Martin Kluger writes about life and death, and about two people, Pesach and Baruch. Once upon a time, in another age, under another sun, they lived together happily; now, on this breakneck tour of world history, they are forever losing and finding one another again – here, for example, in the duty-free zone of Leonardo da Vinci airport. Kluger’s two ‘beautiful thieves’ steal and swindle and murder their way around turn-of-the-century Paris, London in the Blitz, Weimar and Rome. But they also meet in a ‘somewhere else’, a place where there is only suffocation. "The Beautiful Thieves" is a revival of the myth of Ahasuerus, the restless, wandering Jew. Before a backdrop of destruction, the old anti-Semitic legend is transformed into a defiant monument to hope and eternal recurrence: the ‘beautiful thieves’ are an artful pair of crooks and an immortal couple of lovers in the transit zone between here and the past, between hard-boiled crime and fairy tale. Narrative, itself always a kind of thieving and deceiving, is able to overcome death – at least for a brief moment of glory.
Later in the night he saw, strangely, the picture of himself as he had been before she came.
He thought: ‘She has power to wake the dead.’ –Karen Blixen, “Tempests”
Airport, present day, night-time
In the East, every day is different, the old books say. It’s made up of islands, each island is different, on each island there lives a witch, and I knew one of them.
She called herself Gabriela Sloane. We’re old thieves, and we met in a Roman park when we were casing a place for a spectacular robbery, though we didn’t realise right away that the only thing we each wanted to do, the only thing we were able to do, was steal. I’d once committed a crime on her Eastern island, but I didn’t know at the time that she’d been born there in the year 5502 (under the name Pesach Slabosky) and that she’d spent a witchy childhood there. While she was crouched in his cellar like a possum, oiling her Desert Eagle and nibbling at a dry, mouldy piece of bread, I was up in the penthouse, wining and dining with our victim, Frobart. She always came from below, digging tunnels, pushing herself through pipes, spending the night in cellars, while I worked upstairs right from the start. My tools were elegant cascades of words, flattery, phoney sophistication. I’d always wanted to conquer the world by pouring myself over it like perfumed bathwater. All she wanted to do was to steal and murder in silence, to wreak bloody revenge. I still don’t know what for; our approaches were very different. But there were some glorious moments when we were both young and in love with eternity because we were separated from each other again and again.
Gabriela Sloane: Here she was in her green suit, sitting in the departure lounge of Leonardo da Vinci. She never bore the slightest trace of the cellars when she surfaced. She was probably in her late twenties this time, deceptively young, deceptively small, coiled like a spring, black hair and eyes gleaming, and if I’d been harbouring any doubts that this thief and murderer was capable of glorious moments – that she was my beloved, my hated, my lost, my rediscovered one – her brazen eyes immediately dispelled them. Her glance bored deep into everything it met; as she eyed him suspiciously, even the man greedily sucking his newspaper dry beside her lost control of his drab inner life and allowed her murderous thoughts to spread through him like black ink through water. Did she detect in him a danger, a pursuer? No one follows me, it’s impossible, I read in her sad Eastern smile, a smile as old as the books. Two bodies, Frobart and his wife, Piazza Bologna crawling with police; her shooting frenzy put me in grave danger, too, but I was just about saved by my tuxedo and the piquant cloud of eau de toilette I’d shrouded myself in. After lengthy deliberations, the uniformed officers concluded that killers don’t wear Terre D’Hermes when they go to work.
Old, powerful feelings descended like black curtains, darkening the duty-free shop I’d followed her into. Between the baci di dama cookies and Romantica soap, we finally faced each other. But she turned away to sniff the soap.
“Do I know you?”
I understood. It was more fun if we again refused to believe it, to grasp it, if we acted like strangers and disavowed our joy. After all, we’re not just thieves, we’re liars and fantasists by nature, and we accept each other as such (though as far as I can recall, we never got married, unlike so many other liars).
“In the park in front of Frobart’s house,” I said, “that’s where we saw each other. We were both disguised as passers-by. You had a night-vision device, I didn’t.”
