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The Box from Cologne

Author: Katharina Gericke
Translator: Jennifer Walter

 

Last night we found a small box on Färberstraße. It lay in the trash, ready to be taken away to the landfill. It contained an entire half of Trudi’s life. There are gaps in time between the hand-written letters and black-and-white photographs that I cannot fill.

Trudi had a habit of writing on half sheets of lined, letter-sized paper that she ripped from a notepad. She always ripped out three sheets, even when she only filled two. She stuffed a blank page in with the letter each time.

The story from Trudi’s box begins in the year 1948. Trudi was 30 years old. She had placed a lonely-hearts ad in the Kölner Rundschau because she wanted to find someone to marry. He should be respectable, Roman-Catholic, and want children. She could offer everything that would make a home welcoming and cozy.

“I even have my own apartment on Florastraße. I still live with my mother, but she is moving to Bad Bentheim soon to live with relatives.”

Back then, a woman was considered an old maid at 30. What Trudi did, who belonged to her family, and where she came from could not be deduced.

The war is a black hole in Trudi’s life.

She was a secretary and searching for a position in an office. She had two offers: one that paid well, and one that didn’t.

By the time she met Jupp, she had just taken the better-paying position.

Jupp responded to her ad in the paper, and a meeting had taken place in a small park.

When Trudi wrote to Jupp about her apartment on Florastraße and her job, they had decided after the first meeting that it just wasn’t a good fit, and that the matter was settled.

“Dear Jupp: If we both must admit that we are not compatible enough, I would like to ask for one more meeting to put my heart at ease. Because I have so many worries. Although I am embarrassed to ask… Yours, Trudi.”

They met again on an agreed-upon date, and Trudi complained to Jupp that the better-paying job was too demanding. She was under so much pressure that she didn’t know which way was up. Together they tried to figure out whether Trudi should give up the better job in favor of the worse job; although the pay wasn’t as good, it was less demanding. And that’s exactly what she did.

In addition, Trudi complained to Jupp that a stray dog had wandered up to her, but her mother did not want it because it was too much work. But Trudi said that her mother should not worry about it, because she – Trudi – would care for the dog by herself as much as possible. But she absolutely could not manage by herself with her terrible office job, which made her frazzled and fed up. It was all so difficult! Alas, the dog had already become part of the family.

Somehow Jupp stole a kiss from the overwhelmed Trudi.

Jupp, then a young man, looked good in the picture. Later photos showed that he was still attractive as he aged. But in every photo, he came across as wistful and looked as though he felt somewhat lost.

Meanwhile, Trudi had been a tough little tank her whole life.

Jupp lost his brother and brother-in-law in the war. The death certificates, which were delivered in the final months of the war from an office on the front, could still be found in Trudi’s box. Then, right after the war ended, Jupp’s sister died, and his mother did not have enough money for the grave or the flowers. Then she received 175 Reichsmarks from a relief agency, with explicit permission to pay for the flowers they wanted as well. That was before the currency changed over. The exchange receipt is still in the slim, wooden box, which was originally used to present two tiny bottles of “Henkell Dry” sparkling wine.

Jupp’s mother: that was Maria. Her husband died in the 1960s.

They raised three grandchildren, who were all they had left from their daughter.

One of the grandchildren was named Kathi.

In the early 1980s, Trudi received a letter in delicate, light blue handwriting, in which Kathi expressed regrets that she could not attend Maria’s funeral. But she had ordered a bouquet through Fleurop that was very expensive.

She wrote that to Trudi asking if she could be so kind as to follow up with the cemetery management to confirm, personally, that the bouquet looked as expensive as it was. That is, she feared that she would be cheated by Fleurop or the cemetery management.

The letter came from East Germany.

How Kathi got there, who the other two grandchildren were, and what became of them, I don’t know enough to say. The trail ended there.

As mentioned, Jupp had stolen a kiss from Trudi that day in the park.

A few days later he visited her at her home. Her mother was also there at the apartment on Florastraße.

Jupp had only wanted to say that things with him and Trudi just weren’t right. And the kiss in the park had been a mistake. And now he would like to say goodbye for good, in person.

Trudi wore a proud pout. And she said coolly that everything was fine. But her mother made a hot-tempered ruckus, called Jupp a womanizer, and threw him out of the apartment.

He shouldn’t have been allowed to kiss her if he didn’t want anything from her, seriously! That’s how it must have been.

The next day Trudi wrote Jupp another letter, although she didn’t really want to have any contact with him. And she accepted that things couldn’t be right with the two of them because they just weren’t compatible. She didn’t need something like that. And Jupp could take her at her word! But she simply had to write again, because the dog had been missing since he left the apartment.

And now he was gone!

“Dear Mr. Jupp: Could it be that he ran after you? And that you have him now? Just in case, I am asking you sincerely to bring him back to me, because I have become very attached to him, even though he is a lot of work.”

She had just realized how much work the dog was, now that she didn’t have to care for him anymore.

Trudi wrote sentences that spiraled like a chair swing at its fastest speed. She had already asked all her neighbors on Florastraße if they had seen the dog. But no one had.

Jupp didn’t have him, either.

So the dog remained missing.

But as a result, Jupp and Trudi met again. At the fountain, in the park, on an agreed-upon date, and at a determined time.

That must have been a pleasant evening. After that, they had a proper relationship.

How do I know?

Specifically, because Trudi’s mother sent a letter to Jupp’s parents, saying that their son was in a relationship with her daughter. She was well aware of it, even if Trudi denied it. She found it unfathomable that they, as parents, had not been informed. And it was not proper for an unmarried young woman to have such a relationship with a man.

The parents must have gotten a Catholic shock, although they had completely other concerns at the time, which stemmed from the war.

Trudi’s mother received a letter that was written on a typewriter.

They wrote that they were in more modern times than in their parents’ youth. But Trudi and Jupp should make it legal nonetheless, because it was not proper for folks who were Roman Catholic “to do these things (you already know what I mean, dear Ms. B) with anybody unless you are married!”

And they were going to give that scoundrel a stern talking-to!

That’s just what the family did.

And soon after, there was an announcement of their engagement.

For Trudi, things fell quiet in the time after the wedding.

But evidently her dear Jupp wrote a letter shortly before the wedding to a close female friend who worked at the employment agency. She wrote him back a typewritten answer from her business address.

Is it possible that this woman was married?

He must have written to his friend about his doubts. I don’t know the exact reason.

In the reply it said: “What should I say about this? Marry her — or gather your things and run away. You want guaranteed happiness, but there is no such thing. You should always plant four-leaf clovers on the green field between yourself and the city. Whether it will grow and bring you joy, or lead to happiness, who can say?”

The friend added a handwritten postscript to the letter with details about a good position at an automobile insurance company that Jupp should apply for right away, because she could only hold the position open for nine days.

Jupp’s first job was as a plaster worker. After the war and his time as a prisoner, he studied under a milliner. But he understood quite well that the time for hats and plaster would soon pass.

He got the job at the insurance company and worked there until he retired. Trudi stayed at the worse office job. They got married and lived on Florastraße. Trudi’s mother moved shortly after to Bad Bentheim. They had no children.

Many joyful photos from the box show them celebrating holidays, traveling to the mountains or having a picnic in the area. With friends, relatives, her coffee pals, and his bowling buddies.

I selected a photo of Jupp out of the case in which he is an older man, sitting on a bench in a park. He is intently watching a squirrel that jumped on his arm, nibbling a nut that he had given him. A bag with more nuts can be seen next to Jupp.

I took out a photo of Trudi showing her at a coffee table, surrounded by many people, with cakes, pastries, and such. They are looking at Trudi and toasting her, all of them are sitting while she is standing, her arm swung into a position that appears to be making a toast. Maria is also there. It makes me happy that I can recognize her in this picture, after I had visited Trudi’s history like I was visiting this city. Since then, I have returned home. I placed the box in a chapel next to the freeway and lit a candle for Trudi.

I took out a third artifact, as well: a small calendar book from ‘66, that (except for a few small payment notes for the bank book) was as good as empty. But in the small book lay a four-leaf clover.

On a blank sheet (the kind that Trudi always put in the envelope with her finished letters) I want to add:

“Last night: a dream. I am walking through a street, which was probably Färberstraße. I cannot find a way out because a giant heap of rubble is sitting on the horizon. I go back, but then I am suddenly thrown to the ground because pieces of a house are flying through the air again … ”

It was a mild day the next morning. White like milk, it felt young to my eyes.

What still felt old from the dream was the nose that could smell the ruins of the war – blood and dust.

Displaced Persons

Author: Natascha Wodin
Translator: Mandy Wight

Translator’s Note: Natascha Wodin was born at the end of the war in 1944, when her family was living for a few years in a shed on the premises of a factory owner near Nuremberg. Sie kam aus Mariupol, based on Wodin’s memories of her early childhood, is a memoir of the author’s mother, a Ukrainian born in 1920 in Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, and deported with her Russian husband in 1943 to Nazi Germany to work as a slave labourer in a Flick factory in Leipzig.

 

The Zyganenkos, who live with us, have the sense to realise they’ve got no chance of a visa for America. They put in an immigration application for Brazil and receive their visa shortly afterwards. I remember feeling overwhelmed with a wild, uncontrollable grief when the rattling Goliath leaves the factory yard with the Zyganenkos and their possessions, and I have to face up to the fact that what I’ve been thinking of as a game has become serious. Someone who belongs to me, someone who’s been part of my familiar and unchangeable world can go, can leave me forever, whether I want it or not. I want to die, and I squeeze myself into the dark gap between our shed and the factory where the rats are, where I can feel everything vibrating, though it’s just the pounding of the machines. For hours my mother runs around the yard looking for me. It’s only in the evening, by which time she’s thinking of calling the German police, that she shines a torch into the gap and finds me. Though she’s thin, she’s not thin enough to force herself into the gap. There’s just enough room for a child’s body. She has to beg me, to implore me, to come out by myself. And I’ve hardly been out for a minute, dirty, smeared with tears and stiff with cold, when the blows from my father start raining down on me. My mother tears at his jacket and shouts at him to stop, but he hits me till I’m lying on the ground with warm blood dripping from my nose. My mother throws herself on top of me and screams. She’s still screaming when my father’s sitting back in the shed drinking. He’s doing that more and more these days.

The Zyganenkos have promised to write to us, but we never hear from them again. This seems to confirm all my mother’s premonitions of disaster: the ship, which was to bring them, her fellow sufferers, to Brazil, must have sunk. Later we hear from somewhere that they died in an even more dreadful manner – that Brazilian cannibals killed them and devoured their flesh. This was probably a product of the violent fantasies, induced by fear, which the Russians dreamed up and which I was to come across so often later.

My mother stays behind, alone with her husband and child in the shed. She’s lost the only people who were a refuge for her in this foreign country, her little Ukraine in Germany. Perhaps there was a moment of dreadful awakening for her when she suddenly grasped, deep down inside her, that she really was forever separated from Ukraine; that the only place in the world for her now was this shed, and she only had this thanks to the kindness of the German factory owner; that she was forever damned to live in a country where she’d always be a foreigner, always be ostracised and at the mercy of a husband who seemed to hate her. I was probably aware even then that she couldn’t take much more, that she was hovering on the verge of leaving me, of slipping away from me. By then we’d probably already swapped roles. I was probably carrying her on my shoulders even as a four-year-old, in the constant fear that I’d lose her, a fear I’d had since birth.

I spend most of my time outside in the factory yard. I play with scrap iron or sit on the step of our hut and watch the trains go by, trying to imagine where they’ve come from and where they’re going. My mother suffers from homesickness and I’m sick with longing for the world out there. The whole time I’m thinking about what the world is like beyond the factory yard, which I’m not allowed to leave because the dangerous main road, the Leyher Straße, begins right behind it. Whenever someone walks across the yard, I take the opportunity to show off a few of the German words I know. I say, “Grüß Gott” and “auf Wiedersehen,” one straight after the other: “Grüß Gott” to greet people, “auf Wiedersehen” to say goodbye, and I don’t understand why the Germans laugh.

Sometimes I can’t stand it any longer and I run out onto the main highway, which I reach via a narrow, unpaved road. I stand there and I look. I look at the German houses: proper, big houses made of stone, marvelling at them as if they were palaces. The Germans have white curtains at the windows and behind the window panes there are leathery green plants in plant pots. I look longingly at the sugary foreign cakes in the window of the baker’s, where my mother buys dark German bread when we’ve got the money, bread that tastes quite different from the airy white American bread. I look at the German faces, their glasses, their hair, their bags, their umbrellas, their hats. What most surprises me is the fact there are also German children. They draw squares with chalk on the pavement and jump from square to square. Greedily I listen in to the foreign language, to the different, incomprehensible sounds that I guess are the key to the German world – the world of taps and electricity.

Usually I pay a high price for my outings. When my mother catches me on one of my adventures, which she usually does, I get ten strokes of the strap on my bare bottom. It’s a deal between her and me. I’ve got the choice between pain and abstinence. My mother doesn’t tell me off, she’s not angry, she’s just carrying out her part of the deal. I’ve opted for the pain and I get it. The strokes of the strap burn like fire, but even though I may have screamed the place down as a baby, I’ve learned in the meantime to play dead. I never give as much as one twitch or gasp of pain. I never show my mother that her punishment has got to me, that she can hurt me.

One day I discover a little girl behind the green bushes in front of the factory owner’s house –the first living being my age in the factory yard. I’ve been strictly forbidden to go near the German factory owner’s house, but the stranger standing behind the garden gate, waving to me to come over, exerts a powerful pull on me which I can’t resist. We stand facing one another, each scrutinizing the other. The girl is wearing a brightly coloured dress with cap sleeves and has a mop of curly brown hair. She smiles and opens the garden gate for me. For the first time I walk into the terra incognita behind the fence, the realm belonging to our lord and master on whom our very existence depends. The girl shows me a doll, a living doll, one that can open and close her eyes and say ‘Mama’ too. When she lets me take the doll and hold it, I get dizzy with excitement. The girl also has a scooter. She shows me how to ride it and asks if I want to try that out as well. But I don’t get as far as that. My mother grabs me by the collar and pulls me out of the garden. I can’t keep pace with her. I fall over and am dragged right across the factory yard, over scrap iron and glass shards. My knees oozed pus for weeks after. I never see that other girl from behind the fence again, however much I look out for her, but I do have a scar on my right knee which reminds me of her to this day.

Finally the day comes which we’d anticipated, the day my mother has dreaded from the start. We don’t know how it’s come about, but the German authorities order us to be transferred to the Valka camp. The factory owner can’t do anything for us. He’s tried every avenue. As a farewell present he gives my mother a valuable antique brooch: a golden salamander with tiny emeralds flashing green on its back.

For some reason or other my parents never converted this piece of jewellery into cash, despite the very hard times we went through, and I wore it myself for a long time after the death of my mother, until at some point I lost it. But even today I still wonder who that brave German factory owner was, who broke the law by letting us live on his premises for almost five years. It was as if the precious brooch he gave my mother represented the compensation which should have been given by Friedrich Flick to the forced labourers who’d slaved away in his factories. I’ve forgotten the name of our mysterious benefactor if I ever knew it. When I set off on one occasion to search for clues and went to the place on the city boundary between Nuremberg and Fürth where our shed must once have stood, I found nothing left. The factory had disappeared. I saw only wholesale markets and dual carriageways, though the railway embankment from those days was still there, with trains rushing over it as they’d done back then.

The Valka camp was situated in the Nuremberg suburb of Langwasser and its barracks were used until 1938 as accommodation for participants at the Nazi party rallies with their great parades and flag consecration ceremonies. Later on, Soviet prisoners of war were also temporarily housed there. When we move in, the huts make up a small town with four thousand Displaced Persons, or DP’s, from thirty nations packed into it. Most of them have been there since the end of the war – four thousand people who don’t know what to do with their lives now that they’ve been saved. A few dozen languages are buzzing around, all mixed up together, and hardly anyone can speak German. There’s only one thing which everyone has in common here: their experience of forced labour in Hitler’s empire. The slave labourers, who’d been once so in demand, are now unemployed, the tiresome remnants of a war that’s been lost.

The American camp is named after Valka, the town on the border between Latvia and Estonia, but the Russians put an ‘S’ in front of the name and called it Svalka; in German: Müllhalde, rubbish tip. Like the Baltic Valka, the camp was divided in two until shortly before we arrived: up to 1949 important officials of the NSDAP, the Nazi Party, were interned in the eastern half, while the western half was used for DP’s. Victims and perpetrators lived almost next door to each other, in the shadow of the Nazi party rally grounds, now falling into disrepair, and like us, no longer needed. In the stone wasteland, beneath the gigantic tribune where Hitler had once held his speeches, American GI’s play rugby.

