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Klaus Merz
translation by Tess Lewis

 

The Argentine

 

During his worst night on the high seas, Grandfather bit into the picture of his beloved, the one he had left behind in Europe, and this soothed him. On the day of his departure, she had stood as if turned to stone near the train track, while he thundered by his parents’ house on the early train, letting his handkerchief flutter in the wind. The morning after the stormy night on the deck of the old Virginia, he crawled on all fours to the railing. There lay the sea, as if nothing had happened. He vomited once more and breathed deeply.

The crossing on the cargo ship quickly taught him to let happen whatever happened: wind, weather, the captain’s moods, the stoker’s curses, the steely stomach cramps on stormy seas. There was a taste of rust in his mouth and he did not let anything show. A sailor lost two fingers of his right hand trying to tie up cargo that had broken loose. Three whales followed the ship, three fountains.

When he landed in Buenos Aires after weeks on the ocean, the ground rolled under his feet for several days. The sailor with the bad hand was carried ashore in a fever. Grandfather carried his small inheritance in a cloth bag under his clothes. But Amelia had become unrecognizable on the photograph. I felt your bites deep in my heart, every one, she wrote in a letter that was never to reach the New World.

In the same envelope, there was also a new picture of Amelie, one she had cut from a group photograph of her Confirmation class since she had none of herself alone. Because she stood on the edge of the small group she did not need to seriously wound any of them with the sharp razor blade Father had left in the kitchen. She would have preferred a new picture, but she was in a hurry to send this letter and a photographer was too expensive. Anyhow, she had already cut off her braids for her Confirmation and besides, in the four years since then, her face had not grown to look much older. She had carefully verified this in the bathroom mirror and colored her lips in the picture light red with a colored pencil she had moistened on her tongue.

Two years later, Grandfather turned his horse around and returned to Buenos Aries from the pampas. He sold his saddle, spurs, bolas, and bridle to a newcomer from Lower Austria. He wrapped the long knife that was part of every gaucho’s gear in newspaper, and brought it home in his luggage. It later disappeared in Grandmother’s cutlery drawer. On the front page of the crumpled paper, which the traveler flattened out with the palm of his hand, was a picture of a radiant pair, Juan Domingo Perón, in uniform, with his young wife, Eva. They stood there as if in a film.

Twice as old now, we had gathered again for the first time since completing school. The head pupil already had fake hair. We all remembered the sight of Lena’s grandfather well—a quiet man with a hat, who walked in a leisurely pace up and down the school courtyard during the long recesses while the classrooms were being aired. Now and then he kicked a stray ball back to his older students, separated two heated roughnecks, helped a heavy student onto the high bar or, when necessary, had a serious word and rejoined his two waiting colleagues from the middle and lower levels. Together they continued their walk. Lena told us that her grandfather had been buried the week before. He was the first person close to her to have died; we were still young.

2

Not long after the Second World War, and as soon as he had completed his primary school teaching certificate and his subsequent military training at one of the bases of the stalwart Swiss army, Grandfather steamed off from Southampton to South America in order to become a gaucho—to get away from the old world that had run aground. In search of a new, more human corner of the earth. Riding himself raw on his own saddle appealed to him far more as a way of life, Lena explained, than his professors’ worn trouser seats, even though he remained a passionate reader to the end.

The young man had already sucked in, like fresh air, accounts of Fridtjof Nansen who skied across Greenland, drifted through the Arctic Sea for three years on the “Fram”, and finally was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work as a League of Nations High Commissioner. He also devoured accounts of Roald Admundsen’s daring adventures, even though Admundsen, who had subdued the Antarctic night and won the race with Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole, had never appealed to him very much. Scott’s journals of fighting and dying in the eternal snow, on the other hand, went straight to his marrow, like red-hot iron. And Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” accompanied him into his own shadow realm. But Grandfather was also very taken with the thought and adventures of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and his unparalleled dedication to teaching orphans in Stans, and, later, to founding a school.

Back in Switzerland, Grandfather decided to devote the long remnant of his working life to the small village school. Presumably, his longing for Amelie, which had, over time, reawoken, had also grown too strong. Or it was the homesickness that people like to claim always overcomes all Swiss who live in distant lands.
Once, Grandfather came upon a village of Swiss-Argentinians outside of Santa Fe and they welcomed him like a Messiah, because the settlers quickly determined that he, too, had Oberwallish roots. “Chumm inna!” they said. But he never could have stayed there. He found their village life much too narrow. Lena paused in her story and looked intently into our faces for a moment, as if she were searching for traces of gold.

3

Back then in Argentina, Grandfather once explained, he only became a halfway decent tango dancer instead of a real gaucho because of a stubborn bout of hay fever. His inner cattle handler doubtless succumbed too easily to his allergy to a certain grass. In turn, this new career training, if one can call it that, was also only possible because he had delayed his return home almost like a sleepwalker. His hay fever probably could have been cured, but the tango could not be treated medically.

 

From Der Argentinier by Klaus Merz, a novella (© Haymon Verlag, 2009). Translation © Tess Lewis.

 

Klaus Merz was born in 1945 in Aarau, Switzerland. He has published twenty volumes of poetry and numerous works of fiction, most notably the short story collection Adams Kostüm (2001) and the novellas Jakob schläft (1997) and Der Argentinier (The Argentine, 2009). Klaus Merz has been awarded many prestigious prizes, including the “Hermann-Hesse-Literaturpreis” in 1997, the “Gottfried Keller-Preis” in 2004, the “Werkpreis der Schweizerischen Schillerstiftung” in 2005 and, most recently, the “Basler Lyrikpreis” and the “Hölderlinpreis” in 2012.

Tess Lewis’s translations from French and German include works by Peter Handke, Lukas Bärfuss, Alois Hotschnig, Julya Rabinowich, Philippe Jaccottet, Jean-Luc Benoziglio, and Pascale Brückner. She has been awarded a PEN Translation Fund grant and an NEA Translation Fellowship. She also serves as an Advisory Editor for The Hudson Review and writes essays on European Literature for numerous journals and newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, The New Criterion, The Hudson Review, World Literature Today, The American Scholar, and Bookforum.

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013