f i c t i o n i s a b e l f a r g o c o l e
I pity the statesmen and those who take their ventures for reality, I pity them and smile. For I know that their deeds are not real; if they were, how could we bear all the pain this statesmanship has brought upon us? I know: all that is real is what I have thought […]. I know it, and I walk the streets of the city, ride on the roofs of the omnibuses, descend into the shafts of the Underground with my secret like Harun al Rashid. I walk through Baghdad, incognito as the Caliph.
—Hermann Ungar, “The Caliph”
The outbreak of war sent me into a state of apathy which lasted several years. I left my husband, immersed myself in my financial difficulties and the search for work. Then I worked all I could. And I followed the developments in my home country and in the distant countries where we fought. I had drifted away from my circle of friends, my ex-husband’s, and making new friends didn’t come easily. It was my ties back home that stirred, the tormenting mutual incomprehension which made me feel for the first time like an exile – like someone with a homeland.
I worked from my apartment, carried on the hopeless argument with friends and family from my desk. I watched them and their words and the war we wrote about as if through the wrong end of a telescope. Evenings I spent in cafes and bars. It was comforting to be around people who had nothing to do with it all. I wished they would acknowledge me, even with a casual gesture, but no gesture was forthcoming. They sensed that I fed upon their lives, and instinctively they shied away. I was ashamed of that, but I learned to live with my shame, and soon it felt like love.
Best of all, no one knew where I came from. It was good to have a secret. It gave meaning to my silence: I was a proud pariah, an exile, an abdicator. And this in turn made me, a mere observer, innocent.
I read a great deal, in the cafes and at home, mainly writers from between the wars, whose clear-eyed despair appealed to me. Back then despair was not so far removed from the source: a belief in the good life.
Now I had money saved, more than ever before. I could do all the things I had dreamed of and then forgotten – for instance, I could go to Vienna. My husband had always refused to visit Vienna; he said it was too expensive.
I took the train to Vienna and found a room in a small hotel in the Josefstadt district. It had been the right thing to do. I wasn’t a stranger anymore – at least it was natural for me to be a stranger. I was traveling, after all. No need to be ashamed of feeding on people and places; I was here to take everything in. And the strange dialect made me want to speak. I said, “I’m from Berlin” and smiled to myself. The truth was all one to the Viennese. They took a jaded pride in the notion that what they called home was one great self-deception. Like telling lies or dreaming, it was easy to look people in the eyes. I felt as if I could meet a man. The third night after my arrival I went to a bar not far from my hotel, whose matter-of-fact elegance promised the right kind of intoxication.
At the end of the bar sat a dark, strikingly handsome man in worn jeans and a filthy sweatshirt. “Drunk as a lord,” I thought, smiling at the expression I had never used before. He didn’t belong here: he was aristocracy, or scum. He looked like one of those foreigners they tolerated here as cheap labor. When he called hoarsely for another beer I knew my countryman. Not a subject, a citizen of the empire.
My countryman’s German was perfectly respectable, and it was obvious what he wanted. But the bartender refused to understand him. Maybe he had something against foreigners, or he thought the man was drunk enough already and might cause trouble. Though now I felt that the man was not so much drunk as beside himself.
“He wants another beer,” I said, moving closer, and the bartender turned to the tap without a word.
“Where are you from?” I asked the man in our language.
He looked at me with tired, haughty eyes. “Detroit,” he said.
“And what are you doing here?”
“I’m in the army. Stationed in the south of Germany. We were about to be deployed. I deserted.” He had said it to himself a hundred times, and this was the first time he had said it out loud.
“Don’t say you understand. You think I’m afraid. You think I never thought I’d really have to kill anyone. But I would have fought anywhere. Afghanistan. Korea. Not there. That’s where my family comes from. They had to leave, years ago. We have noble blood. We’re the last ruling family. But no one knows that anymore. Those so-called dissidents, that exile government they had waiting in the wings – they have no business there. They have no connection to the people, the history of the land. All they can do is prop up an artificial construction that outsiders put together. We have the roots, we understand the country, we can keep the peoples together, weld them together, found the state they believe in, they live for. What is happening now is a crime against history.”
