Michal Ajvaz : Empty Streets / Prázdné ulice - extract

(Translated by Andrew Oakland)

Chapter 23: Two Compositions

As I left the station the heat of the afternoon entered my lungs like a hot paste in which I distinguished the smells of asphalt, crumbling plaster and rotting fruit from the market nearby. Here the bus had its terminus; it stood on the other side of the street, on a break with its engine switched off. Then the bus drove up and I took a seat right at the back. As the walls beyond the windows changed I thought over my visit to the station concourse. I still had no idea whether my chat with the shop owner would be of any use to me in my search for Viola, but whatever it meant it had left me feeling pleased.

I'd met people like the owner of Tam-tam before. The life of one was very much like that of another. There wasn't any real need for them to tell me their stories; I could tell by the way they moved their hands as if directed by a light, invisible current that the rest of their body was too heavy for them. Thirty years ago, when the realities of life in this country were transformed into a kind of weird dream and hope retreated from the world, in silence they went away into the void, a void which took various forms. There was nowhere in the world now emerging they were able to live, so they found themselves a no-place and settled there, for years. When ten years ago the dream dissolved, they were used to this void in which they had lived for so long; they loved their no-place, its magic was well known to them, they were at home with the miracle of its fauna and flora. What the world was now offering them, so it seemed, was precious little. All those years partaking of the wonderful nectar of nothingness had made them hard to please; they had no appetite for food of another kind, nor could the splendours of any other building compare to those of the palace of emptiness. So they stayed there. This does not mean that they all lived on abandoned station concourses; often they walked among us. But wherever they were, still they were nowhere, carrying with them their emptiness as if it were a lightweight tent. Other people would feel rather sorry for them, were sometimes contemptuous of them: "He's not capable of coming back to the real world," they would say. Even so, perhaps those who said these things had some kind of awareness of how much our world needed the point of view of those who never came back. It was a point of view which protected the sick things in our world by spreading around them a healing emptiness, a balmy nothingness which took long years to mature and as such was a fruit of the past, bringing sense, conciliation, hope and joy.

At home I put the CD into the player and lay down on the couch. The first composition I would hear had a strange title: The Revelation and End of the Orange Book: a sonata whose pianist plays behind walls at three in the morning. Though the man at Tam-tam had prepared me for it, at first I was still more than confused by the music I heard. For a long time there was no sound at all, then after five minutes or so there was a sound which might have been that of a train in the distance. I had to reduce the sound of my breathing and strain my ears for the sounds which pierced the silence. There was another long silence before I made out the faint hum of a distant conversation. This was submerged by another wave of silence, after which I unpicked from the blocks of silence various rustlings, creakings, something somewhere knocking into something, something rolling around something and then stopping, something pointed which was scratching, something crumbling ... These might have been tiny sounds on the outer wall of a house, or a din softened by a great distance.

Try as I might to hold my breath, I was half an hour into the piece and still I hadn't been able to make out a single note from a piano. Perhaps the walls behind which the pianist was sitting were so many that I was not going to hear anything of his composition. Then again, why should I be disappointed by a sonata which is swallowed up by walls? I was beginning to understand the man at Tam-tam: these sounds which bordered on silence were changing my apprehension of sound and silence. It no longer seemed that there was any great difference between them. While silence was full of nascent sounds, sounds were drenched in the silence out of which they were born. And so it was enough for me to listen calmly to the silence of a night in the early 1980s, the subject of Cj's narrative, and to know that it contained a piano sonata.

But then the sonata really did make itself heard. The notes of a piano softened by distance and many walls insinuated themselves among the other sounds, by which they were received in friendship. The piano music did not rise above the other sounds. At that moment its notes were the children of silence just as were theirs. And likewise its main purpose was to protect and preserve the fabric of the silence, the breathing of which continued to give life to all sounds without making differences between them. The pianist was surely playing far away, behind many walls; several times the sonata was lost for a while in the silence or else it was stifled by rustlings of the town at night, sounds which were barely louder than the sound of the keys.

I tried to make out which moods and sensations this distant composition was conveying. The problem with this was that all these seemed to have their base in the mother, silence; their separation from her was incomplete and each took a share in ensuring her peace. Yet the small step they took from the mother was enough to reveal a dark desperation, which was then lost in the reconciling silence. At those moments when the piece was heard somewhat more clearly, it was possible to make out a recurring melody which was playing variations on a basic motif of four notes – D, A flat, B, C – as they rode the mournful arc from initial rise to the resignation of decline, and back again. A short time later the sonata was lost again in the silence. The silence lasted some ten minutes, after which came a scraping and scratching before the piece ended.

I might compare the piece to a blank, white screen, upon which all there is are a few greyish lines, which are at first sight practically indiscernible. It lasted almost an hour, and for most of that time all there was to hear was silence. My thoughts returned to the man at Tam-tam; I could understand why he liked music like this. His whole life he must have cultivated an appreciation of nothingness, learned to savour the nuances of emptiness. I thought, too, of Viola listening to the sounds of the night, and wondered if there was some kind of connection between the night-time silences Julie had spoken of and those of twenty years ago. Indeed, was not his composition witness to Cj’s having at that time sat at night in an unlit room, listening for something? Among the sounds of the night, had he been searching for the same voice as Viola? And, of course, still I did not know what the Orange Book of the piece’s title was. Perhaps it was precisely this which held the key to the Viola mystery and that of the double trident. From the composition all I had been able to make out was that the book was connected closely with an immense sadness.

