Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Asrael

The sun drove away the chill of the spring night and gradually spread itself over the great boulevard. With its approach more and more people walked on the pedestrian zone that runs in a straight line through the inner city from the docks of the harbor to the executive mansion. Noises and smells grew to immensity. The perfume of flowers from the booths of countless vendors, the smell of frying fish from the many little restaurants, the twittering of birds from the innumerable little bird cages that seemed to be a particular enthusiasm of the inhabitants. There was a colorful variety of humanity: Jaroslav Koslub observed every skin shade between black and white. Since he had left the hotel entrance behind he had also enjoyed the groups of men everywhere who threw dice or carried on the kind of business that could only be pursued among the closest of associates and in conspiratorial proximity.

Koslub had been invited to conduct a concert by the Gran Teatro Liceo in Barcelona. He was not visiting the city for the first time and for this reason was disappointed by its appearance. In his native city of Prague the authorities had begun to refurbish the precious architectural infrastructure, and the center of the old imperial city already recalled its old splendor. Here, on the other hand, one could observe a decline, even though it wasn't long before the beginning of the Olympic Games that were scheduled to take place here. Koslub wondered where they could even start with improvements, since all the beautiful old buildings were visibly decaying, even here on the boulevard that was the showplace of the city, and all the imitations that had been built in this century defied every description of ugliness.

The inhabitants and guests in the Catalonian capital seemed to have scarcely changed: shocks of black hair dominated the scene, in addition to the colorfully checked head scarves worn by the country women who had set off to shop or beg in the city. Koslub had barely strolled for thirty paces when an old drab offered him a completely crushed flower, thrust it urgently into his hand and smiled repulsively: "Souvenir d'Espagne!" Whereupon she immediately stretched out the other hand to snap up a few pesetas. Bemused, Koslub divested himself of some small change and walked on.

He was now much happier than he had been even the evening before that the orchestra members, as was the case with most workers here, slept away the afternoon hours and started their work as much toward the evening as possible. Of course, that extended his stay here by a few days, given that in this situation there was only one orchestra rehearsal each day. On the other hand, this way the sixty-year-old had time now to rest from the daily exertion and have a look at the sights. The pay was limited, which had caused him to leave his wife behind in Prague on this occasion.

In the course of walking, and the usual quiet review of several places that were complicated to conduct, something attracted his attention, at first without object and direction, then suddenly clearly and definitely outlined. Right in the middle of the newspaper kiosks, the honking cars on the edge of the boulevard, the souvenir shops and haberdashery stores, he could make out a marble step about fifty meters away. Koslub simply could not explain its presence in this environment, halted and stared in its direction. Strangely enough, several memories suddenly thrust themselves simultaneously before his inner eye. A marble boy in a cemetery that he had seen for the first time when he was eight years old and thereafter had sought out frequently. The reading of a children's story in which the statue of a child began to speak to the main character, a little boy. And finally the programmatic theme of the symphony that he was supposed to conduct here: Josef Suk's Asrael-Symphony, the extensive symphonic structure that resembled a requiem, in which the figure of the angel of death plays a role that does not always rise above the level of kitsch.

The whitely luminous female figure fascinated him, caused him to pause in his walk for a couple of minutes. She seemed to express to him a humanity of rapturous power, a purity of grief and longing for happiness, a transcendent and yet corporeal majesty. He couldn't help himself. He had to approach her.

Then he stopped breathing. There was no doubt: The figure was moving slowly, not without solemnity. She changed her position to a completely different expression. Now for the first time he noticed the gaping spectators who surrounded her, whose expressions seemed to waver between embarrassment and admiration.

He, too, was bewildered. On the one hand, the change to abstraction, which the slender, apparently young, woman was performing there, seemed to him to be quite natural. And he could only admire the physical strength and control, with which this being could stand perfectly still for so many minutes. A somewhat starched Greek robe, a white painted wig with the hair in a knot at the nape, a little, maybe fifty centimeters high, white pedestal, upon which there could only be limited opportunity to relax the feet. That was the entire production. Then she was moving again, and Koslub noticed that a banknote tossed into the bowl lying on the ground functioned both as reward and as the required signal for desperately needed release by means of a change of position.

