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Forever the Alps

Author: Benjamin Quaderer
Translator: Jozef van der Voort

 

Translator’s Preface
Für immer die Alpen is a picaresque, fictionalized autobiography centering on Johann Kaiser, a native of Liechtenstein who triggers an international scandal by stealing customer data from a bank and selling it to the German government. Kaiser is loosely modelled on the real-life figure of Heinrich Kieber, the whistleblower who triggered the 2008 Liechtenstein tax affair; however, the book has a broad sweep, taking in Kaiser’s troubled childhood in Liechtenstein; his admission to an exclusive private school in Spain; his international travels, involvement in criminal ventures, and abduction and torture at the hands of his erstwhile friends; and the theft of the data and the subsequent game of cat and mouse played with the Prince of Liechtenstein—all told through the eyes of an enjoyably unreliable, self-aggrandising narrator.

Quaderer tells the story with plenty of dry, deadpan humour and an absurdist sensibility reminiscent of David Foster Wallace, and Für immer die Alpen has some claim to be called the great Liechtensteinian novel.

This extract is taken from the beginning of the book and describes how Kaiser’s parents met, along with his earliest childhood memories.

 


        

               0.

In September 1962, Alfred Kaiser, a young amateur photographer from the Principality of Liechtenstein, went on a beach holiday. In Badalona, a suburb of Barcelona, he bought a few cans of beer, sat down on a wall by the seafront, and gazed out over the endless, nebulous blue. Above him, seagulls wheeled and called; in front of him, neon swimwear glowed against the sand. Accustomed as he was to being surrounded by mountains, which sharply contour the landscape and mark out precisely where one thing starts and another ends, he came to the realization that the sight of the sea frightened him. He drained his beer and took refuge in the darkness of a café, drawn in by its deep-blue awning. It smelled of stale smoke and chip fat, and a handful of Spanish men played pool while Alfred drank shot after shot of schnapps.

When he woke up the following morning, his head was pounding as if someone was digging up a road in there. Alfred found himself in a room containing nothing more than the mattress he was lying on. It was horribly draughty. First, he registered the unrendered walls; next, the lack of glass in the windows; and finally, the breathtaking view. What floor was he on? Alfred took a photo, but judging by the noise from his camera, he must have finished an entire roll of film the previous night. After finding his way down from the building site and eating a little lunch, he set off in search of somewhere to develop his pictures. Then he wandered the streets, eating the odd ice cream, and spent his evenings watching TV in his hotel room.

A few days later, Alfred found himself holding the best photos he had ever taken. The first two were of young men laying into each other with broken pool cues. After that came a smashed electric fan lying on a tiled floor; a bartop covered with patches of light; men in straw hats playing cards; several lobsters in an aquarium; a flashlit dog sleeping against an upturned pedalo; and his own name written in sand. The remaining photos were of a black-haired woman whose age Alfred found difficult to guess. She might have been fifteen, or nineteen, or maybe even twenty-five. She had delicate features and a slim, almost fragile body, but there was a hardness in her eyes. In what Alfred considered his best photo, she was standing under a street lamp and lifting her salmon-coloured top—which contrasted magnificently with her tanned skin—over her bellybutton. Alfred drew two conclusions from these photographs. First, he needed to turn his hobby into a career and become a professional photographer. And second, he needed to find this woman.

It wasn’t until the penultimate day of his holiday that he managed to track her down. The owner of an ice-cream shop recognized the photogenic woman as an employee in a market hall outside Badalona. Alfred caught a bus that took him to the edge of the city, then continued on foot until he reached a hall, where he saw people coming and going through a gateway. He wandered among the stalls, keeping his eyes peeled. Was that her? Cautiously, he approached and inspected the apricots on the stand, weighing one of them in his palm. Only when an angry voice barked at him in Spanish did he realize his hand was sticky. He hastily fumbled in his pocket for change to pay for the squashed fruit, but before he could find his wallet, a hand gripped him by the shoulder and spun him around. It was her! From the way she was talking to him, it seemed like she remembered him. Alfred smiled. The woman slapped him in the face. Her hand was very warm.

Neither of them said a word on the way to Badalona. Once they arrived at the bus station, the woman pointed at a bar at the other end of the car park. They sat down at a table in the corner, a man brought them two beers, and as soon as a glass was empty, he placed another full one beside it. Why isn’t the waiter taking the empty glasses away, Alfred tried to ask his companion, but his Spanish wasn’t up to the job. Silence fell. Four empty glasses, two full ones. The woman put her hand on her chest and said, ‘Soledad’. ‘Alfred,’ said Alfred. Six empty glasses, then eight, suddenly ten. Soledad stood up and said, ‘Tú.’ Alfred looked at her quizzically. ‘Pagar,’ she said, and Alfred paid. They didn’t go their separate ways that night. Alfred was standing bashfully beneath a streetlamp when Soledad dragged him into a doorway. He followed her up a dilapidated stairwell and into a bedsit apartment, where she pointed at a daybed by the wall.

