In Memoriam: Manuel de Pedrolo, Catalan author

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Almost Nobody by Manuel de Pedrolo

[Published as 'Gairebé ningú' in Crèdits humans, Barcelona, Editorial Selecta, 1957 (pp. 61-78)]

Translation by Brian Steel

 

It was true to say that he had been planning this for twenty years or more. He had got rid of all his connections with things and people. He was certain that no one in the world knew him any longer. He had not always been able to avoid having his photograph taken, but he knew very well that none of these photographs bore a close resemblance to him. As for his identity, he had had so many that not even he could remember them all. In any case, that was the least important of all. Especially now. For this reason he stopped thinking about it.

What was essential was to get on to the train unobserved. This was the most difficult part of all. Of course, as a last resort, he could quite easily have made the journey on foot but that would have made it necessary to make it in stages and besides, isn't a hiker more conspicuous? He had devoted a great deal of thought to this question and the outcome of his deliberations was that he was now buying a ticket to Manchester, as he had originally planned.

He had purposely chosen a night train. He wouldn't have any trouble in finding an empty compartment for himself. The only danger was the ticket inspector, but for this very reason he had bought a ticket for a destination which he did not intend to reach. He had also taken the trouble to alter his appearance slightly by growing a small moustache and by puffing out his cheeks in the way he had learned so well, which, he was convinced, made him look quite a different person.

Clutching his ticket, he picked up his tiny suitcase and went on to the platform. The light was very poor. This suited him very well. From the platform he studied the carriages and finally picked one near the engine. He had noticed that people do not like walking the whole length of the train and that they usually get in the first two or three carriages they come to, which are the ones at the rear of the train.

He cautiously climbed aboard and saw immediately that his assumption had been correct. There were no more than three people in the whole carriage. In spite of this, however, he still did not choose a seat. There was always the possibility that a very sociable last-minute arrival might choose him as his travelling companion. He obviously had to take every precaution to avoid this.

So he remained standing in the corridor, absently watching what little movement there was on the station at that hour. There were still five minutes or so left before the train was due to leave, but he had timed his arrival down to the last second. Nothing would have induced him to arrive at the last moment, making him run for the train. A man running is most conspicuous. Neither would it have been advisable to arrive too early; the less seen of him, the better.

Two or three more people got in and he saw out of the corner of his eye that each of them chose an empty compartment to sit in. He lit a cigarette, one of the last he would ever smoke, since he intended to give up this habit afterwards along with all the others which had characterised him, if, indeed, it can be said that one is really characterised by a series of details which one has in common with hundreds and even thousands of other individuals.

Possibly because it was almost the last time he would smoke it, the tobacco seemed more satisfying than usual and so, still facing the platform and with his back to anyone who might pass along the corridor, he smoked very slowly in order to prolong the pleasurable sensation.

After a while, the train gave a short whistle and, without anyone else having got into the carriage, started to move off. Vaguely the man gazed for what he thought was the last time at the dim lights, the old brickwork, the trains waiting on the other tracks and the simple station building, grimy like stations the world over.

They advanced into the night and the flickering lights of the town were eventually replaced by the total, or almost total, darkness of the countryside. Only then did the man decide to take a seat.

He was alone, just as he had hoped. The journey was beginning very auspiciously indeed. He crossed his legs, threw the cigarette-end away and closed his eyes. He didn't feel at all sleepy, but as he had to do something, he thought the best plan would be to pretend to be asleep.

The steady rhythm of the train gently rocked him, and with the movement his body gradually settled into the most comfortable position: the man and the seat became united. From time to time, a light flashed by outside the window. It could have been an isolated house. As far as he was concerned, it didn't matter what it was. For him, it had all ceased to exist.

In the end he really dozed off because of the silence, the monotonous motion of the train and his own thoughts which were totally centred on the same thing. All the same, he opened his eyes now and then, as if to check his position. Obviously, he couldn't very well check anything as everything outside was in complete darkness. The important thing, however, was not to lose all contact with the outside world and to preserve a certain amount of time-consciousness. It would have been tragic if he went past the spot which he had pin-pointed as the exact position for his reappearance. It was an ordinary place, with which he was not familiar, but which he had glimpsed one day, years before, during a train journey. Nevertheless, it was a spot which, for some unspecified reason, seemed suitable for his purposes.

The ticket inspector came in and the man handed his ticket to him, watching him carefully out of the corner of his eye. But the other man was not at all interested in him and scarcely even looked at him; his only reaction to his presence was a superficial glance directed at a human being from whom no more is expected or required than the possession of a little piece of cardboard to justify his presence in the carriage of a train belonging to a company which, like all companies, tries to get a certain amount of profit from its services. In other words, a completely impersonal glance and one which a few seconds later he would have forgotten. It was just what he needed. He realised that his moustache and his little disguise were unnecessary.

