"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Re-reading Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess (1980)

The exorcist

[Novelist Kenneth Toomey visits the Federated Maylay States in the mid-1930s for local color. He falls in love with district medical officer Philip Shawcross.

[Toomey leaves for a week to visit the haunts of Raffles, about whom he is writing a novel. When he returns, he finds Shawcross close to death. A local man named Mahalingam has cursed him as punishment for Shawcross not being able to save Mahalingam's beloved youngest son. 

[Toomey turns to his visiting brother-in-law for assistance.]


    ….I collapsed in Philip's office onto the rattan armchair. Dr. Lim, dozing on the examination couch, came to startled. I added the main overhead light to the dim desk one and took the brandy out of the medicaments cupboard, being, by extension, at home here, then I swigged from the bottle sitting down again. "Nobody," Dr. Lim said, "could make contact with you. He asked for you until it was not possible to ask. Today a telegram was sent but I do not think it will arrive. But you are here nevertheless."

    "I knew something was wrong. The child died, I take it?"

    "The child was already far gone. What looked like improvement was rehabilitation, I mean temporary remission. It is what comes at the end of the illness. The nurses should have known. I should have remembered. Mr Mahalingam was very angry and made threats. Dr. Shawcross blamed Mr Mahalingam for not bringing in his son much earlier. Mr Mahalingam had to be thrown out of the hospital."

    "And Philip?" I swallowed and swallowed, then swallowed more brandy.

    "He was depressed. He was already tired. An hour of very painful dyspepsia and also the symptoms of colic. Then much diarrhoea. Then collapse. The diarrhoea goes on during the coma. It cannot go on much longer. There is little left in his intestines although I have set up an oral drip of glucose solution."

    "What are you doing for him?" I could hardly get the words out.

    "Dr. Howes is coming from Ipoh. It is a coma. All we can do is to expect him to emerge from the coma. But I have seen nothing like it before. It is the face that is so strange."

    "The face?"

    "Are you willing to come and see?" He spoke the last three words with the exact intonation of the Chinese kan i kan, look one look. It did not sound like a question.

    "I must." But I did not want to. I wanted Philip to walk in here, tousled and yawning, seem to have slept for days, feeling a hell of a lot better, ah a little note from Mahalingam admitting criminal remissness, how did things go in Malacca, Ken?

    Philip was in a private first-class officer's room with the overhead light full on him. He was in plain grey pyjamas and lying under a single sheet with his hands joined loosely over it at the crotch. A cannula was fixed to his mouth and the cannula fitted to a rubber tube and the rubber tube fitted to an inverted bottle of colourless fluid fixed with clamps to the bedhead.

    "You see?"

    "Oh my God." The face was set in a rictus of amusement, sardonic, meaning either grinning like a dog or sourfaced after the eating of an astringent plant of Sardinia, what art historians call the archaic smile, meaning that the lips were engaged in mirth while the eyes were aloof from it. The eyes were open, the upper lids well up, but they looked at nothing. "Philip," I called. "Phil. It's me, Ken, I'm back." There was no response.

    "Pulse is very slow but very regular," Dr. Lim said. "Temperature much subnormal. Breathing regular also, but faint."

    A Chinese nurse came in, showed sad teeth at me, spoke brief Hokkien to Dr. Lim.

    "What do you really think?" I asked Dr. Lim.

    "He is not near death, if that is what you mean. It is just a very deep sleep, but it is unnerving to see the face. Our Malay nurses will not go near him. If one tries to recompose the face into into--"

    "Something," I said bitterly, "more in keeping with the state of being ill--"

    "You could say that, yes. The face does not change. Ah." He sniffed the air near Philip. "I think the bowels have moved again." And he said something in Hokkien to the nurse, without doubt about changing a nappy, as though Philip were little John or Ann.

    "He is not left?" I asked.

    "No, no, somebody is always near. I sleep in the office. Let us go back to the office. We can do nothing here just standing by his bed."

    "He might hear my voice, might respond."

    "He will do neither. Dr. Howes is a doctor of much experience. He is very old. He will give a name to this. He will know what is to be done."

    "Why don't you go home, John, if I may call you John? You look worn out. Get a decent night's sleep." Though the night was far gone. "I'll stay here, look in every half-hour, summon help when help seems in order. You can trust me. Philip's my friend."

    "My friend also." And then, "Too conscientious, too conscientious." That long word, so un-Chinese, attacked him like the foreign invader it was. "Conscientious." We were back in the office. He sat down on the examination couch and began to sob dryly. The inscrutable Oriental. It is the British who are the inscrutable ones. None could tell my feelings. You, reader, cannot tell them.

    I said, sitting also, "Tell me, John. Do you think Mahalingam has done this?"

