Sunday, July 07, 2013

A Translation of "Der Italiener. Fragment" by Thomas Bernhard

The Italian * A Fragment

After supper I paced up and down in front of the summerhouse in the company of the Italian.  He had come far, he said, post-war Florence, together with the gradual dying off of his family, had made him in his own estimation a wealthy man.  He had already, late that morning, enumerated for me fourteen businesses in his possession, two farms, two mills, a cannery, all of them in Tuscany, a house in Florence, a little piece of property “overlooking Silvaplana, “a refuge for my solitude.”  At ever-briefer intervals the name “Fiesola” recurred in his utterances.  While the redoubtable and under certain circumstances lethal draught streamed though the open doorway of the summerhouse, in which my father, as I now saw, had been laid out at a much too high elevation by my sisters, the Italian described his business affairs, his opinions on business matters, while I was inwardly preoccupied with Kiental and Zimmerwald, with the influentiality of Karl Liebknecht.  All the while I was thinking about my work, in particular about my Heidelbergian program.  In the hope of avoiding putting the Italian’s nose out of joint, I said I had for some time been planning a trip to southern Italy.  “I would prefer to tag along with a certain mineralogist who is going to Sicily in the autumn,” I said.  The Italian advised me against traveling too early to Sicily, against going “before the end of October.”  Our starting point would be Caltanisetta, I said, my friend’s researches were confined to the area between Caltanisetta and Aetna.  The Italian advised me to make an excursion to Agrigento (“That way you will avoid Greece!”), to Palermo and Cefalù.  He was worried, I surmised, that I might ask him to step in to see my late father in the summerhouse, or that I might ask him whether he had already, as would have only been fitting, paid a visit to my late father, to the “old gentleman”; the remaining guests for the funeral had by now already discharged this duty, only the Italian had not.  I had been observing him all day, he struck me as being the most interesting of all the guests, even as being by far the most intelligent of the entire crowd.  No chatterbox, he had been constantly alone since his arrival.  After greeting him my sisters had ceased to pay him any mind.  But contact was the last thing he wanted anyway.
            I had immediately taken advantage of the opportunity to disappear with the Italian into the grounds, to escape for a short time from the extremely tense atmosphere in the house, from the large number of people, from my sisters’ agitation, he wished for me to tell him something of the history of our house, and emphatically to do so outside, which, at a cost of considerable mental strain, I had accordingly done.  Now we were pacing up and down, and acting on a sudden completely unforeseen flash of inspiration, with the aim of distracting his attention from the dead man, my father, who was as good as unknown to him, to whose funeral he had been sent by his family, I showed the Italian the pile of theater costumes and instruments, i.e., coats, jackets, pairs of trousers, trumpets, percussion instruments, and flutes, in the shed alongside the wall of the summerhouse.  In their sheer excitement before they could lay out my father my sisters had cleared out the summerhouse and tossed all the costumes and instruments that had been kept for decades in the summerhouse into the shed in a big pile.  I thought the Italian might take an interest in the costumes and instruments, all of them costly, highly antique pieces.  I explained to him that each of these pieces contained for me an especially deep significance, “memories,” I said in the Italian’s characteristic cadence.  From his manner of expressing himself, in which he differed from the others, he struck me as being quite well educated in his own way, as being a man of artistic interests.  Having been for the most part sewn together and ornamented by my great-grandmother and her sisters, bought and brought together by my great-grandfather and his brothers, they are, I said, the most beautiful costumes that I have ever seen, the most beautiful instruments that I have ever heard, and I am, I said, familiar with the wardrobes and orchestras of many great theaters throughout Europe.  Thanks to a fissure in the wall-boards, the shed was illuminated by the two funeral candles in the summerhouse.  I told the Italian to be careful not to get his clothes dirty, because the shed was dirty, full of cobwebs, full of dust.  First I showed him the costumes of the Rich Ones.  Then the costumes of the Exalted Ones.  Then the costumes of the Laughable Ones.  Right in front of him I pulled out of the pile one costume after another and held it up to the light.  The Italian wanted to know who had written the play that my sister’s children would have performed that very night “between eight-thirty and ten-thirty, in and in front of the summerhouse,” had our father not died during the final rehearsal, had he not, as I had already explained in considerable detail, shot himself in the familiar horrible way in his room.  “An unfortunate event,” the Italian had said earlier.  He unconditionally wanted to know whether the play was a comedy or a tragedy, or a tragedy and a comedy at the same time.  I replied that my younger sister’s eldest son, the thirteen-year-old, was the author of the play, which had been thought of as a surprise by everyone except the performers, I had not read “a single line of it,” I said, “I don’t even know its title.”  It would be, I said, a good idea as soon as we returned to the house for me to get hold of the play, “because now it isn’t going to be performed anyway,” so that I could read it during the night, sleep would be out of the question, and the play might take my mind off things, including the published written word, which at the moment was a source of torment to me.  As I was personally acquainted with the individual who had written the play, “a very sensitive individual,” I said, I would surely enjoy the play and find in it a delightful from of mental stimulation.  Every year for more than a hundred years, I said, the children of our family, and most often the sons, had written an original play for performance in the summerhouse, and particularly on the last night of August, it was astonishing how good these plays had always been, how well-written and well-performed they were, three dozen of them were still extant in my elder sister’s writing-desk; the oldest of them had been written and performed by my grandparents, my memory of one of these that I had read was still fresh, it was entitled The Sparrowhawk.  