Mavis Gallant’s “The Old Friends”

There is not so much sadness in this story. And, dessert is served.

But there is nothing sugary about the relationship between Helena and the police commissioner.

Even though they have been “friends forever”.

“On a silver dish, and on still another pink cloth, this one embroidered, are wedges of chocolate cake, and mocha butter cakes, and Linzer torte, and meringue shells filled with whipped cream, sprinkled with pink, green, yellow sugar.”

In many ways, Helena seems even more German than the German police commissioner.

“She recites for him now, for him alone, as if he mattered, Schiller’s ‘The Glove’ – first in Bavarian, then in Low Berlin, then like an East German at a radio audition, then in a hessian accent like his own.”

She can talk the talk for certain. And the commissioner hangs on her every word.

But Helena is also Jewish. And the war is over. And that aspect of her identity adds a layer of complexity to this friendship.

It also makes readers wonder about the definition of “forever”. If she and the commissioner have been friends for such a long time, could he – should he – have done something different during the war, given the importance placed upon this friendship?

The commissioner is fifty-three years old and he has known Helena “always”. That’s what he would say if you asked.

“There is no quarrel between them. If ever there was, he has forgotten it. It was never put into words.”

The conflict between the German police commissioner and the German Jew was never put into words. But the commissioner speaks of the possibility that Helena could “turn away” or “dismiss”, or “withdraw” and the commissioner would become an orphan, so alone would he be.

So even though it has not been put into words between them, even though they can share a meal out and, even, dessert, the commissioner could easily be as alone as Helena has been, at times.

Not now. Now, she is a celebrity of sorts, turning the waitress into a fan-girl. But her past was something else entirely.

“But he knows that where Helena was concerned a serious injustice was committed, a mistake; for, when she was scarcely older than the child at this table, she was dragged through transit camps on the fringes of Germany, without – thank God – arriving at her destination.”

And at any moment, Helena might make an observation or a comment which transports them into that other dark time, albeit briefly, albeit superficially.

Even a hasty reference to the experiences of her family members disorients their relationship, their friendship.

Helena is accustomed to thinking about how her history is received by listeners. She has told – and not told – these stories often enough to be able to predict the understanding or bafflement, the acceptance or denial, the discomfort or anger.

She has had ample opportunity to attempt to explain the inexplicable. But there are no words for it. Not really.

“Rape is so important to these people, Helena has learned, it is the worst humiliation, the most hideous ordeal the Englishwoman can imagine. […] ‘Rape would have meant one is a person,’ Helena might have gone on to say.”

When she tells the commissioner that she was not raped, she recognizes that he will welcome this confession. That he will find relief in it.

But it’s clear that Helena’s horrendous experiences have wrecked a kind of devastation that cannot be summed up in a single word, in a single kind of persecution, a single kind of violence.

Still, she offers this to the commissioner. Her statement that she was not raped there.

And how does he receive it? Gratefully, indeed.

“The vast complex of camps in Silesia is on land that has become Polish now, so it is as if those camps had never been German at all. Each time she says a foreign place-name, he is forgiven, absolved.”

For if there is a kind of absolution offered to the commissioner, even in the naming of towns which do not have German names, there must be some kind of acquittal in the rest of Helena’s story.

The commissioner is desperate for it.

And Helena seems just as desperate to offer it.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second story in The Pegnitz Junction. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story, next week: “An Autobiography”. 

2018-05-15T09:43:25+00:00

4 Comments

  1. iliana May 9, 2018 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    This sounds like a story not to be missed!

    • Buried In Print May 11, 2018 at 9:26 am - Reply

      The interior monologues of the two characters make it a very engaging read too.

  2. Naomi May 8, 2018 at 12:51 pm - Reply

    Rape again, huh?

    And on a completely different note, I’m pretty sure I have never had a mocha butter cake. I feel like this should be remedied.

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