The Green Frontier: A Fantasy

Author: Isabel Fargo Cole
Translator: Isabel Fargo Cole

The future stands bright before us; the past remains uncertain.
Soviet-era joke


At college I majored in history. It was just after we won the Cold War. Isn’t history over? a friend asked, and I said, That would be boring.

This is how it looks when history is over.

The Harz Mountains, nothing but high hills. A backwater – a wilderness once. Goethe and Heine passed through on foot to find fairytales from Germany’s geographical heart. Much later came the strangest fairytale: this heart severed for decades by a nearly impenetrable border (technology indistinguishable from magic) that one day dissolved into thin air. Leaving the town of Sorge, just east of it, stretched out in the valley like a train stopped at a crossing.

Sorge: sorrow, trouble, care. Toward the west the northern slope turns steep, crags looming in the woods over the embankment left from the long-distance railroad; the narrow-gauge line, still in use, curves from a side valley to cross the river, the Warme Bode, its bridge like a natural end to the Bode Valley. Beyond the bridge, to the west, the wooded slopes draw together, the green of the river meadows turns impenetrable as the paint of a picture; only a child asks what lies behind a painting. Where exactly was the border? When I look for it, I see it everywhere, in each break in the forest. And yet I see nothing. No sign of the legendary Cold War.

“Over there, where the river bends, that’s where our section of the border started,” said Wolfgang, my primary source for that war’s losing side. “We were stationed in Elend.”

The next town north, Elend: misery, hardship. The stream, a mere trickle, is that the river that forms the frontier? It flows toward town, but no one asks where it comes from. Every river has its source, but who goes searching for it?

The narrow-gauge line continues east on the south slope, past farmhouses and vacation rentals, then bends off into the woods. Across the river on the highway cars barrel on into the west as though this route had never been blocked off. Tucked between the river and the rail line are several half-timbered houses with the look of abandoned vacation rentals, the old sawmill, a neglected fish pond, a grove of trees. Then fields open up on both slopes, pushing the forest edge back to the horizon.

On the north slope, auf der Lindewarte – with a view of the Brocken peak, where Goethe’s witches danced – the forest ends, a clean cut down to the village. Where the path emerges to cross the fields, two firs step forward from the dense block of trees. Next to them a house, ten years vacant. Unclarified to this day – who owns it now, what happened back then.

All this: from above. All that a passerby can see and know. The village reveals little. Nothing that I can detect. At the end of a long hike, with the last bus about to leave below, I’d need to stave off haste and weariness and take one real look. From up above: as though through clear water. From the surface I immerse my gaze.


Part I
Chapter 1

On the first morning, May 8, waking up with aching muscles. Finding yourself in a strange place. Or: in your own space, once again. First a forgotten place, later on in the wardrobe, under your foster-father’s desk, in a bunk in the children’s home, in the barracks, finally an abandoned apartment you claimed. Where you sensed for the first time, falling asleep, how room is joined to room, building to building, street to street, you to the city. The city of Berlin, there for the taking, if you join the conquerors whose steps echo on the pavement. At first, that too forgotten, the bombs’ footfall shook the streets, where only they could walk. Later men’s feet, foreign march music. Running out onto the street to see. The city lying in heaps like building blocks. It builds itself up – you help build. In the hope of achieving something of your own. In the hope of a reward: possessing something of your own. Something to which you have no claim whatsoever: another person, say. The desire is so strong, you’re afraid of doing damage. As if you could pass down the streets like an air raid.  Laughable conceit – you’re the one who bears the damage.

But now all that was left out of the picture. That was the crucial thing about his own space: now, at this moment, Thomas knew nothing. Now, at this moment, nothing had happened.

It was his birthday, that was all he knew. Music drifted up, festive sounds. He was lying on a mattress amid boxes and unfamiliar furniture. Carefully he got up and went to the window. So here he was. In the hills. The march music so lost in the landscape. Like an elfin procession, tiny figures, flags, trumpets to hunt for in the picture’s grey-green depths. Springtime, childhood feelings: running onto the street when the ordeal is over. Liberation Day.

A smell of coffee. Editha sat in the kitchen, sunlight on her blond braid, one hand on her belly, as though she were trying to remember as well: Where was she and what was all this? But she had only been waiting for him; when he sat down next to her, she jumped up, kissed him on the top of the head, poured him coffee and made for the moving boxes, tugging and rummaging.

“As if it were your birthday!” he called after her.

“I feel as if it were!”

She came into the kitchen, a box propped on her belly.

“Not so fast,” he said, taking the box and setting it on the table. “First let’s have our breakfast in peace and quiet. Then you bake my cake, if you don’t mind, and I’ll tidy up.”

He meant to sound teasing, not peevish. But teasing was her territory. “That’s just how I thought you’d act on your birthday! As if we had a national holiday just for you!”

In fact he’d hardly ever celebrated his birthday. Once or twice perhaps. Last year he’d still been on his own. Now he had a craving for cake. He took a deep breath, felt a twinge in his ribs. The unfailing pain, more frequent the past few weeks, when he’d had to run so many errands in the city.

“I must have strained a muscle yesterday,” he said.

She sat where she was, as he’d asked her to, and gazed at him. “You’ve got phantom pains. You’re pregnant too.”

He laughed. “I have something to tell you,” but he didn’t know what. She looked at him in alarm, but why, when suddenly he felt so light? “This is my first pregnancy.”

“Mine too!”

“And I have no idea –”


“What actually –”


“How –”

“Oh, I haven’t the faintest idea either. About family and all that. You’ve met my mother. I might as well be an orphan too. I practically raised myself!”

“Then you know the score, that’s good.”

“Oh, we’ll do it all wrong, whatever we do.” She got up.

He felt a rush of confidence.

“First, the cake!” she said, sent him to fetch the boxes of groceries and got to work.

Taking a deep breath, Thomas looked around: the former dining room with the picture window would be Editha’s sculpture studio. They’d put most of the furniture here last night, where it would remain while he fixed up the other rooms. What a day that had been. Editha had organized the moving van and a driver with a smoker’s cough, almost too feeble to steer. He’d have to carry all the furniture with this scrawny fellow’s help, Thomas fretted for much of the hundred and fifty miles, astounded by Editha’s sangfroid as she sat squeezed in the middle, navigating, chatting with the driver and even cadging a smoke to mark the occasion.

And so Thomas felt nothing as they left the city behind; floating in a numbing cloud, he finally fell asleep. He woke up when they stopped at the first checkpoint. It was already dark. Glaring lights, officials searching the jumble of wedged-together furniture that suddenly seemed unfamiliar and suspicious. At last they were waved on, escorted by two soldiers on motorcycles. The headlights lit up crooked streets, sagging timbers, cracks in wall plaster, ancient straw protruding, grass by the roadside, tree trunks, two tall firs, a lonely house. When Editha hauled herself out of the cab belly first, the soldiers immediately began to help unload – as she’d clearly anticipated. Gangly kids serving their compulsory two years, bitterly-earned muscles, incongruous baby faces, undisciplined skin rife with stubble and pimples. He felt sorry for them, so gawky and eager to please. Like him, once. He forgot to ask their names.

All these things set in motion by an unintended child. There were just two months left.

He’d lain awake that night, his cramped body chafing at the edges of this unfamiliar room. In dreams he later forgot, he performed one movement over and over, turning in circles. The cramp had dissolved when the music called him to the window. Now he faced this furniture, half of it his, and recognized none of it. A jumble like a junk shop. A week ago it had stood in his Berlin apartment in arrangements now dissolved, even in his memory. He indulged himself in a pleasant game: he was back at the junk shop, picking it out all over again.

A whole convoy of cars passed down in the valley. He forced himself not to look. He arranged and rearranged the furniture until it looked like a place where life could play out.

