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Julio, el Portero

Author: Inger-Maria Mahlke
Translator: Alexandra Roesch

First, Julio Baute switches on the television, then the fan, leans his cane against the shelves that take up the entire back wall of the porter’s lodge, places the chair in just the right spot so he can watch the Tour de France without turning his head or getting a stiff neck in the draught. He hangs his cap on the back of the chair and sits down, before checking the monitor to see if they’re waiting outside with folded arms, looking at their watches impatiently, to be let in again. The porter’s lodge is closed for lunch, the times are listed on a notice by the bell.

A flat stage, the breakout group has a lead of just under two and a half minutes, two Frenchmen, one Dutch, and the fourth isn’t a Spaniard either. The peloton is closing in, 47 kilometres to the finish line, they will catch them, it will be a sprint finish. Julio Baute turns down the sound. Tomorrow the mountain stages start at last, he prefers the Vuelta anyway.
Two women are waiting outside: a kitchen help, who’s now much too late for her afternoon shift, and one of the relatives. Julio Baute operates the buzzer. They’re expecting a new resident that evening. Julio Baute is certain it will be a male resident – a mistake, as he discovers the next morning. There are not really any places vacant for women in the Asilo. They live longer and put up less resistance.

Sor Mari Carmen had unlocked the visitor’s room that morning and one of the volunteers had removed the old strelitzia, which had withered in the warmth and darkness on the narrow coffee table. The water had been a dull orange colour, the stems that stuck to the glass looked slimy. The smell still hangs in the corridor and when the front door swings open, the draught wafts into the porter’s lodge. Julio Baute hears the women say ‘thank you’ as they enter behind him, he doesn’t turn around. The breakout group has a lead of two minutes seven seconds remaining, 39 kilometres to the finish line.

The white telephone switchboard is next to him on the table, square and almost forty centimetres long. The receiver on the left, with two buttons above it, of which he only uses one, rubbed brown by his finger: the answering machine. He pushes the button, no new messages. Below, five rows of elongated switches, a name tag under transparent plastic alongside each one, most of them not labelled, and in the case of those that are, not even half the connections are correct.

Julio, el Portero, is the switchboard. The central hub. The turnstile to the world. Without him you can’t enter or exit the Asilo, and all calls that are not to a direct line or don’t get through end up with him.

One minute forty, thirty-nine, one of the men from the breakout group – the Dutchman – tries to pull away, the others immediately draw level again.

Next to the telephone is the microphone for the announcements. Julio, el Portero, repeats each announcement twice. ‘Sor Cipriana, please make your way to the ladies’ dining room. Sor Cipriana, please make your way to the ladies’ dining room.’ Slowly and articulately. The visitors joke about it. ‘It’s like at the airport,’ he hears them say in passing. He is 95 years old, his ears work just fine. His knee doesn’t, but that’s another matter.

Julio Baute looks at the diminishing number in the right-hand corner of the screen, one minute twenty seconds, 32 kilometres to go, hears the serving trolleys in the hallway that are being pushed into the television areas. There is no one on the monitor, it’s quiet during summer.

He’s busiest from mid-December over Christmas and New Year until Epiphany in January. Musicians ring the bell every evening, unpack their instruments on the steps outside the entrance, stash their cases in the lodge, in order to benevolently reel off one, two, three songs for the residents. Families with children come in the afternoons, wanting to see the manger that’s been put up in the room next to physiotherapy. Shopkeepers bring donations from the local shops; they need to make space in their warehouses for high season. Julio Baute used to do the same: some of the curling tongs in the hair salon on the women’s wing that remains unused since the crisis, came from Marrero Electrodomésticos.

Bakeries send biscuits, the agricultural cooperatives send sack-loads of potatoes, onions, gofio, boxes of tomatoes, avocados, papayas. Bags of unsorted clothes from charitable organisations, local companies send samples of their products, hundreds of bottles of body lotion, two thousand packets of turrón, three boxes of pink furry unicorns. And everything has to pass through his doorway, gets stacked next to the ramp, on the steps, until someone from the kitchens or one of the nuns, together with several volunteers, carries everything inside. More relatives than usual at Epiphany, weighed down by guilt, childhood memoires in the bags and pouches. An abundance of new volunteers, New Year, new beginnings, seeking a meaningful role.

Julio Baute realises that Ana hasn’t been in for more than a week. A girl who looked a bit like Rosa had stood outside the door the day before yesterday, but he’s not sure. He only got a brief glance of her on the monitor, and it distorts things.

‘Coffee?’ one of the carers, Carmen, asks from the door. Julio, el Portero, nods. She half fills a pale pink plastic cup with pale brown liquid, places it on the table together with two paper packets of sugar.

‘Who’s winning?’ Carmen points towards the television. The cameras are showing the breakout group, their lead is down to 42 seconds.

‘None of those,’ Julio answers. She laughs.

When the bell rings, he briefly looks at the monitor and presses the door opener at the same time, one of the volunteers. Actually, he’s supposed to open the door for anyone and everyone, there are no other instructions. He’s only actually sitting there so that no one gets out. Everybody is roused by the coffee, they sit up in their chairs, chat with the person sitting next to them. The soundscape pushes its way down the halls, right into his lodge. As soon as they’ve finished their drinks, with the plastic cups reassembled on the serving trolleys as colourfully stacked towers, the first residents appear at the windows to the patio opposite the entrance. They keep as far from the porter’s lodge as possible and lie in wait. Wait for Julio, el Portero, to stop paying attention so that they can slip out. He knows who’s allowed to go for a walk and who isn’t, that’s also one of his tasks: keeping track.

The woman on the monitor pushes the door open, she laughs. Two of the ladies, Demetria with her walking stick and Trini with the parrot, are already leaning against the patio window. ‘Hola, chicas,’ Julio Baute hears the volunteer say, and how pretty they both look today. The ladies giggle, but Julio is sure that they only have eyes for the decreasing gap of the closing door. Augusto is late, he’s the most persistent lurker of all. Dementia, ever since his stroke, all he can do is mumble.

The peloton still hasn’t reached the breakout group, has slowed again. Julio Baute goes to turn the volume up, hits the wrong button, the picture disappears. It says Menu on the screen. He presses Exit. Menu is simple. But there are buttons on the new remote that send him on never-ending journeys through indexes, and when he finally manages to return to the television picture, the programme he wanted to watch is usually over.

Julio Baute had brought along the old television from home, Blaupunkt, tubes. Had repaired it six times, until white horizontal bars flickered on the bottom half of the screen, wandering up and down. He hadn’t been able to get the spare parts it needed.

The new one is flat, narrower than the palm of his hand. The lodge is suddenly twice as large, Sister Juana joked the morning of Epiphany, when the new television appeared on a small table beneath the window. Donated by a well-known electronics company which Julio Baute had never heard of. The nuns formed an excited half-circle around him, watching every move in his face. Of course, he’d shown how delighted he was, as well as he could – not exuberantly enough, he’d been aware of that the whole time – but when he’d clasped each of their hands in turn and, moved by their joy, had tears in his eyes, everyone was happy.

Julio Baute tried to open it, the new one, despite the sticker on the edge of the casing stating that the guarantee would become void if it was damaged. The screws are very small, 5 to 60 millimetres, cross-headed, they’re jammed tight. The screwdriver had slipped from his hand several times, making tiny shavings from the anthracite-coloured plastic, had left marks. At some point Julio had given up. Ever since, a question had been waiting for him behind the screen: whether he was still capable, if he would know which component fulfilled which purpose, would recognise and understand them. Whether cable and coil still came together of their own accord as a circuit diagram in his head.

He’d sold the shop before the machines started to get strange, before the computers ate their way into them. For a while Mother Superior had talked about replacing the telephone system. To his relief, there has been no mention of this since the crisis. Before he’d gone to sleep at night, he’d tried to imagine how it would be to sit in the television area with the other men, to go and have the occasional smoke, meals three times a day, coffee in the afternoons, dance with one of the carers when the bands played. Maybe place a hand on her bottom in a moment of inattentiveness.

Augusto mumbles, lifts his walking stick, he’s coming from the direction of the physiotherapy room, his spot is right in front of the door, the handle, which he is not able to open – only Julio, el Portero can do it – in his hand. He always tugs at it for a while in the mornings and during the lunch break, eventually he calms down, and anyone who wants to come in from the street has to push the door open slowly, wait until Augusto has retreated, one small step after the other.

It really is going to be a sprint finish; they have caught up with the breakout group. Individual cyclists still try to break out, but only manage a few metres before being swallowed up by the peloton.

Densely packed, the sprint teams’ lead-out helpers form a narrow bottle neck at the front, which accelerates, weaves along, when several attackers shoot off at the same time, distorted faces beneath colourful helmets that plug every hole. That’s how it will continue, until they turn into the narrow lanes of some small French town, then things will briefly get hectic when the lead-out helpers position their sprinters at the front, and then instantly and before you know it, it’s all over.

Sprint finishes remind him of the premature ejaculations of his youth. But tomorrow it’s the Pyrenees, then the Alps. Julio, el Portero, looks at the clock, it’s getting late for the new resident to arrive, Rosario is starting in half an hour, the times are on the notice by the bell. Julio won’t remain seated and wait, he knows the drill. Sometimes they make a fuss, refuse to leave their apartments: then you’ll have to carry me, I’m not leaving voluntarily!

What shall I do? the crying relatives later say on the phone, I can’t force him, what shall I do.
There are those who begin to wane almost as soon as they have moved in and unpacked their cases and the nuns have written their names in permanent marker on labels and washing instructions inside pillow cases or under shirt collars. They grow narrower with each meal, soft curves smooth out, new ones appear, not gently curved, but with sharp edges. Their shoulders want to join their knees, which they can no longer straighten out and which take on a more acute angle. Weekly at first, then daily, until it’s time for the wheelchair. It plateaus for a while, but the sedentary hours sap away their strength, the muscle fibres grow shorter and shorter, ever closer to 90° and less, and then they soon head off upstairs, to the first floor. To the bedridden, the mutterings of the dying, catheters and urine bottles, screens covered in light-coloured fabric behind which red lamps light up on bedside tables, when the legs extend once more.

There are those who adapt. The ladies sport moustaches, the gentlemen white stubble on cheek and chin, between which wrinkly folds of skin spread. Julio has been living in the Asilo for eighteen years, and he is doing splendidly. Since his knee became permanently stiff eighteen years ago, meniscal tear, since he caught the tip of his shoe on the steps outside the supermarket. He went to the supermarket every morning, lifted the tip of his shoe across the threshold every morning, half a centimetre, no more. His reflexes were okay, his hands darted forward, breaking his fall. Only the hollow between right knee cap and shin hit the metal rail embedded in the ground. It hurt so much that he had someone call him a cab to drive him the two blocks home.

The driver had to help him into the elevator, Julio sat on the floor when he got to the top. Pushed himself forward with his arms and the healthy leg, as far as his apartment, to the doormat, keeping a keen eye on the spyholes of the other residents on his floor. None of them obscured, he was relieved.

Why didn’t you ask for help? Ana later rebuked him. The next morning his knee was swollen, he had cooled it with ice packs overnight, had not dozed off until the early hours. After making himself some coffee, he’d called the ambulance, waited on the sofa, knowing that this was the last coffee he would drink at home.

Ana had wanted him to move in with her. Eulalia can take care of you, she’d said. If it gets too much for her, we’ll get more help. It was his, Julio Baute’s, own decision to move into the Asilo. He hates the church, but he likes the nuns.

No change, the doctor says at each three-monthly check-up, your levels are unchanged.
Before he goes to sleep, Julio still goes through his list: sometimes he forces himself, usually he doesn’t get further than fifth place, by then everything has gone limp again, without anything having happened. Fifth is Luisa, his employee Gil’s wife.

 

Excerpted from Inger-Maria Mahlke, Archipel. Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek/Hamburg/Berlin, 2018.

Farewell, Dear Comrades and Lovers!

Author: Carmen-Francesca Banciu
Translator: Elena Mancini

1.

 To father only three things mattered
In the order prescribed
The fatherland
The party
The honor of the family
That’s how father explained it to me
Even when I was a child
That’s what father said again and again
That’s what father wrote in his speeches
That’s what father emphasized in his farewell speech

Father’s last words, I do not know
With death father took his time
So much time, that I could no longer wait
The news of father’s death
Reached me in the most beautiful city in the world
And I hurried to my father

 At his funeral
Father wanted no priests
He had written down his wishes
Father wrote his own funeral sermon
Even our own eulogies father had written
He had decided on the storyline
He had picked out his outfit
Father had written everything down
Every year anew
And yet, death had
Surprised father

 At his funeral
Father wanted no priests
At mother’s grave there’d been three priests
A Catholic one
An Orthodox one
And father
The rabbi had not been invited.

 Father loves to hold speeches
Father loves to preach
Father loves to listen to himself speak
Father doesn’t want any priests
But at his funeral
He won’t be able to preach himself

 The church says
Whoever wants a funeral with priests must pay
church taxes
Father didn’t want any priests.
He’d never paid church taxes
Father wants to be buried like a dog
That’s what his neighbors say
And the relatives
And the acquaintances
I don’t want a priest for father
I don’t want to pay father’s
back church taxes

 Father had written everything down
A red flag was to wave on his coffin
His medals and distinctions father wants to wear
And the alpine horn should sound
From the city
To his mountain village
And his lovers should come
His countless lovers
His eternally loyal chain
Of lovers


  2.

