Sometimes onions make you laugh

This is a true story that unfolded from a theory I had about the heart of any great story—that part, which engages our sensibilities.

In the back of my mind outlandish thoughts of writing a book often rears its enchanting face, luring me yonder to procrastinate from other things. Of course it should not be any old book. It would have to, at least, be slightly profound. That I can do it need not even be questioned. I have already done it, but not in the romanticized sense. It was just a master’s thesis in science. Non-fiction, novella length though and I wrote it, by waking up at 6 o’clock in the morning, every day for 90 days, to start writing and only stopping to go to the toilet, to eat meals and the minimum of grocery shopping required to stay alive. My head would gratefully fall on a pillow every midnight. Half a year later I graduated with a master’s degree. This is proof that I can write a book. It was as simple as that, but I made sacrifices. I resigned from a full-time well-paying job to do this. In those days I also did not have children. Today, three of them grace my life.

On occasion I would indulge this whim and google things like “How to write a bestseller?” But the most important insight for me was to observe my own experience when reading my most cherished books, which at the time was Fermat’s Last Theorem—a popular science book. There are many reasons why this book occupies my favourite-book shelf, one of them being my own passion for mathematics, but especially the brilliance with which Simon Singh told the tale. The book reads like a novel. I came to admire Sophie Germain, who was born into a world that did not let women become mathematicians. Her Eureka moment occurred when she was 13 years old while she was browsing a mathematics book in her father’s library. She had read about Archimedes and how, during a Roman invasion in Syracuse, he was so absorbed in his geometric figure in the sand that he did not respond to an approaching Roman soldier, who then speared him to death. Germain concluded that mathematics had to be the most fascinating subject in the world, if one’s immersion in it could prevent the realization of one’s own imminent death. I was deeply moved by this story.

Out of this experience I hypothesized that the heart of a great story lies with the hearts of the people in it, whether it is fictional or not. And there are exactly three things that are important: How and when the heart starts beating, stops beating, and the passion that drives or breaks this heart. In other words: the events around their birth, their death and the love or lack of it in their lives. How are people born (into what kind of world), how love is done and undone and how they died, or almost died. What gives character its shape? What do these characters do in the face of adversity? When one knows the circumstances around those three events, one has the essential human elements of a story. All that remains now is how well this story gets told.

In a little room at a Roehampton University dormitory in London, I was nonchalantly relating this theory of mine, to a friend, whom I dearly cherish. She was visibly curious. We had not seen each other for two years, because she lived in England and I in Germany. South Africa was home to our friendship for 14 years. Something special happens when two girlfriends, whose wavelengths synchronize in a sacred world, see each other after such a long time. She had just given me a birthday gift. It was a book about the art of a particular artist that beguiled me at the time. Her curiosity was satisfied by a wonderful adventure we had in that book while experimenting with my theory. It was a respectable book in formal hardcover attire, large and luxurious, the cover image with three striking colours; yellow, red and green, and the curved lines and organic forms distinctive of the artist known as Hundertwasser, written by Harry Rand.

Click on image for details

Our mood was whimsical and energetic. We decided to explore this book to see what we could find out about Hundertwasser. We were goal-orientated! It was hard not to be drawn into the vibrant paintings, which were very alluring with precious colour and sheer lyrical form, but we wanted to isolate the facts that would form the heart of our story. What we eventually found was not at all what we expected. What follows is the story we discovered.

A little baby boy by the name of Friedrich Stowasser was born on 15 December 1928 in Vienna, Austria. Within a few months two other people would be born that Hundertwasser would become friends with later in his life. All three of them shared a partial Jewish heritage and became celebrated post-war Austrian artists. When Hundertwasser had just turned one, his father died during an appendectomy. He was therefore raised solely by his mother, who was born Jewish in a Europe that would come to persecute people of this creed. As his father was Catholic, it was possible for him and his mother to pose as Christians. This and the fact that Hundertwasser joined Hitler’s Youth gave them a chance to survive World War II. Imagine the irony of a child being indoctrinated in anti-Semitism in order to escape being a victim of it. Many relatives on his mother’s side were deported by the German SS and killed. Hundertwasser and his mother lived in hiding in their cellar near the Danube canal. During the war they hid from the SS, and towards the end of the war they hid from the Russians. After the war, Hundertwasser received food and lodging from a very kind farmer, for whom he worked for a couple of months. The green trees and brown earth were balm to his soul. This experience had a pronounced influence on his art and philosophy for the rest of his life.

In the winter of 1949-50 he changed his surname from Stowasser to Hundertwasser. In the Slavic languages “sto” means one hundred, which translates to “hundert” in the German language. He had an intrinsic fascination for water.

A particularly charming description of Hundertwasser was rendered by Jeanne Facchetti (from the Gallery Paul Facchetti in Paris) who remembered when she first met him in 1950 as “a handsome young man, somewhat timid, quiet, but very strong-willed … I can still see him before me … on his bicycle, carrying his paintings on his back. He wore a pullover of his own design, grey with bright red, blue, green and orange stripes. His long slender hands disappeared under the dangling sleeves which were much too long for him … (he) wore a collarless shirt and self-made sandals.” This description had me endeared to this man. A part of me identified with him deeply.

