Read The Eternal Philistine Online
Authors: Odon Von Horvath
IT WAS TEN MINUTES PAST MIDNIGHT WHEN THE express train reached Milano, even though the express train was not scheduled to arrive in Milano until thirteen minutes past midnight. “That’s what I call order!” yelled Schmitz.
He led Kobler into the train station’s restaurant, where they wanted to linger until their connecting train to Ventimiglia departed (03:29). Schmitz really knew his way around. “I know my way around Milano like it was Paris,” he said. “Best thing to do is to stay in the train station.”
“You see,” he continued, “there’s no reason to go into
the city because, in the first place, it’s pitch-black right now, so we wouldn’t get to see anything of the gothic Milan Cathedral. And secondly, there isn’t much going on here architecturally—it’s pretty much a modern city. You’ll get a chance to see plenty of gothic stuff!”
“I’m not really so keen on gothic stuff,” said Kobler.
“Yeah, I’m more of a baroque guy myself,” said Schmitz.
“I’m not really so keen on baroque stuff either,” said Kobler.
“Of course, when compared with the marvels of Eastern Asia, we Europeans just can’t keep up!” said Schmitz.
Kobler did not say anything else. “And now will you shut up already!” he thought.
“And now we should drink some Chianti!” cried Schmitz, and gleamed. “That’s the wine with the straw on the bottom of the bottle. Or are you a teetotaler?”
“Where’d you get that idea?” Kobler rebuffed him forcefully. “I can drink like a fish, no matter what you put in my glass!”
“Pardon me!” apologized Schmitz, and smiled cheerfully.
You see, Schmitz was quite fond of Chianti. Kobler, too, felt a very strong connection to her after making her acquaintance in the train station’s restaurant. She was trickling voluptuously through their guts, and before long another bottle stood in front of them. Meanwhile they were discussing the World War and war in general. They had already begun the discussion on the train because, given that Schmitz had not been a soldier either, Kobler had nothing against chatting a bit about the idea of war.
The Chianti loosened their tongues. Kobler related that, sure, he had always been politically on the right, but only up until the Beer Hall Putsch. At present he was somewhere
just about in the center, even though he couldn’t technically be a pacifist because his only brother had fallen on the field of honor.
“What’s your dear brother’s name?” asked Schmitz.
“Alois,” said Kobler.
“Poor Alois!” sighed Schmitz.
“Are you feeling all right?” inquired Kobler.
“I never feel all right, my dear sir,” smiled Schmitz wistfully, and then emptied his glass. “I’m basically just half a man,” he continued speaking, growing more and more sentimental. “Sometimes I feel like I’m missing something, whether that be a home or a woman. Sure, the medical consultant thinks my lousy digestion is behind my depression, but then what do doctors know!”
“I’m personally very much in favor of there never being another war,” answered Kobler, “but do you really think such a thing could be achieved?”
“Poor Alois,” muttered Schmitz, and then suddenly the air got very quiet. This made Kobler feel uncomfortable, and at the same time it occurred to him that back then this heroic death had taken a pretty heavy toll on his mother. She really could not bear the fact that the sun had continued to shine. “If I could only dream of him,” she kept saying over and over, “then I’d be able to see him again!”
They were already on their third bottle of Chianti, but Schmitz still seemed to be thinking about very depressing things because he was really preoccupied. But then suddenly he pulled himself together and broke the uncomfortable silence.
“As of late,” he said, “our literature is neglecting the death motif. Everything pretty much just wants to be alive.”
“You really shouldn’t concern yourself with such things,” Kobler reassured him dismissively. Sure, as a child he had enjoyed going to the graveyard to visit his father, his grandparents, or good old Aunt Maria, but the World War had changed all of that. “What’s gone is gone!” he had told himself, and then moved to Munich.
At that time—1922—Munich was one big mess and the opportunity to exploit the political situation presented itself to Kobler. After all, he didn’t have a thing to eat. And as a sprig of the middle class, he was already a convinced right-winger and had no idea what the left wanted. Although deep down he was never really as far right as his new acquaintances were because, after all, he still had a sense of what was possible. “After all, everything is possible,” he told himself.
One of his new acquaintances even belonged to a secret political society with which the police back then sympathized deeply because it was even more radically right-wing than they were. His name was Wolfgang and he fell in love with Kobler. But Kobler never let him have his way. Wolfgang procured a position for him just the same, because he was not only passionate but also quite capable of loving somebody selflessly.