Together these plays, which after being thoroughly rehearsed had been granted only a handful of performances in the summerhouse, constituted a rich trove of knowledge for students and scholars of the theater, for every stage actor worth taking seriously.  I myself had once wanted to make them the focus of an essay, perhaps under the title “Our Summerhouse Plays.”  All these plays, comedies as well as tragedies as well as operas, were in any given year written in a single day, in a single night, I myself had written such a play at the age of eleven. “in the gloom of the summerhouse,” I said.  Our Italian side had inspired us to put on plays, I said, and I was glad by this means to have found a friendly, attentive, nay, downright chatty interlocutor in the Italian, who until this moment had carried himself towards me in a reserved and indeed occasionally painful manner.  He now said that he and his family also had performed plays every year at their house in Florence, “always in masks,” he said, “and always in winter” and never plays of their own authoring, but rather, and remarkably in the homeland of comedy, only plays of English and French origin, “Shakespeare, Molière…”  That in their case the adults had always participated in the performances.  He asked whether the summerhouse had been constructed for the sole purpose of serving as a site for theatrical performances.  “For theatrical performances and amusements,” I said.  He did not understand the word “amusements,” and I tried to explain it to him, with, I believe, some success.  He always spoke German so well that in the early stage of our acquaintance he made me feel rather unsure of myself.  The draft, which was now blowing into the shed, was particularly penetrating on account of the proximity of the brook that incessantly and precipitately ran along the edge of the forest, a brook whose babbling had been unremittingly noisy since the recent downpours.  I had still not shown the Italian all the costumes when it occurred to me that perhaps the Italian found me boring, for after all, what did he, the Italian from Florence, who had no place here, who had come here for only two days to attend our father’s funeral, care about the costumes, about the instruments, what did he care about any of it?  I proposed to him that we should return to the house, for all its noisiness, it was at least warm, perhaps he could even do with a warm beverage, “a glass of hot cider?” I said, remembering that early on at supper the Italian had drunk a glass of hot cider with what I could then see was great gusto.  But the Italian wanted to see all the costumes.  I explained to him from memory each of the roles assigned to each costume, as well as who had played it, could have played it, in any given year.  In the course of these explanations nearly an hour passed.  The costumes for the new play, I said, weren’t among these, being not quite ready, they were still being kept in my younger sister’s room, and more specifically on the floor of her room.  He even seemed to take a shine to the musical instruments.  He had once, he said, with his mother in Padua, where he had studied, fled from a burning opera house, and four weeks later his mother had died from the shock in a Florentine hospital.  Since then he had not set foot in a single theater of any kind.  And yet he had set foot in our summerhouse.  We were silent for a time, then he said, “We shall write to each other.”  It struck me as quite thoughtful of him to have said this, at the same time I regretted that I did not know a single word of Italian; my father was quite right to maintain that one could not speak enough languages.  In my own eyes I then cut quite a pathetic figure.  And how well the Italian spoke German!  Even if the time spent the shed, even if my entire theater with its costumes and instruments had only irritated or even bored him, for me the entire thing had been, I said apologetically, a welcome distraction from the horribleness of the unfortunate event, “above all from myself,” I said.  “Moreover it gives me an excuse, I said, for not being in the house, where they are surely looking everywhere for me; it cannot have occurred to them that I am in the grounds.  They will have noticed our absence.  I cannot,” I said, “decline to take a stroll with a guest, if that is something he wants to do.”  At the moment when we had just entered the woods the Italian asked me if I was familiar with Italian literature.  I was taken aback by this businessman-like question, but the fact was that I had repeatedly had occasion to observe that people in business were exactly the types of people who asked such questions.  I answered in the negative.  I had, however, I said, read the sonnets of Michelangelo and the poems of Petrarch by the age of thirteen.  Of modern literature I was familiar with nothing apart from Pavese, Ungaretti, and Lampedusa, along with certain Italian political tracts that I had been forced to quote from time to time in the course of my studies.  I uttered the name Serrati, but the Italian had never heard of him.  I had no success with Campanella either, the liberal Mazzini and the opportunist Modigliani alike elicited from the Italian nothing but negative shakes of the head.  He now asked me whether I liked to travel and did much traveling.  I said yes.  He asked me how old I was, “still a student?” he asked.  I answered in the negative.  The inconvenience that it undoubtedly would have occasioned me left me with nothing further to explain to the Italian about myself, not even the most intimate particulars of my personal life.  He said, while warding the branch of a spruce tree away from his face and at the same time drawing to a halt, I had, for what seemed to me no good reason whatsoever, turned around, that he found it difficult to initiate a conversation with the people in the house, with the funeral guests, “even with the servants,” as he irreproachably said, from a majority of them (“strangers to a man and a woman”), he said, he had yet even to learn their names, even though he was related to all of them, and had been introduced to all of them immediately after his arrival.  He said he now felt he belonged to me.  He said, “In an assembly of strangers, a man belongs to the person who addresses the first friendly word to him.”  He said that I was this person, a “mysteriously young” person.  All the while I had deemed it inappropriate to ask him his age, now as he was walking ahead of me he suddenly said he was forty-eight.  He now looked younger to me than he had in the morning.  He liked the fact that “in the shadow of the unfortunate event” I moved so “freely,” in stark contrast to the others.  He said it was also having an effect on him.

