The Clocks trans­lated by Ana Fletcher

New England Review - - Table of Contents - Trans­la­tions Luis S. Krausz

from Mem­o­ries in Ru­ins T here was no other neigh­bor­hood in São Paulo more pro­pi­tious to cul­ti­vat­ing Aus­tro-hun­gar­ian ob­ses­sions than Su­maré—ob­ses­sions that, frus­trated over there, had found fer­tile soil over here, and could de­velop freely. Drüben— on the other side—there had been a cor­rect or­der for ev­ery­thing: a frame­work that shaped our souls and al­lowed us to put ev­ery­thing in its as­signed place, ac­cord­ing to a hi­er­ar­chy sanc­ti­fied over time, and which we held in the same re­gard as the ten Sephi­rot of the Kab­bal­is­tic tree. It was an or­der we clung to as we might the very tree of life, and that showed us the true value of all things. Thanks to this or­der we—un­like the name­less poor of un­de­fined race—were not col­o­nized, nor were we akin to those dis­placed Jews who turned up like beg­gars on the doorsteps of un­known lands. We wanted to be­lieve this would make us Euro­peans: Euro­peans in places of ex­ile, like Su­maré, where we dreamt of found­ing our colony of ex­pats—a colony that would be a real Garten­sied­lung: a neigh­bor­hood of gar­dens cul­ti­vated skill­fully and ef­fi­ciently; of im­pec­ca­bly or­ga­nized li­braries; of in­tact in­her­i­tances from grand­par­ents and great grand­par­ents; a neigh­bor­hood of stamp col­lec­tors and al­chemists; of orchid lovers and men of letters; where the cool breezes and shady gar­dens would bring respite from all cares and re­lief from all pain—a world that was like a book it­self, where we imag­ined we would not be swal­lowed by time and by his­tory, by the hur­ri­cane that blows from Par­adise, but where we would be safe: a vegetable patch and an or­chard that nei­ther the heat nor the de­spair that op­pressed the city's streets could pen­e­trate; our city of peace, the port of our hap­pi­ness. There would be per­ma­nence and dura­bil­ity here, and we longed for the sea­sons to come, each in its turn: the heat of the dry sea­son and the rain of the rainy sea­son and the cold of the cold sea­son.

Of all my fam­ily's Aus­tro-hun­gar­ian ob­ses­sions, none could ri­val that of the clocks, which ex­ceeded all rea­son­able pro­por­tions, and be­came a se­ri­ous en­ter­prise—one whose se­cret goal was, per­haps, to master time it­self. My mother had set aside a room ex­clu­sively for the clocks: strik­ing clocks, wall and man­tel clocks, wrist and pocket watches. All of these piled up in our house like the Egyp­tian plagues, pro­cured from an­tique shops and mar­kets in cities all over the world by ac­quain­tances, who, be­fore set­ting off on their trav­els, were in­vari­ably charged with this small kind­ness. This amass­ing of scat­tered hours had be­come com­pa­ra­ble to a re­li­gious mis­sion. Ev­ery day my fa­ther would spend hours

in that strange room, which clicked and re­sounded with the chords of many strik­ing and mu­si­cal clocks, but re­mained locked, in­ac­ces­si­ble to all, for the rest of the day. He pa­tiently wound those cruel in­stru­ments, which, nev­er­the­less, an­nounced the ever-closer ar­rival, not of the fu­ture, but of the im­pla­ca­ble an­gel of death with its silken wings.

The room, whose en­trance was by the foot of the stairs, had been out­fit­ted with a set of dou­ble doors lined with cork in an at­tempt to con­tain the noise of the piti­less ma­chin­ery that, nev­er­the­less, spilled out into the house, into the gar­den, and even, in the small hours of the night, into the neigh­bors' houses, prompt­ing fruit­less com­plaints, while more and more clocks ar­rived, crowd­ing the walls and the shelves, the draw­ers and the desks of what should have been our li­brary, but whose books had long since been ban­ished to make room for the in­fer­nal de­vices. Life without them had be­come im­pos­si­ble for my mother, and my fa­ther, re­signed to his fate, wound the clocks—the wrist and pocket watches once a day, the man­tel clocks ev­ery other day, the strik­ing clocks once a week and thus forth, so that they should al­ways be ready, tick-tock­ing in their march to­wards the end of time. He did this with un­selfish, touch­ing care, trailed all the while by my mother, who, a cloth in her clenched fist, bus­ied her­self re­mov­ing the tini­est traces of dust. The beat of the pen­du­lums and the soar of the bells would cause his face to con­tort in an ex­pres­sion of dis­plea­sure, which he nev­er­the­less kept in check, so as not to hurt her. But the traces of those gri­maces lin­gered, in the cor­ners of his mouth, and he bore them for the rest of the day like an in­escapable kis­met. Once done, they would lock the room, care­fully, and close the win­dow that opened out onto the gar­den, and then my fa­ther would sigh, re­lieved of his bur­den un­til the fol­low­ing day.