 The death angel appeared three days after Easter
He came as a young man in a tin chariot
Father was buying potatoes
Father ignored the angel
Father overlooked the angel
The angel rolled toward him in his chariot
Let lightning and thunder fall on him
And spewed out rage from his seven heads
Father ignored the angel
Father overlooked the angel
Father held on tight to the bag of potatoes
Father flew aloft
His fingers cramped around the bag handles
The white bag in tatters
Wounded potatoes bled on the edge of the street

 One day father went to buy potatoes
And never again returned to his home
Potatoes and bread
Potatoes and bread on the edge of the street
That’s all they told me

 I only saw father cry twice

 When the president of our young republic died
And at mother’s grave
Father knows when one is supposed to cry
At what point fainting is the right thing to do
Since father has been lying in the hospital
Father’s been crying every day
I would really like to know
What father thinks of when he cries
But father doesn’t tell me
He speaks of the patriot Avram Iancu
And of the Romanian Revolution of 1848
And of the martyrs of this revolution
He doesn’t speak about
The Revolution of 1989
And its martyrs
And not about me
About my revolution
About our revolution
Father doesn’t speak about me
And my family
We who were all there
We who put our lives on the line

 Father overlooks this revolution
Ignores it
Suppresses it
Father tells of the martyrs Horia, Closca and Crisian
And of the patriot Avram Iancu
And he cries as though it had happened yesterday
As though Avram Iancu were his son
Father has no son
He always regretted that
Father regretted that he had a daughter
A daughter, who took part in a revolution
A revolution he wants to overlook, to factor out

 Father has no son
He needs to come to terms with that
I had to come to terms with it
But here in the hospital I know that
Neither of us has come to terms with it
Father is looking for his son
And I am looking for father

 I observe
I listen
I notice every one of father’s movements
And wait
Wait for father to tell me something important
Every day I visit father
Every day I eavesdrop
I follow father’s gazes
Attempt to guess his wishes
Hurry on ahead of his needs
Want to spare father
Every effort

I give him water
But father doesn’t want any water
I give him food
But father doesn’t want to eat
I open the window
I
close the window
Father doesn’t want any fresh air
Father’s cold
I get him another blanket
I massage his hands
I massage his feet
I try again to get him to drink
I try again with the food
Father takes a sip
He jiggles
He squinches up his face
The bites are too big
The sips are too cold
Even the food is too cold
I warm up the food
I let it cool down
My throat is cold, father grumbles
Don’t you notice how cold that is
How could you give me something like that
I’ve always known
You can’t do anything right

 I follow father’s glances
Attempt to guess his wishes
Hurry on ahead of his needs
Want to spare father every effort
Every effort

 I look at his mouth
Observe his every move
Steer the spoon to his mouth
Wipe his mouth
I clean his dentures
Father has pains
I pull the signal and call the nurse
What hurts, I ask
Father says
Everything
Father says: pride and dignity
I stick his dentures in his mouth
I don’t change his diaper

 Father speaks softly
I need to lean into his ear
He closes his eyes
His mouth trembles
His cheek twitches
I get closer to his mouth and wait
Wait for father to tell me something;
For years I’ve been waiting for this
Since I’ve known myself, I’ve been waiting for this
Since I’ve known myself, I’ve been waiting for father

 Father opens his mouth and says
I have to tell you something

 For years I’ve been waiting for this
For father to tell me something
There’s throbbing in my temples
My heart
My veins
In my throat
I wait
Highly strained

 Father says
Listen to me
Be smart for once
Do what I tell you
I can no longer do it myself
Listen to me carefully
In the bedroom
Behind the black armoire
There are two good sweaters
Don’t let them get ruined
Air them out
Otherwise the moths will eat right through them
Don’t let the moths eat them


3.

 Every day father draws closer to death
Every day father escapes death
Every day death draws closer to him
Then death takes one step back
And father wins again
And so they play hide-and-seek
A bloodthirsty game

 

4.

 Death advances slowly
Sometimes it crawls
Like with traffic
With street traffic
Father never paid attention to street traffic
Where were you headed in such a rush, I asked father

 Father said
I’m always in a rush
Now father needs to be slow
Much slower
Continually slower
Until the clocks
All of his clocks stand still
Father’s master clock still keeps good time
Even time
It’s an electronic mechanism
The battery will keep at least five years

 Father says
So much pain
Why must I bear so much pain
I don’t want to
I don’t want anything anymore
But the master clock
The main watch still works
Five more years
Father could lie in bed
Five more years
Father could wrestle with death
Five more years
Father could rant and swear
And quarrel with life
Five more years
Father could lie in bed
Lie on his back
Delivered up like a beetle
Five more years father could lie with bedsores
On his back and his rear end
Father no longer has a rear end
He’s just a sack of bones
A sack
In which testicles roll around astray
There are father’s testicles
There is father’s seed, from which I stem
Father’s seed
Whom else had it inseminated
Besides mother

 Father lies in bed and says
I won’t eat
The food messes up my whole system
Everyday father talks about his system
His system is blocked
Father can’t eliminate
Father lies in bed and receives enemas
With effort that comes out
Which without help would come to a standstill

 The caregiver doesn’t pay attention to me
She doesn’t pay attention to father either
She pays attention to his bowel movements

Father’s stool is hard like a rock
The caregiver attends to everything
With short, quick movements
Father lies on his back
He can’t do anything else
His flesh wobbles
His skin hangs
His testicles flinch
As though frightened
Lost in a dangling scrotum

 Father’s buttocks just skin and bones
Father’s pubic hair sparse
Just remnants
White and thin
These pubic hairs
His lovers saw
These pubic hairs
His lovers caressed
His countless lovers
A chain of eternally loyal lovers

 A chain of eternally loyal lovers
Men should have many lovers
Only then are they real men
That’s how the legend has it in my father’s land
And women shouldn’t have any lovers
None at all
Then
And only then are they real women

 Mother had never had a lover
Mother had a fiancé
And then a husband
Forever
Until death
Until she
Withdrew from him
Through death

 Mother had withdrawn from all of us
Or was it otherwise
And we withdrew from her
We were always out
We were always busy
Mother was also busy
And yet
Mother was alone
Because mother had no lover
And no friend
And only a husband
But she also didn’t have him
She had a husband
She always had to wait for
And when he did come
He was tired
And sated

 Father lies on his back
The caregiver works skillfully
Her movements are sure
Fluid
She wipes, washes, changes, wraps
For now, she’s saved father’s system
I stand petrified in front of the bed
The caregiver takes care of everything skillfully and speedily
She doesn’t pay attention to me
She doesn’t pay attention to father either
She pays attention to his bottom
To how the diaper fits
And the tenner
Which I stick in her work coat pocket

 Father lies naked on his back
For days father’s been lying on his back
With a wounded head
With a broken collar bone
With a sore shoulder
Father needs help
Father needs help for his most basic needs
With his basic duties
Father is crestfallen
Just a few days ago
He was full of faith
In life
In his further
His future life
Just a few days ago
He had his strength
Visited with his lovers again
He’d live to be one hundred
One hundred and even older
The neighbors said

 One hundred he would have turned
One hundred and beyond
We couldn’t keep up with him
Why did he have to be overconfident

Father lies on his back
Like a helpless beetle
A few days ago father had hurried about like always
Father went out to buy potatoes
And never again returned to his home
Father was quick and nimble
Too quick
Now he’s lying on his back
And says, don’t feed me
I don’t want to eat anything
Food messes up my system
Father’s system can only collect and hoard
Can’t release anything
Except for fluids
Father gets injections
Father depends on a drip
In order to replace fluids/for new fluids

 Father is naked
Father kicks off the blankets
Father receives enemas
W
hat’s hurting you, I ask
Father says
Everything
Pride and Dignity

 Father sleeps most of the time
Father wouldn’t wake up after the operation
Again and again he kept falling asleep
Again and again he kept withdrawing from us
Us and life
The assistant pinched him in the nipple
Father woke up
That’s what you need to do, she said
Pinch grandpa in the nipple
Then he’ll be sure to open his little eye

 The assistant takes father’s nose between her two fingers
She wiggles and jiggles it
I flinch
I flinch, stand still
Allow it
I let it happen
I leave him in the lurch
The nose is phallic
The nose is a symbol
Father nourishes himself now only with symbols
The assistant takes hold of father’s nose between two fingers
She wiggles and jiggles it
Only in the examination room do I protest
Against the disrespect

 Against the violation of dignity
Are you kidding, the female physician said.
We’re friendly to our patients
We cultivate a warm association
A familial atmosphere

 Father has given up on himself
His dentures stay in the drawer
Without his teeth, father looks old
And fragile
L
ittle old man
Daddy
Grandpa
Grandpa the women say to him
Grandpa, a young assistant says
And the female physician
And the cleaning woman
Daddy, little uncle, grandpa
The women say to him
F
ather is getting progressively smaller
Father contracts
Into a fetal position
Father is drawing closer to the beginning
The origin
How far will father go

Little Old Man
Daddy
Grandpa
The women say to him
What’s hurting, I ask father
Father is getting progressively smaller
A fetus
The lovers can’t reach him
Father approaches the beginning
The origin
The seed
The egg

 

Lebt wohl, Ihr Genossen und Geliebten!  Palm Art Press, 2018.

They’re Shooting Again

Author: Elisa Wächtershäuser
Translator: Helen MacCormac

 

They’re shooting again. This morning I found the leg of a deer. It was lying on last years’ leaves not far from the shelter. The leg had been severed just above the knee joint. I thought it was a stick at first.
When Jan went out to have a look, the leg was gone. Lia laughed at me. But I know what I saw. Things have started to change now that they’re hunting in the woods. They come out at dusk. I don’t know how many of them there are. I can hear the shots and voices and footsteps in the undergrowth. I don’t leave the shelter unless I have to.

We set off in the summer after Jan and I finished school. Freedom, Jan had said. A simple life. I could imagine it, Jan and me roaming through the woods, swimming in rivers, roasting fish over an open fire at night. I couldn’t stand the walls closing in at home any longer, or the feeling that someone was watching me all the time.
She’s a friend, Jan said when he brought Lia along. We took the S-Bahn. Jan and I both had rucksacks. All Lia had was her dress and the shoes she was wearing.

I don’t have a watch anymore and I can’t tell the time by the sun. When it starts to get dark, I hear the first shot.
Nothing to do with us, Jan says and puts a branch on the fire. The wood is damp. A pall of smoke hangs under the ceiling. Lia spits chewed leaves into the cup of her hand. Are you scared, she asks and licks her green stained teeth. I shake my head. Lia drops the chewed leaves into the fire. It hisses and spits. I move closer and hold my hands over the heat radiating from the flames. It’s cold, I say.

It’ll be a lot colder in the winter, Jan says.
Lia grins. I’m growing a winter coat, already, she says and spreads her legs wide open, grabbing hold of her thick, dark pubic hair.
Later, when the embers have died down and Jan and Lia lie panting on top of each other, I sit in my corner, away from the glow of the fire, fingering my body.
I’ve noticed something under my skin for a while. A creeping sensation, as if something were forcing its way through the different layers of my body, as if skin and muscles were being torn apart, as if something was starting to grow inside me.
I don’t know how long we’ve been here. I notice the different seasons, but the days are a blur, I can’t count them backwards. The first night in the woods it didn’t get dark. We slept outside in front of the shelter. Our campfire smoked and soon went out. Lia threw her clothes onto it and then Jan did, too. Jan told me to take off my clothes and join them. I didn’t want to. Lia called me a coward and wrapped her skinny thighs around Jan’s waist. I listened to the woods and to Lia and Jan. I counted my breaths till the morning. 5000 times.

Since they started hunting outside, I can’t stand the nights. They’re not even close, Jan said. But each shot resonates inside my head. The fire has died down, Jan and Lia are restless; the leaves rustle beneath them when one of them tosses or turns. I lie on my side, twisted up like a fox in its den, plucking out hairs from my armpits.
I’ve grown my own coat of fur. When it got colder, thick black hair started to sprout on my arms, stomach, and chest; on my back and around my penis. Even my backside is covered in long dark curly hair. Each night, I try to get rid of it. I grab bunches of hair between my finger and thumb, pulling slowly and steadily. The hair is rooted deep inside me. My skin burns. Later on, a drop of blood forms. They’re still shooting outside.

I am constantly looking for food. I’ve learnt that you can eat birch leaves and oak leaves and sorrel. You can roast beechnuts on the fire and chew the bark of a willow. I walked for miles today. I found a hazel tree next to a stream. Most of the nuts were hollow; I chewed the shells for ages. Then I tied my t-shirt into a bundle and picked every nut on the tree. I knelt down in the leaves and collected all the ones that had fallen there, as well.
We eat together. Lia eats most of the nuts. She cracks open the shells with her teeth and spits them out into the fire. Her arms are as thin as sticks, her bare skin is still dark from the summer; I stare at her nipples; they look like knots of wood.
Jan can’t get enough to eat. I carry on chewing long after we have finished all the nuts. Lia and Jan devour each other next to the fire. I double over and tear at the hair on my stomach. Later on in the night, a bird breaks out of a nutshell inside me and pecks a hole in the wall of my stomach.

They are drawing closer every day. In the mornings, I find footprints on the frosted ground. There is a mound of feathers in my stomach. One catches in my throat. I spit it out.
Jan asks me what I’m doing. Nothing, I say. My throat hurts, that’s all. I’ve got no idea where all the feathers came from. My stomach is stuffed full of them, but the feathers can’t still my hunger. Jan says there is blood on my lips. I must have bitten my tongue in my sleep.
We set off as soon as it gets light. It’s getting harder and harder to find anything to eat. We split up. I head back to the stream where I found the hazel tree. I follow the stream as far as I dare. The ground is frozen and the trees are bare. It gets dark early.
I don’t manage to find anything to eat before I go back to the shelter. The feathers are forcing their way through my innards. Lia and Jan sit close by the fire. They are wearing clothes. Lia is wearing a pair of my jeans and two of my t-shirts. She must have taken them out of my rucksack.
I couldn’t find anything, I say. When I sit down beside them, there’s a stabbing pain in the pit of my stomach.
We found this, Lia says, and holds out a piece of bark. There are maggots stuck to the bark, grey, slimy half-eaten maggots writhing where Lia’s bitten off a piece. I bend over. My stomach cramps. I start to wretch, coughing up feathers. Jan and Lia stare at me. Saliva and little feathers stick to my chin. I crawl to my corner holding my stomach. The pain slowly subsides. I hear them whispering by the fire. Then I fall asleep.

The next morning, Jan and Lia are gone. So is my rucksack. I burn the feathers in the fire. There’s more blood on my chin. I don’t feel hungry but I go out all the same. I need to gather food for the winter.

It’s going to snow soon. On some days I go hungry. On other days I find something in the woods. Jan and Lia haven’t come back yet.

Yesterday I found an arm. It lay outside the shelter on last year’s leaves. It was very thin. There were a few hairs on it. It could have been a stick.
I’ve stopped going out. They’re shooting again.

Draußen schießen sie wieder,  Allitera Verlag 2017.

