Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Panos Spiliotopoulos | The Castaway

Panos Spiliotopoulos
The Castaway
Translated from the Spanish by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

The Castaway looked at his watch and immediately headed for the vestibule, where the radio was located. It was five minutes of seven. Ordinarily, after the news, the announcer imparted some animated words of assurance that all the appropriate measures had been implemented, in a way that intimated that his rescue was all but accomplished.

The Castaway settled comfortably into his armchair and lit a panatela, waiting for the bulletin to finish. In two or three minutes he would switch on the set.

For some time now, the political updates had irritated him, particularly since the advent of the socialists, and he limited himself to listening to that which concerned him personally. At two minutes of seven, he gave a twist to the dial and pricked his ears. By now, the announcer, having finished with the headlines, prepared to speak about the Castaway, when he heard the distinctive tone which the station transmitted when broadcasting information about this special case. The Castaway listened indifferently to the signals: three dots in Morse code, followed by a long dash and ending with the enthusiastic whistle of a ship entering the harbor. The Castaway inhaled a large mouthful of smoke and waited. At the signal, ensued a solemn silence of thirty seconds, after which the grave, consoling voice of the announcer conveyed the salutations of the Government and listed the procedures adopted for the day for the aid and relief of the Castaway.

“Today,” said the announcer, “marks, without doubt, a great stride in the series of steps effected by the Government, with respect to the imminent rescue of the Castaway. Because of new legislation enacted by our able and proficient ministry, the Government has ratified a resolution for the creation of a special tax-free lottery, of which the proceeds will complement sums previously collected, which are destined to finance the important naval operation which has for some time been planned with the object of rescuing the Castaway. We are convinced that the populace will respond unanimously, and lend its full and complete support to this latest measure adopted by the Government in order to reinforce those already taken. We have no doubt that the public will make its contribution with its customary diligence, allegiance, and constancy.”

The Castaway flicked the ash from his panatela, yawned, and shut off the radio. I wonder what she is doing right now, he asked himself languorously. Ordinarily, at this time, he went out for a walk with his wife. They would skip along, arm in arm, to the little promenade, and always ended up sitting on the last bench, at the edge of the island, overlooking the sea. From there, one can descry, far in the distance, the contours of the City, which extends five or six miles along the coast, and loses itself behind a hill. At times, when the wind is favorable, one can hear the tooting of the trains, the honking horns of the automobiles and, more especially, on holidays, the concerts performed by the Republican Guard in Liberation Square.

But it had been more than a week now since his wife had gone to the countryside, and his two sons had been left in the City, where they pursued their courses at the School of Economic Science. The Castaway received their postcards regularly but, if the truth be known, he felt nostalgia for his boys most of all, because he was beginning to age – he was forty-five or more – and he didn’t feel well.

What can she be doing right now, he wondered again, almost out loud. Then he got up from his chair. Just at this moment, someone knocked at the main gate of the garden.

Who can that be, he asked himself while heading towards the door. It couldn’t be the postman, since he had already stopped by this morning, bringing the usual letter from his sons along with one from his wife. He opened the door and stepped into the garden. Already he perceived, on the other side of the veranda, the silhouette of a young woman who waited behind the grate with a huge straw hat in her hand and, while he traversed the terrace as quickly as he could, the Castaway noticed that the girl was making fluttery, friendly signs by gracefully waving it.

“Hello! Could I come in for a moment,” she pouted flirtatiously when he came up close, and broke into a deep, bubbling laugh.

The Castaway drew the bolt, opened the door, and gave a slight bow. The woman smoothed her skirt and, with infinite caution, as if she were fording a stream, crossed the threshold and entered the garden. As soon as she was inside, she heaved a deep sigh and smiled cordially at the Castaway, offering her hand.

“I didn’t know how to present myself,” she said, looking at him somewhat mischievously. “But then I thought that it probably wouldn’t matter so terribly much, anyway.”

In her hat, which she held as if it were a sack, were three peaches, a loaf of bread, and a tin of tobacco.

