Ari Sitas’ text is accompanied on piano by George and Debbie Mari
Dear FB, as a doctor you should be able to get a permit to travel. It will be nice if you took off a few days, say this or next weekend. We are bottled up here, Freiburg, Karlsruhe and even Strasbourg across the border have become a kind of epicentre for the virus. I would love to come to Hamburg, but even if I managed to get a permit, I would have no place to stay and even if I did, you said you were at it 24/7. I don’t want to be pushy, but come on, be a daredevil, take a few days off.
Dear Miksi, I curse the system every moment I take a break. They confirmed the seriousness of what we are dealing with, this plague, two weeks too late. Now we are cautious and take serious precautions but it is too damn late. I lost one of my nurses and have another three in isolation. We are down to four. Bloody politicians. I don’t want to offend your friends, but I cheked you up on Google and you are quite in with the monsters. I hate Marxists, you know, please tell me you are not one of those Indian-loving Marxists!
Dear FB, I am an Indian-loving Marxist, so that settles that one.
Dear Snotface, I will have to box your ears in person. Isn’t it funny that in the UK, France and here the frontline people in public health are always us who are there, the so-called “foreigners”.
She said something vital about it: we fix your lungs so you can breathe here so you can drown us quite unwanted in the seas?
I used the word “typhoon” rather sheepishly. I had lived by the sea, travelled all Oceans in my fiction, I had read the books and even though Joseph Conrad is not my favourite writer, his description of the typhoon’s mayhem has stayed with me for life. The sea is not kind, a sailor’s life is turgid, the great sunrises and sunsets over a wine-dark sea do not compensate for the night’s disquiet and the day’s tedium. Especially so for a piano player, caught in between the arrogance of the captaincy and the moans of the crew about drudgery. On cruise liners, one must not forget the moans and gossip of the service staff and the relentless pettiness of the esteemed passengers from India who are about to sign off the country by the acre. Let us agree though: the Ocean is more than life in motion.
Skimping along on land in 1933 made me re-desire the seas. It is hard to describe how a country could change into something monstrous so fast. This is harder of course if you are doing so from the perspective of the 21st Century. What is certain is that there was violence and a confidence IN violence. The rise of Arturo Ui was rapid, the apparatus was decisive and deadly, the “Great Action Against the Un-German Spirit” was swift, decisive on the Jew, the Traitor, the Communist, the Black, the Degenerate and all the children of Miscegenation.
Pure art had to follow the Aryan and Greek ideal. For example, this was what was hanging over Arturo Ui’s bedpost:
The very artist was entrusted with the packs to sniff-out all degenerates. Later to set the Books on Fire.
For a sea-struck person like me, the Hamburg harbour lights beckoned and were listened to because of the size of a pocket and the largesse of the heart.
I owed Stormy my survival, I had learnt to syncopate now and play those degenerate tunes close to the harbour where sailors from all over swam in liquor and blue-note.
Jazz was quite the craze even for bourgeois aesthetes who were on the run and not marching to Goebbels’ drumroll.
But the odd gig was not enough so I ended up moonlighting as a “Lightener”. I had a good service letter from the Cruise Line Captain which to my luck did not mention anything about a piano and avoided mentioning the offence I caused to the exulted passengers – I am with you the Captain said, you gave those nasty Natives what-for. All it said was that I served well on board the P&O Lines.
Someone with experience from Mumbai to Liverpool or London and with a good service letter will be looked at with some admiration in any harbour-town.
I had some experience during my childhood anyway observing the antics of Maounaridhes or Barge operators in Cyprus who were in the employ of my grand uncle. Not that I studied their skill negotiating the small and large barge boats from the open sea where the ships had anchored to the harbour’s pier but I had graphic expressions that I had learnt from them that in Greek embellishment and broken German would impress a Harbour Master.
