Fuckin Sushi

Author: Marc Degens
Translator: Joseph Given

I only went to Godesberg because of Yannick. He was my best friend at school, apart from being my only one. He had the most often wrongly spelt name I’ve ever come across: Jannik, Yannik, Jannick, Yannic. On the way over to his place, I stopped at the sweet shop and bought a few things. Yannick lived with his parents in a castle-like villa on the banks of the Rhine. The villa had towers, battlements, an alarm system and thousands of surveillance cameras. His mother stayed at home 24 hours a day, his father never. When Yannick wasn’t at school, he was sitting in front of his computer sucking the Internet dry and moving massive amounts of data from one hard disk to another. This wasn’t about having fun. It was hard work. Yannick even slept in front of his computer, melded to a homogenous lump with his blanket and the swivel chair.

I got used to the new school after a few months, even the politics and history lessons in English. Uncanny things were happening in the world. I couldn’t talk to Yannick about that. He would either show me shaky videos on YouTube or send me links to obscure websites. I never really found out what his opinions were. In one of the windows he’d watch the newest cinema hit whilst in another he’d be lying in wait, looking through rifle crosshairs. At the same time he was posting photos, chatting, listening to rap or some audiobook. It probably didn’t make any difference to him whether I was there or not.

Yannick was always the first to know which series was due to start in Germany, having finished running in America. Whenever I was looking for a song or a particular episode from some old cartoon series, I only had to ask him. It took about quarter of an hour then he’d hand me a USB stick with a perfect discography or every single episode that had ever been broadcast. Yannick didn’t believe in God, but he did believe in Ewoks and he knew the names of every single Knight of the Jedi. Whenever he got bad marks in a class test or was asked to take the rubbish out, he would curse the dark side of the Force quietly. It was also down to Star Wars that Yannick and I ended up arguing: he liked Jar Jar Binks and I didn’t. He threw me out for that and once I was on my bike, riding off, he came out and shouted the ending of my new series after me:

“Joffrey ends up king,” he laughed evilly, “and Ned Stark dies.”

I stopped, turned around and swore perfidious revenge.


My threat had obviously impressed Yannick. He even stayed away from our school-year party, which was supposed to be obligatory for all pupils. All of the teachers were there and some kids even brought their parents. To be on the safe side, I didn’t even tell mine about it. The meeting place was the open-air stage at the banks of the Rhine. There was a barbecue and beer. At some point I ended up sitting with Livia on the grass with the sun burning a hole in my head while she talked incessantly about her foster horse Giacherini: a gelding with Holsteiner genes that had won show-jumping prizes and was the half-brother of some other horse. After about half an hour it was getting on my nerves listening to her. I picked up a can of beer and walked off, starting up the hill on my own.

There were Roman headstones all around and I tried to decipher the names on them. All at once I found myself standing in front of the entrance to the Zen garden, a place for peace and relaxation. Or so it said on the sign. Exactly what I was after. I went through the wooden gate, took a step to my right and walked around anticlockwise – as recommended on the sign.

In the middle of the garden, there was a large pool. I was the only visitor and the trees looked like happy ghosts. I stepped onto a small jetty. On either side of me there were massive fish with red, white, blue and gold marbled scales. Grandma and Grandad Dannenfeld also had fish like this in their garden pond, but these ones here were much bigger. They surfaced like U-boats between the water lilies, steered off to the reeds and opened their enormous mouths to pick at the stems. I watched them for a while then I took a sip out of my can and walked on.

The stone steps beside the pavilion led directly to the water. I kicked a couple of empty booze bottles to the side and sat down on the lowest steps. A duck flew over, curious, landed clumsily and continued in my direction, swimming excitedly. Once it noticed that my attention was completely given over to the fish, it turned around and paddled off leisurely to the opposite bank.

The fish, just under the surface, swam close to each other, moving calmly with just the occasional whip of their tails. I leaned over, intending to reach into the water and grab one of them, when I noticed René behind me. I didn’t know how long he’d been standing there. He nodded to me, sat down on the stairs beside me and tapped his finger on my beer.

“Do you mind?”

I handed him the can. He took a swig and gave it back to me. An old pensioner couple came into the garden. Both of them were wearing beige from head to toe. Arm in arm, they trailed their slow way through the garden, stopping every six inches. The old man scratched at the ground with his walking stick. They both looked down and giggled. Then they trailed on.

“That would do me nicely right now,” said René turning to me. “Just pension myself off here and now.”

“Pension yourself off?” I asked.

“Yeah, pension myself off,” answered René. “Do nothing except read chemists’ magazines, eat pensioners’ special offer meals, and cruise through the parks.”

I laughed.

“Spend all week running to the doctor and sitting in the waiting room?” I asked.

“Yep,” answered René. “Get the shits when Crimewatch comes on, dream about Reader’s Digest.”

“Shoo the young people off their seats on the buses,” I enthused and took another swig of beer.

René nodded.

“Go on coach trips every six weeks,” he said.

“Chiropodists,” I shouted.

“Automatic door openers,” declared René.

“Spend the present talking about the past,” I added.

“Fango mud packs and hot-cold treatment,” said René excitedly.

I smiled and spoke grimly, “No beer after 4 o’clock.”

I handed the can to René. He drank the rest and we looked up at the grey stone tree.

“I think I’d even go into an old folk’s home for that,” mused René.

“Me too,” I proclaimed loudly. “Right here and now.”

The old couple had reached the pavilion and were sitting down on the bench. René grabbed one of the two earbuds hanging out of the top of my T-shirt and put it in his ear.

“Turn it on,” he said.

“Oh, come on,” I sighed.

“Turn it on”, he repeated.

I took the iPod out of my trouser pocket, put the other earphone into my own ear and pressed play. Long, pacific tones, then hammering and humming. The bass started to get threatening: once, twice, then every time.

“What’s that?” asked René.

“Drone,” I answered. “Doom metal. By Sunn O))). One of their more mellow pieces.”

“Let me hear some more,” he spoke.

There was a clicking – then the drums were in command. The kind of sounds you’d hear on a slave boat. The cymbal was crashing and the organ was whirring like a dentist’s drill.

“When’s it going to start?” asked René.

He grabbed the iPod out of my hand and pressed on the skip track button before the singing had started.

After that there was a song from the new, unreleased Chemical Brothers’ album. Yannick had given me the song, but René clicked on the skip track button again. Drumbeats and glockenspiel.

“Bring out your dead,” roared the drunken voice of the singer.

“Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.”

“Fucking brilliant,” shouted René. “That’s Jim Morrison. What’s he saying there? Dad or dead?”

“I think dead,” I replied.

We listened to the song to the end.

“Brilliant version,” said René. “I’ve never heard that before.”

“Live in New York,” I told him. “It’s over 17 minutes long.”

“Have you got People Are Strange?”

“No,” I answered. “Too short.”

“Too short?” he questioned.

“I’ve only got long songs on my iPod,” I explained. “The longest one goes on for nearly an hour.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Why not?” I answered. “I only listen to long songs.”

René looked at me with raised eyebrows.

“Really?” he asked.

I nodded. In that moment, Ricarda with the big tits came running over the jetty laughing. She was being chased by some nutcase from the rowing club with arms like a removals man. Ricarda stopped running. They fell into each other’s arms and started snogging.

“I think I need another beer”, said René and got up. “You coming?”

“Yeah”, I answered.


 From Fuckin Sushi  © DuMont 2015

The Disappearance of Philip S.

Author: Ulrike Edschmid

Translator: Mandy Wight

They come on the 14th of August at around midday. They’re coming for H. He had lent someone his car the evening before. That same night a so-called pipe bomb was thrown from this car under a police car. He had been warned that night. When his picture appears the next day on television, he gives himself up to the police. The photo appears in the Bild newspaper as well. The landlord gives us notice to quit again when he sees it. Again, Philip S. spends hours with him in his dark office, staring together out of the window at the rubbish bins outside gradually blurring, until they drink to friendship and he cancels the notice. Then we tidy up.

Philip S. and I are now alone. We put a few things back in their places. Then we go to see the lawyer to testify that at the time the bomb flew under the police car we were working with H. upstairs on the layout for the next edition of the paper, not suspecting for a moment that this very alibi might land us in prison. We had put together articles on Vietnam, American imperialism and the Black Panther movement, and stuck garish comic strips, with the word ‘pig’ all over them, in between.

I’m pleased that my son doesn’t have to see what happens next. He’s on holiday with his best friend and family. It’s quite a long trip with a tent—we also got him a sleeping bag, a camping mat, a small rucksack for hikes, hiking boots, a pocket knife and a torch. For a long time we talked over with him whether he should take his piece of knitted blanket on the trip—a frayed remnant of the blanket which has kept him warm since he was a baby. He holds it between his fingers when he goes to sleep and rubs it gently over his eyelids once they’re closed. He decides against it and takes my favourite T-shirt with him, still smelling of Arpège. He’s still holding the T-shirt, even when sitting ready to go in the back seat next to his friend, but at the last minute, when the car doors are shut, he plucks up the courage to wind down the window and give it back to me. Then they set off. Philip S. and I stand on the corner and look after the small hand waving at us, until the car turns off at the next junction and heads south.

On the 20th of August we leave the house in the morning. When we return at midday we meet our neighbours at the entrance and hear that at least 30 policemen have stormed into our block at the rear of the courtyard. We find that both floors of the flat have been ransacked. The video recorders are out on loan at the time and so are spared the greasy black powder which is spread over the whole studio for finger prints. We think about disappearing, hiding out with friends and lying low till things get sorted out, but we feel paralysed and stay, despite the feeling that something is tightening its hold around us.

In my memory, that night is the last one we spent together in the beautiful airy space of the factory flat, though that was not in fact the case. We lie together in the centre of the bed, closer than we ever did again, as if clinging to each other for mutual support. When we hear the bangs on the door at 5 in the morning, we quietly disentangle ourselves. I get dressed without speaking under the eyes of a female police officer: trousers, shirt and jacket, all made of black velvet. It’s the height of summer and I grab my winter boots. I pack skin cream, toothbrush, perfume and underwear. I don’t know which books to take so don’t put any in my bag. No longer aware of what’s going on around me, I don’t know whether Philip S. is packing anything at all.

The people in the house are still asleep as we’re led through the courtyard. Philip S. sits on the bench opposite me in the police van, which takes us three streets along to the police station in the Gothauer Straße. He’s wearing a denim jacket and takes my hand in his. Handcuffs peer out from his sleeves. “You mustn’t be scared,” he says softly, “they’re only trying to intimidate us.” I remember to this day that the word ‘intimidate’ seemed to me too grandiose—as if we had some great thing to hide, a historical deed, and at that moment I was aware that words like that are important for him, that he needs them to hang onto. But the rest of what he says calms me, gives me confidence and makes me feel protected—like he’s always been able to do. Then we’re led off into the basement, him into one cell, me into another, a long way apart.

It’s the stone, I think to myself in the cell, the cobble stone which was meant for the Amerikahaus but fell into the hedge in front. Or it’s the windows of the Senatsgebäude, I think. Or the words ‘Power to the workers’ in red spray paint over the white American limo. Or it’s the dark green suede coat I’d lent my friend C., and then wore again myself without knowing that she’d used it for her dangerous secret activities. Or it’s the underground newspaper, lying on the table upstairs with the layout still not finished—yet another edition that will later be banned because it describes the American president as a criminal and a murderer and calls on the soldiers stationed in Berlin to disobey orders.

Philip S. and I are taken separately to the police station at Tempelhof Damm. My fingers are pressed one by one into a brown mass, then twisted and turned right round. A policeman guides my hand as if teaching me to write. Delicate patterns are left imprinted on a plate, patterns which might convict me. You can smell coffee in the corridors.

The judge pauses for a moment when he hears me sigh with relief at the reading of the arrest warrant. It’s not the criminal damage, not the arson, not my suede coat—it’s not the incitement to violence against the Allied Command in Berlin and the insulting of the American president. It’s something which Philip S. and I have nothing whatsoever to do with. It’s the pipe bomb, which on the night of the 14th of August, outside a police station, had been thrown from H.’s recently bought car under a police patrol car. It was pure chance that no one was hurt by the flying splinters. Philip S. and I had been arrested on charges of attempted murder of a policeman and explosives offences. They’d added two further bomb attacks, one on the same building we were in, hearing the arrest warrant being read out, and another on a private American car. The bombs, according to the police, are supposed to have been manufactured in the workshop beneath our flat.

I’m driven across town again. In the prison van I sit in a kind of cupboard with an observation slit. It’s still morning. I’m in a completely separate world from the life in the streets slowly waking up. The van goes along Kantstraße, crosses Windscheidstraße, where my brother lives, and stops in front of a house with a late 19th century façade behind which the women’s prison is concealed. Three months ago I brought a crate of books here for the library. I’d been seen by the prison governor. She’d complained that she had no money for books and thanked me. The van drives me inside the prison: three paved courtyards, surrounded by cell wings and high walls of dark red brick. The courtyards extend to a wall covered with ivy on Pestalozzistraße, each one closed off by heavy iron doors. In the first yard I get out of the van and am handed over to someone at a counter. The property room is just along the way. Pale green walls throughout, washable. In the property room I put my belongings on the table. A wardress stirs a needle round in my pot of Helena Rubenstein skin cream. After she’s failed to find a file or any object that I can use to kill myself, I’m allowed to keep it. The perfume too. She takes me to the basement. I shower and wash my hair with delousing lotion. Next to me a young girl is showering. The wardress watches her. It’s a prison for young women on the streets. The governor is upset to see me here.

The cell is cold and narrow. If I stretch out my arms to the side I can touch both walls. Prison rules on the door. It’s forbidden to look out of the window, set so high into the end wall that you can’t reach it, with a slanting windowsill like a light shaft. It’s forbidden to call through the window or to wave. It’s forbidden to lie on the bed during the day or to sit on it. I haven’t got a book. I could borrow my own books but they’ve been put on the shelves in the meantime and the library is only open on Wednesdays. Today is Friday. The day is too long, too empty and my thoughts are tormenting me. I fold swabs for the sick-bay. I fold gauze triangles, one after another, repeatedly. I put the folded swabs in a box. It’s soon full. Repeating the same hand movements keeps me calm. The repetitiveness of these tasks helps to contain the feelings that well up in me when I think of my child and of my mother who’s become so small and frail, so sick.

When night comes I creep under the blue and white checked cover. I’m freezing. The next remand hearing will take place in one week. I’ve still got time. My son won’t be back for another three weeks. I picture him with his friend in the tent and try to go to sleep.

The next morning I hear a woman’s voice calling my name from the yard. I push the table over to the light shaft, put a chair on the table and make out a slim figure with fine blond hair doing circuits of the yard far below. I’ve no idea how she knows so soon that I’m here. She indicates to me that she’d like to get a cigarette to me somehow or other and hides the cigarette in the ivy wall. Then she puts her hand to her forehead and remembers that I’ve given up smoking. I can’t remember why she was in prison at that time. Like my friend C., she too had been in Jordan in a camp for Palestinians and had assisted with medical treatment. When she came back she moved in circles working on setting up clandestine groups on a South American model and, constantly under suspicion, there were always activities which led to arrests. Like my friend C., she had also borrowed clothes from me for various actions. She took something with her which suited the occasion, disappeared, turned up again, gave it back and disappeared again. The last time I saw her, she said something which Philip S. would say soon afterwards: that we must be ready to separate from our own children if we wanted to create a better world for all. She will live up to her principles, leaving her son with her parents and going on her way, which leads her between longer or shorter prison terms back to the Middle East, where she’ll be killed years later in an Israeli air attack on a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. The next day she doesn’t appear again in the yard. Because she called out to me, she’s taken to another prison. I’m sent to the remand prison at Moabit because I answered her with a gesture of my hand.

The cell is in a tower. The tower is built on to the old prison. M.’s cell opposite. Soft and regular, the beats of her typewriter keys penetrate through the wall. Then silence. I try to imagine what she does in the silence. Perhaps she’s knitting. The previous week I’d got hold of some wool for her. I don’t call out. Our windows aren’t next to one another. Hers looks onto the street. Mine onto the yard and a church tower. I am locked in to silence. My own voice startles me. I meet her only once, when she’s coming back from her recreation hour and I’m being taken to the yard. Before we’re able to hug each other we’re pulled apart. The cell is bigger than the one at Kantstraße, but just as cold, even though it’s summer outside. The window lets in more light. Standing on tiptoes I can see outside. Sometimes, looking down from high above, I can see M. She walks, like I do, alone, always in a circle, for half an hour. We’re the only women, isolated from the men—they stay locked up in their cells when we’re led through the corridors. Behind one of the countless doors is Philip S. But I never see him, not once. Now and then he sends me his love via a lawyer, but otherwise nothing. I hear that he’s begun a hunger strike, that he’s incited prisoners during the recreation period and has spent two days chained up in a detention cell. Here, within these walls, he leads a different life from me, a man’s life. He’s testing his role. Seeking out confrontation. He wants to see how far he can go. I’m in a different place. I’m looking inwards and I want to survive, whichever way it turns out for us. My thoughts go only as far as my little boy. No further. Focusing only on getting out before he returns from holiday, I drift off in daydreams and escapist fantasies for hours on end. But all the escapist fantasies end up sometime or other in the dreary life ahead, the game of hide and seek in a string of different apartments with false papers, the constant fear of being found and the lies I’d have to tell my child.

