Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, Ivo ANDRIĆ is of Serbian ancestry and by common consent one of the two most eminent writers of fiction in Yugoslavia, He is best known for his short stories and for his novels, BOSNIAN STORYand THE BRIDGE ON THE DRINA, both of which have been translated into English. His latest novel, DEVIL’S YARD,was published in October by Grove Press.

WHEN it was time for me to move to that ancient Austrian university town for my studies, I entered the ranks of the chosen few who were deemed worthy to reside in the house of Miss Mariana. A doctor, a Czech who had come to our town as a general practitioner and who, during all the time he was a student, had lived at Miss Mariana’s, had given me a written recommendation containing all the necessary data concerning me and my family.

Sixty-year-old Miss Mariana, the last member of an eminent and once-rich officer’s family, lived in a comfortable apartment of four rooms. This comprised the entire upper story of an old twostoried house, which was separated from the street by a handsome garden and a courtyard paved with large slabs of hard stone. Both the rooms and all the accessory premises were extremely spacious, even though overcrowded with things which had come down from a larger, grander house. In fact, she and her elderly servant, Liza, did not need so much space. Therefore, Miss Mariana used to rent one of the four rooms, which with its anteroom constituted a kind of tiny apartment itself. She let the room because it helped her make her modest annuity go around, but even more in order that they should not be two old ladies completely alone. For Miss Mariana, like all old ladies, was afraid of burglars.

The renting of this apartment to “a single gentleman” was, in fact, the responsibility of Liza, a harsh, devout old spinster somewhat younger than her mistress. Miss Mariana remained withdrawn and invisible in her rooms. But the question of whether the apartment was to be let or not, how, when, to whom, and under what conditions was long debated by the two women. The conditions were neither easy nor simple. First, the price was considerably higher than that for similar apartments in the same district; second, whoever wanted to take Miss Mariana’s apartment had to be recommended by a reliable party. And the whole manner of renting, payment, and soliciting was such that it in no way resembled the vulgar renting of students’ apartments.

All this I knew in advance from the doctor who had recommended me.

When I arrived, I was received with distrust. I had to leave the letter and come again the next day. Then I was cautiously questioned and my luggage examined. After this, Liza communicated everything to Miss Mariana. The recital of my good and bad points was not only long but also extremely loud, since Miss Mariana was evidently hard of hearing, so that I was able for the most part to hear it in the other room.

Finally, my good points carried the day; I was accepted and was able to move in. The furniture in my apartment was middling and the rugs cheap, but everything was tidy, the floor was polished, there was not a speck of dust around, and the curtains had been laundered and the windows washed. The same soulless, monastic, and sanitary cleanliness reigned over everything. Everything in those rooms was tidy, shining, and useful. Nothing was for luxury, the gratification of the senses, or idleness; everything was in the service of order, repose, health, and a long, God-fearing, dry, and barren life. The order and cleanliness of a pious world, devoid of imagination and of personal desires.

The whole house was dominated by a silence which fully corresponded to its order and cleanliness, a silence which was neither sad nor gay, but in which there moved people who spent the whole day doing the petty tasks of everyday living, while in their thoughts they took account only of the eternity of another world.

As I have already said, the arrangements for Lhe apartment and my moving in were all completed with Liza, a spry, skinny, and hard-boiled old maid, whose green eyes gleamed out of her red face with a distrustful and energetic expression. During these conversations, Liza constantly invoked her “mistress,” pronouncing her name with a special accent of almost pious respect. “My mistress does not like this — ” “My mistress does not allow that —” Eventually I began to envisage Miss Mariana as the personification of strength, wisdom, and inaccessible authority.

Everything was done through Liza, but the money for the rent was handed personally to Miss Mariana. Thus I was for the first time led into her presence and introduced to her. My surprise was great. The spacious room with three windows was semidark from the heavy double drapes and a conglomeration of ponderous furniture. The floor was overflowing with Persian rugs of a subdued color, and the walls were covered with tapestries which had long since lost their freshness and with pictures by nineteenth-century German artists in heavy frames of tarnished gilt. In the corners were large indoor palms and green rubber plants, but they were all stiff and dark brown, as if made out of cardboard.

The large double doors leading into the next room were wide open, and through them could be seen just as spacious and dark a room, which was just as crowded with furniture, rugs, and pictures.

