First you lose yourself...
Hot off the press (& to be launched at this year’s Prague Microfestival), in 8 octaves, 64 chapters and on 888 pages, Louis Armand’s The Combinations is a “work of attempted fiction” that combines the beauty & intellectual exertion that is chess, with the panorama of futility & chaos that is Prague (a.k.a. “Golem City”), across the 20th-century and before/after
MOVE 7: PAWNTAGONIST BACK (?!) TO ITINERANT KNIGHT’S ONE.
Having installed himself back at the Prof’s old apartment (formerly the residence of Edward Kelley, “The Donkey in the Cradle”), Němec intensifies his investigations into the Voynich Manuscript & the Prof’s tortuous past. Forgotten drawers & secret chambers yield some forgotten secrets – mysterious photographs peopled by Nazi uniforms, an uncanny pseudonym (Josef Kulička, Josef K. resurrected) belonging to no-one: or perhaps the Professor…? Teasing possibilities begin to swarm, leaving the pawntagonist at a loss – which direction to take? what if the only correct move leads outside of the board?
It was only once he’d navigated the mess the workmen’d left behind in the courtyard that Němec could see the caretaker’s door was ajar. There didn’t seem to be any point knocking. The green parrot stared out at him from the window, eye stuck to the glass, unmoving. The devious creature made no sound when he pushed the door open & stepped inside. The reason was obvious. Someone had shot a hole in it — there was blood with bits of feather in it all up the wall, the perch wedged under the windowsill with the bird’s head sticking up like it was on sentry duty. It looked like it’d been that way for days, turned stiff in the cold, rigor mortis, eye gone dim. There was something faintly ridiculous about it sitting there like that, like a stuffed toy with the stuffing blown out of it, grinning at him, its black tongue between its beak, caked with dried puke.
They say parrots have long memories. I bet you could’ve told them a pretty story, eh, Polly? Someone had knocked over the kitchen table. Broken china & tea leaves littered the floor. A smashed jar of uncandied honey. A cracked rhinestone broach. Whoever it was must’ve turned up right when the old bird was reading her fortune. Wonder if she saw it coming… Further inside the flat there was a smell of cinders hanging in the air, but no smoke. The glowing blue eye of the large old woodframed Tesla faintly hissed. Němec switched it off. Now the only sound in the place was of the soles of his shoes on linoleum. There was a bed-sit out the back & that was all, a fairly Spartan existence for our Severínová. Wardrobe virtually bare, drawers containing only knickknacks: pencils, blank sheets of blue letter-paper, tweezers, a magnifying glass, eyedrops, balls of yarn, knitting needles, a pattern book & a photo album with all the pictures torn out. As if, for whatever reason, the woman had been determined to leave behind only the minimum possible trace.
Back in the kitchen, he went through the drawers & cupboards again looking for what wasn’t there to be found. Whoever they were, they’d gone to the effort of wiping their shoes at the door — but the footprints could still be seen, just faintly, where the spilt Yunan tea had dried & the honey had set. There would’ve been two of them: they would’ve come in through the door while the caretaker was busy gazing into her cup — they wouldn’t’ve been expecting the parrot, though — it would’ve kicked up its usual fuss, maybe gone for one of them with its beak, & so they popped it — then what happened? Maybe they knocked Severínová on the head & put her in a bag — but why? Why go to the trouble of kidnapping an old babička with virtually nothing to her name? And if they’d simply wanted to do her in, why steal the body?
Němec kept looking. There was a pile of ashes lying in the grate of the old iron stove, the source of the cinder smell. He reached in & got his hands dirty sifting through fine leaves of carbonised paper. He tried gently lifting a piece out but it disintegrated between his fingers. Getting an idea he went back out to the bed-sit & found the tweezers & magnifying glass, then tried again: no matter how delicately he worked, there were only fragments — at best, bits of printed type, black on black, which could’ve said anything. But by digging with the tweezers he had more luck. Severínová must’ve been hoping to hide it, because it was inside a folded square of tinfoil at the back of the grate: the foil was black with charcoal, but the photograph it contained barely showed a blemish.
