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22/09/2010

Melinda Nadj Abonji's novel "Falcons without Falconers" - an excerpt

Excerpt:

Now, as we finally drive up in our American automobile, a dark-brown Chevrolet, the colour of chocolate you might say, the sun beats down mercilessly on the little town, the sun has gobbled up the shadows of the trees and houses nearly whole, and so we drive up at noon, craning our necks to see if everything's still there, if everything's still the way it was last summer, and all the years before that.

We drive up, glide along the street lined with majestic poplars, the avenue that heralds the little town, and I've never told anyone before that these trees, stretching heavenward, give me the spins, and that wires me directly into Matteo (the dizziness that overcomes me when Matteo and I turn our endless rounds in the finest clearing the village forest has to offer, just the two of us, his brow to mine, and later Matteo's tongue, oddly cool, the black hair that snuggles into his skin as if utterly gone on his pale beauty).

As we glide by the poplars, their stirring knocks me out, our chocolate brown ship gliding majestically and noiselessly from one tree to the other, between them the air of the plain, now growing visible, I can see it, the air now holding its breath under the merciless sun, my father says to the air conditioner everything's still exactly the same, in a quiet little voice he says nothing has changed, nothing at all.

I wonder if my father would like a troupe of professional gardeners to prune their branches back at very least – to face down wilderness with civilisation! – or to fell the poplars heralding the little town with proper equipment once and for all! (And we would sit on a stump, our gaze imperial upon the noonday, sun-drenched plain, and my father, who would go so far as to mount a stump, would describe a complete circle and, in the bitter tones of one who has been vindicated – late, but better late than never, after all! – say: They're gone at last, those dusty fucking trees.)

No one knows what they mean to me, these trees, the air clearly visible between them, and nowhere else are there trees as full of promise as here, on the plain where they have space, and once again I wish I could stay put, lean against one of these trunks, lift my gaze, let myself be led astray by the swift little stirring in their foliage, and once again I do not ask my father to stop, because I have no answer for the question "why", because I would have to explain so much, certainly about Matteo, in order to explain why I want to stop here, of all places, when we have almost reached our goal.

Our car, as if drawn by an occult power, virtually immune to the potholes in the road, drives on and before we finally arrive there's one more "nothing has changed" for us to weather, civilisation must suffer one more setback, one more sclerosis, that is, and we children press our faces against the windows on the left side of the car, the pane is amazingly cool, stare with astonishment at people who live in a rubbish tip, nothing has changed says my father, corrugated tin shacks, rubber, disheveled children playing among broken-down automobiles and garbage as if it was the most normal thing in the world, what about the broken glass I want to ask, what about the night, when the shadows begin to move, when all the rubbish strewn every which way takes on a life of its own? And in a second I have forgotten the poplars, Matteo, the stirring, the Chevrolet, and the black night of the plain veils me in all its destructive power, and I do not hear the gypsy songs, so praised and so admired, I have eyes only for the ravenous shades out there in the dark, not chastened by a mere streetlamp.

And my father peers out the window, shaking his head, coughing his dry cough, he drives so slowly you would think he was about to stop the car any second, have a look at that he says, and taps his forefinger on the windshield (I remember a fire and twisting, dissipating smoke), and I, taking in the faces caked with dirt, the piercing looks, the rags, the shreds, the light trembling above the heaps of rubbish, I take a longer view, as if I were required to understand all of this, these images of human beings without mattresses, to say nothing of beds, who might thus be obliged to dig themselves into the earth of a night, into the pitch-black plain, now in summer fairly bursting with sunflowers but in winter so exposed that it's a pity, earth, nothing but earth, oppressed in winter beneath a hundredweight of heaven, and when the sky removes itself become a sea, becalmed.

I have never told anyone but I love this plain, which thins to a disconsolate strip, it does you no favours, utterly alone on this plain of which you can ask nothing, the most you can do is lie down upon it with outstretched arms, that's all the shelter it can provide you with.

If I had said that I loved Matteo (a Sicilian who suddenly barged into our classroom a couple of weeks before summer holidays, ciao, sono Matteo de Rosa, immediately ingratiating himself with everyone apart from our teacher) most of them would probably have understood me, but how do you say that you love a plain, its poplars, dusty, indifferent, proud, and the air between them? In the summer, when the plain has grown by a storey, with sunflowers and fields of corn and wheat wherever you look, and they say that people are forever disappearing into those infinite fields, they say that if you aren't careful the plain will get you and eat you up, and I don't believe it, I believe that the plain is an ocean that lives by its own laws.

