FIXERS are everywhere I look. They’ve emerged from their cluttered workshops and entered my field of vision.
Tired of reading polemic non-fiction, I picked up a novel by Italian writer Primo Levi, called If Not Now, When? It is a story of a band of Jewish partisans in the second world war, a jumble of Russian and Polish Jews, men and women who fight against the Germans behind their lines. Sometimes the Red Army, other partisans and villagers support them; more often, they too persecute the Jews.
As I turned the second page, I discovered that the main protagonist, Mendel, is a watchmender.
Mendel is the book’s moral conscience and his trade is not a coincidence. He is a village craftsman: grounded and resourceful, but also compassionate and thoughtful. He is balanced and patient, like a clock. The novel is a meditation on the ethics of war, and Mendel is the melancholy pendulum, his mind rocking back and forth the atrocities they witness, and the violence they perpetrate.
Early in the book, he and Leonid, a young soldier from Moscow, seek respite in an encampment of Jews and other refugees in an old monastery hidden among the marshes. For food, the small community traps frogs and collects grasses, herbs and mushrooms. They tan hides using oak bark and make boots for partisans. The two newcomers meet Dov, the leader of the camp:
“Do you have a trade?” he asked, addressing Mendel.
“I’m a watchmender by trade, but I also worked as a mechanic in a kolkhoz.”
“Good. We’ll find work for you right away. What about you, Muscovite?”
“I studied to be a bookkeeper.”
“That’s a bit less useful, for us.” Dov laughed. “I’d like to keep accounts, but it’s impossible. We can’t even count the people who come and go.”
I think I know how he would have responded had one of them replied: “I’m a freelance journalist.” Thankfully, I am not in the war.
All this, however, brings me to my latest tussle with a toaster.
This time, armed with tamper proof screwdriver heads, I was able to remove the outer casing, then the second layer, to reveal the wires and the filaments. Using the multimeter, I slowly tracked the source of the broken circuit by testing the resistance between different points. One of the thin wires in the filament had snapped.
I searched a while on the internet and I don’t think it’s possible to buy replacement filaments. The toaster was not made to be mended. So I couldn’t fix it. But I still count my foray as a minor success: I identified the problem.