The young cousins at the center of this gripping novel know they are different from their playmates. Their dark eyes alone set them apart. And as they look at family photo-graphs, the blank spaces between the pictures lead them to wonder about their mysterious past.
Who is the beautiful opera singer, the woman with "Italian eyes"? What happened to their grandfather, a pilot with a secret Luftwaffe unit in the Spanish Civil War? Could he still be alive? And why does his second wife forbid the children to speak of the family's history?
Questions become suspicions, secrets and rumors become wild insinuations. Combining clues from their own lives with traces of their family's past, the young detectives move from generation to generation. As fact and fiction merge into one, it slowly becomes clear that the truth is maddeningly elusive in this evocative, lyrical, and engrossing tale.
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MARCEL BEYER was born and raised in Cologne. The author of several novels and collections of poems, he has received numerous awards and was named one of the best young novelists in the world by the New Yorker. He lives in Dresden.
Sometimes I stand for a while spying through the peephole into the hall, even when I know I won't see a single person. I stand at the peephole and wait. No, I'm not waiting, I'm just watching; the door is closed. I stood that way as a child, first on a stool, then on a box, finally on tiptoe. And I'm standing like that now. I hear breathing.
At home or in a strange apartment, in a new housing block with low ceilings, carpet tiles, double locks on the doors. Visiting friends, or some place that smells funny, where there are no toys for me. Voices in the background, my parents and strangers in the living room, or simply a wall clock, the hum of a refrigerator, nothing.
I'm not allowed to touch the glass. The stairwell is just a step away, blocked only by the door. But the image comes from a great distance. If I watch steadily, the objects slowly draw nearer, as do the shadows on the perimeter. The most inconspicuous details outside strike the polished glass as if attempting to directly penetrate my retina.
Through the peephole everything seems near and yet untouchable. Flight is impossible. Flight is ruled out, but the path for flight lies before my eyes.
This is how I am standing. I don't see anyone. I'll stand here for a while.
o spores o
He remembered her at once. He'd spotted her name completely by chance on a poster on a kiosk. The opera was visiting his hometown. They'd been neighbors and playmates-just the two of them usually, because the neighborhood kids teased the girl. Because of her eyes, of the way she looked. First they made fun of her, then of him. But he'd always liked her Italian eyes. She was the only one in her family who had them. Her parents' and siblings' eyes were a different color, as far as he could recall. More than ten years ago.
When he saw her name that morning in the city, it seemed at once as if he'd always been searching for those eyes. It was a warm morning in early spring, and it didn't take him long to decide. He stepped into the nearest flower shop and ordered a bouquet without even knowing whether he could get a ticket.
He'll surprise her in the dressing room after the performance. The flowers will be standing there when he enters. He's in search of her eyes. By evening he will have found them.
A year ago he would not have tried. As an unemployed or part-time worker, he would not have gone to the opera. Not the down-at-the-heels traveling salesman, moving from farm to farm with his case of samples. Not the hawker standing outside the department store, praising miraculous cleaning agents and potato peelers, newfangled rollers for home permanents. He would not even have appeared before his childhood friend as a journeyman electrician who had spent six months wiring a new housing development on the other side of the redoubt, near the rifle range.
That smell, the fresh plaster, the cable ducts. The farther he advances, the more slowly he works: only five houses to go, then three, and still no idea how to support himself afterward. Only the top floor remains, the outlets and switches in the bedroom, then he's out of work again. After he's clamped the final cable and gathered his tools he has a thought: he could join the army. Someone who knows wiring should have a future there; he could easily learn to lay communication lines.
They took him immediately. In exchange for the run-down shoes that shamed him, he received a pair of leather boots. His skills as an electrician were indeed useful. And his excellent eyesight. What helped him most, however, were his stories about flying. At the age of sixteen he'd been drawn to gliding, and at twenty-five he'd lost none of his enthusiasm; drifting gently, often even unnoticed, above the countryside attracted him as much as ever. And in the cockpit, a silence no airstream could disturb, no matter its strength or speed.
