The Independent foreign fiction award: Grass: love and tombstones
Saturday 06 February 1993
Alexandra had bought food for a picnic, which she prepared on the shore of a lake near Zuckau and spread out on a pretty red- and-blue embroidered tablecloth: coarse garlic sausage, cottage cheese mixed with onions and chives, a jar of mustard pickles, radishes, too many hard- boiled eggs, mushrooms in oil and vinegar, bread and butter, nor did she forget the salt shaker. She put four bottles of beer in the lapping water by the shore. They found a sandy bay between clumps of rushes, small enough for the two of them. Both sat barefoot on folding chairs, he with rolled-up trouser legs.
No, no toad noise. Once in the distance a motorcycle. Dragonflies over the water, bumblebees, cabbage butterflies, what else? Little by little it grew dark. Now and then a fish jumped out of the water. Cigarette smoke against mosquitoes. And then suddenly the call of a single toad] More a ring than a call. 'When we had almost given up hope, the bell struck three times: short, long, long . . . The still surface of the water made the ringing especially clear. Where did it come from? I couldn't say; from near, from far. No other sound, except perhaps larks, who held the stage from morning till night over the prematurely ripe fields. And sacks of white cloud drifting from the northeast were part of the Kashubian summer. The toad call went on and on . . .'
And into the silence and over the endless croaking Piatkowska said, 'We should stop now.'
It seems to have taken Reschke a moment to answer: 'You mean what we began can't succeed?'
'Only what I said, Stop now, because it's going well still.'
'But we've just begun . . .'
'I still say.'
'We haven't yet filled three rows of graves . . .'
'Believe me, Aleksander, any better it won't get.'
'We'll have to let the business take its course, because no one can stop it now . . .'
'Just because we had an idea?'
'. . . which will be a mess if we leave it unfinished.'
Alexandra Piatkowska put an end to this dialogue which paralleled the croaking of the toads. Her laughter is recorded on Reschke's tape.
It goes without saying that they went on, but the suggestion that they stop while it was going well marked a turning point in their story. Later I find entries that confirm this caesura. 'It was the solitary toad that advised Alexandra to put an early end to our endeavors. Should I have listened?'
Of that picnic it remains to be reported that the four beer bottles refused to cool in lukewarm lake water.
The winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Award for November / December is The Call of the Toad by Gunter Grass, translated by Ralph Manheim, Secker, pounds 14.99. It is the third book on the shortlist for the pounds 10,000 annual award, to be presented in July. Set in Gdansk, The Call of the Toad is a love story between an German widower and a Polish widow. The drift of their emotions, and the quarrels that follow their attempt to develop a cemetery, cleverly (and, in Germany, controversially) mirror the tensions between the two nations. The judges were: Penelope Fitzgerald, Doris Lessing, Gabriel Josipovici and Trevor McDonald.
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