Now, instead of the soap, she was smelling one of her black locks of hair, all innocence and obliviousness, as if the here and now in an airport duty-free at night was entirely beyond her power of imagination. She’d always known how to anesthetise her so-called ‘consciousness’ from one moment to the next (she was often plagued by nightmares).
“Where do you get something like that?”
“A night-vision device. You know I’m clueless when it comes to technology.”
She laughed her pearly white, red-tongued laugh. “I beg your pardon? Why you scoundrel, you’re not quite the full shilling.” So charming, the witch’s slightly antiquated phrases, the trace of bygone centuries that wafted around her. And she was just about to march off. I hooked my little finger around hers and held on to her.
“I’ve missed you.”
She observed our fingers, taking her time. Was she going to remember at last? Without looking up, she said in a low voice, “If you don’t let me go right now, I’ll kill you right here beside the soap, and no one will notice, nor will it be any great loss for humanity.” I could well believe it. I said:
“Alright then, Gabriela, let’s get down to business.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Because I stole your passport.”
I watched with satisfaction as she rooted around in her yellow shoulder bag and pulled out her ID, the existence of which she’d never understood.
“Three times,” I said, smiling. “But I always gave it back.”
She puzzled over her passport as if her own forged document, her own assumed identity, were unfamiliar, incomprehensible, a riddle.
“Who are you?”
“Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas. Je fais des trous, des petits trous, encore des petits trous…” I added, “And I have Frobart’s jewel.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she was watching every movement made by a few remarkably ugly, spoiled, frequent-flying children as they ran around pointing water pistols at each other. Pursuers? Or real children? Outnumbered, how was she going to fight them all off? Did she have a plan? An invisible weapon? Accomplices I hadn’t yet noticed? Did she have a lover? I knew her well enough to be certain she had something up her sleeve. And now she was driving her heel down into my patent-leather shoe.
“Oh really? Your jewel is fake. I swapped it.”
“So you admit we know each other then? It’s been so long, Pesach, I’m stunned. I’m pinching myself.”
She drove her heel in deeper.
“And you’re more beautiful than ever. By the way, I swapped back the jewel. Yours is false.”
“And then I swapped it again.”
“Do you think I’m an amateur? I swapped it back again, of course.”
“But then so did I.”
“What? So mine is fake?”
“Or maybe mine is. You’re driving me meshuga.”
“Gabriela, look at me and tell the truth: Is it you?”
Mutely, she shook her black curls and sneaked a few bars of soap into her suit. Force of habit. One bar fell to the floor. We both stared at it as if we’d lost something of incalculable value.
Suddenly Rosh Hashanah
My name is Simone Frobart. I had dinner with Pablo on Rue Gabrielle. He sketched me, but he didn’t paint me. I’m planning on having a blue period, he said, and somehow you’re just not blue enough for me. So I can’t have stolen the painting, because there was no painting of me in the first place, do you understand? Besides, it was the 6th of October. You don’t understand? Let me put it like this: You, monsieur, long for the next century, but we don’t. Not one has ever lived up to its promise. David and I have a small son, a bastard. When he grows up he wants to be a train conductor, to punch holes in tickets. I don’t want to think any further ahead than that, I don’t want to talk about the future any more, it’s bad luck. I’m constantly afraid, a very old fear. They’ll never catch David, he’s in Biarritz or somewhere by now. We designed the firecrackers and made them ourselves. We wanted to organise a little fireworks show, just for us – it was suddenly Rosh Hashanah, the holiday. Don’t you know it? It’s beside the point? I’m sorry we blew up the public pissoir, really. No, I’m not laughing. Yes, I’m aware of the gravity of my situation. David said: We’re looking into the night sky, into the darkness, but the stars will prevail. That’s the kind of thing he likes to say. I admit it, I taught him how to steal. For a lady of my social standing it’s not called stealing, by the way, it’s called kleptomania, a neurosis widely recognized in the circles I move in, possibly rooted in the libido. David always behaved like such an idiot when he was stealing, and he always felt sorry for the victims. It’s not true that pity isn’t the same as love, by the way. Often it’s love itself. Isn’t it funny that I’m sitting here now, and David, who’s blind, is the one who got away? You think it’s all an act? Ah, you have proof! Yes, you have proof for everything. Then he must be craftier than I thought. In four years, I never noticed anything strange. He felt his way so clumsily and so gracefully through the streets and through life, I couldn’t help but love him, and then he fell in love with my love. That can happen. By the way, I don’t believe a word you say, monsieur, you’re trying to tear us apart. My father, a traitor who’s recently taken to crossing himself in the Sacré Coeur every evening, tried to do the same. David never sent me billets-doux, he never had any money. We spent a year hiding in father’s cellars. That’s where our son came into the world. It was a wild, romantic time. We flogged father’s furniture, piece by hideous piece, I’ll readily admit it. He thought it was the work of ghosts, and in revenge, he became a Catholic. Non, je ne regrette rien.
