Author: Zehra Çirak
Translator: Kate Roy

She wasn’t the slightest bit romantic, and literature didn’t particularly interest her, she just loved the books themselves. Especially ones with famous names. She went about things alphabetically, buying herself books, a roomful of them, arranged neatly on the shelves.
Needless to say she took the liberty of calling the room “my library.” Visitors were allowed to look, but not touch. Feasting their eyes on the spines, they all marvelled at her collection.
It’s the things in these books, she said, not the letters on the page, that are dear to me, and important. And all who heard this believed in her love of literature.
When she was alone, she invariably took out a few books, remembering exactly where to find something, and she leafed through them until she found what she was looking for. Sometimes it was a love letter from someone she had left, or a ticket to a place where she had experienced happiness. Or it was hairs from her own head that she had torn out in anger or sorrow. She always knew what the reason was, what the date was. Some books also hid the addresses of those she had once called friends.
Sometimes, when she was sad or drunk, she would read a few pages, the same ones over and over, for hours. Because she liked them so much she would cut some of them out and put them in a different book. So she could look for them again some day.
Often she wrote messages for herself in the books too, and read them aloud every now and then. As if they’d been penned by someone else. That’s how beautiful she found them.
But when she felt despondent because time was passing by so fruitlessly, she smeared her books with jam, or even with butter or honey or saliva. That comforted her during difficult nights and she licked these books every now and then. She even managed to get red wine and fish soup into them, and some other bodily fluids.
The poor books smelt as little of literature as a desert smells of the sea.
Occasionally she fell asleep on her library floor while listing the authors, as well as the publishers and the titles of the books.
She sprinkled dust and other things onto the books, as if she were crowning the heads of the authors with time: the time they had been allowed to live with her. But she wasn’t completely mad, she did exercises to train her brain, where she would state the page count of particular books, getting it right, or nearly right. She could even correctly guess the years they were first published, and, what’s more, their original titles. Now and again she laid the books out as a mattress under her and then she dreamed of their contents too, that is, of the things she was keeping safe inside them. Sometimes they were wet the next morning.
When she died and her estate was sold off, many a second hand bookseller came in for a surprise, and would usually rid a book of her traces as best he could.


“Bücher”, by Zehra Cirak, © Verlag Hans Schiler, Berlin
Translation © Kate Roy

Samples from Hans: An Account

Author: Eleonore Frey
Translator: Steph Morris

I. The Wild Man

Shut out

A door, as wide as Hans is tall. Behind it music, voices, laughter. Light falls through the cracks, through the windows in the brick wall. It is painted black, as is the door Hans is knocking on, beating his fists against, throwing his entire weight at. He braces himself into it, mustering his full force, braces with one leg bent, the other stretched, pressing into the ground. Slips down. Picks himself up, switches legs. One more go. The door creaks, but stands firm. Hans eases off, swearing. He has invented the swearwords himself, words which allow him to curse at the top of his voice without actually swearing. Because otherwise, he realises, that would not be polite. A window opens above him. A girl looks out. Then another, and another. They laugh.
“Lea,” he shouts over the racket.
“She’s not here,” someone shouts. Hans raises his fist.
“Catch,” someone calls, pushing her way to the front, and throwing a can of beer down to him. It is Lea, his sister. When she was little she was proud of Hans because he was the tallest of all the men she knew. Now, ever since the neighbours’ children taught her that her brother was abnormal, when someone asks her who they saw her with yesterday in the middle of the street, arguing – or saying nothing – she says, “I don’t know.” Or says, “that wasn’t me.” Behind her stands her boyfriend Herbert, with his arm round her waist as if she were his property. The can of beer falls to the ground, explodes.
“Thanks,” Hans says. Kicks the split can. It lands in the gutter. The window shuts and the noise is shut in.
Hans goes away. Not far. As soon as he is out of sight he sits on a bench. Plays dead. This is his safety valve, because as long as he doesn’t move, the birds’ twittering stays stuck in their throats – and his rage too. Till finally it breaks out through his narrow windpipe, wordless but loud, rising up to resist the onslaught of everything going against him. It doesn’t matter what he does; it’s no use.
“What did you say?” a passer-by asks, standing still now.
Hans looks up, stands up, walks over to him, not too close, and says: “I was talking to myself.”
“Did you understand what you were saying?” the man asks.
“Yes,” Hans says. “I said, there’s no point in me saying anything. I don’t want to say anything, I said. I just want to be by myself, then go home.”
“Do you know the way?” the passer-by asks.
“There is no way,” Hans says. “I have no home.”
“Where are you going to sleep then?” the passer-by asks, and is unsure if he is doing the right thing, getting involved in things which aren’t his business.
“I don’t know, maybe I’ll go to my flat,” Hans says, stepping from one foot to the other, starting to walk, now he has remembered how to do it.
“So you do have a home,” the passer-by says.
“No,” Hans says, turning round before he goes. “My flat is not a home, it’s a dump. There is nowhere you can put your foot without treading on something, things that are in the way: shoes, broken cups… There is no-one waiting there for me, not even an animal.”

The passer-by walks on. “What does he want from me?” Hans asks. Out loud. But by this time the man has vanished into the crowd, where every person is the same as the next, everyone following the same rhythm. For Hans, who has different music playing in his head, the other’s music doesn’t count. He follows his own rules. Sometimes he stumbles into one of the posts growing out of the asphalt here and there. When the thing he stumbles into is a human being, he often gets a deliberate shove or a nasty look. When it starts to rain, umbrellas open everywhere around him; hoods are drawn up over heads: measures which put an end to the game of glances. The unprotected ones walk with bowed heads, faster than before. A few of them dive for cover, making use of anything available: a porch here, a bus shelter there. Hans keeps going. He feels good. He isn’t bothered about getting wet. The rain runs down his face, under his collar. He stands still, throws his head back, opens his mouth and flares his nostrils. This is what the wild boy did, who lived like an animal in the woods somewhere in southern France a long time ago. Hans saw the boy in a film, saw how he received rain like a gift, thunder and lightning with joy – even later, after he had been caught, washed, clipped, trimmed, clothed and sent to school. I like rain too, Hans thinks, and takes his glasses off so he can see the world as it was meant for him; not the way the others’ corrective measures have shaped it for his benefit, but the way it is to him and only to him. Now he can barely see a thing, only the glow of the streetlight above his head, blurred – but what a great way to see it! In this spreading, softly fluctuating light, the night looks like a pleasure garden. “Like the Tivoli,” Hans says out loud. “Do you remember?” he says to himself, and recalls the tree of lights, full of red hearts, the crazy roller coaster, reflected in the lake and stirring up the water from top to bottom, and, eclipsing all the slighter memories, the eternal snowstorm in the ghost train, which wasn’t cold, instead made of light, a whirlwind within another, and another.

When he wakes from this dream, remote from the people rushing past him, he puts his glasses back on, so that no-one can mistakenly glimpse what they shouldn’t see: the thoughts condensing in his head, clustering together then flying out. This is a theatre which belongs to him alone. Sometimes he acts something to himself, physically, wherever he happens to be, pretending to be Mack the Knife, for instance, or a shark. But as this is the wrong thing to do in public, it causes more displeasure than amusement. In certain delicate souls it can even provoke fear. This can lead to difficulties. And so he contains himself and postpones the play till later, till he has a stage where no-one can see him. Leaning on a wall, he stays standing till the rain has stopped. He shakes himself, makes one determined stride, then another. Forgets himself, hesitates, then decides to walk through the night – not just in any direction, as he usually would, but towards the brightest light he can see at any one moment. The result is that his feet trace a labyrinth though the city, making their way to the traffic lights and then to the illuminated fountain and from there straight towards a car. Blinded by the headlights, he leaps aside now, and trips over himself. The man in the car winds his window down and rails at Hans, his main point being that he takes no responsibility should Hans have hurt himself. Hans says nothing. The man is not satisfied. As, however, Hans continues to stare at him fixedly, he is left to deal with his dissatisfaction as best he can. He now makes a wordless gesture too – shaking his head – winds the window back up and drives off. Hans examines his left knee. It hurts. But, Hans says to himself, it’s nothing.

It is nothing, and doesn’t make him limp as he walks now, straight to his bar. This is where his nights mostly end, or, you might say, where his life begins, night after night. His refuge is called The Dog in the Bush. No-one knows why it is called The Dog in the Bush because as far as Hans can see there was no reason in the slightest to turn the proverbial bird into man’s best friend. But Hans has learned that there are things which no amount of contemplation can explain, because they are inexplicable. In the same way there is no explanation for why his sister Lea has shut him out of her party, which is no doubt still in full swing, there where he tried to barge his way in, there where he has known everyone since they were children. And now, although he has hands and feet just like them, they treat him as if he was not a human being but a creature best steered clear of. In his bar, on the other hand, everyone greets him when he enters. He isn’t at home here either, because he isn’t allowed to stay any longer than the others. But he can sit at the bar in peace and listen to the music rippling down over him from the ceiling, woven note by note into the reddish, flickering light. “A beer,” he says to Susie, who would be his girlfriend if only she wanted to. And his money buys him a beer. He gets a free smile too. And on top of that a question:
“How are you?”
He cannot answer it straight away. The thing with Lea doesn’t concern Susie. “Not like you,” he says finally, once he has finished his first drink and can see the second standing ready in front of him. This helps him control the confusion, impossible to penetrate or describe, which has held him captive.
“How am I then?” Susie asks him.
“How should I know?” Hans says. “I can’t see what you’re like inside.” Susie has a diamond nose stud. It wasn’t there yesterday.
“Thank God,” she says. “If everyone could see what people were thinking, where would we be then?”
“In paradise,” Hans says. The people there are transparent; he learned that from his father, who read it in the book he always reads when he has nothing else to do. The book is to his father what The Dog in the Bush is to Hans; he is at home in it like a badger in his burrow. Susie starts to wash the glasses. “The way it works in paradise is…” Hans continues. But she isn’t listening.

Hans has to go now. Everyone has to go. Mostly in pairs. Hans walks up the hill alone. That’s where he lives. Alone. Standing at his front door he realises he has lost his keys. What can he do? There’s no point in ringing. He isn’t in, so he can’t open the door and welcome himself home. He is locked out and there is no-one who would take him in this late at night. Having thought for a while, which gets him no further, he takes a log from the stack of wood resting against the wall under a tarpaulin, lies down in the porch with the log as a pillow for his head, and falls asleep.

Heavy shoes

Hans, the wild man, has let his beard and his hair grow till he can no longer see out. Beneath the thicket of his moustache, his mouth has become a red-edged wound, but it mustn’t be allowed to get overgrown, because even though Hans speaks less these days he still has to eat and drink: that is what keeps humans alive. And Hans is without doubt a human being, even if he would rather be a tree. A tree can be as shaggy as it wants. Unlike Hans it doesn’t have to listen to people – including his mother, who claims to love him the way he is – saying that no-one should be allowed out in that state; he should be cropped and scrubbed, or locked up. The effect is achieved anyway, because people give him a wide berth when they see him. Which is fine by him, because while they might think he stinks, as far as he is concerned they stink too, in a different way, a way sensed in the mind, which has a nose of its own and can tell who is rotten under their shiny skin, and who isn’t. It isn’t just his hair which disgusts people; his hands are red and chapped. When he has to get a grip on something, doing up the buttons on his jacket for instance, he starts to jitter. Specially when he puts his gloves on. So he throws them away. But not his jacket, although it is frayed and grubby; he needs it against the cold. His trousers end a good two inches above his heavy shoes – which have lacked laces for some while. This means Hans cannot lift his feet when he walks; he can only shuffle, dragging the shoes along with him – slowly; left… right… It’s the way he walks. It works.