The ticket inspector went out of the compartment, leaving the man alone once more. He looked at his watch. Because of his little snooze the time had flown by more quickly than he had thought. If the train was running on time he had only another thirty-five minutes to wait before reaching his moment of destiny.

They must have stopped at a few stations already and he was surprised that he hadn't noticed them at all. He had slept longer than he had intended to. In any case, he was still the sole occupant of the compartment. No one else had come in. Wonderful! Everything was going satisfactorily and circumstances were in his favour. Naturally, he had counted on this also, for when you take a decision like this and you make preparations for twenty years, at the chosen moment nothing can go wrong. You dominate events.

He stood up and went into the corridor. He had time to smoke another cigarette - and this really would be the last one. He had only just left the compartment, however, when something made him dart back inside. No one must remember seeing a man standing in the corridor in this neighbourhood. Although the danger of this happening was very remote, someone might put two and two together and make four. One could never be sure of anything.

He sat down again, then, and smoked the cigarette with as much pleasure as the previous one had given him. Then, contentedly, he cast an eye over his meagre luggage, a plain suitcase, his collaborator and absolute essential and silent accomplice. Silent it was, but he would make it even more silent, for he knew that objects are capable of telling stories, and very clear ones. He would leave nothing to chance.

He consulted his watch again, feeling slightly impatient. A quarter past. Another quarter of an hour and all the danger would have passed, since once he got off the train and put some distance between himself and the station, he would have nothing more to fear. Really, he had nothing to fear in the next fifteen minutes either. He could save his anxiety for the precise moment when he left the train, because there might quite well be someone who ...

He interrupted his train of thought to consider the new idea which had just struck him. It was strange that he hadn't thought of this before, because it was the best answer to the problem. He needn't get out at the station at all. Well, not exactly at the station, anyway. He would leave the train a moment of two after it had started off again, while the speed was still not very great. Why not? It was perfectly possible to do this and in that way, no one would see him. No one inside the train nor outside, because there wouldn't be anyone outside and the passengers themselves were asleep. And those who weren't asleep would be reading. In any case, no-one looks out of train windows when night is all around. It is boring and very unrewarding.

A few more minutes passed during which his impatience increased. Unable to remain seated any longer, he got up and took a few steps inside the compartment but he did not go outside. An unbroken silence hung over the carriage. Not a single conversation. Not even the noise of someone clearing his throat.

A few more minutes passed by and then all at once the rhythmic motion of the train seemed to change. They were coming into the station and the train was slackening speed. The dim lights typical of all country stations came into view and then the platform, which appeared to be empty. A deserted station. Everything would be easy now.

The man picked up his suitcase and, without relaxing his grip on it, waited. It proved to be a short wait because the engine seemed to stop there for no more than the time necessary to get its breath back.

He peered out into the corridor, and looked up and down it. Not a soul in sight! He left the compartment and made his way to the carriage door, which he reached just as the train was starting off again after letting out the customary acoustic signals.

Just as he was stretching out his hand to take hold of the handle, a worrying thought suddenly made him perspire. What if at that precise moment the ticket inspector should turn up? He certainly hadn't allowed for that, and just because it was not a part of his plan it was unbearable to think about it.

Once more he cast an anxious glance all around him. No, there wasn't a soul in sight. At that moment, still uneasy, but determined, he opened the door, holding the case in his other hand. The train was moving faster than he had anticipated but even this did not deter him; it was now or never.

He closed his eyes and dropped down to the side of the track, where he lay motionless, until the lights which shone from some of the windows had passed over him, leaving him in darkness.

Then the clickety-clack died away and he got to his feet. He was unharmed. Not completely, though, for he had a scratch on his hand, probably caused by one of the ballast stones, a mere trifle.

He looked at the night around him. It was thick and black and there was a slight nip in the air. A hundred yards away, perhaps a little more, the station's outline was visible thanks to its lights. Behind him, everything was blotted out by complete and utter darkness. He smiled. He had made it!

Still carrying the suitcase, he started to walk alone the railway line. But as soon as he found a break in the hedge which ran along that side, he dived through it. He found a short path, but he left that as well and plunged into the little wood which covered the area.

Although he had only had one fleeting chance, many years previously, to study the geography of that region, he could still remember that on the other side of the wood there was a river. If he followed a straight path across the wood he would automatically come out on the other side. In fact, it was absolutely vital for him to get out of the wood.

