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A Perfect Spy
John le Carré
A Perfect Spy 27
“They must be very long poems. He types all night,” said Pym.
“Indeed he does. And on my typewriter,” said Herr Ollinger, his pride complete.
My husband found him in the factory, Frau Ollinger said while Pym helped her prepare vegetables for the evening meal. That is to say, Herr Harprecht the night-watchman found him. Axel was sleeping on sacks in the warehouse and Herr Harprecht wanted to hand him over to the police because he had no papers and was foreign and smelly, but thank goodness my husband stopped Herr Harprecht in time and gave Axel breakfast and took him to a doctor for his sweating.
“Where does he come from?” Pym asked.
Frau Ollinger became uncharacteristically guarded. Axel comes from drüben, she said—drüben being across the border, drüben being those irrational tracts of Europe that were not Switzerland, where people rode in tanks instead of trolley-buses, and the starving had the ill manners to pick their food from rubble instead of buying it from shops.
“How did he get here?” Pym asked.
“We think he walked,” Frau Ollinger said.
“But he’s an invalid. He’s all crippled and thin.”
“We think he had a strong will and a great necessity.”
“Is he German?”
“There are many sorts of German, Magnus.”
“Which sort is Axel?”
“We don’t ask. Maybe you should not ask either.”
“Can you guess from his voice?”
“We don’t guess either. With Axel it is better we are completely without curiosity.”
“What’s he ill of?”
“Maybe he suffered in the war, as you did,” Frau Ollinger suggested with a smile of rather too much understanding. “Don’t you like Axel? Is he disturbing you up there?”
How can he disturb me when he doesn’t speak to me? thought Pym. When all I hear of him is the clicking of Herr Ollinger’s typewriter, the cries of ecstasy from his lady callers in the afternoons and the shuffle of his feet as he hauls himself to the lavatory on Herr Ollinger’s walking-stick? When all I see of him is his empty vodka bottles and the blue cloud of his cigar smoke in the corridor and his pale empty body disappearing down the stairs?
“Axel’s super,” he said.
Pym had already appointed Christmas to be the jolliest of his life and so it was—despite a letter of appalling misery from Rick describing the privations of “a small Private hotel in the wilds of Scotland where the meagrest of life’s Necessities are a Godsend.” He meant, I discovered later, Gleneagles. Christmas Eve came. Pym as youngest lit the candles and helped Frau Ollinger lay the presents round the tree. It had been wonderfully dark all day and in the afternoon thick snowflakes began swirling in the streetlights and clogging the tramlines. The Ollinger daughters arrived with their escorts, followed by a shy married couple from Basel over whom some shadow hung, I forget what. Next a French genius called Jean-Pierre who painted fish in profile, always on a sepia background. And after him an apologetic Japanese gentleman called Mr. San—enigmatically so since, as I now know, San is itself a term of Japanese address. Mr. San was working at Herr Ollinger’s factory as some sort of industrial spy, which in retrospect strikes me as very funny indeed, because if the Japanese ever tried copying Herr Ollinger’s methods, they must have set back their industrial output by a decade.
Finally Axel himself came slowly down the wood stairs and made his entry. For the first time Pym could regard him at his leisure. Though desperately thin, his face was by nature rounded. His brow was tall but the hank of brown hair that grew sideways over it gave it a curved and saddening air. It was as if his Maker had put His thumb and forefinger to either temple and yanked the whole face downward as a warning to his frivolity: first the hooped eyebrows, then the eyes, then the moustache which was a shaggy horseshoe. And somehow inside all this was Axel himself, his eyes twinkling out of their own shadows, the grateful survivor of something Pym was not allowed to share. One of the daughters had knitted him a sloppy cardigan which he wore like a cape over his wasted shoulders.
“Schön guten Abend, Sir Magnus,” he said. He was carrying a straw bonnet upside down. Pym saw parcels in it, beautifully wrapped. “Why do we never speak to each other up there? We could be kilometres apart instead of twenty centimetres. Are you still fighting the Germans? We are allies, you and I. Soon we shall be fighting the Russians.”