He observes the soldiers in the stalls below, the officers in the boxes. He wishes he were in uniform. But although it seems strange even to him, they mustn't know he's one of them. He can't breathe a word about the air force, not the slightest hint: seventeen years after the Great War Germany still can't have an air force.
He had barely joined the army when, in January, he was ordered to report to the company commander along with a handful of his comrades, all of them technicians, although he alone had flight experience. They were informed that a new air force was being created and that they had been selected to help establish it. The German minister of aviation no longer intended to submit to the victors' dictates, but for the time being it would be best to work in secret. On February 1 they officially resigned from the German army and had to give up their uniforms. Since that time he's been wearing civilian clothes, and he's still unaccustomed to them.
He hears his company commander saying, Patience, just have patience: the switch from incognito to official recognition will happen soon enough. He was among the first to learn about the new air force. The company commander and the minister of aviation can count on his silence. No comrade, no unknown officer, not one person will have the slightest suspicion.
What sort of a man can't keep a secret? A person who can't keep a secret is weak in every way. Anyone who betrays a confidence, who is unworthy of a secret, loses both his own self-respect and that of his comrades. You have to be able to face yourself in the mirror. A secret is a secret.
Since early spring they've flown loops over the city, formal, unsuspicious loops. They've learned to glide, to fly in formation, to break formation, to pursue. People look up as the planes circle: a white script appears. A dive creates the first letter, followed by curves, dots, and loops; then the advertising slogan is underlined with a low pass. The civilians know nothing.
His childhood friend may be looking up with her fellow cast members. She shades her Italian eyes against the sun, traces the calligraphy with her finger. Her friends are still guessing, but she's figured it out:
"Today he's writing 'Persil.'"
You look carefully, you don't have long, it's only vapor. It loses shape, breaks apart in the air, dissolves into slender tendrils. And soon it will be gone. She doesn't know her childhood friend is up in that plane. She has no idea he's become a pilot. By the time he started flying gliders they had lost touch with one another.
He is making a good salary, he has a new suit and a clean shirt, he can go to the opera. And he has something most people in the audience do not: a secret.
The officers in the boxes. Sitting, talking, scanning the audience before the lights go down. The airs they put on, their dismissive attitude toward civilians. Patience. The stiff collars, the polished buttons. Just have patience. Before long he'll appear in uniform too, one that hasn't been seen for a long time. And it won't be gray, that same old gray, but blue as the sky, dark as the air force secret.
A bell rings. He opens his program. Again the bell rings. He's found a picture, clearly his childhood friend. The bell rings a final time, the lights are lowered, he takes his opera glasses from their case. He knows classical music well, both from records and from the radio; he knows every note of this evening's opera, although he's never been in an opera house before. Nevertheless he feels immediately at home. The opera glasses feel familiar, even though binoculars are larger and heavier.
During the overture he waits to search for her Italian eyes, although he doesn't expect to find them. The people in front of him clear their throats. He adjusts the focus, wipes the lenses again. The people next to him are glancing at him openly. They don't know who he is. He'll soon settle in, learn to be inconspicuous, quiet. The curtain rises. A woman appears. It must be her.
He doesn't know the way to the dressing room. He shouldn't have stayed in his seat during the intermission, he should have looked around. He stands on the steps between the tiers, while the officers pass by. They would know how to get backstage; or-he could ask them the way to the dressing room.
He sees the officers disappear through a side door in the foyer. He should speak to them, but how? An insecure civilian wants to pay his compliments to a famous soprano after the performance. Whatever he might say would sound ridiculous to these officers.
Now, he knows, they are standing in the hall outside the dressing room, smoking, waiting for the soprano to finish removing her makeup and change so that she can receive visitors. She's no longer the girl next door. No one, no officer, would dare make a disparaging remark about her Italian eyes.
He had wanted to surprise her, but perhaps she wouldn't even have recognized him. He crosses the square in front of the opera. It had not occurred to him that she might be meeting someone. He heads for the tram. Then he remembers the bouquet standing in her dressing room. And she doesn't know who sent it.
© 2000 DuMontBuchverlag, Köln
English translation copyright © 2005 by Breon Mitchell
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, organizations, and events are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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