‘The Last Country’ by Svenja Leiber: An Excerpt
The Last Country is an epic bildungsroman about the life of Ruven Preuk, son of the wainwright, child of a sleepy village in Germany’s north, where life is both simple and harsh.
Ruven, though, is neither. He has the ability to see sounds, leading him to discover an uncanny gift for the violin. When he meets a talented teacher in the Jewish quarter, Ruven falls under the spell of a prodigious future. But as the twentieth century looms, Ruven’s pursuit of his craft takes a turn. In The Last Country, Svenja Leiber spins a tale that moves from the mansions of a disappearing aristocracy to a communist rebellion, from a joyous village wedding to a Nazi official’s threats, from the First World War to the Second. As the world Ruven knows disappears, the gifted musician must grapple with an important question: to what end has he devoted himself to his art?
Translated by Nika Knight
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The women harvest plums. Already another summer, sun like oil on canvas, laundry whitening. The women pluck and gather. They discuss Ruven, the younger son of the wainwright, Preuk. The boy has been standing between the field and the road since morning, and doesn’t stir. ‘Does God even know,’ they say, ‘what to do with such a child?’
Ruven Preuk stands apart from the village, on an August day in 1911, and listens. He counts the rhythm that the light and the poplars beat, light, dark, light. Everywhere the fields are blooming, German, Protestant, and muted by the heat. A lull in the ripened oats—and in this silence a lala and lalay, not quite audible, first distant, then closer and closer. Ruven tilts his head and closes his eyes. Then he twitches his fingers: the right ones follow the rhythm, the play between light and shadow, the left ones the song, lala, lalay.Now he raises his arms, he conducts. The women turn their backs and wipe the sweat from their faces. Just lying about and flailing doesn’t lead to anything, they think, the basket won’t be filled that way.
Two wooden carriages with tired draught animals approach the road. The first is driven with one hand by a man. He leans against the body of the wagon as if asleep. A woman in a skirt and red jacket drives the second; she’s the one singing. A pack of teenagers from the village march behind it, one, two, one, two, they’ve also been lurking since morning, led by Fritz Dordel with his otter-face and too-short trousers. The caravan passes loudly by Ruven like a parade; the path is darkened by the figures as well as the woman’s mocking songs, rage and triumph, she bares her teeth and cracks the whip to her side as well as at Fritz, who is now almost halfway onto her carriage. Hardly a hair on his face, he plainly fingers the hem of her skirt. Her bare foot kicks him off the prow and he falls backwards into the oats. Enraged, he picks himself up and follows the carriage into the village.
Ruven watches them go. Here they are, finally. He’d hoped that they were coming. Fritz wanted him to stay there on the lookout, as always, but this time he didn’t want to. It’s a special day, a day like this only happens once a year, and he’d like to follow them but his father arrives just then at the ford, squeezed closely on either side between the bushes. His father shouldn’t catch him near the otter. Ruven steps behind the trunk of the nearest poplar. Well, old Preuk doesn’t see him and drives his bay horses further through the soft sand. The reins rub the foam from their coats. The cartload clatters because the wagon must climb the slope. Nils Preuk dismounts and pushes from behind. At the top, he is riding along again and doesn’t notice his boy jumping on. He only turns around because the clattering has quieted and he thinks that the load has fallen off, but there sits his son, his head as blond as cauliflower, saying, ‘They’re here again,’ and then he’s seated himself next to Nils.
‘The fiddler and Sofie.’
‘They were earlier last year,’ says Nils and is quiet for a moment. ‘This Sofie, always from farm to farm. Turning every head with her singsong. Even Röver. And those eyes! Double poison,’ he says and stares intently ahead.
