CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Pages from My Knapsack:
A Journal from My Time in the Swiss Army, 1939
translated by Linda Frazee Baker
We had just come out of the woods that morning, a gardener’s boy and I, where we had been cutting down young ash trees. To be made into graceful little stilts under a dovecote for the municipal park. This was my first real job, newly begun, the first blueprint of mine that would become reality. Not just paper any more, not just mere lines, words, images. These slight little tree trunks were entirely real, you could touch them, half a wagon full. We were going straight to the carpenter’s shop—
And then the bells rang.
Today, on the eve of the military call-up, all the train stations and bridges are already guarded by brightly shining bayonets. Soldiers in field gray swarm everywhere as if shot out of the earth. One squats next to me in the train corridor so that we have to get up at every station and move our knapsacks. He didn’t know there were so many Swiss, he says with half a smile.
We ride through the night. The windows are all black now, as if we were riding through an endless tunnel. No one here seems really surprised. Only a certain seriousness, a certain bitterness that it has really happened, just as we thought it might. Some pretend to sleep so they can close their eyes. What a hurried leave-taking it has been. Some just sit there, elbows on their knees, and stare at their shoes. Thankfully, there is no singing, and no platitudes either.
After all, what can anyone say?
Only a young woman traveling with us loses her nerve while an old soldier takes her child on his knee. On and on she babbles about her husband, who will be in the auxiliary service. She seems to think we soldiers should melt in sympathy.
Finally, just before midnight, we’re there. We walk down a moonlit country road. People are waving from their windows. Even a little boy in his nightshirt is still awake.
“Evviva la Svizzera!” he cries.
We hardly know where we are. In a picturesque little courtyard where everything looks like something out of an opera. An absurdly big moon hangs over a black roof and a bizarre chimney. No lack of dainty little balconies either, or round arches, or strange figures that gawk from the half-darkness of the decayed arcades. Outdoors in the bogs or fields where the corn grows tall as a man, birds sing and chatter. Or maybe they’re just crickets, I don’t know. And here too, as at the train stations, a sentry strides back and forth—only this time he’s one of us. Under chestnut trees black as ravens, we stand in formation while our names are read out.
What a good feeling to be expected. To know where one belongs.
For today, work is finished; in return, we get bread and soup. Our guns were put in the air-raid shelter hours ago. Once more we pick up our sacks, our rifles, our helmets, and carry everything into the nearby shed where straw has been spread out. Then we shake the moth powder out of our woolen blankets.
It’s been a long day. In the morning, still at my drawing table; then the ride home where everything had been made ready; a quick coffee; and then back again to the train station. A quarter of a hour, a swarm of soldiers and helmets, a single face that means more than anything—and now we crouch here, not just in a different corner of our country but in a different world entirely.
As if time itself has a crack in it, and no one remembers how the two parts ever fit together.
The others, the preponderance of the unit, are not expected until early morning. Everyone is still hoping to see familiar faces.
In the years that are now past, who was always longing for things to change?
Perhaps change always comes from an unexpected direction. Because only fear can move us forward. All that matters is whether you try to evade the terror or absorb it. So why so much cursing? In the end only the heart can decide whether this is a fallow or a fruitful time.
After all, what did peace mean to us when we had it? Without the eclipses of night, why worship the sun? Without the horror of death, how could we ever comprehend existence?
Everything that lives grows out of danger.
The outfitting continues.
Each man gets his own material for bandages, emergency supplies, a gas mask. And then we are all standing there in field-gray beaks. Like mythical pigs or some kind of ghostly wasps. And what does everyone do when they see themselves in this get-up? They sing:
In those mountains you can seeTheir dull and nasally voices come through all the little flaps for exhaling used-up air:
There our life is truly free,A lieutenant gives the order for silence.
Wherever you listen, you hear that you are not the only one who feels like a miserable insect—a bug thrown back by a large and seemingly wanton hand just as, after years of effort, it is finally nearing a way out.
Only a few can go home. One who is furloughed until Christmas buys us all another round of drinks out of pure joy.