“You don’t understand.” He looked away. My breath caught. His profile was so fine and true. “I won’t go back to occupy my homeland.”
Then we went to my hotel.
He slept for a long time. When he woke, he dressed quickly and said, “What would you say if I went back to the army, off to the war?” What could I say, watching from the sidelines? He should do what he had to do. I wouldn’t stand in his way. But what did he have to do? “It has a hold on you. . . ” I began. He looked at me in surprise and I stopped. It was already said.
He kissed me and went.
I felt more and more at home in Vienna. The city was living proof that the good life was still thinkable after the collapse. Of the vanished empire only the beauties remained. Several days after meeting my countryman, I went to the Kunsthistorisches Museum to see the Bruegels. There was one I looked at for a very long time. I must have seen it before, in a book, but it seemed utterly new and unfamiliar. Only now did I see what a strange, disturbing picture it is.
It’s called “The Conversion of Paul” and shows an army crossing a mountain pass. Soldiers trudge up the steep road from the left, far away stragglers file along paths that skirt the abyss. In the foreground the path bends, winding up into the mountains that rise cliff upon cliff without reaching a summit, not even on this towering canvas. The unsettling thing is the absence of faces. The soldiers coming up the path bow their heads, showing their helmets like shiny tin skulls. In the foreground, heads hanging, they turn their backs on the viewer and march away.
But a little further on confusion seizes the host, it jams the road, falling back before an astonishing accident. Saul has fallen, struck by a ray from heaven. A laughable figure, sprawling there with one arm raised theatrically next to his kneeling horse. His uplifted face is visible, like the faces of those who have turned to stare. But at that distance they are almost impossible to make out. The general’s fall, the divine disruption, the people’s panic – all that is lost in the crowd. Inevitably, swiftly, the dismay will spread until it has seized the entire army; for now, though, that is only a prediction. And all those who have marched on ahead, up the dark, steep road, will go a long time without knowing that something has happened.
The center, the actual eye-catcher of the painting, is a horse’s bulging rump. Its rider, nothing but a voluminous, black, armor-like doublet, stretches out one arm in a startled motion like that of a reaper. Beneath him the horse stands stolidly presenting the viewer with its powerful white buttocks.
I took that as an affront. All this time I had seen myself as a mere observer. Now I realized that even the observer, seeing nothing but backs, is condemned to fall in and march in a stupor toward the place of heavenly invasion.
Now that I know the soldier’s secret, the thought of the war is more painful, but no longer so hard to bear. During our pitilessly slow defeat I felt there might be some meaning to it after all, if not for us, then for others. And if no meaning, then at the very least necessity. And I had my part in it. When the new republic was proclaimed, the new league, the new empire, I recognized the young ruler in his strange garments and understood that my countryman had gone back to his homeland.
Ihave no confidante but this paper. That is the wonderful thing about my secret, that I have it all to myself. I smile sometimes to recall that I have excluded all others from my secret. At times I think it would be good to have an initiate. Just one, by no means more. In company we could smile at each other knowingly, and this smile would exclude all others. I would wink at the initiate when I passed him on the street, and alone in a room together we would slap our knees and laugh out loud at the world’s stupidity. But whom should I confide in? One, I fear, would not appreciate the secret, another would inwardly mock me, a third would break his secrecy. I am raising myself a trustworthy initiate. It is my son. When he is twenty, perhaps even eighteen, I will let him in on my secret. I will open the cabinet; I will hand him the proof. I have proof, I am not indulging in empty prattle or in innuendoes. My proofs are numbered, dated, the most important under seal. I have saved them, not only to shield myself from doubt and disbelief — what do private concerns matter in the greater scheme of things — but because I feel duty bound before the conscience of the world to save these important documents for future generations.
I must note that I am thought to be nothing but a small-time tradesman. I conduct my business like any other tradesman, visiting my clients and selling confectionery. My clients are the proprietors of small shops in town. I talk to them about the prospects for the harvest, the rising prices, the slow business. I ask about their sons and daughters, about the rheumatism of one, the stomach spasms of the other. I have known my clients for many years. My conversations differ in no way from the conversations of other tradesmen. The difference between me and other tradesmen is my secret. When I display my samples, push the sale, record the order, when I leave the shop with or without success, I am at all times conscious of my secret. I know that no business fiasco can embitter me, any more than the delight at a done deal can be mentioned in the same breath as the other, greater, purer delight in my secret.
