18 May 2016

Mutti

Matzlingen, Switzerland, 1947

At the age of five, Gustav Perle was certain of only one thing: he loved his mother.

Her name was Emilie, but everybody addressed her as Frau Perle. (In Switzerland, at that time, after the war, people were formal. You might pass a lifetime without knowing the first name of your nearest neighbour.) Gustav called Emilie Perle ‘Mutti’. She would be ‘Mutti’ all his life, even when the name began to sound babyish to him: his Mutti, his alone, a thin woman with a reedy voice and straggly hair and a hesitant way of moving from room to room in the small apartment, as if afraid of discovering, between one space and the next, objects – or even people – she had not prepared herself to encounter.

The second-floor apartment, reached by a stone staircase too grand for the building, overlooked the River Emme in the town of Matzlingen, in an area of Switzerland known as Mittelland, between the Jura and the Alps. On the wall of Gustav’s tiny room was a map of Mittelland, which displayed itself as hilly and green and populated by cattle and waterwheels and little shingled churches. Sometimes, Emilie would take Gustav’s hand and guide it to the north bank of the river where Matzlingen was marked in. The symbol for Matzlingen was a wheel of cheese with one slice cut out of it. Gustav could remember asking Emilie who had eaten the slice that had been cut out. But Emilie had told him not to waste her time with silly questions.

The Gustav Sonata

Gustav didn’t understand what a soul was. He could see only that Erich was a good-looking man with a confident smile, wearing a police uniform with shiny buttons. So Gustav decided to pray for the buttons – that they would keep their shine

On an oak sideboard in the living room, stood a photograph of Erich Perle, Gustav’s father, who had died before Gustav was old enough to remember him.

Every year, on August 1st, Swiss National Day, Emilie set posies of gentian flowers round the photograph and made Gustav kneel down in front of it and pray for his father’s soul. Gustav didn’t understand what a soul was. He could see only that Erich was a good-looking man with a confident smile, wearing a police uniform with shiny buttons. So Gustav decided to pray for the buttons – that they would keep their shine, and that his father’s proud smile wouldn’t fade as the years passed.

‘He was a hero,’ Emilie would remind her son every year. ‘I didn’t understand it at first, but he was. He was a good man in a rotten world. If anybody tells you otherwise, they’re wrong.’

Sometimes, with her eyes closed and her hands pressed together, she would mumble other things she remembered about Erich. One day, she said, ‘It was so unfair. Justice was never done. And it never will be done.’

Related articles