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The Fluid Land

Author: Raphaela Edelbauer
Translator: Alexandra Roesch

 

In the early hours of September 21st, 2007, I spilt around 200ml of coffee over my intrusively ringing mobile. It had demanded to be answered so suddenly and I had been so taken aback by the withheld number that I hadn’t had time to put down my mug. Irritated that my work had been interrupted, it took me a few seconds to realise who I was speaking to. On the line was a police officer, who, without beating about the bush, told me that my parents had died in a car accident the night before. ‘Died?’ I asked, although I had understood immediately. While I continued to stare at my article about vector spaces and saw the complex scalar products dance before my eyes, the police officer told me what had happened: the red Audi, whose registration plates had been used to identify my parents, must have veered off the road last night and surged like a mud slide across a gravel track to come down near the Syhrntal. The strange thing was, the officer said, that neither of them had any wounds or bruising. Although part of the car was damaged as a result of hitting the crash barrier, there was a lot to indicate that this hadn’t been the cause of death.

After the impact, the vehicle must have slid towards the slope infinitely slowly, rolling lazily into a supine position like a dying insect, eventually gliding, gently grating, across the ridge into the darkness below. The slide, hidden from the other drivers on the Semmering Pass by thick fog, had met its presumably silent end in an oak tree, said the police officer.

I was sitting in bed in my pyjama bottoms and bra, laptop open on my knees with the script of my inaugural address, and suddenly found myself in the middle of a painting with all the wrong perspectives. The alcoves of my flat, the parks outside my window, every chair, every shelf started to move, creaking, wedging themselves against one another. The man on the phone continued unperturbed, bringing his message to an end: it was, therefore, clear that it was not the impact that had led to their death, nor did (he emphasized this bit) the roadworks explain this tragic accident. The pathology report in a few days would give complete certainty as to the cause of death, the man said, and I could tell from his tone, which fluctuated between that of a traffic officer and that of a detective, that he too faced a situation like this for the first time. But by this point we had both mechanically said goodbye to each other and hung up.

I remained in my nightwear for an endless morning, shifting from my side to my back to my front, then back again. From my bed, I watched the signal phases of the traffic light, like a metronome, until I increasingly lost any hope that something would fundamentally change inside me. Instead I was overtaken by a notion which gradually became conviction: I had clearly long been part of a plan, a ceremony that had been determined before my birth, which would now unfold. A cosmic barrel organ had started up. All the parts had been assigned, the cogwheels meshed together, all the cylinders in the mechanics waited to be summoned for grief duty: obviously, I would arrange a funeral.

No sooner had I had this thought than I was able to take action. I got dressed: the new tights gleamed silkily when I removed them from the packet. I made coffee and opened an Excel document. Over the next hours I listed things that needed to be done, assembled people who would have to be informed in a mailing list, gathered the addresses of undertakers and selected allegories for the condolence cards. I got things moving and postponed my professional obligations. This meant first cancelling my lecture and deferring a meeting with my postdoctoral thesis supervisor.

‘No problem, Ruth, I will send out the confirmation of your compassionate leave straight away,’ the secretary at the institute said gently. ‘We’ll let the students know that your lecture will be a week later.’

Meanwhile it was twelve o’clock and, because it was Friday, the students from the Neue Institutsgebäude opposite rushed out and goose-stepped their way to the trams, suitcases with dirty laundry ready to be dumped for their Upper Austrian or Styrian mothers to put in the washing machine a few hours later. I on the other hand felt confined, as if my silent flat had constricted around me. I forced my breath into a rhythm, closed my eyes for a few minutes and waited until my pulse stabilised. And yet, pressure was released: I cried, loudly but briefly, thought of my parents, of my father’s tight hugs, my mother’s perfume, sitting together at the table all those years,  singing carols at Christmas time, of the disagreements – a thousand little moments poured over me completely randomly while I propped myself up on the bed. This all lasted for just a moment. As if my body was not able to hold the pain just yet, it disappeared as quickly as it had come, and emptiness took its place. Once again complete silence, except for the ticking of the gas heater.

It became imperative to do something about this feeling of being unwell. I took two Xanax from the mirrored cabinet in the bathroom, lay down on the sofa and wrapped myself up in a blanket. I was so exhausted from the last few hours that I finally drifted off: the sofa seeped blurrily into the living room wall and into the cloudy grey mood of the early afternoon.

When I came to, I could feel something pressing down on my back and moving. Hands went up and down my shoulders and attested to the fact that I’d had a shock. Indeed, I recalled: I’d opened the door to my aunt and two of my cousins, who had received the news shortly after me. Each of them had fastened their hair tightly in a bun at the back of their head and was dressed in black, so that all three of them looked completely identical. My aunt had placed her arm around me and put some food on the table that she’d brought with her, probably assuming that I hadn’t eaten all day.

