About the Author
Jordi Punti is a writer, translator, and a regular contributor to the Spanish and Catalan press. Punti is considered one of the most promising new voices of contemporary Catalan literature. In 1998 he published his first book of short stories, Pell d’armadillo (Proa, 1998) that won the Serra d’Or Critics’ Prize. Lost Luggage is his first novel.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Lost Luggage 1
We have the same memory.
It’s very early. The sun has just come up. The three of us—father, mother, and son—are yawning sleepily. Mom’s made some tea or coffee, and we duly drink it. We’re in the living room, or the kitchen, as still and quiet as statues. Our eyes keep closing. Soon we hear a truck pull up outside the house and then the deep blast of the horn. Although we’ve been expecting it, we’re startled by the din and suddenly wide awake. The windows rattle. The racket must have woken up the neighbors. We go out to the street to see our father off. He climbs into the truck, sticks his arm out of the window, and attempts a smile as he waves good-bye. It’s clear he feels bad about leaving. Or not. He’s only been with us a couple of days, three at the most. His two friends call out to us from the cab and wave good-bye too. Time passes in slow motion. The Pegaso sets off, lumbering into the distance as if it doesn’t want to leave either. Mom’s in her dressing gown, and a tear rolls down her cheek, or maybe not. We, the sons, are in pajamas and slippers. Our feet are freezing. We go inside and get into our beds, which are still slightly warm, but we can’t go back to sleep because of all the thoughts buzzing around in our heads. We’re three, four, five, and seven years old and we’ve been through the same scene several times before. We don’t know it then, but we’ve just seen our father for the last time.
We have the same memory.
The scene we’ve just described took place about thirty years ago, and the story could begin at three different points on the map. No, four. The moving truck might have been disappearing into the morning mist that enveloped the Quai de la Marne in the north of Paris, leaving behind a row of houses on Rue de Crimée across from a canal that, in the dawn light, seemed to have been lifted from the pages of a Simenon novel. Or perhaps the truck’s engine shattered the clammy silence of Martello Street, next to London Fields in the East End, as it headed under the railway bridge to find a main road leading out of the metropolis to the motorway, where driving on the left doesn’t present the same headache for a continental trucker. Or maybe it was Frankfurt, the eastern part, at one of those blocks of apartments they put up in Jacobystrasse after the war. Here, the Pegaso lurched toward the motorway, faltering at times as if dreading having to cross a landscape of factories and woods and join the convoy of trucks that were likewise plowing through the arteries of Germany.
Paris, London, Frankfurt. Three distant places linked by our father driving a truck that moved furniture from one side of Europe to the other. There was one more city, the fourth, which was Barcelona. Point of departure and arrival. In this case, the scene takes place without the truck and without the other two truckers. One of us—Cristòfol—with his father and mother. Three people in the poorly lit kitchen of an apartment on Carrer del Tigre. But here, too, the farewell takes place with the same calm he has counted on—to the point that it almost seems rehearsed—with the same vague concern that has always worked for him before, in other houses and with other families. That expression on his face, striving for composure but brimming over with sadness that seeped into all of us. Hours later, the next day, or the next week, we’d look in the mirror while brushing our teeth, and see it in our own eyes. A wistfulness we all recognized. That’s why we now have the feeling that our emotions were scattered far and wide and why, now, all these years later, our childhood sense of betrayal is multiplied by four. We also like to think of our mothers, the four mothers, as if they were one. Pain not shared but multiplied. Nobody was spared. Certainly not we four sons.
What? You don’t get it? It’s too complicated?
Well, this is going to take some explaining. We are four brothers—or, more accurately, half-brothers—sons of one father and four very different mothers. Until about a year ago we didn’t know each other. We didn’t even know the others existed, scattered around God’s dominions. Our father wanted us to be called Christof, Christophe, Christopher, and Cristòfol (who was known by the Spanish version of Cristóbal until the dictator Franco died). If you say them out loud, one after another, the four names sound like an irregular Latin declension. Christof, German nominative, was born in October 1965, the impossible heir of a European lineage. Christopher, Saxon genitive, came almost two years later, his birth suddenly enlarging and adding color to the definition of a Londoner’s life. The accusative, Christophe, took a little less time—nineteen months—and, in February 1969, became the direct object of a French single mother. Cristòfol was the last to appear: a case of circumstance, completely defined by place, space and time, an ablative in a language that doesn’t decline.
