Schlumm (from Bardo or not bardo)

Antoine Volodine, « Schlumm (from Bardo or not bardo) / translated from the French by Brian Evenson », Puerto del Sol, a journal of new literature, n°45, printemps 2010 (1), p. 59-73.

Pour mémoire :

I found myself inside of a train, these things happen. I wasn’t traveling for pleasure.
I had been entrusted with a task that I had to carry out along the route. A disagreeable
task since it was a question of sending a man back into the nothingness from
whence he had come forty-eight years beforehand, like me, which is to say probably
by mistake. It always disgusted me a little to have to eliminate someone who is the
same age as me and whose destiny, basically, could be measured from start to finish
against my own. I was under escort until the final second, and was made to climb into
the train car without the direction I was going to take having been communicated to
me. This is one of our superiors’ techniques, it rests on the conviction that, each of us
being perpetually misled inside of his own existence, he doesn’t need to know where
he is truly going, especially when he isn’t the one driving the vehicle in which the job
is carried out. Nevertheless, since I had struggled during the final moments, I had
been able to smuggle away a few images and get an idea of the route that I was going
to travel. I had been put on an urban line, in a large city, let’s say Hong Kong to say
something and to respect the principle of verisimilitude upon which it is customary for
all narrative murmurs to rest. Let’s say on the line going from Mongkok to the sea.
This line is hardly traveled at certain times of the day. Some details can be whispered
here without it being detrimental to the Organization, and even totally false details
always reassure those who feel uncertain and who are listening.
The train advanced. I slumped facing the direction the train was traveling. Some
people claim that to sit facing opposite the direction of the trip causes serious physical
difficulties. Until the present I had never been sick in a train, I mean to say as a
result of the jolts of the carriage or because I might have been bothered by the smell
of dust or of bodies. Certainly, I have sometimes traveled in dreadful conditions and in
a state of physical and mental dilapidation which exceeds the ordinary, but the illness
had already broken out or was smoldering before I climbed into the carriage. Those
days and those nights the mode of transportation was therefore not a factor. It seems
that certain illnesses are terrible when one travels. The bubonic plague, in particular,
or beriberi, or again gaseous gangrene. I cite only the best-known ailments, obviously.
In the case of short trips the patient makes the best of it, but when the journey
becomes interminable the symptoms worsen. Doctors have published on this, and not
the least known among them. As far as I’m concerned, I wasn’t suffering from any
major scourge during that period. However, at the moment of taking a seat, I turned
my upper body and face toward the front, as if, in an instinctive fashion, my body had
dictated to me the best possible posture for confronting an accident or an ordeal.
There was almost nobody in the compartment when I settled in, at Mongkok,
and, after something like a minute the Chinese passenger who occupied the seat
neighboring my own gathered up her things and slipped away. My manner of dress
is disturbing, I know. My monastic old clothes, which are still not out of the dry
cleaners, give rise to negative reactions, made worse by my preference for a squatting
position, at the base of the bench, a position nonetheless natural and quite comfortable.
Sometimes I am questioned immediately after I have parked myself at the foot of
the seat. I am driven away with the tip of a shoe sole, there is fidgeting, my presence
is deplored aloud. As I am in commissioned service and the Organization looks after
me upon my return, I tolerate these humiliations courageously. I absorb the insults
without responding to them and, when there are blows, I roll with the blows. Faithful
to the Chinese culture of unflappability, the passenger had hurled no disagreeable
remark before disappearing. As our trainers say, you can all the same escape getting
beaten up, and, in China in any case, there are people who know how to live and let
I thus remained, squatting and tossed about and in relatively good health, from
Mongkok Road to Cheungwong Road, drowsy during the long monotonous hours.
