In 1998, I came home to find my mother, at that time very ill, turning around from a white cardboard shoebox—the box she stuffed our family photos into—with a felt pen in her hand. The sun was behind her, and her turban looked jaunty, terrifying. She had written her initials on the box, and below them:
1941 — ?
It does not matter how close we get to that question mark; it is still unthinkable. The question mark remains a question mark until we have passed that date and gone into the zone of unthinkability ourselves. We cannot imagine the date of our demise. Our minds balk. On the one hand, it’s too grim. And on the other, we tempt fate if we count on a certain period as rightfully ours, when the outrageous end can come out of a clear blue sky like a fridge, a bomb, a car crash. Or a rare cancer.
It is the terror of imagining the date of our death, a thought that goes against all our human hardwiring, that is the propulsive power of Heinrich Böll’s 1949 novel The Train Was on Time. The novel incarnates and then inhabits this taboo space, which makes the work function—once you’ve swallowed it—like an inoculation against despair. Read More