“Nice job!” said Editha, lowering herself slowly, sweating, into an armchair. “You don’t need to go to all that trouble though, it’s only temporary.”

“But it all fits.”

“We have the whole house!”

She’d told him all about the old family inn, restored at last to her mother Margarethe. But he’d never seen the house. They’d come to the Harz Mountains just once, to Elend, in March, to visit Margarethe (Elend, misery, hardship, mother-in-law – the jokes he had to put up with from his friends …). That weekend everything was cordoned off for some reason, evidently no unusual occurrence in the 5-km-wide Restricted Zone along the border. At any rate, it was impossible to go the few miles to Sorge to see the house, and Margarethe claimed not to have a single photo of it. He’d been ready and willing to admire it. But as no one seemed bothered he’d shrugged his shoulders too and wasn’t bothered either and just had to be polite and not admire anything.

“I guess I can’t believe my luck.”

March music again, again it drew him to the window. But the exhaustion remained.

Editha joined him. “Do you see anything?” He shook his head. “We could go down and look.”

“True, I suppose we ought to show our faces.”

“Oh – we both have good excuses. And it’s your birthday. But if you want… the cake has to cool off anyway.”

“Let’s go look, then.”

They took the shortcut, straight down the hillside along the forest edge. The official path down through the fields zigzagged first to the next village, Tanne, barely half a mile east, but already outside the Restricted Zone; a checkpoint intervened. And the forest path took too long for Editha. Free of the city, the lowlands, she took the breakneck downhill plunge. Slipped in the wet grass, caught herself, laughed; Thomas, trying to catch her, slipped and fell. When they reached the crossing, it began to pour, and they ducked under the eaves of the hotel Sorgenfrei. Sans souci, thought Thomas, not that he spoke French. No sign of a parade, the music was gone. The village seemed abandoned. Everyone had gone where the music was playing, the wreaths were laid down. Wherever that was. They looked at each other and shrugged; when the rain let up, they went back. Editha lit candles on the kitchen table, arranged the flowers, picked that morning, still wet, poured brandy in Thomas’ coffee. A sense of relief, but not celebration. The people down there might well feel the same. An ordeal has passed, the music promised: May is come and winter gone. No one would dare deny it. But liberation was too big a word. Waiting and seeing.

He pulled her onto his lap. “I’m much too big and heavy for you!” she laughed, but he liked it that way.

Again he couldn’t sleep. It alarmed him: that he’d woken up remembering his birthday, not the baby. That the very first thing was his old story. Whenever he asked himself where the baby actually was, he found himself back in that space. Alone. Now, in this moment, nothing had happened. Was it going to start? Start over from the beginning?

Half asleep, he was thrown back on himself, back to Berlin. He was still hurrying through the streets. With so much to take care of before the move to the Harz, all unfinished business seemed unbearably urgent. After each shopping trip, each bureaucratic appointment, he took the long way back through the city center’s old, tangled streets. Slow but still harried, breathing shallowly, scalp tense, heart racing, he peered into identical-seeming entryways, unable to read the faded pre-war lettering, a foreign alphabet? What felt familiar was the maze of the streets, secret paths, hiding places… Might he find the place after all? But this wasn’t about him. This was all about his child. It couldn’t start until this here was taken care of. Couldn’t start all over until… The place was nowhere to be found. It was meant that way. Meant for heavy boots, panting dogs to pass by.

Those who have gone, all that has vanished has merely moved, living on in an unknown street. Those who leave East Berlin find themselves in West Berlin. All that vanishes is the warmth of touch: what is left are trajectories, paths, streets intersecting at infinity. No Wall can hold back these memories, these encounters that are none because the life has fled from them, why is there no such wall?

Now, in his dream, though he hadn’t gone far, he came up against some resistance, no visible obstacle, but suddenly there was no going further. Here he stopped, almost relieved.

Outside the wind rose, a long intake of breath dissolved the tightness in his chest. He inhaled and exhaled and waited for the woods to exhale too. A long, wide span of silence. By the time the wind came again, he was calm. Opening his eyes, he saw with relief the arrangement of the furniture. Clouds glowed in the window bay. Editha slept nude, belly and breasts, shoulders, hips, hair, all her heavy curves suspended, a voluptuous figure sketched in charcoal, swift and sure. To think that this woman existed. He breathed deep. That she slept so calmly. That nothing seemed to touch her. But a shadow flitted across her belly: a hand grazed her from within. She too was sleepless. Waiting.

What had Editha said? I might as well be an orphan! So cheerful. Once, in passing, she’d said her father had died on the front, her grandfather in the last-ditch defense of the town. For her that seemed to be all there was to it. Children like to play orphans. They have their reasons.

The next morning Thomas thought he heard music from a different direction, the Russians celebrating their own holiday: Victory Day.

“But there aren’t any Russians around. The last of them were stationed in here. Now there’s just the base in Aschersleben,” said Editha.

“What do you mean, in here?”

“In ’45 they used the house for their headquarters. Only until ’49, though. After that our men moved in.”

“And what were they doing here?”

“Drinking coffee. How should I know! The main thing is, they’re all gone now. It was probably too drafty for them.”

Editha had dreaded finding old junk lying around. Even an old button in a corner would have… revolted her. A quirk of hers she’d first discovered in Berlin, when the Spartan dorm room delivered her from Margarethe’s book-filled lair. The sense of liberation was so keen that a single grubby coin on the windowsill brought her painfully down to earth – as though she’d found something rotting there. But this big room was cool, bare, bright, a studio already, smelling of elemental substances. Great canvasses waiting for colors and forms. If only it weren’t for the blotchy wallpaper. Put up by Grandpa? By the Russians? By our men?
She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

The house wasn’t that big after all. A few small rooms clustered around the old dining room. The kitchen had just space enough for a table next to the prewar stove and the postwar refrigerator. But there was hot running water. A narrow flight of stairs, three little rooms under the roof, dust, pigeon feathers, spiders drifting down, trapped heat, the smell of wood and must. “Where do you want to have your study?”

Study: it all came back to him, the high ceiling with its moldings, the Berlin courtyard outside the window, elder bushes… He stepped into the room on the west side, feeling, slight as he was, as though he had to stoop. At the gable end the forest loomed outside the window, a tiny window on the left wall overlooked the valley, a puddle on the buckling brown flooring beneath it. But he felt at home in this thicket of light and shadow. All right, then: the bedroom would go next door, and the nursery on the eastern end. Thomas was silent, incredulous. An entire house. In its very emptiness it seemed still – already? – to belong to other people.

“You mean, they might make us share the place? I’d like to see them try! Housing shortage or not, I’m a sculptor, and I have a right to a studio! It was a struggle, though, I have to say. It’s a good thing we have the mayor on our side. With his cultural ambitions. He has big plans for us, we’ll have to go along. You have no idea how important the mayors are here in the Restricted Zone, constantly negotiating, getting special deals from the powers that be to keep their townspeople happy. Not an easy job. As far as I’m concerned, the townspeople can come here and I’ll give art lessons, then they’ll get something out of it. They’ll be glad in the end! That we’re crazy enough to live in this dump! The roof leaks and it’s probably haunted.”

He could tell she felt at home here, clattering about, voice echoing. Nothing was left. No trace of the old furnishings, not a sagging chair, not a picture: The Brocken by Moonlight. Nothing of our men, nothing of the Russians, no whiff of bootblack or Palekh-ware. But the
emptiness smelled of what had vanished. Neither he nor she knew what that was.

“Well, I’m going shopping. And I’m sure you have things to do!”