Why did our father give us the same name? Why was he so single-minded about calling us that, so obstinate that in the end he managed to persuade our mothers to go along with it? Was it, perhaps, that he didn’t want to feel we were one-offs? After all, none of us has brothers or sisters. Once we talked about it with Petroli, who, like Bundó, was a fellow trucker, friend, and confidant, and he said, no, when he talked about us he never got us mixed up and knew perfectly well who was who. We tell ourselves it might be some sort of superstition: Saint Christopher is the patron saint of drivers, and we four sons were like small offerings he left behind in each country, candles lit to protect him as he traveled around in his truck. Petroli, who knew him very well, disagrees, saying he didn’t believe in any hereafter and suggesting a more fantastic but equally credible possibility: Maybe he just wanted four of a kind, a winning poker hand in sons. “Four aces,” he says, “one for each suit.” “And what about Dad?” we ask. He was the wild card, the joker needed to make five of a kind.
“Life is very short, and there’s no time . . .” Christopher suddenly starts singing. We let him go on because the words are relevant and it’s a Beatles song. All four of us are fans but, right now, we’re not going to play at deciding who’s going to be George, or Paul, or Ringo, or John. We’ll keep this kind of exercise to ourselves and, as for this business of interrupting a conversation by breaking into song, this is the first and last time we’re going to let anyone chime in—do a solo—without the prior consent of the other three. We’re not in a karaoke bar and we need a few rules if we’re going to get along. If all four brothers talk at once it will be pandemonium. Then again, Chris is right: Life is very short, and there’s no time.
What else? Until recently, we’d been getting along with our lives, without knowing that the other three brothers existed, but is it true that our father—or rather his absence—has shaped our lives in the same way? No, of course not, though we’re sorely tempted to make up stories about his underlying influence. Take our professions, for example. Christof’s in show business, and the actor’s craft, to be or not to be, reminds us of our father’s faking skills. Christophe’s a lecturer in quantum physics at the University of Paris, where he observes the world, questions reality, and studies parallel universes (in which our father would never abandon us). Christopher has a stall in Camden Town and earns his living buying and selling second-hand records: His acquisition of collectors’ gems and other relics, often by not strictly legal means, is the legacy of our father’s picaresque lifestyle (read on, please). Cristòfol’s a translator, novels mainly, from French, so when he renders them from one language into another it’s like a tribute to our father’s linguistic efforts.
What else, what else? Are we four brothers physically alike? Yes, we do look alike. We might say that the four of us are from the same genetic map and that our mothers—Sigrun, Mireille, Sarah, Rita—are the evolutionary elements that make us different, the barbarian grammar that has removed us from the Latin. In some part of Central Europe, at a crossroads where their destinies come together—or right in the middle of a roundabout, if we’re going to be irritatingly symbolic—we’ll have to put up a monument to them because of what they had to bear. They haven’t met yet. It’s only a few weeks since they found out that the others exist, that we have half-brothers and that they, therefore, have stepsons. The boundaries, however, stay where they’ve always been. With a touch of irony, shared by the other three, Sarah says that we sons are like ambassadors meeting up to negotiate an armistice. Later on, we might decide to get them together for a weekend in some hotel on neutral ground. In Andorra, for example, or Switzerland. But that will have to come later.
What else, what else, what else? Are our mothers physically alike? I don’t think so. Diria que no. Je crois pas. Ich glaube nicht. Do they all fit together to make up some pattern of shared beauty or are they, rather, pieces of some perfection-seeking jigsaw created by a twisted mind, our father’s mind? Neither. In any case, it has to be said that when we tell them about our plan for getting them together in the future, all four mothers show the same lack of enthusiasm. Mireille pulls a face, saying it would be like a meeting of Abandoned Anonymous. Sigrun wants European Union funding for the summit. Rita compares it to a club of aging groupies—“Elvis lives, Elvis lives!” Sarah has a suggestion: “If we must meet, why don’t we do a production of The Six Wives of Henry VIII? There are only four of us? No problem, if we keep looking we’re bound to find a couple more!”
