Archives

Treves, Easter 1041
Calvary, Little Birds
Adamitic
Underwood
Predators
Check for Yourself

Author: Heinrich Detering
Translator: Paul-Henri Campbell

 

Treves, Easter 1041

no they have not come for the procession
not to venerate the holy man
not at all have they come for they lie
here as always

they do not desire his blessing or his
robes blankets gems they don’t give a damn
about the money that he holds out to them as
they raise their heads

when they whack the bishop and his minions
out of their saddles toss the coins aside
assault the horses jumping at them with fists
the horses

strangled torn chewing their flesh drinking
their blood the raw sacrament of beasts
the only ones who still do not understand
bleeding to death

 

Calvary, Little Birds

of dust and mud he had made little birds
that flew across the road upon his command
all had seen it (a generation ago)

his footfall was so gentle that as he stepped out
from the shore onto the lake he did not leave
the slightest trace on the water everyone saw it

when a friend died he called him up
out of the earth upon that command he returned as though
gravity itself pulled him upwards some saw it

like now when all see him there on the road
caving under the weight of a wooden beam
forcing him down on the ground sweating and bleeding

a beam upon which he soon will be hung to die
and all of them see birds coming the birds
the hungry little birds

 

Adamitic

when Adam named each creature
he ruled the world escaped fear
and forgot his own expiration

when Adam named each creature
none of them understood a word indeed
it seemed they were not even listening

when Adam named each creature
he banished himself with each word
into a language that was of no concern to them

when Adam named each creature
they barked bellowed warbled on
and simply trudged darted sailed away

to dark mysteries and to
mute depths to
mute depths

 

Underwood

the border ran right through our car
in the woods between Sweden and Norway
when we had lost our way when we
came to a halt at the border post in the underwood

ruckus hooting on the backseat
in the woods between Sweden and Norway
the joy that a line ran between us

an utterly invisible line

 

Predators

when they chase doves around

in the parking lot in the schoolyard
at the bus stop

when their shouting sounds as if
they were mimicking gunshots

when they grow in strength because the
doves are fleeing from them

then they are evil



Check for Yourself

after I was born mother counted
each one of my toes and fingers
and then calmly leaned back into the pillows

after she had told me that again
yesterday on the phone I sat still for a moment
then I counted and checked one more time and

leaned back into my arm chair everything
indeed was still there

 

From Heinrich Detering, Wundertiere. Gedichte.  (Of Beasts and Miracles.  Poems.)  Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen, 2015.

Educator
The Heart-Lung Machine Answers
Le petit garcon, platonique
Semana Santa
Versions
Lycanthropy

Author: Nora Gomringer
Translator: Annie Rutherford

 

Educator 

I am the virus which like every virus
teaches you. Understand me well: 

I am obeisance, open doors, hold
them open for all kinds of visitors.
The informer is the guest
who with tender interlocking
makes you blush until you leave,
caught out by our night.
The stains then bear a name,
as I bore many, when I was still
just noise and made of smoke
which drifted upwards out of bars.
I kiss the man who kisses men.
I come in the false blood that saves.
I am in every drop, am two-faced,
split-tongued, you have my word.
So I kiss Dallas cowboys, lovely angels
and the smallest, youngest from the sleep
w
hich they dreamt nine moons long.
And you dose acronyms
into the veins of my beloveds,
poison them in quite another way.
I am the virus which like every virus
teaches you. See the other, the other,
the always other as your wolf.
See clearly. Hear me. What I say
does not stem from me.

Place your finger
upon this mouth
when you have heard me out. 

 

The heart-lung-machine answers 

Since I can think
love has been my motor.
Of course I know an Off,
which is followed by an Over,
but when you ask like that, 

then I am love no matter who the person.

 I am so real that I am
beyond doubt.
Should your heart no longer love,
my motor then will love you.
And if no kisses breathe anymore
then I will kiss you without pause.

I am love from demi-gods in white.

 But I digress. You asked
if I could allow death. And I say: 

I am that great automated loveenforcementmachine.
And I smile, and I duplicate like Brecht must,
as laconic as he was just.
And my smiles are never seen.

 

Le petit garçon, platonique

This little boy,
we would have wanted to brood him longer
in the four motherwalls, the stomachyurt,
una volta mas.
When he came, the sun was dark,
the brain eclipsed and half in shadow
the comprehension of all involved.
w
ho was involved?
This little boy
is an alwaysaway,
halfwayhere,
overampedanalogue,
ubiquus.
The simultaneity person of the world.
Doctorspeaksostrange.
Through him is clear how unbearable
this world for those who feel.
Searching hard we also found a word
in the thicket, under leaves and shrubs:
written savant, meaning sauvage.

The little boy,
he speaks no French. To him
the Eiffel tower is mere steel and construction.
He’s helped by keyboards
and screaming, screaming, stroke
for stroke. It is as if
someone recognised us
by that cave fire, the arching inside wall:
a shadow.
Lines ago did I not write eclipse?

 For Birger Sellin, language giant

  

Semana Santa

 When the girl vanished,
she vanished completely.
Day 1 and everybody asked someone:
Where is she? they asked, and
Where did she so completely go?
Day 2 and a few crept
awkwardly in and out of the houses.
Day 3 and cats sat in the windows.
This was no sign.
Everyone knows the Felidae
hate humans.
Day 4 and in the distance a relation
said a prayer, whispered behind her hand.
Very quietly, at night, in the bathroom
under a very harsh light.
Day 5 and two or three cases harboured
things of the disappeared. Who was she again?
Day 6 and a replacement stood,
so suddenly it shocked, in the garden under a tree.
Day 7 and it was a woman.
And as is common for women she wore a skirt.
And as is common for women she wore her hair long.
And as is common for women she wore a ring.
B
eneath her veil
– as is common for women –
she became invisible.

 

Versions

and
a boat moors
Böcklin paints a boat which moors
enshadowed
compelling
a boatman nameless
all too willing to give himself away
Hitler possessed one version
Utoya became one
island
enshadowed
compelling
a boat moors
on board a death
an advocate for the crossover
B
öcklin paints a boat which moors
a boatman nameless
versions of Breivik
on board a death
peaceless
compelled
enshadowing
unshadowed
an island
and

 

Lycanthropy 

you too a wee pelt
you too a wee dog
y
ou too a wee murderer
you too a wee claw
you too a wee tooth
you too a good eater
you too a wee spring
you too a wee bullet

you too a silverling 

you too a wolf

 

 

From:
“Versions,” Lycanthropy”: Monster Poems, Voland & Quist and Co., Berlin, 2014.
“The Heart-Lung Machine Answers,” “Le petit garcon, platonique,” “Educator”: Morbus, Voland & Quist and Co., Berlin, 2016.
“Semana Santa”: Moden, Voland & Quist and Co. Berlin, 2018.
 

Aus:
“Variationen,” Lycanthropie”: Monster Poems, Verlag Voland & Quist GmbH, Berlin..
“Die Herz-Lungen-Maschine antwortet,” “Le petit garcon, platonique,” “Erzieher”: Morbus, Verlag Voland & Quist GmbH, Berlin, 2016.
“Semana Santa”: Moden, Verlag Voland & Quist GmbH, Berlin, 2018.

 

A Strasbourg Sukkot

Author: Barbara Honigmann
Translator: Margaret May

 

Our whole quarter had turned more and more into a “second ghetto,” with many young Jewish families moving in and setting up their “Shearim” house of prayer and instruction in a nearby street. Our local district mayor, who is very concerned with peaceful inter-faith relations, even made a little speech at its dedication ceremony. So Peter felt that the time had come to erect a “sukkah,” a tabernacle or booth, in our courtyard. This would mean we’d no longer have to make our way through the streets every year during the eight-day Sukkot festival lugging bags of pots and bowls full of ready-prepared meals to eat in communal sukkahs. Nor would we constantly have to be invited to the tables of others who had no problem getting permission to build sukkahs in their courtyards or on their balconies. Peter suggested we put up a sukkah in one of the furthest corners of the courtyard next to the bike stands, small and unobtrusive of course, so that the neighbours wouldn’t take offence. Because I’m afraid of confrontation with the neighbours and by nature or upbringing try to avoid any conflict – in other words, I’m a coward – I didn’t really believe in his project or provide any effective support. But I didn’t oppose it either.

This all came from my bad memories of the first Sukkot we celebrated in Strasbourg, thirty years earlier. Just as we had sat down to eat in the sukkah, the neighbours from the upper floors pelted its canopy – open-weave, of course, as prescribed – with rotten tomatoes and other rubbish. We were actually in a courtyard surrounded by rather grand upper-class apartments dating from the late nineteenth century, in the vicinity of the European Parliament – in other words, one of the “better quarters” of the city. Our host at that time owned the biggest and most long-established kosher butcher’s shop in Strasbourg. So perhaps it was this symbolic figure who was the target of the rotten tomatoes, which gave us all a fright when they thudded down with a noise that reverberated round the courtyard. Most of the people who had gathered in the sukkah came from the “Etz Chaim” community, which was still mainly German-speaking, and they would often invite us when we first moved to Strasbourg and were learning French.

In New York, by contrast, there was even at that time a whole Sukkah City in Union Square, as I read in the paper. Young architects took part in a competition to build sukkahs in all conceivable materials and shapes, and these remained there during the seven-day festival (which lasts eight days in the diaspora). They were not just for show, either: people were allowed to sit inside them to consume their festive meals.

Here in Strasbourg everything is much more discreet, but immediately after Yom Kippur, four days before Sukkot, you can see a crop of sukkahs suddenly sprouting out of the ground, as it were, dotted around on balconies and in courtyards. Moreover, the Jewish community and the whole panoply of synagogues and other informal places of prayer and instruction will put up sukkahs to which you can bring your pre-prepared meals. There you meet other families and share a table with them, either eating together or at different sittings. You unpack your food and pack it up again while the children go off to play and then have to be told to calm down, so it’s like a campsite. That’s how we’ve been doing it for years.

But Peter was quite convinced that it was time to build our own sukkah. He went from door to door in our apartment block, explaining Project Sukkah at great length to all our neighbours, assuring them that we wouldn’t be creating any disturbance or mess, saying the whole thing only lasted eight days, and asking them to agree. Eventually he had 29 signatures of consent from neighbours, out of a total of at least five stairwells opening onto the block’s inner courtyard, a communal space housing the refuse bins, a few garages, and a growing number of bikes. He came back and said that most of the neighbours had seen no problem, some were even enthusiastic, others had been in favour, and some had agreed only with reservations. It had to be said that one, an emeritus professor, believed he had to draw Peter into a religious dispute. He argued that the Jews really should not be clinging to such outward signs and medieval regulations but ought by now to be moving with the times. Peter explained to him that these regulations were not in the least bit medieval but in fact dated from ancient times, when the Jews were already living among the most modern peoples and cultures – which, by the by, had long since collapsed – and the whole thing about outward signs was another old canard, which even St Paul had gone on about, to no avail. At which point Peter politely wished him a nice day.