Ideally he’d rather go somewhere he actually wants to go. Or stay in bed. But every so often, though increasingly seldom, the orderly person within him speaks up, telling him he should be in a certain place at a certain time. That means: go to work. In the nursery. That means get up early. That means hurry to the station to be on time. The music in his head now reflects his struggle to get up and out. It has disintegrated, no longer music, just noise, blunt like the foghorn blast a ship uses to announce its arrival when it sails into a harbour in bad light and needs everything out of its way. That’s the kind of ship I am, Hans thinks. His legs don’t really want to obey the helmsman in his head; they rebel, continually straying from the straight and narrow. This annoys the more fleet-footed of his fellow citizens, as he discovers when they tell him so. He deliberately doesn’t reply to these remarks, and they usually look away as quickly as possible. But by then it is too late; the unflinching gaze with which Hans scrutinizes them, as he does everything which gets in his way, stays with them even when they have long turned the corner. And not without reason, because when Hans looks at something, he looks unsparingly, seeing everything there is to see, noticing not just that someone’s eyes are two different colours, but mercilessly observing every spot and every awkward hair. When he stops looking for anything in particular, the face he is gazing at turns into a full moon. That means it conveys nothing to him, no matter how brightly painted. The mouth is no longer a cherry; it is a red mark, soon just a stain, then a gap. And the skin is no longer white as snow; it is a crust, far from flawless, which holds what is under it together and hides it.

So it is hardly a surprise that Hans does not want to touch a woman, not even with his eyes, although he knows that this would be expected should the occasion ever arise. As his love-life to date has been played out solely in the subjunctive – aside from the kind of intimacy which can readily be purchased – the occasion has never arisen; in reality – an incident, a stroke of luck, and afterwards life is different from before… He can only satisfy his wilder desires through commercial transactions; usually by going to the street where the addicts solicit, where the other wild men look for their women. Now and then he finds a woman there who is wild like he is. He can be on a level playing field with her, and not only because a price has been agreed for services rendered. He can speak to her without having to remember that the wild ones’ way of speaking is like a foreign language to the tame, whose compensation for their lost freedom is that they call the tune when it comes to speech, because they are swimming in a torrent of words, whereas the wild men, and the less common wild women, must make an effort with every word, and once they finally have the words, they do not flow effortlessly from their lips; they piece themselves grudgingly together, one after another: stone on stone, the yes, yes, no, no of the bible. That has its advantages. In both novels and real life, speech often rushes ahead of thought to cause confusion, escalating with every sentence and spiralling out of control. These situations don’t occur between Hans and the wild women. For as long as the mutual understanding lasts, all is well with the world. If only it would last longer for once. But that will never be, Hans knows. Because these spellbound girls have made a deal with death. Every day death helps them get through life, offering an artificial heaven for a few hours as long as they give it the remains of their time, a little more each day, until finally it refuses to release them at all.

Although Hans is a wild man and finds his women on the street, he sleeps in a bed – well into the daylight hours after long nights. But although sleep is what it’s called, he doesn’t actually sleep. He lies there, immobile, so that the bed beneath him doesn’t collapse as it has been known to when he rears up and tosses himself from one side to the other, overcome with restlessness. He does this trying to sleep, something you can’t try to do; you can only let it happen. And so he gives up trying and stays wavering between day and night. This is where the dreams live, and he is happy to accept them, as long as they mean him well. He likes them best when they surround him with kindred spirits, when they are populated by wild folk living in the woods. The people there survive on berries and wild honey, on beetles, snails and crickets, taught the skills they need by the wild boy, who Hans has never forgotten since he saw him in the film. Because he is that child. If only he could live like that, without clothes, he thinks; if only my hair and my beard were so long that I could wrap myself up in them like a coat, my soles so tough I wouldn’t feel the hard pebbles when I walk barefoot through a stream. When the wild boy is cold he creeps into his cave and covers himself with earth and leaves, Hans remembers. Like an animal, he thinks, for as long as he has his eyes shut. And when he opens them again, the child is clearly a human being, because although he can’t speak, he has language in his head, and thinks – like me, Hans realises. And he knows that, even though there are very learned people who think otherwise, just as he mostly knows that his hand is his hand. When he no longer knows that, things have gone wrong.

When, continuing to dream, he thinks of the woman who found the wild boy while looking for mushrooms, he remembers that he has heard that mushrooms are neither plant nor animal but something else, something in between, which very few people know exists, which gives a name to mushrooms’ neither-nor status, which positions them in the natural scheme of things, where every plant and every creature has its place. And earth and fire and water and air. Hans has read in one of his nature books that mushrooms’ shared characteristic is that they are connected under the earth by an extensive network known as mycelium. And that, consisting almost solely of water, they need a lot of rain, from which they build the strange forms in which they emerge from the ground over night – alone, in clumps, in groups, in mysterious rings: the poisonous Fly Agaric, the Horn of Plenty, the red-bloomed Saffron Milk Cap, and the delicate-shaded Shaggy Ink Cap, which, no sooner has it appeared, melts away into a slimy, dark mass. Where mushrooms like to grow, so does moss. Close up, rocks overgrown with moss look like forests. As if spellbound. And when you look up, the grey lichen strands dangling down from the branches seem enchanted too; they are the beards of the wild men, Hans says, half awake, and, disturbed by the curious humanity of nature, closes his eyes again.

And returns to dreaming, although he is actually awake. In this dream, the fairy-tale story is that the wild men are vindicated. Which he is delighted about. And his dream is now as vivid as life itself, lucid and vibrant. Under their hides, the wild men wear robes of velvet and silk, so they are always ready should their hour come to peel off their skins, each in his way a prince – with clear eyes, but no beards. When they come into the world for the second time, in their real form, they are all without exception the sons of kings. And the idiots who have scorned them till now throw themselves to the ground when one of these wondrous new-born creatures looks their way – out of fear one of the powerful gentlemen might revenge himself for what was done to them when they were still bear-skinners and you could kick them if you felt like it. There is no danger of this, because the princes are not thinking about what happened back then but about what is happening now and what is coming next: the princesses, who will appear on the horizon without fail when they catch wind of a prince. The most beautiful takes Hans by the hand and leads him to her castle. She has been promised to him for all eternity, for she is the embodiment of a fairy tale. Hans knows that in the castle everything will be fine, and turns to the wall in his sleep, to avoid the light which seeks to banish his dreams and usher in the day. Or something else will come, and that will be fine, he thinks, as he passes from one dream room to the next now: out of the frying pan into the fire, from water to flames and then over the mountains into a cool, green valley.

And Hans dreams, offering the princess a green rose which he found in his sleep. As the princess goes to take the rose, he wakes up. This time there is no going back. No more dreams for today. With much difficulty, he decides to get up and begin the day, which, being grey, does not entice him. Nor would it if the sun were to shine, as bright as it can, because it hurts the wild men even when it just glances off their noses; it continually reveals that the world is not made for them, not the way it is now, everything always over straight away, and how can you get your bearings when nothing stays as it is? Instead yesterday’s grey hairs are red, the good weather bad, and the woman who smiled at Hans in his dream has already forgotten him. He gets up, takes a few steps with closed eyes and, when he finally, reluctantly, opens them, sees someone in the mirror he doesn’t recognise. He will have to climb into this person before he puts his clothes on and then he is what he was before his vindication; a stranger in his own skin.


From Muster aus Hans by Eleonore Frey, © 2009, Droschl Verlag, Graz
Translation © Steph Morris