‘Ruth, you know we can help you with the household and everything else. It’s the least we can do.’ My aunt was facing me, and yet it was as though there was a delay in her speech. We were soon engrossed in an earnest conversation about the funeral arrangements, when I dropped a glass that someone had filled with orange juice during my mental absence. I watched the liquid run unchecked beneath my sofa and couldn’t do anything to oppose it. The table slid away beneath my hands, I did not recognise the furniture, although it was mine. The tissues my cousins had pulled out, the constantly vibrating mobile phones, the solar disc wandering across the sky, the rhythmically falling tears from my and others’ tear ducts set the tempo, the bellows of my lungs activated into the empty room. The sequences had been broken from their logical proportions, I thought. You’ve had a shock, one of the cousins repeated pointlessly and stroked my hair going the wrong way – into my line of vision, instead of out.

Between trumpet blasts from her nose, full to bursting, my aunt explained that it had been my parents’ constant and indisputable will to be buried in Groß-Einland. ‘Groß-Einland,’ I repeated several times so as to recall this name that had slipped my mind for the longest time: ‘Groß-Einland, Groß-Einland, Groß-Einland.’ ‘Groß-Einland,’ the aunt declaimed as a final Amen, and then I jumped to my feet.

(Groß-Einland: I had last heard this name twenty-five years ago and rediscovered it that evening in a tingling déjà-vu that set my nerves racing. Like many people who have worked their way up from modest beginnings, my parents had spent their life trying to hide their rural background. Of course in their case this went much further than with most other people: as far as I could remember, we had never visited my parents’ home town – and as my aunt, my mother’s half-sister, had grown up in Graz and my father’s relatives had broken off all contact from the start, I didn’t know a single person who had ever been to Groß-Einland.)

I explained that I needed to set off straight away and that I would deal with everything else in Groß-Einland. I would go alone, immediately, and it was not up for discussion, I told my aunt. I wanted to find out if it would be possible to obtain a grave in the graveyard they had specified, otherwise it wouldn’t even be possible for their bodies to be transported. A restaurant needed to be organised, a level-access guesthouse for the older generation, doubtlessly also a small brass band and marble cherubs, I concluded and determinedly pushed the two cousins towards the door. I felt the urgent need to be alone. I was held by my shoulders, but I wriggled out of their grasp and uttered reassurances that immediately fizzled out.

‘Please call us tomorrow morning, otherwise we’ll worry about you,’ was the last thing I heard and then my aunt and her entourage disappeared down the staircase. I immediately started packing for my trip and ignored my incessantly ringing mobile. Lots of relatives wanting to express their condolences or extract information about the circumstances of the death, until, after about the fifth call, I decided to switch it off. Night, already approaching, was blurring the contours of the parquet floorboards on which I was piling my clothes. My luggage consisted of the following: five shirts, two blouses, two dresses, four pairs of trousers (one pair of shorts), a coat, seven pairs of socks, five pairs of knickers, four bras, two towels, sneakers, running shoes, high heels and knee-high boots, a laptop, Xanax, phenobarbital, modafinil, oxycodone, an MP3 player, ten books (Wittgenstein, Serner, Max Brod, Tristan Tzara, six textbooks) as well as a bag of toiletries. This was everything I would have with me for the next three years. At that moment, I wanted to cast off my flat like a pair of old shoes. I took several steps at once, hurried from the fifth to the ground floor and got in my car. This was how it had to be, I thought feverishly as I switched on the engine, it was my duty to arrange a dignified funeral right away.

As I left Vienna, I was seized by an incredible feeling of relief: a dull pressure had lifted from my chest. The fact that a large valley opened up before me near Alland seemed to be a coincidence, and I spiralled ever deeper into the blackened scenery. I briefly considered whether I should tell one of my friends about the events, but the notion was abhorrent. The streets were empty, and by 2 a.m. the motorway was nestling into the landscape which, given the surrounding darkness, I could of course only guess at. It was only when the mighty stone wall of the Semmering massif rose up before me that a shift took place. Like diving under a blanket: an ethereal, unfathomably green smell of conifers enveloped my brain. I had wound down all the windows and felt my car swell with the autumn air. It smelt so good and clean that the vanilla aroma of the air freshener suddenly bothered me – I tugged it off the mirror and threw it outside.

