2024/07/20 - 19:58

The Uncle

In his uncle’s house, Karl quickly got used to the new surroundings. His uncle came to him kindly with every little thing, and from the first Karl never had to learn from harsh experience, which embitters most of those starting a new life in a foreign land.
 Karl’s room lay on the sixth floor of a building, whose five other floors (and three more underground), were taken up with the business operations of his uncle. The light that penetrated into his room through two windows and a balcony door always brought Karl to astonishment whenever he walked out of his small bedroom in the mornings. Where would he have been forced to live if he had scrambled his way onto land as a poor, little immigrant? Perhaps – and his uncle, with his knowledge of immigration law, held this to be highly likely – they would never have allowed him into the United States but would instead have sent him home, not bothering themselves with the fact that he didn’t have a homeland anymore. Because no one was allowed compassion here, and what Karl had read about America in this respect was entirely correct; here, only the lucky seemed to really enjoy their luck among the untroubled faces of their friends.
 A narrow balcony stretched along the entire length of the room. However, what would have been the highest overlook in Karl's home country allowed here for no more than a glance across a street which ran between two rows of rigidly squared-off buildings as it flew into the distance, where the shape of an enormous cathedral rose up from the heavy mist. And in the morning, as well as in the evening, and also in his dreams at night, this street continued on with the always pressing traffic that from above looked like an eternally new beginning, a sprinkled-together mix of distorted human-like figures and the roofs of a variety of wagons from which rose up a new, multiplying, wilder mix of noise, dust and stink, and all of this was seized and penetrated by a terrific light, which again and again scattered from the mass of objects, was carried away and was eagerly brought back and which seemed so real to the bewitched eyes, it was as if this street were covered with a sheet of glass that was forever being shattered with great strength every moment.
 Careful as the uncle was in everything, he advised Karl, for now, not to commit himself seriously. He should test and examine everything, but never allow himself to start anything. The first days of a European in America were comparable to a birth, and although Karl didn’t have much to fear, because you settled into things here faster than if you had just stepped from the hereafter into the human world, you would need to see that your first impression would stand on weak legs and that perhaps you should not let that impression bring into disarray all your future judgments, with whose help you would be continuing your life here. He himself had known of newcomers, for example, who instead of acting according to these good principles, had stood for days at a time on the balcony and gazed onto the street like lost sheep. That would certainly confuse things! The lonely idleness of staring at an industrious New York day would be permissible on a pleasure trip, and maybe even, with a few qualifications, recommended, but you could surely say, even if you exaggerated, that it would spell utter ruin for someone who had to stay here. And his uncle actually made a cross face when he found Karl on the balcony during one of his visits, which he always made once a day and always at a different time of day. Karl noticed this right away and consequently refused himself, as much as possible, the pleasure of standing on the balcony.
 It was not the only pleasure that he had. An American writing desk sat in his room, of the best sort, like his father had wanted for years and had tried to buy at all different kinds of auctions for a cheap and reasonable price, without ever having succeeded, on account of his small income. Of course, this desk was not to be compared to those allegedly American desks that hang around at European auctions. It had, for example, a hundred compartments of varying sizes in its top part, and the President of the Union himself would have been able to find a fitting place for each of his files, but there was also a regulator on the side, and you could, with a turning of the crank, achieve a variety of rearrangements and new fittings suited to your pleasures and demands. Thin partitions on the side sank lazily and formed a new floor picking itself up or a ceiling rising with new compartments; even after one turning, the top part had a completely changed display, and everything moved according to how you turned the crank, either slowly or unreasonably fast. It was the newest of inventions, but it reminded Karl vividly of the nativity play back home, shown to astonished children at the Christmas Fair, and Karl had also stood there in front of it, packed into his winter clothes, and without interruption had compared the turning of the crank, which an old man guided along, to the effects on the nativity play: the faltering procession of the three holy kings, the radiance of the star and the hesitant life in the holy stable. And always, it seemed that his mother standing behind him wasn’t following the events nearly enough, he pulled her to himself until he touched her with his back and pointed out to her with loud shouting all the hidden aspects, perhaps a rabbit that alternately stood up from the grass like a tiny man and then made at a run, until his mother covered his mouth and, most likely, fell into her earlier carelessness. Admittedly, the desk hadn’t been made to remind him of such things, but in the history of inventions a similarly vague connection probably existed as it did in Karl’s memory. The uncle, as opposed to Karl, was not happy with the desk, he had even wanted to buy an ordinary desk for Karl, and such desks were all provided with the same new fittings, which had the advantage that they could be attached to older desks without bringing in a huge cost. After all, his uncle did not refrain from advising Karl to, if possible, not use the regulator; to reinforce the effectiveness of this advice, his uncle claimed that the machinery was very touchy, easy to ruin and very costly to restore. It wasn’t difficult to see that these comments were just excuses, although on the other hand you had to say that the regulator was very easy to lock in place and yet his uncle had never done so.
