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CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

It’s Not Just You I’ve Lost

in frankfurt

Four years after Ka’s visit to Kars and forty-two days after his death, I went to see the small Frankfurt apartment in which he had spent the last eight years of his life. It was a snowy, rainy, windy February day. When I arrived in Frankfurt on the morning flight from Istanbul, the city looked even drearier than it had in the postcards Ka had been sending me for sixteen years. Except for the dark cars rushing past in the streets, the trams that appeared out of nowhere like ghosts only to vanish a moment later, and the umbrella-wielding housewives hurrying along

the pavements, the streets were empty. It was the middle of the day, but looking into the dark, dense mist I could still see the deathly yellow glow of streetlamps.

Still, it cheered me to see—in the streets surrounding the central train station, along the pavements lined with restaurants and travel agencies and ice-cream parlors and sex shops—signs of the deathless energy that sustains all big cities. After I had checked into my hotel and phoned the young Turkish-German literature enthusiast who had (at my request)

arranged for me to give a talk at the city hall, I went to the Italian café at the station to meet with Tarkut Ölçün. In Istanbul, Ka’s sister had given me his number. This tired well-meaning man in his sixties was Ka’s closest acquaintance during his years in Frankfurt. He had given a statement to the police during the inquiry following Ka’s death; he was the one who had contacted Ka’s family in Istanbul and helped arrange for the body to be flown back to Turkey. At the time I was still hoping to find the typescript of the poetry collection on which Ka said he had been laboring ever since returning from Kars four years earlier and had only just completed, so I asked his father and sister what had happened to his belongings. They’d not been strong enough to make the trip to Germany, so they asked me to gather up Ka’s things and clear out his apartment.

Tarkut Ölçün had come to Germany in the first wave of immigration

in the early sixties. For years he’d worked as a teacher and a social worker, serving a number of Turkish associations and charities. When he brought out pictures of his German-born son and daughter, he told me proudly

that he’d sent them both through university; although Tarkut was a figure of some standing in Frankfurt’s Turkish community, in his face I still saw the loneliness and defeat so commonly seen in first-generation immigrants and political exiles.

The first thing Tarkut Ölçün gave me was the small bag Ka had been carrying when he was shot. The police had made Tarkut sign for it before they handed it over. I opened it at once and frantically rummaged through it. Inside I found the pajamas Ka had bought in Ni¸ santa¸ s eighteen years earlier, a green pullover, shaving articles, a toothbrush, a pair of socks, a change of underwear, and a number of literary magazines I had sent him from Istanbul. There was no sign of his green poetry notebook.

Later, as we sat drinking our coffee and gazing into the crowded station where two aging Turks were laughing and talking as they mopped the floor, Tarkut said, “Orhan Bey, your friend Ka Bey was a solitary man.

No one in Frankfurt apart from me knew much about what he was

doing.” But he still promised to tell me everything he knew.

We walked around to the back of the station, wending our way past

the old army barracks and the hundred-year-old factory buildings to the building near Goethestrasse where Ka had spent his last eight years. The apartment overlooked a small square with a playground, but the landlord was not there to open the front door or let us into Ka’s apartment. The paint on the old door was flaking, and as we stood waiting in the wet snow I recognized many of the things Ka had described to me in his letters and his infrequent phone calls (given as he was to paranoia, Ka suspected someone was listening in on all his calls to Turkey, so he didn’t like using the phone). I looked at the small neglected park and the grocery store on the other side, and as my eyes wandered beyond them to the

dark windows of the shops that sold alcohol and newspapers, I felt I was looking at my own memories. The swings and seesaws in the playground, like the benches where Ka had spent summer evenings drinking beer

with the Italian and Yugoslavian workmen who were his neighbors, were now covered with a light blanket of snow.