I was to moonlight then as an Assistant Lightener, helping in the navigation of the flat barges that swayed in their hundreds in Hamburg’s port. I had to learn something about the tides and how to handle the tiller and the hook. But as long as you did that, spoke as little as possible and pricked up your ears, life was tolerable, even though the cold breezes would burrow inside the bones and at night, just before the gigs, half an hour was at least mandatory in hot water to ease the fingers and relax the wrist.
Even here matters got complicated: you see the port was full of stories because defiance was to be found in every nook and cranny. Most harbour workers and sailors were members of the Red Navy and quite soon beneath the hush-hush and the furtive look, the fact that a sailor and a lighterman were to be executed soon and that the sailor was one of the four condemned for the Altona carnage where the working-class neighbourhoods gave the brown-shirts a whacking. But now, that the powers that be had shifted, revenge was to be plentiful.
It was also a time of boycotts – there were boycotts of Jewish shops by the Nazis but closer to home there was a total boycott of a local butcher by the people of Altona. At first, I didn’t quite get it – he was boycotted for accepting 200 Marks for some Nazi deed. However much he tried to appease the locals, even lowering the prices to a loss, he found out that no one would touch his pork, his lamb or beef. However much he explained hat he was a working man like the rest, nothing was to be shopped, people would not even touch the sausages he gave away for free on Saturdays. Such was his torment about all this that he and a few days later his wife were found hanging from their home rafters.
There is a peculiar pattern of justice here: Tensch, a lighterman was beheaded and so were the Altona 4 by the Nazis. Brecht was to praise the defiance of a Lugden who stood up to the Nazis until his head rolled.
Beheading was not part of execution culture in Germany however heinous the crime. So, they hired a local butcher and paid a bit of extra so he could bring his very own cleaver to do the job. He did his job beheading one after another in front of a makeshift audience of 75 prisoners. The trial I read was a sham, the port was full of its details.
Now the very butcher was hanging from his home rafters.
The need to practice led me back again and again to the Raum where the festivals, reviews and plays happened with aplomb during the years gone past. Once a week, either on a Saturday or Sunday I would go and pay to play for a few hours on the piano.
It would be a three to four-hour ordeal with the first one easing the fingers on scales, then syncopating the scales, then turning any composition into a jazz swing – I even concocted some of my own compositions. I twisted the ivories hard and I thought that at least I paid homage to the hecatombs of elephants that were killed for them.
The piano really belonged to R whose life was in a mess not only because he was running out of gigs and performances but that he was so forlorn – he was besotted with PW, the famous playwright’s daughter who had married the outrageous son K of a famous novelist, a son that was about to be very famous too.
Poor R he did not know that K’s sister, EM married the about-to-be-famous GG as a front because K and GG were gay lovers and P and E were lesbian lovers, so the marriages kept the façade so well, that Mr R of the piano sect, in love with PW, felt dejected and rejected.
But as bad stories go, there were mutual divorces, E started a political cabaret in Berlin, titled Picante or Chilli Mill. GG joined the Nazis, and K wrote about him in his famous novel Diabolo a few years later.
The real reason for me returning to the Raum was because it was created after all by my granddad and I needed the chance to hector him into dementia.
It is not possible, he said.
You can’t be your mother’s son if she is only four years old now. What do you really want young man? Money? Bread? Jam? I could not explain how I could be 35 years old now.
For a man who traded well in the imagination, I could not figure out how he could be so stupid. I am 35 I confirmed, already carrying trauma in my hands but 35 alright. I would like some schnapps. He stood there in shock because the woman I claimed as my mother had left him at the tender age of four a year back. This is outrageous, he confessed: I need a schnapps too, he mumbled.
What do you want?
I am here to vent my anger. You never made an effort to know me. How could I? – he retorted. Of course you could have; there is a chance for you to correct all that but you will ignore it; there will be letters warning you to get out; there will be Gropius promising a safe journey and you will ignore it; you will even head to Cyprus in four moons just to legitimise your ex’s newest child but you will return back to Germany that has destroyed you. Like an imbecile you will return.
You have chosen not to know me.
He said something like shut your trap young man, stop freaking me out.
