The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue

from Demian

a new translation from the German by Damion Searls
Out now from Penguin

To tell my story, I have to start very far back. In fact, if I could, I would have to go back much farther—to the very first years of my childhood, or even farther back, into the distant reaches of my origins.

When writers write novels, they tend to act as though they were God, who can see and understand anything and everything about a person’s story, and they present that story as though God himself were telling it, without all the veils of disguise that are the fundamental nature of life. I cannot do that—any more than these writers can. But my story is more important to me than some writer’s story is to him, because it is my own, and it is the story of a human being—not an imagined, possible, ideal, or in some other way nonexistent person but a real, unique, living, breathing one. Now we know much less today than ever before about what that is—a real living person—and as a result, people, each of them a precious, unique creation of nature, are being shot dead in enormous numbers. If each one of us were no more than a single human being, if the world really could completely be rid of us with a single bullet, then there would be no sense in telling stories anymore. But every person is more than himself: he is also the unique, entirely particular, and in every case meaningful and remarkable point of intersection where the phenomena of the world overlap, only once and never again in just this way. That is why everyone’s story is important, eternal, and godlike—why everyone, as long as and in whatever fashion he lives and fulfills the will of Nature, is wonderful and worthy of all our attention. Everyone is the spirit made flesh; in everyone, creation takes form and suffers; in everyone, a Redeemer dies on the cross.

Few know what a person is these days. But many feel it, and can die more easily, the way I will die more easily once I have written out this story to the end.

I cannot claim to possess any knowledge. I was a seeker, and I still am. But I no longer look to the stars, or seek in books; I have started to hear the lessons roared and murmured by the blood in my body. My story is not a happy one, not pleasing and harmonious like something invented—it reeks of meaninglessness and confusion, of insanity and dream, like the life of anyone who no longer wants to lie to himself.

Everyone’s life is a way into himself, or the attempt at a way, the hint of a path. No one is utterly and completely himself; everyone strives to become himself, however he can, this one dully, that one more brightly. We all carry traces of our birth with us to the end—the slime and eggshell of a primeval past. Some of us never become human, but stay a frog, a lizard, an ant. Some are human from the waist up and fish from the waist down. But everyone is a stab at humanity, a roll of Nature’s dice. We all share a common origin, our mothers; we all come out of the same gaping maw; but every one of us struggles—an attempt, a throw from the depths—to reach our own individual goal. We can understand each other, but each of us can truly grasp and interpret only himself.



Chapter One

Two Worlds


I will begin my story with something that happened to me when I was ten years old and going to the Latin school in our small town.

All sorts of sights and smells come back to me, rise up from within me, to touch me with an ache and a blissful shudder—dark streets and bright streets, houses and towers, clocks striking the hour, people’s faces, rooms full of warm and homey comforts, rooms full of secrets and of a deep fear of ghosts. There is the scent of warm, close spaces, of rabbits and serving girls, of household remedies and dried fruit. Two worlds intermingled there; from two opposite poles came the day and the night.

One world was the parental home, but actually it was even narrower—in truth it contained only my parents. On the whole I knew this world well: its name was Mother and Father, it was love and strict rules, education and example. What belonged to this world was gently shining radiance, clarity, and cleanliness; quiet, friendly conversation; washed hands, clean clothes, good behavior. Morning hymns were sung there, Christmas celebrated. In that world of straight lines and paths leading into the future, there was duty and obligation, bad conscience and confessions, forgiveness and good resolutions, love and respect, wisdom and Biblical proverbs. You had to keep to this world for your life to be clear and pure, beautiful and harmonious.

