Torches

Author: Manja Präkels
Translator: Tyler Langendorfer

 

Translator’s Preface
Präkels’ novel primarily takes place during the final decade of the German Democratic Republic and the early years following Die Wende. In this excerpt, her young adult narrator Mimi describes her participation in a torchlight parade held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the GDR, and hints at the discrepancy between government propaganda and her own experiences.

 

On the TV, Omi watched the latest developments in world politics with enthusiasm. She adored Mikhail Gorbachev, whom she affectionately referred to as Gorbi. Omi was convinced that world peace was just around the corner. I myself could have cared less. Sometimes she succeeded in coaxing me to dance with her for a short while in her tiny living room. The boards would creak in time to Herbert Roth’s Thuringian Forest anthems as she pushed me with folksy enthusiasm from one corner to the other. As Omi led, she whistled into my ear. It wasn’t a real sort of whistling, more like fff-ffeee sounds. Afterwards, I would lie on my bed in the neighboring room and despair over the meaning of life.

Every so often I would dream of Oliver.

Our paths seemed to have separated once and for all into different parallel universes within the community. I felt myself drawn to those existences on the periphery, could understand the sadness of the old boatmen who carried it in front of themselves all night, staggering home along the Havel from their drinking holes. As if in remembrance of something that was no more. Like the vagabond life of the spooky old widow, who walked fully upright, almost rigidly, and always wore black, a baker’s boy cap on her head and a walking stick in her hand. It was said that she once traveled all the large inland rivers with her husband who died long ago. Often, when she sat by the river, we would secretly watch her as she puffed away on her pipe, and laughed at her for such behavior. Now I greeted her every time I saw her, as if to make amends. When, at night, in the loneliness of the small town, she walked toward me with the clickety-clack of her stick, I understood why the neighborhood kids called her “witch.” It was the same unsettling feeling I got at the sight of the old brickmakers out at the clay pit, toothless men who wore clothes you could no longer find in stores. Scrawny wretches with cigar butts, all slouched over from brickmaking. Stone after stone had passed through their hands for a hundred years. Children are afraid of ghosts. But I wasn’t really a child anymore.

It was only years later that I understood that we belonged to a dying world. Just as it was for my great-grandfather, on that Christmas Eve long ago. There must have also been something ghost-like in my own appearance when I quoted Marx, as if reciting a folk saying: “Workers of the world, unite!” Workers of the world. The Soviet people had defeated fascism once and for all. And with it all the Nazis, except for a few who would soon die. Over there, in the West. I believed it. Still. I was like the last Pioneer. Timur, but without his squad. But in another sense, I was no longer a Pioneer.

In the meantime, Adolar had gotten big enough to amuse himself on the soccer field, and the cat Willi, too restless to constantly keep our sick father company. Because he felt lonely during the day, Pappi had decided to get himself a new dog. “That varmint is not sleeping in this house!”, Mutsch declared. And so it happened that Brutus von der Havelbucht, a shaggy schnauzer, had to spend his first night in the kennel. Its pedigree was of no use to Pappi, but its incessant whimpering still reached his ears. In the middle of the night he stood shaking in front of my door and handed me the puppy: “We should call him Biermann!”

The capital had been spruced up for the occasion. Once again, I was among the appointed. Just like Ulli, Michael, and the silent Andreas Walther, who skillfully pushed me away from Ulli’s side in the fight over seats. They had chosen us for the delegation to represent Karl Marx High School in the big torchlight parade. The Republic was celebrating its 40th birthday, and the parade in the capital was supposed to be the highlight, the icing on the cake. The bus drove over fields, across pine forests and one-street villages. The journey ended in Hellersdorf, a settlement that had been built overnight. The concrete blocks lined up close together did not look any different from each other, and there, where green spaces and playgrounds were to later make the residential surroundings nicer to look at, gaped deep craters for cables and sewers. Streets and public buildings had no names, only numbers. A stopgap.

“Karl Marx High School?”

“Here!”

“School 10, corner of 18th street.”

The travel buses arrived from all four corners of the earth.  Pille and Palle ran into us at the accommodation. Aggressive as always, they chased a curly-headed boy across tables and benches. Everywhere, disoriented small-town Freie Deutsche Jugenders were stamping their feet and yelling in different dialects. Nothing here reminded me of the Berlin I knew from our trips to the zoo or the news we got from Aktuelle Kamera.

At a tram stop, I thought I recognized Oliver, but was it him? Instead, someone fell on my neck, but it was only Dörte Beckers. “Mimiiiiiiie!” Her delegation belonged to the same block, and now we were stuck in traffic. Looking over other people’s heads, I tried to get my bearings in the streets of East Berlin. Banners, flags, and slogans hung from windows and balconies. New instructions from the loudspeakers called first for movement, then for us to halt again. Our parade rolled like a lazy caterpillar inside an apple. Pille and Palle started to flail their provision bags, emptied of food, on the head of a boy marching in front of us. Michael Müller wound up between them and got a bloody nose. Dörte had disappeared again. Ulli clung to my shoulder so much that it hurt. We were pushed away and came to the side of the street, where spectators stood with objects for waving and stared at us flabbergasted. “I’m sick,” said Ulli, before she threw up in a high arc into the ranks of the Young Pioneers. Right next to us, stewards with red armbands pulled Pille and Palle from the throng.

