Really, German

Author: Feridun Zaimoglu
Translator: Tom Cheesman


The very first time I read from my work to an audience, a well-dressed woman in the front row had a nosebleed, the blood was dripping onto her knees and splashing over the toes of her shoes, I jumped up, reached into my pocket and passed her a pack of Bordeaux-coloured paper tissues. She angrily left the room. I couldn’t understand. I’d done nothing wrong. I’d got the paper tissues from a street musician by way of thanks for a handful of change. After the reading the lady asked me to sign two books, then she explained that the indecency of my spoken language had made her feel unwell. My provocations, she said, would get me nowhere. A genuine writer would take no pride in making people bleed. A genuine writer writes stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. She appealed to me from the bottom of her heart to please give up writing. I stood by the book table, my head bowed in shame, silently watching the bubbles of carbon dioxide shoot up from the bottom of the bottle and burst.

I often found myself getting embroiled in unpleasantness. That woman would not be the last to accuse me of huge depravity. In the 1990s I set off on a reading tour with Kanak Sprak, a whole book I’d written in the underclass jargon of youngsters of Turkish origin, translating their Kanak lingo into my own artificial language. What was I trying to achieve? I was trying to set down hard edges, an outline with a toxic glow. Back then I used to look like a junkie with a silver set of works, performing in suits I’d bought in a shop in Kiel that sells used clothes by weight. Strangers would come up to me, whispering, on railway station platforms, at urinals, in beer halls and at grilled chicken kiosks. They thought I was a dealer, they insisted I should unzip my wheelie suitcase and reveal my wares. Quite a few times I had to run for it, because they wouldn’t believe I was just a writer.

I became the hero of German provincial towns. Most writers want to perform in big cities. A triumph in a provincial town requires hard struggle. I liked that. Sadly, lots of people didn’t like what I read to them. They asked why I was making such a fuss. They asked why they should care about young Turks in poverty-stricken tenements, ‘Kanaks’ kicking off. I talked about a phenomenon of the German language. They wanted to know why the sugar syrup poured over puff pastry vol-au-vents filled with crushed pistachios forms a thin film that sticks to the roof of your mouth. I frequently shut the book and talked with the audience about baking.

I started to think that most good people in Germany live in the small towns. It was unusual for a woman to get a nosebleed during a reading. I was seen as a poet from the provinces, as an entertainer specialising in extreme silliness. In those early years, as I travelled the land, I encountered critics who sat right at the end of the second to last row and asked the first question of the evening. They asked: “How authentic are you, Mr. Z?” They declared: “You can sit there wriggling and jiggling all you like, all that violent ghetto jive, we just don’t buy the idea that you’re some heavy from the mean backstreets.” Not that I’d ever made any such claim. But still they insisted that in my case, the character in the narrative must be viewed as an identical double of the narrator. I demurred, and they dismissed that as a swindler’s lie.

My origin was nothing to be proud of. The young men I’d portrayed in Kanak Sprak didn’t identify themselves in terms of their ethnic belonging. My audiences didn’t want to hear about that. I would spend the whole evening talking about my German life, but at the end of the day they asked me what I had to say, as a young Turk, about what was going on in my homeland. My refusal to change my subject was interpreted as cowardice. Wouldn’t it be more cowardly to let reality be stolen? What did I mean by that? Just because one’s Turkish parents had migrated, as guest workers, did that confer sufficient knowledge of whatever is going on in Turkey?
Most young people of the second and third generation from Turkish and Kurdish origins were living in their own parallel world. They knew nothing about the reality of authentic Turks and Kurds, though of course they wouldn’t admit this. The typical Turkish male in Berlin’s working-class districts was swathing himself in clunky gold, pumping iron for massive, compact arms, propping his forearm on the open window of his car, and tugging his upper lip with his index and middle fingers – why was he doing that? Because that’s what the rebels were doing in the Turkish soap operas. The experts were talking about the essential culture of foreign residents of Berlin. I was talking about the boastful posing of new Germanites who, in their German urban settings, were missing out on urbanisation.

An outraged student denounced me as a nasty piece of work because her words had failed to move me. To illustrate the warm-hearted Mediterranean mentality, she had described how the men greet one another by shaking hands while pressing the back of the other’s hand with their free hand. That led an authentic German in the audience to relate how the Anatolian peasant will chop off the head of his last chicken whenever he catches sight of a tourist. I couldn’t help giggling, so the student called me a heartless pig, she got a huge wave of applause, the organisers refused to go out to eat with me.

I often had to break off a reading because people in the audience were shouting at me. I was the hoodlum of the season. One time a long-haired dachshund actually bit through my shoe, the man whistled him off, my toes were throbbing all night. In a small town in southern Bavaria, somebody called out that I deserved a resounding thumping, while his terrier in a knitted coat tugged at my trouser leg. Another time, a man suddenly stood up in the middle of my reading. His voluminous red checkered handkerchief, folded two corners up, spilled from his breast pocket. He said that he holidayed twice a year in a distant country; that on one expedition there, he’d seen small vultures in the fields; that with my manner and my attitude, I reminded him of the aforementioned vultures.

