Putting on a Play in Wartime Sarajevo

Friday, July 15, 2016

This excerpt is taken from the award-winning novel Elijah’s Chair by Igor Štiks (Fraktura, 2006). Already translated into fourteen languages, it will appear in an English translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać in 2017, published by Amazon Crossing. The protagonist, Richard Richter, a Viennese writer and journalist, learns only in his fifties, after a painful divorce, that his mother, Paula, and aunt, Ingrid, who raised him, hid from him the fact that his father was a man he’d never heard of—Jakob Schneider, a leftist Jewish antiwar activist from Sarajevo who vanished from Vienna in the early 1940s. Did Schneider survive the Holocaust? If he was still alive in the 1990s, where might he be living? Just then the war is breaking out in Bosnia. Richter decides, nevertheless, to go to Sarajevo to report from there as a war correspondent and, while he’s there, to search for more information about his father. Once he’s in Sarajevo, he finds a student, Ivor, to serve as his guide and translator, and he and Ivor undertake to make a movie about a play in rehearsal in the besieged city, based on a script adapted from a novel, Homo Faber, by Swiss writer Max Frisch. The sparks exchanged in this passage between Richard Richter and the play’s star, Alma Filipović, ignite a blaze that ultimately consumes them both.


We began our work on the movie. We filmed actors rehearsing a scene, the hovering director, the building, the ordinary routines of work in the theater, the sorts of scenes you could film anytime and anywhere. The difference in Sarajevo was hidden in what it was like working with people who, if they were even to show up at work, had to get there on foot, sometimes from neighborhoods far away, negotiating their way into the center of the city, dashing across intersections where a sniper lurked, fearful of shelling, in order to take part that day in rehearsals or to perform for free before generally full houses of people who also had to dodge these obstacles in order to attend the performance. Not to mention that they were then faced with the return home, which made all the art in this city, here and now, an undertaking entailing quite a remarkable degree of risk.

This was what we’d hoped to film, but we got so much more because the story of each of our actors is unique. Bojan joined us at the theater only when he wasn’t out on the defense lines. Aida has a three-month-old baby and lives in a part of town near the Grbavica front line. Mirza cares for his ailing parents, and his girlfriend recently left for Belgrade—he hopes they’ll find each other somewhere when all this is over. Vanja lives near the Television building, and the routes she takes into the center of town each day are incredible— a month ago her father was killed. Lejla dreams about going out to the coast; she met a local boy there, apparently, last year and wonders what happened to him, there’s a war going on there too . . .  The rest of them haven’t yet managed to get in to the theater today. I felt I could have filmed them just like that—while they were talking about the everyday realities of their wartime lives—and we could have made a movie just about these young people, but we didn’t have much time. We decided instead to apportion more minutes for interviews with the managing director, the director of the play, and, of course, Alma Filipović. After that we’d film the performance, the audience, take a few statements, and proceed with the editing, which we’d already made arrangements for at the state television facility.

Ivor was asked to speak with Alma about filming at her apartment in a day or two. Later I realized he’d been admiring her well before they met. He considered her a superb actress and remarkable person, head and shoulders above those around her. It crossed my mind that he’d organized the making of the movie just to work with her. Later he confessed he’d wanted me to meet her because he was interested in what sort of impression she’d make on me. That was why he hadn’t mentioned her till then, although he’d already assigned her a central role. In his opinion she was the person who was carrying the theater and its wartime repertoire.

I was given a rather cold reception by Alma that day, which did not surprise me. She went straight to work, paying no heed to the camera Ivor was handling while he managed the tone and all the other necessary details he was already juggling so capably. She ignored my directorial prompts in English (an odd situation, but since Ivor and I were new hands at this, I’d say things went reasonably well). He then went over to her and explained we’d like a longer conversation with her, we’d thought we’d visit her at her apartment, and this would give the movie a certain effect. We wanted her to tell us about herself and her ideas, the life of an actresss during the war, and so on. Alma nodded, glancing my way a few times. They talked a while longer, clearly more relaxed, which I could gather from their expressions and smiles. Ivor, it seemed, was softening her haughty demeanor. Ultimately she tossed out Bis bald, herr Richter! and before I had the chance to respond, she’d slipped out through the foyer.


