The Stamp Collection
"It's the holy truth," said old Mr. Karas. "If a man rummaged around in his past, he'd find enough material in it for several different lives. At some point . . . whether by mistake or inclination . . . he chooses only one of them and lives it through to the end. But the worst of it is that those other, those possible lives, aren't entirely dead. And sometimes you can feel pain from them, just as one does from an amputated leg.
"When I was a boy of about ten, I began collecting stamps. My dad wasn't at all happy about it, because he thought it would interfere with my schoolwork. But I had a pal, Lojzik Cepelka, and together we indulged in our passion for stamps. Lojzik was an organ-grinder's son, a grubby, freckled lad, scruffy as a sparrow, and I loved him as only kids can love their buddies. Listen, I'm an old man; I've had a wife and children, but I'm telling you there's no human emotion as beautiful as friendship. You're only capable of it when you're young, however; later on you get crusty somehow, and selfish. The kind of friendship I'm talking about springs up from pure enthusiasm and admiration, from an overflow of vitality, from exuberance and an abundance of emotion -- you have so much of it that you just have to give it away to someone. My dad was a lawyer, head man among the local notables, a terribly dignified and demanding gentleman -- and I'd taken up with Lojzik, the friend of my heart, whose father was a drunken organ-grinder and mother a work-worn laundress. And yet I worshiped and idolized Lojzik, because he was more handy and resourceful than I, because he was self- sufficient and brave as a rat, and because he had freckles on his nose and could throw stones left-handed -- I can't even remember now what all I loved him for, but it was undoubtedly the greatest love of my life.
"And so Lojzik was my beloved, trusty pal when I began collecting stamps. Somebody once said that only men have a flair for collecting. It's true: I think it's an instinct or a holdover from the times when every male collected his enemies' heads, stolen weapons, bearskins, stags' antlers and, on the whole, anything he could capture. But a stamp collection, it isn't merely a possession, it's a nonstop adventure. It's as if somehow, trembling with excitement, you're touching a bit of some faraway land, Bhutan, say, or Bolivia, or the Cape of Good Hope. To put it simply, it's like having a personal and intimate connection with all those foreign countries. There's something about stamp-collecting that makes you think of travel and voyages and the whole wide world of manly adventures in general. It's a lot like the Crusades.
"As I was saying, my father didn't like the idea at all. Fathers as a rule don't like it when their sons do something different from what they do themselves; look, I was the the same way with my own sons. By and large, this business of being a father is a matter of mixed emotions: there's a great deal of love involved, but there's also a certain preoccupation, mistrust, hostility or whatever you want to call it. The more you love your children, the more this other emotion enters in. Anyway, I had to hide my stamp collection in the attic so my dad wouldn't catch me with it. There was an old chest in the attic, one of those old-fashioned flour bins, and we used to crawl into it like a couple of mice and look over each other's stamps: Look, this one's a Netherlands, this one's an Egypt, here's one from Sverige -- that's Sweden. And because we had to hide out like that with our treasures, there was something almost deliciously sinful about it. The way I got hold of those stamps was adventurous, too. I'd go around to different households, whether we knew the families there or not, and beg them to let me soak the stamps off their old letters. Every so often people would have drawers crammed with old papers in their attics or desks; those were my most blissful hours, sitting on the floor and sorting through those dusty piles of junk paper, looking for stamps I didn't already have -- in other words, fool that I was, I didn't collect duplicates. When I'd find an old Lombardy or one of those tiny German states or free cities, the joy I felt was perfectly agonizing -- every vast happiness carries its own sweet pain, you know. Meanwhile, Lojzik would be waiting for me outside, and when I'd finally come out, I'd whisper right from the doorway: Lojzik, Lojzik, there was a Hanover in there! -- Got it? -- Yes! -- And off we'd run with our plunder, home to our treasure chest.
"We had some textile factories in our town that made all kinds of shoddy stuff: jute, calico, cheap prints, and other third-rate cotton goods; in other words, the kind of worthless trash we churn out specially for colored people all over the globe. Anyway, they used to let me ransack their wastepaper baskets, and that was my richest hunting ground. That's where I found stamps from Siam and South Africa, China, Liberia, Afghanistan, Borneo, Brazil, New Zealand, India, the Congo -- I don't know about you, but to me even the very names ring with mystery and fill me with a kind of longing. Great heaven, the joy, the savage joy I felt when I'd come across a stamp from, say, the Straits Settlements -- or Korea! Nepal! New Guinea! Sierra Leone! Madagascar! Listen, it's a rapture that only a hunter or a treasure-seeker can understand, or an archaeologist on a dig. To seek and to find, that's the greatest thrill, the greatest satisfaction life can offer. Everyone should search for something; if not stamps, then truth, or golden ferns, or at least stone arrowheads and ashtrays.
"Well, those were the happiest years of my life, my friendship with Lojzik and the stamp collection. Then I had scarlet fever and they wouldn't let Lojzik come and see me, but he'd stand in our hallway and whistle so I could hear him. One day they weren't paying that much attention to me or something; anyway, I slipped out of bed and headed lickety-split for the attic to have a look at my stamps. I was so weak I could hardly raise the lid of the chest. But the chest was empty. The box with the stamps was gone.
