On the train I heard her say …

Author: Ulrike Draesner
Translator: Tom Morrison

she’d got a new favourite play
nathan the wise. thin blonde hair
a double chin, puppy fat. or maybe
something else that had taken wing
during her search for a home and was
lodged there temporarily, inside that ring, I
thought of lessing, how from his library he’d walked
to braunschweig most evenings
12 kilometres straight ahead the forest
was already there. skint? and he drank
drank till he could drink no more, gambled
till he lost, had lost the lot. stayed over
other nights walked 12 kilometres through
darkness and the standing of trees. cracking
twigs. glow-worms lugged silence into the
grass. enlightenment, dawning? those heavenly hounds
were running so fast. no whining to be heard. such
he told himself is the dawn in my own garden.
so I am entwined with myself like the braided forest.

From  berührte orte © Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 2008

Snail Mill

Author: Jochen Schmidt
Translator: Tom Morrison

The GDR, summer 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. For Jens, 14, it will be his last summer at the holiday camp Schneckenmühle (Snail Mill). The coming-of-age story tells of his friendship with Peggy, a fellow misfit.

I have to wait a long time before I’m sure they’re all asleep. In films the giants always snore in such situations, so people know what to look for. In comics it’s even better because Zs of various sizes come rising out of their mouths. I struggle to stay awake by opening my eyes as wide as I can and pinching my cheeks, but I keep nodding off all the same. If I was musical I could sing something in my head and leave out the end, like Mozart did as a child, and then his father would wake up and run to the piano and play the final chord. With the utmost caution I slide out of the bed without waking Wolfgang. I sneak out of the bungalow and once I’m outside I start putting my clothes on over my pyjamas. While doing so I put one foot down on the metal doormat and the nearly scream in pain. There’s no lookout on the bridge. We’d arranged to meet behind the stone house, next to Grandpa Schulze’s meadow. My sneakers are immediately soaking wet from the grass. Peggy’s already waiting for me. Actually, I’m hoping she’s not serious; I don’t want to be caught and sent home. But she really does start walking, and I follow. We don’t say a word until the camp has disappeared behind a corner.

“Don’t we need provisions?” I whisper.

“I’ve got alphabet biscuits and mints.”

“Can I have one?”

She passes me the tube of mints.

“I prefer lemon.”

I slide two mints under my upper lip so they look like rabbits’ teeth.

“Wuz you hopin’ for carrots too?”

Peggy bursts out laughing; it’s the first time I’ve seen her laugh. She sounds like a guinea pig squeaking as she splits her sides.

So how will we get to Liebstadt? Hitch a lift? There are no cars on the road at night. And if there was, nobody would see us, and even if somebody did, they wouldn’t stop. And it would be kind of scary – how are we supposed to know who’s sitting inside the car? We can’t decide whether to hide if a car comes along or to flag it down.

“We ought to think up false names, and a code word so we can find each other if we get separated. Like Lenin did, he called himself after the Lena, his favourite river. Stalin’s the ‘man of steel’ and Gorky’s the ‘embittered one’ because he was so saddened by the suffering of the exploited.”

“I want to be Papagena.”

“And I’ll be Pankin because I grew up by the Panke.”

“That’s no good. If I’m Papagena you have to be Papageno.”

“Isn’t he a clown or something?”

“No, the name’s from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”

“It wouldn’t do for the others to find out we know classical music.”

“I won’t tell them.”

“Imagine if we got tortured.”

“I’d tell them everything straight away.”

“You need to jab needles under your fingernails as practice for enduring anything they do to you.”

“The fascists once cut a partisan’s tongue off then stuck it back in his mouth. Then they kept him gagged till the tongue went rotten.”

“You wouldn’t be able to eat ice cream anymore.”

“Couldn’t you just bite bits off?”

“But the tongue’s there to warm up the ice cream while it’s still in your mouth. The digestive process begins in the mouth.”

“Not being able to speak is a lot worse, if you ask me.”

“Like Lassie, you mean.”

“If they send dogs out after us we’ll need to cross a river.”

“Unless one of us is brave enough to distract them with the smell of blood.”

It’s started to drizzle. Should we borrow Dennis’s method and dodge straight through the drops? Suddenly the trees reflect a fast-moving shadow. It’s a car approaching round the next bend, but it could also be an optical illusion, it might really be two motorbikes driving side by side. Peggy sticks her hand out. A green truck passes, very slowly, the yellow sign at the back reads “????”. Fortunately, the truck doesn’t stop. Only then, a hundred metres down the road, it does. Is it because of us? We’re not sure whether to go running up to it or run for our lives.

A man with a shaved head and another man with cropped black hair; they’re standing in front of the truck inspecting the engine. When they spot us they shine a torch on our faces. Taking no chances we stop in our tracks, and I put my hands up. They shout something – we don’t know if they want us to keep walking. The man with the torch is coming towards us and I regret ever leaving with Peggy, ever coming to Schneckenmühle, ever being born. After the war Grandma Rakete used to keep a knuckle-duster on her bedside table just in case drunken Russians called by. One time one of them smashed a pane and reached inside for the door-handle. My uncle dashed to the nearby barracks and fetched an officer. He floored the soldier with a single punch.

The man lowers his torch. CA is printed in Russian on his epaulettes, it’s always surprised me that they don’t find it odd themselves, considering SA means “Sturmabteilung”. The torch man appears to be an officer, the other one a private.

“Kaputt?” I ask.

“Nix kaputt,” the officer says.

“Liebstadt?” I say.

“Ich liebe dich!” the officer chortles. I hope he isn’t drunk.

The soldier unplugs a cable and bites into it, removing the insulating rubber with his teeth then spitting it out. He repeats the procedure with another cable, and knots them together where the wires are exposed. Another thing you can do is thread empty ink cartridges over the cables to protect them against corrosion. I’m always noting those kinds of things that never come in useful.

The officer points to himself and says, “Sergey Ivanovich.” He points to the soldier behind the wheel: “Ivan Sergeyevich.”

“Zdravstvuite,” I say. “Menya zovut Jens. Eto Peggy. Druzhba. Vi na Liebstadt?”

“Liebstadt? Da, da, poshli.”

The seat in the driver’s cab is wide enough for us two along with the private and the officer. There’s a wooden frame with counting beads on the dashboard. The soldier tries to start the engine, the officer explains various buttons and levers needing to be pressed and operated in a certain order. The truck starts up with a jerk; evidently the soldier is in the middle of learning to drive. The pair of them don’t look Russian at all, more like the Mongolian racing cyclists who always come in last in the Race of Peace. “??????” is printed on the officer’s wristwatch.

