In September 2001, when I set out for England to study at the University of East Anglia on an Erasmus grant, I wanted to be an American writer. I’d chosen Norwich because it had good literature and film departments, because there was a creative writing programme, and because London was too expensive.
Norwich was also W. G. Sebald country. If I stopped to think about it for a second, it seemed a bit strange: although Sebald had been working at that university – where he’d founded a literary translation centre – for many years, he’d been born in Bavaria in 1944 and was an extraterritorial writer who wrote in German and was critically acclaimed in English-speaking countries, felt more comfortable in the company of the dead than the living, taught classes on Kafka and Robert Walser, and generally didn’t give the impression of being the life and soul of the party.
When I chose Norwich I didn’t know Sebald lived there, or even who Sebald was. When I got there I discovered I couldn’t enrol in Sebald’s classes – a module on Kafka’s short stories – because they were for postgraduates. On the other hand, I was really scared of meeting him, especially since finding out that he didn’t read his contemporaries. I felt a bit embarrassed now that I was a contemporary writer myself.
That day, on the train to Norwich, I was carrying Sebald’s books, a guide to Great Britain and an English-Spanish dictionary that was exaggeratedly large but, I hoped, appropriate for a student of literature. I also had a couple of copies of my recently published book, which I planned to give to Martin Amis when I met him, or donate to the library, eventually gave to a couple of girls I thought were cute. I’d been putting off reading The Rings of Saturn for quite a while. I was on the train when I opened it and joined the narrator on his travels through the Suffolk countryside, examining the skulls of the dead and the history of silk in China and the West.
The train was old and carried few passengers: a man reading a newspaper, a woman sleeping and two girls with lots of suitcases. I thought it might be nice to fall a bit in love with an English girl, like in a Kureishi story. We’d go to London at the weekends and I’d learn English obscenities.
The train stopped. I looked out of the window. I thought I’d see a Sebaldian landscape, but it was already dark and I couldn’t see a thing. I heard the voice of a conductor: the only word I understood was fatality, fatality on the tracks, fatality on the road, something like that. The man who was reading the newspaper raised his eyes when he heard the voice. He made a tired gesture. He said (in what was more comprehensible English to me): ‘Someone’s killed themselves.’
The two girls had been looking at me. One of them – the cuter one – said: ‘Hi, you’re Spanish, right?’
‘I’m from Zaragoza.’
‘We’re from Burgos.’
The train started. A man came along selling coffee and I closed the book and moved over to sit with Marta and Natalia. We ordered coffee and chocolate bars, and I couldn’t stop thinking: ‘Killing yourself, how inconsiderate.’
Unlike Marta and Natalia, I would be living on the outskirts of Norwich, on the university campus: another village, a kind of grey residential neighbourhood with students from all over the world. Norfolk Terrace and Suffolk Terrace were two halls of residence built in the shape of ziggurats. My room was on the ground floor of the former, facing an artificial lake full of mutant fish where you weren’t allowed to swim.
I arrived at night but there was a guy still awake at the security lodge who gave me my keys. He made a joke about me having two surnames and explained in detail where my room was, so I only got lost three times. I shared a floor with eleven British lads, a German and a guy from California. Girls weren’t allowed to live on the ground floor in case a rapist got in through the window.
In the first few days there were talks about the cheapest supermarkets and the academic guidelines: there were no exams in February, plagiarism would be penalized, each foreign student was assigned a tutor and there was a helpline you could call.
The campus had almost everything you needed: sports pitches, a disgusting restaurant, travel agency, theatre, cinema, museum, a Waterstones and a second-hand bookshop, a small supermarket (that sold tobacco), newsagent and a launderette. On Thursday nights there was a disco; various denominations were based at the chapel. Norwich was twenty minutes away by bus. A lot of people used bikes to get around, but I was scared of riding on the wrong side of the road.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays there was a market. They sold second-hand crockery, posters, discount CDs, and sometimes they tried to get you to join a society: the poetry club, the Conservative Party society, the Latino Society or the role play games club, whose members fought with wooden swords in front of my window on Sunday afternoons.
I met up with Marta and Natalia again when the International Relations Office staff took us on a guided tour of Norwich. They had joined a group of Spanish guys. There were a few guys from Madrid who were going to study their whole degree there (Environmental Science) and a lad called Fernando who had the Real Zaragoza shield tattooed on his arm, and who, by this point, had become the leader of the gang. He’d studied Industrial Relations at Zaragoza and then enrolled in Business Studies at the Teruel campus. I asked him why. He told me that he got a grant of €1,800 a year for travel expenses.
‘That doesn’t seem like much money,’ I said.
‘It’s not if you go there.’
But, of course, he never went to Teruel. And he already knew Norwich, because he’d arrived two days before most people. He gave the impression of having familiarized himself with English culture.
‘People here live like fucking kings, mate. Even labourers. In Spain you work as a builder and at mid-morning you have fried eggs and ham with half a bottle of wine for lunch. And here, at lunchtime, they have a coke and a chocolate bar. But then they don’t do any work.’
‘You see, right,’ Fernando said to me while looking at Natalia, ‘I know how things are.’ He knew Pizza Hut had a lunchtime special, and he was fed up with the guided tour, so he convinced all the Erasmus students to go and eat pizza with him. But I didn’t fancy it much. I thought I shouldn’t get separated from the tour group, because they might get worried. By the time I realized they hadn’t counted us, that we were grown-ups, and that I didn’t have any food at home, Fernando and the others must have already been in Pizza Hut and I didn’t want to go back after having turned down his suggestion. I wandered about, looking in shops and second-hand bookshops.
