HOTEL OF THE FUTURE by Gaito Gazdanov
Translated from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk1. Lips, so to Speak Picture to yourself a Parisian street. Decorated with austere asphalt, regular walls and buildings, where the ground is smooth, like the belly of a lizard, and the doormen are languid, like crocodiles. Decorated with daily lunches and lightsome lives, like a cloud. The hotel of the future. The slanting glass roof is like a sheet of frozen water. The lurid wires of electricity illuminate the mournful board on which all the achievements of civilization are gathered in a few words: central heating, hot and cold running water, and the name of the nearest Métro station. The future is spread out across five floors. The ground-floor rooms are rented out to lovers and the afflicted—to prostitutes and travellers. Love gets reflected in the mirrors and plunges the lovers into contemplation. The mirrors on the ground floor pay tribute to art and to a sense of beauty—in a realm where the moment demands duplication. There is only one permanent resident on the ground floor—a woman by the name of Blanche: it’s a pseudonym, she’s a brunette. She is twenty years old. In the hotel of the future there is no fixed precedent for having a single profession. Blanche’s life is varied and encompasses many areas. She’ll unexpectedly arrive home on a bicycle, only to sell it two days later. She’ll leave in a fashionable hat and a long overcoat, and return in a cap and a leather trench. In the column for her profession: Student. “Tell us, Blanche, what exactly do you do with your time?” “Curiosity is a woman’s privilege.” “I know, Blanche; a man can be banished from paradise because of curiosity. Though if paradise bears even the slightest resemblance to this street, then I can only regret that I haven’t been banished sooner.” “Are you insisting, monsieur? I’m writing a treatise.” Blanche is writing a treatise. “Yes. ‘Lips, so to Speak.’ ” A treatise on lips, so to speak. Lips as the rags of beauty, as the stuff of a perfumer’s research, as the recalcitrant wound of a love armed with a knife. So it isn’t without good reason that Blanche calls herself a student. Generally speaking, the door to Blanche’s room closes silently. On the upper floors live the Dujarier brothers. There are four of them, the four Js. Indeed the eldest is called Joseph, the middle ones Jean and Jacques. The youngest’s name is Jacob. The brothers of the ‘future’ represent a constant whistling. Someone enters the hotel. No sooner do his soles clack against the staircase’s bronze brackets than four doors immediately swing open. From the first floor Joseph looks down at him, from the second Jean, from the third Jacques, and from the fourth Jacob. Joseph says: “Catch.” Jean: “Look out.” Jacques: “This one?” Jacob: “To hell with it.” Meanwhile Someone ascends the staircase. Downstairs is a Russian sailor, Seryozha, filling in for the absent caretaker. All day long Seryozha sings his song: I’m at the equator Aboard a light cutter, To — with your mother, I’m holding my course. More still: there is a permanent resident—on the first floor—a police detective. He keeps his profession a secret. Everyone has learnt of this secret, and earlier than others—the Dujarier brothers. At precisely a quarter past nine the detective leaves his room. At precisely a quarter past nine four doors open and the four brothers shout: “Hello, Mr Sleuth!” The detective stops and looks up. “I cannot allow such treatment…” “Then don’t!” “Authority first!” “Such treatment!” “Report us to the Prefect of the Police!” And the detective leaves the hotel. A tumult of falling chairs is coming from Blanche’s room: Blanche is dissatisfied with their current arrangement. But Seryozha goes on singing about the equator. “Seryozha, tell us something.” “So, we’re sailing just off the coast of Alexandria. Cook comes up to me and says…” A door slams. Blanche needs to be on her way. Business. The flutter of a scarf, the knock of heels; the echo drowns in the asphalt. On the first floor, next door to Joseph: plates, white sticks and little bundles that open out into fans are flying about. Monsieur Hsi: juggler extraordinaire. A little Chinese woman shifts the tables with the dishes and folds up the fans; the woman is called Suzi. “Monsieur Hsi,” says Joseph. “Can you teach me how to handle a cane and catch a bowler on my head?” “It’s possible.” So every morning Joseph takes lessons. He wants to pay Monsieur Hsi. Monsieur Hsi replies that it is not possible. The staircase shudders: the three brothers are coming down to the first floor. Then Monsieur Hsi calls Suzi. “Tell us, Suzi, is it possible for me to take money from Monsieur Joseph?” Suzi says: “It isn’t possible.” The brothers leave, dejected. The four rooms on the second floor are full up: ties, gloves, women’s shoes, Renée’s revolving mirror and Armand’s noisy smile. Monsieur Armand is a sailor: every day he argues with the brothers. He wants to kill the sleuth. “He has no right to live among decent people.” The brothers dissuade him from this line of thinking. He agrees: fine then. At three o’clock in the afternoon Blanche returns: “The lips of Negros, Negresses… No, they don’t stand up to criticism. Is it possible to lose your lips? Love’s history is written on the lips—it’s marvellous. It’s better than any paper.” “Lips are a mark of character. Just look how thin nun’s lips are: they’re a diary with no words, a copy book with blank pages; card-sharps’ lips are made of iron; the lips of prostitutes, of rubber.” “Come this evening, just don’t disturb me now. I’m absorbed in my work.” “Be careful not to drown in it.” At around ten o’clock in the evening the jolly girl, Margot, arrives. “Not a single client tonight, Serge—understand, dear boy?” Seryozha understands. Half an hour later Margot returns. A client in tow. The client’s bowler is tilted back. The collar of his overcoat is upturned. He says yes—and nothing more. “Thirty francs, room No. 2.” “Yes.” “What are the lips of Americans made of, Blanche?” “Pigskin.” “So—lips of rubber and lips of pigskin?” “Yes, my darling.” 