What did we learn in Russian lessons at school? I try to remember some words or sentences. “Druzhba narodov”, friendship of nations, and “Gonka Vooruzheniy”, arms race. I wonder if they can roll a papirossi out of makhorka with one hand in their pocket? The word ????? is emblazoned on the dashboard. I’m sure that means butter. What’s butter doing there? I point to the word and say, “Eto maslo?” “Maslo,” the officer laughs, “maladyets!”

Mind-boggling, I said a Russian word and he understood it. It really does work! A really strange feeling to realize you spark off something inside somebody else’s head by saying a word that’s already in there but for you it’s just something you learned. There was one sentence I haven’t forgotten: “Ya sobirayu nakleiki ot spichechnykh karobok” – “I collect matchbox labels.” Maybe I can juggle the words round a bit and come up with something more useful?

Suddenly Peggy sings: “Chunga, Changa, siniy nebosvod, Chunga, Changa, lyeto krugligod…”

The two Russians sigh and put their hands up to their hearts. They want Peggy to keep singing. The officer has tears in his eyes. I’m afraid they might have forgotten where we want to get dropped off. But we’re moving so slowly we could equally well jump out of the truck and make a run for it.

“Jens? Davai!” The soldier is pointing at the steering wheel.

“I can’t drive.”

“Nichevo. Davai!”

He wants me to take the steering wheel. The soldier throws his arms up and has a good stretch. He pats his cheek and tilts his head to show how tired he is. He also expects me to keep my foot on the accelerator. I can’t believe I’m steering the truck, up to now I only ever got to steer a dodgem car, but the two or three times I did one of the big boys jumped in and grabbed the wheel off me. For safety’s sake I drive in such a way that the wheels gobble up the broken white line the same way Pac-Man would devour a row of pac-dots. My palms are sweaty. I bet nobody I know has ever done anything like this. I better watch I don’t end up impaled upon the steering column if we crash into something.

Maybe they’re still larking about but the two of them look like they really are asleep now. I could sound the horn, but where is it? My father has never sounded his horn once, although we’re always asking him to, but it’s only allowed in absolute emergencies. Are you supposed to thump the steering wheel? Or press one of the levers? I can’t spot any trumpet symbol in the dark. I imitate the kind of honk the old car makes in The Waltons. It doesn’t wake either of them up. Maybe that just means they’re pretending to sleep. What was it historical leaders always did to tell the difference? In a poem by Bertolt Brecht a worker says “Ilyich, the exploiters are coming” to the corpse of Lenin in order to check that he really is dead. I look at Peggy, begging her to tell me what to do. Soon we’ll be in the town and I don’t know what you do at traffic junctions. Don’t Russian trucks always have the right of way? A man my parents worked with waited in his Trabi for ages at a forest crossroads because he wanted to let a column of tanks go past, and when he finally turned off he got flattened by a straggler. Peggy gets the alphabet biscuits out of her bag and opens the pack. She holds a B up to the officer’s nose. His teeth come snapping for it without his eyes opening.

Stopping appears to be the most difficult part. The buttons and levers are explained to the soldier again, and after a hundred metres the truck comes to a stop, this time right next to a Wartburg, at the entry to a forest. The officer and the soldier get out, we duck our heads down. A man with greasy permed hair down past his shoulders, but the fringe cut exactly above his eyebrows, is standing beside the car. He stretches his hand out to the officer. I try to see what they’re doing in the rear mirror, but it’s too dark to make anything out properly. The soldier unscrews something from the truck, sticks a hose into a hole and starts to suck on the other end. Is he drinking petrol? I thought people just made that up. He sticks the other end of the hose into the Wartburg’s tank. The soldier is collecting stones at the side of the path. The hose fills up several petrol cans in succession. Finally, the soldier puts the hose back in the boot and we hear a series of dull thuds, clonk, clonk… clonk, as stones go dropping into the tank.

“Something else kaputt?” asks Peggy.

“I don’t know.”

Sergey Ivanovich and the man walk over to the boot of the Wartburg. They haul out a big sack with something moving inside it. Together they drag it round the back of the truck, and then we hear a dull thump followed by piercing squeals that only stop when the noise of the engine drowns them out.

When we stop in Liebstadt Sergey Ivanovich hands me a tin of fish and a grey-coloured pack – he wants me to help myself to a cigarette. It’s got a cardboard tube for a filter. Is tobacco more healthy if it’s kept one centimetre away from the lips? Or could it be because it’s so cold in the Soviet Union? In the winter there, total strangers sometimes jump on people and rub snow into their faces because their noses are in danger of freezing and dropping off. It’s a form of good manners there. But it’s a dry cold, meaning you can eat ice cream even when the temperature is below zero. That’s what Irina says at least, and she spent the first few years of her life in Moscow. She laughed her head off at me during a lesson once because I thought the Metro connected up all the cities in Russia.




“I didn’t know you spoke Russian so well,” I say to Peggy.

“I like the letters, most of all the ?, it looks like a beetle.”

The phone box on Republic Square stinks of urine. You have to keep the door open with your foot to avoid suffocating.

“I hope it’s working,” says Peggy.

I lift the heavy black receiver, hear the dialling tone, “duduut… duduut… duduut…”, Morse code for the letter A.

“Got twenty pfennigs on you?” I ask.

“I bet it costs more to phone Dresden.”

“Fifty pfennigs then. Or even better a mark. I once heard you can dangle the coin on a piece of string somehow and phone for free but you’d need to drill a hole in it first.”

She kisses her mark coin for luck, pushes it into the slot and dials a number. A woman’s voice says, “The number you have dialled is invalid… The number you have dialled is invalid…” She hangs up; the coin doesn’t drop back out.

“Maybe you should have said, ‘Operator, please’?”

“You got any more money?”

“All I’ve got is a mark as well. Maybe a button would do it?”

Somebody outside raps on the glass and we freeze in terror.

“Looking for something to vandalize?” says Grandpa Schulze.

“No, we need to make a call.”

“Are you out on a night-time ramble?”

“No, we just need to make a call. It’s very urgent. But there seems to be something wrong with the number.”

We follow him through the village. I’m glad he’s not carrying his scythe. Hardly any windows are lit up. All the shutters are down, like the people are hiding. I know the village from visits with the group but it feels odd to be here without the rest of them; the places where we stood around look so empty. There’s a bit of noise coming from one building only, and that’s the Green Tree, the pub we always buy ice cream in. It smells of sick outside. We follow Grandpa Schulze into the bar. The door really does open outwards, like pub doors always do, so that you can get out the door even if you’re drunk. Apart from the woman behind the bar there are only men in the place. The air is smoky, there’s a sour smell of beer, like there used to be in Friedrichshain when our kindergarten group walked past one of the working men’s pubs. Grandpa Schulze takes us over to the table reserved for the regulars. “You two sit yourselves down.”