I often requested restraint. I requested accuracy. I was accused of cultural appropriation: as a Turk with a school certificate, did I have the right to write about Turks with no school certificate? The left-wing intellectuals were propagating round-the-clock linguistic cleansing. Anyone who used words other than ‘Migrant’ and ‘fellow citizen’ was a Nazi. ‘Migrant’ sounded like migraine, and when I said this at a public event I was called a German nationalist multiculturalist. I wasn’t this and I wasn’t that. I talked about career Kanaks, about women and men without qualities, about mediocre individuals very proud of their origins. At one adult education college, a half-full can of lager came flying out of the second to last row and hit me on the forehead. The wound soon healed. A few weeks later, a full thermos jug fell eight meters onto the top of my skull. I had a deep cut in my scalp, an ambulance was called to the Frankfurt Book Fair to take me to hospital. The doctor glued the skin of my scalp together, the police started an investigation, person or persons unknown, and later closed it.

Strangely, critics were now pressing me to admit, finally, that I’d arrived. Arrived where? In the world of publishing and reviewing, I wasn’t regarded as a literary writer, I was a social reporter who was glorifying chancers and sharks. But my subject was the healthy mental world of the mongrels. Nobody, after all, was so deeply and firmly rooted in one life-world that they couldn’t uproot themselves. I could go by many names, I could fake myself over and over, till nothing was left of my supposed authenticity. Tribe and custom were by no means more important than life.

These sorts of resounding phrases were met with suspicion, rightly. One Turkish woman said to me after a reading: ‘I don’t want to wash my colours out and get myself dyed different.’ Another woman in another town hacked furiously with her fork at her overcooked boiled potatoes and said: ‘I’m German, and you’ll always be Turkish, you can say all you like.’ I thought: the world stays foreign, no matter how sharply your eyes focus it. I was urged to try writing about normal love between normal people for a change. I said: ‘I don’t want to. I’d feel like spit in someone else’s mouth.’ [‘Someone else’s’ and ‘foreign’ are the same word in German: fremd. Tr.]

What was I writing about? I was writing about the twitching arms of wet shirts on the washing line of a lonely terrace. About summer clothes in the cupboard that suddenly fell off their hangers. About the first light of the day when you can tell a white thread from a black one. But I was also writing about melancholy rubber pimples on the back of a tailor’s glass cutting board. I was writing love letters for hot and bothered men with dark five o’clock shadow who’d developed a crush on the woman in the local bakery shop or a single mother from the run-down estate. I took five marks a page with a promised bonus of fifteen marks in case of success. But not once was a woman’s passionate love sparked by the letters. Word quickly got round, and this source of income dried up. Instead I was offered good money to concoct amusements for television, ‘Kanak comedy’ was on the rise, gag writers were desperately sought. I declined, not feeling this brand of clownery was for me. I was asked what I thought I might try next, as if it was like picking up the menu and choosing a dish costing slightly more than nothing.

Those who were posing the question of origin wanted solid forms. You might shatter into many fragments, you should just bear this disintegration. Why should you? Didn’t deformation threaten to end in degeneration? What was so bad about the longing for social stability? I was fleeing stinking certainty. For a moment, before everything curdled into identity, it was all a game, in the undefined first years of the century everything was beautifully unruly, people weren’t anxiously fixated on their holdings. Much was possible in cinema, music, literature, theatre.

The director Luc Perceval asked me to rewrite Shakespeare’s Othello, which I did with my good friend Günter Senkel, with whom I would go on to write many other plays besides. The gala premiere, launching the 2003 season at the Munich Kammerspiele after a prolonged closure of the theatre, turned into a huge scandal. The socialites, celebrities and beauties in the audience screamed themselves hoarse with revulsion, one fat man in the front row actually did have a nosebleed. What had so incensed them all? Caustic language, cutting words, stinging curses. The refined citizens of Venice turned up their noses at Othello, not because he presumed to live among whites as a dark-skinned man. He was a commander with a distinguished service record, the victor in numerous hard-fought battles. What was felt to be disgusting and offensive was that he loved a young girl half his age. She accepted this love gladly enough, but she fell to pieces under the influence of wicked whispering Iago. A drama of jealousy, a wild, obscene spectacle, murder and mayhem. I and my co-author had no intention of wheeling blathering monologue machines on stage. The conventional blacking up of white Othello was unnecessary, because the spectacle wasn’t the colour of his skin, the spectacle was the great age difference between the lovers. Shakespeare was cleverer than postmodernists, it would have been gross distortion to misunderstand the love story as a proxy for race war. Foreignness was the mother earth, was the fertile soil, was the layer which had to be carted off in order to get to the usable mineral deposit.

