Berlin is not so far away
Photo: DM Vyleta
A short story by Anjel Lertxundi

Translated from the Basque by Amaia Gabantxo

This story originally appeared in An Anthology of Basque Short Stories (2004), edited by Marijo Olaziregi and published by University of Nevada Press.

Sidling up behind me, the museum attendant asks me to change my backpack around and carry it on my stomach. I tell him the security people checked it at the entrance, that there's nothing dangerous inside it.

"The backpack itself is dangerous, sir. What if you were to turn around and damage a painting with it?" He justifies his appeal by pointing at the Madonna with Child, by Jean Fouquet, in front of which we are standing.

I find it rather peculiar that Denis should formulate his request in front of the Madonna (in my mind the blue-uniformed museum attendant is called Denis: even though it is quite foreign-sounding, to me, at least, the name doesn't seem truly foreign), because it is an interest in this specific painting, and not any other, that brings me to the museum.

I thank Denis.

I turn my attention back to Jean Fouquet's most famous artwork. The rounded shapes of the painting have always made me marvel: the Virgin's naked breast, the left one, which acts as the focal point of the painting and looks like a juicy apple that has just been plucked; her cheeks, which are perfect little circles; the feet, bellies, chests and even heads of the child on her lap and the angels in the background, which have no harsh edges, but are totally round...

I have the entire afternoon to enjoy the painting, which until then I have only admired in reproductions. And through my observation I shall attempt to unearth the very many secrets those lines and curved profiles have almost hidden from me; this will be my pleasure.

One of them is what I shall call the dissension of the eyes: the Madonna, the child and nine angels appear in the painting; all in all, eleven pairs of eyes. But they gaze in different directions, and that is bewildering: logic dictates that the angels and the Madonna should be looking at the child. But no. The angels' looks are scattered everywhere, as if they were birds flying from a tree someone had thrown a stone at. As befits a Madonna, her gaze is directed downward, but, surprisingly, her eyes do not rest on her child, but on her naked breast (a curious fact, one that contradicts what is customarily expected of a Madonna, or a mother). And what about the child's gaze? Why is he the only one looking beyond the painting? What is there to the right of him (the left of the viewer); what is there outside the painting that attracts his attention? These questions would all be in vain, were it not for a quandary that for me has become a fascinating enigma, which is the result of all those contrasting glances, and which becomes evident upon reflection: the child is the only one who is seeing something; all the other eyes are looking, but they do not see.

I will leave aside the coldness with which the Madonna relates to the child - the child seems to be sitting on air, not on his mother's lap - for it seems to me more interesting to dwell on the effect the artist achieves with the three separate colours: the texture and colour of the Madonna and the child's skin remind us of wax; the bright red of the six chubby angels holding on to the throne, of a candle flame; and finally, the three blue-grey angels in the background of the painting, of the penumbra in the corners beyond the bright halo of candle light.

As I am considering whether the roundest forms are near the warmest chromatic arrangements, I hear a dry cough behind me.

"We are closing, sir."

I turn on my heels, and see Denis smiling apologetically. I look around the room: I see only the museum attendant and I, no one else. The light that filters into the room has the thinness of old honey. I don't know how long I have been staring at Fouquet's painting.

I start apologising, but he won't let me continue.

"Take this, I would be very grateful if you would accept my invitation," and he hands me a piece of paper with an address written on it. "It's not so far away from here. I could invite you to a restaurant, but we will be able to speak more leisurely in my home. Would eight o'clock suit you? I can't make it earlier, I'm afraid; it takes quite a while to activate the museum's alarm system.

Denis leaves the room before I am able to answer him.

I am not a great believer in divine providence, or in blind Cupid's fateful arrows, or in predestination; but, if I turned my back on Denis' mad whim, wouldn't I, in fact, be going against my beliefs? I've already made up my mind: I really have nothing better to do, so I go to my hotel, where I have just enough time to take a shower and change my clothes, and, without further ado, head towards the address on the piece of paper, fuelled by a desire to learn more about his strange request.

At eight o'clock sharp I am standing in front of the door to Denis' apartment.

It is difficult at first to identify the man with the gaudy flowery shirt who opens the door as the museum attendant in the blue uniform. The uniform dulled and flattened out all the physical characteristics of the man I met at the museum (he blended into the background, even if I have attempted to humanise him by calling him Denis); the flowery shirt, on the other hand, distances him too much from the man under the uniform, and realising that - and noticing that his smile and all his mannerisms are sort of flowery, perhaps? - has made me feel slightly uneasy.

