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Spare, dark, and cinematic, The Tortoises describes life in the Nazi reign of terror.
A renowned writer and his wife live quietly in a beautiful villa outside Vienna, until the triumphant Nazis start subjecting their Jewish "hosts" to ever greater humiliations. Veza Canetti focuses on seemingly ordinary people to epitomize the horror: one flag-happy German kills a sparrow before a group of little children; another, more entrepreneurial Nazi ...
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Spare, dark, and cinematic, The Tortoises describes life in the Nazi reign of terror.
A renowned writer and his wife live quietly in a beautiful villa outside Vienna, until the triumphant Nazis start subjecting their Jewish "hosts" to ever greater humiliations. Veza Canetti focuses on seemingly ordinary people to epitomize the horror: one flag-happy German kills a sparrow before a group of little children; another, more entrepreneurial Nazi brands tortoises with swastikas to sell as souvenirs commemorating the Anschluss.
Eva, going up the hill, kept her head down. She fixed her gaze firmly on the earth, as if she were searching the ground. She was walking very slowly.
To right and left of the avenue, broad parks with lush trees stretched out in the sunshine. In the parks stood the villas.
Eva breathed in the fragrance of the roses with no real pleasure. She was exhausted, and once, she stopped.
As she moved on, her face lifted, without her volition, to the sky, as if striving upwards with longing. New features showed in that face, a new sorrow cut hard lines across it, cutting through the soft shadows. It must have been a beautiful face. When she lowered her head once again, her dark hair fell across it.
The path leveled out and now wild shrubs jutted out of the earth. They grew in profusion over a lattice gate, hiding it from sight. Eva laid her hand on the gate. Fatigue paralyzed her will. She stood, incapable of pushing the gate open. Suddenly, it easily gave way to her light touch and swung wide open.
The unexpected yielding of the gate relieved her of any need for effort. She was standing, it seemed instinctively, in the garden.
Then she flinched violently. From the balcony, there hung down, broad and long, a flag, clinging to the wall all the way down to the ground, mercilessly spreading out its red color. It trembled and blazed in the breeze, dilating to gigantic proportions, and then, abruptly, it shriveled away again.
Now a man appeared, who had been standing on the balcony, but hidden from view. He spread his arms and, overshadowed by the flag, he made a sinister picture. His eyes seemed embedded in hollow cheeks. He tugged irritably at the rope and pulled the flag out to its full breadth. Once more it rose, swollen and brutal. Satisfied, he now looked down at it, his face narrowing even more as he lowered it. The flag looked like blood. Like blood that flows, that oozes, that dries and is freshened up again. He gave it a vigorous flourish. It swept in a blazing wave across the ground.
Eva tried to hurry past, but the flag billowed out as far as the sloping drive of the house, sweeping over it, blocking her way; she was unable to retreat, became entangled, and tumbled to the ground.
Anyone lying on the ground is admitting defeat. One has nothing more to bear, if one is lying prone. No pride is left, and there is no load to carry either. One is relieved of any burdens.
She directed her gaze upwards and saw the man smiling. The way Death smiles. He was looking at her, with hollow eyes. She stood up, disentangled herself from the flag and hurried into the house.
The house had an entrance hall in subdued colors. The walls were rather scratched and dented, but meticulously clean. Two pillars supported the second floor; everything looked a little sleepy and bewitched.
As if still chased by the red billows, Eva sought refuge in her own apartment. Quietly, she opened the door to one room which lay apart from the long row of rooms on the south side. Like a monastery cell, gleaming bookshelves ran along the walls. The wall on its south side opened on to the balcony with the flag.
The man reading at the finely polished table in the middle of the room was engrossed in a book. Nevertheless, as the door swung on its hinges, he turned and smiled.
A person's smile can reveal much about his character, his goodness, his profundity, his receptiveness to all that life is. Or it may expose and unmask him. In this instance, however, nothing of that sort was to be feared. There is a kind of smile, the unveiling of which overpowers the beholder.
Eva recovered her composure when she saw his smile, and quickly closing the door, she tiptoed out on to the balcony.
The hero with the banner had disappeared. Possibly he could have climbed down it. In fact, there he was, standing in the garden, contentedly inspecting the flag which had now been tamed to its full width and obeyed him. With a cruel smile, he strode out of the garden, turned once more and finally strolled off down the hill.
The man reading in his library seemed completely engrossed once again and could not have noticed the incident. It seemed as if he were immersing himself intentionally in another mind.