I spoke of the new souls and of the new German wilderness, I was seen as overwrought, overheated, as uncouth and moth-eaten. I knew: I’m not styled and tempered, my heart rejoiced when I thought that with a little quick wit one can get further and further. I met people who were stranger than me. One man, after a reading in the eastern outskirts of Berlin, showed me the underside of a gingerbread cookie. He had scratched into the wafer a cross with wobbly hooks on its four ends: a swastika. Another time, a pub landlady fell in love with me for a brief hour, she fell back out of love as soon as I explained that she was confusing me with a writer of cat-based fiction she idolised. Organisers booked me because they hoped to gain legitimacy by attracting a new audience, people with little or no education, foreigners in the land of culture. Indeed, there were dramatic scenes, not always, but more often than cultural event organisers were used to. A lovelorn gaming arcade owner stabbed himself in the chest. The woman he was whimpering at in pain wished he’d drop dead and left the room. I was judged responsible for the man’s overwrought state, I’d been reading from my novel about love, which one woman in the audience had said was really a novel about hate.

But what was happening in contemporary literature? Very little was happening, because it was failing to include the present. There was unrest in the cities of the west, there were uprisings in the outskirts, there were fanatics demonstrating nasty enthusiasms. In German books, on the other hand, little of the world was to be found, around the turn of the millennium the writers were writing primers full of bland fables, the word of the hour was inwardness. They all told their small, well-formed stories, all took pride in their uniqueness, whether west German, east German, or migrant, they found themselves and their own lives unbelievably interesting. But I had no wish to suffocate under the shroud of identity. I was in love with the imprecise world. I hated self-scrutiny. What I was seeing: the misery of the poor.

To the critics I was always in the wrong. When I wrote the family epic of the Seven Towers neighbourhood in Istanbul, they said I shouldn’t be nailing my heart to the land of my fathers. When I wrote a novel about Luther in powerfully hammering German, I was said to be angling for a prize for best integrated fellow citizen. When I wrote a novel about a Rhineland citizen on the skids, they said I’d set out to write a completely foreigner-free book. But it was always about German and Germany, it was about German nosebleeds, about the blood that shot out of noses because the violence of the words made bodies quake. And it was always about the incomprehensible, about the enigmatic, about the dense fog we got lost in. That was a legacy of German Romanticism, I was glad to inherit that gloom and that unreason. In a small town in the west of Germany, a professor shouted at me: ‘Genius, or genitalia, one or the other, not both. It’s clear enough that you’re all lower body!’ He denounced me as an enemy of the Enlightenment because I’d cited the Modernist poets Georg Trakl, Stefan George and Gottfried Benn. He thought I was wearing a mask, like all the Moslems. There it came again. I talked about literature. They talked about my supposed essential nature. I said: Right here, right now! They shouted: Baklava and cevapcici! I said: Festival of colours. They said: Folklore. I said: We have to urbanise ourselves in the cities. They talked about my self-hatred, and how I’d over-stretched myself in over-assimilating. But I’d torn no muscles.

I read in a library in Berlin’s bourgeois-bohemian quarter, Kreuzberg, and afterwards furious activists attacked me over a swinish passage in the book. Strangely, what really riled them was that I didn’t roll my Rs. I reminded them that the Friesians in far north Germany had stopped rolling their Rs in order not to attract unwanted attention. But I also reminded them that the Franconians of northern Bavaria flutter their tongues almost like Russians. The activists felt I was ribbing them. I looked around for the organiser, hoping for back-up. He was hiding behind the tattered, filthy, heavy woollen curtain hanging from a metal pole over the door. If I’d highlighted my original uniqueness, if I‘d identified myself by speaking in sentimental aphorisms, they’d have proclaimed me their pal and a man of honour.

Should I speak of a disability, my inability to believe in the purifying power of a cultural community? Minoritarian pride was repulsive to me. The individualism that expresses a loner’s cold intelligence was repulsive to me. I read in two bookstores and a cultural workshop centre in Berlin, to polite applause, I travelled on to a small town in the east. On the train a woman recognised me, she introduced herself as the Persian daughter of a Persian mother and a Persian father. Good, I thought, she knows where she belongs. I didn’t grin maliciously, I didn’t mock, I stayed serious, but she still got in a rage, she said loudly: ‘The Jews had it coming because they thought they were German. You’ve got it coming. You stir up a lot of wind with words. Look in the mirror. The face that looks out at you doesn’t lie. I’m staying true to my country.’ There it came again, the impermissible comparison. Indeed, I’ve often heard that the Turks, Kurds, Arabs and other population groups in Germany are the Jews of today, threatened with extermination if they allow their natural, in-born power of resistance to be broken down.

Who could fail to understand the anger against the state? The underclass Aryans go hunting foreign tribals, and the defenders of the constitution shred incriminating files. Until the swamp of sympathisers in the intelligence agencies, in the police, in the army is drained, no one will believe a word the state says. There’s this on the one hand, there’s that on the other. One could despair – one mustn’t.

Of course, in every sector there is a splendid blossoming. Residents whose parents came from abroad are writing and scripting, they’re counting and planning, they’re healing and repairing. They want nothing to do with the useless customs of the peasantry. They aren’t receptive to effusive bombast. These are sober workers in their chosen professions. They aren’t satisfied with the materials they found to hand. They are no friends of the collective which almost always sees improvement measures as treason. But neither do they believe in adopting the plumage of the local middle class so as to come over as especially well integrated. I call that misassimilation.