Everyone thought Alfred had changed after his return to Liechtenstein. There was considerable surprise when word got around that this normally so apathetic man had applied for a position as a photographer with one of the country’s two daily newspapers, which was nothing to the surprise when the good-for-nothing actually got the job. The postman spoke of letters with Spanish stamps that he had recently started delivering to Alfred, whom no one had ever written to before, and regulars at the Café Matt muttered to each other that the heathen must have found God in Spain, as there could be no other explanation for why he had started dropping in on the priest since his return. Yet the real reason for Alfred’s visits was more profane. The priest, who had spent several years as a missionary in Guatemala, spoke Spanish. He translated Soledad’s letters for him, and he also replied in Alfred’s name. When Soledad wrote, ‘I’m pregnant,’ the priest translated it as ‘I can’t wait until we see each other again, my darling,’ and Alfred’s ‘I long for your thighs’ became, in the priest’s words, ‘I invite you to join me in Mauren.’ The fact that she didn’t intend to keep the child and wanted Alfred to send her money, the priest glossed as ‘I can’t afford to come to Liechtenstein,’ and Alfred’s ‘I want you’ was rephrased as ‘I’ll take good care of you and the baby.’ Alfred signed his name at the bottom, enclosed a train ticket, and took the envelope to the post office.

Soledad and Alfred spoke little until their wedding in May 1963. A month after Father Ritter had joined their hands in matrimony, Soledad gave birth to two children. The twins, Luise and Lotte, looked so similar that Alfred had trouble telling them apart. While he criss-crossed the country taking photos at various events, Soledad took care of the house and the kids. She learned German quickly, though once she could hold a conversation with her husband, she realized it would be better to continue their non-verbal communication instead. Their relationship was shaped by a special kind of magnetism: the mutual attraction between their bodies turned into repulsion the moment either of those bodies used its voice. As a result of the former, on the night of 31 March 1965 at 02.33 a.m., a tall baby boy came into the world at the hospital in Vaduz. That boy was me.

 

1.

How cold the world was. How forbidding and bleak. The maternity ward was shrouded in half-light. Raindrops beat against the windows. Alfred was sitting on the bed and rubbing his leg, having kicked the coffee machine on the hospital corridor in a fit of rage because it had swallowed his coin without giving him anything in return. In an attempt to make me laugh, he leaned over me and pulled a silly face, and in sheer horror at the prospect of having to spend the rest of my life with this man, I emitted a shriek that made the windows rattle in their frames. The shriek reverberated from the hospital building and thrummed around the belfry of the church, wresting twelve strokes from the bell inside. It forced its way under the door of the government building (the nice thing about Vaduz is how compact it is, everything so close together), swept through the parliamentary assembly hall, and barged into the office of Prime Minister Dr Gerard Batliner, who was fast asleep with his head on the desk. Several folders fell from the shelf, and Dr Batliner awoke with no idea who he was. The shriek roared on out into the capital, shattering the windows of the Huber jewellery store and racing up the slope to the castle atop its rocky bluff. It penetrated the heavy walls, wailing through the cellar that housed the treasures of the family von und zu Liechtenstein—the Picassos and Rembrandts, the Cranachs and Botticellis—and pressed on to the upper apartments, where it found the royal couple sleeping peacefully in their four-poster bed. Prince Franz Josef II cuddled up to Princess Gina in his sleep (he was the little spoon, she was the big one) and the shriek swept onwards, past the slumbering young princes and princesses and into the bedroom of the eldest son and heir to the throne, Hans Adam II, who snapped awake, aquiver with fear, the shriek still ringing in his ears, and pulled his blankets up over his nose. Then it slipped out into the night and soared up to the highest point in Liechtenstein—the summit of the Grauspitz, at 2,599 metres above sea level—where it exploded into a peal of thunder. Long afterwards, its echo could still be heard rumbling through the valleys: the data thief, the data thief is born.

‘Typical Aries,’ said the midwife with a smile. Alfred had moved to the window in a huff. The clouds parted, revealing a crescent moon that bathed the ward in silvery light.

‘That’s interesting,’ said the midwife, pointing at the sky. ‘Look, Herr Kaiser. There are several planets in the second house—the house of Taurus.’

‘Oh really,’ said Alfred.

‘You should know that the second house represents the world of material objects. The moon, Venus, Saturn, and the minor planet of Chiron are all here tonight.’

Alfred nodded listlessly.

