Shortly before dental technician Hannes Sohr survived the worst catastrophe of his catastrophic life, he cut his index finger on the penultimate page of an in-flight shopping catalogue advertising a pencil made of Californian cedar wood for $179.99, duty-free. Sohr tore out the page and used it to bandage his finger.
The rear emergency exit was situated six rows behind Sohr’s seat. He’d counted the headrests one by one as he boarded the plane and had written down the number on the back of his hand. He was following the advice of a pilot he’d received years ago, pilots being among the few people in uniform Sohr was prepared to listen to.
“If there’s a fire on board,” the pilot had said, “the air-conditioning sucks in the smoke and distributes it evenly throughout the aircraft. The emergency lighting in the aisle is no longer visible. Anyone who knows the number of rows to the next emergency exit has a higher chance of survival.” Sohr remembered commenting that for the most part, planes are in the air. And that at 35,000 feet certain death would be waiting on the other side of any emergency exit regardless of the survival rate. The pilot had paused. Then he’d said, “Better than suffocating, eh?” Sohr had counted the rows of seats ever since.
After eight rows he came to a halt. He was holding his bleeding index finger wrapped in the catalogue page out in front of him like a gun and obviously unsettled the young woman standing outside the toilet. She took a step back, opening her mouth as she did so. Her central incisors were longer than those on either side.
“Do you want to go first?”
“Excuse me?” Sohr was thirty-nine years old and deaf in his left ear.
“Would you like to go first?”
The woman pointed to the toilet and to the catalogue page that was turning red. Sohr nodded, quietly adding, “Yes, please.” As he locked the door and the red “occupied” sign showed up, flight LH510 should have started its descent on Buenos Aires.
Sohr held his finger under the tap. He popped a painkiller in his mouth. He had planned on taking three during the flight. This was number four.
His left arm and back had suffered second degree burns at some point. The skin was scarred and numb. A .25 ACP cartridge from a Walther PPK had been lodged between his stomach and spleen for the past seventeen years. The entry wound had healed years ago, but the projectile continued to inch its way towards his lungs. He had six months left.
Four hours before Sohr jumped the toilet queue, flight LH 510 reached the Brazilian coast. Shortly afterwards, the contact to the tower in Recife cut out. The Airbus A340 disappeared from the radar as the flight attendants started serving Butter Cake.
There was a veterinary surgeon living in the north of Buenos Aires who specialised in gunshot wounds. Sohr had spoken to him on the phone and had managed to beat him down to a fee of 4,500 $ for the operation. Back home, he would probably have been arrested as soon as the surgeon had finished sewing him up. There were no records of a Hannes Sohr living in Germany with a .25 ACP cartridge fired from a police weapon lodged in his gut. But there was someone called Carl Fuchsler, who had been wanted for the past seventeen years. The charges were printed on the warrant in capital letters: “PIPE BOMBS” and “RED ARMY FACTION TERRORIST”.
Sohr looked up. The continuous drone of the engines had ceased. It was so silent in the cabin, he could hear his heart beating. B’dum. Pause. B’dum. Then he hit the ceiling.
At 23:32 hours, flight LH 510 crashed into the Pacific. Nine passengers survived the impact. Seven were able to free themselves from the sinking wreck and swim to the surface. One of them was Hannes Sohr.
The tail-end of the plane stuck vertically out of the sea, kerosene burned on the water. Sohr would have drowned before long, if it hadn’t been for a coincidence that saved his life. The impact had torn business class window seat 9A off its rails, and a wave washed it towards him. Sohr grabbed hold of it and clung on for dear life.
Her voice was louder than the other survivors.
He squinted, listening to the dark sea. Nothing. Sohr had done some yelling in his time. When the first pipe bomb he’d built exploded for example. When the hearse heading towards Stammheim Prison drove past. But now he yelled louder than he’d ever done before: “HERE!”
