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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Novel

Peter Handke; Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim




The Viewer Is Diverted
I shut my eyes and out of the black letters the city lights took shape. Not the lights of the Old City, but the streetlamps that had just gone on in one of the many housing developments on the southern periphery. The development, consisting of two-story single-family houses, is situated on the big plain at the foot of the Untersberg. Long ago, this plain was a natural reservoir; then it silted up and became swampland--there are still swampy patches and ponds--and today it is known as the Leopoldskroner Moos. At first the streetlamps barely glimmer, then they flare up with a pure white light. By contrast, the arc lamps affixed to concrete poles at the eastern edge of the development, where a turnaround marks the end of the bus line, glow reddish-yellow. Between the bus terminus and the development lies a canal dating from the Middle Ages, fed by the Königsee and by one of the Untersberg brooks; this is the Alm Canal, the "noble Aim." The development lies right outside the city limits (just before the entrance, there's a sign with a diagonal line through the word "Salzburg"); it's called the Oak Tree Colony. All the streets take their names from trees: Alder Street, Willow Street, Birch Street, Fir Street. Only the road coming from the virtually uninhabited peat bog in the west has kept its old name: Cider Press Road. And within the development there are still a few of the old peat cutters' huts, some fallen into decay, some used for other purposes.
A trolleybus turns into the circle--a long, articulated vehicle. People get out, schoolchildren, locals, foreigners (who occupy the few wooden houses); all are in a hurry,only the children dawdle. They make their way in a cluster across the little canal bridge, followed by a few teenagers on their bicycles, which they left at the bus stop this morning. All together, they enter the Colony, which was almost deserted only a moment before and now suddenly seems inhabited. Dogs run barking to the garden gates. The phone booth at the edge of the Colony, which just now was dimly lit and empty, is darkened by phoners and people waiting to phone.
It's not dark yet. Throughout the city, the lights have as usual come on early. In the dip in the horizon between the Untersberg to the south and the Staufen to the west, there are orange-colored stripes. On the crest of the Untersberg, which is ordinarily dark at this hour, the cliffs glitter in triangular patches. Over the scree basin, below the peak, the last funicular is on its way down. The Staufen, farther away, beyond the German border, is blue-black; only the limestone furrows on its upper slopes are a lighter color; on the summit, the light of a mountain hut flickers. Actually there are two summits, the "big" and the "little" Staufen; as seen from the city, a few miles to the north, the distance between them is apparent. But here on the Moos one mountain is standing directly in front of the other, and the two together form a single pyramid that has no neighbor for a long way around. The summit of the Gaisberg stands similarly alone in the east. Except that, instead of being a pyramid, it's rounded, wooded, and topped with a plateau instead of a peak. On this side, the first star corresponds to the light in the hut on the Staufen. At the foot of the Gaisberg, just after the barren peat soil gives way to fertileloam, the Salzach flows in the failing light. There on the riverbank, not far from the boulder known as the Urstein, I once met a man who, with a glance at the slightly overhanging cliff and the caverns in it, said: "The world is old, isn't it, Herr Loser?"
With the light of that moment, silence fell. The warming emptiness that I need so badly spread. It was a brightening, a primordial rising, so to speak. My forehead no longer needed a supporting hand. It wasn't exactly a warmth, but a radiance; it welled up rather than spread; not an emptiness, but a being-empty; not so much my being-empty as an empty form. And the empty form meant: story. But it also meant that nothing happened. When the story began, my trail was lost. Blurred. This emptiness was no mystery; but what made it effective remained a mystery. It was as tyrannical as it was appeasing; and its peace meant: I must not speak. Under its impulsion, everything (every object) moved into place. "Emptiness!" The word was equivalent to the invocation of the Muse at the beginning of an epic. It provoked not a shudder but lightness and joy, and presented itself as a law: As it is now, so shall it be. In terms of image, it was a shallow river crossing.
The emptiness became peopled with figures. On the darkening street of the Colony, a young girl in baggy blue trousers was walking straight into the last yellow glow in the sky. An older woman on a bicycle turned in from a side street, holding a full milk can in one hand (there are a few isolated farms in the bog). An old man was walking from his house to his garden gate and back, changing his glasses on the way out and feeling his pulseon the way back. As usual, the wind was from the west. It had come up strong in the late afternoon but now had dwindled to a soft breeze. Different varieties of trees grew one behind the other in the gardens; some of their branches swung from side to side, others up and down, so that in time one got an impression of uniform motion, perhaps of a loom or of saw blades. In one corner of my room a ball of dust lit by the floor lamp moved about, and in the sky a vapor trail drawn by a blinking metallic pencil flashed in the sun. At the bottom of the canal, clumps of moss drifted about. Out in the bog, a herd of deer jumped across a drainage ditch.
I live in two rooms in the development's only apartment house, situated just behind the canal bridge. The house was built in the decade after the war and is only three stories high; there's no elevator and no balcony. The ground floor is occupied by a supermarket. There's no other store in the vicinity. When I moved here, someone told me that, when asked for my address, the people at home said, "He's living at the last stop of the No. 5 line, upstairs from the SPAR." (This information, however, was not provided by my wife or children but by a neighbor woman.) My two rooms are indeed on the second floor, and sometimes at night I hear the vibration of the freezers downstairs. One of the rooms faces east, toward the canal and the bus stop, right behind which begins the level part of the Morzg forest, consisting mainly of dark spruce and underbrush; the other room has one window on the west and another on the north side; this last has a view of the city. From the Moos just then, all one could see of Salzburg was hidden by the so-calledcity mountains, the Festungsberg, the Mönchsberg, and the Rainberg; on their summits, one could see blinking ruby-colored warning lights. Though only a few miles distant, Salzburg seemed a long way off, because the thinly populated plain and the city mountains lay in between. The city mountains looked like mere hills, barely perceptible humps, and it was hard to imagine that they consist almost on every side of rather imposing cliffs, a fall from which means certain death. At the edge of the Old City, only a scattering of tourist buses were parked--there are long files of them during the day--and as the squares emptied of people, the gushing of the fountains became more audible. Not so long ago, all the city's fountains got their water from the Alm Canal, which at present drives one or two mills but is otherwise largely ornamental; there are plans to close it down entirely. The domes of the churches glittered copper-green in the evening light.
