Introduction: The novel tells of four recent retirees’ misadventures in an exclusive old folks’ home. The narrator, Almut Block, and her friends Karlotta, Marlen and Suzanna are suspected of committing an act of grievous bodily harm, possibly murder, in the retirement home. The three friends decide that Almut should shoulder the blame, as she has the best chance of pleading insanity and saving them all from a prison sentence. The victim of their assault is the Minister for the Elderly, who has just given the go-ahead for fast-track drug trials in which the home’s residents will be the guinea pigs. Dr Klupp is the court-appointed psychiatrist, who tries to get Almut talking using the Life Story questionnaire she filled in for the home.
A windowless room. Bare walls, a table, two chairs. Stuffy air; the ventilation system is probably broken.
“Ms Block, I’m going to ask you a few questions now, and I’d like you to answer Yes or No. Are you ready?”
“Do you feel well, generally speaking?”
“Are your energy levels good?”
“Are you generally in good humour?”
“Are you generally content with your life?”
“Do you ever think of…?”
“For heaven’s sake, just ask me straight up what you want to know. This is like one of those tests in a women’s magazine, What personality type are you? More an autumn type or a summer type? If you want to know whether I’m depressed, Doctor, just ask me a straight question and I’ll give you a straight answer. And while we’re at it: Yes, I am depressed. Not always, but generally. More of a winter type, if you like. Can I go now?”
“Ms Block, I requested a copy of the Life Story form you completed when you moved into the retirement home. Under Sleep Patterns, you wrote Normal. Nonetheless, I’d like to ask you a few questions about your sleep patterns. Please answer with Yes or No. Are you ready?”
“Do you have trouble falling asleep?”
“Do you have broken sleep?”
“Do you feel you get too little sleep?”
“Do you feel you sleep too much?”
“Are you a restless sleeper?”
“Do you dream a lot?”
“Are you telling the truth?”
“No. Can I go now?”
“Ms Block, you don’t seem particularly keen on cooperating, so I suggest we carry out one last test and then conclude our interviews. To put it bluntly: it’s a dementia test. Some cognitive disorders, including dementia, are legally recognised in terms of pleading mental incapacity. We both know that you are mentally alert, so please don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes. This test is a pure formality, I have to conduct it, so let’s get it over quickly and then you can go. Are you ready?”
I can go, he said. Just one last test and I can go back to my cell, back to the others. They’ll fix questioning eyes on me, like after the other sessions, and I’ll say: “I’m fully compos mentis, girls. Holidays, here we come!”
“That’s not funny,” Suzanna will say, adding how upset she is that we’ll have to spend ten years baking biscuits. Marlen will point out acerbically that she didn’t expect much better from a hoover bag like me. I don’t even want to know how Karlotta will react. I’ll find out, and it won’t be pleasant, but I couldn’t give a damn.
“What time of year is it now, Ms Block?”
“Where are we now?”
“In a prison.”
Dr Klupp makes a note.
“And whereabouts in the prison?”
I think about this. The warden escorts me from the cell to this interview room and it’s always five floors down. The cell is on the fourth floor, so this must be the basement.
“In the basement.”
Dr Klupp makes another note.
“Now I’m going to say three words, Ms Block. Please repeat these words after me:
Dr Klupp takes a loose piece of paper out of his notebook.
“Please read what it says on this piece of paper, and then do it.”
He slides the piece of paper over to me. I hope it doesn’t say Call me Norbert and give me a kiss. I lean forward, the writing is kind of small, I read it.
Close your eyes.
I read it again.
Close your eyes.
“No,” I say, pushing the paper away.
Dr Klupp gives me an irritated look.
“No. I won’t do it.”
“No buts. My eyes stay open.”
“Ms Block, this is just a routine test.”
“I know. Let’s move on to the next step. You can dock me a point for the thing with the eyes if you like.”
Dr Klupp adjusts his specs, though they didn’t need adjusting in the first place. Wicked, those rimless glasses; they really suit him. Now he’s leaning slightly towards me across the table.
“Ms Block,” he says, with some urgency, “I cannot conclude my assessment if you refuse to take the dementia test. I cannot write up my report, and that means everything else will take longer. Besides,” he leans a little further across the table, “you will be isolated from your…,” he’s searching for the right word, “from your friends, until such time as you cooperate. You’ll be put in solitary confinement. Ms Block.”
Solitary and confined. A cell, four walls, me in the middle, all alone. No bad jokes, no giggles, not even a potted palm to talk to, the furniture giving me the silent treatment. For weeks, months, maybe even years.
Are there any persons, creatures, objects or situations you are afraid of?
At the time, I didn’t answer the question, just shrugged my shoulders. In body language, that amounts to ‘No comment’. I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to tell the truth either. And the truth is: I am not Karlotta, therefore I am afraid. Afraid of situations. Not all situations, but two in particular.
Situation 1: being alone.
Situation 2: closing my eyes.
Now I have to decide: whether to be afraid or afraid.
Which am I most afraid of?
I close my eyes.
As soon as my eyelids shut, they’re there, the spots. Red spots all over the place, against a black background at first, flickering and making that noise. I can never tell whether the noise is more a crunching or a crackling, whether it sounds like sandpaper rubbing my pupils raw or something I cannot even describe.
The spots grow bigger, they spread, they melt, then everything is red. A sea of red, an ocean of flames. The water is seething, burning, it engulfs my eyeball; Jesus, that hurts. I force my eyes open.