Suddenly, she was swimming beside him: the woman who’d let him jump the queue for the toilet. She grabbed hold of his lower arm, he grabbed hers. As seat 9A drifted away from the wreckage, the cries of the other survivors slowly died away.
After the Airbus had lost radio contact to the tower in Recife, it had flown across Peru and out over the Pacific Ocean. There was enough kerosene for four hundred miles in the tanks.
Sohr spent the first short night on the Pacific in a strange state of semi-consciousness. Not awake. Not fully aware. He’d hooked his arm around the arm of the seat as if he were trying to strangle it. His belly and legs dangled into the sea. He wasn’t cold. The water temperature seldom dropped below twenty-seven degrees Celsius in this part of the ocean and would increase during the day.
He looked down at himself. He’d lost one of his Derby shoes. That annoyed him for a moment. Left and right there was nothing but water. It was just blue in fact. There was no dividing line on the horizon. The blue sea merged imperceptibly with the blue sky.
Opposite him, close to the other armrest, the young woman looked up. Her eyes: bloodshot red, inflamed from of the salt water. Her nose dented, possibly broken. She was missing an incisor. At a loss for words, Sohr said the first thing that came to mind. The contrast to the horrors of the past few hours could hardly be starker. “Hello.”
“I’d get that replaced as soon as possible if I were you.”
“Number twelve.” Sohr tapped his right lateral incisor with his fingernail.
“Are you a dentist?”
“Dental assistant then?”
On the first day of his apprenticeship, in the autumn of 1969 at the tender age of sixteen, Sohr had fallen in love: with the rattling grinding machines in the laboratory, with the plastic strips and thick layers of plaster dust that covered the linoleum floor, with everything to do with this loud, dirty, wonderful occupation. Then he got to meet the lab leader, Frank Graupner.
“Do you think they’ll find us here?” the young woman asked.
“They’ll have sent out search parties ages ago.”
“The water’s as warm as pee.”
“We were flying across the Atlantic.”
“The Atlantic isn’t warm.”
“Keep an eye out for a plane,” Sohr said.
“Can they even see us?”
“I expect so.”
“What height do planes fly at?”
“To see us, of course.”
Frank Graupner, head of the laboratory, had shaken Sohr’s hand and sent him straight to the next dentist: “Fetch the dental casts,” he’d said. Sohr, who was still called Karl Fuchsler in those days, went at once without waiting to hear how he was supposed to carry the casts. He’d been so surprised that a man with skinny arms and yellow eyes could have such a firm handshake, he’d forgotten to ask.
Years later, when cirrhosis of the liver was listed as an underlying cause of death on his death certificate, Graupner was found to have caught hepatitis B from the casts. Until the seventies, it was common practice to carry them back to the lab, still covered in saliva, blood and bits of food, without wearing protective gloves.
At the end of his first apprenticeship year, Frank Graupner had called Karl into his office and asked him if he wanted to take over the lab as soon as he’d finished his training. Sohr, who had no desire to do so, started calling his boss “SS-Graupner” behind his back, much to the delight of the other trainees. Of course, no one in the laboratory knew how apt that nick name was. Graupner had a quarter-inch-sized tattoo on the inner side of his left upper arm, identifying him as a member of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, also known as the Death’s-Head Units. “AB”. That blood-group tattoo was the reason he ended up dying from hepatitis B. He hadn’t seen a doctor since the eighth of May, 1945, for fear of being discovered.
“Are you?” Sohr started to say and then fell silent.
“Am I what?”
“Were you on your own? On the plane?”
“Yes,” she said. “And you?”
It had taken Graupner another year to give up on him, after he’d coined the nickname. It was the last day of his apprenticeship exams. Sohr had spent a week moulding crowns and bridges, milling dentures, and casting metal bases. Graupner had been expecting him to pass with distinction, but he’d only achieved a merit.
“What’s wrong with you?” Graupner had hissed before smashing one of the plaster models on his desk. Sohr was offended. There was a good reason why he’d not done as well as expected.
