Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Making Do

by Italo Calvino
translated by Tim Parks

There was a town where everything was forbidden.

Now, since the only thing that wasn't forbidden was the game tip-cat, the town's subjects used to assemble on meadows behind the town and spend the day there playing tip-cat.

And as the laws forbidding things had been introduced one at a time and always with good reason, no one found any cause for complaint or had any trouble getting used to them.

Years passed. One day the constables saw that there was no longer any reason why everything should be forbidden and they sent messengers to inform their subjects that they could do whatever they wanted.

The messengers went to those places where the subjects were wont to assemble.

"Hear ye, hear ye," they announced, "nothing is forbidden any more."

The people went on playing tip-cat.

"Understand?" the messengers insisted. "You are free to do what you want."

"Good," replied the subjects. "We're playing tip-cat."

The messengers busily reminded them of the many wonderful and useful occupations they had once engaged in and could now engage in again. But the subjects wouldn't listen and just went on playing, stroke after stroke, without even stopping for a breather.

Seeing that their efforts were in vain, the messengers went to tell the constables.

"Easy," the constables said. "Let's forbid the game of tip-cat."

That was when the people rebelled and killed the lot of them.

Then without wasting time, they got back to playing tip-cat.

Italo Calvino (1923-1985). Born in Cuba. Grew up in San Remo, Italy. One of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. Extremely versatile, Calvino produced superb examples of neo-realism, modern fables, science fiction, fantasy and OuLiPo experimentalism. Numbers in the Dark is a representative cross-section of his life's work. Tip-cat is a game that involves hitting a stick across a certain distance and trying to estimate the number of hops it will take a player to cover the same distance.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

A Shortish Gent

by Daniil Kharms
translated by Neil Cornwell

A shortish gent with a pebble in his eye went up to the door of a tobacconist's shop and stopped. His black polished shoes gleamed on the stone step leading up to the tobacconist's. The toe-caps of his shoes were directed at the inside of the shop. Two more steps and the gentleman would have disappeared through the door. But for some reason he dilly-dallied, as though purposely to position his head under the brick which was falling from the roof. The gentleman had even taken off his hat, baring his bald skull, and thus the brick struck the gentleman right on his bare head, broke the cranium and embedded itself in his brain. The gentleman didn't fall. No, he merely staggered a bit from the terrible blow, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, used it to wipe his face, which was all gooey from blood and brains, and, turning towards the crowd, which had instantly gathered around the gentleman, he said: -- Don't worry, ladies and gents: I've already had the vaccination. You can see -- I've got a protruding pebble in my right eye. That was also once quite an incident. I've already got used to that. Now everything's just fine and dandy!

And with these words the gentleman replaced his hat and went off somewhere into the margins, leaving the troubled crowd in complete bewilderment.


Daniil Kharms (1905-1942). Born in St Petersburg. From "Sherlock Holmes" he took the pseudonym "Kharms". With Alexander Vvedensky he co-founded the avant garde literary movement, OBERIU (An Association of Real Art). Typical catch-phrases of the movement: "Art is a cupboard!" and "Poems aren't pies, we aren't herring!" Continually arrested for subversion, Kharms was murdered by enforced starvation in the psychiatric ward of a Lenningrad prison. Why not buy Incidences, his collected short stories...