The judge doesn’t release me. It’s the 26th of August. The intervals are getting longer. Two weeks to the next remand hearing. I write letters, make plans for where my child could stay if they still don’t let me out then. There are too many letters and they’re too long. I must be briefer and more to the point, say the prison management, who check every word. I must adjust to staying here for longer, structure the hours, remember what happens each day, take note of what I see when I crane my neck up to the window, when I catch sight of a church roof, framed in the window, wet in the rain, I must not think of Verlaine’s poems, which I can’t get out of my head for trying, poems he wrote in prison, full of regret and lamentation for his misspent youth. Perhaps I should learn Spanish and take up gymnastics. Follow a routine. No coasting, no killing time. Make use of the time. Don’t just wait. No despair. Sometimes the thought of betrayal comes over me. I know who borrowed the car on the night of the 14th of August. The key was hanging ready next to the front door. But how will I be able to carry on, if I’m a traitor and shunned by everyone?

Friends have sorted out some clothes from my wardrobe and they hand them over at the entrance gate. The wardress pulls a transparent chiffon blouse out of the bag, a long velvet skirt, a shirt, into which a secret message is embroidered, which she’s not noticed, and a white fox fur. Apart from the shirt with the message I can’t wear any of the clothes here. Only the fox, which I roll up nose to tail, and place on my pillow to help me get to sleep.

On the 4th of September, my lawyer reports, a piece of our front door is removed and replaced by a different one, at the spot where Philip S. had welded on the bolt. Welding seams, he says, are as legible as handwriting. The piece of welding seam which has been removed is being examined to see if it was made by the same hand as the bombs we’ve been charged with. In the workshop beneath our flat, Otto and Ernst produce 12 pipe bombs under police supervision. The bombs will be exploded at a detonation site. Their explosive force is to be compared with that of the bombs under the police car.

On the 5th of September I hear on the radio—which is on for a limited time during the day and then turned off—the news that Salvador Allende has been elected as the President of Chile. It’s Saturday. On Sunday the radio in my cell reports live from a rock concert on the island of Fehmarn. I have no idea that at that very moment my son, already back from his trip, is sitting in a field in Fehmarn with his father and listening to the music of Jimi Hendrix. In the afternoon it’s warm and sunny in the yard. I lean against a wall in the recreation hour.

On the 8th of September the judge decides for the third time that I won’t be let out. I’m a flight risk, he says. I have no property that could stop me disappearing and no ties as I’m separated from my husband. My child doesn’t count. Nor does the bail money my brother has raised. It’s 4 weeks now till the next remand hearing. I’ve borrowed Kafka’s Schloss from the prison library. In the nights I’m tormented by the thought that the judge will never let me go.

On the 13th of September I’m fetched from my cell. The wardress accompanies me along the long corridor. Barred doors every few metres, which she opens with a jangling noise in front of me and locks, jangling, behind me. As if between 2 mirrors, the row of identical bars stretches out to infinity. From somewhere in the far distance I hear a rumbling noise. Then I see my son on roller skates coming towards me through the bars. He’s wearing a red helmet and his long thick hair is poking out beneath it. He skates round the wardress and his father, who has Musil’s Mann ohne Eigenschaften for me under his arm, turns again, skates on one leg, backwards, then forwards, turns his head, sees me, rushes over to the last set of bars separating us, thunders against them and reaches his hands through. Before I can grasp them, I’m pushed sideways into the visitor’s cell. Then he rolls into the tiny room and into my arms. I’m allowed to hug him once under supervision, but then I have to let him go again. So he carries on wheeling around the table where I’m sitting. He rolls past me very close, just brushing against me, and every time he goes round we touch each other’s hands secretly under the table. For fifteen minutes the rumbling noise can be heard in the visitor’s cell—then our time is up. At the door he turns around again. Why is he wearing a helmet, asks the wardress. “You never know,” my son calls out, already being carried by his skates straight ahead towards the exit and at every barred door, which opens in front of him and closes behind him, he gives another wave. The red of his helmet gets smaller and smaller, the bars merge together and he’s gone, with his father, who goes back with him to our factory flat because it’s there my son wants to wait for us, for Philip S. and me, nowhere else.

Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften is still lying on the table in the visitor’s cell. When I reach out for the book, the wardress picks it up to confiscate it. I can’t have it because it’s not new, because it’s not in the original packaging. A message could be hidden in it, she says, made by pinpricks over individual letters. For the first time I lose control. For the first time I shout and bang on the cell door until the wardress comes and brings me another random book to read. But I don’t want just any old book. I want the Mann ohne Eigenschaften for the duration of my imprisonment, which is stretching ahead of me without me seeing any end to it—for the sake of its 1600 pages.

I don’t know yet that this night will be my last in the cell, my wall adjoining M.’s, listening in silence to her quiet industry. I might have stayed next to her in prison, waiting even longer for experts to decipher the welder’s handwriting on the lid of the pipe bomb and the welding seam on our front door lock, for them to report that they were not identical, were it not for a young female drug addict. One of the chicks, as they call them, one who’s always at the centre of the group, the so-called Hash Rebels, who roam the streets attacking people at night. Hardly more than a girl, she becomes my guardian angel. She gives in to the pressure of the Chief State Prosecutor, who makes her promises and questions her while she, seriously ill, is trying to get off drugs. She says everything she knows, everything she’s seen, heard and taken part in herself. I’m not sure whether, being at risk and unstable as she was, she was telling the truth or only remembering the hours she’d spent at my sewing machine making the top to go with a summer skirt with my help. Her evidence sends others to prison or drives them underground, fleeing the clutches of the justice system. Her evidence releases us, however, into freedom.

The wardress arrives in the late afternoon. I am to pack my things. It all happens very quickly. Outside it’s sunny and warm. For an hour our friends have been sitting outside the 12a Alt-Moabit exit on a flight of steps. My son wheels up and down the pavement and asks for a Coke. I come through the door with a plastic bag containing the white fox fur, my clothes and Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften from the Property Room, the bookmark in the same place I’d left it, at the beginning, describing the meteorological conditions of a fine August day in 1913 with low humidity. My son jumps up the low entrance steps in his roller skates. The first thing we do is go to a kiosk for his drink. Then we sit next to each other in front of the big iron door in the sun and wait. H. is the second one to come out, light-footed, pushing his long hair out of his face in surprise when he sees us. Then Philip S. With a box under his arm he stands still on the top step, blinks in the sun and laughs with the confidence of victory. In spite of the hunger strike he’s filled out, his hair is shorter and instead of the wispy goatee he has a full beard that hides his soft mouth. I don’t run towards him like the others who’ve been waiting; I stay sitting on the bottom step.


From Das Verschwinden des Philip S.  © Suhrkamp Verlag 2013




Translator’s Note

I chose this extract to translate because it depicts a turning point in the relationship of the narrator and Philip S. and the beginning of their divergent paths in relation to political activism. For the narrator, it is her son and her concerns for him which preoccupy her during her stay in prison and which lead to the distancing from Philip S. suggested at the end of this passage. Her experience of arrest and imprisonment is movingly conveyed in short, present tense sentences and a frequent use of the passive to suggest her feelings of helplessness and passivity.

One challenge of translating this passage was the change of tense: while the narration is mostly in the historic present the imperfect tenses and pluperfect tenses are also used. I decided to maintain these changes between tenses, as I felt it was not at odds with the informal, almost conversational tone of the account. Another challenge was understanding and representing accurately the historical context of the text, which is set at the end of the 1960s in a milieu of political protests and activism. For example, I hadn’t heard of the ‘Hash Rebels’ and so didn’t know whether they were a fictional gang or had really existed. So I had to do some research on this to have a more confident grasp of the character of the ‘chick’ whose testimony in the end frees the narrator and Philip S.

The Cripple and the Silken Garrotte

Author: Joseph Felix Ernst
Translator: Helen MacCormac

kalich kakuka julima
kalich kakuka julima
kalich kakuka
kalich kakuka
kalich kakuka julima african gibberish chorus of a nursery rhyme entitled the equator where the sun burns down

Everyone, all of us – felt sheepish. No sooner did we learn that the cripple would be taken to the garrotte on Assumption Day, than we – Javier and I – set off to Olivar. The whitewashed walls of the homesteads stood dry as dust in the sweltering summer heat – heat and dust; there couldn’t be a single place amidst the stones and rocks of this barren land not bursting with heat, or else it was the work of the devil. The whole earth was glistening with a dry glimmer, as if an alien landscape had been doused in rippling water, water that was, in fact, heat rising from the ground. So, we waded through this dry wet over grey, sharp-edged cinders, and if we happened to glance down as we went, we couldn’t see a thing, up to our knees, except a strange kind of shimmer which seemed to cover the burning ground – in it, below, it was like staring at our limbs through flawed panes of glass. The Ebo, the Zújar, even the Río Baûl had run dry weeks ago and were emblazoned with pale stony bones. A few days after the rivers and lakes, the wells had finally dried up; we didn’t know a single person who had drunk as much as a drop in the past three weeks. The heat was so intense, that wine bottles which had been carefully corked, sealed with sealing wax and stored down in the cool, often unbelievably deep cellars of the farms, had dried out within a matter of days, leaving nothing but glass hulls full of dry heat and boiled sediment. As we walked, small bunches of grass would suddenly ignite unexpectedly beside us in a brief blaze which burnt away in a moment. The sparse growth in this arid landscape meant that these flaming bundles of withered grass had no dried-up plants or, worse still, brushwood near them, so there weren’t any widespread wildfires. However, we kept hearing things crackle as herbs growing on the rocks suddenly turned to ashes in a blistering second of combustion. Although we were in a great hurry and despite the pressing swelter of those days, we didn’t choose the direct route; instead, we took a detour which would lead us to the shores of Lake Negratin, to see if the mile-wide stretch of water had also evaporated during the weeks of drought. When we finally reached the edge of the great basin, there was nothing but dry barren land as far as the eye could see: a void, which fell away steeply before us – but, at the very bottom of this eerie hollow, thick clouds of steam rose up into the air like giant geysers; the last heaving breath of the dried-up lake. As we marched on towards Olivar, sharp pieces of shrapnel kept shooting through the air and despite being so small and light they left painful scratches on our bare skin, that is: on arms, legs and faces. As we plucked these splinters out of our skin and studied them, we realized that they were fine slivers of basalt. Apparently, some stones ruptured as they expanded in this heat. The limestone along our path was crossed with veins of basalt, so there were shards whirling through the hot air everywhere. Javier told me – much later: not until months after our trek – that he had seen lumps of ore, copper apparently, along our path and he swore that he had seen heavy drops of red, shining, molten metal seep through the pores of those rocks because of the sheer summer heat. I can’t say if this is true; I don’t remember seeing anything like that. Maybe Javier ended up being deceived by a mirage in the shimmering heat of those glistening days, or perhaps he was right. We approached Olivar after several hours of hard walking, but turned right before we reached the first houses, heading in the direction of the forge which lay just outside the village, to the west. As the workshop came into sight, we realized that while we could clearly see the blackened bare bricks of the forge, the forge fire was out. There was no burning coal, no kindling. We were sure that the forge was abandoned and that our journey had been in vain when, all of a sudden, the door of the adjoining mud hut opened and the smith stepped out into the open, wearing the clothes of his trade including a heavy smith’s apron made of cowhide. We greeted him as strangers should, in an honest yet reserved manner, relieved that our trip had not been futile, after all. We promptly outlined the reason for our visit, telling him all about the cripple’s current predicament, the garrotte, or in other words: the impending execution. It was immediately apparent that the square-shouldered smith really was as lively and mischievous as everyone everywhere always said he was. He offered his services at once and started looking around for a suitable piece of metal to fit our description. Unfortunately, his stores contained practically nothing of any use. He wasn’t a trained tinsmith or coppersmith, he was one of the many country blacksmiths who provided the locals with nails and hammer heads, axe blades and horse-shoes and who had nothing to do with sheet hammering. Not like the brownsmiths or armourers or tinkers, even, who could all wield a hammer to work sheets of metal into breastplates, boiling pans, copper pots and stills; or to fix metal rims to the wheels of the peasants’ carts. The country blacksmith used raw material that had nothing in common with the materials a tinsmith might use; his stores were full of piles of iron and steel but always in the form of heavy rods or less-heavy bars. Once again, our mission threatened to end in failure, but then the smith came up with a possible solution: every once in a while, he was known to take the local peasants’ broken old tools in payment and sell them to an ironmonger called Alvaro for a marginal profit. The man ran his business from Granada, selling his wares (any cast iron, copper plate, black iron plate and white iron plate, zinc for the zincsmiths and tin for the tinsmiths) to rural workshops in the northeast. When he returned to the city (having also made a small profit), he then sold the scrap metal he had collected on his trip to the mining companies of Granada, who in turn sold it to the large smelters together with the ore they mined. And on this very day, the blacksmith had taken an old copper kettle of some considerable size in payment – which had suddenly cracked from bottom to top while hanging over the midday fire in front of the eyes of a very surprised housekeeper. Also, the inside of the kettle had originally been lined, but due to small nicks in the silvery coating, some stock had got through to the copper bottom which had sprouted rust and caused the zinc coating to blister in patches here and there. The old kettle was simply worn out. We were very grateful and encouraged the smith to go ahead and heat the cracked kettle and then pound it flat with heavy blows of his mighty hammer, transforming it back into a sheet of metal similar to what it must have been before some boilermaker or coppersmith gave it its bulbous shape. At this point, the mystery of the missing forge fire was finally solved: all the smith’s wood and coal supplies had burnt to cinders in the midday sun during the past couple of weeks. A fire had broken out in the coal pile and soon consumed all his fuel. The smith had had no choice but to cover the glowing embers with dry earth as best he could to keep the sparks from flying and then let the fire die down of its own accord. The lack of fuel was perfectly compensated for by the searing heat, however. This meant that the blacksmith simply brought the copper kettle out of the shade of the roofed forge into the blazing sunlight and within a few minutes, the bent metal started to glow – first in dark, earthen hues and then, after about a quarter of an hour, in a strong red colour reminiscent of pepper berries. The smith took hold of the metal with a set of tongs, placed it on the anvil and immediately started to pound it flat with his hammer. It took him about half an hour to form a fairly even piece of copper. Then he worked the metal into the right shape, putting all the skill of an armourer into his work and refusing to take a single real for his efforts.

When we finally returned from Olivar with our feet charred to the ankles, reeking of burning toenails, with boiled flesh up to our knees and scratches from the basalt shrapnel on bare skin, that is: on arms, legs and faces, with singed hair and congealed flakes of glair in our eyes which floated through our vision like clouds, we hurried to the place of execution as fast as our raw feet would allow. The cripple was already bound hand and foot and had been brought to the foot of the hill upon which the scaffold stood. We hurried over to the wretch, who hardly recognized us, grabbed him by the shoulders, lifted his chin with the palms of our hands and placed the copper gorget round his neck and throat as best we could. We fastened it with several iron bolts which we drove into the intended holes with a few hard blows of a hammer. A train of court workers, constables and gawpers had finally arrived and we set off in a silent procession to the place of execution on a path that wound its way up the hill in tight bends. In other words, the condemned man was forced on a fairly lengthy last march to the top of the hill which was intended to heighten the terrible pain of anticipation concerning the instrument of execution. By this point, Javier was on the verge of sunstroke – the glair that filled his eyeballs had congealed into a cloudy liquid. The burnt soles of his feet split open in a different place every step he took and he wouldn’t stop singing a nursery rhyme about a Negro called Ovambo the equator sun burns down on the barren steppe his angry Negro woman only Ovambo in the kraal sings his songs with joy his death oh now he has sung all he’ll ever sing his wife had his hide, and she ate his fat Negro body with her child again and again kalich kakuka julima kalich kakuka julima kalich kakuka kalich kakuka kalich kakuka julima. In the end we made it to the garrotte, the strangulation device from which we hoped to save the cripple with our copper circlet – we wanted the rope to tear, the executioner to break his shoulders and legs, rather than let it cut off the air to someone’s head, blood and lungs. No one, not even the executioner – and that really is remarkable – was offended by what we did. kalich kakuka julima again and again kalich kakuka kalich kakuka kalich kakuka julima and the equator sun burns down and kalich kakuka and the bleary eyes and kalich kakuka and when we finally saw the garrotte on the scaffold on the hill, we could hardly believe our eyes: the stake and the winch had been made of glass¸ they were completely hollow on the inside and as thin-walled as an expensive flacon. The rope was the most delicate silken thread, almost invisible, like a spider’s web and seemed as unreal as any of the strange appearances we’d witnessed in the dry air of these never-ending gossamer days. The cripple was positioned on the glass execution device, a thread was wound around the copper gorget and was so thin, you couldn’t even use it to sew, the executioner grabbed the winch and gave it a mere three half-turns before the thread snapped and the glass shattered into a shower of splinters which all caught the merciless glint of the sun as they fell. kalich kakuka, the cripple slumped forward in fright landing on his hands and knees in the boiling sand and again and again, kalich kakuka julima and only Ovambo in the kraal sings his songs with joy. The only one who never really recovered was Javier: he stayed bleary-eyed – the flocks and wisps of curdled white in my eyes slowly sank away and stopped floating through my vision like clouds. He also never stopped singing: kalich kakuka julima. Eventually, the summer days grew cooler and the autumn winds arrived from the north bringing fine grass seeds with them, which would replace the burnt meadows the following spring. What follows is a truthful account of how everything started to bloom again in between the rocks, between limestone and basalt – only: I’m not going to tell:   xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx




Translator’s Note


Joseph happens to come from the part of Bavaria where I lived for many years. So, I sense a whole landscape of familiar sounds, colour and diction in his writing and I always feel totally at home translating his work. Having said that, I don’t know a single young writer who fascinates me more. “The cripple and the silken garrotte” is an extract from a longer piece published in the literary magazine BELLA triste simply brimming with all the joy, wonder and pain I find in all his writing. Initially, I would have preferred to know more about time and place in the story, but I soon realized that I could simply choose words that are no longer in common usage to help create a certain space. I also had to cut up one or two scenes into tiny segments which I then translated individually before putting them back together—it was the only way I could do them justice.

