I don’t think my parents had any idea what they were doing when they gave me an LP of Peter Bichsel’s Kindergeschichten when I was eight. The stories, after all, were called ‘Children’s Stories’ and the man on the record sleeve looked nice, if a touch eccentric. My parents didn’t know how hypnotising those stories would be – that soft Swiss singsong, those cascades of sentences, those lists and crescendos that invariably culminated in the clearest, soberest and most sobering sentences. It was only years later, when I reread the stories in my early twenties, that I myself realised how deeply, how existentially sad they are. But at the same time there was always hope, always that brief moment when everything seemed possible – walking around the world or discovering an unknown country or, as in The Man Who No Longer Wanted to Know Anything, forgetting everything you’ve ever learnt. These hopes were always dashed, because the world is as it is – too bumpy, too well-known, too obtrusive. But still there was a scrap of something left – a scrap of hope or consolation, or at the very least a scrap of perseverance. There was always a slight doubt whether the impossible might not prove possible after all. ‘I’d like to be an Indian rhinoceros,’ says the man in The Man Who No Longer Wanted to Know Anything, ‘but I suppose it’s too late for that.’ And yes, he’s probably right, but in that ‘suppose’ of his there remains a scrap of possibility, of hope, and we must watch over that ‘suppose’, praise it and cherish it and keep seeking it out. As a writer I have stolen shamelessly from Peter Bichsel, but as a reader I owe him even more.
‘From now on, I don’t want to know anything,’ said the man who no longer wanted to know anything.
‘I don’t want to know a thing.’
That’s easily said.
It is easily said.
And hardly had he said it, when the telephone began to ring.
And rather than ripping the wire out of the wall, which is what he should have done as he no longer wanted to know anything, the man picked up the receiver and said his name.
‘Hello,’ said the other person.
‘Hello,’ said the man.
‘Nice weather today,’ said the other person.
And the man didn’t say: ‘I don’t want to know.’ He even said: ‘Yes, you’re right, the weather’s very nice today.’
And then the other person said something else.
And the man said something else. Then he replaced the receiver in its cradle and felt very cross because now he knew the weather was nice.
And now he did rip the wire out of the wall and he shouted: ‘I don’t want to know that and I’m going to forget it.’
That’s easily said.
It is easily said.
Because the sun was shining through the window, and when the sun shines through the window, you know the weather is nice. The man closed the shutters, but now the sun shone through the cracks.
The man fetched paper, papered over the windowpanes, and sat in the dark.
He sat there for a long time, and when his wife came in and saw the papered-over windows she got a shock. ‘What’s all this?’ she asked.
‘It’s to keep the sun out,’ said the man.
‘But now you have no light,’ said the woman.
‘That’s a disadvantage,’ said the man, ‘but it’s for the best. I may have no light if I have no sun, but at least I don’t know the weather is nice.’
‘What do you have against nice weather?’ said the woman. ‘Nice weather makes you happy.’
‘I’ve nothing against nice weather,’ said the man. ‘I’ve nothing at all against the weather. But I don’t want to know what it’s like.’
‘Well, at least turn the light on,’ said the woman, and she was about to turn it on, but the man ripped the lamp from the ceiling and said: ‘I don’t want to know that either. I don’t want to know that you can turn the light on.’
When his wife heard that, she started to cry.
And the man said: ‘The thing is, you see, I no longer want to know anything.’
And because the woman didn’t understand, she stopped crying and left her husband in the dark.
And there he stayed for a very long time.
When the people who came to visit the woman asked after her husband, the woman told them: ‘The thing is, you see, he’s sitting in the dark and no longer wants to know anything.’
‘What doesn’t he want to know?’ asked the people, and the woman said: ‘Nothing. He no longer wants to know anything at all.
‘He no longer wants to know what he sees, such as what the weather’s like.
‘He no longer wants to know what he hears, such as what people say.
‘And he no longer wants to know what he knows, such as how you switch the light on.
‘That’s how it is, you see,’ said the woman.
‘Ah, so that’s how it is,’ said the people and they stopped coming to visit.
And the man sat in the dark.
And his wife brought him his food.
And she said: ‘Tell me something you don’t know anymore.’
And he said: ‘I still know everything.’ And he was very sad because he still knew everything.
When his wife heard that, she tried to comfort him and said: ‘But you don’t know what the weather’s like.’
‘I don’t know what it’s like,’ said the man, ‘but I still know what it can be like. I remember rainy days and sunny days.’
‘You’ll forget,’ said the woman.
And the man said:
‘That’s easily said.
‘It is easily said.’
And he stayed in the dark, and every day his wife brought him his food, and the man looked at his plate and said: ‘I know they’re potatoes, I know that’s meat, and I know that’s cauliflower – and it’s all no use; I’ll always know everything. And I know every word I say.’
And the next time his wife came, she said: ‘Tell me something you still know.’
And he said: ‘I know a lot more than I used to. Not only do I know what nice weather is like and what bad weather is like, I also know what it’s like when there’s no weather. And I know that even when it’s quite dark, it isn’t dark enough.’
‘But there are some things you don’t know,’ said his wife and was about to go when he held her back, and she said: ‘You don’t know how to say “nice weather” in Chinese.’ And she went out, closing the door behind her.
When the man heard that, he began to think. It was true he knew no Chinese, and it was no good saying: ‘I no longer want to know that either,’ because he hadn’t learnt any yet.
‘First I have to know what I don’t want to know,’ the man cried, and he tore open the window and opened the shutters, and outside the window it was raining and he looked out at the rain.
Then he walked into town to buy himself books about learning Chinese, and he came back and for weeks he pored over those books and drew Chinese characters on paper.
And when people came to visit the woman and asked after her husband, she said: ‘The thing is, you see, he’s learning Chinese now. That’s how it is, you see.’
And the people stopped coming to visit.
But it takes months and years to learn Chinese, and when at last the man had learnt all there was to learn, he said:
‘I still don’t know enough.
‘I have to know everything. Only then can I say that I no longer want to know any of it.
‘I have to know how wine tastes – bad wine and good wine.
‘And when I eat potatoes, I have to know how you grow them.
‘I have to know what the moon looks like, because although I can see it, that doesn’t mean I know what it looks like – and I have to know how to get there.
And I have to know the names of the animals, and what they look like and what they do and where they live.’
And he bought himself a book about rabbits and a book about chickens and a book about woodland animals and another about insects.
And then he bought himself a book about the Indian rhinoceros.
He was very taken with the Indian rhinoceros.
He went to the zoo and found it there, standing in a big cage and not moving.
And the man saw plainly that the rhinoceros was trying to think and trying to know something, and he saw what a lot of trouble that was giving the rhinoceros.
And whenever the rhinoceros had a thought, it was so pleased it went running off. Round and round the cage it went, two or three times, forgetting the thought as it went, and then it stopped and stood still for a long time – one hour, two hours – until the thought came back, and off it went again.
And because it always ran off a little too soon, it never really had any thoughts at all.
‘I’d like to be an Indian rhinoceros,’ said the man, ‘but I suppose it’s too late for that.’
Then he went home and thought about his rhinoceros.
He now spoke of nothing else.
‘My rhinoceros,’ he said, ‘thinks too slowly and runs off too soon, and that’s as it should be.’ And he forgot what it was he had wanted to know in order to no longer want to know it.
And his life continued much as before.
Only now he knew Chinese.
*This story is taken from: Kindergeschichten by Peter Bichsel. © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1997.
*Image: Joana Keler