I took a haphazard left turn: I had no idea where I was actually headed. But yes, I did know: Groß-Einland, except I’d driven off without the faintest idea where Groß-Einland actually was. For support, I turned up the radio with Janet Jackson blaring out, but she was soon drowned out by the noise of the airflow that surged into the car. The air, saturated with moisture, whistled through the window; in the blackness that had descended, I was vaguely able to discern that the treetops were bending over. I had never been the best of drivers and now struggled to control the ancient Ford. I must have accidentally driven onto a logging road, as, from time to time, my wheels slipped as if I were travelling across bare earth, but there was not enough space to turn around. And then I did get back onto a tarmac road and I briefly thought I could see a signpost, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a large branch, and then I was heading down a gentle incline again. I felt hot, chased by the masses of land which displaced each other in an undulating movement. Then the road twisted up a hill. For the first time the whole truth hit home: both dead, both at the same time, on some bloody road to nowhere.

The more alpine the surroundings, the more detailed the waves moved through the craggy rocks, the steeper paths, the forests, even coarser now. I could see little wave ridges appear all over the fields, break, and then disappear again. The wind seemed to push the forest, the forest pushed against the fog, and the fog against the grasslands, which built up towards the clouds, putting them under pressure. And I was no less gripped by this than nature herself was: something that had kept me in this world up to now had been turned upside down. The entire land rose up beneath me; I was driving across the wave train of a liquid mass. My hands shook as they gripped the steering wheel, and the contractions of my tense body made the car lurch dangerously from side to side. I had to escape the grasp of the land, and the fact that I saw a sign for a lay-by at that moment was a stroke of fate.

As soon as I drove onto the paved area, the bizarre impressions stopped. This public convenience – the most banal of all places – led me back to reality. Behind the still almost opaque wall of rain, I made out a fixed table and benches, covered in used tissues and plastic cutlery. This man-made structure, although disgusting (half-eaten sausages, well-thumbed porn magazines and tampons had been thrown away on the pathways trodden through the hedges to answer calls of nature), saved me in this moment. The world had stopped swaying.

The engine had only been off for a minute before I started shivering, and because I assumed that the toilet block was heated, I grabbed my sleeping bag and waded through the soggy field to the little building. No feeling of disgust, disturbance or displacement. All that remained for me to do was to wedge myself on to the toilet seat and drift off to sleep.

When I sat up the following morning, only a moment seemed to have passed, but someone was kicking the door so hard that the entire place was shaking. It took a few minutes before I could feel my legs again, a few more to remobilise my seized-up spine, and a few more to venture towards the door, beyond which several voices were ranting. Finally, I unlocked the door. A burly man dressed in blue dungarees pushed his way into the cubicle so forcefully that I was quite simply thrown off track and immediately left the building. There was a massive queue; what’s more, I’d spent the night in the gents. I made my way to the car amid whistles and shouts – my neck was stiff, last night now only a strange memory in my head.

Even so, the air was mild, and while I wondered about this sudden surge of warmth, which mingled with the smell of freshly watered fields, I realised that I was in the forest. Surrounding the toilet block where I’d spent the night, in the midst of an otherwise heathery landscape, there were small groups of trees that merged on the horizon to form an ocean. The Wechsel mountains, I suddenly realised; and indeed, when I finally retraced last night’s odyssey on the map, I discovered that I must have landed in a gorge near Feistritz. The car had taken a bit of a battering – the exhaust and bumper were visibly damaged and were now held only inches above the ground by two narrow wires. I dug out the road atlas from the side door to find out where I needed to go. Groß-Einland was not listed in the index, and it seemed I was already too high up to have an Internet connection. I carefully went through each of the detailed maps that contained the Wechsel region once again, but this was no good either. So, a phone call: the operator gave me the number of the Lower Austrian state government, who then gave me the number of the local council. ‘Hello,’ I said, ‘I’m looking for a district called Groß-Einland in the Wechsel region.’

‘Groß-Einland?’ the lady said and forcefully typed the letters into her device. ‘No, there is no district under that name in Lower Austria.’

‘That can’t be right.’

‘But the Wechsel region borders on Styria – maybe the district is in their state. I’ll give you their number,’ the lady suggested. So this time I phoned the Austrian federal administration to pose the same question, but no, this town was not listed in her directory the lady there told me.

‘A consolidation, an incorporation perhaps?’ I asked hopefully. Pause. ‘No, the town of Groß-Einland never existed in Austria.’

I hung up without replying and sat silently on the car bonnet for a while. It was only now, when I needed to find it for the funeral, that I realized how little I actually knew about Groß-Einland. I only knew that it had to be somewhere in the Wechsel region, that much I had heard my parents tell others when they asked. But I hadn’t actually spoken to them about it for many years. Not because it would have been awkward for me, or off-limits: the past simply didn’t seem relevant to us. Holidays were the opportunity to dash off, ideally to flee the continent in an aeroplane with one’s eyes closed – but never to go back to one’s roots or to go skiing like everyone else, whom we secretly despised for it.

