Life is so Short

Quim Monzó

Photograph by Sherman Ong

The man runs towards the third elevator that has just started to close; he manages to stick his right foot into the small space that's still open, which is enough to make the two sides of the door immediately shoot open. He steps inside and greets the woman who is there already with a "Hello!"; she is very beautiful, with cascading tresses of hair and chestnut colored lips. The man (inhibited by the thought that he'd glimpsed a censorious glint in her eyes, because he'd re-opened the doors and stopped the elevator) stands to one side, looks at the buttons, sees 9 is lit up, takes a step forward, presses 12, that lights up, and goes back to where he was standing. The door closes slowly. He tries not to look at the woman too brazenly. But he can't stop himself from looking at her out of the corner of one eye. Her eyes, chin, legs . . . The door closes, the elevator begins to go up. The numbers light up on the indicator: 1, 2 . . . Piped music plays a sanitized tune. The man looks at his wristwatch. It stopped a while ago. He shakes it, as if shaking will bring it back to life; that used to work with wind up watches, not with the battery kind. It's a slow elevator, and the slowness helps underline the impression of safety suggested by the thick, protective walls. The clean state of the interior also reinforces this impression. A dirty elevator seems abandoned and, hence, unsafe. This one isn't: it is spick and span and new. 5 has already lit up on the indicator and now it will be 6's turn. When 6 lights up, the elevator stops, the doors open, and a bespectacled old man wearing a small hat pokes his head inside.

"Going down?"

The man says they aren't. The old man wrinkles his nose and disappears to the right, index finger at the ready, clearly intending to summon the second elevator, unaware it's out of order and being repaired on the ground floor. The door closes again. For a second, the woman glances at the man, and their eyes meet. He smiles. She averts her gaze. They can see 7 light up on the indicator and then 8. They are midway between the eighth and the ninth floors (8 is still lit up on the indicator and 9 has yet to show) when the elevator stops. The man looks from the woman, to the button panel, to the door ("Here we go again!"). The woman looks at him, the button panel, and the door. The woman is the first to express dismay ("Now what?") and the man the first to try to act as if everything is under control ("Above all, we must not panic."). The woman presses 9, 12, and the ground floor buttons, and when none responds, she asks the man if they should push the button sporting the image of an alarm bell. The man agrees. So they press the alarm button, and the bell immediately rings loud and clear, as if it was on the other side of the elevator walls. Where on earth is it? On the ground floor? In the concierge's office? Is there more than one? From time to time they stop pressing the bell and listen hard, to see if they can hear any noise, someone who's heard them and started the rescue operation or, at least, is nearby and shouting to them reassuringly. But they hear nothing, except for the piped music that churns out song after song, quite oblivious.

A few minutes afterwards the woman introduces herself ("Since it looks as if we're going to have to coexist a while . . ."), the man follows suit and tries to bring a touch of humor by asking if she suffers from claustrophobia. The woman smiles: No, she doesn't. He doesn't either ("We must consider ourselves fortunate. If one of us did, it would be horrible for both.") She's still smiling, and he thinks her smile seems promising. Obviously, trapped inside the elevator as they are, in between floors, in the few minutes they've been stuck there, each has had time to reflect, if only fleetingly, on the so-called urban myths that exist about their situation (two people trapped in an elevator that has come to a halt between two floors), that parallel equally bright ideas about what a man and a woman do on a deserted island, absolutely alone and isolated from the world, though heaven knows for how long. He recognizes that he indeed feels attracted to her, but is she attracted to him?

The woman asks if anything important or urgent brought him to the office block this morning. He says it is relatively important ("Work issues.") and remarks how strange it is to be trapped in there (for three quarters of an hour by now) and feel that nothing is, in fact, important any more. She too finds it most striking that the urgent matters bringing them to the building can, all of a sudden, cease to be important because of something quite untoward. An hour ago, she continues, her time was all mapped out and she couldn't have afforded to waste a second. Now, suddenly, she can assume the whole day's been wasted. At the very least, the morning. Will they take much longer to extricate them? The man dares to say she certainly appeared to be in a rush, because when he stuck his foot in between the sides of the sliding door, he thought she seemed peeved. The woman smiles and admits she can't stand people who, when elevator doors start to close, poke their foot in, never thinking that, as far as the individuals inside are concerned (who want to go up or down as quickly as possible, and who in fact have already begun the process one way or the other and are totally within their rights), such a gesture seems extremely inconsiderate. The man is about to say that, at least, putting his foot in the door has had one positive outcome: they have met. But fortunately he nips that banality in the bud. She mentions a Woody Allen film in which an elevator plays a central role. Brian de Palma has one too, starring his wife, what was her name? She is so pretty. He says he once read a novel in which an elevator goes through the roof and flies into the sky.

The elevator, she tells him, is the most important means of transport over the last few decades, even though most people don't think of it as a means of transport. The relationship between elevators and the tall buildings that are being built now provides much food for thought. It's not so much that buildings have had elevators installed because they have grown taller and taller; on the contrary, they have grown taller and taller because elevators have become increasingly efficient and safe. She removes her high-heeled shoes and arranges them in a neat line in the corner, under the button panel. Every now and then, one of them presses the alarm bell for several minutes. When one is tired, the other takes a turn, but in the end they both get fed up and sit on the floor side by side. ("They'll get us out of here soon. They can't leave us here forever." "Perhaps we'll end up eating each other like shipwrecked sailors in order to survive.") The woman thinks it is significant that they are sitting side by side.

