Book of the Festival
"Postcard from Vilnius" by Arne Dahl
Translated from the Swedish by Rod Bradbury
When she has hung the picture on the wall and it is hanging a little askew she suddenly thinks it empty. There is a frame, a thin black frame, but for a brief moment it is as if the picture itself is missing. Merely a frame around nothing. What was just now complex foliage, well-defined treetrunks, even a park bench is, for a few short moments, transformed so that it cannot be distinguished from the green wallpaper behind. The strange thing is that when she rights it, when the picture hangs straight above the sofa, the motif reappears. Then everything, including the half of a human body on its way into the picture from the right, again falls into place. It all happens so fast that she has no time to reflect on the matter. The moment has passed, the picture hangs as it should. She looks at it and thinks how at any other time she would have been very satisfied with it. But everything she tends to usually appreciate, the light, the colour balance, the carefully rendered graininess, the composition as a while, have all become of secondary importance. Now it’s a matter of something entirely different to art.
She sits down on the sofa and bites at a nail. It is many years now since she bit her nails she thinks, and goes on biting.
Now, everything is waiting.
She casts a glance over her shoulder up at the picture, nods briefly and thinks:
Yes, now everything is waiting.
Waiting and thinking.
Very rarely do stories have a beginning. But she feels she can identify one here. It was admittedly under completely different circumstances that it became a story – that was when the postcard from Vilnius arrived – but it wasn’t when it began.
No, it began with a book. An empty book. A book with completely blank pages.
She knows it’s unreasonable, but she still can’t help blaming herself. Perhaps it’s just simply that you should never, under any circumstances, push a book with blank pages under the nose of its half-asleep author. Perhaps this creates the most overpowering fear anyone can imagine.
But no, she thinks and laughs, it was about something entirely different. It was about dreams.
She had been alone for a long time, not least because she was choosy. She was waiting for Mr Right, in an almost old-fashioned way. In this more or less voluntary isolation, she entered deep into herself, analysed herself and tried to create a clear picture of who she really was. The only mysterious aspect left over, she thought, was the dreams. So she started writing a dream diary. Every morning, when she awoke, she picked up the diary and wrote down her dreams from the previous night.
She had been doing this for some while when they met, and it happened by remarkable coincidence. She was a photographer and had spent a good deal of time creating images from the dream diary, from the unpredictable mass of images that her dreams generated. In the end she succeeded, perhaps not as perfectly as she had imagined she would, but enough to stage an exhibition in a small gallery back home in Stockholm. The gallery owner convinced her that the launch should take place in the late evening, that would be the trendy thing to do.
So it was nearly twelve o’clock at night, and by then she was sitting alone in the gallery. The gallery owner had been mistaken – as the hours passed, the visitors departed and she was left completely alone. It was a little unsettling, she could hear the noises of the city outside and tried to get absorbed in a novel which the gallery owner happened to have lying around. At first it was hard to concentrate, but a while later she became so engrossed that the world around her vanished.
– You’ve got good taste, said a voice which made her jump.
She looked up and tried to gather her wits. It was a man who looked very pleasant, energetic, lively, strong. She also thought she recognised him, that she had seen him quite recently. She turned the book over and saw his portrait.
She lifted the book, waved it in the air a little, smiled and said:
– I was thinking about the photos, he said and pointed to the walls.
Yes, they went out into the night, had a cup of coffee, talked, long and intensely, about everything life had to offer. She arrived very rapidly at the conclusion that this could well be him. Mr Right.
They talked not least about artistic endeavour, the creative act. They worked in different media, she was a pictures person, he a words person; the small skirmishes that arose were very exciting. He talked quite a lot about his creative crisis, about having lost the words, and she realised that he hadn’t published a book for several years.
– I envy you, finding yourself in the midst of creation, he said. Things are going slowly for me right now, I can’t find anything to write about. Not really.
– I really don’t know what I’ll be doing next, she admitted.