The Allies expected the freed slave labourers to be grateful and obedient, but that turned out to be a mistake. The work camp has robbed the DP’s of any belief in law and order in Germany, so they’re demoralised and still seen as aggressive and hard to control. The Valka camp is widely known and feared for its levels of anarchy and crime. It’s a melting pot of allied and enemy nations, a Sodom and Gomorrah, and has probably the worst reputation in the world. Everyone is on the hunt for a job, for some earnings, for a living. Every business you can think of, and some you may not want to think of, goes on there. Some comb through rubbish tips looking for scrap iron and other usable waste material, others smuggle duty free cigarettes, deal in pornographic pictures, in insulin or other medicines, break into sales kiosks at night, earn money as card sharps, make a living from theft and deception. There are constant arguments and fights, there are stabbings, murders, and suicides. All the German prejudices about the Slavs as savages are confirmed. The Nazi propaganda machine represented them as dangerous wild animals, sometimes with horns and tails. The Germans still fear that they’ll take revenge, though such acts rarely happen. The camp dwellers keep themselves to themselves in their own world, cut off from the Germans, apart from the police who are on 24-hour standby and carry out raids on an almost daily basis. Even my father is involved in some murky business which we’re not allowed to talk about. My mother lives in permanent fear of the police coming for us.

The DP’s receive three meals a day, which are served up in individual bowls and have to be collected from one of the distribution points. On top of that they receive a monthly sum of 12.50 DM as camp pocket money. They have electricity every two days, alternating between the wooden and stone huts. Each hut houses approximately thirty people and is fitted out with one toilet and one tap.

We live in one of the wooden huts together with mice and bedbugs, which torment us all night long. Whenever it rains, the water comes in through the leaking roof and we have to rush to find all the containers we can lay our hands on and put them beneath the leak. The window frame is warped so the window won’t shut properly, the oven doesn’t draw and gives off clouds of smoke. We’re cold and we cough all winter. I come down with most of my childhood illnesses during this time, from measles to mumps, chicken pox, and whooping cough.

One image I have from the spotlight shining onto those days is that of my mother, pregnant. She’s not much more than thirty, but in my memory she seems old, faded and ill, with her hair parted in the middle and scraped back into a bun. She wears a green and white patterned dress, its uneven hem rising up in the front, raised up by her domed belly which looks like an outsized ball stuck on to her thin body. When I ask why she’s got such a big belly, I see her exchange a tiny conspiratorial smile with my father – a moment of intimacy between my parents and just about the only one that’s stayed in my memory. I’m not aware of ever having seen them put their arms round each other or exchange a kiss or any other show of affection. Since I slept in the same room with them throughout my childhood, I must usually have been there when they made what can hardly be called love in their case. But either they did it in such a way that I saw and heard nothing, or I found the goings on in the darkness of my parents’ bed so unnerving that my child’s brain immediately repressed it.

The noise in the Valka Camp is a daily torture for my mother. She can’t get used to it. In the work camp where my parents first lived on their arrival in Germany, the acoustics were probably kinder since everyone fell onto their bunks after an exhausting day’s work and went to sleep. In our Valka huts the people whose noisy lives we hear are those who have nothing to do all day and for the most part are suffering from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: insomnia, nightmares, anxiety attacks, irritability, depression, delusions, uncontrolled aggression, and many other things including all kinds of physical ailments, which quite a few DP’s died from even after the liberation. The small rooms in the huts hum with tension. There’s no such thing as speaking quietly: everyone has to shout in order to be heard above the pervasive, crashing waves of noise. There are constant arguments, loud wailing gives way to raucous laughter, you hear every word, every sneeze and sigh from your neighbour, the noises merge together into one huge, never-ending cacophony. Especially in winter and bad weather the long dark corridor is a children’s playground. They’re always being shooed away by someone on their way to the toilet or someone who has to fight their way through with their bucket to the only tap at the end of the corridor.

The noise makes my mother feel the lack of home even more deeply than she already does. She puts her hands over her ears, jumps up and runs out of the hut, where on top of the tortuous noise she’s assaulted by a constant stream of superstitious insults in Russian from a paranoid neighbour, an old Estonian woman shouting through the thin partition wall. For some reason this confused woman has projected all her images of the enemy on to my mother of all people, calling her a Communist, a Jewish whore, an American spy, a Nazi tart. My mother can’t stand up for herself, sometimes she cries all day, in fact she’s always crying. Her most serious illness is homesickness. It’s a constant torment, it seems to be like a thirst which never lets up but gets worse and worse, until one day you die of it.

For me the Valka camp is, above all, the place where I start German school. A photo of the first day at school marks the occasion: twenty–nine children standing in three rows with the shabby huts in the background. Two rows of girls, a row of boys in front, sitting cross legged in front of the girls. The children each have a Schultüte, a large card cone filled with sweets and given to German children on their first day at school – except for four of us, that is. One of them is me. The blondest of all, beaming in spite of the missing Schultüte.

It’s a camp school for camp children whose very first priority is to learn German. Because I was taught by my mother in the shed in the factory yard, I can read and write Russian when I start German school. I know the fables of Iwan Krylow and Samuil Marshak’s enchanting stories for children. I can recite at least a dozen poems by Alexander Pushkin and Alexei Tolstoy, but German is still a kind of background noise for me. That changes overnight when I start German school. The German words start lighting up for me, like sheet lightning – as if all these words had been slumbering somewhere inside me just waiting for the moment of awakening. The German language becomes a strong rope, which I grasp straightaway in order to swing myself onto the other side, into the German world. It’s out of my reach for the moment, but I know that it’s waiting for me, that one day I’ll be a part of it.

A language war breaks out between me and my parents. They refuse to understand my German. My father really doesn’t understand it, he’ll spend the rest of his days not understanding it, and my mother, who speaks German better than anyone else around me, doesn’t want to understand it. And I don’t want to understand her Russian, I want to have nothing more to do with her. There are constant arguments, she tries to hit me, but I get away and anyway her hands are much too feeble to hurt me. She has no power over me because I’m not afraid of her, I’m only afraid of my father’s hands. He rarely hits me and only does so as a last resort, when my mother hands me over to him. It’s the only weapon she’s got, the one threat which puts fear into me: I’ll tell your father. Sometimes she grants me a reprieve, if I ask in Russian, weeping, for my bad behaviour and lies to be pardoned, but usually the sentence is carried out in the evening when my father comes home – drunk as usual, after his clandestine activities. He’s a person who gets aggressive after drinking alcohol, so he’s happy to act on my mother’s grievance. He calls me cholera, parasitka, kretinka, and holds me fast with one hand while the other comes down on me like an axe. My mother is the judge and he is the executioner, the enforcer of the law.

Excerpted from Natasha Wodin,  Sie kam aus Mariupol.   Reinbek Verlag, Reinbek/Hamburg/Berlin, 2017.

 

Banishment from Hell

Author: Robert Menasse
Translator: Fiona Graham

Translator’s Note:   Banishment from Hell weaves together two stories: that of Rabbi Samuel Manasseh ben Israel, born Manoel (Mané) Dias Soeiro in early sixteenth-century Portugal, and that of Viktor Abravanel, son of an Austrian Jew sent to Britain in 1938 with a Kindertransport. The first two excerpts are set in the Portugal of the Inquisition, when forcibly converted Jews known as ‘New Christians’ were mercilessly hounded. The third excerpt is set in 1990s Vienna, at a reunion of Viktor’s grammar school class twenty-five years after the Matura school-leaving examination.

 

They’re going to set the house on fire. We’ll be burned. If we run out, they’ll beat us to death.

He saw the torches flaming up beyond the shutters, he heard the din people were making outside: singing, shrieking, yelling.

It was a funeral procession. The biggest funeral procession ever seen in Vila dos Começos – and the strangest – was making its way through the streets of the little town. A mourning procession in which no-one was mourning.

Two black horses adorned with purple fabric rosettes drew the hearse, which bore a coffin so tiny that it looked tailor-made for an infant. Behind it, holding a crucifix aloft in both hands, walked Cardinal João d’Almeida from Evora in a blood-red cassock and a red biretta, with the ermine-trimmed cappa magna draped over his shoulders, its train carried by four canons in purple cassocks. They were followed by the priests of Começos and the surrounding parishes, dressed in black cassocks, with white surplices and violet stoles. The nobles, in purple velvet with broad leather belts, bore their daggers drawn and pointing downwards. The representatives of the town council and the burghers, in black suits and large black hats, carried torches whose plumes of smoke traced a mourning band around the sun.

All this pomp, better suited to a state funeral, could not disguise the fact that the mood was heavy with fury, hatred and bloodlust. Nearly all of Começos had come out to join this procession, the purpose of which was to inter a cat. They murmured not prayers, but curses; did not fold their hands, but shook their fists. Their faces were reddened not by the sun, but by bagaço firewater, and were marked not by grief, but by the lust to kill, burn and pillage.

Now the clergy were intoning the Martyrium Christi, but it was drowned out by people yelling to the torchbearers at the front, whenever they passed certain houses: ‘Put your torches to this roof!’

The funeral procession turned into the Rua da Consolação, the tiny coffin containing a cat that hadn’t lived beyond eight or nine months, a little black cat with mask-like white patches around its eyes. ‘Come on! Torch the roof!’ It was the Soeiros’ house.

Antonia Soeira was one of the few not out in the street. Standing at the window with her children Estrela and Manoel, she peeped out cautiously through the cracks in the closed shutters and pulled the children back into the middle of the room as the noise outside rose to an increasingly threatening pitch, saying, ‘These madmen will yet declare that cat to be God. Let it eat the Dove in the Catholics’ heaven!’

The reason for the great commotion that had seized Começos and its surroundings was that this cat had been crucified. It had been found pinned with heavy iron nails to a wooden cross in front of the Casa da Misericordia. To the men of the Church it was instantly clear that by holding a funeral on a magnificent scale, designed to reinstate the sacred dignity of crucifixion, they could channel the local populace into united, fanatical combat against heretics and unbelievers; the Inquisition had entered Começos just a fortnight before.

The singing and shouting outside faded into the distance, and the boy stood in the middle of the darkened room, with the urge to run away, as fast and as far as ever he could, but he was stock-still. Just before being pulled back from the window, he had spotted the coffin on the hearse, that tiny coffin, and it occurred to him in that instant, for the first time, that he would probably never see his father again. His father had been among the first to be arrested by the Holy Office.

Drawn by the pitch-black horses, the coffin in a reddish light, as if the sun were setting and the cardinal’s scarlet vestments were aflame. A last sunset, the end of the world.

Manoel had always had to be home by sunset in the days when he used to go out to meet his friends. His father had been a real stickler about that – home by sunset. Woe betide him if he returned any later. Why? There had been no explanations, and by the time he understood, it was too late.

His father was a corpulent man, inelegant, and always very proper but never distinguished in his dress. On his cheek was a large crescent-shaped scar that repelled and intimidated Manoel. He was forever drawing himself up to discipline his children. He spoke quietly, almost hoarsely, and indistinctly. In the evenings he would read silently, mouldering over his book. Though Manoel had been instructed to address him as ‘Senhor’, he was no Senhor to the boy, who thought he played the role poorly. Manoel lowered his gaze before him out of fear, but also in disdain; he could not look up at him.

But now it was the idea of never seeing his father again that frightened him immeasurably. The din of the funeral procession was still audible far off, and Manoel felt his heart thudding even in his head, its rhythm as insistent as if it were straining desperately to match the drumming and the rhythmic chanting outside. But that was impossible now. They’re going to kill us all.

*                                        *                                        *
There was work in Vila dos Começos. The time when men used to loiter in the streets, waiting and watching, was over. No-one had to wait for casual labour, a handout or better times. Anyone who could work was put to work. And it was best not to watch too closely any more, or at least people didn’t let on that they were. The Casa da Misericordia, which was both the seat of the Holy Office’s bureaucracy in the Começos district and its prison, set off an unprecedented boom in the little town. Joiners and cabinet-makers delivered racks and other items to the Casa, works of art that combined, in the most labour-intensive fashion, workmanlike precision, mechanical inventiveness and the human desire for beauty and ornamentation. Just building the balustrades for the Casa’s great courtroom resulted in written records of seventeen new woodturning techniques. Written records – clerking quickly became a promising trade. Começos’ school was reformed and a teacher training institute was even added. Pupils like Fernando were driven back to their fathers’ workbenches by the cane. Or into the fallow fields and groves around Começos, where they learned how to plant vines and then, according to precise instructions, to produce the wine called ‘Lagrima do Nosso Senhor’, sought after by the lords of the Casa and now preferred by all self-respecting burghers of Começos. After endlessly long lean years, the domains of the landed gentry now bore fruit once more. The aristocrats, reduced until recently to mere parasites living off the vanity of their prosperous Jewish, New Christian sons-in-law, no longer pawned their silver tableware and brocade robes, but leased out land; no longer sold their daughters, but lists of names; no longer hid from debt-collectors, but waited impatiently for the tailors they had summoned. The tailors needed seamstresses, coachmen and teams of horses to keep pace with demand.

The self-indulgence of the lords of the Holy Office, aped by the flourishing tradesmen and craftsmen, transformed the face of the town; cramped craftsmen’s booths where men sat hunched over cheap repair jobs – when not quaffing spirits on the Praça do Mercado – became specialised workshops constantly in search of apprentices and assistants. They were building as if the town were being founded anew. Masons and carpenters, booked up for months in advance, sought out second- and third-born peasants’ sons from the Alentejo who had been tramping around Portugal without any prospect of employment and brought them to Começos, where they found work and bread. Silk, velvet and brocade became as commonplace as coarse linen had been. Cobblers learned how to cut leather with the same skill as the best cordwainers of Florence. The gold- and silversmiths rivalled those of Cordoba and Venice. The lords of the Casa in their fine boots had the town council pave the square and, eventually, all the streets in town. Stonemasons and pavers established themselves as new trades in Começos. There was money in abundance for the Holy Office. Money from the Crown, but also wealth seized from those who fell into the hands of the Inquisition. Commercial links, long since established and carefully maintained by merchants now languishing in the dungeons of the Casa da Misericordia, fell into the hands of men who had once been their clerks or, quite often, merely their coachmen. They showered coins and gold onto the market as if scooping them out of the wells of their new houses. Houses that had been seized, then plundered and ruined, had to be repaired and refurbished – by families who were ready to pay any price for brazilwood. These were golden times. The emblem of the Inquisition, the ‘standard’, in solid gold, was affixed to the façade of the Casa da Misericordia: a sword, a cross, a severed branch. Below were the letters M e J.

When the golden sword in this coat of arms came loose from the building’s still damp new plaster and crashed to the ground one night, it vanished without trace within minutes. People who had come out of their houses, alerted by the noise, now saw only the absence of those prized four pounds of gold. They laughed and laughed. Their howls reached the dungeons of the Casa. For the people in the square it was if a nickel coin had gone missing. The sword’s doing its work at night, haha, bottles of bagaço were passed around, haha, where was the sword? With the Oliveiras? With the Soeiros? The sword of God at work, haha!

Four days later the emblem’s sword had been replaced. A surfeit of gold flowed into Começos. In their new houses, Old Christians were already contemplating paving their yards with gold. And on this very day, when the sword returned to the façade of the Casa, barely a year after the cat’s burial, Antonia Soeira was arrested. Gaspar Rodrigues, the second time he was put to the question, had accused his wife of having incited him to judaizing. On the rack he had uttered a single word that might have been a screamed Yes, but might also have been just an inarticulate scream. But the records noted:

‘…indicated, on the second occasion that he was put to the question, that his spouse, Antonia Soeira…’

Suddenly there were men in the house wearing patched shifts and armbands, red, with a cross sewn on, men too rough and too unskilled for any trade in need of hands, who earned their living by hauling people away, for a bowl of soup during the day and for bagaço in the Mercado, for which the tavern-keepers dared not charge these men with their armbands. Not forgetting the body searches. Those brought in a pretty penny. There was bread for all in Começos.
And then there was also a man in a cassock and a red skull-cap, who would constantly rub his hands together, interlocking his fingers whenever he spoke. His hands were red and scaly; they even rustled when he rubbed them, and flakes of skin floated to the floor. Later, Mané would often regret that he had been so mesmerised by this that he’d seen nothing else. He didn’t see the expression on his mother’s face, didn’t see whether she betrayed fear or stayed cold and contemptuous; the latter, at any rate, was what he would later claim: ‘Her reaction seemed cold and contemptuous; the only concern she showed was about the fate of us children.’

