01/10/2007

Michael Köhlmeier's novel "Occident" - an excerpt

Excerpt:

(Chapter 2, pp. 19–23 of the German edition)

Carl was my godfather, that's to say my baptismal sponsor according to the Catholic rite, but he was far more than that. He was my guardian angel. Yet I can't even claim that I sheltered under the shadow of his wings; that place was exclusively reserved for my father. My mother and I, who held my father tight to keep him from falling, merely occupied the outer regions of that shadow. Was that what the guardian angel intended? Or did he simply accept it? The Lukassers – Agnes, Georg, Sebastian – called for him, and he would leave his institute in Innsbruck to lend an ear to their wailing and complaints, their indecision, indignation, resentments, protests, their fits of malevolence and envy, their aggression and their money troubles, their weary melancholy and their frustrations. To us, life was an ongoing series of problems; Carl offered the solutions. Could we be sure he wouldn't turn away from us? It is the secret of the charismatic man, says the English writer G.K. Chesterton, that to receive great favour from his hands or to have him withhold it amounts to one and the same gesture. The confidence that Carl showed in us was something we ourselves would never have felt; it was either superhuman or implausible. In the first case we could only prove a disappointment; in the second his relationship with us would have been no more than a game in which, logically enough, we as pieces on the board or dice, or both, could not have understood what was so amusing about it.

Carl was there at the beginning of our family; its seed was sown in his first meeting with my father. When he first saw my father, said Carl, he had known within a few minutes that he would make friends with him, that he, Carl – as he emphasized – would "humbly" follow him, and clear away all the problems that were certain to loom large in such a man's path.

Carl and my father were as different as two people can be. They met in Vienna after the war, when my father was twenty-four. Carl was already forty. I don't need to describe my father to anyone who's ever seen a picture of the American folk-singer Woody Guthrie – small, sinewy, tough, unruly dark curls, his face thin and pale, his chin grey with the stubble that kept persistently coming through, serious old eyes, a grave mouth even when he was roaring with laughter. He had an infectious laugh, but there was always something conspiratorial and rat-like about it as well. Once, in the sixties, I showed him a picture of Woody Guthrie, and even he thought it was himself. Guthrie was carrying a guitar in the photo – "What kind of guitar is that? I don't have a guitar like that!" He realized, from the guitar, that it was another man; my mother and I were in fits of laughter.

Like Woody Guthrie, my father was a musician, and had never been anything else. During the war he had earned board, lodging and security for himself and my grandmother by appearing as a player of that special Viennese instrument the contra-guitar with a quartet playing popular music – Schrammelmusik, Schrammel music, so called after the nineteenth-century Schrammel brothers – in the bars selling new wine in Grinzing and Döbling, and after the war also in the coffee-houses and sidewalk cafés of the city centre. My grandfather was dead. He too had been a musician, he too had played the contra-guitar; the Lukasser Quartet had been the most successful Schrammel music ensemble in the city in the thirties and forties. My father had gone to commercial college, but dropped out before finishing his course, and devoted himself entirely to music from the age of seventeen. When my grandfather died he took over the quartet. He did not like to be described as a musician either; he would say, "I'm a performer. My father was a musician, I'm a performer." Later and out of the blue, long after he had stopped playing Schrammel music, he took it into his head that "the experts" (a word he always uttered with what to me seemed embarrassing deference) laughed at the word "performer" as a professional term, and from then on he insisted on being called a musician.
For the most part, however, he appeared after the war in the various jazz bars that opened in the city, mainly in the American-occupied areas – one every week in the first months of 1946. The best known bars were those in the cellar of the Café Landtmann, the basement of the Rondell Cinema in Riemergasse, and the Bijou Bar in Naglergasse. The Embassy Club in Siebensterngasse in District 7 was the most elegant club, run by an American and intended exclusively for American soldiers. (The musicians who played here were almost all black, the audience without exception white.) Austrians could enter the place only in the company of a (white) US citizen, or by presenting a written introduction from such a citizen. But very few Austrians could afford entry and the drinks, and in any case they weren't welcome.

It was at the Embassy Club that Carl first heard my father. He came out on the platform alone; it was impossible to get together an ensemble playing his kind of music on the spur of the moment. The owner of the club asked the guests to stop talking and the waitresses to stop work. "Ladies and gentlemen, Georg Lukasser the genius!"

"He gave the impression of a reluctance that was difficult to define," said Carl. "The magic of a bad mood on public display. He seemed so helpless. He looked like a beginner. Just as if he were about to play before an audience for the first time, and no one had shown him what to do. He was already very shrewd – calculating, too. He did all he could to attract attention to himself. And even if people were staring at him only because they were waiting for him to lose his balance and fall off the platform head first, he didn't mind that, so long as they kept quiet and didn't look in another direction."
My father was the sensation of the evening; he was the sensation of the club for over a year.

At first he was regarded as something of a curiosity. He played an instrument of a kind the Americans had never seen before, a guitar with two necks: a normal guitar neck for six strings, and one fixed further up on the soundbox with the seven bass strings on it. Those strings did not run over a fingerboard and were not held down, only struck or plucked. Carl, who had grown up in Vienna and had of course visited the local wine-growers' bars again and again since his childhood, was familiar with the instrument, and it did not surprise him, but he was astounded by the music he now heard. This slightly built man, whose age he couldn't estimate, did not perform the typically Viennese music that the sight of the contra-guitar had led him to expect; he opened with Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night", but playing it as if it were really a piece of Schrammel music, and he'd only just turned it around to make jazz out of it. His second number was a Lanner waltz, but he allowed the melody only one lively passage before he began improvising on the theme, with such crazy polytonal flourishes that Carl, or so he told the story, found his larynx actually hurt – everything in him longed so much to hear the Lanner melody maintained and singing through, to ensure that the daring guitarist up there on the platform didn't lose his way in that mine-field of improvisations. The following piece was Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" – my father had announced the title, grumpily, in his threadbare English, adding a casual entrée consisting of twenty-five chords, as Carl counted them at later performances, before moving into the easy, sunny romance section. That in turn he interpreted so that you might have thought the Duke had composed the piece after visiting a local wine bar in Grinzing. He devoted the rest of the evening to his own compositions and to improvising on spontaneously invented themes.
The audience was enthusiastic, admiring the virtuosity and variety of musical ideas, and undoubtedly my father's awkward appearance too. But Carl was deeply moved, and he would have liked, as he said, to have been alone and surrounded by silence. He had never before heard a musician who succeeded so perfectly in uniting sound and feeling. He hadn't been listening to music made from music; this music contained no references to other guitarists or quotations from other pieces, as usual in bebop improvisations. "I had the pleasantly disagreeable sensation that I possessed something like a soul," Carl always continued his story – my father squirmed with embarrassment as he listened, but I am sure he was also proud. Most of all, however, he was impatient, because the praise that Carl lavished on him was always the same, without even a little something extra or at least a new and surprising turn of phrase. "It was as if he spoke to us straight, no circumlocutions, not even in the music, paradoxical as that may sound. He wasn't speaking to an audience. There are audiences everywhere. Audience is a term that levels people out. But everyone in the club could think: he's speaking to me, he's really speaking just to me. And everyone understood him. There they sat, French, Americans, Brits, Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, and I assure you that if anyone had taken the trouble to ask each of them separately, after the concert, to write down just what he or she thought the man up on the stage with the funny guitar had been saying, the questioner would have been left with a stack of papers written in half a dozen languages, but each piece of paper would have told the same story."


Translation: Anthea Bell
Copyright Hanser Verlag
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