How, she thought, do you go about telling him, as if it were a piece of good news or something perfectly natural and straightforward? How do you manage to change their language in such a way that it might be heard here? The language of those men with a death's-head as the symbol of their power.
She stepped back into the room from the balcony and touched him lightly on the shoulder. She tried to smile; it cut into her face, leaving only the shadows. Concerned, he stood up and led her out on to the balcony. Without a word, he gestured towards the flag.
"Is it this flag that is alarming you?"
Her face wore that look which he loved so, because it restrained with so much strength all that it needed to express so forcefully.
"Let me tell you a story. About our biggest winegrower down in the village. On no account would he attach a flag to his house, so they bring one and nail it to his balcony themselves. The next day, of course, it has disappeared. They put up another one, which is in tatters on the third day, as if it had been slashed by a thousand pairs of scissors. Again they drag another flag along, and this one stays put. It glows red, people walk past and laugh, the whole village parades by, everyone brings a friend from the neighboring village, everybody has fun with it. Because overnight, you see, the flag's colors have run together into one single plain surface. The swastika has disappeared, the whole thing is red all over, showing no white ground, no black brand.
"A fourth flag is brought along, firmly fixed along each edge, and the black cross is burned into it. The next day, there is a cross there, but not the swastika. A brown crucifix with the Saviour is hanging in the middle—Christ bleeding to death and coloring the flag with His blood. Since that time, the winegrower no longer has a flag, but the cross instead. And he will keep the cross."
He was stepping back into the study when she suddenly called to him and pointed to the balcony:
"The flag has shriveled up again!"
She followed him into the silent vaulted room, spacious and endowed with dignity by the rows of books. She could hardly bring herself to say it:
"Our winegrower's wife spoke to me today. She says the sky presaged it all. First it was garish red, in the depths of the night, and that was the omen. Then the comet appeared, and that's a sign of disaster. Now she's praying that an earthquake won't come as well; if an earthquake comes, that means war."
"The earthquake has come, Eva."
She stared at him like some lost creature. Like something no longer built on anything but hope. Like someone trying to walk on the sea. She was unable to express it.
"You haven't told me, Eva, what was decided down there."
She felt as if she were speaking casually, as if her expression was firm and calm. She was unaware that even her lips had blanched: "You have to leave the country, Kain."
He turned his head to the side and looked out over the landscape. Only the slight pulsing of his throat betrayed him. Those were the ranges of hills and meadows that belonged to him, and the trees up there, lining the horizon, pointing towards the sky. This was the house, as if designed for him, a house that irritated the bourgeois and delighted the artist because it was so rambling in its construction, so lavish, with absurd hideaway corners. With towers above the roof-line and below it, with spiral staircases even in the rooms. The garden as big as the whole country. A ridiculous garden. Everything here overgrown and running rampant. To think that wild proliferation can be beautiful, even the weeds that children pull out down there. They look as small as bugs and as large as turnips. The Venus, there, casting a black shadow, she is alive—or where would she get a shadow from? Suppose someone carries you off from here in your sleep, catches you unaware, or sets you upon the back of a bird, so that, lost in dreams and amazement, you forget what you have to leave behind. Suppose someone lands an airplane in front of the house and you climb in and fly off, straight to the island of happiness....
"We will have to leave the country, and retreat, exhausted, not in triumph. There will be struggle, and fear, mortal fear. If only it does not take too long, so that faces do not change too."
She averted her gaze quickly. How, just how, can she come out and say it—the faces have already changed! Here they are experiencing how evil feelings can be awakened, how the fist holds them down or lets them go, simply according to the fist's own whim.
"What are you so frightened of today, what is it, really?" He bent affectionately towards her.
It was the ringing of the bell that startled her so violently. Every ring, here and all the time. The ringing at the door, not the church bells. The ringing at the door.
"But the bell hasn't rung, not the doorbell. The small church bell has tolled, and in the church tower the baker's wife has been pulling the bell-rope. That's how peaceful things are up here. There's nothing of death and violence."
"The German officer frightens me, the one who has just moved in. With that blonde woman. I walk past that woman and I only come up to her shoulder. It weighs me down, I slink past with my head lowered. It's as if to show his contempt that he has brought that woman with him, that German woman who looks as if she has been fetched from the woods and dragged here by her pigtails. Forcibly."
"Yes," he says. "That's exactly the way she looks, proud but as if she had been carried off by force. And far too beautiful to engender hatred."
"And are you able to believe that nothing of it will stick to her? Nothing of the new laws? You're out of touch, Kain. Every day, new laws rain down on us, laws against people with black hair. In the end, it will have its effect on her, too."
