Friday, April 08, 2016

A Translation of "Die Siedler," a Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

The Settlers

They had come home in the same transport, the eighteen-year-old Rupert, who no longer had any relatives, and Ferdl, who was about a year older and whose mother had died in the war, so that he was now as much alone as his comrade.

For two weeks they shoveled sand at a construction site in town; then at Ferdl’s suggestion they went to work for a farmer in the country, where at least the meals were heartier.  They slept in the hay stable, and because it was spring, that didn’t make things any worse for them.  In their free time they roamed around the countryside.  In the course of these rambles a patch of uncultivated land between the forest and the moor kept catching Ferdl’s eye.  “We could settle here,” he said, and sucked on his pipe like an old man.

Soon they began working busily on the little piece of ground in the evenings and on holidays.  The two of them weeded, dug, dragged stones, posts, and planks to the spot.  The place was isolated, and their activity remained unnoticed for a long time.  By late summer they had finished erecting the hut, or, as they called it, the house.  Soon they would be able to move into it.  And they had also staked out a parcel of earth for gardening; it was after all untilled soil, unclaimed land.

Upon awaking from their first night spent under their own roof, they found the forest ranger standing on their doorstep and asking them from whom they had received permission to build there.  He said that he had been observing the whole business for some time and that he was pleased to have an opportunity to speak with the “masters of the house” at last.  They replied by sheepishly asking whom the land belonged to and averring that it was after all untilled soil.  To say exactly who owned the property was not a particularly simple matter, opined the ranger.  In any case, they would need a permit from the local council.

When after several futile interviews with lesser officials they were finally accorded a meeting with the mayor, they received a bewildering piece of intelligence.  He said that the property itself was technically part of an entailed estate, but that upon the latter’s  dissolution under the auspices of the new international administration of Austria, it had fallen into the hands of foreign owners, whose heirs had committed it to the care of the local council as security against any potential revocation of the game laws.  That a sublease from the council would not be possible.  That in the absence of any contact with the heirs no kind of provision could be made.  The two youths equably returned to their dwelling.  A few days later two men dropped by and asked to see the building permit and the certificate from the building commission.  Oh, so neither happened to be ready to hand!
Eventually a gentleman from the tax office showed up; he asked to see every possible kind of document, checked their identification papers, took notes; he rattled off all sorts of terminology and phraseology that neither of the lads could make head or tail of.

The idyllic solitude of their little hut on their uncultivated patch of land was now history; at all hours of the day people would show up and then, on the authority of summarily flashed identification cards, proceed to challenge the two youths’ right of possession, to interrogate them.   They were subpoenaed by various administrative bodies, and their employer the farmer really became quite vexed, because both menials were absent from work all too often on account of official business.  Rupert and Ferdl no longer felt at ease within the walls of their settlers’ house and eventually came to prefer sleeping in the hay stable again.

Meanwhile there arrived a thick envelope containing an action for possession, which, in artfully turned and remarkably fancy words referring to all sorts of legal paragraphs, asserted certain things whose upshot, as near as the two settlers could tell after long perusal of the document, was that they had lost the right to hold on to the fruit of their labors.

Thus ended Ferdl’s and Rupert’s dream centered on a little patch of earth.  They continued working on the farm, and when winter came and it grew cold, they started bivouacking in the cowshed.         


Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 461-462. Originally published in Salzburger Volksblatt, September 8, 1951, under the name Thomas Fabian.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

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