Author: Hannes Köhler
Translator: Don Henderson
Translator’s Preface: How well do we know the people closest to us?
One night in Berlin some “bar philosophers” are drinking and smoking in a neighborhood bar. Jakob’s best friend, Felix, goes out for cigarettes and never comes back. It’s a classic set-up for a joke, but in Hannes Köhler’s psychologically complex novel, Traces, it takes a darker turn. Jakob begins an increasingly desperate search for any trace of his childhood friend. He enlists the help of Felix’s tough ex-girlfriend, Manja, goes to Felix’s apartment, and soon finds himself immersed in his friend’s diary and emails. He spends more and more time with his friend’s ex and less time with his girlfriend. Gradually Jakob discovers disturbing truths about identity, friendship, and obsession. The boundaries between his own existence and his friend’s begin to dissolve as he slowly takes on Felix’s identity and sheds his own like a kind of Talented Mr. Ripley. Felix has disappeared. What would happen if he returned?
This extract is from the opening pages of the novel.
“And other people just grab a rope and hang themselves,” Felix says and raises his left arm up over his head, his fist closing over the end of an invisible noose. “Think about that for a minute.” The room is full of smoke. “The fog of war,” Felix says; he always has to be the center of attention, holding his cigarette wedged between his knuckles. That grating laugh of his.
“Hey, take it easy!”
He stands up, a little unsteady on his feet. And slurring a little: “I’m going out for cigarettes.”
Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Basti says, “Hey, I think he fell into the john.”
We laugh. I say, “I’ll go look for him.”
In the bathroom, a pungent ammonia smell. A corner of the mirror is broken off; there’s a
long crack in the sink from the rim to the drain. In front of it, a puddle is pooling in the grooves
between the tiles. The walls are covered with magic marker and stickers. Für immer und ewig:
Eisern Union. Next Sunday: Soul Explosion. The dark wood of the stalls is gaping with holes,
either punched in or kicked in. I open the doors, see fragments of words scratched in the wood
and stickers everywhere. There is no trace of Felix, no one else either. On the way out, I bump
into the overflowing trash can. Right on top is his t-shirt. Gray cotton with white lettering:
Elbkind. Dark sweat stains under the arms. I pick it up, hold it out by the shoulders, pinching it
between my fingers. It feels damp.
I try to imagine him leaving the bar shirtless, stumbling into the street, his hairy chest, his
little beer belly sticking out. I have to shake my head. Not possible, not even for Felix. He must
have had a spare shirt, maybe a bag that I overlooked. The owner didn’t notice anything. One of the regulars at the bar says, “Yeah, he left.”
When I ask if he was barechested, the guy just shakes his head and stares into his beer.
The others are at the table waiting, producing a cloud of silence under the lamp.
Basti is drumming his fingers.
“Gone,” I say and toss the t-shirt on the table.
“What do you mean, gone?”
“Wait, I guess. He’ll come back.”
I call his number. An electronic voice answers. The person you are trying to reach is
“He’s going to freak out,” Manja says. “You don’t know what he’s like when he freaks out.”
She gropes for the light switch. A quick click. Light floods the entryway, illuminating the
yellow walls that are darkened as if covered with ash. To the right, some graffiti in black: Resist. The floor tiles form a chessboard, sagging in the middle. Rotten ceiling beams in the basement,
I know this from Felix. Supposed to have been repaired months ago. All it took was the neighbor’s new washing machine.
Felix said that he was standing on the stairs when the hand truck with the washer was rolled
into the hallway. When the men got to the middle of the floor you could hear a loud crunch like
gigantic grinding teeth. The floor gave way in slow motion. Felix described all the shouting, the
shock, and the thundering sound when they let go of the machine and it fell over backwards.
The floor was still holding, Felix had told me, but the question was, for how much longer. It was a strange feeling to be standing on those tiles now.
Manja walks ahead without paying any attention to the floor. Her broad behind stretching her
tight jeans. My comfy cushion, Felix had called it. She stops in front of the apartment door, pulls out the key.
“He wanted this back a long time ago,” she said. “You’re never coming in here again.”
She stares into the distance. To hear his words coming out of her mouth makes me wonder
how long he’d been saying things like that. We ring the bell. No answer.
“Well, go ahead.”
She looks at me.
“It’s my responsibility,” I say.
She takes a breath.
It’s quiet in his apartment. There’s a weak light coming from a naked lightbulb. Manja steps
into the hallway, hesitates. The floor creaks with every step she takes. The wardrobe on the wall
to the left catches her eye. Empty hooks, waiting to snare jackets, stick up in the air. At the
bottom, a heap of old shoes, a pile of rags, torn shoelaces. Next to the wardrobe, the door to the bathroom. She turns around, pushes down the door handle and looks into the darkness.
