Friday, July 08, 2016

A Translation of "Das Armenhaus von St. Laurin," a Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

The Poorhouse of St. Laurin

From the poorhouse, which had been up on the hill here for centuries, there ran a footpath leading to a broad street that stretched all the way to the center of the metropolis--and from there you could find your way to anywhere in the world.  Once you had put the ancient gate behind you, you would find yourself standing in the open air and you would behold the sky, which at times was more beautiful here than elsewhere.  The nuns would say their prayers in the garden, and the old men would chat with the old women about the young world.  They had been doing this for years, and when they woke up in the morning, they would behold this world with their bloodshot eyes and reflect how wonderful it would be to be able to behold just a little longer those trees that were sometimes white with the pollen that the wind would waft their way in May and June, the pollen from those sweet, soaring peach blossoms and cherry blossoms.
Most of the old people here were like wizened trees that bowed under the force of tempestuous winds and refused to accept that someday soon they were going to be snapped off like mere kindling-twigs and burnt to ashes.  They tried harder and harder to stoop slowly and equably in the hope of finally reaching that brilliantly scintillating water of purity that they had thirsted for since the first day of their lives.  And in the evenings they would sit on the benches in front of the St. Laurin poorhouse, and their old heads were white like the crowns of the young cherry trees when the sun shone on them...
A couple of years earlier you would have also heard the whirring of a spinning wheel from time to time—but you didn’t hear it anymore, because on a certain spooky night the old woman who had treadled it from morning till evening had died without having bequeathed her secret to anybody.   Everybody had been very mournful at the time, and two of the old people tried to treadle the abandoned spinning wheel—but they couldn’t get it to work.  From that point onwards nobody in the house knew how to spin cloth, and so day after day the sheep’s thick fluffy whiteness kept piling up, and nobody knew how to deal with it.  In those days there was also an old man who had whittled clogs out of pieces of ash wood for the other inmates.  When he died, quite suddenly, there was some wood left over, along with a pair of clogs that he had begun making, and the others shook their heads and whispered peculiar things to each other.  After that you would see all the old people sitting on the house benches, embroidering and knitting, thinking and singing, and a number of them looked exactly as though they were thinking about nothing but their approaching death…
But there was also a crowd of people in front of the poorhouse, an entire world in front of the old door, through which a person walked every hour, and you never would have had enough time to count all those people out there or even to get to know them.  There were good people and bad ones, poor ones and rich ones.  You could look at some of them and then at others of them, and eventually you no longer knew exactly which of them were poor and which of them were rich.  
The street that ran down from the poorhouse into the metropolis was chock-full of destinies.  In that street there were many thousands of heads, which appeared in the window frames every morning, young heads and old ones, blond ones and brunette ones; and in each of these heads something was happening.  But none of them knew what was going on in any of the others, much as each of them would have liked to know.  But all the people in the street had a business, a profession, a job, something of some sort to do, a calling for which God had placed them in the world; they all knew more or less what their individual destinies required of them…The liquor store owner, who lived at the end of the street, spent his entire life selling nothing but plum brandy and wine and cordials, and in the evening he counted his money, after he had lowered his gray rolling shutters.  The baker’s apprentice rose at three in the morning and went to bed at six in the evening, and his mother was in bed by four, because she was ill and had brought a bunch of children into the world.  Then there were also tailors and carpenters, teachers and porters, shoe-repairmen, actors, sandal-makers, postal clerks, warehousemen, bricklayers, upholsterers and streetcar conductors, hospital nurses and train car-cleaners.  There was also a pitiful secondhand dealer who always coughed when you took him by the hand, and who had a daughter who was very beautiful and on whose happiness he had pinned great hopes–until he died…Many of these people spent their entire lives standing in the street and dug up dirt, chipped concrete and pulled handcarts full of quicklime, handled buckets on broad rooftops, operated cranes, stood with wet feet in the gutter, crawled around in dark unwholesome sewers and therefore were badly paid and despised…and so nobody was very much surprised when every now and then one of these people went and emptied his bucket of water on to the head of one of the others, threw down his pickaxe, pocketed his pay packet and vanished; when one fine day he resurfaced with his body sun-brazened and battered beyond belief, with wildly unkempt hair and a mind sorely unhinged by the world, and with thousands and thousands of worthy thoughts that he could never give vent to, because he was despised—and he walked, onwards and onwards—and finally jumped into some sewer somewhere amid the gray rows of houses, so that nobody could ever discover a trace of him again, apart perhaps from a waterlogged shoe, a shirt, some paper on which he had written what he was called, what was depressing him, and what, in his heart of hearts, he actually was…  
The poorhouse was very old and so was the world on its doorstep, along with the city.  Sometimes the people here seemed older than the poorhouse and the city combined.  They were all saddened by the fact that there was no longer anybody in the house who could spin cloth or whittle clogs.  They no longer did much of anything, because their lives were over.  They simply stood at the door waiting for somebody new to be admitted…they queued up one right after the other.  Most of them were still around pretty much solely for the sake of discharging the greatest of all earthly duties—dying.  Some of them died beautifully here and others of them died hideously.  But once they were dead, they all basically looked as if they had spent their entire lives in one another’s company and as if they were all brothers and sisters…
There were so many of these brothers and sisters.  They all had but a single mother, a great, good sun, and a father, the earth, and a handful of good fortune and a handful of debt, nothing more…Together they comprised a veritable family, the old and the young, the ones standing outside and looking in through the windows, the poor and the rich, born or unborn…And all the while both those inside the poorhouse and those on its doorstep kept wondering who among them could once again treadle the spinning wheel or whittle clogs or do anything else to impart some joy and variety to the hours that continued to march steadily past…          

THE END

Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 479-482. Originally published in Salzburger Volkszeitung, October 10, 1953.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

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