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What’s coming?

Author: Volker Braun
Translator: Tom Cheesman

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As Jorge, grubby, tired, still on the lookout on Avenida Atlântica, his business taken care of, put out his empty hand (this was a tick) in front of a passer-by, like a hungry tongue or as proof of his useless, dangerous existence, this man, instead of avoiding him on his slim, pointed shoes, gave him a penetrating look and grabbed him with his little paws: Borges, thus assaulted, at once rebelliously weary of it! and somewhat under the influence of the beer drunk hastily at the barraca, took firm hold of the young bastard by his thin brown arm and led him, after an exchange: what’s your name, how old are you, almost violently over the road and straight up to an entrance and steered the struggling figure past the porter into the shiny lift which slid up to the top floor.

Borges pushed the boy through several iron doors into the studio. He let the phone ring (the whole world was wanting to know how he was); he concentrated on his shocked guest. A cross-breed, face closed, experienced, little arms with great chiselled hands, knees covered in scabs. The t-shirt hung out of the trousers, the trainers in shreds. Have you no decency? asked Borges and ignored the question, the basics were called for. Have you eaten? Wash yourself, he said and opened the bathroom door for the lad, and Jorge, unsure of the old man’s intentions, undressed with challenging slowness. Borges mixed the water and poured in an essence which he whipped to foam. Wash, he ordered, from crown to sole. Jorge followed his instructions unwillingly, was rinsed under a cold shower and had to rub himself dry with a large soft towel, which the master folded onto his shoulders. Then Borges brought him clothes, his slight old body matched the boy’s, and he had to get into the trousers and jacket, fighting back tears of shame. He did not like these preparations; and for what? Borges meanwhile, in a small windowless room, set out plates and glasses and prepared a meagre supper, sternly commanding the suddenly shy boy to help himself. And discovered, in Jorge’s fist, which he must have kept closed through the entire proceedings, a razorblade, and Jorge, caught out, untouchable, smiled winningly.

At this moment it became clear to Borges that he would not be sending this catch away, not today nor tomorrow. He had to share his flat with the beast. They were in a trap; their reflexes had stumbled them into it; each opaque to the other. Just seventy or eighty years divided them, they were contemporaries. In the long run (Borges thought generously) they couldn’t avoid each other. They need only survive the night.

He showed the boy a place to sleep and lay down in his room. Jorge expected the unexpected and searched for his belongings, but could not find them in the huge room. He came across piles of books, table tops, a rack on which tracing paper rustled. What was he here for? He was not in the habit of doing somebody else’s will. Others, older ones were obsessed with that; when they were out of it, they didn’t care, stoned they did it. On the beach, at Posto 8, a man had offered him money, more and more, till he could resist no longer. It was a way of making money without commitments. To earn his reais by stealing or short-changing demanded more thought and daring. That was ruling over events. – He shifted about on the bed in the soft outfit; did he have to take it off, did it belong to him? Adverse questions. The collar smelled indefinably sweet, he thrust his neck out. Where should he piss? He needed a piss. But he feared that the master might hear his clumsiness. There had been no talk of money, was he cheating him? To be tricked, abused, was despicable to him. Tomorrow, early, he will force the conclusion, he thought angrily, until sleep overcame him.

In the morning an immense brightness surrounded him. He was lying under the sky, yet in a bed. An endless window let it in; even the walls shone. Jorge got up quickly and gazed into the open room. Two young men, bent over tables, stared over to him smiling. He stood unhappily in his outfit, a figure of mockery. How to defend himself? But Borges appeared. This is Jorge, he said. These are my assistants, Joâo, Osman. And turning to him: Tudo bem? – All right, replied Jorge. Good, said Borges seriously. You know where the bathroom is. Jorge cautiously opened the tap and held his fingers beneath it. He heard the old guy give the men instructions, they waved their arms over great white sheets of paper hanging on yard-arms like sails. The room seemed to fly. Ready, my friend? Borges asked, disapprovingly. Your breakfast is on the table. Don’t keep me waiting tomorrow. Jorge chewed these completely incomprehensible sentences. White bread, butter, cheese, honey, a glass of milk. He hated all the unpleasantness. He stood more than sat, ready to flee.

After an hour, left in peace – he had listened to the noises, the swish of pencils on paper, the phone calls, a strange sense of wellbeing was keeping him on the hard chair – he heard Borges say: What’s to become of you? What do you reckon, Senhor? Was he talking to one of the men? But they were looking at him. And Borges was standing in front of him: Speak. The boy leapt to the door. What do you want? asked the old man / the boy: What do you want?

I’ll tell you, Borges replied sternly. I want to get out on the street, Jorge returned. To beg? Bad. Jorge defiantly shook his head. To steal? He looked coldly into the old man’s eyes. That’s better. But it doesn’t pay, huh? – I don’t steal, Jorge murmured. – You steal time, bread, air. They stood facing, Borges with his hands in his pockets, Jorge also hiding his, and eyes to the floor. I want you to listen to me. We can talk man to man. We know the world … What’s the worst thing you’ve done? – Thing I’ve done? – Your worst crime. Jorge, unexpectedly, reflected. Running away from his mother: that was bad no doubt. When he was eight and fed up with starving. They searched for him for weeks in the morros, in the hipermercados. Thinking more harshly, selling his sister’s innocence, Julita, for 1500 reais. To Dantas the fish-seller in Lemo, giving her half. He stood with cheeks burning, yet saying nothing; Borges nodded at him, hearing nothing. No, said Borges, the worst crime is that you cannot read and write. Jorge kept quiet, he despised stupid talk. The worst is what’s coming… Borges freed him from the door, no resistance in his sinews. My worst deed – Borges laughed: voting for that sonofabitch Cardoso. Believing what he said … He crossed to the easel and drew a line. This is the land. This is a house. This is a school. Believing is the worst, when it’s possible to know. That they cheat you, Senhor. The landless of their land. Jorge was smiling too; this man-to-man talk made him dizzy. His voice weak, he called: I want to go! – That would be a crime, thought Borges, to let you go. If I were to send you away, huh?

The black maid came and Borges gave her the keys and the boy to watch, and went “to take care of something”. He lived high above but he had to walk the earth. He would stand in the noisy streets, when the shadows ran beneath the buildings and the outlines emerged clearly, and let his body be suffused. The din, the smells marinaded his senses, a humbling addiction of his. He had always returned to Rio, from continents. Nowhere was more beautiful and more fearsome. The city grew along the bays, up the hillsides. Cardoso, to get himself elected, had opened up the morros, so now homelessness was rampant. From his drawing-board Borges could see into the favelas. A restlessness in him needed the view upon misery. – As usual he went up the Ladeira do Leme and through the rubble across to Babilônia. The stench of excrement and putrid sludge; corrugated iron huts, plank architecture. The President has expressed mocking sympathy. The Plano real is redeveloping finer zones. Aldaiza’s door was open; Borges entered in silence. He avoided formalities, politeness, waste of time. A few lines must make much clear. Aldaiza was a whore, Borges the customer; a young thing of fifty years. So fair a marriage he had never had. They knew what they wanted from one another. They lay down under the dim roof. This lustful hour lengthened his life. But it was a game one had to pay for. They determined the stakes, but not the rules. POOR AND RICH, that was the rule of the world.

The rule was: him or me. Jorge, when he recognised that the old man was no threat, wondered what worse lay behind his taking. He could not imagine what kind of interest he had in him. Childish fuss; had the old man forgotten certain elementary things? That he, in this outfit, could not go out on the street. That this was no clothing for earning his bread in. That in the boys’ eyes, he would be exposed. And if he remained absent, would lose the power over them which he owed to his cleverness. He would no longer rule over events. – He stopped at a window, vexed; the city, in it his shimmering figure. He was afraid of entering another world. – He had to tell what had happened to him. Where he had come. There, behind the shimmering glass. He had inspected paradise; where he has access.

Teresa, the black maid, was washing up glasses. How could he get out unnoticed? Jorge went up to her from behind and pressed, setting his fantastic strength against the weariness of the girl’s, her throat shut with his lower arm. Teresa, shocked rigid, let him take the keys from her pocket and slide her, on leaden feet, to the door. The men in the next room heard nothing. Blood shot from Teresa’s nose onto his hand, her arms waved uselessly behind him. He let her free, showing his razorblade, she knelt on the floor gasping, while he sorted through the keys. There! he smiled. Stop, said Theresa. He took the key out of the opened door and placed it in his mouth, and laid the razorblade upon his accomplice’s tongue. How quiet she kept! about their betrothal; he ran down the stairs.

Borges, coming back, saw that his boarder had disappeared. Joâo and Osman gave him the bad news. They held Teresa in their arms, he poured her a glass of wine. – A dreadful lad, he’ll end on the gallows / the needle. – He’d taken him into his heart, could he become indifferent at the first opportunity? He must hold out a little in the face of the lout’s moods. But Borges was suddenly tired, he sent the assistants home. He stood before the sheets with their (his) sketches. He drew a line.

He: was ninety, he had walked through the century. The century has done what could be thought.

The boy: nine; a millennium, they were saying, was beginning.

Where was the connection? – As stated, everything had been tried. Inventions, plans, wars. Unheard-of puttings-into-practice, annihilations. On every continent, every idea had been exhausted. There had been words which now meant nothing: revolución in Mexico, socialismo in Peru, it had always been capitalism. In Russia they dreamed and ranted one more epoch. Globalization, that was the new belief. Never and nowhere had the ground which needed overturning been arrived at. – And after everything had been, and no hope had remained, the question was: What is coming?

Borges lay awake all night. Stupidity is coming, forgetting. He had no need to ask Osman and Joâo, his collaborators. They were decent creatures, set on his track. There was nothing to fear from them nor to expect. To them he could not make himself understood. The next to come, the children, would give the answer, the unknown ones, the monsters. They needed teaching, what’s uncertain mercilessly pointing out. The line so firm that it represents a possibility, and so thin that it offers no permanent solution.

Or a line beneath it, through it – . Borges was capable of tearing up this sheet: and on the contrary of saying that almost nothing yet was, had yet been thought. That there was no intelligence at all in things as they stand! And things as they stand, in sheer desperation, without lying in slogans, elementarily, call to uproar. Nothing endures; and what imagines itself secure has within it the germ of dissolution: outrage. A crude joy seized him; are not the best buildings built on ruins, and the price of living is death. The shining wall of tin / Cans, iron rations / Of consciousness, devoured / By the hunger for truth / That’s what’s for supper, camarade.

He heard a scraping, scrambling from the direction of the lift, subdued fighting. He lay falling asleep on the wire-frame bed, too weak to get up and investigate. Who was coming so uncouthly into the house? He was dreaming, or was he seeing ghosts? What was the noise of the world to him? A key slid into the lock, and the door sprang open. A cold sweat ran over his body. Come on in then, show yourselves, crooks, comrades. He caught confused sight of his pale jacket, his own figure, and, as he sat up in panic, Jorge’s face, turned towards him: Jorge, his hands stretched out behind him, was pressing back against the mob pushing him – so it was Jorge! was he trying to protect him from them or leading them to him as they ran the boy down; and at once strangely encouraged and weary to death, for now what is coming was not up to him, Borges sank, his left against the wall, his right on the floor, back, facing

 

From Das Wirklichgewollte by Volker Braun
© Suhrkamp Verlag, 2000
Translation © Tom Cheesman

Germany Shuts Up Shop

Author: Dietmar Dath
Translator: Steph Morris

12. Deutschland’s undoing and doing-up

The country didn’t know what had hit it. It was suddenly wedged inside itself.

