CPhotograph by Susanta Banerjee
Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
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  The portrait — 2  

  Ghosts
  Vol IV : issue 4

  Cover page
  David Lelyveld
  Joginder Paul
  Antara Dev Sen
  Evald Flisar
  Amrita Pritam
  
Nirupama Rao
  Only in Print

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Evald Flisar

"Maybe some other time." Besides, I added, there was the insurmountable question of the fee.

"What fee?" the boy looked surprised. "The painter is interested in your unusual face, he will be honoured if you pose for him."

He could see that I wavered, and he could see also that there was only one thing still holding me back. "It doesnít have to be here," he said. "There is a little arcade behind the corner, no people there."

All right, I nodded.

The boy ran back to the painter. They talked. Then the painter struggled to his feet, tottered but managed to steady himself, lifted his hat and pushed it back on his head, with the corks swinging round his face. Jerkily, irresolutely, he staggered round the corner.

The boy beckoned to me. I followed them round the shoe shop and into a little arcade half hidden by a wide support pillar. The painter was waiting for me behind it. When I approached and greeted him with an expectant smile he stretched his unshaven face into an embarrassed grin, as if trying to say: Iím so sorry to bother you, nice of you to be so very kind. His eyes were muddy and bloodshot. And it was the eyes that told me why he could barely stand up. He was drunk.

He muttered something, pointed with his hand, pushed me towards the inner wall, into a shaft of light from the street, while he himself sat down in front of the pillar. Again he mumbled something. The boy said that the painter wanted to ask a small favour, one and only, very small favour: to contribute some money towards the purchase of watercolours, as he had not brought any with him, they were at his studio. All he had was a biro, which he would use for sketching my face while he, the boy, would rush to the paint shop. I gave him three dollars, and off he went.

The painterís face assumed a serious, almost solemn expression. He opened his case and pulled out a sheet of drawing paper. He closed the case, put the paper on top of it and put it across his knees. Then he produced a biro, pressed it against the thumb of his right hand, extended his right arm towards me and, with one eye closed, measured the distance between us. Then he began rapidly and confidently to sketch my face. His eyes never left me; his hand moved automatically, as though special nerves were sending signals from his eyes to his fingers, and through them to his biro.

We started alone, but soon a passing couple paused to see what was happening, and were joined by another, and soon there was a crowd, with people standing on both sides of the pillar, some on their toes and looking over the shoulders of others, following the painterís hand, then looking at me to check how far the emerging sketch resembled me. It was hard not to feel embarrassed. But I resisted the temptation to flee. I sat there, red in the face, praying for people to get bored and move on, or for the boy to return with the watercolours and for the torture to come to an end.

The boy did return eventually, pushing his way through the crowd, but instead of watercolours he brought two bottles of beer, already open. He explained that the shop had run out of watercolours, so he thought he would buy beer in case the painter got thirsty. The painter got thirsty as soon as he saw what the boy had brought him; he reached out, clasped the bottle with his left hand and poured some beer into his mouth without his right hand pausing for a split second; he put the bottle down and wiped his mouth, still drawing.

I couldnít help noticing a growing surprise on most peopleís faces. They stared at the painterís hand, then at me. What could have been the matter? Had the painter managed to draw my face completely true to life, or was he completely off?

Suddenly, two beefy young Australians with closely cropped hair pushed through the crowd. One grabbed the painter under one arm, the other under another, and with a jerk they pulled him to his feet. The painter, however, continued drawing as if completely unaware of them. While they were dragging him out into the street, he stubbornly stuck to what he was doing, as if there was only one thing that mattered: to finish my portrait before the two ruffians prevented him from doing so. They half dragged, half supported him. Then they stood him up on his feet so abruptly that his head swung forward onto his chest. His fingers lost their iron grip, and the portfolio with the drawing paper fell to the ground, with my portrait landing at my feet.

I picked it up. I could not have been more astonished if I had been hit with the blunt end of an axe. It wasnít my face at all, but the painterís, complete with the hat, the corks, muddy eyes, bitter twist of the mouth ó everything clear as in a photograph.

There was only one difference. The face wasnít black. It was white.

Picking up the portfolio and the scattered sheets of paper which had fallen out of it, I ran into the street. On the corner, the two young men were already shoving the painter into a hospital van.

"Where are you taking him?" I demanded to know.

One of them looked me up and down. "Where he belongs," he said.

"Sometimes he goes walkabout," added his mate.

He pulled the case from my hands and opened it. And there, right before my eyes, were twelve more self-portraits, in no way different from the one he had just drawn for me. And in each of them his face was white.

I looked into the van. The old man was humbly sitting on a side bench. He stretched his face into an embarrassed grin, as if wanting to say: Iím sorry to have bothered you, you were very kind. Then one of the two warders threw the case down at his feet and slammed the door shut. He and his colleague climbed into the cabin and the van moved off. People began to disperse.

 

p. 1p. 2

Translated from the Slovene by the author with Alan McConnell-Duff and TLM

 
 
Noted novelist and playwright, Evald Flisar is chairman of the Slovene Union of Writers.
He lives in Ljubljana