At first Němec wasn’t sure he was seeing clearly & then he was. At first he figured it must’ve been Alice Steinerová, in one of those movie stills. The Teratologists. Though how the hell it could’ve got into the caretaker’s fireplace was something else. But that hardly mattered, because it wasn’t. Staring out at him from the photograph was the face of Elsbeth von N____. It was an almost identical photograph to the one the caretaker had given him months ago, the one of the Prof sitting at a table on the Barrandov Terraces, the one Němec left beside the Old Man’s urn at Olšanská — except that in the place where the Prof’d been sitting in the other photo there was now an empty chair & where before there’d been an empty chair Elsbeth von N____ was now sitting. She was much younger, but not as young as you’d expect. Her features were exceptionally fine, striking even, severe. Her hair was cut very short, like Alice Steinerová’s. And unlike the Prof in the first picture, Elsbeth von N____ was gazing intently past the lens of the camera, instead of at it.
But it wasn’t what she might’ve been looking at that bothered Němec. What bothered him was the fact that Elsbeth von N____ appeared to be dressed in a man’s grey military uniform, deathshead waffenfarbe stitched on the left lapel like a tiny Karl Lagerfeld mask. Apart from that little anomaly, the same chessboard was sitting on the table. As in the first photograph, the board showed the position at the end of a game: white’s king in checkmate, but even clearer now was the fact that both of black’s bishops were positioned on white squares. Somehow neither the Prof nor Elsbeth von N____ seemed to’ve noticed. Or else one of them had accidentally disturbed the arrangement (getting up from the table, perhaps)? Or maybe it’d been intended that way: some kind of drama concealed in a calculated error — a code, a sign, a riddle addressed to the person behind the camera, or someone else, someone in the future — someone who was expected to look at that photograph and recognise the specific significance of one of black’s bishops being out of place.*
In this second picture, Elsbeth von N____ was resting one of her hands on an attaché case lying open on the adjacent chair. A moment earlier, or a moment later, she & the Prof might’ve been in conversation. He might’ve been showing her something, as was his habit, on the board, or from the attaché. There might’ve been a third party, too. The whole thing might even’ve been staged as some kind of fancy-dress tableau, in questionable taste admittedly, but… Whatever it was, something about the occasion had demanded a photograph: one of them had brought a camera — perhaps they’d even brought the camera for the express purpose of recording their terrace rendezvous, recording that particular scene, that particular tableau. Except they hadn’t recorded a rendezvous. In neither photograph did the two subjects appear together, but only separately. Could there’ve been yet another picture, snapped by somebody else — a person seated at a neighbouring table perhaps, or (was there a reason for her omission?) Alžběta Hájková, whose absence might be construed as more than a little conspicuous? A third picture, in which they were both, the Prof & Elsbeth von N____, in the same frame?
Absorbed in the drama of the photograph, Němec almost failed to register the date pencilled on the back, in the lower right-hand corner. June, 1942. He stared at it. It seemed too fantastic, ridiculous, absurd. Could this have had something to do with the Prof’s secret? A secret the caretaker had guarded, till now, loyal to the end? But why now? Then a different thought occurred to Němec: Was the picture real, or was it something else — something that only potentially existed, once, as a kind of hypothesis, acted-out in advance yet ultimately unrealised, cancelled-out — a perturbation merely, haunting the present like a ghost? Or was he, Němec, still deceiving himself? Was the image itself a deception & not at all what it seemed? Němec kept studying the photograph, the face, the uniform, the date. He couldn’t stop wondering why Severínová had lied? It was obvious, of course, why she lied. But why hold onto that picture? Right up to the end. And even then she’d tried to protect it. Who was she hiding it from? And who was she hiding it for? Why had she kept the photograph at all? What did Elsbeth von N____ mean to her?
Němec switched off the light & pulled the door closed behind him, the dead parrot still there with its eye frozen to the window. He stopped & listened. There was only the sound of the snow falling very faintly now. Somehow he knew that in the meaning of the photograph lay the key to something important. Retreating back upstairs to the sanctuary of the hidden room, he sat for a long time, taking stock. The Nazi manuscript was on the desk where he’d left it, the Reich eagle, trying to tell him something, not by ciphered runes but by something obvious & overlooked.
Němec lay the photo on the desk & went over it again with a magnifying glass: the image bulged up at him in facets as he swept the glass back & forth looking for clues. And at last it began to dawn on him: What did he know about Elsbeth von N____, except that he’d seen her once in the flesh & once before in a photograph…? Staring at the face of the SS officer in the picture, a very obvious fact presented itself. It should’ve been obvious from the very start, from the moment the Prof first mentioned Kircher’s letter. How everything about him & it — everything Němec had accepted as being the case — was in actuality supported by nothing but a fabric of supposition & circumstance. He wanted to put the Prof somehow into that picture, his face there beside the face he was staring at, to bridge that gap. The chessboard, the Nazi uniform, the attaché case (just like the one sitting there, in the room he was in now, beside the desk, identical to it), the people in the background, the telltale date pencilled on the back making nonsense of chronology. And if the Prof didn’t belong in that picture, was it because he was never there?
