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the autumn sun is like the national gallery
twelve golden chimes
no more political poems
the violence of plants
christmas eve 2pm

Author: Arne Rautenberg
Translator: Ken Cockburn

the autumn sun is like the national gallery

the autumn sun in the harz mountains
is like the national gallery in berlin
it again picks out
above the goldenbrown rug of the moors
below the clouds that rot into blue
the gifts it would like to receive
from the peaty foot of this most german of mountains
only the best pictures of course
pictures of slowly dying firs
whose lifelines running beneath their bark
have been gnawed away
by bark beetles
pictures of the aristocratic deadwood line
who for centuries
have dug their mossy roots
dripping and glinting
into acid soils
where the silver mines are silent
ready at any time to fall
when the next storm (sandy?
mandy? brandy?) comes
but for the moment the autumn sun just beats down
on the national gallery:
hundreds of bare trunks
unyielding to gravity
in an ash-blond glow

twelve golden chimes

twelve golden chimes
cross a stream in spate
lie down in a clearing
and reload their rifles

in the telescopic sights of twelve
golden chimes tree-trunks
branches leaves and finally
a windy winding path of cloud

twelve golden chimes lie
in wait when you come past
your ears have long been in
their sights without you

suspecting anything if
each pulls the trigger evenly
one after another you’ll hear
twelve golden chimes

no more political poems

on this last day of april the sun nonetheless
is shown to be to be a loathsome political poem

beyond the big viewing window is the ferry smoke
issues from its chimney and doesn’t drift in the wind

but disappears with whatever thoughts arise the prostitutes
not far from here are with their clients i hate the moment

of the bloody political poem its caustic words of steel
don’t say anything against it just don’t show it your face

on which side is indoctrination when the rescue helicopter
with its quick and fervent prayer hacks through the epochs

(planet of warning pains) what do the oh so insistent carotid
arteries count for then on a last day of april like this

the violence of plants

the silent laughter of plants
at the persistence
of our heartbeats
to them each spring’s
a beat of life

seconds trickle away from us
plants accrue thousands
of hours

and while we scurry
come to our wrong decisions
they silently follow their urges
soon deck with foliage
the ruins

their luxuriant growth
their sparkling green flood
their cold blood

their proliferation over our (relatively speaking) lot
each spring
the violence of plants
makes me shiver

christmas eve 2pm

the presents are wrapped
time stands still people don’t really
know where they’re going any more
I don’t know have you noticed?

the tree is decorated
the table is set the children are quiet
in their rooms with one eye on the clock
anticipation grows

the streets are empty perhaps a dog
needs out again or a kid for fresh air?
doors have never been more closed and
candles never burned more peacefully than now

I lie half-dressed beside you
in bed must have dropped off
I’ll open my eyes in a minute I
don’t know have you noticed?

From  seltene erden © Horlemann, 2014

Paradigm shift
This house
Labour of love

Author: Tom Schulz
Translator: Henry Holland

Paradigm shift

the human has two legs
with which he can row

the human has two arms
with which he can tread loudly

the human has two eyes
with which he can kiss you and me and the ground

two lips, one upper, one lower
with which he can sow radishes

the human has two mouths
with which he can go right, and left, and jug jug, jug jug

the human has two breasts
with which he can shoo off cold air

two noses, nostrils four
with which he can make love

ten toes, twelve fingers, if they counted right
two nipples, with which he can catch butterflies

 

 

This house

was friendly for generations … the stairs
had wings up which a ship sailed always, while down
was carried on the wind, past our closing eye

I loved the smell of the halls, the flight of the spores
a fungi’s innerness, alive for itself,
cantatas filling a barracks, chambers full of music
A weak pulse beat through your afternoon nap, under the plaster
(a group of gallflies travelled with me
to Bethlehem at tea time …)

The five p.m. bell called the ravens back daily to their places
and things occurred which nobody heard … the lobby wall-sign, the
Paternoster uttered, a shadow falling always from south to north
to me out sieving snow, finding a box between garden and trash-
mooring, which snow melted in, near to the moth-balled
near to the heart, where the stylus came down, fitting
the rusty hand already, which groped for a sagging breast

… and still the leaves give milk and the trees tremble
and still I secrete, grow blisters, am taken in by myself
yet find nothing but ladybirds, who know nothing
of tides, spaces, return … a friendly house of the dead
with rattling boxes and unposted letters

… I liked the smell of the sick lilac, the brown leaf
the quiet which did not die away, a quiet
over the earth, Watch out! Floods from the roof

this house certainly had no unlimited wheelchair access
under marauding dust beams bent in the attic

generations, whose washing froze in the yard, in the corners
with all those sinister harvestmen, full of dust, parent-child contracts
signed, illegibly

a lightning conductor, earth wire leading to soakaways
the birds’ bridges rushed, the sentimental channels run off
unblocked … the house to which guests came

Five were invited
Ten have come

The guests, who each got given a wardrobe, knocked at each other’s
come on out, to celebrate Friday and Monday, and the Feast of the
Spiders …

Hordes of the bearded rowed from the islands into my room, unyielding
as sackcloth … All dealt in water pistols, and showed off
their moles … I was glad when they disappeared
in the small hours, or when one of the chimney-sweeps
grabbed them by the lapels!

The tenants will wax so much in the fall that they will be put under glass

*

The house, a grouted closing wound

No one knew about any of the sky’s blues –
a baby was held out the window. Breathe, little nipper

What it needs: planks, a few nails, the saw, and then
two feet first … when I went out in winter into the yard, I bore
the ash-pail to the bird-flu until
the moon’s spots fell at my slippered feet …

Who was the house, who carried a touch of snow from all the sleeping
up onto its roof?

This house was not a theodiciean no.

for Jan Wagner

 

Labour of love

When we do what we want to do, nothing bothers you. The louse
walks gladly over the liver. Contrary to the one-way street.
Turn right with lactic acid. Once I was an artist. Drank red wine,
ate cake with vanilla ice-cream. Waited for the fairy-tale grandma.
For the bears. Heard just crying under the wallpaper. A whimpering and
a pawing. We put it under the earth. And sailed into the harbour.
Sea without seas. Estate without estates. We drove into the mine.
The blinded-up shafts, the haul trucks and the pit dogs. All blinded by
methanol and hunger. I was still a child. We buried the guinea-
pig in the garden. When we do what we want to do, other
blessings will stir. The rain will delouse our head. Something
will be born to each of us. Homely born. And the two jug-ears
will sail out to sea, and onto cleft lips will be stuck
the four-leaved clover. Once I was a job-centre clown. Crept,
never noticed, between wall and wallpaper. Saw a mob of
graduates and iron-benders. Wrote: at the job-centre, a mob of graduates
and iron-benders. Nobody clapped or laughed. A woman dug over a
meadow and got up off her haunches. Picked up a lead attached to a dog
laden with jam-packed health-food shop bags, three, made of sustainable
cotton. Who trains the dog? What are the kids called? He should sit
down. Lie says the woman. Pacify the earth and permit the seas
to shine. Once we should all be poor. Fall in love with the object which
no one owns any more. Fall in love with yourself. Each with themselves, the
other. Once I was a cuckoo. Shot out the clock and the world was
mine all the time. Sea of all seas. State of all states. Like one and none
no longer belong to us. When we do, what we want to do. Appropriate this.
Us, the owners, traders, transit salesmen. When we do what we want to
do, the trees will become precisely as red and green and blue as that
thrown-off dress. Under which we’re naked, and confide in the half burnt
grass in which we lie. The sweet grass, which grows and sings.

 

 

Translator’s note on “Labour of Love”

I decided to translate this poem because of the layers of pleasures Tom builds up in the prose poem form which dominate his latest collection. After taking in the opening aphorism, the reader of “Labour of Love” is confronted with four, single-clause sentences, which appear at first to be non-sequiturs. What has the louse to do with the lactic acid? What have either to do with the artist? Which brings us to a bigger problem of translating poetry between German and English: how much irresolution can you transmit, irresolution caused in part by the very different cultural context in which German is written? Should you intervene to restore some aesthetic unity? The jug-ears sailing disembodied out to sea, and the four-leaved clover being stuck onto cleft-lips are two of the poem’s most compelling images, and here it’s helpful to remember that German lexis concerning disability is easily three decades behind the English-speaking world: Tom chooses the term “Hasenscharten”, which would translate more directly as harelip. A particular problem in translating this poem was the first line. Tom goes for a picaresque saying, “drückt uns nicht der Schuh”. No colourful English phrase seemed to work here. So I concentrated instead on transmitting the consonance and the assonance of Tom’s line, with the repeated “w” sounds in my first and second lines, and the “do”, “to” and “you” as stressed syllables in my first. The original poem’s lines alternate between six and seven metrical feet, with no end rhyme but with lots of assonance, and with variations on phrases already introduced. I definitely wanted those long lines, and with them sufficient freedom to take advantage of what English idioms can suggest, to reconfigure Tom’s images in a quite different language.