Meanwhile the other world was there already, right in the middle of our house and completely different: it smelled different, spoke differently, promised and demanded entirely different things. There were serving girls and traveling tradesmen in this second world, ghost stories and scandalous rumors, a richly colored flood of monstrous, tempting, frightening, mysterious things like the slaughterhouse and the prison, alcoholics and bickering women, cows giving birth and horses with broken legs, and stories of burglaries, murders, suicides. All these beautiful, horrible, wild, cruel things existed all around—in the next street over, in the house next door. Policemen and beggars ran around, drunks beat their wives, gaggles of girls poured out of the factories after work, old women could cast a spell on you and make you sick, bands of robbers were living in the forest, arsonists were being caught by the country police—this powerful second world welled up everywhere, its scent was everywhere, except in our rooms where Mother and Father were. And that was good. How wonderful that here, in our home, there was peace and calm and order, duty and conscience, mercy and love—and how wonderful that all the rest existed too, everything loud and shrill, dark and violent, from which you could still escape to Mother in a single bound.

The strangest thing was how these two worlds touched each other, how close to each other they were! For example, our maid Lina, when she sat with her freshly washed hands resting on the apron she had smoothed down on her lap, praying by the door of our living room and joining her bright voice to our song, belonged completely to Mother and Father, to we who lived in the world of light and truth. The next moment, in the kitchen or the barn, when she told me the story of the little man with no head, or fought with the neighbor women at the butcher shop, she was someone else and a part of the other world, and was shrouded in mystery. That’s how it was with everyone, most of all myself. Of course I was part of the bright and true world—I was my parents’ child—but wherever I turned my eye or ear the other world was always there, and I lived in the other world too, even though it often felt like I didn’t belong there, in the spooky realm of fear and bad conscience. At times I even liked the forbidden world best, and often my return to the light, as good and necessary as it might be, felt almost like a turn toward something less beautiful, less exciting, more desolate and dreary. Sometimes I knew that my goal in life was to turn into someone like my father and my mother: so bright and pure, so superior and harmonious. But it was a long, long way to that goal, and along that way you had to sit quietly in school and study and take tests and pass exams, and all the while the path ran right past the other, darker world, or through it, and it was by no means impossible to stay in it, drown in it. There were stories of the lost boys, prodigal sons, that this had happened to, and I read them avidly. The return to the father, to what was good, was always such a magnificent liberation in these stories—I was perfectly aware that this was the only right and good and desirable outcome; but still, the part of the story that took place among the lost and evil souls was always much more exciting, and, if it were only possible to admit it, it was sometimes actually rather a shame that the lost soul had to repent and be found again. But that was something you didn’t say, and didn’t even think. It was just there, somehow, as a hunch or a possibility buried deep, deep down in your feelings. When I imagined the devil, I could see him perfectly well on the street down the hill, in disguise or not, or at the fair, or in a pub—but never with us at home.

My sisters were also part of the brightly lit world. I often felt they were naturally more like Father and Mother than I was—more well-behaved, more perfect, better. They had their faults, and bad habits, but ones that never ran very deep, I felt. Not like with me, where any contact with evil was so painful and difficult, and where the dark world seemed to lie so much closer. Sisters, like parents, were there to take care of and respect, and whenever you fought with them it was always you that your conscience said was the bad one, the cause of the problem, the one who had to ask for forgiveness, because to offend your sisters was to offend your parents, the benevolent authority figures. There were secrets I could share with the worst delinquents from the street much more readily than with my sisters. On good days, when the air was bright and my conscience was clear, I was often delighted to play with my sisters, to behave well with them and see myself in a good, noble light. That was what life must be like as an angel! That was the highest state we could imagine, and we thought how sweet and wonderful it would be to be angels, wrapped in a bright clear sound and smell like Christmas and happiness. But oh, how rare such good days were! Many times, even when playing a harmless, permitted game, I played with too much passion and force for my sisters, which led to accidents, or fights, and then, when anger and rage came over me, I was horrible and said and did things whose depravity I could feel, deep and burning, even while I was doing and saying them. Then came dark and bitter hours of regret and remorse, and then the painful moment when I asked for forgiveness, and then again a beam of bright light—quiet, grateful, harmonious happiness for a few more hours, or minutes.

