May 26, 2008

Iwan Simatupang

Blacker than Black

Iwan Simatupang

FROM MY VERY FIRST DAY as a psychiatric patient in the hospital I found the man impossible to ignore. He had a big head with an unusual shape. In fact, you could say that his whole manner was unusual. The way he watched you speak and the way he would start or stop to speak was very disconcerting. And it had an impact; it virtually immobilized the person with whom he was speaking. Was he what one would call an "individual"? I didn't really know.

But even though he had instantly grabbed my attention, communication with him was not quite as rapid. I'm not the sort of person who can easily communicate with strangers. I'm reserved, a trait that people often mistake for arrogance. But, take me or leave me, that's the way I am and I cannot do anything about it, no matter how much I might want to be surrounded by friends.

But one day, there he was, standing in front of me, when suddenly he grabbed the newspaper I was reading. I was so stunned by his impudence that I could neither do or say a thing as he walked off to a bench in the comer of the room and pretended to read. In my anger my first instinct was to go and grab the newspaper back and to twist his ear or punch him in the face, but I quickly took stock of the situation, not only in the room but also of myself. Why was I here? And why was he here?

A certain sensation had rendered me speechless. My anger drained away and my clenched fist extended into fingers. For some reason I was overcome by a feeling of warmth towards the man, of sympathy for him, for Big Head. And sympathy for all the other crazy people who were being cared for here, myself included. My cheeks were wet; the world had entered inside me. And I weighed its weight and found my love for it boundless.

Then suddenly Big Head was standing there in front of me again, with left hand on his waist and his right hand holding a billy club he had fashioned from my newspaper.

"How come you're not angry?" he boomed. "Answer me! Why didn't you get mad?" he roared again when seeing how difficult it was for me to respond.

"Why should I be angry?" I finally replied, embarrassed and confused.

"You have to be angry! You have to!" he screamed, jumping up and down. He then threw himself face down on the floor and began to sob his heart out.

I was now hopelessly confused and struggling in a fog of uncertainty.

"I don't want your pity, you hear?" he cried. "I won't have it! Devil, bastard, son-of-a-bitch!"

I felt guilty without knowing why. Guilt was by no means a new emotion for me; of late I had frequently been suffused with guilt, usually for no apparent reason, as well as overwhelmed by incredible lethargy. I tried to ascertain whether what I was feeling was possibly the so-called "emptiness" that was the theme of so many contemporary novels and plays. But the answer always alluded me. How could the intensity of my thoughts and emotions be described as "empty"? I was a bubbling cauldron of emotions which threatened to overflow. Empty? No! My thoughts were as sharp and clear as silhouettes on a screen.

All the problems of the of the world were there, in sharp relief on that screen. All I had to do was solve them. Was that emptiness?

By this time my newspaper was no longer a newspaper. It was in shreds, bits and pieces of it everywhere. But Big Head had stopped crying, and though his eyes were still wet, he was smiling sweetly at me. He then extended his hand to me and I quickly took it in my own. Hot tears from my eyes fell onto his hands. And as I clutched his hand I felt a warmth, at once familiar and frightening, spread from his fingers through my entire body.

Why I had reacted in such a manner, I didn't know, or even care. Letters blazed in my brain, flashing the words "propriety" and "respect," but I insistently turned my head away and obstinately steered myself forward, not knowing or caring where I would end up.

Caught up in our embrace, the two of us were undoubtedly a spectacle for the other people present there. But our audience consisted of people of our same social standing (i.e., crazies) and some from outside our social circle — nurses, doctors and visitors. On their faces was a look of intense pity. But these people were obviously humanists-till-the-last-gasp type, slaves to their innermost feelings, whose first reaction to any situation is, "What a pity!" Some of them — women, primarily — were so moved by the sight that they were dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs.

The faces of other members of the audience radiated gaiety and fun. These were the humorists-till-the-last-gasp type, slaves of a very basic morality, whose first reaction to every situation is, "Laugh!" For these people the bottom line is that everything under the sun can be a source of fun. Several of them, both men and women, were holding their sides and dabbing their eyes, but their tears were tears of laughter.

There was yet another category of viewing public, and it made my heart pound with fear to see them watching us. These were the type who showed no reaction, no sign of emotion in their features, their skin smooth and unwrinkled by laughter or tears. My heart pounded with fear to look at them. The indifference on their faces caused me to start to hyperventilate. The world around me began to spin and every breath I took added to the tightness I felt in my chest...

I DIDN'T WAKE UP until the next morning, but as soon as I recognized the white walls of my small room, I jumped up and raced outside. Big Head was nowhere to be seen. The head nurse to whom I always gave a big smile seemed to know whom I was looking for.

"He's gone, sir," she told me.

"Where?" I asked.

"Home. Last night out of the blue he asked for his family to come and get him in the morning. He threatened to kill himself if he wasn't taken home this morning. He said that even in an asylum there are ways of doing away with yourself!"

"And what did his family say to that?"

"They came and got him, this morning at 5:30."

"At 5:30 A.M.?" I asked incredulously. "Why did they have to come at that hour of the day?"

"I don't know, sir. That's what he wanted."

"But how can a patient be discharged at 5:30? Surely the office is closed at that hour?" I spoke as if I were the hospital registrar.

