The Death of Walter Benjamin

by Andrew Crumey

From The Secret Knowledge (2013)


Spain, 1940

The dignified couple arriving for dinner at the Hotel de Francia are greeted by a low bow from the proprietor and the stern approval of the Generalissimo whose hand-tinted photograph glowers from the wall behind. "Good evening once again," Senor Suner says to his clients with unctuous cordiality, adopting imperfectly but adequately their native French. "Would monsieur and madame care for their usual table?" It has been theirs only twice before but that is enough to establish a tradition; with a snap of his fingers, Senor Suner summons Pablo, the waiter, and tells him in Spanish to prepare for the two guests in the dining room.

"We will be joined by others," the grey-haired Frenchman breaks in, a man imposing in both manner and dress, with the air of a businessman and a wife of comparable age whose mature beauty owes itself not entirely to good connections with the black market in cosmetics.

Suner, pleasantly surprised at the prospect of further distinguished custom, holds Pablo in check. "A second couple?" he inquires.

"We shall see," the Frenchman replies cryptically, then to his wife says, "Yvette, would you mind if I have a word with our host?" She follows Pablo to the dining room, the swinging open of the curtained glass door briefly releasing the impertinent crackle of a gramophone; then when it is closed, Monsieur Carreau says quietly to Suner, "A group of refugees left Banyuls this morning, intending to cross the border."

"Jews?"

"Mostly, yes; also some agitators. The French police know about them. They don't have exit visas."

Suner follows it all perfectly well, given that the scenario is an everyday occurrence, yet rubs his chin at his guest's last remark. "The police let them go up the mountain, though they lack visas?"

Carreau nods. "The civil guard on this side have also been informed. The refugees will be brought to your hotel to stay overnight, then returned."

This is unexpected news. Suner had immediately known, when Monsieur Carreau spoke the other night about "shipping interests", exactly what was meant by the term, the present major item of cross-border trade being people, usually on their way through Spain to Lisbon and then America. But although the restaurant of his small hotel, in a fishing town notable only for its strategic location, is the regular haunt of under-cover Gestapo men, informers, and transiting refugees offered a warm welcome and a hearty meal as long as they can pay for it, Suner is not used to having his establishment serve as a detention centre. "Who'll pay the bill?" he asks bluntly.

"They are persons of means," Carreau assures him, unable to conceal a note of disgust at such plebeian concerns. "You will not be left out of pocket."

"Then I shall assist the authorities in whatever way I can," Suner avers, touching his moustache where a bead of sweat has lodged, and bowing once again when monsieur moves towards the dining room door. "Pablo will be pleased to tell you about tonight's dishes, and may I cordially recommend the sea bass."

Such pretensions are typical of Suner and the grimy pension he runs. Monsieur Carreau finds the dining room almost deserted; a young couple huddle in one corner, furtively studying the menu, while in another a gaunt man sits alone with a glass of wine, fingering the stem with a jilted look that could be the poor mask of a spy. Carreau's "usual" table is out of earshot, conveniently close to the gramophone that on his last visit he requested to be turned down. Pablo must have remembered; it might on this occasion be necessary to ask for a raising of volume. Yvette watches her husband's approach impassively. "Have you decided yet?" he asks her, sitting down.

"The waiter said something about fish and I nodded, then he went away. I don't know if that constituted an order."

Carreau laughs and takes her hand which lies on the crumb-specked table. "Darling," he says fondly, but the disdainful lowering of her eyes makes him trail off.

Yvette listens to the music, murmuring half-forgotten lyrics to the dance band's melody, then stops and in a low voice says, "When do you think they'll get here?"

Carreau isn't sure. "I hear that the walk over the mountains can take ten, maybe twelve hours. Depends how fit they are. And how long the police hold them."

The door springs open; it is a new group of diners, all Spanish in appearance: two men in suits, a smartly dressed woman, a boy of nine or ten. The waiter comes and speaks to them rapidly and with familiarity; Yvette is unable to follow but Carreau listens carefully, and seeing his wife's anxiety says softly to her, "It's not them. We'll know when we see them."

Outside, in the lobby, Senor Suner is speaking quietly on the telephone to the local chief of police. "Yes, Juan, I have rooms for them, but I hope this isn't going to be a regular occurrence. I don't want my hotel being turned into a prison."

And at the other end of the line, the police chief momentarily puts his hand over the mouthpiece to tell the deputy waiting at his desk, "Take them now." There they are, sitting on wooden chairs in his office, five women, a teenage boy and an overweight spectacled gentleman with a black leather briefcase at his feet, all exhausted from their walk and dumbfounded by their treatment. It is as if the rules have suddenly been changed, just for them.

