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Ortheil, Hanns-Josef (Sample Translation)

Die Erfindung des Lebens
(The Invention of Life)

Abstand
Luchterhand Literaturverlag, September 2009, 592 pp.
ISBN: 978 3 630 87296 4


1
 
In those days, in my early childhood, I often sat of an afternoon on the window-sill with my knees drawn up and my head pressed against the glass, gazing down at the square that lay in front of our house in Cologne. High overhead a flock of birds flew round and round in steady circles, descended slowly, then rose again into the dying light. A few tired children still played half-heartedly in the square below. I was waiting for Father, who was due any minute. I knew exactly where he would appear: he usually emerged from a narrow street between the tall houses diagonally across from our own, wearing a long overcoat and with his briefcase tucked under his arm.
 
He always looked straight up at my window, and if he saw me there he would stop for a moment and wave. Heíd wave to me with his arm held high in the air and I would always wave back, then soon afterwards jump down from the window-sill. I would keep my eyes glued on him as he crossed the square and approached the house, he would glance up at me again and again, and with every glance there would be a flash of laughter.
 
As soon as he was a bare few yards from the house I would rush to the door of our flat and wait for the heavy main door of the building to open. I would stand there in the hallway until Father had climbed the stairs and reached me; usually he would fold me in his arms straightaway, lift me up, and hug me tight. I would take refuge for a moment in his heavy coat, shut my eyes and make myself small, then we would go into the flat together, where Father would take off his coat and put down his briefcase so that he could go and see how Mother was doing.
 
 
Once inside the flat the first thing he always did was to see how Mother was doing. Where is she? Is she alright? She was usually sitting in the living room, near the window; it almost seems to me now that she spent my entire early childhood sitting in that same place. Scarcely any other image from those years is so precisely etched in my memory as this: Mother has shifted the heavy armchair close to the window and pushed the net curtain aside; next to the chair is a round, velvet-covered side-table with a pot of tea and a tiny cup; Mother is reading.
 
Often she reads for a long time without stirring at all, and often I creep into this silent world of reading without her even noticing. I quietly huddle down somewhere, by a wall or in front of the big bookcase, and I wait. At some point she will take a sip of tea and look up from her book, and thatís the moment she notices me. She looks at me, a bit startled, I return her gaze, I try to guess whether she will let me sit with her by the window ...
 
 
Sometimes she wasnít alright back in those days. I could tell first thing in the morning because she did everything in a different order from normal and took lots of rests. On such occasions I never took my eyes off her from early morning until right into the night. Mostly, though, we both watched whatever the other was doing, for in those days Mother and I were closer than any two people had perhaps ever been. Thatís what I firmly believed, at any rate; indeed I remember as if it were yesterday that I even believed at times that nothing could ever separate us, no one and nothing in the entire world.
 
 
Father came home each evening, however, and Father belonged to the pair of us too. He was the third member of our trio. Early each morning he left the home we all shared and often he was out and about all day in the open air. Father worked as a surveyor for the railway, and when he came back in the evening the first thing he did was make sure we were both alright. Once he had put down his coat and briefcase he would go over to Mother, bend down to her a little and kiss her on the forehead. She would hold him tight for a moment or two, and it always looked as if they were clinging fast to each other. But as soon as Father began to speak, if not earlier, they would pull apart from their fleeting embrace and then be a little embarrassed, for they were never quite sure how to follow it up.
 
Usually Father asked a few brief questions, How are you doing? Is everything alright? Whatís new?, and as always Mother would respond in silence, simply thrusting the little bundle of messages at him that she had written during the course of the day. The messages lay next to the teapot on the round table; they were held together with a red rubber band and looked like a small, firmly tied parcel that it was Fatherís responsibility to open. But all he did to start with was stuff it into his right trouser pocket and then go off into the bathroom with his hand likewise stuffed into his pocket.
 
