A Voice in the Crowd: A Sketch

Ignacio Abel stopped in his tracks when, through the hubbub of Penn Station, he heard someone calling his name. Which, of course, was impossible. In his three days of waiting in New York, he'd received no phone calls and no one had come to see him. The only evidence he'd had that he still existed for anyone but himself was a telegram from a certain Professor Stevenson which had arrived that morning and a letter from his wife, mailed several months ago from the other side of the war's front line. The telegram consisted of a brief apology for the several days of silence and a detailed series of instructions for reaching Burton College on that afternoon's 4:00 train. The letter was a lengthy diatribe that filled and spilled off the pages, a catalog of complaints for which there was no possible solution, an endless monologue by someone who never stops talking and never listens and hasn't noticed that everyone else has been driven from the room.

He was traveling toward a building that didn't yet exist, in a place he'd never been before: a library whose white walls were still only lines penciled in his sketchbook, on a hill overlooking the Hudson River.

The paths his wife's letter must have taken, from a Spanish city occupied by rebel forces to a hotel on the other side of the Atlantic, were inconceivable. The letter seemed to have followed his scent, guided by the same blind determination to denounce him that had moved the hand that wrote it and then folded the pages, sealed the envelope, and dropped it in the mailbox, knowing full well how unlikely it was that the letter would ever reach its addressee.

But now nothing at all was like the normal life of a few months earlier; the impossible had become commonplace while the ordinary certainties and dreary routines of former days had all been broken off, perhaps forever. A summer beach resort just an hour's somnolent train ride away was as distant now as if it were on another continent. A letter that would have taken two days at most to reach Madrid was lost forever or had to cross half the world to find its recipient. All sorts of different postmarks and scribblings covered the battered envelope, which at some point was in the hands of the Red Cross in Paris and was then rejected and returned by a Madrid postal worker: Addressee unknown. The red letters written diagonally across his name and address negated Ignacio Abel's existence and denied him his home, which he'd left barely two weeks earlier, with the anguished thought that he might never return.

He was astonished by the amount of distance that just a few days can contain, the way a person's identity deteriorates after days spent without speaking to anyone, moving alone among strangers, in the same way that clothing wears out quickly when a man has only one suit and no more than two shirts and a single pair of shoes and hat. There may be difficulties at the border; if you have to cross by the mountains it's best to travel light. He'd left Madrid with a valid passport and visa for the United States, and nevertheless he'd acted and felt like a fugitive. He was traveling with a legitimate aim and destination that was perfectly in keeping with his experience and professional status, but he was agonized by a deep-seated sense of being a deserter, the insecurity of one who has committed or is about to commit a fraud. At every border crossing he was seized by a fear of not finding his papers, of having his papers rejected by the police or customs officers who examined them. He had learned that personal identity is a tower too fragile to stand on its own, that documents are not always enough to confirm it, even to oneself. In some way, his passport photo already depicted another man; it had been taken in a distant and forever abolished era, the beginning of July, a few months earlier.

The memory was as detailed as the feeling of distance. But the principal difference between him and the man in the photo wasn't the clear loss of weight or the development of a new expression at the corners of the mouth that was probably there to stay. The gaze that now stared back at him in the mirror was no longer the same as the one that had serenely confronted the camera in the photographer's studio on the Gran Via. Since then, Ignacio Abel had seen things that his increasingly inexact double in the photograph would have been incapable of imagining. Seen things, heard words, explosions, shots, moans, animal screams emerging from human throats. He'd been awoken in the middle of the night by bombs exploding and volleys of shots, by brutal footsteps racing upstairs and a loud pounding that was, literally, death knocking at the door.

Now, far from all that, temporarily safe, he was rushing to catch a train and a voice had brought him to a halt. After so many days of not existing for anyone else, of traveling alone and walking through unfamiliar places, Ignacio Abel gave a start of emotion and panic on hearing someone call out to him in the station corridor. His conscious mind rejected the reality of such a voice at the same time as he stopped short and turned around to look for its source amid the throng of strangers. His name had been spoken behind him, very nearby, not like the shout of someone calling from afar through the din of the station, but a calm, nearby voice, almost murmuring his name in the half-light of the corridor: Ignacio, Ignacio Abel. It was a familiar voice, but he hadn't been able to identify it: it had sounded so clear, yet he couldn't say whether it was a man's voice or a woman's. He stood there immobile, his suitcase in hand, turning toward the direction he thought it had come from, and some of the passersby who were bustling around him bumped into him and then, without looking at him, emitted dry interjections he did not understand. In these strangers' hostility, the eyes, the human gaze played no role. This was another difference from Madrid, where so often during those final days he had seen eyes that sought out his eyes with a fixed gaze that terrified him. Averting his eyes quickly was one of his new strategies for surviving.

But he was in a hurry, too, just like the men who were pushing him aside with their elbows because Ignacio Abel was now interfering with their mad dash through the station. The huge clock suspended beneath the metal arches showed the time as 3:51; the train for Rhinecliff was leaving precisely at 4:00. He'd been trying in vain to find the track for a few minutes now, confused by all the people and the metallic English words that rattled from the loudspeakers, by the great, unanimous clamor, all the sounds in the station echoing beneath the giant vault. His ear was growing accustomed to the foreign language and now made out whole phrases at random, which remained suspended in the air like visible ribbons of words: I told you we were late but you never pay attention and now we're going to miss the train. It felt as if the words were addressed to him, slow and indecisive as he was, so awkward amid all the people.

For a few seconds he'd believed that someone was saying his name, saving him from his anonymity, fleetingly restoring a lost or canceled identity which had been increasingly remote from him ever since he left Madrid but especially after he crossed the French border and found himself in a heartless country where the war did not exist. There, the war was no longer a nearby reality or agonizing memory, but suddenly became a dream too complicated and absurd to be real. That was when they began, especially in Paris: the imaginary voices, as vivid and fleeting as the visual illusions that frequently overwhelmed him. Acoustic mirages. He'd hear a voice in the street and for a moment it seemed as though someone were calling out to him. He would catch sight of a distant figure, a silhouette through a café window, and for a second he'd be sure it was an acquaintance from Madrid. His children, who were in Spain and whom he hadn't seen in the last three months—only a little more than an hour away by train and nevertheless as far away as if they were on the other side of a bottomless crevasse opened up by some geological cataclysm—were there in front of him, kicking around a soccer ball on a sandy path in the Luxembourg gardens. The night before leaving Madrid he'd gone to say good-bye to José Moreno Villa and found him alone and visibly aged in his unheated room in the Residencia de Estudiantes, and nevertheless he saw him, walking a few paces ahead along the Boulevard Saint-Germain the very morning he arrived in Paris, once again erect and younger, with the solid bourgeois elegance of a few months earlier, wearing one of the English wool sweaters he liked so much, his felt hat tilted jauntily to one side. A second later, as he drew closer to the person who had triggered it, the mirage would vanish and Ignacio Abel would find it hard to understand how his eyes could possibly have been so deceived: the children playing in the Luxembourg Gardens were older than his and didn't look like them in the slightest; the man who was identical to Moreno Villa would stop in front of a shop window and turn out to have a coarse, dull-witted face and eyes with no spark of intelligence, and to be wearing a suit of undistinguished cut.

Original copyright Antonio Muñoz Molina. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Esther Allen. All rights reserved.