The Linguist

Russell

He didn’t very much like the warm wine. It was one European custom he couldn’t get used to, although the flavor was stronger. It was too foreign for him, and after taking that expeditionary sip, he drew the glass away from his mouth. He looked around, feigning nonchalance, and quickly, clandestinely poured the wine into a nearby plant. Leaning toward the window and looking at the French roads and people, he rolled his glass in his hand mindlessly. This was his second day in Paris, and he had just recovered from a serious case of jet lag. He was on a transcontinental journey, looking for a place to settle and write; or, possibly, become a translator. He had completed a university education, with dual degrees in English and Linguistics. He specialized in no specific language besides his mother tongue; he held a passion for all languages but mostly enjoyed the Classics. A Latin scholar and Hellenophile, he began translating Homer, Catullus, and Ovid at thirteen years old, with no help except the notes given by the text and an inquisitive, almost annoyingly pressing mind. He had even translated the entirety of the New Testament from Greek into English, but found little else do with the Book.

Of the few close friends he did have, most would call him neurotic. He always suffered from an obsequiousness to his academic aspirations and capabilities. Social ties were cut in favor of academic excellence; and although an intelligent linguist, he was, at his base, a gullible recluse. It seemed strange that such a recluse would be multilingual, as he had neither want nor any apparent need to talk with anyone. In fact, he easily mastered so-called ‘dead languages,’ as he could memorize rules of the unambiguous grammar and form linguistic formulas with verbal variables. Latin and Homeric Greek posed little problem: it was the modern languages that he disliked. He would always transpose words from one language to another with modern European languages. German and the Slavic language family made him sweat the most, so much so that even in simple conversations he would carry and consult with extensive dictionaries. Such affairs were odious to him, as he was proud of knowing these things off the top of his head. This is the reason why he skipped Germany and Eastern Europe: he couldn’t bother seeming ignorant for anyone.

   Thus far he had visited Spain, with a focus on the more Muslim-influenced south. He reveled in the beauty of Alhambra and studied the relationship between Spanish and Arabic; this particular relationship interested him most of all among linguistic partnerships. Next he had sailed along the North African coast, and then up into Italy, where he spent time in Rome and Florence. Finally, now, he ventured to Paris to practice his French. And, sitting in a café, drinking and dispersing of warm wine, he mumbled to himself in French that was wrought with archaic terms, colloquialisms, and broken, sharp interjections that would startle those near him. The waitress would let him alone for as long as she could before his grating voice called out in a mediocre accent, “I’m ready to order,” and today was no exception. It took ten minutes—time more aptly spent serving those actually drinking and eating—until she came to him and he dismissively ordered a coffee.

   It was a good choice, as he hadn’t slept in four days, or maybe five. He wasn’t particularly sure; he only knew that he had seen too many sunrises without the closing of his eyes.

   Dreamily he reviewed the conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ in three languages simultaneously, rocking his head at relinquished, forgotten forms until they revealed themselves in silent epiphany. By the time he noticed that the coffee had arrived, and lifted his head to half-heartedly say “Merci,” the waitress was gone and the coffee lukewarm. He thought for a moment about complaining about the coffee served nearly room temperature, until he realized he had dozed off, as the lighting had changed and the clientele shifted. He took a large gulp of it after adding two packets of sugar and resolved that he wouldn’t take a job in Paris. He was turned off by the unfriendliness of the Parisians. But, of course, it was not his way to admit fault and it was definitely his way to place the blame on others. After a few more contemplative sips, he hurriedly demanded the check. He almost wished that European waiters and waitresses lived off tips in the same way as American servers, just so he could stiff them for their disregard. If pressed for an explanation, he might say that the waitress was not eager, looked exasperated, or was too cold to him. But, as Fagles interpreted, reverence asks some reverence in return.

   So he calmly somnambulated through the streets until he groped his way to his temporary home and by some miracle found his bed, and lied down, at first panicky at his insomnia and then calm, looking at the room’s ceiling. In silent hours he looked up at dancing dreams that taunted and teased him. The great fountain of life, sleep, not only eluded him, but actively fled from him, as did everything else before in his life. It was strange in that previously he had always tried to keep sleep at bay, and now, by neglect, he could no longer feel its pull. It reminded him of something he had read once:

It is a snare for one to say rashly, “It is holy,” 

and begin to reflect only after making a vow.