‘The children are to be delivered up for Christian education on the morrow,’ said the man with the hands.
That was the last night in this house:
‘I know what you’re thinking!’ (Estrela)
‘No, Estrela, you don’t, because I don’t know myself.’
‘Don’t call me Estrela any more. I’m Esther!’
‘Esther.’ He realised that it was too late. ‘What am I thinking?’
‘You want to run, run away, as fast as you can.’
‘I can’t run.’
‘Then we won’t get very far.’
‘We won’t even get out of this house!’
‘Then let’s pack our bags for tomorrow.’

 

*                                        *                                        *

Like students, they all rapped the table with their knuckles by way of applause. The former headmaster, Mr. Preuß, raised his hands in thanks, requesting another moment’s quiet, as he had something to add.

The only imponderable in Viktor’s plan had been how he could engineer the situation he needed to put it into practice. He intended to wait for a while, then, once they’d had a few drinks, to tap his glass with his knife and ask them all to give him their attention, as if he were about to raise a toast. But the idea Preuß was now proposing would – unexpectedly – make it all easier and speed things up. The Headmaster proposed that his former pupils take turns to describe ‘in broad words, I mean in broad terms’ the course their lives had taken since their final Matura exams. This would mean everyone would have at least a general overview of what everyone else had done, not just the people who happened to be next to them at table. This procedure, he thought, would satisfy the basic curiosity of everyone here and it might well ease further communication. He looked around, and as a number of teachers raised their voices in support, he proposed that they start at the end of the table and continue around it, and so he would like to call on Dr. Horak – yes, please, Dr. Horak – to set the ball rolling.

Turek, said the man who had just been addressed, Eduard Turek, and he was in business, he’d taken a degree in commerce – at the other end of the table they called out, ‘Louder! Louder!’ and Eduard got to his feet, repeated, ‘I took a degree in commerce and…’ Viktor froze instantly. Where he was sitting, he’d be third in line, or, if he ‘naturally’ allowed Maria, who was seated opposite him, to go first, he’d be fourth. He hadn’t expected that the opportunity to spring his attack would arise so quickly; now he was nervously scrabbling in his jacket pockets after the paper he had prepared, first in the right one, then in the left one – had he forgotten it? Eduard’s speech rattled on past him, so bumptious as to be excruciating, phrases like ‘Now I’ve got two hundred employees working under me’ nearly made him groan out loud, then it was Wolfgang’s turn, of course he’d become a lawyer, of course he’d taken over his father’s legal practice, but, at the same time – of course – he still played ‘an active part in the student fraternity, though now, being a graduate, as one of the “old guard” ’; yes, he was active ‘in “Bajuvaria” ’ and not – as was so trendy among the lefties these days, ‘in Tuscany’. Laughter.

Now all eyes were on Viktor, who gestured courteously towards Maria, and, as she whispered, ‘No, no, no, you go first!’ suddenly found the sheet of paper in his breast pocket. Viktor stood up, he felt an instant coldness towards them, suddenly he relished standing there and allowing his gaze to wander slowly from one to the other, contemplating the faces of these familiar strangers, who were looking at him so good-humouredly, expectantly, even though they certainly didn’t expect him to have as impressive a career to recount as most of the others.

‘After school I studied history,’ he finally said, ‘history and philosophy.’ All that everyone wanted to know now, he sensed, was whether he’d got a master’s or a doctorate, whether he’d become a teacher or an academic, whether he was married and how many children he had. ‘The study of history,’ he continued, ‘is nothing other than an examination of the conditions determining the genesis of our own lives.’ This sentence was too stiff, he realised at once; he paused briefly and took the piece of paper out of his breast pocket, saying, as he unfolded it, ‘We’ve just been asked to sketch out our lives, but we’ve never been told anything about the lives of the people who were our teachers, the people who educated us and who, surely, formed us one way or another, I mean …’

Viktor was sweating, and his glasses slipped down his nose slightly; he pushed them back with his middle finger. How he’d enjoyed playing football. Would have enjoyed. But since he wore glasses … ‘To understand what a person has become, I think it may also be very rewarding, very enlightening, to ask: who were his teachers? Who – “in broad words,”, as Mr. Preuß has just put it – were our teachers?’ He looked up the long table to the old teachers; they were grinning, were they seriously expecting something funny now? The lame jokes of the final year’s school magazine which no-one had wanted to write at the time, served up cold twenty-five years later? Viktor swallowed, lowered his gaze to his papers and read out, ‘Josef Berger, a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, membership number 7 081 217. Eugen Buzek, NSDAP member No 1 010 912. Alfred Daim, NSDAP member No 5 210 619. Adelheid Fischer, a high-ranking leader in the League of German Girls, from 1939 leader of a Girls’ Circle, the Girls’ Circle was made up of five Girls’ Groups, each one comprised four Girls’ Troops, and each Girls’ Troop was made up of three Girls’ Units with fifteen members each. So she was in charge of almost a thousand girls in Vienna and …’ The shocked silence was so profound that he managed to list two more names and NSDAP membership numbers without anyone moving or saying anything. Finally he got to ‘Karl Neidhardt, a particularly interesting case, by the way. After the war had started he studied English, the language of the enemy – why did a fervent Nazi and would-be German study English? Well, for that very reason. Because his convictions were so strong. The Nazis needed particularly reliable people to listen in to the enemy, and Mr. Neidhardt was assigned to this task at the Reich Security Headquarters, in the rank of a senior lieutenant. Maybe some of you remember how our English teacher came into the classroom one day in 1965 to read out an obituary of Winston Churchill, who had just died. All the English teachers in Austria were obliged to do that at the time. It was an order from the Ministry of Education. So he read out this text, which praised Churchill for the part he had played in the liberation of Austria, but I can recall his expression even now; you could see he could barely restrain himself from shouting: ‘The swine is dead!’

Suddenly there was a bang. A shot? A thunderclap? Viktor saw that Mr. Preuß must have leapt to his feet so abruptly that his chair had fallen over; Mr. Spazierer and Miss Rehak were standing too. ‘The swine is dead!’ said Viktor. ‘That was what he really wanted to yell…’ He had got an astoundingly long way, but now he clearly had only seconds left. So he followed up quickly with ‘Otto Preuß, NSDAP member number…’

‘Get out! That’s enough!’ yelled the Headmaster at a volume that blanked out every sound in this inner room, every further word from Viktor, the scraping of chairs, the former teachers and pupils’ first outraged utterances, the clearing of throats, even breathing itself. And now, into this dense silence, he yelled again, ‘That’s enough! Have you gone mad?’ He snorted, standing rigidly erect, his arms at his sides, rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, groped for words, and finally got out: ‘You can’t expect me to stay any longer.’ Kicking aside the chair that had toppled over, he stormed out, followed by the teachers, red-faced, their expressions frozen, looking neither right nor left.

Excerpted from Robert Menasse, Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle.  Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main and Berlin,  2003 and 2017.

Exit stage left

Author: Sibylle Berg
Translator: Kate Roy

It is a moment so perfect it makes your head ache, because it’s forcing you to do more with this fleeting perfection than just look at it and breathe it. The road is the breadth of a car and hugs the lake. A heavy, golden autumn, the sun fights the mist, the smell of wood fire hangs in the air. You don’t need sunglasses any more, and that’s a shame, because he feels more at ease with sunglasses. It’s like gliding on moss, past old villas, past the lake, to Bellagio.

The camera shows a man in his mid-thirties – styled like a young lord, side parting, dapper, his Burberry coat too warm, cords, sports jacket, a Reclam paperback (Flaubert) in one pocket – in the back seat of a taxi. He puts on his Gucci glasses and takes them off again, plays with the ends of his Hermès scarf (a fake), has fine beads of sweat on his face and the helpless look of someone who has lost his focus. Maybe he never had one in the first place.

Small birds in the oleander hedges. A tired old lido. A small, broken doll in a puddle.

Tracking shot: past a palazzo, standing empty, through the small town of Bellagio, about the most perfect it can be for a small town, whose every millimetre has been caressed by the feet of princes, kings or film stars, into a driveway, not gravel alas, it makes too much noise. The taxi stops in front of the entrance to the Hotel Villa Serbelloni. The villa, its largest structure dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, looks like a treasure chest with a lid, floating on endless waves. This one building is the size of several comprehensive schools.

Liveried men saunter about wanting to carry suitcases, there are no suitcases. He carries only a doctor’s bag, the one he was gifted by a Karen freedom fighter, to the reception, dumped like a car crash in the old palazzo. A bit of an Eighties feel, defiantly battling too much beauty, metaphorical shoulder pads and leggings. Beauty wins, thinks the young man, as he follows a bellboy up to the second floor. Of course, it had to be a Superior Double. The room as big as a football field, without the players, thank God, that would be all he needed, eleven sweaty men with the IQ’s of gorillas. The room beats him down, it is bigger than him in every way.

The camera shows Murano chandeliers, frescos, decorative work in lapis lazuli, the lake through the window, a boat disappears over the horizon, the young man sits on the bed and looks at his feet, paralysed: they sit like two unbaked bread rolls on the Persian carpet, in front of him.

He can’t die yet. How would that work? Here, in the afternoon, in the golden sun? And what if he wants to come back in those final seconds? He had imagined himself nonchalantly swanning his way around the hotel, chatting with oil barons, smoking cigars, celebrating his exit in style. But now: a blond, insecure boy in surroundings that are much too grand, floundering. In the last few years he had always managed to console himself by retreating more and more into defiance mode: I can go any time, he had thought. He can’t even do that, he realises now.

He stands up, this feeling of not wanting to move, of wanting to fall. His friends are coming any moment; he’s promised them a party. He’ll embrace them all. They’ll be surprised and they’ll cry. After that, he’ll do it: the injection, the saline solution, it will go quickly. So, down the steps, into the park. Finally, gravel.

Tracking shot: jetties, seagulls on piles in the water, summer houses grown over with grapes, on garden chairs, white metal of course, widows of millionaires from overseas with short silvery-blue curls.

He trudges through the park; his square-built body is prone to perspiration, beads of sweat under his straw hat. Aschenbach from Death in Venice? What could have gone so wrong? He had thought his life would never end. Thought he would be world famous and rich, that he would have an exceptional life, because he was exceptional. He was a child supported to excel, spoke four languages, by his mid-twenties he had his own newspaper, soon after, his own radio programme, he made films, rubbed shoulders with DJ’s, read about himself every day in the papers. A media Wunderkind. Everyone idolised him as the inventor of Med Art, a mainstream-appropriate fusion of media, art and wanderlust. He reported live from a hotel in Rwanda; while the locals were splitting open each other’s skulls, he took artistic photos. He was a guest of the Karen (the bag!), smoked weed with the rebel leaders. The old creative artist-types loved him, he earned lots of money, he met Heike Makatsch from Love Actually.

His downfall came, he didn’t see it for a long time, like Germany’s own decline, a murky process. The newspaper folded, the radio programme was discontinued, the financiers withdrew, and at a certain point he had to speak to receptionists. It took years for our hero to understand that his time had well and truly passed. The pinnacle of his life at 30, that was the Nineties, that was the time pop became art and split people into three camps: the ones who watched talk shows, the group in the grey area who considered Alain de Botton a philosopher and Coelho a poet, and the ones who ate Conceptual Art for breakfast. Now everything he could still have done would require inglorious effort. And that, of course, was not an option.

Cutback: the office space in an old colonial building in Bangladesh, staff, our leading man in a Bauhaus Barcelona chair, his friends around him; on the wall, a photo of Gilbert & George. A young actress wafts into the room and sings a song that Noel Gallagher has written for her. Our hero is busy putting the finishing touches on a lifestyle internet portal. Everything runs in parallel. Everything is a Project. A luxury goods fair, a talk show, a film, all up to the minute, hip, dashing and modern. So Bret Easton Ellis. The hero goes to the window, looks out over the slums. It’s important to him that he doesn’t lose touch with reality. In this moment, he is eternal.

It is 6 o’clock. The first guests are arriving: friends who aren’t friends anymore, who backed away from our hero when they saw him fall. The fear of being carried along with him is too great, their own precipice too close. But now, it’s party time. A former MTV VJ hops out of a hydrofoil, followed by a former editor-in-chief, followed by a former hit band, followed by a consultant for something.

Former MTV VJ: “Are there any stars here?”
Former hit band: “Whoah, is it overdressed here. Totally retro.”
Former MTV VJ: “Is there Wi-Fi?”

Cut: ten people at a table at the poolside Restaurant Mistral. One Michelin Star, famous for chef Ettore Bocchia, like the Italian version of the “Naked Chef” but fully clothed. Inventor of Cucina moleculare – fat-free mayonnaise, pasta you can’t overcook and Nouvelle Cuisine that doesn’t make you fat. Simply brilliant. Perfect staging, a view out over the lake. Lights on the opposite shore, an evening haze. The hero sits surrounded by his former friends, the seven courses of the tasting menu are spun out over three hours. They laugh and talk excitedly about Projects.

here’s something on the go with 3-D and DJ’s, playing at the Ritze, the boxing club and bar in Hamburg. And right now, the consultant is doing autotests for Tyler Brûlé’s former magazine, and they’re all making a racket and enjoying the seemingly choreographed movements of the wait staff. He sits there and is quieter and quieter and thinks: It’s as if I had already gone. This final defeat gives him strength and he jumps up and cries: Let’s try one more thing together, something great, a web blog with Japanese robots. A brief silence at the table, then someone orders a coffee.

Tracking shot: The last ferry sets off for Menaggio.

One of the band members checks his emails. The consultant is loading songs onto his phone, for a moment the hotel seems overcome with disgust (how do you show that?). The hero leaves. No one notices. That’s the worst. In his room, that mocks him with its “I’ll still be here when you’re a distant memory,” he checks his bank balance. The cash he has on him will last for one night in the hotel, his overdraft would last him a little longer if he found something cheaper. Here, in the town.

The hero thinks about all the princes and kings who’ve been here in the last 200 years. Arriving with their hordes of servants, whole corridors rented, and rooms just to spread out the clothes on the beds. Romy was here, and the hotel staff had to sit with her late into the night because she couldn’t bear to be alone. The hero thinks about what it might be like to have two embarrassed waiters sitting by his bedside. He feels very close to Romy.

Cut: Restaurant Mistral. The tables being cleared. The staff retiring to their rooms. The lights going out. Crickets dying.

The morning after a sleepless night the hero discovers the minibar. A small cognac doesn’t make anything better or easier, but it makes the focus less sharp. Accompanied by the slight nausea that a drink in the morning brings, the hero adjourns to the breakfast room. He takes a quick look at the enormous Murano lights, at the frescos on the ceiling and at the couples at the tables, older for the most part. No socks and sandals here, only immaculate hair, faces relaxed by wealth and cashmere throws. Sickened by all this bourgeoisie, he goes into the park, sinks down on a leafy wall, looks out at the lake and senses that he won’t find the courage to die today either. A gardener walks up to him. With the wisdom of experience, he addresses the unhappy hero, a gentle conversation begins, during which it turns out that one of the gardener’s relatives has a house for rent. They could go there right now and take a look at it.

Tracking shot: A pick-up truck heads inland, the hero fights his nausea. A tall, run-down house stands in a shady hollow, some of its windows are cracked. The gardener and the hero enter. In the house it’s damp and cold; in every room, old mattresses, old beds, broken chairs.

My cousin will be here any minute, the gardener said. Our hero sits on a damp mattress and stares at a tin bucket. Why is it there? An hour later an old man comes in, obviously drunk. He talks unintelligibly, pulls a schnapps bottle out of the pocket of his sports jacket, offers it for a sip, takes one himself, shakes hands and collects what is almost the last of the young man’s cash. He leaves the bottle behind.

Cut: Evening falls, dark, cold, our hero has been sitting on the mattress for hours, incapable of moving. At sunset, the landlord comes back; they drink together in silence.

The hero wakes early, at five, with a headache and a bad taste in his mouth. The landlord is gone, the hero looks around for a sink, a basin, finds one in the kitchen, brushes his teeth and makes himself a coffee with vodka. Afterwards, he walks into the town, which takes a long time because he keeps stopping, standing, groping for a thought that refuses to come. In the town, he goes into the one and only shop, buys a croissant, steals schnapps, and takes himself to the gate of the Hotel Villa Serbelloni. He stands there, silently, staring at the entrance, then turns away, goes back to his house, where he spends the rest of the day drinking and holding monologues that distress him so much that he speaks too quietly and can’t really understand himself.

Tracking shot: The trees have lost their leaves. Three weeks have gone by. Our hero staggers through Bellagio; he looks bloated. He pauses and looks through the iron gate at the Villa Serbelloni.

The hero no longer knows what has been. He doesn’t know what will come. When he gazes at the Villa Serbelloni something reminds him of dreams past.

