by Terri Favro // from issue 2. Vol. 2
History shadows us from Frankfurt to Vienna, the countryside dense with ghosts. Thunderstorms roll in, echoing old battles—unacceptable summer weather for central Europe, a local tells us, as if wanting to correct the forces of nature. We watch wet fields rush past, the old empire buried under orderly rows of plump vegetables. Hard to believe they went hungry here after the Second World War.
Helen never talked about her empty stomach, preferring to boast about her taste for adventure, a teenager running from trains under bombardment to hide in ditches until the Allied strafing was over, then hopping back on board to finish her journey home. Growing up under the German occupation, her older brother Josef in a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp, she should have craved a safe, predictable life. Instead, she was a natural risk-taker. At first locked away in her bedroom while occupying American troops were billeted in her home, she’d eventually go to work for the U.S. Army—not for the regular G.I.s, who seemed so boyish with their chewing gum and Sad Sack comic books, but the professional military personnel who took command of Salzburg, flinty-eyed, serious and alert for Communists. Helen learned her second language, English, from those uniformed men.
On a whim, at age twenty she became the only one of her six siblings to venture beyond Austria’s borders; even Josef, having improbably survived a Russian P.O.W. camp, spent the rest of his life on the family farm. Shipping out of Amsterdam, Helen was unprepared for the shock of a Montreal winter. She bought a warm coat and reinvented herself, changing her name from Teresia—German for Teresa—to the more glamorous Helen, her way of shaking off the old world of Catholic saints and putting on the vivacious plumage of the city that taught her a third language, French.
I hear Helen’s distinctive belly laugh, again and again, on the train to Vienna and again in the Café Marianhof, near our hotel: the free-flying, unembarrassed boisterousness of a woman who loved hearty food, handsome men, a bit of excitement, and a good joke.
There’s your mom’s laugh again, I mention to my husband, who nods over his fish. We’re ravenous, the train trip longer than expected.
Austrians like to laugh, he says.
Day One. I memorize the route from our hotel to the university.
From Schottengasse to Universitatsring, I brush the faces of white giants, marble buildings constructed out of human scale, a city of Matterhorns and Everests that seem to look down on passers-by and proclaim: We are not all about opera and waltzes. Once, we were the capital of an empire of unspeakable power!
That’s the contradiction of Vienna: a city as sweet and fluffy as a cream cake, yet once powerful enough to help plunge the world headlong into World War One, bloodbath of the twentieth century.
I’m here on business, of sorts—an international short story conference where I am both subject and object, author and audience. Every morning, I carefully retrace my steps from our hotel in the Museum Quarter to the Juridicum, a bureaucratic sandstone monolith hunched behind the Japanese embassy and a fortress of a building that houses an organization for oil producing states. Always bad at directions, I rely on the rising sun of Japan and occasional groups of environmental protestors to keep from getting lost on Vienna’s circling streets. In the Juridicum, I loop my lanyard around my neck to prove I’m a writer, and sip coffee with other writers and the academics who study them—the conference is heavy on Irish, English, Americans, Canadians and Australians, as well as German, Spanish and Chinese academics.
Day One is devoted to master classes. A Pulitzer winner with the relaxed, confident demeanor of a successful American author talks about diving deep into the unconscious: don’t think, just write, he says. Alert in neat, pedagogical rows, we are advised to write before dawn while still half-immersed in dreams, before logic and common sense kick in. The famous author warns us off traditional creative writing workshops: the blind leading the potentially sighted, he calls them. I can tell he’s said this many times. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
I have a nagging sense that there’s been some kind of mistake, that I’ve been dropped into a world where I don’t belong. The Germans should have a compound word for this—something like Schreibenkrankenfantasie. A persistent, sickening feeling that one isn’t just writing in a dream world, but living in one.
Why am I here?
I go back to the hotel room, where my husband is illustrating a comic book, and share my misgivings.
Maybe the best place for a writers’ conference isn’t a classroom but a pub, he suggests.
We head out to find one.
Day Two. Plenary sessions, readings, panels, classrooms, lecture halls. I try to re-familiarize myself with liminality, also known as threshold fiction. Did I ever know what this meant? Yes, once—I have a B.A. in English Literature from a university in a city known for steel production—but my overcrowded brain long ago jettisoned literary criticism and theory to leave room for Drabble and Plath, Vonnegut and Sparks, Atwood and Hardy, Munro and Millay, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Shakespeare and Ionesco. Their words still flow in my memory but academic interpretations of their work have been swept away.