The old men are playing skat. Cigarette stubs are budged between their lips. Are they smoking Puck, the famous brand said to be so cheap? The one that really stinks? When serving, they smack their cards against the table with their fists like hammering down nails. I find myself wondering if they’ve still got legs underneath the table. Strangely, everyone in the place is drinking out of paper cups.

“So where did they come from?” one man asks.

“Schneckenmühle,” Grandpa Schulze replies.


“Only me. She lives in Dresden.”

“If you want to Draysdane come, stick a finger up your bum.”

“You been gobbling up all our Dresden cake?”

“I’d got half a pound of butter, frozen stiff,” the old man next to me says. He’s got no teeth left and a rubber ring round his pipe to stop it falling out of his mouth. The other men’s teeth are long and yellow, with gaps between them. Their skin looks like they’ve spent their lives out in the rain, with the wind blowing hard. Maybe they’re sailors? If they were you’d be able to tell by the way they walked, because they’d have got used to levelling out the ship’s rocking and lose their balance on firm ground as a result. I look about for a telephone. Maybe we should make a quick getaway? But not a lot can happen as long as Grandpa Schulze is here. I regret not having said I came from Dresden too and never getting Peggy to teach me the Saxon accent. You have to keep your jaw slack or something like that and jut it out at the same time.

A man comes into the bar, his red face all swollen like he’s been sleeping out in the woods. It’s the man who was waiting by his Wartburg at the roadside. He goes up to the landlady and holds out his hands, in which he’s got a pile of small change: “Roswitha, get me drunk, will you.”

The landlady pours beer into a paper cup, but the man calmly pushes her hand aside. “A glass for the cultivated beer drinker, if you don’t mind.”

“But we’re expecting the Russians.”

“They won’t be coming tonight.”

“Get your finger out, Ingo,” says the one they call Renz. He’s the youngest of the group, he’s got long black curls and the name Gerlinde tattooed on his arm.

Ingo knocks on the table, the others follow suit. That’s the way people greet each other in pubs so they don’t have to say Good Evening to all the punters separately. He eyes us suspiciously. “Do I smell milk pudding?”

“From the capital.”

“Capital. Of what?”

“The girl’s from Draysdane,” Renz says.

Ingo bends over Peggy and snuffles at her face. “Pudding seems just right…”

“We just need to make a phone-call, her mother’s in hospital,” I say.

“Then go back to Berlin, there’s phones there.”

“There’s no time, she’s very ill.”

“What’s wrong with her?”


It was the only disease I could come up with so quick. Ingo doesn’t bother answering, just joins the other men. He’s lost interest in us. They play skat, and I don’t know if there’s any point in waiting for Grandpa Schulze to remember about the phone.

“Did you get the roofing felt?” Renz asks.

“Nichevo. I’ve had it up to here. Wish I’d stayed in the camp.”





From  Schneckenmühle © Verlag C.H. Beck, München, 2013 (ISBN: 978-3-406-64698-0)

camekân sokağı

Author: Achim Wagner
Translator: Tom Morrison

number three.

on makeshift steps
i remain out of mind
just a meter of impression
exact cherry mounds they come
floating past
on a pushcart vendor’s song
in front of serial stools
the verifiable click-clacking
of dice
just as the button expelled
by a startling shirt
goes glancing off flagstones

two matching cubes dissolve in tea

(camekân sokağı = showcase lane)

