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From Pursuit of a Woman on the Hinge of History by Hans Koning
(Brookline Books)

Chapter One

I once stayed in an old Spanish hotel called Castel del Castro which means something like hilltop castle. It sat at the top of a street in a little town and from my room I looked down upon a road skirting the back of the building, and beyond it over the fields up to the horizon. In the early morning, school children and dogs traveled that road. After them it lay empty.

The thick-walled bedrooms were pleasant. The dining room was staffed by two students holding a part-time job, a young man and a girl who tended to get half the orders wrong. On my last evening there I walked out onto the terrace before either of them could trap me with the typed menu. I stood a while under the black sky with its blinding cloud of stars and then descended the hill, stumbling on the rough pavement until my eyes got help from the wisps of light sent out by the houses. At the bottom of the hill was a little restaurant, unrecognizable as such from the outside. It had a reputation, a star in the Michelin guide, I think. Enough anyway for me to have avoided it so far, as I was running out of money. When I entered its crowded room I saw that couples stood waiting for tables but the proprietress gave me a place for one at a little sidetable against the wall.

That day, at the precise moment of the shadow of a cloud crossing over the fields outside my window, a great feeling of unease had got hold of me, a feeling near to fear. It was familiar but I had managed to bury it for a time by running away, by traveling. In the restaurant, full of voices and candle flames, it became worse. Without success I tried to focus on the blurred names of the dishes. I extinguished the candle on my table with an unsteady hand. Lifting my head, I looked in the angry dark eyes of an old waitress. I looked away, and saw a young woman diagonally across from me, in the far corner of the room.
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For a moment I thought she was watching me. She was not, she was staring ahead with unseeing eyes. Her companion was lighting a cigar and blue smoke touched her face. He was a youngish middle-aged man with the short beard French movie actors were sporting that year and he wore a heavy gold chain around his wrist. On his face was the frown with which the very rich give notice that they are on the alert against the envious world. In spite of these marks of power the man had no importance beside the woman. Once she had pushed her hair aside with an impatient gesture, I was overwhelmed, pained by her face.

This had nothing to do with "being interested in a woman." I certainly did not want her to notice me. When I ask myself now why no one else seemed to see anything out of the ordinary about her, the answer must be that perhaps they did, perhaps everyone was staring at her; I would not have known. Perhaps hers was a disguise, perhaps only a few really saw her. Not for a second did I assume she night be the wife or the lover of her companion with his cigar and gold chain.

I wasn't thinking all this in such charged words. I felt that her being there, extraordinary but quietly within the banal setting, lent peace, even sense, to things. I felt my unease dissolve, I felt a great relief. "I no longer think of death," Shelley wrote to Emilia Viviani.

I an not rambling. If the one Just Man may restore our hope for the world, then how much more may one woman do so, a woman beautiful not by the standards of men, even of poets, but by those of rivers, rain, nature? I am not, be assured, thinking of righteousness as male and beauty as female. To me, true justness is precisely female, not male. And there is a kind of female beauty which is its own and all else's justification, unquestionably because naturally. I do not bow to the Just Man or the twelve Just Men of an Old Testamental world.

I do not believe in that male world of Judaea and later of Rome. I believe how we, humanity, lost our way very long ago when we opted for Jewish righteousness and Roman armed pride. I am not raving; that much will become clear later.

In her present disguise, and the term imposes itself upon me, the woman got up and took a step away from her companion. She went ahead while he spoke through his cigar smoke to the proprietress. I think I heard him speak German. The woman used another door, she did not pass me. When he left, he passed my table and our eyes met.

