Saturday, 24 September 2011

Interlude: a thorough rinsing

from The Werckmeister Harmonies, directed by Béla Tarr, adapted from The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai.

From my current translation of Judit Kiss's The Summer my Father Died

One day when I arrived relatively early at the hospital I sat on the bed and watched my father washing. He washed slowly and systematically. Face, neck, ears, the shaving foam behind the ears, under the arms, the chest and the upper part of the back. The careful movements that covered every part of the skin were a reminder of his childhood when there was no properly equipped bathroom and one had to bend over a full basin or a tub to perform the most thorough of ablutions, and though the luxury of running water might have rendered the whole process unnecessary the habit persisted even in this last phase of his life when my father had to lean against the basin because he was no longer capable of standing on his feet. Our habits of movement never leave us, remaining with us to the end so that we should be able to hang on to something firm when everything around us is gradually sinking; our fixed gestures, our turns of phrase, the shreds and patches of our thought all trying to render familiar our temporary lodging, to stuff the gaping holes in our fabric through which howls the cold wind of non-being. It’s quite pointless for him to wash so thoroughly, I thought, because my mother will soon be here and she’ll stand him up in the ancient shower from which unknown hands have long stolen both the handle and the shower-head, and she carefully sit him down on the one remaining plastic chair and scrub him down like a helpless overgrown baby.

Perhaps this is what old age is, I thought distractedly as I watched the fugitive drops of water run down his back, reaching the shore of his crumpled striped pyjamas, while the outside world finds ever narrower channels by which to enter the consciousness, its place being gradually usurped by habit. One becomes a kind of self-powered automaton that conscientiously grinds through its established routine, now and then dropping the odd hollow phrase that has ever less to do with the constantly changing world beyond; a desolate machine whose battery is running out, that stops in the middle of a room or on a street corner and the world pays no attention at all but rushes by on its business, until tender hands finally pick it up and clear it out of the way. That might be what old age is, and my dying father, who has never wanted to be old, might have to take a quick course on the difficult subject of ageing now. Watching his slow methodical movements a poem by Árpád Farkas came to mind, the one where he talks about old people bending over a sink, people through whom the twentieth century looks to rinse itself clean.

Such meditations are not covered by the usual mustn't complain. A touch of beauty helps, and certainly a thorough rinse. As we say in these parts, chiefly in this very room:

One is seldom consoled
by the thought of getting old,
but seeing where the century has been,
one could do with a good clean.

It is what the pronoun 'one' is for.

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