The Eighth Life

Author: Nino Haratischwili
Translator: Charlotte Collins





This story actually has many beginnings. It’s hard for me to choose one, because all of them constitute the beginning.

You could start this story in an old, high-ceilinged flat in Berlin—quite undramatically, with two naked bodies in bed. With a twenty-seven-year-old man, a fiercely talented musician in the process of squandering his talent on impulses, alcohol, and an insatiable longing for intimacy. But you could also start this story with a twelve-year-old girl who decides to say NO to the world in which she lives, hurl rejection in its teeth and set off in search of another beginning for herself, for her story.

Or you can go way, way back, to the root of everything, and begin there.

Or you start the story with all three beginnings at once.
At the moment when Aman Baron, whom most people knew as ‘the Baron’, or simply ‘Baron’, was confessing that he loved me—with heartbreaking intensity, unbearable lightness, screamingly loudly, speechlessly silent, with a love that was slightly unhealthy, enfeebled, devoid of illusions, determinedly tough—my twelve-year-old niece Brilka was leaving her hotel in Amsterdam on her way to the train station. She had with her nothing but a small sports bag, hardly any money, and a tuna sandwich. She was heading for Vienna and bought herself a cheap weekend ticket, valid only on local trains. A handwritten note left at reception said she did not intend to return to her homeland with the dance troupe and that there was no point in looking for her.

At this precise moment I was lighting a cigarette and succumbing to a coughing fit, partly because I was overwhelmed by what I was hearing and partly because the smoke went down the wrong way. Aman (whom I personally never called ‘the Baron’) immediately came over, slapped me on the back so hard I couldn’t breathe, and stared at me in bewilderment. He was only four years younger than me, but I felt decades older; besides, at this point I was well on my way to becoming a tragic figure—without anyone really noticing, because by now I was a master of deception.

I read his disappointment in his face. My reaction to his confession was not what he’d anticipated. Especially after he’d invited me to accompany him on the tour he was leaving on in two weeks’ time.

Outside a light rain began to fall. It was June, a warm evening with weightless clouds that decorated the sky like little balls of cotton wool.

When I had recovered from my coughing fit, and Brilka had boarded the first train of her odyssey, I flung open the balcony door and collapsed on the sofa. I felt as if I were suffocating.

I was living in a foreign country; I had cut myself off from most of the people I’d once loved, who used to mean something to me, and had accepted a visiting professorship that, though it guaranteed me a livelihood, had absolutely nothing to do with who I really was.

The evening Aman told me he wanted to grow normal with me, Brilka, my dead sister’s daughter and my only niece, set off for Vienna, a place she had conceived of as her chosen home, her personal utopia, all because of the solidarity she felt with a dead woman. In her imagination this dead woman—my great-aunt, Brilka’s great-great-aunt—had become her heroine. Her plan was to go to Vienna and obtain the rights to her great-great-aunt’s songs.

And in tracing the path of this ghost she hoped to find redemption, and the definitive answer to the yawning emptiness inside her. But I suspected none of this then.

After sitting on the sofa and putting my face in my hands, after rubbing my eyes and avoiding Aman’s gaze for as long as possible, I knew I would have to weep again, but not now, not at this moment, while Brilka was watching old, new Europe slipping past her outside the train window and smiling for the first time since her arrival on the continent of indifference. I don’t know what she saw that made her smile as she left the city of tiny bridges, but that doesn’t matter any more. The main thing is, she was smiling.

At that moment I was thinking that I would have to weep. In order not to I turned, went into the bedroom and lay down. I didn’t have to wait long for Aman. Grief like his is very quickly healed if you offer to heal it with your body, especially when the patient is twenty-seven years old.

I kissed myself out of my enchanted sleep.

And as Aman laid his head on my belly my twelve-year-old niece was leaving the Netherlands, crossing the German border in her compartment that stank of canned beer and loneliness, while several hundred kilometres away her unsuspecting aunt feigned love with a twenty-seven-year-old shadow. All the way across Germany she travelled, in the hope it would get her somewhere.

After Aman fell asleep I got up, went to the bathroom, sat on the edge of the bath and started to cry. I wept a century’s worth of tears over the feigning of love, the longing to believe in words that had once defined my life. I went into the kitchen, smoked a cigarette and stared out of the window. It had stopped raining, and somehow I knew that something was happening, something had been set in motion, something beyond this apartment with the high ceilings and the orphaned books; with the many lamps I had collected so eagerly, a substitute for the sky, an illusion of true light. Illuminating my own tunnel. But the tunnel remained: the lights had only been able to comfort me briefly, temporarily.

Perhaps it should also be mentioned that Brilka was a very tall girl, almost two heads taller than me (which at my height isn’t that difficult); that she had buzz-cut hair like a boy’s and John Lennon glasses, was wearing old jeans and a lumberjack shirt, had perfectly round cocoa-bean eyes constantly searching for stars, and an immensely high forehead that concealed a great deal of sorrow. She had just run away from her dance troupe, which was giving a guest performance in Amsterdam; she danced the male roles, because she was a little too extravagant, too tall, too melancholy for the gentle, folkloristic women’s dances of our homeland. After much pleading she was finally allowed to perform dressed as a man and dance the wild dances; her long plait had fallen victim to this concession the previous year.

She was allowed to do leaps and to fence, and was always better at these than at the women’s wavelike, dreamy movements. She danced and danced with a passion, and after being given a solo for the Dutch audience—because she was so good, so much better than the young men who had sneered at her in the beginning—she left the troupe in search of answers that dancing, too, was unable to give her.
The following evening I received a call from my mother, who always threatened to die if I didn’t return soon to the homeland I fled all those years ago. Her voice trembled as she informed me that ‘the child’ had disappeared. It took me a while to work out which child she was talking about, and what it all had to do with me.

‘So tell me again: where exactly was she?’

‘In Amsterdam, goddammit, what’s the matter with you? Aren’t you listening to me? She ran away yesterday and left a message. I got a call from the group leader. They’ve looked everywhere for her, and—’

‘Wait, wait, wait. How can an eleven-year-old girl disappear from a hotel, especially if she—’

‘She’s twelve. She turned twelve in November. You forgot, of course. But that was only to be expected.’

I took a deep drag of my cigarette and prepared myself for the impending disaster. Because if my mother’s voice was anything to go by, it would be no easy matter just to wash my hands of this and disappear, my favourite pastime in recent years. I armed myself for the obligatory reproaches, all of them intended to make clear to me what a bad daughter and failed human being I was. Things of which I was only too well aware without my mother’s intervention.

‘Okay, she turned twelve, and I forgot, but that won’t get us anywhere right now. Have they informed the police?’

‘Yes, what do you think? They’re looking for her.’

‘Then they’ll find her. She’s a spoilt little girl with a tourist visa, I presume, and she—’

‘Do you have even a spark of humanity left in you?’

‘Sorry. I’m just trying to think aloud.’

‘So much the worse, if those are your thoughts.’


‘They’re going to call me. In an hour at most, they said, and I’m praying that they find her, and find her fast. And then I want you to go to wherever she is, she won’t have got all that far, and I want you to fetch her.’


‘She’s your sister’s daughter. And you will fetch her. Promise me!’


‘Do it!’

‘Oh God. All right, fine.’

‘And don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.’

‘Aren’t I even allowed to say “Oh God” now?’

‘You’re going to fetch her and bring her back with you. And then you’ll put her on the plane.’
They found her that same night, in a small Austrian town just outside Vienna, waiting for a connecting train. She was picked up by the Austrian police and taken to the police station. My mother woke me and told me I had to go to Mödling.


‘Mödling, the town’s called. Write it down.’


‘You don’t even know what day it is today.’

‘I’m writing it down! Where the hell is that?’

‘Near Vienna.’

‘What on earth was she doing there?’

‘She wanted to go to Vienna.’


‘Yes, Vienna. You must have heard of it.’

‘All right! I’ve got it.’

‘And take your passport with you. They know the child’s aunt is picking her up. They noted down your name.’

‘Can’t they just put her on a plane?’


‘Okay, I’m already getting dressed. It’s all right.’

‘And call me as soon as you’ve got her.’

She slammed down the phone.

That’s how this story begins.

Why Vienna? Why this, after the night of fleeing from my tears? There are reasons for all of it, but then I’d have to start the story somewhere else entirely.
My name is Niza. My name contains a word: a word that, in our mother tongue, signifies ‘heaven’. Za. Perhaps my life up till now has been a search for this particular heaven, given to me as a promise that’s accompanied me since birth. My sister’s name was Daria. Her name contains the word ‘chaos’. Aria. Churning up, stirring up, the messing up and the not putting right. I am duty bound to her. I am duty bound to her chaos. I have always been duty bound to seek my heaven in her chaos. But perhaps it’s just about Brilka. Brilka, whose name has no meaning in the language of my childhood. Whose name bears no label and no stigma. Brilka, who gave herself this name and kept on insisting she be called this until the others forgot her real name.

And even if I’ve never told you: I would so like to help you, Brilka, so very much, to write your story differently, to write it anew. So as not just to say this but to prove it as well, I’m writing all of this down. That’s the only reason.

I owe these lines to a century that cheated and deceived everyone—everyone who hoped. I owe these lines to an enduring betrayal that settled over my family like a curse. I owe these lines to my sister, whom I could never forgive for flying away that night without wings, to my grandfather, whose heart my sister tore out, to my great-grandmother, who danced a pas de deux with me at the age of eighty-three, to my mother, who went off in search of God… I owe these lines to Miro, who infected me with love as if it were poison, I owe these lines to my father, whom I never really got to know, I owe these lines to a chocolate maker and a White-Red lieutenant, to a prison cell, but also to an operating table in the middle of a classroom, to a book I would never have written, if… I owe these lines to an infinite number of fallen tears, I owe these lines to myself, who left home to find herself and gradually lost herself instead; but above all I owe these lines to you, Brilka.

I owe them to you because you deserve the eighth life. Because they say the number eight is identified with infinity, constant recurrence. I am giving my eight to you.

A century connects us. A red century. For ever and eight. Your turn, Brilka. I’ve adopted your heart. I’ve cast mine away. Accept my eight.

You are the miracle child. You are. Break through heaven and chaos, break through us all, break through these lines, break through the ghost world and the real world, break through the inversion of love, of faith, shorten the centimetres that always separated us from happiness, break through the destiny that never was.

Break through me and you.

Live through all wars. Cross all borders. To you I dedicate all gods and all rosaries, all burnings, all decapitated hopes, all stories. Break through them. Because you have the means to do it, Brilka. The eight—remember it. All of us will always be interwoven in this number and will always be able to listen to each other, down through the centuries.

You will be able to do it.

Be everything we were and were not. Be a lieutenant, a tightrope walker, a sailor, an actress, a film-maker, a pianist, a lover, a mother, a nurse, a writer; be red and white or blue, be chaos and heaven and be them and me and don’t be any of it, above all dance countless pas de deux.

Break through this story and leave it behind you.
I was born on 8th November 1973, in an otherwise insignificant village clinic near Tbilisi, Georgia.

It’s a small country. It’s beautiful, too, I can’t argue with that; even you will agree with me, Brilka. With mountains and a rocky coastline along the Black Sea. The coastline has shrunk somewhat in the course of the past century, thanks to a multitude of civil wars, stupid political decisions, hate-filled conflicts, but a beautiful part of it is still there.

You know the legend only too well, Brilka, but I’d like to mention it here anyway, to make clear to you what it is I’m trying to say—the legend that tells how our country came into being. Like this:

One beautiful, sunny day, God took the globe he had created, divided it up into countries (this must have been long before they built the tower at Babel) and held a fair, where all the people tried to outdo one another, shouting at the tops of their voices, vying for God’s favour in the hope of snaffling the best patch of earth (I suspect the Italians were the most effective in the art of making an impression, whereas the Chukchi hadn’t quite got the hang of it). It was a long day, and at the end of it the world had been divided up into many countries and God was tired. However, God—wise as ever—had of course kept back a sort of holiday residence for himself: the most beautiful place on earth, rich in rivers, waterfalls, succulent fruits, and—he must have guessed it—with the best wine in the world. When all the people had set off, excited, for their new homelands, God was just about to take a rest beneath a shady tree when he spotted a man (doubtless with a moustache and a comfortable paunch, at least that’s how I’ve always imagined him), snoring. He hadn’t been present at the distribution, and God was surprised. He woke him up and asked what he was doing here and why he wasn’t interested in having a homeland of his own. The man smiled amiably (perhaps he had already permitted himself a glass or two of red wine) and said (here there are different versions of the legend, but let’s agree on this one) that he was quite content as he was, the sun was shining, it was a gorgeous day, and he would settle for whatever God had left over for him. And God, gracious as ever, impressed by the man’s nonchalance and utter lack of ambition, gave him his very own holiday paradise, which is to say: Georgia, the country you, Brilka, and I, and most of the people I will tell of in our story are from.
What I’m trying to say is: bear in mind that in our country this nonchalance (i.e. laziness) and lack of ambition (lack of arguments) are considered truly noble characteristics. Bear in mind also that a profound identification with God (the Orthodox God, of course, and no other) does not prevent the people of this country from believing in everything that has even the slightest hint of the mysterious, legendary or fairytale about it—and this is by no means restricted to the Bible.

Giants in the mountains, house spirits, the evil eye that can plunge a man into misfortune, black cats and the curse that goes with them, the power of coffee grounds, the truth that only the cards reveal (nowadays, you said, people even have new cars sprinkled with holy water in the hope it will keep them accident-free).

The country, once golden Colchis, that had to surrender the secret of love to the Greeks in the shape of the Golden Fleece because the king’s wayward daughter, Medea, so lovestruck she had lost her mind, commanded it.

The country that encourages in its inhabitants endearing traits like the sacred virtue of hospitality, and less endearing traits like laziness, opportunism and conformism (this is certainly not the perception of the majority—you and I agree on this, too).

The country in whose language there is no gender (which certainly does not equate to equal rights).

A country that in the last century, after a hundred and thirty-five years of Tsarist and Russian patronage, managed to establish a democracy for precisely four years before it was toppled again by the mostly Russian but also Georgian Bolsheviks and proclaimed the Socialist Republic of Georgia and thus a constituent republic of the Soviet Union.

The country then remained in this union for the next seventy years.

After which came numerous upheavals, bloodily suppressed demonstrations, several civil wars, and finally the long-awaited democracy—though that designation has remained a question of perspective and interpretation.

I think that our country can really be very funny (by which I mean not only tragic). That in our country forgetfulness, too, is very possible, in combination with repression. Repression of our own wounds, our own mistakes, but also of unjustly inflicted pain, oppression, losses. In spite of these we raise our glasses and laugh. I think that’s impressive, I really do, in view of the not very pleasant things the past century brought with it, the consequences of which people still suffer today (though I can already hear you contradict me!).

It’s a country from which, in addition to the great executioners of twentieth century, many wonderful people also come, people I personally have loved and still love very much. Some have fled, some left in search of something and lost their way, some are no longer alive, some have returned, some have already seen their best days or hope yet to see them, but most of them nobody knows.

A country that is still mourning its Golden Age, from the tenth to the thirteenth century, and hopes one day to recover its former glory (yes, in our country progress is always simultaneously retrogression).

Traditions seem a pale reflection of what they once were. The pursuit of freedom is like a senseless quest for uncertain shores because, these past eighteen years especially, we haven’t even been able to agree on what exactly it is we mean by freedom.

And so today the country where I came into the world thirty-two years ago is like a king who still sits in a glittering crown and magnificent robe issuing commands, presiding over his realm, not realising that his entire court has long since fled and he is alone.

Don’t cause any trouble—that’s the first commandment in this country. You told me that once, on our journey, and I made a note of it (I made a note of everything you said to me on our journey, Brilka).

To which I’ll add:

Live as your parents lived; be seldom—better, never—alone. Being alone is dangerous and unprofitable. This country idolises the community and mistrusts loners. Appear in cliques, with friends, in family or interest groups—you’re worth very little on your own.

