Autobiography of No One
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Esther Orner
Translated from French by Talya Halkin
I had come to join someone. Not a man. It's always a man that one goes off to join. For whom one leaves one's parents and friends. But I had come to join my child. My child had arrived before me in this city. In this country. I didn't see her very often. My child had her own life. I had to make one for myself. Rebuild my life. But can you truly rebuild your life?
I arrived here, as one arrives in this country, at dawn. My child wasn't waiting for me. Ever since she had left, she had never written even a short letter. Neither had I, I had never written to her. It was up to her to write. I received news through friends. The same friends who had encouraged me to come here.
It had taken a long time to prepare for this trip. It was not a regular trip. I didn't come as a sightseer. Which, in any case, was rare at that time. Nor had I come to tour the land. Others had done that long before me. They described the country as a paradise. Or as a foretaste of paradise. Regardless of what they found there. It was a destination to be reached one day. And I did. At dawn. Some friends waited for me at the entrance to the port. I hadn't seen them for twenty or twenty-five years. No, I must be exaggerating. Ten or fifteen years. I was still quite young. And so were they. The formalities took a long time. Then I met up with them again. They even argued about who would put me up while I was looking for a place to stay. None of them owned a big house. In fact, they all lived in apartments. But they each had a sofa in their living room. And so I went from sofa to sofa. Until one day there was no one left to put me up. Thanks to my friends and their sofas, I never experienced life in the tents, the flies and mosquitoes in summer and the mud in winter. In no time, I had run through my savings.
I was still young and pretty. I did not know it then. I had never known it. I was told I was. Sometimes I believed it. I had made myself some nice dresses. Especially one. A print against a red background. A dress with generous cleavage. The child would say, Cover yourself up, it's immodest. I would laugh. The child is scolding me for my coquettishness. I knew how to sew and had prepared myself an entire wardrobe in advance. I had come for the child. I hardly ever saw her.
I can no longer remember whether I reproached her. I undoubtedly did. I was alone. The child, a teenager, was too young to understand. I saw her for the first time at her father's relatives. She had grown up. In one short year, she had become a young woman. I was moved, but I didn't let her see it. I don't even know whether I complimented her. She was prettily dressed. A little blue sweater that hugged her budding chest and a gray flannel skirt. It was winter. Once in a while it rained, but only rarely. The weather was almost always nice. There was no need for a coat. Hardly even a jacket. I stole a glance at her. She stared straight ahead. I smiled. She saw nothing. She didn't know how delightful I found her to be. That she was the one I was smiling at. That she was the one I had come for.
I had come from a cold country. It was not my country of birth. My country of birth was even colder. In any event, that country was dead. For me. And not only for me. Thousands of people live there. Millions even. But its past is dead. Our past. I had, then, come from a cold country. One where the seasons are clearly defined. Where women have white, dewy skin. Even older women have velvety skin. In this city, which was built on sand dunes, where there are perhaps fifty days of rain a year, women age prematurely. Not just in the city. In the entire country. I often confuse the city and the country. Quite a small country, lying under a blazing sun. I wasn't careful enough. I went to the beach every day. I lived close to the sea. I was drawn to the sun. I didn't protect myself properly. Back then nobody just soaked up the sun or tried to tan. I lived close to the sea, in a country flooded with light. Why protect myself? I had been deprived of sun for so long.
I came from three countries where cold weather raged most of the year. I went from the coldest one to the warmest one. From east to west. Then, one day, I left the west and went further south. To the east. And now I am to the east of a western continent. At the gate of the east. This sounds complicated. I know. But no more complicated than my life. I would have liked to write. Write a book. But life is much more complicated. Unexpected. My child is all I have left. She must know it. She lives her life. I was lonelier than I had been anywhere else. But let's go back to my countries. They are behind me. The child, on the other hand, is before me. She is the one who comes first.