I was a student in the Latin school, with the mayor’s son and head forester’s son in my class. They would come over to my house sometimes; they were wild boys, yet they belonged to the good, unforbidden world. But I also did things with neighborhood boys from the public school, boys we otherwise looked down on. It is with one of them that my story begins.

One afternoon that we had off from school—I was a little over ten years old—I was exploring with two boys from the neighborhood. Then a bigger kid came up to us, a tailor’s son, rowdy and strong, thirteen years old, from the public school. His father was a drinker and the whole family had a bad reputation. I knew a lot about him, this Franz Kromer; I was afraid of him, and I was not happy that he was joining us. He already affected the behavior of a grown man, imitating how the factory workers walked and talked. We followed his lead and climbed down to the riverbank next to the bridge, hiding away from the world under the first arch. The narrow strip of shore between the bridge’s bulging wall and the sluggishly flowing river was covered with nothing but garbage, rubble, and junk—tangled heaps of rusted steel wire and the like. Every so often you could find something usable there; Franz Kromer made us search with him and show him whatever we found. Then he would either put it in his pocket or throw it far out into the river. He told us to keep an eye out for anything made of lead, brass, or tin, which he always kept; he pocketed an old ivory comb too. I felt uneasy around him, not because I knew that my father would have forbidden what we were doing, but because I was afraid of Franz himself. Still, I was glad he accepted me and treated me like the others. He ordered and we obeyed, as though out of long-standing custom, even though this was the first time I was with him.

Eventually, we sat down on the ground. Franz spat into the water, looking like a man; he spat between a gap in his teeth and could hit anything he wanted. A conversation started, and the boys started bragging and complimenting themselves on all kinds of schoolboy heroics and pranks they had pulled off. I kept quiet, but I was afraid I would stand out for just that reason and draw Kromer’s anger. My two companions had gone over to his side from the start and kept their distance from me; I was the outsider, and I felt that my clothes and my whole way of acting was a kind of challenge to them. As a student at the Latin school and the son of a well-to-do father, there was no way Franz could possibly like me, and I felt sure that the other two would abandon me without a second thought, if it ever came to that.

Finally, out of sheer fear, I began to talk too. I made up a grand story about robbers, with myself as the hero. One night, I said, in an orchard by the corner mill, I had stolen a whole sack of apples with a friend, and no ordinary apples either, but the best kinds, Reine de Reinettes and Golden Pearmains. I sought refuge from my dangerous situation in this story; making up and telling stories came quickly and easily to me. Then, so I wouldn’t have to stop so soon and possibly end up in an even worse predicament, I gave my talent full rein: One of us, I said, had had to keep watch the whole time while the other was in the tree tossing down the apples, and in the end the sack had gotten so heavy that we had to leave half the apples behind, but half an hour later we came back for the rest.

When I was done I expected them to show their approval. I had warmed up by the end and was intoxicated with my own imagination. The two younger boys said nothing, waiting to see how Franz Kromer reacted, while he just gave me a penetrating look with half-squinting eyes then asked me in a threatening voice: “Is that true?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Really and truly?”

“Yes, really and truly,” I insisted, while on the inside I was choking with fear.

“Would you swear to it?”

I was terrified, but I instantly said Yes.

“Say: By God and everything holy.”

I said: “By God and everything holy.”

“All right then,” he said, and he turned away.

I thought everything had turned out all right, and I was glad when, before long, he stood up and started back. When we were on the bridge I said timidly that I had to go home now.

“There’s no hurry,” Fritz said with a laugh. “We’re going the same way.”

He slowly strolled on, and I didn’t dare to run off, but he really was walking the way to our house. When we got there, when I saw our front door and its thick brass handle, the sun in the windows and the curtains in my mother’s room, I breathed a deep sigh. Back home! Oh, the good, the blessed return to our house, to brightness and peace!

I quickly opened the door and slipped inside and was about to shut the door behind me when Franz Kromer pushed his way in. In the cool, dim, tiled hallway, with no light except what came in from the courtyard, he stood in front of me, grabbed my arm, and said softly: “Not so fast, you!”