 

 

 

Constellations

Author: Mariça Bodrožić
Translator: Deirdre McMahon

Chapter 1

Telling stories from the history of the human heart is a liberation from the limitations of biography. The German language builds on to a framework within me, on a song of praise, on the memory of the soul. This tapestry of images inside me acquires its own ears. Europe becomes the head in which memory can clothe itself as a person. I live in images; my skin is related to everything both inside and outside.
***
The word childhood was something that could be explored for the first time in the German language. My very name became a planet to be discovered using letters as a catalyst. It was only through coming to write that I became conscious of the implicitness of the Slavic forests buried within me. This underground resource sings out from my first language and allows me at last to be someone who can speak about herself. But it is only in the German language that I first heard myself at home.
The letters of the alphabet form one of God’s ante-chambers in which my own dreams, the biographies of my ancestors are told. (Do I have a point of origin and am I going somewhere?). The word and doesn’t just link me and the sentence, doesn’t just sew up the gaps, it calls forth the possibility of a continuing narrative. And is the set piece of breathing, in which one breath flows into the other, as it does in the invisible world, only that in writing about the world, this hand suddenly becomes visible, as a Jacob’s ladder of meaning, stimulating the lungs of words.
***
Narrative, coming to life in a regular tempo, speaks to me in the German language. It’s like a telephone message from a loved one, a message I want to keep on an answering machine to preserve it forever. Wanting to tell something began with the wish to preserve and protect something of my grandfather. It was because of him I took my first precarious steps into prose. It was a childlike idea, that brought me there, seeing the light of his blue eyes, his pink-tinged apple-cheeks in front of me like a picture that might have been created by a great painter, if he had set himself the task of making the interior qualities of a human visible in colour. My grandfather had a face that painters dream of. For me, his face was always the epitome of form and humanity. The first relative I experienced consciously wasn’t a person; it was my grandfather’s face.
***
This picture of those immortal cheeks and blue eyes, that live on in my heart’s core, is something I have never remembered in my first language. It lodged in German as an occupant of my consciousness, almost like a housemate, and it returned to me so persistently that I took up a pen and tried to describe it. It stayed there until everything the colours of those eyes and cheeks had said to me, seemed to have been told, and until I understood that death is responsible for making us remember the life that has been lived. It reminds us too of what we have missed, of what separates us from life, the sluggish inertia which holds us back from our own capacity to feel. To sense or experience is to love in the language itself.
***
Breath needs to live in sentences. This is what it wants, it works in the service of language. When the heart thumps with excitement or tears roll down our cheeks, breath goes to sleep; breath leaves, goes elsewhere; perhaps at this moment someone else needs it, a growing daisy or a cat who has placed itself selflessly at the service of a human hand lashing out. This human hand would be oblivious to itself, if it were not also conscious of itself as a stone, in which hope lives and the métier of the rose.
***
While breath sleeps, letters cannot find each other, the Jacob’s ladder rests. The inner chamber of language rearranges itself into what can be measured. Silence is necessary to hear letters as they approach the human ear, to hear how they wish to be heard. Silence is necessary to plough up the ego and all the names belonging to it and make them useful and, once again, to stumble on the earth’s new sound. The painter’s red earth lives in semi-colons, in full stops, in commas, in the space between words, between capital and small letters.
This fluidity is something I only experience in the German language, in the way the roots of the letters of the alphabet connect completely with me and my navel. Letters inhabit an inner landscape, where the Slavic lives as rhythm and background music, never as the choir of letters, but certainly singing and perhaps also in the inner part of the air.
My first language never comes to me from the roundness of my navel. But my navel isn’t always simply round. Like everyone else’s, it’s a round scar in my abdominal wall, the insertion point of the umbilical cord. It’s the point of contact between before and after. Before the navel became a navel, there was the Middle High German word ‘nabe’; in the 19th century it referred to a cylindrical centre of the wheel, the hub. My navel connects with the circle of the wheel. Is my navel sometimes too narrow for me?
***
It’s only in German that you could imagine the word Engel or angel having something to do with Enge or narrowness, a narrowness expanding outwards in the letters making up the word for love – Liebe – into the corridors of the imagination and that this narrowness is part of being human, completed and sheltered by the letter L, which draws light to itself from above. It moves from vertical to horizontal to bring the earth something that belongs to her, songs from the interior of light, songs which hurry in a direct line to the fruitful land, on which people build their houses, dreams and pains.
***
In my first mother-tongue the word for love is ljubav, here too, the letter l makes it visible, as my letter-image suggests to me, drawing it into the land of the letter j, which lives largely underground, where plant and tree roots are related to kisses, where they discuss themselves and the future of their colours. This letter dips into the earth like a soup ladle to become something new again later. To me, love and newness always seem to be one and the same, because they sometimes cause pain, whether in the first, the second or any other living language. (And this could be so even if this language were pure silence.)
Now and again names have retained verifiable emotions from my first language. Filomena, for example, came to me, setting itself down like a suitcase, at the doors of the German language. This word wanted to live here and have a permanent address on my other side; it could be spoken to, just like a relative who had travelled from afar, one who needed to experience for herself what belonged to her after experiencing other continents, as an intermediary between the past and the bridges she had built to the present.
***
When I told my sister that, after a long search, I had found this name for a literary character, Sanja and Paula had preceded Filomena, but weren’t quite right, my sister said that Filomena was, in every sense, the right word. And “I used to be that, once that was me.”
***
Whatever this once could have been for her, whether in another life or in the archived breath of all names that have ever been on earth, she had entered an echo chamber with her own voice, and she finally became a grown-up person for me. As the elder sister opposite her, I was permitted to feel like someone who could reach out her hands and be weak. As the elder I had invariably thought I always had to be strong. My sister’s voice now gave me permission to be weak. And her very name, which means the healthy one encouraged that.
***
Her name is Zdravka, and German tongues get a mild cramp even thinking about pronouncing this name, there where all thought begins, in that place where people are equally afraid of themselves as they are of strangers.
Zdrav means healthy and the ka echoes as just a little friend of this healthy person, as a proper someone who could be at home in the mountains, as a carrier of human words, who, in mountainous areas, could bring echoes from one mountain summit to another and remind people of their task of knowing words well, of speaking them properly and not forgetting that there is a great cosmic hat in which anything that has ever been said lives unselfishly.
Within this hat, there’s place to think outside of space; throughout the universe time is like a middle-sized candle which burns as long as its substance allows. It is only on earth, that time looks as if it were truly, verifiably reliable.
***
My sister loves riddles and sees numbers in the air. For her, roofs consist of numbers in rows. I’ve been thinking in numbers for years, she said to me once, and I said to her, only very intelligent people could do that. I imagine now, that for my healthy sister, numbers played a central role, between her first and second languages.
Numbers inhabited her skies like birds, she found it possible to resume the singing she had begun in very early childhood. The only way to retain them was to draw numbers to herself, and out of the narrowness of her longing for a secure place, the counting-angel visited her, made its presence known as it lodged in her consciousness. My parents had always accused her of being a dreamer who dragged the cinctures of nocturnal dreams into daydreaming hours of normality, of everyday life; Father and Mother were unanimous in their belief that nothing would become of her, if she carried on like this.
***
The counting-angel brings rose-quartz, lays it on the heart area, and reads a newspaper in which there is no news, a newspaper made of nothing, of silence that can only be heard by the exposed back of the neck. This silence whispered in my sister’s ear that neither Paula nor Sanja could ever become what Filomena had been for a long time already, and therefore my Zdravka knew that she was this Filomena, who needed to live for a long time, in the mountains perhaps, by a German-speaking lake, where identity-cards have, from the beginning, been petty pieces of paper, but would always have become devoid of meaning if a grass-creature there had asked who a person really is, when the half of our dreams we can express would now cross over into the world of plants, and we ourselves would have to drift and become like the wind with the air.

***
It is conceivable that pine trees have a better sway and poplars bigger spines, with which letters can have equal rights, not simply overcoming the hurdles of the head and the in-between territory of the ears, so that they can sway in a proper breath-rhythm. This light-cord between the ears links the capability of pines and poplars with the possible word-calm of humanity. The light-cord can die when language reverts to wishing, and the desire to have overpowers everything else, when words and sentences must lay themselves down in the underworld, with the nameless dead, whom we fear, apparently because they teach us that there are limits to what can be said.
***
It was in the German language that I began to understand these borders, to believe in life and became capable of experiencing the steadfast insistence of my own memory. Even though this memory can never be thought of as a line in space, it really is somewhat like this and can be attributed to a supernatural continuity. It is related to breath and to the presence of images.
My sense of wonder begins with the alphabet, an echo-chamber of origins, in which I could feel the meaningful sun of an inner belief in my own ability to achieve something great, without stealing it from someone else. Maybe the only valid way of being is one where just taking something is like a fruit harvest where there is no loser, and nothing is taken from anyone except the tree, which, being a giver, does not allow itself to be robbed.
I can have greater freedom in the German language because everything familiar is removed. I had to learn the names of trees anew. A lime was no longer a lipa even though its smell became stronger than in the gardens of my childhood, where weary children’s feet lay along with dog and cat paws and the suffering summer grass, far from future alphabets and beyond where my own name could touch and feel.
***
Even the letter-worlds woven in Slavic within my name cared about the worries of the child, now I am not known by name here, my child-ego thought. No sentence came into existence in it like these in me today. Only the smell of difficulty moved into my new child-ego, bright spaces immediately moved further into my interior. My face first began to let in the shadow of long winter, and the German summer was only allowed in much later. The German summer has a hard time in competition with the Mediterranean one. And who could be better than childhood playmates at bringing this into being? My parents had laid a prohibition in the air which silently sustained my Mediterranean origins. German can hardly spawn a proper summer, none that can compare with that of the South.
***
That’s how it seemed for a long time. But at some stage the German language became a terrain for knowledge and for questions too, and with that, a measure of certainty entered my life. I could only dream it precisely – in German. This flow of language became a moral certainty, of mathematics with its secrets laid out, as if the lost area framed by childhood wounds, having succeeded in escaping, from itself, from me as its governor, into the world where names and words can breathe without having to give a reason, without any excuse or even without any deliberate intention.
Where were we living now, we children asked ourselves, and how had we arrived in this particular country (how does one come on earth anyway?). I thought once, the whole exterior world could, on closer observation, simply turn out to be an invented one, a bit like a theatre and we simply went around ourselves the whole time, into the deepest foreign land of our own lives.
***
Since this foreign country still has no name, one must be found. The reason is always a search for a better life accompanied by the idea that the foreign land is waiting somewhere else for us and we just need to go and fetch it like a small child who doesn’t know yet to whom he will belong. Psalm 81 (v7) says “In your distress you called, and I rescued you. I answered you out of a thundercloud; I tested you at the waters of Meribah.” If Moses had given in to the wrangles of his people, he would never have got anywhere.
***
Really none of us had gone to a place with a different language just for work, even if this seemed consistent with the view from outside. We children simply saw it as being on the move. It was a train journey from coast to coast and then into the interior of the mountains; Austria always provided us with a proper model for this, with its snow in winter and the bright beaming sun in summer, it was as if the sun too, were on the move like us, and just washing its share of higher mountain peaks in passing. Our need wasn’t something new. Our need was the old one. And that’s how it had been for our mother too. She ventured forth, because this venture was her only chance to live for something other than tradition, for honour, goods and chattels, for fields and family customs and sensitivities. She was no migrant-worker. She became one, only because there was no word, back then, for women who had set out on their travels as women, not simply as wage-earners.
This yearning carried her forth; one day she just set off to her two siblings who had found work in a little place in Hessen called Sulzbach. The story of my parents, who met in a church near Frankfurt, is one I can only understand completely in German. In my first language, the tradition in which Father and Mother were bound seemed to be essential. It seemed as if everything said in this language was valid for all time, even beyond time and nobody, especially not my mother, had the right to free themselves from the tyranny of the hours.
***
In German, tradition didn’t make sense to me at all, possibly because the words for wound (Wunde) and wonder (Wunder) lie so close to one another in the German language, as if one word were already warming up for the arrival of the other, so that the future would forever be formed by the power of a single letter, and so that I could recognise that this letter didn’t just want to take a central role in the alphabet of life I had brought with me from the stars, but also wanted to recognise that this distinguished between belief in Life and Death and also shaped the love between my parents. You can’t explain about these two words, but I understand, with every cell of my being, yielding to the needs of my lungs, that the oppositional pair, leading every person moving towards their final parting, is not life and death but Living and Dying; it accompanies and guides each person, for everyone is a kind of border-crosser. Every single person is an inhabitant of this great cosmic hat, where, alongside the names given to this earth, the languages of our planet live, where, in this piece of heaven’s clothing, they have become tangible bodies of stars, tonal effects, numbers, letters and human voices.
***
What is said becomes laid down as a track. I can’t imagine in any other language that the voice itself is a work in progress, in an area of inner exploration, whose borders I have thought out for myself, so I can practise jumping into skin, leaping over rivers and streams, over my own shadow and over every leg stretched out to trip me up.
It is only through being in the process of leaping that I become aware of it, will have experienced my own leap. My own feet are the facilitators of my wishes; they are enablers of my old worry-load, which I throw away with every German word I write, with every sentence in the direction of invisibility, I experience the illusion of worry and its traps, its kind of companionship and the suggestion that worry itself seems so unalterable as if it were a permanent fixture in human life.
***
For many years my healthy sister was troubled, she couldn’t succeed in any life-sentence when she spoke out loud about herself. Everything she said about herself in her first language seemed to escape as an egotistical, evasive utterance; one of us had scarcely tried to say something simple and nice about our own lives than our first language would trip us up as if a herd of its wild horses had escaped out of control, driven by strangers and ridden off without us. Only our brother, the boy, seemed to have proper permission to live in both languages.
Certainly, he had brought this with him from the country of his creation, from his navel-origin in the love-thoughts of our parents. It would have seemed nicer for us if we could have said we had come from Venus, from Sirius, from the Pleiades (or at least from one of their satellites). But that too had to be enough for questioning children who are witnesses of love and thus recognise their right to live much earlier than adults think. This recognition is participation in the secret and makes adults quick to become unnecessarily suspicious of children.
***
My sister and brother belonged in the first language in the way clouds and the sky belong together. One day they unexpectedly took away my right to belong. My brother said out loud, I wasn’t his sister, I was only a stranger’s child. This wound and wonder couldn’t sustain itself in German, hope moved into this language of my freedom and, with every dream housed in German, I hoped fervently that my brother would want to see that I didn’t have anyone else close to me and, without my siblings, would remain an outsider, always alone in this new-language world. Outside our flat, I got myself beaten up for him in the schoolyard because once, at long last! he called his ‘big sister’ over because other boys had set on him, even threatening him with their fists. Without a second’s thought I pulled up my sleeves, set off to where I was needed, to earn the name ’sister’ for myself. After that it seemed to me that I belonged to someone in this German school and from then on, I, too, had a proper name, ‘sister’, which I had earned by using my own hands.
***
Meanwhile, my sister Zdravka was brought from one hospital to another; the emergency services were always coming for her during lunchbreak. At the age of seven she spoke of an inner vertigo. Simultaneously, we forgot the word for vertigo in our first language, we didn’t know if we had ever even learned it, and sometimes when we heard Yugoslav songs (back then before it had been forbidden to say the word Yugoslav, war hadn’t been declared yet), we wept, each for herself because the word tuga, or sorrow, lay over everything, but it still rhymed with duga, or rainbow. But only rain had stayed within us, without its bow. That was blocked out, taking all its colours with it.
***
On German TV screens we saw how our former land was besieged by the cloud of war-speak, how weapons and shots came from nowhere. Having an enemy became commonplace now. The enemy had been sleeping on his weapons all down through the decades. This enemy seemed to have been waiting to strike, to hit out and hit back as it was later called when the word ‘war’ came into the present tense, even for us, as eighteen-year-olds. Now the word didn’t just have an address in German history books, but it made itself at home in our eyes. With those eyes we began to believe in the war and in the images of war.
Some of those we had known and loved drew on new faces with zip-slits in their eyes. They learned the words of power, learned to lay their wills in the clocks of the powerful, they learned and learned, they learned everything by heart and time began to unravel, became naked, day and night became one, time began to drink schnapps, time became a toper and betrayed people.
Now a new time had come. And it contained no past any more, piece by piece, battle-day by battle-day, frontline by frontline, the past was disposed of. Now there was no longer a Yugoslavia; the country which seemed to have united everything within itself, was something only the nostalgic could have dreamed up as a joke. Lives lived for decades, countless hours and steps in one’s own being were annihilated. Little dimples, the birth of children, Sundays, those light-filled August Sundays, preparing food, collecting chestnuts, almonds and nuts, plaiting hair, a worker’s joy at getting his well-earned pay, singing Ave Maria, learning the alphabet, first kisses, first dates, the first word in a foreign language. We didn’t just learn Russian; we be-decked ourselves with Italian, something dilettantish, at any rate. We knew songs by Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger too, and even Nena. People had erased part of themselves in the service of new times and imagined themselves on safe ground. Retrospectively they extracted their own breath as if somebody else had lived and breathed for them all through those years. But who could have breathed for someone else; who can do it now?
***
For me, it was as if I was no longer belonged to the people who could dream in my first language. I still envisaged them as dreamers because dreams cannot be forbidden; however, their human dreams betrayed them and led them like lambs to the slaughter, for the law, for new times, for self-deception. (Deception is always self-deception). Somehow everyone became powerful. Suddenly there were strong people who could do anything. There were no weak, poor, dear faces anywhere, only the victors standing in rows, as if one could really live off the dead.
*****

