A Room Warden’s Melodrama
Note: This is my translation of a Japanese prose poem written by a Japanese writer who suffered from the extreme case of psychoneurosis after a national catastrophe in the modern Japan. The original manuscript has not been published yet in Japan, because of the late author’s strict self-censorship and his will that it should not be out even after his lifetime. — G. T.
Only half an hour to go until the closing time of this gallery. As usual, I’m sitting, all through the opening hours, on the same chair set on the same corner of this same small room.
Tomorrow I will say goodbye to this job. Why shouldn’t I? I would end up an idiot otherwise. I know it is exactly the same pledge I have made repeatedly to myself since the first day of this art exhibition, and I wonder what’s so wrong with it.
Only two artworks are in my view now — one is an all-red stone sculpture shaped like a flat and wide operating table with four legs, while the other is a gigantic mural where diverse colors are so incoherently spattered all over that I can hardly understand what it signifies.
I don’t want to be with this ragtag nonsense anymore. Death to art, I will say. Who in the world wants to visit an exhibition titled “We Are Dead: Between the Thought Police and The Brotherhood in Ourselves,” anyway? If you disagree with me, you should give this matter further seat-of-the-pants thought.
The only visitors I had today in this room were — no, I don’t want to use past tense here, somehow — the only visitors I have today in this room are two old ladies, who slide in, hand in hand, without casting any glimpse to me, while I’m sitting rigid without movement. They first approach the mural as quietly as apparitions, and one of them starts talking about the wall-to-wall art while the other is listening to her reticently:
“Can you see here a boy, who looks very angry? — he is mad, maybe because his father was killed by a king, the one you can see right there — now the boy is traveling alone, shouldering a sword inherited from his father, to revenge himself on the king — over there you can see a strange shadow appearing before the struggling boy, cannot you? — it promises the boy to aid his revenge on the sole condition that it can gain his head and sword afterwards — now, look here, Sulamith, you can see a caldron into which the shadow throws the king’s head it has cut off as well as the boy’s one — it pits them against each other in the terribly boiled water — now look there, you can see a hatchet the shadow uses to cut off its own head, which aids the boy’s head in defeating the king’s one in the caldron — lastly, three white skulls are taken out of the caldron and vaguely portrayed at the end of this mural this way, see? — they are so indistinguishable from one another that they are inevitably buried altogether — that’s the whole epic hidden in this work of art, I think.”
The other lady opens her mouth for the first time: “All I can see is an extremely beautiful woman — look right there, Margarete — she is embracing the three skulls tenderly — what’s the title of this mural, anyway? — ‘From I to We,’ yes? I don’t like the word ‘we,’ personally. Rather, I like a different expression like ‘I, and I, and I, and I, and I, and I, and –’”
Another damned pair of stupid women — I think to myself without budging — cannot you guys see that this is simply a madman’s hodgepodge display of colors and has no meaning in it whatsoever?
I start imagining what the beautiful woman on the mural may look like in reality — she must be the artist’s sweetheart, the one he screws day after day while flinging one color after another on this absurdly big space. I find myself envying him.
“I remember a different work of the same artist,” the talkative lady says, “which I saw last year — that was a watercolor only featuring four men pulling respectively one corner of a mysteriously black square cloth –each of them was pulling it so hard that the immense-looking cloth seemed extremely tense and almost ripped. On the surface of its blackness was something vaguely portrayed — a bunch of a woman’s black hair, I thought — and the title of the work was ‘Homecoming’ — weird, ha?”
I have no home to go back to, I say to myself, closing my eyes. Home puts you in chains — I want to remain rather nomadic — how should I pass the rest of the day alone tonight, from the gallery’s closing time to my usual bedtime? — it is the same question I have posed to myself, night after night, since — since when? “I wish I could enclose my home,” the other lady whispers, “tightly with this mural — then I might be perfectly safe thereafter.” The glib one adds, “Well, I’ve heard that there is a nomadic tribe whose houses are protected by different traditional spells written only in women’s menstrual blood on all their walls and roofs, that is to say, all over them.”
Now — a lanky young T-shirted man, who would instantly remind you of Giacometti’s pet statues, comes silently into this room, passes before me without casting any glimpse to me, and walks slowly to the operating-table-like sculpture. On the center of the red single-bed-size surface of this work are a small round hole and a plastic cylindrical protuberance, side by side with each other. I still remember some kids were jokingly calling them a mixture of a penis and a vagina the other day. The title of the sculpture: “Anaphora.” What the hell does it mean, anyway?
I quickly recognize the young man as the creator of the two artworks in this room, although I have neither seen him in person nor any of his photos so far (In fact, I cannot see his face now, because he dons a white flu mask over his mouth and nose, and pulls down his hat to make it impossible for anyone else to identify him, which reminds me of the typical outfit of a violent activist involved in public protest against the government). I trust my own guesswork, because I have been told that the creator always wears a T-shirt whose front displays gaudily six English words (“Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal”) and whose back sports one English word (“Bogeyman”), and that is exactly the same T-shirt the lanky guy is now boasting in front of me.
