Constellations

By Marića Bodrožić

Translation Deirdre McMahon

Chapter 1

Telling stories from the history of the human heart is a liberation from the limitations of biography. The German language builds on to a framework within me, on a song of praise, on the memory of the soul. This tapestry of images inside me acquires its own ears. Europe becomes the head in which memory can clothe itself as a person. I live in images; my skin is related to everything both inside and outside.
***
The word childhood was something that could be explored for the first time in the German language. My very name became a planet to be discovered using letters as a catalyst. It was only through coming to write that I became conscious of the implicitness of the Slavic forests buried within me. This underground resource sings out from my first language and allows me at last to be someone who can speak about herself. But it is only in the German language that I first heard myself at home.
The letters of the alphabet form one of God’s ante-chambers in which my own dreams, the biographies of my ancestors are told. (Do I have a point of origin and am I going somewhere?). The word and doesn’t just link me and the sentence, doesn’t just sew up the gaps, it calls forth the possibility of a continuing narrative. And is the set piece of breathing, in which one breath flows into the other, as it does in the invisible world, only that in writing about the world, this hand suddenly becomes visible, as a Jacob’s ladder of meaning, stimulating the lungs of words.
***
Narrative, coming to life in a regular tempo, speaks to me in the German language. It’s like a telephone message from a loved one, a message I want to keep on an answering machine to preserve it forever. Wanting to tell something began with the wish to preserve and protect something of my grandfather. It was because of him I took my first precarious steps into prose. It was a childlike idea, that brought me there, seeing the light of his blue eyes, his pink-tinged apple-cheeks in front of me like a picture that might have been created by a great painter, if he had set himself the task of making the interior qualities of a human visible in colour. My grandfather had a face that painters dream of. For me, his face was always the epitome of form and humanity. The first relative I experienced consciously wasn’t a person; it was my grandfather’s face.
***
This picture of those immortal cheeks and blue eyes, that live on in my heart’s core, is something I have never remembered in my first language. It lodged in German as an occupant of my consciousness, almost like a housemate, and it returned to me so persistently that I took up a pen and tried to describe it. It stayed there until everything the colours of those eyes and cheeks had said to me, seemed to have been told, and until I understood that death is responsible for making us remember the life that has been lived. It reminds us too of what we have missed, of what separates us from life, the sluggish inertia which holds us back from our own capacity to feel. To sense or experience is to love in the language itself.
***
Breath needs to live in sentences. This is what it wants, it works in the service of language. When the heart thumps with excitement or tears roll down our cheeks, breath goes to sleep; breath leaves, goes elsewhere; perhaps at this moment someone else needs it, a growing daisy or a cat who has placed itself selflessly at the service of a human hand lashing out. This human hand would be oblivious to itself, if it were not also conscious of itself as a stone, in which hope lives and the métier of the rose.
***
While breath sleeps, letters cannot find each other, the Jacob’s ladder rests. The inner chamber of language rearranges itself into what can be measured. Silence is necessary to hear letters as they approach the human ear, to hear how they wish to be heard. Silence is necessary to plough up the ego and all the names belonging to it and make them useful and, once again, to stumble on the earth’s new sound. The painter’s red earth lives in semi-colons, in full stops, in commas, in the space between words, between capital and small letters.
This fluidity is something I only experience in the German language, in the way the roots of the letters of the alphabet connect completely with me and my navel. Letters inhabit an inner landscape, where the Slavic lives as rhythm and background music, never as the choir of letters, but certainly singing and perhaps also in the inner part of the air.
My first language never comes to me from the roundness of my navel. But my navel isn’t always simply round. Like everyone else’s, it’s a round scar in my abdominal wall, the insertion point of the umbilical cord. It’s the point of contact between before and after. Before the navel became a navel, there was the Middle High German word ‘nabe’; in the 19th century it referred to a cylindrical centre of the wheel, the hub. My navel connects with the circle of the wheel. Is my navel sometimes too narrow for me?
***
It’s only in German that you could imagine the word Engel or angel having something to do with Enge or narrowness, a narrowness expanding outwards in the letters making up the word for love – Liebe – into the corridors of the imagination and that this narrowness is part of being human, completed and sheltered by the letter L, which draws light to itself from above. It moves from vertical to horizontal to bring the earth something that belongs to her, songs from the interior of light, songs which hurry in a direct line to the fruitful land, on which people build their houses, dreams and pains.