He advanced slowly. It was extremely dark and he had to devote all his attention to avoiding the branches projecting from the trees. Fortunately for him, the wood wasn't too dense. He halted two or three times to take in the silence all around him. It seemed to be a hostile silence but he knew that this was a false impression. It was neither hostile nor friendly, simply indifferent.

About fifty yards further on he came to the bank of the river. He stopped and put the suitcase down beside him. Quickly, he opened it and took out some clothes: a jacket and a pair of trousers. He also took out a bag containing all the requisites for shaving. But then he burst out laughing. He hadn't even thought about it! He couldn't shave in the dark, because he hadn't the slightest intention of making his reappearance with his face cut to ribbons. He took the mirror from underneath the other things and satisfied himself that, in fact, he could hardly see his face in it. He would have to wait for daylight to come.

All he could do in the meantime was to change. He took off his jacket and trousers and put on the ones he had brought in the suitcase. He knew there was nothing in them by which he could be identified. Not even the tags of the shop where they had been bought when new, because he had acquired them two or three years before in a small shop in Soho, second-, or perhaps even third-, hand. It was an anonymous suit.

He put the suit, which he had just taken off, into the suitcase and then he looked for a few stones of sufficient weight, since the suitcase must on no account be allowed to come back up to the surface of the river.

All that remained for him to do now was to shave, so he stood still and waited. He could have smoked another cigarette, as he still had some left in the packet in the coat which he had just taken off, but he preferred to abstain. He had embarked on his new life at the moment when he leapt from the train - and in this life he was a non-smoker.

It was chilly but he had allowed for this and was prepared to put up with it. However, since it would be foolish just to stand about, he walked up and down the river bank. It was a slow-moving river, not very deep but sufficiently so to swallow up the suitcase.

But why choose this spot and not another? Wouldn't it be more advisable to get further away from the station? he suddenly thought. The further away he made his appearance, the less likelihood there would be that he would be connected with the train ...

He picked up the suitcase again and walked off. Since it was too heavy for him with the stones, he took them out. Then he continued on his way. It wasn't easy to follow the course of the river as the trees came right down to the edge of the bank, where they seemed to grow more thickly. Two or three times, he even had to make a detour. But he didn't mind this. He didn't mind anything now. All he had to do was to wait for the dawn and since there must still be at least two hours to go, he was sure of putting a minimum of six or seven miles between himself and the station. More than enough, since afterwards there would be the miles he would cover in the open but still unseen. Yes, everything seemed very favourable.

To his left, he could make out a group of houses. The village shrouded in darkness and the oblivion of its sleeping inhabitants made him want to smile.

Unexpectedly, he came across a bridge. Obviously he hadn't known of its existence, but it now seemed opportune to go across it and get to the other side of the river. Minutes later, he realised that he had made a mistake, since the going on this side of the river was even harder, but almost as soon as he noticed this, the wood gave way to a field. Immediately, the prospect looked much brighter.

Without losing sight of the river, he kept on, beneath the faint light of the stars.

The first rays of dawn found him a long way further on. Behind a hill he could make out two or three houses. He judged it wiser to stay where he was. A row of trees afforded him good cover and this was as good a place as any to have a shave and dispose of the suitcase. Perhaps it was even better than many others since the river here narrowed between steep banks and was much deeper.

He put the suitcase on the ground, opened it and took out the mirror, which he hung on a branch projecting from a nearby tree, and then began to shave. He shaved all the hair from his face, including the moustache - indeed, the latter was the whole object of this operation. He saw, as he expected, that this small facial adornment had considerably altered his features. Now he was a different person.

When he had finished, he returned everything to the suitcase, weighted it with large stones, closed it for the last time and after making sure that there wasn't a living soul about to witness it, with a slight but decisive push, he dropped it into the river. The waters parted slightly and immediately came together again to form the same unbroken surface as before and, an instant later not even he himself could have pointed out the exact spot where lay the luggage which contained his past life.

He got to his feet and surveyed the surrounding landscape until he spotted the path which passed close to the houses which he could see silhouetted against the range of hills. Then he started to walk again, a new man this time. There was absolutely nothing in any of the pockets of his suit.

[Editor: Please keep this one line gap]

Three days later he was arrested, charged with attacking a village woman. At the time he had covered a considerable distance, perhaps forty or fifty miles. He was near an unknown village, far from any main road and far from the railway. The village woman had set her dog on him the instant she caught sight of him rounding the bend in the country road. Such an inconsiderate action made him see red immediately. He settled the dog with a stone thrown with almost miraculous precision. This stunned it. Then he pursued tbe woman right back to her house, aiming kicks at her all the time.