From here the two of us could now hear my sisters excitedly arguing with each other in the house, individual words, indeed entire sentences, were perfectly intelligible all the way out here in the woods thanks naturally to the air current, which was a powerful conductor of sound.  The pair’s argument emanated from the kitchen, to which they had probably withdrawn in order to be able to discuss their pointless crises without being disturbed.  The Italian actually found it entertaining to eavesdrop on my sisters’ discussion.  Midway through the ever- crescendoing interchange, which, as I could hear and as the Italian also understood, was taking place next to a set of open windows, doubtlessly because my sisters had assumed that at this hour and in this cold weather nobody was any longer in the grounds let alone the woods, the words “first” and “next” were spoken over and over again.  I informed the Italian that they were talking about the funeral procession and about who was going to have walk behind whom.  One of them hastily screamed one more word, the word “bishop,” in the other’s face, then there was silence.  Now I remarked first how hideous their voices were.  From the clearing the summerhouse was visible.  I reflected that exactly at this moment the children would have been performing their play.  A crowd that would have been just as large, even though it would have come only from the neighborhood, a crowd in a different mood, in different clothing than the present one, a crowd of fewer relatives than neighbors and friends, would have been in the house and in the park, would have been gathered in front of the summerhouse.  I was thinking about the difference between “Summer-house playgoers” and “Summer-house funeralgoers” even while already standing on the mass grave.  The Italian had no inkling of its existence.  I was in some doubt as to whether to tell him that he and I were standing on top of twelve secretly buried corpses.  “Here is the clearing,” I said, I restrained myself at the last second, “as children we often used to play tag,” and I explained to him the rules of our version of tag.  He believed that the children of Florence played the same version of tag.  Even in the darkness I could see the outline of the mass grave, the “bright stain” in the grass.  For more than ten years, I believe, I did not go into the clearing, and in the past three days I have been in it four times; not including this time with the Italian.  Hastily repressing this even more terrible observation, I said: “My father wanted to be laid out in the summerhouse.  And his father, too, had himself laid out in the summerhouse.”  And I added: “He often actually used to call it the slaughterhouse.”  For the fourth time in three days, I thought.  But then, because it seemed important to me for all sorts of reasons to enlighten the Italian like the others on the subject of the mass grave, I made sure that we continued walking; with me leading the way, we took the detour over the bridge.  The Italian was astonished when I, right in the middle of the bridge, said: “There is a mass grave here and indeed in the very clearing we just left.  In the clearing two-dozen Poles are buried.  Secretly buried,” I said.  In short sentences I related to the Italian, as to his predecessors, my father’s story about how two-dozen Poles, “enlisted men,” I said, “two officers,” were buried in the clearing.  I said that although I had been only twelve years old at the end of the war, I could still remember the Poles, “they were killed in the summerhouse, they had been waiting in the summerhouse for the war to end, they had sought refuge in the summerhouse.”  I said that from my father’s stories I had learned that two weeks before the end of the war they had been shot to death by some Germans who suddenly emerged from the woods.  The corpses were said to have been kept in the summerhouse for fourteen days and to have propagated a “colossal stench,” and the servants were said to have been forbidden to set foot in the summerhouse.  