24 September 2015

Vanishing Point (1)

(What follows is my own translation of the opening paragraph of Peter Weiss's short novel Fluchtpunkt, "Vanishing Point".)

I arrived in Stockholm on the 8th of November, 1940.  From the station I drove to Schedin's guesthouse in Queen Street, where Max Bernsdorf had reserved a room for me. It was a big, corner room with brown murals and brown velvet curtains at the windows.  Flecks of light were on the wall over the high wooden bed frame and on the cloth of the battered chair arms, and black marks stared out of the scratched  wood of the wardrobe, in the mirror of which I saw my trunk set down.  Max lived at the end of the hall, in a narrow chamber, on the door of which a placard hung with the text DON'T DISTURB A SLEEPING DOG.  Just as four years earlier in Prague, when I visited him for the first time, he lay in bed, to spare his strength.  He was half-buried in newspapers and was smoking his pipe.  The room, chairs and tables stood shadow-bound in the blue smoke.  His hand, which he stretched out to me, was cold and bony.  His face was emaciated, the skin colorless.  His hair had gone grey, and only the bushy eyebrows were black, as if smeared with coal. His hand sank back and lay feebly on the crackling newspaper. The fingernails were chewed up and the skin around the nail beds was picked raw.  Only recently had he been released from the camp in which he was interred after his flight from Norway.  They deport us, or they stick us behind barbed wire, he had said.  Great things were said about the struggle for human rights, but we, the ones threatened, were treated like mangy dogs. Whoever has money can buy himself asylum.  The rest of us live off of alms; we are not permitted to work.  His face was animated by rage. He snatched out his pipe, packed it, and let it smolder.  Over the bed, on a shelf, there stood well-thumbed paperbacks with English titles: crime novels, political writings, a couple of volumes of Persian lyric, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Adlington's Death of a Hero.  Seven years of emigration lay behind Max Bernsdorf.  Emigration was a single period of waiting for him. He waited for the day of his return. For him there was still a landscape he was rooted in. In his smoked-up, dung-colored guest room, he lay and dreamed of a piece of earth he called home, even if he had been driven from it.  In that narrow, foreign parlor he imagined his Swabian village and his little forest, and the weather on the meadows and the mountains was present to him. In Sweden he saw an enemy, who had descended on his ancestors three hundred years before, in wild pursuit and the infamous Jauchetrunk. Chagrined, he berates the bad coffee in this town, the sweetened bread and the floury grub. There was no bar in this town, and no cafe where one could, as in Oslo, sit half a day with one cup of coffee, read newspapers from the world over and talk to like-minded people.  In Oslo he had spoken the same way of Prague, just as in Prague he had praised Barcelona.  Now he was waiting for an American visa, at the mercy of a recommendation, and when he was in New York he would lie in the bed of his hotel room and think of Europe. I heard him speak of the effort involved in writing the requests, applying at the Consulate; he had to vent, had to express his ill-feeling, before he could straighten up and ask about my plans.  Then the look of a beaten, submissive dog would leave his eyes, and my arrival would, as it had before in Prague, draw to life again something of his old activity.