Between a small desk and a blackened but gleaming Biedermeier chest of drawers stood a diminutive woman dressed all in black. She remained completely motionless, as if she herself were part of this museum furniture. Light from the nearest window fell on her face. In contrast to the semidark room and the blackness of her dress, which came up to her chin and ended there in a narrow border of white embroidery, the woman’s face was pale with the unhealthy pallor of closed rooms, and her hair, parted in the center and carefully combed back, was completely gray. The face and hair gleamed with a spectral whiteness, as if some ancient and dry dust had been falling for many years on the motionless woman; and even apart from this, she resembled those waxen images which fill children with fear and leave adults with a nagging awareness of man’s futile struggle with the passage of time. In that dry, pale face the woman’s lusterless eyes stood out like two black circles.

Miss Mariana spoke only a few words to me, enunciating each word extremely loudly, slowly, and distinctly, the way deaf people do. Then, with the movements of an ancient automaton, she took the money which I had placed on the little table, signed the receipt, and bade me farewell, without offering her hand but accompanying me with an inflexible look from her extraordinary dark eyes, of which it was impossible to make out the pupils or to see either lashes or brows.

Now I knew what the room next to me was like, and also the appearance of Miss Mariana, whose name Liza pronounced with fear and reverence and whose will she invoked as the highest indisputable and irrevocable judgment. And from then on I was permitted on the first of every month to see her for several minutes in the presence of Liza, to pay my respects to her, and to receive a signed receipt.

BECAUSE I was very busy with the chores and still more with the distractions of student life, I did not think much about Miss Mariana. But although I did not have the opportunity to see her often, I could hear her almost every day. As I have already mentioned, the room in which Miss Mariana spent the day was next to mine. These two rooms had once been joined by doors, but now the doors were nailed up, stopped up with mattresses, and covered with a heavy rug, whose turbulent and not exactly tasteful colors filled my field of vision in the morning when I awoke and at night when I closed my eyes to go to sleep.

I do not know whether there has ever been or will be a student generation which slept less, or more irregularly, than the generation to which I belonged. The turning on of the electric light was for us the same as dawn. That is when our real life began, in the cafés, in the bars, in the parks, or in the rooms of other students. It did not matter where; the main thing was not to sleep. The most difficult and painful thing for us was parting, or the moment when we had to go home to bed. And even when we had begun to move homeward, still we accompanied one another home, often till dawn. I was among the students who had an aversion to sleeping at night and an unhealthy, inexplicable need to stay up. It is therefore understandable that I remained in bed till noon. But as early as the second week, Liza declared positively that her mistress considered my way of life worthless and that she could not in any case permit any room in her house to be tidied at noon instead of in the morning, as is done by all sensible and decent people. I do not know how or why, but I bowed to the will of the invisible Miss Mariana. I continued to come in in the small hours, slept for a total of three or four hours, and at eight o’clock got up and left the house. Of course, because of that I had to sleep for two or three hours after lunch. But it did not work out without difficulties. At about three in the afternoon almost every day a loud conversation would begin in the next room between Miss Mariana and an evidently older and extremely talkative man. His voice was hoarse, but strong and penetrating. Because of the woman’s deafness, the man spoke in a still louder voice, pronouncing word by word and often repeating.

“My dear Mariana, you can’t imagine, you just can’t imagine how filthy the weather is outside; disgusting weather, I tell you.”

“Is it cold?”

“And how. Disastrous weather, as I told you.”

With these words Miss Mariana’s guest would usually awaken me from my postprandial slumbers. Slowly and brutally they would penetrate my sluggish consciousness, which still retained the echoes of individual sentences from the previous night’s student discussions on the major issues of the world and the highest values in life.

No matter how tired and sleepy I might be, it was impossible to think any more about sleep. I was condemned to listen through my state of weary semiconsciousness to a conversation conducted in the next room by two old people without the slightest shame or consideration, not even thinking that they might interfere with anyone and not asking themselves whether anyone was listening or what might be thought of these conversations. These conversations moved in the lowest realms of banality. Most often they were concerned with the weather, with health and illnesses, with mutual acquaintances who were always mentioned by name, with stock values, with market prices, and with the news in the papers in general.

The old gentleman with the hoarse voice would bring a whole sackful of news, all from these lower regions of life, and would shake it out before the old lady, who would only occasionally become vocal and ask questions in that sharp voice typical of hopelessly deaf people.

“Today I met Agatha,” the man would begin; but he would be interrupted by the woman.

“Who? Agatha? What did she want?”