Day Three. I’m in a classroom, listening to a panel discussion about the challenges of translating an early short story of Ernest Hemingway into German. “A Very Short Story” is about an American soldier, wounded on the Austrian front in 1918, who falls in love with his nurse. Lying on the roof of a hospital in Padua, he sees chimney swifts flying overhead.
This poses a problem, a literary translator explains, because the chimney swift is a North American bird, unknown in Europe. A direct translation would be factually incorrect because a chimney swift could not have flown over a hospital in Padua. The question is whether to use the German ornithological name for a chimney swift, or correct Hemingway’s error by turning it into a European bird.
I’m thunderstruck. Finally, something I can comment on. I raise my hand.
Surely the choice of bird was Hemingway’s, and should remain unchanged. It’s just as much a mistake in English as in any other language. Why correct it in translation?
The translator isn’t convinced.
Germans like precision, she answers stonily. Readers might be bothered by the error.
But it’s Hemingway’s error, I persist. And what if it wasn’t an error at all, but a deliberate artistic decision? Perhaps the soldier was imagining the bird out of homesickness. Why not let Hemingway’s impossible bird hang in the sky of Padua for eternity?
Point taken, but the translators continue their debate.
They discuss the difficulties presented by jokes and plays on words. How would a German translate a pun—friend or enema for friend or enemy—another challenge compliments of Hemingway.
I’m enjoying this plenary session. Something about the debate—factual precision versus artistic integrity, reality versus imagination, a particular culture’s insistence on fiction adhering to facts—appeals to my sense of the absurd. I’m on safer ground here than in discussions of liminality and threshold fiction.
After the translators’ panel, my colleagues and I find a place to drink beer: three women writers from Toronto and Montreal, one Spanish-Italian academic specializing in Canadian literature, and a translator who lives in Vienna—Serbian, not Austrian, but she’s picked up that rollicking laugh I keep hearing.
Eventually, my husband tracks us down. He and I split away from the others to wander. His eyes sweep the menu boards of restaurants, searching for friedatensuppe, a comfort food his mother made during the Montreal winters of his childhood. It’s almost always a disappointment. Vienna of 2014 excels at Italian food, sushi, and nouvelle Middle Eastern but Helen’s soup remains unsurpassed, at least in my husband’s memory. Perhaps it’s best eaten while watching Hockey Night in Canada.
Spiraling away from the university district on an endless necklace of streets, we pass coffee houses and schnitzel hauser. We stumble over the former headquarters of the Gestapo, now covered by a parking garage. A deliberate choice. The banality of parking hiding the banality of evil.
Not far away, a cube-shaped memorial to Vienna’s victims of the Holocaust stands just outside a stylish restaurant, packed with customers.
Remember the dead.
But first, eat your appetizer.
Inevitable, I suppose, that the solemn memorial would rub shoulders with boisterous Viennese diners. Their laughter is like the bass line in a musical score, maintaining the rhythm of conversations. Most of the Viennese I’ve met are friendly and more relaxed than I expected.
You’re not in Frankfurt, you know. This is
Vienna, we are not so uptight, smiles one of the conference hosts.
Maybe that’s why the Wi-Fi in our hotel never works. My husband and I shrug and say what’s a week without the news? And so, we fall out of touch with the world and in tune with the streets of Vienna.
More plenary sessions. Readings. Coffee. Clinging to my lanyard for a sense of purpose, I listen to a British writer read a slyly funny short story about an au pair—a nanny, one of Helen’s many jobs in her early Montreal years, before she met and married a former German sailor, his knuckles lumpy with shrapnel.
Later, the British writer introduces me at my own reading and charms me by calling me ‘kid’.
After my reading, a literature professor from the Universitåt Lüneburg approaches me to say that she was alarmed by the sense of dislocation in my story, which at first sounded to her like science fiction. She was relieved to discover that the narrator’s altered perceptions were a sign of dementia. In the end, she found the story funny. I told her that, in a way, the story was supposed to be funny; even when Helen was sinking into dementia, there were moments of laughter.
The professor buys a copy of my book. I don’t tell her I’ve decided to focus on science fiction.
Later, over coffee, the British writer and I start talking about our adult children.
One of my sons is travelling in Europe right now, I tell her. He and his girlfriend are going to a wedding. By coincidence, they flew out of Toronto on the same day we flew to Frankfurt.
How old is your son? she asks.
Twenty-four. He looks very Austrian, like his late grandmother, Helen. He’s named for her brother, Josef, who survived the Battle of Stalingrad and a Russian P.O.W. camp. A good-looking boy with a great sense of humour. The type who always has a girlfriend.
The British writer, who has a gap in her front teeth like a Chaucerian tart, grins as if to indicate she knows exactly the type of boy I mean.