Sterne erben, Sterne färben:  Meine Ankunft in Wörtern.  Suhrkamp Verlag (2007)
Re-issued by BTB (Random House) September 2016.

The Fortress

Author: Peter Schwendele
Translator: Cornelius Partsch

 

Dialo gazed at the red and yellow flag that hung just above his head flapping lazily in the evening breeze. The metal rod to which it was attached did not move when he pushed against it. It was anchored firmly with mortar between the stones. He liked the colors of the flag and the picture with the two columns and the crown. Spain, his father had proclaimed, when they stepped out of the water, and pointed at the flag in the middle of the island, we’re in Spain, and Spain is Europe, we are almost there. Dialo looked all around the island, as he had done many times throughout the day. Off in the distance, he saw the lights on the beach of Sfiha, in the other directions only the sea, as far as the eye could see. Dialo wished that he could see more of Europe.

He moved back a few steps, dropped to his knees, and began to push his bus through the coarse-grained sand, always in a circle. He accompanied this activity with the low sounds of a roaring engine. The bus was not just the only toy he owned but also his only possession altogether, aside from the clothes he had on his body. Dialo did not know how far away the real Europe was but he knew that there wasn’t a road leading there, and that annoyed him, because otherwise they could perhaps take a bus to get to Europe. Dialo loved riding the bus, it was the most amazing thing he had ever experienced.

He had been on a big bus only once before, shortly after they had fled from Mali. They had been forced to give the driver all their remaining belongings just so that he would take them to Morocco. His father had spent the journey with his face buried in his hands, because they had been left with virtually nothing, but the bus had gone so fast, causing it to shake wildly, that Dialo felt a sense of elation he had not had in a long time, in spite of being exhausted and starving. He almost started laughing when the draft blew sharply through his hair, he almost forgot how much he missed his mother and his siblings.

In the refugee camp food was almost as scarce as in Mali. Dialo and his father were shoved into a small, thin tent that was occupied by several others already. During the day it was sweltering in the tent and during the night it was cold. Dialo begged his father to build him a bus. Using pieces of the trash that was all lying all around the camp, his father punched holes into cans and fastened them to each other. He used sticks as axles and small, round pieces of rubber as tires. When the bus was finished Dialo flung his arms around his father’s neck and didn’t let go for a long time. Until the other men came by, the ones his father often talked with softly and secretively.

It had been really easy to get onto the island, just as the man who had led them out of the camp had promised. In the middle of the night, they had climbed over the fence, along with the others who did not want to stay any longer, and they had reached the beach of Sfiha without any problems a few hours later, when the sun was already high up in the sky. There were nearly-naked white people there who took no notice of them at all. His father told Dialo not to look, but he had taken a quick peek, in secret, just for a second. Dialo had been a bit scared of the swim but his father said it was only fifty meters to the island, to the place where Europe began. And if Dialo became tired he could get on his father’s back. But Dialo managed the entire distance without needing help.

On the Island that was known as Tierra and was kind of in Europe, as the guide had put it, there was only one boy his age. This boy had been looking at Dialo all day long but Dialo did not want to play with him, afraid that he would break his bus. Most of the people in the group were adult men, a few women with small children were there, too. All in all there were 83 people. Dialo had attended the village school at home in Mali and had proudly counted all the way up to 83, twice, just to be sure.

Dialo was hungry but there was nothing for them to eat, not even a drink of water. The island was so small that you could walk from one end to the other in just a few minutes. It consisted of nothing but rocks and gray, prickly bushes, sitting in a tangle of narrow strips of sand. Nothing else. Except for the flag.

He walked over to his father and lay down beside him, although his empty stomach would surely keep him from sleeping. His father said, soon we’ll be in the real Europe, and ran his hand through Dialo’s hair. We’ve come too far for them to send us back now. Dialo did not know what Europe was like, neither did his father, but he knew that there was no war there and that the people always had enough to eat and that they lived in large houses. He remembered the guide saying that the borders were closed because Europe didn’t want any more blacks. But once you were actually there, standing on European ground, the people would be happy to take you in. They are kind and will take care of you, he had repeated that over and over.

Dialo jumped to his feet, startled by the sound of an engine droning in the sky above him. He must have fallen asleep in spite of being famished. He realized right away that these were helicopters hovering above them and pointing their searchlights at the island. He knew what helicopters were. He also saw several boats on the water. Men in black uniforms were approaching, some were carrying rifles, others batons. Dialo pressed himself against his father’s hip, with his free hand he clutched his bus. When they came closer he could see the men’s faces in the flickering lights. They looked foreign but he didn’t think that these men came from Europe. No matter how hard he tried he could not detect any sign of kindness in their eyes.

 

Uwe Beyer, Hrsg., Europa im Wort. Eine literarische Seismographie in 16 Aufzeichnungen. Bonn: Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, 2016.

In the Sleeping Car

Author: Gert Loschütz
Translator: Emily Banwell

 

3
IN THE SLEEPING CAR

It has hardly rained at all in the last couple of days, but the wind has gotten stronger, whipping up little sprays of water; it rakes across the fields, long since liberated from the snow, and works its way into the cracks of the house, so that doorknobs fly out of your hand and doors slam shut; it howls in the chimney, scratches at the windows, and when I go outside at night I hear a sharp whistling. Is it from the windmills on the hill, their blades slicing the air into pieces? A whistling and a roaring – and every so often, from far away, a clanging and clicking noise, like the cord that used to snap against the flagpole in the courtyard of the Naval College. And don’t forget that jingling sound – is it from the strips of foil hanging in the farmers’ cherry trees? Or is it just the coins that used to be in my pockets in the sleeping-car days? Tips from travelers.

People who are afraid to fly, I used to think when I saw them in the evenings, standing on the platform with their luggage. Why else would they let themselves be carted all the way across Europe at night, squeezed into a narrow bunk like so much cargo, when they could have gotten to their destination in a plane, in a fraction of the time, for the same price?

By the time I met them at the door of the train car, I had already folded down the beds, spread the sheets over the thin mattresses and laid out the blankets, to avoid doing it in front of them. “Can I bring you anything?” I would say when I knocked on their door a while later. Yes, I could, usually – a nightcap, a drink to settle the travel nerves. On offer: a thumb-sized bottle of whiskey, which I served on a tray along with ice from the cooler, if desired. Or a cognac? A fruit brandy? A quarter-bottle of Merlot poured from a screw-top bottle into a plastic cup? When they paid, they rounded up – No change, thanks – or dug out a few coins and put them in my pouch. Italian lire, French francs, Swiss francs, Danish kroner; back in my Berlin apartment, I tossed them into a jar on the dresser next to the front door, and took them to the bank every so often to exchange them for Deutschmarks. Back then, in the mid-eighties, the view from my window, between two buildings, was of the Havel River. Barges pushed their bow waves in front of them while trains traveled into or out of the city on the railroad bridge, which I could also see, that spanned the river. For a moment, train and ship met before taking their leave of one another again.

My shift started in the late afternoon or early evening, when I walked to the office to pick up
the passenger list for the sleeping car. There’s not much more to say about the work itself, except that it required an ability to lead one’s life in the dark and to do mental arithmetic; an outwardly friendly demeanor; and a certain number of regularly rotating books to help pass the time between midnight and morning. When I described it to my grandfather, he wrote back: You might as well have signed on for a listening post in one of those sardine tins that sits under the pack ice for a solid half year without ever surfacing.

As soon as I heard the clattering of the bolts being slid shut, I walked through the train, through the other cars, and looked at the people slumped in their seats; if I saw a familiar book lying in an otherwise empty compartment, I stood by the window and waited for its owner to return. Once he was back in his seat, I would watch his reflection in the window, hoping to learn something about myself from him – as though people who read the same books were members of one family, their traits expressed less through facial or physical similarities than through a certain attitude, one I could perhaps find in myself once I had discovered it in him. Was I like that? Did I have that self-confident look? Or had the journeys already started to change me?

Over time, the world outside began to disappear. The fields, the meadows, the drainage
ditches, the rows of trees, the steep forests and rocky slopes that rose up suddenly, the bridges and tunnels, the suburbs with their factories, warehouses, parking lots and fairgrounds – everything merged into a single backdrop that scrolled by the window and became just as unreal as the repetitive accommodations, the hotels with their stacks of frayed magazines on the tables in the lobby and their narrow staircases leading up to rooms with bright checked wallpaper, the sleeping cells that were all furnished in the same way: the luggage rack next to the door, the built-in closet, the bed, the television in the corner. Either the windows didn’t close all the way, so you were always on the verge of catching a cold, with an earache or a sore throat, or they didn’t open, so you woke up soon after falling asleep because the air was all used up and then lay awake on your back, listening to the knocking of the pipes, where someone seemed to be sitting and constantly tapping out, with the persistence of a pneumatic rust chisel, the rhythm to the questions that circled around in my head: What now? What next? I had just turned thirty-five and had lost my barge, which belonged to a tax shelter, to the scrap merchants; the next day (out of spite? An illusion of independence? Independence, anyway, from the barge and ship distributors that had replaced the old owner-operators), I found myself in the recruiting office for the sleeping-car company. What now? What next? asked the knocking man in the pipes. Don’t forget the dismal bathrooms, tiled all the way to the ceiling, so narrow that if the soap slid out of your hand and you wanted to pick it up, you had to leave the room because you couldn’t bend down inside. And finally the well-worn paths between lodging and train station, office and train, train and office, train station and lodging, looking directly into either the rising or setting sun in the summer. Or the same walk in the winter, when it was still or already dark. And in between there was the rumbling of the wheels, the dimmed light in the corridor of the compartment, the landscape and cityscape passing by the window and pausing only at each station – all that made it feel like the outside world (although really we were outside) was dissolving into a shimmering mind-haze shot through with lights.

There were some colleagues, especially the older ones, who had not been home in over a year; in fact, one wondered whether they still even had one, or whether they had long since been living on the trains; this sometimes reminded me of the special class of homeless people who lived in New York’s subway shafts without ever seeing the light of day. They were the ones who had made the greatest impression on me when I was there once, those shadow people whose skin – whether originally white or black – had without exception taken on an olive-green shade. Some of them had deeply sunken eyes; others’ eyes had protruded so that they looked like little buttons attached to their faces. They were either mole-eyes or those of frogs, which they could turn in any direction without moving their heads. Instead of racing upward in the elevators, fast-moving as cars, to cast my gaze upon Manhattan, I kept going back down to that underworld, where I rode the subway up and down without rhyme or reason. Sometimes the rattling of the subway exploded into an infernal racket, and when you looked up, you could see one of the olive-colored people taking up his post in the door between the cars; he had come over from the neighboring car, pausing for a moment before moving toward the middle of the car, where he began to tell his tale of woe while singing or dancing, often with the most absurd contortions. For some it was one thing, for others something else. And in the end, it all came together for all of them. The subway had seared its dirty color into all of their faces, that olive green which one could see in my colleagues, too, upon closer inspection.

The nights on the train had been dug into their faces; their foreheads were furrowed, their eyes darted erratically; deep lines extended from their nostrils to the corners of their mouths. When they left the train, they swayed like sailors who had to reacquaint themselves with the feeling of solid ground under their feet. The contents of their suitcases (one could tell by the way they carried them) seemed to shrink with each journey, until I could imagine that only their work uniform and toothbrush were left inside; everything else had been scattered to the four winds. Their personal possessions, including letters, photos, mementos, had long ago been left behind somewhere or stolen; and if you listened to them, it seemed as though they had also lost their ability or will to remember. If they told stories, they were about long-ago things or recent occurrences, tales of pubs and women, but never about the period of their lives before their sleeping-car time. That period was blocked out, or else they stopped in the middle of a sentence as soon as they realized they had accidentally wandered into it. I listened to their voices, always too loud, sounding like they were still trying to shout over the train noise even in the hotel room, and suddenly I began to suspect it was not just their sense of balance that had been thrown off, but something else; and that something else was what they concealed. They commenced speaking, then went silent, turned to the wall and pulled the blanket over their ears.