The day before, on the fourth of April,1972, three bombs had exploded in Frankfurt. One in a department store, one in front of the 6th Police Department, and a final one outside the American Consulate General. Several persons were injured and one killed: Klaus Brandau, aged thirty-nine, a taxi driver who had been waiting for a customer outside the police station. Sohr requested a meeting with his contact person at once to find out which of the bombs was his. The Red Army Faction (RAF) refused to say, but he knew without being told. A week after Graupner smashed his plaster model, Sohr attended the funeral service for Klaus Brandau. Butter Cake was served at the reception.
“What’s your name, by the way?”
“I wouldn’t want to presume?”
“Hannes, then. I’m Marina.”
It was mad, Sohr thought, not to tell Marina his real name and to keep on lying, now that he had unexpectedly survived a plane crash and was floating about in the sea. Then he thought again. It was mad not to lie. His paranoia had saved him from Stammheim Prison. And from East Germany, which would have been worse.
“Can I ask you something?” Marina said.
“Do you need the loo?”
“Need to urinate?”
“No, I mean yes, not too bad.”
“I just did.”
“I know that,”
“No need to feel ashamed.”
“I’m wondering if it was a mistake.”
It was all Erich Honecker’s fault. He was the reason Sohr had had to book a flight to Argentina. If Honecker had run his country properly, Sohr thought, the Wall would still be standing. And if the Wall were still standing, the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) would never have discovered ten RAF terrorists hiding out in East Germany. But Honecker was a loser. And so the BKA had hunted down the GDR dropouts over the years and arrested them one by one. They’d all talked. About Jürgen Ponto and Hans Martin Schleyer, about automatic rifles and maybe also about pipe bombs. Sohr had decided to have the bullet removed in Argentina. As far away from Europe, the RAF, and his past as possible.
Marina carried on talking. “It might have been a mistake. Look up. What can you see?”
“Nothing but blue.”
“What happens if there isn’t a plane?”
“There will be.”
“I’m thirsty already.”
“I’m just saying.”
About an hour later they spotted a black dot in the sky. It grew larger, more distinct. They could make out the fuselage, wings, and engines. The plane was directly overhead. They yelled at it. It continued on its way. A minute passed and then another one and one more. The vapour trail in the sky began to dissolve.
“We’re going to die.” Marina said.
He was hit by the bullet in March 1975. The attack that had probably turned him into a murderer had happened more than three years ago. In the meantime Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader had been locked up in Stammheim Prison. Sohr had had no further contact to the RAF after Klaus Brandau’s funeral. He’d moved to Wiesbaden, where he had worked his way up to becoming the deputy director of a dental laboratory. He’d only been back to Frankfurt once. To visit Klaus Brandau’s grave.
On the return journey, someone had approached him wearing dark sunglasses and an army green parka. He looked so obviously like a member of the RAF that nobody would ever suspect him of being a terrorist. His name was Bernhard Bachhuber, he spoke with a slight Southern Bavarian accent and said something about a “tremendous act of liberation.” And “responsibility and accountability.” And “overt aggression.” Sohr listened carefully before he said, “Three bombs for three thousand. Deutschmarks.” Bachhuber called him an “imperialist swine” and said the handover would take place at Oberursel station in the Taunus Mountains.
The sun was vertical in the sky above the Pacific, and Sohr’s face, shoulders, and arms were already badly burnt, when Marina’s teeth started to chatter. Her lips had turned blue.
“Oh shit!” Sohr said.
Ages nine to fifteen, Sohr had attended the boys’ school which was part of the ‘Krügerhof’ correction centre in Rengershausen, North Hesse, where he grew up. He knew almost the whole of the Gospel according to St. John by heart, but he had no idea why Maria was suffering from exposure.
He grabbed hold of her left arm with both his hands and gradually pulled her up onto the seat. He gasped for air, the seat wobbled precariously, sinking further into the sea, but at last he had Marina lying on 9A.