A little after Cheungwong Road, Schlumm entered the compartment. Even during
this period of his existence, one could with difficulty sustain the idea that he had
human form. It is true that he looked a lot like me, which didn’t play in his favor. His
rags of a destitute Buddhist monk stuck to his flesh and seemed to directly wrap his
bones; that underlined the bizarre sturdiness of his frame and didn’t encourage you
to make his acquaintance. He passed me without throwing me a glance, examined the
corner window as if he were discovering there a setting of premier importance, or
perhaps as if he would have to stay several years in ascetic catatonia, then, having decided,
he tucked himself up abruptly and squatted against the ventilation system. He
squatted the wrong way round. His scarves and the very dirty rags that he wore, indigo,
blackish brown and very dirty, started to fly and flap around him. He stretched
his arm toward the control for the air conditioner and cut the air. The rags immediately
fell again. Calm once established among the fabrics, silence reigned, if one can
call silence the racket in which railroad journeys are carried out. I again started to
drowse, this lasted an hour or two.
The countryside unscrolled vaguely behind the window. The views of Cheunwong
Road had been succeeded by the poorly maintained façades of Kamlam Street.
I saw this in a very fragmentary manner, between two bouts of torpor. To see better,
it would have been necessary to plaster your face against the windowpane. Now, I
had avoided the corner window which Schlumm presently occupied. The window side
is often preferred, even if to secure this seat you must sometimes travel facing rearwards,
and thus risk falling ill. The passenger perceives what scrolls past and thus
believes that he can determine the place in the world where he finds himself. This
kills his anguish or reduces it. Yet, when you think about it, the landmarks which are
chosen in studying the images issued from outside are quite illusory. Quite illusory
and quite unstable. Let’s take a simple example. The surroundings of Kamlam Street,
for example, are confused with an arrival onto Kamfong Street. The buildings stand
up according to similar vertical lines; above the doors the wishes for happiness in four
characters differ in nothing; on the sidewalks the Asiatic faces of the crowd are similarly
handsome and moving; people are dressed in the same way. That’s why I prefer
to stay near to the floor when I want to gather reliable information. Near to the floor
the reference points are fixed, but as soon as one interrogates the window everything
moves vertiginously. Near the floor, my geography leans on simple givens, it confines
itself to the metallic structures which fasten the bench seats to the floor. I have under
my eyes details which have nothing fugitive about them, here a hardened wad of chewing
gum, there four black hairs rolled into a loop, and, farther away, a puddle of dark
gray dust. If there is something that releases me from my anxiety, it’s this, these mod
est elements, and this landscape for shoe soles which isn’t erased between two dozes.
It’s this, rather than fleeting visions of architecture or of crowds. Be that as it may, as
the end of the afternoon was approaching, I felt like going to observe what was seen
beyond the glass.
I stood up, helping myself with my hands not to lose my balance, I went toward
the window. Dusk had not yet completely taken the universe, but I moved blindly, as I
often did, that is without worrying about the lowered or raised position of my eyelids.
Certain mystics of the Organization assert that displacements through feeling one’s
way and holding one’s breath offer fewer risks than the others. Without being always
in agreement with these visionaries, I confess that such recommendations don’t leave
me cold. I had already made good progress when I heard Schlumm groan. My left foot
was pressing on a piece of his robe. I stepped back a few centimeters and mumbled a
word of apology.
—I felt like going to see what there was outside, I explained.
—Not a reason for being unaware of what there is inside, said Schlumm.
—Your robe is in the way, I said.
—What robe, said Schlumm. That’s my skin.
—Ah, said I. Excuse me. I didn’t see.
—Ah, you see? exulted Schlumm in a sinister tone. And yet, it’s inside.
—Oh, inside, out, I said. Let’s not quibble. Except that . . .
I turned my attention toward the landscape and I fell silent. I now made sure to
stare wide-eyed. It was necessary to cling to the handrail if you didn’t want to once
again tread on Schlumm’s clothing, or skin. Time had passed, but the landscape had
hardly changed since Mongkok Road. We were still in the city, surrounded by stalls
mounted on trestles and protected by canvas covers and hangings, and it was raining.