“Leftovers from lunch,” she explained. “I have been traveling since this morning.”

“Had a difficult time of it,” asked the Castaway, mistrustfully, and cast a quick glance at the sea, which scintillated motionlessly beneath the springtime sky.

“On the contrary, I’m enjoying myself tremendously,” replied the woman. “But, as you know, the distance is very great.”

The Castaway nodded his head affirmatively and preceded the woman among the roses and cacti which clogged the footpaths. This is mad, he confided to himself, quite satisfied.

Over the course of time, he had grown accustomed to these visits, the ostensible purpose of which was to establish a coordinated program designed to put into action the best methods for his rescue. After all the years his stranding had endured, the Castaway understood and appreciated very well the sympathy which his situation inspired among women, especially the young, impressionable ones, so that he had become most indulgent with them and, in the long run, was never disappointed, even after the most fastidious visit.

But for quite some time now he had found himself tiring very quickly, for he had lost the fervor of his youth, that fire of so long ago almost legendary among the inhabitants of the City. He had transformed himself (or had been converted) into a breed of aesthete and, very frequently, discussions pertinent to his rescue held little interest for him, and seemed unprofitable even to the point of foppishness, unless the interviewer had enswathed herself in trappings of the highest order of scenic refinement, with discreet enhancements showing, most importantly of all, no trace of studiedness or affectation.

Inevitably, after each conversation, he would lead the visitor to the alcove, and pass some pleasant hours with her which at times turned into days and weeks. During these periods, his wife, who systematically avoided interfering with his public life, remained in the City, with her sister.

Before, when the passion he felt for the great work of his rescue had sharpened his nerves and inflamed his blood, the age and the beauty of the woman meant little to him, and he could be distracted in the most agreeable manner in the world, even by the company of mature women, as when he had succeeded various times with the grand director of the Cardinal Committee for the Glorious Rescue, who had visited him with regularity for many years. But this arrangement had become strained to the point of exigency – after all, his own wife was getting older – and now, because of the fickleness of the press, he had left it to the Supreme Committee what types of women were sent. Fortunately, the City had intervened on his behalf and, since then, each visitor had to submit to special screening procedures before receiving authorization to come to see the Castaway.

This time surely was no exception and, though a slight disquiet had been gnawing at him for quite awhile, he was satisfied. The woman who walked along beside him was young and beautiful and, beneath the muslin of her dress, he could make out a firm body, full of freshness, rich with sap. Just the same, the Castaway was preoccupied by the fact that for the past few days he hadn’t been feeling well. A strange fatigue, a species of physical exhaustion nullified in him all desire for conversation, to the extent that he had begun to wish for a temporary suspension of visits.

Without premeditation, the woman looked at him and smiled cheerily, shivering as if she suddenly felt cold, or as if an invisible hand were tickling her behind. They came to the veranda stair. The door was closed and the Castaway stepped forward to open it. From the porch, he motioned to the woman to join him, but she seemed engrossed with her stockings. Bending forward, she carefully examined her calf, a little above the ankle.

“If you have a run in your stocking,” said the Castaway laughingly, “we have all the necessities here. My wife has thought of everything.”

This was true enough – his spouse had asked the City for a special apparatus for repairing ladies’ stockings because, during her visits, she complained of the damage caused by the roses and the cacti which bordered the garden.

“It’s not serious,” replied the woman, and shook her hair impetuously, like a horse shaking its mane. Then she snatched up her hat, which had been left on the lawn, and promptly mounted the stairs.

The veranda was pleasant, spacious, built entirely of crystal, like a greenhouse. At its center was a round wickerwork table, and around it three or four comfortable chairs made from the same material. Along the wall were some shelves full of books, and two or three modern paintings. At one end was an attractive bar made of polished wood, with numerous glasses and bottles of a beautiful golden yellow. On a sideboard below, also of wicker, was a basket brimming with bananas and peaches which glistened under the rays of the sun now blazing across the sea, from the direction of the City. The Castaway installed his visitor in a chair and, taking two glasses, began filling them with wine.

