These two extracts from Die Lichter des George Psalmanazar were translated from German into English at the 2013 BCLT Summer School, with workshop leader Katy Derbyshire and the author Daniela Dröscher. The first extract was translated by Deborah Langton, Francis Scarr and Alexandra de Versegh-Roesch. The second extract was translated by Romy Fursland, Silke Lührmann, and Winnie Smith.
Limbs outstretched, amidst dense silvery grasses that descended from the shoreline into the sea, lay a man. He had his eyes closed. He was smiling. The air smelt of salt and pine. In the sky, seagulls were circling, on the ground loons made their tracks. The only one who could say with certainty whether the man amidst the grasses was awake or asleep was the man himself. Nobody would have dared disturb him, not even when he slowly slid across the grass, from the shoreline into the water. Silently, a floating crucifix, he drifted past trees, clouds visible through their branches. When the wind disturbed them, sparse leaves fell upon him. He floated on the waves, and only when the stars crept out from behind the night-blue blanket of sky did he drift to the shore, lie down in the grass and begin to write.
The man, who set about his daily toil in the sun’s first light, was George. Sun and moon were sacred to George. Whenever hot and cold air touched, and covered the sea with softly dancing sparks, he prayed. He prayed by raising his hands heavenward, touching the ground with his forehead, and singing to the great lights a tale he called “Fata”. George loved the sunlight, but his skin was very pale and burnt easily, so from the neck downwards all exposed parts of his body were wrapped in plain cloth. Over this he wore a grey frockcoat, its original form barely discernible, so utterly shapeless from tugging did it seem. A fur, fashioned by George into a turban, covered his head. It had once belonged to a white animal.
George stood in the market square of a small Scottish coastal town. As so often happened wherever he appeared, the toothless local children had pursued him across the square, trying to pull the protective covering over his ears, interrupting his morning prayers. George had taken refuge on some high rocks. There he had sat, gazed down into the sea and at some point leapt in, only to return later to the market square with a bundle of fish under his arm.
Wringing the water from his frockcoat, George struck the still twitching creatures against the rock. He bit the head off a perch.
He chewed the mouthful, swallowed part of it and tucked away the other half in his pouch. Then out of his haversack he pulled a sheaf of inscribed leaves in which he began to wrap the remaining fish. The bystanders stood around silently; the only sound was the clinking string of shells on George’s wrist.
Who might he be, asked a man with only one front tooth to his name.
Where might he be from, asked another, whose face seemed unaccustomed to smiling.
But George could not even have said whether he found himself on a French or a Scottish coast.
Fishman! Seaman! cried the children and pointed with tiny, dirt-black fingers at George’s dripping form.
George stood there and looked at the curious faces. His memory, however, resembled a mesh loosely interwoven with minute mirrors, recognising everything but retaining almost nothing. Captured in the interwoven mirrors were the Fata of the ocean and the dust of the paths trodden on his wanderings. He did not agonise over the fact that his past lay shrouded in darkness. His days were as clear as the silver coins he cleaned by boiling in vinegar. He roamed the coastlines and lingered when type and quantity of fish pleased him.
The one-toothed man who had just been mocking him fell silent when George held up for sale the first fish of the day, a slender, proud bream, and began telling his fabulous tales in a soothing monotone. The man stared in amazement at the leaf in which the bream was being wrapped. Midway through George’s Fata a hand of peculiarly white flesh presented itself to him. Brightly coloured stones on gleaming rings sprouted from its fingers. The hand was a hand of iron covered with a white glove.
When George looked up from the hand he was dazzled by two small eyes perched in the face of an old man. George wrinkled his nose and sniffed the air. The man emanated a scent of myrrh.
The fish was suspended, no longer George’s and not yet the buyer’s, swaying in mid-air. And also suspended in mid-air was George’s hand, wrapped in scaly cloth, the string of shells softly clinking, awaiting the coins.
A muffled murmur had arisen from the local people as Bishop Innes stepped down from the carriage. The coastal dwellers feared him; it was whispered that he was more favourable to the ideas of the Inquisition than was the Church he now served. He had been involved in the uprising of the Catholic Stuarts and Bonnie Prince Charlie, but after the French failed to send the promised troops and the Scottish farmers were slaughtered, he switched allegiance to the beliefs of the British crown. Whilst the Prince managed to flee to France, one farmer after another was handed over by the harsh king for execution. The bishop prayed for them in secret.
Oblivious, George completed his soothing Fata, bowed, traced the outline of a coin in the air and quickly handed over his bream to the one-toothed man.
Then he stepped forward to wonder at the bishop’s other hand. Real blood pulsed through it, but it too was clad in an elegant glove. George pointed to the scaly cloth that stretched down to his fingertips.