You Worry Too Much

Author: Michael Lentz
Translator: Steven Rendall

You Worry Too Much

Do ideology and politics concern nature as well? Brecht wants to test this out by means of an example. When he’s invited to plant a tree on the edge of the hill in Paseo Miramar, only a few meters from the ocean, he immediately accepts. Plant a tree. Planting trees is at least a step taken against the self-Americanization that is taking hold among the exiles, the mild climate is probably corrupting the German emigrants, planting a tree is a useful thing, a way of putting down a substitute root, unlike the overeager German emigrants who would prefer to be Americans today rather than tomorrow, who try very seriously to put down roots in the language here too, but those are aerial roots that can never breathe, here the air doesn’t contain anything one could absorb, so Brecht plants a tree, and as he is standing in front of his tree, Randy comes up to him, Randy the millionaire who grills such fantastic steaks, who drives a splendid car, Americans come into the world as drivers, Brecht says, so Randy comes up to him, looks at the tree that Brecht has planted with great care, really looks at Brecht himself for the first time, it seems, looks at the tree again, while all the other people whom Randy has invited to plant trees on this sunny day gather around the two tree-observers, and Brecht is the only German among all these Americans with whom he has hardly spoken during the tree planting. “Typically German,” Randy says, and Brecht doesn’t understand what he means, but is pleasantly surprised that something here is typically German, he wouldn’t have expected an American to be able to identify it, then Randy leads the group to the edge of the area on which Randy has had a hundred trees planted over the past few years, from there you can best see what he means by typically German: Brecht’s tree stands straight as an arrow, the only one. The tree planting remains a lonely highpoint of this thoroughly boring time in California, which is tasteless, the food is tasteless too, the boredom is eating him up, making him physically ill, he can’t even think about working every day, here in America he has to pretend inwardly not to be in America, he tries to transport himself into a European condition, so that he can go to his desk as usual in the early morning and get going, but he succeeds in forgetting the cheap prettiness all around him for only a short time, then he is suddenly Francis of Assisi in the Aquarium again, Lenin in the Prater, a chrysanthemum in a mineshaft, as he wrote in his Work Journal on March 23, 1942. There is nothing he can do about it, the European condition he has conjured up doesn’t last long, and in fact it is typically American, that is, artificial, to want to pretend something, the front yards here are also just pretend, if the homeowners can no longer pay for the water the yard dries up overnight and the desert takes over again, the truth. Another truth is, admittedly, that Randy makes the best steaks in the world, and for that Brecht almost reveres him, anyway he returns again and again to Randy’s steak, with pleasure, and tells him so, too. What is the secret of your steaks, Brecht asks him. You see it and you like it, Randy says. Brecht decides to write a poem about Randy’s steak. However, he quickly realizes that no poem about these steaks will ever suffice, no poem will even come close to embodying the goodness of Randy’s steak. His steak is poem, Brecht forbids himself ever to announce such corrupt nonsense, that’s the worst and most disgusting capitalist talk there is.
In Randy’s company Brecht keeps coming back to the foreign language problem. It’s already hard enough to conduct a conversation in German in such a way that one doesn’t have to ask questions every other sentence, Brecht stumbles in English, in American, over every other word. Talking with Randy, Brecht finds this embarrassing, shameful, but doesn’t let on. Moreover, he can tell Randy about this problem only in English. Then Randy listens in a very friendly way, nods now and then, dismisses him and says “don’t worry” again, and lays his hand on Brecht’s shoulder, not to mention that it seems that Randy neither takes an interest in this nor sees it as a serious problem. Relax, Bert, Randy says, and Brecht is greatly annoyed that this steak-griller calls him Bert, everyone else is supposed to call him Brecht. However, Randy has a trump up his sleeve with his steaks . . . Brecht stops. A steak up his sleeve? How do you say that in American? Can’t imagine. That’s where it starts, the problem begins already with Randy’s steaks, so just eat and keep your mouth shut. The steaks are thicker than usual. They are nonetheless uncommonly tender. Your teeth go through this meat as if it were butter. So it must be meat from special steers or the secret of its tenderness must lie in the way it’s prepared. The preparation: the already marinated steaks are . . . Brecht can’t figure it out. He detects a special something in the taste, Kirsch, maybe? In any case you have to get used to it at first, Brecht concedes, it activates massive prejudices in relation to America, against which we Europeans find it so hard to defend ourselves, perhaps not Kirsch, but something in the spirits line, anyway, in short, they’re the best steaks I’ve ever eaten, Brecht says, if only all Americans understood my plays and screenplays as well as I do Randy’s steaks, because these are definitely American steaks, Brecht thinks, completely excessive, mouth-filling, and too much of everything, exhibition pieces without a museum. The blood runs into Brecht’s mouth and he likes it. He can’t say, I like it, he has only the distinct feeling of pleasure, no that’s not quite it, a feeling of satisfaction. A thoroughly petit-bourgeois word. A word that could out-smug smugness itself. When have I ever been satisfied with my plays? Never. Why am I constantly rewriting my plays, telling friends and editors, agents and directors, that the play is finally finished, the letter is sent off, I immediately sit down to work on a new one, I was hasty, the play is not at all finished yet, I’m just now starting to work on it, it has to be rewritten from the ground up, and then I ask Reyer, Auden, Bentley, Laughton, to help me prepare a new translation, the opening night and subsequent performances will all be catastrophes because the American theater is unusable. “Fear and Trembling” will be the result of all these evenings in the theater with his plays, and most of all for himself. He knew that from the outset, and so he must have control over everything from the ground up, he mustn’t let anything go out before everything is clarified, light has to be shed on the whole thing.
Satisfaction looks different. When you speak about satisfaction you imagine leaning back in your chair, pausing and enjoying. That’s perhaps the fundamental difference between literature and food. The latter can satisfy. How does good old Albert-Birot put it? “Sit down and don’t talk so much about things you can’t eat.” German exiles, ladies and gentlemen both, should have that engraved on their brains, Brecht thinks, and Randy asks him,
“What are you thinking about, Bert?”
“I was just thinking that the Germans here and their literature, it’s all merely provisional, something directed toward a later time, and later no one will need it any more, but I’m writing for postwar Germany, there people will need my plays, they’ll be recognized.”
“The best thing for you to do, then, would be to stay here,” Randy says.
“Stay here? Here there’s only development, but nothing that develops,” Brecht replies.
“The only thing that will really help you in your postwar Germany won’t be your plays, but my steaks. But you can get those only here, Bert.”
“There’s Kirsch in them, isn’t there?”
“Red wine.”
“Red wine?”
“Only a little squirt.”
“Red wine, no Kirsch?”
“Excuse me, but they don’t taste like Kirsch.”
“I haven’t drunk any for a long time, I can only compare the taste with my memory, and it made me think of Kirsch.”
“But think about it. Red wine is the same color as blood, red wine leaves a mark, the color leaves a mark, you won’t find anything better for a steak than red wine.”
“Yes I will, Calvados.”
“Not here.”
“In France, however.”
“There, yes, but these steaks have something very subtle about them. I love the softness, the tenderness, and that’s produced only by a soft but hearty red wine.”
“Do you know what ‘faire le trou normand‘ means?”
“No idea, something to do with truth.”
“Clear out the stomach.”
“That’s a good truth.”
“Literally, it means ‘make the Norman hole’.”
“Ah, so it has something to do with war.”
“If you tell me your recipe, Randy, I’ll tell you the recipe for the Three Penny Opera.”
“Not good enough.”
“Then I’ll tell you something about the film Hangmen Also Die.”
“Have you made a film?”
“Yes, here, with Fritz Lang.”
“What’s it about?”
“The murder of Heydrich in Prague.”
“And who is Heydrich?”
“The Reichsprotektor for Bohemia and Moravia.”
“Never heard of him.”
“What about Fritz Lang?”
“I’ve heard of him, he lives right around the corner here, Summitridge Drive, Beverly Hills.”
“If I tell you a funny story about Lang, will you tell me your recipe?”
“Let’s hear it!”
“Since as a director he ‘d lost a few projects, Lang asked his manager to give him back the $80,000 that he was supposed to put away for him. The manager confessed that over the years he’d spent the money himself, and tried to commit suicide. Thereupon Lang went to an ophthalmologist, who did what an ophthalmologist always does, he covered one of Lang’s eyes and asked him to read a couple of numbers. Gladly, Lang says to him, only you’ll have to turn the light on. The lamp, however, had been burning all the time. He was in danger of going completely blind.”
“That’s it?” Randy asks.
“That’s it,” Brecht says.
“But that’s not funny at all!”
“I think it is, in a certain way.”
“I find it absolutely not funny.”
“So fork over the recipe, Randy!”
“The steaks are especially thick. Before they go on the grill, they are marinated. It’s very important that while they are being cooked you take them off the grill from time to time and put them back in the marinade. The sauce has the following ingredients: 1/3 cup soy sauce, five garlic cloves, two ounces of balsamic vinegar, and the red wine, but just a squirt. Sometimes I also put teriyaki sauce in it, but not often.”
“Are the garlic cloves pressed?”
“The garlic is pressed. You have to like that. But if it stays in the sauce too long, it loses its bite.”
“A great recipe,” Brecht says. “From now on I’m going to eat only steaks, with the exception of pork cutlets, red cabbage, and potato dumplings at the Feuchtwangers’, wear a leather jacket, smoke cigars, and drive through the Hollywood Hills in a fabulous car, and then I’ll drive to New York, all the way across America, and I’ll plant trees everywhere. And I’m going to revolutionize the Hollywood film.”
Randy, wide-eyed, stares at him.
The contemporary Hollywood film is not at all contemporary, Brecht goes on, it’s opium for the people and it’s in large measure what makes them so stupid.
“Do you know that Hollywood films are part of the global drug trade, that Hollywood is the center of the world drug trade, and that every single Hollywood film makes people stupid?”
No, Randy says, that had never occurred to him. But Brecht himself wanted to be part of this trade, didn’t he?
“The Hollywood film, my dear Randy, is a mental laxative, and when people no longer have a mind they get stupid.”
“You worry too much, Bert,” Randy says.
Now I really have to forbid him to call me Bert all the time, this Bert business is itself part of lulling the masses to sleep. Brecht already sees himself as a leather jacket-wearing, cigar-smoking, car-driving comic figure.
“Randy,” Brecht says, “you know that Hollywood is doubtless the cultural center of four-fifths of the world, and here we can have everything except dollars. I’m making a Hollywood film to end all Hollywood films, I’ve always got that in mind. No one wants it. Because it’s not suitable. Not suitable for whom? For the past. Here everything is defined by the past. If something is appropriate, it’s not appropriate for the past. I don’t have Hollywood taste, only Brecht taste. I try one storyline after another, one screenplay after another, and slam straight into the Hollywood wall, but I keep going, the point is to educate not only theater audiences but also movie audiences, and that’s it.”
“Sure, Bert,” Randy says, “I’m relieved that you’ve got something to keep you busy for the rest of your life.”
“However, I’ve had bad luck,” Brecht says, “Feuchtwanger managed . . . ”
“Unfortunately, I don’t know him, either.”
“A colleague. We worked on a drama together, Feuchtwanger made a novel out of it, but for me the thing was done once the play was finished. Feuchtwanger gave the play and his novel to Goldwyn, that Hollywood movie mogul whose name says it all. Anyway, no one ever understood our drama, but people liked Feuchtwanger’s novel, Goldwyn bought the film rights. Naturally, nothing came of it. But we signed a contract and I got $20,000. I found out when I was in New York. What did I immediately do? To celebrate, I bought myself a new pair of pants.”
“You can live on that, Bert. Now all at once you’re a big earner, Hollywood will be on your side.”
Great, the new steaks are ready. Eating steak is an opportunity for Brecht to go into a little more detail.
Although Brecht finds current Hollywood films unbearable, he loves crime novels. He wants to read English novels only in English, as if one were unthinkable without the other. They impel him through the pages. The hunt for the murderer excites him, he wants to finally find out, and he does find out, but he wants the book to tell him, and that’s what’s really marvelous, to know right from the start that Harry is the murderer, and to know it for the next two hundred pages, during which this knowledge is constantly present, and then on page two hundred and one Harry can finally be convicted of murder, and it occurs to Brecht how the crime novel pulls that off, it isn’t written in literary English, in polished English, but rather in a wonderful, colloquial, graphic underworld English.
Reading crime novels has made him realize that in discussions he doesn’t say what he wants to say, but only what he can say, and this is far too little, even when writing poems he’s not one to swear by metaphors, not one who needs showy metaphors, but he himself isn’t in complete control of German, and that sometimes stops him in his tracks, he’d like to tell Randy that, but he can’t, he just gives him a look that says, you know what I mean, and Randy puts his hand on Bert’s shoulder again, “You’re a nice fellow,” and that’s what Brecht finds hardest to bear.
He can’t stop thinking about it. Brecht tries to think his way into the foreign language, to feign his way into it. He decides that henceforth he will speak only American to himself, which seems to him to be perhaps the insuperable hurdle for his work. Maybe he no longer wants to ruminate on the painful suspicion that in America he won’t achieve anything because he is after all exclusively German, an exclusively German writer far from home, suffering from homesickness and nothing else.
“To be wise is to be productive, that’s my motto,” Brecht says, after he’s eaten a second steak. “The best medicine is work. Even when I was running from the Gestapo, I never failed to do my daily work.”
Germans! Randy can only shake his head. “Like with the tree, Bert, everything straight and according to plan.”
“When you mentioned the tree again it reminded me of something,” Brecht says, “the second house that we had in Santa Monica had a little garden. I could never stand the house, I couldn’t work there, there wasn’t enough room for a big table. Practically every day I thought about moving out again. We stayed in the house for a year. As I said, I couldn’t work there, and so when it wasn’t too cold I often went into the little garden. However, I couldn’t stand it in the garden either until one day I discovered a spot that had a decent view. What did you see? Only greenery, bushes and big-leaved fig trees. I was especially taken with the fig trees. I could look at them for hours without getting bored. A very strong tree, an athlete among trees. Moreover, if you placed the stool right there, you were spared the view of the slutty petty bourgeois houses with their depressing cuteness. A real gift, I thought. You saw only a tiny garden shed, maybe a square meter and a half on the ground. This little shed was the culmination, it was falling down, and its decay ennobled it, reminded me of the decay of European houses that had withstood time in just the same way. This view made me reflect that maybe we should stay in the house. Work comes before nature.”
Brecht is tired. Delightful steaks. He’d gladly come again, very gladly. If only America were like the steaks . . . Then America would be completely impossible to resist . . . But the opposite is the case . . .


“Du machst dir zu viele Gedanken,” from Michael Lentz, Pazifik Exil, pp. 319-329, © S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2007. All rights reserved by S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.
Translation © Steven Rendall


Author: Eva Menasse
Translator: Anna Altman

Martine had just turned seventeen. She was long, thin, tan for the time being, and certainly still wet behind the ears. The camping trip with her boyfriend had been a real catastrophe and she was glad to finally be away from him. They had absolutely no money, so the idea to drive to Tuscany had been pretty stupid from the start. They spent the entire time hanging out on the one beach that could be reached on foot from the campsite, eating food from the supermarket: bread, tomatoes, cheese, nothing warm for three weeks, something Martine wasn’t used to. Her boyfriend, ten years older than her, couldn’t tolerate the sun, which, she had to say, was almost a perk. She had bought an inflatable mattress for fifteen thousand lira on the very first day, not yet knowing that money would be so tight. And so she bobbed, day in and day out, on the float on the sea, on her “water barbecue,” and held onto a buoy with her hand so as not to float away. He sat, meanwhile, on the beach, in the shade, in a long shirt, a ridiculous cap on his head, and read Freud, the entire Interpretation of Dreams and then also all the introductory lectures to psychoanalysis. It was far too hot for any other activities. By the time they reached the beach at mid-morning, her circulation was already suffering. In the evenings they sat in the dust in front of their tent and played cards. They had slept with each other three times. They immediately began to sweat and only slid around on top of each other. He was her first lover, and at first, for half a year, they had done everything else besides the real thing. She had really liked everything else. But with the real thing, she simply didn’t feel anything. And on top of the sweat the dust, too, and also in a tent.

Actually, for the entire three weeks she had only daydreamed, scatterbrained. At home in the city, there was this doctor whom she helped out during the holidays, twenty-two years older than her, who had blatantly come on to her. When she thought about it, it was as if something in her stomach, directly behind her navel, dropped. Like with a rollercoaster ride, only there it lurched up. On the evening before her departure, the doctor had kissed her and pressed himself against her like mad. She thought about it often, and the thing behind her navel always dropped. Almost always. Her father had warned her about the doctor: un hommes à femmes, a real ladies man, that’s what they say, but she had just laughed. That old guy? she’d asked, and her father had smiled. It was so easy to reassure her father. He wanted to be reassured, that’s why.

