thought: that he gave me more work only because I continued to have lunch—and now dinner—with him, as though that, and not the translations, were the true nature of my services. Had Gadbois wanted, from the start, someone who knew nothing about physics, someone who would be incapable not only of stealing his ideas but of seeing through their inherent fallacy? Perhaps the old man already knew that the British scientific community would react in much the same manner as the French. I envisioned my predecessors, candidates much more qualified than I, giving up on the first day, politely excusing themselves or storming out in disgust. Then again maybe I was the only one who had bothered to answer his ad. Leaving the apartment with twenty more pages, I walked past Clarisse, who was smoking a cigarette in the kitchen doorway. This time, her smile was slow and deliberate—a knowing, almost ironic smile, the kind of smile exchanged between conspirators. Or fellow-pretenders.
Instead of going straight home, I wandered around La Défense, the business district, and sat on the steps underneath the Grande Arche, which housed, among other things, the offices of the Ministry of Tourism. I went up the steps to the splendidly illuminated parvis. The wind was strong that evening and made the enormous canvas roof, suspended by cables, whip and buckle rhythmically. At that hour, I was the only one walking around the premises. Fifty feet away, an employee in uniform, perhaps a security guard, sat inside a glass booth shaped like a giant pill capsule. Peering up at the glittering rows of windows dotting the monument walls, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sheer size of everything. I told myself that I had every reason to take pride in Spreckelsen’s work. H. C. Andersen and Christian X were my people. And yet why did I feel as though I had deceived Gadbois?
Stopping only to eat or go to the toilet, I did nothing but translate. A draft was entering my room from somewhere, and even after I had sealed the windows with insulating tape the feeling of cold persisted. I tried listening to the radio that Fumiko had given me, but the crackling static was ruining my concentration. Finally, I took it out to the dumpster. I found the newest batch of pages—fewer equations, more text—even harder than the last. My dictionary was now a tattered, sorry mess, its spine broken, its coffee-stained leaves creased and torn. Late one night, unable to sleep, I started thinking about the cupboard again. Had Fumiko eaten anything? The stump of baguette? The chickpeas? Knowing her fondness for apples, she had probably eaten the Fuji, I concluded. Perhaps she had managed to soften the bread with hot water from the faucet.
Something about what Gadbois had said tugged at me. “S.R. doesn’t take into account the effects of gravitation.” Getting up, I turned the lights back on and skimmed the pages I had already translated. On a whim, I took down from the bookshelf my abridged edition of Frazer’s “Golden Bough,” flipping through the chapters until I found a passage that I had read long ago. It said that magic, in its most primordial form, might be defined as the effect of two independent objects acting upon one another over a distance, such as voodoo, psychokinesis, or telepathy. It was a coincidence, a fortuitous convergence of notions, but as I compared Frazer’s definition of magic with the dictionary’s definition of gravity, I felt I had discovered Gadbois’s secret. In refuting Einstein’s theory of special relativity, Raoul de Gadbois wanted to prove the existence of magic.
I reached for the remaining stack of sheets, which I’d planned to finish over the next few days. The first glimmer of dawn was squinting over the horizon when, halfway through the last page, in the midst of an interminable paragraph on electromagnetic interferences, I came upon the word “possum.” My pen dropped, with a clatter, from my cramped fingers. The word struck me as out of place in a physics treatise. I was tempted to replace it with “positron”—the chapter was about positrons—but reminding myself of my duty as a translator, I started to translate:
Imagine a possum at point A and at time t, so that, at time t¹, we suspect it to be at point A¹.
“Have you come to a conclusion about Monsieur de Gadbois?” a familiar voice asked, interrupting the tomblike silence of my room.
I found Fumiko lying on the bed; she was sketching the back of my head and was almost finished.
“If you ask me, I don’t think he’s all there.” She considered what she had just said. “If I knew I was becoming insane, I would just eclipse myself.”
I watched her fiddle with the radio I had thrown away. When I blinked, her hands, like a prestidigitator’s, were empty.
“You know,” she said, slowly, “this last time, I nearly did it. I nearly eclipsed myself. Do you know what stopped me?”
“What?” I whispered.
“Your voice. It didn’t sound the same. There was a hopeful note in your voice when you came to my door. That’s what kept me from eclipsing myself. Your voice.”
“Well,” I said, going back to my translation, “I’m glad you didn’t.”
A moment later, I turned to say something else, but Fumiko was already gone.
On my way out to meet with Gadbois, I stopped at Philippe’s door. What if he had been right all along? What if ancestry, in the end, was the only thing that really mattered? There was no answer when I knocked. I tore off part of a page from my translation and wrote on it, “Fumiko hasn’t left her room in a month,” before adding, “You were right about her and about me.” I thrust the note under the door before I could change my mind.
During the meal, Gadbois hardly spoke, as though our previous meals had worn him out utterly. Only the sound of utensils scraping against the porcelain punctuated the silence, and it occurred to me, suddenly, that this was what the old man’s life was like most of the time. A muted, monotonous darkness—like the invisible motion of dark matter around a black hole. Clarisse, hardly disturbing the silence, entered the room bearing a tray. She served Gadbois his coffee first, before coming around to my side. Gadbois had almost touched the steaming cup to his lips when I found myself saying—my voice abnormally loud—“Don’t drink the coffee, Monsieur de Gadbois.”
Both Gadbois and Clarisse looked at me.