An hour before her premature death (she was beaten to death by her father), Simone wrote a letter to David in the steeply sloping, illegible, beautiful handwriting she had learned as a four-year-old under a very large, revered sun in another life while in Babylonian exile.
Dearest, they’ve let me go. Pablo’s painting is in a safe hiding place. I’m not going to tell anyone where, not even you. Father has disinherited me, but one day we’ll sell the painting, and then our little Claude won’t have to work as a conductor. Today the rest of the world is dancing around the gas street lamps, and fireworks are going off in the Bois de Vicennes. Fiery man-made stars are shooting across the sky. They’re not our stars, but they’re shining nonetheless. Everyone’s shouting “Long live the twentieth century!” and throwing their hats into the air. I miss you, even if you’re not blind. Nous allons changer le monde. Answer me.
Meanwhile, at Leonardo da Vinci
Gabriela Sloane and I are still staring at the soap on the floor. Time falters for a moment, as if it has been spinning around and then fainted. When had it all started? I didn’t know. She didn’t know either, or if she did, she was hiding it. Our heads bumped against each other as we both bent down to pick up the soap. In the departure-lounge café, where everything but breathing is prohibited (if you’ve never been to a departure-lounge café where everything is prohibited at two o’clock in the morning, then you’ve no idea of the weariness the planet is working against), we’re polite. Breaking news on the screens: Frobart’s villa, the bodies of Frobart and his wife – a magazine of bullets from Gabriela’s Desert Eagle lodged in each one – being carried out under rubber sheets. Commentary: Frobart was well known, old family, Vatican Bank (that was news to me), had shaken Il Duce’s hand when he was a kid. Well done, I say, there’s no way we’ll get out of here, why’s our flight delayed, they’re already onto you, they’ll be here any minute. Our flight, she asks, giving me that brazen look, that look, we’re flying together? I kiss her. She tastes of rhubarb. Does she really think I’ll ever let her out of my sight again? Lost in thought, she kisses past me, kisses the air.
Rhubarb in the East
Art, crime, and theft are all based on, and in fact would be impossible without, a half-intentional and half-unintentional kind of inattentiveness and drowsiness, an impotent sense of time passing. Every artist knows there’s a thin line between the unformed work lying dormant in semi-darkness and the moment when it’s too late to improve anything. Despite their best intentions, most artists and criminals vacillate between these two stages because they’re too lazy, too apathetic, too self-satisfied, too inattentive, too vain. It’s a moral problem, of course, because all art and all crime are to some extent a struggle for righteousness; indeed, you might even say, for innocence…
This was according to Pauline, the unprepossessing Fräulein von —— (it was forbidden to utter her name; she’d been banned from giving lectures on aesthetics and was only supposed to provide knitting lessons by the stove).
But a kiss can change the world, I protested cheekily.