The fountains were turned on again only a few days ago. During the winter, they are covered with wooden scaffolding, and the most one can see through the cracks is the whitened eyes or nostrils of a stone horse. But now on the unpaved Residenzplatz one can again see all four horses with their outstretched or lowered heads, while here in the Colony the end of winter is marked by the depleted woodpiles outside the houses, which in the late fall had completely filled some of the vaulted doorways. In my little bedroom, facing east, there's a rack with a big shelf just for fruit; this, too, had been piled high at the onset of winter and was now pretty well thinned; the room no longer smelled of apples. The canal below hadrisen and the melting snow made the water even cloudier than usual. In a few days, summer time would go into effect. Yet the trees were still leafless. Only the elder-bushes were green, bluish at the tips. And another wintry feature: the sun still set to the left of the Staufen; as far as I was concerned, it wasn't summer until the sun had moved over to the right. The tip of the pyramid was a kind of dating stone or menhir. That day, it had snowed for a short while; higher up, the snow had stayed for several hours; there had been a distinct boundary, straight as a die, running all along the Untersberg, between the dark snowless woods below and the bright snowy woods above, with their clearly discernible treetops. Thick smoke was rising from nearly all the chimneys in the Colony, as if it were a country village. The different-colored smokes, blue, gray, and yellowish, merged in the air and drifted away like the trail of a locomotive. Words came to my mind--"Go home, people" --a variation on a poem two thousand years old, dealing, it is true, not with people but with cattle that had grazed their fill, and with the coming of the evening star.
I'm a teacher of ancient languages in Lehen, a quarter northwest of Salzburg, on the left bank of the Salzach. Lehen is the city's most densely populated district and is regarded as a working-class neighborhood. In the middle, there's a football field, the home ground of the team that used to be called Austria but now, like all Austrian football clubs, bears the name of the corporation that pays the players. As the crow flies, it's not very far to Lehen from the Oak Tree Colony here in the south. But the peatbog lies in between and there's no direct road across it, only the lengthwise Moos Road (the plan for a so-called southern tangent has been set aside for the time being). Consequently, since I haven't had a car for some time, I'm obliged, on my way to school, to take the bus into Salzburg and change to another bus. On the way home, though, I often walk through the Moos, cutting across the meadows at random until I come to the Alm Canal. From there, the towpath takes me straight to my house.
I haven't been teaching lately. Have I been dismissed or given a vacation or granted sick leave, or temporarily suspended? All I know is that there's no official term for my present status. Everything is up in the air, I say to myself. A few days ago, I knocked a man down in the street. One afternoon on Getreidegasse, which seemed less crowded than usual, I was overtaken by a man, who jostled me and immediately afterward turned to look in a shop window, with the result that we collided. To tell the truth, though, it wasn't a collision, because I could have stepped aside. I pushed the man intentionally, and it wasn't just a push, but more like a punch, a sudden impulse, so actually it's wrong to speak of intention. The man fell to the ground with a strange, almost inaudible cry of pain, then instantly stood up without my even offering him a helping hand. But while still on the ground he gave his assailant a quick look, as if he had understood. Then he vanished into a side street. Possibly he wasn't even a tourist, but a local. To an outsider, the scene must have looked like one of the usual collisions between pedestrians on this narrow street, only perhaps a little more violent.
In my decades as an adult, I have twice struck someone: once, on the night of a dance, I hit my girlfriend, who had just kissed someone else before my eyes and in public; and a few years before that--actually I was an adolescent at the time--a boy from one of the lower grades, whose study hall I had been appointed to supervise. It's true that as we left the dance the girl herself had asked me to hit her, and my one blow, which came as a surprise to me and which I did not repeat though she asked me to, was in itself a solution. At the time, my act gave me real satisfaction. Come to think of it, it wasn't an act, but more like a reaction, occurring at the only possible moment, comparable to the jump or throw of an athlete who for once knows with certainty: now or never. So my conscience wasn't troubled and there was no question of reproach. Violent as my blow was, it inflicted no pain--of that I'm sure--but only made both of us smart. That was the turning point. We both recovered from our paralysis. In that instance, I'm innocent. But the slap in the study hall, brought on by some trifling provocation, is still on my mind. Up until then, I had been a man like other men; that slap showed me up as a criminal. The look on the boy's face--though my blow hadn't really struck home--has said to me down through the years: Now I know you, now I know what kind of man you are, and I won't forget it. It's not the look of a child or even of a person; and it emanates not from two eyes but from a single eye, which in all these years--though most of the time unheeded--has never blinked. I saw that eye again in the man I knocked down on Getreidegasse. It's dark brown, not at all angry or hateful or avenging, justinexorable; and its intention seemed to be to make me impossible, not to others but to myself. That eye, I sense, is right, and I sense that I, too, am right. The push I had given in the crowd didn't upset me for one moment. Afterward, as a matter of fact, I looked toward the vanishing point of the suddenly humped, meandering street, and saw my kindred climbing the deserted slope of the Gaisberg. My purpose here is, at last, to find myself confronting as a fact what for so long has pursued me as a mere phantasm. And "in suspense" doesn't mean "in danger," but precisely in suspense, or in a state of "in-decision," as it were.
The day after the incident on Getreidegasse, I obtained a temporary leave of absence from my job. The motive I gave was the urgent need to complete a paper that was to appear next spring in the Salzburg Yearbook for Regional Studies. This was an interim report on the excavation of a Roman villa in Loig, a village on the far side of the airfield. Though I'm not a trained archaeologist, I've spent a good part of my vacations working on digs all over the country, particularly the Hemmaberg in southern Carinthia, where I helped to remove the mosaic floor of the early Christian basilica. In the early days of my archaeological activity, an older archaeologist once said to me: "All you care about is finding something." It was in part this remark that impelled me to train myself at digs to look less for what was there than for what was missing, for what had vanished irretrievably--whether carried or merely rotted away--but was still present as a vacuum, as empty space or empty form. Thus, in the course of time, I acquired aneye for transitions that are ordinarily overlooked, even by professional archaeologists. Sometimes I playfully call myself a thresholdologist (or seeker after thresholds). This should not be taken only figuratively. I became in fact a student of house, church, and temple thresholds. I studied the thresholds of whole settlements, even though these last, as often when they are made of marble or granite, have been carried away, or, when they are made of wood, have rotted. In the field, I recognize the emplacements of former thresholds by hollows, color gaps, and traces of wood. My work is not merely incidental; once thresholds are located, the whole ground plan can be deduced; they provide boundaries that indicate the original layout of a building or a whole village.