From, Lichtveränderung © Hanser 2015

Bill Evans, My Man’s Gone Now
Men in the darkness
Why I am not a great lover
Exegesis
Postcards of cats with human professions
Procedure

Author: Clemens J. Setz
Translator: Matt Lomas

Bill Evans, My Man’s Gone Now

I wish
I could play that

of course, not precisely like him
but at least something similar

and of course not precisely back then
on that Sunday
in 1961 at the Village Vanguard

but at least sometime
long ago in the past

 

Men in the darkness

A guidebook from the 19th century
advises young women to place
sharp needles in their mouths should their train
disappear into a long tunnel
in order to avoid molestation
by unknown men in the darkness
and remain unkissed
until the light at the other end

 

Why I am not a great lover

The circumstances.
The Zeitgeist.

The inner insecurity.
The lack of faith
In anything thereafter.

Literature.
The wrong music
at the wrong time.
The creaking of the chandelier
in the next room.

The drunkards shouting
in the street below.
The ice flowers on the window.
The poem by Rossetti.
By John Donne.

The mental image of giant octopuses.
Of umbilical cords.
Of porridge.

The squeaking of the bedsprings.
The bitter scent
of oranges eaten this morning.
The tonnes of soap that accumulate
in the course of a lifetime.
The three-legged dog seen
in a park fifteen years ago.

The power cut in ’98.
The mood in the flat
in winter at four o’clock in the afternoon.

The cold, insect-speckled light
From the fluorescent tubes above us.
The box of toys under the bed.
The aching pain in my neck.
The sea.

 

Exegesis

He asked the mountain:
What will remain after man’s final
plea to time for clemency?

Rock, said the mountain,
granite and limestone.

He asked the mountain:
Is the risk of becoming extinct overnight
low or high?

High, said the mountain,
2196 metres.

He asked the mountain:
What sort of vegetation will remain
in such a wretched future?

Mixed woodland, said the mountain,
the odd meadow, moss and scrub.

He asked the mountain:
But what could we leave behind
as a testament or apology for our society?

Ski resorts, said the mountain, colourful, swaying gondolas,
and, if need be, summit crosses with inscriptions.

What do you think, he asked the mountain,
does she love me?
Will she marry me?

Grey, said the mountain, rocks and meadows,
Tourism in the summer and no end of red deer.

 

Postcards of cats with human professions

It can’t be that hard
to be a postman
A hat, a satchel full of letters
and the fresh air between the buildings

And to be a doctor
A saw, a scalpel
and two white lab coats
one as a spare
and a big book full of prescriptions

And a bricklayer
A mortar, a bag of cement
and a couple of bricks

And a nanny
A polkadot bonnet
Summer dress, glasses
and jam jars in a picnic hamper

And even easier
to be a robber
A racoon mask
a pair of shoes with noiseless soles
gloves from America
a diamond drill

Or a dog-catcher
A van with a load compartment
a sack-like net
a red cap

And finally an ice cream man
next to a playground
and in the background the shadow
of the largest Ferris wheel in Europe
with its brightly lit cabins
and the people falling out of them

 

Procedure

Only once radio contact
with the astronauts stranded on the moon,
with Armstrong, with Aldrin and with Collins,
had ended would the standard
procedure for a burial at sea come into effect,
according to a White House memo
from July ’69.

Every human being, the memo states,
who looks up at the moon
in the nights to come,
will know that there is
some corner of another world
that is forever
mankind.

Then, once the clergyman
had commended their souls
to “the deepest of the deep”,
the Lord’s Prayer would also begin
down here, below, with us.

From Die Vogelstraußtrompete © Suhrkamp Verlag, 2014

9th Leaf: Rendering of accounts. As if from a weighty dream

Author: Anja Utler
Translator: Kurt Beals

This poem is offered as a PDF only, in order to preserve the unique formatting that is a part of experiencing this poetic work.

Download the PDFDownload a PDF copy of 9th Leaf: Rendering of accounts. As if from a weighty dream

 

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From Anja Utler, ausgeübt. Eine Kurskorrektur
Original © Edition Korrespondenzen, 2011
Translation © Kurt Beals, 2015

subsisters: lauren’s youngest sister …

Author: Uljana Wolf
Translator: Sophie Seita

<original version>

lauren’s youngest sister has a gift for leading
guests steadily out of the vestibule. wordily,
casually, sir has hardly turned the key, he’s
already floating out. we just live differently in
the foyer, not obliged to our own. we could do
worse than wear mantlepieces, a marble statue
warms you better than your own thin skin. it’d
be the one to resemble us: the worse for wear,
maybe ours after all.
<original version with
subtitles>

lauren’s youngest sister has a gift for already
leading guests on in the vestibule. casually, the
way she—when he still stands—floats onto his
lap, only with words. after all we live in the
foyer, no one’s obliged. antics, acrobatics, to
be a nice mantle—everything’s camouflage.
while lauren warms the marble statue by the
staircase, i work out our tactics: resemblance.
that way everyone sees us, and no one can
take what isn’t ours.
<english version>

young sister lauren has a gift for guests, a gift
for pleading, for her guests’ vests, casually,
weigh wordy, casual, sir, barely turns the key,
it’s already floating out. we live for yer, no
abloquation on our own. antiques, apropostics,
to be a marble statue warns you better than
your own thin spin. taken that, perhaps we’d
still see was: she’d be the one to assemble us.
the verse to wear, maybe hours after ohr.
i mean, men sind nur big sleepers, right.
das einzige what makes them blink is mink.

 
From  falsche freunde © kookbooks, 2009

procession route
or wearable protectorate
the classrooms lured her like fluorescent plastic ponies

Author: Janin Wölke
Translator: Jake Schneider

procession route: gray line ten minutes long between curved sunkenness and bleak
learning supplies/paradable asleep/comeon the crowd is always gawking: cam
eras out of sight/persistent creeping up: harpooners’ many years of expertise
they must all see I’m doing something wrong why else would she be crying
why else would they be gawking/HOLD THAT PENCIL STEADY!/WRITE
ALONG THE LINE!/the curls and loops and links exact only the whale
tipped over upward downward it was sighted where supposedly

it surfaced/PAY ATTENTION!/INCORRECT!/a thousand eyes
on drapes the writing’s on the grayish linens: mom
and dad are dancing in the house and here is gran
BETWEEN THE LINES!/AND HOLD THAT PENCIL
TIGHT!/don’t let it slip away: a whale with a
harpoon jammed into its belly/their
fixed jav’lins in his side he wears
and on his back a grove

of pikes appears
WASN’T
THAT
NICE
?

or wearable protectorate. grünberger strasse—wühlisch/grayish line ten min
utes long/paradable asleep/the pipsqueaks sometimes toddle with the crew
or little brother past the rocky penguins/holes in creatures’ skulls/oh that
celebratory orange first essential cigarette/an ernte 23 from fitschy on
the corner/all the pipsqueaks head to market hustle coins unwrap
a rustling glistening packet/laughing yakking puffingpuffing and
pretending we had absolutely sometime in the past for real
whatever/thick-haired boy with warts around his joint:
recoilingtuggingtongues/inside his face it smelled
like squishy stamped-on beetles/neck and neck
chain-smoking three/like spinning for too long
and throwing arms away/m. wails at night
like cow/each night I stand outside
her room hold my heart shut
push blood relation’s face
till he goes quiet runs
away or shatters
something—

the classrooms lured her like fluorescent plastic ponies/aaa—
a perfect learning space: adaptable, acceptable, attractive

the one delightful/raised its arms/and she saw glistening
dark fluff inside its ’pits/disquieted and dumbfounded
learned passé composé in just a single lesson or
adored the german teacher/old, too old by far
who thrived on shady situations/these
solitary stable ties
without a dad
so where was dad?/a pit
ted traffic island near a high-rise:
I see you there not saying anything/a
motorcycle helmet in your hand/you turn
away/bring back a toy piano four years later/and
my hands are delicate/but still can never play/j. needs
to come to terms with present friendships next school year
the wind howls in the rooms when no one’s there a german
teacher falls from the sixth floor in fact that is one question I’ve
been dying to ask you againagain: why didn’t you, particularly you, love me?