Rome, Via Principe Amadeo, not two hundred meters away from the train station, early July, muggy and hot. I had opened the door to the corridor to create a draft, without success; the air hung in the room like a boulder that had been charged with heat. Through the wall I could hear the card players’ hands crashing down on the table, and with each crash the boulder seemed to grow and to radiate a few more degrees of heat. After a while I got up and went into the shower room at the end of the corridor to get the shirt I had washed and put on a wire hanger on the metal frame of the shower stall, but it was no longer there, it was gone; no, not stolen; someone (one of the card players, whose hands I could still hear crashing onto the table and raising the temperature?) had (in order to make room for his own shirts?) held it out the window and let go. I could see it lying on a section of wall projecting from the neighboring house, so I grabbed the two shirts which were hanging there in its place, tore them down and dispatched them after mine; they were still damp, and grazed the wall of the house before freeing themselves and dropping down to the street, where they were caught up by a car and dragged away. “That wasn’t fair,” said my colleague (yes, it was one of the card players, who were on a different route) as we – they, I and Wilhelm, my sleeping-car colleague – walked through the almost worse evening heat to the train station, two against one, thereby declaring his fundamental approval of my behavior, while Wilhelm, as was his habit, jerked his lower jaw back and forth, making a soft clicking sound. He was the oldest among us. Originally blond, his hair was now just an array of thin gray threads, which he pasted to his shiny olive-tinged scalp with water or brilliantine. He was already wearing his white shirt and red vest, while the rest of us still had our street clothing on – our lightweight summer pants, still too heavy in the heat, and short-sleeved shirts. His suitcase dangled in his hand, and I suddenly knew the only thing he still kept in there was his tie, the gray strip of fabric that, per instructions, we were to tie so that the emblem with the three initials of the sleeping-car company was displayed a hand’s width under the knot.

Was that the night when he came out of his car and stood next to me at the window? The clusters of lights from small towns flew by, and sheet lightning quivered over the mountains; the curve of a river (the Ticino?) was briefly visible. He was smoking; when he drew on the cigarette, its glow made his face light up in the window. He told me he had pain in his wrists, his legs, his back. And suddenly he said, casually, as though he had grown tired of complaining and wanted to change the subject, that he could have prevented the Second World War, the murder of the Jews, Tehran, Yalta, the Potsdam Agreement, the building of the atom bomb, the division of Europe, the Berlin Wall, maybe even the Vietnam War and a number of smaller wars (whose causes, development, and conclusions he could no longer remember).

“Really?”

“Yes.”

He nodded. It was in Dresden, in the late thirties, when as a young bellboy he had been assigned to push the breakfast cart to a certain room; the best one in the hotel, not really a room but a suite, no, a whole floor that was separate from the other floors. He had been chosen from all the bellboys (twelve in all, who mainly held doors open and closed them, pressed elevator buttons, and bowed as they handed over telephone tickets). Walking in front, next to and behind him were the directors; one of them knocked, someone opened the door, he wheeled the cart with the mushroom omelet, toast, bowl of fruit, pot of tea on the flickering tea warmer, plates and cups and silverware into the room; and when he looked up, he saw Hitler sitting on the edge of the bed in his robe and slippers. “I could have just taken one of the knives from the cart and rammed it into his throat.” His cigarette, the third one, glowed again, making his face shine darkly in the window. “Yes,” I said, “that’s a good story.” And then immediately asked the inevitable question: “So, would you have?” “What?” “Stabbed him.” Whereupon, instead of answering, he raised his arm and wiped the pane, turned around and shuffled back to the sleeping car with his jawbones clicking. It was around two in the morning, still very warm, but of course nothing compared to the afternoon heat at the hotel on Via Principe Amadeo, from which he was picked up a few days later. On the stairs he had encountered Lipski, one of the card players, who was on his way back from an errand: Wilhelm between two men, whose appearance Lipski could not recall later when I asked him for a description. Lipski was a small, spindly man with deep-set, always slightly shaded eyes, whose otherwise startlingly light skin stretched over the bones of his face like parchment. From the glittering noon brightness on Principe Amadeo, Lipski had walked into the darkness of the staircase and been nearly blinded for a moment, so that he would have collided with one of the two men, who were wearing dark clothing, if he had not suddenly heard a hissing – a hissing or a whispering – that had caused him to retreat with his back pressed to the wall, since the three made no attempt to move out of the way.

Wilhelm had not paid him any attention, he said, but had looked straight ahead, simply sliding his jaw back and forth. In the evening we went back to the train station. Lipski walked next to his colleague, while Wilhelm, who was usually at my side, was missing. Lipski thought he might already be waiting on the platform, but he was wrong, so I ended up taking over Wilhelm’s car as well with the help of the conductor.

The conductor met the guests at the door, took them to their compartments, then asked for their tickets and passports and placed them in a folder, which he handed over to me so I could complete the formalities at the border without waking the sleeping passengers. Around two, just as I was about to do my rounds, the train stopped between stations; I looked out and was startled, because I imagined I saw Wilhelm walking over the railway embankment and disappearing between the bushes into the darkness. The conductor walked forward to the engine to find out the reason for the stop, and when he came back he reported that the machine had stopped for no (apparent) reason; no, the emergency brake hadn’t been pulled, they knew that because the instruments would have shown it. He was about my age, but taller and fatter, so that he practically filled the entire height and width of the corridor.

When the train started back up with a jerk, he looked at the clock, pulled a small book out of his bag and noted the time – 2:23 am – before entering “Stopped from – to –” in his logbook under Special Occurrences, which was important because it meant our stopping time could be compared with those of other trains later on. As it turned out, all the trains that had been heading north from Rome that night had stopped as if by agreement (or upon some secret command): the engines stopped at 2:03 am, the wheels locked up, and the trains came to a halt and could not be started up again, despite all the engineers’ efforts, until 2:23 am. During those twenty minutes, all rail traffic north of Rome came to a standstill, while the southern regions only received reports about minor disruptions.

A couple of days later, on a day that was just as bright and hot as the day when Lipski saw Wilhelm between the dark-clothed men on the stairs, I heard a knock on my door at Principe Amadeo. I told them to come in. Two men entered, identifying themselves as criminal police investigators, and asked me to follow them to the Forensic Institute on Porta Pia to perform an unpleasant duty: identifying a man who might be my missing colleague. So the sleeping-car company had shared my report, based on Lipski’s observation, with the police. One of the men spoke German. In response to my query, he said the unknown man had been discovered by a cleaning crew at the Ostia Lido terminus, sitting at the window of the Metro train as if he were asleep. The train ticket in his pocket had been stamped at the Piramide station at 4 pm; since the time of death was about 5 pm, it looked as though he had shuttled back and forth between Rome and Ostia until the train’s last run (12:17 am). They pushed me into a car but it wouldn’t start, so we got out again and walked, since they could not agree whether to take a bus or a taxi – first along Via Cavour and then, once we had passed the train station, taking various smaller streets, of which the last one led not to Porta Pia, but to Viale del Policlinico. The sun hung directly overhead; the streets seemed abandoned, the blinds had been rolled down on all the houses, a cat lay curled up in a car tire, and suddenly I thought that if I were to disappear, it would be the only living creature to have seen me walking with the two men. A cat that sleepily raised its head. And suddenly I remembered a distinction my grandfather had made: that in the south – because the streets and plazas were so empty in the mid-day heat – kidnappings and murders normally took place at noon, while here in the north those things were usually handled at night.

Ever since their argument – taxi or bus – the two men had been quiet. The younger one, walking on my left, wore brown sandals, his toes protruding slightly past the insoles; it looked as if they touched the pavement with each rolling step. The other wore sturdy black shoes with soles that were clearly hobnailed, their clicks echoing down the street. But neither of them wore dark clothing. The younger one wore light-colored pants and over them a green, red and blue safari jacket with an open collar; the other was all in beige or khaki, also with his collar unbuttoned; a delicate silver chain hung around his neck, bouncing up off the gray pelt on his chest with every step, as if on a trampoline; he was the one who knocked on the iron door in the clinic basement and pressed down the door handle upon hearing Si, avanti. We stepped into a large room, tiled all the way to the ceiling in pale green, which was icy cold after the heat outside. I had been prepared for one of those stainless-steel refrigerated wall cabinets you see in the movies, with the body-length drawers that roll out, but instead there were several tables in the middle, covered with sheets beneath which the outlines of bodies were visible. Circular neon tubes hung from the ceiling, giving off a kind of foggy or gauzy light, so palpable you felt it could be cut with a knife.

A man got up from his swivel chair and came over; he wore a gray apron and stood by the table in the middle, then threw back the sheet so I could take a look at the face. The dead man’s eyes were closed, his nose sharp, his mouth a line, all of it repellent and waxen in the foggy, or gauzy, light; but his jaw was held in place by a band wrapped around his head, knotted at the top. And that was what confused me so much that for a moment I saw Wilhelm, I saw his jaw jerking back and forth and heard the clicking, so that even after I was back out on the street I was still wondering whether it could have been him after all. But it wasn’t him, I’m quite sure of it.

I told Lipski the same thing. When I went to his room, he was sitting at the table and staring at four stacks of cards piled in front of him; they were smaller than normal cards, and there were more of them than were normally needed to play; they formed a row of four small towers, but when I came in he bumped them; they collapsed, and he began sliding them back and forth, his hands moving in circles. He was completely naked; I could see that he had no body hair at all, not even a tiny hair in evidence anywhere. His parchment skin, which I had remembered as being relatively light, had darkened; it stretched across his shoulders and ribs, and his genitals lay between his legs like those of a small child. When he noticed my gaze, he reached for a towel and covered himself.

“Lipski,” I said, “I’ve just been to the corpse room.” But he didn’t seem to be listening at all, instead looking toward the window. The blind was halfway down, and the light streaming in traced white stripes on his face. He sat there completely motionless, his chin jutting forward and his arms hanging down. Only when I left did he raise his hands to begin sifting through the cards again. But he had definitely understood me, because when we walked to the train station that evening, he commented, “I could have told you that right away.” “What?” “That he’s not in the place where they took you.” “And how did you know that?” He tilted his head, exactly as Wilhelm used to, then abruptly stopped walking as soon as he realized it. He stood stock still; his deep-set eyes now seemed to protrude. He was in the middle of Via Carlo Cattaneo, which we were just crossing in order to turn onto Giovanni Giolitti, which ran along the south side of the train station; around us was the rushing evening traffic – the cars, the honking horns and flickering turn signals. “Lipski, what is it?” His chin trembled. But he simply shook his head and didn’t say another word.

The facts are these: Wilhelm was picked up from the hotel on Principe Amadeo at noon by two men in dark clothing, and has been missing ever since.

My grandfather, whom I told about the affair, wrote back that he believed missing persons were not really missing, but tended to gather in certain places. If I understood him correctly, he supposed they were on a special kind of train on which they traveled ceaselessly, in other words without ever getting off, back and forth across Europe. Each person, he said, had a separate compartment for sitting and reading or just looking out the window. Since the trains weren’t listed in any timetable and never stopped – or only in very hidden places – it was hard to discover them. Later he expanded on his theory. It’s quite possible, he wrote in another letter, that the missing people were also in those dilapidated apartment blocks found at the edges of big cities, where they formed their own colonies, isolated from the rest of the world. The next evening, the evening of the day after my visit to the corpse room and after an uneventful trip during which Lipski sat silently in my compartment, as though afraid to be alone – “Lipski,” I had said, “What is it? Is there something bothering you?” but he had stayed silent, the only sound coming from the rustling of the cards sliding from one hand to the other – when I got back to Berlin that evening, I tossed the coins into the jar next to the door; and when I walked to the window I saw, between the houses, the Havel flowing backward – an impression doubtless caused by the fact that the wind was blowing in the opposite direction.

 

Dunkle Gesellschaft. Roman in zehn Regennächten.  First published by Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt 2005 (c) Schöffling & Co.

See https://www.schoeffling.de/foreignrights/gert-loschütz/dark-company

Those Present

Author: Dorothee Elmiger
Translator: Alan Robinson

This is a memorandum from the future.
 

     A bird is sitting peacefully on the shoulder of Michael Ibo Sperberbaechel, the boxer. Light falls into the room through the windows, just missing the creature. In the kitchen, John Klein is making coffee.

      Elfi Baum, the student, and Hans-Peter Finsterhaus, the famous trumpeter, have just arrived and are shaking the snow off their coats.

      Marie-Louise Ach, a textile designer, has been working silently for some hours at the kitchen table, her child Hannes is sleeping in the room next door, and the poet Franz Abdu has also fallen asleep in an armchair; he had a long journey to get here. A typographer is leafing through a book.

      Silvia Tobler and Marion Jacobo, academics, are standing at the window. These are those present; they speak softly.


    This is a chair, they say. This is the kitchen table. This is Elfi Baum’s coat in the hall. They say: This is a summer, an autumn, this is a winter. They say: This is a European city. They say: This is an American landscape with trailer. This is a southern mountain range, continues someone tentatively, this is a spring. This is a soldering iron. This is a carpet knife and this a sewing machine. This is a sickle, someone adds, and this a hatchet. This is the last village in the valley. This is Italy.

      And they resume: This is the bird on the boxer’s shoulder, which is sleeping and breathing peacefully. This is the deepest gorge in the mountains, this is the highest mountain in the land. This is the university. This is the brewery. This is the spindle factory. This is the flat of Elfi Baum, the student, says Elfi Baum, as if to herself. These are the boxer’s gloves. So this must be a boxer. This is spring, yet again. This is the bed that Hannes sleeps in. This is the bed that Marie-Louise Ach sleeps in. This is the table where the typographer works. This is the ring where the boxers stand. These are the poplars in front of student Baum’s kitchen window.

      This is the present. This is the Weser, this is the Rhine, the Spree, the Sitter, the Emme, the Danube, this is the Po. This is an American landscape, with not a soul in sight. This is an American landscape in the Southern states. This is Berlin. These are Mother and Father Baum on a trip through primeval forests. This is a rear courtyard. This is winter. This is a year. This is a continent. This is a continent in the future. This is a night in the city. These are trains, buses, cars.

      This is yesteryear which echoes softly. This is the mouth of Hans-Peter Finsterhaus, the trumpeter, playing a song which winds through the slow afternoon hours ever upwards, far beyond the roofs to the heavens. This is a sudden darkening of the sky as a thunderstorm gathers, this turmoil which rages and thunders far above. This is the bird’s body on the boxer’s shoulder. These are European towns. This is the sixties.