 In those first days, when frequent conversations naturally had taken place between Karl and his uncle, Karl had said that he could play the piano – only a little, with the basic knowledge his mother had given him, but he greatly enjoyed it. Karl was fully aware that such an explanation was simultaneously a request for a piano, but he had looked around enough to know that his uncle in no way needed to economize. Nevertheless, this request had not been granted right away, but about eight days later his uncle said, almost as if he were grudgingly confessing it, that the piano would be installed, and Karl, if he wanted, could supervise the transport. Altogether it was light work, but not one bit easier than the transporting itself, because the building had its own freight elevator, in which an entire moving van could fit without trouble, and in this elevator the piano floated up to Karl’s room. Karl could have traveled in the same elevator as the movers and the piano, but right beside it stood a personal elevator free for use; he traveled in this one, held himself at the same height with the other elevator by means of a lever and looked fixedly through the glass walls at the beautiful instrument that was now his property. When he had it in his room and struck the first note, he received such a foolish joy that, instead of continuing to play, he sprang and stared at it in amazement from a distance, his hands on his hips. The acoustics of the room were admirable as well, and it took away his initial, small unease at living in an iron house, entirely allowing that unease to disappear. Actually you also noticed that even though the room seemed so metallic from the outside, not the smallest detail of its iron construction could be seen, and nothing could disturb the complete comfort of its furnishing. Karl hoped for quite a bit from his piano playing after the first few times and wasn’t the least bit ashamed to ponder while half-asleep the direct influence this piano playing could possibly have on his American relationships. When he played an old soldier’s song from his homeland, which the soldiers sing from window to window as they lean out of the barracks windows and look out at the dark square, it resonated oddly in the noise-filled air of his open window – but he looked across the street, it was so unchanged and just a small piece of a giant cycle that no one could stop without knowing all the powers effecting that cycle. The uncle tolerated the piano playing, said nothing against it, especially because Karl, without having to be told, only rarely allowed himself the pleasure of playing, and he even brought Karl the sheet music to American marches and also, of course, the national anthem, but it wasn’t the joy of music which forced him to ask one day if he would not want to learn the violin or French horn as well.
 Of course learning English was Karl’s first and most important task. A young professor from a trade school appeared at seven o’clock in the morning in Karl’s room and found him already sitting at his writing desk with his exercise book or committing something to memory as he paced back and forth in the room. Karl saw he could never be in enough of a rush to learn English and that it was through quick progress that he could make his uncle extraordinarily happy. And while at first his uncle had been limited to greetings and goodbyes, soon an ever greater portion of the conversations were done in English, so that at the same time intimate topics began to turn up. The first American poem Karl was able to recite, the description of a fire, made his uncle deep and serious with contentment. At the time they both stood by a window in Karl’s room where the brightness of the sky had already passed. The uncle stared out of it and struck his hands together at length and at regular rhythm with the verse, while Karl stood next to him with rigid eyes and struggled through the difficult poem.
 The better Karl’s English became, the greater his uncle showed a desire to bring him together with his associates, and he arranged for the English professor, for the time being, to always be somewhere near Karl at such meetings. The very first associate, whom Karl was introduced to in the morning, was a thin, young, unbelievably supple man, whom the uncle led into Karl’s room with special compliments. It was obviously one of those millionaire’s sons who has turned out rather badly from the standpoint of his parents, whose life has gone enough lost so that an ordinary person wouldn’t be able to follow any one of this young man’s days without pain. And since he knew or suspected this, whenever he met others, there was in his lips and eyes an incessant smile at his good luck, so far as he could manage, which seemed to apply not only to the people across from him but also to the entire world.