We went back to the station square, following the route to the city

library Ka had taken every morning during his last years. He had enjoyed walking through the crowds of people rushing to work. So we followed

his footsteps into the station and down through an underground arcade, coming aboveground again to follow the tram route past the sex shops, souvenir stores, patisseries, and pharmacies of Kaiserstrasse as far as Hauptwache Square. Tarkut Ölçün saw many Turks and Kurds he knew

in the döner shops, kebab restaurants, and fruit and vegetable shops we passed along the way, and as he waved to them he told me how when

these same people had seen Ka walking to the city library every morning at exactly the same time, they’d cry out, “Good morning, Professor!” When we arrived in Hauptwache Square, he pointed out the big store on the opposite side of the square—the Kaufhof. I told him it was here that Ka had bought the overcoat he wore in Kars, but I declined his offer to take me inside.

Ka’s final destination, the Frankfurt city library, was a modern and anonymous building. Inside were the types you always find in such

libraries: housewives, old people with time to kill, unemployed men, one or two Turks and Arabs, students giggling over their homework assignments, and all other manner of stalwarts from the ranks of the obese, the lame, the insane, and the mentally handicapped. One drooling young

man raised his head from his picture book to stick out his tongue at me.

My guide was not particularly interested in books so I left him in the coffee shop downstairs and went to the shelves of English poetry. Here I searched the checkout slips on the inside back covers for my friend’s name; whenever I opened a copy of Auden, Browning, or Coleridge to

find his signature, I shed tears for him and for the years he’d wasted away in this library.

I cut short my search, which had plunged me into melancholy, and

walked back with my friendly guide along the same avenues without saying a word. We turned left somewhere in the middle of the Kaiserstrasse, just before a place that was called the World Sex Center or something equally absurd, and from here we walked down one street to Münchnerstrasse, where I saw more Turkish-owned produce stores and restaurants, as well as an empty hairdresser’s. By now I had guessed what I was about to be shown, so my heart was pounding, and as my eyes moved from the

fresh leeks and oranges displayed outside the fruit and vegetable shops to the one-legged man begging nearby, and on to the headlights flashing

across the stifling windows of the Hotel Eden, I looked into the charcoal twilight and there, shining in bright pink solitary splendor, I found the neon letter K.

“This is where it happened, I’m afraid,” said Tarkut Ölçün. “They found Ka’s body right here.”

I stared helplessly at the wet pavement. Two boys came flying out of a fruit and vegetable shop pushing and shoving each other; as they ran off, one of them stepped on the patch of wet pavement where Ka had lain

dying with three bullets in his body. The red lights of a truck parked just ahead were reflected in the asphalt. Ka had spent several minutes writhing on this very pavement and then died before the ambulance arrived.

For a moment I lifted my head to find the patch of sky he saw as he

was dying: between the old dark buildings, the streetlamps, and the power lines, there was a sliver of sky. Ka had been shot around midnight. Tarkut Ölçün told me there would still have been a smattering of prostitutes walking up and down the street. The actual red-light district was one street up, along the Kaiserstrasse, but on busy nights and weekends, or during one of the trade fairs, the ladies would spread out along this street too. “They didn’t find anything,” he said, when he saw me looking left and right as if in search of a clue. “And the German police aren’t like our Turkish police. They do their job well.”

When I started canvassing the occupants of the shops in the immediate vicinity anyway, this good-natured man decided to help. The girls at the hairdresser’s recognized him; after exchanging a few niceties, he asked whether they’d seen anything, but of course they were not in the shop at the time of the murder and had in fact heard nothing about the incident.

“The only thing Turkish families teach their daughters here is how to be hairdressers,” he told me, when we were outside again. “There are hundreds of Turkish hairdressers in Frankfurt.” The Kurds in the fruit and vegetable shop, by contrast, were only too well aware of the murder and the police inquiry that had followed. This could explain their evident displeasure at meeting us.

With the same dirty cloth he had when we entered, the waiter in the

Holiday Kebab House had been wiping off the Formica tabletops at

twelve on the night in question when he’d heard the gunshots; he waited a short time before going outside to become the last person Ka would see.

