by Peter Bichsel
translated from the German by M. Schuller
Let me tell you the story of a man I once met, a man who told me a story. As I said to him many times, I don’t believe a word of his tale. ‘You’re a liar,’ is what I told him, ‘you tell fibs, and you’re a fantasist. A fraud.’
My words made no impression. He continued to tell me his story, in a quieter voice, until I started to shout at him: ‘You hack! You swindler! You phony!’ And when I was done, he just looked at me, smiled sadly, and shook his head with disappointment. And then he said, in voice barely above a whisper, and so softly that it almost made me feel ashamed, ‘there is no such thing as America.’ I felt I had to make it up to him, and promised to do so by writing down what he told me:
It begins five hundred years ago, at the court of a King. The King of Spain, in fact. An enormous palace; silk and velvet; gold, silver, beads, and crowns; candles, servants, and maids. Courtiers who the night before threw down gauntlets at each other’s feet, and now rise at dawn to run each other through with swords; watchmen blowing fanfares from the towers; messengers who hop into the saddle, messengers who leap out of the saddle; the King’s friends and the King’s false friends; women, beautiful and dangerous; and wine; and all about the palace, people whose only purpose was to procure all of these things.
The King knew nothing besides this life, and in the end, life is the same every day. The King was bored. Just as the people of Barcelona imagine that other places are more beautiful, and want to travel to somewhere else.
The poor, of course, imagine how wondeful it would be to live like a king — the King imagines how much better it would be to be poor.
In the morning the King gets up out of bed, in the evening he gets into bed, and during the day he is so bored with his own troubles and with his attendants, his gold, his solver, his velvet and silk and candles. His bed is like a palace all on its own, but what can you do in a bed but sleep.
In the morning, the servants bow to him deeply, and every morning in just the same way. The King does not even notice. At dinner, his fork is handed to him, as is his knife; someone pushes in his chair, and the people around him only say nice things to him, and compliment him, and nothing else at all.
No one ever dares to say, ‘you idiot! You’re a complete blockhead.’ Everything that they say to him today, they said to him yesterday.
Such is life.
And that is why the king has a jester.
A jester can do as he likes, and say what he likes so long as the King laughs, and if they cannot make the King laugh, he kills them, or something like that.
Once he had a jester who loved to play with words. The King enjoyed this greatly. The jester would say ‘so high my mess!’ rather than ‘your highness’, or ‘tassle’ instead of ‘castle’, or ‘dice nay!’ instead of ‘nice day!’. It’s rather silly, to be honest, but the King thought it was hilarious. For a whole six months it made him laugh, until the seventh day of July, and on the eighth, when he got up in the morning and the jester greeted him with ‘dice nay, my high ol’ mess!’ the King ordered his head to be chopped off.
Another jester, who was short and fat and called Pepe, the King enjoyed for only four days. Pepe spread honey on the chairs of the courtiers, all of the nobles, and the knights. On the fourth day he put a big glob of it down on the seat of the throne, and the King no longer found it funny, and Pepe was a jester no more.
After that, the King bought the most terrible jester in the world. He was ugly — thin and fat at the same time, both tall but also short in some ways, and his left leg was bowed. Nobody knew if he could even speak, or if he was completely dumb. His gaze was angry, his face sullen. The only thing nice about him was his name, which was Little Hans.
But then there was his awful laugh. It always started small and glassy and deep in his belly, then gurgled up, until it was a belching that made his face all red and almost made him choke, and then burst out in a big, booming cackle. Then he would smack his knees, and dance about and chortle, and the King loved it, but only because it made everyone else pale and tremble with fear. When Little Hans’ laugh would ring out through the castle, doors were locked and windows barred, shutters closed, and the children were taken to bed with wax in their ears.
The laughter of Little Hans was the most ghastly thing in the world.
Whatever the King said, Little Hans would laugh.
The King said things that couldn’t be funny to anyone, and yet Little Hans still laughed. One day, the King said, ‘Little Hans, I’m going to hang you.’
Oh, how he laughed! He roared out like never before.
So it was decided that Little Hans would be hanged the next day. The King was serious. He wanted to see Hans laugh from the gallows, and wanted to make everyone watch the awful spectacle. But all of the coutiers, the nobility, the knights and the squires, they all hid in their rooms, with the doors locked. The morning of the hanging, it was just Little Hans, the hangman, the King, and his attendants. So the King cried to the attendants, ‘bring me everyone you can find!’ They searched the whole city, but found no one, as everybody was hiding.
Finally, one of the attendants returned with a boy, who they dragged before the King. The boy was small, pale, and shy, and the King had him brought to the gallows and ordered him to watch. The boy looked up at the gallows, clapped his hands in amazement, and said, ‘you’re such a kind King! You’ve built a perch for pigeons! And look, two have already landed.’
‘You’re a half-wit,’ said the King. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I am indeed a fool,’ said the boy, ‘and my name is Colombo. My monther calls me Columbine.’
‘Well, you’re an idiot, Columbine. Someone is about to be hanged,’ said the King.
‘What’s his name?’ asked Columbine, and when the King told him he said ‘aah, that’s a nice name. How can a man with so nice a name be hanged?’
