“The ecstasy of being so high up that you no longer belong to the world below”
Invalienfriedhof, Berlin. Photograph by Beek100.
A man in a purple tracksuit jogs along a concrete path across the cemetery. Does the jogger know that he is crossing the escape route of a twenty-nine-year-old man who was shot dead as he attempted to climb the cemetery wall, bound for the canal? Cyclists swish past as if there is no snow. A woman pushes a stroller, while pulling a boy along behind her. “It is indeed a public path,” remarks Nooteboom. He observes the goings-on with fascination for a few more seconds before turning back to the graves: “There comes a time when one knows more dead than living and that is when one begins to get accustomed to the thought of one’s own death.” He says at that point it makes little sense to dramatize it all, especially in a cemetery so pleasant and peaceful that it almost makes up for the fact that death could, in fact, be final.
Nooteboom cannot really imagine life after death. Having had a strict Catholic upbringing by his stepfather, he leaves the question to others. He once heard a radio interview with a Dutch cardinal: “One would think that, as a cardinal, he would have achieved absolute certainty on the issue. After all, he has been arguing the point all his life. But the cardinal’s answer to this question was anything but grandiose. Indeed, it was rather small: ‘In the end, one has to pass through a very small gate,’ he said. I thought a cardinal would walk straight into heaven!”
“The ecstasy of being so high up that you no longer belong to the world below,” reflects Nooteboom, trying to put himself in von Etzdorf’s place as she floated above the clouds during her record-breaking twelve-day flight from Berlin to Tokyo. Where did she land? At which points did she allow herself breaks? What thoughts shot through her mind? She began another record attempt—a flight to Australia—on May 27, 1933. But the following day, her light aircraft was damaged during a landing in Syria.