It was what was shared between the lines that dawned on me most clearly: I remembered how my mother had told me that you could climb down a ladder underground in Groß-Einland. ‘In a damp cave, at least ten or fifteen metres high, there were old aeroplane parts, which we made into dens as children. Metal doors, bulletproof glass, and in between wing panels that you could bounce up and down on,’ she had said.

And a no less magical story told by my father: when I was in primary school, we huddled together in front of the shadowy crackling fire in the woodstove in our living room and he talked about a man called Lumberjack Hans, who had bought a shed next to his parents’ house. It was winter, and whenever he raised the cup to his lips, my father dribbled a bit of his tea into his beard, which dripped onto my legs like from a stalactite.

Lumberjack Hans locked himself into his shed each night at ten o’clock sharp. My father had whispered into my ear that he collected the hearts of all kinds of mammals there – all lined up one next to the other in formaldehyde jars and among them a human heart – no one knew where it had come from. ‘And when we were boys,’ he said, ‘we threw stones at the window, silently dreading but also really excited at the idea that Hans would appear there with one of his preserving jars in his hand.’

It was the first of the rare moments that I would hear him talking about his own childhood, but what does a horror story like that actually reveal? I was completely lost.

 

Excerpted from Raphaela Edelbauer,  Das flüssige Land (Klett-Cotta, 2019).

 

 

 

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.

A Winter in Nice

Author: Christian Schärf
Translator: Alexandra Roesch

The following day Nietzsche wrote to his mother and sister in Naumburg saying he could barely find the words to describe the invigorating, indeed, literally electrifying effect that the abundance of light in Nice was having on his entire system. The constant painful pressure on his brain, which had begun in Naumburg in September and not left him since, had disappeared. So had the sensation of needles piercing his eyeballs that had accompanied his arrival here. His temples were entirely at peace now; the sciatic nerve had settled. He needed light, light above all, dull days crushed him and here in Nice there was light, even in December, in abundance.Furthermore, he had made some acquaintances of which he could report. During his lunch in the Pension de Genève, he had met a Prussian general and his daughter. He was ultra-conservative and deadly boring, but a man of sterling qualities with an impeccable genealogy. Also at the table had been a certain Lady Memet Ali, who claimed to be the wife of an Indian maharaja. She was always giving meaningful looks and he was unable to converse easily with her, as she spoke only English, and even less than he did, but this didn’t bother him. He knew that they had nothing worth sharing anyhow and that the maharaja’s wife preferred to impress with her robes rather than her command of foreign languages.

Still, there was an elderly pastor’s wife from southern Germany, who spoke perfect English, albeit with a Swabian accent and was always willing to translate. But translations were requested only rarely.

One among the colourful array of guests was particularly imposing, a flamboyantly dressed Persian, who usually shared Nietzsche’s table and never uttered a word. It was said that he had never spoken, but he impressed simply by way of his peacock-like appearance. He seemed to have recently emerged from an old oriental fairy tale and would probably soon be returning there.

So, as should be apparent to his mother and sister, he was keeping good company, yes, excellent company, Nietzsche summed up in his letter.

The Russians and the English above all impressed him. He observed the Russians’ comportment in particular with considerable respect, he said, as they flaunted their wealth in a manner that he had not previously encountered. The Russian upper class strolled up and down the Promenade des Anglais in sophisticated outfits in numbers that seemed to increase daily, giving him the impression that Nice would soon without doubt become a Russian city. The climatic hardships the Russians had to endure in St Petersburg or Moscow were reversed for them in Nice on the Côte d’Azur.

The train journey from St Petersburg to the Côte d’Azur took three days and three nights; the trains only stopped to take on provisions. Their interiors were furnished in sumptuous luxury and their southbound carriages carried only blue-blooded passengers hungering for warmth and light.

The first to arrive here, in 1856, Nietzsche had learnt from the landlord of the Pension de Genève, were the tsar and tsarina. After the Russians had lost access to the Mediterranean as a result of their defeat in the Crimea, the tsar and his family recovered from this disgrace in the Mediterranean of all places, and picked the city on the Bay of Angels as their preferred residence.

Nietzsche saw himself as a Pole of aristocratic descent driven into barbaric Germany, and as such considered himself in good, even excellent company here. He deemed it characteristic of his mother’s attitude towards him that she reacted so violently to the Polish bloodline Nietzsche had steadfastly appropriated for himself, even at home in Naumburg.