Our plan, that first day, was to interview the managing director. Over the next few days we’d be filming the director of the play while he worked with the actors, explained his concept while standing on the empty stage, gesturing, dropping papers from the bundle he always held tucked under his arm, sweating like a steam engine while he apologized for sweating, and raising his hands to the sky that, along with everything else, was bearing down on us with heat. The managing director received us, of course, in his office in a freshly pressed suit, ready for his great speech before the camera. It was actually engaging, what he had to say, the gist of which could be summarized as “the role of our theater in the war of defense.” And though he drew his inspiration from the Partisans of World War II, whom he invoked, he said that under the current circumstances, in the contemporary world such as it was, there was no place for a more traditional brand of patriotic theater. In fact, the most patriotic theater in the Bosnian situation could only and exclusively be to work on first-rate European plays, a modern staging of classics or recent texts, because, as he said, this is the only way we can fight the barbarians, clearly showing on whose side we truly stand, with a “united Europe and the civilized world.” Both Europe and that world would come to understand sooner or later and put a stop to the bloodshed by justly punishing the aggressor, as our managing director concluded optimistically. I let him speak his piece, not to muddy his trust in imminent salvation, and besides, the speech was calibrated for foreign audiences and had its place in the movie, so I saluted him with a revolutionary clenched fist. I was thinking that such slogans would please only aging leftists, of whom I was one. Some of them had not yet grasped that the Berlin Wall was down for good. A few hangers-on were still doggedly voicing their support for the Milošević side in the Yugoslav wars, admiring him for his open scorn of the capitalist West, his voluntary isolation, and his resolve to continue on his path to ruin, ruining others and, ultimately, himself. But I thought it better not to talk to the managing director about that, I let him think things would eventually fall into place.

I was surprised by the altogether different ideas about the war we heard from Alma Filipović, ideas I did not, at first, fully understand, though they did make an impression on me. As time passes, I see with greater clarity that, unfortunately, Alma was right, as she groped in the darkness in which, sooner or later, she’d find all the rational explanations for what was happening here.


Alma Filipović. I’m skipping over a host of details about the days we spent filming in the building of the theater. I’m skipping ahead and hurrying, because I want to write about Alma and because I can no longer rein in the story and slow down the gallop of events, as if there were any way I could change things by so doing, as if I could believe that this is a novel I’m writing and I possess the power to steer the plot. Unfortunately, here our situation is rather the opposite: the plot is sweeping along the protagonist who is, in fact, the author himself. As he writes, he’s stumbling through it all blindly, unable to foresee where it will lead him. Even when the Sarajevo episode ends, the story goes on. It seems to him at times that he’s recording all this at the dictate of a story that will take him from that April day and finally punctuate the end with a period when the time for that comes.

Perhaps, after I left Sarajevo, Ivor finished the movie and our little contribution might be aired one day, so what my fellow filmmaker and I did during those days can be seen. I don’t know. I fled too soon to find out what Ivor accomplished during the fateful days when he was busy editing at state teleivision. For me the movie will remain nothing more than the way I found my way to her, the open door through which I stepped, and which then, unnoticed, shut behind me. Maybe nothing would have happened if we’d done something differently—any little thing—than what we, Alma and I, did. Just one decision, even the smallest, might have changed everything, and today I wouldn’t be sitting here in the middle of the Viennese summer in 1992 and my sweat wouldn’t be dripping on the typewriter—my sole witness to the painful (shameful?) things I mean to describe. Something different, I say, a train of circumstances, a different time of day, a chance encounter, the explosion of a shell in another place and another time, a belated arrival to an appointment, less hurry, a question asked of the right person, perhaps a slightly lessened intensity for the attraction, another hair color, other arms, glances evaded, poorly chosen words, anything . . .

