“My secretary will give you everything you need,” said Mr. Nudel, and he pointed to the door with his cigar. That is how Birklo knew the fat man considered the conversation to be finished. He stretched his hand over the paper-covered desk, but Mr. Nudel was already busy with something else and did not respond to the gesture. He picked up his portfolio and left the office. He couldn’t remember when he had stepped on such a soft rug before.
“Mr. Nudel told me that you’ll give me everything I need for the test,” he said to the secretary.
“Oh…fine. That means he’ll definitely hire you. Of course, if you pass the test,” she responded. “Did you understand what the job is all about?”
“Well…I think I understood, although…”
“You have some doubts. I understand. Don’t worry, the same thing happens to everybody. You’ll get used to it.”
“I hope so.”
“I’m sure of it. In one or two more weeks everything will be clearer, you’ll see. He told me that you’ve worked on various projects…isn’t that right?”
“Yes. I’m an actor and…”
“Then you won’t have any problems. The important thing here is memory. Mr. Nudel must have told you that already. Everyone gets stuck on that. They come looking for the job with brilliant recommendations and backgrounds, but whatever they may have done before doesn’t matter if they don’t have a good memory…But I won’t hold you up any longer. Here’s the story.”
Birklo received the book, put it in his portfolio and took his leave. He had a one-week period to memorize the text before taking the test.
On the scheduled day he went to the same office. Mr. Nudel’s secretary greeted him courteously and called someone on the intercom. A little while later a young man appeared who gave the candidate a lukewarm handshake.
“Follow me, please,” said the young man. Birklo hardly had time to turn his head toward the secretary and mumble goodbye. They walked along the same hallways that Birklo had been down when he entered. The young man moved with ease in those surroundings. He said hello two or three times in passing as many open doors and said something Birklo did not catch when they crossed paths with a woman. She responded with a hoarse, dubious laugh.
Birklo asked himself whether someday he too would have acquaintances in that building, people to communicate with by means of gestures or laughter, signals capable of evoking common experiences or suggesting implicit agreements.
Finally they arrived at the elevator. They were on the bottom floor and Birklo was surprised to see his guide press the button for the fourth floor below ground.
“Are you nervous?” asked the young man.
“Don’t worry. It’s normal. It always happens on the day of the test.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Did you have any problems with the text? Which one did they give you?”
They had arrived. They left the elevator and once more went down diverse hallways, not running into anyone this time, and Birklo didn’t see any open offices. His companion stopped in front of a door that had a sign bearing the inscription “Mertov.” He opened it and turned on the lights.
“We’ll do the test here. If all goes well, this will be your workplace,” said the young man.
The walls were white and the only furniture came in the form of a black-leather and metal chair.
“I hope that you’ll be comfortable,” added the young man, and he pointed to the chair. “It won’t be necessary to exert your voice. There’s an amplification system that allows us to listen with great precision from the control booth. If you would rather walk or remain standing, that’s fine. Wait two minutes and begin; I’ll be in the booth.”
The young man left the room. Birklo set his portfolio on the floor, next to the chair; he took off his jacket, hung it on the door-latch and, when he calculated that two minutes had gone by, began to narrate.
Birklo finished the “Mertov” story and walked toward the door in order to put his jacket back on. His was picking up the portfolio when the young man from the booth entered the studio.
“You have done very well,” he said. “Mr. Nudel also listened to your narration and has given his approval. Are you willing to begin work tomorrow?”
“Yes, yes…Of course.”
“Perfect, we’ll start tomorrow. I suppose Mr. Nudel told you that here the workday begins at five.” Birklo answered affirmatively and they walked in the direction of the elevator.
“What did you used to do before?” the young man wanted to know.
“I was…I am an actor.”
“I see. I’d figured on something like that. Don’t believe that everyone passes the test. This seems like an easy job, but it has its difficult side.”
When they arrived at the main hall of the building, the young man escorted him to the entrance.
“Don’t forget: tomorrow at five. Punctuality is very important.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be on time,” responded Birklo.
“Okay, you know the way already: fourth floor below ground, ‘Mertov’ studio. I’ll be in the control booth, so we won’t be seeing each other.”
Birklo felt the same lukewarm handshake as before and went into the street.
Now he had a job.
The following day he arrived at the set time and didn’t find it difficult getting to the studio. He entered, turned on the lights and began the “Mertov” narrative. When he finished the story, he picked up his portfolio and left.