All we can do is stare at him, envy makes us so shortsighted. At least in the moment. Every one of us would go with him right now if we had a choice. No doubt about it. And it’s a good thing we don’t. After all, who would really want to sit it out at such a time? Who could keep on doing their own work, calmly and with satisfaction, while everyone else is up in the mountains rubbing their blue hands together? Could anyone really keep on pursuing his own dreams when only women and old men and children are out in the fields bundling up the ripe sheaves? Now, when the young girls are signing up to volunteer at the hospitals?
There’s no holiday from Time, you know.
Not even at home.
Only this morning the rest of us, already equipped with live ammunition, gave ourselves up to the oath of allegiance. A field-gray quadrangle on an open space where autumn’s foliage is crumbling off the trees. Alas, we don’t have a flag. No representative from the government either. Just a captain and his battery, soldiers all, and, not far from us, the silent guns …
Please, no platitudes right now!
We did not ask to be born, nor did we choose our country. But now we cling to it. We love the country that is our fatherland even if we don’t all talk about it, even if it causes us pain. We have seen people who have had their fatherland torn out of them, and they are slowly bleeding to death from it.
But we who have a flag, a tiny spot on the earth where only conscience rules, must first seek our final homeland, and who knows if that is on this earth? We want the infinite, the thing without boundaries—whether you call that God or something else. Not to surrender and make an idol out of the ground that has been lent to us, an idol that will strangle our humanity. We will love and defend our fatherland, not worship it.
“I swear or pledge …”
We hold our helmets in our left hands. Who swears, who pledges—no one listens. Every bright hand is raised on high, and in this moment each man is completely alone. You don’t take the oath for your neighbor, and he doesn’t take it for you. In a manner of speaking, of course, it’s just a settling of accounts. All these years, we had the privileges of being citizens of the Swiss Confederation without ever having taken the Confederates’ oath. Now the hour has come in which we may have to pay. The price, to be sure, is high. Our whole, unique, and never-to-be-repeated existence. On such a morning, when the fading leaves glow under the autumn skies, in this unspeakably cheerful blue, who knows what that means?
We put our helmets back on.
Two people did not take the oath. The captain calls them out, then questions them in private.
It’s all right. They fall back in, and that’s the end of the questions. For the rest of the day, not a single word is spoken about the oath.
As if they were elves, the little children of Ticino help us as we clear out their school, still packed with children’s benches. It has a projection screen, a machine for showing educational slides, a map of Europe as it was until only recently, and an entire table filled with fragrant linden blossoms spread out to dry …
All of a sudden, the children are having enormous fun.
“Eh, la Madonna!” they cry. “La Madonna!”
As carefully as we can, we take everything down that we think is fragile. This is no time for glass. From now on, faith will have to prove its worth on bare walls.
Meanwhile, the vans have arrived. From every possible kind of firm. We spread ourselves out along the ropes and load up the munitions so that by the end of the evening we will be just about ready to move out.
Whether we go, and if so where, who can know?
Once more, it’s a clear night. Only a mist pale as milk over the valley floor, and there, where the rushing stream takes a turn, the gravel bank gleams moon-white.
England and France, we hear, have declared war, or will declare it.
We keep on loading, basket after basket, four grenades at a time. One man blathers on and on about when will it end. Every other minute he asks how late it is. Until someone tells him he’s being a fool. The whole place has the air of a cloister, so quiet and hidden. On the vans that we are loading and overloading until they almost stand up on their springs, the headlights tremble, groping with their electric antennae in the dark thicket. Which not everyone welcomes. Two men, cursing, say there’s a method here. The first shirkers emerge in this work—those who know how, in the darkness, to skip every other turn while the others, who keep on loading, haven’t known for a long time which shoulder to put under the next basket.
Our backpacks lie on the ground in formation as if we were them ourselves and we should open them or pick them up, but we knew that under our neatly folded trousers was a small, almost dainty cadaver.
I woke filled with terror that we were loading our own corpses on our backs.
A little while later we hear the blast of reveille.
Every morning we exercise before the sun has risen over the bluish mountains. Then, all properly warmed up, we eat our breakfast from our mess bowls standing, as if every man were holding out a field-gray trough in front of him. Only a few are sufficiently experienced that they can sit down anywhere on the ground and, cheerfully silent, bare their warm lumps of food.
