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19 January, 2012

European Time

Contemporary watches do not tick. They produce no sounds at all

My father had an Ural watch. When it was handed down to me, father was already suffering from either a heart disease or asthma. But he did not leave any other inheritance for me. Well, perhaps a couple of hundred books. The hour hand barely moved ahead. The minute hand stumbled on every digit. And only the second hand raced ahead as if to redeem the disappointing performance of its neighbours. The glass on the watch’s face was the first to go: it fell out, hit a sidewalk and cracked and I had to have it replaced. Then the mainspring broke, and the watchman just made a helpless gesture. I put the remains of my Ural in a small imitation-leather square casket padded on the inside with burgundy velvet and buried them in a heap of junk in an old cupboard.

Another thing I remember well is a specific conversation about a watch. In the late 1950s, a friend of my parents who had just been released from the GULAG dropped in to see us. They went into the living room and locked the door behind so that I would not hear anything. Mother came out time and time again, heading straight for the bathroom: her face was red hot and tears were rolling down her cheeks. Finally, they went to the porch, and the guest was about to leave. I came out to say goodbye, too. He extended his hand to each one of us, and I saw a new Pobeda watch on his wrist. The guest nodded in its direction and said: “I bought it and could finally believe that I was in the big prison zone. I lived without one for 12 years.” (Bolshaya zona, or big prison zone, was the nickname used by Soviet political prisoners to refer to the USSR as opposed to zona, which is a collective designation for places of imprisonment. – Transl.)

Thanks to watches I began to understand the essence of metaphor and metonymy. As a young man, I lived in the former Romanian city of Chernivtsi where in the 1960s locals were able to secretly watch Romanian television. The USSR and Romania were barely making progress in historical time which stopped back then, but the backward Romania was still one meridian closer to the West. And so I first watched the French film Hiroshima, My Love on Romanian television which tells the story of a French woman and a Japanese man who fell in love in the post-war Hiroshima. In one episode, while the two are making love in bed, the operator shows their watches lying in an embrace on a bedside table. A man’s watch and a woman’s watch…

My thoughts went to watches because of Leopold Senghor, a Senegalese poet, philosopher and politician. He was a man of French culture and at the same time an ideologist of negritude. He viewed Africans as carriers of a cosmic rhythm whose drums sounded in unison with his heart. He saw the European watch as a heartless mechanism and a symbol of the pragmatic West. I accept Senghor’s image of Europe, but to me it means concentration of intellect, passion, longing and hope. Contemporary watches do not tick. They produce no sounds at all. They look nothing like Ural or Pobeda watches. And yet they pulsate. Aren’t watches the pulse of Europe?

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