parallax background

Lisbon, Last Frontier


Antoine Volodine

Art by Billy Jacobs

Translated from the French by Andrew Wilson
Excerpted from the novel Lisbon, Last Frontier


On the Rua do Arsenal, in Lisbon, gallows abound.

“What?” he asked, startled. “What did you say?”
“Gallows,” she confirmed, with a provocative movement of her shoulder.
And: I’ve always wanted to start my novel that way, with a sentence that slaps them in the face. And him: Your novel? You aren’t seriously going to write it? And anyway who is slapping whom? And her: It just hauls off and slaps them, all of them, the overfed slaves of Europe, pudgy little slaves and their tie wearing masters, and all the managers, militarized by America, and the employers’ serfs and all those pathetic types, subjugated by everyone, and the social-traitors and their bulldogs, and you as well, my bulldog, you as well.
He sensed she was drifting, on the verge of hysteria again, and if that happened she was liable to lose the fundamental sense of things, attracting the not necessarily indulgent attention of the passers-by, and creating a scene and, in the wake of that scene, a disaster; for herself certainly, but also for him, for he was up to his neck in this affair. “A slap to the snout of the Western pig,” she hissed playfully. “Please don’t tell me you’re going to ruin everything by writing a book riddled with information,” he countered, “where anyone who cares in the German police will find all he needs to pluck you from your hiding-place, not to mention plucking me from my not so hiding-place and breaking me, dismantling in turn what’s left of your network of nutjobs? Don’t forget I’m up to my neck in this thing.” And her: Would you get a hold of yourself, my brave bulldog, I’d never rat on you. I wouldn’t rat on you for anything in the world. And him: Again happy. And her: Nevertheless, my novel will open with a vision of gallows. And him: That’s absurd. Don’t write anything. And her: I remind you that we are in fact on the Rua do Arsenal, in Lisbon, and gallows do abound. As throughout Europe, I might add. And him: Darling, let me just say: you’re fucking nuts.

He hastily examined the messages being sent by her pupils, diving immediately for the shadows and light, which conveyed, from the other end of this tunnel, her intellect. She’d turned toward him, her sunglasses perched atop her head, as if to hold back abundant curls, but for the past two weeks she’d worn her hair short; it was the face of a young woman sunning, only tormented and hard; her features ravished by passions, hatreds and fear. An arid veil was morphing the transparent blue-green of her eyes; darkening the silver glints, until recently so bright: a wind carrying charred dust across an age-old steppe, where presently everything alive was tempted to rave. She’s going mad, he thought. Despondency rose in him. Her mind is fading, she’s drowning. A cynical mistrust had sunk its claws into him, and already he was drawing up contingency plans, already he was preparing emergency measures, sirens wailing. Their joint survival rested on a ruse. If Ingrid were to crack, she would take him down with her. And he, Kurt, had no intention of stumbling into the void just to keep her company.

As he stared her down, she reigned in her smile, and then broke free, joyous. She nodded with her chin towards the clumps of dried cod hanging in front of the markets.

And: You see, I’m not lying, all around us it’s nothing but disfigured corpses. And him: I’m sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were sinking into madness. And her: Oh don’t worry I sank ages ago, now I'm just pretending. My bulldog was the only one to realize, such a clever bloodhound. And him: Forget about writing this book. The trail will be too visible. And what’s the point of leaving clues? Forget about literature. And her: First I give up my machine gun, and now black ink; is that how it is, my bulldog?

“It’ll help pass the time, so I don’t kill myself,” Ingrid said. “Don’t worry. Most likely I’ll never finish the manuscript. This sort of scribbling never ends up on a publisher’s desk, let alone in the cubicle of a BKA agent.”

And him: Once you're down there, you’ll have to lie low, my lovely. It’s out of the question to keep a journal or write a memoir. Are we in agreement?