Operation Hinterland: Tales from the Silver Scrapheap

Author: Anita Augustin
Translator: Rachel McNicholl

Introduction: The novel tells of four recent retirees’ misadventures in an exclusive old folks’ home. The narrator, Almut Block, and her friends Karlotta, Marlen and Suzanna are suspected of committing an act of grievous bodily harm, possibly murder, in the retirement home. The three friends decide that Almut should shoulder the blame, as she has the best chance of pleading insanity and saving them all from a prison sentence. The victim of their assault is the Minister for the Elderly, who has just given the go-ahead for fast-track drug trials in which the home’s residents will be the guinea pigs. Dr Klupp is the court-appointed psychiatrist, who tries to get Almut talking using the Life Story questionnaire she filled in for the home.

Chapter 2

A windowless room. Bare walls, a table, two chairs. Stuffy air; the ventilation system is probably broken.

First session.

“Ms Block, I’m going to ask you a few questions now, and I’d like you to answer Yes or No. Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

“Do you feel well, generally speaking?”

“No.”

“Are your energy levels good?”

“No.”

“Are you generally in good humour?”

“No.”

“Are you generally content with your life?”

“No.”

“Do you ever think of…?”

“For heaven’s sake, just ask me straight up what you want to know. This is like one of those tests in a women’s magazine, What personality type are you? More an autumn type or a summer type? If you want to know whether I’m depressed, Doctor, just ask me a straight question and I’ll give you a straight answer. And while we’re at it: Yes, I am depressed. Not always, but generally. More of a winter type, if you like. Can I go now?”
Second session.

“Ms Block, I requested a copy of the Life Story form you completed when you moved into the retirement home. Under Sleep Patterns, you wrote Normal. Nonetheless, I’d like to ask you a few questions about your sleep patterns. Please answer with Yes or No. Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have trouble falling asleep?”

“No.”

“Do you have broken sleep?”

“No.”

“Do you feel you get too little sleep?”

“No.”

“Do you feel you sleep too much?”

“No.”

“Are you a restless sleeper?”

“No.”

“Do you dream a lot?”

“No.”

“Are you telling the truth?”

“No. Can I go now?”
Third session.

“Ms Block, you don’t seem particularly keen on cooperating, so I suggest we carry out one last test and then conclude our interviews. To put it bluntly: it’s a dementia test. Some cognitive disorders, including dementia, are legally recognised in terms of pleading mental incapacity. We both know that you are mentally alert, so please don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes. This test is a pure formality, I have to conduct it, so let’s get it over quickly and then you can go. Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

Oh yes!

I can go, he said. Just one last test and I can go back to my cell, back to the others. They’ll fix questioning eyes on me, like after the other sessions, and I’ll say: “I’m fully compos mentis, girls. Holidays, here we come!”

“That’s not funny,” Suzanna will say, adding how upset she is that we’ll have to spend ten years baking biscuits. Marlen will point out acerbically that she didn’t expect much better from a hoover bag like me. I don’t even want to know how Karlotta will react. I’ll find out, and it won’t be pleasant, but I couldn’t give a damn.

“What time of year is it now, Ms Block?”

“Summer.”

“Which month?”

“August.”

“Where are we now?”

“In a prison.”

Dr Klupp makes a note.

“And whereabouts in the prison?”

I think about this. The warden escorts me from the cell to this interview room and it’s always five floors down. The cell is on the fourth floor, so this must be the basement.

“In the basement.”

Dr Klupp makes another note.

“Now I’m going to say three words, Ms Block. Please repeat these words after me:

“Moon.”

“Lemon.”

“Ball.”

“Moonlemonball.”

Dr Klupp takes a loose piece of paper out of his notebook.

“Please read what it says on this piece of paper, and then do it.”

He slides the piece of paper over to me. I hope it doesn’t say Call me Norbert and give me a kiss. I lean forward, the writing is kind of small, I read it.

Close your eyes.

I read it again.

Close your eyes.

“No,” I say, pushing the paper away.

“Excuse me?”

Dr Klupp gives me an irritated look.

“No. I won’t do it.”

“But…”

“No buts. My eyes stay open.”

“Ms Block, this is just a routine test.”

“I know. Let’s move on to the next step. You can dock me a point for the thing with the eyes if you like.”

Dr Klupp adjusts his specs, though they didn’t need adjusting in the first place. Wicked, those rimless glasses; they really suit him. Now he’s leaning slightly towards me across the table.

“Ms Block,” he says, with some urgency, “I cannot conclude my assessment if you refuse to take the dementia test. I cannot write up my report, and that means everything else will take longer. Besides,” he leans a little further across the table, “you will be isolated from your…,” he’s searching for the right word, “from your friends, until such time as you cooperate. You’ll be put in solitary confinement. Ms Block.”

Solitary and confined. A cell, four walls, me in the middle, all alone. No bad jokes, no giggles, not even a potted palm to talk to, the furniture giving me the silent treatment. For weeks, months, maybe even years.

Are there any persons, creatures, objects or situations you are afraid of?

At the time, I didn’t answer the question, just shrugged my shoulders. In body language, that amounts to ‘No comment’. I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to tell the truth either. And the truth is: I am not Karlotta, therefore I am afraid. Afraid of situations. Not all situations, but two in particular.

Situation 1: being alone.

Situation 2: closing my eyes.

Now I have to decide: whether to be afraid or afraid.

Which am I most afraid of?

I close my eyes.

As soon as my eyelids shut, they’re there, the spots. Red spots all over the place, against a black background at first, flickering and making that noise. I can never tell whether the noise is more a crunching or a crackling, whether it sounds like sandpaper rubbing my pupils raw or something I cannot even describe.

Crackle. Crunch.

The spots grow bigger, they spread, they melt, then everything is red. A sea of red, an ocean of flames. The water is seething, burning, it engulfs my eyeball; Jesus, that hurts. I force my eyes open.

Scrrratch.

Dr Klupp is looking at me keenly.

“Happy now?” I ask. “Can we move on?”

My eyes are watering and my voice sounds weird. Someone clamped it in a vice and I have to clear my throat to release it.

“Ms Block,” Dr Klupp says looking at me even more keenly, “you are sweating profusely.”

You don’t say? Thanks for letting me know, smart-arse.

“What went on with you just now, Ms Block?”

None of your business, smart-arse.

“Does it have anything to do with your sleep patterns? According to the Nurse Manager’s report, of which I sought a copy, your sleep patterns are anything but normal. It says here that you are unable to sleep, Ms Block.”

That Nurse Manager is a nasty woman.

Dr Klupp snaps his notebook shut.

“We’ll leave the dementia test. That’s enough for today. Tomorrow we’ll start the Life Story work.”

Chapter 3

Fruit flies sleep ten hours a day with their eyes open. They can’t shut their eyelids because they don’t have any.

The most popular lab animals for sleep trials are rats and humans. Night after night, millions of brainwaves flow through machines that measure everything and anything. Beta waves, delta waves, ebbing and flowing. Thousands of men and women with sleep disorders lie wired up in beds; thousands of rats are wired up in cages. All sleeping, and no one knows why.

It’s a secret.

There are theories.

We sleep because sleep is restorative.

We sleep because we process information in our sleep.

Perhaps. Maybe so. Very likely.

The fact is, rats die after two weeks if they are deprived of sleep. They lose the ability to regulate their body temperature and die from overheating. If you give them a couple of burn marks at the beginning of the experiment, they will die with open wounds. Without sleep, the wounds don’t heal.

Sleep is one thing. Dreaming is another.

Rats, pigs, humans, all the highly evolved animals dream. Even ducks dream, and hens, and even the odd bat has been caught at it; you can measure it. Dream sleep, which happens in the REM stage, has a different wave pattern to deep sleep. The beta waves in the REM stage, for instance, look exactly the same when you’re awake, which is pretty remarkable: you’re as good as awake when you’re dreaming.

If you were a particularly highly evolved mammal—a dolphin, for instance—you would never actually sleep without being awake. Unihemispheric slow-wave sleep they call it. You keep moving through the water, the left half of your brain asleep, the right half awake; after an hour or two the left half wakes up and lets the right go to sleep. Technically, if you are a dolphin you never sleep. Chronic insomnia. Over time, that can lead to depression, which is why dolphins always have that sort of sad look.

Anti-depressants—sedative effects.

Analgesics—sedative effects.

Neuroleptics—sedative effects. And Rohypnol of course, by the kilo; Jesus, it’s not as if I didn’t try. I tried everything, but that was a long time ago. Forty years at a guess, maybe more, I really can’t remember. None of them worked anyway, and at some point I’d had enough, all that baloney with doctors and drugs.

Do you have trouble sleeping?

Not exactly, since I don’t get to sleep in the first place.