Yvette flicks away a crumb from the tablecloth. "You do promise me they'll go free?"

"Of course," Carreau nods. "That's the arrangement." He leans closer to his wife. "We're dealing with small-town minor functionaries; the only thing they understand is the gleam of gold. Everybody'll get what they want."

"But the refugees..."

"They want to leave France illegally and we're helping them do it."

"That's not how it must seem to them right now."

"It's the way it has to be." The music stops, and while Pablo goes to replace the record on the gramophone, Carreau glances cautiously towards the silent man with the wine glass. Only when an operatic aria strikes up does he resume speaking. "You know I'm doing this for you, Yvette, don't you? All these years, all the searching and collecting, all the running and hiding, it's been for you."

"I know that's what you think, Louis."

"It's what we both know. And now we shall add another piece, we shall draw another step closer. It's the only way. He needs something we can give, he owns something we want."

Yvette looks at him with time-worn sadness. "But a step closer to what, Louis? To happiness? To the grave? You say it's all about protecting me..."

"Yes," he snaps, unable to suppress his impatience. "It's about not letting them do to you what they did to Pierre."

"And I thank you for it," she whispers, "you know I do, I always have. But we're getting old. You seem as determined as ever to go on, you'll never rest until you've put every single piece of the jigsaw together; yet I, Louis, I am tired. If they caught me right now, yes, even if that fellow over there with his empty glass should turn out to be one of them, and if he should come at me with a dagger as soon as we get the documents, you know, Louis, I'm not even sure I'd have the strength to fight. Perhaps I'd really want him to slit my throat, perhaps I'd feel relief at last. I never asked for any of this..."

"I know, darling." Carreau takes her hand again. "But you're the one Pierre chose. No one can alter the path of destiny."

It is a word she has heard too many times. Walking as a young woman in the park nearly thirty years ago, waiting for Pierre to arrive, the word was as thrilling as the big wheel they rode on; destiny meant marriage to a genius, or so she thought. What she got instead were a few relics: a piano score, a lock of hair, the fragile orchid he wore that terrible day - she even thought she could see a spot of blood on it. And the letters, the warnings, the strange and threatening events that Louis, her brave warrior, arrived to rescue her from. He's been rescuing her ever since. Her life has been a long and wearying journey over a mountain, with no indication of who her pursuers really are, or why they want to harm her.

"What's happening to those poor Jews," she murmurs, "is what I've had to endure."

"Then you have to stay quick-witted and alert, like them."

Pablo brings their food; the sea bass is a fish much like any other, made palatable to Louis by the wine that accompanies it, while Yvette finds solace in the succession of records that whirr themselves to completion on the machine beside her.

"The Magic Flute," she says at one point. It's the Queen of the Night's aria; tears come to her eyes.

"It's beautiful," Louis says politely, though to his ear it is indistinguishable in quality from whatever he tapped his toe to not long before.

"Pierre always used to say to me..."

"I know, darling, you've told me. He always used to say that in The Magic Flute everything's the wrong way round: it's Sarastro who seems evil and the Queen of the Night who's wronged. Yes, that was very wise."

From the lobby beyond the dining room door, a minor commotion can be heard, of people entering at the command of a raised voice.

"They're here," says Yvette, and Carreau nods.

They are being made to sign the hotel register: Suner, with all the dignity of his station, is pointing an ink-blackened finger-tip at the place where the first of the refugees begins placing her name, then, when she is finished and steps back sorrowfully from the desk, the others follow. Carina Birman, Dele Birman (sister of above), Sophie Lippmann, Greta Freund, Henny Gurland, Joseph Gurland (son of above), Dr Walter Benjamin. Suner watches the last of them, the only man in the group, dot the letters of his name with a flourish that looks habitual but wearied. "You're a medical man?"

"A doctor of literature."

"What time did you set off from Banyuls this morning?"

"I didn't," Benjamin says wheezily. "I stayed overnight on the mountain and the others caught up with me."

Suner can see that Walter Benjamin is not a fit man. The date of birth on the passport he surrenders shows him to be forty-eight but he's more like sixty. "You could have had a heart attack," Suner says to him.

"I thank you for your solicitude."