It was picked up and plugged by time, used as its own stopper. Every inch of the country was sealed along stretches of partly-interconnected indentations – not to be sniffed at. The inhabitants could no longer keep track of the boundaries between districts: the autumnal Eichsfeld landscape along the East-West border at the edge of the Thuringia lowlands was filled with dead cars, wiping out an indeterminate number of people, who didn’t however fall straight from the sky, instead oozing out of cracks and splits which had opened up everywhere. Layers of the atmosphere along many individuals’ horizons were suddenly indistinguishable from the hills, and began slipping down between them. The mainland on the Baltic ceased to be properly distinct from the sea. For three minutes in Hamburg, where one single St Nicholas’ Church had previously stood, two flickered against a turbulent sky, sunset red and midday blue at the same time. One church’s spire drilled down into the bad wartime memories of the other, and visa versa, without anything being damaged other than the brittle wits of a few fishwives who happened to be looking that way the moment the unimaginable took place. A large Monday with camels dumped a load of rivers and halved losses replete with gossipy singularities on the beach at Warnemünde, while the rolling hills of Saarland were dotted with fur-free patches running into each other, grey, giving a couple of bank holidays grief along the way, which, with an evil hiss, allowed themselves to be abolished. Myriad sense-defying insanities gushed out of the toilet drain of Paderborn’s Heinz Nixdorf Museum straight into the past – into Friedrich Nietzsche’s brain in fact. The Mecklenburg mountains were shifted thirteen centimetres to the left and then, as if the whole madness had changed its mind, flipped back into their original position, with ghastly consequences for thousands of frogs. In the havoc and wreckage around a third of the population of all major cities came to a sticky – or twisted, tangled, dangling and distended – end.

So-called foreigners, people who according to the obscure, tribal blood-laws did not belong, and who had always been embedded in a different space-time specificity and another dream-orientation from that of the local race, did not survive the events: the Swiss slid down walls like spilt milk; Afghans went up in tiny spirals of smoke; the Chinese and Taiwanese expired with a empty echo; Italians who had lived there for twenty years and Turks born in Düsseldorf forfeited every molecule of water in their bodies and sank in a fine dust to the ground. With a sound like ‘sarra’, a current blew damson-blue through doubly dubious time. Twelve intelligent octopuses, employed as bus and train drivers in 2036, fell out of the truncated future into Cologne cathedral, where they were battered to death with clubs and stones by a horde of Neanderthals. After a period of thirty Planck units the country, now rejigged and stoppered inside itself, rearranged itself, from north to south and from east to west.

Minor irregularities were observed: Hamburg’s dry docks protruded briefly from the Wiesental valley in South Baden; the Oktoberfest slid screaming down the Zugspitze peak and Bonn University fell into Lake Constance. After twelve further Planck units most of these aberrations were subsumed by the suddenly prevailing de-coherence effects and settled at the lowest attainable level of energy.

Vaults split wide, palaces in flames, creation halted, life without continuum, the turds doing turns, shattered secrets, God bleached, exuberance of the food of all wrongness.

The devil’s arse was sore, so much had shot out at once.
A dog barked.

Excerpted from Deutschland macht dicht by Dietmar Dath.

End Your Youth

Author: Johanna Hemkentokrax
Translator: Alison E. Martin, Johanna Huber, Manja Kratzin, Michèle Fischer, Susan Kolata

The floorboards in the factory are creaking under our feet as we walk. The rooftimbers over our heads still look reasonably sound. Through the holes in the roof spots of light enter the hall. There’s a smell of mould and damp wood. Dust particles float lazily over broken tiles, the yellow plastic chair with three legs, two empty vodka bottles, the pile of beer cans long since finished and loads of rubble.
The light is shining almost golden on the wooden floor. Like in one of those paintings. The heat has got trapped under the roof. It’s muggy and the dusty air makes breathing difficult.
“We lived here for three months,” says Konni, “three months, and then everything here was cleared. Basically they were afraid it’d all get out of hand. That they’d lose control. ‘Cause none of them really felt responsible for these old buildings.” He pushes me away as I try to lean on him. “Only three months,” he said, “but three great ones. Perhaps the greatest ever.” He looks around him. “Two years ago they knocked holes in the roof there so that the damp could eat away at the structure of the building. All the factories round here are listed buildings. Then at some point they’re too damaged to be renovated and they can tear everything down.”
“Then they’ve got what they want,” he said. “So much empty space free for new things which devour the old.” I walk over to the pile of rubble and try to sit on the three-legged chair. It doesn’t work, nor is it funny. I take four bricks and sit on them instead. The floor creaks under me. I might fall through it and end up somewhere down below.
“Are you going to tell me why we’re here?” Beads of sweat have formed on my forehead and nose. I wipe them away with my forearm.
“We had a kind of café down here. Really colourful and with old chairs out in the open air. And the security guard responsible for the building always dropped in for a coffee. He thought it was good, what we’d done.” He laughs and pushes his hood out of his face. “Now all you can do is yell at the silence. Let’s face it, there’s nothing left here any more, those days are over.”
That’s old folk’s talk. Something my grandmother would say when she talks about the war, hunger and rubble.
“Those days are over” closes the stories of the bombings, of the sweethearts who never returned from the front, ends the laments about the bad dreams, the nights she still spends in the bomb shelter when the green glow of phosphor repeatedly devours its way across the deserted city above her. Those days are over, and the year 1922 is chiselled into the stone lintel above the entrance. The factory is as old as my grandmother and, like her, spared by the bombs. Almost a miracle.
Konni says something I don’t understand. “What?”
“I didn’t say anything.” He walks to the far end of the hall. Thirty metres further away, he seems smaller and younger. I worry. I ought to give her a call soon – my grandmother, that is.

At home I take off my shoes and open the window. The layer of dirt on the panes is too thick for this time of year. It ought to rain soon. I take a beer from the fridge and light a cigarette. Then I fetch the phone from the shelf, sit down on the mattress and dial her number. When I give my name, she says, “Hang up, I’ll call you back.”
“It’s Sunday, doesn’t cost anything.” I invent a rate I don’t have with which you can phone free on Sundays. She doesn’t believe me. But doesn’t hang up either. I ask her how she is. She talks about the heat and how hard it is to breathe at these temperatures. And that this week she still hasn’t come up on the lottery. I talk about work. A trip to the lake in the afternoon I didn’t make and friends coming round for dinner this evening. “That’s nice,” she says, “that’s nice.” And, “The lake, we didn’t have it back then. So much has changed there.” We’re silent for a bit, but not too long. “I wanted to thank you for your letter,” she says. Her language is fuzzy, as if her tongue is stuck to the roof of her mouth.
“You already have. Don’t you remember? We spoke last week on the phone.” The line is silent.
Then she says, “Ah yes, last week. I’m so forgetful.”
When we’ve put the phone down, I smoke a cigarette and start reading a book. The beer’s no longer really cool and it’s gone flat. I drink it nevertheless. A good book and too little time lately in which to read it.
The next day I meet Konni after work in the old factory. He’s already there, sitting right at the top of the metal stairs which lead to the production hall on the first floor. I climb the steps, and the stairs move a bit. At the top, Konni kisses me on the lips. He takes my hand and pulls me through the opening where the door used to be into the hall. It isn’t as hot as yesterday. This morning the roads were all wet with rain. So wet I slipped on my bike into the tramlines. When we’re lying down, Konni sees the bruise on my thigh. “The things you get up to.”
“There aren’t any trams at home,” I say and he laughs.
“A real country bumpkin you are.”
The floor isn’t hard but it’s dusty. Konni has brought a blanket which we’re lying on. His skin tastes salty and of damp wood. His lips feel cool on my stomach. Outside and in the factory it slowly gets darker. We drink lukewarm beer from cans. No light falls through the roof any more. Cars are crossing the bridge over there by the canal. You can see the streetlights through the open door. In a house behind the factory a child who had been crying is now quiet.
“It’s something no-one can understand who didn’t experience it themselves,” says Konni, before we go. “We really thought this was now the start of something new. The city used to be so big, back then. Today there’s nothing left of it.” I try to imagine Konni living here. Talking to the security guard, painting walls, trying to begin something new. One thing leading to another.
We fold up the blanket and he stuffs it into a rucksack. We put the empty cans by the others on the heap of rubble. I take the last one with me. In the hall it’s so dark I reach for his hand. The skin is warm and dry on his palms and a little rough. I let go as I walk down the metal stairs. They sway. I have to hold onto the handrail because I can see the ground through the grid in the steps, and I spill beer in the process.
We walk across the grass in front of the factory and then through the opening in the fence. When I turn round, the building is silhouetted like a big black box against the city sky. The nights are never totally dark out here. The windows with the remains of the shattered panes stare at the housing estate on the other side of the canal. The streets are often deserted in this part of the city. Few cars and even fewer people. We cross the bridge and turn into the street where I live. In front of the house Konni stops and says he’s going now. To do some work, for an hour or so.
“Are we seeing each other tomorrow?” I ask.
He shrugs his shoulders. “Probably not, I’m going to Berlin tomorrow. To visit friends. Don’t yet know for how long.” He gives me a kiss, says, “See you then.” Someone once told me that the last mouthful in a can of beer is eighty per cent spittle. It’s still a bit early for that.
“If you leave now, perhaps you might just as well go hang.” He laughs, puts his hand on my cheek, quietly says something I don’t catch because his fingers are stroking my ear. Then he gives me another kiss and takes the can out of my hand.
“There isn’t any proper beer left in here.” I watch him going up the street. From a distance a little younger, with his hood pulled up over his head. Before he disappears around the corner, I’ve unlocked the front door.
It’s late – in the middle of the night, in fact – and stuffy in the flat. I open the windows, which are less dirty today.
Her voice sounds sleepy as she answers the phone. “Sorry I’m calling so late. There’s so much to tell you about,” I say.
“Doesn’t matter. I’ve had trouble sleeping well recently.” I hear her drinking something. Her false teeth quietly touching the rim of the glass and her swallowing. I talk about work, which was good today. About a colleague who’s just had a baby and about yesterday evening. How good the food had tasted that I’d cooked. “You were always good at cooking,” she said, “and baking. Better than me. I’ve forgotten it all.”
“You need to cross your fingers,” she says, “that we’ll finally come up on the lottery. I don’t want it for me. I don’t need anything. But you, you ought to buy yourself a proper sofa, so you and your friends don’t have to sit on the mattress all the time. On the floor like that, that’s not much good.” We’re silent for a while. I light a cigarette, which glows in the dark. I breathe in and out. A few times.
“There’s an old factory in the Aurelienstrasse. Right by the canal. I’ve been there quite a lot recently. I’d like to know what used to be there. Perhaps you remember.”
I tell her about the floorboards, which creak as you walk on them. About the smell of mould and damp wood. About the light falling through the roof when the sun shines. “I don’t know,” she says, “I don’t know anything. It’s been such a long time since we left. More than forty years, child. Such a long time.” There’s a lump in my throat, which sticks under my larynx. I try to swallow it, but I can’t. I ought to shout at her that she should remember and has got to understand. That this here might be more important than the war and the nights of bombing. She’s quiet on the other end of the line. There’s a soft noise and I ask her if she’s crying. “No,” she says. I hear how her voice suppresses the tears, how she swallows. “The days are so long,” she says.

 

Original © Johanna Hemkentokrax
Translation © Alison E. Martin, Michèle Fischer, Johanna Huber, Susan Kolata and Manja Kratzin

This translation was undertaken as part of an extra-curricular seminar in Literary Translation (German to English), offered by Dr. Alison E. Martin in the English Department of the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. This course had a dual aim: to hone the skills of students of English in Halle in the area of literary translation and to enable the work of young writers from the Deutsches Literaturinstut Leipzig to reach an international audience. Having considered issues of register, style and audience, seminar members prepared a section of the translation week by week, compared in class the divergences between these individual translations and discussed the most appropriate solutions. Once a first draft of the English text had been completed, we contacted the author with any queries and invited them to offer feedback on the translation, thus enabling the student translators and author to interact with each other and gain further insight into the creative processes that underpin both writing and translation.