‘The moon,’ explained the midwife, ‘stands for possessions and perseverance. Venus hints at an enterprising nature, as well as sensuality, while Saturn is a symbol of frugality, and Chiron stands for ambition and a need for security.’

‘You don’t say,’ said Alfred.

‘If we can believe what the stars are telling us, little Johann will go to great lengths to acquire wealth.’

Alfred pricked up his ears.

‘Johann will be a frugal person,’ the midwife went on, ‘who will become very rich through hard work.’

Alfred fumbled for my hand, and the midwife smiled knowingly. She never found out how accurate her prediction was: three years after my birth, she died in a skiing accident in the Swiss Alps.

The room I occupied for the first few years of my life had light-blue walls, though you could still faintly make out the previous pink paintwork. In the middle of the room stood a bed lined with wooden bars that seemed to reach up to the ceiling. I would lie in it and watch the shadows of the branches as they waved back and forth over the drawn curtains. It was like in Plato’s allegory of the cave.1 While the real world outside my bedroom was blooming in every imaginable colour, I—trapped in a cot—had no choice but to content myself with projections of reality. With sad, colourless shadows.

By day, it was light, and at night, it grew dark. Although I had become an expert in darkness over the previous few months, this darkness was different from any I had experienced before. This darkness had eyes. It had spines. When I turned to face the movement, the darkness began to coalesce into a body. Hands. The darkness had hundreds of hands, and even while it was pricking me from one side, it stuck a finger in my ear from the other. It tweaked my nose, pulled my toe, and when I opened my mouth to ask what this was all about, it whispered, ‘Stop screaming, you miserable traitor,’ and held yet another hand over my mouth. When the light returned, Mamá came, each hand gripping a pair of pigtails that were attached to two identical faces. Both of them had bushy eyebrows, full lips, and freckles over their cheeks, which were wet with tears. The missing front tooth in the mouth of the face on the left was the only way to tell it apart from the one on the right.

‘These are Luise and Lotte,’ said Mamá. ‘Your sisters.’

Only when she pulled the sisters’ pigtails did one of them speak. ‘Hello.’ The other added, ‘So nice of you to join us.’ ‘I’m Johann,’ I wanted to say, but I didn’t say anything, I just screamed. ‘You must be hungry,’ said Mamá, unbuttoning her blouse, and while I sucked on her nipple out of politeness, I saw the girls standing in the doorway. The one with the missing tooth slowly drew her outstretched index finger across her throat.

It was strange, having a ‘family’. Everyone apart from me had something to do. The twins worked in the ‘kindergarten’, Alfred worked as a ‘photographer’, and Mamá worked on me. She had pitch-black hair and the strange ability to bring things into existence via the simplest means. For example, she would say ‘chest’ and ‘drawers’, and something would turn into ‘wood’. When she said ‘change’ and ‘nappy’, an unpleasant smell would waft into my nostrils. Then she would say ‘talc’, and the smell would vanish. ‘Curtains’ meant light would come into the room. ‘Johann’ meant she was going to kiss me. But the best word of all was ‘door’, because it would open and leave me awestruck.

‘Lounge’, ‘kitchen’, ‘garage’. It was fascinating what you could find in a ‘house’. There were ‘carpets’, ‘cushions’, and ‘sofas’, ‘lights’ and ‘net curtains’, and just as ‘net curtains’ covered the ‘windows’, ‘outside’ covered the house. ‘Outside’ was called ‘Mauren’, and in Mauren, there were ‘trees’. There was a ‘sky’, and the white patches in it were ‘clouds’, and when the ‘neighbours’ wore ‘hoods’ over their ‘heads’, that meant water was going to fall out of the clouds. That was ‘rain’. Only ‘idiots’ went out in the rain. Like ‘Alfred’, for example. Alfred went out every day.

The strangest object in this house, with its near endless succession of strange objects, was the one kept in a room that Mamá called ‘my bedroom’. She opened the bedroom door, pointed at the wardrobe in the corner, and said, ‘Look’. A rectangular window was cut into the wood, and through it, you could look into the wardrobe. There were two people living inside it: a woman and a baby. How remarkably beautiful the woman was. And the baby too—what a remarkably beautiful baby. The woman seemed to think so, too. When she began to stroke the baby’s head, I felt something touch my hair. ‘That’s you,’ said Mamá, and the woman in the wardrobe pointed at me. ‘That’s me,’ she said, and the woman pointed at her. The baby looked confused. It reached out and pinched the woman’s cheek. Mamá’s skin was very warm. ‘My love,’ said Mamá. ‘When you’re big enough,’ she said, pointing at a photograph glued to the wood above the wardrobe window, ‘we’re going to move there.’ The picture showed a sun rising over a set of rooftops. ‘Spain,’ said Mamá. ‘Alfred promised.’ Was the woman in the mirror crying? ‘Do you understand?’ I gurgled. She kissed me on the forehead and said, ‘Genius.’ The baby gave me an imperceptible nod.

