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Authors: Michael Pye

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The Pieces from Berlin

BOOK: The Pieces from Berlin
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“Only superior fiction can take us here, a river of shadows more complicating than any film.” —
Harper’s Magazine

“Intriguing. . . . [Pye] probes the varied ways in which memory can be put at the service of rationalization and self-deception, the myriad ways in which the past can permeate latter-day decisions.” —
The New York Times

“A story about memory and accountability, about the need to understand the past and the oftentimes even greater need to look away. . . . Pye writes with an impressive crispness and clarity. . . . How completely we are in thrall to passionate intensity is one of the lessons of this sad, spare and rigorous novel.” —
The Washington Post Book World

“Stunning but understated. . . . A finely wrought character study about quiet evil and the importance of remembering.” —
The Seattle Times

“Sandblasts the overused topic of World War II terror and guilt into your consciousness and makes you think it is your own story. . . . Mr. Pye is in turn a poet, a historian and a priest. He leaves the reader aware and unsettled.”—
The Washington Times

“Engrossing. . . . Pye conjures the nightmare world of the dying city with rich and decadent detail.”—
The Memphis Commercial Appeal

“His taut narrative language is direct, strong and original, with a restrained lyricism full of trenchant observations. Particularly outstanding are the descriptions of Berlin crumbling from war and the oppressive ordinariness that accompanies apocalypse.” —
The Madison Capital Times

“A stylistic tour de force . . . a beautifully crafted and finely nuanced tale of guilt and moral complicity, it possesses a psychological depth that sets it apart from other novels dealing with the Holocaust.” —
Library Journal

“To be read and savored.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


He went rolling down into the city, his coat like a cone of green felt all around him, like some round wooden toy: so good and kind and clever, so big and so kind, so that everyone knew he must be a truly happy man. Helen watched her father striding past the dark shine of wet shrubbery and the high suburban walls. One minute he was in a puddle of streetlamp light, then the dark, then the next light: a flickerbook man.

She double-locked the apartment door, ran down the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator, and she followed him. She was afraid of what he might do next.

The cold ached on her skin. There was mist lying sodden among the plain buildings and gray squares of Zurich, gilt clocks poking up out of lanes, the last relentless red geraniums, with linden trees bare, and blue trams snaking by the water, the lake steamers and beyond them shops that glowed with their own gold, armored with huge glass.

He mustn’t see her.

He was a brisk, effortless walker, used to scampering on mountains; she followed a block or two back, just able to make sure he was still ahead: the round man, in late middle age, under the shell of his green felt loden coat. His hair was white, and carefully wild: a professorial head. He had never once been ashamed of the great globe of his belly because he was not a self-conscious man.

Purposeful people were lined up for trams. The first shop and office lights were burning. At this blank time of the morning, hardly any light yet, the fact that he was moving was enough to make him stand out. Helen shivered as she walked. Her father retired from this kind of purpose years ago, had no obligation now to stride out on a bleak morning with the frost still standing in the trees.

He turned down the hill to the lake. He didn’t nod at any of the galleries on the street, not even the one that belonged to her husband, Jeremy: didn’t pause at all. She thought maybe he would catch a tram at the great turntable station down at Bellevue, but he didn’t. He wanted to keep moving. He didn’t even have time to wait to be carried where he was going.

Along the gray Limmat now, quiet and decorous: a triangle rushing along on his broad base, not bothering to look at the city around him. It was, in any case, already perfectly clean, no condom, ticket, newspaper, or candy wrapper left on the streets to anchor it even in the history of last night.

Nicholas Müller-Rossi knew better. He remembered things, which was what made him ominous.

In ordinary circumstances, he was happy to share in the official civic memory of the city: the memory that makes James Joyce an eye patient, Wagner a bit too showy, Lenin a good quiet tenant although he had visitors the night the Winter Palace fell. He liked the anesthesia of all that convention, to feel at home in a city whose great art is the window display, whose local poet is honored for being a good government clerk, although also a drunk.

But the circumstances were not ordinary at all. Nicholas cut across the Limmat and through the lanes up to the open space of Lindenhof. Helen slowed down, even though the cold caught at her legs. Only a few lanes led up to Lindenhof, and the park itself was small, and she did not want him to see her.

He could make his own mind up, she told herself. She thought he might just need her.

He stood looking down on the houses racked up each side of the valley, little terraces and squares, an ingrown city full of plain fountains.

Three days ago, Nicholas Müller-Rossi read in the newspaper that his father had died: ancient, at ninety-five, in a small town in a valley with a lake.