Norwich was a small city: it’d seen some glory days back in the Middle Ages. It had a gothic cathedral, a church that’d been converted into an arthouse cinema, another that was now a bar, an art school and a market near the police station. The castle was in the centre, and it’d been turned into a shopping centre with a multiplex cinema. There was a river with restaurants along its banks, swans and a collection of bars and clubs. The city was too small for my liking; we immediately started calling it the village, because everything closed early.
I ate a sausage and bought some food at the market. I wanted to get back to the university soon, because there was a welcome party for international students and I was worried that Scotland Yard would be looking for me.
The bus stop for the 25 was near the market. Even though it had a sign that read ‘UNIVERSITY’, a dark-skinned boy with a guitar, a boombox and two suitcases asked me if I knew where the bus for the university stopped. I recognized the accent and met Miguel, who was from Asturias but studying Law in Bilbao. Miguel was wearing a long blue coat that made him look a bit like Harry Potter, but I didn’t tell him that. He had flown from Oviedo to London – a much more expensive flight than mine, I thought – where he had stayed for two days with a family friend. He’d spent a while going round the shops because he didn’t have a pillow and he couldn’t sleep without one, but they’d all seemed too expensive to him. I told him that it was quite an achievement to bring so much stuff (and also that, according to the university leaflets, you could buy duvets and pillows in halls).
‘No, mate, I brought my duvet from home.’
‘You can still buy a pillow.’
‘Sure,’ I said, without a clue but convinced I was doing a good deed.
We swapped facts about our lives: family, football, what we wanted to do. Miguel had a brother who’d published a few books in Asturian and used to go out with the girl from London. She lived in a nice place, full of ‘super cool’ paintings. Miguel wasn’t much interested in art, but he loved anything that seemed arty: he always had a book on his bedside table – the same one for months – and his room in Nelson Court would soon be well decorated, the walls covered with photos of the sea and posters of Bob Marley and Rio de Janeiro. He said he hardly knew how to play the guitar, but he’d brought it because there was always someone who could play. I told him that there was a party that night and he invited me to eat at his place: he had a suitcase full of tins of fabada bean stew.
He looked out the window and pointed at things he thought were interesting.
‘Listen, mate, how do you say almohada in English?’
At the university we picked up his room key; I helped him carry his bags to his place. Miguel’s hall, Nelson Court, a sort of big row house at the top end of the campus, was a bit more luxurious than mine. His room was on the second floor. I told him I’d cook something – I suggested he should keep the fabada for a time of need – while he unpacked.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Miguel, ‘I’ve got some recipes.’
Miguel handed me a crumpled napkin: his mother had written down how to cook rice and spaghetti. I suggested he should put a lid on the pan so the water would boil quicker.
‘Shit, mate, you’re really on top of stuff,’ he said, and wrote ‘put a lid on the pan’ on his mother’s napkin.
When I woke up only two things concerned me. The first was how to get a ticket for the party that night. The second was passing the medical they gave foreign students.
The previous night I’d drunk too many beers and met Julia. She was in her last year of Translation Studies, had green eyes and black dreadlocks that came halfway down her back. When we were introduced, during the welcome party, I told her I knew she was German and that she spoke Spanish with a Malaga accent.
‘With all the grammatical mistakes characteristic of Malaga,’ she answered.
I was really impressed. I was on my third or fourth pint of Carling, England’s cheapest beer, and had no idea what a grammatical mistake might be.
‘And you buy second-hand books and carry a Sylvester the cat bag.’
We spent a while talking: Julia smiled all the time. There was a horrible band playing Anglo-Caribbean music. We went to the bar for a drink.
‘I want to get a job,’ she said, but didn’t let me buy her a drink. ‘What I’d most like to be is a barmaid. It’s like going out, but getting paid for it.’
‘It’s also working when everyone else goes out, isn’t it?’
Undoubtedly, I always saw the negative side of things. But Julia didn’t mind. She laughed and said she’d been a barmaid in Granada and Lisbon.
‘Do you speak Portuguese?’
‘A bit. I was only there for three weeks, in September last year.’
I told her that I’d been in Portugal then, what a coincidence.
‘Did you go with friends?’
‘Yeah,’ I lied. I’d gone with my girlfriend. But everything else was true. I was about to tell her that Portugal was my favourite country, and brush an eyelash from her face to break down the physical distance between us, when I saw the rest of the Spanish lot arrive. We went back to the middle of the dance floor. I tried to talk to Julia, but I was competing with all the others: Fernando danced with her, a guy from Madrid wanted to buy her drinks. The girls laughed at us. I was too old to be acting like an idiot and anyway I had a girlfriend. I grabbed my beer and left discreetly.
‘Having fun?’ said a voice behind me.
I turned. It was a tall guy with glasses and a shaved head. He was leaning against the wall and wore a corduroy jacket and a checked shirt. He looked like he might fall over at any moment. I said yes. He held out his hand. His name was Ryan. I asked him the time. He looked at his wrist and started counting on his fingers.
‘I’ve still got the time back home.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘Colorado Springs, Colorado,’ he replied. It sounded like a name from a Western and I almost burst out laughing. Ryan looked at his watch again.
‘It’s a bit inconvenient, but I like it. It’s like I never left. I know when the sun’s coming up, when it’s setting. Now it’s lunchtime. My girlfriend is getting out of class. Do you want to see her?’
He opened his jacket and took out a picture of his girlfriend before I could answer. She had brown hair and a round face. She looked like a cute girl from a cartoon.
‘I miss her tons. Sometimes I don’t know why I came.’
I made a strange face: it must have looked like a question mark.
‘I’m about to start an MA in Creative Writing. But all I do is write emails to Laura, all the time,’ he looked at me sadly. ‘Laura. I should be Italian, right?’
‘It’s a bit late.’
‘Yeah, I’m from Colorado Springs.’
‘Colorado Springs lover,’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ replied Ryan. ‘I like that.’
