Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Skipped Pages of Altenberg

Peter Altenberg (1854-1919) wrote an entire book, Ashantee (1897), about his visits to the “African village” display at the Vienna Zoological Garden. There are some pieces in the English translation of his selected prose, in some cases consisting mainly of conversation between the Altenberg-persona and the young African people on exhibit: “’We’re supposed to represent savages, Sir, Africans. It’s completely crazy. We’d never go around like this [i.e., naked] in Africa . . . . Nobody lives in huts like these. Back home they’d be fit for dogs, gbe” (Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose of Peter Altenberg, trans. Peter Wortsman [New York: Archipelago, 2005], 65). Altenberg and his father, he tells us, went often and developed friendships with the Africans, especially crushes on the girls. Altenberg’s metier in general seems to have been crushes on often very young girls. In the English selection, which looks to be very selected, the African village happens to appear first in a piece called “The Private Tutor,” a third-person narrative in which tutor and boy and girl visit the zoo and hence the Africans, and the tutor’s affection for his girl student, Fortunatina, is mirrored in his admiration of a girl named Tíoko in the exhibit, and in Fortunatina’s own interest in Tíoko, encouraged by the tutor. (Fortunatina can please him by sharing this interest, which is a version of his interest in her.) It takes a couple of pages of zoo to get to the "village," which is initially heard and not seen (syncopated castanets). At this point, reading for the first time, I accidentally skipped two pages, so that Tíoko seemed to be introduced within Fortunatina’s daydream just before they leave the park: “’What is Tíoko up to?’ thought the child on the bench” (64). The reason I thought this oblique reference possible--mistook it for a literary strategy--was that everything was so imaginary already that it would make sense if no physical exchange took place. In that case, the moment of wondering what Tíoko is up to would constitute a sudden remembrance of her presence, as if the action had taken place in her peripheral vision. In another text Altenberg claims that his agreement with a woman he doesn’t know but whose window he daily passes--that when she moves she will leave her sewing machine in the window as though she were still there--“was the only real true relationship I ever had with a female soul in my entire uneventful life” (51). I had already read that when I skipped the pages. And it would be easier that way. So maybe I somehow knew what to skip: the tutor and Fortunatina’s preceding exchange with Tíoko, including kissing her, giving her a necklace (and later, Fortunatina the same necklace), and Fortunatina's declaring her love (for Tíoko, really for her tutor), under the cynical eye of the boy: “’No matter what he says, he bought her’” (62).

Image: "Katidja, 1910," from Vienna tourism Altenberg site,