Waarom in het Engels? vroeg iemand. Je andere verhalen zijn toch ook in het Nederlands?
-Het is een oud verhaal, zei ik. Ik schreef het toen ik jong was.
-En je boeken toch ook? Je schrijft toch nooit iets in het Engels? Het is niet eens goed Engels.
-O, zei ik. Nee?
-Nee. Er staat he begins to wonder, terwijl iedereen weet dat het moet zijn: he starts wondering. En waar het niet fout is, daar is het verdomde correct, en persoonlijk ben ik daar allergisch voor. Wou je interessant doen? Hoofd boven het maaiveld? Moet je mee oppassen hoor.
-Ik weet het niet, zei ik. Misschien om afstand te scheppen.
-Afstand? Tussen jou en de lezer? Waarom? Schrijven is juist de gezamenlijke ziel aanboren, verwantschappen smeden tussen de schrijver en het universum!
-Afstand tussen mij en het verhaal, zei ik. 
-Tussen jou en het verhaal? Heb je het dan niet zelf verzonnen? Heb je het ergens vandaan? Daar moet je geweldig mee oppassen hoor! Ik ken iemand...
-Nee, nee, ik heb het verzonnen.
-Dan begrijp ik het niet.
-Ik begrijp het ook niet, zei ik. Maar hoe langer ik er over nadenk, hoe minder ik eraan twijfel...

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THE COUNT OF KÖNIGSBERG

A tale about love and loss, set between the bridges of Königsberg


 


Once upon a time there was a young count who grew up on a small island together with many other children. Round the island flowed a river with such treacherous currents that only one boat in the history of the country had ever navigated it, and that one had gone down with the entire crew and all the woodwork and polished brass and a curate. The island had many streets and alleys and seven bridges to the mainland. Tall acacias shaded the alleys and there was a wood of chestnut trees and maples and brambles in the middle. Its name, at the time, was Königsberg. After sixteen years of happy play, the children started to leave for the seven towns around the island. There they went to live two by two in beautiful houses that had only one very large, very tastefully furnished room, and gardens with flowers and mowed grass, colourful and tidy as Persian carpets, all round.

Before long the count begins to wonder whether there is anybody at all left on the island besides him. He walks the roads that have become quiet and overgrown and makes little paths in the wood while thinking of his old friends. He wonders why they leave when they get older while he stays on, and he feels very lonely. He would sometimes imagine meeting Another Being, just like that, who would slap his back and show him a spider in a jar or maybe share a bag of liquorice. But he never meets one. Every now and then he writes a note. He puts it in a bottle or folds it into a paper boat and pushes it into the river. The count had studied the habits of plants and animals all his life and he was an avid collector of sounds and images. His notes would usually say something like this:
Today, April 29, at 1.30 p.m. in the year so-and-so, the swift has come back to our island. It’s the small black one that looks like a little anchor and swerves and glides high in the air. It makes the most happy sound in the world: eeee-eeee-eeee! Please let me know if you collect happy sounds and images too. I have many duplicates and would like to barter them for new ones.

He never gets a reply. Not from the Princess of Pregel with her many faces and her teasing eyes he had fallen in love with many years ago, nor from anybody else. After a while he decides to visit the seven towns around the island. He ponders for a long time whether it would be possible to travel in such a way that he would cross all seven bridges exactly once and never make a detour. But such a way does not seem to exist. If either bridge number six or bridge number seven would collapse, he thinks, then it would be possible. Oh, well, but I do hope they won't. They are such elegant constructions! Between a maximum of beauty and a minimum of distance, I'd rather choose the first and gladly make a detour!
He crosses the first bridge and enters a town where his old friends are busy growing pig hearts on low trees. He feels a terrrible longing for acacias and maples and light green chestnut trees with light green chestnuts in them, so he walks back to his island over the second bridge. And out again over the third, back in over the fourth, and so on untill the sixth bridge. The bridges are in bad shape because the people in the cities do not spend money on bridges to places they never visit. In the other towns he finds the inhabitants as busy as in the first, piling up money, or paper, or bricks, or cattle, all day long. He travels for months and meets many old friends. They all know a lot about the future, but not so much about the past and surprisingly little about the present. They hardly remember him or the island, and none of them collects sounds or images. The Princess of Pregel, he hears, is well off and lives in a castle in the air just above the seventh town.