Those poor things, says my mother, as if she were watching television, and instead of changing the channel we drive on by, drive on in our icebox, which cost a pile of dough and takes over the road, and my father switches on the radio and lets the dance music work its magic on the squalour, lay on hands and poof, the clubfoot of reality has been healed: Come over here, don't go over there, come to me, my little love, and give me a little kiss...

With a sound that hardly bears speaking of we cross the tracks, pass the rusty sign, hanging askew, that has had to bear the name of the little town for ages, we're here says my sister Nomi, pointing at the cemetery, the cemetery where the injustice is patent, where the graves go untended, simple wooden crosses, hardly recognisable, overgrown with weeds, numbers and letters virtually illegible, we're here says Nomi, and her gaze dissolves, and is reconstituted in the very same instant as fear, fear that she will be required to visit the cemetery sometime in the next few days, to stand helplessly at various gravesides, to feel shame, somehow, for our parents' tears, and to feel herself a desire to weep, to imagine that, down there, in a coffin, our father's father lies, our mother's mother, whom Nomi and I have never met, great-uncles and aunts, your hands, which are always in the way at moments like these, the weather, which is always wrong at moments like these, you'd weep if only you knew what to do with your hands, gladioli and delicate roses at graves covered with slabs of stone, the dead with their names chiseled in stone, legible for posterity, the slabs of stone I dislike because they weigh upon the earth of the plain, prevent the souls lying below them from fleeing away.

Our family on our mother's side and on our father's side lies buried under slabs of stone, at worst there might be no flowers, the yellow and pink roses, the gladioli, but their graves covered with slabs of stone do not fall into desuetude, not even if no one comes to visit them, not even on All Saints', not even on All Saints', says my mother, when some cousin will ring her up and inform her in a choked voice that she has been alone at the cemetery lighting a lamp for the dead, at least our graves aren't crumbling, says my mother when she hangs up, and the sentence contains the deep sorrow of a life unable even to tend to the dead, because she is too far away to bring them flowers, not even just once a year, on All Saints'.

But death rarely gives advance notice, so we are almost never there when someone from our family in Vojvodina dies, and when Aunt Manci or Uncle Móric calls, because they are the only ones who have a telephone, to tell us that they are sorry but it's a day for bad news, then it suddenly grows oddly still in our living room, there might be something to say about this particular death, if we were there where all our relatives live, at least we could listen to what they had to say about the deceased, and we would certainly be moved when Mamika, whose voice penetrates into the innermost corner of everyone's soul, sang a song, but since we are not there, where people take three days to bid farewell to their dead, before they consign their mortal remains, as they say, to the earth, because all we have is the telephone, a distant voice informing us that something irrevocable has occurred, on such a day of bad news we move about like ghosts, we go so far as to avoid making eye contact with one another, and I recall how father summarily swept the yellow chrysanthemums mother had placed on the living room table into the dustbin, in October 1979, when we heard that father's beloved great-aunt had died. No funeral flowers said father, enraged, the remote control in his hand, Nomi and I, who have ever since called chrysanthemums the forbidden flowers because we were no longer allowed to place them on the table, and when we visited the cemetery in our hometown, decorated the graves of our dead with flowers, it was certainly never with chrysanthemums, not even in the fall, when we will be too late, I think, when we will be alone with our grief a second time.

And we had no idea at the time that within a few short years the gravestones would be overturned, the granite slabs broken up, the flowers decapitated, because in war it's not enough to kill the living, of course, and if we had known we would likely have lowered our heads at the graves of our dead, asked that our murmured singsong weave itself into a magical shield, so that the dead might undisturbed enjoy eternal rest, as they say, but we might just as well have asked that the earthworms, grubs, springtails, millipedes and all manner of beetle, disturbed by the sudden change in light, be not sent wildly creeping and crawling in every direction, only to flee away, at last, back into the sheltering darkness.

*

Translation: Rafaël Newman

Copyright 2010: Jung und Jung Verlag

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