Issue 5

Table of Contentsfor Issue 5

Street art: X times People Chair

Cover illustration: Street art: X times People Chair
Projekt: x-mal Mensch Stuhl
© Projekt: Angie Hiesl
© Foto: Roland Kaiser
Performerin: Gisela Oehlschläger

It’s hard to believe, but no man’s land has just turned five, and (perhaps we shouldn’t say this too loudly) seems to be thriving on a total lack of funding. With nearly double the submissions to choose from this year, we’ve put together perhaps our best, and certainly widest-ranging, issue to date.

For the first time we’ve included a piece that is distinctly of a different era, though it appeared only in 2007, 30 years after the author’s death – an excerpt from Werner Bräunig’s legendary, banned GDR novel Fairground. The issue includes several other older, indeed canonical writers. Bohemian par excellence Jörg Fauser. Siegfried Lenz, whose elusive “guest worker” offers a rejoinder, thirty years later, to Germany’s shrill debate on integration (pace Thilo Sarrazin). Volker Braun, who examines with equal keenness the abyss between haves and have-nots in contemporary South America. The Austrian Gerhard Roth, with a flight of satirical “anti-aphorisms” from his monumental novel triptych.

A sharp political edge is also felt in the work of younger writers such as Dietmar Dath, with his exuberant demolition job “Germany Shuts Up Shop” (again, pace Sarrazin), and Peter Licht, whose manic monologue garnered him awards at the Bachmann Competition in 2007. That year’s main Bachmann Prize winner Lutz Seiler joins us as well with the exquisitely-turned “Frank”. We also present two voices from the German Institute for Literature in Leipzig, Johanna Hemkentokrax and Kai Gero Lenke, in seamless translations by a seminar group at the Martin Luther University in Halle – a highly promising collaboration between young writers and translators. Meanwhile, Czech-born Milena Oda harks back to Eastern European traditions of the grotesque.

Writers working in German as their second language are playing an increasingly important role in the German literary scene: one fine example is the acclaimed Bulgarian-German poet Tzveta Sofronieva. We also find poets experimenting with English, as in Lars-Arvid Brischke’s translations of his own work, and Ulrike Draesner’s virtuoso reworkings of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The issue is rounded out with poetry by two more up-and-coming graduates of the “Leipzig School”, Ulrike Almut Sandig and Claudia Kohlus. And we welcome back Marcus Roloff and – continuing what has become a tradition – Fitzgerald Kusz in Glaswegian.

Last but not least, we’ll update the issue with a documentation of whatever bizarre bilingual doings transpire when “The Igel Flies Tonight” with star poets Ann Cotten and Monika Rinck on November 24 in the CCCP Club – celebrating five years of no man’s land!

Isabel Cole, Katy Derbyshire, Clemens Kuhnert, Alistair Noon, Liesel Tarquini: Editors,  no man’s land



Issue 5


Twin Spin (Shakespeare’s Sonnets)

Berlin, Paris, New York
Love Poem

Day laborer

listen, there’s no a soun noo …
gaun tell us it, sir! …

my gleiwitz

this draught from talk

Un-lost in translation
Landscapes, shore


What’s coming?

Germany Shuts Up Shop

End Your Youth

What Comes from Outside

The Story of my Evaluation at the Beginning of the Third Millenium

As in Gogol

Call Me Servant

The Age of Time



Author: Lars-Arvid Brischke
Translator: Lars-Arvid Brischke

pontius pilate washes his hands
with honey he washes his feet with milk his face
he washes his rear his brain his money
his nameplate beside the bell
we wash his billboards,
with milk with honey we wash
the traffic signs that implore
interdict & instruct
pontius washes his hands with milk
his money his face we see
in the mirror our daily mirror again
in the rearview mirror we wash our faces
with our hands with honey
our brains & our bottoms pilate
washes his hands
with milk his face his feet with honey
his money in our brains
we pull his instructions implorations
& interdictions from his rear
we depict we reflect & wash
one of pontius’ hands in honey in milk
one of pilate’s feet in our rear
in our face in our brain
milk & honey are a cashflow from pontius
to pilate we wash
implorations interdictions instructions in our poem
one hand washes our brain
while the other washes our eyes
our faces are
pilate & pontius we are
with hands & feet we wipe ourselves
from memory
& everything will be clean
but nothing will be clear.


