I used to have this tutor. He was a chess tutor, and he was from Norway. Mostly I took lessons from him because I liked to talk to him. He spoke in very precise English. He was a clever fellow, with an interesting way of explaining how he saw the world. I don’t remember what his real name was, it was difficult to say, so I called him ‘Romi’.
I used to tell him about the books I was reading. One of the books was ‘Ishmael’ by Daniel Quinn. That book made a big impression on me. Another was ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold, which broke my heart and had the grace to mend it again before the story was over.
When I told Romi some of what ‘The Lovely Bones’ was about, he listened for a little while, and then he held up his hand. (The story begins very tragically.) Every time I tried to tell him about that book, he held up his hand. One day he said, “We don’t talk about these things.”
I was curious. I said, “In Norway, you don’t talk about them? Is death a bad subject?” and he said, “No, …we don’t talk about them.” And he pointed to his head, and then his heart.
Another time, when I tried to describe something from the story of Ishmael, I had a terrible time because he thought it was so funny. See, the gorilla tells the man about how the story of Adam and Eve came to be… “The gorilla tells the man?”
“Yes, the gorilla can talk, but not with his lips; he talks into the man’s head.”
“Does he press his lips against the man’s head to talk?”
“Um, no. It’s like telepathy.”
“Anyway, the story of Adam & Eve has been embraced by the taker culture, and it’s weird because it’s not a good origin story at all, it talks about the greediness and selfishness of man, his unfitness for paradise. The snake is made a scapegoat, but it is not a story about a talking snake-”
“Is it a real gorilla, or is the man crazy?”
“Well, Ishmael is real.”
“Ishmael is the talking gorilla?”
“And the talking gorilla took issue with the talking snake?”
“Well, he was trying to explain this story in proper context for the man.”
“It is amazing this man managed to listen to the words with a gorilla talking into his head.”
Here I give up trying to explain what so captured my attention, because, in all fairness… Romi has a point.
One day Romi calmly told me a story while he check-mated me for the 222nd time. “There were two friends, a poor friend and a rich friend who were always together. Always. Like…”
He held up the king and a queen and pressed them together in a way I found fairly pornographic; but I bit my lip and simply nodded.
“One time they are walking, and the first friend says, ‘There is one thing I love best in the world, and that is the pretty shepherd girl who works on your father’s farm.’
“Well, the second friends laughs at this. The second boy had a family with lots of money and lots of animals, and he was good looking and could get any girl to smile at him. He had never given the shy little shepherd girl a thought, so he clapped his friend on the back, and teased him about this. Check-mate.”
“But after his friend tells him this, he begins to notice the shepherd girl, and how nice she smiles for him, and how her mouth has a dimple, just there.”
(at this I blush a good deal, and fidget, because I have a dimple, just there, but I am suddenly very much hoping that my Norwegian tutor is not going to declare his love in some roundabout, stolid, scandinavian way… fortunately he continues.)
“And he begins to talk with her, and to his surprise he finds he is more and more proud to make her smile. And soon they are talking and laughing. One day his poor friend comes to visit and comes upon them hanging on the gate, laughing and talking. He sees her face is pink, and he stomps away without saying a word.
“So the rich friend follows him and asks him what is wrong. And when he shouts, ‘You have made her fall in love with you!’ He goes defensive and says that this is fair. That a man must compete for a woman’s love and he has as much right as any man to love the shepherd girl.
“‘You don’t understand at all!’ yells his friend. ‘Do you not see? You had your choice of anyone, anyone at all. I have a house full of sisters, I would have introduced you to any one of them. If you had fallen in love with a village girl, I would have brought her your message. There was just one thing, one thing I wanted to have for my own. And that is what you had to take. You are not my friend at all.’
“And as he said it, the earth rumbled, and they both knew this was the truth. And even as he said it the earth opened up and swallowed the rich friend’s farm, and his family, and even the little shepherd girl. He lost everything, and he realized that only in his friendship had he been rich and blessed. And now he had lost it all in selfishness.”
I stare at Romi, brow furrowed for a moment and finally say, “Well, that’s just like the Adam & Eve story, with the Forbidden Fruit … from that book Ishmael I was talking about. They had to take the one and only thing that they couldn’t have, and they lose it all. He makes it clear that it is the fault of their selfishness… not a talking snake. That’s the real thrust of the story.”
With great equanamity Romi, who has already re-positioned his side of the board begins to carefully and precisely set up my pieces for me in two nice, even rows. At last he replies with a smile, “I know. I have already read the book.”