What followed was the piece which had the double trident as its title. If you were not listening to it with any great concentration you might have noticed in it very little to set it apart from traditional forms of music. But it was not my impression that Cj was returning humbly to tradition after his experimental period: rather, that here silence was engaged in a campaign of aggression on tradition’s territory. It seemed that since the composer had spent some time in sound’s borderlands and had there learned the life of silence, he heard the rhythms of silence in every sound and every note; now he wished to deploy its power in the realm which in relation to the mutterings of silence was the most distant, and which put up the greatest resistance to them. This was the realm of notes, rhythms and keys, musical motifs and melodies which were pure.

The piece began with a babble of different motifs, dozens of them perhaps, invading each other’s territory and then blending one into another, as if caught up in a dreamlike whirl. The world this music was opening up was one of chaos, but also one replete with hope and expectation. At the same time it seemed to me that it was shot through with the melancholia of reminiscence: perhaps the composer was recalling a joyful beginning of long ago. Out of this whirl three different motifs came to the fore and then fought themselves free; each of these took on echoes of the others, more and more they came to resemble one another, without, however, surrendering their uniqueness. In the piece’s next part they became entwined to form a single melody, though not even then was the fusion complete as each motif retained a semblance of independence. I had an image of a rope woven from three sources. And who was to say that these sources were only three? Out of the three-in-one melody I was able to distinguish with ever greater certainty a fourth strand, one which was light in both colour and weight and which differed from the original three. It was as if the composer had wished to suppress it, as if he had not wished or was not supposed to refer to it but at the same time had been unable to prevent himself from thinking of it. I had the feeling that a darker and heavier strand would succeed the one which was denied, as if this was a thin, light, practically imperceptible thread from a coil of rope really immensely strong and able alone to bear the entire load.

While I was listening I fiddled with the case of the CD. At one point my eye was caught by the double trident symbol which gave the piece its title; it suddenly came to me that it could be some kind of diagram of musical composition, where the lower oval represented the undifferentiated whirl of the beginning, the three arms of the lower trident the three strands of melody which would work themselves free. That the arms drew closer to each other meant a growing similarity between the individual motifs, while the vertical line which the arms of the lower trident led into denoted the weaving of the motifs into a single melody. Then I had another idea: did not the content of this piece provide a history in music of the White Triangle? Was Cj’s music perhaps describing how Cj, U and Nm drew closer together, to the point where a fellowship was formed, which at that time may or may not have been the White Triangle. Let us see, I told myself, whether the shape of things will continue to correspond to the development of a piece of music.

But what was I to make of this fourth, more luminous strand? There was something in it which reminded me of the melody in the last piece played by the night-time, wall-muffled piano. And this it did indeed become: the notes D, A flat, B, C sounded again. After this the Orange Book motif melted back into the luminous strand out of which it had broken. What was the meaning of this? I had the feeling that the Orange Book had somehow closed, had retreated from the world. Might someone have stolen or destroyed it? If this composition really was referring to a time twenty years before, it was of course highly likely that the Orange Book – whatever it was – had existed in a single typescript, and that this had been lost. I remembered similar instances from my own experience.

Shortly after this the luminous strand, too, died away. The notes I was hearing now displayed the starkness of despair. With the expiry of the luminous strand some kind of break occurred in the composition: I was convinced that this moment signified the horizontal line in the diagram which was the intersection with the vertical, so dividing the symbol into two halves. As the piece went on a dissonance built among the three remaining strands, and three melodies again extricated themselves from the whole; the vertical line opened itself up into the three arms of the upper double trident – the ways of Cj, U and Nm had parted. The whole thing drew to a close in notes which expressed conciliation and sadness, as in the first piece. Each of the strands held echoes of the magically transformed notes of the luminous strand and the motif of the Orange Book.

I had the impression that Cj was letting me in on the secret I’d been struggling to untangle, that he was keeping nothing from me – but he was telling me all this in the language of music, which I was incapable of transferring into words and pictures. The least penetrable of the events the music described came in the middle of the piece and represented the cross line at the centre of the symbol. This was the blind spot the man at Tam-tam had spoken of; it referred to the time when the mysterious Orange Book had appeared or been discovered, soon after which – it seemed – somehow it had vanished. It was my bet that during this time the double trident symbol had first appeared, meaning that the double trident was a diagram which represented its own creation.

For a little while yet I mused on the events Cj’s music was telling of, until the effort of doing so gave me a headache. I couldn’t stop myself feeling agitated. Unable to stay in the flat, I determined to seek out the building with the double trident which the Tam-tam man had mentioned. I hurried out to make sure that I got to the station while it was still light.




Chapter 24: At the Porter’s Lodge

The man at Tam-tam had said that the building was not far from the railway line, and I would spot it midway between stations if I took the train which skirted around the city. It was my first intention to return to the railway station, but then I realized that there was another stop which was closer and that it would be easier to start my journey from there. When I arrived on the platform, the passengers were just boarding the train. No sooner had I found an empty compartment and sat down in it than the train pulled out.

The tracks curved gently around a belt of low-rise factory buildings scattered around the city’s edge. The area where the shadow met the reddish light (as reflected through the train’s dirty windows) gradually pulled the grey leatherette of the seats opposite into darkness. Through the window of the corridor I saw rolling hills covered in yellowed grass, with geometric concrete shapes dotted mysteriously here and there. This side of the tracks, I thought, was not worth bothering with: I would concentrate my efforts on the window of the compartment. It was far from easy to see much through it, with its layers of dirt picked out in the light of the evening sun to look like gold dust, causing shapes to dissolve. And the flame of the sun was now so low that it burned into the structures passing immediately alongside the train, then vanished behind dark blocks of concrete, reappeared in the gaps between buildings, flashed between the pillars of a construction site, rode the metal of electricity pylons, was lost for a time behind a high wooden fence, and when the fence flew away like a scrap of paper, caused me pain by plunging itself into my eyes.

