Reading through a summary of the Hungarian mathematician George Polya’s investigations into plane symmetry groups, Maurits transcribed into his notebook, one after the other, the seventeen formulae for the distinct ways of representing two-dimensional patterns. As he did so, he found himself mentally picturing the Islamic designs on the tiles of the Alhambra which he had seen as a young man when touring Italy and Spain fourteen years earlier. On that occasion he had been arrested while sketching the city walls on suspicion of being a spy. This time he had promised to be more circumspect.
The previous September his eldest son had returned home from school announcing that he would now be required to wear the uniform of the Opera Nationale Balilla, a youth group modelled on Mussolini’s black-shirted Arditi. Over dinner that evening Maurits and Jetta made the decision to leave the house that had been built for them near Rome, and that had been their home since before George and his brothers were born, and move to Switzerland. Before they did so though Mauk wanted to take one last trip around Southern Italy and the Mediterranean, and so he wrote to the Adria shipping company with the proposition that in exchange for board and passage he would produce a series of prints of the company’s ships and ports of call. To his gratification they accepted, and on the 19th of April the following year he set sail from Trieste, with a rendez vous with Jetta set for Genoa in three weeks’ time.
As he completed the final formula his eye wandered back to the textbook, which had examples of each one illustrated. He made a note to thank Ber, but of a sudden was struck by a vivid recollection of his younger brother Arnold, Nol, who had been killed in a climbing accident in the Tyrol ten years previously. Maurits had been obliged to identify the shattered body, and as the bruised and broken features appeared in front of him the images on the page began to blur and shift and link with one another, with a frightening sensation that they were getting bigger while simultaneously moving rapidly away from him. A wave of vertigo assailed him and he gripped the desk and closed his eyes. Taking a deep breath he looked out of the window to regain his composure and as he did so became aware of a man sitting quite still on the opposite side of the room, looking straight at him. He quickly turned back to the book and closed it, then looked up again. The man had gone.
After a long minute he returned the book to its shelf, then sat down again. Opening a new page in his notebook he took a pencil and started to draw the man, starting with the two perfectly round, perfectly black circles that had covered his eyes. The face was sharp, with tightly angled cheekbones and a prominent nose. A wave of black hair over the square brow met with a neat beard and moustache. The brow itself was furrowed, but looking at the face Maurits realised he had only succeeded in drawing himself. He tore the page out with frustration and hurried from the library. He caught a vaporetto back to the port and, once back on the Rossini, made his way to his cabin and did not emerge until the next morning.
Over the following few days however the experience began to fade in his memory. The weather was fine and he began to sketch the ship. The regularity of the vessel’s lines appealed to him, in particular the arrangement of the rigging and the views through the various portholes and apertures above and below decks. The order and symmetry of the wires strung from the radio aerial pleased him too, and he loved the sea, that deep, deep infinity. He felt able to rest, dreaming, removed from the nervous tensions of daily life. Sailing over a calm sea, on the bow of a ship, toward a horizon that always recedes, he sat staring at the waves that go beyond, listening to their monotonous, soft murmuring, and dreaming away toward unconsciousness.
In the evenings he played cards with the officers and swapped talk about jobs and families. He had brought along a few prints which were admired. He in turn envied their professionalism and, without saying so, steady pay. The last ten years had been only fitfully successful and the move to Switzerland would be expensive. His wife’s family would be welcoming, but he found the country, like the architecture, to be uniform and functional and cold. He would miss this southern warmth.
In Ancona he was intrigued by Trajan Arch's, taller than its equivalent in Rome, and he photographed it, along with the cathedral and the pentagonal Lazaretto. In Atrani he made new sketches of buildings which had proved lucrative from earlier visits, but he found himself climbing in order to lengthen their perspectives and make their situations appear steeper and more precarious. In Palermo and Naples he walked the cities at night, enraptured by the hard outlines of spires and domes against the softer sky. Fireworks at a festival in Catania reminded him of phosphorescence thrown up by the ship’s bow at night, and of dolphins. The ship docked in Genoa on the 12th of May and he ran all the way to the station.