Farmer Röver’s hand had gotten caught in the well’s hand crank because of Sofie’s songs. Four of his fingers were later brought to the pastor. But the pastor also hadn’t known where to put them and so had pocketed and then forgotten them. In the afternoon, while discussing a baptism, he nearly fainted as his left hand suddenly grasped the cold fingers in his pocket and in the next moment realized what he was kneading—all while he spoke to the baptizand’s mother, with a heavenward gaze and breathless voice, of the Lutheran afterlife. He then buried the four fingers in the young Röver’s family plot. ‘It’s never gone too far for the woman,’ he sang quietly as he did it, the schnapps he’d been handed for assistance pounding wildly through his veins.
The wainwright’s workshop sits behind the village. The house isn’t grand, but one could inherit less than a brick building with an acre and a well, all of it circled from morning to night by Wilder the ram. Wilder, because of his large testicles, considers himself the biggest around. He butts down anything standing upright: a short warm-up, a couple of leaps, and it’s finished. Then he stands, silent, staring stupidly at his victim.
‘He’ll be castrated,’ says Nils, grinding his teeth, whenever he’s the one chased down, but he always lets him go. He lets the ram with his double-twisted horns into the pen and doesn’t castrate him, as if by secret arrangement.
Now he unhitches the bay horses and unloads the cart. In the workshop it smells of tar. Nils scratches his beard. ‘Yes, clear out,’ he says to Ruven, who is standing before him with pleading eyes. ‘But don’t forget to deliver the pigeons to the Klunkenhöker woman.’ The Klunkenhöker woman is the richest woman in the region, and she is always hungry for pigeons. Everyone in the village wants to sell her something, but for well-known reasons she prefers the pigeons of the little Preuk. The boy is beautiful, they say.
Ruven runs to the village square. He has just forgotten the Klükenhoker woman, or at least pushed thoughts of her aside, when he sees the two wooden carriages and remembers from last year how it smells in one of them. Sweet and like a woman, thinks Ruven, although he understands nothing of such things. He had been on the other side of Sofie’s door only once, because she had beckoned him over. And then she had only sat there and laughed and given him a piece of bread with jam and allowed him a single glimpse of her shin, while the boys from the village had piled against the window, Fritz Dordel at the forefront. But Ruven only thought, what do I do with a shin? And flushed almost as red as Sofie’s jacket, which looked so shabby up close.
The carriages stand in shadows, slightly diagonal to each other, and Joseph, the old fiddler, has chased the otter away and fed the ponies. He leans now on the oak, where he keeps an ear out, smokes, and considers the square. His grey hair is bound in a braid and his sore eyes squint. It’s widely believed that he comes from the Black Sea, perhaps also from Italy—from far away, in any case. Next to him stands Farmer Jacobs, here to represent the community and monitor everything with precision.
‘If you don’t cobble the street soon, I’m going to America,’ says Joseph and spits out tobacco.
‘If that’s your stance,’ says Jacobs as he pockets the money for the hay, ‘we can also go on without you.’ But with that, he grins, and Joseph grins, too, flashing a golden tooth as if he wants to dazzle Jacobs with it. But then he turns disdainfully to the ponies and mutters, they really need something decent, like oats, for example. At that, Jacobs hopes for an additional transaction, perhaps involving something like the gold on Joseph’s tooth, but Joseph waves dismissively and says, ‘This is fine, and if not, Satan will pull the wagon. You just have to cobble the street, then I can also hitch up a goat,’ and he makes two horns with his index fingers. Then he suddenly notices a heartening sight. He has discovered the boy loitering close by, and waves him over. Ruven smiles cautiously. He comes to stroke the ponies and also to get a bit closer, and he carefully pats dust out of their hides.
‘You want to see them?’ asks Joseph, ‘Come closer, quietly!’ A small bow, and then Ruven is already blushing red again, thinking he will have to look at Sofie’s shin once more. But Joseph is not that kind of man; he earned his gold tooth a different way. With his own talents he made people soft and pliable, they wanted nothing more than to shower him with money—in any case, this is how he tells it. He spins a key on a ribbon so that it whirs and beckons Ruven to follow him.
It’s dim inside the carriage.