by Aryan Kaganof
Will anyone doubt that I am aware how incomplete and debatable these analyses are? Ours is a life of unfulfilled plans. It is spent and squandered. It is a very painful fact in human experience that each of us must go over the same old ground of mental struggle and development. This need not be the case. Stupidity is not my strong point. I am alone in my study. “Death is just one more night,” Socrates said about death. In Greek, of course. I would like to be rich, to ride in coaches and squander money. But it was not the end; it was the beginning. I would want to fail but be successful at the same time. I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. The question of stopping is really a decision of moral considerations. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong? Wherever you find injustice, the proper form of politeness is attack. That was the moment I knew I’d decided to trade my safety for something else.
I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave it all out would be another, and truer, way. No matter what happened next, I’d crossed over to the other place, and the question wasn’t who should I trust, but who should trust me.
A voice comes to one in the womb. Who is speaking thus? My background is bastard. My ancestors hail neither from this land nor that land but from the liminal border between. I close my eyes and try and imagine them. A man without a mask is very rare. Thanks to his excellent memory, he could address everybody he met by name. The dust came first. Then a man came down the steps cut in the rock. He was perhaps suddenly invincible. His eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. At the age of sixteen he was sent to a military academy, where he received intensive training in the use of weapons. They say weapons tend to favor the powerful. No use asking people what they think ... if they’re poor, they don’t give a shit ... Of the screaming which people afterwards claim to have heard from the granary, I hear nothing. A child’s eyes pierce the night. Time to leave. I am a sick man ... I am a wicked man. But what can you do? We’re brought up to hide our true feelings and just put on a good face in these situations. A man without a mask is indeed very rare. One even doubts the possibility of such a man. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. Basically everything can be done with women, it’s as if they had done something wrong and wanted to be punished. What have I learned? Of them? Of me?
Meanwhile, the actress, who had been bleeding steadily since the birth, slipped into unconsciousness, and then finally just slipped away. Even though the shelling could recommence at any moment, I felt irresistibly drawn to the site of the calamity. “It’s pitch black in here!” a voice shouted, “Come and look!”
A voice comes to one in the tomb. Who is speaking thus?
She suddenly remembered, without any forewarning, herself standing at the top of the stairs. She’d be flowing all her life. Could it have been love that I saw? And if I say “I” it’s because I dare not say “you,” or “we” or “one.” I ask myself if I should jump ahead in time and sketch out an ending immediately. No. I cannot end. Is it true then, what they say – that we become stars in the sky when we die? Then they all move on again. No former lovers exchanging glances. Time is quite still. I am poised. There is no sound. Her breathing slowed while her pulse quickened and became irregular. And I begin running. The blood must have already, in its own silent way, seeped inside. And after a while they went their separate ways, still without having spoken. Our senses are simply not meant to perceive it. But I must tell you that what I have said is not true. You are not dead. You have not gone mad. There, I said it, and I’m crying. You’ll bury us all.
The tide was still rising, although it was already high compared to its level this morning, when the steamer arrived. She suddenly remembered, without any forewarning, herself standing at the top of the stairs. The story, though, is over, there will be nothing more to tell.
Speech was difficult to restore. He had known his loves and they were over. And now I see his act as something sublime. Then he resumed speaking as if he truly were in love. But will you say something now? Will you say something? Say on. Be said on.
The punishment begins. The streets are empty. The air was filled with an overpowering smell of wood alcohol, which, as the leaping red and blue flames took firm hold, mingled with the odour of burning paint and leather. He didn’t understand, then and there, what his spirit was on the point of understanding. The walls quivered, still he did not hesitate. Then the fence of the camp appeared out of the mist: endless lines of wire strung between reinforced-concrete posts. So here we are – this is death for you. The clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head.
Speech was difficult to restore. No one understands that carrying on bravely was the easiest thing to do. And yet here I still am, and resolved to trudge on.
I’ll follow you.
'Wait,' she said, without taking his hand, ‘maybe you should play after all,’ and she disappeared through a little side-door directly beside the piano.