Now I remember, of course I know you – were you not that pianist R from the Review last year, now I recall, right here. Harber’s stueck, wasn’t it, before the Housewife’s League closed all of you down? You were besotted with that Wedekind girl, you are the pathetic pianist from Vienna, such a fool, did you not know why she chose that man?
I am not R, I am the other guy, the one you dressed up as an angel with a tail.
You will return from Cyprus an old man so that the Nazis can chop off your head, gas you, delete you. No, young man whoever you are, this can’t happen here, this is a little tantrum – this is the land of Kant, Hegel, Goethe, Heine, Marx, this can’t happen here.
The typhoon is here!!! – I protested.
As EM sang:
“Warum ist es so kalt?
Warum tut Kalte weh!
Warum? Die Welt wird bald
Wie lauter Eus und Schnee”
Dear FB, yes you are always wiping European arses, so after Cyprus you never returned to Pakistan?
Dear Miksi, no, we were very loyal servants of empire, remember we were there, well at least my dad was there, to kick your arse for the Queen. He rose to the rank of a colonel before he left us to ride the clouds. And you thought I was Indian, it cracks me up.
Dear FB, I don’t understand why you guys need a border. You are not the only ones who knifed each other! I am sure by now the Indians will forgive you for having slightly bigger ears and more than two nostrils. Coming to think of it, why don’t you send me a photo. I need to correct my memories.
Dear Miksi, No! I do not post photos.
Any discerning reader would know that the conversation with granddad was pure fiction, yet the fact that he didn’t make it out when he could, is not. I am trying to keep my sense of outrage at bay, as if the inevitable killings will not occur. I will in another story make my walk back from where he was executed to some sea, to breathe saline air into my lungs, to balance the atrocity. As discerning readers you have to cut me some slack because I am edging towards the great depression and weaving this and that and the other into this because I want to warn my friends out there, in India let us say, or in Rio, or even in Durban, how fast the unthinkable can happen. How quickly anything you might have thought was stable can be broken into bits and any constitutional parchment can be torn up into shreds.
Perhaps what helps the onset of the great depression is to realise in retrospect that it was not just a “spurt” that happened in the heart of Europe but something so latent and barbaric, ever-ready to break the membrane loose – the very membrane that holds the façade of respectability neat and taut. No description of a “spurt” by Elias or of a “banality of evil” unless there was a wilful blindness, a de-arrangement of the senses, a cultured inability to sense that to call a right-handed or left-handed syncopation degenerate, that would make edelweiss flowers a must, that the typhoon would lead to industrial steel and gas.
Yet many people may take issue with the description of what happened as a “typhoon” – its destructive quality is anarchic, its results chaotic, whereas Nazi power was brutally methodical, scientific, industrial. I will concede some of the typhoon-talk as exaggeration, but I will insist on its metaphysical, mystical and destructive horror.
Perhaps where I need to apologise is in the choice of a piano player: it could have been wrong, not only because the theme of the piano player has been overdone in literature and film, but because the choice of the instrument forecloses narration. In 1934 there were more opportunities available if you were a violinist, a viola player, even a cellist but most certainly a tympanist – especially a tympanist, not quite a tin drummer but as someone who could beckon and pulse the marching ogres line by line.
Here I cut out the hope of being praised even by the diminishing left. Remember, the way I played the piano in harbour town, the very delayed phrasing of the left hand and a trill or clip with the right would be named as an act of castration by the grand pandits of progressive modernism.
All I can claim is that I tried; both my skills as a lighterman and as a jazz pianist were buried with the onslaught: it took three months to close down the night life, four months to behead and decimate all working-class organisation and jazz alongside any hereditary malformity to be declared illegal. Trade union leadership disappeared, the docks went quiet, the red flags were hid very well in sturdy trunks and the people lined up to cheer the rows and rows of troops marching, singing, “Die Fahne Hoch! Die Reichen fast geschlossen!/ SA marchiert mit ruhig fester Schritt” (Fa, fa, mi, re/Fa, ti, la, sol, re, fa, mi/Mi mi re do?Fa, fa, fa, sol,da, Reeee!). Syncopate that!