“Oh,” he said, “I was just feeling so…”

So comfortable. He didn’t want to move from the spot. Once Editha had left, he got up and stretched his back to buy time. Time he didn’t have. On Monday he started work at the House of Books. One more time he walked through all the rooms. Outside the windows the valley, the village. It awed him the way the city awes a villager; he couldn’t simply stroll out of the house. His house, he thought. His. Whoever had lived here, whoever was to come, innkeepers, dinner guests, entire armies, it was his for now. And if he wanted, he could paint the walls black. Drum solo – Charlie Watts! A mad rush down the stairs. Margarethe hadn’t managed once to come over from Elend, but she’d organized the necessities, plaster, mortar, paint, he’d have to make do with white. A trowel, brushes, he’d brought a paint roller. All he needed was a ladder.

Find a ladder: that was his first task. And there it all began.

He took the shortcut, just what he needed, that stumbling downhill momentum. Down to the road, then a few hundred yards to the west. On the left, below the road, the big farmhouses along the Warme Bode nestled in the fold of the valley. A hiking group approached, cheerful hellos, curious looks, the vacationers took him for a native and wondered what one wonders: What’s it like to live here? By the time he reached the crossing – the road went on westward, but there was nothing down that way, you turned left across the bridge into the village – everything seemed deserted. Most people worked in the factories in Königshütte or Benneckenstein, a bus picked them up before each shift.

It all gleamed in the sun, in the lush greenery, freshly painted, great ancient half-timbered houses and ones with wood cladding, striped red and white, the clear-cut crisscross of the planks and beams, the brick-red and slate gleam of the lofty roofs. The heart of the village, across from the hotel Sorgenfrei, yesterday hidden by rain; he entered it as though he’d never set foot in a village before. All he knew were the towns outside Berlin, stretched long and low and grey along the roads. This here was a picture from a picture book, turn of the century, opulent yet clear in its lines.

The one old story: someone sets out from home to arrive in the bustling city. And the other: a weary wanderer heads down into a village.

He knocked here and there; at last, in an outbuilding, he heard steps. A diminutive woman peered up at him, hair short and smooth and slate-grey, eyes blinking, a sleepy bird. “Hello, my name is Thomas Grünberg, my wife and I just moved into the house on the hill. I was wondering if I could borrow a ladder.”

The brown eyes turned suspicious, still sleepy, a sleepiness that seemed to perturb her.

“We’d like to keep it a while, if possible,” he went on, unnerved, “we have to renovate, paint…”

“Hold it right there, young man.” Now with demonstrative vigor. “Not so fast. Can I see your papers?”

He rummaged through his pockets, was it the wrong jacket, that eternal pang of fear… He held out his ID with the stamp for the Restricted Zone.

“Well, well. Let’s see what we can do for you. Frau Barthel.” She gave him her hand. “We’d better sort it out with the policeman.”

Who was just coming around the corner. Thomas had to tell the whole story again, and yet again when two members of the Voluntary Auxiliary of the Border Troops joined them. The sun shone too hot on Thomas’ head. All three withdrew to confer. Frau Barthel asked them in and put the kettle on, but no one made himself comfortable. The policeman went to make a phone call, one Member of the Auxiliary followed Frau Barthel into the shed, and the other waited in the kitchen, keeping an eye on Thomas and the kettle. A burly man with short sand-blond hair. The water came to a boil, and he poured it over the grounds.


“No, thanks.”



“Welcome to Sorge.” He stared at Thomas to see if his mouth would twitch at the name. “Whereabouts are you from again?”



Did that seal his fate? But Frau Barthel came into the kitchen and said: “There, you see, we’ve got it all sorted out.”

The policeman took his leave; the Members of the Auxiliary lifted the ladder onto their shoulders and motioned Thomas to go in front, as though he knew the way better than they. Frau Barthel flitted along after them. On the slope – he took the shortcut on purpose – Thomas heard the men gasp for breath behind him. He could hardly breathe himself. For fury. How humiliating, this Procession to Calvary. Editha, at the window, covered her face with her hands; her shoulders shook. When their eyes met, he nearly burst out laughing himself.

“I was about to call the police,” she said at the door, “but there was no need for that, I see.”

She had already divided the leftover birthday cake among five plates. But the visitors lingered in the corridor, looking around with such blatant curiosity that Editha offered a tour of the construction site. On the top floor Heckmann could barely stand upright; hunched over, he seemed to peer the more sharply into the corners.

“It’s not as big as it looks from outside,” he said at last with satisfaction.

“When I was little, it seemed like a fairy-tale castle!” The guests’ surliness enlivened Editha, inspired her to strike up the opposite tone. “I come from Elend, but I used to walk over here sometimes just to see the house. It really does look bigger from down there. But I think it’s wonderful. And it’s wonderful to be back here in the Harz!”

The others smiled tentatively, not equal to such artlessness. In the end Editha’s belly mollified them. Frau Barthel stared at her in dreamy consternation, inevitable effect of mothers-to-be on older ladies? When Editha smiled at her, she averted her eyes. After eating her cake she fixed Thomas with a different, grim gaze.

“I have to go now. I have to go to the library. They let me go. They don’t let me work full time anymore. You’ve come to replace me.”

“Oh, you’re the librarian?”

She got to her feet. “I’ll see you on Monday.”

The Members of the Auxiliary got up hastily, having neglected their duties long enough. Herr Heckmann warned Thomas not to leave the ladder outside, to lock it up at night or secure it with a chain.

Thomas fled upstairs. They’d known who he was all along. The whole village knew. He began tearing down the wallpaper. The perfect task for an angry man unsure what he was angry at.

“Say, what was that all about?” he asked at dinner. He told the whole story from the beginning.

“That’s how people are here. When a newcomer shows up, they have to look him over first, sound him out, maybe take him for a ride. They don’t mean any harm. I don’t think they mean any harm.”

“But all that fuss about a ladder?”

“Well, what on earth were you thinking? You can’t just go running around with a ladder! You might climb over the Wall!”

He laughed until his scalp hurt.

“Yes, you could die laughing around here,” she said.

Her mood did seem somewhat dampened.

That night in bed he couldn’t lie still.

“Why do you keep jiggling your foot?”

“I can’t get the Rolling Stones out of my head.”

The next day the mayor came to welcome them to the village. He’d been busy with the Liberation Day festivities, he excused himself with an earnestness that was hardly reassuring. As though, left on their own, they might have gotten into all kinds of trouble. Tall, gaunt, greybearded, he should have radiated dignity, not this peculiar tension. It filled his sonorous voice as he expressed his delight that a man of books had chosen to settle here in Sorge and start work in the House of Books. He looked forward to the first literary soiree he’d have the privilege of organizing with him. Thomas froze: he began to grasp the role that was prepared
for him.

In parting the mayor handed Thomas a brochure explaining the special regulations in the Restricted Zone.

“They have signs up everywhere anyway,” said Editha.

But there was no sign pointing to Sorge. Coming from the east, you passed through the checkpoint just outside Tanne, where vacationers had to leave their car. Once in Sorge, all roads led back east. You could hike to the reservoir in Mandelholz and have a coffee at the restaurant there. Or take the short stroll south to Benneckenstein, a popular destination in June for the Finch Singing Competition. There was no direct path to Elend, the next village north in the Restricted Zone, only the detour via Tanne. Which was no problem at all, you simply showed the special stamp in your papers.

Neither Elend nor Sorge showed up on the maps you could buy in the store. But most people knew their names, at least from a certain subgenre of jokes. The Berliners had been in stitches. Here’s a new one: Did you know socialism’s true home is in the Harz? Between Trouble and Misery.

Margarethe would have set them straight, just as she’d set Thomas straight when he sat in her parlor for the first time that March. She lectured him on linguistic corruption and folk etymology. Explained that Sorge meant “border” and Elend “abroad”. Sorge: from Middle High German Zarge, border, Elend: from Old High German eli lenti, a strange land.

She looked at him as sharply as though that were some delicate innuendo, so he said, “Fascinating.”

