01. 16. 2006. 10:15

The True History of Jacob Wunschwitz (Excerpt)

"Running an eye over the regions of our own era, controlled and enmeshed as they are in so many different ways, the sight of disintegrated or as yet unconsolidated terror states prompts us, time and time again, to ask: at what moment do age-old agencies encounter the personal names that suddenly spring to the surface?"

Guben, the town where our story will be taking place, not quite four hundred years ago, counted as one of the foremost settlements in Lower Lusatia in the sixteenth century, so anyone who lived in the town, or even spent just a few days there, within its seemingly indestructible walls, might justifiably have supposed that the town's development would carry on uninterrupted in perpetuity, or it would have been hard, at least, to imagine a force so malign that it would be capable of impeding that development, bringing its enviable fruits to naught. Its favourable geographical location was put to consistent good use by diligence and luck, and while the march of history could hardly be regarded as triumphal for Guben, it was all the more readily perceptible in the comings and goings of welcome guests, who came bearing gifts or good tidings; and if they did sometimes bear bad tidings, nonetheless, of omens, wars or the ruination of distant lands, then even the bad news merely served as evidence that trouble was what happened to others, somewhere far away; and the demands that were articulated, decade after decade, from the outlying villages or domains were proof of nothing other than the fact with which everybody concerned had to reckon: that the town of Guben, in the privileges bestowed upon it, and in proud consciousness of its rights, disposed of the means with which to protect everything that, by the grace of God and the favours of bygone princes,  it could call its own.

The River Neisse, which the protracted labours of Guben burghers had made navigable, did not merely connect the town with the Baltic Sea, and thereby with the other parts of the world, nor merely assure it of the interest, and indeed friendship, of such important commercial centres as Stettin, Breslau and even Frankfurt on the Oder, nor merely win for it a place in the league of Hanse towns, which brought at least as much profit as honour, and whose entitlement to which it would have occurred to no one, at the time of our story, to question, or at least no one around would have imagined that the town of Guben might, at some time, be excluded from Hanse, thus losing its significance and, eventually, of its own accord, without expulsion of any kind, slipping into oblivion; the Neisse did not merely enrich the town through shipping, by permitting goods produced in the town and its environs to gain access to the north, and for the town to gain access to the most essential import articles, most notably the Fuller's earth indispensable for finishing broadcloth and the moist, unrefined sea-salt called boy, the privilege for the refinement of which, along with control of the salt-trade, had been granted by Frederick the Pinch-faced, when he was Margrave of Meissen; but the Neisse also propelled the town's water mills, three in number, one of which (namely the one that, since the day it had begun to operate, had been leased out to the tanners of the town), under a long-standing ordinance, had to be situated at a distance of one thousand three hundred paces below the town; apart from which, since the water from a spring called the Cold Well, which had its source on one of the nearby hillsides and was fed into the town along covered wooden channels, had proved insufficient, partly due to the growth in the populace, partly as a consequence of the gratifying boom in brewing that occurred after the one-mile statute came into force, the construction of a hoisting mechanism, known as 'the Hydraulic Device', had taken place above the municipal water mills several years before our story begins, and this ingenious apparatus had meant that, once again, solely the waters of the Neisse were led into the town, mostly potable and wholesome water, in virtually unlimited quantities; while, finally, the Neisse also directly gave Guben access to a substantial income by virtue of the fact that the town had the right, and was accordingly accustomed, to collect a duty of one groat for each log of pine-wood that was rafted from Silesia down to Brandenburg; and although the flood waters to which the account books make bitter references were, on occasion, the cause of grave damage, inasmuch as the town, or more precisely (for the inundations were unable to harm the inner part, built on the higher ground within the town's walls) its three suburbs of Crossen, which was inhabited predominantly by agricultural workers, Werder, where the boatmen and merchants had built their dwellings, and the Convent Quarter, where the fur-cap makers of Salzburg, driven away by a terrible fire, along with silversmiths and weavers fleeing from Holland, had settled, had in several instances – the last one before the Thirty Years' War happening to take place in the year of our story – been levelled to the ground, despite which the town dwellers had every reason to bless the Neisse's waters, if only because Guben's fishermen brought the most splendid fish from the Neisse to the market hall, where the town, on which the right to pronounce death sentences had been conferred, for want of a separate building for the administration of justice, tried criminal cases on the days when the market was closed, and those selfsame fishermen were able to sell those selfsame fish in settlements that lay further away from the river at a much higher price than they were allowed to sell within the town, though they were liable to pay a tax on that account to the town council, and the Neisse thereby likewise, albeit indirectly, enriched the town of Guben, although in strict truth we should also mention that the Lubsch or Lubisch brook, which flowed into the Neisse below Guben, was even richer in fish than the Neisse, but neither the Guben fishermen, nor any other burgher, had the right to catch fish there.


At the time of our story, Jakob Wunschwitz was thirty-seven years of age; he had a rather handsome house in Meissen, beneath the castle, on the banks of the Elbe; his workshop was on the ground floor, which was where the journeymen and apprentices slept, whereas he dwelt on the upper floor with his wife and three children. His craft allowed him to live, if not in opulence, then at least in tolerable comfort; he had a reputation for being sober-minded, intelligent, a seeker after justice. He was also fairly well educated for a man of his social status, but equally would not be mortified if dye stains should show on his fingers, even after repeated washing of the hands; indeed, a splash of dye might stay unwashed on his face for weeks. He never neglected his civic duties, but he had a greater liking for a life of quiet retirement than for the not infrequently uncalled-for hubbub of public affairs, and whenever possible he chose serenely thoughtful contemplation to jollifications; in short, he may not have lived in a state of exultation or glitter but in good health, content and happy, among his loved ones, and he had far-sighted plans, as befits any respected burgher at the prime of his powers; and were an angel or a demon to have warned him, during one of his solitary moments, that two days previously, on the second Saturday after All Hallows’ Day, he had celebrated his last birthday, he would not have been overly surprised, if only because he had learnt from the ancient sages that nothing is impossible, and one should be ready to meet one’s death at any minute of any hour.

We do not wish to hide from our gracious readers, before we introduce Jacob Wunschwitz into his own true story, that we too thought hard about the moment at which it is decided somebody becomes a participant in an event, and how exactly can the events that are happening, or did happen, be tied retrospectively to that person? Running an eye over the regions of our own era, controlled and enmeshed as they are in so many different ways, the sight of disintegrated or as yet unconsolidated terror states prompts us, time and time again, to ask: at what moment do age-old agencies encounter the personal names that suddenly spring to the surface? If the encounter of happenings and participants is random, why then does it shroud in dense shadows those possibilities that point in other directions once it has made them impossible; or if it is inevitable, why does it only prove to be so retrospectively?

Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: László Márton