Marta Finds Añes a Place
In Winter Lights, rising star Irati Elorrieta’s first novel, Añes is a Basque woman who has immigrated to Berlin by way of Paris. Her story explores the contradictions of pulling up roots and embarking on a new life: melancholy and freedom, detachment and memory, alienation and independence. The following chapter opens the novel.
Strange voices filled the flat from that first day. A red room, a balcony overlooking the street, and a kitchen with a window onto the courtyard. Strange voices filled the whole place, despite the fact the balcony doors and kitchen window had been wide open all week long. When Marta helped Añes fix up the flat in Berlin, the secrets it guarded began to be revealed. They took the filthy carpet and the dilapidated kitchen cabinet to the recycling center in Martin’s car. They cleaned the windows, scraped layers of dirt from the cracks in the doors, and scrubbed black crust from the tiles with all their might.
They stripped the wallpaper, which was several layers thick in some places, and discovered a long letter: Mein liebes Mädchen. It was written in pencil directly upon the wall and seemed to be addressing a girl. The crooked lines covered the full breadth of the wall: Du hast dich wohl dafür entschieden, in Polen zu bleiben. It was addressed to someone who had decided to remain in Poland instead of coming home (as might have been hoped). A guilty confession followed this expression of disappointment, one that transformed the girl into a woman. It was the regret of someone who, in recent times, had not succeeded at being a perfect husband. Den perfekten Mann. He had been incredibly busy, blah, blah, blah, the usual crap, an ideal excuse for giving her fewer kisses than before. And then suddenly, so einsam ohne dich—panic over loneliness, the fear of being abandoned.
The kind of “I love you” that comes too late, there on the wall of the flat that Marta had found for Añes in Berlin. It had been a long time since he’d said it, but his ich liebe dich was sincere. Marta and Añes read the letter bit by bit as they tore the strips of red paper from the wall.
In the flat in Paris, they’d had an old charcoal drawing on the wall, and they couldn’t believe the strange connection with this new wall in Berlin. It was a caricature of Napoleon III—a man who was once powerful but who had been reduced to laughing-stock—in Marta’s room. Just another loser. An inscription haloed the head of the emperor who had surrendered to the Prussians: Badinguet le lâche. Badinguet was his nickname; the judgment of the populace: the coward. The guy who had shown Marta the flat told her that when the room was being renovated, beneath many layers of wallpaper, they had found the original wall was covered in charcoal drawings. Most were sketches made of black lines, some virtually indecipherable. He mentioned two that were especially memorable: a tree (symbolizing freedom) and a big-bellied priest wearing a cassock (symbolizing anti-clergy sentiment). Nonetheless, the caricature of Napoleon III was carefully drawn, and when she painted the room pistachio-green she left the drawing there instead of painting over it.
“Marta, you know what? You’re beginning to show.”
Marta was standing on the ladder and holding a rasp; Añes looked at her belly, which had begun to stick out from her slender figure.
“Really?” Marta caressed her belly with her free hand. “I’m not even five months yet.”
What has become of us? How to make love last?
Añes used the steamer to soften the wallpaper that was hiding the next paragraph. The husband asked his wife who had not returned home if she remembered how difficult things had been in the beginning. He mentioned the problems they’d encountered getting there from Poland—waiting to be wed, the five days they had eaten spaghetti using Polish money from the tobacco mafiosi, along with the permits for crossing the border—listing all the couple’s private battles. They uncovered the letter sentence by sentence. Was ist seitdem passiert? What has become of us? How to make love last? Once he realized he was in danger of being abandoned, the husband wanted to regain what he had lost. Marta and Añes would have felt sorry for him, but the tone was too tear-jerking. Please, bitte, don’t leave me alone again. Who had told him that he’d get another chance? When Añes decided one day that she was going to leave Bruno, she’d had no pity. So schmerzhaft! Painful? Too late.
While Añes loosened the last strip of red wallpaper, the doorbell rang. The front door had no peephole and she opened it suspiciously. Thrusting a pole into the opening, an old man entered with a single, forceful step. He looked just like Don Quixote himself, but instead of a lance he carried a mop. He invaded the tiny foyer of the flat, forcing Añes to step back.
“Where is Mr. Knapp?” Shaking his mop.
“I don’t know.”
“Are you his wife?” Añes shook her head. “Then why are you here?”
“I live here.” Assertive this time.
“So why haven’t you changed the nameplate then? How else would I know you’re not Mrs. Knapp! And what is all this rubbish?” Pointing at the rubbish outside Añes’s front door with the handle of his mop.