Perhaps, Němec thought, adding the situation up, there was still a chance he could still get past whoever might be down on the street waiting for him — slip back out unnoticed, make one last foray. To retrieve the one piece of the puzzle that might shed light on the mystery. He took his hat, stuffed the photograph in his jacket pocket, then out through the cupboard into the hall, down the stairs, past the scaffolds. No-one tried to stop him.
MOVE 8: PAWNTAGONIST—FINALLY, IMPOSSIBLY—TO THE EIGHT RANK.
Having found a secret underground passage leading out of the Prof’s apt & his own predicament, Němec sets out on his final voyage – his odyssey through the filth of Prague’s glorious pasts paralleled by his descent into the labyrinth of Golem City’s mediaeval sewerage system. Away from Faktor & his flock of fiends, off to finally meet the destiny he so narrowly missed at the beginning. In order to metamorphose into – Josef K? K for King or Knight? Or a Rook, R for Raven, nevermore? But the game is endless & inexhaustible, the combinations are innumerable, even with the benefit of hindsight.
And so, back to the start: “Spare a thought” for poor Němec, whose story, about to unfold again, may very well end up being, dear Reader, your own…
No time to evaluate the pros&cons. Němec gathered what he needed. The Proxy Polygraphia & the secrets insinuated in it — avatars of some uncompleted, undisclosed project that’d begun with a deception & ended by confusing itself with the Big Truth? Who else than Hájek had known the real form of that puzzle which only in appearance resembled it? Severínová? Elsbeth von N____? Hájek’s wife, Alžběta Seifertová? And Faktor? Bareš? All the other co-involved conspirators, clutching at straws, machinating this entire drama in the hope he, Němec, or someone like him, would unearth what their own exhausted labours had failed to? Unaware that the secret & the puzzle weren’t equivalent, but only as like as a reflection in two parts — the visible part & the invisible part* — which, when brought together, would describe at best a chronicle of omissions, a secret codex of the misplaced, a Pandora’s biscuit-tin of abominations, disjointings, farces — last word in the Book of Errors — penned in the most erroneous script imaginable, as if thereby to remove them (& it) from the world. Real or fake? No-one would ever know: the story ended here.
Němec spilled the contents of the folders into a plastic garbage bag — bundled the Nazi Manuscript together with the facsimiles & tossed those in too — the undeciphered Black Book coming apart at the spine — all the evidence needing to be disposed of — his Miranda in her coffinbox with bundled useless scribblings — Kulička’s postcard… He slipped the two photographs — Hájek’s double, the two bishops, the deathshead staring out, seeming to grin & wink at him in the candlelight — face-to-face together in his jacket pocket. Looked at one way, the pictures made no sense, or only the opposite of sense — the alternative was to reduce everything to banalities: a scam gone wrong, whose key was a list of names, a dramatis personae in a tale of forgery & stolen loot. The only person with the answers was probably dead by now — Němec was free to invent whatever comforting fictions he chose.
Out in the bureau the record had played-out & was starting at the beginning again. There were footsteps in the hall: they paused outside the entrance to the room, as if aware of his presence within. In the courtyard it was probably snowing again by now — the doors & windows along the ground floor with no sign of anyone. The dead parrot. The broken tea pot on the floor of the caretaker’s flat. And what of the other inhabitants he’d never laid eyes on? Mere ciphers? Unpaid extras who’d been edited out of the script? Němec took up his inherited hat & walkingstick (he’d soon have no further need of such props: they might yet become evidence of some obscure allegory, were anyone to pay heed to them — like the smear on the ceiling of Faust’s workshop — false clues leading nowhere), the flashlight, hammer & chisel. What else would he need?
On the bookshelf stood a shaving mirror that’d once belonged to a man called Josef Kulička — one last look: that breached bastion of a corpus — a face you’d barely notice because all it described was the broken silhouette of something else — Mr Nonentity — a scarecrow in the wind with its stuffing knocked out… Němec snuffed the candle & dropped the bag into the hole, easing himself down after it, one foothold at a time. How long would they wait before they came looking? Would they ever? Already he’d forgotten what day of the week it was. It didn’t matter.
