107. Probability

I AM NOT IN thrall to my childhood the way many people are in thrall to their childhood – the way, for instance, Tarif is in thrall to his childhood. So in thrall to his childhood is Tarif in fact that he talks about little else, to such an extent that conversing with Tarif about anything other than his childhood is often impossible. He is simply not interested in talking about anything else. My own memories of my childhood are quite awful and I could imagine nothing so torturous as to be a child, whereas childhood is Tarif’s highest aspiration, even though it is, in the nature of things, quite out of the question, not only for the obvious reason that time cannot be reversed but also because Tarif himself is a professor of mathematics, thinks like a professor of mathematics, talks and behaves like a professor of mathematics, betraying no sign of regression to childhood nor even of a desire to regress to childhood. Indeed, it seems to me that my life as a human being only really began once my childhood was at an end, once I entered into adulthood, and that this is not improbable for a professor of literature, whereas for Tarif, who lost his entire family in at the beginning of the civil war when he was first-year university student, adulthood has proven to be catastrophic, a lifelong sequence of disasters, and this in turn seems to me to be not improbable for a professor of mathematics. Thus, his conversation about any subject other than his childhood consists of short, taciturn phrases, mumbled very slowly and with such absent-mindedness that it soon becomes apparent, if you have not known Tarif for as long as I have, that he is not paying the slightest attention to what you are saying. In fact, he is paying attention, a great deal of attention, but a very specific and finely-tuned kind of attention, to what you are saying, which consists of course of relating everything you are saying to his own childhood, so that – usually at the very moment you begin suspecting that Tarif has not been listening to what you have been saying – he begins to tell you something about his childhood, something that at first seems to have no connection to what you have been saying, although of course there is a connection and it is simply a matter of listening closely enough to Tarif and to follow his rambling reminiscences long enough to infer the connection he has already made, for Tarif’s mind, as all his students will tell you, is famously labyrinthine, and this, combined with his encyclopedic recall of a joyous, a truly rapturous childhood, invariably means that the connection that Tarif has made between what you were just saying and his childhood is often little short of sublime, a unique kind of mnemonic poetry. This is why, despite the trials of a friendship with a man as difficult, as obstreperous, as Tarif, I have come to hold his companionship in the highest esteem. Indeed I sometimes wonder if Tarif isn’t my only friend, as I am almost certainly his only friend, despite the awkwardness of our conversations, which are usually conducted, in all seasons and in all weather, when we take one of our long, once- or twice-weekly walks beside the sea, beginning at the port and winding our way along the Corniche until Tarif has decided that it is to return to his little apartment in the Old Town and takes a seat on the bench of the nearest bus stop while I continue back to my own apartment to take up my work, which usually consists of writing down one or more of the several stories Tarif has told me about his childhood, all equally vivid and compelling. Of course, I change the names and dates and places, which is to say I fictionalize the stories, and I publish them in obscure magazines under a pseudonymous anagram of my name combined with Tarif’s name, but nevertheless Tarif's stories are proving to be popular. My pseudonym is beginning to be noticed, to be talked about, to be anthologized, to be invited to participate in conferences and festivals. I have employed an agent who is currently in negotiations with several publishers to publish a book of stories based on Tarif’s reminiscences of his childhood, such witty and charming stories, full of such rare intelligence and light, that it makes me grateful that Tarif is a professor of mathematics and not of literature, that he is in fact completely uninterested in literature even though he is in a sense full of literature, or at least of poetry, or at least of a certain kind of poetry. Of course the success of the stories isn't at all surprising to me, as I am a professor of literature, and not of mathematics. I have dedicated my life to literature and poetry, I have written dozens, maybe hundreds of stories that on the whole were never published, not even in even the most obscure magazines, and if they did happen to be published attracted no attention whatsoever. Whereas Tarif cares nothing for literature and yet abounds with it, I on the other hand care for nothing but literature, and yet am empty of it. It is a neat, almost mathematical equation, for which I am grateful, as it is highly improbable, mathematically speaking, that Tarif will ever know what has become of his childhood.