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Roth

It took me some time to reach the first resting stage in the day’s journey, the haven where I usually had breakfast, or at least a coffee, or on some days a glass of water which is healthier than either. I had to pass on the left a square number of establishments, being five squared or twenty-five, and on the right a prime number of establishments, to the number of thirty-one, which is indivisible by any number but itself and one. Most were harmless; some bore ill-will, namely a barker who always pressed me to enjoy a live act stage show, a Korean takeaway kitchen whose owner glared at me with palpable hostility as though he remembered some terrible slight I had done him in a previous life, and an old and worn dry-cleaning shop whose owner reminded me painfully of my dear uncle Stephen lost in the War in Europe with his little daughter Beth. All gone, gone.

So when I reached Florenzini’s I was already distracted and anxious, before my day’s journey had even begun. It was early; a few regulars browsed through their papers. Someone was playing chess alone at a corner table. The dim light from the street gleaming on the sugar containers and the cutlery, the music playing in a back room, the steam on the windows, all these details conspired to a home-like warmth, and I felt a lump in my throat.

Mr Hagakawa beckoned to me, but I wasn’t in the mood for his sad remiscences, so I waved and tapped my watch. By this means I implied that I would talk to him later, without actually telling an untruth.

Fortunately Kirsch was there, who always had a calming effect on me. He invited me to his table and offered to buy me a coffee. I said no, a glass of water would be adequate, or at the most — to allow him to display his manners and his sense of proper hospitality — perhaps a glass of French mineral water. But he insisted on buying me a coffee, so I ordered a ‘Spanish’ coffee — in fact a ‘flat white’ as the Australians prosaically call it, or a café au lait, the designation ‘Spanish’ being in the nature of a bad bilingual pun, pointing at a homophonic identity between the French phrase au lait and the Spanish ejaculation olé. We talked for a while, about old and forgotten things. Then I noticed Roth, the artist, which gave me a start. He was sitting at a table at the back, looking unwell. I hadn’t run into him for a year or so, and seeing him there without warning, looking unhappy and dishevelled, seemed to cast an unfavourable omen on the day.

He came from Albania originally, but since then from Rotterdam and Darmstadt and Liverpool, where he’d gone to art school, and the Australian outback, where he said he’d lived in a cave under the ground digging for jewels day and night like one of the Seven Dwarves — if you can believe that. And here he was again, sitting with a girl in a nurse’s uniform. Saint Clair’s Hospital was nearby, and the nurses often stopped in for a coffee and a shot of something on their way home, or even on their way to work, at odd hours of the day and night. Who could blame them? Washing old men’s bodies, that’s no work for a young woman. And finding them dead, and then laying them out.

In the old days Roth used to call in here for a coffee or a game of chess, always late at night, like a Transylvanian. But here he was in daylight, and got up in hospital clothing — a loose green smock, with some kind of cord hanging from the neck. He looked awful — as white as a tin of titanium dioxide, unshaven, and holding his cup unsteadily.

Kirsch noticed my dismay. ‘You heard what happened to him, Gregor?’

‘No, I never hear anything. People keep me in the dark. I didn’t know for two weeks that Peter the Dresser had cut his throat alone in a rowboat in the rain in Port Philip Bay, and he was a friend from my days in Melbourne.’ I shouldn’t have brought that up; but as soon as I’d mentioned poor Peter the Dresser I had to mention that city, and then I had to do what I could to avert the repetition of the evil times that had befallen me there, so I had to spit, even though just a little; I always cross myself unobtrusively and spit at the mention of that Gomorrah infested with psychoanalysts, may it sink into its own vat of spiritual and psychological filth. ‘It seems to be in the Order of Things that I should find out horrible facts a morsel at a time,’ I said, ‘perhaps so I can digest them better. Go on, tell me. I can take anything. Roth is crazy anyway, I always knew something awful he’d done would catch up with him and take its revenge. But it’s pitiful to see him like that.’ I noticed the nurse reach across to steady his hand so he could drink from the cup without spilling it down his front; it’s shameful to see a strong man in such a condition, being fed like a baby.

‘He arranged to sell his penis. That’s what started it. Can you imagine, Gregor?’ Kirsch broke into a laugh, and hid his face behind his copy of Pravda. He read the Russian, not the English version. ‘Sell his penis! God Almighty!’ He doubled up laughing, and people looked at us.

‘What are you talking about?’ I whispered. I hate being made an exhibition of. ‘Who would buy such a thing? What do you mean, for a transplant, or what?’ I sneaked another look at Roth: he seemed bloodless, and there were dark circles under his eyes — he put his cup down awkwardly so that it rattled and spilt, and took out a handful of tissues. He seemed to have a heavy cold, or perhaps he was crying.

‘Art, my friend, that’s what did it. You grew up in Europe, you know the madness of artists, and worse, the cunning of dealers and critics and the whole pack of hyenas. He began to use his body as a piece of art. He was reading glossy magazines from France, from Germany, from Austria; but could he understand them properly? Who knows?’

‘What do you mean, use his body?’

‘It seemed artists were putting hooks into their flesh, stringing themselves up by the toes in front of an audience, hanging upside down like bats in public galleries, eating razor blades, I don’t know what. The Germans I can understand, they’ve always been infected with that confusion of metaphysics and torment, but the others? Fashion, that’s what it was, that and wanting to be noticed, getting the parents to notice the naughty children.

