In December 1999, browsing in one of the bookshops at Heathrow Airport I noticed a new elegant edition of Steppenwolf
, the novel by German author Hermann Hesse, for one pound each. I bought three copies of this fine novel. As I read it on the plane I felt I’d had too much food and drink, courtesy American Airlines, so feeling sleepy, I put Steppenwolf
to one side and watched the film I Got Mail. I didn’t like it at all and I was sorry that a great star like Tom Hanks was in such a boring film. The woman sitting next to me kept glancing at the cover of Steppenwolf
so I asked her if she would like to read it. She gave me a big smile and said: “Certainly, it would give me great pleasure to read Steppenwolf
I gave her the copy and found myself saying: “You can keep it as a present,” adding, “I have two other copies in my bag.”
“Of the same book?” she said with surprise.
“Yes, of the same book.”
Arriving in New York I took a direct train from Central Station to New Haven in Connecticut to visit a Palestinian academic friend of mine at Yale University. It was not far and instead of reading I amused myself by looking at the New York suburbs.
Two days later I remembered Steppenwolf
, and took one of the copies out of my bag, starting to read it in the gardens of Yale University. Then I bumped into the head of the University’s Centre for Jewish Studies; I had met him the day before with my Palestinian friend and he now invited me to lunch. In the student canteen at the Centre a student who was sitting near me caught sight of Hermann Hesse’s novel on the table. He told me how superb it was and went on about the technicalities of the novel and how it was first published in 1924 and translated into English in 1926. I was so taken by his enthusiasm that I gave him the book, saying: “I have another copy at home.” I vowed to myself not to part with my third and final copy.
On my last night in New Haven I was at the house of a Norwegian academic. When she heard I was travelling to San Francisco, she told me that it was a delightful journey by train from New York. It would take three to four days “from the East Coast to the West Coast”, and passed through the Rocky Mountains.
“You’ll see the Rockies,” she said, “the plains, the valleys, the cities, the villages and the rivers of eight states.”
“But what will I do with my New York–San Francisco plane ticket?” I asked myself as I thought of the adventure of a long train journey. After only a few moments’ hesitation, I went to a bar near Pennsylvania railway station. An hour later I left the bar and tore up my ticket, saying: “Four days will give me plenty of time to read Steppenwolf
That is what I thought.
It is very hard to express the sense of excitement I felt as I took my seat on the Amtrak – I had spent a lifetime watching huge American trains in Hollywood films. I sat near the window watching the passengers on Pennsylvania station where everything was unfolding before my eyes like a film. Some minutes later a teenager came and sat down on the seat in front of me. Then I noticed a woman – her mother – with Latin-American features, and tears in her eyes, kissing her daughter through the window. She was bidding her little one farewell. Later I would learn that the girl was travelling to stay with her divorced father.
“I love living in California,” Jennifer was to say to me. “I’m fed up with New York.”
“Watch out! Watch out!” cried the young girl, warning her mother, who was in tears with her face stuck against the window, as the train started to move, leaving Pennsylvania station and plunging into the vast American night.
I took out my last copy of Steppenwolf
and stretched out on the spacious comfortable seat. I started reading the novel with great enjoyment. Suddenly a young African-American burst into our compartment. He was in his early twenties and smartly dressed. He walked up and down the compartment, gazing into our faces, and started to shout theatrically. He said he worked as a writer, but it was becoming difficult to get published. “Publishers only publish bad books by the same people, over and over again,” and so on. The young man, who reminded me of a young Sidney Poitier, added that he wanted to read passages from his stories to us, which he hoped we would enjoy. He asked for no more than a few coins or a cigarette “if you don’t mind”.
The young man began to read the text he held in his hands. He did it in a theatrical manner, capturing our attention from the very first lines. He looked into the eyes of the passengers as he read his stern words about the horrors of alienation. His style of reading was truly amazing. This is what he read:
“I held my hand over my glass when the landlady wanted to fill it up once more, and got up. I needed no more wine. The golden trail was blazed and I was reminded of the eternal, of Mozart, of the stars. For an hour I could breathe again and live and face existence, without having to suffer torment, fear or shame.
