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Sunday, 13 September 2009 02:00

falling between the lines

By  Anton Krueger

1. line

all maps are imaginary…no maplines stand still…this story begins with a line containing the map of germany, a line defined in 1871...

this was a line which expanded and contracted…it's a line which ebbed, flowed,  surged, shrank during the century of my grandmother's lifetime...a membrane cut in two, then reunified...
 
this is a story about my grandmother, marie-luise wortmann ("mareile")...now that she has stopped moving, now, that her life-line has stopped, now it can be traced:

a story of how she emerged from a land obsessed with lineage, a land possessed by the idea of territory, a restless line eager to eat up the lines around it...

a story of how my grandmother crashed through the moat this line became and crossed the seas towards an imagined haven in africa, only to find that once out here, her dreams were of home and that she hadn't left the bombs behind and that the stasi were still after her...

my grandmother never could remap her mind, she never could escape the cartography of her memories...she carried always with her a map etched in by love and dread.

2. point

in 1939, bad blankenburg, mareile modersohn married ludwig krueger, the perfect man...i knew he was the perfect man because he was good and good looking and honest and kind and brave and so on...i knew he was the perfect man because his perfect portrait framed every room in which she slept...i knew he was the perfect man because she never fell out of love with him, even when the bombs began to fall...

they fell in love while they were on the winning team, while posters portraying golden youth with strength and summer smiles filled the streets...when marching troops were welcomed with flowers and young women kissed the soldiers striding in...blitzkrieg – love like lightning...there was hope and faith in the dream of fatherland; victory was assured the brave, and the joy of freeing europe from the bonds of capitalism, communism, imperialism...

they must have felt bold, fearless...ludwig handsomely flying off to the front to patch up the sons of the fatherland...every second good to be alive, to keep on surviving...three children in three furloughs....every sex an ecstasy of desperation...a perpetual falling into love... ...

then the tide turned...then the conquered territories stopped welcoming the warriors with flowers...then smoke started slowly to unfurl from the towers of the crematoria...then the news was no longer of spring, but of autumn and winter, and then one day – er ist gefallen...he fell...the telegram read ...im dienste des vaterlandes…stumbling and falling...like falling in love...falling behind the lines...

by then married five years – two of victory, one of uncertainty, two of defeat – by then the bombs falling closer to home...the monsters she'd been told about, the beasts came creeping closer...day by day – the commies, the yankees, the tommies – the reds the blues the brits – all closing in...  

and then the russians came clamouring through her tiny town, battering the doors down; pricks like axes splitting apart all the legs they could find, killing all the boys left, massacring old men –

...the russians crossed the line and remapped the world with guns spitting ink, renaming the torn landscape as villages of women walked into the waters with their infants in their arms, preferring death to the perpetual raping – the hours, the days, the weeks, the months, the years of retribution...

...they were peasants, mareile said, who marvelled at the magic of a flushing toilet...who hacked the plumbing out to take it back with them to the steppes, not realising that you needed a system to sustain the shit...

3. area

by the time the dust had settled on the blood barely congealing on the streets, the new maplines had been drawn and mareile found that she'd become soviet, that now she was in enemy hands...

and so mareile settled in for the longest winter yet...faced not only with  poverty, hunger, the bitter cold, but also with the taste of shame...their führer father suicided...the humiliation of defeat…

mareile and her ludwig never faced their shame together...he had been swept away, dispersed into the perverse golden fantasy of honour...and she was left alone with the wreck of the rubble and the reds...deserted by her lover husband friend...

instead of the burning buildings and blood, instead of this bombed out shell of a building with the stench of corpses she might have now been easing another log into the coal stove to prepare her husband's dinner after his day at the village hospital, she might have now been baking bread for her children fresh from school and happy to see her...

and then – talk of the wall...

day by day, the world was being redrawn around her...day by day, new lines were being chalked in...the cold squalid cement of collectivism sinking in, setting...those who could began fleeing west...mareile, trapped with infants as she watched the law enfolding them, closing in, sealing them off, who held tightly to the memory of ludwig's face, to the photograph she carried with her, as she prayed for release from the east...

4. (life) line

and then the letter came from africa: i saw your story in the mission magazine, i've read your father's sermons and – god has called on me to help you...the boat is ready to sail, let me marry you...god has spoken – let me saddle up the steed...let me wear your colours on my sleeve...god has called me – let me save you...

