Posts Tagged ‘Teju Cole’

Flicker and Flux: Versions of Heraclitus

February 8, 2011 3 comments

by Magda Kapa and Teju Cole

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus sounds strikingly modern. He wrote in fragments, of which only fragments survive, and this is part of the secret of his seemingly miraculous talent for compression. Not a word is wasted. Each aphorism strikes the ear like a mathematical formula: direct but gnomic, amoral and shorn of sentiment. One of the fragments might be read as an apologia for this mode of working: ὁ ἄναξ, οὗ τὸ μαντεῖόν ἐστι τὸ ἐν Δελφοῖς, οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει ἀλλὰ σημαίνει. (“The lord whose oracle is at Delphi is neither clear nor cryptic. He signals.”)

We were interested in doing “versions” or “readings” of Heraclitus rather than “translations” because we wished to test the fragments against modern expression. We tried to find a voicing balanced somewhere between poetry, vernacular speech, and laconic statement, always with an eye to brevity. We began with the ancient Greek text, and were guided by German, English, and modern Greek translations. What we aimed for was not a word-for-word rendering of each fragment, but a statement that retained the pith of the original while plundering it for new signals. Our version of fragment 49a, probably the best known of the Heraclitean fragments, illustrates our approach.

(The Greek fragments are taken from, and numbered as in Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker [9 ed. Berlin 1960], edited and translated by Hermann Diels and Walter Kranz.)



ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων. (119)
Human being, human daimon.


ξυνόν ἐστι πᾶσι τὸ φρονέειν. (113)
Mind is all, and in all.


ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν. (101)
I have searched myself.


ὅσων ὄψις ἀκοὴ μάθησις, ταῦτα ἐγὼ προτιμέω. (55)
The things I can see or hear or study are the things I prefer.


ὀφθαλμοὶ γὰρ τῶν ὤτων ἀκριβέστεροι μάρτυρες. (101a)
Eyes see better than ears.


χρυσὸν γὰρ οἱ διζήμενοι γῆν πολλὴν ὀρύσσουσι καὶ εὑρίσκουσιν ὀλίγον. (22)
Goldminers mine earth mostly.


. . . μεταβάλλον ἀναπαύεται. (84a)
Things are at ease in flicker and flux.


τοὺς καθεύδοντας ἐργάτας εἶναι καὶ συνεργοὺς τῶν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ γινομένων. (75)
Even sleepers are at work on the work of the cosmos.


ποταμοῖς τοῖς αὐτοῖς ἐμβαίνομέν τε καὶ οὐκ ἐμβαίνομεν, εἶμέν τε καὶ οὐκ εἶμεν. (49a)
We cannot enter a river at all. We are and are not.

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Magda Kapa was born in Greece and now lives in translation in Northern Germany. She has worked as a freelance screenwriter and teaches Modern Greek and English. She writes poetry and short stories.

Teju Cole (website) is a Nigerian-American novelist, photographer, and historian of art. He is the author of Open City, just out today from Random House.

Categories: Translation Tags: ,

Loquebantur variis linguis

January 11, 2011 8 comments

by Teju Cole

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) wrote his setting of “Loquebantur variis linguis” according to the account of the Day of Pentecost given in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. When the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles, they began to “speak with other tongues, as the spirit gave them utterance.”

I have drawn five self-portraits on the theme, imagining a choir composed of myself in multiplicate. But I wish to evoke, too, my experience of Pentecostal Christianity, which included speaking in tongues. The preaching I received, and which I passed on to others, was that the purpose of these untranslated and mystical utterances was to sidestep the Devil and to reach God directly.

These drawings were made on the iPhone using the Sketchbook app. I value this technique especially for its immediacy: the artist’s finger serves as the pencil.


Loquebantur 1


Loquebantur 2


Loquebantur 3


Loquebantur 4


Loquebantur 5


Teju Cole (website) is a Nigerian-American novelist, photographer, and historian of art. He is the author of Open City, which will be published by Random House in February 2011.

Categories: Translation Tags:

Modern Girls

January 21, 2008 7 comments

In those days, the trucks came by a dirt road that branched off the expressway. The road was fringed by forest. By the time the trucks arrived at the school, they were covered in dust. On the first day of each new term, we saw men unloading baskets of tomatoes, bunches of unripe plantain, rice in sacks, and bitterleaf. The men, too, were covered in dust. We stood in our freshly-starched uniforms — blue and white check blouses, dark blue pinafores — and gossiped about what we’d done and who we’d seen on vacation, watching them work. The loads of food passed from hand to hand, as did boxes of school supplies: exercise books, ink, blotting paper. The men were dark and thin, and they had bodies made muscular by long manual labor. When they finished working, they clambered into the backs of the trucks, and left us in our clearing in the forest.