“What’s fascinating about it? There was a Benedictine monastery in Ilsenburg, the Cistercians were in Walkenried. The border between the two holdings was here in the middle. The monks from Ilsenburg would spend the night here, their first night ‘in a strange land’ – a day’s walk from Ilsenburg. Just over seven miles. That’s how narrow people’s horizons were.”

“There is a certain historical irony.”

“What irony? Old borders are kept up, between monastery holdings, between princedoms. Ninety percent of ‘historical ironies’ are simply historical laws.”

“What you’re saying is actually quite interesting,” Thomas persisted with the charming twinkle in his eyes that concealed many things, anger, or the actual spark of an important idea. “Then it’s like old paths. Once they’re made, they’re used over and over. Indian trails.”

“The Ottonian Roads,” said Editha.

“Ah, yes, Editha told me you’d written about those medieval roads, hollowed out into the ground…”

“‘Shrouded in mystery,’ as they say in the tourist brochures. What’s so mysterious about erosion? Yes, people want to go where everyone has always gone. Rationally speaking that’s utterly banal. And what radically different realms did those old borders separate? Two fiefdoms, a kingdom and a duchy, one Reichsgau and another Reichsgau. This here was Hanover. Tanne was Brunswick. Sorge used to be the Prussians. It only gets interesting today: for the first time the border separates two profoundly different social systems. NATO’s sphere of influence and the community of socialist states. That’s something a thinking person can find a deeper meaning in. Until socialism triumphs over there as well. Until then you can go on being fascinated by the border!”

Thomas choked down the dry cake like an unraised objection. Margarethe had no time to bake herself; she bought her cake every Wednesday when she gave her lectures at the Museum of Feudalism in Wernigerode. He stuffed more in his mouth, just to keep his objections down. But Editha looked at him so expectantly.

He formed his supple smile. “Tell us a Harz legend.”

Margarethe nearly barked in protest. “Look one up yourself! I’ve written papers on various aspects – I don’t go retelling the legends.” She shook her head and coughed. Or was it a gruff laugh?

“Mutti used to read this to me.” Editha had taken a book from the shelf: “The Development of Early Capitalism as Reflected in Harz Folklore. I had to think up the fairytales to go along with it. You hid all the fairy books.”

“Nonsense! You never asked for any. I thought you didn’t want to read the same old fairytales as the other kids. That’s my daughter for you! You might as well know now! You can never tell what she’s thinking!”

Thomas excused himself to use the toilet.

“Hm, one of those modern intellectuals,” he heard Margarethe say. “Where on earth did you come up with him?”

“Oh, that’s a long story!” Editha mimicked her Berlin girlfriends’ confessional coquetry – knowing her mother had no stomach for anything that sounded like gossip. Neither did Editha. It wasn’t like her, that was why Margarethe now lapsed into alienated silence. Which made Editha take pity on her after all. “We met at an exhibition opening, you know, at the buffet, over a glass of Crimean champagne…”

Margarethe had to nod as though she knew. Yet she’d never come to Editha’s exhibitions, hadn’t visited a single time all the years Editha had lived in Berlin. People from the Harz, Editha was constantly having to explain, are real mountain folk. Everyone hunkered in their own little valley.

Thomas stepped outside. Darkness was falling. The village lay in a shallow basin; the crests of the hills, low as they were, still hid the nearby Brocken. And so you felt you could not go much further. You were almost at the top, albeit on a small scale. After all, the village green boasted the smallest wooden church in Germany. Thomas felt stuck in the middle of a railroad set. The only person conscious that the entire village was stuck on a tabletop. Resentfully he fingered the special pass in his coat pocket: a pass for the back of beyond. The cake turned acid in his stomach. What a woman. So unlike Editha, so small and fidgety, so voluble, as though she constantly had to prove someone wrong. Who, him? She didn’t even know him. And hadn’t asked any of the questions he’d been prepared for, about his work (you write books?!) or his family, hadn’t even offered coffee and cake, Editha had gone to the kitchen to fetch it as Margarethe launched on her harangue. He’d nearly lost his temper. But this fragile little person seemed unable to help herself.

Editha, behind him, said: “She likes you.”

“How so?”

“Maybe she likes green eyes too.”

He smiled, nastily or nicely, he didn’t know himself.

“I think she was looking forward to showing us the house.”

“That’s not exactly the impression I got.”

“She’s so – funny sometimes.”

“Anyway, it’s too bad. I would have loved to see it.”

It was a polite phrase, no more. In the train he’d felt a sudden wave of anticipation; now he felt cheated of something. But that wasn’t it.

He didn’t know until the next day, when they took a walk through the forested hills above the village. The trees lay every which way: in November a hurricane had struck. Thomas had seen it even from the train: the forest he’d imagined had been brutally cleared. It shocked him like the sight of the rubble fields when, nine years old, he’d first come to Berlin. A moment of horror, then childish cynicism – never again would he picture the future, because destruction would have intervened – then awe at this destruction, then horror at his own response.

Now, as the path crossed a ravaged slope, he suddenly saw for miles. In the distance an endless white swath wound through the forest. The blinding snow dissolved contours, heights and depths; the longer he looked, the less he could make out, everything extinguished by glimmering light. Picture a figure approaching that swath, and it would flicker out, black in white, against the light you could feel from here, an electrical field. Inconceivable, that such things happened. That someone could cross that field.

He saw the border for the first time. Berlin was too flat. The only observation decks were on the other side. He’d never been on top of the Television Tower. What a privilege to stand here. To spend the rest of his life here. They let you in?! Not long before, he and his Berlin friends had celebrated the approval of his application to move to the Restricted Zone. Celebrated was an exaggeration. They’d drunk to it. His friends were at a loss, while he felt… hollow. He’d been x-rayed and nothing had been found. Results negative. He could count himself lucky.

Now he felt how lucky. To have come as far as you could possible go. Before you the clean break. You faced this view as though from a Caspar David Friedrich cliff. And you could hurl yourself off, or not. That was the brilliance of this clearly drawn line. You had to decide. You decided of your own free will: I want to live. Live a perfectly normal life.

And once you’d made that decision, once you’d looked long enough, the sight was almost  soothing. That line was so very complete. It seemed to stretch into infinity.


Excerpted from Isabel Fargo Cole, Die Grüne Grenze, Edition Nautilus, Hamburg, 2017.

The Endless City

Author: Ulla Lenze
Translator: Isabel Fargo Cole




Someone is walking toward her through the low sun’s light. He moves without haste, so that her stopping is reframed as waiting. She smiles reluctantly. Squints in the sun’s rays. Until he’s standing opposite, and his shadow falls on her.

This is the man she owes the past six months to. Yesterday they shook hands; today they barely took notice of each other, not on the ferry, not in Topkapi Palace, not in the Museum of Modern Art. He was part of an entourage clustered around the German foreign minister and surrounded by bodyguards, everyone wearing innocently bright polo shirts with very serious dark suit pants.

She feels her body tense up.

“Hello,” she says casually.

“Hello,” he says cheerily.

And then they both hesitate—they ought to know each other’s names. It wouldn’t do to ask again.

“Aren’t you going to the Eyüp Sultan Mosque?” She points to the restive throng of thirty German and Turkish artists and creative types over by the ferry.

“No, I’ve had enough lectures for today,” he says. “And you?”

“Me too.”

“What are your plans?”

“Just to walk around.” She doesn’t dare say by myself. Instead she pushes her sunglasses up from her face. His smile loses its caution, closes more tightly around her.

What excuse can she use to get away from him?

“A suggestion,” he says, putting his hand on her shoulder. She turns and gazes out at the town with him: pastel houses on a hill, a mosque’s minarets, her gaze following his outstretched hand. No wedding ring—something she’s just started to pay attention to, even in men who don’t interest her.