Next Peter took up arms in the bureaucratic battle and sent a letter to the house management requesting a vote at the general meeting of apartment owners on whether permission for the temporary erection of a sukkah in the courtyard should be granted. For Peter, punctiliousYekke that he is, had decided to pursue the legal route. There followed a short war over formalities, in which we even took on a lawyer – a friend of ours, of course. And this was followed by a back and forth of letters, warnings, and reprimands, until finally the house management decided that our Project Sukkah contravened the house rules and some regulation or other, but it didn’t impose anything like a ban as a result of this decision. It simply didn’t put the issue on the agenda for a vote. So since there had been no pronouncement, neither permission nor prohibition, we interpreted the undefined legal position to our advantage, according to the principle that whatever has not been expressly forbidden is allowed, and we ordered a sukkah online from the American Sukka Depot Center. Delivery was prompt, and all the appropriate accessories were included, according to the rabbinical directives and dimensions, no smaller and no bigger, all cleverly put together in a kit that could be conveniently stored in your cellar for reuse the following year. The materials for sukkahs have developed in parallel with the general equipment for camping, hiking, climbing, trekking, and other outdoor activities. They are light yet sturdy, water-repellent, quick-drying, and require absolutely no tools for their construction, everything just slots together. The kit also contains the S’chach, the canopy. Ours is made of bamboo, though some people just lay branches across the walls. According to regulations the canopy has to be made so that it is not really secure but lets in light and sun, and wind and rain too, and you have to be able to see through it. In this way it is meant to remind us how unsheltered and unprotected we are in this world and how full of holes our lives are. Yet also, because the festival always falls on the 15th of the Hebrew month, if it’s not cloudy you can gaze admiringly at the full moon shining from afar in the starry sky.

On the Sabbath, which inevitably occurs during the festival, the words of Solomon the Preacher from Ecclesiastes are read out: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity … there is a time to get and a time to lose, a time to keep and a time to cast away.” Jews need to be reminded of this when they are sitting in these makeshift, unstable, and draughty huts – reminded of the fragility and uncertainty of their existence. And they must compensate for this with tenacity and adaptability, just as they did after the exodus out of Egypt, when they lived in tents in the wilderness – that empty, uncertain place where their newly won freedom consisted primarily in not knowing where to go next, what to do, or how things would turn out.

So for several years now, for about a week in autumn, our sukkah has its place, unobtrusive but impossible to ignore, in a corner of the courtyard next to the bicycles. It has two windows, and we always leave these open so that people can look in and observe us and see that we’re not slaughtering Christian children or engaging in any other unseemly activity. Moreover, we’ve fixed a note to it, protected by a plastic pocket in case it should rain, which says in large type: “Dear Neighbours, this little structure is only temporary and serves as the tabernacle for the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, which ends this year on …. If you have any questions or comments, please ring at the Honigmann door. Many thanks for your understanding.”

Then for eight days, at least twice a day, we move down from our second-floor flat into the courtyard, carrying food and drink, pots, plates, and glasses. Sometimes it’s quite chilly and we have to put on warm socks and a coat – after all, it is already autumn, and we’re living in exile in a northern land – and we sit squashed together rather uncomfortably, a bit like true nomads.

So far there has been only one incident, when some students in a neighbouring flat were having a noisy party. Around midnight they started throwing bottles and burning cigarette butts out of the window, and some of these fell onto the sukkah. But the bamboo canopy managed to withstand this, because even though bamboo does burn, it’s hard to ignite. Other neighbours had already called the police because of the noise, and the party was brought to an end by the guardians of law and order.

When the eight days of Sukkot are over, and with it the whole Jewish season of festivals, which begins a good three weeks earlier with Rosh Hashana – some people call this flood of feast days the “tunnel” – we emerge in a state of some spatial and temporal confusion, feeling a bit jet-lagged. Now we tell one another about our experiences with friendly or unfriendly neighbours. The biggest conflicts, apart from those with dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites, are with anti-religious Jews, who just can’t see why the city tolerates such religious practices and call the police to enforce what they see as the secular order of the French republic. Sometimes they even saddle their neighbours and fellow Jews with lawsuits. Of all the anecdotes told about Sukkot experiences, the favourite is always the one about the policemen who are called out and actually do hand out a formal warning, stipulating that this construction, this tabernacle, must be removed – and indeed within no more than eight days. And this always provokes great mirth and roars of laughter among all those observing this eight-day-long festival.

 

Excerpted from Chronik meiner Straße (A Chronicle of my Street).  Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2015.

 

 

 

Relocation
… but
Sisyphus
There
On the big wheel
Five lines

Author: Kurt Drawert
Translator: Steph Morris

 

Relocation

I understand my friends
in the East
less and less. Here between
the Hamme and Weser rivers

I know no-one.
Sometimes the deaf-mute
farmer from over the way
greets me, or an official

arrives as decreed
to deliver just what
I’d feared
with a casual gesture.

I was settled
nowhere and nowhere
was I at home, I confirm
without sadness. So what

should I seek out
if I stay.
What should stay
where it is?

The smell of wet
mildewed wood,
of rotten floorboards
clings in my memory,

the night-time discussions
were worthless
and have been sold
to the four

winds. Voyeurs
who knew better,
with the safe stasis
of the long winter

for support, with fine lines
broken apart
on a desk
in some sorry office.

Their silence
on that score,
my friends from yesterday,
is deafening, gone today

because yet again
it’s about missing
the wrong word
at the right moment, the kickoff,

the next stop down the hill.
I’ll get to the point now:
You lied to me. I
was someone else

at the heart of those soiled years.
But when, for a second,
I forget my name,
I totally understand

that foxhole of language
and feel regret
and view the rot
of conscience in its entirety

with leniency,
just as the autumn light
melts into the meadows
at dusk

and it all sinks
into the mist like tired
maltreated animals. But
I don’t understand it.

Yet my muscles
have relaxed and
the ostracised farmer
greets me.

Kurt Drawert, 1992

 

…but

there must be some legacy
with which the history of the body
– which, as silence will win
over remembrance,
I sometimes draw on too,
like an album of snapped sensations –
as well history itself
– given that the country within will crumble
like a ruined fortress
its name lost,
which you enter as a stranger
speaking another language –
can be elucidated.

Kurt Drawert, 1993

 

Sisyphus

Those were the days,
when there was a thing
you had to shift.

A mission bound
to fail at that gradient,
each time knocked back

and sent plummeting,
a punishment
only in an underworld

run by charlatans
with no feeling for the joys
of repetition

at least while matter
was part of the equation,
with no laws

to concern you unduly.
Since your acquittal
you’ve been drifting around

gazing at the void
in your hands,
repeatedly.

Kurt Drawert, 1996

 

There

I’d forgotten how we would meet
then, in those towns now full of
orphaned anthems

in search of a fatherland. In the ruins
of the last war a peaceful,
fatherless calm could be found.

I came here as a child, disturbed.
Here we had it good. Here language
stayed out of the body.

Later, at a tricky stage in life,
just as some of our voices
broke, with others it was

the spine, you recall.
I was gifted with
silence, there.

There, the grass is shooting up
already. The dip in the ground,
surely the place I dreamt of love,
is filled with grit, puddled algae
and oil, squashed tin cans,

a scorched patch. Even the earth here seeks
to deny its past. It had long gone dark
but I stood there still. Everything I heard
was alien. What I thought.
And it was day.

 

On the big wheel

When the axis of the turning wheel
links the rising cars
and the falling cars
along an even plane
there is a neutral instant
in which each are at
eye level.
Then the inevitable happens.
Pride is pride again, and a fall, a fall.

 

Five lines

I want to be like that again,
in love with a sense of love,
like a ship darting into the ocean,
blindly proud. And hearts are hearts
and stone will be stone, until the sails rip.

 

 

From:  Poetry of the German Democratic Republic.  S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2009.

Aus:  “Ortswechsel,” “… doch,” “Wo es war,” “Im Riesenrad,” “Fünf Zeilen,” “Sisyphos.”  Lyrik der DDR.  S. Fisher Verlage, Frankfurt am Main, 2009.

Fabulous

Author: Michael Amon
Translator: Edward Larkin, Thomas Ahrens

 

Please allow me to introduce myself

I park my newly acquired Ferrari Testarossa in one of the parking spots reserved for members of the board of directors. Well, speaking of the devil! The chief financial officer, my immediate supervisor, swooshes in at the same moment in a luxury sedan. Of course, he isn’t driving. He is being chauffeured, seated in the rear. I get out and act as if I don’t notice him. The chauffeur pulls up right behind my Ferrari and motions for me to move. I give him the finger – first assuring myself that the CFO has also seen my gesture – and leave the parking garage in an upbeat mood. I just love living clichés to the fullest, with grandezza.

I am not an impolite or vulgar person. Not at all irascible or hotheaded. But I get a great deal of pleasure out of defying the rules of a venerable banking institution, all the while knowing that they can’t do anything about it. They hate me. They despise me. They would terminate me immediately, without notice. But, unfortunately for them, I am one of those people who bring in the big bucks, the really big bucks, that pay not only for my Ferrari but also for the many other, less fabulous limousines available to the board of directors. So while they curse me in private, they let me park where I want. They ignore my extreme hand gestures and do not dare set foot in my department. We are wild guys through and through – we who work here. And I am the wildest. To be precise: the coolest. And I’m not the only one who says so. Everybody does.

My immediate boss has not been an active trader for some time; nowadays he only supervises the traders. But even he can’t tell if I am about to make a killing or take a bath on a contract. I always maintain the same calm demeanor when I’m looking at my computer screen, no matter how the supposed markets around the globe are behaving and no matter how volatile the graphs reflecting those events become. Even when the graph lines are horizontal, which only rarely occurs, no one is able to detect my boredom. A horizontal performance line (I’m talking about a line that looks like it’s been drawn with a ruler) offers very little opportunity for speculation – unless you can find some greedy bastard who is willing to make a deal that is just ridiculous – one that only the eggheads in our math department can understand. What they cook up is great. For the bank, that is, not for the client. They generate mathematical formulas to ensure that we always come out on top. It can get wacky when two banks are involved, but we avoid that. What do we have clients for! The more the markets heat up and the more eagerly people drool over profits, the more we can spread this mathematical manure among our profit-craving clients. And some days we are up to our eyeballs in drool, figuratively speaking. But that is not really my area.