      These are the years 2011 to 2061. This is the future, and this is the past.

      This is John Klein making coffee in the kitchen, says the typographer, glancing fleetingly at him. This is a foreman. This is a double bass player. This is a farmer. This is the bright morn. These are three empty offices in Hamburg docks.

      This is New Year. This is New Year. This is New Year. This is New Year, and someone is standing at the kitchen window, watching the fireworks and musing on the feelings that arise; that was me, murmurs Marie-Louise Ach. This is the poet Franz Abdu. This is the moment when Marie-Louise Ach falls asleep.

      This is an apple, one apple, these are two. This is death. This is the poet Franz Abdu reflecting on death. This is an American landscape with Bob Dylan, without Bob Dylan, with Bob Dylan.


    This is not the present. This is the journey through the past. This is the mouth of Finsterhaus the trumpeter in the future. This is Franz Abdu, dreaming of a crate on which three men once sat and armed themselves with long sausage spits. This is the same dream, when some others tried to climb onto the crate, but by then it was already too late, the sausage spits already sharpened. This is speaking reflectively, says Marion Jacobo, who is standing at the window, and this is a stream, it flows rolls reels falls into the ravine. This is the ravine. This is the ravine where it’s always cool and the moss smells good, do you remember?

      This is Europe. This is the central European time zone. This is time as a whole. This is death. This is death not yet. This is the fear of time passing. This is the fear of oblivion. This is a female refused asylum seeker. These are two male refused asylum seekers, these are five male refused asylum seekers, these are thirteen female refused asylum seekers. These are five hundred and eighty male and female refused asylum seekers. This is a spoon, this a fork. This is a knife. This is an unfamiliar face.

      This is my, this is my, this is my hand writing here. This is my hand writing in the future. This is my mouth that is speaking and will speak. This is a cordless drill. This is a bandsaw. This is a sawmill, this a hammer, the sickle, a hatchet. This is the illumination, the luminescence, the lamps below ground. These are the lightning flashes of a distant storm.


    This is a minaret. Hans-Peter Finsterhaus comments: This is a winter night and this the keen wind that cuts through you. This is the day at 4 pm, when everything is still distinct, but evening is already lurking on the farthest horizon. This is the end of days. These are still early days. This is the national border. This is the retreat into the Alps. This is the securing of the border crossings. This is the profound sadness. This is an apple, this is an apple, are two. This is Elfi Baum in the lecture theatre, says Elfi Baum of herself. These are the ones with the sausage spits on the crate in Abdu’s dream. They are the same ones, they call out incessantly, even shout hoarsely: But then it was already too late, but now it’s far too late, hey, Order! down there. This is the bird that sleeps and sighs on Sperberbaechel’s shoulder.

      These are five recruits vaulting over a horse. These are five recruits forming a triple-decker pyramid. These are five recruits, who have been running round in circles for eleven hours, I saw them myself, laughs Franz Abdu in his sleep.

      These are the mountains in the pallid light, the failing light. These are some animals browsing. This is the fox’s earth, a fox is barking inside. This is the memory of that. This is an expulsion from a public square. This is a sports club. This is the Brunnental Gymnastics Group. This is the mixed choir. This is the swimming club. This is the Harmony Brass Band in uniform, it’s new, this is the Harmony Brass Band’s new uniform. This is the student fraternity, these are the probationary members, these are the prospective members. This is the Grapes the White Horse the Lion the Crown. This is a family of four eleven minutes before their deportation. These are five recruits, who are still running round in circles. This is the Bear and this the Sun.


    These are fourteen foreign-looking men selling drugs at Herisau station. This is Robert Walser standing at Herisau station. These are fourteen foreign-looking tourists being welcomed at Herisau station by the tourist officer waving a small flag.

      This is a minaret on Säntis. This is an Alpine stronghold. This is a nation. This is a statesman. This is a civil right. This is a Swiss. This is a true Swiss. This is the very opposite of a Swiss. This is a Swiss woman. These are twenty-one schoolchildren, who can draw the outline of Switzerland by heart.

      This is the firmament, the stars O so low in the sky, then the sun again: This is the sun. This is the sun, which then again has risen, this is the sun, which once again has risen. This is the sun in the South. This is the sun in the West. This is night.

      This is a catastrophe. These are the ones who sneaked over the border, these are the black sheep, the intruders. This is the foreign rabble, dead tired. These are the dead tired. This is a makeshift shelter with windows. This is a makeshift shelter without windows.

      This is the poet Franz Adbu, his arms flailing helplessly. This is Hans-Peter Finsterhaus, desperately playing an upbeat.

      This is the fear of the days to come.

      This is exchange, quid pro quo. This is a job. This is work in general and this is then oblivion. These are the dead. These are those absent. These are Silvia Tobler and Marian Jacobo, determinedly standing at the window.


    This is an honest attempt and at the same time a failure. This is my contribution. This is my hand writing here. This is my imagined hand in the future writing here, while John Klein is making coffee, the stream is plunging into the ravine, five recruits on the sports field in Frauenfeld are playing dodge ball and two asylum seekers in the last row of an aircraft with blankets over their heads are being transported out of the country.

      This is the onset of darkness. This is me, Hans-Peter Finsterhaus, walking home at night, says Hans-Peter Finsterhaus. This is the first frosty night of the year. These are the days to come, preying on my mind, says the typographer.

      This is a love. This is a runway. This is a harbour, this a quay. These are hills, valleys, cross-country buses. This is a penis. This the foreskin, the glans nuts berries, thicket, undergrowth. This is the skin with its many blemishes. This is the history of bodies, of skin, of gender in the future. This is a breast, a dark courtyard, the door, the field, the hollow. This is the indeterminate landscape.

      This is sex. These are some questions, posed afresh. This is the gender question. This is the body question. This is the question of what connects the body with freedom. This is a body, to be seated on a chair and bound as follows: at the ankles, at the lower leg, above the knee, below the hip and with a special rope contraption around the shoulders and then pushed into the aircraft. This is the reality. This is a report. This is a poem. This is a list. This is a proposal.

      This is a memorandum from the future. This is reality, and this is reality, this is reality too, says Marie Louise-Ach, bent over the kitchen table. This is reality in the future. This is an essay about reality in the future. These are a thousand birds in the yard. This is Lake Fählen, this Lake Lucerne Walen Constance, a flooded gravel pit. This is fictitious. This is invented and not true. This is fabricated or rather: feared. This is today in thirty years’ time.


    This is Franz Abdu dreaming of the ones on the crate, who strike up a singsong to the beat of the hammering sausage spits: But then it was already too late, bet then et wes elreedy tee leet, bit thin it wis ilriidy tii liit. These are the ones sitting on the crate, ever more numerous in their swan song, singing: But thun ut wus ulruudy tuu luut, bat than at was alraady taa laat, they scream. This is power. This is its exercise. This is exerting force. This is an exercise. This is just an exercise. This is harmless. This is not the emergency. These are preparations for the emergency. This is a warning of the emergency. This is an Alpine stronghold. These are seven hundred and eleven male and female refused asylum seekers. This is one apple, one apple, so two.

      This is Elfi Baum; I am at my wit’s end, she whispers. This is John Klein, who in his despair makes coffee again and again, says the typographer. These are the dead tired, says John Klein, mere shadows of their former selves, who have disappeared in the shelter without windows, in the container, in the furthermost corner.

      These are the shadows in the rooms. These are the ones whose names no one here has ever heard. These are the ones with terror breathing down their neck.

      These are the ones with the supermarket vouchers. These are the ones who spend their days in the supermarket cafeteria. This is oblivion.

      This is the emergency, says Marie-Louise Ach, in a loud voice now. This is exerting force. This is not an exercise. This is not a poem, and this is not fictitious. This is the present. This is a continent. This is the central European time zone.

      This is a performance-oriented society, this an identity check, and these are five recruits still running round in circles. This is the silent boxer with the sleeping bird on his shoulder. This is Marie-Louise Ach, whose child is sleeping in the room next door. This is still capitalism. These are in front of the window the birds, the thousand. This is a restless sleep. This is discontent. This is the discontent that my hand feels. This is my mouth that is speaking here and will speak. This is my mouth that is twitching here, a shout, a shout, a roar.

      This is the moment when I fainted, Elfi Baum recounts. This is the moment when I stood up once more, recounts Michael Ibo Sperberbaechel, the boxer.

      These are in front of the window the birds, the thousand, they are laying their eggs, arranging their feathers, whirling upwards in the sun that will soon have departed. This is the rear courtyard, this is the mouth or the memory of the city.

      These are the three on the crate, the seven, eight or eleven with their never-ending swan song. These are the ones who allow only one another to sit on the crate. These are the ones who say that the crate must be defended. These are the crate defence measures. These are the ones who guard the crate with their rifle sausage spit penknife. This is an ode to the crate.

      This is an evening lullaby, so the child can sleep well, says Hans-Peter Finsterhaus. This is the desolate evening lull, after the child has fallen asleep. This is the announcement in the evening TV news that criminal Nigerians will soon have it coming to them.


    This is the truth. This can’t be true, says Michael Ibo Sperberbaechel. These are the birds, the thousand. This is an apple, one apple, these are two. These are the children, who sing that the crate may buckle, and the little mouse chuckle. These are the ones on the crate, who retort that by now it’s far too late. This is a human, this is a human. This is a human being.

      This is the question of whether this one or that one is human. This is the question of what kind of human being that is. This is the question of whether you can live well without windows. This is the question of whether you can fly well with a blanket over your head. This is the question of who, in the emergency, will be allowed into the Alpine stronghold. This is the question of whether in fact all’s well. This is the question of when the crate will buckle. This is the question of what it sounds like when a little mouse chuckles. This is finally the question about the contents of the crate, and this is an apple, one apple, these are two.

 

Die Anwesenden,” NZZ [Neue Zürcher Zeitung] Folio, September 2010

Quick Mitzvah with a Seaside View

Author: Dmitrij Kapitelman
Translator: Jeff Clingenpeel

 

The next morning I’m completely exhausted (acquitted!), plus I have a cold. Another rainy day, and I’d prefer to ignore this one from my bed. You could become a citizen of this country right now. But Dad insists we go to the market to get what we need for the Sabbath. The trees on Rothschild Street are standing at somewhat more of an angle today. The gray clouds are denser. We’re being followed by a cat with a white backside and a black and red spotted head.

Meow.

Dad, of course, feels he’s been addressed and digs for more information.

“Whatsa matter, huh?”

Meow.

“It said meow,” he repeats sweetly.

“I’m sure the cat is just saying in its own way that the weather is shitty. Ask it if it has any aspirin.”

An old man dumps the coffee out of his paper cup onto the street. He doesn’t need it anymore; in his other hand he already has two packs of Pall Malls. The Sabbath discount war at the Arab fruit stand is underway. This time the vendor even arranged for a microphone to heat things up. After briefly announcing his prices, he cranks up the techno. A kilo of potatoes is two shekels. The crowd descends on them. A well-fed people is a happy people, especially when it’s a well-fed people bound by ties of blood and living on the land where its faith was born.

Shabbat Shalom.

Singing on the square between the entrance to the market and the Yemeni Quarter is an African-Israeli, which is just my current term for Jews who might be Ethiopian Jews, but I can’t say for sure. He’s singing so that people can record him on their smartphones. In a NY baseball cap and with the extravagance of African-American soul. The Rick James of Tel Aviv. I’m happy to see a dark-skinned man being given some social recognition here—no one claps all that much at any rate for the Tel Aviv and Netanya garbage men, who, almost without exception, are all dark-skinned. I wonder if someone once told them that they belonged here too and could become citizens of the country right now. Maybe they absorbed that with glowing hearts. Now they’re scraping dog shit off the side of the road.

Then again, maybe I don’t approve of the applause for the singing African-Israeli after all, strictly speaking. The man is spewing some pretty cheesy stuff.

You love all of me and I love all of yoooooooouuu

Crossing the square where this guy is crooning, moving right past the microphone, is a heavyset, grim-faced man on his moped. Strapped onto the moped are four earring display trays, all stacked one on top of the other.

You love all of me and I love all of yoooooooouuu

Right before the Sabbath, and the square is overrun with people. People shoving from behind. And the average volume of the salesmen’s voices makes it clear that this is a country where military service is mandatory.

Shoving from the left.

Dad maneuvers his way through the heaving masses undaunted. He’s become a real market shark. As he’s rooting around at a baker’s stand, someone bumps into him, and Dad spills a few drops of his confidently procured pomegranate juice. He looks up, briefly annoyed, and then buys four olive rolls anyway. Dad in Israel: suddenly unflappable. I, on the other hand, am an aspirin disposal unit wandering along on wobbly legs with the phrase “you could become a citizen of this country right now” running through my head in an endless loop. Before Mr. Goldstein, I never had the slightest inkling how much I craved unconditional, blood-based citizenship. Kind of scary.

In the alley where the butchers’ stalls are, a woman positions her face up close to one of the meat display cases, right in front of a huge leg of lamb. Her head is sort of shaped like a leg of lamb too. Crazy really: one hunk of meat standing here ordering another. I think I’m hallucinating. People shoving from behind and the right.

On the spot where the wannabe Usher was causing a sensation with his kitsch an hour ago, there is now a pair of Orthodox Jews at a little table. Their stand has all the stagecraft of a German election campaign booth—one that The Left party would set up in front of city hall in a small Baden-Württemberg town. Insane: one hunk of meat wanting another hunk of meat to pray. What kind of a way is that to think? You could become a citizen of this country right now.

The Orthodox Jews are stopping pretty much random passersby and trying to tie a little black box on their heads. They wrap some kind of leather strap around their arms in an intricate process. While I consider whether I want to know what it is they’re putting on people’s heads, one of the men from the group approaches me. Late twenties, roughly my age. Flawless American English. Even less well-shaved than me, except that his beard is that way on purpose.

“Interested in a quick mitzvah?”

“What’s a quick mitzvah?”

“A Jewish prayer. Are you religious?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Are you Jewish?”

“Yes,” I respond. That fact has been scientifically validated as of yesterday after all and is now denied only by my Jewish father.

“Have you even had your bar mitzvah?”

“No, but my father comes from a long line of rabbis.”

At first the group seems a bit overwhelmed by my disclosure, but they quickly resume their busy activity. “Then we should get you caught up and do your bar mitzvah right away.”

I’m having my bar mitzvah Dad! And it’s about time too. At least I think it is.

