An excerpt from
Youth Without Youth
Only when he heard the bell of the Metropolian Church did he remember that it was the night of Easter. And suddenly the rain seemed unnatural—the rain which had greeted him as he had emerged from the railway station and which threatened to become torrential. He made his way forward hastily with the umbrella brought down to his shoulders, his eyes downcast, trying to avoid the rivulets. Without realizing it, he began to run, holding the umbrella close to his chest, like a shield. But after some twenty meters he saw the traffic signal turn red, and he had to stop. He waited nervously, standing on tiptoe, hopping from one foot to the other continually, looking in consternation at the little pond that covered a good part of the boulevard directly in front of him. The traffic light changed, and in the next moment he was shaken, blinded by an explosion of white incandescent light. He felt as though he had been sucked up by a fiery cyclone that had exploded at some mysterious moment on top of his head. A close strike of lightning, he said to himself, blinking with difficulty to unseal his eyelids. He did not understand why he was clutching the handle of his umbrella so hard. The rain lashed at him wildly from all sides at once, and yet he felt nothing. Then he heard the bell at the Metropolian again, and all the other bells, and very close by still another, striking in a solitary, desperate way. I’ve had a fright, he said to himself, and he began to shiver. It’s because of the water, he realized a few moments later, becoming aware of the fact that he was lying in the puddle near the curb. I’ve taken a chill. . . .
“I saw the lightning strike him,” he heard the breathless voice of a frightened man saying. “I don’t know if he’s still alive or not. I was looking over there, where he was standing under the traffic signal, and I saw him light up from head to toe—umbrella, hat, coat, all at once! If it hadn’t been for the rain, he would have been burnt to a crisp. I don’t know if he’s still alive or not.”
“And even if he’s still alive, what can we do with him?” The voice seemed to come from far away and it sounded to him tired, bitter.
“Who knows what sins he’s committed, that God would strike him on the very night of Easter, right behind a church!” Then, after a pause, he added, “Let’s see what the intern says about it.”
It seemed strange to him that he felt nothing, that he did not, in fact, feel his body at all. He knew from the conversation of those around him that he had been moved. But how had he been transported? In their arms? On a stretcher? On a cart of some sort? . . .
“I don’t believe he has a chance,” he heard another voice saying later, also far away. “Not a single centimeter of his skin is untouched. I don’t understand how he stays alive. Normally, he would have been . . .”
Of course, everybody knows that. If you have lost more than fifty percent of your skin, you die of asphyxia. But he realized quickly that it was ridiculous and humiliating to reply mentally to the people bustling around him. He would have liked not to have had to hear them, just as, with his eyes shut tight, he did not see them. And at the same moment he found himself far away, happy, as he had been then.
☇ ☇ ☇ “And then, what else happened,” she asked him in jest, smiling. “What other tragedy?”
“I didn’t say it was a tragedy, but in a sense it was that: to conceive a passion for science, to have but one desire—to dedicate your life to science.”
“To which science are you referring?” she interrupted him. “To mathematics or to the Chinese language?”
“To both—and to all the others I’ve discovered and fallen in love with, insofar as I’ve learned about them.”
She put her hand on his arm to keep him from getting angry at being interrupted again. “Mathematics I understand, because if you didn’t have a vocation for it, it would be useless to persevere. But Chinese?”
He didn’t know why he burst into laughter. Probably he was amused by the way she had said, “But Chinese?”
“I thought I’d told you. Two years ago in the fall when I was in Paris I went to a lecture by Chavannes. I saw him after class in his office; he asked me how long I’d been studying Chinese and how many other Oriental languages I knew. No need to repeat the whole conversation. I understood just one thing: that if I didn’t master in a few years—in a few years—Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Japanese, I would never become a great orientalist.”
“All right, but you must have told him that you wanted to study only the Chinese language.”
“That’s what I said, but I didn’t persuade him. Because even in that case I’d still have to learn Japanese and a lot of South Asian languages and dialects. . . . But this wasn’t the important thing; it was something else. When I told him I’d been studying Chinese for five months, he stepped to a blackboard and wrote some twenty characters. He asked me to pronounce them one by one, and then to translate the passage. I pronounced them as best I could, and I translated some, but not all, of them. He smiled amiably. ‘That’s not bad,’ he said, ‘But if after five months . . . How many hours a day?’ ‘At least six hours,’ I replied. ‘Then the Chinese language is not for you. Probably you don’t have the necessary visual memory. . . . My dear sir,’ he added with a smile that was ambiguous, affectionate, and ironic at the same time, ‘My dear sir, in order to master Chinese you must have the memory of a Mandarin, a photographic memory. If you don’t have it, you will be obliged to make an effort three or four times as great. I don’t believe it’s worth it.’ ‘So, basically it’s a matter of memory.’ ‘Of a photographic memory,’ he repeated gravely, emphasizing the words.” ☇ ☇ ☇
He heard the door opening and closing several times and other noises, including strange voices.
“Let’s see what the Professor says. If you ask me, I’d say that frankly . . .”
The same thing, over and over again! But he liked the voice; it was, no doubt, that of a young doctor, clever and enthusiastic about his profession, generous.
“. . . His skin was burned one hundred percent, and yet he’s survived twelve hours, and so far as we can tell, he’s not in pain. . . . Have you given him any shots?”
“One, this morning. I thought he groaned. But maybe he was just moaning in his sleep.”
“Do you know anything about him? Was anything found beside him?” “Just the handle of the umbrella. The rest was incinerated. Curious—the handle, of all things, a wooden handle. . . . The clothes were turned to ashes. What the rain didn’t wash away was saved in the ambulance.”
He knew it would have had to be that way, and yet hearing the intern say it lifted his spirits. So, the two envelopes in his pocket had been incinerated, too. . . .