(pp. 102-117 of the original text)
I was walking about in the airport. On the first floor of the international terminal, I sat down in a café, at a table with a pink tablecloth. In my mind, I was looking for a solution to an equation, drawing figure after figure with my finger on that same tablecloth.
I was distracted for a while by a quarrel between a foreign visitor and an Asian waitress. I tried to concentrate, but the voices in the café got muddled up with my figures; the noise kept me company, lonely as I was.
For many years, in the United States, after a long day of work I would return to a dark, cold, and empty house, to a house that was not a home.
Every evening, as soon as I returned, that damp, dark silence would grab hold of me. It drained away my energy and filled my arteries, veins, and blood vessels with a mixture of revulsion and anguish and shame. That silence paralysed me, right there in the house. Only after a while could I start to make out those sounds which are so typical of American houses: the creaking of wood, the scraping sound made by the window frames, the cracking noises coming from the ceiling, the knocking in the pipes, the sighs of the central heating. Which is why America is the only country in which Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote so much about houses full of ghosts and spirits, could have been born, don’t you think so, Mama? Next thing, the fridge would raise its voice with its catlike purring and, once the reloading process was over, you could hear several kicks from it, as if a fat, sour-faced man had gotten into a bad temper inside the fridge’s motor and wham!, was giving it a good kicking. As I took in those familiar sounds, little by little, my anguish dwindled and I could start to move around freely. I got the dishwasher humming away. The central heating, along with its warmth, provided a chorus of naughty children who wouldn’t stop hitting the pipes of the rooms and corridors.
I only liked silence when I was with you, Mama. Because with you, with the silent woman, I didn’t need words to communicate. With you, I never felt alone.
Every evening I switched on the TV just to hear some human voices. Do you remember how, in Prague, we used to make fun of that very same habit when we saw other people do it in their homes? So I would automatically put on one of the TV channels, which all more or less have the same name: WTHA, WTRD, WBAB, WBRJ, WFTY, and each one specialises in something: one is a news station, another covers sports, yet another deals with newborn babies; yes, Mama: on one of the channels, children are born twenty-four hours a day in front of a TV camera. So I would switch on the TV from which emerged those clipped, self-confident voices shared by so many Americans, voices which give opinions and verdicts that are far too brief and conclusions and pronouncements that are so often too firm, too resolute. The TV would keep me company while I got my supper ready.
Mama, you ask if I sought out any female company? Yes. If I have to be honest with you, I get on just fine with women. I’ve had a few relationships. I’d love to introduce these people to you and of course I can’t. But I’ll write you some brief descriptions of them, kind of like snapshots or postcards.
She vaguely reminded me of Helena, especially because of her long, swinging earrings. I invited her to restaurants several times just to be able to look at her and project the features of that Czech girlfriend of mine onto her. Then I stopped doing that, having grown interested in the girl herself. One day, she asked me: “What are your intentions with respect to me?” I didn’t understand the question. She explained: “You Europeans are too enigmatic for us plain-speaking, practical Americans; you never talk about your plans for the future.” But I didn’t know what my plans for the future, or my intentions toward her, were! Nor did I want to think about them and neither did I want to know her intentions toward me. When there’s no mystery involved, a relationship just becomes humdrum. During one of our dinners, Daisy revealed her plans for our future together. I know it was a cruel thing to do, Mama, but I never called her again.
Wendy, a fellow student at the faculty, invited me to a café for lunch one day. As we ate, she unbuttoned her jacket, cold though it was, and I couldn’t help but notice her blatant cleavage; I even found it a bit vulgar, aggressively provocative, so to speak. Wendy told me that her husband had gone off on a business trip, and invited me over for coffee and dessert at her place. I got out of it by saying I had work to do. She asked me to drop round in the evening, adding that she’d never been with a man from the Soviet Bloc before.
Cindy–she wore her hair down to the waist–invited me to a dinner party at her place. There was more than one friend and more than one acquaintance of mine there. Cindy was a considerate, tactful hostess, very attentive to her guests. By the time the main course–chicken teriyaki–was served, all kinds of different social and political stuff was being discussed. When we got onto the subject of the death penalty, Cindy said: “Whoever kills, deserves to die!” Nobody paid any attention. When the dessert came along, we were arguing about what had to be done with countries that actively supported terrorism. Should we wage war on them? Would that be advisable? Or would it be better to avoid that? There was a wide range of opinions, backed by an equally wide range of reasons. Cindy waited until everyone had had their say, so as to share her view on the subject: “Any country that supports terrorism should be bombed outright!” One of the guests objected that a country’s inhabitants did not necessarily agree with their government’s decision to support terrorists. But Cindy wasn’t having any of it: “Bomb the whole damn country! Destroy ’em all!” Noticing my alarm, she immediately changed the subject; she then spoke of nothing else but ancient and contemporary art and classical music. But I didn’t accept any more of her invitations.