Translation and original © Lars-Arvid Brischke

Twin Spin (Shakespeare’s Sonnets)

Author: Ulrike Draesner
Translator: Tom Cheesman


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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin, Paris, New York
Love Poem

Author: Jörg Fauser
Translator: Martina Law

Berlin, Paris, New York

I have seen big cities
and I have always loved the big cities,
their women, their bars, their
twilights before the roar
of the machines and the storming
of the Bastille,

Berlin, Paris, New York,
a street corner in Schöneberg
excites me more deeply
than the snow
on Mount Blanc
or the forests
in the lower Taunus,

I have seen the beauty
of big cities, the splendor
of their avenues, the misery
of the masses and the destruction
of the individuals,

I have loved the big cities
and I love them as well
in their decline,

it’s not the big cities
which destroy the people,
but rather the laws
which do not form people
but strangle them instead,

I was formed by the big cities,
what I saw, what I suffered, what I became
I thank a mother of stone,
the big city,
and tomorrow, when my time is up,
it will be the big city
which buries me.



Love Poem

When we loved each other,
we didn’t love ourselves.

When we declared war on each other,
we already gave ourselves up as defeated.

When we were beaten,
we gave history the blame.

When we were alone,
we drowned it out with music.

When we split up,
we stayed in the same place.

And soon we lay in each other’s arms again
and called it a love poem,

but no love poem explains to us
the fear of love,

and why the sky was so blue
when we met each other,

and why it will still be so blue
when we die,

you by yourself,
me by myself.


Originals © Jörg Fauser, Alexander Verlag, Berlin
Translations © Mark Terrill


Day laborer

Author: Claudia Kohlus
Translator: Martina Law

always a step ahead
always in the hollows
in the field
their fingers
in the soil
like every year
(scabbed-over memories
in a wind-protected sleep)
& down in the village
against all attributes
the maids’ bellies
were growing big


Original © Claudia Kohlus
Translation © Martina Law

listen, there’s no a soun noo …
gaun tell us it, sir! …

Author: Fitzgerald Kusz
Translator: Donal McLaughlin

Franconian by Fitzgerald Kusz Glaswegian by Donal McLaughlin
zwaa maaddlä schdeing
in kalchraid assm zuuch:
su könnäd ä romoon oofangä
obbä in kalchraid
fangä ka romoon oo
two lassies get aff
the train in carluke:
the start ae a book it kid be
cept: hiv ye ever heard ae a book
startin in carluke?
Kalchreuth/two girls get off/the train in kalchreuth:/the start of a novel it could be/except in kalchreuth/novels don’t start
English by Donal McLaughlin
horch edz is allers
ganz leis, blouß
di muggn häiersd brummä
und dä wind gäihd
durch di bamm
edz mäimä langsam hamm
bevuäs findä werd
sunsd ferchdimi
ganz allaans mid diä
im wald. sooch hald wos,
du wos allers bassiän koo
neili houi glesn dou houd
annä liebesbohre däschossn
im wald. hobb gemmä
miä is dou einfach zleis –
sooch hald wos
listen, there’s no a soun noo,
it’s jist the midgies ye hear
an’ the wind
in the trees
we’ll hiv tae heid home soon
afore it gets dark
ah’ll be afraid otherwise
all alane wi you
in the forest
say sumthin, will ye
aw the things that can happen eh
ah wis readin there recently
someone’s been goin roun
shootin at couples,
in the forest an’ aw!
come on, let’s go!
it’s faur too quiet fur me here
say sumthin, will ye
listen! it’s gone silent/all you hear/is the midges humming/and the wind/in the trees/we’ll have to head home soon/before it gets dark/otherwise i’ll be afraid/all alone with you/in the forest/say something/all sorts of things can happen/i was reading recently/someone was shooting couples/in the forest. come on, let’s go!/it’s just too quite for me here/say something!
English by the editors
hä lehrä
däziehlns uns mall
däi schäinä gschichd
däi schäinä gschichd
vom gräich
wäis gschossn hamm
im schidzngroom
aff däi bäisn
bäisn feind
däziehlns uns mall
vo iäm luuch
des wos dou hamm
im kubf
vo derä bäisn kugl
vom bäisn feind
däi gschichd
däi is su schäi
hä lehrä
soongs doch mall
wenn kummd denn ball
wenn kummd denn ball
dä nächsde gräich
gaun tell us it, sir!
it’s a cracker!
tell us again!
the wan
aboot the war
hoo ye fired
frae the trenches
at they totally evil
tell us again – gaun!
aboot the hole
the wan in yir heid
frae they cunts’
evil bullet
it’s a cracker
thon story
tell us
wul we hiv tae wait long
hiv tae wait long
fur oor ain war?
sir/go on – tell us/that great story/that great story/about the war/how you fired/from the trenches/at evil,/evil foes/go on – tell us/about the hole/the one in your head/from the evil foe’s/evil bullet/it’s great that story/sir/go on – tell us/is it goney be soon/is it goney be soon/the next war
English by Donal McLaughlin
liebe love

