Winter 2009, Volume 25.2
—From the short story collection Doktor Turban
(Translated by Michael Wutz)
Daniel Zahno makes his home in Basel, Switzerland. He is known for his light, humorous and entertaining writings, which simultaneously touch subtly on deep existential issues. His books Doktor Turban (a collection of short stories) and Im Hundumdrehen (a dog story told in 70 ways) have received numerous awards, including the Clemens-Brentano-Prize of the city of Heidelberg, Germany. He has been a fellow at the International Writers Colony Ledig House, New York, and the Istituto Svizzero in Venice. He is a member of the programming commission for the Swiss Literature Days of Solothurn (Solothurner Literaturtage), one of the most important events in contemporary German and Swiss literature. Daniel had the honor of presenting the 2003 Nobel Prize winner John Coetzee there. In 2007, he (and fellow Swiss writer Martin R. Dean) went on a reading tour through the United States that was sponsored by the Swiss Arts Council ProHelvetia and that took them to the University of Chicago, the University of California-Berkeley, San José State University, the University of Washington, the University of Utah, Weber State University and Johns Hopkins University. Pro Helvetia also provided generous funding for the translation and publication of “Whispers.” His homepage is www.danielzahno.ch. Daniel’s publication credits in English include the short story “Carlotti,” which appeared in a special double issue of the journal Dimension2 on “Young Swiss Writers” (2007).
“Whispers” is the opening story of Doktor Turban and as such sets the tone for the entire collection in a language that is often sensuous and musical. The story is touching and complex and centers around the relationship between a father and son. Unfolding largely as a set of reminiscences in a driving car, “Whispers” is appropriately fast-paced and features a surprise ending.
There isn’t much to tell, really, Miss, not much at all. My father was a butcher. We had a small butcher shop in Weding Street; maybe you remember it. I was nine or ten at the time. The shop was tiled in white from floor to ceiling. Father’s goods weren’t any better or worse than those of other butchers. There was a back room with a small bench for slaughtering, several steel hooks, suspended carcasses, cleavers and knives of all sizes. Several blood-spattered aprons were hanging on the wall, and father’s big black boots were standing next to the door.
Business was so-and-so. My mother stood behind the counter and served the customers, mostly simple folk from our neighborhood—house wives, old people, workers. They mainly bought cold cuts—blood pudding, liverwurst and bratwurst—and every once in a while ham, bacon, pigs’ feet, and, rarely, steak. We were living in the same house above the shop. That is why the butchering noises and the smell of meat and blood have been with me since childhood, saturating my being with a heavy, red tinge. I have long been familiar with moaning calves, squishing blood and slaughtered bodies—they have given my childhood a rank taste. I am unable to say why I became a vegetarian later in life; maybe I couldn’t stand the smells and noises any more; maybe it was just that I couldn’t stand my father any more.
The events you are asking me about happened a long time ago. Driving you in my Opel through the city today, from the station to the hotel, from the hotel to the station, and from there to anywhere, I feel as if all the past things have nothing to do with me and my life. It makes me very uneasy to think of them. I must confess that your questions torture me. They torture me, because I know that my answers to your questions torture me as well. As a matter of fact, I feel tortured by everything; your or my silence, too, would be a torture to me.
But now you are sitting in the back of my car, full of curiosity, and are asking me questions that you have to ask: you are right. You have been waiting for this moment for a long time. Most likely you have meticulously prepared for it and are prepared for everything, even the worst. You flashed two big bills and indicated to me to switch off the radio to the dispatch center. You told me to drive wherever I want: to drive and to tell. Well, I don’t want to be a spoilsport. If it is really that important to you—and it appears that it is, given how far you have traveled—I want to make an effort and remember, difficult as it is for me.