She was from Pobles near Leipzig and not from Posen or Warsaw, she had said to him on more than one occasion, and he should accept the fact that he was a Saxon and his father had been a protestant priest, not a Slavic earl who hunted wild boar in the forests of the Oder, danced ecstatic dances and allowed the population to bleed dry. All he needed to do was to recite the name Pobles several times in rapid succession, she said, and then he would know where his roots were.

The last September he had spent in Naumburg had been the worst month of his life thus far. He had completed the first two parts of Zarathustra. He saw this work as a tremendous synthesis, which he believed had never before taken place in anybody’s mind or soul; a herculean task had been completed, which in his eyes was without historical equal. And then, after this effort unique to global history, he had had to grapple with his riff-raff relatives in Naumburg. Had any man of his stature ever had to endure suchlike?

No sooner had he arrived in Naumburg than everything revolved solely around sausages and woollen socks. No sooner had he sat down in the kitchen with his mother than she began to ask him about his intentions to get married. No sooner had he encountered his sister than she found him lacking the efficacy and worldliness of a professor. When he crossed the market square, old people who knew him from his childhood days still addressed him as if he were a schoolboy and asked if he had returned to Naumburg for good and would finally relieve his mother from her cumbersome daily chores.  Each day spent there became a tale of woe.  Then he had to deal with his vindictive sister, who was consumed by jealousy. In his eyes, she was a truly nasty piece of work who crushed every one of his attempts to find a wife – they truly existed, yes, they did, these attempts – and would continue to do so. She would not desist, unless – which did not seem all that improbable – she were to be devoured by termites in the jungle of Paraguay, together with her anti-Semitic husband.

This husband of his sister’s pursued the idée fixe of founding Germany anew at the other end of the earth. To this purpose, he was assembling a troupe of scattered and unsettled people in Saxony, people without work or hope and exhausted farmhands, impoverished aristocrats and previously convicted men, fallen women and frail old people.

Nietzsche laughed out loud when he thought of this assemblage. He imagined them destroying each other in the jungle driven by hate and envy, degenerating through inbreeding, dragging the stupid anti-Semite down with them. None of them would ever return from that termite hell, including his sister. This notion warmed his heart so much so that he felt ashamed, something that happened vey rarely.

In Naumburg in September, his mother had time and again advised that he should now endeavour in earnest to finally find a wife at last, and his sister, the snake in the grass, had concurred. Yet it had been her who had systematically destroyed his friendship with Lou von Salomé. Now that Lou had disappeared from his life, they were once again feigning concern. Beforehand they had done everything humanely possible to alienate the young Russian from him. Lou had been the woman with whom he wanted to live his life. She would have made it complete, this project, for his life was nothing but one great, immense project. She was the only woman fit to hold a candle to him, and she of all people had been driven away by the Naumburg pack with their beastly scheming and obscure meanness.  Now he was completely on his own, from now on he would have to manage everything himself.

It was around this time that his sister brought this rabble-rouser named Förster home, a lunatic schoolmaster. An unbearable fellow, about whom she raved incessantly when he was absent and over whom she fawned when he was around, which in turn attested to her fundamental stupidity and of course proved her deranged fear of being left on the shelf; after all she would soon be turning forty. Dr Bernhard Förster, on the other hand, nurtured a ridiculous adoration of Richard Wagner. He considered Wagner, whose music Nietzsche was sure he was not even able to grasp, to be the spiritual pioneer who paved the way for his own anti-Semitic excesses. Sometimes, with a moralizing undertone, he quoted from memory from Wagner’s diatribe ‘Judaism in Music’. Moreover, Förster was preoccupied with Germanic colonization plans that he considered nothing less than a global concept; Paraguay was just meant to be the beginning. Once Förster had told his future brother-in-law, affecting a show of confidence and tone that was both prophetic and conspiratorial, that there would come the day when the world could, yes, indeed, should be healed by the German spirit. A statement that made Nietzsche want to vomit, a feeling that remained with him most of the night.

Together with his sister, Förster had then indulged in heroic self-denial for entire afternoons, something he considered to be of the highest virtue but that was actually a form of hypocrisy that had become second nature to him. First he had lauded Christianity, then paganism and then the Middle Ages and the Germanic people.

Most recently he had also begun enthusing about the Saxons, whom he planned to take with him to Paraguay, and praised the Saxon breed, which he considered to be unique, in his words, among all German tribes. During these speeches, Elisabeth followed this assistant schoolmaster, oblivious to all that went on around him, with shining damp eyes. This was the sort of thing she wanted to hear from her brother, yet he did not speak at all when Förster was around or simply mumbled incomprehensible comments to himself, which by no means implied agreement.