I imagine this young Giacometti screwing badly an extremely beautiful woman in his atelier, and suppress giggles. His name? All I know is his first name — Paul.
The dialogue between Margarete and Sulamith on the sculpture comes back to me.
The former says: “I saw something like this in a documentary film I was watching yesterday — far away from here, there is a special quarantine facility for patients of a deadly disease which has been long believed to be strongly infectious although not at all in truth — its shabby building has been secretly set by the government, and so many patients have been led away from home and imprisoned there until the end of their lives, losing all connections to their own families and hometowns — once a patient dies in her cell, her body is anatomized by doctors on a stone bed like this artwork, which is usually left out in the open in the courtyard. Her blood and all other fluid run into a small hole on the bed, while many crows come flying down, one of which sometimes perches on a projecting part of the bed. And, later, some selected inmates force the rigor-mortis waste to be coffined, while the others clean the operating table thoroughly.”
The latter lady says: “Suppose you fell in love with someone who gives you the cruelest torture in your lifetime, would you think your love is the greatest? Or the most subservient?” She shoots a back-and-forth look at the sculpture and the mural, as if the former is an island floating on the latter. She finds something like a poem engraved around the cylindrical protuberance of the sculpture:
Please don’t die until the day
when I get lost in the big sea
of languages, steam up and enter
the drizzle falling in your mind
While my eyes continue to be fixed on the creator staring at his own sculpture, my blood starts longing for his body as if it wants to pierce into the flesh of his sweetheart. I stand up (for the first time since I sat on the chair at the start of the opening hours) and approach him stealthily. I hear him (or her?) mumbling something like a spell in a low voice: “Dig your grave in the sky drink black milk start dancing dig your grave in the sky drink black milk start dancing …..”
He, she, and I become one. A king, a shadow, and a boy. Three skulls in a caldron. “Tergiversate,” someone says to me.
I know that a story which ends with the I-woke-up-and-found- everything-was-just-a-dream punchline is no less trashy. Yet — I wake up now on the same chair and find no creator in my sight — no, not on the same chair, bless me, but on the stone operating table. I find me lying there face up and waiting alone for Paul’s groping — or anatomy — the protuberance jabs my back as if to penetrate me — I feel myself porous all over. Homecoming, I mumble.
Silence is slowly superseded by brouhaha. I look up and see a crowd of different shadows hung from (and walking on) the ceiling and looking up at — yes, at me — each of them seems like something non-human and unborn. Will I fall over their heads first, or will they over me first?
A half of me starts falling into the small hole, and begins splitting into two parts under the table: a space without any story and a story without its space. The other half of me, which suffers from something like rigor-mortis, begins to be forcibly pulled from every corner of the square table — what? Square? Isn’t it rectangular? — I have never undergone such pleasurable pain before — an unknown tribal ritual may be now going on here only for me, to protect me from evil spirits — once this system starts to move, nobody can stop it, I say to myself.
Two old ladies — one’s hair is golden, while the other has ashen hair — enter this exhibition room, although the opening time is already over. One stares at the human figure on the operating-table-like sculpture and says, “It is like a Giacometti, isn’t it?” The other says while skimming this gallery’s pamphlet, “The next exhibition room is the final one, right? — it is named, well, Practice in Dying. Huh — by the way, why are all the exterior walls of this gallery so bloody red?”
The ladies may try to touch me — oh, touch me, please, and I will love you both — no hatchet is in my hands, I promise — no, don’t touch any exhibit in this gallery, you beldams, otherwise I will kick your ass or jab you with a sword –
The golden-hair lady says, “I’ve heard that this building was originally built as a secret base,” and the ashen-hair one replies, “It may still remain so — oh, this pamphlet also says the one and only reason why the artist of these two works creates art is that he destroys his works before they are born as complete — weird, ha?”
“If you’re afraid that an evil may fall on you soon, Mr. Ordinary Man,” someone says to me again, “first, be aware that you may be the very evil.”
I start sleeping again. I’m now playing chess with someone who is crooning a song I’ve never heard before:
Stars in the spring sky
Why did so many die?
Covering myself with futon
I cry as a desert island
Is my next move really connected to all my past defenses? Will it really connect with my future fatal attack? — “Checkmate,” my opponent says, and I wake up again to find the only warden of this room stalking the two old ladies walking away to the next room. Death to art, I say. Lights-out.
Lights-on again. A young T-shirted man comes approaching me. Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal. Bogeyman. Will he destroy me, too? No kidding — someday I may say hello to him for the first time, if I decide to continue this boring job even after tomorrow. He may remain deadly silent, though.