Around 1981 I was in school in Italy, took a train to Berlin. Enroute I shared a compartment for a while with an older, proper German Burgher who looked askance of the Innocent Abroad. But I had a bottle of Amaretto & some plastic cups, and his English was very American, so we got to talking, and maybe I wasn't so callow after all.
So, where are you going in Germany?
Why are you going to Berlin?
To visit a German girl I met last month....she's a student in Berlin.
And where is she from?
O-ho! A Franconian girl!
Um, yeah (I guess).........your English is very good, how'd you learn to speak without an accent?
Ah. Yes. I was prisoner in America during the War, I learned a lot of English.
In Mississippi. There were a group of us who worked on farms in the country. We had a camp we lived in, but went out to work each day & returned on our own. We even got paid a bit so we could buy cigarettes and so forth at the stores like anyone else.
You weren't locked up?
No, there was nowhere we could escape to; besides, there was no reason to escape. We all knew the war was lost. When I arrived in America by ship, we were put on a train to Mississippi. Looking out the window, I saw a factory which was building vehicles. Hundreds of them filled a lot in front of the building. I pointed this out to a guard. He laughed & said those cars were owned by the workers. I couldn't imagine such a thing. That's when I knew it was over for Germany.
But we enjoyed life in Missisippi. Many of us didn't want to leave after the war. Some of us fell in love, some became like sons to the families they worked for.
We used to put on magic shows around where we worked. One night we were putting on a show for some very poor, uneducated people. When the magician started to saw the man in the box in half, a man in the audience jumped up & shouted, "Stop! No, don't kill him!" He thought it was real. I don't think they knew what magic was.
So where were you captured?
In Normandy. I had been wounded earlier and was in a rocket unit.....we had these steel frames the rockets went on. We were all kids, hardly knew how to use them and so.
Huh....were you captured around Falaise?
Yes. You know about Falaise?
The smell of all the dead men and horses was terrible....
I've read that....must have been awful. So where were you before Normandy?
Oh....I was in Russia.
Where in Russia, north, south....?
No, not so far north.
Hmmm...Staraya Russa? Velikiye Luki? Demyansk?
Yes.... you know these places?
I've read about them.
He paused, stared at nothing. Then said, "Russia was too big. Nobody could conquer it. It was just too big."
Why I asked this next question I'll never know, but I am glad even today that I did so: what sort of books were you reading then? He perked right up at that.
Oh, we were all reading the Cornet, by Rilke. We didn't understand Rilke, but we read him. We were too young, really.
He subsided again.
Then we mostly sat there sipping Amaretto until he got off in Munich. I'd never heard of Rilke or the Cornet, but back in America I ordered a copy, having no idea what it was. Turned out to be a small book: Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke/ The Song of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke. About 70 pages, 1 paragraph per page, left page German, facing page English. Something between poetry and prose. Something that showed German to be beautiful, artful, mysterious, uniquely expressive. Nominally about a 17th century soldier riding East against the Turk, but that's not what it's about, exactly. Or especially.
I had been used to tourist German, movie German. This Rilke German was nothing like any German I knew of...I mean, can you imagine lush German? Caressing German? Ya kiddin' rite? And so much of the impact of the words didn't translate into English...why not?
Well, I'm not going to quote gobs of Cornet, it's easy enough to find online or at libraries. I'll confine myself to this one line I've returned to again and again for more than 25 years:
Aus dunklem Wein und tausend Rosen rinnt die Stunde rauschend in den Traum der Nacht.
In English: Out of dark wine and a thousand roses runs the hour rushing into the dream of night.
I think it's pretty good in English, but still......not as good. This sentence persuaded me that everything may not be equally expressed in every tongue, and that to access the fullness of what an author intends, the text should be read in the original language. The sentence in English does not generate the mystery, the peace, the calm, the serenity, the (uh-oh, here it comes) je ne sais quoi, the ineffable something that moves me right now.
And to imagine percolating on this for so many years, and yet I'm really no closer to understanding or even putting into words what hold it has on me. This frustration at being unable to express what is very real points me again to life beyond death; I'm a sinful person stuck in a sin-cracked world which stunts my full potential, and I sense it. I ought to, should be able to understand fully at least this single German sentence. Yet even such a tiny thing eludes me. As St. Paul says, "For now we see through a glass, darkly...but then shall I know."
I'm ready for the "then shall I know" part.