    He looked up, a black lock fallen over his eye an ideogram of his feelings. "I know what you mean. I was born in Penang. I am a British Chinese of the Straits Settlements. I was told many tales as a child and saw some strange things too. Then my education was very Western. I took my medical degree in Scotland, in Edinburgh. Such things were driven out of my mind, especially in Scotland. I was told of cause and effect and sickness as dysfunction to be 2 explained and rectified. I did a brief course in psychiatry and learned of hysterical illness. I try to think that this may be Philip's and that his unconscious mind may be spoken to. I do not want to believe what you think may be possible. But I may have to believe it."

    "I'm not," I said, "committed to science as you are. I'm a mere novelist. I will believe anything. Once I ceased to see the world as very mysterious I would no longer wish to write. Many things came together in my mind when I was travelling back. I read once in a book that there are certain men who must be avoided. You must not entrust them with anything of yours. You must not even allow them into your house. To give them even a glass of water may be dangerous. They will take hairs off your comb or your fingernail clippings if they can get them. They are after power over you. I used to think this was very thrilling and absurd but now I find it not absurd and not thrilling. I feel that I am walking into a boys book and being subjected to the laws of extravagant fiction. This may be a punishment on me for having built my career on fantasy. But my punishment is an indirect one, and I am being selfish in mentioning it. Because I am not innocent, and it is the innocent always who are set upon. This doctor from Ipoh will do no good. He needs a priest."

    Dr. Lim stared at me, black Chinese eyes, pupil and iris one, the slight strabismus of exhaustion, Hortense's, her venerean brand much exaggerated when she was. "Philip is not Catholic. He is not anything. You mean the Last Sacraments?"

    "You and I have been brought up on the same catechism. And even to restore health where God deems it to be expedient. Well, I'd clutch at that too. But that was not what I had in mind."

    "I know," he said, "what you have in mind."

    The road between Ipoh and Kuala Kangsar was mostly flooded. The rain resumed and the medical books in Philip's office were covered with a faint mould. When Dr. Howes arrived he told us irritably of a stalled car five miles out of Ipoh, his sais swimming to a police post and getting a police launch, what you've got me here for had better be good. He was over seventy, his face a map of rivers, thin except for the colonial egg, overworked in Ipoh, why the hell couldn't Kuala Kangsar look after itself, damn it all in Ipoh we have real illnesses. But he was impressed by the sardonic mask of Philip, the coma without excitatory trauma, the continued though scanty action of the bowels. He sniffed at a sample of the stool. "Christ," he said, "what's been going on here?" Lim and I looked at each other and kept to ourselves the inadmissible aetiology. Then Howes said, "Has somebody been getting at him?"

    "You mean," John Lim said cautiously, "one of the local--"

    "Look here, Lim, you were born here. You know what goes on. We don't know it all and we never will. If Manson-Barr can't explain amok or latah or that other thing, the shrinking penis one, he's not likely to be able to explain a thing like this. They're scared of putting it in their bloody tomes, unscientific. Has it ever struck you that some of us expats just daren't go home? I mean, I'll die here, unretired. We start to reminisce and the sweet pink innocents tap their foreheads when we turn our backs. He is crazed by the spell of far Arabia, they have stolen his bloody wits away as the poet puts it. What's been going on here?" he said again.

    I told him. He looked me all over while I spoke and the effect was of a dog sniffing, what the hell was I, what the hell was I doing in this Godforsaken hole back of beyond, East Jesus. "So," I said, "we have it out with him."

    "Are you out of your mind? He won't admit it, they never do. He'll have a damned good laugh and then complain about molestation. Now I'll tell you what's going to happen. Our young friend here is going to wake up tomorrow or the next day screaming for eggs and bacon and a nice iced slice of papaya. Punished enough, see. The long rest won't do him any harm, look at it that way. Keep on with the glucose, watch dehydration. Anything else for me to look at while I'm here?"

    Philip did not wake up the next day or the day after that or even the week after or the week after that. The Chinese nurses set up in the vestibule of the main hospital building a Christmas display of fierce olive-green leaves viciously spiked, bloodily berried, a mockery of holly, surrounded with little wax candles, him-him as they were prettily called. These blew out whenever the door opened to the monsoon, but, with Eastern patience, the nurses were quick to light them again. To the door of the emaciated grinning Philip odd scrawled hieroglyphs and pictograms were affixed by furtive hobbling patients. The club secretary called on me to say sorry about that stupid misunderstanding, everybody was drunk that was the trouble, welcome back any time, general vote that Mr Toomey should dress up as Santa Claus for the kiddies, season of good will and mellow fruitfulness. The members, he added, greatly mourned Doe Shawcross. Hoped his successor would be as good. They assumed he was as bad as dead, a dire shadow on the Christmas drinking. Two days before Christmas Monsignor Carlo Campanati arrived.


He entered the house carrying a little bag, dressed in dirty tropical white with a black armband. Oh my God, no, devilish precognition, he has just come from there having that thing ready in his bag putting it on in the trishaw. He saw me staring at it aghast. "My lather," he said. "At last. A time for rejoicing. He is freed from that ridiculous contraption called a human brain and his soul has begun its pilgrimage toward the All High." Yusof came in to gape at him, fat man in white skirt. "Ni han ma?" Carlo greeted.