 
He would leave the bathroom door open, so I could see how he went to the basin, turned the tap on, ran water into his cupped hand, and began to drink. When he had drunk enough, he repeatedly passed both hands across his face, sometimes taking a second scoop of water and pouring it over his head, before reaching for a towel and glancing in the mirror. Usually when he glanced in the mirror his look was really solemn, much more solemn than normal. Then he would wipe the towel across his forehead and dry his hair.
 
On leaving the bathroom he would go straight into the kitchen to see if anything needed doing, he would check the big table, often there would be post or a newspaper on it, neither of which Mother ever touched, I never saw her read anything but books: no newspapers or printed matter of any other kind, just a letter once in a while, and only then if she knew who had written it. In fact she had a dread of touching anything at all that was meant for her hands. As a child I took this circumspection to be normal and instinctively followed her example: like Mother, I too kept my distance from anything new, circling round it, looking at it longer and harder than others would do, and it usually required a particular spur or a real effort of will for me to get close to certain things or people.
 
 
Everything was much easier, though, when Father was there; it was a relief not having to keep an eye on Mother all on my own. For both Father and I were constantly afraid that something might happen to her, albeit I myself had no experience of bad things befalling her. But I knew that something had happened in the past, and I also knew that it must have been something extra-specially bad. That was the limit of my knowledge, however; I didnít know any details, and I never heard anyone talk about this something in the past, even though it was unremittingly present. It was present in the fact that that Mother never spoke, the past was present in Motherís muteness.
 
 
Back in those days I took it that she must have lost the power of language at some point, though I didnít know when or how. At any rate I couldnít imagine having a mother who had always been mute; no, my conjectures never ventured that far. After all, I could see every single day that she could read and write, and from this I inferred that, being proficient in reading and writing, she must once have been proficient in speaking as well.
 
Of course the easiest thing would have been to ask someone all about it, but that wasnít possible as I, too, never spoke, for I was mute like my mother. A perfectly mute pair, thatís what we were back in those days, Mother and I, and we clung together as tight as tight. As mentioned earlier, I kept a close eye on Mother, and she kept a close eye on me; we were meticulously attentive to each other. Usually I could tell in advance what she was going to do next, but in particular I often knew how she was feeling, I sensed it very precisely and directly, and sometimes this direct sensation was so powerful that my own feelings were practically identical to hers.
 
 
For instance, when Father arrived home she was usually agitated. After their initial greeting and after Father had drunk his water and poured some more over his head, she would stand up, put her book aside, and look to see whether he was now also attending to the messages she had written during the course of the day. Within minutes of Fatherís return the entire little Catt family, Father, Mother and I, would all be in the kitchen together, where Father would scan through the messages and read out everything that Mother had written and noted down since the start of the day.
 
This daily assembly was a family ritual, just as everything I have described and recounted thus far was a ritual: Motherís reading, my waiting for Fatherís return, his sojourn in the bathroom and then the kitchen. Whenever I think back, this homecoming ritual always follows exactly the same pattern, as though there had been a secret regulation or even a secret law ordaining that everything proceed in exactly that order, without variation. Like actors in a play the three of us performed our mutually dependent roles, we behaved in the same manner almost every single day, and none of us was bothered by this constant repetition ó on the contrary, we did all we could to ensure that everything stayed exactly as it was.
 
Today I know that this repetitive pattern served to reassure us and lend structure to our peculiar and doubtless far from straightforward life. Each of us had his part to play and stuck to it punctiliously, a circumstance that made us feel secure for a while and intensified the bond between us. Indeed this bond was so strong that all of us were immediately thrown into panic if our rituals were ever thrown into disarray by some trifle or other. Such mishaps were usually brought about by outsiders, and then we would usually do our frantic, almost obsessive best to repel the meddlers or remove them from our intimate circle in some other way.
 
Thus the world inhabited by the little Catt family back then, in the early 50s of the last century, was an almost eerily closed one, and all three of us were constantly on our guard to ensure that this situation remained unchanged.
 