On days when the Liechtensteiner Volksblatt came out—Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays—Alfred would come to visit me. He would walk into the room with the paper tucked under his arm and shake my hand in greeting. Then he’d show me the photos he’d taken and read me articles he thought were particularly well written. ‘It’s important to watch out for communists,’ he told me one Tuesday when he brought up the subject of the Soviet satellite that had begun orbiting far above our heads a few days previously. ‘The Soviets are everywhere.’

One night, I noticed a red light blinking in my room and I clenched my hands into fists. ‘Stay where you are,’ I yelled at the Soviet satellite, which must have come to take me away. I climbed out of my cot and followed the glow until I reached a room where Alfred was asleep on a sofa. The satellite was whirring around his head. I cautiously approached until I was just a few inches away from it. I could feel its warmth, could feel it throbbing, but when I tried to catch it and smash it, the room transformed back into my bedroom. The darkness had vanished. It was daylight and I was back in my cot.

When I tried to tell Mamá about the satellite, she interpreted my nonsensical babble as a sign of hunger and stuck a nipple in my mouth. With the break of day, all the things I’d been able to do effortlessly the night before—walking on two legs, speaking actual words—had regressed to the usual immobility and meaningless noise.  Maybe the Soviets weren’t so bad after all, I thought, and folded my hands like Alfred did whenever he wanted something.

Places seemed to differ in their nature. The places I visited with Mamá were the unremarkable ones. Those were the places of light. They seemed to confine me in a straitjacket, while the places that came into existence with the fall of darkness offered me complete freedom of movement. I would run through cornfields; fly over forests on the backs of birds, or under my own power; explore the depths of the sea; and call my name from the tops of mountains. There was nothing I couldn’t do in the dark. Over time, I realized that darkness was a condition I could bring about myself by closing my eyes. Only I didn’t always manage to fall asleep. The more I tried, the more restless I became, and when I grew restless, I started start to scream, and because Mamá couldn’t stand my screaming, she said, ‘Let me show you a trick.’ I looked at her in anticipation. ‘One,’ she said, and paused. Then she said, ‘Two.’ What kind of trick was this? ‘Three.’ Because she, ‘Four,’ ignored my puzzled look, I decided at ‘Five’ to play along with her game. ‘Six.’ What did I have to lose? ‘Seven.’ ‘Eight.’ ‘Nine.’ Her voice, ‘Ten,’ grew quieter with each word she spoke, ‘Eleven,’ and my initial irritation, ‘Twelve,’ gradually gave way, ‘Thirteen,’ to repose. ‘Fourteen.’ ‘Fifteen.’ ‘Sixteen.’ In a way, it was even nice, ‘Seventeen,’ to have someone sitting next to me, ‘Eighteen,’ doing nothing, ‘Nineteen,’ but speak words, ‘Twenty,’ that I didn’t understand. ‘Twenty-one.’ My eyes closed. ‘Twenty-two.’ The distance between Mamá and me expanded. ‘Twenty-three.’ It wasn’t unpleasant, ‘Twenty-four,’ because I knew, ‘Twenty-five,’ that she was there. ‘Twenty-six.’ Always there. ‘Twenty-seven’ came from a distance, while ‘Twenty-eight’ I heard only very faintly. ‘Twenty-nine.’ How tired I was. ‘Thir—’.

I only came back into the light of the world to eat. Summer had arrived, and I’d just finished conjugating the irregular verbs when my ravenous hunger compelled me to leave my rehearsal space. The twins’ faces loomed above me like two suns.

‘Mamá isn’t here,’ said Lotte.

‘So we’re going to feed you,’ added Luise.

While Luise fetched the light-blue pillow with the fish printed on it, Lotte lifted me out of the cot and laid me on the floor. Then they tossed the pillow back and forth over my head and I tried to catch it, squealing with glee.

‘Do you want the pillow?’ asked Lotte.

I laughed.

‘Here you go,’ said Luise, and put it over my face.

‘Do you know who this room belonged to before you?’ I heard one of the twins ask. My perfectly articulated ‘No’ was muffled by the pillow, which pressed down more firmly. It was getting harder to breathe, and the darkness no longer brought me any joy. I tried to lift the pillow from my head, but I wasn’t strong enough yet. Suddenly, all was bright. I gasped for air and vomited. Alfred was standing in front of me with a pair of pigtails in each hand, dragging the screaming twins away from me like rabid dogs. I closed my eyes and counted to thirty. There was nothing to keep me here, in this world.

 

Excerpted from Benjamin Quaderer, Für immer die Alpen.  Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 2020.