In a carriage of the Paris metro, nine people cross paths one ordinary Friday morning: a retired office worker who comes there purely to read; a tourist revisiting the memories of sixty years ago; a funeral mourner who has discovered the beauty of cemeteries; an author in search of her characters; a young man with a reality problem; an elderly woman with memory issues; a military administrator with a secret hobby; a jilted woman who has the key to the perfect match; and a secret agent high on adrenaline. Each in turn encounters that ubiquitous and unavoidable gadget: the cell phone camera. Each comes to a realization that changes their life for ever. But who is the tenth person in the carriage, and what do her photographs tell her about the other nine that they could not possibly know themselves?
- Zavod (Serbian, 2016)
- Cadmus Press (English, Japan, hardcover, 2017)
- Zavod (Serbian, 2018)
- Cadmus Press (English, Japan, softcover, 2018)
- Galaktika (Hungarian, 2022)
An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Randall A. Major
Mr. Anatole Mirouille—whom you see in the picture—noticed the camera on the seat opposite his own when he looked over the top of his book.
Mr. Mirouille was headed no place in particular on the metro. Soon after retiring two and a half months before, he had started coming down into the metro regularly in order to read. Earlier, he had had neither the time nor the desire to read, but now he could think of no better way to pass the abundance of free time.
Of course, he could have read at home just as well, for no one would have bothered him—he lived alone—but he was surprised to find that the absolute quiet that reigned there got on his nerves. Many people would have found the conditions perfect for reading, but in the dead silence of the little apartment, Mr. Mirouille’s thoughts quickly began to wander, preventing him from focusing on the text. He tried to battle the silence with various kinds of music, but even when he turned the volume on the stereo right up it was to no avail.
Mr. Mirouille finally figured out what the problem was. He had worked his whole life in the midst of clamor. He was surrounded by people whose job it was to make telephone calls. Only in the very early days had this caused him any annoyance. Not only had he quickly gotten used to the background noise, but now he could no longer do without it. On those rare occasions over the weekend or during the holidays when he was on duty alone in the large open plan office, he wouldn’t be even half as effective as when it was filled with a multitude of his chattering colleagues.
Now he was retired it would be ideal, therefore, to find similar surroundings, in which he would no longer have difficulty concentrating on his reading. He was sure it would be easy. Are there so few places where one can hear people babbling? In cafés, for example. There are always customers talking, and what’s more they are comfortable and pleasant—cool in summer, warm in winter. He started visiting a nearby café, and in those first days it seemed to be all he could wish for. He would order coffee, sit at a table in the corner, and delve into a book without the slightest problem, as the lovely chitter-chatter reached his ears.
He became aware of the snag after about a week. The owner’s face lost its early warmth. Scowling, he would bring over the coffee, and utter an icy goodbye when he left. Mr. Mirouille didn’t need to search long for the cause of these changes. He would sit alone at the table for eight hours, paying for just one cup of coffee the whole time. It was simply bad business for the café owner.
All right, no worries: he would order more coffee. How much was appropriate for eight hours’ occupation of a table? Eight cups, perhaps—one every hour? But what was he to do with eight cups of coffee? Even just one was more than enough, especially with his high blood pressure. If he left them there without drinking them, it would make the owner feel uneasy. The other customers would conclude that Mr. Mirouille was staging a protest because the coffee at the café was bad. He could, in fact, order something else, but what? Alcohol wasn’t an option because he didn’t drink at all, and eight of anything else would make him nauseous because of his sensitive stomach. So it was that, seeing no other solution, he stopped going to the café and started looking for a new place to read.
However, he had no luck. It turned out that whatever he thought of, just like the café, had some sort of hidden flaw. He spent several pleasant afternoons reading in the waiting room of the train station, only, as the one passenger who never caught a train anywhere, to attract the attention of the security guards. He tried to explain why he was coming there, but they didn’t seem convinced, and rather rudely noted down his personal information, threatening that he would end up in the police station if they ever found him there again.
At the zoo, his plans were ruined by the rain. He had no hesitation whatsoever in taking up a place on a bench next to the large monkey cage, where there were always visitors. The guards paid no attention to him because he wasn’t disturbing the animals, and he ignored the occasional deprecating glances especially from mothers with children, who most certainly thought that the elderly man holding a book and dressed in an overcoat was some sort of pervert. Under an umbrella, he would seem even more suspicious to them, but that wasn’t what prevented him from coming. He stopped simply because when it’s raining there are practically no visitors to the zoo, and therefore no chit-chat either.
Before he finally found the perfect place to read, he made one last hopeless attempt: he wrote to the company where he had worked for four decades. Appealing precisely to the longevity of that career, he requested permission to continue coming into his former office. He wouldn’t bother anyone in the least with his presence. He would take up an inobtrusive place in a corner and just read, never saying a word. All he needed was a normal chair, and he would be satisfied with the right to go just once to the toilet. It hurt him a little, though it didn’t surprise him, when they didn’t even reply.