It all began in that hot summer, when radios suddenly broadcast all the terrible war-mongering and when crowds of bawling, yelling people gathered in public squares to wreak havoc in the streets. Now and then father would join the rabble in the streets, even though he had been discharged early because of his asthma, which was a sore spot with him. In those early hectic days, he had even less time for me than usual; in fact, he never did. Mostly he was busy slaughtering and gutting animals or cleaving and dismembering pigs, and then he joined the mass gatherings and demonstrations I just mentioned, shouted slogans, drank beer, and let himself be exploited by pigs. For that reason, he was rarely at home in the evenings, and if he was, he was broke and void. He was a muscular type with a coarse and angular face and drew attention because of his dark skin color. His essential being was that of a butcher, all in white and dutiful and hard-working and serious and dark and thick and strong and proud and stocky and big and wide, and there was a lot of space next to him, there was always a lot of space, if you could make yourself sufficiently small and thin, meek and weak—but this, Miss, will not interest you. Maybe it will mean something to you when I add that father had massive tufts of hair growing out of his meaty ears. He would not think of cutting those tufts because he loved shoving and digging his hairy fingers into them so that the hair of ear and finger merged into one single, big tuft. Once he had unearthed the yellow-brownish wax from said tuft, he would carefully examine it from all sides and then carefully wipe it off on his tightly-knit pants. Doing that over lunch and dinner was his favorite thing to do.
I can’t say that my father hated or disliked me: he simply didn’t care. His indifference was perhaps more of a circumvention, an inability, a curious aversion to his own flesh. Whenever I wanted something from him, he would dismiss me with his stern butcher’s stare. Sometimes he would mumble something incomprehensible and make a matching, jerky gesture, or he tuned out my request altogether, only to start talking about something of interest to him, but not me. Hence I learned early to despise myself. Even today it is not unusual that my comments are unacknowledged and ignored in a discussion, that I, in fact, fail to acknowledge and ignore myself. On occasion, when driving home early in the morning after a night’s work as a taxi driver, I have suddenly turned the car around and sped into the opposite direction like a madman.
Back then, however, I was not sitting behind a wheel. I was a thin and small figure at the table, sitting quiet and mute at the table, ignored at the table and could have cried, screamed, or flailed. These days, I can basically understand where father was coming from: it wasn’t his fault that his son was so different from himself, it wasn’t his fault that he was big and strong and broad, and I was so delicate and small.
No, I don’t want to reproach him for anything. With the exception of lunch, which we had together, the paths of our lives and worlds hardly ever crossed. Early on, I butchered his fleeting hope that I would one day take over his business, given my pronounced clumsiness with knives and cleavers and my corresponding skill in inflicting deep and bloody wounds and cuts on myself. Whenever I gave myself a deep wound, I would stare at the lively gushing forth of blood as if lost in a happy and rare dream. Father never understood that I had no desire to follow in his footsteps, the footsteps of his big, black boots. In truth, he never understood me, but stood only next to me like a stranger. To feel the stiff tenderness of his powerful butcher’s hands, if only once; to feel, if only fleetingly, a tender touch or caress of his hairy fingers stroking my hair was denied me throughout my childhood, and when I later stopped studying and became a cab driver instead, my dream of the dream remained a dream forever: he could never get passed that.
I apologize, Miss, for not sticking to the point. Your questions were going in a somewhat different, though not altogether unrelated, direction, and I will come back to them. In that noisy summer, it so happened that mother went to visit her sister, who lived in a remote corner in the southernmost tip of the country, and father and I stayed at home by ourselves, together with Marie, our shop assistant and housekeeper. I still remember mother’s farewell vividly, especially my quiet mourning and my tears, mother’s handkerchief and father’s elated mood. Why make such a fuss over two weeks? I was hoping that those two weeks would be passing quickly and that father and I would somehow come to an arrangement. I was hoping that, at least for the duration of mother’s absence, he would shake some of his reserve and the two of us would at least temporarily establish some kind of companionship, if not a deep one, then at least one that was bearable.
Indeed, at first mother’s absence did rejuvenate our relationship in an extraordinary way. Father became unusually talkative, almost affable, and as he was standing in the shop in good spirits, he would cut cold cuts (with a swift swipe of the knife almost grazing his finger tips) and throw me a piece here and there. Then, he would tell me wistfully of his military service, give me a vibrant sketch of his life as a soldier, and invent stories full of daring and adventure, all the while quickly and dexterously chopping bones and bloody meat with a cleaver, so that bits and pieces would occasionally fly off and get stuck on the white tiles of the walls. When father’s eyes and lips let me go, I flew off too, because I didn’t want to get caught up in his stories about military service, considering that already as a child I had a strong dislike for everything gray and loud. Even today, I start when I come upon soldiers unawares, or if I am sharply reprimanded. My sensitivity is such that I find myself suddenly shuddering in moments of complete silence. But I digress again, Miss, forgive my blabber.