She was filled with terror, the dikes were cracking. Her fate was being sealed. Terror flowed over the top. No. Her fate had been sealed long ago. In order to save her skin, she was going to have to strip it off; Kurt had taken her life from her, like a suit of clothes to be burned forever. She was going to emigrate and never return. Kurt was going to toss her on the deck of some ship bound for the hereafter, where she’d be given a replacement skin, which she’d slip on as best she could, and where she’d be forced to live, in China or Korea, or Sumatra, or in the Komodo Islands, inside this amorphous envelope, keeping her mouth shut until her dying days. Dross covered her interior landscape. She was leaving the world. Her departure was set for the end of the week, three days from now; the boat was already docked in Alcântara, a small liner, registered under a dubious Dutch flag. She couldn't breathe. Behind her lay a plain of ashes, and in front: nothing. No prospects. You can't really call rotting under a false identity a prospect, no more than you would deteriorating at improbable latitudes, forgotten by one’s friends and enemies alike, forgotten by Kurt. Disguised as a colonial castaway, eager to experience, whether through drunkenness or prostration, the time of the tomb.

And: That’s an existence? And him: A peaceful exile, when all’s said and done. Better than life on the fifth floor of Strammheim, no? And when faced with this alternative, she felt that mortal dread again, and she could seriously imagine crouching down at the base of a wall in the Rua do Arsenal, kneeling next to the gutter, plugging her ears, the better to keep out an uneven wail, a piercing groan, just long enough for the passersby to gather round, long enough for this sinister play to draw to a close. The end. The herd assembles, Kurt, her brave bulldog, disappears into the commotion, manages to escape trouble and suspicion, vanishes into thin air. The ambulance arrives. The paramedics take her away. Next, the embassy. Then, with lightning speed, the Anti-Terrorist Service of the German BKA.

But no. She was holding it together, constructing new dikes, she wasn’t falling apart, she wasn’t putting Kurt in an untenable position, she wasn’t attracting any crowds, because, instead, she was frolicking with Kurt, and laughing, tossing her head back, pulling him closer. I’ll get a hold of myself, I won’t ruin you, my bulldog, she thought, I won’t shatter the subtle mechanics of my escape, I won’t make it hard for you, you’ve already run so many risks.

And: Kurt, my bulldog, my dear dog, I’ll continue to put your mind at ease with the appearance everything’s OK.

Several years earlier in philosophy class, she’d experienced something that couldn’t have left her unscathed, and so today, as she was pretending to be joyful and carefree, she remembered. Her professor had put a bullet in his head moments after giving the students an assignment, an essay topic that would turn out to be an ironic, disenchanted farewell: Is severing one’s attachment to life a strength or a weakness?

It was a question she still couldn't answer.

“Once you're down there, you’ll have to lie low, my lovely.
It’s out of the question to keep a journal or write a memoir.
Are we in agreement?”


And: Just look at them, chalky corpses hanging in clusters, they can’t free themselves from nonexistence, but still they speak, with their odors. In the end, the only language that’s left. From their hook and string, a monotonous speech. And him: Monotonous and vile.

He leaned towards her to kiss her hair. Nothing in his attitude suggested he was beginning to distrust her.

Kurt had his arm on Ingrid's waist. Their appearance? Two German, or possibly Danish tourists on a summer holiday, over whom the gaze of the passersby floated, without alighting: From June on, the capital was crawling with this species, and these two had nothing about them that was liable to attract attention. Groups of tourists ambled down the sidewalks; they were constantly bumping the harmless hanging bodies protruding from the shop doors. And her: For the edification of the people, the chalkboard proclaims their crimes. Below, less noble debris was gathering dust in plastic bowls, portions of jowls, bundles of beige, plaster-grey meats, meats scaled with a brush; awful tongues, in strands; whole corpses as well, only more wasted. And him: Honey, your world is suffocating under a shroud of death.