The policeman accompanying them gives a cough, reminding Suner that pleasantries are not appropriate now, there is business to be done. "Your rooms," says Suner, pulling open the reservation book's biblical mass and finding the evening's arrangements. "You'll all be doubling up, except for the professor." It is a statement of fact, not a proposal, and having needlessly rechecked the allocations he personally made no more than ten minutes ago, a blessing at this low end of the season, he struts out from behind the desk, keys jangling in his fingers, and calls on Jose, the porter, who leads the prisoners and their guard upstairs. The luggage they carry is whatever they have managed to haul over the mountain, Dr Benjamin has only his briefcase; though had they been more heavily burdened, Jose still would not have carried anything for them.

All are to be deposited on the second floor, on a corridor otherwise empty of guests. Jose opens the first door, then nods at the boy and his mother, who follow the wordless prompt and step inside. The indolent porter leaves the door ajar, the key in place, and the policeman says something in Spanish that all the refugees can understand despite their almost total ignorance of the language. They are not to be locked in, but treated as free, since there is nowhere else for them to go.

The next two rooms are given to the four remaining women, then Benjamin is put in the last. He sees Jose and the policeman slouch complacently back along the corridor, shuts his door on them and goes to lie on the creaking bed, gazing only briefly at the stained striped wallpaper before closing his eyes, too tired even to remove his shoes or jacket. He thought he had bought his freedom with the papers in his briefcase. Yet his life is over.

Yvette watches her husband calmly finish the fish he has found so insufferably bland, a sip of wine easing its passage down his gullet.

"Aren't you going to say something to the manager?"

"I'll ask him to send the gentleman down to join us."

"But is that wise, Louis?"

Pablo comes past; Carreau detains him and asks for Suner, who soon arrives to see what is wanted.

"They're here, aren't they?" says Carreau, and Suner nods, glancing across at the other diners who know nothing of the latest arrivals. "I'd like to see Dr Benjamin."

Surprised, Suner raises an eyebrow. "You know him?" The Frenchman's impassive response precludes further investigation; instead Suner stoops closer to his ear and says, "Under the circumstances, it would not be appropriate for him to be seen by the clientele..."

"Then I shall go to his room - which number?"

Suner straightens. "Twenty three. On the second floor. I'll get Jose to show you..."

"I shall find it," Carreau interrupts. "I can count." He begins to rise from the table, Yvette asks him if she should come too, but Carreau shakes his head. "There's no need," he says. "It's a simple business arrangement, nothing more. Have some dessert, darling, I'm sure our host will be happy to help you choose." Yvette and Suner watch speechlessly as he makes his way out of the dining room, the glass door closing behind him with an indignant bump, then he treads upstairs to find the scholar whose room is easy to locate, though Benjamin himself proves slow to respond to Carreau's rapping. Eventually a muffled groan can be heard.

"It's me, Carreau," he calls impatiently. The door opens. "My God, you look terrible."

Benjamin's face is grey, his eyelids dark and pouchy, his lips strangely puckered, as if he has been kissing a ghost. He seems on the verge of collapse. "I don't feel well," he says. "My pulse..."

Carreau comes straight inside and closes the door. "Do you have it?" he asks in German.

"What? Yes."

"Then let me see - we have very little time."

Benjamin, bewildered by the rush, goes to sit again on the bed that sags complainingly beneath his excessive weight. He puts a hand to his forehead. "Are you German, then, like me?"

"No."

"You speak the language fluently."

"As well as you speak French." The remainder of their conversation is to be a mixture of the two, a situation Benjamin is used to: a stateless Berliner exiled in France, now seeking further exile in the United States.

There is a wooden chair in the room, but Carreau does not yet take it. He is glancing at the faded decor, assessing its provincial squalor. "Even worse than the restaurant," he mutters, then to Benjamin, "Well?"

"All in good time, monsieur." The briefcase is beside his feet on the floor. "What I want to know is why we were arrested."

"It wasn't part of the plan."

"I know that. When you said on the telephone that you'd meet me in Portbou I didn't think it would be under these circumstances. Many friends of mine have made exactly the same journey in the last few weeks, completely unhindered."

"New regulations," Carreau says, pulling the chair with a scrape and sitting down. "It's not my fault."

"But the item you want from me was supposed to buy my safe passage, that's what you promised."

"And I still give you that promise. All it takes is a bribe to the police chief here. Give me the book and everything will be taken care of."

Benjamin laughs weakly. "Enough of this masquerade, Monsieur Carreau, or whatever your name is. There's no need to try and restore my hope. I know this is the end, and you'll get what you want, some pieces of paper. Only tell me why they matter so much to you."

Carreau smiles without emotion. "I'm a collector."

"Of Jews for the Gestapo?"

"Of first editions and rare manuscripts."

Benjamin nods. "It's a buyer's market: fascism is so good for the economy."