He has guided me to an impersonal living room with few decorations. "The room of someone who lives alone," is what occurs to me, for Denis' living room bears all the traces of someone who has rejected family or company as well as decorations and other superfluities.

After filling two glasses with trappistine, Denis offers me one:

"Do you know it?" he asks me, lifting his glass in the air. "No, it isn't a very well-known drink. They make it like Armagnac, but with fewer herbs. It's a good appetizer, it stimulates the taste buds."

We toast, and sit at the table. He removes a longish vase that blocks our view of each other's eyes, and starts ladling onion soup onto my plate from a soup tureen. I taste the soup, and as soon as I compliment it he starts to speak, almost spilling over, like an overflowing fountain.

"I see that Fouquet's Madonna interests you, then. I would have sworn you were a journalist when I saw you walk into the room, but realised immediately that the way you were looking at the painting had nothing to do with the quick, superficial way journalists have of only looking at the most obvious things. Nor are you one of those poseurs who pretend to be extremely knowledgeable; that's also evident. The differences between visitors are made clear by the manner in which they pause to view the painting: you, for example, let your eyes rest at the core of the composition, at a very precise point in the painting, and from there you have drawn each and every one of your findings. Before concluding anything, you always go back to the core, like a bee that flies back to the sweetest flower after sampling all the others. You're a teacher, aren't you? Or perhaps you are a painter, too? Have you ever been to the Berlin-Dahlem museum? Never? Tut, tut, tut! Then you don't know the story of Fouquet's painting - or do you?"

I can't get a word in edgeways: the museum attendant's lips barely open, but sibilant sounds escape through them continually, while he ignores all my attempts to participate in the conversation. His hands, though, move more and more histrionically: he points at several of the painting's invisible parts with a fork, as if he had it in front of him, and immediately after at the public - me - with the brisk persuasive movement of a fisherman throwing a net.

"That Madonna of the delectable breast was a whore," continues Denis, "a courtesan, the darling of Charles VII, his lover, a concubine who liked to share her bed with one or many men concurrently, with everybody - please forgive me all this obscenity. Her name was Agnès Sorel, and she appears in Fouquet's painting in the same way as in every other depiction of her: with her left breast exposed. Everybody would agree with me if I said motherhood is the meaning of the bare breast in Fouquet's painting, but why is it that this naked breast, again and again, this very left breast, appears in paintings that have nothing to do with motherhood or anything remotely connected with it?" asks Denis, directing his eyes from his imaginary painting to me with an expression full of hope, as if I might be the one to hold the answer to his puzzle.

"Unfortunately, I can't guess at his intended meaning unless I try to unearth some of the clues that lie outside the orbit of the author's artistic urges," I say, just to say something.

His eyes fill with light, as if he has just remembered something important, but he smacks his lips and gets up after making an apologetic gesture with his hand. He leaves the room, and a short while later returns holding a bottle of Chateaux Margoux.

"What do you think?" asks Denis, showing me the bottle. "It's been in the fridge for years, awaiting an occasion such as this."

He goes through the whole process with much ceremony, corking the bottle, pouring the wine, swirling it in his glass, smelling it, barely tasting it with the tip of his tongue.

"What do you think?" he asks again.

As I am debating whether to answer that it is a pity to allow such good wine to turn to vinegar by letting it age, Denis drops the subject, and I gather that that was the object of the pause and the bottle of wine: to whet my appetite for knowledge in this crucible of respite.

The gratefulness we owe to our hosts requires me to massage the museum attendant's ego:

"I don't know, but it would seem to me that you are bursting with the need to discover something, something to add to what you already know and no one else knows: am I wrong?"

Denis did not need much encouragement to continue speaking.

"Ma petite pomme, is how the king used to call Agnès' breast; were you aware of this?"

Denis breathes deeply and stares at me, awaiting my response. I keep my mouth shut, because I don't know whether he is expecting me to come up with an explanation, or if he is indulging in one of those theatrical silences, those brief pauses, in fact, during which the audience, thinking that it is time for the interval, clap.

I wait for him, then; I wait, and don't bat an eyelid.

My attitude encourages Denis to give free rein to his passion, and he continues speaking, more slowly than he did earlier, providing me with innumerable well-known details: that this painting in which Agnès Sorel poses as the Madonna is part of a diptych; that the knight Etienne Chevalier, who used to be the king's accountant, was depicted in the other half; that Etienne is kneeling and staring at Agnès the Madonna...