There’s no point in guessing. We visited Alma at the appointed time, the day before the opening night. Luckily, she lived not far from our place. We had to climb uphill with the equipment, avoiding spots that were more exposed. We felt that, camera in hand, we were a choice treat for an ambitious sniper. Ivor warned me several times that I should watch what I was saying, that I shouldn’t behave, as he put it, like a “gnarly old billy goat,” that I mustn’t be as rude as I was that first day, which I duly promised. He was quite excited, he wanted everything to turn out exactly as he’d planned, he’d ask a number of prepared questions and then we’d let Alma talk, because without her, judging by Ivor, there was no way we could have made the movie. Fine, I nodded, fine, but I wasn’t sure who was doing the directing here and who was assisting, which hadn’t mattered much to us anyway since we’d begun. The moment before we rang at Alma’s door, Ivor told me, “Oh, and yesterday she asked about you.”

“Really?” I was startled. “What?”

“Why you’ve come to Sarajevo, where’d I met you, how, that sort of thing . . .”

“And? What did you say?”

“That you had nothing better to do in your life than to come poking around Sarajevo . . . ”

“How dare you . . . !”

“. . . and you were doing it so you could write about everything that’s happening here, raise the alarm out in the world and so forth . . . that even if you’re occasionally a little heavy-handed, you believe in what you’re doing, you’re a famous writer . . . ”

“Fine, fine . . . ”

“That she already knew.”


“At her parents’ home, believe it or not, they have several of your books in German . . . ”

“So my books have been read around here.”

“ . . . but, she confessed, she hadn’t read them . . . ”

“There is, my dear Ivor, always time for the classics . . . ”

I hadn’t yet finished the sentence when Ivor rang the bell. Alma opened it almost immediately, as if she’d been waiting right behind the door, and I was even worried she might have overheard our conversation. She greeted me in German, which she spoke with some difficulty, while with Ivor she exchanged a few warm words, or so they sounded to me, in Bosnian.

She brought us into the living room. She was living alone in an apartment where books elbowed videocassettes. Ivor had already told me her husband was a prominent theater director, Faris Filipović, and soon Alma would confirm that the war had separated her from him; he’d gone to Berlin on a fellowship at the beginning of the year. Good timing! I exclaimed. Depends, she answered coldly. Since the war broke out, her husband had been calling her to join him, but she’d refused. Why? Because at moments like this one didn’t leave, was her feeling. I couldn’t stop myself and said that sometimes the larger social and political situation gave people a handy alibi, but it was likely to be linked in some way to decisions of a purely personal nature. Ivor shot me a sharp glance.

“Are you referring to yourself, Mr. Richter?” she asked.

“Not necessarily.”

“Following one’s personal decisions, as you put it, needn’t mean that one remains in a city where the shells are flying, does it?”

“Not necessarily,” I answered, and we smiled at each other for the first time with greater warmth. Ivor breathed a sigh of relief.


There was a stunning view from Alma’s apartment over the old part of town and the tall mountain behind it, but she immediately cautioned us not to stand near the windows for safety’s sake. She led us through the spacious apartment with its modern furnishings. We were holding drinks, Ivor joked, I followed them while surveying the household. Her laughter, dark hair, now clasped in a ponytail, her slender body in jeans, her summer blouse, her at-home manner, her nicely shaped breasts, the make-up she’d probably applied hastily, her expensive perfume, the bare feet on the dark-brown parquet floor . . . How old could this woman be, I wondered, I was probably old enough to be her father . . . I felt so over-the-hill with the two of them . . .

“Where would you like to begin, Mr. Richter?” I heard her question as if from afar, as if I were recovering from a temporary deafness. “Mr. Richter? Are you with us? Mr. Richter?”

For a moment I felt I was getting dizzy again; I also mused, sheepishly, that I was studying her a little too closely, this was the wrong move, she felt it, and besides, I was having increasing difficulty controlling the effect this young woman’s charm was having on me (how old could she be, I mused again, concluding she couldn’t be over thirty), and this was certain proof of the evaporating of the last atoms of youth in us, our loss of concentration, the bothersome symptoms of aging, and, with them, the painful loss of the illusion that a dalliance was even possible.

“Richard?” now this was Ivor’s voice.

“Sorry, friend?” I started. “Apologies. I’m right here with you. I was just thinking, myself, of how best to start, and my thoughts wandered. Mrs. Filipović . . . ”

“Please call me Alma, Mr. Richter.”

“Please call me Richard, Alma. The Mr. makes me, I don’t know, feel strangely old, like the friend of your father’s he plays chess with on Saturdays.”

