The birth of the lie

By Marica Bodrožić, March 2020

It was early 1983. The time when the iron power structure of established authority in the socialist world began gradually to give way.

Marica Bodrožić

In this year, in which the volcanic mental activity of a whole continent started to create insecurity among the rulers, my father decided to go into town with us children immediately after new year and apply for passports so we could leave. In socialist Yugoslavia that was no big deal, we were allowed to depart and merely had to go through the bureaucratic process. I don’t today remember much about these probably tedious circumstances, but something else has remained present in me all the more to the present day. It was the year in which for the first time I told a lie. I repeated a lie of my father’s and thereby made it my own.

It still bothers me, this first conscious move away from my own inner truth. Without turning red and also without the slightest indication of any bashfulness I told my grandfather, with whom I had lived until then, that we would have to go to the dentist in January – repeatedly. I can still see myself standing in front of him. I simply say casually what my father told me, and then repeat it. I did not know it at the time, but in that moment I became lost to myself. Afterwards a surliness entered my voice which, as I sensed immediately, had not been there before.

I hear exactly the resistance which it has to overcome in speaking aloud in order to say the untruth. I swallow. But let the lie take its course. That only work with this brusque speed. Grandfather seems to sense this, he is a little surprised but accepts the sentences I cast in his direction. It hurts, that is something else I remember, that he doesn’t ask any questions. The lie and the pain inscribe themselves into me simultaneously, from then on they are a recognisable unity for me. They burn from the inside. Grandfather turns away. I don’t have any opportunity to correct myself. We are no longer one in things that concern the heart. The lie has entered the world and becomes world. I am now alone. Grandfather breathes to a different rhythm.

In contrast to me, my voice remains true to itself, it does not lie, perhaps because people as such cannot tell a lie with their voice. The voice, this is something which I began to understand at the time without ever putting it into words in childhood, is an organ of truth. The surliness as I speak tells me that it has understood what I have forced it to do. Because we aren’t going to the dentist but to the authorities to apply for our passports so we can leave and move to Germany permanently on the way to a different ethnographic rarity than the one which the writer Danilo Kiš, so important for me,  claimed for himself.

I don’t yet know that I too, just like he does, have Jewish ancestors who within all of us come with us and leave grandfather behind, just as the Iberian ancestors do, the Herzegovinian and the Dalmatian ones, because all of them come along with us and speak to us. And yet in the shortest time I too turn into a small ethnographic rarity, made wordless and deprived of speech, which starts its new life in a new country with a far-reaching lie and in a matter of seconds without reason submits to fatherly authority. I will never forget the sad face of my grandfather, never be able to extinguish in me the moment in which it became clear to me that the lie was unnecessary, just as every lie is unnecessary, and I had betrayed the line of warmth and closeness and trust which gleamed so softly between us. I am ten years old and everything has changed forever. A new life starts for me in the cold January of 1983 with this far-reaching lie. For me it lays the foundation stone for all the moments waiting in my future for my truthfulness. And it represents the arrival of the lie in my thinking.

The first lies in the life of a person provide the gateway for all future enticements, this quick-to-appear possibility painstakingly to duck out of the truth and hide in the lie; out of the truth in the small things, out of the unprotected moments in which it appears much easier to seek refuge in a lie than find an anchor in the truth. The birth of the lie, this seduction into something that appears so easy, occurred very fast. But I recall a slight hesitation. The tiny moment that makes human beings human. The spark of truth was there and spoke very clearly. There was this inner moment which revealed itself to me as a question: why don’t we just tell grandfather the truth? Sooner or later we will have to tell him anyway that we will leave this country and him, this kitchen, this farm, this fig tree.

But  my father had a different plan. The ease with which we subsequently lied for weeks, I understood years later, was an additional burden which from then on never left me. It was so easy, then, for the lie to be able to lay down its heavy burden within me. A whole three decades were to pass before I was in a position to understand what this seductive ease had turned me into, intended to prevent my grandfather’s pain by instalments but thrusting a poison lance into his heart at the moment of actual leave-taking – it caused a wound which made him suffer for the rest of his life and which drew me into its dark reach like into a shabby, dangerous, alleyway, dark as night, from which I could not escape so easily when once again it was a case of feeling my or another person’s pain and staying with the experience. 

In this alleyway there was no light and no prospect of any other road, any other path leading out of it; there was only the alleyway, only the dark terrain of its burdensome trap. I could no longer escape because I had forgotten that I had a choice. I quickly packed my suitcases, only briefly said farewell, just in words not feelings, and left the person who had been close to me so recently without inwardly turning round. And even when I did look back I managed to turn the knife in my heart enough that a quick departure was still possible and better for me than to remain. Three decades later I understood that the lie had turned me into a person who caused me myself the greatest suffering.

A fearful being had replaced that happy light-footed vagabond of a child without a care in the world, a being which tried everything to let me live in forgetfulness. I had previously been a loving friend and ally of the wonders of the warm south with open eyes and hands, including the breadth of the landscape in which I grew up, parentless but related to every person, every blade of grass, the wakeful eyes of the animals, the large, knowing heads of the horses and the clarity and cleanliness of the eager, so devotedly pious church helpers.

I have never spoken with my father or any other person about the first lies and the standards they subsequently imposed on me. But it is very fortunate that I experienced the loss of innocence as an icy incision and painful misfortune and for this reason too have never forgotten January 1983. Thus in the end the spark in language, the initial intuition and the need for truth always persisted in me. The spark simply refused to die. But the path back to innocence is long and difficult. The mountain ranges of the soul which have to be overcome grow higher with the years. It requires a new and second birth to return to its fold. Learning to die in this sense is a separate chapter. A new language, a new country may perhaps have made that possible in my case. It was a necessary death. It had many facets and stages. But at its end lies the land of conscience which raises us up and takes us on a brighter path. It keeps broadcasting to me. My little radio station of the soul does not grow quieter. It asks much of me. Are there exceptions when we lie?, it permits me to ask. Yes. There is a form of pious lie which helps another person or saves them when circumstances demand.

All other types of lying are subject to a heaviness the weight of which we only recognise when the paths on which we walk no longer know our origin, when we have cut ourselves off from the beginning which we are. Only disintegration can then enable new paths. The imperfect, small things can be grasped again, we marvel at them – like the injured tiny wings of an insect or the inner life of a flower: pollen, unexpectedly. Only in this way can we start ourselves over again – in the scatterings of our own imperfection, in the lack of direction of our actions. In a breath which has no goal, no interest but is already the goal, a life of voluntary action. Open. Inconclusive. Subject to the fresh air of truth from all sides.

About the author: Marica Bodrožić was born in Dalmatia in 1973. In 1983 she moved to Hesse, Germany. She writes poetry, novels, stories and essays which always move in a resonance chamber between ethics and aesthetics. She has won numerous awards for her books, not least the literature prize of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Ricarda Huch Prize. Marica Bodrožić lives as a freelance writer in Berlin. Her Poetische Vernunft im Zeitalter gusseiserner Begriffe was published in 2019.