Then, they went back to his place. He lived in Södermalm, and it was a wonderful night, followed by many more. A few days later, she showed him her dream diary. When he saw it, he wanted one of his own. So they bought him one too. A completely empty book. It was the day before, the day before the story began, and the story began by her handing over the empty book. He took it, just having woken up, puffed up the pillow behind his back, picked up his pen and put it to paper.
And nothing happened.
Remembering your dreams requires a certain amount of training, she recalls consoling him with. You have to catch them at exactly the right moment, when you have just woken up and everything is still boiling and bubbling in your brain, half of which is still in the mysterious world of sleep.
They tried again. And again. But not one scratch, not one letter managed to land on the completely blank white pages.
When a week had passed, he said:
– It’s not that I don’t remember.
– What do you mean, she asked and stroked his petrified hand.
He turned his sad gaze in her direction and said:
– I don’t have dreams.
At that moment, she thought he changed. Literally, in front of her eyes. For the first time, she managed to clamber her way out of the blindness of new love and compare the lively, creative man she had before her only a few weeks ago with the somewhat drained man who now admitted that he just didn’t have dreams. They were like two different people.
Why should anyone not have dreams? Both of them tried to tackle the problem. Could you really tell the difference between forgetting dreams and being completely devoid of them? He claimed you could, for sure, there had been no after-effects, no feeling of having been somewhere else, no traces of dreams whatsoever.
He seemed genuinely sad about this state of affairs. He was a writer, how could he be creative without having dreams to fall back on? He always thought he had done so, he said, he really thought he was living in a rich world of dreams which would then be reflected in his writings and that he drew strength and imagination from them. Instead, he said, there seemed no longer to be any link between his writing and his life. As if everything he wrote had suddenly become artificial. He thought that this was the explanation for his writer’s block.
She tried to console him, of course. No one knows why we dream or whether dreams play any significant role in our lives. There is no clear connection between imagination and dreams. She said all this, everything expected of a consoling partner.
A little time went by, and the wound healed to an extent. Or was at least shifted out of focus. But something had sunk its claws in her, a suspicion she didn’t even dare admit to herself. Nor even formulate it.
It was formulated for her when the postcard from Vilnius arrived.
She is a photographer and has a well-developed feeling for images. The postcard from Vilnius was special in that it wasn’t like a standard postcard. It was more of a snapshot, a photo taken in all haste and on closer inspection, the lines on the back of the card where the text was had been drawn by hand with a ruler. The postcard showed the edge of an empty square, the light was that of a summer’s night, somehow. It was hardly a professional picture, more a piece of luck because there was nevertheless a suggestion of the quality of desolation itself, as if a diffuse presence lurked there by way of its very absence. And then the text, that text which would have its effect for a long time inside her, would bang and crash around in her inner space:
“Amamorfia. Fruit borne from the dark side of the moon.”
And the postcard was addressed to him.
She showed it him as soon as he got home. He turned it over, shook his head and said:
– I don’t understand this at all.
So there was nothing more to be said.
But for her, things were different. She scrutinised the card and tried to find something to get a rational grip on. This wasn’t easy; both picture and text were genuinely mysterious. There were only two things you could get a grip on: the stamp with its conventional picture of a scene from nature and the word “Lietuva” underneath, and the franking which said “Vilnius” with the date from less than a week before.
– Have you ever been to Vilnius? she asked a few days later.
He shook his head and sipped absent-mindedly at his eternal latte.
And looked so drained and absent as when he had just discovered that he didn’t have dreams.
Even now, she couldn’t help linking his appearance with what he looked like when they first met that magical night in the gallery. It was unfair, that she knew. Anyone, man or woman, who wants to make an impression on a prospective partner makes a special effort to seem lively and prepared to face the future. This is one of the rituals of seduction. She was certainly not innocent of this herself. But in his case the difference was a little larger. Is what she told herself. Or didn’t tell herself. Avoided telling herself...