“She didn’t want anything. She has yellow jaundice.”

“That was always her color,” shrieks Miss Mariana.

“But she’s ill with yellow jaundice! Do you understand? And he’s home in bed; he has sciatica; she says he’s got it all over.”

“He’s always had that.”

The old man mutters and moves-on-to some more news: the Montana Company’s shares have fallen noticeably. The woman receives this with an indignant exclamation.

“How far will it go? I don’t understand anything anymore.”

“I understand everything,” says the old man bitterly, more for himself, since the woman has difficulty in hearing him. “The world’s been turned upside down for a long time now. Everything’s gone downhill and is still going that way, headlong, as it passes,”

“Who’s passing?”

“No one’s passing. I said everything’s turned upside down.”

“Well, what shall we do?”

“Nothing. We must wait. It would be the greatest madness to sell now, for that’s what the Jews want; they want to drive everyone into a panic with this madness so that respectable people will get rid of their shares and then they can buy them up dirt cheap.”

After a very short silence would come the conversation about the news in the morning papers. And it was always about the minor news on the back pages dealing with man’s mundane material existence; about the prices of precious metals, about the stock exchange, about a new cure for cancer which had just been discovered by some German professor, about wages and salaries, about the harm done by tobacco to the human organism, and about the importance of animal droppings, feathers, hair, and bones for agriculture. Each individual piece of news served as an excuse for arguments of various lengths. The main discourse was conducted by the old man, while the woman participated only with brief questions and measured exclamations of surprise or approval. This provided the old man with a base for his long and loud speculations. Every day he made some of these news items an excuse to deliver complete speeches, in which other people and their faults were always condemned, while he himself was praised for his sagacity and farsightedness.

Once awake, I would have to listen to him for half an hour or sometimes for a whole hour, right up until teatime. Then I would hear Liza’s voice, the tinkle ol porcelain and small spoons, and coffee, or tea probably, being served. After that the conversation would slacken off and become milder.

THUS it was every day. And every day the subject of his conversation was different, but the indignation the same, and there were the same sharp, ironical judgments of people and institutions, the same lauding of his own understanding and abilities. The subject was secondary and accidental, but his disdain for the world and esteem for himself were permanent and immutable. I quickly became accustomed to this and began to listen with a certain amount of curiosity to the old man’s angry and arrogant voice, which sometimes rose to thunderous shouts and which also approached and retreated, since the old man evidently walked about the room while he spoke.

“Look, I ask you,” he would begin loudly, the way you speak to deaf people, “look how in San Francisco they’re getting over eighteen million dollars a year out of old rags, jam jars, and bones. Those are sensible and practical people. But as many as twenty-two years ago, in 1891 it was, I worked out a plan ‘For the Utilization of Town Sweepings and Other Garbage.’ And no one in this damned backward little dump would even read my plan or listen to me. The council chairman at that time was a donkey, like the one we’ve got now. Even taking only the most modest achievements into consideration, from that time till now our council could have built a whole new quarter with the money which would have been raised on the basis of my plan. But, no, you can’t achieve anything with these socialist dunderheads on our council. And nothing helps here, neither the best plans nor the most intelligent proposals. No one pays any attention to them. And I grasped the importance of this question twenty-two years before the Americans, Here, too, I penetrated to the essence of the thing, just as in so many other problems. I saw clearly what others didn’t see and what the majority didn’t even suspect, and what even today they cannot grasp or accept. But what’s the good of it? With the asses and donkeys I live among here, it’s no good at all. That’s how they’ve been wasted, one by one, all my best plans, my greatest ideas, and my most useful proposals. You remember when, in 1895, in this very room, I explained to you my plan for the utilization of waterpower around our town? You must remember!”

“I remember, I remember,” shouts the woman automatically.

“Well, look, since then it’s been more than eighteen years. On those same principles, both Switzerland and Italy have electrified their railroads, while our streetcars even today use current which is supplied by coal. Expensive and difficult coal in place of free and simple waterpower. And even in the question of coal, when coal was left to do it, I had a plan fifteen years ago — yes, it was in 1897 or 1898 — which I outlined here so many times. The plan was to cheapen and simplify the supply and transportation of coal. Do you remember?”

“I remember, I remember.”

“But what’s the use of talking to donkeys who are incapable of a single intelligent idea, but are capable of smothering every idea which crops up in heads far more intelligent than theirs?”