Carreau cares little for gallows humour. "I'm taking risks on your behalf. Whatever you might think, I'm not a Nazi. I really want to help you."

"And my friends?"

"That was never part of the deal - you didn't tell me you'd show up with a whole tribe."

Benjamin shakes his head. "I only mean Henny and her son - we met the other four on the mountain, taking the same route."

"And they don't matter? They can go to blazes, is that it? Well, that's most heroic."

Benjamin stares at the bedcover he sits on and says nothing.

"So at least we understand each other. A deal is a deal. You, the woman and her son, as we negotiated. I have the train tickets in my pocket, and valid visas for the three of you."

"Par toi je change l'or en chemin de fer."

"Exactly."

"Et le paradis en enfer."

It takes a moment for Carreau to appreciate that Benjamin is parodying poetry, though he can't place the reference. "I don't deal in heaven and hell, Dr Benjamin, only reality. Now show me the book. It's in your briefcase, I assume?"

Benjamin reaches down and pats the black leather bag. "Mon chat sur le carreau," he says gently, then looks up knowingly at the Frenchman. You remember Baudelaire, don't you?"

"Evidently not as well as you."

"But your nom de guerre is code, is it not? The suit in a pack of cards?"

"It's my real name," Carreau says blankly.

"Pity," says Benjamin with a sigh. "It suggested to me so many associations: a diamond, a tile, an intersecting network of oblique lines. Do you know, the Englishman Browne wrote an entire essay..."

"Yes," Carreau cuts him off. "I know. I have an early edition. Now open the briefcase."

Benjamin does as he is ordered, and reaching among spare clothing and essentials crammed inside, retrieves a slim volume bound in pale calfskin which he passes to Carreau, the collector perusing the gilt-tooled cover for some time before even opening it to read the hand-written title page. He nods with satisfaction.

"I paid a lot of money for that," says Benjamin. "Far too much."

"If that's true then it's just as well you did," Carreau replies without looking up from the elegantly bound manuscript whose pages transfix him.

Benjamin can easily understand the fascination they exert. "We both know what it's like to be bewitched by a rare volume, a chance encounter, one that will certainly never happen again."

"Bewitched?" Carreau echoes, half-listening, "An appropriate choice of word." He closes the book and rests it on his lap. "What made you buy it?"

"Its interesting appearance, a persuasive seller. The contents mean nothing to me."

"Of course."

"Though even what is incomprehensible can have a certain poetic quality."

"For all your talk of Baudelaire you don't strike me as a poet."

"When I was younger I thought I might be one. I even tried hashish, under scientifically controlled conditions."

Carreau laughs. "And what did you discover?"

"That it was never my destiny to be an original creative artist, though I might still be a writer. I went to the island of Capri seeking inspiration, fell in love there, and also bought the item you judge to be so precious. To me it is the embodiment of everything that is lost."

"In other words she turned you down."

"But what about you, sir? Why did you go to such lengths, tracking me down among the displaced hordes in Marseilles? When I got your telegram I realised this must be no ordinary book, no average collector looking for bargains in troubled times."

Carreau looks witheringly at him. "You know I have no need to explain myself."

Benjamin, humbled, is reminded that their encounter, unlike the object that prompted it, is entirely about material content, not form. "You promised payment."

"I'm a man of my word." Carreau brings the required travel documents from his pocket.

"Did you know our transit visas would be declared invalid at the border?"

"No, and I didn't know you'd be arrested. But with these papers you should be fine." He pauses, the keys to freedom held tantalisingly in his left hand, while his right rests on the book they almost equal. "You realise, of course, that I didn't get these for nothing. And I still need to come to an arrangement with the chief of police."

"You want more?" Benjamin asks, stunned.

"It's only fair."

"But I have nothing else."

Carreau frowns. "Are you trying to tell me your socks aren't stuffed with gold coins? Or is there perhaps another rare item hiding in that briefcase of yours?"

Benjamin lowers his head. "I'm not a rich man. Only an author and book lover."

"Not a successful author, then? Or at least from a family wealthy enough to support a scholarly son?"

"Not even prestigious enough," says Benjamin, "for my books to have suffered the honour of being burned by the fascists. Though I feel the heat."

There is not a trace of sympathy in Carreau's features. "Tell me, in all your hashish dreams, did you ever foresee a future like this?"

"I foresaw it only when sober. Intoxicated, I was in paradise."

"Better to have stayed there. And do you honestly have nothing left to give?"

"It's the truth, sir."