    "Ah no, he is Malay. Seiwnat pagi. Minta stengah." Openmouthed, Yusof went to the bottles like a sleepwalker.

    "How did you? How did... I mean, thank God you're here--"

    "You in trouble, is it? You look very very ill."

    "It's not me, not. I mean, the roads are flooded and the trains have stopped running. I gave up hope."

    "Despair and presumption," Carlo said, sitting. "The two sins against the Holy Ghost. It is hard to steer between them, but that is what life is all about. Scylla and Charybdis. I have come from Kuala Lumpur," he said with pride, and this is the first time I touch land. I took a coastal steamer at Kapar and sailed north to Terong and then was brought by police launch down your river, or rather two conjoined, since you are an estuary. Great winds and devastating waves. But I think the rain will ease oft," he said, in the manner of one who has organised a parish fete. He took the stengah from Yusof with an Italianate terima kaseh. Yusof stared in disbelief: it was the first time, I could tell, he had ever heard a white man trill the r. "Siapa nama?" Carlo asked. Yusof told him. "Nama yang chantek sakali," Carlo said, a pretty name. "Nama bapa nabi Isa." Name of father of prophet Jesus, not quite accurate but it would do said Carlo's smile and shrug. He was uglier than ever and seemed to have lost no weight. He was clearly as much at home in the British Orient as in Gorgonzola. He drank oft his drink and said, "Tell me what you want me for here, not of course that it is not delightful to see you again under any circumstances." I told him. "I see," he said. "Let us go."

    Philip's car was still outside. I did not, as the reader will have divined already, drive, but Carlo got Yusof to crank the engine and, when it sparked and throbbed, he drove oft with the assurance you will always find in priests, me pointing the way. I sat next to him nursing the book he had handed me: Rituale Romanum Pauli V Pontificis Maximi Jussu Editum et a Benedicto XIV aucturn et castigatum. Published Ratisbonae, Neo Eboraci et Cincinnatii, MDCCCLXXXI. Cincinnati? Those years ago when Domenico had drawn blood in a nightclub. Everything ties up ultimately. Signatures of reality. Strange to see New York drawn into the net of a dead, no of course living, empire. It had never before quite struck me that the Roman Empire was still there, organised and ruled from the exorcised and sanctified site of Roman martyrs. An officer of the Empire was here, ready to smite the jujus of the heathen. And now I broke down for the first time, saying ghastly terrible evil, such a good man, my dear friend, what the swine has done to him, you must save him, you must. And Carlo, eyes on the colonial road, said courage courage courage.

    John Lim was there, not sure of Carlo's rank, taking his hand and looking for a ring to kiss but finding none. The Chinese nurses sketched charming genuflections, the Malay nurses crossed their fingers covertly. "Where is he?" Carlo asked. Then he saw him, and I hid my eyes in my palms while John Lim gave me courage courage pats on the shoulder. It had taken no more than the thin arms of one Chinese nurse to lift Philip onto a water bed: he was raw on the back and rump, I knew, with suppurating bedsores. Carlo saw the sardonic rictus and nodded at it as to an old acquaintance. He sniffed the air fiercely. He did a conjurer's pass over the staring eyes. He noted a minute escape of breath from the grey lips. "Baptised?" he asked me.

    "Into the Church of England."

    "A genuine if misguided Christian communion," Carlo conceded. "How is your Latin? Were you ever an altar boy? Can you recite these responses?"

    "Try." And he made crosses everywhere in the air, rumbling from the Rituale Romanum, while John Lim and I looked on, half-expecting that at least that rictus would loosen. The waves of Latin beat at the body, but the poor eroding flesh was a rock to it.

    "Omnipotens Domine, Verborum Dei Patris, Christe Jesu, Deus et Dominus universae creaturae..." I knew it was hopeless; what the hell did these Eastern spirits know or care about Christe Jesu? Carlo pronounced his own Amen then nudged me roughly, and I recited my lines over his bulky shoulder, smelling his sweat and my own. He made the sign of the cross on Philip's uncaring head, saying firmly: "Ecce crucem Domini, fugite partes adversae."

    "J"icit leo de tribu Juda," I said, "radix David."

    "Domine, exaudi orationem meam."

    "Et clamour," I said, thinking: They don't understand Latin, it's gibberish to them, "ad te veniat."

    "Dominus vobiscum."

    "Et cum spiritu tuo."

    Then Carlo said, "Leave me now. Rest. I will be some time." So I closed the door gently as he thundered: "Exorcizo te, immundissime spiritus, omnis flcursio adversarii, omne phantasma, omnis legio--..." I had heard such words before, in the restaurant of the Hotel de Paris, Monte Carlo. A heavy win in the Casino, then a heavy dinner, then exorcising words: how could I take them seriously?

