Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Magic Language

Everyday when my father returned home from the business, he immediately spoke with my mother. Both of them loved this moment the most, and they had their own language to converse with each other--one that I did not understand. They spoke German, the language of their happy school days in Vienna. They spoke best about the Burgtheater: it was there that they had seen the same plays and the same actors before they knew each other, and they had each returned with individual reminiscences which never came to an end. I learnt later that it was through such conversations that they had first fallen in love with each other. While individually they were incapable of realising their dreams related to theatre--both of them wanted to be actors--together, they succeeded in getting married, against the many resistances that unfolded.

Grandfather Arditti, from one of the oldest and wealthiest Spanish families in Bulgaria, resisted the marriage of his youngest and most favourite daughter with the son of an upstart from Adrianople. Grandfather Canetti had himself worked upwards from a deceiving orphan working out of the streets when young, to prosperity; but in the eyes of the other grandfathers, he remained a comedian and a liar. "Es mentiroso" -- "He is a liar", I heard Grandfather Arditti say once himself, when he did not know that I had overheard. Grandfather Canetti however, held himself above the pride of the Ardittis, who looked down upon him. His son could have had any woman for his wife, and it seemed an unnecessary humiliation for him that his son should marry the daughter of the Ardittis. So my parents held their connection first in secret; and only gradually, with utmost tenacity, and with the active help of the elder siblings and well-meaning relatives, did they succeed in getting closer to the fulfillment of their wishes. Finally the elders yielded, but a tension between them always existed. In their secret moments, the young couple kept their love incessantly nourished through conversations in German, and one could imagine how many stage-couples played a role in this.

I had good reasons to feel myself left out when my parents began their conversations. They would be exceedingly lively and funny, and I connected this transformation with the sound of the German language. I listened to them with the greatest strain, and then asked what this or that meant. They laughed and said that it was too early for me, that those were things which I would be able to understand only later. It already meant a lot that they had exposed the word 'Wien' [Vienna] to me--it was also the only one. I imagined, that their conversations must deal with wonderful things, that one could speak of only in this language. When I had begged long in vain, I walked away in wrath to a different room, which was seldom used, and repeated to myself the words that I had heard from them, with the exact same intonation. Like magic formulas, I often practiced them for myself; and as soon as I was alone, I read out all the sentences or even standalone words, which I had learnt, one after the other, so quickly, that I never quite understood myself. I guarded myself however, against letting my parents notice this, and I returned their secret with one of mine.

I found out that my father had a name for my mother, which he used only when they spoke in German. She was called 'Mathilde', and he named her 'Mädi'. Once I stood in the garden, pretended my voice as perfectly as I was capable of, and called loudly towards the house, "Mädi! Mädi!" That was how my father called her from the courtyard of the garden, when he returned home. Then I ran into the house quickly, went around it, and emerged a moment later with an innocent face. My mother stood there clueless and asked me if I had seen my father. It was a triumph for me that she had mistaken my voice for my father's, and that I had the craft and the cause which made it inconceivably identical to his homecoming call.

It did not occur to my parents to suspect me, but among the many violent wishes of this time, understanding their secret language remained the most violent of all for me. I cannot explain why I did not bear any ill will towards my father for this. However, I nurtured a deep resentment against my mother, and it passed away years later when after his death, she began to teach me German herself.



[This is another excerpt from Elias Canetti's autobiography Die Gerettete Zunge, and this translation is by me.]