Ryan smiled, moved away from the wall and left without saying anything. Ryan was going to be a writer, and so was I, and I’d almost made a joke in English. I observed, once more, how terrible the party was. I didn’t like the music, I didn’t know how to dance, and everything closed really early.
I went to say goodbye. I kissed all the girls so I could kiss Julia.
‘Are you coming tomorrow? There’s another party. It’s going to be great. But you have to pay to get in.’
I didn’t have much money left. I was spending a lot more than I’d expected. Of course, I told her I’d go.
The next morning my biggest problem was filling the bottle with urine without splashing my fingers. It was really narrow and I had a hangover and when I’m hungover my hands shake.
It was difficult, but I was a proud man when I turned up at Union House, the students’ union that was on the university square, with three pounds and a smile. There was a long queue.
It was almost my turn when a man came out and put up a sign. There were no tickets left. I didn’t believe it, of course, and waited a while longer.
I found the medical centre half an hour later. It was raining. I filled in a questionnaire and joined the queue. I had a book, but I couldn’t read it. If I had got up a bit earlier, just a bit earlier, or if I’d done a better job when it came to filling the bottle, I would’ve got tickets for the party and Julia wouldn’t have been able to resist me. I surreptitiously took out the little jar and focused my hatred on it.
I raised my eyes: I saw Ryan again. He looked awful and was wearing an ugly woollen hat. He said something in Spanish.
‘What’s up? Have you just got up?’
No,’ he replied, ‘I got up at six thirty. I’ve been writing until now. What about you?’
‘I got up at eleven and I’ve been trying to pee in a bottle until now.’
‘Cool,’ I said. ‘Have you written lots of emails?’
Ryan shrugged, looking a bit embarrassed.
‘I started my novel. I’ve got a plan, I’ve already shown it to the guy who runs the MA. I have to give him a chapter every three weeks. Do you want to see it?’
‘Yeah, sure, whenever.’
Ryan unbuttoned his coat and took out a notebook. Being so tall meant he could carry large notebooks and photos and whatever he wanted. On the first page something was written in green.
‘Look, these are the chapters. There’s a summary at the end. The bits in coloured pen are the narrator, and what’s in lower case is the focalizer. This line is the time and the arrows indicate the differences between the story and the narration… The flashbacks and all that.’
‘It looks like loads of work.’
‘Yeah it is. But if it’s your dream you’ve got to fight for it, right? It’s probably not worth the effort, probably no one gives a shit about it, but what else can you do?’
I thought that Ryan was a smart guy and had his ideas straight. I don’t know if it was because he was from Colorado Springs, Colorado, or because his hangover left him no room for doubt. At that time I admired people who had things straight. I decided I was going to start writing a novel or a screenplay that very night.
‘It’s all we’ve got. I was going to go to the party tonight, I’ve got a ticket, but I think I’m going to pass. Sometimes it’s better to make a sacrifice.’
‘Sell it to me,’ I said.
Ryan seemed somewhat confused. I repeated the phrase, and he hesitated for a moment. In the end, he sold me the ticket for just five pounds, and I went happily into my appointment.
In the afternoon I went to the paper shop and bought coloured pens. I spent a couple of hours in the computer room, sending emails to my girlfriend, my mother and people I didn’t know, but who seemed nice. I folded my t-shirts, tidied my room, went for a run around the lake and tossed off to de-stress.
It’d stopped raining. I liked walking in the fog as if in a film, hands in my pockets and my hair wet. I met Julia near the glass bin. She was throwing some bottles in.
‘Hi. Are you going to the party?’
Julia shook her head. The bottles smashed on the floor of the container.
‘I went to the Union House this morning but there were no tickets left. You?’
‘Nah, I’m not going either.’
‘Well, I suppose there’ll be other parties.’
‘Yeah, of course there will,’ I said. Julia went to her hall. As soon as she turned the corner, I ran to the Union bar to see if I could sell the ticket at twice the price and spend the night writing a novel or a film or a million emails to my girlfriend.
The English translation of Austerlitz came out on my first weekend in England. On 22 September the Guardian’s cultural supplement ran a double-page profile of Sebald by Maya Jaggi. There I learnt that his real name was Winfried Georg Maxiliam Sebald and that he had signed a hundred-thousand-pound contract for his next three books. English critics liked to point out that Sebald’s books were controversial or little-read in Germany, and he admitted that his language had become somewhat antiquated after living in England for several decades. Sebald wrote by hand, had dogs and took a camera on his travels. He said that he was the only professor at the University of East Anglia who hadn’t taken to using computers. He liked travelling on foot and he felt like a foreigner everywhere: he said that his ideal place would possibly be a hotel in Switzerland.
I had to go and see my tutor, Lisa Bartlett, to tell her that everything was fine and then not bother her again for the rest of the term. Her office was next to Sebald’s, on a corridor that linked the Language, Literature and Translation department (everyone called it LLT) with English and American Studies (better know as EAS, my department), next to the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT). On the door of Sebald’s office there was a Goya print; on the corridor walls there were photos of Kafka, Thomas Bernhard and James Joyce. Lisa Bartlett was about fifty, wore glasses and was barefoot in her office.
She asked where I came from and what I was interested in. She taught courses on Rilke and Modernist Central European literature.
‘I was just talking to a lecturer from LLT who’s looking for films in Spanish for a film season,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know what to tell her, apart from Almodóvar.’
I gave her a short lecture on 1990s Spanish cinema and told her some really good Latin American films had come out that year. She asked me to write down the titles.
‘I can see you like cinema.’
‘Are you going to make films in Norwich?’
‘Foreign students aren’t allowed to do the practical modules. But I might write something.’
