Authors: Antonio Tabucchi
Copyright © Antonio Tabucchi 2014
English translation copyright © Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani, 2014
First Archipelago Books Edition, 2014
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form without prior written permission of the publisher.
First published as
Il Tempo Invecchia in Fretta
by Feltrinelli, 2009.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Tabucchi, Antonio, 1943–2012.
[Tempo invecchia in fretta. English]
Time ages in a hurry / by Antonio Tabucchi ; translated from the Italian by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani. –
First Archipelago Books edition.
I. Cooley, Martha, translator. II. Romani, Antonio, translator. III. Title.
232 Third Street, Suite
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Distributed by Random House
Cover art: Toshio Enomoto
This publication was made possible by the generous support of Lannan Foundation, The National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.
After the shadow, time ages in a hurry.
“I asked him about the old days, when we were still so young, naive, hotheaded, silly, green. A little bit’s still there, except the young part, he answered.”
The old professor had stopped talking, his expression almost contrite, he’d swiped away a tear that had welled up on his eyelashes, tapped himself on the forehead as if to say how stupid of me, would you pardon me, tugged at his incredibly orange bow tie, and said in his French marked by a strong German accent: please pardon me, please pardon me, I’d forgotten, the title of the poem is “The Old Professor,” by the great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, and at that moment he pointed to himself as if suggesting that he coincided somehow with the character in that poem, then he drank another Calvados, which was more responsible for his emotion than the poem was, and let out a half sigh, everybody rising up to console him: Wolfgang, don’t do this, keep reading, the old professor blew his nose with a large, checked handkerchief: “I asked him about that picture,” he continued in a stentorian
voice, “the one framed on his desk. They’ve been and gone. Brother, cousin, sister-in-law, wife, daughter on the wife’s knees, cat in the daughter’s arms, cherry tree in blossom, above the tree, a bird, unidentified, in flight, he answered.”
She hadn’t heard the rest, or perhaps she hadn’t wanted to hear it, that sweet old professor from the canton of St. Gallen, the St. Gallen cousins are a bit rough, something she heard her great-aunt say one night in the kitchen, strange creatures, they’re good people, but they live in that isolated place surrounded by mountains and lakes, whereas she herself found the old professor of St. Gallen delightful, she’d even photocopied the poem he’d wanted to read for the toast, so courteous, and made the copies available for guests on the dining-room table, among the desserts and cheeses, because according to him that was the best tribute to the memory of the grandfather, “my late and unforgettable brother Josef in whose place the Lord should have called me.” But here he was, alive and kicking, the spider veins on his nose all the more pronounced from the alcohol, meanwhile the grandmother was listening blissfully (or perhaps she was asleep) to her brother-in-law’s poetic eulogy for her dead husband, because the anniversary of his death, ten years past now, was the reason for this solemn family reunion, one must celebrate the dead, yet despite everything life goes on, and the life that goes on deserves to be celebrated as much as or even more than the dead are, and to hell with all those who are envious, because family is family, especially an important family like ours that at the start of the nineteenth century already had mail stops from Geneva
to the canton of St. Gallen, and from Lake Constance to Germany, and from Germany to Poland, there are still prints and photographs, all in the family album, from all those old mail stops the web of trade was born that makes the Ziegler family famous today in Switzerland and through all of Europe, the founders died long ago, the eldest heirs will be dead soon, but the family goes on, because life goes on, and that’s why we’re here, the great-uncle from St. Gallen triumphantly concluded, to celebrate the life that goes on, with our children and our grandchildren.