What Comes from Outside

Author: Kai Gero Lenke
Translator: Alison E. Martin, Johanna Huber, Manja Kratzin, Michèle Fischer, Susan Kolata

What Comes from OutsideA voice woke the boy. He’d fallen asleep in front of the TV, which was still diffusing its flickering light around the room. It must have been shortly before midnight. Outside the weather raged and hurled rain against the windows.
“Wake up!”
He rubbed his eyes, for a moment still entangled in his confused dream, then sat up and saw his brother in front of him: agitated and exhausted, breathing in short gasps and with a restless gaze, which meant all was not well. His hair stuck to his head wet with rain, and drops of dirty water fell from his clothes.
“What’s wrong?”, asked the boy, to whom the situation seemed as strange as if he hadn’t fully awoken, as if his big brother were also just one of the figures in his dream.
“Are Mum and Dad back yet?”
“Dunno,” said the boy.
“Are they still out?”
“I don’t know.”
His brother disappeared immediately, looked all round the house and returned. His shoes left marks on the carpet.
“Listen,” he said then. “I’ve screwed up.”
“How?” asked the boy.
The elder one looked as if he were suppressing something. Tears perhaps, or anger, and the boy felt himself become uneasy.
“I’ve had an accident.”
“A car accident?”
“I’ll show you.”
His brother grabbed him by the hand and told him to put on his shoes and a coat, and hurry. Then they left the house and walked the few steps to the driveway where his mother’s Passat was parked, the engine still ticking as it cooled.
The boy couldn’t make out any dents or scratches. He looked at his brother, who didn’t return his gaze. Instead he walked on round to the back of the car, opened the boot and gestured towards something, pointing with his index finger and saying, “Here”.
Slowly the boy moved along the side of the car. He was afraid, but said nothing. The wind drove the rain into his face; there was a smell of woody earth and moss. Beneath him, on the cobblestones, puddles had formed, so deep that half his shoe sank into them. Each time he stepped in them water splashed up to his calves, where his trousers now stuck fast to his legs.
Reaching the boot, he felt a hand on his shoulder and water ran inside his collar down his back.
“Here,” said his brother again, still looking at the floor of the boot. There, finally, the boy saw the hare lying, saw the quivering chest, the outstretched twitching limbs and the open mouth.
“I ran it over,” said his elder brother. “On the road. Didn’t see it in all this rain.”
Above the left hind leg was a visible wound, like a reddish stain in the fur. The boy felt both pity and disgust.
“I stopped and got out. Saw it was still alive.”
Blood from the wound had dripped into the boot and onto the old newspapers. The boy thought how much darker and thicker it was than his own.
“Why did you bring it home?”, he asked quietly.
“Well, because it’s still alive.”
“Why didn’t you just run it over again?”
“I couldn’t.”
Although the animal’s belly was trembling fiercely, its eyes were still and peaceful. They seemed to be fixed directly on the boy, who hadn’t seen a hare for a long time. A few years ago there’d still been many of them in the fields around the village, but since then they’d become rare, almost like the animals in the zoo.
“It ’s bound to be in pain,” he said.
“I know.”
“We’ve got to call the vet. Let him put it to sleep.”
His brother shook his head.
“We won’t find a vet this late,” he said. “We’ll have to kill it ourselves.”

The elder one had fetched a blue rubbish bag which he placed over the animal, pushing it inside. He managed with great effort not to touch the animal with his fingers as he did so. Then he picked it up and carefully took it behind the house. The boy walked beside him, watching the process intently and twitching every time something jerked against the plastic from inside.
On the stone slabs under the pergola his elder brother put it down. The rain falling on the bag created a terrible noise, even drowning out the wind, which kept on howling through the birch leaves.
“How’re you going to do it?”, asked the boy.
“I don’t know,” said his brother. “With a stone.”
He then walked a short way into the garden and opened the door of the garden shed. The boy’s heart was beating as if he had been running, and he kept watching the blue bag, trying to make out the shape of the hare in the bulges of the plastic. When his brother returned with a brick in his hands, the boy finally said that he was cold and would rather go inside, what with all the rain, his wet back and everything. His brother only shot him a fleeting glance, weighed the brick in his hand and nodded. The boy ran across the sodden lawn back to the house and switched on all the lights. Without taking off his wet clothes, he sat down again on the sofa in the living room. The TV was still on. Hopefully it’ll be over quickly, he thought. He switched channels and turned up the volume, still seeing the bloody, gaping wound, the twitching, the trembling.

His brother entered the house ten minutes later. The boy followed the noises in the hallway. He could hear his elder brother open the door to the toilet, turn on the tap and let the water run for quite a while. Later he also returned to the living room, holding a towel in his hands, rubbing his hair. He looked past the boy to the screen, still wearing his dirty shoes, which left more dirty marks.
The boy looked at him closely, first at his face, then at his hands. He thought that he ought to sense some change now, but didn’t know what it might be.
“I wonder where they’ve got to,” said his brother. His voice still sounded strange, though in a different way from a few minutes ago.
The boy didn’t reply.
“I’m going to bed,” his brother continued. He still hadn’t looked him in the eye. Then he turned and headed back towards the hallway.
The boy turned the television off, sat buried in the sofa and did not move. Only when he heard his elder brother going upstairs did he call out, “Is it dead?”
The steps paused. Again the boy felt his heart beating.
“Yes,” he eventually heard, “Yes, it’s dead.”
Then the stairs creaked and shortly afterwards a door closed.

He’d been thinking about his brother, wondering whether he would be able to sleep. What he would see in his dreams and what he’d thought as he finished the hare off with a brick. In his mind he’d seen the animal and its suffering look over and over again. And then he’d decided he needed to see it once more, so that the memory of the dead animal would suppress the memory of the dying one.
Now he stood with the flashlight in the garden and, barely dry, was getting wet again. He shone it all over the area under the pergola but couldn’t make out anything. He looked in the rubbish bin, searched behind the shed and in front of the garage, went round the house several times with freezing feet. Again and again he wiped the wet from his face, but each time it returned and with greater intensity.
The darkness constantly managed to deprive him of his sense of direction, even though he knew the garden like the back of his hand, even though he’d spent most of his life there. Only in a few places did something of the hazy light from the house find its way out, where it was immediately choked by the darkness.
After a long time, just as he was about to give up his search, something was reflected in the beam of his flashlight. It came from the blackberry bushes which bordered on the neighbouring garden. The boy trudged across the muddy ground, trying as much as possible to keep his frozen hand from shaking, and headed over to the object. It was indeed the rubbish bag, which now looked as if it had always been lying there, as if someone had forgotten it there long ago.
Stopping in front of the bushes, he looked at it. It made him think about his hamster buried not too far away. The family had held a small funeral service after its death. He hadn’t cared much then, because he wasn’t yet able to understand. Suddenly the hamster was simply gone. Something like death had not yet existed and had certainly not impressed him. It was not until he’d played with the dead pet for half a day that his parents had noticed and hurriedly removed it.
Just as he was beginning to make out the form of the hare through the bulges in the bag again, it moved: an abrupt movement, followed by a slighter one. The boy almost dropped the flashlight in fright. He looked around, but couldn’t see anything in the dark, and directed the light back towards the bag, which was now still. He said to himself that he couldn’t have been imagining things. What if it were still alive? And then something moved again and he was certain.
Cautiously the boy got hold of one end of the rubbish bag and pulled at it. Only now did he feel its weight, which he’d underestimated all along. Whenever something moved, he sprang back and let go, which was why he needed several attempts to pull the thing out of the bushes. He realised too late that the stony ground was tearing the bag in various places, that it now had several holes through which fur and form had become clearly visible. The eyes could also be seen again, capturing the glow of the flashlight and reflecting it back into the night.
“Keep calm,” said the boy. He hadn’t meant to say anything, it had slipped out of its own accord. “Keep calm.”
He tried to calculate how long the animal had lain dying, and the evening seemed to him like an eternity. The ribcage wasn’t moving as rapidly as before. Now it gave more of a shudder, exhausted and feeble. Meanwhile the fur had become soaked by the rain and the boy imagined it like an acid etching deeper and deeper into the wound. But the worst thing, he thought, had to be the plastic bag which had been rustling in the animal’s ears the whole time, like a delayed warning that refused to cease.
He left the hare lying in the middle of the lawn. He went back to the bushes and shone his flashlight on them. The ground was like a swamp with pond-sized puddles and streams. With his free hand, he began to dig around in the drenched soil. He had to be careful that the branches didn’t scratch his face. Then at last he grasped what he’d been looking for. The brick he fished out of the rivulet was by now all black and slippery.
When he returned to the hare, he felt as if it were staring at him in panic, already sensing what was to come. Again something wanted to burst from him, but this time he managed to suppress it. He took one last look at the animal, memorised its position, switched off the flashlight and put it in his pocket.
Surrounded by nothing but blackness, he thought about his brother again. How far had he gone before he decided to leave the animal alone? Had he also let a few words slip? Maybe he was still awake at this moment. Maybe he was asleep and would never think about it again. For one last time, the boy heard the hare kick, then struck a downward blow with all his might.
He was certain he’d hit the head, but the animal wouldn’t give up and kicked around at his feet. The plastic made more noise than ever, sounding like wood cracking on a camp-fire. The boy felt dizzy. Now he couldn’t see anything, he lost his sense of balance. He struck again, but the blow missed and the brick hit the lawn. Something damp splashed up into his face.
The animal would be in even worse pain than before, he thought, he should hurry, be quick about it. With his left hand, he groped around on the ground, found the bag and felt something warm, something that moved. He clutched hold of the animal as tightly as he could. With its last ounce of strength, it seemed to want to escape from him. He struck a third blow and a fourth and a fifth and each one was harder than the last. It took a while, then there was silence.
At that point, nothing quivered in his hand any longer. No twitching and no trembling. He took a few steps back, his right arm completely numb. He hurled the brick in no particular direction, without hearing it hit the ground, and simply stood there for a while motionless.
Shaking, he took out the flashlight again and switched it on. The animal at his feet no longer moved, but its eyes still reflected the light back at him. It looked strangely twisted in the position in which it lay, since some bones were broken, but he had imagined it would be worse and less reassuring. Many yards off to one side, a piece of torn-off plastic fluttered through the air and caught in the bushes.
He pulled at what remained of the plastic bag and threw the dead animal back into the bushes. With his hands he pushed some of the wet soil over the areas which were no longer covered by the plastic. He also piled some onto the head, until it was no longer recognisable as a head.
Afterwards he went back towards the house, unhurriedly this time, and with care. It didn’t bother him any more that the rain still hadn’t stopped, that maybe it was falling even harder than before. His flashlight shone the way across the cobblestones, where the water was forming small eddies. On the driveway the streams merged, heading towards the street, where they parted again immediately.
In the bathroom he washed away all trace of the rust-brown layer of dirt covering his hands, caught even under his fingernails. His cold fingers began to twinge in the warm water, but he left it running until he could no longer stand the heat.
Lying in bed, he hesitated for a long time before turning off the light on his bedside table. Even now he could still hear the rain and how it dashed against his window pane, as if trying to shatter it with all its might. Since he’d pulled the blanket up to his chin and buried his arms under it, he soon became warm again. He could also move his toes once more. He rubbed them together and it felt good.
He wondered what he might see in his dreams. And then his last thought was what his elder brother was seeing now. What were his thoughts as he fell asleep? He was certain they must have been more disturbing than his. Yes, they had to be many times more dreadful than his.
And finally he couldn’t think of anything else, because exhaustion overwhelmed him. He was only aware of his parents pulling into the driveway. The engine stopping, the front door opening. Far off the rumble of thunder. Then he fell asleep.