Later, when he thought about it, he realised that he had made a mistake, but he thought he could make up for it. Accordingly, when he heard the noise of bicycle wheels following him down the road which was leading him away from the village, he did not turn round. Nor did he turn when the person on the bicycle called out to him: `Hey ,you!'
He just kept on walking steadily at the same pace as before.
`Hey, I'm talking to you!' came a shout from behind him.

It was the village constable, as he had feared. It wasn't until the constable caught up with him and took hold of his arm that the man showed any sign of being spoken to.

`I'm talking to you!' shouted the policeman angrily.

But the other man had such a blank look on his face that the policeman couldn't help thinking aloud:
`He's as deaf as a post!'

He shook him and shouted in his ear:
`You must come along with me!'

The man pretended not to understand. He simply remained rooted to the spot in front of the constable looking questioningly at him. Then he put his fingers to his ears and lips and shrugged his shoulders.

`So you're dumb as well, are you?' asked the other in amazement.

He shrugged his shoulders again, as if to show that he couldn't understand. Then, by means of a series of gestures, the constable indicated that he would have to accompany him back to the village.

The man appeared to understand this, but nevertheless, when the policeman made an attempt to search him, he resisted. The policeman was young and strong, however, and got his own way after roughing him up a little. However, the result of the search was negative that he was almost ashamed of the blows he had given the man. After all, it isn't every day that you find someone with absolutely nothing in any of his pockets.

They started to walk along side by side, with the policeman holding on to the handlebars of his bicycle with one hand and the man's arm with the other. Since it was useless to waste his breath, he didn't consider it necessary to speak a single word to him on the way.

He took him straight before the sergeant who was in charge of the tiny force there. The latter, who in that peaceful little village had no more work to do than clean his fingernails, was sitting waiting for them behind his desk.

`He's a deaf-mute,' said the policeman as he came in. `And he isn't carrying any papers either.'
`Oh!' said the sergeant.

This was an unexpected complication, but it didn't bother the sergeant too much at first. It only began to worry him a short while later, when, after proving to himself that, no matter how loud he shouted, the other still remained impervious, he tried to interrogate him on paper.

When confronted with the sheet of paper covered with a few lines written in an untidy scrawl, the man shrugged his shoulders once more, showing that no means of communication could be established in this way either.

`That's the last straw!' the sergeant grumbled. `He's illiterate as well.'

Perhaps he had never seen an illiterate person before, because he stood staring at him for quite a long time, not knowing what to do. Finally he turned to his subordinate:
`Go and fetch Mrs. Ranse.'

The constable went out. The man realised that this was the name of the woman he had attacked. He wasn't very surprised that she had reported him to the police. It would have surprised him much more if she hadn't done so.

He was standing in front of the sergeant's desk, staring blankly ahead as if all his other shortcomings were capped by the curse of idiocy. The sergeant was tired of seeing him standing in front of him, and, after many fruitless attempts, finally managed to make him understand that he was to sit down. The man smiled.

Everything would be all right. They wouldn't get a scrap of information out of him. He was deaf, dumb, illiterate and besides, he had nothing on him which would enable them to identify him. What could happen to him after all? Perhaps two or three days in the cell if there were any there. That was of no consequence at all. What mattered was to remain unrecognised, to preserve his anonymity.

There was a knock on the door.

`Come in!' shouted the sergeant.

The constable came in.

`Mrs. Ranse is outside.'
`Show her in.'

He sat down again behind his desk, while the constable went out to fetch Mrs. Ranse. She came sailing in, ready to make an almighty fuss. The sergeant, however, was anticipating this and, without letting her get a word in, asked:

`Is this the man?' pointing to him.
'Yes, that's the old rascal who ....'
`You swear you recognise him?' butted in the sergeant.
`Yes, of course I do! I ...'
`Thank you. That will be all for now.'

Naturally the woman was disappointed but she did not dare to protest and the constable showed her to the door, which he closed behind her.

Then the sergeant and his subordinate looked at each other, nonplussed. Each seemed to be asking the other: `Well, what next?'
'Did you search him thoroughly?' asked the sergeant after a few moments.
'Yes, sarge. He hasn't got a thing on him.'

The other, however, ordered him to repeat the operation. This time the man put up no resistance, but patiently endured the search. Naturally the result was no more successful than the first time.

`There's nothing on him,' said the constable.
'But there must be something,' insisted the sergeant.
'Perhaps if we took his fingerprints...?' suggested the subordinate.
'Just what I was thinking,' said his superior.

Once again, the operation was a complicated affair since the man, using as an excuse his failure to understand, to which he appeared to add plain ignorance, just would not acknowledge what was being asked of him. In the end, they had to put his fingers on the inky roller for him and then press them on the piece of thick paper which had been laid out to take them.