We don’t want to know what we’re doing, she responded, until it’s too late to change anything. The human spirit, she continued, is a ragbag. The body, the objects of the outside world, hot memories, warm fantasies, guilt, fear, hesitation, doubt, lies, small delights, great pain, and thousands of other things that can scarcely be expressed in words coexist within us; they coexist within you too, Herr Frobart.
We were on an Eastern island called Weimar, where people spent all their time taking part in poetry competitions. The island wasn’t big. It lay in the middle of an ice-cold sea that kept gnawing away at it so that one day it would be simply washed away, dissolved, leaving behind nothing but maybe an ice crystal. I felt uncomfortable in my skin as an idler. Didn’t I have a higher calling, wasn’t there a completely different Nathan Frobart hiding within me? Sometimes I went down on my knees and prayed and thought: The time has come.
Then, beneath the lilac tree, I kissed Pauline von ——. She tasted of the rhubarb she secretly preserved, devouring it in large quantities at night in the cellar of the palace. I discovered that she too felt out of place in Weimar and in her body and in the world. We’d been here before, we believed, we’d kissed each other beneath the lilac tree before, in another time. We were different then (we believed), exchanging glances from black almond-shaped eyes, smelling of cardamom and myrrh, oranges. We were somehow bluer, Pauline said. Somehow older, I said. Dare we talk this way, Nathan? It’s how witches talk, she whispered. No, it’s how lovers talk, I answered.
A kiss changes the world. All at once, the ragbag is sorted out: Everything inside us is put in order; there’s no anxiety, no fear, just room for yourself.
We became poets, but we didn’t write ourselves. We helped ourselves to the work of others, pulling their manuscripts out from underneath their pillows, stealing their notebooks and papers. Then we grabbed our scissors, cut everything up into strips like corned beef, rearranged the strips, and published them under a nom de plume I’ve since forgotten. We always carried a coin with us – I in my neck pouch, she in her petticoat – for the ferryman. Our longing, our intuition that something momentous, something earth-shattering would happen to us (worldwide fame, perhaps), and our sense of the direction our lives would take turned out to be correct. But the journey there took longer than we imagined.
We couldn’t steal there because we were dead (suffocated).
Today is Sunday. Our house has been reduced to a pile of rubble; thank you, Mr Werner von Braun. On Muswell Hill Broadway, the orphans are crying. Father is dead, mother didn’t say a word for seven days; she spoke with her heart, until it stopped. We thought we’d be safe in London. The women, rosy as marzipan, soothed our nerves. The men in their soft, pale, slightly crumpled leather would sometimes raise an eyebrow and give an amused smile. It was all so soothing, not least the ancient language of the Bard, which can be loud and sharp on occasion, but never barks. King Lear will never bark, let them rage and bluster all they like in Berlin. Scrabbling around in the sad remnants of our house, I find an old book about home, about the enchanted islands and the wonderful witches that live on them. They presented an opportunity, these witches, but my homeland didn’t want it. The portrait of a small, ageless, raven-haired witch with eyes that have seen a great deal and know many secrets draws me to another time, a time when the islands still lay in the warm sun, when they sometimes got out of the sea and wandered across the earth to settle down somewhere else. A young woman like me, dead for centuries; her name was Pesach.
Flight 0913 is ready for boarding
Back in the damn duty-free, theatre of suppressed feelings. Gabriela decided she urgently needed a couple of things, like Toblerone. A little competition to see who could swipe the most Toblerones beneath the swivelling cameras.
“We keep going from strength to strength,” I said.
“Is that so? Listen to me: We’ll be going our separate ways once we get to the checkout. And you’re paying.” She reached for a miniature painting, Rome in the rain, and thrust it into my hand. “For this thing.”
I held the painting up in front of my face. “You almost kissed me …”
“It’s late, Gabriela Sloane. You’re in danger.”
“Hasn’t it always been late?”
“Not back in Babylon,” I said.
“We could go to London and retire. I have an apartment on Muswell Hill. Or to Paris. I own a little Hotel on Rue – ”
“That time in the park,” she interjected, “the one in front of Frobart’s house. When you so rudely sat down beside me on the bench, did you notice the pigeons?”