“I suppose we shall,” said Pym feebly.
“Why don’t you bang on my door once when you are lonely? We can have a cigar together, save the world a little. You like to talk nonsense?”
“Okay. We talk nonsense.” But on the point of shuffling away to greet Mr. San, Axel stopped and turned. And over his caped shoulder he vouchsafed Pym a quizzical, almost challenging glare, as if asking himself whether he had invested his trust too easily.
“Aber dann können wir doch Freunde sein, Sir Magnus?”—then we may be friends after all?
“Ich würde mich freuen!” Pym replied heartily, meeting his gaze without fear—I would be happy!
They shook hands again, but this time lightly. At the same moment Axel’s features broke into such a smile of sparkling good fun that Pym’s heart filled for him in response, and he promised himself that he would follow Axel anywhere for all the Christmases that he was spared. The party began. The girls played carols and Pym sang with the best, using English words where he lacked the German. There were speeches and after them a toast to absent friends and relations, at which Axel’s long eyelids almost hid his eyes and he fell quiet. But then, as if shaking off bad memories, he stood up abruptly and began unpacking the bonnet he had brought while Pym hovered at hand to help him, knowing that this was what Axel had always done at Christmas, wherever Christmas was. For the daughters he had made musical pipes, each with her name carved along the underneath. How had he carved with such wispy white hands? So exquisitely, without Pym hearing him through the partition? Where had he found his wood, his paint and brushes? For the Ollingers he produced what I later realised was another emblem of prison life, a matchstick model. This one was an ark with painted figures of our extended family waving from the portholes. For Mr. San and Jean-Pierre he had squares of cloth of a sort that Pym had once made for Dorothy on a homemade handloom between nails. For the Basel couple a patterned woollen eye to ward off whatever was afflicting them. And for Pym—I still take it as a compliment that he left me until last—for Sir Magnus he had a much used copy of Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus, bound in old brown buckram, which Pym had not heard of but could not wait to read since it would give him an excuse to bang on Axel’s door. He opened it and read the inscription. “For Sir Magnus, who will never be my enemy.” And in the top left corner, in an older ink but in a younger version of the same hand: “A. H. Carlsbad August 1939.”
“Where is Carlsbad?” Pym asked before he had allowed himself a second’s thought, and noticed at once an awkwardness round him as if everybody had heard the bad news except for himself who was deemed not old enough to receive it.
“Carlsbad no longer exists, Sir Magnus,” Axel replied politely. “When you have read Simplicissimus you will understand why.”
“Where was it?”
“It was my home town.”
“Then you have given me a treasure from your own past.”
“Would you prefer me to give you something I did not value?”
And Pym—what had he brought? God help him, the Chairman and Managing Director’s son was not used to ceremonies with meaning, and had thought of nothing better than a box of cigars to see dear old Axel right.
“Why does Carlsbad no longer exist?” Pym asked Herr Ollinger as soon as he could get him alone. Herr Ollinger knew everything except how to run a factory. Carlsbad was in the Sudetenland, he explained. It was a beautiful spa city and everybody used to go there: Brahms and Beethoven, Goethe and Schiller. First it was Austria, then it became Germany. Now it was Czechoslovakia and had a new name and the Ge
rmans had all been chucked out.
“So who does Axel belong to?” Pym asked.
“Only to us, I think,” said Herr Ollinger gravely. “And we must be careful of him or they will take him away from us, you may be sure.”
“He has women in his room,” said Pym.
Herr Ollinger’s face turned pink with impish pleasure. “I think he has all the women of Bern,” he agreed.
A couple of days passed. On the third Pym banged on Axel’s door and found him standing smoking at the open window with several heavy-looking books before him on the sill. He must have been freezing but he seemed to need the open air to read by.
“Come for a stroll,” said Pym boldly.
“At my speed?”
“Well we can’t go at mine, can we?”
“My constitution dislikes crowded places, Sir Magnus. If we are to walk, better we stay out of town.”
