House of Exile
By Evelyn Juers
Hardcover, 400 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List Price: $28
Approaching from a distance, hand in hand like lovers, the tall blonde and the old gentleman both called out to him — Brecht! He turned towards them and waved. The Californian sun glinted from his glasses like the sword of Zorro. It was early morning. Heat and the scent of jasmine hung loosely all about the marketplace. Sunlight played upon the unreal splendour of the fruit and vegetables. Not quite real. Some people claimed the produce of this country lacked character, it always looked much more pro missing, bigger, brighter, than it tasted. Especially apples. They complained that there were certain things — gooseberries, for instance – which you could not get at all. Asparagus only came in cans. And who had been able to buy chanterelles since they'd left Europe? On this day in the summer of 1944, just before the German generals' attempt on Hitler's life, the news had sped like wildfire through the community of European exiles in Los Angeles that a farmer from the north was selling berries at the market. Not just strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, there was also a small supply of gooseberries. At the head of a line of people anxiously waiting to be served, Bertolt Brecht chewed on his El Capitan Corona. Fond of sayings and slogans, he proclaimed that the early bird catches the vorm, and money talks, and proceeded to buy up all the golden berries. Oh yes, they were ripe enough to eat. Striding across the plaz a towards Nelly and Heinrich, he stopped here and there to divide the loot, handing Gansebeeren, as he jokingly translated from the English, to friends who had missed out. — Ah, here comes the man who loves gooseberries, someone said in a heavy accent, referring to one of Chekhov's stories, casually, as if Russian classics were still common currency, as if Brecht had just crossed Berlin's Savignyplatz and was offering summer berries from a cone-shaped paper bag. Finally he scooped a great mound of amber fruit into Nelly's basket. He gave them each, Heinrich and Nelly, a translucent gem to taste. — One for Adam and one for Eve, he chuckled. The proof of the pudding. And crushing a berry against his own palate like an oyster, announced triumphantly that it was delicious, the real thing, not a hybrid, and that he was no gooseberry fool.
It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
WISLAWA SZYMBORSKA, 'COULD HAVE'
Several months later, on Sunday 17 December 1944, at home at 301 South Swall Drive, Los Angeles, in the not yet broken darkness before dawn, the outline of a bowl of fruit on the windowsill, its curves — a hand of bananas Nelly had bought earlier in the week, grapes, some pears — reminded Heinrich of Brecht's generosity and of their animated exchange that day at the market, when they'd all had new information about friends in trouble, jailed, people killed, and shocking rumours of the progress of the war. Oh the terrible disgrace! They'd switched between languages, Stachelbeeren, Stacheldraht, Stacheln, barbs. — Barbarians! Brecht had exclaimed. But that moment, which Heinrich tried to conjure up, now faded.
It left nothing before his eyes but a silhouette of fruit backlit by a gauze of curtains, grey on grey. He was a very old man shrinking from the night, from this terrible night, the worst night of his life. He was no longer sobbing uncontrollably. He felt numb. Unable to focus. Did he doze? Briefy? Perhaps he was dying? His only physical sensation came from the bridge of his spectacles pressing on his nose. He made himself take them off, and rubbed his eyes. Did he then recall or did he dream? That when they were children his brother had once worn a peg on his nose for a whole day, until a blockage in the plumbing was fixed and the stench the household had to endure was gone.
Heinrich sat very still inside the folds of his suit. Inside the immaculate whiteness of his long-sleeved shirt. His wife had washed it, hung it out, brought it in, ironed it as he watched her through the open door, and placed it on a hanger, smoothing it with the flat of her hand, tugging each cuff into shape. This image and the thought of her absence was too much to bear. He was crushed with grief. He sat deep inside the maculations of his own soft skin and felt minuscule. Like a grain of sand. His mind searched for a place to go, where it could escape.
In Lubeck. In summer. In the garden. In the scented air. Where it was warm and still. A red dragonfly — Sympetrum vulgatum, the vagrant darter, how strange to remember it — hovered over the fountain like a hawk. Dragonflies fed on mosquitoes; mated in the air; this one settled for a moment on the leaf-blade of a stand of purple irises. Blackcurrant and prickly gooseberry bushes grew against the garden wall. He sat in the shade of the walnut tree. From an open door someone called his name. — Children, how far did we get with this? he heard his mother ask.
A change in the weather. A wind came up, and suddenly clouds like great grey waves were being swept along. The boy looked up, following their crazy script. Just then a grain blew into his eye and he rubbed the irritation with his fist until the billowing sheet of sky that he'd been watching flashed red from too much rubbing, and his eye burned with pain. He took up his pencils, blindly, and the sketches he'd made. With one lid shut, the other squinting sympathetically, he felt his way along the wall until he reached the door.
The old man did not want to enter. He knew that there was no going back. For one thing, this house at Beckergrube 52 no longer existed, it had been destroyed during the British raid in 1942.
Excerpted from House of Exile by Evelyn Juers. Copyright 2011 by Evelyn Juers. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.