The Other Alexander – Chapter 1
“At bottom you may be innocent, but deeper still you are diabolical.”
That is what my father told me, shaking with laughter; whereas my mother liked to say how I was little once, just a tot, tinier than a big bird, and she suckled me. When I grew a bit and we passed by the cemetery and I would question her, she said this was the dwelling place of deer, so that I wouldn’t be frightened, and also because I loved deer, having seen a photograph of them in a zoology textbook.
Nor was it right for my father to have said such a thing just as I was eagerly announcing my friend’s engagement. I said I didn’t know his fiancee personally, but surely she was blond and full-breasted.
It was curious that I hadn’t even laid eyes on her, for he and I were great friends and our relationship was out of the ordinary. We saw each other almost every evening to smoke and read together. He played the piano. His way was to start with scales to loosen up his fingers, and then after an hour of classical music, he would improvise. At midnight his musical gift blossomed, filling you with wonder. I can say that never before had I so relished music. Was it his way of surrendering himself to the piano, or was it the late summer evenings and our friendship which was so out of the ordinary? We lit the lamp. He seldom got more than a puff from his cigarette, forgetting it in the ash-tray where it burnt out.
He had not even mentioned his engagement.
Yet we had discussed women often, and very freely, because every woman has her manner and special charm. Some close their eyes while others leave them open and the pitch of their voices differs, and you cannot say you know a woman if you haven’t slept with her. These things made us laugh. We drank a little and then elaborated on the details. My friend had once told me my soul was innocent, but that I was attracted by corruption. This is far different from the scathing remarks my father had made about my innocence.
“But you also know how to adapt yourself to corruption,” my friend added.
The truth is that I can adapt myself to anything. Throw me in prison, and I will adjust to it; and if you leave me on a deserted island, I will learn its life, that is, I will learn to like it. Because I like everything and nothing really makes me unhappy. Perhaps I might suffer at the beginning, but later on I would get used to it. And those who so lightheartedly made me suffer would later be more unhappy than I, and perhaps still are today. But that is a different question. You never know with women because they don’t know themselves.
And so, like clay, I fit the mold of every situation, and I have never known what is called “lack of appetite.” I might say that on certain sad occasions, I was rather ashamed of my appetite because it is something you cannot hide. Not so much the quantity you consume but the manner of eating betrays you. And this greed becomes obvious with the first spoonful you bring to your mouth and in the way you lift your fork.
At my grandmother’s death, for example, I was not able to conceal my hunger. After the funeral, although you should sip the broth leaving the meat untouched, when the boiled meat was served I nearly devoured it all. And this is how you should act when you claim to follow the general rather than the immediate course of events—to behave as if it were your neighbor’s grandmother who died, so that your life, even in its petty troubles, may on the whole remain calm and unaltered—just as the ocean is the same in all its moments: here there is calm and there tempest; and when there is tempest here, there is calm somewhere else. Only its parts change, not the whole. The ocean is always the same with itself. And only man in his foolishness sees it differently.
So I can say with conviction that we were very close friends and that for almost everything he asked my advice. I was proud because he who had such a warm and direct nature, who played the piano so beautifully, had chosen me as his friend. Intuitively he knew what I was worth. And I, on the other hand, being of an instinctive and straightforward temperament, had chosen him, and the personality of one widened the personality of the other. In our way we multiplied ourselves, trying to find and extract the essence from things and books, to squeeze out the juice as one does from a lemon. Above all we looked for this essence in poetry, but also in algebra and geometrical shapes; for rational books also contain a deeper core for those who are willing to search it out.
We saw in each other’s eyes our own worth and intelligence. He admired me and I admired him.
He was nevertheless thin as a stick, and could not but have chosen a full woman with rich breasts. “Tomorrow I’m getting engaged,” he said to me one evening, as midnight neared and his musical self was widening from moment to moment. He never mentioned anything before or after that. After quickly inhaling his cigarette, he continued playing and I did not have the time to say anything. When we parted that night, we made no comment, but avoided each other’s eyes.
After my father said his bit of nastiness, he began to laugh. He always laughed loudly and sonorously as if his laughter had its source in his belly, or rather in his legs, and passed through his body like an electric current and shook it. But his eyes did not laugh. And whenever he laughed with grave eyes, I was frightened. I curled up inside myself. I became a spool of thread, but I stood up very straight and pretended that I didn’t care. I even laughed myself. Then my father stopped short and ordered coffee. He told me, “Go tell them to prepare some coffee for me.” His way annoyed me and wounded my pride. I repeat it was his manner; for I would not even mind polishing anybody’s shoes, if I were asked in a nice way. On the contrary, ever since I was small, I liked to clean the shoes of my brothers and school friends. They teased me about it. They considered it a lack of self-respect, but since I liked doing it, I polished and whistled.
My father’s manner was unbearable, tyrannical. And he never felt any kind of shame for his life, although he should have. He was extremely severe about other people’s petty mistakes; only with my sister Aglaia—or rather with my two sisters Aglaia— was he always lenient. How I happened to have two sisters of the same name I shall explain in detail, without stressing what shame Father should have felt about his life, nor restricting myself by the order of events in time. For events come by themselves, tumble on each other topsy-turvy. And anyway, every life is similar to every other, just as in the ocean every wave is alike, despite the difference of height or impulse.
Did I meet her at the ocean or at the Saronic gulf? I remember only the day, a Tuesday, and its texture. The day was hot and then overtaken by cold wind. But if I were to judge by the haze which suddenly rose from the sea and became an immovable cloud above our heads, I would say it was the ocean.
During all that period, the haze either thickened or thinned, and so with my ideas and feelings.
Especially one day—on the same shore, exactly at the turning point where the road curved uphill to the village and you lost sight of the sea—one day when I felt emptied of ideas and sentiments and began to laugh with wild joy, a sea-storm broke loose. I was still laughing when I reached the village named for Saint Peter and famous for its Benedictine. Though I swear I started laughing before taking a sip. For as I said, my laughter began on the shore. At the inn, when I found myself face to face with her at the same table, the laughter froze on my lips. Then she started to laugh, like a cat—if cats ever laughed. Sharp teeth and small ears. And her hands caressed invisible shapes in the air. This caressing had already attracted my attention at the shore. Her eyes were feline, gold-yellow with spots, and her body was supple, but without obviously furtive movements. On the contrary her step, as well as the movement of her shoulders, which follows in beat, was full of frankness. Her rhythm was entirely sincere. And if I were to liken her to an animal, I would say she was like a small colt, because of her swiftness and her desire to leap up and run. She was hasty and in continual movement and all this for nothing; for in front of the ocean her haste was without meaning and she was small as a flea, not to speak of her tiny bathing suit, speckled with minute designs of crabs, clams and little fish.
She spoke first—that also I can swear. I hadn’t shown the least disposition for conversation. As it was afternoon and the beach deserted, I sat almost hidden between a rock and a rowboat drawn up on the sand. First I saw her shoes, green sandals, just a green strap to be exact. And then a white rag which must have been her dress. She was swimming. The amusing thing was that when she came out of the water, thinking herself alone, she began to behave as if she were alone. She made believe she was running, but didn’t run, and lifted her head with infinite gratitude. She caressed the unseen shapes — I’m not exaggerating—and made other movements which people perform only in their privacy, as for instance when she raised her arm and looked at it, rubbing it as though something had pricked her, and then kissed it.
Her self-admiration in front of the sea was something which she would never forgive my seeing, and it always stood between us as a barrier—there are things which remain unsaid and unconfessed, and of course everybody has a right to his secret thoughts and movements which make up his character and differentiate him from other people. This is the beginning of character, much more than a bent towards mathematics or history. My friend and I had discussed this question and we made a point of observing the way passers-by in the streets blew their noses.
That evening, in her usual haste, she took off her clothes in front of me so quickly that I believed her dress to have been an illusion. She preferred the lights off, but during the whole time, it was as if she felt nothing. Then we began to talk about the proprietress of the inn and the way she cooked sauces. It must have been at the ocean, for now I remember there was a storm that same night and the weather was quite cold in the morning, things not likely to happen in the Saronic gulf in mid-July. The coast-line was very precipitous and wild, and the horizon was lost, whereas from the Saronic gulf you can see the islands opposite. Nor should I confuse her with the woman of the Saronic, who groaned during the whole time, who never hurried for anything, whose neck was tender as a calf’s. But both here and there were sea gulls screeching across the sky. Once—though hard to believe—I was a baby and cried in my swaddling bands and suckled at set hours and then began to eat a bit from each food and to tell wheat from the plane tree, heat from cold; and then I began to know my brothers and sisters, a difficult and confusing task, since my father had two families.
I was never late at table, which pleased my father, although he did not know, he declared, whether this was due to my respect for tradition or to an ironical compliance. “Silent revolutionaries are the most dangerous ones,” he grumbled, and his glance weighed on the broad shoulders of my brother Grigori, who, with his open temperament, could not help but cry out whatever he was doing. He even boasted of more than he had done. He had mild eyes and shoulders upon which Father’s look could easily lean and rest.
My brother Grigori even said that he had killed. But in the family we did not believe him or pretended not to; first because of his character; and secondly if he had really killed, he did so for political reasons when murder is not exactly murder, especially if one manages to forget the human flesh and how blood spurts from a gaping wound. Moreover it was the fault of our times, for at another moment with such eyes Grigori would not have killed and might even have taken to embroidery. We say all this, presupposing he had murdered, which is very doubtful if one remembers my brother’s mania to boast of his evil deeds and to hide the good ones.
My mother broke into laughter the evening Grigori told the story of the killing, in every detail, and she interrupted him to put in her word: Grigori told white lies, she said, ever since he was a small child—tall tales and nonsense; he told how he cracked the heads of his classmates during recess, how he strangled his opponents while wrestling. Actually he had only inflicted scratches and very slight bruises.
“Furthermore you had such thin little legs,” she added, and then Grigori insisted on the murder, displaying his legs which had gotten much stronger in the meantime.
“I do not understand the sacrifice of getting
myself killed,” he said, “but the sacrifice of killing others I understand very well.”
Mother then diverted the conversation, saying that he was not careful enough and dirtied his pants. Grigori chuckled about the girls he had
led to the forest, young schoolgirls, but willing, and then Mother opened her eyes wide and looked at him in wonder, because Mother, despite her several childbirths, had the eyes of a virgin: she would never understand until her death. All these things gave her a vague unrest and she didn’t know what to do. Then she turned to the cares of the house, which can well absorb a woman if she keeps up with the supply of salt and sugar and how much of each food is required for cooking a meal.
But the thing which my father despised was that whenever I had a chance to, I lay down and closed my eyes.
“Get up Alexander!”
My eyes opened; and unaccustomed to the light, I saw rhinoceros and wide crocodile mouths; or I remained motionless and felt my father’s breath on my neck. At other times I decided to speak up for the right of each man to lie down with his eyes closed.
“Then you should go to your room,” shouted my father. “In my presence it is unbecoming.” Out of pure hypocrisy he was very attentive to whatever was dignified or unbecoming.
“Since he owns both the land and the undersoil why do you speak back to him?” said Phokion, my third brother, the only one who helped Father
in the mines—the only one from this family—although he did not have our father’s flair for finding the metal. Father found the precious veins just as a hunting dog finds the wounded bird, and he was unique as an organizer, knowing how to keep prestige with the workers. Towards his workers he had a goodness from high up, just like those people who take care not to tread on ant hills. He gave pensions to their widows and orphans, a thing well known in the district. Yet, as soon as the days became chilly, flocks of crows passed overhead, whole armies, especially towards twilight after vespers.
A shiver ran through the fields.
Father calls me his unworthy son because I neither find the veins of metal nor behave as one should towards the workers and their widows. And Grigori calls me his unworthy brother because I’ve never killed and because I am sensitive to the sight of ruins and of blood. They both agree that all this is due to my idleness and to the fact that I lie down and close my eyes at high noon.