Holding a fish in the air, he said he would very much like white hands. But that would mean selling a great deal of fish.
The bishop looked at George narrowly, then grabbed the upper end of the proffered mackerel package and shook it until the leaf unrolled and the fish fell back into George’s hands. The bishop stared at the oily leaf. It was densely inscribed with a Fata and elegantly wrapped round the creature to soothe it with the sound of the words. Most people were unable to read, let alone understand, the script on the leaves that George pulled out of his haversack. However, they were happy to hand over their coins, for they delighted in the wondrous gift of the leaf bearing the impression of a delicate, exceedingly beautiful pattern.
George made use of everything he encountered on his wanderings. He wrote on dried palm leaves, strips of wood, linen, occasionally even on his own skin. The most precious thing George possessed was a granite lead for inscribing all the symbols he knew. It sometimes leapt and bound as though of its own accord across the rough, uneven surfaces.
The bishop’s mackerel was wrapped in a tale of Adam sitting under the tree in the Garden of Eden. Eve sang to him from a folio, whilst a small serpent, listless and trusting, wound itself around her ankles.
Accept this fish Lord God, sang George in his soothing monotone, accept this Fata Lord God Lord God may I wish you a fine day.
They had barely crossed the threshold of the house on Gough Square when the Formosan began to disrobe from head to hem and wander around the house, sniffing the air. Three pairs of eyes stared at him. Asked to explain himself, the half-naked man replied that he was allowing the sacred sun to tickle his skin, sheltered by the window-glass.
This was an affront against common decency, decreed Dr Johnson, looking at the exposed organ; hours later, the Porter ladies were still wandering about the house in wide-eyed stupefaction.
Soon, however, the Formosan was sitting at table fully clothed. Elizabeth served a special dinner in honour of the occasion. As soon as Lucy regained consciousness, she was packed off to the kitchen to peel potatoes in a fug of steam and spitting fat. There were mutton shanks with winter savory, plenty of wine, and the obligatory lemon juice. After a brief visit to the Cheshire Cheese with his new friend, where he had already indulged in a glass of port, Dr Johnson was merry – almost exultant – if a little disappointed that the boy stuck to lemon juice and spurned his excellent wine. George wrinkled his nose and did not stop sniffing even when Lucy came out of the kitchen with her gaze lowered and looked at him, eyes wide.
Elizabeth asked the newcomer to say Grace. To everyone’s astonishment George rose to his feet, knelt down, and began to rock back and forth, touching the floor with his forehead. This was accompanied by discordant chanting – Formosan!, imparted Dr Johnson. When he finished the prayer, George swung his head first over his left shoulder, then over his right.
Horrified, Elizabeth reached for the salt cellar, scattered a handful of the white grains over the floor and fled to the kitchen in fear of these heathen practices. Her bulky frame moved with such grace, George noticed admiringly, that it was as if someone were pulling her along on wheels, a stray duck gliding over dry land as it did through water.
Like most women of her time, elucidated Dr Johnson, reaching for a steaming shank of mutton, Elizabeth lived in thrall to superstition. She secretly carried around rabbits’ feet, festooned the door of their house with evergreen branches and even believed – the very idea! – that the stuffed quail she had installed on top of the cabinet in the parlour warded off bad luck.
Meanwhile George had started to coat every mouthful with a thick layer of salt. He spat half his chewings into his pouch. The others around the table gnawed rather helplessly on their mutton shanks, intrigued as to whether the Formosan had mastered the art of cutlery; and indeed, although he was a little clumsy about it, he did know how to wield a knife and fork.
Lucy observed with dismay that Dr Johnson was once again assuming the role of teacher. Elizabeth, who had been eyeing George sceptically throughout dinner, rolled her eyes, furrowed her brow and sighed into her plate.
It was an established custom of the house, Dr Johnson preened, to take a point and debate it at table. Elizabeth blushed, as she did every time she caught this most learned of men lying. Dr Johnson’s usual habit at mealtimes was to read a folio that lay open on his lap whilst stuffing vast quantities of food into his mouth with gluttonous abandon. He did not speak at all, and the others barely dared do more than whisper.
In his house, claimed Dr Johnson, evil was considered to be the most pressing question of the age; a vexed question which it was the duty of language to illuminate. The greatest evils, he averred, were madness, slavery, and America.
Dr Johnson exhorted the girl to heed his words, in the event, unlikely as it was, that she should ever attend a charity ball.
Madness, he began, was the opposite of reason, as Shakespeare himself had shown with his mad kings. A madman loved to be with people whom he feared.