Original © Achim Wagner
Translation © Tom Morrison


Author: Ralf Rothmann
Translator: Tom Morrison

… and found them sleeping for sorrow. The first words of the day, a sentence marked by a line in the margin of the ribbon-tailed book that was a gift from Marie, and the sun is rising behind the row of chestnuts that line Fontane-Promenade, where nobody is yet to be seen, not even a dog, just a magpie hopping along the strip of sand that runs down the middle, anxiously followed by an elongated shadow. The clock by the bed, a tiny Peruvian alarm clock sunk into a shoe, has stopped; judging by the light it would have rung in an hour.
Crows, huge swarms of them in varying formations, are flying over the rooftop, absolving their daily flight to Hasenheide park. The rooms are bright already, the water almost warm, and after a few cursory brushstrokes the menthol-free toothpaste drops cleanly from his mouth – the moment in which he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and begins again the day he thought he’d got through yesterday.
And found them sleeping. A gulp of tea at the kitchen table, the radio, two minutes of the news, forecasts of still higher temperatures for this record-breaking summer; down on Blücherstrasse the limes look dusty, ripples have appeared on the green plastic covering of the sports ground, and he prefers not to think about the fumes it gives off in the heat of midday. Never an animal to be seen on it, no birds, none of the rats so plentiful in the nearby bushes.
Shoes to be cleaned, a backpack to fill, wallet and keys to find. Not a trace of drowsiness although the night was short, no superfluous fumbling, a gravity previously unknown to him focusing every movement, even the buttoning of the blue shirt given to him by Marie. He locks his door and crosses the hallway, opens the door to her flat, two rooms opening onto the backyard. Her place is smaller than his, tidier, the whole place overshadowed by a birch, and Raul goes into the bedroom and takes down from the wall her icon, Saint Anna, hardly bigger than a credit card. Like everything else, the white handkerchief in which he wraps the likeness has been ironed.
He takes eight minutes to reach the pool; barely any traffic at that time of day, only a few bikes leaning against the wall, and the ticket-office is still closed. Men and women, about a dozen of them, are waiting at the gates, the fat retired couple at the front of the queue. Armed with cool boxes, newspapers and a transistor radio, the pair plant themselves on the patio of the café until the pool closes at eight, eating and drinking the whole time, solving one crossword puzzle after another, and never, no matter how hot the day, going near the water. Their muscular, lean companions flicking through their Filofaxes are here most mornings around the same time, absolve their lengths from seven to shortly before eight, then race off on bicycles or more sophisticated conveyances possessing over twenty gears and electronic locks.
Monthly passes flash as the gate swings open, then the dash to the changing rooms begins, some men unbuttoning their shirts en route, and Raul too tosses his backpack into an open locker, number fifty-three as usual. Bathing trunks, goggles, the armband with the key, and following a quick, cold shower the first disappointment: the athletes’ pool is closed for cleaning. Amidst grumbles and mutters the others proceed to the second pool, the heated one shaded by acacias and during the day seething with bathers, their cries audible far and wide. Its water is notorious for its bobbing freight of hairs, wads of chewing-gum, rotting leaves and plasters with dull red stains. The stew, the real swimmers call it.
He stops. A frown briefly appears on the face of the grey-coated workman who’s pushing a chrome-plated apparatus, connected to a pump, along the bottom of the athletes’ pool; but he keeps his eyes down, continues to clean the tiles row by row, only three left to go. And Raul sits down on the edge of the terraced slope for sunbathers, does some breathing exercises and contemplates the glistening surface, the poplar landscape trembling in blue.
There’s only one right thing to do now, and that is to leap into the looking-glass and so placate this day with all its lurking possibilities of destruction. And what lies behind the mirrored surface is the end of fear: a glass door, a long corridor, birds warbling in the park full of women garbed in new dressing-gowns, young women who take small shuffling steps in their medical stockings and clutch their stomachs. It’s enough. Behind it lie the last tears, a brief pain after which everything, please take our word for it, will be better, why didn’t you come to us sooner. But Marie, a thick needle in her arm, a transfusion of her own blood that will hopefully stave off the threat of infection, Marie just laughs her bright, almost twelve-year-younger laugh and shows him the gift from the woman in the next bed, a total extirpation discharged the day previously who’d re-traced her steps through the spacious grounds in order to give her the sprig of clover, four-leafed, she’d found at the hospital gates.
The body’s defences, antibodies, two thousand metres a day. And who might you be? The companion at her side during every examination and every scan, the one who wipes the contact fluid off her stomach, even takes her blood pressure. A more cautious note creeps into the doctors’ tone, they become less off-hand, the smiles linger longer on the nurses’ lips, and the words spinal paralysis make the anaesthetist sink back down in his seat. Would I be talking to a colleague?
White clouds outside the window, a few fluttering butterflies, and on the bed he places the pen, points to the dotted lines. But Marie no longer wants to know what she’s signing. Marie’s weary, spoons up her soup, swallows her pills, looks at the roses. See you tomorrow, sweetheart. Will you be here early? A waved goodbye from the nurses inside their glass cubicle; he waves the sheets of paper in reply, takes the lift down to the ground floor, and through the flap in the office door he slides the forms, among them the one requesting the patient’s consent to be dissected in the event of death, the form he didn’t give her to sign.
The grey-coated man pulls his chrome-plated apparatus out of the pool, takes a step to one side and begins on the next row of tiles. Hardly a day’s illness in her life, never had an operation, and Raul with all his useless knowledge, the raw material of his anxiety, who’s seen people dying from operations more simple by far – some tiny anomaly, flawed tissue, a tube accidentally scraped against the carotid artery, then abruptly a spouting arc of blood, and none of the doctors present can save the athletic school-leaver who came in to have his appendix removed and from whose gaping throat now issues a final, almost enraged, sound…
So who’s going to break the bad news to the boss? And into how many hospital rooms has he walked that looked just like this one, bright and cheerful, Nolde’s poppies, and how often did he dispense caps for patients to cover their hair: Morning, time to get going, need to visit the toilet first? And then Marie takes a long time, desperately long it seems to him; the nurse glances at her watch, the student yawns and gazes dreamily out the window, leaves are whirling through the air, and from the bed-end clipboard he takes the sheet of paper and studies the blood-pressure measurements he’s long known by heart. She finally re-appears, closing the door behind her, and looks down at her hand with its punctured back. Re-opens the door, reaches into the room and snaps off the light. Did I show you my shave? Very punky. And the student laughs and helps her into the bed.
Raul takes the cap out of the nurse’s hand, another task he’ll see to himself, pushes the red curls under the elasticated border then unlocks, with one kick, the wheel-block. You look just grand. But Marie senses he’s close to tears, of course she does, and strokes his arm. It’ll be alright, believe me, they did another inspection yesterday, even the professor was there. Everything hunky dory. Will you be there when I come round? Will you?
The clunking of the wheels as they trundle over the entrance to the lift, and from inside the steel shaft a waving hand and twinkling eye, fearless it would seem, the effect of the pills. Then the closing of the door, his head tilting, as hers does too, to catch one last look. Adieu.
He goes into the waiting room, teeth gritted and fists clenched, clumsily brushes a few magazines off the table in the passing, trips over the doormat on the balcony. A child’s drawing on the opposite building, bill-less birds, on the roof a helicopter, and from the flower-box he roughly plucks a handful of blossoms, geraniums, and hurls them over the balustrade.
Wind, a warm breath, blows them back. I’m there. Nothing to eat or drink, a resolution he can’t explain but right, he can feel it, all the same. No food, no liquids, be sure not to lean against anything, not the chair nor the door-frame or the balustrade, as long as the operation is taking place. Two hours, maybe three. And then the two hours she’ll spend in the recovery room, and the friendly nurse, Polish, puts down a tray next to the cold TV set, tea and sandwiches. Raul thanks her but doesn’t touch a thing.
Waiting. And the shock, time and again, when lift-doors open and a patient, just operated, is returned to the ward, the identity of the sleeping or waking head slumped deep in the pillows sometimes distinguishable only at second glance. Shadows of pot plants pretend to be Marie’s silhouette in the smoked-glass partition screening the ward from the corridor and once, briefly, he closes his eyes when a woman’s voice asks: So how long do you intend to keep sitting here?