...two furtive letters later all had been arranged...by then former friends were already turning into spies, the stasi's ranks were swelling with informers...she didn't know whom she could trust...

was midnight when the children were woken from their violent dreams; midnight when they fled to a deserted chapel carrying two battered suitcases of silverware...she couldn't tell them "we're going to be free", she couldn't say, "we're going to africa", she couldn't even tell them "it's my wedding day", so all she said was "kom"...and "schnell" and "ruhig sein"...

mareile met fritz for the first time at the chapel, his hair hastily sidecombed, having rushed into berlin, sleepless, wordlessly appraising his three new children...i can see my father, dietrich, six, little brow furrowed...confused...
"das ist euren neuer vater...wir mussen loß...kom schnell...ruhig sein..."

...the waves rocked them to the horn of africa, mareile's fragile, frightened body unused to his rough bricklayer's hands...

5. point

so mareile, having burst through the boundary being bricked in around the east of germany, settled with her fritz and three bewildered children at the foot of the drakensberg...she had ploughed her way to freedom, over the ocean, all the way down to the tip of africa...

yet still in mareile's mind's eye the cool woods of bad blankenburg...she was baffled by the bright skies, the burning heat, the strange new tongues...still the memory of the ancient castle on the hill...

what she may not have expected from her liberation was the bile of the english in africa...here they were now surrounded by the enemy...at school my father was the "stinking german boy"...

mareile held on fast to two maps of home: a picture of the forests of bad blankenburg, and a photograph of ludwig, sustaining memories of a world she'd lost...

mareile never assimilated...having fallen so heavily in love, she found that she could not get herself up again... she'd fallen south into africa, but her heart still lay with the man fallen in the north...

6. area

in one desperate action mareile had entrusted her life to fritz, but in her heart she'd never lost the memory of the love first forged in the fire of war...the memory of that love leeched out of her heart and into her arteries...it burrowed into the marrow of her bones, bloomed like sores on her skin...that love stained her entire life...

slowly, mareile and fritz grew accustomed to each other...they grew new folds of skin, slowly becoming used to the furnishings of each other's flesh as they fell into the routines of sleeping, washing, eating / dirtying and cleaning / breathing out and in again...but mareile was never able to see fritz, because he wasn't a person, he was a thing that extended the hand of god reaching out towards her, an answer, perhaps, to prayer...and after he'd fulfilled his duty he sank back, emptied...there was never a need to invest any more emotion in him than was his domestic due...and he sank back and back...perhaps perplexed, how was it that she didn't love him after what he'd done? how was it possible not to love him for such daring?

but fritz had never realised she was sick...that mareile was infected still by love...he'd never bargained on the dead man...the man perfected by death...

mareile found herself dismayed by fritz's ignorance of things she'd spent her lifetime learning…all the refinements she'd accumulated at a finishing school in switzerland were lost on him...he knew nothing about culture and art, only of plaster and dust...his only knowledge was of a country she had no desire to learn anything about, because she lived outside of the languages of south africa and had no desire to fold herself within their creases...

on her eightieth birthday, my uncle otto made a toast to mareile, adding also a homage to the man whom, he said, she'd lived with and loved for forty years / she cut him short – "nein", interrupting, "gewohnt, ja, aber nee geliebt" ...lived with, yes, but never loved...

expressionless, resigned, fritz said nothing...mareile smiled, as if this were a victory: a sign of her fortitude, a sign of her commitment, an indication of the intensity of her passion and her resolve at maintaining it...she wanted to show us the suffering she had guarded as her precious possession... she would never forget, never fall out of love...

that portrait must have haunted every house he lived in...as fritz grew older, as every passing decade strained his flesh, ludwig remained forever twenty-seven...standing there in his starched officer's uniform, his beautiful mouth smiling forever – the gentleman, the doctor...how could fritz ever live up to that map of beauty, that abstraction of lost innocence and irrecoverable grace? how could fritz ever compete with what might have been?

i remember once, maybe fourteen, playing zxspectrum games in my parent's lounge with my friend david...we were sitting with our backs to a rocking chair and  leaning into it, pulling away from the action of the game quite wildly at times...only after half an hour did we notice opa  sitting on the chair, wordlessly submitting, surrendering to the rucking, accepting it with quiet complacency, the way he'd been trained by then to do...poor fritz, his one noble deed had been spent, he'd already played his trump card and now his hand was empty...

mareile gained strength from her suffering...her handshake like iron, she exercised a severe matriarchy...the fierce will it had taken to survive the war was used to keep ludwig's memory alive...as fritz sank into the background...