The idea of reading on the metro came to him one day when he was riding it home. With surprise he noted something that had been right in front of him all those years, which he had been too blind to see. Almost half the travelers in the metro pass the time reading. He would undoubtedly have noticed sooner if only he had himself read while riding the metro, instead of mainly just staring blankly ahead of himself. People notice only what they are interested in. He had read somewhere that pregnant women have the impression that the world has suddenly filled up with pregnant women.
Of course! He wanted to cry out for joy. The metro had everything he was looking for. Above all, no one reading there aroused any kind of suspicion. In addition, he wasn’t exposed to the elements. Like in cafés, in the carriages of the metro it was comfortable and climate controlled, he could sit as long as he wished, and no one would scold him for not ordering enough. Finally, as a retiree, he had benefits, so he could ride all day long for a pittance.
Five times a week, from Monday to Friday, he spent six hours reading in the metro. He would get on as soon as the morning rush had passed, and get off just before the start of the evening one. He avoided the busy times because the clamor then was louder than he liked, and it wasn’t easy to find a seat free. Between the two crowded periods, while the cars were half-full, the voices in the background quite suited him. He devoured book after book, almost unaware of the people around him.
On this day, he scolded himself for not paying at least a little attention to his immediate surroundings. All three places around him were, in fact, empty at the moment, but if he had just looked up once in the past few minutes, he would have noticed who had last sat opposite. That person must have forgotten the camera on the seat.
Perhaps they had not yet left the car. He got up quickly, picking up the device, and had started to raise it in the air in order to ask aloud to whom it belonged, when he realized that this would be unwise. Anyone might respond, and how could Mr. Mirouille establish whether the person really was the owner? Could he ask for some sort of proof of ownership? Who in the world carried documents like that around with them?
Then it crossed his mind that only the owner would know the brand of the small apparatus. He closed it up in his hand and again began to raise it, but his movements were once again thwarted. They had just arrived at a station. Those preparing to get off did so quickly, and new passengers got on in their places. The opportunity was lost.
Mr. Mirouille was left standing confused, not knowing what to do. He could not, of course, put the camera back on the seat and return to his reading, pretending that none of this was any of his business. If someone came to sit there and simply slid the camera into their pocket, Mr. Mirouille might potentially be accused of being an accomplice to theft, or even of not stopping the theft, when he could and should have done so. Cameras were recording everything in the carriage; surely he had been filmed picking the apparatus up off the seat.
He sighed. There was no choice—he would have to take it to the lost-and-found office. He wondered what he should do with it until he got there and concluded that it would be best to keep it in his hand. If he were to put it in his pocket, who would ever believe that he did not intend to take it? He sat down again, put the book in his lap, and looked at the station map above the window opposite. Such offices were not located at every station, only at the largest, and the nearest of those was still six stops away.
Two stops passed before he finally decided to do something that had crossed his mind while he was about to sit down. He had refrained, because he felt it to be an unacceptable act of indiscretion. Ultimately, he convinced himself that it was acceptable after all. In any case, they would do the same thing at the office—they would look at the pictures because that was the most reliable way of identifying the owner. The camera’s brand could somehow be guessed, but this was in no way true of the photographs taken. If someone were to ask Mr. Mirouille for the camera before he turned it in to the office, in this way he could establish beyond a doubt whether the person was a fraud or the real owner.
Digital cameras are all very much alike, so he easily figured out how to view the photos on the little screen on the back. The first photo was blurry for a moment, then it sharpened.
Mr. Mirouille was unpleasantly surprised to see himself reading. He looked so immersed in the book, it was no wonder at all that he hadn’t noticed someone taking his picture from a nearby seat. He hadn’t even heard a click, but that could be because they had started making cameras with a silent mode. They were coming up with innovations all the time. Whatever the case, this was certainly inappropriate. People should not have their pictures taken without their knowledge and approval. There must be some article in the law prohibiting it.
He would register a complaint at the lost-and-found office. He would demand that this photograph be erased, and that the owner be chastised if they ever came to collect the thing they had so carelessly lost. If nothing else, they should feel guilty at how they had treated the honest finder who had been willing to make the effort of taking their camera to the office. Not everyone would be so honest, in spite of the video surveillance in the metro.
Then it occurred to him that this could all be done more simply. Why should he bother explaining things at the office, when he could just erase the picture himself? At least that was easily done. He poked at the small buttons around the screen until he established how to go about it.
Once it had happened that, wishing to erase just one photo from his own camera, he had accidentally erased them all. For an instant, he thought that in this case such a mistake would actually be a fitting form of revenge on the impertinent photographer, but then he grew ashamed. Vengefulness did not come naturally to him.