“This is sparkling wine,” he said, handing one of the glasses to the woman. Real champagne had become more unobtainable than ever since the restoration of the present regime.

The woman drank the wine almost in a single gulp, and smacked her lips enticingly. Then she took from her hat a pack of cigarettes and offered them to the Castaway.

“Thank you, I smoke only panatelas, and then only rarely,” he said, “I prefer them after meals.” The woman coaxed out a cigarette and crossed her legs, uncovering them above the knees. After shooting them a sly glance, the Castaway drew up a chair in front of her and sat down.

“My visit,” the woman suddenly began, “is in no way related to the traditional pretenses or rationales. In fact, quite the opposite.”

The Castaway scratched his head and regarded her attentively, trying to look stimulated by the case his visitor put before him. She’s blonde and stupid, he thought to himself, and smiled, satisfied.

“I would prefer to cut immediately to the heart of the matter,” continued the young woman while staring at the Castaway in a manner almost provocative. “The new generation, at least a notable percentage of the present generation – the vanguard, as it were – after thorough study have come to the conclusion that your rescue is impossible. Wouldn’t you agree,” she abruptly asked, sharply flinging the ash of her cigarette onto a crystal tray.

The Castaway regarded her with a mixture of amazement, admiration, and unfeigned compassion, lifting his hand to his ear to indicate that he had not clearly heard or comprehended the meaning of her words.

“Your rescue is impossible,” repeated the woman insistently, “because, at bottom, no one has been shipwrecked or marooned. This entire history is a hoax carefully prepared on your part and on the part of the City.”

She was very flushed and moved her hands agitatedly, her bust heaving forward as if an invisible fist were pounding on the back of her neck, and forcing her to lean over the table.

“I’m not quite sure I understand what it is you’re saying,” the Castaway stated calmly. “I take it that, by virtue of your age, you approach the subject from the material standpoint, but it is the very contrary which should be embraced.”

Then, without moving from his chair, he reached towards the sideboard, took a banana, peeled it, and began to eat.

“Practically speaking,” he continued, as if he were talking to himself, “it must be admitted that the salvage of the wreck poses no more than a minimal number of problems, considering the relatively short distances involved, and the progress attained during recent years in the domain of maritime sciences. Nevertheless, these are only secondary considerations,” he added pensively, crossing his legs.

“How’s that,” she exclaimed, red with anger. “Secondary considerations?”

“Secondary considerations,” declared the Castaway, without revision, almost dejectedly. “The preponderating fact is that a shipwreck did take place. Surely you will concede that even a slip of paper embodies limited distances and a certain amount of technical perfection. The problem,” he continued, growing ever more aggrieved, and savoring the last bite of his banana, “the problem is not whether or not a shipwreck took place, this much already has been made clear, but, above all, to ascertain if rescue is realizable. Here is where opinions differ and naturally, viewed in this particular light, yours is of infinite interest to me.”

“I don’t understand,” said the woman solemnly, tugging several times at her skirt in order to re-cover her legs.

The last rays of the sun fanned over the City. The veranda began to get dark.

“Would you like me to turn on the lights,” the Castaway asked in a lowered voice, looking tenderly at his visitor.

“No,” she answered calmly. “I prefer to watch how the shadows become more numerous minute by minute, and steal over the garden. In the City this phenomenon is rare.”

“You are very young,” said the Castaway. “What is it you are studying?”

“Well, not that young,” replied the visitor, laughing coquettishly.

“Alright, then, not so young,” muttered the Castaway mutely, and folded his hands over his stomach.

Out of nowhere, could be heard the siren of a ship, and immediately a powerful searchlight lit the window.

“It’s a liner,” said the Castaway. “It circles the island and sounds this blast of the whistle by way of greeting.”