Two days ago, he had gone to see if he could pay for a wreath or subsidize the funeral masses; first the local florist and then the local priest said there was no need. Everything had been attended to. Everything had been considered.

So today he would be a spectator at the funeral, not taking part because he had been told he was not welcome.

Helen watched him stamp one foot and then the other: like a windup toy that’s frustrated by a rug, she thought. She’d like to give him coffee, courage, anything he needed. She couldn’t tell if he had yet decided to go or not to go.

All Nicholas did, for a moment, was stand under the bare trees, on a path of soft leafmeal, and brood.

He once had a friend who was a pharmacist. Every morning at nine, this friend went to the end of a tramline and opened the doors of a bright white confessional, a shop with shining walls and neat drawers, him in a starched white coat with young women, such graceful young women perfumed with oxygen, fetching and whispering. And everyone came, citizens and neighbors, the ones who kept such a perfect facade, the ones with good credit, fine names, a seat in church and a slot in the graveyard: and they told him things.

This one had a bruise that couldn’t be explained, a yeast was infiltrating decent households, tiny, armored insects got in the private parts of the nicest people; this one needs vitamin B and codeine on account of the mornings after drinking, and this one needs eyedrops, homeopathic number 2, on account of the pills; and you could chart the cracks in marriages through the times they suddenly needed hair dyes, anti-flatulents, and tonics. He even knew the most terrible secrets of all: the antidepressants and tranquilizers and barbiturates which revealed when they lacked confidence for a moment in the perfect order of their lives.

Then the pharmacist retired. He said the whole business had changed him; he couldn’t even buy aspirin without wondering what the pharmacist knew. His conversation was mostly hints: he knew where the whole city itched.

Then there were the secrets kept in dealers’ safes, in the vaults of banks, in files and archives. Nicholas Müller-Rossi looked at the lake mist and the low cloud and it seemed to him the outward, visible sign of some great communal silence.

Standing around isn’t proper in Zurich; you need a purpose, a destination. Nicholas, when he went traveling, wandered canals in Venice or Amsterdam, prowled boulevards in Paris, spent imaginary money up and down New York. But here, close to home, going somewhere in particular was a moral matter.

Helen thought for a moment he was going to turn back. She wasn’t good at tucking into doorways like some private eye; the shops were not yet open; if she ran, she’d be conspicuous, but he’d outwalk her if he chose the same lane.

So she didn’t see him leave Lindenhof at all, bustling down to the lovely, empty riches of Bahnhofstrasse, passing easily by the windows that used to fascinate him as a boy—the painted fruit, the spotlit hats, the occasional Chagall next door to fur and lace.

He bought his ticket from the machine at the main station, wonderfully efficient with the coins. He checked the information board, sorted out his train from the grand expresses and the suburban shuttles.

She knew he’d have to take the train. She checked the times and platforms so she could see him waiting.

She wouldn’t offer to go with him. She had seen her grandfather once or twice, so her parents had told her. He was a bit of biology somewhere in the past, the necessary condition of her father and of Helen. But he wasn’t there to be loved.

Nicholas settled on the upper deck of the Lucerne train.

He’d gone to see the priest, of course, to offer to pay for the seventh-day Mass, the year Mass. The priest said that was already arranged. He went to the graveyard gardener, thinking the man would be glad to set up the usual twenty-year contract to tend some flowers and clean the grave, but the man wouldn’t listen to him.

The train streamed through trees that were prickled with ice.

He had his condolence card in the pocket of his loden coat: black-bordered, inlaid with paper that wanted to be parchment, a Rembrandt sketch of a bridge in a black landscape on the cover. He had paid ten francs for it, carefully chosen the middle range of price. “Heartfelt sympathy,” it said, which was not at all what he meant, but that was what all the cards said: the proper thing to say.

They hadn’t even told him.

His fists balled and unballed, whatever he thought. He could recite a sonnet and his fists kept getting ready for a fight. He wished the train was already in Lucerne, that he could be on the connection up to the little mountain town where his father was to be buried. He’d already had far too much time to think.

He was the first family: the scandal, not to be mentioned. When his father and mother divorced in 1945 there must also have been an annulment; his father was a good Catholic. His father had simply started life all over again, a banking automaton living in Zug, and started a new family who would all today stand around the grave and be allowed to see the body and pray their father into death. They had been told, he gathered, first that his mother died with Nicholas in the bombing of Berlin; and then, when one of the kids came home with one of Nicholas’s books, on the early historical plays of Shakespeare, the story had been changed. Nicholas was as good as dead, even if technically alive, and his mother was written out of his father’s story altogether.