I told her that I had published a book, and that a couple of my stories had been translated into English. ‘That’s great, a published author. And so young,’ she said. ‘The BCLT runs a lot of translation events with young writers. I’m sure they’d like to know. Why don’t you let me read something? They’ve got a magazine, too.’
I left her office feeling very happy. It was the first time I saw Sebald face to face. He was coming down the corridor with a plastic glass in his hand, paused to think for a moment and asked a girl who was walking past for a light.
The modules they gave you were never the first option you’d picked. In the first semester, I had to do American Fiction (1940-1970), Cultural Theory and Analysis, and John Ford and the Western, and the truth is I didn’t know much about Westerns, but Charles Barr, the lecturer, had written about Vertigo and my younger brother was an expert on The Searchers.
In the afternoons I went to the library. You could see the lake, but I preferred the other side, which overlooked the tarmac and the UEA buildings, somewhere between a castle and Blade Runner. I’d bought a green biro and a 200-page notebook, and I wrote by hand for the first time since I’d learnt to type. But what I liked most was wandering around the American literature section and flicking through interviews, or reading things we didn’t look at in class. At Zaragoza University you couldn’t touch the books: you requested them and they were sent up in a lift. I supposed that way the lecturers appreciated the use of bibliographies and made it difficult for us to find the sources of their course notes, but you could never find anything you weren’t looking for.
There were a lot of parties and a feeling of imminent world war. The front page of The Concrete, the university paper, said: ‘Ex-UEA student works for Saddam’. It talked about an Iraqi girl who had studied in Norwich and was nice to her lecturers and classmates, but had gone back to her country to make chemical weapons and destroy Western civilization. Marta and Natalia spent a weekend in London: they bought gas masks to protect themselves from a possible Al Qaeda attack.
The Erasmus get-togethers were boring. Spanish, Italian and French students ate potato tortillas or spaghetti and talked about things they already knew. English food was awful, the natives were cold and they didn’t put the plates away after washing up. People described the customs in their countries of origin as well: in Spain we ate dinner at ten thirty and almost everyone took a siesta. But you didn’t have to go along with the clichés: the Spanish were essentially hard-working and people got up just as early as in England. As soon as I saw that Julia didn’t go to the get-togethers, I stopped going.
I had a good time in the library and wrote more emails than ever before. I went running around the lake, and in the evening I would meet up with Fernando and Miguel and we’d get a bit drunk. In the first month I didn’t write a line.
Fernando and Miguel became friends through music. At one meal, Miguel got out his guitar and passed it to Fernando. Then Miguel played. That weekend they gave two concerts in the streets of Norwich. They didn’t have much luck on Saturday, but for the Sunday they practiced different songs. I told them to sing ‘La Bamba’ and ‘Desaparecido’ and play a rumba version of ‘Mrs Robinson’. Fernando chose a street in the centre, near Starbucks, and started flirting with girls. They made sixty pounds.
While Miguel preferred staying in and was almost always in love or depressed Fernando was always slightly pissed off but full of enthusiasm. He was a couple of years older than us and quite dynamic, driven. He was always hitting on his friends’ girlfriends; he’d come over to my place for dinner and steal food from my flatmates to prepare his culinary experiments and afterwards I had to spend all week paying them back or apologizing.
I liked his energy. He told stories about San José, his neighbourhood, and read the news about Real Zaragoza every morning in the Heraldo de Aragón; he made dates with girls to teach them Spanish (and then got offended because they took it literally); and he was a great help in earning money. I had a bit of cash, but I needed more for alcohol, food and travel. Miguel’s family had shops and a hotel, and Miguel wanted to save; Fernando liked earning money and spending it fast. What he hated most of all was being bored.
In the first few weeks, Fernando went to the Erasmus parties, and afterwards he’d drop by at my place. We’d go to the computer rooms to see if anyone had left a printing card: then we cashed in the balance. And he was also the first to find out that at Union House, there was more going on than free condom handouts.
In a few days, Fernando organized a business. We went there and they gave us jobs delivering the Rabbit, a kind of what’s-on guide for UEA that came out on Fridays. Miguel and Marie, a French girl, and other Erasmus students and I delivered the Rabbit around campus. Each one took a different hall. The work was paid by the hour: we set the time that it was going to take us to do the job. Normally we multiplied the real time by three or four, and even then a lot of people didn’t put the fliers under the doors because you had to bend down (I learnt to get the papers under by throwing the Rabbit with a flick of the wrist: a skill that really impressed Marie, who smoked joints constantly, was from Nice and wanted to be an anti-terrorist police officer).
Fernando got other jobs at Union House: He collected glasses at concerts so he could get in free and started working in the university paper shop. Because the union was responsible for all students, there was a limit to the number of hours you could work. Fernando convinced an Italian guy – he had money and a Fender Stratocaster – to sign for his Rabbit deliveries without collecting the money.
Sometimes they gave us promos as well. On occasion these had culinary uses: for example, individual portions of pesto (‘Enjoy Mediterranean Food’ said the flier), which we never handed out but ate for weeks, until they went out of date and gave us horrible diarrhoea.
By the middle of term, Fernando was earning over three hundred euros a week for work he did under different names and which left him a lot of free time. I delivered the Rabbit and fliers to the six blocks of Norfolk Terrace. I carried a bright yellow bag and it was a fun job, with lots of different smells: there were flats of English students and others mainly Chinese, and one full of middle-aged Egyptians who once invited me in for tea.
Julia was pretty mysterious. Sometimes I didn’t see her for ten days and then I’d bump into her in the library or at a party. She was always the most attractive girl there. She arrived late and talked to everyone, and left early because she had something to do the next day. I’ve always liked busy, extroverted girls; I suppose my girlfriend was like that when I first met her. But although Julia was the same age as Lara, five years older than me, she didn’t seem so worried about the future. And I thought we had a special relationship, but only because I liked her: most of the time when I spoke to Julia I just talked rubbish.