The Royal College for Girls was in Omu, and Omu was the real middle of nowhere. Compared to it, other small towns in the Western Region, towns like Ikorodu and Odogbolu, were interesting destinations. Omu — before the school’s establishment there lent it some prestige — consisted of a few small farms, a cluster of mud houses with tin roofs, a creek, a chieftain. The people of Omu were mostly Muslims, which meant they were not a part of the cultural elite. We, the students at Royal College, were by and large Christians. A majority of us were Anglicans, but there was a smattering of Methodists as well. Only two girls in our class were Muslims. One of them, Saudatu, was the daughter of an important politician from Ikenne, a one-time advisor to Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Like the rest of our fathers, he had done something in life. And she had been admitted to the school, like the rest of us, on merit. She was also one of the best students, and a genuinely nice girl, so the fact that she was Muslim didn’t really matter. And anyway, she knew all the words to the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. Mrs Allardyce sometimes called on her to lead the school in prayers at Assembly, which was a remarkable enough privilege for a girl in the tenth standard. If Saudatu was truly Muslim, she didn’t show it much, and acted just as normally as the rest of us.

The other girl, Nuratu, was a different matter. For one thing, she was a reservation student. The towns around Royal College were given a certain small number of slots in each year’s admission. The students had to be good — at least by the standards of their villages and hamlets — but it was often clear that they weren’t the usual Royal College material. Their clothes were scruffier, they sometimes didn’t wear socks, and often, to our astonishment, would do things like climb trees or run around with no shoes on. Nuratu came from Odejebu, which was about ten kilometers away from the school, and even smaller than Omu itself. She wore her hair in spiky tendrils plaited with rubber thread, unlike the cornrows and afros sported by the rest of us. It wasn’t exactly clear to us what it was her father did. It didn’t matter. He was probably a farmer or, at best, a school-teacher. We did notice that, as one term followed another, Nuratu became a little better at blending in. By the time we were in tenth standard, she was one of the few girls brazen enough to relax her hair, and risk the wrath of Mrs Allardyce. That won her some admiration from us. Still, her English wasn’t very good — she pronounced “ch” as “sh” — and her laughter sometimes sounded like the squealing of a goat. And then, there was the problem of her breasts. While we mastered lines from Dryden, and sharpened our minds in various ways, her entire being seemed to be physical. She was, to use the word we were most fond of, local. We watched her with some wonder, this curious creature who tore into boiled yams with all the elegance of a market woman, this hayseed who only used her fork and knife when a prefect was patrolling the hall, who, when she laughed, heaved her chest up and down. Around her hovered a constant skein of our knowing glances.

Ours was to be a part of that first generation of Nigerian girls who really played a role in the intellectual life of the nation. We were often told of how fortunate we were, and we took it seriously. Our fathers had been the first in their families to go to school. We came from homes that had cars, drivers and domestic servants. The words Oxon and Cantab were familiar sights on the diplomas hanging from the walls of our houses, and we were used to suits, jurists’ wigs, telephones, private libraries, and receptions at embassies. Letters came to some of us from brothers studying overseas. Those blue envelopes, bearing news from another part of the planet, festooned with stamps and intriguing postmarks, were a reminder that Omu was a mere detour in our journeys. Many of us were set — in two or three years — on attending University College Ibadan, or else the British equals of that institution. A few of us had already declared ourselves Awoists, and expressed disdain for the bush politics of the NNDP. We bemoaned the lack of newspapers at the school. These activists amongst us were typically the girls who were interested in law. Others, more talented in fikemba — physics, chemistry and biology — were on the road to medicine. The school fostered a feeling of tranquility in us. We were preparing for the world, but the world largely remained at a distance. We went to gym, to Home Economics, or to Father Duncan’s Latin class, and the war was something that barely rose above the level of hearsay.

In October of that year, when a busload of seventeen-year old boys arrived for a day visit, we hoped they recognized what good luck had brought them to our little dominion. They were from King’s College in Lagos, wore dark blue jackets and carried themselves like lords. The ball, that evening, was our opportunity to show ourselves their equals. We did Mrs Allardyce proud — we were prim but not unfriendly, and just about impossible to impress. We showed them that they had come to Omu but might just as easily have been in London. We dazzled them, and each other, with our perfumed dresses and powdered faces, and our easy mastery of the waltz, the foxtrot and the cha-cha. Those little lords must have been sighing all the way back to Lagos the next day. We sighed too — for a whole week — and fanned ourselves with exercise books. Our minds strayed far from work, and would have continued to do so endlessly had Mrs Allardyce not come one day to interrupt our Geography class.