The most perfect hotel manager in the world, Signor Spinelli, is just welcoming an old Cuban widow, Louis Vuitton luggage is being unloaded. Age doesn’t have to be a burden when it’s tied to money. He has no more money. He breathes in the November air; it already carries a little frost. He has no friends, not even a last copy of his old newspaper. Nothing to remember him by. He’ll disappear without leaving a trace. But there’s still time before he goes. There’s another bottle waiting for him in the old house, now ice cold, not that he feels it.

Cut: In the lounge of the Villa Serbelloni a trio plays “Ave Maria,” in the old wicker chairs sit smiling older people with good taste and refined knitwear. At the pool, there’s a woman in a chic suit; barman Mauro, fluent in six languages, is conversing with an old factory owner, the sun has gone behind a chintz curtain, life stands still in its best moment. For the next 200 years.

 

SIbylle Berg, “Der Abgang.”   First published in DIE ZEIT 45 (3.11.2005)
(https://www.zeit.de/2005/45/Italien/komplettansicht)    © Sibylle Berg

What became of us

Author: André Herzberg
Translator: Johanna McCalmont

What became of us traces the lives of six narrators –  Richard, Eike, Anton, Michaela, Peter and Jakob – all children of Jewish parents who grew up in the former East Germany.  When the Berlin Wall falls and their plans crumble, each of the characters must find their own answers to the questions history has forced them to face.   This translated excerpt opens with the author’s own reflections, followed by those of Eike as he attends an event at which the GDR Dictator meets a rich American guest.

 

DO NOT SAY THAT WORD. Above all, never say you are one of them. There are films about them, radio programmes, there are experts, politicians who talk about them, there is the nation, there are countless jokes, there are theories. There are theologians, philosophers, and yes, there is their country now, but never, ever, say you are one of them.

And that’s not who you are anyway, you never go where they go. You never do what they do. It’s better you know nothing about them at all. Who dripped their poison into your ear, who made you doubt? Don’t dig any deeper, doubt, that’s what they work on. If you get involved, even once, your life will take a different course, and you can’t take that risk, you don’t want to, do you? You heard about them from your parents when you were a child. That must have been what happened, but you can’t remember when it was exactly. Yet it has pursued you ever since. Once you are certain, you will be excluded from society.

When they all get together for carefree merriment, for football, on a Saturday evening, after work, to relax, you are shut out of the crowd, you are no longer allowed to laugh when they laugh, rejoice when they rejoice, nor are you allowed to weep when they weep, you are no longer one of them. Everything that once was light is now infinitely heavy. But what is it that’s so dreadful?

No one likes them, no one loves them, they may be pitied occasionally, some people are careful, you aren’t allowed to say a bad word about them now, so they just raise an eyebrow in a way that says it all, you can sense the contempt, the scorn, yes, the disgust even, this disgust is genuine, and genuine feelings are what you want, just not that kind. No one wants that, no one can bear that.

So it’s best you deny it, but it’s not that easy, you become a liar, if only because you have to assume someone will still suspect you’re one of them. It drives you mad because when you admit it not only to yourself, but also to others – yes, I am one of them – then you cross the line for good, you wind up alone, and now there’s no point thinking, or hoping you’ll receive support, love or warmth, they despise you even more now because you’ve exposed what they don’t want to talk about. If you had been murdered, then you might have had their sympathy, but since you’re alive, they know you know what they’re thinking but no longer say to your face.

When they talk about it, about dirty politics, about the special role, the chosenness, they mean you, even though they no longer kill, cull, eradicate, exterminate, gas you by law, they hate you until you are out of sight, they still hate you when you are no more than a shadow, a ghost, they blame you for all their misfortunes. Or else they admire you, but this admiration is so unattainable you can never live up to it because you too are only human. You remain the other.

This sense of otherness has been with me for as long as I can remember. I feel like a cat in dog territory. A cat, but one that pretends it’s a dog like all the rest, precisely because it doesn’t say or show it’s a cat. I’m now at the point where I no longer conform to such images. I say the word cat just like I say the word human.

I say: I am not a cat, I am a person. But then my uncertainty consumes me once more. How well do I even know myself? I know about my fear, I’m afraid of God too, of his wrath because I’ve never done all my homework, haven’t obeyed his Commandments, or, above all, haven’t respected his prohibitions, I don’t even know them all. They say he punishes sins, and I am a sinner. I am afraid of myself, my weaknesses, my gluttony, my wayward sexuality, my lack of love for others. I am afraid I cannot give any more than I’m giving, that I don’t want to give any more.

In the lyrics I wrote, I prayed to God. Help me, I sang.

The poison of doubt is what torments me, I’m gone forever as far as everyone else is concerned, I can never laugh again, never freely love anyone again. The older I get, the clearer it becomes that my parents, and their forefathers, determined this for me, handed it down. Being an aware person – at least on occasion – I’m becoming ever more conscious of my absurdity, because in refusing to reveal my identity I’m behaving like a child, covering my ears, eyes and mouth, singing lalala, simply to avoid thinking about it. I fill the void in my head with life’s endless, wonderful vanities, or I focus on the world, I must save the world, not just my little life, I have a higher purpose. Yet even in founding a new family, producing offspring, I burden them with this cursed doubt of mine. They carry it forward.

There is only one option, but it is the most dangerous one: I must change, I must face it head-on, accept who I am, learn how to separate what my parents told me, what teachers told me, all the ignorance, all those half-truths, from my own opinions. It’s as though I’m constantly treading new, unknown terrain where I do not know what dangers await me or when I may have to face them. Reconciling myself with God, persisting, sensing his love, constantly discovering new commandments I still don’t keep, forever relying on his goodness anew.
I keep hoping I’ll encounter kindred spirits, similar fates, but that’s just beyond reach, no two experiences are alike. The older I get, the easier the loneliness is to bear. Only once I have the strength to embrace my fate shall I find happiness again, like the happiness I know only from my long-gone childhood, my earliest memories.

 

EIKE

WE WOULD LIKE you and your son to attend. So, put on your suit, Harry tells Eike. Harry stands in front of the mirror, tries on the shiny new medal he received only yesterday, but then hesitates, and takes it off again. He decides they should both be smartly yet modestly turned out, so no medal. It was a real blitz, an outpouring of medals for Jews. Harry was proud, he’d been Chairman of the community for many years, always got on well with the authorities, never a word of thanks from his people. Presumably the dictator had ordered a change of course: well, Harry too had had one of his scraps of tin pinned on his chest at any rate.

I need to tell you something, Eike. Harry’s voice trembled, he had never started off that way before, how Father was groping for words, it wasn’t like him. Eike expected a lecture on Jewish history, the kind he’d patiently let wash over him his entire life, but what followed was nothing of the kind. Eike also stands in front of the mirror, watching his father fuss around him, straightening his suit, lengthening his tie because he thinks it’s too short, even checking his flies, Eike is no longer a baby, he holds his breath, he can’t stand it any longer.

Harry beats about the bush, you and your mother, along with the community, have always been the most important part of my life, it’s for you two I’ve made such an effort, then there’s a tremor in his voice, the word successor comes out, could Eike become Harry’s successor one day. Why was the old man talking like this, why was Father so agitated, Eike wondered. Mother is already by the door, signalling to Eike with her eyes. Harry stands up close to Eike again and something strange happens. Eike can still hear Father’s words, but they are slower and deeper, he can no longer understand what Father is saying. When he looks at Father’s mouth in the mirror, it has disappeared, he scans the space between Father’s chin and nose, sees nothing, the gap is perfectly smooth apart from a hint of stubble already reappearing despite a recent shave. Just a deep, muffled mumbling sound – where is his mouth, where are his lips, where are the words coming from wonders Eike desperately, searching for them.

Harry is pleased, he has finally been open with his son, said everything, he wanted to do it today before they both met The Almighty, the Dictator, in person. It is the first time Eike will him accompany his father into the presence of The Almighty. It seems as if his distant dream, his life’s work, will be fulfilled. His son has become a doctor too, just like him – but the community, no, more than that, the entire Jewish Question, survival – the boy knows too little about all that. It has not always been this easy. Getting a hearing for our cause, being awarded a medal, a Jew receiving a medal. Who could know better than I? Who had done his duty? Who had saved the community from all manner of attacks? Who had held firm in stormy seas?

They hadn’t built the road through the cemetery, the great synagogue is being rebuilt, golden dome included, as our place, as they promised him, and if Eike accompanies him today, this dream too will become reality. Eike shall be my successor, thinks Harry.

Harry and Eike’s destination is a large hotel. The city centre streets seem desolate on a Sunday morning, deserted. Men in black suits check them at the entrance. They don’t want to let them enter, he spells out his name, they finally nod in agreement. Inside, the silence is eerie too. No guests here either. Endless corridors, empty. They’re to go to the first floor, to the Room of Dreams, those are the directions they were given in the entrance hall. A spread has been prepared, Meissen porcelain, cups and saucers.

But Harry is unsure about the cake. I don’t know if the gentleman from the World Jewish Congress keeps kosher, he says to another man in black. But we brought a van over from West Berlin especially, everything is kosher, says the man, smiling. Only the coffee is from the East, he smirks. There are place cards of course. They walk around the table reading the names. Two other gentlemen from the community have also been invited, they nod at each other discreetly. The visiting guests, the rich American and his secretary for whom the event had been arranged, were already seated, should we say Guten Morgen, Shalom or Boker Tov, wonders Harry. They simply nod. May I introduce my son, Eike.

They had met for the first time the previous day at the Party’s headquarters – the Big House – he and the rich American: a medal for each of them, a strange atmosphere, everyone there was a Jew, right in the lion’s den so to speak, like a dream. And the dream continues. They all rise.

The dictator enters, accompanied by his entourage. He smiles, walks round the table, no need to stand, have you tried the cake yet? How do you like our weather today? Did you try the cake already, how do you like the weather a voice interprets from behind him, until the American interrupts, But Mr Chairman, I do speak German, my parents came from Germany. Really, all the better, Mr … all the better. It is so wonderful to speak to a representative of the World … er … Jewry in person, he said, as though Harry were not there. Then he sat down in the centre.

I am sure you would like to know why I invited you to be a guest of the government of our Republic. We are in the same boat, as it were, when it comes to fighting fascism and war, fighting racism, I am certain of it. I therefore wanted to ask you if we could reach an agreement on a loan. The American crooks his head, I’m not sure I understand. That is the sign for the interpreter, who hasn’t said anything for a while. He springs into action, translates the dictator’s proposal whilst the dictator is left smiling at his interlocutor.

The American crooks his head even further and says: I had actually hoped we were meeting to reach an agreement on reparations, Mr Chairman. The guest hesitates at this point because the dictator’s face has reddened, he interrupts the American. Our Republic is not, and never has been, the successor to the fascist regime: the torrent of words surges out over everyone now, waiting, heads bowed, as the coffee cools and the cake dries out.

The interpreter initially attempts to convey the flow of words in English, but the way in which the American shakes his head indicates he understands enough of what the dictator means. Harry gazes out the window uncomfortably, it is all so embarrassing. He had hoped for good relations for so long, there had been positive developments after so many years, and now? We’ll get the fallout, it’ll hit us hard. The rich American will go home, but we’ll be left in a right mess here, he thinks. It’ll all take a turn for the worse for us again.

A normal Jewish family is what they want, that’s what the director says on the phone, the way he says it, with a long ‘iii’. A Yiiiiiiiddish family, completely normal, do you understand, normal, a family visiting a relative’s grave, a rustling sound down the line, are you still there? They agreed to meet at the entrance.

Such a horde of men with all their equipment. The director talks at Harry relentlessly. Harry interrupts, could the men cover their heads please. But it’s summer and no one has brought a cap. Harry shrugs his shoulders in disgust, and now they’re all stumbling over the graves. Please walk this way, no, not that way, says the director from beside the camera. They all hold hands, the three of them, Mother, Father and Eike, as if they were fleeing, then they finally stand at the grave as requested, they glance furtively at the director’s gestures.

Action! Harry’s expression is frosty, Mother smiles, Eike breathes and smiles too. You need to look sadder, don’t pay any attention to us says the man, one more time. So they go back, Father, Mother and Eike, arm in arm, until they reach the grave again, followed by the camera at all times, surrounded by the hurried footsteps again, a swarm of busy technicians, such as the woman patting a brown paste onto their faces with a damp sponge.

It is fear that Harry feels, nothing has happened in their area yet, but the closer they get to the city, the nearer they get to the centre, the louder it becomes. They turn back, they can’t get any further than Schönhauser Allee, those large vehicles with screens over the driver’s window are everywhere, lined up, no one can get through, and then there are the police officers and people running in all directions. Where are they all going, Harry asks in the car, but neither his wife nor his son reply, nothing but a heavy silence, they try another street and it’s the same thing, no way through to the synagogue. They will have to make an exception this time, they turn around and drive home, they won’t make it to the service.

They see the images on television that evening, there must have been an uprising one channel reports. Harry’s mood dims, what will this mean for us, we’re always the first ones they want to see hanged, we’ll have to stay at home for the next few days, he orders, until things have calmed down. But things don’t calm down. Harry’s mood becomes even gloomier.

 

Excerpted from André Herzberg, Was aus uns geworden ist. Ullstein Buchverlag, 2018.

Berlin: City of Fairies and Desires

Author: Leander Steinkopf
Translator: Stefan Kramer

For everyone, there is a fairy that will fulfill one wish. But only a few will remember the
wish that they made; only a few therefore recognize that fulfillment later in life.
–  Walter Benjamin

A bum lies down on the sidewalk, stretches his arms towards the sky and sings Ave Maria. I pause, the flow of pedestrian traffic piles up behind me. Actually, I feel like lying down on the ground with him. I don’t want to sing along, I’d rather keep my hands in my pockets, stare into the sky, and enjoy being an obstacle. But I step over him, as if I had someplace to go. I like this part of Friedrichstrasse; it feels like you’re in a real city. Here, one can observe people who have responsibilities and are in a hurry. Everywhere else in Berlin, watching means exchanging glances among idlers – but along these few hundred yards of real city, from the river Spree towards the south, one finds that special peace of asserting one’s own slowness against the agitation of the others. Only here, and not for long, as one soon runs into the shoppers, and their sauntering makes that slowness seem vulgar.

In Dussmann’s bookstore tall men with suits, trench coats, and briefcases rise above the lowered heads of the readers. With open mouths and sharp eyes they look over the tables of new publications. Even when they are standing still, their coats continue to flutter with urgency. Over the shoulders of the readers they grab a hardcover book from the pile, quickly turn it every which way as if inspecting a vegetable for flaws, then pay for it with a credit card and have it gift-wrapped.

I go to the shelves in the Personal Improvement section. Nobody pauses there; they only glance  at the book titles in passing. To stop would mean admitting that one has problems. It’s enough to take a book in hand or just fixate on a title long enough, and one’s cover is blown: as a smoker who can’t quit or a yes-man who can never say “no,” as depressive or impotent. I like to linger here and look at these books. Not those that might help me, but the others that I cannot comprehend. I think they could have their greatest effect not when they’re read at home in secrecy, but when read openly, on the subway. You could see everyone’s greatest weakness from their book covers, and you’d be less alone with your inadequacies.

I walk along the river Spree, where potheads smoke their first joint of the day and office workers take a break to refresh their memory of what the sun looks like. The government district seems to consist almost solely of glass, it seems to require no fences or walls; everything is open, access denied only by the heat sensors and surveillance cameras. Looking from the promenade along the Spree at the federal Chancellery, it looks dead quiet; there’s only an occasional flock of birds rising into the empty sky, as if the German chancellor only reigned over a field on which some crows pick at grains.

Some way further along the Spree, a bridge is weighing down on the river, squeezing the promenade into a tunnel, where four bums reside. They’re not at home at the moment, just their four mattresses are lying here, the top ends towards the wall with equal gaps between them, as if in a four-bed room. At the head end of each mattress, where there would be a nightstand next to a bed, there is one plastic bag each with their belongings, protected only by the outward appearance that nothing could be less worth stealing. Someone appears to be lying on the last mattress, but a closer look reveals it’s only a rolled-up blanket, covered with another – an arrangement borrowed from the hero of old spy movies, when he knows that he may be shot dead while asleep.

