I was born in this city. Amsterdam, of course, is not a real city, except in the eyes of people from outside. We, the ones who were born here, immediately recognize the provincial from the way he moves, the way he walks, the way he holds his head. The man from the provinces who thinks he’s ended up in a real city. He walks as though he were in Paris or Rome. He admires his reflection in the store windows and congratulates himself on his decision to exchange his provincial life for a stay in this city, which is not a real city at all.
That is how he sits at the sidewalk cafés, how he eats in the restaurants (always, and without exception, the wrong restaurants), how he strolls through the museums, visits the movies and the plays at the municipal theater: as though he has freed himself from the mud-and-manure pong of his native village, from the chains of a petty existence.
“I’ll never go back there again!” he declares resolutely—but a man from the provinces in Amsterdam is like the prisoner who digs a tunnel only to discover that, instead of outside the penitentiary walls, it surfaces in the exercise yard. Amsterdam is a toy city, a ball pit for grownups, an open-air museum that exhibits traditional arts and crafts.
I could take the easy way out and say that it was mostly his accent that gave Alderman Van Hoogstraten away. But that would indeed be too easy. After all, my wife’s accent gave her away too. You had people who started talking more loudly as soon as they heard her accent, as though they automatically assumed she must be deaf, or retarded. The same loud tone that ambulance personnel use when addressing an old lady along the highway. Can you still hear me, ma’am? Hello, ma’am? How many fingers am I holding up?
Whatever the case, it remained a strange and wondrous thing to hear Alderman Van Hoogstraten say something about Amsterdammers in a speech. Especially about Amsterdammers who included himself. “We Amsterdammers,” he would say, for example—but the way he pronounced “Amsterdammers” reminded you more of pitchforks, pigs and rubber boots in the mud. On the nightly news, people with accents less pronounced than his were subtitled often enough.
The alderman acted like a little boy visiting the big city for the first time. He had moved here about five years earlier, but still couldn’t believe his eyes. He went on being amazed at all the neon signs, the number of motor scooters—he still jumped every time a tram screeched through a curve. At the same time, you could see how pleased he was with himself, that he had left the barnyard and the village pump behind and actually dared to sit at an outdoor café in this big city.
Why does someone cheat on their partner? Out of lust; for the sake of variety; because the opportunity presents itself. I crossed lust off the list right away. Even I, a man after all, the injured male party, the cuckold, could summon up enough objectivity to see that the alderman was no lust object.
What does Maarten van Hoogstraten have that I don’t? Only a few weeks earlier, if someone had suggested I ask myself that, I would have said they were insane.
I wonder if—no, I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have minded as much if my wife had started something with an American movie star. With Brad Pitt or Ryan Gosling. Matthew McConaughey? Or someone a little more her own age: George Clooney. Or ten, twenty years older, what do I care: Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery. That would have been easier to accept, because each of those men is objectively, demonstrably better-looking than I am. More glamorous. In some ways, it would have been more to her detriment than to mine. She’s trying to move up in the world, people would have said, being the wife of the mayor of Amsterdam apparently isn’t enough for her.
But Maarten van Hoogstraten, no matter how you looked at it, was a few giant steps back. Less attractive, on the sliding scale of male attractiveness, than I was. In every way, in terms of both status and physical appearance.
What’s more, the alderman stood for everything my wife despised. Normally speaking, she joked about people like him, or even laughed right in their faces. Maarten van Hoogstraten was a staunch environmentalist. He sincerely believed in global warming. And he was so passionate about it that he tried not to travel by plane. Whenever possible, he would pick a holiday destination you could get to by train.
“But what do you actually think?” I asked him one time. “Do you think the airlines are really going to change their itineraries because they know you’re not on that flight or something? That they’re going to say: Let’s cancel that route, Maarten van Hoogstraten is taking the train?”