He eventually got married to an Austro-Italian lady in Gibraltar in 1958 under somewhat strange circumstances. These were his exact words, when he was interviewed by Harry Rand:

When I was twenty-five, I met a girl of sixteen and she wanted to marry me. I liked her but I was a little reluctant, so I thought of marrying in Gibraltar and maybe somewhere along the way I could get rid of her. I had a car and I used the most difficult roads, so I thought when the car broke down I could say, “I am sorry we cannot reach Gibraltar because the car is finished now.”

 Once, in a small town somewhere near Barcelona, we passed a vegetable shop and she said, “Stop the car, I will buy you something.” There were vegetables, apples, etc. She went into the shop and I thought she would buy me some fruit to eat while we drove. She came out with a big bag of onions. I thought, “Strange, why did she buy a kilo of onions?” She bought it like you would buy two pounds of apples, or grapes, or plums or bananas, but she only got onions. I drove and she took this big sack with about two pounds of big onions and gave me an onion to eat. I said, “I don’t want to eat an onion like that.” She was very astonished and said, “Eat it.” “No, I don’t want it.” “But you are Jewish, Jews eat onions.”

 Her parents were Nazis; she lived in a kind of Nazi family and heard all the time that Jews eat onions like Germans and Aryans eat apples. As she wanted to marry me and she knew that I was half Jewish, she thought it would be a nice gesture to give me what I wanted to eat. It is amazing, very amazing. When that happened, I thought: this is not the woman for me, but when we arrived in Gibraltar she said that if I didn’t marry her she would jump from the rock. I was afraid to have a dead girl there, so I married her but then started a divorce immediately.

The paper-thin walls in Roehampton could not contain our laughter. We cried with laughter. Afterwards when we went to make tea and eat birthday cake in the communal room, neighbouring students spontaneously appeared, their curiosity ignited, but not quenched, for it was not yet possible for us to share this unusual story.

Two years later Hundertwasser succeeded to be divorced from this young woman.

He transformed his first name, Friedrich, to Friederich and eventually to Friedensreich, where “Frieden” means peace, and “Reich” means rich or kingdom in the German language. He also called himself Regentag, because he was most happy on rainy days. He noticed that colours shine in the rain. His full name became Friedensreich Dunkelbunt Regenstag Hundertwasser, where “Dunkel” means “dark” and “Bunt“ means “colourful“ in the German language.

Two years after his divorce, he married a Japanese lady—Yuko Ikewada. While living in Venice he was known to wear a kimono to match his wife. They were divorced four years later.

The onion symbol featured strongly in his art. He said to Harry Rand, “I think the onion shape means richness and happiness and wealth and opulence and fertility.” The architecture of good land, the holy land, the promised land, paradise, the garden of Eden, fairy tales. “This is part of my Jewish blood—wanting to show beauty and the way to go there.”

Hundertwasser’s heart stopped on 19 February 2000 at the age of 71 while he was on a cruise ship, the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2, just off the coast of New Zealand. He spent the last 20 years of his life in New Zealand. At the far north of New Zealand’s North Island he lived on a plot, where he planted 60 000 trees from all over the world. With his neighbours he created a garden of Eden. His home blends into the hill, for on its roof kikuyu grass grows just like on the surrounding hills. He lived green, using solar collectors to provide energy, collecting rainwater and recycling everything that he could.

In the end, Hundertwasser lived up to his name. He was peaceful, he was rich, he was colourful, he travelled over a hundred waters, and while he was on the water—his refuge—his heart stopped; a most perfect end to an extraordinary life. He was buried with his naked body wrapped in a flag of his design of the Koru symbol, under a Magnolia tree in his garden, resting in peace in his kingdom. That was his wish.

The End


Copyright © Quirina Roode-Gutzmer 2010. All rights reserved.


“He was the most eccentric man I’ve ever met—and delightfully so.“

New Zealand designer Donna Tullogh


11 thoughts on “Sometimes onions make you laugh

  1. I find solace in the tale, as a fellow adventuring artist (of the musical type) also discovering, like the cycling painter, that divorce can be a lengthy process, but one which reveals dark colors in one’s soul that perhaps hold a key to some peaceable kingdom. I hope they do. Thanks for this nourishing tale of an important human.

  2. Quirina,

    Wow, what a wonderful, remarkable life! I have been moved through the whole range of emotions reading this.

    I feel like crying now for a man I never knew, who died thousands of miles away. That indeed proves your theory of what makes a great story.

    Thank you for enlightening me!

    Abi x

  3. Hey Q,

    This read to me as easy as the breath and showed the rainbow of his life in it’s full glory. Your vision of his life intertwined with your own path was beautiful too.

    Really great piece Q!


  4. There’s so much to like here and so thoughtfully constructed and I adore how you wove one narrative out of the other weaving the personal and non but in doing so making it personal and keeping to your story thesis and the different parts of your ever unfolding story are equally compelling and excellently written. Brilliantly done!

  5. Wow…a wonderful story, Quirina….right from your own personal sacrifices to write your thesis, through to the onion story. I feel very nourished for having read this. Thank you so much. I love hearing how certain stories & tales have touched others lives. Compelling indeed 🙂

  6. This story was made for breathless reading. If you ever, excuse me, when you write a book, I will buy it. Definitely. Your words bring Hundertwasser to life in front of my eyes. You have a gift.

  7. You could write a book about that life – what a remarkable man – and a very well-told story. A lovely thing to read first on Sunday morning. I have added your blog to my blogroll

  8. Hi Tom, as you are a prolific reviewer of exquisite literature, I take your comments as a great compliment and am very honoured to have my blog on your blogroll. 🙂

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