The small park at Turmstrasse has been newly redone – the lawn, the playground, the benches, everything. The whole place is a foreign object in the Moabit borough, without any of the grime that would form a connection to its surroundings. The politicians believe that such a small  area of promise could change the city, could lift one of its districts out of its squalor. But the city takes back what belongs to it. First, it’s only a few beer bottle caps, trampled into the ground near the trampolines, and cigarette butts in the sand under the jungle gym; that is the seed for what is to come. Soon tendrils grow over this foreign object, first hastily smeared tags on the playground equipment, then a proliferation of graffiti. Shoots grow into each crack, tear the planks off the park benches and the wastebaskets from their mounts. Shortcut footpaths cut diagonally across the lawn. Dog shit mixes into the gravel paths. At some point the first child gets bloody fingers from the broken glass and the discarded syringes in the sand of the playground, and the parents take their child elsewhere. Dog owners avoid the place because their dogs jump into the ever-deepening puddles and carry the mud into their homes. Old folks don’t find a place to sit down anymore, for on every seating surface there is a shadow of dried urine. When only the boozers still come, followed by those who collect empty beer bottles for their 25-cent deposits, then the ecological equilibrium of the city has been restored; let the next politician come and try to change anything.

I sit down in a Turkish fish shop and order a plate of Hamsi anchovies. On the TV, the players of Istanbul’s soccer club trot into the half-time break, then Erdogan receives Abbas for a state visit. At the second table, an Indonesian mother sits with her little son, squeezed between the entrance door and the seafood display. A hundred fish eyes stare up from the crushed ice in it. Her husband comes in with two beers from the organic food store next door. They have ordered fried seabreams, and a mackerel sandwich for their son. The old Turkish owner isn’t in; his daughter is running the store today. Her mouth never smiles, is pierced in one corner; it spits out words as if they tasted bitter. She wears a wool cap and athletic jacket against the cold behind the seafood counter and the mist of frying grease that descends upon everything. She puts on a metal-reinforced glove and scrapes the innards out of the seabreams with a short knife.

A young man enters: so German, so polite, so soft, with pale skin that immediately sunburns on the first day of spring. He has waited two weeks for his three-day beard to grow. I know some people like him as well as I know myself.  The German knows that he does not belong here, that he’s the stranger here, that any kindness he encounters is mere hospitality. The young Turkish storekeeper turns around, her eyes icy blue, and asks him, “What’d you like”? “I’d like some of the salmon fillet,” he replies with a coarse voice and clears his throat. “What?” she says, and he repeats himself. Ever since he’s lived around here, he’s been looking longingly at the oriental beauties; he can’t help himself, not even after finding, suddenly and conclusively, a woman of the type he knows from his school days, ash-blonde and Occidental.

There are things I don’t really do anymore  eating Döner, taking the U1 subway, and visiting Friedrichshain. But Judith lives at Boxhagener Platz, in the worst of Friedrichshain, where the people are loud and happy, the tourists sit packed tight in leatherette pubs, and tattoos seem to grow all by themselves, like a fungal breakout in a public pool.

It’s slowly getting dark, so it’s getting crowded at the Warschauer Strasse train station. The security guards of the Deutsche Bahn are leaning against the railings of the bridges that connect the train platforms. There are four of them, looking at the young women, talking about them, occasionally shouting something at them from behind in Arabic.  Visitors to Berlin are lining up at the Currywurst vendor and at the instant photo booth, for they need some sustenance and memories before the long night ahead.

I too have memories of this neighborhood, and when I stay away from Friedrichshain, it’s primarily to avoid them. There once was a woman who stopped me as if she wanted to ask me for directions, but then she asked me what should be done with the twenty-four hours before her departure. I showed her the city, and she discovered it for me with her fresh gaze. In the morning we had to run for her train, we stretched our necks like meerkats on the escalator up to the platform, and saw the train still waiting there. She left me behind in this city, and I roamed restlessly. Memories pulled me into building entrances where we had stepped aside to kiss, and I followed the paths on which we had gotten lost. She was sitting in the train, sometimes got up to smoke a strong cigarette at the window, then sat down again when she got dizzy. The city was contaminated by her love for a long time.

She was only one of the many who come here with their pent-up drive for freedom, who want to experience every night until dawn, who see opportunity behind every fence and life in every crowd. They vacation in this city without regard for the people who live here, for whom there is a tomorrow. And then they travel back home, take a long shower, sleep in, and go back to their daily routines. But for several days after that woman’s departure, my brain remained dirty and fragile, like an unsteady pile of dishes standing in turbid water in the kitchen sink.

In the burger joint at Boxhagener Platz, numbers are called out over the loudspeaker like they do at the unemployment office. The hungry customers sit outside the door, drinking beer from the late-night store while waiting for their order. The lawn in the middle of the square seethes with conversations. Off and on, a hissing noise foams from the slush of voices – that unique sound that’s made when someone opens a beer bottle with a cigarette lighter. In a pub the music is turned up. The evening has grown warm from all these people.

“Come on up, the door is open,” says Judith over the intercom. She’s sitting in the kitchen, at a soundproof window with a view of the noisy party outside. She’s made herself chamomile tea and holds the teabag on its string inside the tea cup as if expecting that something may still bite today. “How goes it?” I ask. She doesn’t answer. “Do you want some tea?” she asks after a while. “Coffee,” I say. She goes to the range and unscrews the coffee pot. She tries to empty the coffee grounds into the composting waste bin, but she isn’t slapping the pot hard enough, so she scrapes it with a spoon, very slowly, like an archaeologist excavating a fossil. She then fills the pot with fresh water from the faucet in a thin stream, and when she switches on the stove, she turns up the heat click by click, six times in one-second intervals, before she places the pot onto the burner. “There’s a party on the rooftop,” she says with a longing in her voice as if the roof wasn’t just up two flights of stairs.

I let her climb the ladder first, so she can’t escape back into her apartment behind me.  Then I ascend to the fourth step, put my coffee cup onto the roof and climb up after her. I notice that Judith briefly smiles as she looks around. Blankets have been spread out on the gritty roofing, candles are burning, people are crouching and hand-rolling cigarettes in their laps. They are drinking warm beer.  They tear off pieces of flatbread to wipe the food remains from nearly empty plastic bowls. The sun is setting, bands of clouds catch the colors. TV antennas poke into the evening sky like blades of grass. Chimneys are everywhere, the natural furnishing of the roof surface.  Their bricks radiate the warmth of the sun that they have collected during the day, just like the warmth of childhood fantasies: Mary Poppins and Karlsson-on-the-Roof.

Judith regards all this with a smile, but then she looks around intensely, and squats down as if getting ready for a fight.  Her gaze seeks and finds a nearby chimney. She pushes against it with her back and slides down it slowly, now sits there with her knees pulled up. She may be enjoying all this, but she is fearful that her body will disobey her for a few seconds, get up, run, and jump.

I sit down next to her and she rests her head against my shoulder. In the light of the sunset you can now see the dark contours of two men who daringly stand with one foot forward at the edge of the roof, and hope that a woman, receptive to the prevailing romantic mood, will fall in love with that pose. But even without any women they delight in standing silently at the precipice,  as if it was wonderfully  different from waiting at the edge of a sidewalk to throw oneself in front of a bus.

The light in the sky is red, then pink, then purple, finally blue; the city is changing color like a bruise. And I suddenly feel lonely, because I don’t know who I would call to watch the end of the world with me … who would be willing to come? I turn my head towards Judith, but I would not want to be with her when the end of the world arrives – although I can vaguely remember a time when I would have accepted the end of the world if it meant I could be with her. I feel so forsaken that it nearly makes me panicky. Nearing the apocalypse, one could finally be honest with oneself; the next day, one wouldn’t have to lie when someone asks, “How was it for you?” But I can’t think of anything honest that I could do right now. Then it’s finally dark, and again the end of the world has not come.

A young woman looks up from the bowl of hummus that she just now still wiped clean with a piece of bread – slowly, as if meditating. She looks at me and smiles suddenly, then gets up and heads towards me. I get up, too, since her purposefulness calls for a goal.  She gives me a tight hug, as if we’ve known each other forever and haven’t seen each other for a long time. The scent behind her ear radiates so strongly that I have to blink. And she knows my name, so I don’t ask for hers.

One of the men who was standing  at the edge of the roof earlier hunkers down next to Judith, who is cowering beside the chimney. She is holding her legs pulled towards her, her forehead rests on her knees, her long locks cover her shins. The man looks like he’s straight out of the military, a hybrid of beer drinking and bodybuilding. Somehow, he wears his muscles the way a bank trainee wears his suit: they don’t seem to fit, he constantly plucks at them. He talks to Judith with an empathic voice: “Hey, little one, what’s wrong?” He really does say “little one” and sits down next to her, exactly where I just sat. When he notices that I observe him, he gives me a kind of fraternizing wink, as if we had just agreed on our territories without saying a word. And I know exactly what will happen. He will feel her up, and she won’t object, but neither will she raise her head. And then he will embrace the bundle that is Judith with both arms, and she will cry because she now feels secure, and both will remain like that for a while. And when she finally lifts her head, he will kiss her, and her tongue will dig around in his mouth mechanically, like a power shovel excavating a trench. Then he could just throw her over his shoulder and carry her home – he’d certainly be strong enough.

The woman who knows my name takes my lack of attention for the absent-mindedness of genius. It makes me uncomfortable when a woman takes an interest in me without my doing anything to deserve it. Something must be wrong with her; perhaps I remind her of the father she never had, or I am the chaos that’s missing in her perfect relationship. I have already experienced that often. A woman has found the prince of her dreams, but now the fairy tale of seeking and finding is over, and they are in the “happily ever after” phase. And in time, she develops the desire for a man who is all that that her prince is not. And exactly because the prince of dreams is so perfect, she desires some washed-up guy. In fact, she should be happy, dammit, but if I were to simply ask, in the middle of our conversation: “Are you missing something in life?”, she would immediately begin to cry, so that I would console her. She does not want to betray her perfect prince, but even less does she want to betray herself.

I see that the military man is getting up and offering Judith his hand to help her up. Judith looks at me, briefly and guiltily, and I shake my head in disbelief. Then I briefly feel a hot flush over my skin.  Impatient, I grab her arm, and her indifference lets her be swept along. We go down the ladder as fast as if it were a waterslide. The military man stands at the top and looks dumbfounded. And the woman who knows my name smiles,licks her lips,and thinks: interesting.

 

Excerpted from:   Leander Steinkopf,  Stadt der Feen und Wünsche.  Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2018.

 

The Imperial Hotel

Author: Adolf Muschg
Translator: Alan Robinson

 

During the bus journey the metropolis had insinuated itself seamlessly. The apartment blocks, covered in advertising, crowned by enormous characters, their façades overrun by videos, squeezed closer together, pushing first green spaces, then the streets between them into the depths below. The multi-lane highway had also needed to climb in order to cut a wide swathe through the mass of dwellings, on which one lost all sense of speed. At what seemed a leisurely pace, the bus advanced amid a procession of disparate vehicles, which now overtook on the right, now fell back on the left, to get in lane for one of the exits marked in white writing on green signs. High up in the distance to the right, the Skytree, the city’s new landmark, peeped between the wandering towers, then was cut off from view, only to re-emerge larger in the next vista. The sky was an immaculate blue, every outline was etched clearly, free of haze. To Paul Neuhaus, his khaki bag on his knees, the settlement now beginning to envelop the road from all sides appeared immensely orderly and completely unmysterious.

Finally the bus branched off too, descended a ramp into the bustle of ordinary street traffic, and resigned itself to a slow crawl from one traffic light to the next, until, after weaving round several corners and passing well-kept parks, it reached a congested terminal which, the microphone voice announced, was Tokyo Station. From here the Imperial Hotel was only a few steps away. But first he had to get from the bus station to the train station. Or was he there already?

Having made it across a dozen lanes of traffic to the building on the far side, he was now apparently in the station: every departure board breathed the consummate efficiency of Japanese railways. He was directed to innumerable destinations, an escalator led up or down from every platform, but none to the Imperial Hotel. And the longer he wandered among shopping areas and columns of pedestrians, the more he realised that this station was a city in its own right. He didn’t want to ask anyone, having learned from previous experience that communication problems merely added to one’s disorientation and it was simply ridiculous to be unable to find the exit from a station. In the end he took the first one he saw. Admittedly, he now knew less than ever where he was, but rescue was at hand: a taxi.

So much for a few steps! The drive to the hotel seemed to take ages, past some kind of fortifications, with a moat and gigantic walls, behind which only treetops were visible – the Imperial Palace? – ending up again in a covered, multi-lane terminal. Right in front of them was the bus that had brought him from the airport, for he recognised the driver waiting in front of the empty luggage compartment.

Imperial Hotel? Paul Neuhaus enquired.

There, said his own driver, pointing to the rear of the terminal. An array of clay-brown uniforms was indeed standing in attendance there, and when the door beside Paul sprang open – he also had to get used to self-opening taxi doors – a porter hastened to his car.

Welcome in the Imperial Hotel, Sir, he said. No baggage?

I hope you already have it.

Paul remembered in time that the taxi-driver would have regarded a tip as an insult.

So much for his first steps in Japan. He didn’t part with his bag, however, and entered the hotel with an honest No thanks and a forced smile.

Once through the revolving door, he examined his fingernails, ran a comb through his hair and freshened his breath with a spray. The ground floor lobby had only artificial light but gleamed like amber. What first caught his eye was a large circular bowl surmounted by a globe of white flowers. Above it, as a counterpoise, hung a chandelier covered by white parchment. The golden-brown lobby was supported by columns of the same hue, which disappeared at the top into square openings, capitals of sheer light. Dark armchairs were abundantly distributed in numerous alcoves, and bands of fabric in a spectrum from golden yellow to deep brown ran the entire length of the left-hand wall. The right-hand wall was occupied by a row of desks, at the first of which his suitcase was already waiting. But where were his friends?

Suddenly a gentleman in black attire appeared before him, raised his hands and then seized Paul’s own, which he pressed tremblingly for some time.

Could this be Ken-ichi Tenma, Ken? His once luxuriant hair was now thin, receding at the temples and – as he bowed towards Paul – revealed the beginnings of a tonsure. But his large eyes gazed piercingly as ever, vibrated as it were with resoluteness beneath his oddly raised eyebrows. Even when he wasn’t speaking his lips twitched, as if the whole man was charged with nervous energy. The tic was new. He’d condemned himself to making constant witticisms in the days when he still turned up in jeans – a characteristic phrase was I don’t allow anybody to believe that I am Japanese. But his dark outfit was conventional only at first glance; a second look detected its stylish cut and almost clerical collar.

Welcome to Japan! he cried, at the same time sweeping his arm with a showman-like flourish towards the armchair from which a woman in a white kimono now rose. Mitsuko had already appeared to Paul in a dream, but with no face. Now this face greeted him with a shy smile, which vanished immediately when he tentatively shook hands with her. She too was older, wore her hair in a tight chignon and white make-up on her face; the brows above her narrow eyes were pencil-thin, the lips above her strong chin were pursed. In her kimono she now also reminded Paul of the doubled Harunobu figure above his desk. However, this time she began to speak German, hesitantly, but with faultless grammar and much closer to colloquial speech than her husband’s stilted idiom. It emerged that she now gave German lessons herself, having trained at an international school for interpreters.

On the rare occasions he allowed her to say something, Ken passed over her reticent comments discourteously, even brusquely. Long-serving married couples evidently displayed no affection here either – the less so, as convention dictates that one disparage one’s possessions. That Mitsu had dropped the -ko from her first name occurred to Paul only later; she had used the polite form at first. When she bowed, the silver outline of a crane was visible on the back of her kimono.

Ken seized on this ‘conversation piece’ to rectify the mistake. It was the phoenix that had accompanied Tezuka Osamu’s life’s work, his symbol of rebirth in fire. – Did Ken still draw manga? – He was no longer innocent enough for that. He had once dreamed of publishing books, and manga would soon be the last ones printed; whether they were worth the paper was a different question.

But before we celebrate our reunion, don’t you want to go to your room? It’s on the 29th floor. I can accompany you: it’s somewhat complicated to find.

He wanted to drink a toast first, Paul objected. His suitcase would surely find its own way to the room.

Ken gave the porter appropriate instructions; then he suggested the bar in the furthest, slightly elevated part of the lobby, it was still quiet and you could smoke there. – I don’t need to smoke, said Paul. – But I do! Ken replied, with a nervous laugh. Paul’s suitcase was wheeled to the lift, while the friends withdrew to the almost empty stage behind the still silent orchestra podium. They sat in the corner of the balustrade, overlooking the art nouveau lobby and the toing and froing of guests. Ken studied the drinks menu intensively and, until the right champagne arrived in its ice bucket, silence reigned at the table. They raised their glasses, after Paul had requested that they resume addressing each other informally, as ‘Du’; but the mood wasn’t yet convivial.