7. line

but when fritz contracted cancer a change came over him...when he became incapacitated, when he became confined to his bed, when he became, for the first time, the centre of attention...suddenly – he began to speak...fritz finally found his voice, growing an unruly beard he started flirting with the nurses as mareile sat, disapproving, in the corner of the room...

fritz came into his own as he was dying, at last claiming some of the sympathy for himself, some of the pity which had always been mareile's due... he would soon be joining ludwig...at last they would be equal...

leaving mareile trapped, eventually in a security village, hemmed in by alarm systems and strangers...her body finally closing down its borders, relinquishing its access to a world to which she'd never belonged as she became shut in by blindness, deafness...

8. point

mareile was born ten years before the end of the first world war...only six years had passed since the boers had handed their arms over to the brits...the streets of pretoria were covered with horse shit and you needed an ox wagon to get to louis trichardt...

mareile died three months ago when she was 99...the tibetans, measuring from conception, would have granted her the century...she clung on tightly right up to the end, saying that she had to hold on for her children, that they needed her...and yet, there was relief when she finally embarked on her final voyage out into the mapless terrain from which no traveller has yet returned...

the funereal speeches all celebrated her virtues – perseverance, faith and diligence...my father (no longer 6, but 60 now) said he had a better memory of the few occasions on which she'd let them off church and had a picnic, than of  the many hours between the pews...(two pastors speaking in rapid succession after him quickly setting the record straight pointed out mareile hadn't missed a single service in ten years)...

i wondered afterwards what i might have said if i had had the nerve to offer a eulogy of my own...i might have said that when i thought about my oma, i always saw her sitting at the head of the table, fingertips lightly touching in the diamond gesture of superiority, quietly judging us...

i might have said that, actually, i never knew her at all...or maybe that my picture of her was always through the lens of my father's pain, the view of the little boy who'd always wanted her to love him more...

i might have said that i had found her fiercely logical, moral, proud and more aloof than loving...i might have said that despite her lifetime of sorrow, i'd never found her to be very compassionate...i might have said that i'd always thought of her as a real old battleaxe whose children were all afraid of her...a master mistress of emotional blackmail...

but why rock the boat? fritz was long gone by then...and i knew that all of these vindictive thoughts came from my sympathies with fritz...poor fritz, i'd been watching him my whole life...fritz sitting rocking silently, wordlessly...he'd saved her skin and gotten what...?

and what do i know anyway? i was the ungrateful grandchild who never phoned ...i couldn't bear her denying the holocaust, i guess...perhaps i felt myself superior to her superiority...all of those sundays at the old age home as she sat spooning down the last of the mint sauce so that it didn't go to waste in order to teach us all a lesson about something or other...perhaps, at eleven years old – perhaps i was the one who was judging her...

so maybe it's time for me to stop judging mareile...it's strange that what had for her been her life's greatest sin (she had once consulted a fortune teller) i think of as an interesting diversion, whereas i judge her for what she considered her life's greatest victory – for never having let go of love...

the night when she was dying i had a dream about her...she said she couldn't feel the cold anymore...

9.  area

on googlemaps i look up bad blankenburg and measure the distance to pretoria...then zooming out i look down at the ocean, that roadless deep, following the ridge of africa down the dry edge of namibia...dragging africa up into view, a few centimetres and two generations away...

now i am here, bone of her bone and gene of her genes...and now i do feel this land a part of me...now the roads of pretoria form neural networks in my mind, now they map my memories...there's hardly a street in the city which doesn't harbour some or other connection, some link to a moment, a person, a feeling...wandering through the streets..."remember when – ...remember when –... remember when –..."...and now i know nothing of germany...that harsh tongue lies unworked on my lips...  

all maps are imaginary...the first map was not of the earth, but of the stars in the sky above lascaux 16 000 years ago… the latest maps of the world are made by satellite...they're maps of the world within the sky...of a world falling into space...

abendland

longing to find the font
of the dream of fatherland,
we found a road
fallen into the sea...

holding breath
alive we dived
into a crossing
longer than a life,
travelling against time
to find our father…
 
– before we could reach
the start of the past,
we saw him floating by –

our father who
will not rise again,
since we neglected
to bury him.
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