The earwitness makes no effort to look, but he hears all the better. He comes, halts,
huddles unnoticed in a corner, peers into a book or display, hears whatever is to be heard,
and moves away untouched and absent. One would think he was not there for he is such an expert
at vanishing. He is already somewhere else, he is already listening again, he knows all the
places where there is something to be heard, stows it nicely away, and forgets nothing.
He forgets nothing, one has to watch the earwitness when it is time for him to come out with
everything. At such a time, he is another man, he is twice as large and four inches taller.
How does he do it, does he have special high shoes for blurting things out? Could he possibly
pad himself with pillows to make his words seem heavier and weightier? He does nothing else,
he says it very precisely, some people wish they had held their tongues. All those modern
gadgets are superfluous: his ear is better and more faithful than any gadget, nothing is
erased, nothing is blocked, no matter how bad it is, lies, curses, four-letter words, all
kinds of indecencies, invectives from remote and little-known languages, he accurately
registers even things he does not understand and delivers them unaltered if people wish him to do so.
The earwitness cannot be corrupted by anybody. When it comes to this useful gift, which
he alone has, he would take no heed of wife, child, or brother. Whatever he has heard,
he has heard, and even the Good Lord is helpless to change it. But he also has human sides,
and just as others have their holidays, on which they rest from work, he sometimes,
albeit seldom, claps blinders on his ears and refrains from storing up all the hearable things.
This happens quite simply, he makes himself noticeable, he looks people in the eye, the things
they say in these circumstances are quite unimportant and do not suffice to spell their doom.
When he has taken off his secret ears, he is a friendly person, everyone trusts him, everyone
likes to have a drink with him, harmless phrases are exchanged. At such times, people have no
inkling that they are speaking with the executioner himself. It is not to be believed how innocent
people are when no one is eavesdropping.
from Elias Canetti, The Earwitness: 50 Characters
(English translation by Joachim Neugroschel)