To everyone’s health! Ken could understand Paul’s wish to pay his respects to Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright’s hotel had even survived the carpet bombing. The Americans had taken care to spare it: after all, they’d needed quarters befitting their rank as victors. Back in 1923, the year it was built, the hotel had fortunately withstood the Great Kantō Earthquake, thanks to the floating foundations on which Mr Wright had erected his monumental ‘H’ structure in pre-Columbian Maya style. What had finally killed it was the Japanese economic miracle. Room prices would have been prohibitive if the airspace spurned by Wright’s flat Palace had remained unused. His monument had therefore been demolished and reassembled in an open-air museum near Nagoya, while in Tokyo the obligatory skyscraper was constructed – with the decoration here as a fig leaf.

You’re staying in a fake, explained Ken, gesturing with his half-smoked papirosa, to accustom you to the fakery in our next economic boom – involving Fukushima, of course. The deadline’s rather tight to get everything cleaned up before the 2020 Olympics, if you consider the half-life of trivium, strontium, caesium and their cronies, but the government’s motto is: Yes, we can! And only ten kilometres away from our Great Work, radiation levels are now said to be almost healthy.

Or do you doubt our prowess in transforming a defunct nuclear reactor into the industry of the future? Dai-Ichi is a laboratory, a testing ground for techniques that we need in any case, but now post-haste. Robots, for example, that don’t conk out with radiation. Now all they’ve got to do is locate the melted uranium, so that we can dispose of it – by then, we’ll have figured out where. What do the Russians have so much space for? Surely a ‘deal’ could be struck there. Perhaps the radiation can be used for heating? There’s always a demand for that in Hell and why shouldn’t the Devil agree on a decent price? After all, we’ve been in business since Hiroshima and Nagasaki and our reactors aren’t decorated with Buddhist wisdom for nothing. In principle, nuclear energy is still the cheapest kind, humans simply have to adapt their capacity, perhaps arrange for a mutation that can cope with it. But do we still need an organism, when computers manage so much better? If they require feelings to reproduce, that can surely be programmed. And why should a bot fear a chain reaction, if it can feed on it? At last we’d have created a perpetuum mobile – time would no longer matter if every day is Judgement Day!

Ken is rather embittered, Mitsu warned, but he ignored her.

Okay, this might take some time. Luckily, the nuclear core doesn’t stink any more than all the cash that’s already been invested in its disposal. And until it stops stinking all that counts is making it profitable. Larger than life! And when will it have been successfully disposed of? Quite simply, when we have other cares at our disposal! Why must we take such a narrow view of Dai-Ichi? Why shouldn’t the tsunami have sparked off a whole new exchange of elements? Seawater in, nuclear power out! Why are we constantly flooding the ruin with water which doesn’t cool it anyway? Why don’t we make a cognitive leap and regard the extinguishing water as the amniotic fluid of a new Creation? Why not throw a counterpunch: scientific versus maritime tsunami? Be my guest: just a small quantum leap in planetary evolution! Then the no-go zone where stray cattle munch grass until it kills them, where wild boar storm well-kept homes, where carparks full of new cars are overgrown – then the desert of civilisation will herald a futurity beyond rationality! Turn no-go into go-go, then humanity will have been taken care of and you’ll be able to say you were there when it happened!

Conversation at the bar fell silent; new arrivals also cast doubtful glances at the Japanese gentleman who was clearly laying down the law to an older westerner, in German and in the presence of a mortified, formally dressed Japanese woman – and wasn’t done yet.

But they tell us that the first step is always the hardest and that what Japan now needs above all is for settlers to return to the contaminated areas – guinea pigs who will of course be properly compensated for their laboratory lives.

Because let’s be honest: what do we really know about the long-term effects of radiation? We mustn’t allow ourselves to be distracted by the tragic fates of some individuals. They need to be reconfigured for public consumption; just as digital images are Photoshopped. With that there’s no limit – why should there be one for human resilience? Up to now this has been mere assertion; the disaster finally offers a chance to test it. Who’ll still be around in the so-called no-go zone in a few years’ time? In what state, and with what degree of consciousness? What will become of families, or relationships? Might this not be the start of a new success story for homo sapiens, in which humanity – after a certain transformation of its values – celebrates its rebirth? Perhaps with a little help from our friends, the genetic engineers? Who knows? But why not take a chance, if only because we’re left with no alternative?

Of course, the whole thing could only work if it was kept under wraps – at least until the public is completely malleable and one alternative fact is as good as another. We’re well on the way there already. Adversity could become prosperity overnight, and Japan be the first country to realise it – at the very core of globalised civilisation!

Ken was driven by a grim nervous energy that left Paul dumbfounded. Something had to erupt, but it wasn’t clear why it had to be now – unless Ken was making it his business to shock his guest and torment his wife. However, Mitsu was now sitting composedly, as if her husband’s outburst was no longer her concern.

Ken was smoking constantly, his fingers trembled, but he didn’t seem drunk.

Do you know that Prime Minister Kan wanted to evacuate the city of Tokyo in March 2011?

Yes, said Paul. Suzanne and I had just flown to Japan. Gai-jin, Fly-jin didn’t apply to us.

That was when you visited Tadao Ando, said Ken. Ah, these daredevil architects!

It’s a pity your wife couldn’t come with you, said Mitsu.

A great pity, echoed Ken. – Now we will have to look after Paul. You must get an early night and eat properly again. I’ve made a reservation in the sushi restaurant here in the basement. The fish will certainly be fresher than on your flight. Or would you prefer Chinese?

We’ll also need to discuss our trip, said Paul. I’ll just unpack a few essentials beforehand in my room.

Take the lift over there to the mezzanine, then go straight ahead to the far end of the shopping arcade, about fifty metres, until you reach a glass door. Open it with your card and then you’re already in front of the lifts to the 29th floor. We’ll wait here. Take your time.

When Paul stood outside room 2917 and swiped the key card over the sensor, he had a sense of déjà vu: the Swiss Hotel in Chicago, when he’d tried the wrong room door. He walked into the small room – furnished functionally, it seemed – and headed past his waiting suitcase towards the view from the window. He felt both exhausted and breathless, as if Ken’s tirade had sucked the air out of his reunion with Japan. Of course the window couldn’t be opened at this height. Luckily, the air conditioning was silent.

Paul stared past the neighbouring skyscrapers at the park beneath his feet, in which, here and there, he could make out a low roof. So this was the Imperial Palace. He hadn’t been in Tokyo before but felt he already knew this vista of canyon-like streets and railway tracks from the film Lost in Translation. Any social obligation was really too much for him today. How he would have loved just to lie down on his bed and close his eyes.

 

Excerpted from Adolf Muschg, Heimkehr nach Fukushima.  (Coming Home to Fukushima).  Verlag C.H. Beck, Munich, 2018.

A Strasbourg Sukkot

Author: Barbara Honigmann
Translator: Margaret May

 

Our whole quarter had turned more and more into a “second ghetto,” with many young Jewish families moving in and setting up their “Shearim” house of prayer and instruction in a nearby street. Our local district mayor, who is very concerned with peaceful inter-faith relations, even made a little speech at its dedication ceremony. So Peter felt that the time had come to erect a “sukkah,” a tabernacle or booth, in our courtyard. This would mean we’d no longer have to make our way through the streets every year during the eight-day Sukkot festival lugging bags of pots and bowls full of ready-prepared meals to eat in communal sukkahs. Nor would we constantly have to be invited to the tables of others who had no problem getting permission to build sukkahs in their courtyards or on their balconies. Peter suggested we put up a sukkah in one of the furthest corners of the courtyard next to the bike stands, small and unobtrusive of course, so that the neighbours wouldn’t take offence. Because I’m afraid of confrontation with the neighbours and by nature or upbringing try to avoid any conflict – in other words, I’m a coward – I didn’t really believe in his project or provide any effective support. But I didn’t oppose it either.

This all came from my bad memories of the first Sukkot we celebrated in Strasbourg, thirty years earlier. Just as we had sat down to eat in the sukkah, the neighbours from the upper floors pelted its canopy – open-weave, of course, as prescribed – with rotten tomatoes and other rubbish. We were actually in a courtyard surrounded by rather grand upper-class apartments dating from the late nineteenth century, in the vicinity of the European Parliament – in other words, one of the “better quarters” of the city. Our host at that time owned the biggest and most long-established kosher butcher’s shop in Strasbourg. So perhaps it was this symbolic figure who was the target of the rotten tomatoes, which gave us all a fright when they thudded down with a noise that reverberated round the courtyard. Most of the people who had gathered in the sukkah came from the “Etz Chaim” community, which was still mainly German-speaking, and they would often invite us when we first moved to Strasbourg and were learning French.

In New York, by contrast, there was even at that time a whole Sukkah City in Union Square, as I read in the paper. Young architects took part in a competition to build sukkahs in all conceivable materials and shapes, and these remained there during the seven-day festival (which lasts eight days in the diaspora). They were not just for show, either: people were allowed to sit inside them to consume their festive meals.

Here in Strasbourg everything is much more discreet, but immediately after Yom Kippur, four days before Sukkot, you can see a crop of sukkahs suddenly sprouting out of the ground, as it were, dotted around on balconies and in courtyards. Moreover, the Jewish community and the whole panoply of synagogues and other informal places of prayer and instruction will put up sukkahs to which you can bring your pre-prepared meals. There you meet other families and share a table with them, either eating together or at different sittings. You unpack your food and pack it up again while the children go off to play and then have to be told to calm down, so it’s like a campsite. That’s how we’ve been doing it for years.

But Peter was quite convinced that it was time to build our own sukkah. He went from door to door in our apartment block, explaining Project Sukkah at great length to all our neighbours, assuring them that we wouldn’t be creating any disturbance or mess, saying the whole thing only lasted eight days, and asking them to agree. Eventually he had 29 signatures of consent from neighbours, out of a total of at least five stairwells opening onto the block’s inner courtyard, a communal space housing the refuse bins, a few garages, and a growing number of bikes. He came back and said that most of the neighbours had seen no problem, some were even enthusiastic, others had been in favour, and some had agreed only with reservations. It had to be said that one, an emeritus professor, believed he had to draw Peter into a religious dispute. He argued that the Jews really should not be clinging to such outward signs and medieval regulations but ought by now to be moving with the times. Peter explained to him that these regulations were not in the least bit medieval but in fact dated from ancient times, when the Jews were already living among the most modern peoples and cultures – which, by the by, had long since collapsed – and the whole thing about outward signs was another old canard, which even St Paul had gone on about, to no avail. At which point Peter politely wished him a nice day.

Next Peter took up arms in the bureaucratic battle and sent a letter to the house management requesting a vote at the general meeting of apartment owners on whether permission for the temporary erection of a sukkah in the courtyard should be granted. For Peter, punctiliousYekke that he is, had decided to pursue the legal route. There followed a short war over formalities, in which we even took on a lawyer – a friend of ours, of course. And this was followed by a back and forth of letters, warnings, and reprimands, until finally the house management decided that our Project Sukkah contravened the house rules and some regulation or other, but it didn’t impose anything like a ban as a result of this decision. It simply didn’t put the issue on the agenda for a vote. So since there had been no pronouncement, neither permission nor prohibition, we interpreted the undefined legal position to our advantage, according to the principle that whatever has not been expressly forbidden is allowed, and we ordered a sukkah online from the American Sukka Depot Center. Delivery was prompt, and all the appropriate accessories were included, according to the rabbinical directives and dimensions, no smaller and no bigger, all cleverly put together in a kit that could be conveniently stored in your cellar for reuse the following year. The materials for sukkahs have developed in parallel with the general equipment for camping, hiking, climbing, trekking, and other outdoor activities. They are light yet sturdy, water-repellent, quick-drying, and require absolutely no tools for their construction, everything just slots together. The kit also contains the S’chach, the canopy. Ours is made of bamboo, though some people just lay branches across the walls. According to regulations the canopy has to be made so that it is not really secure but lets in light and sun, and wind and rain too, and you have to be able to see through it. In this way it is meant to remind us how unsheltered and unprotected we are in this world and how full of holes our lives are. Yet also, because the festival always falls on the 15th of the Hebrew month, if it’s not cloudy you can gaze admiringly at the full moon shining from afar in the starry sky.

On the Sabbath, which inevitably occurs during the festival, the words of Solomon the Preacher from Ecclesiastes are read out: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity … there is a time to get and a time to lose, a time to keep and a time to cast away.” Jews need to be reminded of this when they are sitting in these makeshift, unstable, and draughty huts – reminded of the fragility and uncertainty of their existence. And they must compensate for this with tenacity and adaptability, just as they did after the exodus out of Egypt, when they lived in tents in the wilderness – that empty, uncertain place where their newly won freedom consisted primarily in not knowing where to go next, what to do, or how things would turn out.

So for several years now, for about a week in autumn, our sukkah has its place, unobtrusive but impossible to ignore, in a corner of the courtyard next to the bicycles. It has two windows, and we always leave these open so that people can look in and observe us and see that we’re not slaughtering Christian children or engaging in any other unseemly activity. Moreover, we’ve fixed a note to it, protected by a plastic pocket in case it should rain, which says in large type: “Dear Neighbours, this little structure is only temporary and serves as the tabernacle for the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, which ends this year on …. If you have any questions or comments, please ring at the Honigmann door. Many thanks for your understanding.”

Then for eight days, at least twice a day, we move down from our second-floor flat into the courtyard, carrying food and drink, pots, plates, and glasses. Sometimes it’s quite chilly and we have to put on warm socks and a coat – after all, it is already autumn, and we’re living in exile in a northern land – and we sit squashed together rather uncomfortably, a bit like true nomads.

So far there has been only one incident, when some students in a neighbouring flat were having a noisy party. Around midnight they started throwing bottles and burning cigarette butts out of the window, and some of these fell onto the sukkah. But the bamboo canopy managed to withstand this, because even though bamboo does burn, it’s hard to ignite. Other neighbours had already called the police because of the noise, and the party was brought to an end by the guardians of law and order.

When the eight days of Sukkot are over, and with it the whole Jewish season of festivals, which begins a good three weeks earlier with Rosh Hashana – some people call this flood of feast days the “tunnel” – we emerge in a state of some spatial and temporal confusion, feeling a bit jet-lagged. Now we tell one another about our experiences with friendly or unfriendly neighbours. The biggest conflicts, apart from those with dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites, are with anti-religious Jews, who just can’t see why the city tolerates such religious practices and call the police to enforce what they see as the secular order of the French republic. Sometimes they even saddle their neighbours and fellow Jews with lawsuits. Of all the anecdotes told about Sukkot experiences, the favourite is always the one about the policemen who are called out and actually do hand out a formal warning, stipulating that this construction, this tabernacle, must be removed – and indeed within no more than eight days. And this always provokes great mirth and roars of laughter among all those observing this eight-day-long festival.

 

Excerpted from Chronik meiner Straße (A Chronicle of my Street).  Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2015.

 

 

 

Fabulous

Author: Michael Amon
Translator: Edward Larkin, Thomas Ahrens

 

Please allow me to introduce myself

I park my newly acquired Ferrari Testarossa in one of the parking spots reserved for members of the board of directors. Well, speaking of the devil! The chief financial officer, my immediate supervisor, swooshes in at the same moment in a luxury sedan. Of course, he isn’t driving. He is being chauffeured, seated in the rear. I get out and act as if I don’t notice him. The chauffeur pulls up right behind my Ferrari and motions for me to move. I give him the finger – first assuring myself that the CFO has also seen my gesture – and leave the parking garage in an upbeat mood. I just love living clichés to the fullest, with grandezza.

I am not an impolite or vulgar person. Not at all irascible or hotheaded. But I get a great deal of pleasure out of defying the rules of a venerable banking institution, all the while knowing that they can’t do anything about it. They hate me. They despise me. They would terminate me immediately, without notice. But, unfortunately for them, I am one of those people who bring in the big bucks, the really big bucks, that pay not only for my Ferrari but also for the many other, less fabulous limousines available to the board of directors. So while they curse me in private, they let me park where I want. They ignore my extreme hand gestures and do not dare set foot in my department. We are wild guys through and through – we who work here. And I am the wildest. To be precise: the coolest. And I’m not the only one who says so. Everybody does.

My immediate boss has not been an active trader for some time; nowadays he only supervises the traders. But even he can’t tell if I am about to make a killing or take a bath on a contract. I always maintain the same calm demeanor when I’m looking at my computer screen, no matter how the supposed markets around the globe are behaving and no matter how volatile the graphs reflecting those events become. Even when the graph lines are horizontal, which only rarely occurs, no one is able to detect my boredom. A horizontal performance line (I’m talking about a line that looks like it’s been drawn with a ruler) offers very little opportunity for speculation – unless you can find some greedy bastard who is willing to make a deal that is just ridiculous – one that only the eggheads in our math department can understand. What they cook up is great. For the bank, that is, not for the client. They generate mathematical formulas to ensure that we always come out on top. It can get wacky when two banks are involved, but we avoid that. What do we have clients for! The more the markets heat up and the more eagerly people drool over profits, the more we can spread this mathematical manure among our profit-craving clients. And some days we are up to our eyeballs in drool, figuratively speaking. But that is not really my area.