But where should I begin? At the beginning, of course. Tell things in the right order. Things are complicated enough as it is. These countries. These transitions between languages. I had a real talent for languages. And yet I never learnt the language of this place. I know only fragments of this language, which should have been mine. I should have gone back to school. I was still quite young. But my head did not function properly any longer. After all those blows. And yet my memory was intact. And not only the memory of the past. I never forget what I've gone looking for in the kitchen. My sister, who is younger than me, keeps going back and forth. She has a good character. She laughs. But I could never stand it. It really was too late to learn a new language, even if it was never truly a foreign one. Every morning, I would be awakened by an uncle, my mother's brother, who lived in our house. I would hear him chanting the prayers. He prayed in this language, which I speak so poorly. I liked to be awakened at dawn by his chanting. And ever since, I like the dawn. I like to see and hear the day come into being. I'm no longer sure of what I wanted to say. There is so much. And anyway, what does beginning at the beginning mean? Starting with my date of birth? I am still a bit of a coquette. Even at my age, I don't like to say how old I am. Should I mention that I don't come from an especially large family? We were five children. Four girls and a boy. There was also the baby who died at nine months. My mother spoke of him constantly, as if he had been born yesterday. I was the middle girl. Still, I never wore my older sister's hand-me-down dresses. We were neither rich nor poor. We could afford to give to others. Mother was very pious. By contrast, Father, after being called up for the war – he certainly didn't volunteer, although my sister says he did – came back without his payot. Mother didn't say a thing, at least not in our presence. But that doesn't mean she didn't think about it. As if it weren't enough that she had married a businessman who failed at every business. She was one of the youngest daughters in a very large family which could not support another yeshiva student. And so she married a businessman rather than a scholar. And a bad businessman at that. There was no lack of them. One of my sisters, the youngest one, says that he was a modern man. That one day he even brought home some tomatoes. Mother wouldn't touch them. She had never seen the likes of a tomato. The only vegetables we ate were potatoes, beets, carrots, cabbage, and celery. And we got along perfectly well on them. My sister also says that on my father's side there were people who sold eggs. We nicknamed them “the egg eaters,” and liked visiting them. They lived in the country. My sister told all this to my child, who always liked asking questions. I listened, and felt I was not part of the same family. I never really got along with my youngest sister, even until the day she died. Now I have only one sister. The one born after me. The one with the good character. The two of them were very close. In recent years, they would vacation together. But I'm getting ahead of myself. They always had their secrets. Ever since we were children. Of course, they were only one or two years apart.
The truth is that I was the smartest one, but they were cleverer than me. A lot of good it did me. I did nothing with my intelligence. I didn't even get a higher education. Mother didn't want me to study in the big city, where I would have had to attend university on Shabbat. Mother was a very open-minded person. Understanding. She even chaperoned us to dances. She would sit there to one side with a straight back, watching us without surveying us. But as far as Shabbat was concerned, she was intransigent. I could have gone to school without taking notes, or stayed home on Shabbat like I did throughout my school years, while remaining a good student. All Mother worried about was the laws of Shabbat. She never considered the question of non-kosher food. After all, every city back then had plenty of kosher restaurants. It was just natural. We were the majority in our town. They didn't like us. That was just the way it was. Perhaps. The same was true where we were a minority. The proof is that even when they got rid of us, they continued to hate us. Yes, that is indeed the country of our death. I left it while I was still young. I returned to it later to die. But I didn't die then. My time wasn't up. I was determined to live. And when they asked if I was in good health, I screamed – Yes. And I really was healthy. Even if I was constantly tired and complained about little aches and pains. All that happened much later. It really isn't easier to tell things in an orderly fashion. I'm already exhausted. I prefer not to think about it. Or about the dead country. Or even about my childhood, which was, after all, a happy one. Even if it seems that I always wanted to be different from the others. Undoubtedly because I was the middle girl. I read that in some magazine. Mother made me special little dishes. This annoyed my younger sister. I had no appetite and wanted to be thin. As if it weren't enough that two of my friends had already lost so much weight that they died. Mother was afraid I would end up like them. But I was determined to live.
Copyright © Esther Orner 2013. Translation copyright © Talya Halkin 2013. Autobiographie de Personne was published in French in 1999 in Geneva by Editions Métropolis.
Esther Orner was born in Germany after her parents emigrated from Poland. In 1939 she found refuge in Belgium, and in 1950 she emigrated to Israel, where she attended high school and university. From 1962 to 1983 Orner lived in Paris, where she began writing in French, publishing stories in Cahier du Nouveau Commerce. In 1983 she moved to Tel Aviv and continued her literary activities as a writer and translator, and has taught literary translation in the French department at Bar Ilan University. She published seven books with Editions Métropolis, including the trilogy: Autobiographie de Personne (1999), Fin et suite (2001), and Petite biographie pour un rêve (2003). Her latest book, Entre deux vies, was published in 2012. Three of her books have been translated into Hebrew. Orner has also published an anthology of Israeli women poets Chacune a un nom with Caractères in 2008.
Talya Halkin (the translator) is a writer and translator living in Tel Aviv.