Friday, 27 September 2013

Pencil on the Western Front



"The silence spreads. I talk and must talk. So I speak to him and say to him: 'Comrade, I did not want to kill you. ... But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony - ...

It is quiet, the front is still except for the crackle of rifle fire. ...

'I will write to your wife,' I say hastily to the dead man, 'I will write to her, she must hear it from me, I will tell her everything I have told you, she shall not suffer, I will help her, and your parents too, and your child - '

His tunic is half open. The pocket-book is easy to find. But I hesitate to open it. In it is the book with his name. So long as I do not know his name perhaps I may still forget him, time will obliterate it, this picture. But his name, it is a nail that will be hammered into me and never come out again. ...

So I open the book and read slowly: - Gérard Duval, compositor.

With the dead man's pencil I write the address on an envelope, then swiftly thrust everything back into his tunic.

I have killed the printer, Gérard Duval.

*

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, Kindle ed. Vintage Digital 2010

Photo: German soldier on the Western Front, 1916, Bundesarchiv.

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