gechern hungä
hilfd ä schdücklä broud

gechern dorschd
hilfd ä schlücklä wassä

gechern reeng
hilfd ä scherm

gecher di käld
hilfd ä mandl

obbä gecher diich
hilfd nix!

agin hunger
a bit o breid helps

agin a drooth
a drap o water helps

agin the rain
a brolly helps

agin the cauld
a coat helps

agin you but
fuck-all helps

love/against hunger/a bit of bread helps/against thirst/a drop of water helps/against rain/an umbrella helps/against the cold/a coat helps/but against you/nothing helps
English by Donal McLaughlin
muggn fly
däi frau vuä miä
in dä schdraßnbohn
wou zeä rolln gloobabiä
zum schboäbreis umarmd
wous houdn däi dou
in meim gedichd väluän?
edz is drin:
ä muggn im bernschdein
the woman in frontae me
oan the tram
huggin ten rolls
o bargain toilet-paper
whit business his she
in ma poem?
Aye, well, she’s in it noo:
like a fly in amber
fly/the woman in front of me/on the tram/hugging ten rolls/of bargain toilet paper/what business has she/in my poem?/now she’s in it:/a fly in amber
English by the editors
deä wech is es ziel
du redsd di leichd:
iich find inn wech ned
the way is the goal.
easy said, like. me, ah
cannae find the way
the way is the goal/easy for you to say:/i can’t find the way
English by the editors
hobb, raus assm bedd
reiß alle fensdä auf:
di amseln singä widdä
mon, up oot yir bed
get they windaes open
blackburdz ur back, singin
come on, get out of bed/throw open all the windows:/the blackbirds are singing again
English by the editors


my gleiwitz

Author: Marcus Roloff
Translator: Jeremy Balius

my gleiwitz

the long holidays beforehand & now / the neither-nor-
light at six a.m. // on the 1st of september a night-
shirt all tangled up / a nightmare jammed in the folds
of the cushion // from the cabinet a tumbling swift
or rather a jump / (a re-pre-metaphor) like the dusk under
the bedcover // & behind the window of the children’s room
the heimat of school full of empty idols and water
pistols / begins on the day of the attack on poland //



on the european route to zagreb sawn out of
the region one afternoonlifted at night

ram shackled by bullet holes of thoughts & volleys
of the plastic sheet above the MOSOR & KOZJAK

and charcoal from three days ago all fallen litter
crumbled moonlightand the random

look-back lands (the airport’s reopened)
somewhere in the area mined by tv


Originals © Marcus Roloff
Translations © Jeremy Balius

this draught from talk

Author: Ulrike Almut Sandig
Translator: Bradley Schmidt

this draught from talk: tangled syllables
at the bottom of lungs, the delicate limbs
of serifs on tongues, the smell of damp
paper. tell me about eurasia, about the clean
CUT of the mountain range in our frozen

CENTER, urals, and about what follows,
this bird destination, where huts are built
from corrugated tin and tar, styrofoam, where semi-
somnolent rats devour stories, and rivers
are filthy with flowers and flesh, where they

speakand constantly drink tea, where they greet and
diethe one is always the one: listen

Original © Ulrike Almut Sandig
Translation © Bradley Schmidt

Un-lost in translation
Landscapes, shore

Author: Tzveta Sofronieva
Translator: Chantal Wright

Un-lost in translation

The window at the front and right of my compartment
reflects the scene on the left at my rear.
I can see what is passing superimposed on
what is coming, and it is as though the light
likes this game, irrespective of where the sun is,
or where the train is heading.