"There's no way I can possibly describe my heartache and horror. I think I must have stood there as if I'd been turned to stone, and I couldn't even cry, there was such a lump in my throat. To begin with, it was horrifying that my stamps, my greatest joy, were gone. But what was even more horrifying was that Lojzik, my only friend, must have stolen them while I was sick in bed. Dismay, disillusionment, grief, despair -- believe me, it's astonishing what someone who's only a child can suffer. How I got out of that attic, I have no idea. But afterwards I lay in bed once again with a high fever, and in my clearer moments I remembered and grieved. I never said anything about it to my father or my aunt -- I didn't have a mother. I knew they simply wouldn't understand me, and because of that I became more or less alienated from them. From that time on I no longer felt any close attachment to them, the way children normally do. As for Lojzik's betrayal, it was very nearly a mortal wound; it was my first and greatest disillusionment in my fellow human beings. Beggar, I said to myself, Lojzik's a beggar, and that's why he steals; it serves me right for being best friends with a beggar. And it hardened my heart. From then on I began to make distinctions among people -- I lost my state of societal innocence. But I didn't realize, then, how deep a shock it had been to me and how much damage it had done.
"When I got over my fever, I also got over my pain at the loss of my stamp collection. Except that my heart still ached when I saw that, in the meantime, Lojzik had found new pals. But when he came running up to me, a little embarassed because it had been such a long time, I said to him in a blunt, grown-up way, `Shove off, I'm not talking to you.' Lojzik turned red, and after a moment he said, `Suits me, too.' And from that time on he hated me with stubborn, working-class scorn.
"Well, that was the incident that determined the course of my life, my choice of life, as Mr. Paulus would say. What I would say is that my world had been desecrated. I lost my faith in people. I learned to hate and despise. I never had a close friend again. And when I grew up, I even began to take pride in the fact that I was alone, that I didn't need anyone and didn't yield an inch to anybody. Later I discovered that nobody liked me. I told myself it was because I had nothing but contempt for love and didn't give a damn for sentiment. And so I became a proud and ambitious man, self-centered, exacting, altogether correct in every particular. I was harsh and heavy-handed with my subordinates; I made a loveless marriage and brought up my children to fear and obey me; and, thanks to my diligence and industry, I gained a well-deserved reputation. That was my life, my whole life. I attended only to that which I considered my duty. When I go to meet my Maker, no doubt the newspapers will say that I was a leader in my field and a man of exemplary character and principle. But if people knew of the loneliness in all that, the mistrust and the callousness --
"Three years ago my wife died. I never admitted it to myself or to anyone else, but I was deeply saddened. And in my grief I rummaged through all kinds of family keepsakes that had been left by my father and mother: photographs, letters, my old notebooks from school -- my throat constricted when I saw how carefully my stern father had saved them and stored them away; I think he must have loved me after all. The cabinet in the attic was filled with things like that, and at the bottom of one of the drawers was a box which had been sealed with my father's seals. When I opened it, I discovered the stamp collection that I had put together fifty years before.
"I'm not going to keep anything back from you; I burst into a flood of tears, and I carried that box into my room as if it were a treasure. So that's what happened, I suddenly realized: while I was confined in bed, somebody had found my stamp collection and my father had confiscated it so that I wouldn't neglect my studies! He shouldn't have done it, but it was because of his strict love and concern for me. I'm not sure why, but I began to feel pity for him, and for myself, too --
"And then it came to me: This meant that Lojzik hadn't stolen my stamps! Great heaven, how I had wronged him! -- Again I saw the freckled, scruffy urchin before me -- God knows what had become of him or even whether he was still alive! I can't tell you the pain and shame I felt when I thought back on it all. Because of one false suspicion I lost my only friend; because of that I lost my childhood. Because of that I began to despise the poor and their verminous brats; because of that I became puffed up with self-importance. Because of that I never again formed a close attachment to anyone. Because of that I could never in my entire life look at a postage stamp without resentment and disgust. Because of that I never wrote to my wife, either before or during our marriage, and I disguised it by pretending that such outbursts of sentimentality were beneath me; and it hurt my wife deeply. Because of that I was harsh and aloof. Because of that, only because of that, did I rise so high in my profession and fulfill my obligations in such an exemplary manner --
"I saw my whole life afresh. All at once it seemed empty and meaningless to me. Why, I might have lived my life in an entirely different way, I suddenly realized. If that hadn't happened -- there was so much enthusiasm and love of adventure in me, so much affection, imagination, and confidence, so much that was singular and passionate -- my God, I might have been someone else altogether, an explorer or an actor or a soldier! Why, I might have loved people, drunk with them, understood them, who knows what I might have done! It was just as if ice were thawing inside me. I turned over stamp after stamp; they were all there, Lombardy, Cuba, Siam, Hanover, Nicaragua, the Philippines, all the lands I had wanted to travel to and now would never see. Every stamp embraced a small piece of something that might have been and never was. I sat there through the entire night, going over the stamps and taking stock of my life. I saw that it had been someone else's life, artificial and impersonal, and that, in reality, my true life had never come into being." Mr. Karas gestured with his hand. "When I think of all that I might have been -- and how I wronged Lojzik -- "
Upon hearing these words, Father Voves frowned and looked extremely unhappy; most likely he had remembered something in his own life. "Mr. Karas," he said, much moved, "don't think about it now. What would be the use, you can't rectify it now, you can't make a fresh start -- "
"No," sighed Mr. Karas, and then he flushed slightly. "But you know, at least -- at least I've started collecting stamps again!"