“I’m fixing up the flat, painting it and stuff. I still haven’t finished.”
“Clean it all up, eh? I don’t want the neighbors to think I’m not doing my job properly! You can’t ask much of these stairs, but at least they can be kept clean. That’s my job. Understand? I don’t want anyone’s complaints.
Añes’s flat was on the top floor, and no one else went up there since the flat next door to hers was unoccupied due to leaks. But Añes assured him she understood, and that she’d leave the stairway clean and clear. When she moved to close the door, the man repeated that he didn’t want anyone to think he was doing his job badly.
“A crazy old man just came in here!” Añes was dumbstruck.
Though she tried not to, Marta burst out laughing.
“Things will be easier if you try to get along with him.”
Then she took a photo of the letter.
“Añes, you have a love story from the end of the Cold War on your wall! Or at least a remnant of it.”
They both laughed.
“It reads like the lyrics of a bad song! Who knows, back then getting married was the only legal way to leave Poland.”
Marta reflected that this might have explained seeing more virtues in the man than he’d actually had. She opened the can of white paint with a knife.
“Nowadays things are more complicated than they were back then,” she said. “I mean, Iran wants to go nuclear, and no one knows how to deal with the situation.”
That afternoon they spoke about Iran. Añes doubted whether Presidents Obama and Ahmadinejad could come to an agreement. Marta hoped that they would find a way to prevent history from repeating itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. They spoke about the Iran they heard about in the news, and of the different image they had of the country. Both friends sympathized with the Iranians. A few weeks earlier thousands had marched against electoral fraud in the streets of Tehran. Ahmadinejad had used violence to crush the largest demonstrations in Iran since 1979. Marta and Añes knew about the 1979 revolution from black-and-white cartoons. Even before she had read Persepolis at Marta’s house, Añes knew about Iran thanks to the films shown at the Cinema Paradiso in her hometown. Although she had tried, she never succeeded in getting Bruno to share her obsession with Iranian film.
They covered the letter in white paint without hesitation. The last words: bitte, geh nicht weg. He had written all those words because he had been unable to say, “please, don’t leave.” Sometimes people say the stupidest things when they can’t say what they really want to. Asking someone not to leave is like hitting rock bottom in a way. Perhaps the woman who had felt the need to pack her bags and return to Poland when things got complicated had never even read the letter.
Añes had also left Bruno without any explanation whatsoever when she packed her bags and went to live with Marta in the Avenue des Gobelins. And starting in September, Marta and Añes would live in the same city once more. Not in the same flat, as they had in Paris, but on the opposite sides of the park—on opposite sides of the border that, at one time, had divided the city in two.
They sat on the balcony to eat a Spanish omelet Añes had made. The balcony was so narrow they were sitting on the windowsill overlooking the quiet street. To the right of the white building facing them there was a beautiful willow tree that had captivated Añes from the day she arrived.
“I didn’t come straight to Berlin from Paris,” Marta said, a distant look in her eyes, staring across the park at the skyline of the city.
“What do you mean?”
Añes herself had accompanied Marta to the Gare du Nord to catch the train.
“I went to see a guy in Brussels.” Marta drank her tea in small sips, leaning back against the window. “I’m pregnant but I went to Brussels anyway.”
She scratched archipelagos of white paint from her legs and asked, “Have you ever had an affair?” Añes was left speechless. She pushed her plate away and drew her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms around them.
“Yes, once. But it seems like that night wasn’t real.” She remembered only fragments. “You know how you remember dreams? It’s like that.”
“Did you tell Bruno?”
“Bruno? I’ve never told anyone. But you, now, for the first time.”
“And you didn’t feel guilty?”
Añes shook her head.
“No. Esteban and I had just that one night together. He died not long after.”
The wine slid softly down Añes’s throat. The August sun was setting softly, too, turning the sky red along the edges of the city.
“I feel bad because I don’t feel guilty at all,” Marta said. She poured more wine into Añes’s glass and left the bottle in the corner of the balcony.
They had spent the past few days getting rid of traces of other people’s lives. And just when they had discovered those hidden secrets, Marta and Añes had shared stories they, too, had hidden in silence.
They had spent the past few days getting rid of traces of other people’s lives.