"The piece which shows Etienne Chevalier kneeling is now in the National Museum of Berlin. No one has been able to explain why they separated the two parts of the diptych. And that, sir, is almost everything we know," says Denis finally, with a frown.

I could have sworn that the museum attendant's life was in danger, if it wasn't that the subject of his story was so far removed from the present.

"And?" I ask him. "What's worrying you?"

Denis directs his proud eyes from his empty glass to mine, and from there to the bottle. He starts to pour from the bottle of Chateaux Margoux. Placing the palm of my hand over my glass, I indicate I will not have another drink.

Denis starts whispering all of a sudden, as if he were afraid that someone else might hear:

"They poisoned Agnès, sir. You knew that, didn't you?"

The bewilderment in Denis' eyes made me think of the demented flight of two birds frightened by a shot.

"The son of Charles VII killed her, Louis XI, you must know that too," he corroborates this with a serious voice, rather than question my knowledge. "Louis XI used Agnès' cuckolding of the king as an excuse to take revenge and poison the girl. Do you understand? It was an excuse! But why? That is the question: why?"

Denis' manner gets more and more grandiloquent, and, feeling uncomfortable, I try a little joke to ease up the atmosphere:

"Because he wanted to punish all the mistresses and mistresses-in-waiting of his court, why otherwise? 'You better tread carefully, my little whores, look what you risk!' That was the message - why else would he kill her?" I say to him jokingly, like a dilettante art critic.

"Cold, cold, that kind of speculation is baseless," explains Denis, his eyes shinning crazily. "Why did Fouquet break his diptych in two? That is the question and the question has to be answered, don't you think?"

With all the time and ease I can muster I give him all the possible explanations that occur to me: Agnès' clandestine love - even though she was the king's mistress she felt a fiery passion for Etienne - was made visible to everyone through the diptych, and to break it in two might have been a way to signal condemnation and punishment. Hadn't Fouquet, in fact, portrayed the king as a laughable figure and a cuckold by putting Etienne on the second part of the diptych?

"It's not bad, you think that Fouquet was afraid of the revenge this laughable and cuckolded king might wreak on him, I understand," says Denis, considering the different aspects of the train of thought. "But that just leads us back to the unavoidable question, don't you think?"

I don't think that or anything else, and unlike before, I give him a doubtful look.

Denis doesn't like my attitude, and continues to question me with sharp, icy anger:

"Who is the child on Agnès' lap? Isn't the child on the Madonna's lap as real as Agnès Sorel and Etienne Chevalier - the son of a highly-born man, perhaps?"

"Let's say the child is the king's bastard, and consequently, the brother of Louis XI" - I said, retaining a trace of my dilettantish manner: " 'You, Fouquet, have crossed the line; be careful, the king is going to make porridge out of you if he sees the painting,' people at the court probably told him. Even Fouquet, with his artistic temperament, was like you or me: he feared the king (do not forget that Agnès had died by poisoning); he respected him (thanks to the king his social and economic standing were assured). But he also got a thrill out of stirring things up, he could imagine the lords and ladies of the court staring at the painting and saying: 'Look, look, doesn't the little mite look just like prince Louis?' (We should not forget that Fouquet was, above all, an artist)."

He signals a 'no' with his head.

"That baby is Chevalier's son," he says, pale as pale can be, so much so it looks like the drink has made him feel ill.

"Why do you say that?"
"Because he is looking at a currently invisible spot in the second part of the diptych."

"I don't understand..."

"Who is there in that second part of the diptych, kneeling down in that precise spot? Etienne Chevalier, the king's accountant; you said it yourself a moment ago. I would say that the child sitting on the Madonna's lap is looking at his father, at Etienne."

Imbecile, I am a total imbecile, how could I not have noticed something so blatantly obvious? I think, giving myself a metaphorical slap for being so blind.

"Hèlas!" I applaud Denis' deduction, "Hèlas! Not bad at all, good idea!"

I thought he would enjoy my appreciation, but to my surprise, he gets angry, and looks like he's beginning to think he's wasting his time with me.

"I thought you were a sensitive man, sir."

I apologise, attempting the humblest tone I am capable of. I say that I've been blind, blind to an incredible degree. I ask him to go on with his explanation.

"You don't realise the reason why Fouquet brought the painting to Berlin, do you? You don't realise," Denis bursts out uncontrollably.

And what if Fouquet himself had split the painting in two and sent it to Berlin, was the thought that crossed my mind, but before I could say anything, Denis was assailed by what looked like a terrible thought, as if he'd forgotten something of the utmost importance.

"Eleven o'clock! I'm sorry, s

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