The next day the conversation was about some new methods for curing tuberculosis which were being used somewhere in Russia, according to the newspapers,

“Do you remember that as long ago as 1898 I was saying that our doctors kill their patients by sending them south or to the seaside, or cramming them with medicines? I had worked out a plan ‘For a Work Colony of Sickly Children,’ which was to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and reduce the number of the sick to a minimum. But what was the use when those donkeys at the university clinic and the general hospital and the municipal health department wouldn’t even hear of it? Today our town would be famous for having the smallest number of TB patients in the world. My colonies would have been introduced into most of the civilized countries, and the world would have blessed me as a benefactor of mankind. But no, not even the greatest of intellects can do anything against the backwardness, conceit, and egotism of professional idiots. Do you know how it happened?”

“I know, I know,” yells the old lady in parrot fashion.

On the day after that, the question of savings arose as the subject for the old man’s passionate monologues.

“Ha, ha, ha!” he laughed lengthily, with rancor in his voice, and then continued wrathfully: “Look what this morning’s newspapers are saying: ‘SAVINGS WEEK. With the object of enabling all sections of the people, but particularly our youth, to get used to saving, the Municipal Savings Bank is opening a Savings Week,’ etcetera, et cetera. But when I thought up a plan twelve years ago, in 1901, it was, ‘For Compulsory Saving in the Interests of the Community and Individuals,’ no one wanted to listen to me or understand. At that time those gentlemen still had no idea about the principle of saving. Donkeys! You remember that project of mine! Do you remember that I explained it here in detail?”

“I remember, I remember,” answers the old lady in an automatic voice.

EVERY afternoon I was forced to listen against my will to the conversation of this pair of deaf and elderly creatures and to learn one or two of the old gentleman’s projects. In spite of my youth, for youth is normally occupied with itself, I still wanted to become acquainted with the face of this speaker from the other room. Once I had to listen to him, it was only natural that I should also want to see him. It was not difficult. My window was directly over the front entrance, and after a few days I was able to wait for Miss Mariana’s guest and to watch unobserved as he arrived or left.

I was not surprised by his appearance. Across the broad, handsome paving stones of the oblong, orderly courtyard, he would come and go always at the same time of day — he came at three and left soon after six — a diminutive but erect and strutting old man, neat, buttoned up, and elaborate, dressed in the fashion of the eighties of the last century. On fine dry days he would be wearing a long black coat with velvet around the neck and sleeves, and sticking out from this blackness would be two white rounded cuffs and an equally white high starched collar. On his feet would be narrow black button-up shoes, and on his head a black narrow-brimmed hat which was hopelessly out of fashion. When there was rain or snow, the old man wore a hunting costume. He would have on a brown and green cape and a suit of gray tweed with horn buttons and the same kind of hat with a green band and a short plume of wildboar’s bristle at the back. His long trousers would have green stripes down the sides. On his feet would be heavy tan shoes. In one hand there was always a walking stick and in the other, gloves. A black walking stick with a silver handle or a brown one with horn; brown pigskin gloves or gray deerskin, depending on whether he wore his black suit or the gray hunting one.

His face was narrow and delicate, his nose large and bent, his eyes set too close together and always lowered, his mustache trimmed and his sideburns worn long. His hair was completely gray, and he himself was somehow all gray, as if, sitting for long periods next to Miss Mariana, he too had been covered by that gray dust of pitiless and mortal time. He would step out with a resolute stride, and his whole appearance and bearing proclaimed him an irreproachably dressed Austrian gentleman in the style of the previous century.

From a conversation with Liza I learned that the talker in the next room was a baron. But that was all I was able to learn, for the old spinster was just as thrifty with her words as she was with everything else, and she was shrinking and ingrown with her whole being.

As I listened in spite of myself to these extraordinary senile conversations, I asked myself in vain what these two people meant to one another. Aged lovers? Close relations? Friends since childhood? In my youthful inexperience and with scant knowledge of the world, I was not able even approximately to define the nature of their relations or the degree of their kinship. Moreover, as soon as the afternoon conversations of the aged pair in the next room came to an end, I forgot them, being completely taken up with the dreams and thoughts of my new student life, only to remember them again the next afternoon when I was awakened by the baron’s hoarse monologue in the next room.