Procreate. We’re a small country and we have to survive: this commandment ranks alongside the first Commandment. Always be proud of your country, never forget your language, find foreign countries, whichever they may be, beautiful, exciting and interesting but never, never, never better than your home.

Always find quirks and characteristics among the people of other nations that in Georgia would be, to say the least, disgraceful, and get worked up about them: general stinginess, i.e. the reluctance to spend all your money for the benefit of the community; lack of hospitality, i.e. the reluctance to reorganise your entire life whenever anyone comes to visit; insufficient willingness to drink and eat, i.e. the inability to drink to the point of unconsciousness; lack of musical talent—characteristics like these.

Let your behaviour tend towards openness, tolerance, understanding, and interest in other cultures, provided they respect and always affirm the specialness and uniqueness of your homeland.

Be religious (again, these past eighteen years), go to church, don’t question anything related to the Orthodox Church, don’t think for yourself, cross yourself every time you see a church (very en vogue, you said!)—so about ten thousand times a day if you’re in the capital. Don’t criticise anything sacred, which is pretty much everything that has anything to do with our country.

Be bright and cheerful, because that’s this country’s mentality, and we don’t like gloomy people in our sunny Georgia. You’ll be all too familiar with that, too.

Never be unfaithful to your man, and if your man is unfaithful to you—forgive him, for he is a man. Live first and foremost for others. Because in any case others always know better than you do what’s good for you.

Finally, I want to add that despite my years of struggling both for and with this country I have not managed to replace it, to drive it out of me as if beset by an evil spirit. No ritual purification, no repression mechanism has yet been of any assistance. Because everywhere I went, travelling ever further from my country, I was searching for the squandered, scattered, wasted, unused love I left behind.

Translator’s Note

Nino’s writing can have this fantastic torrential quality, a wildness—in the characters, in the things that happen to them, and in the rhythm of prose. The translation had to convey this particular energy. I found myself stepping back, allowing the energy to dictate what happened on the page, holding the reins a little more loosely than usual; then I spent a very long time editing and re-editing, playing with it, changing my mind, and going back to the original to make sure I’d caught the feel of a sentence.

I’m currently co-translating the whole book with Ruth Martin. I particularly wanted to work with Ruth on this as we’d met and worked together at the BCLT summer school in 2012, where we translated excerpts from Nino’s previous novel, My Gentle Twin. I think we share the same approach; our voices are quite similar, as are our choices. We also get on very well and find it easy to discuss things, which makes the collaborative process a real pleasure.

We’ve divided the different ‘books’, or chapters, up between us so that we’re translating approximately half each. When we finish we swap, do a close edit of each other’s sections, swap back, discuss, accept or reject, and then I give it a final sweep. We aim to spend a few weeks together next spring so we can do at least some of this at the same table.





Excerpted from Das achte Leben (Für Brilka) © Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 2014

Charlotte Collins is translating the novel with Ruth Martin, scheduled to be published as The Eighth Life by Scribe UK in 2017.


Author: Gunther Geltinger
Translator: Alexander Booth

You immediately begin to sink. Below you feel the sluggish weight of the metre-thick peat moss, the heavy, fat body that embraces you. I enclose you in water, earth or a mixture of both: damp topsoil, soft tree roots, bifurcated arteries above half-rotten branches like bone, and further down the heart of the deep: pulpy, cold and pulsing. Only two hundred years ago the residents of Fenndorf feared me, me, a black, slimy beast that lived beneath their houses and devoured their children. A thousand years before that their ancestors would place clay bowls full of food into the wet graves of the dead in order to appease my hunger for bodies. In me others saw a carnivorous plant whose shoots they had to hack off, those shoots that would grab their possessions, their bodies and their souls. Today the blades of the peat machines, the same ones your father used to run, dig up to one metre down into my innards and then dismember, dry and stack them in gloomy pyramids like pagan tombs which tower for an entire summer in the plain, in no time plundered and sold off, at one time to farmers as fuel for their damp houses, today to weekend gardeners for their rose bushes.

Drained, punctured and ploughed I lie like a black cadaver in the landscape, covered by festering craters and manges of heather, with a boardwalk for an artificial spine above my pacemakered heart, flooded with water from which the manure that seeps over from the fields is filtered out with dams and hedges as if I were on dialysis. They close up the drainage ditches, remove the birches from the peat moss plains and put the moor frog back into the grasses that soon die off again in the faeces from the ducks for which the village ponds have become too small. They drive the moorland sheep across my face, those sheep that are supposed to lick my wounds, eat up what should not grow: boils from the surrounding woods and meadows, beech shoots, daisies, the couch grass everywhere… they even had to fell a stunted little apple tree, which had been sown by the wind, by hikers’ picnic binges or by the scat of the deer which, where once the poisonous sundew glowed, now pull up the fields of clover. Biologists, ecologists, zoologists and botanists gather round my deathbed like an army of doctors sent to resuscitate me with complicated machines to measure the acidity of my body fluids, the pH balance of my skin and the temperature of my insides; and still, in spite of all of their bandages, the tubes, pumps and feeders from their laboratories, I collapse into a fever, bleed, wither, and move on to death with a rattle.

And yet my affliction is as old as their fear of my voraciousness. Too dry to navigate, too wet to walk, even two hundred and fifty years ago scholars believed in my hermaphroditic nature, neither water nor land, neither alive nor completely dead, desolate and yet in constant transformation, barren and at the same time full of valuable testimony to past times; and so they measured and traced my body with its water-soaked fossils and in their books described me as an Emission from the Sea. Earlier I was the indomitable monster before their doors, today I am their costly museum; there is a donation box in the parking lot for the upkeep of the paths and the support of the nature conservation association; the information sheet is free.
You flail, kick at me, fight against being swallowed whole, as angry as you were that evening of the artists’ award ceremony with Marga, tearing off your boy’s suit, there you wanted to get rid of your mother, here shake off the ghost of the moor, the horror story of sinking and drowning within which you had got hopelessly lost, but Marga did not come out from the toilet, left you standing half-naked in front of the stall, exposed to the pitying glances of the peeing men. There’s no escaping this nightmare, Dion, so keep still, stop your howling, you are deep below with me now, your body almost forgotten, soon it will only be a malleable memory of dark colours, old fears and half-conscious thoughts as in that praised painting of your mother’s, that gloomy depiction of an abortion or stillbirth, which, that time in Fenndorf—she remembered now as she heard your fists against the stall door again—she had almost sold, while here at the foundation where the collectors and gallerists of the city had gathered no one seemed interested at all.
A Dutchman, a tourist of all things, one of those who in the weeks after the finding of the cadaver had come sneaking about the house on the Heidedamm and throwing curious looks into her atelier, had offered her a hefty sum. The curious came from near and far and even with buses across the border. They made a pilgrimage to the overgrown track once used by the peat wagons, to the ditches, looked a few seconds long into the pit, already long since churned up by the peat workers’ excavators, and then wandered aimlessly through the village and directly into the clutches of Ilse Bloch who in those days had turned the moor corpse not only into a business but the high point of her life, really giving the story her all, suddenly teeming with moor victims as it were, and the visitors stood hanging on her every word while she pushed over-priced drinks and bags of provisions over the counter together with a map of the surrounding area, which she of course had marked with the places she believed the villagers’ forebears to have sunken and drowned.

The Dutchman, too, had been one of the ones who couldn’t get enough of the horror of the moor. All of a sudden he was there in the barn and looking with greedy eyes at the painting she had been working on for days, mostly at night or as soon as she knew her husband was in the peat-pit. The tourist—a lanky type in hiking shoes and a raincoat—had haggled for the picture in English and in the end had laid a bundle of bills on the table, when suddenly your father came through the door. What are you up to? he asked her and looked at the stranger. I’m working, your mother answered. I earn the money for us, he yelled, swept the money off the table and trampled it into the dirt. His child, he added and pointed to her stomach, would live from clean money. Dirty money, he snapped at the Dutchman. The latter bent down, scraped up the bills, handed them to your father and stammered: No, no, it’s not fake. It’s from the exchange office. She turned and began to dab away again at her picture. From the corner of her eye she saw how her husband’s well-proportioned features, which once, before she could see the bleakness behind them, she had found desirable, distorted. He grabbed her arm and tore her off the stool. And what’s that supposed to be? he growled, pointing to the painting. Then he spun her around and pushed her to the door. You monster! he thundered, he had planted his child in a monster, she remembered how even when he was angry, Dion’s father, the farmer, spoke of plants and seeds. The Dutchman stared, unfolded his map and said: Yes, monster! Show me where! Your father roared and kicked both the monster and the monster-hunter out of the door, which in the days to come was soon blocked by a heavy padlock.

One night she broke a windowpane with a towel wrapped over her fist and opened the door. The portrait hung untouched on her work-wall in the dim light of a hair-pin moon where, as she looked upward as if through a black, half-transparent skin, she could make out the hidden side, the one revealed only to those on earth who stared too long into the abyss of their dreams.

She taped cardboard in front of the window and stirred new colours in the crusty cups. After just a few brushstrokes she noticed that the dark excitement that had spurred her on and sharpened her senses had suddenly changed into indifference. The subject now made her sick, she found it melodramatic and its extremity sensationalistic, she was angry she hadn’t foisted it off on the Dutchman who had offered her a tidy sum of money for it. She tore the canvas off the wall and threw it into the corner where the portrait of the moor-child corpse soon disappeared and was forgotten under other sketches and unfinished paintings.

Only ten years later—sifting through the mountain of trash in her atelier looking for something to use for the Hamburg Foundation contest—did it find its way back into her hands. In just a few days she had finished it, indeed more skilfully than before, but more out of a sense of duty to her overdue success; and, outside of Dion’s father, the Dutchman and maybe Ute Hassforther, so she thought as she lifted herself up from the toilet seat, only the boy seemed to have understood what was concealed in the mixture of colours: your childish body pierced by sharp-edged beams or boughs and covered with roots or a network of veins and wrapped in a creeper like an umbilical cord, eyeless, without hands, and with an abstracted, not quite formed or already wiped-out, face, an expression between sleep, forgetting and a thinly limned longing for shape and for world, still becoming or already gone out, almost but not quite dead before you had even begun to live.

I don’t want you to be my mother anymore, she heard your voice say from outside the bathroom stall door, frighteningly clear and without any stutter at all. When she finally unlocked the door she found you standing in your underwear and staring at her, eyes swimming with rage and tears. She fell down upon you; Leave me alone! you pushed her away. In your voice a hard and distant tone. She pulled the trampled trousers out from under the door, pulled your jacket back into shape and tried to put you back into your suit. You held onto her and bit her hand. Her slap echoed through the coldly white-tiled room. She immediately regretted her loss of control. My poor darling, she whispered and bent down to kiss away the red welts from your cheeks, but you turned away and bared your teeth so that she thought she could already hear the cry for help which in the next moment would break out of you and draw people in droves. She had almost put her hand across your mouth until she understood that you were not screaming, but smiling, just as tortured as she herself had once smiled in front of the giant mirror in the fashion house when Siana had shown her how to welcome life.

She followed your eyes and saw Ute Hassforther standing in the doorway. A little bit of a mishap, Marga said and pointed to the toilet, too high! The woman looked at her and nodded. We often forget the children’s perspective, she said, and for a moment her face seemed clear and soft. Then, as if remembering her role, which allowed for no sentimentality, her features froze back up, she wiped a piece of lint from her skirt and left.

Marga stuffed you back into your suit. Now you’ve really screwed up, she hissed and closed the upper collar button. Then she pushed you to the door.
When you both came back into the foyer, the gallerist was standing in front of your mother’s painting. She quickly let go of you, slowed her pace and straightened her dress, which had been wrinkled in the scuffle. Then she wandered over to Ute Hassforther as if by chance, lit a cigarette and acted as if she were looking at her own work. From the corner of her eye she saw an eyebrow twitch in the woman’s face; otherwise her face showed no emotion at all. She could feel your eyes in her back, or was it Röcker’s contemptuous glance, leaning as he was with another young woman against the bar, she thought all the eyes in the room were on her as the gallerist bent down in order to more carefully observe one of the smooth points in her painting before finally saying: Not bad.

From the other side she felt your look, angry, appalled, almost mocking, the same expression as the day she was putting the finishing touches on her painting and suddenly you were standing behind her, eyes like slits, the corners of your mouth drawn down. What do you see in it? she had asked you defensively, already awaiting a hurtful response. You shrugged your shoulders although in the canvas you had recognised a lot, indeed much more than you liked. The bloody-grimy mixture made your chest constrict and your heart beat faster, and caused a wave of heat to rise in you like a fever. You gave the feeling the colour brown, a moor or cola-brown, which among all the dirty umber tones was the one colour in the picture through which a kind of light flowed, as in the pools when a ray of sunlight pushed into the deep and stained the water amber, so that there where the layers had been scratched away or abraded with a wire sponge you discovered a delicate, parchment-like, at points almost see-through structure that reminded you of your collection of dried dragonfly skins standing in rows in glass preserve jars on your shelf. You turned around, walked back to the house, and holed up in your room. When she called you down to dinner you laid the exuvia of a green hawker on her plate, the most beautiful and largest specimen from your collection, and looked at it pleadingly as if that awkward moment in the life of the dragonfly could take place again, that moment when the internal pressure increases within the larva, the skin splits open and the insect is forced out into freedom from all the dark years underwater and into its one and only summer over the moor.

Yummy, Marga grinned, and blew the shell off her plate, but then scooped it up with her spoon and held it up to the lamplight. Every detail of the grown insect was visible already, the segments of the rod-shaped abdomen, six long, three-sectioned limbs, the beginning of four wings, even the mandibles. On the head two transparent bubbles formed the hollow of the eyes, and behind them, on the back, its shell was slit, catching the draught in a tiny opening; the little legs began to quiver as if at any moment the empty dragonfly would lift into the air. Like a little palace, Marga whispered, suddenly fascinated, and you nodded triumphantly. Then, holding your breath, you both bent over the artwork, sought out each others’ eyes and at that very moment thought the same thing. All of a sudden the exuvia fell off the spoon, maybe caught by her breath, and broke into two pieces on the edge of the plate. When you tried to shake the skin carefully into your hand, it broke apart. hYou hbreak heveryhting! you yelled, throwing your head back and stamping the ground a number of times as if in so doing you could hurl the words out of your throat. She pulled you to her but the brown feeling turned into red and with balled fists you ran away from her and up the stairs. But you have a hundred of them! you heard her call from the kitchen, hurt, then you slammed the door and pushed the bed against the wall so that in the crevice where you had wanted to escape there was no longer room for even a finger.

It’s called Moor? Ute Hassforther asked doubtfully and tilted her head to the side as she looked at the little sign with the painting’s title and related information. Marga saw you standing close to the gallerist, your face now narrow and hard, everything childlike gone. On the evening she had broken the shell you had also suddenly appeared so foreign to her, almost an adult, that she was afraid. It was, she remembered now, the first time that you had ever locked yourself in your room; up until then she hadn’t even known that there was even a key for the door. She had come to it multiple times and knocked softly, but even when she rattled the door-handle the room remained worryingly still.

She went into the bathroom, swallowed two Lexotax, warmed up the rest of the everything-soup in the kitchen and put a bowl in front of your door. Then she went over to the barn because it had just occurred to her to improve a few spots of her painting. When she came back to the house around midnight the door was still closed and the bowl full. Goddamn stubborn! she yelled, a bit confusedly, tongue furry from the cigarettes and wine and sticking to the roof of her mouth. She picked up the plate, staggered through the dark hallway and bumped her head against a corner. A whole bottle of wine had been a bit too much of a good thing; the alcohol together with the Lexotax had indeed made her more courageous with her final touches and she was happy with the results, but now her skin felt numb, her steps unsteady and her movements as if remote-controlled. And as she came into the glaring light of the kitchen she saw a mealy, rotten mass in the plate. Her hand began to shake and the mixture fell over the edge, tiny legs swarmed over her wrist, broken wings flickered, torn tails, beady eyes stared from out of the pulp of crushed shells. The bowl smashed on the floor, shards and skins shooting out. Moaning she lunged up the stairs, which suddenly felt as steep and wobbly as a ladder. She rattled the door. Who the hell do you think you are? she screamed and pounded her fist against the wood. Only after a few seconds did she realize she was standing in front of the entrance to the attic. She turned around, stumbled down the steps and at the end of the hallway threw herself with all her might against the door to your room, which burst open as easily and willingly as if it had never been locked, your empire behind it open to her the entire night, as welcoming as ever. She slid over the rolling preserve jars, caught herself on the bookcase and stared onto the empty bed. Her boy had hidden himself in the crevice between the mattress and wall, arms at his side and head retracted, a long, thin bundle like a rolled-up blanket. Who the hell do you think you are? she shook you, what did I do to make you like this?