A glass on my desk contains some sawdust, the remains of a threshold I discovered on the Hemmaberg and wrote my first paper about. Discovering and describing thresholds became a passion with me. During the school year I often devoted an afternoon to it, helping on digs in the immediate vicinity, such as the Celtic Dürrnberg near Hallein or, only recently, the "Roman Road" in Loig. I was usually rather tired the next day, but that actually benefited my teaching; it made me calm and alert, and I listened to my pupils, just as they listened to me.
My report on the Loig dig was just about finished, including the photographs and the drawings of cross sections and horizontal sections with the small initials A.L. (Andreas Loser) in the lower right-hand corner. The task assigned to me was making measurements of the vestibule; describing and interpreting the floor mosaicswas the work of the professionals. "Access to the villa was provided by a door so-and-so many Roman feet wide, with a masonry base for the formerly present wooden threshold. A space so-and-so many Roman feet wide and so-and-so many Roman feet high was set aside for it at the foot of the east wall." Time and again, while I was doing this work, the black knotholes in the floorboards of my room looked to me like colored mosaic stones, and once a fresco appeared in the white wall: Iphigenia, holding a statue of the goddess Artemis, on her way to the sea, before escaping to Greece with her brother--a mural from Pompeii, intimating to me that my measurements had not been entirely useless. When toward the end I looked up from my paper for a moment, the Untersberg with its sunlit crest was situated in the ancient world, and I saw the corresponding alluvial cones at the foot of the Staufen.
My desk had been cleared. It's a small, light-colored office model with a chipboard top and steel legs, and it blended nicely with its surroundings. Beside the glass with the sawdust in it, there is an elongated piece of wood with holes at one end, rounded edges, and slanting grooves of varying width--a so-called hand fondler, carved years ago by my son (more or less as a school exercise), blackened from handling, but still smelling of fresh wood, just as the brown, fist-sized, hardened lump of clay beside it, whenever I pick it up, takes on the smell of the damp gully from which it was taken years ago. Written in pencil on the clay is the Greek word "Galene," meaning "the calm, radiant sea," which, according to the philosopher Epicurus, can be taken asa model of existence (the man sitting over it interpreted the luminous graphite word more as a kind of call to order). The last in this row of objects is an egg-shaped lump of clay which not so long ago was broken from a dried thornbush on a Mediterranean island: a puzzling object, a mixture of sand and tiny stones that some sort of insect may have built around a branch of the thornbush, which now on my desk is still inside it, forming an arrow, whose tip emerges at the other end of the egg. A number of deep holes give it the appearance of an ocarina, except that the holes have no outlet. They seem, deep inside, to be joined in a single hollow, though the passages are so crooked that the eye cannot follow them. The interior of these passages glows an intense bright red that seems to enamel their walls. Once, when someone blew into one of the holes, the long feelers of an unknown, black-armored insect darted out of a neighboring hole, and immediately retracted. All these objects might be termed my "callers to order," because, by pleasantly diverting me now and again, they save me from losing myself entirely in my work.
The lump of clay with the round black hiding places lay there like an abandoned primeval necropolis where nothing remains but lizards. The lamp illumined the desk, which was bare except for the four objects. The rest of the room, ordinarily unlit, lay in half darkness. In the neighboring apartments, next door and upstairs, water faucets sounded one after another. On the west and east edge of the plain, where the two railroad lines recede into the distance, a long-drawn-out whistling coupled with a rumbling could be heard at regular intervals;and on the express highway skirting the Untersberg, a roaring and a blowing of horns. Some of the apartment-house windows were open to the balmy evening air; a fat man in a white undershirt was leaning out of one of them, smoking; in another stood a clay jar, holding a papyrus plant that shot up like fireworks, its star-shaped greenery strikingly vivid against the yellow sky; in the window downstairs a caged parrot, luminous blue in the twilight, sat silently shaking its head; one of the open windows was empty.
Why did I leave my family? Was I sent away? Was it my idea to desert the three of them? Was there any reason for the separation (which has never become an official divorce)? Did I leave for good, or only for the time being? Haven't I got the daily routine of each one of them in my head, as though I were secretly still living with them? Whenever I run into my son or daughter in the street, isn't their first question, put without emphasis, rather as a matter of course: "When are you coming over?"--the kind of thing one doesn't say to just anyone. Would I live with them again someday? To all those questions I have had no answer, though I believe I know one thing: a final separation will never be possible. In any case, my name, "Loser" (common all over Austria, and also frequent in the phone books of northern Italy, especially in such cities as Gorizia and Trieste), does not in my opinion suggest someone who gets rid (los) of something, and certainly not a loser (in the English sense); it is, I believe, connected with the dialect verb losen, meaning "listen" or "hark." In the Salzkammergut there's a mountain called Loser, which starts as a gentlyrounded hill but culminates in a massive rocky dome; a seemingly unscalable fortress, with sides so steep that they remain almost free of snow in the winter, the few snowy patches suggesting false windows.
On the other hand, I have no idea what my wife is up to, what people she sees, what kind of work she's doing. Unlike me, she takes easily to new languages--has she become a translator? Is she going on with her studies, which were interrupted by our marriage? Is she guiding tourists around the town? (I once thought I saw her, holding an umbrella over her head and leading a group.) Is she lecturing at the People's University? I never ask. Even before, I seldom asked her a question. That may be what led to our separation. Inability to ask questions is often my problem. And yet I'm made up almost entirely of questions. But, as a rule, I regard every question as the wrong one and I can't get it out of my mouth. Or then again, something in me rebels against the kind of questioning that might better be called pumping.