Tympanum: 90% celebrated the Fuhrer in the Referendum.
There was always Mouse.
Mouse on the left – the only photograph that was kept. I don’t know why.
She was the good woman who took the dancer’s child in after the shooting. She is the one who said, “call me Mouse”. In English, “call me Mouse”. This is a name that would ire my present friends because it can only be playing with heteronormative excess. “I had a girl called Peggy Sue and I don’t know what to do” or any popular song reproduces this excess that is why I saved your sensibility by not naming the songs I played in harbour town.
Mouse was Mouse and she was worse than a denounced Communist, she was a Communist Party denounced Trot, who kept me well informed about the do this and don’t do that of politics and she was comparatively OK because she had an income still from the music publisher she worked for. Bruckner and Beethoven sales were up and I met her trying to buy the notation of two pieces by Herr Big Composer.
I do not want to complicate matters but Mouse was into publishing because of her deep friendship with the Red Millionaire as I was to find out, who, before he became more dangerous than Trotsky according to Stalin, was “the” man-about-town, the founder of the Anti-Imperialist and later, the Anti-Fascist League, and Mouse was there.
She indicated an SSSSSH sign, Herr Big Composer was a person without grata she said. Before she took me in to practice her English and before she dyed my hair blonde (which turned to a weird green sheen) – to avoid the stern looks from fussy neighbours, she made me promise that I must marry her to get her a passage to England. I lied I was from Athens because already there was talk that many Greeks were descendants of Slavs, Albanians and often on the islands of Jews and Muslims.
What got me really entangled were the historic encounters of five years back. I could not do it to a discerning reader and let myself go back in time to 1927 – it would have called for a riot. Twice in the span of five pages: once in 1926 and once in 1927, even though we are dealing with fiction’s ruses. But wouldn’t you have been tempted if you were me? The Red Millionaire, Mouse, and the two most important leaders of the African National Congress and the Communist Party SA in Berlin in a hall of thousands? And wouldn’t I have followed both on their lecture tour in Germany, discussing the colonial question? And wouldn’t it be fitting if, in every presentation I was there to pound at any piano, the scales of the Land Act? I must desist from complicating the story.
The core tension in our relationship was simple. Mouse disliked Herr Big Composer because she thought him a lackey of the people who ostracised her from the Party. She thought of him as a crass yes-man and she could even point to entire sections of his Cantatas that were crude re-renditions of what Moscow thought acceptable. She insisted that the only revolutionary music was being hatched in Vienna. When she heard that I was part of that art deco and constructivist shit from Hamburg, she had a fit.
When I admitted to ignorance about a certain Nikos S who was a Greek and a major force in the Vienna School, now a broken man in Athens I got a blast from a new-fangled Mouse who turned quite Mighty.
She had to introduce me to his abandoned wife, MT, a fine violinist who would turn out to be a good friend in the months that rushed at us.
Mouse kept me well and even smelled out private gigs fit for a pianist. She even got me a gig, following my “exact fantasy’s” ruses, to play at the inauguration of the new VC at the University of Freiburg in April. Apparently, the new Nazi VC was replacing another Nazi VC who was a formidable philosopher who turned out to be a nuisance. I was delighted to be there as I made a point of visiting the very hospital where Kazantzakis died of leukemia – since my younger days I was fond of what was scratched on his grave, “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free.” I imagined that the toilet on the first floor I managed to creep in was the very same one he used when he was allowed to wander.
Mouse primed me well. She insisted that I had to learn sign language and pretend I was speech-disabled.
Then to her horror, after studying the Law of Heritable Degeneracy, she made me carry a note that said “Laryngitis” and another just to be sure said, “Kelkophentzundung”.
It was a good idea, helpful in two checkpoints and it put a good distance between me and possible interlocutors. It was thanks to one of them in Freiburg anyway that led me to the Kazantzakis hospital.
