Somewhere on a battlefield in Europe is a cranium, in which echoes an asylum visit. The visit has not yet happened, and the echo is getting louder. It is not really an echo, more of a fugue, but we’ll get to that. More strongly another visit echoes. The two futures mingle. None of them have happened yet. Earlier, as the head was still attached to the rest of a body, this visit was running through it: Rudolf’s friend Wilhelm must go to Allerseelengasse, building 13, fourth floor, apartment 12, Donaublau. The address was repeated many times and worriedly drilled into Wilhelm’s head. What Wilhelm must do is take care of Berta. The phrase “see her with my eyes” is echoed several times, or, that note is struck several times. The future is worried into existence; Rudolf is sure he will die, and somewhere on that battlefield in Europe shrapnel bounces around in his head like an asylum visit.
Because it is a translation, and because I can’t help myself, I imagine that “to see [Berta] with/through [Rudolf’s] eyes” is one deft spaceless astronaut of a verb in German – I know it’s not, but the very fact that I’m reading a translation changes the way I read. I know everything that is told to me is supposed to have been said in German, and the English feels like a mask, more so than usual. The translator, Adrian Nathan West, puts on his own face backwards and hands me a mask for myself without instructions. Every echo unfurls. Every name gets a multiword epithet, like in epic poetry. And each time a sequence repeats itself, it is as though one turn of the calliope is acted out by eleven virtuosi. The manner of echo is very precise, almost obsessive.
So somewhere on a battlefield in Europe is a cranium, in which echoes an asylum visit. Berta, eighteen years afterwards, has a thing around her neck that Wilhelmine – Wilhelm’s new wife (they share a name and so they are different halves of the same person. However, this Platonic fact is only mentioned once, never echoed, so it rings false) – desperately wants. Berta turns to liquid. And when Wilhelmine gets what she wants, all sounds stop.
There is nothing humorous about getting torn to pieces by a deaf grenade in World War II, but there is something funny about a guy walking around confused looking for his lost head. Speed up tragedy enough, compress it like an accordion, and you find yourself with a comedy in your small hands. By the same token, if you linger on the joke a little while, let the instrument breathe, if you just allow the camera to rest its weary unblinking eye on the unwitting actors for a few seconds too long, you slip into tragedy again. The headless body collapses. The structure of story in Marianne Fritz’s The Weight of Things is a farcical one, but every punchline echoes back and the characters themselves hear them repeated. And it’s not funny.
I think, if I speak loud enough to myself, can I hear? Every time I try to define my me and think, these are finally the words that capture my essence, those words lose their power. For a long while, maybe two years, whenever I told people about the kind of situations I got into where I had to disappear, I would tell them things like “I turned to oil.” The liquid spoken would change depending on the situation. I turned to quicksilver and slipped away under a door. Turned to milk and trickled down the drain. To water and boiled away in the late summer heat. One day I described this to a friend and since then I’ve only been solid, perhaps made of glass, perhaps of stone, but the imagery doesn’t work anymore. I find a set of words that have power over me and let it echo, until it stops being true. Which is immediately.
In The Weight of Things everybody worries about what they will do next. Therefore, they do it. Everything they say they echoes from themselves, and it becomes what defines them, in the way that academics like to call “performative.” They are not me, because their words are not echoes: echoes lose their power over time, but each sequence here is as strong as the others. They are not some long harangue boiled down to a pithy quote, or a mess of imagery whittled into one symbol. They just are. That is why the near future can sound as strongly in the past as the distant future does, and why the now is reverberating. The future is actually what causes the present. What causes the future is the past as it could have been.
The echoes are recurring themes, in the musical sense. The story is a farce, but the structure of the book itself is a jazzy call-and-response. I am fugued along in the association game the author plays. There was a time when my memory was perfect, and it feels a lot like the structure of this book. I know I remembered every single conversation I had had with the first person I was ever in a relationship with, because my head was one of those heads full of potential like a rock teetering on the slippery edge of a waterfall. This proved a bit problematic when the relationship ended, of course. Love is unhelpful, sometimes.
One by one I would remember the conversations we’d had. As I was remembering them, however, I did not commit the remembrance to memory. This is the thing that is hard to explain, but the memory does not exist in compressed and uncompressed form at the same time. It is a piece of paper you open and close like a cramping hand, deforming the paper in the process. Eye witnesses are unreliable. Go, pick out your favourite memory and count the stars in the background, fold it up, unfurl it again and count them again. They’re different.
I saw in my mind a tree of hands holding onto helium balloons, clutching them. I dutifully inspected each balloon before letting it go, relaxing the muscles in the tree, and willing myself not to clutch at it with more of my thousand hands. I let go.
Somewhere on a battlefield in Europe a dead skull remembers a visit to the asylum eighteen years later. From our vantage point here in the future, we can see that meanwhile in the past, Berta has good grades. Her daughter, also called Berta – Little Berta, is supposed to have good grades too. Berta plays the same sequence too many times in her head and it disintegrates: she undoes the past like a shoelace. The problem is she puts her own grades in the same blue envelope as her daughter’s grades, nullifying herself. Her daughter has to go to a special school. What can you expect, with a mother like that. And somewhere in a field of poppies a face in the earth, nothing more than pareidolia, worries an asylum visit into existence.
It sounds like I have told you a story, but I have not. You have no idea what goes through Berta’s head or why she keeps saying “So. So.” You don’t know about the Wound of Life or its moulding hands. You don’t even know why Berta is in the asylum.
Marianne Fritz (1948–2007) was an Austrian novelist. Her first book, The Weight of Things, marked the beginning of an ambitious cycle of novels with the overarching title of Festung, or “The Fortress,” comprising Das Kind der Gewalt und die Sterne der Romani, Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst, and the gargantuan Naturgemäß, the third volume of which she was preparing at the time of her death.
Adrian Nathan West is the author of The Aesthetics of Degradation as well as the translator of numerous works of contemporary European literature. He lives between Spain and the United States with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.
Johannes Punkt speaks Swedish as a native tongue and English as one of those parasites that burrow into the mouths of fishes and replace their tongues, like something you have to live with, equal amounts grotesque and gorgeous. He doesn’t speak German. You can get his important zine about a cult that worships numbers by clicking on the hyperlink . He is very good at Twitter and you can see this for yourself: https://www.etsy.com/listing/237006205/the-cult-of-numbers-johannes-punkt-with @johannespunkt
Image: © Johannes Punkt