“Can you hear me?”
“We are starting to cool down. I’m bigger than you. Heavier. So I can last longer.” As he spoke, he undid his belt with one hand and fastened it to the armrest. “The seat can only carry one of us at a time. We need to take it in turns. One of us in the water, the other one on the seat. Whoever’s in the water straps themselves to the seat with my belt.”
They’d caught him in Oberursel. As he’d handed the sports bag with the pipe bombs to Bachhuber, three undercover cops at the end of the platform had pulled their guns. Even before Sohr realised what was happening, Bachhuber had opened fire. Sohr yelled, “Bombs!” as he was hit by the bullet. Bachhuber yelled, “Bombs!”, too. He pressed the sports bag against Sohr’s chest and pointed his gun at it. The undercover cops lowered their weapons, and Bachhuber dragged Sohr over to the car park. The police followed them at a safe distance. Without firing a shot. But when Bachhuber opened the door of his Opel GT and heaved Sohr onto the passenger seat, bullets shattered the rear window. They still managed to get away. The investigators had been following Sohr, not Bachhuber, who’d travelled to the meeting point on the tram. Their police car was still standing in Wiesbaden.
For the next three months Sohr stayed at number “104,” a safe house in a block of high rise flats in Erfstadt, North Rhine-Westphalia, which the Faction used as a field hospital. Most of the time, he played monopoly with Bachhuber. Foggy with painkillers and antibiotics, Sohr always lost. During one game, six members of their group stormed the West German Embassy in Stockholm. They took twelve hostages and murdered two of them. Then their pipe bombs went off by accident. Two terrorists died. Sohr never knew if it was one of his bombs. After three months in “104” he was given a new identity and never heard from the RAF again.
The sky above 9A was turning crimson. Marina appeared to be asleep. And, all of a sudden, Sohr was overcome with a feeling he hadn’t experienced for weeks. Joy. The cut, his aching wrists, his sunburned neck, and his parched throat didn’t bother him any more.
Before the flight, he had lain awake for nights on end, bathed in a pool of sweat, his heart racing for no apparent reason. Here in the Pacific, he finally understood: it was the bullet. The operation. The imminent extraction. That bullet was the only thing that still connected him to Carl Fuchsler. Hannes Sohr had always despised Hannes Sohr, his pointless life, the paranoia, and all the lies. Almost delirious now, he swore to keep the bullet inside him and die as Carl Fuchsler.
When Sohr woke up again, he was lying on seat 9A. His lungs were burning. Marina must have swapped places with him. He glanced at her. She was strapped to the armrest humming a tune Sohr thought he knew. A nursery rhyme that the older children at the Krügerhof used to sing.
“You’ve got a temperature,” Marina said.
Sohr touched his lips with his index finger.
“Want me to be quiet?”
He shook his head. The slightest movement exhausted him.
Marina undid the belt and carefully pushed herself away from seat 9A. She swam to the other side, pulled off one of his socks and tossed it onto his belly.
“We’ll wait until it’s dried.”
Sohr didn’t understand.
“Then you piss on it. And wring it out in your mouth.”
He understood that.
The urine dampened the pain in his throat, and in his chest and collar bone. It did nothing to quench his thirst.
Sohr’s first ever attempted escape was in 1962. He climbed through an open window into the correction centre kitchen, filled a saucepan with water, and set it on the stove. The break-in was the first part of a carefully constructed plan. The second part succeeded several minutes later. His left arm and his back were covered in second- and third-degree burns. Part three failed. He had assumed a serious injury would mean he got transferred to hospital and would be able to escape from there. Instead, he was taken to the correction centre’s own sick bay.
“Do you think there’ll be a plane today?” Maria asked.
“Who gives a damn?”
“Who gives a damn?”
“So we are going to die?”
“What does it matter?”
“I was on my way to visit my father,” Marina said. “The papers call him the ‘Car Park King of Brandenburg’.”