When she was fixing up the flat in Berlin with Marta that summer, the Turks were usually sitting at the tables outside the bakery long past midnight, drinking tea in small glasses. Añes knows that calling them “Turks” is an oversimplification, it’s incorrect, but that’s what it looked like from her balcony: the corner of a Turkish city in summertime, not far from the sea. The groups of women and old men chain-smoked cigarettes while they played backgammon. Boys and girls played hide-and-seek in the doorways and the spaces between the cars and kicked a ball across the intersection. On those balmy evenings teenagers hung out next to the kiosk on the corner.
Añes is smoking a cigarette on the balcony, but now the neighborhood is quiet compared to those lively August evenings. Occasionally people come and go from the kiosk and the Irish tavern next door. The autumn wind disrupts street life and shakes the slender branches of the willow. Only one window is lit in the building across the street. The day Marta showed her the flat, two women waved to them from that same window; one was tall, the other plump. Marta and Añes waved back. Now the more full-figured one is sitting at a computer. Añes watches her but feels like she’s the one being watched. Behind her, the room has it eyes on her.
On another balcony Añes and Marta gaze at a city of lights.
On another balcony Añes and Marta gaze at a city of lights. Paris, on a suffocating summer night. Añes looks at Marta’s dark skin. Marta, with her tousled hair, baggy T-shirt, shorts, no need for a bra. One hand on the balcony railing, the other holding a cup of mint tea, her unfocused gaze wandering over the edges of the city. Someone who knows how to take care of herself in times of crisis. Fearless, at peace. Every so often she turns to look at Añes. A few drops of rain begin to fall, too few to relieve the stifling heat or quench the dry plants on Marta’s balcony. One more sip of tea and they enter the room filled with books; Marta says, “I’ll lend you a T-shirt to sleep in.”
Añes saw the towers of books in Marta’s room, but she didn’t see the image of Napoleon III sketched on one of the walls. Añes was gazing at the peek-a-boo sides of Marta’s underpants when she took her clothes off and put on a different T-shirt. Marta said good night and Añes slid happily into bed although she had taken a short nap after the CocoRosie concert. The other room that opened onto the balcony was empty save for a futon they had laid on the wooden floor. Añes lay down, taking up all the space on the mattress, putting an end to her habit of curling up in one corner of the bed, once and for all.
When Añes appeared in the kitchen around noon, Marta was making coffee barefoot, in that T-shirt that barely covered her butt. Marta, who looked like she’d just gotten out of bed, fascinated Añes. There was a dark-skinned man drenched in sweat sitting at the kitchen table. He extended his hand, smiled, and introduced himself—“Fabio”—and continued explaining to Marta that if he had gotten up earlier, he would have finished before noon. Marta replied that they’d both help him as soon as they’d had their coffee.
Beneath the midday sun, crossing Avenue des Gobelins, carrying Fabio’s things. On both sides of the street, the sloping roofs of Paris’s Haussmannian buildings. Marta wasn’t muscular, but she seemed strong to Añes. Once they had finished loading Fabio’s stuff into his car, as she took the housekeys out of her pocket in the old elevator, Marta said, “If you want to stay longer, there’s room for you.” There was barely enough room for them both in that elevator, but inside Marta’s flat a room had just freed up. Añes took a shower; she put on the dress Marta had left out for her and went out as though she had someplace to go. She didn’t go home for the next two days, and by the third she had decided to leave Bruno. She filled two suitcases with whatever she could, put the keys on the table and said, “I’m leaving.”
“Where do you think you’re going?” Bruno threatened. Añes wasn’t in the mood to reply. “You’re gone for three nights, and you think you’re going to get away without any explanation? You think I’m an idiot? You little piece of shit! Tell me if you’re gonna go fuck some son of a bitch! He must be a real stupid moron to put up with a piece of trash like you in bed.” She knew this was the last time she would hear Bruno’s insults, so she bore this final assault. “You never fooled me, and when he realizes you’re frigid he won’t be nearly as patient as I have.” Añes let the door slam behind her, and as she descended the stairs Bruno continued to shout at her. “Don’t think that I was going to take you back after fucking some other guy in his bed! You cheap cunt!” Añes had no intention of getting back together with Bruno and she made herself at home in the room that had belonged to Fabio in Marta’s flat on Avenue des Gobelins. They each had their own room and shared the kitchen.
In the building across the street the other woman went up behind the one who was working at the computer; she caressed her arm. She would be telling her that she was going to bed. The pudgy one stopped working and went to the window to smoke. Añes waved at her, as if from a train, before going back inside.
Translation from the Spanish
Editorial note: From Luces de invierno (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2021), by Irati Elorrieta. English translation copyright © 2022 by Samantha Schnee.