The shop owners had just switched on bare lightbulbs under which were exposed
hardware, t-shirts, padded bras, duck parts tanned in soy sauce, assortments of pirated
records. I noted in passing the presence, at the top of the piles, of my favorite
stars of Canto-Pop. Gluttonously, I scrutinized the hustle and bustle of the market for
a quarter of an hour.
—Would you be a certain Puffky? said Schlumm, from below, from his mouth
which blew the words out at the height of my left knee.
—No, I said. Puffky is dead. He was discovered on a mezzanine. With his blood
he had time to write on the wall: Schlumm bumped me off.
—That doesn’t mean anything, said Schlumm. Everyone does that, now. It’s become
the fashion.
—I saw the photos, I said. He had a nasty death.
—Bullshit, protested Schlumm. There are no illustrations of that sort in the reviews
of the Organization.
—An independent review, I explained.
—Ah, said Schlumm.
Evening thickened, then Schlumm asked me if I knew who he was.
—No, I said, who are you?
—Let me introduce myself, he said. Schlumm, Ingo Schlumm. It’s possible that
you might have already encountered this name in the Organization. I have namesakes.
Certain Schlumms devote themselves to theoretical research, others are linked to the
Action branch. Still others are miserable bastards. But anyway. The Organization
warned me that I was going to meet a certain Puffky.
—Puffky? I repeated, in a pensive tone. I can’t see it.
—Yes, said Schlumm. Someone of my type, not yet dead, but cracked, unquestionably.
I say cracked so as not to dramatize the diagnosis. A guy not yet dead, with
identity problems. That could be you, no?
—I don’t know, I said. Perhaps. My name is of no importance.
—Good, said Schlumm. In short, if any name suits you, nothing is stopping me
from calling you Puffky?
—If you feel like it, I said, and then I became sullen.
Switching off the air conditioning had brought about a rise in temperature. With
the exception of a pinkish night lamp which was dying in agony at the entrance to the
neighboring compartment, no lamp in the train car was working. Around us was the
odor of sleep and mold. In the living space—I mean by this that in which we lived—
the trend was toward steam, toward humid condensation, miasma. My brownish rags,
my indigo scarves and my feet started to give off the stale smells of a locker room. Beneath
my clothing, my underthings were wringing wet. I remained stoically inert for
an hour, then I started to think that action on my part was legitimate and even desirable.
Taking advantage of a moment of inattention on Schlumm’s part, I manipulated,
making use of an able-bodied toe that I had, the control for the air conditioning. The
ventilator started, the scarves started to undulate and to flap around me and around
Schlumm’s head, as they had done at the beginning of the journey.
Outside, night prevailed, but, since we were again crossing a commercial zone,
garlands of white lightbulbs pierced the darkness. Numerous salesgirls were seated
behind their merchandise, heads bent over bowls of instant noodles. If it had been
raining less, one would have been able to distinguish what was augmenting the noodles,
fish or crab or spiced cuttlefish, or sesame shrimp. The rain had intensified since
a short time before. It beat down vertically. There were almost no raindrops on the
—Tungchoi, said Schlumm.
Strips of grimy cotton fluttered about before his lips, making his elocution far
from effective.
—Excuse me? I said.
—We must be at the level of Tungchoi Street, said Schlumm. We’re zigzagging
instead of charging straight for the sea.
—Possibly, I said.
—Do you know the market of Tungchoi? asked Schlumm.
—Tungchoi Market? I said.
—Yes. It’s called that. Have you ever been?
—No, I said.
A minute passed, punctuated by the flapping of skin or of fabric around Schlumm’s
—With this Puffky, you have unfinished business? I inquired. The Action branch
has charged you with eliminating him?
Schlumm didn’t answer. I turned toward him, although I had persisted, until then,
in looking out the window. I lowered my head in his direction. Lifted by the ventilator,
the bits of material flitted about in front of his nose and slapped him from time to time
on the rim of the eyelid, one half of the forehead, the mouth. I know that some people
claim that we have very similar, nearly identical physiognomies, but in the shadow
of the compartment I felt no sympathy toward Schlumm’s look, a look of a scrawny,
ungraceful, and psychologically unstable boxer.