 

Original © Kai Gero Lenke
Translation © Alison E. Martin, Michèle Fischer, Johanna Huber, Susan Kolata and Manja Kratzin

This translation was undertaken as part of an extra-curricular seminar in Literary Translation (German to English), offered by Dr. Alison E. Martin in the English Department of the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. This course had a dual aim: to hone the skills of students of English in Halle in the area of literary translation and to enable the work of young writers from the Deutsches Literaturinstut Leipzig to reach an international audience. Having considered issues of register, style and audience, seminar members prepared a section of the translation week by week, compared in class the divergences between these individual translations and discussed the most appropriate solutions. Once a first draft of the English text had been completed, we contacted the author with any queries and invited them to offer feedback on the translation, thus enabling the student translators and author to interact with each other and gain further insight into the creative processes that underpin both writing and translation.

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

Author: PeterLicht
Translator: Joseph Given

I was fine. I was healthy and I had money, maybe not in unbelievably high amounts, but I had it. I could afford everything I wanted to afford and even treat myself sometimes. And even if the treats were not very big treats, still they were middle-sized treats. Well, let’s say a little bit more towards the lower boundary of middle, or the upper end of low, so not at the very top. Say a bit more of a healthy distance from the upper threshhold, with just a slight tendency to the “middle”. So:
I HAD MIDDLE AMOUNTS OF MONEY. In the middle of the “low” areas. Now, I should really try to be precise about this: just as it is in the nature of money to rise and fall, so the nature of my money was maybe not really middle but more just a tad downwards, a little bit under the middle of the lower areas. And since that sounds a bit complex, you could, for the sake of simplification, also just describe it as “low”.
SO MY MONEY WAS LOW. OK. But money was somehow there, though maybe it would be more accurate to say that money as a subject was somehow there. That indeed could be said. The subject of money in my life was so completely high in the high up areas that you could say that I was full of money. It seeped out of all of my pores. Money money money money. Money flew around in my thoughts, jingling tirelessly. Everything I touched just opened up and jingled at me. Coins coins coins. Or to describe it another way: my debts had gotten smaller, had passed me by like winter passes and now the only way was up. Back up, in the sense of being on the best way up, that is in the sense of moving towards a point at which the new debts could be seen to be getting smaller. So you could say, I wasn’t going further into minus; I wasn’t in over my head as I once had been. There’d been a time I’d been swimming in minus. I can really say swimming. Crawl. Dolphin. Everything. There comes a point, you can only stay on top by doing the dolphin, you know, like, above: on top of the minus, like a paddle steamer with a flat keel. Or I’d like to put it like this: I lay like a stranded whale on a Lakeland of minus money. Or perhaps – or in fact: yes, you could also say that it was more like a sea of money, lying under it. Or maybe better: “ocean”.
So, I lay like a stranded whale, though perhaps it might be better to speak of an ocean liner or aircraft carrier, or why not just say oil rig? But oil rig maybe puts it in a bit of a favourable light. So perhaps it would be better described as – let’s say – just for the sake of it – a stranded island.
So this would seem to be my interim finding:
I LAY LIKE A STRANDED CONTINENT ON THE OCEANS OF MY MINUS.

But okay. Otherwise I was fine. The Sun was shining, and my thoughts were lighthearted. Somewhere the Sun was shining above me. Just an occasional look to check: Ahh, ok Sun – there you are and Ahh – here’s me! Yes, here’s me. So there Sun. Here me.
Good. Not really every day, only Sun. I mean, what does only Sun mean? There are some grey nuances, shades of grey, a few little darker spots, now and again a cloud, a little Cumulus-Amigo, let’s say – a white swirl, lost in the distance, on the horizon, above the gleaming land. And it’s very natural indeed of course that an occasional disturbance should cross the path of the eternal Sun – then, just for an instant, there’s a shadow, then for a moment it’s a little bit darker. A moment or maybe a short phase, a length of time, seldom anything like a short-lasting period of anything at all like the opposite of Sun. A momentary spell of cloudiness. And then it’s not quite as light and gleaming, but has a bit of a darker shade. You might even confidently say there were seldom moments that weren’t so bright, and then when the Sun breaks through again through those dark phases, then, and I have to say this, that is a joyous moment indeed, even if not always continual.

OK: I’M HAPPY, WHEN NOW AND AGAIN THE SUN BREAKS THROUGH in the grey sky which occasionally might get darker and even a little suspiciously black. In fact in some moments it’s raven black, i.e. moments in the sense that they might last a little bit longer, the raven black sky which, to be more exact, doesn’t really count as sky any more: more like muddy earth. In the eternal black there were isolated flashes of light. But they actually made everything even darker, since they didn’t give me the time I would have needed to get used to the dark. So I was constantly reminded of the fact that it didn’t really have to be dark.
OK. The result is as follows:

I LIVED UNDER A STRETCHED ETERNITY OF TOTALLY BLACK NIGHT. I WAS TRAPPED INSIDE OF A MOUNTAIN RANGE. I WAS LOCKED IN ABSOLUTE BLACKNESS. Never mind – at least it wasn’t raining. It was dry and I was bearing up pretty well in fact. You could describe my situation as follows: it was undoubtedly a little bit dark, but it wasn’t raining and with the warmth of the night wafting around me, it wasn’t all that tragic. It was OK, yeah, which of course should not imply that it was in any way really uncomfortably dusty-dry itchy. No, a few drops fell from the sky occasionally. And sometimes, being the lucky guy that I am, the occasional drop landed directly on my lip. Ah you wonderful rain, that’s the way I like it. Lips dry, alakazam, sprinkle sprinkle, drop on the lower lip. Isn’t that fine.
What maybe isn’t quite so OK is when it occasionally – though it seldom happens but it does – starts to drizzle or teem down or the monsoon comes (a very rare occurrence indeed, but if, then a little more occasionally than frequently, although, on occasion, slightly more often with a tendency to always) then the streets are transformed into canals of muddy water, and you’re wading chest deep through the floodwaters. Then there are the valves of the drains that can’t hold down the rising pressure of the water pushing up from the sewers any more, then you’re walking through sewage, inscrutably impossibly dirty and then you don‘t notice one of the open drains, the lid of which is gone, and you put your foot down and find nothing, I mean sink into mucky water – and a city, I can tell you, has a lot of muck to offer. And you sink and you sink and everywhere nothing but brown muck water full of filtrates and diverse objects, whereby that might also be things that were once alive, which you don’t really want to hear, particularly not when you’re in that situation. And you know how it is: don’t always have your oxygen with you and even if you did, it’d probably be torn off your back anyway, since the vertical pipe leading downwards down to the lower regions of hell is so narrow that you wouldn’t get through with your pressurized air on your back. So, you‘re travelling downwards without air, which of course sets limits to the length of time that your journey through the underground sewage of the city will take. Very narrow limits in fact. And I’d like to say as well: if you think about the sheer masses of water, the surface of which is being constantly whipped by additional masses of water, by the storm, then it seems to me to be like a rough description of the feeling I get when I consider the complex theme of “love”.
The phenomenon of love: the drain covers are washed off of their hinges and you sink in holes that you just can’t see because you’re up to your neck in something, and every hole holds another unfortunate soul, who either didn‘t see where they were going or just wasn’t looking. Then there’s a general flood, so to speak: a whole load of stuff floating around. A society like this one really produces an awful lot of stuff.

So that, roughly speaking, was my experience of love.

 

© by PeterLicht
Translation © Joseph Given

As in Gogol

Author: Siegfried Lenz
Translator: Ingrid G. Lansford

I’ve known this transit junction for eight years now—this confusing distribution pool where street cars, buses and subways converge to trade their cargo, passing it on from one to the next. The instant the doors fly open with a hiss, people rush, speed, and zoom toward one another, mingling and interlocking—like unarmed opponents sinking their teeth into each other. Their march is so confident, the multitude forges so recklessly ahead, it’s best to stop and wait until everything has passed, though you have a green light. Were it only this parade of bobbing backpacks and swinging briefcases, were it just this grumpy morning procession, you might be able to keep track, but here, where the commuter traffic feeds into a many-branched delta, you have to be prepared for the unexpected move: a lone wolf’s sudden swerve, obstructive types, or little runners dashing from behind parked cars to sprint across the street.

I knew all that. After all, for eight years I was one of them myself, carried along by their impatient stream from the subway to the bus that stopped in front of my school; I’d taken part in their recklessness long enough.

Yet all this knowledge didn’t help me, nor would it have helped anyone, not even a driver with twenty accident-free years behind the wheel. What happened was statistically inevitable and did not result from my inexperience as a driver, nor the fact that my first car, which I’d taken to work less than a week, was a used vehicle. Though there was nothing gloomy or unusual in the air that morning, though there was no reason for special alertness— I was only scheduled to start with two back-to-back geography classes—I slowed down early as I approached the transit junction and didn’t speed up even when the traffic light changed to green with a little flicker, which looked like a wink to me, like an invitation to hurry up and get away before the two buses turning toward their stops on the other side of the street opened their doors. The cobblestone pavement was covered with crushed snow grimily melting from the bite of the scattered salt. The car wasn’t doing more than 20, and I kept an eye on the buses, whose passengers would explode out any second.

He had to have come from the subway exit, then spotted the number of his bus and tried to reach it come what may, just like the rest who had timed their morning commute to the last minute. First I heard the impact. The steering wheel kicked out. Then I saw him on the hood, his distorted face under the visored cap, his arms reaching toward the windshield, looking for something to cling to. He had run against the car from the right immediately behind the traffic signal; I braked and watched him topple to the left and roll into the lane. No parking, no parking anywhere, so I went into reverse and backed up a few yards, pulled the handbrake and got out. Where was he? There, at the curb, attempting to get on his feet by grabbing the barrier chain hand over hand—a little man, a flyweight in a worn-out coat. A few passers-by were already with him, trying to help him, and had promptly taken sides against me; they had decided the issue of guilt. The man’s olive face showed fear rather than pain; when I approached him, he looked at me as if to keep me away, and he attempted to calm the pedestrians with a forced smile: no big deal, not worth mentioning.

My eyes strayed from him back toward the car. The right fender had an oval dent, fairly regular, as if made by a wooden club; threads stuck to the edges where the paint had flaked off; the hood was also dented and the latch had sprung; one windshield wiper had broken off. He watched me, holding on to the chain with both hands, while I estimated the damage, and he repeatedly glanced at the departing buses.

Skin lacerations on his forehead and the back of his hand—I didn’t observe anything else when I walked up to him. He looked at me with a smile admitting all of it: his carelessness, his haste, and his guilt. Trying to play down the consequences and prove to me how easily he’d gotten off, he raised each leg in their frayed narrow trousers, turned his head right and left, and gingerly flexed his free arm: Look, everything’s fine, isn’t it? I asked him why he’d crossed on red; hadn’t he seen the car—regretfully, guiltily, he shrugged his shoulders, unable to understand me. Fearfully he kept repeating the same sentence while strenuously gesticulating toward the railroad track; as I guessed by the intonation, the words he used were Turkish. I could tell that he wanted to get away and understood what kept him from it; but he was afraid to diagnose the aches within his body, or even acknowledge them. He cringed at the compassion and curiosity of the passers-by; he seemed to understand that they were accusing me and felt bad about that, too. Doctor, I said. Now I’ll take you to see a doctor.

How light he was when I put my arm around him, pulled his arm around my neck, and walked him to the car, and how anxiously he explored the damage to fender and hood! While earlier passers-by told newcomers what they’d seen or only heard, I maneuvered the man onto the back seat, eased him into a relaxed, reclining position, gave him an encouraging nod and started along my old route to school. Several doctors lived or practiced nearby; I remembered the white enamel signs in their front yards. That was where I wanted to take him.

I watched him in the rearview mirror. His eyes were closed, his lips were trembling, and a thin streak of blood ran down his neck from his ear. He braced himself and lifted his body off the seat—not to ease his pain, but to look for something in his various pockets, hunting through them with stiff fingers. Then he pulled out a piece of paper, a blue envelope which he handed to me across the seatback: Here, here, address. He sat up, bent toward me across the seat, and, stressing the syllables contrary to their usual pronunciation, urgently repeated in a hoarse voice: Liegnitzerstrasse.