Finally I became accustomed to this waking and these conversations, just as one gets accustomed to any uniform and constant phenomenon of nature. When the old man’s voice jerked me from my sleep, I would rub my eyes, listen to the first few sentences of whichever of the baron’s tirades was on the program for that day, and listening thus to his boasting about some great and unprecedented plan of his and to the old lady’s mechanical, birdlike assurances (“I know, I know,” “I remember, I remember”), I would turn onto my other side and go to sleep again. And when I awoke, my room would be filled with the red glow of the setting sun and the silence would be absolute. And then I would get ready to go out for another student session.

In this way, autumn, winter, and spring went by. The summer came with its short student nights, when dawn is early. On one such July day, when I was again well behind with my sleep, I came home immediately after lunch. A great sultriness lay over the whole town, making it hard to breathe and causing one’s eyes to shut of their own accord. A thunderstorm was in the offing, like a relief which could not seem to come. The rain, which had been trying hard for several days, uniformly skirted the town and broke on the hills surrounding it. I fell into a heavy sleep.

I was aroused by voices from the next room. Only half awake, I thought to myself: which of the baron’s innumerable plans is on the program for today? Then I laughed inwardly and turned onto my other side in order to continue the sleep which was pressing me down into the bed like a lead weight, I was falling under the weight of sleep, but nevertheless I was unable to doze off again. I was suffocated by the sultriness of the gray day, with its ashen sky before the storm and heavy air without a single breeze. Thus, sluggish and bad-tempered, I listened to the voices coming from the next room. They seemed this time to be higher and particularly sharp.

The baron was speaking with scorn and derision about some news which had appeared in the morning newspapers concerning a trust that had been created by the well-to-do citizens of I-don’t-knowwhich Italian town with the object of providing orphaned but good and deserving girls with a complete dowry, thus enabling them to marry.

“Ha, ha, now they’ve remembered that this has to be done as well. And the Italians at that, who are famous for their inability to organize. Donkeys! And over twenty years ago, in 1892 it was — do you remember? — I gave them a detailed plan for a state institution which would have secured to all marriageable girls from the poorer sections of the population not a stupid dowry like this — rags and swaddling clothes! — but a proper dowry as a solid basis for future marriage. Every thing was worked out: the organization of the institution, the manner of functioning, and amortization. Do you remember? But none of these idiots of ours wanted even to study the plans, or to enter into my idea. You know that?”

The baron’s words came to me at times sharp and loud, as if they had been spoken at my side, and at times muffled and distant, according to whether he was approaching or retreating in his irate march about the neighboring room. I listened to him talking as one listens to a familiar waterfall, which lulls one to sleep equally as much as it keeps one awake. And I had already begun to feel the sweet sensation of renewed sleep. Then I noticed that the baron’s monologue was not being interrupted, as was usual, with those loud expressions of approval (“I know, I know,” “I remember, I remember”) which the old lady used to interject with the high guttural voice of a bird that has been taught to speak. This aroused my attention and compelled me to listen further to the voices from the next room, instead of falling asleep again.

But some kind of confusion seemed to have arisen in the elderly pair’s conversation. At first there was a brief pause, several incomprehensible words, and then the baron’s impatient and imperious voice:

“How is it that now all of a sudden you don’t remember, when it was here that I explained my whole plan to you? It was — It could have been —”

“It never happened. Don’t strain yourself trying to guess when it was.”

“What? What’s the matter with you, Mariana? What do you mean, it never happened?”

“Just what I said, it ne-ver hap-pened,” reaffirmed the old lady loudly and resolutely, and she continued to speak fluently and consecutively as at no time previously. “By God, it never happened, just as nothing that you say here every day and that I confirm ever happened. Not one of all these fine, brave, rejected plans ever existed. You know that yourself. And as long as the conversation is about drains, hospitals, and all kinds of financial, military, and social institutions — I don’t know the names of all those things! — as long as you talk about that, I can listen to you and support you, although I know very well, just as you do, that it occurs to you only now and you are speaking about it for the first time. But if I’m going to be told by you about some organization of yours for providing a downy for unmarried girls who don’t have one. You ! Telling me! That’s going too far; that I won’t listen to.”

“But, Mariana, please! What are you saying?”

“I’m talking about what I know and what you shouldn’t even begin to speak about.”

“But, dear Mariana, what did I begin to speak about, what did I say?”

“You began to speak about what you have no right to speak about.”

