I’ve already been hearing the sobbing for some time. At first it was a sound in my dream, but now the dream is over and the sobbing is coming from the woman next to me. Eyes closed, I know that the voice is Laura’s, or, rather, that suddenly it’s been hers all along. She’s crying so hard that the mattress is shaking. I lie there motionless. How long can I pretend I’m asleep? I would love to give up and sink back into unconsciousness, but I can’t. The day has begun. I open my eyes.
The morning sun pushes through the slats of the blind and draws fine lines in both carpet and wall. The pattern on the carpet is symmetrical, but if you look at it for a long time, it captures your attention, gripping it until you can’t shake free. Laura is lying next to me in perfect peace, breathing silently, sound asleep. I push back the blanket and get up.
As I’m groping my way down the hall, the memory of the dream returns. No doubt about it, it was my grandmother. She looked tired, worn out, and somehow not complete, as if only a portion of her soul had managed to force its way through to me. She stood in front of me, bent over, leaning on a walking stick, with two ballpoint pens sticking out of her bun. She opened and closed her mouth and made signs with her hands; she was determined to tell me something. She looked unutterably weary, lips pursed, eyes pleading, until in the next moment some change in the dream washed her away and I was somewhere else, surrounded by other things. I will never know what she wanted to tell me.
I shave, get into the shower, and turn on the hot tap. The water is warm, then hot, then very hot, which is how I like it. I tip my head back and let the water beat down on me, listen to the noise, feel the pain, and forget absolutely everything for a moment.
It doesn’t last long. Already the memory comes crashing back like a wave. Perhaps I can hold out for another couple of months, maybe even three, but not longer.
I turn off the water, get out of the shower, and push my face into the terrycloth of the bath towel. As always, my memory reacts to the smell, calling up images: Mama taking me to bed wrapped in a towel, Papa’s tall figure outlined by the ceiling light, his tousled hair in silhouette, Ivan already asleep in the other bed, our sandbox where I always knocked over the towers he built, a meadow, a worm he found that I split in half, and he cried and cried. Or was it the other way around? I put on my bathrobe. Now I need my medication.
In my study everything is normal. This calms me. The desk with its big screen, the Paul Klee on one wall and the Eulenboeck on the other, the empty files. I have never worked here. Even the drawers are empty and not one of the reference books has ever been opened. But when I sit here and pretend to be lost in thought, no one comes in, and that counts for something in and of itself.
Two Thropren, a Torbit, a Prevoxal, and a Valium—I can’t begin the day with too much, because I have to be able to up the dose if something unforeseen occurs. I swallow them all in one gulp; it’s unpleasant and I have to use all my willpower to conquer the gag reflex. Why I always take them without water, I have no idea.
Already I can feel them working. It’s probably my imagination, nothing could work that fast, but is that important? Indifference settles over me like cotton wool. Life goes on. One day you’ll lose it all, the name Eric Friedland will be abhorred, those who still trust you will curse you, your family will fall apart, and they’ll lock you up. But not today.
I’ll never be able to tell anyone how much I hate this Paul Klee. Lopsided diamonds, red on a black background, and next to them a windblown, truly pitiful little matchstick man. Even I could have painted it. I know I’m not supposed to even think such a sentence, it is utterly forbidden, but I can’t help it, even I could have painted it, it would have taken me less than five minutes! Instead of which I paid seven hundred and fifty thousand euros for it, but a man in my position must possess a very expensive painting: Janke has a Kandinsky, Nettleback of BMW has a Monet—maybe it’s a Manet, what do I know?—and old Rebke, my golf partner, has a Richard Serra on the lawn, huge, rusty, and always in the way at garden parties. So I asked Ivan two years ago to get me a picture too, it just had to be something that was a sure thing.
He immediately pretended he didn’t understand me. He likes doing that—it amuses him. What did I mean, “sure thing”?
“Sure thing,” I said, “means that it impresses everyone. That no expert has something against the artist. Like with Picasso. Or Leonardo. One of those guys.”
He laughed at me. He likes doing that too. Picasso? There were hundreds of experts who didn’t take Picasso seriously, and if you chose one of his wrong periods, you’d be criticized willy-nilly. Almost no one had a good word to say about his late work, for example! But Paul Klee, you could get one of his, no one had anything against Paul Klee.
“No Leonardos on the market. Take Klee.”
Then he attended the auction for me. At half a million he called me to ask if he should keep bidding. I would like to have yelled at him. But what if he thought I couldn’t even afford a matchstick man? For a while it hung in the salon, then Laura suddenly didn’t like it anymore. So since then it’s been hanging over my desk, staring at me in a pushy way and doing damage in my dreams. I can’t sell it, too many people have seen it in the salon where I have of course pointed it out to them, look at my Klee, what do you think of my Klee, yes of course it’s genuine! As soon as the investigators start work, one of their first questions will be where the Klee is. Art is a trap, nothing more, cleverly dreamed up by people like my brother!
Still in my bathrobe I go along the hall and down the stairs to the media room. There’s a screen and a video beamer. The black cubes of the speakers are powerful enough to service a football stadium. A soft leather couch sits in front of it.
The remote is lying on the table. Without thinking about it I sit down, reach for it, and press a couple of buttons. The screen hums into life: the early-morning TV programming—a nature film. A dragonfly lands on a stalk. Its legs are no bigger than a hair, its wings tremble, and its antennae touch the rough green. Interesting, but it reminds me about the camera.
There’s one hidden in one of the appliances. It would be strange if there weren’t one, because they’re so easy to conceal, I would never find it among all the lenses. I push another button, the meadow disappears, to be replaced by some undersecretary standing behind a lectern and talking so fast that you’d think everything must hang on his finishing as fast as possible.
“No,” I say. “No, no, no, no. No!”
Luckily that helps. He slows down.
But unfortunately he’s noticed me. Without stopping talking, he casts a swift glance in my direction. He did it very unobtrusively, but it didn’t escape me.
I hold my breath. I must not make a wrong move now. Without question it’s crazy, I know it, the broadcast with the undersecretary is a recording, nobody gives press conferences this early in the morning.
But I also know that he looked at me.
“Totally calm. Always keep calm.”
With cold terror I realize that I said it out loud. I can’t make this kind of mistake. And the undersecretary, whose name I suddenly recall—he’s called Obermann, Bernd Richard Obermann, and he’s responsible for power or education or something—heard it, for a mocking smile appears for a moment on his face. I don’t let anything show; I don’t lose my cool so easily. Keep calm, I say to myself again, but this time silently and without moving my lips, behave as if everything’s fine! Somehow I have to manage to look away from the screen. I concentrate on the edge of my field of vision, and then somewhat blurrily I see something on the carpet, a disturbance in the symmetry: a red wine stain. Damn it, this carpet cost thirty-five thousand euros!
My fury helps me to look away from the screen. Out of the corner of my eye I register that Undersecretary Obermann has disappeared. Some harmless man is now talking into the microphone and has no interest in me. Quickly I lift the remote, the picture flames up for a moment and is gone.
Excerpted from F by Daniel Kehlmann. Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Kehlmann. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.