Gaustine by Georgi Gospodinovtranslated by Magdalena Levy and Alexis Levitin
I almost choked. I stubbed out the cigarette, without saying a word. Gaustine was talking like a witness who, after a terrible effort, had managed to get over what had happened.
I decided to change the subject abruptly and, for the first time, dared to ask him about his name. He laughed: Gaustine is better than Garibaldi, right? Then he told me briefly how when he was born, his father had insisted adamantly on giving him the name of Garibaldi. He was a fervent admirer and carried a picture of him in his passport, although he didn’t know much about him, except that he was the most legendary revolutionary figure of the nineteenth century, famous for his heroic campaign through the Apennines in which several Bulgarians took part. His father had taken the trouble to dig up or to invent a distant relationship to a certain Giuro Nachev (Fierce Giuro, or Garibaldito), who had fought three times in the ranks of the Garibaldians.
My mother, Gaustine said, a quiet and intelligent woman who had taken three semesters of philosophy at the University (and was an obvious admirer of Saint Augustine), kept only the first two letters, and that’s how she came up with this mixture of early theologian and late revolutionary. I like it myself, he said, but my father couldn’t put up with it and to the end of his life kept calling me Garibaldi.
That was, in general, all the specifics we exchanged during those five or six days as the seminar was coming to its end. I remember, of course, several occasions of really important silence, but there’s no way for me to recount such a thing.
Oh, yes, there was another short conversation on the last day, after we had exchanged addresses. (Only then did I find out that Gaustine inhabited an abandoned house in a small village in the Balkan foothills, of which I had never heard before.) I’ve got no telephone, he said apologetically, but letters usually get there. He seemed infinitely lonely and… belonging nowhere. That was the phrase that popped into my head back then. Belonging nowhere in this world, namely, in the present world. I was certain that all the people he met in that village, if there were any, turned after him, clicking their tongues in pity. We were standing in silence, watching the generous sunset. A big cloud of flies rose from the bushes behind our backs. Gaustine followed them with his eyes and said that while to us that was just another sunset, to those mayflies that sunset was the sunset of their lives. Or something of the sort. I remarked, stupidly enough, that it was just a used-up metaphor. He looked at me in surprise, but said nothing. Only a few minutes later did he observe: in their world there are no metaphors.
I had no idea back then that it would be our last meeting. In October and November of ’89 lots of things happened, things painfully familiar to all of us and described at great length, so I wouldn’t dare bore you with them. I also had other personal problems, working on my first book, getting married, hanging around the squares, so I never had the chance to write to Gaustine. All kinds of stupid excuses, of course. But meanwhile I often thought about him. And he didn’t write to me either.
I got his first postcard precisely on January 2nd, 1990. It was an open Christmas card with a black-and-white Snow-White with color added, slightly plump, looking like Judy Garland. That Snow-White was holding a kind of magic wand with a painted sparkle on top pointing at 1929, printed in large letters. There was a stamp on the back of the card with the effigy of H. M. Boris III and the monarchic crest seal. I immediately went up to the window, assuming that Gaustine had put the card in my mailbox only a minute ago and was now watching me from down below. Nobody in the postal service would deliver a card with that kind of stamp and seal. There was not a soul down there. I examined the card once again. On its back Gaustine had written the address and his Christmas wishes in a graceful hand. The ink was quite well dried; every capital letter had beautifully curved hangers and pothooks. This is what it said:
Happy New Year 1929. I hope that my Christmas wishes find you in good health and good spirits.
Daring to call myself yours,
Gaustine.All of it written in the old orthography, with all those terminal letters and letters for intermediate and nasal vowels. But since my Maritsa typewriter is a 1990 model and has no memory of those letters, I am forced to convey his wish in a “normalized” way. In any case, I immediately sat down and wrote him a long letter explaining how busy I was and apologizing for my prolonged silence. I thanked him postscript for the nice surprise and said that I really appreciated his elegant mystification.
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Per Contra Spring 2007