Yet I keep going back to the house where my family live. Though considerable time may have elapsed, there's no great excitement when I come in; only the conventional evening greetings of people who have been going their separate ways during the day. Once, when I'd been away for six months, my son in his room just looked up briefly from something or other and said: "Well?"
The house is the kind of place where an old-time teacher might have lived--It's painted yellow, with pointed gables and a wooden veranda that serves as a winter garden. It's in Gois, which lies a few fields and pastures to the west of Loig with its Roman villa. Theguidebooks list Gois as a suburb of Salzburg, but it's a good hour's walk from the center of the city and gives the impression of a remote peasant village. The only connection with the Old City is by bus, and the last bus leaves the city before the end of the working day. The road is narrow and little traveled; for a short stretch before the village, it degenerates into a dirt path through the fields. What one sees first of the village is a scattering of farmhouses; there are few new buildings. The walls of the farmhouses are of porous, untrimmed stone in various shades of gray, inlaid with small black slag stones. The doors are made of a kind of pudding stone, and the thresholds of a reddish marble with light-colored veins and numerous ammonite inclusions. This gives the farms an old-fashioned look, as though they belonged to a different period from the one-family houses in their midst, as though they had been built before the Gothic church on the knoll. They form a kind of unit with the knoll in the flat country, a strange formation suggesting a prehistoric mound. Round about there are fields, their base lines pointing toward Salzburg. Of the city one can see only the castle, which from there looks like a bright, delicately shaped stone crown. The fields, on which more vegetables are grown than grain, seem to extend almost to the city limits, thus giving the impression of a vast plantation, capable of supplying the whole city. At dusk, the red lights in the belfry go on--warning signals for planes. On its way back to town, the last bus from Grossgmain, dark inside, stops in front of the village inn, whose curtains, as customary throughout Austria, are drawn immediately after sunset. Despite the shortrow of streetlamps, no village for miles around is quieter in the evening. Since the church is not a parish church, there are no evening bells. On the other hand, the stars over the fields are brighter here than anywhere else. The constellations can be distinguished at a glance; one doesn't have to look for them. And the soft rustling of the bushes by the roadside is clearly audible. Seen from the city, Gois consists only of the red lights on the belfry, barely distinguishable from the harsh yellow row of lamps beyond it, marking the Walserberg Autobahn overpass.
What stops me from going back to the school when my paper is finished? Don't I need my daily work, or at least my presence there, the comfort of habitual turns of phrase? Hasn't my place always been in an interlocking collective, each member of which, however, keeps his distance from the others? Doesn't the public sphere, without which I am incomplete, begin at the school door? Isn't my ride to my public existence the natural thing for me, and doesn't it open up the possibility of a satisfactory way back? In any event, I don't regard myself as a loner, it doesn't suit me to be a freelancer, and certainly not an independent scholar (though, early in my studies, someone advised me to become one) . I know I should work with others, not just occasionally, but day after day. Only among others does something resembling a world appear to me, if only in the briefly flaring brown of a lichen in the Antarctic. One day perhaps a stranger from the plains, on his way to a still-undiscovered city, will approach our local castle (thatforbidding hulk), and the canal at his feet will flow through timeless lowlands, or through the Chinese limestone province of Kwei-lin. Did I, for that, need a kind, my kind, of job? But now will I have another few days to myself? Won't it soon be Easter vacation, in any case?
I opened both my workroom windows and let the sounds in. From the north, not far away, came the ringing of the bells at Gneis, which is already within the city limits; from the west, almost as audible because of the wind, the bells of the Moos church, which was much farther away. The manager of the store downstairs was moving boxes and chalked signs back inside. A train in the distance didn't whistle, but gave out a sound as of someone blowing into his cupped hands--a brewery locomotive on the way back to its shed for the night. High over the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, the plane from Zurich came into view with a violent blinking of lights; the runway was brightly lit to receive it; the plane went into a slow glide and its landing lights flared up; a few seconds after it put down, the din filled the whole plain.
Now I had time. Facts and questions crystallized. This having-time wasn't a feeling; it was a resolution: the resolution of all my contradictory feelings. It was a jolt and a widening; disengagement and devotion; defenselessness and the ability to resist; quiescence and enterprise. Its occurrence was rare. Perhaps what is commonly called a "state of grace" should be called a "state of having time." It had its counterpart in a traditional paraphrase of the threshold concept as a "transitionbetween privation and riches." In a state of having-time, a murmur spread over the countryside, colors shone, grasses trembled, moss cushions puffed up.
Holding my plate on my lap, I ate in the kitchen, which was too small for a table. A colony of daddy longlegs adhered to the walls, clinging to the grainy limestone with their spindly legs, which suggested clock hands. Unceasingly, they swung to and fro, giving the whole kitchen the air of a clockmaker's workshop, filled with pendulums and silent ticking. From time to time the clocks shifted their position, or else one would stand long-legged over another, the two of them swinging together. Down on the tile floor, several of the evidently short-lived creatures lay on their backs, radial forms no longer--some with legs folded in dying, but quivering violently; others, already dead, had twined their legs tightly around their already dried-out bodies: mummylike balls, visibly gathering dust. The gaps left by the fallen were immediately taken by others, evidently newborn, brighter in color than the rest and conspicuously smaller, which joined at once in the general ticking. These creatures are known to me from excavation sites, where they often keep those working in the galleries company with their pendular motion. Here in my place they serve as household pets, as does the unidentified insect inside the ball of sand on my desk; by making me look up and pause in my work, they, like sundials, help me to "have time." If it was possible in the past to worship (or at least to see) the sun in beetles, why not in these harmless spiders that spin no webs?These are animals which, even when they appear in large numbers, provoke no fear, but only surprise and amusement. "Daddy longlegs, patron of threshold seekers," I said in the night-dark kitchen to the hum of the fluorescent lamp, to the ticking of the real clock (on the electric stove), to the clicking of the trolleys on a bus that was just pulling out from the turnaround down below.