After all, it could actually be that the person meant no harm when they had photographed him. It was probably a harmless tourist who could not resist immortalizing the scene of an elderly gentleman preoccupied with his reading, as if he were in a library of sorts, and not on the metro. True enough, the stranger didn’t have the right to do it, and therefore Mr. Mirouille would erase that picture, but he would leave the rest unharmed.
He checked the erasing procedure once more, then pressed two tiny buttons. The photo shrank to a dot in the middle of the little screen which briefly darkened before the next photo appeared.
This time, Mr. Mirouille did not have time to feel anger because confusion got the upper hand. The cause of his perplexity was not so much his renewed appearance on the little screen, as his realization that this photograph had been taken not today, but yesterday. Or last Thursday. Or any Thursday since it had gotten cold, about a month ago, and he had begun wearing sweaters.
He considered going into the metro to read to be no less serious a business than going to work. He paid careful attention to his attire. What he was wearing now was, indeed, less formal, but no less consistent. Once he had had a special color tie for each working day of the week, while now the color of his sweaters was regulated. Today, Friday, he was wearing a red one, while on Thursdays he always wore a green one, as confirmed by the photograph he was staring at.
A swarm of thoughts buzzed in his head, but there was no opportunity for him to focus on one of them because the image changed at that very moment, even though he had touched nothing. He looked at himself again, this time in a blue sweater. So, Wednesday, he just had time to realize, before another change occurred: the blue became yellow, which always came on Tuesday. The only thing missing was… However, nothing was missing. Yellow remained for just an instant, making way for the last, brown, which came on Mondays.
Someone has been taking pictures of me all week, Mr. Mirouille concluded in disbelief. The swarm began buzzing again, but it was muffled once more by a series of pictures on the little screen. The cycle began anew, a little faster than before. The photos remained for hardly a second, creating a short-lived palette—red, green, blue, yellow, brown.
With the small part of his consciousness that was not mesmerised, Mr. Mirouille wondered if he should try somehow to stop this slideshow, even if it meant throwing down the camera which was acting of its own accord. He decided instead to remain patient. This couldn’t go on for long. If some sort of psychopath had spied on him and photographed him once each day since he had started reading in the metro, then there would be some sixty photos altogether. At this rate of change, it wouldn’t last longer than a minute.
Thirty seconds later, the sweaters disappeared. In the pictures it was now September, when it was still warm, so he had gone down to the metro in lighter clothing. Here as well, he could differentiate the days by the clothes he was wearing. Each one had its own color of shirt, or rather its own nuance between snow-white on Mondays and battleship gray on Fridays.
What will happen when the shirts also give out, Mr. Mirouille thought, when it reaches the end, the first day I spent reading in the metro? However, there was no end. The slide show went on, and the viewer tilted his head slightly in order to discern a detail that had appeared in the lower right-hand corner. At first he thought they were letters, but when he held the camera closer he realized they were numbers.
The four-digit number was reduced by one each time the picture changed. Several photos had passed before Mr. Mirouille realized that years were in question, that each new photo was a year older than the previous one. He had missed which year had started this countdown, but it wasn’t hard to figure it out. The first year had to be this one, in fact, when he’d brought his working life to an end.
He turned his attention then from the numbers to the pictures. Judging from his clothing, the impossible photographer had always taken his picture either in late spring or early autumn, while the crowds in the metro told him that it was always either when he was headed for work or when he was returning home from it. He looked carefully at his face. With this swift return into the past, his rejuvenation seemed like some sort of special effect in a movie. His hairline moved toward his forehead and his hair grew thicker, the wrinkles were ironed out, his eyes were ever less sunken, his cheeks became rounder and his sagging neck melted away.
While this enchantment lasted, he managed somehow to hush the swarm rushing around in his head. The stingers stabbed him painfully, but in his enthrallment, he withstood it. When the last picture disappeared, however, the fortieth yearly image, ending a remarkable show lasting less than two minutes, the questions could no longer be avoided. Yet all of them were unimportant except for one.
It was actually of no consequence who had taken all these photos, how or why. He didn’t really want to know. Only one dilemma bothered him. The photos from the last two months were of him, there was no doubt, but what about those from the previous four decades? In those it was also him, true enough, but at the same time it wasn’t. It wasn’t, because he remembered quite well that over that long period of time he had never read a single line in the metro, while the man with his ever younger countenance in the forty photos was completely absorbed in reading, as if that were the most important thing in the world—in spite of the crowds, in spite of the fact that he was usually standing, in spite of the clamor that must have been too loud.
Not knowing what else to do, Mr. Mirouille tried to turn the camera back on to watch the slide show once more. The tiny device, however, did not come alive again, as if its batteries had been drained. He fiddled with it for a few moments, then, shrugging, laid it in his lap next to his book.
Looking down the length of the carriage, he was not surprised to find it empty, even though the terminal station was still far away. It didn’t matter that no one was there, it was only important that a light clamor was heard. Just the way he liked it. He picked up his book and opened it at the place where he had briefly stopped reading.
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