That seemed to be the only thing he wanted now; he spoke excitedly, his fear increasing: Doctor, no; Liegnitzerstrasse, yes, and waved his blue envelope. We reached the taxi stand near the school. I stopped and motioned for him to wait—I wouldn’t take long. Then I walked up to the taxi drivers and asked about Liegnitzerstrasse. They knew two streets by that name, but of course assumed that, since I was here, I wanted the closer one, and described the route they would take: past the hospital and through an underpass to the edge of a small industrial park. I thanked them and walked to the telephone booth, where I dialed the number of the school. My classes were to have started long ago. No one answered. I dialed my own number and told my startled wife, Don’t worry—I had an accident, but I’m not hurt. She asked, A child? – and I quickly answered, A foreigner, probably a guest worker. I need to drive him, so please let the school know. Before leaving the phone booth, I quickly dialed the school number again, but got a busy signal now.

I returned to my car. Two taxi drivers were standing in front of it, cheerfully using my damage as an opportunity to tell about their own collisions, trying to top one another. The car was empty. I bent over the back seat, patted it—the taxi drivers didn’t remember a man, but allowed that he could have walked up to the front and taken the first taxi. Still, a Mediterranean-looking man with a visored cap and injured into the bargain would surely have attracted their attention. They wanted to know where I’d had the mishap. I told them, and they estimated the damage—provided I got off easy—at eight hundred marks.

Slowly I drove toward Liegnitzerstrasse, past the hospital, through the underpass and to the industrial park. I passed a small wire factory whose yard was surrounded by a chain link fence full of holes; heavy crushers mashing car wrecks into convenient metal bales; gloomy buildings claiming to be repair shops and moving companies; and snowy storage lots without a single footprint.

Liegnitzerstrasse seemed to consist of nothing but a protective board fence covered with posters, with yellow cranes rigidly looming behind it; no homes; set back from the street, a shut-down industrial plant without doors and with broken windows, black tongues of soot still testifying about a fire. Through a gap I glimpsed house trailers, their wheels sunk deep into the ground. I stopped, got out of the car, and walked through the dirty snow toward the trailers. The workers were gone. Curtains covered up the windows, and the attached steps had remnants of road salt on them. Smoke rose from a metal chimney.

If a curtain hadn’t moved, if I hadn’t seen the ringed finger trying to smooth the crocheted gray fabric, I think I would merely have walked around the trailers and then left, but now I climbed halfway up the steps and knocked. A hasty, whispered exchange inside, then the door opened, and I saw the signet ring on the finger right before my eyes, on the door handle now. When I looked up, the man loomed above me alarmingly: black dress shoes tipped with white, narrow creased pants, and then the short, fur collared coat and the triangle of a silk handkerchief gleaming from the upper jacket pocket. Politely, in broken German, he asked me what I wanted; by that time, glancing past his hip, I had recognized the man on the lower berth of a bunk bed and pointed to him: There he is—that’s who I want to see. He let me enter. Four beds, one washstand, photographs pinned to the unfinished board walls—those were the furnishings that first struck me; later, after the conspicuously dressed man had offered me a stool, I discovered cartons and cardboard suitcases under the bedsteads.

The injured man lay stretched out under a blanket with the word “Hotel” on it. His dark eyes shone in the dim interior. He met my greeting with indifference—no sign of recognition, and neither fear nor curiosity.

Mr. Üzkök had an accident, the man with the signet ring said. I nodded and, after a pause, asked if I shouldn’t drive him to a doctor’s office. The man with the signet ring emphatically turned me down. Not necessary, Mr. Üzkök had been getting the best medical care, for two days now, ever since he had this accident at his building, at his construction site. I said, This morning, I’ve come because of the accident this morning. The big man brusquely turned to the invalid and asked him something in their native language; the hurt man gently shook his head. Of an accident this morning Mr. Üzkök knows nothing. I calmly said, I was involved—this man ran in front of my car when the light was green, and I hit him. The car is parked outside and you can look at the damage. Again the man shouted at the invalid in his native language, annoyed and irritated, seeking an explanation with theatrical vehemence. He had him expressly repeat a whispered sentence. All he could sum up for me was this: Mr. Üzkök is from Turkey. Mr. Üzkök is guest worker, Mr. Üzkök had accident two days ago. A car is unknown to him.

I pointed to the man on the bunk and said, Please ask him why he ran away. I wanted to take him to Liegnitzerstrasse myself, over here. They played their question-and-answer game again. I didn’t understand, and while the injured man looked at me with a pained expression and moved his lips, the man with the signet ring said, Mr. Üzkök did not run away after his construction accident; he has to stay in bed. I asked the hurt man, Show me the blue envelope you showed me in the car, and he listened to the translation. I couldn’t believe that my request was so much longer in Turkish and also required an argument. I was told with a mixture of triumph and regret that Mr. Üzkök had never owned a blue envelope.

This uncertainty—suddenly I felt this familiar uncertainty, as so often in the classroom when I’m faced with the risk of a final decision; and because I was sure that the injured man would still be wearing his shabby coat, I went to his bed and simply raised the blanket. He lay there in his underwear, clasping something in his hands he obviously didn’t want to give up on any condition.

When, on my way down the steps, I asked about the number, the house number for the trailer, the man with the signet ring laughed and barked a command at the injured man. When he faced me again and, gleefully spreading his arms, said, Forty to fifty-two, his open mistrust struck me for the first time. Much address, he said, maybe five hundred yards. When I asked if this was Mr. Üzkök’s permanent residence, he covered up his suspicion with enthusiasm and gave an evasive answer: Much work everywhere. Sometimes is Mr. Üzkök here, sometimes there—he pointed in opposite directions. Though I said good-bye, he silently followed me out to the street. He walked to my car, brushed across the dents the slight man had made in the metal, raised the hood and asked for confirmation that the latch would no longer snap shut. Was he relieved? I got the feeling that, though none of this needed to concern him, he was relieved after checking the damage. He rubbed his soft chin and then his sideburns with his big thumb. Was I planning to call my insurance company? I gave him to understand that I seemed to have no other choice. He then began another, more thorough inspection of the damage and to my surprise, named a price just below the one the taxi drivers had suggested: seven hundred-fifty. He grinned and gave me a sly wink as I got in and turned down the window. As soon as I started the motor, he extended his closed hand. For repair, he said. Mr. Üzkök, he needs rest now.

I started to get out, but by then he was walking away, his fur collar turned up, irrevocably, as if he’d got the formalities over with. After he had disappeared behind the fence, I looked at the money in my hand and counted it—the sum matched his estimate. I hesitated, waiting for something I couldn’t name, and, before heading for school, left the car at the shop.

In the teachers’ lounge, of course, there was Seewald, seated as if he’d been waiting for me, with his red face and his uncontrollable belly which presumably would drop to his knees if he didn’t rein it in with an extra wide belt. I heard the news, he said. Now tell me what happened. He offered me tea from his thermos flask, in fact, thrust it upon me as insistently as if the tea would entitle him to every detail of my accident—Seewald of all people, who at every chance he got touted his conclusion that there were no original experiences any longer. He claimed that everything we encounter or experience had already happened to others before us. We had come to the end of fresh experiences and conflicts, and even an odd situation did not merit being regarded as anything but stale.

I drank his heavily sweetened tea, startled to notice how much my hand was shaking—less on raising the cup than on putting it down. All right then—the drive, the accident, the injured man’s escape; and finally, when I described to him my encounter in the trailer, I witnessed the start of his typical smile, a superior, opinionated, know-it-all smile, which immediately irritated me and made me regret having spread everything before him. It was, after all, my accident, my experience, and so I had to have the right of evaluating it in my own way and narrating the encounter in the trailer in particular with its appropriate open-endedness. For him, for Seewald, everything was settled: Just as with Gogol, he said, didn’t it occur to you, my dear friend—exactly as with Gogol. I was glad when the bell summoned me to class and spared me his explanations, especially the inevitable reference to the prototype for my experience. I’m not going to tell him that both the taxi drivers and the man with the signet ring had overestimated the cost of the repair. I had more than two hundred marks left over, because the dents could be hammered out. And I’m definitely not telling Seewald that I drove back to the Liegnitzerstrasse at dusk while snow was falling, to return the rest of the money to the stranger or Mr. Üzkök.

The window had been blacked out and the trailer looked abandoned, or at any rate locked; but after I knocked several times, the door opened, and the tall man stood before me again, holding the red silk kerchief he’d probably used to fan himself. At least six men sat on the bunks, short, timid men trying to hide their glasses of red wine when they saw me. They sat there as if they’d been caught, and every last one of the faces showed anxiety.

I asked about Mr. Üzkök; but the man with the signet ring didn’t remember him, had never met him, had never cared for him. Then I knew he would also have trouble remembering me, and when I tried to return the surplus money to him, he looked at me in almost surly bewilderment—he was very sorry, but he couldn’t take money that didn’t belong to him. I looked at the silent men. Every one of them seemed to resemble Üzkök, and I just knew that if I came back the next day, they too would deny ever having seen me. Several trailers sat right next to each other; could I have picked the wrong one? But there’s one thing I’m very sure of: I put the money on a folding table before I left.

 

From Einstein überquert die Elbe bei Hamburg, by Siegfried Lenz
© Hoffman und Campe, Hamburg
Translation © Ingrid G. Lansford

Call Me Servant

Author: Milena Oda
Translator: Steph Morris


Part I: My Name Is Servant

My name is servant.
And I request you to address me as such; I am Servant and am called Servant. An individual does not, as people imagine, require a first and second name. My name is Servant. When people persist in asking ‘what are your first and second names?’ I turn away and refuse to listen. The gentlefolk claim not to comprehend me? How else should servants indicate their servitude? They are astonished, shake their heads, stare at me and still will not understand. ‘I cannot assist you with an answer sir.’ They ask me again, trying to unnerve me. ‘Your name is Steven Servant?’ No, my name is Servant. I have no answer to questions such as ‘Why do you call yourself Servant?’ It pains me that I must hear words such as ‘unfortunate’ and ‘pitiable’, must continually point out my vocation. You do not see a Servant? You have not noticed my resplendent livery? People rely on patterns, and if they are missing, the world dims around them. Servant is neither a Christian- nor a surname; my name might have been Footman, Valet or Right Hand Man. I could also be called Aide, Adjunct, Attendant or Lackey, but no word better describes my character, always ready to serve, than Servant. I have always been the quiet accompaniment to the loud melody: chestnut seller, newspaper deliverer, keeper at the military museum, porter, doorman. I began as a lackey and I wish to finish as one.

I am enthralled by subordinance, its self-effacing constraints. My sense of self is insufficient (a servant’s sense of self) and I cannot and will not live in liberty. Independence is unbearable to me. I shy away from freedom and free time. I panic when I don’t know what I have to do. I can only do what is required of me. I seek release from the burden of individuality and willingly put myself on a lead. I want to be available to my master day and night like an object, for the master is incapable of basic tasks and only the Servant can fulfil them for him, only he wants to. The Servant is air, his master’s air, who needs it to breathe. Only a good master knows how to treat the servant; if you wish to show your Servant consideration you must allow him to sense your superiority and you must never release him from your sphere of influence.

I am always dressed in my livery (except during my morning and evening ablutions) so I believe there is no reason (any more) to call me Leonard. I require a lengthy pause for breath when I hear the word ‘Leonard’ or must speak it. If I deliberately call myself Leonard, it means I wish to leave a long, deep scar in my body. I have to leave something there, someone indeed, who I wish to be… so I am disparaging about myself. There really is no-one left to whom I am Leonard. And certainly not when I face people in my livery. I stand before him in my livery and call him, ‘my master’! He knows full well what it means – to me – to wait patiently by someone with the obedient composure of a servant.