My own body is frozen on the threshold. Only when Manja gestures to me, do my legs know
what to do. I’m a thief, breaking in, feeling my way forward. Manja whispers
I wait and imagine that I hear his voice, that I’ll see him walking through the door at the end
of the hall, his surprise, his anger maybe. I listen. But there isn’t a sound. I lean against the
apartment door, and I’m startled when it bangs shut behind me.
Wallpaper is peeling off in places on the high walls of the living room. Pieces of plaster lie in
the corners. The floorboards are wide wooden planks in dark red, tinged with brown.
“Synthetic ox-blood, looks like what’s left behind after a slaughter,” he said. “Why did they do that back then?”
He shook his head, no interest in sanding away the paint.
“I mean, come on! How long will I be staying here anyway?”
He put three fingers to his temple as if the thought gave him a headache. He hung on for four
years. Those floorboards never changed. During those four years, I moved twice. Felix stayed put.
Manja and I walk into the room, his den in the Wrangelkiez neighborhood. The heavy sofa
bed dominates the middle of the room. In front of it, on the wall to our left, there’s a table with
some plants and a small TV; next to that a turntable along with an amplifier. To the right is his
desk in front of the window which looks out on the courtyard. On the back wall is his wardrobe
and next to that, the entrance to the kitchen. Across from us are all his books. The long wall is
one big bookcase with shelves that he made himself, with the books sorted by size and color. Underneath, on the floor, runs a row of storage cubes. That’s where he keeps all the random records that he bought so many of. Radio plays for kids: Hui Buh, the Castle Ghost, Asterix in Britain.
“I say, could I just request a spot of milk in my hot water?”
He would imitate that accent and laugh at it over and over again. He had mixed every style of
music, classical concert records next to rock, electro next to hip-hop. In between, oldies like Peter Alexander and Hannes Wader appear out of nowhere.
“Post-Parental Stress Syndrome,” he once said. “You can never get away from it.”
A cacophony of music. In contrast, his reading is well organized. I discover Thomas Mann,
the complete works. The gray spines of the paperbacks line his bookshelf. He read chronologically, an hour or more every day. He researched when each of them was published.
More than once in the last few years, I have run into him on the U-Bahn, reading. He seemed
completely immersed, the book in his lap, his head bowed. For me his books would always be
foreign, would always be long lists of words, like his sentences. When he talked about them, I had the feeling that I had to resist with my entire body, that I had to push away each and every letter.
On a small table next to the sofa, I find a copy of War and Peace, an old edition with a gray
binding. On the cover there are two curved letters printed in gold: LT. The pages are bristling
with sticky notes, short keywords are scribbled in the margins, often with exclamation marks.
Yes! Look this up! Terrible!
I leaf through the book, find a sentence that he has circled, but I can’t figure out why.
A locomotive is moving. Someone asks: ‘What moves it?’ A peasant says the devil moves it.
Another man says the locomotive moves because its wheels go round. A third asserts that the
cause of its movement is the smoke which the wind carries away.
Manja is leaning against his desk supporting herself with her hands on the workspace. The
muscles in her arms flex. Her glance takes in the sofa, the bookcase, and the spines of the
books. She’s inspecting, comparing, looking for anything that has changed, for things that are out of place.
To me the room seems lifeless. Or abandoned. The leaves of a few of the plants on the
windowsill are already turning brown. There’s no trace of any clothes. Manja pushes away from the table and goes into the kitchen. I hear cabinet doors squeak, water running from the faucet. A loud crack when she flips the switch on the hot water kettle.
There are things hanging in his closet that I’ve never seen before. Suits, dress shirts, sports
coats. The Felix I know wears old tennis shoes and jeans that are so loose they hang down past
his butt. And those t-shirts with weird things printed on them.
I push the hangers in the closet from left to right. Some of the things are still wrapped in the dry cleaner’s plastic bags and crackle when I touch them. There’s a rattle of porcelain behind me. It’s Manja. She comes up next to me, a steaming cup in her hands. I stare into the closet.
“Did you know. . .about all this stuff?”
She leaned against the doorframe, nodded slowly as if she had to concentrate to pluck
things out of her memory.
“For a couple of weeks now. What are you really looking for anyway?”
I shrug my shoulders.
“Some trace of him.”
“Why would he run away? All he did was take off from the bar.”
I turn around. At first glance the apartment is empty of any clues, even his desk is cleared
off. I remember it as a chaos of notes, pens, teapots, and books. But I just shrug.
“He hasn’t been here since. I would say that—” I hesitate. “No one has been here.”
She breathes in. Her nostrils flare. My first thought is that she is going to start laughing, but
then she nods with a worried look.
“When did he disappear?”
“Five days ago.”
“Maybe there’s something in his emails?”