He didn’t appreciate that at all. He tried to laugh it off a bit—it was right after the Monday council meeting and we were standing around with a little group in the coffee corner, but I could tell right away that it bothered him.
“Well, but if everyone thought about it the way I do, there really would be a lot fewer flights,” he said.
Since when had my wife been able to stand the company of humorless men for more than ten minutes? The story about the rabbit and the chewed cable didn’t seriously count as humor, did it? Maarten van Hoogstraten was an advocate of windmills. He wanted to ruin the whole Amsterdam skyline with those feeble sails on a stick. The urban planners on the project had played it smart. The whole thing was put together in a way that you could barely get an objection in edgewise. No turbines in residential neighborhoods or too close to buildings, no, all of it out at the edge: along the IJsselmeer, in Amsterdam-Noord, out along the ring road on the south side. The result, though, was that the windmills would be the first thing you saw as you came into Amsterdam. Just when we were off to such a good start creating a real skyline. A miniature skyline, true enough, but still. No self-respecting city could let itself be surrounded by windmills, not if you ask me.
Maarten van Hoogstraten believed in organic meat, he made a huge detour just to buy all his meat at an organic butcher shop, he didn’t know yet that the organic meat myth had been debunked long ago. Organic meat was a direct appeal to the meat-eater’s guilt feelings. But there was a price tag attached.
Since when had my wife been able to stand, for more than ten minutes, the company of men who used no deodorant because it’s better for the environment? Because of the much-vaunted ozone layer. I’m not stupid, I’m perfectly aware that aerosols affect the ozone layer, but that’s no reason to make the people in your immediate surroundings—your own biotope—suffer from an armpit odor most reminiscent of a stagnant pond full of dead frogs. I’m sure he used something: a deo-stick or roller from the health food store, a fragrance based on algae, seaweed and ground sunflower seeds, but whatever it was, it wasn’t very long-lasting. By the time lunch break came around, Maarten van Hoogstraten had already started stinking of himself. The greenhouse effect began with him.
That’s what had always annoyed me most about the alderman: he had left his farming village for the big city, but he brought the countryside along with him. The windmills. The happy free-range pigs, rolling around in the mud. His own barnyard odor.
Last Thursday night, after a meeting that ran late, we went with a few aldermen, including Van Hoogstraten, for a nightcap at Café Schiller.
It’s tiring to be the obvious pivot in almost every group. The motor behind every conversation. I know that sounds arrogant, but it’s just my day-to-day reality. I’ve tested it often enough to know it’s true. In all different kinds of company I have, at some random moment, suddenly stopped talking. At first the other people don’t notice, they go on talking for a while as though nothing was wrong. But the conversation itself starts acting like a plane that suddenly runs out of fuel at high altitude. The engines fall silent, the aircraft begins its nosedive, the crash is inevitable. The people look at each other; occasionally they also steal a look at me. The silences between the sentences grow longer and longer. Then the first of them shrugs, looks at his phone and announces that it’s about time for him to turn in. Another one glances at his half-empty glass and takes a quick slug. A third one acts as though he’s feeling cold and blows into his hands to warm them. But that’s actually the way it is: they really do feel cold. For a while they have warmed themselves at the fire of my presence, my words; the motor that keeps the conversation running all by itself. It’s as though they’re standing around a campfire that went out without anyone noticing.
On the rare occasion, I’ve put it to the ultimate test. No more than rarely, because usually I’m relieved when people get tired of my company and go looking for entertainment elsewhere. In the ultimate test, I also take one last sip from my glass. I look around, as though I’m searching for new faces; the others have already started to turn their backs on me, by the count of three they will start to leave. I count to three. One . . . two . . . three. And then I suddenly say something. A belated comment that no one saw coming. “A city like Amsterdam shouldn’t even want to have windmills,” I say.
They’ve all remained standing; the ones who had turned away now make a half-turn back. I have to do my best not to grin, I see it happening before my eyes, how they look at me expectantly. They don’t say anything, all they do is look.