This country has its Turkish Turk-haters, I call them poster Kanaks, they need professional help. Every new season, the usual immigrant enemies of immigrants let themselves be harnessed up to do service for a bit of money and fame, till everyone tires of them. The real question is: what do the foreigners mean in their own country? What do they mean in the country where they’ve made themselves at home? They can’t let themselves be judged by the older residents. They can’t be so daft as to lose it when someone asks out of curiosity where they come from. If the blood rushes to your head when someone mispronounces your tricky surname, you should vent your vapours someplace else. In the culture sectors and the multicultural bureaux, one comes across all too many humourless would-be educators of the human race. I flee them, for they’re on a mission, they’ve a calling as missionaries to the majority. They also don’t want to think about another important question: how come the diaspora is mostly right-wing? What’s behind the bizarre bond between somebody of the third generation and their parents’ or grandparents’ country of origin? What should one make of the exorbitant attachment to cultural heritage from the traditional homeland? Are they suffering because of the scattering, are they wasting away because they live beyond the bounds of the ancient sacred clod? This sentimentality lines the pockets of autocrats in many imagined homelands, alas. Currency billions flow because millions dream of the idyll in their particular Promised Land.

I won’t eat baklava, for the same reason I won’t eat cheesecake: it’s addictive, it makes you fat and greasy. After one reading which went fairly well, the polite organisers invited me out for a meal. I ordered aubergines stuffed with mincemeat, the dish was comically called ‘Slit Belly’. I bit into bitter fibres and almost raw meat, I stared at the watery sauce swimming with many fatty globules staring at me. After the fourth mouthful I admitted defeat. The young waitress asked why, I apologised and said that unfortunately the food was inedible. Two minutes later a small, powerfully built Turk with the air of a boxer was standing at the table wanting to know why I’d insulted his fiancée. A misunderstanding. No misunderstanding, he insisted. His future bride’s mother was in the kitchen, she was a damn good cook, as he knew from personal experience, and if I was going to diss the aubergines, my belly was going to be slit open, an Alsatian dog stuffed inside, and sewed up again. The boxer Turk was dragged away by his dim-witted fiancée. Everyone round the table was quiet. The many fatty globules had at least doubled in number.

I’d have liked to throttle the boxer Turk with the waitress’s pinny. The polite organisers requested a situation report. I didn’t understand, they’d seen and heard the whole thing. They demanded a culturalist interpretation, the organiser felt his feelings had been hurt, there had to be a reason. I said, ‘Nah, the guy’s got an arse for a head.’ An embarrassed silence ensued. The waitress made a point of leaving my plate when she cleared the table. I didn’t order dessert, and then I was the only one who didn’t get a complimentary digestif at the end. I refused to engage in a staring contest with the boxer Turk, who was sitting at the side table by the door. What had happened? The organisers and a couple of people who’d been in the audience insisted on continuing the conversation in the hotel bar. Wasn’t I over-simplifying? After all, Turkish women and Turkish men belonged to the same culture as me. I said: ‘Nah, idiocy is international.’ It was all to no avail, after a short while I left them to it.

Constant dismissal has been my teacher. It’s not like I’m trying to be everyone’s darling. What dismays me? It’s that the fluffiness and banality, the wee-wishy-washiness and nappy-whiteness of the way life is imagined, inside many bubbles in our culture here, isn’t the way life is, not outside the bubbles, not in the world. Of course, what I’m saying could be dismissed as a privileged hooligan’s bitching. A story on paper is a story on paper. In real reality I ask myself: where are we headed? There will be ruptures and fights. Some will choose unconditional self-preservation, others self-deception. Many a sick-minded wretch will dream of smiting his designated foe. One must shield oneself more and more from the false influences and from the friendly whisperers, it’s best to rely on one’s wits. More experiments in culture would be nice. Experimental ways of living, not just among people of foreign origin, would be nice. If actual factual reality could be seen as just a special form of true reality, that would be nice. Here in our country much more remains possible.


Translated from the transcript of an address by Feridun Zaimoglu to the Kulturfestival Merhaba Heimat, a Turkish-German cultural festival held in Dortmund on 4 November 2021.


Twin Spin (Shakespeare’s Sonnets)

Author: Ulrike Draesner
Translator: Tom Cheesman


Translator’s Preface:
Ulrike Draesner’s ‘radical translations’ (seventeen of which are included in: to change the subject) were prompted by news of Dolly, the cloned lamb. In “Twin Spin” the dialogue of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, with their immortality-seeking, self-swapping subjects, continues in a near-future scenario drenched in artificial light, among clones – post-reproductive, post-human beings – and clone-makers.

The technological sublime is a recurrent, dystopian theme in Draesner’s poetry and fiction. The feasibility of replicating artefactual ‘dividuals’ threatens to abolish ‘natefactuality’ – difference engendered in natural, sexual generation(s) – and the beauty of ‘imperfect’, unforeseen recombinations. Such seems to be the power-dream of the medico-military-industrial complex.

