Paweł Huelle often writes about his native city of Gdańsk and the surrounding area of Pomerania, a place with a tangled history and shifting identities. This story, from a collection called Cold Sea Stories, all of which are set in this region, takes us back to the period when the German gentry known as “Junkers” were the principal landowners in Pomerania. But, bullied by a despotic father, the hero of Abulafia reacts to his own class and family history; he goes to the very edge of existence, in search of something that is ill-defined: the utopian dream of the language of the Garden of Eden, spoken by all
The sand was everywhere. Not just under the miserable bed or in his bowl. It was in his eyes too, the pores of his skin, under his fingernails and in his hair. Sometimes he felt as if his entire body were nothing but grains of sand, joined together by some strange means, and that one day they would fall apart and then he would die. He longed for it. A year had passed since he was locked up in here, maybe even more. He had long ago lost count; when the guard who brought food and water had noticed he was marking the days on the wall, just above the dirt floor, the chain shackling him to the bed had been shortened. Ever since he could no longer go up to the window, stand on tiptoes and watch the world go by. Below was a square, where once a week there was a slave and camel market. Beyond it, on the other side, stretched the walls of the city, which looked like a small fort with an entrance gate. The walls were very high, made of stone. Coated in clay, especially in the sunlight they looked like a sand castle from the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Only two towers rose beyond this line – the minaret of a mosque, and, as he guessed, the turret of the ruler’s residence.
Long ago he had tried to communicate. Using signs, he had asked the guard for an interpreter, or a textbook for learning the local language. Or anyone he could tell about himself. The toothless man nodded, and sometimes tossed him a handful of dried dates or an extra ration of manioc, but that was all.
He did not know who was keeping him prisoner, why here, or how long it would go on. As the months went by he had to come to terms with the thought that one day he would die in this hole; they would take his body out to the edge of the desert and throw it in a rift like the corpse of a rabid dog.
His only real life was his memories. But he could not summon them up the way you take photographs from an album. They came according to a logic of their own, and disappeared in just the same way. Sometimes this caused him even greater pain, as the image of his mother, or just of the field road leading across the dunes and pine groves by the sea suddenly faded and vanished.
He realised he would go mad if he did not employ his mind on some fixed occupation every day. He began to compose elegies, first in his own language, then he translated them, line by line, into ancient Greek, and finally into Latin. It was a demanding exercise, as being unable to write he had to entrust it all to memory. On the third elegy something dreadful happened. He woke up and could not remember the phrases he had worked on the entire day before. The few simple words had disappeared without a trace. In vain he repeated the incomplete poem over and over again, up to the critical moment. In vain he recited the two previous elegies, but he could not go any further. The more variants of the new line he devised, the more the old one, lost and missing, seemed the only correct version. There was no way out of this blind alley. He spent several days in total apathy. And when he got down to work again, he found that the trilingual verses etched on his memory with such an effort had got muddled together, losing entire pieces here and there, so finally they were more like a heap of rubble than a carefully erected construction.
He assessed the situation with his characteristic cold eye of judgement: if his mind was letting him down, he could no longer count on anything. The only way out would be to starve himself to death – without letting the guard notice, to limit his already paltry rations of food. Like a yogi he had once read about in a book by Werfel.
In the end he decided to have one more try. Sentence by sentence, he would write out the book of his life. It must be short and ascetic, not as complicated as the elegies, so that his memory could open it every day. He discovered a new method for this. Before darkness fell in his cell, he noted down the last sentence added to his book in shorthand. The sand on the dirt floor came in useful.
M. f, e d a a, e m a c s i S, etched out with his finger, meant My father, ever drunk and angry, enrolled me at cadet school in Stolpen. In the morning, before the guard brought the food and water, he read back the sentence aloud, after reciting all the previous ones from memory. It brought him great relief. From then on the images of the past no longer came to him randomly and painfully: now he had control of them, he could call them up and set them aside at his own desire. What the wordy elegies did not contain was brought by the stark, rhythmic prose.
In the mist-filled, October dawn the men set out to hunt. Horn the gamekeeper bowed low to his father and said “Herr von Kotwitz, everything is ready, but those Kashubian swine got drunk yesterday, I don’t know if they’ll be any good as beaters…”
Sixteen Junkers by the bonfire, already drunk, the smell of roast meat, mushrooms, smoke, and gin, mixed with a patriotic song about a marksman or a hunter who would give it all up for his fatherland. Then the jingle of his father’s spurs zig-zagging across the hall and the drawing room towards the bedroom. His mother. Slapped in the face, because once again he had caught her talking to the servants, those Polaks, in their language. His mother, who one day had screamed at his father, “without my estate, my dowry, you would be Kotwitz the zero, Kotwitz the German zero, without me you’d be no one, like all your little lordlings in Pomerania, Kotwitz.”
The day he was expelled from cadet school in Stolpen – Captain von York-Gostkowsky holding his exercise book and sneering: “So we’re writing poetry? The young squire wants to become an officer and he’s writing poetry? Let’s have a listen!” And immediately – the senior officer’s slap, his arrest and court martial, the journey home in a hired chaise and his father’s rage.
That sunny summer when he lost himself entirely in reading, dictionaries encyclopaedias, poetry and love.
Her name was Hanka. He saw her at haymaking, as he came home from the coast on horseback through the dunes and the pine wood. She smelled of clover, wind from the sea and clouds, and knew barely a couple of sentences in German – her comical accent attracted him as much as her lips. “Young master,” she confessed, “this is all for nothing, I’ve got my Schiffkarte, in the fall I’m going to Hamerica!”
