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Exit stage left

Author: Sibylle Berg
Translator: Kate Roy

It is a moment so perfect it makes your head ache, because it’s forcing you to do more with this fleeting perfection than just look at it and breathe it. The road is the breadth of a car and hugs the lake. A heavy, golden autumn, the sun fights the mist, the smell of wood fire hangs in the air. You don’t need sunglasses any more, and that’s a shame, because he feels more at ease with sunglasses. It’s like gliding on moss, past old villas, past the lake, to Bellagio.

The camera shows a man in his mid-thirties – styled like a young lord, side parting, dapper, his Burberry coat too warm, cords, sports jacket, a Reclam paperback (Flaubert) in one pocket – in the back seat of a taxi. He puts on his Gucci glasses and takes them off again, plays with the ends of his Hermès scarf (a fake), has fine beads of sweat on his face and the helpless look of someone who has lost his focus. Maybe he never had one in the first place.

Small birds in the oleander hedges. A tired old lido. A small, broken doll in a puddle.

Tracking shot: past a palazzo, standing empty, through the small town of Bellagio, about the most perfect it can be for a small town, whose every millimetre has been caressed by the feet of princes, kings or film stars, into a driveway, not gravel alas, it makes too much noise. The taxi stops in front of the entrance to the Hotel Villa Serbelloni. The villa, its largest structure dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, looks like a treasure chest with a lid, floating on endless waves. This one building is the size of several comprehensive schools.

Liveried men saunter about wanting to carry suitcases, there are no suitcases. He carries only a doctor’s bag, the one he was gifted by a Karen freedom fighter, to the reception, dumped like a car crash in the old palazzo. A bit of an Eighties feel, defiantly battling too much beauty, metaphorical shoulder pads and leggings. Beauty wins, thinks the young man, as he follows a bellboy up to the second floor. Of course, it had to be a Superior Double. The room as big as a football field, without the players, thank God, that would be all he needed, eleven sweaty men with the IQ’s of gorillas. The room beats him down, it is bigger than him in every way.

The camera shows Murano chandeliers, frescos, decorative work in lapis lazuli, the lake through the window, a boat disappears over the horizon, the young man sits on the bed and looks at his feet, paralysed: they sit like two unbaked bread rolls on the Persian carpet, in front of him.

He can’t die yet. How would that work? Here, in the afternoon, in the golden sun? And what if he wants to come back in those final seconds? He had imagined himself nonchalantly swanning his way around the hotel, chatting with oil barons, smoking cigars, celebrating his exit in style. But now: a blond, insecure boy in surroundings that are much too grand, floundering. In the last few years he had always managed to console himself by retreating more and more into defiance mode: I can go any time, he had thought. He can’t even do that, he realises now.

He stands up, this feeling of not wanting to move, of wanting to fall. His friends are coming any moment; he’s promised them a party. He’ll embrace them all. They’ll be surprised and they’ll cry. After that, he’ll do it: the injection, the saline solution, it will go quickly. So, down the steps, into the park. Finally, gravel.

Tracking shot: jetties, seagulls on piles in the water, summer houses grown over with grapes, on garden chairs, white metal of course, widows of millionaires from overseas with short silvery-blue curls.

He trudges through the park; his square-built body is prone to perspiration, beads of sweat under his straw hat. Aschenbach from Death in Venice? What could have gone so wrong? He had thought his life would never end. Thought he would be world famous and rich, that he would have an exceptional life, because he was exceptional. He was a child supported to excel, spoke four languages, by his mid-twenties he had his own newspaper, soon after, his own radio programme, he made films, rubbed shoulders with DJ’s, read about himself every day in the papers. A media Wunderkind. Everyone idolised him as the inventor of Med Art, a mainstream-appropriate fusion of media, art and wanderlust. He reported live from a hotel in Rwanda; while the locals were splitting open each other’s skulls, he took artistic photos. He was a guest of the Karen (the bag!), smoked weed with the rebel leaders. The old creative artist-types loved him, he earned lots of money, he met Heike Makatsch from Love Actually.

His downfall came, he didn’t see it for a long time, like Germany’s own decline, a murky process. The newspaper folded, the radio programme was discontinued, the financiers withdrew, and at a certain point he had to speak to receptionists. It took years for our hero to understand that his time had well and truly passed. The pinnacle of his life at 30, that was the Nineties, that was the time pop became art and split people into three camps: the ones who watched talk shows, the group in the grey area who considered Alain de Botton a philosopher and Coelho a poet, and the ones who ate Conceptual Art for breakfast. Now everything he could still have done would require inglorious effort. And that, of course, was not an option.

