K and her mother busy themselves with it by the Christmas tree. A thousand pieces; not the largest you have heard of I’m sure but when the image is Gustav Klimt‘s “Mrs Adele Bloch-Bauer” the challenge is considerable.
It can be difficult fitting all the pieces of a picture together when it is so complex. We are not long in and are warming ourselves after an expedition to a nearby hill for some sledding. Standing at the top at dusk and watching three or four families race down the slope and drag their sleds back up – windows twinkling in the distance as lights and fires are lit – I am reminded of the simpler jigsaws I would receive at Christmas when I was a child.
A week in Oberfranken, Bavaria isn’t easy to slot into the year we have had, but here we are. We are wrapped up in heavy coats; hands in gloves, heads in woolly hats. The world here is covered in snow that sparkles as it is caught by the last of the failing light. Rooftops hold heavy loads of it and homes resemble iced cakes.
It isn’t the first Christmas I have spent with K and her family, and I do things here that I haven’t for years; Mass on Christmas Eve, for example, at the pretty 12th century village church with its painted wooden roof. Chamber music is always an element of the Mass, or something loosely resembling it.
On my first visit it was provided by the Familie Büttner – a memorable performance. I’m not one for idle speculation but it seemed to me at the time that the family might well have been done away with and the killers – caught in posession of their victims’ instruments – forced into the charade of going ahead with the Midnight Mass recital.
I couldn’t see them from where I was sitting but I had visions of four burly, unshaven men with cauliflower ears and broken noses plucking cluelessly at unfamiliar strings, one furtive eye each on the church door. If this was indeed the case I’d have to give the criminal gang some credit – under the circumstances they made a decent fist of it. On the other hand the Büttners, children included it would seem, may just have been hitting the schnapps a little hard that Christmas.
Either way, somebody launched into Pachelbel’s Canon in D and seven excruciating minutes later the 17th century composer’s mutilated corpse was left to rot in a puddle of its own blood…
The Büttners or their imposters have been dismissed at some point in the interim and this year several short instrumentals get the living shit beaten out of them by a brass ensemble up in the choir stall.
Anyway the point is that one way or the other you get your music. Never mind that it’s terrible – it’s beautiful; without it the picture would be incomplete.
Gifts are swapped and a festive meal shared on Christmas Eve here, which frees us up on the 25th to drive out into the country to see K’s grandmother and the rest of her family. K is a little mysterious about her past and here I can at least begin to assemble it; the pieces her parents, her Oma and aunt, her cousins and uncle and her Opa who although long gone is still the spirit of this house. The walls are covered – every inch of them – with jigsaw pieces of the man; photographs and gamekeeping certificates, hunting memorabilia and, well, dead animals.
We sit down to duck, venison, blaukraut and dumplings, overlooked by a woodpecker, an owl, a weasel and the skulls of any number of deer. A herd of them in this dining room.
“Bit over the top isn’t it”, I ask K later, “shooting an owl?”
“Oh he didn’t”, her deadpan response. “He found it in the woods, frozen to death. Bad winter. So he had it stuffed.”
Her other Opa is still in posession of his late wife’s identity card, hurriedly produced during the Heim Ins Reich, the mass repatriation of Germans from Poland in 1944. The photo is of a pretty young woman who looks vital, cheeky. According to K it is not the older woman that she knew later, unfulfilled and disappointed. Who knows precisely when – if there was a moment – she gave up on life? That piece is missing.
K wants the identity card for herself, a piece of her own puzzle. It is the earliest known picture of her Oma; everything of her pre-war life is lost. With half a lifetime of pieces missing K is eager to gather up what is left and preserve the corrupted image. Something is better than nothing.
We will return to Tarifa and to 2011 in a few days. We too are fitting pieces together but without a final image to reference. We are creating our own Bloch-Bauer swirls as we go along. Definitely not the orthodox way to go about completing a jigsaw puzzle, but we aren’t ready to give up just yet…