:: Article

Proleterka (Extract)

By Fleur Jaeggy.

Proleterka, translated by Alastair McEwen (2019, And Other Stories)

Many years have gone by and this morning I have a sudden desire: I would like my father’s ashes. After the cremation, they sent me a small object that had resisted the fire. A nail. They returned it intact. I wondered then if they had really left it in his suit pocket. It must burn with Johannes, I had told the staff of the crematorium. They were not to take it out of his pocket. In his hands it would have been too visible. Today I would like his ashes. It will probably be an urn like any other. The name engraved on a plate. A bit like a soldier’s dog tags. Why was it then that it had not occurred to me to ask for the ashes?

At that time I didn’t use to think about the dead. They come to us late. They call when they sense that we have become prey and it is time for the hunt. When Johannes died I didn’t think he really died.

I took part in the funeral. Nothing else. After the service, I left right away. It was an azure day, everything was done. Miss Gerda saw to all the details. For this I am grateful to her. She made an appointment with the hairdresser for me. She got me a black suit. Discreet. She scrupulously complied with Johannes’s wishes.

I saw my father for the last time in a cold place. I bade him farewell. Miss Gerda was at my side. I was dependent on her for everything. I did not know what one does when a person dies. She had a precise knowledge of all the formalities. She is efficient, silent, timidly sorrowful. Like an ax, she advances through the meanderings of grief. When it comes to making choices, she has no doubts. She was so thorough. I was unable to be even a little bit sad. She took all the sadness. But I would have given her the sadness in any case. There was nothing left for me.

I tell her that I would like to be alone for a moment. A few minutes. The cold room was freezing. In those few minutes I put the nail in the pocket of Johannes’s gray suit. I did not want to look at him. His face is in my mind, in my eyes. I have no need to look at him. But I did the opposite. I looked at him rather well, to see, and to know, if there were signs of suffering. And this was a mistake. For, in looking at him so attentively, his face eluded me. I forgot his physiognomy, his real face, the usual one. Miss Gerda has come to fetch me. I try to kiss Johannes on the brow. She recoils in sudden revulsion and stops me. It had been such a sudden desire this morning, to want Johannes’s ashes. Now it has vanished.

I did not know my father very well. One Easter holiday he took me with him on a cruise. The ship was moored in Venice. Her name was Proleterka. The Proletarian Lass. For years the occasion of our meetings had been a procession. We both took part. We paraded together through the streets of a city on a lake. He with his tricorne on his head. I in the Tracht, the traditional costume with the black bonnet trimmed in white lace. The black patent-leather shoes with the grosgrain buckles. The silk apron over the red of the costume, a red beneath which a dark bluish-purple lurked. And the bodice in damasked silk. In a square, atop a pyre of wood, they were burning an effigy. The Böögg. Men on horseback gallop in a circle around the fire. Drums roll. Standards are raised. They were bidding the winter farewell. To me it seemed like bidding farewell to something I had never had. I was drawn to the flames. It was a long time ago.

My father, Johannes H., was a member of a Guild, a Zunft. He joined it when he was a student. He had written a report called What the Guild Did and What It Could Have Done During the War. The Guild to which Johannes belonged was founded in 1336.

On the previous evening there had been the children’s ball. A big hall thronged with costumes and laughter. I was waiting for it all to be over. Perhaps Johannes was too. I do not like balls, and I wanted to take my costume off. The first time I took part in the procession (I had not yet started school) they put me in a sky-blue sedan chair. From the window, I waved at the other children who were watching the procession from the pavement. When the porters set me down on the ground, I opened the door and went off. I had not thought to run away. It was not rebellion, but pure instinct. A desire for the unknown. For hours I wandered through the city. Until I was exhausted. The police found me. And they handed me over to my lawful owner, Johannes. I was sorry. Given the circumstances, any chance of a more profound acquaintance between father and daughter was limited in the extreme. Observe and keep quiet. The two walk close to each other in the procession. They do not exchange a word. The father has trouble keeping in step with the march music. Two shadows, one moving slowly, with a visible effort. The other more restless. The people proceed in ranks of four. Beside them, a couple; the man in military uniform, the woman in costume. They are in step, their gait majestic, sanctified, proud. Heads held high. At night, sometimes, the burning effigy would return beneath closed eyelids. The roll of the drums even more martial, with a posthumous sound. In a hotel room, two days later, I left Johannes. The term of my visit had expired.

Proleterka had been chartered by some gentlemen who belonged to the same Guild as Johannes. The ones who paraded through the city in the month of April. They were to be our traveling companions. We set off, my father and I, by train for Venice. The carriage was empty. From that moment I would be with Johannes, my father. He is not yet seventy years old. White hair, parted, straight. Pale, gelid eyes. Unnatural. Like a fairy tale about ice. Wintry eyes. With a glimmer of romantic caprice. The irises of such a clear, faded green that they made you feel uneasy. It is almost as if they lack the consistency of a gaze. As if it were an anomaly, generations old. Johannes had a twin brother, with similar eyes. His brother’s eyes were often concealed by his eyelids. He would spend hours in thegarden. In a wheelchair. He could manage to say: “Es ist kalt,” it’s cold. His tone held a blend of the awareness of a divine imposition and the mere earthly realization that cold is transitory. As was his illness. In those days they called it sleeping sickness.

Fleur Jaeggy is a true original of European writing and has been translated into over twenty languages. The Times Literary Supplement named Proleterka as a Best Book of the Year upon its US publication, and her Sweet Days of Discipline won the Premio Bagutta and the Premio Speciale Rapallo.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 28th, 2019.