Guest at Passa Porta or Fished Lung
Translation by Peter Waugh
I liked the writer’s apartment at once. As the new author, I was greeted by high rooms, only the most essential furniture and a bright atmosphere. The study and the bedroom lay as far away from each other as possible, so that I came to cherish this apartment for its long corridors and the mirrors that protected the solitude to which I grew accustomed. It was important for me to be living in Brussels, so that I could also flee the four walls, quickly find myself among people and stroll through the city wherever I wanted to. The difference to a stay in the country is that the city provides an opportunity to go from space to space, to use its squares, alleys and streets like corridors, so that I feel that I have a goal, upon reaching which I can then take a seat.
I liked the fact that I had been invited to Brussels, the European city of delicatessens, on account of my literary work, which amounts to an investigation of ancestry. The first thing I did was to buy myself a torch at the supermarket, because the light was broken on the staircase leading up to my apartment. There was no janitor who could have repaired it and the light would not have repaired itself of its own accord throughout the whole length of my stay.
As early as the second day, I drove out to Breendonck in order to follow in the tracks of Jean Améry in exile, who – as a survivor of Auschwitz – strides out to the very boundaries of the mind in the pioneering essays contained in his book Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne ('Beyond Guilt and Punishment'). My first ever visit to a concentration camp memorial site was to Breendonck in May 2005 and ever since then I had made sketch after sketch after sketch of my impressions.
A fear of failure dogged me in Brussels from the very beginning. When I met the young lady from the House of Literature who had come to collect me, she was standing there holding up a copy of my most recent book, like a watchtower, as a means of identification. Basically, it was a signal that my writing should be meaningful. That is all I need to be plunged into a writing crisis. Now, as I write this sentence, it occurs to me how, in Brussels, I was listening to the radio and heard a report about the case of a thirty-two-year-old Austrian who had attacked his parents in the night with a axe and killed the sleeping couple. He wanted to teach them a lesson. Unfortunately, he could neither read nor write. Agricultural subsidies should be reallocated towards educational and cultural policies in Europe, so that people become able to write incisive texts that attempt to break open the frozen sea within us all, instead of resorting to the battle axe.
Looking into the mirror above the dining-room fireplace makes me realise that 'one day you will have been here', and that I had spent too long at the concentration camp. I had dark rings under my eyes and felt like I was suffocating. I opened my mouth wide and shone the light of my torch into my gullet. There they are, I thought, the suspect spots sitting on my tonsils. I had caught angina in Breendonck.
The older I get, the more terrifying the knowledge of the possibility of Auschwitz becomes. I am so free that I am able to leave the main body of Austrian society and slip into the Belgian one, and that is perhaps why I am aware of nothing outside of myself, beyond the fact that I am sensitive. The Belgian doctor said that ‘sensitive’ in Flemish means ‘crushable’. The craters on my tonsils are an imprint of the reality of unhealthy dampness that I experienced in the concrete ulcer of Breedonck.
Brussels – potholes in the pavements, dilapidated facades, the finest restaurants, the cafe "Au Laboureur", the neo-classicistic old "stock exchange-building" that is pissed upon by the homeless. The Pain Quotidien, where I ate flute aux noix every day for breakfast and read Améry’s works. The open smoker’s leg wounds and the oedemic skin of the homeless people. Passaporta and Het Beschrijf, literature, internationality, vitality and the individuality that I experienced being an author alone, unhurried, in the middle of three rooms, all of which were solely for me. In Vienna, I habitually share rooms with my children.
The doctor said that I was probably someone who did not take the weather in Brussels seriously. I shrugged my shoulders. She advised me to go to bed and take some antibiotics.