Lying on the float, she made it clear to herself that she couldn’t imagine anything further with the doctor. Only the tingling memory of the goodbye kiss, but no daydreams of the future. It was impossible to picture that she could do the same thing with the doctor as she did with her boyfriend in the tent. She didn’t want to; she was certain about that.

She hardly thought about Fiona on the float. It was like back then, as a child at Christmas: she had always tried to think as little as possible about the holiday because she had believed that then the joy would be bigger, purer. Not like her little brother, who constantly asked when Santa was coming, although he had to have known that he would surely come some time. When you know something wonderful is going to happen, you hold your breath mentally, so to speak.

Just like she never, under any circumstances, looked down when she climbed up to the Gloriette at the top of the Schönbrunn Palace Garden. Never looked at the city, only rigidly down at her toes, and only turned around when she was all the way at the top. When the height difference is the biggest, so is the feeling, too. If she had been Orpheus, she wouldn’t have failed, but at school she kept that to herself.

She had tried once to explain it to Fiona, not on the way up to the Gloriette, but in the car on Höhenstraße. Fiona steered the car easily through one switchback after another, and Martine was entranced. She tried not to look at Fiona directly, but only out of the corner of her eye. She thought hard about an interesting remark and then decided to divulge her secret child’s game. It wasn’t really a child’s game; she still did it just like that. But she kept that to herself. As she described her principle of Not Looking Down, of avoiding anticipation, she had the feeling again that she was gesticulating too much. Suddenly her T-shirt, embroidered with a peacock made of sequins, seemed totally embarrassing to her, but it was too late for that. Fiona wore an apple green Fred Perry polo shirt, with two of three buttons fastened; with anyone else it would have seemed stuffy and square. Martine looked over at Fiona’s profile. She seemed to be smiling. Tell me more, Fiona said, and reached for the sugar candies that lay beside the hand-brake. In a fit of cockiness, Martine took the candy away and began to open the package. She explained further, almost hysterically, with words that were much too big. Formulations like strongest sensation, diluted intermediary stages, self-control of the eyes and one’s feelings tumbled out of her mouth as the little perforated yellow strip around the candy ripped off, of course. She scratched off the rest of the foil with her fingernail as she spoke, with exaggerated irony, about how most people can’t even control themselves, which meant they missed out on the greatest sensations. Word repetition!, scolded the critical being in her head. The word “sensation” is unfavorable in this situation anyway. She had finally opened the candy’s square package. She leaned over to Fiona and wondered if it could really be true, what she was doing right then, and held the candy in front of Fiona’s mouth, trying at the same time not to block her view with her arm. Fiona furrowed her brow and, with her immaculately painted lips, snatched the candy and drew her head back immediately. There hadn’t been the slightest touch. You terrible little romantic, Fiona said, and by the way, your sandals stink.


On the day that Martine was supposed to arrive, Fiona had just gotten control of herself again. The first two-and-a-half weeks in the little Italian city had been a balancing act, with days and nights spent one way or another, exploring all the boundaries she could with alcohol, cigarettes, and little pills. Twice she went out to eat with a group from her language class, but after a short while she just sat there, hardly able to differentiate between the voices. She always left early and, back in the little apartment she had rented, returned to her special rituals.

There were at least two young men in the course with whom, under different circumstances, she might have found distraction and self-affirmation, but at the moment any thought of sex triggered in Fiona a feeling of panic. And now the girl was supposed to come. She had already thought of simply not going to the train station. Then the young thing would just have to take the next train home, and in the fall she could speak of a horrible misunderstanding. But Fiona wasn’t capable of something like that; she was too much of a teacher.

Maybe the girl would even do her good, with all the romantic adoration she showed Fiona, and her youthful arrogance, which didn’t yet know of life’s hardships. It was only every couple of years that a student really interested her, and it had never been like this, with Martine, before. She had immediately stood out to Fiona, right in the very first class, because she looked so skeptical, and because she was the only one who spoke fluent French. The others appeared to accept her as their ringleader, although Martine didn’t do anything discernable to earn it. That gave her, for Fiona, another advantage. She knew all the little games and group dynamics that girls that age played, and she detested the typical dominating gestures of the queen bee, as there was in almost every class. She had sometimes found a certain pleasure in humbling the bitchy leader and then watching, with almost scientific interest, how the power dynamics shifted.

Maybe she had exaggerated it a little bit with Martine, but last spring, when she was so in love, like never before, the young girl had been exactly the right companion. They took opulent forays to surrounding areas, trips that not only helped pass the weekends that the secret lover, at the time, still had to spend with his wife and child, but also served as exploratory travels for a gleaming future for two.

Martine knew nothing about all of this. Fiona didn’t ever reveal very much of herself. Instead she let Martine tell her about her life while she daydreamed. Girls at that age are still so self-involved anyway that they don’t even notice. On a pedagogical level, Fiona was convinced, no one could accuse her of anything, either. Martine had always been the best in the class in French, on account of her father. Growing up bilingual or something like that. When they first began their outings, most of the crucial schoolwork was behind them. And it was clear from the beginning that she would only teach this class for one year, until her colleague came back from maternity leave. Fiona simply trusted that no one would find out about their private meetings. That wasn’t really like her: she was a stickler, concerned about her impeccable reputation and careful not to give herself up to anyone. But in the spring, a great deal was different than how it usually was.

And Martine was really far more mature than the others. Fiona had once mentioned to her lover what Martine, not yet seventeen, read. Sometimes she felt envious of the easy start that Martine would have in life, with her many talents and the carelessness that Fiona knew nothing of, which she could thank her parents’ money for above all.

She herself had always had to fight, but she was made for that. Anyone who knew her well, and there weren’t many, admired her tenacity. Fiona didn’t think it was anything special. She detested people who let themselves go, and whining and cowardice. And she could hate and punish from the bottom of her heart when she believed anyone, herself included, to be guilty of either of these deadly sins.


For the last half hour in the train, Martine was nervous. It had been a mistake not to shower. But in the end she had so completely abhorred the campsite, representative of the failed holiday—the shower rooms reminded her of a concentration camp, you had to put coins into a machine, she never had the right change, she couldn’t stop thinking of her mother and her warnings about athlete’s foot, which she had always scoffed at before, and so she had offhandedly forgone entering that nightmare one more time. Instead she imagined a cozy little bath with warm water, on the edge of which Fiona had laid white hand-towels ready. Like at home. But Fiona wasn’t actually like that. For the first time the thing with the sandals that one time occurred to her. She flushed. She slipped out of the dirty canvas shoes that she’d been wearing for weeks and sniffed them. Outside of the train compartment, a soldier went by. He laughed. She blushed and put her shoes back on. They smelled like dirty canvas shoes, only very faintly of sweat. Martine hoped it was okay. Then she imagined that she wouldn’t find Fiona, that something would have come up, and what she would do then. Normally she wasn’t particularly anxious, but she didn’t have anything else except her train ticket back home, two packs of cookies, and four thousand five hundred lira. So, practically nothing. It dawned on her now that it was her desire for humiliation that had led her to force the last big bill on her boyfriend along with the other two packs of cookies, even though he was going directly home. Who knows what will happen to you along the way, she’d said condescendingly, and that she would borrow a couple of hundred from Fiona when she saw her. That seemed ludicrous to her now. She had never asked Fiona for money before, in fact she’d never asked anyone other than her father, as everybody knew that her parents were well off. She herself only got the usual pocket money. It was part of her parents’ principles to keep their children on a short leash financially. For that reason, money was always a problem. She had exactly as much or as little as all her girlfriends, but unlike all of them, she could never complain about it.

She saw Fiona already from the train: she stood at the back, under the train station clock, wearing sunglasses and a red kerchief over her hair. Martine’s joy was irrepressible. The three weeks in the tent vanished in a dusty hole, together with the unhealthy lethargy, the disgusting dreams, and the spring came back, its light energy. Soon she would shower and put on the skirt and the linen shirt that she had left untouched in a plastic bag at the very bottom of her rucksack. And then she would be herself again, a purer Martine, who Fiona would like.

She ran, waving and calling to Fiona, but she didn’t react at all. A tall man stood beside her; he bent over to Fiona and spoke to her. Fiona shrugged her shoulders and pushed her sunglasses over the kerchief. She squinted in Martine’s direction and raised an eyebrow, something Martine perceived as a warning sign. Then she raised her hand as if to wave back, but let it sink again. She didn’t move an inch.

Martina awkwardly held out her hand to greet Fiona; they had never greeted each other otherwise. But then Fiona took her sunglasses off and offered Martine first one cheek, then the other. Then she laughed derisively and remarked that Martine smelled like a hitchhiker. Martine gushed a few exaggerated details about the campsite and its shower-barracks, fungus, infectious diseases, life-threatening, you had to have seen it, I wouldn’t have been fit to travel, she desperately hammed it up, I wouldn’t have managed to make it to you.

Fiona said she hoped that didn’t mean that Martine hadn’t showered for three weeks, and introduced her companion. He kissed her aggressively on both cheeks, and declared, in terrible French, how pleased he was to meet her and how much he’d heard about her, and then they were off, Fiona and the man in front, beginning a conversation in Italian, and Martine with her backpack behind, like a daughter behind her parents. Astonished, Martine comprehended that this man would have carried any suitcase for Fiona for miles, but she was just a little girl with a musty backpack.

Luckily, he left them somewhere along the way. At Fiona’s apartment, Martine barricaded herself in the bathroom and washed herself and her things in the sink. She would have to ask Fiona for a place to hang her laundry, itself an admission of guilt. Just like sometimes in the spring she had felt hemmed in, as if she couldn’t breathe.

As she came into the kitchen, a pile of dripping T-shirts over her arm, she said defiantly that she had, by the way, always showered at the beach. Fiona looked at her indulgently, like a child that is always offended, and suggested they take a stroll around the city to start off with. There’s something else, Martine said, suddenly utterly fearless, which is, I’m totally broke. I had hoped you would lend me something, maybe five hundred schillings, and I’ll give it back to you right away at home. Or I can call my father and he can wire it here, I’m sorry.

Tomorrow is a holiday, Fiona said, without seeming astonished or annoyed; just give me everything you have. Martine didn’t want to do as she asked, but couldn’t say why. She stood still for a moment, then rummaged in her backpack and laid the rolled-up bills on the kitchen table. Fiona stuck the money in the sugar bowl.


When Fiona saw the girl at the train station, it was, initially, a shock. Fiona often felt like a stranger with her friends when they hadn’t seen each other for a while. But this was something else. When she had invited Martine, just before the summer vacation, she had believed that she had outsmarted herself. She regarded Martine as a third thing between a stranger and a friend, a curious bodyguard, someone who would, no matter where, always be at the same distance. There was no question of a visit from any of her few friends; these six weeks, booked at the last minute, were, after all, an escape. No one was supposed to see her this way. Only Martine, her inventions, her quirks and eccentricities, were the only small solace she wanted to permit herself. But now it turned out she had been wrong. The catastrophe of the summer was inscribed in Martine’s face, too.

Martine had become more attractive in the past few weeks, and that wasn’t only because of her tan. Sex, thought Fiona, and that gave her another pang. Luckily she had met this slick show-off Antonio on her way, who had been useful for the first half-hour as a buffer until Fiona believed that she was once again moving at a half-way secure emotional distance from the girl. In the first moments at the train station, she had feared that she would forget herself entirely; send her away, scream at her, hug her.

As Martine disappeared into the bathroom, she took two pills anyway, just in case. Shortly thereafter she felt better. The sore, wounded part that Martine had unwittingly brought with her disappeared and all that was left was a sort of numb glee.

