(from Chapter 1, "The Catalogue")
In reality, Teresa hated her husband’s passion for collecting. Although she herself could hardly deny that some of the objects were pleasing, she was mistaken in believing that it was Mr. Grönewald who sought out these objects. The exact opposite was true. It was the objects that sought out Mr. Grönewald. He was spared that fate whereby—as occurs in the heads of other collectors—those spirits who see to it that possession will become the deepest relationship to the world’s objects slowly but surely take up residence. He didn’t collect all different sorts of objects so that the dead things would come to life through possession, but so that he could live in them, so that his imagination would be revived through them. This room was his home. In the beginning, it happened that Teresa sometimes came in here, rag in hand, to dust things off, without of course taking anything from its place, but even this small gesture thrust Mr. Grönewald into the deepest despair. Teresa said that she had not married a junk-dealer, an antiquarian, a scavenger. She was convinced that her husband was sick, which, naturally, he would not acknowledge on any account. She said that it would be easier to clean a museum storehouse than this room, and she feared — not without reason — that all kinds of mold and mildew would settle upon the shelves. In the end, Mr. Grönewald forbade her strictly as possible to set foot in here.
The room truly resembled an antiquities shop. It was airless and dark. During the day, the curtain was drawn across the window, so the light would not be able to damage the objects, which were, for the most part, completely worthless. Here was everything, the thousand trifles of creation. Who even knew—maybe there were spearheads, broken sword-blades, horseshoes, stirrup irons, copper buttons, steel buttons, stuffed birds, wasps’ nests, bone scraps, petrified molars, two-tailed lizards preserved in spirits, tile shards, bird skulls, pots, stones of all shapes and colors, minerals, pieces of lava, folios, documents, pictures, stamps, old coins, tobacco shredders — everything with which the imagination could furnish an antiquarian’s shelves. There was only one lamp: it had a yellow bulb, and sat on the writing desk. Dr. Bíró didn’t understand. She felt revulsion. As if just one touch of these unfortunate objects — which Mr. Grönewald had been collecting for years, and among which there were surely some that had been with him since childhood or youth — would defile her. She felt her hands were becoming coarsened without even touching anything. She would have been perfectly happy to run out of there so as to wash her hands. Mr. Grönewald, however, was? just then revived, as if his illness had suddenly vanished.
“You see, my dear, here every object has a story. And I know the stories of all of them. Here, for example is the water-level.”
He took from one of the shelves a small copper cylinder filled with water, one span in length and mounted on a metal base: in the middle of the cylinder the bubbles slid from left to right, depending on the incline of the surface upon which the object was placed. It was impossible to deny that the water-level had a certain kind of beauty.
“Take it! Just take it!”
Dr. Bíró felt obliged to take it into her hands.
“I got this water-level from an official at the Polish Foreign Ministry; his name was Andrzej Swietelsky. I jotted down his name. We were involved with negotiations in Warsaw concerning some utterly trivial matter. Within two minutes it became clear that we would not reach any agreement. Still, though, we saw it through to the end. Andrzej’s entire demeanor was intended to inform me that the mere fact of negotiations between two belligerent nations was itself already a sign of weakness, and that his country could well afford to conduct itself in the spirit of this rationale in matters both significant and insignificant. Our roles were proscribed in advance and demanded no intellectual effort. The goal of our discussions was indeed to ensure that we would never, even by accident, get from point A to point B, while ensuring that — in recognition of the strength in the interests of the other party — the subject of our negotiations would become all the more entangled, with no intermittent surprises. We both were bored, maybe I was a little more so. My shoe was pinching my foot; I would’ve liked to slip it off.
“At the end of our discussion, Andrzej was extremely satisfied with himself. Without mincing matters, he advised me not to meet with anyone in Warsaw whom it would be undesirable to meet. I did not consider his warning, threatening in tone, to be in the spirit of fair play. I was well aware that I would have to report this to my superiors, because in consideration with other factors, it could signal a sudden change in relations. Nonetheless I simply could have chosen to ignore his pronouncement. My boredom, though, had made me a little irritated, and so I asked him with whom it was undesirable for me to meet — was there a list? He answered with a smile. Of course there was no list, but that wasn’t even necessary. He was quite sure that even without a list I knew what he was thinking of, just as he was confident that maintaining undisturbed relations between our two countries was just as significant to me as it was to him.
