Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Armenian's Axe

. . . It was the narrower part of our house through which one entered from the bigger courtyard. It then grew alarmingly wide at the back, and although it covered only the ground floor, in my memory it is more spacious. From the farthest side of the courtyard, one could traverse lengthwise and go round the house, and then come upon the tiny yard at the back, to which the kitchen opened. There lay wood for chopping; hens and geese ran about; the open kitchen was always in operation: the cook shouldered things out, or carried them in, and the little six-year old girl jumped about and looked officious.

A servant often chopped wood in the courtyard. I remember him best: he was my friend, the sad Armenian. He sang songs while chopping wood, which although I did not understand, tore through my heart. I once asked my mother why he was so sad. She said that cruel people had killed all Armenians in Istanbul and our Armenian had lost his entire family there. From a hiding place he had witnessed how his little sister was murdered. He had then escaped to Bulgaria, and my father had brought him to our house out of sympathy. The Armenian must have thought of his little sister when he chopped wood then, and hence he sang those sad songs.

I felt a deep love for him. When he chopped wood, I placed myself on the sofa at the end of the long livingroom, whose window faced the kitchen courtyard. I bent from the window and saw him, and when he sang, I thought of his little sister -- I then wished for a little sister myself. He had a long black beard and pitch-black hair, and appeared especially large to me, probably because everytime I saw him, he was raising his arms with the axe to chop wood. I loved him even more than Tschelebon, the shop-boy, whom I seldom saw. The Armenian and I exchanged a few words, but only few, and I do not know in which language. But he aways waited for me before he began with the chopping. As soon as he saw me, he smiled and raised the axe, and the wrath with which he knocked off the wood was terrible. He would then grow sombre and sing his song. As he laid down his axe, he would smile at me, and I would wait for that smile that he had for me, from the first refugee of my life.

[This excerpt is from Elias Canetti's 1977 autobiography, Die Gerettete Zunge (The Tongue Set Free). I'm sure brilliant translations exist of the book, but I have been reading the German original, and I doubt if Canetti's mellifluous reminiscences can be conveyed in any other language. This section is one of my favourites, and blattantly ignoring the existing translations, I made my own amateur attempt, not only to make his thoughts accesible to my friends who do not read the language, and hence to partake in their pleasure, but also to give me the complaisance to make my own imprint on something so beautiful and personal.]