I live on variances and timing. I keep an attentive eye on the screens, and as soon as Tokyo advances and Chicago retreats a little, I buy the shares in Chicago with the phone on my left and, even before I have the contract in hand, I sell it in Tokyo with the phone on my right. That’s all there is to it. Nothing more than that. But I do it a hundred times a day. Sometimes in seconds. Profits and losses. The trick is: you have to win more than you lose, at least once more. As long as I do that, I can drive the Ferrari, take the boss’s parking spot (which is tolerated even if amid expletives), and nonchalantly flip him the bird when he insists on parking in his reserved spot.

To be a trader, you really need to have excellent powers of concentration and a first-class memory. A one-day-memory. Contracts do not stay open overnight, at least not under normal circumstances. So you need to have all of the day’s open contracts in your head, and you are always afraid that you might forget one. That can cost the bank millions. Then the Ferrari is gone. And you can quickly become someone’s slave in an irrelevant trading department, pushing a couple of boring government bonds back and forth, and strictly avoiding the boss’s parking spot. Fortunately, my concentration is exceptional, and my memory is outstanding. I can hardly imagine having Alzheimer’s. I don’t even want to think about it. I love my invulnerability. In the trading room I am immortal. At least while I’m the better gambler.
No one in the trading room is as calm as I am. No one can tell when I am engaged in combat. That is my strength. That makes me invulnerable in the war of the marketplace, a marketplace that in truth doesn’t really exist, that in our business is only a fiction, nothing more. I really don’t care whether wheat is too expensive or too cheap. I am only interested in what I believe is happening: is the price rising or falling?

That determines whether I will buy or sell the contracts. In the end, I don’t have to eat the wheat. And I couldn’t anyway, given the amount that I speculate with. Neither the wheat nor the pork bellies. Even the currency that I push around the world is something that I don’t need. I don’t give a hoot about the value of the stuff that I trade. I am only interested in the difference between what the price is now and what it will be a second or a month from now. In a real market you have to understand true value. But for me it is only a question of guessing the difference between two prices at two different points in time. It is a guessing game, or at best a wager. What we are playing is “Old Maid;” it has nothing at all to do with a marketplace. We tell people about the “marketplace” just so that they will have something to believe in – because God is long gone. He is a fugitive on the road to nowhere, where He can tinker with a different, perhaps better universe, in the hope that He might get it right this time. Every day we create the market anew, as our God, just so that we can then point to something that is responsible for all the money that we lose for our investors. It is the market that punishes and rewards. The market, my ass! People believe this nonsense because we constantly pound it into them. But these markets don’t really exist. I am the market. I determine the price. I look for the price differential. A telephone on my left, a telephone on my right, and between them is my head, and that’s where the market is. That’s the simple truth. The market is in my head, going in one ear and coming out the other.

I don’t believe in anything anymore. And certainly not in markets! I might as well believe in this ephemeral God. For me it is enough to know that I won. I only need to keep my eyes on the screen, pick up the right telephone – I am repeating myself here – and get the better of whoever is on the other end of the line. I love the instability of the short-term graphs as compared to the smug calmness and serenity of the two-hundred-day moving average, which carries the performance of the share prices like a good bass player carries a walking blues tune, like Bill Wyman for the Stones. Just as Charlie Watts carries the Stones today. Maybe I’ll join the Stones when I have fifty winners and fifty-one losers, that is, if the Stones are still able to get on stage by themselves, or at least be rolled onto the stage in wheelchairs. And if the Stones are still alive at that point. And if they need a bass player for the moving average line. Keith Richards, with his piercing riffs, better represents instantaneous trading, the fluctuating ups and downs of nervous markets. Richards is second to none when he plays his riffs. I can only get that feeling when I’m out on the trading floor. He gets it on the guitar. Charlie Watts would be a good trader, but Bill Wyman would be better. In the old films of their concerts, Wyman is always seen playing off to the side, as if he’s not part of the group. That is exactly how I feel when I’m sitting in the trading room. I’m the Bill Wyman of traders. As if I didn’t belong with the rest of them.

Nothing bad can happen to me here. Whatever happens out there in these imaginary markets has no effect on me. I’m like a fish in a stream: I take whatever I can get. To be a trader is to keep your mouth wide open and swim into a school of fish. Perhaps I’m even the Mick Jagger of traders. Just one more time. That’s all I live for.

               I am a man of wealth and taste

Truth be told, I’m well off, even rich. I would never tell anyone that, but I am. Getting richer by the day. Effortlessly. Unintentionally. But purposefully. Sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t. It can certainly be debated whether I have good taste. That doesn’t bother me. The tie tack crowd on the top floor with their own dining room and their own chef think that my Ferrari is tasteless and nouveau riche; I think the same of their tie tacks. They think it’s disgusting that I’m moving ahead of them: on the freeway, with my salary, in life. I’m just faster. What’s zipping by, my friend, that is life. The guys upstairs taking the slow train will never get that. You can’t make money taking the slow train. True living only begins at 250 kilometers per hour. Anything slower than that is just standing still. They despise me, but they are happy to take the profits that I earn for them with our clients’ money. And before the clients get their money back, we all take a piece of it. In acting out their greed, the guys upstairs are almost as fast as we are. Almost. Although, I’m not greedy. I just take what I can get my hands on. And I certainly make a point to grab as much as I can. Taking, too, is a talent. Perhaps an even a greater talent than giving. In fact, it definitely is. Much greater.

I’m perfectly healthy. Fit as a fiddle, as they say here. You can’t be any healthier than I am. My heartbeat remains calm and steady as the share prices flicker across my computer screen. As the graph lines jump fitfully about, they create sharp peaks formed by the nervously fluctuating price variations and by the rapid alternation of highs and lows. I hold the phone calmly, and I place my orders dispassionately. No one can see whether I’m agitated or relaxed. There is nothing to be seen. I am unemotional, just a cool dude. The coolest dude in the trading room. In my mind’s eye I imagine the floor of the stock exchange in earlier times. The chaotic shouts, the traders’ spastic movements, and the feverish atmosphere. A seething mass of activity. But here and now everything is calm, in the room of the cool dudes. Grab what you can, and let the devil take the hindmost. Fortunately, I’m always first. The best. Perfectly healthy. And get even healthier the worse the trades unfold. Don’t even know what cholesterol is, spread it on my sandwich. A liver? I don’t have one. My brain functions precisely and is unaffected by external circumstances. Like a well-oiled machine. One cog turns another, no bucks or jams. No doctor could make a living off of me. People like me will be the downfall of medicine, the death of the pharmaceutical corporations (whose stock shares bore me to death). Can someone like me even die? How might that happen? Given my overall health? Cool dudes live forever. Forever and a day. Death is not worth the money that the insurance companies pay out. But I’m not so stupid as to bet on my death, though I bet on everything else, all the time. But betting on my death? No way! I’m not an idiot. As healthy as I am. I avoid bad deals. And that would be one. Count me out. I’ve got better things to do, namely, make money. You have to be out front. The truth is everywhere and nowhere, because it has no price. So it can’t be traded; it has no value to someone like me. I avoid getting too close to a so-called truth. Who likes staring into the abyss! An abyss is not tradable. Every once in a while, if we get too wild or carry on for too long, we fall into an abyss. But we pull ourselves out of trouble by skillful trades; I’m very good at that sort of thing. I have ice water in my veins. Nothing can unsettle me. I’m the master of the universe. It is my universe. God is sitting in a universe near ours, botching up the one beyond that. But I’m no God; people just think I am. I won’t fall into that trap. When the gods make love, they create devils. All of us here, the traders, we are gods. Immortal. Eternally healthy. There is no afterlife. No trade remains open. That is what I call eternity. After us – closed markets.

               I’ve been around for a long, long year

My year has forty months, or fifty, or one. Whatever is needed. Everything is one big gently flowing stream. My brain flattens out the spikes on the computer screen; they become signals to buy or to sell, or to do nothing. The charts – that’s what we call the graphs – are our bible. We see things in them that no one else sees, that no one else can see. Our whole life is one long, long year. It moves along. Always forward, never backward. I tell you: life truly begins at 250 kilometers per hour, as does true peace. I don’t need a rear view mirror, or even a headlight. What’s ahead of me is of no more interest than what’s behind me. Truth is only what is found on the right and left. Einstein knows that. Does he know that? Does his brain know that? What we call his brain today are those 240 ashlar-shaped blocks, each one only a cubic centimeter in size, world travelers smelling of formalin, kept in countless laboratories all around the world. Is it possible that 240 individual parts know more than a whole brain? Are they interconnected, like those quanta that Einstein’s brain even today does not believe in? That is, his brain no longer can believe in them because it is only senseless tissue now. No more thoughts circulate there. Neither interconnected, nor disparate. Forget Einstein! Energy equals mass times velocity squared. Time is an illusion. We have all the time in the world. I have all the time in the world. But traders don’t. An individual transaction. There’s only a few seconds for it, if that. The trader’s world is a world of seconds. Just short seconds, independent of one another. The smallest unit of the endless year. Assimilating all the isolated seconds, the brain constructs the film we call life, which flows so easily by us. All the years look the same. One year is just like another. The graphs point up and then come crashing down again.
I leave my apartment and drive to the office. There are still a few places to park. None of the bosses is in sight. They’re still asleep, or already at work. It doesn’t matter to me. Today I’ll take the spot that belongs to the board member who oversees retail banking. A particularly unlikable and arrogant guy in a department that only incurs losses. One floor below us. We earn the big bucks, one floor above them. Among the piles of big bucks, mine is the biggest. Retail banking? I never even think about it. It’s like being buried alive. You are not alive, ever. Dead. Dead. Dead. Oh, Death, here is your sting! Dickering about overdraft conditions. Begging for credit. Painstakingly adding up the points on a loan application and then turning it down. Retail banking. It’s peanuts, if that. It isn’t true that a penny saved is a penny earned, that even small cattle make manure. They create shit. And I have to clean it up with my profits, which I piss down to the floor below us, so that the shit there doesn’t stink to high heaven. So that the stench doesn’t drift up to me.

I’ve got good reason to park my Ferrari here today. The spot is not mine, but I’m entitled to it. I cheerfully raise my middle finger, but no one sees it. You can’t have fun anymore. They don’t want you to. As if I could live from their bonuses. Money isn’t everything. It’s more than everything. Too much money and a little fun, that’s the ticket, throughout the whole eternally long year, this interminable year, for as long as we are alive. A lifetime is a sentence. A couple of pleasures, and a car in the parking spot, which is not mine. Computer screens and graphs. And so it goes.

