Author: Schutti McMahon
Translator: Deirdre McMahon


Just begin, Maja said, so many first sentences.


She’s not called Babushka; she’s Matryoshka, said my great aunt, my father’s only aunt, although she didn’t know any Russian. She was right, but I simply did not believe her. I had always called mine Babushka, shaken her carefully, taken her apart, and put her together again. I would examine the smallest one very carefully to see if I could open her like the others, searching for a hidden mechanism, and I simply could not believe I had reached the last one.

I would often lie awake and let my eyes wander around the room, and I would tell the biggest Babushka what the house looked like from the outside: about the garden, sprawling outwards, and the shade that lay over most of the houses for more than half the year. I would tell her about the valley with its wooded hillsides, about the night sky stretching tightly over it. It frightened me that no one could tell me what lay behind it. But perhaps you just needed to ask the right questions to get an answer. The Babushka would look at me with her big eyes and I would open her up, take the smallest doll out, lay her tenderly in my hand, rocking her to and fro, amazed at how grown up she looked.

My Babushka had gone missing, or so they led me to believe, but that was impossible. I had never taken her outside. Perhaps my aunt decided that I was too big for dolls and hid her in the attic or threw her away. Maybe she had found the nightly murmuring from my room disturbing. I never asked.

I told Marek about the Babushka and he stroked the hair behind my ears and kissed me on the forehead.

Moje kochanie, he whispered, and I knew what that meant even though I knew no Polish and had lost the Belarussian of my first years, along with Babushka.

Marek had a little wooden house with an unkempt garden. He offered old Walter money for gardening, but Walter did little more than get rid of a few branches. He said mowing was impossible because there were too many scrubby bushes along the fence and around the house. He left the bushes standing and bought himself schnapps.

Marek didn’t drink schnapps; he never drank. Nevertheless, his eyes were sometimes red when he sat at the window looking out.

They hadn’t died one after the other, as local gossip suggested. Marek once told me that his uncle went first, then his grandmother. Then Micha, his favourite nephew, died. He hung himself from a tree, from the tree that his grandfather had planted for the uncle. He didn’t speak about his mother and father. Everyone knew what had happened, but nobody could explain why Marek had moved to this particular village as a young man and why he hadn’t returned home after the war.

Forget all that again, Marek had said, wiping his eyes, forget it. However, I never forgot, and I asked my aunt if she could tell me anything about Marek. The shadow side is bad, she answered, going on to ask me why that was any of my business. I asked why there were houses here anyway, when the shadow side is so bad, but I got no answer.

The snow arrived early and stayed a long time. Even in high summer you needed a woollen jacket by four in the afternoon if you wanted to play outside. Only mint and chamomile, dill and garlic, grew in the garden. When you ran barefoot on the grass it stabbed the soles of your feet. I just could not imagine soft grass, or not anymore. As a small child I must have run over soft grass, at least once. Years later my aunt gave me a photo showing my mother and myself in a park. I was wearing a short little white dress embroidered with flowers, with a hand-crocheted border on the collar. My mother was holding my hand, laughing at the camera, not staying still for the photo; her arm and face were out of focus. We were standing barefoot on the grass and I looked uncertain. My eyes were wide open, my lips an open slit.

My aunt didn’t want me to visit Marek. She thought I’d be better off playing with other children. I often acted as if I had spent the whole afternoon playing tag and French skipping. I would kneel in the meadow on the way home and stroke the palm of my hand over damp earth. Sometimes, if I had enough time, I would lie down in the grass and look up at the clouds as they took on a rosy red tinge and, when the light was fading, I could observe countless tiny insects populating the skies and turning the air restless.

It was not that I wanted to turn myself into an insect and flee from there; I had not thought that far ahead. And I didn’t want to be an animal either, though having a favourite animal and knowing everything about it came with the territory back then. After school Fini asked me what kind of animal I would like to be, continuing in the same breath to say that I didn’t need to answer as she already knew – definitely a bird – or an angel  –  so that I could follow my mother to heaven. I didn’t want to fly to my mother because it was cramped and cold beneath the earth –  or so my aunt had told me – and I believed her.

There are various Babushkas. Some resemble each other down to the finest details and some have different pictures on their fronts. A different picture on every front and you know immediately which story belongs to it. And the big Babushka holds all the stories together like the cover of a book of fairy-tales. The smallest picture needs to be examined particularly carefully because, if you are lucky, even this tiny expanse has a background showing a forest or a stream or flowers. I was lucky. My Babushka had been particularly beautiful. I can remember every picture and I still know the stories that went with the pictures; they translated themselves without me noticing.

Marek often asked me to tell him these stories. I thought that maybe they reminded him of the stories of his childhood because they were similar, but perhaps he only wanted to prevent them dropping from my memory.