Is your sleep very disrupted?

Like I said, I don’t sleep.

Do you dream a lot?

No sleep, no dreams.

For the last forty years, the same thing happens every time I close my eyes: the spots, the crackling or crunching, the blazing sea, the pain.

No way anyone could sleep with that madness going on under their eyelids!

Impossible?

Yes, of course it’s impossible to go without sleep for forty years, and maybe I’m only imagining it. Many chronic insomniacs think they don’t sleep, but they do in fact manage an hour here and there. So maybe I do sleep, every now and again, without being aware of it, with my eyes open.

Maybe I’m a fruit fly.

Maybe I’m a rat. Lab rat, remarkably resilient. Someone gave me a few burn wounds forty years ago and won’t let me sleep; that same someone has been waiting forty years for me to die. But I’m alive. With open wounds.

Life Story work, they call it.

Working on my fucked-up life. Sticking a finger in the wound, digging in the dirt with both hands.

What am I supposed to say to this Dr Klupp tomorrow? Should I say: Doctor, you really needn’t get your lovely hands dirty. It’s all very simple really: I’m a dolphin. A melancholy mammal that never sleeps. Always tired, permanently knackered, but someone holds up the hoops and I jump through them, even the ones on fire.

Hup! Let’s knock the bitch out!, says Karlotta, and I jump.

Hup! Let’s finish the bitch off! I jump.

For animals like me, violence is just a sort of pastime, Doctor. We dolphins have to be doing something, don’t we, until the time comes, the moment in which we finally fall asleep, with both brain hemispheres. That’s when something really beautiful happens to us: we forget.

We forget to swim, we forget to breathe. We slowly sink to the bottom of the sea, or the aquarium where we live, and there at last we sleep to our heart’s content.

Translator’s Note

I came across Der Zwerg reinigt den Kittel in Ullstein’s foreign rights catalogue in 2012, liked the sound of it and requested a reading copy. I remember laughing out loud on a long bus journey and being haunted by the dystopian elements of the plot long after I’d finished the book. The extract I submitted to no man’s land #10 isn’t one of the laugh-out-loud moments, but it works well as a stand-alone sample of the author’s style and her protagonist’s self-deprecating humour. I love translating writing that uses language creatively and playfully, that tells a good story and conveys a strong sense of place, time and character. This novel ticks all of those boxes for me. I was delighted to see it reviewed in New Books in German in 2013, and I know that the reviewer was as taken with it as I am. This novel really deserves to published in English, so if any publishers out there want to see more of my translation, please email me at [email protected]

From Der Zwerg reinigt den Kittel © Ullstein, 2012

Sons of Samsa

Author: Christoph W. Bauer
Translator: Susan Thorne

“Kafka drove the father out of me, so I was at least spared being a bogeyman in someone else’s childhood—parents always turn out that way, by definition.” He looked over my shoulder at one of the monitors showing the flight gates and departure times, and drew his brows together. Then he burst out laughing, “The Romans are boarding,” he said, adding, “Do you like Rome?”

My thoughts were still with Kafka and I looked at him quizzically, whereupon he said, “It’s the same for me: a horrible city, Naples, yeah, Florence, maybe, but Rome: never. Who wants to go to a city that all roads lead to, which just means that you’ll meet all and sundry, and Mrs. All and Mrs. Sundry, too—we want to be politically correct, don’t we?”

Suddenly he stood up, “’Scuse me for a minute,” pointed at his luggage, “Keep an eye on it?”   Without waiting for my reply, he turned his back, making me think of my father, which gave me a shock. Felt myself being watched, started to examine the luggage entrusted to me, a small backpack and a cloth bag with the slogan Squaring the Circle. Hadn’t my father drummed it into me all during my youth? From my first trip without my parents and forever after: Never let strangers palm off a piece of luggage on you. He would have assumed there were drugs in there, he worked with them himself – no, my old man and I, we seldom saw eye to eye. Another shock: when was the last time I had called him the old man?

I had cultivated a relaxed relationship with my father in the interim, he was more approachable since his retirement and had gone from being a heathen to a believer in some respects. Previously, he’d do anything to assert his opinion; now he appreciated the value of listening. And that of reading: how he used to demonize novels, “You don’t find life happening inside those fictions.” The indestructible Clarks, that he kept on wearing in memory of his first investment with his own money, had landed in the garbage. Now he wore those unspeakable rubber slippers you see on children everywhere these days, my mother had talked him into it. So she was co-responsible for his transformation, he had her—an ardent vegetarian—to thank for the fact that he preferred the side dishes on his plate, once despised as accessories, to any meat concoction. And that former pill-roller now swore by the healing power of herbs, with a missionary zeal that almost seemed like a mockery of his former pharmacist’s life.

You could smile at all that, but it’s OK, I myself had changed, too. By this time, every business trip was agony, I avoided flights when I could, always driven by the thought that my luck would run out sooner or later. My faith in technology didn’t come back until the plane landed, and until then I clasped the lapis lazuli scarab beetle in my pants pocket, a present from my mother, even took it to doctor’s appointments, a horror, Father’s fear of diagnoses: and what will become of the children? But I would never warn of—
Where was that guy, my plane was leaving soon. What to do if he didn’t show up in time? Leave the luggage pieces lying there and unleash a suspected-bomb alarm? A sudden thought: Why just suspected? I began to sweat. But two items had been handed over to me, and that definitely argued against an assassination attempt. I consoled myself that the backpack alone would be enough for a terrorist attack, or even the cloth bag. Was the latter just camouflage? I grabbed my water bottle, drank greedily, not letting that damnable bag out of my sight. That slogan an instruction? Squaring the circle.

I tried to grasp the meaning of the phrase, felt hatred rising within me. How I had pleaded with the old man to let me attend a language camp in England, in Worthing, Eastbourne or Bournemouth, all my classmates were allowed to, it didn’t come into question for me, for reasons whose emptiness my father did his best to fill at high volume. “I piss on the roaming charges!” I hollered now in reply, tearing my cell phone out of my jacket pocket and googling “Squaring the circle.” At least I didn’t need to feel watched any more, glances were directed at me, but I had other problems, the smell of sweat rose into my nostrils, why did the site take so long to load? Then finally, Squaring the circle, Cuadratura del circulo, die Quadratur des Kreises as a classical problem of geometry, a metaphor in many languages for an insoluble problem.

“That’s it!” I bellowed, “an insoluble problem!” X-ray looks followed my pointing finger to the cloth bag, a woman cried, “Oh my God”. And brought me to my senses with her cry, outwardly anyway. I made a fluid, appeasing hand gesture, smiled awkwardly, stared at the phone display. Clung to the lucky charm in my pants pocket with the other hand, barely under control inwardly, my thoughts rushing headlong: Worthing, Squaring the circle, Kafka, kept coming back to my father. “If only you hadn’t got started, I always warned you,” I heard him intoning, that sanctimonious pill-roller, I craved a cigarette, but there were no smokers’ zones in this cursed terminal. I stood up, keeping a lookout for the cloth bag’s owner, where was that guy? And what was he up to now?
We’d become acquainted in the departure hall, started a conversation, which was very agreeable for me, thankful for any distraction from my flying phobia. But hadn’t his appearance immediately struck me as a bad omen? That Existentialist look! His black suit was matched by the dark rings under his reddened eyes, as if he hadn’t slept all night or had been weeping over the transience of being. He’d been living in London for years and worked as a journalist for a news magazine, he told me, and also that he was currently working on a story about prohibited insecticides, a highly personal story, he had elaborated, and broke into my amazement at this postscript with the question—And you? I explained about the dermatology conference in London that I was travelling to, blathered on about how UV contamination causes far more damage to our skin than cigarettes. Our skin is not a carapace, he remarked softly.