Well, time went by quickly, and nothing worth mentioning happened; I got my pieces of cold cuts, listened to a story here and there, and was glad that things weren’t going so badly after all. Then came the night that I will never forget. I couldn’t sleep, God knows why. I had been prowling around all day, hanging out in the harbor and in the neighborhood, was tired and beat, but couldn’t fall asleep. I was rolling in bed, tossing and turning. I was trying to imagine the highway and the speeding car, which usually was able to carry me into the realm of dreams in a matter of seconds; that night, however, that was to no avail, to absolutely no avail. It was past midnight. I had been staring at the ceiling for a while, focused on the water stain, when I suddenly got up, opened the window and caught sight of the full white moon. Clouds moved across its face, covering and releasing it; the backyard was bathed in a pale light. Suddenly I heard whispers, whispers that were strange and unusual, yet somehow familiar to me; these whispers struck a cord in me. I flinched. Then I leaned out of the window and began listening. Yes, I could make them out again, those whispers. They came from the slaughtering room one floor below, those whispers, shortly after midnight. Fear seized me, followed by agitation and excitement. There was silence, barely perceptible silence. Then I could hear it again, those whispers, and I pricked my ears, pricked and pricked and pricked them, and finally I recognized the whispers: it was my father’s whispers. I heard him whispering the way I had never heard him before; I had never heard him whispering, and now he was whispering, and that whispering struck me as being very odd, so odd that I began wondering why he was whispering the way he did, after midnight in the slaughtering room. What was there to whisper about? But after the whispers of my father, I heard a second whispering, which was a response to my father’s. It struck me as a female whispering, and a thousand thoughts whizzed through my head. And then things dawned upon me, Miss; you understand, dawned upon me. I thought of Marie. Marie, of course, the full lips of Marie; what I heard were the whispers of the full lips of Marie, Marie’s whispers, which silenced father’s for a moment, only to be silenced in turn, the whispers of the full lips of the girl, and then the silence returned to the slaughtering room. In my head the white walls of the room began to swirl. I could see the steel hooks beginning to spin. The silence rose and swirled about, as did the animal heads and pig hearts, and the whispers suddenly resumed, the whispers of my father, to be followed by Marie’s, and then the whisperings of father and Marie began to merge into one big whisper. It was not so loud that I could have understood anything, Miss—no, it was not that loud—but I did hear this one big whisper, a fathermariewhisper, a mariefatherwhisper, and had a strange feeling—you understand, Miss—a strange feeling. Then the whispers got suddenly louder; it almost turned into a heavy breathing and a moaning, and I could not stand it in my room any more and climbed out onto the window sill. I reached for the downspout to the right of the window and let myself down slowly into the yard to see what was going on in the slaughtering room, after midnight. What was up with those whispers, this heavy breathing, this. My pulse was racing as I made it into the yard. I felt fear, excitement, curiosity. Carefully I began sneaking under the half-opened window of the slaughtering room and ducked; I surprised myself that I was that undeterred, curious and agitated—I didn’t budge. Then I mustered all my courage and stole a glance inside. In the pale light of the slaughtering room I could see the silhouettes of slaughtered pigs, their bodies dangling suspended from hooks in their hocks, I could see the shadows of the sawed-off heads of animals, intestines, the halves of lungs, kidneys; further in the back were visible several skins; closer to me was a tub full of bones. Then I made out, on the slaughter bench in the middle of the room, the contours of my father, and saw how the shadows of these contours moved back and forth in a strange fashion. There was something lying underneath his body, like a lump of meat, a lump on top of which he was rolling back and forth and breathing hard. I was gazing aghast at the scene. Marie, I thought, shocked—Marie. For heaven’s sake, what are the two doing there breathing hard on the slaughtering bench, and all wrapped up into one another. What kind of heavy breathing and thrusting is this; for heaven’s sake, they are killing one another, strangling one another, beating one another. They want to kill one another, they want to, and I began screaming, Miss, I began screaming as loud as I could. I screamed, "Heeeelp!," and screamed it a second time, when the moaning suddenly came to a stop and I could hear some cursing coming out of the slaughtering room, a cursing the like of which I had never heard before. It was an indescribable cursing; indeed it was a scream, a scream aimed at me. He bellowed my name into the yard, and I ducked for cover and got up and ran and hid behind some big bins. The moon was full, but father was already standing big and tall and furious in the yard and screamed my name into the night sky. I cowered; I cowered as if struck by lightning and crawled from behind