Outside, the air vibrated, rustled, sparkled, while inside neon bulbs poorly lit the dwarf-like warehouses where heaps and narrow pathways reigned, where open sacks held court, and upon those sacks, drawers precariously perched, and upon the vats of oil, jugs. A multitude of loose spices – saffron, curry, peppers of various qualities – was softening the nagging odor of the dried salt cod, tempering it with Oriental seasoning. They drank coffee at the counter of a patisserie, and then began again their meandering in the midst of the crowd. Portuguese bureaucrats hurried, a good hour and a half late for work, impeccably dressed, toward the government offices on the Praça do Comércio.

They followed the tramway line, eventually reaching the Rua do Såo Paulo, virtually deserted. “I remember my first time here in ’75,” she said. And him: I know, the Sicherheitsgruppe blew a splendid opportunity to bring its files up to date. You and your scum swarmed here when the heat was on in ’75. And you let your guard down. We could've gathered intelligence by the busload. And her: You stupid cop fuck, you dirty little bulldog, all you can think about are your murderous missions, imperialist pig son of a bitch, you’re nothing but a valet for the Americans, you’re just a prison guard for the pot-bellied slaves, filthy dog, the social-traitors’ hired gun, a lousy little social sell-out, a dirty little bulldog, my bulldog. And him: Silly terrorist cunt.

Space blazed in the summer light. Not a cloud to disturb the blinding blue, while around them the brouhaha had quieted down; it was getting hotter, though the heat was softened by the moisture coming off the Tagus. “My friend, the Tagus,” she’d dubbed it the day before in a wave of tenderness for Estramadura. She loved Lisbon, and not just for the gleam of her communist past, which had shone brightly that infamous summer, then promptly flickered and went out; she loved Lisbon, its inhabitants in the '30s had won a place in her heart, as had its ambiance, Atlantic by default, as though it’d been transplanted here from the Mediterranean, condemned by an evil spell to nonexuberance and an untimely rumination upon its memories. A bus downshifted next to them, and then a trolley went by, hissing, all its windows open. And them, a lazy pace, two lovers with dark circles under their eyes. Their sunburns gave away their recent arrival in Portugal; they were shamelessly affectionate with each other, the way tourists are; surely, they were just another couple with ample funds who flew South to make love in a pension in the Bairro Alto, their skin turning red and peeling on all the beaches from Carcavelos to Cascais, strolling at dusk around Rossio, innocently mangling bits of Spanish, believing thus they were part of the indigenous population.

About herself, she lied: It’s been years since I felt this free. And him: Essay question, my beautiful: When man is drunk with freedom, is he free or drunk?

He stopped himself from looking over his shoulder to see if they were being followed. A tail wasn't likely when he, Kurt Wellenkind, belonged to the sector of the Sicherheitsgruppe that ordered that kind of thing. And as long as he stayed in control of the Ingrid Vogel case, Ingrid Vogel would escape the hunt organized by the German police. That is, if she didn’t stray from the agreed upon route, and got a hold of herself. The escape plan didn’t allow for qualms, it couldn’t afford a false sense of security. Lisbon was only a step, and that was all it could ever be, a step that was hardly more safe than the others, and in no way a refuge.

She’s going to lose it, he began to panic. He stopped her, put his arms around her, and in the window of a hardware store he noticed and watched Kurt Wellenkind kissing Ingrid Vogel on the lips. He detected, even on these lips, her reluctance to leave Europe, never to return, be it even in the form of a phantom.

Even here, he said, the Sicherheitsgruppe has its contacts, its opportunities to strike. I should know. And her: What if I tried to make a life here discreetly? Like an eternal tourist? With my papers in order, which my bulldog was good enough to furnish? And him: Come on, enough of this childishness. I'd give you a couple of weeks, a month at the most, and then you'd slip up or get mixed up in some hornet's nest. And at the first clue, the dogs would be called out from Germany. And her: And what if I disobeyed, my lovely bulldog? And him: Don’t make this difficult for me. And her: Still, what if I disobeyed? And him: My sweet, you do know how good the hunters are, don’t you?