In this interplay of harsh light and gloom it was difficult to make out shapes against shadows, sensation from perception. In the jumble of shapes flooding the window I extrapolated rather than recognized things - an abandoned warehouse where some concrete arches had been stacked up and tangles of grooved, white plastic piping were lying about; transformer stations with ceramic insulation, their wires like great corals; low- and high-rise plasterboard hostels with bars on their windows.

After a while the sun moved over to the other side of the train, but even so my view of what lay along the track was not made much easier. In the gloom I followed the restless interplay of the changing vistas and screens; past my eyes flitted houses and workshops, cranes, square towers made out of skips (where one side caught the rays of the sun and shone pink), lines of parked trucks. All these things and machines rested motionless on the asphalt, but still they moved about madly as if this inflexible world of ours was in the giant hands of some suburban demon who was playing a crazy game of dice with it.

I saw a great many letters and symbols. I caught brief, fragmented glimpses of the signs and logos of businesses; one unintelligible snippet of word followed another, as the aperture closed before I could make out the whole thing. As the shapes and signs came and went and the words expanded and contracted, I tried desperately to make out a double trident - but I was getting used to the idea that I would have to go over the route again in the brighter light of day. And I told myself that the man in the shop might have been mistaken; I myself had seen plenty of signs, letters and designs in metal which my impatient imagination had tried to turn into the shape I was looking for.

There was a moment when I thought I caught, darting across the edge of my vision, between two stacks of wooden pallets, a rounded sign which opened out at the top. But it disappeared before I could re-direct my gaze, popped up on the other side of the window for a fraction of a second, then was lost again. It might almost have been playing hide-and-seek with me. I'd given up hope of seeing it again that day when the roofs suddenly dropped towards the ground; above them, right in front of my eyes, with nothing to conceal it, a double trident glided into view like a condor. It was painted on the wall of a white building submerged in the thickening shadows.

Passing the familiar ticket desks, I saw that the lights were out in the CD shop. I bought a coffee from the machine and stood drinking it in the middle of the empty, ill-lit concourse. By the time I emerged from the station building it was almost completely dark. I set off for the place where I reckoned the double-trident building to be, along streetlit wire fences and walls bordered by dusty clumps of grass. In the sky the belt of red above the long, low buildings got thinner and thinner. I passed the porter's lodges of warehouses and garages, their lights burning; I caught the sound of a TV thriller, muffled gunshots, screams and cars speeding off and braking.

It didn't take me long to find the building with the double trident. Its front wall was painted black and lit by a flickering fluorescent tube. The building's ground plan was shaped like the Greek pi; it opened onto the street and embraced an asphalt yard. I stopped in front of a wide, closed, metal-bar gate and inspected the building's silhouette in a twilight whose fading reds were reflected in the asphalt yard as if this was an expanse of dark water. Just beyond the gate was a porter's lodge with glass walls, whose approach was several concrete steps. To my surprise, there was no television blaring inside, just the sharp light of a desk lamp. All the other windows of the building were in darkness. It was only then that it dawned on me how foolish I was being; in seeking out a hieroglyph on a wall at so late an hour, I might have expected to find nothing more than a porter, and he was hardly likely to know much about the symbol. I'll come back tomorrow morning, I told myself. I'll ask one of the firm's office staff for all the details he can give me.

The door of the porter's lodge opened and the porter appeared on the steps in an unbuttoned shirt and grey trousers which seemed to be part of a uniform. Perhaps he'd noticed there was someone hanging about in front of the gate. A large, shaggy German shepherd dog darted out of the open door and into the yard, then sat down on the asphalt and started growling at me.

"Looking for someone?" the porter called out to me.

I put my face between two of the gate's vertical bars. "I was just taking a breather. I'll be moving on, then" I said, my tone apologetic, even though standing on the street was hardly a criminal offence. But the porter certainly didn't seem unfriendly; I thought perhaps he was bored and was pleased to be able to speak to someone. So I asked him what was the business of the firm whose premises he watched over. He told me they made office equipment. No mystery in that; I should have been expecting something of the sort, but still I was disappointed by the banality. "I'm interested in the firm's emblem," I went on. "I need to know where it came from and if it means anything. I'll come back tomorrow in working hours. I don't suppose you could tell me who I could ask about it?"

The porter came down the steps into the yard. In the lamplight the perspiration on the top of his bald head gleamed and the thin skin of his eagle-like nose was taut. The play of the shadows across his face accentuated prominent cheekbones and an elongated face which could have belonged to a hermit or an ascetic monk. He came right up to the bars. "I couldn't, really," came his reply. "You won't find anything out about that emblem from the staff. None of them knows anything about the symbol's history."

"Well, I think I might try tomorrow anyway."

"As you wish, but it'll be just as I say," said the porter. Still he stood where he was. Now that the German shepherd had seen that the porter was having a friendly conversation with me, it had stopped its growling. It stuck its nose through the bars and had a good sniff at me. As I stroked the dog I prepared to take my leave of its master. Then the porter said, "There is one person who knows quite a lot about the firm's emblem."

