To start off, I would like to say that Konstantin was the master of ceremonies at our wedding two years ago. In taking on this role, he helped usher me into another stage of my life, in a sense, and he had a lot of fun telling inappropriate jokes while doing so. It is a great honour to speak today of his life and the man that he was, and if anything that I say sounds vaguely inappropriate I would like to think that Konstantin would have appreciated an element of subversiveness at a formal and serious occasion such as this.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said that a person isn’t who they are during the last conversation you had with them, they’re who they’ve been throughout your whole relationship. Konstantin was my oldest, closest friend.
I met him twenty years ago here in Pretoria. We were class mates at the German school and lived only three roads apart, often walking home together. My earliest memory of him is at a house disco party where they served cool drinks and Simba chips. The lights were sort of dim, but not dim enough to hide the clumsiness of the scene, and someone was playing the Offspring. While we were all awkward, as this was an awkward age, I was perplexed by what Konstantin was wearing: tekkies, a baggy t-shirt and then…black, tight ski-pants. I remember thinking – what is this guy doing? Wearing these clothes was not going to get him any coolness marks.
But all of this was about to change when he won a final spot on the national English Olympiad, which certainly got him noticed, but it wasn’t clear yet that it would make him any less of a geek. As he was the only one in our school to actually go to the Olympiad finals in Grahamstown, he was put on the Pretoria Girls High bus. And so it happened that a rather shy Konstantin found himself as the only boy on that bus with about forty high school girls alone for a weekend. When he came back from Grahamstown about four days later, he was a changed man. It had become abundantly clear that books and his command of language could get him not only noticed, but that he could be completely confident in who he was.
Someone who recognised this fact was my mother, who happened to be his high-school English teacher and later wrote a letter of recommendation for his Rhodes scholarship application, counting the fortune of having had him as a pupil as one of the highlights of her teaching career. Even as a pupil, he would argue passionately about how the English literature curriculum was being interpreted, the meaning of what was being taught. After lengthy discussions, where he was impossible to convince, my mother would sometimes tell him that they could agree to disagree. This drove him crazy. He didn’t just want answers, but wanted to understand how others had arrived at them and why they held to their positions, because he was so clear about his own reasoning and always willing to give an account of his thoughts.
As we were driving home from school one day, my mother suggested to Konstantin that he should study English to become a Literature professor. But even at that young age Konstantin was aware of the trappings of academia, scornful of status, and with remarkable self-awareness and his usual scepticism of institutions he retorted, ‘Yes, I have always wanted to be a pompous ass.’ To quote from Shakespeare, Konstantin always said what he felt, not what he ought to say.
And this was one of the things that always made Konstantin so remarkable, the fact that he was always so down to earth. Yes, he was brilliant in his field, and as you know he went to Oxford, taught at UCT, and was an accomplished writer. But he was also able to relate to people that were not the same as him, able to befriend people of a variety of different backgrounds, and to share with enthusiasm in their multitude of interests. Only this week I received a message from a friend who was at Oxford with him who said that his fondest memory of Konstantin was the two of them watching lots and lots of rugby together in a pub. The last thing you would expect from a literary person is also spending hours happily cheering for the Springboks.
Philip Toynbee said that to be fully extended according to one’s own nature and capacities that is the only thing that matters. And the beauty of it is that since every human soul is unique the light that it sees and the light that it shines have never been seen nor shone before.
Konstantin’s light was beyond being defined. He was not an academic, he was not a book reviewer, he was not an intellectual, he was not a PhD writer, he was not a lecturer. He was only himself. That was enough for him. That is what made him so real, so exceptional, and such a lot of fun. And he was a generous, loyal friend.
Konstantin was a very, very good friend to me. Once, when I had just lost my job, had finally managed to break up with a terrible boyfriend, who I’d like to point out for the record was not my husband Willem, and when I was truly drunk, I called Konstantin at two o’clock in the morning. We were living in different cities, hours apart. And yet he left the party he was at with other friends, he jumped on a bus, caught a cab, walked a long way in the dark and found me where and how I was and then he made me tea.
Goethe said that as soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live. Konstantin showed us all the truth of those words with his own life. Even in his final months, he was so very much himself, despite the danger and distress of his illness. He continued to make choices that were right for him, that affirmed who he was, that demonstrated what he valued, and expressed what he loved. It was a bold and courageous way to live and it was a bold and courageous way to die. The way he lived life was rich, it full and it was exemplary. He did more, gave more and helped us see more in his short life than most people can hope to do in a long life time. And for all of these reasons, for who he was, and for how he changed each of the lives in this room, he is still very much loved, even though he is no longer with us.
When he passed away, I felt unspeakable sadness. But I was also overcome by deep gratitude for his presence in our lives, and the time that we all got to spend with him. I have so many very good memories of Konstantin – I know I am lucky to have them and I will treasure them all of my days. As Konstantin and I shared an appreciation for the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I would like to finish with a quote from him that has accompanied me since Konstantin’s death:
There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent that the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it.
Because Konstantin was so unique, the deep emptiness his death has left will persist, and with that our longing for his presence will continue, missing him will have no end. And as he helped to ushered me into a new part of my life two years ago, he is now leading all of us into a new phase in our lives: a time of missing him, of living without him, of seeing things daily that remind us of him and once again bind us to him, a phase of grasping and getting to know the meaning of mortality intimately.
Bonhoeffer said that the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain. Konstantin was most remarkable, wonderful and simply irreplaceable. And he was my friend.