Wednesday, 3 February 2016

...of impoverished language

Next morning he went to the barber’s in the station, and he was caught up again into the past in the midst of this palatially large, opulently furnished basement, in this splendid chair, under the hot towel - just the thing to soften the beard. As the cut-throat blade moved over his face he tried to judge how the East German state managed to get along in the estimation of its rulers. Pawnbroking didn’t get it anywhere. How often did a pensioner pop his wireless set? The debtors’ prison wouldn’t say on the phone; but they understood the question - it was recognised as a question there - and Karsch introduced himself as a West German newspaper correspondent. As soon as he got there he found himself forced back into his chair with maxims about the social function of a pawnshop in the capitalist system; he asked about the place of interest in the socialist system. The man sat there with his arms set firmly on the desk, then looked Karsch straight in the eyes, jumped up suddenly, relaxed against the desk edge, then returned - his hands stretched out as before - to stare again at Karsch; he affected an unworried tone, spoke slowly as if he really had something to say, but stood when the visitor’s questioning became obstructive. He mentioned the name of Karsch’s paper again, doubted the possibility of a straightforward and other than inimical West German interest in figures, claimed to have none of the files at present: “I’ll give you an example here, pure guesswork, say we put it at ten thousand, well, I’d be equally justified in saying a million, it’s all out of date! And now, you really must excuse me.” Karsch had just begun to speak to the receptionist in the anteroom when the director interrupted them. His mind in a whirl, he went to the pawn office and redeemed his razor; he passed it thoughtfully over his reddened chin - the net profit to date of his initiative.
The incident had involved him. Not so much the refusal of information as the mode of speech drew him on. Karsch felt that in the monstrous sentences of this official he had begun to discern the nature of East Germany for the first time - and found the basis for a report on his visit. He was fairly certain now that he had contacted the ruling power. In fact, after a few inquiries of this kind, he was able to mark off the committed with their peculiar loan words and constructions, their formulas and hesitations, the direct though vacant stare of a parrot-child reciting or a second-rate bureacrat in front of a West German television camera. This form didn’t apply only for foreigners: it was self-sufficient and paraded against the natives too. He began to learn the novel meanings of foreign loan words no longer ot never used in his own country: he noted down the variants of structure and perspective with increasing familiarity, but never learned the language so well as to be able to use it intelligibly. Even in casual conversation with ordinary people he found his way of speaking noticeably ill-adjusted to theirs, for he had missed ten years of their history: it didn’t take them long to tell where he was from. They spoke of distribution, and of production bottlenecks where he could speak only of the wholesale trade and holdups in delivery; they called his hire-purchase the ecconomy payment system. He soon noted exactly the relation of the people’s speech to the idiom of the officials; he would sometimes sit there mentally preparing his next statement, like someone about to speak a foreign tongue, trying not to muff his phrasing. Until he left he remained astonished at the impoverished scraps of workaday language with which the inhabitants rehearsed their allegiance to the regime and, in each case, subsequently dropped into silence or morose agreement. After that June he forgot this latter aspect most easily, since it was nearest to his own practice.

[Trip into the Blue, Johnson, U.]

No comments:

Post a Comment