Transplanting the poems back into English, I try to preserve/persevere with Draesner’s procedures of playfully misconstruing meanings, recombining letters, mimicking genetic translation/transcription errors (and/DNA); if not quite to her ill-imitable degree.

die stunden, die mit weichem mull den rahmen spannten
deines blicks, in dem so gern ein fremdes auge schwimmt,
werden die transplanteure geben, als sich, an dich,
und ausgeleuchtet wird, was das leuchtendste übertraf:
die in atomen tickende zeit überführt den sommer
in strahlenderen winter, und zergründet ihn dort:
saft, im kühlschrank erstarrt, fleischige membranen, welk,
schönheit überkrustet von frost, nacktheit, an jedem ort:
stünde dann nicht das destillat des sommers im fach,
flüssiger gefangener zwischen wänden und gas,
wäre die fruchtblase der schönheit durch schönheit zerstoben
weder sie, noch erinnerung bliebe, daran, was war.
     aber blumenartiges, extrahiert, in den winter geschoben,
     schwappt als zellcode, milchiger saft, die zukunft ans glas.

those hours that spun soft gauze to frame your gaze
in which an alter eye so gladly swims
will gift the transplanters, as themselves, to you,
arc-lighting what out-shone the fullest flood;
in atoms ticking time renders over summer
to glow-in-the-darker winter, and there unbases it:
juice, rimed in the fridge, tissuey membranes, perishing,
beauty hoar-crusted, nakedness in each space:
stood the distillate of summer not in the chill-box then,
a liquid kept prisoner by walls and coolant gas,
were beauty’s uberty to ‘ve been by beauty vaporized,
neither it nor memory ‘d be left of what was.
    but flower-like-ness, extract of, rammed into the wintry freeze,
    sloshes as cell-code, milky juice, the future against the glass.

