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Chronicles of a Hidden Truth

Pere Calders

Subtle Invasion

At the Hostal Punta Marina, in Tossa de Mar, I met a disturbing Japanese man who didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to the idea I’d formed of the Japanese.

At suppertime he took a seat at my table after asking my permission without much ceremony. I was struck that he didn’t have slanted eyes or yellowish skin. Just the opposite: his cheeks were pink and his hair was fairly blond.

I was curious to see which dishes he ordered. It was childish, I admit, to expect foods that weren’t what we eat nowadays, or that made up exotic combinations. I was surprised that he had them bring him a typical Catalan meal: salad—”with extra onion,” he said in Catalan—then cap i pota (a stew of calf’s cheek and foot), followed by molls a la brasa i ametlles torrades (grilled mullet with roasted almonds). He finished off the meal with coffee, cognac, and a cigar.

I’d imagined the Japanese would eat with exaggerated neatness, even to the point of irritation, pincering the food as if each morsel were a mechanism in a timepiece. But this wasn’t the case: the man served himself with knife and fork, using them with great fluidity, and he chewed each mouthful without any breach of aesthetics. Reality shook my preconceptions.

He spoke Catalan as well as any of us, without the least trace of a foreign accent. This wasn’t so strange if you consider that the Japanese are very studious and quite clever. Yet it made me feel inferior, since I didn’t know a scrap of Japanese. I have to admit that I was the one, oddly enough, who introduced a foreign note into the conversation, adapting my every action—gestures, words, opening lines—to the concrete fact that my tablemate was Japanese. He, however, stayed fresh as a rose.

I thought he must have been a sales rep or dealer of digital cameras or computer chips—who also happened to know about cultured pearls. I tried all these topics, and he swept them away with a broad wave of his arm.

“I sell saints’ images from Olot,” he said.

“There’s still a market for those things?” I asked. And he said that, yes, there was, that it had certainly fallen, but he was keeping it alive. He covered the southern region of the peninsula, and when there was a break or two holidays fell together, people were certain to be at home.

“There’s no place like home!” he decided with a look of satisfaction.

“Do you live in your country?”

“Where else would you want me to live?”

Yes, clearly, they’re globetrotters, and they get around everywhere. I looked at him again, and I swear that no detail, whether in his clothing or in his manner, gave away his Japanese origins. He even wore the shield of the Barcelona Football Club pinned to his lapel.

In a word, he was very suspicious, and I grew worried. My wife had her supper served in our room because she felt a bit sick. I described my chance meeting to her, decking the tale with my fears: when you came right down to it, the guy was a spy.

“Where did you get this idea that he’s Japanese?” she asked me.

I laughed, although without much glee, pitying her innocence.

“I recognize them a mile away,” I replied.

“You mean you’ve seen many Japanese people?”

“No, but I spot them immediately!”

“He told you he was Japanese?”

“Not once. They’re shrewd.”

“Did somebody else tell you?”

“No one told me anything. No one needs to tell me. I have the sharpest instincts!”

We had a falling-out. She is always getting at me, saying that I’m nasty and someday I’ll really put my foot in it. As if I didn’t have my wits about me! She seems to get pleasure from abandoning logic, and she is incredibly naïve.

That night I slept little and badly. I couldn’t get the Japanese man out of my head. Because as long as they show up as they are, with that little smile, those bows, that sideways glance, we’ll be able to protect ourselves. Or so I hope! But if they put on such a charade, such a bogus display, we’ll really have our hands full.

translated from the Catalan by Lawrence Venuti