I advocate traditional serving values. I am the embodiment of a court attendant’s courtesy. The searching gaze of my wide-spaced eyes betrays my innate servility. ‘Alongside your utter obsequiousness there’s also a certain honesty to your plucky little cross-eyed face,’ the mother used to tease me. My eyes are wet and bulbous, and I have ‘water on the brain’ with a broad forehead and protruding ears. She called me ‘my baboon’. I have large ears – an unmistakable sign of a congenital developmental disorder. My colourless hair points to a serious degeneracy. Nature made me ugly. When I open my mouth I reveal a cleft between my two front teeth. I think of this repugnant gap every time I have to speak; I would rather use sign language. I stutter over the simplest greetings. Uttering even a brisk ‘Good morning’ is difficult. I have no desire to wish anyone except my master a good day or a good evening. It is required of the Servant that he exchange words only with his master. Forcing me to speak has a crushing effect. My stutter consciously restrains me from contact. I maintain distance from anyone not interested in me as a Servant. I like to serve in company where I can genuinely be of service. I deploy every resource of my soul to uphold my servant psyche.

In the morning I look in the tiny mirror with one eye closed, in order not to see more than my chin and jaw while shaving. Leonard never looks in the large mirror when he is naked. Only the naked man is called Leonard. How inept this Leonard is. I abhor Leonard’s degenerate masculinity. A hideous individual. I am overcome by a ghastly angst if forced to see myself without my livery. I detest the asymmetry of my body. It is ten years since I last saw my deformed frame exposed in a mirror. This grotesque sight causes me pain and embarrassment. When I see myself naked, I beat and tear and hate myself. Leonard’s ugly physicality is a mixture of the ridiculous and the merciless; nature made a joke at his expense when she begat him. How damned similar he is to a poor cripple in every detail of his own wounded, malformed appearance! How disgusting to be like such people! I am precisely like them. A vile hound. Naked and debased, Leonard barks helpless on his lead.

If I put on my finest livery and pull on the exquisite white silken gloves, the bland individual Leonard becomes a snappy, dapper Servant. Then I stand in front of the tall mirror and admire the allure of the attractive Servant before me. What release: an unleashed dog’s euphoric cry! The moment each morning when I see myself in the delightful livery is a vision of style, a feeling of joy. I begin my service with renewed courage and resolve.

And I do not answer the question, ‘why do you wear your livery outside of your working hours?’ I remain silent in line with Rule 8. I, the Servant, wear livery day and night, and this livery is my skin, my ego. The livery allows me to call myself I, raises my status. It is the highest honour to wear the livery constantly, and to be clothed in it in the presence of a master. This is dictated by the most important rule, Rule 1.

[…]

Part III: At the King’s Court

Not yet an English palace, but a master requiring ‘assistance for scientific purposes’. I repeat the requirement, the precise nature of which remains unclear. How strange it is to travel across the city. For the last fifteen years I have barely left my street. My environment has consisted of the four roads surrounding the house I live in, the daily walk in my sortie-livery sufficing.

The journey through the city makes me alert. I stand taut in the bus; I neither talk to anybody, nor gaze inquiringly at anyone. I do not have the strength for strangers’ gazes. My legs give way, my long body buckles, out of my control.
Along the streets, my pace breathless. The people are loud. Following the pavements, lost in the traffic, saved by a friendly gentleman – he could easily be my master. I walk fast down a narrow alley. Fear of the unknown. I see myself as a fearful person, although I have long waited for this unique moment. I must be free of any doubt. Dazed by the journey, I hear the noise of the streets in my gut. There is the house. At last! I stand at my new master’s front door. How long I have waited for this moment! I hear myself ring the bell. I am not told his name. I address him for now as ‘sir’. He will soon reveal the title the humble one is to use when speaking to him.

Half past four on the dot, you’ve managed it. Pull yourself together Servant. Were I not now here at the door, I would be arranging the four-thirty tea-time ceremony, would be taking delight in serving my good master Earl Grey in green china cups with fruit scones. I long for these strong, static, aristocratic traditions; to be one of the finest servants around.

 

‘Enter!’ A man’s voice calls from behind the door, a voice leading me to expect something noble. How pleasant it is to hear the command ‘Enter!’ – a foretaste of ritual and of a real master! It is a good start.

I step inside. Through the dark passage straight into a bright living room. A small, rotund man with a square skull and a wide, round face sits in a wingback chair by an open window in the huge room – he reminds me of a Swedish bulldog. His sallow, unresting, green eyes observe me earnestly, curling eyebrows arching up as if the man were forced to endure acute pain. His small, open mouth breathes loudly and with effort, and his eyes reveal exhaustion and inertia. Is this the master? I check my posture and my standpoint.

Then the sight of his living room – such chaos! Everything in a mess. I understand now; I have been summoned on account of this disorganisation. He needs a fastidious assistant such as myself. With my acute sense of structure I will create impeccable order amongst his books and papers, make every intractable corner beautiful; I cannot abide negligence.
He heaves himself up from the armchair and cries out, ‘Bohumil, how tall are you? I need to know precisely. Detailed knowledge is my business. I approach data and facts meticulously. Do you know the exact length of your limbs?’

‘Of course, sir.’ I bow in compliance. ‘I am 1 metre 97 tall, my arms are 1 metre and 3 centimetres, my torso is 97.3 centimetres long, my legs 99.5, my feet 33.4. Should I continue?’

‘Highly interesting personal details. Every determinable number relating to your person is of great interest to me. My research field is man and the world as a mathematical figure! You understand what I am saying?’

A pause. He is waiting for my ‘yes’. I am silent. I will not pronounce a ‘no’.

‘You do not I see. It is most simply defined. It is a mathematical – algebraic – discipline! I collect numbers, sums, amounts. I am a well-known number collector. The series of numbers on my sheets is like a series of fine, sunny days. The figures radiate, golden in the sun. The fine weather holds out for as long as I sun myself in it. Continue.’

‘Right thigh 84.4 cm long with a circumference of 68.3, left thigh 86.2 cm and 72.1 cm, right hand 34.3 cm long, 1.4 longer than the left. The right thumb is 15 cm… I know the size of every part of my body by heart, thanks to my bespoke liveries.’

‘Yes, indeed. Discoveries learned through practical application. Brilliant! It is truly a wonder that you know all this. You too are stalked by facts expressed as sums Bohumil? Yes?’

I nod. Why is he calling me Bohumil? Why has he still not asked my name? Call me Servant! I have uttered my heart’s desire 11,638 times.

‘Astonishing! Extraordinary! A kind of aura!’ He offers me a coffee and asks me to sit by him.

The servant cannot – he will not – sit down. He does not consider expressing this inappropriate wish.

‘I would rather stand, thank you. I can answer better.’ (Rule 2.) At the same time I maintain a pleasant, calm expression.

He takes a deep breath, opens his mouth wide and continues to speak. ‘Numbers are ticking everywhere. They are continuous, like a clock or like the stars in the cosmos. Like a butterfly escaping its chrysalis, I cast off the earthly using numbers. Through figures our world becomes more intelligible, more wonderful. Mathematics can indeed exist without mathematicians. Did you imagine I was a mathematician? No, I am a professor of linguistics! Do you speak Czech?’

‘No!’ I force the ‘no’ out. I would love to soar above every question and not hear them, not answer any question I do not know.

‘No matter. There is a wealth of ignorance; one must simply acknowledge it, as Montaigne said. Do you know Montaigne? The third volume is on the second shelf above you.’

Hopefully I will soon understand every word he says. I concentrate solely on the words the stupid one knows, without inquiring as to their significance. They need only provide a mirror to my servile existence; the simple one needs nothing more. I bow respectfully.

He fixes his eyes on my obedient posture: feet adjacent and parallel, legs pressed together, hands aligned to the trouser seam, arms clamped to the body like a grenadier! A serious expression, mouth closed, head held still, eyes like a Great Dane, determined to be the best possible manservant. Now he is noticing how attractive my livery is – or is it my exceptional size which interests him?

‘What is the matter, Bohumil? You are shaking and shuddering. And why are you standing so stiffly by the door?’

‘I am waiting, sir.’

‘What? What for? Do come closer. Come here. Do you want to be a member of my mathematical club, my right hand? Anyone applying for a position here today must reckon to undergo a personality text. This does not involve determining professional abilities; the test provides information on the very personal strengths and weaknesses of the applicants.’

‘Yes,’ I answer immediately, going red. The servant may not redden however, as dogs do not do this either (Rule 11).

‘Seeing is all, Hebbel said, and you will see too. Look at all my books, newspaper cutting and papers: 3,456 periodicals, 12,567 newspaper cuttings and 7,233 books. My search does not just follow any old system! The planets have their system, as Giordano Bruno showed. And the heavens have a theory too; see Kant. I file articles, books and periodicals strictly according to the system “used and unused”, adhering to a scrupulous discipline: used on the right, unused on the left! It makes sense to categorise the people out there in this way too – as I see them, count them and asses them. I sort them into orderly and disorderly. The sum total: 5,789 disorderly and 3,123 orderly people observed within a period of five years. 5,789: how many disorderly people the world contains! My retreat into passivity and anonymity has truly been the best solution. I was confronted with this disorder too often and experience has proved the best teacher of all, as Caesar said.’

My face falls, white as chalk. I do not understand him.

‘Before you arrived here, at 16:15, I saw 28 people pass by, of which 16 were unknown to me, 12 were faces already familiar. At 8:15 on the other hand, nine were standing in the bakery, three at the newspaper stand and four were drinking coffee in front of the bakery. With binoculars one sees this clearly. I am interested in the question, “How many?” The precise number – no stories, no chit-chat; the subject under discussion is the figures! I explore a kingdom of numbers, using the traditional method – I count. Counting is a natural human activity like eating and excreting. I transform each word, each bird, each object into numbers. I dissect everything into numerals. In my opinion I thus confer a higher significance on everyday objects, as did Pierre de Fermat, Isaac Newton and C F Gauß. My greatest desire is simply to arithmetise the world around me each day. I want to make a breakthrough. I am converting everything into a system of numbers. This is more than a stamp collection or an insect collection, yes, soon I must cease this; a counting voice – no it is my voice counting – pursues me constantly, day and night! That is why you are here Bohumil. You are to save me from decline. You will note the numbers down from time to time, but you must also protect me from the sickly attacks of arithmetic mania!’

He sobs. I do not know what I should do. I stand, awkwardly. Should I offer him a handkerchief? That would be a sensitive sign of concern for the suffering of my master.

‘How romantic mathematical structures feel! The daily contemplation of quantities – Highly romantic! A continuum from linguistic poetry into the poetry of numbers. As Einstein said, the numbers offer so much space for intuition, we must simply allow the speechless connections and collisions and their sparks to shine like the midday sun. In thinking, speaking and writing, numbers repeatedly appear; Gödel demonstrated this. And according to Wittgenstein thought must not accompany activity.’

I struggle with every word this gentleman says.

[…]

‘He who eats beans is a loner who likes to live cloistered and rarely achieves contact with other people. The Japanese nutritionalist Dr Kaichin Kurichama has pioneered a new branch of scientific enquiry: fruit and vegetable psychology. By analysing the various elements found in species of fruit and vegetables they eat he can sort the character and talents of the person into solitude and togetherness. He uses the most rigorous academic methods in his work, he wrote to me. What talents do you have? Bohumil, don’t look so astounded. Your incredulous face! It is by no means unusual. You will see how much I like to eat beans and what effects they have. One farts – yes it’s true. Willhelmina has complained and no longer wishes to cook beans – as if farting were inhuman. Do you eat beans? What do you eat?’

‘Lentils,’ I answer quickly.

‘Lentils? Then you too fart, and by the way you are too withdrawn – above all when it comes to the female sex – no wonder. He who eats beans and lentils must withdraw… Or are you suffering, are you afraid? What of? Bohumil! But I love to eat lentils too. My best friend ate cucumbers every day with a passion and was a thoroughly gregarious person. He made friends rapidly and was liked by all, a genuine dandy! He also found it hard to say ‘no’. All thanks to the cucumbers. Successful with money, blind in love – because I like peanuts. I hide my sensitivity behind a rough hull, in horror of sentimentality. All because of cherries, which I consume with a passion. According to Kurichama that makes me intolerant, very intolerant. Is that not the case? Of course it is. I am after all a professor. A distinguished person. Do you like cherries and peanuts too?’