A man and woman were kissing in the window. The woman was quite tall, she was wearing jeans and a white shirt; her black hair, cut rather short, framed simply her intelligent face whose features were hidden behind dark glasses. Unless he’d been tipped off, even a watchful BKA sleuth would’ve walked right by without recognizing in her the photo posted everywhere by the border police, the one paraded, enlarged, on the flanks of anti-riot wagons. As far as the man goes, his picture had never appeared anywhere, for he’d managed to escape the reporters' lenses despite his important official position. He was a good head taller than Ingrid, a head that – we might add – looked more Slav than German, with bony cheeks and slanted, thin, almond-shaped eyes – actually, if you think about it, more Tartar than Slav.

Their reflections fit inside one another, amongst the nickel faucets and brass collars, the rubber joints arranged in rosettes, the showerheads, the threaded pipes, and assorted spark plug wrenches. Other hardware stores had sprung up after the first one; apparently, the street was known for plumbing.

And her: The hunters! Who do you think you are?

“And him: So the machine-gun queen becomes the queen of allegory? And her: A study in obscure chaos, accurate to the nearest millimeter. No one will figure it out, except you, my bulldog. No one will even suspect I’m telling a true story about our time.”


“I bet you can already see yourself sitting in front of your telephones and bulletin boards, overjoyed, surrounded by your lousy little cop buddies in the Sicherheitsgruppe. Go ahead, admit-it! You seem to forget that we were hunters too. And our prey shook in its boots, no? Yes or no?”

And: How about my bulldog, did he shake? And him: Like a leaf... But unfortunately, those days are over. And in practical terms that means none of you will be falling asleep in Europe, without fear of waking up with a pistol pointed at your pretty little face. And her: But what if I got a little studio in Algarve, under an assumed name? And him: Oh, one day, you might have successors, spiritual heirs even. But for you, the eagles of your brilliant brood, you’ve been isolated and dismantled, and Portugal is not out of our reach; they’ll flush you out. Got it? And her: Got it.

“You’ll fall one man, one woman at a time,” he said. “The nest is being eradicated, understand?”

“That’s enough, you’re going to make me puke,” Ingrid protested.

The Rua do Sao Paulo seemed interminable. And because she wanted to change the subject—since this one was beginning to reek—she returned to the book. Again she spoke of a fantastical novel, which sometimes rose up in her with such hallucinatory clarity she could consult its pages; at other times, she was saddened to see it dissolve like a dream. And: Coded texts, a plot and fiction where every twist and turn, every meaning, will be encrypted. And him: So the machine-gun queen becomes the queen of allegory? And her: A study in obscure chaos, accurate to the nearest millimeter. No one will figure it out, except you, my bulldog. No one will even suspect I’m telling a true story about our time, you see? That I’m describing you, my lovable dog. Got it?

And him: I got it, my dear.

She’s going to play with fire, he thought. As soon as she’s left to her own devices, at whit's end, down there, she’ll insist on trying to outwit the flames. And of course, once it’s finished, her manuscript will circulate, one way or another. Falling eventually into the hands of some bastard or snoop.

“Alas, Bonn has some excellent decryption experts. Much smarter than literary critics.”

“But seeing as I told you—and I repeat—the manuscript will never get out,” she insisted.

A textbook mistake, he thought. A classic idiocy. I’ve been lying to myself about her. I wanted to remake her in my image. Out of love, I refused to believe she was irresponsible, until today.

And her: Down there, I’ll be a corpse, alone with the incommunicable thoughts of the dead, recalling their incommunicable and coded memories. And from inside my dead world, I’ll arrange to meet my bulldog. My wonderful bulldog. I’m allowed that, aren’t I?

He questioned her once more in silence, sounding the shallows as well as the translucent depths of her eyes and, further still, their nocturnal floor; sounding and sifting her intellect, her ability to weather the enormous stress of loneliness to come, the hardships of exile to come, the crush of time to come. He’d decided they would have no contact for fifteen years, while they waited for things to cool down. Centuries. He drew out sample responses lying drowsy within her, just below the surface of her consciousness, ready to come up for air; he considered them for a second and then threw them back, his face darkening. He didn’t like what he saw there. I love you more than ever honey, but listen, I can’t let you leave like this for your Asian hideout, you’ve gone too crazy, and I can’t keep protecting you here either, in Europe, because you’ve gone too crazy and I’m not all-powerful. Got it?