“Maukie my darling! You look well!”
“The sun shines. How was your journey?”
“Fun. There was a man who insisted I reminded him of his widow, or his dead wife, or somebody’s dead wife anyway. I don’t know how he could tell though; he was as blind as my foot. He was full of questions. I changed carriages after three stops to get away from him. But look! No children! Come on, where’s my ship?”
In Savona, Jetta stayed on board while Maurits sketched the port. In Imperia they walked up into the hills. Stumbling on a rock, Maurits disturbed a nest of lizards which for a split second appeared frozen, all legs and heads and tails intertwined, before scattering in all directions. In Marseille they dined in the Captain's cabin. Over the course of the meal they were careful to avoid politics, but over port the Captain asked them about their plans for the future, and it was Jetta who answered.
“The boys’ health is not so good at the moment. Rome is wonderful, but filthy. Perhaps we are just on the wrong side of the city, or maybe the whole country, but my parents are insisting we take them to Switzerland.”
“That sounds wise. At the moment I think that is probably a very good idea. But you, Maurits? What about you?”
“Honestly? I hate Switzerland, but I will be able to work there.”
“I won’t,” said Jetta. “I’ll be expected to play the dutiful mother. No more parties, only lakes. Needs must though, when you’ve to pay your dues.”
“She means her parents.”
That had been the worst part of the wedding, the Agreement. Neither father had been under any illusions regarding the failed young architect’s ability to support a family, and between them the Dutch engineer and the Swiss doctor had worked out a programme of allowances mean enough to encourage the production of work of commercial quality without delaying the production of grandchildren. To give them credit, they had also, respectively, bestowed on the newlyweds two fine gifts: a telescope for looking at the stars, and the simurgh. The latter, of Persian origin, was a statuette of a bird with the head of a man, and it was one of Maurits’ favourite possessions.
But that didn’t answer the question of money. As things stood, he was hopeful of arranging a solo exhibition to mark his arrival in Bern, but he was aware that his work had been received there as ‘reasoned’ and ‘mechanical’ in the past, an irony he felt keenly but uncertain of how to address. That was the main purpose of this trip, really, and he was at least beginning to have a feeling for something.
The next port was Barcelona, where they had enough time to catch the train to Montserrat. In Valencia they had even longer and were able to spend the night in Cuenca. Teetering across the bridge of St Paul that evening to see the hanging houses of the old town, his feeling got stronger. It wasn’t that he was scared of falling precisely, but of where else he might go. He started running, causing the iron and wood span to rock and sway. Jetta laughed and ran too but when they got to the other side looked at him curiously.
“Are you alright Maukie?”
“Yes. I just wanted to feel the space. My teachers used to say I was too tenacious, too ‘literary’, that I didn’t have enough moods and caprices to be an artist. I think something is changing at last. Come on, come down into the gorge. I want to draw you.”
Alicante, Cartagenia, and finally Almeria, where they left the Rossini, planning to head overland back to Valencia, via Granada, Ronda, Seville and Cordoba, to meet the Altube Mendi, and take it back along the coast to Italy.
At a small café by the water that evening, Maurits told Jetta about the encounter in Venice.
“Except it wasn’t an encounter. I don’t know what it was, or if it happened at all now. It was terrifying, but I felt something, and I’m still feeling it. I love the sea, the sheer expanse of it, but I want to be up high too. And I want to be somewhere else, in between them or next to them somehow. But I want to be here, right here, in the detail of the moment. This moment, with you. But I want to be over there too, at that table over there, looking at us, and if I can’t be there I want to be able to draw it at least, and print it. I have the skills…”
“But not the vision, is that it? Tell me again about the man in the library.”
“I think I saw him today. At least, there was a man down at the port with glasses like you said.”
“What did he look like?"
“I can’t for the life of me remember, but he reminded me of that funny man on the train, only now it doesn’t seem so funny.”
“Who do you think he is?”
“I’ve no idea, but I think we should probably stay away from him.”