               Stole many a man’s soul and faith

You can feel sorry for them. Or, you could feel sorry for them. But you don’t. I don’t. None of us does. Our customers, our clients. Passing through the expansive atrium, I take the glass elevator up to our floor. Everything is transparent with us: the elevator, the atrium, the conference rooms. But not the trades, or the algorithms of our math rats, or the virtually unreadable small print of the contracts. Don’t speak evil of rats. Intelligent animals. Can you understand a rat? See! Neither can I. But I have absolute faith in them. They develop their models in such a way that from the very beginning everyone knows who will win and who will lose, except the losers. These are clever rats, with far-reaching tails. Stepping out of the elevator, which runs silently through the ridiculously tall atrium, I look down at all the hopeful customers, a restlessly seething mass; some of them (one can call them people, but we refer to them as our customer base) approach the information desks, while others, the well-heeled clients, hurry off to the elevators; still others look nervously about, craving guidance – clueless and hesitant, they steel themselves against the bustling throng, standing in place, in apparent shock. They call that banking. Enticing new customers. Attention: “Platform Euro-Bank, the train to one-hundred-per-cent profit is pulling in.” Great slogan. My girlfriend created it. Her desk is five floors above me in the marketing department. Minimalist design. Three marble slabs, two for the side tables and the third serves as a workspace. Too cold for work.

The ridiculously high atrium. One can debate the use of the word “ridiculously.” Let’s just call it a cathedral of money. What is the purpose of the cupola at St. Peter’s? The glorification of God and the display of His earthly splendor, a symbol of the power of those who are the administrators of God’s legacy on earth. Nowadays baroque splendor has given way to the more austere simplicity of expensive marble walls, smooth and unadorned, yet still intimidating. Capitalism is not baroque; it is goal-oriented. Ornamentation is foreign to it. Its only curves are those of the performance of the share prices on the 200-day moving average. It knows only the coolness of the cubically remodeled room, its cold columns dominant like the increasing assets of the wealthy. It avoids the illusion of transcendence and knows only that everyone can become rich – the glorification of money and the display of pecuniary splendor, a symbol of the arrogance of power. It has no legacy to manage here on earth other than our money, which it dearly embraces in order to create its own. The battle for an investor’s capital is the modern equivalent of the collection basket, which unburdens the believers of their charitable donations, so that they might enter heaven more easily. The discreet consultations in rooms with soundproofed floors are the present-day equivalent of the sale of indulgences. Every payment puts capital in a favorable mood and brings it closer to its own downfall. A god still reigns in these cathedrals of madness, a madness that craves rational explanations; a god who has forgotten about Abraham, who has not founded a religion that emerged from the desert, but rather one that leads into the desert. Nowadays you are not only allowed to make an image of your god, it is absolutely required. But it has to be depicted small on numbered bills: five, ten, a hundred, a thousand, whatever. Bank statements, too, represent God’s presence and accurately demonstrate His greatness: a hundred thousand, millions, billions. Stock options are our purgatory. While the soul may continue to suffer in the eternal hell of losses, it can still feel anxiety in the mere seven heavens of profit. For nothing is certain, nothing persists, everything is in motion. Like the elevators here. They are always in motion. They stop only briefly to spit out people going up and coming down, or to suck in new riders. Everything is transparent here. Except for the balance sheets. And the algorithms. And everything that is behind the atrium, the ridiculously high atrium, which is eight or ten stories tall. I’m not sure.

The atrium reaches ever higher. That’s not the case with the Vatican. You can’t take an elevator to the cupola of St. Peter’s Cathedral. Its cupola is just a cupola, nothing more. By contrast, the interior of our cupola is ringed with offices for our rats and traders, those on the way up and those on the way down, the board members, and all the others who move through the building and thus represent its pulse. The constant, ceaseless pulsing of the flow of people and money. And I am in the middle of it all. As the elevator races upward, my thoughts seem to come to a halt: the cupola of St. Peter’s Cathedral unwittingly gives birth to the Reformation. But what is to be born in our cupola? Capitalism knows nothing of reformation. It does fine without one. But perhaps capitalism is in fact on its last legs. Or it is moving toward its demise. Maybe the Reformation is hiding from it, standing outside on the street looking up in wonder at the façade of the towers of money, where the masters of that money reside. The masters of the universe. The Reformation turns around, disappears into the tumult, and breaks down because it does not know where to nail its smart theses. No posting. Donations welcome. Make an image of your god.

Excerpted from Michael Amon,  Panikroman. Klever Verlag, Vienna, 2014.

Displaced Persons

Author: Natascha Wodin
Translator: Mandy Wight

Translator’s Note: Natascha Wodin was born at the end of the war in 1944, when her family was living for a few years in a shed on the premises of a factory owner near Nuremberg. Sie kam aus Mariupol, based on Wodin’s memories of her early childhood, is a memoir of the author’s mother, a Ukrainian born in 1920 in Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, and deported with her Russian husband in 1943 to Nazi Germany to work as a slave labourer in a Flick factory in Leipzig.

 

The Zyganenkos, who live with us, have the sense to realise they’ve got no chance of a visa for America. They put in an immigration application for Brazil and receive their visa shortly afterwards. I remember feeling overwhelmed with a wild, uncontrollable grief when the rattling Goliath leaves the factory yard with the Zyganenkos and their possessions, and I have to face up to the fact that what I’ve been thinking of as a game has become serious. Someone who belongs to me, someone who’s been part of my familiar and unchangeable world can go, can leave me forever, whether I want it or not. I want to die, and I squeeze myself into the dark gap between our shed and the factory where the rats are, where I can feel everything vibrating, though it’s just the pounding of the machines. For hours my mother runs around the yard looking for me. It’s only in the evening, by which time she’s thinking of calling the German police, that she shines a torch into the gap and finds me. Though she’s thin, she’s not thin enough to force herself into the gap. There’s just enough room for a child’s body. She has to beg me, to implore me, to come out by myself. And I’ve hardly been out for a minute, dirty, smeared with tears and stiff with cold, when the blows from my father start raining down on me. My mother tears at his jacket and shouts at him to stop, but he hits me till I’m lying on the ground with warm blood dripping from my nose. My mother throws herself on top of me and screams. She’s still screaming when my father’s sitting back in the shed drinking. He’s doing that more and more these days.

The Zyganenkos have promised to write to us, but we never hear from them again. This seems to confirm all my mother’s premonitions of disaster: the ship, which was to bring them, her fellow sufferers, to Brazil, must have sunk. Later we hear from somewhere that they died in an even more dreadful manner – that Brazilian cannibals killed them and devoured their flesh. This was probably a product of the violent fantasies, induced by fear, which the Russians dreamed up and which I was to come across so often later.

My mother stays behind, alone with her husband and child in the shed. She’s lost the only people who were a refuge for her in this foreign country, her little Ukraine in Germany. Perhaps there was a moment of dreadful awakening for her when she suddenly grasped, deep down inside her, that she really was forever separated from Ukraine; that the only place in the world for her now was this shed, and she only had this thanks to the kindness of the German factory owner; that she was forever damned to live in a country where she’d always be a foreigner, always be ostracised and at the mercy of a husband who seemed to hate her. I was probably aware even then that she couldn’t take much more, that she was hovering on the verge of leaving me, of slipping away from me. By then we’d probably already swapped roles. I was probably carrying her on my shoulders even as a four-year-old, in the constant fear that I’d lose her, a fear I’d had since birth.

I spend most of my time outside in the factory yard. I play with scrap iron or sit on the step of our hut and watch the trains go by, trying to imagine where they’ve come from and where they’re going. My mother suffers from homesickness and I’m sick with longing for the world out there. The whole time I’m thinking about what the world is like beyond the factory yard, which I’m not allowed to leave because the dangerous main road, the Leyher Straße, begins right behind it. Whenever someone walks across the yard, I take the opportunity to show off a few of the German words I know. I say, “Grüß Gott” and “auf Wiedersehen,” one straight after the other: “Grüß Gott” to greet people, “auf Wiedersehen” to say goodbye, and I don’t understand why the Germans laugh.

Sometimes I can’t stand it any longer and I run out onto the main highway, which I reach via a narrow, unpaved road. I stand there and I look. I look at the German houses: proper, big houses made of stone, marvelling at them as if they were palaces. The Germans have white curtains at the windows and behind the window panes there are leathery green plants in plant pots. I look longingly at the sugary foreign cakes in the window of the baker’s, where my mother buys dark German bread when we’ve got the money, bread that tastes quite different from the airy white American bread. I look at the German faces, their glasses, their hair, their bags, their umbrellas, their hats. What most surprises me is the fact there are also German children. They draw squares with chalk on the pavement and jump from square to square. Greedily I listen in to the foreign language, to the different, incomprehensible sounds that I guess are the key to the German world – the world of taps and electricity.

Usually I pay a high price for my outings. When my mother catches me on one of my adventures, which she usually does, I get ten strokes of the strap on my bare bottom. It’s a deal between her and me. I’ve got the choice between pain and abstinence. My mother doesn’t tell me off, she’s not angry, she’s just carrying out her part of the deal. I’ve opted for the pain and I get it. The strokes of the strap burn like fire, but even though I may have screamed the place down as a baby, I’ve learned in the meantime to play dead. I never give as much as one twitch or gasp of pain. I never show my mother that her punishment has got to me, that she can hurt me.

One day I discover a little girl behind the green bushes in front of the factory owner’s house –the first living being my age in the factory yard. I’ve been strictly forbidden to go near the German factory owner’s house, but the stranger standing behind the garden gate, waving to me to come over, exerts a powerful pull on me which I can’t resist. We stand facing one another, each scrutinizing the other. The girl is wearing a brightly coloured dress with cap sleeves and has a mop of curly brown hair. She smiles and opens the garden gate for me. For the first time I walk into the terra incognita behind the fence, the realm belonging to our lord and master on whom our very existence depends. The girl shows me a doll, a living doll, one that can open and close her eyes and say ‘Mama’ too. When she lets me take the doll and hold it, I get dizzy with excitement. The girl also has a scooter. She shows me how to ride it and asks if I want to try that out as well. But I don’t get as far as that. My mother grabs me by the collar and pulls me out of the garden. I can’t keep pace with her. I fall over and am dragged right across the factory yard, over scrap iron and glass shards. My knees oozed pus for weeks after. I never see that other girl from behind the fence again, however much I look out for her, but I do have a scar on my right knee which reminds me of her to this day.

Finally the day comes which we’d anticipated, the day my mother has dreaded from the start. We don’t know how it’s come about, but the German authorities order us to be transferred to the Valka camp. The factory owner can’t do anything for us. He’s tried every avenue. As a farewell present he gives my mother a valuable antique brooch: a golden salamander with tiny emeralds flashing green on its back.

