Jean Back: Amateur (excerpt)

[ About the novel]
Three years ago: the pictures of May 1968 on the covers of newspapers, riots at the Sorbonne, strikes in Nanterre, Sartre, slogans, mass demonstrations, burned-out cars and Cohn-Bendit laughing the CRS into their visors... back then, I had the impression that in the next months Luxembourg would be invaded by students and I suddenly thought that burning barricades and flying paving stones would suit our fashionable high street Groussgaass very well. Shop assistants would roll down the shutters before the jewelers' display windows and the police would drive the students away like they drive away foreign musicians from street corners. But, with high school kids joining the university students, the resistance would grow and together they would make a stand in the Empire of benches and banks, as Manderscheid called it in his 1973 film Quiet Days in Luxembourg. Outrageous things would befall our quiet Maryland: people from Mars would suddenly raid the cake shops and delis and, yelling, parade the cut-off heads of the large duck family on sticks through the Ënneschtgaass. Screams would be heard in the valley of the Petrusse: ministers' executive secretaries would run naked over the sloping meadows, their heavy breasts merrily bouncing up and down. Car rallies would be held in the garden of the bishop's palace and the bishop would place his head and hands in the stocks on the Knuedler, tearfully bemoaning the injustice which the Catholic Church has inflicted on women for centuries.
Nothing would ever be the same again. Self-accusation upon self-accusation would fill the newspapers' columns: from small-minded bureaucrats spending their well-remunerated time in bars instead of at their workplace, to authoritarian teachers and secretive politicians, to the highest ranks in the police force and judiciary who were masters in the dissimulation of delicate affairs. Luxembourg would, what a revolutionary thought!, transform into an open-minded, modern state. Government buildings and museums would clean house and all the stuffy administrations and old paintings would turn into a vast, clear flowering landscape smelling of scented candles and lavender oil. Social justice and democratic workers' rights: these things would at last become reality. Student councils would form in schools and would have to be taken seriously. New concepts like anti-authoritarian education, tolerance and sexual liberation: they already had their place in the half-ironical, half-critical commentaries next to the pictures of the stone-littered boulevards.
Back then, I felt restless, like you do when you cannot immediately comprehend an important event in your life. But it seemed to me that understanding the whole political and social context was not a necessary prerequisite to know, without any doubt, that the events in Paris, Berlin and Frankfurt three years ago were just and justified, and that the young heroes of the Latin Quarter and Rudi Dutschke and Fritz Teufel were definitely our heroes, too.
In March 1971, the news had spread like quickfire that four pupils from the lyceum in Diekirch were to be suspended from class for subversive behaviour towards the head of school and parts of the teaching staff. For many of us, this was an incredible violation of privacy. Not many of us had ever met the students in person before, but protesting in solidarity against the punishment suddenly became an absolute duty.
Our meetings in the Maison du Peuple and the boisterous student sit-ins in the Rue de l'Alzette, the discussions about articles and caricatures in the latest edition of the Red Vole...the student magazine consisted only of a few loosely stapled and badly printed pages. But we had an uncensored, cheeky mouthpiece with which many of us were solidary. The articles about the conflict in Palestine, about the communist developments in China and Albania and about smouldering political unrest in Chile, were, I suppose, read by some of us. The slander, the pornographic drawings and the jeers against the Grand Duke and his family were a big hit. As were the opinion piece on the latest events in Diekirch and the special edition about the student strike on 23 April. All this was suddenly part of the thrilling sensation of claiming new freedoms in deeply Catholic Luxembourg. And a new-found freedom is like a newly-purchased bicycle: more elegant and colourful than your rusty old bike, a crazy thing in the garage, which makes you itch to get on it and take it on a quick trip to Gran.
Good café, I stated.
Gran's all right, said Fred. The beer's all right.
The café was a stretched-out family room with a coal stove and a flue pipe. Gran was a friendly elderly lady, a real Dudelange original, and when she pattered out from behind the counter with a tray full of glasses, she looked like she had a bit of a list, as if she were serving the drinks on a swaying passenger ship.
So? Where're you from?
Gran kept asking the same questions. We kept giving the same answers.
From Esch, said Rosa.
From Differdange, said Do.
You I know, said Gran to me, and put the beers in front of us, and suddenly Fred pulled a fish wrapped in newspaper out of the inner pocket of his leather jacket, gingerly unfolded the paper and said: All right, guys, we're eating fish now.
You want to eat fried fish? Now? At this time of day?
Why not, said Fred, and Gran laid out the cutlery.