The next morning they were at the Alhambra before dawn. Waiting for the doors to open they strolled arm in arm through the wood of English elms, listening to nightingales and cascades of running water. The water flowed inside as well, and as Jetta traced it from hall to courtyard to tower to terrace, Maurits sketched the fountains and pools, the palms and arabesques, the columns and the arches, but he concentrated hardest on the tiles. By mid-morning he had identified eleven different unique patterns, and when Jetta found him in the Sala de los Abenceraajes he had a twelfth. She had bought bread and cheese from a stall just outside the walls and they sat under a pear tree to eat it.
“I saw him again.”
“The blind man?”
“I don’t think he is blind. At least, he doesn’t use a stick. It looked like he was looking for someone.”
“I don’t know, but he didn’t seem interested in the building.”
“Stay with me this afternoon?”
But they didn’t see him again, or in Ronda the next day where they hurried over the Puerto Nuevo, unsure if the men they saw being herded into the chamber above the central arch were Nationalists or Republicans. In Seville a curfew was in effect and they ate their dinner in silence, waited on by a young Welshman with lank hair in a hotel that was empty of other guests.
In Cordoba though the town was in festival mood. Every square was full of food and music and every other street had its own cross garlanded with flowers. The couple found themselves caught up with a large group promenading and passing verdict on the decorations. As the afternoon turned into a long dusk illuminated by thousands of candles and cups of wine, they somehow became separated. Maurits allowed himself to be pushed along by the crowds for a while but became increasingly uneasy as the truce condoned by the festivities began to show signs of fracturing. Shouts and slogans thrown between groups became stones and bottles and he scuttled off to find a way back to the hotel along quieter back streets. Jetta wasn’t there and didn’t come in until after the proprietor had retired to bed with instructions to admit no one except her and then lock the door.
“Are you alright? Where have you been?”
“Talking to your friend. I was wrong before. We were. He is blind, completely, but somehow he found me by following you, he said, and this time, I don’t know why, I told him everything. He wants to help us.”
“What. What did you tell him? We don’t need help. Who is he anyway?”
“I don’t know. He took me to this bar, I don’t even know where it was now, but it didn’t feel safe on the streets. He did tell me his name, I think, but I’ve forgotten it, something beginning with M. He’s working for someone anyway, someone with money in Rome, or maybe not Rome, but anyway he wants to meet you. I told him you’d be in the Mosque tomorrow.”
There was a pause.
“Are you sure about this Jetta?”
“Honestly? No. But you should meet him, at least. I don’t think you can not, now. Sorry?”
“It’s fine. I’ll be there early. You too?”
But the next morning she couldn’t be raised so Maurits walked through the town alone. Puddles of mostly wine mixed with crushed flowers on the cobbles and he was aware of being watched from upper-storey windows. When he reached it he circumnavigated the cathedral mosque in its entirety once before entering via a small archway dedicated to Saint Faustus in the northern wall and walking through the garden of regularly spaced palms and figs, and then into the mosque itself which was totally deserted. He wandered through this second forest of onyx, jasper, and marble columns, careful to maintain his distance between them and pass under the exact centre of each arch. Examining them for imperfections he found none. Each double arch, a lower horseshoe surmounted by a semicircle, raised the roof high above his head and the alternating shades red and white of the voussoirs, which reminded him of nothing so much as the life rings on the Rossini, softened to a coral pink and soft yellow as his eyes adjusted.
Making his way to the central nave beneath the exact apex of the massive dome he turned slowly to cast his eyes down each colonnade. There was still no one except himself, except for the blind man who was suddenly at his left shoulder.
“Good morning, Signor Escher. My apologies. My appearance can be startling.”
“I was expecting you.”
“I will confess to feeling somewhat uneasy though.”
“Naturally, and I won’t indulge in meaningless reassurances, except to say that while I represent a very powerful individual, as I told your wife, someone you would be advised to be wary of, we have no interest in hurting you. I would merely ask you to hear me out while I detail an offer.”
“Your name please, first, and the exact nature of your business.”
“Of course. My card.”
The card was a delicate eggshell colour. The jet black lettering in Roman font simply gave the name Marciano Enzo and an address on the Calle del Sturion in Venice.