How broken he suddenly felt. Almost bodiless, she remembered now, he had simply hung there limp in her hands—and she looked from you to the gallerist and then to her painting, then finally back to you, alarmed and cringing, for she had imagined the skin of the child’s corpse to be just as brittle and rotten, the skeleton long since decomposed in the acidic peat, whereas the moor water had preserved the skin and tissue, even the fingernails, so well that a team of specialists speculated that it could have been the victim of a ritual murder, as Dion’s father had read aloud from the paper one morning where they had dedicated an entire page to the find. Thanks to carbon dating, a measurement of the carbon remaining in the cadaver, they had been able to backdate the death of the boy—in the meantime floating in formaldehyde in the Institute of Pathology—to around the second century before Christ, the Ice Age, where he had most likely been strangled and then thrown into a pit, a method which, the author surmised, suggested child sacrifice, a rather gruesome but at that time not unheard-of rite to honour or pacify the gods, although the archaeologists and doctors did not want to decide whether the wounds which could be found in the genital area, the abrasions and tears in the tissue, had been caused by the improper process of excavation, by the pressure exerted from the earth during the body’s long stay at a depth of three metres or by sexual abuse during or before the sacrificial ceremony, the more so as among various Ice Age Germanic peoples moor executions were a common retribution for sexual crimes or the refusal of military service, as well as for sodomy, which, according to the scientists, spoke precisely for the so-called retribution thesis, in other words, supporting the hypothesis that such pre-Christian sacrifices could have had important social and juridical meanings, for, as the Roman historian Tacitus helpfully noted in his Germania, cowards and the battle-shy as well as the physically defiled, so the article concluded, were thrown into the swamp and especially the morass, and then covered with wattles.

She remembered how at that sentence Dion’s father had angrily folded up the paper and snorted: Just what is such idle talk supposed to mean. She had laid her hands across her stomach through which, as so often lately, a little quake had passed, and looked over to the pond where evening slid across the plain like a black wall. They fucked him beforehand, she said, turned off the gas flame under the pot with the soup and placed a bowl on the table. Once back in the barn she had stretched herself out on the discarded sofa with the chirping metal springs, let her head fall to the side and stared for a long time at the oil painting she had just recently begun to make inroads on, a few brown strokes crossing, awkward and aimless upon a background of far too much white; Ute Hassforther alone must have recognized some kind of special talent there. Eventually she turned to your mother, looked her up from head to toe and asked: Where did you study, Marga?

She winced. Her answer, she thought, would spoil everything, she would lose the chance she had been waiting for the whole night, as she wouldn’t be able to name any academy or school, couldn’t show off with any theories or formulate any hypotheses about contemporary art. She hadn’t read any books and hadn’t immersed herself in the lives and passions of any of her role models; in all those years, with the exception of Füssli’s Nightmare, she hadn’t even had any models, only the stillness, the dust and the rust of memories in a barn where the rainwater slowly dripped down her work wall.

Hsimphly hin hthe hmoor, she suddenly heard the familiar breath behind her, turned and saw you quite close. Then we’ll soon be in business, young man, Ute Hassforther said, shook first your, then your mother’s hand and handed her a business card. You should call—I can call you Marga, no? she smiled and then swished off. Marga waited until the gallerist had disappeared into the crowd of guests being pushed through the revolving door and out into the night before snapping Cunt! after her with bared teeth, then she bent down and undid the top button of your shirt. Clothes make the man, she grinned, but her lips were tight and seemed bitten through.





Excerpted from  Moor © Suhrkamp, 2013

Alexander Booth’s translation of Moor will be published by Seagull Books in 2016

A Bearer of Suffering. Not a Victim.

Author: Bodo Kirchhoff
Translator: Henry Holland


 Bodo Kirchhoff published this autobiographical essay in 2012, in the middle of a long-lasting wave of German media attention focussed on institutionalised sexual abuse of children. The collection of essays from which this translation is drawn is titled Legends about My Body (Legenden um den eigenen Körper). The media concentrated especially on the Odenwald boarding school, where the number of children abused in the 1970s and 1980s may total 130 or more. Kirchhoff’s standpoint, dealing with his experience at another German boarding school, is unique in all published German language writing on this subject.

Every narrative about sexual preferences is crippled by the narrators’ loneliness, standing on the side-lines of language, surrounded by a mass chattering about sexuality, isolated with their own words and images, amid a flood wave of words and of porn. The other, who shaped us sexually, holds his tongue, and we, in attempting speech, are forced into verbal hallucinations. No one can grant us the certainty that we are telling the truth, but you can listen to us attentively, in the same way you listen to foreigners speaking their own language; and the more familiar words we slip in, to move quicker from the side-lines to the centre, the greater the danger of an untrue understanding. A common language of sexuality, beyond the chatter and the flood of images, requires a common affirmation—yes, I desire, and am worthy of desire—and a longing to understand and to be understood which borders on pain. Otherwise the details of early experiences remain purely to haunt individuals like the Furies, making the individual appear a victim, someone who only conjures up pity in their communities.

I was abused—the first words of the article in the Spiegel, from March 2010, a dialogue which I’m going to continue here. And after that opening phrase, written in the prevailing tone of the debate on the subject which was then at its peak, the article continued: a word (abuse) that isn’t much use, that doesn’t help much, that only demonstrates the whole misery of speechlessness. And nevertheless it was saying something: that I was actually a part of the debate, inside the syntagma, and no longer linguistically isolated, the word ‘abuse’ connoting membership in a certain group, rather than a specific drama made up of sexual details. But it is only this—this early drama between two participants—which matters.

I was one of these two participants, the weaker one unquestionably, someone who bore over many years the manifold suffering resulting from an emotional and sexual assault. A victim of abuse in other words. Later I passed on this double misdoing—which only counts as a crime when committed on those too young to consent—to others, not through blatant violence, but rather by getting people to bind themselves to me, even though I knew I was incapable of reciprocating this attachment for more than a day at a time. And during that same period, through the whole of the seventies, I was writing already, and getting into psychoanalysis. I wanted to be different, or to put it another way, I wanted to understand what was foreign to me—nothing unusual back then. Seen in this light, the whole contemporary debate about abuse—which can see perpetrators only as monsters, and suspects anyone attempting to trace their motives of complicity—is a step backwards, away from sexual enlightenment. The idea of enlightenment in this debate limits itself to shedding light on who the offender was: it’s police jargon, the language of The Killing.

You see, I don’t just want to know what happened to me, but also why and how it has influenced me up to the present day; outer details are, at most, the spectacular part of the whole, that which the law can capture, and not in any way the truth, which is what I still live with. Or to put it another way: whoever points a finger at an offender should also take a look inside their own psyche.

I was twelve, a pretty boarding school boy, and my housemaster, teacher and choirmaster—a Winnetou really, Indian chief of my reading fantasies, years before the books got filmed—was in his early thirties, a guy with long, dark hair (in 1960!), who smoked Roth-Händle, could play the piano, and drove a Volkswagen Cabrio. No question about it, the pretty boy was in love with him. And one night, a warm night in June if I remember correctly, he came to collect me—I had complained about a headache at choir practice that evening—out of one of the beds in a five-bed room while the others slept, to take the pain away, as he put it, in a one-bedroom flat at the end of the corridor. With pulse beating in head and heart I followed him there, where he peeled me out of my spotted pyjamas—the meaningless details in the drama are the ones you remember—took my head in his hands and kissed me; his tongue tasted smoky, something that still turns me on today. I had never been kissed that way before, passionately, and returned the kiss, not wanting to be impolite, but perhaps also out of a need to do so, freshly awoken in this June night. On top of which I believed it was a special way of treating headaches, only used on myself, working with a kind of opposing impulse, which he then added to. And then all of a sudden he was stroking my childlike thing, in the first moment nothing but shock, in the second, panic-ridden moment too; what the third moment was like I would no longer vouch for. The childlike thing of the many names took on a new shape between his fingers, which were yellow at the nails from smoking. It grew hard and pulsated, as if my headache had slid down into it, glowing with growth against my will. And so I glowed with shame, yes, even apologised, and Winnetou whispered something into my mouth: All is piggery for the pig, all is purity for the pure—his only words on this the first of many nights, or the only ones I want to remember even today, after almost a lifetime. And also the same words which shone through in my poetics lecture eighteen years ago, without a public debate on the subject to back them up, the single perspective which mattered to me entirely absent. Winnetou’s words were clear in that lecture already, even though they were downplayed, and presented as a scene.

Because it didn’t stop at the kissing and the stroking, my Red Indian wanted more, wanted that I should bear, long after the event, the stigma of desire that he was stamping on me. So he took on the hardness in a mercilessly gentle fashion, and that boy, barely twelve years old, had his first orgasm—years away still from knowing this enticing, mantra-like word. I didn’t know what was happening down there, pure mental as you’d say nowadays, a smouldering riddle between my legs, a sullying buzz. The childlike thing had suddenly become a cock—I was a speechless child with a cock. And the man—who’d turned me into that, growing more daring every time, and making me who I am into the process—was a bloody good choirmaster: the music from back then, by Schütz, Bach and Sibelius, still knocks me for six. A top-notch choir chieftain and a damned boy-nibbler; but, to use one of his maxims, sine ira et studio, he was just one of the damned, condemned to an unliveable kind of love. Unliveable, because the lives of half-grown kids are screwed up by it. Screwed up being the ugly, and operative, word.

I was still half a child, and became, overnight, a premature half-man, suddenly sexualised, someone who has prematurely paid the price for being cast into the world as a sexual being, who desires and sparks desire in others, attracts more love than he feels comfortable with, loves beyond his own horizon, and loses the ground beneath his feet. Normal stuff really, the literature of love is full of it. Just at that age it isn’t normal, and neither is it normal in our frenetic, individualistic internet world. As the debate about the whole complex subject has illustrated, with its tacit arrangement to minimise the two great positive risks of our existence, sexuality and love, along with the greatest negative risks—poverty, ill-health and violence.

No other existential danger has been so repressed by the internet as love—and defending love as an existential risk strikes me as the most worthwhile thing I can do as a writer, through narrating a long novel. We desire and are worthy of desire, and since time immemorial boundaries have been established to deal with the transgressions intrinsic to this fact, taboos constructed in the consciousness to remind us that good will cannot stand its ground against bad longings without a general law. Sexual assaults against minors are strictly prohibited in almost every society. For this we can be glad. The regulation of sexuality through marriage, on the other hand, is still widespread, which is rather a reason to be unhappy; and behind the dogma of the Catholic Church and the ultra-religious, whether in the USA or in Iran, lies a contempt for the feminine, just as contempt for all humans is the real spring from which every form of prudishness flows. This is more than an unhappy situation—this is a calamity.

I experienced this contempt back then, in my Protestant boarding-school, through slaps, segregation and icy words. That’s how they knocked us down to size when we’d persuaded the hairdresser who came to our boarding-house once a month to leave the hair at our napes two centimetres longer than normal, by pressing a fifty pfennig piece into his hand. (He was called Anton Ironbite, how could you forget that?) And it was this little tail in the back of the neck that drew the contemptuous punishment down upon us, being grounded for example, while the others went on outings. No wonder, then, that a half-child, a little ripe fruit—a tasty morsel, as they say—fell into the arms of a man who wore his hair like a Red Indian, and chose him as an object of love, on whom he could orientate himself. And no wonder, when confronted with this other new ‘tail’ between his legs, not made by a hairdresser and not in the least metaphorical, that he was shocked but also clung to it: down below a real lad now, and his lips on the lips of his choirmaster Indian-chief to boot, whose kisses tasted of forbidden smoke—the whole thing one big drug.

In my memories this choirmaster and educator, who was also my music, religion and sports teacher, still looks like Winnetou; all my attempts to get hold of a photo of him have failed—your own memory was your hard-drive back then, before the era of lots of photos. Without anything to counterbalance it, I still see him as the star of the boarding school, with parents, pupils and colleagues thronging around him. But all he’d wanted was fine-limbed lads with kissable mouths, he was powerless against it; his violence was the violence of seduction, his aim was to melt together with the person prone before him. I learnt to kiss and to come from him, and both far too early. Just as child-soldiers learning to kill are being abused in the most serious possible way, the full connotations of ‘abuse’ being apposite to describe what happens to them, I too learnt blindly to make love, and practised what I had learnt, without being able to gauge what was happening. And all this in an entirely contrary environment, rigidly Protestant. From which my sister was later given the Consilium Abeundi—the dishonest phrase used for expulsion—just for being caught holding hands and drinking Coke by dimmed red lights; typical for that era, respectably dishonest. It’s long since this boarding school was anything like the one I passed through between 1959 and 1968, it has changed along with the whole of society, and will, as it happens, close down soon, due to lack of clientele. For enlightened parents, boarding schools have long since served their purpose. My wife and I would never have dreamt of absconding from the process of our kids growing up, though I’d admit that conditions have become more favourable for parenting.

[…] 6

When things were over between my Indian chief and me—yes, I need to talk about this part too—I was, as I’ve said, a speechless child with a cock. A piece of me which then proceeded to twitch, that piece which a man had taken in his mouth, until it was all too late. Ultimately, it’s about putting the boot on the other foot, or rather, taking it in the mouth, and articulating it, a process which still can shock, to this day. It’s not the ordinary words like victim, perpetrator and abuse which tell the truth, but rather those which are left unsaid, hovering between the lines, like cock-sucking, arse-fucking or shooting your load, the embarrassing words behind those which were once uttered quietly in the dark—friendship, purity, Eros, to name but three. Camouflage words which disguise their own obscenity, hegemonic language, deployed against the weaker party. From the perspective of this Other, this pedagogue bearing the insignia of education, his actions emerged out of a true desire, a louche one, I’ll grant you, yet entirely pervaded with love: that old story as told, once and for all, by Thomas Mann. Aschenbach, that most famous of all louche literati, a fictional figure and yet extremely real, knows that he’s being ‘pulled on a fool’s rope by his passion’, and his unhappy inventor goes one step further in his mind. According to Mann, the only wisdom we can garner from this is, ‘sympathy with the abyss; this narrative is the abyss’.

The boy who I became walked out of an abyss constructed from various sorts of grown-up sex games, grounded on mute love and mumbled desire; my Winnetou was no self-possessed chief and his mouth watered as much as Aschenbach’s did. Someone who desires, desires. He can’t do anything but set his sights on smooth boys’ bums, or a woman’s white hips, or the crucified Lord if he happens to be Saint Francis. Which turns every excuse, every display of remorse into a stage act; those who were once desired have to forgive themselves today. Our seducers were sexual freaks working in secret, and that is what they’ve passed on, their seed which we have caught. Abuse doesn’t lend the victim a noble touch, but turns them more into a joke figure, and most bearers of suffering do everything they can to cover up exactly this. You cannot see from the outside how much is defunct inside of someone, nor how big the linguistic hole is. Every one ultimately develops their own substitute language in order to cope with themselves and the world. It’s only those who are done with such manoeuvring who will name the perpetrators, but this strategy of ‘destroying the person who destroyed you’ doesn’t help. The only thing which helps is talking about it.

Every evening Winnetou stood beside the main taps of the shower room, dressed in a brown leather jacket with fur collar. He smoked one of his Roth-Händle, (those strong, filterless fags, with a ten pfennig piece slipped into the packet, which, later on, I was to smoke for years), and watched us washing, the angels, who were still naked above their sex, and the others, who already had a few hairs there. He made sure that angels and non-angels showered together, mingling in front of him. His amber coloured eyes were fixed on our shivers when he suddenly turned the water cold; he also chased me with a hard jet of water because I was one of his favourites. And one evening—a one-mark coin had slid out of my trouser pocket while getting changed after P.E., a lot of money at that time—he went with me down into the basement room, where the sports lessons took place in winter, to search for the silver coin. It was late already, the showering long since finished, but he locked the door from the inside, no doubt with a good explanation, and then bent me over the horse, which we had to run up to and jump over during the sports lessons, while hoping for his helping hand. And the twelve-year old, who I then still was, felt a mouth at my neck, his lips, big and rather blueish, blueish like lips when you’ve swum for too long, and I felt a falling hair, which tickled my ear—details like letters of an old and incomplete alphabet, written inerasably into the skin, without me being able to say definitely which word they spell out. Sex—and that is exclusively what that hour was about—is nothing logical, that starts with A and ends with O, but rather a flow, flowing between sheer love and sheer violence. And the real retrospective shock for the weaker party is the bedlam inside himself, the chaos in his memories: who was I during these embraces, what part of them is still hidden in me? I think of this hour in the sport’s room, the only light falling in through the basement window from some lamp or other outside, and view what happened as a kind of Fata Morgana, a precise flickering. And even my memory of what the foreign body parts felt like has something contradictory about it, a rough tenderness—an optical and sensory oxymoron, eluding all clear speech. Quite possible that the boy, who I was, was taken whole-heartedly, with loving violence; but also possible that it was just a brute craving, dressed up with tender tokens—the memories flicker too much to tell for sure, yet I can’t make this Fata Morgana disappear, because I can’t go towards it. I can only tell its story, and seek to resolve it in fiction, in a construct I’ve created as it were, to mirror reality. There can be no exact or reliable narration of that hour in the basement—it wasn’t good, what happened there, it was anything but good; but it is mine, the stuff which I am made of.

