Monday, May 25, 2015

A Translation of "An der Baumgrenze," a short story by Thomas Bernhard

At the Timberline

It was as if the country were immersed in a profound musical cogitation.
Robert Walser

At eleven, late in the evening, a young woman and a young man, both from Mürzzuschlag as it transpired, checked into a room here at the inn.  Shortly after their arrival they appeared in the common room for supper.  They ordered their meals very hastily, and not in the least maladroitly; they each acted completely autonomously, and on his or her own behalf; I saw that they had been much affected by the cold and were now trying to get warm.  They said they were surprised at the thinness of the population in this area, and they asked how high above sea level Mühlbach was sited.  The landlady stated that we were more than a thousand meters above sea level, which is not true, but I did not say “nine hundred eighty”; I said nothing, because I did not wish to be distracted from my observation of the pair.  Upon entering the common room they initially had not noticed me; then, as I saw, they were startled by my presence; they nodded to me, but afterwards they did not look over at me again.  I had just started writing a letter to my fiancée; it would be wiser, I wrote to her, for her to continue living with her parents a little while longer, until I got properly settled in Mühlbach; only after I had secured two rooms for us, “in Tenneck if possible,” I wrote, should she join me here.  In her most recent letter she had left off hurling accusations at her parents and written to me that she was afraid of living in Mühlbach, and I replied that her fears were groundless.  That her condition was becoming so pathological that she was afraid of everything now.  It would be wrong, I wrote, to get married before the end of the year; I wrote: “Next spring will be a good time for that.  In any case,” I wrote, “whatever time the child arrives will be a painful time for everybody else.”  No, I thought, you can’t write that; everything you have written so far in this letter is something that you cannot write, that you cannot get away with writing; and I started again from scratch and specifically with a sentence in which I reported on something pleasant, something that would take her mind off our misfortune, namely the pay raise I had a good chance of receiving in August.  Mühlbach was a remote spot in which to be stationed, I wrote, but I was thinking, for me and for both of us Mühlbach is a penal sentence, a death sentence, and I wrote: “Everybody on the police force is subject to being transferred at the discretion of the district inspector.  At first I thought my transfer to Mühlbach would be more than anything a catastrophe for us both, but I don’t think that any longer.  The post has its advantages.  The inspector and I are completely autonomous,” I wrote, and I thought: a death sentence, and I thought about what I would have to do in order to get out of Mühlbach someday and redescend into the valley and hence into the world of human beings, into civilization.  “After all, there are three inns in Mühlbach,” I wrote, but that’s a foolish thing to write, I thought, and I crossed out the sentence, tried to make it illegible, and I finally decided to write the whole letter anew a third time.  (Lately I have been writing all my letters three, four, or even five times over, always in defiance of the agitation I feel while writing letters, which affects even my handwriting as well as my thoughts.)  I was writing that the police force was a good foundation for both of us, writing about my pay raise, about a weapons training course that had to be taken Wels in the fall, at the moment the pair, the girl first, strangely enough, and the young man behind her, walked into the common room; writing about the inspector’s wife who had a hopeless lung condition and came from Celije in Slovenia.  I continued writing, but I felt that I would not be able to mail this letter either; the two young people absorbed my attention from the very first instant; I perceived a sudden, complete inability on my part to concentrate on the letter to my bride-to-be; but I continued writing gibberish in order to be able better to observe the two strangers under the pretext that I was writing.  I found it pleasant to see new faces for a change; because, as I now know, strangers never come to Mühlbach at that time of year, it was all the more remarkable to witness the arrival of the pair, of whom I presumed that he was a workman and she a student, and that both of them hailed from Carinthia.  But then I noticed that the two of them were speaking a Styrian dialect.  I recalled a visit to my Styrian cousin, who lives in Kapfenberg, and I knew they both were from Styria; they talk that way there.  It was not clear to me what sort of trade the young man plied; at first I thought he was a bricklayer, as was suggested by certain of his remarks, by words like “masonry-binder,” “fire-clay,” etc.; then I thought he was an electrician; in fact he was a farmer.  Gradually out of the pair’s conversation there coalesced in my mind the image of an attractive household (“It’s situated on a hillside,” I thought) that was still headed up by the young man’s sixty-five-year-old father at present.  I learned that the son regarded the opinions of his father, the father the opinions of his son, as preposterous.  “Intransigence,” I thought.  I pictured to myself a small town that the young man would have traveled to once a week for recreational purposes, a town where he would have had his assignations with the young woman to whom he was now at this hearthside explaining his intentions regarding his father’s property.  He was going to compel his father to give it up, to abdicate.  Suddenly the two of them laughed, only to fall completely silent for a rather long time.