And so Kobler fell into a job at a nationalistic-minded bank on the verge of bankruptcy, only then to switch over to a bicycle shop when the banker was arrested. He did not last very long there and became a traveling salesman of skin cream and practical joke products from Württemberg. Then he peddled stamps door to door, and finally he wound up in the auto industry through the agency of another Wolfgang.
Nowadays when he thought back to this time he really had to strain to remember exactly how he had gotten by. Often he only just managed to slink past the snares that life sets
for us. “You must have a good guardian angel,” a prostitute once told him.
He did not like thinking about his past, much less talking about it. That is, he often felt like he had to cover something up, like he had done something wrong, which of course he hadn’t, when seen from within the framework of the prevailing social order.
This is why he preferred to talk about the future while drinking Chianti.
“The World War of the future will be even more gruesome,” he explained to Schmitz, “but it pretty much comes as no surprise that we’ve still got people in Germany who are looking for another war. They just can’t get used to the fact that we lost our colonies, for instance. For instance, an acquaintance of mine outlined in black the former German colonies in his stamp album. He looks at them every day. And the rest of the colonies—the English, Italian, Portuguese ones and whatnot—were sold off, and at giveaway prices at that. And the French colonies, well, I think he burned those.”
Schmitz listened attentively.
“I, Rudolph Schmitz,” he stressed, “am convinced that you Germans will reclaim all your lost territories without striking a blow. And we German-Austrians will likewise align ourselves with you. I only have one thing to say: the Holy Alliance equals the League of Nations, Napoleon equals Stalin!”
“I’m not sure yet,” answered Kobler skeptically, because he had no idea what the Holy Alliance was supposed to mean. “So who’s Stalin?” he asked.
“That’s not so easy to explain,” said Schmitz restrainedly. “It’d be better if we returned to the topic: I, Rudolph Schmitz,
am convinced that there will not be another war between the bourgeois Great Powers of Europe because nowadays it’s considerably cheaper to exploit nations in a peaceful, mercantile manner.”
“I’ve been saying the same thing,” nodded Kobler.
“I’m delighted to hear that!” said Schmitz happily, and grew lively once again. “But consider America for a second! Don’t forget that the United States of North America wants to relegate Europe to a colony. And they’ll do it too if Europe doesn’t come to an agreement—we’re already a mandated territory!”
“But will we come to an agreement?” asked Kobler, feeling superior.
“We’ve got to put an end to our past once and for all,” said Schmitz excitedly.
“I personally wouldn’t have anything against that,” Kobler consoled him.
“These passport and customs shenanigans are just pure insanity!” wailed Schmitz.
“When seen from a higher point of view,” said Kobler serenely, “you’re quite right, but I think it’s going to be pretty hard for us to come to an understanding because nobody trusts anybody, everybody thinks that the other guy is the bigger crook. I’m thinking of Poland in particular.”
“Have you ever been to Poland?”
“I’ve never been anywhere.”
“Well, I have, and I even fell in love with a Polish woman. My dear sir, there are basically decent people everywhere! Somebody has got to start throwing themselves behind this idea of coming to an agreement!” He threw back the rest of the fourth bottle of Chianti.
“Let’s get another bottle,” Kobler decided, and fixed
his gaze on the lady at the counter while Schmitz eagerly ordered it. “So that’s Italy!” he thought. He was gradually slipping into an exhibitionist mood. “I can think more nimbly when I’ve had something to drink,” he said.
“So what!” thought Schmitz.
“And if I haven’t had anything to drink,” he continued, “thinking often really hurts me, especially when it’s about these international political problems.”
The waiter brought the fifth bottle, and Kobler kept getting more and more inquisitive. “What does ‘pan’ actually mean?” he asked.
“Ultimately, the universe,” pontificated Schmitz. “And in the case of Pan-Europe it means the United States of Europe.”
“That I know,” Kobler interrupted him.
Schmitz slammed his fist against the table and bellowed, “But without Great Britain, thank you very much!” And then he suddenly had to yawn. “Excuse me.” He composed himself. “I just yawned, but I’m not even that tired. It’s merely stomach gas, which develops particularly strongly in me when I’m a bit tipsy. And that reminds me, have you ever heard of my war novella? Sadly it wasn’t a pecuniary success because I combined the gruesome realism of war with my own gruesome brand of fantasy. A kind of wartime version of Edgar Allan Poe. Does that name ring a bell?”
