The Violin and the Leica

26 Nov

He held his Stradivarius in an old case, on top of the kitchen cupboard. The weekends I would get taken to the country for visits, he would lower it with unbelievable caution, take the instrument out of the case, and play a few bars of Bach or Beethoven. He was self-taught. The bow sliding on the strings often sounded like rusty wire being stretched. His kitchen overflowed with books on chess strategy. He translated Shakespeare for fun. He was a photographer with an improvised dark room. Once, in 1943, during the war, he somehow produced a photograph of four versions of himself, together at a table playing poker. I still have that shot in a decrepit album with yellow pages and moldy spine. He brought me dark chocolate whenever he visited the apartment. I hated it then. Still not a fan of it. He smoked Kent cigarettes. Ten years after he died, and I saw him laying in that musty, nasty parlour, surrounded by grieving village women clad in black–there only for the free wine–paperwork from another country arrived. He had left me the violin and a 35 mm Leica camera made in 1923 by Oskar Barnack himself. The Communist government would not release the bequeathed items to a family of defectors, but I was assured they would be put to good use by some high-ranking official with a villa in the Carpathian Mountains, and if I were to ever visit that country, I would have access to the items–provided I filled out two dozen pre-printed government forms twelve months in advance. There was also the issue of an unpaid debt he had left, that I would have to have resolved. Probably by doing ten to fifteen in a salt mine outside Galati.

In 1998 the government finally released the items to the custody of my mother, who had gone back for the funeral of a childhood friend. The violin was ruined; it was cracked in several places and was missing two pegs and the end pin. The bridge was damaged as well. The Leica camera was missing altogether. Its only traces were met with the indefatigable shrug that people in my country seem to have perfected over the last hundred years. And a small piece of official paper stating that the item, missing as it was, had been received and signed for by its owners. Absurdity, it seems, was not altogether lost in the fall of the bureaucratic Iron Curtain.

Dark chocolate (Belgian)
One roll of tri-x, black and white film
Bach CD
“Chess Openings” book (used)
Old copy of MacBeth (Italian translation, paperback)
One hundred and sixty-eight photos snapped between 1937-1945
One carton of Kent cigarettes received in 1978 (unopened) and smuggled across the border into the West
Eight wailing widows waiting for their ration of sour wine (free)

“Once, he biked eighteen kilometers to catch the sunrise over the pond in Ploesti.”
“Do we have that one?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. We might.”
“Keep that book thing in a sealed baggy; it’s falling apart as it is.”
“Don’t tell me; I know what to do.”
“What did you do with the violin?”
“It’s in your father’s house. In the basement. Next to the furnace. I think it got damaged in the flood he had last autumn.”
“I think I want it.”
“You should; it’s just sitting there rotting…”


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