Dirk van Weelden – The Example of Their Love
Samiran’s knife calls to mind another knife, a bread knife. I am fifteen years old. It’s a late afternoon in 1973, around five o’clock, five-thirty, and I’m with my mother in the kitchen. After finishing my homework, I like to help her out a little with the cooking. Cooking and growing herbs—lemon balm, sage, and valerian, which help my fevered adolescent brain get some sleep at night—are just about the only things we can do together without falling into the usual recriminations and resentment. My mother is using the chef’s knife, and because I want to chop escarole, I rummage through a drawer for an alternative to the lousy little knife we use to peel potatoes. In the back, behind the wooden cutlery tray with separate sections for the can opener, corkscrew, spatulas, and spoons, I find a large bread knife with a gleaming dark wood handle and a wavy blade.
‘No, I don’t use that one,’ my mother says, stirring the gently simmering eggs. I tell her I’ve seen the knife before—a long time ago, at Oma’s house. ‘Put it away and shut that drawer,’ she says, and I hear the irritation that usually means I’ve touched a sore spot she has no intention of discussing. Like the fifteen-year-old boy I am, I ignore the warning signal and go on asking her about the knife. It takes a minute before she turns down the flame under the meat and turns around. In her dark brown eyes, I can see she’s in distress, but she’s decided to be strong. That will be her role in this story, until the bitter end. And maybe because I’ve turned fifteen and things are finally going a little better with my father, she tells me why she hates that knife, why she hid it.
It’s the knife that—three years earlier, when I was twelve—Gerrit placed with the handle on the steering wheel of his car and the point against his chest, in the exact spot where he believed his heart to be. He drove around like that all night, fighting the urge to drive into a tree or a wall. Toward morning, he parked the car at the dump and threw himself onto a trash heap. But after an hour of looking up through his tears at the stars, he decided to return home after all. After a week-long rest cure, during which he was prescribed so much Librium that he had to be walked to the toilet, he spent months at a clinic in the woods where he did all sorts of therapies. He talked about the past, his childhood, his insecure place in his hectic household, and his distant mother. My mother often had to join him there, because the talk therapy sometimes focused on their relationship. There was group therapy too, if I’m not mistaken, as well as physical exercise and arts and crafts. After he came back home, we had a toy train in the shed made of beechwood, with squeaky wheels and three carriages as long and thick as fingers. My mother didn’t want it in the house.
That old bread knife of my grandmother’s that my father had driven around with that night had become so cursed that it could no longer be used, but it couldn’t be thrown away either. It had to be hidden in a forgotten corner of the kitchen. After my mother’s explanation, I put the knife back in its spot, where it resumed its shadowy existence. It was then three years after the night of the knife, and my father had returned to the demanding job he’d had before he fell into the black hole of depression. That was a huge relief for my family, nothing less than a miracle. It was probably the hopeful prospect that Gerrit’s crisis might someday be truly over, a dark but closed chapter, that gave my mother the courage to talk about it. I don’t remember the rest of our conversation. We must have been quick to change the subject to the gravy, the salad dressing, or the potatoes.
I do still remember that as I nodded and put the knife back in silence, I sank deep into myself, and my sole desire was to slow down time so that I would have the peace and quiet to form an image of what was going on around me, and how I fit into it. What I wanted most was to sit at my desk upstairs in my boyish bedroom, with a notebook in front of me and a pen in my hand, and reflect on that image, the tears pouring down my father’s face behind his glasses, the narrow steering wheel of the Peugeot 404 in his hands, the light of the lampposts glinting off the knife. And think back to the evening not long afterwards when I, a twelve-year-old boy, with my bedroom door ajar, long after my mother assumed I had fallen asleep, heard her sobbing on the telephone (who was she talking to?) and asking how we could go on if Gerrit never recovered, if he stayed unbalanced, and saying we would have to sell the house, and then what would we live on? She didn’t earn enough to support us, and what kind of damage would it do to the boys if the situation dragged on for years, what kind of childhood was that? And what was she supposed to do if one day she couldn’t stand being on her own, without a husband? All hope of a happy, normal life was gone; she had no husband anymore. That’s how it felt now that he was deranged.
