Great, Inconceivable Hunger
Way back when, in those forsaken and ever-so-forsaken days, I used to walk along the street. I would look at the birds on the rooftops and at the people beneath the sky. I would sniff at the doors and the windows and think about how the trees here were all of a similar height—like in the distant city of gold behind the blue mountains. Slowly I migrated to the gray facades of the houses, which were wrapped in music, in the distant secret music of my childhood, in the days and hours beneath my grandfather’s trees and in the gardens near the green river.
The dead are good sorts, I thought. Then amid the thousands upon thousands of little stones here, on the soil of the city of spirits, I searched for a reddish-brown stone, of which there are millions upon millions in my native city.
The beautiful city!
There are poets who sing its praises, the praises of its lustrousness and meekness, of its breezes and its towers, which graze the sickle of the moon on summer nights.
The city of spirits!
I would think about the people whom I had seen during the day. I had wandered eastward, westward, northward and southward; their faces kept rising from the depths of the gorge of loneliness; imbued with the fragrance of the chestnut trees, they kept crossing the path of my gaze; the pain and the thousand-fold sorrow of life propagated endlessly.
On the bench in the park I became conscious of the loneliness of my heart, the loneliness of my flesh and of my blood, of my bones, the loneliness of my young self, which was roaming around aimlessly by both day and night and was unable to find peace.
I didn’t know if I would ever again see the beautiful city behind the blue mountains. My father had grown up in it and died in it, more than once, hundreds and thousands of times. My father had spoken there and so had my mother; in the course of a year the peach tree in front of our house had grown two or three new branches—it was a happy time. All this, I thought, is something that I would like to experience one more time: the voice of my father and the voice of my mother. I would like to experience the sunrise and the sunset, the open sky over the verdant countryside, which always ends with the river in the west, but every day begins with the sun in the east.
I would fish out the last letter I had received from the beautiful city and read some of it. I always began afresh from the beginning. My cousin Michael’s oversized handwriting pounded away at my brain like a hammer, but soon I was gripped again by my old great yearning for my reality, for the blue mountains and what lies behind them.
“We are now harvesting the fruit,” I read in my cousin’s letter. “The apples are finer than last year’s. We are overjoyed. They are rosy-cheeked and bigger than ever before. This morning we were at church and prayed.”
I paused, looked at the tree.
Later I read some more: “…I plan to send you some lard. You know of course that things are not going very well for us either, but lard is something we still have plenty of, yes, plenty of lard…I am praying for you…Your cousin Michael.”
At the very bottom of the page: “Wrap yourself up tightly in your scarf at night. You know that’s important. Your mother always used to tell you that.”
After I had risen from the bench, I took out of my coat pocket the schilling that I had found early that morning. I held it up to the sunlight. I pulled out my handkerchief and polished it. I looked at the sower and at the field and I gazed beyond them all the way to the blue mountains. Slowly I walked along the gravel road and watched the park warden as he fed the pigeons, threw more and more crumbs into the crowd of pigeons, crumbs over which they squabbled with one another the way human beings squabble with one another over every breath they take from the very beginning.
When I reached the long street with the yellow and red lights, I thought about home. But this thinking vectored towards another world that seemed unattainable did not procure me the strength I would have needed in order to survive the moment. I had nothing—nothing but the long road, steps and walls, wind and loneliness, train-tracks, women, girls, and a hunger that a man can feel when he wakes with a start and cries out a name from which he learns that he has been stricken from the great tablet that spells happiness for him, when he wakes with a start like a wild animal.
I had been meditating for a long time; then at length I entered a “gourmet” grocery store. I went up to a man whose upper lip was slightly trembling. The man’s entire body seemed to be a single incurable illness.
“Haven’t you got anything for me to do?” I asked. “I haven’t got a job, but I have to live. I’m not picky. Have you really got nothing for me to do?”
And then I thought to myself that there is a moment in which one packs it in with the whole lot, including the blue mountains, including the towers of the fair city, and retains but one desire: to run away, as quickly as possible.
“Across the street somebody is feeding white bread to the pigeons,” I said to the man.
I gazed into his watery face as its features shoved themselves asunder and then reconvened, into this dimwitted, pulpy circular face whose eyes seemed to have been implanted in it at some kind of eye factory.
Later, at a vegetable stall, I again asked: “Haven’t you got anything that needs to be done? I’m not picky.”
The man at the vegetable stall rolled his eyes. He said: “Clear away that stuff over there for me! That pile of dirty leaves! I’ll give you some of my tomatoes. They’re not fresh anymore, but they aren’t quite rotten either. If you’re hungry, you can eat them—otherwise I’ll throw them out. He turned his back on me for a moment as he continued: “I always have something left over for a poor devil. I am a good Christian, do you understand? So get on over there and clear away that stuff for me.”