I looked at him, frightened. His grip on my arm was like iron. I tried to imagine what he might have in mind, whether he wanted to hurt me. If I screamed now, I thought, a loud strong scream, would someone from up there get down here quickly enough to save me? But I didn’t do it.

“What?” I asked. “What do you want?”

“Nothing much. I just need to ask you something. The others don’t need to hear it.”

“Well? What do you want me to tell you? I have to go upstairs, you know.”

“You do know who the fruit orchard next to the mill belongs to, don’t you?” Franz said quietly.

“No, I don’t know. The miller, I think.”

Franz had put his arm around me, and he pulled me right up to his face so that I had to look into it from close up. His eyes were evil, he smiled a nasty smile, and his face was full of cruelty and power.

“Well, my boy, I can tell you whose orchard it is. I’ve known for a long time that someone had stolen his apples, and I also know that he said he would give two marks to anyone who told him who’d taken them.”

“My God!” I cried. “You won’t tell him, will you?”

I could see there was no point appealing to his sense of honor. He was from the other world: for him, betrayal was not a crime. I felt this perfectly clearly. In such matters, people from the “other” world were not like us.

“Not tell him?” Kromer laughed. “Who do you think I am, my friend, some kind of counterfeiter who can make a two-mark coin for myself? I’m poor. I don’t have a rich father like you. If I can get two marks I have to do it. Maybe he’ll even give me more.”

He suddenly let go of me. Our front hall no longer smelled of peace and security—the world was collapsing around me. He would report me, I was a criminal, they would tell my father, maybe even the police would come. All the terrors of chaos threatened me; everything ugly and dangerous had been called up against me. The fact that I hadn’t actually stolen any apples meant absolutely nothing—I had sworn the opposite. My God, my God!

Tears came to my eyes. I felt I had to buy my way free, and I desperately searched through my pockets. No apple, no pocket knife—nothing there. Then I thought of my watch. It was an old silver watch that didn’t work; I wore it “just because.” It had been our grandmother’s. I quickly pulled it out of my pocket.

“Kromer, listen,” I said, “you can’t turn me in, that wouldn’t be right. I’ll give you my watch here, look, I’m sorry but I don’t have anything else. You can have it, it’s made of silver, the works are good, there’s just a little something wrong with it, it needs to be fixed.”

He smiled and took the watch in his large hand. I looked at that hand and could feel how savage and deeply hostile to me it was, how it was reaching out for my life and my peace.

“It’s silver . . .” I said timidly.

“What do I care about your silver or your old watch!” he said contemptuously. “Go fix it yourself!”

“But Franz,” I cried, trembling with fear that he might run off. “Wait a minute! Take the watch! It’s really made of silver, really and truly. And I don’t have anything else.”

He looked at me coolly, scornfully.

“Well then, you know who I’m going to have to pay a visit to. Or I could tell the police, I know the sergeant.”

He turned to go. I held him back by the sleeve. He couldn’t! I would rather die than face everything that would happen if he left like that.

“Franz!” I begged, my voice hoarse. “Don’t do anything silly! You’re just playing, right?”

“Sure, I’m playing, but this game might get expensive for you.”

“Tell me what I can do, Franz! I’ll do anything!”

He sized me up with his squinty eyes and laughed again.

“Don’t be so stupid!” he said in a fake-cheery voice. “You know as well as I do. I could get two marks for telling, and I’m not a rich man, I can’t just throw away two marks. You know that. But you’re rich, you even have a watch. So you just need to give me the two marks, then everything will be fine.”

I could understand the logic, but two marks! That was as unattainable for me as ten, or a hundred, or a thousand. I didn’t have any money. There was a piggy bank that my mother kept, with a couple five- or ten-cent coins inside from visiting uncles. Other than that I had nothing. I had not started to get an allowance at that age.

“I don’t have anything,” I said sadly. “No money at all. I’ll give you everything else I have. A cowboy and Indian book, and soldiers, and a compass—I’ll go get them.”