She normally slept like a log – this was the proviso for having a rich dream life. She always fell asleep before he did and slept all night without changing position. From the time the postcard arrived, this all changed. For the first time, she saw him curl up and heard his breathing grow even. She cautiously switched on the lamp and scrutinised the postcard, the mysterious text on the one side, the mysterious picture on the other. And she understood – as people often realise time and time again – that it takes a while before two people get to know one another.
This satisfied her, for the time being.
But then it happened that she was wandering across an open square in Stockholm in an up-market district she very rarely visited. The narrow street in Östermalm opened up rather unexpectedly onto a square, and when she crossed the square, she recognised it. She stopped and tried to identify the memory – there are so many types of recognition. Had she been there before? Or was this a diffuse kind of déja vu? Or some third explanation? A resemblance. Or something she had seen in a – picture?
As it was luckily summer and there was a pavement café at one end of the square, she had somewhere to sit down, and she took the postcard from Vilnius out of her handbag. There wasn’t much to add. This was indeed the place, the square that was depicted on the postcard, but deserted and at night. Just as the waitress came up to take her order, she got up and began wandering around to try and find the spot the photo had been taken from. In the end, she found it and held up the postcard in front of her face. Everything clicked. Except for some unusual bits of colour here and there on the card which did not fit together at all. She turned the postcard over.
“Fruit borne from the dark side of the moon.” And that strange word: Amamorfia.
The dark side of the moon was a cold region, devoid of light, which is often used metaphorically. The face that is turned away where the sun don’t shine. And so on. Wasn’t there a paradox here too? Fruit borne from this sterile place. What could it mean?
And what had it got to do with him? And Lithuania, Vilnius?
She saw his two different faces again before her mind’s eye and thought:
I should drop the whole business.
But she of course knew that this would not happen. She wasn’t the type who drops things halfway. Nor was she, unfortunately, the type who confronts the outside world head on. She caught herself observing him more and more, as if trying to work out what secrets he was hiding. As if she could arrive at an answer by just looking. No, she realised that more was necessary.
What was it with that square? What was the fruit borne back from the dark side of the moon? What had it all to do with Lithuania? And – to once again cling onto a thread of rationality – what did Amamorfia mean?
She looked up the word, in dictionaries, on the internet, everywhere she could think of. It would, of course, have been logical to simply ask him – he was after all an author and knew difficult words – but she was reluctant to do so. And the word could be found nowhere else.
One night her thoughts kept going round and round. Amamorfia. When the word became segmented throughout her body and became mixed up with images of him, she was sure that she was on the way to falling asleep. She recognised all the diffuse, gliding feeling – she was on her way into the realm of dreams. The images of him had less to do with him than with her own feelings. What did she in fact feel? What did love look like? His face, his limbs, his skin, all of these were mere materialisations of her own feelings. Was there anywhere they had ever met? If they had demons, they kept them well hidden from one another; everyday life together was light, well-ordered, quiet – and, in the long run, rather passionless.
Is there such a thing as passion without demons?
The only shadow of a demon that had emerged before the postcard from Vilnius arrived was his empty, defeated gaze when he realised he didn’t have dreams. It came forth in her mind’s eye, wrested itself free from the gurgling morass of inner images, moving constantly. And a sound – or, rather, the absence of sound, the absence of the even breathing at the other side of the bed – suddenly made her inner eye become an outer one. She opened her eyes and stared into his other face.
She had not seen it since the start of their relationship, hardly ever since that formidable togetherness in the gallery had resulted in a passion they had not even approached since that time. But there it was, a few inches from her half-asleep face. His eyes were wide open, and she recognised the sharpness of focus in his gaze.
She wanted to cry out. She wanted to yell.
In some way or other, she managed not to. There was something in that gaze, the very one that had bewitched her so long ago, that held back her cry. A soothing, yet exciting and slightly dangerous security. One which promised a future. A wave surged through her body, she couldn’t quite identify it. It was too powerful for rational analysis.
But she expected him to lean over her, kiss her and win back all that was lost for her.
This never happened.
His gaze was deep inside hers. And yet it wasn’t there. Not really.