Förster considered himself to be a vegetarian and an Aryan, a combination that Nietzsche considered repugnant purely by virtue of its vocabulary. Nietzsche would, he said to Förster, if he could, devour as much meat as he was able get his hands on; he would, if he could, sink his teeth into living, raw, still twitching meat every day and tear whole chunks from this life. Yet he simply could not do it, his condition did not allow it, but his reasoning was no different than that of an insatiable meat-eating animal.

When their mother noticed that his sister had completely and utterly succumbed to this Förster and, even worse, was now seriously considering accompanying this fool into the South American jungle, she asked him, dear Fritz, to help her do something about it. Just as she had previously colluded with his sister against Lou, she now intended to work with him against Förster, making the Naumburg house, including his sister, intolerable to him. Yet his sister, needless to say, had expected her mother’s reaction to her relationship with Förster and anticipated her plans. Thus she had, as quickly as possible and without giving the merest inkling of it beforehand, got engaged to Förster, by means of a letter, to add insult to injury. Nietzsche could not believe that such a thing was even legally possible. An engagement was not a legal act, Elisabeth replied with a superior smile.

During these days, Nietzsche had realized that there had to be a sequel to his Zarathustra; that he now had to present an antidote to any and all false moral and every form of hypocrisy, whose origin and place he had determined in Christianity, which is why he planned ‘A guide to redemption from morality’ as a third part of his book. After just three days, Nice had filled him with so much light and hence assurance that he no longer hesitated to tackle this creation immediately.

His sister and his mother embodied to the finest detail that against which he had to emplace the transvaluation of values, he called out in a strangely deep voice, and Cécile swore that it was audible all the way down by the harbour. She had entered his room once more that evening to see if he needed anything further. He had started to talk then, without pause or punctuation, of his family, his former fiancée and of the immense plan that he was compelled to realize. And once more Cécile had the feeling she must start over with the puzzle that this guest laid out for her time and again.

This sudden recovery, he exclaimed, this heady feeling of being healthy and becoming ever more so – who before him would have been in a position to write about the philosophy of convalescing?

In a flash, the wonderful light in Nice had helped him visualize the entire third part of the Zarathustra, in its form, and that was all that mattered. With the form so clearly visible, now all he had to do was to write everything down, find words, but they would simply come to him; he would be guided like a child in a dark forest.

He needed light, even more light for this, and he needed a friend at his side and had already called for Heinrich Köselitz from Annaberg, residing in Venice as Peter Gast from Munich, alias Pietro Gasti from Venice, who had simply needed a pseudonym, being unable to win any prizes with his quintessentially Saxon name, and who Nietzsche called Peter Gast, which he was sorry to say in Italian translated as Pietro Gasti, a name that nonetheless would do extremely well on opera posters and in various feature sections. So he needed the light, he needed Peter Gast, and she, Cécile, should please excuse him speaking to her so frankly, but thirdly, he would probably also need a woman.

After three days, Cécile had almost given up hope that the new lodger would come back to this. Cécile had made the acquaintance of many men and she had made notes on their preferences and their dislikes in particular, but she had never met one like Nietzsche. She had begun her notes as a form of bookkeeping, solely with the intention of keeping track, and had soon reached a point where she went beyond the mere fact that someone had been with her and had paid this or that price and began to make notes concerning the individual quirks of her guests.

Before she left him alone that evening, she recommended, because of the light that he so valued, an excursion to Èze. Nowhere in the whole area were the lights brighter than in Èze, she said. He nodded absentmindedly, as if he had not understood what she had said, and then asked her whether she would accompany him there. Sunday was her day off, she said, but she would not be able to converse with him, whose world was anything but hers. Nietzsche made a sweeping gesture with his arm, indicating that such objections were not valid and that the joint endeavour had been decided upon.

“My world is very easy to understand, believe me, young lady. You can breathe it in; you can taste it and feel it with all your senses. And whoever manages to physically experience even the smallest part of my world will never want to live anywhere else but there.”

“See you Sunday then,” she replied, with a brief, scrutinizing glance as if to assess his mental state, and left.