Mouse became my total resource. Can you believe it? She was so quick to warn me against playing the “Wein” piece by Richard Strauss during the inauguration and found me a Piano sonata by Bruckner instead and forged me a membership card of the Reichmusikkamer.
I only found out later that the affable man sitting next to me during the endless speeches and accolades was indeed the displaced philosopher who impressed me with the dexterity of his ancient Greek and Indo-European etymologies.
Yet Mouse couldn’t help me with everything – I was not blind, I saw the first signs of the Roma being rounded up and forced to wear triangles and by autumn the Jews had to wear yellow stars and I was humiliated once in the wonderful park near Mouse’s place by paramilitary young men asking me to drop my pants to check whether I was circumcised.
Although she said, she did not want me to go, she gave me the whereabouts of Big Herr Composer who was with the great playwright in Denmark and who could organise a passage out, instead of a life of avoidance and fear.
My violinist friend TM got me an introduction with the Herr Meister Director of the Berlin Orchestra but it was Mouse who warned me against it for the time being because he, the Herr Meister Director was being quite carelessly defiant.
He even performed one section of the forbidden Lulu composition by Mr A B, the arch-degenerate from Vienna and a piece by the French guy with a Persian name, D that was shared much later by a pianist friend called Darius and a surname M who dabbled with jazz. Well Mr Herr Director gave his defiant trope, packed his bags, caught the night-train to Hamburg and off he was on the Brittany to Southampton and then to Buenos Aires.
I feel seriously bad that I did not place myself on the ship to Buenos Aires. Imagine the yarn I could have spun with me on the piano and Ernesto Che Guevara’s uncle on the accordion over a growling sea to the New World where life was beef and a tango.
Instead I was stuck imagining my last act to be grand as I was following with fascination the whole AB episode: his music was to be performed at the Venice Biennale, his Lyric Suite in fact, but which was dropped for some obscure reason or rule. AB suspected fascist foul-play.
The Venice Biennale turned out to be a showcase for the heroic meeting of Mussolini and Hitler, the newsreels were in a frenzy showing the two Fuhrers on a vaporetto floating up and down the grand canals applauded by the people in their tens of thousands – that was the real show.
TM brought urgent news that Mr AB was scrambling to get an ensemble together because all of a sudden he was admitted back to stage another piece, “Der Wein” and TM said, raise your hand, the piano piece is rather ordinary, it will take you a day and a whiskey bottle to get it right, it is the soprano voice that is full of athletics and gyrations, I pity the poor woman, I am volunteering for the violin part she said and from there, it is goodbye, Paris here I come.
Mouse kept on saying, that things were still fine here, it is the Soviet Union we should be worried about, you should see she said what the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians are doing to musos over there!
Mouse… I said, decide – it is either fight or flight. You need to make sure, the child of your friends gets a chance, somewhere where chances these days are granted… somehow.
I returned from my post box ecstatic with an invite from Stormy for Paris and a 78rpm disc: the Quintette du Hot Club de France.
The apartment was locked up. There was no key under the mat. Mouse and the child had vanished.
Dear F, why the long silence? I inquired about getting to Hamburg, they said they hope by next week it will be possible again. Hamburg is a special place – my mother was born there. Her dad was a prof at the Hamburg Hochschule.
Dear Miksi, I am feeling a bit under the weather, I am booked to get to Freiburg on Friday. I will be on the ICE to Zurich, arrival time at 20.07.
I must confess, the Mouse you have just encountered was partly a figment of my imagination. What is true was that I had rented this little apartment from a man who claimed he was adopted by Mouse. There was an abandoned album in the bookshelf with most of the pictures removed obviously to be re-calibrated in another more complete one and it would have been impudent of me to ask the owner what happened to the pictures and the new album. What is relevant was that the picture of the three young teenagers with ties on was left in the abandoned album and underneath it read, Mouse, Lotta and Marliese. On the next page where a picture must have been some time back there was a note: Mutti Mouse und Ich.
