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Euskal Idazleen Elkartea

Pedro Alberdi Zinkunegi > Extracts

Narrative (short story and novel)

2002 | Alberdania


KAFKA IN BILBAO

Many of us students from Gipuzkoa used to spend the week in Bilbao spread around different suburbs. Shortly after our arrival in the city, we began to meet up behind the Arriaga Theatre on Fridays and Saturdays waiting for the Irun-Gijon line coaches that would take us home at the weekend. We used to turn up for our weekly meeting in plenty of time; not so much because we were afraid of missing our coaches, but because it gave us a chance to speak to our friends and catch up on what everyone had been doing. That was why the moment we got there we used to look out for familiar faces among the travellers who had gathered there; if there weren't any, we would join the queue to buy our tickets, as we kept an eye out for when the others arrived. Someone would show up sooner or later, or else they were already there by the time we arrived, and gradually our group of students from Gipuzkoa would expand and grow until the time came for us to board our coaches.

The years went by and before long we began to notice the consequences of our separation during the week. And from one day to the next many of us began to move, make new friends, drop out of our original courses and register for new ones and that was how the initial atmosphere we had shared eventually changed. It changed so much that we no longer knew for sure who lived where, with whom, what course he was on or what he did with his time during the week. We had an idea, but we did not know for sure. And we were proud and did not ask any questions. Conseqently, as the unasked questions and answers without questions increased, our attitude changed and while we waited we no longer sought just any old company, but the company of those closest to us. As a result, our groups of friends became smaller and more close-knit.

But we carried on arriving early and when the conversations among us became commonplace, we took notice of our surroundings. In front of us, a few metres away The broad river Nerbioi, a famous river, the Basque Country's river of rivers, which at times we would find big and broad, at others not so big and not so broad, sometimes low and insignificant, but always mucky and uneven. At one point we realised what caused the transformation of the river, and made it grow or diminish, and we did not get angry, good heavens no, when we fully understood the meaning behind the words one can read in any encyclopaedia: Bilbao, a city crossed by the River Nerbioi, or to be exact, an estuary bearing the same name, because its waters are affected by the movements of the tides as they move upriver,ā On the other side of the river there was a sign bearing the words Santurce-San Julian de Muskiz written in large letters above the entrance into the railway station there. It was incomprehensible to us and worthy of our attention. "Isn't Santurce the last town on the way to the sea?" I wondered. "So what is that San Julianā? A neighbourhood? A port?" The modesty of the name which we had never heard fired our imagination. And for want of any other reason, it occurred to us, whenever we saw that large space occupied by the sign, that we had to seek its importance elsewhere -perhaps in former times when the railway was built, or before that when carts were used for transport, for example. Quite a distance behind the station above buildings of varying shapes and sizes was the top of the Banco de Vizcaya, the city's watchtower and keeper. As we gazed at it, we remembered what a friend at the Economics faculty said on one occasion, that, despite the apparent contradiction, money was in fact full of fear, so it always had to be on the lookout. At the same time we remembered that we had heard another friend, who was studying Psychology, saying that, despite the apparent contradiction, fear was daring. And absorbed in the whirl of contradictions, we would gaze at the top floors of the skyscraper and had no idea what to think about the people who lived there.

The years passed and our student days came to an end. All of a sudden we found ourselves having to face the problem of finding a job. Most of us returned to our hometowns with this aim in mind, but some of us decided to stay in Bilbao, or maybe we had been destined to do so. So after the wholesale return by many to their hometowns, our group of friends, which used to gather behind the Arriaga Theatre, not only dwindled, but met so infrequently that it ceased to exist. Despite all we never got out of the habit of arriving in plenty of time, and surveying our surroundings -which until that moment had been no more than a leisure activity- became the main way of killing time while we waited. So, we turned our attention to the young students from Gipuzkoa who were to succeed those who had left and we decided that they were following in all our footsteps. As far as the landscape was concerned, we became aware of the presence of the seagulls and saw how they flew low over the water; we heard their cries and realised how much Bilbao -which is inland- is connected with the sea, as we reflected on the depth of its connection with the sea.

But more than anything else it was that small sign that was to surprise us. Attached to a wide balcony of a fourth-floor flat in a row of high-rise blocks that came after the railway station for Santurce further up the river, it seemed to be quite a distance from us. On it the words "Assicurazioni Generali" could be read if one took the trouble to pick out all the letters. But where on earth had we heard that name? Why did we find it familiar? There was no doubt that it was an Italian name, but knowing that contributed little to our investigations. How many periods of waiting did we have before the mystery was solved? Goodness knows. The question was that we would see the light at some time or another. On one occasion the suspicion took root in our minds that the name had something to do with Kafka. That suspicion was not something the imagination had produced out of nothing, but the echo of something that had been read before. All of a sudden we remembered some details of the writer's life, how he had been a lawyer by profession, how he had spent all his life working in an office, and how much he suffered because he was unable to make a living as a writer. Was that, we wondered as we looked at the small sign on the other side of the river, the name of the Ofizina which distressed Kafka so much? That weekend the question continued to haunt us. On our return to Bilbao, we hastened to satisfy our curiosity and got hold of his biography. In it we read: On June 18, 1906, Franz Kafka graduated as a Doctor of Law, and after acquiring work experience at a law office for a year, he started to work for the "Assicurazioni Generali" insurance company on October 1, 1907.

So our suspicions turned out to be right. It goes without saying that we were delighted. The fact is we were fascinated by Kafka from the very moment his name had occurred to us. Moreover, we were to conclude that, according to the details of his biography, there were many similarities between our situation and his: at that time Kafka would have been twenty-four, exactly the same age as us, and he had just started his first job, just like us. We did not let on to anyone about this. It was to be our little secret. When we went to catch the coach during the weeks that followed, we strutted around the place where students from Gipuzkoa gathered. When we stood next to them and heard their conversations we decided that they were carrying on in the same old way, as they formed small groups of friends and told each other about what had happened during the week. As a general rule we would have been happy to gaze at them. Yet, when we got tired of their conversations, we would turn our heads towards the river and see the sign. When we saw it, Kafka's name and image would take shape in our minds and we would recall some of the things we had forgotten about the writer.
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