Right, Dad? Dad? Where in the world is he?

Quick-Mitzvah Rabbi puts a yarmulke on my head. Makes sense. I understand the first step in the process.

“Are you right- or left-handed?”

“Right.”

“Then the first tefillin goes on your right arm. Across from your heart. We have to put it in that exact spot so that it can mediate between your heart and your intellect. That’s because our feelings and our thoughts are the two things that make us human.”

That really does resonate with my heart/mind. My intellect, after all, sees the many flaws of this unfamiliar country and points out in no uncertain terms that Israel and I are completely foreign to each other. Which it couches in phrases like “artificial identity construct” and “emotional overcompensation.” So maybe the Inner Court is back in session after all? You could become a citizen of this country right now. Maybe I could in North Korea too. But what for?

My heart, on the other hand, is pleading for joyous celebrations and writing pamphlets overflowing with redemption, security and the warmth of home. I’ll finally arrive, it says, I’ll belong. No more parenthetical immigrant background, no more skepticism, no more Inner Court. A Jew in Israel. Period.

Terrifying how much I’ve been craving a clear religious creed, says the mind. Don’t listen to the bellyaching intellectual, chirps the heart. He won’t make you happy. You weren’t happy before, were you? There you go!

I repeat Hebrew blessings while they wrap more leather straps around my arms and hands. When did they strap the prayer cube to my forehead? It’s all going so fast. My bar mitzvah is racing past in the time it takes to order a kebab. I do manage to learn that the box contains a snippet of the Torah, however. And I even pull off the necessary sleight of hand to put myself into a spiritual frame of mind without entirely renouncing my critical inner observer. Is this an important moment in my life? The guys here would definitely say it is. Were I to ask Dad, I’m sure he’d say no, not really. Where is Dad anyway?

Again I sputter out some incorrect scraps of Hebrew blessings. As a reward I’m given an English brochure and am allowed to repeat the prayer for the third time, except that now I understand what it is I’m actually vowing.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be on your heart.” Says who?

“You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up.”

I try to read in an especially meaningful tone of voice, but my partner in this spiritual quickie isn’t listening anymore at all. My eyes search for Dad. And I finally find him. Just a few meters away. He’s turned away from my bar mitzvah and would rather study some sausage in a butcher shop window. “You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates. HEAR, O ISRAEL, THE LORD IS OUR GOD, THE LORD IS ONE.”

So. Mitzvahed like a proper Jew. Now what? The Inner Court has released the accused, who now has a piece of the Torah on his head.

“You can say a personal silent prayer now if you’d like.”

At that moment my will is so strangely absent that I would have agreed to sponsor a rhinoceros family if he’d asked (provided it was an Israeli rhinoceros family). But it’s kind of nice to yield to it all.

“Yes, I’d like that. Should I do anything with my hands?”

“If you want to.”

“Close my eyes?”

“Up to you.”

I turn my palms toward my head, which I lower a bit. I think that’s what Muslims always do with their hands too. Makes a good impression. I close my eyes. Hmmm. Whatever.

I sort of pray for everything, but not for too much either. It’s my first audience after all. Ten seconds in that physical/spiritual posture. During those seconds I am the most believing unbeliever I can possibly be.

“Let me give you our contact information right quick before your bar mitzvah dance. Do you have a smartphone?”

“Wow, there’s a dance? For me?”

“Yes, but let me see your smartphone a second. I’ll show you an app you can use to find the nearest house of prayer in Israel.”

So the future has begun for the Orthodox too. Fortunately, my cell phone’s internet connection is on strike again. Or maybe that’s actually a shame.

My App Rabbi whistles to a second member of the Orthodox market team. This one looks kind of like a Jewish Milhouse van Houten. We take each other’s hands and dance in a circle. Mazel tov … Israel … Mazel tov—that much I can make out. I try to decide whether I should go with enthusiasm and volume, or whether the guys would think I was mocking them if I were to butcher Hebrew prayer songs at the top of my lungs. But before I’ve danced my way to a clear position on that, the ceremony is already over.

Then I walk up to Dad who’s rushing over to the bus.

“Dad, didn’t you see? I had my bar mitzvah!”

“Yes, I saw that,” he responded, giving no outward indication of his opinion. When Dad’s answers don’t come with any visible sign of an opinion, then his opinion is usually negative.

“So what did you think?”

“Honestly?”

“No. Lie to me. Come on, spit it out!”

“I thought: I hope he’s not becoming religious like his grandfather.”

“That’s what you thought?”

“Yes, that’s what I thought.”

The bus driver hits the gas, brakes, curses, honks, accelerates, brakes again, curses.

“What would be so bad about me becoming religious like Grandpa?”

“Religious people are dishonest.”

That actually sounds like a sentence where he’s just substituted Religious People for Arabs. But he means it exactly how he said it. I have to ask four times what he means by “dishonest” and request examples. I don’t get much. Just that his friend Pavel once wanted his sick son to have an operation in the United States. And that the Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh had assured Pavel that it would provide the money for the operation. All he had to do was come. The congregation would take care of it. And when Pavel and his sick son then arrived in Pittsburgh from Kiev, the congregation had all of three hundred dollars for an operation that cost ten thousand dollars.

“Dad, I fail to understand how that example proves the general depravity of all religious Jews.” Religious people are dishonest. Does that mean his ancestors were dishonest? Did a rabbi once steal his stamps and then claim that it was for the new synagogue tax? Why is he suddenly so hostile? Does he not like the idea of having a religious Jewish son? I just don’t understand him.

“Religious people are dishonest. But who knows, maybe I’ve only ever met the wrong ones up to now. In any case I have a profound aversion to all religion.”

The day’s first rays of sunlight grace us with their presence. I don’t want to take the bus, even though I’m dying to fall into bed. I want to listen to the sea.

“Dad, look how beautiful it is here on the beach. Let’s get out.”

“But we wanted to go to Bat Yam.”

“Yeah, but just look at the gorgeous view waiting for us here.”

“You know that the Sabbath is just about to start and we’re sitting in what could be the last bus.”

“Then we’ll just take a taxi, Dad.”

In a show of strength, I force Dad to behold the beauty of creation from a different wooden bench than the one he was picturing in Bat Yam. The sun shines on our faces and quiets them. The wind provides the conversation. Dad fusses with his fur-lined hood. Then all at once he feels compelled to clear up the following:

“Borya isn’t a particularly good Jew.”

Where did that come from?

“Well, Borya told me that he does at least observe certain rituals so he can convince himself he’s a Jew.”

“Yeah, once a year.”

“That’s once more than you, Dad.”

“Oh well, that’s just the kind of Jew I am.”

Dad’s welcome to be that if he wants. But it doesn’t mean I have to be. You could become a citizen of this country right now. I’m somewhere between detached and feverish. Apart from the rush of the waves and the thousand other little snippets of sound floating around us, the silence is total.

“Do you think your father would be proud of you, Dad?”

He thinks about it a while.

“Yeah, I think so. I think he would be proud of you too.”

Dad attempts to pull his hood up tighter and gets tangled up in the strings. So that the only thing poking out is his nose. Once he frees himself, he continues:

“David Kapitelman was a quiet, kind man. And a perfect accountant. His work was always above board and he never stole. Which really wasn’t easy in Ukraine. He worked all day.”

“And when did he find the time to pray three times a day?”

“Five o’clock in the morning, around noon and in the early evening.”

“Did he pray in his own room?”

“His own room? What room? You still remember our tiny apartment in Kiev, don’t you?”

“Were you allowed to watch?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And what did you think when you saw your father praying?”

“What rubbish.”

A kind, utterly infallible accountant with moral integrity, in other words, who believed in rubbish. I don’t really understand the sea all that well today.

Dad and I play soccer at the bus stop with a little white cardboard box. Complete with a backheel feint and a blind back-foot pass. Dad manages everything but a step over. No more buses are coming. You could become a citizen of this country right away. Shabbat Shalom.

 

Das Lächeln meines unsichtbaren Vaters.  © 2017 Hanser Berlin at Carl Hanser Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, Munich

Friedinger

Author: Stefan Kutzenberger
Translator: Vincent Kling

 

At a time when we were completely at a loss about how to pay our young family’s bills, my wife ‒ girlfriend at the time ‒ was awarded a grant for 3,300 euros to make a documentary film in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, about the way group dynamics had developed during the campaign between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004. It was only 2-1/2 years since the new currency had been introduced, and 3,300 euros felt like 45,000 schillings. That seemed an amount so large that neither of us would ever have to work again. We stayed in Santa Rosa for three months; my wife worked on her film while I watched our son, not even a year old yet, and read John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, followed at once by Roberto Bolaño’s monumental posthumous novel 2666, which had just been published. The scale of these great works stunned me. “I see myself more as a reader than as an author,” Jorge Luis Borges used to repeat all the time, but if he hadn’t written that, I wouldn’t be able to quote it now. It’s not enough, then, to be a good reader. And it’s also not enough just to claim that literature has had a determining impact on my life. After all, any random little maxim can have the same effect if read at the right moment. Follow your heart. And the next thing you know, you’ve given notice on your job and become a writer. Or not. Genuine literature is not content just to influence the course of one’s life; rather, it has to alter that life itself, change the molecular structure of being, the oscillations in the membrane of every individual cell.

Then I recorded an album of old songs along with Gary, the Spanish teacher at the middle school in Santa Rosa, in his studio out in the sticks. I’d written them in my emotionally troubled adolescence, but they’d never been accepted for our school band’s play list. After the election victory of George W. Bush, who now had four more years to destroy the world ‒ Trump wasn’t even imaginable at the time ‒ we flew home with a layover in Washington, where we wanted to stay for two days.

We made our pilgrimage to the White House, and our son barfed through the tall fence in a sharp, projectile-like beam from his baby carriage into the Presidential garden. Some nearby security man instantly reached for his walkie-talkie, but fortunately nothing more. We took off for the subway. In the station at Vienna, Virginia, the boy threw up again. The bystanders looked away discreetly and took a different exit. My wife thought we should go to a hospital, but I thought that was an overreaction. When we got back to our little bed and breakfast, the boy vomited yet once more. After the fifth time, I gave in and called 911. Even before I’d hung up, we heard sirens on the street. There was a knock on the door just seconds later, and nine firefighters and a female physician came storming into our dingy room. Immediately the child was expertly positioned, given a quick preliminary examination, and carried down to a huge fire engine on the double. My wife was allowed to sit next to him on the stretcher, while I sat in front like a schoolboy who’d always dreamed of being a fireman. In a few minutes we arrived at the hospital, the ninth-best in the United States according to a sign on the wall. We sat adrift in the waiting room with our semi-conscious child. Only then did I realize that there was something serious wrong with him. But before I could get nervous, George Clooney called us ‒ at least that’s how my wife tells it ‒ and walked with us to the emergency room. We told about our visit to the White House and the first attack which had happened there. This is serious, the doctor said, it can last for four years. I grew calmer, felt that I was in good hands with a Democratic doctor capable of irony. In the next hour our son was x-rayed, given an enema, catheterized, had blood drawn, and was examined from tip to toe in ways that seemed totally unnecessary to me, all the while growing visibly weaker. Finally they brought us into a large, family-sized room on the ninth floor with a magnificent view of Washington illuminated by night. Our son was given an IV, my wife laid herself next to him, and they both fell asleep at once.

 

I wandered around the floor, found a small kitchen, and made myself some tea. Then I read the letters of thanks on the wall from children who’d been treated successfully here, hopeless cases who’d escaped death and were now back in kindergarten or school. Eventually I met up with a night nurse. I asked her if it wasn’t time to take down our information; we had good health  insurance, even a supplemental travel policy, so there shouldn’t be any problem. Later, she said. I hadn’t completely given up on the idea of flying back the next day, and was hoping the drip would help my son recover enough to travel. The doctor doing morning rounds would decide that, meaning there would be enough time for us to fill out all the admission forms. It was clear to me, though, that we would have to travel to the airport as quickly as possible in the morning, if we were allowed to at all, so I asked again if it mightn’t be possible to write down our address,  insurance information, and all the rest now, at night, when there’s nothing else going on anyway. The young nurse, not unattractive but completely uninterested, lacking even a whiff of American enthusiasm, shrugged her shoulders and handed me a small piece of pink paper from the pad by the telephone. I was supposed to write my information on it. I couldn’t think of any address except my parents’ in Linz, and our insurance information was in my suitcase back at the bed and breakfast. She didn’t ask for it anyway, perhaps because she knew she’d never be sending us a bill. The following morning, meaning just a few hours later, we went on our way. I don’t remember anything about our trip back to our room or to the airport; only the flight itself sticks in my mind. Somewhere over the Atlantic my wife began vomiting while our son slept in his little bassinet against the wall and I watched Spiderman 2.

 

A couple of weeks later we’d found a more or less affordable apartment in an old building in the fourth district of Vienna, leaving the elitist luxury of the inner city. My wife began cutting the film she’d started in America, but Vote Faith didn’t turn out to be the success we’d been hoping for. A good thing for me that I hadn’t invested all that much energy in composing the Oscar acceptance speech. The film was shown once to a small audience in the American Embassy and once to a few friends at our apartment. And that was that. So we weren’t going to be able to live from film sales, but an instructor in the comparative literature department dropped out on short notice and I was given a second course to teach, which guaranteed our financial survival. In addition, I kept on having the good fortune, over and over, as if by some miracle, of getting jobs as a copywriter. I wrote for a lamp manufacturer, for the cultural bureau of the City of Linz, for a tourist office. Little by little my customers turned into regulars, so the money flowed more steadily if not in larger quantities. Now that writing had become my profession, I couldn’t manage to pull myself together in the evenings and work on my literary projects. 

I said to my wife not long ago that all my other publications meant absolutely nothing to me; it was as if they didn’t even exist, since the only things that counted were actual literary works in print. She didn’t reply, and I felt misunderstood, though I soon forgot the episode. Until I was given a trip to Crete as a birthday present. […] If I was going to write, I’d better get on with it, and nothing could be better than a concentrated start at a place where nothing could distract me. 

 

A week later I was lying in a hammock in front of Vangelis House. Only one of the other four rooms was occupied, unfortunately by an Austrian, but so far he hadn’t bothered me. An older man who vanished into the mountains with his camera early in the morning and didn’t come back till evening. In the first two days we exchanged a few words at breakfast: he came from Linz like myself, was retired from Voest, the big steel mill, and was a passionate landscape photographer who’d been familiar with the southern coast of Crete since the seventies. I was happy that I hadn’t been saddled with a windbag for a neighbor, for it was important to me that I should approach my work with concentration. 

