Remarque, The Road Back

Like Ondaatje and Cercas, Remarque’s The road back / Der Weg zurück (1931) mixes fact and fiction, but in a way I find admirable and moving. There’s never the sense of fiddling for self-aggrandisement, merely the kind of twiddling that is inevitable when you sign up to write a story in so many thousand words.

I wish I’d known that Remarque was from Osnabrück when I was gigging round there, and that his first teaching job was in Lohne, on my cycle route east, through royal Celle. One of my favourite bits:

The orchestra sounds a flourish. A chap with a chrysanthemum in his buttonhole comes to the front and explains that a couple will now give a demonstration of the latest thing from Berlin—a Fox-trot! That is unknown here as yet; we have only heard tell of it.

We gather round curiously. The orchestra strikes up a syncopated measure and the pair begin to skip round each other like a couple of spring lambs. Sometimes they will retreat from one another; then they will link arms again and twirl limping in a circle. Willy is craning his neck, his eyes as big as saucers. Here at last is a dance after his own heart.

The table with the prizes is brought in. We barge across. There are three prizes each for the One-step, the Boston, and the Fox-trot. The Fox-trot rules us out, we cannot do that; but like old Blücher, we mean to knock off the other two.

The first prize in each case is ten gull’s eggs or a bottle of schnapps. Willy inquires suspiciously whether gull’s eggs are edible. Reassured he comes back. The second prize is six gull’s eggs, or an all-wool Balaclava cap; the third, four eggs, or two packets of Germany’s Heroic Fame cigarettes. “We’re not having them anyhow,” says Karl, who knows about such things.

The competition begins. We have entered Karl and Albert for the Boston; Willy and me for the One-step. But we have not very high hopes of Willy. He can win only if the judges have a sense of humour.

Cut to Willy, who I have retrospectively adopted as the guardian angel of my (Westphalian) dance routines, and whose bucolic genius recalls the JSL of those days. He has decided to participate in the foxtrot round after all:

Fascinated, we hang over the backs of our chairs to see what he will do. The female lion-tamer is coming out to meet him. With a sweeping gesture he offers his arm. The orchestra begins.

On the instant Willy is transfigured. He has turned into a runaway camel with an attack of St. Vitus’s dance. He leaps in the air and he limps; he skips and he circles; he lashes out with his legs and tosses his lady to and fro; then with a sort of pig’s gallop he goes careering down the room, the lion-tamer not before, but beside him, so that she is giving an exhibition of the bent-arm hang from his outstretched right arm, while he has full liberty on his other side to do his worst, without having to worry lest he tread on her feet. Then he is an impersonation of a round-about, till his coat-tails stand off at right angles; next moment he sets off with fancy skippings slantwise across the dance floor, bucking like a billy-goat with pepper under its tail; he thunders and spins and rages, and finally winds up with a weird pirouette in which he whirls his lady high through the air.

Not a soul in the hall doubts but that he is watching a hitherto unknown, professional exponent of some super foxtrot. Willy had seen his chance and made the most of it. His victory is so convincing that after him there is a long pause, and then the second prize. He holds up the bottle of schnapps to us in triumph. But he has sweated to such an extent that the dye in his cut-away has run badly; his shirt and waistcoat are quite black, while his swallow-tail seems decidedly paler.

I loved the translation, by Remarque’s contemporary and one-time foe, A.W. Wheen – unvarnished, so you still smell the other language. I’d like to know more about the two of them.

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