Sunday 17 November 2019

ALS: 'Zonder taal'

Without language

‘What shall I say about that house over on the left. That was where that young man used to live who you always had arguments with, wasn’t it? No, it wasn’t that young man. I often spoke to him back then – I would have noticed it, forget the idea. And that bloke who used to live in that house in the thirties, what was his name, he was always concerned about it, wasn’t he? Yes, true, he spoke about it later, but he disappeared too without coming up with a definite answer.’

This is what I heard in my father’s boathouse. Two men were busy working on the engine of the large sloop he often used to go out sea-fishing. It was a dialogue I didn’t understand one little bit of. I can’t remember exactly how old I was, I was probably in class six or seven at junior school. It was the first time I realised that language can be completely hermetic, be perhaps recognisable but meaningless.

Later, on the brink of adulthood you could say, my father told me that he once had met a man who travelled to countries where language offered him no handhold of any sort. It was no game, he stayed there a long time, sometimes a year or so. He had no money, he had to work. Life was completely unglamorous, he was unhappy and lonely. He had had a deaf-mute elder brother who had died in an accident. He never talked about him. He wanted to find out, with no escape route possible, the nature of the silence in which his brother had had to live. He had of course heard about stylites. They caught his attention, but they sat up there with a serious Christian message. That he regarded as a drawback, he was solely interested in the silence within which his brother had lived. My father never met him again after their first meeting. Well, he did actually suddenly run into him thirty years later, unasked and unexpectedly, in the Damrak in Amsterdam. He had returned to the Netherlands and owned a small tobacco shop. He seemed relaxed, my father was surprised at this. I wasn’t – you can’t keep your bow drawn tight for ever.

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