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel;
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter, and confounds him there;
Sap checked with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness every where:
Then were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was:
     But flowers distill’d, though they with winter meet,
     Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.
mein auge hat sich zum agenten des silbers gemacht, die konturen
deiner helligkeit auf die bromoxide meines innersten receivers geprägt;
mein körper ist der rahmen, der dieses negativ hält,
entfernung und schnitt heißen die kunst dessen, der filmt.
denn durch den, der die kamera führt, bemerke das kleben des auges,
in der beobachterabhängigen welt, unter der dein wirkliches bild begraben liegt
und lügt, es, der hund, der im schnellimbiß meiner brust den schwanz reckt,
die teleschirme seiner augen überzogen mit deinem aufnahmegesicht.
nun schau, wieviele gute drehs augen für augen gemacht haben:
meine augen haben deine dna-linie entrollt, und deine sind
die cyberfenster meiner brust, durch die die halogene der
op-sonnen ihre peep-show halten, und dadurch in dich schaun;
     doch augen bewegen ihr wollen zu künstlichen kronen, töricht,
     halten sie fest, was sie sehen, kennen das unbelichtete nicht.
my eye became silver’s agent, fixing your brightness-
contours onto my innermost receptor’s bromoxide;
this negative, my body frames and montages it,
cutting out and to being the quick of the film-maker’s art.
for through the cameraman’s, the eye, d’you see, ‘s stuck fast
in the world of observer-dependency, beneath which your image, the true
one, lies, cur, rod-tailed in the snack-bar of my breast yet,
its eyes’ hdtv screens glazed with your picturing look.
just see how many tricks eyes have turned for eyes:
mine have untangled the line of your dna, and your eyes are
the windows (© microsoft) of my breast, through which the o.t.’s
halogen suns perform their peep-show, peeking in at you;
     yet eyes their wanting draw toward coronas artificed,
     they capture but the seen, what’s unlit gets missed.
Mine eye hath play’d the painter and hath steel’d,
Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart;
My body is the frame wherein ’tis held,
And perspective it is best painter’s art.
For through the painter must you see his skill,
To find where your true image pictur’d lies,
Which in my bosom’s shop is hanging still,
That hath his windows glazed with thine eyes.
Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have done:
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, where-through the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee;
     Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art,
     They draw but what they see, know not the heart.
wenn, ausgespuckt vom glück, kriechend vor menschlichen
augen, allein, ich, meine verwerfungen bewein’,
und den krebsstrahlenden deckel der welt mit meinen
unbootbaren schreien in betrieb setze,
und mich selbst ansehe, und mich verfluche, wenn ich
mich mir wünsche wie ihn, um eine hoffnung reicher,
mit zügen wie er, wie er von freunden besetzt,
des einen können begehre, des anderen spielprogramm,
mit dem, was ich am meisten genieße, am unzufriedensten, ich;
denke ich bei diesen selbstverachtungsgedanken dann
verschlagen-zufällig an dich – sofort singt
mein zustand (wie die condor am anbruch des tages
vom asphalt hebt) hymnen vor diesem cybertelefon;
     erinnerung an deine zukünftige liebe bringt mir die jetons
     eines selbst, das ich mit dir gern tauschte, mein königsich, mein glasstabklon.
when, stuck in luck’s spittoon, in people’s eyes
a worm, alone, me, for my being cast down, i weep,
and boot the failed sarcoma-glowing sieve above the world with my
404 cries, and look at myself, and curse me, when i’m
wishing me a me like him, one hope the richer,
with looks like him, like him beset with friends,
craving this one’s skills, and that one’s game software,
what i get most out of least enjoying, me;
if though i, mid my self-loathing thought-routines, then
happen wilily to set my mind on you – at once my mental health
sings (like the aérospatiale alouette at daybreak lifting
off the tarmac) phone-phreak hymns à la bill gates;
     remembering your future love, i rake the chips in that’ll let me own
     a self i’d gladly swap with you, king-ego mine, my glass-rod-clone.
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
     For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
     That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
wie wellen sich vorkämpfen an ölpockigen strand,
so rasen unsre minuten ihrem ende zu;
mit der vorgängerin tauscht jede den platz, robben,
gengestört, stürzen sie sich die klippen hinab.
daß wir natefakte sind rückt erst jetzt ins rampenlicht,
die halbe glückshaube der geburt, die krumme chromosomen
verdeckt – wenig glorios, unser zeugungsroulette.
den jugendjubelrausch als helixtausch fixiert
die zeit uns ins gesicht und konsumiert frisch von der leber
weg das wahrheitsspiel natur, “frei” traben wir
im anthropark dahin; selbst heu weiß dort, was züchtung heißt.
     drum, du natefakt, ab in meinen letterntrakt,
     grauer samen? quatsch, ich nehme dich im achteltakt.
like waves fighting up a crude-moiled beach
our minutes race toward their end;
each places with its predecessor swaps, seal-pups,
gene-messed, they lemm themselves from off the cliffs.
that we are natefactual is only now spot-lit,
birth’s half auspicious caul that shrouds
crooked chromosomes – rather base, our beget-roulette.
youth’s zesty glee’s a trade of helices time fixes
on our cheeks and makes no bones about consuming
truth and dare game nature, “free”ly we trot about our
anthropark; even oats here know what breeding means.
     so, you natefact, drop down into my compositor’s tray,
     dismal jism? drop your iambic pants, mater, come let’s play.
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,
Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
     And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand
     Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
der liebesfilm, in dem ich schwimme, ist ein fieber,
das begehrt, was den verfall fiebrig fördert,
und sich von dem nährt, was das ungesunde füttert,
um der flimmernden androiden lust zu gefallen.
mein verstand, ehemals der regisseur dieser takes,
hat, ärgerlich, daß das schneiden nicht schneller ging,
mich verlassen, und ich, verzweifelt, weiß nun,
begehren bedeutet tod, auch wenn die regie den körper davon ausnimmt.
bin, als machbares, jenseits der möglichkeit, einen schritt zurückzumachen,
und frenetisch, verrückt, unruhig, endlos
meine gedanken und mein diskurs wie-der-der-verrückt-
en zufällig hie, da, im film der zerschnittenen wahrheit gedacht:
     denn ich habe geschworen, du seist hell, und glaubte, du leuchtest,
     du, ein schwarzes loch, unbeherrschbar, endlos, die spirale der macht.
the love film i’m at sea in is a fever
desiring what is feverish for decay
and feeding on what nourishes ill-health
to tickle ciné-androids’ xeno-fancy.
my mind, the ex-director of these clips,
annoyed because the editing dragged on,
has left me, and now i despairing know
desire means death, albeit the auteur may keep the body out of frame.
i’m, as a doable, past stopping to double back,
and frenetically, madly, restlessly relentless
my thoughts and my discourse as of the re-mad-(e)-
dened, chancing here, there, in the film of cut-and-pasted truth to go;
     for i swore by your brightness, and thought you were aglow,
     you, a black hole, illimitable, the coil of power’s laminar flow.
My love is as a fever longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed;
     For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
     Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
From Ulrike Draesner, to change the subject, Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2000.

What’s coming?

Author: Volker Braun
Translator: Tom Cheesman


As Jorge, grubby, tired, still on the lookout on Avenida Atlântica, his business taken care of, put out his empty hand (this was a tick) in front of a passer-by, like a hungry tongue or as proof of his useless, dangerous existence, this man, instead of avoiding him on his slim, pointed shoes, gave him a penetrating look and grabbed him with his little paws: Borges, thus assaulted, at once rebelliously weary of it! and somewhat under the influence of the beer drunk hastily at the barraca, took firm hold of the young bastard by his thin brown arm and led him, after an exchange: what’s your name, how old are you, almost violently over the road and straight up to an entrance and steered the struggling figure past the porter into the shiny lift which slid up to the top floor.

Borges pushed the boy through several iron doors into the studio. He let the phone ring (the whole world was wanting to know how he was); he concentrated on his shocked guest. A cross-breed, face closed, experienced, little arms with great chiselled hands, knees covered in scabs. The t-shirt hung out of the trousers, the trainers in shreds. Have you no decency? asked Borges and ignored the question, the basics were called for. Have you eaten? Wash yourself, he said and opened the bathroom door for the lad, and Jorge, unsure of the old man’s intentions, undressed with challenging slowness. Borges mixed the water and poured in an essence which he whipped to foam. Wash, he ordered, from crown to sole. Jorge followed his instructions unwillingly, was rinsed under a cold shower and had to rub himself dry with a large soft towel, which the master folded onto his shoulders. Then Borges brought him clothes, his slight old body matched the boy’s, and he had to get into the trousers and jacket, fighting back tears of shame. He did not like these preparations; and for what? Borges meanwhile, in a small windowless room, set out plates and glasses and prepared a meagre supper, sternly commanding the suddenly shy boy to help himself. And discovered, in Jorge’s fist, which he must have kept closed through the entire proceedings, a razorblade, and Jorge, caught out, untouchable, smiled winningly.