I left too, to safeguard the relief I felt. I made a vague gesture to the waitress in leaving and then found myself standing under the stone portico of the house. Everything was ink black, I could not even distinguish the edge of the roofs against the sky. I heard echoes of footsteps but from both directions of the narrow street. Somewhere in the night she was walking beside that man. Then I heard a car start down the road where it widened into a square, a heavy machine. I saw the flash of white light and then of red as it drove off. That was the woman and the man, and their being in a car was better, her passivity in being driven more proper. I know it was one of the Mercedeses with German plates, those plates with the aggressive black and white lettering I had seen so many of in northern Spain. Not a white Mercedes; the man with the cigar would have a black one, a chauffeur waiting in it, reading a paper which before turning the key he very slowly folds--his one act of defiance. The man with the cigar might or might not be German but he worked from that narrow golden triangle, Zurich, Frankfurt, Milan. I knew that much instantly and without doubt. Now they both were sitting silently in the back behind an equally silent driver.

They are driven through the night. The French border guard at Hendaye salutes and waves the car through: this car out of all those passing he recognizes as the very Mercedes his father had told him about, a Mercedes in which a German general appeared at that border in the early summer of 1940 after the defeat of France, to give his instructions to the local police (the general had told the men to keep the frontier post closed to everybody; he had joked with them and then distributed Turkish cigarettes among them, tobacco of unknown fineness). The border guard's father had told him the story so often that he had begun to see it as if he himself had been there, as if he had been his father shaking hands with the general: the dust of that hot June month, the pleading and arguing of the refugees, the whining children, the rackety vehicles loaded with old mattresses and other junk, and then the gleaming Mercedes appearing from another, a stronger world of men without fears. It is now many years later, the border guard has held his father's job for a long time (the father is still alive, he has a little farm in the Dordogne), the shops of France as of Spain are crammed with every kind of cigarette and tobacco a man could wish for, but the Turkish cigarettes from that General der Flieger have never been equalled for him.

The man and the woman in the car are aware of the incident. How? The expression on the face of the guard, fleeting, white, in the arc light of the border post? His odd salute as if out of an old newsreel? Does the man with the golden chain actually murmur, Generalder Flieger? Unlikely. They had planned to spend the night in Biarritz, the rooms were reserved. But now he nods, although she has not stirred or spoken, and gives the chauffeur instructions to drive on. Intimacy, even the intimacy of undressing in adjacent rooms, has become unthinkable.

And by a far-flung coincidence or perhaps because it lies within the nature of things, the nature of a Mercedes automobile in this case, an analogous incident takes place many hours later at the next border, not long after Colmar. Here the car reminds the frontier guard (an old man, due for retirement in less than three weeks) of the selfsame automobile coming through in 1944, this time with two Gestapo officers in the back, between them the French ex-minister Georges Mandel (who is taken to Germany to be killed) sitting motionless, his face bloodstained.

This guard does not do any saluting, he waves the car through with a powerless gesture of resignation, then he draws himself up and shakes his fist after it. His two colleagues, playing bezique at the window of the guard house, see him do this and one of them remarks as he picks up his cards, "A good thing they're putting that old nut out to graze." The other card player does not answer, his thoughts are elsewhere.

Perhaps the woman in the car saw the old man shake his fist. From where she sits she looks into one of the big side mirrors and sees the world receding instead of the Mercedes advancing at its great speed. As they continue now on the German Autobahn, it seems cold to her after Spain although the temperature is comfortable for Central Europe at that time of year, sixty, sixteen degrees Celsius. While her companion smokes one thin cigar after another, she keeps stroking the leather of the seat beside her with tentative movements, not like someone appreciating the sensual feel of first-class leather but reluctantly, as if searching for but afraid to come upon the blood left after Mandel was dragged out, as if those stains could still be wet so much time, so many wars, later. But was it indeed Mandel, that prisoner driven into Germany? Or Simone Weil? Jean Jaures? It makes no difference, him, her, then, now.

I am not much dearer about years than the old border guard, lucky old man about to retire into the perpetuity of a cafe table with its little piece of carpet to keep his playing cards dry. What I am clear about is that I must try to dispel her disguise, try to see her as she really is, away from the black Mercedes.


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    Reprinted by permission of Brookline Books., Brookline, Massachusetts, USA. From Pursuit of a Woman on the Hinge of History by Hans Koning. Copyright © 1998 by Hans Koning. All rights reserved.
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