Marek would give me presents of sweets or colourful stones which I would store under a loose board in my room. Whenever I was out with my aunt and we met him by chance, he would just give us a curt hello, hardly looking at me, as if he were indifferent to me. But in the afternoons when I went to him, he would stroke my cheeks and sit down opposite me at the heavy wooden table, drinking black tea with milk and sugar from a glass printed with flowers. Because of me, he always had a choice of drinks in his larder that I never got otherwise. I loved the sparkling yellow or red drinks. I would sit on Marek’s lap letting him read books aloud or tell me stories, hanging on his every word. There was an unevenness about his voice that only I could hear, or so I thought back then, something in his tone that reminded me of something from the past, from way back in my early days.

When I got big enough to take the bus into the next town my aunt would send me shopping once a week. She gave me two cloth bags, and for weeks she would make me recite the bus stops and the departure times before I left the house. I never forgot anything and occasionally I was permitted to buy some little thing for myself. As time went on, I knew all the shops and got much quicker at completing my errands, so that I had time to wander the streets and look at the shop windows. That was when I began to think about my mother more often. I would stand in front of the shop windows trying to superimpose my reflection onto the clothes on display. Sometimes it worked but in other shops the clothes were hanging just too high. I would imagine what it would be like if my mother’s face were reflected beside mine, how beside her  I could smile in at the displays and we would hold each other’s hands.

Sometimes I asked myself what it would be like to hold a young man’s hand, to go with him, as Fini called it. I tried to walk tall as I wandered up and down the street. According to Fini, pulling in my tummy was really important, like wiggling my hips so that it looked like I was wearing high heels. I used to imagine how it would be if a young man called me from the sunny side of the street. He would ask my mother if she would allow him to take away her beloved only daughter  –  yes, that was just what he would say  –  and my mother would smile and nod, catch me by the shoulder and nudge me towards the young man, folding her hands across her chest, waiting until he had given me a kiss and taken me in his arms. And then she would wave until we had vanished around a corner.

Fini sometimes took me by the hand when we were wandering through the woods. If it got dark on the way home, she would clutch me so tightly that the prints of her fingers were visible on my hands for a long time afterwards. I never told her that she was hurting me. On long summer afternoons when we had had enough of each other’s company and I wasn’t with Marek, we would sit down at the stream, dangling our feet in the water until they turned red. Then we would lie down on the flat sun-warmed banks and pull up our shirts to tan our stomachs. Fini told me stories, not fairy tales. She would tell me what she knew about the other girls and their families, about her older brothers and their friends and girlfriends and plenty about what she had observed through keyholes. She explained what it would be like in a couple of years when we became young women, and the men would be interested in our brown legs and stomachs. I loved listening to her; her sentences flowed on like the stream, almost a calming murmur, and although there were no ogres like Baba Jaga and bewitched kings’ daughters, I hung on her every word. Her family would become mine for an afternoon. I used to take Fini’s stories home with me, feeling that I had escaped out of the shadows and undergone an experience. One evening I wrote a sentence, a phrase that had struck me on the way home, “if a person could keep all these stories like a shield over their body, wrapping strange sentences around the body like a camouflage coat”. I read the sentence aloud to Fini the next time we met but she just looked down on me and began to laugh. I crumpled up the paper, put it away and threw it in the stream on the way home, knowing that it would soon become a tiny scrap, that it would dissolve completely in the cold water. I never again composed such a sentence and would never again write anything like that. But I remember this one.

You always just have to start over again, said my aunt when I gathered my courage and asked her about before, although I felt that she wouldn’t answer this time either, and would make me feel that she was irked by my question. The past I had experienced with my mother pushed against the past I had with my aunt; I had no idea of the fault line, no memory of how I had come out of the city to the village.

I still know that I didn’t understand my aunt. She talked at me in an unfamiliar language. I was supposed to say Papa to the strange man who had collected me. First, I saw him only at weekends and then less and less because he took my aunt’s advice to heart and made a new beginning. I was allowed to stay with my aunt; she was glad of company in the big house.

Your mother was too good for us here, said my aunt, and when I was just a few weeks old she left the village and my father behind; but she didn’t want a divorce, and to this day, I don’t know why.

And now that you are here, be satisfied. I knew I had to be satisfied.

When Marek died, I no longer lived in the village. The photo on his death notice shows him as a fifty-year-old; I know this for certain because that had been his nicest birthday. That photo stood on a narrow shelf beside the house door, his best birthday as he used to say back then. Fifty-fifty, someone had written on the lower edge in white touch-up pen. His life had not lasted a hundred years, but who can say how much life a person gets. My aunt died before him. She reached the age of eighty-three; nobody needs to worry about her grave. She had ordered and paid for a stone tablet years before her death, and anyone who wants to can place a candle on it or lay a bunch of flowers to be dried by the sun and blown off the gravestone by the wind. She knew I would never come back.