And then the ticking and swinging of the daddy longlegs tied in with the poem, from which, as usual at the end of the day, I slowly, word by word, read a few lines --Virgil's poetic treatise on agriculture, known as The Georgics (I hope to translate it when I'm old and retired from other work): the lines from The Georgics turn time back for me, or give it a different meaning.
The express purpose of the work, as stated at the beginning, is instruction: about the dates for plowing, binding the vines, and so on, about cattle raising and agriculture; at the same time, it is conceived as a poem. This poem can indeed teach us a great deal about the laws of nature, and its teaching cannot grow old. For instance, a vine outside our house in Gois was languishing until in The Georgics I came across a line I had disregarded up until then, to the effect that "grain" demands "firm soil," whereas the vine requires "loose soil." And our worry about the bay tree in the garden whose leaves fell at the slightest midsummer breeze was dispelled by Virgil's casual remark about the pomegranate tree, which according to him resembles the bay, except that it smells different and that "no wind can tear off itsreeling leaves" (suggesting that such loss of leaves was characteristic of the bay tree and not a symptom of disease).
However, it is not from these agricultural precepts that I derive the lesson I really care about, but from the poet's enthusiasm (never uncontrolled) for the things that still matter: the sun, the earth, rivers, woods, trees and shrubs, domestic animals, fruits (along with jars and baskets), utensils and tools. In these objects, justice, before vanishing from the world, left its trace; thus, far from the weapons that divide man from man (the usual word for "weapon" stands here for peaceable implements), every single thing in the poem, removed once and for all from history, distanced from other things and at the same time held in free association with them, gives me access to a very different story--usually invoked with an epithet: the slow-growing olive tree, the smooth linden, the bright-colored maple, the loose marl, the savage east wind, the air-clearing north wind, the dew-giving moon. Similarly, a box hedge, trimmed round or square in accordance with present-day tastes, conceals (or preserves) within itself the "swaying box tree," which I am able to reconstruct on the basis of the epithet that does justice to the thing. Virgil, it is said, created his verses in the manner of a she-bear bringing forth her cubs, by hard labor during birth and even greater labor in "licking them clean," so as to give his progeny its existential form. And since poetry should above all be congruent with things, these verses never cease to revive for me, the reader, the existence of the things they sing of. Goats with their heavy udders--are they not"struggling across the threshold" at this very moment? Are not cows once again "obliterating their tracks with their tails as they make their way" over some country road? As I looked up, a car from somewhere turned onto the canal bridge and, thanks to Virgil's verses, gleamed a special blue.
The circle of lamplight on my desk; the bicycle stand down at the bus stop (replacing the pyramid of the Staufen, which had vanished in the darkness) ; the driver sitting in the waiting bus; the dog lying in the garden of the house next door; the stacks of shopping bags in the supermarket; the birds roosting in the bushes; the dangling creepers on the Salzach meadows; the emptiness of the long wooden bench in front of a farmhouse; the crisscrossing paths on the plain; the crookedness of the quarter moon (in place of the blinking airplane that was there before); the green spirals in the vegetable gardens; the sinkholes in the Untersberg karst (an inverted pyramid); the slow rotation of the disk in the electric meter; the falling dew; the gravel banks deposited on alluvial cones; the body lying in state; the winged ram.
Leaving the book open and the lamp lit, I went downstairs. I sat with the driver in the stationary bus. Outside, on the bench in the shelter, lay a folded newspaper; under it, a seemingly congealed puddle of vomit. When one looked at it a while, the face of the almost naked young woman on the billboard beside it became open and expectant. On the railing of the canal bridge, a couple were sitting pressed close. The man had his arm around the woman. She was wearing white patent-leathershoes which, as they kissed, protruded motionless from above the bottom crossbar.
Now and then, the hazel catkins at the edge of the woods gave off a yellowish dust, without being visibly stirred by the wind. Many of the darker, barely nascent catkins on the lone birch were shaped like bird's claws. The moon was tinged with red, which according to The Georgics meant storms (a whitish coloration would have foreshadowed rain).
By then, the buses were running only at infrequent intervals. This one had stopped for so long at the terminus that it seemed to be waiting for someone. Then a young girl with a red coat and far-echoing high heels emerged from the Colony and got in; her eyes were ringed with black and she had pink circles of powder on her cheeks. During the ride she stood beside the driver, occasionally resting her hand on his shoulder and grazing him with her hip. The ground fog drifted across the road, as often happens in the evening on the plain, with periods during which one could see quite clearly. After a few stops, I got off near the illuminated glass wall of the indoor tennis courts in Gneis, still far from the Old City. The girl behind me said: "An Indian"--which was startling, because, only a short while before, a child coming toward me in the street had shouted out the same word to its mother: "Look, an Indian!"
Behind the high, illuminated wall of the tennis-court building lies the municipal cemetery, in the darkness an elongated mass of bare trees that could be mistaken for a park; the lighted candles on the graves were invisible. The tennis courts resounded with thumped balls,shouts, and running steps. Now and then, the white shape of a shoulder or a hip could be seen on the opaque glass. The air ducts of the snack bar adjoining the sports stadium gave forth a roar of voices, suggesting an overcrowded beer hall rather than so small a room. The serried cars in the parking lot were wet with dew. The wide open field on the city side of the cemetery kept disgorging strollers and joggers, who either headed for nearby cafés or vanished into one of the new apartment houses, the biggest of which were not even as tall as the poplars (there is still not a single high-rise building in the entire Moos district). When the bus drove on, the overhead wires showered sparks at the crossings, and when it was gone, the wires far down the road continued to flash in the headlights of passing cars--a trail of light in the night sky, enlivened by the spiraling light-colored pigeons in the mist around the tennis-court building and the moonlit clouds between the steeples of the Gneis church. The evenings are lively in this suburban section, quite unlike those of the Old City, where the streets and squares are almost deserted at this hour and the few remaining passersby are excessively quiet when they are not shouting. There was a smell of wood fires (or was it a last remnant of the smoke from the crematorium, which during the day could often be seen rising above the treetops?). Buzzing monotonously, a single-engine airplane described an arc over the inhabited zone (this time there would be no crash; not here, at least).