Cutback: the office space in an old colonial building in Bangladesh, staff, our leading man in a Bauhaus Barcelona chair, his friends around him; on the wall, a photo of Gilbert & George. A young actress wafts into the room and sings a song that Noel Gallagher has written for her. Our hero is busy putting the finishing touches on a lifestyle internet portal. Everything runs in parallel. Everything is a Project. A luxury goods fair, a talk show, a film, all up to the minute, hip, dashing and modern. So Bret Easton Ellis. The hero goes to the window, looks out over the slums. It’s important to him that he doesn’t lose touch with reality. In this moment, he is eternal.

It is 6 o’clock. The first guests are arriving: friends who aren’t friends anymore, who backed away from our hero when they saw him fall. The fear of being carried along with him is too great, their own precipice too close. But now, it’s party time. A former MTV VJ hops out of a hydrofoil, followed by a former editor-in-chief, followed by a former hit band, followed by a consultant for something.

Former MTV VJ: “Are there any stars here?”
Former hit band: “Whoah, is it overdressed here. Totally retro.”
Former MTV VJ: “Is there Wi-Fi?”

Cut: ten people at a table at the poolside Restaurant Mistral. One Michelin Star, famous for chef Ettore Bocchia, like the Italian version of the “Naked Chef” but fully clothed. Inventor of Cucina moleculare – fat-free mayonnaise, pasta you can’t overcook and Nouvelle Cuisine that doesn’t make you fat. Simply brilliant. Perfect staging, a view out over the lake. Lights on the opposite shore, an evening haze. The hero sits surrounded by his former friends, the seven courses of the tasting menu are spun out over three hours. They laugh and talk excitedly about Projects.

here’s something on the go with 3-D and DJ’s, playing at the Ritze, the boxing club and bar in Hamburg. And right now, the consultant is doing autotests for Tyler Brûlé’s former magazine, and they’re all making a racket and enjoying the seemingly choreographed movements of the wait staff. He sits there and is quieter and quieter and thinks: It’s as if I had already gone. This final defeat gives him strength and he jumps up and cries: Let’s try one more thing together, something great, a web blog with Japanese robots. A brief silence at the table, then someone orders a coffee.

Tracking shot: The last ferry sets off for Menaggio.

One of the band members checks his emails. The consultant is loading songs onto his phone, for a moment the hotel seems overcome with disgust (how do you show that?). The hero leaves. No one notices. That’s the worst. In his room, that mocks him with its “I’ll still be here when you’re a distant memory,” he checks his bank balance. The cash he has on him will last for one night in the hotel, his overdraft would last him a little longer if he found something cheaper. Here, in the town.

The hero thinks about all the princes and kings who’ve been here in the last 200 years. Arriving with their hordes of servants, whole corridors rented, and rooms just to spread out the clothes on the beds. Romy was here, and the hotel staff had to sit with her late into the night because she couldn’t bear to be alone. The hero thinks about what it might be like to have two embarrassed waiters sitting by his bedside. He feels very close to Romy.

Cut: Restaurant Mistral. The tables being cleared. The staff retiring to their rooms. The lights going out. Crickets dying.

The morning after a sleepless night the hero discovers the minibar. A small cognac doesn’t make anything better or easier, but it makes the focus less sharp. Accompanied by the slight nausea that a drink in the morning brings, the hero adjourns to the breakfast room. He takes a quick look at the enormous Murano lights, at the frescos on the ceiling and at the couples at the tables, older for the most part. No socks and sandals here, only immaculate hair, faces relaxed by wealth and cashmere throws. Sickened by all this bourgeoisie, he goes into the park, sinks down on a leafy wall, looks out at the lake and senses that he won’t find the courage to die today either. A gardener walks up to him. With the wisdom of experience, he addresses the unhappy hero, a gentle conversation begins, during which it turns out that one of the gardener’s relatives has a house for rent. They could go there right now and take a look at it.

Tracking shot: A pick-up truck heads inland, the hero fights his nausea. A tall, run-down house stands in a shady hollow, some of its windows are cracked. The gardener and the hero enter. In the house it’s damp and cold; in every room, old mattresses, old beds, broken chairs.

My cousin will be here any minute, the gardener said. Our hero sits on a damp mattress and stares at a tin bucket. Why is it there? An hour later an old man comes in, obviously drunk. He talks unintelligibly, pulls a schnapps bottle out of the pocket of his sports jacket, offers it for a sip, takes one himself, shakes hands and collects what is almost the last of the young man’s cash. He leaves the bottle behind.

Cut: Evening falls, dark, cold, our hero has been sitting on the mattress for hours, incapable of moving. At sunset, the landlord comes back; they drink together in silence.