—I’m warning you, I’m not Puffky, I said. Let’s stop joking about that subject. I
too am called Schlumm. Djonny Schlumm.
Schlumm didn’t react. I turned again toward the outside. The train had slowed
down, its movements had softened, then were interrupted, you had the impression
of waiting for a red light. The silence had greatly increased. Schlumm and I were
unjolted, nearly paralyzed in the darkness, existing only through speech and in the
lighting of the merchants, in the wet reflections coming from the outside. The pinkish
night lamp was far from us, as if in another universe, inaccessible.
—One more namesake, I continued. The miserable bastard category, I suppose, in
your classification system.
Schlumm coughed. Who knows if he hadn’t taken ill, traveling like that, facing
backward and next to the window. I had heard about him, I had read reports on him,
on his allergies and his neuroses. I also knew that he was doing research on the loss
of personality during the first forty-nine days of death, on the sensation of split personality
which poisoned the crossing of the first hells. The Organization had tolerated
this blasphemous research until recently, as long as he had agreed to pass on
the results; it no longer tolerated it today, because he no longer shared his traveling
notebooks with anyone. From whence came my work, my mission. The tatters lapped
around Schlumm’s emaciated and brutal face. Schlumm’s cheeks and even his skull,
when these blackish strips slapped him, rang in a manner which didn’t make one think
of a healthy flesh, but rather of an organism that is being forced to live without regard
for its deep desire for extinction, its violent attraction for a definitive and irreversible
—I don’t believe you, Puffky, Schlumm stiffened suddenly in drawing away from
my right leg. You came here to eliminate me, you received a mandate from the Organization
to snatch from me the results of my research and to eliminate me.
—You’re the one who came in here, Schlumm, I retorted. Don’t accuse me indiscriminately.
Don’t reverse the roles, eh. You’re the one who appeared in a train car
where I had been traveling for hours, since Mongkok.
—Ah, you climbed on at Mongkok? asked Schlumm.
—Me too, said Schlumm. There was a woman. My presence disturbed her. She
changed compartments.
—Chinese? I asked, interested.
Schlumm shrugged his bony and solid shoulders, acquiesced with a low mooing
and added nothing more.
The train had set off again, the light must have turned green again. I returned to
squat in the direction we were traveling. My having bustled about had not done me
any good, my having talked with Schlumm had shaken me from bottom to top. At
this point, physical difficulties developed. I now had attacks of fever accompanied by
chills and cold sweats. The nape of my neck hurt. In my mind I started to go over the
atypical illnesses to which I might have been exposed without realizing it. In public
transportation, it is not uncommon to be contaminated by spit. I had avoided it, until
then, but I wasn’t completely sure.
—Did someone spit on you? I asked.
—No, said Schlumm. Not as far as I know.
We stayed for hours without emitting meaningful sounds. We were next to one
another, seated in our fashion, at the foot of the bench seat in the thick darkness, and,
now and then, I felt upon me the breeze of the ventilator, immediately followed by the
noise of crumpled tissue and, on my neck, on my forehead, the tatters of our two robes
tangled, twisted, folded up, snaked around, flapped. The route followed by the train
zigzagged for a long time between Papko Street and Hapko Street, then we tore along
in the direction of Yaumatei.
A bad attack of weakness had seized me. I dozed off several times. In all probability,
days and nights dashed past without my being conscious of them. Perhaps without
me knowing, people boarded the train and got off, came into the compartment and
left it. In the middle of one of those indistinct mornings or at the beginning of an afternoon,
Schlumm again set the control of the air conditioner at zero, and the lapping
of material around us died away.
—Three days ago, a Tibetan climbed on at the top of Lee Yip Street, said Schlumm.
—Ah, a Tibetan, I said.
—A Tibetan from the Organization, Schlumm explained.
—And? I said.
—She got off again, said Schlumm. A little before we arrived at Shek Lung Street.
She too was looking for a certain Puffky. The Organization had put her on your trail.
She had as her task to worm certain information out of you.