He hardly recognised himself. It is eight o’clock when the telephone rings. According to conspiracy theorists, there is only one possible explanation, only one pattern that makes sense. The tiny ball sped around, stopped, and the croupier slid some counters towards him. He looked around, unsure where to go. My little master, where have you gone?
“But this can’t be.” I said, feeling quite distraught. “Have I gotten as old as all that?”
At the station he found the lieutenant, barechested, sitting at his desk, covered with sweat. Most of the rest you already know. As the sun set, I pushed my way through the crowds and out the gates, walking up into the hills from which I could see the city and all its precincts. There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. The wake itself remains, etched out across the water’s surface; then it fades as well, although no one is there to see it go. He hardly recognised himself.
The cloud, seen from inside like this, was gritty, like spilled earth or dust flakes in a stairwell. The dust came first. The phone ringing? Who is it? said the candidate. The candidate was a tall man with grey hair. I decided to tell him everything immediately. READ THIS WORD THEN READ THIS WORD READ THIS WORD NEXT READ THIS WORD. We shall not enter into describing how the fire was put out, how the candidate, in a most violent fit of palpitations, explained himself to the police: after this explanation there was a conference of specialist doctors: the doctors found him to be suffering from a dilation of the aorta.
“Don’t be scared,” Doctor Muller had said. “I’ll be there, and the rest of the doctors you know, and some visitors, and Doctor Müller, the head of all the doctors, will ask you a few questions, and then you can go.”
Like a comic actor shouting on a stage, I screamed with all my remaining strength, “Help! Help!” My mother brought tea.
I sat down next to the barracks stove and put a pot of water on the fire – tame water on a tame fire. Meanwhile, the demoralization in our household was increasing. I assure you: there is no beginning, and we are not afraid; we aren’t sentimental. Soon the water began to leap furiously in the pot. But I was already asleep. The silence, black and complete.
It was time to switch the lights on or go home, but he stayed where he was. Now he lay naked on the marble, his arms flung out. He often wondered if we were all characters in one of God’s dreams. Much of the human past remains imperfectly explored, and the projection of the seed is scarcely begun. And the future? This Cento assumes that texts can reveal their own truths because texts mediate themselves; what we think theory brings to texts (form, structure, meaning) is already present in them. I guess the little things mean a lot. God’s God. No name, no initials.
Outside it was pouring rain; all at once, autumn had come. Meanwhile, the demoralization in our household was increasing. In her room she begins to pack, but in a little while she goes to sit by the window and look at the twinkling stars and foaming waves. She knows she won’t sleep and has all the time in the world to finish packing her suitcase.
This drifting, endless, immeasurable dream, where a thousand memories transform into a thousand lurid and strange adventures, we call the Cento. What meaning, where resonance, for whom? I have done with phrases. I’m packing.
“What is this?” she asked.
“This is a garden of epithets,” he said the other day, “a dictionary and cemetery garden...”
How could an accumulation of adjectives or a richness of epithets help when one is faced with that splendiferous thing? The actress’ eyes were instantly withdrawn; and she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. She likes it very much, she likes it too much to say so. It was simple, really.
“I didn’t even notice ... yes, it’s warm.”
To speak is to act; anything which one names is already no longer quite the same; it has lost its innocence. Not all crimes, however, are so easily resolved. Outside you walk through the rain with your head down, shielding your eyes with one hand while you stare ahead. The reality that I had known no longer existed. As I came down past the cages I couldn’t help thinking such a damn stench, and in that rain and all – you’d wonder what the devil they meant by it. He strolled aimlessly, keeping in the shelter of various architectural projections, for it was in vain that the daily paper of that rainy town kept clamouring for arcades to be built in its shopping district. It is rather curious to see how one works things into a pattern, into a silhouette marked out as if with a pair of compasses or into a memory, so that one always feels one must say: “Once upon a time ...”