    John Lim and I looked at each other outside the door. He shrugged and said, "It can do no harm." There was weak sunlight at day's end. It had not rained since noon. The watered green and orange and magenta sunset shed mock Parsifal benediction. "I must go home," John Lim said. "I have not been home for three days. Telephone me if."

    Carlo came into the office two hours and more later. I had been dozing on 2 the examination couch, the desk lamp on. Carlo said, with his usual vigour unabated, "We have to see this man."

    "How is Philip?"

    "The same, no apparent change. But in him you see only the effects of demonic action. The face still grins, he is very weak. Tonight we confront the demon. What is the English term--warlock? Warlock." Scott's Restaurant that night, everything being prepared. "Witchcraft." He smacked this word with relish. "Very Anglo-Saxon. You perform an act of violence to the mouth when you utter it. Stregoneria. We have to visit the stre gone."

    "It's a--" I nearly said game, toy, piece of Gothic fiction. "He'll feign ignorance. He'll threaten us with the police. He'll throw us out. He'll be malevolent because he lost his son. You won't board that malevolence. I'll have to offer myself--" But the words were wrong. I was not a Malay about to beg a village pawang to deflect his aim. I belonged to the world of reason. This magic nonsense could be explained away in terms of suggestibility. Carlo did not belong to the world of reason. I had no faith in him after all.

    He said, "I've not eaten for many hours. Is there something to eat?"

    "Outside." Outside the little stalls had returned to the open, selling mee and sateh hot. They had not given up during the worst days of the monsoon; they had sold cold pau and bananas in the hospital colonnade and the ambulance garage. Now they had their fires going under clouds and a watered moon; their wares tasted of smoke and lamp oil. Carlo ate ten or twelve skewerloads of goatmeat kebab dipped in chilli sauce and, proficient with chopsticks, a couple of bowls of mee, swilling it down with warm bottled orange crush. "Moliao lvii yao ho chia.fei," he said to the vendor, but the old man understood only Hokkien. His son, who was learning KuoyŸ at school, translated, and Carlo and I were given thick Camp coffee and condensed milk. "How did you learn all that?"

    "It has to be learned," he said. "You must always be able to speak to people. There are people who say it was God's curse to confound the speech of men, but I do not see that. That there are many different kinds of flower is no curse, so why for many different languages? Finish that and we will go."

    I felt very sick as we approached the waterworks. Nightlife was active, and heavy flying bodies hurled themselves at the windscreen, leaving smears of lime and brown blood. A burong hantu poised a long instant on the radiator cap with a squirming bat in its beak. Carlo steered boldly through deep or shallow lakes in the road. "You are dubious," he said. "You have been corrupted by the rule of reason. Reason, you must remember, is a human invention, and we are not now dealing with human matters. To me everything is very simple, but that does not mean I think there will be easy victory. For your part, you must go in there with diffidence and humility. You will find that you will know what things to say. I will wait outside. You will say among other things that you have an 2 Italian friend who wishes to understand the meaning of a piece of Tamil he has been given. He will let me in. Or if he will not let me in he will let you out, and then I will come in."

    "If he lets me in in the first place."

    But the great gate to the waterworks was open and the indoor lights of the house were on. Carlo stopped the car some way beyond the gate in a puddle on the side of the road. We both got out, Carlo armed with his Rituale Romanurn, myself weak with sickness and dubiety. I shook to the door and knocked. I heard feet coming at once, hurrying as though I were expected. I turned an instant to see Carlo's dirty white slide behind the bulk of a raintree. The door opened and the eldest, now elder, son was there, bowing and grinning. "Your father," I said. "I wish to see your--" Then Mahalingam appeared, black gross bareness to the waist, a Malay sarong knotted at it.

    He said, "Mr Toomey." He said it flat, he merely stated who I was. And then: "I suppose you would wish to come in."

    "I've been away," I babbled, going into that remembered smell of spicy malevolence. "I was horrified to hear of the death of your... I have no doubt everything was done that could be done. I think you would feel that to be so. That nobody is to blame, that one must weep and then cease to weep and start to forget, that life must go on."

    He did not ask me to sit. "Who sent you?" he said.

    "Nobody sent me. I come to you having seen the dreadful effect of Dr. Shawcross's own despair at his failure. He is very ill. Perhaps you did not know that." Mahalingam said nothing. "Perhaps you have wondered why Dr. Shawcross has not been to see you. In the friendship for which you seemed once to be very eager."

    I was aware of the idiot boy behind me, breathing through his mouth with a slight rasp. "Let us have no words about friendship," Mahalingam said. "There was no friendship in Dr. Shawcross's speech to me after the death of my child. He blamed me for neglect. He said it was all my fault. He did not confess that it was the fault of himself and his own peoples and was stupidity or negligence or worse. The child of that ignorant Chinese was better and is now at home. My own child died through stupidity or negligence or worse. The child of a black Indian, nothing. The wicked telephone call that gave me hope, and this whole house was happy, and then the wicked killing of a father's happiness and relief not talk to rue of friendship, Mr Toomey. If you are unhappy now I am sorry for you, since you did no wrong so far as I know. But if your friend is a sick man it is his own fault. That he fell sick is a sign of justice and he knew of the justice, and there is no more to say."