Kromer just sneered with his arrogant, wicked mouth and spit on the floor.

“Enough with your babbling!” he ordered. “You can keep your junk. A compass! Don’t make me mad, you hear? I want the money!”

“But I don’t have any, I never get any money. There’s nothing I can do about it!”

“Well tomorrow you’ll bring me the two marks. I’ll wait for you after school down by the market. Period. If you don’t bring the money, you’ll see what happens!”

“Yes, but, where can I get it? Good God, if I don’t have any—”

“That’s your problem. There’s money in your house. So, tomorrow after school. And I’m telling you, if you don’t have it. . . .” He looked me in the eye with a terrible look, spat one more time, and was gone like a shadow.

I could not go upstairs. My life was ruined. I thought about running away and never coming back, or drowning myself, but only vaguely. I sat down in the dark on the bottom step of our stairway, crawled deep inside myself, and gave myself over to my misery. Lina found me crying there when she came downstairs with the basket to fetch wood.

I asked her not to say anything to the others and went upstairs. On the rack next to the glass doors hung my father’s hat and my mother’s parasol—domestic tenderness streamed forth from these things and my heart went out to them, pleading and grateful, like the prodigal son when he first saw and smelled his old rooms back home. But none of it was mine anymore, it was all the clear, bright Father-and-Mother-world while I had sunk deeply and guiltily into the other flood, tangled in sin and adventure and threatened by enemies, with no hope of anything but danger, fear, and shame. The hat and the parasol, the good old sandstone floor, the large picture above the hall closet, the voice of my older sister coming from the living room—they were all dearer, all more precious and delicate than ever, but no longer any consolation or safely in my possession, just accusations and reproaches. None of it was mine anymore—I no longer had any part in its quiet good cheer. I had dirt on my feet that I couldn’t scrape off on the mat; I carried with me a shadow that the world of home knew nothing about. I had already had so many secrets, been so often scared, but compared to what I had brought home with me today, those were all just fun and games. Now destiny was pursuing me; hands were reaching out for me that my mother could not protect me from, she must never even find out about them. Whether my crime was stealing or lying (had I not sworn a false oath by God and everything holy?)—that made no difference. My sin was not this or that in particular, my sin was that I had reached out my hand to the devil. Why had I gone with him? Why had I listened to Kromer more obediently than I did to my father? Why had I lied and made up that story about stealing the apples? Boasted about a crime as though it were a great accomplishment? Now I was hand in hand with the devil; now the enemy was right behind me.

For a moment I wasn’t afraid of what would happen tomorrow, but mainly of the terrible certain truth that my path now led farther and farther down into darkness. I could sense with perfect clarity that my misdeed would necessarily give rise to new misdeeds, and that showing my face to my sisters, hugging and kissing my parents, would now be a lie—I now carried within me a destiny and a secret that I had to keep hidden.

I felt a burst of hope and trust for a moment when I saw my father’s hat. I would tell him everything, accept his judgment and his punishment, and make him my confessor and savior. It would just be a penance like the many I had been through before—a hard, bitter hour and a hard, regretful plea for forgiveness.

How sweet that sounded! How beautiful and tempting it was! But it was no use. I knew I wouldn’t do it. I knew I now had a secret, a guilt, that I had to expiate alone. Maybe this was the very moment I was at the crossroads: maybe it was from now on that I would belong on the side of the bad, for ever and ever, share secrets with evil people, depend on them, obey them, and have no choice but to be one of them. I had pretended to be a man and a hero, and now I had to bear the consequences.

I was glad my father was angry about my wet shoes when I walked in the room. It was a distraction; he didn’t notice anything worse, and it was easy enough to accept a criticism that I secretly transferred onto other offenses. With this, the flicker of a strange new feeling rose up within me, wicked, barbed, and stinging: I felt superior to my father! I felt, for a moment, a kind of contempt for his ignorance of the truth, and his scolding me about my wet shoes seemed petty. “If you only knew!” I thought, and I felt like a criminal being questioned about a stolen bread roll when actually he had committed a murder. It was an ugly, repellent feeling, but it was strong, and there was something deeply exciting about it. And it created a tighter bond between myself and my guilty secret than anything else had. Maybe Kromer has already gone to the police and reported me, I thought, maybe the storm clouds are already gathering over my head while here they’re treating me like a little child!