The hero wakes early, at five, with a headache and a bad taste in his mouth. The landlord is gone, the hero looks around for a sink, a basin, finds one in the kitchen, brushes his teeth and makes himself a coffee with vodka. Afterwards, he walks into the town, which takes a long time because he keeps stopping, standing, groping for a thought that refuses to come. In the town, he goes into the one and only shop, buys a croissant, steals schnapps, and takes himself to the gate of the Hotel Villa Serbelloni. He stands there, silently, staring at the entrance, then turns away, goes back to his house, where he spends the rest of the day drinking and holding monologues that distress him so much that he speaks too quietly and can’t really understand himself.

Tracking shot: The trees have lost their leaves. Three weeks have gone by. Our hero staggers through Bellagio; he looks bloated. He pauses and looks through the iron gate at the Villa Serbelloni.

The hero no longer knows what has been. He doesn’t know what will come. When he gazes at the Villa Serbelloni something reminds him of dreams past.

The most perfect hotel manager in the world, Signor Spinelli, is just welcoming an old Cuban widow, Louis Vuitton luggage is being unloaded. Age doesn’t have to be a burden when it’s tied to money. He has no more money. He breathes in the November air; it already carries a little frost. He has no friends, not even a last copy of his old newspaper. Nothing to remember him by. He’ll disappear without leaving a trace. But there’s still time before he goes. There’s another bottle waiting for him in the old house, now ice cold, not that he feels it.

Cut: In the lounge of the Villa Serbelloni a trio plays “Ave Maria,” in the old wicker chairs sit smiling older people with good taste and refined knitwear. At the pool, there’s a woman in a chic suit; barman Mauro, fluent in six languages, is conversing with an old factory owner, the sun has gone behind a chintz curtain, life stands still in its best moment. For the next 200 years.

 

SIbylle Berg, “Der Abgang.”   First published in DIE ZEIT 45 (3.11.2005)
(https://www.zeit.de/2005/45/Italien/komplettansicht)    © Sibylle Berg

Books

Author: Zehra Çirak
Translator: Kate Roy

She wasn’t the slightest bit romantic, and literature didn’t particularly interest her, she just loved the books themselves. Especially ones with famous names. She went about things alphabetically, buying herself books, a roomful of them, arranged neatly on the shelves.
Needless to say she took the liberty of calling the room “my library.” Visitors were allowed to look, but not touch. Feasting their eyes on the spines, they all marvelled at her collection.
It’s the things in these books, she said, not the letters on the page, that are dear to me, and important. And all who heard this believed in her love of literature.
When she was alone, she invariably took out a few books, remembering exactly where to find something, and she leafed through them until she found what she was looking for. Sometimes it was a love letter from someone she had left, or a ticket to a place where she had experienced happiness. Or it was hairs from her own head that she had torn out in anger or sorrow. She always knew what the reason was, what the date was. Some books also hid the addresses of those she had once called friends.
Sometimes, when she was sad or drunk, she would read a few pages, the same ones over and over, for hours. Because she liked them so much she would cut some of them out and put them in a different book. So she could look for them again some day.
Often she wrote messages for herself in the books too, and read them aloud every now and then. As if they’d been penned by someone else. That’s how beautiful she found them.
But when she felt despondent because time was passing by so fruitlessly, she smeared her books with jam, or even with butter or honey or saliva. That comforted her during difficult nights and she licked these books every now and then. She even managed to get red wine and fish soup into them, and some other bodily fluids.
The poor books smelt as little of literature as a desert smells of the sea.
Occasionally she fell asleep on her library floor while listing the authors, as well as the publishers and the titles of the books.
She sprinkled dust and other things onto the books, as if she were crowning the heads of the authors with time: the time they had been allowed to live with her. But she wasn’t completely mad, she did exercises to train her brain, where she would state the page count of particular books, getting it right, or nearly right. She could even correctly guess the years they were first published, and, what’s more, their original titles. Now and again she laid the books out as a mattress under her and then she dreamed of their contents too, that is, of the things she was keeping safe inside them. Sometimes they were wet the next morning.
When she died and her estate was sold off, many a second hand bookseller came in for a surprise, and would usually rid a book of her traces as best he could.