“I was vexed that my irritation had allowed him to feel superior in the end. There was nothing left to do: I thanked him for the warning, and reassured him that he was not mistaken in his confidence. I got up and headed towards the door; he, however, stood in front of me. If I wouldn’t mind, he would accompany me. This was not customary. I answered that I didn’t mind, although I could hardly wait to be free of him. I did notice that he was holding something tightly in his hand. He stepped out with me, out of the three-story red brick building, and we took a few steps onto the Aleja Jana Chrystiana Szucha. Was he planning to accompany me? Was this some kind of new game? I immediately realized that he still wanted something from me. But I pretended not to notice anything, and I indicated that as far as I was concerned, our meeting had come to an end. Before, however, I had a chance to say goodbye, he put his hand on my arm. ‘I know that my request is unusual, and perhaps in light of this evening you may not even know what to think, but still, I suspect that you will understand. Please allow me to give this to you. Take it back with you to Stockholm and safeguard it if you can!’ he said, and gave me a little paper box. Before I could come to my senses, he had already closed the large wooden doors of the Foreign Ministry behind himself.
“Two blocks further on, I opened the box. A water-level, the size of one span, was in it, and a letter written in German. ‘Esteemed Mr. Grönewald! The water-level that you see in this box belonged to my father. He died ten days ago. My father, during his entire life, wanted to leave it behind here in Poland; his dream was to get to Sweden. As to whether he would have chosen your country or not, I don’t know. He had exact, although possibly naïve, plans for escape. He never set off due to me, and later on, he no longer had the strength. This is fortunate, because he certainly would have been caught; indeed, I myself would have been most likely obligated to report him. He grew old here in our own poor old Warsaw. Please take this water-level with you. It would be a good feeling for me to know that there will be something there from my father, in a place where he desired to go.’
“Do you understand?” There was expectation of Dr. Bíró’s approval in Mr. Grönewald’s gaze. “The objects that you see here have been entrusted to me. So that I can safeguard their stories — or scrape the stories off of them and give them to others — it’s all the same.”
Dr. Bíró put the water-level back onto the shelf, and the bubbles slipped from the center a little off to the left.
“Why are you showing me these things?”
“Be patient! You set aside this day for me, didn’t you? Tomorrow you will be leaving, and we’ll never see each other again.”
Dr. Bíró would’ve been very happy to escape from that low-ceilinged dark room. But she also felt that she would not be able to leave without certain consequences, and now she was interested to see what would happen next. She was overtaken by a sense of inner calm, like when she drove into the evening, and she was only able to see the nearest section of the highway in front of her and a thin strip of the surrounding landscape, faintly illuminated by the car’s headlights. Around the narrow halo, the world disappears in a uniform darkness, and if a stray light glimmers from a settlement, a farmstead, or factory courtyard, there are still no measurable distances.
Mr. Grönewald’s room was peacefully separated not only from the other rooms in the apartment, but, practically speaking, from the entire surrounding world. Neither sound or light penetrated here. In the middle of the room, on a wooden platform roughly thirty centimeters high, there was a writing desk — workplace and throne in one — a kind of elevation, from which it was possible to observe everything in this fantastical hiding place. The writing desk was huge, its dark mass resting on bulky carved wooden legs. The middle of the writing tablet was covered with blackened leather; on the leather there was a stiff blotting pad that had somehow fused onto it — who knows since when. Along the edge there was an inkwell and a pen holder, and in this last object there was an old pump-action fountain pen, the kind which today are very expensive and only to be obtained from specialists. The edge of the writing desk had a guard rail running along the left and right sides, so that a book or a document would not slip off to the side. Most striking in the massive block was the impressive structure of writing cabinets and drawers of varying sizes. Every drawer and small door opened with a similar copper handle. But in order to gain access to the contents of the drawers, a secret button on the side of the structure had to be pressed. The lock mechanism of the writing table had been conceived with extraordinary invention; it was a true masterwork of engineering. The movement of a single hand opened up a dozen other locks: a faint clicking sound gave notice of the success of the operation. A construction such as this could only remain in the possession of such an individual who would not only have principles, but would feel principles themselves as an obligation. The writing desk was illuminated by the yellow light of a wrought-iron lamp. Mr. Grönewald now stepped onto the platform, like a king stepping onto the dais of the throne, and with the help of the hidden button, released all the locks.
