Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s short story “A Major Acquisition” is in fact very, very short (it runs to a length of only three pages), and yet as with all his stories, the conflict between fact and whimsy is marked enough to merit comment at some length. His story opens with the narrator being approached in a somewhat surreptitious manner by “an unusual-looking man” in the local tavern, who inquires as to whether he would like to purchase a locomotive. The comic force is immediate: the approach, made “in a softly intimate voice,” is one that a reader might imagine taking place between a sly salesman of risqué cards or photographs, yet the real item on offer is something as large and as unwieldy as a locomotive.
Typically, the speaker in the story is himself quite whimsical to match the events he encounters. As he says of himself: “Now it is rather easy selling me something, because I find it hard to say no; however, I felt that caution was warranted with a major purchase of this sort. Although I know little about locomotives, I inquired about the model, the construction year, and the piston gauge; I was trying to make the man think that he was dealing with an expert who had no intention of buying a pig in a poke….The locomotive looked good, and I ordered it once we agreed on a price. For it was secondhand, and although, as we know, locomotives wear out very slowly, I was unwilling to pay the catalog price.” The obvious fact is that the speaker is a little off his hinges himself if we take him seriously, and yet the astounding fact that someone would actually flog a locomotive in this way causes all the other odd “facts” to assume a status that forces the reader to practice a “willing suspension of disbelief”; besides, the story is so engaging in its mannerisms and conclusions that the reader must accept it for what it is.
What in fact we are asked to believe is unusual is the fact that the locomotive is delivered that same night to the speaker’s house, which he sees after the fact as peculiar: he says that the speed of delivery was “shady,” but that at the time “this never dawned on me.” He parks in it his garage, after what we are encouraged to believe is serious consideration as to whether it will fit somewhere in the house!
The major conflict in the story between people is between the narrator’s cousin (who represents “facts as facts”) and the speaker himself (who represents “facts as whimsy”). The cousin soon comes to visit, and Hildesheimer’s readers are told this about him, in an accusatory tone which would cause them (in a less absurd story) to see him as the villain of the piece: “This man is averse to any sort of speculation, any display of emotion; for him, only facts are facts. Nothing surprises him, he knows better, and can explain anything. In short, an unbearable person.” When the speaker tries to act as a good host and introduce an unexceptional topic for conversation by beginning “‘These marvelous autumn scents–‘” his cousin interrupts and says “‘Withering potato tops.'” Though the speaker acknowledges that his cousin is right, he challenges his cousin’s gift of cognac by saying that it tastes “soapy.” Whereupon, the cousin tells how many world’s fair prizes it has won in minor cities, and decides to stay over the night in the house.
The intrusion of whimsical fact throws the cousin off his game, however, because he can’t deal with the “fact” that the locomotive is in the garage where he wants to park his car. The cousin inquires, in a practical application of having found it there, as to whether the narrator often drives it. The narrator replies that “a few nights ago, a nearby farmer’s wife had been about to have a blessed event, and [he] had driven her to the city hospital. She had given birth to twins that same night, but that probably didn’t have anything to do with the locomotive ride.”
In the next and penultimate paragraph of the story, the narrator confesses to the reader, “Incidentally, all this was made up; but on such occasions, I cannot resist embroidering a little on the truth. I don’t know whether he believed me; he silently registered everything, and it was obvious that he no longer felt very comfortable here. He became monosyllabic, drank another glass of cognac, and then took his leave. I have never seen him again.” Thus, the inconvenience of having a locomotive in the garage helps rid the narrator of the inconvenience and discomfort of having his factually oriented killjoy cousin around. He seems to consider it a fair trade, though he does note that a short time later there is a report that the French National Railroad is missing a locomotive, which had simply disappeared from the switchyard. As he comments on his experience from this perspective (and Hildesheimer clearly loves to play with the reader’s reactions thus), “I naturally realized that I had been the victim of a fraudulent transaction. When I saw the seller in the village tavern a short time later, I acted cool and reserved. On this occasion, he tried to sell me a crane, but I did not wish to have any more dealings with him. Besides, what am I going to do with a crane?”
This last line is in a way the most pointed comedy in the whole absurdist piece: one might as easily ask what he plans to do with the locomotive, which there is no indication that he will get rid of or return to its rightful owners. The whole story is written in an “as if” manner, observing the fictional boundaries of a sort of magazine cautionary tale about not trusting strangers, and about alienating one’s relatives by odd behavior; yet the assertiveness of the narrator’s behavior clearly labels his attitude as one which he feels he is right to have. Thus as with most of Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s stories, the reader is asked to navigate back and forth between probabilites, impossibilities, improbabilites, and what we are told are dead certain facts, and by the way to take part in a joyous sort of play with reality. I hope my readers will be able to find this fine collection of short stories in a bookstore or library; the translator I have read is Joachim Neugroschel, and the exact title is The Collected Stories of Wolfgang Hildesheimer. You will find, if you do get a chance to read all of the stories involved, that your efforts to keep track with Hildesheimer’s quick shifts between “fact” and whimsy are well-rewarded.