—What sort of, I asked.
—What you didn’t want to deliver, it seems.
A spring of sweat started to flow over the whole of my body, rising to the surface
at the same time in dozens of places and then spilling in an equal fashion into the folds
and over the smooth surfaces of my skin, bathing me from foot to head, chilling me. I
—Information, I panted. Information about what.
—On the seven weeks which follow death, said Schlumm.
—Oh, there are many more than that, I said.
—It was the first seven which interested her, said Schlumm.
—And she left? I asked.
—Yes, said Schlumm. As soon as . . .
—As soon as what, I said.
—As soon as you had finished with your revelations, said Schlumm. You know,
you talked in your sleep.
—I don’t see what I could have spilled, I lied. The first seven weeks. And why not
the last seven, while she was at it?
—She was wearing a satisfied expression when she got off at Shek Lung Street,
Schlumm announced.
—What could I really, I asked. You were there, you. You heard everything, since
you were there. What did I talk about?
—I don’t know, said Schlumm. I too was also asleep. My health has deteriorated
a lot, these days, if you want to know. I no longer manage to struggle victoriously
against sleep, as in the past.
He had a disappointed look, his expression was worried, but I had the impression
that he was making fun of me and I stood up to fight with him, or, at least, to
strike him. He knew too much, it was time for me to eliminate him. We grabbed each
other. We were both soaked in sweat and we felt sick. Our state of extreme exhaustion
slowed our gestures.
I started trying to punch him in the face.
—What did I spill during your so-called sleep, eh? I forked out. Are you going to
reveal it to me, yes or no?
He rapidly gained the upper hand. I had been informed that he knew close combat
holds, kempo and jiu-jitsu, but he was content to land blows of his knees into my chest
and, at the moment when I believed my thoracic cage had smashed into splinters, he
made me topple over backward and roll under the opposite bench, with the same ease
as if I had been a sack containing a few bones and a spadeful of sawdust.
We defied each other with our gazes for hours and without a word while within us
the adrenaline was diluted. The network of ribs which fenced off my lungs reformed,
the hematomas had stopped swelling in what it is quite necessary to call my flesh, for
lack of another more appropriate term. The fever made me suffer the consequences
of the battle. Sometimes I breathed with difficulty, sometimes not. The train ran
alongside or went through temples. The smell of incense and smoke was introduced
by the ventilation system. So as not to sink into moroseness in thinking exclusively of
my conflicts with the Organization and with its henchmen, I made an effort to see in
imagination the pious chaos of the altars and the devout who brandished a fistful of
thin stalks, praying Guan Yin or bowing before the dog-headed idols, calling out to
ancestors, to demons. I have always felt a lively sympathy toward these rites—which
it seems to me, however, absurd to observe myself, supposing that I find myself in a
situation where it would be required of me to demonstrate my piety.
In the late afternoon, my attacks of fever became less frequent. Outside, night was
falling. We had reached, I believe, the east end of Wingsing Lane. I still refused to
question the exterior landscape to learn in what part of the world we found ourselves.
In addition to the disarray of my decaying and filthy clothing, I had beneath my gaze
the nasty angle which my right elbow laid out and, in the distance, a little ball of
black hair, bits of hamburger, a half-circle traced by a shoe’s sole into an oily stain. I
compared this with what I already had in memory. Devoting myself to this mental
activity, I felt less affected by the bitter disappointment of having been thrashed and
less tormented by the jolts of the journey. The compartment indeed swayed relentlessly,
which now bothered me to the point of making me feel sick. Perhaps essential
organs had been bruised in the scuffle. I watched Schlumm for a moment more. The
turned-off blower no longer manhandled his scarves nor the top of his robe which
now dangled in strips, because I hadn’t hesitated to pull on them during the brawl.
Schlumm didn’t show any vague desire to resume the battle, nor to put his clothes
back into a non-miserable state.