“And your profession?”
“You might call me a recruiting officer. There is a war on.”
“I have no intention of joining any International Brigade.”
“No, you are not a soldier. You are a…what? A traveller? A voyeur?”
“If you like. An artist too though.”
“Quite. And it is those skills we wish to employ”.
“Propaganda. Thank you, but no.”
“Nothing so crude. No messages, only measurements in fact. You are very precise, aren’t you Signor Escher. Such refined attention to detail. I believe you have in your head a very clear sense of this room now. How many columns are there please?”
“Eight hundred and fifty six. Arranged in a somewhat brutalised grid.”
“Correct. Exactly right. Turn and look East now. Good. Now North. Now West, and finally look South.”
The sunlight flooding in through the translucent marble of the mihrab suddenly intensified, forcing Escher to blink and as he did so the columns in front of him seemed to shift and rearrange themselves. As the light faded again he realised that the naves were now laid out isometrically, and he could see along two at once. He stared for a moment, then span around as the walls appeared to recede and the arches overhead vanished to reveal a night sky full of unfamiliar constellations. He darted twenty steps to his right only to be still at the absolute centre, then again at an angle but was still no closer to any edge. He slowly walked back to the figure of the blind man, who had not moved.
“Allow me to simplify things a little.”
Two thirds of the surrounding space fell dark and only two avenues remained. The left one appeared to be rising, the right descending, while both remained absolutely flat and level. Escher staggered slightly.
“At this juncture no more than a chance to explore. Go left and I will not trouble you again. Or right and discover enough work for a lifetime over. You are not committing yourself, but henceforth everything is in strictest confidence and you may not reveal what you see nor divulge how or where you came to see it. As it happens, I trust you completely and, without putting too fine a point on it, am quite full of anticipation. Shall we?”
Escher looked into the glasses and nodded briefly. The left-most path also went dark and the one remaining latched into steps leading steeply down.
“I’ll go first, but please stay close behind me as I’ll be using your eyes.”
They descended quickly but after sixteen steps came to a short landing with a door on either side. The handle of each was made of crystal; the left one was round and the right one square.
“Choose one. Or we can continue down. Just say when you get to a door that compels you to open it.”
The handles of the next set of doors were formed of one geometric shape trapped within or protruding through another, a cube with a four-sided pyramid on one side and a sphere pierced by a six-pointed star on the other.
Subsequent doors had handles of increasing complexity but after one hundred and twenty eight steps the door on the left had a handle that was a cube fused with an octohedron. Escher examined it carefully.
“Well done. The key is in your top pocket.”
Escher opened the door and was immediately confronted by a flickering cinemascape of figures stretching further than he could see, crammed tight in a squirming, seething mass. Men, women, children, beasts, birds and demons were pressed together so that no gap was visible. Heads, wings and limbs met talons, tails and faces with perfect contiguity. A butterfly right in front of him had its abdomen apparently engulfed in the jaws of a uncannily intelligent-looking fish while its antennae framed the head of a lizard. The lizard’s feet meshed with the horns of a hybrid goat-like creature which had its hooves pressing down on the shoulders of a woman spread akimbo between a giant grasshopper, a mole and a crab. He saw a man caught among the trailing tentacles of a jellyfish which was itself trammelled between a winged frog, another woman and a demon of crude proportions.
There was no sound, and the only colours were black and white, and yet somehow as the bodies writhed and twisted around each other no two black or white individuals came into contact. Each one came into sharp focus as he watched, then they all at once seemed to lose definition and meld into an infinite chessboard. The squares twitched and became a net of hexagons and pentagons that curved all around him. The shapes became identical lizards, then fish, then insects and finally birds which transformed again into a dance of angels and demons revolving around a central point in whichever direction he looked, but the angels were faint and fading by the second while the grimaces on the faces of the demons became leers and snarls.
“Don’t mind them. Infinite as they are in number, they have no depth.”
“But the people… Are they, were they real?”