“Windmills don’t belong in a real city,” I say, half a second before the silence has time to become painful. But even that’s not completely true: no silence is painful in the presence of a strong personality like myself. The strong personality can let the silence go on as long as he wants; there is no one, after all, who dares to break it. Sssh, don’t say anything, he’s probably deep in thought.
That’s the way it is. I am the prime mover behind the conversation. Every conversation. At Café Schiller I put it to the acid test again. Halfway through the conversation, I suddenly fell silent. From one moment to the next, I stopped talking completely, no more than a “yes” or a “no” when someone asked me something. After only a few minutes, they started shifting uneasily in their chairs. Their person-to-person chatting died out too. Every once in a while, they looked furtively at me. “Everything okay, Robert?” the boldest of them asked. “Are you sick?” “No, I feel fine,” I replied. “What could be wrong?”
No new round was ordered. One by one they got up, went to the bar to pay their part of the tab, then left. “Bye.” “Bye.” “Hey!” “See you on Monday.” “Hope you’re feeling better.” That last farewell came from Alderman Hawinkels, the same Alderman Hawinkels who had asked if I was feeling all right. I pictured them unlocking their bikes outside the café. Pictured them clustering together on the sidewalk for a moment. What was with him all of a sudden? Is he sick? Aw, don’t worry about it too much, he’s probably just tired. The end of the week. You’ll see: Monday he’ll be right as rain.
I thought about Alderman Van Hoogstraten. Would he look more concerned than the others? Would he have ideas of his own about my behavior? Maybe he suspects something, maybe that’s why he’s so quiet . . . While still biking home he would call my wife, or send her a text message. I need to talk to you as soon as possible. I think he knows. About us. A few moments of inattention would do it. His front tire would end up in the tram rails. The approaching taxi he would see only too late. At the funeral my wife would wear sunglasses, but at last I would know where I stood. You can keep an extramarital affair under wraps for a long time, but sorrow is a lot tougher, it oozes its way out through every pore.
The following night, Sylvia and I had a fight. Not a little fight; we always skipped the gradual mobilization—the threats to neighboring powers, the cancellation of all furloughs, the summoning of reservists. From one moment to the next we face off, armed to the teeth. I can’t remember what it was about. We’d had dinner at the little Chinese restaurant close to our house, the one we go to whenever we don’t want to run into anyone. The place is always half empty. A few lonely diners, the occasional older couple. No lowered voices, no nudging each other when the mayor comes in—no pulling out the cell phone and asking to make a selfie with him.
As I worked on my wonton soup and Sylvia cut her siu mai into little pieces (a habit that I, according to my mood at the moment, find either annoying or endearing—in any case, a habit that could never cause a fight), everything was still clear skies and smooth sailing. Literally clear skies and smooth sailing, like on the afternoon before Pearl Harbor, the evening before the Six-Day War, the brilliant, cloudless morning of September 11. No one’s being mobilized. No suspicious troop movements have been detected. The element of surprise is the connecting factor here. By the time the marines come barreling out of their barracks, most of them still in their pajamas, some with their razors still in hand, shaving cream still stuck to their faces, the huge flagships of the U.S. fleet are already ablaze or have already sunk. What exactly happened between the time that the waitress cleared the table after the main dish (shrimp with Chinese mushrooms for Sylvia, char siu for me) and the moment that we paid the bill, I have no idea. A teensy mood shift as we walked home. A barely perceptible change in atmospheric pressure, as with an approaching blizzard or thunderstorm. A slight pressure at the back of the eyes: the harbinger of a splitting headache.