The landlady brought them a copious amount of food and drink.  As they were eating it occurred to me that there was much in their behavior that was similar to our own.  Just like that young man there, I have always had to do the talking while she keeps silent.  Everything the young man said was a threat.  Threatening, everything is threatening.  I hear that she is twenty-one (is he older?, younger?); that she has given up her studies (law!)  That from time to time she becomes aware of the hopelessness of her situation and takes refuge in reading scientific (legal?) texts.  That he is “deteriorating,” that more and more often she sees signs of what she calls “practical brutality” in him.  That he is becoming more and more like his father, that this worries her.  There is talk of punches in the face dealt to brothers and cousins, of grievous bodily injuries, of indiscretions, of pitilessness on his part.  Then she says, “It was nice on the Wartbergkogel.”  She says she likes his suit, and his new shirt as well.  Their joint path to school ran through a thick forest that they found terrifying; they recalled that a prison inmate from Göllersdorf in his prison uniform had tripped over a tree trunk and bled to death of a deep head wound, and that his body, which had been partly nibbled away by foxes, had been discovered by the two of them.  They talked about a premature birth and about a money transfer…they had, I suddenly realized, already been away from Styria for four days; first they had been in Linz, then in Steyr, then in Wels.  What in the way of baggage are they carrying then, I thought.  Apparently it was a lot of baggage, because the landlady was having a hard time carrying it up the stairs; I can still hear her; everybody should be able to hear that somebody is climbing up the stairs to the first floor and the guest rooms.  The landlady went upstairs twice.  Meanwhile I thought it will be warm in the room.  What sort of room?  In winter the main problem in country inns is heating.  Wood-burning stoves, I thought.  In the country in winter almost everything, I thought, is concentrated on heating.  I saw that the young man had on sturdy boots whereas the girl had on thin, low-sided shoes suitable for city wear.  On the whole, I thought, the girl is dressed completely inappropriately for this area and this time of year.  Possibly, I thought, the two of them had absolutely no plans to stay in the country.  Why Mühlbach?  Who goes to Mühlbach who isn’t forced to go there?  Thereafter on the one hand I listened to what they said to each other after they had finished their meal, while they were still drinking beer, and on the other hand I read through what I had been writing all the while, and I thought, this is a completely useless letter, a thoughtless, vulgar, foolish, error-ridden letter.  I can’t get away with writing like this, I thought, not like this, and I thought I would sleep on it, that the next day I would write another letter.  Being alone in a place like Mühlbach, I thought, ruins one’s nerves.  Am I ill?  Am I mad?  No, I am not ill and I am not mad.  I was tired, but at the same time on account of the two young people I was incapable of leaving the common room and going up to the first floor, to my room.  I told myself, it’s already eleven o’clock; go to bed, but I did not go.  I ordered myself another glass of beer and remained seated and drew little ornaments, faces, on the stationery, the same unvarying faces that out of boredom or veiled curiosity I had been drawing on my writing-paper since I was a child.  I would do anything for a sudden moment of clarity about these two young people, these lovers, I thought.

I chatted with the landlady as I eavesdropped on the two young people; I heard everything, and I suddenly got the idea that two of them were in violation of the law.  I knew nothing more than that it certainly was not normal to do as these two had done, to arrive late at night with the mail-bus in Mühlbach and to check into a room, and in a moment of genuine revelation I thought, the landlady is permitting them to spend the night together in a single room like a married couple, and I find this quite natural and I am behaving passively, observing; I am curious, I am sympathetic; I am not thinking this is something that undoubtedly calls for an intervention.  An intervention?  All of a sudden I start to toy with the idea of criminality in connection with the pair, as the young man in a loud voice, in an imperious tone, asks to pay up, and the landlady goes up to him and totals the bill, and when the young man opens his wallet I see that it contains a great deal of cash.  No matter how close a watch their parents keep on them, I think to myself, every now and then these farmers’ sons withdraw a fairly large sum from one of the bank accounts at their disposal and, taking a girl along with them, they go on a spending spree.  The landlady asks when the two of them wish to be woken up in the morning and the young man says, “at eight,” and now he looks over at me and puts a tip for the daughter of the house on the table.  It is half-past eleven when the two of them leave the common room.  The landlady clears the table of the glasses and washes them and then, rather than leaving, sits down next to me.  I ask her whether the pair seem suspicious to her.  “Naturally,” she intimates.  She tries to get closer to me in the coarsest manner imaginable, but I shove her away at chest-level with my flashlight, rise, and go to my room.

Upstairs everything is quiet; I hear nothing.  I know which room the two of them are in, but I hear nothing.  As I am taking off my boots I think I just heard a noise, yes, there was a noise.  As it happens I listen out for a fairly long time, but I hear nothing.