“Impossible. My father’s much, much older than you, so in the worst case I might treat you like a somewhat older gentleman. And besides, he plays chess on Sundays.”

“You’ve consoled me, Alma, indeed. Thank you for that. And what do you say we leave my years be, which may, sad to say, add up to more than yours and Ivor’s combined.”

“Don’t exaggerate or go pitying yourself like you’re some sort of old fogey,” called Ivor and then turned to Alma. “He affects innocence. Don’t believe him.” Alma laughed.

“But to get to the point, what do you say to us sitting here in the living room while you tell us about yourself.”

“Should I recline, perhaps, on the couch?” asked Alma.

“So, let’s see, would you tell us a little something about your relationship with your father? All for the movie of course. Only for the sake of the movie.”

“Anything you say, doctor,” she embraced my jest. This emboldened me. “And by the way, that role suits you better than the role of judge you so often play. But that’s something that can’t be run from, can it?”

Judge? Alma was the first person in Sarajevo who’d mentioned the meaning of my last name, the name I was given by Heinrich. Alma reminded me for the first time in days—I’d been refusing to dwell on the big discovery of my mother’s letter—of Jakob, of why I was here, of the unpredictable path on which my Viennese decision had led me. And suddenly the fact that I was in her apartment, with Ivor, that I was even here in Sarajevo, in the midst of a war, besieged, seemed so remarkably bizarre. I was marveling at this, and I must have sunk back into my thoughts, because the next thing I saw was Alma’s anxious face. She apologized: Sorry, but is everything all right? Did I say something wrong? Terribly sorry . . .

She appeared to be genuinely concerned that she might have upset me with her innocent jest. Suddenly she lost all her hauteur. She seemed especially charming and also, then, more sensitive, nearer . . . For the first time I became aware of this, perhaps precisely at the moment when she laid her silken hand on my shoulder and I shivered like an excited teenager.

“Is everything really all right? How are you feeling, Richard?”

“I think I’m just tired, Alma,” I replied and decided to check the flow of my turbulent thoughts and collect myself, so I clapped my hands. “To work! Quick!”

Alma took a seat in front of the camera and spoke in Bosnian. This was our plan. Ivor interpreted for me. She understood enough German that he didn’t have to interpret back to her. I watched her openly as I adjusted the lens, and Ivor’s words reached me. She spoke about how she’s living alone in the besieged city, how she readies herself each day for work, how she rehearses her roles, sometimes at night in a cellar packed with neighbors by candlelight, she spoke about the streets she traverses every day, what she sees happening around her, about an everyday life lived within constraints, about how some things are becoming habit. Alma spoke, and her chest, like a child’s, rose each time she started a sentence; soon she flushed. Her hands followed each word she spoke, and I could guess at what she was saying by their movements alone. One of her wartime duties was to look after her elderly father, and clearly she was deeply attached to him. This was no surprise: after all, her mother had died a few years earlier and now they had only each other. She was born when her father was already well along in years. He was in excellent form, though nearly eighty, and he read a lot in several languages including, for example, German. He’d been a student in Graz before World War II. She was sorry he had to suffer through this war as well, after he’d only barely survived the last one; he’d even been interned in a camp.

Alma had a black cat named Kali, but it was not a harbinger of bad luck for its black fur or its name, as some of her neighbors feared who had a passing familiarity with Indian mythology. We let the cat curl up in her lap and loll about in front of the camera. Kali is the first to flee to the cellar during each bombing raid, and there she waits for her mistress and the other tenants. We all chuckled at the cat staring, blankly, at the camera lens, then turning to the window as if harkening to what the enemy artillery had in store. We bantered while the camera rolled.

Then she spoke about her theater projects. About her acting, the roles she’s preparing, the books she’s reading. I’d saved for the end of the filming the question that had piqued my curiosity from the start, and I hadn’t been able to imagine her answer.

“What decided you to adapt Max Frisch’s novel Homo Faber for the stage and put it on in Sarajevo while the city is under siege? Why this particular text? Its connection to what we have here is not an obvious one.”

Alma took another deep breath before she launched into her monologue, and her words ring still in my ears with far more clarity than they did then.