That moment was the most important one of the whole experience thus far, with the most lasting effects. The sacred inviolability of my father was torn for the first time; it was the first crack in the pillars on which my young life rested and which everyone has to pull down before he can become himself. The essential inner line of our destiny consists of these invisible experiences. Such cracks and tears heal, they grow back together and are forgotten, but down in our most secret recesses, they continue to live and bleed.

I was immediately terrified of this new feeling. I wanted to throw myself at my father’s feet at once and kiss them, beg his pardon. But there is no way to apologize for anything truly fundamental, and a child feels this and knows it as deeply and inwardly as any wise man.

I felt a need to think about my situation and come up with a course of action for the next day. But I couldn’t do it. All I did that whole evening was slowly get used to the changed atmosphere of our living room. The clock on the wall, the table, the Bible and the mirror, the bookshelf and the pictures on the wall—they all bade me farewell; I had to look on, my heart growing cold within me, as my world—my beloved, happy life—detached itself from me and turned into the past. I could not help but feel myself putting down roots that from now on would hold me fast in the foreign land of darkness outside. For the first time I tasted death, and death tastes bitter because it is birth: anxiety and terror in the face of frightening renewal.

How happy I was to finally lie down in my bed again! Beforehand, as one last purgatory, came evening prayers, and the hymn we sang that night was one of my favorites. But no, I did not sing along—every note was gall and wormwood for me. When my father spoke the blessing I did not pray with the others, and when he ended with “ . . . be with us all!” a kind of convulsion ripped me out of the family circle. The grace of God was with them all, but no longer with me. I left the room feeling cold and deeply exhausted.

In bed, after I had laid there a while tenderly wrapped in warmth and comfort, my heart once again strayed back to my fear, fluttering anxiously around what had happened. My mother had said goodnight to me as always; her footsteps still echoed in the room, and the glow from her candle still shone in the crack beneath the door. Now, I thought, she’ll come back now—she has felt something, she will give me a kiss and ask me about it, full of love and forgiveness, and I’ll be able to cry, the lump in my throat will melt away, and I’ll hug her and tell her and everything will be good again, then I’ll be saved! When the crack beneath the door grew dark again, I listened for a while longer and thought that it had to happen, it had to.

Then I returned to the situation at hand and faced my enemy straight on. I could see him clearly: he had a squinty eye, his mouth was mocking me with a rough laugh, and while I looked at him and a sense of inescapable fate gnawed away at me, he grew bigger and uglier, and his evil eye flashed like the devil’s. He was right next to me until I fell asleep, but then I did not dream about him or anything that had happened that day. Instead I dreamed we were sailing in a boat, my parents and sisters and me, surrounded by the peace and radiance of a holiday. I woke up in the middle of the night and could still feel the aftertaste of that blessedness—could still see my sisters’ white summer dresses shimmering in the sun—and I fell from that paradise back into what was. Again I was standing face to face with the enemy and his evil eye.

The next morning, when my mother hurried into the room, yelling that it was late and why was I still lying in bed, I looked sick, and when she asked me if something was wrong, I threw up.

That seemed to be a victory of sorts. I always loved it when I was a little sick and could spend the whole morning lying in bed with a cup of chamomile tea, listening to Mother straightening up in the next room and Lina talking to the butcher out in the front hall. A morning home from school had something magical about it, like a fairy tale; the sun would come playfully into the room, and it was not the same sun as the one the green shades in the schoolroom were pulled down to block. But today even this felt off, struck a wrong note.