The afternoons began repeating themselves, they were identical, until he finished his first two weeks. On that day he found an envelope with his pay on the chair.
“No mistake about it. The company runs perfectly,” Birklo thought. He also fulfilled his part of the bargain without the slightest slip in memory, without missing days or arriving late; punctuality, he remembered, was one of the mandatory prerequisites.
“Every day,” Mr. Nudel had said, “absolutely every day. There are no holidays, no feast days, no vacations, no sick leave. It is precisely because of this requirement that you will be paid very well.” Neither the company nor its new employee had reason to complain about how things were going. And Birklo didn’t complain, despite the vague uneasiness he felt when he realized that the days were going by and he still didn’t understand the nature of his work.
Mr. Nudel’s secretary had said that in a week or so his doubts would begin to dissipate, but time passed and his confusion, on the contrary, was on the rise. As the man of theater that he was, Birklo understood what the continued performance of the same piece meant; he knew the surest sign of success is precisely its permanence on the bill.
“In theater,” he thought, “there is a constantly renewed audience and, in this way, the illusion of opening night is reborn every time the curtain is raised. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t have any audience at all, if it weren’t for the young man in the booth.”
He never ran into anyone in the hallways of the fourth floor below ground or in the elevator, and the young man from the booth did not come around anymore. That individual had rubbed him the wrong way on the day of the test, but, even so, he hoped to see him again. Rather than turning him into his friend or confidant, he simply wanted to ask him some questions.
One afternoon, when he finished the third month on the job, he thought about talking to him through the studio microphones, but he forgot about it as soon as he remembered Mr. Nudel’s warning:
“Your job consists of reciting the ‘Mertov’ story from memory,” Nudel had said. “You cannot utter even one additional word. Remember: any error in this connection will mean your immediate dismissal.”
So it was impossible to communicate with the young man in the booth through those microphones that, in truth, he never had been able to see.
“There’s nothing else in here besides this chair,” he thought. “How, then, does the sound system work? The most logical thing would be to suppose there are hidden microphones, but…why would they have to hide them?”
It was during this same period, possibly as a result of his increasing uneasiness, that he began having the dream. At the beginning it was once a week, or every ten days; and then more and more often, almost every day.
Shortly after falling asleep, he dreams that he arrives at the company building an hour before the usual time and, instead of going down to the fourth floor below ground, he heads for the hallways of the bottom floor. He is determined to talk with Mr. Nudel, in order to ask him for an explanation about the job. He sees various people come and go in the hallways and later disappear in one direction or the other; doors that open and close. He thinks he sees the woman who had laughed after listening to the words of the young man in the booth. She seems aged and sad. He finally gets to Mr. Nudel’s secretary’s office. Everything is as he remembers it, except the secretary. Now sitting behind the desk is another woman, younger, and also prettier.
“Good afternoon. I wanted to speak with Mr. Nudel,” he says.
“With who?” she asks, frowning, as if Birklo had spoken in a manner that had become obsolete fifty years ago.
“Mr. Nudel,” he repeats.
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know anyone that goes by that name.”
“But…this is his office. I’ve been here before.”
By the expression that appears on the girl’s face, Birklo realizes that he has raised his voice too high.
“You say that you’ve been here before? When was that?”
“Well…a few months ago.”
“Ah…now I understand,” she says, and for the first time allows her lips to form a smile. “You must be talking about the previous owner. They don’t have their offices here anymore.”
“Where can I find him?” Birklo asks. A horrible idea enters his brain for a minute, but the malaise fades away as soon as he remembers that someone keeps on paying his salary every two weeks.
“You have to go to the sixth floor,” responds the girl, vaguely pointing upwards with her pencil.
Birklo thanks her for the information and retraces his steps to the elevator. He thinks it is a lucky occurrence that they have not moved very far away. It is the first time that he uses the elevator to go beyond the bottom floor, but when he arrives at the sixth floor he finds his way without difficulty. He walks straight to Mr. Nudel’s office and soon he is standing next to the secretary’s desk.
“Good afternoon. Do you remember me?” he greets her.
“Of course. How are you?” she responds.
Birklo likes this woman and would like to continue the conversation, but he wants to resolve the job question as soon as possible, because he doesn’t want to arrive late to the studio.
“Good, very good,” he says, “though…still…I’d like to speak with Mr. Nudel, if he’s not busy.”
“No, no. I’ll tell him right now,” she responds and lifts the intercom receiver up to her ear.