For some reason or other my parents never converted this piece of jewellery into cash, despite the very hard times we went through, and I wore it myself for a long time after the death of my mother, until at some point I lost it. But even today I still wonder who that brave German factory owner was, who broke the law by letting us live on his premises for almost five years. It was as if the precious brooch he gave my mother represented the compensation which should have been given by Friedrich Flick to the forced labourers who’d slaved away in his factories. I’ve forgotten the name of our mysterious benefactor if I ever knew it. When I set off on one occasion to search for clues and went to the place on the city boundary between Nuremberg and Fürth where our shed must once have stood, I found nothing left. The factory had disappeared. I saw only wholesale markets and dual carriageways, though the railway embankment from those days was still there, with trains rushing over it as they’d done back then.

The Valka camp was situated in the Nuremberg suburb of Langwasser and its barracks were used until 1938 as accommodation for participants at the Nazi party rallies with their great parades and flag consecration ceremonies. Later on, Soviet prisoners of war were also temporarily housed there. When we move in, the huts make up a small town with four thousand Displaced Persons, or DP’s, from thirty nations packed into it. Most of them have been there since the end of the war – four thousand people who don’t know what to do with their lives now that they’ve been saved. A few dozen languages are buzzing around, all mixed up together, and hardly anyone can speak German. There’s only one thing which everyone has in common here: their experience of forced labour in Hitler’s empire. The slave labourers, who’d been once so in demand, are now unemployed, the tiresome remnants of a war that’s been lost.

The American camp is named after Valka, the town on the border between Latvia and Estonia, but the Russians put an ‘S’ in front of the name and called it Svalka; in German: Müllhalde, rubbish tip. Like the Baltic Valka, the camp was divided in two until shortly before we arrived: up to 1949 important officials of the NSDAP, the Nazi Party, were interned in the eastern half, while the western half was used for DP’s. Victims and perpetrators lived almost next door to each other, in the shadow of the Nazi party rally grounds, now falling into disrepair, and like us, no longer needed. In the stone wasteland, beneath the gigantic tribune where Hitler had once held his speeches, American GI’s play rugby.

The Allies expected the freed slave labourers to be grateful and obedient, but that turned out to be a mistake. The work camp has robbed the DP’s of any belief in law and order in Germany, so they’re demoralised and still seen as aggressive and hard to control. The Valka camp is widely known and feared for its levels of anarchy and crime. It’s a melting pot of allied and enemy nations, a Sodom and Gomorrah, and has probably the worst reputation in the world. Everyone is on the hunt for a job, for some earnings, for a living. Every business you can think of, and some you may not want to think of, goes on there. Some comb through rubbish tips looking for scrap iron and other usable waste material, others smuggle duty free cigarettes, deal in pornographic pictures, in insulin or other medicines, break into sales kiosks at night, earn money as card sharps, make a living from theft and deception. There are constant arguments and fights, there are stabbings, murders, and suicides. All the German prejudices about the Slavs as savages are confirmed. The Nazi propaganda machine represented them as dangerous wild animals, sometimes with horns and tails. The Germans still fear that they’ll take revenge, though such acts rarely happen. The camp dwellers keep themselves to themselves in their own world, cut off from the Germans, apart from the police who are on 24-hour standby and carry out raids on an almost daily basis. Even my father is involved in some murky business which we’re not allowed to talk about. My mother lives in permanent fear of the police coming for us.

The DP’s receive three meals a day, which are served up in individual bowls and have to be collected from one of the distribution points. On top of that they receive a monthly sum of 12.50 DM as camp pocket money. They have electricity every two days, alternating between the wooden and stone huts. Each hut houses approximately thirty people and is fitted out with one toilet and one tap.

We live in one of the wooden huts together with mice and bedbugs, which torment us all night long. Whenever it rains, the water comes in through the leaking roof and we have to rush to find all the containers we can lay our hands on and put them beneath the leak. The window frame is warped so the window won’t shut properly, the oven doesn’t draw and gives off clouds of smoke. We’re cold and we cough all winter. I come down with most of my childhood illnesses during this time, from measles to mumps, chicken pox, and whooping cough.

One image I have from the spotlight shining onto those days is that of my mother, pregnant. She’s not much more than thirty, but in my memory she seems old, faded and ill, with her hair parted in the middle and scraped back into a bun. She wears a green and white patterned dress, its uneven hem rising up in the front, raised up by her domed belly which looks like an outsized ball stuck on to her thin body. When I ask why she’s got such a big belly, I see her exchange a tiny conspiratorial smile with my father – a moment of intimacy between my parents and just about the only one that’s stayed in my memory. I’m not aware of ever having seen them put their arms round each other or exchange a kiss or any other show of affection. Since I slept in the same room with them throughout my childhood, I must usually have been there when they made what can hardly be called love in their case. But either they did it in such a way that I saw and heard nothing, or I found the goings on in the darkness of my parents’ bed so unnerving that my child’s brain immediately repressed it.

The noise in the Valka Camp is a daily torture for my mother. She can’t get used to it. In the work camp where my parents first lived on their arrival in Germany, the acoustics were probably kinder since everyone fell onto their bunks after an exhausting day’s work and went to sleep. In our Valka huts the people whose noisy lives we hear are those who have nothing to do all day and for the most part are suffering from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: insomnia, nightmares, anxiety attacks, irritability, depression, delusions, uncontrolled aggression, and many other things including all kinds of physical ailments, which quite a few DP’s died from even after the liberation. The small rooms in the huts hum with tension. There’s no such thing as speaking quietly: everyone has to shout in order to be heard above the pervasive, crashing waves of noise. There are constant arguments, loud wailing gives way to raucous laughter, you hear every word, every sneeze and sigh from your neighbour, the noises merge together into one huge, never-ending cacophony. Especially in winter and bad weather the long dark corridor is a children’s playground. They’re always being shooed away by someone on their way to the toilet or someone who has to fight their way through with their bucket to the only tap at the end of the corridor.

The noise makes my mother feel the lack of home even more deeply than she already does. She puts her hands over her ears, jumps up and runs out of the hut, where on top of the tortuous noise she’s assaulted by a constant stream of superstitious insults in Russian from a paranoid neighbour, an old Estonian woman shouting through the thin partition wall. For some reason this confused woman has projected all her images of the enemy on to my mother of all people, calling her a Communist, a Jewish whore, an American spy, a Nazi tart. My mother can’t stand up for herself, sometimes she cries all day, in fact she’s always crying. Her most serious illness is homesickness. It’s a constant torment, it seems to be like a thirst which never lets up but gets worse and worse, until one day you die of it.

For me the Valka camp is, above all, the place where I start German school. A photo of the first day at school marks the occasion: twenty–nine children standing in three rows with the shabby huts in the background. Two rows of girls, a row of boys in front, sitting cross legged in front of the girls. The children each have a Schultüte, a large card cone filled with sweets and given to German children on their first day at school – except for four of us, that is. One of them is me. The blondest of all, beaming in spite of the missing Schultüte.

It’s a camp school for camp children whose very first priority is to learn German. Because I was taught by my mother in the shed in the factory yard, I can read and write Russian when I start German school. I know the fables of Iwan Krylow and Samuil Marshak’s enchanting stories for children. I can recite at least a dozen poems by Alexander Pushkin and Alexei Tolstoy, but German is still a kind of background noise for me. That changes overnight when I start German school. The German words start lighting up for me, like sheet lightning – as if all these words had been slumbering somewhere inside me just waiting for the moment of awakening. The German language becomes a strong rope, which I grasp straightaway in order to swing myself onto the other side, into the German world. It’s out of my reach for the moment, but I know that it’s waiting for me, that one day I’ll be a part of it.

A language war breaks out between me and my parents. They refuse to understand my German. My father really doesn’t understand it, he’ll spend the rest of his days not understanding it, and my mother, who speaks German better than anyone else around me, doesn’t want to understand it. And I don’t want to understand her Russian, I want to have nothing more to do with her. There are constant arguments, she tries to hit me, but I get away and anyway her hands are much too feeble to hurt me. She has no power over me because I’m not afraid of her, I’m only afraid of my father’s hands. He rarely hits me and only does so as a last resort, when my mother hands me over to him. It’s the only weapon she’s got, the one threat which puts fear into me: I’ll tell your father. Sometimes she grants me a reprieve, if I ask in Russian, weeping, for my bad behaviour and lies to be pardoned, but usually the sentence is carried out in the evening when my father comes home – drunk as usual, after his clandestine activities. He’s a person who gets aggressive after drinking alcohol, so he’s happy to act on my mother’s grievance. He calls me cholera, parasitka, kretinka, and holds me fast with one hand while the other comes down on me like an axe. My mother is the judge and he is the executioner, the enforcer of the law.

Excerpted from Natasha Wodin,  Sie kam aus Mariupol.   Reinbek Verlag, Reinbek/Hamburg/Berlin, 2017.

 

Earth Sciences
White Poem
Chinese Proverb
My Contribution to World Cultural Heritage
Outside the ethnology museum
There is no silence

Author: Jürg Halter
Translator: Sheridan Marshall

 

 

Earth Sciences

She sinks into her seat
like a stone in water;
goes under like a
question asked too quietly.
Everything is a descent
to the centre of the Earth and
back in millions
of years and …
in all religions there is
really only one God,
that of gravity.
Why else would the
faithful throw themselves to the floor
instead of jumping into the air?

 

White Poem

You are not reading these lines,
it’s written white-on-white
that this is not a poem.
I walk in the first snow
dressed in white through a country
that doesn’t actually exist.
No-one here speaks.
White in white I forget –
Oh, please, disappoint me soon,
so that I can finally show you
who I really am.

 

Chinese Proverb

‘When the winds of change blow…’
I linger in a street café,
an empty sugar sachet in front of me,
that I will blow any moment
at the feet of a sad passer-by,
‘…some build walls, others windmills.’

 

My Contribution to World Cultural Heritage

I would like this poem to have millions of readers
in all possible languages.
I would like this poem to live on
into the far-reaching future;
for the poem to go on being recited here
at least as long as there are people.
I think that not to hope for this
is scarcely less presumptuous
than publishing a poem at all.

 

Outside the ethnology museum

Man emerged in the Holocene
and is still emerging.
Let’s go for a drink,
it’s not possible
to reverse things anyway.

 

There is no silence

The worst crime against one person
by another is imaginable.

Not being able to say it is still better
than staying silent about it – darkly glowing.

There are many words, but no one can
tell us who were not involved, how it really was.

A moment is history in the moment.
The already said is the still speaking.

 

From: Jürg Halter, We Dread the End of the Music. © Wallstein and Co., Göttingen, 2014.