Over twenty years. He’d nodded off in a place near the university hospital, the pub where he got drunk after deciding to hang up his stethoscope for good. No more misery and death and hope-giving lies, no more of the white-coated rat-race, nothing more to do with doctors who’d flog their own grandmothers to clinch a senior post… He wanted to rest, maybe do some research, he wanted to live and do some travelling – wanted another drink from that barmaid. The pub was so dark that he couldn’t see his small change, but every mirror in that place was alight with the glow of her hair. She brought him a coffee.
So it’s you then, she whispered when first they kissed, just one day later, not far off morning somewhere behind the pub, and to him her face, her mouth, the arch of her eyebrows and the line of her brow already amounted to some kind of scripture, a holy one that would abruptly light up and reveal to him the words offering him eternal salvation.
Twenty years. The blink of an eye. He lifts up the red-and-white tape acting as a barrier and sits down on a diving block; the workman raises a mock admonishing finger and continues to clean the last lane. And then it’s evening, the door slides open and a bed comes rolling out of the lift; he reaches the end of the bed in two, three bounds, his heart in his mouth, and the nurse smilingly whispers, Easy now! Marie, who’s conscious and looking at him in amazement, struggling to get her bearings, her whole face a wordless You? What happened? – Marie is paler than ever before, her lips scarcely distinguishable from her skin, and the hand he grasps and which doesn’t, of course, return his squeeze, her hand with a canula on its back, is cold.
He helps the nurses install the bed in her room, hooks the infusions to their stands, attaches the drainage tubes to her night-dress, pins the half-full bag to the side of the mattress. Then he unpacks the bottles with the glucose and salt solutions, twelve of either, and adjusts the drop counter. Thanking him for his help, the nurses leave him alone with Marie.
Marie is asleep. Unable to find an operation report in the file with her clinical record and results, he feels her pulse, which is racing, but her blood pressure is normal. He cautiously raises the sheet. Her stomach is brown from the disinfectant solution, the incision covered only with gauze; just above the line of her pubic hair, it stretches from pelvic bone to pelvic bone, and Marie, without opening her eyes, asks: What does it look like?
Wonderful, he says, startled, of course that’s what he says, you won’t need a new swimsuit. They’d cut horizontally and stitched only subcutaneously; the upper layer of skin is taped. No needle marks. The scar will hardly show.
She clears her throat, swallows; not allowed to drink yet. Her lips are cracked. And do you know, she breathes, what they told me before they did the inspection? What they discovered?
He makes no reply, waits, but she’s drifted back into sleep – the painkiller, and there’s two more ampoules on the table, if needed. The flushing agent drips bright-red from the tube emerging from a hole next to the stitches, liquid hydrogen and blood, not much of the latter, but it’s as potent as ink. The values seem fine, at any rate, even if he can’t make out the time of the last sample, the stamp is blurred, and he sits down on the chair next to her bed and holds her hand.
The first of the roses are beginning to droop, and it’s quiet in spite of the open window; few people left outside in the grounds, only a faint clatter of crockery and cutlery from the children’s clinic opposite, while a cat slowly crosses the grass, cutting through the thick clover.
Raul looks at the sleeping figure, her luminous forehead, the freckles below the golden-red hairline. The upper part of her nose is slightly crooked, a bicycle accident in childhood, the bow of her lips as Florentine as it ever was, and he thinks of the time also inscribed in this face so much younger than his – but enriched by so much more love. A love whose unerring confidence and matter-of-factness was a constant source of wonder to him, and often one of shame; a love that would endure almost anything, every sacrifice, all of his moods, his acts of unfairness and brutality; a love always wiser than either of them and able to stand even the fiercest of trials. After one separation of almost eight months during which they neither spoke nor wrote to each other he had phoned her, sheepish and not altogether sober – he was in the bar of a hotel in Swansea, Wales, and had been sacked by the pharmaceuticals company that had hired him to oversee its preparations for a trade fair – she just said, It’s about time! I wouldn’t have stood it for much longer.
And now the pain, the dry gulps, the creases around her mouth deepening, and he saws open the ampoule, squirts the liquid into the infusion tube. The sun is setting somewhere behind the building, its light glows in the windows opposite, a reflected ray rests on Marie’s cheekbone, on her throat, and here and there he sees a shimmer of fluff, a delicate spiral beside her ear. Her breathing is quiet, almost soundless, and after a long look at her face, which is something she always senses so that even now her eyelids flutter, Raul kisses her forehead, already less cold than it was, hooks a new infusion to the stand, and quietly closes the door behind him.
The glass cubicle is empty, and he goes through to the office behind it and requests the operation report from a nurse who is shuffling through a stack of papers, cigarette in hand. She nods but doesn’t look up. You’re neither husband nor relative, am I right? Then I’m afraid I’m not allowed to say very much. Everything seems fine, so far. A pretty normal operation. Except perhaps… As she slides the folder into the rack, he takes a step towards her: Except what?
Her cigarette smells of menthol. Well, fair-skinned redheads tend to bleed a lot during operations, that’s why we take the prior samples. But it was different in the case of your friend. Scarcely any blood to be swabbed at all, to be honest. Must be something to do with the phase of the moon… And let her tell you the rest, she adds with a wry face, and only then does Raul spot the ID badge on her coat and realize that he’d addressed as nurse the ward physician, just arrived for the night shift.
He takes a bus back to Kreuzberg, to Bergmannstrasse, where he has something to eat and drinks two glasses of red wine at Milagro. Although the more scenic route for the short walk home would be the one past the churchyards, he takes the other one. He lies down on Marie’s bed and watches TV. But then he gets tired, limbs aching, and he crosses the hall to his own flat, cleans his teeth, puts out the light. The evening has turned chilly, the old floorboards are creaking. The golden cut of the book shimmers dully. Could you not watch one hour with me?
Shortly before midnight the ringing of the phone, a call from a woman he drowsily takes to be Marie. He knocks over the reading-lamp, winds its cable round his legs. Marie? He recognizes the Polish nurse’s voice: I thought I’d give you a quick call. An examination. Nothing to get alarmed about. It’s not even urgent, but it is an examination. First thing tomorrow, at nine, she’s top of the list. So what shall I tell her? Will you be there?
He looks over at the clock above the ticket-office and takes up position on the diving block. He’ll get there on time if he confines himself to one thousand metres of crawl and then takes a cab. The grey-coated man pulls up the wire-wrapped hose, winds it round the motor, and Raul puts on his goggles. In front of him stretches the unruffled, virgin water, so tranquil it looks almost concave and Raul, already poised to dive, is briefly unsure whether the sky, in which flocks of birds have suddenly re-appeared, is above him or below. And no sooner does he see the suction apparatus, the flashing of that chrome cylinder, than he pushes himself off the block and follows his elongated shadow into the water, which is neither cold nor warm, not clear and not murky, is at that moment not water at all but something glistening and flowing, just as the yell from across the pool is nothing other than the silence inside his heart, a starry expanse in which a soft voice sounds.
The sudden recognition that a woman is special. The bright formulation of one’s own dark, and the startling concordance in matters with which one had expected to remain alone for the rest of one’s life. The strength and the warmth in the vicinity of somebody who is always optimistic and ready to be happy and the beautiful melancholy in the depths of her smile…
When Raul walks into the ward shortly before eight-thirty, he finds the door to Marie’s room open. Her bed’s empty; a man clad in overalls is cleaning the window and gives him a nod. Strips of plaster adhere to the edge of the mattress; in the bathroom are a pair of rubber gloves and the plastic bag with detergent. One red hair clings to the bar of soap, the bedside table has been cleared of everything except the medical sheet and the form he didn’t give her to sign, a question mark now entered behind its dotted line, and for one moment – the man tilts the window, the reflections of passers-by appear in the glass – he believes he sees the shape of her face, a shadowy outline, on the indented pillow.