"I don't know, sir," she said over her shoulder as she hurried away.

It was peculiar, very peculiar. But suddenly I remembered the face of a member of our audience yesterday; the person had been laughing uproariously. And remembering this I, too, burst into laughter. It was very funny. Who but a madman would discharge himself from the hospital at 5:30 A.M.?

I laughed hysterically until my sides began to hurt. My laughter drew to the room patients, nurses and doctors who stared at me, a collage of fear and astonishment on their faces.
THE SKY WAS VERY CLEAR that evening, a reflection of the clarity I myself felt inside. I managed to read a few more pages of the book that for two days had been lying unopened under my pillow. I felt at peace with the world. The other patients and the day-shift nurses seemed to feel the same. I was overwhelmed by a desire to shout at the world how happy I was at that moment.

Relatives and friends of the patients began to arrive, each one bringing his own character and sound. And the excitement of the patients at the prospect of visitors (along with the parcels of food, drink, cigarettes and, sometimes, the love and kisses that they might bring) was almost tangible, almost an aura with a life of its own, emanating from bodies, whirling and dancing with joy.

Suddenly I heard my name called. I turned and saw a man coming toward me, carrying a parcel in his hand. I didn't know him and, as far as I could tell, he didn't know me.

But then my heart missed a beat. The man's head! His head looked like that of Big Head, my friend. Surely I couldn't be mistaken! I hurried to welcome him. Then I saw from close quarters that his features were of a being from another continent in another world, and I was very disappointed. No, it was not Big Head. My footsteps seemed to slow of their own accord, and then I stopped and turned and rushed away into my room.

"I don't want to see you! I don't want to talk to you! Go away," I begged in tears. "Go away!"

"All right," the man answered calmly from the doorway of my room. "But what about this parcel. There's food in it."

"Take it with you!" I screamed.

He looked at me for what seemed ages. His gaze made my own world start to spin. The man's head, so closely resembling something I held dear, grew larger and larger, eventually becoming so big that it pinned me on my bed.

That feeling of ambivalence came over me again. I wanted to reach out and touch it, but at the same time I wanted to push it away. I wanted to stroke it, to caress it lovingly, but at the same time I wanted to tear it to pieces. I wanted to say the most flattering things to it, but was also ready to assail it with a mouthful of crude and despicable words.

After what must have been about three minutes, I was exhausted. I needed to perspire but felt my perspiration unable to reach beyond the middle layer of my skin: the perspiration refused to come out. The hot fingers that covered my entire body increased my debilitation. This was all part of what I had called "emptiness," an emptiness that more greatly resembled a deafening clamor, an all-consuming denseness. An emptiness which was more like an unchanneled vitality, a wild leap into the unknown.

I became aware of the whiteness of my room's walls and knew I was back in the land of the conscious. But the figure that had been the cause of my anguish was no longer in the doorway. That incomparable big head was gone. I now felt a new sort of emptiness. I got up and hurried outside, but found only the excessively clean, excessively empty corridor. The visitors had gone home and the other patients had gone back to their rooms. I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was 7:30 P.M.!

Suddenly I heard a familiar voice behind me: "He's gone, sir."



She said nothing more. I said nothing either. As she waited for my reaction, I was shocked by my feelings. For the first time ever in my life I wanted to kill. I wanted to grab her by the neck and suck the life-blood from her body. I felt the heat of my own blood coursing through my veins.

But the nurse seemed to apprehend the situation. Her instincts warned her to get away from me. She was afraid, but as a professional nurse of so many years, she had acquired the ability to hide her real thoughts and feelings, all in the name of duty. In the name of and for her career.

Without wanting to I asked her, "What did he say?"

"That his son, your friend, the one who went home yesterday morning, is dead."

Having said that, the nurse made ready to leave.

"Dead?" I wasn't sure if it was my own voice that I was hearing. For the umpteenth time my world had come crashing down. "Why did he die?" I then asked, even as I laughed at myself: as if a person needs a reason to die.

"I don't know. After he got home he suddenly came down with a fever and was dead by the time the doctor arrived."

I was fleetingly aware of that vague feeling of nausea I had experienced earlier, an unobstructed sort of queasiness. Lines whose origins I could not discern were flying about, hither and thither, bouncing off one another, then fusing with one another to form a revolving cluster of embraces. Faster and faster the cluster turned, throwing off a dazzling display of shining, flickering, colors. Suddenly the cluster broke apart, hurling the lines back to their place of origin. As they faded I was blinded by a shining blackness, which left me with the taste of saliva in my mouth.

"And sir..." The nurse was still standing in front of me. She had been watching me the whole time. She took a folded newspaper from her pocket and handed it to me. I accepted it reluctantly.

"Your friend's father gave this to me and asked me to give it to you."

"A newspaper? What newspaper? Whose is it?" I asked, both astonished and confused.

"Your friend's last request was that a newspaper be delivered to you."

"Why?" My astonishment was now complete.

"He said it was to pay a debt."

The sound of the nurse's heels as she walked away made the corridor seem lonelier, slipperier, cleaner. With one hand gripping the newspaper, my other hand sought support from the corridor wall as I staggered back to my room. My little room with its white walls which that night were a black that was blacker than black.
Translated by Pamela Allen