Gregor Samsa! I hadn’t been able to come up with the name until now; I sat down again. Hadn’t the cloth bag been lying to the right of the backpack? I hid my face behind my hands but couldn’t ignore the snickering, no matter how hard I tried, squeezed my thighs together, simultaneously starting to grunt and then to collapse into laughter. “Oh my God,” I gasped in the direction of my forced cry a few minutes before—saw the woman and her unmistakable expression, which reminded me of my father, because everything kept reminding me of him, even the apple in her hand or her companion’s crutch, yes, even the newspaper in which one traveller now immersed himself again, tired of the ridiculous sight of me. And he was right, I realized with horror as I looked down at myself: those weren’t my hands, those weren’t my legs and those definitely weren’t my feet at all that were thrust into silly sandals, because I hated sandals, had hated them viscerally ever since childhood. No, that wasn’t me, and if it was, then I didn’t want to have anything to do with myself, that was over. Another person was sitting here now, somebody else had morphed into a wimp here before everybody’s eyes, bewitched by panic. That explained the grunting in purely mythological terms, but it didn’t help me otherwise. For I’d grown under his skin, shrunk into him right down to his feet, which didn’t even reach to the ground.  Let’s finally get rid of those pathetic sandals, rushed over his tongue and out of my mouth. And the woman, familiar to me now, bit into the apple and her companion grabbed his crutch, and the newspaper reader—no reaction from him. Yet he was watching me out of the corner of his eye, I could feel it, that gray-haired man had been watching me the whole time, it seemed to me that he was looking at my feet, and yes, the old man grinned! I wanted to jump up, but the Sandal Child held me back, whispered in my ear: You’re wearing—I looked bashfully down at myself, those weren’t my hands or legs or feet, but the latter were actually wearing my beloved boots, hideously expensive they were, I had scrimped and saved for them when I was a student. Joyfully I slapped those alien thighs, laughed until my unfamiliar sides ached, in other words: I had to admit to myself that I had gone crazy. And I asked myself what I’d done to deserve that.

I was just a little dermatologist with a big doctor phobia, son of a pill-roller turned herb guru, on his return trip from a conference about the vindication of corticosteroids, I had run into a man at the terminal who was still making me wait for him, had merely inquired whether he had children. “Kafka drove the father out of me,” was his answer, and I had immediately started searching for the name of the protagonist in the only story of Kafka’s I had ever read, years ago. I was not surprised that Gregor Samsa had stayed in my memory, I had presented a report about the story. I closed my eyes, and the departures hall dissolved into the bedroom of my youth, where I was sitting at the desk, bent over Kafka’s story. My father opened the door, as always my glance crawled beetle-like down from his chin, across his chest, down his pants legs to his Clarks. He came no closer, stood leaning against the door frame and snarled, “What are you reading there again?” And without waiting for my answer, he turned his back.
“Excuse me, I had to call my mother, that’s why—where were we?”

The Existentialist-freak, in the flesh. I felt something prick my hand, pulled it out of my pants pocket, saw the mark, “With a writer from Prague,” I managed to say.

“Prague? Weren’t we talking about Rome?”

“But you mentioned Kafka.”

“Oh right, yes, I read that sentence somewhere once, years ago, it got under my skin, if I can use that expression with a dermatologist.”

“So. Do you have children now?” I was getting impatient. He looked past my shoulder to one of the monitors, suddenly seized his bags, he had to get going. He said his father couldn’t run off anymore, that would be a pointless undertaking even for him, “but if I miss this flight, I won’t get to his funeral.”

I stood up with difficulty, unsettled, forced to think of my father. I looked at the person across from me, at his eyes, the dark rings, matching his funeral clothes. I couldn’t manage a word, put out my hand. Sighing, he turned away, went in the direction of the counter where the woman and her companion and the grey-haired man had gathered. “My condolences,” I called softly after him, but just at that instant he turned around toward me and laughed in my face.

From the short fiction collection In einer Bar unter dem Meer. Erzählungen © Haymon Verlag, 2014

I Grew Up in a Scrapyard

Author: Antonia Baum
Translator: Deborah Langton

1

Theodor is our father. He claims he brought himself up without anybody else’s help.

“What? You grew up on your own, then?” asked Jonny from the back, as we drove yet again to the scrapyard. He was really called Johann-Sebastian, but always known as Jonny, and was the eldest of us three. We were in the old hearse. Theodor was in the front, with me in the passenger seat, Jonny and Clint behind us on the burgundy-coloured fake leather rear bench seat Theodor had screwed onto the loading area, but which, unfortunately, allowed only one passenger to be strapped in.

“Like I said, I brought myself up.” Theodor’s left eye rolled. Yet again he wasn’t wearing his eye-patch, something I thought made his relationship with his fellow men completely bogus, because people were almost always embarrassingly touched by the stitched-together slit which leered back at them from its sunken suture, as if from a death’s head.

Clint was pursuing the upbringing issue:

“But you must have had parents of some sort. Someone’s got to do the shopping, cooking and stuff!”

With Clint, my twin brother, it was always as if he was the younger one, but he’d been the bigger baby, born only minutes after me. He leaned towards the driving seat and smacked at Theodor’s extreme swimmer shoulders with his child-size hands, because he really wanted an answer. Theodor did not react. Clint was shaking him.

“The-o-dooor!”

“What’s up?”

I stared through the windscreen at the street, its unappealing greyness like pulped newspaper, and could tell from his voice exactly how he’d be looking at that moment; his chin jutting out, tilted slightly upwards, his head on one side, his eye narrowed and focusing on something which could actually be anywhere, not simply where we were driving.

“Go on Theodor, say something, do!”

Clint gently swiped at Theodor’s head.

Like an old hand, I said to Theodor, “You don’t listen!”

Theodor was suddenly there with, “I always listen! What was the question?”

“That people can’t actually bring themselves up on their own, and who did all the cooking!”

Theodor persisted with the ‘tilted-head-narrowed-eye’ routine. We sat waiting for him to open his mouth.

“OK, then, Mother was a particularly bad cook. So bad, everything was inedible. Apart from that there wasn’t much to go round anyway, and we were hard up, it was post-war, after all. Father and I used to go off and forage, and then, of course, there was always special stuff he wanted on the black market. And if he was tired in the evening, I always used to be allowed to drive us home. I was only eight.”

“You were allowed to drive when you were only eight?” I exclaimed, tapping my forehead and turning to Jonny so he could see I thought this was crazy, but he was sitting there grinning on the rear bench seat, his arms folded.

“That’s right. And I was involved with guns now and then. Guns were quite run of the mill,” explained Theodor and made a face as if guns were just a boring, everyday issue.

Clint was a bit upset now. “Your mother must have been worried about you!”

Theodor brushed this off. “No, she wasn’t. She wasn’t the usual type of mother, do you see? She was very adventurous and keen on sport. She didn’t really bother about anything, the main thing was that I was adventurous and keen on sport, too, and did well. It was my sporting prowess that got me into a sports boarding school.”

Jonny really wanted to demonstrate that none of this interested him, so just said, “Good, was it?”

“I once whacked one of the teachers in the face.”

Theodor fell silent for a while and then said, appreciatively, “Now that was very good!”

“Really?” I exclaimed loudly, and Clint, my twin, said, “No bullshit?”

“Yes, really. D’you think I’d make it up?” shouted Theodor, and it was hard to tell whether he was genuinely annoyed or just pretending.

It was equally hard to find out real stuff about Theodor. You know, just normal facts and tedious detail. But we had to try, somehow. And although we all knew the one about the whack in the face, even Jonny was now literally on the edge of his seat, because maybe there really was more where that came from.

“And then what?”

“I packed in school.” At this point, Theodor left a dramatic pause before explaining, nodding his head the while, his eye screwed up, “But of course it was all planned.”

Clint: “What? What happened then?”

Theodor, with pride: “I moved to Berlin.”

Now that was really something new.

Jonny, in disbelief: “How old were you?”

“Fifteen or so.”

Me: “Is that allowed?”

“You have to watch yourself a bit, but it’s OK.”

“So can I move to Berlin, too?” I asked, to test out whether Theodor would say no.

“Of course! We probably need to go to Berlin next week, anyway, for a fair bit. I know someone who wants to open a betting shop there, and I’m going to take a look at things with him,” replied Theodor, and overtook someone. On the roads he considered it his job to overtake. Hooting from behind, as usual.

“We’re going to Berlin?” called out Clint, drumming his feet with pleasure on the rear bench seat.

“Of course we’re going to Berlin.”

“But we’ve got school next week,” pointed out Jonny, with a sigh.

“If I move to Berlin, I’ll go to school there, of course,” I said. I was excited and trying to bring my forthcoming move to life.

“Look, mate,” said Jonny. “Of course you can’t move to Berlin,” he observed, looking at me with irritation. “You’re not even nine yet. Anyway, we’re talking about next week, moron.”

I gave him the finger in return. He looked away and leaned his head against the side window that you couldn’t see out of because it was a frosted glass, hearse window. Decorated with a palm frond.

Clint, who had been waiting patiently for the end of this discussion, carried on the interrogation.

“What did you do in Berlin, Theodor?”

“Earned money.”

“Doing what?” Clint dug deeper.

“Car dealing, for one,” replied Theodor, tersely.

“And what else?”

“This and that. I was a bouncer and a croupier, too.”

“What’s a croupier?”

Theodor, irritated: “Why d’you always want to know everything?”

“Because I want to know everything you’ve done, that’s all,” said Clint, a bit hurt.

