Read an Excerpt
I'm Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it.
I insist on that. I want everyone to know.
I had no part in it, and once I learned what had happened, I would have preferred never to mention it again, I would have liked to bind my memory fast and keep it that way, as subdued and still as a weasel in an iron trap.
But the others forced me. "You know how to write," they said. "You've been to the University." I replied that my studies hadn't amounted to muchI hadn't even finished my courses and didn't remember much about them. They didn't want to hear it. "You know how to write, you know about words and how to use them, you know how they can say things. That's what we need. We can't do it ourselves. We'd get into a muddle, but you, you'll say it right, and people will believe you. Besides, you've got the typewriter."
It's very old, the typewriter. Several of its keys are broken, and I have nothing to repair it with. It's capricious. It's worn out. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, it jams, as though suddenly balking. But I said nothing about any of that, because I had no desire to end up like the Anderer.
Don't ask me his nameno one ever knew it. Very quickly, people coined some expressions in dialect and started applying them to him: Vollauga, literally "Full Eyes" (because his bulged a bit); De Murmelner, "the Whisperer" (because he spoke very little, and always in a small voice that sounded like a breath); Mondlich, "Moony" (because he seemed to be among us but not of us); Gekamdorhin, "Came from over There."
To me, however, he was always De Anderer, "the Other." Maybe I thought of him that way because not only had he arrived out of nowhere but he was also different, and being different was a condition I was quite familiar with; sometimes, I must admit, I had the feeling thatin a wayhe was me.
As for his real name, none of us ever asked him what it was, except the mayor, perhaps, and then only once, and in any case I don't believe he received an answer. Now we'll never know. It's too late, and no doubt better that way. The truth can gash you so deeply that you can't live with the wounds any longer, and for most of us, what we want to do is live. As painlessly as possible. It's only human. I'm certain you'd be like us if you'd known the war and what it did here, and above all what followed the war, what those weeks and months were like, particularly the last of them, the period when that fellow arrived in our village and settled here, just like that, from one day to the next. Why our village? There are dozens and dozens of villages in the foothills of the mountains, lying amid forests like eggs in nests, and many of those villages are a lot like this one. Why did he choose precisely our village, so far from everything, so utterly remote?
When they informed me that they wanted me to write the Report, we were all at Schloss's inn. It was about three months ago, right after... right after... I don't know what to call it. The event? The drama? The incident? Or maybe the Ereignies. Ereignies is a curious word, full of mists and ghosts; it means, more or less, "the thing that happened." Maybe the best way to say that is with a word taken from the local dialect, which is a language without being one, and which is perfectly wedded to the skin, the breath, and the souls of those who live here. Ereignies, a word to describe the indescribable. Yes, I shall call it the Ereigni‘s.
So the Ereignies had just taken place. With the exception of two or three ancient villagers who had stayed home, close to their stoves, as well as Father Peiper, who was no doubt sleeping off his liquor somewhere in his little church, all the men were at the inn, which is like a great cave, rather dark, and suffused with tobacco fumes and smoke from the hearth; and the men, all of them, were dazed and stunned by what had just happened, yet at the same timehow shall I say it? relieved, because clearly, one way or the other, it had been necessary to resolve the situation. You see, they could bear it no longer.
Each was folded into his own silence, so to speak, even though there were nearly forty of them, pressed together like withies in a bundle, choking, inhaling the others' odors: their breath, their feet, the acrid reek of their sweat and their damp clothes, old wool and broadcloth impregnated with dust, with the forest, with manure, with straw, with wine and beer, especially wine. Not that everybody was sloshed; no, it would be too easy to use drunkenness as an excuse. Saying that would just be a way of diluting the horror. Too simple. Much too simple. I'm going to try not to simplify what's very difficult and complex. I'm going to try. I don't promise that I'll succeed.
Please understand me. I repeat: I could have remained silent, but they asked me to tell the story, and when they made the request, most of them had their fists clenched or their hands in their pockets, where I imagined them grasping the handles of their knives, the very knives which had just...
I mustn't go too fast, but it's hard not to because now I keep sensing things behind my backmovements, and noises, and staring eyes. For some days, I've been wondering if I'm not changing, bit by bit, into quarry, into a tracked animal with the whole hunt, led by a pack of snuffling dogs, at its heels. I feel watched, tailed, surveilled, as if from now on there will always be someone just over my shoulder, alert to my smallest gestures and reading my thoughts.
I will come back to what was done with the knives. I will perforce come back to that. But what I wanted to say was that to refuse a request made under such conditions, in that special mood when everyone's head is still full of savagery and bloody images, is impossible and even quite dangerous. And so, however reluctantly, I agreed. I simply found myself in the inn at the wrong time, that is, some few minutes after the Ereignies, in one of those moments of bewilderment characterized by vacillation and indecision, when people will seize upon the first person who comes through the door, either to make a savior of him or to cut him to pieces.