    "He will die," I said, "and I must be reconciled to it. Life must go on. I will have sad duties to perform, the duties of friendship you understand. His possessions must be sent to his mother in Australia. There is a photograph of him playing cricket that she will want." Carlo was right when he said that I would know what things to say. "You took that photograph as a token of friendship. If that friendship no longer exists, then the token is no longer required by you. I would be glad if you would give it to me so that I may send it with his other effects to his mother."

    "I do not have the photograph," Mahalingam said. "In my anger I destroyed it."

    "How did you destroy it?" I asked, very bold now, perhaps too bold. "Or should I say, how are you destroying it?" The idiot boy's breath behind me seemed closer.

    "I do not understand your meaning. If you have said all you wanted to say, then it is time for you to go. You understand that I do not feel obliged to make you the honours of hospitality as before."

    "I understand," I said. "But there is one small request that you will be able to fulfil. It has nothing to do with myself or my poor friend. I have an Italian visitor who wishes you to help him with a small matter of your Tamil language. He brought me here in his car this evening. He is waiting outside. I know that, in your grief, you may not feel disposed to grant the small service he askswhich is the translation into English of some words in Tamil he has received in a letter--but he is a kind man who likes the Tamil people and he would appreciate it. Life must go on," I added.

    "An Italian man? What is an Italian man doing in the Malay State of Perak?"

    "He is in the rubber business."

    Mahalingam seemed faintly amused. "Let us then see this Italian man in the rubber business. Tell him he may come into my house."

    So, the idiot boy behind me, I went to the door and called, and Carlo's dirty white ploughed briskly through the dark and into the squares of thrown light. "Carlo," I said as he came in smiling, "this is Mr Mahalingam. Mr Mahalingam, this is my friend Monsignor Campanati."

    "Not," Mahalingam grinned, "in the rubber business."

    "Ah, no," Carlo countergrinned. He took You will see my problem here. If this were fiction, I should have no trouble in imposing on you a suspension of disbelief, but it is not fiction and I require your belief. And yet there is a sense in which all reminiscence is fiction, though the creativity of memory is not in the service of the art which is itself in the service of a deeper than factual truth. Memory lies, yet how far we can never be sure. I can do no more than transcribe memory.

    He took from within the breast of his half-buttoned soutane a finely made evidently heavy metal cross. "This business," he said. Mahalingam barked something to the idiot boy. Carlo seemed ready for the boy's response, which was a catlike snarl and a catlike hurling himself at Carlo's off-white bulk. Carlo upped with his cross and banged the boy's head with its flat and then, with a 2 quick wrist-twist, struck him laterally with the edge of the crosspiece just under the ear. I had never thought to see that barbarous instrument of punition so used. It was very quick and Mahalingam was very surprised. Carlo then used his cross with an ice pick thrust of some force on the boy's skull. The boy went down foaming and out. "Ah," Carlo went as the boy lay there. And now Mahalingam made for Carlo, gurgling deep and dirty Tamil. "If," Carlo said, "I place my cross flat on your forehead it will burn your forehead and the fire will then pierce your brain. This you know." His Rituale Romanum in one hand and his cross in the other, he said to me: "In my pocket there on the left you will find a rubber container. The rubber business, it is not altogether a lie. It contains holy water. Take it out and squeeze some holy water onto this gentleman's face. Holy water can do him no harm." I fumbled as directed and found a rubber bulb, pear-shaped, nozzled, and I spurted at Mahalingam's eyes, difficult since Mahalingam, roaring, wove with fat arms at Carlo, Carlo getting in odd cracks with his cross, so that I had to dance about seeking a way in. When the fluid sprang at Mahalingam's left eye and reached it there was a very unholy gust of ammonia. Mahalingam yelled and cupped, yelling. I got the other. He yelled louder and doublecupped. There was, I was sure, a whole seraglio beyond the kitchen door, but the door did not open. Male business, the noise perhaps nothing new. This did not seem to me to be exorcism as I had read about it, but Carlo's technique appeared reasonable: after all, you had to get some degree of attention out of your subject. Carlo womanishly raised his soutane and delivered to Mahalingam a great kick in the belly. Mahalingam rolled on the floor.

    "Good," said Carlo. "It is the boy I must deal with." And he opened his book at page 366. Crossing and crossing with his right hand, book in left, he growled out the liturgy. "...--Audi ergo, et time, satana, inimice fidei, hostis gene ris humani, mortis adductor, vitae raptor, justitiae decimator, malo rum radix, tomes vitio rum, seductor hominum, proditor gentium, incitator invidiae, origo avaritiae, causa discordiae, excitator dolorum..." It was not so foreign, after all. Tamil had a large Sanskrit lexis; Sanskrit was an elder sister of Latin. "Quid stas, et resistis, cum scias, Christum Dominum vias tuas perdere?" From the boy's body came a succession of frightful odours--rotting meat, overripe durian, stopped-up drains. His mouth opened to emit a high screech like car brakes. He farted in a slow brief rhythm, there was then a noise like the opening of bowels. "Not pleasant," Carlo commented. The boy's limbs thrust and thrust like pistons. A long coil of some substance like porridge worked in rhythm out of his mouth. "Recede ergo in nomine Patris--et Filii et Spiritus f sancti...