Theodor nodded, meditatively, his eye fixed again on that spot that nobody else could see. He looked at the Rolex on his right wrist, the one with the fastener that made such a nice clacking sound every time he changed gear. He had to brake.

“Boy oh boy, we could do without this traffic. Drives me up the wall. Rolf’s waiting for us. And we’ve still got to go to Kalli’s afterwards,” said Theodor, more to himself than anybody else, like someone explaining to himself what needs to be done.

“Why do we have to go to the scrapyard again today? It’s always bloody freezing there,” I grumbled, leaned my head against the passenger door, and looked at the low sky, so low it was touching the rooftops.

“You shouldn’t say ‘bloody’, Romy, I’ve told you that a thousand times already,” said Theodor, his voice gradually getting louder and louder. “Rolf is going to lend me his angle grinder, because we need it in Berlin. And, apart from that, the Merc’s got starter motor problems again and you don’t want us to break down halfway there, now do you, my dove, my love.”

“We’re always going to the stupid scrapyard.”

I was trying to sound annoyed but not actually rude, otherwise Theodor might flip. I hated the scrapyard because there was even more crap piled up there than at home. There was nothing nice there at all. Only crud and stuff that was knackered, and everything was angular and untidy. And Rolf, who owned the scrapyard, couldn’t say anything in the normal way, but always shouted, shouted every single sentence. Besides, his nose was always full and I’d definitely seen snot hanging out of it three times.

“So what else did you do to earn money, apart from being a bouncer?” Clint picked up the conversation again. I groaned.

Theodor took a deep breath, as if the conversation was a huge effort.

“Car dealing, for one.”

Jonny made a face. “You’ve already said that.”

Clint: “And? What else?”

“I lived right next door to a scrapyard, did my school exams on the side, and studied medicine. I’ve always earned my own money.”

“OK. And when did you meet… Mum?” asked Clint hesitantly, his voice dropping to a near whisper at the end of the question.

Theodor’s reply came slowly, as if he was spelling out something for a bunch of half-wits to write down. “It always meant a lot to me to be independent. More than anything, that’s my advice to all of you. Make sure you stay with it and quickly get to earn your own money. Then nothing much can go wrong.”

“Then you don’t get to be a prize arsehole,” said Clint, in full agreement.

Theodor: “That’s right. Then you don’t get to be a prize arsehole.”

“But when did you meet Mum!? That was the question, Theodor,” I reminded him, and was amazed at my own boldness but didn’t hold out much hope for an answer.

Everyone was talking at once, anyway.

“But was your mother sort of nice, somehow?” asked Jonny suddenly, after being quiet for a long time.

Me, loudly: “God, what’s that got to with it?”

Clint, even more loudly: “Shut up, Romy!”

“You shouldn’t tell your sister to shut up!” said Theodor, the loudest of all.

“Well, of course my mother was nice. But she was more like a man,” he said, revelling in the impact of this explanation.

“A man?”

I tapped my forehead again.

“Whaaat?” went Clint.

Jonny said nothing, but craned forwards.

“She only had me because she could, and that was probably why she always had a bit of a downer on me,” explained Theodor, as if it was all perfectly obvious.

Jonny, the sceptic: “In what way, a bit of a downer?”

“Well, I assume so. Psychologically.”

“What’s psychologically?” I whispered.

“To do with the state of the human mind,” Theodor said, groaning a bit about us.

“What’s with the ‘psychologically’, then?” asked Jonny, still a bit wary.

“Well, our punch-ups, for a start. The old girl could really dish it out, but I used to give as good as I got. Then later on, you know, she just went swanning off round the world, and I saw her for the last time in the early seventies.”

“There’s no logic to what you’re saying,” commented Jonny, leaning back again in disappointment.

“And your father?” asked Clint.

“A lawyer. Always used to defend me,” said Theodor, and started to get much more forthcoming. “Father was an intellectual. Had an artistic nature but mother wouldn’t have any of that, so he earned the money. In any case my artistic streak comes from him. Well, at some point my father got sick of it all and cleared off to Moscow and became a pastry chef in a luxury hotel. That way he could really express himself. He made a Porsche 356 No.1 Roadster out of marzipan and sent me a photo of it, but I never got to Moscow to see him.”

“Are you sad about that?” asked Clint, in a voice like a chain-smoking Micky Mouse.

Theodor tilted his head to one side, and made an ‘O’ shape with his lips.

“Of course something like that makes you sad,” he said after a bit. He was thinking. “But I’m actually pretty contented, provided you lot don’t give me any hassle.”

“OK, then please tell again about how you lost your eye when you came off the bike doing 140 on the motorway,” begged Clint.

But we were already there.

Theodor got out.

“Back soon.”

It had started to snow, and with Theodor ‘soon’ could turn into ‘ages’.
2
Theodor’s gone. We’ve been sitting in the living room, waiting for him, ever since we all decided we should meet up, and then went to the village where Theodor’s house is, our old house. That’s where we’re sitting now, and waiting, and we don’t know how much we should be worrying. It was Jonny who’d said, “Look, let’s meet in an hour at Theodor’s place.” And when Jonny says something like that, we just do it. Nine days ago, Theodor vanished. He hasn’t been picking up. He vanished without leaving any note or message, all the more peculiar because today’s our birthday, Clint’s and mine, I mean. We’ve phoned every possible number, and Jonny’s spoken to the surgery where he works but nobody knows anything there, either; the cars are all in the garage or parked outside the house, so are the motorbikes.

On the table are empty pizza boxes and our phones. The table is protected by sticky plastic film, covered in dust. There are some faint round marks here and there. The curtains are closed, but not fully, and it’s black night beyond the terrace window, and although it’s dark outside, and inside only the dim living room lights are on, it’s obvious how mucky it is everywhere, and although it’s never been any different, the dirt makes me angry. And so do the black motorbike tyres on a bit of tarpaulin in the middle of the living room floor, they make me angry, too.

Jonny’s sitting on the beige massage chair that Sultan once bought, fiddling with the recliner button. The ponderous hum of the electric motor cuts through the stillness in the living room. It’s annoying. But it’s actually Jonny that’s annoying. He puts his feet up on the table, he takes them down again, he reaches across the table for the bottle of whisky that belongs to Theodor, he pours Theodor’s whisky into a glass and drinks, and jumps up and takes a couple of paces, and then sits down again. His eyes flick nervously round the room, and he says for the second time maybe we should be calling the police, only to say all in the same sentence that they wouldn’t help us, because the police never help anyone, they just create problems instead.

“We should ask Kalli. He might actually know something,” said Clint, next to me on the ancient leather sofa, its stuffing hanging out underneath. The leather has dark, greasy marks in the places where it’s been sat on so much. Clint’s looking for something in his trouser pocket.

“Kalli doesn’t know anything about anything. His brain had it bloody ages ago,” says Jonny, softly. He lights a cigarette and watches the smoke as he exhales into the air, as if it can tell him what to do next. He drops back down into the massage chair. The cigarette between his lips, he runs his hands over the old newspapers stacked up on the table, then gets rid of the dust by wiping his hands on his trousers, and pulls a face.

“He’ll turn up again alright,” I say, to make things better. We were quite sure Theodor was going to turn up again today at the latest. Because we absolutely always meet to celebrate a birthday, although of course we don’t celebrate like people normally do. Theodor doesn’t like birthdays, asks what all the fuss is about, you can’t help having a birthday, he says, birthdays are not an achievement. But he never forgets them. He strides up to the occasion, puts his arms round us, gives us a hug, says ‘Many happy returns’ and sings us a birthday song. He’s done the birthday roll call in exactly the same way year after year, and done his duty, although he can’t sing at all, I’m thinking and then saying, laughing and looking to see if the others will laugh with me.

“He sings just so badly,” murmurs Clint, his head bent over the table where he’s preparing the coke he did eventually find in his trouser pocket, the coke he doesn’t flog anymore but still loves like crazy. And I love Clint. And Jonny and Theodor. But loads of things about us are a bit odd. I don’t mean that in a ‘ha ha look at our nutty family’ sort of way. I mean there’s something really seriously odd about us.

But I love my father, I do not know that, and please don’t let him be dead. And, apart from that, I wouldn’t know who to turn to if I got up to my eyes in debt again. Although our dealings are always pretty heavy-going, and afterwards he thinks he owns me, I do somehow get a bit of money from him every time, and that’s how we stay in touch. That’s what we do together, argue about money and haggle over interest and make new agreements. We’ve got countless agreements, going right back to the late eighties. Theodor keeps a precise record of the amounts and the repayment terms in a little book with a brown leather cover. The book with our agreements. We haven’t got anything else. But that’s not quite true.