I long for the moment when my son will reach adulthood. Discussions of rising prices or politics in his, the initiate’s, presence will have the exquisite charm of a comedy which only the two of us understand and which we play out of waggishness when I earnestly expound the views of the tradesman I seem to be. My son will know that I am something quite different and that from whimsy and delight in secrecy I indulge in the little joke of taking seriously the role that others assign to me. He will have inspected the dossiers which reveal to him what I in all secrecy have done.
He will know that his father is a great statesman. A great statesman, yet modest enough to go on playing the small-time tradesman, pursuing without superiority the wretched living of an agent, joining without pride in the naïve conversations of friends and relatives. He’d have good cause to be as proud as the others, my son will think. What have they accomplished and what has he? Through a wise alliance with Russia which I, his son, found in his desk, did he not make that ill-starred year 1866 into a peaceful, happy one? Did he not, he whom they take for an insignificant little man, reconcile France and Prussia without a war, through foresighted statesmanship, thus sparing hundreds of thousands in 1870 from death, mutilation and tears? All this, perhaps, because he was free from personal ambition, because his great influence behind the scenes did not tempt him to aspire to the outward brilliance of other statesmen.
So my son may say. I do not know whether he would be saying too much. I am happy to leave that verdict to the future generations who will study the dossiers. I shall say only that my aspiration as a statesman was to secure peace and progress for all the world’s peoples. Fate graciously allowed me to prevent all the wars waged by other statesmen of my age. I had the good fortune not to depend on the reports of the diplomats. I had the good fortune to make my decisions in the quiet of my study, without thirsting for the triumph and acclaim of the day, for the ovations of the misguided masses, fully conscious of the grave responsibility God had placed upon me. I weighed the intellectual and economic currents and forces, and I decided impartially, for I never lost sight of the fact that each one of my decisions will reverberate for decades, for centuries, that the face of the world changed the moment the decision left my head and became reality on paper, in notes, letters, treaties and alliances. This is part of my secret’s great burden, that the others I speak with do not suspect that I made history take a different path than they imagine. How I smile when I hear and read of the ventures of other statesmen who have choked the world with war and famine. And how my heart lifts at the thought that it was given to me to keep peace and order through — is it presumptuous of me to say so? — the wise exploitation of political opportunities.
I pity the statesmen and those who take their ventures for reality, I pity them and smile. For I know that their deeds are not real; if they were, how could we bear all the pain this statesmanship has brought upon us? I know: all that is real is what I have thought, as recorded in the documents in my cabinet. I know it, and I walk the streets of the city, ride on the roofs of the omnibuses, descend into the shafts of the Underground with my secret like Harun al Rashid. I walk through Baghdad, incognito as the Caliph.
Notes to “The Caliph”:
1866: Year of the Austro-Prussian War, or Seven Weeks’ War, deliberately provoked by Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck in an attempt to oust Austria from the German Confederation and unify Germany under Prussian dominance. Prussia crushed the Austrians at the Battle of Sadowa (Königgrätz) on July 3, 1866.
1870: Franco-Prussian War, July 19, 1870 – May 10, 1871. Conflict between France and Prussia provoked by Bismarck. The Prussian victory signaled the rise of German military power and imperialism.
incognito as the Caliph: In the "1001 Nights" Caliph Harun Al-Rashid ("the righteous"), a ruler of legendary benignity, is said to have wandered Baghdad incognito to listen to the thoughts and concerns of the people.
Isabal Fargo Cole’s translations have appeared in Archipelago
Christine Wolter, The Rooms of Memory, Vol. 4, No. 1
Annemarie Schwartzenbach, Lyric Novella Vo. 4, No. 4
Ilse Molzahn, The Black Stork, Vo. 6, No. 1
Horst Lange, War Diaries, Vol. 8, No. 4