One afternoon she came to my room and asked me if I wanted to go for a walk. We climbed out of the window, kept the lake on our right and walked along a muddy path. We stepped on the stones so we didn’t get mucky. She slipped and I caught her in mid air. A bit further along there were fewer bushes. We saw a field that had a stable in the middle and two horses grazing.
‘Look how cute they are,’ Julia said.
We leant on the fence. The younger horse, almost a foal, came towards us. Julia stroked its head.
‘I’ve got a mare in Leipzig,’ she said.
She spent a while whispering things into its ear. She asked me if I’d ever ridden a horse and I said yes, but I didn’t tell her about how scared I’d been or my firm resolution never to do it again.
‘Do you have any animals?’
‘Do siblings count?’
‘I’ve got a dog. I like taking him out for walks at night.’ This was a half-truth, but it must have sounded convincing because after that Julia always talked to me about dogs and horses.
The path opened out and ran parallel to the irrigation ditch. We went under a bridge and up a very slight hill: there are no mountains in East Anglia. We came out onto a secondary road. There was a Waitrose supermarket, a sort of posh chain where they sold organic food and a brand of magdalena cakes from Zaragoza. For the whole walk, I’d been thinking we were going deep into a dangerous, wild place. I was really pleased to see the supermarket.
We went in; Julia grabbed a basket. I didn’t have much money on me, but I thought that I’d give a terrible impression if I didn’t buy anything, so I looked for the magdalenas and an avocado, which would give me an exotic edge compatible with vegetarianism.
However incredible it might seem, I was actually a support act for W. G. Sebald at one of the university’s literature and translation conferences. In one of the previous workshops, thanks to Lisa Bartlett, some LLT PhD students translated one of my stories. In the programme I featured as an ‘Aragonese novelist’, which was great: I had published one book of short stories in Spanish.
I went to various talks and workshops. There was a guy who translated haikus, a girl who talked about the difficulties of translating Chicano literature – which mixes English and Spanish – into Catalan, and a very serious man who discussed the problems stemming from relationships with authors: he concluded that it was better to work with authors who were already dead. The main topic, however, was rates. There was a stand-off between professional translators and those who taught at the university: the academic translators charged rates that were too low and brought the price of the product down. A lot of talks ended with someone saying: ‘Join the Translators’ Association.’
Sebald’s talk was the closing act. The room was full and you had to pay to get in, although I got in free because I was part of the show. Sebald read the opening of Austerlitz in German, and Anthea Bell read the same section in English. The narrator is walking around Amberes, describes the station and meets Jacques Austerlitz. Austerlitz is an odd guy, but so is the narrator; they talk about the history of architecture. They meet in other places and Austerlitz picks up the conversation where they left off.
Then another UEA professor interviewed him. Sebald told how he hadn’t found out anything about the Second World War or the Holocaust until, aged seventeen, he saw a documentary about the liberation of Belsen, despite the fact that his father had been a prisoner of war in France. Silence had fallen over the Nazi crimes, but also over the destruction of German cities. Sebald thought memory was the moral backbone of literature, and he said that in his books the big events were true while the details were invented.
He didn’t come to dinner with the conference participants in the luxury area of The Diner, the campus restaurant, where students weren’t normally allowed (the fast food stand was reserved for them).
Over dinner the translators kept on talking about rates and publishers who took too long to pay. It made me a bit angry that Sebald wasn’t there because I wanted to meet him. Some UEA lecturers talked about him all the time: ‘as Max says,’ they were always saying. The guys sitting next to me were Swedish: he was writing a PhD on Dogme cinema and hers was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When they closed the restaurant there was nowhere on campus left open. My tutor turned to me and said:
‘You’ve got a communal kitchen, right?’
So the last session of the conference was held in my kitchen. Six or seven older men and the Swedish couple came, and I got out a Campo de Borja and a bottle of whisky I’d bought at Morrison’s. I also put on some music and washed a few glasses.
I sat next to a really nice lecturer from Quebec. We drank the bottle of wine between us.
‘Do you really live here?’ she asked, looking round the kitchen, which was really ugly, with a green table and fluorescent lights: as soon as we got to my place the translators stopped talking about rates.
‘I suppose it must be strange for a writer to live in a different language,’ she said, before taking a sip from her glass that was decorated with pictures of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner. ‘Don’t you feel alienated?’
In fact I felt ridiculous and I copied an answer from Sebald. I said that I was interested in the distance that it put between me and my own language, and hid the fact that the Spanish Erasmus students had gone into Norwich for dinner at a tapas restaurant called El toro bravo.
The following morning I was woken up by someone banging on the window.
‘Are you still sleeping? Fuck, man!’
I got up and opened the window. Fernando jumped into the room.
‘What’s going on, mate? Party last night? Did you get laid?’
‘I didn’t think so. Come on, hurry up, get dressed, we have to go to the village.’
‘I’ll tell you later. A fucking amazing job. But hurry up.’
‘Wait a minute, let me have a shower and a shave.’
‘No, let’s go.’
‘Seriously, it’s better if you don’t have a shower.’
We took the number 25 bus. We got off in the centre and went to the police station. I arrived, gave my details, filled in a form with my physical description (changing a few details to make myself sound better looking), they took a photo of me and led us to a waiting room where there were loads of dark-skinned people and an older woman in police uniform.
‘Hello, darling,’ Fernando said to her; he had learnt the word recently and was using it on all the girls. This is my friend Jorge.’
‘Hello. Nice to meet you. Are you Spanish too?’
‘I love that country. Last summer I went on holiday to Benidorm.’