The Germans were said to have threatened to shoot dead my father along with anyone else who should attempt to remove the corpses from the summerhouse and bury them.  “Teenagers,” I said, “fifteen-year-olds, sixteen-year-olds.”  I said that this was the third time I had told this story since my arrival.  “My father was the only person actually to see the slain men.”  The Italian gazed at the summerhouse and said: “The slaughterhouse.”  I said that on the day of the massacre I had heard in my bedroom the screams of the Poles coming from the summerhouse.  For years afterwards, I said, I had heard these screams in the vicinity of the summerhouse and everywhere else in the world at night.  For two decades, I said, right up to the present, I had had to struggle with these screams, which intensified the closer I got to the summerhouse.  “All my life,” I said, “I have believed that I shall never manage to escape the cries of the Poles lined up against the wall.”  The Italian turned around.  “They say that one of the Poles that were shot was a Potocki,” I said.  The Italian took in my story, my confession, in silence.  For a long time, I said, only my father had known about the mass grave, nobody else had; it had long ago been reported to the appropriate authorities, but until today nobody had troubled their head about the mass grave, about the “Polish grave,” as my sisters called it.  “We never even go into the clearing, with you, remarkably, I have gone into the clearing.  Also with the man from Freistadt.  With the Hungarian.”  “An atrocity,” said the Italian, and then asked me if this term sounded right.  I answered in the affirmative.  “The Poles,” I said, “walked into the summerhouse as if into a trap.”  Now again regarding my father, the Italian said, “shot dead” and gazed at the summerhouse.  “An accident?”  Again I thought: Is that a suicide with a bullet hole in his skull lying in the summerhouse?  “Such a hideously obliterated face,” said the Italian.  In order to distract myself I once again explored the topic of political affairs in Italy.  “Politics,” he said, “interest me only to the extent that they are profitable for my businesses; it may be that my honesty is disconcerting.”  By this means he rid himself of a conversation that I ascertained he found distasteful.  “In Rome,” he said reductively, “the seat of power is always occupied by false people, in every State, in every capital, in every parliament and administration, false people always preside.”  I had immediately thought of the Chartist movement in England, then of Zimmerwald, which was my constant, albeit often forcibly repressed, preoccupation.  It was now once again the Spartacus league and the soviet system, Rosa Luxemburg and Klara Zerkin.  For two full hours I had forgotten everything that for months had been occasioning my brain such colossal torment, all my work.  Only a single further time was I roused from my thoughts, when the Italian, only an instant after inviting me to visit him in Florence, right after we had crossed the bridge, said “The gloom that prevails here…” and then fell silent.  “There is no way,” he said, “that one can escape oneself.”  What he meant by this and specifically at that moment I do not know, we were standing right next to the open window and directly before the dead man. 


Source: Thomas Bernhard. Der Italiener (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989), pp. 68-77.   This book comprises Bernhard's screenplay to Der Italiener, a film directed by Ferry Radax; the above fragment, upon which the screenplay is based; Drei Tage (Three Days), a modified transcript of a monologue delivered by Bernhard in an another film directed by Radax; and a brief afterword by Bernhard.  A complete translation of the book in PDF format is available here.  

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2013 by Douglas Robertson

1 comment:

Cy Lester said...

Everything Thomas Bernhard wrote prove to be important (not.alas, can be said about many post-war literary writers). For which we must be truly grateful to the 'Unauthorised Translator' of these precious minor works.