At a café on the piazza, she sent Martine inside to order. While she was alone, her face in the sun, she had the feeling that a part of her was thawing again after a long time. The three small wounds on her lower stomach had stopped hurting a while ago, only at night, when she scratched at them. Unfortunately she had scratched a lot, in these almost unconscious nights, out of rage and defiance and because she was just someone who deeply abhorred scratching, blood, and pus. But that morning, before she had gone to the train station, she had taped them up, carefully, with iodine, gauze bandages, and medical tape, like her earlier self would have done long ago. A perfectionist, who would never let herself go, never, almost never. You took care of wounds, just like one learned to, clean, precise. Just because it bleeds doesn’t mean it has to hurt for long. Don’t act like that; others have survived it before. Images from way back in her head started to sneak up on her, images that had tortured her all night long, tubes, bags, green mummies who approached her from above, is the pain bad? But the picture faded just as quickly, as if conjured away. The little pills. Soon she’d manage without them; now that’s a joke. Fiona smiled and rolled her head, stretching. Where was Martine? She turned around and saw the girl, absorbed in conversation at the bar. A blond guy around her age, estimated Fiona, a Swede or a Dane. He looked good. He stared at Martine as if there were a world wonder before him. Fiona stuck her first two fingers in her mouth and whistled, sharp and short. Martine turned around immediately, the concentrated seriousness changing immediately to an almost childlike delight. She lay her hand for a moment on the boy’s upper arm, made gestures of excuse, and came over, the two Camparis balanced on a small tray.

Since when are you into surfing teachers? Fiona asked, and hoped it would sound like a joke. Martine beamed. Then they raised their glasses and toasted with the red drink, which Fiona had once heard was dyed with ground up lice. At that she had to laugh like crazy, and instead of an explanation she bent forward and tucked a strand of hair that had fallen into the Campari glass while she was walking over, behind Martine’s ear. Fiona could feel the young Swede or Dane behind her back, observing it all.


At seventeen, Martine still believed that there was only one true life, and that she was just too stupid or too immature to choose the right variant. As a result she often felt like a phony when she listened to Van Morrison in Fiona’s car, music you bobbed your head to, while she never uttered any contradiction when her boyfriend badmouthed his neighbor, whose “shallow pop music” could be heard through the walls in the evenings. Her boyfriend, who wore coarsely woven linen shirts and thick wool socks typical for the East Tyrolian valley he came from, would certainly have had something condescending to say about the Fred Perry polo shirt, and her parents would have found both the linen shirts and the brand-name ones, Van Morrison and the experimental brass ensemble from Graz that her boyfriend considered the non-plus-ultra for the moment, utterly peculiar. Although they would never say that out loud. Interesting, her overly polite mother might have trilled, a bit exotic, and her father, who loved Schubert, would have probably somehow implied that the brass ensemble spoke more to him, personally, than Van Morrison, but that was purely a matter of taste.

Martine kept the worlds in which she moved strictly separate. Before she could be allowed to go on vacation with her boyfriend, though, he had to appear for tea. You can understand that, her father had said with a concerned face, we can’t just let you go away with someone who we’ve never even seen. Martine somehow managed to get her boyfriend to tie back his hair that day and to wear one of his white linen shirts, in which the rustic style was least noticeable. Teatime passed to everyone’s satisfaction. A quiet young man, her mother had said afterwards and giggled, hopefully we will get to know him better. And her father had only nodded thoughtfully.

Her visit to Fiona, on the other hand, had hardly merited discussion. An excursion to see the new French teacher, who could possibly object to that? Fiona’s position sufficed; no one had to meet her. Martine’s parents never went to parent-teacher meetings on principle, and never to the parent’s evening. If there are problems, we’ll find out soon enough, and so long as there aren’t any, it’s a waste of time, her father said. The limited time of the poor teachers should be given to those who really need it, her mother seconded. Only the one time when Martine’s younger brother had bitten the art teacher had her father pulled himself together and visited the school, but that was a long time ago. It remained the only time.

Martine thought about all of this as she lay in the vineyard the following day, her and Fiona, and it somehow came about that she touched Fiona’s bare upper arm with her nose and cheek and Fiona didn’t do anything against it. My brother once bit Mr. Swoboda’s hand, whispered Martine, and then her lips met Fiona’s arm, too. Fiona lay on her back and stared at the sky. I know, she said, I’m sure he deserved it.

Then it was quiet.

Martine waited, her heart beating and with closed eyes, she didn’t even know what for, but as nothing happened and everything was so clear and beautiful, she sat up, leaned on her elbows, noticed only fleetingly that the clouds in the sky were reflected in Fiona’s eyes, and kissed her. She kissed her quickly, with a closed mouth, but Fiona jolted up so quickly that they banged their heads together and Martine bit her lip, which, in the end, was the most embarrassing. Fiona walked a few steps away. Martine rolled on her back, closed her eyes, and tasted blood. She heard Fiona peeing somewhere nearby, that’s how quiet it was in the Italian vineyard. Martine considered whether Fiona had gone down the hill to pee. Whether she herself would have thought of something like that. Whether, if Fiona had gone up the hill, that should have been seen as punishment for her insolence. She didn’t know if she should ever open her eyes again, but she hoped it would somehow happen. After a while she heard Fiona coming back. She stood there, probably looking down at her, and said, Shall we?

When they finally found a supermarket that was still open, Martine had all but become a baby again. She could already walk, that at least, but otherwise she had forgotten everything and was utterly dependent. On the one hand she was ashamed to speak her mix of French and Italian, with which she’d managed so far, and hid behind Fiona. She followed her in a daze through the supermarket, only shrugging her shoulders and nodding when Fiona held out first a small Camembert and then a plastic package of mortadella slices, after which point she didn’t ask again. She stood before something that she absolutely wanted and hoped that Fiona would understand. As a child, on her first visit to London, it had been a red bus with tiny people sitting in it; the people couldn’t be taken out then, the toy industry hadn’t gotten that far yet. She had stood every day in front of the souvenir stand and turned the bus in her hands, but neither her mother nor her father had noticed. On the last day her brother had demanded a Queen’s Guard nutcracker, a model of the Tower Bridge and a soccer banner, and then he’d wanted a castle ghost mask. Her mother had chided him openly and, though he’d get the soccer banner in any case, asked that he choose one thing. Her brother had started to throw a fit and hurled the banner on the floor, her father groaned and excused himself, and her brother had gotten the mask and the nutcracker. Martine had an exact feeling for the possibilities left to her and so she’d accepted, with a childish giggle, the necklace with the Swarovski pendant that her mother had suggested. She quickly returned the bus to the shelf; she was a big, reasonable girl. And exactly like then she now stood in front of the crème caramel pudding that she loved and that she couldn’t find at home. You pulled back the foil, turned the cup around, stuck the point of a knife into a bottom, and then the pudding came out with a quiet slurp and the caramel sauce flowed over the top. What’s that, Fiona asked, coming back. I thought they only had them in France, Martine said, and pointed to the refrigerated shelf. Fiona stared at the puddings, which were only available in eight- and twelve-packs and which, under her gaze, became towers of decadence and gluttony. She bent down and took a packet of grated parmesan cheese from the neighboring shelf. I’m ready, she said, and turned in the direction of the cashier.


From Lässliche Todsünden by Eva Menasse
© 2009, Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne/Germany
Translation © Anna Altman

As-samt / The Silence

Author: Michael Roes
Translator: Seiriol Dafydd

I haven’t seen Hafith and Mansur speak to each other since they returned to the village from the pasture. To be more precise: Mansur is no longer talking to Hafith. He seems to be avoiding him, while Hafith behaves as if nothing has happened.
I ask Ali what’s happened between the two. But Ali knows nothing of a quarrel.


One afternoon a few boys were sitting in the shade of my hut, close against the door. I went out to them. Some of them I already knew by name. I asked them to show me some of their games.
They showed me a variation on ghuma, ‘blind man’s buff’, which I, due to a misunderstanding, called Hafith wa Mansur, ‘protector and victor’.
In this game, unlike the blind man’s buff games that I was already familiar with, both players, the one chasing and the one being chased, have their eyes blindfolded. The one being chased has to draw attention to himself repeatedly by hitting a drum or a rattle, serving as an orientation aid to the one chasing. Of course he has to change his position as quickly as possible after each signal so as not to get caught. But since his eyes are also blindfolded it can happen that he runs directly into the catcher’s arms.
When I ask for the game’s name (matha ism al-la’ib) the children answer: hafith wa mansur. Only later, when I ask them to repeat hafith wa mansur, does it become clear that they had thought I had asked for the name of the players (matha ism al-laa’ib), and I had interpreted their answer literally.
And from then on the friendship between Hafith and Mansur really seemed to me to be both an almost proverbial comradeship between protector and victor and a friendship like that of two blind men who search for each other and miss.


When they meet each other on the village square Mansur reacts to every friendly word from Hafith with silence. That’s how it’s been since their return. Ali doesn’t think it means anything since Mansur is well known for his obstinacy. Maybe Hafith took his jests too far when they were alone with the herd for weeks on end. Now Mansur is jesting with him.
Yet Hafith’s efforts with Mansur seem to get more and more pressing and nervous. Instead of leaving Mansur in peace for a while, he follows him. He won’t regain his friend that way. Quite the opposite: Mansur’s silence only becomes more significant and grievous. In the meantime all the villagers will have noticed that something must have happened between the two.


The village: four fort-like, multi-storeyed stone houses, surrounded by high walls, each on small hills situated about two hundred paces apart. In between, smaller, new houses, irrigated gardens, a mosque, a shop, sand, rubble and scree.
The forts are over three hundred years old and were built by the four sons of the tribe’s founder. They were laid out on such a grand scale that up to a hundred people could live there, an extended family that is, with three or four generations. Today there are perhaps three hundred living in the whole village, among them eighty men-at-arms.
Despite the fort-houses the village conveys little feeling of security. The towers stand too far apart from each other. The façades are almost completely unadorned and windowless. Life takes place covertly behind the thick stone walls. Everything is orientated towards defence and repellence.


Hafith has already been prowling in my vicinity the whole morning. When I step outside the door I trip over him. When I sit in my divan I see him standing in front of the window. Why aren’t you in school, I ask him. He has things to do, he says.
You have time, nevertheless, to accompany me on a short walk? – I want to draw the fort-houses from the small hill (which I call thahr alkalb, the ‘Dog’s Hind’, because it lies like a big dozing dog at the village’s entrance).
His face is paler, more transparent than before; as if he were not eating or sleeping enough. Admittedly he whirls about more than ever and fools around, but his liveliness seems to be more an expression of inner restlessness than of high spirits.
He runs ahead, chases blue-green desert geckos, called djub – ‘graves’ or ‘pits’ – by the children, out of their hiding places. Or stays behind, kicks a tin over the blue-green scree, into the hollows of my knees or heels.
I ask him whether he’s spoken to Mansur in the meantime. – Of course. He meets him every day.
What did Mansur say?
The usual.
Then everything is all right. – I ask him whether he wants to draw something and hand him pens and paper.
When Mansur wants to go on his way I ask him: Would you like to tell me what’s happened between you two?
La shi – nothing’s happened!
He says this la shi not as a rebuttal, nor to offend me; not in a manner as if to say that this issue is not my business. His la shi sounds, rather, like a bolt that is placed before the entrance to himself.


The muezzin leads the call to evening prayer. Reluctantly the children break off their game. The sun has almost reached the horizon but it is still not dark. They want to enjoy to the full that short time between the end of the working day in the afternoon and the onset of night.
And every evening they ask me the same questions, why don’t I too go to evening prayers in the mosque. That I am not a Muslim is not a satisfactory explanation. I rummage in my memory for the adages of confirmation: If God is everywhere, I can pray to him anywhere. – They find that argument understandable.
Again and again some boys, out of a sense of solidarity with me or my notion of God, want to fulfil their religious duties in the open air, until the pious elders of the village wrest them away from my corruptive influence, always with the same threats, lead them to the meeting place and punish me with a gaze reserved for non-believers and child abusers.


Mansur’s silence continues. Hafith is not to be seen on the village square as often. Ali says he is seriously ill. His mother has already ordered an amulet for him. But it might be better if I were to look in on him.
Hafith cannot receive guests! shouts his mother at me through the locked door. – His family is evidently keeping him in detainment at home. The longer Mansur is silent, the more ominous it becomes for Hafith. The villagers develop fantasies regarding the reason for the sudden end of the almost proverbial friendship and for Mansur’s obstinate silence. And naturally the reasons are looked for in the most secret, the most intimate realm of the previously amicable relationship.
The families of the two, according to Ali, are urging them to either state the reasons for their strange behaviour, or to finally put an end to that behaviour. But both insist that nothing has happened.


I ask Mansur whether he’d like to come with me to visit Hafith. He’s surely heard that Hafith is seriously ill.
Has the family got you into it as well now! He flies off the wall. Leave me and Hafith be!
Whatever it is that’s happened between you two, I answer him calmly, can’t possibly mean that you don’t care what happens to him.
Nothing, nothing happened! he screams.
I show him the picture that Hafith drew on the ‘Dog’s Hind’. He asks what the scribble is supposed to mean.
I think that that is Hafith’s version of this nothing.
He turns away: Well, now you’ll soon be rid of me. I’ll go with the other men to Aden. Then Hafith can carry on with his jesting without worry.
I hold him back: Hafith trusted you, Mansur. His friendship towards you, as with everything concerning him, was full of exuberance and thoughtlessness. That’s why you were his best friend, isn’t it?
Mansur smiles stiffly. He pushes my hand from his shoulder and leaves.


The conversation with Mansur prevents my mind from being at rest. What should I have said to really get through to him? Is language the key even? Western culture lives in the conviction that (almost) everything can be said and is therefore negotiable.
Yet doesn’t Mansur have the right to protect his innermost being?
The people of the West believe that they can free themselves of this burden by expressing their most secret feelings (psychotherapy, confession, avowal…), while in Arabic culture that which is unmentioned only begins to exist through its articulation in words. Our creation stories (And God said, Let there be …) are myths in the East!
Yet in the meantime Mansur’s silence is so ‘eloquent’ that no more words are needed for it to be understood as reproach or accusation.
What is stopping Mansur from making his accusation known? Or from forgetting? – Shame? Honour?
Is it possible that my tacit assumption – that every person aspires towards the minimum of suffering and towards in its stead a measure of inner comfort and peace – is incorrect? Maybe Mansur’s behaviour is a targeted act of dramatization and escalation: You went to extremes. Now I’m going to extremes. – Not in vengeance, but out of a desire to live life to the full.


Although they could hardly have been more different they were inseparable friends. Mansur, a youth who had shot up in height, with a round face that was rather pale for a Bedouin and almost black eyes, and Hafith, no doubt a head shorter, yet even if a little younger certainly just as tough as his companion.
Mansur loves to be with the younger children, to play the fool and to appear dumber than he really is, despite the fact that he is, according to Yemeni understanding, already considered a man and should behave accordingly: men don’t play, men don’t waste their time on children, unless as a teacher.
He is the eldest son of the family. His father lost an arm in an accident with his own rifle (even if he is always reascribing this misfortune, well known in the village, to ever more fantastical adventures). As always the father demands absolute authority in the family, although Mansur performs the largest part of the work in the fields. His feet are cracked and horned and his hands and arms are covered in fresh wounds.
If he’s on the pasture or in the fields or, after work, out on the village square, one meets Hafith nearby. Hafith is bright, and smart. He represents the opposite of Mansur’s good-natured simpleness. He sets the traps into which Mansur, to the laughter of all, all-too-willingly stumbles. They are so used to each other’s ways that they always find an opportunity to tease each other, to scuffle, to make up and offer a friendly embrace, or to do all of that at the same time.


Mansur’s silence forces Hafith’s family to act. The more attempts at mediation that are made, the more shameful the reason appears to be. A last attempt made personally by Sheik Abdallah Abul Reys on the previous day was unsuccessful, according to Ali’s report.
I ask him what the villagers think of these stories.
Well, the men are only speaking in insinuations, says Ali, the lonely pastures, the cold nights, clearly everyone associates a vast trove of personal experience with their time as shepherd boys. But another word is mentioned, and it is unambiguous: haram, crime.
What, at worst, could happen?
Ali makes an unmistakeable gesture: the family will deal with it!


Since al-‘asr, the afternoon prayer, the men have been dancing the bar’a. All the vehicles of the village, heavily laden with weapons and ammunition, stand in the shadows of the houses ready to set off. All the men, including Mansur – only in my eyes is he a beardless boy – will take part in this military campaign. Even the elders have taken their Turkish muzzle-loaders down from the divan walls and are now dancing, made decades younger by the fighting spirit, trying to outdo their sons and grandsons.
Muhammad, a son of the Sheik, wanted to stay in the village, but the pressure of the family is stronger. He may have studied, he may favour the intellect as a weapon over the rifles and mortar but his decisions are not only subject to his own charge. He is a qabili. He represents in all his deeds the whole tribe. Dishonourable behaviour, that is anything unbecoming of a warrior, consequently brings dishonour on each of the tribe’s men. Qabili also means guarantor as well as he who carries or takes on responsibility.
Only Faisal, the teacher, will stay here. He is not a qabili, not a tribal warrior, but a medani, a townsman. According to the self-concept of the tribes he has no honour which he must defend or which he could lose.
Some older women are squatting by the vehicles in the shadows and support the men’s dance from a distance by clapping and trilling as if no bloody battle stood before them, but a wedding night.
Most of the women, however, are standing by the ovens, baking qafu’a, traditional flatbread, harder and longer-lasting than the usual khubs that was, even in the old days during the raiding and trading journeys, the main fare of the Bedouins, together with camel milk and dried dates.
Suddenly, with the onset of twilight, everything is over. The men beat the dust from their clothes, climb with brief gestures or without a word into their off-road vehicles, and drive off in a disordered crowd and without light into the desert.


From Krieg und Tanz by Michael Roes, © 2007, Matthes & Seitz, Berlin
Translation © Seiriol Dafydd

The Balance of Time

Author: Lutz Seiler
Translator: Bradley Schmidt

“In our family it was unfortunately custom to visit the capital city…”
Wolfgang Hilbig, The Fear of Beethoven

First the bell, then the whisper from the glass cabinets. I unfasten the strap over my wrist, the back of my hand touches the counter; the arm is stretched out as if for drawing blood. The watch slides silently onto the small tablet with the inscription: Walinski & Söhne. I massage the unshackled joint and take a seat (my chair, I think) between two head-high showcases made of glass. A tram rolls by, and I await the sound.

Friends who knew the state I was in following the breakup with C. had suggested I come to Berlin. They had done this in a letter that I still have and keep like an old ticket that you believe you might be asked for one day. At the end of the letter there is mention of a possible employment “in the food industry.”
What was meant was a basement café in the Mitte district, Oranienburg Street. A cellar converted by people living in the building, few conveniences, low prices, and the name: Assel, woodlouse. The Assel was the first of its kind; similar and other locations followed later, restaurants, cafes, and a few kosher shops in the neighborhood around the synagogue. Even during the day there were numerous tourists who were drawn to the ruins and the scene, which had settled down with junk sculptures and large puppets hanging from the windows on nooses. The prostitutes came in the evening, and then it was their street. When they wanted to rest or warm themselves up they sat at a round table right in front of the bar in the Assel and drank hot chocolate. The table – it had been established as the staff table but the women negated that or they didn’t notice it, and none of us would have dared to draw their attention to the fact.
The first few weeks I lived with friends. Through long conversations that repeatedly circled around C. and my misfortune, they were ultimately able to convince me that a few things were necessary, even in my situation: nutrition, sleep – and a place of my own. Over multiple expeditions I noted the location of several seemingly vacant apartments. Initially it was all about checking if the windows were dark, dirty, and missing curtains. It wasn’t always easy to decide whether the apartments were inhabited or not, and I often stood down on the sidewalk for a long time staring up. It could come to pass that one of those lifeless windows was opened and an occupant appeared, who had probably been observing me for a while and was now shaking his or her head strongly, making a threatening gesture toward me and then down the street.
There were rumors about a new regulation regarding “the fight against vacancy,” which granted those looking for apartments significant rights if they could give convincing proof that the housing unit had not been used for more than six months. It was also said (one of the main rumors in newcomer circles that sporadically formed) that individual departments had become so unsettled by the events that even a halfway energetic appearance and hints of your own knowledge about “fighting vacancy” could bear fruit. The background for all of this was the “General Influx Prohibition for Berlin,” a ban that was well-known across the country if not infamous. By now it was no longer clear to anyone if it was still valid or which exceptions were permitted or, as the big mouths among the newcomers claimed, whether all laws of this kind were absolutely meaningless now and that basically every door was open to us now.
Vacant apartments were not scarce. In some streets entire courtyards stood empty. Then there were the apartments from the refugees who had fled via Hungary, some in prime locations, but much harder to figure out. If they hadn’t already been plundered or confiscated, there were still curtains in front of the windows, and the windows themselves couldn’t have been uncleaned for more than nine months. When I had gathered up enough courage I entered the house. Making as little noise as possible, I climbed the stairs, waited until my breathing had calmed down, and laid an ear on the door. Had I heard something – or not? Sometimes I knocked or rang the bell. If someone from an adjacent apartment stepped into the stairwell I immediately presented myself as a relative or acquaintance. “Excuse me, is Mr. Treibel not there?” No one ever asked, “What do you want to know that for?”
In the end I settled on a house on Rykestrasse halfway overgrown by a small forest of rampant bushes and trees. I purchased tools and a door lock in a hardware store on Rosenthaler Platz and of course I shied away from this last, but necessary step.
There was an enormous willingness to help. Tenants who had noticed my laborious, deafening hammering (I had thrown myself against the door in vain a couple of times) came down the stairs and inquired if I was planning to stay here for a while. My answer was already contained in the tone of their question: Yes, I would like to, I would really like to, because it’s precisely here that it’s very nice, I think because the front building is missing and the whole area is completely covered with bushes – is that elder? – and even with some white lilacs, old lilacs and then also, the garden bench and the fire pit to the left of the entry, as if there were courtyard parties once in a while, under the elder bushes… After that, the tenants lent me their crowbar.
In fact I didn’t care much for courtyard parties and the associated fraternization in the immediate neighborhood, but perhaps I would start to like them in Rykestrasse, I thought – after all, everything was back to the drawing board.
Some wood splintered out of the brown frame, and once again I was lucky: The door was only drawn closed, not locked. The last occupant, a man named Alfred Wrubel – a paper sign scrawled with childish handwriting hung above the bell – had seen no reason to do so.
For a while the new, metallic lock, installed with my own hands, was my pride and joy -my lock, my door, is what I thought. It was a shaded one-room apartment with a tiny hallway, which also led to the kitchen. The toilet was in the staircase, its loophole of a window overlooking the elder bushes and the street – the floor was covered with candle stumps and empty toilet paper rolls.
I found a couple things in the apartment that had obviously been left behind by Alfred Wrubel: a china cabinet, a twin bed with spring mattresses and an ash can full of ashes in front of the stove. A workbench stood in the kitchen, a solid piece of work constructed from oak planks and steel brackets that almost completely filled the narrow room; there was nothing else. Only a few odds and ends, walnut shells, and candy wrappers behind the stove door, and a small, dirty stool almost invisible on the auburn flooring under the sink, which was attached at an unusual height. The entire apartment appeared to be inundated by a sickly sweet odor, reminding me of my grandparents’ bedroom.
Over the course of two afternoons I painted the walls white, and on the third I began, as best I could, to cover the floor boards with white, shiny paint (on the can it said “high-gloss”); white floorboards, a stroke of genius, I thought. After half the kitchen floor – the workbench proved to be immovable, which was why I had to carefully work around its steel columns – I was completely exhausted. I went down Dimitroffstrasse and compared two snack bars’ offers. I sat at a small table strewn with white cabbage for a long time staring at the house wall opposite me. My gaze still searched for dark, dirty windows.
Alfred Wrubel – a corner of the paper sign stuck up from the wall like a challenge to finally tear it down and write my own name plate, but I now felt too weak for that. The door closed, and I instantly felt the soothing unfamiliarity of the place. I went to the bedroom without glancing once at the half-white flooring, pulled several mattresses from Wrubel’s bed and lay down to sleep. For a while I searched for my desperation but didn’t find anything.

Quickly, as if grabbing an animal by the tail, Walinski grasps the end of the strap and raises the watch to eye level. A half second, then the hand closes around its catch, then his gaze goes over to me. My form is somewhat unclear, distorted through the glass cases, I think, but a blurry nod suffices, then Walinski disappears to his equipment again. Two, three breaths, and although I am prepared, it catches me by surprise: The mechanical tone, clear and strong, as if something was beating against the struts of time, essentially not so much ticking but still the echo of the watch that I am entrusted with.

When I woke up the next morning I felt extraordinarily calm, almost light. I could think simple things and do simple things. I thought of errands, shopping, I had the patience to write a list. I called my mother from a booth beyond the border; I hadn’t spoken to her in weeks. Her voice was faint, and she also could barely hear me. I yelled that everything was going well in Berlin, friends, studies, English classes, and even Latin, which I needed for my degree now… Maybe she didn’t understand me, the connection deteriorated: almost without sound her question at the end whether I didn’t want to get back into a masonry company, as a mason at a construction site on the side and maybe even moonlight, like I used to, you still have all your tools, son … I couldn’t talk for much longer. The coins were gone and the telephone surrounded, day and night there were crowds in front of the booths on the other side of the border – you couldn’t get out of the East any more.
Two, three forays through the remainders of pillaged apartments sufficed to round up what I was still missing. Normally it would have been embarrassing or at least awkward for me to drag my loot home through the street in broad daylight, but it was as if I was merely watching the person who was doing it; I wasn’t the one carrying the chair on his back and hotplate with pots and utensils on his chest, just someone who had the time and leisure to do it and it would stay that way.
My nightshift as wait staff started in the early evening. At four a.m. I pulled out the shift plan from under the counter and erased all of my future bar and waiting duties. From then on I only worked in the kitchen: breakfast until eleven, salads, pasta, and potato soup out of the can for lunch. The receipt books and note pad where the waiters wrote their food orders were on the refrigerator. I was worked in quickly. There were mornings when there was not a single order for hours on end. Then I went to the window and laid my head to the side with my cheek against the cool, tiled windowsill. It was a good, old, almost forgotten tiredness that enveloped me there. I myself was almost invisible with my eyes just above the ground. I saw the sky above the street and in front of that the tram’s overhead wire, which had been worked on for several weeks. I saw legs, shoes, the stream of passers-by, and in the evening, when my shift was over, the patent leather boots of the girl who had her spot in front of Assel and went by Dora. She never asked, “How about the two of us?” or at least, “Hey, sweetie?” She just whistled or hissed or growled like a bored animal when a car rolled to a stop at her level.

It’s not the watch, just its reverberation; it’s the small machine’s work. Walinski, who already thought he smelled a hidden lover of mechanical watches during my first visit, had motioned for me to come to the back. The watch lay open on the cushion with the microphone as if for an operation, next to it the machine, half covered by a stiff dust cover, with a color ribbon and paper roll, similar to an ancient calculator or lie detector. There was a series of red lamps, the top one of which began to light up, above that the label Greiner Vibrograf and a long metal stylus that hammered on the color ribbon – every one of the lever’s movements, each tick was a blow and each blow a dot on the paper… Walinski, who talked and turned the magnetic cushion: defective waste and shaky moments, rough dial and sweeping stylus – it is the hidden state, the secret heart, as Walinski called it on that day. I observed the pale dots on the paper, their strange distribution. It was a kind of Braille, one single line that slowly grew out of the apparatus towards me.

My first months in Berlin: visits at my friends on Linienstrasse and a few lonely day trips to a lake in the north. One thing is certain, that I worked three days a week, essentially every other day. Following the currency conversion the wages lay at six Marks per hour, in addition to a portion of the tips, which the two waiters usually shared with the kitchen staff. After ten hours I got about eighty Marks – an amount that seemed to be reasonable, especially because it was paid out immediately. As I made my rounds through the park as after every shift, and over the museum island and from there back to Wrubel’s cave via various routes, I fingered the money in my pants pocket now and again.
On my days off I barely slept longer than otherwise. I washed myself at the sink in the kitchen, then I ate breakfast at my workbench. I used a console of marble as a table and plate at the same time. It had been part of a vanity that I had discovered in one of the open apartments and had disassembled, marshalling all of my strength. In my efforts for further furnishings – I was constantly finding things that could still be used – I occasionally talked to myself quietly, “Wrubel, Wrubel,” or even cursed with “damn old Wrubel!” A joke, to the extent that anything at all could be registered as a joke in this stage of my pupation.
You old Wrubel, I thought.
The summer grew hotter; a granulated light enriched with the finest dust and mold spores reigned over the courtyards covered with trash. It came to pass midway my movements through a house full of abandoned addresses that I suddenly bolted up and the sensation of absent life moved through me like a pin, from my head to my tailbone. Then I would stand petrified for minutes on end in front of a sink full of dishes or at the end of a double bed, the covers barely pulled back and the impression of a head on the pillow. What I finally brought together: a wall plate with the inscription “Rennsteig 1974” (the strongly simplified figure of a runner was etched with a soldering iron), a lunch box of tin and several bronze thistles that I had discovered in a box full of homemade Christmas decorations. All of this landed on my work bench, arranged like found pieces for an altar. A few moments in front of these things were enough, and their silent, stubborn persuasiveness transported me into a state of involuntary reverence. In the presence of their gestures that had become meaningless, the contours of that which I would have called ‘my story’ just a few weeks before disappeared.