I did not come back; I couldn’t. I got a Matryoshka that looks so like my old one, my hidden or thrown-away Matryoshka. I took it apart and set all the dolls out in a row. There are scenes from fairy-tales on the dolls’ fronts, but they make me sad now, when I remember them. I lost my language along with my mother: the falling-asleep phrases, the comfort phrases, this cradle-rocking of words, our language island where there was just room enough for the two of us, on which we wandered through the city to the playground or the bakery. Latrine, shovel, and bread roll – I can’t remember what German words I had when I came to my aunt’s.  And now: encouraging phrases out of the dictionary, encouraging sentences spoken on tape but the lullaby does not want to reappear; those sentences remain forgotten. 

Moj bednyj anjol, my mother must have said, moj bednyi anjol.

I turn the dolls around and let them look out the window. From behind, they all look the same  –  light blue flowers on a red background. Where have my first sentences gone, I ask myself –  I only ask now that I have flourished in a complete language for a few years and withered on the shadow side again. Those phrases haven’t even remained in memory, at least not in mine.


Excerpted from Carolina Schutti, einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein.  Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg-Wien, 2015.


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.

Replete Heart’s Counsel
As a Teethager I went
Through Gazing at a Hand

Author: Mariça Bodrožić
Translator: Deirdre McMahon


REPLETE HEART’S COUNSEL,Angels of the clouds
mystical, woven as one.
Curator of all in the office of creation
my greatest kin. In the harbour
no ships of light but
among these wonders, fresh impetus.
The warriors have gone elsewhere,
called from exile, into a new era.
Tell me, rose, are they entering the light?
The wind-house whirl is still, questions
find their way home. I smile myself whole.
The knowing rose has a different form.
I am me, and not yet myself.


AS A TEETHAGER I WENT through time,
winter clenched its jaw
with a tent, with a totem
with a visible rip in the ear.
It moved into whiteness.
Perhaps I have a timeless being
I thought, as I moved
over a lime-treed square
and the roofs blazed out
as in a proper human space.
Sundays were for dreaming,
for travelling avenues
just air beneath my feet.
Only stark Orion’s light,
starbellies to bathe in.
I took my place in the central star.
At first I didn’t see
The temple standing there,
saw only the light.
A line of pillars led there.
Fire blazed out from its centre.
I went inside, barefoot,
big toe and suitcase first.
My case burned bright,
heavy baggage bursting in flames,
my feet unscathed
though I stayed in the fire,
utterly at home.
Returning the same way,
I rode from Orion to Berlin
on a ray of light discovered by Einstein
for his science. In the capital
I noticed first the solid state
of my teeth. I grew wise
at the U-Bahn. Even before
the ticket-machine I knew
I’m a teethager, with bright balloons
with my soles armoured,
with all I need,
with true protectors,
the valley-dwellers of memory.


skin planes reveal their colours.
A Sunday among words
settles down in us.
Both of us, our mouths opened,
dodging sleep.
Our milky way, a street of seams and livery,
rooms to dress up in, laughing too
as if lanterns were hung
over the path for light-starved children.
Bodies coloured in silence,
rolled up in miracles
of mathematical precision.
Equations of longing,
dissolved with a brush,
with a love of painting.
The sound of his eyes,
the springtime of his ears,
the origins of our skin –
as if there were only you
my love. This new land,
entrusted just to us.
Let us carry it,
let us know it,
let us be true to our origins.
We want to look at ourselves complete,
want to see how things go
when we do nothing.
And loneliness, like a shelled nut,
packs its bags and leaves,
with hands hanging,
touching no-one in passing.

From Ein Kolibri kam unverwandelt.  Otto Müller Verlag, Salzburg/Vienna, 2007.

house of the old language

Author: Maja Haderlap
Translator: Deirdre McMahon


their borderlines link a string
of snares and breaches.
in the annals of division
the limes came up winner.
in the war the border’s ribbon
swung back and forth,
villages cut off from roads,
slid to the periphery.
their inhabitants sealed throats
with clumsy locks,
observed silent crime scenes,
which i enter on tiptoe.
i often went with wide eyes
along the armed path
into a neighbouring country,
to hear about past times
when a fence edged the meadows
and all the names were linked
by related echo, where once
there was a street, its traces
fading. everything is edge
oblivion and transition.

house of the old language

confused bees buzz around the hallways
of my abandoned language.
birds of passage spill their guts
in chambers stormed by abuse
as if they were home at last, back
to where they came from. language
bound me to the world, fascinated me
while it failed to satisfy me.
biting through it, i tasted its desolation.
combing through those years i left
little behind, even if it was everything.

behind those porous crumbling walls
epochmaking promises lay dumped
an odd lovely song
with its promise of milk and honey
its collapse long evident.
at last i forced my way out
followed by what I had left behind.
it has reached its destination,
while i circle without cease.