At this moment it became clear to Borges that he would not be sending this catch away, not today nor tomorrow. He had to share his flat with the beast. They were in a trap; their reflexes had stumbled them into it; each opaque to the other. Just seventy or eighty years divided them, they were contemporaries. In the long run (Borges thought generously) they couldn’t avoid each other. They need only survive the night.

He showed the boy a place to sleep and lay down in his room. Jorge expected the unexpected and searched for his belongings, but could not find them in the huge room. He came across piles of books, table tops, a rack on which tracing paper rustled. What was he here for? He was not in the habit of doing somebody else’s will. Others, older ones were obsessed with that; when they were out of it, they didn’t care, stoned they did it. On the beach, at Posto 8, a man had offered him money, more and more, till he could resist no longer. It was a way of making money without commitments. To earn his reais by stealing or short-changing demanded more thought and daring. That was ruling over events. – He shifted about on the bed in the soft outfit; did he have to take it off, did it belong to him? Adverse questions. The collar smelled indefinably sweet, he thrust his neck out. Where should he piss? He needed a piss. But he feared that the master might hear his clumsiness. There had been no talk of money, was he cheating him? To be tricked, abused, was despicable to him. Tomorrow, early, he will force the conclusion, he thought angrily, until sleep overcame him.

In the morning an immense brightness surrounded him. He was lying under the sky, yet in a bed. An endless window let it in; even the walls shone. Jorge got up quickly and gazed into the open room. Two young men, bent over tables, stared over to him smiling. He stood unhappily in his outfit, a figure of mockery. How to defend himself? But Borges appeared. This is Jorge, he said. These are my assistants, Joâo, Osman. And turning to him: Tudo bem? – All right, replied Jorge. Good, said Borges seriously. You know where the bathroom is. Jorge cautiously opened the tap and held his fingers beneath it. He heard the old guy give the men instructions, they waved their arms over great white sheets of paper hanging on yard-arms like sails. The room seemed to fly. Ready, my friend? Borges asked, disapprovingly. Your breakfast is on the table. Don’t keep me waiting tomorrow. Jorge chewed these completely incomprehensible sentences. White bread, butter, cheese, honey, a glass of milk. He hated all the unpleasantness. He stood more than sat, ready to flee.

After an hour, left in peace – he had listened to the noises, the swish of pencils on paper, the phone calls, a strange sense of wellbeing was keeping him on the hard chair – he heard Borges say: What’s to become of you? What do you reckon, Senhor? Was he talking to one of the men? But they were looking at him. And Borges was standing in front of him: Speak. The boy leapt to the door. What do you want? asked the old man / the boy: What do you want?

I’ll tell you, Borges replied sternly. I want to get out on the street, Jorge returned. To beg? Bad. Jorge defiantly shook his head. To steal? He looked coldly into the old man’s eyes. That’s better. But it doesn’t pay, huh? – I don’t steal, Jorge murmured. – You steal time, bread, air. They stood facing, Borges with his hands in his pockets, Jorge also hiding his, and eyes to the floor. I want you to listen to me. We can talk man to man. We know the world … What’s the worst thing you’ve done? – Thing I’ve done? – Your worst crime. Jorge, unexpectedly, reflected. Running away from his mother: that was bad no doubt. When he was eight and fed up with starving. They searched for him for weeks in the morros, in the hipermercados. Thinking more harshly, selling his sister’s innocence, Julita, for 1500 reais. To Dantas the fish-seller in Lemo, giving her half. He stood with cheeks burning, yet saying nothing; Borges nodded at him, hearing nothing. No, said Borges, the worst crime is that you cannot read and write. Jorge kept quiet, he despised stupid talk. The worst is what’s coming… Borges freed him from the door, no resistance in his sinews. My worst deed – Borges laughed: voting for that sonofabitch Cardoso. Believing what he said … He crossed to the easel and drew a line. This is the land. This is a house. This is a school. Believing is the worst, when it’s possible to know. That they cheat you, Senhor. The landless of their land. Jorge was smiling too; this man-to-man talk made him dizzy. His voice weak, he called: I want to go! – That would be a crime, thought Borges, to let you go. If I were to send you away, huh?