The travel documents are still poised in Carreau's hand. He purses his lips, reaches out his arm. "Take them."

"Thank you..."

"Just take them." Carreau rises to his feet to give the papers to Benjamin, too weak to leave his bed.

"And the chief of police...?"

"I'll see what I can do. Thank you for the book." He looks at it in his hand, tapping it with satisfaction. "Isn't life hellishly ironic? Good luck to you, sir."

The transaction complete, Carreau leaves the room, and in the silence bequeathed to him, Benjamin continues to stare a while longer at the open briefcase, then stuffs the travel papers inside his jacket and lies back with a sigh. He knows the truth: Carreau is a liar and a fraud. There will be no bribe, no negotiation, the parting good-luck wish is an admission that Benjamin is on his own now. Tomorrow they will all be sent back to France and interned there. Carreau is a cheating non-entity while Benjamin, on the contrary, is a genius and an honest man, completely honest, for it is true: he has nothing. His gold coins have been divided between Henny and Joseph, and they will all still have need of them.

Yvette is relieved to see her husband return; being alone in the dining room under the scrutiny of the lone stranger has been unnerving for her. When Carreau sits down again at the table he blocks the suspicious man's unwelcome line of sight. "Did you get it?" Yvette whispers.

He nods.

"Then where is it?"

"I left it at the desk, Suner's there."

"Is that wise?"

"Don't worry, everything's fine."

She glances beyond his shoulder. "That man's been staring at me."

Carreau doesn't need to look round. "You should be flattered - have you really forgotten what it feels like?"

"Don't mock me, Louis. You get what you want and suddenly everything's a joke. That's typical of you."

He turns and waves to Pablo, who gives a harassed acknowledgment from the other end of the room.

"What about the refugees?" Yvette asks him.

"I told you, I'll have a word with the chief of police, it'll all be sorted by morning."

Pablo attends them with a bow; the bill is paltry and Carreau settles it with a few notes, leaving a large tip. "Thank you, senor, thank you!" The waiter insists on shepherding them out of the dining room to the hotel lobby, where Suner is speaking on the telephone.

"That's right, we need a doctor, one of our guests is feeling ill." Suner looks at Carreau and raises a finger of his free hand to show he is in control of everything. "Get Ramon over here to have a look at him. Yes, he can pay, he's a professor, his lady friend came down a moment ago to tell me they need help." Suner reaches below the desk and brings out the calfskin book which he slides without comment across the smooth surface into Carreau's grip; the negotiations continue a few moments longer before Suner hangs up.

"He can pay?" says Carreau.

"I expect he'll have to, one way or another." Suner gives a hoarse chuckle, amused by the plight these foolish French Jews have thrown themselves into.

Carreau reaches into his jacket for something, cocks an eyebrow in apparent surprise, mutters an impatient self-condemnation and then says to both Suner and Yvette, the two of them equal in their ignorance of his intention, "I must go upstairs for a moment." He leaves them standing awkwardly alone.

Suner smiles sympathetically at madame who is looking old and tired. "Would you like to sit down?"

She responds with no more than a dignified lifting of her nose. This little hovel is like the whole of Spain, she can't wait to be out of it, just as soon as Carreau can complete his work.

"If madame would like a drink...?"

Nothing the manager might possibly say could make her any less eager to escape. She moves away from the desk, Suner becomes occupied with meaningless paperwork and a moment later absents himself to the adjoining office. Not long afterwards, the dining room door opens. It is the lone stranger who comes out, eyeing Yvette significantly in the instant before she glances aside and focuses her attention on a potted plant on the windowsill, potent object of simulated interest.

"Good evening, madame."

She thinks she hears a German accent embedded in his good French, and cannot avoid his greeting, nor conceal her unease. "Good evening, monsieur."

"How many goodly creatures are there here."

It sounds like some form of code; a relief, because it means he must be looking for someone else. "Monsieur," she says with a polite and final nod as she turns away to examine once more the trailing leaves of the plant.

But he is not to be so easily dismissed. In a whisper close beside her ear he suddenly says, "Take my advice, get out of town, you and your husband. Leave tonight." Startled, she sees the curt bow with which he takes his leave of her.

She is still trying to make sense of it when Louis returns, looking cross. "Come on," he says gruffly.

Suner, alerted by his guest's descent, comes back out of the office and goes to hold open the door for them, attending their every movement like a panting dog, exhorting them to return tomorrow for an even more delicious meal. Once outside in the street, Yvette asks her husband what happened with the professor.

"I offered him some medicine," he says. Then drawing his wife close to his side, he escorts her safely away.