Immediately after visiting the doctor, I travelled to Antwerp, where I gave a lecture on the concept of the 'I' in literature. Even on the train to Antwerp I felt increasing pressure in my throat, so I took some of the antibiotics. Yet no sooner had I arrived than the tonsils had swollen to such an extent that I could hardly utter a sound from my throat. All I could do was whisper, so I whispered into the microphone. You could cut the silence with a knife, and an unforgettably mysterious atmosphere developed – at least for me, as I whispered into the microphone, spoke about the “prizemakers” behind Nobel Prize winners, juridical persons, cannibals and the cleaning ladies who remove the stains from the white vests of zombies.
Exhausted, I returned to Brussels and lay dead beat in bed in my apartment in Brussels for days. When I then sat recuperating in a restaurant and overheard a Brussels family asking themselves where I might come from, my ears pricked up. From France? No, then she would understand us! Maybe from the north? She’s too small for that! From the east? She's too fragile for that! A northern Greek perhaps? While devouring the mussels that I was tearing from their shells, I – who hardly speaks any French at all – was thinking only that my hair was scrubby because I had been bed-ridden. Certainement elle a besoin d'une coiffure, said the Madame pointedly, and it was then that I thought: 'Mind your own fat' and retorted in Australian that I was a kangaroo.
A few days later I was invited to the country for lunch. In Vollezelle, I went walking across the fields. Having grown up in a linguistically racist landscape idyll, I started imagining having to live in the country, and was immediately engulfed by the deadly boredom that had made me swear never again to take that risk as long as I lived. With the past, I associate the transience of organic landscape. In addition, at every step that I take in her, nature reflects her complicity in violation. All kinds of things die under my soles as I unavoidably, and even motionlessly, age. Of course, nature grows again, but when my time is up, I do not. The landscape of gentle hills around Vollezelle, Mechelen and Breendonck did not deceive me. A conspicuously restless way of behaving grabbed me as soon as the greenery of nature appeared, cows began to graze on the meadows, and rows of poplars lined the route that wanted to lead me out into the open, but led me into the enclosed, into the concavity of the 'reception centre' and concentration camp. However, the stretch of land around Villa Hellebosch is elegant and sweeping. There, I inhaled nature – in Breendonck, the air of the tomb. I remember a store selling gravestones at a crossroads, which we drove through without having an accident. I would certainly have walked past it in order to get to a café, if I had resided at Villa Hellebosch.
I also went to the seaside. There had been storms. The sand scratched in my throat and trickled as if through an hourglass. I was tracing Améry’s footsteps. Was it a feeling of duty or was it a dare? Shadows are either shadows or childish spooks. Chains are chains. Hooks are hooks. Torturers are torturers. Ghosts are unleashed memories, and deserve to be tied down, says Ruth Klüger. Fish-eyed lung is fish-eyed lung. It is a breathing eye. A glass object into which I gaze. The gaze is directed towards memory and from there the eye gazes back at me. The light was a dim light. Television sets flicker and make a rushing noise, what happened yesterday returns to the picture as a newstime broadcast. The fish-eyed lung is a glass object that pulsates and breathes. A meaningless image of a meaningless image – in that lies the impossibility of representing nothingness. Anger, which chains me – and I know something about anger. Nothingness has walls. A prison, structures, materials, stubs, carcasses and leftovers. I was looking for my bearings – I could have used them as light switches, in order to illuminate the terror with my gaze.
"Passa Porta", the apartment in the house for international literature, was furnished with big mirrors and the inward gaze admonished me to overcome my inner laziness and to be active. My situation was favourable. I was at the place where Améry was in exile, Brussels, I had money at my disposal and was in good society. Together with the Améry expert Irene Heidelberger-Leonard, I initiated a project to place a plaque of honour on the wall of the last apartment building in which Améry lived, namely in the Rue Coghen 56, in the Uccle district of Brussels. The Austrian embassy unveiled the plaque in June 2006. I am proud of the plaque on the wall of Jean Améry’s apartment building. It is impressive and is part of my fuit hic.
Sleepy clouds over the hilly Flemish countryside. Peaceful and gentle on the day of unveiling. The Vlamsbloo was lurking here somewhere. Clairvoyance is memory.
Translated from the German by Peter Waugh