Aus: Jürg Halter, Wir fürchten das Ende der Musik © Wallstein Verlag GmbH, Göttingen, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meenie moanie meep
Sappho turns (her) back
After the Big Race
Curtains for Me
Vulture Circles Eternal
Making Scenes

Author: Kerstin Hensel
Translator: Robert Gillett

 

Meenie moanie meep

Random relicts sleep
Under duvets of stone
Marble covers bone
Paper wraps rock
A mouldering stock
Of long-buried letters
Worsers beat betters
In de-composition
As hornie golochs
Scuttle molochs

 

Sappho turns (her) back

Oh fall! Oh sweet and love-
Less prospect my Leukadian
Heart stop right there
Phaon – you hand-
Some limb-loosener
Take a running jump! It’s time
My lyre learned to
Sing from a different
Her-sheet. Nearer – My God! – to the
Abyss proud disdainer you
Will not bring me. Let almighty
Eros give you
Or even him self satisfaction and me
A lady friend
Work and wine!

 

After the Big Race

When after the big race the horses are
Alone in their stable they sometimes fall
At the fences of depression
For that says the vet there is no
Known cure. But if you give them
A little kid to share their stable with,
A bleating, leaping puck of a young goat, then
You will see them
Grin again
From ear to ear

Curtains for me

My wound-licker has given notice
Next to me dreams toss and turn
On moth-eaten furs

The red wine cuckoo has
Made it big Even now
I cannot leave the house
Nor look around me. As in great times
Of shortage the stall-holder has
Onions for sale Onions red white braided fine
Enough to make you weep

It is the dwarves and toads who pay
Their respects at my door
Selling poison and prayer-books The bells
Of the television tower call to a devotional march
Even the bin men are
Acolytes

I stand behind the curtains at the window
Looking in

Waiting for you

 

Vulture Circles Eternal

Why does the tiny carrion
Hope revolt me?
High up I see movement
And think: it’s
Not dead yet

 

Making Scenes

It is the lark not so
Much a lark more a rave
In auricle on tympanum and mornings lawks
No nights o Romea ah Julio
Always this alpha (male) and o me
Giddy aren’t we the ones
No sound no fury signifying
What a farce carry on

 

From Kerstin Hensel, Schleuderfigur, Luchterhand Literaturverlag (Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH), München, 2016.

Banishment from Hell

Author: Robert Menasse
Translator: Fiona Graham

Translator’s Note:   Banishment from Hell weaves together two stories: that of Rabbi Samuel Manasseh ben Israel, born Manoel (Mané) Dias Soeiro in early sixteenth-century Portugal, and that of Viktor Abravanel, son of an Austrian Jew sent to Britain in 1938 with a Kindertransport. The first two excerpts are set in the Portugal of the Inquisition, when forcibly converted Jews known as ‘New Christians’ were mercilessly hounded. The third excerpt is set in 1990s Vienna, at a reunion of Viktor’s grammar school class twenty-five years after the Matura school-leaving examination.

 

They’re going to set the house on fire. We’ll be burned. If we run out, they’ll beat us to death.

He saw the torches flaming up beyond the shutters, he heard the din people were making outside: singing, shrieking, yelling.

It was a funeral procession. The biggest funeral procession ever seen in Vila dos Começos – and the strangest – was making its way through the streets of the little town. A mourning procession in which no-one was mourning.

Two black horses adorned with purple fabric rosettes drew the hearse, which bore a coffin so tiny that it looked tailor-made for an infant. Behind it, holding a crucifix aloft in both hands, walked Cardinal João d’Almeida from Evora in a blood-red cassock and a red biretta, with the ermine-trimmed cappa magna draped over his shoulders, its train carried by four canons in purple cassocks. They were followed by the priests of Começos and the surrounding parishes, dressed in black cassocks, with white surplices and violet stoles. The nobles, in purple velvet with broad leather belts, bore their daggers drawn and pointing downwards. The representatives of the town council and the burghers, in black suits and large black hats, carried torches whose plumes of smoke traced a mourning band around the sun.

All this pomp, better suited to a state funeral, could not disguise the fact that the mood was heavy with fury, hatred and bloodlust. Nearly all of Começos had come out to join this procession, the purpose of which was to inter a cat. They murmured not prayers, but curses; did not fold their hands, but shook their fists. Their faces were reddened not by the sun, but by bagaço firewater, and were marked not by grief, but by the lust to kill, burn and pillage.

Now the clergy were intoning the Martyrium Christi, but it was drowned out by people yelling to the torchbearers at the front, whenever they passed certain houses: ‘Put your torches to this roof!’

The funeral procession turned into the Rua da Consolação, the tiny coffin containing a cat that hadn’t lived beyond eight or nine months, a little black cat with mask-like white patches around its eyes. ‘Come on! Torch the roof!’ It was the Soeiros’ house.

Antonia Soeira was one of the few not out in the street. Standing at the window with her children Estrela and Manoel, she peeped out cautiously through the cracks in the closed shutters and pulled the children back into the middle of the room as the noise outside rose to an increasingly threatening pitch, saying, ‘These madmen will yet declare that cat to be God. Let it eat the Dove in the Catholics’ heaven!’

The reason for the great commotion that had seized Começos and its surroundings was that this cat had been crucified. It had been found pinned with heavy iron nails to a wooden cross in front of the Casa da Misericordia. To the men of the Church it was instantly clear that by holding a funeral on a magnificent scale, designed to reinstate the sacred dignity of crucifixion, they could channel the local populace into united, fanatical combat against heretics and unbelievers; the Inquisition had entered Começos just a fortnight before.

The singing and shouting outside faded into the distance, and the boy stood in the middle of the darkened room, with the urge to run away, as fast and as far as ever he could, but he was stock-still. Just before being pulled back from the window, he had spotted the coffin on the hearse, that tiny coffin, and it occurred to him in that instant, for the first time, that he would probably never see his father again. His father had been among the first to be arrested by the Holy Office.

Drawn by the pitch-black horses, the coffin in a reddish light, as if the sun were setting and the cardinal’s scarlet vestments were aflame. A last sunset, the end of the world.

Manoel had always had to be home by sunset in the days when he used to go out to meet his friends. His father had been a real stickler about that – home by sunset. Woe betide him if he returned any later. Why? There had been no explanations, and by the time he understood, it was too late.

His father was a corpulent man, inelegant, and always very proper but never distinguished in his dress. On his cheek was a large crescent-shaped scar that repelled and intimidated Manoel. He was forever drawing himself up to discipline his children. He spoke quietly, almost hoarsely, and indistinctly. In the evenings he would read silently, mouldering over his book. Though Manoel had been instructed to address him as ‘Senhor’, he was no Senhor to the boy, who thought he played the role poorly. Manoel lowered his gaze before him out of fear, but also in disdain; he could not look up at him.

But now it was the idea of never seeing his father again that frightened him immeasurably. The din of the funeral procession was still audible far off, and Manoel felt his heart thudding even in his head, its rhythm as insistent as if it were straining desperately to match the drumming and the rhythmic chanting outside. But that was impossible now. They’re going to kill us all.

*                                        *                                        *
There was work in Vila dos Começos. The time when men used to loiter in the streets, waiting and watching, was over. No-one had to wait for casual labour, a handout or better times. Anyone who could work was put to work. And it was best not to watch too closely any more, or at least people didn’t let on that they were. The Casa da Misericordia, which was both the seat of the Holy Office’s bureaucracy in the Começos district and its prison, set off an unprecedented boom in the little town. Joiners and cabinet-makers delivered racks and other items to the Casa, works of art that combined, in the most labour-intensive fashion, workmanlike precision, mechanical inventiveness and the human desire for beauty and ornamentation. Just building the balustrades for the Casa’s great courtroom resulted in written records of seventeen new woodturning techniques. Written records – clerking quickly became a promising trade. Começos’ school was reformed and a teacher training institute was even added. Pupils like Fernando were driven back to their fathers’ workbenches by the cane. Or into the fallow fields and groves around Começos, where they learned how to plant vines and then, according to precise instructions, to produce the wine called ‘Lagrima do Nosso Senhor’, sought after by the lords of the Casa and now preferred by all self-respecting burghers of Começos. After endlessly long lean years, the domains of the landed gentry now bore fruit once more. The aristocrats, reduced until recently to mere parasites living off the vanity of their prosperous Jewish, New Christian sons-in-law, no longer pawned their silver tableware and brocade robes, but leased out land; no longer sold their daughters, but lists of names; no longer hid from debt-collectors, but waited impatiently for the tailors they had summoned. The tailors needed seamstresses, coachmen and teams of horses to keep pace with demand.

The self-indulgence of the lords of the Holy Office, aped by the flourishing tradesmen and craftsmen, transformed the face of the town; cramped craftsmen’s booths where men sat hunched over cheap repair jobs – when not quaffing spirits on the Praça do Mercado – became specialised workshops constantly in search of apprentices and assistants. They were building as if the town were being founded anew. Masons and carpenters, booked up for months in advance, sought out second- and third-born peasants’ sons from the Alentejo who had been tramping around Portugal without any prospect of employment and brought them to Começos, where they found work and bread. Silk, velvet and brocade became as commonplace as coarse linen had been. Cobblers learned how to cut leather with the same skill as the best cordwainers of Florence. The gold- and silversmiths rivalled those of Cordoba and Venice. The lords of the Casa in their fine boots had the town council pave the square and, eventually, all the streets in town. Stonemasons and pavers established themselves as new trades in Começos. There was money in abundance for the Holy Office. Money from the Crown, but also wealth seized from those who fell into the hands of the Inquisition. Commercial links, long since established and carefully maintained by merchants now languishing in the dungeons of the Casa da Misericordia, fell into the hands of men who had once been their clerks or, quite often, merely their coachmen. They showered coins and gold onto the market as if scooping them out of the wells of their new houses. Houses that had been seized, then plundered and ruined, had to be repaired and refurbished – by families who were ready to pay any price for brazilwood. These were golden times. The emblem of the Inquisition, the ‘standard’, in solid gold, was affixed to the façade of the Casa da Misericordia: a sword, a cross, a severed branch. Below were the letters M e J.

When the golden sword in this coat of arms came loose from the building’s still damp new plaster and crashed to the ground one night, it vanished without trace within minutes. People who had come out of their houses, alerted by the noise, now saw only the absence of those prized four pounds of gold. They laughed and laughed. Their howls reached the dungeons of the Casa. For the people in the square it was if a nickel coin had gone missing. The sword’s doing its work at night, haha, bottles of bagaço were passed around, haha, where was the sword? With the Oliveiras? With the Soeiros? The sword of God at work, haha!