The black maid came and Borges gave her the keys and the boy to watch, and went “to take care of something”. He lived high above but he had to walk the earth. He would stand in the noisy streets, when the shadows ran beneath the buildings and the outlines emerged clearly, and let his body be suffused. The din, the smells marinaded his senses, a humbling addiction of his. He had always returned to Rio, from continents. Nowhere was more beautiful and more fearsome. The city grew along the bays, up the hillsides. Cardoso, to get himself elected, had opened up the morros, so now homelessness was rampant. From his drawing-board Borges could see into the favelas. A restlessness in him needed the view upon misery. – As usual he went up the Ladeira do Leme and through the rubble across to Babilônia. The stench of excrement and putrid sludge; corrugated iron huts, plank architecture. The President has expressed mocking sympathy. The Plano real is redeveloping finer zones. Aldaiza’s door was open; Borges entered in silence. He avoided formalities, politeness, waste of time. A few lines must make much clear. Aldaiza was a whore, Borges the customer; a young thing of fifty years. So fair a marriage he had never had. They knew what they wanted from one another. They lay down under the dim roof. This lustful hour lengthened his life. But it was a game one had to pay for. They determined the stakes, but not the rules. POOR AND RICH, that was the rule of the world.

The rule was: him or me. Jorge, when he recognised that the old man was no threat, wondered what worse lay behind his taking. He could not imagine what kind of interest he had in him. Childish fuss; had the old man forgotten certain elementary things? That he, in this outfit, could not go out on the street. That this was no clothing for earning his bread in. That in the boys’ eyes, he would be exposed. And if he remained absent, would lose the power over them which he owed to his cleverness. He would no longer rule over events. – He stopped at a window, vexed; the city, in it his shimmering figure. He was afraid of entering another world. – He had to tell what had happened to him. Where he had come. There, behind the shimmering glass. He had inspected paradise; where he has access.

Teresa, the black maid, was washing up glasses. How could he get out unnoticed? Jorge went up to her from behind and pressed, setting his fantastic strength against the weariness of the girl’s, her throat shut with his lower arm. Teresa, shocked rigid, let him take the keys from her pocket and slide her, on leaden feet, to the door. The men in the next room heard nothing. Blood shot from Teresa’s nose onto his hand, her arms waved uselessly behind him. He let her free, showing his razorblade, she knelt on the floor gasping, while he sorted through the keys. There! he smiled. Stop, said Theresa. He took the key out of the opened door and placed it in his mouth, and laid the razorblade upon his accomplice’s tongue. How quiet she kept! about their betrothal; he ran down the stairs.

Borges, coming back, saw that his boarder had disappeared. Joâo and Osman gave him the bad news. They held Teresa in their arms, he poured her a glass of wine. – A dreadful lad, he’ll end on the gallows / the needle. – He’d taken him into his heart, could he become indifferent at the first opportunity? He must hold out a little in the face of the lout’s moods. But Borges was suddenly tired, he sent the assistants home. He stood before the sheets with their (his) sketches. He drew a line.

He: was ninety, he had walked through the century. The century has done what could be thought.

The boy: nine; a millennium, they were saying, was beginning.

Where was the connection? – As stated, everything had been tried. Inventions, plans, wars. Unheard-of puttings-into-practice, annihilations. On every continent, every idea had been exhausted. There had been words which now meant nothing: revolución in Mexico, socialismo in Peru, it had always been capitalism. In Russia they dreamed and ranted one more epoch. Globalization, that was the new belief. Never and nowhere had the ground which needed overturning been arrived at. – And after everything had been, and no hope had remained, the question was: What is coming?

Borges lay awake all night. Stupidity is coming, forgetting. He had no need to ask Osman and Joâo, his collaborators. They were decent creatures, set on his track. There was nothing to fear from them nor to expect. To them he could not make himself understood. The next to come, the children, would give the answer, the unknown ones, the monsters. They needed teaching, what’s uncertain mercilessly pointing out. The line so firm that it represents a possibility, and so thin that it offers no permanent solution.

Or a line beneath it, through it – . Borges was capable of tearing up this sheet: and on the contrary of saying that almost nothing yet was, had yet been thought. That there was no intelligence at all in things as they stand! And things as they stand, in sheer desperation, without lying in slogans, elementarily, call to uproar. Nothing endures; and what imagines itself secure has within it the germ of dissolution: outrage. A crude joy seized him; are not the best buildings built on ruins, and the price of living is death. The shining wall of tin / Cans, iron rations / Of consciousness, devoured / By the hunger for truth / That’s what’s for supper, camarade.

He heard a scraping, scrambling from the direction of the lift, subdued fighting. He lay falling asleep on the wire-frame bed, too weak to get up and investigate. Who was coming so uncouthly into the house? He was dreaming, or was he seeing ghosts? What was the noise of the world to him? A key slid into the lock, and the door sprang open. A cold sweat ran over his body. Come on in then, show yourselves, crooks, comrades. He caught confused sight of his pale jacket, his own figure, and, as he sat up in panic, Jorge’s face, turned towards him: Jorge, his hands stretched out behind him, was pressing back against the mob pushing him – so it was Jorge! was he trying to protect him from them or leading them to him as they ran the boy down; and at once strangely encouraged and weary to death, for now what is coming was not up to him, Borges sank, his left against the wall, his right on the floor, back, facing


From Das Wirklichgewollte by Volker Braun
© Suhrkamp Verlag, 2000
Translation © Tom Cheesman