It is all too easy to say there’s something spooky about the work of Georg Klein. It would be closer to the truth to say there’s something sparky about it, something charged, something electric. Georg Klein’s literature is full of wires and antennae, suckers and probosces, ghosts and exorcists, the organic and the mechanical – and A Dwarf’s Tale is no exception: when the world famous ‘gagging Viennese psychologist’ tries to ring the emergency bell soon after leaving the operating theatre, he discovers that ‘the bell push is dead’. The thread has snapped; the circuit has been interrupted; the tin tongue of the bell has broken in two – but help is on its way in the shape of the idiot dwarf Jodi. Is it perhaps the thread of Jodi’s saliva that gets the great machine of life up and running again? No one tells the story of the imbecile’s rescue of the bleeding intellectual giant as sonorously or as subtly as Georg Klein. In all his novels and short stories, from Libidissi to Barbar Rosa and Die Zukunft des Mars (‘The Future of Mars’), a fantastical nocturnal crew takes care of vital transmissions. Even in the smallest dwarf’s tale, this great spiritualist of German literature makes his wires sing, skilfully bringing together what belongs together – from electrical fetish to cretinous dwarf.
The following story is as true as anything from the world of science and the realm of the dead can be for the likes of us. Although you can’t see the screen itself, a folding screen of the same design is on display at the Museum of Medicine and Paramedics in Vienna. To this day, over eight decades on, bell buttons like the one in the story can be found for a small sum in electronic junk shops not only in Austria, but all over our happily resurrected Central Europe.
Behind the folding screen, behind its oilcloth and its whitewashed willow wood, lies a man, his grizzled head an arm’s length below the button. On the night when the events of this anecdote take place, he is a man of over sixty, already well known and soon to be famous, a man who today, long after his death, continues to reap acclaim – and on this balmy spring evening in Vienna, he is a man who has come straight from the operating theatre. He wheezes softly. He knows that later in the night, after three or four hours of rest, he is to be released into the care of his family.
It neither concerns nor offends him that he has been temporarily deposited here – that he is lying in a lumber room. He knows from his own work what hospitals are like and that privileges tend to count for little when something has to be dealt with quickly and efficiently. His being deposited here is a straightforward consequence of the ambulatory surgery. He himself had insisted on being taken home by automobile as soon after the operation as possible.
He wheezes, coughs, and swallows fresh blood. It is blood from the wound that has been cut deep in his mouth. A professor he is on friendly terms with, a man he trusts, an old hand in general surgery, has removed a growth caused by the cigars he is so fond of. The growth extended further into the tissue than was at first supposed. It also seems that this master of the scalpel had rather misjudged the effects of cutting so deep. Pitifully weakened by the loss of blood and close to fainting, the abandoned patient is beginning to grasp the gravity of his situation. For he himself is a doctor, a professor.
The bleeding is life threatening. In a true act of will, in a last burst of strength, the patient struggles to lift his right arm, works his fumbling fingers up the glossy wall, finds the bell, presses its Bakelite button. But the bell push is dead. The tin tongue that should make the connection between the wires had broken in two the day before, when another man deposited here had raised the alarm. That other man, a stranger to us, was attended to within seconds, but our major emergency case lies silent as his lifeblood sloshes perilously far up his pharynx. His throat, too weak to cry out, can only just swallow fast enough. It’s choke or bleed to death. In vain, the dizzy Herr Doctor, the one-time medic who long ago defected to pursue a science of his own invention, tries to sit up, then, also in vain, to turn around. The requisite muscles are already beginning to fail. Only his eyes still wander obediently over the dark ceiling and down to the screen – where they see Jodi peering round the edge of the oilcloth.
Jodi is dribbling. As always, Jodi is dribbling. Little Jodi dribbles – he can’t help himself! – and not just a little. Jodi scratches his large, meticulously shaven head, because he likes to. He lets the thread of saliva grow longer and looks and listens. Blood gurgles on the roof of the doctor’s mouth. Who knows what Jodi is thinking. Alas, all we can hope to know today is this: The small-statured, narrow-chested Jodi has long been intimate with the ins and outs of modern science and its dealings with the body. Never, in all the thirty-three years of his life has he left the Vienna General Hospital. The nuns took the infant Jodi into their care when his mother, an exceptionally graceful Hungarian tightrope ballerina – hardly bigger than her colleagues from the kingdom of Lilliput – went and died on him in the throes of birth.
The blood-swallowing professor, our gagging Viennese psychologist, recognises at once, of course, what kind of dwarfism he is up against. He thinks of imbecility. He thinks ‘cretin’. He thinks, under a kind of compulsion, of hopeless idiocy and stupid inarticulate babbling – and at the same time he thinks of the progress of the little mind that here in this lumber room is holding its breath in sync with him, as if about to crack a nightmarishly exquisite joke.
The lumber room is Jodi’s domain. Here, behind one of the rolling screens, in amongst a jumble of odds and ends, the dainty-limbed, pig-headed Jodi has had his little bed ever since he learnt to dress and undress himself. Here is the chair where Jodi hangs his shirt and trousers. Here, in its prettily curved stand, is the bowl of water where he washes the snot from his little nose and the dribble from his mute lips every evening. Here, after helping up and down the corridor – eager as a child and tirelessly busy – with the cleaning and tidying and bed making, Jodi slumbers and dreams his dreams.
Who knows what Jodi is thinking. The old man’s thoughts go round and round in breathless circles, and he thinks again of the broken bell and the particular mockery its faultiness is making of him and his young science, when suddenly Jodi’s left hand works its way into sweat-plastered hair, Jodi’s right hand slips under an arm and grasps a wet shirt and – the spit spraying from Jodi’s mouth! – all ten of Jodi’s fingers pull head and torso into a lateral position. Saved, the perceiver, the interpreter, the founder of an enduring cult retches blood over the edge of the bed onto the linoleum of the lumber room. It splashes! It splashes so gloriously loudly that we all hear it.
And then our Jodi rushes off. He sprints straight to fetch help, the foam flying from his mouth in a lovely high arc as he runs. Jodi dashes down the corridor; any second now he will tug the sleeve of one of his white-helmeted nurses and, because she won’t understand what he’s trying to tell her, he will drag her into the lumber room by her stiffly starched sleeve and stand with her in the sticky puddle in front of the man who is now happily and unconcernedly unconscious.
Herr Doctor Sigmund Freud was rescued. He had several subsequent operations on his palate and jaw, and lived – with various prostheses in his mouth and throat, and sucking on endless cigars – for another decade and a half, during which time his works were able to thrive and prosper. As long as those works sow truth, our little Jodi will run, Jodi’s crooked little legs will totter, the smooth-worn leather of his soles will drum on stone and parquet and linoleum – and this long but no longer, Jodi’s thread of saliva will leave its bubbly trail over every sentence of this dwarf’s tale.
*This story is taken from: Die Logik der Süße by Georg Klein. Copyright © 2010 Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, Reinbek bei Hamburg.