To one side, tennis courts and cemetery; to the other, the Alm Canal. At the foot of its embankment, there's a building that looks like a home, the Canal Tavern. Toreach it, one passes through a vacant, treeless field, across which the tavern's luminous sign can be seen from far off, at dusk soft-white against the eastern sky, in the darkness glaring--an outlandish signal on the low house at the edge of the field. The café is run by a pensioner, but he has put it in his wife's name (for fear of losing his pension). The front garden is even smaller than those in the nearby development, and the jukebox is not in the café proper but in the entrance, which has the size and proportions of a vestibule in a private house. Beside the jukebox, there is a similarly lighted vitrine with food in it.
As I had walked part of the way through the fields, I kicked the caked mud off my shoes before going in. Here, too, the indoor sounds--abrupt bursts of unanimous laughter, competing shouts, the gurgling espresso machine, and in brief pauses the suddenly tenacious keynote of the jukebox--gave the impression of a tightly packed crowd. But when I went in, I found the two low-ceilinged rooms almost empty. At one table sat four card players, all wearing hats, and at the next, three young women, one well advanced in pregnancy, one with a faint mustache and hair dyed reddish-brown, the third with a dachshund at her feet. A fifth man, keeping the card players company, was holding an accordion, on which he softly accompanied the card game, using different chords for different phases of play. The landlord was leaning against the bar; a pencil attached by a string to his belt dangled down below his knees. Piles of illustrated magazines on the window ledges reached to the tops of the potted plants. There were no newspapers inracks as in the cafés of the Old City; if anyone asked for a paper, the landlord brought his own copy from his apartment on the upper floor. Both rooms front on the canal embankment, which extends well above the lower edge of the windows and keeps out most of the daylight. The few tables are oversized, as in a country tavern, an encouragement to "sit down and join us," and the tablecloths have a pattern usual in taverns, a white lozenge against a larger, darker one; on the tablecloths lie piles of beer coasters and a wicker basket containing condiments and wooden toothpicks (though no longer made of "pliable barberry wood"). The light in the rooms was dim, in striking contrast to the garish sign outside; only at the table, under that lamp over there, was it somewhat brighter.
After a day of working alone, it does me good to go to some café, if only because of the place names that are dropped here and there in the table conversation: Mauterndorf, Abtenau, Gerlin, Iben. Then, in my weariness, I manage to show that glimmer of interest in everything around me that makes me, or so I believe, inconspicuous; no one, I feel sure, will turn to me, let alone against me. When I leave, no one will talk about me. But my presence will have been noticed.
I sat in my usual corner, with a view of the two small groups, and also, through the cleft in the curtains, out into the open. There in the northern sky gleamed the gray prison wall of the castle, toward which the canal flows in gentle meanders, in the foreground traversed by one of its many bridges. Two cars were standing side by side on the hump of the bridge, the drivers talkingto each other through open windows, as if they had just met. Between them slithered a moped, whose rider's body while on the bridge seemed airier for a moment. Then the bridge was empty. An old man and an old woman sat on a bench on the embankment, which oddly enough, like all the benches along the canal, faced away from the water. After a while one of the small, box-shaped electric buses, whose routes mark the boundaries of the city proper, appeared on the bridge with a single passenger, who seemed to be sitting on the floor. A moment later, the blue light of an ambulance blinked at the same spot so intensely that it was reflected on the teeth of a laughing woman inside the café.
Here, too, there are houses occupied by people from southern countries. A black-eyed, brown-skinned adolescent came in with a child who looked like him, and went to the bar, where he exchanged a large empty wine bottle for a full one. He introduced the child as his uncle and talked about himself. He went to the local public school; the special class that had been organized for foreigners was known as the "color class," not because of the crayons, which are virtually the only teaching aids in use, but because of the different skin colorations represented. The principal, said the boy, is proud of this class; he had even arranged for it to have a special entrance, and the hours are different from those of the Austrian classes. So many drawings had accumulated by the end of the year that not only the walls but all the cabinets were full of them. The drawings exhibited in the auditorium showed not only foreignness but also the beauties of the host country, which thenatives had often lost their eye for. The school with the color class was in Schallmoos at the other end of town, behind the Kapuzinerberg, and foreign children were sent there from all over the city; one of the pupils had been run over and killed yesterday; it was in today's paper. Most of the drawings were about war: Turks against Greeks, Iranians against Iraqis; Yugoslavs against Albanians. While the boy was talking, the child with him picked up a log and fired bursts in all directions.
On their way out, the two of them stopped in the corridor and inserted a coin in the jukebox, which had one record of Macedonian folk music: the café was filled with a melody without beginning or end. And something that had never happened before: the café turned into the garden terrace of a restaurant on the west bank of the Jordan. The terrace was empty except for crackling gusts of sand, the slapping of palm leaves, and the sound of music without beginning or end. Eastward lay the Dead Sea depression; the pregnant woman straightened up in her chair, gathered her long hair together and piled it on top of her head; while the record was playing, she was a woman on the shores of the Dead Sea, an embodiment of the sea itself.
The outer door opened and closed. The adolescent appeared in the cleft between the curtains. Outside, on the embankment, he was holding the wine bottle in one hand and, without wavering, was carrying his uncle piggyback. Resting his log on his carrier's shoulder, the child aimed into the darkness.
The card players had stopped playing, but remainedseated in the same order. They began to talk quietly among themselves, without shouting or laughing; almost voicelessly. The landlord took the last orders and joined them. One of the players, as I hadn't noticed before, was a woman. The youngest of the men moved closer to her. The three women at the next table had already gone. The little dog had lain down against the table leg and was sleeping. The ventilator on the canal side was whirring. An Asian in an orange plastic cape came in with a bundle of newspapers fresh off the press; a moment later, he had vanished; no one was in a reading mood just then.
Then came a slowdown, which seemed to suit those present; one by one, all made ready to leave, and then suddenly, after a moment of hesitation, they were in no hurry at all. It was an interval of patience, during which even the landlord stopped looking at the clock. The woman, who, apparently out of sorts, had just thrown the cards down in front of the man, began to toy with his shirt collar, and he kissed each one of her knuckles; the others at the table spoke to one another softly and, at most, looked at the couple from time to time, not out of the corners of their eyes but wide-eyed, almost dreamily. The landlord's wife, who had finished cleaning up, stood in the white light of the open kitchen door; she was wearing high rubber boots. One of the men at the table inspected the palm of his hand, the lines of which were black with soot or oil. Another let out something resembling a yodel; not of joy or sorrow, but of weariness; the weariest of all yodels.