And this stuff is nothing wonderful, or great, or something which grants me wisdom, or something sacrosanct, yet therefore all the better protection against every sort of bravado and cant—you distrust everything that hints at boastfulness, including your own loose words, and you don’t need to trumpet out any poems about the state of our world, as a Nobel Prize winner felt the need to do recently, when the bad rhyme has already been written into you. You only need to find rhymes for this one rhyme, again and again, concentrate on being the pot and forget about the kettle, and tell your story: that’s how out of the speechless child an author grew, whose writing is closer to the feminine principle than anything masculine—which does not mean he writes in an unmanly way. Meaning people who can’t read it properly label him a macho. I also became a writer—or rather, will continue to strive after the aim of being a writer my whole life long—because, to get at the whole truth of that one hour for example, I need the whole fiction. Otherwise what was not good remains unsayable, as it is for almost everyone with a similar story.

From Legenden um den eigenen Körper  © Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 2012

The Life of a Top-Quality Mattress

Author: Tim Krohn
Translator: Alyson Coombes


Tim Krohn’s novel The Life of a Top-Quality Mattress follows the story of a mattress from 1935 to 1992, as it is passed from family to family. The story begins with newlyweds Immanuel and Gioia Wassermann, who share the mattress on their wedding night in a guest house in Germany, taking it with them when they leave the next morning. The rise of the Nazis interrupts the Wassermanns’ marital bliss as Immanuel is arrested by the Gestapo and Gioia moves to Schaffhausen, Switzerland. After a few years she decides to start a new life in America, leaving the mattress behind in Schaffhausen, where it is found by the Weishaupt family and used in the cellar during air raids. The mattress is subsequently adopted by various people and even appears in different countries, eventually washing up onto a beach in France where it is found by Immanuel Wassermann, bringing the story full circle. Each chapter offers a brief insight into the lives of the characters using the mattress and so gives the reader a snapshot of life in Europe throughout the 20th century.


‘As soon as you hear the sirens sound, run down to the cellar and crawl under the mattress,’ Nora Weishaupt told her children firmly every morning, before leaving for the Schaffhausen post office where she worked behind the counter.

She didn’t need to remind them; the children loved playing in the cellar and always waited impatiently for the sirens to sound. Children weren’t allowed in the cellar without their parents, except during an air raid. This was supposedly for health and safety reasons, but really it was because Hausmeister Fischli lived on the ground floor with his elderly mother, and both of them were ‘innately sensitive to noise’, as they put it.

Like all larger families, the Weishaupts had actually been given their own cellar space soon after the previous tenant Gioia Wassermann had moved out of the flat, but Herr Fischli said they could hear the noise through the ceiling. The Weishaupt family consisted of Nora and her three children; all the children had different hair colours and different fathers, each of whom had since passed away.

There were lots of air raids that spring, though usually in the evenings. That was when the Americans, Nora Weishaupt explained to her children, flew from France or London over to Germany to punish the Nazis for stealing fathers away from their children.

‘But this is Switzerland,’ said Little Paul, ‘why do we need to hide from them?’ He would have much preferred to run out into the street to watch the bombers thunder past.

‘At night the Americans can’t quite see where Germany begins. Schaffhausen is so close to Germany that they could easily drop their bombs here instead,’ replied Nora Weishaupt.

Gioia Wassermann’s mattress lay in the cellar ready for these night-time air raids; all three children could curl up on it and they slept better there than on their own thin horsehair mats. Nora Weishaupt would sit next to them and ‘keep watch’, as she called it – she darned stockings and read Dante’s The Divine Comedy which had been left behind by Gioia Wassermann along with her mattress and some other books, all still beautifully gift wrapped. (In this book she’d written ‘To my dearest Immanuel on our wedding anniversary’, in her own ornate hand. Inside a book on Italian cooking she’d put ‘For Immanuel on our second wedding anniversary’. ‘Immanuel on our fourth’ was all that stood inside a thin book of poems by Petrarch, by which time Gioia’s handwriting had become less elaborate.)

Like everyone else, Nora Weishaupt didn’t believe there was any real threat from the Allies during the day, as enormous Swiss flags had been spread out across many of the rooftops. In spite of this, everyone had to stop what they were doing and take shelter as soon as the sirens started to wail. Her job at the post office meant she had to leave her children, aged three, four and seven, alone in the flat for most of the day, only hurrying home at lunchtime to cook for them before going back to work. She’d forbidden the children to leave the flat and play in the street; they were often bored and so became even more excited by the chaos that broke out in the stairwell whenever the sirens sounded.
And so it was that on the first day in April, a loud cheer was heard when the air raid warning went off at half past ten in the morning. David, the eldest, unlocked the door and the three children clattered past their neighbours and down the stairs. They liked to get there first so they could turn on the lights in the cellar (light switches were also out of bounds, except during an air raid).

The children always played the same game in their section of the cellar. The mattress had joints in it which allowed it to be folded, so it was also possible for the children to make a house by leaning one of the ends against the wall. All three sat inside the house and pretended to be in a heavy bombing raid. Sometimes David played the part of the bomber pilot, running into the outside of the mattress house while Little Paul and Doro were inside being bombed, crying out ‘Help! Help!’ and ‘We’re being bombed! We’re being bombed!’ whilst holding tightly onto each other and howling as loudly as they could. When David decided the attack was over they would play the role of the lucky survivors, clambering out into the open, or rather out from underneath the mattress. Or, if they were supposed to have been injured, David would drag the two little ones out by himself in order to treat the wounded and bury the dead, after checking them for valuables first. They would also search through the rubble before cooking their lunch amongst the ruins, and doing everything else that bombed-out people did in the stories they begged Nora Weishaupt to tell them every night before they went to sleep.

On this first day in April their game was even better than usual; they could really hear the bombs exploding, could feel the air tremble and the ground shake. The mattress actually jumped into the air and every so often real bits of debris went flying. Doro and Little Paul competed to see who could scream the loudest and, best of all, David suddenly fell to his knees clutching his head, blood smeared across his face.

‘But you’re the bomber,’ cried Doro over the racket, ‘you don’t get bombed!’

‘I’m hit,’ called David, unsure whether to cry or be excited at the sight of all the blood. ‘I think my bomber plane was shot down.’

At that moment he swayed from side to side before his head hit the hard ground, his eyes rolled and for a few moments he lay absolutely still. Doro and Little Paul started to scream for real now, noticing for the first time that the guns were still roaring even though they were no longer playing air raids. The air began to stink and David, waking up again, said: ‘You know what? I think it’s real.’

He was now able to sit up at least; his face was still pale but the bleeding had nearly stopped. As the thundering and shaking outside began to fade and only the occasional splinter, crash or rumble could be heard, while the screams of people grew louder and the ambulances began to arrive with their horns hooting, the children decided to leave the cellar.
They all had to throw themselves against the door to slide it open – or at least three-year-old Doro tried her best to help push it – because the ceiling had collapsed and the entrance to the cellar was filled with rubble. As the children climbed the stairs they saw a huge hole in the building on the side facing the back yard. They took each other’s hands and emerged onto the street; the houses were on fire, the air was filled with a foul smoke and all around them the ground was either covered with debris or with people who had been laid out there. Some screamed and cried, others did not move at all, among them old Frau Fischli. Hausmeister Fischli knelt beside her and held her hand; like most of those around him he was white with dust from tip to toe. At first he simply stared ahead as if frozen to the spot, then suddenly vomited before staring straight ahead again until an orderly came over, covered old Frau Fischli and led him to a tent where, as David explained to the little ones, they must be gathering the wounded.

Little Paul wanted to have a look but David said, ‘We have to go to the post office. It must be lunchtime and Mutti doesn’t know yet that she won’t be able to cook for us at home.’

‘Can she cook for us in the post office then?’ asked Little Paul.

‘We’ll see,’ said David. ‘If not then maybe she’ll buy us a bun from Lachmann the baker.’

They didn’t get as far as the post office as the entire row of houses was closed off and the firemen were at work, over a hundred men or half a battalion, David said. The fire still burned so high that the Munot fortress had disappeared behind it. The people here who were doing the rescuing or being rescued weren’t white like those back in the Fulachgasse but black and covered in soot, though their expressions were frozen in exactly the same way.

David, Little Paul and Doro spent a while deciding which of the sooty figures was Herr Kaltenberger, the post office manager, then went over to him and asked him to take them to their mother, or at least to tell them where they could find her. At first Herr Kaltenberger wasn’t sure what they wanted from him, and when they finally made him understand they were Nora Weishaupt’s children he shook his head slowly before saying, so quietly that only David understood him, that their Mutti had run back out of the bunker as the first bombs fell, wanting to return home. The air raid warden had tried to stop her but she had scratched his face viciously and had run out into the square, which was already in flames. And then he said something very strange: ‘Don’t be afraid, children,’ attempting to ruffle David’s hair with his sooty hand, ‘this can only be an April Fool’s joke.’





Translator’s Note

This chapter paints a fascinating picture of life on the Swiss-German border during the Second World War. I have tried to retain a flavour of the original by keeping some of the names in German, such as ‘Herr Kaltenberger’ and ‘Hausmeister Fischli’, to allow the reader to feel as though they too are in Schaffhausen. There are also some specific Swiss references, such as the allocation of cellar space to each family for storage, and the mention of the ‘Munot’ fortress as a guide to how high the flames are following the air raid. Many readers may not have heard of the Munot, so I felt the insertion of the word ‘fortress’ was necessary here to help readers envisage this landmark. All in all, the novel uses a unique style to provide an effective depiction of life throughout the decades, and is certainly a very interesting piece to explore in translation.






From  Aus dem Leben einer Matratze bester Machart © Galiani Berlin (Kiepenheuer & Witsch), 2015

The Endless City

Author: Ulla Lenze
Translator: Isabel Fargo Cole




Someone is walking toward her through the low sun’s light. He moves without haste, so that her stopping is reframed as waiting. She smiles reluctantly. Squints in the sun’s rays. Until he’s standing opposite, and his shadow falls on her.

This is the man she owes the past six months to. Yesterday they shook hands; today they barely took notice of each other, not on the ferry, not in Topkapi Palace, not in the Museum of Modern Art. He was part of an entourage clustered around the German foreign minister and surrounded by bodyguards, everyone wearing innocently bright polo shirts with very serious dark suit pants.

She feels her body tense up.

“Hello,” she says casually.

“Hello,” he says cheerily.

And then they both hesitate—they ought to know each other’s names. It wouldn’t do to ask again.

“Aren’t you going to the Eyüp Sultan Mosque?” She points to the restive throng of thirty German and Turkish artists and creative types over by the ferry.

“No, I’ve had enough lectures for today,” he says. “And you?”

“Me too.”

“What are your plans?”

“Just to walk around.” She doesn’t dare say by myself. Instead she pushes her sunglasses up from her face. His smile loses its caution, closes more tightly around her.

What excuse can she use to get away from him?

“A suggestion,” he says, putting his hand on her shoulder. She turns and gazes out at the town with him: pastel houses on a hill, a mosque’s minarets, her gaze following his outstretched hand. No wedding ring—something she’s just started to pay attention to, even in men who don’t interest her.

“You can see all the way to Istanbul from up there. Shall we tackle it?”

Tackle it. That makes her think of pension reform, or a soccer team trying to climb in the rankings. Not taking a stroll or just walking around.

His hand slips from her shoulder, he hasn’t noticed her hesitation, he’s already heading toward the town.
They walk through a park, deserted and rather dull. For these first few minutes they compare notes about Eyüp: the fourth most important place of pilgrimage in the Islamic world, oddly hidden away here at the end of the Golden Horn; except for the mosque and the view of Istanbul from the hill, the guide books they’ve read have no recommendations.

It’s more of a saunter, and she hadn’t expected that, this slow walk that practically requires a decision for each step (so that’s what he calls tackling). But each attempt to pick up the pace puts her a yard ahead of him, and he’s not at all willing to catch up.

Her hand at her nape, she turns around with a mocking smile. He raises his eyebrows questioningly, and she turns off the smile at once.

The evening’s images return. The big pools of light on the German consulate’s polished floorboards. The ballroom. The drifts of perfume like snow flurries hitting your face here and there. Tailored suits, rigid form. Controlled hairspray helmet coiffeurs. Forms and more forms. “None of it fits,” she moaned, trying to stir up unrest in the people sitting on either side of her: “They have no clue about art or us, it’s not about us, it’s just…”—“Shut up, Holle, please.”—“… about public image.”

And then the man she’s having to saunter along with here was called up to the podium: how much the foundation owed to him, the board member of a major conglomerate, construction or banking, she can’t remember which. She snuck outside and phoned Celal. Celal, at Galata Tower, said he got a hard-on the moment he heard her voice. “It is big like Galata Tower, baby!”

“Looks like snow,” says the banking or construction guy, pointing at the slope.

“Yes,” she says. They’re old Ottoman tombs; she knows he knows that. Why has he joined her? Had she caught his eye back when the artists were being introduced, one at a time, the crucial stations of their lives read out? And on today’s excursion was he just waiting for a chance to be alone with her? Hardly. Something must have caught his attention as she hurriedly jumped ashore. Something about it must have surprised, maybe even bothered him.

That’s the most important thing about her. Not who she studied with, what galleries have showed her work, or the year of her birth. This tendency to take off. “I want to eat your loneliness,” Celal had said. Because she’d said: “I am lonely most of the time.”
A boy with a 20-liter water bottle on his shoulder overtakes them. They’re walking slowly, as though their halting conversation might otherwise be left in the dust. He starts talking about the traffic in Berlin and Hanover, evidently casting about for universal, innocuous topics.

“I get around by bike,” she says.

“Isn’t that dangerous in Berlin?”

She nods.

She’d actually like to ask about his work. But what questions might reveal that she doesn’t know people like him, and at the same time mistrusts them? They don’t even have a subject in common, at most the strained search for one.

They pass a shop selling Muslim headscarves, a bakery window stuffed from bottom to top with flatbreads, shops with sponges, soaps, bulk herbs and teas. She puts her sunglasses in her purse.

“Do you have any favorite restaurants in Berlin?” he asks.

“Are you going to ask me out to dinner?”

He laughs quietly. But then he can’t answer. He asks about a few places, all of them Michelin-starred, and though she knows several, she shakes her head each time.

“Don’t forget I’m poor, technically speaking that’s the basis of our acquaintance.”

He smiles again, but now she sees retreat in this smile. Her directness is awkward for him. She can even understand that. As though he had to apologize for what he is. Well, he does.
The shops begin to repeat; they’re still roaming the soap-sponge-herb district. A veiled woman holds a small child over a bush, its pants pulled down.

Holle looks at the shop displays, walks over—he’s following her, she notes to her relief—feels the hard surface of a grey-green soap, smells it. “Olive-oil soap from Aleppo,” she explains expertly, “I’m going to get two of these.”

They step inside a shop with dark wood paneling, old, almost forgotten scents of hay and resin, dry summers, pharmacies. Spices and herbs spill from gunny sacks. “Merhaba.” An old man greets them, bowing slightly. Behind him are glass carafes of rosebuds for making tea. Pensively her companion contemplates an old mahogany chest.

“Nice here, isn’t it?” she asks.

“Yes,” he agrees, “it’s wonderful!”

“In downtown Istanbul these shops are disappearing, you know that, right?” she hears herself say. “Instead, you have the multinational corporate monsters casting their net of franchises over the globe. Douglas, Body Shop, Starbucks, H&M, Nordsee. Yep, now there’s a Nordsee restaurant on Istiklal Caddesi. Everything’s becoming the same, and the same thing is happening everywhere.”

She’s saying something everyone knows. She coughs; the cough is an attempt to keep him from answering. “Feeling better?” he asks once she finally ends the diversionary maneuver and drinks the glass of water the old man hands her. Celal is solicitous in the same way. That’s how she met him, when she was wandering the streets on the evening of her arrival and showed up at his kebab shop on the corner just as he was closing. She was hungry. He could tell by looking at her, though she was just standing around indecisively and covertly eyeing the handsomest Turk in the world. He made her spaghetti with oily homemade pesto; she’d explained, “I’m vegetarian, you know.” He sat next to her at the little bistro table. All around the tiles were plastered with A4-format printouts, flash-lit photos of chicken kebabs, hot dogs, pizza and manti, Turkish ravioli. His English wasn’t really good enough for a conversation, so they just looked at each other, and he kept bashfully smoothing back his long black hair. When he asked for her phone number, she had the truthful excuse that she didn’t have a Turkish SIM card yet, and she purposely put a wrong letter in her e-mail address.
Somewhat enfeebled by her feigned coughing fit, she takes the soaps; the merchant has wrapped them in pretty tissue paper.

He bows again.

“So Oriental, isn’t it?” she jibes, but her companion doesn’t realize that she speaks of the Orient and Occident only in quotation marks—unlike him, for he instantly agrees, and enthuses about Istanbul as a bridge between the East and West. For months she and the other artists have been discussing this issue of enthusiasm and how to deal with it artistically. Do they have to address the clichés of this city in order to go beyond them, or must they rely on their own incorruptible gaze? Are we making compromises or art? is the crucial self-critical question.

And then she started the thing with Celal. Like a German pensioner with a Thai girl (the German pensioner, in this case, is her). She makes these jokes herself, if only to keep the others from making them.

