Knowing things from afar

Here’s a scene from Heijermans’ Diamantstad (Diamond City).

It’s winter and Eli has promised his family food. Having exhausted all possibilities of getting a job for the day, he decides to go and catch fish. On his way to the Amstel river he meets a kid he knows, who asks him what he’s up to.

“I’m looking for a hole in the ice for dead fish.”

“What do you want with dead fish,” the shrill voice of the boy asked.

“Eat!” Eleazar said.

“Damn! What is dead fish good for? I would not eat that…”

“If it is cooked well,” Eleazar said to convince him, “you would fight for a bone!”…

“Dead fish—that stinks.—If you think you can fool me, say, you’d better think again!”

Again Eleazar laughed, shaking the brat that was talking like an old man by his neck.

“Dead fish, stewed with a bit of Vinegar, Jan—you would love that, if it were standing warm in front of you on the table.”

Together they walked on, the man and the limping boy, speaking like friends.

“Have you got a net then?” Jan asked, interested.

“When they come floating to the top you just have to grab them.”

“Float to the top? Float to the top? Damn—they get stuck under the ice!”

“If there’s a hole in the ice they look for air—a fish that cannot breathe will suffocate, just like us…”

“Hee!” the kid screamed, laughing brightly in the morning air. “Hee—a fish suffocating in water, ha ha!”

“You don’t believe it?”

“If you believe it,” the little fellow reasoned, limping heavily in the snow, “they have conned you man—and that’s stupid for such a grown-up guy.”

“Thank you dearly,” Eleazar laughed, brightened by the fresh sounds beside him: “but I think there may be one or two in things in life you and I do not know yet. When a fish does like this”—stopping, he mimicked the movement of gills with his jaws: “when a fish lies flapping on the ground, it tries to breathe—get it?”

Jan thought for a second. Then he orated: “Jeez—they would have a life, out of the water. Do you see they tricked you? When you pull them in on a rod they croak like that—well?—well? How is that possible? The air contains more air than water, right?, in which there is not air at all.”

“In water there’s also air,” Eleazar started to explain, but Jan was instantly on his case.

“…Hee! Hee! Air in water! You’d see bubbles come up all the time. If you blow through an old pipe stem in the water, it almost comes out as quickly as it goes in! You’re just full of it. If I were to shove your head under water, you’d drown. And you wouldn’t drown if there was air down there.”

“Thanks for the lesson,” Eleazar said, cornered, yet trying once again: “and still there’s air in the water, and even if there wasn’t air in it, you find all the same things in water as you find in air—really, Jan…”

“Well I’ll be!” the boy blared out: “if water is air, and air is water, then fish would fly and birds would swim!—Man, they can make you believe anything! You should just let them talk!”

“So why will they float up in the winter?” Eleazar laughed again, though with less vigour this time, because my my, if you knew the world from afar, the first street kid to come along would crush you in debate. “Why do fish die by the thousands when the water is closed?”

“Because,” the kid replied immediately, “because they’re dying from cold, just like the granddad from the bottlemaker from across, whom they found frozen in the cellar.”

“No,” Eleazar said: “down in the water it’s warmer when it’s freezing, just like under the ground.”

“You can say so much!”

“Ask teacher at school.”

“We’re not allowed to ask anything at school, only to put up our hands when you need to piss.”

“Well Jan—it’s true just the way I told you.”

“Boy!” the kid mocked: “Boy! They really pulled the wool over your eyes, I am telling you! If it’s not possible, it’s not possible! If I were a fish I would die of cold too, now…”

(This book—in Dutch—is currently being prepared for Project Gutenberg.)

One response to “Knowing things from afar”

  1. […] The opposite of calm comfort is Herman Heijermans’ Diamantstad (Diamond City), a novel about and an indictment of the poor living conditions of the inhabitants of the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam around the turn of the century. Earlier I sort of translated the fragment I quote in the reader over here. […]

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