    The porridge lay on the boy's shirt and dhoti and spread, thinning. "That," Carlo said, "will have to be burned." The boy lay very still, as if exhausted. "Now you, sir," Carlo said to Mahalingam. Mahalingam, groaning, blind, tried to rise. "You know the situation," Carlo said. "We will not talk of Jesus Christ 2 and the devil. We will just say that you and I are on different sides, as in a game of football, but you have been doing all the kicking and what you have been kicking is a human soul. You must cease to do this, do you understand?" To keep Mahalingam on the floor Carlo did another womanish lift of his kirtle and kicked him again in the belly. Mahalingam groaned and stayed where he was. Carlo looked up and saw the framed prospectus of Hindu hell pains in cartoon colours and said, "Very crude." He detached it partly from the wall with a finger and thumb at its lower right-hand corner. Something slid from behind it and planed to the floor. "Look at that," Carlo said to me. "Though perhaps you will not wish to."

    It was a fair-sized piece of cartridge paper. On it had been copied in careful enlargement the image of Philip at the wicket. At least the stance was identical, but there were terrible changes. Philip's face held a sardonic rictus under the cricket cap. His gloved hands grasped his own penis, grotesquely enlarged, and forced it to spray downward an equivocal fluid. The cricketing flannels were bunched about his ankles, the legs were thin and hairless. A black humanoid clutched him about the thighs and seemed to be buggering him. "Do not try to destroy it," Carlo cried. "If you ever require evidence--" Mahalingam, moaning bitterly and then starting to curse again, lifted himself in pain to a standard pattern PWD dining chair. "What is your rank?" Carlo asked him.

    "Temple master, ough. What have you done to my boy? Are you not satisfied with killing ough one?" He squinted painfully.

    "There is not the time now," Carlo said, "to determine precisely the nature of what you call your boy. When he wakes we shall know if we are here to know. Or if you allow him to wake. Call off your dogs from the other, this is an order of the higher powers."

    "Uccidiamolo," I said.

    Carlo shook his head many times very sadly. "That cannot be done. You do not fight him that way. He will only call off his dogs alive." Mahalingam staggered over to the sideboard by the dining table, grasped the bottle of whisky, unscrewed it shakily, drank.

    He said, "Too late, padre, as I must call you. Nature will have its way. Get out of my house before I harm you both."

    "You will not harm either of us," and Carlo carefully kicked his shin. Mahalingam howled. "Magister templi, magistrum verissimum cognosces." He held his cross out to Mahalingam, Mahalingam promptly spat on it. Carlo seemed delighted. "Good, no hypocrisy. You do not dissemble your hatred. Remember me. In various forms we will have other meetings. Ah." The boy on the floor had awakened. He saw in horror and wonder his defilement. He flicked his eyes from one to another of us in bewilderment, then painfully levered himself up. Mahalingam howled Tamil at him. The boy did not seem to understand. Mahalingam made hitting movements of recovered burliness. The boy responded with a kind of animal wonder. Then he was aware of physical pain. He put his hand to the crown of his head and brought it back to look at dried blood. He did not seem to know what it was. "Give him what money you have," Carlo said to me. "He will remember where he has to go. 'Wherever he goes will be better than this place." I had seventy-odd Straits dollars in my pocket, nearly eight pounds. The boy took the notes unwillingly but he seemed to know what they were. "Pergi-lah," Carlo ordered. Without salaams the boy hurried out in his defiled dhoti. Mahalingam squinted at his departure, scowling, but said nothing. "A very ordinary boy," Carlo said. "Perhaps a good boy."

    "About Philip," I said. Carlo shook his head, though not sadly. "Are we going to let this bastard kill him?"

    "You will not call me bastard," Mahalingam cried.

    "No, not bastard," Carlo agreed. "There have been some good bastards. Servant of the father of abominations say, of the seducer of men and betrayer of nations, creator of discord and of pain. Also dirty, smeared with abominations, glorying in filth and disease. Let us leave him to seethe and boil in his wickedness. "

    "Can you do nothing more?"

    "If you know where his gabinetto is," Carlo said, "that filthy drawing you have between your fingers can be thrown down it and washed into the waters. The waters will not be corrupted. He has done his worst."

    I began to sob. Mahalingam looked at me with interest.

    On the way back Carlo said to me, "He is going to die, and you will now start cursing me because I could not effect a miracle. Our friend the stregone was right when he said that Nature will have her, its way. That it is too late. I was needed before, long before. Blame circumstances, the bad weather, nobody's fault." "He wins. The black bastard wins."

