‘Why I Became A Nightingale’ by Wolfgang Hildesheimer

Why I Became A Nightingale by Wolfgang Hildesheimer, 1983

The magic trick:

Putting the narrator into an odd position of kindness, cruelty, and philosophy

I didn’t much like this story. It does that Barthelme thing where it announces its absurdity with a straightforward, almost acerbic, tone. I’m not sure its smugness offends me as much as it bores me.

This reality is distorted, yeah, yeah, we get it. Fascinating.

Except it isn’t. At least Barthelme shows us the courtesy of being brilliant. This is just dull.

There was a moment that did interest me. It happens near the very end of the story. Our magician narrator turns five girls into sparrows and then has second thoughts. It’s not remorse exactly. It’s more philosophical disgust. It’s a situation that is sad, comical, and thought-provoking at once. And that’s quite a magic trick – very literally in this story’s case – on Hildesheimer’s part. 

The selection:

One afternoon in June–I had spent the day in the country–I sat in the garden of an inn under a linden tree and drank a glass of new cider. I was happy in my solitude. But soon a crowd of five young girls entered the garden and sat down at the table beside mine. The girls looked fresh and neat, but I was angry about the disturbance and grew more angry when they began to sing, whereupon one of them accompanied the song on mandolin. First they sang Muss i denn, muss i denn zum Stadtle hinaus, and then

Wenn ich ein Voglein war
Und auch zwei Flugel hatt’,
Flog ich zu dir.

I have always felt this song was quite stupid, especially since two wings are the natural appendages of a bird. But now it was the wish expressed in the song that drove me to make an end to it and transform the singers into a swarm of sparrows. I went to their table and swung my magic wand, which for a moment may have looked as if I wanted to conduct this quintet, but not for long, because five sparrows rose up and flew away screeching. Only five half-empty beer glasses, a few uneaten pieces of bread and butter and the mandolin that had fallen down–a still life that disconcerted me a little– indicated that just a few seconds before, full young life had been in process.


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