Written by Luqman Nieto, introduction by Robert Luongo
The following short story is a dramatization based upon an anecdote that Ernst Jünger, the celebrated German soldier and poet, who served as an officer in both World Wars, told to Julien Hervier and was recorded in Hervier’s book The Details of Time, Conversations with Ernst Jünger. Jünger was the only high ranking German officer known to have been complicit in the failed attempt on Hitler’s life who was not executed by the Führer. He remains the most highly decorated soldier in all of German history. Jünger refused to be subjugated to the de-nazification process imposed by the Americans after the war, as he insisted that while he fought to defend his country, he never joined nor was he part of the Nazi Party. Jünger died at the age of 103 and is the author of numerous books, essays and articles that were published during his lifetime. His highly acclaimed Storm of Steel is considered: ‘One of the most striking accounts of the First World War’ (Richard Holms, Evening Standard).
Robert Luongo, Dallas College lecturer of Shakespeare & Rhetoric
(May Allah has mercy on him)
It was a clear and fresh morning of winter. The sun had finally come to pay us a visit after a long absence. The streets of Paris smelled like a shirt that had just been washed and hung in the sun. Nadia was walking with her light and gentle pace, almost trotting like a young colt that has been locked up for too long and finally re-discovers the pleasures of running in freedom. I could hardly keep up without looking too ridiculous behind her.
I met Nadia a morning like this one in Saint Germain des Prés. While I was having a shot of espresso in the Café Fleurs, she was drawing in an artist’s sketchbook, a small detail of a beautiful corner. With precise and short movements, acquired by her impeccable Russian classical technique, Nadia was capturing the essence of that corner in that precise moment. But I did not know her name yet. All I knew was that while she was observing the corner and capturing the moment I was observing her and becoming her captive.
After the first espresso I asked for a second one, and after the second for a third. I did not want to disturb the girl who was drawing but I could not leave without saying anything to her. By the time of the fourth espresso it had become a matter of proving to myself that I could do it. Not that I had bad luck with women, actually I would say that it was rather good, they found me awkwardly handsome and rather charming – even though I never thought I was any of those things – but there was something in that girl, which was terribly challenging. Later on I would come to know her name was Nadia. She looked like a Russian princess, with long brown hair, big green eyes and marble-like sculpted features. She was not particularly pretty, as her mouth was a little big and so were her eyes, and her nose a little small, but everything put together had a special enchantment.
She was wrapped in a distant air, perhaps a bit cold, like the fresh breeze that was blowing through the terrace of the Café de Fleurs that sunny morning of winter. But what attracted me more than anything were her hands; the long thin fingers with a darkish colour at their tips, which revealed to me that what she was doing was not merely a casual moment of inspiration but a profession. The bones which revealed themselves through the skin and the light blue veins were all in perfect balance. Her hands were like the violins in a complex piece of classical music, the accents of the melody that was her face, and all accompanied by a perfect atonal harmony that was her body. If Prokofiev were to see her he would have composed the most beautiful yet dissonant piano concerto.
Suddenly she closed her notebook, organized her pencils in a small leather case and stood up. She took a long breath and I contained mine. She turned, looked around and her glance favoured me before she walked straight to the table where I was.
Before I could even realise what was happening, she was sitting in front of me and had ordered a coffee. All of that distant look had completely disappeared and gave place to a warm friendly smile. I was shocked. The kind of shock that happens when something you imagine doing suddenly dislodges from the realm of imaginations to the realm of reality, and you have to face it.
Nadia arrived a couple of years ago in Paris. She came from a bourgeois family of Moscow where she had learnt the art of painting miniatures. Her mother was part of the old aristocracy and her father a successful business man. By 1920, following the Russian Revolution, her mother foresaw the worsening of things in Russia, and so decided to send her daughter to Paris where Nadia could continue developing her talent as a painter under the careful supervision of a very good friend of her mother.
Nadia talked and I listened. She seemed like someone who had been alone for a long time and suddenly found someone with whom she could talk. From time to time she would stop and ask me a few things – which I answered as quickly and as short as possible – before carrying on as if what I had said did not really matter. I was delighted.
When I started to know her better after that first encounter, I learnt that she was like that; she would remain in silence immersed in her thoughts and would hardly speak for what seemed an eternity, and then she would emerge out of that world of hers and talk as if there was not enough time to say everything she wanted to say. Every period of silence resulted in some master piece of painting and after every period of talking I would have the most beautiful and profound lines to put in the mouth of the heroine of my latest piece of writing.