“You can see all the way to Istanbul from up there. Shall we tackle it?”

Tackle it. That makes her think of pension reform, or a soccer team trying to climb in the rankings. Not taking a stroll or just walking around.

His hand slips from her shoulder, he hasn’t noticed her hesitation, he’s already heading toward the town.
They walk through a park, deserted and rather dull. For these first few minutes they compare notes about Eyüp: the fourth most important place of pilgrimage in the Islamic world, oddly hidden away here at the end of the Golden Horn; except for the mosque and the view of Istanbul from the hill, the guide books they’ve read have no recommendations.

It’s more of a saunter, and she hadn’t expected that, this slow walk that practically requires a decision for each step (so that’s what he calls tackling). But each attempt to pick up the pace puts her a yard ahead of him, and he’s not at all willing to catch up.

Her hand at her nape, she turns around with a mocking smile. He raises his eyebrows questioningly, and she turns off the smile at once.

The evening’s images return. The big pools of light on the German consulate’s polished floorboards. The ballroom. The drifts of perfume like snow flurries hitting your face here and there. Tailored suits, rigid form. Controlled hairspray helmet coiffeurs. Forms and more forms. “None of it fits,” she moaned, trying to stir up unrest in the people sitting on either side of her: “They have no clue about art or us, it’s not about us, it’s just…”—“Shut up, Holle, please.”—“… about public image.”

And then the man she’s having to saunter along with here was called up to the podium: how much the foundation owed to him, the board member of a major conglomerate, construction or banking, she can’t remember which. She snuck outside and phoned Celal. Celal, at Galata Tower, said he got a hard-on the moment he heard her voice. “It is big like Galata Tower, baby!”

“Looks like snow,” says the banking or construction guy, pointing at the slope.

“Yes,” she says. They’re old Ottoman tombs; she knows he knows that. Why has he joined her? Had she caught his eye back when the artists were being introduced, one at a time, the crucial stations of their lives read out? And on today’s excursion was he just waiting for a chance to be alone with her? Hardly. Something must have caught his attention as she hurriedly jumped ashore. Something about it must have surprised, maybe even bothered him.

That’s the most important thing about her. Not who she studied with, what galleries have showed her work, or the year of her birth. This tendency to take off. “I want to eat your loneliness,” Celal had said. Because she’d said: “I am lonely most of the time.”
A boy with a 20-liter water bottle on his shoulder overtakes them. They’re walking slowly, as though their halting conversation might otherwise be left in the dust. He starts talking about the traffic in Berlin and Hanover, evidently casting about for universal, innocuous topics.

“I get around by bike,” she says.

“Isn’t that dangerous in Berlin?”

She nods.

She’d actually like to ask about his work. But what questions might reveal that she doesn’t know people like him, and at the same time mistrusts them? They don’t even have a subject in common, at most the strained search for one.

They pass a shop selling Muslim headscarves, a bakery window stuffed from bottom to top with flatbreads, shops with sponges, soaps, bulk herbs and teas. She puts her sunglasses in her purse.

“Do you have any favorite restaurants in Berlin?” he asks.

“Are you going to ask me out to dinner?”

He laughs quietly. But then he can’t answer. He asks about a few places, all of them Michelin-starred, and though she knows several, she shakes her head each time.

“Don’t forget I’m poor, technically speaking that’s the basis of our acquaintance.”

He smiles again, but now she sees retreat in this smile. Her directness is awkward for him. She can even understand that. As though he had to apologize for what he is. Well, he does.
The shops begin to repeat; they’re still roaming the soap-sponge-herb district. A veiled woman holds a small child over a bush, its pants pulled down.

Holle looks at the shop displays, walks over—he’s following her, she notes to her relief—feels the hard surface of a grey-green soap, smells it. “Olive-oil soap from Aleppo,” she explains expertly, “I’m going to get two of these.”

They step inside a shop with dark wood paneling, old, almost forgotten scents of hay and resin, dry summers, pharmacies. Spices and herbs spill from gunny sacks. “Merhaba.” An old man greets them, bowing slightly. Behind him are glass carafes of rosebuds for making tea. Pensively her companion contemplates an old mahogany chest.

“Nice here, isn’t it?” she asks.

“Yes,” he agrees, “it’s wonderful!”

“In downtown Istanbul these shops are disappearing, you know that, right?” she hears herself say. “Instead, you have the multinational corporate monsters casting their net of franchises over the globe. Douglas, Body Shop, Starbucks, H&M, Nordsee. Yep, now there’s a Nordsee restaurant on Istiklal Caddesi. Everything’s becoming the same, and the same thing is happening everywhere.”

She’s saying something everyone knows. She coughs; the cough is an attempt to keep him from answering. “Feeling better?” he asks once she finally ends the diversionary maneuver and drinks the glass of water the old man hands her. Celal is solicitous in the same way. That’s how she met him, when she was wandering the streets on the evening of her arrival and showed up at his kebab shop on the corner just as he was closing. She was hungry. He could tell by looking at her, though she was just standing around indecisively and covertly eyeing the handsomest Turk in the world. He made her spaghetti with oily homemade pesto; she’d explained, “I’m vegetarian, you know.” He sat next to her at the little bistro table. All around the tiles were plastered with A4-format printouts, flash-lit photos of chicken kebabs, hot dogs, pizza and manti, Turkish ravioli. His English wasn’t really good enough for a conversation, so they just looked at each other, and he kept bashfully smoothing back his long black hair. When he asked for her phone number, she had the truthful excuse that she didn’t have a Turkish SIM card yet, and she purposely put a wrong letter in her e-mail address.
Somewhat enfeebled by her feigned coughing fit, she takes the soaps; the merchant has wrapped them in pretty tissue paper.

He bows again.

“So Oriental, isn’t it?” she jibes, but her companion doesn’t realize that she speaks of the Orient and Occident only in quotation marks—unlike him, for he instantly agrees, and enthuses about Istanbul as a bridge between the East and West. For months she and the other artists have been discussing this issue of enthusiasm and how to deal with it artistically. Do they have to address the clichés of this city in order to go beyond them, or must they rely on their own incorruptible gaze? Are we making compromises or art? is the crucial self-critical question.

And then she started the thing with Celal. Like a German pensioner with a Thai girl (the German pensioner, in this case, is her). She makes these jokes herself, if only to keep the others from making them.

Now her companion talks right past all these highly problematic issues. The fusion, he says, is so successful that often you don’t know what continent you’re on at any given moment; after all, Eyüp is on the European side and yet it’s so traditional, but on the Prince Islands, in Asia, it’s like a summer resort in Mecklenburg a hundred years ago, with the pretty white wooden villas and the horse-drawn carriages.

“Oh, Orient and Occident,” she sighs, “one day those words will be obsolete, just like Negro and Miss.”

“Orient and Occident are geographical terms, there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says after a pause.

“And how can they fuse, then? Continents don’t fuse. You’re using these terms as cultural labels, and if you’ll pardon me, that’s a kind of cultural hegemony.”

Another pause. She looks forward to a ping pong game she’ll effortlessly win.

The bell at the door jangles; yes, he’s holding the door for her. She looks at him speechlessly, wounded.

“We didn’t want any more lectures today, remember?” he says.
Confused, she focuses on her surroundings—the sheets hung out to dry between the windows, the cat slipping around the corner—and he is silent too, though now and then he glances at her.

She doesn’t recover until he loses sight of her, trudging up the Ottoman cemetery behind him; in a way he’s playing the leader now, suddenly masculine and expeditious, turning around once to see where she is. Now it’s getting dark, too. They walk over broken gravestones and through a forest of pale man-sized steles, tilted under the weight of the centuries, in a pattern of inclination and dismissal. Dates and names in Arabic. Woodbine and shrubbery rustle in the dusk like liquids spilled over gravestones and paths.