I stood listening, staring down at my cold white feet on the unheated landing. In my belly I felt like I was falling, from a mountain or a tower, as if the whole house, with everyone in it, was falling and falling and falling, with no way of knowing when we would smash into the ground.
In the summer after the year I found the bread knife, I was lying in bed on a Saturday morning, sleeping in. It was warm in the room, which faced east and had been absorbing heat and sun all morning. I lay on my belly under a sheet, listening with my eyes closed to the neighbor children gabbling in their sandbox in the backyard and to the singing and rustling of birds in the bushes. My father came into the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. I lay still, on my belly, my eyes shut. With a distracted hand, half caressing, half massaging, he played with the muscles of my shoulders and neck and began to speak to me softly. Did you sleep well? It’s a beautiful day. Do you have any plans? It’s almost noon, don’t you want to get out there and do something?
My mouth still reluctant, my lips heavy with sleep, I started to tell him I’d bought a collection of poetry on Thursday and planned to take my time to read it, with a notebook, in my favorite spot in the woods, halfway between our house and the home of a friend I’d agreed to meet in the late afternoon to make music.
“I wish I’d been able to think that way when I was your age,” my father said with a sigh. I forget the exact conversation that followed, but I remember the gist of it, and the tears that came to his eyes. He told me he had always, as he put it, given himself the cold shoulder. He said there was a connection between your childhood experiences (the things you were taught and made to do, but also what you allowed yourself to feel and expected of yourself) and the chance of a mental breakdown later in life. That was what had happened to him. I had seen the man who, from my twelve-year-old perspective, had been the model of energy and cheerfulness, of being strong and warm-hearted at once, of worldly wisdom and success, descend, from one day to the next, and for no reason I could discern, into a state of utter helplessness, in which no one could get through to him and he no longer wanted to live, because he saw everything as worthless, most of all himself.
I had no response for him, but I did realize how much courage it took to talk about his problems that way. Even though I was lying still in bed and didn’t know what to say, I felt close to him then, and it felt good. A great truth washed over me: namely, that in my little teenage life, I was already dealing with forces and choices that would be of decisive importance for my future. You had to take care of yourself, make conscious decisions about who and what you needed, recognize your true desires, and above all, respect your own limits. Many factors in your life were hard to perceive but undeniably present. You had to be on your guard for the dark forces that dwelled inside you. It was dangerous not to be. The worst thing you could do was drown out your fears and failings, or your longings, with the brute force of willpower, denying everything. That made your monsters stronger, and in time made you vulnerable. The walls you built could collapse at any moment. He should know; he had gone through hell. Yes, he’d been little more than a walking dead man and barely escaped suicide. I was happy, of course, that he’d come back safely and wanted to live again and could work again. And that he wanted to tell me all this. But I had no idea how to make that clear to him, so all I said was that I would get up and take a shower, and that I was hungry.
The accursed bread knife, and the fears it evoked, faded into the background—until one evening about twelve years later.
After earning my university degree in the spring of 1986, I sat at my typewriter for three years, day in, day out, typing essays and stories and two novels, which I thought were not too bad but not publishable. By then I was twenty-eight years old, on welfare, and living hand to mouth. I published pieces about visual art, riding on the coattails of friends and acquaintances who were taking the artistic world by storm. They were published in little art magazines and in newsletters we printed ourselves. My writing sometimes earned me book certificates, but never any money. Your mother was at the art academy, and we worked at a café a couple of evenings a week; she cooked, I washed the dishes. We lived in run-down apartments with low ceilings and foul-smelling drains, terrorized by mice. We had little or no money for books, clothes, or records, let alone vacations. As I watched my friends find their paths, sell their paintings, publish their stories and articles in prestigious magazines, or even, in a few cases, debut as novelists, my self-confidence was at first more or less unscathed. I was sure my time would come; I was just a late bloomer.