I read in a letter:
Then I think again of how things will have to be if the worst does happen to us. So much in my life will have to be new and completely different. But I know, too, how quickly all this is forgotten in the moment in which one breathes a sigh of relief. That is the most dreadful thing of all. I am ashamed that I hoped we might be spared, and I don’t want to do that any more.And further on:
This is a time in which everything left unfinished is twice as hard to bear.
Our corporal is a mason, submissive as a slave when it suits him and then again, when his mood shifts, he doesn’t answer at all. He doesn’t shout; he just contradicts whenever he can. When an officer shows up, he likes to talk about orders he claims to have given but never did. His special favorites are those he thinks are university students.
I am truly astonished at my recklessly open display of joy when one day we hear that he has to go to the hospital, probably for a long time.
Our new corporal, a young master painter, could not be more different. He works too hard and is loath to command. During the breaks when we disappear into the nearby bushes, we discover him just as removed as we from the world’s gaze, a small black Bible in his hand.
For now at least, everyone is still spending their free time in the pubs. In one is a very young thing, not especially pretty. A countrified, artless, lively creature full of curiosity about the other language.
“Hoar?” she asks. “What does that mean?”
We give our opinion free of charge.
“Hoar or Who’re?” she asks.
The more we dodge the question, the more insistent she becomes. She knows a few things already and takes a childlike pleasure in German words. Even her little mother, who sits nearby and knits, has no idea what the word means. The soldiers said it yesterday, she tells us …
Waking up, an hour earlier or an hour later—every time, you just sit there, dumb as an animal, staring through your disrupted sleep at the seemingly familiar yet actually strange faces. Again and again, you think it’s just a dream.
“Move out!” they cry. “Move out!”
You pack, you buckle your blanket on, everything in a half-sleep, you take up your weapon, you may give your whole life in a half-sleep. And then we are off, trotting between the nocturnal vineyards, between little walls colorless as the moon, and on down to the vans, whose motors are already running. With helmet, weapon, knapsack, and gas mask, we sit there and shiver. It’s one o’clock in the morning. The alarm sounds.
“Move out!” someone cries again.
All you can hear are the orders sounding back and forth. The auxiliary drivers signal with their flashlights and spring into action. And then, once more jolted into consciousness, we are rumbling through the narrow village.
But not up to the Gotthard pass, and where we are really going, who knows? Once more the whole world just stops, the moon and the war, and your helmet falls forward until it hits the weapon you hold between your freezing fists. If you could just find out what you were dreaming a minute ago …
We stop for a while between unknown houses; the whole village lies in a deep sleep. Our columns need to spread out more. From an open window nearby, a young woman waves. Dark haired and from Tessin, as we call Ticino. Not very pretty.
We take off with a jolt that makes us almost tumble off the gun carriage. And then we are there, on a narrow dirt road, and everyone has to work the ropes. One—two! rings out everywhere in the night. One—two! One—two! You are not the first and not the last to stumble over the barbed wire and lick warm blood off your hand. As soon as the guns are up on the racks, we all take our side cutters and cut down what we need for camouflage. When this is done, we report for duty, ready for action before the first morning light.
Later, we lie under the camouflage until breakfast. Swamp mosquitoes visit our dreamless slumber until our faces and hands are completely covered with stings.
At last, the cocks crow.
At an hour when, at home, the alarm clock would give us quite a shock, we are already evacuating this new post. With a considerable to-do.
And now the first rays are falling over the wide, low valley, sudden and magnificent—like a bundle of glass spears.
All the rumors that we would be going to the Jura region have been forgotten.
Everywhere, signs of domesticity are multiplying. Our captain orders benches to be built of wood so when we eat we won’t always have just the trees to lean on. A carpenter has made hinged mounting brackets for the newspapers, as in one of the better inns. And already we have found our way to a hidden kitchen.
Nearby, in the real inn, things are sometimes much as in Schiller’s play Wallenstein’s Camp. The two scrawny Tessin women who run back and forth the whole evening are not at all uncomfortable with how remarkably gentle and dignified the bold intruders become once they are in the kitchen.
Do we have a hidden agenda?
I rather think so. We need to make a nest for ourselves before it’s too late if someday we want to sit by a warm fireplace, a hot mulled wine on the fire and some cheese on an iron spit …
Our moods, of course, swing back and forth. The same people who were talking about “three to five years” only a moment ago are once more sure we’ll be going home next week.
Only one man seems to have stopped fooling himself. After reading the latest newspaper, he walked over to the barber’s without saying a word and returned bald, his skull completely shorn.
Every day our army costs five million. And every day our physically and mentally handicapped cost one million!
We sit in the meadow. The young doctor, a lively young man from Tessin, teaches us about sexually transmitted diseases. He explains everything very clearly in an unabashed way, with no apology. Which is surely best. He comes up with the jokes himself, anticipating his listeners and leaving them only the plain, painful truth.
For half an hour now, I have been strolling through the village, a letter in my pocket and a bag of grapes in my hand. There’s no lack of little walls on which to sit down or completely stretch out. And once more the crickets are chirping. Just as it was then, on the first evening. Impossible to believe it’s not even a week yet.
Every night we hear this demure buzzing, this chirping over the fields or the swamps where pearl-milk autumn clouds are swimming. Overhead, the stars are shining in a bright space, silent and crystalline above a Nature filled with passionate noise.
There’s much to be said for this life where everything falls away that doesn’t fit in the knapsack, everything you can’t load on your back every hour. So many things get left behind that only recently you thought very important. But one thing you will have forever, whatever happens: the unforgettable memory of those to whom you are close. That, and the faith that everything outside us will go on if we can just keep our internal world in order. The faith that the human heart, even now, is at all times and in all places more real than the “world event” that like a gray ghost, who knows, may seize, crush, or purify us—or perhaps just use us up, leaving us lying at the edge of wide streets down which an army comes.
As soon as we have mastered our own weapons, we are all trained, every one of us, on the light machine gun. There’s no help for it—I mean for the pure pleasure of working with this gun, a pleasure that overwhelms even those loudest in their scorn for war.
Wow, that’s fantastic, they say as soon as they are once more upright on the earth. That is, they add, if you can say that about a weapon.
We are also positively in love with the little cannons our army uses to defend its tanks. From time to time they tear through the village like a raging fire engine. It must be the child in man, I don’t know, or the warrior. Or maybe just the craftsman, who can wax enthusiastic about a swing axle. Or all three at the same time. As we practice changing the barrel on the light machine gun and watch how long each man takes, we are suddenly filled with as much zeal and ambition as if we were the most battle-thirsty men ever under arms!
We practice right on into the break.
Later on, however, the captain called me out after drill. Still a stranger to most of us, he had recently made an excellent impression when he called us together and welcomed us with a few words of manly fellowship.
Alas, the feeling does not seem to be mutual. He tells me I am the most difficult soldier in the entire unit. Not that I can’t do the job. I don’t want to; I don’t have the concept. And so on and so forth. The heavy boots hurt his feet too, but now it’s a question of other things, more serious things.
I asked if I might answer.
For people like me, he added with emphasis, in the most serious cases there were very special kinds of assignments.
Then he fell silent.
In the evening, when we stepped down, I was called out again and allowed to answer in private.
But what could I say?
Of course I could concede—all the while standing at attention—that I knew very well I had made a mistake. Why had else would these words have struck home? The time for dreaming is over. That is a mistake that can cost us our lives. I know. And even more than our lives. I know. I was just thinking about that, and not for the first time. And how can it happen, for example, that at age twenty-five a man goes back to school to follow in his father’s footsteps? Finally he starts out in a respectable, socially useful profession. He gets so far that one beautiful morning out in the forest he is bringing in the first slender columns—
Shall I tell you that story?
On the evening watch, one man smells so strongly of schnapps that we can smell him before we see him. Of course he’ll stay at his post! he says. The more we try to calm him down, the louder he gets.
“Just let one of them come!” he says. “Ready, aim, fire!” So what if it’s a colonel? If he’s there just to be a toy, they should send him home straight away.
Ready, aim, fire! he says. Ready, aim, fire!
Someone has to relieve him. Even if that offends him very much …
Over and over, he explodes. With no thought for any of us. Everything is a swindle, a humbug. Everything is a plot against his esteemed personage devised by a nameless band of extraordinary villains.
Does anyone want to argue the contrary? No, no. Of course not.
“Well now,” he says. And keeps on smoking.
Answering with factual arguments is like throwing water on a firebomb: Everyone gets sprayed. Anything but that. Silence is sand. And after a while, so they say, we can put out every new firebomb with the crudest shovel.
