The Knight, Death and the Devil
Albrecht Dürer, 1513
by Marco Denevi (1966), translated by Alberto Manguel
THE KNIGHT (AS WE ALL KNOW) is back from the war, the Seven Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the War of the Roses, the War of the Three Henrys, a dynastic or religious war, or a gallant war, in the Palatinate, in the Netherlands, in Bohemia, no matter where, no matter when, all wars are fragments of a single war, all wars make up the nameless war, simply the war, the War, so that although the knight returns from travelling through a fragment of the war, it is as if he had journeyed through all wars and all the war, because all wars, even if they seem different when seen from close to, seen from a distance only repeat the same infamies and the same clamor, so let us not be scrupulous about names or dates, let us not worry if out of the Plantagenets and the Hohenstaufen we make one wayward family, if we mix lansquenets with grenadiers, crossbowmen with archers, or if we muddle our geography and mix cities with cities, castles with castles, towers with towers, and so returning to the knight we were saying that at last he is back from the war, back from a link in the chain of war, believing the war to be the very last link, not knowing that the chain is endless, or that it has an end but, being circular, that Time makes it turn as if it were endless, for he left young and brave and war returns him old, wizened and bald, although this is nothing new, war lacks imagination and repeats its tricks, so the knight, like all knights who have been through a war without falling into Death’s trap, is unshaven, grimy, smelling of sweat, blood and filth, his armpits infested with fleas, a rash burning the insides of his thighs, coughing greenish phlegm marbled with scarlet threads, speaking in a voice made harsh by frost, fire, hard drinking, oaths, cries of terror and courage, he can no longer utter two words without swearing, he has forgotten the florid language of his childhood when he served as a page at the court of some margrave or archbishop, he has forgotten the beautiful manners and graceful bows with which he charmed the ladies because now he no longer asks women for love, he asks them for wine, food, a bed, and while his soldiers rape the girls he drinks alone, in silence, until the soldiers come back yawning, and then he slams his hand on the table and curses, he curses the little kings fleeing pale and tattered on panting horses, those kings who will return in triumph as soon as the battle is over, dressed in cloth of gold, under a golden canopy, in the midst of an army of pennants and banners, he curses the Popes dressed in ermine who from the height of their gestatorial chairs sprinkle holy water on the scarlet seals of alliances and coalitions, he curses the Emperor whom he once saw walking between spears erect as phalluses at the sight of that damsel of war, and the knight jumps to his feet, knocks over his chair, knocks over the table, the glasses and the jug of wine, a violent quarrel flares up, the tavern or whatever is burnt to the ground, the innkeeper beaten, and the troop led by the knight rides on once more, and now it passes through a forest in the moonlight but the knight no longer curses, no longer makes a sound, he rides on, silent, his eyes staring deep into the night, and one by one the soldiers stop talking, they fall asleep in their saddles, each dreaming alone with his head fallen on his breastplate, one hearing perhaps a distant music, the music of his childhood in a village in the Duchy of Milan or in Catalonia, while another hears voices which call to him, the voice of his mother, the voice of his wife or his sweetheart, and another cries out and wakens with a start, but the knight doesn’t stop, he doesn’t turn to see who cried, as if the cry were the cry of a bird in the wood, he rides on with his eyes fixed upon the darkness, the moon polishing his armor, and the soldier behind him, the one nearest to him, the one carrying a tattered flag burnt by gunpowder, a flag now hanging over the rump of his horse like a filthy rag, that soldier, a blond youth very much like a minstrel, suddenly has a strange thought, he thinks that perhaps the knight’s armor is riding empty, that the knight has vanished and all that is left is the armor like a hollow iron doll, or that perhaps the armor has overpowered the knight, sucked him up like a sponge, sucked his blood, crushed his bones, and now is an empty fleshless shell riding on, and he imagines this because he has never seen the knight without his armor and his spear, without his greaves and his gauntlets that point to the north of war, without his howling helmet beneath which lies a tangle of hair, but hair that belongs perhaps to a faceless beard, hair that is perhaps the helmet’s stuffing, perhaps the whole armor is stuffed with hair, and the thought makes the blond soldier laugh because it occurs to him that the knight may have dried up in his armor a long time ago, that the armor became empty a long time ago and they, the soldiers, never learnt the truth, and they, the soldiers, have tramped behind this empty armor from battle to battle, defying Death in the firm belief that the knight would protect them from Death, and, as the blond standard-bearer laughs, like a sleep-walker or a drunkard the knight hoists himself on the edge of his stirrups and utters a curse, as if guessing the reason for the standard-bearer’s laughter, trying to show him that deep down inside the armor he is still alive, or maybe to rebuke him for dreaming, and the blond soldier shrinks in fright until he realizes that the knight has not even woken, that he isn’t cursing because of his laughter but because the trees in the forest, which up to that moment seemed frozen under the moon and under the winter snow, have suddenly burst into flower and are covered with fruit, which is to say—even though the image is old and you have all understood—that the trees have flowered with the blossoms that the heat of war brings forth in all four seasons, in good and in bad weather, in fertile lands as in waste lands, that the trees have been covered with that