PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Christine Donougher
A meteorite explosion may yield a few small secrets about the origins of the universe. From a fragment of bone we can deduce the structure and appearance of a prehistoric animal; from a vegetal fossil, the presence long ago in a now desert region of a luxuriant flora. Infinitesimal and enduring, a plethora of traces survive time out of mind.
A scrap of papyrus or a shard of pottery can take us back to a civilization that disappeared thousands of years ago. The root of a word can illuminate for us a constellation of derivations and meanings. Remains, pit-stones always retain an indestructible kernel of vitality.
In every case, imagination and intuition are needed to help in-terpret the enigmas.
In the case of a man whose memory is defective, long steeped in lies then effaced by time, plagued with uncertainties, and brought all of sudden one day to a state of white-out, what kind of story can you write about him?
A sketch portrait, a jumbled account, punctuated with blanks, gaps, underscored with echoes, and ultimately ragged in outline.
Never mind about the jumble, the chronology of a human life is never as linear as is generally believed. As for the blanks, gaps, echoes and ragged edges, they are an integral part of all writing, as they are of all memory. The words of a book are no more monolithic than the days of a human life, however abounding these words and days might be, they just map out an archipelago of phrases, suggestions, unexhausted possibilities against a vast background of silence. And this silence is neither pure nor is it quiet; there is an underlying sound, a continuous whispering. A sound rising from the remote bounds of the past to mingle with that gathering from all reaches of the present. A breeze of voices, a polyphony of whisperings.
Inside every person the voice of a prompter murmurs in an un-dertone. Incognito. An apocryphal voice that if you only lend an ear to it may bring unsuspected news - of the world, of others, of yourself.
To write is to descend into the prompter's box and learn to listen to the breathing of language in its silences, between words, around words, sometimes at the heart of words.
On every object, every person, including his parents, he poses a gaze full of candour and amazement, studying everything with close attention. The gaze of a convalescent who has come close to death and is relearning to see, to speak, to name things and people. To live. At five years of age he fell seriously ill and the fever consumed all the words inside him, all his recently acquired knowledge. He is left with not a single recollection. His memory is as blank as the day he was born. However, it is sometimes traversed by shadows that come from he knows not where.
His mother, Thea Dunkeltal, devotes her entire time to reedu-cating her amnesiac and unspeaking child. She teaches him his language once again and gradually restores to him his lost past, recounting it episode by episode, like a story told in instalments of which he is the central character and she the good queen looking after him. She delivers him into the world for the second time by the sole magic of the spoken word.
In this fairy-tale by instalments, like all fairy-tales a spellbinding blend of the fearsome and the marvellous, every member of his family has the stature of a hero: he as the victim of a galloping fever that he has nevertheless managed to overcome; his mother in the role of the good fairy; his father that of a great doctor. In addition to this trio are two other characters, even braver and more admirable, who are his mother's younger brothers, killed in the war. It is his duty to acknowledge them with pride and grati-tude for evermore. Because it was for him they sacrificed them-selves by going off to fight in a distant land where the men are as cruel as the climate, so that he might grow up in a country of power and glory. And the child, who confuses the words 'enemy' and 'illness', imagines that his warrior uncles died battling against his illness, died of cold and exhaustion driving back the fever-foe into an icy waste so as to extinguish its burning heat. Bearing their first names, he meekly allows himself to be transformed into the living mausoleum of these two heroes.
Seductive as this family epic full of nobility and sadness might be, it nevertheless suffers from one defect that, although appar-ently small, greatly upsets the child: his mother grants no place in it to Magnus, whom she treats in fact with scorn, even revulsion. However, Magnus and he, Franz-Georg, are inseparable. So he secretly introduces his companion into the legend, inventing scenes for him murmured at length into his ear (the one that bears traces of burning, to soothe it) when they are alone together. Scenes in which Magnus has a role equal to his own.
Magnus is a medium-sized teddy bear with a rather worn coat of light-brown fur turned slightly orange in places. A faint smell of scorching emanates from him.
His ears are made of two large circles cut out of a piece of soft leather. They have the reddish-brown colour and smooth shiny appearance of chestnuts. One is intact, the other half burned away. An oval cut out of the same piece of leather trims the end of each of his paws. His nose consists of strands of black wool closely stitched in the shape of a ball.
His eyes are unusual, with the same shape and of the same gleaming gold as the buttercup flower, giving him an expression of gentleness and amazement.
He wears a square of cotton rolled up round his neck, embroi-dered with his name in large multi-coloured letters. Crimson M, pink A, violet G, orange N, midnight-blue U, saffron-yellow S. But these letters have lost their brilliance, the threads are grubby and the cotton has yellowed.
