The Fall of Heidelberg

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Michael Buselmeier’s novella, first published 1981, is an explicitly autobiographical work, an intense, stream-of-consciousness procession through a day in the life of the first person narrator. This storyteller – a university lecturer in his late thirties, working in the German department of a south German university – is an ageing left-wing radical, a man forced by the passing of time into taking stock, yet still tenaciously non-conformist in his ruthless self-criticism, and intellectual independence. The outer defeat of the left-wing student movement, whose strength had peaked already by the early 1970s, is the historical frame of a book, and violent police repossessions of student-occupied property are a recurring theme throughout. Simultaneously the story is deeply personal, and one which refuses the sleep-inducing stereotype normally forced upon the German left. In the scene directly preceding the start of the excerpt below, a younger acquaintance is trying to persuade the narrator that the latest Roxy Music LP (circa 1979) is ‘hot shit’. Our narrator replies, cooly, that Richard Wagner is hotter.

A young guy about twenty with feverish eyes has taken a seat at our table, and slides his chair nearer us, subversively. Any idea where I can stow some stuff away for a bit? Yeah right, get real man. A study-group student of mine? If that lot still notice me at all, they see me as an arse-licking veteran, one of those know-it-all smart alecs always ready with a heroic yarn from the past, perfect for laming any current guerilla activity. Go tell that shite to the old dearies at the Greens, grandpa! — you might get them to listen to you in the garden in the mornings, while you’re watering your flowers together. We’re going to torch this whole place, the whole thing! He stares at me, gesticulating wildly, then gets up and goes towards the exit, without clearing away his dishes. So that’s what they look like: the liberators of humanity, the avant-garde. He probably babbles on so much about burning things cause he’s too chicken to actually do it. Supposedly once threw a Molotov cocktail against the wall of the loony-bin. Let off a little smoke, then fizzled out. He works away at his DIY bombs every day, bolted up in his room behind blackened windows. So watch it! Am I any different? A bit wiser, that’s all. No longer brave enough to die. Can I see my own uncensored wishes shining in his eyes? Act your age not your shoe size, wee boy, you wouldn’t be the first crazy who the pigs snapped up, just because you have to daydream out loud. And you also wouldn’t be the first, who, spun round by events, walks into our editorial office one day, a thin, wee guy with wispy, red beard, charity-shop clothes, and, sniffing around, asks casually where we’ve put the alternative papers, and if we’ve got The Revolutionary Fury, he’d like to have a read of that. Aye right, we throw that tat in the bin as soon as it gets here. Well keep a copy of The Fury back for me next time he says, leaving.
Johannes has disappeared into a record shop, and I’m back standing in the uni canteen courtyard, with the plastic bag full of newspapers in my hand. Straggly, rusty stains on the concrete bottom of the fountain, like menstrual blood slowly seeping into the bathtub. Two Sinalco bottles are bobbing upright in the water. While I’m studying the news-sheets plastered onto the wall, a man in a light summer suit takes up a pose next to me, also reading the wall news-sheets. He takes a step back, pulls a notebook out of his jacket pocket, and scribbles something down. Pale, greasy skin. This is Detective Chief Inspector Mobby Klick, from the Department of Internal Security. Arrested me at the town hall for breach of the peace and insulting a police officer. I’m not letting any old pig touch me, I screamed, ya bloody arse-wiper! That cost me 2000 deutschmark, plus a 200 mark fine cause I couldn’t resist reciting all possible collocations and etymological derivations of the word ‘arse’ in court, using The Complete Duden Dictionary of the German Language, Volume 1, p. 191. As I questioned Klick as a witness, asking whether he’d possibly heard me use another word instead of ‘arse-wiper’ — a word which, according to Duden, doesn’t even exist  — arse-fucker, or arse-licker, or up-into-the-arse-crawler, perhaps? — the judge screamed at me in a trembling voice: refrain from using faecal words in court! Then he got up off his arse and clapped a fine upon me, because of my ‘continued use of faecal terminology.’ Since the time he’d taken my fingerprints and mug-shots — number 565; portrait photos from all angles, 99 finger prints onto forms — Mobby Klick has always greeted me whenever we saw each other. I’ve read some of your poems, he said to me, confidentially. Since when did muck like that read poems? I recognised you in a documentary film about the German Lecturers Strike, hid away in a corner. A-ha. He looks at me proudly. A reader of my poems. The very thing that poets dream of. About my age. Numb-skulled and right-wing at school already, unable to observe his opponents without prejudice, so overly keen that he hasn’t got a clue about what he’s dealing with, and therefore harms the machine he’s meant to be serving more than he helps it. Dropped out of his law degree to opt for a career in the police. Got stuck half-way. I could tutor him in studying the left, qualify him in his spare time, but he can’t see his opportunity. He turned down my friendly offer to do a recorded interview with him in a stiff, almost shocked way. I’ve not got a gun on me today: grinning insecurely, he folds open his jacket, so that the inside pockets can be inspected. No harness either: he pats his hands over his jacket, and turns round so I can see his back; his white polyester shirt is sticking to his skin. So what if it is. I leave him with his side-kick, who’s always trailing behind us dressed up in a student costume, so they can read the wall news-sheets alone in peace.
