- Shall I Translate it for You?, and: Telling Stories about One’s Life
Shall I Translate it for You?
Translated by Lydia Davis
Egon is no longer with us, we have buried him—we, a little band of people. Egon was my friend, and he was my reader. I knew him a long time and really from a distance, one of many in the bar, and he burdened people with tricky questions, he could really speak only in riddles, and when he spoke, he was drunk—because, when he was not, and he often was not, then he was shy and did not speak. When I still knew him only superficially, I would not have believed that he could read, and he surprised me one day with a quotation from my “Jahreszeiten,” and he wanted to find out from me which page of the book it was on, and became truly angry because I did not know—and later it turned out that he really had read everything by me. There would be a lot to tell about him—stories which, back when they were real, could be quite vile, and now, in one’s memory of him, have turned into stories both funny and sad. If I were to write them down here, they would give a false impression of him, so I will leave it be. But we told one another the stories after the burial. They can only be told orally, they need human voices as signs of the affection in memory. Egon was a shrewd, cultured person, a formerly successful professional, a former soccer player, a former referee—in all of them, a former-, and he had left all that behind and was now only Egon—a unique person, one with idiosyncracies and singularities. He would announce himself that way when he phoned me: “This is the unique person.”
Actually, his name was not Egon. That was his nickname. A woman who was the proprietor of a tavern had called him that, and soon everyone knew him only by that name. It was a title, so to speak, an honorary title—the Originals, the Unique, have nicknames. There may have been others who were really named Egon, but only he was Egon.
The woman who had hung that name on him, as it happened, was an old Italian and unlike Egon not shy, but also unique and exceptional. She was really what people mean by an Original, and everyone who [End Page 1] knew her called her Mama or even, Swiss-style, “Mutti,” including, indeed, those who did not use the informal “du” with her. Her bar was her kingdom in the real sense, namely a dictatorship. Mama was resolute and definite about what was fair and proper. To that end, she also made use of a stick that stood behind the stove—in jest, true, but still soundly striking. When a woman I knew happened to come in one day, an old acquaintance, and kissed me in greeting, I knew what I might expect: I came in the next day, and Mama took the stick from behind the stove and laid into me—it really hurt a little bit. But people loved Mama, and people were proud of being noticed by her. And she loved everyone— except the southern Italians, and for her the South began to the south of Milan and Turin. She herself came from the Piedmont, and what people said was that as a young girl she had been sent to Solothurn in order to marry a substantially older man who came originally from the same village, was a poultry dealer in the region, and whose wife had died—he needed a new one. And first, she and her husband sold “Jänner,” which was what she called the chickens, and one had to learn, by listening to her, her defiant notion of Swiss German. I don’t know if she could read and write. In any case, I often wrote letters and postcards for her, and when I pushed them over to her to sign, she would say: “No, you must write ‘Lisa...