Crème de la crème

31 January 2013 | Fiction, Prose

Such straining and pasteurising is going on in the city that Arabs and other Muslims, the unemployed, drunkards, poor people and lunatics have been eliminated. By chance I became a cultural figure, and I was invited to a cultural evening whose invitation had been personally written by the Anarchist. At the restaurant table sat the Anarchist, the Psychoanalyst and the Psychologist’s boyfriend, 20 years younger, the Journalist, the Gift-Shop Owner, a Librarian and the Deputy Rector of a community college. Accompanying me to the restaurant, too, were the Wolf and the Deer, who hadn’t been invited. Sparse white fur grew on the Wolf’s narrow muzzle and there were teeth missing from his mouth. The Deer was beautiful, with huge eyes. And of course both of them were drunk. I asked them to come along because I believed that intellectuals are warm-hearted and open-minded. A really dumb idea. Bitter sangria was poured from a jug into thimble-sized glasses, and the group waited politely for its tapas. The Wolf raised his quivering snout. ‘What shall we talk about, mesdames, messieurs?’ The Anarchist wrinkled his brow. ‘Culture,’ said the Gift-Shop Owner, helpfully. She looked like a decent woman, dressed in a loose, brightly coloured kaftan with wooden beads at her neck. I ordered a jug of white wine for the animals. I owed it to both culture and to the gate-crashers. The Deer glanced at me gratefully with his large, brown eyes, whose whites were red with alcohol. The Psychoanalyst leaned over to whisper to the Journalist. The Journalist was well turned out and snooty. Discounting the invitations, the sangria and the snacks and the expensive restaurant, the Anarchist was worthy of his name. He once parked a junk car on the main street; all the windows were open and to the windscreen he had stuck a note saying: Rubbish. Passers-by threw paper waste and other rubbish into the car when they weren’t dropping it on the street as usual. The Anarchist cut his black hair short and dyed it orange. In the evenings he stuck quotes from poems that he made in copy shops on fences and electricity exchanges. He lived in a house he owned on the main street. ‘Culture is a broad concept,’ the Journalist said, and the Psychoanalyst nodded. The Waiter brought the white wine in an earthenware jug. The animals quickly filled their glasses. The Anarchist signalled for the Waiter to bring more snacks, but the man, dressed in a white shirt, a brightly coloured waistcoat and striped trousers, disappeared, almost at a run, into the kitchen. Cultural life is the same in Finland and in France; waiters turn their backs on intellectuals. ‘Culture nourishes, generally speaking…’. The Librarian was unable to finish his sentence, but paused, staring in fright at the Anarchist, because he thought he was being interrupted, although the Anarchist was merely signalling to the Waiter. The Anarchist seized his opportunity: ‘Culture debunks!’ he said. The Deputy Rector looked cross. She drummed the table with her long, bright red nails. The Waiter came out of the kitchen, moved glasses around, and set on the table a large platter with various sausages, gherkins, sun-dried tomatoes, olives and pickled onions. The Wolf grabbed a thick slice of red sausage and poured from the jug until his glass was brimming over. The Psychoanalyst speared a pickled onion with a small fork. The Journalist was whispering to the Librarian. The Librarian was a dark, stocky man whose shirt armpits showed patches of sweat. They were both staring at the Wolf and the Deer. The Wolf grabbed a new sausage. The Deer sat on the edge of his chair, poised for flight. I guessed that the men were planning how, politely, to drive the Wolf and the Deer away from the table. I was embarrassed, because I was the guest of honour, but I had invited the gate-crashers too, and I did not know whose side to take. ‘Culture, art, are support structures,’ said the Deputy Rector, rummaging in her handbag, decorated with letters, for a powder compact in order to check what annoyance looks like. The Gift-Shop Owner smiled at everyone, because in the shop one learned to distinguish harmless buyers from dangerous ones and buyers from people who will not buy. Hélas, cream thickens when you beat it, when every sentence begins with culture or art or society or philosophy, not to mention proper names, when you begin a sentence and gherkin, and end a sentence, meat-ball, and continue a thought, sausage, and say a witty word, sun-dried tomato, and argue or persuade, pickled onion and sardine; when cream turns into butter, a mouse like me climbs furtively out of the churn. (The Wolf and the Deer had disappeared long ago.)

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

This story was first published in Finnish in the literary journal Parnasso (6–7/2012)


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