“Is Atinuke Oyewole here?” Mrs Allardyce hadn’t been back to Scotland for thirty years, but she was no better at pronouncing Yoruba names as when she’d first arrived in Africa. Tinu raised her hand. She was one of the richest girls in school: her father was a magistrate who had been posted to the North. She often told us that he would be a Senior Advocate of Nigeria one day, and when she said it, it wasn’t anything like a boast. It was a simple fact. Mrs Allardyce spoke from the front of the class. “I’m so sorry, Atinuke, but a telegram has just come in. Your brother Alade was killed in action near Benin City. So sorry about it.” Tinu, as gentle a soul as existed amongst us, got up from her seat silently, walked to the front of the class. She drove her head with tremendous force straight at Mrs Allardyce’s chest. The old lady let out a cry as she crumpled to the ground. Mr Abosede, our Geography teacher, at first sprang back in astonishment, before coming to his senses and grabbing hold of the now enraged Tinu. He held her arms back, with some difficulty, as she hovered over Mrs Allardyce. Tinu screamed, “What did you say to me? What did you say to me?” We watched, struck dumb, intoxicated at this sudden excitement. Mrs Allardyce staggered to her feet, gathering her pleats about her, and fled the room, calling back at us, “Remain calm girls, remain calm.” Tinu, struggling against Mr Abosede’s grip, had every intention of giving chase.

Tinu’s grief, in the days that followed, erased all our memories of the dance. We took to comforting her. Her brother had been an officer in the Army, but because of their father’s connections, his postings had never been in any of the hot zones. He had died in an ambush, during a Biafran push. Tinu went home not long afterwards. She didn’t return to Royal College to finish her school certification until late 1970, by which time we were all in final year, and our minds were on other things. Following her run-in with Tinu’s head, Mrs Allardyce became more careful around us, more skeptical of our supposed gentleness. If and when possible, she would recruit Father Duncan to deal with any issue that might be sensitive. This was how, starting that year, most of us got theoretical details about sex, and the importance of sexual modesty, from an ancient-looking, celibate white man. To his credit, Father Duncan was never flustered by our embarrassed snorts during these sessions.

And it was because of Tinu, too, that Mrs Allardyce would have nothing whatsoever to do with Nuratu’s case. How does a rumor begin? This one suddenly appeared, that’s all that anyone knew, or cared to admit. Christians were Christians. With a Christian, you knew where you were, and what you were dealing with. Muslims were a different matter. Many of them retained an affection for traditional religion. They practiced juju, secretly or openly, and they thought nothing of using the unseen powers to get their way in life. Nuratu, this story went, was a full-fledged user of juju. The news of it went like a tremor through our whole class. We’d heard of such things, of course, but to have it so close to us?

For so long, we had kept the forest at bay. We read Livy and Cicero, learned how to set silverware on a formal table, mastered the expansion of polynomials. We were modern girls. Now, the forest had returned with a vengeance. It whispered through us as we whispered to one another. The details of Nuratu’s juju emerged, and deepened with each telling. It all began one day, after gym class. Someone — impossible to figure out who, but surely there had been a someone — had seen Nuratu staying behind. She had had, on that day, none of her silliness. She wore a serious expression, and prepared juju somewhere near the lockers. When she was done, she arranged it carefully in another student’s pencil-case and left it there as a trap.

Things are never what they seem — we were old enough to know this — and so the idea that this Nuratu, this friendly and uncouth Nuratu, was actually an agent of evil powers, was not all that surprising. She was, after all, close to home, and within reach of her babalawo‘s assistance. She knew the forest well. For all we knew, she slipped out of bed at night to consort with the beings in that very forest. Nuratu, unlike us, didn’t have the benefit of an Anglican or Methodist background and, it seemed, the years of Christian education had done little to help her. So, for all of the rest of that term, when we saw Nuratu coming, we melted away. We took another route, gently closed a door, or pretended to be asleep. We lived in fear of her, a real fear that was also like a comedy of fear. “Oh God, here comes the witch,” we’d say, and change direction as smoothly as possible. Conversation with her, if we could not avoid it, was kept to a minimum — polite greetings, nothing that would give the girl ideas or make her take interest in any of us or, worse still, make her offended at us. And Nuratu, seeing us — and oblivious as a frog in a pot of water — would cheerfully cry out “Hallo, Tolani!” or “Hey, Funmilayo, why don’t I help you with your hair on Saturday?” And Funmilayo, barely concealing her hysteria, would say, “Oh, but thanks! Kemi Omolola has already said she would do it for me,” and would scramble off to find Kemi to firm the story up, and avoid Nuratu’s roving hands on her scalp. Who’d wish to have her head massaged by a witch?

It went on like this for weeks. Unable to shake off the image of the juju sitting in the pencil-case — and uncertain about whose pencil-case it was that had been so cursed — we all divested ourselves of our pencil-cases. We took to carrying our fountain pens to class without the usual paraphernalia — the fifteen-centimeter ruler, the compass, the plastic angle-set. And when we mentioned Nuratu’s name amongst ourselves, it was with nervous laughter. It did make a kind of sense that she’d make alliances with devils, we said to each other. Maybe that was how her breasts got so big. This whole issue of reservations ought to be looked into, we said. And, of course, when we used the gym, we never went near the lockers, but instead showered and changed in the dorms.