“You see? You’re always asleep, you sleepwalk through our life. I’m sick of it, I need to free myself from you. You’re bad for me.”
“Yes, pigeons. They were standing in a semicircle around us. Rather old pigeons staring at us out of their hard eyes. And the sky was so blue and cold, which you didn’t notice either; it didn’t forgive us. And I hereby announce the irrevocable end.”
Then she touched me at last, her fingers (fingers that also murdered) drawing a small circle on my hand, and she rested her shock of black hair on my shoulder. It seemed as if she wanted my forgiveness. For the fact that she was young and beautiful and unspoiled and had a future, whereas I was old and ugly and a sinner and had none.
“Lufthansa Flight 0913 now boarding …” The disembodied voice.
Ah Berlin, we both thought. A city mercifully saving us from our fate, a city our fate had led us around in wide circles. What was she looking for in Berlin? A diamond as big as the Adlon?
“Was that God?” I asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’ll never learn, will you? Us. It’s us.” She stood up. “Please don’t follow me. Fly somewhere else, fly to Paris. We were happy there once; live in our memories. I need a hiatus, a break, for at least a century. Just leave me alone.”
“Alone…”, I mused.
She’d already run off. I’d forgotten how fast she could run. It was as if a little ball of lightning was streaking through the departure lounge. The rest of the world made way, splattered apart, and I felt so proud of her. Was she right, did we need a break? First I had to convince her to stop killing. It wasn’t at all in our nature; thieving as an art form was in our nature, words and glances were in our nature.
During the flight, we talked about night-vision devices. They’re absolutely marvellous, she said, when you’re working in a building with lots of cellars. Everything looks green. It’s fantastic, like a dream. I loved her when she talked shop like this, and she knew it. We were masters of distance, we understood and revered the space between the stars in their lodgings in the night sky. She took my face in her hands. She didn’t kiss past me this time. A kiss can change the world. There are no timeless, scattered, isolated, unnoticed moments when we can do whatever we want and then carry on with our lives as if nothing has happened. There are kisses that have far-reaching consequences. Sometimes you have to steal them. Restless, wandering souls know that. Thieves too, needless to say.
As it began its descent into Berlin, the plane began to wobble, then to rock dangerously, then to spin, and all hell broke loose.
“This can’t be happening, Pesach. We’re going to crash. In the middle of Europe.”
“That’s right,” she said. She stuck her tongue out at me and fished her coin for the ferryman out of the yellow bag. “Make sure you have your coin ready,” she said.
“Have you got something to do with this?”
“There’s something I have to tell you: There’s a bomb as well.”
“We’re going to destroy half of Berlin.”
“Is this really necessary?”
“Nous allons changer le monde. Are you scared?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“We’ve never died together,” she said.
I wanted to say: Oh, but we did, we did. But I bit my tongue. I always bite my tongue. I’m not the only one, I think, and the other person thinks it too, and so we all bite our tongues together.
“Do you happen to know what became of our Claude?” she asked.
“What he always wanted, le poinçonneur des Lilas.”
“Je fais des trous …”
“Des petits trous …”
I sighed. It could have been so wonderful. She took my hand. “Baruch, back in Babylon, the sun on our heads, how new we were.”
Then the aeroplane with 129 souls on board tipped into a steep nosedive and exploded right in the middle of the city, erasing many stories, but only temporarily.
Have we got just one life? Probably. Can we weave together some kind of reality from our dreams and longings like the Parcae used to do, an enchanted eternal carpet that flies us through the skies and the ages? Gone, forgotten. Yet in our glorious moments we’re gods. We love in another shape, another form the person we’ve always loved; nothing is ever lost, we sing just one song.
We were gods. Now I’m alone in this cellar, no light, no stars, no night-vision device, just the past, a foreign land. Pesach, are you still there? Or are you here? Answer me.
*Copyright © Martin Kluger, 2015.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.