Around the middle of the third term of year four my mum had had a gutful of Catholic education. Three years earlier she’d had a gutful of the public system and two years hence she’d be well and truly done with alternate independent schooling also. Mum was a perfectionist I suppose and I was a willing guinea pig. Based on old photos, the emphasis would be on pig. By the start of term four in 1990, I was walking into my first day at International Grammar School in Surry Hills, the latest experiment in my education that my parents took very seriously. IGS welcomed students from all over the shop: Italians, Japanese, French, German, Chinese, Spanish and even Aussies like me, covered in freckles and with Irish grandparents. The motto was unity in diversity and they truly stood by their creed. Beyond the usual syllabus, IGS laid down the ground rules that each student had to learn to play a musical instrument and speak a foreign language. Besides that there weren’t many rules. Mum deemed the IGS high school to be too lackadaisical…‘full of druggos’…and I’d be changing schools yet again at the end of 1992, but two years and one term of IGS primary schooling changed my life without question.
I learned piano and German. I was forced to and I loved it. IGS was serious about their commitment to music and foreign languages in shaping a growing brain to be the best it possibly could. I think they’re on to something. Two hours every day of German and at least two hours a week of piano lessons. All that time spent colouring in pictures of Jesus back at Saint Augustine’s could indeed be better spent in a pagan system. For some reason that will remain unknown forever, I picked up Kraut as though it truly was my Mutterzunge. It was phenomenal. I had amazing teachers and I’d already been a teacher’s pet from the moment I started Kindy, but Deutsch and I just went together like ham and cheese, it was almost too good a combo. I was ok at piano, nothing spesh, but I could speak German fluently within a year. Later, in year 7 at a new high school, the teachers seemed to think I must actually be German and were damned if they had any idea what the hell they were going to do with me. I just settled on winning the German prize every year until high school was over. Everyone was pretty happy with that. Wunderbar. I added the French prize too. But no one likes a show off.
Why does this matter?
Well, this discovery completely shaped me as a person. Learning to speak a foreign language fluently is like learning magic. Your world changes, especially if you’re a little fatty with not a hell of a lot else going for you. All of a sudden you can communicate with people from a far away place in a way that people from your own neck of the woods can’t understand, you can have the confidence to be flown all the way to Frankfurt airport as a 16 year old and make it safely to your exchange family’s house on the other side of Germany with nothing but foreign lingo proficiency to rely on, and you can be handed a book by a uni student from Cologne who likes the cut of your jib, ‘Ansichten eines Clowns’ by Heinrich Boll (loosely translated as ‘Opinions of a Clown’ but any bilingual person understands that loose translations belittle everyone and everything) and be engrossed into a classic piece of German literature that takes you three years to read with the book in one hand and your little yellow pocket sized Langenscheidts German dictionary in the other, every morning and afternoon on the train ride to and from school, completely absorbed into the story of Hans Schnier, the clown with the rich parents who won’t give him a dime (the word pfennig is much better though), the woman he loves who’s in love with someone else and honeymooning in Rome, the ability to smell through the phone (a unique gift our downtrodden hero has) and you can watch Hans through German words as he finds shelter each night in a poverty stricken life where an injured knee puts an end to his clowning and he has to play guitar in the gutter with a cap out before him, hungry for coins, his hopes pinned on the generosity of strangers to support an extraordinarily depressing existence. It’s not exactly an uplifting story!
None of this would have ever been possible without Mum getting fed up of a Catholic primary school and without myself later walking down paths in life with no idea where they were going, just knowing that I was enjoying the ride. I’ve thought about this book and my love for it a lot since I’ve tried to write my own novels. I’ve wondered just what on Earth was I thinking to have been so determined to read the story of Hans Schnier, the Heinrich Boll creation, and so dedicated to note down all the words I didn’t understand each page, check the dictionary and read the page again and again with more cross checking and again and again until I thought I understood it and would turn to the next. What sort of a nut job, loser teenager would do that? I don’t really have an answer. All I know is that there is a beauty in books, a lasting splendour that cannot be found anywhere else, because a book requires just as much effort from the reader as it does from the writer to become all it can be. I will never forget Hans Schnier because I had to work god damned hard to get to know him. It was worth every second. And now, having attempted to write my own books, I fully appreciate no one worked harder on creating the horrifyingly exquisite world of Hans with more tireless dedication than Heinrich Boll.
A novel in German is called a ‘Roman’ and it’s an apt name because you have to commit with an equal level of vigour as a Roman soldier, with perhaps less gore, to get that Roman bastard from your thoughts to the page. It’s exhausting, it takes you away from friends and family, leaving them to feel unloved and uncared for, and when it’s all written, edited and decorated with a nice cover…there is absolutely no guarantee that anyone will ever give a flying fuck about it. It doesn't matter how hard you worked or how much you've sacrificed. Writing a novel is probably the stupidest thing anyone could ever do but for me, I think about the person on the train who misses their stop because they’ve got their head buried in a book and I just hope that it’ll be my words some day that give them my Heinrich Boll experience. That will make it all worthwhile.
Ansichten eines Clowns was published in 1963. Heinrich Boll died in 1985. I read it from 1996-1998. I’m writing about it now in 2016. Usain Bolt would rightfully shake his head. Thankfully patience is a virtue.
Liam Carroll is the author of Slippery, a story set in Southeast Asia about capitalism on steroids, it makes the world of Gordon Gecko look positively gentlemanly, and Sweet Dreams of Fanta, a nostalgic romp in time back to the Sydney of 1988, seen through the eyes of a freckly, moon-faced, seven year old Fanta addict and devoted Balmain Tigers lover.