The return of the statue from what had just been a gesture of resistance to abstraction seemed completely natural. In any art other than the theatrical it would have been false and shameless to portray experienced pain so immediately, so openly in a public performance. To be left alone in a crowd of eternal strangers--how could it have been expressed more honestly than through the music of one's own body and hand language? The rehearsal that evening turned out to be particularly exhausting. The second-class orchestra didn't know the piece at all, and Koslub had a hard time making himself understood with the scraps of Spanish or German that he possessed. The Spaniards wanted the rarely performed Czech work, which, as a national art treasure, they naturally had in their repertoire. But the change of climate was giving him trouble; several times his nervous heart began to pulse erratically. And again and again his thoughts about Asrael flitted away to that theatrical display and to the thoughts of life and death that marble statutes had aroused in him since his childhood.

The next morning the conductor stepped out of the elegant stillness of the newly renovated hotel into the contrasting bustle outside, in order to enjoy a relaxing stroll. He said a polite farewell to friendly young Nicanor, who represented his management in this country. The man with the sparkling eyes hadn't neglected to provide information in reply to Koslub's curious inquiry: For several years the young woman had been a well-known city attraction as a statue-imitator, and she performed for the passersby no less than three hours every morning. She was probably an unsuccessful actress or mime, of which there were many in Barcelona.

Once Koslub had begun his solitary walk only a few minutes passed before he was compelled to approach the performance artist again. This time she revealed a different and still incomplete appearance. She sat in a graceful attitude on her pedestal and while a female helper gave her the chalk white makeup and helped her into the stiffened Greek robe, which she wore over a light undergarment. She was in the process of carefully covering the corners of her eyes, then her eyelids, then her hairline where it met the wig. Passersby, several of whom gave Koslub the impression of being regular spectators of the performance, involved themselves in the process of costume and makeup to offer suggestions about what might contribute more to the realism and complete deception of the audience.

Koslub was a little embarrassed to be standing around so entrancedly and went on his way. He walked to the dock in the harbor and breathed the breeze in deeply. Then he turned around and again felt a pang in his heart when he caught sight of the statue.

The figure did not shine forth expressively or decoratively. In that moment the daughter of the Titans thrust a threatening fist toward the sky. A breeze gently moving her stiffened robe didn't damage the effect.

He approached apprehensively and then was almost relieved when he noticed that the all too white makeup of the beginning had melded with her skin to a genuine stone gray mixture. He was also cheered to discover that close up one could see precisely how the woman got relief from her concentration by swallowing frequently and keeping her eyes half closed so that she could wander where she wished without disturbing the illusion of being made of stone.

The observer couldn't resist letting his banknote fall into the bowl. And immediately a scene of prayer was introduced, as if she pleaded, standing tall among those who opposed her, for her victory over the unbelievers. Koslub couldn't avoid asking himself, does it actually hurt to walk around and be so beautiful? In this moment her black gaze under the white lids fell on him. He felt a stab in the region of his heart that compelled him, staggering slightly but as quickly as possible, to return to his hotel.

The concert that evening, which began late and was, with the addition of an opening Mozart symphony, of considerable length, began with great promise. Extended applause at the beginning, shouts of bravo even before the sounding of the first note, gave the guest a little courage. But it was strange: He couldn't concentrate. He thought about the face of the goddess, in which nothing had moved. His vanity was madly in love with the pale woman. And suddenly he doubted his own talent inwardly but was not free enough before the audience to admit to his distress. For no good reason, during the long symphonic outpouring he hungered for some tangible signal, as if some sort of acknowledgement could have dispelled that insecurity. With shame he thought about the fact that even today he read every line that some critic in the provinces printed about him.

After an hour and a half the work came to an end and, contemptuous of the final quiet chords, a roar of applause stormed in on him from the region of red plush and gilded stucco splendor. Inwardly he objected: The happiness of the beginning is exchanged for the external symbols of mastery: name, wealth, a lordly villa on a mountain top. Applause from the world, what did that mean? It rang out as if it were just routine. "I am like furniture for them," he told himself. "Once it was different. Why try to hide it from me?"

Standing for such a long time had become a burden. His feet could hardly take any steps as he left the podium. In the artist's room he sank into a deep armchair, overcome by a feeling of lightheadedness, and performed what followed every performance: the line of well-wishers, the unknown faces that expressed nothing, the requests for an autograph.

Somewhat concerned, Nicanor held him by the arm and took from him the briefcase filled with necessary equipment as they walked the short distance along the boulevard to his hotel. At a particular place Koslub's eyes glided to one side and searched for something. The pedestal was not there. No statue, just noisy passersby. Then a stab of pain wanted to tear his heart apart, his knees buckled, and he lay on the pavement of the sidewalk. Nicanor could only close the lids over his fixedly staring eyes.

The short story "Asrael" appeared in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" in 1991. Translation Celia A. Sgroi, 2002

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