Toting Tomes Across the Wall
FROM tragedy to poem unlimited, as 'twere, the big-shot correspondents dwelt upon every aspect of the Berlin barricade, and left untouched the best story of them all! Stay tuned here for reliable information! I have little to go on, really, because of the wretched incompetency of the media, so I'll make up a name and call him Gunther Harnschlagen. He lives in East Berlin. Now that we have a name for the gentleman we can feel chummy toward him, so let us proceed: It seems that Herr Harnschlagen learned that the infamous Berlin Wall was about to open and that once again there would be freedom to come and go. This was good news to him - but not because it signaled the fading of communism, or presaged the flowering of a new democracy, or because he desired any political communication with the West. Not at all.
But Herr Harnschlagen was most eager to pass, once again, into West Berlin, for he had a special errand there. All his friends and neighbors were equally eager, but not with the same driving passion. He was one of the first to go over, once a way was opened, and with purposeful stride he walked briskly along into West Berlin, soon being far ahead of those who started with him. The others paused to take deep breaths at their privilege, to look into shop windows, to shake hands with West Berliners they met, and to express joy at the first promise of a reunited Germany. Not Gunther. He just kept on going.
He came to the Kreuzberg precinct of West Berlin, made the correct corner, and came to the American Memorial Library. He entered the library, approached the librarian's desk, and turned in some books he had borrowed 28 years ago, just before the wall was built. Unable to return them until this moment, he apologized for the delay - and that's about all I can tell you.
``A lassie!'' as Bobbie Burns said upon first looking at Bonnie Annie Laurie. I can, however, tell you this: If I owned any kind of a journal of note, I would now call an editorial conference, and I would back my foreign editor against the wall and bawl the daylights out of him. I would tell him to get the Bonn correspondent on the fax. ``Where,'' I would shout, ``is the rest of this story?''
What is the real name of Gunther Harnschlagen, and where in East Berlin does he live?
What did he do with these books for 28 years? Did he circulate them secretly among neighbors and friends, when other books were banned?
What were the titles? The subject matter? Was there (hope against hope!) a how-to-do-it book that would cheat dreary time? Were they romances? Technical treatises? Poetry?
What did the librarian say?
And did Gunther have to pay fines on overdue books?
As of now, we do not know because the media hasn't told us. Every other ``angle'' about the wall has been covered and recovered - one dispatch went away back to Napoleon to explain historical maneuvers otherwise forgotten. So, too, will the Berlin Wall be forgotten until one day school teachers will need to prod nodding pupils so they'll read about it. Where? In books. Books are not absolutely dead things, as has been said before my time, but have a way of living on and on, and there is tremendous precept in the magnificent truth that behind the Wall there dwelt an informed and willing student who held a library card and kept thinking about it for 28 years.
Here in Maine one may beat his wife and even poach a moose without any loud public outcry or unusual punishment. But there is no disgrace heavier than the shame that sits upon one who keeps a book out longer than two weeks. Wars and rumors of wars and political clash of ideologies are no excuse. I once returned a book and it got put back on the wrong shelf, so I know. The postal card from the librarian rebuked me completely. I was expected to replace the book. Long out of print, it was hard to find, and the second-hand man said he might find one in time, and it would be $85. I was saved when the book was refound, but I'm not about to forget my library peccadillo and the $85. I submit that Herr Gunther Harnschlagen, whatever his name may be, is the literary and cultural hero of the year, and that he deserves better treatment in history than he got in the papers.