“You’re free to do whatever you like,” he confirmed. “Including force a stupid cop fuck from the Sicherheitsgruppe to commit hara-kiri.”

And her: But my nerves of steel, my bulldog, you're forgetting my nerves of steel!

“I was born to lead a clandestine life. Not a single sentence of my novel will make sense to your wonderful decryption experts. The keys to the mystery won’t open a single door.”

And him: No, you’ll just splatter every key and every door with written fingerprints. And her: Will you stop worrying. So, do you want to hear the title? And him: I can hardly wait. And her: Einige Einzelheiten über die Seele der Fälscher— Some Details of a Forger’s Soul. So what do you think? And him: The title is enough all by itself. It already makes you look suspicious. Do you know how you can tell someone’s a spy? More often than not, there’s not a single chink in their system of lies. The thing that gives them away is their obsessive need to talk about deception. Your book will reek of doctored passports, assumed identities and terrorism. And her: Don’t take me for a fool, my bulldog. I’ve already thought of that. No one is going to guess who the forgers are.

They were winding and weaving their way through the small streets, following their whim, little by little scaling the hill. They were traversing narrow spaces, which were as tranquil as countrysides; children were kicking a ball around, without arguing, and a hundred meters down the street some other children were screaming and yelling; laundry was hanging in the windows as in travel guides; a taxi, its hood shiny, its roof a milky blue-green, forced them to hug the wall.

“I’m still not used to my new name,” she said.

“Wal-traud Stoll,” he chanted slowly.

My new turtle shell, she thought. She was wriggling, bloodied and lumpy on the edge of an abyss, and still she didn’t dare inhabit this strange identity, which would cling to her body until her death, and even beyond. Nor could she bring herself to look over the edge. The violence of being torn from one's self has no equivalent in the torturer’s arsenal. Kurt had warned her. Once back in Bonn, he would grab the first unidentified corpse to help him cover her tracks, and thus close, with her coffin, the Ingrid Vogel case. He would collect from some burnt-out wreck some cunt no one would come to claim, and he'd make her Ingrid Vogel’s double in ashes; under his influence, Ingrid’s depressed, impressionable mother would sign the papers identifying the shriveled remains. And: Burial in the rain, a handful of sympathizers, each one with a lengthy file, members of the brood about to be exterminated in the broad sense of the term. And her, down there, on the coast of China, or Korea, or even worse, at an infinite remove, knowing nothing of his present, constantly censoring her memories. Absolutely outside and elsewhere.

In ten or fifteen years, would she still possess enough snatches of conversation, enough of an echo, to sustain her nostalgia and daydream about her former life, enough to extricate herself from the monsoons and malaria and think of Kurt, her bulldog, her darling bulldog? Lisbon, final image of Europe, will have dissolved, the splendid Tagus, gradually becoming confused with yellow estuaries, with reddish seas under a moonlit sky; instead of learning Portuguese, and speaking fluently with joy, she will continue to struggle with Chinese or Thai; notebooks filled with stories and texts, written in an approximate German, due to lack of practice, will become mildewed in an old suitcase, never having gotten past the mold stage. Boredom and despair in every fiber of this long death.


“We should’ve taken the funicular,” she said. “It’s a steep slope.”



“It’s the name in Portuguese, O elevador da Bica.”

“Well how about that, you actually know things!”

“I’m a decoder of tourist brochures. A master of ciphers, my dear Waltraud Stoll. Nothing gets by me. Neither pretty terrorists nor picturesque funiculars.”

