Jean Back: Amateur (excerpt)

[ About the novel]
The Fictional Town of Mariona on the River Morgen.
It wasn't very large, this town of Mariona. No metropolis, no bustling, aspiring small town, no museum city inviting you to admire its treasures of the Middle East. A number of carvings on rocks along the incoming roads bore testimony to the passage of nomadic tribes to the East, long before our era. Mariona had been built in Roman times upon the ruins of a nameless settlement and, due to its extensive forests, it became a major trading post for trappers and fur traders over the following centuries. Later on, lumberjacks and sawmill companies settled on the riverbank and built mooring places for cargo vessels. Soon there was a tannery, bark processing plants came into the region and so Mariona became chiefly known for its wood and leather goods industry.
During the Second World War, the town had been almost completely destroyed. British and American bombs hit the centre and spared the sawmills with which the Nazis had placed orders for corner posts and planks for the concentration camp barracks.
To the East, Mariona was delimited by the river Morgen, whose reeds provided an excellent breeding ground for grebes and ducks. On the opposite bank of the river, there was a vast woodland, mostly leased by the sawmill companies.
From ancient times, people there prayed to the gods of the trees. There were a lot of them in Mariona: mighty gods of the tree trunks, minor deities for the branches, there were mother goddesses for the sap in the roots, and virgin goddesses for the mosses in the forked boughs. They prayed to the guardian deities of the crowns and to those of the falling leaves. There were special gods for each tree, for alders, beeches and birches, and of course for oak trees. There were demigods, mostly goat-footed fauns and shepherdlike beings for shrubs and berries and finally there were quarter- and eighth-gods for the bark, and tiny little filament gods for the wood beetles and their larvae that lived under the bark.
In the Middle Ages, the times of the heathen gods were exchanged for those of the Church saints. People kneeled down before the guardians of the wood piles and genuflected in front of the angels of the oil lamps. In later times, people prayed to the protectors of the nails and screw threads, and even the gentle patron saints of the circular saw were included in their meditations. That this tradition of paying homage to all heavenly creatures great and small was taken up by the architects of the cathedrals should not astonish. Before the Second World War, the main portal of the Neo-Romanesque church was adorned with figures whose respective guardian function was immediately obvious: vehicle wheels, garden gates, staircase steps and wooden blocks as well as stone hewn table top surfaces lay at the figures' feet or hovered boldly over their heads, whitewashed with pigeon droppings. The nooks and crannies of the outer walls were donned with chisels of all sizes, axe handles, pinballs ground into an oval shape and sharp fence lattices, so that one might have thought that a spirit unfavourably inclined towards wood should not stand the slightest chance here.
On humid summer evenings, they rehearsed caber tossing at the shore of the river Morgen and competed in axe throwing, spruce bending, leaf chewing and root grinding. In the tents, leather rosaries and huge madonna statues made of undried basswood were on offer, and the people drank freshly draught weissbier out of wooden jars.
At the time of my story, wood and its manyfold products stood at the centre of all things happening in Mariona. Incidentally, when I came up with this story, environmental proctection was not yet an issue. No one would get worked up over bleach baths disposed of in running water. No one wondered about the black spots on the snow-white skin of the little Beluga whale that, in the fifties, swam through the poisonous Rhenish broth all the way up to the Bundestag in Bonn. Even today, the Luxembourg Mosella is rigorously stocked up by the Grand Duchy with the collected, albeit untreated, works of every Mosellan defecator from Schengen to Wasserbillig.
How do you know that? asked Rosa.
About the whale.
It's true. I've seen the pictures on TV.
Go on.
Mariona had a meteorological peculiarity which I would like to go into more detail about. This was so extraordinary that one might have put it among the great oddities of nature, like the events in the Bermuda Triangle or ball lightning of blueish-red hue. The town and its surrounding country were located under an isobar vortex that inexplicably allowed for only two seasons, namely summer and winter. Spring and autumn were erased. Maybe the phenomenon could be explained by a trickiness of the planetary magnetic field, or by a hiccup in the solar wind. The fact that the forests have been cut down for centuries might be a credible, but unfortunately unproven reason. Strangely enough, only the countryside that surrounded Mariona was affected, in a radius of two to three hundred kilometres. Berlin to the North and Cologne and Bonn further to the Southwest had always celebrated their seasonal festivals to the rhythm of Haydn's oratorio.
With or precisely because of this anomaly in the weather map, the summers had a natural power to keep the land in balance to the winter, namely by being exceptionally rainy and humid. One might have thought that, from early July to December, an all-pervading drizzle was born in this Eastern European birthmark, in the forests on the river, in the outhouses and tool sheds, in the vats of the tanneries and the vaginal washbasins of the brothels, and that deep down in the deepest cellars of the town's tenements, there was a large number of springs that never ran dry, holes in the ground from which the rain spouted, puffed into the air by gnomes and atomized by the wind, to spread out from Mariona over cattle pastures and tree tops for the next six months. Like a sponge, the ground soaked up the water, stalks and shrubs stood overflowing in the meadows, the barks bloated up like festering skins on the tree trunks. Compared to this Eastern European monsoon, winter was uncommonly cold. Grasses and reeds mutated in their swollen condition into dangerous picks, forests transformed into ice chambers in which it didn't stop snowing, in which the cold snapped and cracked. In late June, the river Morgen was still pushing huge floes towards the shore, before the fine nozzles sprinkled their water anew over the flat roofs and factory buildings during the next six months.
This change from wet summer to frost: it came about quite rapidly. Normally it took about a week, sometimes only two to three days. Unusual things happened in this short time span. The huge madonna statues: they suddenly dried up on the shelves and cracks appeared in their faces and garbs. The people forgot their old demons and became open for new ideas. Clairvoyants ambled through the streets, prophesizing a good time on the riverbank. Liliputians circumvented the town council's prohibition to procreate and copulated at night in front of the cathedral ruins.
One might have thought that spring and autumn, excluded as they were from the weather forecast, were out to get their revenge, to bring the plentiful bounty of flowers, their colours and scents as well as the spice of rotting leaves and animal carcasses together in a heady mixture, in order to give humans a decent lungful before the fast approaching winter.
Cheery and carefree was this crazy time in which the light shone brighter upon Mariona. The brothels didn't close until six in the morning, which would be unthinkable in summerly-humid circumstances, and in the early afternoon the ladies were already parading dry and high-heeled along the sidewalk, greeting their customers from afar with an inviting sway of the hips.
Disneyland with weather caprioles? That's just like you, Amateur, said my friend Rosa. And wood. Why wood, of all things?
Because I drove twice through Germany.
Twice? Unbelievable!
I pictured them, these woodlands: they would be unending. Would be everywhere, below, above. Like the rain in my story. And later on the snow. These forests, in the East and in Bavaria, they had impressed me immensely.
You're a romantic deep sea diver, said Rosa.
Nature gives me wings. It always has.
Yeah, yeah. There's also plenty of nature in Luxembourg. And that sales rep in your story, it's time you gave him an identity.
I was just about to.
Why is he called Erwin by the way? asked Rosa. Sounds like a name out of an old German children's book.