 

“Bücher”, by Zehra Cirak, © Verlag Hans Schiler, Berlin
Translation © Kate Roy

Sediment

Author: Sudabeh Mohafez
Translator: Kate Roy

He’s there again. In all his glory: luminous, shimmering, irresistible. He’s there again and has taken me by surprise, as always. He always arrives unannounced. He comes and goes as he pleases. Today he caught up with me on the Weidendamm Bridge. Behind me, the evening rush-hour traffic speeds along Friedrichstraße. Next to me, my bicycle leans against the wrought-iron railings. Between the Tränenpalast and the old Brecht Theatre I look into the setting sun, mirrored in the Spree, glittering and dazzling. There, on the water, he stands, huge, silent and invincible. Damāvand. The mountain. The crown of Tehran. He stands on the water, grows out of it to his height of almost six thousand metres, spreads himself out to the left and to the right over the banks of the Spree, rests on streets and houses, and his white-covered head shines brighter than the Berlin evening sun.
My throat is raw. I’ve had this before. First comes the shortness of breath, then the lump in the throat. I know that it goes away if I stay calm and don’t question what I see. I’ve tried everything. Simple things like turning around or running away, more costly ones, like taking all manner of drugs. But it’s no use. If he appears all of a sudden, Damāvand, then he has his reasons. Then he won’t let himself be driven away; then he stays where he is and for as long as he wants. In any case, it would be foolish to wish for that. To drive away a mountain, to scare off, chase off the mountain of mountains, how childish.
So I breathe out fully, wait a fraction of a second, breathe in again and gaze at the vast, rocky massif that has turned up so unexpectedly in my little fissured Berlin. The calm of Damāvand can be felt even down here, and the browny-blue shimmer of his creased, cracked and jagged sides rests right over the Centre of Berlin, my old new home. The ochre-coloured village at his feet dozes in the evening sun, though I know that in reality it no longer exists. The city has consumed it. Maybe it’s become the old quarter at the heart of a new district, though more likely it’s been razed to the ground and disappeared. But not its residents, who are poor and dispensable. Yes, it’s most likely ended up like that. The village will have made way for new multi-storied apartment blocks made of cheap concrete, which will be rented out until the concrete’s fully dry, like the Wilhelminian-style houses in Berlin before the turn of the century. Rented out until the concrete’s fully dry to the people who used to live there before in mud houses and small homes nestled into the rock face, made of clay bricks they’d fired themselves.
The horn concerto of the Tehran traffic floods my ears like music. The Schiffbauerdamm is all draped with coloured lights, it must be a holiday, and my mouth waters when I spot the men crouching by the roadside next to their small kerosene ovens selling labu, beetroot cooked in salty water.
At the base of Damāvand’s slopes in North Tehran the Spree flows under my feet, and one of the punks who’ve set up camp outside the Tränenpalast wants to scrounge cigarettes. I tell her that I can’t give her any because I’ve given up. She doesn’t believe me and demands at least one. I ask if she can see the mountain. All she can see is a dumb bitch, and right where I’m standing, she replies. She whistles for her dog and leaves.
I turn back to the highest of the high. Smoking wouldn’t be a bad idea at all. I’d inhale deeply and send a long, silvery grey streak into the air. Into the air in front of me, in front of my face. A smokescreen that would cloud my vision and shroud me from view, shroud me from the mountain. Only for a second of course, for a fraction of a second. In any case, it would be foolish to wish for that. To hide myself from the mountain, from the mountain of mountains, to make myself go away, to evade him, to escape.
I absent-mindedly feel around in my jacket pocket for a forgotten packet of cigarettes, but it’s been too long since I stopped smoking. I still remember the moment well. We were sitting on the steps of a small shop which stood empty, like most of the apartments in the old, run-down building. We, that was Mira and me. She smoked filterless cigarettes that smelt like pipe smoke, and brought stories along with her. I was responsible for a six-pack of cheap beer and a pile of old newspapers to keep out the cold from underneath us. By then I had already switched to light cigarettes, which meant I had to put up with Mira mocking me every evening. From the end of March to the beginning of October we sat on the steps till way past midnight, had three beers each and lost ourselves in Mira’s stories. They were dreams for the future or tales from the past. But one thing was constant: they always played out in Berlin, in Mira’s Berlin, a city I didn’t know, and whose streets were lined with prisons, asylums and shelters. They were mainly inhabited by poor prostitutes, rich prostitutes, children and dogs. They were brimming with politics, politics galore. Politics from below. Mira swore by that.
We didn’t talk about my Berlin. Mira wasn’t interested in it, and I could understand that because my Berlin was a blurry one. One you couldn’t see clearly, that constantly eluded you, and stayed somehow shadowy. It was like me: an oddball, a bit lost, unattractive, contradictory and scarred.