"Could you tell me who? It's really quite important to me."

"I'm the only one here who knows anything about the firm's emblem," he told me calmly. "If you've got time, I could tell you the story. It's pretty long, but it's no company secret. There's nothing for me to do here anyway. My eyes are bad, so I can't read, and on the telly there's only some stupid film."

I told him I had time till morning. The porter rattled a padlock on a heavy chain for a few moments, then eased one wing of the gate open for me to slip through. The dog threw himself at me with joy and proceeded to lick my hand.

The porter's lodge was rather a small space, into which had been crammed an old desk and chair and a threadbare corduroy-covered armchair. On the floor next to the armchair was a folded blanket. The windows to the street and the yard were open a crack. The porter motioned me to take a seat in the armchair, himself taking the chair next to the desk. The dog lay down on the blanket, stuck its head under my chair's wobbly armrest and onto my lap, and closed its eyes. I sat and waited for what the porter had to tell me.

"Will it bother you if I start my story in the very distant past?" he asked. I had to laugh; I was taking it for granted now that everything to do with Viola's disappearance and the double trident had its roots in a time twenty or thirty years earlier.

"You can start with Franz Josef, if you like," I said. I was still a bit puzzled that he hadn't asked after the reason for my interest in the firm's emblem.

It was the porter's turn to smile. "If it's all the same to you I'll start somewhat earlier - that is, during the reign of the emperor Anastasius fifteen hundred years ago."

Now that did surprise me, but I told myself that the key to Viola's secret might indeed be hidden in the events of such a distant time.




Chapter 25: The Decline of the Athenian Academy

"Ever heard of a Neoplatonic philosopher called Dionysus of Gaza?" the porter asked.

"Can't say that I have."

"Dionysus of Gaza was born sometime between 503 and 506 - we don't know when exactly. His father was a Greek and his mother a Syrian. We know little about Dionysus' childhood, though it's highly likely that the odder, darker sides of his nature - out of which was to evolve the story of his life - had their origins in the anxieties and dreams of Dionysus the child. He might have been illegitimate; it seems his mother was of far lower social status than his father, who made no official claim to paternity. But this is really just speculation: we don't actually have any firm evidence of the early years of his life. Perhaps we are swayed by the ambiguous and twisted attitude to authority of the older Dionysus, his yearning to be accepted and revered while seeking to do down those who loved him. To hurt them, even. I think that everything written about Dionysus' early years was a result of the projection of features of the adult Dionysus onto an unknown child in Gaza. As far as we know, in none of his tracts or letters did Dionysus refer to his childhood. So we get this hazy figure of a forbidding father, at once loved and hated; many historians have treated him as real. And of course, beginnings such as these would not have passed the psychoanalysts by. As the case may be, the shadow of the father comes to the surface in the deepest analysis of Dionysus' works, even though this father has no more foundation in proven fact than the deity of Asian legend which followers of his later teachings claim to have been his father.

"It seems that Dionysus was extraordinarily bright from his earliest youth. He grew up in Gaza, where he learned the basics of rhetoric and philosophy. Even then his teachers were investing in him great hopes, and even then he was causing them upset by his indiscipline and spitefulness. At nineteen he left for Alexandria, where he attended lectures given by the pagan Platonists. There, too, he was spoken of as a future star of the school, while his teachers long tried to overlook the scorn and ironizing which accompanied his every appearance - hoping that one day he would grow out of them. Some time later, Dionysus got on the boat to Athens; he was unsettled his whole life, roaming from place to place, until at last he reached a place he would not wish to leave. But here I'm getting ahead of myself.

"At the Academy in Athens they already knew his name. Though Dionysus' early fame as a philosopher had crossed the sea, news of his obnoxious character had not; so he was welcomed at the Academy eagerly and with open arms. The teachings here professed and loved were nine hundred years old. Three hundred years earlier they had been rejuvenated by the beautiful writings of Plotinus, but since that time the signs of the old had returned. What Plotinus had built, once clear as crystal, was now shrouded in darkness, having fallen prey in the minds of his successors to overelaboration; the Athenian Platonists felt a sadness that their devoted efforts were failing to keep it from becoming a maze of barbarism. So it is understandable they should dream that the teachings of the young philosopher from Gaza would bring revival, a return to the purity and simple fervour of the beginnings.

"From the very first day Dionysus appeared at the Academy and took part in a disputation in the round pavilion - through whose columns were visible the high trees of the garden - the academicians had a high regard for his intellect. And on that first day, too, he caused them exasperation by his diatribes and the vicious comments he would direct at one or other of them. While at the Academy his intellect evolved still further and his behaviour became more and more difficult to tolerate. What upset the others most of all was how he would sit leaning against a column, listening in sneering silence to what they had to say. They complained about him to the scholarch Damascius, but Damascius stood up for Dionysus, claiming that youth and homesickness excused his behaviour, and that he would soon grow out of it; at the same time he asked the others to show him forbearance. But of course Damascius suffered more than any of them by Dionysus' impossible behaviour. He had a genuine affection for him and dreamt that, having succeeded him as head of the school, Dionysus would revive the Academy's glory. Poor Damascius had no idea that he himself would be the school's last scholarch, that philosophy would soon fall into a deep sleep from which it would not begin to wake for many years, and then in the palaces of Baghdad. Do you mind if I smoke?"

I shook my head and the porter lit a cigarette before continuing.

