The present of the past of things

Patricio Pron writes a moving piece for PEN Atlas, about an encounter in a small German city that made him reflect on collective guilt, individual responsibility and the nature of the past – both for a person and a country

Translated from the Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem

Some time ago I visited an elderly couple who lived on the outskirts of a small German city. I had never met them, but I already knew some things about them: I knew that they were my girlfriend’s paternal grandparents, that they were readers of Theodor Fontane, that he had been a teacher, that it had been a while since my girlfriend had last visited them. They lived in a small flat with views of a motorway with little traffic and they made exquisite conversation, the result of a life of readings that had left their mark on them and that they recounted without the slightest affectation as they sliced up the customary cake, served the coffee and showed an interest in us, as if there were anything interesting about our lives.

The day after visiting them we received a card in which the old man thanked me for the Fontane book I’d bought in an antiques shop and given to him the day before, in a gesture that was perhaps antiquated but that I nonetheless (or maybe for that very reason) found particularly moving. Before that, and shortly after we said goodbye to them at the end of what for me had been one of the best afternoons to date of my stay in Germany, my girlfriend told me a story about her grandfather: he’d been drafted during the war; he had fought on the Eastern front and on the Western, involuntarily moving up in the army ranks, due to the desertion or death of his superiors; in France, in the face of the Allies’ advance, he had surrendered himself: he’d forced a subordinate to switch his regular soldier’s uniform for his officer’s one; the subordinate had been shot by a firing squad, he had escaped with his life.

Neither my girlfriend nor her father knew the story well, (in fact) they preferred not to talk about it; of course, her father and she were very familiar with German responsibility in the tragic events between 1933 and 1945 and they had internalised the guilt that plagues Germans since then, but, even knowing about that guilt, they seemed little interested in finding out about the personal responsibility of a member of their family in those events. Actually (I thought) their recognition of German guilt in the tragic events of the first half of the 20th century is what kept them from evaluating that individual responsibility, it was the excuse to not dig deeper into the family story, to not confront the old man with facts that didn’t exist outside of German history (as if they occupied, for example, the back room of a building known only by its facade), but rather were German history itself, stripped of rhetorical strategies, devoid of sociological and political arguments that explain it, converted into family history and into destiny.

There, I now think, was where it all began for me. Not necessarily in the story of that old man who I met one afternoon on the outskirts of a small German city and who died some years later, but rather in the confrontation between individual responsibility and collective guilt that I considered for the first time that afternoon and in what that confrontation had to say about my own country, where those responsible for the murder of thirty thousand people during the military dictatorship had been tried and then freed in name of the same argument that presided over the German way of thinking of the past, that the recognition of collective guilt exempted the army from elucidating individual responsibility.

I hadn’t returned to Argentina for years and I was perfectly aware of how spot-on Stuart Hall was, when he wrote that “migration is a one-way trip” since there is “no ‘home’ to go back to”. When I returned to Argentina, however, while I couldn’t shake the story of that old man and the unanswered questions left by his death, which no one would ever be able to resolve (Was the story true? What was the name of his subordinate, the one who died in his name allowing him to survive? Were his nights filled with regret, with satisfaction, with indifference, with relief?), I thought I was returning to the past, to my country’s past (which I knew was bloody) and to my own family’s past, their participation in the tragic events of Argentina’s past (and how they had managed to escape death) that my parents and my siblings and I had pretended to have forgotten for too long; I was going back, I told myself, to the past, but, at the same time, it began to be increasingly clear that it was impossible for me to go back to the past, since, actually, I had never completely left it behind and it travelled with me wherever I went: that (in the end) it was there wherever I was, including in a flat in a small German city, one afternoon, in the words unsaid by an old man that would serve as my impetus to tell the story of what I had seen and heard and of how I had seen and heard it, in a country that was for me the past; which is to say, the present.

About the Author

Patricio Pron, born in 1975, is the author of three story collections and four previous novels, and he also works as a translator and critic. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Zoetrope and The Paris Review, and has received numerous prizes, including the Juan Rulfo Short Story Prize, the Jaén Novel Award, and the 2008 José Manuel Lara Foundation Award for one of the five best works published in Spain that year. He was one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists of 2010. He lives in Spain.

His most recent novel My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is out now,  “a daring, deeply affecting novel about the secrets buried in the past of an Argentine family. It is a story of fathers and sons, the impending death of a parent, corruption and responsibility, memory and history, with a mystery at its heart.”

About the Translator

Mara Faye Lethem has translated novels by David Trueba, Albert Sanchez Piol, Javier Calvo, Patricio Pron and Pablo De Santis, among others. Her translations have appeared in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2010, Granta, The Paris Review and McSweeneys. She is currently working on a novel by Marc Pastor.

Additional Information

Photo of Patricio Pron, credited to Luna Miguel (Madrid, March 2010)

Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) was a German novelist and poet, regarded by many as the most important 19th century German-language realist writer. 

 

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