‘His laugh is terrible,’ said the King, and he ordered Little Hans to laugh, and it was twice as bad as the day before.
Columbine said, ‘your highness, what’s so terrible about that?’ The King was surprised, and could not answer, and Columbine went on, ‘I don’t like his laugh much, but the pigeons are still sitting on the gallows. They aren’t frightened. Pigeons have good ears. You should let Little Hans go.’
The King thought about it, and then said, ‘Little Hans, go to hell.’ And for the first time Little Hans spoke, and he said to Columbine, ‘thank you’, and smiled a warm smile, and then went.
The King had no more jesters. The King’s servants and maids and all the courtiers believed, though, that Columbine was the new jester. But Columbine was not funny. He stood around, lost in thought, rarely speaking and never laughing, and never making anyone else laugh. ‘He’s not a jester, he’s an imbecile,’ is what everyone said about him, and Columbine said ‘I’m not a jester, I’m an imecile,’ and then everyone laughed at him.
If the King had known about this, he would have been very angry, but Columbine said nothing about it, because it didn’t bother him at all to be laughed at. At court there were the strong, the intelligent, the King was a king, the women were beautiful and the men brave, the priest was pious and the kitchen maids industrious. Columbine, and Columbine alone, was nothing.
If someone said, ‘Columbine, come and fight me!’ he would say, ‘I am weaker than you.’
If someone said, ‘Columbine, how much is two times seven?’ he would say, ‘I’m dumber than you.’
If someone said, ‘Columbine, I dare you to jump over that stream!’ he would say, ‘no, I don’t think I can.’
And when the King asked Columbine, ‘what do you want to become?’ Columbine would say, ‘I do not want to become anything. I am something, I am Columbine.’
The King said, ‘but you must become something,’ and Columbine said ‘what can one become?’
And the King said, ‘look at that man there, with the beard and the brown, leather face. He is a sailor. He wanted to become a sailor, and he did, and he sailed across the sea and discovered new countries for his king.’
‘If you want, my king,’ said Columbine, ‘I’ll become a sailor.’ At that, the whole court burst out laughing. Columbine ran out of the hall shouting, ‘I will discover a country, I will discover a country!’
Everyone looked at each other and shook their heads, and Columbine ran out of the castle, through the city, and across the fields, and when the farmers who were in the fields greeted him, he called out to them, too: ‘I will discover a country, I will discover a country!’
And so he came to the forest and hid for weeks in the bushes and brambles, and for weeks no one heard a word about Columbine. The King was sorry and blamed himself, and the courtiers were ashamed for laughing. Finally, after weeks and weeks had passed, the watchmen on the tower blew a fanfare and the court rejoiced, for across the fields, through the city, and up to the gate came Columbine, and he went before the King and said, ‘my king, Columbine has discovered a country!’
And because the courtiers did not want to laugh at him, they tried their best to look serious and asked, ‘what is it called and where is it?’ ‘It does not have a name yet, because I have just discovered it, and it is far out to sea,’ said Columbine.
One of the grizzled sailors stood up and said, ‘well, Columbine, I, Amerigo Vespucci, will go and look at this country of yours. Tell me how I get there.’ ‘You go into the sea, and then go straight, and you have to keep going straight and not give up until you come to the country.’ Columbine was terrified, of course, because he knew that what he said was a lie, and that there was no such country. So off went Amerigo Vespucci, and for days and days Columbine could not sleep.
No one knows where Amerigo went. Perhaps he, too, hid in the forest.
Then the trumpets blew, and Amerigo came back.
Columbine was red in the face and dared not to look at the great sailor. Vespucci stood before the King, and said loud and clear, so that all could hear: ‘Your Majesty, O King, the land is there.’
Columbine was so glad that Vespucci had not betrayed him that he ran up to him, hudded him, and cried, ‘Amerigo, my dear Amerigo!’
And the people believed that this was the name of the country, and they called this land that did not exist, ‘America.’
‘You are truly a man,’ the King said to Columbine, ‘and henceforth you shall be called Columbus.’
And Columbus was famous, and all marvelled at him and whispered as he walked past, ‘there he is! The man who discovered America!’
And they all believed that there is such a place. Only Columbus was not sure, and doubted it his whole life, but never dared to ask the sailors for the truth about where they had gone. Soon enough, other people went to America, and then, a great many people. And those who came back all said, ‘America is there!’
‘I,’ said the man who told me this story, ‘I have never been to America. I do not know if America exists. Perhaps people only say that it does, so as not to disappoint Columbus. After all, when you see two people talking about America these days, they wink at each other, and hardly ever say “America”. Instead, they say something vague about “the States” or “over the pond”, or whatever.’ Perhaps when someone gets on a plane or a ship to go to America, they are told the story of Columbus, and hide away somewhere, and come back later to talk about cowboys and skyscrapers, about Niagra Falls and the Mississippi, and cities called ‘New York’ and ‘San Francisco’.
In any case, they all say the same things, and talk about things that they already knew before they left, and that is very suspicious.
And people are always arguing about who Columbus really was.
I know it.