From Ein Winter in Nizza  © Eichborn Verlag 2014

The Stars Below

Author: Ralf Rothmann
Translator: Alexandra Roesch

When he returned to the mortuary, a new bed was already waiting outside the door, one with side rails from the children’s ward. Beneath the sheet lay a blonde girl aged around seven, heart surgery it seemed; the upper body was still stained brown from the disinfectant. Darker shadows under the eyes than the adult dead, even her eyelids shimmered greyish blue but that was common in children. The pallor of her face, however, seemed to extend mysteriously beyond the facial contours and Oswald, who was looking at it calmly and intensely, saw no trace of a struggle or final agony. Two vertical creases, barely visible above the bridge of her nose bestowed an expression of incomprehension or disapproval, yet this was softened by her mouth’s vague smile. The girl’s chest wound had been stapled together with metal clips similar to those used in offices and when he picked her up, her long hair fell over his lower arm with a cool touch.
Now, for a moment, he closed his eyes. Somewhere a bell sounded, a melodiously tone, and a shadow flew across the tiles. “What’s the matter with her?” asked Vincent, who suddenly appeared in the open courtyard door. A fox was printed on his white t-shirt and behind him in the car park lay a sturdy bike, the wheels still turning. “Has she fainted?”
Oswald shook his head. So that he would see as little as possible of the dead girl, Oswald turned his back on the boy and said quietly over his shoulder: “Oh, there you are! I’ve been waiting for you…no, she’s sleeping, needs to rest. Go out onto the terrace will you? I’ll just quickly put her to bed.”
But Vincent stayed put, both hands in the pockets of his cargo pants. He leaned forward and looked down the corridor, wrinkling his nose. “It smells strange,” he whispered. “Like when our cat yawns. It has really bad breath, at least after tinned food. Is it true there are dead bodies lying around here everywhere?”
“Rubbish!” replied Oswald and pushed down the handle of the door to the refrigerated storage with his elbow, while still keeping it closed. “Who told you that? It’s a normal ward. This girl here, for example, is being picked up tomorrow. She’s cured. And dead people can’t be discharged, can they? Off you go and I’ll see you in the garden. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Vincent opened his mouth, but said nothing. With his eyes on the girl’s toes, on the labelled tag, he slowly walked to his bike, its front wheel was still spinning. The spokes gleamed like something fluid in the evening sun and Oswald waited until he had left the car park.
Only then did he pull the door open just a crack and squeeze his way into the room with the girl, putting her body down on a tray. You could see the whites of her eyes between the lids and after he had carefully pressed them closed, he disinfected his hands and went out onto the terrace.
Vincent sat on one of the plastic chairs with both arms hugging his bent knees and looked over the dusky meadow. Lights were on inside the villa and the men in blue overalls, almost all with V-shaped sweat marks on their backs, were just in the process of heaving an enormous concert grand wrapped in grey felt into the lorry.
“We’re leaving early,” the boy mumbled when Oswald sat down next to him. “Mother’s had a row with your opera. Breach of contract. Father always says when she gets going the diva in her comes out. Ten more tour days in Germany and then it’s boarding the 747. Qantas – with movies and everything. But I don’t want to leave.”
Oswald shooed away a wasp that was approaching Vincent’s colourful t-shirt. “Hey, be happy,” he said and dug around for his cigarettes. “Other kids would love to swan around the world as much as you. Australia! Isn’t that great?”
Vincent slowly shook his head. “No, it’s sad. We weren’t even here two months and in Milan it was only six. You just make new friends and then you have to leave again. That gives me real tummy aches you know, with a temperature and everything. And then mother says I shouldn’t be such a fusspot; travelling is good for my artistic development. But I don’t need any. I’d much rather stay in the house over there with our books.” Grinning, he looked up. “And with you my giant. They think your name is really funny and father likes you too. He says you have such long arms that you can scratch your knees standing up.” He smiled widely and lent forward. “Is that true? Can you really? Let me see, please?”
Swallows were swooping in the sky, their wing-beats were audible and Oswald flicked his lighter and remained silent. But the child, eyes wide, jumped up from his chair and clapped his hands. “Oh please, please! Show me!” The man shook his head once briefly. The lorries were full, the packers closed the doors and he looked into the violet-red sky above the trees, exhaled the smoke through his nose and murmured: “Leave it Vincent. I am not your performing monkey.”
The boy’s smile faded, his face paled and for a heartbeat or two he stood immobilized; only his fingers moved a little and his nostrils twitched. “But why… I just thought… I did not want to hurt your feelings Uncle Gabi! You’re my best friend,” he said and stepped closer to the seated man, nervously twiddling the buttons of Oswald’s white coat. “You are, aren’t you? I always talk rubbish, you can ask anyone. But I don’t mean any harm, cross my heart!”