I simply nod again.

‘On the very first day we have discovered so many things we have in common! My Bohumil. My visionary, my poet and writer. Amor dei intellectualis!’

Why does he continually call me Bo-hu-mil? What kind of name is that? He calls me a poet and writer? Me? He must be mistaking me for someone else!

‘Your rigid head, your cramped eyebrows and lips are swollen. Are you in pain? Like me, no doubt exactly like me!’

Why does he not ask after my particulars, instead of playing a game I don’t understand with me? As a servant however, I must understand everything, immediately, without asking myself what sense the master’s questions, commands or behaviour make. As a servant I may not ask ‘why’ (Rule 6). My rules radiate through my head like a ray of sunlight guiding me. To keep on your toes is the trick.

‘Bohumil, how tired I am, always having to look for someone and ask if he can count, or if he wants to learn a foreign language. The greatest artists can do both and that is us! For my research it is necessary to be an artist of life. To comprehend the celestial bodies each night and determine the results arithmetically, with intelligence and aptitude. Do you understand me? Yes or no? Here lies our illusion.’

‘Yes sir.’ I offer my master my ‘yes’, accompanied by a gentle bow.

I participate in the conversation with renewed strength. Even the servant must resort to wiles to please his master, without necessarily himself finding pleasure in the conversation. My reverence for my master is genuine however. I am making assumptions about what he is discussing, taking the risk I may be misunderstanding him. Then my master might penalise me in accordance with Rule 4, banish me to the punishment corner. Through inexperience I am placed in a very awkward situation. I ask myself how this will end. I make sure not to adopt a questioning grimace; my acquired calm can easily abandon me when I have to suffer an ordeal. The fight inside me is exacerbated by my inadequate intelligence. But I repeat Rule 6 to myself: the servant must not think or reflect; he simply carries out instructions which have already become habit, in every minute variation. I retain the firm belief that I have not practiced all these years in vain. I will not add bitterness to the pain of rejection.

‘I can no longer bear it. The numbers are destroying me! They are robbing me of my health. Too many numbers jostling all around me! I have a burning desire to end this endlessness. I hereby announce: the end! Bohumil I wish to call stop, to achieve it with your help … I am exhausted. I am on my last legs. What luck that you are here now and are breathing the same air as me – sometimes it is stuffy. We will make it fresh again!’ He looks fevered. His despondent face crumples and his mouth sticks out. ‘Now it really has to end, a definite end. I wish to be the opposite of Pi. I long for an end.’ His body shivers, he tumbles and I leap towards him and hold his heavy body in my arms. ‘I beg you, such a highly adorned servant as yourself must surely be the best assistant for my scientific purposes. We will experience a great deal together. Stay Bohumil. I need you. Have you noticed, I have given you a truly honourable name. Do you know this, my poet and actor?’

He is pleased to own the Servant? I can belong to a master? He calls me ‘Servant’! I can hardly believe it. Now I stagger too – has he recognised the Servant? Is it really true, or is he deceiving me in his fever? Only the strange name I find hard to take.

‘Your devotion and passion makes you interesting. Very important in a poet!’

In me? I answer him: ‘Thank you, sir!’ I bow modestly, barely moving from my obedient position. It is really true. I take these words of honour on board. I bow deeper, much deeper than Rule 2 dictates. Can I possibly be this happy?!

‘You are my stroke of luck Bohumil.’

‘My dear, dear master, I thank you, but do not anger yourself over your most respectful, ugly Servant. I am wretched, that is the truth, but no doubt you can fathom the servant’s soul standing before you in his livery. Rest assured, as a devoted servant I will always keep a watchful eye on my master, who must always be certain that I am here for your highness.’ I congratulate myself on these fluid sentences. I am proud of myself!

‘No problem, Bohumil. You are a true poet and actor. You are an extraordinary person. I am delighted that you wish to stay. Do you wish to stay, my amor dei intellectualis?’

I find it hard to open my mouth, but I blurt out, ‘Yes, my King!’

 

From Ich heiße Diener © Milena Oda
Translation © Steph Morris

A longer translation sample can be found here.

The Age of Time

Author: Gerhard Roth
Translator: Pamela Saur

The Age of Time

  1. As soon as the city is erected, the salons are decorated with music-making marble busts
  2. The pretty concubine is undressed and bound to the chair
  3. An eel escapes out of the sofa
  4. The country doctor is still brooding about the brother-in-law’s body covered with ulcers
  5. The rope breaks and the hanged man, disguised as a woman, falls onto the kitchen floor
  6. The two village musicians cover themselves with buckled-on musical instruments (with the help of which they also are able to fly)
  7. The widower fulfills his life’s dream when he slays a lion in the starlit night
  8. Here the people conceive of themselves as emigrants
  9. Whoever wears a red hat band identifies himself as knowing the Bible
  10. On the other hand, if someone wears a black one, this shows that he is dead
  11. Talking leeches are growing in the flower pots
  12. When the tailor goes to bed he feels a naked woman leaving his body
  13. To his horror the village pastor beholds a Moor with a head of stone
  14. In every house one finds a holy strawberry the size of a child and a sooth-saying chicken
  15. The dogs are kept on chains until they are shot to death by their owners
  16. In order to protect themselves from swarms of flies the villagers wear wooden shoes
  17. The Chinese circus people are duty bound to load chunks of rock onto wheelbarrows
  18. Because the seawater has receded, the mayor now does without a diving suit
  19. Between dried-up onion braids the pious angels split peas
  20. The teacher tries to use a beekeeper’s hat and a cane, but he is nevertheless immediately expelled from his dream and back into reality
  21. The tame rat is black
  22. At their weddings the virgins wear headdresses made of cow horn, while the bridegroom attaches a sow’s penis to his trousers
  23. In front of the office of the bank director the butchers take off their boots which were kissed by the housemaids
  24. The fish nailed onto the posts murmur incantations to heaven, making the earth quake
  25. The general observed the man who was wearing a wooden prosthesis instead of a head
  26. In order to express their jubilation the residents strew bouquets of forget-me-nots over the village street
  27. Because the Sunday organist plays in a white veil the sister presses a garland into her hair and disrobes while dancing
  28. The circus director has the bodies of those who were shot bound onto house doors and put on display in front of the tent
  29. If one forgets to forcefeed the turkeys the right number of nuts, then one will see his sister in the morgue
  30. As soon as the painter in the white coat has renewed the gold on the stucco-work the four apprentices may leave the ladder
  31. Under the rainbow an iron structure is growing that, when it wilts, will rise like a dandelion seed and fall with a roar of wasp swarms down over playing children.
  32. The man of a thousand skin-folds that decorate him like plant leaves stretches his hand forth, to everyone’s surprise, and offers a light to the startled resident
  33. Hubris could be read in the eyes of the man with the pith helmet when he opened his suitcase and offered silverware for sale
  34. In the mountainous landscape one encounters no one but a sleeping angel
  35. The traitors are bound onto trees and given over to the termites
  36. After the men wrapped the head with coverings, they drew a picture of the King of Hearts on the kitchen door
  37. The skin of the foreigner is made of spider webs, his face without a mouth
  38. The fleeing hair-man is allowed to hide in the bed of the twin sisters
  39. The rabid armadillos are hunted, their armor burned up
  40. As far as the villagers can see, eggs are floating in the lake
  41. The apostle stands on the bank of the carp pond in the expectation that he will be able to walk over the water
  42. Illuminated by a bolt of lightning the night provides a glimpse of the magic escape artist who is lying in a straitjacket among the swine
  43. On All Souls’ Day the veterans distribute crabs to the children of the fallen soldiers
  44. In order not to insult the dignity of the doves they are plucked before they march into the cook pot
  45. On the flag of the holy procession there is nothing to be seen but an earthworm
  46. The rabbits spring out of the forests and eat the fields bare before the break of dawn
  47. The assistant of the steam-saw owner defends himself from the eagle-sized night moth with the help of a rake
  48. The village’s first sailor is led in a ceremonious procession to the inn where wine is served in bottles
  49. The little child in his arms, the baker waits for the delivery of his father’s coffin
  50. As soon as the hunters are absorbed in their card game they no longer pay attention to the deflection of the compass
  51. The Andromeda Nebula spreads itself out like a patch of blood on a linen sheet
  52. When a tornado is raging, the young girls play with the tame vipers
  53. In the summer, on the other hand, the children wear shirts made of cat fur that protect them from ferruginous rain
  54. So that they can move forward better in the snow the hunters strap saddles onto their dogs
  55. During autopsies care is always taken to remove the corpses’ eyelids
  56. The screeching of the birds is a signal for the villagers to trim their toenails
  57. The enamel bowls in the attics are full of spiders
  58. Early in the year glasses of medicinal plants are already put in the windows to ward off epidemics
  59. If the ground splits asunder, then ultramarine dye is harvested from the wings of butterflies
  60. In the course of the wedding the bridegroom is not allowed to hide his penis
  61. With the help of astrology the elder-berry plant blooms; the grasses, on the other hand, turn pale through its influence
  62. After the carpenter’s son has slain his father, he imitates the barking of a fox in order to set his pursuers on the wrong track
  63. Only he who has brushed the hair of his cow long enough will find gold dust in the sieve
  64. The beauty of the leaves drops out of the air of the day
  65. On Easter Sunday the church hymnals are suddenly printed in Chinese characters
  66. The slaughtered dogs are the cakes of the poor
  67. When the apples fall rustling to the earth the old people are shaved with razors
  68. The whispering of the dead is the color of the flowers
  69. In the brickworks the hats of the sow-tailors’ apprentices pile up
  70. But the manufacturers of beer demand as payment mastery over the weather
  71. The captured Russians decorate the altars with the slain pelicans
  72. Every soldier receives an iron magnet that allows him to stop the flow of blood
  73. The drowned man’s wife gives away his possessions so that he will not appear to her again
  74. The yarrow is holy to every acolyte because without its help the mass bell would not chime
  75. The jaybird can disguise its voice so that it is taken for a nut tree
  76. Wherever a toad pops up, he is poisoned to death
  77. The sole saint in the village lives after his death in the pastor’s house where in the morning he sweeps the ashes out of the stove
  78. As soon as the ass has died, invisible creatures start to become visible
  79. The parade of the beekeepers ends in the humming of the wasps
  80. The cobbler owes the invention of the bicycle to St. Elmo’s fire which deformed his pendulum clock
  81. In a drop of wine the wise man sees a coffee maker
  82. Next morning the miller’s arm is covered with brand marks which are interpreted as prophecies
  83. Salt from the deep wells is dung for the wheat fields
  84. The appearance of the soldiers suffices for the villagers to attach the fly paper
  85. The miner’s skeleton will not be discovered until thousands of years later as an impression in stone
  86. The heavy red light descends onto the sweet hills with their vineyards
  87. Every piece of land that belongs to no one is measured by unknown polar explorers
  88. Left behind were an ivory fan, a sewing machine and a zither
  89. The gravedigger is able to open the coffins in which the dragonfly pupa emit electrical charges
  90. If a person shows up who has an extra pair of legs in place of a head, the circus director should be notified
  91. One educates children with the butt of a rifle better than with a pickaxe
  92. The coin was barely on the counter when the image of a magpie flew off and was replaced by a golden pheasant
  93. In April, however, it is forbidden on penalty of death to wear white clothing
  94. It is the right of the first born to refuse to speak
  95. The country doctor guards the quicksilver while he is asleep
  96. The first attorney of the village has a transparent skull and is stabbed to death by the mourning maid
  97. Everyone is secretly happy about the corpse in his basement
  98. The selected trout are laid on a cloth and seasoned with lemon juice before the musician begins to play the scales on their tails
  99. From the bony skulls of the stags the canary spells out the alphabet
  100. The gendarme observes the stranger who is wearing a coat of blue bird feathers

From Landläufiger Tod by Gerhard Roth
© S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 1984
Translation © Pamela Saur

Frank

Author: Lutz Seiler
Translator: Bradley Schmidt

“Around, around, flew each sweet sound …” S. T. Coleridge

Their last evening. The girl at the hostess station outside the entrance wore the restaurant’s yellow and blue uniform, a short pleated skirt and a kind of blouse with epaulettes and gold buttons. If you wanted to wait, you typically gave your first name, which was called as soon as a table was open. In the past weeks Färber had found that his first name was too complicated for the restaurants’ maitre d’s and had adopted a simple name. Embarrassingly, now he had to repeat it; the girl had understood Hank instead of Frank. I could have left it at Hank, he thought, but he’d gotten used to Frank, Frank.