“Mr. Nudel, you have a visitor,” she says. “Mr. Mertov wants to speak with you.”
At this instant Birklo wakes up.
Sometimes the secretary on the bottom floor was mute, or else she would erroneously indicate Mr. Nudel’s new location, and Birklo would be obliged to walk through most of the building before getting to the office he was interested in. Occasional variants that did nothing else but add disagreeable elements to the dream.
As he reflected on what he was going through, Birklo would make an effort to emphasize the positive aspects of his job.
“The crisis of the theater is getting worse all the time,” he would say. “Halls close just to open a little while later, transformed into supermarkets or dance clubs. Every day there is less work for actors.” But, at the same time, Birklo knew that with these rationalizations he was trying to cover up, without accomplishing it, an unbearable desire for conformity and self-deceit. The situation was increasingly irritating and demanded an explanation.
He thought about reporting to Mr. Nudel’s office, like in the dream; nevertheless, just thinking about it was enough to fill him with displeasure. Besides, something intangible kept him convinced that it was a useless move, and that he should search out other avenues. Birklo developed the habit of mentally reconstructing each one of the steps that he had taken since his first visit to the company building. Generally, he did it at night, in the darkness and silence of his room, in order to fill up the torturous and tense wakefulness that followed the ever-recurring dream.
So once more he listened to Mr. Nudel’s words and those of his secretary; again he felt the softness of that rug under the soles of his shoes; and he relived the day of the test.
“That afternoon,” he remembered, “the young man from the booth did not object to my bringing the portfolio in which I kept the book with the ‘Mertov’ story. Mr. Nudel, the secretary and even he insisted on the importance of a good memory, but I could have opened the book in order to avoid errors. In fact,” he thought, “I have the portfolio next to me every day, and the only reason why I don’t bring the book is because I’ve memorized it…Could they have, besides hidden microphones, a television camera able to secretly monitor my movements? Do the microphones really exist? Have they ever listened to my narration of the ‘Mertov’ story?” Remembrances, tribulations, interrogatives that sprang up night after sleepless night, from which the plan capable of leading him to the solution of the enigma arose.
The day when Birklo completed a year on the job, he arrived at the appointed hour to the company building and headed for the fourth floor below ground. By the look of things nothing had changed, although Birklo felt differently. He had made a decision and was unable to keep a certain personal pride under wraps.
He arrived at the “Mertov” studio and, like every afternoon, hung his jacket on the door-latch and left his portfolio next to the chair. At five o’clock sharp he began to tell the “Mertov” story.
And he narrated, with the usual intonation, with the customary precision, without the slightest slip in memory.
He narrated up until the last word, which he did not utter.
He gathered his jacket and portfolio and left the studio. The hallways were still deserted. As per his custom, he rode the elevator to reach the bottom floor. He went out of the building and, although he startled himself with his longing to hear someone calling after him, no one pronounced his name or stood in his way.
That night the disagreeable dream did not interfere with his sleep.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened the next afternoon; it was as if the young man in the booth and Mr. Nudel had not noticed that the “Mertov” story had undergone a slight truncation. Birklo could go ahead with his plan, and that afternoon he left another word out of the story.
Each day a word less. It went on like this for ten years.
Birklo’s worries are a thing of the past; he doesn’t even remember he once had that horrible dream. Along with the narrative, his plan finished five weeks ago.
Now, every afternoon, he enters the studio and turns on the lights; he leaves his jacket on the door-latch and his portfolio next to the chair. He sits down; he remains in silence. Now he is Mertov.
The original Spanish text was first published in 1993 by the Anaya & Mario Muchnik publishing house.
Born in Basavilbaso, Argentina, in 1953, Jorge Zentner has lived in Spain since 1979. Zentner, former editor in chief of the Barcelona based literary magazine Lateral, has written the novel Informes Para Mertov (1991) and the short story collection Mertov (1993), both of which are published by Anaya & Mario Muchnik. Birklo, the Kafka-esque tale included here is the first of the nine stories that make up Mertov.
Perhaps best known for his work as a comic strip author, Zentner in collaboration with various artists, has published over a dozen comic books, five of which cast Dieter Lumpen as their protagonist. His El Silencio de Malka (artist: Ruben Pellejero) received the 1996 Prix Alph-Art for the best foreign comic book published in France.
Much of Zenter’s work can be ordered online from the Casa del Libro.