“Argentina, you mean?”
“Nope. Brandenburg. He’s expanding.”
“He’s called Ferdinand Palm.”
Sohr was ashamed of himself for being so obnoxious, pessimistic, for howling.
“Though Ferdinand Palm’s not his real name.”
“Marcel. His real name is Marcel.”
“That’s why he changed it. ‘Ferdinand’ sounds richer somehow, he said. Once he’d built his third multi-storey car park.”
Sohr didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. One of them talked, and the other one listened.
“Marina, the East Germans, the ‘Ossis’, are going to start buying cars now, and they’ll want to park them somewhere nice and safe. He’s always saying things like that. He’s a poor bastard, really.”
Then it was Sohr’s turn. He told her about the youth correction centre. And the day a group of students had gathered outside the gates. A young man who looked South American had grabbed a megaphone and had delivered a speech, mumbling every word. Sohr had never heard the vocabulary he used before, but he sounded nothing like the Sisters at the correction centre. The next day, twenty boys ran away. One of them was Hannes Sohr. In Frankfurt, he met the young man again, who introduced himself as Andreas Baader and found Sohr a place to stay with a friend. Directly above Frank Graupner’s laboratory. On the first evening, Sohr asked what time he was allowed to use the shower. “Any time you like,” Baader’s friend replied. Sohr thought he was joking.
Marina noticed the fish first. There were thousands of them, swimming beneath 9A.
“Fucking hell!” She said.
Sohr let himself drop backwards into the sea. The fish brushed his body. All he had to do was hold out his hands, and he was able to catch one. He and Marina clubbed the fish to death on the armrest and threw them onto the seat. In less than a minute the seat cushion was stained red with blood. In less than three, the shoal was gone. They held on to the armrests and counted their catch. Nine fish.
“I’m covered in scratches,” Marina said.
Sohr looked at his arms. The fish scales had lacerated his skin, too.
Marina squeezed her fingers down the gills and ripped the fish open. She pulled out its intestines and handed it to Sohr. The meat was cold and mealy. After a few bites, he wasn’t thirsty anymore.
That’s when he said it. So fast, he mumbled:
“I used to make bombs. Pipe bombs. For the RAF.”
“The Red Army Faction.”
Marina stared at him for a second. For two. Three. Four.
“Forget it.” Sohr said and helped himself to another fish.
The storm came out of nowhere. Lightning was followed immediately by a clash of thunder. The current grew stronger, soon raindrops like bullets were pelting down on 9A. Sohr stuck out his tongue. Another flash of lightning. A crash. Saltwater towering over him. The wave engulfed their seat. The sheer force of it combined with his own mortal fear slammed his jaws shut. He bit off part of his tongue. Saltwater mixed with blood in his throat and shot down his windpipe.
They were back on the surface. He threw up a piece of tongue. The second pounding wave struck 9A even harder and dragged them further under water. Sohr realised then that he and Marina were causing the seat to sink. They were too heavy. 9A could only carry one of them.
His mouth flew open. He let go of 9A.
And then the world stopped. Sohr could see his own motionless face. His arms, his hands. 9A up above. The surface of the water. Lightning. Rain. And the storm clouds and the sun.
He swam towards the surface. After a couple of strokes, he bumped his head on her foot. He grabbed hold of it. Held on. He dug his fingernails into her flesh. Then the first kick. She kicked him with all her might. Again and again. Kicked his head, his shoulders, and his nose. His lungs filled with saltwater. And then suddenly, close by, suspended between the last rising bubbles, he saw a pencil made of Californian cedar wood for $179.99, duty-free.
Lennardt Loß, “11,312 KILOMETER ÜBER DEM SUDPAZIFIK. APRIL 1992.” in Und andere Formen menschlichen Versagens (Other Forms of Human Failure). Weissbooks w. 2019, Unionsverlag Taschenbuch, 2020.