 With this young man, a Mr. Mak who came completely approved by his uncle, it was mentioned that they together, at half past five in the morning, should go to a riding school or ride in the open air. Karl hesitated to accept at first, since he had never yet sat on a horse and wanted first to learn a little about riding, but since his uncle and Mak tried so hard to persuade him that riding wasn’t an art, it was pure pleasure and healthy exercise, he finally agreed. Now he had to get out of bed at half past four and regretted it, because he suffered from drowsiness due to all of the steady attention he had to spend during the day, but he lost his regret once in the bathroom. The sieve of the shower spanned the entire length and breadth of the tub – which of his schoolmates back home, be they ever so rich, possessed so much just for themselves – and there Karl lay outstretched, in this shower he could spread out his arms and allow the streaming of the lukewarm, then hot, then lukewarm again and finally icy water just as he liked, either over part of him or all of him. How he laid there in the few remaining pleasures of sleep, catching gladly with his closed eyelids the last, individual, falling drops, which opened up and fell over his face.
 At the riding school, where his uncle’s automobile dropped him off from on high, the English professor waited for him prepared, whereas Mak always came later. But he could afford to come later, because the lively riding only really began when he was there. Didn’t the horses rear up from their present nap when he entered, didn’t the whip crack more loudly throughout the room, didn’t there suddenly appear a revolving gallery of different persons, spectators, horse-attendants, riding students or whatever else they might be? Karl made the most of his time before Mak’s arrival, running through only the most basic of preparatory riding exercises. There was a taller man there, who could reach the highest spot on a horse’s back with scarcely an outstretched arm and who always gave Karl his lesson, which only lasted a quarter of an hour. The successes Karl achieved there were not particularly great, and he learned in passing some English cries and complaints, which he uttered during these lessons breathlessly to his English professor, who always leaned against the same gatepost, most of the time very much in need of sleep. But almost all dissatisfaction with the riding stopped when Mak came. The tall man was shipped off, and you heard almost nothing else in the always half-dark hall but the hoofs of the galloping horses, and you saw almost nothing else but Mak’s outstretched arm, with which he gave Karl commands. After a half-hour of this pleasure passing away like sleep, it was called to a stop, Mak was in a great hurry, said goodbye to Karl, if he had been satisfied with the riding he clapped him on the cheek, and went out through the door by himself, on account of his great hurry. Karl then took the professor with him in the automobile, and they traveled to their English lesson, because traveling through the heavy traffic of the large road, which led directly from the riding school to his uncle’s house, would have cost too much time. Besides, soon enough the English professor stopped accompanying him, because Karl, who felt guilty for needlessly bothering a tired man at a riding school, asked his father to relieve him of this duty, since his English communication with Mak was very simple. After some reflection, the uncle gave in to this request.
 It took a relatively long time before the uncle made up his mind to allow Karl a small look at his business, although Karl had often asked for this. It was a forwarding and receiving business such as wasn’t found in Europe, so far as Karl could remember. The business existed chiefly as a middleman, which, however, didn’t just ship the goods from producers to consumers or sometimes to dealers, but instead handled the shipment of goods and raw materials to the great factory conglomerates and also handled the trading in-between them. It was therefore a business concerned with a tremendous undertaking of buying, storing, transporting and selling, and it needed to support by telephone and telegraph the ceaseless communication with clients. The hall of the telegraphs wasn’t smaller than but larger than the telegraph station in his home city, which Karl had once been led through with the help of a knowledgeable schoolmate. Wherever you went in the hall of telephones, you saw the doors of the telephone boxes opening and closing, and the noise tangled up the senses. The uncle opened the closest of these doors, and you saw in the spreading electric light one of the employees, indifferent to the clamor of the doors, whose head was spanned by a steel band that pressed the headphones down upon his ears. His right arm, as if it were especially heavy, lay on a small table, and only the fingers twitched inhumanly steady and fast as they held a pencil. He was very sparse with the words he spoke into the funnel, and you even saw he might have had an objection to something coming out of the speaker, he wanted to ask for something more precise, but upon hearing a few certain words, he was forced to lower his eyes and write before he could carry out his intention. He must not speak, the uncle explained to Karl, because the same report that this man is taking down is being taken down by two other employees and then compared, so that the errors will most likely be cut out. At the same moment that Karl and the uncle were walking out the door, a trainee slipped in and came out afterwards with the transcription. Right through the middle of the hall, a constant traffic rushed here and there. No one said hello, helloes had been abolished, everyone attached himself to the steps of the person in front of him, walking ahead and looking at the floor on which he wanted to hurry along, or otherwise glancing at a few words or numbers on the paper which fluttered with his footsteps as he held it in his hand.