the bins. Then he fixed me with his serious and dark eyes—his brows were even more dense and thick than usual—and told me in a calm tone to go back up into the apartment. He told me to go back up into the apartment in such a calm tone that I shuddered. His tone was so quiet, so uncanny, so—and I didn’t know why. I didn’t, you understand, Miss, but I trembled and obeyed, and without saying a word we both went up into the apartment, into the flat with Persian rugs. Then father sat down on the couch and told me to kneel in front of him, in front of him on the rug. He told me to stretch out my arms, stretch them out in front, and I knelt down and stretched and knelt, but he didn’t hit. Father didn’t hit; father was quiet and stared; he stared at me and I started crying, crying most pitifully. But father remained quiet and kept staring, for all eternity; he stared and I knelt and stretched and cried and didn’t dare wipe off my tears. You understand, Miss, I didn’t dare. Pain rushed into my arms, searing pain, and I cried and sobbed, but father remained quiet and stared and remained quiet. He didn’t show any emotion, any compassion, nothing. He only stared, and I cried and stretched my arms out, but everything was silent; father was silent, the universe was silent, and father was silent, and God was silent, silent, silent, silent, until it was too much for me. I ran into my room, crawled onto my bed and stopped crying because of all the pain. You understand, Miss, I couldn’t cry any more, and ever since that night, I have been the lost son, the lost son. I have lost my God, have lost God, and can’t find him anymore anywhere. He disappeared; I lost him; he was silenced away. You understand, Miss, and I keep searching and driving and searching, but I can’t find him; I can never find him; he is gone and gone am I, and all the searching is in vain, Miss, all the searching is in vain.
Later, when mother returned from her trip, I was silent, silent like a grave. I was silent, as silent as my father, as silent as Marie. We all remained silent, and everything was fine, Miss, everything was fine. Shortly thereafter Marie had to leave; I don’t know where she went, but the silence remained. Later mother told me that she had given birth to a daughter in Paris, but she didn’t say more and neither did I. I was afraid of father’s eyes, of father’s icy stare, and kept silent. Whether she knew, I don’t know, just as I didn’t know much of what I would have liked to know but was too cowardly to find out. You understand, Miss, I was too cowardly to ask to know. But now it is too late.
When mother died, it didn’t take long for father to follow her into the grave, bent over by all the sorrow. He had been on vacation for the first time in twenty years visiting an acquaintance in Barcelona. He, who had never traveled, whose life was made up of duty and work, traveled this time to be able to die far from home. For me, his death lifted an incredible burden, but was also incredibly painful and almost impossible to bear. When, in Spain, I was given the urn containing my father’s ashes, I was beside myself. Everything got blurry: life and dreams, love and death, doors and hallways, while holding in my hands the remains of the gatekeeper of my life. I carried the black container past the passers-by through the shopping district of Barcelona, Plaça de Catalunyia, Las Ramblas, Carrer de Boqueria; I dashed through the hectic streets full of people, busses, businesses and shopping areas, carrying father under my arm. It was a strange feeling, Miss, it was a strange feeling. I was so confused that the idea of putting the urn into a plastic bag did not occur to me. I snuck past the reception desk of the hotel up into my room. There I placed father next to the blue vase on the table not knowing what to do. My excitement, sorrow and shame made breathing difficult. Then I put father onto the window sill so he could see something of life; then I put him on the floor, into the bathroom and eventually into the closet, because I felt that he was staring at me, giving me a reproachful look from out of the urn. The night was long and terrible; I could not fall asleep; I kept thinking of that night long ago. I got the urn out of the closet and put it on the sofa, knelt in front of it and started staring and crying. I cried for all the lost opportunities, cried. Suddenly a whisper gently and quietly entered my cries, Miss; it was unwavering and appeared to come from inside the urn. I had never understood father; I pricked my ears and began listening, but even then I didn’t understand him, how he was lying in the urn and whispers emanated from it, and I knelt on the carpet and stared and listened to the whispers and vacillated between fear, subjugation, and rebellion. Eventually, I grabbed the urn and left the hotel in the middle of the night. I rushed to the sea, the moon was full and cast the empty beach in a pale light. I was turning and twisting father in my hands and didn’t know what to do with him, I just didn’t know. The waves were breaking against the shore and I felt a hammering and knocking in my head, as in that night long ago. Then I threw him into the sea. Don’t think it was hatred that made me do it, Miss, please don’t think that. I loved my, your father, and love him to this day and think of him often, very often. Only his whispers, you understand, Miss, only his whispers.