He spends most of his time observing his surroundings. They say he is too dreamy, inactive. But no, it is very serious work he is doing, studying at length the landscape, the sky, objects, animals and people, striving to engrave it all on his memory. A memory that has been as amorphous and unstable as sand. He is now en-deavouring to give it a mineral-like solidity.
He likes the land that extends round his village, the pink mist of gorse, the ponds and juniper copses, and above all the forests of silky-white birch trees, gleaming in the twilight when the blue of the sky darkens. The contrasts of colours and of luminosity fasci-nate him. In skies heavy with dark clouds he seeks for the breaches of sunlight, the glimpses of periwinkle blue, and on the greenish water of the marshes, for patches of brilliance, on mossy rocks, the fleeting glint of the stone's texture, like a flash of silver ore. But he is afraid of the dark, which swallows up shapes and colours, and casts him into a state of anguish. It is then that he hugs Magnus to his breast, like some ridiculous cloth shield, and whispers fragments of incoherent stories into his ear, preferably the left ear, the one that has been injured and therefore needs special care. Just as his mother cajoles him by lulling him with stories, he comforts Magnus by caressing him with words. In words there are so much power and gentleness combined.
Adults disconcert him. He does not understand their anxieties or their pleasures, and still less the bizarre things they sometimes say. There are times when they bray with joy or anger. When he hears this too loud, crude laughter, or these angry cries, he re-treats into himself. He is overly sensitive to voices, to their tex-ture, pitch, volume. His own voice sometimes sounds strange, as if his throat were left raw by the wheezing and tears that racked him when too severely afflicted by the fever during his illness.
He loves his parents with all his heart but he observes them too with perplexity from his deep loneliness as an only child, espe-cially his father, who intimidates him and of whom he never dares ask any question.
Clemens Dunkeltal is a doctor but he has no private patients, nor does he work in a hospital. The place where he practises his profession is not far from their village though Franz-Georg has never been there. Judging by his majestic demeanour, his air of gravity, Dr Dunkeltal must be an important man - a health wiz-ard. He receives patients by the thousand in his vast country asylum, and all undoubtedly suffer from contagious diseases since they are not allowed out. Franz-Georg wonders where these hordes of sick people can possibly come from. From all over Europe, his mother told him one day with a faint pout of mingled pride and disgust. The child looked in an atlas and was left speechless: Europe is so vast, its peoples so numerous.
His father is often away, and when at home pays but little atten-tion to his son. He never plays with him or tells him stories, and when he does deign to show any interest in him, it is only in or-der to criticize him for his passivity. Franz-Georg can find nei-ther the boldness nor the words to explain that observation is not at all laziness but a patient exercise in training his memory. He swallows back tears of impotence at not being able to express what he thinks and feels, and most of all tears of sadness at fail-ing to please his father.
But there are those magical evening when Clemens turns into a bountiful king, when accompanied at the piano by his wife or one of the friends they have invited to dinner, he takes up a position in the middle of the drawing room, standing very erect in the pale somewhat acid light cast by the chandelier, and in his bass bari-tone voice gifted with amazing plasticity he sings songs by Bach, Schütz, Buxtehude or Schubert. His mouth opens wide, like a dark abyss where a storm-beset sun trembles and rumbles. The light plays on the metal frame of his spectacles and his eyes dis-appear, as though they had become one with the glass discs. Then his clean-shaven face, with receding hairline and aquiline nose, looks as if it too is cast in some white metal, or kneaded out of dough. A stark shiny mask, as worn by the chorus in Greek drama. And he sketches in the air the slow movements of a seed thrower. He has beefy hands but his fingernails are perfectly manicured, and they gleam under the ceiling light.
The child listens, holding his breath to allow more room for his father’s, in all its powerfulness and agility. The voice of a master of darkness whose menacing forces he overcomes just as he managed to defeat the fever-foe. For Franz-Georg is convinced it is by singing in this way that his father must have helped him to get better, and surely this is how he treats the countless patients who have come flocking to him from all over Europe. And the child enfolds himself in this vocal chrysalis, denser and more voluptuous than the drawing room curtain of purple velvet in which he sometimes likes to hide.
It is for this voice, the voice of enchanted evenings, that Franz-Georg loves his father and has boundless admiration for him. Never mind if his father shows little affection, even though this is hurtful. His singing is enough to console him for this distress, or at least transform it into contented melancholy. His father is dis-tant but his singing is a haven, a pleasure. He harbours a noctur-nal sun within his breast.
Night Song in the Forest
Hail to you always, O Night!
But twice hail to you here in the forest,
where your eye has a more secret smile
where your footstep falls yet more softly!
Yours is a language of whispering breezes,
Your paths, interwoven shafts of light,
Whatever your mouth but quiets with a kiss
Grows heavy-eyed and sinks into a slumber!