For a moment while they are waiting, they lose all notion of time. "Don't look at your watch," says one. It is relatively easy for them to count, second by second, to thirty, and do a half-minute. It's more difficult to count, second by second, to five minutes or half an hour. If they were to count second by second for a few hours, their margin for error would skyrocket.

Later, they fall asleep. They wake up simultaneously ("Did you hear a noise?") in a half embrace, one head on the other's shoulder, their eyes so close that, when one whispers an unintelligible sentence, the other opens his or her mouth and says "What?" and one set of lips draws near the other, although, suddenly, they come to a halt (six millimeters from their objective) because, at that very moment, the elevator moves, accelerates quickly, stops (with a final judder), and reaches the ground floor, where the concierge and one of the repair mechanics are waiting ("You both all right?"). The man and woman look at each other. They should say something, arrange to meet . . . But she thinks that, even though he's staring at her, he's not in a hurry to suggest any such thing, and he reflects that though she's staring at him, she heads straight to the fourth elevator, the one furthest away—not interested, he'd say. Now that their situation in the elevator is all over, is everything all over? The man heads out into the street, thinking that he shouldn't have left without fixing a date, or at least exchanging phone numbers. At the precise moment he hits the sidewalk, he wonders why on earth he is walking out if he was supposed to go to the twelfth floor. He half turns round, opens the door into the building, crosses the lobby, avoiding the mechanic and concierge who are observing another mechanic, high up in the ceiling of the new elevator that has broken down, wielding an enormous torch and checking the traction, brake cables, and the guides. The man runs towards the fourth elevator; it has just begun to close, but he manages to stick his right foot into the small space that's still there, thus prompting the two sides of door to slide open immediately.

translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush

Used by permission of Open Letter. Guadalajara, from which this short story is taken, will appear in stores in Jul 2011.

Read translator’s note

Quim Monzó was born in Barcelona in 1952. He has been awarded the National Award, the City of Barcelona Award, the Prudenci Bertrana Award, the El Temps Award, the Lletra d'Or Prize for the best book of the year, and the Catalan Writers' Award; he has been awarded Serra d'Or magazine's prestigious Critics' Award four times. He has also translated numerous authors into Catalan, including Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway.

Peter Bush is an award-winning literary translator who was born in Spalding, Lincolnshire, UK, and now lives in Barcelona. Previously he was Professor of Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, where he directed the British Centre for Literary Translation. He has been active in defence of the rights of literary translators as Vice-President of the International Translators Federation and was founding editor of the literary translators' journal, In Other Words. His recent translations from Spanish include Níjar Country and Exiled From Almost Everywhere by Juan Goytisolo and Celestina by Fernando de Rojas; from Catalan A Shortcut to Paradise by Teresa Solana and The Last Patriarch by Najat El Hachmi. He is now finishing Tirano Banderas by Ramón del Valle-Inclán, the classic novel on the theme of dictatorship in Latin America and L'Éloge de l'Amour, a philosophical dialogue between Alain Badiou and Nicolas Truong. He has also translated the novel, The Enormity of the Tragedy, by Quim Monzó.

Life is full of trivial rituals that we barely notice, unless there is an unexpected hitch that hurts or disturbs – blood in the urine, a thumb caught in the door, or a Humpty Dumpty who doesn't fall off his wall. In his story collection, Guadalajara, Quim Monzó brilliantly embroiders a number of such shocks: Robin Hood merely turns the needy poor into the greedy rich; a bright student deliberately fails his end-of-year examinations; a bar liar spins yet another yarn and this time convinces his audience.

In 'Life Is So Short' the habitual rite is the act of getting into an elevator to go to a business meeting that traps a man and a woman alone in the shaft and in a re-play of the urban myth of "what would you do if...?" The answer, as often with Monzó, is eventually nothing after a feverish bout of imaginary possibilities and tentative approaches: no kiss, no date, simply a back to the beginning and another foot in the elevator door.

His style in Catalan is a spare account of small, physical acts, high tension and abrupt interactions. The translator has to sustain in English the repetition of verbs, lack of adjectives and overall tightness of resonance. There is shock but no explosion. Among the many decisions I took in the drafting process was how to translate "empassar-se la cursilada" - "to swallow /gulp down the commonplace/trite thought" when the man decides not to say it was lucky he stuck his foot between the closing doors: "he nips that banality in the bud" was my manner of reaching the Catalan combination of very physical verb and abstract noun that also denotes the man's mixture of impetuosity and self constraint.

I also italicized two words in the man's stream of thought: "she" and later "everything" to emphasize his insecurity and hesitancy. Catalan rarely uses italics to underline and employs other means. In the latter case, through the repetition of the verb "acabar" and the climax on the short but dramatic "tot" or "everything": "Acabada la situació a l'ascensor, acabat tot?" becomes "Now that their situation in the elevator is all over, is everything all over?" As a translator I usually prefer to maintain the stylistic concentration of the original and not become wordy in English. During my self- editing process, the style within the translation will usually become pared down and denser. In this case, I felt the rhythm of the narrative demanded a lengthier turn of phrase to reflect the bottled-up frustrations of Quim Monzó's entrepreneurial go-getters.