Yesterday, on Saturday, we went swimming. Outside in the river. We could barely manage it, it was so cold. As soon as the first one went in, the rest of us ventured to follow. Out we swam into the swift, torrential waves. To be sure, some of us had to get right back on the bank so as not to be taken with cramp. But it was just magnificent. And probably for the last time this year. Afterwards, we were happy to be in the sun. For almost two hours we were allowed to romp on the sandbars. Since the postman hadn’t come yet, most of us were bare as Adam. It was a really good thing that only the birds saw us.
Today, on Sunday, we are free after eleven but can’t go beyond our three villages.
We write letters.
We play a game of boccie.
As before, we sit out on the river.
We sit there drinking in each moment the same way we would enjoy grapes, one after the other. A warmth still filled with the memory of summer that almost makes us sweat. Only now the rays of the sun have lost their sting. They are mellow and liquefying, as if they have broken off the very ends of their tips. They dissolve on our foreheads and our eyelids, golden and mild. And everywhere you see what makes the present so exciting: the enchantment of the last time.
Why read a book?
Why play another round of cards?
You put your hand down, quite by chance, on a withered root. For some time now, the quiet sun has been brooding on your skin—a sweet, small, glowing sensuality without boundaries. And just then, inside the hand that is hanging down, you feel the shadows. Shadows, moisture, coolness, death …
And who hasn’t thought sometimes that we should experience all of life like this day, as a single, grand, continuous farewell … To roam and not to linger. To wander from city to city, from goal to goal, from human being to human being, always roaming and moving on, even where you love and would be happy to stay, even where your heart breaks when you go … Not to put things off to the future but to experience the moment through and through in a perpetual mutability. And to do this one’s whole life long, seizing things only in order to lose them and then moving on, from farewell to farewell …
Ah, who has a soul with that much resilience!
Sometimes, on a day like this, you almost think you could do it. And perhaps that is why, of all the seasons, autumn, over and over, affects us the most deeply.
Spring is an evolution, nothing more.
And summer is a condition. You lie under a green tree, draw a stalk through your mouth, and listen to the chirping in the meadows. You see the trembling in the haze, in the hot blue, and the still clouds hanging white and hard over the land as if they were made of plaster. And you don’t ask what was, and you don’t ask what will be. Summer has no time. Summer is without questions, like the happiness of love. Summer is the plenty that rests in itself, that is simply there, as if nothing could be any different, as if all were eternal—
How different is the autumn!
Look at the air, how full of gold it is. You cannot get enough of it. And when a little breeze passes by, it brings a slight coolness that is suddenly a little cooler than you expected—and this gives you a gentle fright. Everything is transition, movement and time, ripening and withering. Everything is farewell.
I love the autumn because, like no other time, it turns the sound at the center of our existence into poetry.
Once more we are there, sipping in the moments, and it’s like the mist over the fields and forests, the mist that in so dreamlike a way reconciles the burning colors. That takes the whole world out of its stubborn heaviness, revealing it to be a mere transitory flame, a hovering glow breathed onto a bluish background whose existence we can only divine, or perhaps just onto a dark and cool nothingness. It is life, and that is enough. It is the moment, and that is enough. It is just, over and over, the epiphany of farewell.
Max Frisch (1911–1991) was one of the preeminent literary voices of postwar twentieth-century Europe. In a style that mingled irony with lyricism, he explored the nature of identity and issues of moral responsibility, both individual and collective. Born in Zürich, he traveled widely, living in Switzerland, Rome, Berlin, and New York. His novels include I’m Not Stiller (1954), Homo Faber (1957), and Man in the Holocene (1980), which The New York Times called “a luminous parable” and “a masterpiece.” His plays include The Firebugs (1958) and Andorra (1961). Max Frisch’s journal from his military service in the Swiss Army, Blätter aus dem Brotsack or Pages from My Knapsack (1940), was his first published book of nonfiction. Two other journals, Sketchbook 1946–1949 and Sketchbook 1964–1971, appeared during his lifetime.
Linda Frazee Baker is a writer and translator whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Sakura Review, Folio, and Metamorphoses: A Journal of Literary Translation. She lives in New York and the Washington, DC, area.