They borrowed Bastl and wandered with him along the empty towpath beside the racing Aare while Herr Bastl peed and refused to follow and Pym did his best to keep an eye open for anyone who looked like a policeman. In the sunless river valley the frost drifted about in evil clouds and the cold was merciless. Axel seemed not to notice. He puffed at his cigar while he tossed out questions in his soft, amused voice. If this is how he walked from Austria, thought Pym, shivering in his wake, he must have taken years.
“How did you reach Bern, Sir Magnus? Were you advancing or retreating?” Axel asked.
Never able to resist an opportunity to portray himself on a fresh page, Pym went to work. And though, as was his wont, he took care to improve upon the reality, rearranging the facts to fit his prevailing image of himself, an instinctive caution nevertheless counselled him restraint. True, he endowed himself with a noble and eccentric mother, and true, when he came to describe Rick he awarded him many of the qualities Rick unsuccessfully aspired to, such as wealth, military distinction and daily access to the Highest in the Land. But in other respects he was frugal and self-mocking and when he came to the story of E. Weber, which he had not told anyone till now, Axel laughed so much he had to sit on a bench and light another cigar to get his wind back, while Pym laughed with him, delighted by his success. And when he showed him her very letter saying, “Never mind. E. Weber love you always,” he shouted, “Nochmal! Tell it again, Sir Magnus! I order you! And make sure it is completely different this time. Did you sleep with her?”
“How many times?”
“Four or five.”
“All in one night? You are a tiger! Was she grateful?”
“She was very, very experienced.”
“More than your Jemima?”
“Well, jolly nearly.”
“More than your wicked Lippsie who seduced you when you were still a little boy?”
“Well, Lippsie was in a class of her own.”
Axel slapped him gaily on the back. “Sir Magnus, you are a prince, no question. You are a dark horse, you know that? Such a good little boy, yet you sleep with dangerous adventuresses and young English aristocrats. I love you, hear me? I love all English aristocrats, but you best.”
Walking again, Axel had to shove his arm through Pym’s to support himself, and from then on used him unashamedly as his walking-stick. For the rest of our lives we have seldom walked in any other way.
Somewhere that evening under a bridge, Pym and Axel found an empty café and Axel insisted on paying for two vodkas from the black purse he kept on a leather thong round his neck. Somewhere on the freezing journey home they agreed that Axel and Pym must begin the education they had never had, and that they would appoint tomorrow the first day of the world, and that Grimmelshausen would be their first subject because he taught that the world was a mad place and getting madder by the moment, with everything that appeared right almost certainly wrong. They agreed that Axel would take charge of Pym’s spoken German and not rest till he spoke it to perfection. Thus, in a day and an evening, Pym became Axel’s legs and Axel’s intellectual companion and, though it was not initially meant that way, Axel’s pupil, for over the next few months he unveiled for Pym the German muse. If Axel’s knowledge was greater than Pym’s, his curiosity was no less, his energy equally relentless. Perhaps by resuscitating his country’s culture for an innocent, he was reconciling himself to its recent past.
As to Pym, he was gazing at last on the glories of the kingdom he had dreamed of for so long. The German muse had no particular draw for him, then or later, for all his loud enthusiasm. If she had been Chinese or Polish or Indian, it would have made no earthly odds. The point was, she supplied Pym with the means, for the first time, to regard himself intellectually as a gentleman. And for that Pym was eternally grateful to her. By willing Pym night and day to accompany Axel on his explorations, she gave him the world inside his head that Lippsie had said he would be able to take with him anywhere. And Lippsie was right, because when he went down to the warehouse in Ostring where Herr Ollinger had obtained illegal nightwork for him at the hands of a fellow philanthropist, he neither walked nor took the tram but rode with Mozart in his coach to Prague. When he washed his elephants at night he endured the humiliations of Lenz’s Soldaten. When he sat in the third-class buffet bestowing soulful looks on Elisabeth, he imagined himself as the young Werther, planning his wardrobe before committing suicide. And when he considered all his failures and hopes together, he was able to compare his Werdegang with Wilhelm Meister’s years of apprenticeship, and planned even then a great autobiographical novel that would show the world what a noble sensitive fellow he was compared with Rick.