The next surprise: a new black laptop that she pulls out of the desk drawer. She powers it on. The whir of the fan is the second sign of life in the apartment after the bubbling of the hot water kettle. Manja enters his password.
I’ve lost touch. I’ve lost the connection. I think of the photo that I saw on my last visit to
Hamburg on his mother’s kitchen cupboard. Two blond boys laughing into the camera. The one
with a head of wild curls and big, blue eyes, a delicate nose; the other with a bowl cut and little
green eyes shining out from it. The kid with the polo shirt next to the kid with the checkered shirt tucked in under the suspenders of his overalls. We’ve thrown our arms around each other’s shoulders.
The computer background shows a photo of a gray lake in the mountains. The shore is
divided into two parts: the green carpet of a pine forest abutting burned out stumps. Manja
catches my eye and nods. “Canada.”
It was two summers ago when he completely surprised me by boldly traveling alone to North
“I have to get out of here. Just get out,” he’d said.
When he came back, his face had some color, and he would laugh a lot. He started studying,
writing articles for newspapers. Soon we were together again in clubs and bars. And he was
sitting there smoking and gesturing as often as ever.
I open his email program. There’s a new message:
thanks for your email. i’m in france until the end of june.
if i’m around, you can stay with me any time. just let me know.
I ask Manja who Hanna is. She comes over, stands behind me. Her breath caresses the
back of my neck. I can smell her, a cheap floral scent almost masking the sharp smell of sweat
and onions. She’s silent for a moment, breathes softly through her nose.
“I’ve lost track.” She laughs. “None of my business anymore, is what he told me.”
I go through his contacts. Hanna Bechtel, with her email address. I try to recall the name, but
can’t. When I click on reply, Manja puts her hand on my shoulder.
“So now you’re going to write to all the women in his life?”
I type a few letters, then delete them immediately. Manja’s presence is a heavy weight on
me. I want to find him. Manja acts like she could care less. This angry girlfriend bothers me,
confuses me. Her presence is a continuous commentary running in my head: What you’re doing
is nonsense. He’s coming back.
I close out his emails and shut his laptop.
“Had enough already?”
She grins, puts her cup on the desk and heads toward the bathroom. Quickly I open the
computer again, go to his emails and put Hanna’s address in my cell phone.
I hear the toilet flush. My eyes wander for a second, then rest on something behind the desk
at the windowsill. In the corner under the handle, I spy a thick black leather-bound book.
Nothing printed on it. A notebook maybe. I reach for it, put it on the desk in front of me. It’s
bulging with scraps of paper, some of them sticking out from the sides.
I pull back my hands. Manja comes close to me, picks up the books and flips through a few
“Must be exciting for you. But not today. I have to go.”
She holds the book in her hand, thumps it shut. Her look tells me to leave, pushes me out of
the apartment. We’re like two magnets, I think, repelling each other. Or something else. I stand
up. She puts the book down on the desk and follows me into the hall.
Back home again, I see my own apartment with new eyes. But before that: the trip home
over the Spree on my bike, the long incline of Warschauer Strasse, to the right the brick
archways of the U-Bahn viaduct, with iron bars in front of smudged windows and wooden
shutters, advertisements for concerts, meditation classes. Above me, the trains roar. It was a
struggle, I pedaled until I was out of breath. Carrying my bike, I ran up the steps to the fourth
floor, my back soaked with sweat. I knew I would be alone when the key turned twice in the lock.
In the long hallway my body can expand, the pressure that covered me like a second skin, is
released. In the kitchen there is still the smell of food from the night before; it’s coming from a
pan with bits of dried pasta stuck to it. I stick my finger into wizened mushrooms covered with a
beige glue that used to be cream. For the first time in a few hours, I think of Sarah, who is on
the road, as always. I think of her endlessly chasing leads that will turn into stories. I try to
remember what her appointment was today, could have been a press conference, maybe an
In the living room toward the front of the huge sofa, there is a stack of newspapers. She calls
it research. I call it the inability to part with old papers. I go to the shelves at the front of the
room, turn on the radio. I hear voices talking fast, summoning the listener to call in. It’s time for
Questions for Parliament, that talk-show nonsense. On the dining room table in the middle of
the room, my laptop is hiding under a pile of her books.
My name is Jakob, and I’m a friend of Felix’s. Unfortunately, he has been on the road for a few
days without telling anyone where he went. I saw in one of his emails, that he asked you for a
place to stay. Have you heard from him? It would be great if you could let me know if he
contacts you or shows up at your place.
I start it three times. A friend of Felix’s. Felix’s best friend. A friend of Felix’s. A best friend
would know where he’s disappeared to. For a best friend, the “why” wouldn’t be a blank to be
filled in. Maybe there’s a friend somewhere that he has told all this to. Maybe I can find that
Excerpted from Hannes Köhler, In Spuren, mairisch Verlag, Hamburg, 2011