And as we cry out in song:
'Night is at home in the forest!'
So the lingering echo replies:
'She is at home in the forest!'
So twice hail to you here in the forest,
O gracious Night,
Where all the beauty of your array
Appears yet more beautiful.
Nachtgesang im Walde
a choral work by Franz Schubert
based on a poem by Johann Gabriel Seidl
The father has seemed preoccupied for some time, holding long discussions with the mother, or with some of their friends who seem just as vexed. The child is kept isolated from these conver-sations, of which he nevertheless catches fragments. Among the words that often recur in these discussions there is one that in-trigues and disturbs him: typhus. The patients in Dr Dunkeltal's care are succumbing to this infection in their thousands. Franz-Georg has tried to find out more but it is harder to find out the meaning of a word in a dictionary than the whereabouts and size of a continent in an atlas, for he cannot yet read very well. But since he hears the words 'war, enemy, defeat' spoken more often, he again identifies them with the word 'illness', and therefore 'ty-phus'.
There is no such confusion in Clemens Dunkeltal, and it is with bitter lucidity that he realizes the extent of the growing danger. Day by day he and his friends lose their arrogance, becoming in-creasingly tense and irritable, and looking harassed and aggres-sive. Even his jovial companion Julius Schlack, who brightened so many evenings at their house, and Clemens' colleague Horst Witzel, a poet in his spare time, who seizes every opportunity to recite long works by Kleist, Goethe, Herder, Hölderin and Schil-ler, no longer joke or declaim. Suddenly they all change their way of dressing, of greeting each other, of behaving. They aban-don their very impressive uniforms, their noisy and solemn sa-lutes, they lower their tone and adopt a less martial attitude. They end up hugging the walls. And so closely do they hug them, they almost seem to walk through them and turn themselves into cur-rents of air.
One night in March the Dunkeltals flee from their home with the stealth of thieves. Holding on to his mother with one hand, Franz-Georg clutches his bear in the other to dispel his fear of the dark and of the unknown. In his mind they are fleeing a dreadful enemy called typhus, which has come from every corner of Europe. Is it the same fever as the one that almost killed him two years ago? If so, his uncles must have died in vain, and the fam-ily legend be no more than a delusion.
They head southwards. But the south seems to keep receding, so long is their journey, continually zigzagging in constant panic. They wander through desolate countryside, through towns and villages in ruins, passing hordes of distraught people. Sometimes they take refuge for several days in a cellar or barn. They are hungry but fear assails them even more.
They have lost everything, even their names. They have swop-ped that of Dunkeltal for Keller: the parents are now called Otto and Augusta Keller, and he simply Franz Keller. Only his bear Magnus is entitled to retain his original identity. The child inter-prets this absurd alteration in his own way. He tells himself that in the bewildering confusion that now prevails, where the least thing, even a crust of bread, a cigarette butt, becomes a tradable item, a name too can have an exchangeable value. But exchange-able for what, to what advantage - this he does not understand, and his parents do not really explain, merely forbidding him to make any reference to his real name, the house they have left, the region where they used to live, even his father's profession. The child listens to these instructions whispered to him in a tone of peremptory secrecy, and obeys without argument. He is meek and reserved by nature, accustomed to living on the margins of adult society, with so much of what they say and do remaining a mystery to him. He keeps to himself his bewilderment, his doubts and questions, and lets them gravely mature in his solitude. But the sight of towns laid waste, of terrified crowds fleeing along roads where unbelievable scenes erupt from time to time as panic reaches fever-pitch, and the roar of planes cutting through the sky cast him into a state of stupefaction and nausea that soon trans-lates into dull pains in his belly, as if all these images of collapse were rotten fruit, bits of contaminated meat ingested through his eyes, ravaging his entrails. At night these distorted images stir in his insides with the heavings of muddy waters and he wakes up crying, curled up round Magnus.
And then his father parts company with them, leaving him and his mother to continue this journey through hell by themselves. He says he will rejoin them as soon as he can but for safety's sake he still has to hide, and without him they will travel faster. This is true. As soon as his father goes his own way, the endless jour-ney improves, as if they had been relieved of a burden hampering their southward progress. All the same this separation is painful for the child.
Augusta Keller and her son Franz come to a small town that even a few weeks ago must have been very pretty. Now it is no more than ruins on the edge of a lake. Here, their wandering fi-nally comes to an end and their wait for his father's arrival be-gins.
FRIEDRICHSHAFEN: a town in south-west Germany, situated on the northern shores of Lake Constance.
In the 19th century the town served as a summer residence for the Württemberg royal family.
The town's history is marked by Ferdinand von Zepplin, who at the end of the 19th century set up production here of rigid dirigi-bles with a metal structure.
Important industrial centre in the early 20th century (construc-tion of aeroplane engines...).