"But Dionysus' behaviour did not get any better. Quite the opposite, in fact, as his thoughts became darker. In addition to his insolent sneering and irony, he now provoked the others by the eccentricity of his views. It seemed almost as if he wished to cause Damascius pain; if so, his intentions were brilliantly successful ..."

I had the impression the porter felt real sadness for how Dionysus had behaved towards the scholarch of the Academy, as if the man so mistreated was one of his own friends. As I listened to his tale I watched the twisting of the white smoke, a moving picture against the giant screen of the night sky, spattered by the coloured lights of the railway track. I remembered the restless shape on the screen in the graphic artist's studio, the thing which had led me to Jonáš's villa. Would I have been so surprised if the cigarette smoke had taken the shape of the mysterious double trident? After all, I no longer found it so amazing that the symbol Viola had had tattooed on her body should have something in common with a long-dead Greek philosopher, who in turn was linked with a company which produced office equipment. But the tildes of smoke did not settle in any particular form.

"Dionysus' theories became touched by the ideas and beliefs of the Gnostics, which had originated in the cults of the Orient. The faltering Platonism of other schools of philosophy was not immune to this dark influence from Asia: the light of the teachings of Athens had grown dim. But the Platonists still believed the world to be a divine creation endowed with a dazzling beauty; they were terrified by the Gnostics' hatred of the world and would never be reconciled to the idea of an evil creator. Dionysus played with them a wicked game. He would articulate ideas which gave every appearance of having originated with the Gnostics, and when one of his audience could bear this no longer, leap to his feet and accuse Dionysus of betraying Plato's teachings, Dionysus, sarcastically, would set about demonstrating his critic's failure to understand the thesis, thus making a fool of him. The philosopher, his face burning with shame and rage, would then sit down again.

"Whether Dionysus really believed these ideas is unclear; it's quite probable he uttered them only to irritate his fellows and the scholarch. I believe that over time Dionysus himself lost sight of why he was doing this. Damascius came to the painful realization that he could justify no longer Dionysus' position at the Academy, and that it would be necessary to dismiss him. It was 529, and Dionysus was between twenty-three and twenty-six years old. But in the early morning of the day Damascius had chosen for the vote on whether Dionysus should be excluded, a messenger appeared on the path between the trees. The news he brought was that the emperor Justinian had ordered the prohibition of schools of philosophy. After nine hundred years, the Academy was to close.

"The news shook them all, and the pain it brought served to unite them. The neurotic Dionysus burst into tears and fell to the ground - this time, it seemed, he was not pretending. Damascius put his arms around him and soothed him as if he were a small child. And in this way Dionysus gave them all some comfort, and they forgave him everything. The fragment of a letter has survived, in which an unknown Platonist gives an emotional description of how the members of the Academy - led by Damascius and among them Dionysus - walked the Academy's gardens for the last time. No one spoke; in silence they listened to the murmur of the leaves in the evening breeze and watched the dusk fall on the white buildings between the trees. When Damascius, Simplicius and a number of other Platonists took a boat from Piraeus, bound for Persia and the court of Chosrau Anosharvan at Ctesiphon in the hope that there their philosophy would live on, Dionysus was with them."

While he was talking, the porter looked through the window into the darkness, where the stars were twinkling and the lights were burning above the railway track. He was silent for a while, then he turned to me and asked, "Don't you think it's odd that you should learn about things like this from a porter?"

"Not really," I said truthfully. The moment the porter appeared in the yard, I had seen he was one of those people I'd been thinking about that afternoon - like the owner of the CD shop. Many of the them were about the porter's age. "You're about fifty, right?"

The porter nodded. "Fifty-two."

"So I reckon you started studying philosophy, history or the classics at the end of the sixties, and you finished your studies in the mid seventies. Then you either couldn't or didn't want to work in the field of your qualifications, so you lived in caravans, warehouses and porter's lodges and studied the things that interested you - let's say Greek philosophy or Byzantine history. When the Changes came, you were over forty, and you saw those older than you return to the places where they'd been kicked out at the beginning of the seventies, while the younger ones still had the feeling they could make a start somewhere, if a little late. You were too young to have anywhere to go back to, but at the same time you felt yourself to be too old to start out somewhere - so you just stayed in the porter's lodge. Maybe at the beginning you told yourself that in time you would find yourself a decent job, but as the years went by you thought about it less and less. When you're on the night shift you read, study and think; I should think you've always got a book open during the day, too, hidden behind the visitors' book, about the fall of the Roman Empire or Neoplatonism. Am I right?"

While I was speaking, the porter nodded his head and wore an expression of amused approval. "Not much to add to that," he said. "There's only one thing you got wrong. Sadly my eyes have become so bad recently that I can hardly read at all any more. But let's get back to Dionysus. Now where were we?"

"On the boat, bound for Asia Minor."




Chapter 26: Dionysus in Persia

"Dionysus' peace with the school did not last long. In Ctesiphon he soon started again with his gibes and bizarre theories. And now everything was worse than it had been in Athens. I can well imagine how impossible it would be among the white columns of Athens to give oneself up completely to the theology of whimsy or demonology. Once in Asia, Dionysus' thinking began to absorb like a sponge all the cults peculiar to the continent, while his Gnosticism became yet more eccentric and hostile to the world. And behind the backs of the Greeks he was meeting with the Persian bigwigs; it was not long before Damascius learned to his amazement that the Persians and even Chosrau himself spoke of Dionysus as the most venerable of the Greeks.