From the collection Rehe am Meer by Ralf Rothmann © Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2006
Translation © Tom Morrison

The One Place

Author: Thomas Stangl
Translator: Tom Morrison

Three excerpts from Thomas Stangl’s Der Einzige Ort, a novel based on the separate journeys to Timbuktu undertaken in the nineteenth century by Major Alexander Gordon Laing (1793-1826), the Scotsman who got there first, and René Caillié (1799-1838) from France, who travelled in the guise of an Arab called Abdallah.

There, to begin with, is the picture of a town without people (so it appears from this distance, by this measure of time), nobody comes up for view; just houses of clay are there, and streets through which the sand progresses in layers of various thickness and compaction; hazy patterns are formed, shifting spirals and loops, the crests of waves and reefs come up from the deep only to break and subside, no line more exists between earth and air; in yellow clouds the grains of sand, swarming insects without end, go floating through the narrow passages, dunes in stealthy advance outside the town, clambering over the walls and gates. One town with several different names, disparate pictures set into one another: In Salah, the name means eye of salt, a town that is slowly wandering, driven by the wind, for even as the houses at one end vanish beneath the desert, so replacements spring up at the other; Ghadames, carved into a rock-face many thousands of years ago, the city of shadows that melts into one labyrinthine edifice; then Tombouctou, surrounded by ruins, the houses shaped uniformly so as better to duck the storms when next they hit the town, sand stacked higher upon the streets year by year, as if the desert wanted to supplant the inhabitants, invade their homes, fill, smother, embalm the rooms. So it is (the camera eye being capable of speeding up, slowing down to command, of closing in and retracting as required, of pulling in or pushing away the future, the past) that those handsome studded doors with mountings of iron may abruptly become the half-buried entrances to caves; when we drift through the houses (with their narrow wooden staircases, oblong rooms, windows overlooking hidden courtyards), the floor mosaics are lost, we do believe, to the eye, the carpets all crumbled to dust, we now sink down, with our feet, into the sand, we stir up little fountains of sand, we inhale (assuming still we need air to breathe) the sand. Voices come then from the silence or commotion beneath which they were buried, towards which forever they are drawn, tales or fragments not meant for our ears, not told in our tongues, voices that speak through the centuries and among the centuries fall away, the speaking punctuated by sounds that grate and rasp, yet were it not so (a cough, a sharp prod, deep in the lungs) we should remain blind, after all, unhearing, powerless in every respect.
Travelling from the South towards the deceased man whom by our reckoning he shall fail only just to meet alive, a baker’s boy and orphan from France some two years later draws closer to the place around which the story revolves, that almost chance nucleus, magical site, which in the telling one might almost prefer to skirt ever so quietly about, for fear of certain disenchantment. It is a man who acts on nobody’s behalf, enjoys nobody’s support. In childhood he developed a mania for the geographical charts that would delineate those few years in his manhood even meriting the recounting, a woefully short interlude that one day a suddenly old man fast sinking into his solemnly beckoning tomb of honour will deem to have been the only time in which he, a castaway upon his native land’s drab provincial shores, was alive at all. His is a queer and solitary enterprise in an era in which the European powers are fighting to divide up the continents, in which closely intertwined scientific, military and economic interests overlap and serve each other under the auspices of Geographical Societies, in the expeditions undertaken on the latter’s behalves, the commissions placed, the ethnological (or rather, in the wildest form, racial-anthropological), geological and geographical studies destined to gather dust on the shelves of venerable archives; hence not ever will any one player know for which particular work of destruction he is ultimately an agent, nor, equally, how great a part he will play (deadly solemn, as it would appear, guided by the dictates of reason alone) in alien images that let individuals rise (as so one day we too may be made to rise) from the random, blurred dots into which they have shrunk.
René Caillié has fashioned himself a story that has carried him, as we join his side at this point up to which he has with a little luck never forgotten his lines, always stayed in character, all the way to Cambaya in Fouta Djallon. Shortly before sunset on this day of arrival he seized the opportunity to detach himself from his travelling companions and their present hosts, and alone for the very first time go sauntering off, much as any casual perambulator might, through a gap in the wooden stakes surrounding this village of several hundred round huts that to him seem cleaner (the thought is alienating, he never writes it down), more homely, than many a European abode inside which he once chanced or, indeed, resided. Hard-trodden paths of reddish sand have taken him down to the Tankisso, he discovers, to the river’s low-lying bank almost hidden behind bushes and shrubs; after pushing through the foliage he sits down on his heels, his back leant up against the trunk of one taller tree whose bough, straining down to touch the water, would seem to be drawing him into its embrace. It is as if he has found for one moment, alone with the water, the soil, the canopy of the tree, a room to call his own, behind him the leafy curtain has closed over once more, the branches above his head fashioning a low, vaulted roof, and without ever having left the privacy of his quarters he might still be carried off by the river flowing languorously alongside. He slips The Koran out from under his burnous and with a pencil starts scribbling on one of those loose leafs that in the course of the months will double in girth the holy book kept concealed on his person: a furtive, harried activity from which he cannot abstain for even one day and in the pursuit of which he is closer than at any other time to giving himself away, to being fatally exposed.