While we waited, Fernando explained that we were going to work as suspects, as extras in an identity parade. They paid fifteen pounds an hour, four times more than we got for handing out fliers, and with no tax deduction: it was cash in hand. Furthermore, you didn’t have to do anything. Just wait for the accusers to arrive.
Then they took us to a room that had a window you couldn’t see through. They told us what the suspect looked like, and we opened a big clothes chest and got ourselves dressed up a bit. I’d like to say I took part in identification parades for murderers, but most were for petty crimes: stolen mobiles, televisions that went missing and snatched handbags. My career as a criminal was second-rate.
Because Fernando and I were Spanish, they called us when they needed someone with dark eyes and black hair. So there we were, eight or ten guys in a line, some Greeks, some Italians, the odd Portuguese, two Spaniards and a British Asian.
‘Right then, number eight. Up you get.’
Fernando was number eight. He’d sat on the chest, with all the appearance of a juvenile delinquent. He stood up as if he was doing someone a favour.
I was eliminated at the beginning – that time and almost every other. A lot of the time I was picked out by the defence lawyer, who was also in charge of the casting. It was pretty frustrating. But on other occasions I got lucky and as well as the lawyer and the accuser there were a few witnesses and you could spend three hours in the Identification Parade without doing anything.
They paid me twenty pounds and said thanks. I waited for Fernando outside the police station.
Many of the couples that existed before term started broke up before it ended. My girlfriend and I were no exception. She came to visit in October and stayed for a few days and we went to London. Most of the time when girlfriends or boyfriends visited it was a depressing spectacle. Within the Erasmus community almost everyone knew too much about everyone else: investigations included meetings, secrets and in some cases searches of waste paper bins in search of used condoms. Sometimes a boyfriend came to stay and we all knew his girlfriend had been going out with someone else in Norwich.
I wasn’t with anyone for the first three months. I was faithful almost all of the time, give or take a night or two. The German who lived next to me hooked up with a girl from Hong Kong who screamed a lot when they screwed. Most of the time they fucked with the curtains open: this increased the number of visitors to my room, and meant that I stopped writing at night, as Sebald did, and was forced to go to the computer room instead. Miguel went out with Stefanie for a couple of weeks, until he met Alice, an English girl reading Development Studies. Development was a degree that mixed economics, politics and sociology, and focused on developing countries. Students from that department had dreadlocks and were really nice. They organized demonstrations in the square and wanted to spend the summer in Latin America.
Whereas he’d liked Stefanie almost from the moment he met her until he managed to sleep with her three days later, Miguel fell in love with Alice. And since he was a nice Asturian boy from a good family who was going to Law School in Deusto, he decided to become left-wing so she’d like him more. He grew his hair, collected a pile of leaflets against the war in Afghanistan and pushed the albums we normally listened to into a corner to make room for Native American music, Manu Chao imitators and various compilations of ethnic music from anywhere in the world that was sufficiently impoverished. The decisive step in his indoctrination was learning to spin a diabolo.
Miguel and Alice had been going out for two weeks, and we no longer listened to Amaral or Bunbury or rock in Miguel’s room, when Alice invited him to a party in Norwich and decided that Fernando and I should go along.
We found the house, not far from the cathedral: two students from the States were burning an American flag in the garden. There were about forty people, all crowded together. The party was downstairs; there was a small patio where people were listening to music and smoking joints.
Alice hadn’t arrived yet. We talked for a while with her friends and went into the kitchen to leave the bottles we’d brought.
‘Put mine in the cupboard,’ Fernando said. ‘Otherwise these bastards will drink it.’
We filled three glasses and went out to the patio. Although it had rained all day, the night had turned out really nice. Fernando took off his jacket. Some guys were playing the bongos.
‘My dad’s got a covers band,’ said Fernando, while he scanned all the girls. ‘A fucking great band. We’ve played in almost every town in Teruel.’
Miguel drank very slowly.
‘And what do you play?’
‘Don’t you sing?’
‘No. My dad says singers have to be good looking.’
‘Anyhow, it’s a good job,’ I said.
‘It’s fucking shit. You get out of work, jump in the van, drive about a hundred kilometres, get to a town, unpack the instruments, set up the stage, and the kids from the town are there, pissing themselves laughing in your fucking face or trying to rob you. And you play for ages and then you have to put everything back in the van again.’
The doorbell rang. It was Alice, who had arrived with a load more people. Miguel went up to her, smiling.
‘I remember in Cantavieja it was bloody freezing and my dad said: “Take your coat off, so they can see your band uniform.” And I said: “I don’t want to take my coat off, it’s too cold.”’
‘Give me your glass. I’m going to get more wine.’
I went into the kitchen. Alice was talking to people and Miguel wanted her to pay a bit more attention to him.
I found a corkscrew and opened a bottle.
Fernando had grabbed the bongos and turned into the king of the party. He was singing; sometimes he changed the words. The day I met him, Fernando was a slightly chubby guy who kept his eye out for offers at Pizza Hut. Now he was slimmer and looked like the kind of stud who hangs out at swimming pools.
‘Can you open this bottle?’ said one of Alice’s friends. ‘I think I’ve seen you before.’
‘At the police station. When my dad’s laptop got nicked. You were in the ID parade.’
I looked at her for a moment and opened her bottle. At that precise moment I felt really dangerous. ‘I thought that was really cool. My dad is such an asshole,’ she said, and we went out to dance.
Fernando, Miguel and I made friends with some Greeks at an ID parade. We decided to start a football team to play in the university league.
One afternoon we went running around the lake. It was a circuit of about a kilometre and a half and we all went at the same pace for the first lap. Two guys overtook us. They were older than us.
