From a Letter to my Therapist

about the Taiwan earthquake 1999

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Location: Taipei, Taiwan

Friday, August 16, 2002

From a
Letter to my Therapist

(about the
Taiwan earthquake by Rolf-Peter Wille)

Dear Dr. Healshaker:

In an overcrowded department-store I am shopping. In bewildering silence all the customers flock together, suddenly, staring at something that is withdrawn from my view. Out of the window I stare sensing an imminent catastrophe: The houses facing the store are on fire.

I do not remember why I was shopping in the department-store or what I was looking for. I only recall the ending of my nightmare and I awoke before knowing the cause or the effect of the fire. You asked me to analyze my dreams, Dr. Healshaker. I should try to relate my dreams to a traumatic event in my past. But do you not believe a dream could predict the future? Immediately after I awoke, bathed in sweat and with a pounding heart, I knew that my dream was an omen. I simply knew: This will be the 921 charity concert.

"People in the earthquake zone are in need of money. The last thing they need is tourists. They will get very upset if you gawk at their misery." So we were told. Would these victims be in need of classical music? I remember a corny scene from a German war-movie: A soldier, obviously a former pianist, is standing in the smoldering ruins of a bombed out city. This is a black-and-white movie. Miraculously a grand piano has withstood the air-raid and is standing against the smoldering rubble like a lonely beauty, just waiting to be found and loved. The soldier, his damaged uniform effectively contrasted by his heroic physiognomy, sits down (where?), wipes the dust from the keyboard and performs the second movement from the Appassionata (in wrong tempo). His comrades appear. Survivors appear. Everybody weeps.

Is this how we would be received in Tung-She, a town that was devastated by the 921 earthquake? We have played in a park. We played on Chung-Hsiao East Road. We played on Mount Morrison. But never did we appear in front of crushed houses. "Would you like to accompany me at an open-air concert for earthquake victims?" our violinist friend had asked us in a most innocent looking e-mail. Two weeks later we were in Tung-She. There was a Romantic full moon in the sky and I was standing on a dirty riverside between a tilted house, a very clean Mac Donald outlet and a grotesquely tasteless makeshift stage looking like a giant betel-nut stand complete with corny lights and drawings. I was turning back and forth between the destroyed house and this stage unable to decide which sight was more traumatic. Destruction of houses versus destruction of culture. The air was pregnant with exhaust, running motors, incense, helicopters, and cigarette smoke. A TV crew was busying aimlessly around stage running down tripods and innocent artists and mishandling the loudspeakers which erupted in deafening noises of protest. This eerie scenery was illuminated by a laser-show.

"We don’t want laser! This is classical music." I snarled. "Don’t worry. You will have light. Just a little laser. Just a little." Of course they needed laser. This show was to be live telecast. Important politicians such as Chen Shui-Bien and Lien Chan were supposed to attend this event. And how could a politician exist without a laser-show? In a depressed mood we retired into our makeshift tent. But the mood of depression was soon followed by one of nervous despair. This concert is to be live telecast. Are you aware what this implies, Dr. Healshaker? The very second your finger touches the key (with or without dust) this finger will be seen by all your friends around the country, all your good friends who have probably just waited to view stumbling fingers in front of fallen houses. Is it worse to live through an earthquake or die through a live telecast, playing fragile Mozart next to gawking movie-cameras? Seconds before the concert starts I decide that I would rather perish in a magnitude 8 quake than mount the stage. But like all traumatic experiences: Once in the middle of the battle, the adrenaline shall push me onwards and I shall be numb to danger.

Offstage I immediately forget everything and mix with the audience while my poor friends are sweating onstage. There is a huge crowd sitting and standing. Most are trying to follow the activities onstage, others are viewing the TV screens, walking around or staring into the air. Most of them are holding candles or carry little flashlights. The silhouette of the tilted house looks like a painted scene. It reminds me of a ruined bunker from the second world-war, an air-raid shelter, which stands like a hollow tooth on a hill in my German hometown. As a child I used to jog 10 kilometers at night to touch this grisly memorial with my hands. At that time I did not know why I wanted to touch the bunker. Unlike you, Dr. Healshaker, I am born after the war. Why did I like to touch the trauma of my parents?

While I am thinking this, I have started to leave the concert area. On the elevated street I am standing overlooking the riverside, the stage illuminated, and numb the audience. From the music no sound can be heard. Blackness covers the ruined town, the contorted streets and twisted buildings. Out of this dark trauma our audience must have grown. On the night of agony the survivors had run to the riverside, we were told. The riverside was as busy as a Taipei street, we were told. I am entering, now, the blackness of history. I am approaching, now, the bunker. Sporadically motorcycles and pedestrians are passing it in the dark and in defiant ignorance. A prehistoric giant, the towering ruin is leaning over me, its hollow black windows threatening me. The debris littering the street seems to have been spat out by these angry windows in a sudden attack of vicious vertigo. Disemboweled furniture is displayed in a living-room and like crushed cockroaches the wrecks of two cars are wedged between house and street.

I am returning to the riverside lest I become part of the debris. Now I know, Dr. Healshaker, why I attended this charity concert. The bunker I wanted to touch at night.

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