Thursday, 24 March 2016
And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. With these words W. G. Sebald ends the first tale of The Emigrants. A short though not insignificant part of the same tale brings up the peculiar fate of an Alpine guide who had disappeared in a crevasse in 1914 and was never seen again until his remains resurfaced in 1986, 72 years later. The point of the story might seem simple enough: body falls, body freezes, and like Ötzi, the well-preserved, 5,000-year-old frozen man discovered in the Alps in 1991, body finally reappears or, in Sebald’s words, is finally released. What is disquieting about the sudden reappearance of the Alpine guide’s body is not that it disrupts our perception of aging and time—the guide would be around 140 years old when discovered—but that he emerges from the tranquility of the Swiss Alps untouched by the events of the century and therefore totally unaware that, during his prolonged absence, not one, but two cataclysmic world wars raged scarcely a few paces beyond the Swiss border, and that the second of these wars unleashed the most horrific crime ever committed in mankind’s history. Time stopped for the fallen guide. Time didn’t happen to him. Now, however, his thawed body, if intact, could, by a stretch of the imagination, throw open its eyes, shake its limbs, thank those who brought it back to life, and start walking.