Evening. My husband and I decide to spend it in the Museum Quarter among the pretty ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Power has departed the premises, leaving the awe-inspiring facades of museums stuffed with paintings of dead fish and rotting fruit and gruesomely rendered crucifixions.
The Museum Quarter proves to be an Alps of white marble and mysterious opening and closing times.
Let’s just do the Kunsthistorischesmuseum, I suggest. The one with the Bruegels.
We wander over worn marble floors into high-ceilinged rooms, past walls and walls of Rembrandts, Caravaggios, Rubens, and many forgotten Masters whose names will sleep until someone rediscovers them.
A man with a chiselled face locks his pale blue eyes on mine. He looks quite mad but the signage assures me he was a famous mathematician. I buy him as a postcard in the museum gift shop, and send him to my brother-in-law, who is also a blue-eyed mathematician.
I will mail the postcard at the front desk of our hotel; from there, it will no doubt be trucked to the airport (a half hour’s drive in good traffic), loaded
into the belly of a cargo jet and flown far out over
Meanwhile, the mathematician’s face will continue to stare into the nothingness of the portrait hall, counting the passing days as they add up to centuries.
A few rooms away—past the Dutch seascapes and cautionary depictions of starving babies falling from drunken mothers’ breasts—are the real treasures, the Bruegels. On one wall, a group of lean hunters stride over a rise toward their village, followed by a pack of weary dogs. It has been winter here for five centuries.
I’ll buy this painting for a Euro in the gift shop and send it to my older son who is in Toronto with his wife. The hunters will make the trip across the ocean snuggled up beside the mad mathematician.
Across from the hunters, Bruegel’s Children At Play depicts jumping, running, spinning kinder—if I look hard enough, I’ll spot more than eighty different games, the signage tells me. I search for ones my sons played when they were little and find a game of
I buy a notebook with Children At Play on the cover. The kinder will travel to Canada in my suitcase, along with a naked woman holding up her breasts lasciviously, trying to tempt the artist with her lush body. Helena. Peter Paul Rubens’ mistress, or was she his wife? No matter. Helena is mine now. To keep her company, I buy a softly lit, homoerotic crucifixion by Caravaggio.
The conference continues. One morning, just in from my daily walk from the Museum Quarter, still Wi-Fi-less and disconnected from the world beyond the short story conference, drinking too much coffee and contemplating whether liminality has something to do with Lyme disease, one of my Toronto colleagues rushes in and says that terrible things are happening.
Have you not heard? A plane was shot out of the sky over Ukraine. It was on its way from Holland to —she doesn’t know exactly where.
I listen to her, but cannot hear anything beyond a great roar inside my head. Over Eastern Europe, my son and his girlfriend are in flight that day, that afternoon, that moment, in a sky full of postcards of mad mathematicians and weary, haggard hunters with their kill.
Suddenly everything depends on getting Wi-Fi.
I call my husband. He has seen the headlines, parsing them out in his sketchy German. He understands enough to be terrified.
Fuck the roaming charges. We repeatedly call and email our son back home, my sister and my brother-in-law.
Time zone differences. People at work.
Has anyone heard from Joe?
Is he home? Is he on the ground?
It was not a direct flight. To save money, he and his girlfriend hopscotched from one plane, one airport, one country to another.
There shouldn’t be chimney swifts in the sky over Padua. Our son shouldn’t be in the air at that moment, in that part of the world.
Many nervous hours later, we will hear, yes, he’s home, he’s safe. But another young man, also twenty-four, his home just fifty kilometers from ours, fell out of the sky over Ukraine on his way from Amsterdam to Bali. The single Canadian to die on that plane.
Later, at the coffee break, I’ll tell the British writer with the Chaucerian grin about the horror of believing, even for a moment, that my son was on the plane. She’ll look at me sadly and say: And how do we react to such a tragedy if we are not mothers?
I’m not sure what she means, but I nod. It’s an observation from the dream world, not the rational mind. The intuitive place that tells us to move away from home and never look back, to fall in love in a second language and in an unknown country, to allow oneself to be a bird blown off course, to be Helen instead of Teresia. That’s the place we should always write from, according to the Pulitzer winner—the most valuable insight I will take away from the conference.
And so, I am allowed to be relieved. I’m still the mother of two sons. I’ll leave this beautiful and fading place of corpses and soup, and fly home with Rubens’ naked woman and Bruegel’s kinder in my suitcase. Horror and grief will fly past me and alight on another mother, in a suburban town a half hour’s drive from our house.
Anonymous shooters take aim at the clouds. Bodies rain down on a village. No translator’s edit can change that image. It exists beyond all belief or understanding, like Hemingway’s impossible bird, forever soaring across the Old World sky.