“Liar,” Joanne yelled at me on our first weekend together, when she caught me in the act of writing a letter: “Liar!” You told me you needed more time to dedicate yourself to your scientific work!” She looked crestfallen. I’d spoilt the weekend. “You look really great,” I told her one day, after a dinner she’d prepared for both of us, as I was looking at her thoughtful profile, even though Joanne was no textbook Hollywood beauty. “Liar!” came the harsh accusation. From her expression, I realised that this was the worst crime anyone could commit in her culture: to affirm something which did not correspond to an objectively verifiable truth. A week later, I told her over the phone: “I’ve been trying to get hold of you all afternoon.” I said this to cover up an oversight of mine, not wanting to hurt her just because I’d forgotten to get in touch with her for a few hours. “Liar,” she said knowingly, “I haven’t had any phone calls at all up until now.” Her voice sounded like that of a prosecutor addressing the bench. Then it finally dawned on me that I didn’t belong to her culture and that I was unable to behave according to its rules and that, even worse, I was offending my girlfriend by ignoring them. I liked Joanne, with her intelligent face and thoughtful expression. But she drifted away from me.
We met at a party, where I didn’t know anybody except for the hosts, and she probably didn’t, either. Samantha was sitting in a corner sipping Lambrusco from a glass that would have been better suited to a gin and tonic. I sat next to her with a bottle of beer in my hand; she introduced herself, saying she was a theatre critic. Later on, she would invite me, often, to various Boston theatres. When a performance was over, we would sit cross-legged on the carpet of a Turkish restaurant, cast into half-shadow, and, as we slowly sipped red wine from the Turkish coast, we would analyse the play we’d just seen. It fascinated me, to see the way Samantha lived her job, the way in which she spoke about the actors and directors, the things she would tell me, such as how a certain edginess had been the driving force behind a good performance, or about the inspiration that can fire up an actor once he’s stepped onto the stage, or how a negative, destructive review can destroy an actor’s self-confidence, and between us the candle’s flame would tremble, as, with its dry light, it would illuminate our fingers and our lips, which seemed to float in the shadowy atmosphere. Samantha invited me to the theatre more and more often; even so, every single one of our evenings together still felt like celebrations. After one performance, she asked me if I’d like to have some coffee over at her place. Like a chess player, I saw through the consequences of this invitation: I imagined drawn curtains and dawn light filtering through, an unmade bed, Samantha’s hair, tousled, spread over the pillow and her smeared make-up. I said yes. But I left before I could see that woman’s face puffed up by sleep, though I did like to see her in high heels when she walked along the carpeted corridors of the theatres, or with her lips painted the colour of wine in the half-shadow of the Turkish restaurant. That was the last invitation I got.
Mei, a small Chinese girl, had an important job in the Chicago headquarters of Citibank; she told me: “Come visit!” So I took a week off and ended up spending an entire sabbatical year over there. When Mei was getting herself ready to go to work, I would prepare breakfast for both of us and serve it on the kitchenette counter in her small flat. We would sip orange juice, me in my pyjamas, she in her grey jacket-and-trouser suit, with her short hair combed to one side, like a boy dressed up as a banker. A little white handkerchief stuck out of her breast pocket, making her look like a spruced-up gangster from 1920s Chicago. Before she left, Mei would give me a kiss, asking me about my plans for the day. The fact is, Mei suffered from a baseless, illogical, and destructive jealousy. At the end of every workday–always a long one, like those of most high-ranking executives–as we had a glass of Chardonnay in a café, Mei would track my line of sight, making sure it didn’t wander over any of the elegant girls and ladies who were gesticulating with glasses of dry martini in their hands, and if one day I decided to check out the headlines of the Chicago Tribune, Mei would watch me like a hawk to see what news items I was really interested in. From the café, or a restaurant, we would head back home in a taxi; then, too, Mei would be on the alert in case my eyes drifted over to the sidewalk and settled on any of the pretty women who might happen to be walking there, their long hair caressing their backs and breasts.
One windy, sunny day I entered a shop on Rush Street that sold Oriental products, to buy a bottle of soya oil that Mei and I would use for wok cooking. Afterwards, a Japanese or Korean woman asked me where I’d bought that bottle. We started up a conversation and continued it with a glass of wine in an Italian café next to the shop; the Japanese woman gave me some promising looks.
That evening, I ate Chinese ravioli at Mei’s place, and she asked me for all the details of what I’d done that day. I was in a bad mood, said little, and wasn’t hungry. After a while I realised that I was angry with myself, not with Mei. I was sorry I hadn’t asked for Kyoko’s phone number, back there in the Italian café. Dinner with Mei dragged on. The next day I discovered I just didn’t have the stamina to keep on putting up with short, attractive Mei’s jealous scenes.
I had a tough time finding Kyoko. On the day of her piano concert at the McCormick Center, I had a front row seat. At the end of my sabbatical year in Chicago, we got married.