“But then it would be very easy to save you,” exclaimed the youth, indignant. “You only have to give a shout, to make some movement, show your location…”

“To save me? To go and reveal the whole truth,” asked the Castaway, taken aback, and springing spontaneously from the chair like someone who has just been struck on the back by a cudgel.

“Yes,” said the youth. “What else?”

“But that would be like admitting that there had never been a shipwreck,” he screeched with annoyance. “It would be tantamount to negating the shipwreck and nullifying along with it the enterprise of the rescue. What do you think you are saying,” he demanded, gesticulating wildly.

“No,” said the girl. “You would not be negating the shipwreck: only assuming responsibility for it and for the danger of the rescue. “Isn’t that what you would want?”

“Never,” exclaimed the Castaway, disdainfully. “I repeat that the material view of the subject under discussion doesn’t interest me in the least. That which interests me is the rescue operation in itself, and this operation can only be the result of a collaboration. I cannot deny the City the right to participate in the enterprise of my rescue. Do you finally understand this,” he asked indignantly. “To obviate or ignore this right would be not only to impede the realization of my rescue, which would have become no longer necessary, but to deprive it of all significance, converting it, in the process, into an ordinary individual act, as common as the act of spitting.”

“But the City sneers at you,” said the girl ironically. “Didn’t you know?”

“Under these conditions, rescue is totally impossible,” the Castaway responded triumphantly, “consequently your prior arguments are moot.”

Suddenly he got up, switched on the light, and looked his visitor in the eyes, his mouth contorted by a cynical smile.

“You are young, very young” he said afterwards, fondly leaning over her, brushing her hair softly to one side, and gently caressing her cheek. Then his palm slid over neck and next, before the girl could resist, he nimbly dipped his hand under her blouse, and caught hold of her breasts. The visitor squirmed and gave a stifled cry, but the Castaway sealed her mouth with his lips and took her in his arms. The youth soon abandoned all resistance, and let her hands drop strengthlessly to the sides of the chair, resting her head against the Castaway’s chest, and giving out with whimpering cries.

She is cooperating, thought the Castaway, suddenly overcome by a strange sadness. He lifted the girl’s skirt and slid his hand over her stomach…

* * *

The Castaway silently puffed on his cigar, seated on the plushest chair in the vestibule. His wife cleared the table, humming a tune of current vogue learned in the City. It was five minutes of seven and the Castaway waited as always for the moment when the news bulletin would conclude, so as to turn on the radio and hear the daily measures taken by the Government with respect to his case. At two minutes of seven, he gave the knob a twist, and bent close to listen. Curtly, the grave voice of the announcer, vibrant with anger, resonated in the speaker. The wife brusquely abandoned the dishes and anxiously entered the vestibule, while the Castaway hunched over the radio, visibly disturbed.

“An ignoble plot,” intoned the announcer, “was uncovered a few hours ago. The Supreme Committee for the Rescue, informed in time, promptly apprehended the conspirators. The leader of the plot was none other than the student Isabel, already widely known by the authorities for her subversive activities.”

“The student in question, during a gala banquet in honor of the Castaway at a local chapter of the Association of Widows of Sub-Officials of the Department of Air Pioneers in the Rescue of the Castaway, had the audacity to openly attack the Rescue Effort as well as the respectable person of the Castaway with the intention of dissuading those present from initiating the application of the measures lately sanctioned by vote of the Committee. She was arrested on the spot and her execution was carried out by the head of the Court of the Provoluntary Council of the Association of Widows of Sub-Officials.”

“The Government…” continued the announcer, but the Castaway shut off the radio and went out to the veranda.

The sun had already sunk behind the City. In the distance, a small trawler, chugging sluggishly, free of care, slipped away behind a puff of white smoke which slowly dissolved into the immensity of the night.

English language translation copyright ©2009 by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

Little is known about Panos Spiliotopoulos except that the Greek writer's story was translated by the surrealist Gisele Prassinos into French, as "The Sinking" in the journal Bizarre in 1957. The version above was translated from a Spanish version of the tale.

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