He swallowed several times and his eyes grew moist. Oswald raised a hand, but did not dare touch the child. “Well yes, it’s not that bad. It’s all right Vincent. We’re made of sterner stuff,” he answered, rubbing the nape of his neck and looking towards the house. “Come and sit down. I’m your friend, obviously. Your blood brother if you want. But please sit down on the chair again, alright? Otherwise they might think… I mean…”
He dropped his cigarette, reached into his breast pocket and held up a piece of paper. “Look here, I brought you something. Our poem is finished!“
The boy however, tears dripping from his chin, did not look at it. He sighed shakily and wiped his eyes with the palms of his hands. Then he went around the chair, carefully stepped on the glowing butt and pocketed it. “Which poem?“
Oswald turned a dial next to the office door and an insect-encrusted lamp, veiled with spiders’ webs, flickered on. “I’ve called it ‘Mouse Blues’ for starters,“ he said. “You can change the title later.”
Arms folded in front of his chest, the child looked at him expectantly and he unfolded the piece of paper, sat up straight and read in a feigned deep voice:
“Where did you lose your tail Mouse?” Only to answer in a voice as high-pitched as he could muster: “I must have lost it at the dance house.” And once again deeply, with theatrically arched brows: “Mouse, what have you done with your claws? Oh, I lost them out-of-doors. And your ears, where are they? They also seem to have gone away. And your nose? In the grass by the garden hose. And your sight so bright? Gone, out like a light. Mouse, surely teeth you once had many? Well, now I ain’t got any. And who has your coat so grey? Age quickly took it away.”
The child stepped closer, wanted to say something, but Oswald raised a hand and closed mournfully: “You feel a paw, just like that, swallowed up and you become a cat!”
The boy stared for a moment, his mouth agape, his gaze dreamy; he seemed to be struggling to detach himself from the images in his head. In the house the windows were being closed, a furniture van rolled out of the driveway and he ignored his mother’s calls and moved his lips as if he were repeating the poem silently. Then he clapped his hands, raised both fists up high and Oswald handed him the piece of paper with a sigh of relief.
“Boy, that was really hard work!” He put out the light on the terrace and tapped out a new cigarette from the packet. “The rhymes are do-able, they’re easy. But it’s got to make sense and sound good, right? I always had one word too many or too few. Sometimes just a syllable. That was trickier than a crossword puzzle!”
The second van drove off. Vincent folded the piece of paper and put it in his pocket. “It is great!” he said and went over to his bike. “We are a really good team. I will show it to my parents, maybe they can have it printed. You will of course get half the fees and we’ll have to talk about author’s rights.” He polished the bicycle bell with a corner of his shirt. “But you know what? I didn’t quite understand the ending … the mouse is already dead; she got swiped by the paw, right? So why does it become a cat?
Oswald put the cigarette behind his ear and helped him lift the bike over the fence. “Well, you can do that in a poem… it just gets digested. I mean, when you eat a chop or some chicken then it transforms too. It gives you strength and lets you grow. It becomes Vincent.”
“Really? Cool,” he said and looked round; his father had let out a two-fingered whistle. “But we’re vegetarians. I’m not allowed to eat things like that.” Then he bent down, slipped through to the other side and quickly – so he would not bang his head on the fence pole – Oswald held a hand over his head.
The lights went out in the villa, the west-facing windows reflected the last traces of red evening sky and behind him he heard the sound that always occurred when another bed, rolling down the sloping corridor, banged against the steel door – a blunt ‘clonk’. Something flew above the treetops through the dusk and you could not tell whether it was still the swallows or already bats. The boy got on his bike. “So, take care. I’ve got to go to Australia.”
With his lower lip protruding, he raised a fist and Oswald tapped his own against it. “Okay, gangster, take care of yourself”, he said hoarsely. “The sun down there is a force to be reckoned with. That’s what I read somewhere anyhow. They have trousers with sun protection. And write me a love poem sometime.”
Laughing, the boy started pedalling. The reflectors in the wheel spikes glinted and the gears cracked as he struggled up the slope, bent low over the handlebars. He groaned exaggeratedly. But suddenly he stopped, dug his skinny legs into the grass and turned from the hip. “Hey, Uncle Gabi. What I wanted to ask you: do you know why bees hum?” And without waiting for an answer he cupped his hands around his mouth and whispered loudly: “Because they forgot the words!”
Oswald grinned, waved and sat down again on the chair. He lit the cigarette and glanced through the drifting smoke to the villa, where the woman was just locking the door and the man was stowing something in the boot of the jeep. When the interior light went on, he once again saw Vincent’s thatch of hair through the windscreen, his pale face.
The big car’s engine sounded quieter than the grating of the gravel under the wheels, the headlights grazed Oswald in his hospital uniform and then the driveway was suddenly empty.

Sterne Tief Unten, from Shakespeares Hühner by Ralf Rothmann, © Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2013
Translation © Alexandra Roesch