“You are the very first to see how this dear thing opens. Even Ervin doesn’t know. One time I was tempted to show him, but fortunately I never did.”
Mr. Grönewald pulled out, from one of the drawers, a large grid spiral notebook, the kind that is used in school.
“Please have a look!”
Dr. Bíró saw before her the kind of handwriting usually employed in pleasing letters of fastidious composition.
“Do you know what this is?”
Mr. Grönewald made an excited movement, like someone who is just come up with a splendid joke, and can hardly wait to find out if it will also find favor with his companion.
Dr. Bíró paged through the notebook.
The graded pages were ruled with a pen and a ruler. The first column contained the catalog number of the object, the second contained its designation, and the third the date of its accession into the collection. This latter was filled out by Dr. Grönewald only for those objects which had become a part of the collection after he had begun keeping the catalog. The third column noted the place of origin of the object, and the fifth contained a description of its state. The entire catalogue would have been easier and much less fatiguing to draft on a computer, but Mr. Grönewald was convinced that it was not acceptable to allow into his personal life anything that could distance him from the objects established by himself — thus making it impossible to glimpse himself again in them, as in a mirror.
“What do you say to this? Everything you see in this room is in that catalogue. You can check, if you feel like it. Nothing” — Mr. Grönewald’s voice here became hoarse again, and he grasped at the edge of the writing table — “nothing has been lost from here! Select anything you want!”
Dr. Bíró turned the page out of politeness, without reading anything from the catalog.
“Pick something out, please!”
“There’s no need.”
“But there is. Pick out something, whatever you want. Please.”
Dr. Bíró somehow jabbed her finger at the object numbered 169. It was a kaleidoscope. The date when it had been taken into the collection was missing. Its place of origin was Moringen, Germany.
Mr. Grönewald stepped over to one shelf, and he pulled out the kaleidoscope from behind an inkwell.
“Here it is! Look into it!”
Dr. Bíró took the kaleidoscope from him, held it in front of her eyes, but she couldn’t see anything in the darkness.
“Come closer to the light!”
In the yellow lamp light, a wondrous pattern extended before her: without even having to turn the metal cylinder, it was continually changing.
“Have you ever seen anything like that? I don’t think so. In most kaleidoscopes, the vision is evoked by mirror plates. But in this one, there is a small vessel with oil in which tiny colored pieces of glass float and slowly sink, and so the pattern changes constantly. And that’s not all. Stand a little to the side!”
Dr. Bíró stopped holding the kaleidoscope up to her eyes and stepped away. Mr. Grönewald opened one of the doors to the cabinets on the writing table, and took out another notebook.
“You see that if I acquire an object, I always create two pages for it, filed by catalog number. I write down its story. There are some objects for which I have noted down three or even four stories. Something I heard, or something I made up, according to my own taste.”
“So are they new? Or unrecognizable and false?”
“This kaleidoscope belonged to a little boy. A little German boy. He got it from his father in 1941. It came in his Christmas package. And in the years to come it was always with him, he always held it up to his eyes, he just watched and watched the changing patterns of the kaleidoscope. The fragments of glass floating in the oil. And he was looking at it too when his great-aunt read the announcement informing the family that his father had died a heroic death for the Fuhrer on the Eastern front. Then another time in a bombed out apartment, he saw an old woman who threw her shoe at the cat, because the cat had knocked over a vase which had been preserved by something bordering on a miracle, and now it shattered into pieces. Then the boy put down the kaleidoscope and he never looked into it again.”
“That doesn’t sound like a real story.”
Mr. Grönewald laughed, although his laughter was choked by coughing.
“Is it so important to know which what’s true and what isn’t? Is it so important to differentiate between them?”