"Perhaps Damascius told himself he would not be upset by such behaviour, and would not allow the meanness of his former protégé to distract him from his spiritual labours; nevertheless, his heart was racked with bitterness, and not for a moment did he forgive Dionysus these actions. For hour upon hour he would sit on the terrace of his house and watch in silence the slow course of the murky Tigris. Who's to say he did not see on its surface the white columns among the leaves of the Academy's gardens? What else was left to him but to watch images drifting over a river's surface? He knew he would never see Athens again, and his dream of re-establishing the Academy in Asia had proven to be nothing more than a childish fancy. The person he had once seen as a son was not only denigrating his work - which Damascius in the twilight of his life loved more than ever - but he was conspiring against his teacher at the court of a foreign lord. Dionysus gathered around himself a group of followers made up of Greeks, Persians and Syrians. It was always very important to him that he had the acclaim and love of others ... "

"Wait a moment, I don't get this. If what he desired was acclaim and love, why did he behave so terribly at the Academy?"

"Because it irritated him that he had to appear as one among equals and argue his ideas. Dionysus yearned to be heard as a great teacher and scholar, for others to acclaim his ideas purely because it was he who had uttered them. In Ctesiphon he had at last found the followers he had longed for, who received his words as if they contained revelations, never raising the slightest objection, in thought or in deed. And his mysterious, enraptured teaching performances - he would address his pupils in a low voice, with long pauses for dramatic effect - came to resemble philosophy less and less. The academicians felt uncomfortable in his presence. Whenever he appeared at their meetings, he spoiled everybody's mood; fortunately this had become a rare occurrence. And it seems he really was pretty unbearable - during philosophical debates he would usually say nothing, preferring to sit in the corner and pull all manner of faces. Once he went to a philosophers' banquet at which the academicians talked of the nature of the process by which the incipient, undifferentiated One flows out of itself. Dionysus remained silent and drank a lot of wine, but then he interrupted what Simplicius was saying. Once standing, he swayed slightly from side to side and started to babble some nonsense about the evil Demiurge and the blind archons ..."

"Am I right to understand from your story that Dionysus really did have an excellent mind and understood perfectly well the solemnity of ideas. People don't usually forget such things for the sake of befuddled fables. How do you explain such a loss of concentration?"

"Dionysus had not lost his concentration, of course he hadn't. I very much doubt that during his time at Ctesiphon he genuinely believed the teachings he propounded; he just found them an excellent means of attracting admirers and simultaneously provoking his teachers. Later, possibly, he really did believe what he was saying - and became, like the last of his followers, a late neophyte in his own teachings. As the case may be, Dionysus' inebriated performance at the symposium seems to have exhausted Damascius' patience. As Damascius stood, his hands were shaking visibly. In a tremulous voice he said he refused to listen to such obscenities. Then he ordered Dionysus to leave the hall and never again to attend a meeting of the Greeks. His face distorted in a sneer, Dionysus staggered out."

I asked myself how it was that the porter knew such details. Had they survived in letters the Athenian academicians had written in Persia? But those few days of searching for Viola, listening to strange stories of all kinds and getting hints of stories stranger still, were depriving me slowly of the ability to reason coldly. In the porter's long face with its deep-set dark eyes, which put me in mind of a figure from a Byzantine mosaic, I had the fantastic impression of a man looking back on a past life - in which Damascius, maybe Dionysus himself had played a part.

"This scene marked the end of Dionysus' dealings with the philosophers of Athens. He lived at the centre of his small group of students, and they continued to listen with zeal and terror to his lectures, in which the thought of Plato's Timaeus mixed with talk of a deranged Demiurge, the creator of the world. After three years, Justinian moderated his edict, with the result that the philosophers decided to move on to Haran in Mesopotamia. This was on the territory of the Byzantine Empire, though it was distant from Constantinople and even further from Athens. By messenger Damascius sent a note to Dionysus, asking if he wished to leave with them, but Dionysus did not deign to reply ..."

The porter fell silent. He looked through the window at the black sky, which bore a thin red, crack-like stripe. From the yard the smell of hot asphalt was still reaching them.

"And how did everything turn out?" I probed.

"Damascius and Simplicius lived out their days in Haran. Here, pagan Platonism was still breathing. In fact it lived on comatose until it came into contact with the Arabs, after which it shook itself awake and embarked on the long journey back to Europe - via the north coast of Africa and the Spain of the Moors. For a while Dionysus was Chosrau's favourite, but then there was some kind of scandal. They said he had violated the daughter of a king's counsellor. Dionysus and his faithful followers had to flee Ctesiphon by night. Their way took them further from Damascius and Simplicius; they headed east, and their tracks were soon lost. No one who had known Dionysus in Gaza, Athens and Ctesiphon ever heard of him again. We don't know his main reason for heading to the very edge of the known world. Did he go east because it was easier in the wilderness to escape Chosrau's soldiers, who had set off in pursuit of him? Had his old hatred of anything he could call home returned, and did he wish for this reason to get as far away from Athens as he could? Or did he catch the scent of a dark wind blowing from the heart of Asia? As the case may be, Dionysus was lost to his contemporaries for good."

"The Greeks must have been amazingly patient to stick it out with him for so long. Surely they had enough to worry about without having to listen to his insolent nonsense."

"Indeed. But there's something else. Perhaps they really needed Dionysus, without ever clearly understanding why ... A scholar in Cambridge - I can't remember his name, unfortunately - reckons Dionysus and the Academy were joined by a fine and intricate web of sympathies and hates. And that to view the relationship in terms of prodigal son and indulgent father would be a gross simplification ..."

