corner image   The Cafe Irreal: International Imagination 

Issue Twenty-Six

The Boatman's Home by Shome Dasgupta
Selections from
Fabulosae Aves (Fabulous Birds)
by Flavia Lobo
Two Compositions (from Empty Streets) by Michal Ajvaz
The Pavilion and the Lime Tree by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
"I" Get Caught With
Marie-Yves's Pants Down
by Derek White
Wind by Ralph Wahlstrom
Thief of the Moon by Srinjay Chakravarti


Two Compositions (from Empty Streets)

by Michal Ajvaz

As I left the station the heat of the afternoon entered my lungs like a hot paste in which I distinguished the smells of asphalt, crumbling plaster and rotting fruit from the market nearby. Here the bus had its terminus; it stood on the other side of the street, on a break with its engine switched off. Then the bus drove up and I took a seat right at the back. As the walls beyond the windows changed I thought over my visit to the station concourse. I still had no idea whether my chat with the shop owner would be of any use to me in my search for Viola, but whatever it meant it had left me feeling pleased.

I'd met people like the owner of Tam-tam before. The life of one was very much like that of another. There wasn't any real need for them to tell me their stories; I could tell by the way they moved their hands as if directed by a light, invisible current that the rest of their body was too heavy for them. Thirty years ago, when the realities of life in this country were transformed into a kind of weird dream and hope retreated from the world, in silence they went away into the void, a void which took various forms. There was nowhere in the world now emerging they were able to live, so they found themselves a no-place and settled there, for years. When ten years ago the dream dissolved, they were used to this void in which they had lived for so long; they loved their no-place, its magic was well known to them, they were at home with the miracle of its fauna and flora. What the world was now offering them, so it seemed, was precious little. All those years partaking of the wonderful nectar of nothingness had made them hard to please; they had no appetite for food of another kind, nor could the splendours of any other building compare to those of the palace of emptiness. So they stayed there. This does not mean that they all lived on abandoned station concourses; often they walked among us. But wherever they were, still they were nowhere, carrying with them their emptiness as if it were a lightweight tent. Other people would feel rather sorry for them, were sometimes contemptuous of them: "He's not capable of coming back to the real world," they would say. Even so, perhaps those who said these things had some kind of awareness of how much our world needed the point of view of those who never came back. It was a point of view which protected the sick things in our world by spreading around them a healing emptiness, a balmy nothingness which took long years to mature and as such was a fruit of the past, bringing sense, conciliation, hope and joy.

At home I put the CD into the player and lay down on the couch. The first composition I would hear had a strange title: The Revelation and End of the Orange Book: a sonata whose pianist plays behind walls at three in the morning. Though the man at Tam-tam had prepared me for it, at first I was still more than confused by the music I heard. For a long time there was no sound at all, then after five minutes or so there was a sound which might have been that of a train in the distance. I had to reduce the sound of my breathing and strain my ears for the sounds which pierced the silence. There was another long silence before I made out the faint hum of a distant conversation. This was submerged by another wave of silence, after which I unpicked from the blocks of silence various rustlings, creakings, something somewhere knocking into something, something rolling around something and then stopping, something pointed which was scratching, something crumbling ... These might have been tiny sounds on the outer wall of a house, or a din softened by a great distance.

Try as I might to hold my breath, I was half an hour into the piece and still I hadn't been able to make out a single note from a piano. Perhaps the walls behind which the pianist was sitting were so many that I was not going to hear anything of his composition. Then again, why should I be disappointed by a sonata which is swallowed up by walls? I was beginning to understand the man at Tam-tam: these sounds which bordered on silence were changing my apprehension of sound and silence. It no longer seemed that there was any great difference between them. While silence was full of nascent sounds, sounds were drenched in the silence out of which they were born. And so it was enough for me to listen calmly to the silence of a night in the early 1980s, the subject of Cj's narrative, and to know that it contained a piano sonata.

But then the sonata really did make itself heard. The notes of a piano softened by distance and many walls insinuated themselves among the other sounds, by which they were received in friendship. The piano music did not rise above the other sounds. At that moment its notes were the children of silence just as were theirs. And likewise its main purpose was to protect and preserve the fabric of the silence, the breathing of which continued to give life to all sounds without making differences between them. The pianist was surely playing far away, behind many walls; several times the sonata was lost for a while in the silence or else it was stifled by rustlings of the town at night, sounds which were barely louder than the sound of the keys.

I tried to make out which moods and sensations this distant composition was conveying. The problem with this was that all these seemed to have their base in the mother, silence; their separation from her was incomplete and each took a share in ensuring her peace. Yet the small step they took from the mother was enough to reveal a dark desperation, which was then lost in the reconciling silence. At those moments when the piece was heard somewhat more clearly, it was possible to make out a recurring melody which was playing variations on a basic motif of four notes — D, A flat, B, C — as they rode the mournful arc from initial rise to the resignation of decline, and back again. A short time later the sonata was lost again in the silence. The silence lasted some ten minutes, after which came a scraping and scratching before the piece ended.

I might compare the piece to a blank, white screen, upon which all there is are a few greyish lines, which are at first sight practically indiscernible. It lasted almost an hour, and for most of that time all there was to hear was silence. My thoughts returned to the man at Tam-tam; I could understand why he liked music like this. His whole life he must have cultivated an appreciation of nothingness, learned to savour the nuances of emptiness. I thought, too, of Viola listening to the sounds of the night, and wondered if there was some kind of connection between the night-time silences Julie had spoken of and those of twenty years ago. Indeed, was not his composition witness to Cj’s having at that time sat at night in an unlit room, listening for something? Among the sounds of the night, had he been searching for the same voice as Viola? And, of course, still I did not know what the Orange Book of the piece’s title was. Perhaps it was precisely this which held the key to the Viola mystery and that of the double trident. From the composition all I had been able to make out was that the book was connected closely with an immense sadness.