I live on variances and timing. I keep an attentive eye on the screens, and as soon as Tokyo advances and Chicago retreats a little, I buy the shares in Chicago with the phone on my left and, even before I have the contract in hand, I sell it in Tokyo with the phone on my right. That’s all there is to it. Nothing more than that. But I do it a hundred times a day. Sometimes in seconds. Profits and losses. The trick is: you have to win more than you lose, at least once more. As long as I do that, I can drive the Ferrari, take the boss’s parking spot (which is tolerated even if amid expletives), and nonchalantly flip him the bird when he insists on parking in his reserved spot.

To be a trader, you really need to have excellent powers of concentration and a first-class memory. A one-day-memory. Contracts do not stay open overnight, at least not under normal circumstances. So you need to have all of the day’s open contracts in your head, and you are always afraid that you might forget one. That can cost the bank millions. Then the Ferrari is gone. And you can quickly become someone’s slave in an irrelevant trading department, pushing a couple of boring government bonds back and forth, and strictly avoiding the boss’s parking spot. Fortunately, my concentration is exceptional, and my memory is outstanding. I can hardly imagine having Alzheimer’s. I don’t even want to think about it. I love my invulnerability. In the trading room I am immortal. At least while I’m the better gambler.
No one in the trading room is as calm as I am. No one can tell when I am engaged in combat. That is my strength. That makes me invulnerable in the war of the marketplace, a marketplace that in truth doesn’t really exist, that in our business is only a fiction, nothing more. I really don’t care whether wheat is too expensive or too cheap. I am only interested in what I believe is happening: is the price rising or falling?

That determines whether I will buy or sell the contracts. In the end, I don’t have to eat the wheat. And I couldn’t anyway, given the amount that I speculate with. Neither the wheat nor the pork bellies. Even the currency that I push around the world is something that I don’t need. I don’t give a hoot about the value of the stuff that I trade. I am only interested in the difference between what the price is now and what it will be a second or a month from now. In a real market you have to understand true value. But for me it is only a question of guessing the difference between two prices at two different points in time. It is a guessing game, or at best a wager. What we are playing is “Old Maid;” it has nothing at all to do with a marketplace. We tell people about the “marketplace” just so that they will have something to believe in – because God is long gone. He is a fugitive on the road to nowhere, where He can tinker with a different, perhaps better universe, in the hope that He might get it right this time. Every day we create the market anew, as our God, just so that we can then point to something that is responsible for all the money that we lose for our investors. It is the market that punishes and rewards. The market, my ass! People believe this nonsense because we constantly pound it into them. But these markets don’t really exist. I am the market. I determine the price. I look for the price differential. A telephone on my left, a telephone on my right, and between them is my head, and that’s where the market is. That’s the simple truth. The market is in my head, going in one ear and coming out the other.

I don’t believe in anything anymore. And certainly not in markets! I might as well believe in this ephemeral God. For me it is enough to know that I won. I only need to keep my eyes on the screen, pick up the right telephone – I am repeating myself here – and get the better of whoever is on the other end of the line. I love the instability of the short-term graphs as compared to the smug calmness and serenity of the two-hundred-day moving average, which carries the performance of the share prices like a good bass player carries a walking blues tune, like Bill Wyman for the Stones. Just as Charlie Watts carries the Stones today. Maybe I’ll join the Stones when I have fifty winners and fifty-one losers, that is, if the Stones are still able to get on stage by themselves, or at least be rolled onto the stage in wheelchairs. And if the Stones are still alive at that point. And if they need a bass player for the moving average line. Keith Richards, with his piercing riffs, better represents instantaneous trading, the fluctuating ups and downs of nervous markets. Richards is second to none when he plays his riffs. I can only get that feeling when I’m out on the trading floor. He gets it on the guitar. Charlie Watts would be a good trader, but Bill Wyman would be better. In the old films of their concerts, Wyman is always seen playing off to the side, as if he’s not part of the group. That is exactly how I feel when I’m sitting in the trading room. I’m the Bill Wyman of traders. As if I didn’t belong with the rest of them.

Nothing bad can happen to me here. Whatever happens out there in these imaginary markets has no effect on me. I’m like a fish in a stream: I take whatever I can get. To be a trader is to keep your mouth wide open and swim into a school of fish. Perhaps I’m even the Mick Jagger of traders. Just one more time. That’s all I live for.

               I am a man of wealth and taste

Truth be told, I’m well off, even rich. I would never tell anyone that, but I am. Getting richer by the day. Effortlessly. Unintentionally. But purposefully. Sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t. It can certainly be debated whether I have good taste. That doesn’t bother me. The tie tack crowd on the top floor with their own dining room and their own chef think that my Ferrari is tasteless and nouveau riche; I think the same of their tie tacks. They think it’s disgusting that I’m moving ahead of them: on the freeway, with my salary, in life. I’m just faster. What’s zipping by, my friend, that is life. The guys upstairs taking the slow train will never get that. You can’t make money taking the slow train. True living only begins at 250 kilometers per hour. Anything slower than that is just standing still. They despise me, but they are happy to take the profits that I earn for them with our clients’ money. And before the clients get their money back, we all take a piece of it. In acting out their greed, the guys upstairs are almost as fast as we are. Almost. Although, I’m not greedy. I just take what I can get my hands on. And I certainly make a point to grab as much as I can. Taking, too, is a talent. Perhaps an even a greater talent than giving. In fact, it definitely is. Much greater.

I’m perfectly healthy. Fit as a fiddle, as they say here. You can’t be any healthier than I am. My heartbeat remains calm and steady as the share prices flicker across my computer screen. As the graph lines jump fitfully about, they create sharp peaks formed by the nervously fluctuating price variations and by the rapid alternation of highs and lows. I hold the phone calmly, and I place my orders dispassionately. No one can see whether I’m agitated or relaxed. There is nothing to be seen. I am unemotional, just a cool dude. The coolest dude in the trading room. In my mind’s eye I imagine the floor of the stock exchange in earlier times. The chaotic shouts, the traders’ spastic movements, and the feverish atmosphere. A seething mass of activity. But here and now everything is calm, in the room of the cool dudes. Grab what you can, and let the devil take the hindmost. Fortunately, I’m always first. The best. Perfectly healthy. And get even healthier the worse the trades unfold. Don’t even know what cholesterol is, spread it on my sandwich. A liver? I don’t have one. My brain functions precisely and is unaffected by external circumstances. Like a well-oiled machine. One cog turns another, no bucks or jams. No doctor could make a living off of me. People like me will be the downfall of medicine, the death of the pharmaceutical corporations (whose stock shares bore me to death). Can someone like me even die? How might that happen? Given my overall health? Cool dudes live forever. Forever and a day. Death is not worth the money that the insurance companies pay out. But I’m not so stupid as to bet on my death, though I bet on everything else, all the time. But betting on my death? No way! I’m not an idiot. As healthy as I am. I avoid bad deals. And that would be one. Count me out. I’ve got better things to do, namely, make money. You have to be out front. The truth is everywhere and nowhere, because it has no price. So it can’t be traded; it has no value to someone like me. I avoid getting too close to a so-called truth. Who likes staring into the abyss! An abyss is not tradable. Every once in a while, if we get too wild or carry on for too long, we fall into an abyss. But we pull ourselves out of trouble by skillful trades; I’m very good at that sort of thing. I have ice water in my veins. Nothing can unsettle me. I’m the master of the universe. It is my universe. God is sitting in a universe near ours, botching up the one beyond that. But I’m no God; people just think I am. I won’t fall into that trap. When the gods make love, they create devils. All of us here, the traders, we are gods. Immortal. Eternally healthy. There is no afterlife. No trade remains open. That is what I call eternity. After us – closed markets.

               I’ve been around for a long, long year

My year has forty months, or fifty, or one. Whatever is needed. Everything is one big gently flowing stream. My brain flattens out the spikes on the computer screen; they become signals to buy or to sell, or to do nothing. The charts – that’s what we call the graphs – are our bible. We see things in them that no one else sees, that no one else can see. Our whole life is one long, long year. It moves along. Always forward, never backward. I tell you: life truly begins at 250 kilometers per hour, as does true peace. I don’t need a rear view mirror, or even a headlight. What’s ahead of me is of no more interest than what’s behind me. Truth is only what is found on the right and left. Einstein knows that. Does he know that? Does his brain know that? What we call his brain today are those 240 ashlar-shaped blocks, each one only a cubic centimeter in size, world travelers smelling of formalin, kept in countless laboratories all around the world. Is it possible that 240 individual parts know more than a whole brain? Are they interconnected, like those quanta that Einstein’s brain even today does not believe in? That is, his brain no longer can believe in them because it is only senseless tissue now. No more thoughts circulate there. Neither interconnected, nor disparate. Forget Einstein! Energy equals mass times velocity squared. Time is an illusion. We have all the time in the world. I have all the time in the world. But traders don’t. An individual transaction. There’s only a few seconds for it, if that. The trader’s world is a world of seconds. Just short seconds, independent of one another. The smallest unit of the endless year. Assimilating all the isolated seconds, the brain constructs the film we call life, which flows so easily by us. All the years look the same. One year is just like another. The graphs point up and then come crashing down again.
I leave my apartment and drive to the office. There are still a few places to park. None of the bosses is in sight. They’re still asleep, or already at work. It doesn’t matter to me. Today I’ll take the spot that belongs to the board member who oversees retail banking. A particularly unlikable and arrogant guy in a department that only incurs losses. One floor below us. We earn the big bucks, one floor above them. Among the piles of big bucks, mine is the biggest. Retail banking? I never even think about it. It’s like being buried alive. You are not alive, ever. Dead. Dead. Dead. Oh, Death, here is your sting! Dickering about overdraft conditions. Begging for credit. Painstakingly adding up the points on a loan application and then turning it down. Retail banking. It’s peanuts, if that. It isn’t true that a penny saved is a penny earned, that even small cattle make manure. They create shit. And I have to clean it up with my profits, which I piss down to the floor below us, so that the shit there doesn’t stink to high heaven. So that the stench doesn’t drift up to me.

I’ve got good reason to park my Ferrari here today. The spot is not mine, but I’m entitled to it. I cheerfully raise my middle finger, but no one sees it. You can’t have fun anymore. They don’t want you to. As if I could live from their bonuses. Money isn’t everything. It’s more than everything. Too much money and a little fun, that’s the ticket, throughout the whole eternally long year, this interminable year, for as long as we are alive. A lifetime is a sentence. A couple of pleasures, and a car in the parking spot, which is not mine. Computer screens and graphs. And so it goes.

               Stole many a man’s soul and faith

You can feel sorry for them. Or, you could feel sorry for them. But you don’t. I don’t. None of us does. Our customers, our clients. Passing through the expansive atrium, I take the glass elevator up to our floor. Everything is transparent with us: the elevator, the atrium, the conference rooms. But not the trades, or the algorithms of our math rats, or the virtually unreadable small print of the contracts. Don’t speak evil of rats. Intelligent animals. Can you understand a rat? See! Neither can I. But I have absolute faith in them. They develop their models in such a way that from the very beginning everyone knows who will win and who will lose, except the losers. These are clever rats, with far-reaching tails. Stepping out of the elevator, which runs silently through the ridiculously tall atrium, I look down at all the hopeful customers, a restlessly seething mass; some of them (one can call them people, but we refer to them as our customer base) approach the information desks, while others, the well-heeled clients, hurry off to the elevators; still others look nervously about, craving guidance – clueless and hesitant, they steel themselves against the bustling throng, standing in place, in apparent shock. They call that banking. Enticing new customers. Attention: “Platform Euro-Bank, the train to one-hundred-per-cent profit is pulling in.” Great slogan. My girlfriend created it. Her desk is five floors above me in the marketing department. Minimalist design. Three marble slabs, two for the side tables and the third serves as a workspace. Too cold for work.

The ridiculously high atrium. One can debate the use of the word “ridiculously.” Let’s just call it a cathedral of money. What is the purpose of the cupola at St. Peter’s? The glorification of God and the display of His earthly splendor, a symbol of the power of those who are the administrators of God’s legacy on earth. Nowadays baroque splendor has given way to the more austere simplicity of expensive marble walls, smooth and unadorned, yet still intimidating. Capitalism is not baroque; it is goal-oriented. Ornamentation is foreign to it. Its only curves are those of the performance of the share prices on the 200-day moving average. It knows only the coolness of the cubically remodeled room, its cold columns dominant like the increasing assets of the wealthy. It avoids the illusion of transcendence and knows only that everyone can become rich – the glorification of money and the display of pecuniary splendor, a symbol of the arrogance of power. It has no legacy to manage here on earth other than our money, which it dearly embraces in order to create its own. The battle for an investor’s capital is the modern equivalent of the collection basket, which unburdens the believers of their charitable donations, so that they might enter heaven more easily. The discreet consultations in rooms with soundproofed floors are the present-day equivalent of the sale of indulgences. Every payment puts capital in a favorable mood and brings it closer to its own downfall. A god still reigns in these cathedrals of madness, a madness that craves rational explanations; a god who has forgotten about Abraham, who has not founded a religion that emerged from the desert, but rather one that leads into the desert. Nowadays you are not only allowed to make an image of your god, it is absolutely required. But it has to be depicted small on numbered bills: five, ten, a hundred, a thousand, whatever. Bank statements, too, represent God’s presence and accurately demonstrate His greatness: a hundred thousand, millions, billions. Stock options are our purgatory. While the soul may continue to suffer in the eternal hell of losses, it can still feel anxiety in the mere seven heavens of profit. For nothing is certain, nothing persists, everything is in motion. Like the elevators here. They are always in motion. They stop only briefly to spit out people going up and coming down, or to suck in new riders. Everything is transparent here. Except for the balance sheets. And the algorithms. And everything that is behind the atrium, the ridiculously high atrium, which is eight or ten stories tall. I’m not sure.

The atrium reaches ever higher. That’s not the case with the Vatican. You can’t take an elevator to the cupola of St. Peter’s Cathedral. Its cupola is just a cupola, nothing more. By contrast, the interior of our cupola is ringed with offices for our rats and traders, those on the way up and those on the way down, the board members, and all the others who move through the building and thus represent its pulse. The constant, ceaseless pulsing of the flow of people and money. And I am in the middle of it all. As the elevator races upward, my thoughts seem to come to a halt: the cupola of St. Peter’s Cathedral unwittingly gives birth to the Reformation. But what is to be born in our cupola? Capitalism knows nothing of reformation. It does fine without one. But perhaps capitalism is in fact on its last legs. Or it is moving toward its demise. Maybe the Reformation is hiding from it, standing outside on the street looking up in wonder at the façade of the towers of money, where the masters of that money reside. The masters of the universe. The Reformation turns around, disappears into the tumult, and breaks down because it does not know where to nail its smart theses. No posting. Donations welcome. Make an image of your god.

Excerpted from Michael Amon,  Panikroman. Klever Verlag, Vienna, 2014.

Menina
Lingo

Author: Konstantin Arnold
Translator: Farnaz Riedel

 

Lisbon, 15.02.2018

 MENINA

Maria Terreira has soft hands and a nose that looks like a ski ramp into love. Maria Terreira speaks little English and lives in a heavy building with young plaster, which looks old beside the lively main street. The floor of her apartment is covered with cold tiles, and over yellow wallpaper hang cheap paintings whose randomness brings some creativity to her clockwork life – to show that there is more in there. When friends visit on Fridays, they may all apply lipstick in Maria Terreira’s bathroom and smoke in her living room because, after the second bottle of Muscatel, she’s had enough of the subdued tones of her tick-tock life. Maria Terreira can’t part with objects that were given to her before the turn of the millennium. Her rooms are filled with heavy furniture from past lives, making her small apartment even smaller, and preventing Maria Terreira from casually walking away from it all and starting somewhere new without the heavy building and cold tiles weighing down her thoughts. Darkness and decor rule, sometimes frightening her, like experiences that don’t alter a thing. Lead nowhere and have no plausible purpose. Through which you grow neither riper nor stronger, and only reveal their imaginary fatefulness at the end, making us feel significant. Maria Terreira likes to leave room for chance because she loves everything that feels beyond her area of responsibilities. Everything that escapes her control. Men, seasons and the last blouse in just her size.