 
 
2
 
All the messages that Father read out in the kitchen were written on identical sheets of paper: same size, same colour, same green edging, and all torn from notebooks that Father bought in bulk every few weeks from the nearby stationerís-cum-bookshop.
 
Mother wrote each message very neatly, the lines were always straight, only rarely was anything crossed out or corrected, and she wrote in a beautiful hand. Her somewhat ornate letters were clear and instantly recognisable, and although I couldnít yet read them ó at five I was still far too young for that ó I often gazed at them, for the even and orderly strokes of her pen gave me the reassuring impression that Mother knew exactly what she wanted to write and to say. Just before Father began reading out the messages I would often be struck by a slight tingling sensation and a flush of keen anticipation, for I was desperate to hear whatever this key moment of each day would reveal. As if wanting to emphasise the solemnity of the occasion Father would turn all the lights on, clear the large table, and peel the rubber band from the bundle of messages.
 
They were always in the order in which they had been written, for Mother produced them all during the course of each particular day and stacked them one on top of the other; only very rarely did one of her numerous messages go astray and then turn up later on, something Mother disliked: she was most anxious that the messages should all be together when Father returned from his day at the office or out in the field. When he took them in his hand she would sit herself down right next to him while I would lie on the narrow corner sofa and listen.
 
 
Father would read most of the messages out loud, but a few of them he read to himself then put aside. For a long time I couldnít understand why he did this. I occasionally surmised that some of the messages were meant only for him and not for me, but I had no proof of this, nor of course could I ask him.
 
Whatever the reason, the messages that were put aside without being read out unsettled me greatly. Sometimes I had the feeling that they contained secret tidings of great importance; worst of all, though, was when Father took a quick look at me after reading one of them to himself, for then I knew that Mother had written something about me.
 
I therefore longed in those days for nothing so much as the opportunity at some point to read the messages that Father hadnít read out loud, though I didnít know whether that would ever be possible since he scooped up the messages once he had finished reading them, and either stuffed them back in his trouser pocket or else slipped them into the front compartment of his brown briefcase ó and with that they were gone, seemingly for ever, as if spirited away.
 
 
I didnít know whether Father stored the messages somewhere or whether he simply threw them away or burnt them; I didnít have the slightest idea ó I simply knew that once they had been read they never appeared again. I usually sought reassurance in the supposition that he destroyed them, for most of them after all only contained instructions about the jobs he had to do and the things he had to get: various items were always running short and urgently needed buying, and this meant trips to the shops that flanked the large square to the front of our house ó shops that Mother for some reason never set foot in. Father would go off to these places after coming home from work in the late afternoon ó and he always went alone, whereas Mother let me accompany her on her own shopping expeditions once or twice a week in the morning.
 
 
I would usually trot along close beside her, sometimes even holding her hand; we would enter a shop together, and Mother would hand over a list itemising the goods she wanted putting together ready for her to collect later on. Having given in the list we would leave as rapidly as possible and then hurry off to the next shop where we would hand over yet another order. This all happened incredibly quickly as Mother never wanted anyone in any of the shops to buttonhole her and start talking to her.
 
Needless to say, talking to her or asking her questions was futile as Mother was mute and couldnít reply. This fact was well known in every shop we entered, the assistants were all aware of it, yet people still repeatedly spoke to her and asked her questions. Usually she didnít respond at all or else gave a quick shake of the head before paying in a rush and dashing out.
 
For me these brief and hurried visits to the shops were most unpleasant; I would much have preferred to wait for Mother outside and fill the time with playing. But that was completely out of the question, Mother would never have left me outside a shop on my own, I always had to be within armís reach, with the result that wherever we went we always gave the impression of being chained together.
 
Sometimes I thought I noticed people pitying us or even laughing at us ó there was something not quite right about us, after all: not only were we both mute, but we also appeared to be utterly dependent on each other, neither of us ever left the house without the other, and for every inch of our shopping trips we either held hands or else hurried along so close together that we seemed like one anotherís shadow.
 