During the exams at the end of term, another story began to circulate. Nuratu had been seen touching the stack of blotting paper in the store-room. The blotting-paper? Just what was it with this girl and stationery? No one dared ask. All we knew was that blotting paper was henceforth to be avoided. So, there it sat, in its soft, white, innocent-looking reams — but we now knew it bore invisible traces of who-knew-what malevolence. At the end of our Literature exam, when even Nuratu’s simple mind could no longer ignore the accumulated evidence of almost two months, she accosted a group of us in the hallway. Why, she wanted to know, had none of us used blotting paper? Our fingers, stained with blue ink, betrayed us. We had used the unabsorbent paper of exercise books, handkerchiefs, or small pieces of cloth snipped from rags. What was it, what was going on? We were no longer to take her for a fool. Hadn’t we been avoiding her? She would march off to Mrs Allardyce with the full story right now if we didn’t start talking, Allah was her witness.

We shuddered when we heard her invoke Allah. All but begging her not to unleash her powers on us, we recounted, in turns, how we had heard from someone who had heard from someone of the pencil-case in the gym. Pencil-case in the gym? What pencil case in what gym? We said that we had heard stories, too, about the blotting paper. Naturally, we made no mention of her Islamic faith. The word “witch” remained unsaid. We said only that, whatever she had done, we were certain she had done for a good reason. And that her adversary, whomever it was, probably deserved it. Nuratu, as the full implication of our story dawned on her, looked as if she had been stabbed. She slowly sank to the floor, and began to weep and shake her head. And we, ashamed, dispersed. Perhaps she herself took the story to Mrs Allardyce, or perhaps some other party, having heard us tell it and having seen Nuratu’s reaction, did. Either way, Mrs Allardyce immediately passed it on to Father Duncan. Tolani was in the hallway when that conversation happened, and she came back to us with a full report. Mrs Allardyce, she said, had said, “We have entirely failed to free these girls of the pagan spirit.”

Hearing this, Bunmi Lijadu — who always had something clever to say, and who, many years later, became Vice Chancellor of the Ogun State University — said, “I’ve never heard such nonsense! Everyone knows we’re Christian girls. Right, girls? Pagans indeed, that Allardyce has some nerve.” We all agreed, even Saudatu, who, in any case, eventually would convert to Christianity, after marriage. And we admired Bunmi for saying “Allardyce” instead of “Mrs Allardyce.” Father Duncan called an assembly of the entire tenth standard that afternoon, and said he had decided to investigate “this most troubling report.” After getting several versions of the story from us, he walked off towards the gym. We followed. Once there, he began to look around the lockers. And there it was, on a little ledge — an abandoned pencil-case. Father Duncan was either brave or stupid, because he immediately picked up the pencil-case, and with his bare hands, unlatched it. We almost fainted. “Come around, girls, and look at this,” Father Duncan said. Gingerly, we trooped around him, craning our necks from a safe distance, refusing to breathe, and looked into the pencil-case. There was juju in it, something truly horrible to look at. One of us-hard to tell now who, but it was probably Abisola — began to cry. “This,” Father Duncan said, “is not juju. It is merely some orange peel on which a layer of mold has grown.” He flung the peel through an open window into the grass outside, and placed the empty pencil-case down. He looked at us with stern brown eyes, “Someone peeled an orange and abandoned its skin here, and it went bad. That is all. You’ve all been unkind, and I think you owe Nuratu an apology. I’d recommend you do it one by one, and that you start right away.”

Some of us did so, going off to the dormitory to seek her out that afternoon, explaining that it was all a mistake. But some of us didn’t, maintaining to the last that something wasn’t quite right about the girl, that everyone could see that, and that we’d be damned if we were to be so easily taken in by crocodile tears. That was the year that things changed completely for Nuratu, and for Mrs Allardyce. Things changed, too, for so many of us girls, for some more than for others. But why did Nuratu continue to take the incident so seriously? She became a total loner. It had been a jokey kind of thing and no real damage had been done. Others had had it much worse. Even Tinu, after her brother died and before she left, had calmed down and hadn’t taken herself so seriously. She had even given Mrs Allardyce a farewell present of a soufflé she made herself.

By the following year, when a stream of refugees began to make its way over from the East, and four strange, thin Igbo girls with impeccable manners came to join us in the eleventh standard, we could already look back with some understanding. We’d lived through the whole conflict without shortage of food or supplies. There had been no threat, no danger, and no interruption of our education. Biafra had burned and starved, but we’d been innocent of atrocity and news of atrocity. For us, in our little clearing in the forest, it had been a shadow war, a war amongst faint figures moving on the far side of a screen. How lucky we were, we said, to have remained modern. Looking at it that way Nuratu had no right — it was Bunmi Lijadu who said this — to go around acting all hurt and entitled. It was bad form actually, typical local behavior. We all agreed.

by Teju Cole

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Categories: Hidden Messages Tags:

The Silverberg Variations

June 3, 2007 7 comments

A story in twelve movements

From the vernacular body [no longer online], September 16-18, 2004

I: Chaconne

This story starts, as do so many stories in my life, with music. For many years, I have placed the chaconne from Bach’s second partita for solo violin on a peak all its own. This massive virtuoso piece is one of those musical creations that always makes my pulse race and my heart feel like breaking. Even thinking about the piece puts me in a strange sorrowful mood.

