At first glance, the titles appear to be innocent, as if they all derive from chemistry lessons – a sensory perception or form, but the reader subsequently discovers that Dror Burstein relies on the foundations of the periodic table of elements like a master of the Chinese game GO – a game with simple rules but tremendous moves’ possibilities that has to do with strategy and philosophy (10 in the power of 761, as opposed to chess which is 10 in the power of 120, for instance). Burstein takes elements of the periodic table and posits them as a kind of impossible question, maneuvering the reader from chemistry to alchemy, as deceptive as a master player of GO – the reader doesn’t know whether events take place in the real world or if they are part of a character’s illusions. The basic, seemingly innocent, elements of the periodic table function as trivial forces for Dror Burstein and he uses them to point to a riddle and to indicate that there are other forces at play; these come from strange lands, a realm belonging not quite to the imagination or to madness or nightmares. They compile a parallel table of elements of sorts, creating a new, richer, reality, one which expands the limits of possibility. Like a game of GO, the story opens with a toss of stones (Burstein’s elements) onto a clean slate, a deceptive strategy of building a story while moving from the formal world that is anchored in chemistry into the world of alchemy, without arousing protest. The same way a master GO player places his stones on the board and causes the opponent to move without the latter sensing that he is being manipulated, so Burstein guides the reader through the text, expanding the boundaries of words. “Writing means forgetting,” wrote Pessoa “literature is the most agreeable way to ignore life.”
Translated by: Leanne Raday
Light snow fell on Bilbao. We sat there beneath the Guggenheim Museum and waited for it to open. A few meters away stood the famous architect Frank Gehry, carefully examining the extravagant structure whose planning had brought him world fame. The snow soundlessly hit the titanium sheets and it seemed as if the wind carrying the snow was blowing air into the metal sails, and that the museum would soon glide into the nearby sea through the Bay of Biscay and head north to the pole. That was where, thought she and I, all this snow was coming from. This museum is a big fish whose scales have been ruffled by a storm, she said to me, and you’re also a fish like that. But there are no fish and no scales of titanium. How I would have liked to be as light as it is, as strong, full of paintings; but, unlike it, our bones break and our skin turns rusty. A titanium skeleton and titanium skin; it is impossible.
The great architect limped toward us and as he came closer we realized that it was actually not Frank Gehry but someone else. He looked very much like him, so it was no wonder we had made the mistake. He said without being asked, yes, it’s true, I do look like Frank Gehry. I also make a living from it. For years I was a vagabond on the beaches of Bilbao, gathering crumbs, playing on an old accordion and collecting copper and zinc coins. And one day that museum appeared here, hatched like I don’t know what. I took the usual route home and it was suddenly there. The previous day – it wasn’t; they’d built it overnight. And someone shouted – there’s the maestro! And I quickly realized that they thought I was the one who planned the museum. Since then, I show up here every day. I pick up groups for guided tours. I explain about the planning, the building, the philosophy of titanium and the wind that blows incessantly outside the outer rims. I may be a double, but I have studied the building and the part. I was present in two guided tours given by Gehry himself; I could plan a building myself today, and at home, at night, I actually do sit and make plans, one day you’ll see. The tourists are surprised that Frank Gehry speaks fluent Spanish and Basque, but, I hear them say, a genius like that, it’s no wonder that he has no difficulty with languages.
I hear what they say, the visitors, and memorize it. I remember and pass it on with my own additions. This museum is a big fish whose scales have been ruffled by a storm, he said. It is the grandest gesture made by the land abodes to the depths, where there isn’t a single house; no museum, no painting, no sculpture, except for the sculptures that sailed on ships that were wrecked and those that stood on top of the bows to clear the path. This museum, the architect raised his two palms to the snow, thinks of the day – and it will come – when the sea will cover the whole of Europe and Spain. The icebergs will melt, the waters will rise, and the first drops will trickle into the main entrance. The snow will fall from above, like now, and soundlessly hit the titanium sheets, and it will seem to the few people still gathered here as if the museum would soon set sail through the overflowing Bay of Biscay and venture north. The museum is made of titanium. Titanium is light and it will float like Noah’s Ark. It is resilient and will protect us all through the difficult voyage. I, as the architect of this building, will know its secrets, I will capture the wind in the huge titanium sails and we shall float north, to the place where the rising waters cannot threaten us because they will be frozen. And I will send a dove to see if the waters were abated, and it will be a white dove, and as she leaves the window of the ark she will disappear and that will be our sign.
We clapped, thinking he was very good. He removed his hat and hinted with his bristly white chin. But we only had one-hundred euro bills. We promised we would give him something after the ticket offices opened and we had some change.