And yes, Jack, the other seeds were there, of course they were: a crash diet of Hegel, as much as they both could swallow at a time, a burst of Marx and Engels and the bad bears of Communism—for after all, said Axel, this was the first day of the world. “If we are to judge Christianity by the misery it has caused mankind, who would ever be a Christian? We accept no prejudices, Sir Magnus. We believe everything as we read it and only afterwards reject it. If Hitler hated these fellows so much, they can’t be all bad, I say.” Out came Rousseau and the revolutionaries, and Das Kapital, and Anti-Dühring, and in went the sun for several weeks, though I swear we came to no conclusions that I remember, except that we were glad when it was over. And I honestly doubt now whether the substance of Axel’s teaching was of importance beside Pym’s joy that he was teaching him at all. What counted was that Pym was happy from the moment he got up until the early hours of the following morning; and that when they finally went to bed on either side of their black radiator, sleeping, to use Axel’s phrase, like God in France, Pym’s mind went on exploring in his sleep.
“Axel’s got the Order of the Frozen Meat,” Pym told Frau Ollinger proudly one day, carving bread for family fondue.
Frau Ollinger gave an exclamation of disgust. “Magnus, what nonsense are you talking now?”
“It’s true! It’s German soldiers’ slang for a Russian campaign medal. He volunteered from his Gymnasium. His father could have got him a safe post in France or Belgium. A Druckposten, somewhere he could keep his head down. Axel wouldn’t let him. He wanted to be a hero like his classmates.”
Frau Ollinger was not pleased. “Then better you keep quiet about where he fought,” she said sternly. “Axel is here to study, not to boast.”
“He has women up there,” said Pym. “They creep up the stairs in the afternoons and scream when he makes love to them.”
“If they give him happiness and help him to study they are welcome. Do you wish to invite your passionate Jemima?”
Furious, Pym stalked to his room and penned a long letter to Rick about the unfairness of the average Swiss in daily matters. “Sometimes I think the law here does duty for common kindness,” he wrote stuffily. “Particularly where women are concerned.”
Rick wrote back by return, urging chastity: “Better you remain Clean until you have made the choice that is Meant for you.”
br /> “Things are a bit sticky here at the moment. Some of the foreign students in the house are taking things a bit far with their womenfolk and I have had to step in or I’ll never get my work done. Perhaps if you adopted the same firm line with Jem, you might in the long run be doing her a favour.”
A day came when Axel fell ill. Pym hurried back from the zoo full of funny stories about his adventures to find him in bed, where he hated most to be. His tiny room was heavy with cigar smoke, his pale head darkened with stubble and shadows. A girl was hanging about but Axel ordered her out when Pym arrived.
“What’s wrong with him?” Pym asked Herr Ollinger’s doctor, peering over his shoulder, trying to decipher the prescription.
“What is wrong with him, Sir Magnus, is that he was bombed by the heroic British,” said Axel savagely from the bed, in a barbed unfamiliar voice. “What is wrong with him is that he got half a British shell up his arse and is having trouble shitting it out.”
The doctor was sworn not just to secrecy but to silence and with a friendly pat for Pym departed.
“Maybe it was you who fired it at me, Sir Magnus. Did you land in Normandy, by any chance? Perhaps you led the invasion?”
“I didn’t do anything like that at all,” said Pym.
So Pym became Axel’s legs again, fetching his medicines and cigars and cooking for him and ransacking the university libraries for ever more books which he could read aloud to him.
“No more Nietzsche, thank you, Sir Magnus. I think we know enough about the cleansing effect of violence. Kleist is not as bad but you don’t read him properly. You must bark Kleist. He was a Prussian officer, not an English hero. Get the painters.”
“Abstractionists. Decadents. Jews. Anyone who was entartet or forbidden. Give me a holiday from these mad writers.”
Pym consulted Frau Ollinger. “Then you must ask the librarian for whomever the Nazis did not like, Magnus,” she explained in her governess voice.