The chaconne and its closely related musical form the passacaglia are of, I think, ancient Italian origin. The forms were popular in Baroque times. They build a series of variations on a repeated or implied bass line. The theme is often stated at the beginning of the piece, and is then transmuted several times. This repetition, filtered through changes of tempo, melody and register, gives a chaconne an inexorable quality. Chaconnes are emotional and ecstatic, and their power comes precisely from the limits imposed on them, which stretch composers to be as creative as they can be. In the hands of masters like Marais, Forqueray or Bach, the chaconne or passacaglia becomes a truly astonishing thing, music that makes you jump out of your seat, music that changes your world. Brahms used the form to wondrous effect in the final movement of his fourth symphony. But, long before that, Bach had scaled the heights of the variations-on-a-theme challenge in not one but three works: a broody passacaglia in C minor for organ, the famous Goldberg Variations for keyboards, and the violin chaconne in D minor.

I once had a splendid recording of the Bach partitas for solo violin. It was a performance on Sony Classics, played by a sixteen year-old girl called Hilary Hahn. I later gave the recording away, and for long afterwards, I had the sarabande, the gigue and the chaconne from the second partita playing in my head. I heard other recordings of the work: Milstein, Heifetz, Perlman, Szeryng. But none of these great and famous violinists played with either the heart or the technical ability of the prodigiously gifted Miss Hahn. So, when I saw two weeks ago, at Tower Records, Hilary Hahn’s performance of the solo Bach pieces for sale at a substantial discount (eight dollars), I snapped up a copy quickly. I must have listened to the chaconne movement, which is eighteen minutes long, right through some five times since then.

Once at least my eyes have brimmed with tears.

II: Numbers

On the way to the hospital, we’re caught in afternoon traffic. The driver of the gypsy cab is listening to a baseball game on the radio. Yankees.

I try reading Robert Graves’s memoir Goodbye to All That, which I’ve brought with me, but I give up after a while, and listen to two men call a game on the radio.

I don’t know anything about baseball, but I do know that baseball-talk is full of statistics. I listen to the game for five minutes, keeping track only of how often they talk numbers. The commentators seem to be straining for a repeated “wow”, with all their percentages and RBIs and narrowly-defined records. Everything is made to seem remarkable, and the commentators don’t seem to be able to halt their numbers talk for even ten seconds. The game seems to be more about the numerical detritus of the game than it is about the game itself as a physical activity.

It’s hot. I find the obsession with statistics childish, and peculiarly American. I am mildly irritated, but I’m also thinking about how I will write about the heat and statistics and irritation in my blog.

The hospital emerges in the sun.

III: “There’s a lot of love in that room.”

For a few hours every Thursday evening, I help at the desk, answering phones, and assisting some other volunteers in serving food to family members of the patients. I have a good rapport with the nurse aides, the registered nurses and the doctors. There are twelve rooms on the ward, and in each one, someone is dying. At the desk, people fill in charts and answer queries. There’s always laughter at the desk; there’s acerbic humor and kindness; barbs fly. This is how they get through the days. I’ve only seen momentary silence at the desk when a body, shrouded in black polythene, is wheeled out by men from the morgue.

Maria, a nurse aide, says in her lilting accent, her Jamaican English that is like singing, Oh, there’s so much love in that room, so much love in that room, why I can’t find a love like that? She looks genuinely upset. Errol, the registered nurse, who’s quite fat and, depending on his mood, either very nice or very surly, says, What, in room 712? He goes over, takes a peek, comes back.

Lordy, that’s a lot of love. There’s some banter over at the desk. Errol says, She love him. You know he been a dog before, but she love him now. Hmm, mm.

There’s a comatose man in room 712, and sitting next to him is a woman, his wife. She’s holding his hand, talking to him, loving him through the threshold to the other world.

Maria still looks miffed, almost petulant, almost bewildered. I can’t believe it, she sings, why I cannot find a love like that, uh?

IV: A woman kissing a man’s hand

I have gone to room 712 out of curiosity, but my pretext is to find out if Mrs Silverberg needs anything, some apple juice, perhaps, or a glass of water.

He lies on the bed, comatose, and next to him, she sits in a chair and holds his right hand. She raises his hand, lowers her head, kisses his hand. I love you, she says, why did this happen to you? You wonderful man. I love you. She kisses his hand again. His breathing is raspy but calm. His mouth is wide open, his eyes almost closed. His chest rises and falls with each labored breath but he is otherwise immobile. To his left and to his right, he is attached to tubes and clear bags of fluids. The tubes are connected to his arms. He looks like Gulliver on the Lilliputan shore.

My poor baby, she says, I love you.

