Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Wretched Donkey by Elias Canetti

I liked to return from my evening strolls through the streets of Marrakesh by way of the Djema el Fna. It was strange, crossing the great square as it lay almost empty. There were no acrobats any more and no dancers; no snake-charmers and no fire-eaters. A little man squatted forlornly on the ground, a basket of very small eggs before him and nothing and no one else anywhere near him. Acetylene lamps burned here and there; the square smelled of them. In the cookshops one or two men still sat over their soup. They looked lonely, as if they had nowhere to go. Around the edges of the square people were settling down to sleep. Some lay, though most squatted, and they had all pulled their hoods of their cloaks over their heads. Their sleep was motionless; you would never have suspected anything breathing beneath those dark hoods.

One night I saw a large dense circle of people in the middle of the square, acetylene lamps illuminating them in the strangest way. They were all standing. The dark shadows on the faces and figures, edged by the harsh light thrown on them by the lamps, gave them a cruel, sinister look. I could hear two native instruments playing and a man’s voice addressing someone in vehement terms. I went up closer and found a gap through which I could see inside the circle. What I saw was a man, standing in the middle with a stick in his hand, urgently interrogating a donkey.

Of all the city’s miserable donkey’s, this was the most pitiful. His bones stuck out, he was completely starved, his coat was worn off, and he was clearly no longer capable of bearing the least burden. One wondered how his legs still held him up. The man was engaged in a comic dialogue with him. He was trying to cajole him into something. The donkey remained stubborn, he asked him questions; and when he refused to answer, the illuminated onlookers burst out laughing. Possibly it was a story in which a donkey played a part, because after a lengthy palaver the wretched animal began to turn very slowly to the music. The stick was still being brandished above him. The man was talking faster and faster, fairly ranting now in order to keep the donkey going, but it sounded to me from his words as if he too represented a figure of fun. The music played on and on and the men, who now never stopped laughing had the look of man-eating or donkey- eating savages.

I stayed only a short time and so cannot say what happened subsequently. My repulsion outweighed my curiosity. I had long before conceived an affection for the donkeys of the city. Every step offered me occasion to feel indignant at the way we were treated, though of course there was nothing I could do. But never had quite such a lamentable specimen as this crossed my path, and on my way home I sought to console myself with the thought that he would certainly not last the night.

The next day was a Saturday and I went to the Djema el Fna early in the morning. Saturday was one of its busiest days. Onlookers, performers, baskets, and booths thronged the square; it was a job to make one’s way through the crowd. I came to the place where the donkey had stood the evening before. I looked, and I could hardly believe my eyes: there he was again. He was standing all by himself. I examined him closely and there was no mistaking him; it was he. His master was nearby, chatting quietly with a few people. No circle had formed around him yet. The musicians were not there; the performance had not yet begun. The donkey was standing exactly as he had the night before. In the bright sunshine his coat looked even shabbier than at night. I found him older, more famished, and altogether more wretched.

Suddenly I became aware of someone behind me and of angry words in my ear, words I did not understand. Turning, I lost sight of the donkey for a moment. The man I had heard was pressed right up against me in the crowd, but it became apparent that he had been threatening someone else and not me. I turned back to the donkey.

He had not budged, but it was no longer the same donkey. Because between his back legs, slanting forwards and down, there hung all of a sudden a prodigious member. It was stouter than the stick the man had been threatening him with the night before. In the tiny space of time in which I had had my back turned an overwhelming change had come over him. I do not know what he had seen, heard or smelled. But that pitiful, aged, feeble creature, who was on the verge of collapse and quite useless for anything more except as the butt of a comic dialogue, who was ‘treated worse that a donkey in Marrakesh’, that being, less than nothing, with no meat on his bones, no strength, no proper coat, still had so much lust in him that the mere sight absolved me of the impression caused by his misery. I often think of him. I remind myself how much of him was still there when I saw nothing left. I wish all the tormented his concupiscence in misery.

The Voices of Marrakesh by Elias Canetti; translated from the German by J.S. Underwood; Marion Boyars, London; 1982 (1967)

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