Originally posted April 2018.
"What You Read" is a short story which will be released in ten parts in this blog. It is inspired by the work I did for “The Pendulum”. It revolves around the question of what the books we read say about us.
The Bertelsmann order arrived once a month at the tiny border outpost between Brazil and Paraguay, where you had gone into self-imposed exile with your husband in 1960. At home in the Federal Republic, prosecutors wrenched open a past that previously you thought had been entombed by the need to look ahead. Your husband, my grandfather, ordered books from this German publisher about Adenauer, the post-war Chancellor of the Federal Republic, who spoke in favor of drawing a line under history, and Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s assault on Russia that turned the fate of the war. Grandfather, who remained afraid of the noose of justice until his natural death, wanted everyone else to forget, while he reserved the right to look back at where the military strategy, and the chance to grab more land in the Ukraine, had failed. The Holocaust was a parenthesis to him, which was quite alright in your new surroundings. In the nearby town where ranchers occasionally gathered to determine how they were going to protect the area from drug traders, strong men were admired.
Among the books you ordered was "Der Vater" (The Father), a novel about Frederick I, Frederick the Great’s father and the founder of the Kingdom of Prussia, that became a bestseller in 1935, but that had largely been forgotten or rejected because of its association with the time period in which it was published.
It was one of the last books to remain in the shelf above your bed, where you lay with intensifying nightmares under the camel-fur cover. I tried not to look around the apartment at your things, as you came ever closer to death. Other members of the family had already decided what they wanted to have once you had died, and sometimes you assigned things to them. I couldn’t bear it, and attempted not to look at anything in your apartment for too long. You had always been generous with me, passing on things that had been most precious to you over the years: your grandmother’s swirling garnet brooch, your best winter hat and coat, and your heavy silver serving spoons. You offered all of your photo albums that included war-time images of the occupation, adding that your children intended to burn them once you had died. I accepted your offer, since the things around you were world heritage to me and should never be destroyed.
Once, when I thought you weren’t looking, I removed this last thick novel of yours from the shelf. It was no longer sufficiently well known to have been recorded as an audio book. No one in the family cared much about it, because no one else read like we did.
“It’s a book about the suffering of kings, who must endure more than ordinary people,” you said, as you caught me flipping through the pages.
I quickly slammed the book shut, embarrassed that you had caught me looking through your things.
“Do you want it?” you asked, holding your ailing body up against the doorway.
Into your eighties you had led walking groups through the Black Forest, but now you didn’t walk much anymore, and barely ever changed out of your blue satin bathrobe and night shirt. Your offer unleashed an awful struggle inside of me. I hated the idea of taking more of your things, but the prospect that this book might help me to solve the riddle of you was irresistible.
“Yes, if you don’t mind,” I said sheepishly, looking at the sober grey book that had suddenly become mine.
On the journey home, I began reading eagerly, but encountered a dense, nearly indigestible historical account of the nascent Prussian kingdom. Impatient that the book might not deliver the answers I sought, I turned to the author description on the last page. After reading the short text, it struck me that while remorse had never crossed your lips, you may in fact have felt it inside. How I hoped for it.
Jochen Klepper, the author, was the son of a pastor who had interrupted his studies in theology to become a writer in Berlin in 1932, shortly after he had married a Jewish widow with two daughters. A decade later, after all efforts to spare his wife and one of her daughters from deportation had failed, he switched on the gas in their Berlin apartment, so that they could die together. I pictured you on the terrace of your Brazilian ranch, out of the glare of the sun that your skin could not tolerate, reading the work of this energetic novelist, whose life and career your movement had cut short. What thoughts went through your head, what feelings through your heart?