“Yes, the art is gradually vanishing,” muttered Schmitz. He let a thunderous one rip and then once again grew sentimental. He was a moody creature.
“If I’m going to read something, I’d prefer it be a true story than a made-up one,” said Kobler.
“That’s just the generation gap between us,” nodded
Schmitz, and smiled paternally. “Sometimes I just don’t get your generation. Sometimes your theories seem insipid, insubstantial, and non-Dionysian in a higher sense. In my youth I was able to recite half of
by heart, and all of Rimbaud. Ever hear of the drunken ship? Excuse me for a moment—I’ve got to run to the john.”
And Kobler watched as Schmitz stepped out, clenching his teeth and frantically balling his fists. He really had to brace himself so as not to keel over. “Could I be just as full?” he asked himself worriedly. “In any case, he’s one interesting guy.”
It was just about time to hit the road when the interesting guy came staggering back to the table. Outside on the tracks, the nonstop railroad cars to Ventimiglia were already waiting. Both gentlemen spoke a little more about politics in general, about art in general, and then Schmitz complained particularly about European absentmindedness in general. But another proper conversation failed to take shape because neither gentleman could really collect himself by now. Kobler quickly wrote a postcard to Perzl: “Just drove by your erstwhile windmill in Brescia. Regards, Kobler.” Schmitz wrote below: “Flying kisses sent from the unknown hands of your most humble, Rudolph Schmitz.” The gentlemen then paid the bill. The waiter cheated them and afterward commended himself with the roman salute.
Schmitz raised his arm to give the fascist salute. Kobler did the same. So did the lady at the buffet.
THE TWO GENTLEMEN ALMOST COLLAPSED when they left the warm, smoky restaurant and stepped out into the fresh night air. This is how drunk they were.
They were staggering around in a most despicable manner, and it took quite a while before they finally found their way into one of the nonstop cars to Ventimiglia.
The two gentlemen were quite taken with each other, especially Schmitz who was unbelievably delighted to have met Kobler. Deeply moved, he kept thanking him for allowing him to accompany him to Spain, all the while dubbing him Baron, Majesty, General, and Councilor of Commerce.
But suddenly Kobler was no longer really listening. The fatigue with which his drooping eyelids had been grappling since Verona now knocked him out flat, and he gave laconic answers, often of only one word.
“And why exactly is His Eminence going to Barcelona?” asked Schmitz.
“Egypt,” muttered His Eminence.
“Why Egypt, Herr veterinarian?”
“Registry office,” moaned the veterinarian.
“And now for the interview!” yelled Schmitz, and let himself get carried away by a sudden wave of enthusiasm. “An interview like none other!” He pulled a notebook from his chest pocket so that he could take down Kobler’s answers in all due diligence. Out of sheer intoxication he no longer knew what he was doing.
“Might I ask,” he exclaimed, “the Herr Lieutenant
Colonel what he thinks about the Mind-Body Movement? And what about the Body-Mind Movement?”
Kobler wrenched open his eyes and gazed at him with ineffable intimacy. He even tried smiling and then slurred, “My gracious young lady, I’m all yours.”
“Now I feel sick to my stomach,” howled Schmitz. “Suddenly I feel sick to my stomach!” He leapt up in horror and darted out of the room to vomit.
Kobler gazed after him in surprise. Then he made a resigned gesture and slurred, “Women are unpredictable.”
Such was the condition in which the two gentlemen left Milano, the metropolis of Northern Italy. And this condition remained essentially unchanged for the remainder of the night. Although they fell asleep, their sleep was restless and agonizing, rife with dark and mysterious dreams.
For instance, Schmitz dreamed, among other things, that he was striding across Arcadian meadows in the summer: his feet were nimble and his senses exhilarated. It was right around the fin de siècle and he was eavesdropping on a group of fair Hellenic women frolicking around a sacred grove. “Pan-Europa,” he shouts, she being classically the most beautiful. But the saucy Pan-Europa puts him in his place. “Whosoever goes forth shall be shot dead,” she calls out to him arrogantly, and peals forth a silver laughter. But here things get a little too dull for him, so he transforms himself into a bull, namely into a pan-bull. Pan-Europa likes this. Breathing heavily, she throws herself around his pan-bull neck, covering his pan-bull nostrils with voluptuous kisses. But alas, in the midst of kissing him, the classical, beautiful Pan-Europa transforms herself into the nasty Frau Helene Glanz from Salzburg.