Next morning, at six o’clock, I think to myself, I have slept only four hours, and yet I feel more refreshed than I usually do when I sleep, and in the common room downstairs I immediately ask the landlady, who is scrubbing the floor, what the pair are up to.  I tell her that they preoccupied me all night.  He, the young man, said the landlady, had already risen at four and left the house; she said she did not know where he had gone; the girl was still up in her room.  The pair have no baggage at all, the landlady now says.  No baggage?  Then what was she lugging up into the room so effortfully yesterday evening?  “Firewood.”  Of course, firewood.  Now, ever since the young man ran away at four in the morning (“I woke up and I saw him,” says the landlady, “going out into the cold without a coat.”), she has had a “spooky” feeling about the two of them.  Had she demanded to see their passports, I asked.  No, no passports, no identification cards.  That is a punishable offense, I said, but in a tone that carries no menace.  I ate breakfast, but all the while I was thinking about the two strangers, and the landlady was also thinking about them, as I managed to observe, and throughout the morning, which I spent on guard duty with the inspector, and during which I was not allowed to leave my post a single time, I was preoccupied with the two strangers.  I don’t know why I didn’t say anything about the pair to the inspector.  In point of fact I thought that it was only a matter of a short time (of hours?) before somebody would have to intervene.  Intervene?  How and on what grounds could anybody intervene?  Should I report the incident to the inspector, or should I not report it to him?  An amorous couple in Mühlbach!  I laughed.  Then I fell silent and did my work.  My task was to put together a new list of residents.  The inspector is trying hard to get his wife transferred from the Grabenhof sanatorium to the one in Grimmen.  He says it involves a lot of wearisome petitioning, and spending a lot of money.  But he says that in Grabenhof her condition is deteriorating; that in Grimmen there is a better doctor.  He is going to have to take a whole day off and travel to Grabenhof and take his wife to Grimmen.  The twenty years that he and his wife had lived in Mühlbach had been enough to make her, who hailed from the city of Hallein, terminally ill.  “Now of course a normal person, up here in the mountains, in this clean air, won’t come down with a lung condition,” said the inspector.  I have never seen the inspector’s wife because as long as I have been in Mühlbach she has never been back home.  She has been in the Grabenhof sanatorium for five years.  He asked me how my bride-to-be was faring.  He knows her, he even danced with her the last time she was in Mühlbach; the fat old man, I think, gazing at him.  It was “madness” to get married too early, and it was equally “madness” to get married too late, he said.  In the second half of the morning he permitted me finally to write my letter (“write,” he ordered) to my fiancée from beginning to end.  All of a sudden I had a clear head for the letter.  That is a good letter, I said to myself once I had finished it, and it doesn’t contain even the smallest of white lies.  I would send it off immediately, I said, and walked over to the mail-bus, which had already finished warming up and drove off as soon as I had given the driver my letter; on that day it was not occupied by a single person apart from the driver.  It was twenty-one degrees below zero, I noted on checking the thermometer just beside the front door of the inn, as the landlady, standing in the open passageway, beckoned me to enter.  She said she had already knocked over and over again for hours at the door of the room the girl was staying in and had received no answer, “nothing.”  I immediately went up to the first floor and to the door of the room and knocked.  Nothing.  I knocked once again and said that the girl had to open the door.  “Open up!  Open up!” I said several times.  Nothing.  As there was no spare key to the room, the door would have to be forced open, I said.  The landlady silently assented to my forcing open the door.  I needed only to thrust my upper body forcefully against the door frame one time and the door was open.  The girl was lying crosswise on the double bed, unconscious.  I sent the landlady to the inspector.  I noted that the girl had been seriously poisoned by drugs, and I covered her with the winter coat that I had taken down from the window grate; obviously the winter coat was the young man’s.  Where is he?  Without saying a word everybody was asking himself where the young man was.  I thought that the girl had attempted suicide only after the disappearance of the young man (her fiancé?).  The floor was strewn with pills.  The inspector was nonplussed.  Now we would have to wait until the doctor arrived, and we all saw once again how difficult it is to get a doctor to come up to Mühlbach.  It might be an hour before the doctor shows up, said the inspector.  Two hours.  You never want to find yourself needing a doctor in Mühlbach, he said.  Names, dates, I thought, dates, and I searched the girl’s handbag, to no avail.  In the coat, I thought, and I searched the coat that I had covered the girl with; I was looking for a wallet.  As it turned out, the young man’s wallet was in the coat.  His passport was also in the coat.  WÖLSER, ALOIS, B. 1.27.1939 IN RETTENEGG, RETTENEGG BEI MÜRZZUSCHLAG, I read.  Where is the man?  Her fiancé?  I dashed downstairs to the common room and by telephone notified all stations of the incident, which seemed to me to justify the issuing of a warrant for the arrest of Wölser.  The doctor will have to get here right away, I thought, and when he arrived a half an hour later, it was too late: the girl was dead.

That simplifies everything, I thought: the girl is staying in Mühlbach.

The landlady was very quick to have the corpse taken out of the inn and placed in the morgue across the street.  There the girl lay, gaped at uninterruptedly by the inquisitive Mühlbachers, for two days, while her parents were being sought out, and on the third day Mühlbach finally witnessed the arrival of the Wölsers, Wölser’s parents, who were also the girl’s parents; to everyone’s horror it transpired that the young man and the girl were brother and sister.  The girl was immediately transported to Mürzzuschlag; her parents accompanied her in the hearse.  As of then her brother and their son remained untraceable.


Yesterday, the twenty-eighth, two lumbermen surprisingly found him frozen to death just below the timberline above Mühlbach, and lying under two chamois that he had killed.

THE END


Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Mandfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 98-107. Originally published in An der Baumgrenze.  Erzählungen.  Zeichnungen von Anton Lehmden (Salzburg: Residenz Verlag, 1969).

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2015 by Douglas Robertson



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