To reach the seventh town, he would have to make the detour and cross the sixth bridge a second time. While walking in that direction he suddenly hears a dreadful noise, and bridges number 3, 4 and 6 collapse before his eyes.
Oh, the beautiful bridges of Königsberg! he thinks. There they go!
He sits down on the bank of the river and wonders what to do now. He can't swim, and the river is far too dangerous anyway. It is impossible to reach one of the other bridges either, they are on the other side of the island and the river is in between. All day long he looks out over the water at his beloved island in the distance, and he sighs with deep sadness, because he realizes he can never return. In the evening he writes a note. He folds it into a tiny paper boat and pushes it off.

I am the count of Königsberg, a beautiful island with flowering weeds and swifts and seven bridges. Today, three bridges have collapsed and I can’t go home. If you have been there and kept any sounds or images of it, please share them with me and I will share mine with you. In that way, if I close my eyes, I could still walk the bridges and the streets of Königsberg, just as if I were really there, and that would make me very happy.

Every evening at sunset, he writes the same note, folds it neatly, and pushes it off. He never gets a reply and he is just thinking of giving up, when a bottle is washed ashore. He opens it and finds a little note inside. His heart turns over with joy. At last! he thinks. He reads:
Today, April 29, at 1.30 p.m. in the year so-and-so, the swift has come back to our island. It’s the small black one that looks like a little anchor and swerves and glides high in the air. It makes the most happy sound in the world: eeee-eeee-eeee! Please let me know if you collect happy sounds and images too. I have many duplicates and would like to barter them for new ones.

At first, the count is very depressed. He vividly remembers the day he had written this message and although he had felt lonely at the time, he feels even more lonely now. However, being blessed with some talent for happiness, he goes to sleep early, wakes up refreshed the next morning and says to himself: admit it’s a nice letter. It is a message from somebody who enjoys a thing of beauty. Words like that never fail to lift ones heart and favour ones digestion, however familiar they may sound. The mention of exact time and place betrays a healthy awareness of mortality. After all, this is the kind of letter you like to get. Think how easily it could be arranged! Hurry up, write one right away, put it in the bottle, attach a rope and throw it in the river!

And so he does. He starts to collect sounds and images all along the river, posts them, gets mail every other day and is not at all unhappy. On a warm, cloudless day in July he sees something white floating upon the water. At first he thinks it is a gull, its very white feathers beautifully set off by little diamonds in many colours that jump restlessly in and out of the black river. It seems to him just the right thing to receive in tomorrow's mail. He reaches for his pen but then he sees it's not a gull at all, but a tiny paper boat. It sails straight towards him and into a little harbour at his feet. Surprised, he lifts it out of the water and folds it open.
Why, it's from the Princess of Pregel! he exclaims. His eyes fly along the lines.

'Impressions of a Time and Place - no. 3007', he reads.

It was late and almost dark. There was a smell of burnt wood in the air. The sky was clear, our horses were fast. One of the passengers said, "I think the chiming of churchbells is one of the happiest sounds in the world!" and another passenger said "Oh, but not too often! And never when it rains! And only in a village abroad!" Then all of a sudden our carriage drove into a soft white box. The horses were gone, and so were the low fences and the grass and the mountains that had been moving along. We pretended to drive but the carriage stood still, the lights were thrown back and one could see the face of the driver. He was smiling to himself all the time, while driving the toy carriage through the toy air. This was yesterday, March 31. We drove home from a popular inn in a desolate village where we had eaten mushrooms and tamed a wild boar. I saved no. 3007 because of all that separateness merrily touching, like ice cubes in a Margarita on the rocks. Everything was beautifully unreal.