They stopped. Between the rooftops, the Tagus was shimmering through the misty heat; a tiny orange barge was making its way slowly towards the 25th of April bridge. And then suddenly, she was overcome by the scent of his cologne, the smell of summer on his arm, overcome by the almost insulting force of this Teutonic male, both right and invincible. He was pressing his fingers at the start of her hip. It was already eleven o’clock, and yet, in the secret zones of her belly, she could still feel the warm softness and stirrings of love they had made before breakfast. A wave of desire caressed her, purring along her veins, making absurd all that wasn’t pure, ephemeral enjoyment of living.

“Essay question,” she suggested: “When faced with the inevitable, does the animal lurking inside us force us to deceive?”

“I don't understand,” he lamented. “Explain.”

“Well, my friend, I think it means that Ingrid Vogel wants to make love to you... She’s trying to forget that Waltraud Stoll ships off for good in seventy-two hours on an old Dutch tub bound for, etc., etc. Got it?”

He proposed a variant: “During sex, does the animal inside us force us to lie?”

He increased the pressure of his palm on her belt. They cooed softly while contemplating the steepness of the slope, the lively old widows scaling the pavement, a pretty girl in a cheap dress, and three young gypsies in questionable undershirts, who were constantly bursting out laughing. They rubbed against each other, enchanted by the spectacle of the elevador coming to greet them, as well as by the beauty of the Tagus in the far off distance, appearing in the notches of the bright houses.

“Another variant,” he added: “Is the duplicity lurking inside us a love sickness or fate’s practical joke?”

“I don't understand,” she lamented. “Elaborate.”

But as he was elaborating, as he was bantering on, what was he thinking?

Yes: What was he really thinking?

Just fleetingly at first, for the idea visited him like a phantom every time they set out and exchanged parodies of philosophical enigmas (it was one of their private games, but by now we’re at least familiar with this one): Had she or hadn’t she slept with her suicidal philosophy professor? Despite her denials, she’d obviously slept with him; for she spoke of him with guilt-ridden respect and passion, which couldn't simply be explained by the fact that he was the one who had planted the seeds of subversion in her head. Had she or hadn’t she? Yes or no?

And then: The mistake was thinking she'd agree to the escape plan without flinching, that she had agreed. That just because she was used to false papers, she could take losing her identity, and stay put down there, leading a chrysalislike life for fifteen years, for centuries, an immense silence between us. Did she ever have the necessary discipline and courage? Does she have it still? Yes or no?

And next, because he needed to justify his contingency plans, needed to justify their brutal rigor, he began to imagine passages from her book, citing them as unfortunate and cynical grounds. He’d begun to write her book for her, without bothering to write it in code. And in lieu of the laughable allegorical devices behind which Ingrid hoped to hide, his texts blared the truth, in turn letting the German police dobermanns loose. In her place, he was composing an imprudent book, passages of which he would read out loud, inside himself.

Like this one, for instance:

Half way between Dortmund and Frankfurt, a girl was on fire inside a stolen blue Volkswagen, her ribcage smashed in. She hadn’t caused the accident, a Mercedes had done that, but that's not important. The hood vibrated, flames and smoke streamed as far as the barely dented Mercedes, winding across the entire breadth of the freeway. Gas poured out onto the silence of the traffic. The girl was resting her head on the steering wheel, asleep. The skin on her face was roasting, already coming unstuck. How quickly a body becomes unrecognizable, at least superficially. The girl seemed to be smiling in her sleep; or perhaps she'd just regained consciousness, and was reluctant to get out, preferring instead, either out of laziness or a deep sense of poetry, to just sit there, admiring the colors of the dashboard as it melted. Next, she seemed to slump in her seat. She was already unsure of her surname, her given name, the ones she’d gone by up until then. And she wasn’t reaching around on the charred seats for her passport, which would have told her who she was; the gearshift had gone straight through her arm. She wouldn’t have bothered anyway, she wasn't carrying identification. Her sockets empty, her soul at rest, she fell back to sleep. The front tires exploded. The car heaved on its rims. The girl was still smiling. Perhaps, at that moment, her name wasn’t yet Ingrid Vogel. Not quite yet. But who can really say?