He climbs a flight of narrow, crumbling stone stairs, turns around and looks at her, says nothing, goes on, then says: “There must be some other path.”

“Probably there are many paths. There’s even a cable car.”

“But you wanted to walk,” he says.

“Yes, I did,” she says.

And then, once more, silence. It’s different from the silence at the beginning, which was more a searching, groping silence. She feels embarrassed now by her lecture in the soap and health shop, she’d like to explain herself, but in his present physical mode, devoted fully to the climb, he leaves no opportunity even to mention it.

Laboriously they climb over bushes. He turns and gives her his hand. Such soft skin.

He takes the next flight of stairs gamely, his feet in dark-blue moccasins, bare, tanned. She leaves the stairs and moves softly through the underbrush, feeling the sticky tickle of cobwebs on her face. Does she want him to miss her, and start searching? How silly. She turns back. He’s still climbing, hasn’t noticed a thing, she picks up her pace and moves behind him again, panting.

He’s waiting for her up on a plateau, by a toppled gravestone that leans against a weathered wall, exhausted. He gazes into the distance. Istanbul lies in the day’s last light. Stars emerge in the dark blue sky. He smiles at her, but it’s a patient smile for board of directors’ meetings gone awry, out-of-line negotiating partners.


“Yes,” she says breathlessly.

“Don’t you do any sports?”

“Sure, do you?”

“None. Just sporting weapons.”

He smiles as though she amuses him, as she obediently pulls a skeptical face.

She thinks of Celal, of Celal’s guns. They’re not sporting guns. Why has she entered this silent competition with a stranger? It ceases only once, for a moment. They’re walking side by side along an almost pitch-black path which he lights with his cell phone, a path not quite wide enough for two. Their arms graze briefly. And then a little later they brush once again, like a booster shot.

The memory of the warm skin echoes for a while in her consciousness, all the way downhill—easier than the way uphill. They reach the harbor on time, and once he’s given her his card, they sort themselves back into their groups. Dr. Christoph Wanka, that’s his name.





At night Theresa lay in the light from the flats across the way. Just before dropping off, she opened her eyes, to see if the lights were still burning or if all the neighbors had suddenly decided to be considerate. The realm of dreams with all its wonders was already too near.

The next day she searched Holle’s things for a cloth to hang in front of the bedroom window. Holle had put all her personal belongings in three boxes. At first Theresa let herself dip into the top layer only, but then her hand delved deeper. Trash, mainly. Things Holle clearly couldn’t part with, couldn’t accept as finished: an almost-empty tube of mosquito repellant, broken incense sticks (more like crumbs), flabby scrunchies (one with a long dark hair in it), chewed pens, used transport tickets, paper napkins with restaurant logos, a package of nicotine gums chewed and stuck back in the blister pack. A shell. Tiger Balm for headaches.
Theresa told herself she might find a sari or a wide cotton scarf. For one thing, though, Holle owned hardly anything Indian, and she wore size 34/36, which elevated her to a plane of regal otherness. She seemed to value good, high-end materials and craftsmanship. Nothing off the shelf. Her underwear was miniscule, made of black or ivory lace. Some of the clothes hung on the drying rack, draped with surprising negligence, the sleeve ends of the delicate transparent blouses still balled-up. Theresa straightened them for her.

Theresa didn’t go into the studio. When she walked past—it was on the way to the kitchen—she sometimes paused, as if next to a taciturn person who still couldn’t just be ignored. Sometimes she pressed her forehead to the frosted glass and tried to make something out.

She found a photograph in a box and wondered what she was looking at. Was this a reflection of Holle? These strange people, but they couldn’t be strangers, because Holle had kept the picture. Theresa thought it helped her understand something about Holle, but she couldn’t quite think it through. The photo showed a Mediterranean-looking family standing in an alpine pasture, arms linked, animated, fresh, as though taking a short break before dancing. That smile. They were all smiling the same smile. The father was a lean little man in a much-too-large suit, the mother wore a wide, ankle-length skirt, a vest embroidered with flowers and a headscarf tied rustically under her chin. The young woman was wearing fashionably distressed jeans and special-occasion make-up. The son was wearing a turquois nylon jogging suit, but even it looked like a special occasion, he had a good face, a good body, he could wear anything. The family had a oneness about it, as though it always existed somewhere in the midst of nature; everything belonged together in a way that made Theresa understand why Holle kept the photo with her. Had she taken it? She didn’t take pictures of people. The photos Theresa found at the bottom of the box showed only the desolate, empty urban landscapes that were already circulating on the Internet, of Teheran, Istanbul, Odessa. Only looking closely did she see people. Quarters of people. Body parts. An elbow. An arm. The back of a head in a departing taxi. Or so far away that they merged into the landscape. At the edge of a trash-infested waste, two figures trotted along a wall. Everything was singed, grey, black, silvery where the sky reflected in the puddles, but the sky was dark, thrown over the landscape like a blanket smothering a fire. A sense of apocalypse, last survivors. These photos from Mumbai were like the opposite pole to the family portrait in the green pasture.
Several photos were devoted to trash. This trash was not just documented, it was staged as a creative force. These were oppressive, inward-looking pictures. Streets and apartment blocks were photographed as though made of trash, as though trash determined the form. Trash snaked its way up the walls. Trash rotted in the pools of sewage.

And it was true. Trash, in this city, was an element like earth, air and water. It was not just accepted. It was propagated. It was disseminated. It was beloved. It inspired a sense of triumph. It was a document of progress. Packaging material was proof of buying power and the pleasure of consumption.

Trash had emerged with the liberalization of the Indian market in the 1990s. New consumer goods entered the country, and new consumption habits. Things once used were dropped on the ground. It was an unfurling city, a waving, rustling city, full of whisperers and loci of unrest. Chip bags, dented Coca-Cola cans, cigarette boxes, paper wrappings. A texture emerged, an alphabet, an archive: refuse in all conceivable states, dusty, dirty, fuzzy, moldy, new. You saw the layerings of time, and you saw the others, their traces. With each step you entered the communion of all the strange selves that proclaimed their consumption habits in the shape of their refuse. You all showed the others what you ate, what you drank; it was anonymous, yet smotheringly intimate and close. The humid heat stuffed your nose with aromas of ferment, mold, all sorts of remains. The heat released sweat from your body. Osmosis. Unions. There was no escape. And once that had happened, once you had understood, this city came with you wherever you went. Into the last little corner of the world. Mumbai was no city now, Mumbai was an allegory.
Holle seemed to have left quite suddenly. There were packages in the refrigerator holding scant remains, one last swig of milk, a crumb of cheese, a Nutella jar scraped almost clean. Were these presents for Theresa? Or, and this was the explanation she leaned toward, was Holle one of those people who avoided getting rid of things, who always left a little bit behind in the package like an alibi? Who shied away from the definitive? From clean breaks. Decisions. Finalities.

Or was the accumulation on the streets unconsciously perpetuated in her refrigerator, a replica, an inability to behave differently than the outside world? Theresa tossed everything into a bin in the yard, to be rifled by the hungry people down on the streets. Things were as simple as could be here, she reflected, and realizing her thoughts, she scratched her arm and went on snooping.

She leafed through a jumble of train tickets (Berlin—Hanover—Berlin), taxi receipts, sales slips, paper napkins, and finally realized that there was writing on the backs.
Upon entering the city, you become it. Your body changes, because this city stops at nothing. Able to breathe the air only on becoming the city. The fear of losing yourself, the desire to dissolve.


Suddenly you know, and you know differently than before. The body knows, it goes all the way into the belly, the breathing; that, I say, is knowledge.