What followed was the piece which had the double trident as its title. If you were not listening to it with any great concentration you might have noticed in it very little to set it apart from traditional forms of music. But it was not my impression that Cj was returning humbly to tradition after his experimental period: rather, that here silence was engaged in a campaign of aggression on tradition’s territory. It seemed that since the composer had spent some time in sound’s borderlands and had there learned the life of silence, he heard the rhythms of silence in every sound and every note; now he wished to deploy its power in the realm which in relation to the mutterings of silence was the most distant, and which put up the greatest resistance to them. This was the realm of notes, rhythms and keys, musical motifs and melodies which were pure.

The piece began with a babble of different motifs, dozens of them perhaps, invading each other’s territory and then blending one into another, as if caught up in a dreamlike whirl. The world this music was opening up was one of chaos, but also one replete with hope and expectation. At the same time it seemed to me that it was shot through with the melancholia of reminiscence: perhaps the composer was recalling a joyful beginning of long ago. Out of this whirl three different motifs came to the fore and then fought themselves free; each of these took on echoes of the others, more and more they came to resemble one another, without, however, surrendering their uniqueness. In the piece’s next part they became entwined to form a single melody, though not even then was the fusion complete as each motif retained a semblance of independence. I had an image of a rope woven from three sources. And who was to say that these sources were only three? Out of the three-in-one melody I was able to distinguish with ever greater certainty a fourth strand, one which was light in both colour and weight and which differed from the original three. It was as if the composer had wished to suppress it, as if he had not wished or was not supposed to refer to it but at the same time had been unable to prevent himself from thinking of it. I had the feeling that a darker and heavier strand would succeed the one which was denied, as if this was a thin, light, practically imperceptible thread from a coil of rope really immensely strong and able alone to bear the entire load.

While I was listening I fiddled with the case of the CD. At one point my eye was caught by the double trident symbol which gave the piece its title; it suddenly came to me that it could be some kind of diagram of musical composition, where the lower oval represented the undifferentiated whirl of the beginning, the three arms of the lower trident the three strands of melody which would work themselves free. That the arms drew closer to each other meant a growing similarity between the individual motifs, while the vertical line which the arms of the lower trident led into denoted the weaving of the motifs into a single melody. Then I had another idea: did not the content of this piece provide a history in music of the White Triangle? Was Cj’s music perhaps describing how Cj, U and Nm drew closer together, to the point where a fellowship was formed, which at that time may or may not have been the White Triangle. Let us see, I told myself, whether the shape of things will continue to correspond to the development of a piece of music.

But what was I to make of this fourth, more luminous strand? There was something in it which reminded me of the melody in the last piece played by the night-time, wall-muffled piano. And this it did indeed become: the notes D, A flat, B, C sounded again. After this the Orange Book motif melted back into the luminous strand out of which it had broken. What was the meaning of this? I had the feeling that the Orange Book had somehow closed, had retreated from the world. Might someone have stolen or destroyed it? If this composition really was referring to a time twenty years before, it was of course highly likely that the Orange Book — whatever it was — had existed in a single typescript, and that this had been lost. I remembered similar instances from my own experience.

Shortly after this the luminous strand, too, died away. The notes I was hearing now displayed the starkness of despair. With the expiry of the luminous strand some kind of break occurred in the composition: I was convinced that this moment signified the horizontal line in the diagram which was the intersection with the vertical, so dividing the symbol into two halves. As the piece went on a dissonance built among the three remaining strands, and three melodies again extricated themselves from the whole; the vertical line opened itself up into the three arms of the upper double trident — the ways of Cj, U and Nm had parted. The whole thing drew to a close in notes which expressed conciliation and sadness, as in the first piece. Each of the strands held echoes of the magically transformed notes of the luminous strand and the motif of the Orange Book.

I had the impression that Cj was letting me in on the secret I’d been struggling to untangle, that he was keeping nothing from me — but he was telling me all this in the language of music, which I was incapable of transferring into words and pictures. The least penetrable of the events the music described came in the middle of the piece and represented the cross line at the centre of the symbol. This was the blind spot the man at Tam-tam had spoken of; it referred to the time when the mysterious Orange Book had appeared or been discovered, soon after which — it seemed — somehow it had vanished. It was my bet that during this time the double trident symbol had first appeared, meaning that the double trident was a diagram which represented its own creation.

For a little while yet I mused on the events Cj’s music was telling of, until the effort of doing so gave me a headache. I couldn’t stop myself feeling agitated. Unable to stay in the flat, I determined to seek out the building with the double trident which the Tam-tam man had mentioned. I hurried out to make sure that I got to the station while it was still light. 


(translated by Andrew Oakland)

Michal Ajvaz was born in 1949 in Prague. He is a noted novelist, poet, essayist and translator. "Two Compositions" is an excerpt from his novel Empty Streets (Prázdné ulice, Brno 2004), which was awarded the Jaroslav Seifert Prize for literary achievement (2005), the most prestigious literary award in the Czech Republic.

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story and translation copyright by author/translator 2008 all rights reserved published with permission from the Dana Blatná Literary Agency