Now her companion talks right past all these highly problematic issues. The fusion, he says, is so successful that often you don’t know what continent you’re on at any given moment; after all, Eyüp is on the European side and yet it’s so traditional, but on the Prince Islands, in Asia, it’s like a summer resort in Mecklenburg a hundred years ago, with the pretty white wooden villas and the horse-drawn carriages.

“Oh, Orient and Occident,” she sighs, “one day those words will be obsolete, just like Negro and Miss.”

“Orient and Occident are geographical terms, there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says after a pause.

“And how can they fuse, then? Continents don’t fuse. You’re using these terms as cultural labels, and if you’ll pardon me, that’s a kind of cultural hegemony.”

Another pause. She looks forward to a ping pong game she’ll effortlessly win.

The bell at the door jangles; yes, he’s holding the door for her. She looks at him speechlessly, wounded.

“We didn’t want any more lectures today, remember?” he says.
Confused, she focuses on her surroundings—the sheets hung out to dry between the windows, the cat slipping around the corner—and he is silent too, though now and then he glances at her.

She doesn’t recover until he loses sight of her, trudging up the Ottoman cemetery behind him; in a way he’s playing the leader now, suddenly masculine and expeditious, turning around once to see where she is. Now it’s getting dark, too. They walk over broken gravestones and through a forest of pale man-sized steles, tilted under the weight of the centuries, in a pattern of inclination and dismissal. Dates and names in Arabic. Woodbine and shrubbery rustle in the dusk like liquids spilled over gravestones and paths.

He climbs a flight of narrow, crumbling stone stairs, turns around and looks at her, says nothing, goes on, then says: “There must be some other path.”

“Probably there are many paths. There’s even a cable car.”

“But you wanted to walk,” he says.

“Yes, I did,” she says.

And then, once more, silence. It’s different from the silence at the beginning, which was more a searching, groping silence. She feels embarrassed now by her lecture in the soap and health shop, she’d like to explain herself, but in his present physical mode, devoted fully to the climb, he leaves no opportunity even to mention it.

Laboriously they climb over bushes. He turns and gives her his hand. Such soft skin.

He takes the next flight of stairs gamely, his feet in dark-blue moccasins, bare, tanned. She leaves the stairs and moves softly through the underbrush, feeling the sticky tickle of cobwebs on her face. Does she want him to miss her, and start searching? How silly. She turns back. He’s still climbing, hasn’t noticed a thing, she picks up her pace and moves behind him again, panting.

He’s waiting for her up on a plateau, by a toppled gravestone that leans against a weathered wall, exhausted. He gazes into the distance. Istanbul lies in the day’s last light. Stars emerge in the dark blue sky. He smiles at her, but it’s a patient smile for board of directors’ meetings gone awry, out-of-line negotiating partners.


“Yes,” she says breathlessly.

“Don’t you do any sports?”

“Sure, do you?”

“None. Just sporting weapons.”

He smiles as though she amuses him, as she obediently pulls a skeptical face.

She thinks of Celal, of Celal’s guns. They’re not sporting guns. Why has she entered this silent competition with a stranger? It ceases only once, for a moment. They’re walking side by side along an almost pitch-black path which he lights with his cell phone, a path not quite wide enough for two. Their arms graze briefly. And then a little later they brush once again, like a booster shot.

The memory of the warm skin echoes for a while in her consciousness, all the way downhill—easier than the way uphill. They reach the harbor on time, and once he’s given her his card, they sort themselves back into their groups. Dr. Christoph Wanka, that’s his name.





At night Theresa lay in the light from the flats across the way. Just before dropping off, she opened her eyes, to see if the lights were still burning or if all the neighbors had suddenly decided to be considerate. The realm of dreams with all its wonders was already too near.

The next day she searched Holle’s things for a cloth to hang in front of the bedroom window. Holle had put all her personal belongings in three boxes. At first Theresa let herself dip into the top layer only, but then her hand delved deeper. Trash, mainly. Things Holle clearly couldn’t part with, couldn’t accept as finished: an almost-empty tube of mosquito repellant, broken incense sticks (more like crumbs), flabby scrunchies (one with a long dark hair in it), chewed pens, used transport tickets, paper napkins with restaurant logos, a package of nicotine gums chewed and stuck back in the blister pack. A shell. Tiger Balm for headaches.
Theresa told herself she might find a sari or a wide cotton scarf. For one thing, though, Holle owned hardly anything Indian, and she wore size 34/36, which elevated her to a plane of regal otherness. She seemed to value good, high-end materials and craftsmanship. Nothing off the shelf. Her underwear was miniscule, made of black or ivory lace. Some of the clothes hung on the drying rack, draped with surprising negligence, the sleeve ends of the delicate transparent blouses still balled-up. Theresa straightened them for her.

Theresa didn’t go into the studio. When she walked past—it was on the way to the kitchen—she sometimes paused, as if next to a taciturn person who still couldn’t just be ignored. Sometimes she pressed her forehead to the frosted glass and tried to make something out.

She found a photograph in a box and wondered what she was looking at. Was this a reflection of Holle? These strange people, but they couldn’t be strangers, because Holle had kept the picture. Theresa thought it helped her understand something about Holle, but she couldn’t quite think it through. The photo showed a Mediterranean-looking family standing in an alpine pasture, arms linked, animated, fresh, as though taking a short break before dancing. That smile. They were all smiling the same smile. The father was a lean little man in a much-too-large suit, the mother wore a wide, ankle-length skirt, a vest embroidered with flowers and a headscarf tied rustically under her chin. The young woman was wearing fashionably distressed jeans and special-occasion make-up. The son was wearing a turquois nylon jogging suit, but even it looked like a special occasion, he had a good face, a good body, he could wear anything. The family had a oneness about it, as though it always existed somewhere in the midst of nature; everything belonged together in a way that made Theresa understand why Holle kept the photo with her. Had she taken it? She didn’t take pictures of people. The photos Theresa found at the bottom of the box showed only the desolate, empty urban landscapes that were already circulating on the Internet, of Teheran, Istanbul, Odessa. Only looking closely did she see people. Quarters of people. Body parts. An elbow. An arm. The back of a head in a departing taxi. Or so far away that they merged into the landscape. At the edge of a trash-infested waste, two figures trotted along a wall. Everything was singed, grey, black, silvery where the sky reflected in the puddles, but the sky was dark, thrown over the landscape like a blanket smothering a fire. A sense of apocalypse, last survivors. These photos from Mumbai were like the opposite pole to the family portrait in the green pasture.
Several photos were devoted to trash. This trash was not just documented, it was staged as a creative force. These were oppressive, inward-looking pictures. Streets and apartment blocks were photographed as though made of trash, as though trash determined the form. Trash snaked its way up the walls. Trash rotted in the pools of sewage.

And it was true. Trash, in this city, was an element like earth, air and water. It was not just accepted. It was propagated. It was disseminated. It was beloved. It inspired a sense of triumph. It was a document of progress. Packaging material was proof of buying power and the pleasure of consumption.

Trash had emerged with the liberalization of the Indian market in the 1990s. New consumer goods entered the country, and new consumption habits. Things once used were dropped on the ground. It was an unfurling city, a waving, rustling city, full of whisperers and loci of unrest. Chip bags, dented Coca-Cola cans, cigarette boxes, paper wrappings. A texture emerged, an alphabet, an archive: refuse in all conceivable states, dusty, dirty, fuzzy, moldy, new. You saw the layerings of time, and you saw the others, their traces. With each step you entered the communion of all the strange selves that proclaimed their consumption habits in the shape of their refuse. You all showed the others what you ate, what you drank; it was anonymous, yet smotheringly intimate and close. The humid heat stuffed your nose with aromas of ferment, mold, all sorts of remains. The heat released sweat from your body. Osmosis. Unions. There was no escape. And once that had happened, once you had understood, this city came with you wherever you went. Into the last little corner of the world. Mumbai was no city now, Mumbai was an allegory.
Holle seemed to have left quite suddenly. There were packages in the refrigerator holding scant remains, one last swig of milk, a crumb of cheese, a Nutella jar scraped almost clean. Were these presents for Theresa? Or, and this was the explanation she leaned toward, was Holle one of those people who avoided getting rid of things, who always left a little bit behind in the package like an alibi? Who shied away from the definitive? From clean breaks. Decisions. Finalities.

Or was the accumulation on the streets unconsciously perpetuated in her refrigerator, a replica, an inability to behave differently than the outside world? Theresa tossed everything into a bin in the yard, to be rifled by the hungry people down on the streets. Things were as simple as could be here, she reflected, and realizing her thoughts, she scratched her arm and went on snooping.

She leafed through a jumble of train tickets (Berlin—Hanover—Berlin), taxi receipts, sales slips, paper napkins, and finally realized that there was writing on the backs.
Upon entering the city, you become it. Your body changes, because this city stops at nothing. Able to breathe the air only on becoming the city. The fear of losing yourself, the desire to dissolve.


Suddenly you know, and you know differently than before. The body knows, it goes all the way into the belly, the breathing; that, I say, is knowledge.


The stillness in the slum is also the stillness of falling silent. Each thought knows it wants to think itself alone, so as not to think the place. Its impossibility.

In the end you don’t know what’s happened to you in this city. Not wanting to betray your Western parameters, yet mistrusting them as something too easily gained.

What is valid?

Survival in this city is a matter of chance.
She liked that. She wondered whether places like Mumbai, where survival was chance, also revealed the boundaries of art. If art was socially critical, it was no longer art, it was message. If it stood alone, it turned scornful.

She was familiar with that from her own work. Sometimes a thing was what it was only when it was alone and unknown. If you pointed a camera at it or cast it in the narrative conventions of reporting, you energized it with the audience’s meaning, its norms and judgements. Quite in passing you ruined what you wanted to show by showing it. Maybe part of a discovery was that you couldn’t share it? What had enabled the discovery was the absence of everything, and this absence had to be preserved. A contradiction. You want to show something, but you’re thrown back on the misunderstandings, the necessary imprecisions of the available forms that corrupt what is shown.

She recalled moments as a reporter that no one had ever learned about. Light. Eyes. A train with the sun-hot wind roaring through it. There were three children, too. Five, six and nine. Brothers. They were traveling to Churchgate Station to shine shoes. They had no shoes on their feet. They picked up Theresa’s scarf from the ground when it slid off the bench in the vibration of the train. The children knew everything. They knew what we’ll never know (suddenly she was speaking to Holle), but for a few minutes they allowed me to be with them. Picked up the scarf for me, put it back on the bench and said goodbye, and I knew that from then on they’d always be with me. These children are always there. I can’t forget these children. They’d go away only if I told about them.

From Die endlose Stadt © Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt 2015

The Invention of Life

Author: Hanns-Josef Ortheil
Translator: Sharon Howe


Die Erfindung des Lebens (“The Invention of Life”) is a largely autobiographical story, which begins in the early childhood years of the author’s fictional alias Johannes in the 1950s. Johannes’ mother has lost the ability to speak following the loss of four sons during the war, and her emotional vulnerability and isolation affect him strongly, stunting his development and depriving him too of the power of speech. It’s only when he learns to play the piano that he finds a way to express himself, and a temporary separation from his mother, when his father takes him away to the countryside, enables him to finally blossom and find his own identity. This passage occurs early on in the book, and is one of the turning points of the story. It starts with the arrival of the piano at the family’s home, which stirs up painful memories of the past for Johannes’ parents but also triggers the beginning of his healing process and paves the way for his future as a gifted pianist and, later on, a writer.
If faith gave my childhood a foundation and a meaning, it couldn’t really help me as far as my muteness was concerned. Sometimes I try to imagine what would have become of me had my life continued in the way I have described up to now. Essentially, I was fit for nothing but to remain an eternal imbecile who ran away whenever others got too close, and who would never be able to understand or learn any of the things they absorbed so readily.

That I didn’t end up leading such a lame-brained existence was thanks to a spontaneous outside event, in fact it was pure coincidence, in the form of a sudden inspiration on the part of one of my mother’s brothers. This older brother was vicar of a large parish in Essen, where he kept his flock well entertained with his impressive sermons.

At that time, his study at the vicarage was occupied by a piano donated to him by his parishioners in the confident belief that it would be in daily use. Indeed, they had probably imagined His Reverence at the keyboard every evening, reflecting on his next sermons over a Bach chorale.

In later years, my uncle once told me that he had in fact always hated that piano. It reminded him of his piano lessons, he said, and the high standard his mother (and hence my grandmother) had expected of him, when in truth he had no aptitude and wasn’t the least bit interested. No, the real piano playing talent of the family, he said, was my mother.

To free himself from the burden of these false expectations, my uncle had suddenly decided one afternoon, at the sight of the untouched, unwanted instrument scowling back at him reproachfully, to part with it for good. He wanted it out of his sight, never more to be reminded of all the censure and heartache he had had to endure over his poor musicianship. And so he informed the parish council that he wanted to refurbish his study out of his own pocket in a new, more contemporary style.
One morning, the dark brown piano—a Sailer by make—was heaved up the staircase to our flat and pushed into the dining room by two removal men. I can clearly recall the sensation caused by the delivery of this new item. The neighbours gathered in the stairwell and we had to face their usual mockery, the irony of the mute family acquiring a piano giving them a further cause for cheap jibes.

Once the removal men had gone, my mother set about cleaning the instrument meticulously. She polished the wood with a pale-coloured tincture and then worked on each key in turn until the whole thing gleamed, giving off an intoxicating whiff of alcohol. I sat next to her on the floor, watching her; I had been told that Mother was a good piano player but I couldn’t imagine it, so I waited patiently for the big moment.

It was a long time coming, however. Having once cleaned the instrument, my mother closed the lid, ran her right hand critically over the wood again and then left the room. But she did so in a curious fashion, walking backwards one step at a time, her scrutinising and admiring gaze still fixed on the piano as if she couldn’t bring herself to look away.

I got up slowly and followed her, with the same backward, step-by-step motion. It must have been a bizarre spectacle, mother and son retreating as if from the presence of royalty, so that its highness might rest from the rigours of a long journey in the furniture van.
If I’d expected the cleaning of the piano to be a prelude to Mother’s playing, I was soon disappointed. Every day I waited for her to take the plunge, but all she did was open the lid each time and apply more tincture to the keys, so carefully you could barely hear a sound.

I was itching to sit at the instrument myself and see what it sounded like, but I didn’t dare as I wanted to give Mother first go. After all, Father himself would only give it a cursory glance of an afternoon, as if to make sure it was still there, and alright. It was as if a guest had taken up residence with us, and a discreet distance had to be respected until we were on more familiar terms.

As for me, I couldn’t take my eyes off the piano. From the moment it arrived in our flat, I felt a special connection to it which was bound up with its peculiar status. In one way it seemed to belong to my mother and her past, but at the same time it was an alien being which had penetrated our closed circle and not yet found its proper place. It was like some prima donna, demanding to be pampered and indulged but unable to earn its keep. It was as if we didn’t know what else to do with it but polish and stare at it, when it would have been the ideal means of bringing life and sound into our silent household at last.

After a while, all this began to get to me. I couldn’t wait any longer, and I couldn’t understand why Mother went so over the top with the cleaning and polishing. The brown, usually closed carcase was already so shiny you could see your reflection in it. Sometimes I would slowly crawl over to it along the floor and touch the two cool metal pedals; then I would push the lid up slightly and kneel up to survey the parade of black and white keys. It still had a faint churchy smell, a smell of mystery, wood and incense. I closed my eyes and breathed in the strange odour; yes, that was it: something about it evoked the holy mass, the hissing sound of the organ, the angels’ wings, the singing of the congregation. How wonderful it would be to strike those keys—what rejoicing there would have been in our flat!
The big moment came entirely out of the blue early one evening, when Father and I were sitting in the kitchen leafing through our newspapers and magazines. I remember it well: it was getting a bit too dark to read, with just a pale, diffuse overhead light illuminating the kitchen. The kitchen door was wide open, when all at once we heard Mother playing. It came rippling towards us along the hall, a big sound that grew steadily louder, as if something powerful had suddenly breached the walls of silence, and the outside world, shut out for so long, had burst in triumphantly at last.

Looking back, I know that I have never experienced a more powerful or beautiful moment. All at once, everything changed. Suddenly life became real to me: there it was, fresh, mind-blowing, thrilling, as if poised to grab me forcibly and release me from my dream-like existence. It was like an epiphany, instantly intoxicating—yes, that music was a force I was drawn to instinctively, for it sang and spoke of freedom and happiness, making me forget all my suffering at a stroke.

I stared at Father and saw that he was dumbstruck, mouth open and eyes wide as if the music had sent him into shock; I saw him shake his head in disbelief, run his hand through his hair and press the back of his hand to his lips, not knowing what to do… the flow of sound seemed to hit him in a way that compelled him to resist.

All this lasted four or five minutes, during which our rented flat was transformed into a palace with vast corridors and mighty halls; at the far end of all the chambers and passages was the concert hall, the blue salon, where a virtuoso was performing, a brilliant pianist from a foreign land—Russia or the Orient—who had come specially to enchant us with her playing.

We remained seated, motionless, until at length I saw Father grip the table with both hands. I’d never seen him so helpless and it scared me slightly. But the flicker of fear was outweighed by the happiness the music inspired in me: it felt instinctively like an escape into the open, to that better world I had so far only gained a vague notion of during mass. Was it difficult to play like that? Or was it something that just came with a bit of practice?