fruit which is always in season, always ripe for plucking or picking, I mean the enemy, I mean the unquenchable enemy who waits patiently, stubbornly, hidden in the shadow, blurred by the fog and the smoke, and then the slumbering horses turn in a flash—but all this has already happened, all this is over now and the knight has returned to his castle, without the clashing of metal, of horses and of men that followed him in his journey through one of the provinces of war, he has left behind the shouting, he has freed himself forever from the soggy camps, the plundering, the ambushes, from hunger, terror, lack of sleep, he has kept nothing of the war except his horse, his panoply, his spear with the fox-skin at one end to stop the blood from dripping down and soaking his hand, he has kept the smell of sweat and filth, the lice, the rash, the exhaustion, the feebleness, old age and memories, memories out of the loud tableau of war, like that youth fallen on the grass, face skywards, sinking both his legs up to the knees in an uncaring river, the Rhine, the Tajo, the Arno, and the water passing by the body, lifting the legs, softening and tearing at them until it carries them downstream transformed into ravelled threads, first crimson, then pink, finally grey and ochre, or like those ten gallows in a dark and empty square, a body hanging from each one, ten dangling objects with their tongues out, and the wind made music with the bodies while in the steeple a bell sounded one same hour out of Time, or like the old man crouched to empty his bowels on the hard ground covered in frost and suddenly collapsing over a blossom of blood and feces, the ancient rose of dysentery, or like that lofty tower, square and built of bricks, rising against a row of cypresses, the jet of burning pitch spewing from one of the battlements, falling on the knights dressed in white tunics with a red cross on their chests, on the knights who were all so refined and beautiful and who had attended mass only a short while before, a mass conducted by an archbishop studded with precious stones, and the black crater dug by the boiling pitch, the hole smoking and crackling like a pan on the fire, until he, our knight, became aware of a sweetish smell, a smell of frying and burnt cloth, and felt a sting, and saw that a little piece of meat had landed on his hand, a little piece of flesh from one of those knights who a short while before had heard mass and commended themselves to God, because that is what the war had been for him, though perhaps for the little kings it had been something else and something else again for the Popes and the Emperors, perhaps a game of chess played at a distance, each of them locked up in a city, in a fortress, in a palace until the game is over and they come out and meet and shake hands like good sportsmen and split their share of harvested land, but now the knight has jumped off the chessboard of Popes and Emperors, now he returns to his castle, to his wife whom he left young and whom he expects to find as young as when he left her, to the sumptuously laden table and the warm well-made bed, to the falcon that used to perch on his gloved fist on the morning of the hunt, to the lute he once plucked, singing at a court in Provence or Sicily the roundelays of Cino de Pistoia, to the castle where he will at last cast off his armor like a dried scab, where he will take off his helmet like an alien head that could do nothing but swear and seek the track of the enemy’s army, he returns to his castle where the little kings whom he saved from the ignominy of defeat will cover him with honors, where the Pope and the Emperor who move the pieces on the chessboard of war will make him duke or count palatine, and then, turning a bend in the road, he sees upon an untouched hill his untouched castle, he sees around it the fields and the peasants bent over the soil, he sees a dog, a domestic dog, a stray dog belonging to no one, a dog running among the stones, stopping here and there to sniff the traces of other dogs, and confronted with the idyllic picture of the castle, the peasants and the dog, the knight thinks that just as he cannot grasp the true key to war, held fast in the hands of Popes and Emperors and furiously coveted by little kings, these peasants bent over their furrows are denied the knowledge of the terrible task of war which has been his for so long, because for these peasants war will have been a blurred rumor, the glow of a fire in the distance, the marching of troops down the road, and as for the dog, the knight thinks, it did not even know there was a war, it did not even know there was plunder and murder, treaties blessed by the Pope, an Emperor who made spears rise like phalluses, it would have carried on eating, sleeping, coupling with other dogs and ignoring the fact that far away, where the knight was fighting, the frontiers were being undone in order to be done up again in another pattern, indeed the dog would never know that a Vicar of Christ was being dragged bleeding through the streets or that an Emperor was kneeling, day and night, naked, outside a door that never opened, it would never know that the flower of Christendom had been fried alive in pitch and oil and that a chime of hanged men tolled the hours on a dark and empty square, because for the dog the thunder of war made the same terrible noise as the thunder of a storm, and had the dog seen the damsel of war it would have barked at her as it would bark at a stranger, or wagged its tail if it had found her friendly or been given some food, and now the knight feels proud of being a knight, of having been one of the pieces on the chessboard of war, of belonging to History even though his name will not appear in History, even though only the names of the Popes and Emperors will appear in the Annals of History, and in smaller letters the names of the little kings, and the knight feels sorry for the peasants who do not even belong to History, and amazed at the dog, contemporary of Popes and Emperors, who will never know there have been Popes and Emperors, who will never even know there have been knights, he feels a kind of awe seeing this dog who comes