The count is delighted. The Princess of Pregel! She collects images! And she wants to share or barter them or she would not have sent them.
He suddenly thinks of something that excites him even more.
If only one of the other four bridges is still standing, she will have access to the island!
He smiles. She could cross that bridge, just like that, he muses. Nothing would be easier for her. Then she could write to me exactly how it is. I would see the tall acacias through her eyes and hear the rustling of their leaves through her ears. Her nose would let me smell their sweet flowers again, her mouth would return to me the taste of brambles and I would once more feel the soft winds that hardly touch the skin of a Königsberg summer. It would be as if I were really there.
Oh, to find the island of my youth in a beloved woman! How terribly, terribly happy that would make me!

He starts to write her a letter right away.

Dear princess! Your letter has made me very happy!
Here he pauses. He is used to writing to himself. Now every word he puts down makes him worry about all sorts of misunderstandings. He makes a ruin of Königsberg and crosses it out altogether.
I could try to explain why her letter has made me very happy, he supposes.
It has made me very happy, because it was a beautiful letter.
He looks at this sentence, sighs, and adds an exclamation mark.
...because it was a beautiful letter!
One doesn't want to sound wavering, he thinks.
...I could see you writing it. You would sit straight as a broomstick and I could even see your face. I've never met anybody with so many faces! A few have taken root in my memory. I can see it smile and yawn and listen benevolently. I can see it give way to the flirtations of a white sugar bowl and tell a funny story. I wonder whether you have changed at all? I liked you from the first time I saw you, which is many years ago. There was always something definitely islandish about you. I never thought you'd leave.
He reads it over.
That's no good at all, he thinks. No broomstick.
He takes the broomstick out.
Now he is even less pleased. He crosses out everything but the first two lines.

Dear princess! Your letter has made me very happy!
It has made me very happy, because it was a beautiful letter!

It is on the shortish side, but since it is all about beauty and happiness and nothing could possibly give rise to misunderstanding, he is not displeased with it. He puts the letter into his bottle and closes it carefully. Then he unties the rope and throws the bottle away as far as he can. It needs all the power he has got, for the seventh town lies opposite from where he stands and the river is broad and fast. He risks losing his mailbox altogether, but he doesn't mind. Before ten minutes have passed, the bottle is back at his feet. Again and again he throws it away and his arm is strong, but the river is stronger. After a week he realizes that it can not be done. He gives up.

For a long time he goes on searching the water for small white boats, but there is never a second letter. At first he is unable to sleep from sadness. But after a while he wonders whether there is really anything to be sad about. Admit, he says to himself, that nothing has changed. Before you got that letter you were perfectly happy. And the letter itself was a truly festive thing! Do remember, if one adds one positive thing to another positive thing, the sum should be larger, not smaller.

So the count decided to be happy again. He returned to collecting images and sounds all along the river and writing them down with love and care, in such a way that he could clearly see yesterday's images, and hear yesterday's sounds, just by reading yesterday's words on yesterday's paper. He never stopped marvelling at the miracle of this and his peace was fully restored. If, in the far future, somebody might want to visit this time and place along the river, he thought, even though it will be lost and gone, reaching it would not be impossible. There will be my bridge of words, which needs no maintainance and will not collapse untill the last traveller who wishes to do so has crossed it.

One sunny day in May, when he was already very old, while trying to fetch his mail he fell into the river. He couldn't swim, so he drowned. The river with rough kindness dragged the count’s body to his beloved island, where it was quickly covered by flowering weeds.

Shortly afterwards, bridges 1, 2, 5 and 7 also collapsed. The island was first renamed and then forgotten altogether. But every year on April 29, small black swifts came to swerve and glide above the place were the count lay buried. They would shreek eeee-eeee-eeee! high in the sky, and there was always somebody, in one of the seven towns around the island, who would lean out of the window and think "that’s the most beautiful sound in the world" and wonder if there existed Another Being, in that town or anywhere else, who would agree with that.
 


Audio (swift):  

© text & linocuts Pauline van de Ven, May 2001
 



links:

wiki, seven bridges of konigsberg
koenigsberg-kaliningrad
www.absolutearts.com/portfolios/p/pauline
history, mathematicians, Euler