Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Illustration by Leif Engström

The story of my writing is the story of my materials. Materials, however, are impressions transformed. You write as a whole man, not as a man of letters, much less as a grammarian; everything is connected because everything is brought into relation, everything can turn out to be so important, decisive, usually in retrospect, unsuspected. Stars are concentrations of interstellar matter, writing is the concentration of impressions. No evasion is possible. As you are the result of your environment, you must own up to it, but the crucial impressions are made in your youth, the lingering horror that seized me when the greengrocer in his little shop beneath the theatre hall parted the leaves of a lettuce with his handless arm. We are formed by such impressions; what comes later joins preformed things, is processed according to a predetermined pattern, assimilated to the pre-existing, and the stories we heard as children are more crucial than literature's influences. This grows clear to us when we look back. I am not a village writer, but the village brought me forth, and so I am still a slow-talking villager, not a city person, a big-city person least of all, even if I couldn't live in a village any more.

The village itself formed at the intersection of the roads from Bern to Lucerne and Burgdorf to Thun, on a high plain, at the foot of a big hill, not far from the gallows mound where it's said the officers of the local court once carted the murderers and rabble-rousers. A stream flows across the plain, and the little farming villages and hamlets upon it needed a focal point. The aristocrats in the vicinity had fallen on hard times, their residences converted into old-age or rest homes. First, it seems, there was just a pub at the intersection. Then, diagonally opposite, came the smithy, and later the two other quadrants of this coordinate plane were occupied by the cooperative store and the theatre hall, which was not insignificant, as the village boasted a prominent dramatist, the teacher Gribi, whose plays were performed by dramatic societies throughout Emmental, and even a Yodel King by the name of Schmalz. Along the road to Thun the printer, the cloth dealer, the butcher, the baker and the school set up shop, the last almost at the edge of the next farming village, whose boys roughed me up on the way to school and whose dogs we feared, while the parsonage, the church, the cemetery and the savings bank ended up on a slight rise between the road to Thun and the road to Bern. But it was the large milk pasteurization plant, Stalden AG, built on the steep climbing road to Burgdorf, which first made the village into a rural centre; all the area's milk was hauled in, on heavy trucks which we waited for in groups, later, when we had to go to secondary school in Grosshöchstetten, hanging on to them and letting them tow us up the road to Burgdorf on our bikes, scared to death, not of the police—we all felt capable of coping with the fat village policeman—but of the French and writing teacher we called Baggel, whose lessons we dreaded, malicious beater, pincher and hair-puller that he was, even forcing us to shake each other's hands, the Grüss Gott of educated Europeans, and clinging to one another behind the clattering truck with the dancing, morning-empty milk cans, we pictured the teacher as a huge mountain we had to scale, with grotesque toponyms and accordingly difficult climbs. But that was already shortly before I moved to the city; in my recollection the train station is more important than the milk pasteurization plant with its smokestack, which more than the church steeple served as the village landmark. It had the right to call itself a train station because it was a railway junction, and we villagers were proud of it—only a few trains were bold enough not to stop, roaring past towards distant Lucerne, towards closer-by Bern; sitting on a bench outside the station building, I often awaited them with a mixture of longing and loathing before they steamed past and away. But memory slips back still further into the underpass where the train tracks crossed the road to Burgdorf, from which stairs led straight to the train station. It appears to me as a dark cave into which I strayed as a three-year-old, in the middle of the road, having absconded from home to the village; at the end of the cave was sunlight out of which the dark shadows of the cars and wagons loomed, but it is no longer clear where in fact I was heading, as the underpass led not only to the milk pasteurization plant and the train station, the slope of the Ballenbühl was also home to the higher-class people such as my godmother, the wife of the village doctor, to whom I later had to bring my never-satisfactory school reports for perusal, the parish president, the dentist and the dental technician. The two of them ran the Dental Institute, which maltreats broad swathes of the region to this day and makes the village famous. They owned cars, which itself was enough to make them privileged, and in the evening they piled together the money earned by filling teeth, pulling teeth and manufacturing dentures and divided it by hand without counting it. The dental technician was short and fat; occupied with issues of public health, he had a health bread made that curdled the blood. But the dentist was an imposing man and a French speaker, probably from Neuchâtel. He was thought to be the richest man in the entire district; later this belief was revealed to be a tragic misapprehension. But he was certainly the most pious, member of an extreme sect who talked about Christ as he drilled, his religious zeal matched only by a gaunt woman who always wore black, visited, as she claimed, by the angels, who read the Bible even while milking and to whom I had to bring the peddlers and vagrants across the plain from the parsonage to be put up at night, for my parents ran a hospitable parsonage and turned no one away and shared our meals with whomever wished, such as the children of a circus that visited the village once a year. And once a Negro turned up. Jet black, he sat at the family table to my father's left and ate rice with tomato sauce. He was converted, but I was afraid anyway. All in all much conversion went on in the village. Revival meetings were held in tents, the Salvation Army marched in, sects formed, evangelists preached, but the village's greatest claim to fame in this regard was the Muslim mission which had its headquarters in a palatial chalet high above the village, for it published a map of the world on which only one place in Europe was named, this village, a piece of missionary pomposity that induced the momentary delusion of living at the centre of the universe and not in a dump in Emmental. That is not too strong a word. The village itself was homely, a cluster of buildings in lower-middle-class style such as one finds throughout the Central Plateau, but the surrounding farming villages with their big roofs and painstakingly layered manure piles were lovely, the dark fir forests all round were mysterious and the plain was full of adventure, with the sorrel in the meadows and the vast grain fields in which we snuck around, building our nests deep within, while the farmers stood at the edges and peered in, cursing. More mysterious still were the dark passageways in the hay which the farmers had stacked on their barn floors, we spent hours crawling round in the warm, dusty darkness and peering down from the openings into the stall where the cows stood in long rows. But for me the spookiest place was the topmost, the windowless attic in my parents' house. It was filled with old newspapers and books that glimmered whitish in the dark. And I had a scare in the washhouse once—a creepy animal lay there, perhaps a salamander—while the cemetery was free of dread. We often played hide-and-seek there, and when a grave had been dug I made myself at home there until the approaching funeral procession, heralded by pealing bells, chased me off. For we were intimate not just with death but with killing. A village has no secrets, and people are predators, with occasional rudiments of humanity that must be dropped at the butcher's. We often watched the journeymen butchers kill, we saw the blood gush from the big animals, we saw them die and be carved up. We children watched, fifteen minutes, half an hour, and then we went back to playing marbles on the sidewalk.