“The protagonist in the novel, Mr. Faber, is an engineer who believes in technology and science, he believes in the ratio on which the modern West rests. He believes in mathematical calculations, uncontestable laws. He does not believe in human constructs like the soul or fate. And, finally, Mr. Faber falls in love with and sleeps with his own daughter, fashioning his own fate, a bitter fate indeed, despite all the warning signs. This engineer, technologist, mathematician, a true product of Western civilization, is incapable of the most rudimentary calculation, incapable of drawing conclusions from what so blatantly asserts itself, that the girl he has fallen in love with is his own daughter.”

“The connection to Sarajevo, to this war, still eludes me,” I interrupted her. “What’s the point of staging this novel in Sarajevo today? Whatever for?”

“I was just getting to that. On the one hand, we agreed in our theater company that the fact that we are in a war does not mean we should choose plays with a simple message for the audience. I feel we need to go on working as we would otherwise, in peace, as much as we possibly can, while trying at the same time to sustain a certain standard. Because, after it’s all over, the story is not what will remain, but the standard with which we performed it. The war will pass, and we’ll be left with top-notch theater, as good as any we’d have in peacetime. And that is what these theatergoers, who are suffering through the war, care about. Because of this I decided to stage something I’ve been carrying for some time. This was, if I can put it this way, a peacetime idea. However, the more I work on it now with the war on, the more I see that the text brings us a message at an entirely different level, a message that’s not easy to decipher, yet it may even be of critical importance for us. Unfortunately, this is bad news for the people of Sarajevo and Bosnia. The text helped me understand our plight, to begin to think with a profound pessimism about our future, the days ahead, the siege that will go on and on, even if we can’t even imagine such a thing right now.”

“I don’t see how this text, in particular, helped you understand the war,” I interrupted nervously. “I’m really trying to grasp what that could be . . . ”

“The message can’t be found at the level of the novel’s storyline, or in what the viewers tomorrow will see on stage, but if we cultivate a discussion that starts with the text, we can ask ourselves whether the engineer is, in fact, right. Isn’t this about something rational and, ultimately, quantifiable—what happens to him? You don’t need fate to run an ordinary calculation and understand the cause-and-effect relationship that, no matter how unusual it might be, is, in fact, based on a series of plausible causes and effects. It’s just that Mr. Faber didn’t succeed in this, in doing the basic mathematical operation, though it was right there in front of him.

“I see something of this in the situation facing Sarajevo, this country. Are we not naive with our surprise at how what is happening to us is happening, how is it possible that the war happened, how is it possible that someone is holding you in this citywide concentration camp, shelling you day after day, how is it possible that the world isn’t lifting a finger to help when the injustice is so glaring? How is it possible that we who are defending the values of coexistence, multiculturality, tolerance, and the other grand words in circulation today in Europe have received no aid from that same Europe that invokes these same values as it invents itself, no aid from contemporary Western civilization, which has built these values into its very democratic foundations? And how could it be that, ultimately, those who are acting in the name of ethnic purity, division, conflict, and war, still go unpunished?! And along with all this, while we’re trying to prove what’s truly happening here, how could this same Europe be referring to the war as something ‘preordained,’ an ‘avalanche of ancient hatreds,’ ‘madness,’ ‘misadventure,’ a ‘prophecy come to pass,’ in an effort to explain this very clear cause-effect sequence of the war by relying on irrational arguments? The fact that Mr. Faber or our naive European is erring in his calculation doesn’t mean the calculation isn’t correct and that it wouldn’t be simple to deduce if only they’d open their eyes wide enough. Just as Faber doesn’t want to do that, and because he’s in love with the girl, he ignores all signs portending the catastrophe in order to get what he truly wants: her body and her love. Because as I see it, Europe and the West are actually standing on the other side from where the people of Sarajevo think they should be standing, on the other side from what Sarajevans are defending today, what they are invoking. Everything they’re doing, despite the rhetoric, is confirming that they, whether they’re fully aware of it, partially aware of it, or altogether oblivious to it, are on the side of those who dream of states that are ethnically and religiously pure, and they are prepared to send millions to their death or into exile to make this happen. Today’s Europe may, in fact, have its true representatives in Karadžić’s army, not in us. Karadžić’s men are the heralds of the continent’s future, of ethnicization, religious hatred, division, of racial purity and resistance to the demographic threats of the racial, national, and religious others. Champions of the new European xenophobia, they are the truly European players on the Balkan playing fields, not us. Nothing here is ‘predestined’ or ‘rampant,’ yet the European continues tailoring destiny so rationally, while sitting there twiddling his thumbs. For the time being he’s confused and isn’t succeeding, nor, we claim with a growing certainty, does he wish to address this simple problem of addition, and he even summons fate to his aid, against which there will be no recourse when it comes into its own in the Balkans and serves the rampant forces of ethnic conflict as a sedative for his unsettled conscience. Yes, the European is fashioning his destiny today in Sarajevo precisely as he deeply desires to—even if that means sleeping with his own daughter, and even if he has to do what he claims is impermissible to his rational order, and even if he has to trample daily on what he daily claims are his values, or simply allows others to trample on them, unpunished, right before his very eyes. Yes, the European is tailoring his fate in Sarajevo because what he sees here today is nothing more than a mirror showing him his own future. When all is said and done, he’ll undoubtedly wonder how it could possibly have happened that he was unable to do the simplest calculation, how he didn’t open his eyes and look out through the window of the Balkan war into the front yard of his own tomorrow, how he didn’t realize what was obvious, what was clear to common sense, and how all that could happen to him, to Faber, to a modern and enlightened European.”


