The Reader

The Reader

 

There was a bookstore, on Proskauer Strasse, in Berlin. I had just moved to the area. Spending my days hiding form the cold. My girlfriend and I moved in together. That was that.

The owner of the antiquariat was friendly from the start. He was warm, giving the place a comfortable feeling. He seemed happy, comfortable in his place. The storekeepers in that area have a reputation for being cold, some even evil hearted.

I went there from time to time, always in a certain mood. If I needed a romantic getaway, somewhere I felt safe discovering, losing my eyes into a wormhole of words, images, ideas. The place had a nice aesthetic to it. It opened into a large square room, with worn wooden bookshelves rising to the ceiling, covering the length of the walls from the floor up Several foundation pillars stemmed away from the wall, hosting their own towering bookshelves. In the distance, two open entrances into another set of rooms, introduced by a long corridor, all of it fixed with its own immediate bookshelves. One room, which had the only other window, hosted thousands of volumes, and led to a small cabin built into the house for students, drifters, musicians, was devoted entirely to Ancient Greek and Early Roman literature. The owner, a former professor of Greek classics and poetry, had taught Ancient Greek and Metaphysical Philosophy for most of his adult life, but he quit before ever amounting to tenure. The bookstore was a sort of salvation for him, where he didn’t have to deal with what he called the abusive indifference of his students. I found most of the junk I devoured din those years in his little cabin of devotion.

That day, after a fight at home, I decided to go for a walk. I walked as much as I could, managing a distinctly Eastern European urbanized cold that caused my skin to itch. From my apartment for the first time in my life, I watch trees emerge from autumn, lending their skeleton heads to winter. It snowed once that year, but it was enough for me. I tried to shield myself from the winds on Frankfurter Allee, so I walked the backstreets to the little store.

The weather that day was starting to change. Not yet, not completely, but you could sense it in the air. There was a glimmer of sun at some point in the morning, and it felt warm, not just under the light, but around the edges too, like the warmth that would harbor us in the summer was collecting itself and chewing away at the cold. The signs of imminent spring, but already it was nearly May. A season much spoken of by the locals, who hold the few months of blossoming life and sun in great reverence. When the city disappears into an overbearing shade of grey, its as if the architecture were designed to sit still, to weather the stillness of an overcast sky, as though the architects of the city didn’t bother themselves with design that invited the eyes, neglecting their neighborly capitals, Paris, Vienna, Budapest, all of them riverside and steeped in architectural prestige. In truth, Berlin is rarely afforded the light that necessitates anything greater than modest architecture.

Coming in to the bookstore lifted my spirits. I had expected to find Andreas, the owner, standing behind the grand piano that doubles as his desk, in the center of the room, a little to the side, so that the door opens freely, without the obstruction of a piano. But I only found a young girl sitting in a comfortable chair behind the piano, her body disappearing beyond the frame of the instrument, her little round head peeking out from over the frame. Young in features, but more or less it was obvious after first glance she was nearing her thirties, if not entrenched into the mire already. She nodded to me and smiled and I said hello, in as faint a whisper as I usually muster at that hour. I turned to my right to face the section devoted entirely to English language books. Hidden be tween volumes of substantial classics are beautiful, obscure gems, the sort of books that change the nature of an entire season, that keep you in one place or lead you to another.

After a moment Andreas appeared from under the long corridor entrance, stepping into the light. He had his usual grin on his face, carrying two wine glasses and a recently opened bottle of read. the girl was seated directly to the entrance and so he stopped in his tracks, bedside her, acknowledging me. It was my custom to appear whenever he seemed n the cusp of leaving, whether forced to entertain guests or closing early to catch a movie. He smiled invitingly at me and grinned, showing his eroding teeth and the red coloration of his lips. He had probably started drinking already.

For a Berliner of his age he had considerable taste. Worldly taste. Not just in art or in literature but in music as well. I asked him some formal questions, yet to introduce myself formally to the girl. We’d had several conversations before but that was the day I discovered his history as a professor. I had heard it before from an Albanian bohemian sweetheart that covers for him when he isn’t around.

“Why quit,” I asked him.