Translator’s Note:Encountering Maja Haderlap’s work was like opening a door into a world I knew well, yet one very different from my own experience. Initially I was drawn by her novel Engel des Vergessens into a rapidly disappearing rural culture, a minority community and a language under threat, a world where the landscape hides knowledge and wisdom as well as the divisions and bitterness of history. After getting her first German language volume of poetry langer transit I began to read and translate, at first as part of a university assignment and then for its own sake.

Maja Haderlap’s poetry is a poetry of borderlands, linguistic, cultural, historical and political. It draws the reader in, delights but challenges before revealing its range of possibilities. It is challenging in its use of German. Capital letters are completely absent. This is more unusual than in English. Substantives and some pronouns are generally capitalised in German. ‘ihr’ without capitals in borderlands invites interpretation of the poem either as an address to the borderlands or a more conventional speaking of them in the third person – ‘their’. Such lack of linguistic signposts creates ambiguity and invites the reader to engage in the search for meaning through close reading. While it is difficult to maintain the intensity of this challenge in English, keeping the text in lower case and using lexis and line structure helps to convey as much of the original as possible. Very precise punctuation does provide the reader with a handrail for understanding.

For Haderlap, who grew up speaking Slovene as part of a linguistic minority in Carinthia, southern Austria, choosing to write in German is, in itself, a political act. She has spoken of using German as a lens through which she can safely explore memories and experience.

She moulds the language to her needs, particularly in her pairing of words to create new compounds. In borderlands she uses ‘grenzband’ to describe the border, an unconventional pairing which evokes the image of the border as a ribbon which swings and varies according to political or social pressures. The speaker moves ‘beäugt’ through this landscape. This word offers a multiplicity of interpretations from a highly visually aware speaker to one who moves with ‘eyes-wide-open’ or ‘eyes-peeled’, conscious of danger in a threatening landscape. After a lot of thought I went with ‘wide eyes’ which invites examination but does not hammer any particular interpretation. The path on which the speaker walks is described as a ‘harnischpfad’ (armoured, armed or fortified path), again an unconventional pairing inviting a reader to reflect. Is the path armoured? Is it protecting the speaker or protecting itself from intruders? She moves ‘leichtfüßig’ or light-footed, perhaps to avoid awakening ghosts or memories. The image of the silent people with padlocked throats resonates with many borderland situations where silence seals off stories of suffering and horror. The ‘echo of names’ within the poem hints at connection, even conversation but also the change of names due to political or linguistic realities. The final image of oblivion or transition may be positive or negative in that the borders may become unimportant as understanding grows or its opposite, where borders, though impermanent are a force of destruction. Translating this necessitates a balancing act to try to maintain as many perspectives as possible.

Haderlap’s evocation of this desolate border area resonates with my own experience of travelling along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic prior to the Good Friday Agreement. Roads and paths along the border had frequently been cratered or barricaded, vanishing or becoming overgrown and deserted as a result of political unrest or savage acts. Around them nature flourished, obliterating traces of human activity.

In ‘house of the old language’ Haderlap explores the nature of language and the effect of changing languages. Elsewhere she has spoken of writing out of a lack of language the tension between her two languages and the way they allow her to experience the world. Haderlap has described her bilingualism as an enriching experience but has also said that speaking Slovene could be seen as politically suspect in some quarters. The image of her old language Slovene as an abandoned and derelict house is a very powerful one, beautiful yet desolate. This resonates with me as a Gaelic speaker, another language threatened from both within and outside its population, struggling to survive amid social, political, economic and cultural difficulties. Such minority languages are repositories of cultural history and wisdom but are accessible to an ever-decreasing number of people.

The lines ‘zugvögel entleeren ihre mägen in den/von der schmähung erstürmten kammern,’ were two lines which challenged me most in my attempt to understand and translate them. My own experience of entering a house where crows had met their traumatic end (with devastating effects!) by falling down the chimney suggested a translation as ‘spray shit’. However this does not convey the full meaning of this image in the poem. Haderlap’s birds are migratory; they carry experience of elsewhere within themselves. They empty their stomachs but is this from the crop to feed young or simply faeces? Do they “empty their stomachs”, ‘void their guts’ or ‘spill their guts’ which might suggest story or other enrichment?

Translating these and some other poems by Maja Haderlap has for me been a very enriching experience. Her lyricism, themes and preoccupations fascinate me as a reader and translator and I am delighted to introduce and share her work with other readers.

From Maja Haderlap, langer transit. Gedichte © Wallstein Verlag, 2014