In the last International Book Festival in Miami, I noticed, through the cigar smoke, in the far corner of the huge hall that was coloured in black and red, the famous horror novelist, who, it is said, scared himself so badly writing his last bestseller that he required psychiatric care. I was surprised to see that he wasn’t the tanned muscleman with the glowing smile and brush cut haircut that appeared on his book covers. The girls that had always surrounded him in newspaper photos – glamor girls in every sense of the word – metamorphosed before my very eyes into two scrawny nurses; his stiff, brush cut hair, which was black as coal and earned him the nickname “The Colonel”, was held by his shaky hand – a toupee, as it turns out. His huge muscles were – a literary agent from a competing publishing house whispered – the result of primitive Photoshop work and the white smile was achieved by wearing silicon teeth that he purchased in bulk at shops specializing in vampire costumes. He would change his teeth every day and sometimes after each meal. And it wasn’t only the teeth that were made of silicon, said the agent; oh, no, there is so much more. The famous horror novelist was a shadow of himself, as scared as a mouse. He shuddered like a leaf every time his fans pushed through – such large women! The literary agent cried in horror – to get his weary autograph. It turns out that the horror novelist’s most dedicated readers knew the truth about him and have been exchanging real pictures of him for many years. Today we know, said the agent, that it was some of his readers who circulated his famous PR photos and porn films in order to enhance their Plaisir du Texte. In fact, the agent whispered, moving a fingernail as cold as iron across my back, it wasn’t this writer who wrote his horror books, but someone else.
We had a brother-in-law of a brother-in-law who was a tin soldier. He was wounded badly in the Lebanon War at the start of the eighties, and they were thinking of giving up on him and his combative services, but they had some spare tin in the army storage at the end of that year, so they casted a body for him. His old head remained, of course, but his body was now a silvery-metal that glimmered, and when he took his uniform off you could see it. He took it off at every opportunity, in the winter too. He didn’t let us touch, so that it wouldn’t corrode, he said. So we waited until he was asleep to go closer.
They left him a symbolic heart and lung and spleen, and perhaps a few other internal organs. But it’s like memorabilia, he said. They’re just stored in a tin box which is me, he explained. They don’t fill any significant role. When you change to tin, he said, you change to tin. This strange sentence accompanied my childhood. I too wanted to “change to tin”. I had no idea what that meant, of course, but when I played with my tin soldier army – I think it was the brother-in-law of the brother-in-law who bought it for me even before the injury – I imagined myself lying there among them on the far hills of the battlefield. I imagined large helium balloons carrying lead zeppelins. That distant relative led us to easy victory and to the takeover and clearing of military posts. While we were all tiny – no taller than a finger – he was his real height – 5ft 10, cast to perfection, a heart and lung rattling in his body like water cans.
I recently thought of that brother-in-law of a brother-in-law, years after last seeing him at our house. Like many family members, there were times he emerged in our lives, but more often he disappeared, like a comet that rises every now and then at night on the horizon that stretches between the living room and the kitchen. I thought of him while I was looking for my tin soldier box at my parents’ house, wanting to show it to my children, but couldn’t find it. I asked my mother where it was and if she remembered the thick wire and soldering iron she once used to weld him when he got cut. We were sitting down to lunch and she lay the heavy silver fork down on the table. She was surprised that only now, after so many years, I thought of asking. It turned out that the relative was re-enlisted. Seven years ago, in the Second Lebanon War of 2006, they called him and he came. After all the metal they had assigned him, he told my mother, he felt uncomfortable refusing. He was passed the age of reserve duty but in his durable, rust-resistant condition, he knew they wouldn’t give up on him that easily. And, if to be honest, he had an urge to go back up to the place where he stepped on the mine, “to get some closure”, he said, charge targets, etcetera. He signed the volunteer form without hesitation. Actually, said my mother and pulled the box of soldiers out of a draw I never knew existed, when he got to the tin state most of his close family abandoned him. His two daughters quickly immigrated to New Zealand, each settling on one of two islands; it was unclear which one was on which island. He was left all alone, so he would come mostly to visit us. I don’t know exactly how we are related, said my mother, and opened the box. “He’s a brother-in-law of a brother-in-law,” I said, “isn’t he?” “No,” she said and gave me a strange look. “A brother-in-law of a brother-in-law? No. There’s no such thing.”
He put on his uniform and took buses to Lebanon, using special bus passes issued by the army. They picked him up at the northern border gate. He was surprised when they didn’t give him weapons or gear, but he waited patiently. He knew that his experience – after all, he had travelled all the valleys there and sprayed anything in sight like a sprinkler – was irreplaceable. He assumed they wanted to hear what he had to say and get his advice, there at the field headquarters. And who knew if Arik or Raful wouldn’t be there – they might have reenlisted them too to make use of their extensive, serious experience. They led him down dirt roads with pretty views. He didn’t even notice passing the northern border, it looked to him so like the kibbutz settlements of the Galilee Panhandle. But there were more buildings burning there than expected and someone was screaming and not in Hebrew. They arrived at this clinic and were detained. He couldn’t understand what the problem was; they told him they had to examine him before setting off – the usual procedure. And he was only too happy to take his clothes off as he joked with the technicians. They let him drink something and that was it, my mother said and closed the box. That was the end of him. The driver who took him there was our neighbour’s nephew, he told me. They just put him in an oven and melted him; they needed him for something else. No, I don’t know what for, maybe cans or maybe soldering fuses for electronic circuits. There were many options. His tin was army property and, after all, he did sign the volunteer form.
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