Landscapes, shore

By the sea in Heiligendamm
in June, the water, gigantic,
silver, eats up skin and
spits out naked bodies.

Between the lakes, to the north,
the sun yields of its own volition,
the way only the south can yield,
the birches darken in amazement.

By the river, to the east,
pearls ripen in fig hearts,
amber-coloured resignation,
and the pebbles shine.

With hope
—that dirty word—
here, between
the fences and the shores.



Wheels and people cross over me
my arms and legs are outstretched
nails dug into sand dunes
my vertebrae do not crack
I cannot see who is crossing
my face stares into water: Siddharta’s river


Originals © Tzveta Sofronieva
Translations © Chantal Wright


Author: Werner Bräunig
Translator: Steven Rendall

The night of October 12 was silent in the German forests; a weary wind crept over the fields, shuffled through the darkened cities of year four after Hitler, crawled eastward past the Elbe in the early dawn, climbed over the crest of the Ore Mountains, plucked at the banners that hung limply in the ruins of Magdeburg, made its way discreetly down through the Etterberg beech woods to the statue of the two great thinkers and the houses of the still greater forgetters, stirred up the dust of lignite mines, billowed for a moment the huge flag in front of Berlin University on Unter den Linden, trickled over the sandy plains of Brandenburg and finally disappeared into the lowlands east of the Oder.
It was a cool night, and people shivered in their poorly heated apartments. The autumn chill stole into their embraces and their loneliness, their hopes and their indifference, their dreams and their doubts.
Now speeches had died away, demonstrations were over, proclamations rotated between the cylinders of the newspapers’ printing presses. Streets and squares steamed in the morning sun. The first shift was heading for the factories. Posters faded in the wind.