When I had to go back to Boston, Kyoko decided to move to her parents’ home in Tokyo. A month later, I took a holiday to visit her. She stayed on at her parents’ house, and reserved a room for me in a hotel in the Ginza neighbourhood, in central Tokyo. I didn’t miss a single one of Kyoko’s concerts: I would always buy a front-row ticket, and after each performance I’d bring her a bouquet of flowers. Afterwards, she would head back off to her parents’ place. One day, and this was unusual for her, she asked me to have a coffee with her. She unfolded a petition for divorce over the café table. I didn’t understand a thing. What had happened? Was it because I knew nothing about the way Japanese people thought? Kyoko was stunned by my lack of understanding. I signed the document, paid the bill, and, once I’d finished, I accompanied Kyoko to the door of her parents’ house. I went on living at the hotel in Ginza and, as before, I went to listen to each and every one of her concerts, sitting in the first row and watching Kyoko, so slim, with her long hair, dressed in black clothes that clung to her well-proportioned figure; I admired her when, right on the stage in front of me, she played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. At the end of every concert I brought Kyoko a bouquet of white chrysanthemums. After one Sunday concert, I took a plane and, throughout the entire flight, I kept on seeing a fragile woman, her hair hanging curtain-like, as she bent over a black and white keyboard, concentrated, barely stroking it with her fingers. I knew then that I had married Kyoko because of this frangible, black and white image.
We met on the train from Boston to Washington D.C., where I’d been invited to direct a seminar on the discontinuous function of coordinates. I was looking forward to perhaps spending some of my free time, maybe even a whole day, in the Library of Congress. Assia was looking for the smoking compartment; I tried to help her to find it, but the entire train was non-smoking. So when we got to Washington we went into a restaurant–right there in the station–which made me think of an ancient Greek temple; a refurbished one, to be sure. There Assia smoked stealthily, placing the ashtray on her knees. Her fingers trembled when she told me that it must be very amusing to be a foreigner and that without a doubt my life was more interesting than that of other people. “That depends,” I replied, “it can also be kind of difficult: your customs and habits are different from those of the country in which you’re living; a foreigner always calls attention to himself because he stands out. You don’t get people’s sense of humour, they don’t get yours.” Assia said that she was a foreigner, too; she felt that other people didn’t understand her, and she didn’t really understand them either. “But you,” I said to her, “English is your mother tongue, you can make yourself understood.” “I can’t,” she said, “I’ve already told you that I don’t understand other people and they don’t understand me.” “But Assia,” I said impatiently, “there’s a huge difference between not being understood and not being able to use your mother tongue, like me.” Assia looked at me as if I’d snatched her favourite dish away from under her chin. I started to explain my point of view: “The effort of learning English, which I have had to make, has meant that I’ve forgotten much of my Czech, my mother tongue; I’m even ashamed now to write letters in Czech and that’s why I don’t even write to my–now ex—girlfriend. And my English is worse than broken, as you can hear for yourself,” I said to Assia. “Scientific English is the only type of English I’ve mastered properly, and that has a limited vocabulary and simple grammar because it’s based on a few formulaic sentences.” Assia nodded. Thinking that she had understood me, I said: “Exile, among other things, means that you never really master any language.” Assia went on nodding. “Yes, that’s me all right.” “Why, are you a foreigner as well? Your name, Assia, sounds foreign.” “My parents were born in the U.S.; myself, I only really know the area around Philadelphia. But I understand you just fine, I’m an immigrant, just like you.” I didn’t say a word more. With the car I’d rented at the station, I gave Assia a lift to the address she gave me, declining her invitation to go in for a cup of tea. Then I went for a spin in the car: the city at night, its long avenues so wide and spacious with a boulevard running down their centre, surrounded by buildings held up by Doric columns, with their Greek staircases, facades and frontispieces, all of this emerged out of the night, dressed in white. It was like a kind of Acropolis: gigantic temples with white marble colonnades and little round temples rose up from the water and shone against the night sky, all white and shiny like stars, or the moon on a summer’s night.
All those women, girlfriends, fiancées… They didn’t realise that a foreigner’s life is nothing if not restless: anything that a foreigner does is an event, because it involves decisions, choices, adaptation, painful surprises, rifts. They never realised that a foreigner always feels uprooted, and that to put down roots in another country turns out to be an impossible task: he is left floating in the air, always on the move, always subject to change. As an immigrant, he has no political rights and is excluded from any kind of public office. His solitude leads the foreigner to identify with a cause, an activity, or a person, to which or to whom he becomes violently attached, because it is there that he has found a kind of new country. Those women friends of mine didn’t realise that a foreigner, a human being who feels constantly humiliated because of his poor knowledge of the host language, and because of the lack of comprehension he finds wherever he goes, suffers from depression, as well as feeling resentment, fury and even hatred. Foreigners seek refuge in their resentment, they live in it, they turn it into their sanctuary and their flag. Resentment is something palpably present in the foreigner’s volatile universe.
And then, Mama, I grew tired of casual encounters. Within myself, I went on feeling I don’t know what, something like when Brahms’ concert for piano and orchestra bursts out in the middle of dead silence, with its noisy, relentless beginning. But when it came to sharing this feeling, to sharing myself, I couldn’t find a soul. So I preferred just to go on dreaming.
Then the day came when I found somebody. One of my students. That, Mama, is to court severe punishment. If you fall in love with a student, they can put you on trial and throw you out of the university.
Would you like to know how it came about? I’ll begin at the end. This story is longer than the others, because it’s so important to me. Listen…