The stillness in the slum is also the stillness of falling silent. Each thought knows it wants to think itself alone, so as not to think the place. Its impossibility.

In the end you don’t know what’s happened to you in this city. Not wanting to betray your Western parameters, yet mistrusting them as something too easily gained.

What is valid?

Survival in this city is a matter of chance.
She liked that. She wondered whether places like Mumbai, where survival was chance, also revealed the boundaries of art. If art was socially critical, it was no longer art, it was message. If it stood alone, it turned scornful.

She was familiar with that from her own work. Sometimes a thing was what it was only when it was alone and unknown. If you pointed a camera at it or cast it in the narrative conventions of reporting, you energized it with the audience’s meaning, its norms and judgements. Quite in passing you ruined what you wanted to show by showing it. Maybe part of a discovery was that you couldn’t share it? What had enabled the discovery was the absence of everything, and this absence had to be preserved. A contradiction. You want to show something, but you’re thrown back on the misunderstandings, the necessary imprecisions of the available forms that corrupt what is shown.

She recalled moments as a reporter that no one had ever learned about. Light. Eyes. A train with the sun-hot wind roaring through it. There were three children, too. Five, six and nine. Brothers. They were traveling to Churchgate Station to shine shoes. They had no shoes on their feet. They picked up Theresa’s scarf from the ground when it slid off the bench in the vibration of the train. The children knew everything. They knew what we’ll never know (suddenly she was speaking to Holle), but for a few minutes they allowed me to be with them. Picked up the scarf for me, put it back on the bench and said goodbye, and I knew that from then on they’d always be with me. These children are always there. I can’t forget these children. They’d go away only if I told about them.

From Die endlose Stadt © Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt 2015

The Air Bridge

Author: Norbert Zähringer
Translator: Isabel Fargo Cole

Excerpt from the novel While I Was Sleeping

One evening in early 1945, with the sky turning clear and the snow melted, Private First Class Joseph Hutzinger heard a noise in the woods. Waiting alone by his field kitchen, he lifted his nose to the wind and sniffed. For a moment he felt as if something huge, old and cold were coming his way, trundling past him through the branches. He sighed, dropping the wooden spoon into the pot, and even before the American soldier had emerged from the underbrush, Hutzinger had both his hands raised. The muzzle of a machine gun was pointed at him. And he fell passionately, if unrequitedly, in love: standing in front of him, at least three heads taller, was a broad-shouldered black GI, unsmiling, but with indulgent amusement in his face, the kind big, strong men generally show toward puny little cooks.
Though he held his hands completely motionless in the forest-cool evening air, Hutzinger’s skinny legs were doing a nervous little dance. He was so excited. Standing before him was the future: America, the land of opportunity! Even before the war the Viennese native had dreamed about emigrating – and about the Austrian specialty restaurant he was going to open in his new homeland. Now his dream seemed a whole lot closer, provided, well, provided the black man’s finger didn’t put a premature if unsurprising end to his life story at the last moment. A little bird watching the scene from a treetop high above bobbed on a thin branch, undecided whether to fly away or not.
“I love Joe Louis!” Hutzinger said to placate his rescuer, his feet tap-dancing all the while.
His big black friend brought him to a POW collecting point, and the next day he was taken to the shack of the camp commander, who asked a lot of questions Hutzinger didn’t understand the drift of. He sat on a stool in front of the commander. In the Wehrmacht he’d learned that you answered superiors’ questions with “Jawohl” on principle, even – and especially – if you didn’t understand them.
“We know perfectly well who you are!”
Hutzinger hung his head. “Jawohl.”
The commander’s fist crashed down on the table.
“And we know when somebody’s joking!” he yelled.
Hutzinger looked around imploringly at his black friend, who stood behind him without batting an eye. Then something funny happened: the commander planted himself in front of Hutzinger, drew an arc in the air with his finger and hummed as if imitating the flight of a fly or a bee.
What was that supposed to mean? It would just be too ridiculous to respond to the flight of a fly with “Jawohl!” Hutzinger thought. So he ventured, “We too,” turned around again for a moment and smiled shyly.
“V2!” The commander nodded. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
That was how Joseph Hutzinger got mistaken for a German missile expert. He was honest through and through, but what with the outstanding food and accommodations captured missile experts got, he did nothing to clear up the misunderstanding. On the contrary. At every opportunity he dropped ambiguous remarks designed to prolong his stay in the VIP camp. Shown blueprints, he let his big nose circle over them a few seconds before declaring:
“The secret of every” – he was about to say “menu”, but caught himself in time – “good plan is its simplicity.”
One day he was presented with a bunch of documents and given the choice of putting his knowledge at the disposal of the United States Army or getting handed over to the French. Once again the overjoyed Hutzinger could hardly keep his feet still. He was going to be an American! He was going to jive in New York swing bars in a spiffy uniform!
In 1946 Hutzinger found himself at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Around White Sands there was mainly white sand, with a blue sky above it and lots and lots of sun. The next bar was twenty miles away. Though he could have managed to fool his hosts, his compatriots in the missile lab quickly figured out that he wasn’t their kind, and after a confession to the base commander, Major Simmons – sweeping, yet surprisingly free of consequences – Hutzinger went to work as a cook in the canteen.
More than three years passed, and he got sicker and sicker of the daily grind at the secret research lab. The roar of rocket boosters roused him every morning in the stuffy barracks, where an almost equally loud pre-war fan had lulled him to sleep toward two in the morning. Hutzinger heaved himself out of bed with a groan and headed for the kitchen. If it had been a normal officers’ canteen, at least, he might have lasted longer in White Sands. But these scientists were total Philistines. They didn’t appreciate his coffee in the mornings (he soon gave up serving whipped cream with it), or his liver dumpling soup at lunch, or his Wiener Schnitzel at dinner. They ate like harried office drones; their left hands on their laps, their right elbows propped on the table, they shoveled in food they’d cut into tiny pieces with their knives. With full mouths and spattered lab coats, they talked about the same things over and over again: missiles, missiles, missiles.
One of the projects they were tinkering on in White Sands at the time was a forerunner of the cruise missile code-named “Silent Loon.” It was a more sophisticated version of the German “Vergeltungswaffe 1,” a remote-controlled aerial device meant to be released from a transporter, dipping almost silently below enemy radar to hit its target without the slightest warning.
Mostly what the scientists discussed was the manned vs. unmanned issue. The big catch to the whole thing was the primitive remote-control technology, especially after a stray “Silent Loon” plummeted from the sky near Roswell, and Major Simmons (one of the few people who appreciated Hutzinger’s Wiener Schnitzel anyway) had to send a special unit disguised as a country band to salvage the wreckage of the Loon and smuggle it back to White Sands.
So there was talk of manning the Loon after all. Part of the steering unit could be removed to make room for a pilot on an ejector seat, with a parachute he’d have to release at the last moment. Of course it was extremely risky. Rumors circulated that the Soviets had long since been working on a similar version of the weapon – but without the parachute and the ejector seats. Supposedly there were even secret camps where especially short KGB agents were being trained. It was then that the legend of the Communist “Suicide Dwarves” was born.
Another year passed, and Hutzinger chafed more and more at the bad manners and ridiculous discussions of his “guests.” His decision to quit the service and seek his own fortune came after three pivotal incidents.
The first was the command – initially phrased as a request – to test-sit a prototype of the manned version of the “Silent Loon.” He demurred, only to have the major inform him that little Hutzinger, like everyone else in the camp, was under his command, and could perfectly well be ordered to climb into the machine. Hutzinger squeezed reluctantly into the German-American kamikaze machine, where, with his white chef’s hat on his head, he spent half an hour roasting in the New Mexico sun. “The vulture has landed,” the missile experts joked at the sight of Hutzinger’s red nose, protruding from under his hat and turning redder and redder.
The second incident was my grandfather’s arrival. “To this day,” Hutzinger later wrote, “I get the shivers when I see a monkey on television.” My grandfather was not a missile expert. He was a doctor who specialized in aerospace medicine, and he was supposed to determine the chances of survival for pilots of the “Silent Loon.” He experimented with his rhesus monkeys in a separate shed. At night you could hear their squeals, their shrieks, their desperate cries.
The third incident was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Soldiers and scientists ransacked Hutzinger’s refrigerator, and he caught them that evening barbecuing the extra-thin veal cutlets over a campfire on little skewers. Barbecue – the very word had a primitive ring to his ears, evoking the darkest Middle Ages, worse yet, prehistory, occult rites and Neanderthals. O Great Barbecue, give us this day our daily beef and let it rain spare ribs! Hutzinger hurled his chef’s hat into the desert sand and handed in his resignation the next morning.
The drive out west, past hamburger restaurants, drive-ins, burrito dives and hot-dog stands, put an end to his hopes of actually getting rich with an Austrian speciality restaurant anywhere in the USA. “I realized,” Ismael Khan read years later in Hutzinger’s famous book, “that there was only one way for me to make big bucks in this big country: with one simple idea. An idea whose simplicity and usefulness would be up there with the invention of the light bulb.”
Hutzinger spent six days waiting for this simple idea on Santa Monica Beach. Asked by deputy sheriffs what he was doing there, he answered: “I’m waiting” – a reply that met with headshaking at best. On the morning of the seventh day he woke up from a hideous dream – midget scientists waving veal cutlets on skewers were dancing wildly around a bonfire over which he was being barbecued, stuffed into a golden “Silent Loon.” He took a deep breath of sea air, trying to dispel the memory of the dream, and let his gaze wander over the Pacific Ocean. “And then came the idea that would change my life.”
A week later he took his last twenty dollars and bought an abandoned hot-dog stand on the beach. The very next day he was offering his idea for sale: “Schnitzel on a Stick,” a snack on the Popsicle principle. Hutzinger coated it in breading (later patented), fried it straight away in hot oil and served it to his customers on a paper plate. On the side he offered French fries and “Heuriger Lemonade,” a kind of non-alcoholic white wine spritzer. Both sold like hotcakes. After just a year he was able to open four stands on Santa Monica Bay and five more in the Long Beach area.
“I don’t need to tell you that ‘Schnitzel on a Stick’ sales are booming on the East Coast, and in Florida too. Today I’m a Schnitzel King and millionaire – and you can be one too, with a simple, useful idea!”
The Schnitzel on a Stick made him rich, but it was another idea that made him famous. One day he felt the need to share his good fortune with the rest of the world. He decided to write down his experiences, the story of his success. And since all he had ever read was cookbooks, he wrote a how-to book instead of an autobiography. The little book made it out of the snack stand and onto the bestseller list – and it stayed there. It was the first book Ismael Khan would read in English, and it’s one of the few books Paul Mahlow ever read at all, if only because there was nothing else to read on the red-eye from Hong Kong to Los Angeles.