Yes, if only I died! But I was just a little sick, as I had been many times before; none of my problems had been solved. Being sick kept me out of school but in no way kept me from Kromer, who would be waiting for me in the market square at eleven o’clock. Mother’s kindness did not console me this time either: it was a painful burden. I quickly pretended to fall back asleep and thought about what to do. Nothing made any difference—I had to be at the market square at eleven. So I quietly got up at ten and said I was feeling better. As usual, Mother told me I had to either go back to bed or go to school for the afternoon. I said I wanted to go to school. I had come up with a plan.

I couldn’t meet Kromer without any money at all. I had to get the little stash that belonged to me. There was not enough money in the box, I knew that, but at least there was something, and I had a sense that anything would be better than nothing—Kromer had to be placated in some way.

I felt bad when I crept into Mother’s room in my socks and took the money box out of her desk, but not as bad as I had felt the day before. The pounding of my heart made me feel like I was about to throw up again, and it was no better when I realized, at the bottom of stairs, that the box was locked. It was easy to break it open—there was only a thin tin grate to tear off—but it hurt to break it: only then, by doing that, had I committed robbery. Before that I had snuck a treat here and there, candy or fruit, but this was theft, even if it was my own money. I felt I had now taken another step closer to Kromer and his world, and how quick and easy it was to go downward, step by step. I suddenly felt defiant: Let the devil take me! There’s no turning back now. I nervously counted out the money—the box had sounded so full, but now, in my hand, there was so pathetically little. Sixty-five cents. I hid the box in the downstairs hallway, held the money in my fist, and left the house, differently from every other time I had gone out the front gate. Upstairs I thought I heard someone calling after me; I ran away.

There was still a lot of time. I took a long way, full of detours, slipping through the streets of a changed city under clouds I had never seen before, past houses that were looking at me, people who were suspicious of me. I suddenly remembered that a school friend of mine had once found a thaler coin at the cattle market; I wanted to pray for a miracle from God, that He would let me make such a find, but I knew I no longer had any right to pray. And even if I had found the money, my money box would still be broken.

Franz Kromer saw me from a distance but came up slowly, not seeming to pay any attention to me. When he was close he made a gesture ordering me to follow him and walked on calmly, without turning around even once, down Strohgasse and across the footbridge to a construction site at the edge of town. No one was working there; the walls were bare, without doors or windows in the frames yet. Kromer looked around and then stepped through an empty doorway. I followed him. He walked behind a wall, waved me over, and stretched out his hand.

“D’you have it?” he asked coolly.

I pulled my clenched hand out of my pocket and shook the money into his palm. He had counted it even before the last five-cent piece had stopped clinking.

“That’s sixty-five cents,” he said, and he looked at me.

“Yes,” I said timidly. “That’s all I have. I know it’s too little, but it’s everything. I don’t have any more.”

“I thought you were smarter than that,” he scolded me almost gently. “Men of honor do things the right way. I’m not going to let you give me anything that isn’t the right amount, you know that. Here, keep your nickels! The other guy—you know who I mean—he won’t try to knock down the price. He’ll pay.”

“But I don’t have any more! That was everything in my money box!”

“That’s your business. But I don’t want to make you unhappy. You still owe me one mark and thirty-five cents. When am I gonna get it?”

“Oh, you’ll get it, Kromer, definitely! I don’t know right now—maybe I’ll get more soon, tomorrow or the day after. I can’t tell my father, you understand.”

“I don’t care about that. I’m not the kind of person who wants to hurt you. I could have my money before lunchtime, you know, and I’m poor. You have nice clothes on, you get better food to eat for lunch than I do, but I won’t say anything. I’ll wait a little while. The day after tomorrow I’ll whistle for you, in the afternoon, and you can take care of it then. You know my whistle?”

He whistled for me. I had heard it many times before.

“Yes,” I said, “I know it.”

He walked off as though we didn’t know each other. It was just business between us, nothing more.

