National Empanada Day

Listen: the following is an excerpt from Dostoevsky’s “White Nights”, a short story. For me this represents legendary sleight-of-hand; the talker talking, winding fiction around my head until I’m blinded by my faith in it. The scenario is that this loner, the second speaker, has met a woman on the street. He hasn’t had a friend in eight years, but fancies Nastenka, the first speaker. She has asked for his life story. Read carefully, and enjoy!

“My goodness, what an awful introduction! What shall I be hearing next, I wonder?”

“What you will be hearing next, Nastenka (I don’t think I shall ever get tired of calling you Nastenka), is that these places are inhabited by strange people – by dreamers. A dreamer – if you must know its exact definition – is not a man, but a sort of creature of the neuter gender. He settles mostly in some inaccessible place, as though anxious to hide in it even from the light of day; and once he gets inside his room, he’ll stick to it like a snail, or, at all events, he is in this respect very like that amusing animal which is an animal and a house both at one and the same time and bears the name of tortoise. Why, do you think, is he so fond of his four walls, invariably painted green, grimy, and reeking unpardonably of tobacco smoke? Why does this funny fellow, when one of his new friends comes to visit him (he usually ends up by losing all his friends one by one), why does this absurd person meet him with such an embarrassed look? Why is he so put out of countenance? Why is he thrown into such confusion, as though he had just committed some terrible crime within his four walls? As though he had been forging paper money? Or writing some atrocious poetry to be sent to a journal with an anonymous letter, in which he will explain that, the poet having recently died, he, this friend, deems it his sacred duty to publish his verses? Can you tell me, Nastenka, why the conversation between the two friends never really gets going? Why doesn’t laughter or some witty remark escape the lips of the perplexed caller, who had so inopportunely dropped out of the blue, and who at other times is so fond of laughter and all sorts of quips and cranks? And conversations about the fair sex. And other cheerful subjects. And why does the visitor, who is most probably a recent acquaintance and on his first visit – for in this case there will never be a second, and his visitor will never call again – why, I say, does this visitor feel so embarrassed himself? Why, in spite of his wit (if, that is, he has any), is he so tongue-tied as he looks at the disconcerted face of his host, who is, in turn, utterly at a loss and bewildered after his herculean efforts to smooth things over, and fumbles desperately for a subject to enliven the conversation, to convince his host that he, too, is a man of the world, that he too can talk of the fair sex? The host does everything in fact to please the poor man, who seems to have come to the wrong place and called on him by mistake, by at least showing how anxious he is to entertain him. And why does the visitor, having most conveniently remembered a most urgent business appointment which never existed, all of a sudden grab his hat and take his leave, snatching his hand away from the clammy grasp of his host, who, in a vain attempt to recover what is irretrievably lost, is doing his best to show how sorry he is? Why does his friend burst out laughing the moment he finds himself on the other side of the door? Why does he vow never to call on this queer fellow again, excellent fellow though he undoubtably is? Why at the same time can’t he resist the temptation of indulging in the amusing, if rather far-fetched, fancy of comparing the face of his friend during his visit with the expression of an unhappy kitten, roughly handled, firghtened, and subjected to all sorts of indignities, by children who had treacherously captured and humiliated it? A kitten that hides itself away from its tormentors under a chair, in the dark, where, left in peace at last, it cannot help bristling up, spitting, and washing its insulted face with both paws for a whole hour, and long afterwards looking coldly at life and nature and even the bits saved up for it from the master’s table by a sympathetic housekeeper?”

“Now, look,” interrupted Nastenka, who had listened to me all the time in amazement, opening her eyes and pretty mouth, “look, I haven’t the faintest idea why it all happened and why you should ask me such absurd questions. All I know is that all these adventures have most certainly happened to you, and exactly as you told me.”

“Indubitably,” I replied, keeping a very straight face.


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