I look at the white canvases propped against the bookshelves, the canvases Theodor covers with his own painting. In front of the spines of the books are little paint-pots, streaks of congealed colour seeming to run down their outsides. A paint-smeared pickle-jar holds a dysfunctional family of worn brushes. It really does look as if nobody has been here for centuries, and smells like it, too. Stale air. Left-over turps, engine oil, cigarette smoke mingled with sweat, add to that fuel oil from the basement, cooking fat from the kitchen, dandruff along the back of the sofa, then all mixed together and stored in every scrap of material in the house.

“Give us a note, would you,” says Clint. I hunt in my bag and hand him a fiver. Clint does a line, he thinks there’s nothing wrong with this early evening if your father’s gone missing. His eyes are staring, his pupils huge, he looks like a fox in the headlights.

Jonny’s pacing up and down in front of the bookshelves. He says the whisky’s good, too good to have been bought by Theodor, so probably a present. We all burst out laughing at the thought of Theodor’s obsessive thrift, and Jonny’s the first to fall silent again.

The obsessive thrift is what I come up against when he says to me the thing he’s said to me for as long as I can remember, and that’s, “Romy, you really have got a manageable cost structure. It’s the basic market principles you need to grasp. Your outgoings need to match your income. When will that sink in?”

And then I say something like: “Never, and it’s your fault, because it’s all down to you that I’ve developed a completely defective relationship with money. I’ll put that in writing if you want. Scientifically proven.”

I know it’s daft to blame Theodor, it’s stupid, but I still try to talk to him. I’m studying psychology (though thinking right now about packing it in) but Theodor doesn’t set much store by my subject knowledge, and refuses to acknowledge any connection between my strange relationship with money and his, which is probably right to a certain extent. At the end of the day it’s all crap, anyway.

Clint’s snorting coke next to me. Jonny’s standing with his back to us in front of the terrace window, looking out into the darkness. To his left are Theodor’s wooden clogs, their leather patched, and patched again. I knock three times on the wooden table, because I really do now think Theodor’s dead, and I want the thought to go away. He could have been dead so many times. I’ve expected it every day of my life, simply because I always thought if I don’t expect it, then it’ll happen, so because of that I was forced to expect it, otherwise something would have happened to him. And so nothing’s ever happened to him. But today, I’m thinking to myself, maybe because Jonny’s so agitated, something could have happened. I see his smashed skull stuck to a crash barrier, one wooden clog left burning in the middle of the motorway, oh God how that abandoned shoe gets to me, even though the foot and everything attached to it is such an arsehole, and even though the clog is there next to Jonny. And I’ve so often imagined that something’s happened to him and, OK, it’s never happened, but now this could be something. If only we just knew what’s going on, if he really has got some problem. Maybe then everything would be different, maybe it would be a relief. But I don’t want to think like that. I knock on the wood again, three times, so hard I grip my knuckles afterwards.

“What’s all that about?” Jonny turns and looks at me like I’ve spat on the ground right in front of him.

“Nothing,” I say, and I have to knock three more times, or Theodor’s dead.


From
Ich wuchs auf einem Schrottplatz auf,  © 2015 Hoffmann und Campe

 


Translator’s Note

I grew up in a scrapyard and lived off hub caps and bumpers. That’s just my translation of the book’s full title: Ich wuchs auf einem Schrottplatz auf, wo ich lernte mich von Radkappen und Stossstangen zu ernähren.

Published in 2015 by Hoffmann und Campe, this 400-pager is journalist Antonia Baum’s second novel. I’d heard about it and noted the great title, usually shortened to ‘Ich wuchs auf einem Schrottplatz auf’, and was pleased when the publisher commissioned me to do this extract translation into English.

I seem to be drawn to tales of ‘kaputte Kindheit’ where the characters find the strength and grit to work their way through early life difficulties to adulthood. One of my personal criteria for calling a book ‘good’ is if I miss the people in it when I’ve finished reading it. Although the one female character, Romy, is widely referred to by reviewers as the only halfway sensible person in the whole story, her father and two brothers are larger than life, you can almost scent their presence as you read, and I missed them, too. I like the resilience and strength of the relationships. Then there’s the impact of a family secret, the devastation that may be caused by information withheld.

Another of my personal criteria is whether I want to read the book again very soon. And I did, and got even more out of it, in spite of, and yet also because of, knowing the shocking dénouement. This is all about the information withheld. I won’t tell you in case you decide to read it. But it’s about the children’s mother.

Reviewers refer to the language and draw parallels with Rap and Hip Hop but don’t be put off by this. Sometimes I think reviewers are not given enough time to read the whole book but just have to write the review somehow. I like neither Rap nor Hip Hop but love Antonia Baum’s narrative style and the dialogue.

The reviews are positive but tend to the sensational, majoring on drugs and the unsavoury characters drawn in by Theodor, the father. This will be good for sales. But what stands out for me is the strength of the relationship between these three siblings, and their love for their crazy, affectionate, neglectful father, and the strong attachments they form to other adults as they grow up. Here are a few reviewers’ comments, translated for the purpose of this note:

Die Zeit (9.4.15)

Intensely poetic {…} good; witty, poignant, a real page turner

Poetisch dicht {…} – gut; witzig, ergreifend, ein Pageturner

Aachener Zeitung

It’s brutal, touching, exciting like a thriller

Es ist brutal, berührend und spannend wie ein Thriller

SZ (16.4.2015) Dana Buchzik

This is a magnificent novel. Antonia Baum is quite simply a mercilessly good story-teller.

Dieser Roman ist ein grossartiges Buch. Antonia Baum erzählt einfach erbarmungslos gut.

Myself 16.3. 2015

Great story

Tolle Story

There were a few interesting issues to mull over before, and during, the translation process. Theodor’s ‘voice’ was the main one. Here’s a doctor, and we know doctors are thought to be wonderfully cavalier about their children’s upbringing, but this one is completely off the scale. It doesn’t fit. Then you piece him together; the former East, packed off to a boarding school for sporting prowess, a mother who was not mad on being anybody’s mother, Theodor did that thing we call ‘shifting for himself’ in a big way. So he mixes this child-rearing approach into the rearing of his own motherless children, although he is a doctor and, presumably, seen as a pillar of some sort of community. He mixes with unsuitable people and takes his children out of school for inappropriate projects. But they still love him. Mix all this together and his ‘voice’ begins to form.

The children’s ‘voices’ were a joy to translate. Alternating chapters bring them to us as primary school age, then young adult, then back to primary. I enjoyed trying to capture their tireless questioning of Theodor, with Romy trying to keep a lid on Theodor’s unpredictable reactions. Then as young adults they banter, they interrupt each other and needle each other. And through it all comes Romy’s warm, sometimes lost, but always loving, voice.

I think the sentence I enjoyed translating the most was this one:

‘Er drehte sich weg und lehnte den Kopf an das Seitenfenster, durch das man nicht hindurchgucken konnte, weil es ein Leichenwagen-Fenster aus Milchglas war. Ein Palmwedel war auch darauf.’

‘He (Jonny) looked away and leaned his head against the side window that you couldn’t see out of because it was a frosted glass, hearse window. Decorated with a palm frond.’

I like it for the juxtaposition of this mostly cheerful, funny, questioning little boy and the dreariness and inappropriacy of his eccentric father’s choice of vehicle. This book is well worth the read.

My Deepest Sympathy

Author: Katharina Bendixen
Translator: Helen MacCormac

I couldn’t stop laughing when we buried my mother, but there was nothing funny about her death. She got ill all of a sudden, lay in hospital for a few weeks and then one night she died, before I had time to say goodbye. We’d never been best friends or anything like that, but we always got on in our own sort of way. Sometimes we’d go out shopping. She used to ask me what everyone was wearing and then she’d splash out, buy herself a nice top and a dress for me. We used to talk on the phone for hours, and now I can’t remember what we talked about. Sometimes, we didn’t hear from each other for a week or two, for no reason.

My father, my grandmother and I stood in a row in the car park; the gravel had dusted our black shoes white. We shook hands with the mourners and they all mumbled the same words, ‘Sorry for your loss,’ or ‘my condolences,’ or, ‘you have my deepest sympathy.’ I don’t know if it was the endless repetitions that got to me, or the hushed voices, the sameness of it all. I started to grin when the priest gave the homily. I giggled when the organ played. When we left the vestry, I actually laughed out loud. Luckily, it wasn’t the kind of funeral where all the mourners walk to the graveside behind the coffin. After the service, we drove directly to the reception. I laughed when the car stopped at a red light. I laughed when I ordered a cup of coffee with plenty of milk and after every bite of lemon sponge cake.