Then she turns around and notices me standing there. And who are you? she asks. I introduce myself. She squints at my ID, and says, oh, and turns back to her husband. I ask if she wants anything, some apple juice, perhaps, or a glass of water. No, she says, I still have apple juice. I tell her that it’s wonderful that she’s talking to him. He can’t talk back, I say, but he can hear you.

He’s a wonderful man, look at him, she says, wonderful man, so full of life but look at him now. You are wonderful, she says to him, and lowers her head and kisses his hand.

There’s nowhere for me to sit. I kneel down between the bed and the chair, and Mrs Silverberg begins to talk to me.

V: The wife’s tale

I have been married to him for forty-eight years. I love him. After he came to hospital, the dog used to sleep by his bed every night. Missed him terribly. So did I.

She holds his hand adoringly. The grief is heavy on her. Elsa Silverberg tells me that her husband is a violin teacher. Mr Silverberg taught in the Bronx public schools for more than thirty years.

She’s very hard of hearing, so I have to lean close if I want to say something. I enunciate into her ear: I love music.

Oh, says she, classical music? I nod and smile.

(She shows me a driver’s license which says “David Silverberg”. He is a burly and cheerful-looking man, an image hard to connect with the one who lies before me, this silent one, pale, unshaven and with that look of permanent surprise that you see in the faces of the old: white eyebrows, gaping mouth).

Well, she says, when he was young David studied with Samuel Rifkind, who was a great teacher, and this man told my husband that if he had wanted he could have had a brilliant career as a performer.

Once, about sometime in the early 1960s, David played a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. Can you believe that? He had a wonderful talent.

He played the Bach chaconne.

Do you know it?

VI: Chaconne

The chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach’s partita no. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004.

VII: Children

a: We have two children. Our son lives in New York, with his wonderful wife and their eight-year old son. Aaron, our son, he’s into computers. And when he was a boy, he sang beautifully. He was in the boys choir at St John’s Church. The best singer they had at that time. But when they did high masses, he couldn’t sing with them because of his religion. St John’s is an Episcopalian church.

a: What? You’re going to have to speak a little louder.

a: Of course, Jewish. Anyway, his voice broke, and then he stopped singing. He went to NYU. His father was so happy when he said he was getting married. Have you met our son? He comes here often, to visit his father.

a: Our daughter lives in Maine. They lost her medical records, these idiots. Now she can’t get her medicaid. She’s thirty-five, and she has fibromyalgia. She has a huge dog that helps her get around, you know, one of those service dogs.

a: We send her money. What can we do? We have no money, but we have to send her money. Because someone lost her medical charts.

a: She would like to come see her father, but there’s no money.

VIII: Accidents

One of our dogs, and we’ve had many, one of our dogs bit off David’s little finger. It was a dumb dog. Anyway, the finger was reattached, and can you believe this man, he learned how to play violin all over again. We had the dog put down.

We got into an accident last October. He was driving. We hit a tree.

They made us wait so long in the emergency room. He hurt his shoulder, I hurt my arm. That was all. But then, when they did a scan, they found out that he had cancer in his stomach.

They’ve had to take out all his insides. There’s nothing left inside him now.

Can you believe what one of the doctors said to us? That David is seventy-eight, that that isn’t such a bad time to die. Can you believe the nerve of these doctors? If they had taken better care of him, he wouldn’t be here like this right now.

Mr Silverberg agitates slightly. His wife starts, but he calms down quickly, and so does she.

She kisses his hand.

People live to be ninety, she says, why is this happening to him? I’m not ready to let him go, he has been a wonderful man. Yes, he had a bit of a temper sometimes, but he was a wonderful man.

I kneel closer to her. She inclines her head.

I say, he can’t speak, Mrs Silverberg, but he can hear you. He can receive all this love you are sending his way.

Mrs Silverberg nods and falls quiet.

It is very late afternoon now. I have been in this room with the Silverbergs for an hour. I can see the skyline of the city from this seventh floor window. There are trains in the distance, bridges, a river. It is impossible to describe the air, and the beautiful light which is just out of reach of words. Light and air are the opposite of dying. Of all the free and joyful things, I think, light and air come first. And yet, at the appointed time, one ends up with air from a tube, light from a fluorescent tube, and no hope of ever going outside again.

How strange that the same chaconne I was humming earlier in the day is the foundational piece of this man’s life. I wish I could bring the disc, play it for him. Or would that tie his spirit down? Bind him too closely to the world that his body is already trying to escape?

Night begins to fall. The air and the light take on darker hues.

I break the silence after a few minutes.

Thank you, Mrs Silverberg, I say, holding her hand. She looks surprised. Why are you thanking me? I should be thanking you.

Because you’ve shared your story with me, I say, and because you have such a love for this man.

Thank you, she says, squeezing my hand tight and holding it in the squeeze, thank you. God bless you.

God bless you too, Mrs Silverberg.

Her eyes are glassy. Eventually, she releases my hand and I leave the room.