With his spongy hands he rooted around in a crate of tomatoes.
I applied my attention to the putrescent tomatoes, to the brown, slithering leaves. I beheld the oozing pulp, around which the stinging flies circled. Once I cast a glance at the people behind the tomato crate—then at the pudgy, nimble feet of stout, laughing women. I beheld roaming shopping bags, roaming bread, roaming hocks of ham, roaming sausages, cheeses, butter, milk bottles—everything was roaming past me, vanishing before I had assimilated it. Bleak midday hung over the city and weighed down on its houses, from which the sound of cutlery clattered out into the muggy air.
“There you are,” said the fat man. He sneezed, rubbed his nose, despised me in my entirety as I was. “Now beat it,” he said: “if my wife sees you you’ll catch a real shiner.”
By and by I was walking and eating tomatoes, fruits of the earthly paradise, fruits from a Thousand and One Nights, imbued with a slight smell of putridity, with a whiff of the south, touched by that man’s watery hands, plucked perchance by healthy, robust Italian girls. I stuffed my belly full of fruits; I swallowed them one by one, I gorged greedily until it hurt. Soon I had only a couple of the red hemispheres left in my sack, which was already soaked and brittle in many places and on the verge of falling to pieces.
My knees ached. In the midst of my great, instantaneous, tomato-induced bliss I suddenly felt like a man who has fought in a war right up until its end and is now returning home and does not know where home is; like the men in the ragged uniforms of a defeated army, with swollen bellies, emaciated breasts, battered arms, broken-up hearts.
It occurred to me that I still had the schilling in my wallet. For a schilling I can buy two rolls or a glass of milk, I thought. Milk? For a schilling? But I had no desire to drink milk in the city, because it smelled of metal, of milking-machines and centrifuges. I wanted some milk from the udders of cows bred where I was born, with the scent of the grass and the singing of the milkmaid to go with it. And as I sensed the tomatoes in my belly and life as it is endured by all young men of our time, I saw my mother, the good, deceased woman, walking above the tall trees, with a kind-hearted smile on her countenance.
“Wrap yourself up in your shawl,” she had always used to say.
I forged ahead. I pressed the doorbell-button of a metropolitan “mission.” I saw the taut face of a woman, two piercing eyes; I heard a voice. I entered. By and by I took a seat in a broad armchair stationed before a large desk. Somewhere the hand of a clock was tracing its path. I heard the jingling of typewriters. Into the seashell of a telephone receiver the woman was unremittingly saying: “Yes…no…yes…no…yes…no…yes…but…no…”
This went on for a long time, and the expression on her face, a face interchangeable with millions of others, scarcely ever changed.
It had gotten quite late when she said to me: “What do you want?”
I told her the highly unremarkable story of my life. I knew it by heart; I no longer needed to rehearse it in my mind beforehand. I wasn’t embarrassed—no, I spoke calmly, but for all that, my voice was imbued with a great sense of dread.
The fairly old woman seemed highly suspicious of me.
She ran the tip of her pencil over her white sheet of paper: “When? How? Why? That? No! You? Ah…are you crazy? Do you understand a thing I’m saying?...Do you understand me? Perhaps…Do please pay attention...In my opinion..Don’t you understand me? Can’t you understand me?...” I was drowning in this torrent of words.
Nobody in the big city noticed that I was hungry and young. I said so many, many times, but nobody listened. I knocked on many, many doors, but nobody opened any of them.
I hungered for everything: for apples and pears, for butter and honey, for mountains and wheat-fields, for birdsong, for river-waters and for the sky over my solitude, for maternal women and for mature fathers, for gardens, paths, prophecies, for all the fruits of the earth.
When I got back to my room, I put the tomatoes in the drawer of my table. I couldn’t eat any more of them; I could only cast my gaze through the window on to the cobblestone square against which my thoughts were chafing themselves raw, the square on to which my soul was slowly bleeding to death.
“Where is the beautiful city?” I asked myself.
“Where is the green river?”
And nobody brought me an answer.
Then came the evening, the night.
“Why?” I asked myself. “To what end?”
I threw myself on to the bed. I tried to fall asleep. But I kept seeing the four walls, a towel, an old table, a typewriter, a pair of old shoes. I saw a door and a window and behind them the Nothing.
I shut my eyes. Nobody in the world was sleeping a sleep like mine at that hour. I saw the homeland of the homeless, the infinitude of the finite, the heaven of the earthly, and the eternally ripening harvest of a seemingly fruitless humanity.
Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 483-488. Originally published in Stimmen der Gegenwart [Voices of the Present] 1954. Edited by Hans Weigel. Vienna: Albrecht Dürer, 1954, pp. 138-143. A slightly different version was published as Der große Hunger [“The Great Hunger”] in Demokratisches Volksblatt on October 15, 1953.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson