Janus in Babylon

Translated by Tess Lewis

Language sets borders.

Language designates border crossings.

Language marks a new homeland, like a flag planted on a foreign planet. People can always argue later whether or not the shadow cast by the flag in the documentary photographs is accurate or whether it is all a fake.

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Few things reveal a loss of identity or a new beginning as clearly as language does.

I am a shape-shifter, a linguistic Oboroten*, a changeling my parents snuck into the immigration cradle, sharp- tongued and inscrutable and manipulative, drilled from earliest childhood in switching from one linguistic register to another with no concern for collateral damage: an interpreter and a bringer of chaos.

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Even as a young child, I was, like all emigrant children, already skilled in blackmail and in using others. A captive word queen, imprisoned by her own court.The hierarchy flips unexpectedly; the parents are dependent on their children. This gives the child an unfathomable sense of power and impotence, being still at the mercy of parents, who, nonetheless, could not manage without her, who gasp for words like fish out of water.

The parents, in turn, are born again through their children, if they allow themselves to be assimilated into a new world, to be permeated, incorporated, and changed.

I am pregnant with my family. I clone them into the new land they have shoved under my feet without asking.

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I am a linguistic Janus with one face turned inward and one turned outward. My inner face, the one with the inside view, speaks Russian, the other, German. German is the language of battle, Russian the language of family. When I want to fight with my mother, my inner language becomes wedged in on itself like a pile of boulders.Then I usually switch to German and she is outraged by the sudden betrayal.

She is less agile in German and more prone to missteps. So we sit across from one another at the table set with beautiful cobalt blue Russian porcelain. Over steaming cups of sweet black tea between us, we throw parts of speech at one another. Whoever hits the first bull’s eye gets to drink.

We have spread a dark tablecloth embroidered with red roses over our Ikea table. We have a samovar, although it is fake, heated with electricity instead of coal, a decoration for the imported household. Just like my changing identity.
When I accompany the clients who are entrusted to me to the hospital as their interpreter, I speaking soothingly in Russian inside our little exile-bubble, in which we navigate through Vienna. Occasionally, I speak out angrily in German using the Viennese dialect, since our ways often provoke a far from friendly response. My clients are mostly Muslim and wear headscarves. Our language is the only thing we have in common, that and not being grounded.

‘But you’re a Jew,’ they sometimes say. ‘Why do you help us?’

‘Because. . . ’ I begin but usually stop, since the question makes me feel confused and ashamed.

Because we have the same words, although our life stances are diametrically opposed. Because I recognize your suffering as mine and cannot bear to look past it without comment, which would probably be more advisable, but has no place here.

Anyone who has experienced the fragmentation of exile never forgets it. Afterwards, one presumably spends the rest of one’s life trying to put the little pieces back together, simultaneously reaching for an even greater unity, as do all those who have more than one language and many more words at their disposal.

And yet, the attempt to reach a common language from different levels can also cause disastrous misun- derstandings. Everyone knows that building the Tower of Babel did not always go smoothly. Such failures in understanding are particularly sharp when they arise in a psychotherapy session. It is as if a handsome and airy ivory tower penthouse were erected on top of the Babylonian one.The analyst gazes out of the oriel window down onto the beautiful scenery of the unconscious and breathes in the fresh morning breeze. On the other hand, the client, sitting across from him in the white upholstered chair, still can only smell the acrid winds of war.

Immobile, weighing almost 31 stone, the former boxer sinks into the soft cushions and remains silent. It has been almost twenty minutes.Trying to reach this patient who lives in a completely different cultural sphere and is obviously in a very bad way, the analyst resorts to the usual methods. He adapts his expressions to fit the patient’s own, while the patient immediately begins to copy the analyst, in order to keep his weakness from showing.This makes interpreting endlessly difficult, because I soon lose track of which who is trying to adapt to whom and how and whose words are really whose. As the first few sentences pingpong between them, the experiment works well.Yet, the patient does not understand the concept of psychotherapy, much less of psychoanalysis. All of the analyst’s attempts to explain fail dismally. In his village, where the patient had lived for more than forty years, there was not even a doctor. He sweats and becomes agitated. He says that he would not like mentals. The analyst is delighted to have finally found a concept the patient seems to know. So he lets the fatal question fall: ‘Have you had any experience with mentals?’

The boxer’s grim face darkens even further. He clenches his enormous fists so tightly, the cartilage cracks resoundingly. He raises them towards the psychiatrist’s bespectacled face, now covered with beads of sweat like the patient’s.Then the patient blurts out,‘I had to subdue them with towels! I hated it, but I had to do it anyway!’

I try to dispel the image of how the patient might try to subdue my colleague, perhaps even me, with towels, even though he would not really want to. After a long back and forth, it becomes clear that by ‘mentals’, he means the mentally handicapped people in his village no one dared get near when they had episodes. Every time it was the boxer who reluctantly had to step up and keep them from harming themselves.

The world, as always, is changing. No attempt to keep it from changing will bring relief.

Outside, all is new.

People are now of divided mind. Double-tongued. Two-faced.

Some are more at a loss than others, yet setting down roots in new places more quickly.

When I dream, languages and images blend into one universal dream language, always comprehensible, at least within the dream, not setting obstacles for anyone, never putting my sense of belonging in doubt.

Acceptance precedes arrival.

It is bold step that not only the newly arrived must take.

In the beginning was the word. I dream of home.

The oborot is a creature in Russian folklore, hermaphroditic and similar to a werewolf, which can assume the shape of several animals as well as human shape.

Born in St Petersburg in 1970, Julya Rabinowich moved to Vienna with her parents in 1977 and has lived there ever since. She is a critically acclaimed playwright and Splithead, which Portobello Books published on 3rd February (translated from German) is her first novel. Julya Rabinowich will be reading from her work at Jewish Book Week 2011 on March 2nd at 1 o’clock. www.jewishbookweek.com

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