The woman spoke in a wooden and shrill voice, as usual, but somehow collectedly and resolutely, while the baron had evidently lost his selfpossession and was looking in vain for his customary elevated tone of boundless satisfaction with himself and deep contempt for the rest of the world. It could be felt through the wall, it seemed to me, how he had become perplexed and small. From his brief, hopeless words and pleading tone it was clear that all he wished for was to switch the conversation to a different topic and avoid a conflict.

“Please, Mariana, we’re speaking now about general things, things en général. Isn’t that it?”

“No, it’s not, it’s not,” cried the woman, so that the room echoed, “it’s not that at all. But now that you’ve raised this thing, I’ll tell you how it is and what it’s about. It’s like this. The whole town, the whole region I should think, from the highest to the lowest, everyone knows you are a nincompoop, a conceited ass, an idler, and a parasite.”

“But, Mariana, please — I must remind you,”

“Quiet, nincompoop! Nincompoop! Yes, you should be keeping quiet and be ashamed if you could, but instead of that, you are strutting about like a turkey-cock. The world has no parallel of a man spending his life the way you have. You didn’t want to go to school. You never wanted to do anything, not even a little bit, that was useful or intelligent. You’ve spent your life and grown old in stupidly and idiotically nursing your own person, in shaving, having your hair cut, bathing, being massaged, beautifying and titivating yourself, and taking cures. You’ve never even carried a letter as far as the post office, much less done anything else in your life. And for forty years or more I’ve listened to you ridiculing the whole world and boasting and blowing yourself up and lying to your own self, for you can’t deceive anyone else with your plans which the world won’t accept and can’t understand. Consider how big a fool you are if you think someone would be mad enough, even for a moment, to believe that you really have something in your head, or that you are capable at all of inventing or understanding anything. Out of pity we’ve listened for years and years to your talking, and we are ashamed for your stupidity and impudence and — we keep quiet. But you misinterpret our silence and get even more stupid and impudent. And now it’s come to the point where you talk to me of your inspired plans whose object is to settle orphaned girls and to bring happiness to mankind: you who have eaten up my dowry and gambled it away and —”

“Mariana, for God’s sake —”

“Quiet, nincompoop, I’m talking now! You know better than anyone else how you have exploited us all and squeezed us dry, both young and old, both near and far, in the family; you know what happened to me. You think that if I never speak of it and if I live alone like this — deaf, old. and ugly, cut off from the world — I must therefore be completely devoid of self-respect and of the last spark of reason in my head. For you forget yourself so much and are so infatuated with the sense of your own greatness that you think the whole world is a mere stand for your own divine activities, that other people’s lives, property, and personalities are merely food for the insatiable appetites of your own exalted and inviolable personality. But in fact you are a parasite, a despicable, criminal parasite, without a soul, without a mind, without a reputation —”

“Mariana —”

“Without shame, without feelings, without — without limits and without cure. Ah!”

Here the woman’s voice broke off. One could hear footsteps and a rustling. The baron endeavored to lead her into another room and calm her. It seems that he succeeded in this, for immediately there was absolute silence in the next room.

I was amazed and disturbed by what I had heard, and sleep was completely dispersed. The room was filled with an irritating and heavy sultriness. Outside one could see the darkened sky, full of billowing storm clouds and rain which had long been building up.

In the next room there was complete silence for several days. Miss Mariana was evidently keeping to her bedroom. Was she lying in bed ill? I don’t know. Nothing could be read on Liza’s immobile face. Nor did I see the baron come. The first feeling of disturbance aroused by the scene to which I had been an unwilling witness quickly subsided and was lost under the numerous and varied impressions of my night excursions. I got used to the silence just as I had got used to the old people’s conversations. But the silence lasted only five or six days. One afternoon I had just dozed off when I was aroused by talking in the next room. Loudly and ceremoniously, just as before, the baron cried: “Good afternoon, my dear Mariana, good afternoon!”

In that same birdlike mechanical voice, Miss Mariana asked what it was like outside, and with the same solemnity the baron replied that it was better not to ask, for the heat was unprecedented and murderous.

Then, just as always before, one heard the nervous turning of pages and the rustle of a newspaper and the relaying and interpretation of the morning’s news, both local and international. Hesitant and cautious at first, and then stronger and more self-confident, the baron’s voice rose.

“That’s nothing new or original. Do you remember that as early as 1901, I —”

“I remember, I remember.”

“And you know how I worked out a plan in detail —”

“I know, I know.”

I listened to them with youthful incomprehension, and waited only for Liza to bring them some tea before falling asleep again.

Translated by Michael Scammell.