That spring, something happened that I’d never experienced before. For months, I’d been engrossed in writing two novellas, which I hoped were finally good enough to interest publishers. I imagined I was almost done with them. Sometime in mid-April, as I sat at my typewriter reading through the manuscripts in question, a chill ran up my spine, raising my neck hairs. An ring of iron tightened around my throat. Nausea exploded silently in my belly. I could no longer believe what I was reading, or rather, it was without question a load of contrived, empty-headed, pointless, pitiful crap. This was not just a little off target. It was a profoundly and utterly excruciating story.
The last thing I wanted was to be the person who had written this.
I was staring into a void. For months, I had happily put my work and faith into this embarrassing nonsense. I had no idea how I could have done it, how I had deceived myself. But it was clear as day that, through every fault of my own, thanks to my blindness and deafness to my own stupidity, I had lost what, under the circumstances, had been my greatest treasure: what the French call bon courage. A dauntless hope in a happy ending.
A week later, I was a nervous wreck, pacing the apartment every evening, unable to sleep. If I could no longer trust my own judgment and, in spite of all my work, my best-laid plans could transform overnight into senseless, grotesque drivel, then I was lost. The only thing that kept me going in those years without money or interest in my scribblings was the prospect of gradually getting better at finding a voice of my own, of mastering the craft and making allies who would help me find a publisher for my stories, essays, and novels. Now I was in danger of losing myself in the house of mirrors my writing had become. I had driven myself insane, without even noticing, until I was producing ridiculous garble with complete conviction. That truth was now exposed as if by a bolt from the blue. I was trapped in a horror movie.
I couldn’t help but think of my father, obviously, on those evenings of feverish pacing, cursing, mumbling. Now I understood why he had lain down on the trash heap, certain his life would never get any better. How ashamed he was by his own self-loathing as he slunk back to the car. I read my old diaries and the secret monographs about literature, art, film, and philosophy that I had written as a lonely student in Groningen. They were clumsy in places, and occasionally ludicrous in their narrow-minded dogmatism, but some passages were eloquent and visionary. No, I could never be such a lucid, original thinker ever again! It was a mystery where it had come from (heredity? upbringing?), but my little farm had been hit by an plague that made everything I grew there fall ill, decay, and reek.
The fear that was gripping me came with this thought: whatever I did, all my hard work and hard thinking, and even my very attempts to escape my illness, would only fuel it and contribute to my downfall. I could hardly believe it: the dream I had cherished with a burning passion had already passed away and failed beyond recovery before the whole story of my writing life could even begin! The dark suspicion with which I was wrestling was that for the rest of my life I would go on sabotaging myself, until I perished of pure self-loathing. Just as Gerrit had in 1970.
I remember the moment, in the dead of night, when I was nearing the point of exhaustion and gave up wiping the tears, snot, and saliva from my chin. Endless hoarse conversation and crying jags had left the muscles in my face and my jaw tense and sore—a stiff mask of misery. It wasn’t the first time your mother had seen everything that was troubling me come out in one great wave of furious sorrow, but this time she was clearly worried. She stopped talking to me and sat down beside me and soothed me, the way you soothe a dog spooked by fireworks on New Year’s Eve. That was the kind of terror I felt, sitting in a far corner of the room, behind an easy chair, on the ground, my back against the wall. Could you take away the set of knives in the kitchen, or hide them somewhere, I asked her. Outside the house, that would be best. She wanted to know why. Because I’m afraid I’ll want to use them if this gets worse, I said. My voice sounded tired and creaky. She climbed onto a chair, put the knives on top of the kitchen cabinet, and draped a dish towel over them.
Translated by David McKay