I was spinning out again, unravelling. I still don’t know what phenomenology means. I’m selling my gun. It’s madness, all those guns out there. If there was any screaming I didn’t hear it, it was drowned out by the sound of the vuvuzelas. A massed orchestra of them. The only way to do this is to be invisible. I wanted to write a work that was absolutely of its time (timely) but at the same time so out of its time that it was of all times and therefore timeless. Now it’s crumbling. I’ve still got the scars where your kisses stained my skin, albeit ever so briefly.
“I never felt unsafe. It’s all good.”
I instantly become suspicious of people when they say “it’s all good.” There was a time I thought I knew you, but knowing is a temporary thing, just like forever. Kill or be killed that’s the law of survival. Equality’s just a slogan that the less-than-equal hold on to in lieu of self-respect and that all important commodity – cash. Most of my life has been spent waiting for something to happen. Whenever something does threaten to happen, I run away. That’s the story of my life. It’s curtains for me and my kind. A full stop.
I’m getting the order of events mixed up. I swing around – nothing but the back of the train, accelerating into the darkness. The instant that the blade tore open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun soared up and exploded behind his eyelids. I open my eyes. The floor seems to be undulating beneath my feet. I’m not what you think I am. I stood there biting the knuckles of my right hand until I tasted blood. I went into the bathroom and got dressed.
Suddenly her eyes widen. I pull back my gaze focus my camera and she starts getting small, small, smaller – until I lose sight of her. And now – now it only remains for me to light a cigarette and go home. Dear God, only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me? What I write you is a this. It won’t stop: it continues on. As a matter of fact I don’t want to die. And therefore, I adore ...
The actress got up, walked along with the noise of the wheels, her movements leaning against the direction of the train; somehow she was thinking that the effort she was making was funny and maybe that’s why she smiled as if carrying out some purpose; she entered the dining car, ordered coffee while arranging her dusty hat, vaguely taking on the attitude of a tall, large and good-humoured person. Something was still rumbling inside her, but she was quite exhausted, and her face relaxed into a smooth mask with vacant eyes.
Once back in my bedroom, I was afraid. Death was everywhere. A fortnight later, I was lying on the rumbling bed of a hospital train. Was it possible to fall in love with the same woman over and over again, every single day? In what directions did listener and narrator lie? Coming from a family in which my mother divorced both of her husbands, and, in addition, denied that she ever loved them, I found the actress’ aggressive vulnerability refreshing. “Now you know everything. I am at your disposal.” Then she straightened her back, lifted her chin and walked quickly through the double doors toward the stage. There was only one way to stop the young actress’ diatribe. “They’re dead,” I lied.
She was, she was no longer.
I am left with life. Does it go on indefinitely?
He just stood there. “Answer me,” his father said. “Don’t play the innocent with me! You know exactly what I mean!”
Where men are concerned, they feel the imperative need to speak, as though they couldn’t bear the force of silence at all.
“It was you?” he finally managed to say, nodding towards the curtain. The apartment was quiet, now. The sun was visible behind the curtains, so it must have been daytime. There was nothing to do but wait for the next sunset, when the sky would ring like bronze. The time for halos and helping one another is over.
I have escaped the camps; perhaps, if I lie low, I will escape the charity too. Now I’m the clown. Me of all people, always one to watch his step, and his tongue! And what am I to make of that? The police at the door. A knock. Is he here? There? Is he a bit further on? Every time I see the grave, I get that empty feeling where something was, and isn’t anymore, and will never be again.
To write without desiring to and without intending to: what is it that hides here? An actress knows when she’s giving a good performance – she doesn’t need to be told, I thought.
That’s it. It takes a little time to grasp more or less what happened. He regretted not being able to embrace all avant-gardes at once, he regretted being limited, too conventional, etc.; and his regret could be illuminated by no sure analysis: just what was it he was resisting?
In a few hours it would be dusk. When he had eaten it would be time to rest, and to plan his escape from the island.
The first thing he discerned when he regained consciousness was a woman in white. “By God!” he shouted out. They were both gripped by the fearlessness of people who have lost absolutely everything – such fearlessness is difficult to attain, but once attained, it endures. My friends smiled warily at me and tried to signal the actress to end her performance.