Next to where the album was found were a series of artbooks, the obvious Expressionismus one, a standard Picasso, a Renaissance one and a Leon Trotsky monograph on Art and Revolution. All of them inscribed on the first page “fur liebe Mouse”, which set the figments loose and with apologies to her stepson allowed my imagination to wonder off in reveries appropriate only for people who are stuck somewhere with no one who at best take a forest walk wearing a mask or go to the convenience store for veldtsalad, bread roll, cheese and good Alsacian wine.
Dear F, what is wrong? I waited at the station in vain. Did I get the dates wrong?
That is a fine lighter, said young Ruth
She was a fine artist who was responsible for the Raum which was rather smashed up after yet another raid.
It was rumoured that she was sheltering my granddad but denying it vehemently. He couldn’t have vanished into thin air, I protested.
A Zippo! – she said, lighting up a cigarette. Stranger things have happened in Hamburg lately, she added. An elephant escaped from the Zoo. It took three days to find her. I suppose as Buddha said, the elephant was longing for her elephant grove. Where did you get this Zippo?
I managed to conceal the chisel in my jacket.
I sat at the piano using a petrol canister as a seat.
Dear reader, the canister was empty but I was not there to burn the piano anyway.
I was there for a deeper spiritual mission.
Keep the Re/D as a drone and move bhairav style (Re, Mi (flat) , Fa(flat) sol (flat) , Mi, Re), on Blind Willie Johnson’s tune, bring the phrygian out, note by note – the reason I was in India anyway was because of Lorca’s insistence that I was to find the Deep Song, the qasida of weeping, sol-mi-re. And here I am on an out of tune piano singing Lorca
“Dark is the night/cold is the ground…No se oye otra cose que al lento/I have closed off my balcony/for I do not want to hear the weeping/ but out there beyond grey walls/nothing is heard but the weeping/ No se oye otra cose que el llanto…
Dark is the night/cold is the ground… Re-phrase.
A thousand violins fit in the palm of my hand/ Mil violins caben en la palma de mi mano/ The weeping is an enormous violin/ And nothing is heard but the weeping/ Y no se oye otra cosa que el llanto
Dark is the night, cold is the ground”…
Change the scale on a higher D, singing Kazantazkis, why not, but syncopate, “Let us alone!/We bow and worship – the rain/the wind, the river, the caterpillar that eats our cabbage,/the worm that eats our apples, he Master who eats us all. /Let us alone/ Everything is fine-hunger and filth and even the Master’s whip, the shivering cold and the heat, the heat, everything is fine/ Don’t disturb the order, let us alone/ Don’t fight shadows with shadows,”
Singing Maykovsky I thought why not, why not, switch to the Berg piano but distort it away from the # on the E and G:
Let me in, Maria!
Don’t keep me out in the street forever, I can’t suffer the streets!
Till I’m found once more with a toothless grin, stale,
Maria! I am in the rain, Maria
the drooping eyes of the drainpipes
are splashing out tears
Rain has drowned the sidewalks in sobs;
Let me in!
again they’ve beheaded the stars,
and the sky is bloody with carnage!
Let me in
I can be soft, fantastically soft
Not a man, not a man but a cloud in trousers
Cold, cold is the ground.
Pick up the trill, bring back Stormy:
“mera rang de basanti chola”
“mera rang de basanti chola”
“mera rang de basanti chola”, switch to major notes,
Bring back the # #
“Warum ist es so kalt?
Warum tut Kalte weh!
Warum? Die Welt wird bald
Wie lauter Eus
und Schnee…Warum sind wir so kalt?”
I knew why the elephant longed for the elephant grove, I used the chisel, I yanked out the ivories from its gaping mouth, planted them later in a park, left the piano open longing for its keys.
Took a walk by the outcrops of the Black Forest.
Dear sir, we have found your eMail in the Doctor FB’s Address Book
FYI, IN MEMORIAM
Still stuck in Freiburg with a virus hovering.