On this morning, October 13, Hermann Fischer awoke earlier than usual. At first he thought he’d been awakened by the cold. But then he heard the laborious growl of the SIS buses grinding up the mountain in second gear, and suddenly he was wide awake, thinking: the new ones are coming. The thirty or forty men without whom they might barely manage to keep the mine going for another two or three days, maybe another week, if nothing out of the ordinary happened–no gallery collapse, no washed-out roads, no conveyor breakdown. For two weeks the mine officials had been screaming, writing, telephoning; Fischer had almost given up hope. Yesterday, however, the team leader had suddenly called him. And Fischer now knew it was not just the cold that made him so exhausted; it was also not knowing whether at the last moment someone would snatch the new workers away from him.
Fischer got up. As he did every morning, he turned the radio on without looking. He went into the washroom, quickly poured a pitcher of water over his neck, rubbed himself dry with the linen hand towel. When he came back into the bedroom, the loudspeaker was droning the morning news through the barracks. As we work today, someone had said, so we will live tomorrow. Next door somebody knocked on the wall. Fischer turned the radio a little lower.
The rubber boots were still damp, though he’d stuffed them with old newspapers the night before. And the heavy leather jacket still smelled of musty, brackish water. As he went by, he looked at himself in the old shaving mirror next to the door, the sunken, stubbly cheeks, the tired eyes. Then he went out.
The camp manager was already standing by the door; he was surly, as usual, and replied to Fischer’s greetings with an indifferent nod. The air was less damp than it had been the day before. Fischer heard the rumbling of the blasting, which had been muffled by the rain the past few days. Over in Devil’s Gorge they were opening new shafts. It was already so light that he could see down into the valley. He made out the silhouette of the paper mill’s chimney, over which light gray clouds drifted very slowly from Bohemia. It was one of the largest paper mills in Europe, but up here hardly anyone noticed it. People had lost a clear sense of scale since this immense mining operation had been thrust into the mountains almost overnight, reaching from Saxony to Thuringia: Wismut AG.
During these rainy days the last few kilometers of the temporary road they’d built through the forest two years earlier had been flooded. The SIS buses stopped a thousand meters down the mountain.
From the edge of the barracks camp Fischer watched the column of new workers creeping up the mountain. They plodded along bent over, sometimes stumbling under the weight of their trunks and backpacks. Many wore low shoes; occasionally, when they got off the narrow clinker path that was what remained of the road, they sank into the mire. Their coats were creased and gray. Gray like this October morning, with its cold sky, its motionless fir trees, and the moldy smell of rotting stumps. Fischer tried to count them, but their heads bobbed up and down, constantly changing positions, and he finally gave up.
He thought: That’s how I once arrived here. He looked at the colorless, silent figures trudging toward him, and all at once he felt the weariness of his half a century creeping up on him. He could sing a song about these marches into uncertainty. These dawns that did not know what evening would bring. Yesterday, as he marched alongside Zacharias in the demonstration, for a moment he’d felt free and full of strength. For a few hours he was young again and unbent by the burden of the trials he’d gotten through and not gotten through. But today was an ordinary day again. Today he was a foreman again, responsible for production, which was already down to 92 percent. He was party secretary again and responsible for these new workers; hopefully at least one or two of them were party members. In these first post-war years the fate of the world depended for one eternal-seeming moment on the production of the German uranium mines, and Fischer was one of the few who knew that. Atomic energy—that was a matter of life or death. The world had already seen Hiroshima. Fischer watched tomorrow’s Sunday sinking under a mountain of little tasks; he was tired, very tired, in the past week he’d hardly taken off his boots.
From the camp came the clatter of coffee pots, the shuffle of rubber boots on the wooden steps in front of the barracks; the mates on the first shift were getting their coffee from the kitchen. Fischer looked over the new men again; he could now distinguish their faces, and he thought for a moment: what could be in these heads, behind the downcast foreheads, under these shocks of hair? Then he turned around and went back to the camp. Smoke trickled from the chimneys, a few fellows had opened windows and let the morning air into the bedrooms. He walked along the green picket fence that separated the mine area from the camp, greeted the Soviet sentry looking down from his hatch in the watchtower; a young fellow, maybe nineteen or twenty, obviously dying of boredom in his wooden perch. Finally he went into the admission barracks, the most boring of these thirty wooden buildings.
The camp manager was sitting in the office, sharpening a pencil. He hardly looked up when Fischer came in. He pushed his notebook into position and asked: “How many?”
“About forty,” Fischer said.
Then he went to the telephone and had the operator connect him with the Soviet mine director. You could call Polotnikov at any time of the day or night; in some mysterious way he always managed to be reachable. He had been a tank officer during the war, had driven from Moscow to Berlin in his T-34, over the Volga, over the Vistula, over the Oder. He maintained a reserved, almost distrustful attitude toward his German fellow workers, and even toward German party comrades. Polotnikov’s office always smelled a little of vodka, and the shaft director said: “Polotnikov drinks like a cavalryman and can handle even nitric acid.” In any case, he was able to work twenty hours a day.