It would thus never have occurred to me to hop, skip or jump a step or two away from her, I just didnít have that sort of spirit in me, and as a result people might have thought me excessively obedient or good, but thatís not how I thought of myself: in my own eyes I was simply a child that was very different from other children. To a large extent I was unquestionably still an infant, lagging far behind my actual age of five, whilst at the same time there was a touch of the adult about me, for my role at Motherís side was sometimes also that of a protector ó a protector who knew her strange modes of behaviour in every particular and helped her to cope with the world despite them.
 
Whenever in the course of all this we encountered pitying looks or even bare-faced mockery, I felt utterly helpless: I couldnít respond, of course, yet I had a strong urge to do so, and occasionally even to scream out loud. Oh, how I would love to have got back at the scoffers and just shown them ó but I simply couldnít, I didnít even pull a face at them, I didnít react in any way whatever, pretending instead to be oblivious to all their stupid and often insulting remarks. Switch off, play deaf, look elsewhere ó these were my only reactions. I took such a firm grip on myself that I could actually feel the physical strain of it: I was determined not to betray the slightest emotion. Only much later when I was alone and free of my tormentors would I give vent to my anger, albeit only secretly and far too half-heartedly in some out-of-the-way corner, for of course I didnít want Mother to know how badly it had all hurt me.
 
 
In later years, too, I often felt angry at the fact that these childhood patterns of behaviour persisted and proved impervious to change, for whenever I felt attacked or mocked or ridiculed by anyone I simply carried on pretending that it wasnít happening. I would look away, busy myself with something else and ignore the attack, even though it would have been far healthier if Iíd defended myself and made a riposte of some kind. Secretly seething, I would be be inwardly all agitated or even in complete turmoil, whilst outwardly giving the impression of being calm and collected and utterly imperturbable. Strange creature that I was with this specious aura of deepest calm, I would focus my mind at these moments on particular scenes that I remembered from my childhood ó peaceful scenes by the Rhine, they were ó and almost invariably these memories really did help me to deal with all the unpleasant things that were happening to me.
 
 
Why those particular scenes? Because while we waited for our orders to be made up in the various shops, we usually filled the time by walking down to the river. It only took a few minutes to get to the river bank, and I knew that Mother liked going there best because we would be alone and no one would start talking to us or ask us any more questions.
 
Once by the Rhine she always sat on the same bench, it was our own special bench, the bench that both Mother and I tacitly believed was ours and ours alone; no one else was supposed to sit on it, and if someone did happen to be sitting on it, then we would walk up and down along the river bank until it was free again. Mother would take a book out of her bag and start reading, while I was allowed to play on the river bank, not right by the edge of the river, of course, but up on the footpath, from where forbidden little narrow sets of steps, mostly wet and slippery, led down to the water.
 
Whatever I did, however, Mother always had to be able to see me and keep a close eye on me. This was very important; I wasnít allowed out of her sight under any circumstance whatever, so I always played in her immediate vicinity, within a yard or so of her, while the broad river down below offered itself as a source of infinite dangers. There, between the dangers of the river and the bench on which my mother sat, was my allotted territory, my own little domain; this narrow strip of ground was mine, entirely mine ó but I couldnít take a single step beyond it without Mother standing up and returning me gently but firmly to that tiny precinct that she herself could monitor.
 
 
I almost never left this zone, however; from my earliest days I stayed instinctively within its borders, knowing here as at every other moment of the day exactly where in Motherís immediate vicinity I was allowed to be and what I was allowed to do. Mother was the centre of my entire world, and this centre had to be kept continually in view, indeed I couldnít let the physical connection between us break even for a moment, no matter what the cost might be, for she immediately sensed any such break and became so upset that tears would often appear in her eyes.
 