Alone and without comfort, he tried to understand and calm himself, but he shook violently; not out of cold, but out of some deeper fears. He lay awake out of an inner sense of guilt.

He rose with a start, fully awake, and felt bothered by the deafening silence. He got up from his bed and took a book from the desk—a Greek tragedy—and he began to translate, or at least endeavored to do so. He found the text to be foreign, illegible, barely picking out prepositions and conjunctions. He was cold to the feeling of the words, their poignancy, the depth of meaning. He knew so many words, so much vocabulary, and yet there was nothing that could convey this feeling in any language he knew. He closed the book and was afraid to open it or anything else, that it might be that same wall of illegible text. He opened his window, hoping to overhear some loud Parisian conversation and translate what he could make out. But there was none. Outside it was deadly silent, almost as much as it was within, and the silence of that Sunday evening almost seemed religious, quite the opposite of secular France. He had liked that aspect of Europe; it had offered more leisure, but now he was active and insatiable. He scorned the silence, shouting in his head over it. He did not want to hear what the silence offered.

   The linguist shut the window and tried to sleep, to no avail. It went on for six more days in the same manner. Every night he shuffled through his bag, the tomes he had brought with him, the notes he had written on Alhambra, his own musings. Out came the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Argonautica. But they yielded nothing to him. He opened the Aeneid on the third day and found that same insurmountable wall of text. He left Hesiod’s work untouched, Ovid lay at the bottom of his bags. Among the works he would not even touch was his copy of the New Testament. He believed he was losing his practice; others thought that he had lost his mind. He shut himself up in that Parisian room and let nothing out. Only once, on the second day of his self-imposed imprisonment, did he leave, but only to buy food so as to lock himself in further. Any contact he had had with people overseas was dropped altogether, and close family and friends thought that he had simply found his calling in Paris. Although this was not the case, there was something else calling out to him: a requiem knell, resounding in his mind, an unconquerable storm.

   On the fourth day of the captivity he missed his flight out of Paris, and his stay in the hotel had ended. On the fifth, as he ran out of food, the owner went up to his room to evict him. He climbed up the steps and opened the door to find a horror. The linguist, shivering violently at his desk, was stricken with pale fatigue and deepening wrinkles in his face. The linguist turned dull, soulless eyes on to the owner for a few seconds before recognizing him. In shaky English, he asked to renew his stay for two days more, and the owner, although shaken by the sight, felt greed, rather than compassion, overtook him. It would’ve been better to evict him; at least then he might’ve sought help. But, as so many others before him, he failed his fellow man. It could be that indifference created this fool of a man, the linguist; he would agree, surely, but what kiln set this shattering clay? It was not warmth, but cold indifference that molded him. He was not to blame.

   He had given up translating for now. He took every moment he could to rest his eyes, begging for sleep to an unknown entity, but the knell continued to ring in his head. So long had he been looking for vocation, but he was presented the one that he did not desire.

   When the two days were up and he no longer had money to pay for another night, he went to take money out from an ATM. However, bereft of sleep, the numbers on the pad meant nothing and his words were either silent or slurred. He was deemed drunk and had the police called on him. With great pity, they rushed him along, away from the machine; a considerable crowd watched him walk away. He ended up selling his things on the street, as it was the only alternative to come to his mind, and he terribly undervalued them. He was, however, a sight not-out-of-place among the other charlatans and kitsch-salesmen, although decidedly less charismatic.

He made enough money for a few nights in a hostel. When he did find a small, quaint one, he paid all of his money for a four-bed room and bought every bed so that no one would bother him. To his dismay, the room was on the top floor, where he would have to weakly hobble up the steps, tripping twice. Thus the linguist lived; alone, tired, and terrified.

   Entering the hostel room, he found the only item besides the clothes that he did not sell: a copy of the New Testament in Koine Greek. He opened to the Gospel of John, the third chapter, where Jesus was discussing with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Pouring endlessly over the notes in the book and unable to translate anything not given, he finally came upon a line that spoke to him. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Soon he began to recognize more and more of the passage. Nicodemus began to take shape in his mind. Suddenly, the meaning and emotion leapt out at him from the pages, and he felt a calm come over him—as though his guilt were absolved.

When the pale linguist didn’t check out, an employee of the hostel opened the door to find a calm man staring off into the distance, wearing a slight smile and an expression of relief. Thus the linguist died; alone, tired, and unafraid.