The next day I knocked and entered the office where the letter awaited me. I knew the handwriting well – swift, soaring, but at the same time precise and lucid. Then my mother materialized and that early, bright idyll came to an end. A numbness ran through my legs and arms. I was supposed to be having the time of my life. Here we shall place a full stop. Conclusion of the book, ultimate: Evil is even, truth is an odd number and death is a full stop. That was it. I looked out of the window again. I felt really happy. Silent as a tomb.
I waited a week then telephoned. She answered after the first ring.
“Hello!” the candidate calls out to her.
“Why don’t you stop taking the serum if it’s making you so sick,” I said.
“How dare you ask me a question like that, you pig.”
Dr. Müller turned to us, taking us as witnesses.
“That’s enough of your nonsense and your manias. I’m too old to bamboozle.”
There is unfortunately no point in speaking of escape.
Two days later the phone rang. I pick up the telephone. I don’t say my name, just “Hello.” And yet in spite of her efforts her voice was bitter when she spoke: “It’s everything you hoped for isn’t it?” A breakthrough in the police investigation came only when analysis of mall surveillance tapes revealed images of the candidate and another man following the actress at a distance. It was no longer raining and the wind had died down. When they reached the station, the train was already standing there.
I came home on the last train. And yet here I still am, and resolved to trudge on. Nobody knows what I’ve done. His face was pale. It no longer showed expression. There are, of course, plenty of dull, featureless graves. But then there are plenty of dull, colourless people. The actress and the candidate stood there, holding their bags, in silence. Finally he held the Cento against him, and started to rip out about ten pages at a time. He didn’t understand, then and there, what his spirit was on the point of understanding. Everybody called him the candidate by now. Cunning is necessary to spread the truth.
On the floor directly below me I now could see the candidate staggering backwards, and around in a narrow circle, a spot of blood blooming on his face. A hush had fallen over the room. What is fate anyway? Then there is something new at the bottom of the page: and when she imagines a pause in the middle of it, she understands better. The strange policeman opened his folder. He pulled out a piece of paper and consulted it. “Have you lived here long?”
"Stolen," she shuddered, and thought of the dead candidate with his face uplifted to the sky in an agony of supplication. I don’t like the insistence on references – people are too fond of it. It answers the question too readily, and I’ve always tried to wipe out the traces . . . Maybe he’s dying, I think. Maybe in the morning he’ll be dead. She bursts into laughter. Enough foolishness, my girl. But in reality we’ve both forgotten the true course of events, and we both think ourselves the murderer. I’ll tell you this up front: The other dead man, the murder victim, was my brother.
The sight of her: As if she were posing for an invisible photographer, she surpassed the calm of the sunset. And I did not wish to interrupt that. Next is a signature black, to show the poles of my versatility, if you like. Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. She went to her room upstairs to pack, and the next morning said good-bye to her family and, alive, cheerful, left the island – as she thought, forever.
The silence in the room was deep as the night itself. I read the sentence again: “You must forgive me for this rather tedious, unpleasant incident. We shall try to forget it.”
What did he mean? Was it a cry? I do not mean to confuse you. There is no doubt that we need more bread, better homes, better schools, more time, better air to breathe and land on which to live. That goes without saying. There is great unrest.
“He doesn’t love me anymore!” thought the actress once she was alone, already regretting her decision.
“It has, and I love you,” he said with a sort of contrition. “Does that make me a villain?”
The performance had ended, the audience streamed out; the applause still echoed in the empty hall. But the idea of the spectacle as something to be acted out and absorbed still hung in the air long after the last spectator had gone home to sleep. Just because it is too late doesn’t mean it was always too late. The performance was terrible.
“I could not fall asleep, and began writing,” the actress said. As for my handwriting, it was fast and careless and, as I have said, almost illegible, whereas she always wrote in a careful, regular hand. Even as a child I avoided multitudes, I detested crowds, the accumulation of people, the concentration of vileness and mindlessness and lies. While everyone was waiting for the actress, who had promised to join the dinner party after the premiere of Cento, I observed the candidate, reflecting that it had been a grave mistake to accept her invitation. We are, to put it precisely, born into misunderstanding and never escape this condition of misunderstanding as long as we live, we can squirm and twist as much as we like, it doesn’t help. This all takes it toll.