 “You’ve really brought it far,” Karl said once during a walk through the company, which took many days to look through, even if you only glanced at each department.
 “And I’ve set it up myself over thirty years, you must know. I once had a small store by the harbor, and if, in one day, five boxes were unloaded, it was so very much and I went home all puffed up. Today, I have the third largest warehouse on the docks, and that store is now the dining room and tool shed for the sixty-fifth group of my longshoremen.”
 “That borders on the miraculous,” Karl said.
 “Everything develops very quickly for you here,” the uncle said, breaking off the conversation.
 A day came when the uncle showed up just in time for dinner, which Karl thought he would take alone as usual, and he invited Karl to dress dark and formal and come with him to a dinner, where two business friends would be in attendance. While Karl changed in the next room, the uncle sat down at the writing table and looked through Karl’s English notebooks, slamming his hand on the table and yelling loudly, “How distinguished!” Doubtless, when Karl heard this praise, his dressing went all the better, even though he was already fairly sure about his English.
 In his uncle’s dining room, which still stuck in his memory from the first evening of his arrival, two tall, large men rose in greeting, the first a certain Green, the second a certain Pollunder, which became obvious during the table conversation. The uncle took care to say scarcely one careless word about either of his colleagues, and it was always left to Karl to figure out through observation their essential or interesting characteristics. During the meal only intimate business matters were discussed, which meant a good lesson in business expressions for Karl, and it allowed Karl to busy himself with his meal, as if he were a child, who had to be allowed to eat until it was full, until Mr. Green bent over to Karl and asked, with an unmistakable effort to speak in the clearest possible English, what were Karl’s first impressions of America. Enveloped by a deathly silence, Karl answered in a somewhat detailed manner, glancing sidelong now and then at his uncle and seeking to thank them through some pleasant New Yorker expressions. At one such expression all three gentlemen laughed together, and Karl was afraid he had made a crude mistake, but no, Mr. Pollunder explained, so far he had spoken quite successfully. This Mr. Pollunder seemed to get a special pleasure out of Karl, and while the uncle and Mr. Green returned to the business conversation, Mr. Pollunder let Karl shift his chair closer to him, asking Karl at first many things about his name, his origins and his trip until he finally allowed Karl to rest as he himself laughed, coughed and hurriedly told Karl about himself and his daughter, with whom he lived on a small estate near New York, where he could only spend time in the evenings, because he was a banker and his job held him in New York all day. Karl was immediately invited in a most cordial fashion to come out to this estate, such a fresh, new American needed to take a break from New York sometimes. Karl asked his uncle at once for permission to accept this invitation, and his uncle gave this permission, apparently with joy but without naming a specific date or even allowing consideration of it, as Karl and Mr. Pollunder had expected.
 But already by the next day Karl was ordered into the uncle’s office – his uncle had ten different offices in this building alone – where he found both his uncle and Mr. Pollunder lounging in easy chairs, somewhat taciturn. “Mr. Pollunder,” the uncle said, he was barely recognizable in the evening dimness of the room. “Mr. Pollunder has come to take you to his estate, like we said yesterday.” “I didn’t know it would be today,” Karl answered. “Otherwise I would’ve prepared.” “If you’re not ready, perhaps we should move the visit to a better time,” the uncle said. “What’s this about preparation?” Mr. Pollunder yelled. “A young man is always prepared.” “It is not on his account,” the uncle said to his turning guest, “but he would still have to go into his room and you would be delayed.” “Now is a good time,” Mr. Pollunder said. “I took delays into consideration and closed my business early.” “You can see,” the uncle said, “what kind of troubles your visit has already caused.” “I’m sorry,” Karl said, “but I’ll be right back,” and wanted by now to spring away. “Don’t rush yourself,” Mr. Pollunder said. “You’re not causing me the slightest trouble, on the contrary, your visit makes me nothing but happy.” “You’ll miss tomorrow’s riding lesson, did you cancel it?” “No,” Karl said. The trip he had taken great joy in was starting to become a burden. “I didn’t think –” “And despite this you’re going to go away?” the uncle continued to ask. Mr. Pollunder, that friendly man, came over to help. “We’ll stop by the riding