In winter, it rains through the roofs in Lisbon, and you can follow your breath from bed to eternity. You need to dress warmer inside than out, and try to write without losing your fingertips until the damn coldness stops – which isn’t actually cold but feels frostier through the cold tiles, young plaster, yellow walls and cheap paintings. Then it’s finally summer! And it’s so hot that Maria Terreira can only leave the apartment in the afternoon without having to sweat her way from one place to the next. On her way, Maria Terreira always walks on the shady side of a sun-drenched life, and at night in her fan-less apartment, she lets go of everything as she turns from her moist stomach to her still-dry back. Since Maria Terreira spends most of her time outdoors, most Portuguese apartments resemble each other in their modest interiors, and distinguish themselves in their vain exteriors. Maria Terreira usually sits in small city squares that are too small for tourists, and dwells on the overlooked trivialities of her impressions. When Maria Terreira walks past a vacant house, and gazes at its wrinkled façade up to the last balcony, she asks herself what was done, said and thought in each single apartment. And how these three words differ from each other in their truths. Maria Terreira loves to walk down a street just before the shops close, to glance at the after-work faces of the personnel, who pursue a regularity, which seems so tedious and endless, that it scares her. Maria Terreira feels the same fear when she thinks of Porto and the law studies financed by her father, or of activities that don’t change anything at all. To distract herself, she begins to count every restaurant she walks past – but not the kebab shops, because Maria Terreira thinks kebab shops are stupid. Ever since she moved to Lisbon, friends who live in her hometown say that Maria Terreira is no longer the same. She thinks that’s dumb, because the old Maria Terreira was younger, and she no longer wants to live as a world without Muscatel would expect of her. This brings her count to three true friends and 87 restaurants – minus kebab shops. And to an experience whose fatefulness reveals itself only at the end: to me.

Maria Terreira met me four days ago at a masquerade ball. The Portuguese love masks and balls, because for a 30-euro entrance fee, they can rise from the ashes like a phoenix. Of course, you don’t find the love of your life this way, because everyone has a mask and something to prove – as in real life. There, in real life, where nothing impresses but beauty, and at 27, my balls still have the say and judge the true worth of a character. There, where all have always wanted nothing but to be loved – but nowadays hope that it takes some time before someone comes along, because the emptiness of our existence can then, under certain conditions, be filled with some sense. Everything can wait! The Portuguese are always late anyway, because of traffic and because of the weather. After all, they have good excuses that we don’t have in Germany. Better late, styled and serene than just in time and spotted with sweat. For the masquerade, it didn’t matter; everything was allowed and I was in a black polo neck. Wearing it, I feel like a brain-wracking intelligence-boxer, a poor author with a rich heritage. But in truth, I just look like a football player wearing a black polo neck. Like someone who doesn’t need to think, because the pullover does it for you. Somehow also a disguise. Really! Have you ever flipped through the business section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine in a black polo neck? Have you ever crossed your legs as far as they’ll go, drunk red wine from large glasses, eaten olives and argued about the value of currency with hard cheese in your mouth in a black polo neck? Maria Terreira says one can never think enough, but please not in a black polo! At least not without laughing at yourself. Because when balance and its opposites are lost, things can quickly become too heady. You lose the fun of adventure, begin to write about seagulls and trees, and experience nothing worth putting into words.

But we are corresponding live from Maria Terreira’s bedroom, where there’s a large, ripe bed that can be mounted from three sides. Despite all the furniture, we spent the first night on an unfolded folding sofa. So tight that we were one, so tight that a piece of cloth (like a black polo neck) felt like a long-distance relationship over a bad Skype connection with time lag. Underwear, like a prison, and socks, like strangled sacks from which nothing takes root. From this day forth, we planned to spend every day together, and not let the matter sink into singularity. After deducting two consecutive days of proud waiting, there remain only 20 more days for Maria Terreira and me before she moves back to her old life. Back to her family, her fears and her horses. Maria Terreira loves horses, and I love girls who love horses. Before going to bed after a long night, Maria Terreira likes to eat, preferably a bifana, a simple sandwich made of meat and Portuguese soul, which I gladly partake of before lying beside her. Maria Terreira loves late nights and I love her long mornings. She loves that I’m tall, and I, that she’s small. She knows answers for which I pose the right questions, and we appreciate one another’s bad and not just good sides. With each passing day, we sense that we’re not who we take each other to be. But we enjoy it anyway, because the finite days supply the required magic and closure, so that we don’t have to seek them ourselves. We have to pull through all by ourselves, like the greatest names in history. For this is a story of locations and their connections. Single shreds that suddenly unite and broaden the horizon by shrinking. Becoming less, no longer standing alone, making you choose more cautiously, the more of them you see.

On the morning of her departure, Maria Terreira asked me to join her. To the door, to the train station, to Porto and to the end of her life. I also wanted to want that, but I didn’t even make it to the station because the metro rides right in front of her house. Maria Terreira remained monosyllabic most of the time, but in her farewell, she said to me in Portuguese that she had really enjoyed the time with me (I think), and in English that my heart isn’t blind but wears mirrored sunglasses, which look cool but are only there to protect from the self and the sun. But she couldn’t take them off me. When the Blue Line drove her out of my life, it became clear that she was gone like the desire she had come with. I felt miserable on my short trip home. As the door, which Maria Terreira had just opened, shut behind me, I didn’t need any of my twelve morning espressos to feel alive. I asked myself if I wanted a life that’s dependent on overly human feelings, or rather to live in freedom that feels like a greenhouse in which identical red strawberries sprout. Should I relinquish my imagination for reality? Together with her, I broke rules that I had specially set myself. With her, I wasn’t only interested in words, but also their roots. Without her, I am pervaded by thoughts and emotions that I will share with no one because of my colossal ego and cool sunglasses. Maria Terreira least of all. Because without her I have no chance against the rules that I specially set myself. Nietzsche or Sartre said that love demands that you surrender yourself to the other to flourish and decay. To get naked, and if that’s not enough, then only because you weren’t reached (he didn’t say that!).

Now, I miss Maria Terreira the most when I don’t think of her. She would have been a great girl if I hadn’t compared her to who I believed her to be. Perhaps the best I ever met outside my rose-petal-excreting imagination. A pastel de nata that doesn’t taste half as good in the best shop in town as it does in a café from which you’d never expect it. These things scare me sometimes, because Maria Terreira is beautiful from inside and out. Different, with each of her words. The one, if there were no others in the world. More than enough, if only one were enough. Can one have it all? Because I already have a broken car, a broken roof and cool sunglasses through which broken cars and broken roofs don’t matter. It’s all relative! Everything is cool and a question of reflection. Anyway, it’s 11 p.m., so for Maria Terreira and her new boyfriend it’s bedtime on Mondays and far too early to party on Fridays. I don’t want to say much about her new boyfriend, because everything I’d say would be awful. But in my imagination, he has the biggest dick, the smartest brain, and tells the most delightful jokes.

 

Lisbon, 19.06.2018

LINGO

I had to leave you. For a lousy 24-hour hotel near the airport. Furnished with a huge inferiority complex and extras with extra costs. Large TV, no smoking and tap water as yellow as the sun. People come here so they can leave again soon. Not pretty, just pretty close. Breakfast is served from five to ten – the worn-out carpet leads the way. I was stuck. Left to my own devices. No longer here, but still not there. Somewhere in between with room service and Rocky 2. Loaded with thoughts, which won’t stay on topic, demand attention, or still wait at baggage claim. In a land far away, where everyone is done eating by six p.m., and taxi drivers are paid through nightlife-stained safety glass. They’re distant, on the wrong track. Their pubs reek of floorboards and spilt beer. A sweet stench that has expanded throughout the entire Commonwealth. A squandered spirit that awaits re-ignition. A hazard that lurks and lingers violently in the air. Testosterone seeking liberation. Manners feel a tad too tight and, after the third pint, speak only of fucking. Almost yodelling, like an animal on heat in a well-pressed suit. Wrapped in a thin sheath of pleasantries every morning, which is crudely overstretched. Then there’s the smug satisfaction, which necessitates special power sockets for further illumination. England maintains its ugliness well – even its most beautiful corners are somehow blemished. But beneath its cling-film-preserved tradition, there are a few foolish rules you can break. Curfews and coppers on horseback striving to defend what’s good without real guns. Every few meters lies a small pile of shit on the street, with space in between for puking on weekends. Hardly anyone smokes, but everyone likes chips and lives in stone houses that are old, and distinguished only by numbers.

I want to smash this serenity, this entire city. All its bricks and windows, its scissor-trimmed gardens, all its no-parking signs. Everything. Only the red phone boxes may remain as reminders of the good old days. Days that you now only experience on airplanes or on Mount Everest. Up, above the clouds, in heaven, where the Internet has no say because only the word of God rules there. How low can one go to get published? Crawling through pubs with retired policemen, burning five pounds for a beer, skipping stones on the beach with a hangover the next day. Happiness feels the same to all, only the path there is different for each. Some need fish and chips, after-work drinks and Manchester to win. Others have to fly away, get stuck, watch Rocky, write everything down, then fly back again to feel something, anything in their bowels besides English food. It’s as if there are two people living inside me. One works and toils, the other sits in an armchair, eats bacon with melted cheese without getting fat, watches movies, and diligently dictates what I should do and how I should feel. Like endless subtitles that comment on everything, even when you stroll silently and only speak now and then to make sure that you’re still here and not elsewhere. With your thoughts wandering to Lisbon or buried under your own notes. Thoughts that need constant attention, like a fat English kid doubled up from hunger, asking if my chest muscles have shrunk because they look so unused in this large mirror, onto which the light shines inopportunely. Or if my new Levi’s 501s aren’t cut a touch too straight and pinch the balls. There’s a pervasive pressure. A subtle fear that at some point the penis might curve around the world if people continue to masturbate with their right hand. Outrageous how far our thoughts can drift. Each of us. Me, and the oh-so-great British. With their shaved legs, made-up faces, good manners and ancient churches, in which you must remove your hat but may keep the filth in your head. A nation that’s no match for its own rules, and whips its beast until the holidays, just to unleash it in Lisbon.

Oh Lisbon, where lilacs are now in full bloom – or what I imagine lilacs to be. Something lilac-coloured. Oh Lisbon, nowhere are you as beautiful as in this airless hotel room. Nowhere as Lisbon as in Manchester. Nowhere as cloudless and bright as in my imagination, where just now a formidable sunset is underway – although it’s probably cloudy again in reality. Even in June, when the aroma of burnt sardines adorns your streets, and locals and tourists press through your alleys, like a baby determined to be born, a little too early, but at least it’s a weekend and one can sleep in. Traditional but not, you throw stone-swallowing street parties, in which old grans join in instead of complaining. A massive gathering to celebrate something, anything, without police supervision. Oh Lisbon, everyone wants to go to you, and not to my hotel room in Manchester. People who want to make something of themselves. And hope that you will undertake it for them. To release them from their overflowing ideals, so that they can bring creativity to the world and return home, bearded and sun-browned. Lisbon, you slut, by now you service everyone. In sleek, black taxis, on the way to your soul, you expose everything to anyone who wants to live the good life amongst your stones. Your shady elegance under which the commotion cools, and your biting heat that wraps around thrill-seeking necks. Your swarming metros, your dripping bifana sandwiches, after which I need to shower. Your beautiful people in beautiful outfits, who think of everything, anything one can think of, or hide when good manners fit a little too tight. Bare yourself! Stark naked, because in summer no one can bear the packaging. Forget what you wanted to wear, be like a goldfish. Without memories that cloud the congested present. The same air, the same lips through which brand-new words pass. The same clothes as in other cities. Everything just a little older, a little more stained. Adorned with memories that have grown into formulas we use to explain the world. The heart has a few more beats under its belt, and we stroll forth. Left and right a chasm, and we stagger on as if on an infinite fairground with feathery guardrails. Does it reveal an intimation or a true representation? Like impressionism, or secrets hidden behind swimwear that would perhaps reveal nothing when stripped off? Oh Lisbon, will you marry me? Me and all the words you allow me to write? I’m ready, not only to share all your attractions, but also the traffic that spreads between them. Through you, I found my way to Henry Miller and fell in love with olives. Decided to have a settled side and a patient one. Now, my future lives in your castles in the air, my dreams stream slowly through your streets and alleys towards reality.

There, deep in your core, I met a girl, whom I will only write about when feelings cool into words. When experiences are outlived and I can finish sentences without training wheels. When every word no longer weighs down every heartbeat, because everything you value is heavier, pulling you into the trap of feelings, making thoughts more cumbersome – and you can only escape once you lean back and look back on the days, instead of facing them drenched in sweat. She has eyes like ripe chestnuts and full hair that dishevels in the blink of an eye. A little like Adrian in Rocky 2, but without the cardigan. You want to lay bathing in her gaze or leap from something high into a deep sea. In cold, clear water, that’s dark and green in reality, but still frozen this summer because you can wear your straight-cut 501s well into June. I’m not afraid of the sea, but whether we can swim into the twilight, up to the deepest point and love one another carelessly like in a romance flick, remains to be seen. In the film, when someone freezes, the sun just comes up – except in the Titanic – and when someone wants to split, we cut to an ad break. Even when they fight to the bitter end, everyone knows that all will be well. We laugh, we cry and we hold on tight with both hands to our cigarettes and wine glasses. We love and we hate, but always in equal proportions. Because joy and sorrow are happily married extremes. The further apart, the more things fit in between. Two ends – like a sausage. You get more out of it, more sensations, more slices.

We almost broke up once, because we were exploding with emotions. We had bought a large, white canvas, on which we wanted to paint something together that would parallel the vision of our life together – would say that we had everything in our hands, each other’s accumulated joys. Then one of us painted past the margin of the other – a little by accident, a little on purpose. I ordered a hearty foundation at the beach café, and got properly plastered. Five hours long, just the tide, my sunburn and me. No smartphone or experiences to draw on. I decided to wait until eight, after which I would turn her name into an unknown number. The waiters came and went. The hours too. A litre of red wine later, I felt like an anvil with wings. Like an old single woman in a summer dress strolling barefoot on the edge of breaking waves on a lonely beach. Staring into space. I saw people lying on the sand, pursuing lives, which in their acclimatised imperfection, could be printed in the papers without the slightest scandal. Between them a big red lifebuoy loomed above the harmony, carrying spider webs. And I imagined that they must be finally saved. Must experience something that takes their breaths away, must endure something that couldn’t be printed in the papers. Anyways, two minutes to eight, she was standing there. Like in the movies, only that the beach bar wasn’t playing the right music and I was sun-scorched and smashed. No professional lover has ever fallen from the sky. Who wants that anyway? I want to stand before the abyss and feel the impact – but not without guardrails. To bump against them until the wreck is parked. At a pinch, I’d play the music myself, syncing the right notes to the right moments. Moments in which you feel yourself deeply, because they freeze your guts exactly where the fish and chips can’t reach, and you notice that you’re a real person with a stomach and senses. Someone who, in the face of this moment, is ready to grow as old as time, and yes to die, or at least burn your belly, because you have truly felt that nothing else fits in, shortly before bursting. As if, despite a sunburn, one would live forever. For a short blink of an eye, the present projects beyond the moment, which we would rather spend on a mattress with a view to enjoy a well-earned breather before death. A little finality here, a little sympathy there, all packed in Portuguese underwear – and your structure is erect. You want to run or explode.

We sometimes go dancing outside, as soon as the work of our feelings is done and we can no longer run or explode; drink wine from bottles until we’re there. Wherever. Without an occasion or need for celebration. Without something that would appear to others like a real happening. The whole world always stopped for us without reason. But even here, in an eternally paused life, in which cold milk and ultra-heat-treated moments flow, one must drink ample water, eat vitamins, leave time for shopping and pissing. Otherwise, you’ll explode again, even though your head is already spinning because what you only imagined before dozing off suddenly comes true. Not what you think – literary self-satisfaction would make one go blind! I mean the whole castle in the air. Built from everything that unites us and is finally inhabited through hot summers and cold winters, summoned from the acclimatised candyfloss of our thoughts. Full speed! And when it all gets too much, you go to the cinema to distract yourself with a cola. Or you write away without being dictated to by your notes: a letter without an addressee, originating from all the places where the two ripe chestnuts and I were together. Places that you need not reminisce to miss. Places you only miss if you were never there. You have to think of something when there’s nothing to forget and spring begins to fever. Oh Lisbon, everything I bear is better with her. And in you. High spirits are better, low ones too. To burn, to melt, run or explode, to kiss, with tongues or without; poor, cold and blue or to lose one’s mind in the sand in the heat. Thank you for the introduction. Without you, I would have drowned in emptiness on the bar floor, would have knocked over her glass, spat while speaking, lost her while dancing or burnt a finger while smoking. Just the last paragraph tied me up for at least two hours – with two left hands, so that nothing has a chance to turn right. With a midday break in between to stir up my loins. The post was also briefly here.

 

Excerpted from Konstantin Arnold,  A Portuguesa.  Letters from Lisboa.  Libertin.  (Unpublished)