In Defense of a Storyteller

At two o’clock on Monday, a person appeared in the middle of the parking lot, as if from nowhere. He was wearing an orange jacket and ordinary blue jeans. He stared at the little green tree in front of him and touched one of the leaves – it was probably his first contact with spring that year. He then went to the next tree, which was a little leafier, and circled it in wonder. He had nothing of the scientific curiosity of a botanist. He was not staring at the tree to conquer or to know, but merely to sense. A white and red braiding hung from a bough, but it remained unnoticed. The man was not familiar with the fluttering Bulgarian symbol of spring. It did not bother him, nor did it make him think of the wishes someone may have ceremoniously muttered in secret when attaching the symbol to a blossoming branch. Had he been interested only in linguistics, Saussure’s tree might have completely overshadowed his spring experience. But, fortunately, the man in orange genuinely responded only to colors and textures.

The fact that it was already late spring made his demeanor seem strangely anachronistic. Either he had just arrived from a wintry Nordic country, or he was one of those people for whom weekends started on Tuesdays and ended on Fridays, leaving the rest of the days for proper work. And indeed, the explanation was that a different cycle spun his life. He took his predisposition to observe obscure details as a sign of alertness, and he was proud of it. By contrast, others interpreted it as useless daydreaming or worse, shameful mental laziness. In all truthfulness, he was most at peace with himself when he successfully induced a state of laziness followed smoothly by boredom. He had no desire to explain to anyone why he sought laziness and boredom while others got an adrenaline rush from bouts of productivity. He put a stop to such inquiries with a shy smile, goading his condescending interlocutor to a game of table tennis. That way, he could at least prove his physical alertness. He understood these games as some sort of territories of compromise into which he could lure others. As the ball pinged and ponged, he forced his adversaries to admit – if only to themselves – that it was more rewarding to expand the meanings of words than to match a person with a definition. The dictionary-minded others would never even have a chance to understand his double game at table tennis, because the person in orange was nearly silent during these games. Only the empty sound of a plastic ball punctuated the interaction. He never shared his conclusions about different kinds of alertness or his inner monologues about concepts or labels with his opponents. At the tennis table, the points scored never came in sentences or arguments, but only in numbers, which he arranged like eggs in egg cartons in one corner of his mind while on the main stage he triumphed in both games, graciously concealing his double victory. Such was his imagination; such was our character in springtime.In winter, his field of curiosity was frozen. In the mass of ice that was the city, he conceived of the public bus as a warm, moving tunnel. He felt safe there, making sure to always occupy a seat next to a heater (when available) and close to a window. This is where he liked to experience winter; in his projection of a warm continuum, protected by windows. From his seat, he enjoyed watching the schoolchildren playing their winter games and carrying their heavy satchels. They threw snowballs at each other from positions on both sides of the street, but often the snowballs’ trajectory intersected that of the bus, their smashing sound on its windows causing his face to break into an instantaneous smile. Under no imaginable circumstances would he have traded his sheltered seat on the bus for the glorifying moment of hitting the bus with snowballs. In his moving tunnel, whose retired captain he was, he felt safe and protected, almost untouchable. Or so it seemed, until one day in late winter when his comfortable soap bubble burst.

At a crossroad, the bus window, colored by red traffic lights, seemed to blush and smile back at him. But the passenger’s mind was busy with memory flashes, so this outer detail slipped by, unobserved. A few moments later, the bus continued its journey with a squeaky turn to the left, his head carelessly leaned in the same direction, as if approving the change of course. At three o’clock – the direction, not the time – he noticed a picturesque humpbacked woman, born in another century, waiting at the pedestrian crossing. She was leaning against a shopping cart with a human dignity that not many old people now possess. He was enthralled. And while she waited, he began searching for details like a mouse for cheese. Soon enough he noticed that her frozen red nose was dripping. Under the magnifying glass of his imagination, this mysteriously translucent blob began to gain grotesque proportions. The woman’s contours seemed to explode in billions of pixels while he concentrated on the flickering and enlarging, but not yet frozen, drop. It happened in a second, like all edifying things: his tunnel disappeared, and he found himself mentally trapped in a merry-go-round of questions and doubts.

How could this drop of mucus shatter his heart’s contentment, his pleasant and sheltered journey? Why was a mucus blob more powerful than his soap bubble? Winter, or rather his lack of understanding of winter, had made him create a tunnel for himself as best he could. He was not an architect; he was not a construction engineer. He had a strong personal distaste for concrete. So all he could do was to create a safe and warm tunnel on which he had worked every single day since the first snow fell. And now, all of a sudden, he felt a cold winter shiver on his spine and realized that a mucus blob had undermined his hypnotic construct. He saw no other way than to let his body slowly sink into the irony of the situation. Who else could he blame but himself for underestimating the power of a translucent mucus blob? He usually wiped it off, with a handkerchief and a quick move, just like anyone else would do.

But this time he carried on his analysis, and weighed her blob and his soap bubble. He was well aware of how much time he had invested in creating this warm, comfortable zone for himself. From the beginning of winter, he had expected that the demise of his tunnel would come from within, from drunk, aggressive passengers or possibly from a curious rat. He had even prepared an imaginary shield against such prosaic, subversive agents, keeping it at hand, in his trousers’ left pocket. On a couple of late-night trips he really came within a whisker of using it to defend his construct, but then he always decided against it. It wasn’t yet worth it, he thought. He carried around this imaginary shield – a combination of burning magnifying glass and blinding mirror – with the ease and reassurance that some other people walked around with pepper spray in their bags. And the fact that no one had ever seen or felt the effects of his shield didn’t mean that he couldn’t have used it in case of emergency. Had this moment come? The image of the dignified old woman, with a dripping red nose, freezing in the street, had left him completely puzzled and his imaginary shield useless. And as he ruminated over the question of how fragile and vulnerable the constructs of his imagination were, it finally occurred to him that maybe he could not stand the fragility of his never-ending stories anymore. One option was to end them himself, and to blow them away like soap bubbles, or one’s nose, for that matter. What bothered him most was that an exterior element was powerful enough not only to interrupt or alter his imaginary projection, but to terminate it completely. But he knew he was playing hide-and-seek with himself. The force that undermined his own tunnel construct was just another product of his imagination filter. Ending his tunnel this way was a mildly vengeful, but most definitely liberating act for the man in orange. After all, he had become unacceptably numbed by the pride and comfort he took in his tunnel. Under these circumstances, which he considered averagely boring, he thought of the mucus blob as encapsulating the entirety of humanity with which he’d lost touch. He decided to subtly implode his construct. In his cocoon-world, he equated the blob with a terrorist bomb in a metropolis. So he planted it and got off the bus.

It would be unwise to judge the man’s mental maneuverings, since his business was his alone. If some deemed his formulations, and most likely his character too, incongruous, they must have misunderstood him in the first place.

The text is an excerpt from the novel Elephant Chronicles, Fiktion: Berlin, 2015. Links for the book in English and German: