On an over-cold winter morning, I was travelling northward on the subway, weary and thinking that I might rather sit than read, when I pulled out In Transit and recognized a familiar figure in the first few lines of this story: it’d been ages since I’d caught a glimpse of Willi and I wondered what’d been keeping him busy.
Readers first met Willi in his eponymously titled story: “Willi was a prisoner of war in France until the end of 1948. He dreamed of home, but when he got there one of his sisters had an American boy friend and the whole family were happy as seals around a rich new brother-in-law, a builder in Stuttgart.”
If you’ve been following along with this project, you might remember that delightful phrase: ‘happy as seals’. You might even remember Willi, who also appeared in “Ernst in Civilian Clothes” and “The Latehomecomer”.
In the latter story, this is how we were introduced to Willi: “When I came back to Berlin out of captivity in the spring of 1950, I discovered I had a stepfather.”
He remains a lonely figure: “Willi would like to share this joke with someone, but with whom?” I won’t spoil the joke, but it revolves around a piece of Nazi memorabilia, which is relevant to this story because M. Monnerot is a collector, who is modelling the uniform of a Waffen S. S. superior officer when readers meet him.
“Willi has no emotional feeling about the uniform whatsoever, but his sense of order is offended by the decorations. No soldier could possibly have been simultaneously on so many fronts, and if you look closely you can see that some of the ribbons are not even German.”
When readers first met Willi, he was taking bit parts in the film industry: questions simmering beneath the stuff of the story circled around whether the projects were accurate or truthful, whether it even mattered if they were, whether it was possible to make such a determination when the war still felt so close.
Here it matters that his thoughts still go to the question of authenticity, to the matter of how one represents what has already happened. And, yes, it is still about the war. (It will always be about the war. No matter how many stories. No matter how many other details about Willi’s daily life.)
But the stuff of the story revolves around whether Willi should confide what he has learned about a character’s infidelity to that character’s wife.
Whether he should admit to the truth that he has assembled, based on some observations and some consideration. Whether there is some other version of this truth which could cause less heartache, less disruption. Whether it is Willi’s responsibility to report on someone else’s dishonesty and what it means if he does not (how that affects his own trustworthiness).
In one sense, this story feels of-a-piece with what readers have glimpsed of Willi previously. But, in another sense, none of those earlier stories matter when it comes to understanding the specific dilemma he faces in “A Report”. And, yet, because the story is only a few pages long, one might not feel very sympathetic to Willi if one had only just met him.
Readers who have seen him return from the war and, years later, return home at last, and who recognize that he is still inhabiting a kind of rootless existence after enough years have passed that someone would be interested in collecting wartime memorabilia…well, it makes you think. It makes you wish for something more. For Willi.
In Transit‘s stories: By the Sea / In Italy / An Emergency Case / Jeux d’Ete / When We Were Nearly Young / Better Times / A Question of Disposal / The Hunter’s Waking Thoughts / Careless Talk / The Circus / In Transit / The Statues Taken Down / Questions and Answers / Vacances Pax / A Report / The Sunday After Christmas / April Fish / The Captive Niece / Good Deed
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the fifteenth story in In Transit. 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: “The Sunday after Christmas”.