Fischer told him about the new workers’ arrival.
“Forty?” Polotnikov said. “I can tell you exactly how many: thirty-eight. Pick out fifteen for the middle shift.”
As they talked, the new workers assembled in front of the barracks. Fischer could see them through the window. They were setting down their trunks and bundles, a few rolled cigarettes, and several stood in small groups. Most of them sat on their trunks and stared straight ahead. Many were still very young.
Fischer saw squatting on a bundle close to the window a skinny guy who was eighteen at most, and he thought: God’s sake, the new Germany is off to a brilliant start! Looked like he was about to keel over. And he will, too, Fischer thought. Thirty times down the shaft, thirty times back up, a hundred and eighty meters, every day, boring holes without a brace, working double shifts, and filling bottomless ore wagons . . . He looked at them standing there, with their army backpacks and gray wooden trunks from the P.O.W. camps, he saw twenty-two-three-four-year-olds with the restless, distrustful, watchful eyes of homeless refugees, and only here and there a confident look. Many of them had grown up without ever having had a chance to be young.
The camp manager had gone out to explain to them, in his grumpy way, what was going to happen in the coming minutes and hours.
Christian Kleinschmidt thought: So this is Wismut. Barracks, dirt, wooden shaftheads that didn’t inspire much confidence, more dirt, and this wrinkled little man who hardly moved his lips when he spoke. The little man was mumbling something about registration, meal tickets, wool blankets, and kitchen hours. He stood there solemnly like Mark the evangelist at the feeding of the five thousand. But he, Christian Kleinschmidt, didn’t give a damn about the Gospels. And especially about the Gospel of good and sufficient food—if you worked hard enough, of course. He thought: Here you are, with your high school diploma in your pocket, and this letter indefinitely postponing your enrollment at the university, but recommending, as a consolation, that in the interim you devote yourself to practical work. Ore mining is in urgent need of workers. Here you stand, you can do no other, and don’t expect God to help you, amen. Unfortunately, he’d chosen a father wholly unfit for these times, he should have been more careful eighteen years ago, when he was brought into this world.
The little man was saying: damage to the linens received will be deducted from your salary, losses will be deducted, stopping work early will result in deductions, wanton destruction… Christian nudged his neighbor, but he just looked dully in front of him.
Very talented, his teacher had said, very talented. At any rate, “former Herr Private First Class” Buttgereit was allowed to go back to teaching. Back then he’d done faithfully and dutifully what he was ordered to do; now, once again, he knew exactly how things were: crooked, straight, right, wrong. When he had time, he’d studied the “Communist Manifesto.” Had not been a Nazi. Now he trotted out the proletarians of all countries as he once had Hans Fritzsche and the Völkischer Beobachter.
But he, Christian Kleinschmidt, was allowed to carry stones and break his skull in this mine. Of course, there was no collective guilt; the great Stalin had expressly said that in the article they’d chewed their way through twice. And what the great Stalin said was simply the truth, unanimous, period.
They hadn’t exactly made it fun for him. Buttgereit hadn’t, and certainly Göring, the Russian teacher, hadn’t. Göring had the whole school against him. It was too much to have a Russian teacher named Göring, of all things, they all agreed about that. The students had taken a red pencil to homework that had been corrected and handed back, underlining words that were correct to make it look as though Herr Göring had marked them wrong, and then gone to the head’s office to complain about his incompetence. The head believed them, and for three days Göring crept sheepishly around the school building; he thought he knew all the tricks, but he hadn’t heard of this one, and hadn’t even been able to hang anything on them. Christian had once managed to write a large, bright “PG” for Nazi party member on the back of Buttgereit’s blue double-breasted coat. Buttgereit strutted around the schoolyard during the whole ten o’clock recess like that. The other teachers pretended not to see anything; he wasn’t very popular with them, either. Christian had been the school hero for a week, and Buttgereit had never found out who’d played this prank on him. But he had avenged himself in his own way on everyone he suspected. Little Pinselstein, for instance, whom he had slowly but surely worn down by constantly putting black marks on his class record and sending notes home to his parents for the smallest offenses. Buttgereit knew that Pinselstein’s father, a prominent attorney, would punish his son.
In the meantime, the camp manager had been given the roster by the man accompanying the recruits, and began to call out their names: Ahnert, Bertram, Billing, Buchmeier… After every fourth name he gave a barracks and room number, and the men called picked up their trunks and bundles and went slowly into the camp. Daumann, Dombrowski, Drescher, Eilitz …