At the end of the Second World War the town was the target of heavy aerial bombing by the Allies; the old town was almost to-tally destroyed.
Augusta Keller proves to be a dour double of friendly Thea Dunkeltal. She has lost her lovely house, her social status and her circle of acquaintances, every one of whom deferred with great compassion and respect to her deep mourning for her two young brothers, sacrificed so that the Reich might be vastly extended in time and space. Above all she has lost the dream of grandeur that helped her to bear with courage a sister's grief for the loss of her younger siblings, heroes whose frozen bodies, lying unburied somewhere in the East, in a land of snow and barbarism, must have been devoured by stray dogs or wolves.
The Führer is dead, the clarion-voiced incarnation of this dream of splendour himself, and with him, after a derisory dozen years, the thousand-year Reich has foundered. Nothing is left of her two combined passions, patriotic and fraternal, nothing but ruins, ashes and bones. She has just seen her nation pass overnight from triumph to catastrophe, the country's beautiful towns collapse like smoking ant-hills, and her people, once so proud, reduced to bands of fugitives steeped in fear, poverty and shame. She feels outrageously cheated, robbed, and as the days go by her plight is poisoned with bitterness. But she is strong, determined to fight for survival, and she girds herself with patience to await the re-turn of her husband. Thanks to relatives of his in Friedrichshafen, she finds a room where she can stay with her son, in a part of town away from the centre spared by the bombings, and a job as a cook in a hospital. The salary is derisory but the position ideal for scrounging enough to avoid dying of hunger.
Despite her tiredness she still finds time in the evenings to tell her son stories. She knows that everything he has seen in the course of their journey through scenes of devastation has trau-matized him. Every night he wakes with a start, cries out, wails. Then she takes him in her arms, cradles him to her body, and re-counts in a quiet voice the much-repeated yet sadly belied family saga. She embroiders, illumines the past, blotting out as much as she can the memories of recent weeks and promising a radiant future. As soon as his father returns, everything will get better. Life will resume as before, elsewhere and different of course, but as before, yes, even better than before. She thrills as much as the child to the tales she weaves in the darkness of their wretched room.
And the days go by, at once dreary and fraught, oppressive days of waiting, of feeling bereft and anxious. But sustained with hope. One autumn evening his father finally reappears - or rather the shadow of his father. Otto Keller is not even an enfeebled double of powerful Clemens Dunkeltal but a pathetic imitation. He has shrunk into a grimy fugitive, grown very thin, ill-shaven, the look in his eyes that of a hunted animal, a vicious beast. Franz observes with dismay his king of darkness overthrown, drained of his power, shorn of all magic. Can he even sing any more with his poor lanky stooped body? What has become of the night sun that resounded voluptuously in his chest? Has he swopped that too, like his name, his watch and so many other things, for food or false papers? But the joy of seeing him again, still alive, outweighs the mortification of finding him so reduced. The child stays with him as much as he can, expressing with his eyes what his lips dare not articulate: not to worry about any of this, that most of all he still loves him, perhaps even more than before. Yes, more, because pity for his father now outweighs the fear Dunkeltal used to inspire in his son in his days of glory. And at least now his father does not go away any more as he did when he had important responsibilities. He remains most of the time locked in their room, only rarely venturing out and always after nightfall.
Such are the thoughts of the child who, beguiled by the master-fully constructed conceit of his mother, still has no understanding of events and innocently lives his life cut off from reality, despite all the brutality this reality brings to bear and he has to suffer. But hunger and destitution seem almost easy to endure with his parents reunited. And then there is a great project in the making: the plan is to go to a distant country across the seas. The name of this country, which he often hears mentioned by his parents in the evenings, has the brightness of a promise, the beauty of a dream, the magic spell of a secret: Mexico.
Mexico - this for all three of them is their secret, their hope, their future.
One night his father returns very happy from one of his discreet outings. He has procured the money and papers necessary for his journey. He is at last equipped to set off for Mexico ahead of his wife and son who will rejoin him as soon as he can bring them over without danger. He proudly shows Augusta-Thea his new papers in the name of Helmut Schwalbenkopf, and this avian surname amuses him. 'Schwalbenkopf, swallow's head, now that's a good omen for undertaking this perilous migration!' Then he adds with a peculiar smile, 'Ah, good old Helmut...' and he goes on to recite in a playful tone a verse from a poem by Eichendorff:
'If you have a friend in this world, don't trust him at this hour, though with friendly eyes and smiling mouth, he is planning war in perfidious peace.'
Franz listens to him, a little bewildered, and taking his hand asks, 'Please sing, father...' As his newly effected transmutation into Helmut Schwalbenkopf has put him in a good mood, his fa-ther sings mezza voce a Schubert lied that deliciously thrills the child.