Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
  The fire in the stone  

  Looking for me
  Vol IV : issue 5 & 6

  Cover page
  Ashis Nandy
  Kunwar Narain
  S. Diwakar
  Tadeus Pfeifer
  Satish Alekar
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Tadeus Pfeifer

Oil on canvas by SHIBANI BHARADWAJ

When he was working with stone, as he still told everyone he knew in the restaurant twenty years later, he was no longer himself, no longer Alonso Basler. He wasn’t forming it — rather, it was forming him. He was what he described as the life of the stone. But that had been twenty years earlier.

As a youth during the First World War, he had developed ideas about transmigration and later in life, he remained true to them. But as this notion and his lifestyle remained within tolerable limits, he had many friends, and acquaintances besides who regarded him with distant admiration. Early on, his wife had left him a small house outside the town. The house stood alone near the edge of the woods and was surrounded by a garden, and it occurred to him to lay out his garden, and thus his time as well, of which he had plenty. Another man retired at forty, sound in mind and body, might have investigated the possibilities of gardening with the aid of a gardener, or might have bought books about planting vegetables, growing roses and looking after fruit trees, and set to work with a pickaxe. But — and here we see what an original man he was — furnished with fantasy and the strength to transform it into reality, Alonso Basler decided not to merely cultivate his garden, but to people it.

Alonso had an explanation for his method. He was descended from an old industrial family which had played a pivotal role in the community for two hundred years. In this time, signs of degeneration had begun to appear. Indeed, Alonso himself had been born with six fingers on each hand, a defect that was quickly and inconspicuously corrected.

It might be assumed that Alonso would grow into a pale, sickly child, more interested in retreating into his fevered dreams than in climbing trees. But early in life, contrary to all expectations, he showed hints of burliness. If he hadn’t been friendly, quiet and obliging, he could have been described as a clod, or worse. Even as a child, Alonso had a broad skull which flowed seamlessly into his neck. His broad shoulders topped an enormous chest, his hands grabbed like paws, and his legs stood short and thick on the ground. He had a rooted, quadrangular appearance, and when he was beginning to age — which was when I got to know him — people said that he was as tall as he was broad.

With his flat face, small eyes and potato nose, Alonso Basler evoked the impression of a lumbering, earthbound troll. Alonso, who became more vital and fiery as the years went by, and even at 60 was a man to reckon with, Alonso, offshoot of the Baslers, last scion of an old and distinguished name — and thus formed? By what stroke of fate?

It is understood, though there is no written evidence, that as the external characteristics of the family declined, the blood circulation of its men began to dwindle. Their pulses slowed and with the exception of Alonso, the last evidence of internal and external tension of a Basler male had been seen in Alonso’s father’s death struggle, which lasted a quarter of an hour.

Even at that time, there was a red light district, not in the middle of the town but across the river, a quarter where elderly gentlemen made efforts to pursue what did not give them much pleasure at home. Perhaps the general knowledge of the family disease, the slowing of the blood, which was increasing from one generation of Baslers to the next, could be traced to the inhabitants of this quarter.

Indeed, it isn’t surprising that as Alonso grew older, a shadow fell across his family, and perhaps this was connected to the fact that he grew up like an orphan — innocent because his grief was unearned — but with his dissimilar father, for whom the shadow became a source of worry as destructive as it was understandable. I speak of the children who sense that there is a grievance in every corner of the house, who are quite susceptible.

Quite understandably, Alonso’s mother had enraged herself to death. The shadow had fallen unjustly across the house where Alonso spent his youth. But even when the rumours about that particular quarter or town were mentioned with authority, Alonso’s father stood by his duties. But how did that explain Alonso? Alonso Basler, how old was he then? Sixty? Seventy? I got to know him long before I learned to hold him in esteem.

Broader than he was tall, with a square skull, he sat from early until late in the pubs which I also frequented. He laid his short paws on the table before him, or waved his short, porcine arms around in the air and babbled away. He chatted at the meetings where I met him, in the street when I ran into him, in the intermission at the theatre shows I visited. The little eyes in his flat face were grey and wakeful. His bare, pink skull stood out of the crowd, and his stocky legs lifted him high above his far taller surroundings. The reason for my respect for Alonso Basler lay twenty years or more in the past, grounded in his sudden and singular decision to people his garden.

In similar circumstances, a man other than Alonso Basler would have sought out garden gnomes and twee accessories, or might even have employed a sculptor or an architect. But Alonso built himself a shed behind the house, allowed his garden to run wild, visited the quarry and had what arose there packed onto trucks and carried out to his shed, where huge masses piled up, and belied the reputation of his school-days.

But — and here we see what an original man he was — furnished with fantasy and the strength to transform it into reality, Alonso Basler decided not to merely cultivate his garden, but to people it

He began a five-year-long flush of creation. One sculpture after another left the shed and found its place in the chaotic wilds of the garden, in a dell under gorse bushes, crowning a hillock, flanking the garden gate or tucked under the large weeping willow which hid Alonso Basler’s workshop from the sun’s rays.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

Tadeus Pfeifer is a Swiss poet, critic, novelist and short story writer.
He writes in German and lives in Basel