The Black Notebook
For instance, when he first imposed himself and we accepted him, he told us that he had been a member of the underground working against Hitler. There was even some fantastic story about his having killed three SS men and secretly buried them and then escaped to the frontier and away to England. We believed it, of course. Why not? But even after Sam Kettner came up from Johannesburg, who had known him for years, and told us that Willi had never been anything more in Germany than a liberal, had never joined any anti-Hitler group, and had only left Germany when his age-group became eligible for the army, it was as if we believed it. Because we thought him capable of it? Well, I’m sure he was. Because, in short, a man is as good as his fantasies?
But I don’t want to write Willi’s history — it was common enough for that time. He was a refugee from sophisticated Europe stuck for the duration of the war in a backwater. It is his character I want to describe — if I can. Well, the most remarkable thing about him was how he would sit down to work out everything that might conceivably happen to him in the next ten years, and then make plans in advance. There is nothing that most people find harder to understand than that a man can continuously scheme to meet all the contingencies that might occur five years ahead. The word used for this is opportunism. But very few people are genuinely opportunists. It takes not only clarity of mind about oneself, which is fairly common; but a stubborn and driving energy, which is rare. For instance, for the five years of the war Willi drank beer (which he hated) every Saturday morning with a CID man (whom he despised) because he had worked out that this particular man was likely to have become a senior official by the time Willi needed him. And he was right, because when the war ended, it was this man who pulled strings for Willi to get his naturalization through long before any of the other refugees got theirs. And therefore Willi was free to leave the Colony a couple of years before they were. As it turned out he decided not to live in England, but to return to Berlin; but had he chosen England, then he would have needed British nationality — and so on. Everything he did had this quality of careful calculated planning. Yet it was so blatant that nobody believed it about him. We thought, for example, that he really liked the CID man as a person, but was ashamed of admitting he liked a ‘class enemy’. And when Willi used to say: ‘But he will be useful to me,’ we would laugh affectionately as at a weakness that made him more human.
For, of course, we thought him inhuman. He played the role of commissar, the communist intellectual leader. Yet he was the most middle-class person I have known. I mean by this that in every instinct he was for order, correctness and conservation of what existed. I remember Jimmy laughing at him and saying that if he headed a successful revolution on Wednesday, by Thursday he would have appointed a Ministry of Conventional Morality. At which Willi said he was a socialist and not an anarchist.
He had no sympathy for the emotionally weak or deprived or for the misfits. He despised people who allowed their lives to be disturbed by personal emotion. Which didn’t mean he wasn’t capable of spending whole nights giving good advice to someone in trouble; but the advice tended to leave the sufferer feeling he was inadequate and unworthy.