On one of these evenings we found ourselves in the Söthstraße prison where women with bent backs were making wooden clothes-pegs. Mira was narrating the tale of a passionate love affair that played out here, only to end, a few years later, as dramatically as it had begun, in Italy of all places. Completely immersed in her story, I was repeatedly stubbing out my thirty-seventh cigarette of the evening on the ground, and when I finally dropped the butt I suddenly couldn’t breathe any more. I was gasping and making squeaky, groaning noises. Panic-stricken, I thought that life can’t end out of the blue like that, so unexpectedly and in such a mean way, and, over the noise building up in my ears, I heard a voice. It shouted again and again, “Breathe out! You have to breathe out!” It was Mira. She repeated this command over and over as she yanked my arms up high over my head – a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. I haven’t smoked again since.
I told Mira about Damāvand once. He was standing right there in our courtyard. I thought about it for a bit, summed up the courage, and asked her if she could see him.
“Who?” she wanted to know.
“The mountain,” I said quietly, “there, in front of us.”
We were sitting on the windowsill of our hole of an apartment on the fourth floor of an old building and looking down. It was late summer or early autumn, the golden glow of the sun’s last rays hung over the courtyard, a couple of cobwebs were spun out, attached somewhere by invisible threads, seemingly suspended in the nothingness in front of us, and there was a smell of earth in defiance of the city all around us. Damāvand was standing right in front of us. I had to tilt my head right back to see his snow-capped peak. I was glad he was near me, and thought of my father and how he’d taught me about geological formations on a trip to the mountains. He talked about animals that had lived here hundreds of thousands of years ago. That had lived underwater, since we were walking on sedimentary rock. On an ancient ocean floor that had been pushed to the earth’s surface by titanic forces; ammonites, trilobites, animals from prehistoric times with Latin names, buried deep in the rock.
“Nah, can’t see yer moun’in,” said Mira, after a glance at the courtyard.
I told her about him then. How he appeared first on the plane, and I was afraid that the plane wouldn’t be able to carry the weight. We passengers, the stewardesses, the seats and the small oval windows were shimmering in Damāvand, just as the ivy and the front of the building across the courtyard were now, while under us, silently, unheeded, my Tehran was fading away. I told Mira too how the mountain next turned up at my school in Berlin. In P.E. with Mr. Katzing, and while I was cleaning Mrs. Malikowski’s apartment. Anywhere really. Over and over again.
“And, well, now he’s here in the courtyard. He’s been here for a while this time. Nearly two weeks, I think.”
Mira was silent. After a moment she swung her legs over the windowsill, got herself a can of beer from our latest acquisition, the fridge, which was our pride and joy because it hadn’t cost anything and guaranteed a chilled Pilsner anytime, and sat back down next to me. A hiss flitted through the kitchen as she lifted the ring pull with a practised flick. Like every other beer, Mira drank this one slowly, with full appreciation. When she was finished, she surveyed the courtyard for a while, thoughtfully.
“Still can’t see ‘im, yer moun’in,” she said, swinging her legs.
I nodded and we fell silent again for a while. Then Mira pointed to the silhouette of Mr. Börne which was visible in the frosted glass panel in his kitchen opposite us. He’d fitted it there because he knew that when we weren’t sitting downstairs on the steps, Mira and I hung out up here and looked into his kitchen. But the kitchen had recently been furnished with a shower cabinet. Clearly the new views which that would afford were going too far for Mr. Börne, and so, with the help of the frosted panel, he’d narrowed our field of view to something more acceptable. Mira gestured with her can at Mr. Börne’s shadow on the glass and said that it reminded her of Max, and with that she began a new story.
Mr. Börne’s shadow there in front of me, I give up the search for cigarettes and take my hand out of my pocket. Something paws the pavement near me. A donkey is standing next to my bicycle. The mountain has never gone this far before. I focus on breathing, in, out, in, and find to my relief that the little boy sitting on the animal is blond, and, what’s more, is accompanied by a colourfully clothed, well-fed man, whose head is adorned with a jester’s hat crowned with little bells. He’s rattling a small can with some coins in it. The trio are collecting donations for a circus that’s performing in Schöneberg. I need my money myself, shake my head and think that the child should really be in bed. This thought earns the stranger a reproachful look, which he doesn’t understand. The small grey donkey gives a muted snort and I could swear that he’s grinning at me when he looks up at me. In my mind I tell him that I should really be heading home too. The donkey nods, content. I reach for my bicycle and turn around to wave at Damāvand.
But he’s vanished, like he has so many times before. And the old Spree, she’s lapping and rippling as if nothing has happened, nothing at all.

 

From Wüstenhimmel Sternenland by Sudabeh Mohafez
© Arche Verlag, Zurich/Hamburg, 2004
All rights reserved
Translation © Kate Roy