"I really don't understand what it was that bound the philosophers to him."

"The parts Dionysus played at the Academy were manifold. Apart from his being a philosopher of great promise, an ungrateful son, a star pupil - albeit a dreadful one - and a traitor to the teachings, Dionysus had another important function; although the philosophers might never have admitted it, they were keeping him like an animal in a cage. It was a role they needed him to play, hence their willingness to pamper him to such masochistic ends. Dionysus' shameless, public utterings caused them great offence, but his words reached them as if from a completely different world; in them they heard words which found a resonance somewhere within, an echo in their own thoughts - though diluted, suppressed and disguised in all kinds of ways. The philosophers needed a visual representation of a sickness which terrified them to the core, and from which they were unable to recover. By putting evil in such a visible and concentrated form, they made it easier to confront; also, this manifestation served to convince them that they were still fighting it. They needed to hate Dionysus in order not to hate themselves ..."

"Curious, to keep an animal which plays host to our demon, just to give it a body we can beat ... Is that the end of Dionysus' story? Haven't you forgotten to mention the connection between these ancient tales and the company emblem?"

"No, we haven't reached the end yet. But now we have to jump forward thirteen hundred years. Let's take a break, and in the meantime I'll pop down to the cellar for some wine."

This was an excellent idea; after the day's events I was tired and parched, and I'd long been thinking I could do with a drink. The porter went out, to return a couple of minutes later with a bottle, which he put down on the desk. By its label I saw that it was a very expensive French wine. I was taken aback that the porter should offer such a rare wine to someone he barely knew, but when I brought this up he said that the pleasure was all his - and that he had reasons of his own for wanting to open the bottle. He filled our glasses and went on with his story.




Chapter 27: In the wilds of Afghanistan

"In 1807 in London, senior civil servant Samuel Archer became a father for the first time. His son was named Archibald. Archer went on to have three daughters and another son, called Edward - you should remember him, because he appears later in the story, but all we need to say about him for now is that he became a designer of steam engines. Archibald went up to Cambridge to study Classics and Archaeology; he translated Sophocles, tried to write some poems of his own, and gave lectures in Archaeology. And he engaged in wild drinking parties which ended more than once in his arrest for a breach of the peace, he was something of an eccentric in his dress, and he counted Wordsworth and Thomas de Quincey among his friends. But he slandered the family name most by his expeditions of adventure to various sites in central Asia, where he performed archaeological research. We might think of him as the Indiana Jones of his time.

"At the end of the 1830s, he found himself in the wilds of northern Afghanistan. He was travelling alone, by mule. Few of the natives saw the foreigner in the swarthy bearded rider who was dressed much as they were. Archibald spoke fluent Persian and Pashto, and he was able to communicate in several other, local languages. After two weeks on the road he reached a vast plain with a cold, wide river twisting through it; at its edge in the distant north there rose a bluish belt of tall mountains. This intangible expanse of mountain range fused with the white light of the sky, provided a focus for Archibald's monotonous path over the plain. But as he approached the base of the mountains and the blues became beiges and ochres, he observed that the villagers saw in the mountains a dark threat. The windows of their dwellings were turned away from its slopes; only rarely would they lift their faces in its direction. For the villagers the mountains were the home of demons, and they emitted a silent, indeterminate, but omnipresent sense of peril. The villagers still had something of the nomad in their blood, even though they had settled here centuries back; they would embark on great journeys on horseback, but none of these ever passed through the mountains a mere half-day's distance from their home. Men of great bravery who went around with daggers in their belts and regarded a skirmish with bandits as part of the life of the road - these men were afraid of the mountains, and nobody thought to mock them for it.

"When Archibald reached the base of the mountains, he happened upon the camp of a Royal Geographical Society expedition. Though its leader was no believer in demons, he tried to dissuade Archibald from entering the great unknown that the mountains represented. At dusk Archibald sat with his countrymen around the fire, paying scant attention to their tales of adventure and reminiscences of life in London; he was watching the darkening rocky inclines, a hugely oppressive presence which rose to astonishing heights out of the grassy plain. He asked himself who - if none of the natives - could have marked the faint path winding its way up the slope. As the last of the light faded, he wondered whether this might indeed be the path by which the demons entered the world of Man, to steal into his dwellings and invade his dreams with thoughts of evil. Then the mountains were swallowed up by the darkness, out of which came nothing but the occasional screech of a bird and the barely audible rattle of stones released by the foot of some animal. Archibald helped his countrymen drain a bottle of whisky and then made his bed on the ground between the tents. The next morning he awoke to a heavy mist, said his goodbyes to the leader, and headed off to where the mist concealed the nearest slope. He later described his wanderings in the mountains in a letter to one of his sisters ..."

The porter checked himself. "I shouldn't have said that. Now I've given it away that all ended well, thus robbing my story of suspense. Oh well, it's too late to do anything about that now ..."

To compensate for his clumsiness, he poured me out more wine. "Though he could see no more than a few steps ahead, Archibald, leading the mule behind, made quick progress up the narrow path of the demons. The mist receded and he saw a twinkling river meander through it. But then, at a sharp bend in the path, the mule plunged into the abyss, and with it his entire supply of food and water; it almost pulled him in, too. But Archibald refused to turn back. And at last he came to the summit, where an arid plateau opened itself up to his gaze. The path having vanished, he stumbled over rocks which were burning hot in the midday sun. From time to time he would pass the withered, oddly contorted trunk of a tree. He looked up to see an eagle wheeling slowly, high in the clear blue sky. Sometimes his ears caught the rustling of a small creature among the rocks; otherwise everything was still.