Hours passed in this way. I was simply a part of this fat caterpillar that finally got moving. Others were saying “the grandstand is over there!” and “we’ve almost arrived!” at the place where all our dreams awaited us. It then evolved into chants: “Gorbi! Gorbi!” We roared along, glad that something was happening. I thought of Omi and about how maybe she had been right. A wave of euphoria seized me and my friends. We raised our fists and shouted “Gorbi! Gorbi!” I secretly vowed to listen to my Omi far more often and never again forget to fetch the coal for her. Just a few steps later we received the command to stop again and were redirected to a side street a hundred yards from the grandstand. Our parade had done its job. Others with torches had been chosen to light the way for our state guests, the way into the future.

The bottle – who knows where it came from – made the rounds, and drowned our conversations. Scorched blue shirts were lying on the floor, stinking of plastic. Drunk, we ended up in a discotheque. Dörte was still nowhere to be seen, the same with Pille and Palle. Ulli and Andreas were standing in the corridor to the toilets, making out, while I hung out and drank with Michael at the edge of the dance floor. We were invisible, and in the disco fog the dancers looked like soldiers marching against a wall. Back and forth. At some point, Ulli was standing next to us again. “I want to go home.”

The East Berlin air was cloudy with torch smoke. With our arms linked, we tottered through scenes of people getting beaten and heated arguments. Schnapps and beer had made us deaf to their protagonists and all forms of danger. That we woke up the next morning at the Hellersdorf school seemed like a miracle.

The next day, instead of going to school, I went into the district town. They were already waiting for me in the editorial rooms of the Märkische Volksstimme. As representative of our delegation, I was to report on the torchlight parade. Thick swaths of cigarette smoke filled the open-plan office. A dirty-blonde secretary shoved a cup of tea in my face. “’n editorial conference goin’ on. Here, while ya wait.”

The rest of the cubicles were deserted, just like the ashtrays. Apparently, the conference was happening behind a small door at the end of the tube-like room. Soft voices could be heard coming from it. I was sitting by the window looking out on the courtyard, where there was a white Trabant with the newspaper emblem.

“That hasn’t been out on the road in a long time. It’s the car for our editorial team.”

The blonde sized me up.

“And you’re gonna write the article? OK, then. So how did it go in Berlin?”

“We stood around most of the time. And then we didn’t even get to the grandstand. Just turned away before…”

She laughed with her mouth wide open so that her straight, small teeth could be seen. At this moment the back door flew open, and a gargantuan female approached with trudging steps. Her breasts swung toward me, and she quickly held out her hand: “Schablowski, I’m the boss here. And you’ll write us somethin’ about the torchlight parade?”

Bewildered, I jumped up, knocking over the stool.

Without going into it further, the head honcho turned around, and I watched as her huge backside teetered back to the meeting. “Well, come along then!” she called gruffly, and with a wink the blonde gave me a push, while at the same time skillfully putting my chair back down and picking up the receiver: “Märkische Volksstimme, this is the secretary’s office …”

The ominous conference room turned out to be just a small tea kitchen. Here, too, there was smoke coming from every corner, a jug of freshly-brewed black coffee had been placed on the windowsill, and the journalist colleagues briefly greeted me by raising their cognac glasses. Then they just kept on talking.

“I’ll give you thirty lines. You can sit at my spot, right up front. You know the drill. When, what, who, how, and why. Got it?”

I didn’t dare to contradict her and nodded. She then pushed me out of the kitchen and closed the door with a loud bang. The blonde laughed.

“The last bus leaves at quarter to seven.”

I wrote the article. A round-faced colleague appeared, skimmed the lines, glanced briefly over the edge of his nickel glasses, laughed silently – which was evident from the bobbing up and down of his potbelly – and walked back to the kitchen shaking his head. “That was Kasimir,” explained the blonde. “He’s OK.” Outside, my bus turned into the stop.

It was very moving when I opened the paper the next day. There it was. My name. But the euphoria evaporated as quickly as it had arrived. Apart from one sentence, Sabine Schablowski, the head of the Service, had deleted everything and replaced my words with hers. Fortunately, no one would ever read that. The paper was something you used for burning. Omi would sometimes wrap fish in it. Still, I resolved to avenge myself. Someday.

In the schoolyards they had come up with their own version of the torchlight parade. There was talk of Africans who had supposedly pulled out their dicks and harassed several girls. Pille was said to be the main witness, while others confirmed the stories.

“Those shitty lumps of coal. We’ll sock’em in the face at the next Havelfest.”