After leaving the kebab restaurant, we walked swiftly into the first

passageway we came to and ended up in the back courtyard of a dark

building. I followed Tarkut Bey down two flights of stairs, through a door, and into a forbidding space the size of a hangar, which had once served as a warehouse. This underworld area was as wide as the street above. It now served as a mosque—between fifty and sixty worshipers were saying their evening prayers on the carpeted area in the middle— and was lined with shops as dark and dirty as the ones you’d find in any underground arcade in Istanbul. I saw a glitterless jewelry store and a fruit and vegetable shop almost small enough to qualify as a dwarf; the butcher’s next door was crowded, but the man in the grocery store sat idly watching the TV set in the coffeehouse as he sat surrounded by coils of garlic sausage. In that corner stood cases of Turkish fruit juice, Turkish macaroni, Turkish canned goods, and religious literature, and I noticed that the café was even more popular than the mosque. The air was thick with cigarette smoke. The men at the tables looked tired—most had their eyes glued to the Turkish film on television, but now and then someone shuffled over to the makeshift fountain; after filling it with water from a plastic bucket, he would perform his ablutions before joining the worshipers outside.

“On Fridays and holidays, you can see two thousand people here,”

Tarkut Bey told me. “The overflow goes all the way up the stairs to the back courtyard.” I went over to the stall that sold books and magazines and—for no particular reason—bought a copy of Communication.

Afterward we repaired to the old Munich-style beer parlor directly

overhead. “That mosque belongs to the Süleymans,” Tarkut Ölçün said, pointing at the ground below us. “They’re theocrats, but they won’t have anything to do with terrorism; they’re not like the National Advocates or the Cemalettin Tigers. They don’t want to take up arms against the Turkish state, either.” Perhaps troubled by the suspicion he could read in my face and the attention with which I was poring over Communication, as if looking for clues, he now told me everything he knew about Ka’s murder and what he had later discovered from the police and the press.

At half past eleven, exactly forty-two days before my visit, Ka had

returned from Hamburg, where he had taken part in a poetry evening.

The journey had taken six hours, but when he got into the station he did not take the south exit straight back to his apartment in Goethestrasse; instead, he took the north exit onto the Kaiserstrasse and spent the next twenty-five minutes wandering among tourists, drunks, solitary men,

and the prostitutes who were waiting for customers. He’d been walking around for half an hour when he turned right at the World Sex Center; he was shot crossing Münchnerstrasse. He was probably on his way to the Big Antalya Greengrocer to buy some tangerines to take home. This was the only fruit and vegetable shop in the area still open at this hour, and the shop clerk recalled that Ka had often stopped in to buy oranges.

Faced with his claim of total ignorance about Ka’s murder, the police were suspicious enough to take the clerk in for questioning, but they released him the next day, having discovered nothing.

The police had been unable to find anyone who’d seen Ka’s assailant.

The waiter from the Holiday Kebab House had heard gunshots, but with

the television and the customers making so much noise he couldn’t even say how many he’d heard. And it was impossible to see through the

fogged-up windows of the beer parlor that sat right atop the mosque.

A prostitute on the next street down who’d been smoking a cigarette between tricks reported having seen a short dark “Turkish-looking” man in a black coat running in the direction of the Kaiserstrasse around midnight, but she was unable to provide the police with a good description.

A German who happened to be standing on the balcony of his apartment

when Ka fell to the ground had called the ambulance, but he’d not seen anyone either. The first bullet had gone in through the back of Ka’s head and out his left eye. The other two bullets had shattered major blood vessels around his heart and his liver, piercing both the front and the back of his charcoal-colored coat, which was drenched in blood.

“He was shot from the back, so it was probably premeditated,” the garrulous old detective in charge had concluded. The murderer may even have followed Ka all the way from Hamburg. The police considered a

variety of motives, everything from sexual jealousy to the sort of political vendetta carried out so frequently in the Turkish community. Ka had had no connection to the world below the neighborhoods around the station.