As Němec descended the Jacob’s ladder, the music echoed weirdly in the gap above — the shaft was narrow, sunk through a space between two walls with pipes running at intervals on either side — brick & mortar giving way to wood sheet-piling, tongued & grooved, extending down through foundations ending in an air vent squeezed between bottle racks in the cellar. Scuttle of rats’ feet — muffled voices beyond the gate — dampness suffusing the air. He cast the torchlight through the hole in the far wall, pushed the bag through & climbed after it, rubble strewn about on either side.
A faint current stirred beyond the threshold — far distant, the river’s beckoning whisper, conjugating in all its moods — hark! — calling on, down into the cave of itself, torchlight & shadowspiel, the guiding spirits casting back a sheep’s eye — as up above the cranking of machines drowned-out the last strains of Mahler’s “Resurrection,” while from the east dawn’s pond’rous relay, eight o’clock, & the stink wafting up the valley, the TV tower’s unblinking eye above a greyblack cobblestoned sea — the beleaguered Erdshadow receding 600km/s — faint secondhand light through west-facing window-holes making dumbshow silhouettes on the recordplayer’s dial.
Once more retracing his steps, the resumed journey, the retold & aforesaid, if only to hear the end of it — burrowing under the City, the atavism of the descent, guided by the torch’s one eye, Golem in the land of the blind, deeper & deeper into its undermind, Orpheus returning under Lesbos, Eurydice, her bittersweet tears…
Down through bedrock, sediment, clay, mud, protoplasms & toxic waste, regurgitated bile & tuberculous spittle — sack of broken books dragged behind, by hooked crook of walkingstick. And as Němec progressed, the distance behind did seem to swell, while the distance ahead did seem to contract to a hovering speck of fairylight: he desired to touch it, but it was always just beyond reach. Patience, my dear…
Further & further crawling along the shaft into the very heart of the labyrinth — Minotaur long dead — you wouldn’t find any trace of it down here, not even a ghost — it was a place from which everything seemed to’ve fled, of its own will or under some elsewise influence.
There was an ancient proverb, that only in accursèd places can sanctuary be found: the pariah who dwells in cemeteries among the dead, Mydlář, the headsman, faceless, camouflaged among the outcasts of the Ghetto — the Golem-fearers, the sewer-builders, sootmouthed frackers of gold from subterranean vapours, mudmen, creatures of the Maharal…
Narrowing, the descent grew steeper. The ever-accompanying whisper, louder. Ahead, just a little further on, the blackness beyond the torchlight resolved into a solid form. Němec breathed hard but the sound of his breathing was lost. Closer now, the dancing spot of light touched the surface of a wall barring the way. Faintly it glistened. He set down with his tools upon the ground, barely room to hunch in. It could’ve been anywhere, a tunnel beneath a pyramid on the Nile & he a thief squatting at the door of Pharaoh’s tomb. The stones bore the marks of something that’d clawed them so that they bled. Some elementary self-sentience prowling the dark. The Great Voice whispered, swelled, beat within. Němec strained to give a shape to the cacophony — the voice inside the voice, the whisper inside the whisper. Shush now.
To go on? Or not go on? To wait again for the violent sleep to come over him? To submit to the senseless conforming law of the circle, again at an impasse — the presentiment of a definitive fact wanting only to be born? And what if, on the other side of the wall, there was only another wall? And yet another beyond that? Or what if, on the other side, someone identical to him was already there, squatting with his back to the dark as Němec was, thinking these same thoughts, having undertaken an identical journey, only to arrive here, as he had, at the threshold of a point with no duration, which belonged to no sequence. Yes, like the two parts of that mirror, agonist & antiself, which when brought together would seamlessly overlap, abolish one another. And yet something else would remain. What would it be?
Even now his secret counterpart might’ve be anticipating him, preparing to cross over also, to assume his place — the final, decisive move in a game whose compass is as fixed as the motion of the stars. The parallel lines stood acquitted of one another. Němec rested his forehead against the wall — its coldness numbed him. He could close his eyes & none of this would exist — the whole contracted four-square world flickering in the torchlight — & him in it, already coming apart, fraying at the seams.
First you lose yourself in order to become whole?
He’d never been any good at elegant solutions, born haphazard & always wise after the fact. The only real question was what the situation required to complete itself.
But if all that was left was this
(here, in this present & no other)
alone with a wall,
keeping to the facts…?
A wall & nothing.
A no thing.
* But which one?
* There’s always more to anything than meets the eye.