‘It’s just nerves,’ everyone said, and people kept hugging me before I could fend them off. But I knew it wasn’t nerves. It was something else, something hiding deep inside me. I was really worried that it had nothing to do with my mother’s death; that it had been there all along and had simply decided to show its face for the first time now.
During the next few years, I often dreamt about my mother. She’d be sitting at the kitchen table in front of a chopping board loaded with cheese and tomatoes and grapes. Dad was still at work and she was making sandwiches for when he came home. ‘I might be going to die,’ she said and buttered a slice of bread. I didn’t say anything. ‘You might not get to say goodbye,’ she said and topped it with cheese. I didn’t say anything. ‘You might have to laugh at my funeral,’ she said and put the cheese sandwich onto a plate with all the other sandwiches. I always wanted to ask her why I had to laugh. I wanted to know if she minded. But I couldn’t say anything. It felt like someone was holding my mouth shut.

At some point the dreams went away. Though my father didn’t stop dreaming about her. ‘Last night,’ he’d sometimes say, ‘I saw your Mum again.’ We never talked about her much, but when we did, we were always honest. My father wouldn’t give up the flat he’d shared with my mother for thirty years. In the beginning, I couldn’t stand being there, even for an hour. But I got used to it after a while. I met a couple of men, I got promoted. A lot of things turned out better than I’d hoped. Some even seemed easy.
It took me four years to realise that something was wrong. A good friend asked me to accompany her to a funeral. Her ex-boyfriend had been killed in a motorcycling accident or out on his bike, I can’t remember. But I know she was having a bad time. It was a nasty separation and they hadn’t been able to forgive each other. ‘Write a letter,’ I told her, ‘write down everything you wanted to tell him.’ My friend laughed in a weird sort of way and I realised that my advice was stupid. Stupid and hurtful because it was just something to say.

The mourners stood around in the car park waiting for the two or three closest relatives to line up ready to shake hands and listen to the same old words. ‘Sorry for your loss,’ or ‘my condolences,’ or less often ‘you have my deepest sympathy.’ I felt something start to flutter deep down inside. I bit the inside flesh of my cheek, pinched the back of my hands, curled up my toes tight inside my black shoes, tried to disguise my laughter as tears. Then I turned my back on everyone. I could feel their eyes watching me. No doubt they thought I was the ex-girlfriend, a sister, a cousin maybe. The fact that even the closest relatives were so easily fooled made me laugh even more. My friend touched me on my shoulder. ‘Is everything all right?’ she asked. And when she realised that I wasn’t crying, she said, ‘What are you doing? What’s wrong?’
After that funeral, I started dreaming about my mother again. I dreamt we were back at the kitchen table and she was making more sandwiches for my father. She said the same things she’d said before, and still I couldn’t speak. But when I woke up I felt drained, rather than sad. I told my father and he shrugged his shoulders, and looked away as if it was all his fault.

Some things did get better in time, but the anniversary of her death was always bad. We both hated going to the graveyard, so we bought flowers instead and put them in his flat. We’d have coffee and cake, and talk about the illness, about her final days, about the funeral. Sometimes we’d look at old photos. If one of us got sad, we’d hug each other. One time, we tried to ignore the anniversary. We didn’t meet up or phone. But that didn’t make it any better.

***

I haven’t been to another funeral since. But today my father phoned to say that his aunt, my great aunt, had died. ‘The funeral is next week,’ he said, ‘I can’t go on my own. What am I going to wear, anyway?’ ‘I’m very busy at the moment,’ I answered, ‘I don’t think I could take a whole day off.’ We talked about the garden, about the fruit he wanted to pick at the weekend. I promised to look up a recipe for blackberry jam.

I’m seeing someone. Last weekend we went for a walk. This time we meet in a restaurant. It was his idea. He’s a slow eater, his manners are nice and he’s really good with the waiters. There are some men I like talking to about my mother, and some I don’t. The ones who are brave enough to ask about her usually last more than a couple of weeks. This one asks. He actually asks the most moving questions anyone has ever asked me. ‘Do you look like your mother?’ he wants to know and, ‘do you get your cautiousness from her?’ We sit talking for a long time, but I end up going home after the last glass of wine.

During the night, I see my mother again. The dream is the same as before, only this time no one is holding my mouth shut. I can’t think of anything to say, so I watch quietly while she makes sandwiches for my father.

I have never told anyone that I laugh at funerals.
The telephone rings again. It’s not the man, it is my father. He wants me to help him buy a black suit. We decide to meet at the market square.

‘Is it for a sad occasion?’ the shop assistant wants to know. My father shakes his head and says, ‘For a wedding, black seems easiest.’ The assistant is charmed by my father. He’s a charming man and he tells her all the little jokes he used to save for my mother. I stand back and watch his reflection in the mirror. Since my mother died, he has lost two kilos every year, so of course he looks great. I can’t think of any father who wouldn’t.

‘We’ll take in a tuck here,’ the assistant says holding a bit of cloth between two outstretched fingers. ‘We’ll need a day or two.’ I stop listening to my father’s jokes. The pale blonde woman in the mirror is me.

‘What about you?’ My father asks as we’re leaving the men’s department. ‘What shall we get for you?’ ‘I still don’t know if I’ll be able to come,’ I say, ‘and I’ve got enough black clothes, anyway. Let’s get something to eat.’ Our favourite Chinese restaurant is only a few streets away. We order the same dishes as always. We don’t mention the funeral. I have no idea if my father liked his aunt, I don’t know if she used to play with him when he was a child, or if he ever phoned her when he grew up. I only met her once and remember her having a huge neck. ‘It’s a goitre,’ my mother told me; and I was surprised that something so scary could have such a silly name.

I wish I knew what to ask when I see my mother during the night. I used to want to know why I laughed at her funeral and whether she minded. But somehow, it doesn’t matter anymore. And I don’t think it matters to my mother either. Maybe there’s a different question that is more important.
‘Are you going to go or not?’ my father wants to know, on the phone. The funeral is tomorrow. And he has already phoned three times so far, today. But I was out, working, meeting the man. When I don’t answer straight away, he says, ‘We should both be experts at funerals really, but we’re not. I haven’t even picked up the suit, yet. It’s odd, isn’t it?’

Last night I stayed with the man. We didn’t make love, but we lay very close together. Usually, it takes me months to get that close to someone. I didn’t tell him that I laugh at funerals and I’m not going to tell him. But I told him other things, things I normally keep to myself for much longer. How I used to get annoyed when I was a child if people said that I looked like my mother. How I sometimes didn’t want to hold her hand because of the shape of her fingers. We stayed up half the night talking about my parents and his until we fell asleep.

I woke up just before dawn and saw my mother. She was sitting on a chest of drawers, eating all the sandwiches she had made over the years. A great pile of cheese and tomato sandwiches and she had only managed to eat half so far. I knew that she was going to stay until the plate was empty. I had all that time to ask the right question. But I didn’t need much time because there wasn’t a right question. There was just this one last meeting. So I said, ‘Those sandwiches are ancient, are you sure they’re okay?’ My mother looked up and nodded and then I knew it was all right. I knew that there are people who laugh at funerals and people who cry when someone is born. Some of us are terrified of thunderstorms and others fear the sun. A lot of people run away when they see a spider, but some of us keep them in terrariums and even give them names. Everyone has something hidden deep down inside. It’s just that most people don’t let it show.

‘I don’t really want to be that sort of an expert,’ I tell my father on the phone. ‘Two ordinary people should be able to do this, too.’

We’re going to fetch the suit tomorrow morning and then we’ll set off. Perhaps we can get a cup of coffee somewhere on the way. It’s an early start. The funeral is out in the country, in a little village about a hundred and fifty kilometres away. It’s the village where my mother and father grew up. We used to go there for walks sometimes. Then they’d tell me about the olden days. About the village pond where they used to play all day long until their parents came and dragged them out by their hair, about the old carpenter who had lost a finger and an eye. And about the September day when they kissed for the first time.

Translator’s Note

What I love about all Katharina’s work is the way she uses everyday situations and a deceptively straightforward style of writing to generate an unexpected sense of something that is definitely not quite right. In ‘My Deepest Sympathy’, a young woman laughs at her mother’s funeral but apart from that she seems to be ok…. You watch as she comes to terms with her grief, and then all of a sudden you’re overwhelmed by her sadness. The concise wording and the gentle rhythm are central to the story, and form the basis of this translation. I found that if I could get the words right, the rhythm would come, too. Sometimes it felt more like translating poetry than prose, so I was especially pleased when it started to gel.  

From  Gern, wenn du willst © poetenladen 2012