Four days later the emblem’s sword had been replaced. A surfeit of gold flowed into Começos. In their new houses, Old Christians were already contemplating paving their yards with gold. And on this very day, when the sword returned to the façade of the Casa, barely a year after the cat’s burial, Antonia Soeira was arrested. Gaspar Rodrigues, the second time he was put to the question, had accused his wife of having incited him to judaizing. On the rack he had uttered a single word that might have been a screamed Yes, but might also have been just an inarticulate scream. But the records noted:

‘…indicated, on the second occasion that he was put to the question, that his spouse, Antonia Soeira…’

Suddenly there were men in the house wearing patched shifts and armbands, red, with a cross sewn on, men too rough and too unskilled for any trade in need of hands, who earned their living by hauling people away, for a bowl of soup during the day and for bagaço in the Mercado, for which the tavern-keepers dared not charge these men with their armbands. Not forgetting the body searches. Those brought in a pretty penny. There was bread for all in Começos.
And then there was also a man in a cassock and a red skull-cap, who would constantly rub his hands together, interlocking his fingers whenever he spoke. His hands were red and scaly; they even rustled when he rubbed them, and flakes of skin floated to the floor. Later, Mané would often regret that he had been so mesmerised by this that he’d seen nothing else. He didn’t see the expression on his mother’s face, didn’t see whether she betrayed fear or stayed cold and contemptuous; the latter, at any rate, was what he would later claim: ‘Her reaction seemed cold and contemptuous; the only concern she showed was about the fate of us children.’

‘The children are to be delivered up for Christian education on the morrow,’ said the man with the hands.
That was the last night in this house:
‘I know what you’re thinking!’ (Estrela)
‘No, Estrela, you don’t, because I don’t know myself.’
‘Don’t call me Estrela any more. I’m Esther!’
‘Esther.’ He realised that it was too late. ‘What am I thinking?’
‘You want to run, run away, as fast as you can.’
‘I can’t run.’
‘Then we won’t get very far.’
‘We won’t even get out of this house!’
‘Then let’s pack our bags for tomorrow.’

 

*                                        *                                        *

Like students, they all rapped the table with their knuckles by way of applause. The former headmaster, Mr. Preuß, raised his hands in thanks, requesting another moment’s quiet, as he had something to add.

The only imponderable in Viktor’s plan had been how he could engineer the situation he needed to put it into practice. He intended to wait for a while, then, once they’d had a few drinks, to tap his glass with his knife and ask them all to give him their attention, as if he were about to raise a toast. But the idea Preuß was now proposing would – unexpectedly – make it all easier and speed things up. The Headmaster proposed that his former pupils take turns to describe ‘in broad words, I mean in broad terms’ the course their lives had taken since their final Matura exams. This would mean everyone would have at least a general overview of what everyone else had done, not just the people who happened to be next to them at table. This procedure, he thought, would satisfy the basic curiosity of everyone here and it might well ease further communication. He looked around, and as a number of teachers raised their voices in support, he proposed that they start at the end of the table and continue around it, and so he would like to call on Dr. Horak – yes, please, Dr. Horak – to set the ball rolling.

Turek, said the man who had just been addressed, Eduard Turek, and he was in business, he’d taken a degree in commerce – at the other end of the table they called out, ‘Louder! Louder!’ and Eduard got to his feet, repeated, ‘I took a degree in commerce and…’ Viktor froze instantly. Where he was sitting, he’d be third in line, or, if he ‘naturally’ allowed Maria, who was seated opposite him, to go first, he’d be fourth. He hadn’t expected that the opportunity to spring his attack would arise so quickly; now he was nervously scrabbling in his jacket pockets after the paper he had prepared, first in the right one, then in the left one – had he forgotten it? Eduard’s speech rattled on past him, so bumptious as to be excruciating, phrases like ‘Now I’ve got two hundred employees working under me’ nearly made him groan out loud, then it was Wolfgang’s turn, of course he’d become a lawyer, of course he’d taken over his father’s legal practice, but, at the same time – of course – he still played ‘an active part in the student fraternity, though now, being a graduate, as one of the “old guard” ’; yes, he was active ‘in “Bajuvaria” ’ and not – as was so trendy among the lefties these days, ‘in Tuscany’. Laughter.

Now all eyes were on Viktor, who gestured courteously towards Maria, and, as she whispered, ‘No, no, no, you go first!’ suddenly found the sheet of paper in his breast pocket. Viktor stood up, he felt an instant coldness towards them, suddenly he relished standing there and allowing his gaze to wander slowly from one to the other, contemplating the faces of these familiar strangers, who were looking at him so good-humouredly, expectantly, even though they certainly didn’t expect him to have as impressive a career to recount as most of the others.

‘After school I studied history,’ he finally said, ‘history and philosophy.’ All that everyone wanted to know now, he sensed, was whether he’d got a master’s or a doctorate, whether he’d become a teacher or an academic, whether he was married and how many children he had. ‘The study of history,’ he continued, ‘is nothing other than an examination of the conditions determining the genesis of our own lives.’ This sentence was too stiff, he realised at once; he paused briefly and took the piece of paper out of his breast pocket, saying, as he unfolded it, ‘We’ve just been asked to sketch out our lives, but we’ve never been told anything about the lives of the people who were our teachers, the people who educated us and who, surely, formed us one way or another, I mean …’

Viktor was sweating, and his glasses slipped down his nose slightly; he pushed them back with his middle finger. How he’d enjoyed playing football. Would have enjoyed. But since he wore glasses … ‘To understand what a person has become, I think it may also be very rewarding, very enlightening, to ask: who were his teachers? Who – “in broad words,”, as Mr. Preuß has just put it – were our teachers?’ He looked up the long table to the old teachers; they were grinning, were they seriously expecting something funny now? The lame jokes of the final year’s school magazine which no-one had wanted to write at the time, served up cold twenty-five years later? Viktor swallowed, lowered his gaze to his papers and read out, ‘Josef Berger, a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, membership number 7 081 217. Eugen Buzek, NSDAP member No 1 010 912. Alfred Daim, NSDAP member No 5 210 619. Adelheid Fischer, a high-ranking leader in the League of German Girls, from 1939 leader of a Girls’ Circle, the Girls’ Circle was made up of five Girls’ Groups, each one comprised four Girls’ Troops, and each Girls’ Troop was made up of three Girls’ Units with fifteen members each. So she was in charge of almost a thousand girls in Vienna and …’ The shocked silence was so profound that he managed to list two more names and NSDAP membership numbers without anyone moving or saying anything. Finally he got to ‘Karl Neidhardt, a particularly interesting case, by the way. After the war had started he studied English, the language of the enemy – why did a fervent Nazi and would-be German study English? Well, for that very reason. Because his convictions were so strong. The Nazis needed particularly reliable people to listen in to the enemy, and Mr. Neidhardt was assigned to this task at the Reich Security Headquarters, in the rank of a senior lieutenant. Maybe some of you remember how our English teacher came into the classroom one day in 1965 to read out an obituary of Winston Churchill, who had just died. All the English teachers in Austria were obliged to do that at the time. It was an order from the Ministry of Education. So he read out this text, which praised Churchill for the part he had played in the liberation of Austria, but I can recall his expression even now; you could see he could barely restrain himself from shouting: ‘The swine is dead!’

Suddenly there was a bang. A shot? A thunderclap? Viktor saw that Mr. Preuß must have leapt to his feet so abruptly that his chair had fallen over; Mr. Spazierer and Miss Rehak were standing too. ‘The swine is dead!’ said Viktor. ‘That was what he really wanted to yell…’ He had got an astoundingly long way, but now he clearly had only seconds left. So he followed up quickly with ‘Otto Preuß, NSDAP member number…’

‘Get out! That’s enough!’ yelled the Headmaster at a volume that blanked out every sound in this inner room, every further word from Viktor, the scraping of chairs, the former teachers and pupils’ first outraged utterances, the clearing of throats, even breathing itself. And now, into this dense silence, he yelled again, ‘That’s enough! Have you gone mad?’ He snorted, standing rigidly erect, his arms at his sides, rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, groped for words, and finally got out: ‘You can’t expect me to stay any longer.’ Kicking aside the chair that had toppled over, he stormed out, followed by the teachers, red-faced, their expressions frozen, looking neither right nor left.

Excerpted from Robert Menasse, Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle.  Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main and Berlin,  2003 and 2017.

Berlin: City of Fairies and Desires

Author: Leander Steinkopf
Translator: Stefan Kramer

For everyone, there is a fairy that will fulfill one wish. But only a few will remember the
wish that they made; only a few therefore recognize that fulfillment later in life.
–  Walter Benjamin

A bum lies down on the sidewalk, stretches his arms towards the sky and sings Ave Maria. I pause, the flow of pedestrian traffic piles up behind me. Actually, I feel like lying down on the ground with him. I don’t want to sing along, I’d rather keep my hands in my pockets, stare into the sky, and enjoy being an obstacle. But I step over him, as if I had someplace to go. I like this part of Friedrichstrasse; it feels like you’re in a real city. Here, one can observe people who have responsibilities and are in a hurry. Everywhere else in Berlin, watching means exchanging glances among idlers – but along these few hundred yards of real city, from the river Spree towards the south, one finds that special peace of asserting one’s own slowness against the agitation of the others. Only here, and not for long, as one soon runs into the shoppers, and their sauntering makes that slowness seem vulgar.

In Dussmann’s bookstore tall men with suits, trench coats, and briefcases rise above the lowered heads of the readers. With open mouths and sharp eyes they look over the tables of new publications. Even when they are standing still, their coats continue to flutter with urgency. Over the shoulders of the readers they grab a hardcover book from the pile, quickly turn it every which way as if inspecting a vegetable for flaws, then pay for it with a credit card and have it gift-wrapped.

I go to the shelves in the Personal Improvement section. Nobody pauses there; they only glance  at the book titles in passing. To stop would mean admitting that one has problems. It’s enough to take a book in hand or just fixate on a title long enough, and one’s cover is blown: as a smoker who can’t quit or a yes-man who can never say “no,” as depressive or impotent. I like to linger here and look at these books. Not those that might help me, but the others that I cannot comprehend. I think they could have their greatest effect not when they’re read at home in secrecy, but when read openly, on the subway. You could see everyone’s greatest weakness from their book covers, and you’d be less alone with your inadequacies.

I walk along the river Spree, where potheads smoke their first joint of the day and office workers take a break to refresh their memory of what the sun looks like. The government district seems to consist almost solely of glass, it seems to require no fences or walls; everything is open, access denied only by the heat sensors and surveillance cameras. Looking from the promenade along the Spree at the federal Chancellery, it looks dead quiet; there’s only an occasional flock of birds rising into the empty sky, as if the German chancellor only reigned over a field on which some crows pick at grains.

Some way further along the Spree, a bridge is weighing down on the river, squeezing the promenade into a tunnel, where four bums reside. They’re not at home at the moment, just their four mattresses are lying here, the top ends towards the wall with equal gaps between them, as if in a four-bed room. At the head end of each mattress, where there would be a nightstand next to a bed, there is one plastic bag each with their belongings, protected only by the outward appearance that nothing could be less worth stealing. Someone appears to be lying on the last mattress, but a closer look reveals it’s only a rolled-up blanket, covered with another – an arrangement borrowed from the hero of old spy movies, when he knows that he may be shot dead while asleep.