A town takes the place of the town left behind, a person takes the place of the person left behind, to René Caillié every encounter, every relationship, every location presents itself as reiteration, intensification and loss, meaning he can trade also his fear for fear greater still, as up to the moment of final emptiness he shall do repeatedly, each time savouring the moment of temporary deliverance. At first he finds the town of Kankan extraordinarily pleasing: the wide, clean streets lined with date palms and papayas, the houses with the tiny gardens at the back, the two town-gates and the two mosques (somewhat unshapely, it must be said, for his own taste), and above all the prosperous, friendly townspeople; here he feels sure to shake off his guide Lamfia Keita, whose looks, whose smiles and whose obliging ways he finds more intolerable by the day. Advancing towards this town the caravan has swelled to eighty men. Staying close to his guide Caillié stumps along, silent between the men and the mules, walking causing him increasing pain, his umbrella open almost permanently as flimsy protection from the cloudbursts (he battles with the storm that turns his umbrella inside out, within seconds he is drenched to the bone) or from the sun, or even, following Lamfia’s advice, as a token of dignity that will purportedly reflect upon his guide as they enter Kankan, for Caillié-Abdallah has meanwhile become a sherif from Mecca; in the villages he is met with reverence, people kneel down before him then mask with difficulty their disappointment that he cannot concoct a gris-gris because his Arabic is too poor. On one occasion they have stopped to rest upon the open plain and he squats behind a bush, writing, when Lamfia’s wife approaches; Caillié hastily pulls down his trousers, hears Lamfia call, Is he writing, to which his wife calls back, No, he’s shitting. Caillié, heart pounding, wonders whether he is experiencing this scene in real life or in some feverish dream, he wants to wake up, but that is too much to hope for, there is no waking state, just a double game swapping and blending hallucination with reality in order to serve up ever new variations upon either. He is obliged to live in Lamfia’s house, in an unfurnished room, even at night the white of its walls (as if emanating from secret sources of light) all about him, he is obliged to let Lamfia’s servants and slaves wait upon him, to let the guide, in his capacity as interpreter and suddenly loquacious attorney, defend him against the initial suspicion met with from Mamadi-Sanici, the dogou-tigui of Kankan, as well as from the town elders; he is also obliged, because he is incapable of haggling and does not venture into the market, to let Lamfia do his shopping. In an outburst of self-righteous fear Caillié finally, in the presence of the dogou-tigui, who besides being mayor presides over the local court, accuses his guide of theft; he is sure that various fabrics have disappeared, various glistening pearls (and do not his guide’s wives unabashedly wear strings of those very same pearls now?), he is sure that this is only the start, that he will slowly be robbed of all his possessions. He feels exposed (the eyes averted of the men to whom he speaks, their fingers playing with strings of beads) and determined to stop at nothing, he is neither willing nor able to retract his complaint. A date is appointed for the court hearing, which in view of his transient status (even if he does not know whether and when his journey will resume) shall be the very next day; he passes the night in jagged dreams that anticipate the trial, fully aware of his own exposure, no longer at home in his white room sprouting tiny corridors at the end of which await ever new gloomy courtrooms, caverns below the ground or under the water, uniform-clad judges with faces distorted into barely human grimaces, a numbing pressure that twists and corrodes the words in his mouth. The next day the entire town apparently casts off its spaciousness and contracts around him, the thatched, generally poorly frequented women’s mosque proves too small to accommodate the many spectators, a crowd throngs outside its doors. He believes himself to be calm, from the outset he is confident that he has nothing to fear; he presents the evidence and answers any questions, Lamfia himself translates and, to the great satisfaction of one and all, simultaneously refutes his accusations, every point is discussed in detail and debated separately by each of the town elders, it begins to dawn upon Caillié that this affair could stretch into infinity with neither hope nor fear of an outcome; he admires the patience and the interest shown by the spectators; he can (as a disinterested observer at two removes) watch them following every turn of the theatrical proceedings as they sit mute on the floor and by looks or gestures signal to their neighbours or the judges their approval of any argument put forth that in all its beauty and grace contradicts or reinforces the foregoing one. To his eyes it might all be the ripple of waves across some watery expanse; it would cost him no effort to walk over the surface, a few steps would take him to the seemingly infinitely remote bank beyond the crowd of onlookers. Finally, as the hour of evening prayer approaches, they show indulgence to both parties, they even forego (without a murmur of complaint from the spectators) the previously discussed imposition of an ordeal involving a red-hot iron and the tongues of plaintiff and defendant alike. It is evident that nobody understands the convoluted tale involving sea-bags behind purportedly locked doors, the presence or absence of certain parties during a certain celebration, and little slave girls wrongly accused, but it is a matter not of details but of placing the scene within the broader context, a matter of its repeatability in principle (and in a darker, more convoluted way this applies not just to the court but also to the figure of Caillié: thus it is possible to do without details, as if they might be gathered elsewhere), and besides they feel pity for the poor foreigner who is unable to talk any intelligible language and seems so sorely to miss his native land. Every one of Abdallah’s charges is sustained, as he understands the verdict, yet Lamfia goes unpunished; Caillié feels relief and disappointment in equal measure, while Lamfia seems scarcely ruffled by the episode, continuing to call Abdallah a sherif, his deferential deportment suggestive of hurt feelings on his part rather than hostility, perhaps in the hope of a lucrative reconciliation. Caillié simply becomes all the more guarded, thinking that should he travel onward with Lamfia through the forest of Ouassoulu, in his scantily informed mind a place fraught with murky dangers, he is sure to be murdered; Lamfia evidently considers him to be wealthy and believes he must only discover the hidden treasures. Fortunately, however, not only does the court decree that he be given new lodgings in the Moorish traders’ quarter, far removed from Lamfia’s house, he also finds a new guide. An inventory is compiled of his possessions so that in future such affairs can be more easily clarified; he manages to keep concealed his notes along with a little gold and amber.
During his remaining weeks in Kankan he makes a tolerable recovery from his fever, enjoys chatting with his new neighbour Mohammed, an elderly Moor with a black wife and a sickly son, who often invites the stranger to eat with the family and becomes fond of his guest (although never before did he see a man with so long a nose; joining in with his laughter Caillié allows Mohammed, whose wife and son promptly follow suit, to verify the authenticity of Abdallah’s nose). Mohammed tells him about Djenne, the great city he often visited in his youth, about the river wide as an ocean and the mosque more beautiful than any other building in the world; if it were not for his son, he says as they sit in the courtyard drinking tea in the shade of a big orange-tree, he would himself escort his guest as far as Djoliba, but Allah has dealt him both the prosperity that permits him to stay in Kankan with no further need to travel and the affliction that requires him to stay in Kankan and care for the boy. Whenever Caillié encounters on the street Lamfia or one of his wives or one of his brothers, sons and nephews (chance meetings that can scarcely be avoided although he seldom leaves the house), they stare straight past him, and he looks down at the ground; such encounters make him eager to resume his journey. He further learns that in August the entire north-east of the country lies under water, and already July is half gone; he is shocked to hear from Mohammed and other sources that the trek to Djenne will take more than three months, a period of time that seems infinite to him even now. All the faces and gestures, everything he leaves behind, sink back into the dark from which they were briefly retrieved for his notes; he shares a kola nut with Mohammed, who escorts him out of the town, past the fields of maize and the pretty villages of the Kankan plain, and leaving his companion the gift of a white pot Caillié walks (his diminishing figure in the caravan, in the landscape, followed up to the point of vanishing by the gaze, like a static camera, of the friend he instantly forgets) towards another, deeper, dark.
Through a sheet of rain (for it rains almost constantly from now on) the fourteen men and their mules ascend by evening into the forest of Ouassoulu, deemed impassable by day for fear of robbers, as Caillié understands, a reason he finds somewhat absurd despite his readiness to be fearful, but he asks no questions, their caution may be connected with ghosts, and he has no desire to trouble himself with such matters. Caillié is not quite sure whether his new guide is a Fulah or a Mandingo, he is said to be some kind of holy man, goes by the nondescript name of Arafanba, and Caillié, in view of the state into which he is somewhat deeper descending by the day and by the hour, is merely glad that the guide asks nothing from him, seldom speaks, and is appreciative of any gift he receives. Moist, man-high ferns come brushing against his arms, he hears the shrieks of the night-birds and the hyenas, fragmentary tales of fear or rage that disappear into the dark void, to Caillié even the croaking of the frogs seems desperate, because all these creatures know this one place only, and here they will expire. It is cold, and the fever whose rise is registered by his inner thermometer intensifies the feeling of coldness, his feet sink into the mud, and within the first few days Caillié’s sandals start to tear; he neither knows how to mend them nor how to ask somebody to do so for him. The water trickles down the inside of his collar, he feels naked, thinks sometimes that his skin, the boundary of his body, is disintegrating. He continues his journey on bare feet that soon turn into lumps of ice, thaws out by the fire during the stops and watches the aches spread across his body; he receives his share of the roasted peanuts, they have taken little else in the way of provisions. The cold coussabe sticks to his skin: convinced while asleep that he is trapped underwater he twitches helplessly, vainly attempting to break free. In mounting haste the caravan cuts through areas outside the forest where only isolated families of bedraggled Fulah live, the women half-naked, the men with poorly trimmed beards and nostrils stuffed with tobacco, the children swollen-bellied; through fords and over dilapidated bridges the caravan, waist-deep in water, crosses tributaries of the Djoliba; the rain does not let up, and he no longer thinks of putting up his umbrella, it is enough to be carrying the object, he grips it tight. The thriving villages further north-eastward are populated by Fulahs, as he thinks – he lacks the energy to ask questions – but the villagers speak a different language and have no religion, keep no slaves, for which reason (he believes in the blessings of private ownership) their fields are better tended than those in Fouta Djallon. He imagines himself to be passing through the fields of Mauzé on an autumn day, along the banks of the Mignon, as so often he did as a boy, always alone, never caring how soaked his hair and clothes became (awaiting him in grandmother’s house the stove at which his clothes will dry, woollen blankets in which he will wrap his scrawny white body, fingers that come brushing over his forehead), relishing the prospect of hiking for hours on end, his imagination siting him in unreal tropical zones, the link being the blanket of clouds low above his head, the link being the fields at once here and there, a peculiar blurring of the differences as if one might be mirroring the other, at the same time a lightening inside his head, a brightness and friendliness of which the reflection illuminates his surroundings (if it is not the other way round); as if nothing except the light were there.
He sleeps sometimes with a roof over his head again. The people, though inquisitive, do not trouble him with outright suspicion, they give him milk and occasionally a chicken or even a sheep; a European, he thinks, might travel here even without a disguise, the only recurrent question is whether his skin is real or merely conceals his underlying black, true, self; they ask how many children he has and in his pidgin Malinke he apologetically replies, até, ne até din-din, and wives? they continue incredulously, you have no wives either? até, he says, he is saving all that (he always speaks as if he has not yet begun to live) for his homecoming (by when in truth his life shall perhaps have reached its end), they pretend to understand his answer and to think nothing more of it. As far as the women in the region are concerned (inconceivable what physical proximity it would mean to choose one and take her with him and thus travel perhaps less conspicuously), they are clearly different from the females of the Fulah and Mandingo, they have pointed teeth, they snuff tobacco and like to dance, but they are not indecent (as he repeats to himself, writes, time and again, from a well-nigh infinite distance he observes the row of breasts, their rising and falling in time with the movements), moreover they kneel down, subservient, heads bowed, before the men, a posture by which he is confused and shamed as he takes receipt of a bowl of milk; he otherwise has no direct contact save for the odd smile, received with blissful gratitude, that his exotic appearance elicits. In a small town one evening he is enthused by the sight of a twenty-man brass band marching on the spot beneath a Bombax tree, he loses himself in the unfamiliar, wild yet harmonious sound and admires the feather-bedecked heads and the colourful garments of the men, and numbed by the music, the flickering glow of the fire, he briefly forgets the chafed skin of his feet, the bloody spots that hurt every time he takes a step, every time he makes physical contact with the external world; he tries each evening to wrap his feet in leaves and a little linen, but this flimsy protection soon disintegrates on the next morning’s damp paths. Even in Sigala, the capital of Ouassoulu, the travellers spend no more than one afternoon and night; the king dispatches an invitation to the widely travelled Arab and his guide, who then arrive, after passing through the village of the king’s wives and a maze of long, narrow passages running between embankments, not at the anticipated palace but at a simple, round, unfurnished hut with a pile of hay in one corner intimating that a horse lives with the king. Caillié is himself estranged by the shock he feels, no sooner have they settled down upon the floor-cushions, at the sight of the tin teapot and the copper plate from which they are served; although he would never dare reveal his interest and more closely study the reliefs, he recognizes them as very old Portuguese manufactures, and feels like weeping (can things be lonely, he later wonders in a dream at the end of which his mouth fills with dark, heavy soil, his clotted tongue pressing against the roof of his mouth as he struggles futilely to resume breathing by forcing down the soil, it reaches his lungs and his heart, which suddenly he holds in his hand, knowing he must die, and which, after he wakes up in the pitch-dark hut – his senses perceive only the dull patter of rain against the ground outside – for several moments he believes he still holds, throbbing and pounding, in his hand), but he is obliged to smile solemnly, as always, to nod, to give halting explanations relating to his history, which Arafanba is recounting, and to convey his gratitude for the proffered congratulations, which here are more easily endured, at least, because they concern merely his fortitude and his sense of family, but not his faith: I don’t even know, he is required or at liberty to say in response to the question whether his father and mother are alive still, he stares down at the plate in front of him.