On the second lap I realized that despite the alcohol, marihuana and bad food I was feeling pretty good. So I sped up a bit, recalling my golden years, when I was an athlete in Maestrazgo, at 1227 metres above sea level, and I achieved great sporting feats, including second place in the village race in Ejulve, Teruel, for which I won two chickens. I broke away from my friends, accelerated around the bend, and overtook the two guys who had passed us.
I didn’t look back at any point (not even when Fernando shouted: ‘Hey, mate, go get fucked!’), because I’d seen Fermín Cacho doing that all the time and thought it unsightly. I got to the last straight, my best time ever around the lake: I sprinted into the wind past the ducks, next to the jetty, and almost missed W. G. Sebald who was walking slowly in the opposite direction.
I finished The Rings of Saturn as soon as I got to Norwich, but I didn’t read Vertigo or The Emigrants. And I’d only read a few extracts from Austerlitz. I liked Sebald, but Real Zaragoza were having an awful season and I was in a rainy country, didn’t have a telly and hadn’t had a shag in weeks. A Leonard Cohen album and a few pages of Sebald and I could end up slitting my wrists. I didn’t go to his office to ask him to sign my books either. I thought he’d be gruff: seeing him in the lecture theatre had reinforced that impression.
There were a lot of writers in Norwich. I was taught by Christopher Bigsby, I met Andrew Motion and made friends with a load of guys who were studying creative writing: the American who burnt the flag was writing a novel about two itinerant comedians in the United States; a girl from Hong Kong was starting a detective story; another was writing a book of short stories about disabled people; Ryan was telling the story of his younger brother’s football career. In the second semester I took a creative writing module, and I had a pretty good time, although I’m not sure I learnt much. The best thing about the students was the ambition they all had, their will to succeed. That made me a bit jealous, although it also made everyone dislike Ryan: Fernando thought he was a dickhead and Julia once told me she couldn’t stand him. He surely wouldn’t have taken me seriously if he hadn’t known that I’d published a book, but one day he sent me an email inviting me to lunch at the Sainsbury Centre. He had a load of printed pages in a plastic bag.
‘Would you like to read the first chapter of my novel?’
‘Yeah, of course.’
Ryan opened the bag and took out sixty or seventy single-spaced pages.
‘I’d be really grateful.’
‘Well, I’d love to,’ I said, and started flicking through the pages. He must have used an 11-point font or something like that.
‘I was studying film in Los Angeles. It was a really competitive atmosphere, really nasty, and a teacher asked us to write an idea for a film. I looked out of the window and there were a load of builders working on a site, and I thought: “Man, that’s the story I want to tell.”’
‘Have your lecturers read it?’
‘I had to read some of it in class. The tutor offered some edits. And then I listened to my classmates’ criticisms.
‘And how was that?’
‘Kind of nasty. It reminded me of Los Angeles. Some people were really destructive. Then the tutor told me not to worry. He said I should think carefully about what I wanted to say, and carry on without paying attention to anyone. He’s a good guy. And a pretty famous writer. He’s called Sebald.’
‘Yeah, I know him. I tried to sign up for his module.’
‘You should do it. Seriously.’
After eating I went to the EAS secretary and asked for a course catalogue. I found, for the spring, a course on The Castle and The Trial. It was also meant for postgraduates. I asked the secretary if it was possible to go to a class that wasn’t meant for my level.
‘You’ll have to get in touch with the lecturer. If he lets you in there’s no problem.’
‘I’d like to do this course,’ I said, pointing to the page. ‘Should I send the lecturer an email?’
The secretary smiled.
‘No. That’s Max Sebald. He doesn’t have email. Write him a note and leave it in his pigeon-hole.’
I wrote the note about fifteen times. In the definitive version I didn’t say anything about his books, although it was obvious, from my handwriting and certain allusions, that I knew his work and was a great guy: I explained that I was an Erasmus student and very interested in Kafka. I left the note in his pigeon-hole and went outside, feeling satisfied and brave.
Julia was on her way into the LLT building. At first she didn’t see me, but I was really happy and needed to share my pleasure.
‘Hi, Julia. How’s it going?’
‘Because my boyfriend dumped me.’
I didn’t know Julia had a boyfriend (well, Fernando said she did, but I believed in Santa Claus for a long time, even when I found a bag full of presents under my parents’ bed) but it was obvious she hadn’t slept much, and it was the first time she didn’t look fresh out of the shower.
Julia shrugged her shoulders. ‘Thanks,’ she said, and I didn’t know what to say next.
‘Do you want to go for a beer? Or to see the horses?’
‘I can’t. I’ve got to check my email and buy my ticket back to Germany. I’m leaving next week.’
‘Damn, what a bummer. We haven’t been out for dinner or to the cinema or anything. . .’
‘We could still go. Monday?’
‘Are there any films you want to see?’
‘Let’s have dinner instead. We don’t have long.’
‘Part of me is glad to have split up with Alice,’ said Miguel.
The two of us were alone in my room. The days were really short and we’d handed in most of our assignments. I’d run into Miguel in the square. He was unhappy. We went to the supermarket and bought some beers.
‘She was a bit superficial, you know. Like the other day I put Bob Dylan on and the only song she liked was ‘Rainy Day Women’ because it says that everyone should get high. She could have preferred ‘I Want You’.’
‘Yeah, that’s a good one.’
‘Even though I’ve never completely understood it.’
‘I think it says ‘I want you.’
‘I’m glad we split up. Seriously.’
‘That’s alright then.’
Miguel took as sip of his beer.
‘And when I was going out with Stefanie it was better, Jorge. In the evening we used to go out for walks and look at the stars. We went to pick blackberries and collect leaves. Whereas, with Alice, right, none of that. Mate, I went to her place to fuck. That was all we did. Fucking all day. And now she goes and says, because she’s off to Guatemala at the end of the year, that she doesn’t want to ‘get involved in a relationship’ or something like that. I don’t know what the hell she said to me. And well, anyway, I’m going back to Spain in June. All this saving the world and I can just get fucked. All day reading stories in the newspaper about Guantanamo and Palestine and the fucking rest.’
