A few days later, Banaka turned up in the cafe. Staggering drunk, he fell off a barstool twice before managing to stay on it, order a calvados, and put his head down on the counter. Tamina noticed he was crying.

“What’s the matter, Mr. Banaka?” she asked him. Banaka looked up at her tearfully and pointed to his chest: “I’m nothing, do you understand? I’m nothing! I don’t exist!” Then he went to the toilet and from the toilet straight out into the street, without paying.

When Tamina told Hugo what had happened, he showed her, by way of explanation, a newspaper page with book reviews, among them a sarcastic four-line note on Banaka’s entire output.

The episode of Banaka’s pointing to his chest and crying because he did not exist reminds me of a line from Goethe’s West-East Divan: “Is one alive when other men are living?” Hidden within Goethe’s question is the mystery of the writer’s condition: By writing books, a man turns into a universe (don’t we speak of the universe of Balzac, the universe of Chekhov, the universe of Kafka?), and it is precisely the nature of a universe to be unique. The existence of another universe threatens it in its very essence. Provided their shops are not on the same street, two cobblers can live in perfect harmony. But if they start writing books on the cobbler’s lot, they are soon going to get in each other’s way and ask: “Is a cobbler alive when other cobblers are living?”

Tamina has the impression that a single outsider’s glance can destroy the entire worth of her intimate notebooks, and Goethe is convinced that a single glance of a single human being which fails to fall on lines written by Goethe calls into question Goethe’s very existence. The difference between Tamina and Goethe is the difference between human being and writer.