Original by Thomas Stangl, Der Einzige Ort (2004)
© Literatur-Verlag Droschl, Graz.
Excerpt I pp. 5-6; II pp. 26-27; III pp. 80-86
Translation © Tom Morrison

The translator wishes to thank HALMA, the European Network of Literary Centres, which commissioned a first translation of parts of the above material.

imaging process

Author: Nicolai Kobus
Translator: Tom Morrison


i can’t keep sitting so long
i’ll leave you a polaroid
do with it what you will

i’m off now. keeping my legs
crossed so long blocks the flow
of blood it all stops up

in the groin that’s why the mug
up there’s so pale i need to move
already out of focus, right-hand tremor

but the stroke still right precise the left
in my coat (note sewn into seam)
i hate cloakrooms everything

thwarted flight if i had to see myself
sitting like that i’d most definitely
hack away at my face until

my nasal bone could be seen
sideways and snot-like impasto
ran plastically from the sinuses

down my lapels and trouser legs
my own shadow gasping for breath
like a munch viewed from behind

i need to get away from black shafts
from violet squares away from
formal experiments for nothing

and nothing more than twisted
flesh and dreary discipline your
patience will be the death of me

i’ll leave you a polaroid
do with it what you will
i can’t keep sitting so long

Francis Bacon
Self-portrait, 1972
Oil on canvas – 198 x 147.5 cm


imaging process

so easily seen through
the nose
ghosted out (just gristle really)
the chain
round the neck                                  spinning
in fairytale fashion
on spectres
in their prime                              (please

all jewellery
prior to
and some joy
in ornaments                                             the rings
on the fingers
and ears are déclarations
black circles and traits d’union
in the skeletal
a material girl in order
to be not
so dreadfully

Meret Oppenheim
Self-portrait: Skull and Ornament, 1964
(original X-ray)



i remember how between candles i sat
in my collar of mink and mane of dyed locks
with the soft dark midnight at my back

triangular from the front my self-creation:
aequalitas large as life, ecce homo wholly in line
with golden sections of perfect proportion

at some point towards dawn a jeeeesus christ
no, i thought, you’re not so bad at all
a panel so life-like even my cur takes a bite

Albrecht Dürer
Self-portrait, 1500
Oil on panel – 67 x 49 cm


Originals © Nicolai Kobus
The three poems translated are the opening sequence
of the series “bildgebende verfahren”
and first appeared in the anthology

Versschmuggel: portugiesisch- und deutschsprachige Gedichte
(Heidelberg: Wunderhorn Verlag, 2009)
All rights reserved