‘A piece of bread only speaks of hunger, which everyone considers to be a vulgar and crude thing.’
Extract from I Loved A German
By AH Tammsaare
Forthcoming from Vagabond Voices
“Every educated person can write at least one novel – a novel about himself.” I’ve read those words somewhere, I remember it clearly. But where? I’ve forgotten.
It is very probable that I have read those words several times, because I’ve noticed that words are like announcements: they have to be repeated, otherwise they don’t catch your eye or stay in your mind.
There’s a reason why things happens like that: some thoughtful words appear first somewhere in a book, then in a magazine, and finally in a newspaper. But the order of appearance might be the opposite: first in a paper, then in a journal and finally in a book – as a serious scientific study or a respected novel which schoolchildren have to read.
For as education grows from year to year, people are writing clever things all over the place, so that you hardly know any more what you should take up to read. So for an educated person the only intellectual relaxation and treasure-house is the cinema, which doesn’t make you yawn or put you to sleep.
And yet the written word must have some importance in the future, there’s no denying it, or at least for now, and until educational institutions have been completely reformed. Since ancient times they’ve seen it as their duty to get young people used to reading boring books – only boring ones of course, on the correct assumption that the interesting ones will be read anyway, like it or not.
Apart from that, strangely enough, there are still people in the world who like to read books and other writings only when they’re bored. Even their tastes have to be satisfied.
Finally the written word is important for recording those things that don’t stick in your mind: such as the first sentence of these lines, so that everyone can look back at will and see who used it the first, second, third time and so on. Such a record could accommodate the names of all the films in the world, so that an educated person won’t have to go and see the same film again for the tenth time.
The general shape of my skull is oval, but with a certain inclination or pressure toward the back of the neck, which is said to be the seat of reason – something that so far I haven’t taken account of. The jaws have a musculature as if fate had marked me to be a biter, though I don’t actually have an urge to sink my teeth into anything. Today, for instance, it’s now past twelve o’clock, but I haven’t eaten anything yet and I don’t know when or where I’ll get anything. It might seem strange to some people, even incredible, but nevertheless it is so: I have jaws and teeth, I have a stomach and an appetite, which would like to put food in the stomach, but there is no food. At the same time the market is piled high with foodstuffs; I went there yesterday to take a look, because I had a cent or two in my pocket. I walked through row after row of berry-stalls to admire their abundance and freshness, and to sniff their almost entrancing smell. In some places I even asked the prices, where the garden strawberries were specially fresh and plump. When an old woman wanted to measure some out for me, I said I’d have to take a further look at the market and the prices, because I needed to buy a large amount. I chose the plumpest and most appetizing strawberries, and I asked the old lady what they cost because I wanted to taste, so I would know later where to buy from. She can’t sell berries for less than a cent, she said. I gave her two, and moved on. The woman shouldn’t have been thinking about the money; no, it was only a question of how the berries taste. That’s what it should be. But a beautiful berry eaten on an empty stomach just seemed sickly-sweet and plain watery. I felt very sorry to have wasted my two cents.
When I had suitably distanced myself from the rows of berries, I went to where they sell bread – black, brown and white – from tables behind which stood large carts or vans piled with supplies. In my pocket I counted out a handful of money to work out what to buy and how much. In the end, however, I didn’t buy anything here either, because it occurred to me there would be no point in carrying all that bread home, when right by the courtyard at home there is a shop where you can buy the same thing just as cheaply.
Generally it isn’t appropriate or polite for an educated young man in the street to carry a little packet whose shape reveals to everyone that it contains a piece of bread. It’s a different matter if your packet contains sweet buns, cakes or a tart – quite a different matter, because that implies certain relationships, acquaintances, adventures, delicacy and love. A piece of bread only speaks of hunger, which everyone considers to be a vulgar and crude thing demeaning to everyone who encounters it.
‘There was something odd about the way he sat there, a solitary figure in this isolated place.’