He gazed at her, who, after all, had never been capable of kindling hatred. And even this woman, with her strength of character, had become insecure.
"If you like that woman, your Dürer figure, then she will like you too, it's always a reciprocal thing. Beautiful women like to throw their arms round each other's necks."
"But they have their ears filled with the speeches of their leaders; if they go along with them, soon there will be no room left in the big cemetery. The Jewish community is going to have to buy a large extension to it...."
"But the people are not going to let themselves be fooled."
"That's what you think," she said. "You can think that way because, inside, you are at peace. Because you are not affected by these glances. Because your features happen to be Slavic and your eyes light in color. But as for me—people suddenly hate me, so much so that I hate myself," she admitted with vehemence. She walks past a German woman and wishes she could sink to her knees and cry out, accusing heaven and earth. One is black, and all around is blackness. And like a gloomy, sinister shadow, one slinks like a slave past the painful glances.
"Who would look maliciously at you, Eva!"
"It may well be that I can feel it and cannot prove it. But feel it I certainly do! And how that can break one's pride! I am afraid—the children in the street, throwing stones at me, that's what I am afraid of, stupid as it may sound."
"Come now, Eva!" He stroked her hair. "What you fear is something quite different. Is it something you have experienced, has someone threatened you, written something in a letter, told you something?—I don't know what. If only you could put it into words, it's such a torment when you repress it!"
"That man ...," she stammered, going pale at her own words. "That frightful man ... who has draped the flag across the balcony ... like an evil omen ... now he's standing in the avenue ... there he is, standing there!"
Apprehensively, she points to the avenue through the garden.
"Well, why look down, then? Keep your head up and look upwards! Climb the towers and look out at the countryside! You haven't been up to the tower for a long time, and besides I have prepared a surprise for you. I've brought it down now, otherwise it will pine away, your surprise."
He opened a box. In it lay a tortoise, on a bed of grass. He had rescued it from humiliation. The new masters are not satisfied with hanging up their flags, the swastika is springing up everywhere till people are sick and tired of it.
"Down in the village, the wood-carver is selling in his stall, as souvenirs of this happiest city in all Central Europe, tortoises branded with a swastika, burned for all time into their shells. This one has been saved. To think that the swastika was to live on in the animal even after the idea that had implanted it there had already begun to decay. The Chinese say that the tortoise lives to a very old age; they consider it an oracular animal. They heat the shell until it glows and read their future in its patterns."
"And how are we supposed to feed it?"
"With a handful of grass."
"How helpless it is. Now it has fallen over and can't right itself. Lying on its back it would be bound to starve, no matter how modest its needs. Let's take it into the sun, to the swallows," said Eva.
With the tortoise carefully bedded down, they went up the spiral staircase to one of the rooms in the tower. Hidden behind a concealed door, there was a little loggia. The swallows had found everything peaceful and comfortable here and had built a nest in the window-frame. Now the tortoise would have its home along with them.
Eva set the box down in the sun. Then she picked up the animal on the flat of her hand, in order to admire its head. Suddenly startled, she hastily put it back. Was even the sun itself blinded, that it should bring this to light! Was it a portent? A Chinese oracle? There it was, quite distinct to her, the detested symbol.
"Can you see something?" she asked, full of trepidation.
He leaned over the enigmatic creature, amazement in his eyes. Into the network of markings on the shell, nature had woven a fantastic figure, a swastika. Dark and barely discernible against the background. Not visible to every eye.
"A rock on St. Helena anticipated the head of Napoleon, even before he appeared there. Every traveler sees it that way, Eva, although only since Napoleon was imprisoned there. It is we who give form to the formless."
"But Napoleon died there." In horror, she stared at the little animal, lying there in the sun like a terrible secret. "We had better go. Up here, we can't hear if the doorbell rings." She covered up the box with a woollen cloth, to muffle the power of the magic spell.
"In that case, it would almost be better if we stayed up here."
Slowly, they went down the stairs. In the spacious room, the spell was broken.
"Won't the swallows torment it?"
"It's only large birds that do that. Vultures like to swoop down on tortoises."
"But then it would hide away in its shell."
"That doesn't do any good. The vulture grabs it in its claws and carries it high into the air. Then it lets it drop, to smash to pieces on a rock. So it can scoop out the tender flesh at its leisure."
"That's sinister. Every large bird of prey is sinister. Because it has nothing human about it, apart from one thing—its predatory grasp. It's like a symbol."