‘So Roth started out with a few of those tricks. He called them “happenings”, like the American hippies. Eating paint and throwing it up all over the audience, do you remember that one? No, you were hiding in Melbourne.’ I winced. ‘Another one was setting up a table in a gallery with knives and forks, a glass of wine, napery, a waiter and so forth, then eating — again in front of an audience — eating a human liver.’

‘A what? But how could he do such a thing?’

‘I swear it’s true, God knows how he got it, from a mortuary, a bribe from his dealer to an accomplice, they said, a refrigeration mechanic who called there to service the equipment, and apparently he got a real liver. The headlines! Don’t you remember, Gregor? Even in Europe they heard of Roth.’

‘I heard something about the paint. I didn’t know about the liver, though.’ I was starting to feel unwell.

‘The papers grew tired of his happenings in the end. He had a couple of bad years. He was turning alcoholic, he and his wife both drank like a pair of fish. And he was taking other things, I don’t know what, drugs of some kind. He made a tour of the United States, drinking paint and eating things in public, dog turds would you believe, a human finger — but nobody took any notice of him. Well, I said to him, what do you expect? It’s America! But it got to him, he wanted the headlines again, and he was taking the drugs; and in the end he had this idea. His dealer — do you know Dench, the dealer? — never mind, his dealer had a buyer in Tokyo. For his penis.’

‘For how much?’

‘How much? I don’t know, fifty thousand, a hundred thousand, someone said half a million but that was just gossip. Eighty thousand, let’s say. Preserved in formalin; also with a film of the amputation before a selected gallery audience, and the sale of television and magazine rights to a Japanese media organisation. A package.’

‘God help him,’ I said.

Kirsch sipped at his drink, a kind of blackcurrant cordial mixed with white wine. He noticed my disapproving look. ‘You should try one of these, Gregor,’ he said. ‘The people of Bordeaux live forever, and they take two or three of these every day. The juice is full of vitamin C for strength, and the alcohol, just a little, it’s good for soothing the soul. They have medical proof now that a little alcohol is good for you. No?’

‘I don’t believe them. Proof? What would they know? They used to say that Freud was good for you, now you can’t find a therapist willing to admit that he’s infected by those corrupt Viennese ideas. It’s fashion, that’s all. Wait long enough and it goes away. But Roth, what happened to him?’

‘He went through with it. He must have been mad.’ Kirsch lowered his voice again. ‘He got a doctor in the Philippines to do it, to look after the anaesthetic and the transfusion — he needed lots of blood, apparently — and the operation itself went off all right. But something went wrong with the arrangements. There was confusion about who was to organise the transfer to the waiting plane, the Japanese or the hospital or whoever, and at the last minute the doctor phoned a blood plasma van, and it called to collect the thing, the member, the penis. But you know the Asians, the way they drive. The driver had an accident on the way to the airport. This in peak hour traffic in Manila. The body of the van was bent and the door twisted open by the collision, and the insulated box with the penis in it got knocked onto the roadway and burst open. While the driver was being patched up at the side of the road a dog took the parcel and ran off with it.’ Kirsch started laughing again. ‘A dog!’ he said, ‘with the penis in his mouth!’

‘Did they find it? The dog?’

‘Never! Never! He ate it! He took it away and ate the bloody thing!’

Now Kirch was a friend, and I had drunk coffee with him, but I felt at this time that he was pulling my leg in a disrespectful manner, so I politely left him to his muffled convulsions and went to speak to Mr Hagakawa.

I could see Roth leaving on the arm of his pretty companion, as though he knew the curtain had fallen on this silly tale of mutilation and greed, and he was no longer needed as an example of the folly of hubris. He held a bunch of tissues to his face, and wiped his eyes. Was he in pain? I should have caught up with him and offered my sympathies, but sympathies for what? The matter promised to be complicated and distressing, whatever the truth, and I had a lot to get done that day.

‘Mister Gregor, please let me offer you one of these cakes,’ Mr Hagakawa pleaded. ‘And a glass of mineral water, it’s excellent for the blood.’ So I took a little cake, an Italian confection whipped up from nothing but sugar, and a glass of Hippocrene Spring Water, which can hardly have been good for anyone’s blood, but you have to make allowances for people like Mr Hagakawa who had long been exiled from his proper home and could only do his best to assimilate to Australian customs and conditions. He is a stout man, like a sumo wrestler, though he says he was as thin as a rice noodle when he was a boy in pre-War Japan. Now every day is a fresh trial of his abilities to blend into a barbaric cultural background. I have seen him delicately eating a fried egg on toast with a pair of chopsticks — a tableau which had stuck in my mind’s eye and which I carried around with me like a semi-precious stone, a little scene that was a mixture of pathos and farce, of pain and laughter. Such things have a mystery about them, and a simplicity too. I try to learn from everything that seems important in this way.


‘Roth’ was first published in Sport magazine number 12 (Wellington, New Zealand, 1994, ISSN 0113-7891) and in the anthology Love Cries (ed. Peter Blazey, Victoria Dawson and Tim Herbert), Angus & Robertson-HarperCollins, Sydney, 1995, ISBN 0 207 18626 X

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