He lifted his head slowly and vanished.
When she drew the covers over her head she couldn’t quite make out whether or not she heard the front door bang to.
Or was it only the bathroom door.
The period of her sound sleep and good dreams was over. Nor did the light of day bring the acute rationality which she otherwise praised herself for. The loose threads hung and fluttered over the breakfast table, which he had just left to go off to his writer’s den on the other side of Södermalm. She remained sitting there, trying to understand. She laid the postcard from Vilnius on the kitchen table and looked at the deserted square with the scattered, flowing patches of colour. She turned it over and read. That damned, impossible word Amamorfia. No hits on the whole of the net. And then: “Fruit borne from the dark side of the moon”.
Was it Vilnius that was on the dark side of the moon? An unknown city for them both. Why, then, was fruit carried from there? And where to? Here?
A sudden thought. She got up and ran to the desk where she knew he kept his passport. It would soon expire, he had told her so, he was reluctant to go and stand in the long queue at the passport office. She found it, an old-style Swedish blue passport.
With many stamps.
He had told her about his many trips in the past, with his various girlfriends. She never had the impression that he was hiding anything from her. She looked through the stamps and visas. There was Estonia, Bulgaria, even Belarus.
But not Lithuania.
A red herring. Shit. She slammed the desk drawer shut so that a small statuette standing there fell to the floor. “An old present” he had said when she had asked and casually shrugged his shoulders. It was a Stone Age statue, modernised, of a woman, a fat woman. And now it had broken, split through the middle, right across the swollen stomach.
And inside, in the split stomach, there was a miniature lemon.
She looked at the bottom half of the split statue, looking underneath the feet of the Stone Age woman. In tiny, tiny letters, she read: “Made in Lithuania”.
She left it lying there and returned to the kitchen table. She scrutinised the postcard.
It was at that moment she decided to buy the most light-sensitive film that money could buy.
It took a good while for the even breathing on the other side of the bed to stop. But when at last it did, she could hardly keep control of her own. She didn’t really have the strength to keep up even breathing which sounded as if she were asleep. Nonetheless she did so, although she felt the warmth of his face spread across her own, icy cold as it was.
The warmth disappeared and after several icy minutes, she heard the light click of a door. And this time, there was no doubt it was the front door.
She threw herself out of bed, pulled on her clothes, grabbed the camera and rushed towards the door. When she got outside, onto the empty, but light street in the summer night she just saw him slipping round the corner. She followed.
He was wearing the same clothes as the day they had met. She followed him into town, his footsteps were self-assured, so very self-evident. She wondered if she’d ever seen him walking like this.
It was as he was on his way towards a small park in a part of the town they very rarely visited that she made a detour, ran past him, dived in between a couple of trees and got ready. He was striding along cockily when she took the picture. He was entering the frame from the right, walking in front of a rather complex mesh of foliage, clearly defined treetrunks and even a park bench. She was pretty sure it was going to be a good picture.
As she was following him out of the small park he vanished. This was very odd.
As if he’d gone up in smoke.
It was indeed a good picture. Paying a good deal of attention, you could see that the half figure coming in from the right was him. She had the picture framed in a thin, black frame. She hung it up above the sofa and waited for him. Although thoughts were racing through her head, crashing in all directions at once, she was filled with a void, as if the picture hanging diagonally above her didn’t really exist. She couldn’t put her finger on it; the feeling was a very diffuse one.
She sat down on the sofa and bit at a nail. It is many years now since I bit my nails she thought, and went on biting.
A couple of hours passed before he arrived. She would never be able to give an account of what she had really been doing those past few hours, but she didn’t budge an inch. She was sitting in exactly the same position as she had been doing when the front door opened.
He went up to the sofa and hugged her. Then he caught sight of the picture. He went up closer, scrutinised it, turned his head a little to one side, nodded and said:
– Nice that you’ve loosened up.
She looked at him and said:
– What do you mean?
He frowned slightly and met her gaze.
– It was a while since you got anything taken, wasn’t it?