***
In my first mother-tongue the word for love is ljubav, here too, the letter l makes it visible, as my letter-image suggests to me, drawing it into the land of the letter j, which lives largely underground, where plant and tree roots are related to kisses, where they discuss themselves and the future of their colours. This letter dips into the earth like a soup ladle to become something new again later. To me, love and newness always seem to be one and the same, because they sometimes cause pain, whether in the first, the second or any other living language. (And this could be so even if this language were pure silence.)
Now and again names have retained verifiable emotions from my first language. Filomena, for example, came to me, setting itself down like a suitcase, at the doors of the German language. This word wanted to live here and have a permanent address on my other side; it could be spoken to, just like a relative who had travelled from afar, one who needed to experience for herself what belonged to her after experiencing other continents, as an intermediary between the past and the bridges she had built to the present.
***
When I told my sister that, after a long search, I had found this name for a literary character, Sanja and Paula had preceded Filomena, but weren’t quite right, my sister said that Filomena was, in every sense, the right word. And “I used to be that, once that was me.”
***
Whatever this once could have been for her, whether in another life or in the archived breath of all names that have ever been on earth, she had entered an echo chamber with her own voice, and she finally became a grown-up person for me. As the elder sister opposite her, I was permitted to feel like someone who could reach out her hands and be weak. As the elder I had invariably thought I always had to be strong. My sister’s voice now gave me permission to be weak. And her very name, which means the healthy one encouraged that.
***
Her name is Zdravka, and German tongues get a mild cramp even thinking about pronouncing this name, there where all thought begins, in that place where people are equally afraid of themselves as they are of strangers.
Zdrav means healthy and the ka echoes as just a little friend of this healthy person, as a proper someone who could be at home in the mountains, as a carrier of human words, who, in mountainous areas, could bring echoes from one mountain summit to another and remind people of their task of knowing words well, of speaking them properly and not forgetting that there is a great cosmic hat in which anything that has ever been said lives unselfishly.
Within this hat, there’s place to think outside of space; throughout the universe time is like a middle-sized candle which burns as long as its substance allows. It is only on earth, that time looks as if it were truly, verifiably reliable.
***
My sister loves riddles and sees numbers in the air. For her, roofs consist of numbers in rows. I’ve been thinking in numbers for years, she said to me once, and I said to her, only very intelligent people could do that. I imagine now, that for my healthy sister, numbers played a central role, between her first and second languages.
Numbers inhabited her skies like birds, she found it possible to resume the singing she had begun in very early childhood. The only way to retain them was to draw numbers to herself, and out of the narrowness of her longing for a secure place, the counting-angel visited her, made its presence known as it lodged in her consciousness. My parents had always accused her of being a dreamer who dragged the cinctures of nocturnal dreams into daydreaming hours of normality, of everyday life; Father and Mother were unanimous in their belief that nothing would become of her, if she carried on like this.
***
The counting-angel brings rose-quartz, lays it on the heart area, and reads a newspaper in which there is no news, a newspaper made of nothing, of silence that can only be heard by the exposed back of the neck. This silence whispered in my sister’s ear that neither Paula nor Sanja could ever become what Filomena had been for a long time already, and therefore my Zdravka knew that she was this Filomena, who needed to live for a long time, in the mountains perhaps, by a German-speaking lake, where identity-cards have, from the beginning, been petty pieces of paper, but would always have become devoid of meaning if a grass-creature there had asked who a person really is, when the half of our dreams we can express would now cross over into the world of plants, and we ourselves would have to drift and become like the wind with the air.

***
It is conceivable that pine trees have a better sway and poplars bigger spines, with which letters can have equal rights, not simply overcoming the hurdles of the head and the in-between territory of the ears, so that they can sway in a proper breath-rhythm. This light-cord between the ears links the capability of pines and poplars with the possible word-calm of humanity. The light-cord can die when language reverts to wishing, and the desire to have overpowers everything else, when words and sentences must lay themselves down in the underworld, with the nameless dead, whom we fear, apparently because they teach us that there are limits to what can be said.
***
It was in the German language that I began to understand these borders, to believe in life and became capable of experiencing the steadfast insistence of my own memory. Even though this memory can never be thought of as a line in space, it really is somewhat like this and can be attributed to a supernatural continuity. It is related to breath and to the presence of images.
My sense of wonder begins with the alphabet, an echo-chamber of origins, in which I could feel the meaningful sun of an inner belief in my own ability to achieve something great, without stealing it from someone else. Maybe the only valid way of being is one where just taking something is like a fruit harvest where there is no loser, and nothing is taken from anyone except the tree, which, being a giver, does not allow itself to be robbed.
