When school was almost over and he was just waiting for diplomas to be handed out, he took a trip to the nearest large city. It was an hour and a half by train, a trip he could have taken at any time all those years for a concert, a play, an art exhibition, but had never done so. When he was small, his parents had once taken him along and shown him the churches, the town hall, the courthouse, and the large park in the center of the city. After their move, his parents did not travel anymore, whether with or without him, and at first it had never occurred to him to travel alone. Later he couldn't afford it. His father lost his job because of his drinking, and the boy had to work as well as go to school, handing over any money he earned. Now that he was graduating and would soon leave town, he was beginning to separate from his parents. And he now wanted to spend what he earned.
He wasn't looking for the museum of modern art, but found it by chance. He went in because the building fascinated him with its strange mixture of modern simplicity on the one hand and inhospitable, cavelike gloominess on the other, while the doors and oriels were playfully kitschy. The collection ranged from the Impressionists to the New Savages, and he looked at it all with proper attentiveness but little sympathy. Until he happened on the painting by Rene Dalmann.
At the Beach was the title, and it showed a rock, a sandy beach, and the sea. A girl, naked and beautiful, was doing a handstand on the rock, but one of her legs was made of wood--not a wooden leg, but a female leg of perfectly grained wood. No, he neither recognized the girl doing the handstand as the girl with the lizard nor could he say that it was the same rock, the same beach, the same sea. But it all reminded him so powerfully of the painting at home that he bought a postcard as he left and, had he had more money, would have bought a book on Rene Dalmann. When he compared the two at home, the differences between painting and postcard were obvious. And yet there was something that linked them--was it merely in the eye of the beholder or in the paintings themselves?
"What have you got there?" His father entered the room and reached for the postcard.
The boy stepped aside and let his father grab at thin air. "Who painted our painting?"
His father's gaze turned cautious. He'd been drinking, and it was the same caution with which he reacted to the rejection and open disdain his wife and son showed him whenever he was sloshed. They had long ago lost any fear of him. "I don't know--why?"
"Why haven't we sold the painting if it's so valuable?"
"Sold? We can't sell the painting!" His father took up a position in front of the painting as if to protect it from his son.
"Why can't we?"
"Then we wouldn't have anything. And you'd get nothing when I'm gone. It's for you that we're keeping the painting, for you." Delighted by an argument that would surely persuade his son, his father repeated it, and then again. "Mother and I are turning ourselves inside out to be sure you'll get the painting someday. And what do I get in return? Ingratitude, nothing but ingratitude."
The boy left his whining father standing there and forgot the whole incident, the picture in the museum, and Rene Dalmann. Besides working in the warehouse of a tractor factory, he moonlighted as a waiter until the beginning of the semester, and then left to study as far from home as possible. The city on the Baltic was ugly and its university mediocre. But nothing there reminded him of his hometown in the south. In his first weeks he realized, much to his relief, that he recognized no one in his law courses, or in the cafeteria, or in the halls. He could start all over again.
He had made one stop on his way there. He had only a few hours to walk through the city by the river. Again it was purely by chance that he found the museum. But once inside, chance was not enough, and he asked right away for pictures by Rene Dalmann, and found two of them. Order Restored after War was five by six and a half feet high and showed a woman sitting on the ground, head bent forward, legs drawn up, propping herself on her left arm. With her right hand she was pushing a drawer back into her abdomen; her breasts and belly were drawers as well, with nipples as knobs for the one and her navel as the pull for the other. The drawers at her breasts and stomach were slightly open and empty, but beneath them in the abdomen drawer lay a dead soldier, twisted and mutilated. The other painting was entitled Self-Portrait as Woman and showed the bust of a smiling young man with a shaved head; the outline of breasts was visible beneath his buttoned-up black jacket, and in his left hand he held up a blond, curly wig.
Excerpted from Flights of Love by Bernhard Schlink Copyright 2001 by Bernhard Schlink. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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