Some of the asphalt, softened by the heat, had seeped between the rocks of the shore. Or maybe it had been used to help reinforce the stones against the swells – he was fixated by these types of meaningless questions.

He and Teresa stood for a while on the illuminated beach beneath the restaurant. The sand was blinding in the halogen light and the foam brilliant white, or phosphorescent. A few overweight sea gulls tumbled towards them and then struggled to turn away again. Färber would have liked to say something, but he had to be careful, he had to concentrate so that it wouldn’t be, as Teresa put it, something negative again, just an attempt, as she believed, to repress his perpetual dissatisfaction.

He wanted to go down to the water, but Teresa sat down on one of the rocks. Her arms and legs were tanned, her black hair lay in a loosely woven braid between her shoulder blades. When Teresa noticed Färber looking at her, she thrust her feet into the sand. On her second-smallest toe she wore a new silver ring.

The parking lot filled, and more and more guests came up the driveway. Färber didn’t understand their motions, the sweeping gestures, the outstretched arms pointing now towards the canyon, now towards the ocean, and the distinctly erect, almost backward-leaning way of walking, with an expression of perpetual anticipation on their faces. I don’t feel anything special when I see the Pacific, and that’s the worst sign, thought Färber.

He wanted to draw Teresa’s attention to a sea gull that must have gotten snagged in one of the adopt-a-beach trash barrels (all the trash barrels on the beach carried this label) – one wing jutted out and beat at the barrel’s rim, a sort of Indian drumming clearly audible when the wind from the water rose and the music from the restaurant washed over their heads. For a moment, Färber saw a couple of homeless people stomping around the trash barrel, rhythmically thrusting their fists in the air.

He hadn’t touched Teresa the whole time. He had gotten very close to her in the log cabin at Tiagra Pass, but she had actually been asleep. At first she was shocked and furious, but she had to be quiet because Lucy was sleeping on a cot on the opposite wall with her cuddle pillow under her arm. “Don’t touch me!”

Later he was nauseous. Sunstroke, although he had only spent a few minutes outside the car. Why don’t you ever wear a hat – sometimes he heard his mother’s voice, and Färber mumbled something in reply, he was dizzy, and suddenly he had tears in his eyes: Don’t touch me! Let me be… touch, touch! At some point Teresa must have fallen asleep, the blanket pulled tight around her shoulders and her feet dug into the covers. Just like he remembered.

They’d done day trips together, the normal things all the tourists did, the desert, the Sierra Nevada, San Francisco and back down the coast on Highway 1. He knew the people where they were staying laughed about the Germans because they always wanted to go to Death Valley, all the Swiss and the Germans want to go to the desert, where it’s the hottest. Why in the world, Randy had asked him, laughing. Randy was their landlord. Lucy had promoted him to Uncle Randy, and she was staying with him this evening.

Unlike its gluttonous fellow gulls, which circled over the shore with bills wide open and uttered cat or baby cries, the bird in the bin was completely mute. Mutely it hammered its wings on the rim like a job that had to get done.

The West Coast had always been a dream of Teresa’s. At first it was unrealizable, then difficult, because of Lucy. Two of Teresa’s friends ran a restaurant in Los Angeles with specialties from Thuringia. It was there, at Holy Elizabeth, that they’d had their best evening. Färber had drunk Köstritzer beer and eaten stuffed cabbage. The friends told them about their famous guests, about Clint and David and Betty, whose party they had been to, where the whole garden was covered with carpets, probably expensive ones, and a collection of four hundred busts of Lenin filling half the house – they laughed, and even Färber had laughed, relieved, and put an arm around Teresa’s shoulders. He and Teresa were still an enviable couple in others’ eyes, or at least he thought so.

The whole time Teresa had taken pictures from the car. When she wasn’t taking photos, she put one leg on the dashboard, bracing the ringed foot against the windshield, and sometimes the ring clicked a little against the glass. Färber hadn’t asked her about the ring. Jewelry usually came from Teresa’s father, who gave his daughter gifts for every possible occasion, valuable, necklaces, often delicate silver chokers – jewelry made for special occasions, for dresses with plunging necklines. She was usually uncomfortable about it in front of Färber but at the same time pleased, saying, “Isn’t it gorgeous?,” or “Just my style,” and “Doesn’t he have great taste?”

She had pushed her seat as far back as it went; her profile had slipped from his view. The tanned foot, the slightly spread toes, the pale, almost square toe nails, the landscape in the background … The big toe wasn’t really the biggest, compared to the next one, and even the middle toe was a bit longer. Färber was almost thankful for the foot. At the same time, the foot seemed to taunt him: a strange ringed animal that he didn’t know anything about for sure.

And yet he had always enjoyed going places with Teresa. Without her enthusiasm, her energy and cheerfulness, most things remained pale, as if in a fog; they hardly existed. When he was alone, what he missed was a connection, a kind of mediation he needed in order to see and hear. Once, when Teresa accused him of something along these lines, he had fallen silent. There was no good answer. He had depended on Teresa and Lucy; to a certain extent they experienced things for him, but he would never have said that. Their presence was like a garment, something that allowed him to be in the world. A kind of camouflage that shrouded and protected him.

The wind picked up and the beating against the trash barrel became stronger. Maybe it is a different, larger animal, thought Färber, a cormorant or albatross. He had seen how the waves pulled back into themselves, rolled in and spit out a second, smaller wave just before it hit, which moistened the shore like a tongue and left a fine, colorfully shimmering frothy rim.

Färber laughed and wanted to say something that could act as a segue to an observation; he felt as if he’d just gone through a long struggle. While letting his quiet fake chuckle fade away, he didn’t know which way his observation might be headed and started to laugh again, cautiously and unconvincingly. Just then their names were called. The girl used a megaphone: Mister Frank please! Misses Teresa please! Two places please! They had been married for ten years. They had left out all the ritual elements of the ceremony: no music, no procession, no speech. “And what about the kiss?” he had asked after it was almost over. “Well, you didn’t want anything,” said the justice.

The girl drew out the a in Frank as long as possible. She celebrated the guests’ names as if announcing their appearance on a show or in a boxing match. If it took a while for the guests to come up from the beach, her voice became questioning, then pleading, moaning (she knew her guests would be amused), and in the end very firm, almost demanding, a kind of judgment, as Färber thought he could discern from the hollow, metallic tone of the megaphone.

Fra-a-ank, please, Fra-a-a-ank! Frank!
Even though it seemed ridiculous, Färber had to think about how their car wouldn’t start on the morning of their wedding. Later they’d often told the story; it was just too good. How Färber had tried to push-start their Russian two-door down the street, how, completely soaked in sweat, he walked off to ask one of their despised neighbors for help… Fra-a-a-ank! The maitre d’ moaned out the a out for a while. She chewed it like a big sticky piece of gum. And then she slowly blew a bubble with it: Fra-a-a-a-ank, please…

Färber thought about the eighty-euro girl who remained lying in bed afterwards, stretched and sat up and turned away from him while he was already tying his shoes, his temples throbbing, and took his suitcase, already halfway toward the stairs, on the way home, which was still the most important thing, the most beautiful. He gave her a hundred.
“Thanks, honey. How about Tuesday?”
“Yeah, maybe; I’ll give you a call.” He came back to her for a second. He absently touched her between the legs. He wore jeans, and shoes that came up to the ankles, the ones Teresa called ankle boots.
“Yeah, but Monday at the latest, honey, so I can find some time for you.” She guided his hand. He liked her childishness, her breasts, the small hips, only her voice was a handicap.

Fra-a-a-a-ank!
By now they had reached the forecourt in front of the restaurant. In the halogen light the guests waited close in front of the hostess station with the maitre d’ in her blue and yellow uniform. The dull, metallic tone of the megaphone came one last time, and for a moment Färber grasped why all these people showed up here and lined up with their sweeping gestures and their faces bright with anticipation, on this freshly tarred lot whose harsh, numbing odors they all willingly inhaled. A thought shot through Färber’s head: they just want to influence the megaphone’s choice, but it wouldn’t help them, and suddenly he sensed his hatred.

Behind the maitre d’ with the loudspeaker in front of her face stood a boy who casually draped his arm around her hips. He also wore the restaurant’s uniform. Färber could see that the girl was touching the boy, she had started to swing the a in Frank up and down, she was putting everything she had into the name. She knows it all, Färber thought in a moment of confusion, the whole intricate story, and then: she doesn’t know anything, not even my name. Her hand rested on the boy’s thigh as if she wanted to cover something there. They were directly in front of her when she got ready to call Frank’s name again. Färber could see her eyes. But it was just in her voice, not her face and not the position of her soft, shining lips that just now had taken Frank up once again, Fra-a-a-nk!

The girl noticed him and suddenly broke off. She smiled mechanically, her mouth half-closed, please … Frank was still there, between her teeth, Färber could feel it suddenly, and he tensed. A year ago he had started to ask for his fees in cash, for tax reasons, he had told Teresa.

The girl passed the list of names to the boy next to her and led them to their table. She kept the megaphone in her hand and waved the gadget while she walked as if it were still of importance.

Färber was exhausted. He would have liked to follow the swaying pleated skirt for a while. He thought briefly of the flared leather skirts that the girls used to wear when he was young. He envied the boy, even his blue and yellow restaurant uniform. He felt worn and hollowed out as if life were slowly starting to reject him again.

“Don’t touch me.” It could have been their evening. Teresa and he could have drunk, talked and felt like they had reached the finished line. They could have ordered lobster and reminisced about their first lobster. The restaurant on the street that didn’t look like a restaurant, the tables that stood much too close together, the dully gleaming pliers they didn’t know how to use, their awkwardness, sheepish happiness.

Färber thought about the fat man, Teresa’s first affair. He had never seen him. One time Teresa had mentioned that the man was not exactly skinny, that he was ample, as she put it; since then, Färber had called him the fat man. And sometimes she jumped onto him, she had said at some point, and the man would stand completely firm, like a rock, he could hold, hold her … Maybe he was remembering it wrong. But it was something he was supposed to understand was crucial, and for a while he had always held Teresa tight as they fell asleep. The fat man drove behind Teresa on her way home in his own car, out of the city to their house. They parted ways on the corner a block away from their house and then the man ate breakfast at a highway rest stop. Färber found all that out piece by piece.

Earlier they would have thought the place was fabulous. The windows had been removed; they sat directly above the beach, the wind in their faces. Under them, on the beach, there was a table set with candles, the tablecloths attached with silver clasps; several chairs were already half in the water. At the bar a few people were dancing. When the music stopped, Färber heard the beat of the gull’s wing, or at least he thought he did. They talked about Lucy – school, piano lessons, her room, nothing should change for her. They agreed, like always. Even now it felt good to talk to Teresa.

At the end of the evening Färber was drunk. He heard the beat. It was coming from inside himself. Or from Teresa. He had almost put his hand on her breast. Everything was ok.

 

From Die Zeitwaage by Lutz Seiler
© Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009
Translation © Bradley Schmidt