I can have greater freedom in the German language because everything familiar is removed. I had to learn the names of trees anew. A lime was no longer a lipa even though its smell became stronger than in the gardens of my childhood, where weary children’s feet lay along with dog and cat paws and the suffering summer grass, far from future alphabets and beyond where my own name could touch and feel.
***
Even the letter-worlds woven in Slavic within my name cared about the worries of the child, now I am not known by name here, my child-ego thought. No sentence came into existence in it like these in me today. Only the smell of difficulty moved into my new child-ego, bright spaces immediately moved further into my interior. My face first began to let in the shadow of long winter, and the German summer was only allowed in much later. The German summer has a hard time in competition with the Mediterranean one. And who could be better than childhood playmates at bringing this into being? My parents had laid a prohibition in the air which silently sustained my Mediterranean origins. German can hardly spawn a proper summer, none that can compare with that of the South.
***
That’s how it seemed for a long time. But at some stage the German language became a terrain for knowledge and for questions too, and with that, a measure of certainty entered my life. I could only dream it precisely – in German. This flow of language became a moral certainty, of mathematics with its secrets laid out, as if the lost area framed by childhood wounds, having succeeded in escaping, from itself, from me as its governor, into the world where names and words can breathe without having to give a reason, without any excuse or even without any deliberate intention.
Where were we living now, we children asked ourselves, and how had we arrived in this particular country (how does one come on earth anyway?). I thought once, the whole exterior world could, on closer observation, simply turn out to be an invented one, a bit like a theatre and we simply went around ourselves the whole time, into the deepest foreign land of our own lives.
***
Since this foreign country still has no name, one must be found. The reason is always a search for a better life accompanied by the idea that the foreign land is waiting somewhere else for us and we just need to go and fetch it like a small child who doesn’t know yet to whom he will belong. Psalm 81 (v7) says “In your distress you called, and I rescued you. I answered you out of a thundercloud; I tested you at the waters of Meribah.” If Moses had given in to the wrangles of his people, he would never have got anywhere.
***
Really none of us had gone to a place with a different language just for work, even if this seemed consistent with the view from outside. We children simply saw it as being on the move. It was a train journey from coast to coast and then into the interior of the mountains; Austria always provided us with a proper model for this, with its snow in winter and the bright beaming sun in summer, it was as if the sun too, were on the move like us, and just washing its share of higher mountain peaks in passing. Our need wasn’t something new. Our need was the old one. And that’s how it had been for our mother too. She ventured forth, because this venture was her only chance to live for something other than tradition, for honour, goods and chattels, for fields and family customs and sensitivities. She was no migrant-worker. She became one, only because there was no word, back then, for women who had set out on their travels as women, not simply as wage-earners.
This yearning carried her forth; one day she just set off to her two siblings who had found work in a little place in Hessen called Sulzbach. The story of my parents, who met in a church near Frankfurt, is one I can only understand completely in German. In my first language, the tradition in which Father and Mother were bound seemed to be essential. It seemed as if everything said in this language was valid for all time, even beyond time and nobody, especially not my mother, had the right to free themselves from the tyranny of the hours.
***
In German, tradition didn’t make sense to me at all, possibly because the words for wound (Wunde) and wonder (Wunder) lie so close to one another in the German language, as if one word were already warming up for the arrival of the other, so that the future would forever be formed by the power of a single letter, and so that I could recognise that this letter didn’t just want to take a central role in the alphabet of life I had brought with me from the stars, but also wanted to recognise that this distinguished between belief in Life and Death and also shaped the love between my parents. You can’t explain about these two words, but I understand, with every cell of my being, yielding to the needs of my lungs, that the oppositional pair, leading every person moving towards their final parting, is not life and death but Living and Dying; it accompanies and guides each person, for everyone is a kind of border-crosser. Every single person is an inhabitant of this great cosmic hat, where, alongside the names given to this earth, the languages of our planet live, where, in this piece of heaven’s clothing, they have become tangible bodies of stars, tonal effects, numbers, letters and human voices.
***
What is said becomes laid down as a track. I can’t imagine in any other language that the voice itself is a work in progress, in an area of inner exploration, whose borders I have thought out for myself, so I can practise jumping into skin, leaping over rivers and streams, over my own shadow and over every leg stretched out to trip me up.
It is only through being in the process of leaping that I become aware of it, will have experienced my own leap. My own feet are the facilitators of my wishes; they are enablers of my old worry-load, which I throw away with every German word I write, with every sentence in the direction of invisibility, I experience the illusion of worry and its traps, its kind of companionship and the suggestion that worry itself seems so unalterable as if it were a permanent fixture in human life.