“What exactly did you mean by that?” Sylvia asked cuttingly. Maybe we’d been talking about Diana. Not about her new boyfriend, because Sylvia liked him. More like something about school or the quantity of alcohol Diana consumed during a weekend. My wife and I feel differently about that. On both counts, my opinions are a bit more liberal. So maybe it was about our daughter, but then again maybe not; it didn’t really matter. The fact of the matter was that we made no real effort to keep our voices down as we crossed Rembrandtplein. By that point, we were already walking ten feet apart. Every once in a while my wife tried to walk faster, to cut me off, but then I picked up my own pace and caught up with her again. Then I did the same thing. I took such giant steps that within a few seconds I had left her twenty yards behind me. But when I turned my head as discreetly as possible, to catch a glimpse of her from the corner of my eye, I saw that she was making absolutely no attempt to catch up.
“Yeah, run away, coward!” she shouted right then. “Go on, run away again! That’s what you always do when it gets too complicated, run away.”
I stopped. I turned around and stuck my hands deep into the pockets of my raincoat, and I balled my fists. A few passersby had stopped too. A taxi coming from Reguliersdwarsstraat slowed; the driver rolled down his window and said something to my wife. “Keep moving, you!” she yelled. “Mind your own business!” I wondered whether anyone had recognized us yet. It wouldn’t be too hard for someone to pull out his phone and film us. And then sell that film to the tabloids, for good money.
One evening, years ago, we’d had dinner at Sluizer on Utrechtsestraat. Out of the blue, with no warning, I felt the blood drain out of my face. I told my wife that I was going outside, I was afraid I wouldn’t make it to the toilet in time, that I would barf all over our table. I edged my way past the tables. Conversations stopped, heads turned tactfully. I was probably moving too fast, I realized then. And despite the onrush of nausea and the dizzy feeling in my head, I had stood up too quickly. Outside, in the fresh air, I came to my senses quickly enough. I crossed the bridge to the Keizersgracht, unbuttoned my coat and pressed my stomach against the cold metal of the railing. I took a few deep breaths as I stared down, at a couple of ducks floating there beside a half-sunken sloop. After about ten minutes I went back to the restaurant.
Then, a little less than a week later, during dinner with a good friend at another restaurant, the whole thing started. The good friend asked whether things were all right with us. With the two of you, he clarified, looking around and lowering his voice. With my wife and I, our relationship. He had heard something, maybe it was all a load of crap, but he thought it was better to check with me first. Two days later, it happened again. A reception at the Hilton. A friend of a friend, no more than a casual acquaintance really. “Everything okay?” the presumptuous acquaintance asked. “With you and the wife? No, it was just that I heard something. Something about a fight in a restaurant.”
By this time, we were almost back at the house. And we were also walking next to each other again, albeit with five feet between us. In silence. I still had my hands in the pockets of my raincoat; Sylvia, intentionally or no—a soft rain had begun to fall—was holding her open umbrella right above her head, so I couldn’t see her face.
At the front door we went on grumbling a bit. I stuck the key in the lock. My wife said something about how bullheaded I was, that I could never admit to being wrong, or words to that effect. Then we were standing in the entryway. I turned on the light. Sylvia closed her umbrella. Inside, in the entryway, our fight was suddenly over, like a storm from sea that peters out as it moves inland.
“That’s not true,” I said. “It’s not true that I never admit it when I’m wrong.”
“See, there you go again!” my wife said.
And then we both had to laugh; still with our coats on, we hugged each other, awkwardly at first but then with growing conviction.
“What in the world was that all about?” Sylvia said; through the cloth of my raincoat I could feel her fingers massaging my back.
“Don’t ask me,” I said; I tried to do something with my fingers too, but her coat was too thick, so I pressed her against me even harder.
It was true: I had absolutely no idea anymore. The cause and course of our bickering were fading fast already, and as I followed her up the stairs, I couldn’t help but smile.
What, after all, could this fight mean, other than that we still cared about each other? That my wife cared about me, I should say. Only uncaring couples stop fighting completely. At most, they sigh deeply, or roll their eyes meaningfully when the other starts to talk.
Reprinted from The Ditch. Copyright © 2019 by Herman Koch. Published by Hogarth, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.