It’s not the worst thing in the world, his father had said. Work isn’t dishonorable. He had a proverb ready for every situation, his quotation, his way of talking. Sometimes it helped, too. Erhardt, Feller, Fichtner, Fuhlgrabe … And he’d said: Just keep your nose to the wind, that can’t hurt. There were also times when the wind didn’t blow, God knows. And then they took the Theodor Körner statue off its pedestal, because Körner was a war propagandist, and Buttgereit was very emphatic about it. However, it was put back a little while later, an oversight, so to speak. The fact that with the best score in class 12b he was not allowed to go on to the university, whereas others, who got through by the skin of their teeth, were gladly admitted because their fathers happened to be metal workers or had joined the right party at the right time, that was surely also an oversight… Hunger, Illgen, Irrgang, Kaufmann … Truly times when the wind was not blowing. Not that he was afraid of the mine, not at all. And even if he was, he wouldn’t show it. Kleinschmidt, Loose, Mehlhorn, Müller…
They started out to find barrack no. 24 The group of men waiting had shrunk; there might have been fifteen or sixteen. It was now full daylight, the sky shimmered very blue under the light gray clouds, and sometimes the sun threw a bundle of rays over the land. But it still smelled putrid, the streets between the barracks were ankle-deep in mud, the earth steamed.
Christian walked behind the three others. The fat guy in front of him was Mehlhorn. Christian had been standing close to him just now, when Mehlhorn roared out his staunch “Here!” Mehlhorn carried a military knapsack filled with stuff; under the straps a piece of newspaper peeped out. Christian could decipher a headline: Margarine is healthier. Whenever butter was in short supply in Germany, the chemists started talking about how digestible margarine was.
The red numbers on the barracks walls were faded, of some of them only a few bits of color remained. Fat Mehlhorn asked a fellow who was washing off his rubber boots with a garden hose where building no. 24 was. They ‘d already gone too far, missed the turn, the house was a little outside the camp, on a hill. They turned around.
They shuffled over the slippery ground between the tree stumps, between the colorless clumps of grass, between the monotone barracks, all of them cold and bleak, avoided the puddles, sometimes slipped, pulled their feet out of the mud and shuffled on. Christian was exhausted after his sleepless night down below, in the yard of the mine management office, in the crowded, badly sprung bus; the straps of his rucksack cut into his shoulders, his trunk hung like a lump of lead from his numb arm. He straightened his back, stood up and shifted the rucksack higher, but immediately lapsed back into a hunched-over posture that made it hard to breathe and compressed his ribs. He could no longer say which way they’d gone, one corner looked just like the rest, one bricked-up window like all the others, the damp rising from the ground shimmered before his eyes, the buildings moved toward him, swaying as if they were about to collapse. The panes will crack, the roofs sink in, all that was lacking was the flames, detonations, the red sky and the cries, driven mad by fear and heat and fire, but the earth moved beneath him as it did then. His father walked in front of him, stumbling, his rucksack weighed him down, that enormous chunk of canvas, margarine is better for your health, but he sensed that his mother was no longer behind him, Mother, wait. They didn’t wait. They kept on stumbling forward. Right behind him a wall fell down with a rushing sound, a stone hit him on the shoulder, knocked him to the ground, he struggled back to his feet, just keep going farther, farther, the people in front of him weren’t waiting, the city was going under, the world was going under, farther. But he couldn’t go any farther. He threw himself down on the smoking pile of rubble, where just now there had been streets, he scraped his hands bloody, he screamed. A burning beam had pinned down the man next to him. He did not feel the monstrous wave that lifted him up and let him down again, he clung to the base of a bent-over street lamp; iron girders, window-sills, people whirled over his head, but the bomb had fallen where there was no longer a building, it could only hurl the already buried bodies back into the air again. They were dropping high-explosive bombs on the burning city, high-explosive bombs after the firebombs, and more and more phosphorous canisters. The burning phosphorous ate into the stones, crept nearer, streetcar rails twisted out of the pavement, the air rushed into the lungs like glowing lava, the deafened eardrums no longer heard the cries, then he suddenly saw the dog, the little black dog with the singed fur that pressed itself up against him, trembling and panting, shoved its head under his arm in order not to have hear and see. And he stood up again, a screaming shadow. Something swept overhead, a burning plane that tore off the little chimneys and exploded against the burning tower of a burning church a kilometer farther on. He staggered on, in the smoke, between the bursting walls, past a woman, a torch that ran headlong into an advertising pillar, and the singed black dog trotted around his legs, whining. He came into a street that sloped down before him, the asphalt hot and sticky; he didn’t know where he was. But he had a goal. He was looking for the pond with the little island and a narrow walk along the bank, the green heart beneath the stony breast of the city. He walked and staggered under the red sky, criss-crossed by the yellow fingers of the searchlights, under the white light of the target flares that slowly floated down. With rattling lungs he gasped for breath as he went along the row of pale yellow streetcars, barracks, streetcars, barracks, further, further …


From Rummelplatz by Werner Bräunig
© Aufbau Verlag, Berlin 2007
Translation © Steven Rendall