“Well, our most prestigious university is a shithole,” he said, “and you have to teach more than thirty hours a week. The students are indifferent, stupid, and its only getting worse. It was an easy choice for me. I preferred to teach from the early evening and leave it open ended for discussion. But the hausmesier kicks you out of the class before midnight. I doubt the riddle can be solved being forced out before its time. The end has to come naturally. It did with me.” He smiled wide. “I quit.”

He turned to the girl beside him, who had been staring at me the entire time, and whose eyes I caught glaring in interest, forcing her to shudder away. “Juliana leaves to Italy tomorrow,” he said, “So we drink. Would you like a glass of wine?”

Of course, I said yes. We toasted, to Julian’s trip to reclaim her Italian citizenship from a dead grandfather. They asked about my life, my past.

“Why Berlin.?”

I gave them the usual spiel on the liberties enjoyed in Berlin, the thriving cultural scene, the security and relatively stable investment opportunities, before finally admitting noen of those really mattered, that I had fallen in love and chose to take a leap of faith.

“What better reason!” he yelled, Juliana enjoying his excitement, holding her stare to mine, cupping the rim of her glass with her upper lip, part of it disappearing inside her palm, as though she were chewing the glass with her teeth, slowly, daring me to return the stare.

Finally, we found ourselves on the discussion of my own lineage, my obscure identity.

“You’re from Beirut,” he asked.

I nodded.

“Beautiful place,” he said. “Sad what’s happened to it.”

Then came the usual overtures on the regional deterioration, the collapse, the general malaise among Europeans that kept them from claiming any sort of responsibility for their government’s failure to act, to intervene, followed by cries of helplessness and guilt, where he was almost brought to tears, on the sad loss for the world, as a scholar of Ancient Greek and Metaphysics he ought to know, he said, the grave loss to our global heritage with the loss of cities like Beirut, the occupation of Jerusalem, the loss of Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad! Juliana was suffering the sorrow of his words, shaking her head in disbelief. I wanted to accept their grief but I found acceptance hard to come by. In the end he played a song from a young Lebanese singer who had emerged from the Beirut underground for a cameo role in Jim Jarmusch’s latest film. Andreas thought the scene in the film, which he hadn’t seen but had seen only the part with Yasmine’s song, was staged in Beirut, but actually it was Tangiers.

All of this is futile, I know. But I’m telling you this because what happened next seemed important at the time. Juliana excused herself to go upstairs and pack her things. They spoke briefly and she left. Andreas, somewhat tipsy though I could never be sure with men of his vitality in age, went outside to pass the final hour of his working day under the briefest hint of daylight, cigarette in hand. I wandered to the back of the store, through the corridor from where he had first emerged, to grab the steel ladder and bring it back up to the front. Without the ladder I I couldn’t reach hal the books in the English section, and I was actually there that day, apart from escaping light violence at home, to rummage through the Ancient Roman texts. I would eventually settle on a worn version of St. Augustine’s City of God, that had that dried oak smell of old books, which is important, I guess, because before what happened next happened, I had never read St. Augustine’s work before, and it fit so well with the other book that I found.

Entering the corridor I found in a shaded bushel of books a figure hunched over a disheveled stack of antiquated volumes, digging his hands into a tin can of food. He turned toward me and after an indifferent stare turned away, as if to say, What, are you so surprised? I stopped dead in my steps, at first shock and then surprised.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t know anyone else was here.”

He laughed, a condescending laugh, grunting over his breathing over the chewing of his food. He continued eating, ignoring my awkward presence. I walked over to the ladder to remove it to the other room. As I closed its legs and pulled it forward, turning it over to rest under my arm, I knocked over a stock of books that were already wobbling at the weight of my encroaching footsteps. He laughed, again, even more condescending in his tone, refusing still to look firmly at me, gorging away at the can.

I was feeling the effects of the wine after only a glass. It was probably a decent bottle of wine. A philosopher should always have good wine, but a Berliner rarely swallows such an expense. In any case, I was suddenly irritated by the stranger’s behavior, feeling lightheaded and weary, my cheeks turning red.