Though we were sel­dom al­lowed to see it, we all held the se­cret col­lec­tion in great es­teem, and when we trav­eled, we never ne­glected our com­pul­sory con­tri­bu­tion to the enor­mous repos­i­tory of lost hours. And some­times, dur­ing din­ner, we rem­i­nisced on visits paid to this or that an­tique shop, in this or that city, years and even decades ear­lier. The clocks were also dili­gently cat­a­logued in a big, black book by my fa­ther, who used an old Parker Vacumatic foun­tain pen—his Bar Mitz­vah present—to record each one in his il­leg­i­ble hand­writ­ing. The brand; the year and place of man­u­fac­ture; the place, date, and price of ac­qui­si­tion—this was all recorded next to a five-digit cat­a­logue num­ber. My fa­ther of­ten asked him­self whether it would not be wise to switch to a six-digit cat­a­logu­ing sys­tem, given that the col­lec­tion's rate of growth showed no signs of slow­ing. The rest of us were of the opin­ion that there was no need to change the ex­ist­ing codes, that it would suf­fice sim­ply to fol­low the nat­u­ral or­der of the num­bers, but he re­mained un­con­vinced by the sup­posed neu­tral­ity of the ze­ros to the left. He would have pre­ferred a new, six-digit sys­tem, one that could ac­count for ev­ery item in the col­lec­tion equally. My fa­ther went so far as to or­der a Ger­man tome on cat­a­logu­ing from the book­seller and an­ti­quar­ian Ste­fan Gey­er­hahn, and once the book reached his hands he took to spend­ing sev­eral hours a day, af­ter lunch, shut away in that for­bid­den room, ab­sorbed in the

thick vol­ume with black cov­ers, yel­low­ing pages, and gothic writ­ing pub­lished in Prus­sia in 1905, which bore the solemn ti­tle Kat­a­l­o­gisierungskunde ( The Science of Cat­a­logu­ing). It was an in­di­gestible trea­tise, di­vided into num­bered chap­ters, sub­chap­ters, and para­graphs. A type of universal code of law, the strict obe­di­ence of which was fun­da­men­tal to life in so­ci­ety: a sort of universal con­sti­tu­tion— or a summa, in Ger­man, of the Tal­mu­dic trea­tises that guided Jews through mil­len­nia of di­as­pora—to which my fa­ther ded­i­cated him­self with re­li­gious zeal, to the point that he be­came im­mune to the racket of the clocks. I imag­ined him, be­hind the set of dou­ble, cork-lined doors, ges­tic­u­lat­ing with his hands and fin­gers, tune­lessly singing the verses of that trea­tise, as our fore­fa­thers had done in Poland or on the river­banks of Baby­lon.

The wis­dom con­tained in that vol­ume did not bring any vis­i­ble change to the se­cret life of the clocks, but a new hi­er­ar­chy now gov­erned their re­la­tions: a hi­er­ar­chy that only my fa­ther un­der­stood, le­git­imized by years of study. It was a strictly pri­vate et­y­mol­ogy, which traced a tan­gle of links among the clocks—links like in­vis­i­ble spi­der webs hang­ing in the room, their strands stretch­ing out in ev­ery di­rec­tion, forc­ing my fa­ther to take care­ful steps as he walked, con­tort­ing him­self and zigzag­ging around the room, bend­ing for­ward and to ei­ther side, so as not to break the se­cret strands, the ex­is­tence of which only he knew, and which be­came more and more tan­gled as he con­sulted fur­ther works writ­ten by cat­a­logu­ing ex­perts, de­liv­ered by book­sellers and an­ti­quar­i­ans, which con­sumed many of his hours, though he never suc­ceeded in reach­ing a fi­nal con­clu­sion as to how best to or­ga­nize his col­lec­tion.

What we didn't sus­pect was that, along­side his stud­ies of Kat­a­l­o­gisierungskunde, my fa­ther was also ded­i­cat­ing him­self to ex­per­i­ments of an­other na­ture while locked up in that pri­vate room. He had long since buried the mes­sianic ideas of our fore­fa­thers and, with them, the be­lief in progress. In­stead, he was look­ing for a way back­wards, and all those old clocks, whose hands had re­volved around them­selves for cen­turies, per­haps had some­thing to teach him. He was es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in one an­cient clock, a man­tel one, which my great grand­mother had re­ceived as a wed­ding gift in Preßburg, now Bratislava. It was a clock whose hands moved from left to right, that is, coun­ter­clock­wise. Rather than num­bers, the dial fea­tured the first twelve letters of the He­brew al­pha­bet, drawn in black on a plain enam­eled back­ground; it was said that if some­one were to pass in front of it and ob­serve the hands mov­ing for long enough, a par­a­disi­a­cal vi­sion would be be­stowed upon them. The rest of us had set aside that story long be­fore, but my fa­ther was in­creas­ingly con­vinced that he was close to di­vin­ing its sig­nif­i­cance.

All this ac­tiv­ity was shrouded in the most im­pen­e­tra­ble se­crecy, and this par­al­lel ac­tiv­ity—to which my fa­ther never made the slight­est ref­er­ence—was car­ried out un­der the guise of cat­a­logu­ing and ded­i­ca­tion to the pro­fane man­ual of the art of cat­a­logu­ing. My fa­ther would emerge ex­hausted and red-eyed from those hours of work, in­creas­ingly tor­mented by doubt.

We never sus­pected that, with these ex­per­i­ments, he was hop­ing to draw nearer to things that had been for­got­ten over there, far away, dur­ing the time of the great change.

—trans­lated from the Por­tuguese by Ana Fletcher

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