There is nothing more dreadful or terrifying than the sight of oneís mother in a state of panic, and so I did everything in those days, absolutely everything, to avoid upsetting her or frightening her. Not allowing any break in the physical bond between us meant staying in close proximity to her and occasionally going right up to her in order to touch her or wait to be touched. Sometimes she would carry on reading her book and run her hand over my head almost absent-mindedly as if checking to make sure I was still there, and then I would keep completely still and only creep away again once she had removed her hand. By contrast, she would only rarely give me a hug or a kiss; kisses and bear-hugs were my fatherís speciality, while Mother usually gave me only light, brief caresses which, however, would go on for minutes at a time, indeed these delicate caresses essentially continued throughout the entire day.
 
 
The easiest thing, therefore, was for me to sit next to her on the bench dangling my legs and simply gaze at the river. She would then often hold my hand as she read, and this would make me feel completely at ease since I knew for certain that my mother was at ease herself and totally absorbed in whatever she was reading. Usually I had picked up a few stones and bits of grass that I would sort on the bench, or I would leaf through a picture book that Mother had chosen for me and brought along with her. Sometimes, though, I would just sit there and look at the barges going up and down the river or watch the seagulls looping back and forth from one bank to the other in ever changing twists and curves, like drunks that no longer knew which way to go.
 
I would stare at a single tiny bit of my surroundings until everything around this one tiny bit began to flicker and sway Sometimes this made me feel rather hot and I had to shut my eyes quickly; occasionally I would even feel really sick and dizzy at such moments, meaning that I had stared too long at a particular spot, and I had to force myself to shift my gaze.
 
It was better not to fix my eyes on a single spot or on just one tiny area, but instead look at something that moved. I would swing my legs to and fro and follow the slow progression of a barge and watch the way it dug a narrow, dancing furrow in the water, the way the glinting maelstrom with all the tiny leaping bubbles along its after edge slowly diminished and turned into small, dull waves that ran their course all the way to the river bank.
 
Whatís he staring like that for?, passers-by would sometimes ask in a mocking tone of voice, astonished that I could go on staring at something for so long without moving a muscle. They couldnít know that staring helped me to feel strong and invulnerable, and that it also helped to bring me a little bit closer to the alien objects all around me and thus make these objects a little less alien.
 
Staring is another thing I have not forsaken in later life; I have always remained a keen starer and gazer, and have even found it a considerable help. Whenever I go to art galleries I wander through the rooms until I find a suitable picture to gaze at, then I sit down and stare and stare until I can see the picture in every detail even with my eyes shut. If I like the picture it becomes more familiar to me with every minute that I spend staring at it, and in the end I have the sense that it belongs to me, just like the minuscule images of life that I have observed in the world outside.
 
 
The most beautiful image I know, however, is a colour photograph showing my mother and me on a rough stone wall by the side of the Rhine. Weíre sitting snuggled up to each other, my mother is unobtrusively holding my left hand, sheís wearing a long, light-coloured, very beautiful coat and an elegant white hat. I for my part am staring out at something or other; Iím still a small boy ó and yet I really do already look like an old man.
 
I love this picture very much and have it before me every day in my study here in Rome. A friend noticed it once and asked when it had been taken, and in the excitement of our conversation I was rash enough to remark that I sometimes long to be able to sit by my motherís side once again on that dry, sunny stone wall. My friend immediately condemned my remark as Ďregressiveí. Bloody hell!, he burst out, What an incredibly regressive thing to say!
 
I hate the word Ďregressiveí. Itís a word people use when theyíre trying to deprive me of certain images and wishes that are dear to me; itís a hard, sharp, scornful, lifeless word; itís one of those words that are cheerfully deployed by those who donít want to allow me to be the sort of person that I happen to be, or who donít make the slightest effort to understand why I am the sort of person that I am.
 
I at any rate do not regard my longing to be able to sit on that wall again as Ďregressiveí. I see it as a longing for that extremely intense and untroubled closeness to another human being which I experienced for the first time in those childhood days and which I have so ardently and so often sought throughout my subsequent life. But more of this later on.
 
 

Excerpts translated by John Reddick
© 2009 by Luchterhand, a division of Verlagsgruppe Random House, Munich
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