`I've never come up against a case like this before,' the sergeant admitted. `He's really difficult, isn't he?'

His subordinate smiled respectfully.

But the man was scarcely listening any more. He was worried. He hadn't foreseen this fingerprint business. Of course, he hadn't counted on being arrested either. Naturally, Police Headquarters wouldn't unearth anything when they received the fingerprints, because until then he had never been in trouble with the police, but nevertheless, the whole idea was most annoying. He naturally assumed that these prints would be filed away somewhere, so that if he ever fell foul of the law in the future, they would be able to trace him. He had no name but he had something from which he could not escape: unchangeable fingerprints, which he could not hide or disguise in any way. He was no longer anonymous. Besides, now that he came to think of it, what was to stop them from giving him a name, or at least a nickname? Indeed, when the sergeant wrote his report, he would have to find some name or other to give him....

He resumed his reflections once he was locked in his cell, since it turned out that there was indeed a small one there, and the sergeant ordered him to be put in it. It was a small room with whitewashed walls. In it there was a small barred window overlooking the fields, but it was too high for him to be able to make use of it and besides, he was hardly in a mood to admire the view!

Contrary to what he had first thought, it was now clear that his mistake was serious. So serious that it was undoing in a few minutes those twenty long years of work and careful sacrifices. It was true that he had lost his identity and he was reasonably sure that it would never be found out. But they would give him another one - any one. They had to, even if only provisionally. And that was the end of everything! What did it matter if you were called John or William? The important thing was that they were forcing a name on you.

He felt thwarted. Here he was only at the beginning of his adventure and he had failed already! For, even if they did not decide to give him a name, which was unlikely, they would still do something to him. Perhaps they would even shut him away in some institution... From their point of view it just wouldn't be sensible to set free a man whose identity they didn't know and one who had no means of identifying himself either. No, whatever they did with him, they would not leave him alone. They might even make him an object of nation-wide interest! He could not overlook the possibility that journalists might write about him and that his photo might be printed in the papers to see if someone who recognised him would come forward. All it needed was for the sergeant to be just a little ambitious ... And he was certain that he was, like all policemen who are tucked away in small places like this one.

He was quite sure that no one would recognise him since he hadn't taken the trouble to live in obscurity for twenty years for nothing, but if his fears were realised he would for ever after be someone about whom people would talk, and this in itself made him identifiable. How many times would he have to put up with hearing things like: `It's that man the papers made such a fuss about, you know, the illiterate deaf-mute,..' And, as if this wasn't enough, he would be obliged to remain deaf, dumb and illiterate for the rest of his life, since he would never again dare to speak or make himself understood by writing, for fear that the police might hear of it. And if they got him in their clutches again, they would shoot questions at him until his brain reeled and perhaps they would even beat him up to make him tell them the truth ...

Without knowing exactly what would happen to him, he knew very well that something would happen and whatever it was, it would be unpleasant. How stupid he had been! How could he have fostered such hopes? Why hadn't he realised that, sooner or later, he would slip up? When had a venture like his ever succeeded before?

And yet there had been men who had accomplished this same thing unintentionally and who had gone to their graves...

He suddenly held his breath, for it had just dawned on him that there was just one way left to turn his venture into a success and to rid himself of the threat which hung over him. It was a simple matter of acting before they did, forestalling them.

It was true that everything had come apart, but the triumph was still his since he knew what he had to do to achieve it, right there and then if he wished...

However, the action called for a certain amount of courage and it took him all night to summon it up. He didn't hang himself until the next morning.

[Editor: Please keep this one line gap]

Unfortunately, he hadn't allowed for the sergeant, who was a kind man and felt that there was nothing more pathetic than a gravestone with no name on it. For this reason, he had it engraved: John Smith.

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[NOTE to Editor: Please make absolutely sure that the 2 one line gaps are kept.]

 


The Catalán and Spanish background to this translation can be found here. ('Intrahistoria de una traducción inédita' (a short correspondence with Pedrolo) and 'Almost Nobody', an unpublished English translation of one of Pedrolo's short stories, 'Gairebé ningú'. The article and the translation were originally published in Antípodas, Number V: Special Issue: Catalan Literature (December 1993), págs. 61-79) References to my translation of Pedrolo's play, Situaciò bis:

a) Full Circle, Modern International Drama [Estados Unidos], 4, No 1 (Fall 1970), págs. 61-94.
b) Full Circle, Wellwarth,G.E. (ed.), Three Catalan Dramatists, Montreal, Engendra, 1976, págs. 95-139.

 


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