When the police showed his photo to people who worked in the immediate vicinity, some remembered seeing him in the sex shops from time to time and others recalled that he had used the small cubicles in the back for viewing porno films. But there were no eyewitnesses, true or false, and there was no pressure from on high to find the killer. Neither was there an outcry in the press, so eventually the police had suspended their inquiries.

When he interviewed Ka’s acquaintances, the garrulous detective

sometimes seemed to have lost sight of the point of the investigation and wound up doing most of the talking. It was from this fatherly Turkophile that Tarkut Ölçün had first heard about the two women who had entered Ka’s life eight years before his visit to Kars. One was German and the other Turkish; I carefully recorded their names in my notebook. In the four years since his return from Kars, Ka had had no relations with any women at all.

Tarkut and I went back out into the snow; as we returned to Ka’s

house, neither of us spoke. This time we were able to see the large and affable, if also discontented, landlord. He let us into the building, which was cool and smelled of soot, and took us up to the penthouse apartment, which, he told us in a querulous voice, he was about to rent out again; any of this filth we didn’t clear out, he was going to throw away, and having said that, he left. Tears came to my eyes the moment I stepped into the small, dark, low-ceilinged rooms in which Ka had spent his last eight years. The distinct smell took me back to our childhood; it was the smell I associated with his school satchel and his room at home and the pullovers his mother had knitted. I thought it must be a Turkish brand of soap I’d never known by name and never thought to ask about.

During Ka’s early years in Germany he had worked as a porter, a

mover, and a house painter, and he’d also given English lessons to Turks; once he was officially declared a political exile and granted asylum benefits, he cut his links with the Turkish Communists who ran the neighborhood centers and who had, until then, made sure he was gainfully employed. His fellow exiles had found Ka too remote and too bourgeois.

During his last twelve years, Ka supplemented his income by doing

poetry readings in town libraries, cultural foundations, and Turkish associations. Only Turks attended, and the audiences rarely exceeded twenty; even so, if he could do three of them in a month, it was an extra five hundred marks, which, combined with his asylum benefit, would have allowed him to live comfortably. But it was clear now that such months had been few and far between. The chairs in his apartment were broken, the ashtrays chipped, and the electric stove covered with rust. Still affronted by the threat the landlord made when he let us in, I wanted to stuff Ka’s belongings into an old suitcase and a couple of plastic bags and leave. I wanted to take everything: the pillow on the bed that still smelled of his hair, the belt and the tie I remembered him wearing in high school, the Bally shoes that (according to his letters) he had continued using as house slippers once his toes had poked through the leather, the dirty glass in which he kept his toothpaste and brush, his library of some three hundred and fifty books, the TV set, the video machine he’d never mentioned to me, his threadbare jacket and worn-out shirts, and the pajamas he’d brought with him from Turkey sixteen years earlier. But when I looked at the worktable and failed to find the thing I coveted most, the thing I now realized I had flown to Frankfurt to retrieve, I lost my

courage.

In his last letter from Frankfurt, Ka had happily announced that after four years of hard work he had finally completed a new book of poetry.

The title was Snow. Most of the poems were based on childhood memories that had come to him in flashes during his visit to Kars, and he had carefully recorded these inspirations in a green notebook. In an earlier letter written almost immediately upon leaving Kars, he had told me he had come to believe that the emerging book had a “deep and mysterious” underlying structure; he had spent his last four years in Frankfurt filling in the blanks in this hidden design. For this grueling purpose, he’d had to withdraw from the world, abstaining from its pleasures like a dervish. In Kars he had felt like a medium, as if someone were whispering the poems into his ear; back in Frankfurt, he could hardly hear them at all.

Still, he labored to reveal what he had become convinced was the hidden logic of this testament to the visions and inspirations he had experienced in Kars. In his last letter, he said that with the arduous task now complete, he was going to try out the poems at readings in several German cities. Aside from the longhand version he kept in the green notebook he had no other copy, he told me, but he would have a manuscript typed up and duplicated once he was sure everything was in its rightful place. He was planning to send one copy to me and one to his Istanbul publisher. Would I please write a few words for the back cover and send them on to the publisher, our mutual friend Fahir?

The view from Ka’s desk of the snowcapped rooftops of Frankfurt

was now darkening as night fell over the city. The desk itself, covered with a green tablecloth, was surprisingly tidy for a poet’s. On the right were the diaries in which Ka described his visit to Kars and the poems that had come to him there; on the left was a pile of books and magazines he was in the process of reading. Equidistant from the unmarked center line of the table stood a bronze lamp and a telephone.

I searched the desk drawers for the notebook; I fanned through the

books, the diaries, and the collection of newspaper clippings without which no political exile’s room seems complete; with rising panic I went on to search his wardrobes, his bed, the cabinets in his kitchen and his bathroom, his refrigerator, his little laundry basket, and every other corner of the house where a man might think to hide a notebook. Refusing to accept that it might be lost, I then checked all the same places again while Tarkut Ölçün stood smoking a cigarette and watching the snow fall over Frankfurt. If the notebook wasn’t in the small bag he’d taken with him to Hamburg, it had to be here in his apartment. Ka had always refused to make copies of his poetry until every last word was in place; he thought it was bad luck. But he’d told me himself that the book was finished and ready to go, so where was it?

Two hours later, still refusing to accept the loss of the green notebook in which Ka had recorded his Kars poems, I had convinced myself that it was here, somewhere, right under my nose, and that it was only on account of having let myself become so upset that I had missed it. When the landlord knocked impatiently again, I scooped up all the notebooks in Ka’s drawers and threw them into a plastic bag, along with every handwritten note I could find. I gathered up the porno tapes piled higgledypiggledy around the VCR—proof he’d never received visitors here—and threw them into a shopping bag from the Kaufhof. Like a man about to set out on a long journey who takes along some very ordinary memento of

the life he’s left behind, I searched the room for a simple keepsake to remember my friend by. But I couldn’t make up my mind; before I knew it I was stuffing a plastic bag with the ashtray and the cigarettes sitting on his desk, the knife he’d used as a letter opener, the clock on his bedside table, the threadbare waistcoat he had worn over his pajamas for twentyfive years, and which still carried Ka’s smell, and the photograph of him and his sister standing on Dolmabahçe wharf. By now I had become the curator of my own passion. Recognizing my last chance, I gathered up

almost everything else; and almost everything had value, from his dirty socks to his handkerchiefs (never used), from the kitchen spoons to the empty cigarette packets in the wastebasket. During one of our last meetings in Istanbul, Ka had asked about my plans for a new novel, and I had told him about The Museum of Innocence, an idea I was still keeping from everyone.

The moment I returned to my hotel room, having parted from my

guide, I resumed my analysis of Ka’s belongings. By now I had decided to be clinical and put memories of my friend to rest for the night, before despair could destroy me. The first task I set myself was to review the porn tapes. My room didn’t have a VCR, but from the notes in Ka’s own hand on the cassette sleeves, it was clear that he had a special affection for an American star called Melinda.

I proceeded next to read the notebooks in which Ka had written

about the poems that had come to him in Kars. Why had he never mentioned this love affair, the terrors he had witnessed? I was to find the answer in a file retrieved from one of Ka’s drawers: When I opened this folder, almost forty love letters fell into my lap; all were addressed to Ipek, none had been sent. Every one began exactly the same way— ˙ My darling, I have thought long and hard about whether I should write to tell you this— but then each went on to describe a different experience of his in Kars, each time adding a heart-wrenching new detail to my understanding of

his love affair with Ipek; there were also scattered insights into his every- ˙ day life in Frankfurt (the lame dog he’d seen in Von Bethmann Park and the zinc tables in the Jewish Museum, both of which distresses he had written of in letters to me as well). He’d not folded any of these love letters, and this revealed to me a degree of indecision about sending them that would not admit even the commitment of an envelope.