It was a Friday in August when the worker entered the Assel. The door stood open to let out the sour fumes of the previous evening. I saw the man unclearly in the semidarkness. He wore the orange colored work coat of track workers, and at first glance I thought he was a bum. He stepped towards me with one stride, and suddenly the silver stripes on his chest flashed – a carnival costume, a skeleton, I thought, or a giant advent figure. I yelled “Closed!” and spread out my arms, but before I could push the flashing work coat back to the steps he said something and his voice sounded familiar to me. As if walking on water, the man now crossed the dining area and took a seat, right under the window where I had just opened the shutter. He held his face very calmly into the light of the morning sun. As I approached his table to reprimand him I saw that he was watching the hydraulic lift outside on the street. A full tram moved closer, ringing nervously, and the men on the hydraulic lift (they were all wearing the work coats) slowly lowered their tower down and to the side. Maybe it was that: this smooth retreat, the sight of the slowly sagging platform with its beguiling mechanics, or it was the sudden evidence of his being a worker or all of that in its convincing synchronicity.
“Do you know what you want?”
If he had advanced promptly at first, the man now turned to me in a ponderous manner. Under the reflective jacket he wore nothing more than a woolen undershirt, his forearms were tanned and hairy; he leaned his head back slightly.
“Breakfast, please.”
“With sausage or cheese? If you want you can have an egg, too and there are various kind of jam at the bar, raspberry, strawberry, currant …”
My answer – maybe it had sounded a bit zealous, but his face remained motionless and his gaze patiently at my chest. The face of a boxer, I thought, a worker at any rate.
“Cheese, please. And a brandy, please.”
The worker chewed with exceptional slowness, almost painstakingly, and frequently brushed across his face to wipe a strain of hair to the side that the sweat had formed into an old-fashioned forelock. After taking a sip of coffee he dabbed his lips with the back of his hand; every one of his movements was accompanied by the reflections of the work coat, which blinded me like the effects of a dream. He was smoking. The hand with the cigarette lay on the table; the cup was raised, motionless in front of his mouth. But he didn’t drink now, but merely pressed the porcelain to his unshaven cheek. A moment passed in which I believed I had done that myself. I myself was sitting there below the window; I hadn’t fled my background with my traditional location and position of a class, I hadn’t forfeited my right to position, the right, semiconsciously or exhaustedly, to warm my cheek on the cup and to then return to the eternal course of things: “Your locker back there, your box, helmet on, civvies on the top shelf…” I unconsciously carried out some tasks at the bar, something with glasses and bottles; something was crackling in my cocoon. Everything he did carried the mark of the gravity that I admittedly had never reached myself. I had never really gained access to the inner circle of workers, their holy sphere. In all the years and over all the construction sites something had held me back, repelled me, without maliciousness and even without intent; it seemed to me it was just as if I was missing a particular, definitive trait, a scent, perhaps a certain pitch… Without actually being able to tear away my gaze, I stepped back, two, three steps from the bar into the kitchen; two, three steps and a half-turn toward the refrigerator, a nearly elegant, divine retreat that shifted everything into a new, redemptive context: “The worker sits under the window, his hand holding a cup in the air… ” I wrote on the order pad. It was my very first sentence.
When the man wanted to leave I was almost frightened – still as hypnotized by the reflections of his jacket, I moved towards the worker all at once with the quick step of a waiter who had recognized that at that moment something really needed to be done at the tables. Just one step from his wide contours, the tray started to sway – in my blindness up to that point I had not at all noticed that I had marched through the room with a tray in front of my waist full of freshly washed and polished glasses that buzzed quietly with every one of my steps and then slid into each other and tipped, clattering mockingly…
A single grasp, then everything was quiet.
We stood there for maybe one, maybe two seconds. His hands tightly on my forearms, the tray above.
“Hold your horses.”
The watch timing machine is running, I’m in the noise. Unusual dial, Walinski calls from the back and keeps talking but is barely comprehensible through the hammering of the timer. Up on the dial, in the finest of type, is the name of the watch of my concern: Glashütte SPEZIMATIC. The casing: gold-plated brass. Caliber: seventy-four. Year: sixty-three. Movement: self-winding. And Walinski who knows what is needed: care, maintenance, keeping the heartbeat pure. Its sounds and interfering noise. When ticking become hammering, a steam hammer, a job with sweeping anchors and moments that sway.
He came all August. His greeting was short and nearly imperceptible when he left – a nod in the dim light toward the bar behind which I had stepped to say goodbye to him and then again catch up on the stairs, unlock the door and open the Assel for the rest of the street.
The other workers in his brigade sat outside on the frame of the hydraulic lift. They had thermos bottles along and ate out of lunch boxes. Their laughter could be heard occasionally, a kind of guffaw which made the bucket sway and a couple times it seemed to me like they were pointing to the Assel, and at us.
Above all, I felt the undisputed, unquestioned nature of his existence, I wrote: his dignity, his pride, his attitude – that’s what mattered. To me his gestures appeared pure and consummate. And the sum of that, I was sure, would be much more.
When the worker, after having taken his seat, took off his gold-colored watch with the arm stretched low over the table, it offered a view of a difficult but composed and carefully carried out operation with which a vital organ was removed for a necessary period of time and deposited in a location long predetermined. This place lay next to the ash tray, partially beneath its curved edge as if the purpose was to hide the gold a little while eating. Unlike the glass with the brandy, he never lifted his cup directly to his mouth; on its way it stopped several times in the air to give his large tongue enough time to move against the inner surface of his cheek. Before smoking he wiped his hands on his undershirt with such care as if he was trying to feel his heartbeat at the occasion. And maybe he did. Each of his gestures appeared to immediately contribute to the understanding of my own existence, the integrity lost, as it shot through my head meaninglessly, and there were moments in which I believed the gestures were carried out purely for this reason, and then again moments in which I broke into small, inaudible laughter behind the bar with pleasure, giggling in the depths of the kitchen before I stepped to the refrigerator, blessed anew: sentence by sentence I culled from his figure and from the gleaming flotsam of my excitement. Promise was the word of the hour.
The worker stayed away when the repairs on the overhead wire had reached Hackescher Markt. I then sat at the workbench with increasing frequency, the marble slab serving as a desk. “As long as it happens, the bell is lifted…” I whispered this and other such incoherent things to myself when I suddenly looked up from my page, but nothing really led beyond my refrigerator notes. Once again I tried to picture how it had started. The track work coat, his stiffness, his macabre glow – the worker’s first appearance. It required something of me, something that had become indispensable since that day.
“Hold your horses.”
I could no longer recall the sound of his voice. His contours slipped away. As if it could only succeed in his presence – with him or never, I thought.
In the local section of the BZ newspaper, which was delivered daily to the Assel, I came across a picture of the lift – in it two men with helmets, bare arms above their heads, one of them must have been the worker. The picture was very small and the report extremely meager – the completion of the repair work was apparently, it said, anticipated by the end of the month, and that meant the end of the inconvenience was finally in sight.
In my desperation it could have been pleasant to simply let the pencil drop and press my wrists against the cooling marble – that was the moment in which I once again pictured the worker’s saving grasp, his grasp and his hold, firm and practiced, precisely the way old companions greeted each other when they grabbed each other on the forearms and just stood there for a while, the picture of timeless solidarity like I had seen so often in coverage of so-called veterans’ reunions – a gesture for which the word steadfast was invented…
“Hold your horses.” My glance was drawn to the article. Even the newspaper picture was characterized by the worker’s figure, which seemed serious and determined, expressing the attitude of communion that I yearned for, a gravity of my own that I had unquestionably recognized. There appeared to be no single expression for this state of grace, as I called it.
As evening crept into the courtyard and the light above the work bench had to be turned on, I was still sitting there, my wrist pressed against the stone. Would I be able to calm down or would I in the end be drawn once again down to the street to the nearest dive, called Krähe or crow, where everyone who had to discuss how essential it was to be authentic every evening came together, which was especially essential for what they were planning right now, impressive schemes (“projects” – this pervasive word constantly filling the room) that they were able to describe in utmost detail, strong gestures and faces lit almost ghoulishly in the lamp shades.
It was only around midnight that a type of customer entered the Krähe, who could immediately be recognized as someone who had accomplished something. Some came, as it seemed, directly from the studio or some kind of workshop, with pants stained with paint and oily hands and for just one beer while standing, which they drank very slowly, sip for sip like a rare reward. Their tired, absent gaze passed over the heads, exhausted but yet still almost apprehensively careful to stay away from the projects. Those who sat at the tables laughed about the fuss, as they called it, and looked at the one-beer-while-standing people with contempt or yearning when they left the bar again. Intently and to the end, I tried to divine the secret of their task based on their already fleeting form.
When I returned home around two or three o’clock, I once again went into the kitchen to the workbench. I myself tried to assume some posture for a while – weight, gravity, I mumbled and scribbled something on my paper, and then I fell asleep with my arms on the marble slab. The dream was short. Although the image in the newspaper had made everything dull and grainy, a southern illumination suddenly emerged from the paper: the worker at work, with raised fists on a worn-out cable through which the greatest possible degree of grace flowed. I saw how he checked a screw joint or exchanged an isolator with his head stretched towards the heavens and apparently with eyes closed, and all at once I felt the power of the fellow soldier’s grasp on my forearms. Once again I was overcome by the impression of a lost, apparently indescribable fund that I believed I had recognized in his picture – an entire continent of the Good and Right that was broken and had fallen into the depths but now reappeared before my eyes, huge and darkly familiar, reconstruction of emotional stocks at Hackescher Markt, the caption read, and it was inconceivable that I had overlooked that before.
The last breakfast I made for him was on August 31, just before the start of my so-called double shifts when I had to stay in Assel from eight in the morning until four in the morning. I owe the date to my notebook, hidden under the receipt books.
The number of brandies had increased, and a small beer had been added. Unchanged remained the gestures associated with the removal and donning of his watch, the cup on his cheek, the tongue in his mouth and nod as farewell. I silently followed him to the door. As usual, the worker made no attempts to pay while I didn’t make the slightest effort to give him the bill – that also was a part of our alliance and he showed me. I had already discovered the gold glistening by the ash tray on the way back – it’s the watch, his wonderful watch, I whispered, that means he will return, now, any moment, and then – then maybe, while handing over his watch, our conversation would begin.
Outside there was some movement in the early evening. One of the prostitutes called something down the stairs toward the bar, a few guests followed her. The lift stood at the end of the street at the tram’s turning point. Passengers, passers-by, the prostitutes and their first customers had already formed a kind of circle at a conspicuous distance, as if carefully measured.
In order to be closer to the events once again, I would now like to continue with the wording of those first penciled notes, which I made at the time, soon afterwards on the Assel‘s refrigerator – an initial, rough recording that I present here without revision:
“He had already disappeared when I arrived. You could hear scraping and stamping and something on the metal of the bucket that crackled like a small campfire, crackled the whole time, was that the electricity or voltage or what, then it was still again. As the lift stopped swaying and then the contact was broken – perhaps by a millimeter – first you could see how the man’s head or something like the head slowly, quietly and as if tired crept over the edge, the rim of the lift and then a hand: I saw that it was him, the man, the worker with his bulk, who was now attempting to straighten himself in the bucket, without doubt his efforts were devoted to the goal of reaching the button, the switch or some kind of controls, but the man (the worker) was already heavy and gray from the power line’s juice and his torso swayed (very) (shook) and how the hands, his hands (shriveled hands) jumped back and forth on the rim of the bucket like birds in a bad mood (gray mood). That meant / so that the whole bucket began to sway anew and the small campfire with the crackling, popping and the gray plasteline that, his clay head falling back with a difficultly modeled, but muted cry into the orange bucket. Then you could also hear, like before, the scraping knocking on metal, then it was still again. Down below as well, where we stood, on the edge – this may have been his hand, the birds in a gray mood, once again jumping, now slower… I”
Even today, when I try to comprehend something from the situation, details push themselves to the fore. The worker’s scraping in the bucket, his futile effort to push away from his fate. The worst: his whimpering and groaning, his begging without words, just sounds, his extended, pleading Ow-Ow-Ow, like an infant crying, howling out his misfortune, in a man’s voice.
I no longer remember how much time had passed until I realized that what I saw was actually happening, and later that in fact no one came to help. Where were his workmates? Where were the emergency vehicles, the firefighters? It seemed as if the voltage transferred to the lift created an unreality against which no objections at all could be raised, just a single, pleading Ow-Ow-Ow
An unusual number of food orders had accumulated while I had written, salads, soups, pasta dishes – and still more spectators from the circle around the lift streamed into the Assel. The whores’ business also took a while to get back into gear. Several of the women had gathered around the staff table in front of the bar, stirring their hot chocolates vigorously and discussing the worker’s death. A song by the band U2 blared from the speakers. “Execution… punishment… eternal torment” – when I helped serve the bowls of soup several of their hysterical comments, each trumping the other, pushed into my ear – among them that woman named Dora who continually hissed over the table, “Never paid, never paid!”
In the end the watch glides onto the pad, a new swipe of Braille next to it. First I stow away the scroll. By the way I clasp the wristband above the wrist, carefully, composed, my arm stretched as if for drawing blood and my hand very close to the counter, I show Walinski that I know how to handle a watch.
It had rained half the night. I crossed the street, took a couple steps into the park and broke out in tears. The tears ran down my cheeks, they dripped from my chin, there was no longer anyone there to see so I let go, and at the same time I detected a whisper. A couple words, a phrase that I had silently spoken to myself a while upon leaving, when I left the Assel already, maybe the whole evening, “You goddamn, miserable…”
Walking did some good. The change from asphalt to the grass where my footsteps instantly became silent. I sensed the moisture in the grass, which took every step from my feet, soft and unquestioning, and through the echo of the music that had begun to encapsulate itself beneath my temples to keep pounding like the heart of a parasite, I finally heard the sentence: “A dreamer, you’re a goddamn dreamer, a miserable dreamer.”
That wasn’t much of a sentence. At times it had maybe been some sort of blah-blah-blah and ludicrous enough per se but not at this moment. What I said was true. I heard that it corresponded to the truth. And as much as I repeated it as I was heading towards the river and towards the island – “a dreamer, a miserable dreamer” – the sentence didn’t return to the husk of its meaninglessness, it didn’t become less true.
I went past the playground with the climbing hill made of cobblestones and the concrete cave; a whiff of urine blew over, I felt lighter and lighter, step by step. I crossed the makeshift steel bridge to the Museumsinsel, the bridge boomed under my feet, on the river the glow of the streetlights. Where had I not failed? I went closer to the railing, a couple meters over the water that enclosed the museums’ torsos with algae, weeds, and bushy birches. Bode, Pergamon and the wreckage of a museum in the middle of the island – they were huge stranded ships that I could talk to. “What blew you this way, which storms, and how do you endure it?” That’s how I talked and barely heard myself, it was just a pleasant dozing which I surrendered to.
Like a porous reef blackened by the tides, the ships on the other shore were affixed opposite a corner building several stories high. It bore the sign of the university, which still demanded respect from me. I crossed the street and without hesitation, pushed my index finger into one of the bullet holes next to the door.
I only stood there for a couple seconds, at the base of the institute, alone in the dark, and drilled some loose sand or dirt out of the hole. Although I was undeniably in the middle of the city, there was complete silence. I briefly asked myself if it was possible that the projectiles could still be at the end of these little hollows, and if I would be able to touch them sometime like this. Maybe that’s why this house covered with hits hadn’t been renovated, I thought – you had to remove the old iron first. A piece of rusty metal comes through with time, through every new façade; it blooms, as masons say, that much I still knew. I immediately had the glow of the work coat before my eyes. He had done everything for me. He had come into the Assel, he had given me signs and held my arms. I lifted my free wrist and followed the movement of the small golden second hand: ow-ow-ow … I slowly pulled my finger out of the bullet hole. For the first time since my childhood I seriously considered praying. Not only for the worker, to be honest, but also for the progress of my story.


“Die Zeitwaage”, from: Lutz Seiler, Die Zeitwaage. Erzählungen, pp. 261-285 © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 2009. All rights reserved by Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin
Translation © Bradley Schmidt


Author: Keto von Waberer
Translator: Ingrid G. Lansford

The little store was next to the filling station at the edge of town. It looked dusty and abandoned. I was able to peer in through the grimy window pane. It was a corner store and its display window continued around the corner. Every time I shook it in disbelief and defiance, the door was locked. We usually came by late in the afternoon and filled up at the gasoline pump half buried in sand. One could look across the plateau from there. Silvery cactus clumps rose in the twilight between the flickering tongues of dust the wind swept down from the faraway, rounded mountain peaks. Mountains as on an ocean floor. The man who owned the gasoline pump would very slowly come out of the house behind the cacti on which the laundry was drying. He’d observe the sky as though checking the weather for the next stage of our trip. “Un norte,” he generally said as he started to rub our windshield with a dry rag.
“Isn’t anyone in the store?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he would answer, shrugging his shoulders.
Just once – I think it was the third time – I’d asked who owned the store, and the man had studied me closely, stroked the brim of his hat and spat, not in contempt, but lost in thought. Just when I believed he would silently turn away, he said, “I haven’t seen anyone.”
I walked over and put my hands next to my face on the window as a small protective barrier, so I wouldn’t see my reflection.
Inside, fossilized salmon pink ammonites the size of wagon wheels leaned against the wall. Next to them, clumps of whitish glittering rock mazes ran rampant with plantlike buds and stalks. Brown desert roses like crystalline peach pits, bulky like ostrich eggs. Green slabs of slate with oily impressions of primitive beaked fish glistening on them, and right before me on the windowsill lay geodes like super-sized river stones. Their sparkling smiles suggested that they had already been split in half and had hundreds of crystal needles growing inside them – in the dark and unobserved.
The evening light cast inky blue shadows around the stones, and my yearning to enter and place my fingers on the crystal surfaces turned the little store into a paradise.
Whenever I walked back to the car, I did so slowly and uncertainly, always hoping someone would run outside with a key, beckoning to me to follow him into the store.
That was many years ago. I’ve forgotten the name of the town; I’ll never find the store again.
Sometimes I dream of opening the door and stepping inside. The door opens just like that.


“Traurigkeit”, by Keto von Waberer, from Der Mann aus dem See, © 2006, Berlin Verlag, Berlin
Translation © Ingrid Lansford