Dr Klupp is looking at me keenly.
“Happy now?” I ask. “Can we move on?”
My eyes are watering and my voice sounds weird. Someone clamped it in a vice and I have to clear my throat to release it.
“Ms Block,” Dr Klupp says looking at me even more keenly, “you are sweating profusely.”
You don’t say? Thanks for letting me know, smart-arse.
“What went on with you just now, Ms Block?”
None of your business, smart-arse.
“Does it have anything to do with your sleep patterns? According to the Nurse Manager’s report, of which I sought a copy, your sleep patterns are anything but normal. It says here that you are unable to sleep, Ms Block.”
That Nurse Manager is a nasty woman.
Dr Klupp snaps his notebook shut.
“We’ll leave the dementia test. That’s enough for today. Tomorrow we’ll start the Life Story work.”
Fruit flies sleep ten hours a day with their eyes open. They can’t shut their eyelids because they don’t have any.
The most popular lab animals for sleep trials are rats and humans. Night after night, millions of brainwaves flow through machines that measure everything and anything. Beta waves, delta waves, ebbing and flowing. Thousands of men and women with sleep disorders lie wired up in beds; thousands of rats are wired up in cages. All sleeping, and no one knows why.
It’s a secret.
There are theories.
We sleep because sleep is restorative.
We sleep because we process information in our sleep.
Perhaps. Maybe so. Very likely.
The fact is, rats die after two weeks if they are deprived of sleep. They lose the ability to regulate their body temperature and die from overheating. If you give them a couple of burn marks at the beginning of the experiment, they will die with open wounds. Without sleep, the wounds don’t heal.
Sleep is one thing. Dreaming is another.
Rats, pigs, humans, all the highly evolved animals dream. Even ducks dream, and hens, and even the odd bat has been caught at it; you can measure it. Dream sleep, which happens in the REM stage, has a different wave pattern to deep sleep. The beta waves in the REM stage, for instance, look exactly the same when you’re awake, which is pretty remarkable: you’re as good as awake when you’re dreaming.
If you were a particularly highly evolved mammal—a dolphin, for instance—you would never actually sleep without being awake. Unihemispheric slow-wave sleep they call it. You keep moving through the water, the left half of your brain asleep, the right half awake; after an hour or two the left half wakes up and lets the right go to sleep. Technically, if you are a dolphin you never sleep. Chronic insomnia. Over time, that can lead to depression, which is why dolphins always have that sort of sad look.
Neuroleptics—sedative effects. And Rohypnol of course, by the kilo; Jesus, it’s not as if I didn’t try. I tried everything, but that was a long time ago. Forty years at a guess, maybe more, I really can’t remember. None of them worked anyway, and at some point I’d had enough, all that baloney with doctors and drugs.
Do you have trouble sleeping?
Not exactly, since I don’t get to sleep in the first place.
Is your sleep very disrupted?
Like I said, I don’t sleep.
Do you dream a lot?
No sleep, no dreams.
For the last forty years, the same thing happens every time I close my eyes: the spots, the crackling or crunching, the blazing sea, the pain.
No way anyone could sleep with that madness going on under their eyelids!
Yes, of course it’s impossible to go without sleep for forty years, and maybe I’m only imagining it. Many chronic insomniacs think they don’t sleep, but they do in fact manage an hour here and there. So maybe I do sleep, every now and again, without being aware of it, with my eyes open.
Maybe I’m a fruit fly.
Maybe I’m a rat. Lab rat, remarkably resilient. Someone gave me a few burn wounds forty years ago and won’t let me sleep; that same someone has been waiting forty years for me to die. But I’m alive. With open wounds.
Life Story work, they call it.
Working on my fucked-up life. Sticking a finger in the wound, digging in the dirt with both hands.
What am I supposed to say to this Dr Klupp tomorrow? Should I say: Doctor, you really needn’t get your lovely hands dirty. It’s all very simple really: I’m a dolphin. A melancholy mammal that never sleeps. Always tired, permanently knackered, but someone holds up the hoops and I jump through them, even the ones on fire.
Hup! Let’s knock the bitch out!, says Karlotta, and I jump.
Hup! Let’s finish the bitch off! I jump.
For animals like me, violence is just a sort of pastime, Doctor. We dolphins have to be doing something, don’t we, until the time comes, the moment in which we finally fall asleep, with both brain hemispheres. That’s when something really beautiful happens to us: we forget.
We forget to swim, we forget to breathe. We slowly sink to the bottom of the sea, or the aquarium where we live, and there at last we sleep to our heart’s content.
I came across Der Zwerg reinigt den Kittel in Ullstein’s foreign rights catalogue in 2012, liked the sound of it and requested a reading copy. I remember laughing out loud on a long bus journey and being haunted by the dystopian elements of the plot long after I’d finished the book. The extract I submitted to no man’s land #10 isn’t one of the laugh-out-loud moments, but it works well as a stand-alone sample of the author’s style and her protagonist’s self-deprecating humour. I love translating writing that uses language creatively and playfully, that tells a good story and conveys a strong sense of place, time and character. This novel ticks all of those boxes for me. I was delighted to see it reviewed in New Books in German in 2013, and I know that the reviewer was as taken with it as I am. This novel really deserves to published in English, so if any publishers out there want to see more of my translation, please email me at [email protected]
From Der Zwerg reinigt den Kittel © Ullstein, 2012