‘English newspapers are pretty good,’ I said.
‘You think they’re pretty good? Seriously? Well look, Jorge, that’s no problem, they’re not expensive, a pound at a news stand, forty fucking pence at the paper shop on campus and that way you see Fernando. If you like English papers then buy yourself one, what the fuck’s it got to do with me? You like English newspapers. What the fuck are you on about?’
Miguel climbed out through the window before the next song started. He left his beer on the table. He went towards his place; he was moving his head as if he was arguing with me. I closed the window and drank his beer.
Julia came to my room at eight. I’d bought a bottle of wine; she brought tofu. She was vegetarian, but she drank and smoked Lucky Strikes. We cooked some spaghetti (I’d bought the expensive kind), and I made a salad with olive oil from Bajo Aragón. It was her last night in England.
I opened the bottle and poured wine into two glasses. While we ate – Julia, like my girlfriend, used a spoon to eat spaghetti – my flatmates lost some of their reserve; one of them even struck up a conversation for the first time in months.
‘Did you know that I’m going to Australia in January?’
I liked how Julia was constantly travelling. We’d never talked for so long: it seemed like the two of us were on different orbits. And although her Spanish was very good, I sometimes got the impression that she didn’t understand me.
‘What I’d really like is to live in Andalusia, in the hills. To have a house in the country, far away from everything. I don’t know if I’ll do it one day.’
‘I’m sure you will.’
‘I’d like to have a horse. And of course, be rich or something so I wouldn’t have to work too much. Grow vegetables, keep animals. Would you like that?’
It was, approximately, my personal idea of hell.
‘Well, if there’s internet, and not too many mosquitoes, maybe.’
Julia burst out laughing.
‘I’d like to get married. But not in a church or a civil ceremony. I see it as something more personal, you know? More like just my partner and me, alone. Except it seems less likely all the time because they all dump me.’
‘That’s one thing I can’t understand,’ I said, and Julia looked at me for a long moment. ‘Do you fancy going to my room?’
We sat on the carpet, like in a chill out room, and I put on a Nick Cave album and opened another bottle of wine. I showed her my books and the photos of my family and she laughed at a Polaroid of my brother Guillén mooning the camera. I gave her a copy of my book; she asked me to sign it. I got out the weed that I had left and we finished it. Julia told me about her family and her travels and about her back problems. She went swimming three times a week.
‘Look, it’s a bit wonky.’
I stroked her back while she rolled a joint and described in great detail something that sounded like mild scoliosis. I brought my face close to hers, but she didn’t move. I suspect we were both thinking it was a shame this was happening so late. I was scared I might screw everything up if I tried to sleep with her.
Five minutes later, I was on the verge of stroking her spine straight and she wasn’t saying anything. I thought about making a last attempt: moving my hand up to her neck, stroking the nape of her neck very slowly, and if that didn’t get a response we’d be friends for ever. It would’ve been a magical moment if my neighbours hadn’t started fucking at that very second. Both of them, but mostly her, were screaming like crazy. At first I thought it was in my head, a mental projection (‘sometimes I hear intercourse’), and I needed to see a psychiatrist. I moved away from Julia and turned up the volume of the music. She burst out laughing. So did I.
When she left we said goodbye in my room and at the door to the corridor and outside. She said that she’d like to stay longer, but she still needed to pack.
‘You don’t have a duvet,’ she said.
‘I’ve got a sleeping bag.’
If you like I can give you mine tomorrow. I bought it but I’m not taking it with me.’
I had been fine with the sleeping bag. But I wanted to see her again. I went back to my room and opened the window. Things were coming to a head next door.
I took me hours to fall asleep.
It was the first time I’d been to Julia’s room. It was in Waveney Terrace, the ugliest residence of all. Julia was wearing black, and in general it was all a bit anticlimactic. We were both hung-over. She was nervous about the journey.
There was nothing left on the walls. She just had to put some trousers in her suitcase. She’d left her wash bag next to this sink, with the zip open, and she’d folded the duvet and sheets: they were on the bed. They had pictures of elephants and giraffes on them.
‘I haven’t had time to wash them.’
A friend of Julia’s came to say goodbye and I was grateful, because I didn’t know when would be the right moment to leave. Julia’s friend was tall and blonde and Canadian.
We said goodbye to Julia. We went back to the centre of campus. The Canadian girl told me she was studying Political Science but, because that course didn’t exist at UEA, she had to do modules in literature and US history.
‘I’m sure I’ll see you around,’ I said.
‘I went to my room and dropped off the duvet and sheets. I thought I’d give the pillow to Miguel, because he still hadn’t found one to his liking. Then I went to the EAS office. Charles Barr had given me back an essay on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He’d given me a good mark: probably thanks to my ten-year-old brother, who’d explained a sequence over the phone.
There was also a note from Sebald: ‘Dear Jorge, I’m sorry to tell you that the classes for this module finish this week. In any case, I have office hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays.’ He signed it Max Sebald. The course catalogue I’d looked at was from the previous year: the timetables were different.
While I was reading the note, Sebald came in to check his pigeon-hole. I hid behind a pillar. I don’t know if he noticed I had his note in my hand. As soon as he got distracted I left, feeling very embarrassed.
I didn’t dare to go and see him that Tuesday, or the following Thursday either. That weekend I went home to Zaragoza for Christmas. I bought a newspaper at the train station and found Sebald’s obituary. He had died in a car accident on the Friday night, in the deep and dark hours of the night, as he said in one of his books, and ceased to be one of our contemporaries.
Photograph © John Fielding