    "What do you mean, wins? It's a long war. We know who will win at the end. Was I expected to reduce the stre gone to empty skin and bone and then pump him full of the Holy Ghost? That would be a long battle and even then I might lose it. God gave his creatures free will, all of his creatures. Tonight surely you saw a small victory."

    "But Philip dies."

    "This is a man you seem to love. What do you love in him? You know the answer to that. What you love in him is not going to die. You have pure cleansed spirit there, I have already cared for him as I would for a son of the Church. What I say of him now is what I have said already of my father. It is better that he die and move on to eternal life. You lose him, you think. You have lost nothing. A bodily presence, a voice, the gestures of friendship." Carlo looked at his right arm and found his black brassard missing. "I must have lost it in my agitation," he said. "It does not matter. It was a hypocritical thing. Listen. You are to go to the house, I will take you there if you can remind me where it is. I will go to the hospital. I do not think it can be long now." I made noises of rage, hatred, frustration, loss. "Stop that," he cried. "Rejoice. For God's sake try to rejoice."

The attempted rescue

[Protagonist UK novelist Kenneth Toomey travels to Austria in August 1939 to rescue Jewish novelist Jakob Strehler.]

From Chapter 52

....I took the road north toward Seyring. A village idiot appeared from behind a hedge and went gurrh at me, pulling burrs off his dirty trousers. After a mile or so of blank fields I came to a wood on my left. I entered its dapple of gloom and sudden sun and stumbled over mast and crackling twigs, hazelnuts falling on my shoulders occasionally like timid welcomes to rural Austria. There was a crow's nest high above and a crow croaked caution caution. Squirrels darted and a lizard on a fallen trunk huffed and puffed at me. Free of the wood and sweating heavily I came to an expanse of stubblefields. There was the house over there beyond three elms: three gables and a cone and a low machicolated wall. I was surprised as well as relieved to see it, even Heinz's photographs ought to have been delinquent. I marched through exploding stubble for over a mile. The house was in need of pointing and painting. The gate, swinging from one hinge, whined when I pushed it. A couple of apples, admirable cookers, thudded from their tree. As I reached for the tarnished knocker, which seemed to be the head of the Emperor Franz Josef, the door opened. Strehler had heard me coming. He carried a shotgun.

"Ja?" He looked like his Stockholm picture. He was about five feet eight, but he could always stoop. He was in baggy torn trousers, food-stained flannel shirt, waistcoat with two buttons missing, carpet slippers.

I said, in English, "Toomey. The British writer. To whom you sent your son." He replied in English: "You should not be here. You should be looking after poor Heinz."

"You and Heinz are to be reunited. May I come in?"

"Reunited? You're mad. But come in."

A passage cut straight through the house from front to back. It was crammed with old trunks and suitcases, a large child's rocking horse, books, books, topcoats flung about anyhow, dust dancing in the light from the front door. Which he now closed and bolted. He led me to a room on the right. Inside it, by its far wall, an iron stairway spiralled up to the next story. A vast cracked window showed fields and sky and swallows rehearsing their exodus. In front of the window was a large teak table covered with open books and paper. Strehler was working on something. His study, then, full of the junk of travel in ivory and ebony, the dust bristling from flat surfaces like grey iron filings. On the walls framed photographs: a grinning woman in a cloche hat in a park with kiwis, the young Strehler coming into his fame, Heinz as a little boy holding a tabby cat by its tail, Sigmund Freud, Hermann Hesse. Stefan Zweig, Rainer Maria Rilke. "Rilke," I said. "The last time I saw him was in a café in Trieste. He cried."

"He often cried. But nobody heard him among the angelic orders. Sit on that chair there. It will not, I think, collapse." And he sat at his desk and looked at me frowning. "What was that word you used—reunited?"

"I have the means to get you to England with little trouble. I have a passport for you. Thank God you speak English. It's as an English physician that you must travel."

"Why a physician?"

"Because the most suitable passport of those stolen by your son Heinz belonged to a physician. It's as simple as that."

"Has he been stealing much?"

"Oh yes. Also soliciting on the streets. But he's not in jail yet. Except for the odd night in the lockup he's lived a very free and self-indulgent life. A remarkable young man. I hope you'll be glad to see him again."

He grinned. "Perhaps I should have read one or two of your books after all. You have this English quality—what may we call it? Sense of humour, tolerance, forbearance. There must be a single word but I don't know it. I shall not, of course, be at all glad to see him again. I thought that perhaps by now you would have packed him off to New Zealand to his mother."

"Strangely enough I hadn't thought of that. I thought only of the reuniting of father and son. I look forward to witnessing the first embraces, the first tears of Gott sei dank."

"There will be no embraces or tears. I stay here. Until they come for me. But I shall kill some of them first." He fondled the bolt of his rifle Austrian, a Mannlicher Schoenauer, 6.5-mm. calibre, as he was to tell me later.

