It is a curious phenomenon that what we call our memory is given to storing a selection of obscurely arranged objects encountered in early life. While our own lives may end abruptly at any time or fade to some hopefully kind goodnight, these items of apparent mental jetsam remain in sharp profile until the last. This is because they had once announced, but have not yet fulfilled, their promise to fully decipher our as yet unknowing but increasingly grounded existence, or, as the vagaries of experience may eventually reveal to us: because we could not at that time grasp their 'moment'. And so it was too with my own rediscovery, during my dealings with my friend Franzl, of a cumbersome, insistent and yet peculiarly familiar contraption.
Franzl was born in the 1950s to Italian parents who had migrated to Germany from Trieste. His parents called him Francesco, and were proud to see their only child rise through the German educational system to receive a PhD in Theoretical Physics. They were consequently surprised when he gave up higher research in his chosen field to attain a further degree in Medical Biology, which is why Franzl now works at a local clinic and not at the particle physics laboratory at CERN, into which prestigious harbour his parents had imagined him sailing.
Franzl lived in what had been, since his childhood, a quiet residential street in a small town in the Swabian Alps – that is, until the house next door was converted by the municipality to provide a halfway house for homeless ex-convicts. In fact Franzl welcomed his new neighbours. He liked the nine men well enough, only he could not abide their noise: their yard-based metal workshop set him on edge until late almost every evening. To make things worse, his neighbour on the other side, an obsessively active pensioner, devoted his ample free time to building garden sheds. After enduring disturbance from both sides for what seemed a lifetime Franzl resolved to reengage with theoretical physics and reopen a path to the serenity he had once enjoyed. Swabia, so they say, is a land of inventors.
This was Franzl's finest hour, so to speak, but since I myself know little of Active Noise Control, there is not much I can tell you about his invention. Suffice it to say that he set up a workshop in his cellar and one year later was able to report to me his first success in neutralizing the sound waves produced by his "metallic neighbours". The machine, of which he later showed me a photograph (the source of my own rediscovery!), reminded me of the huge, antediluvian slide projector my parents possessed. Long since fallen victim to their final removal, its stolid mass had stood on four leg-like supports, an electric cable protruding from its rear end, its rounded "head" containing lenses. With its switch thrown, its tummy would emit a loud hum, whereupon a fan breathed hot air onto my hand. It resembled to my young eyes a stout and strangely distressing bullterrier, which was presumably why Franzl, too, referred to his machine as "the dog". It took only another three months for him to develop the "double-dog", a neutralizer capable of cancelling sound waves from two directions simultaneously.
Suffice it to say that he set up a workshop in his cellar and one year later was able to report to me his first success in neutralizing the sound waves produced by his "metallic neighbours".
Franzl was happy with his achievement and soon lived in peaceful bliss between his cacophonic neighbours until one day his secret – following a successful and popular demonstration of his invention at his workplace where the clatter and clamour of building two operating theatres was driving patients and staff round the bend – entered the wrong ears.
About a month after the triumphant demonstration at his clinic Franzl received a visit from a representative of a government agency with military connections who required him to exclusively contract to the government his blueprints, plans and the machine itself. His invention, the man explained, would help millions of people escape the detrimental effects of the noise produced by military aircraft, tanks, trucks and even, should circumstance point to such contingencies, army boots. From his younger days as a peace activist Franzl had retained an abhorrence of imperialist posturing, warmongers, their industrial abettors and quasi-political front organizations. Now here is the extraordinary, indeed the seemingly paradoxical thing: Franzl opted for noise (and conviviality) over peace. Within hours of the visit he had destroyed the plans so laboriously drawn up, as well as the "double-dog" itself, dismembering it screw by screw, circuit by circuit.
From then on, as he later told me, the sound of "metallicists" and "shedders" were as welcome to him as waves breaking on a seashore or a spring dawn chorus in full-throated glory. He even acquired a noisy dog his neighbours complain about, which he calls Mad – though I ought to point out that the acronym on its dog-tag, "MAD", does have different connotations in German than the English "barking mad".
This piece was first published in the October 1 Splinters edition.