Alma was done. Ivor turned off the camera. I watched her without a blink, trying to take in her words. This was more than enough for the movie and plenty provocative, though I wasn’t sure that it all made sense. We got up in the strange silence that came over us following her weighty words. And if I still couldn’t easily make my peace with her arguments, I admitted her sharp mind, the draw of her thinking, and the impact of her conclusion. We thanked Alma and promised to leave her alone until the opening nightthat would also be the last stage of our filming. This would bring our job to a close, and we’d start with the editing. The managing director had already invited us to stay on in the theater after the performance for the “reception,” as he announced officially, for the actors and crew, so we’d have a chance to see each other then. Alma saw us to the door. The cat fled under the bed, scared by distant blasts.

I was troubled and disturbed by her interpretation of events. I could never have read the text that way, though I might have agreed with most of Alma’s political conclusions. But I would have drawn them more likely from the everyday experience of the war, not from literature. Perhaps this was a question of vanity, I don’t know, but I couldn’t help but say: “I’m impressed with your interpretation, though I must admit I didn’t fully grasp the link between the novel and all we have around us. And besides, you said this was a project you’d already had in mind before the war. You were reading it in a totally different light yet chose to stage the adaptation now?”

“Yes, I understood it differently then. I was interested in the story, in human fate, in the unpredictability of life, the likelihood that something like what the novel speaks of can happen despite human personalities and beliefs. Fate, whatever that means. What I said, actually, was that this text helped me understand our situation better, not that I read it all from the story in the novel. My father thinks similarly about things. It was actually through our recent conversations about the adaptation that I came to all these devastating conclusions. These are, to a large degree, his ideas as well. I want to say that, if the link isn’t entirely clear, I am not, myself, able to explain it with crystal clarity—who would be, after all?—but it seems to me that at the political and practical level, things are looking more and more like what I described to you. Regrettably.”

“The UN has issued Karadžić an ultimatum,” said Ivor.

“We’ll see. I hope I’m wrong. But the development of events won’t change the essence of the thing. It seems to me that the logic of this conflict has already been endorsed by those who have issued the ultimatum.”

“We’ll see,” I said. “It would be hard for me to accept your pessimism in its fullness, although I admit that you have laid good foundations for it. And besides, who would think to connect this novel about incest and the war in Bosnia! How did you even come up with the idea of adapting it?”

“I love the text. I love the story,” she said. “Simple.”