Then all had gone home except the lovers. In thekitchen, the landlord discussed the shopping for the next day with his wife. In the toilet, a late guest was standing at the washbasin; seen from behind, the chamois beard on his hat wavered, though the man was hardly moving.
Meanwhile, man and woman sat face to face, with a seriousness that gave them Egyptian profiles. The cautious though steady tightening of their enfolding arms suggested slowly closing tendrils. The man touched the woman's neck with his fingertips, as though trying to feel her heartbeat there. From under motionless eyelids, she stared into his eyes, while at the same time, in a quick exchange, one spoke softly and urgently to the other. After that, they sat motionless, face to face, no longer recognizable, for an eternity, like the sun and moon in old engravings. Just for this man, this woman must have been the most beautiful woman in the world! For another eternity, red colored both their cheeks until --in simultaneous movement--he bent over her and she leaned not only her head but her whole body to one side, like a woman getting ready, in self-abandon, to rip the bearskin off the wall to cover herself and her lover with. "And the greatest of all things happened"--a paraphrase for bodily union occurring in shepherds' tales. But did those two at the table in the Canal Tavern need to be bodily united? Weren't they already one flesh? A small yellow pencil sped almost inaudibly downward, like a bird's beak.
Afterward I lingered for a while outside on the em. bankment road, my back to the tavern with the drawn curtains. The couple's voices were in the whirring of theventilator: not a whispering or a murmuring, not really voices, just sounds, now higher, now lower, unintelligible yet penetrating; punctuated distinctly by the landlord's voice: "Table 10."
The patch of meadow on the other side of the canal was white with fog in spots, while the rest of it was quite open. The fog didn't lift, but lay impenetrably dense on the ground, barely cloaking the tips of the grass. Two triangular ears were all that showed of a cat that was lurking there. However, a movement was discernible in the mist, not a steady flow of swaths, but a to-and-fro, a reaching out and a pulling back, a sudden surging up and flattening out, as though the fog were not fog at all but smoke from the peat smoldering under the grass. Sometimes the creeping whiteness seemed to boil up above eye level, as though from the subterranean bubbling of a geyser. Above it, the night was clear; the houses at the far end of the meadow rose out of their steamy foundations with contours all the sharper, and seemed more houselike than usual; and in my mind there was no longer a national boundary between me and the pyramid of the Staufen, now pointed in the moonlight.
The fog accompanied me on my way home. The way leads upstream, always along the canal; just once, it crosses a bridge to the other bank, and then crosses back again by the next bridge. At first, there's a tarred road on the embankment, then a street belonging to the Colony, and finally, as far as the turnaround, a path for pedestrians and bicycles. Strangely enough, the fog never crossed the canal; the layers to the left and theright didn't mingle, the water formed a sort of fog shed (each patch of meadow, pasture, or bog generated its own fog, differing from others in color and shape); on the watercourse itself, there were only transparent clouds of vapor. Suddenly a patch of woods, which only a moment before had been an island in the pond of mist, stood free in the black country, as though the underbrush had swallowed the whiteness. The fog piled up behind a fence as though stopped by an obstacle or a threshold. In an orchard, its meandering flow connected a tumbledown bakehouse with a beehive, whose wooden squares, despite the dark night all around, gleamed in every color above the milky whiteness. Once, when I stood still and looked down, the fog was knee-high and I couldn't see my own feet; yet at the same time I clearly saw the pattern of the kitchen wall tiles in the lighted windows of a house nearby: roses. With all the many continuing sounds, bicycle dynamos, television sets, home carpentry, the silence was so great that a cow with its long-drawn-out mooing seemed to be blowing into a picture-book horn; pictures of an autumn fire, a rainstorm, another watercourse. The horn ended in my own breast; the usual breastplate wasn't there anymore.
At regular intervals, the canal was bordered by small wooden signboards covered with posters of the various local political parties (one more election was in the offing) ; for the most part, portraits of local politicians with slogans you pick up in spite of yourself and can't get out of your head. Mechanically, I kicked one of the signboards. It proved to be unanchored and my little kick almost knocked it over. Without looking around, Ipicked it up and threw it into the canal, where it sank instantly. The next one had tapering legs and was planted more firmly in the ground. Nevertheless, I was sure--as sometimes when opening a can--that I could get it out with one tug and tip it into the canal (as indeed I did). I disposed of all the other signboards in the same way. In the autumn, when the Alm would go dry for a month, the legs would rise up out of the muck, the discolored scraps of paper would swell, and the dredger that cleans the canal would pile all this junk, along with the usual tires, old clothes, and dead fish, onto garbage trucks. I once asked someone who knows me well whether he thought me capable of committing murder, and now the answer came back to me: "Committing, no. Wanting to, yes." Was this a case of wanting to commit murder? No. Was it mere caprice, or, as they say, "malicious mischief"? No. In any event, while walking, I kept saying aloud a word which, I was well aware, did not provide the right answer either: "revenge"; with the addition: "I have a right to look at the water. By obstructing my view of the water, you are infringing on my rights." (My inner cry at first sight of the face--silent, to be sure--on the poster: "Shut up!")
Since then, I've only once done anything comparable; that was in connection with a slogan on a church wall (though all I did then was to take out my pencil in passing and cross it out). Now, with my penknife, I removed the red-and-white trail markers--European Cross-Country Trail, Bohemian Forest--Stone Sea--Carnic Alps--from the willows on the riverbank and threw them after the wooden stands. I did the same with a birdhouse,a theater showcase, a poster advertising a recently opened hairdressing establishment, showing models that might have been portraits of wanted terrorists. Finally, with my lighter, I set fire to the gable-shape sign planted in the ground outside a house under construction, announcing that a corporation was interested in "land suitable for development" (phosphorescent letters in the darkness), and looked on as it smoldered and then really burned, along with its gable. No one was watching me, and if they had been, they might have thought they were witnessing some anonymous official act.