My ritual route for the past ten years or more: through the canteen, past the Uphill Gardeners shop, past the political bookshop, then into the lecture-hall through the canteen, or into the Collegium Academicum to a study-group, or to meet somebody, walking along beside painted walls and staircases, over the creaking, cracked floor-boards underneath the roof. And now? The lecture-hall was closed two or three years ago after a fire, apparently no longer needed, even though it had become a kind of warm cubby-hole for many lost souls in the university machine over the past thirty years, including myself. Here, loners continued surviving, after dropping out of their degree courses, or while stretching out those degrees to infinite lengths. These seekers after truth and God sat on the same hard seats day after day — after having fought over the pair of soft leather armchairs underneath the window — and made minute notes with the one hand — behind the cover of the other — on the back of pamphlets; secret poets, hard cases, who tried to cover up their own, dead lives with voluminous perusal of international newspapers, getting steadily greyer in the stuffy air and canteen smells which seeped into their clothes, and warmed them. Most of these carefully dressed, old-fashioned talking gents wore oversleeves and white gloves even in summer, with which they leaved-through newspapers, encyclopaedias and atlases. Where did they drive you out to, my brothers, to the park-benches down by the water? You hobble along, your brief-cases full of books and papers you’ve read every word of, your way of tricking your landladies into thinking you’re still going places academically. Coming home in the evenings to your garrets, you can’t get the door open, it jams. Empty schnapps bottles underneath the iron bedstead, shoe boxes full of letters. Sliding, shakily out of this world, what happens inside your heads?
The Colleigum Academicum, the CA, last self-governing student residence in town, also no longer exists. On 6th March 1978, at six in the morning, 1500 police officers in helmets stormed the old college building. The regional elite units among them used siege-ladders, axes and chainsaws, and forced 150 tired students out into the cold. They set straight to work smashing up the rooms, grabbing any booty they happened to come across. I stood in the police floodlights behind the crowd-control tape, let myself be photographed by smirking secret-service agents, and saw the furniture that we’d used for living and working on, desks, sofas, the lot, being tipped out the windows. Then they nailed up the windows with boards. The spirit of our times.
The CA had been the centre of our understanding of ourselves, our critique, our opposition. This was more than just cheap student accommodation, rooms for drama and music groups, cabaret, orchestra, academic groups, parties. At the time of the revolts real teach-ins took place here, discussions lasting the whole night through with Ernest Mandel and Peter Brückner, during which I started, slowly, to think politically. But the students who came after us defined themselves less and less through the university as an institution, or through critical academia, or taking an active political role. Which left the CA more and more isolated, just another subculture. After the collapse of the student movement, the CA — by this time already labelled a ‘left-wing fascist stronghold’ by the local press — became the first port of call, and place of refuge, for all the victims of society who could find no other place to live in a city thoroughly cleansed: tramps, whose hostel by the river the town council had bricked up, beaten-up women, runaway teenagers, junkies, gays — they all crawled down into the former Jesuit college, filling the long corridors with noise and song, and letting it all hang out. The earlier inhabitants felt overwhelmed and could not relate to the new visitors.
A poetry reading in the overfilled hall was the last event to take place at the CA. Unable to defend this place, a place where we could be ourselves in public, and where we could relate to a wider public, we sat on the floor on the evening before the clearance, smoking as if paralysed, smiling wearily about the last few agitators, who still kept on getting up on chairs, to call for militant resistance. Some people sang, some listened in on the police’s short-wave radio, others still walked hectically through the neglected rooms. Towards morning someone flew into the room shouting: the pigs are coming up from the south, I can feel the floors shaking. And we heard, as he spoke no more, how looters tore the shelves off the walls, while the police net around the building tightened, the police extending the siege-ladders from their vehicles. Together we cleared the space behind the doors and then stepped out, blinded, into the spotlights. Sieg Heil! — shouted someone, running over the cobbled courtyard through the iron gateway, which was half-blocked by a yellow Volkswagen, towards the line of police. As I looked back one last time, I saw policemen squinting down through the lit-up windows, tearing our banners from the walls.
The political bookshop beside the canteen is still going, an old garage with a wide, glass front at the end of the gateway, that’s covered with publisher’s posters, subversive pamphlets, wall news-sheets about our political prisoners’ living conditions — and with private calls for help. But I sometimes get the impression that the owner’s been running the shop for a long time now just out of habit, or out of economic necessity, rather than as a political strategy, or at least out of a love of books. The door’s wide open, the air-conditioning’s whirring, and the place is empty, as it normally is at this hour. Nobody greets me as I enter. The owner’s mother raises herself up from behind the counter and scurries along the shelves, order-slip in hand, not looking at me. I walk, as I do everyday, alongside the tables where the new publications are laid out, and open up a book or a paper here and there, without buying anything. I normally know whether I like a book or not after just a few lines. I’d have to read a lot of tedious stuff in order to have a voice, academically speaking. And how much stuff is there that I’ve not read, and never will do. That thought used to make me feel helpless, and so I slammed the books shut again, especially the theoretical ones, in a fit of disgust. What am I actually looking for here? The owner’s mother is back behind the counter again, and is leaving through a card index while peering at me distrustfully through her thick glasses over stacks of newspapers. She carries a book past me, and as I step to the side to make space for her, she looks at me with a knowing smile as if to say: so what have you nicked this time? Got a job to go to, scrounger? My son’s a bookseller, a poet, actually, and one of the best as it happens. Is he such a layabout, that he has to stand leaning on bookshelves so he doesn’t fall over in his laziness? Should I be at home at my desk, ‘wrestling with my angel’, I ask myself, uncertainly? Isn’t poetry as a profession suspect in the first place. I mean, God, each and every human has poetry in their body, but haven’t those who try and earn cash with that lost the plot, rather — aren’t they plying a dishonest trade? ‘Anyone who doesn’t earn their bread through the sweat of their brow should feel ashamed, at least to a certain extent’ — as Clemens Bretano, our bad conscience, put it. Some take that conscience into their parties and sects, others beat their breasts with furrowed brows. Our family problems, which leave us looking as poor as mice. Who, apart from intellectuals, cares about intellectuals’ bad consciences?

From Der Untergang von Heidelberg by Michael Buselmeier, © Suhrkamp Verlag.
With friendly permission by Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin.

Translation © Henry Holland