2. The Blood of Crusaders Once every twenty-four hours, night descends over Paris. It emerges wreathed in the red flames of motorcars’ rear lights and is accompanied by the blaring orchestra of dangling spheres of light. They are lit in the evening and they hiss. Tonight the hotel of the future has triumphantly thrown open its doors to a man who has come to take a room on the fourth floor. There are people who live without doubt or question—the simple residents of the streets, the thrifty, unbargaining buyers of life. There are others, too: they agree to live. Ulrich agreed to live amid the decoration of regular walls and crocodile-like languor. He came to the hotel of the future possibly because he wanted to underscore the difference between the future and the past. He lived life at a standstill, and calendars were powerless against this obstinacy. His best tailcoat—under a mackintosh that resembled an overcoat, or an overcoat that resembled a mackintosh—shimmered with the matt shimmer of eternity. His hair was slicked back. Ulrich’s yellow suitcase was heavy, like a traitor’s conscience. Inside, it contained strange Eastern figures, two spinning tops, an enormous mirror and a rapier in a green sheath. The rest of it was stuffed with books. Ulrich was young, in the way that an antique portrait of a youth can be young. This chapter is written in the past tense because there have been no Crusaders for a long time. Ulrich went upstairs. He did not see Monsieur Hsi’s training session, as Monsieur Hsi was not at home. He did not notice Armand’s noisy smile and did not hear the whistling of the Dujarier brothers. Later on, singing could be heard coming from Ulrich’s room. The songs were leaden and monotone, in a language that neither the Dujarier brothers, nor Armand, nor even the Chinaman Hsi could understand. Blanche said that it was Old French. The whistling of the Dujarier brothers became slower and less certain. Seryozha knew that even the equator would fail to impress the new resident. Nevertheless, the detective left for work and Blanche went on writing her treatise. “I’ll ask him what he thinks about it.” Ulrich was coming downstairs: at separate doors stood four unwhistling brothers. Blanche was waiting by the entrance. “Monsieur, what’s your view on the treatise ‘Lips, so to Speak’?” “I’m gratified to learn there are people who think about such things.” “You haven’t ever found occasion to reflect on rubber lips, monsieur?” “You mean, of course, musicians?” “No, I’m talking about card-sharps.” And a third voice said: “You’re wrong, Blanche; card-sharps’ lips are made of iron.” Ulrich bowed and left. During the night, through the blast of winter rain, Margot arrived at the hotel. “Blanche, I haven’t anywhere to spend the night. I’ve no money.” “You can sleep on the fourth floor. Consult our new resident.” “But I don’t know him.” “Do you know everyone you spend the night with? In any case, there’s another Russian on the fourth floor whom you do know.” Frozen rain was streaming down the frozen water of the awning. Margot’s footsteps halted at Ulrich’s door. The steps went into the room and stopped. “I’ll pay you—as is the done thing—for the privilege of spending the night.” Ulrich’s politesse totalled a few centuries’ worth. “Kindly accept my nocturnal salutations.” But women with rubber lips know nothing of history and are inclined to take courteousness for irony. “Do you want to sleep with me or not? I’ll leave if you’re so above this.” “You may lie in my bed.” The lights were on in only two rooms on the fourth floor. The future was shrouded in mist. That evening a third voice—the same that interrupted Ulrich’s conversation with Blanche—said: “I don’t understand you, esteemed neighbour.” Ulrich failed to see the irony. It was only possible to judge this from his conversation with Margot. His stately answer sounded ridiculous, like a discourse on good and truth. “The blood of Crusaders flows in my veins.” “Naturally that’s very touching, but the content of your veins—be it oil or the blood of Crusaders—is neither here nor there for civilized contemporaries with no recollection of the scorching air of Palestine or Barbarossa’s cool sepulchre. I don’t understand your tailcoat, your remarks—which sound like anachronisms—or your songs in that semi-barbaric language. One might think that these arguments are directed not at the resident of a room on a fourth floor in a modern city, but at an apparition come to shatter the peace of a defenceless man. Without a shadow of a doubt, I prefer a Parisian’s reflectors to Don Quixote’s copper basin, and the lamps of the Champs Élysées to the bonfires of Wallenstein’s hired assassins. I must protest.” And Ulrich’s voice replied: “You aren’t quite well, monsieur. Go to bed.”
1926© Bryan Karetnyk, 2013 All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission in writing from the translator.