“Everybody loves it.” I was growing sarcastic, and I wanted to provoke her. Maybe her intelligence was starting to wear on me, her youth, her brash ideas, beauty, confidence . . . I hated myself for what I was saying, but a demon inside me drove me on. “The theme of incest always does have appeal, doesn’t it? The war is one thing, but what drew you to this novel? Fear that something like that could actually happen? Fine, you at least know your father. You at least have that advantage, but at another level, to use that word you like so much, a daughter can recognize within herself the fear that something like this really could happen to her, to sleep with her own father, as a source of fascination rife with sexual tension. If I understood correctly what the director of the play said, you’ll be playing the daughter. This is very interesting. Did it catch your fancy? Or was the idea of adapting the novel your father’s suggestion? Which would be interesting, of course, from another point of view . . . ”

“Clearly, it’s time for us to move to the couch, but the time is up on this session. I’ll have to disappoint you or even offer you more material for your unrealized psychoanalytical potential,” she responded with precision to the various barbs of my commentary. “You see, it is true that my own father did tell me about this novel. I think he was reading it on an entirely different level than that of the story line and here, again, I will disappoint you. Far from the shocking tale of incest, I think, in his case, this text was related, in a way, to his loss of faith in progress, in human advancement, in a better society, in change, if you like, on the one hand, and, on the other, there were certain important episodes from his own life. But that, of course, is none of your business. Now I have to prepare for opening night. I hope I have helped you, gentlemen.”

Alma opened the door. She exchanged a few words with Ivor, evading my eyes. I had made her quite nervous, and the tip of her nose jumped a little angrily as it had on that first day, perhaps because everything had gone so well all afternoon, and I’d even complimented myself that she liked me. Ivor was in a hurry to leave as soon as possible, before this swelled into a new clash, which was the last thing we needed right at the end of our filming. He was already striding out through the dark of the hallway when Alma Filipović tried saying goodbye to me.

“Don’t be so certain,” I interrupted her, surprising myself with my words, clearly thoughts I hadn’t been able to hold back in my own destabilized mind, “that your father didn’t, like every man, have in mind the idea that perhaps there is a daughter of his wandering out there in the world, a daughter he knows nothing about, yet whom the theory of probability allows. Without underestimating Frisch, this is the secret of the success of this text for most readers.”

“Mr. Richter,” said Alma, shifting emphatically to her more formal tone, “you truly judge everything as if life is a courtroom, and you are ensconced within it as the judge, and you proclaim your judgment about all those who find themselves on your path, about whom you know nothing, and you are perfectly convinced that you are right and that God gave you the talent to judge people and about people. And since you are a seasoned judge, you’re unable to be judge to yourself, because it just so happens that within the jurisdiction you’ve built for yourself, it cannot occur that someone turns up to take your place, and places you, for instance, in the chair of the accused. You ought to try that once, for it is cannot be easy for you to judge justly day after day, to understand everything and everybody, and always be right. You do your difficult job with enviable ability, Mr. Richter, especially as it does not bring you, or any judge, for that matter, much love from the judged.”

“Nicely put.” I took a combative position. “Do you remember the story about the scorpion and the frog? The frog, surprised, asks ‘Why?’ after being stung in the middle of the river by the scorpion that had offered to do it the favor of carrying it across the river on its back. Do you know what the scorpion answered before both of them sank?”

“I can hardly wait to hear.”

‘It’s in my blood!’ Miss Filipović.”

“Mrs. Filipović,” she shouted. It seemed we were already quarreling loudly, because I heard Ivor coming quickly back. “Your story is instructive, but you still need to find that frog, Herr Richter, to confirm your own character. This will undoubtedly bring you happiness.”

“I’ll find it sooner or later, don’t you worry,” I said nastily. “I always do.”

“Best of luck!”

She slammed the door. I froze for a few moments, staring at it, as if enchanted. I suddenly felt an inexplicable emptiness. I didn’t know what I felt exactly, aside from a tinge of remorse at the words I’d said. I was surprised by the situation that had been sparked by this conversation and which seemed unusually complicated despite the fact that I’d hardly known Mrs. Filipović for very long. I couldn’t understand how it had happened. It was one more in a series of strange feelings that day. I moved slowly toward Ivor, who was watching me reproachfully from the stairwell. After two or three steps I turned suddenly, without any clear reason, back to Alma’s door. It seemed only then that the cover slid over the spy hole inside the door.

Friday, July 15, 2016