***
For many years my healthy sister was troubled, she couldn’t succeed in any life-sentence when she spoke out loud about herself. Everything she said about herself in her first language seemed to escape as an egotistical, evasive utterance; one of us had scarcely tried to say something simple and nice about our own lives than our first language would trip us up as if a herd of its wild horses had escaped out of control, driven by strangers and ridden off without us. Only our brother, the boy, seemed to have proper permission to live in both languages.
Certainly, he had brought this with him from the country of his creation, from his navel-origin in the love-thoughts of our parents. It would have seemed nicer for us if we could have said we had come from Venus, from Sirius, from the Pleiades (or at least from one of their satellites). But that too had to be enough for questioning children who are witnesses of love and thus recognise their right to live much earlier than adults think. This recognition is participation in the secret and makes adults quick to become unnecessarily suspicious of children.
***
My sister and brother belonged in the first language in the way clouds and the sky belong together. One day they unexpectedly took away my right to belong. My brother said out loud, I wasn’t his sister, I was only a stranger’s child. This wound and wonder couldn’t sustain itself in German, hope moved into this language of my freedom and, with every dream housed in German, I hoped fervently that my brother would want to see that I didn’t have anyone else close to me and, without my siblings, would remain an outsider, always alone in this new-language world. Outside our flat, I got myself beaten up for him in the schoolyard because once, at long last! he called his ‘big sister’ over because other boys had set on him, even threatening him with their fists. Without a second’s thought I pulled up my sleeves, set off to where I was needed, to earn the name ’sister’ for myself. After that it seemed to me that I belonged to someone in this German school and from then on, I, too, had a proper name, ‘sister’, which I had earned by using my own hands.
***
Meanwhile, my sister Zdravka was brought from one hospital to another; the emergency services were always coming for her during lunchbreak. At the age of seven she spoke of an inner vertigo. Simultaneously, we forgot the word for vertigo in our first language, we didn’t know if we had ever even learned it, and sometimes when we heard Yugoslav songs (back then before it had been forbidden to say the word Yugoslav, war hadn’t been declared yet), we wept, each for herself because the word tuga, or sorrow, lay over everything, but it still rhymed with duga, or rainbow. But only rain had stayed within us, without its bow. That was blocked out, taking all its colours with it.
***
On German TV screens we saw how our former land was besieged by the cloud of war-speak, how weapons and shots came from nowhere. Having an enemy became commonplace now. The enemy had been sleeping on his weapons all down through the decades. This enemy seemed to have been waiting to strike, to hit out and hit back as it was later called when the word ‘war’ came into the present tense, even for us, as eighteen-year-olds. Now the word didn’t just have an address in German history books, but it made itself at home in our eyes. With those eyes we began to believe in the war and in the images of war.
Some of those we had known and loved drew on new faces with zip-slits in their eyes. They learned the words of power, learned to lay their wills in the clocks of the powerful, they learned and learned, they learned everything by heart and time began to unravel, became naked, day and night became one, time began to drink schnapps, time became a toper and betrayed people.
Now a new time had come. And it contained no past any more, piece by piece, battle-day by battle-day, frontline by frontline, the past was disposed of. Now there was no longer a Yugoslavia; the country which seemed to have united everything within itself, was something only the nostalgic could have dreamed up as a joke. Lives lived for decades, countless hours and steps in one’s own being were annihilated. Little dimples, the birth of children, Sundays, those light-filled August Sundays, preparing food, collecting chestnuts, almonds and nuts, plaiting hair, a worker’s joy at getting his well-earned pay, singing Ave Maria, learning the alphabet, first kisses, first dates, the first word in a foreign language. We didn’t just learn Russian; we be-decked ourselves with Italian, something dilettantish, at any rate. We knew songs by Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger too, and even Nena. People had erased part of themselves in the service of new times and imagined themselves on safe ground. Retrospectively they extracted their own breath as if somebody else had lived and breathed for them all through those years. But who could have breathed for someone else; who can do it now?
***
For me, it was as if I was no longer belonged to the people who could dream in my first language. I still envisaged them as dreamers because dreams cannot be forbidden; however, their human dreams betrayed them and led them like lambs to the slaughter, for the law, for new times, for self-deception. (Deception is always self-deception). Somehow everyone became powerful. Suddenly there were strong people who could do anything. There were no weak, poor, dear faces anywhere, only the victors standing in rows, as if one could really live off the dead.
*****

Sterne erben, Sterne färben:  Meine Ankunft in Wörtern.  Suhrkamp Verlag (2007)
Re-issued by BTB (Random House) September 2016.