And there they were, the heirs of so much tradition. The theatrical gesture of the great-uncle from St. Gallen who declaimed the poem in an emotional voice seemed directed right at them: at the little blond, curly-haired boy who already wore a tie and at the little girl with the face full of freckles, both unaware that that gesturing hand was aimed right at them, and unaware of the memory of the unknown grandfather Josef, intent as they were on arguing over a piece of chocolate cake, and the little boy, who’d won out over his sister, already carried the victory smudge under his nose, like a mustache in a Guignol theater, and the latest daughter-in-law, the white Greta, so thoughtful, with a lace napkin, also from St. Gallen like their great-uncle, wiped the chocolate from the boy’s face and smiled. A nice smile on a healthy face of milk and blood, as she’d heard it said once in that country, though maybe not in Geneva, maybe in Lugano: milk and blood. What a strange mixture, the first time she’d heard that expression it had a strange effect on her, almost nauseating, perhaps because she’d imagined a jug of milk into
which drops of blood were falling. And her thought had turned all on its own to a childhood that wasn’t hers, to a village lost in time, at the foot of the mountains in a country that here, in this city where they were now celebrating a grandfather Josef who wasn’t hers and whom she’d never known, they called Maghreb, as if it belonged to an abstract geography. When she was young she didn’t know that the place where her ancestors lived was called Maghreb, even they didn’t know its name, they simply lived there, not even the grandmother knew, the grandmother, whose image surfaced from memory as though from a buried well, how strange, because this wasn’t a memory of a person, it was the memory of a grandmother she’d been told about, whom she’d never known, how could she recall so well a face she’d never seen? And then her mother came to mind, she was strong, her mother, but also so fragile, and so beautiful, with that proud profile and those big eyes, and she remembered her talking, and the ancient accent, so ancient, because it came from the heart of the desert where neither the Arab raiders who dealt in people’s bodies nor the Catholic priests who dealt in souls had ever dared penetrate, better to leave the Berbers in peace, they aren’t marketable. And at the same time she also wondered where that profound sense of herself came from, which for a moment she could feel surfacing in response to the perfect and resolute gesture Greta made as she wiped the chocolate blotch off her son’s cheek. From nowhere, that sense came from nowhere, like her memory that wasn’t a true memory but the memory of a story, and it wasn’t yet a sense, it was an emotion, and in the end not even an emotion, just images her fantasy
had created when she was a little girl listening to others’ memories, but she’d forgotten that remote and imaginary place, and this astonished her. Why were those places of sand her mother had talked about when she was a little girl left buried in the sand of her memory? The Grands Boulevards, this was the geography belonging to her memory, the great avenues of Paris, where her father had an elegant law office with floral wallpaper and leather armchairs, her father, a well-known lawyer in a large Parisian office. On the next floor was the apartment where she’d grown up, an apartment with very high windows and plaster moldings, a building Haussmann wanted, at home they’d always said so: it’s a Haussmann building, and Haussmann was Haussmann, and that was that, yet what did Haussmann have to do with what she was?
She wondered this while Greta was wiping the chocolate blotch off her son’s face, and what she was asking herself she’d have liked to ask everybody at that family gathering, this family so hospitable and generous, which celebrated an enterprising grandfather who’d known how to transform old mail stops into a profitable venture that now belonged to her as well, because it belonged to Michel. But why bring up Monsieur Haussmann now? They’d look at her as though she were crazy. My dear, Greta might say (maybe it would indeed be Greta), what does Haussmann have to do with anything, he’s the greatest French urban planner of the nineteenth century, he redid Paris, you grew up in one of the buildings he wanted, what ever made you think of Haussmann? Greta had a complex about living in Geneva, which she considered provincial compared to Paris, and perhaps she would have felt provoked. This
really wasn’t something to bring up in the dining room during a family gathering, in this solid house with its large windows facing the lake, in front of that table laden with every blessing, she could have talked about the desert, but they’d have asked her what the desert had to do with anything, she could’ve answered that it mattered as contrast, it’s just that here you have a wonderful lake before you overflowing with water and there’s even a fountain in the middle spouting water a hundred meters high, whereas my grandmother was surrounded by sand and when she was a child, each morning she had to go for a jug of water at the well at Al Karib, even now the name comes to mind, and she had to walk three kilometers in the dark and three kilometers back under the burning sun, with the jug on her head, and you can’t know what water really is because you have too much of it.