I return to my seat at the nurses’ station, musing on this interaction.

I am completely unprepared for what happens next.

IX: Unfathomable

The Chaconne is the most wonderful, unfathomable piece of music. On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.
–Johannes Brahms

X: The nurse’s tale

a: She’s drunk, you know.

a: No, I’m telling you she’s an alchoholic, and she’s drunk right now.

a: Yes, I understand that, you talked with her for an hour. But do you know some people are at their most lucid when they are intoxicated? She’s been drinking all day. That’s why she was talking so much.

a: Believe.

a: Well, everything has a reason. And it’s all in Silverberg’s chart: her alchoholism, his abuse.

a: Beat her. Pretty badly but it’s hard to tell now, isn’t it?

a: It’s pretty certain. What’s not quite as certain is whether the allegations by the daughter are true.

a: Sexual abuse.

a: Yes, way.

a: She brought a big court case against her father in the early nineties. There was no legal resolution, but they became estranged. This was all before she got fibromyalgia. He got a PhD from Columbia, you know, in musicology, and he was a brilliant violinist. But what good is all that?

a: Probably why his wife took to drink.

a: Apparently, the daughter converted out of Judaism and became a born-again Christian in the late nineties, and that is what has allowed her to begin to forgive her parents, and make peace.

a: We don’t know if she’ll make it out. She was trying to arrange a flight to see him before he dies. There are some cheap flights on Jet Blue.

a: That’s right, you wouldn’t know it from the way Mrs Silverberg’s carrying on in 712. Medical professionals are human beings too. Sure we make mistakes. But we are not to blame for her husband’s illness. She needs to realize that.

a: You got it. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

XI: Morimur

It is 3am on a Saturday morning as I write these words. I can’t sleep. Hunger. Heat. Humidity. Thoughts.

Certain scholars believe that the chaconne has mystical and even cabalistic properties. The piece was written in 1720 after the death of Maria Barbara, the first wife of J.S. Bach, as an epitaph to her. The variations of the chaconne contain themes from some of Bach’s other choral preludes, each of which deals with the subject of death.

Even without the codes, the music is moody, intense and, as Brahms says, unfathomable.

I rise in the small hours and begin to sing it to myself.

XII: Resignation

I left the hospital at 7pm that evening.

Mrs Silverberg stayed by the bed until midnight, and then, according to the nurse, she reluctantly went home.

Mr Silverberg breathed his last some two hours later, at 2am on the morning of September 10.

The widow is in a bad way, and her health has taken a sudden turn for the worse. She is getting help from the bereavement counselors from the hospice.

Albert Schweitzer writes, of the chaconne: Out of a single theme, Bach conjures up a whole world. We seem to hear sorrow contending with pain until at the last they blend in a mood of profound resignation.

I’m not sure I completely understand. All I do is watch like an astonished child as the universe does what it does.

I’m going back to sleep.

by Teju Cole

Categories: Greatest Blog Hits Tags:

Ekphrasis 1: Jean + Teju Cole

March 13, 2007 4 comments

Man in Tunnel

by Jean Morris of this too


Traveling Mercies

Let the sieving-out

of what is possible

from what has been

given, the work of

naming the touchable,

the not-knowing,

the staying imperfectly

still, the question

that comes at 2am

and won’t stop ringing

the doorbell to the brain,

the being journeyed

through, the trembling

in the spinal-cord,

the walking with a limp,

the understanding that

passes all peace,

the half-light after too

long a light, the end

of unceasing renovation,

the shadow life, continue.

by Teju Cole

Categories: Ekphrasis Tags: ,

The Investigation

September 22, 2006 5 comments

It was the year that Lisa Lisa rocked the charts, and G-Force dominated every dance floor, and Sporting-Waves pomade was in the hair of the bad boys (not me), and almost all the girls had breasts the size of tangerines straining from behind the blouses of their school uniforms, and some of the boys (the bad ones, again) claimed to have “pressed” them.

It was also the year my bunkmate Mike Denani, who was not a bad boy, astonished me one afternoon behind the Social Studies building by telling me exactly which of the two holes in the mysterious region below a woman’s waist babies emerged from. That was a disgusting thing for him to say, and though I laughed it off at the time, I could hardly look him in the eye for days afterwards, mostly from the suspicion that he was actually telling the truth.

The main trouble in those days, though, was with the toilets attached to the house, which were in an awful state, regardless of how much the one-eyed Warrant Officer who served as our House Master screamed about it. They had to be scrubbed clean every Saturday morning at the first sign of daylight. The finger and palm blisters we got from cutting grass with dull cutlasses were far better than the stink and gloom of the shithouse, and every first-former wished dearly for a lawn or farm assignment on Saturdays rather than toilet duty. The toilet was so foul, in fact, that many of the pupils preferred to squat in the wild bush behind the dormitory and wipe with leaves. Yet, though in those days I missed toilet-paper with an intensity I have never since then felt for any absent lover, I could never bring myself to wipe with leaves: too oily, too crinkly, too unpredictable. And what if the leaf tore and I got shit on my hands? What if I accidentally used lemongrass and carried an itchy ass around for two days? Or, worse, if I attracted the curiosity of one of the black mambas that nested in those tangled grasses?

