In the Night of Time(3)
Author:Antonio Munoz Molina


    Extreme precision matters. Nothing real is vague. In his suitcase Ignacio Abel carries his architect’s diploma, signed by Professors Walter Gropius and Karl Ludwig Rossman in Weimar in May 1924. He knows the value of exact measurements, the calculations of the resistance of materials, the balance between contrary forces that keeps a building standing. What could have happened to the engineer Torroja, with whom he liked to talk about the physical foundations of construction, learning disturbing facts about the ultimate insubstantiality of matter, the demented agitation of particles in the void. The sketches in the notebook he carries in one of his pockets will be worthless if they’re not subjected to the illuminating disciplines of physics and geometry. What were the words of Juan Ramón Jiménez that seemed like the summary of a treatise on architecture? The pure, the precise, the synthesizing, the unambiguous. Ignacio Abel made note of them on a slip of paper and read them aloud at the Student Residence during the lecture he gave the previous year, October 7, 1935. Nothing occurs in an abstract time or a blank space. An arch is a line drawn on a sheet of paper and the solution to a mathematical problem, weight transformed into lightness through the interplay of contrary forces, visual thought converted into habitable space. A stairway is an abstract form as necessary and pure as the spiral of a shell, as organic as the arborescent veins of a leaf. At the top of a wooded hill, in a place Ignacio Abel has yet to visit, the white structure of a library already exists in his imagination and in the sketches in his notebooks. Beneath the iron arches and glass vaults of Pennsylvania Station, in the air flecked with dust and smoke, shaken by the din of concave spaces, the clocks mark a precise time: in a rapid spasm the eye barely perceives, the minute hand has just advanced to five minutes to four. The ticket Ignacio Abel holds in his lightly sweating left hand is for a train that leaves at four from a platform whose location he still doesn’t know. In the inside pocket of his raincoat he has the passport that was on the night table next to his wallet this morning, and a written, stamped postcard he forgot to mail in the hotel lobby is now in a jacket pocket next to the letter he didn’t tear into pieces. Two children growing up without a father at their most difficult age and in these times and my having to rear them all alone. The postcard is a color photograph of the Empire State Building seen at night, with rows of lit windows and a zeppelin moored to its splendid steel spike. Every time he traveled he sent daily postcards to his children. He’s continued to do so this time but doesn’t know whether they’ll reach their destination; he writes the names and address as if repeating an incantation, as if his obstinacy in sending the cards would be enough to prevent their being lost, like the impetus and aim with which one fires an arrow, or the meticulous resentment with which his wife enumerated each of her complaints in writing. Dear Lita, Dear Miguel, this is the tallest building in the world. I’d have liked to see New York from the sky, up in a zeppelin with you. In the ink-blue sky of the postcard a full yellow moon and conical reflectors illuminate the futuristic silhouette of the dirigible. Postcards and letters go astray now in the convulsive geography of the war. Adela’s letter and the telegram temporarily rescued Ignacio Abel from his gradual nonexistence in the hotel room, where for four days the telephone didn’t ring and no one said his name or even had the most incidental conversation with him. He also carries in a pocket the belated welcoming telegram from Professor Stevens, chairman of the Department of Architecture and Fine Arts at Burton College, the letter in which, through a hallucination of desire, he recognized Judith Biely’s hand, if only for a few seconds, as clearly as he heard her voice in Pennsylvania Station. Except he didn’t, and the writing doesn’t resemble hers at all. Last night, before turning off the light, Ignacio Abel read all of Adela’s letter and put it back in its envelope, leaving it on the night table next to his passport and wallet and reading glasses, resisting without difficulty the temptation to tear it up. In the room’s imperfect darkness, submerged in the hoarse vibration of the city that enveloped him like the incessant tremor of the ship’s machinery during his six-day voyage across the Atlantic, Ignacio Abel watched his wife’s old-fashioned delicate writing glide before his eyes, and in his wakefulness the words in the letter took on her monotonous voice with its simultaneous catalogue of reproaches and a sort of indestructible tenderness against which he had no defenses.

    After several days of waiting, time again accelerated in a disquieting way. It was almost three-thirty when he looked at his watch, and the train for Rhineberg left at four. It had become so late that he slammed shut the suitcase on the bed and realized only as he was opening the door that he had left his passport on the night table. He shuddered at the thought of leaving without it. An entire catastrophe can be contained in a moment’s carelessness. They were less than a minute away from killing him on that night in late July he often dreams about, when a voice saying his name in the darkness saved him: Don Ignacio, calm down, nothing’s going to happen. The blue passport with the seal of the Spanish Republic was issued in the middle of June; the year’s visa for the United States is dated early October (but everything takes so long, it doesn’t seem it’ll ever arrive). The photograph is of a huskier man, not exactly younger but less mistrustful, with a less insecure expression and eyes that will always have something furtive about them but rest on the camera lens with serenity, even with a touch of arrogance, accentuated by the excellent cut of his jacket, a crisply folded handkerchief and fountain pen in the breast pocket, the silky gleam of his tie, the obvious quality of his shirt. At each sentry post along the borders Ignacio Abel has crossed in recent weeks, the guards compared more and more slowly the face in the passport to that of the man who presented it to them with a docile expression that gradually grew more nervous. In this accelerated time, photographs don’t take long to become unfaithful. Ignacio Abel looks at his passport photograph and sees the face of someone who has become a stranger and ultimately generates no sympathy in him, not even nostalgia. Nostalgia, or rather a longing as physical as a disease, is what he feels for Judith Biely and his children, not for the man he was a few months earlier, and even less so before the war. Ignacio Abel’s eyes have seen things the man in the photograph, whose assurance is petulance, or worse, blindness, doesn’t suspect. A step away from the future explosion that will turn everything upside down, he doesn’t sense its proximity and can’t imagine its horror.

    Exact details: his passport has suffered the same deterioration as his clothes and suitcase; it has passed through too many hands, received the forceful impact of a good number of rubber stamps. The exit stamp from Spain has the badly printed red-and-black initials of the FAI, the Iberian Anarchist Federation, and the trace of dirty fingerprints. The hands of the French gendarme who inspected it only a few meters away were pale and bony and had shiny nails. His fingers handled the passport with the misgivings of someone who fears an infection. On the Spanish side, the Anarchist militiaman had stared at Ignacio Abel with a glint of threat and sarcasm, with contempt, letting him know he considered him a malingerer and a deserter, and though the militiaman let him pass, he didn’t renounce until the last moment the authority to seize the passport that meant nothing to him; the French gendarme, his head rigid above the hard collar of his uniform, had studied Ignacio Abel at length without ever looking him in the eye, without granting him that privilege (it requires training to examine someone’s face without meeting his eye). The French stamp, with a polished wooden handle, came down on the open passport with the crack of a metal spring. At every border someone will take his time studying the passport and any other document he feels like demanding, peer over his glasses with distrust, turn to a colleague or disappear behind a closed door, taking the suddenly suspicious document with him—someone who thinks of himself as a guardian, a master of the future of those who wait, admitting some, inscrutably rejecting others, taking his time to light a cigarette or exchange gossip with the clerk at the next table before turning back to the window and examining once again the person waiting, the one who knows he’s on the verge of salvation or damnation, of yes or no.

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