Once I asked her why she choose my table and why she sat with me that day at the café. She answered: “When I finished my painting that day and I stood up I felt like someone who had been travelling alone for a long time and when he gets back to the place from where he left he needs someone who will listen to all his stories of the journey. I looked around and the only face I saw that I could trust was yours. So I went to your table and I talked to you”.
When I finished my fifth espresso and she her first one we left the Café de Fleursand I walked her home. Her pace that day was the same light and gentle trot that moved her through the streets of Paris that warm winter morning.
We were going to see a well known painter who was spending some time in Paris. Nadia knew him from, as she said, a random casual meeting arranged by destiny. She was painting a view of a popular café in the city, where the ordinary people usually sit, with a vivid detailed surrealism, and he passed by. He stood behind her for a long time while she did not notice it, for when she painted she was habitually unaware of what was going on around her except for that which she was painting. He admired her work, especially her amazing technique and her eye for detail. When he knew that she was from Russia he invited her to help him with a work he was doing for Diaghilev and the Russian Ballet. His name was Picasso.
When we arrived at Picasso’s house in the street of the Grands-Augustines she knocked at the door. Olga, Picasso’s wife, opened for us and Nadia, after introducing me, began a lively conversation with Olga in Russian. Olga was a ballet dancer that Picasso met while working for Diaghilev and she and Picasso got married in 1918.
A little child of about six years old came running and passed by my side without noticing me. When he saw Nadia he ran to her and she received him with open arms speaking to him in Russian with a mellow voice. He laughed and begun to talk mixing words from French, Russian and Spanish with such ease that I would have assumed it to be only one language.
Pablo, the son of Picasso and Olga, pulled Nadia without leaving her hand to the studio where his father was working. Nadia looked at me and told me with her eyes to follow them. From what I could understand, Pablo was saying his father had just finished a portrait of him and Pablo wanted Nadia to see it.
The four of us went into Picasso’s studio. The studio was a large square room with two big windows facing the street at one end of the room. The windows had no curtains and the light of the sun entered through them illuminating the whole room. Picasso was facing the wall opposite the windows with the easel in front of him and all his paints, brushes and pencils on the side. There were paintings leaning against the four walls of the room, some were finished and others were unfinished, revealing the intentions of the painter and how they developed and changed through the process of painting.
Picasso was a man in his forties of normal height and constitution with small piercing eyes. Under his apron, which had so many spots of paint that the original colour was un-recognizable, he was wearing an elegant shirt and a tie. He greeted Nadia kindly and Nadia introduced me to him. Picasso looked at me with the eyes of someone who is used to seeing the true essence of the world around him and who is then able to capture that essence in paint. And then he smiled at me and his eyes seemed to change colour, from a dark brown to a light sand one, like the earth when it is dry and has a light brown colour and then it rains and the brown becomes dark, but in reverse.
Nadia and Picasso talked about the portrait of his son while the living subject of it was running around trying to capture everyone’s attention. He probably felt that he was more important than his fake copy. Nadia and Picasso commented on the details of the painting talking about the strokes of the painter and the chromatic scale of colours he had used. For anyone who, like me, did not paint, it was almost as if they were speaking another language, Chinese for example. Soon my attention was captured by the rest of the paintings leaning against the walls, and then by Pablo himself, who was happy to finally have seized someone’s attention and was doing his best not to lose it.
Olga had gone out of the studio and her voice came to us calling Pablo. Pablo left the studio and Nadia, who suddenly felt a rush to ask Olga for the meaning of some Russian word in French, followed the child. Without really wanting to, because his presence overwhelmed me a little, I found my self alone with Picasso.
Picasso came closer to me. I was looking at the portrait trying to find something to say that would not reveal my almost complete ignorance of the subject when he looked at me and smiled. Sensing my predicament he said: “Don’t worry, I actually don’t like it”.
Picasso went to the painting and lifted it off the easel. With the painting in his hands he turned to me and said: “This painting would have a certain effect, but that effect would be exactly the same one, in the metaphysical meaning of it, if I would wrap it in paper and abandon it in a corner. It would be exactly the same as if ten thousand people would have admired it”
Picasso put the painting on the easel again and went to join his wife, son and Nadia in the kitchen where Olga had prepared some coffee.
I stayed there, looking at the portrait of little Pablo, thinking about the casual tone of the words that Picasso had just uttered, rendering them even more shocking to me, until Nadia’s voice dragged me out of my state and rushed me to the kitchen before the coffee could get cold.