“You tell me. Did you recognise any? In the same way, totally lacking in depth, so it’s not surprising if you didn’t. Can you imagine though, your whole self being defined, outlined in its entirety, by mere appearance? Not something you really need to fear I should think, though you might want to try some portraits of faces other than your own. Just a suggestion.”
The angels and demons were now weird hunch-backed men who were crawling over and around one another, awkwardly and uncomfortably and even obscenely here and there, but here and there actually managing to shake hands.
“What does it mean?”
“Don’t worry about meaning, or rather, there is little meaning here beyond the purely aesthetic. Those lizards now, how neatly they fit together: that’s all. Each one is unique, yes, but all together? Meaningless! Let’s try somewhere with more…resonance.”
The scene in front of him which had reverted into the silently screaming horde of beasts and people shimmered and collapsed into another door. The handle this time was a single strip of leather twisted over and around itself that became a snake and then three snakes eating each other’s tails. He plunged his hands into the contorted mass, gripped and turned and pushed.
And walked into the main entrance hall of his secondary school in Arnhem. Stairs led up and down to each side, but on turning, he realised they were repeated behind him, and through arches and portholes he could see more stairs, and above him yet more forming triangular alignments against the vaulted ceiling, which he realised was another floor, tiled in black and white. Windows looking out onto trees and parkland showed the sky at unexpected quarters. Each flight of stairs was bare stone and unadorned except with simple bannisters above and below. A man with no face carrying a tray appeared at the top of one staircase and began to walk down it. At the same time another man with a sack started walking up the underside at right angles, using the risers as treads. Other men, and women, and couples appeared, walking slowly and deliberately in all directions without acknowledging either each other or the peculiarity of their peregrinations.
As he watched the people seemed to squat down and crawl and slowly metamorphose into lizards, which became crocodiles, then dragons snorting furiously and spurting bursts of fire. Each body lengthened, became segmented and sprouted two more legs while the jaws curved over to form a beak. Eyes bulged out on stalks and one by one they curled up and rolled around the endless stairs, finally becoming polished silver balls. One paused at his feet, then swelled to show his full height and behind him the agonies of the first room again. The ball shrank, became a handle and he turned it.
Water began gushing down and over the stairs sweeping all before it. Walls crumbled and fell to reveal terraced hillsides under high mountains. The water settled down into the fast steady flow of a millrace turning a huge wheel overlooked by a balcony, on which stood two men. On a neighbouring hilltop was another mill and another belvedere with the same two men, and beyond that another, and another. Each stood alone and yet the water flowed and the wheels turned as one. On each balcony Escher turned and spoke.
“This isn’t possible either, so what am I seeing?”
“It is possible. Anything that can be represented can be believed, if only for a moment. If you want to draw attention to something that cannot possibly exist, you have to fool firstly yourself and then your audience by expressing what you have to say in a way that conceals the evidence of possibility.”
“Yes. You have a great career ahead of you, if you want it. These scenes, which you will recall perfectly enough should you decide to proceed with us, will inspire you.”
“You have shown me hell.”
“A hell. To be precise, your hell. Man is perfectly equipped to create his own hell, and what you have seen and are seeing is all your own.”
“This? It’s not too bad.”
“Really? Water flows uphill. You are bound in one spot. You see the back of your own head in a mirror. Limited at the very least. At worst, totally untrustworthy. To put it bluntly, distrust is what you will be hired to purvey.”
“I don’t trust any of this.”
“And no more you should, though as it happens you can, for reasons we can discuss in due course. I want you to think over what you are being offered. These visions are yours, but inaccessible without our help. You can spend the rest of your live producing mundane landscapes of places you will grow to hate, or you can meet me in Venice.”
“What’s the price?”
“I think you know.”
With a bow, the figure of the Blind Venetian on each tower stepped neatly out of sight. One after another the towers themselves disappeared leaving Escher on the only one remaining, watching the wheel below him turning slowly and tracing the stream that fed it up into the foothills overlooking Cordoba. He suddenly felt very tired and climbed unsteadily down a ladder propped against the balustrade. Ignoring a woman hanging out washing and some poor wretch imprisoned behind bars in the basement, he staggered beneath the midday sun into town.