I think if I suddenly heard Kromer’s whistle again, even now, so many years later, it would scare me. From that day on I heard it often—it felt like I heard it constantly. There was no place, no game, no task, no thought that his whistle didn’t force its way into, robbing me of my independence. That whistle was now my destiny. Many a time, on mild and colorful autumn afternoons, I would be in our little flower garden, which I loved, and a strange urge would make me return to the boy’s games of an earlier time in my life: I was acting the part, you might say, of a younger boy, still good and free, sheltered and innocent. But then Kromer’s whistle, never entirely unexpected but still always a terrible shock, would come bursting in from somewhere or other, to cut the threads, destroy the games I was imagining. Then I had to go and follow my tormentor to nasty, ugly places, give him a full report, and listen to him warn me to hurry up with the money. The whole thing lasted maybe a few weeks, but to me it seemed like years, an eternity. I almost never had money to give him, at most a five- or ten-cent piece I had stolen from the kitchen table when Lina had left it there. Every time, Kromer berated and cursed me, showering me with contempt: I was the one betraying him, keeping from him what was rightfully his; I was the one robbing him, making him unhappy! Rarely in my life have I suffered so deeply, and never have I felt greater hopelessness, greater dependence.

I had refilled the money box with toy coins and put it back; no one asked about it. But that could come crashing down on my head at any moment too. There were many times I was even more afraid of my mother’s soft footsteps than of Kromer’s brutal whistle—might she not be coming to ask about the money box?

When I had showed up too many times without money for my devil, he started to torture and use me in other ways. I had to work for him. He had to deliver packages for his father, so I had to deliver packages for him. Or else he gave me a difficult task to do, like hop on one leg for ten minutes straight or stick a note on a passerby’s jacket. I would continue and multiply these torments myself, in nightmares, lying in a pool of sweat.

For a while it made me sick. I threw up often, had chills by day and sweats and fevers by night. My mother could tell something was wrong and took tender care of me, which only made it worse, since I couldn’t trust and confide in her in return.

One night, after I’d gone to bed, she brought me a little piece of chocolate. It was an echo of years past, when I would often get a comforting little treat at night when I had been good. This time, when she stood there and held out a piece of chocolate for me, I was so sore of heart that I could only shake my head. She asked what was wrong and stroked my hair. I could only blurt out: “No! No! I don’t want anything.” She put the chocolate down on the nightstand and left. The next day, when she tried to ask me about what had happened, I pretended not to know what she meant. Another time she took me to the doctor; he examined me and prescribed washing in cold water every morning.

My condition during that period was like a kind of insanity. In the middle of the well-ordered, harmonious peace of our house, I lived shy and tormented like a ghost; I did not share in the others’ lives and could rarely forget my situation for even an hour. My father was often annoyed, and whenever he confronted me I was cold and reserved back.


Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse was born in the Black Forest in 1877. After years of surviving at odd jobs, he published his first novel, Peter Camenzind, in 1904. In 1911, he made a seminal trip to India, where his parents had been missionaries. His ensuing interest in ancient Eastern cultures, and his years of psychoanalysis under Carl Jung’s assistant J.B. Lang, led to his novel Siddhartha (1922). Hesse believed in the need for each human to realize a spiritual self-realization, or Jungian “individuation.”

A pacifist through both world wars, Hesse wrote angrily and poignantly against German militarism and anti-Semitism, and was labeled a traitor.  His breakthrough novel was Demian (1919), which presented the personal division between bourgeois decorum and sensual freedom, a theme that was more conclusively addressed in Der Steppenwolf (1927). After two unhappy marriages, in 1931 he married Ninon Dolbin, who was Jewish, and began to work on Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game). After receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946, Hesse published no more novels, but between 1945 and his death in 1962 he wrote some 50 poems, among them the three that Strauss set to music. He died in his sleep of cerebral hemorrhage at the age of eighty-five.

damion searls writes fiction, criticism, and biography, has translated many classic twentieth-century authors, including Proust, Rilke, Robert Walser, Nescio, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Thomas Bernhard. His translation of Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key was a New York Times Notable Book and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Searls received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2012; he lives in Brooklyn, New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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