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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 4 chapter 16)

2006-08-22 20:21

  16

  The building had been constructed at the turn of the century in a workers' district of Prague. She entered a hall with dirty whitewashed walls, climbed a flight of worn stone stairs with iron banisters, and turned to the left. It was the second door, no name, no bell. She knocked.

  He opened the door.

  The entire flat consisted of a single room with a curtain setting off the first five or six feet from the rest and therefore forming a kind of makeshift anteroom. It had a table, a hot plate, and a refrigerator. Stepping beyond the curtain, she saw the oblong of a window at the end of a long, narrow space, with books along one side and a daybed and armchair against the other.

  It's a very simple place I have here, said the engineer. I hope you don't find it depressing.

  No, not at all, said Tereza, looking at the wall covered with bookshelves. He had no desk, but hundreds of books. She liked seeing them, and the anxiety that had plagued her died down somewhat. From childhood, she had regarded books as the emblems of a secret brotherhood. A man with this sort of library couldn't possibly hurt her.

  He asked her what she'd like to drink. Wine?

  No, no, no wine. Coffee, if anything.

  He disappeared behind the curtain, and she went over to the bookshelves. One of the books caught her eye at once. It was a translation of Sophocles' Oedipus. How odd to find it here! Years ago, Tomas had given it to her, and after she had read it he went on and on about it. Then he sent his reflections to a newspaper, and the article turned their life upside down. But now, just looking at the spine of the book seemed to calm her. It made her feel as though Tomas had purposely left a trace, a message that her presence here was his doing. She took the book off the shelf and opened it. When the tall engineer came back into the room, she would ask him why he had it, whether he had read it, and what he thought of it. That would be her ruse to turn the conversation away from the hazardous terrain of a stranger's flat to the intimate world of Tomas's thoughts.

  Then she felt his hand on her shoulder. The man took the book out of her hand, put it back on the shelf without a word, and led her over to the daybed.

  Again she recalled the words she had used with the Petrin executioner, and said them aloud: But it wasn't my choice!

  She believed them to be a miraculous formula that would instantly change the situation, but in that room the words lost their magic power. I have a feeling they even strengthened the man in his resolve: he pressed her to himself and put his hand on her breast.

  Oddly enough, the touch of his hand immediately erased what remained of her anxiety. For the engineer's hand referred to her body, and she realized that she (her soul) was not at all involved, only her body, her body alone. The body that had betrayed her and that she had sent out into the world among other bodies.

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