school and put things in order.” “That sounds acceptable,” the uncle said. “But Mak will be expecting you.” “He won’t be expecting me,” Karl said, “but he’ll manage.” “Is that so?” the uncle said, as if Karl’s answer wasn’t the least bit justified. Again Mr. Pollunder voiced the deciding factor. “But Klara” – she was Mr. Pollunder’s daughter – “she expects him too, moreover she expects him this evening, and certainly she has value over Mak?” “Certainly,” the uncle said. “So go into your room already,” and he slapped the armrest of the easy chair a few more times, as if he had no choice. Karl was already by the door when his uncle held him back with one question: “Will you be here for your English lesson early in the morning?” “But!” Mr. Pollunder cried and twisted himself around in his armchair for astonishment, so far as his girth allowed. “Isn’t he allowed to stay at least until tomorrow? I’ll bring him back early the day after tomorrow.” “That is not a possibility,” replied the uncle. “I cannot allow his studies to come into such disarray. Later, when he has his own regular, working life, I will gladly permit him more time to follow such a cordial and honorable invitation.” “What a contradiction!” Karl thought. Mr. Pollunder had become depressed. “For an evening and a stay overnight, it’s almost not worth the trouble.” “That is what I meant,” the uncle said. “You take what you can get,” Mr. Pollunder said, and laughed again. “So I wait!” he called to Karl, who, since he didn’t say anything else, hurried away. When he came back ready for travel, he only found Mr. Pollunder in the office, his uncle had gone away. Mr. Pollunder shook both of Karl’s hands happily, as if he wanted to make sure as much as possible, that Karl was still coming with. Karl, still worked up from all the hurry, shook Mr. Pollunder’s hands in return, he was very happy to take the trip. “Wasn’t my uncle upset with my going?” “Not at all! He didn’t mean that seriously. He just takes your education to heart.” “Did he say to you that he didn’t mean all that earlier stuff so seriously?” “Oh, yes,” Mr. Pollunder said, stretching it out to prove he couldn’t be lying. “It’s strange he only reluctantly gave me permission to visit you, even though you’re his friend.” Though he wouldn’t confess to it, Mr. Pollunder couldn’t find an explanation for that, and both thought longer about it as they traveled through the warm evening in Mr. Pollunder’s automobile, even though they spoke of different things.
 They sat close to one another, and Mr. Pollunder held Karl’s hand in his as he explained. Karl wanted to hear a lot about this young lady Klara, as if he were impatient with the long trip and could, with the help of these explanations, get there earlier than he really would. Although he had never traveled through the streets of New York at night, and even though they changed directions as if in a whirlwind and the noise raced by as if not caused by man but by some strange element, Karl, as he tried to pick up Mr. Pollunder’s words, concerned himself with Mr. Pollunder’s dark vest, over which a golden chain quietly hung. On the streets, where people were brought to the theaters in a great hurry on foot and in vehicles with a great and undisguised fear of being late, they came through some transitioning areas into the suburbs, where their automobile was guided again and again into side streets by police officers on horseback, because the large streets were for the demonstration of striking metalworkers, and only the important traffic could be allowed into the intersections. The automobile crossed through dark, musty, echoing alleys into  a street as large as a plaza, and on either side the view never seemed to end, the sidewalks were filled with a moving mass of tiny steps, whose song was more uniform than the human voice. Where the street was cleared away, however, you saw police on motionless horses, or flag-carriers, or banners spanning the street, or colleagues or orderlies surrounding the union boss, or an electrical streetcar that hadn’t gone fast enough and now stood empty and dark while the boss and the conductor sat on the platform. Small groups of the curious stood far off from the actual demonstration and wouldn’t give up their spots even though they weren’t too sure about the entire event. Karl, however, leaned happily on the arm which Mr. Pollunder had thrown around him, convinced that he would soon be a welcome guest in an illuminated country house surrounded by walls and guarded dogs, and it did him a world of good, and when he began to feel sleepy, he no longer perfectly understood everything Mr. Pollunder said, so he picked himself up from time to time and rubbed his eyes, in order to see if Mr. Pollunder noticed his sleepiness, because he wanted at all cost to keep him from knowing that.

Revision: 2021/01/09 - 23:40 - © Mauro Nervi

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