Just say the word and I’ll come to you, he has written in one letter, though in another he declares he would never return to Kars because I would never allow you to misunderstand me again. One letter refers to a poem, not enclosed, and another invites one to imagine a preceding letter from Ipek: ˙ I’m so sorry you took my letter amiss. That evening, I laid out all Ka’s belongings, on the bed and on every other surface in the room, examining every item

with a forensic eye, and so it is with certainty that I can say Ka never received a single letter from Ipek. Why did he pretend to answer one, ˙ even knowing that he would never send her a single letter either?

Here, perhaps, we have arrived at the heart of our story. How much

can we ever know about the love and pain in another’s heart? How

much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation, and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known? Even if the world’s rich and powerful were to put themselves in the shoes of the rest, how much would they really understand the wretched millions suffering around them? So it is when Orhan the novelist peers into the dark corners of his poet friend’s difficult and painful life: How much can he really see?

All my life I’ve felt as lost and lonely as a wounded animal [Ka

wrote]. Perhaps if I hadn’t embraced you with such violence, I

wouldn’t have angered you so much, and I might not have undone

the work of twelve years, ending up exactly where I started. But here I am, abandoned and wasting away; I carry the scars of my unbearable suffering on every inch of my body. Sometimes I think it’s not just you I’ve lost, but that I’ve lost everything in the world.

Could the mere act of my reading these words ensure that I understood them?

Late that night, made pleasantly tipsy by the whiskeys I’d taken from the minibar, I went back to the Kaiserstrasse to investigate Melinda.

She had enormous olive-colored eyes with a slight cast to them. Her

skin was fair, her legs were long, her lips, which an Ottoman court poet might have likened to cherries, were small but full. She was quite well known. The video section of the World Sex Center was open twenty-four hours a day, but it took me only twenty minutes to locate six films bearing her name. I smuggled these videos back to Istanbul, and only after having watched them did I begin to have some sense of what Ka might have

been feeling. Whatever sort of man it was she was kneeling before—he could be the coarsest, ugliest fellow in the world—Melinda always

responded to his moans of ecstasy in the same way: Her pale face softened with a compassion unique to mothers. No matter how provocative in costume (whether as an impatient businesswoman, a frolicsome stewardess, or a housewife tired of her ineffectual husband), she was always fragile and vulnerable when naked. As I would later come to see on making my own visit to Kars, there was something of Ipek in her manner, her ˙ large eyes, and her curvaceous body.

I know I risk offending those poor souls who insist on seeing poets as saintly or metaphysical when I suggest that my friend spent the last four years engrossed by this adult entertainment. But as I wandered the World Sex Center hunting for videos of Melinda, it seemed to me that Ka had just one thing in common with these hordes of miserable men, lonely as ghosts. It was the habit of answering his guilt by retreating into the shadows when he would watch these films. In the cinemas around New York’s 42nd Street, Frankfurt’s Kaiserstrasse, and the back streets of Beyo˘ glu, the lonely, lost men who watch their films with shame and self-loathing, struggling to avoid one another’s eyes at intermissions, these men, in defiance of all national stereotypes and anthropological distinctions, in fact look exactly the same. I left the World Sex Center with my black plastic bag full of Melinda videos and walked back through the giant snowflakes down the empty streets to my hotel.

I had two more whiskeys at the makeshift bar in the lobby, and while I waited for them to take effect I looked outside at the falling snow. I decided that if I did manage to get tipsy again I’d take a break from Melinda and Ka’s notebooks. But the moment I reached my room, I picked up one of Ka’s notebooks at random, lay down on the bed without pausing to undress, and began to read. On the third—or was it the fourth?—page I found the snowflake reproduced below.

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