"Without food and water, in the relentless heat of the sun, Archibald spent two days on the plateau. For two nights he shook with cold, listening in the dark to the screeches of beasts. At midday on the third day, he came upon a ravine which to led to a narrow valley enclosed in steep mountain slopes. His descent dipped gently to the bottom of the ravine. The slopes above him were covered with small bushes, on which black goats with a long, thick hair were feeding.

"Then a village appeared to him almost as he was entering it. It was like the moment the outline of a thing becomes suddenly visible from among the tangle of lines of a picture puzzle: in this case primitive dwellings standing on the expansive bottom of the valley. The village had been practically invisible because it was built from the same stones as lay everywhere about; at first sight the small houses looked more like simple piles of stones than human homes. Out of the low, shadowy openings which served these dwellings as doors, figures emerged on all fours - dour-looking men with shrivelled, bearded faces and strips of black fabric bound around their heads. Women, at once curious and fearful, peered out from the dark insides of the hovels, withdrawing quickly when their eyes met Archibald's. The men surrounded him, their gestures indicating their excitement; then, in unison, they shouted something at him. Archibald understood very little of their prattle. He had a good knowledge of the dialects spoken in the foothills, but the language these people spoke was only distantly related to them: it seemed that it had evolved over centuries in this mountain valley in complete isolation. From among the restless, stamping feet of the men, a little girl of about eight wriggled her way through to him; she handed him a drinking skin filled with water. Then she gave him a timid smile, said 'Idur', and quickly hid herself behind the other villagers. Archibald drank deeply, after which the men led him off to one of the shacks and set before him a bowl of gruel. He gulped this down and immediately fell asleep.

"When Archibald awoke the next day, the sun was already high in the sky. He left the house and for the first time took a proper look at the village. Crumbling buildings climbed up to where the rocky slopes began. In the narrow strips of shade mangy dogs slept, while above the village, goats chewed on the dry thistles which grew among the rocks. High above the village's last house Archibald noticed a building which stood alone, a building which was different from the others. Like them, its door was a simple black hole and it had no windows; but in front of the entrance was a stack of stones which looked a little like steps. To either side of the entrance stood two crooked columns of flat stones, laid one on top of the other like pancakes. Across the columns lay a kind of beam, and on this someone had placed a stone in such a way as to create a triangular gable. Next to the temple stood something which Archibald at first took for a tree; on closer inspection he saw that it was a structure about three metres in height, made of metal. Fastened to the large flat stone was something in the shape of an ellipse, out of which rose three arms which eventually joined. In the centre of these three arms something round was fastened, something disc-shaped ..."

I was fidgeting with impatience now, as it was clear to me what was coming next. The dog opened one eye, took me in, and then closed the eye again. I had the impression the porter had been playing hide-and-seek with me right from the beginning of his story. Each time the story moved on I asked myself if in one of the streets of this new place, in one of its squares or yards, the double trident would make its appearance. The porter had conjured up Gaza, Alexandria, Athens, Ctesiphon and London before shifting his story elsewhere - and of the mysterious shape all the time there was no sign. But now at last it did appear, at world's end. I needed an explanation for the disc, which had not been present in any other version of the double trident.

"Above the point where the arms joined, there was a cross." The porter was continuing his tale as I had hoped. "And from the top of this three more arms opened out, longer than those below. And in the centre of the upper arms there was a dark disc. Within moments of coming upon the temple, Archibald found himself again surrounded by villagers. When they saw where he was looking, they began to point in that direction and shout. In the hubbub he could not make out what they were saying, though he fancied he heard the words 'nauz' and 'piruma'. 'Nauz' reminded him of the Greek 'naos' - meaning 'temple'. And looking at the crumbling building above the village, he could indeed imagine this to be the product of Stone-Age man's dream of a Greek temple.

"The villagers had been forming themselves into a human wall, from which a man with leather straps on his forehead now separated himself. He stood himself in front of Archibald and started to explain something to him in an excited voice. As the others fell silent immediately, Archibald took this man for the village elder. Now that he was confronted with a single voice, Archibald began to piece together some of the words. He realized, for example, that where the people of the foothills said 'o', natives of this place said 'u'; their 'e' was closer to 'i', and their words contained complex, strikingly archaic consonant clusters, which the language of the foothills had merged to form a single sound. But some of their utterances plainly had little in common with the languages of their neighbours. The words he was unable to classify made Archibald feel slightly queasy, and for a while he could not understand why this was. Then a fantastical thought flashed through his mind; though he dismissed this, it forced its way back in, until at last Archibald had - in astonishment - to admit that his bizarre idea had revealed a truth. In this confused tongue, which sounded as though it bore the impression of rocks rumbling down the crags, the bleating of goats and the screeching of birds wheeling above the valley in search of their prey; in this tongue which gave constant expression to anxiety and rage, words kept surfacing which were corruptions of Greek. The preposterous temple above the village its inhabitants called 'nauz'; 'idur' - meaning 'water' - plainly had its origins in the Greek 'hydór'.

"Now he was getting to grips with the language of the natives, he began to pay attention to what the elder was telling him. The man repeated again and again that someone called Dum Isi was expecting a foreigner in the 'nauz'. Archibald broke into the elder's insistent tones; he made an attempt to speak in the native tongue. 'Very well,' he said. 'Let us go for a visit.' On hearing this, the villagers started up their shouting and embraced one another in joy."