I was about to creep over to the dining room when it all broke down. I heard a few more chords, followed by loud, dissonant strokes, and finally individual notes, some very high, some like a reverberant pounding from the depths, as if someone were taking their rage out uncontrollably on the instrument. Then it went quiet, and we heard Mother sobbing and rasping; it was like a wild, demented song, as if she had lost her senses or hurt herself. And yet it had a strange affinity with the loud chords and notes; it sounded like a different kind of music, a demonic kind that was now forcing its way inexorably through the angelic sounds of before, bent on destroying them.

Father stood up at once and signalled to me clearly to stay put in the kitchen; it was evident that I wasn’t to witness this terrible thing under any circumstances. For a moment I agonised over whether to do as I was told, but then I got up and ventured cautiously into the hall, sliding along the wall until I reached the door of the dining room. I only wanted a quick look inside, just for a second; surely they couldn’t just shut me out like that? Why were they abandoning me?
It was the most harrowing sight I have ever seen. Mother was still sat on the piano stool, but had pushed it right back from the piano. She was doubled over with her head bent low, crying bitterly, while Father tried to hold her and pull her to him. Without moving from the spot, he held her shoulders and squeezed her awkwardly, his face rigid, as if turned to stone; he was grinding his teeth, his lips pressed together tightly, and his gaze was directed not at Mother, but up at the ceiling. He was trying with all his might to control himself, and the effort made the veins in his temples stand out—pale red runnels that suddenly furrowed his smooth skin, ageing him in an instant. Why doesn’t he cry out? I thought. Go on Father, just shout and holler as loud as you can!

I felt myself go ice cold, unable to move. The imaginary palace had turned into a dark movie; an alien horror had taken possession of my parents and nothing could be done to save them. I couldn’t remain hiding in the hall any longer; I had to help them now. So I took a deep breath and went towards them, though I had no idea what I could have done. I stopped just short of their intimate circle, my arms hanging by my sides, not daring to touch them, as if I might harm them, or be similarly stricken by their grief.

The only thing I could do for now was to stay close by them and wait till they were in a better state. I couldn’t see Mother’s face amid her loosened shock of hair, so I looked up at Father, and sure enough, his stony expression was slowly coming back to life. He seemed to be over the worst, and I saw him start to move again, stroking my mother’s hair over and over with a chalk-white hand. Then the hand moved to his trouser pocket and pulled out a hanky. Fortunately, Father always had a large handkerchief on him; though he seldom used it, he would always put a fresh one in his pocket early each morning.

His hand was still shaking a little as he held out the hanky to Mother, right in front of my eyes; I could see that trembling handkerchief of Father’s just a few inches away from me—a gesture that gave me a sharp pang and moved me almost to tears. And yet I was at a loss to understand what was going on. Why had Mother started to cry so suddenly, and why were my parents so transfixed by the music? After all, they were used to hearing music all the time, music on the radio, music in church. Yet I had never seen it make them cry before. I guessed it must have something to do with the past, that dark, blighted past; something bad must have happened to have put such a terrible end to Mother’s piano playing.

As Mother couldn’t see the hanky herself, I took it from Father’s hand and held it out to her, touching her side with my hand. She straightened a little and ran her right hand through her hair. Now I could see her face again, as her long dark hair fell away to either side like twisted, tangled vines. She looked dazed, as if waking from a hideous dream. To my relief, she recognised me and took the hanky from me quite matter-of-factly, dried and rubbed her eyes, then hugged me as if we had finally found each other again after a long odyssey.

As for Father, he left the dining room and went over to the bathroom. I heard him running the tap and drinking from his cupped hand, and I knew his next actions would be to wet his face and rub it dry with a towel. I could picture it all exactly: that at least was something I could be sure of.

Meanwhile, Mother stood up and blew her nose one last time, then paused a moment, as if she’d had a bright idea. I could literally feel it forming and taking root in her mind. It was born of her despair, the piano and me, and it was the single second that would determine the rest of my life.

As she got up from the piano stool, she pulled me closer to her, closer and closer. All she needed to do was pivot and guide me slightly for me to understand what she meant: she wanted me to sit on the stool in her place. I sat down and dangled my legs as I used to on the bench by the Rhine; now I was sitting in front of the black and white keyboard I had stolen a look at many times before. Was I supposed to play it now—was that her intention?

The black and white keys stared back at me, as if waiting to see what would happen next. I wanted to signal that I was ready, so I placed both hands carefully on the keyboard, fingers spread wide, without pressing a single key. While my hands hovered, ghost-like, on the keys, my mother bent over me and struck a key with her right index finger; three or four times she tapped on the white ivory, then all was still. I reached out with my right index finger and struck the same key, turning briefly to look at Mother: yes, she was happy for me to go on. And so I began to wander slowly up the keyboard with my right index finger, one key at a time: first the white ones, then just the black ones, then white and black alternately. When I got to the top I went all the way down again: first white, then black, then white and black alternately, till I had covered the whole keyboard.

But I didn’t stop there: I continued with my left index finger, touching first the white keys then the black ones. I was oblivious by now to everything else around me, and only had ears for the music: it was my music, I was making music—at last I had found something that would make people notice me.
Later I was told I had carried on hitting the keys for nearly two hours, and would have gone on longer if the neighbours hadn’t protested. All the little quirks and habits I had developed so far seemed to feed into my playing. I memorised key combinations and tried out new variations, giving them animal and plant names and sketching out great maps in my imagination where each animal and plant had its own particular place. It was as if I’d been set the task of making a list with hundreds and thousands of entries out of my own head, and which I alone could differentiate.

If those long cathedral masses were like a foretaste of salvation, then playing the piano was even better: it was the real thing. This devout youngster was no longer a dumb, helpless imbecile but a piano player who now had a regular occupation. That very evening of my first encounter with the piano, I stowed all my toys away behind the curtain in the hall and arranged them on the pale wood shelves. The only other thing I would still take an interest in was my comics; otherwise my life would revolve entirely around the piano.

Playing the piano was a release, putting an end to those humiliating days spent moping around the flat and being sneered at in the local shops and businesses, or brushed aside in the playground. At last I had found a way out of my imbecilic existence, at last I had a concrete plan with a definite goal: from now on, I would practise morning and afternoon, I would prove that I too had abilities, and one day I would become a good pianist, and later perhaps an even better organist.


It was much later that I heard Mother play properly; before that, she became my first piano teacher. It must have been quite something to behold: mother and son sitting in front of a piano, exploring the instrument together yet unable to speak to each other.

First, the lid of the dark brown case would be opened. From above you could see the entire machinery: the white felt hammers, the taut strings. You could pluck the strings or hit them with the hammers, you could slide all five fingers along them in a rippling glissando, or you could grasp them randomly with both hands to invent your own ecstatic sound sequences. The inside of the piano was like a miniature orchestra which could be made to hiss and roar, and you could play free compositions on it until your fingers grew hot.
Much more difficult were the finger exercises, which we started with straightaway. For the first few months I didn’t learn a note, but repeatedly copied the short phrases and melodies Mother played to me. We begin with short motifs for the right hand, then bass exercises for the left, and after about a month I could play with both hands together.

I immediately understood that I had to fix the motifs and phrases in my head and keep playing them, first in slow motion, then gradually faster, but so that the finger movements could still be observed. If I was sloppy and played too fast, Mother would pull my hands away from the keyboard and play the passage again at a steady tempo.

It was a hard training regime which took a lot of patience; indeed, it was like a sport designed to strengthen every finger so that it could perform ever faster and lighter movements. After a while, I started doing the exercises outside my piano lessons too. I would catch myself moving my fingers while leafing through my comics; even during mealtimes I would sometimes drum them rapidly on the spot, as if constantly in action.
Only later did I realise that Mother had based her tuition on Czerny’s Finger Exercises. From this textbook she put together a short programme of drills, though not in Czerny’s recommended order. And yet I can’t recall ever having seen those notes during my first few months of tuition. There were never any notes—Mother kept them hidden from me, and I only discovered them years later, with copious highlighting and Mother’s own specially compiled lists.
Besides practising these short pieces, my greatest pleasure was freestyle. This would take place after my training sessions, and gave me the chance to try out something new. I could invent my own little melodies and construct my own pieces, I could do whatever I liked without anyone interfering, not even Mother, who would withdraw when I started improvising.

Often I would spend more time on this than on my practice itself, and I believe to this day that it is through improvisation more than obsessive practice that a soul becomes infected with music. It was through improvisation that I found my way around the piano without any commands or rules, and developed a strong, emotional connection with it. These sessions usually took the form of a dialogue with the instrument, and there where special moments when I would even combine playing the keys with reaching inside it. This I would do standing, my left hand deep inside the case and my right on the keyboard.

Decades later, I went to a Keith Jarrett concert where he too began the performance standing up, one hand plucking the strings of the grand piano, the other accompanying on the keyboard. I closed my eyes and suddenly I could hear myself playing as a youngster. I can still recall that hot surge of emotion, taking me right back to my childhood. For a moment I was even afraid I might lose the power of speech again. I had to get up and leave on the spot—I virtually fled the place, even though I’d been looking forward to that concert intensely for months.

It’s only now that I realise how ideal piano practice was for me back then. It meant the end of those boring, wasted hours at the playground, and the beginning of a rigorous training schedule, the fruits of which were plain to see. Those two hours each morning and afternoon were no ordeal for me; they were the best and most important part of the day.

What’s more, I could see and feel the pleasure my parents took in my achievements. Sometimes Mother was so thrilled that she would come into the dining room while I was improvising and listen for a while, then at some point she would start to clap. Mother clapping! Mother smiling! Had I ever known her so pleased with me before, and so approving of what I was doing?

I was no longer a thing of insignificance, unworthy of notice: no, now I was a piano player who played to compensate for his lack of speech and as a vehicle to express himself.

From Die Erfindung des Lebens © Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 2009

Residual Warmth

Author: Kerstin Preiwuß
Translator: Bradley Schmidt

He only feels sorry for them in summer. Made for soft soil, their paws scrape on the wire, their fur, thick and oily for life in a damp habitat, cinches ever tighter and dries them out till they suffocate. Then they drop like flies, and when he goes along the cages he can reach in and gather them up, one after the other. There they lie, paws protruding as far through the mesh as their webbing allows, no longer trembling. Then it really gets to father, so many of them all at once, it moves him, no one is immune, the fur can’t even be used. They’d have to be kept moist, three baths daily, but that would take too much time and water and energy, after all there’ll be more to come. He mates the survivors together in the next rut, and then the females whelp and give birth to new mink, and everything starts anew, for seven, eight months, till the pelts have formed, then he grabs them by the neck with forceps and places them on a table, pulls them apart, inserts an iron rod into the rectum, forces a metal ring into the snout and holds them down till the current courses through. They immediately stretch out and are dead within about a minute.

But it’s inefficient, just one at a time, and watching them die starts to get to you. It’s better to do it with gas, put twenty or more into a box and pipe in exhaust fumes so the fur isn’t damaged. No bullet holes or knife wounds, just gas. Gas silently entering the nostrils and after about fifteen minutes making the bodies suddenly go limp, so he can get them out with a shovel later, so many in one fell swoop. Then the bodies lie there on the duckboard as if mowed down, and there are droppings on the ground. Then they are only pelts that are pulled from the warm bodies, till every mink looks like a naked mole rat. The skin is white under the fur and the faces are blind since ears, eyelids and noses come off with the pelt. There’s hardly anything left in the end. The pelt is stretched on a board, paws and tail stuffed with paper, and placed in a well-ventilated room to dry. Then they are sent off and processed into something greater. No more outlines to be seen, their bodies disappear into the folds of a coat, and some woman will soon run her hands over it. Her fine leather gloves are so thin that any mink could mangle her fingers, but she only feels the warming fur, light as a feather, its tips trembling.

So it continues for months and years on end, and no one lays eyes on the pelts, the fur immediately delivered to the furrier and then off to the trade fair in Leipzig, where it is sold abroad. Father once saw a brochure advertising mink pelts, finest quality made in GDR.

It affects father, it afflicts him, he can’t get rid of the smell hanging over the farm like a pall, death lurking in every smell of wild animal, and sometimes the trembling of the mink transfers to his hands and he wishes he had a different job. But he ended up here and can be grateful for it. After the war he helped dig graves in the cemetery, so many of them, big and small, for the men and women and children who had hanged themselves, walked into the lake, or died of tuberculosis. That and the ashes given to the roads department were too much for him, there had been enough of that in the years before. So he trained as an agricultural inspector, where you only had to test the grain for pest infestation. But that was right on the border and he was never at home, and you have to watch out, your manners deteriorate when you’re so far away from your wife and children. You bunk together in a bungalow, four to a room, and sometimes the empty bottles roll over the floor in the evening, what with the memories, they all had their crosses to bear. I could tell you stories that would open your eyes and make your jaw drop. When we advanced through the Pontic steppe on our way to the Crimea we spotted horses, camels, and antelopes in the distance. In the middle of the steppe the road took us past a Garden of Eden with a zoo and a botanical garden. It had been the brainchild of a German prince. Now, everything had been abandoned and all the Germans were gone, save for a cross for an old lady, the mother of the prince most likely, whom people said the Soviets had shot in her own home. As we marched on we encountered German houses with pointed roofs and white Ukrainian huts thatched with straw. We burned the huts to the ground. Beforehand we watched movies of naked-legged dancing girls.

But it’s better to sit together and drink and say nothing at all, there’s enough solidarity, that also warms you up, and look at this, a bullet made that hole, I was never so good with my left hand, but it was worth it, I got away from the front.

The images he goes to bed with pack a punch. That’s why father sometimes has to get up at night. Then he’s drawn to the shed where the seed is stored in sacks. He’s not quite himself anymore, but strong as an ox, and the juices boil up inside him, and from his belly the rage floods his veins and climbs up the ladder of his nerves till it transforms his head into a seething cauldron. And if ever he’s a man, then now, and it’s war, whether these sacks know it or not, and he takes what he needs. Then his arteries suddenly contract, causing the blood to halt briefly before spurting again, and all the brown sap runs backwards from his brain through his veins, till everything that finds a way in also finds a way out, like the people chased into the house; and the human torches are red, they lick the windows from the inside, and when a torch escapes the house he chases it back in, the rooster crowing from the roof is red, the faces of his buddies forming a semicircle around the house are red, the flames that suddenly resemble women’s faces are red and want to entice him inside with their high voices, till all at once the women’s voices become a shrill note and he presses his hands against his temples so that it all stops, as if eels had crept inside his head and bitten each other, electric eels with their current now surging, and the blood flowing out of everyone’s body flows red, and the color of love is red, just like rage, and in the end only death is black, night becomes black after the fire dies down, the charred bodies the next day are black, but the teeth stay white, and what gushes out of him during the fire is white, in the end the hand he holds in front of his body and then cleanly pierces with a bullet is white, a wound that can be considered a war injury. And finally the pressure subsides, and he sees that he’s leaning against one of the sacks in the shed he’d thrust against, and how you can lose control of yourself. Then the shame comes and won’t let him go. The shame always comes afterwards, and stays. It stokes his rage till it boils over and the eels bite their way through his brain and his entire body trembles, and it’s a formula that applies to his entire life. While his brain is being shredded, lust and rage begin to mix inextricably, so that he doesn’t know why he senses lust when he is furious, and always has to slip into a rage to feel lust, and this secret feeling of himself as a man bleeds into everything else, and from then on rage and lust and shame form a calamitous chain reaction.

The only thing that helps him deal with the tremors is drinking. It does something to his blood, makes it thinner, circulating through his head and lungs and back through his body, making it easier for him to breath despite the pressure falling over him like blight, the worst thing that could possibly afflict a plant. When there’s blight on plants, everything has to be gassed, the entire harvest. And due to his skill at gassing things, father was able to get a different job and has worked on the farm since then. But he can’t get rid of the blight, and he also brought the tremors back with him, and that’s why he often comes late to supper, stopping here and there for a drink, schnapps or brandy, till it starts to boil over, till the mink come back from the dead and bite into their own fur, sporting whiskers electrically charged with booze. Then the purple cloud runs riot through his brain, then he’s filled with rage, and maybe his wife has started something while he works hard all day for the meager pay, maybe she’ll saddle him with a mailman’s child.

She still acts as if she had no idea that it already shows, but he sure can see it. Supper is waiting in the kitchen, the children are already in bed. He knows that she secretly despises him. How he would love to just bring her a couple pelts so she could see what he does, but it’s all earmarked for production, it all goes abroad, regardless of whether to fellow socialist or capitalist countries, and then she must consider him a weakling who can’t even bring his wife something home from work like everyone else does, sausage or wood or screws from the factory, and that is why he’s not a man in her eyes. So he’ll slap her around, putting her in her place before mounting her, and only later does he come to his senses and see his wife beneath him, staring at the ceiling. It doesn’t get any lonelier than this, but he doesn’t tell her that, just rolls to the side and gives her the covers. It’s important she knows he stands his ground like a man.

From Restwärme © Berlin Verlag, 2014