He found the name of one of his half brothers in the phone book, and called to ask if he could do anything for the funeral. The man had said: “Yes. You can stay away.”

But Nicholas was much too good a man to imagine a solidarity that depended on keeping someone out. A family couldn’t be that frail.

He was hungry for tears. He had to see his father one last time, make the reconciliation that had been impossible in life; he had to cry.

Stepping down into Lucerne station, he lost his breath for a moment, as though he’d lost his concentration on living.

He didn’t have a choice, he told himself.

He walked down the platform to find the Brünig train, and he saw himself from a distance: a man in his late sixties, too respectable and too old to be troublesome, the kind people trust instinctively when they want a suitcase watched or directions to the ticket office. The very idea of agony in such a man would seem ridiculous to all his fellow passengers if he expressed it for a moment, maybe the first sign of senile dementia, maybe he was drunk, maybe he was simply too old to hold himself in the official and orderly present tense.

He wanted to howl. He bought a sandwich to stuff his mouth and stop himself.

All Helen could do was wait. She went to the kitchen, full of dustless and unsparkling light, and she began to tug ingredients out of shelves and wrappers: two black shining aubergines, some leeks that looked too clean to have grown in earth, red chicory, zucchini, hothouse peppers with skins like armor. She sliced and trimmed and cleaned with a big knife: took the immaculate objects and broke them up and brought out the fine brown seeds that stained the aubergine flesh, the seeds and fiber inside the shine of the peppers. The room took on a faint scent. She tasted olive oil on her finger, and mixed it with hot pepper, soy sauce, and a little balsamic vinegar; then painted the vegetables and laid them onto a hot grill pan. And then the room had a subtle, sugary smoke to catch at the bright light: the air caramelized.

Not enough. The corridor shone, but it didn’t smell of cedar, beeswax, pine. The windows were immaculate; she couldn’t smell the slightest trace of the ammonia that the twice-weekly woman used to clean them.

She tugged the
out of the way and threw herself down on the bed. She rolled to one side, then the other.

She buried her face in the sheets. She was glad she hadn’t changed them since Jeremy left.

She was too damned young to collect souvenirs.

She was lying here, thinking about bliss. But thoughts of bliss, before you knew it, had a way of emptying out and leaving you with calculated pictures: with thoughts of roses, gardens, Alpine stars, of reef water, brilliant pink mornings, no surprises, of opera at seven and escapes on express trains, nothing that could not be put in a brochure or a timetable. She didn’t want that; she wanted something particular to her.

Nicholas should not have gone to the funeral, she thought. Then she tried to smother herself again in the smell of the sheets.

His train arrived at nine twenty-four. He would need a taxi to the church, which was in the next small town. He would arrive there by nine forty-five. The funeral announcement in the newspaper was for ten o’clock, so perhaps he would have time to leave his condolence card, to see his father’s face in the coffin one last time, and then shadow the services that followed.

He was quite still inside his coat: tense and impassive. The mists were shifting, so he could see the white shine and the black skin of the mountains, and catch faint color in the lake waters.

He brought no flowers. He had thought about it, but it seemed too much of a provocation, and too easy to have his wreath put aside or lost. But he wanted to bring flowers. There was a shop by the station, and he asked for white asters. They had them, but in wreaths. He said he didn’t want a wreath; he wanted a loose bunch of white flowers. The assistant brought them surreptitiously and with a bit of a sneer, as though she was selling him something irregular. She couldn’t see why a cross old man would want white asters. If he was going to a funeral, he shouldn’t be cross.

He didn’t mean to shout at her, but he lost time buying flowers and he was anxious. At ten o’clock the mourners would have formed a wall at the graveyard chapel.

The taxi driver was a huge woman with a silver tooth. She saw him with the white asters and said: “Church?” He said yes, but the next town. “The graveyard,” he said.

She drove at a decorous speed, which annoyed him more, and left him by the graveyard.

The mist was still flirting with the ground, pulling up and settling back again. The chapel was an oblong of dark. In front of it was the cart on four wheels they used for moving new trees, old dung, and now his father’s coffin. There was a flat bowl set out to take the condolence cards.

He knew the coffin would be open to show his father’s face. He didn’t know his father’s face, not the ways it must have changed in forty years. If he could see the face, he would at least know his father, know him by sight which was all that there was left to him.

He took his glasses and polished them, absently, as though he was standing in front of some seminar.

BOOK: The Pieces from Berlin
9.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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