to greet him as it would come to greet a peasant or an Emperor without distinguishing one from the other, who comes to greet him without suspecting the disasters and heroic deeds that girdle his armor, and following his thought, following this train of thought that begins with the dog, the knight thinks that perhaps the last links in the chain are not the Popes or the Emperors, because in the same way that the dog ignores what the peasants know, in the same way that the peasants ignore what the knight knows, and in the same way that the knight ignores what the little kings know, and the little kings what the Popes and the Emperors know, in the same way the Popes and the Emperors ignore what only God knows as a whole and in the perfection of Truth, and thinking this of war, believing that for God too war is something different from that which Popes and Emperors see, fills the knight with hope, hope that, in God’s mind, History will include the knight’s name, hope that if the Pope and the Emperor, masters of the game of war, will make him, the knight, a duke or a count in recognition of his bravery, then God, master of the game of Popes and Emperors, will absolve him of the murders, the rapes and the plunders, in recognition of his suffering, his hunger and his lack of sleep, and will receive him in Paradise, and this hope makes him smile, it comforts him and makes the past ills of the war seem worthwhile, when all of a sudden, just as hope is comforting the knight and making him smile, the dog, running to meet him, stops in its tracks as in front of a wall, digs its paws into the ground, its hackles rise, its jaws part in a snarl and it bares its fangs and starts to howl mournfully, but the knight attributes its behavior to some insignificant circumstance, he attributes it to the fact that the dog does not know him and is frightened of the horse, or the armor, or the spear with the fox’s tail hanging from one end, it’s hardly surprising that this peasant’s dog should be frightened of a knight dressed in iron, and of a horse adorned with head-stall and snaffle, so the knight pays no attention to the dog’s behavior and follows the road that leads to the hill on top of which stands his castle, and the hoofs of his horse are about to trample the dog but it jumps to one side at the last minute and continues to howl, continues to whimper and bare its teeth, while the knight remembers again his young wife, his falcon and his love-lute, and has forgotten about the dog, the dog now left behind him like the war, and what the knight will never know is that the dog has smelt on the knight’s armor the stench of Death and Hell, because the dog already knows what the knight does not know, it knows that in the knight’s groin a pustule has begun to distill the juices of the Plague, and that Death and the Devil are waiting for the knight at the foot of the hill to take him with them, because if the knight could read what I now write he would perhaps think, following an analogous train of thought but in reverse, he would think that just as the dog stopped there where he rides on so knights perhaps stop there where Popes and Emperors ride on, and perhaps therefore the Popes and Emperors will ignore his heroic deeds and not make him a duke or a count, he would think that the war of knights is, for Popes and Emperors, like the stench of Death and the Devil that only dogs can smell, and still within the circle of this reasoning the knight would think that perhaps Popes and Emperors stop there where God rides on, that perhaps they play a game of chess which God does not take into account, I mean which God does not watch, perhaps God does not even see their chessboard, and the sacrifice of the pieces serves no purpose in God’s eyes and the knight will not be absolved of his sins nor admitted into Paradise, I mean that if the knight reasoned in this manner he would think that perhaps for God the realities that trap men form a web which cannot trap God, in the same way that the knight had passed through, without seeing it, the web in which the dog became entangled, even though the web was woven for the knight and not for the dog, even though the prayers, the hopes and sufferings of men are woven for God, but the knight will never read what I now write and he reaches the bottom of the hill, happy with the hope that his valor has woven a web that will trap the fly Pope, the fly Emperor, happy with the hope that Popes and Emperors have woven another web that will trap the fly God, while down there, on the road, the dog who confuses the thunder of war with the thunder of a storm continues to wage another, vaster war, in which the knight confuses the barking of Death with the barking of a dog.
In 1966 I was working for Galerna, a small publishing company in Buenos Aires. I had almost total freedom and, full of enthusiasm, I set up a short, and ultimately unsuccessful, series called “Variations on a Theme.” The idea was to choose one subject per volume (the subject might be anything—a newspaper clipping, a painting) and offer it to a dozen writers who would then make their own “variation” on that given theme. For one of the volumes I chose Dürer’s engraving “The Knight, Death and the Devil;” among the authors I asked to write on the theme was Marco Denevi.
Denevi had become famous in Argentina through two books: a superb detective novel badly translated into English as Rose at Ten O’Clock, and a novella, Secret Ceremony, which won Life magazine’s prize for the best Latin-American short story in 1960—and which was then completely changed by a Joseph Losey gone haywire in his terrible film of the same name.
Denevi called me back barely a day later and said that my “order” was ready. I went to his office to collect it (he was then working as an insurance broker, dressed in impeccable black) and I read the typewritten pages on the bus on my way back home. I remember the thrill of the first lines, the enjoyment of the virtuoso performance that revealed itself almost immediately, the happiness of the last fifty words that round up the story like a symphonic finale. In all these years my enthusiasm for this subtle, fantastic tale has not waned.