"One behind which Zeus himself hides when he goes out in search of prey. But why are you so frightened by your own thoughts, Eva, what is it about them that so terrifies you?"
"My God, no ... it's something else ... the doorbell is ringing."
The condemned man, facing his execution, behaves in curious ways. It can happen that he walks erect to the scaffold to meet his death, this is not infrequent with political criminals; those heroes die with the declaration of their beliefs on their lips. The common dastardly murderer breaks down like a coward. Indeed, many a murderer has been seen to behave so wretchedly that one had to ask oneself where they summoned up the miserable courage for their crimes. They have to be carried to the place of execution and dispatched, unconscious, into another world. Of course, there are also others who have trod that terrible path in apathy, so devoid of emotion that one then wondered whether they knew what was going on, did they have no heart in their body, not even for themselves? When, however, a fanatic treads the final path, sometimes it is as if some god were protecting him against the ability to envisage what is about to happen to him.
Fully conscious, and with a deathly chill upon you, you make your way to the door when the bell rings. You open it and stand in their way, because their way is strewn with corpses.
The bell rang, rang a second time.
What if it signified the end, that ringing? What if a man dressed in black were standing outside, with the death's-head on his pommel and his cap? What if this is the last response? If the man is already outside and demands entry?
Icy-cold, Eva opened the door.
In the doorway stood a young girl.
She is blonde and her hair tumbles over her face. Her tall figure overpowers her sailor-suit. It is almost as if no dress were there at all, so proudly does her body assert itself. Her strong shoulders sweep broadly out. The girl is self-assured, yet she hesitates on the threshold. She looks at Eva inquiringly and enters only when the latter smiles. She goes on, still hesitantly, through the second door and into the spacious room, the one with the broad balcony. He is sitting far away, very far away, she moves towards him, and has much to conceal: the fact that her hands are trembling, that she is blushing! If only she were not so young; a mature person knows how to compose herself. This way, everything is written on one's face, and a man like this is especially able to read it.
Kain holds out his hand to her and is happy to see her.
The room is transformed.
Is it the young girl who has dispelled the shadows? Her body seems to drive them out and to take the burden of these two people on to herself without being aware of it. Because Eva, too, behind her, Eva is laughing.
"It's a good thing that I live next door," declares Hilde, and it is not clear whether she means good for her, or good for her older friends whom she has come to visit. She sits down on the edge of the divan.
Eva thinks, how tall she is, she sits as if hovering, with that radiant body, as if she were as light as a feather.
"It is indeed a pleasure that you live next door, Fräulein Hilde. Did you mean something more by that, or was it simply a general remark?" He smiled.
"Actually, I do have something to tell you!" She is still breathless, still diffident, but she is also relishing the notion that she will succeed in arousing this man's interest. He has turned his hand to all sorts of things, has listened to lectures, has acquired large amounts of learning, he thinks ahead, and what he doesn't know, he works out for himself. Undoubtedly that is the way with all writers, they have that vision which can see into your head, as if your eyes were made of glass. It hypnotizes you, you can feel it, right into your heart.
"It must certainly be something interesting, if Hilde pays us a surprise visit," says Eva kindly. "And she's so hot and bothered, her cheeks all flushed like a child's. And forever squinting down into the avenue. What's going on there that is so crucial?"
But then, sitting there is precisely the specimen—the very type of person that is supposed to terrify Eva. How stupid that theory is! What is there about this girl that is different and accentuated, what characterizes her as not "Aryan"? Not even the lack of regular proportions about the features, something commonly found among the townswomen here and, in this girl's case, attractive.
"It'll be the flag on our balcony. But I did not hang it there myself, I can assure you."
"I know that." Hilde blinks, contented and inscrutable, like a cat in the sunshine. "And I know something else besides; I know who did put it up! I know the man!"
Kain sits down in the armchair, prepared for anything.
"What would you say if I were to get you out of Austria in an airplane? If only I had learned to fly—I could do with that now! What would you both say to that, Eva?"
"That it's good to be so young. Then one enjoys life, and onlookers who share your enjoyment can distinguish enthusiasm from wishes and possibilities."
"Now you're not taking me seriously, and you're going to be ashamed of that in a moment. What an experience I've just had!" The bow on her blouse is flapping around and is as red as her mouth. Her neck juts well out of the fold of her collar.
Excerpted from The Tortoises by Veza Canetti. Copyright © 1999 by Elias Canetti Erben.
Translation copyright © 2001 Ian Mitchell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.