The first day I read what I’d written so far. Eighty or so pages of my novel about a writer were more or less finished. After reading through the work for the first time I was motivated but dejected at the same time; the part I’d thought was finished was of course unusable, by and large, and about twenty pages pleased me more than I was expecting. By the third day, after I’d combed through the manuscript twice and made some notes, I was all out of excuses. It was time to compose. But how was I supposed to write sitting all alone on the shady terrace without being constantly pestered? When the whole day belonged to me with no limitations, a sea of time before me as endless as the deep blue surface of the water before my eyes?  How was I supposed to start when no end was looming, no one was calling me to practice diving head first from a big boulder, no one was asking if I’d like to share a piece of cake with some coffee or if I’d rather have some freshly squeezed orange juice? I was missing my family; vacation time without them made no sense, and everything reminded me of the splendid summer we’d spent here the year before. We should be experiencing the same thing now, again, as a family, so what on earth was I doing here all by myself?

The other Austrian and I took our seats at different tables on the fourth morning, as usual. We read, he occupied himself with a manual for identifying Mediterranean birds or plants, I worked through my notes once again. I had deliberately not brought along a book so I wouldn’t be prevented from working ‒ a really stupid idea, though, since it’s almost always literature that inspires a writer far more than life itself.  Kalimera, he nodded to me, and then took  himself off in a complete hiking outfit, while I moved with my slips of paper and my new black notebook to another table against the wall, somewhat protected against the wind, and wanted to begin writing. 

By evening I was frustrated. As perfect as conditions were here, I’d done nothing more on the fourth day than correct and rearrange the text, without making any headway with the story itself. I grabbed a beer from the refrigerator, crossed something off my list and sat down on the terrace, now in darkness, from which I could see white spume faintly gleaming in the immeasurable blackness of the sea. 

Well, neighbor, how’s it going? the Austrian asked as he took a seat beside me.  (He was  holding a beer, too).  I didn’t mind this a bit; what else was I supposed to do in the dark? 

Right, you’re in the room next to me, I said. 

And at 57 Hasbergersteig, he added. 

My parents lived at number 15. That was where I’d lived from the time I was nine until I was nineteen, and of course I’d continued spending time there after moving to Vienna, though I had never noticed this man. On the other hand, how would I have? I didn’t go to church and wasn’t part of the St. Magdalena social scene in any other way. 

I wouldn’t have recognized you, the Austrian explained, but the name Kutzenberger seemed familiar to me when I saw it in the guest book. Are you the son of Privy Councilor Kutzenberger? That I was. Are your parents in Vienna now? Yes, they were. My parents had relocated to Vienna the year before, since both of their children ‒ meaning their grandchildren, too ‒ lived there.  Besides, their large house with so many flights of stairs no longer made sense at their age. 

Do you know the family which moved into our old house? I wanted to know. 

I don’t know any of the new people, he answered. Since my mother died, I don’t hear anything at all about what’s going on in St. Magdalena. I might sell the house in the near future. Had ours been easy to sell? No, it hadn’t been. Even though our house on Hasbergersteig had undoubtedly been in the best possible location in Linz, and even though my parents lowered the asking price, it took almost two years before it was finally sold. When the sale was complete, our relief was so great that there was no chance of even a whiff of nostalgia about leaving our home city. 

Are you thinking of moving to Vienna, too? I asked. He merely shook his head, took a sip of beer, and looked out into the dark nothingness that had risen up beyond the terrace. Finally he raised his glass and told me his name was Friedinger. Not Herr Friedinger, not his first name, either, just Friedinger.  Kutzenberger, I replied. 

I went to the university in Vienna and lived there a few more years, but no, I’m not planning to move to Vienna, Friedinger explained. Maybe I’ll just stay here in my house or rent an apartment in the center of Linz, or else I’ll travel to Denmark for a time. 

Denmark, I said. My mother-in-law is Danish.  Friedinger laughed. My daughter too, he said. 

Your daughter is Danish?  

Well, she lives there, anyway. Complicated story. He fell silent and looked pensively in the direction of the Milky Way, which we couldn’t see because of the light bulbs in the terrace fixtures. 

They’re nice people, I said, just to have something to say. 

Complicated story, he repeated. Then: Somebody should write a book about it. Could it be that everybody around here is hawking their life stories in the hope of finding a ghost writer? 

 

A few years ago, just after we’d moved to the outskirts of Vienna ‒ 2007, then ‒ I got to know an elderly Jewish widow whom I met in the Leopold Museum. I’d just finished leading a guided tour through some Impressionists from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The group was dispersing slowly when a lady came up to me, dragged me over to a Monet, and forcefully proclaimed: The one I have at home is better! We remained standing there while she told me about her flight from Nazi Vienna, her new beginning in New York, her husband, who’d been concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, his death many years before, her mansion in Manhattan (much too big), her art collection.  She said she had no children and no heirs, and told me she very much wanted to set her life story down on paper but didn’t know how to go about it. I must have given her my card, because the next time I heard from her was when I was standing in our old apartment surrounded by moving boxes. She was back in America, she told me on the phone, thanked me once more for the nice time she’d had in the museum, and talked to me about her life for two full hours, while my wife packed books into cartons. She repeated several times that she had no heirs and that she’d like to write the story of her life, but I didn’t react. I told her at one point that her story reminded me of my grandmother’s life; she, too, had had to flee because of the Nazis ‒ not from Vienna to New York but from Berlin to Indonesia via Amsterdam. It made no impression on her, not even the realization that I must be Jewish, too, if my maternal grandmother was. Once in a while, though very seldom, maybe no more than two or three times, I mentioned this to other Jews and could clearly notice a difference, a kind of well-disposed Welcome to the club. The wealthy widow with no heirs just kept on telling me more, details that were certainly not uninteresting about the way emigrants lived in the second half of the twentieth century, but there was no possible way I could ever write about any of it until I’d presented the story of my grandmother’s life in book form.

 

If every person carries the material for a book inside, then that was the book I would have to write.  No one else ever would if I didn’t, even if many others were far more qualified than I, knew more about the history of National Socialism and especially more about what life was like for the Chinese minority in Indonesia. My grandmother had married a Chinese Indonesian. I’d even made an attempt one time to start a book about my grandparents, but I didn’t get very far, because it seemed unfair to me to write about my mother’s parents but not about my father’s  just  because my maternal grandparents led a more exotic life than my father’s parents, who’d hardly  left Austria. The only solution, then, would be a book about each set of grandparents. Like any other human being, like any other vertebrate animal, for that matter, I was descended from two families and had four grandparents: that was the first sentence I’d come up with.

The Jewish widow (her first name was Sophie, and I’ve forgotten meantime what her last name was) called me one more time, shortly after we’d moved. I was standing in the garden of my in-laws’ summer house looking out at the Baltic. She was in Vienna and wanted to meet, wanted to show me the scenes of her youth, which was almost eerily easy to do, she said, because nothing had changed. The ice-cream store at the corner of her old house still had the same flooring, the same mirrors on the walls; only the owners were new, though they were just as anti-Semitic. You could walk through Vienna for a week with a map from 1935 and wouldn’t notice that the map was generations old. Even the buses and streetcars still drove the same routes. So when could we meet? I still had two weeks of summer vacation here in the north, I said. Sophie felt personally insulted; that was too long, because she’d be back in New York by then. She was going to leave a gift for me at the desk of the King of Hungary Hotel on Schuler Straße in the center of town.

A few years later, I was in the King of Hungary because I was writing an article about the image of Vienna in Latin American literature, and the great Argentinian author Julio Cortázar, in his novel 62 / modelo para armar, had set a number of scenes in the triangular area between the Hotel Capricorno on Schweden Platz, Blut Gasse, and the King of Hungary. So I visited that hotel, trying in vain to capture the ramshackle, Transylvanian mood of the novel, and I was no more successful in finding any indication that Cortázar had stayed there in the sixties. I was briefly tempted to ask the concierge, who was already annoyed, if a lady named Sophie had left a gift there for me, Stefan Kutzenberger, some years before. But before the words came out of my mouth I became aware of how strange the question would seem, especially after I’d just asked to see the guest registers and pictures of the rooms before renovation, so I left. My article was never published, and I never heard another thing from the rich Jewish widow in search of an heir and biographer. Why had I never picked up the gift? Why hadn’t I thanked her for the trouble she’d taken to leave something for me? That was the least I could have done.

My dodging Sophie was surely explained by the disloyalty I knew I would have felt if I’d gone into more detail about her life than that of my own Jewish grandmother. During my first days in Vienna, when I was living in my grandmother’s apartment ‒ a bleak, new building in the sixth district ‒ we enjoyed a smooth-running, amicable domestic life, almost like college roommates, but when she kept telling me funny, interesting anecdotes about her life, I never understood this as a hint to involve myself with her story. Looking back on it now, I can see she was obviously interested in preserving the story of her odyssey through the twentieth century, because my Viennese grandfather and grandmother (as my brother and I called our grandparents living in Vienna, as opposed to the Linz grandparents) were well aware that their lives had been emblematic of a century eaten up by wars.

One afternoon in the eighties they took seats at a table in their rented apartment in Benidorm on the Mediterranean Coast in Spain, where they usually spent the winter. They had set up a recorder, and grandfather had inserted an empty tape, a BASF LH-EI 60. Although the cassette was brand-name, it held a cheap ferric-oxide tape for playing and recording on Position I (Normal).  This upset me a short time later, when I was given a whole package of those tapes. I was twelve or thirteen at the time and wanted to record music, for which chromium tapes (Position II, High) were much better suited. My grandfather placed one of those ferric-oxide tapes into the opening and pressed the record button so he could finally start doing what countless people over decades had been urging him to do, which was to record his life. And because grandpa and grandma weren’t getting anywhere, it was up to me to do it. Over and over, well-meaning people, mostly passing acquaintances, had also been urging me to write my grandparents’ life story. After just a few sentences around that table in Benidorm, grandpa stopped the faintly whirring machine. He rewound the tape to check if the machine was operating properly. It was. First grandma’s voice and then grandpa’s came through loud and clear as they asked one another where they should start. When they heard how strange their own voices sounded, they were embarrassed, began laughing, and stopped the project before it had even started.

Whenever we see ourselves from outside, we’re seized with acute discomfort. Even the mirror the barber holds up to show us the back of our own head after a haircut, leaves us a bit baffled: Is that supposed to be me? And the irritation of seeing ourselves in profile: Who does this nose belong to? It’s a similar feeling when we read something we’ve written. Old pieces can catch us unawares, either positively or negatively, but what we’ve just now been working on, whatever’s right in front of us, is downright baffling: Is this how I am? I don’t want to be like this! Mushy and unlikeable. What a shocking discovery: we don’t sound the way we hear ourselves, we don’t look the way we picture ourselves, we don’t write the way we’d like to: in short, we’re not the people we think we are. With this before his eyes, or rather in his ears, my grandpa did the one right thing—he put a stop to the autobiographical project.

Friedinger, Deuticke, 2018.

The First Night Song

Author: Yoko Tawada
Translator: Lúcia Collischonn

 

I call her Elbe,
with weeping harbour eyes.
You should not give a woman the name of a river.
Christiane or Christina
she should be called, maybe Christa.
I call Elsa Elbe, when
the harbour turns on its reading lights
With the L the tongue touches the godless
palate.
The neighbours ought not to know
that we like our showers cold.
Suzanne Valadon painted me
as I was sitting on the shower floor.
In the painting Elsa soothes
my hair from behind. She is also naked,
since we are the bathers from the year
1923.
No towels at hand and
the art remains wet.
We stand as though painted.
As a postcard I could
at least buy us back.
Elsa sits naked on the balcony
and dries her head-thicket.
Thirty years old,
her heart is that of a minor
when she steps back into a
chalky-white girl and
sits in the classroom.
Twelve years old then in the same
city with the same name.
Next to her sat a boy
with freckles, Christian.
Mr. Music Teacher dragged him from the chair,
placed him in between the pianos.
The offshoot, the little prisoner.
The boy must become
a man. Sing!
in the name of music he was threatened
and drilled
in G(o) minor
When the machine guns fall silent,
the officer becomes a music teacher
Conquer!
Christian, a conscientious objector like his uncle
grits his teeth.
The imprisoned music
with striped notes.
The teacher pulls him by the ears.
His ears get longer
and longer, until they reach the lofty
heights of art)
Rabbit ears can hear better
Can you hear the trout splashing?
In the well before the gate?
No? A hopeless
case, decay.
Elsa was next.
Choke, Cough, Swallow.
Every song a sorrow.
exposed and ridiculed,
she thought, but no one
in class laughed at this.
All together now!
The command smells like a gargle,
From the young fish mouths flowed
Schubert-shudder
and Schumann-shock.

Elsa hums on her balcony
A ferryman in a blue plaid
shirt sighs and stands still under a
Lorelei, who got lost and
found in the Elbe.
In one single night
decades flow by.
In place of music comes a Mick
with cranberry lips and thick
lashes.
From the LP sleeves bloom
LSD-blossoms,
colourful, blurred, curvy.
The record is the black moon.
Elsa lays out Mick and
takes the arm of the Queen Bee off
the solar disc from Sony.
The spike stabs.
An electro leak
or an electric guitar?
Shallow wounds sit in a thousand grooves.
Sound, swift, sonorous, shrill.
Mick meows,
the big cat has scratches in his cheeks,
sticks his plastic tongue out
unashamedly universal.
Under the needle the turning of
the disc ghost.
Wavy, he soothed the soul
of the schoolgirl with injured
mucosa of the soul.
The Stones fell from her heart
and rolled down the slope
and with them her burnt childhood.

Elsa danced with her chin.
The full moon had never abandoned her
since Romanticism, since the Stone Age
always the same old yellow LP,
the moon with acne craters
is not a smooth mirror.
The mute fishwoman combs her dyed blond
legends.
Green containers are unloaded
from the tired mothership in the harbour.
Her captain is called Jesus from Jeju.
The metallic belly painted with a far
east
longing.
I hear in the wind the quiet humming
of a dead engineer.
That average man Hans Castorp
is resurrected from a
well-feathered death and is building his
Noah’s Ark with Koreans.
The full moon dives into the black
oily water.
Where does the oil in the river come from?
How often does a tanker sink in the oceans?
Not often enough to turn over the revenue.

 

 Ein Balkonplatz für flüchtige Abende, konkursbuch Verlag, 2016.