We don't need that, said Fred.
I love fish, said Do.
We spat out the fishbones on the newspaper and it smelled of fried whiting in the café, similar to the odour wafting out from the food booths on the Place Guillaume in Luxembourg during the annual Octave.
The Catholic woman from Luxembourg. That's how I pictured her, said Rosa.
Meaning, Amateur, that my parents are protestants and that we talked about Luxembourg when they started working for the ECSC here.
Why are you living on your own?
Because I wanted to live on my own.
Oh, ok, said Fred. Nice.
And so the evenings in Dudelange were marked by Gran's high-sea sailoring and the grease of fried whiting on a newspaper. Rosa loved the atmosphere.
Really revolutionary, she said.
What's revolutionary about Gran, I asked.
Nothing, said Rosa, and that's why I like it. Normalcy is fast uprooted. I can feel that here. The revolutionary spark can inflame the working masses.
I had to laugh. Gran smiled. Fred almost choked on a fishbone.
Rosa, you believe in Father Christmas.
That's precisely what I don't want to do, she said.
If you think that the workers will unite with the students... said Do. Well, that's a change I believe in, too. But I don't know...
We didn't show nationwide solidarity with the guys in Diekirch for nothing, said Fred.
I know those people, said Do. They will go on strike for many things, the steel workers. But not for us.
I was surprised. So far, Do had been the least politically-minded of us. I tried to imagine my father, a worker at the steel works in Dudelange, arm in arm with us seventeen-year-olds, yelling slogans in front of the parliament and insulting the police with cynical remarks. Sympathise as I might with the Parisian students, I just couldn't picture it. Paving stones against the Chamber? My father and I? The thought alone frightened me, even though I knew that the history of Luxembourg was not free from protests and riots against the authorities. But back then, in January 1919, no bawling students and their fathers had been involved. Just a handful of grown-up revolutionaries who'd wanted to proclaim Luxembourg a republic. Only to be dispersed by the French military. And then there was that large workers' demonstration in August of the same year against the rising prices. I remembered that I had seen postcards of an impressive mass of people in front of the parliament.
Our movement will not be without consequences, said Rosa. It was our protest. We grumbled. All of us. That worked. Also on the government. They finally have to take us seriously.
We just jumped on the bandwagon, said Do. We just repeat everything the upper graders say.
So? They're students, just like us. And we have the same ideas. Even if we don't get Adorno yet.
I've read Markuse, I said.
And I'm sure you've understood it all, asked Rosa.
So far, yes.
Good, said Rosa.
I firmly believe that the exploitation of the working force will one day come to an end, said Fred, whose father was a teacher in Schifflange.
Of course, said Rosa. We all believe that. The exploitation and the lies and the condemnation of sexuality and parental authority and the role of women, the three Ks, Kinder, Kirche, Küche or the other way around... that'll change.
I have no problem with parental authority, I said. I can basically do what I want.
Is that so, Amateur.
Of course, otherwise I wouldn't sleep over at your place. Or work in discos in the evening.
True, true, said Rosa, and kissed me. Only Do has problems at home. Right, Do?
Something like that, said Do. But only because I smoked dope behind the football field in Differdange that one time. And because I had to repeat the eleventh grade. Among other things because of maths and biology.
Flunked, laughed Fred.
Biology's crap.
Biology's great, I said. Physics, too.
Don't exaggerate, said Rosa. The natural sciences are instruments in the hands of the politicians. Can be used for anything. Also for suppression and spying. And one day, the Second World War will be dealt with, too. Our public administrations are still full of them old Nazis.
Now you're exaggerating, said Do. That's in Germany, not here.
You don't know that, said Rosa.
Yes, I do. Our Nazis were shot after the war.
Some were, said Fred. The worst of them were put against the wall. Not all, though. That's what my father told me.
The worst are those that were not put against the wall, cried Rosa. The ones that carry on like nothing happened. That are still using the same pens with which they signed the deportations of Luxembourgish families back then. Don't think I don't know it! My parents enlightened me before we moved to Luxembourg.
Rosa was probably right. She knew the history of Luxembourg better than me. No wonder: at school, the topic was never broached. An absolute taboo in the curriculum.
Gran slept behind the counter. Our revolutionary cell in Dudelange wasn't broken up by the cops. And the spies took their own sweet time. And we were proud of the way we somehow, someway questioned government authority, written in stone for all eternity by the conservatives, from our base in Gran's Café. And of the fact that we had loudly protested against it. It was a very good time.