“I don’t think,” I went on, “that what you have there is coffee.”
Gadbois raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“It’s obviously not coffee.”
Gadbois said, uncertainly, “I beg your pardon, Monsieur Blatand?”
“I believe Clarisse is trying to deceive you. I suggest you find someone to replace her, Monsieur de Gadbois. Someone who doesn’t have a habit of spitting into the coffee of blind men.”
For a brief second, the old man seemed at a loss. Then he cleared his throat, nodded, and, addressing the cup of coffee more than Clarisse, said, “You are free for the rest of the day.” He nodded once more. “That will be all.”
Without a word, Clarisse gathered up the cups of coffee. As she picked up my cup, I heard her murmur, quietly but distinctly, “I’ve been spitting in yours, too.”
A few moments later, I followed Gadbois to his study. I saw him, out of the corner of my eye, come to a halt, as he always did, in the middle of the hallway. His hand reached out, hesitantly, and I thought of warning him, or even shoving his frail body forward. I watched, instead, as his fingers brushed against nothing, or, rather, the empty blank wall, the portrait of his wife just a little to his right. To Gadbois, it might as well have been light-years away.
“Clarisse!” he shouted. When she appeared, still holding a dishcloth, he pointed to the wall and said, with icy formality, “Please be so kind as to put the portrait of my wife back in its original position.”
I watched as Clarisse, her hand betraying a small tremor, carefully adjusted the picture frame so that it was once again within range of Gadbois’s outstretched arm.
As though nothing had happened, we continued on our way, leaving Clarisse in the hallway. I almost turned to see if she was smiling at us, but I kept walking. After all, there must have been days when Gadbois miscounted, or started counting his steps too soon, or too late—missing his wife by mere millimetres. It wasn’t impossible. In the study, after groping about, he handed me a thick bundle of papers: the remainder of his treatise, whose title page read “On the Persistence of Sorrow in Gravitational Interactions.” To my surprise, I said to him, “I’m sorry about your wife.”
It was as though he hadn’t heard, and for a few torturous heartbeats I wasn’t sure if I had spoken the words out loud.
“My wife?” Softly, ever so softly, Raoul de Gadbois said, “My wife passed away fifteen years ago, Monsieur Blatand.”
Perhaps it was nothing more than an effect of the light, but his face looked heartbreakingly flaccid, white like the underside of a crab.
Approaching the dormitory, I heard a burst of sirens. At the front entrance, silent lights pulsated rhythmically against the brick wall. The parked ambulance was marked “I.M.L. VILLE DE PARIS.” I closed my eyes, and the pulsations continued against my eyelids. As I stood there, Gadbois’s treatise tucked under my arm, I became aware of a flapping noise above me. I opened my eyes. I finally understood what Fumiko had been trying to tell me in her garbled, mispronounced French: not Ta voix but Au revoir. Gazing up at the rows of windows, I saw the white of bedsheets and Fumiko’s silhouette. The illusion held for another second, and then it was gone. Billowing curtains framed the outlines of two men dressed in white. From where I stood, I couldn’t tell if they were watching me.
The elevator doors opened at the eleventh floor, and, before I had time to get out, the two men in white entered with a gurney. I could make out a vague shape underneath the plastic covering held in place with belts. At the far end of the corridor, I saw Philippe, his face in a state of shock. I don’t know why, but, just before the doors slid shut, I smiled at him. The men barely seemed to register my presence, as I moved back into a corner to make room for them. In order to fit the gurney into the cramped compartment, they were obliged to tilt it vertically—hence the belts, I thought to myself—so that the upright litter stood next to me, like a fourth person, as the elevator began its slow descent.
“How long do you think she was in there?” one of the men asked, staring straight ahead.
“No idea,” the other one replied, not looking at his partner. “At least a few weeks?”
“But the body hardly smells.”
“No kidding. Window was open the whole time. See the food in the cupboard?”
As we passed the seventh floor, Gadbois’s treatise slipped from my fingers and fell with a barely audible thud. I made no move to pick it up. Sixth floor. The one who had spoken first, as if he couldn’t bear the silence, spoke again: “I was just thinking . . .”
“Do you think it was windy that day?”
His partner: “What?”
“There was an unfinished cigarette in the ashtray.”
“Marlboro Lights. Just like me.”
His partner took this in. “No kidding.”
“This is how I see it. A half-burned cigarette means she put it out before she died or that it went out by itself, which means . . .”
“Here we go again.”
“But why put out her cigarette before dying? Then again why leave it unfinished? That’s why I think it was windy that day.”
In the days following Fumiko’s death, Philippe would show me his notes, strewn with one-of-a-kind expressions, Fumikoisms copied down in a minuscule but legible lycée script. She had told him—an impersonal interviewer, a stranger doing research—what she was incapable of telling me, a Scandinavian who looked too much like one of her own countrymen. “When I am near him, it tugs at me, like a sweet, diabetic longing. A sticky addiction welling up like a blood bubble. And then I want to eclipse myself.” Perhaps she didn’t want to admit what was happening for the same reason I was unable to admit it to myself. Love makes us do strange things and behave in unimaginable ways. As the elevator light moved from sixth to fifth, I slid my hand underneath the plastic shroud. The men, still talking, didn’t notice a thing. I took Fumiko’s cold and unyielding hand, firmly, in my own. Fifth moved to fourth. All the way to the ground floor, I held it like that