She said nothing, simply waited for him to continue. He said, a little introspectively, contemplatively, as if speaking to himself:
– There is nothing worse than a creative block.
Then he turned on his heels and left the room.
How easy it is for things to fall into a routine, she suddenly thought a week later. The camera was resting lightly against the root of her nose, and she was ready for the seventh picture of her new suite. He had certainly begun to look a good deal more closely at the row of framed photographs above the sofa, as if he had actually begun to appreciate them, but he didn’t recognise himself. There was no hint at all that the pictures might have anything to do with him.
This time you won’t get away, she thought, and took the picture. He wasn’t in it, had just passed by the frame of the future photo when the unmistakable click of the camera filled the light summer’s night. All she managed to get was the end of a street with the yellowish façades of wooden houses.
She ran after him. She had stopped being afraid of being found out, had realised ages ago that he was in another world. And yet he managed to slip away every single time, and as this had all begun to fall into a routine, she knew that at this point he would vanish. Just as the picture had been taken.
The first few times, she thought it was her own fault. That she was rather unfocused herself after having taken the picture, so that her attention was elsewhere. So that this was the reason he always disappeared just at that moment.
But that wasn’t the case. The last few times, she hadn’t let him out of her sight. Yet it still happened. Yet he still managed to slip away once the picture was taken. It was very mysterious.
Not this time. It mustn’t happen. She caught up with him, followed a few metres behind him. She wouldn’t let him get away. He was walking as if in a trance, just as usual, and now, at exactly this moment, he would vanish.
And it happened again. He turned the corner and was gone.
All she had was the as yet undeveloped picture.
She knows this is the day things have to happen. Sitting on the sofa, looking up at the seven pictures she curses her personality, the fact she cannot leave off half way or confront the world openly.
What a terrible waste, she thinks in a moment of mundanity, moments that are now almost entirely absent. One single picture on each of the expensive rolls of film. The rest of the roll blank.
She laughs. Perhaps it’s all worth it. It is, after all, a fine suite.
Really, really good art. A new spark, a new, important direction.
She picks up the postcard from Vilnius and gives it a kiss.
Then she thinks he is mad, that perhaps he is a serial killer, that he doesn’t have dreams because he is living a parallel life in a parallel universe, that he is completely schizophrenic, that she fell for his night side and is forced to live with his day one, that he seduces women one after the other at night, that she was the only woman in the world who has managed to come in contact with both his day side and his night one, that she herself is an anomaly which he, in the end, must wipe out in order to enable him to continue to live his double life.
That it is exactly as that postcard from Vilnius says: “Fruit borne from the dark side of the moon.” In his night state, he has made a Lithuanian woman pregnant. When the Lithuanian woman realised she was expecting, she gave him a statuette with a hidden fruit inside as a parting gift, and now the child has been born. When it was born, she sent the card from Vilnius.
Why does it always have to be demons that give birth to art, she thinks. Why does danger always have to lurk in the depths? Fear. Anxiety.
But she is thinking this with joy. She is creative again.
It is then that he arrives home. Much too early. Normally he works in a very disciplined way, regular hours and fixed times. He shouldn’t be coming home just now.
But he does. He throws open the door with quite a different force than he usually does, and when she sees his face it is the other one, the night one, cocky, lively, alive. And he is holding a book above his head, and she recognises it.
– I’m ready, he says, waving the book. At last.
She looks at him and at the book, and says:
– Are you having dreams again?
– Dreams? He says and stops waving the dream diary above his head. This isn’t about ‘dreams’.
She sees that a couple of her pictures are hanging a little askew. When they hang askew, it is as if the motif vanishes and they become one with the wall behind. She adjusts them so they hang straight. The motif returns, the empty motif. But they mustn’t hang askew just now.
– I’m afraid I’ve been exploiting you a little, he says, lowering the dream diary.
– What do you mean? She says, and it is as if a wind is blowing through the flat, the pictures slip crooked again and lose their motifs. She keeps on adjusting them time and time again. Visible, invisible, visible, invisible.