When we had gone beyond Wingsing Lane, I resumed my seated position, one
meter away from him, spine leaning on the same bench as him. We stayed like that
until morning, in the half-light that the night lamp blushed with modesty from the
neighboring compartment, then dawn came. Behind the glass, you started to make
out a new urban landscape. A corrugated iron shutter looms up, then vanishes. It was
pulled down before an indistinct shop. I had time to identify the very simple character
which signifies “ten thousand,” but that hardly got me anywhere.
—Woosung Street, murmured Schlumm.
Having sulked enough, I pretended as if nothing hostile had happened between
us. A warm dampness covered the space into which we were withdrawn.
—Perhaps the air conditioning could be turned back on, I suggested.
—I was going to do it, said Schlumm.
He extended his hand to the controls, but the system didn’t start. He maneuvered
the crenellated button, making it come and go on the aluminum rectangle, between
an unlikely symbol of flames and the drawing of an azure blue snowflake. Empty maneuvers.
—It’s broken, he summed up.
—I can bang on it, I proposed.
—If you want, said Schlumm.
I started to crawl in the direction of the electric panel. When I passed in front of
him, Schlumm grimaced.
—Your robe? I asked. Your skin?
—Well really, Puffky, one wonders if you, he moaned.
—I didn’t do it on purpose, I said.
—I should hope not, he said.
I reached the controls and hammered on them with what was left to me of gristle,
of bone. I found myself very close to Schlumm. I was taking multiple precautions so
as not to step on him once again. I was precariously balanced. We were suffocating,
we were both streaming with sweat, swathed with fetid exhalations and on the edge
of blacking out, as if an insidious infection had demolished invisible organs within
us and extended its havoc as soon as we started to move or to speak. I worked away
furiously all day long at the switch which was no longer communicating with the
system, and on the system itself, which remained lifeless. The joints of my fist had
shattered, a liquid welled up between my fingers, a very few drops, not really amber,
but quite comparable to what grasshoppers dribble when you capture them and they
are afraid. I stopped exerting myself, I clung to the edge of the window, to the handrail,
I straightened until I had a more or less vertical posture. I had the feeling I was
performing acrobatic feats of which no one was aware. Outside, the atmosphere was
gray. A dense steam covered the window. With my filthy, wounded hands, I scribbled
a few words onto the moist surface.
—What are you writing? questioned Schlumm.
—Schlumm attacked me, I said.
—Wha, said Schlumm. Why.
—So I remember, I said. So that someone remembers.
—Someone, said Schlumm. Who.
—It’s also in case the Organization sends investigators, I said.
—Well, put instead Schlumm bumped me off, said Schlumm.
We stayed thoughtful for a certain length of time.
—As long as the murder hasn’t taken place, it would be better not to write anything,
Schlumm finally said. One never knows in advance who is going to kill us. One
can predict it, but one is never 100% certain.
—It’s true, there’s a margin of error, I said.
I threw Schlumm a sidelong glance. Night was falling and, in the already triumphant
darkness, his physiognomy pleased me less and less. It seemed to me that the
corner of his mouth wrinkled in a way that nothing except a malevolent irony could
explain. This man spoke of murder with indifference, he spoke of it like only an assassin
can do. Something bored into the hollow of my marrow and expelled fear into
my blood and, five minutes later, I stepped away from the corner window and from
the withdrawn form of Schlumm, apparently immobile and peaceful, but now rather
disturbing. He seemed to be sleeping. One couldn’t dismiss the hypothesis that he
truly was sleeping, nor that he was feigning torpor, nor, and this was the most terrible
hypothesis, that he was doing both things at the same time.
I moved about, taking a thousand precautions not to run aground on the trails of
material which extended the Schlumm organism. I wanted to avoid irritating Schlumm
or awakening him. I regained my initial spot, the one I had held at the beginning of
the journey, then, since the distance between us still seemed ridiculous, since it would
have been enough for Schlumm to lean forward and throw his arm toward me to seize
me and send me back into nothingness, I continued my movement in the direction of
the threshold of the compartment, and I crossed it.