The small park at Turmstrasse has been newly redone – the lawn, the playground, the benches, everything. The whole place is a foreign object in the Moabit borough, without any of the grime that would form a connection to its surroundings. The politicians believe that such a small  area of promise could change the city, could lift one of its districts out of its squalor. But the city takes back what belongs to it. First, it’s only a few beer bottle caps, trampled into the ground near the trampolines, and cigarette butts in the sand under the jungle gym; that is the seed for what is to come. Soon tendrils grow over this foreign object, first hastily smeared tags on the playground equipment, then a proliferation of graffiti. Shoots grow into each crack, tear the planks off the park benches and the wastebaskets from their mounts. Shortcut footpaths cut diagonally across the lawn. Dog shit mixes into the gravel paths. At some point the first child gets bloody fingers from the broken glass and the discarded syringes in the sand of the playground, and the parents take their child elsewhere. Dog owners avoid the place because their dogs jump into the ever-deepening puddles and carry the mud into their homes. Old folks don’t find a place to sit down anymore, for on every seating surface there is a shadow of dried urine. When only the boozers still come, followed by those who collect empty beer bottles for their 25-cent deposits, then the ecological equilibrium of the city has been restored; let the next politician come and try to change anything.

I sit down in a Turkish fish shop and order a plate of Hamsi anchovies. On the TV, the players of Istanbul’s soccer club trot into the half-time break, then Erdogan receives Abbas for a state visit. At the second table, an Indonesian mother sits with her little son, squeezed between the entrance door and the seafood display. A hundred fish eyes stare up from the crushed ice in it. Her husband comes in with two beers from the organic food store next door. They have ordered fried seabreams, and a mackerel sandwich for their son. The old Turkish owner isn’t in; his daughter is running the store today. Her mouth never smiles, is pierced in one corner; it spits out words as if they tasted bitter. She wears a wool cap and athletic jacket against the cold behind the seafood counter and the mist of frying grease that descends upon everything. She puts on a metal-reinforced glove and scrapes the innards out of the seabreams with a short knife.

A young man enters: so German, so polite, so soft, with pale skin that immediately sunburns on the first day of spring. He has waited two weeks for his three-day beard to grow. I know some people like him as well as I know myself.  The German knows that he does not belong here, that he’s the stranger here, that any kindness he encounters is mere hospitality. The young Turkish storekeeper turns around, her eyes icy blue, and asks him, “What’d you like”? “I’d like some of the salmon fillet,” he replies with a coarse voice and clears his throat. “What?” she says, and he repeats himself. Ever since he’s lived around here, he’s been looking longingly at the oriental beauties; he can’t help himself, not even after finding, suddenly and conclusively, a woman of the type he knows from his school days, ash-blonde and Occidental.

There are things I don’t really do anymore  eating Döner, taking the U1 subway, and visiting Friedrichshain. But Judith lives at Boxhagener Platz, in the worst of Friedrichshain, where the people are loud and happy, the tourists sit packed tight in leatherette pubs, and tattoos seem to grow all by themselves, like a fungal breakout in a public pool.

It’s slowly getting dark, so it’s getting crowded at the Warschauer Strasse train station. The security guards of the Deutsche Bahn are leaning against the railings of the bridges that connect the train platforms. There are four of them, looking at the young women, talking about them, occasionally shouting something at them from behind in Arabic.  Visitors to Berlin are lining up at the Currywurst vendor and at the instant photo booth, for they need some sustenance and memories before the long night ahead.

I too have memories of this neighborhood, and when I stay away from Friedrichshain, it’s primarily to avoid them. There once was a woman who stopped me as if she wanted to ask me for directions, but then she asked me what should be done with the twenty-four hours before her departure. I showed her the city, and she discovered it for me with her fresh gaze. In the morning we had to run for her train, we stretched our necks like meerkats on the escalator up to the platform, and saw the train still waiting there. She left me behind in this city, and I roamed restlessly. Memories pulled me into building entrances where we had stepped aside to kiss, and I followed the paths on which we had gotten lost. She was sitting in the train, sometimes got up to smoke a strong cigarette at the window, then sat down again when she got dizzy. The city was contaminated by her love for a long time.

She was only one of the many who come here with their pent-up drive for freedom, who want to experience every night until dawn, who see opportunity behind every fence and life in every crowd. They vacation in this city without regard for the people who live here, for whom there is a tomorrow. And then they travel back home, take a long shower, sleep in, and go back to their daily routines. But for several days after that woman’s departure, my brain remained dirty and fragile, like an unsteady pile of dishes standing in turbid water in the kitchen sink.

In the burger joint at Boxhagener Platz, numbers are called out over the loudspeaker like they do at the unemployment office. The hungry customers sit outside the door, drinking beer from the late-night store while waiting for their order. The lawn in the middle of the square seethes with conversations. Off and on, a hissing noise foams from the slush of voices – that unique sound that’s made when someone opens a beer bottle with a cigarette lighter. In a pub the music is turned up. The evening has grown warm from all these people.

“Come on up, the door is open,” says Judith over the intercom. She’s sitting in the kitchen, at a soundproof window with a view of the noisy party outside. She’s made herself chamomile tea and holds the teabag on its string inside the tea cup as if expecting that something may still bite today. “How goes it?” I ask. She doesn’t answer. “Do you want some tea?” she asks after a while. “Coffee,” I say. She goes to the range and unscrews the coffee pot. She tries to empty the coffee grounds into the composting waste bin, but she isn’t slapping the pot hard enough, so she scrapes it with a spoon, very slowly, like an archaeologist excavating a fossil. She then fills the pot with fresh water from the faucet in a thin stream, and when she switches on the stove, she turns up the heat click by click, six times in one-second intervals, before she places the pot onto the burner. “There’s a party on the rooftop,” she says with a longing in her voice as if the roof wasn’t just up two flights of stairs.

I let her climb the ladder first, so she can’t escape back into her apartment behind me.  Then I ascend to the fourth step, put my coffee cup onto the roof and climb up after her. I notice that Judith briefly smiles as she looks around. Blankets have been spread out on the gritty roofing, candles are burning, people are crouching and hand-rolling cigarettes in their laps. They are drinking warm beer.  They tear off pieces of flatbread to wipe the food remains from nearly empty plastic bowls. The sun is setting, bands of clouds catch the colors. TV antennas poke into the evening sky like blades of grass. Chimneys are everywhere, the natural furnishing of the roof surface.  Their bricks radiate the warmth of the sun that they have collected during the day, just like the warmth of childhood fantasies: Mary Poppins and Karlsson-on-the-Roof.

Judith regards all this with a smile, but then she looks around intensely, and squats down as if getting ready for a fight.  Her gaze seeks and finds a nearby chimney. She pushes against it with her back and slides down it slowly, now sits there with her knees pulled up. She may be enjoying all this, but she is fearful that her body will disobey her for a few seconds, get up, run, and jump.

I sit down next to her and she rests her head against my shoulder. In the light of the sunset you can now see the dark contours of two men who daringly stand with one foot forward at the edge of the roof, and hope that a woman, receptive to the prevailing romantic mood, will fall in love with that pose. But even without any women they delight in standing silently at the precipice,  as if it was wonderfully  different from waiting at the edge of a sidewalk to throw oneself in front of a bus.

The light in the sky is red, then pink, then purple, finally blue; the city is changing color like a bruise. And I suddenly feel lonely, because I don’t know who I would call to watch the end of the world with me … who would be willing to come? I turn my head towards Judith, but I would not want to be with her when the end of the world arrives – although I can vaguely remember a time when I would have accepted the end of the world if it meant I could be with her. I feel so forsaken that it nearly makes me panicky. Nearing the apocalypse, one could finally be honest with oneself; the next day, one wouldn’t have to lie when someone asks, “How was it for you?” But I can’t think of anything honest that I could do right now. Then it’s finally dark, and again the end of the world has not come.

A young woman looks up from the bowl of hummus that she just now still wiped clean with a piece of bread – slowly, as if meditating. She looks at me and smiles suddenly, then gets up and heads towards me. I get up, too, since her purposefulness calls for a goal.  She gives me a tight hug, as if we’ve known each other forever and haven’t seen each other for a long time. The scent behind her ear radiates so strongly that I have to blink. And she knows my name, so I don’t ask for hers.

One of the men who was standing  at the edge of the roof earlier hunkers down next to Judith, who is cowering beside the chimney. She is holding her legs pulled towards her, her forehead rests on her knees, her long locks cover her shins. The man looks like he’s straight out of the military, a hybrid of beer drinking and bodybuilding. Somehow, he wears his muscles the way a bank trainee wears his suit: they don’t seem to fit, he constantly plucks at them. He talks to Judith with an empathic voice: “Hey, little one, what’s wrong?” He really does say “little one” and sits down next to her, exactly where I just sat. When he notices that I observe him, he gives me a kind of fraternizing wink, as if we had just agreed on our territories without saying a word. And I know exactly what will happen. He will feel her up, and she won’t object, but neither will she raise her head. And then he will embrace the bundle that is Judith with both arms, and she will cry because she now feels secure, and both will remain like that for a while. And when she finally lifts her head, he will kiss her, and her tongue will dig around in his mouth mechanically, like a power shovel excavating a trench. Then he could just throw her over his shoulder and carry her home – he’d certainly be strong enough.

The woman who knows my name takes my lack of attention for the absent-mindedness of genius. It makes me uncomfortable when a woman takes an interest in me without my doing anything to deserve it. Something must be wrong with her; perhaps I remind her of the father she never had, or I am the chaos that’s missing in her perfect relationship. I have already experienced that often. A woman has found the prince of her dreams, but now the fairy tale of seeking and finding is over, and they are in the “happily ever after” phase. And in time, she develops the desire for a man who is all that that her prince is not. And exactly because the prince of dreams is so perfect, she desires some washed-up guy. In fact, she should be happy, dammit, but if I were to simply ask, in the middle of our conversation: “Are you missing something in life?”, she would immediately begin to cry, so that I would console her. She does not want to betray her perfect prince, but even less does she want to betray herself.

I see that the military man is getting up and offering Judith his hand to help her up. Judith looks at me, briefly and guiltily, and I shake my head in disbelief. Then I briefly feel a hot flush over my skin.  Impatient, I grab her arm, and her indifference lets her be swept along. We go down the ladder as fast as if it were a waterslide. The military man stands at the top and looks dumbfounded. And the woman who knows my name smiles,licks her lips,and thinks: interesting.

 

Excerpted from:   Leander Steinkopf,  Stadt der Feen und Wünsche.  Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2018.