“A cold wind was sifting the fine rain as I went out into the deserted street. It drove the drops with a patter against the street-lamps where they glimmered with a glassy sparkle. And now, where to?”
From the first moment I felt that this text wasn’t at all foreign to me. I had read something like it only a short time before. Perhaps I would have remained silent in my seat if the young man had not continued reading and mentioned the name Harry Haller. I then realised without doubt that our young writer was reading extracts from Steppenwolf
The young man stopped reading after fifteen or twenty minutes. His reward was a unanimous chorus of approval and applause. When he came near me I concealed the book I was holding. I congratulated him and said: “The passage you read was really great.”
“There are some things that need more work,” he replied. “If I had had time I would have rewritten the text.”
“You’re right,” I laughed. “There is something rather old about the text.”
“What do you mean?” he asked strangely.
“Nothing, but I felt you had written it a long time ago.”
“When do we arrive in Sacramento?” asked Jennifer from her seat.
“Next week,” said the young man with a laugh, as he moved away and I gave him a packet of Dunhill cigarettes. “English Cigarettes in America” he said with a smile.
In Chicago we had to wait six hours before we could board another train, which set off on a journey that would take us to San Francisco in two and a half days. The train would pass through the states of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. I suggested to Jennifer that she spend some time with me in Chicago. She told me her mother had told her not to get familiar with strangers.
“Your mother’s quite right,” I replied, “but I’m all right. Come with me and we’ll have a pizza together.”
“My mum would die of fright if she knew if I was going off with some stranger,” Jennifer said as she followed me. She told me she was going to Sacramento to live with her father because he wanted her to complete her studies under his supervision. “He doesn’t want to set eyes on my mum.”
“The mother is better than the father,” I said, when we had had our pizza.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I don’t mean anything, but don’t forget your mother.”
We walked back to the station. Jennifer went into a phone booth and I looked at her from outside. She was quite calm for a while and then began to talk, gesturing violently and kicking the walls of the booth. She slammed down the receiver and came out in tears.
“Why are you crying? What’s happened?” I said, while avoiding any physical contact.
“My mum is very angry because I went and had a pizza with you. She said she was going to kill herself.”
She added, wiping away her tears and looking at me: “I promised her that I wouldn’t speak to you any more. Please go away.”
“Yes, of course, but now we’re at the railway station.”
“If you’re good, take me to the train going to Sacramento.”
I told her that we would be boarding the same train and that Sacramento was just two or three stops before San Francisco.
On the train heading for San Francisco I met up with a fresh group of passengers. A couple, Samantha and Nigel, who came from England and who were going to get married in Las Vegas. Norman, a retired American, who had lost an eye at work, and was on his way to Sacramento. Three young women, one an Australian tourist and two Americans who were going to San Francisco, hoping to become singers. Then we were joined by a young American. In the course of time we became a gang of more than twenty people. Apart from when we slept, we spent most of the time drinking Margaritas together as the train crossed the plains, the mountains and rivers and through cities and under skies that were alternately cloudy, sunny and full of rain. Norman or “Normie” became closest to me. I told him he was like the American writer, Jim Harrison.
“I worked in the Post Office,” he said, “and I don’t suppose there’s much difference between being a writer and being a postman.”
Samantha laughed and said she was going to the loo.
“Where’s Samantha going?” Normie asked.
“The English say ‘loo’ for toilet,” I said.
“We’re learning new words on this journey,” he laughed.
Afterwards Norman looked at us all together and said, joking: “I’m off to the loo.” He carried on laughing as he went down the metal staircase to the lower floor.
On the morning of the next day, the train arrived at Denver, capital of Colorado. When I learnt that the train would be here for half an hour, I took my camera and went out to take pictures of the outside and the inside of the station. A long time ago an American-Italian friend living in Denver used to write to me about this station.