Never have the trunks of willow trees looked so thick to me as after that. The little wooden frames projecting over the canal, formerly emplacements for clothes washing, looked a little like docks. What had become of the boat that went with them? The wood-sheathed bed of the Alm was itself the ship, sailing past and standing still at the same time. The water didn't flow, but stirred far and wide. The bark of the willows buckled like that of cork oaks ready to be harvested and made into life jackets. Willows go with rivers ... willows rich in withes ... from the withes are fashioned docks for bees ... so the bees, "when blown into the water by the east wind, can climb out and spread their wings in the summer sun ..."
Effective facts, or magic formulas that have lost their efficacy? A form of existence with the force of law, or nothing more than pretentious incantations? The ants which, betokening imminent showers, "carry their eggs from the anthills to safety over a narrow path"; the girls who, while spinning at night, "foresee the coming stormby the sputtering of oil in their lamp and the moldy fungus that forms around the wick"--images acting forever anew, or old ones that have lost their force? Striking, in any case, how the repetitions in current phrases usually impress me as something evil, pathological, or even criminal. Could one not, on the other hand, speak of refreshing repetition as opposed to wearisome repetition; voluntary repetition as opposed to forced repetition? The possibility of repetition as opposed to the danger of repetition? Shine for me, hard hazelbush. Glide hither, lithe linden tree. Rounded elderbush, prosper under the protection of the willows. Here is my other word for repetition: "rediscovery."
Back home, I ate an apple in the dark; drank a glass of water; watered the plants. The bicycle stand at the bus terminus was empty now. The last bus had left for the city without passengers. The wires would crackle no more, though for a long time they swung to and fro. The moon went down--time to watch the stars. I used to attend the meetings of the Salzburg Friends of the Stars regularly. They were usually held at the top of Morzg Hill, which then was the darkest spot in the vicinity, ideal for observing the night sky. Later, as the glow of the city lights affected a larger and larger area, we moved to the more distant Gaisberg. But after a while there was no proper darkness even there; a diffuse glow veiled the starry firmament, and in the end the Friends of the Stars broke up. Nevertheless, the episode was useful to me; soon after I joined, the group leader gave me a good lesson with regard to my way of searching the sky: "You're always in such a hurry to identify, insteadof just gazing for a while." On the other hand, I have to admit that, after observing the stars for any length of time, I'm relieved to get back to the murmuring of the trees down below.
Now that the moon was down, there seemed to be gaps in the sky: deep-black empty spaces. The great winter constellations had not yet risen. The plain down below, except for the chain of lights on the Moos highway, was almost dark; the airfield no longer glittered; the warning lights on the "city mountains" had been switched off; not even a charter plane would land now. Only the border crossing on the Autobahn would shine glaring yellow all night, and with it the not far distant, pale-white gate of the Walserfeld army post, which at first sight looked like another border crossing; when a car didn't happen to be crossing the border, the deserted concrete road, lit from far above, could be mistaken for the army post's execution ground. The villages of the plain had vanished in the darkness, but their supposedly Celtic names--Anif, Grodig, Morzg, Gneis, Loig, Wals, Gois--would take on life again. My son once said that those place names made him think of the names of trees.
Sounds were still heard, but all, even the short, dreamy piping of the titmice outside the window, kept their distance from one another. None had the character of a bang, a crash, a clatter, or a screech; and they sounded regularly, whether far away or in the immediate vicinity, as though reporting for duty; first the motorcycle on the Autobahn, then the refrigerator case in the supermarket; then the farm dog; and still another, high above the plain, was the distant thudding of aboulder blasted off the Untersberg by the overnight freeze and rolling down into the cirque. Each of these sounds fell into the total silence, which it further enhanced; and from the black night, in slow sequences punctuated by long intervals of silence, emerged something akin to Far Eastern calligraphy, undifferentiated black, but formally rigorous and luminous, brightening behind the lids of the man listening as he fell asleep.
But deep in the night--all sound spent, the writing long since gone--after he had suddenly started up and rushed to the window, came the pervasive suffering which canceled out everything that had gone before, and which with its endlessness exceeded even the gurgling death cry. And a cry there really was; a cry, a screaming, a shrieking. Someone is crying out. No, not someone: a child. The endless cries of a child out there, somewhere on the plain. They do not come from the immediate vicinity, but undoubtedly someone in the Colony (and far beyond, in other neighborhoods) is being wakened by them from deepest sleep, in spite of doubly closed windows and barred shutters. And now we all hear the child's cries and hold our breath (even though in the morning we act as if nothing had happened). It's no ordinary crying or mewling, nor is it a wordless screaming; it seems more like a call, a repeatedly bellowed two-syllable word, by which someone is being called. The child is helpless. It can do nothing but cry out that one name. It seems to be out of doors or at least in a wide-open house, unable to stir from the spot. This spot can be pinpointed. Recollecting the existence in the region of a home for so-called handicapped childrencomforts me only briefly. No help is possible; one can only be a witness. And the cries persist. They become so pervasive that the hundred (and more) caverns in the mass of the Untersberg--the ice caves, the tunnels, the chimneys, the clefts, the windholes--burst into a single cry hole, extending from cave to cave. Here in my room, the elusive red-scissored insect slips into the recesses of the sand ball, and in the intervals between cries a fat fly seems to thud over and over again against the windowpanes. Now the child is screaming the extreme suffering which in adults takes the form of innermost muteness; if every sufferer screamed like that, the world would have gone into a tailspin long ago. And in the natural way of things, this child will somehow have to stop crying eventually. (It has indeed stopped.) In the restored silence, the starry firmament will? will not? be restored to its proper shape. The next noise, in any case, still in total darkness, will be the reliable clatter and bumping of the garbage trucks. But I'll have been a witness nonetheless: I'll have seen how, for the duration of those cries, Birch Street, Fir Street, Willow Street, all the streets of the Colony, had only a single name--Nameless Street.
Translation copyright © 1986 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. Originally published in German under the title Der Chinese des Schmerzes, © Suhrkamp Verlag 1983