– Forgive me, he says. When you pushed the dream diary under my nose, I was confronted with my own creative paralysis. I was forced to break it.
– And how have you used me, she asks and turns the postcard from Vilnius. It’s lying so strangely, the picture vanishes in the light which is cast strangely.
– I was forced to confront my demons, he says. Not until then could I write. I came upon the idea of a postcard from Vilnius which would start to arouse questions in a photographer who lives with a writer. I simply tried to discover why I wasn’t having dreams.
The pictures on the wall are now hanging very crookedly. She keeps on trying to straighten them. Sometimes the motif appears again, but less and less frequently. They are slipping away from her.
– I can’t accept this, she says suddenly in a firm voice, snatches the dream diary and tosses it onto the sofa. It opens and reveals the title “Postcard from Vilnius”, under which there are long rows of small handwriting.
– I can understand that, with an unbearable look of compassion on his face.
She picks up the postcard and cries out:
– What does “Amamorfia” mean?
He squints at the card and says:
– I think it’s actually Anamorfia with an “n”. As in anamorphosis.
She opens her eyes wide and runs out into the kitchen, picks up a roll of aluminium foil and stands it upright in the middle of the picture where the motif is very clear.
– I know perfectly well what anamorphosis is, she says, and watches as the picture slowly emerges on the cylindrical surface of the roll of foil. It is a deformed picture which first appears in a cylindrical mirror. I should have understood.
He shrugs his shoulders carefully and says:
– That probably isn’t the best thing to do in this story...
Then his face appears on the cylinder. The smears of colour spread over the picture form his face. His cocky night face.
– You are a madman, she says, pulls the pictures off the wall, one by one, and puts the roll of foil in the middle of them. In every picture, the smears of colour form his night face.
The face of creation.
– There you are, she says triumphantly. I have captured your crazy soul in every picture. That’s why they’re so good.
– Although it was my idea, he says, equally triumphantly. I thought of it and wrote it down.
And the pictures lying spread out on the sofa and the coffee table writhe as if suffering an inner storm and the motifs fade away gradually, but she is there and straightens them, time and time again, and the motifs return and she says:
– It’s me who has used you to enable me to create, can’t you understand? You have only written down what I experienced, second hand. Like a pale copy of what I experienced. These are pictures of reality, and all you do is write. Pictures are more powerful than words.
And then the pictures become completely still and it is as if an inner whirlwind blows through the dream diary. It shakes and quakes and it seems as if the text retreats, is wiped out word by word.
– You are simply mimicking what you think I have experienced, she says bitterly, and now the text has gone from all the pages. They are on their way to becoming blank again.
– You can only say that because I wrote it, he says finally, and the pictures begin to quake again, the motifs disappear at the same rate as the text reappears, word by word, back in his dream diary.
She approaches him. Her face is only a few inches from his.
– It’s as if you’re completely different now, he says and lays his hands on her neck.
– Pictures are more powerful than words, she says.
– Words are more powerful than pictures, he says.
And behind them, as they unite in a tangle of remarkable forces on the floor, the text glides back and forth over the pages of the book, is wiped out and conjured forth, and the pictures are conjured forth and wiped out, again and again, all the time.
This, you can probably call life.
They are lying in bed, naked, entwined, and gaze in through the door to the living-room. It is completely still in there. On the sofa lies the closed dream diary. On the wall hangs a series of seven photographs.
They look into each other’s eyes and smile faintly.
– Wouldn’t we be pretty deflated without our demons? He says.
– We should at least be able to do something entirely different, she says and kisses him.
He kisses her back.
No, that’s wrong. They are kissing one another.
© Arne Dahl. All Rights Reserved 2005. Published by agreement with Bengt Nordin Agency, Sweden.
Arne Dahl is the pseudonym used by the Swedish writer, critic and editor Jan Arnald...
2005. Nordic Council of Ministers Office in Lithuania. All rights reserved e-solution: gaumina