When I returned to the train Normie asked me whether I would still be on the train tomorrow.
“Have you forgotten that I’m on my way to San Francisco?”
He shook his head in apology.
“I want to share something intimate with you,” he said in a low voice, “something that concerns my family.”
“Certainly, Normie, if it has something to do with your family.”
I went down to the bar on the lower floor and brought back a few cans of Margaritas, a few plastic cups and a bucket of ice cubes. We sat in the observation car drinking Margaritas and gazing at the stunning scenery of the mountains and valleys of Colorado. The glass-panelled compartment was specially constructed for viewing the scenery, and we were able to see the last part of the train emerging from the tunnel in the belly of a mountain while the front of the train was piercing another of the Rocky Mountains.
Normie kept going on more than once, and with the same intimacy, about sharing matters with me that concerned his family. He was whispering to me: “It’s something very special between us. I don’t want it to be generally known.”
And every time I nodded my head in support.
Samantha and Nigel had lived together for eighteen years and finally decided to get married. Samantha was therefore in seventh heaven. She was carrying a video camera and was taking pictures of us all the time. She was dancing and singing. She brought some more Margaritas and shouted out: “Here’s to you, Las Vegas!”
Then she turned to me.
“Darling Saddam, will you join in a Margarita competition?”
We all laughed. Then Normie shot back at her: “If my friend is Saddam, then you are Mrs Thatcher!”
“Thatcher is a million times preferable to Saddam,” I said to Normie.
He seemed disappointed and said: “I’m sorry, I thought I was defending you.”
We then forgot ourselves in laughter and Margaritas.
The sun was going down when Normie poured out a couple of glasses, and came over to me.
“Come on, come with me, Sam!” he said.
I quickly joined him and as we sat in the observation car, he started to point outside: “Look over there! Look, keep your eyes peeled!”
Minutes passed while we stared at the desert landscape.
“You’ll see in a few moments, please keep looking.”
Normie pointed to some rocks.
“We’re getting near, yes, we’re quite close. I thought the train would go faster than this.”
I looked at Normie sitting next to me. He seemed to be very happy, with a black eye-patch over his left eye.
“You’re like Jim Harrison,” I said.
“Fine, fine,” he laughed. “You’ve persuaded me to buy some of his novels.”
He then took hold of my right arm.
“Look, he said. “Please, my Iraqi friend. Look, one, two, three. One, two, three. Look, look over there. There. Yes, behind that rock. That’s where my wife’s grave is. That’s it.” He continued to look at the graves as they slipped out of view and then turned to me, his face full of tears. He touched my glass with his and cried out: “To the memory of my wife.”
“You really are like Jim Harrison,” I said, and we both laughed.
Samantha and Nigel got out at Reno, Nevada, Normie and Jennifer in Sacramento and the Australian girl in Salt Lake City. I spent the remainder of the time listening to the two American girls singing to me in the smoking compartment as the train passed through Davis and Martinez until it arrived at its last stop, Emeryville. From there we took the bus to San Francisco. I saw my friend, the black Hermann Hesse, getting onto the same bus. He sat near me and we chatted the whole way.
In San Francisco my friend, the Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus, was waiting for me. He caught sight of me as I was exchanging some parting words with the young black guy. He came up to me and I introduced the young man to him: “This is Harry Haller.”
Sargon said quietly – he had recently come out of hospital: “What is Steppenwolf doing in San Francisco?”
“What are you two talking about?” the young man asked, puzzled.
I brought the book, Steppenwolf
, from my bag and gave it to him as a present. He turned over the pages in amazement.
“What a superb edition.”
He looked at me and said with a smile: “Thank you. The copy I have is very old.”
“What are you two talking about?” Sargon Boulus asked, puzzled.
“About the German, Hermann Hesse,” said the young man as he disappeared.Translated by Peter Clark
Published in Arabic in Al-Hayat