No thanks. I was happy to take my chances and stand tiptoe over the horrible open pit in the unlit toilet and do my business there. I washed with water, cleaning first the little pucker (that is, the one that women also had but apparently didn’t use for delivering children), and then obsessively washing my legs in case anything had accidentally run down, washing as obsessively as a squirrel washing a nut. I was nothing if not hygienic, and our prison camp of a school wasn’t about to change that. There had to be a modicum of order to my life, even out at this gulag.

So, naturally, I was terrified when our bunk was rattled at 3am on a Wednesday and my leg was yanked through the mosquito netting. The whole house was being woken up. Boys of all ages rose grumpily from interrupted dreams that, I feel sure, all involved either our music teacher or the contraband magazine Ikebe Super, or some unholy combination of the two. The seniors barked out that an emergency house meeting was being called. It had something to do with the toilet.

All the senior boys stood on one side of the central passage of the dorm, and the first and second-formers were made to line up on the other side. The seriousness of the matter made it immediately obvious that connections would not spare anyone from the investigation. The fact, for example, that my school-father, a fourth-former known to everyone as “Paul McCartney” because of his docile manner and girlish voice, was standing right there, was of no use, no matter how imploringly I looked at him. Not that it would have been of any use, since I had wrinkled my nose and complied only reluctantly the previous week when he asked me to clip his toenails. It wasn’t until many years later that it became obvious to me that Paul McCartney’s various ambiguous requests (“rub my back,” “wash my feet,” and so on) were due to his latent homosexuality which even he might have been unaware of at the time.

The House Prefect, ordinarily quite a decent fellow, bellowed at us, calling us filthy worms. If the House Master were present, he said, we would all be getting thrashed within an inch of our pathetic lives. As it was, the crime – some boy had defecated indiscriminately all over one of the toilet stalls – would be investigated. He held up a torch-light threateningly, and switched the beam to the highest power.

The senior boys grinned, as if the whole thing were a grand joke. I avoided Paul McCartney’s eye, but I doubt he was laughing. There was a doleful expression on his face that rarely varied. Meanwhile, we quaked in our singlets and nightclothes, and each of us started loudly protesting his innocence until we were silenced by a blast of profanity from the Prefect.

One by one, we shuffled to the front of the line. Each boy, as he approached the House Prefect, was made to drop his shorts to his ankles, and bend over so that his anus could be examined with the beam of the torch. The seniors tittered delightedly, making comments, craning their necks to get a view. Judgment was swift, and each exonerated boy pulled up his shorts and joined the others with a mixture of relief and acute shame.

My bunkmate Mike was ten spots ahead of me, and even though I knew my turn was soon, I still felt sorry for him as he lowered his underwear and exposed his ass to the torch’s glare. His precocious penis swung into view. I was ashamed to be present at his shame, and I thought I was in a bad dream that would soon end. When the line came to a boy with a barrel-chest and fuzzy hair – of course I’ve forgotten his real name, but everyone called him “Yam Tuber” – who was three places in front of me, I started to unbutton my shorts. I was fearful, because in these situations there’s never any certainty that one is free of incriminating evidence. I concentrated all my energy on not pissing myself.

There was a low whistle from the House Prefect.

“Ah, ah! Oloshi! What is this!”

The seniors crowded in, murmuring their agreement. Apparently, traces of fresh caca remained around Tuber’s sphincter. The Prefect seized him by the neck. “Oloshi! You have been wasting our time!”

The investigation was over. I almost died of relief. It’s even possible I pissed myself just a little bit. We were sent back to our bunks, but it was more than an hour before any of us could get back to sleep. Tuber had been dealt with, and his moans of an injured dog punctuated the darkness at irregular intervals. Though the welts on his neck and back healed quickly enough, he carried an abandoned, betrayed look on his face for a few weeks.

But me? Those things happened a long time ago. I continue to clean with an attentiveness that would impress the most meticulous of domestic cats. And now I buy Quilted Northern or Charmin, whichever of the two is more expensive.

by Teju Cole

An earlier version of this story appeared in the now-defunct blog Abdul-Walid of Acerbia. – Eds.

Categories: Education Tags:

The Street of Coffin-Makers

August 27, 2006 8 comments

The Lagosians of Isale Eko come here with great fanfare when an old person dies. They order the most expensive casket, hire out a school’s sports field, throw a large party with canopies, live music and colorful outfits. The gift of longevity is celebrated. But if the deceased is a youth, fallen before life’s fruition, they buy a simple box. The rites are performed under grief’s discreet shadow: a small afternoon burial on a weekday, a somber brass band, and everyone in black.

by Teju Cole

Categories: Short Shorts Tags:

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