Schloss's inn is the biggest of the six taverns in our village, which also boasts a post office, a notions shop, a hardware store, a butcher shop, a grocery store, a tripe-and-offal shop, a school, and a branch of a legal office based in S. Over this last place, which is as filthy as a stable, preside the senile lorgnettes of Siegfried Knopf, who's called an attorney even though he's only a clerk. In addition, there's Jenkins's little office; he served as our policeman, but he died in the war. I remember when Jenkins left. He was the first to go. Ordinarily he never smiled, but that day he shook everyone's hand, laughing as though he were on his way to his own wedding. Nobody recognized him. When he turned the corner at Moberschein's sawmill, he waved broadly and threw his helmet into the air in a joyful farewell. He was never seen again. He has never been replaced. The shutters in his office are closed, its threshold now covered by a small growth of moss. The door is locked. I don't know who has the key, and I've never tried to find out. I've learned not to ask too many questions. I've also learned to take on the color of the walls and the color of the dust in the street. It's not very difficult. I look like nothing at all.
Widow Bernhart pulls down the metal shutter of her grocery store at sunset; after that, the only place where you can buy a few provisions is Schloss's inn. It's also the most popular of the taverns. It has two public rooms. The one at the front is the larger of the two; its walls are blackened wood, its floor is covered with sawdust, and you practically fall into it when you enter because you have to go down two steep steps carved into the very sandstone and hollowed out in the middle by the soles of the thousands of drinkers who have trod there. And then there's the smaller room in the back, which I've never seen. It's separated from the first room by an elegant larch-wood door with an engraved date: 1812. The little room is reserved for a small group of men who meet there once a week, every Tuesday evening; they drink and smoke either tobacco from their fields in porcelain pipes with carved stems or bad cigars from who knows where. They've even given themselves a name: De Erweckens'Bruderschaf, which means something like "the Brotherhood of the Awakening." A peculiar name for a peculiar association. No one knows exactly when it was created or what its purpose is or how you get into it or who its members arethe big farmers, no doubt, maybe Lawyer Knopf, Schloss himself, and definitely the mayor, Hans Orschwir, who owns the most property in these parts. Likewise unknown is what they get up to or what they say to one another when they meet. Some say that room is where essential decisions are taken, strange pacts sealed, and promises made. Others suspect that the brothers dedicate themselves to nothing more complex than the consumption of brandy and the playing of checkers and cards, accompanied by much smoking and jocularity. A few people claim to have heard music coming from under the door. Maybe Diodemus the teacher knew the truth; he rummaged everywhere, in people's papers and in their heads, and he had a great thirst to know things inside and out. But the poor man, alas, is no longer here to speak of what he knew.
I almost never go to Schloss's inn because, I must confess, Dieter Schloss makes me uneasy, with his darting mole's eyes, his bald pink cranium, his eternally sweaty forehead, his brown teeth that smell like dirty bandages. And then there's another reason, namely that ever since I came back from the war, I don't seek out human company. I've grown accustomed to my solitude.
The evening when the Ereignies took place, old Fedorine had sent me to the inn to get a bit of butter because we'd run out and she wanted to make some little shortbreads. Ordinarily, she's the one who fetches provisions, but on that baleful evening my Poupchette was lying in bed with a bad fever, and Fedorine was at her side, telling her the story of "Bilissi and the Poor Tailor," while Amelia, my wife, hovered nearby, ever so softly humming the melody of her song.
I've thought a great deal about that butter since then, about the few ounces of butter we didn't have in the pantry. You can never be too aware of how much the course of your life may depend on insignificant thingsa little butter, a path you leave to take another path, a shadow you follow or flee, a blackbird you choose to kill with a bit of lead or decide to spare.
Poupchette's beautiful eyes shone too brightly as she listened to the old woman's voice, the same voice I'd listened to in days gone by, coming from the same moutha younger version of the same mouth, but already missing a few teeth. Poupchette looked at me with her eyes like little black marbles, burning with fever. Her cheeks were the color of cranberries. She smiled, stretched out her hands to me, and clapped them together, quacking like a duckling. "Daddy, come back Daddy, come back!"
I left the house with the music of my child's voice in my ears, mingled with Fedorine's murmuring: "Bilissi saw three knights, their armor bleached by time, standing before the doorstep of his thatched cottage. Each of them carried a red spear and a silver shield. Neither their faces nor even their eyes could be seen. Things are often thus, when it's far too late."
Night had dropped its cape over the village as a carter flings his cloak over the remains of his campfire. The houses, their roofs covered with long pinewood tiles, exhaled puffs of slow blue smoke and made me think of the rough backs of fossilized animals. The cold was beginning to settle in, a meager cold as yet, but we'd lost the habit of it because the last days of September had been as hot as so many baking ovens. I remember looking at the sky and seeing all those stars, crowded against one another like scared fledglings looking for company, and thinking that soon we would plunge, all of a sudden, into winter. Where we live, winter seems as long as many centuries skewered on a giant sword, and while the cold weather lasts, the immensity of the valley around us, smothered in forests, evokes an odd kind of prison gate.
When I entered the inn, almost all the men of the village were there. Their eyes were so somber and their immobility so stony that I immediately guessed what had happened. Orschwir closed the door behind me and stepped to my side, trembling a little. He fixed his big blue eyes on mine, as if he were seeing me for the first time.
My stomach started churning. I thought it was going to eat my heart. Then I asked, in a very weak voicestaring at the ceiling, wanting to pierce it with my gaze, trying to imagine the Anderer's room, trying to imagine him, the Anderer, with his sideburns, his thin mustache, his sparse curly hair rising in tufts from his temples, and his big round head, the head of an overgrown, good-natured boyI said, "Tell me you haven't... you didn't...?" It was barely a question. It was more like a groan that escaped from me without asking permission.