I started to crawl into the hallway. The lone working night lamp emitted slender
gleams which guided me. I had decided to take myself to the neighboring compartment,
precisely where this light was burning, to assure myself of more decent conditions
for survival. It was not a matter of escaping the pursuit that the Organization
had ordered against me, I didn’t make this pretense, but only of gaining a little time
and space. In the unfluid night, without any sweetness other than that of the temperature,
I fixed my eyes on that lamp which was the color of faded lilac, the color of
wilted fuchsia, and which had become for me the derisive star of continuation. I call
here continuation all that permitted me to avoid an immediate attack and therefore to
still keep myself, be it only for an instant, at a distance from the terminal void. From
time to time, I completely statufied myself, so as to listen for whether the killer was
or wasn’t on my trail.
In reality, I detected nothing very stressful. The train pursued its course toward
the sea, the wheels uneventfully swallowed the gaps between the rails, the shock absorbers
squealed with regularity. The hissings of air and iron striated the shadows in
a fashion definitely not unusual. My body escaped me a little, I had the sensation that
it prowled about and crept beyond me, already incapable of fighting against aches and
fear, but the idea of not yet having completely perished had pierced me and stimulated
me. Rather than disastrously collapsing, I raised my head. I leaned my limbs against
the lamp and carried on with my advance.
Hours passed. I didn’t halt the effort for a moment, it would have been to fail. I finally
reached this haven of which I had dreamed, and it was designed to accommodate
seating about eight living people. The benches were softly brushed by the rays of the
night lamp. Yet the night seemed to me denser than elsewhere, no doubt because my
eyesight was failing. Staying on my guard, I settled as I could, at the bottom of a seat,
facing in the direction we were traveling.
I had distributed the pieces of my robe in tentacles around me, to be warned by
a tugging if someone approached on the sly and in the dark. It is a technique that the
Organization teaches to the monks of the Action branch. It reassured me to know that
nobody could slip surreptitiously up to my life and take it from me, however thick the
darkness might be in which I bathed. The instructions of the Action branch specified
that it was also necessary, for more security, to abstain from making noise, through
breathing or other things. I held back from breathing, concentrating on the idea of
traveling more than on that of oxygen.
The train was no longer moving. At a great distance, a loudspeaker made an announcement.
I pricked up my ears. The acoustics of the outside were bad. I believe I
grasped, however, that the next stop would be the Hanfook Street Station. We therefore
were still far from the sea. The doors banged shut in another car. Around me, all
was now silent. Behind the partition, nobody made his presence known.
An hour dwindled away, then the train moved off again. The darkness, the cradling
movements, the state of deep exhaustion in which I found myself got the better
of me. Although I can’t confirm it with any certainty, it seems to me that I lost consciousness
for one or two nights, because, soon, the gleams of early morning entered
the compartment. They wormed their way without vigor through the tissue of droplets
which covered the glass and which had a tendency to make it opaque. I examined
with attention the world visible in my surroundings. My memory was scrambled, my
mind disabled. I received things without drawing conclusions. For example, there
was, under the bench facing me, a hardened wad of chewing gum and some hair, but
I wasn’t able to say if they were familiar or not. In the steam, someone had written
in a clumsy and soiled hand: Puffky bumped me off. I remained like that, before these
humble clues, trying to join them together to build a coherent intellectual structure,
but my thinking never succeeded. Nothing was built. I had only one solitary constructive
obsession, I constantly checked if I was really seated in the direction we were
On the other side of the partition, I thought I detected a snoring, and then all that
might have had a relation to life or sleep fell silent.
—Puffky, are you there? I cried.
No response came. I waited a moment, then I repeated the question.
—Come on, I know you’re there, I said.
I started to knock on the partition so that contact between us would be formed.
—There was a murder, I said. Are you alive? I asked.
I continued to beat on the legs of the bench, on the grill of the air conditioner,
with my right fist, my feet.
—Listen, Puffky, don’t stay in your corner like that, I’m not going to hurt you, I
Puffky didn’t answer, and, for several days, while we pursued our course toward
the sea, I could not know if the murder had taken place or not.

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