"I see. And when do you think they'll be coming?"

"Soon, soon. Have you heard of a small reactionary man of letters named Johannes Braunthal? No, of course not, why should you. A critic of sorts and a sort of novelist. He has found his true-Beruf-how do you say it?—"

"Calling, vocation, métier. What excellent English you speak, by the way."

"Thank you. In the SS. A cruel little man like so many literary critics. He will make sure that I am going to get put to lavatory cleaning or whatever Jewish intellectuals do in these camps of theirs."

"I think," I said, "you underestimate the intentions of these people as regards the Jews I understand that there is serious talk in Berlin about the extermination of the entire race."

"They've talked a lot about that in Vienna too. They always have. Jew-hating is no monopoly of the Nazis. Still, grateful as I am for the trouble you seem to be taking on my behalf, I feel that I must stay here and wait for the worst. But first I shall kill Johannes Braunthal. I've always wanted to do that anyway."

"He probably knows this. Therefore he will not come himself. Besides, these people usually arrive in the middle of the night. They break in and point guns at your bed."

"I shall hear them break in. As for sleep, I sleep mostly in the front room in a hard chair, facing the window, my gun cockedis that the word?—and ready."

"Oh, they will find out. I may even send for them. You would be a very useful ah ah emissary. You see, I'm coming to the end of a piece of work. There too you could be useful. Take it back to the free world."

"What is it?"

"A curious thing. Have you heard of a Latin author called Frambosius? No, of course not, very minor like Braunthal. And also Austrian, the name being a Deckname or pseudonym, his true name Wilhelm Fahirot of Klagenfurt. He died in 1427, he wrote in Latin. Oh, here is his book, you may see for yourself."

And he handed me, as reverently as the SS man had handed me back my Himmler letter, a little book with rotting brown covers, duodecimo I supposed, the pages spotted as with liver disease, the content a poem of about a thousand lines, Latin hexameters, the title Vindobona.


"Means Vienna. I do not know how good your Latin is. Mine has inevitably improved since I started to translate it into German. In rhyming verse. It is a remarkable prophecy. A horde of human-sized rats floods into Austria from the northern lands and sets up its government and culture in the capital. The haute cuisine is garbage and the music is squeaks, the chief pastime is leaping at the gentle or the infirm and tearing out their throats. Their flag is of four legs stylized on a black ground. Those who will grow whiskers and glue on long tails and walk like beasts are accepted into the community of rats. The king rat is called Adolphus."

"Good God."

"I have perhaps one hundred lines left to do. I have written already the long introduction. I think I can get it all finished before Braunthal and his ruffians come for me."

"You can finish it in London. In my study. I think you must make up your mind as to that. I'm not going back without you."

"Ah." And he smiled. "How will you take me back if I am not willing to go? I have a gun, you I think not. But I'll make a bargain with you. Stay here in the country air and let me finish my work. I have wine in the cellar and whisky in that tantalus over there which is wearing, you see, an old velvet tricorne. The water from my well is like wine. I have a sack of dried beans and a pan of them soaking. There are two hams, one of them from Westphalia. I have learned to make bread, more satisfying than the making of novels. There is a bed for you up that stair there and there are blankets. Three or four days give me. Then we can talk again. But you understand that my heart is set, if that is the right expression, on killing Johannes Braunthal." The narrow world of the writer, the pettiness of his enmities. The Anschluss to Strehler meant little more than a chance to kill a critic. I said, "There are British and American critics I myself should like to kill. But that is a luxury. The necessity, an urgent one, is to get you out of here. I've a sense of responsibility to literature, pretentious as that must sound."

"And a desire to get poor Heinz off your hands. I cannot blame you altogether. Send him to Christchurch, New Zealand, a dour city which will quieten his exuberance. Go to the kitchen now and make us both some coffee. I have real coffee from a Brazilian admirer. Have you by chance brought some real British tea? Twining's? Or from Jackson's in Piccadilly? It was buying tea there that I first met Amelia, who became my wife. She was trying to force herself on John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, her compatriot. She taught me all my English. Box of birds—do you know the expression?"

"I regret I brought nothing except a passport. I mean, I had but one aim in mind. I thought that tomorrow we could be on the flight to Milan, be out of the Reich with all speed. Perhaps even tonight—" 

"No, we must not rush matters." There was, yes, a tinge of the Oceanian in his speech. The voice was harsh and yet had a wienerisch singsong. He occasionally coughed phlegm into his mouth and swallowed it. The eyes were black and bold and devious. The dirty grey hair fanned or rayed. The skin was russet, the nose huge, the mouth full of crooked brown teeth. He had a Sherlock Holmes pipe on his desk and now he lighted it, dribbling. The smell was of a burning herb garden. "Make," he watered, "coffee and ham sandwiches. Let me continue with my work. The king rat Adoiphus is enforcing the teaching of the rat language in human schools. It has a very limited vocabulary."

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