His father during the fire, in front of the manor house, in his underwear, pointing his shotgun at the sky: “The Polaks are setting us on fire again, Bismarck was right, we must finish them off for once and for all!” A week later his body was lying in the hospital in Stolpen: Herr Landau, the doctor, spread his hands and said: “There’s no known cure for a cerebral stroke”.
And a month later his mother, from pneumonia. She took her greatest secret with her: the language she had never passed on to him, which would always bring him the scent of haymaking, clover, a wind from the sea and clouds.
Then came solitude in the manor house, which he hated, though he did it up after the fire raised by the Polaks. The von Krokowskis paid an occasional visit, or other petty nobles from the neighbourhood. He hated them as well – they were too much like his father.
And finally obsession. Madness. The first time he read an article about the primordial, universal language, and about Abulafia, the Jewish sage who discussed it with Dante, he started getting in philology journals from Berlin, London, Petersburg and Paris. He imagined Rabbi Hillel writing to Rabbi Zerahia of Barcelona: “If a child were brought up with no people around it, it would be sure to speak Hebrew, because that is the primal language, given us by nature.” Rabbi Zerahia laughs at that and says: “Such a child would bark like a dog, because no language, not even a sacred one, is given to man by nature.” And so thousands of phrases ground in the philological mill attracted, fascinated and amused him. In what language did Adam and Eve converse? Certainly not German, which, as Schottel wrote in 1641, was closest to the language of Adam, in view of its purity. The truth must lie elsewhere, so he studied everything written on the topic, corresponded with members of the Academy, and finally, weary of the lack of an unambiguous answer, he dropped the whole issue and went back to writing poetry. Until one day…
Until one day he read in a Berlin paper about the language of a tribe related to the Berbers, the mysterious Saharan No people. According to Wieland, it was there, in their speech, that the kernel of all other possible combinations lay. Not in Sanskrit, not in Hebrew either. In the desert, at an oasis also called No, there were supposed to be three standing stones with inscriptions. No one had seen them, but Pliny and Herodotus wrote about them. These inscriptions contained the universal pattern for all alphabets and languages – the ancient speech of Eve, Adam, Gilgamesh, the Teutons, the Slavs and the Tatars.
He sold the estate. He made deposits at banks. Finally he reached Genoa, from where he was to sail on a British freighter to Alexandria. On the café terrace he talked to an insurance agent, a Russian called Goncharski. Thanks to his contacts, this man was to arrange the journey. “In the desert, Herr von Kotwitz,” he repeated, “once you are riding with those savages, please tell them you are a Greek from London, let’s say Ariston Nikiforos, and that you are looking for ancient sculptures and souvenirs: that will be best”.
He said he was a Greek from London, looking for sculptures and souvenirs. It was no use: robbed, beaten and tied up, he spent a few days travelling with the robber caravan to the city where now he was writing down the book of his life instead of the failed elegies.
If they kill me, he mused, or if I expire here, nothing will be left of me. Who was I? Someone who read a few articles by German philologists that inspired him to set off on a journey. Isn’t that proof of the power of philology? Or of my own weakness. How stupid. The people holding me here have never even heard of such a person as Abulafia. Adam and Eve certainly didn’t talk in their language. Abulafia finally proclaimed himself the Messiah. But nothing changed after his death. And even less will change after mine. Nothing at all.
Amid such thoughts, he gradually finished his book. Each day he recited it from the beginning. He did not make any amendments. Changes might bring undesirable confusion into his memory.
One morning two messengers entered his cell. They undid the chain and gave him a new abaya. Then all three set off on horseback across the desert. He was not tied up, but where was he to escape to? After two days and nights, when the landscape took on a rocky aspect, they told him to get off his horse, gave him a supply of water, then pointed to the nearest, low hill and rode away. He walked onwards, exhausted. In a small gully he saw a spring, with a tent pitched nearby. Inside, three old women were sitting on stools at a spinning wheel.
“So that’s how it looks,” he thought, “there are always three old hags at the end.”
He watched as the thin thread wound around the spindle. Then he lay down by the spring and gazed at the stars. He fell asleep. At dawn, when the sun was already blazing down mercilessly, he noticed that the tent had gone. He was alone, in total, perfect silence. He could smell the sweet scent of grass, clover, mint and wind, which by his cold, home sea mixed with the odour of seaweed, wet sand and fish. He had never been so happy.
In the chronicle of Pomeranian Junkers it says that as the last of the von Kotwitz clan, Joachim set off on a journey to the Sahara in 1899 and went missing there, probably murdered by one of the Berber tribes. The chronicler does not say a word about Abulafia and the universal language, the one spoken by Adam and Eve. Nor about Joachim von Kotwitz’s mother, née Obuchowska. In a second-hand bookshop I once found an essay from their manor-house library, by a Professor Mangoldt, on “Dante and Abulafia”, published in Berlin in 1869. Umberto Eco brings up its main points in several chapters of his book, The Search for the Perfect Language. So Joachim’s alleged madness inspired by Mangoldt’s brochure would be the antithesis of Eco’s rational discourse. But that’s quite another story…
Taken from Cold Sea Stories, published by Comma Press, 2012. Text © Paweł Huelle Translation © Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Photo by Tadeusz Dąbrowski.
Featured image via Booooooom