Mahlow was irked. He was irked because even though he was flying business class he didn’t get a fresh newspaper – supposedly the delivery hadn’t come. He was irked to see Hutzinger’s bestseller lurking between the safety instructions in the seatback pocket in front of him; he took it as a sure sign that they didn’t take the cleaning very seriously here. And that on an intercontinental flight, he thought.
After he’d finished the manuscript, Hutzinger had read through it again, looked at the clock and given it the title Rich and Happy in Six Days. Mahlow saw the title even before taking the book out of the pocket and immediately despised the author and the unknown previous owner alike: they thought it was that easy. Americans. The bright orange dust jacket also turned him off, but after a good hour in the air and several futile attempts to sleep (Mahlow’s neighbor talked in his sleep, snored, coughed, talked in his sleep again) he took out the book and started leafing through it.
Not only was it structured like a cookbook, it had all the same literary qualities. Yet numerous critics had praised it as one of the “most honest and genuine testimonials” ever penned by a businessman. The book began with a simple question:
Are you happy?
Stupid question, thought Mahlow, but the stupid question had already lodged itself in his mind. He tried to evade the answer, playing for time. First he tried to remember the last time he had been happy, and then whether he had ever felt happy, in the hopes that if he had been happy once, he could be happy again at any time.
Mahlow remembered the day he found the boy. Actually, he wanted to remember the days before he found the boy, because they were the only ones that really seemed care-free, and then he wanted to remember the days that followed with my sister, because they were the only ones that had really made him feel alive. But none of it did any good. The image of the boy, lying motionless on a pile of old magazines, kept cropping up again.
They were flying over the Pacific Ocean.
“No,” Mahlow’s neighbor said in his sleep, “no.”

An Image of All Consolation
October, November, April
Wolf Spider
Summer Wind

Author: Mirko Bonné
Translator: Isabel Fargo Cole


Garden of sky-blue clothespoles
connected by string, the bobbin
dangling on the door to the shed.
There lay the dying man, who whispered,
his hand clamped on my elbow:
Use every day and bit by bit
become the Duke of Savoy.
On the stucco over the cramp-irons
in the wall of the death-shed I wrote:
Marquis Bonné, Karl-Marx-Stadt 1746,
while my great-uncle, truly great
in size, and pale and bony besides,
recounted the Alpine Battle of l’Assiettes.
The laundry danced between the posts,
I loved my cousin, the Comtesse,
when the black window shattered
and the ball in the cellar hit her, then me
in the face. At which she whispered,
her hand clamped on my elbow:
I hate you all. Get lost, go on
back West to those models of yours.

An Image of All Consolation

Shifting into year thirty-nine
with body construction sites. Sleet,
blood draws. Flee, flee,
my friend, the mimicked
fear of nausea and fainting,
look out the window…
In a jeep a white dog barks,
and the needle, indeed,
sinks into the flesh. Rapid clouds
over supermarket, clinics, bank.
In the heart of the need-serving complex
they smooth the routine of consultation,
swallowing your pain, leaving you
an image of all consolation:
a cabinet, a rusty hinge.


October, November, April

Leaves, like a freight signed for
by a chiffchaff huskily twittering October,
so the grass sends its sap up the trunk
to the branches. In apple’s place
on the meadow the touchy hydrangea
that weathers all the water, sweet,
cold and gleaming. In wasp Chanel
Ms Flower Functionary decrees November:
let a storm rise up from memory.
Clover hangs luckless at her lips.
Fogs creep into the pear orchards.
With mittens of sheer desperation
I am an ancient snow squall
making our gong sound: April.


Wolf Spider

She sticks no pins in letters,
magic and omen, she brings nothing to light,
where all is image, it seems there are no images.
She hunts without a web, runs down her prey
on the wood’s sunny edge, at the sloe’s foot
where older siblings teach her to respect
the dew on the paddock, the clover clearing,
grey-green her backdrop, grey-green like her,
her in the shade of leaves and needles,
just one more game of being another.

She loves. Once, twice. Today, tomorrow.
There will always be limits, knows Chagall
and the wolf spider in love. Black-striped,
the male she’s eying drums on a dry leaf.
It sounds like a very small woodpecker
over in the chestnut’s crown.
Then and there they form the throbbing relay,
all the unseen rivals, through the warm grass
the tapping thrums its way to her, she knowing
it’s the fading call she’ll heed, it’s him she loves.


Summer Wind

Searching the two tree-lined lanes
I found no trace: in the hollow the torn cable
was gone. The bag, full of ropes,
the pair of stripped-off shoes you’d read about,
long since impounded. Wasps in the hydrangeas.
The bramble hedge. Shutters rolled down.
The garage light on for days and the tools
left lying in the garden, all could be read as
the pain of the living. Summer wind, hot,
and I found the names, they were sheer fire.