“They should just stay in the bushes where they belong.”

We had brought a renewed rage to the schoolyard. Straight from Berlin, capital of the GDR.

In the afternoon, they took our father to the hospital with flashing blue lights. Acute kidney failure. At the same time, Omi lay feverish on her plush couch with biliary colic. While Mother ran back and forth between hospital and work in the following days, I took care of Omi and Adolar by turns. We lived like this for a week. Then the colic finally subsided, and our father stabilized again. On the evening of his discharge, he ended up at the club house and got drunk. The late-night quarrel that followed must have been heard all the way up at the housing development.

That same night, Oliver appeared at my door. It seemed like he needed help. I didn’t let him in the room. We stood nervously in the hallway and smoked. He wore a crew cut and was shifting his weight from one leg to the other. “Are you alone?” he gasped.

“Yes, why?”

“My mother. She’s having attacks…”

“What sort of attacks?”

“If you see something, give me a sign, OK? I’m worried…”

“What sort of a sign?”

“Forget it.”

He abruptly turned away and fled into the darkness he had emerged from. His curses lingered in the air for a while. Biermann growled after the late visitor.

Now our father was dependent on dialysis. The doctors gave him “five years at most” and he began to say goodbye. As a result, we drove more and more often to the neighboring district town. Legend has it that at the turn of the century, the town’s councilors, with lots of money and excellent connections, made sure that all the main traffic arteries ran through their city and not ours. Though most Havel townspeople managed to forget this, they did not forgive them. Over the years we had only visited Aunt Ingeborg at the insistence of our father. In the early days he was proud and loaded up with all kinds of barter goods as he marched through the front gate of his parents’ house, as if his parents’ spirits were supposed to see what a successful businessman he had become.  But now his load shrank as the disease progressed. Our mother had always hated visits to the loud-mouthed uncle. This mutual dislike and their party memberships were the only thing that united them. They had long since abandoned all formalities and avoided looking each other in the eye.

Mutsch sat in front of the dark brown wall of the add-on room as if her seat was an electric chair. Since she would have to drive us home, she stayed sober while the others got drunk on Goldkrone beer. Wilhelm enjoyed supreme rule in his house, the same one my grandparents had once lived in. Though their ghosts seemed as little alive to him as they did to me, my father and his sister shared a mysterious bond that had something to do with the house and the forest behind it, the small farming town and its silty lake.  They would clink together their large cognac glasses without a word, and meaningfully look each other in the eyes.

On one of those days my father had gotten into a fight with Wilhelm, and Arndt, my younger cousin’s new boyfriend, had decided to loudly butt in. He attended the officer academy and had just returned from Leipzig. “I stood by when the protestors got my friend with an axe. On the head! Do you understand? The axe hit his head!”

Tears of rage trickled down into in his red mustache, where they formed pearls and shot out into the room with every new word: “Peaceful my ass! They wanted to kill us. The situation was completely out of control…”

Our parents sent us out of the room. My aunt stood in the hallway with tear-stained eyes and was unable to utter a “my God”. Wilhelm continued hollering inside. Arndt had fallen silent. We got into our car without saying goodbye. True to his nature, my drunken father was still incensed. Halfway home, he suggested stopping at the next local restaurant. Mutsch knew that it was all about getting some schnapps, about washing down the anger. At least there would also be schnitzel with fried potatoes, she wouldn’t have to cook anything, and he would sleep peacefully later on.

The place was overcrowded, but we were lucky. A table near the door had just become available. The waitress sullenly made her way through the crowd to us. With our heads lowered, we stared at the tablecloth and remained silent while Father ordered food, schnapps, and beer. After he started drinking, he became relaxed and sentimental, and with his hand he tousled Adolar’s hair. Mutsch tried to make eye contact with me. Once the fried potatoes were on the table, all the trouble disappeared and we cleaned our plates. Adolar had just persuaded his babbling Pappi to order another round of ice cream when the men and women in the room fell silent. Their attention was held by the television near the regulars’ table.

“That poor Erich Honecker!” Adolar was still too little to react cynically like everyone else to the change in tone of the Chairman of the State Council’s voice. He felt sorry for the TV grandpa, because it was obvious he had problems. Then the newscaster announced Honecker’s resignation. As if it was no big deal. Just like some soccer score. Father burst out laughing. Others joined in.

When they started to pass around glasses, Mutsch sat at the table looking pale. The men cheered. Toasting with the farmers, Father drank to brotherhood.

In my memory the Steinmann siblings are standing next to him. They are joined by Pille and Palle, Mario Möllemann along with his terrifying sheepdog, and Oliver. Boozed up, they hug each other, grab my little brother, and wrap him up in a German flag. They lift up their screaming work of art like a trophy cup.

 

From Manja Präkels,  Als ich mit Hitler Schnapskirschen aß (When I ate Schnapps Cherries with Hitler). Verbrecher Verlag, 2019.