This caustic response from the four potential widows must be some kind of defense mechanism. Many years have gone by, but their amorous experiences are too similar, and they don’t want to start talking about them now. From the outside, it’s tempting to imagine four women getting together to reminisce about a man who left them in the lurch one fine day, without any warning and each with a kid to raise. They drink and talk. Little by little, they start sharing a list of grievances. Their memories bring them together. The distress has been left so far behind that time’s removed the poisonous fangs, and it’s now as harmless as a stuffed animal. The gathering becomes more of an exorcism than therapy. They drink and laugh. Yet each of them starts thinking privately that the others didn’t really understand him, and, calling on their memories, they all start polishing up their love. Mine was the real love, the true love. A slip of the tongue, a joke that suddenly isn’t funny, and the alliance of suffering collapses. Any minute now they’ll start pulling each other’s hair out.
The thing is, there’s one detail that complicates everything. Right now, we can’t claim that our father’s dead. Only that he disappeared, more than a year ago.
In fact, “disappeared” isn’t the correct verb, and if we’ve decided to find him, it’s to make sense of the word. Give it a body. Only somebody who’s previously appeared can disappear, and that’s not the case with our father. We haven’t seen him for more than thirty years, and the sum of our memories presents us with only a blurry image of him. It’s not as if he was a timid man, or naturally reserved, but he always seemed to have an escape route. He wasn’t edgy, anxious, or mistrustful either. Sigrun says she fell in love with both his presence and his absence. Mireille recalls that as soon as he arrived it was as if he was leaving again. The brevity of his visits helped, of course. This provisional air became increasingly evident and we’re inclined to believe that, rather than vanishing from one day to the next—Abracadabra!—like a magic trick or some extraterrestrial abduction, our father gradually dissolved. That even now, right now, when all four of us are thinking about him for the first time, he’s still slowly dissolving.
This vanishing act can even be seen in the letters he used to send us. He wrote them from all over Europe, wherever he was moving furniture, telling us stories about the trip. Sometimes they were postcards, scribbled by the roadside. In the foreground were equestrian statues, castles, gardens, churches—horrible provincial monuments that all four of us recall with depressing clarity. These postcards were written and dated somewhere in France or Germany, yet they bore a stamp with Franco’s marmoreal face because they must have languished for days in the truck’s glove compartment, and he only remembered to mail them when he was back in Barcelona. In the letters he wrote us he sometimes enclosed photos of himself, alone or posing with his trucker friends. The words accompanying these images revealed real tenderness and longing, which made our mothers cry if they were feeling fragile, but they never went beyond the two sides of a single sheet of paper. Just when it seemed he was getting into his stride, the writing would abruptly end. See you soon, kisses, and so on and so forth, his name, and that was that. As if he was afraid to give all of himself.
“The only thing he didn’t do was write them with that funny ink that makes the words disappear a few days after you read them,” Christof remarked.
What else needs telling? Ah yes, how the four of us make ourselves understood. English has been our lingua franca ever since the day we first met, after Cristòfol decided to go looking for the other brothers. We use English because it’s the language in which we best understand each other, because we need some kind of standard, but, in the end, our conversations produce a more complex language, a sort of familial Esperanto. Christof has no problems with this because English is a first cousin of German and he studied it from a tender age. Christophe speaks it with that slightly smug accent typical of the French, plus a technical vocabulary he picks up from the conferences and lectures in quantum physics he often goes to. Cristòfol learned it when he was older, taking private classes, because he studied French at school and university. Sometimes when he can’t get the words out in English he turns to his second language, which is comforting for Christophe. You can see it in his face. Then Chris and Christof start laughing at their Latin origins, mocking them in their own patter, full of guttural sounds, fragments of the “La Marseillaise,” and names of French soccer players.
Chris, however, speaks a bit of Spanish thanks to being pushed by his mother, Sarah. In the mid-seventies, when it seemed clear that Gabriel wouldn’t be visiting them any more, she enrolled her son in a summer course to learn the language. Dammit, Chris might never see his father again but at least he’d have the legacy of speaking Spanish. His teacher was a university student called Rosi. She’d gone to London to get experience, and her first discovery was that teaching wasn’t her thing. Her method consisted of making them listen to a cassette of songs that were all the rage that summer. That’s why Chris sounds like a native speaker when he says things like “Es una lata el trabajar,” “No me gusta que a los toros te pongas la minifalda,” or “Achilipú, apú, apú,” although he hasn’t got a clue that they mean “having to work’s a pain,” “I don’t like you wearing your miniskirt to the bullfight,” and something sounding like “chili-poo” in a red-hot rumba.
We’ve discovered that songs in Catalan are another childhood experience we share. At our first mee...
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.