But that is not enough. A village is not the world. Though destinies may unfold there, tragedies and comedies, it is the world that defines the village, leaves it in peace, forgets it or destroys it, and not the other way round. The village is an arbitrary point in the totality of the world, no more than that, significant for nothing, coincidental, interchangeable. The world is larger than the village. Over the woods the stars are suspended. Early on, I made their acquaintance, traced their constellations: the fixed Pole Star; the Little Bear and the Great Bear with the coiled dragon between them; I came to know bright Vega, sparkling Altair, nearby Sirius, distant Deneb, the gigantic sun Aldebaran, the still mightier Betelgeuse and Antares; I knew that the village was a part of the Earth and the Earth a part of the solar system, that the Sun with its planets moved round the centre of the Milky Way towards Hercules, and I learnt that the Andromeda Nebula, barely visible to the naked eye, was a Milky Way like our own. I was never a Ptolemaic. Starting from the village I knew the immediate surroundings, the nearby city, a vacation spa also in the nearby mountains and a few miles of school trips besides, that was all, but up above, in space, a scaffold of vast distances reared up and so it was too with time—the distant was more potent than the immediate. The immediate was perceived only insofar as it entered the tangible realm, as the actual life of the village; even village politics were too abstract, abstracter still were the politics of the country, the social crises, the bank failures which cost my parents their savings, the peace efforts, the Nazis' rise, all too vague, too imageless, but the Flood, that was comprehensible, a vivid event, the wrath of God and the passing of his water, he dumped out the entire ocean over humanity, now go on and swim, and then brave David, boastful Goliath, the adventures of Hercules, the strongest man who ever was, kingly Theseus, the Trojan War, the dark Nibelungs, radiant Dietrich von Bern, the valiant Swiss confederates, thrashing the Austrians and succumbing to vastly superior numbers at St Jakob an der Birs, all held together—the womb of the village and the wild world outside, history and the equally real sagas, but also the immeasurable forms of the universe—by a shadowy Good Lord whom you had to worship, ask forgiveness, but from whom, as from an enigmatic super-uncle behind the clouds, you could also expect kindness, the fulfilment of hopes and wishes. Good and evil were fixed, you found yourself in a perpetual examination, with marks, as it were, for every deed, and that was why school was such a bitter thing—it perpetuated the heavenly system on earth and for the children the adults were demigods. Terrible, beautiful children's land—the world of experience was small, a paltry village, no more; the world of hearsay was huge, floating in an enigmatic cosmos, mingled with a wild fantasy realm of heroic battles, impossible to verify. You had to take this world as it was. You were delivered up to faith, defenseless and naked.

translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole

'Document' is taken from Dürrenmatt's Selected Essays, which has just been published by Seagull Books.