I drew the curtains in my room, writes the actress, took several sleeping tablets, and woke up twenty-six hours later in a state of extreme anxiety. Upon which she only laughed and said Yes. I had to find a way to control, if possible to change the light to suit my needs, whether to draw the curtains or not to draw them? The state of complete indifference, in which I then find myself, said the actress, is, through and through, a philosophical state. I get through the night, the terrible despair, you know, that appears in the walls when I scratch them with my fingers. You see,” said the actress, “my nails are all broken off. The pain from my head is so inconceivable that I can’t begin to describe it.”
To this day I have not visited her grave.
You’re free to reinvent yourself at will. In the days that follow the actress herself becomes drifted over with new words, her hair slowly darkens, she ceases to be what she was and is replaced, gradually, by someone else. “What do you want me to do?” she whispers to the empty air. Then she’ll make a speech about how naughty she’s been and how much uproar she’s been causing and how many men she’s ruined. “You must come in,” she says to me, “and take a tea,” and she bends and undoes the hook of the wooden gate. “I knew you’d come back,” she says. “I knew it. Don’t turn into an owl.” Meanwhile the traffic moves in an unceasing flow along the flyover. Toward the end, as they stood side by side with their backs to the altar, her conviction seemed to fail her. As she looked at me, and at the bones scattered across the table, I knew my answer.
It was some time later that he failed to notice it had started to rain. He awoke at seven the next morning, lying back against the mast in bright sunlight, the medical kit open in his lap, the bows of the catamaran rammed lightly into a large fern tree growing off the edge of a small island. Crossing the lake, the candidate and the actress looked down at their reflections in the still, black water. In their bloodied hands they carried knives with narrow blades. They appear to have left within ten minutes of the last murder, and no clues have been found to their method of escape.
Then it happened. “Well, what” I said, getting up too. Her mouth was big; it was caked round the edges, the edges only, with what was left of lipstick, inside which clumsy falsified outline the lips turned outwards, exposed themselves – full intimate, woundably thin-skinned, tenderly brown-pink as the underside of a new mushroom and of a paleness in her sun-coarsened face. Then the first wave of a silence that was to be ultimate flowed back confidently to the steps. And now nothing. I did not comfort you. Never have I comforted you. Forgive me. Then the blood-red sun burst resoundingly in his head, and he saw nothing more.
The night flowed on. It was a Thursday. It was night. Everything was just beginning. Now she was naked. The dream of being invisible ... In fact, there was a fountain, nearby, a distinguished work of sculpture and hydraulics, with nymphs, fauns, river gods, cascades, a play of water. I looked more closely. It was wet. It was a tear. That is how she sees it. That is how she understands it.
She goes out at night more often now; the landscape assembles itself about her, she informs it with her presence. Then, a sudden creak behind me; I spun round to see the door swing to on its hinges with a soft, inexorable click. Then it happened.
My head aches with writing. My head aches. I close my eyes. “To think I really fooled you!” she marvelled. I don’t live. I don’t exist. I hope to die as painlessly as possible. That’s all. It gets harder all the time, the actress once said. Harder, yet easier too. One gets used to things getting harder; one ceases to be surprised that what used to be as hard as hard can be grows harder yet. “Do you see many people like me, people in my situation?” she continues urgently, out of control now, hearing herself out of control, disliking herself for it. “Leave me, I want to sleep!” I shouted, drumming my heels. The cacophony rose, then died away. She speaks. “That is enough. I don’t want to talk anymore. It is past nine. If you want to go – ”
He rises, and he leans forward and kisses her thrice in the formal manner he was taught as a child, left right left, bows, leaves. This is not the scene I dreamed of. Like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere. Do you want your books back?
Everything has been said and resaid on the subject of this inevitable and beneficial separation. Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year. “Do you enjoy this so much?” she said, “Back and forth?” He said, “What does it matter anyway?”
“We are here,” he said finally.
In the end they had to carry me to the infirmary and feed me through plastic tubes. Recite the sacred words. Meanwhile the rumours accumulate. I am going through a death and it is hard. There’s another pause. He notes her paleness. Sometimes he just looks at her. You approach death with a clear mind. Everything is connected in the end. The odd thing is I found it beautiful. Everybody wants to own the end of the world. And, oddly, he knew one of them would. Thoughtfully, he fingered his fountain pen. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I really should be getting back to my work ...”
A moment later the ambulance was on its way to the next call.
One thing I know for certain: never again will I sit down to write my autobiography, even if I live to be a hundred. In a blue coffin decorated with white lace, his hands folded and his eyes closed, lay the candidate. Under his pillow lay the Gospels. What will habit not do to a man? Then a rather strange scene took place. The actress came out with a pale little face, her eyes downcast, and took her bag. “Will you be staying with us long?” the actress asked the candidate. Another five minutes passed. “Perhaps I’ve disturbed you” she began timidly, in a barely audible voice, and started to get up.
“My eyes aint any good anymore,” the candidate said. “I cant see it.” And that was all. Then everything becomes calm. There remains only the grass swaying in the wind. The candidate’s disappearance remains a mystery.
I devoted the rest of the morning to preparing for what I hoped would be the last stage of my journey. So, now this is it. Another glass, in which the alcohol is rapidly growing old, is shoved across. The bodies are totally unrecognisable with brutal injuries like these, says the policeman, nauseated, although he has seen a thing or two in his line of business.
At the point at which the road reached the top of the slope and was about to dip down on the other side again, the man jumped out of the taxi without waiting for the driver to brake. I stopped in front of the glass, in the middle of the room in which I was going to live for a while. At this moment there was a dull noise; cries broke out around me, and I shuddered. She reached her hand across the table and rested it atop mine. “Happy endings are all I can do,” she whispered. “I wouldn’t know how to write anything else.” The man said that he had loved her from the moment he saw her reclining on the hotel terrace. “Perhaps it will be fine tomorrow,” she said, smoothing his hair. And then daylight comes. The light struck upon the trees in the garden, making one leaf transparent and then another. Then he put on his hat. The sun was now low beneath the horizon. Darkness spread rapidly. Darkness drops like a knife. It is death. Death is the enemy.
I’m packing. Yes, we two, the actress and I, we are busy packing, really packing everything up, leaving, clearing out, tearing things apart, pushing and shoving. She shuts her eyes ... She walked away without looking back, feeling cheated and dull. He died for love. But I don’t want to.
And she ran off and shut herself in her room, where she wept for the rest of the day.
In his extreme exhaustion, snatches of his wasted day still come back to torment him: “... and if, at that moment, I had thought about ... and if I had ...” He chases away these obsessions with an impatient shake of his head. Now it is too late. Outside it is raining. Like Jung, he kept a gun in his desk drawer. Just in case. In the bottom drawer is the biscuit box wrapped in brown paper. The rest of the room is unchanged: the ashes in the fireplace, the sheets of paper scattered on top of the table, the burnt cigarette butts filling the ashtray, the table lamp turned on, the heavy red curtains drawn tight. It was as if no one had heard. And suddenly I thought to myself that the true candidate, the true actress, were perhaps those who had at the first moment yielded themselves with their eyes, one through the hedge of pink hawthorn, the other on the beach. The idea of death took up permanent residence within me in the way that love sometimes does. There, I said it, and I’m crying. But how often, in the middle of this peaceful dissatisfaction, my conscious emotion is slowly filled with a feeling of emptiness and tedium for thinking this way! But nothing has happened: no miracle, no explosion.
Cento was the start, not the end, of the candidate’s search for a life in words.
Aryan Kaganof is a South African filmmaker, poet, novelist, artist, and curator/editor of the online journal www.herri.org.za . His most recent found- footage film, The silence at the start of the film (2021) is currently on exhibition at SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin.